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THE BEST IN CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN FICTION
IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION


Nina Gabrielian

THE LILAC DRESSING GOWN

Translated by Joanne Turnbull

(from Glas33)

Mama had a lilac dressing gown. It hung in the big polished wardrobe. Not in the half with the drawers, but in the other half which locked. Mama didn't lock the half with the drawers. Various things lay in the drawers, nice and not nice. Mama's slips, for instance, pale blue and white, were nice. They were fine and silky, and I liked to rumple and squeeze them when Mama was out, of course. The wooly pink bloomers that Mama forced me to wear in cold weather were not nice: they invariably stuck out from under my dress no matter how I hoisted them up. The bloomers were Chinese, that is, from the land of dragons and fans, and to me it was incomprehensible how those festive Chinese could produce such repulsive things to poison a person's existence as those brazenly pink bloomers. There was something vaguely indecent about them. The color, or something, reminded me of Yevgeny Vasilievich, a neighbor in our communal apartment. He was large, bald, in striped pajamas and very old. He was all of 40. Sometimes he had visitors: first Tonya, then Lyuba. By turns. They never arrived together. Lyuba was tall, with a thick blond braid wrapped round her head, and usually left in the evening. Tonya was a redhead, with short hair, and always stayed over. In the night you could hear her through the wall moaning and crying out. She apparently had terrible dreams. I had terrible dreams too, sometimes. Like my dream about the dacha in Zhavoronki... Uncle Volodya is sitting on the porch and sharpening a red pencil the kind only doctors have with a large penknife. Alma is lying at his feet and wagging her fleecy gray tail. "Alma, Alma," I say, gently nudging the dog in her warm flank. I know that now she'll roll over on her back and stretch and then I can scratch her belly where the fur is thin and you can see soft pinkish skin through it. Alma will rumble with pleasure the way she always does when Uncle Volodya scratches her belly. But Alma does not want to roll over and I nudge her more insistently. Suddenly she leaps to her feet, hangs over me and growls. With horror I notice that she has two huge, yellow, slobbery fangs. Alma grabs me by my pink bloomers, lifts me up in the air and goes bounding around the garden. "Ha-ha-ha!" guffaws Uncle Volodya, throwing up pencil and penknife, and revealing a yellow fang of his own. I suddenly realize that Uncle Volodya is not Uncle Volodya and Alma is not Alma. I flail my legs desperately, trying to catch hold of the ground with my sandals, but my feet don't reach, my dress is up around my head and the dog is whirling me along straight to the end of the garden, towards the yellow blur of the back gate, which no one uses. The gate swings slowly open, behind it something clicks and a woman with a thick black braid bends over me. "What's wrong, little girl?" she asks. "I don't want you," I cry. "I want my Mama." "But I am your Mama." "You don't think you're the only Mama on earth, do you?" Outside my window something crashes, shadows dance across the ceiling. "Sleep, sleep," the woman with the strange face coaxes me with Mama's voice. But I know it's all a trick and that I must not fall asleep.
Sleep is a dangerous thing: you never know what they may do to you there. I would never fall asleep if I could help it. But sleep creeps up so stealthily you can never catch it coming. Before you know it, you are enmeshed. And then you can scream all you like, shake your head and try to open your already wide-open eyes. Sleep will not let you go until it has had its fun with you, until it has thoroughly tormented you. But not to fall asleep is frightening too. It's frightening to lie alone in the dark. My parents are asleep in the dining room roaming, separately or together, the rooms and corridors of their dreams from where they cannot help me. It's frightening with my eyes open and frightening with them closed. No, I am not afraid of any big bad wolves, wicked witches or giants. I am afraid of fear itself, formless, faceless, voiceless and thus able to assume any guise, completely unpredictable. Fear may masquerade as the moon-spot on the wallpaper, may slide down suddenly onto the coverlet and slither up your arm to your bared shoulder. Fear may cause the kitchen door to creak while dabbing your face insinuatingly with something soft. Or rustle in a far corner of the room, then fall silent and creep soundlessly toward you. Fear may even pretend to be you. If you stretch your arms out on top of the coverlet and stare at them for long enough, they will suddenly become huge. Though I can't see my body beneath the coverlet, I can feel that it too has increased many times in size. I am no longer I, but someone or something gigantic that is only pretending to be me.
