Borscht – Adam Johnson
November 27, 2023
The above quote is attributable to our supervisor (sobriquet “the zookeeper”), who was yelling after me a second time. What an unfortunate state of things, you will say, to be named after Ukrainian soup. But you see, that’s hardly the case at all. My name is Borscht (pronounced Bors – the c, h, and t are all silent), and I was born to and raised by two fine Swedish émigrés in the fine city of Helsinki. An only child, I was treated like a prince. Since I was born on the first day of the new century, my parents held me in the highest esteem. Indeed, the whole neighborhood thought of me as a kind of talisman. My chest of toys was always brimming, and I enjoyed a leg of lamb whenever I wanted, and not just at Easter time. But then I grew up and discovered that I was a prince no more. My birth date became a thing of the most fleeting regard. I was no longer a specimen of wonder, no longer the prince holding his little wooden elephant to a room of smiles. I took a job in a factory, where a thing like a smile was a rare article. The zookeeper certainly took no notice of my birth endowment. The zookeeper was a devil of man, a great big bear who lingered in the shadows of the Arabia Factory, where the ants such as me labored over stoneware and china. He was a bear in a china factory, and I, a Swedish-Ukrainian soup in Arabian Finland. And all this before that famous year of 1918 did us the favor of rolling out on a Tuesday.
“Why, yes sir?”
“Borscht, why must you make me call after you so? Have you gone deaf, are you deaf man? Is it deafness that overtakes you Borscht? You are no good to us deaf. You might as well be blind. And we’ve no need for a blind man on the line. Would you keep a blind and deaf man in your employ?”
“Why, no sir, I would not. If you ask me –”
“But I have asked you Borscht. This very moment I did ask you, recall? And you answered well enough. Remain loyal to me Borscht, and I’ll make something of you yet. Now back to the line.” With this, the zookeeper barreled away in a plume of smoke. His cries were soon muffled by the grinding machines and the ruckus and banging of the working men. It appeared that, like other times, the zookeeper had called after my name purely for the sake of calling after it. People have always been quite fond of my name, especially the zookeeper. He was always yelling it at the tops of his lungs.
Beetroot is the main ingredient in most borscht, but it is not the main ingredient in me. In me, a soul of happiness and contentment is the constitution of my essence. I don’t mean to talk so lightly of essences, especially in such a complex world and with such a complex creature as the human organism. Oh and I don’t mean to talk about organisms. I have a story to tell, but it feels as though my mouth and mind are all filled up with wet, glistening marbles – all ducks and no taw, that kind of thing, if it pleases you. This is a story about war, not organisms, a story about reds and whites, not beetroot and cabbage.
Oh no no, you mistake me. When I said this is a story about war and reds and whites, I did not mean to convey that it has anything to do with those unfortunate plains wars on the American continent. And neither did I mean to convey that it has anything to do with wine. The same goes for candied canes and the dyes in the flag of Poland.
You may not know it, but the Finnish people were once called “reds and whites.” There was a civil war in our country during that year that started on a Tuesday. Some of the good guys were called reds and some of the bad guys were called whites, and vice versa – that is, the main items in the former statement, only the other way around. The zookeeper was a red, but not all reds were monsters, like him. Many of my fellows in the factory were called reds, and many of my fellows in the factory were fine Finnish men, who would shovel coal to keep their wives content and read from the Kalevala to edify their children. Thus I determined that not all reds were bad.
