After their mother had gone to bed, her snoring rumbling through the walls to confirm she would remain semi-comatose until the next morning, Misha sat at the kitchen table across from Hanah. The kitchen – it was the one place where they could always talk. There were certain things you didn’t say at work or in the store or on the street. But in the kitchen – here you could say anything.

She stared straight past him with the most beautiful round, blue eyes. Her mouth was classically plump and her slender fingers painted delicate circles in the plastic covering draped over the kitchen table. Her jet-black hair bounded up into luscious curls and then swept over her shoulders and down her back.

Misha had spent a lifetime keeping the wolves away from his sister.

“Why do you do this?” she asked.

Misha smiled kindly even as she stared past him. “To protect you.”

“Blyat.”

Hanah groped around the table. Misha slid his hand forward so she could find it. She gripped it tight, her nails biting into his palm.

“You’re too smart,” she said. “You could be a scientist, a mathematician.” She leaned forward, her eyes still staring at the wall behind him. “You could be anything you want.” She shook her head, gripping his hand tighter. “But not this.”

Misha smiled. Even after a lifetime of living with her, he still smiled at her. “I am a poet.”

“Then be a poet here.” She squeezed his hand even tighter. She would never say it, but Misha knew she would always look to him for protection.

Hanah’s face hardened. She closed her eyes. “You are such an idealist. I love that about you, but this is no time to be a boy. You must grow up and realize -“

“Realize what? That I should speak out to people who won’t listen while my country destroys itself?”

“Misha -” Hanah opened her eyes, resumed staring at the wall behind him. “Why must you leave? And don’t say to protect me.”

Misha reached across the table to clasp her hand between his. He squeezed gently. Hanah frowned in consternation because she knew the poet had found his voice.

“Ever since the noose found Nicholas, my family, my home -” He blinked, trying to find words she would hear, words he knew she would understand. ” – my country. My country has spent more than a hundred years stumbling through the dark, trying to find its way home. If only her people would show her the way.” He sat back, shaking his head. “I don’t know if it’s that they’re not listening or they just can’t hear me. Either way, it’s too dangerous now. I need to find a place where I can speak freely by day and sleep soundly at night.”

“Nobody outside Russia needs to hear you Misha. When I was a child, he leveled Grozny to the ground, and still they don’t understand. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to give up.”

“I know.”

Hanah whipped her hands away, groping again to find and hold his between hers. It was a ballet they played out with their hands, a way of taking turns at who was controlling the conversation. Misha slid his hand forward so she could find it and clasp it in her own, even tighter than before. “Then Georgia. Syria.” She leaned forward, her head wavering as she tried to point her eyes at him. “And then Crimea.” She stilled her head, her eyes pointing at him but not focusing on him. “You do not serve Russia by abandoning her in her greatest hour of need.” Hanah’s eyes shimmered and a lone tear rolled down her cheek. “He won’t stop, Misha. Don’t you see? It’s already too late. The only thing to stop him is if every Russian tells him no. And we are not the kind of people who do that.” She wiped away her tear, returned her hand back to his. “For God’s sake, don’t leave us to silence now. Nobody will hear you from a sidewalk café in Paris. Frenchmen who will nod and agree with you don’t count. Russia needs to hear you. They can’t do that if you’re not here.” She squeezed even tighter, her nails nearly drawing blood from his palm. “Don’t go.”

“You’ve been listening to your American friend a little too much. You said it just a moment ago – we are not the kind of people who tell men like Putin to stop. Oh sure, you see the banners now. And you hear the chants. No war. But that will all stop when Rosgvadiya starts tossing people into vans. They’ll flee like rats. You’ll see.”

They both sat quietly for a moment, knowing that neither could change the other’s mind. It had always been this way. Misha took a strange comfort in knowing that his sister would always challenge his thinking. She couldn’t change his mind, but she always managed to help him test his own convictions, to ensure they were strong. He had learned long ago that the world was not perfect nor was it to be entirely understood. She was right about Chechnya and Georgia. They were mistakes. But this was what happened when a country groped its way forward in the modern world. He knew that it had to find that part of itself that was best left behind. He also knew that the wolves were at the door. And they were listening.

Hanah’s voice trembled now. “I never thought of you as a coward, Misha. Never. Not once.” Her lip quivered and her face scrunched up. “Until now.” She pulled her hands away, then grabbed onto his again. Her grip was different now. Pleading softly for him to hear her words.

Misha wasn’t used to his sister berating him. In fact, he couldn’t remember a single time she ever had. He wanted to smile at the passion of her naïveté. But then he realized she would be on her own after he was gone, for a while anyway. And he felt a shiver when he thought of what she might do.

He pulled his hands away, pinned hers down with one palm and then grasped her hands in his, raising them a few inches off the table. This way, she knew what he was about to say was serious.

“Listen to me now,” he said. “Don’t go off and do something stupid. I have a plan. You need to be patient. And smart.”

Hanah’s hands were like two swollen boards in his. She wasn’t squeezing back to acknowledge her agreement.

“Promise me,” he said. “Promise me you’ll keep quiet and wait for me.”

He looked at her for a long time after that. Hanah stared blankly at the wall behind him. Her hands remained still. All he could do was wait for her to think it through and finally concede to her older brother, who had protected her from the day she was born. He waited for his sister to do what she always did. He waited for her to trust him.

Finally, Hanah opened her mouth and whispered, “Don’t go.”


©2022 Michael J Lawrence

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