Little Silver Hoof

My death shall meet me at the spatial and temporal intersection of the icy sidewalk, the gnarly split poplar trunk, the early December afternoon, the horn buttons on the coat of a portly stranger, a very negative Celsius, my best friend’s gleeful spirit and my goddamn slippery heels.
Stop me now!
But my friend continues to push me and I keep sliding over the rind of sooty snow. Off the rind, off the orange of the Earth.
In my city, snow falls twice a year: one snowfall in October, one in May. In October, it falls two centimeters deep and immediately forms a gray crust. We have a lot of people here; and the people do not drive, they walk; they take the sidewalk to the store, the daycare, the bus stop; they trample and trample over the snow; in just one day, the sidewalks are fit for skating.
People slip, trip and fall. They break their arms, hips and collarbones. In winter, fractures are the leading cause for emergency room visits, briefly but overwhelmingly eclipsed by the Happy-New-Year alcohol poisoning around January 1st.
I am skating home from school.
She keeps pushing me in the back for blocks onward. I keep slipping and sliding, missing the trees narrowly, tumbling into people’s scratchy coats. I am such fun for my so-called best friend, me in my shit winter boots.
The winter boots I have this year look like winter boots enough; they are tall, black and leather-like. However, they don’t work as winter boots. My boots were made by Private Entrepreneurs, that is, by people who got a permit to make footwear right in their little hole-in-the-wall store. It’s a good thing the government allowed Private Enterprise: there are shoes to buy now. The shoes are awful, which is a bad thing.
My winter boots have zippers which do not zip. They have cruddy thin fake fur lining. The black paint has started coming off the boots they day we bought them, revealing something strangely and off-puttingly pink underneath.
But the worst thing is the soles. They slide around like they are made of glass.
I am the Cinderella of the perestroika age.
All Soviet girls are.
Our good fairies started enterprising as soon as private enterprise became legal. They make shirts which say something vaguely English, like CRUISING TO MOREA, shoes cobbled together from fish scales and snot, and jeans with unfinished seams, faux-stonewashed in boiling cauldrons of aniline dyes. From our good fairies, my mother bought me a jacket made from mattress ticking, a pair of white pleather kitten-heels sprouting dried glue, and these blasted winter boots.
I sewed my skirt and my satchel myself. My winter coat is from a consignment store. Fourteen years old, and I have never had a new winter coat.
My past coats and hats are a shabby motley crew; they are a bunch of bleary-eyed bums lining up at the soup kitchen on a dim December morning in a city of abandoned hopes.
Exhibit A: we have a blue plaid coat from a consignment store. All colors have bled from it long ago; it is abjectly uncleanable. The fake fur trim around the hood is matted into knots and looks like the fur trim around a wolf’s anus.
Exhibit B: it’s a hand-me-down sheepskin coat. It is not shearling. It is a solid inflexible tube of warm, thick and heavy black sheep, with two smaller inflexible tubes of sheep as sleeves. When I wear it, I cannot move my arms, bend or sit down.
And here, we have a hat that my mother made for me, her lack of millinery experience notwithstanding, from an old red fox that used to be a collar on her coat, a piece of gray fake fur that’d been lying around for ages, and some gray polyester fabric that had already served two terms as lining. She tried to make it as nice as she could. The most worn parts of the fox ended up in the back of the hat — again, looking like an animal’s behind. My schoolmates tease me about the hat. They say: here comes Genghis!
And here –- finally — we have the first coat that I ever got new. I got it when I was eighteen. It is made of a million tiny pieces of dyed rabbit fur patched together. Every evening, like all other Cinderellas who bought the same coat at the Chinese market, I sit down with a thick needle and black thread to fix the holes that have fissured the coat during the day. Most holes occur under arms. After a month of darning, it becomes impossible to move arms in this coat: the underarm sections have shrunk, and are covered in welts and seams like the skin of a burn victim.
