Return to the Table of Contents.
S E P T E M B E R 1 9 9 7
by Rebecca Lee
T was dusk; the campus had turned to velvet. I walked the brick path to Humanities, which loomed there and seemed to incline toward me, as God does toward the sinner in the Book of Psalms. It was late on a Friday afternoon, when the air is fertile, about to split and reveal its warm fruit -- that gold nucleus of time, the weekend. Inside, up the stairs, the door to Stasselova's office was open, and the professor lifted his head. "Oh," he said. "Yes." He coughed, deep in his lungs, and motioned me in. He had requested this visit earlier in the day, following class. His course was titled Speaking in Tongues: Introductory Linguistics. Stasselova was about sixty-five and a big man, his torso an almost perfect square. Behind his balding head the blond architecture of St. Gustav College rose into the cobalt sky. It looked like a rendition of thought itself, rising out of the head in intricate, heartbreaking cornices that became more abstract and complicated as they rose.
Discuss this story in the Arts & Literature forum of Post &
I was in my third week of college. I loved every moment of it, every footfall.
The students resembled the students I'd known in high school, Scandinavian
midwesterners like myself, whose fathers were all pastors or some declension
thereof -- but the professors thrilled me. Most had come from the East Coast, and
seemed fragile and miserable in the Midwest. Occasionally during class you
could see hope for us rising in them, and then they would look like great birds
flying over an uncertain landscape, asking mysterious questions, trying to lead
us somewhere we could not yet go.
I wanted to be noticed by them, to distinguish myself from the ordinary mass of students, and to this end I had plagiarized my first paper for Stasselova's class. This was why, I presumed, he had called me to his office.
The paper, titled "The Common Harvest," was on the desk between us. I had found it in the Kierkegaard Library. It was a chapter in an old green-cloth book that was so small I could palm it. The book had been written in 1945, by a man named Delores Tretsky, and it hadn't been signed out since 1956. I began to leaf through it, and then crouched down to read. I read for a full hour; I thought it beautiful. I had not once in all my life stopped for even a moment to consider grammar, to wonder how it rose out of history like a wing unfurling.
I had intended to write my own paper, to synthesize, as Stasselova had suggested, my own ideas with the author's, but I simply had nothing to contribute. It seemed even rude to combine this work with my own pale, unemotional ideas. So I lifted a chapter, only occasionally dimming some passages that were too fine, too blinding.
"This is an extraordinary paper," he said. He was holding his coffee cup over it, and I saw that coffee had already spilled on the page to form a small, murky pond.
"Thank you," I said.
"It seems quite sophisticated. You must not have come here straight out of high school."
"I did," I said.
"Oh. Well, good for you."
"You seem fully immersed in a study of oppression. Any reason for this?"
"Well, I do live in the world."
"Yes, that's right. And you say here -- a shocking line -- that a language must sometimes be repressed, and replaced, for the larger good. You believe this?"
"You think that the Eastern-bloc countries should be forced to speak, as you say here, the mother tongue?"
Some parts of the paper I had just copied down verbatim, without really understanding, and now I was stuck with them. Now they were my opinions. "Yes," I said.
"You know I am from that region."
"Is that right?"
"Whereabouts in Poland?" I asked conversationally.
"Iwas born on the edge of it, in the dark forest land along its northeastern border, before the Soviet Union took it over completely, burning our towns. As children we were forced to speak Russian, even in our homes, even when we said good-night to our mothers as we fell asleep."
This was turning into a little piece of bad luck.
"When did you write this?" he asked.
"It reads like it was written fifty years ago. It reads like Soviet propaganda."
"Oh," I said. "I didn't mean it that way."
"Did somebody help you?"
"Actually, yes. Certainly that's all right?"
"Of course, if done properly. Who was it that helped you, a book or a person?"
"My roommate helped me," I said.
"Your roommate. What is her name?"
"Is she a linguistics scholar?"
"No, just very bright."
"Maybe I can talk to Solveig myself?"
"Unfortunately, you can't."
"In what way?"
"Well, she's stopped eating. She's very thin. Her parents were worried, so they took her home."
"Where does she live?"
"I don't know."
We both sat silent. Luckily, I had experience lying in my adolescence, and knew it was possible to win even though both parties were aware of the lie. The exercise was not a search for truth but rather a test of exterior reserve.
"I'm sure she'll be returning soon," I said. "I'll have her call you."
Stasselova smiled. "Tell her to eat up," he said, his sarcasm curled inside his concern.
"Okay," I said. I got up and hoisted my bag over my shoulder. As I stood, I could see the upper edge of the sun falling down off the hill on which St. Gustav was built. I'd never seen the sun from this angle before, from above as it fell, as it so obviously lit up another part of the world, perhaps even flaming up the sights of Stasselova's precious, oppressed Poland, its dark contested forests and burning cities, its dreamy and violent borders.
