At 25 million years, Baykal is the world’s oldest in-land sea. This banana shaped lake in Siberia contains one fifth of the planet’s unfrozen fresh water and, at 1,642 metres, it is the world’s deepest. The Mongols knew it simply as ‘Tenghis’ or Sea while the Buryat-Mongols called it, the Big Basin. Vast and mysterious, shipping is regularly lost to Baykal’s nightmarish depths.
1925: early morning on board the Trans-Siberian Railway, heading east about five weeks before the Jewish festival of Hanukah
Arms outstretched, crucified and helpless, Meyer hovers in the sky, late afternoon sunlight anointing his face with a wash of pink. He can’t understand why he’s here. What does he look like to the people below? Will someone taking a stroll in the gathering dusk, gaze up and be reminded of those flying angels in the Chagall paintings his Dad likes? Meyer looks down but can see no brightly painted Chagall village. It’s a stark scene below. A lonely house at the centre of a vast frozen lake.
Below him, Meyer sees deep white veins etched into the ice. Why are they there? They radiate from the solitary building like thoughts from a brain crisscrossing beneath the ice for kilometres. He continues to stare at them. Maybe if he stares long enough he can unlock their meaning?
Despite the height - and not being able to move –it’s a great view. Hovering there, neither the air’s dry stillness nor the lack of sound seems strange. He expresses no surprise when, with a thought, he drops to the house. Feels no shock standing on ice next to the house. Mum will be waiting for him inside he thinks, for although the village has disappeared, it is of course his home on the outskirts of Minsk. How can one forget a home? Constructed from horizontal wooden boards of sea foam green, it is all so familiar. Around the window are the cerulean blue trims Mum loves and lower, ice decorates the planks as if a thousand fingers were clutching the base of the home.
But Mum isn’t in the cottage and for some reason the wooden floor has disappeared; the bare structure just rests on the translucent ice. And it’s sinking. Moving slowly at first, the sky disappears as the house drowns inside walls of ice. As their home is pulled into the freezing water through a crust of ice, his chest begins to tighten.
Paralysed with fear, it doesn’t occur to Meyer to ask why water isn’t rushing in or how the ice floor remains solid as it sinks hundreds of metres. Waiting below there is simply a dark void, as ponderous and heavy as the water above. The lake is a cavernous kingdom like the insides of a hollowed out upturned mountain. And it’s bottomless. He’s sinking into a bottomless lake, his breath catching fast as he pictures the water above. He screams though nobody’s around for miles to hear his voice or help him; buried so deeply under the ice, escape is impossible.
A banging sound pulled Meyer from the ice but tiny shards were dragged up too: there was blood in his mouth and the tightly gripped bed sheets had imprinted deep patterns on his hands. He was back on the Trans-Siberian, not beneath Lake Baykal. The sound was coming from the window. The train had stopped.
A warm hand gently stroked his thick hair, not tied back in its usual ponytail; another warm hand squeezed his shoulder a little. The hands of a man who thought for a living, they were Dad’s soft hands. Meyer felt safe. An older, clean-shaven, version of Meyer, simply smiled for a long moment before calling him ‘boy chick’. He hated that name. He was almost sixteen! But, he tolerated it a while longer as he shared his night’s terrors.
The corners of his father’s eyes wrinkled. “Bad dream?” he asked. “Ice again?” Meyer nodded. “Our old home?” Meyer nodded again. “We’re going to have to teach you to swim!” Meyer watched as his father, Solly, crinkled his lips, and blinked twice. Dad’s way of hiding embarrassment. He was going to ask about Mum again. Yes, here it came. Slowly nodding his head, Dad asked, “Was she in the dream, this time?”
“No. The house was empty…but it was so real, Dad. Just like home.” There was another knock on the glass, and then further taps as behind the curtain unseen hands moved along the windows of their carriage. Meyer sat up, more alert.
Pulling aside the curtain, the remnants of nightmare dissolved into the fading gloom of the night. Grey shadows moved about outside. It was nearly morning. A weathered platform sign announced their location. “Ah, Yekaterinburg. Your uncle Harry’s been working here. Yekaterinburg…” his father said, then paused lost in thought. “The last resting place of the Romanovs,” he added cryptically, finishing with yet another smile: “So it is rumoured.” Interested, Meyer turned but his father added defensively. “It’s only what people say. The whole family were supposedly held at a ‘House of Special Purpose’; a house so ‘special’ the entire Royal Family never left. Not alive, anyway.”
Confusion showed in Meyer’s face and his father began clarifying his statement. “Nobody really knows exactly what happened to the Tsar and his family. They were just disappeared!”
“Disappeared? I don’t understand. Why did they have to kill the Tsar, Dad? Hadn’t they already forced him to abdicate?”
His father gripped his right fist in his left hand and stroked the knuckle of his right index finger with his left thumb. A familiar movement to Meyer; whenever Dad explained things he spoke in the manner of the kindly and patient teacher, which he was. As if Dad felt he had a solemn duty to educate not just because he was a father but also because he was a teacher.
Meyer’s father looked down, took a deep breath and adopted a wise countenance he sometimes adopted, assuming full responsibility for the name, Solomon; a name he had no part in choosing but felt a sacred responsibility to live up to. “Meyer, the reason they killed the Tsar and his family is the same reason most good and bad is done in this world, at least as far as I can see.” He paused dramatically.
Meyer accepted another dramatic pause. Dad could never resist it. “Well, basically, it’s fear. Mind you,” his voice deepened and he opened his eyes widely, “once you kill the Tsar you can’t avoid the consequences. All of Lenin’s horses and all of Lenin’s men couldn’t put the Romanovs together again. Like ’Humpty Dumpty’, yes? And now Lenin’s gone as well...”
“I still don’t understand. Why were they so afraid of one man?”
“Because…” his father bit his lip. “Because many people believed, and I think still do believe, that Tsar Nicholas was appointed by God. While he lived – even hidden away in exile - Russians would fight to the death for the belief in his divine right; even now they might. The Bolsheviks didn’t hide what they’d done. They needed everyone to know they’d killed the Tsar and his heirs.” He paused awhile and then smiled.” Do you know what else I believe?” Meyer shook his head. “I believe…we’re both…very…hungry! And you know, a person can forget almost anything…”
“But their hunger,” Meyer finished. Solly smiled, gave him a few kopeks and moved aside so Meyer could buy them breakfast.