Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived in a hut in the woods with his grandmother. He didn't know it, but his grandmother was Baba Yaga, the witch, and she protected him from all the dangers that could befall a boy in the forest. She was friends with the foxes and wolves--you know what I mean by that--and she made sure that none of them ate him or led him astray into the deep woods while he was gathering firewood for her.
But when he was old enough, there was a war, and the Tsar's soldiers came to find all of the boys in that area so they could conscript them. Baba Yaga could not protect her grandson from the soldiers, so she gave him a comb, a mirror, and a feather, and told him, "Run away from the soldiers as fast as you can. If you are in danger of being caught, you must throw any of these down, and they will protect you."
So the boy ran. When he looked back and saw the soldiers gaining on him, he threw down the comb, and the comb turned into an impenetrable forest. But the soldiers had axes and tanks, and big machines for chopping down forests, and before long they had turned the trees into lumber for houses and paper for books.
Then the boy threw down the mirror, and it turned into a wide shining lake behind him. But the soldiers had ships and submarines, and they sailed across the lake and caught up with the boy soon enough.
And then the boy threw down the feather. When he did, he grew wings, and a beak, and he turned into a wild goose and he flew away from the soldiers, and they could not catch him, for who can catch a wild goose?
At least, that's what Baba Kuryakina upstairs says happened to that grandson of hers, the one you used to play with years ago. And you don't doubt a witch's word.
Before Illya left to live in New York, forever or at least as long as they wanted him there, he visited a farm. He'd lived most of his life in an apartment building, crammed into a brick box with hundreds of other people, with dozens of families--this, to him, was Russia, sharing cooking smells and bathrooms with people he didn't know, playing in the hallways with children he wasn't related to. Always crowded, always concrete and wrought-iron and cheap plastic, always something constructed, a heartbeat of a city made of people.
But the heart of Russia, everyone said, was in the farms. Even people who had never seen a chicken that wasn't cut to bits and floating in a pot of soup knew it. So he went to a farm on the outskirts of Minsk and dutifully watched the farm workers milk the cows and feed the chickens. The animal smells made him wrinkle his nose, and the chickens tried to peck at his boots. He didn't like them very much.
He went outside and looked at the fields. The air was cold, and white frost was forming on the dark furrows of the dirt, on the green leaves of the beets that slumbered underground, on the white balls of the cabbages, too cold and lazy to bloom. Illya knelt down and placed his hands on the dirt, feeling the dry, crumbly loam beneath his fingers.
It was cold and still, and then he felt something stir beneath his hands. A twinge, trapped between the blood that rushed through his veins and the earth that lay slumbering under him. A heartbeat, deep and subtle, reaching up through layers of earth, layers of time, to touch him and to flow through him. It was old, as old as his grandmother, and he knew it was part of him even as he knew that it did not need him, would go on beating if he was dead, or if he had never been born.
Leaving the farm, he felt as though his boots were being sucked into deep mud. He felt like a concrete building, square and stolid, like a cold iron statue of Stalin, frozen in a salute forever, creaking with ice and pigeon shit.
The feeling persisted even after he got on the plane that would take him away from Russia. He'd thought that leaving would give him wings, that he'd soar away from his home and never look back. When he'd gone to Cambridge for college he'd felt like that, cut loose like a balloon--but he'd gone knowing it was not forever, that he'd always have a home in Russia. He had been eighteen, eager to experience the world. Eager to be older. And now he was older, and he didn't know if he'd ever be back.
But he felt as though he was being torn in two, forced up from the ground like a beet dug up from its warm home, exposed to the cold winter wind. He stared at the black line where the dark earth met the pale sky and listened to his heart beat in his ears.
They say New York is a whole city made out of glass. That it floats on an island like Kitzeh, but it is protected by an iron giantess who stands in front of it with a flaming torch and a shield, so its glass towers can never be broken. When you see it from the ocean, it glitters, dazzling you with light. Some of the buildings are like windows, so you can see all of the people walking around in them--cooking soup, making love. And some of the buildings are like mirrors, so that all you can see in them is your own face. Because of this, everyone in New York is dressed like they're going to a royal ball--because when everyone can see you all the time, and when you can see yourself all the time, you must be beautiful.
Did I ever tell you what happened to the boy who turned into a wild goose? He was flying above the taiga when something dazzled him, something brighter and more beautiful than the ice. He could not stay away. He dove down and landed there, and found that it was a palace made of mirrors. When his feet touched the ground, he turned back into a boy, and he began to wander through the palace of mirrors, staring at his reflections. Some of them reflected him as a boy, the boy that his grandmother had known and cuddled. Some of them reflected him as a man, the strong and sturdy man that he one day would be. And some of them reflected him as a goose, and he did not understand why.
So he walked through the palace, looking in the face of each mirror and trying to decide which one was right, until he came to the ballroom. Now, it was full of fair men and women in fine clothes who danced like dreams, but when the boy looked into the mirrors, there were no men and women--they were all foxes and wolves, or flowers and trees, or animals and plants the boy could not identify.
Now, he knew enough about fairies from his grandmother to not be beguiled, and so he moved among the dancing men and women carefully, without looking into their eyes. When he saw someone who was lovely, he looked into the mirror at what they really were, and he saw their true form, and was no longer intrigued.
And then among the dancing men and women he saw a girl. She was young, perhaps his age, and her hair was dark and her skin was fair, and she wore a plain white dress. The boy met her eyes in the mirror, and she silently mouthed, "Help me."
But when he turned around and saw her, she was barely there. Her figure was still slender, and her dress was the same...but her skin was made of mirrors, curving and living mirrors that reflected everything in the room.