Y roommate Solveig was permanently tan. She went twice a week to a tanning salon and bleached her hair frequently, so that it looked like radioactive foliage growing out of dark, moody sands. Despite all this she was very beautiful, and sensible. "Margaret," she said when I came in that evening. "The library telephoned to recall a book. They said it was urgent."
I had thought he might check the library. "Okay," I said. As I rifled through the clothes on my closet floor, I decided it would have to be burned. I would finish the book and then I would burn it. But first there was tonight, and I had that rare thing, a date.
My date was from Stasselova's class. His name was Hans; he was a junior, and his father was a diplomat. He had almost auburn hair that fell to his neckline. He wore, always, long white shirts whose sleeves were just slightly, almost imperceptibly, puffed at the shoulders, like an elegant little joke, and very long, so they hung over his hands. I thought he was articulate, kind. I had in a moment of astonishment asked him out.
The night was soft and warm. We walked through the tiny town, wandered its thin river. We ate burgers. He spoke of Moscow, where he had lived that summer. I had spent my childhood with a vision of Russia in the distance, an anti-America, a sort of fairy-tale intellectual prison. But this was 1987, the beginning of perestroika, of glasnost, and views of Russia were changing. Television showed a country of rain and difficulty and great humility, and Gorbachev was always bowing to sign something or other, his head bearing a mysterious stain shaped like a continent one could almost but not quite identify. I said to Hans that I wanted to go there myself, though I had never thought of the idea before that moment. He said, "You can if you want." We were in his small, iridescent apartment by now. "Or perhaps to Poland," I said, thinking of Stasselova.
"Poland," Hans said. "Yes. What is left of it, after men like Stasselova."
"What do you mean, men like Stasselova?"
"Yet he is clearly anti-Soviet," I said.
"Now, yes. Everybody is anti-Soviet now." The sign for the one Japanese restaurant in town cast a worldly orange light into the room, carving Hans's body into geometric shapes. He took my hand, and at that moment the whole world seemed to have entered his apartment. I found him intelligent, deliberate, large-hearted. "Now," he said, "is the time to be anti-Soviet."
N Monday afternoon, in class, Hans sat across from me. We were all sitting around a conference table, waiting for Stasselova. Hans smiled. I gave him the peace sign across the table. When I looked back at him, moments later, Hans's hands were casually laid out on the table, palms down. I saw then, for the first time, that his left hand tapered into only three fingers, which were fused together at the top knuckle. The hand looked delicate, surprising. I had not noticed this on our date, and now I wondered if he had purposely kept me from seeing it, or if I had somehow just missed it. For a brief, confused moment, I even wondered if the transformation had occurred between then and now. Hans looked me squarely in the eye. I smiled back. Stasselova then entered the room. In light of my date with Hans, I had almost forgotten my visit with him the previous Friday. I'd meant to burn the book over the weekend in the darkness at the ravine, though I dreaded this. My mother was a librarian, and I knew that the vision of her daughter burning a book would have been like a sledgehammer to the heart.
Throughout the class Stasselova seemed to be speaking directly to me, still chastising me. His eyes kept resting on me disapprovingly. "The reason for the sentence is to express the verb -- a change, a desire. But the verb cannot stand alone; it needs to be supported, to be realized by a body, and thus the noun -- just as the soul in its trajectory through life needs to be comforted by the body."
The sun's rays slanted in on Stasselova as he veered into very interesting territory. "All things in revolution," he said, "in this way, need protection. For instance, when my country, Poland, was annexed by the Soviet Union, we had the choice of joining what was called Berling's army, the Polish wing of the Russian army, or the independent Home Army. Many considered it anti-Polish to join the Russian army, but I believed, as did my comrades, that more could be done through the system, within the support of the system, than without."
He looked at me. I nodded. I was one of those students who nod a lot. His eyes were like brown velvet under glass. "This is the power of the sentence," he said. "It acts out this drama of control and subversion. The noun always stands for what is, the status quo, and the verb for what might be, the ideal."
Across the table Hans's damaged hand, spindly and nervy, drummed impatiently on the tabletop. I could tell he wanted to speak up. Stasselova turned to him. "That was the decision I made," he said. "Years ago. Right or wrong, I thought it best at the time. I thought we could do more work for the Polish cause from within the Red Army than from outside it."
Hans's face was impassive. He suddenly looked years older -- austere, cold, priestly. Stasselova turned then to look at me. This was obviously an issue for him, I thought, and I nodded as he continued to speak. I really did feel supportive. Whatever army he thought was best at the time, that was fine with me.
