Where the Cossacks Live
Susie LinfordCopyright 2012, all rights reserved
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Of all the things I've forgotten, I remember the old men -- their black suits shiny, fly-green with age and long ago places -- sitting on benches in a sunny Berkeley park during the revolution.
I can still hear the helicopters clack clacking overhead following the riots and later, the tear gas. These memories, bidden or unbidden, remain in the stories which beckon me to other worlds, lost worlds, again and again, sifting for connections and occasionally, to bear witness.
On one of these days in 1973 I walked past the old men quickly, pushing a stroller, anxious to be home before tear gas reached my south campus neighborhood.
One old man cocked his head to look at me with his eye robin-round and unblinking before returning to study his old fashioned, round-toed black shoes, set just so, in front of him. The cracks were barely visible under the polish. And although I didn't pause, I have thought of him for over 40 years and wondered what his story might have been.
Once, I offered to listen to a friend's father who had no one to tell his stories to. He was in his 80's, still big, with wild, fine white hair that floated out from his head like dandelion fluff. Although he had spent most of his life in America, his accent partnered with his memories of one day in 1903 in his mother's store in western Russia near the Polish border.
On that day, the Cossacks came, looking for boys to serve in the Tsar's army where their lives would fill quotas and be short. At the sound of their horses, his mother lifted the wide planked floorboards and hurried her sons down the two rough steps to the dirt below.
They came soon after that, stamping their feet free of dirt and snow in her just-swept store, and he watched the motes of dust float down from the soles of their boots. His world hung in that air and the portent it brought. He never forgot the sight of their boots through the cracks in the floorboards.
To their rough peasant Russian, his mother replied haltingly, avoiding her usual Yiddish, while wiping the counter down. “No sons,” she said, slowing the arcs she made on the counter with her cloth, as if this was all that presently held her interest. They laughed without mirth, without passion, but they would be back, maybe with fire the next time.
He understood then that his life had pivoted and he had to leave this place if he wanted to live, for he had smelled the casualness of evil in the dust and horse smells they brought in on their boots; and he would never forget, not once, over a long life.
A few days later he hugged his mother goodbye in the dark morning and began his journey away from this winter land. Months later he walked down the gangway at Ellis Island smelling the fresh sea air. He carried two ruples, a dried apple and the address of a cousin's cousin, who may or may not have received his mother's letter (written by a local village scribe who was paid in bread). He was twelve years old.
Now, over 70 years later he had emigrated from New York City to Berkeley to live with his only daughter in a neighborhood of chicly renovated houses built in the years the pogroms burned Russian villages. The joyous sounds of the 60's “Make Love Not War” revolution fill the air. He shrugs an ancient, iconic shrug. This is not his revolution, and he takes little notice of it.
I still look for those old men with their faces turned to the sun. I don't know why, but of so much that remains and so much that is lost, I remember them, their stories, and the way their shoes gleamed in the sun -- free of dust and horse dung -- and of course, I remember the Cossacks.
Oh yes, I do.