Kon-Tiki

The train to the village takes just under two days. Sometimes we get a compartment with doors, sometimes without, sometimes we get a nice clean car with dark-red vinyl berths, sometimes we get an old one with pressed green laminated paper on the walls, but we never take the firmenny express train, because the express train does not stop where we need to get off.
Even the trains that stop at our station only do so for a minute, and when the train runs late, which it nearly always does, the train does not stop as much as slow down briefly before picking up speed again. Usually, we arrive at our station at six in the morning. Our parents wake us up when the windows are dark so we have time to get dressed, roll up our mattresses, give our bed sheets to the sleepy train attendant in wrinkled railroad uniform, pack away our toothbrushes and books, and brush our hair nice so our relatives at the station do not think we are poorly brought-up.
When the train slows down, we are already at the door, and the attendant hastily lowers the retractable steps for us to hop onto and leave, leave the car, go-go-go to our intended destination. The departing and the arriving have forty seconds to switch positions: train to platform, platform to train. The attendant is scrambling.
The station is named after some hero, I guess; there is a bust of a blind-eyed curly-haired man painted the same silver they use on low cemetery fences. The blind bust rises out of orange and yellow nasturtiums. The nasturtiums are just like the ones my Stern Grandma has growing in a chipped-enamel washbasin all rusted through with holes.
I have two grandmothers: Stern Grandma and Kind Grandma. I go to Kind Grandma’s village every summer for at least a month. My parents have jobs; they cannot babysit us kids when we are out of school.
What part of the summer is not spent with the Kind Grandma is spent at the dacha of the stern one.
My Stern Grandma’s garden is small and cultivated within an inch of its life. It is weeded and fertilized, and we are not allowed to eat any berries or vegetables without permission. That is really important. Once, someone ate the first raspberry of the season off the bush; maybe the berry just fell off. Stern Grandma cried with real tears. She wants to save everything and make it into jams, pickles, preserves.
Kind Grandma’s garden is huge, rambling and weedy, with fields of tall sunflowers and hens laying eggs in the beans, and if you make it all the way to the end of it, which you might never even do in just one short summer, there are wild strawberries and peonies, tiger lilies and wild leeks, crawly beetles, creepy caterpillars, expanses of the collective farm land where they grow buckwheat, corn and experimental hybrid grains, and beyond are oak groves, cemeteries, places in which a town child would disappear forever without a trace, while a country child knows them like the back of her brown mosquito-bit hand.
My Stern Grandma always lectures me on this or that when I am in her garden. “Potatoes like sandy soil. I am adding nitrogen fertilizers to help leaves grow. This is wild mustard, it is a weed, pull it out. These are carrot tops, don’t yank them out with the wild mustard. Throw the pea shells back into the garden. If the berry does not come off easily, don’t pick it, it is unripe. If you don’t give the cucumbers enough water, they will grow bitter.”
Blah-blah-blah. Gypsophila. Dimorphotheca. Who needs to know all this? Why would I possibly ever care?
She makes me do boring, inane things. She gives me a tray of gooseberries and a pair of scissors and tells me to snip the tail off each berry, off a million fuzzy green gooseberries shot with tiny red capillaries. Each berry has a front end and a tail end, a front tail and a tail tail. Snip. Snip. But don’t bruise the berry. Be precise. Snip. Snip. Front tail. End tail. Snip. Snip. Wait, this story isn’t over yet. Front tail. End. Front end snip. Snip. Snip. Snip. You need the same amount sugar as you have berries. Snip. Snip. In volume, not in weight. Tail end snip. Snip. Snip.
My Kind Grandma never lectures me nor makes me do anything. I wake up in the morning and she is already making cookies, frying airy dough in a deep pan to a golden crisp, drowning the crumbly twigs in powdered sugar. She knows this poor kid is stuck in the middle of nowhere without any city treats; so, we make our own treats. We fill ice-cube trays with water cut with blackcurrant preserves, or with milk, water, sugar and imitation vanilla, and we stick them in the freezer. In a few hours, we take out tiny Popsicle cubes.
In the dog days of July, the green wooden shutters remain shut. It is cool and dim in the house. I am allowed to stay inside on the mattress on the floor and read. I need to turn on the lights to be able to make out the letters in the shuttered darkness.
My Kind Grandma lets me stay up as long as I want and read what I want: The Prince and the Pauper, The Rose and the Ring, The Little Lord Fauntleroy. Often, I read till two or three in the morning. The night mosquitoes are beastly. I am allowed to sleep on the sun porch. I am allowed to decorate the wall above my bed any way I want. I cut out a hundred photos from Around the World Magazine: oceans, volcanoes, Kon-Tiki, divers in gear, naked caramel-colored aboriginal ladies adorn the plywood wall painted dirty blue. Sea corals, sea urchins, seashells, Seychelles. Treasures untold.
My Kind Grandma has both treasures and books about them. Every summer, she takes history students on archaeological digs. There are a lot of things underneath these wild peonies, buckwheat fields and secret military towns: burial grounds, primitive villages, Mongol gold, shaman coats and baby skulls left by the indigenous people who used to live along the Amur River. She has photos, coins, arrowheads, books about the Scythians, Egypt, Greece. I learn golden words like cobalt, smalt, embalming, Amun-Ra. Luxuries, treasures untold.
Her shelves are full of books on the history of the region, of Russia, of the world. Till all hours of the morning I read about the exploration of Siberia by Russians, Americans, the Chinese. Pelts. Rifles. Rivalries. Oroqen and Daur. Yerofey Khabarov. Gnats. Death toll. Tracts upon tracts of land given to peasants willing to move across the continent from their depleted homes on the European side of the Urals; land covered with taiga, rich in timber, game, fish and permafrost. Woods unconquerable, murders unpunished, wills indomitable, treasures untold.
My Stern Grandma makes us go to bed the minute it gets dark and all gardening is done for the day. We sleep on army cots in the little back room. Sometimes the smaller kid sleeps in Grandma’s bed with her.
When it is dark, it is really dark; the only light comes from small silvery celestial bodies. Going to the bathroom is terrifying: a long, dark and twisty journey across the potatoes, over the water barrels, through the brambles, ghosts, wolves, taiga, to the outhouse hole-of-death.
We keep a dented aluminum bucket on the sun porch, for the nightly needs.
When it is dark, it is really dark, so sometimes we listen to the radio. Its raspberry-red eye glows comfortingly above the golden bar of Warsaw-Berlin-Moscow-Peking.
After we are tucked in for the night, my Stern Grandma retells us books, long books, abridged and serialized. Once, she took a month to tell us the entire Count of Monte Cristo. Alexander Dumas’ novels lend themselves well to serialization: murders, duels, fights, hanged men, cliffhangers. Innocence avenged, villainy punished, wills indomitable.
She favors the adventure genre: James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott 1st Baronet. One summer, she read a year’s worth of sci-fi magazines left at the dacha by one of our older cousins. She told us a story about one-eyed aliens who have captured an Earth spaceship and turned everyone into an alien. She told us the story over the course of a week; we could not sleep for a month. In the daytime, the terror would melt and disperse under the blistering sun, hide its last slimy droplets under the raspberry bushes. At night, when it was dark, it was really, really dark, save for the spooky light coming from the small silvery celestial bodies of aliens.
She remembers not only the plot of the book but the most memorable things characters said to one another. When she talks, she sniffles every sentence or two. The sniffling is not from a cold; it is neurological, a tic. Sniff. Sniff. Always twice.
The tic is an after-effect of the smallpox she’d had as a young freckled peasant girl in a depleted and famished Ukrainian village. She sniffles every few seconds, always twice, and her nose twitches. Twitch. Twitch. Her sniffling sounds comforting in the very dark darkness.
My Stern Grandma’s garden is no longer fertilized with super-phosphates within an inch of its life. There is dead silence between Warsaw and Berlin, and the Count of Monte Cristo has joined his beloved Mercedes forever. My Kind Grandma’s coin collection is in the local museum; her Tutankhamen has left the building; his blue-and-golden-arrowed eyes are no longer winking at orange aboriginal women; her Kon-Tiki has sailed.
Villainy is forgotten, innocence is forgotten, and crickets rule over the fields of summer sleep.

