once was a ship's bell, high and proud, and all the glories of creation rolled
past my horizon in cloaks of mist and birdsong. Now I'm a coin, spare change,
and Sturgle's gone and lost me. He's seventy-three, shrewd, with round wet eyes
and an easy smile, and I see his mind as plain as any, the old faker. He was
stalling, turning the chess board inside out in search of escape. Murray, his
customary opponent, had started drumming his fingers while the benches
collected suited young office workers with lunch bags and novels and predatory
eyes for the tables. Sturgle feigned having forgotten his pills and dug in his
satchel pocket as if the bottle were somehow hidden in the once-gold lining.
When it finally popped out, his change came with it and spilled across the
table, and the penny I now inhabit fell into the weeds.
know he saw me. His yellow eyes tracked me as I rolled through the numismatic
fray, but then he thought of the bishop and snapped his fingers and turned back
to Murray and the game. He bought himself another five moves and lost his lucky
penny—and isn't that the way of life?
I'm stuck in a fold of green, the soil near enough to scent the air, and
Sturgle's shuffling off, arguing with Murray over which shop once sold a real cup of coffee and greeting the
joggers and stroller-bearers crowded under the April sun. Later, he'll
remember. He'll make a little fuss and start to retrace his steps. Then he'll
notice a hangnail or a young girl's smile and he'll forget again. And that's
the trouble. I was never meant to be forgotten, to know mankind, to dread
first, I'd hoped Sturgle might be the one finally to release me, but he was a
little too proud and bitter, made so by his time in the war, so I gather. Which
war that was, exactly, was never quite clear, but it was one of machinery and
commerce, not of blood and muscle as in earlier times. I came from that older
kind of war, from a short, desperate struggle fought and forgotten long before
the first of mankind's histories were written.
started in the dreams of a Siberian shaman called Chotasuan and in the cunning
of his chieftain's schemes. In the frozen forests above what is now China, the
living was hard and the people hardy. For generations, the fish-eaters had
spread into Shiwei territory, up along the rivers, ever northward and inland.
They claimed the most sheltered campsites for their settlements, and the Shiwei
gave way till they backed into the hills beyond the wind-blown forests where
the moose and roe deer wintered. Rather than risk starvation or war, the
chieftain sought a new land on which his people could still live in peace.
North across the few remaining valleys to the southern steppe, he knew there
would be bison and wood and sheltered draws in which to camp until spring, but
he also knew the old tales of jealous neighbors.
way proved long, the ridgetops high, and the skies were the colors of blizzard.
A party went ahead to scout and hunt, but returned no news until an elder found
them scattered across a bloodstained glacier within sight of the open plain.
Boot tracks led west through patchy snow, toward a smoke-stained horizon and
the pointed huts familiar from ancient stories of the bloody Joura clan. It was
too late in the season to turn back, and with the strongest of the fathers
dead, the tribe could go no farther. It would be war after all, or extinction.
apprentices raised the broad roundhouse of birch poles and hides and built a
fire safe from the wind. The council assembled around it. Chotasuan sang
prayers, threw citrus-smelling herbs, and jingled his rattles and charms. The
elders passed around an old copper blade, a knife bartered from the fish-eaters
and once prized for peeling vegetables. They peered through the flames,
chanting and spitting beseechments. They fired and pounded in the fish-eater
way, using stones and flints to pound and carve the metal into a broad
arrowhead edged with serrated wind-charm.
his people's tears reflected in his own, sprinkled the coals with lichen crumbs
and settled, cross-legged, into the spirit walk. The now-gleaming point was
pressed to his palm. He drew in the prayer smoke and called on my brethren to
enter and guide it and deliver the tribe from disaster and death. And so we
did. And so I became.
was hafted by sinew to a cedar shaft and fletched with snow crane feathers. A
war party crept from the pines and west through boggy fields of paper-tipped
cotton grass. The arctic sky was gray and growing darker. The horizon blurred
with windblown frost haze. Joura huts rose like flints above the brittle grass,
and the wind was touched by woodsmoke.
huts circled a bonfire and a yard crisscrossed by Joura hurrying with
hand-sleds and hide-bound parcels. In the center stood the khanling in his
pointed fur hat, casting shadows through the fire-lit snowfall and directing
preparations for the coming storm. When the chieftain saw him, he raised his
simple bow and drew my fletching to his shoulder. With a yell meant to beg the
spirits passage for the life he was about to claim, he broke silence and cover
and let me fly.
