When the snow falls the world shakes.
Light spin of a dancer, too fast and she cannot be controlled. She trembles on her axis.
That’s how it’s always been. Not much, just a fraction, but I can feel the vibration in my feet.
Sometimes I think I can see the buildings move, or maybe I have just imagined they have. Because speaking rationally buildings don’t generally move. It’s just not physically possible. But after a few heavy snowstorms I could swear that the cathedral is further away from the long avenue of trees and growing further every day.
It’s a beautiful building, one of the oldest in the city. My city.
You can see it as you come along Griboyedov canal, high above you and then suddenly in front. I know this water and all her sister rivers that drive their path through these streets. They weave and meet and bolster. Together, water meets water. So many names, but she is one. In my mind I can map where the buildings fall, where they should fall. Everything has its place. Time will not erase them; he does not have the power.
There is a comfort in this, even as I feel the clench of his teeth in my bones. They feel somehow lighter, as if the very breath of the wind’s gasp could shatter them. I pause for a moment, shift my weight so it rests more solidly on my cane. I am glad it is no longer snowing. The earth stands still beneath my feet.
A lull of movement, I must savour it.
There is white on the pavement, the newness of it too bright, too pure, as if it has come from somewhere else. Nothing can be this perfect. The snow may have stopped falling, but the chill remains, resting silently on the air.
There are not many people about so when the laughter comes, it startles me. I’m not sure where it’s coming from until I see them over the bridge. Too dark to see properly but there are two of them. A couple, it must be. Their laughter follows them and then retreats into the obscurity of the night. I almost lose my footing then, imperceptibly my foot had moved forward, as if to follow them and ask: ‘Why are you laughing?’
Righting myself, I look up, towards the sky. No, no more snow, not yet. More laughter, I feel its echo in my brain. Everything is louder there.
Old man with a cane. You know they all think you’re crazy. Losing your mind along with your walk. Old man, old man, look at the city, look at the sky. All yours, you must hold it, take it while you can.
I look to the sky, to the cathedral stretching into the sky. It too has many names, the longest: ‘Church of the saviour on spilled blood’. Every name has a story. This is a church built on blood, built because of it. Most just refer to it as ‘The Church on spilled blood’ or in Russian: ‘Tserkov na Krovi’. Built for an emperor killed, by a son grieving the loss of his father, a nation its leader. But what a result, they do not make buildings like this anywhere else.
From a distance, through the murky greyness of an autumn’s or winter’s light, her colour is brown. A mass of shadow rising from the ground and unfolding in the darkness. Come a bit closer and everything is different. Then you will see the red you mistook for brown, the beauty you mistook for gloom. Domes and spires and mosaics. The building burgeons as she grows, becoming versions of herself, domes of gold, others of green and blue, some smooth and others pointed, crosses extended from each of their tips. Onion domes they’re called, a fissure through the middle, the best half chosen to sit atop the sky.
Mist has slowly descended around me and I see her as if through panes of glass. Still there, but muted. Tapestries of the bible, their stories carved in stone. When you get inside, it is not the work of human beings, but of angels. Who were these artists to create such beauty? What could they see that I cannot? I do not see as they do, with my mind instead of my eyes. Why look to the heavens when life is right here on the ground? I do not understand, but it still catches my breath every time I walk inside. I don’t know if I believe in God, but I know I want to. I know that seeing this - splendour and light and suffering painted and made true - that I could believe, because they believed – these angels, now part of the tapestry they created.
I hope you were right. I hope he is there, that he is waiting for you. Your saviour, but who will be mine?
I shiver. I’m trying not to, try to brace myself against the cold, so deep I can feel it penetrate the soft tissue of my bones. Time to go home now. My feet are unsteady, and I must force them forward. One step, then another. A numbness in my toes, a pain that is not sharp but tenacious. This is how it is now; these are your feet. They will carry you forward on blocks of ice.
But if the ice should break, and I should fall, who will put me back together again?
Beneath me the water is still, a rolling blackness framed by layers of snow, the white of my face made real again, tender as it falls, becoming solid as it hits the ground. A crunch under my boots. Everything must be frozen now, but from this vantage I cannot tell. My feet are hard as stone. Perhaps the whole world is ice.