BILE AND JUICE

“Petrova, Korneychuk and Habibova – JUICE! Makarova and Krushelnitskaya – BILE!” shouts the nurse in the hallway.
Great. Bile.
Stomach juice is better because only takes two hours, you get to sit down and the plastic tube they feed you is thin. Bile takes four hours during which you must lie still on your right side. The thick orange rubber bile tube has a metal nipple at the end. You swallow the tube and the nipple goes deep into your body, through your esophagus, out of your stomach, in your duodenum and almost into the gallbladder. You must fast before both lab tests, but midway through the stomach juice session they insert a syringe into the tube snaking down your esophagus and squirt in some beef stock, to stimulate juice production. When they take bile they squirt in a solution of magnesium salts. No food.
We must fill ten small mayonnaise jars with juice, four test tubes with bile. I don’t know why they need such huge amounts of stuff for lab testing. Four test tubes seems like less; however, juice drips rather freely and the nurses are usually satisfied with our output, while some gallbladders don’t want to give up bile. I myself have never been able to produce more than a tube and a half of it, and so the nurses yell at me. When we make less bile than they like they reschedule the test and we have to do it all over again in a week. That means they won’t let us go home and we will spend our entire lives imprisoned in the Regional Children’s Hospital, 3rd Floor, Gastroenterology.
Now I lie here on the cot covered in orange vinyl next to another unfortunate bile secreter, and I envy the four lucky ones who are sitting up in chairs with plastic tubes in their mouths and happily churning out stomach juices.
When they release us and we get up from the bile cots, all other kids on the Floor will have had lunch already, and we’ll walk to the dining hall where cold leftovers are kept for the kids who have spent the morning in the lab. The nurses tell us to walk close to the wall so we could lean onto it if we start to feel faint.
Today in the dining hall they are serving a drink made from dried bananas. We started getting dried bananas from Vietnam recently and we figured out that the bananas can be boiled in water to make a hot drink even more recently. I get a glass of sweet liquid with a shriveled pinkie-sized poop-colored half-banana in it. After I’ve been biled dry, the banana drink is ambrosia.
Now the juice is done, the bile is done, and I’ve already swallowed the light-bulb. The light-bulb swallow test one is probably the worst of the three, but it also lasts the shortest. The cable with a little camera at the tip that they send down into the stomach is inflexible and they wiggle it around too much, but the test lasts only about two minutes. After the light-bulb my throat was all scratched up and sore.
We are getting daily shots in our butts: vitamins. B6, B1, B12. The shots hurt, especially if Nadia the nurse is on shot duty. Nadia is a curly-haired bottle-legged round-bottomed pink-lipped blue-eyed tiny-nosed dainty doll-like blonde. She is mean as a wasp. Nadia has a heavy hand with everything. When she walks into our ward with a silvery starburst of thermometers in her hand, the thermometers look ouchy.
Every spring in March our mothers take us to mandatory appointments with our pediatricians, and the pediatricians assign mandatory three-week stays in the hospital. All of us have had stomach pains at some point in our lives and now we are on special watch. If we don’t show up for our annual checkups, our mothers will be in trouble. The doctors will yell at them. Our mothers are afraid of doctors. They speak in small voices when the doctors come, and look like little children. We are afraid of doctors too.
We had stomach pains; other kids committed other crimes and must go elsewhere, like Ear-Nose-Throat, Second Floor. We envy them sometimes: we heard rumors that they get sausages and oranges for breakfast in ENT. It sounds unlikely but, then again, they were not assigned Diet #5, like most of us, or Diet #1, like the most miserable of us. Diet #5 is tasteless steamed goop. Diet #1 is strained colorless tasteless watered-down steamed goop which might as well be injected directly into the bloodstream as it requires no digestive effort.
The ENT kids don’t exactly live the life of Riley, though. They may not have to give up bile or food, but there is a scary torture room on their Floor. One device in the room is cutely named ‘the cuckoo.’ The nurses buckle in the kid and then they pump liquid up one nostril and vacuum-drain it from the other, over and over again. Some of the liquid escapes into the throat and ears. To keep from inhaling too much water the kid has to say cuckoo, cuckoo non-stop. The water brings out pus, blood, snot and, we hear, sometimes even eyeballs. The littler kids scream so hard we can hear them up on our Third Floor.
Littler kids have a bad time on our Floor as well. Parents are not allowed on the Floor, and the average kid stay is two to four weeks. Parent visits take place downstairs, in the lobby, three afternoons a week; kids may not visit with their parents for longer than 20 minutes a day. The Floor doors are locked at all other times.
This is a regional hospital. Many kids don’t get any visits because their parents live a long train trip away and do not have the time or money to travel.
The food packages our parents bring are searched, decimated and trashed by the vigilant receptionists. No fruit. No vegetables. The hospital does not want to risk an outbreak of Hepatitis A, so no vegetables or fruit.
We don’t want an outbreak of Hepatitis A either. If we get one, we’ll be quarantined for three months and there will be no parent visits ever, ever. Those metal doors will never come unlocked.
Small kids cry and miss their parents. You can’t successfully explain it to a toddler that they will only be locked here for three weeks, a month tops. More for some, though. For the three-year-old Misha it will be months and months. The nurses told us Misha’s liver is rotting and he will not live past the age of four. We big girls take care of the little girls in our wing. We empty their chamber pots, braid their hair and tell them fairy stories. We would take care of Misha too, but he must stay on the right side of the hallway with the boys. We hope those stinking boys are nice to little Misha.
Big kids cry and miss their parents, too, but they have distractions. For one, there is romance. The girls’ wing and the boys’ wing are always a-stir with gossip and will-they-won’t-they. We just have to make sure no boys are discovered in our wards past bedtime, hiding under the beds and telling ghost stories. The nurses are outraged when it happens. They call us young sluts and promise to tell our parents on us.
Other distractions are singing, scary stories and amateur theater. One girl in our Ward of six is famous for two theater acts. One is telling the story of how her boyfriend jumped off the roof and killed himself because she forgot to put on the silver ring that he had given her; the other is wrapping herself in a bed sheet and performing scenes from The Disco Dancer, a famous Bollywood movie. Her faux Hindi is very comedic; her story about blood caked on the long ash-blond eyelashes of the boyfriend is very tragic.
We get up to hi-jinks. Once, we put a flyer on the door of the Floor bathroom which said “Closed for Poop Inventory.” The flyer looked so official that a couple girls were afraid to enter and held their pee for an hour before the nurses found out.
Since all of us Gastro kids must return to this hospital every year at the same time, we know half the children already when we arrive. Some children even like going to the hospital; to them, it is like a sleep-away camp. You can steal kids’ pillows while they sit through quarter-assed classes in the School Room, and draw on kids’ faces with toothpaste in the middle of the night while they sleep, and your parents are not on your case about weeding the vegetable garden or babysitting your little brothers.
One young girl named Zhenya spent at least three springs with me in this hospital. Zhenya would come by train from a distant whistle-stop town. She was one of those kids who never got visited because their weary parents had to stay home to attend to the cow and the pigs, the potato fields and making ends meet.
One evening –- the hospital is always lonelier and sadder in the evenings, when all the bile has been given away, and all the stories told, and the only thing to do is sit on the vomit-pink bedspreads and stare out the window at the black pines outside – one evening she said to me quietly, her dark eight-year-old eyes large and serious:
“All the kids who came with me got picked up and went home with their mamas already. I am the only fucking bitch left in this whole motherfucking place.”

