Making the rounds of authors, publishers and literary executives, Zoya Tkachenko eventually found herself standing alongside to a young man dress in a plaid shirt and thin sliver of a tie. "And who might you be?"
"Carl, the mail room clerk."
The Russian woman, who wore a strapless black dress and single strand of pearl that cascaded into her cleavage, balanced a glass of zinfandel in one hand and coconut breaded shrimp in the other. "I wanted to meet everyone at the publishing house, not just the bigwigs."
The firm was bringing out a collection of Siberian folk tales for the young adult fiction market, but nobody seemed quite sure of a marketing strategy for her book that still was in the planning stage. Zoya's husband had connections and, more importantly, a ton of money. Rumor had it, he was underwriting the better part of the expense to bring the finished product to market, and whether or not the book could turn a profit was incidental. "How old are you, Carl?"
She nibbled at the shrimp with her dainty lips and sipped the wine. A short woman with wide hips and full breasts, Zoya Tkachenko was born in the Altai region of south central Siberia; ethnic Russian as well as Asian tribal blood flowed in her veins. Taken at face value, there was absolutely nothing overtly remarkable about her features. The face was rather plain, and, if you studied the physiognomy - dainty mouth, sharp chin and fleshy cheeks, feathery-soft eyelashes, Asiatic eyes and delicately sculpted neck - analyzing each facet separate and apart, they didn't amount to much. It was a face like any other, and yet it was the face of an imperial Russian Goddess!
"Shouldn't you be in school?"
"This is an internship," Carl explained. "I'm at Boston College studying English literature." He cleared his throat, looked her full in the face and confided, "Except for a handful of classics, I haven't read much Slavic literature."
Zoya pursed her pretty lips. "Do you like fairy tales?" Carl nodded. "Russians say, 'if you don't like fairy tales - don't listen; if you do listen - don't forget it.'" A waitress with a dish of spicy Swedish meatballs snaked her way through the crowd and Zoya teased an offering onto a small dish. "Pushkin, one of our greatest writers, suggests something quite similar. He says fairy tales aren't true, but the hints in them can teach you a thing or two."
Carl felt as though the Russian woman, who was old enough to be his mother, had put a hex on him, bewitching him, first with her infuriating loveliness, and now with her engaging chatter. Before he could conjure up a clever rejoinder, she tapped him lightly on the wrist. "Now I'm going to tell the story of Heron and the Crane."
Carl gazed about the room. In the far corner the woman's husband, a robust man with curly blonde hair had cornered the senior editor and publicist. Elsewhere, a couple who appeared quite drunk was dancing to a jazz trio perched in the corner and improvising on the chord changes to Satin Doll. "A Siberian folktales?"
Stepping closer, Zoya lowered her voice several decibels. "Once upon a time there lived the Heron and the Crane. They lived on the same bog but at the far ends of it. The Crane, who lived all alone, felt lonely and decided to get married."
As the Siberian fairy tale progressed, the Crane decided to take the Heron for his wife and went to her. He walked seven miles all through the mud, and when he came to the Heron he asked, "Heron, are you in?"
"Will you marry me?"
"No, I will not. You legs are too long and you coat is too short, you can't fly well and haven't food enough for two. Go away, you leggy Crane!"
The Crane went home, his hopes ruined. But the Heron gave it another thought and realized that it might be better to marry the Crane than live alone, so she hurried to the Crane and said, "Crane you may marry me!"
"No, Heron. I don't want to marry you. Go away!"
The Heron went away weeping and ashamed.
But then the Crane thought, "I was wrong not to marry the Heron. It is dull to live alone. I'll go and marry her right now. He came up to her and said, "Heron, I've reconsidered and made up my mind to marry you." But the Heron had suffered yet another change of heart and sent the Crane away. And to this day they visit each other making proposals but are still not married.
Zoya fell silent.
"A beautiful story," Carl stammered, "reflecting how things are in our own world, where nobody knows their own mind and chase happiness to the ends of the earth, coming away empty-handed."
"But do you think American children might appreciate such a tale?" Zoya pressed.
American children wanted Harry Potter and werewolf erotica. They wanted teen angst, gratuitous violence with a smattering of depravity thrown in to juice the narrative. They wanted Junie B. Jones and Captain Underpants and Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry. There was little reason to believe that they would buy a collection of Siberian folktales or at least not in any great numbers. "Yes, of course!" Carl lied.
Mr. Tkachenko approached. "And who do we have here?"
"This is Carl, the mail clerk. I just bored him half to death with the story of the Heron and the Crane."
Mr. Tkachenko jutted his jaw and his eyes drew down to tiny slits. "And what's your unbiased assessment of a collection of Siberian folktales targeting the English-speaking market?"
"The only thing comparable would be Aesop's Fables or Grimm's Fairy Tales, and those books sell consistently bringing in small but predictable profits from year to year."
Carl stared at his boat shoes. He should have worn the wine-colored loafers and a sports jacket but it was too late for that now. "Parents or grandparents buy children's book and the first thing they see are graphics so the dust jacket and full-color illustrations have to be topnotch."