Pavements and buildings, the inky texture of night. All I see. All I know. All that is left.
A city is like a person, and she can change and grow and shrink back to nothing. I will not live to see it. I have walked these streets every day since the city grew cold and hollow, traced the edges of her lips, and felt them harden beneath my touch. Sofia – my world. How can it ever exist without you? A living cemetery of light and concrete and spires that drift in the sky. All for you.
It feels wrong to linger. Ten years and everything feels so different, even as nothing is. I have moved further from the church now. From here I cannot observe her patterns, cannot see in my mind the play of light on glass, how everything burns anew when softened by the glow of sunlight. For that sight, morning awaits.
‘Church on spilled blood.’ But your blood was not spilt Sofia, it drained from your body, tainted by a sickness I could not touch, could never avenge. I could not build you a cathedral, could not erect these stones in your name, paint your likeness a thousand times over on its walls.
But I have built you this city. She weeps for you. See how she trembles when it snows. Watch as the church changes its place, cannot decide where she sits. Because of you, nothing is secure.
Even further now, and the cathedral is just a shape behind me, taken over by the rest of the city. Everywhere I walk I see you. Where did those people go, why did they have to take their laughter away?
That was us before, pale figures drifting in the night. Laughter that broke the silence, that lived in the air, and followed us over bridges and under stars. Over and over and over. We did not look back over our shoulders, nor down at our feet. We did not notice the old man over the water, watching and waiting and dying.
I see him now. I see myself. Drifting alone in a city that always loved you.
A tingling now. I realise I cannot feel my toes. My hand is a circle clenched; fingers splayed over a cane. Hoping it will right me, keep me tethered to the ground.
A bench before me. I need to rest my aching body. It is a hardness that is welcomed, but one I barely feel. The snow has started again, a thick flurry all around. Too heavy and I can feel everything move. I close my eyes, feel the touch of a single flake on my lips, soft as a whisper, gentle as a kiss.
Time to join it. Slowly, I ease my hands from my cane. The ground stays heavy beneath me, even as it shivers. But I am made of air, a dome rising up, up, up. Towards the sky, towards my saviour, wherever she may be.
I have looked for you Sofia, in the streets, in the rivers, in paintings covered in light. Over and over and over. I’m not sure you were ever there. Letting go is always the hardest part. The world is a dome and I spin around her. Faster and faster, smaller and smaller. She is all white. I cannot see my city; St Petersburg has been lost to the snow.
I think I have stopped spinning. I look down and into nothing. I find myself searching for my cane, but realise I do not need its support. Not anymore. Nothing here but an echo of former pain. I no longer feel as if I will break.
“Demitriov.” My name from your mouth, spoken like a memory. Who I was, who I am, what I will be.
“Sofia.” Your name from my lips, like a prayer.
But you are not looking at my face. Confused, I look down. In my hand there is a globe, rounded glass like a dome. Inside it lies my city. My breath gets caught in my throat. She lives, even without me. I shake it from side to side, watch the snow gather and drift, fall on rivers and pavements and faces.
I reach my hand towards you, the globe lying flat on my palm. An offering. All that I have, everything I have ever loved, with one exception.
“I have built you a city Sofia. It is all for you.”
You place your hand over the glass, over my own, fingers stretching further to touch my palm, and shake your head slowly, a smile passing over your eyes.
“No Demitriov. You have built this city for us. Don’t you see? It loved you so much, it couldn’t bear to let you go. She held on to you for ten years longer. I don’t blame her for that.”
Laughter in your voice, love coated on your lips like honey. Sweet and pure and heavenly. How did I ever let you go?
Below us our city sleeps, exhales her breath on the wind. She is waiting for the morning, for two lovers on a bridge. They offer their laughter to their city, wrapped up tightly, like a gift.
No buildings now. Just you and me. We are all white. Look down, and there lies our city. Slow spin and we are drifting.
In our hands we cradle the entire world.
Sinéad is a 22 year old student from Ireland. She is in her final year of university in Plymouth, studying a degree in English and Publishing. Her main passions include tea, her dog, and getting lost in a good book.