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.
Peridots.

Cabbage House Rules

We have sacks upon sacks upon sacks of cabbage sitting on the pus-brown linoleum floor. My father drags the crude hemp sacks in through the double entrance doors. His mustache is frosty. Frothy drafts slither around his feet, snaking into the apartment from the cold stairwell.
The green cabbage heads bulging out of the drab sacks are large, firm, heavy and well-developed.
There will be cabbage cores aplenty.
I think cabbage cores are the single best thing to eat in the world. Among the shortlisted are green bananas from Vietnam, which come available every February or so, and frozen pineapple. I’ve only eaten it once or twice; it is as freaky, unreliable and little-understood a food as manna from the sky. Cabbage cores, however, come every fall without fail or change, and are always plentiful and crunchy.
The stinky fermenting barrel has been soaking in the bathtub for two days. We’ve had to crawl around the barrels to squat and crouch under the faucet to do out nightly ablutions. The barrel is made of wood planks banded with strips of rusty metal; dark, wet, tall as I am, it reeks to high heaven. We use it only for the sour cabbage, and it fits enough cabbage to last our family of five from October to the next October.
Sour cabbage is one of the reliable food sources, like potatoes that come in earth-leaking sacks from the fields we keep, like raspberry, blackcurrant and gooseberry jam that is made over the summer and stored in jars upon jars upon jars upon jars, this year’s batch gooey, last year’s batch crystallized into hoary-white sugary solids.
We have jars upon jars of pickled cucumbers and tomatoes, some red, some green, a cellar full of carrots, beets and black winter radishes stored in sand; those are the things we grow ourselves, and they are always there. We can always come back to the cellar and the sour cabbage barrel and get more. Unlike the fickle fruit, meat and dairy, our garden food stays by our side, a faithful spouse. We barricade ourselves in glass jars against whatever may happen.
Autumn means food. Autumn is made of food.
Sour cabbage making occupies an entire weekend, and the entire kitchen and hallway. There are vegetables lying around the floor, ready to be processed; more are being processed and done being processed. Our father is in charge of soaking the barrel, sharpening the huge sauerkraut shredder blade, bringing in the cabbages, carrots and bags of salt, getting the remaining equipment ready, and shredding the cabbage into the barrel. The shredding takes a whole day, with meal breaks. Our father stands over the barrel running cabbage heads methodically against the sharp blade, his arms sinewy, a look of concentration on his face.
Us girls’ job is to do the carrots.
Our house is made of food and rules.
The carrots come with rules. We may not use, or even own, a carrot peeler. Carrot peelers are fancy, says our father, and our father resents fancy. Therefore, we are not fancy, ever, if we know what is good for us.
We peel carrots with knives instead. Knives are not fancy. We peel endless carrots with knives and shred them into metal tubs and washbasins on small handheld graters. The shredded orange pulp colors our hands yellow, and they remain yellow for days afterward. The carrot pulp goes in the barrel, and we make more, more, more. Carrots go on for the whole day, too.
Some people add apples or berries to their cabbage. Now, that is despicably fancy. Our father wonders who those people think they are. We never add anything to ours: it’s just cabbage, carrots, salt. Stir it with a long slimy wooden pole; pierce the surface while it cooks; let the stink out while it burbles. Our sour cabbage is the most correct cabbage in the world.
Other people do stupid things; we are not to do them. We are never to make pickles with vinegar. We are never to simmer beets in butter before we put them in our borscht. Ha! Those fancy people who do it – who do they think they are?
We are not to cut potatoes on a cutting board. We are all taught how to do it holding potatoes in one hand, knife in the other. People cutting potatoes on cutting boards – laughable!
The right way to sweep the kitchen floor is toward the center. We may never shuffle our feet when walking. We may never stand in the doorway, especially resting our palms on the door frame. We may never make little pigs out of boiled eggs by giving them little carrot ears. We may never cut bread slices into two lengthwise, only across. The worst way to cut bread is to cut into hateful fancy triangles.
Who do those people think they are?
Your triangle bread may get thrown out, just you watch.
When we eat soup, we may not have anything – cabbage leaves, bits and pieces – hanging over the rim of the bowl. We may not bury butter in hot porridge: it has to stay on the top and melt on the top. At dinner, we may not be caught glancing at our father’s newspaper.
if we do, we may get thrown out of the family dinner.
Ours is the most correct household in the world.
So, we peel and shred the endless annoying small slippery orange carrots correctly. Shredding carrots is women’s work; shredding cabbage is men’s work; this is the correct way of things.
The cabbage takes a few days to cook. It sits in the kitchen corner and makes noises and smells. In another kitchen corner, we have a huge green glass bottle, which had been previously discarded from some chemical lab; in the bottle, last year’s preserves and water are being fermented into berry wine. The wine makes noise. Air bubbles go through a rubber tube into a small clear bottle filled with water.
We have a fridge inside the kitchen wall. It is not electrical. It is just a niche in the wall that stays cold in the winter. The house was built by Japanese POWs in the ’40s, and the stone walls are a meter thick. Once the cabbage is done getting sour, some of it will go in jars to be stored in the wall fridge. The rest of it will be stored frozen solid in the shed outside. When my father goes outside in the winter to get some cabbage, he does not scoop it out; he mines it out, with tools, by the sweat of his brow. He brings it home in a solid block of ice.
Some people store their sour cabbage on the balcony. We don’t have a balcony, but even if we did, we would have pried it off the wall and thrown it down, because balconies are ridiculous and so are the people who own them. Ha!
My mother peels cabbage cores for me to eat; I can put away quite a few in one sitting. I like things that go crunch: cabbage, carrots, turnips, radishes. We don’t get a lot of apples, but we do get all the crab-apples we want. We just have to wait till fall comes and night temperatures dip below the mark where we start to get colds from going outside without a hat on.
When the night temperatures are at that mark, your mother bundles you up in scarves, coats, mittens, hats, itchy scratchy undergarments, lest you get the Interminable Snot, which could stay with you and your poor mother till next May. Then, you mother would have to drag you to the pediatrician in search of a magical cure, despite her own resigned knowledge that the doctor would prescribe the same cough syrup she always prescribes, the same syrup you get from the same spoon three times a day every November, the month of the Interminable Snot.
Our Interminable Snot is our mothers’ interminable shame.
Our mothers have so many opportunities to feel shame and to be shamed. If your child is sick, the doctor might scold you for not following the treatment plan; the neighbors and the old ladies on the bench by the front door might scold you for letting your child run around hatless eating filthy crab-apples while you, the negligent mother, are off gallivanting; your boss at work might scold you for taking too many sick leaves; your own mother might scold you for not doing the mustard foot baths for your child correctly, and for wrong techniques of child rearing; your husband might scold you for letting the kids run around wild and shuffle their feet with abandon, which causes them to get holes in their shoes, which causes them to get their feet wet, which causes them to get the Interminable Snot, which is not even really an illness, so why are you making such a big deal of it, it’s ridiculous – ha!
If you are to feel like a decent mother, you cannot let your child get sick, wet her bed, have bad handwriting, be left-handed, gain less weight than the chart in the clinic says she should, or enjoy breast feedings on demand when the Polyclinic chart clearly says: nurse every three and a half hours on the dot! You cannot let your child go to school with hair not brushed properly, or tights wrinkling around the knees. You cannot let your child draw margins in her copybook in blue pen when the teacher clearly requires green, or make the margins three centimeters wide when the teacher clearly said two. You cannot have her go to school with red ribbons in her braids when the school clearly said brown or black. You cannot have your child go to school with an eighteen-sheet copybook in her bag when the teacher clearly said – twelve!
Our world is made of rules. It is the most correct world in the world.
Mother! Make sure your child is up to everyone’s standards. Spank her if her cursive letters start slanting left. Bathe her in hot mustard water when she gets colds. Don’t let her run screaming around your disapproving husband. Wash, train and insulate your child!
When the temperatures dip below the mother-insulate-your-child mark, the crab-apples become frostbitten and edible to humans. Soft, sour and squishy, they are covered in black soot; our city has a coal power plant, a machine-building plant, a textile factory, a brick factory, a sheepskin processing factory, and many other things that throw up black bile into the sky and cover freshly fallen snow overnight with a dusting of black pepper.
The soot never deters the kids from eating the blackened crab-apples. From September to November, kids hang in clusters from crab-apple trees. Their school bags litter the lawns underneath. Every day, around two p.m., when school is finally out, the crab-apple alleys and crab-apple groves around the Lenin Square suffer an infestation of filthy-faced kids calling out to each other like birds from atop the trees, laughing, gorging on the source of vitamin C as faithful as the sour cabbage that their parents are making at home en masse.
In their backpacks, the kids each have two twelve-sheet copybooks for math and two twelve-sheet copybooks for writing, two pencils, one pen with green ink, one pen with blue ink, one wooden ruler, one gray eraser, three tetanus shots, a bouquet of dahlias for each September 1st, five breast feedings a day, none for the night, two brown-ribboned braids, one pair of gym shoes, a white top, a dark bottom, one light spanking a week on the average, one daily radio program for Young Pioneers for breakfast, and one Interminable Snot.
At home, their parents have seven bushels of cabbage per October per household, one less room in the apartment than they minimally need, one light spanking a week on the average, a two-bit piece of land on which to grow dahlias for each September 1st, one school uniform per child per year, always perilously close to being too small, one stupid boss and three useless meetings per month per workplace, five days before the payday and the money is all gone, and a lot more Interminable Snot than they ever wanted.

