A Red Year
by Jan Shapin
She’d first become aware of Mikhail Borodin on a sweaty day in November, 1926, not long after she and Bill had arrived in Canton, on the south coast of China. Borodin and his Russian advisers were engaged in what looked like a jousting match against some Chinese cadets at the Whampoa Academy. Bill and Eugene Chen were foraging for refreshments as Rayna shielded her eyes against the glare and examined the stocky Russian on his huge gray gelding. He was dressed in a white smock and billowing white trousers, his dark chestnut hair lifting in waves as his horse pivoted and raced down the field, then reversed. With each turn her stomach reversed as well, rising and flattening with longing or desire or something else she could not name. Perhaps she was coming down with the flu. Checking to see that Bill was still occupied, she decided to escape to the shady overhang of the stable roof.
The game was like polo, she concluded, some Chinese version where they used paddles to steady the ball, position it and then take great whacks. Quite like the game she and her brother Reddy used to play with sticks and clods of earth in the corn fields at her father’s farm, where if you got hit you were dead. Tufted hunks with worms hanging out were Reddy’s favorite weapon, or better yet, cow pies. He’d fling them with great glee, bellowing his fierce Indian yell, Comancheeee!
That was more or less what the Chinese were yelling now as the teams dismounted and fell into opposite lines to make their ritual bows. A break to change horses, and the Russian in the sweaty tunic and muddy breeches was walking toward her. She knew who he was, of course, he was in charge of everything having to do with the revolutionary Chinese government, but she had yet to meet him. She took in a deep draft of air, straightened her back against the whitewashed boards. Behind his heavy moustache, a flushed face. His lower lip, what she could see of it, broadened into a toothy smile. She regretted her not-so-recently washed dress, the dull green thing that hung loose but at least showed off her red hair. In her confusion she blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “I hear you come from Chicago.” Should she smile? No, look him straight in the eye. “I do too.”
He absorbed that. “You must be Mrs….” She watched him grope for Bill’s last name. Then, as if on command, his wife appeared. Mme. Borodin was a formidable figure, unhappiness radiating from her in a way that was almost visible. Fanya was her given name, but the foreign journalists called her Fanny, a reference to her enormous backside. Madame, in the French manner, was the title she preferred. Rayna stuck out her hand. “Mme. Borodin.” Rumor had it her husband’s staff found her imperious. Getting no response, Rayna drew back the offer. Mme. Borodin was speaking to her husband in swooshy Russian.
His response was short and guttural. Then he turned to Rayna. “My wife thinks I’m going to break my neck.” She thought there was more to it than that, but then, in the second chukka or whatever it was, he nearly did break his neck, falling hard from his horse and injuring his left shoulder and arm. The game stopped. She watched him limp away to the stable while they called a doctor and everyone repaired to the half-finished auditorium where speeches were in order.
She sat with Bill through the first two, then pleaded a headache and wandered back to the exhibition field, following the direction Borodin had taken to the stables. She found him in the tack room, resting on an old leather couch, his face turned to the wall. She feared he was asleep, and wondered why no one was guarding him, then thought maybe he had insisted on being left alone. She wondered where his wife was, whether Mme. Borodin would burst in and accuse Rayna of coveting her husband. Just as she had decided to slip away, Borodin turned and cleared his throat.
“Nice of you to look in on me.”
She became flustered. “The speeches gave me a headache. Not the speakers, the room.” “With me it’s the speakers. And now this.” He pointed with his chin at the strapped-up shoulder.
He was looking at her with great stillness. She tried to return that stillness while her mind raced.
Finally, to say something, she came out with, “Is there anything I can do?”
He closed his eyes. “Tell me how you washed up on these shores.”
So, like Scheherazade, she stood twisting her fingers and burbled on. “Bill and I left the States in the fall of 1925, spending two months in Hawaii. I liked Hawaii but I was anxious to move on. China was my aim. I had been there before, for just a few months in 1923. Then I was traveling alone, gathering material for an anthropology thesis on Chinese religious thought, but I had to come back.” She didn’t tell him about the loneliness, her abortive attempt at freedom, how in the villages they ignored her, spit at her and called her ‘Red Hair’, a slur, she came to learn. “When Bill said he was interested in what was going on in revolutionary China — at that time I had not much interest in such things, but I wanted to go back, to make a second try, and he was an experienced newspaper man, and so we thought…”
Here her narrative ran out. Borodin had his eyes closed and she couldn’t tell if he was listening or not. “Japan was our first stop. We stayed only a few months, just enough time to make some money to get here.” Then she told him about the dance floor in Peking where she’d first heard of Eugene Chen. She watched his chest rise and fall. “I’m not going back there, Chicago, I mean. What about you?” Then she became concerned that Bill would be looking for her, that Mme. Borodin or the doctor would appear and demand to know what she was doing. So she crept up and leaned over and whispered that she was honored to be of help, that she believed in his cause. Then Rayna backed out the door and made her way to the auditorium for the applause at the end of the second-to-last speech.