IN JULY, JUST BEFORE I turn thirteen and when Marina is on tour with her theater, my mother and I go to visit our family in Stankovo. It is a small town on the banks of the Volga, a hundred kilometers from Ivanovo, where she was born.
I look forward to the ride on an overnight train as much as I do to visiting my aunt and my three cousins. The cardboard tickets my mother bought three weeks ago give us admission into a train car, and when the whistle blows and the platform begins to sail away, we leave behind, in a cloud of smoke, some vigorously waving women with handkerchiefs clutched in their fists. The wheels, tentative at first, gradually get into a steady rhythm; the locomotive sighs and begins its droning pull, and the first suburban stations flicker past, surrounded by rows of tiny dachas.
We are traveling in a more expensive four-berth compartment, separated from the narrow hallway by a mirrored door that slides open when pulled by a metal handle. I am on the upper berth, with my mother underneath me on the lower. There is another passenger, Luda, from the small town of Kaluga, which we will pass later this evening. She is staring out the window, her elbows planted on the table, her fists squashing up against her cheeks. Her heavy arms bulge out of a short-sleeved dress, and the braids of her thick wheaten hair, crisscrossed on the back of her head, sag like a hammock under their own weight.
A man appears in the doorway of our compartment and, peering at his ticket, pushes in his suitcase. Luda turns her head, a flicker of interest brightening her face as she examines the new passenger. A plaid shirt stretches over his belly, pants bunch around his hips, and his hair, parted just above his left ear, is slicked over his balding head. He hoists a suitcase onto the upper shelf, sweat beading on his forehead. I know his ticket probably indicates that he has a lower berth, but according to train etiquette, lower berths always go to women. Before bedtime, following another unwritten rule, he will leave the compartment to let the women undress and go to bed and then, by the light of a blue bulb, climb onto his bed, carefully stepping on top of the table to lift himself up.
“Luda,” says the woman, stretching her hand toward him when he finishes with the suitcase and wipes his face with a handkerchief.
“A pleasure,” he says. “Semyon.”
He then acknowledges me with a glance and smiles politely at my mother.
Luda invites Semyon to sit on her lower berth and we all stare out the window. Outside, fields of potatoes and buckwheat sway on the horizon and clouds begin to boil in the anticipation of evening. Fields soon give way to a wall of forest. Black fir trees and white birches flicker by in a checkered pattern fringed by purple and yellow stalks of Ivan-da-Marya flowers, their colors as inseparable as the two lovers who, according to a folk legend, gave the plant its name.
We soon find out that Luda came to Leningrad to hunt for food. An aluminum bucket with eight kilos of meat is tucked under her seat, along with string bags full of logs of bologna, wheels of cheese, and pot-bellied mayonnaise jars. “Look for a line,” she says, explaining her strategy, which is the same strategy my mother explained to me a year earlier. “The longer the better. If there’s a line, there’s something at the other end of it.”
Semyon agrees with this tactic in principle, but adds an opinion. “I hate lines,” he says. “Never stood on one.”
“Your wife does, right?” smirks Luda.
Semyon smiles a guilty smile. “You women are stronger than us.”
Luda, as we quickly learn, lives with her parents, her brother, his wife, and their two “bratty” children. Most of the food from the Leningrad trip will probably be snatched and hoarded by her “shameless” sister-in-law, who manipulated Luda’s “simpleton” brother into marrying her despite the family’s objections.
“Do you know why it’s so easy to supply this huge country with food?” she asks, patting the bench full of string bags and buckets, reciting an old joke. “Because they only have to supply Moscow and Leningrad. The rest of the country hops on the train, grabs what’s left, and delivers it home.”
At dusk Luda unwraps her dinner—half a loaf of black bread, four tomatoes, two hard-boiled eggs, and a half of a roasted chicken. Semyon pulls a bottle of vodka out of a newspaper cocoon and triumphantly installs it on the table next to the chicken. Then he runs to the conductor and returns with three ribbed tea glasses, which he says he promised to bring back before she started evening tea service.