was happy enough to oblige. The winds by now were biting, but I steered the
point through gusts and driving snow, across the grass and rocks and forming
drifts, and into the khanling's heart. It was a powerful heart, and I felt the
surprise of its owner as he fell, its warmth as he lay dying, his pride ebbing
to fear for his death, for his tribe's huddled children, for children yet to
small cut, and one man's loved ones would starve while another's lived. How had
I been the one to swing that balance? For ages beyond imagining, I had been
nothing so impressive as an atom. I had witnessed whole stars birthed and aged,
their substance scattered to forge new worlds. Death was hardly new, yet here
was loss measured not by entropy or erosion, but by depth of despair. Finally I
had substance and some measure of will. Only now did I feel small and cornered.
I recoiled from the bloodied trap.
was not quite the slaughter it seemed, however. Joura fingers pulled me back
into the firelight and the battle. Still out in the grass, indistinct through
the whipping flurries, stood thirty Shiwei warriors, each hooded and furred and
pitched to one side in the unmistakable stance of archers waiting to strike. I
knew these were mostly elders whose backs had not been so straight in many
seasons. I knew that only a few actually held bows, only some with arrows
capable of taking more than a songbird at such range. But the Joura didn't
know. They only knew their leader had been felled by an arrow shot straight and
true through a wall of blinding snow, and they imagined its waiting brothers.
They broke and ran, grabbing only what was packed for the storm or could easily
be slung on their backs. They left me to the snow and the Shiwei to their
abandoned supper. The chieftain had gambled. He'd saved his people at the cost
of one life, and left the others time to flee and regroup further west before
the blizzard overtook them.
storm passed and I was left to ponder this world of men. The dead were carried
up into the trees and tied. Chotasuan presided over their wind burials. There
followed three days of mourning and three days of fasting and rest. When the
tribe ventured across the steppe again, the grass was buried, the sunlit snow
blinding, and the bison distracted, their heads deep in the drifts after
hunting party set out against the breeze, but the Shiwei had no experience with
animals of such fearsome size and disposition. They approached with wooden
spears, hoping to isolate a calf. Then the wind shifted. The calves retreated,
and the cows closed ranks. The bulls turned and snorted white mist. A few of
the largest charged, brown-gray hulks loping through belly-deep snow and
hoof-kicked ice. They leaped on the hunters and knocked them down, snapping
spears and bones alike. One made straight for the chieftain, who with only his
bow for protection, had me already nocked and ready.
prayer, the chieftain leaped down to try a desperate belly shot. The horns
sliced the snow and spun him. They shifted and stabbed and gored. The beast
reared. The chieftain swung me up, and in an instant, I was buried in bone and
the dark and heat of a thrashing, dying monster.
was the last I saw of the Shiwei tribe. The chieftain died with the same
thoughts as the khanling. The bull was abandoned to the wolves, and I to the
ice and soil.
I was glad to be forgotten. I wanted nothing but to take my leave and rejoin my
brethren who know neither death nor eternity. For them, the end of the universe
and its beginning are the same instant. They see all but perceive little,
whereas I, now compressed to the vantage point of human thought, understand
everything but see only through the nearest of my kind, not much beyond the
bounds of the earth, which is to say virtually nothing. Yet that meager glimpse
held all the horror I had known, and I welcomed escape, back to the impassive
I lay trapped in the soil, witness through the scattered prism of my brethren
as civilization struck its sparks across the globe. At last I knew the ebbing
tide of time. I knew the hopes of mothers everywhere, the despair of fathers
forced to watch them shattered, the countless miracles forged by mankind's
genius, and as often cast onto pyres.
gave way to farming, apprenticeship to university, squabbling for sustenance to
industrialized warfare. On I waited, till the serrations flaked from my
verdigris edges, till I wondered if one day I'd flake off with them and remain
there forever, privy to mankind's every triumph and tragedy, yet marooned in
couldn't blame Chotasuan. He hadn't understood the power he was wielding any
more than Nero's engineers would later understand the cement that sealed their
aqueducts, or the crew of the Enola Gay
their bomb. These shamans of science knew little enough, having coaxed enough
secrets from their world to remake it, improve it, and have a go at its
destruction. Chotasuan knew nothing. He lived by hope and hunger, moored by
tradition and guesswork, buffeted by forces he could no more understand than an
ember caught in a whirlwind.
interpreted these forces as spirits and hoped that if he turned to them in
earnest they might offer guidance. He could not conceive to ask for more. And
so his spirits answered in the only way they could, with an emissary of their
own construction—with me. Thus acquainted, he might have learned everything. He
might have ruled the earth, fed it, and set its people free among the stars.