N the evening I went to the ravine in the elm forest, which lay curled around the hill on which the campus was built. This forest seemed deeply peaceful to me, almost conscious. I didn't know the reason for this at the time -- that many elms in a forest can spring from a single tree. In this case a single elm had divided herself into a forest, an individual with a continuous DNA in whose midst one could stand and be held. The ravine cut through like an old emotional wound. I crouched on its bank and glanced at the book one last time. I flicked open my lighter. The book caught fire instantly. As the flame approached my hand, I arced the book into the murky water. It looked spectacular, a high wing of flame rising from it. Inside, in one of its luminous chapters, I had read that the ability to use language and the ability to tame fire arose from the same warm, shimmering pool of genes, since in nature they did not appear one without the other.
As I made my way out of the woods and into the long silver ditch that lined the highway, I heard about a thousand birds cry, and I craned my neck to see them lighting out from the tips of the elms. They looked like ideas would if released suddenly from the page and given bodies -- shocked at how blood actually felt as it ran through the veins, as it sent them wheeling into the west, wings raking, straining against the requirements of such a physical world.
RETURNED and found Solveig turning in the lamplight. Her hair was piled on her head, so unnaturally blonde it looked ablaze, and her face was bronze. She looked a thousand years old. "Some guy called," she said. "Stasselova or something." He called again that night, at nearly midnight. I thought this unseemly.
"So," he said. "Solveig's back."
"Yes," I said, glancing at her. She was at her mirror, performing some ablution on her face. "She's much better."
"Perhaps the three of us can now meet."
"Oh," I said, "it's too early."
"Too early in what?"
"In her recovery." Solveig wheeled her head around to look at me. I smiled, shrugged.
"I think she'll be okay."
"I'm not so sure."
"Listen," he said. "I'll give you a choice: you can either rewrite the paper in my office, bringing in whatever materials you need, or the three of us can meet and clear this up."
"Fine, we'll meet you."
"You know my hours."
"I do." I hung up and explained to Solveig what had happened -- Stasselova's obsession with language and oppression, my plagiarism, the invocation of her name. Solveig nodded and said of course, whatever she could do she would.
HEN we arrived that Wednesday, the light had almost gone from his office but was still lingering outside the windows, like the light in fairy tales, rich and creepy. Solveig was brilliant. Just her posture, as she sat in the narrow chair, was enough initially to chasten Stasselova. In her presence men were driven to politeness, to sincerity, to a kind of deep, internal apology. He thanked her, bowing a little at his desk. "Your work has interested me," he said.
"It is not my work, sir. It's Margaret's. We just discussed together some of the ideas."
"Well, the necessity of a collective language, a mutual tongue."
"And why is that necessary?" Stasselova leaned back and folded his hands across his vast torso.
"To maintain order," she said. And then the sun fell completely, blowing one last blast of light across the Americas before it settled into the Soviet Union, and some of that light, a glittery, barely perceptible dust, settled around Solveig's head. She looked like a dominatrix, an intellectual dominatrix, delivering this brutal news.
"And your history in psycholinguistics?" he said.
"I have only my personal history," she said. "The things that have happened to me." I would not have been surprised if at that declaration the whole university had imploded, turned to liquid, and flowed away. "Besides," she said, "all the research and work was Margaret's. I saw her working on it, night after night."
"Then, Margaret," he turned his gaze on me, "I see you are intimately connected with evolutionary history as well as Soviet ideology. As well, it appears, you've been steeped in a lifetime's study of linguistic psychosocial theory."
"Is it because she's female," Solveig asked, "that she's made to account for every scrap of knowledge?"
"Look," he said after a long, cruel silence, "I simply want to know from what cesspool these ideas arose. If you got them from a book, I will be relieved, but if these ideas are still floating around in your bloodlines, in your wretched little towns, I want to know."
I was about to cave in. Better a plagiarist than a fascist from a tainted bloodline.
"I don't really think you should be talking about our bloodlines," Solveig said. "It's probably not appropriate." She enunciated the word "appropriate" in such a way that Stasselova flinched, just slightly. Both he and I stared at her. She really was extraordinarily thin. In a certain light she could look shockingly beautiful, but in another, such as the dim one in Stasselova's office, she could look rather threatening. Her contact lenses were the color of a night sky split by lightning. Her genetic information was almost entirely hidden -- the color of her hair and eyes and skin, the shape of her body -- and this gave her a psychological advantage of sorts.
