The half-lit classroom smelled like crackers and spilled soda. My class counselor, the dean of educational affairs, and Ella Markovna, my soft-spoken literature teacher, sat along one wall, under the faded reproduction of Pushkin’s portrait. They told me to grab a chair, and I did, putting it as far away as possible. My mother, who taught at the same school, kept inching hers this way and that, unsure whether she belonged with Pushkin and her colleagues or me, the emerging delinquent.
“Unthinkable,” the dean said.
“What were you thinking?” said Ella Markovna.
“It’s my fault,” the class counselor said. “I should have done a run-through.”
“Why don’t we let Ksenia speak?” the dean said, annoyed.
“My daughter was only following that task,” said my mother.
“Huh!” the dean said, conveying in the short syllable her dislike of me and my mother both. A lone pot of aloe vera stood on the windowsill. I pressed a finger to its spiky, crocodile leaf and heard the class counselor whisper, “Don’t touch.”
“Did you know what you were doing?” Ella Markovna asked.
I looked past the aloe vera into the darkness on the other side of the window. I often stayed late at the school, waiting until my mother let out her class and we could walk home together. I liked the quiet of the halls, that long exhale before they filled with noise again in the morning. Now the building felt hostile, the night outside thick and impenetrable, returning nothing but my own reflection.
“She is eleven, for God’s sake!” my mother said. “It’s not like the thing has been official in her lifetime.”
“Does a national anthem ever lose its status?” Ella Markovna mused. “Is it no longer protected when the nation it speaks of ceases to exist?” She spoke quietly, as if to herself, but the dean heard and shot her a look.
I wished they had let me change first. That night’s event, a Treasure Island–themed literary contest, had concluded only minutes earlier, and I was still dressed like a pirate—in my mother’s ruffle blouse, white stockings, and my grandfather’s fedora, which I tried to pass for a tricorn by pinching its brim. My grandparents had moved in with us in their old age; now they were dead, but their clothes still hung in the spare bedroom’s wardrobe, outdated, odorous, faded from laundry and time.
I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I kept folding them on my lap, but then one of the stockings would slip and I would have to yank it back up.
“How her team even won is beyond me,” the dean said.
“The points,” Ella Markovna said. She turned very red. “They just got the most points, that’s all. In other rounds, I mean. Even before the—”
“Not if it had been up to me,” the dean said.
“Perhaps Ksenia could write a letter of apology?” the class counselor suggested. She shifted in her seat, leaning forward.
I left the stocking alone and scratched my knee, relieved. “Apology” sounded a lot better than expulsion or having to switch class groups—the dean’s favorite punishment, as if reshuffling the students could make them behave. I sensed an opening and said, “I am so very sorry.” I spoke slowly. The adults thought if you spoke slowly, you meant it.
“We’re failing to address an important issue here,” the dean said.
My heart sank. I recognized this dreadful pacing from the times when she instructed my mother on the noble task of pedagogy, the task that my mother was failing hopelessly, according to the dean, not only with her own students, but also, apparently, with me.
“What we must remember,” the dean began, “is that these are no ordinary times. In a few weeks, it will be the new millennium!”
December of 1999 had everyone on edge. One week, people contemplated doomsday, the next they shopped for champagne and clementines to throw a party worthy of such an occasion. The sentiment hung in the air: No one—not our parents, not our grandparents, no one—for generations had to face anything like this. The reverence in the dean’s voice when she said millennium, the foreign word sitting uneasy on her tongue, reminded me of a comedy sketch from the latest KVN show. One guy, an Armenian, went, “People! Linoleum is upon us!” to which another guy replied, “Aram! How many times do I have to tell you? Not linoleum—millennium.” Offensive as the line was, I suppose, to Armenians, many of whom spoke perfect Russian, in the end the joke was on the country that fell for the flashy foreign words not knowing what they meant. But the dean, she knew.
