My father tells me about the snow melting in April in Russia, when cracks in the Neva River softened, forming tiny rivulets on the ice’s surface. The government buildings on the levee grew whiter in the sunlight of warmer days, and the pavement, he said, seemed forever wet.
His mama sang songs to him in English. Her accent curled the language into patterns he saw in dreams, into ribbons and vines that—sixty years later—still twine in his head when he tells me, “Last night, I dreamed I was home.”
I’m lost in the beauty of it for a minute. But he’s never been to Russia.
He dreamed of the church, he says, the one he and his mama walked to on many spring mornings, a brittle stone cathedral where he was forbidden to speak. He fidgeted on a pew, stretching his leather-shod feet toward the golden tiled floor. The sun shining through the stained glass windows dyed the dust circling above his head red, blue, gold. He tilted his head back and exhaled, listening to his breath echo, and thought he heard the breath of every boy who’d fidgeted there before him.
“Where was this church?” I ask him. I’m sure it’s much closer than he’s telling me. It’s probably a church he went to as a boy in Philadelphia. I want to see it.
His mama slipped into the confessional, he says, her head bowed. My father returned to the wet pavement outside and lay next to the river, his eyes squeezed shut, hoping all the people in the city would dissolve and drip with the melting snow off the bridges and railings. And their voices, the motorcars, the hum of their existence faded. Soon he could only hear the cold water trickling and dripping, moist ribbons and vines. He opened his eyes when his mama came out of the church. They were the only people in the city then, held eternally by one another’s gaze in Old Leningrad.
I know it’s St. Petersburg now. I think it was Leningrad not too many years ago. Maybe he was there during the war.
I walk along another river with him and wonder which details of this story are dream, which are memory, and which are merely story. My father casts secret smiles at the rainwater flowing at the edges of the streets, at the ripples the snakes make as they swim across the river.
This water is the same water that has moved over the earth since it was young.
His hand is dry and rough.