Excerpt 1 - The Banya
Finally Masha said, "Now we wash."
"How do we wash?"
"In snow," said Katya.
"We jump in snow," said Masha.
"Isn't that dangerous? You know," I gasped, gesturing at my chest in the murk, "for the heart."
"Life is dangerous," said Masha, dripping an arm around me. "No one survived it yet."
We slipped out on the sweaty floor and closed the door. We went straight through the anteroom. Masha and Katya dived giggling and face down into a patch of deep untouched snow by the back fence, under a heavy pine tree. I shivered for about three seconds and jumped after them.
It felt as if I'd been slapped all over, or stung by a thousand bees, but in a good way, the snow killing the heat of the banya in an arrested heartbeat. More than that, it felt as if I'd done something reckless, like a high dive or a train robbery, and lived through it. The tingly pain proved that I was alive, every inch of me was alive, more alive than ever.
That's the truth about the Russians that I missed until it was too late. The Russians will do the impossible thing: the thing you think they can't do, the thing you haven't even thought of. They will set fire to Moscow when the French are coming or poison each other in foreign cities. They will do it, and afterwards they will behave as if nothing has happened at all. And if you stay in Russia long enough, so will you.
When we stood up I looked down into the snow, now dull but luminous in the darkness, and to my weak glasses-less eyes the hollow that Masha's body had made looked like the shape of an angel. We ran back into the outhouse, our feet numbing, ice forming in our hair. Katya snatched up her stuff and ran out naked again up to the dacha. I picked up my boots, but Masha took them from me, dropped them, and led me back into the heat.