Translated from Russian by Andrew Wachtel
With Love and Sorrow
You still seem young to me. A dying September sun filters through the blinds into our poor kitchen, illuminating your face. I understand—that’s it. Life has broken apart, like a ship on the rocks. The greatest part is buried beneath the foaming waves. The distant light of fires reaches the shore. It, too, will soon be extinguished. Tools, books, and dear little tchotchkes slide down the vertical deck. The string quartet, sinking into the dark, is playing its final notes. We are trapped in a horrible whirlpool.
I see you amidst the rotting autumn foliage. In your gauzy scarf and Windbreaker you walk along as if we were the same age. Your mushrooming stick, wrapped at the top with a red grip (so you don’t drop it) gives your age away. That stick was made by a man who’s no longer with us. Your husband, my stepfather. Having cut the stem of the first big mushroom, I turn around. My heart breaks with tenderness. It’s a good year for mushrooms. The people say: “a harbinger of war.”
Reddish, yellow, polka-dotted, from white to almost chocolate brown—the mushroom caps. The heavy basket hurts my arm. I switch it from side to side. We still have to make our way back through the birch forest along the country road, rutted by rain, to the highway. It’s a twenty-minute slog. And there are still more mushrooms peeking out from the grass. I seem to hear a nearby voice. I make a sign for you to be silent. Two young men are standing on the hill by the big ditch. The older one, prison tattoos visible, is playing with a knife. Clouds of cigarette smoke. The guys are talking to each other. I can’t hear what they’re saying. I stand still, holding my breath. The branch of a fallen tree presses against the sole of my boot. I’m afraid to move, to make a sound. It’s dangerous for women to be out in the woods. Anything could happen.
When fate takes a woman’s man away, she picks up and carries on with his weapon.
The hill is empty. The pair has disappeared, but danger hangs in the air. My mouth is dry from the tension.
We reach our car at twilight. The light sky is streaked with inky black clouds. There’s a terracotta band melting in the west. The sun has gone down and my back is suddenly cold. Swifts are flying along the high voltage power lines. I haven’t seen these anxious birds with their pointy wings in our garden for a long time. The old birdhouse is empty. A woodpecker picked apart their nest, throwing out its contents—little twigs and dry grass float down to the ground. Perhaps a pair of swifts are still circling above our heads. But I can’t see them anymore. The scene was almost physically painful to me. The nest wasn’t the right size for the woodpecker. A piece of fiber from the nest got stuck in the entrance to the birdhouse. It will flap around in the wind until the rains wash it away.
For the last time before winter I turn toward the woods. Who knows when I will return. Will we be able to stay whole, not to drop our weapons? After us, there will be no one.
You are next to me, and a drop of water has gotten stuck in a wrinkle. We’re holding hands. Before we part. Various countries, nights, minutes. I’m leaving you alone, otherwise we will both molder. The stuffed mouse that our cat, Amur, played with many years ago and the broad-leafed palm grown from a Spanish seed, will stay with you. Separation has been sniffing at me from the moment I first said your name. Having never learned to be a wife or a mother, I’ve remained an eternal daughter. Whose fault is that?
Whose fault is it that the Titanic sank?
Fate. The acid ash of the heart.
The fall smells of apples. There are a lot of them this year. They fall with a dull knock.
Today is a special day. We have to get through it.
Kuranov came by at around noon. After twenty years together it took only one instant to blow up the universe. To desecrate the memories. Nothing binds us. Except death. I still retain a blurry memory of the past, how he comes up to me and kisses my hair. My neck. But I don’t know him anymore. In front of me I see a stranger. We sit at the polished folding table on its shaky legs, pitiful, like a calf at the slaughterhouse. For the first time in many years we didn’t put up the awning with its blue and white stripes. We didn’t carry the outdoor chairs and tables to the patio. There was no one to do it for. And no reason to do it.
“Do you want some coffee?”
I look him straight in the eyes. To understand the biblical image of Judas.
“That thou doest, do quickly,” said Jesus. After which Judas went and betrayed him to the high priests for 30 pieces of silver.
“You know, I’m happy,” says Kuranov, as if in a Chekhov play, looking at an old apple tree that hasn’t been pruned in a long time.