My parents were apologists for the Swedish People’s Party, so they were called whites. And because my parents were not bad people, I determined that not all whites were bad people. Because my parents were whites, I called myself a white, until later I found it was better to call myself a red. At their dinner table, after the divisions had been drawn up in that famous January, my parents told me I was a white, so I said, “Okay. I am a white.” Later at an after-hours meeting at the factory, the zookeeper told us all that we were reds, so I said, “Okay. I am a red.” But here I am, getting ahead of things. When I was a little toy soldier of a boy, there were no ardent reds and whites, only ambivalent patrons of the great Grand Duchy all across the cold country. I’m sure there were always some factious groups in my beloved Finland before the civil strife. Factions have always existed because politics have always existed. And politics have existed as long as men have existed. Political factions are an ingredient of mankind as much as are fury and balded pates. I myself am of the balded-pate faction, the BPF. There is a birth mark splashed over the left coronal suture of my head, and it looks like spilled borscht. Within the BPF, I am of the subgroup BM. Such was I: Borscht Ek of the birth-marked, balded-pate faction (B.E., BMBPF), at your service, and at the service of reds and whites betimes. I stand but four feet tall. My hands and feet are likewise modest in size. I should have mentioned these things at first. Only now can you take full stock of my eminence.
The trouble all began with the Russians. I don’t mean to cast blame in an effort to absolve my countrymen of their conduct, but I was told by some whites that the Russians were the cause of the black cloud that overtook my dear Helsinki. From there it spread, so said the whites, like a plague among the workers. I was told this by a friend of my parents while eating a leg of lamb. The friend was an old Swedish doctor who my father called sawbones. My father would break out the peach brandy especially for him. He was a very smart man. I know this because I was required to write down some of the words he used and fetched a dictionary after he had left and when all of the leg of the lamb was distributed between our full stomachs. The further his coach took him from our house, the further the lamb was separated. He he! It brought me mirth to think of the lamb inside his gut growing further and further from the same lamb in mine! During the ingestion of the lamb, the doctor had used words like “burghers” and “proletariat” and “casus belli.” He had also used, with special emphasis, some words that I did recognize, such as ma vaadimme. And then he used some words that were not in my dictionary at all, such as “bolshevik” and “svinhufvud” and “petrograd.” The doctor had a great gift for speech-making. I hung on his every word. When my stomach was guarding a piece of lamb in my own soft bed, I thought to myself, “How could anybody ever be a red?”
And just as I was reflecting on this thought the next morning, and on how nice the doctor was, and how quiet I had been in stealing a drink of the peach brandy after lights out, the zookeeper informed us that a mandatory meeting would be held that evening, the 26th of January, 1918. That day was a Thursday. When we met, the sky was dark. A feeling of apprehension existed among the men. I stood in the front of the group, because my slight stature prevented me from standing in the back if I wanted to see what the zookeeper had in store for us. When the zookeeper came in, he was accompanied by very well-dressed men I had not seen before. There was a big and important discussion had, in which it was made known to us that a red lantern was lit in the tower of the workers’ hall, and that because a red lantern was lit, we were going to fight with other men. Those were the orders that were given to the zookeeper by the well-dressed men, who had been given their orders from the red lantern. It was then that I was told I was a red. And because all of my fellows were told they were reds, it was easy enough for us to nod our heads and act as a crowd of reds. In a matter of days, my wages were no longer earned at the Arabia Factory. Instead, I received a nice salary from a man who said he was a red guard with special access to the red lantern. Since the night the zookeeper told me what color I was, my life changed significantly.
When I proved to be a total bungler with the Mosin-Nagant rifle that was handed me by the zookeeper from a box at the factory, I was taken aside by the zookeeper and the well-dressed men who were always watching him. The well-dressed men laughed at my name and chopped it up among themselves in a hearty Russian brogue, replete with sniggers. Learning of my Swedish family and friends, the well-dressed men took a great interest in me, and stopped their banter. I told them all about my life and my family and my neighborhood, and the little wooden elephant that I had played with, and asked them if they enjoyed a leg of lamb. I thought it only polite. The men brought the zookeeper aside and talked discreetly beyond my hearing. When they finished, I was informed that I would visit a very important man, who I met the next day. His name was Modya, and his breath smelled like a variant of the peach brandy I had tasted at my parents’ home. Modya claimed to have the ear of an important person named Ali. I was to live out my life as usual, and report everything I saw and heard to Modya. I asked Modya whether I was a spy, and he said no, I was only a messenger. And because you are a messenger, he said, you will never be at risk thanks to an adage from long ago that has protected messengers ever since. He told me I was a red and a white. And I told him I thought it suited me very well to be both colors. Modya continued to converse with me, and I delighted in the fact that he used some of the same words as I had heard from my father’s friend, doctor sawbones. I told Modya all about the doctor. On the following morning, I showed Modya all of my notes from the dinner with the doctor, and asked him if he knew all of the big words the doctor had used. Modya told me he did, and it became evident that Modya wanted very badly to meet my doctor friend. I was very excited. Perhaps the three of us would share some peach brandy. Modya, doctor sawbones and I and some little sweet cakes and brandy. It was a pleasant prospect, and it warmed me to the very tips of my boots just thinking of it.