"Help me," she said to him again, and no, I don't know what happened then. I don't know what New York is like, I've never been there. Go ask Baba Kuryakina upstairs, her grandson sends her letters all the time. Most of them might not be true--we all know what he does for a living--but they're at least half-truths, and half-truths are more of a lie than fairy tales.
Illya was secretly disappointed when New York turned out to just be another city. Leaving Russia had been unexpectedly hard, unexpectedly physically painful. He'd entertained the notion that his heart had been stolen by someone, that it had been kept in a duck's egg in a nest in a castle on an island and that he would live forever...or that it had been ripped out, buried in the dark earth of the farm he'd visited for two hours. But he did not believe in fairytales, and so he told himself that it was simply that he was suddenly homesick, that leaving his mother country forever was different than leaving it for college, that it was guilt over leaving his Baba to live in a cold concrete building alone. And then he told himself that his Baba would be fine, that she was a tough old bird and that her neighbors would look after her, as they always had. And so touching down in New York, in a jungle of concrete and wrought iron and neon that was so similar to the one he'd left, was an unpleasant shock--he had gone through all that pain for this?
Surely there had to be a difference. He went out and watched the faces of the men and women passing by. They were all guarded, distant and blank, although some of them were scowling. He sat on the front stoop of his new building and observed them. All of the faces were the same, blank stares reflecting off of blank stares. He had thought that different places left their stamp on people, had thought he'd seen something unique on the faces of people in Moscow, in Prague, in Cambridge. But perhaps they were all reflections not of the buildings, not of the layout of the city or the hidden things that went on underneath its streets, but of what a city meant--millions of people packed into a small space, all watching each other and hiding from each other. It wasn't a function of the government, of the culture...it was the people, reflecting off each other, reinforcing each other. Seeing each other, and themselves, and not wanting anyone to see them in turn.
He came to associate Napoleon with New York. He didn't know whether his partner had grown up in the city or not, and he did not ask.
The thing was that most people were fairly easy to read. There was a certain core of the self that shone through, no matter how someone might want to hide themselves. A veneer could be a well-done veneer, but it was always a veneer. The trick was not detecting that there was a false front, but in detecting what lay underneath. The best anyone could really do was to make the false front impenetrable, not to hide the existence of falsehood, but to hide what lay underneath.
Napoleon was the best false front Illya had ever seen. Illya shadowed him for months, watched him interact with as many people as he could. Secretaries, other agents, enemy agents, heads of state, women on the street, girls he brought home. He got to know each face of Napoleon, the way he adjusted to situation. They spent time together, on assignments and simply relaxing with each other, and he got to know the face Napoleon presented to him--friendly but not gentle, wry in a way that he wasn't with many others. They were all veneers. Illya could not have said how he knew it, but every time Napoleon interacted with someone, there was something eminently false about it, something contrived. He did not flatter himself that Napoleon was showing anything truer to him than he was to Angelique, to Mr. Waverly, to any of the hapless men and women they dragged into their dangers.
It was impossible to imagine Napoleon alone, not interacting with anyone. It was impossible to imagine him alone with his thoughts, to have even an idea of what might have been going through his head in a quiet moment. It impressed Illya as much as it frustrated him.
The goose boy smashed all of the mirrors in the palace. He had a hammer in his pocket I forgot to tell you about. No, very well then, an axe--it's much more dramatic. He had an axe, and he went around smashing the mirrors until they were all gone, and only when the mirrors were all gone did the mirror girl and the goose boy see the fairies for what they really were. The fairies had all put their real selves into the mirrors, and when the mirrors broke, the fairies' real selves flew out and latched onto them again. And so the goose boy and the mirror girl were chased throughout the shards of the palace by hordes of angry plants and animals in fine clothes...
Maybe. It's just a fairy tale. The teller can end it any way they like.
Perhaps they stopped outside of the castle, the girl still a mirror of everything she saw, the boy mirroring whatever he saw himself as. Perhaps they stopped and stared at each other forever, caught in the reflection they made together, never able to truly see each other but never able to look away. Perhaps they are there still.
It happens in the middle of Iowa, with nothing else around. There is a THRUSH plan to co-opt a missile silo and begin a nuclear war, and Napoleon seems as nonplussed about the existence of missile silos in Iowa as he does about the possibility of nuclear war, which is to say that Illya can't tell quite what he's concerned about, or what he thinks he should be concerned about, or what he wants Illya or the lonely housewife who distracts the bull in the field where the missile silo is to think he's concerned about.
Single-handedly averting a nuclear war is a good occasion for celebration, not for introspection, but perhaps men like Illya and Napoleon don't always have the same reactions. Illya presses his hands to the earth, the dark loam of Iowa the same color as the beet farm in Russia. He hopes to feel the same heartbeat he felt back in his mother country. Ever since he's come to New York, he feels too light, untethered and ungainly, as though the earth refuses to accept him. The wind howling through the New York skyscrapers, over the Iowa plains, will blow him away.
A minute goes by, then two, then three, and there is nothing except for Napoleon staring at him curiously. Illya hurriedly stands up and wipes his hands on his pants. "Hard to believe that there are thousands of pounds of nuclear material under our feet right now. The earth feels so complacent."
"So do a lot of things," Napoleon says. He sticks his hands in his pockets and looks closely at Illya. "I thought I saw a hint of panic in those eyes, back there. There's a first time for everything."
Illya blinks. "First time? I've been scared out of my wits hanging around with you more than I ever have been in my life."
Napoleon laughs. "It's the first time I've seen it, then." He shakes his head. "I never know what you're thinking, and I'm not used to that. I'm glad you're finally opening up."
He wanders back towards the lonely housewife, waiting for them to declare the danger over, but Illya stays in the field for a little while longer. A breeze blows past him, and he can feel something dropping away from him, as though he is shedding feathers.