I used to go to sleep with the light on. But since I am a big girl now I'm in the older group at kindergarten and next year I'll start school Mama won't let me have the night-light on. "Perhaps you'd like a pacifier too?" she says with a mocking look. I think she hates me. She cannot not know that when a person is left alone in a dark room, the objects in it all suddenly change shape, become what they are not in the daytime, and start to come alive. This is far more frightening than if twenty giants and fifty wicked witches had walked into the room. Everyone knows what a giant looks like, but fear... Fear doesn't look like anything: that's what makes it frightening. Still, Mama pretends not to know any of this and every night "For shame, a big girl like you!" she snaps out the light and disappears. But I'm not ashamed; I'm frightened. I'm frightened by the dark room and frightened by Mama, who in the cruelest way leaves me alone with fear stirring in every corner, and goes calmly into the dining room. No, I know she hates me. And she's probably right. What other feeling, besides hatred, could I inspire small, timorous, helpless, with those shameful pink bloomers always sticking out from under my dress? Mama never has anything sticking out from anywhere. Her dresses and skirts are long, below the knee, but I am constantly being stuffed into short things, and then told in that fake voice, "Oh, isn't that pretty." The pink bloomers are a symbol of my unsightliness, a symbol of Mama's hatred of me, a symbol of my otherness and exceptionalness. But I do not want to be me, I want to be Mama, in a long dress below the knee, with a thick black braid wrapped prettily around my head by day and let down at night, combed out and again braided. Mama, who comes home from work in the evening and puts on her long, floor-length lilac dressing gown. Mama, who is not afraid of the dark. Not me, in a short navy skirt made out of Papa's military pants, with an idiotic propeller-like white bow in my hair.
On the rare occasions when I manage to stay home alone, I unlock the other half of the wardrobe not the half with the drawers, but the half with Mama's dressing gown. Other things are hanging there too Mama's dresses, Papa's dress military jacket with the gold lieutenant colonel's epaulets... But the main thing is the dressing gown, long, lilac, irresistible. The dressing gown hangs in the wardrobe, slowly freeing itself of Mama, of her shape. It assumes its own original shape, but the faint, barely detectable smell of Red Moscow perfume tells me that the dressing gown is not quite its old self; it is still slightly Mama. This is the best time to try it on. Having shed Mama's shape, it meekly allows me to fill the empty space. The insinuating smell of the perfume creeps from the cool fabric to me, sticks to my skin and I begin to smell of Mama, my body, enveloped in this marvelous rustling dressing gown, becomes longer and I am slowly reborn into something just as marvelous, smelling of Red Moscow perfume, rustling and mysterious. I mustn't look in the mirror because crude scrutiny can frighten the miracle of transformation away. Instead, I look at myself in the smooth, shining, polished surface of the wardrobe where the face of the flickering female figure in the long, floor-length dressing gown is so blurred and indistinct it can be endowed with any features.
"But you're a big girl now, shame on you for being afraid!" says the tall, slim figure to the pink rag doll in the short little dress, an idiotic propeller-like bow in her hair. "Perhaps you'd like a pacifier too?" The doll trembles slightly in the arms of the tall figure and stares inanely. That repulsive pink doll with the idiotic propeller in her hair!
This passion for transformation was perhaps the greatest of my passions. No amount of ice cream, candy and lemonade could make me as happy as this game of assuming another appearance. Another appearance, naturally, contained another essence. Changing clothes is not the only way to change one's appearance. By now I am an excellent player and often it is enough to cover my eyes and concentrate for the transformation to begin. The best time to do this is during those auspicious periods when I am sick with the flu or a sore throat. Then I don't have to go to kindergarten and I can lie in bed and play all I want. I close my eyes and pretend to be "another little girl." This other little girl is nothing like me: she has green eyes, blond hair and a small neat nose. I made this game up a year ago, after the time I came running home in tears and, when frightened Mama asked what the matter was, sobbed: "Seriozha Filippov says I'm Armenian."
"So what?" Mama replies, surprised. "What's wrong with that? I'm Armenian too."
"And Papa?"
"Papa's Armenian. So was your grandmother, your grandfather, and your great-grandmother."
"Then why aren't other people Armenian? Why are we the only ones?"