Instead, he asked only for what he could understand, and the tiniest sliver of
what I am was expended to steer a shaft through a snowstorm.
so I came to be a knot of awareness twisted into the substance of the world.
And if that substance had been bone or wood or stone—anything that any shaman
had ever so invested before—it would have worn and decayed and been taken up
again by life, and I'd have been released. But somehow the copper held me.
When I finally emerged, the bison and
glaciers were gone, the landscape was verdant, and the snow had withdrawn up
the mountains. I was warmed again by daylight, free to act and to guide—and finally
to seek my escape.
gaunt boy with pinched black eyes and broad shoulders pried me from his muddy
plow. He wiped and looked me over well and showed a sun-darkened smile.
he called, hurrying me over to a stooped-backed woman, a kindly looking thing
with thirty finger rings and one good eye. He held me out like a prize and
asked, "What will the old man say to this?"
respect," she said, gently cuffing his cheek. Then she gripped his hand to
steady me under her gaze. "What is this, a talisman?"
nodded. "I will ride to Fevralskoye in the morning and offer it in
She took me up for a closer look and wiped me with her thumb. "I'll go
mother tucked me in her basket with the garlic and kale and carried me into her
house, a simple, tin-roofed shack of whitewashed wooden planks. She bound me to
a leather cord and hung me from a peg where I waited, buried in folds and furs
while she tended a daughter delirious with fever.
first light she appeared in a deerskin caftan richly appointed with beads and
embossing and colored with bright ochre dye. She gave the boy his instructions,
slipped me around her neck, and set off on the back of a stocky black Panje
horse that never broke a walking pace and seemed to be constantly chewing.
rode through ragged fields of oats and rye and along a rushing, cobbled stream.
When we passed clumps of purple meadowsweet, good for fever tea, I tried to
guide her to them. I swung to one side and tugged at the cord, but she only
swatted as if to shoo an insect. Further along, she stopped and dismounted to
slip past a log in the path, a fallen birch with rings of medicinal bracket
fungus. Again, I pulled and twisted and tried to make her see. She held up the
cord and stared. She even wet a finger to test the wind. But then she clucked
and climbed back on the Panje's back and continued on her way. Reduced from
spirit guide to ornament, I was obliged to await our appointment.
continued east through wooded hills to a settlement where rows of wooden houses
faced deep-rutted lanes and dray horses hauling people and tools by the wagon
load. The people moved with industry, and the air filled with oil smoke and
engine noise and Russian conversation. We passed all this by, and in the wooded
hills, found a clutch of metal-roofed log houses with shutters and carved
pediments over the windows.
stopped near a circle of Tungus farmers who had gathered around a great open fire.
They all watched a dancing man whose brightly painted buckskins, high ruddy
cheeks, and mask of carved, inverted antlers gave him the look of a jovial
demon. The mother dismounted and spoke to a distracted young man who called
himself "second-spirit" to this shaman. When he laid eyes on me, his
face grew bright and he asked three times after the ailing child's name. Then
he broke through the crowd and laid me around his master's neck. The shaman's
eyes sparkled and he nodded at the woman. Then he resumed his prancing with
blue and yellow ribbons coiling behind like the tail of a strutting game cock.
could have done much for this shaman. Manifest as I was, I could have answered
the prayers of all his petitioners, guided them to medicinal herbs and seams of
gold, and found their stolen goods and missing loved ones. Instead, they paid
the shaman to prance and spin and left no less abject than they had arrived.
The shaman grew little richer and no wiser, and I remained as marooned as ever.
Chotasuan's people had barely understood our kind or how to receive our
guidance. These later folk had forgotten even how to seek it. To the shaman, I
was payment, a valuable bauble and token of ancient authority. He went on as
before, asking the spirits to work magic beyond their powers in words none
could hear, save for me. With his cavorting dance and drunken nights, I could
no more reach him than wash away the stench of his hides and sweat.
the time the great trans-Siberian railroad opened, the shaman's wanderings had
taken him south and west and into contact with the smallpox. He died without
the counsel of the spirit walk, and his country seemed ready to follow.
