A barn swallow smacked into the pane of picture window glass with a thud. We were walking out of the cafeteria when the bird flew into the window. Big Sasha and Little Sasha looked at me and then the gathering crowd of Russian and American students on the balcony. The Russian students outnumbered all of us visiting Americans. We were with the “People to People” student ambassador program. I didn’t feel like an ambassador. Our mission was to “reach out and bridge cultural barriers and political borders through education and exchange”, but most of the other Americans kept to themselves and complained about the food.
A few days ago I met Little Sasha and Big Sasha who shared a first name, their home town of Novgorod, and high ranking alcoholic fathers in the Soviet Military. Little Sasha was blond and thin with curious blue eyes. Big Sasha was fat with chunky brown hair and a face like Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate factory.
Little Sasha’s blonde hair fluttered in the breeze. We walked toward the dead bird, and towered over the dying creature watching it helplessly try to get up. It lay between my feet, twisting and writhing; its neck bent backward. Big Sasha unfolded a red hammer and sickle emblazoned pocket knife. The three of us peered over watching it breathe and twitch, it’s eyes blinking silently and the sun sparkled its magnificent metallic feathers. Big Sasha picked it up, its neck bobbling around like a leech at the end of a fishing hook.
Big Sasha pressed the pocket knife against the bird’s throat.
“What are you doing?”, I said.
“убийство из милосердия”, he said.
“What did he say?”, I asked. Little Sasha spoke better English than Big Sasha.
“He put out of misery. Creature in pain.”
Big Sasha cut inward toward his thumb like he was peeling an apple. Disgusted, I flinched. The two Sashas laughed, and said something in Russian that I couldn’t understand. Big Sasha wiped a trickle of blood from his hands against the wet grass at our feet. I thought that there would be more blood, but there wasn’t. Big Sasha got some on his Hugo Boss t-shirt. Little Sasha made a small hole in the dirt with his hands and when he was finished I pushed in the remains. I was careful not to get blood on my hands. Little Sasha covered it with dirt and patted down lightly with the palm of his left hand. We didn’t say a prayer. I had forgotten about the students on the balcony of the cafeteria, but they had left anyway. The three of us were alone.
“Come. Follow us”, Little Sasha said.
I didn’t understand what they were saying, but I followed along. I had nothing better to do. I was one of 21 students from Minneapolis on a student trip to Russia. I was younger and smaller than the other American students and they brutally teased me for most of the trip, but I was happy to be in another country. Little Sasha approached me at breakfast yesterday and we’ve been hanging out together since then.
We walked toward through a wooded area. Sunlight filtered through the leaves of the beech trees that lined it, and our shadows danced around our feet as we walked. Spiny cupules dropped from the trees, some of which lie rotting in the summer heat, attracting black flies.
“In America, government pays people not to work?”, Big Sasha asked.
“No”, I replied.
“But if someone lose job, they not get paid by government?”
“Do you mean unemployment insurance?”
Sasha looked at me puzzled.
“There is welfare and other programs to help people out, but you also have social programs.”
“Six months ago, when USSR still exist, government paid people to work, not to stay home and watch day time talk show.”
The Sashas laughed at this.
“People aren’t paid to watch TV,” I said.
“America is strange place, no?” Little Sasha asked.
“Russia is strange”, I said.
“Russia is strange, yes. USSR, was not so strange.”
“So what happens if someone in Russia is fired from their job?”, I asked. “Surely people get fired, right?”
“You get fired and you find new job, or you go to prison.”
We approached a river bank. Wispy birch trees lined up along the water like horses drinking.
“Москва-река”, Big Sasha said.
The Moscow River flowed from Moscow, downstream past the campus of the Youth Pioneer Camp where we stayed, and onward south. Refrigerators, washing machines and other abandoned appliances sat decaying as brown water gently carried them away one rusty iron atom at a time. Big and Little Sasha took off their socks and shoes and then began stripping their clothes. Nervously, I did the same; my pale skin out of place next to the Russians’ tawny, suntanned bodies. Little Sasha produced two black plastic bags.
“Place your clothes in bag”, he said.
“Very dirty river. You like smelly clothes?”
I looked again at the rusting appliances guarding the river bank and imagined what else was dumped there.
“Why can’t we just leave our clothes on the shore?”, I asked.
“No. The Gypsies will take them.”
I put my t-shirt, cargo shorts and tennis shoes in the plastic bag. The Sashas did the same before tying the package shut. I walked across the course sand with soft feet; it was warm. Small depressions dotted the sand where I had walked. Big and Little Sasha trampled across the river bank, with Soviet issued calloused soles. I slowly stepped in the river, feeling my way across the bottom and trying not to step on something sharp. I climbed over a few slimy algae covered appliances and followed the Sashas.
Big Sasha carried the plastic bag with our clothes high up above his head as we walked towards the center of the river. The stubborn current pushed us downstream with each step. Little Sasha suddenly jerked to the right, splashing brown water.
“Как вы думаете, рыба напасть на нас?!”, he said.
“Продолжайте”, Big Sasha replied.
“Дерьмо!рыба клюет меня!”, Little Sasha shouted.