“You’ll never be happy,” I answer, placing down two coffee cups.
“You don’t know how to love.”
The smell of strong coffee. The aroma stirs you even more than the drink itself.
He has nothing to hide. A sick emptiness in his eyes. The face of a man who has been fooled by his own life. And life pays him back, forcing him to eat the bread he always despised.
It’s just before New Year’s, 1989. Wet snow falls on my bare hair. I’m fearless, protected by my youth. We’re standing on the windy platform, waiting for a train. I and a young man who can’t take his eyes off me. A glass “aquarium” with benches. There’s a crowd inside. Snow is still just snow. Without any allusions. “What do you want from me?”
We are, it appears, schoolmates.
He’s going to do something but suddenly swerves from his path and follows me.
I am furious because I have no need for a boy.
“I’m Alexander,” he says, sitting down next to me.
I turn to the window. The concrete structures lit up by the poor station lighting look like a recently bombed-out building. I stare straight at him, like I am doing now, and I whisper:
“You have no chance.”
But he is stubborn and has a maniacal desire to possess that which has nothing to do with him. Different classes. Ideas. Upbringing. We’ll understand this later.
For three years he stands outside closed doors, listening to my crazy screaming.
My illness, my unrequited dreams gradually turn to ruins.
I lie on the floor, staring up at the roof beam.
“You promised to take me to Venice,” I say, returning from the past with difficulty.
“Yes, I did.”
He takes a bite of a ripe apple. Droplets spurt out, leaving wet spots on my silk blouse.
“Do you know what?”
“A cat rubs up against the legs of anyone who throws it food. You decided that the food was better at someone else’s table? You’re in a trap. There’s no way out, Alexander.”
He stubs out his cigarette without finishing it.
I lean back on my chair. How dizzying the sky is. How thick the pine branches. But they’re not green anymore. What happened to them? Why have the needles turned yellow? Fragments, broken thoughts. Why is it that right at this moment I feel a need to remember the name of an old film?
After the death of her husband a woman goes to Venice. She’s still in mourning. And there, unexpectedly, she meets a young man. It’s raining. Wherever the story is set, it’s raining. There are drops on the windows. Streams coming down the drain pipes. An umbrella placed in the entryway leaves a wet trail on the tile. The two of them are overcome with emotions. She’s eleven years older than the young man. They take a hotel room. Then they go to San Marco, drink wine, and wander around the narrow labyrinth of Venice. And again they go to drink wine and smoke a cigarette. It’s quiet. You can hear the water dripping outside. The beauty of Venice is strange. There’s something repellent in it. There are very few tourists—it’s off season. The city gets covered in fog, which wraps around the yellow streetlights, turning their light cottony. There’s not a single wide-open scene. And it’s as if all this is happening to you, from the rush of blood to the face, to the half-removed stockings, from the accidentally flipped over nightstand to the breathless feelings caused by too much happiness and complete solitude.
It’s too late for her. Why does happiness come too late? When the soul rejects its gifts.
“It’s cold,” she says, smiling.
The man wraps his arm around her shoulders. She buys a carnival mask in one of the stores. She’d done the same thing with her husband. They brought little souvenirs back from various countries and hung them on the walls.
“Is it pretty?” the woman asks, running her hand over the colorful feathers.
He nods in response. Although the mask repulses him.
She had always dreamed of Venice. Smelling of mildew and old houses.
“You know,” the woman says, “last night I dreamed about a girlfriend from my youth. Our last year of school she began to spend her time with a different girl. I was left all by myself. Time passed. We met many years later. But she never told me the secret of our breakup. She couldn’t. I never forgave her. I had no desire for revenge. But the pain was unbearable. In time it all became overgrown with indifference. It’s worse if pain grows into contempt.”
“Your husband . . .”
The woman shakes her head.
“No, he died. He just died.”
They stand and look out at the waves.
“You aren’t like anyone else,” he says.
The next day she’s sitting in the hotel lobby with a cup of coffee and a newspaper in her hands.
Breakfast is over and the waiters have cleared the table.
“What are you reading?”
“Everyone has the right to a voluntary exit, true?”
The woman looks up at him.
“Whaaaaat?” he asks again.