There was a slight pause. Mr. Tkachenko rubbed his strong chin with an equally visceral set of fingers. Suddenly he reached out and grabbed Carl's hand pumping it up and down energetically. The man turned deferentially to his pretty wife. "I hadn't thought of it in those terms." Mr. Tkachenko abruptly rushed off again to speak with the managing editor, who was being held captive by an elderly woman with bifocals and a bad set of dentures.
"Your husband's a businessman?"
"No, he works for the Siberian Forest Ministry." As she explained it, Mr. Tkachenko inspected logging sites to make sure that the old-growth timber was not being clear-cut and the harvested lumber replaced with sufficient seedlings to replenish the scarred landscape. "But now there is an unfortunate complication," Zoya explained. "The Chinese, who have few forests of their own, approached the local government in Altai wanting to buy up enormous quantities of wood. The lumber would be cut and shipped directly by rail to northern China."
"What does your husband say?"
The dusky woman with the massive breasts and face that straddled two continents smiled wanly. "Have you read much Tolstoy?" Carl shook his head. "Near the beginning of Ana Karenina, Count Levin is buying a tract of forested land from a cash-strapped nobleman with a gambling habit. The man is selling the land for a fraction of its real worth to pay his gambling debts. Afterwards, Count Levin tells the man that a good steward 'counts the trees'."
"And what does that mean?"
"It's the landowner's responsibility to become familiar with every inch of soil… every new sapling and hundred-year-old fir." Her features brightened noticeably. "Do you know," Zoya continued, shifting gears, "why bears has no thumbs?"
Carl smiled sheepishly. "This sounds like another Siberian folktale."
"An Evenk folktale," Zoya clarified. "The Evenks live near the Baikal in northern Yakutia. Traditionally they are engaged in hunting, deer breeding and fishing. They like to say that their home is just under the North Star." Again, the Russian lowered her eyes and spoke in a singsong fashion favoring a heavy guttural accent. "Long, long ago when life on earth had just begun, the taiga abounded with animals, birds and other living things."
"Taiga… what's that?" Carl interjected.
"The taiga," Zoya seemed genuinely contrite that she hadn't bothered to explain the term. "is a coniferous forest chiefly of pines, firs and cedars in sub-polar latitudes." As the story unfolded, the Bear, the strongest among the animals, was afraid of nobody but Man. Many times the Bear fought with him but couldn't win a single victory. That angered the Bear. How was it that he, so big and mighty, was unable to defeat a little man? Most likely because the Man had a thumb on his hand, while the bear had no thumb on his paw.
"I'll go and ask for a thumb from that kind spirit, Heveki. Then I'll be stronger than the Man."
So the Bear came to Heveki and said, "Heveki, you are kind and merciful. I have no thumbs. Let me have the same thumbs as the Man has."
Heveki answered, "You, Bear, are strongest among all the animals. Why do you need thumbs? If I gave you thumbs, you would kill all the people."
"The bear thought a little and said, "That's what I mean. I want to be strongest on earth."
Heveki answered, "Well, I'll give you thumbs, but I'll give the Dog, Man's helper, bows and arrows."
"If you give the Dog bows and arrows, he will kill all the Bears in one year. I know Dogs quite well. I would rather live without thumbs."
Zoya reached up and patted the mail room clerk playfully on the arm. "That's why the Bear has no thumb."
Carl gazed out into the crowd. The Christmas party was winding down. The elderly lady with the bifocals and bad dentures was heading for the door. Zoya's husband had gone off somewhere with a fellow from the graphics department. "I liked this story even better than the first one."
"It's about balancing power… keeping one side from gaining unfair advantage."
"In the Russian taiga, the Chinese want to exploit your natural resources. What would Heveki, the kind spirit, do to set things right?"
Zoya considered the question. "The timber is worth many millions of rubles in a desperately poor region. Where so much profit's involved, government officials become insanely greedy.” More guests were filtering toward the stairwell. The band was breaking down, dragging their instruments and sound system off toward the elevator. "My husband and I will be leaving soon. Would you like one more fairy tale before we part?"
"Yes but a story with a happy ending. No star-crossed, talking birds or homicidal bears."
"Well then, here is a story from my region in the Altai Mountains, where the Shoret tribesmen are mostly artisans, painters, folk artists and gifted storytellers." Zoya moistened her lips with her tongue before proceeding. "The wind carried some soil onto a high rock, and it stayed there in a cleft. A beautiful bright flower grew up in the soil - a true Fire Flower. He bowed his head in greeting to the wind whom he talked to, but there was nobody else close by. Far below ran the Oja River, but, rooted in the rocky cleft, how could he possibly run up to her?"
"Suddenly the Fire Flower heard loud buzzing. The flower opened his petals and saw a shaggy bee. The Fire Flower was very glad. "It is so kind of you to visit me."
"Sorry, but I didn't mean to visit you," said the Bee, "I just lost my way."
The Fire Flower felt pity for her. "Well, sit down on my shoulder and have a rest."
"The Bee sat on the Fire Flower, who treated her to some of his sweet nectar, and then the Bee told him about everything he saw on earth. Soon after she said goodbye to the flower, since the Bee had to return to her hive. She flew away and took with her the seeds which the flower presented. And now all over Siberia these Fire Flowers grow up, looking like little glimpses of the sun."
From the far corner of the room, Mr. Tkachenko was approaching with their coats and hats.