Butyrka, the oldest of the five prisons, was originally designed as a palace, but quickly the grand chateau was converted into a crowded and dirty prison, although by comparison to Lubianka, prison of death, a more relaxed facility. Butyrka had an excellent library, shelves overflowing with books left by inmates who were exiled, transferred to other prisons, or comrades who had been executed. Eventually James was allowed to experience the vast collection, but only once a month. James's first visit, accompanied by an unfriendly escort wanting to escape to a quiet area to sleep off a night of drinking, allowed him to wander through the shelves.
Stacked on top of Dostoyevsky's semi-autobiography The House of the Dead, portraying the life of an intellectual gentleman exiled to a Siberian labor camp, sat a slim volume of poetry by Anna Akhmatova. James thought to himself, I struggled through that Dostoyevsky book because of the Russian language, but I could decipher enough to identify with his protagonist. Shuffling further down the aisle, James lovingly fingered a leather-bound book of Tolstoy's—Anna Karenina, which poked the spine of a Pushkin novel. Sitting alone on a middle shelf, a translation by Auguste Edgard Dietrich was open to page 13. Feeling around the worn wood plank, comrade Mo's heart leapt when his hand dragged out a tattered book that was deliberately shoved in the back of an overstuffed shelf, the pages brittle and tawny with age. Its title, The Cruise of the Snark, a large S crudely hand carved into the cover, was almost illegible. James twisted his neck back and forth.
Who's playing a trick on me? How was I led to this, my favorite book?
James whispered, "Jessi? Jessi London, my first love, are you here?"
Comrade Mo glanced around again and opened the book. There was a hand-drawn map of a lake in northern Siberia on the first page. James was astonished when a sepia-toned postcard, sandwiched between the pages and featuring a native islander with bracelets and piercings, floated to the concrete floor. Bending to pick up the card, he thought, This islander posed for London in 1908 on the Solomon Islands. It's right on the back of the card. The postcard was in mint condition but had left a perfect rectangle of dull ochre outlining the text. James craned his neck for the guard before stuffing the photograph into his loose pants. It was there at Butyrka library that James learned Jack London was not only a journalist but an accomplished photographer. The Cruise of the Snark detailed London's travels from San Francisco to Tahiti on the Snark. I can't believe this! James thought. I remember clearly the day Jessi read Snark to me. When James flipped through the pages, he saw that the previous owner had written notes in German in the margins. Where are my German friends when I need them?
Squirreling the book back in the darkest recesses of the shelf, James made a mental note for his next library visit. Immersed in the collection's enormity, he wandered through the serpentine corridors to a roped-off section where books were stacked floor to ceiling. He cocked his head, mouthing the titles on the spines: The Hermitage Collection of Russian Paintings, Graphite by Varlam S., and The World of Diaghilev, founder of the Ballet Russes. The Byzantine Empire, and Selected Stories by Lu Xun, considered China's greatest writer, was stacked on top of three Dostoyevsky novels. No sooner had James opened another book than the escort growled awake.
"Okay, Mo, move it. Let's go. Where are you? Not good to keep me waiting."
"Just a minute, sir," James bravely, or stupidly, shouted back to his escort.
"What did you say to me, you anti-Soviet traitor?" James heard his spit hit the floor as he called out. "Where are you, Mo, you lying piece of shit?"
Cursing, the escort's breath danced with alcohol as he wound his way through a circuitous web of small aisles, his boots clacking hard on the parquet floor. Hungry for knowledge and thirsting for words, James breathed hard, inhaling the smell as his escort inched closer. When the escort discovered James arched over a Russian dictionary, he curled his thick leg back, brushing the heel of his boot against his buttocks, felling James with a powerful kick. Grabbing his groin, James coughed up his breakfast. Bitter liquid puddled under his tongue, mixing with soft bits of black bread. His cheek was inches from the man's foot, so close he could see his reflection in the guard's highly polished hip boots. James didn't recognize himself. Who are you? You're not Comrade Mo. What's happened to me? I look dead. I've aged.
Nightmares, boredom, sleep deprivation, and loneliness were constant companions. There was no letup in James's dreams. Images of Victoria and Celia crashed against each other. Savage night terrors sent him into days of depression. Lights in the gloomy brown cells remained lit all night, blistering inmates' brains. During daylight James fought to be sanguine, with reflections of Victoria, his boy Valery, and his wife, Nadia. Struggling to keep those thoughts alive, he narrowly kept going night after night, month after month, year after year.
What Celia must have gone through with me… It couldn't have been easy. Please forgive me.
Correspondence was not allowed in prison.
Even if I could communicate with Celia, I doubt she'd return my letters. Sinking lower and lower, doubting he would ever see his international family, negativity wrapped around him like a chain of weights. He ached to hold his little girl, Victoria, the daughter he had never met, fantasizing about her looks, her athletic ability. Is she good in sports? Does she look like me? Does she write poetry, does she paint? What is her favorite music? When we meet, I'll teach her to play the dulcimer. Does Celia tell her about me? What does my daughter read? What color is her hair, her lips, her skin? I don't have to wonder if she's smart. Does my girl know what a revolutionary is? Has Celia taught her the Communist Internationale?
James's ruminations' would one day be answered, but not today.