REVEILLE

The Forbidden Cabin stands abandoned, maimed and ruined amid tall weeds and overgrown bushes. Its windows are dark and reflect nothing; nothing inside, nothing outside. No glass. Black. Black weeds.
The counselors would probably skin us alive if they saw us go there. There would be a punishment of a special order. The Forbidden Cabin has a broken porch, they say. It is off limits, they say. It may as well not exist. It is a black hole. It is Forbidden.
It does not exist for me, personally. If you ask me, I have no desire to go. It is not on my map. I am ignoring it.
I would rather swing back and forth, back and forth for hours, as the dusk becomes thicker, as the day bears on and wears off, and I kick my legs up and down, up and down, and I look at the tops of the poplars come up and away, up and away. I would be on the swings all evening, and it would keep me busy, too busy to go to the Forbidden Cabin and do what I am supposed to. (And not supposed to.)
I did not ask to be sent to this stupid camp. And I did not ask to be anyone’s stupid girlfriend.
I am just happy on the swings. Not happy, but reasonably, manageably sad. I know that it will be fourteen more days, and I am just about done swinging this day into night. Fourteen days more, and they will take our moist mattresses and thin cold cotton blankets away; the blue-stamped sheets will be put in a pile in a corner of the counselors’ room; we will sweep moldy breadcrumbs and stray candy wrappers out of our shared nightstands, we will drink our final half-glasses of acidic apple juice in the drafty plywood canteen, and chuck our uneaten cold kasha with congealed margarine puddles on top into the trash, and we will be loaded onto the factory bus, the bus of my freedom and salvation, and we will be taken to the bus stop in front of the factory, and the hot city asphalt will greet me with its wonderful toxic breath, and my dad will pick me up and take me home, and I will be so happy for once to see my scary grumpy dad who never talks.
Manageably sad is not the worst.
Zhanna runs by the swings, giggling. Her face is red. She shouts something to me, but as she is shouting in secret, it comes out pretty quiet, and as I happen to be high on the swings and going really fast, I can pretend that I do not hear her, that I am very busy.
She runs along, and I do not get off the swings to run with her to the Forbidden Cabin.
Maybe I am no fun. Maybe they are no fun.
Zhanna is silly. When the bigger boys come to our bedroom after bedtime to tell us ghost stories, all the girls tuck themselves in under their blankets and lie there very modest, only their noses showing. Zhanna, in her nightie, sits up all the way hatched from the blanket, and drops one nightie strap off her shoulder, and just sits there with her naked shoulder and her missing teeth and her boy haircut, sticking out like a sore skinny tan thumb. Her nightie is like what grown women wear, blue, synthetic and thin-strapped; I don’t know where her parents bought it, I never saw these for sale for third graders.
There is thin lace on the straps, dirty, filthy-gray. There is nowhere for us to launder our clothes, or to shower, and camp is thirty days and thirty nights long. They don’t even let us swim in anything. The pool is drained, and the little creek is off limits. “You’ll drown and we’ll go to prison!” they say all the time. By the time camp ends, we are all crusty. “You’ll go to the Forbidden Cabin and be up to God-knows-what, and we’ll go to prison! You’ll let the older boys come into your bedroom after hours, and be up to God-knows-what, and we’ll go to prison!” Seems like there are a lot of pedagogues in prison.
Zhanna brokered this stupid girlfriendship, and now she wants me to go the Forbidden Cabin and do it all properly.
I am not getting off these swings. If I get off the swings, someone else will get on them, and I will have to while away the hours before bedtime on the ground, which is seven times slower.
I only agreed to be his stupid girlfriend for Oksana, by the way.
Oksana has freckles all over her face. Oksana has curly brown hair. Oksana has plum eyes. Oksana is great. Oksana was my best friend in preschool. I was so surprised and happy to meet her again in this stupid camp.
Oksana’s parents lifted her from camp, barely a week in, and took her to a Black Sea resort.
Oksana had a boyfriend in camp. His name was Sasha, and I did not even know what he looked like, although he was in our troop. And I had zero interest in what he looked like.
Not getting off the swings. Do whatever cursing and shouting you have to do, you small asshole boy underneath. I am kicking higher. Yeah, try throwing pinecones. Ha! You missed, dumbo!
And then, a couple of days after Oksana left, on a dusky evening like this one, I was sitting on my bed, which is the fourth counting from the door, just one away from the window, and I was glad it was not right by the window because, if in the middle of the night the boys break in through the window, it’s the girl in the window-side bed who gets it, whatever “it” is.
And so, I sat, reading Jules Verne and feeling very hungry, and I was just about to ask if anyone had a piece of candy or bread, without much hope, because parent visit day had been two days before and all the care package food was long eaten.
And Zhanna walked in with a silly mysterious smile on her face, and waltzed up to me, and said in a special secretive voice: “The boys want to talk to you. Will you talk to them?”
The boys? To me?! What in the hell would boys ever want with me?
And then she went back to the door, and opened it, and beckoned in three boys, first Igor, then two more, with no names and no lines, behind him.
Igor sat down on my bed and looked at me with his electric galactic glacial gaseous mystical chiffon blue eyes which he could turn on and off. They were like a fridge light: sometimes you open the fridge and the light comes on, and sometimes you open the fridge and it doesn’t, and you never know which it is going to be.
And he turned his eyes on. And he said:
“Sasha, as you know, is without a girlfriend now. Since Oksana left. He is asking you to be his girlfriend instead. Please, agree. Please, agree. Please. We all have girlfriends.” He motioned to his own girl who was far, far, far prettier than I would ever, ever, ever be. “Don’t be a meanie? Please, agree?”
That was how I got suckered into being a girlfriend of someone whose face I did not even know properly.
(And it turned out I did not like him in the slightest.)
And now I have to go to the Forbidden Cabin, if I dismount the swings.
Zhanna is running past the swings again, in the other direction. Her face is shining happy and she is dramatically fixing her clothing, which is in ostensible disarray.
“See?” She rubs her face red. “See? I have to rub all this off before the counselors catch me! Or they will see I was kissed all over!” Fast words, glee and little bits of spit tumble out of her mouth where half the teeth have been lost to cavities. “Oh, and Sasha asked me! To tell you! That he is breaking up with you! Because you won’t go kissing in the Forbidden Cabin! And he does not think you are pretty! And he said Oksana was so much prettier! And he does not love you anymore! I am his girlfriend now!”
She runs away, rubbing her neck to remove the telltale signs of neck kissing.
The Forbidden Cabin of Dissolution and Ecstasy is drowning in late shadows, its green plywood back crumbling into darkness.
The mosquitoes are on the prowl.
I am going to pee, and look for a piece of bread in my bag, and put on socks before I go to bed so that I freeze slightly less underneath the voile blanket, and re-read Jules Verne, and have trouble falling asleep, and lie awake in the pitch-black room, and wait for the reveille.

