Friday, May 09, 2014

The Crane Song

Zina tilted her head and flashed her trademark smile, the same smile that, in the days when her hair was peroxide blonde instead of snowy-white, had made her an indispensable asset to the Musical Theater of Magadan.  Those turquoise eyes, which had also starred in many a show, winked quizzically at me. I stared at the pile of navy blue jumpsuits jumbled in Zina's lap.

"Those are the costumes for our concert. I need to alter so many of them for our big round ladies to wear, you wouldn't believe how much work it is!" her fingers slid rapidly along a hem, armed with a seam-ripper. "Well, my little zaika, I have your tickets." and she held out an envelope. I took it and laid a similar envelope, in exchange, on Zina's dining table. "Thank you so much, darling," gushed Zina, "Now it would make me REALLY happy if you would join my little choir, but I can't ever seem to convince you."

I stood, hesitating. "Zina," I wondered, "Could you tell me, what is your favorite part of the concert, which song should I be listening for?"

"Oh," bustled Zina, "You know, our goal was to create a memorial concert for the veterans of all wars, to honor their service. We are having the usual spats and conflicts, and some of the pieces aren't turning out how I'd like them to, but DO listen to Leonia's song about white cranes. He's my new protege, I just bought him a lovely black suit for his next concert at the Salvation Army for seven dollars, and I'm quite satisfied with how he looks. When you hear the song, you'll KNOW."

When I took my place in the audience, I noticed representatives of all armed forces were scattered throughout the audience. Because of the chill in the air, I was glad of the wool shawl wrapped around my shoulders. A tiny, but formidable sergeant in an American Army uniform announced that she was the emcee of the concert. The familiar faces of Zina's choir appeared on the stage, but in much drabber garb than unusual--the ill-fitting navy jumpsuits hinted at humility. They sang in English, Russian, and French, pouring out their voices as gifts, to the boys who had never come home, to the boys who had returned long ago but now sat in the audience, nodding their silver heads; and to the young men and women who sat stiffly in rows of folding chairs, some who would most likely return, quite soon, to a conflict zone.

After several songs, most of the singers filed off the stage, leaving a single tall, gangly, dark-haired youth, who shrugged his shoulders as if to throw off an invisible weight, and lifted the microphone to his lips. He began to sing, in a voice that lilted and pleaded, whispered and conjured, leading the audience into the forests of Eastern Europe during the time of World War II. Behind his head, a slide show flickered, with images of fighter pilots, explosions, burning cities, and trees.

The slides of the trees blinked me back to the day I answered the door at the television studio in Moscow, and listened to a grey-haired man trying to tell a story about the forests of Belarus. He held out sheaf after sheaf of documents, and showed me detailed maps of what he claimed were burial sites. I attempted in vain to get the attention of the journalists at the station; they were too busy, at the time, covering the disintegration of the Soviet Union to be interested in the maps of mass graves, deep in the woods. The man returned repeatedly to the studio, hoping to get an audience, and again and again he was told that no one was interested. Music and memory mixed in my mind.


"He can't read a single note of music, you know," Tanya, at my left, elbowed me back to the present.

Leonia's voice carried across the hall with a singular quality that none of the other singers possessed, a clean and clear awareness of itself as an entity, an instrument; it spoke as one of the unnamed lost, or as a partisan, a mother, a wife waiting for her beloved, it became any soldier on any side of the great war. His voice approached an exquisitely anguished vibrato,and in that tremulous moment, the whole hall was as if one body with tears in its eyes, one soul rising as a white crane into the mist.



(My apologies to those who have read my blog posts already. This one was posted originally in 2008. And here is the song Leonia sang.)

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