White light fills the rooms, somehow brighter than normal. I buy one candle, standing with it in my fingers, playing with the soft yellow wax. The smell of incense lingers, even with the doors open. A woman mops the floor, talking to herself. A man takes the silver cup and pours himself holy water to drink from the cistern in the corner.
Five minutes earlier I stood in an Italian place and ordered a pizza to go. Now, I am back in time. It could be two hundred years ago here. Every door is crooked, suspended by ancient hinges. There are wildflowers in small vases. Every inch of the walls is covered in paintings, icons, patterns. A woman kneels in front of an icon of Mary and the child. Great bronze candleholders stand in clusters, anointed in oil to keep the dripping wax from sticking to them. I wander the small room, looking up at the vaulted ceiling, the soft curves of the arches as they meet each other. An icon stares back at me, hands raised, palms forward as if to say "I mean you no harm,"or "I come in peace". I find an empty spot, lighting it from another, letting a few drips fall into the tiny cup then resting the tall thin candle inside, holding it until I feel it will stand on its own.
I stare into the flame, praying.
The woman leaves the tiny stool in front of the icon. I suddenly notice another woman, who sits in a chair, staring off into the distance. I approach the icon, and kiss the glass over Mary's face. I leave quickly, crossing myself at the entry, and again at the bottom of the stairs.
The wildflowers are blooming like mad, and I smell honeysuckle. The place is being rebuilt. Great piles of white stones sit, covered in pale dust that shifts around them in patterns of footprints and wheelbarrows. There are old structures, upside-down onion shapes slumping back to the earth. Men sit on the rectangular stones with beads in their hands, also staring off into the horizon.
I pass the opera house, the sounds of rehearsal filtering past the great doors and windows and into the street. My pizza is ready, and they do not have small change for me. The woman at the cashier is furious, waving her hands around. She has no change, she has no change. There is always some strange shortage of small bills here. I leave, marching down Ostoshinka with a pizza box balanced across my arms. It smells pretty good.
E is teaching me the names of trees. She is with me tonight, even though she should be at her mother's. I read her a book about a squirrel named Miss Suzy, only I replace Suzy with E's name which always makes her laugh. She is sleeping after the first three pages, but I read the entire story to her, my voice almost a whisper.
The next morning I wake before sunrise, showering, shaving, eating a real breakfast. I dress once, decide I look clownish, dig up a pair of black boots, a different shirt that looks almost ironed. E wakes up, her hair a bird's nest. I take her to school early in wet streets, pulling her hair into a ponytail when we get there, our goodbye meditation. She will see me tonight, and she trots into the classroom, her shirt tucked strangely into her school clothes.
At the courthouse, I sit and breathe quietly waiting for my interpreter and my lawyer to arrive. E's mother enters, eyeing me, saying nothing, sitting down the hall and frowning at the walls. A giant man is turning tables upside-down in the narrow corridor. There is a strange puddle of water on the linoleum. He sweats and wipes his face with his shirtsleeves, then disappears. A man in a uniform ushers us into a small courtroom. A holding cell fills the corner of the room. The black bars are freshly painted, the door stands a little bit open. My lawyer is stuck in traffic.
The hearing goes quickly, and my objections are noted, all through the ping-pong of translation and replies. The judge goes away for five minutes to make her decision. The interpreter forces a smile for me, trying to help me remain positive. The lawyer looks tired. It is Friday.
The judge returns, and my simple requests are granted. There is no great victory today, but there is also no defeat. It is a baby step towards something positive. We go outside, and talk in the damp air. I pay the lawyer, pay the translator and suddenly I am alone with a handful of signed documents. I walk off towards the bridge. Crossing the river I call N, recounting the details of the morning.
The sky is magnificent, etched in layers of clouds bunched in perfect groups, glimpses of blue sky around their edges. The old buildings and the modern ones are gleaming in the late morning sunlight, and the streets are not wet anymore. Leaves are drifting towards the earth. Prickly green seeds are gathering in the gutter. I breathe in, telling myself I can smell autumn, not car exhaust. I breathe out, telling myself everything is going to be fine.