 

Who’s a Moron? Immer Bereit!

Some girls seem to be born blessed with an innate sense of propriety.
They dress just right, they dance elegantly, their grades or romantic choices are never a subject of peer discussion, no one points and laughs at them.
They do not accept invitations to host a talent show while clad in a swimsuit top and harem pants, and they certainly do not announce the show’s intermission as their own personal bathroom break.
I, on the other hand, do that. I did that. I did once say onstage to a few hundred peers, “Now we will have a fifteen minute entr’acte, and I am going to pee.”
When I was a schoolkid (i.e. when being a laughingstock mattered the worst) I often landed myself in something, or some other entity landed me in it.
Either way, I landed.
Allow me to share two personal embarrassments related to the Soviet culture and wound around my formidable 3rd Grade teacher Aleksandra Fyodorovna.
(Yes, I know that the word “wound” visually creates a syntactic maelstrom in the sentence above.)
In 3rd Grade, we were given an assignment to memorize a few stanzas of our own choosing from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem “Vladimir Il’yich Lenin.” We were to recite the excerpts in class in front of everyone.
Such poem was indeed found in my home library.
I leafed through.
Fancy words caught my eye.
Fancy curly-wurly made-up words caught my eye.
The part with the fancy words began with “Capitalism, in the years of his youth, was an okay guy, a hardworking one…”
I memorized the part with the fancy words and I brought it to school in my small idiot birdmouth.
And there I stood in class, in front of thirty ten-year-olds, singing a tale of capitalism’s spoliation:,
“He built a palace/ Which makes the mind boggle/ More painters than one/ Have crawled over its walls/ Its floors are Empire-ic/ Its ceilings Rococcal/ Its walls are Louis the Fourteenth/ the Quartorze!”
Aleksandra Fyodorovna the teacher and assigner of Mayakovsky poems looked at me like a chicken.
Really, the expression of her eyes and the tilt of her neck were chicken-like.
The kids around me were like, WTF?
I went on: “It’s surrounded by mugs which are of a piece/ With both faces and butt-cheeks/ The ass-faced police!”
Sit down, Anya. Maybe be normal next time, and pick something properly didactic.
Sit down.
Next!
Next, we had a school-wide Marching and Singing Parade.
For those innocent: the Marching and Singing Parade is an annual school-wide event in which each class puts on Parade uniforms, names itself via the teaching staff’s suggestions after a Soviet war hero, and marches around the school gym shouting out cadences, waving flags, drumming drums and being alternately at attention and at ease.
What’s this tight-knit marching group?
It’s our Young Pioneer troop!
Sound off! Soviet!
Sound off! Union!

(I made up the last two lines in this marching cadence just now.)
Aleksandra Fyodorovna the teacher and taskmaster appointed me to carry the flag of our troop during the Parade.
Trouble is, we were not Young Pioneers yet in 3rd Grade.
We were pre-Pioneers, October Kids, and so we were not yet technically marching fodder. We were admitted into the Pioneer and Komsomol Parade through some odd decision of the teaching staff.
Our school’s staff seemed to be quite into all things military; I mean, a year before the fateful Parade they had shown us, second-graders, WWI documentary reels illustrating the effects of nerve gases on human physiology.
(I am still unable to sleep.)
So we the weetle October Kids were to march in the school-wide Parade, which apparently posed issues for Aleksandra Fyodorovna.
She decided that we had to march differently, to indicate that we were not full-grown marchers yet.
Specifically,  she instructed me not to carry the red flag vertically, like the Pioneers did.
I was to carry the flag at a slant.
And so I did.
What did I know?
Didn’t know any different.
I marched out with the half-lowered flag, leading the troop behind me into
a gym full of finger-points and sneering laughter.
Apparently, carrying the flag lowered is a giant marching faux-pas.
The flag HAS to be upright UNLESS it’s a funerary procession.
And no Soviet leader happened to die or be interred that day.
They laughed, and teased, and laughed, and teased, for days, and weeks, and months.
“Did you think you were at a funeral? What a moron! Who died? Moron! Sound off! Ha-ha! Sound off! Moron!”
I don’t know if Aleksandra Fyodorvna got upbraided in the teacher’s lounge afterwards, for trotting out a ten-year-old with a funerary flag during a joyous Soviet occasion, but she never did apologize to me for wrecking what little social cred I had.
I got moved to a new school after the elementary. That school, too, had Marching Parades. In one, I stood at ease; I overheard whispers behind me:
“In this other school, this one stupid chick marched out with the flag lowered! — No shit! Ha-ha! What a moron!”
Sit down, Anya.
Sit down.