Protests over peasant indenture ignited strikes and mutiny and armed
confrontation. From a sack in a crumbling hovel, powerless and ignored, I
witnessed pretty frontier streets fill with wasted blood as young men and women
with common dreams fought to the death to achieve them. Was this to be my lot
then? Mute witness to tragedy?
I lay buried, humanity had levered the natural proclivities of my brethren into
powerful technologies—and confused success for understanding. Like children
playing at silhouettes, they had peered ever deeper into shadows and ever
farther from the lights that made them. I could not see their future, but I
knew secrets yet undiscovered, and that strong lenses can set fire even in the
hands of the blind. Mankind's imperfect vision had grown powerful indeed—well beyond
that of the brutes who called me fourth. The wants that haunted their simple
lives were now met a dozen times over for a dozen times as many, yet mankind's
jealousy was greater than ever. Every invention was turned to warfare. Every
act of genius left unintended ripples. And there was genius, more than on a million other worlds scattered through
the trackless void. Mankind was a marvel, but his cherry tree dreams were never
far from nightmare. I had witnessed destruction on a cosmic scale. Now I knew
the meaning of loss. I understood now the agonies of those ancient chiefs and I
did not wish to see them replayed by the billions.
was stuck. If I could have chanted and breathed the lichen smoke, if I could
have entered the spirit walk myself, then I would have sought my escape. But
then I'd have already been free, wouldn't I? No, I could only be released as I
was called, by someone with the guileless innocence of old Chotasuan. Someone
who, given a glimpse of real knowledge, would use it to free me and not to set
this world ablaze. In finding this savior, I would have to be cautious. Better
to endure another billion tortuous nights than see as many children consigned
to hellfire. And time, if recent events were a guide, was running out.
the revolt, the shaman's second bartered me to an innkeeper who traded me for
boots. I made my way south in a trader's pocket, down the Amur to Khabarovsk,
and through several more hands to a scrap merchant's forge. I emerged from the
furnace unfazed and no less hobbled, but now in the form of a fine bronze bell.
I was crated and shipped down to Vladivostok and there, mounted on the
forecastle of the merchant steamer, Stepenny
in nature can match the organic unity of a sea captain at his watch, breaking
his fast with steaming black coffee, his bridge alight with salmon glimmers
mirrored from the Okhotsk Sea. Captain Gorbatov was a hard man bent to hard
labor and accustomed to the ocean's tyranny of boredom and sudden terror.
Despite this—or because of it—he found solace in the rhythms and simple
beauties of his world: the life-carpeted rookeries in Schastya Bay, the winter
ice north of Sakhalin Island, the plumes of purple mist blown by white belugas
at twilight. I soaked it all up, fascinated by the living networks that found
their roots in the sea and by this creature, man, who made so much of so
little. I wondered, given the right man, what might be done to point his way,
not through battle, but toward the enlightened future available to, and
imperiled by, no other being.
the Bolsheviks seized power, the Japanese came to defend their frontier—or perhaps
to push it northward. Posadnik, was a
name they might know from the earlier confrontation at Tsushima island, so the
captain had it painted out with Kazantsev,
the name of a childhood friend. He learned to say Konnichiwa and Sayonara
and to drink the odd glass of saki, though he found it weak as rain water. He
survived the revolution and the border tensions and went on plying cereals and
coal up and down the coast for many years, but the Japanese were no longer the
aloof neighbors they had been. Their incursion into Manchuria finally convinced
him the waters between the two nations had grown too dangerous. To the north,
Stalin was rebuilding Nikolayevsk at the mouth of the Amur. Captain Gorbatov
applied to take his pension there.
a bell, I suffered from a slow, wasting corrosion caused by impurities in the
scrap from which I'd been cast. So when the good captain retired, I was retired
with him and installed in a fancy metal frame on a post beside his porch step.