That afternoon, I brought Modya and some of his friends to the doctor’s house. Modya’s friends carried rifles, because Helsinki was all in an uproar, Modya said, and it was better to be safe rather than sorry. The zookeeper had stayed behind at the Arabia Factory, where there was a great deal of activity that day. It appeared to me that Modya and his friends must have already been acquainted with the doctor, because they went right on into the house without knocking. I was told to wait outside. After a while, a single gunshot rang from within, and it seemed as though the whole house shook. I was scared, but then relieved when Modya came outside, followed by his three protectors. There was nobody home, he said, but one of the men thought it proper to put down a rat that he saw hiding in a corner. That seemed right to me. In those days, Helsinki had a terrible rat problem. Back at the Arabia Factory, the zookeeper treated me to a bumper of vodka, and hoisted me onto his shoulders to the cheers of the men who I had used to work with on the line. It was a wonderful day to be a red. I decided that I did like vodka. But not as much as I liked peach brandy. I asked the zookeeper if he had any peach brandy. He only laughed in my face, and raised a loud chant of “Borscht!” which he pronounced like the soup.
When, late into that evening, I arrived at my parents’ home, there was no smell of lamb in the air. The rooms were dark, and my parents whisked me into the drawing room, where not even a candle was lit. My father locked the door and hushed me up. My mother’s eyes, lighted only by the moon beam that penetrated the cold pane of the window, were glassy and red. She had obviously been in tears. For myself, I was in high spirits. The vodka had made a lasting impression on my heart and mind. I asked my parents whether I could have some of their peach brandy. They were shocked at this. My father called me insolent. In the next breath, he told me that several of his and my mother’s friends and colleagues had been killed in the course of the day and that he feared for our family’s safety. He insisted that so long as the conflict lasted, nobody in our house was to identify as a white. I told him not to worry, that I was both colors, that we would be looked after by my friend Modya, an educated man who had told me I was both colors. My parents put questions to me. They demanded to know what I meant. In my vodka-state, it was not difficult for me to offer up all that had happened in recent days, including the visit I had made to the house of my father’s friend, the doctor, how the zookeeper and the other red men had celebrated me and chanted my name and shared vodka. At this my mother nearly fainted. My father recoiled. I smiled a vodka smile. What was the worry? We were a house of both colors. We were safe. We had the protection of Modya and his helpers, who had even gone out of the way to spare the doctor’s house of a rat. But from that day forward, I was forbidden to go out from under their roof. My parents hid me in the attic, where I sat and waited and slept by a stove pipe that kept my hands and feet and body warm for several dismal months.
In April, I learned from my father, who would feed me news from time to time and bring me my favorite lamb, that the Germans had destroyed the place where the red lantern was lit. A white flag had been raised in a house of God. On April the 14th, I was taken from the attic and brought to a parade. Down the center of our beloved Helsinki the German fighters marched. They were neither red nor white. What became of the zookeeper I do not know. Nor do I know what became the fate of my dear friend Modya. Did he make off with the red lantern? Does he have his hair? Perhaps he and the zookeeper are drinking peach brandy together, somewhere afar.