TASSELOVA'S lecture on Thursday afternoon was another strange little affair, given as long autumn rays of sun, embroidered by leaves, covered his face and body. He was onto his main obsession again, the verb -- specifically, the work of the verb in the sentence, and how it relates to the work of a man in the world. "The revolution takes place from a position of stability, always. The true revolutionary will find his place within the status quo."
"And this is why you joined the Russian army in attacking your own country?" This was Hans, startling us all.
"I did not attack my own country," Stasselova said. "Never."
"But you watched as the Nazis attacked it in August of 1944, yes? And used that attack for your own purposes?"
"This night I was there, it's true," he said, "on the banks of the Vistula, and I saw Warsaw burn. And I was wearing the fur hat of Russia, yes. But when I attempted to cross the Vistula, in order to help those of my countrymen who were escaping, I was brought down -- clubbed with a rifle to the back of the head by my commanding officer, a Russian."
"That's interesting, because in accounts of the time you are referred to as an officer yourself -- Officer Stasselova, of course."
"Yes. I was a Polish officer though. Certainly you can infer the hierarchy involved?"
"What I can infer ... " Hans's voice rose, and then Stasselova's joined in, contrapuntally, "What you can infer ...," and for a moment the exchange reminded me of those rounds we sang at summer camp. "What you can infer," Stasselova said, drowning out Hans, "is that this was an ambiguous time for those of us who were Polish. You can't judge after the fact. Perhaps you think that I should be dead on those banks, making the willows to grow." Stasselova's eyes were shot with the dying light; he squinted at us and looked out the window momentarily. "You will stand there and think maybe certain men in certain times should not choose their own lives, should not want to live." And then he turned away from Hans. I myself scowled at Hans. So rude!
"And so I did live," Stasselova said finally. "Mostly because I was wearing my Russian hat, made of the fur of ten foxes. It was always Russia that dealt us blows, and it was always Russia that saved us. You see?"
HE next day I was with Hans in the woods. We were on our stomachs in a clearing, looking to the east, from where the rain was stalking us through the trees. "What I want to know," Hans was saying, "is why is he always asking for you to see him?"
"Oh," I said, "he thinks I plagiarized that first paper."
"Why does he think so?"
"Says it smacks of Soviet propaganda."
"Really? Well, he should know."
"I agree with him -- that you're judging him from an irrelevant stance."
"He was found guilty of treason by his own people, not me -- by the Committee for Political Responsibility. Why else would he be here, teaching at some Lutheran college in Minnesota? This is a guy who brought martial law down on his own people, and now we sit here in the afternoon and watch him march around in front of us, relating everything he speaks of -- comma splices, for Christ's sake -- to his own innocence."
"Yet all sorts of people were found guilty of all sorts of meaningless things by that committee."
"I bet he thinks you're a real dream -- this woman willing to absolve the old exterminator of his sins."
"That's insulting," I said. But I realized how fond I'd grown of this professor in his little office, drinking his bitter coffee, night descending into the musky heart of Humanities.
And then the rain was upon us. We could hear it on the tiny ledges of leaves above us more than feel it. "Let's go," Hans said, grabbing my hand with his left, damaged hand. The way his hand held mine was alluring; his hand had the nimbus of an idea about it, as if the gene that had sprung this hand had a different world in mind, a better world, where hands had more torque when they grasped each other, and people held things differently, like hooks -- a world where all objects were shaped something like lanterns, and were passed on and on.
ONDAY was gray, with long silver streaks of rain. I dragged myself out of the warmth of my bed and put on my rain slicker. At nine forty-five I headed toward Stasselova's office. "Hello," I said, knocking on the open door. "I'm sorry to disturb you outside your office hours." I was shivering; I felt pathetic.
"Margaret," he said. "Hello. Come in." As I sat down, he said, "You've brought with you the smell of rain."
He poured me coffee in a Styrofoam cup. During our last class I had been so moved by his description of that night on the Vistula that I'd decided to confess. But now I was hesitating. "Could I have some of this cream?" I asked, pointing to a little tin cup of it on his windowsill.
"There it is again," he said, as he reached for the cream.
"There is what again?"
"That little verbal tic of yours."
"I didn't know I had one," I said.
"I noticed it first in class," he said. "You say'this' instead of'that'; `this cream,' not'that cream.' The line people draw between the things they consider this and the things they consider that is the perimeter of their sphere of intimacy. You see? Everything inside is this; everything inside is close, is intimate. Since you pointed at the cream and it is farther from you than I am,'this' suggests that I am among the things you consider close to you. I'm flattered," he said, and handed me the creamer, which was, like him, sweating. What an idea -- that with a few words you could catch another person in a little grammatical clutch, arrange the objects of the world such that they bordered the two of you.
"At any rate," he said, "I'm glad you showed up."
"Yes. I've wanted to ask you something."
