What do you all think? Does it need anything?
One day, Ravchenko showed me a map, spreading it out on a table in our little room. He pointed to Omsk, and then traced his finger up the Irtysh River, coming to rest on a town called Tara.
“It’s a small town, but it’s gotten its share of refugees lately, too, so they’re in need of doctors,” he said, “I’m going.”
“I’ll go,” I said, “Anything’s got to be better than here.”
Ravchenko turned to Vasiliy, “I assume you’d rather stay here?”
“What’ve I got here? You think I want to stay here because every count in Russia is here?” Vasiliy scoffed, “The aristocracy doesn’t like me because of my father, and the Bolsheviks don’t like me because of my mother. You two don’t seem to mind having me around. I think after surviving in the middle of nowhere with you two once, I can do it again.”
The town of Tara sat at the confluence of the Tara and Irtysh rivers. Going into the town, the scenery was dominated by six white Orthodox churches with blue roofs and gold domes that rose and glimmered above the square, wooden two-story houses that most people lived in. Heading out of the town, the wide swath of the rivers cut through the green plains at the south end and thick forest at the north end. Tara was large enough to have all the commodities of a city: a hospital, library, and schools, but it was still provincial enough that all the roads were unpaved, and in the springtime when I arrived, they were mostly a thick muddy soup. Locals rode through the muck in their horse-led sledges and laughed at me, the newcomer trying to pull his feet out of the sucking mud. It wasn’t all that unusual to find a stray cow gnawing at a patch of weeds growing in the foundation of a house I would go to the market to buy whatever I needed.
Ravchenko, Vasiliy and I found an inn to stay in until we could find more permanent housing, or perhaps even go back home. The room was larger and cleaner than the one in Omsk, but its furnishings were still spartan and space was tight. From the vantage point of the room in the inn where we were staying, I could see through the rust and brown of the roofs of people’s homes, to the sparkling, twisting river, and the seemingly endless grassland beyond, all covered by a gleaming blue bowl of a sky. I often found myself distracted by it, sometimes imagining that I could float on the water like a feather all the way to it source in the Altay Mountains of China. Other refugees had come to Tara before us, and at night as we ate dinner we’d share stories of how we ended up here. A pretty blonde girl by the name of Zinaida captivated me with the story of leaving her family’s estate in Smolensk for Siberia. My heart sank when she said that she was following her fiancé, a captain in the White Army. The inn was owned by a man by the name of Babayev, and he had a boy my age named Misha who worked for him. Misha told me about the history of Tara: how it was one of the oldest cities in Siberia and how his family had been inTarafor so long that they’d taken the surname of Irtyshov. He told me all about the locals, who to trust, who made good things, and who was dishonest and who was not to be crossed. I worked with Ravchenko, going out to people’s homes when they were too sick or hurt to bring themselves to the hospital. I was good at calming people while Ravchenko bandaged their wounds or examined their sick children.
Occasionally, ripples of discontent would break through. As the White government controlled the food supplies, prices were still high enough that most people had abandoned using currency altogether, and Ravchenko and I often took home our pay in chickens, fresh milk, and sacks of beans. People often heard me speak with my lack of an accent, and they would knit their eyebrows in suspicion and ask where I was from and what my father did. It wasn’t unusual for Ravchenko’s suggestions of modern medicines to be rejected in favor of herbal remedies and prayers to saints that had worked for families for hundreds of years.
Not long after we arrived, the town’s dock workers went on strike to protest the erosion of rights for which they’d struggled for years. The police came out with whips and pistols and broke up the strike. I knew that it was a lucky thing that only five people were killed. I kept repeating to myself that it could have been much, much worse. As I left the hospital that night, I saw the rage in the faces of the comrades of the fallen, I knew that this wouldn’t be the last time.