"You silly girl," Mama laughs. "There are lots of other Armenians besides us: Aunt Seda, Uncle Kolya, Aunt Shushanik, Uncle Babken... Remember when Aunt Seda came to see us from Yerevan? With Elvirochka and Nonnochka? And when they were getting ready to leave, you said: `Mama, make sure they don't steal anything.' They were hurt, you know. What on earth gave you that idea?"
"They were very dark," I explain.
"But you're very dark too."
I sigh. That's just what bothers me. But Mama either does not understand me, or she's pretending again. Yet what is there not to understand: all people are people, but we how do you like that! are Armenian. As if the pink bloomers weren't enough, now there's this. Again I'm not like everyone.
Being not like everyone is uncomfortable, but also fascinating, like being a circus midget. Three circus midgets live in the fourth entrance: two tiny women with bright lipstick and beehive hairdos and Tolik. Tolik is small, the size of a nine-year-old, he always wears a gray beret and has a lined face on which not a single hair grows. That is why his face seems both smooth like a boy's and wrinkled like an old man's. It's magic! No wonder they're circus performers. All three midgets have a festive air about them it's in everything: in the bright costumes and lavishly made-up faces of the tiny women, in Tolik's odd, young-old face... And when they come out of their entrance, everyone stares at them. True, I don't think they like the attention much they cross the courtyard without looking at anyone, their faces stern and unfriendly. Evidently, being not like everyone is not much fun. And yet, how seductive! Besides, if you're the only one "not like everyone", that's one thing, but if your Mama, and Papa, and even your grandmother... And some other people are Armenian too, Aunt Seda, for instance... Well then that has certain secret advantages: you're both unlike others and yet not the only one in the world like that.
"What about Dusya?" I ask.
"What about Dusya?"
"What's Dusya?" Dusya is my nanny. Or was. When I began kindergarten, Dusya went to work in a factory, but she often comes to visit.
"Dusya is Russian, from Ryazan."
"Where's Ryazan?"
"In Russia."
"Where's Russia?"
"Here, we live in Russia."
"We live in Moscow!"
"Moscow is in Russia."
The conversation about Dusya leads me to other thoughts:
"Mama, are we bourgeois?"
"Who told you that?"
"An Indian girl."
"What Indian girl?"
"You know, she lives in the second entrance."
For some reason an Indian family lived in our building. We hardly ever saw foreigners. Suddenly a little Indian girl turned up in our very own building. I desperately wanted to be friends with her. And then one day we met. The courtyard was covered with bright white snow and a marvelous little girl, right out of the Indian fairy tales I was then devouring, came up to me herself and said, "So you're bourgeois!"
"Why?" I said fearfully.
"You have a housekeeper."
"So what?" I faltered.
"So there! Everyone who has a housekeeper is bourgeois."
"We are not bourgeois," I sobbed in horror, sensing vaguely that she was probably right since in our entire building only one other family had a housekeeper. "We are not bourgeois!"
"You are too bourgeois!" the fairy-tale girl shouted back and stalked off, leaving me alone with the unbearable grief that had come down on my six-year-old head.
"What nonsense!" Mama was indignant. "The bourgeois are long gone in our country."
"You mean we're all poor?"
Yes, there was much that was puzzling about our life. For instance, I knew they had told us so in kindergarten that before, a very long time ago, there had been rich and poor. The rich were bad and always offending the poor. Then the poor overthrew them. What "overthrew" meant wasn't exactly clear. But it was clear that the rich had been driven out, or something like that, and that now there were none left. Still, certain ambiguities remained. For instance, I had a burgundy cashmere dress with a pretty white collar and a pair of black patent-leather shoes. One day I outgrew these marvelous things and Mama gave them away to Tamarka from the third entrance "because they (Tamarka's parents) don't have any money, and Tamarka doesn't have any nice clothes." I wasn't selfish, but the sight of Tamarka playing outside in my dress and my shoes filled me with a strange anxiety. It was as if she had become a little bit me. Or I her? I had never envisaged such a transformation, in part because, unlike my transformations into Mama, which could always be stopped and reversed (just take off the dressing gown), I had almost no control over my transformation into Tamarka, which smelled of danger. As if part of me had become Tamarka and was living a separate life. Tamarka lived in the basement. By her entrance there were little windows below street-level, and if you squatted down you could peek under the ground and see pale blue calico curtains and part of an iron bed. Otherwise, life's details in the underground kingdom were impossible to discern. Tamarka never invited me over and whenever we met, I always died of curiosity and fright since she lived under the ground, and that, as everyone knew, was where the world beyond was. Tamarka, of course, was conversant with what there was there besides pale blue curtains and an iron bed. But when she emerged from her entrance in my dress and my shoes, I felt that I too had become somehow privy to that other world.