My mother gives the bottle a disdainful look and proceeds with unwrapping our own dinner. There are more hard-boiled eggs, two hefty pieces of cabbage pie she baked three days ago, and two thick slices of bologna glued with butter to chunks of black bread.
Semyon yanks off the silver bottle cap and measures out vodka, half a glass each, for Luda and himself. Then he turns to my mother, who puts her hand over the top of the third glass under Luda’s gaze, first disbelieving, then sneering. I know my mother despises vodka and feels suspicious of those who drink it.
“Too bad we have no salted herring for a chaser,” says Semyon, using the diminutive selyodochka.
“No selyodochka, what a shame,” pipes in Luda, shifting from ridicule of my mother’s refusal to drink to anticipation of a feast. Her nimble hands cut the chicken and slice the bread. Suddenly she slaps herself on the hip and shrieks, “Fool! What a fool I am! I completely forgot!”
She lifts her berth and roots inside. Triumphantly, she pulls out and unwraps a jar of pickles with chunks of garlic and stalks of dill floating inside. “This’ll do as well,” she says, putting it on the table next to the bottle. “I was bringing it to compare with our own pickles, but what the hell.” She nudges the metal lid with a knife and it obediently pops open. “There’s nothing you’ll spare for good company.”
“To good company,” says Semyon, raising his glass to click with Luda’s. He drinks in three big gulps, pats his lips on his sleeve, and grunts. Then he squeezes his eyes shut for a second and his whole face ripples in wrinkles of exhilaration. He grabs a pickle and bites half of it off as his features smooth back into place.
“To good vodka and good food,” says Luda. She exhales and, after finishing half of her vodka, starts making squealing noises, waving her hand in front of her face. Then she curses under her breath, drinks the rest, and finishes Semyon’s pickle.
For a second, my mother looks at them scornfully, then turns and peers out the window. Drinking vodka is as low as one can get, as far as she is concerned. At celebrations, she sips a little cognac and the sweet wine my grandfather brews in twenty-five-liter jars out of piles of sugar and black currants from his garden.
I see that Luda is now staring at my mother with the same scorn my mother had in her eyes seconds earlier.
My mother senses the stare and meets her gaze. “Vodka from tea glasses,” she says in her teaching voice and didactically shakes her head.
“Vodka from tea glasses,” mimics Luda, curling her mouth. “And what do you prefer, Madame Leningrad, champagne?”
My mother purses her lips. “What I prefer is none of your business,” she says in a voice she uses to admonish.
“Leave her alone,” Semyon tells Luda and grins apologetically at my mother. “You’re from different places, you’re used to different things.” He doesn’t say my mother is kulturnaya, cultured, and Luda isn’t, but I know that’s what he means.
“I can see that,” Luda retorts. “She refuses to drink vodka, so maybe she’s not even Russian.”
I think of Masha Mironova, whose mother is Russian, like mine, but whose father isn’t, wondering how being Russian makes life easier if any vodka-sloshing woman on the train can still hurl any accusation she wants straight into your face.
My mother gets up and props her fist on her hip. “I’m as Russian as you are,” she says. “I just don’t drink as much.”
“Touché,” says Semyon, extending his arm as if holding a rapier.
“I don’t know touché,” says Luda, her cheeks flaming like autumn apples. “What I do know is that she’s calling me an alcoholic.”
My mother did not say the word, but I know that she thought it. It is the word she hurtles into Marina’s face when, on such occasions as an opening night or an actor’s birthday, my sister’s key fumbles in the lock of our apartment and fails to find the keyhole. On these nights my mother deliberately unlocks the door and yells that Marina takes after her father in drinking the same way I take after mine in obstinacy.
“Why are we arguing?” says Semyon, positioning himself between the two berths. “We have good food, good drink, and good company. Let’s make the best of our trip.”
Luda pounds her empty glass on the table. “You and my sister-in-law, the one married to my idiot brother.” She glares at my mother. “Always pointing a finger at me. Always telling me I drink too much.”
“Who drinks too much?” Semyon looks around in mock bewilderment. “A bottle for two, normal stuff.”
“Just wait.” Luda gets up and takes a step toward my mother, nudging Semyon out of the way with her weight. “One day soon you’ll crawl out to the countryside looking for bread and then I’ll spit on you. The way you spit on me when I stock up in Leningrad.”
