Story — From the July 2016 issue

Vladivostok Station

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On my way home today I saw someone in the field, someone I once knew. I was coming down the road from a hill and saw him from a distance. Yet I knew it was him, even from afar and after so long. It was as though he had always been there, still as a tree. Kostya, with the weight of an old grief on his shoulders.

I headed down. He made his way across the field. And then he was there, in front of me, older now, with gray in his hair, but the same to me.

Photographs from Vladivostok, Russia © David Gilkey/NPR/Redux

Photographs from Vladivostok, Russia © David Gilkey/NPR/Redux

“Misha,” he said. “Hello. Can I walk with you?”

I was trying to recall the last time I had seen him or heard his voice. How long it had been. He had spoken to me in Russian. I wondered what he had been doing out here. It was quickly growing dark. And cold. He seemed tired but restless. There was no one else, not in the field or on the road.

So we walked. Kostya fell into step with me. I followed the road, passing under the old linden trees that we used to ride under with a bicycle, me on the seat and Kostya pedaling.

If he noticed me looking at him he didn’t seem to mind. He placed his hands in his jacket pockets. It was a hunting jacket that was too large for him.

“You still have that bag,” Kostya said.

I lifted the bag I was carrying. It was a leather tool bag that had been my grandfather’s. He had bought it from a tinker the day he was released from the camp, not knowing what it was for. He just wanted something of his own, he said.

I used it every day. I packed my lunch and a book. If it was light outside, I walked home reading, something I knew I should never do but did.

A motorbike almost hit me once. I felt the rush of air and the whisper of the motorcyclist’s arm as I tumbled into the field. As the engine noise faded, I saw the dim shape of a plane fly above me and thought of Kostya. It was the last time, I realized now, that I had thought of him.

“Here,” I said. “You can carry it for me.”

Kostya laughed. Still the same laugh. It was nice to hear it. He took the bag from me and we continued down the road through the fields.

The evening came. We smelled the cattle farm. We had been told that winter was coming earlier this year, but there was no wind tonight and the sky was open, full of stars.

“I was heading to the railway,” Kostya said. “When I saw you. I was heading to the mill.”

We called it the mill because it was once a facility for wool, but it was now a maintenance station, for the Trans-Siberian and the local lines, and I worked there. I had worked there for years. I repaired the insides of the train cars. I ripped out the old seats and bolted in new ones. I checked the safety windows, the luggage compartments. I found the things passengers dropped into the crevices — money, house keys, the backs of earrings — and I brought them to the lost and found. Because of my leg I had to rest often, but I had been there the longest and they let me work alone and at the pace I wanted.

Sometimes I stayed on the trains I repaired and went a few stops with the conductors. I liked trying the new chairs. I liked watching the country pass. When I was a child my mother used to take me as far as Vladivostok, but I never went that far now. I didn’t want my father to worry.

Our home was three hours north, at the start of the valley. I lived in my father’s inn. This was in Primorski Krai. The Maritime Territory. My grandparents had moved here. Kostya’s had as well. They were Korean refugees from the Second World War. They had come from the Pacific, from Sakhalin Island, where they had been forced to work in a Japanese labor camp.

After the war, when they were released, there was nowhere to go, nothing for them to return to. So they settled here, in the Far East. They found work and started families of their own.

Kostya used to work in the rice fields with his father. But when his father died, he came to help at the inn my father started. It was a busy time for us. It was beautiful country, and people visited or passed through. We helped guests with their luggage or vacuumed the lobby. We cleaned the rooms together. Sometimes Kostya would notice me rubbing my leg and he would say, “Misha, go rest on the bed,” and he would finish for me, all the while talking about a book he was reading, an adventure story, a hunt.

He liked books. When she could, my mother would bring one back from the city for him. Then he would vanish for hours and I would go looking for him. I would walk through the fields surrounding the town, through the high grass, until I felt something enclose my ankle like the soft mouth of a dog. I was expecting it and yet it always startled me. I slipped down and there he was, sitting there with the book on his lap. So I stayed with him.

Kostya who always slowed for me.

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is the author of a novel, Snow Hunters, and a story collection, Once the Shore. A second collection, The Mountain, will be published next year.

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