A RUSSIAN STORY
By Steven Pelcman
Masha wasn’t a beautiful woman but she had an inner beauty and she made a man feel good because she was strong, able to look into your eyes and speak truth and her softness was felt in ways a man rarely appreciates. She held up her end like a good partner. She did what had to be done and suffered silently. Her strength grew out of her mothers’ weaknesses.
She turns her tempered face away so that only the grimy flowered wallpaper can feel her heat. The narrow corridor between the bedroom and the kitchen is dark and the air, stale. She turns again, with her soft round face and big black eyes staring towards the bedroom where her mother lay, stiffly. She is not dead, sighing aloud, but she is still there, still annoying, still complaining in that soft low grunt of hers.
“Ah the pain, Masha, the pain is so terrible today”
Masha leans against the wall mumbling a few words, “I will be there in a moment, mother. I will light the stove and make tea. Tea will help you sleep”.
While walking away, the moans of pain follow her.
Old blind woman, the old woman will…, and then muttering aloud, “….drive me mad, mad! She can’t live forever, can she? For God’s sake!” And she strikes a match that lights the old stove.
Anja is tall, gawky, uninterested in boys and a loner having gotten used to the distance and coldness of her family but there is an inner warmth difficult to explain. She walks up the apartment staircase sprightly, with a schoolbag, having waded through the busy wide Moscow streets. Thin, tall, quiet but eager to learn, she opens the door and a rush of winter fills the apartment. Grandma yells as Masha tightens and closes her eyes while Anja quietly puts her schoolbag down on a small wooden corridor table looking to her left, to where grandma is, and to her right, where mother’s closed eyes and puffed red cheeks, greet her.
“Anja, see to your grandma. I will be right there!”
Anja nods and walks to grandma’s room only to find the old woman on the floor. She props her up and leans her against the old bed and worn blanket. She is blind, half paralyzed, her forehead ink-stained blue from burst blood vessels, and she smells from fatness and old age. Only six weeks ago, Anja had found her on the floor with mother stooping over her. Masha had looked up, “She has had a heart attack. Call the doctor. I will hold her hand”.
Anja had walked backwards out of the room carefully watching her mother next to grandma, holding her hand and caressing her arm the way she holds potatoes and peels them. Each stroke clean, straight lines, smooth and then the potatoes are lowered into a pot of boiling water. A mindless task. Without food you starve. You have to eat. Mother had held grandma’s hand the same way she holds potatoes. The doctor was the same man who had saved grandma three times from heart attacks now, three times in three years.
Anja looks at grandma with a smile that hides her pity.
“They are all dead my child, everyone is dead, I am dead too, see.” And grandma pulls at her face, stretching the wrinkled skin, dry and pale, from all the medication.
“Come grandma, let me get you on the bed”. And she lifts the old woman, who falls onto the bed with a thump full of squeaky springs and balls of dust. Outside the half-frozen window reflects dreary Moscow stretching itself out among buildings wide and tall and dark skeleton-trees ravished by a long winter.
These are the last weeks of winter when talk of spring and summer begin. It brings the first thoughts of the dacha and getting away from Moscow, getting away from everything and everyone.
Masha brings in a cup of tea for grandma, who is now asleep as the crisp winter air against the window panes seep in. She looks at Anja. “Here, have a cup of tea”, and turns away, back to the kitchen and the steam from the boiling water still in the room.
Anja returns to her bedroom and brushes her long wild hair as she reads. At the age of sixteen, she is comfortable in saying, “I approve of Mr. Shakespeare although he was no peasant and didn’t have the soul of Chekhov”.
The thin walls allow for almost no privacy as Masha speaks in hushed tones to a female friend on the phone. She whispers out the sentiments Anja knows only too well.
“Where is he? Only a bureaucrat could know. No, he eats, plays table tennis and chess, works and eats again and takes me into a bed only I pay for. Yes, yes, I will call you tomorrow”.
And she hangs up as the door opens and Vladimir walks in. His thin long frame fills the corridor and blocks out any light that might pass to where Anja is sitting. He jerks his head towards the kitchen and asks, “Is the meal ready?” Masha simply says, “Sit”.
