In our Russian culture textbooks this is the night when everyone pours into the forest and stays out till dawn jumping over bonfires and searching for magical fern blossoms. The girls are supposed to put messy wreaths of flowers on their heads and dance like sprites in loose peasant dresses, then find some body of water and set their wreaths drifting off with their wishes. It’s called Ivan-Kupala, all of this, which means John the Baptist, according to Amy. What John the Baptist has to do with ferns or fires, nobody knows.
Yet when we come out of the metro and onto the street, nobody else in the crowd heads toward the forest. Most people trudge the other way, toward the blocks of identical high-rise apartments, their arms thick pendulums swinging their loaded bags. It’s ten o’clock but still light out. The days here stretch long, like fantasies.
Vadim’s in the lead of our group and says to hurry up. The two bottles of vodka in his string bag clink together as he lights his cigarette. He knows the way. Sasha has pickles and a bottle of moonshine. The tall, silent guy with the broken-apart face has a soccer ball and some black bread. Andrei, who keeps bumping into me, has a bag full of shashlik meat that’s been unrefrigerated since morning. What I’ve got is a bottle of orange Fanta and the bedspread I stole from my dorm room, which has bedbugs.
From the station to the woods it’s a long walk past shuttered kiosks on a crumbling road to a big park that has a few festering ponds in front. Rising on a hill beyond them is a sparse, dusty forest—dark wood, not birch. There’s a half-built castle in there somewhere, an abandoned palace called Tsaritsyno. Or so they tell us.
“This place used to be called Black Mud,” Amy says. She did a field trip here on her last study abroad.
“No,” says Andrei with great certainty. But then, “Is that true?”
“Didn’t John the Baptist get his head, you know, taken away?” I ask in my cockeyed Russian, but nobody knows. The Americans shrug; the Russians look at me like I’m a religious zealot. Andrei leans in and whispers a question about swimming, about water. “What?” . . . Read More.