“We who are alive in these times bear responsibility to those who are not,” she continued. I looked at Pushkin, but even the poet seemed to avert his eyes; draped in a plaid scarf, he calmly studied his long, polished fingernails. And what could he tell me, having spent—according to Ella Markovna—a good deal of his short life in exile? I felt an immediate kinship with the dead poet, something my teacher could only hope to instill through literary analysis. I pictured wrapping my arm around Pushkin’s bony shoulder, how we’d compare our nemeses, his being Emperor Alexander I and mine, the evil Dean Kovalenko. What did they get you for? Pushkin would ask, and I’d tell him, I substituted the lyrics in the Soviet anthem to make a song about pirates for my fifth-grade literature competition, and he’d rub his pointy chin and say, Dark times.
The dean’s voice rose dramatically. “It is not just the new year we are stepping into, but a new decade, a new century, a new millennium. And when we make that step, what will we choose to take with us? Acknowledgment of our past, or this sick, perverted, clownish—”
“I get it. Ksenia will write an apology,” my mother said, rising up to indicate the meeting was over. She was the only adult I knew who disliked lecturing students. When her classes got out of hand, she turned quiet and looked so miserable no one had the heart to continue. My mother took her handbag and replaced the chair carefully behind the desk. In doing so, she avoided looking at me, and this made my heart sink further. So: she, too, disapproved.
“One last thing,” Ella Markovna said. “I’m sorry, Ksenia. You can’t keep it after all.”
She crossed the room, and I bowed my head so she could remove the enormous papier-mâché medal that hung on a ribbon around my neck. The medal was painted with yellow gouache, with words curving around its outer edge: i found the treasure island!
Ella Markovna first introduced the idea of a literary contest among the fifth-grade classes as “a swashbuckling adventure of wit and close reading.” Halfway through fifth grade, we were outgrowing adventure tales by the minute. “You know how much our school values the spirit of competition,” Ella Markovna said. “And engaging with the material.” She described the challenges of each round in soft, conspiratorial tones, as if she expected the other classes to show up entirely unprepared. We had to come up with the team’s introduction, the costumes, a suitable name, know Stevenson’s novel inside out for the speed round quiz. For the last round, every team would write and perform its own pirate anthem, after which the final points would be tallied. “A distilled expression of the team’s adventurous spirit,” Ella Markovna said of the anthem.
We spent weeks cutting swords out of cardboard and painting them, making pirate sashes out of our grandmothers’ old shawls onto which we’d sewn kopek coins. Because my mother taught Russian, it was assumed that the linguistic abilities trickled down the family tree, that I would know about orthography and rhymes. Writing the anthem fell to me.
“I wouldn’t even know where to start writing a song,” I confessed to my friend Alik Agapov after class.
“Just pick a real song and change the words,” he said. “They do it on TV all the time.”
“What kind of words?” I asked.
Alik sighed. “You’re the literary one. I don’t know. Maybe where it says sky, you substitute skull, where it’s love or girl, you go pirates or treasure. Seems easy enough.”
The meeting lasted less than half an hour, but in that time the school had emptied. I was relieved to see Alik hadn’t waited for me. I didn’t want to explain how we went from first place to nothing.
My mother stopped by the teachers’ room, where our winter coats hung and our street boots dripped mud onto old newspapers. We changed, and my mother turned off the lights. At the top of the stairs, she paused to say goodbye to the night guard, a wrinkled old beanpole of a woman we all called Aunt Nyura, and my mother called respectfully Anna Nikolayevna.
It had begun to snow, but my mother walked right past the bus stop. She clearly intended to make the twenty-five-minute walk home on foot. She bowed her head against the wind, moving forward with such resentment the snowflakes seemed to part to let her through. I hurried behind.
“Now I am asking,” my mother said. “What were you thinking?”
Snow whirled around us. There was a good amount on the ground already, shrinking the sidewalks, making everything seem smaller and closer together—the ash trees in the park, and the scratchy rosehip bushes the students would run through on a dare, and the streetlights casting their eerie orange glow.
“I only meant it as a parody,” I said. “Like on TV.”
My mother pulled up short and turned to me. She bent down until her face was level with mine. Snow landed on her cheeks, melting and mixing with her rouge.
“You don’t parody a national anthem. Say it.”
“But it’s not—”
“You don’t parody a national anthem,” I said.
She resumed her walking, digging her heels so hard into the snow that they left perfect little indentations. As if Long John Silver himself had walked there, stomping his wooden leg.