She’s with the Band

Hooray Women’s Day! I was taken to a cardiac ICU once. Not for cardiac purposes; for drinking vodka. Upon the fresh ruins of the Soviet Union, a situation like that was not extraordinary. I was a nineteen-year-old female, and my then-boyfriend brought me along to a vodka gig in a hospital.
Boyfriend was in a short-lived attempt of a band. Their frontman worked nights in the ICU. The rest of the band came, and they drank, shouted, fought and sang, and their lead guitarist played acoustic in the little room off the beeping patients.
They sang some Beatles. I knew some Beatles.
The lead guitarist, who had not said a word to me all night, or at any band practice previous, never thereafter, not in the street, not in a tree, said to my boyfriend, past my face:
“She has a voice like The Mamas and the Papas.”
The frontman, who had not said a word to me all night, or at any band practice previous, never thereafter, not in the street, not in a tree, suddenly stood swaying, blocking my exit as everyone trickled out, and said to my face:
“Oh won’t you stay! Just a little bit longer! Oh please please please! I don’t know where you’re going to! Yo-mama-don’t-mind-wop-wop-doo-wop!”
Or something to that effect.
“Stay the night!” he said. “Why are you with him? Come on! He can go! Stay the night!”
And he shoved my boyfriend aside.
Well, I didn’t stay but that’s not the point.
The point here is the triangulation of conversation.
It’s not about objectification, oppression, aggression, macro, micro, nano; it is about who-said-what-to-whom-and-why-it-went-that-way-and-which-parts-I-care-about.
The triangulation of motivation.
And mostly – mine.
While a young woman, I was herded through situations. I was an infusorium. I was intelligent but dumb.
Now I am stupid and wise.
The progressive transparency laid over the “Mamas and Papas” part of the dialogue says: she is referred to in the third person because she is an object.
I object.
I now think that the guitarist did not speak to me directly in part so no one would think he’s flirting.
“She has a voice like The Mamas and the Papas”: observational.
“You have a voice like The Mamas and the Papas”: invitational.
(Just to be clear, I don’t. Mama Cass is divine and I am terrestrial.)
With occasional exceptions, relationships between girls and boys at that time in Russia were romantic or none.
That’s why the frontman spoke to me directly. He wanted to go from none to romantic.
And I said nothing then; an infusorium, I crawled around what other people did on my pseudopodia, a lot.
I mean, a lot more than I do now.
Now, it saves me that I really do not want to be an object. I mean, I do not need to be a subject and an object at the same time; I don’t want to be noticed and picked; I don’t need to be praised or found pretty, or special; I don’t need both agency AND acknowledgement, agency AND admiration.
I just like agency.
Agency is enough and plenty.
I can build everything else for myself out of agency alone, with the help of oh, maybe, the theory of mind.
As my subjecthood ripened, I realized: I don’t want to be With the Band.
I want to be In the Band.
In my late twenties I found I don’t like it that men, in Russia, will shake hands with each other but not with me, a woman.
And so I said: I want to shake hands, too.
And I reach out my hand and shake theirs.
No one has slapped me yet.
Once in my early twenties I came to a house-party of a Russian classmate, a very intelligent person who, for some young idiot reason, segregated the party like a public restroom: into Males (living room) and Females (kitchen.)
I surveyed the kitchen, greeted the females in a friendly manner, acknowledged that I did not really know any of them and their discussion at the moment was of no interest to me, got off the chair, went into Males, most of whom I knew well, sat down and joined the drinking and the conversation.
No one slapped me.
I sweep the micro-shit with a micro-broom into micro-trash.
If that cardiac ICU party happened today, I would not just sit there with an insipid smile. I would look in the eyes of the guitarist and say:
“You are an excellent guitarist but I question the validity of your claim re my voice according to the Fach.”
I would look in the eyes of the frontman and say:
“You are blind drunk right now. I love your singing because your voice box is attached to your feelings box; however, now is not the time for telling you this, as you are blind drunk. I will not be staying the night. Thank you for thinking about me that way! If I ever wanna stay the night, I’ll reach out.”
And I will reach out, too.
Happy Women’s Day!

Your Words Are like Farts in the Water

“Do you like candy?
Sure do!
Have you ever had (mumbled very quickly) pikupterdsandeetums?
What?
It’s fancy candy! Really yummy! You can only get it in Moscow! Have you ever had (mumbled very quickly) pikupterdsandeetums?
Uh… Maybe?
Ha-ha-ha! Pick-up-turds-and-EAT-THEM! You ate TURDS!”
Juvenile Soviet backyard scatology.
Taunts.

“Shut up, you inner-long-johns stench!”
“Oh, look, you are singing! With that voice! Your voice is only good for yelling ‘Occupied!’ from the shitter!”
“How long are you gonna be in the shitter? Did you swallow a rope?”
Taunts, comebacks, chants.
“Buy an elephant!
I don’t want to.
Everyone says they don’t want to, everyone says they don’t want to. Buy an elephant!
No!
Everyone says no, everyone says no. Buy an elephant!
Leave me alone!
Everyone says leave me alone, everyone says leave me alone. Buy an elephant!
Leave me alone!..
…Came a voice from the dumpster!
I said shut up!
…Came a voice from the dumpster!
I’m gonna punch you!
…Came a voice from the dumpster!
You are the voice from the dumpster!
…Came a voice from the dumpster!
Oh, you think you are so smart! You’re smart like a swan ‘cept you swallow no seeds and you swim like a stone! Your words are like farts in the water!
…Came a voice from the dumpster!”
A see-saw.
“I’m up here in space, you’re down there in the waste! I’m up here in space, you’re down there in the waste! — I am sad, you think it’s funny! You get shit and I get honey! — Ha! This song is tired, it’s time it got retired! — But… — But! But! But! You smell flowers with your butt! — Do not teach the educated! Time you baked some shit and ate it! — I’ll give your noggin a good swat, you’ll fly away on your pisspot! — Your words are like farts in the water!”
Breaking into song.
“Once an American man/ stuck a finger up his can… — Solve this riddle for me, something no one knows/ What shoots you in the foot but hits you in the nose?”
“Once upon an early morning/ I peeked around the neighbor’s fence/ Where a tan Moldavian lassie/ Used her hand to wipe her ass/ I went pale and I went red, I felt like saying to the lass/ Here’s a piece of paper! Take your finger out your ass!”

