The Night Vera Robinov Got Shot
Everyone heard the gunshots on the lake the night Vera Robinov went walking. She should have known better than to roam around late at night is what they would say.
People wanted to know what an old lady like her was doing poking around in the bushes like a thief after midnight. Didn’t she remember, not fifteen years before when a runaway had sneaked into her very house at night and killed the previous owners? Even after fifteen years, a thing like that would put people on edge.
When the police and medics and firemen arrived, Vera didn’t budge. She feigned she couldn’t speak English. But she understood far more than she let on. She was simply scared the life leaking from her would stream out faster if she spoke.
Instead she lay there looking up at the firmament of stars, the strangers’ faces intercepting her view—men in uniforms and rubber gloves whose job it was to save her.
Before: Vera steps along the edge of lake where the ground is packed and muddy, chunks of earth eroding in spots. She has always wanted to weave around the lake like this, walking over other people’s land, no people’s land, land that had been transformed in some places to carefully manicured lawns—woodchips spread in circles under trees, solar-powered light sticks lining paths, a trickling fountain behind a fake log cabin, cobwebbed gazebos, rotting Adirondack chairs, flipped canoes.
She could care less what others think, couldn’t give a hoot if they looked at her sideways or wondered her crazy. They could never see inside her head, never know what sealed-up, stacked-high, crisp-as-cardboard memories she had in there. She needn’t bother sharing them with anyone. That’s what she told herself as she walked the lake.
The mind is like one of those shifting images that change when you move, she finds herself thinking. Her son-in-law Yuri has one of those pictures in the kitchen—a boat on the water that turns into a giant whale when you rock side to side, front to back, the waves crashing all around. Vera’s mind is always busy turning boats into whales.
There are certain details that stick, planting themselves all over her life like sagebrush, even when they have nothing to do with it anymore. The pear tree from the dacha, her brother’s face as he holds a snatched up piece of bread, her daughter Ella holding her baby—cooing to her with her dying voice. They stand always in relief, like they’ve been sculpted into the surface of her mind. She can almost run her fingers over them like braille.
Her progress is slow at first, cutting through the darkness along the edge of water until her eyes adjust to the moonlight and she can see just fine. It isn’t the best moon for strolling, not like the moon over the Neva late in summer, so close to the rim of water, you can reach your arms up and almost dip them into its pool of glistening light. Nothing was like that moon—fiery orange yellow, a looming lantern overhead.
The moon on this night is more like a wafer held up to a light, a giant bite taken out of its side. But no mind—she can see just fine, has enough light to set one foot in front of the next without falling, the lake lapping and lapping like a dog at her heals.
And of course, there is the night water—beams of faint light barely quivering on its surface. The tall grass brushes against her as she walks. All around that wafer moon, the stars spread their canopy of shimmering light. This is so much better, she decided, than lying awake, in her bed all alone.
Afterwards: Her arm was blown clear off. That much quickly became known to her. Now, a sterilized room. Now, a white sheet tight around her middle like a mummy. She doesn’t want to turn her head and see where her arm used to be. She could shut her eyes and imagine it—a gaping bloody stump, the jagged white bone, loose flesh curling like the skin off a roast chicken. But she refuses to look, staring up instead at halogen lights, at strangers’ faces bending over her.
“Mrs. Robinov, do you hear me?” a voice above her says in English.
“Can you move your fingers for me?”
And she shuts her eyes, feels them broiling in their sockets.
Why trespass other people’s land like that so late in the night? The neighbors have been asking. It’s just the air in Vera’s room that gets so hot some nights it crackles in the back of her throat. Then there’s Yuri snoring; that creaking, groaning, moaning in the walls; the whistling windows; trembling shutters. All that noise at once in the dark, like sharp nails scratching down the insides of her arms.
Then, out the window, the lake like glass, the moon a silver leaf on water, a world away from all that muffled chaos of inside.
Relief of cool air as she slides open the screen door. Creaking deck. Damp grass. Wafer moon. Walking and walking. And then: The thought of her granddaughter Lucy as a little girl catching lightning bugs in a glass jar, leaping across the yard to capture those vanishing, appearing, vanishing specks of light. Sometimes, Vera would think: What’s it like for them in there, trapped and buzzing, the world so suddenly small? And then she’d remind herself—For God’s sake, Vera, you’re talking about a bunch of bugs, you loon.