Wednesday, March 30, 2011


I decided to learn Russian because of a story. A story of a woman named Anna Anderson, who claimed to be the lost Duchess Anastasia. I was fascinated with the story, wanted desperately for it to be true - the darkness, the tragedy, the romance of it all. And when I read the books, read obsessively the story of the execution of the Romanov family, in the city with which I shared a name, (in Russian, you see, my name is Ekaterina. Katya, if you and I are friends. Katyusha, if we are very good friends.) well. There are stories that stick with us, that write themselves on our hearts. That became one for me.

So when it came time to choose a foreign language in high school, I chose Russian.

I had a bad moment, the first day of class, when the word for "hello" - seventeen letters long - was written across most of the blackboard. But by the end of that first class period, I knew the alphabet like a friend, and the words for hedgehog and for fuck.

Did I mention I had a rather extraordinary teacher? Bill Garrison. In Russian, Vasily Vasilitch. We called him Bolshoi Bill. Big Bill. Over six and a half feet tall, a giant of a man, and not just physically. He was one of those teachers that stay with you, that change your life. I met some incredible people because of him, including Zoya Zarubina, Stalin's translator at Yalta. She told me I spoke like a native. It was one of the best compliments I will ever receive.

It was also because of Bolshoi Bill that I met Koschei the Deathless. He told us stories of Koschei, and Grandfather Frost, and Baba Yaga. I met a whole world of fairy tales I had never known before because of him. And I wish, I wish so hard today that I could give him a book, Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente, which is a story of Koschei the Deathless. Which, even though I have just begun it, I know is a magic book, the kind of book Mr. Garrison would have loved.

But people, unlike stories, and unlike the emerald-hearted Koschei, are not deathless, and Bolshoi Bill, Vasily Vasilitch, Mr. Garrison, died of bone cancer my first year of law school. And I miss him always, and Cat's book makes me miss him even more, even as I remember him so well as I read it.

Deathless is a magic book. It is the kind of story that will write itself upon your heart.

1 comment:

  1. You are making my reading list (more) unruly! *smile* I'll be adding this one to it.

    It's funny how some people stick with us -- teachers who shape who we are and who we become. I've had a few like Bolshoi Bill, and they're special.

    I am sorry that you lost Mr. Garrison to cancer. It is a vile disease, and it's so difficult to watch someone suffer through it. But I have a feeling that he'd be proud that this book reminded you of him. You carry his memory.