This is ironic because the berth I am sitting on is full of string bags with the same provisions Luda is bringing back: cheese, mayonnaise, and bologna my mother has stored up for my aunt’s family. In the corner of the trunk underneath me is a bucket, the same as Luda’s, the same bucket we always see in our stores, its contents covered with several layers of plastic—eight kilos of meat, a glorious harvest from two hours in a butcher line. Leningrad provisions, as Luda’s joke goes, being delivered to the faraway corners of our country by the people themselves, one shopper at a time.
“Kaluga next!” the conductor’s voice rings out from the corridor. Our door rattles on its hinges and slides open, and the conductor’s henna-colored head pops into the doorway.
I’m glad the conductor showed up when she did. I’m scared of Luda, of her thick forearms and her braids, so strange on an adult head. She reminds me of Aunt Polya, and I’m certain that if we were in an open space and she had a chance to shriek at the top of her lungs she would reveal the same kitchen voice.
“How long is the stopover?” asks my mother.
“Fifteen minutes,” the conductor yells back, bustling down the corridor in her black uniform with brass buttons on the front.
Luda now feverishly turns her attention to lifting her string bags out of the trunk. Semyon is helping her with the bucket, and she joins a line of passengers getting off that has stretched down the corridor to our door.
“Such a nekulturnaya,” my mother mumbles into Luda’s receding back. “Culture hasn’t been anywhere close to this woman.”
If we are fast, my mother and I, we can jump down the three metal steps of the train and check out the local offerings peddled by kerchiefed women: strawberries sold by the cup; jars of home-marinated mushrooms, their slippery caps glistening through glass; and fried pirozhki filled with cabbage, mouth-watering and greasy. At the end of the platform, a freckled girl holds up a tiny basket of wild strawberries.
“Let’s buy them all,” I whisper to my mother, who hands a ruble note to the girl as I take the basket, the tangy forest smell tickling my nostrils.
“Tea!” rings the conductor’s voice back in our car. “Who wants tea?”
A minute later, three steaming glasses nestled in metal glass-holders—the same glasses used earlier for the vodka—are lowered onto our table. We drink strong tea with wild strawberries, gazing out at the stars that appear one by one, tangled in the freshly crocheted spread of darkness.
For less than a day, my mother, Semyon, and I are united by the rattle of the wheels, by the changing frames of landscape. We speed through blackness in the cloister of our compartment, where reality is measured by the intensity of amber tea, by the scent of wild strawberries.
The magic will last until noon tomorrow, when the train will arrive at its final destination, Stankovo, and we will step into the bustle of the station, into the arms of my aunt, uncle, and cousins. But for now we are still here, looking out the window into black emptiness to the lullaby of clattering wheels.
MY AUNT MUZA MEETS us at the train station with my three cousins, Kostya, Fedya, and Kolya. The reason she has three, she jokes, when they crowd around us in the elbowing turmoil of the train arrival, is that she has always wanted a girl. After her third son, Kolya, was born, she realized that girls were my mother’s destiny, not hers, and gave up.
Muza in Russian means “Muse,” which was, perhaps, my grandma’s attempt to memorialize her own unrealized opera singing career. Her father, a factory owner and a man of strict morals, banned her from studying at a conservatory, where she’d won a scholarship, because no decent woman, in his view, should appear onstage.
My aunt is short and round, fifteen years younger than my mother, and looks nothing like a Muse. Keeping with the family tradition, Aunt Muza is a doctor, an obstetrician at the town’s only hospital. Round-faced and stocky, she made it her priority to beef me up, to infuse color into my cheeks, which she calls “city pity.” Every afternoon she installs herself in the kitchen, whose walls are adorned with braids of garlic and onion, first in front of the table where she chops, mixes, and kneads, and then before a gas stove, which makes her face even more rosy and shiny. From under her dancing fingers flow sheets of cabbage pie, pans full of potatoes fried with onions, and steaming pots of a sauerkraut soup with beef bones called schi.