Winter provides for a lot of sewing up and patching up: we have to wear so many layers daily, and the garments are so few, that they get worn through and through. Socks and tights turn particularly holey. We sew and fix through the dark evenings, sitting by Grandma’s table lamp with a bendy neck which provides the best light in our thrifty bleak forty-watt house.
But, besides all this tweedy drab darning, winter brings shimmer, glitter and glitz.
I wake up in the morning, which looks exactly like night, and I look at the orange streetlights through the winter-frosted glass. The egret plumes and peacock tails of frost are beaded with diamante stars that promise biting cold. Outside, the air will stop your breath and plug your throat, unless you put two layers of scarf over your lips.
I see the most beautiful things in winter.
In first grade, as a holiday treat, our class is taken to the theater for a matinee. The show starts out as a regular old play with people talking in pretend voices. Then, the lights go down and Vasilisa the Beautiful twirls onto the stage in a single stunning beam. Her gown shines on, crazy diamond, throwing splashes of pale green, pale pink, pale champagne shimmer into the blackness as she moves her billowy blinding fish-scale sleeves around and around to twinkling music.
I am spellbound.
On an inky-blue afternoon, I slowly walk home from my extended day at school. I drag my feet in my round-soled felt boots, lingering by the windows of every grocery store. The stores are decorated for the New Year’s. There are snowflakes cut out of reused candy foil by the ladies of the dairy counter; there is unsafe but pretty glitter dust made from smashed glass ornaments by the cashier. There is silver and gold tinsel craftily suspended from the ceiling: the meat counter lady wraps one end of the tinsel thread in cotton wool, wets the cotton wool in a small bowl of water, and throws it at the ceiling where it catches on the rough lime paint with a splop.
I shuffle past the do-it-yourself New Year glories of the green grocery and the carpet store. I reach the corner with the pastry kiosk and the newspaper kiosk. In my pocket, there is twenty two kopecks worth of illegal tender. I am supposed to spend this money on the school lunch, not on a tart with a dollop of brown jam and a swirl of sugar-frosted pink meringue atop a shortbread rosette.
I’ll just make sure to wipe my face thoroughly after.
Lick, lick. I quickly scan the boring window of the newspaper kiosk for traces of rare and elusive butterfly-shaped hair barrettes. As expected, there are none. But what is this?
Between two incomprehensible smudgy Pravdas, there is a glossy magazine with a most well-put-together woman on the cover. And foreign letters! Kobieta i Życie, whatever that may mean.
The woman’s eyes are peridot-green, translucent, rimmed in fuzzy black eyelashes curling up like a doll’s.
The woman’s lips are frosted pink. Girls in our school make their own frosted pink lipstick by melting red lipstick, silver powder paint and petroleum jelly in small aluminum pots over low heat. But it never comes out quite so pink, so silvery, so reflective, so rich.
And the most mesmerizing thing is the woman’s blouse. It is made of tight sheer black lace shot through with silver thread. I have never seen fabric this wondrous! Oh I want to grow up her!
I am spellbound.
I will, I will be beautiful, if only once or twice.
My mother, my grandmother, all the women I know talk about the beautiful clothes they had, or could have had, with wistfulness and sensuality. Talking about clothes is a spoken word genre. It has its own vocabulary of words and gestures: a yoke (hands smoothly circumscribe the bosom), a Mandarin collar (thumbs and forefingers of both hands gently circumnavigate the neck), an A-line skirt (palms sail away from the waist in opposite directions).
My maternal grandmother makes me at least one outfit a year. Usually, it is cut from an old flowery dress from the back of her pithy closet. She loves to talk clothes. Her favorite story is about the bolt of Chinese brocade her brother-in-law once brought home as a war trophy from Harbin.
“Silky, navy blue, with flowers and birds!” she says dreamily as I rifle through her button box. “My sister made a Sunday-go-to-town dress out of it, with a Mandarin collar (fingers around the neck) and tiny shell buttons down the front (a swift arpeggio down the center of the breastbone).”
