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.
She hadn’t meant to live all these years in America with her son-in-law, to never carve a world out for herself—one in which she was no longer a mother, one in which sh
e spoke the language and walked among the people in stores and streets as if it was all her own and she belonged in it.
But she never did, has always held herself, instead, at a distance from everything. It makes the letting go, losing, moving on, easier—floating along the edge of a place that will never be hers to lose. Her only way to keep on.
Next thing Vera knows, the ground is ripped from under her and she lies in the dirt in the dark, the place where her arm had been, smoldering.
Vera is lifted up from the earth and strapped onto a gurney, wheeled into flashing howling red lights, rattled a long way out on a road that bumps and with each bump comes acid into her side. Then stillness, a bed, the antiseptic smell of the sick.
Yuri is there and then he isn’t and then he is again, each time wearing that fierce tight scowl. “Why?” he keeps asking. “Why would you do it?” as though it was a crime she’d committed, walking out by the lake at night.
When did she become this woman, bent, broken, so easily out of breath?
Before the paramedics arrive: The old man stands over her in the dirt, grimacing, disbelieving once he gets a look at her—no escaped convict at all. She can hear his hard bitter voice. “Shouldn’ta been out on my property at night. Doesn’t she know you don’t go trespassin’ like that looking for trouble? I never laid a finger on a lady in my life, so help me God.”
She doesn’t understand half the words the man is sputtering and when the uniforms march down to the water, flashlights in her face, she doesn’t answer their questions at first. She’d been out for a walk. She’d wanted some fresh air. What was there to explain?
“What’s your name?” a pudgy man with short hair, bent over her, asks and keeps asking. “What is your name? Can you tell me your name?”
“That’s the Russian lady from three houses down,” the old man says and slaps his wrinkled forehead. “Oh, Jesus,” he moans.
Meanwhile, Vera sinks into that narrow wedge of time before the pain hits, the shock crackling against her inner eye—tiny pink sparks, blinding the hurt of it. She shuts her eyes and drifts into the numbness like a warm clear bath enveloping her.
Before they get to her: Vera lies on her back, staring up at the night sky, thinking: This is it. This is how they’ll say I went—on the edge of this no-place-to-write-home-about lake, arm torn off, the life leaking out of me into the dirt until there was nothing left to keep the old heart pumping. She imagines the ripped-off arm bobbing nearby in the water, how her son-in-law might fish it out with his wide net and mount it like a deer head on the wall.
One certainty as Vera Robinov lies out there in the dirt waiting to die: Nothing belongs to anyone. It could be snatched up, stolen, redistributed, snuffed out at any time. She had seen her home taken away as a girl, divided up, each room assigned to a different family. She had seen her brother loaded into a cattle car and sent to his death. No. She hadn’t seen that. Unless seeing something on the inner surface of your mind over and over like a looping film reel counted, a reenactment that took hold and never let go. She’d seen Ella, her only child, consumed, poisoned from her own blood – taken bit by bit by the sickness in her. And now, she’d witnessed her own arm blown clear off her body while taking a walk at night. Somehow, for a flash of a moment, it all made sense to her.
The arm, in fact, had not been torn off. The bullet had gone through her shoulder and embedded itself on its way out. She could hear its shell ping and rattle against a metal dish once the doctor dislodged it. Vera would heal and her arm would be fine with a bit of rehabilitation. Maybe some lost range of motion, nothing a woman her age would miss.
For the rest of her life—however long or short that might be—she’d be known as the crazy lady walking people’s property at night, practically asking to be shot.
Well what if she had been?
Rewind a bit: Yuri is there when they pull her out of the screaming ambulance. He’s wearing his old flannel pants, hair matted on one side. She is relieved to see his face, wishes Lucy could be there, but she knows the girl is off in New York City, picking up dirty plates in some cafe, not going to college as if to spite the family. Lucy. How old is she now? Older certainly than her mother had been when she died. Vera tries to focus on these details as she lies on her stomach, the bleached sheet pressed against her cheek, the doctor muttering to a nurse beside her as he picks in the back of her shoulder to get the bullet out.
She’d been shot. Vera Robinov survived starvation, World War, the annihilation of six million Jews, emigration, a buried mother, father, brother, husband, daughter—all left behind in the old land and here she was, three weeks an American citizen—shot on a midnight stroll. The injustice.
Shot right outside her house too! She could imagine all the fat, giddy women on the Ocean Parkway benches where she’d left them to gossip all those years ago, chattering in disbelief, inventing reasons why she’d gone out in the night when she should have known better.
She should have known better.
But, suppose she’d known, suppose she walked out onto t
he old man’s property, remembering what a bitter angry kook he was and rustled around those leaves in the hopes that just maybe he’d wake up and hear. Step out on the porch in his long johns and fire.
What if it had been her intention? Nothing in her life had ever worked out so perfectly planned as that midnight stroll. Except—except, she was still alive, wasn’t she?
Here’s what Vera Robinov was thinking as she picked her way along the edge of the lake, crossing property after property, pushing back the high grass and weeds and watching the lightning bugs flicker like dropping stars: Lucy as a little girl, making magic lanterns from lightning bugs, skipping and leaping after them in the yard once the sun was gone, Vera standing guard on the porch each time. Lucy running, showing Vera her jar, turning and turning the glass, those bugs inside buzzing around disoriented, ordinary flies with their little butts winking – not even enough light to see by, dying, winking, dying.
She was thinking how sad those trapped little bugs used to make them both, how disappointed, how they’d unscrew the jar and watch the poor things drift out, knocking around the glass at first—too dizzy to escape, how she’d wonder if the world had changed at all for them now that they were free, though they didn’t seem much changed at all.
Each night Lucy would go about the same leaping and lunging and trapping, the same disappointment over again. This is what Vera was thinking when the shot ripped through her, knocked her down so that the only thing she saw in that instant—just an instant stretched into its own aching infinity—was this: the night sky spread in glittering stars like a canopy of fire flies. And she heard silence, felt at peace before the pain woke her up and set in, as always, all her life, it had.