Mexico

She does not care for the academic aspirations that public schools hold for their long-term captives.
She stares blankly at the wall; the teacher drones on. She sighs, takes a comb and a handheld mirror out of her schoolbag and starts working on her hair. Assured that the Mohawk is in its proper upright position (or, depending on the style du jour, that the flat too-long bangs securely conceals one eye), she spreads her red-and-green striped angora scarf on the desk and begins to brush and burnish it. When the scarf animal is smooth, soft and shiny – no fleas, no patches of unkempt fur – she puts her tired head on its warm welcoming belly and falls asleep.
When the teacher’s sharp siren rouses her from her dreams (but not from her ignorance or her indifference) she lifts her face and looks obligingly with her emotionless green eyes at whatever is so damn important: petals and pistils, the formula of benzyl, the natural resources of Mexico.
Once the storm has passed, she produces a mirror and eyeliner and starts working on her too-heavy teenage makeup: a thick black line on the upper lid, a thick black line on the lower lid.
Next hour, the cycle is repeated: hair, scarf, eyes, sleeping, dreaming.
We share a desk; the only class for which she does not copy my homework is math.
She is really good at algebra.
******************
We were not even friends until the fifth grade.
Before fifth grade she went to a sleep-away camp. There the kids were up to no good for 24 days.
Namely, girls and boys were kissing, smoking vile Bulgarian cigarettes and drinking diluted toothpaste, for lack of alcohol.
The language that they used was no better or worse than the language boys and girls used in our elite prestigious gymnasium. The children in the school were mostly progeny of Communist party bureaucrats; their swearing would put a wild swinging party of sailors on leave and cheapest hoarsest drunkest hookers in town to deep abiding shame.
Twelve is a serious age for some people.
That summer I went to camp too; I gave those Bulgarian cigarettes a whirl. An actual whirl sometimes: what is the point of smoking if you do not twirl the cig in your fingers, do not know how to let smoke out of your nostrils and cannot blow rings through rings?
So, we became friends on September 1st of the year we were twelve.
Since then we’ve been up to a lot of no good.
**********************
We have decided to become sisters for real.
Here is how. We will prick our respective thumbs with a Young Pioneer badge, of which we miraculously still have one between the two of us.
We’ve been stuffing our red Young Pioneer neckerchiefs into our pockets for a while now. They look like crap. For the special all-school occasions when we would be drawn and quartered if seen without the neckerchiefs, we hand-wash them in the kitchen sinks in the morning before school and iron them wet. If ironed dry, those polyester things melt.
We illegally wear nylons and makeup. Once, a teacher grabbed my friend and washed her face clean of blush and mascara with cold water in the cafeteria sink.
So, we’ll prick our thumbs till we draw blood. Then, we’ll press our thumbs against each other’s so that our blood mixes.
Thus, we’ll become sisters.
We do it under the desk in Physics. The teacher whines on, something about compressed gases.
Another thing we do to entertain ourselves in Physics is pinch each other’s hands so hard it hurts, to see who can keep a straight face the longest.
One of our friends beats her fists against walls for about an hour each day. She is convinced it will make her fists very hard; so far they look like bruised squashed plums.
It is important to be impervious to pain.
************************
After school, we go to her place, or mine. There is no one at home either way. I like to go to her place more. She has a fish-shaped pillow. We whack each other with that pillow, see what’s there to eat in the fridge, shout at passersby from her balcony.
When we cut school we go smoke behind the big tree in the schoolyard, or buy ice-cream, the only kind they have, vanilla in wafer cups.
One spring day we cut school, buy ice-cream and walk around eating it, the wind flapping our scarves and hair. In the middle of a crosswalk a gray nondescript government worker-looking man says to us matter-of-factly: “Girls, you’d be better off eating cock.”
Seriously, thirteen is the age for that.
************************
We have two pairs of white sneakers between four friends.
These sneakers change feet like Marlon Brando mistresses. In our teen minds white sneakers are definitely cooler than some old Marlon Brando.
Man those sneakers have a rough life! Before passing them on to the next girl in line, we clean them with toothpaste and toothbrushes. The sneakers are canvas. They take neon bright shoelaces. They laces are bought in twos or in bunches from tiny Vietnamese women who came to work at the local textile factory and try to support their families at home by selling knockoff perfumes, shoelaces, color-changing lipstick rumored to cause lip cancer, and their puny fragile bodies to whomever pays in the factory dorms.
We trade: jackets, sweaters, any manner of clothes, watches, Vietnamese lipstick which smells really good, and anything that can be passed from one girl to the next. The four of us are all different in height, weight and shape, but who cares? So the sleeves on the jacket are too short; big deal.
One of us has better makeup than the rest. We go to her house to do our nails and spray her mother’s Poison on our necks. We also steal her father’s cognac little by little, filling the bottle up with weak tea.
Petty larceny is just one of the no-good things we do.
We steal: cigarettes from our mothers, no-filter cigarettes from our fathers, rumpled rubles from the pockets of both of our parents (my algebra friend only has one parent) and any kind of alcohol, particularly available in the fall when the parents start making hooch.
Our younger siblings steal our lipstick and shoelaces.
My algebra friend goes through a stage of commercial theft; she takes things from vendors in the market stalls. Once we go to the flea market and she blatantly takes a bottle of atrocious Soviet perfume from under the nose of the woman selling it. The perfume, named Lilacs of Spring but smelling like Our Old Lady of the Musty Coffin, languishes unused for years on my makeup table.
Next, she steals two pairs of cotton baby socks. There are no babies in her house. She gives me the socks too.
We deal in all sorts of business.
Fourteen is a serious age for some people.
*************************
We are going back to communism.
Or at least it seems so.
We are at the lake with her Mama and her Mama’s boyfriend. We left for a week in August, to swim, fish and tan. Next thing we know – we might be going back to communism. Her Mama and her Mama’s boyfriend are happy about this. They drink a lot of vodka and gloat over the downfall of Gorbachev. I keep diplomatic silence. She does not care.
Fifteen. Whatever. Seriously.
We beautify ourselves. We brush our teeth with the fine yellow sand from the lake bottom. We scrub our feet with the same sand. We roast on that sand for days on end. We are as brown as cookies.
Her Mama runs out of cigarettes, bread and booze. She sends us back to town for one day, for provisions.
We fall out the bus and buy the stuff right there at the bus stop: ten loaves of bread, twenty packs of Bulgarian cigarettes from swarthy street peddlers. Gorbachev made cigarettes disappear from stores, and vodka became expensive. That is world according to her Mama. I keep diplomatic silence.
Next we go to my house. We read the paper left on the kitchen table: no communism for us. We will have to take that news back to the lake.
We only care about the progress of our hooch, really.
We have started some in the guano-filled attic of my building. A kilo of sugar stolen from the sack by her balcony door and a couple kilos of potatoes join yeast and water in three-liter glass jars. We put a rubber glove on top of the jar and leave the stuff in the hot August attic.
Maybe the hooch will be done making itself by the time we come back from the lake for good.
***************************
Apparently, at sixteen we four developed into some sort of a serious menace.
We haven’t even really beaten up anyone, ever, but our fame travels.
When it is our turn to clean up in the school cafeteria, a couple of girls a grade younger do it for us. They get stinky brown rags and wipe down the aqua plastic tabletops, covered in stale bread crumbs and milky tea. We sit at the table fifteen minutes past the bell, in no hurry to get to Physics. We are cleaning up in the cafeteria, after all.
One of us four left high school and went to Vo-Tech, but she comes to have lunch with us every few. She comes to our school dances and we go to hers.
At the time we wear plaid men’s trousers or floor-length dark skirts with bomber jackets and sneakers. In dark gyms and cafeterias we dance in circles, small and big, and God forbid anyone should shove us. Then, we’ll have to go sort it out, won’t we?
Girls go sort it out all the time. Gossip, nasty rumors, accidental shoving at the disco – girls cannot have their dignities offended and offenses unaddressed. They go sort it out in the bathrooms, or outside, or in the hallway, whichever. They shove you against the white peeling window sill and tell you how it’s gonna be.
You might get a black eye, or one of those fists that have been cured against Vo-Tech walls shoved in your solar plexus. You better bring friends.
When we have nothing better to do one evening, we go to this girl’s house. This girl is one of the younger girls who clean the cafeteria for us. At her house, we eat everything that’s in her fridge. Everything. Mostly it is pickles.
She just giggles.
It’s okay. She’ll be kicking someone else’s ass soon.
**********************
She sits opposite me at the tiny table in the tiny box of a kitchen in the house that Khrushchev built.
The table can accommodate two chairs around it, a third being a stretch and a terrible imposition.
There are shelves right above our heads, a knife drawer right below our knees, a stove at an arm’s reach, a pantry in the wall under the window. The fridge is in the hallway.
We are making flatbreads. There is no bread in the house because there is no money, but we have a sack of flour next to the balcony door in the living room. We have a sack of sugar next to it. We have baking soda and five eggs, one of which we will use. We have salted pork in the freezer, and strong homemade mustard that eats your throat, eyes and heart out, leaving heavenly fire in its wake. We have blueberry preserves from last summer. We have half a bottle of Stolichnaya, also in the freezer, next to the pork. We have some of her mother’s cigarette butts in the cast iron tree stump of an ashtray.
We are golden. We are stardust.
She spreads the dough on the powdered aqua plastic top of the table and rolls it out with a bottle. We cut the dough in squares and fry it in sunflower oil. The smell is everything one would wish for on a November night in Siberia.
She remembers one more thing that we have: an onion. I slice the onion into rice-paper-thin rings and douse it in simple white vinegar, same sunflower oil and a little salt.
********************
Here is our school of thought for girls with no boyfriends: Don’t Go Out. Going out will only make you sad.
You stay home and eat onions and blueberry jam. You stink and reek; your teeth and tongue are blue. You are as unattractive as a girl your age can make herself be. You stay home and drink vodka and smoke your mother’s cigarette butts and laugh at shit.
We sit there smelly and blue and laugh like loons, lunatics on a full moon, cackling, howling and other unfeminine noises. She throws some mustard in my milky tea. I salt hers. She pours her tea into mine, lights up a rumpled piece of newspaper and throws some ashes in for a good measure.
Then, we decide to do some fortune-telling. We rumple up more newspaper and burn it, watching the shadows of the fire on the wall, shadow shapes to portend the nature and character of our future husbands. Hers is an elephant, apparently.
So of course men arrive unexpectedly. No one calls anyone. No one schedules anything. People just think hey, ten p.m. and the night is young, let’s take your father’s green Zhiguli without permission and go see if any girls are up to anything tonight!
Is seventeen a serious age for anyone?
*******************************
The boys are at the door and we are awesomely happy, blueberry teeth, warts and all.
First, we are going for a ride. We are going to be looking at the pretty lights as we circle the city. We’ll be listening to the latest tapes in the car. Punk stuff, with language and dirty shit.
Then, we are going to come back to her place and hang out. I am spending the night. My parents know. Her mother is on a bender again, and has not been home in a week. Each day we come to her place in the evening to find the same note on the fridge in the hall: “I’ll be home tomorrow, Love, Mama.”
We read the same note, satisfied that she’ll be home tomorrow like she said.
She has not called. No one schedules a bender. No one calls anyone.
We’ll hang out all by ourselves, and drink vodka, and cackle with the guys. We don’t sleep with these guys. We don’t sleep with anyone.
We don’t sleep. We stay up till four a.m. and laugh like loons.
******************************
She fell in love with a junkie. He looked really bad, his kidneys almost shut down production. His eyelids were blackly purple. He was taken with her young beauty. He kissed her eyelids, eyelashes, fingernails, vertebrae; he kissed her into oblivion.
No man had ever loved her like that before. No man had loved her before, period.
Not even when she was an adorable four-year-old in a small black-and-white photo: two short pigtails, an upturned nose, serious face, pudgy arms, doing sit-ups in her white cotton underwear. It was morning exercises in the state daycare: our Soviet children are well taken care of.
The junkie responsibly decided he was not a match for her. She would do much better with a good guy her own age.
When he left her she got sick. I came to see her. She was in bed with a Victorian malaise, drying out without love. There was a glass jar with re-hydrating fluid on a stool next to her bed. Her eyelids were blackly purple.
Eighteen is such serious business.
**************************
This one girl had her first sex when she was eighteen, with a Muslim man. He was beautiful, young and muscular; his eyes were purple black, his eyelashes three inches long. To him she was just a Russian girl: a whore, a non-person. He did not use condoms.
When she came to the obstetrician’s to have an abortion, the doctors told her she could not get one until she has had her STDs taken care of. They did not talk to her directly; they just talked to each other in derogatory tones, over her head, for her to hear.
She sobbed into my lap in the little park next to the hospital.
Dance, baby, dance.
This other girl got a part-time job when she was eighteen. The company driver, a single unattractive man of about forty, took her home every evening in the company bus. The company bus was an old Soviet machine. Once, the driver locked the door from his central control there by the wheel and would not let her out of the bus for two hours, waiting for her to grant him some sexual favors.
Dance, baby, dance.
She comes over and we push a tiny bedside table against the door of my tiny room. One time we had a liter of low-grade alcohol, a small plate of peanuts and two liters of orange juice. We drank and drank, and then we took a bath. When my father woke up at two am, he saw us stagger out of the bathroom wet and wrapped in towels, carrying out a washbasin full of vomit.
Dance, baby, dance.
There are girls with silly faces and fantastic bodies, they live in Vo-Tech dorms three girls per room and buy their red polyester lace underwear at the Chinese market. They have sex on their crappy hog wire beds with their Muslim boys whom they love; the mattresses bounce and hit against the chipped enameled washbasins underneath their beds. They use the washbasins to hand-wash their red polyester underwear. They go home to their villages to have their babies and leave them with their moms.
Dance, baby, dance.
We push the tiny bedside table against the door of my tiny room and play my formerly hip father’s old LPs and 45s.
The singers howl and wail like a crazed Baptist choir.
We dance upon future unemployment, boredom, fear, genital warts, unwanted pregnancies, heartbreak, benders, vomit, black-eyes, cigarette butts picked off the streets; we dance upon the vile bodies of everyone who has ever trespassed, or ever will; we dance upon the broken concrete of the abandoned construction sites, the bolted doors of closed factories, countless dicks painted on fences, collections of Turkish soap bars hoarded against shortages, heartbreak, fear, boredom.
We dance ourselves into oblivion.
We shimmy, jive, jig, reel, twist and turn, twist and shout, rock and roll, till our cardio rates are dangerously out of this galaxy.
We collapse and howl, laugh like lunatics, cackle like loons.
Les Humphries Singers.
1972.
“Mexico.”