Gorbatov had grown old and his children had grown old. His granddaughter,
Katya, had a child of her own when she was widowed by Stalin's madness and
received word that her grandfather was drinking. By the summer of 1938, she was
living with him and clerking for a fish packer. On a moonless August night
there came a knock at the gate in the high, paneled fence that screened the
captain's garden. Katya carried a lantern out through the yard, pulled back the
bolt, and spoke at length and with some energy to the shadows. Finally, she
stepped aside to admit a tall, blond woman in a long pleated skirt and woolen
vest. The woman scowled, swept dubious eyes over the too-late vegetables that
over-filled the yard, and threaded her way up the path.
introduced herself as Tamara Ulyanov, an ethnographer from the Russian science
academy, and produced a typewritten letter. Gorbatov unfolded the paper as
Katya held the light for him. The letterhead bore a sword and sash and the
words, "Blut Und Boden." The
woman spoke as if she'd grown up in Leningrad, but the letter was written in
this to me?" the captain said.
is from General Secretary Sievers of the German Ahnenerbe. He has requested our
assistance in gathering certain ethnographic data, and for diplomatic reasons
we have been instructed to—"
on the Jews—our neighbors."
spy, Captain. We have been asked to assist with a survey of certain
anthropological and anatomical—"
ask you again, grazhdanka..."
am not a Jew, Tamara Ulyanov. My granddaughter here, is not a Jew. There are no
Jews among all the many graves of Nikolayevsk-on-Amur so far as I know."
are looking also for certain artifacts." The woman ran her eyes over me,
then looked back at the captain.
regarded her, his big toes poking through tattered slippers and digging the
nails into the soft rotted ends of the porch boards. He rested a hand on my
steel frame. "What would you want with the memento of an old sea
more than a memento, I think."
was reaching to hang the lantern back by the doorway. Now she spun back around
with the light. "Deda, what is it? What does she mean?"
woman answered. "I am told your grandfather tells certain stories when his
tongue is sufficiently moistened."
captain studied a sprig of knapweed growing amidst the dried blooms of his
chrysanthemums. "Stories, yes..."
shush!" The hinges squeaked behind Katya the way they always did when too
much weight was on the iron knob. To the woman, she said, "My grandfather
is prone to drink. Never you mind his stories."
woman stood in the captain's shadow. She studied his face. She studied me. Her
nose was straight, her complexion unlined by disappointment. Finally she said,
"There is no point in denying what your protestations have already
confirmed. Show me the bell. Show me how to use it. My associates will make you
a wealthy man."
this, the captain stood tall. "What use have your associates for a half-rotten bell?"
woman's eyes were fixed, her smile, sullen. "Do not insult me, Captain.
What use had your freighter for a bell that sounds its own collision? That
gives three day's warning before a typhoon? What use, now, has a warship?"
course she was right. War was coming. The captain could well imagine my utility
to the fuhrer's navy. Even he, however, could not fathom the danger I posed in
the hands of the Reich. I had learned sympathy for earthly affairs through the
eyes of the people around me, but Chotasuan had asked for a guide, not a
conscience. Once the Ahnenerbe worked out how to pose their questions, I'd have
no choice but to answer. They would waste time on nonsense, of course—pointless
queries about their mythical master race and other myths that would prove
useless to their cause. Then they'd turn me over to their war ministers. If
they asked, I could tell them where Zhukov had deployed his troops and what
Churchill fed to his code breakers. Without meaning to, I'd help them starve
twenty million Russians and exterminate whole races. I'd teach them how to
build the neutron bomb and teleport it into Roosevelt's bedroom.
captain could not foresee these things, but neither was he a fool.
"Communists are the sworn enemies of anti-semitism, isn't that what Stalin
straight nose dropped a bit. "Of course. Racial chauvinism deflects the
working people from striving against capitalism." Her eyes sparked like
embers in the lamplight. "But what is good for the people is not always
what is good for the state."
captain nodded. "I think you can let yourself out, Tamara Ulyanov."
woman blanched. "Let us sit and talk," she said. "Your bell can
help the fight against Jewish cultural domination. Hitler may not be a true
friend, but he is a true nationalist."
She stepped closer and spoke more softly. "You want to be on the right
side of history, don't you, Captain?"
captain moved to block the steps. "And if I don't see history as you would
like? What then? I suppose your associates
will send their bar brawlers around to steal from an old man?"
stiffened. "There are greater dangers in this world than petty
captain stood his ground. "Of that, I have no doubt. Good night,
woman demurred and stepped back. "Very well then, but I urge you to
consider my words. Good night, Captain."
withdrew, and before she'd even reached the gate, Katya filled the captain's
ears with frozen whispers. "Deda, what are you doing? She's the same kind
who turned my Stefan over to the Gulag. Do you think she will leave us in
the gate spring whined through the garden, she allowed a stronger voice.
