Literary Hook: Another runner-up in prose writing

Literary Hook: Another runner-up in prose writing

By Christine Swanberg

Author and Poet

The Rock River Times brings you another fine prose piece, which was a runner-up in this year’s prose and poetry contest.

“Getting to Know Peter” is by Judith Scheffler of Summit, N.J. Judith’s specialty is creative nonfiction. Here is what she tells us about her essays:

“My essays have been published in the Summit Observer in New Jersey, The Rangeley Highlander in Maine, Penwomanship Magazine, on and in AT&T inhouse and IEEE technical publications. I am now working on a memoir of two incredible years of my life with the working title My Magic Mountain—Making the Most of a Second Home. Having recently won a contest sponsored by Slippery Rock University, one chapter of my new book has just been published in the literary review called Sound and Literary Art Book.”

Now, please enjoy her journey on a National Geographic Expedition and an endearing character she meets along the way. Go to a place and another reality you have never been to before. And now—”Getting to Know Peter.”

Getting to Know Peter

In January 2006, my friend Juanita and I traveled on a National Geographic Expedition, starting in Moscow and then boarding a private train for a four-day trip in which we stopped each day to visit villages along the section of the Trans-Siberian Railway that ends in St. Petersburg. On the first night, we dined with the other members of our expedition on the top floor of our hotel, where we stood on a balcony and listened to the church bells of Moscow ring in the eve of the Russian Orthodox Christmas. I stood next to a young man named Peter.

“Did you ever expect to be here tonight?” I asked. It seemed like a long time before he answered.

“No-o-o,” he said. Then he added, “I had a brain tumor, and I have to take time to think before I answer.”

Juanita had already mentioned to me that Peter’s mother had told her he’d had a brain tumor and carried a cane because his eyesight was very poor.

“We have plenty of time tonight,” I responded. “I’d always hoped to get to hear these bells someday.” Peter just nodded.

During the trip, I made it a point to find Peter and speak to him. Although it did take him a while to respond to me each time, his speech was excellent, and he was clearly an intelligent young man, able to take in what our guides were telling us. On the four-day trip between Moscow and St. Petersburg, we soon realized that the requisite number of churches or monasteries or convents for us to visit by taking a bus from the train each day lay between two and five. Onion-shaped domes and inner alcoves glittered, and I told Peter that Russia must have more than its fair share of gold, white marble, red jasper, green malachite and blue lapis lazuli.

“That’s for sure,” he answered with a smile.

One day, it occurred to me that Peter might like to know why I was especially friendly. When I got on our bus that day, I sat with Juanita, who had already taken the seat in front of Peter and his mother. Here was my chance to do something I’d been thinking about. I turned around in my seat, getting up on my knees so Peter could hear me.

“Peter,” I said, “I want you to know that I also had a brain tumor. Mine was benign, but had to be removed, and in the process I lost hearing in my left ear, and my balance is poor. You might be interested to know that’s why I want to be your special friend on this trip.”

Peter looked surprised, smiled, and nodded. I noticed that not only his mother, but the travelers in the seats opposite Peter, showed great surprise at my words. As our trip continued, I often walked and talked with Peter a while or sat near him at dinner. Other times, we had short conversations about the a cappella concert at a chapel, and the small plastic cups of vodka we were served, and I tasted, during a morning snow in a village square. In St. Petersburg, we commiserated about the 60-some steps we walked up at The Hermitage. No one on the trip mentioned my conversation with Peter about my brain tumor.

One day I told Peter that I’d taken Russian in college but, decades later, I only remembered zdrast-vooy-tye (hello), spa-see’-ba (thank you) and da-svee-da’-nee-ya (goodbye).

“It will come back to you,” he said. “Try to use it a little.”

The next day, I spoke to a little old lady in a brown shawl who was standing beside a road and selling coriander seeds that she carried in a brown paper funnel. I bought some of her seeds, using all three of the Russian words I remembered.

On the last night, Peter and I sat next to each other at dinner. I asked Peter if he wanted any of the wine being served.

“No,” he said, “my father killed himself drinking.”

“That’s a good reason not to drink,” I told him.

“It was so kind of you to make friends with Peter,” Juanita told me as we were packing for the trip home.

“The whole thing worked out well,” I said.

I often return home from a foreign trip amazed at how differently people in different countries live. When the cab drove up our steep, curving driveway in New Jersey, I viewed our three-story colonial home in an entirely different light, so dissimilar to the smaller frame houses huddled together in Russian villages as if to seek protection from the cold. My house is stucco like many of the buildings of St. Petersburg, but the elaborate quality of the architecture doesn’t even come close to the ornate buildings in that fine city. Remembering how I laughed with our Russian guides and sometimes joined hands to dance with the local people in the villages, I reflected on people around the world and how we have the ability to share the same pleasures even when we don’t speak the same language. I thought about how my friendship with Peter had made my trip much more meaningful. People who’ve shared the same misfortune can use a language that requires little speech.

Christine Swanberg is a local author and poet who has written several books of poetry and formerly wrote a column called “The Writer’s Garret” for this newspaper.

From the Aug. 2-8, 2006, issue

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