"Freedom is Space for the Spirit" by Glen Hirshberg is a fantasy about a middle-aged German, drawn back to Russia by a mysterious invitation from a friend he knew during the wild, exuberant period in the midst of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Upon his arrival in St. Petersburg, he begins to see bears, wandering and seemingly lost.
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About the Author
GLEN HIRSHBERG received his B.A. from Columbia University, where he won the Bennett Cerf Prize for Best Fiction, and his M.A. and M.F.A. from the University of Montana. His first novel, The Snowman’s Children, was a Literary Guild Featured Selection. His collection, The Two Sams, won three International Horror Guild Awards and was named a Best Book of the Year by Publishers Weekly. Hirshberg has won the Shirley Jackson Award and been a finalist for the World Fantasy and the Bram Stoker Awards.
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Freedom Is Space for the Spirit
By Glen Hirshberg, Greg Ruth
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Glen Hirshberg
All rights reserved.
Vasily's message arrived by telegram, and Thomas couldn't bring himself to open it right away. His assumption was that another of the old gang had died. He settled on the red leather couch by the fire in his Charlottenburg apartment and held the envelope, wet from the snow outside, in his hands. Eventually, Jutta stuck her head out of her sculpture studio. She wiped the back of her palm across her dusty, still-sharp cheekbones.
"Good God," Jutta said, "is that really a telegram?"
"Obviously. He lost his cell phone somewhere?"
"Last I heard — and it was a long time ago — he still uses burners. He doesn't trust cell phones."
"Internet cafés all closed?"
"I don't even think he has e-mail. He doesn't trust that, either."
"But he trusts his local telegraph operator? Assuming there are such people still in St. Petersburg? Or here? Or anywhere?"
Grinning, she moved toward the couch, and Thomas had to fight back a momentary and selfish flicker of annoyance. Whatever was in the telegram, he didn't want to share it, at least not right away. Feeling childish, he watched Jutta lumber closer, her hand on her swelling belly. She smiled at him, and the orange from the fire in the grate caught in her eyes.
"What does it say?"
In the old days, at the end of Soviet times or during the wild Yeltsin years — back when they'd really been doing something, when the art had been the moment itself and not the preserving or capturing or remembering of it — Thomas would have torn open the envelope, tossed it aside. But for this one — the first in years — he fished out his pocketknife, slit the fold, withdrew the folded yellow paper, and laid the envelope carefully atop the Gerhard Richter Baader-Meinhof monograph on the end-table. Then he opened Vasily's message, and though Jutta could see the words — English words — as well as he could, he read them aloud:
"Happening now. STOP. Invitation letter at Consulate. STOP. Hurry. STOP. FISTS."
"You know," said Jutta, "I'm pretty sure they don't need to say STOP anymore."
Thomas nodded. "Vasily probably just liked using STOP."
"Everything about this." To his astonishment, Thomas felt tears in his eyes.
Jutta was standing right next to him, now, staring down at the note. "They still make us get invitation letters?"
"It's still Russia," Thomas murmured.
"I guess," said Jutta, and for a single moment, in her voice, he heard a hint, a suggestion of exactly the feelings he was having. And of course, that was only fair. She had been there, too. Eventually. He looked away, but Jutta's dusty, strong-fingered hand slid over his. "Thomas," she said. "Go."
"I can't. The baby."
"Is due in three months."
"Term. Classes —"
"Start in two weeks."
"This is Vasily. Whatever he's up to could last longer than that."
"Get a cold. Get pneumonia. Your students will live."
"I'm not ..." he said. Then, "I don't ..."
"Call the consulate," said Jutta. "Get Vasily's invitation letter and your visa. Go." Turning away, she threw a tiny sliver of soapstone into the fire; She has missed all this, too, he realized. If not for the baby they'd both assumed they were too old to expect, she'd have dropped everything and gone with him.
In truth, for that matter, she'd have gone without him.
* * *
On impulse, and to save money, he took the train. And because he'd somehow transformed, right as he entered his forties, into a tenure-tracked Juniorprofessor der situationistichen Kunst who could almost afford it, he took the fast train. He even treated himself to the last second-class bunk in the last available cabin; he was very nearly a father, after all, and long out of practice. He would be of more use to Vasily rested.
The first hours passed in a blissful, bleary-eyed blur. In the observation car, he shared zákusky and vodka with a wealthy American couple, both in their sixties, headed to Poland for some sort of pensioners' opera-singer training camp. Thomas's spoken English was rusty and his alcohol tolerance significantly diminished, so he wasn't entirely sure he'd understood his companions correctly. But they laughed easily and offered him saltine crackers from their travel bags once they'd polished off the zákusky. Better still, they went silent when the train, slowed by snow, crept into the Lower Oder Valley, and the full moon shot up over the marshlands like a comet streaking over the earth, shedding snow flurries that glittered in the air and on the trees, and silvered the surface of the river.