"Call her back! Give her what she wants."
check on the baby," he said.
Take her in the back room."
stared for a moment, then withdrew, leaving the lamp swinging from its hanger.
The captain turned and ran his finger around my rim. "What of it, bell?
Will Tamara Ulyanov leave us be?"
Ulyanov woman had been right. While at sea with the captain, a few close calls
had necessitated my sounding the alarm on my own initiative. My mass was now
such that I could only shift it with difficulty, but one good clank against the
striker was sufficient to rouse a drunken watch—and to ignite the captain's
interest. Once he learned I could answer him, he swore off drink for half a
voyage and became convinced the others would rise against him for sorcery. In
time, we came to an understanding. I'd give one good tip for yes or a more
subtle double waggle for no. The slow, rocking nod I gave now needed no prior
definition; it had just the character of a head shaking in despair.
captain nodded, glanced at the still-creaking gate, and tramped into the house.
In a moment he returned and hollered after the woman. He gave my frame a sudden
jerk, and I flipped and rang like the call to mass. Seconds later, the woman
reopened the gate.
changed my mind," said the captain. With one hand against my stanchion, he
let the other wave dismissively at the gate. "Well, come in," he
said. "Don't stand in the damp." He was wearing his white skipper's
gate swung shut and the woman picked her way back up through the darkness of
the sheltered garden.
can have my old bell," the captain said. "You can wrap it up and take
it to the fuhrer himself if that is your wish, but on this one condition."
woman stepped around a tomato plant set in a large clay pot in the center of
the path. "And what is that?"
jaw set, the captain pulled from my shadow an old but formidable carbine.
Before the woman could do more than gawk, he raised it level and fired. She
fell, and he hurried down the steps and past her through the shadows. He peered
through the gate, bolted it tight, and returned to poke the body with the
carbine. He stooped to collect the woman's hand and rolled her off of his
you must say, please,” he said.
door crashed open and out flew Katya. "Deda, what is it?" She saw the
body, then ran down the steps to his side. "What...what have you done? Do
think it is dark and the neighbors will understand there are snakes
fool! She'll have others who know she was coming here. You should have called
if she is a traitor, they would have shot her for me. But if she was acting for
the state as she claimed..."
shivered. "You'll be shot. Or sent to the camps like Stefan."
he said, "These things may happen. But you and the bell will be
my great granddaughter, of course."
captain squeezed his granddaughter's shoulder and looked into her eyes.
"Katya my child, it's true a man must pick his battles, but enemies are
sometimes like in-laws. Some you choose, others you only learn to recognize at
a safe distance." He wiped a tear from her cheek. "Now go inside and
gather your things," he said, "I have some gardening to do."
old man had set his course. Neither Stalin nor Hitler was to have me. He would
sacrifice himself for what was more to him than life. And I would help him—for what
was more than freedom.
body was interred beneath a plot of winter cabbage. By morning, the captain had
cut down my stanchion, fixed me to a wooden base, and packed me in his steamer
trunk with a few cherished belongings. Thus provisioned, he hitched up the
wagon, a meager contrivance with two spoked wheels and a basket just large
enough for Katya to lie in with the trunk and her daughter and a cover of
carrots and greens. The captain was taking no chances.
the Panje was no more than a pony, the captain walked alongside, guiding her
through the early mists and around the worst of the mud toward the river. The
wharf was a dizzy line of ship's masts and funnels and yellow brick warehouses
with bright metal roofs, all new since the revolution. The captain checked and
rechecked a telegram that he'd already consulted several times. Finally, he
found the berth where Stepenny Kazantsev,
newly refitted, sat building up steam for departure. He deflected an
inquisitive dockhand and soon was embracing the vessel's new skipper and
speaking quickly and earnestly in his ear.
conversation, through hushed, went on for several minutes. Then the skipper
directed his deck hands up toward the bow while Captain Gorbatov walked the
wagon across the ramp and into the hold and tied the Panje to a railing. By the
time the sea doors were shut and the crew had gone to stations, the baby had
grown restless. The captain hurried to free her and his granddaughter from the
Gregorovich is not happy," he said, popping the latches on the steamer
trunk, "but he cannot refuse his old master. We are expected in the
wardroom. In case of trouble, this will explain for us, eh?" He pulled out
a bottle of vodka and gave his granddaughter a wink. "Even those children
in the NKVD have grandfathers who sometimes pine for the old days, yes?"