"This spring the college will hold its annual symposium on language and politics. I thought you might present your paper. Usually one of the upperclassmen does this, but I thought your paper might be more appropriate."
"I thought you hated my paper."
"So you'll do it?"
"I'll think about it," I said.
He nodded and smiled, as if the matter were settled. The rain was suddenly coming down very hard. It was loud, and we were silent for a few moments, listening. I stared beyond his head out the window, which was blurry with water, so that the turrets of the campus looked like a hallucination, like some shadow world looming back there in his unconscious.
"This rain," he said then, in a quiet, astonished voice, and his word this entered me as it was meant to -- quietly, with a sharp tip, but then, like an arrowhead, widening and widening, until it included the whole landscape around us.
HE rain turned to snow, and winter settled on our campus. The face of nature turned away -- beautiful and distracted. After Christmas at home (where I received my report card, a tiny slip of paper that seemed to have flown across the snows to deliver me my A in Stasselova's class) I hunkered down in my dorm for the month of January, and barely emerged. The dorm in which most of us freshman girls lived was the elaborate, dark Agnes Mellby Hall, named after the stern, formidable virgin whose picture hung over the fireplace in our lounge. As winter crept over us, we retired to Mellby earlier and earlier. Every night that winter, in which most of us were nineteen, was a slumber party in the main sitting room among its ornate furnishings, all of which had the paws of beasts where they touched the floor. There, nightly, we ate heavily, like Romans, but childish foods, popcorn and pizza and ice cream, most of us spiraling downstairs now and then to throw up in the one private bathroom.
On one of those nights I was reading a book in the sitting room when I received a phone call from Solveig, who was down at a house party in town and wanted me to come help her home. She wasn't completely drunk, but calculated that she would be in about forty-five minutes. Her body was like a tract of nature that she understood perfectly -- a constellation whose movement across the night sky she could predict, or a gathering storm, or maybe, more accurately, a sparkling stream of elements into which she introduced alcohol with such careful calibration that her blood flowed exactly as she desired, uphill and down, intersecting precisely, chemically, with time and fertility. Solveig did not stay at the dorm with us much, but rather ran with an older pack of girls, feminists mostly, who that winter happened to be involved in a series of protests, romantic insurrections, against the president of the college, who was clearly terrified of them.
About ten minutes before I was to leave, Stasselova appeared in the doorway of the sitting room. I had not seen him in more than a month, since the last day of class, but he had called a few times. I had not returned his calls, in the hopes that he would forget about my participation in the symposium. But here he was, wearing a long gray coat over his bulkiness. His head looked huge, the bones widely spaced, like the architecture of a grand civic building.
The look in his eyes caused me to gaze out across the room and try to see what he was seeing: perhaps some debauched canvas of absolute female repose, girls lying everywhere in various modes of pajamas and sweats, surrounded by vast quantities of food and books. Some girls -- and even I found this a bit creepy -- had stuffed animals that they carried with them to the sitting room at night. I happened to be poised above the fray, straddling a piano bench, with a book spread in front of me, but almost all the rest were lying on their backs with their extremities cast about, feet propped on the couch or stretched up in the air at weird, hyperextended angles. We were Lutherans, after all, and unlike the more experienced, secular girls across the river, at the state college, we were losing our innocence right here, among ourselves. It was being taken from us physically, and we were just relaxing until it fell away completely.
Stasselova, in spite of all he'd seen in his life, which I'd gleaned from what he said in class (the corpulent Goering marching through the forest, marking off Nazi territory, and later Stalin's horses breaking through the same woods, heralding the swath that would now be Soviet), still managed to look a little scared as he peered into our sitting room, eventually lifting a hand to wave at me.
I got up and approached him. "Hey," I said.
"Hello. How are you, Margaret?"
"It's good to see you. Thanks for the A."
"You deserved it. Listen, I have something for you," he said, mildly gesturing for us to leave the doorway, because everybody was looking at us.
"Great," I said. "But you know, right now I need to walk downtown to pick up Solveig at a house party."
"Fine," he said. "I'll walk you."
I got my jacket, and the two of us stepped into the night. The snow had arranged itself in curling waves on the Mellby lawn, and stuck in it were hundreds of silver forks, which, in a flood of early-evening testosterone, the freshman boys had placed in the earth, a gesture appropriate to their sexual frustration and also to their faith in the future. Stasselova and I stepped between them. They looked spooky and lovely, like tiny silver grave sites in the snow. As we walked across campus, Stasselova produced a golden brochure from his pocket and handed it to me. On the front it said, in emerald-green letters, "9th Annual Symposium on Language and Politics." Inside, under "Keynote Student Speaker," was my name. "Margaret Olafson,'The Common Harvest.'" I stopped walking. We paused at the top of the stairs that floated down off the campus and into the town. I felt extremely, inordinately proud. Some winter lightning, a couple of great wings of it, flashed in the north. Stasselova looked paternal, grand.