Anja walks in and they have dinner passing plates and salt in silence. The last of winter bangs against the windows as grandma moans alone in the dark.
The dark is no stranger to Anja. Ever since her mother had also been sick, though you would never know as she hardly speaks a word of it, Anja has been sleeping restlessly. The light of a slivered moon pierces the total darkness and she feels as if under water trying to control her breathing while listening to the moans.
She is able to differentiate between the moaning, knowing whether it is mother or grandma. She knows the difference dark courage can afford in how grandma whispers to herself, says names and half giggles as pain and old age dance in her head. Mother’s, instead, is a muffled cry and Anja knows that only the pillow and the deep shadows would know the truth. Her pain somehow blends in with the music of walls and rotting wood.
Anja remembers that only a few years ago, nights were negotiated. Shared apartments, shared skin, it almost seemed, and the constant turmoil of other lives encroaching everything. That is Moscow life. People you did not know, people you did not want to know, lived with you. She had grown weary of strange smells, of urine-stained beds that filtered through the hall and made her cringe.
She turns to her side and sees movement against the baseboard and knows roaches crawl the walls, and the baseboards at night. She thought they had left them behind. They were rid of the sweat and the stink of strangers. Rid of their arguments, their constant political maneuvering and rid of the slamming of shot glasses dry of vodka on the kitchen table marked and chipped. But the roaches were loyal, unrelenting.
Anja knows that in the morning her mother will rise early to make breakfast; tea and dry bread, and would bring in a tray for father, and then see if the old woman is still alive before going to work.
At 5pm, she will stop work and go to the rynok, and buy fresh herbs and greens, to the bakery for a heavy loaf of white bread, to the dairy shop for milk, and the greatest challenge, the butcher, where words matter, where a smile and a turn of the head negotiates the quality of a piece of meat. Her mother is good with words. She knows English and knows how to control with words, how to argue, how to curse, how to beg for love, despise it, destroy it. She and Vladimir fight constantly. They fight over money, over love, over grandma; over anything as fighting is what is most important. That is how it was, but now, in their own apartment, it is the quiet, and the emptiness that they had hoped for, that is slowly destroying them.
But early summer is almost here and the swollen whiteness of a long winter is disappearing as the plans for the dacha take hold.
Heating the apartment was always an on and off thing but there was a coal oven that Masha would fill with coal cubes to keep grandma warm. She had large red gloves to handle the coal but dust would fill the room.
Grandma shivers away in the late morning and calls out loud for tea. Anja walks into the room and sits on the bed.
“Where is your mother, child?” Anja answers with a strained smile. “At work, grandma”.
The old woman grabs for Anja’s hand. “I know child, I know!” And she kisses her fingers and tosses them into the air for it is bad luck to ask where someone is.
Anja lowers herself closer to grandma, who whispers, “And that beast of a father?”
“Him too, grandma”.
“You know he works, child, he works, but where is the money, where does he put it? Perhaps to that other one, you know, they all love him, the fools!” And grandma closes her eyes. “I warned her.
I told her but children do not listen. You will listen, child, won’t you? You will not be the devil’s fool!”
Anja pulls her hand away gently. “I will make tea.”
“That is good, child, keep a cold body warm.”
Vladimir is at his office desk preparing papers for the next class and the next project.
His position at the university is a tentative one. He earns money but does not often receive it. When he does, he is not generous. The needs of others are not his concern. Just then a colleague pokes his head into the office.
“So, Vladimir, the last class, last project, yes?”
“Yes, Peter, it is the last of it”.
“Will you go away as last year?”
“Yes, to the dacha, as always.”
“Well, then, Vladimir, I wish you a fruitful journey and my regards to your daughter”.
Vladimir gives the man a look, cracks a smile and holds the venom within as Peter walks away. Cow, he quietly says to himself, the pig, as he gets up and closes the door.
Masha is walking home lugging two heavy bags of food. Anja opens the door to see Masha smiling.
She puts the bags down and caresses Anja’s face and brings everything into the kitchen.
“Tonight, Anja, we will talk of the dacha. We will make plans”.
