“THE INFORMANT’S AGENDA”
The car was gone. Not a sound or sign anywhere of Irina. Just a dead, eerie silence. Like the graves I had just left.
After searching the grounds, the road, all where I had walked I pulled out my cell phone and checked for new messages. There were none, so scrolled my directory, punched her number and waited. It went to voicemail, so left a message. “Irina! Where are you? Where did you go? I’m walking back, southwest towards Grigoriopol, the direction we came. Did you go back to town, or look for a potty? Or did you decide it a good time to go for coffee? Look, I’m sorry I took so long. Call me! Please!” My phone showed weak signals, and needed recharging.
“Ok, Irina, where have you disappeared to? This is not funny.” I said to myself. Thinking out loud was little comfort.
Stay calm. Think. Don’t panic.
A mile further down the road was an old pickup, parked on the shoulder.
What is that?!
The sound came from the direction of the truck.
Feeling exposed, I moved over to the opposite side of the road. Because of me, I realized we would miss our four-o-clock appointment with the consulate of Odessa.
There was no one in the truck that I could see, but the noise boomed across the otherwise quiet steppes.
“Banging! Pounding!” It resonated in my ears, pinging off the side of my brain.
Inquiring from a complete stranger about Irina, or her car did not seem a good idea, so I just walked on, hoping the invisible would not notice me. When I looked back there was only a shadow.
People warned me about traveling alone in this country.
Feeling as if there were eyes on my back at every turn did not help to establish a note of trust or confidence. Some, I think seemed too interested in me. Others stood stone still; looking as if they did not comprehend anything I said.
Experience taught me how to blend in, merge with the masses, not look like a lone duck in a big pond. It was easy to dress like a Russian. But speak like one? Without an accent or fluent dialect I was not very convincing. When I asked questions or needed directions I knew I sounded too much like an American tourist. But, dressed in my most comfortable ‘threads,’ – faded blue jeans, and tee shirts – I looked like everyone else here, except when wearing my red fleece jacket with the, “Go Big Red” logo advertising my alma mater, UN, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Adding to my present predicament was the wheeled backpack I hauled around, loaded with notebooks, laptop, and cameras. Except for the video cams and digitized equipment that went with my job I looked much like a university student in the former Soviet Bloc countries.
A vehicle coming up the road behind me spewed gravel as it got closer.
Finally. It’s about time. Irina?
It was instead a late-model black sedan I’d not seen before. As it neared, the pickup now with its driver behind the wheel rumbled out onto the road veering into the car’s path at an odd angle. Rapid, successive beeps from the car horn came too late.
The sudden contact of metal to metal brought both vehicles to a crashing halt. The left front bumper of the old pickup smashed in the front right door and fender, headlight and trim on the car, leaving broken glass and bits of mangled parts scattered across the road.
The truck driver got out and ambled over to the sedan to survey the damage. The red pickup, rusty and dented looked no worse than before.
But, the car was a mangled mess of twisted metal and glass. The windshield shattered into innumerable tiny pieces spilling out over the hood. The air bag appeared to release on impact. Hands clawed at the inflatable device compressing it as if wedged in a vice. Soon after, the driver’s side door was pushed open and a man stepped out. He pulled off his dark glasses, massaged his nose and forehead, then began to curse and swear with words recognized in any language. He was dressed in blue jeans, black shirt and leather jacket. Something about him looked familiar. Then, I remembered where and when I’d seen him.
Watching it all from where I stood, I felt vulnerable, unsure what to do.
It was difficult to hear the exchange between them. But, there was no mistaking the anger of the sedan’s driver. When finished with his ranting, he pulled out a cell phone from his pocket.
Jumping down into a weedy embankment I pulled my wheeled bag down behind me hoping neither man would notice, or care, that their only witness was hurrying away from the scene of an accident.
The truck driver wore wrinkled worn pants cuffed an inch or so above old boots, a red plaid flannel shirt with sleeves rolled up on long lanky arms. Tall, with thinning gray hair he didn’t look injured, but rather agile for an older man.
Like a frightened rabbit I turned and headed down along the road on the uneven terrain. It was awkward with my bag, but I wanted only to get back to Grigoriopol, to my room at Olga’s Inn.
The road forked ahead about a half mile. When Irina and I came down the road earlier, I paid little attention to the turns she made as we traveled east into Transnistria. We’d headed northeast when we passed through old Colosova Village, before pulling into the cemetery grounds past the former collective farms. Now, they looked all but abandoned. Dry, barren fields, weeds growing wild, nothing graded: all looked like it had not seen a plow or grader in decades. No legible road signs or identifying marks remained.
My bag was bulkier now, with my discovery.
Irina reminded me we had no time to spare. But, I protested.
“Monica, we don’t have time for another cemetery this morning. We can’t be late for our 4:00 appointment at the consulate’s office. We need to allow time to get back to Grigoriopol for you to change, unless you want to walk in smelling like the ground under those graves.”
“I know, but, I need more time to look for those on my lists, and photograph the graves. Can’t we reschedule the appointment?”
“Maybe. They just don’t want us to deviate from our itinerary. That is, if you want to get into the archives when they’re open for research. Besides, I am responsible for keeping us on schedule and for any changes made. As the official representative assigned to you I have to log in the places we go, the dates and times, and fill out reports for my superiors.”
“I would just like to look through this one cemetery. I will not be long. You can wait in the car, if you like. I’ll meet you back there in an hour or so. I promise.” I told her.
She sighed, looking clearly upset with me, checked the time on her watch, nodded and replied. “OK. I’ll spare you an hour. But, that’s all. And, remember that other section beside it is closed, fenced off and boarded up. You can’t be trespassing over there.”
“OK. Just the cemetery grounds, then.”
It was my job as an archivist to videotape, note and photograph what was here. But, I was determined to search once more for their graves. Her constant, annoying presence got on my nerves, so I just walked away with her waiting impatiently by the car, then headed for the old, iron gate.
Now, as the air turned colder, and graying clouds moved in, covering the late afternoon sun I realized I had placed myself, and maybe my assignment here in jeopardy.
Winds kicked up refuse blowing it across the Russian steppes. “And, here I stand, alone out on a dirt road with a map and compass looking for a way back to town.” I said aloud, again talking to myself.
As I trudged on with my cumbersome bag, my thoughts drifted back years earlier to
another place, another time, another gravesite when I stood with my family mourning our loss.
There was never a thought I would be the genealogist type, as I had no interest, experience or, ambition for such a job.
Then I read his letter, left for me. “Monica. It is not the erected monument of the deceased that is important, but the legacy they leave behind of the unseen that matters. It is what we can share with the next generation, and preserve what is found in those having lived before us.”
It was his request that I preserve ours, and my promise to him to honor it.
Joyce E. Johnson (2013)