Aunt Muza gets beef from her patients, women who work in stores or meat-packing houses. She likes to repeat a joke that outlines the scarcity of Stankovo’s food supplies: A man comes to a butcher shop. Do you have any fish? he asks. Here we don’t have meat, says the saleswoman. Fish they don’t have across the street.
The lack of fish in Stankovo is a dark mystery to my mother, who cannot comprehend how a town sitting on the bank of the greatest Russian river can be devoid of its most indigenous product. “Blat,” mutters Aunt Muza—you must have connections. Muza’s own blat weaves through the fabric of the town’s female population, and in addition to beef shanks, she sometimes lumbers home with a whole snapper carefully wrapped in newspaper, its slippery tail sticking out the top of her string bag.
Those few things the shops do have are placed inside near-empty glass cases, their solitude raising them to the status of delicacies. In grocery stores permeated with the smell of the sawdust that covers their floors, I stumble upon foods different from what I can find at home, and that alone makes them tantalizing. In an echoey bakery I beg my mother to buy a cake covered with a mysterious brown glaze, which is the store’s only ware. I find a dairy, two bus stops away, and although it is usually out of milk by noon, it sells delicious, raisin-studded ice cream packed into a waffle cone by a big morose woman, nine kopeks for as much as she decides to scoop in.
In the afternoons we all go to the Volga. My cousins Kostya, Fedya, and I race as far as we can into the brown vastness of the river. Kolya skips stones on the far side of the narrow beach, away from the rock where we pile our clothes. My mother, Aunt Muza, and Uncle Fedya come with us.
“We’re so lucky to live close to the Volga!” my aunt exclaims. “Look at this natural beauty. Where else could you find such vistas?” Muza seems to find beauty or luck in almost everything, and this time she’s lucky to live on the riverbank because hot water in their apartment building has recently been turned off.
During the bathing-in-the-Volga ritual, Aunt Muza tells us stories about the hospital. So far they have all been short and funny and have nothing to do with illness. But I sense that what she does at work is daunting and dangerous compared to my mother’s job of teaching anatomy.
Aunt Muza is putting on a huge two-piece bathing suit, green with yellow flowers, while my uncle, thin and already balding, is staring through a pair of binoculars in the direction of some girls giggling and cavorting further down the riverbank.
“She keeps running a high fever, this woman,” says Aunt Muza, carefully folding her dress and placing it on a rock. “Three days after the surgery, and she’s burning like a stove.” Gorit i gorit—burning and burning—she stresses the o’s the same way Kolya does, which still sounds strange to my Leningrad ears.
“The usual remedies don’t work, the antibiotics are still rotting in some warehouse, and the department chief has just flown off to a convention of honorary communists in Moscow.” Aunt Muza cannot fasten the clasp on the back of her bathing suit brassiere, and it takes my mother a minute or two of vigorous pulls to make the two ends meet.
“I wheel her back and open her up again, and what do I find?” continues Aunt Muza, testing the water with her toe. Her stomach is so round, even more than my mother’s. I wonder at what stage in life women’s stomachs undergo the miraculous transformation from flat like mine to barrel-shaped like Aunt Muza’s.
“A surgical napkin left in her gut,” announces Muza. “A napkin in the belly, with peritonitis brewing, no antibiotics, and the department chief receiving an award in Moscow.”
I don’t know what a surgical napkin looks like, but I imagine one of those huge linen squares that appear on the table for major holidays. A napkin that big, I decide, could only fit into a belly the size of my aunt’s. But the conversation makes unpleasant thoughts pop into my mind, and I strain to listen to groans in my stomach, attaching each one to the possible presence of a foreign object.
“Who left the napkin?” asks my mother in the voice she uses when she demands to pin down responsibility and dispense appropriate punishment.
Aunt Muza shakes her head and flips her wrist in a gesture that seems out of character with her plump features, her cheerful roundness. She gazes into the darkness of the river for a minute, her eyes wide open, as if straining to make out something deep below its brown water. “It was the nurse’s aide,” she finally says, shifting her gaze back to the land. “The aide got drunk on surgical alcohol.”