“What is going on?!”, I cried.
“BIG FISH!”, Little Sasha said looking at me with wide blue eyes.
“BIG FISH!”, He said again.
“What kind of fish?”.
I treaded to the middle of the river. Something cold and slimy brushed against me. I jerked backwards, almost falling under, the bright afternoon sun getting into my eyes. A river sturgeon stared up at me. It swam besides me, brushing against my body. It was as long as a mini-van.
Big and Little Sasha looked back at me as I splashed my way towards them swimming––and running where my feet reached the river bottom.
I scrambled onto the sandy shore, avoiding cuts on my feet from the refuse littered beach. Both Sashas were taking our clothes out of the black plastic garbage bag.
“Here, put on clothes”, Big Sasha said, throwing my shorts, boxers and t-shirt in the air for me to catch. They waited for me to dress. We walked along a narrow trail that followed the river bank.
“Was that a sturgeon?”, I asked.
“Big Fish”, Little Sasha replied.
“Big Fish is good for caviar”, Big Sasha said.
“But no caviar from fish in Moscow River”, Little Sasha added. “Poison.”
“Do they attack people?”
That was all that I asked about the river sturgeon. The Sashas didn’t want to talk about it. I remember learning in school that sturgeons, like the catfish in the Mississippi River, were bottom feeders. This one was enormous and probably ancient. It was frightening swimming alongside of you in shallow waters, but how dangerous was it really?
We continued to walk and tried to avoid the stinging nettles that angrily jumped out and bit at our bare legs. We were far from the camp. Our legs were splotchy red with welts. We were about 3 miles from camp. Little Sasha darted in and out of the trees and bushes that lined the dirt trail, producing handfuls of currants. The berries stained our teeth and lips blue.
“Где ферме?”, Big Sasha asked
“Смотреть в будущее. Это вплоть таким образом”, Little Sasha replied pointing to the field that lie ahead.
“We pick peas from these fields”, Little Sasha said. “If you see farmer, run.”
“We’re just going to go over there and steal vegetables?”
“Not stealing, but picking”.
I didn’t see much of a difference.
Big Sasha handed me a plastic bag. The three of us moved up and down the rows of snap peas, pausing every few feet to collect the pods from the warm plants. The sun beamed through their translucent skins, illuminating the peas inside. The were perfect, unlike the plastic vegetables back home that sat in the back of a truck for three weeks while hauled three-thousand miles to a factory to be wrapped in a plastic bag before going to die in a display case at some big box supermarket. These peas were alive. Their chlorophyll pumped, miraculously transforming sunlight into energy. I grasped and pulled as many as I could, thrusting them into my plastic bag.
We rested and lie on our backs in the field smoking cigarettes. The sun washed over us, tanning the Russians and burning me. Little Sasha pulled out a pack of “Boctok” cigarettes. The package looked like a box of playing cards. It was black and covered with an illustration of a rocket-ship flying past the moon with little white stars drawn to look like they were twinkling.
“Cigarette?”, He asked.
“Thank you,” I replied.
“Спасибо”, Big Sasha said.
Big Sasha sparked a butane lighter with Lenin’s face on it; he offered the flame for us to light our cigarettes. I lit my cigarette, pulling the smoke inward. It was Soviet and it was harsh and burned my throat and hurt my lungs. The Russians showed me how to use my fingers to hold the cigarette from slouching and falling apart. Soviet cigarettes slouched, except the few luxury brands that were available exclusively to the KGB and politburo, or at least that’s what Big Sasha told me. His Father got good American smokes, but didn’t want Sasha smoking so he didn’t share like the other kids parents did. We sat back and enjoyed the sun’s warmth.
“You know Dodge Caravan automobile?”, Little Sasha asked.
“The mini-van?”, I asked. “Our neighbor has one.”
“Your neighbor has caravan? Is neighbor rich?”
“No. Everybody has a mini-van. You know, like soccer moms?”
“In America, everyone have caravan auto, like in Russia everyone wait in line”, Big Sasha mocked.
“No, seriously. It’s true.”
Big Sasha and Little Sasha laughed.
“Tell Uncle Sam, we move to America next saturday”.
We sat smoking in silence for a few minutes longer. I put out my cigarette first, crushing it with the heel of my shoe, grinding the tobacco into the black dirt.
We resumed picking peas. I grabbed handfuls, but stopped to eat some. They were crisp and sweet and reminded me of summer when I crunched them with my teeth. Besides an occasional crunching, we continued to work on our rows quietly. We could also hear the insect buzzing sounds of the nearby power lines. The sun crept toward the horizon like someone trying to leave their own party, trying not to be being noticed. Our bags were nearly full and our stomachs nearly empty. We headed back to the river bank. I dropped my bag of peas onto the sand.
“Here’s the bag,” I said to the Sashas.
“You pick, you keep,” Little Sasha replied. “How do you say?”
“Finder’s keeper’s, “Little Sasha smiled.
“Put clothes in here”, Big Sasha said, handing me an empty garbage bag.
