In 1913, the summer before his family’s flight from the Ukraine, my grandfather, then sixteen, went swimming in the Beresan River with a girl named Avja Maljenka. The Beresan was a sluggish river, stained by dark clays and the dye-rich roots of grasses. For most of its course toward Beresanskji Bay, where it entered the Black Sea, it ran through stark, open country, a glittering amber band across the uniform gray and green fabric of the steppe. But in the place where the two young people met in secret, where, on a miserable August afternoon, they stood with their backs to one another and struggled hurriedly out of their dusty clothes, the river made a wide turn against the stony side of a hill, which it had long ago worn away. The half hill was cut cleanly down the middle, so that an arching wall, banded with reddish sand and slender black lines of coal, rose up on the outer curve of the bend. The water slowed there, soaking into the loam on the side opposite the hill, allowing willows to grow, and brambles, and low bushes with tiny berries, bright orange and bitter. Between the severed hill and the wild growth, the river spread into a pool. Blackbirds heckled, swinging on the slender branches of the trees, and Avja, still turned away from Emil Holt, my grandfather, who had found a way to glance over his shoulder so quickly that even he wasn’t sure he had done it, balanced naked on one foot to tug her ankle free from a bunched roll of stocking.
He let her go into the water first, waiting in the spiny, gray-leaved brambles with his back turned until she called to him. She pressed her palms against her eyes as he made his way down the little bank and waded out into the current, which was barely perceptible, at first only a cold weight against his calves and thighs, then, when the water closed around his waist, a touch like a smooth, uncertain hand.
“Now,” he said.
“Now?” she echoed him, and they could look at each other again. Avja stood so that the surface broke across her shoulders. Water collected in the grooves of her collarbones and spilled slowly back into the river. She kept an arm crossed over her breasts, because although the water was the color of strong tea, it was clean, transparent.
“We should take care to not drown,” she said, enunciating the German [End Page 109] words too carefully, so that they sounded like chipped pieces of another, longer statement.
“Right. They’d find out we did this, and we’d really be in trouble.”
But Avja’s face was serious. She shook her head, the ends of her black hair thickening as they got wet. “It would be shame,” she said, “for them all.”
“I’ll take care of you.”
“But I’m a better swimmer.” She ducked her head and shot away from him, underwater, a quick, white phantom with slender wings.
She came from Andrejemka, a small trading town on the western side of Beresanskji Bay. Her father was a boatman. He operated a steam-powered barge on the shallow estuary, and sometimes well-to-do farmers like my great-grandfather hired him to transport mahogany furniture or fine Crimean horses from the port of Ochakiv on the Black Sea coast. Emil and Avja had met when a chestnut gelding arrived as a birthday present for Emil from his father and uncles. The men had taken Emil to Andrejemka, telling him that they were looking for samples of a new strain of wheat from Turkey. They brought him to the docks, to Maljenka’s barge. The gelding was still on the boat, with burlap wrapped around his legs, tied securely with ropes that were fastened to bolts in the deck. Avja was brushing the horse’s coat, her body shivering slightly in her tunic and heavy skirts as she made tight circles with the currycomb on a shining, copper-red flank. Together, Emil and the girl untied the ropes and carefully freed the sinewy legs, then slipped on...