I find a round diamante button in her button box. The button marries a big and proud brassy button off a Navy uniform.
And she says, a sequined non-sequitur: “And I used to have such small and pretty ears, like shells!”
Her brother-in-law brought two bolts of fabric from China: the blue brocade and a malachite-green cotton velvet with glued-on golden dots made of real metal foil.
The velvet was made into a gown for my grandmother, and then it became a fancy floor-length skirt for my mother. While I am little enough to fit inside, I go visit the skirt in the armoire. I sit under its dark and murky softness and look at its mysterious constellations. Stella, estrella, nebula.
When I am in second grade, my mother uses the skirt to make a New Year’s costume for me. I am the Mistress of Copper Mountain. The skirt begins under my arms and flows well into the floor.
It is very important for a little girl to be able to twirl in a proper wide swirl of a sweeping skirt, and if the skirt throws off tiny beams of light, then all the better.
The Mistress of Copper Mountain is a fairy story by Pavel Bazhov. The Mistress is a spirit of the mountain, able to turn into a green lizard. She is masterful of many enchantments; those who work the rock in the Ural Mountains to mine gems, copper and malachite should be wary of meeting her, for she can show them her best chambers, walls upon walls of lapis lazuli studded with diamonds –- or, she can kill them, banish them, make them lose their minds. Worse, she can fall in love with them and want to keep them under her crimson ceilings forever. She gives and she takes away.
What power of beauty upon men.
I have a book of stories by Pavel Bazhov. They are written in dialect but, as a child, I do not know this. I think they are written in a magical language, which is both like Russian and unlike Russian, which is understandable and not, which has just enough of here to be penetrable, and a lot of the beyond.
My favorite Bazhov story is Little Silver Hoof.
A little girl stays in a hunting cabin in the woods all winter. No parents: a Cinderella. She stays with a kindly old man who is not related to her and is nearly always away. Her one steady companion is a kitten who grows into a big honking feline brute by the end of the winter. The old man gathers wood before going off hunting. There is enough fire in the cabin to warm the tiny seven-year-old bones of the peasant girl. She has soot on her cheeks, sweat in her hair, and uncomfortable scratchy hand-me-down clothes.
The sun goes down early in winter; her only light and warmth are the embers in the stove and the purring of the cat.
The old man tells the girl about Little Silver Hoof, a small magical deer with one magical silver hoof. When the deer stamps the ground with his hoof once, a gem appears; twice, two gems; and when the deer gets excited and paws the ground over and over, he makes a veritable stampede of gems. Red, pink, blue, white, green, purple. Shiny, sparkly, pretty, precious gems.
She is spellbound.
She starts looking for Little Silver Hoof. Nothing beautiful happens: the cabin stands drab, the ashes gray, the snow boring and the woods woody.
One night, she sees Little Silver Hoof briefly. Before anything beautiful happens, he runs away, scared.
Worse, the cat runs away and gets lost.
Lonely, resolute, the girl puts on her shawl, fits her skis over her round-soled felt boots, and off she is into the big beyond, to look for her cat.
She finds her cat and Little Silver Hoof playing together in the snow, nodding at each other as if in conversation.
Little Silver Hoof runs around the cabin and stamps the ground here and there; gems fall away, excitedly gleaming, from under his hoof. Then, he runs onto the roof of the cabin and starts to paw it in earnest. The cabin is covered in an avalanche of gems, it is piled under fireworks and, as it all happens on a moonlit night in snow-covered woods, the spectacle is all the more spectacular.
The little girl and the old man salvage a few handfuls of the precious stones and take them to the cabin. These few rocks will remain material. In the morning, the deer, the cat and the bounteous glorious riches outside are gone forever.
Years go by, and the old cabin is no more. Time layers itself upon time, dirt layers itself upon dirt – but still.
If you come to that place and dig around, you can still find them: vivid green, refractive, precious and, as the Russian description goes, clear as a tear.