7:03am

Thu April 25, 2013
First Reads

Exclusive First Read: 'A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena'

Originally published on Thu April 25, 2013 1:13 pm

  • Listen to the Excerpt

Until last week, when the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings were revealed to be Chechen, you might not have spent much time thinking about Chechnya. It's far away. It might not even be the country you're picturing as you read this.

In short, it's not an obvious place for Anthony Marra to set his stunning new novel, but it works. The story begins with the disappearance of a man named Dokka. His neighbors watch as the police grab him from his house and burn it to the ground. They know his young daughter, Havaa, is hiding in the yard, and once the police are gone, a kind neighbor takes Havaa into the city, hoping the hospital will take her in. It's a long shot. There is only one doctor left at the hospital, the tough but overworked Sonja Rabina.

The novel moves back and forth from the village to the hospital. In both places the people living in this war-torn land are faced with terrible decisions. Do you inform on your neighbors to save your father? Do you expend your energies protecting your dying wife?

This is a deeply rich novel. The action takes place over only a couple days, but the stories span lifetimes. Humans can do terrible things to one another, but in this book they are capable of shocking devotion as well. It's a war story like you've never read before. In this excerpt, Sonja has just returned from London to Chechnya, where she hopes she will find her missing sister. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena will be published May 7.


Within days after the proposal of the Khasavyurt Peace Accord, Sonja broke up with her Scottish fiancé, resigned from her residency at the University College Hospital, and sat through connecting flights from London to Warsaw to Moscow to Vladikavkaz. The backseat of the gypsy cab she took from the airport had been removed to allow room for luggage, and her single suitcase slid with the curvature of the road, thudding again and again against the back of her seat, as if to reiterate the lesson that despite the illusions she'd entertained while Brendan's chest rose and receded against hers, her life was small enough to fit inside a piece of luggage. Fuck me, she thought, what am I doing back here?

Dark plumes drifted from distant smokestacks, a chain of wind-rounded mountains, the taste of post-Soviet air like a dirty rag in her mouth. When they reached the bus terminal, she waited until her roller suitcase was safely on the ground before paying the driver. The Samsonite, a final gift from Brendan, might as well have been a neon-lit billboard advertising her foreignness as she rolled it past the imperial-era steamer trunks of other travelers. The nationalized bus line no longer ran routes into Chechnya, but after she had waited for an hour in a three-person line, a clerk directed her to a kiosk that sold lesbian porn, Ukrainian cigarettes, Air Supply cassettes, and tickets on a privately owned bus that made a weekly journey from North Ossetia to Chechnya. The next departure wasn't until the following morning. Though tired from travel, she knew she wouldn't sleep. She sat through the night on a wooden bench with one of her shoelaces tied around the suitcase handle to discourage gypsy children from rolling off with it.

"I am driving you all to your graves," the bus driver announced as he walked down the aisle to collect tickets at a quarter past six in the morning. He leaned back as though balancing an invisible shot glass on his round stomach. "If given the opportunity, I will sell you all to the first bandit, kidnapper, or slave trader we come across. Don't say you haven't been warned. I wouldn't have to drive this bus to that country if you hadn't purchased these tickets, and for that I will drive over every pothole and divot to make the ride as miserable for you as it will be for me. And no, we will be making no bathroom breaks, and yes, it is because I know the pain a pothole causes a full bladder."

She dozed for an hour with her head resting against the window. Every bump in the road was transferred through the glass and recorded by her temple. The sharp pitch of brakes, followed by the bullhorn- amplified instructions of a Russian border guard, brought her back to sudden consciousness. The soldiers were all fear and peach fuzz. They ordered the passengers off the bus and demanded each open his or her luggage in a field twenty meters from the road, while they, the waiting soldiers, crouched with their arms wrapped around their legs and their eyes clamped tight, as if jumping into a lake. The poor driver swayed from side to side. Since he was a boy, living on the banks of the Terek, he had dreamed of owning his own tour boat. Six and three-quarter years earlier, just a week before the Berlin Wall fell, the driver had sunk his life's savings into a tour boat, never built, and a contract, never fulfilled, to ferry Party members along the Terek. Now he sat on the ground and rested his back against the tires of the bus, but the land was a swelling and uncertain ocean and he would feel seasick for many years.

The checkpoint left Sonja charged, and as they crossed from Russian-controlled North Ossetia into Chechnya, she stared through the window she had slept on. On the crater-consumed road the driver made good on his pledge. They passed deserted fields. A toppled farmhouse. A plow resting at the end of a furrow, four months past sowing season. A burning oil well. At the horizon the mountains wore skullcaps of snow. It took ten hours to drive the two hundred kilometers to Volchansk. Checkpoints dotted the highway more regularly than the boarded petrol stations. At each one she carried her suitcase twenty meters from the road and opened it as soldiers held their ears in anticipation.