Anja looks at the food; sees potatoes, meat, and a bottle of vodka. Masha pats her on the head, “We will make plans”. Anja drops her shoulders and cracks a faint smile.
“And grandma”, asks Masha?
“Dying, as usual, mother”.
“Oh, yes, I brought new tea”, and the words fade away, drowned out by grandma’s explosive, “Masha!”
“I will be there in a moment, mother”, and Masha swiftly puts away the food and makes tea. She even hums as grandma begins a new moaning session, even as the bright sunlight against the window withdraws.
The dinner table is set. The bottle of vodka, center stage, and there are flowers; meat and potatoes, greens and fresh herbs, sausage and cheese and dark bread. Masha’s fragrance perfume, from the one small bottle of perfume she has, compliments the tiny vase of flowers.
Masha’s cheeks were rosy, her eyes dark, intelligent and shiny and she dresses in color, a dark red that she knows Vladimir cannot resist. Anja walks into the kitchen and her wide-open mouth changes to a smile.
“Mother, how beautiful.” Masha is doling out food onto each plate, for Vladimir, Anja and grandma.
“Thank you, Anja, but your father will be here any moment, get your grandma, have her come and sit with us.” And with those words, Vladimir walks in.
He looks at the table, at the red dress, at the meat and potatoes and the bottle of vodka. In his hand is a bouquet of mimosa flowers, yellow and still fresh, though tired.
“So, my darling wife, I see we have become wealthy in the last twenty-four hours or are you sleeping with an American? Or better yet, I know, the commissar of meat, the holy butcher of Moscow!” And Masha laughs as Vladimir sits down, and puts the small bunch of flowers into the vase. Masha look up at Vladimir as if he was a tall tree and you can say she admires him even though she knows he cheats, is cheap and selfish. Anja and grandma join them. Masha looks at the added flowers and grins and Anja’s body lights up. They sit and eat and drink and talk as Anja had not seen them do in a long time. Vladimir stares at the red dress as Masha is pouring him vodka and talking about the dacha. Grandma keeps telling everyone how she has never lied in her life, never and Vladimir says it is impossible that a person has never lied; there is no such person on earth and all the while, Anja, is smiling, just smiling.
After dinner, with grandma put to bed, Anja plays music, one of her worn records she has played over and over again and her parents dance slowly and closely.
They will go to the dacha together; in a few days they will pack and leave. Vladimir will return to Moscow a few days later and then join them again in a month. Grandma will stay in the city, as it was too difficult to take her along, so both Masha and Vladimir will take turns with grandma in the city. Anja would remain at the dacha.
That night, in bed and unable to sleep, Anja thinks of the dacha, the wild berries, the black currant leaves, the purple and yellow forest herbs for tea and how they would take them in bunches and hang them to dry on the wash line. She could smell the early summer air; the sour blades of grass and the wild mushrooms. Cool air flushes the room and with it, the distant sounds of her mother and father laughing and then a black stillness.
She closes her eyes tightly and hears the thin sounds of a violin. Or maybe it is the wind or the prowling cats that patrol the alleyways but yes, it must have been. But it was not. It was the sweet wiry sounds of Moscow that was breathing against the city outline of jagged buildings. It was the bloated winter escaping. It was the silence of the dark.
It was time. A neighbor would check on grandma till father returned. They pack the few clothes and food stuffs they had into two suitcases and a cardboard box. Anja walks gently to the old woman in bed.
“Child, you will pick mushrooms for your grandma, yes?” Anja stares into her eyes. She sees a lifetime of pain and suffering and yet, always a twinkle, a pinch of life seasoned with a spoonful of guilt, as mother would say.
“Yes, grandma, I will pick mushrooms and tell no one where they were found. I will discover my own forest patch”. Grandma perks up. “Yes, child, yes, do so. Hide, fool the poor souls, and make them think the forest is a barren place but look for an angry spot of fir or pine. It is where they are mostly found.
And do not forget my lovely berries. You will find them where the sunspots are, where the trees bend to the sun and beneath, among the birch and wet earth, you will find them there, alone. You will see them there, my child.” And she falls back against the pillow almost out of breath. She closes her eyes shut and clasps her hands. “You will find them there child, you will see”. And she falls asleep. Anja covers her quietly and walks out of the room.