“It’s OK. I was reading an article. About euthanasia. It costs only three thousand Swiss francs. And five thousand to spread the ashes.
And she laughs.
Then Venice is over. And the woman disappears. She doesn’t answer the phone. Her house is locked. Her thin neighbor, a pale child in her arms, comes out at the sound of the knock.
“We don’t have a bell. There’s no one to fix it.”
A girl of about four, hair mussy, is clinging to her skirts.
“You’re looking for #30? Zhanna went away,” the neighbor says, kissing her baby.
“What do you mean, went away?” The man sounds surprised. “Where?”
She reaches into the pocket of her housedress and pulls out a piece of paper.
“To see the fjords. I don’t know what that means, “she says, and slams the door.
At noon we gather at the cemetery.
“Alexander, stop here,” Mother requests.
She goes to buy artificial flowers.
We wait in the car with its cracked windshield. The inside of the car is a mess. All sorts of garbage on the floor.
“You always used to worry about keeping things clean,” I say.
“I did,” he answers.
The endless road.
We exchange barbed remarks. Each turn of the head, movement, word—a lie. The air gets under our skin.
Kuranov has not let me go. That knowledge is nothing but poison to me.
The new headstone, which we chose for a whole week last August, has been put in place. The third from the end.
The work is done. Not one blade of grass. The workers covered everything with sand.
“Hi, Ivan,” Kuranov cries out to the grave digger conspiratorially.
Just as if he had dug the grave with him.
Ivan doesn’t even turn his head, as if he’s gone deaf.
Over four years the mound has settled noticeably. A small white cross on black granite.
Our dead looks out at us in half profile with a smile.
Mama is crying, and I don’t know where to turn from the all-encompassing grief.
And then she goes around the outside of the plot, pulling out the sprouts from the young alder. Tiny, like a small child. The ship we were traveling on, designed by the best engineers and piloted by the best captain in the world, ran into an iceberg.
“When are you leaving?” Kuranov asks, as we walk back.
“In a week.”
“Did you get the divorce papers?”
It’s a good thing his mother can’t hear our words. She’s lying nearby. A five-minute walk away.
He takes us to a café where we drink the “dark” wine of remembrance.
“Good-bye,” I say.
“Oh, yes, and one other thing,” I say, after a pause.
Kuranov freezes for a moment.
“Some people really are unique.”
Through the thick glass I see a blue SUV turn around.
I call over the waiter and order another bottle. The wine is so tannic that it burns my insides. But it doesn’t make me drunk. Mama isn’t crying anymore. She talks and talks.
I had completely forgotten about my cousin. She follows us around like a shadow. The shadow of her dead brother. She really wanted to get close to my former husband. To pity him like a typical Russian woman, losing herself in a man. The way you pity cripples and the handicapped. Putting all her sacrifice into her verbal inflections.
If it hadn’t been for me.
She scatters old photographs on the table. We look at our long-dead youth.
“It’s time you forgot him,” my cousin says suddenly.
She bites her lips.
I look carefully at her flat face. Her thinning hair, dyed with henna, is in a box cut. She never managed to get married. God filled up the void. Fanatic religiosity has no soul. In the heart of people like her there’s only a hole. And through that hole come endless streams of religious rules.
The taxi arrives. We drive my cousin to her empty apartment and head for home.
“Seven hundred,” the taxi driver smirks.
It’s pointless to argue with him. Two women at night. Two women in the woods. We’re surrounded by a world full of beasts. It’s not them—we’re their guests.
The headlights illuminate the house address, big numbers on a white background.
“There’s nothing to regret, Mama.”
She agrees, taking what life gives uncomplainingly.
And I am torn apart by the fragility of the world.
“Don’t resist. Drop the oars. Go with the flow.”
The smell of damp earth, of a garden saying good-bye to summer. The last flowers have dropped their petals. I sit on the step, trying to hold onto the final moments. They look like goldfish, swimming away to the bottom of a crystalline pond. I know that the pond has no outlet. They’re stuck there, but then there’s a miracle. I can’t see the fish anymore. Bending their supple spines they break up into millions of sparks and disappear into the water.
“Should we sit for a minute?”
I cross my legs on the old kitchen sofa and put my head on my mother’s shoulder.
We’ll be parting soon.