Aleksandra Nikolaevna travels south on a military train. She sits apart from the latest conscripts. Surely each of the soldiers deserves a smile from this proud Russian woman, but Aleksandra is surly. At times she mumbles to herself. Her joints are arthritic. When the soldiers help her on and off the train and on and off the military vehicle that takes her from the train to the base, she warns them not to mishandle her. In a wince, the pain can invade her consciousness. Usually it retreats but not always. Aleksandra looks out of place, and she renders the soldiers out of place too. The heat is stifling.
In the morning Aleksandra is reunited with her grandson Denis. He is a captain and he is handsome. They embrace warmly—they have not seen each other for eight years. He takes her on a tour of the base. She studies every detail of the environment: she peers into tents to see the living conditions of the recruits; she stares into the eyes of the soldiers. Everything is dusty. The sunlight overexposes the landscape, which is in different shades of brown from beige to taupe to burnt umber, contrasting with the military green of the tents and the camouflage of the uniforms. Aleksandra enters a tank with her grandson. She comments upon the smell of it; her grandson explains it is the scent of sweat mixed with stale metal. There is barely enough air to breathe. Denis shows her a Kalashnikov and Aleksandra picks it up and points it. It is easy to operate and thus too easy to shoot “the enemy.” As she had suspected.
When Denis leaves her, Aleksandra insists on experiencing the setting of her grandson’s life without a tour guide and dismisses the soldier ordered to accompany her on the base. She disrespects borders instinctively. She wanders over to the guards by the encampment’s entrance. In the distance, the land is inflamed—a battle perhaps, or the aftermath of an explosion, or maybe a brush fire. She chats with the guards effortlessly, gives them food, complains about her aches and pains, and naps in a folding chair. The next day she walks off the base to do her own reconnaissance. She is on a mission to explore the nearby town in order to purchase cigarettes and sweets for the soldiers. Her determination conquers her weariness, though she cannot help but mumble about the pain as she walks.
The town is wounded from battle. Though the central square lacks any bandaging whatsoever, the market is lively. Aleksandra is stunned that a local youth refuses to do business with her because she is Russian, but quickly makes friends with a woman near her own age who runs a stall. When Aleksandra complains of fatigue–and of the heat–Malika takes Aleksandra back to her apartment in a building that no longer has a façade. They sit and drink tea. Aleksandra and Malika talk effortlessly and discuss the war. Malika expresses how small the Russian soldiers look and worries about the hollow look of the young Chechen men. Aleksandra listens, her fatigue lessens.
A neighbor of Malika’s accompanies Aleksandra back to the base. This young man admits that he wishes to travel to St. Petersburg (as well as Mecca). He speaks also of wanting to be free and awaits her response. She listens. Surely his people deserve liberty! But Aleksandra is concerned with his people’s methods of achieving freedom and she is surly. She argues for intelligence over violence without foresight. They part at the base. He lingers for a second, looking at Aleksandra. He can no longer hate her just because she is Russian and he looks less hollow, more filled in. At the gate of the encampment, he is out of place and turns to walk back to his town. Aleksandra distributes the goods that Malika gave to her for the soldiers.
Aleksandra complains to Denis’ commander. The commander may know how to destroy but he does not know how to rebuild! The town is wounded and there is no attempt at bandaging! He is speechless. Later she confronts Denis about his choices. Why is he in this horrible army? Why isn’t he married? What career awaits him? They argue – he tells her that he had to flee the harshness of family and used the army as his escape hatch. Aleksandra admits that even though her husband was cruel, she is lonely as a widow. She cries. Denis holds her. She relaxes into his comfort, her face at his chest, strong arms protecting her from memories of violence. There is the beginning of a caress in their embrace.
Denis takes Aleksandra’s hair out of its tight braid. In the morning he plaits her hair expertly, as if he were an artist not a soldier. His hands may be strong, but they are also gentle. His devotion combats the pain in her body. A soldier spies on them through the folds of the tent, collecting information, witnessing a secret side of Denis. Perhaps this may be used against him. Or perhaps the soldier is also yearning for his own mother, his own grandmother. Or he craves tenderness from Denis, impossible to experience firsthand as Denis is his superior.
Soon after, Denis and Aleksandra part. He is going on a mission for five days and tells her she must leave. She walks into the Chechen town, knowing the shortcut from Malika’s rebel neighbor and bids her newfound friends from the market adieu. They walk with her to the train and embrace warmly. Aleksandra invites Malika to visit her in St. Petersburg. Malika realizes that Aleksandra’s offer is genuine. She promises to come.
Aleksandra Nikolaevna travels north on a military train. She is alone in the railway car. She worries about her grandson Denis and her friend Malika and what each represents to her and to Russia. She worries about the time in front of her and the future of her country. In a wince, pain conquers her consciousness–like an occupying army from the other side of the mountains. Then the excruciation retreats and her worries resume. The heat is stifling. There is barely enough air to breathe.