With the contest a week away, I had yet to produce a plausible pirate anthem. I wrote down every song I could think of, meticulously crossing out words and adding pirate or treasure above, but even I could tell the results were less than impressive. To make things worse, I recalled that my grandfather, drafted at eighteen, sent letters home from the front in the perfect hexameter of Homer’s Iliad. The letters hadn’t survived, but I had a vague memory of my grandfather reciting them upon request, the verse at once heavy and propulsive, like a bear waddling, in the cadences of Sing, goddess, the anger….Who knew why he wrote them, whether to occupy his mind during long hours in the trenches, or to hide the witnessed horrors behind the elegant six-foot line. Whatever the spark was, I feared it went out long before reaching me.
The songs I attempted lacked the scope, the grandeur, and at last it occurred to me that the simplest solution was to start with a real anthem. I knew two—the old Soviet one and the Marseillaise we had to memorize in French class. I chose the easier one. Alik brought me a fresh stack of his father’s computer punch cards, which Alik used as note paper, and I filled them with verse, writing carefully around the small rectangular holes. United forever in friendship and labor, I wrote from memory. I stared at the line, crossed out the latter half and wrote to prey and endeavor. That seemed like something the pirates actually did. They endeavored, didn’t they? I kept going. The words bent easily, as if the song was always meant to speak of outlaws, brave adventurers on stormy seas.
We named our team Children of Morgan. With two days to go, we rehearsed the new anthem a capella in the school attic. “This is good,” Alik told me. “This is our secret weapon, in case wit and close reading fail.” The melody was simple and, if you put in a little effort, it carried you the rest of the way. Alik had a pleasant voice capable of hitting high notes. He volunteered to sing the technically challenging chorus.
Ella Markovna spared no effort staging the game. She even asked the tenth graders to come and paint a backdrop—the hull of a ship breaking the waves, with the words Yo-ho-ho flying above it like a ribbon. When we stood in front of it and Ella Markovna announced our turn, I reached out and took Alik’s hand. It was as clammy and sticky as mine.
“Good luck, mate,” I said.
“Good luck, mate,” he echoed.
I asked the audience to rise.
No one moved, so I cleared my throat and said again, “Please rise for the performance of the Pirate Anthem.”
There were a few laughs, some parents stirred. I held my pause. Rise, or we don’t sing, I seemed to say, standing there, my dead grandfather’s fedora sliding onto my forehead, an eyepatch obscuring most of my view. Finally, my mother got up from her seat, and Alik’s dad, glancing around nervously. He removed his heavy winter hat and held it to his chest. With a shuffling of feet and chair legs, the audience rose.
We sang loudly, nasally, a bit off-key: Most were still recovering from a recent flu. Each time I hit a substituted word, my voice rose even higher, as if to stress it:
United forever, to PREY and ENDEAVOR,
Our MOB of the PIRATES will ever endure.
The BUCCANEER union will live through the ages.
The dream of ADVENTURE, our TREASURE secure.
We got to the end of the first verse, drew a collective breath and, in the dead silence of the auditorium, launched into the chorus. Alik hit the high note effortlessly:
Lo-ong li-ive our pirate ship…
We followed him as best we could.
It wasn’t until we got to the second verse, Through days dark and stormy, where Great Morgan led us, that the dean regained her ability to move and flew toward the stage. The school had only one microphone, never used, as it could never reliably turn on or off. It lay uselessly now on top of the grand piano. The dean fumbled with the buttons and dials until the microphone came to life and her voice filled the auditorium, rattling like the windows of a streetcar.
“Enough!” the dean was saying. “I believe everybody got the picture.”
The Children of Morgan walked off the stage.
We passed three bus stops, and in the fourth one my mother sat down to catch her breath. I worried she was losing her voice again. She lost it about once a year, from all the talking she did in class. When that happened, she took sick leave and stayed home. She drank warm beer she’d heat in an aluminum pot on the stove and rubbed fir oil onto her neck, wrapping it tightly in an old woolen scarf. The apartment stood silent for a few days, the quiet especially palpable since my grandparents died. My mother and I would communicate in written notes like spies. I looked forward to those days every year and felt guilty about it. It was nice having her home, not having to share her with other students.