A Foreign Travel Memo, by Vladimir Vysotsky (1977)

Last night, forging in the foundry, I poured twice the monthly plan
And, as a reward, I found I’m sent abroad by my own plant.
So, I ate some cold smoked bass, I showered off the grime and goo,
And I sat in a special class on what to do, what not to do.

Over there, they’re better-heeled than us for now,
And to make sure that I do not goof somehow,
They made me read a little pamphlet so I’m clear:
There, I can’t act like the dimwit I am here.

He told me, very sympathetic, of them shifty foreign pests
And my trip to the democratic Polish town of Budapest:
“They have their own ways, it’s rather hard to get them figured out;
Try to show respect, my brother, even just a small amount.

If vodka enters the debates, do not agree!
Say: no, my democratic mates, I’m choosing tea.
Turn your face away, be gruff if offered gifts.
Say: at home we have this stuff in piles and drifts!

Live in a comfortable fashion, save your funds but don’t go nuts,
Don’t go crazy with dry rations, don’t go croaking like a klutz.
This Czech town of Budapest right now is going through a lot:
They may provide drinks, food and rest, or they may offer diddly squat.”

I’ll check out the German market, yes-siree!
See Romanian chicks out there in Hungary!
Guys said democratic chicks are a good time,
They won’t charge us Soviet citizens a dime.

“Their bourgeois disease ensnares, it always trails you everywhere!
Extramarital affairs are worse than evil eye, beware!
Their shapely spy chicks have their ways, you shove them out, back in they go!
Tell them that we did away with all that nonsense years ago.

But they could also work in ways that aren’t so crude:
Sneak in your train car and act like they’re a dude!
She’d stuff her corset with explosives like a wiz…
So be sure to check what sex your bunk-mate is.”

Here I really had to press him:”I don’t know that I’m that apt!
Do I check her up the dress? But that’s how people get bitch-slapped!”
But the instructor was hardcore, he was all business, he knew best!
He went on and on to bore me with his shifty foreign pests.

I’ll explain not for the brains but for the rest:
I’m off to see Bulgarians in Budapest.
If they raise some iffy topics, shut them up.
But no punching! What they don’t get, we’ll clear up.

I can’t yammer in their grammar, all I can is gawp and gape.
If I only had a hammer, I would quickly give them shape!
But I am no agitator, I’m a blacksmith like my dad!
I won’t go to Ulan-Bator to those Poles, and that is that!

I’m in bed next to my wife and I can’t rest:
“Dusya, should I just forget the foreign pests?
I am not baked from that batter, I will scram,
I don’t know a single letter, not one damn!“

Dusya, sleeping like a baby, all her curlers in their place,
Answers half-awake: “Just maybe, you know, Kolya, shut your face.
Kolya,you are way too scared, I’ll divorce you, yes I will.
Twenty years that we’ve been married, you whine “Dusya, Dusya!” still!

You promised me and then forgot – now that is fresh! –
That you would bring me some oilcloth from Bangladesh!
So save up a couple rupees, don’t be thick!
Buy me stuff! Buy me a devil on a stick.”

I slept cradling my wife Dusya who’s my darling tender elf.
I dreamt I made a blade, a shield and a chainmaille shirt for myself.
They have standards we don’t know, you miss a beat, that’s it, you’re gone!
I dreamt of Hungarian ladies and they all had beards and guns.

I dreamt of Dusya’s tablecloths a shade of flesh
And those sassy lady spies from Bangladesh.
I’ll stay awhile with the Romanians, hopefully.
They come from the banks of Volga, just like we.

Women do the darnedest things: she sends me off, she starts to sing!
She irons all my shirts so nice they look like they would fit a king!
Bye, my foundry, bye, my plant, all nails my own down to the last,
Bye, my five-year-counter-plan, which I myself have now surpassed.

Vodka seeped through my aorta, we drank up,
The whole way to the airport I had hiccups.
At the steps, I heard a wail behind,”Oh why,
Why have you forsaken us, dear Nikolay!”