The walk to the metro is brisk and sure. They go to the end-of-the-line metro station and then take a bus to Nikolina Gora place and from there, it is two kilometers on foot.
They opt for the public bus and not the more expensive Marshrutka with its maddening voices and confusion, comic theatre of passengers as it spins from street to street throughout the city or countryside.
As they begin to walk, Anja reminds herself of the story grandma once told her when she was a child.
You see that place child, in this very spot where three roads meet and go off in different directions. Once a rider on horseback read from a stone,” If you go right, you will lose your horse, if you go left, you will lose your money and if you go straight on, you will lose your head”. And grandma laughed that deep hearty bellowing laugh of hers which peaked itself into a high-pitched giggle of youth. This countryside is still grandma’s Russia.
The walk was pure, so different than the city. All around her is forest and the scent of after- rain still clinging to leaves and grass. There is the tinny smell of water running and collected in a huge metal barrel at the corner of a wooden cabin. The gutter outflow of rain water pours into a barrel that is used to water the garden, wash dishes and clean the dacha. Cold well-water so fresh and dark is heated and used for washing hair or to make tea. Anja holds her mother’s hand in excitement as they near the dacha. It is not that life is easy here or that they are comfortable. It is the freedom and the open space that matters. Along the road, Anja sees some podorozhnik leaves, side-of-the road plant leaves, whose fibers are knotted and used as sponges and hvosch leaves which contain some chemical substance which is used to scrub dishes as it gets rid of oily substances. To Anja, this is a happy moment, the beginning of the dacha season.
They walk down the road alongside a muddy brook full flowing into a steady stream of leeches and on the other side, a pond, where children splash and fishermen stand against the cold sunlight for hours.
They pass the village made up of thirty izbas, on two village streets, V-shaped and of sand and dirt and with wells every couple of hundred meters for water.
Small children stand in front of the vodokachka, and are pulling on a lever and water is rushing into the bucket which sits in front of a faucet lodged into the ground. There are potatoes and tomatoes planted everywhere and women whose children are tugging at their arms, watching with their evil eyes as Anja and her parents walk down the road and out of sight.
They see the dacha they will stay in for the summer. The smell of fried potatoes and mushrooms and ripe wild strawberries and the scent of urine near a raspberry bush they had passed, fill the air as does the smoke from stoves and even their own skin, sunned from the walk, sweet and warm. They enter the dacha, light the stove and unpack. The dissolved heat brings out the scent of old wallpaper and dampness as sunlight begins to fade and they sit together drinking tea as cat shadows pass under their windows and the wind sways through tall trees above them.
In the morning after a glass of warm cow’s milk and bread from the city, Anja and father walk alone in the forest. They do not talk. They hold hands a part of the way. Vladimir knows Anja is Masha’s daughter. His child, by blood but she belongs to Masha. They do not need to speak to feel each other’s heat. That is enough.
“Father, you will leave in a few days?” “Yes, daughter, in a day or so”.
And she grabs for his hand and feels the rough tenderness in his large hands. She watches the long strides he takes and his slightly hunched back but can feel his strength; strength she was sometimes afraid of; sometimes envious of. They walk until it is time for lunch and return to find Masha working in the garden.
They plant potatoes and herbs together when Anja sees Manja Tolstozhopaya, which is a rude way of saying, Manja-the-fat-arsed, who is totally unlike Manjka Sumasschedschaja, Manjka the mad, and so many others who are nicknamed so. Vladimir was dubbed “Slon”, elephant or Verblyud, camel because of how he walks, and his big feet and long nose and Anja, when no nickname was given, is called Anjka.
This was village life although it is not truly a village but more of a settlement of strangers passing each other on the way through the forest or to pick mushrooms, or to the outhouse, which is nothing more than a tilted wooden shack with a raised platform and the smallest hole in the ground possible.
Anja and Masha continue planting potatoes and bending over with their heads to the ground, and smile at each other between their legs as Manja-the-fat-arsed passes by. Vladimir bows in silence, holding his small cap in his hand, watches the long dress Manja wears, skirt the dirt as she passes.