“She should be put on trial,” glowers my mother, her voice ringing with satisfaction at having located the culprit. “Tried and convicted. The patient could have died.”
Aunt Muza starts wading into the water, pushing it sideways with her hands as if clearing some unseen debris from the surface. When it gets up to her thighs, she stops.
“It’s not that simple. The aide, Alya Svetlova, has worked there her whole life. Scrubbing and washing since the war. She should be peacefully collecting her pension and growing potatoes like everyone else, but she has to work double shifts to support her thirty-year-old idiot-of-a-son who beats her up.”
“A firing squad. It would have been quick under Stalin—no investigation and it’s over,” proclaims my uncle, who has stopped staring at the girls and is now sitting on the rock rubbing the lenses of his binoculars with a sleeve of his shirt. “They used to shoot people for lesser crimes than that.”
“For being two minutes late to work they used to throw you in jail,” says my mother. “You overslept and missed the bell and the next thing you know they’re banging on your door in the middle of the night. I saw people disappear for missing the bell. There was order then.”
“Order!” erupts Uncle Fedya and spits on the ground. “Look around. Gangs of hooligans on every corner, nurses drunk in operating rooms. Where has the order gone?” His arms fly up in the air. “A hand of steel—that’s what the people need. They understand strength and that’s the only thing they listen to. Put someone strong in charge and even the worst bum will shape up overnight.”
“That’s absolutely right,” says my mother, and she drives her fists into her hips, which makes her look like a teapot.
I am glad I wasn’t born when Stalin was in charge. It’s unclear to me why my mother, my uncle, or anyone else would lament the era of throwing people in jail for being late to work. Did they also throw students in jail for being late for school?
“I had a surgery case during the war,” says my mother, who cannot offer an equally dangerous story from her present teaching experience, so she has to dredge it out of her surgical past. Only now her voice isn’t as firm and she doesn’t sound as certain as she did a few minutes earlier when she argued for a hand of steel. “A nine-year-old boy got blown up on a mine, in the spring of 1942, when the Volga ice began to shift. His dead friend’s mother brought him in.” I’d heard the story before—three boys with buckets wading into the river to collect the fish floating belly up among chunks of ice from a mine explosion, setting off another one by mistake. I know that what impressed my mother most was that woman, who had left her own dead son on the riverbank to carry his only surviving friend to the hospital two kilometers away.
“I began to prepare him for surgery,” my mother says. “The boy was already on the table when the Commissar stormed in, shouting I had no right to operate on civilians in a military hospital.”
“What did you do?” asks Uncle Fedya, tossing a rock in the water, and I see Aunt Muza look at him the way Vera Pavlovna looked at Dimka the hooligan when he asked why the Great October Socialist Revolution is celebrated in November.
“I did what I had to do, operate,” says my mother. “He ordered me to ship the boy to a civilian hospital as soon as I was finished. ‘We’ll see about that,’ I said.” She folds her arms across her chest, just as she probably did twenty-five years ago.
“So what happened?” asks Uncle Fedya, who stopped tossing rocks and is now looking at my mother, interested in the story.
“After I was done, I went to talk to Dr. Kremer, the head of the hospital. He was also a surgeon and he understood. He turned out to be intelligentny. We agreed that the boy would stay for three days so I could make sure the stitches worked and there was no infection. On the fourth day we transferred him to a civilian hospital.”
Intelligentny is a multi-faceted adjective my mother likes to use to characterize people. It is a salad mix of education, culture, intelligence, and manners, plus a certain view of the world that allows an alternative. The Commissar, who yelled at my mother for breaking a military rule, was obviously not intelligentny. The head of the hospital, who colluded with her in rule-breaking, certainly was.
By this standard, Uncle Fedya, with his myopic views and a love for hands of steel, is not at all intelligentny, whereas Aunt Muza, with her compassion and common wisdom, could stand a chance. I try to divide the people I know into intelligentny vs. not intelligentny categories, but the list of the former comes out much shorter than the latter. Not intelligentny: Aunt Polya from my nursery school, my third-grade teacher Vera Pavlovna, Luda on the train, every saleswoman in every grocery store. Intelligentny: my English tutor Irina Petrovna.