That world was also connected with Easter eggs. I already knew a lot about God. For instance, I knew that he had been invented by the bourgeois, the same ones who had been overthrown, and that when Yuri Gagarin had gone up in space he had not seen any God there. I also knew that God was called Christ and that he didn't have a last name. That is why I felt a little sorry for him everybody had a last name: Seriozha did, Tamarka did, I did, but he didn't. On the other hand, he lived in a beautiful white house with a golden roof the shape of a large onion. The house stood on Lenin Hills and was called "church." Old women in white kerchiefs went to visit him there on Sundays. When he celebrated his birthday, they brought him presents Easter cakes and dyed eggs. Those Easter cakes were nothing like the ones Seriozha and I made out of dirt with plastic moulds, they were much bigger and you could eat them. I also knew that God lived in the world beyond. There were two "worlds beyond": the one where God lived which was in heaven, and the one where Tamarka lived which was under the ground. But these two worlds beyond were connected with one another and the go-between was Tamarka's grandmother who went to church on Sundays, and also brought God dyed eggs and Easter cakes on his birthday.
When Dusya lived with us, she had dyed eggs too, though she did not go to church. She dyed the eggs like this: she took two aluminum saucepans, put the brown skins of onions in one (probably this had something to do with the onion-shaped roof on God's house), and a red rag in the other. Then she carefully ladled eggs into each saucepan, covered them with water and put them over a low flame. The flame could not be turned up, much as I longed to hasten the making of this miracle. But Dusya forbade me, she said the eggs would burst. Once I didn't listen to her and raised the flame on the sly. Huge bubbles welled up on the water, then burst, and in their place little merry bubbles began jumping up and dancing. Then the eggs burst. I learned then and forever that a miracle is a fragile thing and will not brook interference. If one doesn't rush it and doesn't push it, the miracle will happen all by itself. At first, everything is the way it always is: the saucepan filled with transparent water, a red rag on the bottom and white eggs on top. Then the water becomes cloudy and tinged with red the saucepan turns into a tiny lake on the bottom of which dark red seaweed stirs and smooth white stones gleam. Then the water begins to thicken, to turn dark red and slowly tremble. The white stones lose their distinct shape and also turn red, but not as red as the water, lighter.
"Let them simmer a little longer," says Dusya. And we begin to simmer: the eggs in their thick, billowing rag soup, and I in my own impatience. And when the general simmering becomes unbearable, Dusya announces grandly: "Ready!" The flame is turned off, the red water heaves a few last times, splashes and subsides. Dusya takes a large aluminum spoon and carefully scoops out the evenly dyed eggs one by one. The eggs dry instantly in the air, as soon as they've been arranged in the deep white dish.
"Beeeee-you-da-ful!" Yevgeny Vasilievich blares behind us and out of the blue in his inevitable striped pajamas. "Christ is risen, Yevdokia Ivanovna."
He gives my Dusya a strange look I don't understand what it means, but I sense it's not good.
"Good afternoon," Dusya replies guardedly. "Come on, Nina."
"Christ is risen, Yevdokia Ivanovna," Yevgeny Vasilievich repeats triumphantly, blocking our way.
And here something comes over me. I stamp my foot hard, so hard my bootlace comes undone, and start to shriek: "Christ is not! He is not risen!"
"What are you, crazy?" says Yevgeny Vasilievich, taken aback.
But I can't contain myself. I have felt for a long time that there is something unsavory about Yevgeny Vasilievich. The sounds coming through the wall at night worry and frighten me. I know from my own experience that the nocturnal world possesses the ability to change people and things. The question is, when are they real? By day or by night? The world around me is always pretending to be what it is not, and in the night it suddenly reveals its dangerous ways. Who knows whom the bald and striped Yevgeny Vasilievich becomes at night?