Later, in the early evening when most are eating or still in the forest, Vladimir darts to the common heap of wooden logs cut by the hozyaeva, who use the wood only for themselves. Like a thief, Vladimir runs by the tree line and quickly comes back with logs for the stove and dinner is made.
Wild mushrooms darkened black oily and full of herbs, warm milk from the few cows old women keep and a chunk of cheese Vladimir had bargained for. It was enough, so Anja thought, as she now lay in bed listening to the prowling cats that shriek under the cover of night.
Their one wooden room, curtained off for parents and child, and the kitchen is small and tiny in the funneled shape of darkness that the forest creates. But it is theirs and for the entire season.
On Saturdays the village dwellers, the Maslovo, gather and enter the compound of the “villas” where the rich live. The common facilities can be used by all and tomorrow Anja and her parents will go.
The sound of piano music will penetrate the sunny windows and food will be bought at the food shop where Vladimir can sneak out the money hidden for such days and then back to the dacha to drop off the food and onto to the generally closed off “sanatorium” where ministers of the government and their personnel stay.
Here, there are more shops, a canteen but also the bathhouse. On Saturdays only women can enter the steam room with its high wooden steps and a platform with benches above. Right next to it, is the huge furnace with an open muzzle full of hot stones. A fat woman is continually brushing her hair away from her face, and pours a bucket of water against the stones and the sizzling steam fills the entire room, burning the eyes as women beat each other with birch-leaf or oak-leaf or perhaps linden-tree-leaf besoms leaving red stripes on their backs and buttocks, and all the while moaning with pleasure and shaking their faces in pain.
After the pores open wide and the body is thoroughly cleansed, Masha and Anja wrap warm shawls around their heads, dress and start the journey back, through the forest. They do not take the nasty winding road full of pebbles and sticky with asphalt grime but instead they take a smooth road, with few cars and shaded by forest on both sides. But it is off-limits and fenced off and guarded. Silently and carefully, they make a hole and pull at the wooden poles which are rotting and full of rusty screws and once through, quietly crouching, become two dark predators against the forest shadows and dim light so that they can avoid the guard.
Back in the dacha, with father and mother looking out into the forest, Anja laughs to herself as she stokes the oven with stolen logs. She knows father will leave in the morning. She knows that in the hollow Moscow night, grandma is waiting. Each day is a struggle, if not the work then the old women whose sharp tongues lash at anything, everything.
A fat cow is mocked at if you had a fatter cow. A better crop of potatoes is a badge of courage and foolish pride thrown in one’s face. Be careful for the squash planted one day may be stolen the next. Anja understands but what is an insult compared to fresh air? What does it matter compared to grasses the forest provides to make fresh sour cream and sour soup.
Anja knows her father will sit awake a part of the night as the old woman in the dacha next door is known to be mad, known to carry an axe. What does it matter that superstition and old tales are as real as the forest wind that passes through their bodies.
Anja could not know this would be her mother’s last season at the dacha. How could she? Her mother’s silence is also a matter of honor.
In the morning she watches her father give her mother money, smile and walk away.
Anja goes out of the dacha and stands beside her mother as the first buds of vegetables show life and the few flowers planted take hold. Anja holds her mother’s hand as they watch the lanky frame of Vladimir and its shadow follow him down the road. She feels the money in her mother’s hand.
“Mother, are we rich?” Masha turns to Anja and looks her straight in the eyes.
“No, child, we are not rich”.
“Are we poor then, mother?”
As they stand alone against the dacha, the sun bursts free and Vladimir’s long shadow is enveloped by sunlight. Masha puts her hand to Anja’s face and cracks a smile.
“No, daughter, we are not poor!” They look up to see the tops of pine trees colored silver and Vladimir’s long stride walk out of sight.
About the Author:
Steven has spent the last 19 years residing in Germany where he teaches in academia and as a language communications trainer and consultant. Capturing the voices of humor or pain, making the small moments epic and witnessing and putting the trials and tribulations of others onto paper drives the work he creates. Steven was nominated for the 2012 Pushcart Prize. He continues to write and publish in magazines such as the Baltimore Review, Poetry Review Salzburg, the Fourth River Review, the New Orleans Review and many others.