Last Days of Summer, 2019
Darya Pavlovna was tired. So tired it felt like there was sand in her eyes and she rubbed at them constantly with the backs of her wrists because her hands themselves were too muddy. She drove in silence, wanting only the sound of rushing wind over her car as she wove through the rough forest roads. Her shift had been brutal, but now she had a few days off to go back to her cabin on the edge of the lake. Nadia would be there. Probably already she had arrived from Irkutsk and she would be carefully stacking wood in the hearth and glancing restlessly out the window, waiting for Darya’s car to pull up. Darya pictured her, her imagination lingering on the fine-tuned expression of Nadia’s curious, pink lips, which could communicate with the barest twitch of their delicate corners a world of implicit emotion. When Darya walked through the cabin door Nadia would be there and would dart into her arms, then the exhaustion would shake off Darya’s body like snow shaking off an overcoat and she would forget the relentless labor of the past.
For five days Darya had been working to fight the summer wildfires in the woods on the west side of Baikal. She and a group of other local volunteers, bringing their own canned food and sleeping bags, armed with shovels and bug-spray, slipped into the vast forests and relied on scratchy radio reports and columns of smoke overhead to guide them to and from danger. They dug long trenches in the dirt, hacking with shovels and spades to destroy the greenery so that when the fire arrived it would have nothing left to eat. They worked methodically, sinking into the rhythm of digging to bury the exhaustion, the maddening itch of mosquitos, the stench of smoke.
When they came upon small fires they would stamp them out, smother them in peat and mud. When they came across large fires they would run and seek better ground to dig again. Once the ditch was dug they would retreat and rest on the forest floor to watch tensely, from a distance, as the fires swept up to their freshly drawn borders but no further. Cold satisfaction would fill Darya as she watched their work hold up. She knew the grass beneath her feet and the trees on her side of the trench were safe due to their own effort, their own sweat and resolution, and she was eager for the next battle.
At night they posted a watch to observe the dim glow above the trees and listen for the sound of a sudden rush, the sweeping approach of inferno. Darya enjoyed being the watch. While the others slept scattered around a clearing, she sat awake with her legs tucked in her sleeping bag and her back against the pale skin of a birch tree. She gazed up into the night. At first all was pure blackness, the stars and moon blotted out by thick smog, but slowly she began to perceive the smoke itself moving, roiling like a dark river overhead, streaming between her and the hiding universe. She wished for the nights she could see the stars again, for the time when ice would creep up from the lake and fall from the sky and drive away the fires until the next summer.
She lived for winter on the lake. And longed for those places on Baikal where every horizon is out of sight and there is nothing but vast, motionless waters, textured by ripples and waves frozen ruthlessly in half-movement. Since childhood she’d observed the same ritual. She ventured out on the ice, the squeak of her boots uneasily loud, and when she was a little way out from the shore she knelt, pulled her hat to just above her eyes, leaned her forehead against the ice, and gazed down. The lake bed lay far beneath her, beneath water so still and clear that sun rays caused no disruption and the ground itself and the rock-strewn hills and valleys seemed to glow mysteriously, as though the emerald light came not from above but emanated up from within them. She waited expectantly, with measured breath careful not to fog the ice, waiting to catch the silver flash of a creature darting across the lake-bed; perhaps a fish, or some other thing, some confirmation of her grandmother’s fairytales.
Eventually she would stand and tread slowly onwards, eyes fixed on the lake-bed as it plummeted away. She tried to pinpoint the exact, impossible moment when the ground succumbed to fathomless, livid water and the window underfoot showed only blackness disturbed by intricate cracks, streaking like ghostly blood-vessels within the surface. When she was far enough from the shore that it was almost out of sight, only then would she lift her head and take it all in. Standing on the shivering skin of that universe, she felt the endlessness of the place, breathing around her like a living presence. That was her favorite part, that feeling which tethered her to Baikal.
She grew up not far from Baikal, in Irkutsk, and since childhood waited for the time she would be able to move closer to the lake. As soon as she graduated university she picked up her life and bought a cabin right at the edge of the lake. It had been hard on her relationship with Nadia of course, to be hours away, but they were making it work. Darya was almost to the cabin now and a growing sense of peace was spreading within her, easing away the tightness in her chest. As she pulled up the dirt road to her cabin, she saw Nadia’s parked car and swung up beside it. She got out of her car and strode up the groaning wood steps into her cabin. Nadia sat at the kitchen table, one hand propping up her forehead and the other flipping indifferently through a textbook. She started for a second as the door swung open, then smiled up at Darya, “Welcome back! How was your shift?”
“Same as usual,” Darya said, gesturing to her grimy clothes.
“Worse than usual I’d say! But tell me about it later. Wash up and we can get started on dinner, I brought fresh omul from the market.” Darya stole a long kiss from Nadia before showering and changing into new clothes. Delighting in the crisp feeling of clean cotton against her skin and feeling lighter on her feet, she slipped back into the kitchen and fell into effortless harmony of preparing the meal with Nadia.
The two had met in university over a year ago. They began as friends, drawn closer by some sort of intoxication; by long nights in the dormitory; by the unfamiliar fascination with each other’s expressions, feelings, positioning of hands and cadence of voice. It was Darya’s first real romance. Her connection to Nadia seemed like the culmination of something set long ago in motion, an instinctive trajectory inside her. The secrecy they had maintained in college used to weigh on her, but she was finally free of that now and in the cabin she could live as she wanted.