Then what about my mother and Marina? They are educated but not terribly cultured. My mother didn’t bring her bathing suit to Stankovo, so she goes swimming in her white bra and pink underpants. Marina licks plates. Most important, they both yell, at me and at each other, which automatically disqualifies them from the intelligentny category.
But do you have to be intelligentny yourself in order to decide if others are? Am I intelligentny?
I watch the sun heave toward the jagged line of forest on the other bank of the river. My uncle tests the water with his foot and a shiver runs through his skinny body. “Holod sobachii”—“dog’s freezing cold,” his favorite expression, except the o’s don’t roll down his tongue because he is originally from around Moscow.
From Aunt Muza’s movements in the water, from her cautious stroke, I sense that she, too, isn’t so sure about the advantages of a hand of steel or the benefits of jailing and shooting. I sense that she, like Kolya, believes in whirlpools, in the might of the river, in its silent menace, so I give her the benefit of doubt and add her to my short intelligentny list.
WE ARE BOUNCING ON a bus over gouged roads to a nearby village to stock up on bread and milk, my mother, Aunt Muza, and my cousins, each carrying an empty basket. When the bus deposits us in the middle of a dirt road, we walk on a footpath through fields specked with blue stars of cornflowers and purple butterflies of wild sweet peas. I am glad I’ve brought a sweater because I am freezing, although the sun is beating down and my cousin Kostya has unbuttoned his shirt.
We walk along a footpath through a patch of weeds to an izba, a log cabin with a straw roof pressing down on two squatty windows, perched on the brink of the forest. A kerchiefed woman waddles down the two front steps.
“Zahodite, zahodite,” she invites us in, her mouth stretched in a toothless smile. She is ageless, in a black canvas dress, with veins threading her suntanned hands. When my eyes get used to the semi-darkness of the entrance, I make out a goat lying on a bed of straw and a hen clucking around a litter of brown chicks. The chicks scurry away, the goat struggles up on its spindly legs, and the six of us, too many for the house’s only room, crowd in front of a Russian stove, a brick wall with an opening in the middle for cooking and a ledge on top for sleeping.
I have never seen a real Russian stove. Everyone knows, from Russian folktales, what it is supposed to look like; you always find Ivan-the-Fool sleeping on top while more serious characters spend the day riding horses or planting wheat. But this Russian stove is blackened with soot, and I can’t imagine anyone lying on the narrow brick ledge.
The ageless woman wants us to taste her cottage cheese and yellow sour cream and the black bread she baked in the Russian stove. To demonstrate the thickness of her sour cream she sticks a big spoon in the middle of the bowl, filled to the brim, and the spoon remains standing, like a proud flagpole, a testament to the virtue of homemade food. She brings in a pitcher of goat’s milk, steam rising from its surface.
I don’t drink the milk because it has a pungent smell, and the sour cream melts into a puddle of fat on my tongue. While I pick at the bread, my cousins wolf down bowls of cottage cheese and bread hunks loaded with butter. “Eat, eat,” nudges my mother, her elbow in my side, although the spinning sensation in my stomach nauseates me and I don’t feel like eating.
At last, we leave the izba, having paid eight rubles for our baskets filled with loaves of bread, jars of sour cream and cottage cheese, and a hefty chunk of butter wrapped in a plastic bag. Kostya, the oldest cousin, treads carefully because he is clutching a three-liter jar of goat’s milk to his chest. While we wait for the bus, I’m so cold that Aunt Muza wraps her shawl around me, but I still shiver. She puts her palm on my forehead, shakes her head, and says that I’m getting sick.
AT NIGHT, I BURN and sweat and have strange dreams. I dream about my cousin Kolya, who is afraid to swim in the Volga because there are whirlpools there. The o’s in the Russian word for whirlpool, vodovorot, rolled down his tongue like a handful of peas when he told me about his fear by the foot of the steep Volga bank, where brown water, bottomless after the first few steps, licked the dirt in lazy ripples.