Horrified that I am being rude to a grownup, yet conscious of a strange thrill, as if I were hurtling down an icy slope on a bucking toboggan, I scream right in the face of this pink impostor in his obscene striped pajamas:
"You are a bad man, you torture Tonya!"
"What? I torture Tonya?" Yevgeny Vasilievich feigns confusion.
"Well, why does she scream at night? What do you do to her? You probably..." I am cold at the terrible thought: "You probably beat her!"
At that, Dusya picks up the dish of eggs in one hand, takes me by the other, and whisks out of the kitchen.
Problems surrounded me from all sides; there were lots of them, and all in need of immediate solution. But I had to sort them out myself. The grownups would only pretend not to understand. It must be to their advantage to keep the secret of their composure in this world from me. I have long suspected that they are simply afraid I'll master the mystery and slip out from under their control. But this way they can mock me as much as they like: stuff me into vile pink bloomers, leave me alone at night in the dark and disappear together into the dining room, force me to eat guck like porridge and tell me how good it is for me. How can it be good for me when the boiled flakes of oatmeal look suspiciously like the little fat white moths that fly into the lamplight in summer at the dacha, circle round it with a disgusting rustling and try to dab your face with their hairy, repulsively trembling wings? The grownups should eat their porridge themselves, and I'd watch the faces they'd make when the fat white hairy moths began fluttering in their stomachs. No thank you, I'll cope with these impossible questions myself.
I had a lot of questions. In the first place, the Armenians. In the second place, the bourgeois. In the third place, God, who did not exist but who loved Easter cakes and dyed eggs.
As for the Armenians, the arrival of Uncle Babken from Baku shed some light on the matter. One fine day he appeared at our door with Aunt Shushanik and a huge wicker basket. Besides the basket and Aunt Shushanik, Uncle Babken turned out to be the owner of a beautiful black moustache sticking out belligerently from his dark, yellowish face. I have always liked the color yellow because yellow is the color of the sun, summer, warmth, the color of lazy days at the dacha spent lying stomach-down on the warm earth and drinking in the yellow heat exuding from it with my entire body, feeling myself become as yellow, brown and dark as this summer and this sun. So I liked my uncle's face right away. I also liked my aunt, small and cozy, with her fluffy, woolen name, Shushanik. And I liked the basket. They carry it into the room and begin pulling out rich purple eggplants, red peppers like the peaked hats on the dwarfs in Snow White, large yellow pears with brown speckles, blue-black grapes with a smoky, cerulean patina, a bottle of brandy and a whole stack of corrugated paper very thick and yellowish gray that smells of flour.
"This isn't paper," Uncle Babken tells me, "it's lavash."
"What's lavash?" I ask.
"What do you mean what is it? Lavash is lavash."
"It's Armenian bread," Papa explains. "Here, try some."
"Is it good for you?" I ask suspiciously.
"Very good for you."
"Then I don't want any," I push Papa's hand away. "Besides, bread doesn't look like that."
For a moment Uncle Babken stares at me indignantly, then his face softens and he says affectionately:
"Ari steg, balik-dzhan, aieren khosum es?"1
"What are you talking about, Babken, how could she?" Mama exclaims.
"Why don't you teach the child?" Babken turns purple. "Shame on you!"
"But we don't know the language that well ourselves," says Mama. "You know I went to a Russian school in Baku."
"Don't know the language!" Babken grumbles and strokes my hair. "Dzhanikes,2 you really don't know a word?"
"Don't torment the child, Babken," my aunt intervenes. "She's still little."
But this argument strikes me as insulting and, summoning all my strength, I blurt out:
"Bari gisher!"3
This is the one expression, which, for some reason, has stuck in my mind since the time when Aunt Seda visited us.
"Good for you!" my uncle praises me. "And you say you don't know anything! Come over here, repeat after me: mek, erku, erek...4
"Mek, erku, erek..." I repeat the mysterious words.
"Chors, khink, vets,"5 my uncle is inspired.
"Chors, khink, vets," I'm inspired back.
"Now again: Mek, erku, erek, chors, khink, vets!"
"Mek! Erku! Erek! Chors! Khink! Vets!" I recite.
"Good for you, pet!"
"Vets, pet!" I catch the rhyme.
"I'd die for you," Uncle Babken exults. "What a smart child! Want some lavash?"
"Yes please," I reply bravely and, with narrowed eyes, open my mouth. Uncle Babken pops in a piece of lavash. It is coarse, but surprisingly good.