Later, retreating to his bunk, he met his cabinmates, a blond father and his two white-blond, teenaged sons, all smoking and arguing loudly in Finnish. But they quieted without his asking. The whole time Thomas sorted through his hastily packed duffel bag, scrubbed his face with a wet wipe, changed his shirt, and tried to settle on top of the blankets, the Finns stayed silent. When he laid back, one of the sons wordlessly flicked off the light. And so, for a few minutes, wedged into a rut in the hard mattress as if anchored to a cliff face, Thomas imagined he might sleep. Then the party broke out in the corridor.
Poles, mostly, he thought, listening to their laughter streaming under the bottom of the cabin door along with their cigarette smoke. Some Czechs or Slovaks, too. Kids, mostly. When Thomas sat up, he was surprised to see his cabinmates in their bunks, all of them sleeping or at least motionless.
How can they sleep? he wondered. And then, How can they want to?
Suddenly, he was out of his berth and back in his sneakers. As quietly as he could — silly, really, given the racket from outside — he edged open the door and stepped into the hall.
Almost immediately, the gaggle of students edged away down the corridor, taking up spots at the next windows down, throwing those open to the cold, the whipping wind. They laughed as clouds of snow whirled into the train, exploding against the walls like birds smacking into glass. Smoking and shouting and drinking and laughing, the students ignored Thomas completely.
It was absurd, of course, to expect any different, except that Thomas did. After all, he'd seen so much that they hadn't, done so much that they hadn't: won a yearlong study fellowship to St. Petersburg State, then, with Vasily's help, almost immediately slipped his minders (mostly, admittedly, because why would they have bothered minding him much?) and joined Vasily's crew of expats and expelled students and poseurs and rabble. For nearly a year, they'd wallpapered windowless squatters' digs with daisies in abandoned St. Petersburg buildings and left them for no one to find; put on silent concerts, lip-synching and gyrating, in the middle of parks in the middle of the night; rowed a convoy of johnboats festooned with homemade Big Mac wrappers down the Volkhov, under the pedestrian bridge into the thousand-year-old heart of the Novgorod Kremlin, and then set the boats on fire as the waiting militsiya closed around and finally arrested them; back home in Germany, he had ripped whole concrete chunks out of the Wall with his bare, bleeding hands and danced to "Afterlife" atop it on the very night it fell, then fled police and soldiers from both Germanys into the alleys of the West, which had seemed, to his terrified surprise, so much darker and more frightening than those in the Berlin he'd grown up knowing.
Somehow, because he really had done those things (though in another life), he'd expected these kids on this train to welcome him into their conversation, and never mind his not-so-cheap sneakers, his dry-cleaned slacks, and neat, salt-and-pepper professor's beard.
If they only knew, he thought, not without satisfaction. He looked at the brunette girl closest in the corridor, shivering in shirtsleeves against the open window, beautiful with her cigarette clutched against her lips. She turned toward him, and he saw what was on her shirt.
For a single, ludicrous moment, Thomas was angry. A Plastic People of the Universe shirt, with a fist and flowers, and the words CHARTA 77 stenciled in rainbow letters underneath.
You have no idea, Thomas wanted to shout at her. You missed it. Those savage, magical nights in the crypts of Leipzig churches with AuSSchlag and some stolen guitars and rotten beer, or, during his St. Petersburg year, with Zoopark and a single overloaded, half-blown amp in one of the crumbling buildings Putin had now "saved" — rescuing it from ruin and squalor and the free and dreaming young — with the authorities always coming, with vodka bubbling in their bloodstreams as though from an oil vein they'd tapped themselves, he and Jutta (who had won the same fellowship he had) and Vasily's crew and some fugitives from the Baltics hurling themselves together, flinging their voices out broken windows to be spirited off down the Prospekts into the Neva All his friends from then scattered or gone now, that whole world reduced to slogans and images, useful only for silk-screening onto oblivious young people's T-shirts.
Then, even more ludicrously, Thomas wanted to ask where he could order such a shirt.
Turning away, he let himself laugh at himself. And that felt good, only right. It's what they were always in danger of forgetting, had always had to remind each other about, constantly: how funny it all was. How much fun.
He moved a little ways down the corridor toward a window he could have to himself. He was still standing there hours later, staring out at the glass towers, the already-jammed roads around the half-constructed S8 as the train glided into Warsaw through the early morning gray. Everything out there looked so clean even in the sleety overcast of the morning: the squares, the rails sparkling with winter wet, the bundled-up commuters with their briefcases and ear buds. Nothing like the Poland he'd heard such grim tales of in his youth, from the few Poles he'd known then. Warsaw was just another anywhere now, even its formidable ghosts roped off, penned in their carefully preserved ghetto habitats, exactly as threatening and sad as snow leopards at a zoo.
What, he wondered, could Vasily possibly be doing, after all this time, that even he could believe might matter? That was worth coming all this way for?
Later, to his surprise, Thomas actually managed to sleep. He awoke to an empty cabin and, from the bustle in the corridor, understood that the train was already arriving at Vitebsk Station. He shrugged hurriedly into his coat, stuffed last night's shirt into his bag, sucked at the thin, nicotine-tinged film of sleep on his teeth, remembered that taste, and realized abruptly that he was there.