To Nadia, the infatuation had come as a welcome surprise. The furtive thrill of their romance gilded an otherwise dull college life. She always disliked life in Irkutsk, the long gray winters and absence of opportunity or modernity. That city allowed her no room to grow, and it grew more stifling each year.
Because of this, their relationship came with an implicit understanding: it could not last. Nadia would move to a big city, Moscow or Saint Petersburg, once she was done with university, and there could be no way of prolonging it after that. Even if Darya could move with her away from Baikal, which they both knew to be impossible, she could never give Nadia the full extent of her ambitions. Nadia wanted to be in the midst of power. She wanted to stride into crowded, dazzling halls on the arm of someone who was her equal in charm and ambition. She wanted children. And wanted to raise those children in power and wealth. None of these reveries could include Darya. Nadia did her best to gently remind Darya from time to time that she still intended to move, but any comment about Moscow or graduation or future plans was met with inscrutable silence from Darya until the topic changed. So Nadia eventually stopped bringing it up. Besides, she still had another semester until she graduated and this was enough space to not have to talk about it.
For now, they were together and the smell of baking omul and garlic blossomed in the room. When all was ready and the little table by the window was laid with black bread, baked fish, and wine, they settled in and eagerly tucked in to all the daily dramas and happenings of the past week they’d been apart. Darya spoke reticently about her shift. She felt she could never quite describe what her work was really like and besides, she didn’t want to think any more about it. But Nadia was already on the subject of the fires, “We’re not even through fire season and millions of hectares of forest are already gone. And the smoke! It’s going to reach all the way to Moscow this year, maybe even to Alaska!” Nadia said. She didn’t know it, but she enjoyed it a little, getting worked up about things. Darya could see by the righteous glint in her eye and the way she’d resolutely set down her fork that she was preparing to get swept away. She went on, “Every year the lake gets worse, more polluted with the smoke. If it keeps going this way, Baikal will be completely unlivable in a few decades.”
“It won’t get that bad,” Darya cut in roughly.
“I’m sorry but it will get that bad. It’s already that bad. You really think the government will respond in time? They won’t even admit the fires are as bad as they are. We can hold off the effects, but it’s only a matter of time,” Nadia concluded, taking another sip from her wine. Darya relapsed into silence. She was angry. Not with the government, or the polluters, or even the fires themselves, but with Nadia, for the careless confidence with which she described the fate of the lake. That anger simmered quietly for some time, gradually washing away as Nadia continued to talk and gesture and lean in closer, her eyes sparkling merrily in the lamplight, to refill Darya’s wineglass. By the time dinner was over and the night took on a new meaning, reflected in longer lingering glances and a new, deliberate cadence to their voices, Darya’s frustration was forgotten and the two went to bed.
Darya awoke before dawn and was unable to sleep again. She lay in bed, cherishing the fragile warmth between her and Nadia, knowing that very soon Nadia would have to get up and to leave for her morning classes in Irkutsk. Seconds unraveled slowly, losing their definition, and Darya sank into the gentle flow of Nadia’s breath, rising and falling to an internal tempo, until suddenly Nadia was shifting and stretching and rising from the bed to leave.
Darya pretended to sleep, watching through fluttering eyelids as Nadia padded hurriedly around the room, gathering her scattered clothes and belongings, her outline illuminated barely by dim red light of the sunrise trickling through the window. Some mornings, when Nadia thought Darya was still sleeping, she would steal to the side of the bed and leave a gentle kiss on her lover’s forehead. So Darya waited, with measured breath, for those slight creaking footsteps and that soft beloved breath on her cheek, but on this morning all she heard was the click of the door as Nadia closed it behind her.
Then the door slammed back open, “Darya, get up, you have to see this.”
Darya sprang from bed and, wrapped only in blankets, bounded to the door. Fire engulfed the eastern bank of Baikal. Miles across the black water, reflecting oily crimson of the flames, the fires swallowed up the horizon. Seething flames and sparks leapt towering into the sky where the billowing smoke caught their light and ecstatically reflected it, spilling bloody light over the heavens. A sound like thunder, the rush of blistering wind and the terrible, distant cracking of spines as ancient forests gave way and sank to the ground, echoed through the mountains and across the lake. The two women stood on the steps of the cabin, transfixed by the flames confronting them like an armed force on the opposite bank. Darya grasped in that terrible sunrise, in the hissing of the dark lake, in the small insurmountable space between her and Nadia, in the naked fragility of her own body, an unmistakable omen. She read in it the end of everything, and closed her eyes.
she, her, hers
College of Arts & Sciences
Class of 2020, Slavic Language and Literature & Global Studies Security and Justice
Cameron spent a semester in Siberia studying the lake which her short story revolves around. She was horrified to see the wildfires which damaged the region shortly after her departure, and felt inspired to write about huge, impossible forces like climate change and homophobia and how they can collide to overwhelm us. This story is infused with a lot of her memories of exploring Baikal, her knowledge as a volunteer firefighter, and her own experiences as well as conversations she had with others about being queer in Russia. Cameron only recently started writing prose, following a creative writing class she took in the Fall of 2019, but she has loved literature since she was young. She reads broadly, but her studies focus on 19th and 20th century Russian and Soviet authors.