In the dream, Kolya and I wade in, our bodies cutting through the water. An undercurrent tingles my ankles and makes me stop for a moment. Kolya is walking in up to his chest, then to his neck, until I see only his ears sticking out of the sides of his round head. I’ve never seen Kolya so deep in the river. I try to yell to him, but no sound comes out, no matter how hard I strain. He keeps walking slowly, as if remembering his fear, and I know he is walking straight into the whirlpool. One more step and he is embraced by the power underneath, and all I can see is his head spinning on the surface of the water as he is pulled further and further away from the shore.
I stumble back to the narrow beach, where my uncle in bathing trunks is staring through the binoculars at my school friend Masha doing a cartwheel in her leotard. I don’t understand how Masha got to Stankovo from Leningrad, where she should be spending her summer vacation, but I’m glad she did because I can tell her about Kolya and the whirlpool. It is no use telling my uncle, who is glued to his binoculars, fascinated by Masha’s cartwheels.
To get to Masha I must climb the slope of the riverbank, so steep that when I approach, it rises like a wall. The wall closes on me like the top of a trunk, and I know that now I will not be able to save Kolya from the whirlpool no matter how hard I try.
A cool weight presses on my forehead, and the top of the trunk opens a crack. I see a hand straightening something white and wet on my head. “A compress for your fever,” says my aunt’s voice. But I know immediately it’s a surgical napkin, so I yank it off because I don’t want it to end up sewn into my belly. The hand struggles, shoving the compress back onto my forehead, but I scream, and when the hand recoils I am free to run back to the shore, where the whirlpool is spinning around Kolya.
As I careen down the riverbank, small rocks tumbling in my wake, a question is pounding in my head in sync with my steps: Why of all the kids who swim in the river was it Kolya who stepped into the whirlpool? Why not the girls cavorting in their bikinis on the beach, or Igor from across the street who wobbles to the river on his rusty bicycle, or my cousin Kostya, who refuses to even acknowledge the danger? Why not me?
Not me, not me, not me, a little hammer bangs in my temple as they try to push a wet napkin in my face again, and again I scream it off my head. The hand then rests on my forehead, pleasant in its cold heaviness, soothing. For a moment, I pause in my flight down the riverbank trying to understand why it was Kolya who was pulled away by the undercurrent. The water below is black as oil, glistening under the last strokes of the sun; no insects glide over its surface, no boats cut into its heft. Through the haze of heavy air the answer sinks in like a rock through water: the whirlpool singled out Kolya precisely because Kolya knew about its existence.
I look down on the Volga, on the stillness that belies its danger, on its beckoning silence. Masha with her cartwheels is gone, and my uncle, who for some reason never ventures to look through his binoculars at the river itself, is focusing on several specks of people etched against the evening sky on the rim of the far riverbank. Stepping out of my shoes, I walk across the hardened dirt of the beach to the waiting water. The river, lukewarm and soothing, envelops my feet, kisses my legs, strokes my back. Its blackness is entrancing, spellbinding, impossible to resist. As I walk deeper, the bottom slides away from under my feet, leaving me to spin slowly in the tender embrace of the whirlpool.
ONCE MY FEVER BREAKS, Aunt Muza doubles her efforts to not only add new pounds to my waist but also replace several lost during my illness. A bad flu, she says when I ask her what it was. She sings while she kneads and chops—old ballads and songs from the radio and films. She must have inherited my grandma’s unused opera talent: her voice soars in sophisticated roulades that quickly get trapped in her little kitchen. I obediently sip her schi and chew on her pirozhki, grateful to my three cousins who, without much effort, can sweep clean a table full of food in a matter of minutes.
I watch her dance in front of the stove, her thick hands surprisingly graceful, her whole body submitting to the food-making ritual and yet presiding over it. I want to ask her what has happened to the patient with the napkin in her belly. I want to ask her about the vague perils that seem to lurk in the most mundane places, but it somehow seems both dangerous and foolish to validate verbally something that is so murky, nothing more than images floating in a feverish head.
I’m surprised I remember this dream at all. There is only one other dream that didn’t evaporate the moment I opened my eyes, and it probably stayed in my memory because it was so odd. In the dream, my father was sitting in his boat, speaking about what happens a minute before the curtain goes up, as if he were an actor. The people in the audience hold their breath and all the noise stops, he said, just before the magic is about to begin. Don’t let the magic slip away, he warned me. Don’t sink into the quicksand of the ordinary.