Instantly, his gloom lifted like something he'd dreamed (this the reality, this his world, where he most belonged). Stumbling over his untied shoes in his excitement, Thomas exited the cabin, worked through the clumps of sleepy travelers, showed his invitation letter and hastily arranged tourist visa to a glazed-eyed customs official who barely even glanced at them, and ducked across the platform to emerge at last into the Vitebsk main hall. For a while, he just stood on those palatial stairs, staring up into the domed iron ceiling, his hand on the chipped marble of the banister, listening to the snarl of this least Russian of Russian cities sweeping across the grand checkerboard tile to greet him.
Though he'd packed little, he decided to check his bag into luggage storage until he had some idea where he might be staying. Then he realized he was starving, and wondered where the closest place might be to find a slab of chleb and some black coffee. Descending the stairs, he kept accidentally bumping into people who bumped him in return, glowering as he grinned back. The wind whistling in the open front doors was freezing, somehow white even when it wasn't visible, laced with ice. Head down, hurrying, now, Thomas pushed out onto Zagorodny Prospekt and threw his arms wide to the winter. He lifted his watering eyes into the wind, turned for the metro, which was right where he'd remembered it, and saw the bear.
He froze, held still. The muscles in his back cleaved to his spine, yanking hard, as though someone was running a flag up him. He waited for the bear to lurch to its feet, for his own lips to unlock themselves, let him shout.
But the bear ...
It was less than twenty feet away, not leashed as far as Thomas could see, not attached to anything or anyone, but aligned in the exact center of the parking space closest to the building. Exactly in the center, perfectly between the lines, as though it had been parked there. It had its huge, shaggy head on its paws, its legs folded beneath it, and it was watching people and cars go by with enormous brown eyes, muzzle down, mouth invisible. Snow settled on its fur and accumulated, and no one seemed even to glance at it. Thomas thought he might be looking at a lifelike statue, something animatronic, even, until the bear shuddered, shook the snow off its thick coat, and settled again.
Other than Thomas, the only people paying even the slightest attention seemed to be children who tugged at their parents' hands, pointed with their mittens. The parents barely bothered glancing around. One man stopped in front of Thomas to snap a picture with his phone before darting back inside the station.
Only then, exhausted and starving, did Thomas come to the full realization that he had no idea where to go. He had nowhere to stay, no one to call. No one to yell "Bear!" to. In the wild Yeltsin years, when Vasily had somehow cajoled his shady new friends into forging Thomas travel documents and luring him back, he'd always somehow arrived with an address or a name, or else he'd come with somebody. Or maybe he'd just known somehow: which abandoned building, which warehouse-turned-improvised-workspace/gallery, which bridge over which canal.
And now he thought maybe he did know where to start, after all: the place they'd always come back to, sooner or later, no matter how many times they'd gotten rousted or arrested there.
Yes. He knew where to begin, assuming it was even there anymore: Malevichskaya, where it really had seemed, for those few brutal, brilliant years right before and after the Wall fell, that the world — or a world, anyway — was being born. Reborn.
If nothing else, Thomas still knew roughly where that was. To reorient himself, he set off toward the canal, burrowing through wind that was even colder than the wind he remembered. He marveled at the icicles dangling like pendants from parking signs and awnings, but even more at the crowds of bundled-up Russians bustling about their business. At a buzzing, Starbucks-colored café, Thomas gave up hunting chleb and settled for a western-style latte and a dry scone. He sat at a tiny table by the window for a while, watching snow swirl over and around everything, as though the whole Earth had been given a long, hard shake. He watched the Russians passing. The Russian women passing. He remembered the joke — which was really a truism — they'd all used to pass around, when members of Vasily's loose collective poured into St. Petersburg from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Estonia and Germany and the Ukraine and Lithuania and Hungary:
How do you tell the real Russians? Look for the cheapest clothes.
Not anymore. Thomas felt more like a spectator at a Paris runway show (albeit an icy one): woman after woman with hair flowing long under elegant fur and faux-fur coats and hats, gliding over the ice in thigh-high black boots with six-inch heels like winter gazelles. It was disorienting, also mesmerizing. He was about to get up when, right in front of the window, one of those miraculous women slipped, banged hard against the glass before him, caught herself, and pushed upright. He caught a glimpse of red cheek, bright blue eye under an oil gush of black hair. Then the woman gazed straight into the window, straightened her coat, saw him staring back ... and smiled.
This beautiful young Russian woman, striding through her city, and it was clearly her city now. And she was laughing at herself, smiling at him.
A magical, almost unimaginable moment, Thomas thought, something that would never have happened in the nervous, battered St. Petersburg he'd known. Yet again, he wondered why he'd come, what he was doing there, how anything he could offer, even as a spectator, could possibly matter now, in the world as it had become, which bore so little resemblance either to the one he remembered or the one they'd all convinced themselves they'd been creating.
He was standing now, half-thinking he might catch this woman before she left, actually speak to her, just to be speaking to someone. He'd lifted his hand to try to catch her attention when the bear reared up behind her.
Excerpted from Freedom Is Space for the Spirit by Glen Hirshberg, Greg Ruth. Copyright © 2016 Glen Hirshberg. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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