June 20, 2010 § Leave a comment
Picture a bridge. This bridge arcs across the dark, icy waters of the Moskva River as it picks its way through Moscow in the heart of Russia. In this scene, the city is in the grip of an impossibly bleak, hopeless winter. The sun is choked by a blanket of white; darkness descends in the early evening. The streets are empty before dusk, the Moscow citizens retreating to warm corners in their homes to hibernate each night and look out into the black void with reflective eyes.
Underneath this bridge, picture a girl. She is sitting on a slab of frozen stone, its surface slick with ice and black debris from the river beneath. She has her knees drawn up to her chest, and her arms wrapped around her shins. She struggles for warmth, but even with the hood up over her head, lined with fake fur, she fails. A face as white as porcelain, and just as delicate, peers out from beneath the hood. Her eyes are glassy as she watches the river churn past her in angry torrents, lapping noisily against the concrete pillars of the bridge as it careers downstream and merges into the Oka River.
She has come here every evening for a week, a daily ritual almost mechanically observed. As a watery sun begins to sink behind the grey, ashen horizon, she heads across the muted city, carefully clambers over a stone balustrade as cold as frosted glass, and gingerly slides down the shallow, slippery granite to her churning retreat. And he always follows.
Picture a boy. He stands shorter than the girl, which isn’t helped by the fact that he tends to hunch; an unconscious consequence of being ostracised by his peers. Onyx-black hair falls thickly over his forehead, almost obscuring his vision, but kept long in a vain attempt to hide the wine-red birthmark that rings his left eye. It preys on his mind and he finds it difficult to think of anything else. The kids at school are merciless; they call him ‘freak’ and hurl stones at him as he crosses the playground from the school gates, desperate for the comparative safety of an empty classroom before the bell tolls. His is a lonely existence. But she is different to the others. She doesn’t point at him. She doesn’t laugh. She doesn’t throw stones. She keeps to herself, hood always up.
She knows he is there. She has known it every night, even though she doesn’t acknowledge his presence. Not because she wants to be mean to him, but because communicating with him will somehow break her own reverie, her own vague reasons for coming down here beneath the bridge. She knows he is in love with her, even if he doesn’t himself, with a certainty that can only be borne out in the black-and-white minds of youth. It comforts her that he is there, on the other side of the stone platform, even though she ignores him. He validates her decision to come down here, makes it less alien to her.
He sits awkwardly on the lip of the platform, one leg dangling over the edge, no more than a foot above the hostile waters of the river. He fumbles with a button on his coat, and snatches the occasional glance over at her. He can’t see her face, only the fur that lines her hood, and the gentle arc of her arms as she hugs her knees to her chest. She intrigues him – a loner like himself, but a self-made one. She offers him a tiny island of formless hope in a sea of misery. He desperately wants to go over to her, but knows that the very last thread keeping him from sinking into a bottomless pit may snap if she, too, rejects him. So he sits. And waits.
Picture the rain. It rolls in in pregnant black clouds. The last fading rays of sunshine are snuffed out by a blanket of stone, and against this sullen backdrop, the weather breaks. It falls in icy shards that lacerate the choppy surface of the Moskva river, sending up a thousand plumes of spray, giving the impression that the water is boiling. They both hear the rain crashing against the sweeping curve of the bridge above them as it creates an eerie echo in their secret cavern. The air becomes still colder. He glances over again, this time fascinated as she exhales a breath that crystallises into mist.
A rumbling peal of thunder makes them both start violently, the boy even emitting a muffled cry. It is enough for the girl to turn her head to look at him for the first time. He snatches another glance, quickly turns away again when he notices her looking. When he gathers the courage to look again, she is still turned to him. He keeps his gaze steady, his eyes locked with hers for the first time. They look at each other for what feels like an age to him, but in fact lasts only a few moments. A smile begins to spread slowly, oh so very slowly, across her lips. It takes a second crash of thunder to turn their heads.
He looks out at the river, marvelling at how angrily it rages. It smashes against the riverbanks as if possessed by wrathful demons. The heavens continue to empty, the rain falls in unbroken sheets of ice, and it feels as if the entire world is ending. But inside the boy, a tiny flame, long since extinguished, sparks into life once more. He carefully brings his leg up onto the platform, and only now notices that it is soaked to the skin from the rain splashing from the balustrade overhead. He rises to his feet and slowly walks over to the girl. She doesn’t turn to him, but he can see her body soften; her vice-like grip on her shins relaxes.
“What’s your name?’ he asks, on the banks of the river Moskva.
Photo credit: Amy Massey