She spoke to the elderly woman sitting beside her, rolling each word in her mouth like an olive pit before spitting it out, and the woman was a wonderful listener, quiet and attentive as Sonja unfastened the latch to what had been her life until two days prior. She cataloged Brendan's shortcomings—his unclipped hangnails, his habit of singing Rodgers and Hammerstein while peeing, his reluctance to correct her grammatical errors—but even as she tried to convince the old woman that Brendan would have made a lousy husband, she missed the way he would write his initials in the pad of her thumb with his hardened hang-nails, the way the flush of toilet water accompanied the hiiiiiiilllllls are aliiiiiiiiive with the sound of muuuuuusiiiiic, the intentional grammatical mistakes he would make, to see if she would catch them, as they took a

sledgehammer to the rules of English and reassembled the pieces into a language only they understood. It was wonderful to unburden herself to a sympathetic ear. An hour passed before the old woman pulled a notepad from her purse, scribbled on it, and passed it to Sonja. I thought you would have realized, the old woman had written. I'm deaf.

The four-story Volchansk terminal was now a one-story rubble heap. The bus driver held out his hat for tips as they disembarked. "You will all die in this hellscape," he cheerfully announced. "Would you rather your rubles go to your godless murderers, or to me, an honest and pious bus driver, who braves death each week to provide for his family?"

Against her better judgment, Sonja dropped a hyper-inflated thousand-ruble note into the hat, and climbed down before he could curse her. At the next block she caught up with the old woman, who had flagged down a lemon-colored Lada. The old woman had grown up on a lemon orchard and for her first seventeen years she hadn't eaten a meal that wasn't made of lemon. There had been lemon cucumber salad, lemon vinaigrette beans, lemon-glazed chicken, lemon-stuffed trout, lemon lamb kabob, lemon-dill rice, lemon-roasted chicken thighs, lemon-curd dressing, lemon pudding, lemon-apricot cake, lemon marmalade cookies, and on it went. She was still four years and one month away from her seventy-sixth birthday and the miracle of her first lime.

The old woman gestured for her to take the cab, and when Sonja refused, she pulled out her notepad and just below I'm deaf wrote Curfew will begin soon and you are younger and prettier than me.

What had been a delivery van blocked the road three blocks from the flat. Sonja climbed out, and the lemon-colored Lada sped off before she could close the door. The apartment block on the left had lost its exterior wall and she observed the rooms like a mouse peering into a dollhouse. She turned to the road where pieces of ground went missing at regular intervals. The land was supposed to be flat, no hills or valleys for fifty kilometers, yet here she was, climbing into a canyon, the dirt wet and thick as she descended asphalt and clay, clambering over broken

masonry that had fallen through six stories of air and one story of earth, finding her footing on sewage pipes, cursing and kicking the Samsonite when she remembered the instruction booklet's clearly stated direction that the luggage was only suited for paved surfaces, and she was standing at the bottom of the crater when it hit her—I'm standing at the bottom of a fucking crater! —and the impact doubled her over, followed immediately by the uppercut of a question—What am I doing in the bottom of a fucking crater? —to which the answer was as insubstantial as the word on her lips, three syllables naming the reason for her return—Natasha—her sister, haughty, beautiful, and unfathomably comfortable in social situations, whom she had last spoken to on the phone the day the first war began, one year, nine months and three weeks earlier, whom she had last seen the day she left for London, four years, eight months, and one week earlier, whom she had last envied five years and two months earlier, on the day before the day she received news of the London fellowship, and whom she had last loved at some indeterminate point in the past before they had grown into the people they were to be. She wouldn't climb out of bed for her sister, but she had climbed into a crater. She wouldn't cross a room, but she had crossed a continent.

Her apartment block stood past the bakery where, as a child, she had been given tea cakes in exchange for sweeping flour from the floor and repackaging it in brown paper bags. The apartment block windows were blown out and a line of bullet holes leaked light into the doorframe, but it still stood. The front door lay before the threshold like a welcome mat. She climbed to the third floor. Her breaths didn't fill her chest.

Her flat was locked and she knocked on the door and waited, but no pattering footsteps or groaning floorboards answered her. After a fourth quartet of raps led to a fourth silence, she pulled the spare key from her toiletry bag and opened the door. She didn't call out; the thought of her own unheard voice seemed unbelievably sad. Across the room empty window frames held square pieces of twilight. A half-burned candle sat on the dining table, anchored in a shot glass by melted wax. In the past two days she'd slept five hours and an aching exhaustion reverberated

through her, tingling her skin. She lit the candle and the small glow fluttered across the egg-white walls. No receipts or envelopes or letters remained, nothing light enough for the wind to carry through the empty frames, nothing on which a good-bye might be written. The furniture was as she remembered: the divan against the right living room wall, still stained where Natasha had dropped an entire pot of borscht; the black-and-white Ekran television set perched on a milking stool; the wooden kitchen table leveled by three matchbooks. This had been her home. This had been her life. That had been her divan. She was returning to it, burying her face in the cushions and weeping into fabric that all these years later still held the scent of beets.

The next morning she went to the doors of the adjacent units. She couldn't recall the names of her neighbors, and judging from her unanswered knocks, they had fled from their flats as from her memory. On the fourth day footsteps came from the hallway. Sonja found a hunched woman wearing a green raincoat even though the sun was shining. The woman carried a dozen plastic shopping bags layered inside each other and tied at the straps.