HE air at the party was beery and wildish, and the house itself -- its many random rooms and slanting floors -- seemed the product of a drunken adolescent mind. At first we could not spot Solveig, so Stasselova and I waited quietly in the hallway until a guy in a baseball cap came lurching toward us, shouting in a friendly way over the music that we could buy plastic glasses for the keg for two dollars apiece. Stasselova paid him and then threaded through the crowd, gracefully for such a large man, to stand in the keg line. I watched him as he patiently stood there, the snowflakes melting on his dark shoulders. And then Hans was on my arm. "What on earth?" he said. "Why are you here? I thought you hated these parties." He'd been dancing, apparently. He was soaked in sweat, his hair curling up at his neck.
I pointed to Stasselova.
"No kidding," Hans said.
"He showed up at my dorm as I was leaving to get Solveig."
"He came to Mellby?"
"God, look at him. I bet they had a nickname for him, like the Circus Man or something. All those old fascists had cheery nicknames."
Stasselova was now walking toward us. Behind him the picture window revealed a nearly black sky, with pretty crystalline stars around. He looked like a dream one might have in childhood. "He is not a fascist," I said quietly.
"Professor!" Hans raised his glass.
"Hans, yes, how are you? This is a wonderful party," Stasselova said, and it actually was. Sometimes these parties could seem deeply cozy, their wildness and noise an affirmation against the formless white midwestern winter surrounding us.
He handed me a beer. "So," he said rather formally, lifting his glass. "To youth."
"To experience," Hans said, smiling, and lifted his glass.
"To the party." Stasselova looked pleased, his eyes shining from the soft lamplight.
"The Party?" Hans raised an eyebrow.
"This party," Stasselova said forcefully, cheerfully.
"And to the committee," Hans said.
"The Committee for Political Responsibility."
In one of Stasselova's lectures he had taken great pains to explain to us that language did not describe events, it handled them, as a hand handles an object, and that in this way language made the world happen under its supervision. I could see that Hans had taken this to heart and was making lurching attempts in this direction.
Mercifully, Solveig appeared. Her drunkenness and her dignity had synergized into something quite spectacular, an inner recklessness accompanied by great external restraint. Her hair looked the color of heat -- bright white. She was wearing newly cut-off jeans and was absently holding the disassociated pant legs in her hand.
"The professor," she said, when she saw Stasselova. "The professor of oppression."
"So you came," she said, as if this had been the plan all along.
"Yes. It's nice to see you again."
"You as well," she said. "Why are you here?"
The whole scene looked deeply romantic to me. "To take you home," he said.
"Home?" she said, as if this were the most elegant and promising word in the language. "Yours or mine?"
"Yours, of course. Yours and Margaret's."
"Where is your home again?" she asked. Her eyes were glimmering with complexity, like something that is given to human beings after evolution, as a gift.
"I live downtown," he said.
"No, your real home. Your homeland."
He paused. "I am from Poland," he said finally.
"Then there. Let's go there. I have always wanted to go to Poland."
Stasselova smiled. "Perhaps you would like it there."
"I have always wanted to see Wenceslaus Square."
"Well, that is nearby."
"Excellent. Let us go." And Solveig swung open the front door and walked into the snow in her shorts and T-shirt. I kissed Hans good-bye, and Stasselova and I followed her.
Once outside, Stasselova took off his coat and hung it around Solveig. Underneath his coat he was wearing a dark jacket and a tie. It looked sweet, and made me think that if one kept undressing him, darker and darker suits would be found underneath.
Solveig was walking before us on the narrow sidewalk. Above her, on the hill, hovered Humanities -- great, intelligent, alight. She reached into the coat pocket and pulled out, to my astonishment, a fur hat. The hat! The wind lifted, and the trees shook off a little of their silver snow. Humanities leaned over us, interested in its loving but secular way. I felt as sure about everything as those archaeologists who discover a single bone and can then hypothesize the entire animal. Solveig placed the hat on her head and turned to vamp for a moment, opening and closing the coat and raising her arms above her head in an exaggerated gesture of beauty. She looked like some stirring, turning simulacrum of communist and capitalist ideas. As she was doing this, we passed by the president's house. It was an old-fashioned house, with high turrets, and had a bizarre modern wing hanging off one end of it. Solveig studied it for a moment as she walked, and then suddenly shouted into the cold night, "Motherfucker!"
