The following is from Irina Zhorov’s Lost Believers. Zhorov was born in Uzbekistan, in the Soviet Union, and moved to Philadelphia on the eve of its dissolution. After failing to make use of a geology degree, she received an MFA from the University of Wyoming. She’s worked as a journalist for more than a decade, reporting primarily on environmental issues.
Agafia’s ma, Nadia, had given birth four times. The first three came into the world in their old home, in a village where the smell of hay drifted on neighbors’ voices. When she first bent over with pain in the church, women carried her to the town’s wooden bath and brought stacks of towels and metal bowls to the banya. They boiled water on the banya’s heater and wiped her with warm cloths, heaping heavy mantles of prayer on her small, laboring body. The first birth broke her body in half, followed by her heart; the child died in her arms before she could memorize his face.
Before baptism. They buried him in the cemetery’s pagan section, alongside the old souls struck down by unholy deaths, those who had lived unholy lives, and Nadia’s brother, killed by a lightning strike. Whenever Nadia pondered the child, all she had to conjure him was the small, nameless wooden cross her husband erected over the creature’s body as she lay recovering.
The second came quick and painless. The boy emerged with lungfuls of air, wet and perfect and curious. She named him Dima and swaddled him in yards of white cloth, singing to him every waking hour of every day. Curls cupped a heart-shaped face and his alabaster skin glowed like the icons’ in the town church.
When Dima was five, she made Natalia. She slid out of Nadia without anyone’s assistance, independent from her mother the moment a neighbor pinched off the black-eyed girl’s umbilical cord. Nadia admired and feared her first daughter. The girl’s quiet stilled her surroundings and slowed time. If Nadia weren’t so sure of her offspring’s holiness, she might have thought her a devil instead. Natalia straddled that fine line.
Things were getting bad by then. Beardless men with rifles slung against their backs showed up regularly in the village demanding that the children go to schools outside the community and the adults to factories to work. Nadia and Hugo thumbed through their handwritten books, two-hundred-year-old tomes Nadia’s mother had given the couple on their wedding day, for guidance. These changes all around them, they concluded, were signs of the Antichrist’s nearing. To preserve their old ways, they’d have to go to the mountains, far from temptation and worldly sins.
Only then could they be saved.
The family didn’t wait long—their books described in great detail what happened to people who didn’t heed the call to flee. Hugo and Nadia packed what they could.
For generations, the Kols’ people had traded tales about a utopia, somewhere east, where people like them lived safe from the Antichrist. It was a place called Belovod’e, where the trees grew as tall and straight as their faith, the winter frosts were thick, and real priests, serving barefoot, still swept the ground with their robes. One hundred forty churches rose from Belovod’e’s fertile soil. Upon arrival, refugees underwent three baptisms in the river to wash away the impurities they had carried. Travelers from all over had searched for this refuge, but it had been hard to find. As the Kols prepared to flee, Nadia’s mother gave them a pamphlet she’d long kept in one of her books. It had directions, landmarks, distances, promising deliverance to Belovod’e. Maps with detailed topographical markers, town names, and friendly shelters along the way folded out of the leaflet. Nadia’s family had always spoken about Belovod’e—White Waters—as if of heaven, a place as fantastical and as true. But the directions were a revelation. Why hadn’t they gone? Nadia’s mother couldn’t say. Nadia and Hugo traced the map’s faded lines east, calculating the journey’s toll. The names and landmarks rang vaguely familiar, though neither had ever gone far from their village. They set off on a gray morning in the summer of 1934, on foot, dragging along a cart packed with their belongings and their two living children.
Hugo lost count of their steps when he counted to eternity.
They stopped when they reached a clearing by the river, a thick carpet of grass ringed with dense forest. In some ways it was as the brochure promised: they’d traveled a long, long time and found tall trees, clear water, the land free and rolling, no sign of the Antichrist. They prayed without hindrance. But no priests greeted them, no one welcomed them from their long journey. There was not a single person within screaming range. Hugo jabbed his pointer finger at the map, which had run out months ago.
“A little farther,” he said.
But Nadia shook her head, so they unpacked, without reaching Belovod’e. She slipped the leaflet back into a book. With no priest present, they didn’t dare call it baptism, but they entered the water reverently and dipped each other in the current, tired hands cupping their heads, floating, letting go of past lives and future ones. The frost here, Nadia thought, will indeed be thick.
Agafia was born there. Only five-year-old Natalia and Nadia’s own husband, Hugo, attended her in this last birthing. They hadn’t built a bathhouse, so she crouched on the tundra-grass mattress by the hut’s stove. Nadia thought she would die pushing life out in such empty vastness, staining the white winter with her labor pain. But Natalia placed a cool small hand on her mother’s forehead. The pain in Nadia’s belly melted away and Agafia’s tiny squawks joined the taiga chorus.
The newborn’s wail announced her to the wolves. Wildness must have seeped into Nadia, who pumped it through her umbilical cord and her thin blood to this second daughter. The girl internalized the feral world outside, half human, half mossy wood. Chest full of woodpecker thumps, pine knots in her calves. The others tolerated the taiga’s harshness and learned to ask it for forgiveness. To survive. But Agafia, having known nothing else, thrived in the secluded brutality of her home. In this way, Agafia stood apart from the rest of the family, building a home in a nook of Siberia far from any settlements.
Years had sped by since Nadia had passed away, but whenever Agafia prayed she still appeared by her side. Nadia had passed down her books to her daughter, the travel guide to Belovod’e still tucked like a bookmark between pages covered in Church Slavonic script. When Agafia was alone she studied it, imagining herself moving along the map’s twisted routes. If anyone else was around, she kept it hidden in the thick leather tomes, which contained their community’s history and their prayers, one bolstering the other.
“You’ll memorize the prayers soon enough,” Nadia had told her young daughter. And she had.
Agafia held on to these devotions as if to buoys, bobbing with them in the open waters of her isolation. They were company, compass, structure. They were a home, however cramped. In times of uncertainty, she felt the bigness of the books’ promises crash against the smallness of the world they contained, like great blocks of melting ice on a river eager to flow free.
Excerpted from Lost Believers by Irina Zhorov. Copyright © 2023 by Irina Zhorov. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.