We take you back now to Birobidjan, in the Russian Far East . . . It’s winter and I’m languishing in our bedroom in the rooms above the Pedagogical Institute, where we teach English:

Bored to distraction, I got to wondering about the history of the blue bedroom wall drapery as I lay down to study the frost patterns on the window. I had gotten sore from lounging on the lightly padded boards of my easy chair while trying to harmonize with the hum of the water purifier. I wondered what note a person with perfect pitch, or a piano, would assign to it. I would guess about middle C.

Anyway, about the garishly colored wall drapery: How did those long waves of dirt get up there? Was it originally a rug with wine spilled all over it? Is it possible for water to seep through a concrete wall, soak the drapery and the dust that covers it? Was the wall sprayed during a fire?

Thinking of fire, I once again looked uneasily at the reinforcing-rod design bolted over the windows. A total fire trap. But again I reassured myself that in case of fire I would be crazed with fear, and with the strength of ten I could kick the bars loose and jump two stories. Or die trying. I doubted that the Russians could do any better job of bolting on fire traps than they could doing anything else (apart from art, music, literature and rocket science). But you get tired of worrying after a while and just resign yourself. Hey, it’s been fun.

Back to the window: I summoned my inner resources and got up to study the frost pattern on the outer window pane. It was really quite beautiful. The pane on the left was shaded and the thick layer of frost looked medium gray and spread over the glass in the shape of a lacy shrub, or clump of seaweed, that branched upward in ever finer strands of filigree. Lovely.
The other panel was even prettier. A foot-high drift of frost swept across the glass like a snow bank that grew upward into mineral-like, geometric crystals. It was like a box of diamonds. These then transformed into a remarkable spray of leaf-like crystals flying into the air. They resembled moss leaves I once saw in an Appalachian forest, or fern branches, or one-inch palm trees. Perfect graceful little leaves. I finally photographed both panels. Came up with one photo that was quite artful, I thought, but I can’t find it. Maybe this was old stuff for a Northerner, but I’m a Southerner.

It was quiet on the street outside, most people hunkering down in their very old concrete buildings, making only a quick dash to the market as needed. A couple of scavenging magpies hopped around. Do birds bitch to each other about cold feet, being barefoot? You wonder about such things on a frozen-hard day. It doesn’t seem to bother the dogs. I guess their foot pads are like leather. Or maybe they just quickly get numb.

A little boy, fur ear flaps flapping, went by pulling an empty sled. His mother’s shapka looked electrified, or like a paint brush improperly cleaned. I guessed they were going shopping. It was too cold for sport sledding.

OK, OK, I thought, take action, do something. I walked around outside for about ten minutes at mid-afternoon with our little thermometer dangling from around my neck. How far would the red line sink? How cold was it? But on this day, it was up to -10F. Not bad! I would have wandered some, but I was only wearing my moccasins and socks and my feet hurt. I tried hopping around like the magpies. Too dangerous, too easy to fall. Went back inside. Back to reviewing Russian verbs: “to arrive on foot,” vs. “to arrive by conveyance.”
It was a long, long winter for a southern guy.

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