Cody Boutilier: “Semyon” (Excerpt from ‘Scarlet Field’)

(The following is an except from the novel-in-progress Scarlet Field):

As far back as he could remember, Semyon always wanted to see the Empire State Building. He knew those five syllables before he knew his patronymic. Some of his earliest memories were of gazing at the Sea of Okhotsk, looking out from his cold world of perpetual hunger, waiting for the merchant ships to come ashore so he could ask the sailors to take him to the empayr-steyt-beeldeeng. He had only made the summer trek to the shore a few times, maybe twice – each time his mother was trudging close behind, hastening to bring him back to the kommunalka where they’d been enjoying a midday portion of black bread a few minutes before. In those starbursts of euphoria that followed the bellow of the ships’ horns, Semyon was oblivious to his mother’s calls and the perilous terrain of the beach. He’d have swum out to the ships if he’d only known how. Instead he’d cup his hands to his little mouth and call in his piccolo voice: “Take me to New York City! I want to go! Take me to see the Empire State Building!” He’d have strained his voice to the point of muteness if his mother hadn’t snatched him away each time, carrying the screaming little body back to the kommunalka with strength that her withered frame could never have summoned under less urgent circumstances.

It was early 1954 then. Semyon was four, his mother forty-three. Semyon’s conception, not to speak of his birth, was a small miracle. It had been decades since she thought in terms of religious mysticism, but she intuitively knew that Semyon’s very existence was too extraordinary to end prematurely in some meaningless accident. This knowledge didn’t mute her protective maternal instinct, and she kept herself alive in the frozen wasteland of Kolyma for Semyon’s sake only. She had already lost a son and daughter to an orphanage, and barely clung to the hope of recovering trace of them. Her life thus far had been an incessant spectacle of mass death – by bullet and bomb, by starvation and cannibalism, and by cold and fatigue – and Semyon’s miraculous birth had infused her with faith in the ultimate triumph and transcendent power of life over death. It had been a late-term, unlikely reprieve from her life’s bitter cup of misery and betrayal.

The Hustings