“Let’s take a bus the rest of the way,” I said. There was one coming just then, turning the corner. In its headlights, the snow looked thin and shiny like tinsel.
“We’re almost home,” my mother said. “And don’t you change the subject.”
The bus pulled alongside us, swinging its doors hopefully, idling, then driving away. I wanted to be inside it, holding on to the thin overhead rail, swaying with the crowd of tired passengers, stepping on feet and having my feet stepped on, safe from my mother’s questioning. She popped a menthol Halls and set off again.
Snow began to accumulate between my neck and the scarf.
“It’s not a national anthem anymore,” I said. “Right?”
My mother didn’t say anything, but I heard her, under all the street noise, crunching ferociously on her cough drop.
I knew what the national anthem was, the real one. It had no words. It poured from the radio at six each morning: pam-pam-paaaaaam, ta-da-da-da-da-dam pampampampam. It was the first broadcast of the day, a prelude to all other morning rites—weather forecast on TV, and brushing teeth, and a daily cup of yogurt my mother sometimes let me eat in bed.
“Right?” I pressed.
“That’s no excuse,” my mother said.
“It was a Soviet anthem,” I said. I thought with longing of the feel of that gold medal, fake and weightless as it was. When adults said “Soviet,” they usually meant “from before you were born,” or “poorly made and falling apart,” as in Don’t use that meat grinder, it’s from the Soviet times. Something unsightly, like a dirty corner of linoleum floor, cracked pavement in the rain, something reeking of cigarette smoke and mothballs.
“What did I do?” I yelled after my mother, not sure if she could hear me against the wind. She seemed only one acceleration away from lifting off the snow-covered ground. I thought she was walking faster on purpose, intent on losing me in the spitting white cloud.
Everything felt rigged to me in that moment—that my mother was always grading student homework late into the night; that the dean treated her without respect because my mother was single and had no man in her life to protect her; that my grandparents were dead; that we lost the contest after winning almost every round; that everyone made so much fuss about this anthem even though all I’ve heard, all my life, was how much better off we were living in the country that wasn’t and would never again be the USSR.
“It’s just a song!” I yelled. “It isn’t a real anthem because it isn’t a real country anymore!”
The moment I said it, I knew I made a mistake. We had entered a long alley planted with fir trees on both sides. At its far end, rising behind the snow-crusted tops, stood our apartment building. Up on the sixth floor our windows glowed dimly, like dying embers. My mother always left a desk lamp on, ignoring the fire hazard, because the cat liked to sleep in the warm circle it cast. All we had to do was walk the length of the alley and we’d be home, but my mother stopped again. In the cold, my cheeks felt like glass. I could picture them shattering when my mother slapped me, which I was certain she would. I closed my eyes.
“Look at me,” my mother said.
I relaxed one eyelid, just a little, only enough to see her silhouette out of focus. She stood with her hands in her pockets. I opened my eyes.
“Do you picture the Soviet Union on the map?” my mother said.
“What does it look like?”
I thought of the globe my grandfather gave me when I was born. An old atlas hanging by pushpins. A small fragment of the map on packs of Belomorkanalcigarettes lined up in the windows of newspaper kiosks.
“Pink,” I said. “And wide.” I imagined the exact shade, a washed-out pink of cooked salmon, and the shape itself, a ragged thing stretching between two oceans like a hide of a large and unnamable animal.
“Pink, huh?” my mother said. She flicked snow off her eyelashes. “All right, that’s one way to describe it.
“Maybe I’m happy it’s gone,” my mother continued. “And maybe I’m not. Things were definitely simpler, in a way. Back in the old pink.” She smiled, and for a moment I caught a glimpse of the mother I’d seen in black-and-white photos, a young woman with a long, meticulous braid, whose existence seemed as inconceivable to me as that of the wide pink country. “It doesn’t matter,” my mother said. “What matters is, you won’t have to study for an exam in Marxist theory every year, and you won’t have to take a break from your studies to dig potatoes for a month, and if you decide to be a teacher like me you won’t have to work in a village for three years before you’re allowed to work in a city.” A gust of wind surprised her, and she gasped as if swallowing a snowball. “You still have to live in it, for better or worse. Flags, and anthems, and names mean little in matters like these.” She looked up where the snow whirled under the street light. “Maybe you have to live in it until I am gone. Or until you forget that color and shape.” She stopped as if considering what she just said. It occurred to me how rarely I saw adults surprised at their own words, as if everything they told us they’d already said before. “I think that’s it,” my mother said quietly. “Until everyone has forgotten that pink shape on the map.”