next the captain appeared, the hold was dark and the ship had sailed and come
again to rest. He transferred me to a carpetbag, then climbed through a hatch
and down the side of the vessel, down a set of steel rungs to a motor launch
loaded with flour and sugar and four other men bound for shore. We'd steamed
north and moored at a lightering buoy off Ayan, a once-important port on the
sea of Okhotsk, all but abandoned since the civil war and the closing of the
rail line decades earlier. The port had fallen to ruins, and the town was so
derelict, there weren't even any police to meet the launch. Snow-specked
mountains, pink in the setting sun, slept around the city. The supplies were
offloaded onto push carts, and the men set off past darkened warehouses to a
nondescript brick depot, conspicuous for its unbroken windows. As arrangements
were made for the flour, the captain stopped in the lee of the broken-down
security shack. He made surreptitious glances at the others as he unbuttoned
his greatcoat, then he crouched and opened my bag.
don't know what you are, bell, nor whence you came, but you've always been true
enough, though I've asked you for naught. Now I must plead for my Katya. Steer
her as you have me—and give me this one night of folly—and you'll more than
make up for an old fool's tongue."
had come here to gamble. The five men from Kazantsev
were joined by five more from the town. All knew each other well except for the
captain, who was vouched for by two who'd sailed under him. He carried me into
the depot, past rows of oak barrels set standing on end and past wooden crates
stacked like tenements. In an office in the back, the shades and bolts were
pulled and the working papers cleared from the tables.
captain wisely avoided games that would have required me to see into the future
or affect events beyond my control. Godori was played for kopecks using tiny
floral cards of a Chinese design. Players only had to call "go" or
"stop" to see their bets doubled or held. I knew the minds and cards
of the participants, and the gentle tap of my rim against his boot was
sufficient to indicate the wisest move. He kept my bag by his side and worked
patiently, losing just often enough to keep his body parts intact. After Godori
came higher stakes and poker, and in the final hours, a move to a disused cold
store reclaimed as an office, and the company of a tattooed man named Mirzoyan
to whom all the others deferred.
dawn, the captain had slipped off into the mountains, and I was back on Kazantsev, steaming for the Aleutians
with Katya. The captain had returned only long enough to kiss his sleeping
granddaughter and return me to the trunk. "Vasili Gregorovich is a good
communist," he had said, "but his father was with the White Guard. He
will risk everything to save my Katya now, just as I risked everything to save
his family from Triapitsyn during the war."
pulled out the bottle, worked loose the cork, and tipped the mouth to his lips.
the Jews frighten the Germans," he said, "perhaps it is only that
they know one thing: there are some things greater than nations."
a moment, I thought he might empty the bottle and manage yet to spoil all his
plans, but he only patted me and pushed in the cork, then closed me into the
of Japan, Kazantsev met the steamer, Puget Clipper and exchanged illegal
American machine parts for illegal white caviar. A hefty bribe and a few choice
threats bought Katya passage to the United States. In these years between the
wars, security was not very tight on the west coast and a pretty girl with a
hungry child wasn't given a second look. The wad of greenbacks folded around my
striker opened doors and bought groceries until she was more than settled. By
the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, she was seeing a boy who sold
Fordson tractors in Seattle and who would later win a medal building airstrips
in the Solomons.
once did Katya ask anything of me. Time was running short and she was my best
hope for release, but the captain had entrusted me with her welfare, and I
never invited communication that might have somehow exposed her, or that might
have invited questions to which she could not bear the answers. She never
learned of the captain's cancer. She never knew that death by gunfire had been
his choice, that it had been precipitated by the vodka bottle, stuffed with a
rag, set alight, and thrown through the window of a government office to help
cover and purchase her escape. I had known from the captain's thoughts, of
course, and when the wartime scrap drives were announced, I knew it was time to
finish what he'd started.
was a sunny spring morning when the loudspeakers paused outside the rented
houses of Crawford Loop. Katya was nailing in a picture hook and I sat on the
mantle. When the truck stopped outside, I swung with all the force I could
muster, enough to clank, to overturn my base, and to crash to the concrete
hearth. Softened by corrosion, I broke like a clay flower pot. Katya shrieked
and flew down beside me, her eyes filling with tears. I saw in her memories the
captain and her Stefan and the others she had left or lost. She thought her
nailing had made me fall, that she had spoiled her only keepsake of their
lives. She touched the red tassel by which the captain had often rung me and
hugged the striker to her chest.
loudspeaker echoed again: "Make sure they're sunk, bring out your
junk." I—now just a fragment bearing a word of Cyrillic script, waggled
and jumped as if to say, "Go on Katya, go and tip me into the bin."
