Song & Story
Breath of a Town
By: Michele ClenDening
The glorious beginnings of the young town unfolded in an
army-green canvas tent that dominated the room. A yellowed card stated,
"The life of a pioneer." The beautiful brave faces of original founders
plastered the walls; they beamed with pride for the establishment of a
community of utility and excellence. I looked closer at one bronze medal
of commendation and the accompanying photo. "Outstanding Soviet
Citizen--Alosha Petrovich Ivanof, 1958. One of our first pioneers."
The youthful Ivanof stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his
hopeful eyes fixed on the future.
Outside the museum I pulled my fur collar tight around me. I stood on
dirty tundra the same color as the looming buildings fencing it in. Turning
to the right, I could see the corpses of once-bustling factories silently
hovering. They sat on the only road that granted leave from
the town, the road that was marked by a tarnished monument of bundled
smokestacks and a flag.
Steaming water gushed out from a taped-up crack in a pipe that was
supposed to deliver (and often did not) hot water to every apartment
building. I walked next to the mothers pulling their tightly-bundled,
immobile children on rickety wooden sleds. The children wore expressions
of resignation under the sweaters, coats, blankets and security straps.
Men dragged sacks of potatoes under similar restrictions. Two boys skied
past me, one trying to maneuver himself with a single ski pole.
The door slammed behind me as I rushed into the warmth of the indoor
market. I immediately pulled off the fogged-up glasses, de-gloved my pink
fingers and found the fresh bread. The unsteady, shriveled woman in front
of me pointed at a browned loaf.
"Give me a loaf of that bread," she croaked.
"Two rubles thirty." The bare hand of the red lipsticked saleswoman
thrust the bread at the woman.
"Do you know how much I get for pension? My husband only gave me
two rubles." Her withered hand produced the coins. "How can I buy bread?"
Her sunken eyes pleaded with me; I bit my lip and tentatively shrugged
my shoulders. "I can't even buy the medicine I need. We never had problems
before. . ." I held the extra copeks ready for her, but as she recounted
the familiar story, the saleswoman cut the loaf, took the two rubles and
handed the woman half of the bread and a few copeks in return. I bought
some mandarins and whatever else I could, this being a sparse season,
then left the stale odor of raw meat and thawing fish. I squeezed past a
man in the entryway with his wares on a box--four rolls of toilet paper,
three boxes of matches and a pair of wool boots.
The post office sat opposite the market, so I walked to the cross-walk,
deftly avoiding the newer, more slippery ice. The road lay ahead of
me, a dry black contrast to the surrounding drab. I wondered how they
could afford the luxury of ice trucks as I set my left foot on the secure
pavement. My step was interrupted, though, by a solemnly frantic man rushing
into the street, ignoring oncoming traffic. Other pedestrians continued on,
but I stopped. A car swerved and sped on. This gray figure waved his arm,
encircled by a white band, back and forth. His face pleaded with us to stop,
to look. I heeded his call without knowing why. His head turned sharply, and
a farm truck emerged from a side street.
The dented, weather-worn black truck pulled sluggishly into the
abandoned lane. The back of the truck carried four men. One man firmly
clutched a gray, homemade tombstone with a colorless photo affixed to the
front; he glared at us with sharp, dark eyes. Although the bouncing truck
compromised his balance, the tombstone bearer held his head and his stare
steady. The man on his left grasped the side of the truck with a coarse
calfskin glove and swayed, his shallow face haggard with the wind. Frozen
tears clung to his cheeks, and his eyes refused to focus. On the right
stood a slight figure whose gaze lay in the far-off mountains. He held
nothing, carried nothing; his body was tossed alternately against the long
pinewood box that carried the fourth man, and then the side of the truck.
That fourth man was Alosha Petrovich Ivanof. He wore a hardened, tired
expression in his photograph, and was tossed up and down as his hearse ambled
across the pits and mounds of the winter road.
The dutiful arm-banded man continued his succinct but disjointed
gestures like a poorly animated cartoon figure. His frenzied movements
only occupied my peripheral vision, though. Ivanof held my attention,
begging me to listen to his story. His deep windy whisper entered my
open ears and lingered. "I. . .am. . .free. I am. . .free. . .from this
dying town. I gave it birth. It gave me. . ." The traffic director ran to
the next intersection as the truck rumbled on, leaving black smoke in its
I blinked. Cars were racing past me, and ladies were clip-clopping
to the stores and kiosks. The weight of mandarins tugged at my arm, so with
a groggy shake of my head, I turned toward house number three. Four
smoking ten-year-olds lurked in the empty stairwell and watched me as I
unlocked my door. Inside I shed extra layers, lit a match, turned the
knob on the stove and retrieved a mug. While unpacking the plastic bag,
I uncovered the two forgotten, stamped airmail envelopes.
"Whirl, whIRL, WHIRRLLL," screamed the teapot. I sank into the
orange-cushioned chair and cautiously sipped from the cup, the hot tea
seeping down my throat into my stomach, warming every part of my body.
Head tilted on hand, elbow leaning on table, I idly peered into the life
of the next five-story building. Televisions were glowing, women were
tossing their heads in laughter, a family was slurping borscht. A small blond
boy grinned knowingly; I nodded my head in recognition. He waved a sly hand,
but our view of each other was gradually obscured by the descent of clean
The flakes comforted the weary ground, erasing the drabness and
concealing blemishes. The bright coating was transforming concrete monsters
into pearlized palaces upon blanketed courtyards. The wind hummed through
the cracks and drew me to the winterized window. When I pried it open, snow
tickled my face and pools of water began to collect in the palms of my cupped
hands. The new air expanded my chest and revived my senses. In a sudden
gust, the swirling white circled my uplifted head, stroked my hair and
quietly breathed, "I. . .am. . .free. . ."
Michele ClenDening is a native of Nashville, Tennessee and a graduate
of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. Now she is a U.S. Peace Corps
Volunteer in Far East Russia, teaching English and Spanish as well as
American culture to middle school and high school students. She hopes
to write a book about her experiences in the Russian Far East and the people
and culture of this region.