Did he recognize the magic in real life? Or do I remember this dream so well because I wished he had?
I wonder if Aunt Muza’s napkin incident could have happened in the past, when my father was alive, when there was order, according to Uncle Fedya and my mother. I wonder how orderly it must have been, that order, if my uncle considers our present marching in step with the collective a state close to anarchy. And yet, even in that order, there were intelligentny people in charge like Dr. Kremer in my mother’s war hospital, who chose not to follow military rules. Was life easier then? Were there fewer dangers, or more? Would my friend Masha’s parents still have chosen to give her the mother’s Russian name instead of the father’s Jewish one?
Reluctantly I think of what my uncle might say if he knew that Masha’s parents made that decision because they wanted her to have an easier life.
Jews, he would say. You can’t trust them. They were cowards during the war, hiding from bullets at the front. Hiding in cellars and attics, while our Russian boys spilled their blood.
I don’t know how Uncle Fedya, who was a private during the war, can be privy to such a global view. So I remain skeptical about his opinions, and I don’t mention my friend Masha to him even once, finding it ironic that it was the two of them, Uncle Fedya and Masha, who crossed paths in my fever dream.
“Can we go for a swim?” I ask Aunt Muza, who has just wrapped several kitchen towels around a pot of freshly made dough.
“No swimming for you, my sweet,” she says, wiping her flour-powdered hands on her apron. “After the fever you’ve had you can just about forget swimming until you get back home. But you can walk with us to the river—fresh air is good for you.” I am not sure my mother would approve of such an early outing, but since permission has been granted, I rush to the door, where my street shoes, my little orphans that are now almost ruined by Stankovo’s dust, have been patiently waiting this whole week.
We take the familiar path, my cousins flying down, my mother, aunt, and uncle trotting in careful little steps. I am at the end of this procession, every step echoing in my head, and my muscles, unused for a week, shaking inside my skin.
Down on the hard, narrow beach Aunt Muza changes into her green and yellow two-piece bathing suit, carefully folding her huge white bra and underpants. I wait for her to say something about her patient, but she stands at the line where the dark water sighs softly at her feet, gazing into the distance where Kostya’s noisy splashes rip open the oilskin of the river.
My mother and Uncle Fedya are sitting on the rock talking. From her body language I know she is telling the story of her uncle Volya. I’ve heard the story several times, when she told it to my father and to our neighbors from the third floor. In 1937 her uncle, who worked in a propaganda bureau, took a stranger from Moscow to a restaurant, where he told a joke.
“The night they came to arrest him, he said to his wife, Aunt Lilya, and to his fifteen-year-old daughter Anya that it was all a mistake, a misunderstanding, and he’ll surely be back soon.”
“Was he?” asks Uncle Fedya.
If Uncle Fedya knows what was happening at the front during the war, if he knows where the Jews were hiding, he should know the answer to this question. Were I in my mother’s place, I wouldn’t bother telling him what seems to be obvious. But my mother obliges because she likes telling stories about her life.
“We were told he was shot trying to escape,” she says. “He was later rehabilitated posthumously, after Aunt Lilya and his daughter Anya were already dead. Anya took a nursing course when the war started, volunteered for the front to avenge her father, and got killed in 1942. Found a bullet, just as she wished, though she didn’t have to look far.”
I am not sure that Uncle Volya’s posthumous rehabilitation benefited anyone since neither his wife nor his daughter lived long enough to appreciate it.
After all, this past order heralded so by Uncle Fedya does not seem to have made life any easier or safer. Shooting someone for telling a joke hardly seems any better than leaving a surgical napkin in a patient’s gut.
My legs give out and I sit down on the grass, next to my cousin Kolya, who is engrossed in searching for something between his toes. Aunt Muza was right when she didn’t let me go swimming because my head pounds like a drum and a million golden dots flash before my eyes. As the sun glides toward the river, Kolya and I gaze at the black water, which I am now certain is full of invisible whirlpools.