It was her patriotic duty to her adopted homeland, after all.
scrap barge carried me to California, where I was smelted and rolled and
trucked to the mint. I became the last copper penny struck before wartime
production shifted to steel. Then it was cash drawers and pockets up and down
the coast, till an Army airman named Sal Litvack decided I was lucky and
slipped me in his wallet. Rather than luck, I nearly earned him a
section-eight. So I held my peace while he hunted submarines off Catalina and
then built houses in Philadelphia. After the war, he left me in a shoebox of
mementos and medals meant to have been sealed in his casket. But his grandson
rescued me and put me under glass, and his
grandson sneaked me to school to buy chocolate. Another year and several hands
carried me to Smith's Drug in Fairhill, and the baseboard where Sturgle found
me, a very rare coin indeed.
so here I lay. Mankind has tamed the Earth, sprinkled its deserts with ersatz
suns, and ventured beyond its skies. He's grown invincible, indomitable, like
some hardy, sprawling vine that paints the hillsides with waving color till it
chokes out the trees and the roots are gone and the earth all slides away.
Technology tends and protects him, but it was adversity that made him wise, the
hunt and struggle that honed his creative spark. And what nature makes, she as
quickly begins to erode. The hammer lost man his jaw muscles, the stone knife
his canines, the lever the bulk of his strength. What will ease and plenty cost
him? How long will the machines support him once the minds that made them have
greatest danger to humanity was never war, famine, or plague. It was success.
Very soon, mankind must push beyond the grist of nature's mill or slip and fall
beneath it. I'd hoped perhaps a small spark in the right place might yet break
the wildfires to come. I'd hoped there was time yet to strike such a spark. But
here I am. The soil looms close, a dark and quiet crypt in which to remember
the chieftain's children and a million million others, and millions yet to
green flicks past and tumbles—spins faster and faster until I'm sickened by the
simple frenetic intensity of motion. Then I'm lying flat and still. The sun
warms my metal. A stroller wheels past and a child bends to examine me. Her
sandy curls hang loose against the cloudless sky. Her hazel eyes squint against
the sunlight. She picks me up with bitten nails and cracks a gap-toothed smile.
Momma. Poppa says if it's heads-up it means good luck."
mother, pushing the stroller, smiles back. "Come along my duckling."
girl balances me on the crook of her finger, flicks me into the air, then
catches me with a clap. Each time she peeks between her palms, she smiles and
tries again. All the way home, I always land heads-up.
turns out to be eight and a precocious reader. Her headboard is stacked with
books from H.G. Wells to Douglas Adams. A t-shirt draped over a straight-backed
chair bears the famous image of Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out for the
camera, which gesture she gleefully returns as she empties out her pockets. No Ouija
board under this bed, but she has something even better. Someone has made her a
table, butcher-block style, tiled with glued-up alphabet blocks. As I bounce
onto the lacquered surface, I try to roll as I did on Sturgle's chess table,
but only manage an unnatural flip onto a half-open gum wrapper.
penny," Jessica says. Then she sings, "Penn-y for a ba-all of thread.
Anoth-er for a needle," and flips me a few more times, giggling each time
I come up heads. "Silly penny," she says, scrunching up her eyebrows
and parroting the stern tone she has doubtless heard from her mother,
"what am I going to do with
now. I fling myself from her palm and bounce across the table. I careen around,
only just veering in time to avoid flying down into the socks and dust bunnies
hiding under her box spring. Round and round the table I roll, feeling my mass
and getting the lay of the letters. If I watch my speed, I can spin across any
letter, and so spell out a message as I roll. And so I begin.
mouth falls open and her lollipop threatens to fall. She doesn't understand,
not just yet, but there's time yet. At long, long last, there's time.