I took off my shoes and one dropped onto the river bank, some sand got inside. I didn’t care. My face and arms were pink like the sky. We put our clothes back into the garbage bags and tied them, and then jumped into the river. The water was cooler that it was before; goosebumps pocked my skin. Sweat and dirt washed into the river mingling and dispersing amongst the broken appliances and whatever other waste was hidden there. I waded toward the center, holding my arms up. I carried peas and my clothing, awkwardly resisting the water’s chill. Big Sasha and Little Sasha followed, each carrying their own bags. My feet touched the slimy algae covered stones and occasionally, pieces of rusty steel from the graveyard of abandoned appliances that lie beneath the water.
“Race you back to shore,” said Big Sasha.
At that particular moment in time and at that exact area, the Moscow River erupted into a frenzy of brown water and foam and preadolescent boys in competition. Despite the television news anchor woman back home warning about Gorbachev, missile treaties and Communism, the three of us shared a warm summer afternoon and the naivety of boyhood. This bond was stronger than the cable news anchors and their communications satellites; Stronger than the of goose-stepping soldiers drilling in Red Square. Beneath our caricatures, we had enough in common that our differences were the source of friendship, and not the fuel for someone else’s hatred.
“Дерьмо!”, Little Sasha cried.
Big Sasha and I were halfway across the river. Little Sasha splashed as his head went under water. We raced back to save him and the river erupted with fury. Sasha’s head bobbed up and down, gasping for air, wet strands of blonde hair bleeding brown river water across his face.
“Big Fish!”, he choked, trying to stand back up.
I ran towards him. My leg kicked something cold, slimy and muscular. The water churned and the sturgeon, leapt up arching, and landed on Little Sasha, pummeling him back under the water.
“Sasha! Quick!” I shouted.
We raced against the river’s determined current, wanting to run but being forced by nature to wade slowly through the water. I couldn’t find Little Sasha, and if one of us didn’t find him quickly he would drown. Dunking my head under the water, I reached around with my arms trying to locate him. Big Sasha did the same. The water was muddy, and I couldn’t see for more than a few feet. My eyes hurt.
Suddenly, I felt something. I reached out and grabbed.
I looked around, and Big Sasha was almost to the river bank.
“I get help. You bring to shore”.
“Okay. I know CPR.”
I lifted him up and carried him wading back to the river bank slowly, trying to keep his head out of the water. He wasn’t breathing; his face was turning gray.
“Come on! Don’t die, we’re almost there!”, I screamed. Tears were streaming down my face. We left the plastic bags with our clothes and the peas floating in the river; the current swiftly carried them downstream.
Approaching the shore, Sasha became heavier as the water ’s buoyancy supported less of his weight. His blond wet hair was vibrant against his gray face, and lips began turning a sick blue color. A small group of the Americans, approached the river bank wearing Air Jordans and Girbaud jeans. I realized that Sasha and I were naked. I put his body down on the sandy riverbank and bent down to perform mouth to mouth resuscitation in a desperate attempt to save his life. Closing my eyes and putting my mouth unto his, the Americans began to laugh and cat call.
“What’s up faggots!”, cried a boy named Ryan. His dad was some big shot at the Rollerblade company and the others worshiped him. They laughed as he put his fist up to his mouth in a quick jerking motion.
“You gonna suck his dick too?”, he said.
The others laughed riotously.
I was still crying and Sasha was turning bluer by the moment.
“Can’t you see he’s dying! Go get some help!”, I cried.
Ryan laughed, but a few of the others looked dumbstruck.
“Whatever, queer. Keep makin’ out with your boyfriend”.
I continued to try and save Sasha.
“Hey man, I think he’s telling the truth. That kid on the ground isn’t breathing”, one of the others said, jabbing Ryan with his fist.
“Whatever man. Them two are still faggots”, he said.
The group left.
He wasn’t breathing. He was deathly pale. I don’t know if I was helping or not. The sturgeon must have weighed 500 pounds. It must have crushed Little Sasha. Big Sasha ran towards us bringing camp medical staff. Norma my American youth leader was there too. One of the medics patted me on the head.
“Thank you for trying to save him. Go now, let us take him.”
“If he going to live?”, I asked.
“Let’s get you some clothes and get you back to your room,” Norma said. “Tell me what happened.”
Norma gave me a hammer and sickle beach towel. I draped it around my waist. Big Sasha stood staring down at the dirt. Norma and I walked away from the river bank and along the trail to the dormitory where our rooms were. I looked behind my shoulder. The red sun burrowed into the horizon . The medic no longer tried to resuscitate Little Sasha. He was placed on a stretcher. I could feel pine needles getting stuck to my wet feet as we walked the dirt trail to the dormitory.
“It’s getting late. You should get back to your room and get some rest. You can go back to the river tomorrow and get your clothes”, Norma said.
“And don’t forget that we have breakfast at 8am.”
“Oh, and your Mother told me to remind you to wear your retainer. Your parents probably spend a lot of money to straighten your teeth. Don’t let them get crooked by not wearing that retainer.”
“See you in morning”.
Norma and I parted ways. I walked up the stairs of the dormitory to my room wrapped in the hammer and sickle beach towel.