Stasselova looked as if he'd been clubbed again in the back of the head, but he kept walking. He pretended that nothing had happened, didn't even turn his head to look at the house, but when I turned to him, I saw his eyes widen and his face stiffen with shock. I said "Oh" quietly, and grabbed his hand for a moment to comfort him, to let him know that everything was under control, that this was Minnesota. Look -- the president's house is still as dark as death, the moon is still high, the snow sparkling everywhere.
His hand was extraordinarily big. After Hans's hand, which I'd held for the past few months, Stasselova's more ordinary hand felt strange, almost mutant, its five fingers splayed and independent.
HE next night, in the cafeteria, over a grisly neon dish called Festival Rice, I told Hans about the hat. "I saw the hat," I said. A freshman across the cafeteria stood just then and shouted, in what was a St. Gustav tradition, "I want a standing ovation!" The entire room stood and erupted into wild applause and hooting. Hans and I stood as well, and as we clapped, I leaned over to yell, "He's been telling the truth about that night overlooking Warsaw: I saw the hat he was wearing."
"What does that mean? That means nothing. I have a fur hat."
"No," I said. "It was this big Russian hat. You should have seen it. This big, beautiful Russian hat. Solveig put it on. It saved his life."
Hans didn't even try to object; he just kind of gasped, as if the great gears of logic in his brain could not pass this syllogism through. We were still standing, clapping, applauding. I couldn't help thinking of something Stasselova had said in class: that at rallies for Stalin, when he spoke to crowds over loudspeakers, one could be shot for being the first to stop clapping.
AVOIDED my paper for the next month or so, until spring crashed in huge warm waves and I finally sought it out, sunk in its darkened drawer. It was a horrible surprise. I was not any more of a scholar, of course, than I had been six months earlier, when I'd plagiarized it, but my eyes had now passed over Marx and a biography of Stalin (microphones lodged in eyeglasses, streams of censors on their way to work, bloody corpses radiating out of Moscow) and the gentle Bonhoeffer. Almost miraculously I had crossed that invisible line beyond which people turn into actual readers, when they start to hear the voice of the writer as clearly as in a conversation. "Language," Tretsky had written, "is essentially a coercive act, and in the case of Eastern Europe it must be used as a tool to garden collective hopes and aspirations." As I read, with Solveig napping at the other end of the couch, I felt a thick dread forming. Tretsky, with his suggestions of annexations and, worse, of solutions, seemed to be reaching right off the page, his long, thin hand grasping me by the shirt. And I could almost hear the wild mazurka, as Stasselova had described it, fading, the cabarets closing down, the music turning into a chant, the bootheels falling, the language fortifying itself, becoming a stronghold -- a fixed, unchanging system, as the paper said, a moral framework.
LMOST immediately I was on my way to Stasselova's office, but not before my mother called. The golden brochures had gone out in the mail. "Sweetie!" she said. "What's this? Keynote speaker? Your father and I are beside ourselves. Good night!" She always exclaimed "Good night!" at times of great happiness. I could not dissuade her from coming, and as I fled the dorm, into the rare, hybrid air of early April, I was wishing for those bad, indifferent parents who had no real interest in their children's lives. The earth under my feet as I went to him was very sticky, almost lugubrious, like the earth one sometimes encounters in dreams. Stasselova was there, as always. He seemed pleased to see me.
I sat down and said, "You know, I was thinking that maybe somebody else could take my place at the symposium. As I reread my paper, I realized it isn't really what I meant to say at all."
"Oh," he said. "Of course you can deliver it. I would not abandon you at a moment like this."
"Really, I wouldn't take it as abandonment."
"I would not leave you in the lurch," he said. "I promise."
I felt myself being carried, mysteriously, into the doomed symposium, despite my resolve on the way over to back out at all costs. How could I win an argument against somebody with an early training in propaganda? I had to resort finally to the truth, that rinky-dink little boat in the great sea of persuasion. "See, I didn't really write the paper myself."
"Well, every thinker builds an idea on the backs of those before him -- or her, in your case." He smiled at this. His teeth were very square, and humble, with small gaps between them. I could see that Stasselova was no longer after a confession. I was more valuable if I contained these ideas. Probably he'd been subconsciously looking for me ever since he'd lain on the muddy banks of the Vistula, Warsaw flaming across the waters. He could see within me all his failed ideals, the ugliness of his former beliefs contained in a benign vessel -- a girl! -- high on a religious hill in the Midwest. He had found somebody he might oppose, and in this way absolve himself. He smiled. I could feel myself as indispensable in the organization of his psyche. Behind his head, in the sunset, the sun wasn't falling, only receding farther and farther.
