I once had a conversation with a man from Siberia who said he grew up in a sturdy hut out on the steppes where the temperatures in winter were sixty and seventy below zero. His family slept on top of the ceramic stove, which was shaped like an igloo. You had to wrap a jute hose around your waist and put the end into your mouth when you went out, or the air would burn the tissues of your lungs. We stood there in the warm Virginia sunshine as he told me this; he was still young, in his twenties, with shocks of blond hair falling into his eyes, and his lean face made a kind of music of Russian accented English as he talked. He had survived the cold only because he was the favorite son and given a pampered childhood, lots of bread and cheese in the morning, scalding cups of tea in the afternoon, very few chores to do when the weather was foul. He was very smart, could speak three languages by the time he was twelve and won scholarships to schools in Moscow. Now he was in Williamsburg going to college to study engineering. He was about to marry his American girlfriend and go through the ordeal of becoming a naturalized citizen. He never looked back, he told me.
I carry him around in my head as a symbol of endurance; he was a stoic, an impassive, determined soul who never begrudged his origins. He took what he was given, and played his hand like some gambler at a Vegas table, never showing the slightest sign of joy or dread. I admired him, and envied his fierce nature. If we had to fight a man like that on the battlefield, we would never win. He would run right over us on the way to victory. Thank goodness it never came to that, but during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, I began to think he might be called back to Mother Russia to do his duty. He enlisted in the U.S. Marines instead, and came out a sergeant.
When I gaze out my front windows at the sooty snow of this endless winter in Vermont, I think of Sergei wrapping the jute hose around his middle and going out to draw careful breaths as his eyebrows turned to glass. I don't let myself complain too much. It's only ten degrees outside, enough to put a stiff crust on the snow, but still warm enough to draw air through your nose. I would lug in a barrow full of logs and huff and puff as I wheeled the load back to the garage. My arms would be numb with cold, and my hands were red as lobsters when I pulled off my gloves. The labor of gathering wood was nothing to what he had to put up with as he dug for potatoes in the marble-hard garden. I would gather up five or six pieces of wood and bring them to the fireplace and light the afternoon fire. I had no real complaints about anything.
Of course, it's March, the stormy, double-edged month at the end of winter, and the timid beginnings of spring. I was born in that month and suffered all the whiplashes of emotion that ripped across the still bare trees and blew away the last withered leaves of last summer. I drifted without an anchor in the murky waters of my adolescence; I didn't quite know myself, but I was sure my moods were a sign I was sloughing off another outer skin, getting ready to mature and settle down. But then the winds would blow up again around my next birthday and I would be hurtling through space after my next obsession, my next wild spree, only to give it up by the time July rolled around. I couldn't concentrate for long on any one thing, except maybe reading.
My brother was born in April and his life was serene by comparison. He would take up something like the guitar and learn to play it well, and was talented at learning languages. He spoke a pretty good Arabic when we lived in Beirut, Lebanon, learned French with ease, and when he was in Sardinia at a Coast Guard station, he became fluent in southern Italian. I was as absorbent as the cotton in my mother's make up kit, and could learn facts and details and not forget them, but I couldn't play an instrument or master the grammar of a new language. I was dense that way.
I can remember struggling with the buttons and keyboard of an accordion my mother bought me. I could play a simple tune and manage to press the black buttons to make chords, but I didn't want to admit that I had already left the instrument behind. It sounded too Hungarian to me, or reminded me of that dreadful waltz music featured on Lawrence Welk. I felt old playing it, like I was wearing some double-breasted suit at a wedding party. I tried the harmonica and failed utterly to construct whole tunes out of it. I wanted to sound like a blues musician, but all I could muster was a sound like you might hear on a Christmas toy.
But I read voraciously, and was able to gobble up hefty tomes like Moby Dick and Great Expectations, and an endless procession of British prisoner- of-war escape stories, which the bookstore in Beirut supplied me with by the two-foot stack. I would sit on the balcony of our apartment overlooking the Mediterranean and engorge these books and walk away feeling like I had just stuffed myself with a bad meal. I couldn't find the magic in much of what I read. I wanted to devour the world, feel my passion dig its fingers into something no one else knew about, and come out primed like an expert in the field. Never happened. I was a skinny kid, lost in my boat-necked sailor shirt, gazing mournfully at the girls who meandered around in skimpy bikinis. I didn't flirt with them, I would simply roll my desperate eyes and find a shady spot on the cabin porch to continue reading. I couldn't satisfy myself, even when the maid put a heaping bowl of tabouleh in front of me and told me to eat. I would nibble, and play with my fork, and gaze longingly out at the shimmering, tin-glaring sea and all its nervous commotion.
March was my folly, my curse. I was neither a son of winter nor a child of spring, but some stormy, unsettled rickety bridge between them.
I recall sitting down in the library at William and Mary and being stared at by a lanky, balding student my age. He finally came over and sat down next to me. "Do you write," he said in a phony British accent. He had a strange mouth, sophisticated but self-conscious.
"Yes," I said. "Poetry."
"Wonderful," he said. "We must get together. I can introduce you to some friends," and left.
I felt flattered. I fell in with a literary crowd and was taken for someone who had no problem sticking to his interests. I wrote furiously and would read a few pieces to the circle, and would affect a sort of British accent of my own. We were all fakes, each of us eaten alive with fears of being ordinary. I would finish with a small flourish and sit back to enjoy some friendly criticism and a little praise. But I couldn't throw myself into their literary fevers. I remained detached, ironic, sure that I was not all that good at what I wrote, sorry to think that I could fake things enough to win over their admiration, such as it was. But the winds were blowing over the rooftops and I heard the trees groaning on their roots. March had come, and I was being called out into the storm. I was fated to rise up into the blind night air and join Ares on his nightly hunts. I would carry his bow and arrow, and go off into the weeds to fetch his kills. But I wasn't a hunter, and I wasn't his friend, just his dutiful manservant. I dreaded the sound of the wind, knowing it was my summons to be storm-driven, demon-haunted.
I was aware that I could not change my nature, no matter what I did. I was not Sergei with his steely focus on his future; I wasn't my brother learning to play the "Third Man Theme" on his guitar. I was the March hare, scampering about tempted by everything and too fickle to stay with anything. Except reading, and little by little, writing. I could address my imaginary other self with my misgivings and worries and it would soothe me, keep me in my chair under the reading lamp. I could tell myself that as long as I had a pen in my hands, I was safe. I wouldn't be blown away by a gale, or flung across the room by some tempestuous Greek god bent on going off to war. I wrote late into the night, and never stopped filling in the white spaces on the page. I was indenting the frozen wastes of Siberia with my delicate, pointed hoe.