ODESSA, 1953

Raya composes a letter to herself
in the distinctive round hand
of Samuel Marshak,
painstakingly forging the signature
and putting on the date.

An assistant producer, she will leave
tomorrow for a week in Moscow
to finish casting actors
for the shooting of a movie
about belt reforestation,
complete with song and dance
and the requisite unending
patriotic raptures.
The movie will probably fail,
as will the whole concept of reforestation.

During the shoot paid actors
undertake the planting of live trees.
That wasn't anywhere in the contract.
But what do you know--trees, once planted,
grow in their own fashion, in accordance
with the proscribed principles of genetics,
independent of planning and ideology.

In Moscow the letter will be posted
in a lidded navy-blue enameled box
with rounded corners, a bas-relief seal
and a snowy-white inscription: MAIL.
Who knows whether the post office could tell
that the girl addressed it to herself?

What's the difference? Her namesake aunt
and cousin will get the letter while she's gone,
and will not, of course, open the envelope--
that would be uncivilized--but the Moscow postmark
and the famous name will not go unnoticed.

And then Raya will return and read the letter,
written on double-sided, ruled composition paper,
and immediately confide to everyone her amazement
that Marshack himself would write to her regarding
her amatuerish verses (had she composed any
and sent them to Moscow).

All the same, one can understand
why no one asks her
to read the letter aloud,
why the psychiatrist uncle
watches intently, shaking his head.
He, however, has already been relieved
of his position as a way of combatting
Jewish preeminence in science,
and lives in perpetual fear of arrest.
In only half a year, the first stroke
robs him of the gift of speech,
though his thinking remains clear
(as near as one can tell),
and the face remains unchanged,
but for a drooping corner of the mouth
whenever he tries to smile. . .

In photos from that time
they appear separately or in pairs
in various combinations,
but never once all together.

The interior view remains constant
as far back as before the war:
an old armchair next to
a veneered writing table,
in the background, a heavy curtain
embroidered with a Bulgarian cross.

© 1996 Boris Khersonsky. All rights reserved.
Translation by Ruth Kreuzer and Dale Hobson.