HE days before the symposium unfurled like the days before a wedding one dreads, both endless and accelerated, the sky filling with springtime events -- ravishing sun, great winds, and eccentric green storms that focused everyone's attention skyward. And then the weekend of the symposium was upon us, the Saturday of my speech rising in the east. I awoke early and went to practice my paper on the red steps of Humanities, in whose auditorium my talk was to take place. Solveig was still sleeping, hung over from the night before. I'd been with her for the first part of it, had watched her pursue a man she'd discovered -- a graduate student, actually, in town for the symposium. I had thought him a bit of a bore, but I trusted Solveig's judgment. She approached men with stealth and insight, her vision driving into those truer, more isolated stretches of personality. I had practiced the paper countless times, and revised it, attempting to excise the most offensive lines without gutting the paper entirely and thus disappointing Stasselova. That morning I was still debating over the line "If we could agree on a common language, a single human tongue, perhaps then a single flag might unfurl over the excellent earth, one nation of like and companion souls." Reading it now, I had a faint memory of my earlier enthusiasm for this paper, its surface promise, its murderous innocence. Remembering this, I looked out over the excellent earth, at the town below the hill. And there, as always, was a tiny Gothic graveyard looking peaceful, everything still and settled finally under the gnarled, knotty, nearly human arms of apple trees. There were no apples yet, of course: they were making their way down the bough, still liquid, or whatever they are before birth. At the sight of graves I couldn't help thinking of Tretsky, my ghost-writer, in his dark suit under the earth, delightedly preparing, thanks to me, for his one last gasp.
By noon the auditorium had filled with a crowd of about two hundred, mostly graduate students and professors from around the Midwest, along with Hans and Solveig, who sat together, and, two rows behind them, my long-suffering parents, flushed with pride. I sat alone on a slight stage at the front of the room, staring out at the auditorium, which was named Luther. It had wooden walls and was extremely tall; it seemed humble and a little awkward, in that way the tall can seem. The windows stretched its full height, so that one could see the swell of earth on which Humanities was built, and then, above, all manner of weather, which this afternoon was running to rain. In front of these windows stood the reformed genius of martial law himself, the master of ceremonies, Stasselova. Behind him were maple trees, with small green leaves waving. He had always insisted in class that language as it rises in the mind looks like a tree branching, from finity to infinity. Let every voice cry out! He had once said this, kind of absently, and water had come to his eyes -- not exactly tears, just a rising of the body's water into the line of sight.
After he introduced me, I stood in front of the crowd, my larynx rising quite against my will, and delivered my paper. I tried to speak each word as a discrete item, in order to persuade the audience not to synthesize the sentences into meaning. But when I lifted my head to look out at my listeners, I could see they were doing just that. When I got to the part where I said the individual did not exist -- citizens were "merely shafts of light lost, redemptively, in the greater light of the state" -- I saw Hans bow his head and rake his otherworldly hand through his hair.
"...And if force is required to forge a singular and mutual grammar, then it is our sacred duty to hasten the birthpangs." Even from this distance I could hear Stasselova's breathing, and the sound of blood running through him like a quiet but rushing stream.
And then my parents. As the speech wore on -- "harmony," "force," "flowering," "blood" -- I could see that the very elegant parental machinery they had designed over the years, which sought always to translate my deeds into something lovely, light-bearing, full of promise, was spinning a little on its wheels. Only Solveig, that apparatchik of friendship, maintained her confidence in me. Even when she was hung over, her posture suggested a perfect alignment between heaven and earth. She kept nodding, encouraging me.
I waited the entire speech for Stasselova to leap forward and confront me, to reassert his innocence in opposition to me, but he did not, even when I reached the end. He stood and watched as everybody clapped in bewilderment, and a flushed floral insignia rose on his cheeks. I had come to love his wide, excited face, the old circus man. He smiled at me. He was my teacher, and he had wrapped himself, his elaborate historical self, into this package, and stood in front of the high windows, to teach me my little lesson, which turned out to be not about Poland or fascism or war, borderlines or passion or loyalty, but just about the sentence: the importance of, the sweetness of. And I did long for it, to say one true sentence of my own, to leap into the subject, that sturdy vessel traveling upstream through the axonal predicate into what is possible; into the object, which is all possibility; into what little we know of the future, of eternity -- the light of which, incidentally, was streaming in on us just then through the high windows. Above Stasselova's head the storm clouds were dispersing, as if frightened by some impending good will, and I could see that the birds were out again, forming into that familiar pointy hieroglyph, as they're told to do from deep within.
Rebecca Lee teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She is at work on a novel.
Illustrations by Jenny Tylden-Wright
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September, 1997; The Banks of the Vistula; Volume 280, No. 3; pages 78 - 89.