The Griboedov Canal


       My closest friend has to be the Griboedov Canal. Its railings with their wrought iron chain of oblong links seem to be crooning a continuous sad 'Oooh'. But once you look up, they promptly change their song.

       These days the railings - seemingly endless as they trace every curve of the river - offer me a promise of hope and peace. No more turmoil in my life, no more ups and downs. Then, suddenly, the river reveals an abrupt descent of steep steps, dark with time, luring you down into the black void of no return. Risk is ever so irresistible! But fear not: a short way from the steps, iron rings are hammered into the banks' stone sides as would-be life buoys for hapless swimmers.

       I love my canal. What secrets does it harbor in that impenetrable depth dark as twilight? I go there in summer when motor boats plough through its calm waters. I visit it in fall, walking unhurriedly as I watch gold and brown clusters of fallen leaves float toward the Gulf of Finland. I come to check on it in winter as it lies in frozen slumber, its banks steaming with the city's impatient breath. Then in springtime it wakes again as the aging poplars study their revived reflections in its muddy waters.

       Unable to resist its magic, I keep coming back to its banks. Isn't it time I turn to the Neva embankment? Shouldn't I take a stroll along the Moika or take in some Fontanka views instead? I'd rather not!

       The Neva is just too proud in her first lady's arrogance, her granite-clad banks too stately. Playing her waves, she seems to sneer at the Canal's humble railings. She is seconded by the Moika, this provincial belle, the starched lace of her railings pleasing the eye of the rich mansions resting on its banks. All that gentry don't understand the Canal's artless disarray.

       The Fontanka meets me with a bristling row of steel rails, their vertical bars too rigid, ready to drag me in, bent on making me forget everything that's flexible - be it a cast iron curve, a sigh or a hope. Even the river's span is deceiving in its promise of freedom, its opposite bank bound by an identical row of bars.

       So I go back to my Griboedov Canal, poor and squiggly, and weird like myself. Squeezed between the rows of gloomy buildings, it cuts through streets and avenues, getting in everybody's way, people's as well as vehicles'. The city hall has long been toying with the idea of filling it in. But the proud waterway doesn't give up, jingling the pretty bangles of its bridges over its narrow course. It never ends; the humble old brook that our ancestors called the Crooky keeps flowing into eternity. You can't think of St. Petersburg these days without remembering its calm greenish flow.


       Springtime is back. As you and I walk together along the Griboedov Canal, its curves echo in my memory; its turns, bridges and descents the milestones of my life. I don't stumble along its cobblestones any more, the embankment long sealed with tarmac. Only the poplars, fat with age, still cling to the remaining patches of earth. The trees are hopelessly sick: their once-thick bark is now flaking, exposing their vulnerable trunks. I look up at the blue above. It feels so good to be with you.

       You haven't changed that much. Your gait has lost some of its spring; your strawberry hair seems to have lost its golden glint. Are you tongue-tied or just smugly indifferent? My memory keeps replaying your words time and time again, 'Don't you understand? You're the second most important person to me. The second in the whole world! Isn't that enough?' I don't say anything. Some answers are hard to find.

       We've come to the Lions Bridge. Once strawberry-colored like yourself, they are equally gray now. Wonder who painted them this off-white? That spring, all those years back, you crossed the bridge on your own. That day, each of us walked their own bank. But today, we're together again. Unhurried, we step onto its wooden planks. We stop in the middle of its rampant span. I look down at the water, watching the remaining chunks of dirty ice float down the canal. It's mixed with all sorts of winter junk: a hat, some torn book pages and a peeling old door. The door to a life that forever stayed somebody else's.

       Are you still waiting for me to answer? I whisper the words that are hard to say. You won't hear them, though. You're too far away now. There's no one here standing next to me. I'm alone, I always am. My words fall from my silent lips, melting the spongy ice.


       Translated from Russian by Irene Woodhead