The snow came down around us, yellow in the lamp light. I nodded again, not sure what I was agreeing with. My mother fished another cough drop out of her pocket. She undid the wrapping slowly and awkwardly with her gloved hands.
“As for the anthem,” she said. She shook her head. “It played when your grandfather came back from the war. That alone…. How could you have done this?”
I waited. But my mother only stood there, shaking her head, pushing the cough drop against her cheek like she did when something distracted her.
We walked the rest of the way keeping close to the apartment building, where the wind didn’t whip us as much. We passed the flower store, closed for the night, where in the windows giant heaps of red carnations stood in pale-green vases high as my waist. One light stayed on—it was coming from an aquarium at the back of the store. The water glowed as if it were the source of the light itself. In it swam a single luminous fish of silver and blue.
The following day my mother’s voice sounded like a record played at the wrong speed. By nighttime she stopped speaking to give her vocal cords a rest. The routine of warm beer and fir oil began, and even at night the hideous purple scarf was wrapped around her neck, peeking from under her robe. She carried the notes in her pockets, handing them to me like little fortunes. “Dishes!” they would say, or “Have you brushed your teeth?”
I hoped the dean would forget about my letter of apology, but she asked after it, and asked again, and eventually, one night after school, I took a few sheets of paper from a dwindling stack by the typewriter. No one but my grandfather had ever used it. I put a lined sheet of paper underneath to keep my lines straight and stared at the blank page. In the days since the Treasure Island contest, I had begun to see my offense as somehow graver, but also deeply personal. The dean had no say in it. The matter existed only between me and my mother, and maybe the fading pink shape.
To whom this may concern, I wrote. I paused. I imagined that, instead of the dean, my apology was meant for someone else and to this someone I spoke the words that came easy and simple as breath. They meant more than the parody I wrote, which I saw now for what it was—a joke, and not a very smart one. I couldn’t write any of this apology down. It would be like letting the dean look right into me. I strung together some empty words: apologies…memory…wrong. It was a formality. It meant nothing. I signed my name underneath.
I showed the letter to my mother, expecting she’d make me rewrite it time and again, but she returned it with a few pencil marks, pointing out where I failed to indent or capitalize. Good enough, she’d written at the top. On the last day of classes, I handed the letter to the dean, bracing myself for one direct look into those cold, comfortless eyes that seemed to say it wasn’t over between us, not by a long shot. She promised the letter would make its way to the principal, adding a heavy pause into which I was free to insert the repercussions. She slid the letter carefully into a folder.
New Year’s Eve came, and my mother remained mute. I warmed up a glass of champagne on the stove for her and piled my plate high with herring salad. The cat, unsure why we stayed up so late, hung around the dining table and whined for egg yolks. At midnight, President Yeltsin came on for his traditional address. He spoke slowly, with difficulty, and blinked as if struggling to stay awake. He announced that he was resigning from his post. “I did my part,” he said. “I ensured Russia will never go back to its past.” My mother made a strange choking sound. The screen rippled a few times, the image blurred and refocused again. “I ask your forgiveness,” the president said, “for not justifying the hopes of those who believed that…we would leap from the gray, stagnant, totalitarian past into…a prosperous and civilized future.” Thinking my mother wanted to speak, I handed her pencil and paper, but she pushed them away. “I don’t know anything,” she croaked. She sounded like I imagined a pirate would.
The country drifted headless into the new millennium. The next year, President Putin reinstalled the old Soviet anthem, calling a nationwide contest for new lyrics, and soon a winning version was approved, one that carefully substituted mentions of the Soviet Union for the new country’s name. But all of this happened later, after I left fifth grade, and by then my letter of apology had been filed along with other documents, assigned a number, lost at the back of some drawer and, eventually, forgotten.