Sunflowers, St. Petersburg

The sunflower fields appeared unexpectedly along the road to St. Petersburg. Through the window of the bus, I watched them stretch their golden faces toward the thin October sun. They were radiant bursts of color in otherwise desolate terrain. Later the bus stopped near a concrete building with tinted windows. I stepped out and was greeted by a single sunflower, blooming alone beside the building’s entranceway, swaying higher than my head. I fished my camera from my knapsack and took a photograph. 

St. Petersburg was the perfect city for me. It was vast and grey and had the anonymous bustle of any large urban center, this one set against a backdrop of opulence. Yet it seemed strangely empty, the way certain buildings seem empty by virtue of every door being closed.

I had taken the trip as a remedy for a bruised heart, and the city mirrored my sense of isolation. On the subway, passengers stared silently into the middle distance. On street corners, classical violinists played for spare rubles. When the group I was travelling with talked and laughed, our voices sounded tinny and loud. The air of sadness had an almost physical weight.

Our guide knew a Canadian woman living in St. Petersburg who volunteered at a local orphanage. Every week she went there to hold the children. If you don’t pick them up, she explained to the group, they learn not to cry anymore. If we were interested we could join her, and early one grey morning a few of us, half-awake, straggled onto the bus.

The orphanage was a large white institutional building that smelled of disinfectant. The head mistress, a sturdy matron who wore fuchsia lipstick and rouge with the enthusiasm so fashionable among Russian women, ushered us upstairs to an activity room. Benches were set up in the back, and she indicated, through gesture and tone, that we should take a seat.

After a moment, a side door opened and a group of preschool-aged children filed in. A nurse unlocked a cabinet and each child selected a toy. The nurse put on music and the children began to dance, holding their toys out in front of them, hopping up and down. Their downy hair swooped and fell. After a few minutes, the nurse turned the music off and the children stopped dancing. She turned the music back on and they danced. Then off again and they stopped. When the performance was over, the children returned their toys to the cabinet and filed out.

The show was intended, I think, as a pageant to showcase their beauty and health. Perhaps it was offered to prospective parents or visiting officials. At the end we clapped, reflexively.

The Canadian woman told us this was the best orphanage in St. Petersburg. The facilities were clean, the children sufficiently clothed and adequately fed, though often sick. Lots of chronic runny noses, the side effect of not enough physical touch. Not all the children were orphans, she added. Often they were another mouth their parents could not afford to feed.

She eventually hoped to provide each child with a toy of their own to keep, a stuffed animal to take to bed at night. As it was, even their clothing went into a communal laundry and was randomly redistributed.

We went downstairs to hold the children. I picked up a baby from a cot surrounded by metal bars. His dark eyes were solemn and impassive as I rocked him in my arms and stroked his cheek. He was maybe nine months old. He didn’t make a sound.

A bell rang. A troupe of two-year-olds toddled over to a low table, pulled out miniature chairs, and sat down. They folded their hands and waited for the nurse to bring their soup. Bowls set down before them, the children spooned the soup carefully into their small oval mouths without spilling a drop.

In the afternoon we went outside where pre-schoolers in identical blue snowsuits played in an enclosed yard. I took a seat on a wooden bench, pulling my coat and scarf around me. A little girl, about three years old, approached the bench. She was playing with a label from a can. She turned it over and over and waved it in the air as she slowly circled around me. When I opened my arms she climbed into my lap.

Once in my arms, she could ignore me. She faced forward, playing with the label. Every so often she leaned her head back to study my face. She chortled in Russian and presented me with the label, only to pull it back before I could touch it. This became a game. We played together for almost an hour: the label offered, the label pulled back, a ritual dance. Once she dropped the label and it wafted to the ground.

Sliding off my lap, she kept one hand on my knee and retrieved it with the other.

A whistle blew. Tension shot up her back. The other children ran to slip their hands into the loops on a rope the nurse held out. But the girl did not move. The nurse called out, but the girl acted oblivious, engrossed in playing with the label. At last the nurse came over. The girl stiffened, then arched her back like a cat and screamed. The nurse took her from my arms and carried her wailing across the yard and into the building, her cries fading and then disappearing altogether.

It has been several years since I returned from St. Petersburg, but her memory has stayed with me. I can’t help feeling some good thing will or has already come to her. Her qualities were those the other children largely lacked: a refusal to be broken, the capacity to feel. I marveled at the strength of a three-year-old girl in a situation where most people would have given up. If she could survive without surrendering her spirit, I could go home and rebuild my own life.

On my kitchen wall hangs the picture I took of the sunflower on the road to St. Petersburg. It grew alone, like the girl in the blue snowsuit, and takes up the entire frame.

 —This radio monologue was broadcast on CBC Radio and appeared in the anthology Half in the Sun.