"Who are you?" the woman asked, with enough suspicion to flatten the question to an accusation. Laina had been on the far side of middle age when Sonja accepted the London fellowship. She had worked the cosmetics counter at the Main Department Store and had gorgeous skin, skin that a thirty-year-old would envy, skin that her supervisor correctly cited as the cosmetic counter's most effective advertisement, skin plied with every moisturizer and emulsion stocked within the glass display case, skin that Sonja and her mother and even her sister had admired, that now looked like the skin of a peach left for many days in the sun.

"I'm Sonja." Laina's fingertips scrutinized her, holding her wrists, bending her ears. "I see," Laina said, at last convinced of Sonja's corporeal form. "You lived here."

"I heard you in the hall," Sonja said a few minutes later, as they drank tea in Laina's flat. "I thought you were someone else."

"You shouldn't open the door when you hear strangers. It's never a good idea."

"It was this once."

"This is the one in a million." "Then I'm very, very lucky."

"No, you are very, very stupid."

"Why are you wearing a raincoat? There isn't a cloud for kilometers."

Laina went to the empty window frames, through which she could see what was left of the city, a view that stretched sixteen blocks farther than it had two years earlier. "I don't trust God. Who knows what he's planning up there." The bazaar had gradually been repopulated with vendors and sheet-metal kiosks and elderly women like Laina for whom war was no hindrance to a good haggle. She had just bartered a jar of engine oil for sandals that bore the blackened imprints of forty different toes. Once she had had a husband, now dead, whom she could trust not to cheat on her in a brothel. Once she had had a son, now missing, whom she had threatened to marry to Sonja if he misbehaved. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin smiled on the face of the clock hanging over the stove, and Sonja studied him as she gathered the breath to dislodge the question that for one and a half years had been wedged in her voice box. When the hour hand fell into the cosmonaut's outstretched palm, she inhaled and asked, "Do you know where Natasha is?" Laina bit her lip and shook her head. "I don't know where anyone is."

No one could answer the question. Days turned to weeks and Sonja accosted the few remaining tenants as they left for work, food, battle or better shelter, but she never received more than a shake of the head, a shrug of the shoulders, an apology. There was no sign of forced entry and the made bed in Natasha's room suggested a deliberate departure. In the bottom dresser drawer Sonja found the burgundy cardigan she'd given Natasha for her eighteenth birthday, the one Natasha had hated and called a babushka's sweater, and never wore, not even once, on a chilly

day, to appease Sonja. It was just what Natasha would leave behind.

She held that sweater, wrapping the arms over her shoulders as if in an embrace. Hospital No. 6 hired her without requesting an application or résumé. When she provided a list of references in London, Deshi crumpled the paper, tossed it under the desk, and told Sonja that Dr. Wastebasket would dutifully contact each recommender. Sonja's former professors had fled to the West, to the countryside, to private practices in places where they could save lives without endangering their own. Unimpeded by a hierarchical bureaucracy or institutional memory, she rose from resident to head surgeon in two months. Land mines didn't obey the Khasavyurt Peace Accord, and within a year she had more trauma surgery experience than the professors she'd studied under. She worked with gratitude for the pain of her patients. In their cries she heard her name as though she were the missing sister, recalled by their gibberish to this place where she amputated limbs and stanched bleeding, where her training was so needed and scarce her patients saw her hovering over the hospital bed as the last prophet of life, whom they pleaded with and praised and spoke to in prayer.

The days were urgent, without pause for reflection beyond the recall of case studies and anatomy lessons. At night she drifted home. If she remembered, she would brush her teeth with baking soda and recite the prayers her mother had taught her. Her tongue fumbled with those awkward and ancient words, and though no one was listening she found a measure of peace in this obsolete language of supplication. After crossing herself, she lay back on the divan and squirted a cool puddle of hand lotion from the bottle she'd brought from London. Invariably she would apply too much, and her hands would be slick and shiny in the candle- light as she asked for another pair with which to share the excess.

The weeks stacked into months that were flipped from the Red Cross calendar hanging behind the waiting-room reception desk; the calendar was from 1993 and would be reused until 2006 and for those thirteen years her birthday would always fall on a Monday. She marked the days, but time didn't march forward; instead it turned from day to night, from hospital to flat, from cries to silence, from claustrophobia to loneliness and back again, like a coin flipping from side to side. Happiness came in moments of unpredictable loveliness. The blind man who played accordion for her as she splinted the broken leg of his guide dog. The boy who narrated his dreams while recovering from meningitis.

Then, one evening, a knock sounded from the door as she prepared for sleep. She considered and disregarded Laina's advice as the doorknob slipped in her greasy grip. When she opened the door she wanted to scream. Natasha stood right there, in front of her, close enough to hold. She did scream, and she embraced Natasha, and later, on the divan, she took Natasha's hands in her own and rubbed until hers were dry.

Copyright 2013 by Anthony Marra. From A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, published by Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Audio copyright 2013 by Random House Audio.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.