Uncle Babken stayed for a week, during which time, to our mutual delight, I learned nearly fifty Armenian words. But after he left, I had no one to show them off to. Then something wonderful happened. An Armenian family from Tbilisi moved into our entrance: Aunt Rimma, Uncle Mentor and two boys the elder Albert and the younger Rudik. I fell in love with Albert. But since he was much older seven whole years it was absolutely impossible to get him to pay any attention to me. One day, relatives came to visit them. It was spring and Tamarka and I were playing "choki-choki" in the courtyard and screaming "choki-choki, shcheki-shcheki" as we took turns hurling a red ball against the wall: "knit-knit, sit-sit, knee-knee, tree-tree, feast-feast, beast-beast." When you said the word "beast" you were supposed to place two open palms against your head, make a "beastly" face and jump over the bouncing ball. Just at this moment they all came out of the entrance. First came Uncle Mentor in a dashing dark blue uniform and dark blue cap (he was a pilot) arm in arm with Aunt Rimma, arrayed in a bright green dress with brown fur trim. Behind them were two women I didn't know in red and lilac and high heels. One of them was even wearing a real "ladies" black straw hat. Last came Rudik in a new white shirt and short black trousers, and the terrifically handsome Albert. Tamarka and I were transfixed. I pulled myself together though, for here was my chance to show Tamarka that I too counted for something. Now she would see how intimately I knew this good-looking group. I make straight for the dazzling procession and greet Aunt Rimma: "Albert is an eshchikurak."6 The procession freezes. The first person to recover is Aunt Rimma "Wha-a-at?!" she says threateningly, craning her neck exactly like the peacock Mama and I saw at the zoo. "Wha-a-at?! You'll be hearing from me tonight." And the magnificent group moves off.
That evening there's a row.
"Tamara!" screams Aunt Rimma. "If your daughter ever insults my son again, I don't know what I'll do to her. She disgraced us in front of Mentor's relatives!"
"I did not insult Albert," I say indignantly. "I was speaking Armenian."
"And what did you say? Repeat it!" Aunt Rimma is seething. "I just said: `Albert is an eshchikurak.'"
"Did you hear that?" Aunt Rimma groans.
"Wait a second, Rimma," Mama intervenes and turns to me. "Who taught you that?"
"Uncle Babken. He was always saying: 'You're my little eshchikurak.' That's a little donkey," I explain innocently to Aunt Rimma. "It's very handsome, and it has big eyes."
The incident blows over, but from then on I have a certain distrust of Armenian. As it is, there aren't many things in this world that I do trust. People and things possess a dangerous ability to fasten on to you. Stop paying attention for even a moment, and you are in their power, you are no longer yourself, they lure you, pump you out of yourself. They can, for instance, pull you right out of your world and into theirs with a few words, the way Uncle Volodya pulls gasping carp out of the pond and into the air with a fishhook every summer. Papa is particularly good at this, just when we have guests. We are seated around a table laden with zakuski. Aunt Ata, Uncle Sasha and Lenochka are sitting across from me. Aunt Ata's name is actually Ateyukhon Tashpulatovna because she is Uzbek. She reminds me of a princess from an Eastern fairy tale with her entrancingly exotic name, her soft pink silk dress with large violet flowers, and her bright almond-shaped eyes set in a dark, porcelain face. Uncle Sasha is a scholar and a Ukrainian. Lenochka is their daughter. All of this combined marvelous Aunt Ata, Lenochka with Uzbek eyes and wearing an embroidered Ukrainian blouse, the many-colored lettuces, white sturgeon, pink ham, red wine in a blue cut-glass carafe is called a celebration. I too am a small part of this celebration. To my right, the glass door of the sideboard glitters from inside a little Eastern princess with a white nylon crown on her head smiles out at me. The princess has a big, crystal wine glass of sparkling lemonade in her hand, the lemonade is not pale yellow, the way it usually is, but pinkish because someone has added a drop of wine. You see the princess is nearly grown, next year she will start school, and she is already old enough to drink wine. The princess brings the glass to her lips, the glass glitters and sparkles, throwing off pink highlights, the crown on her head gleams, iridescent...
"Go and blow your nose," Papa says suddenly, sounding repelled. "Why are you always sniffling?! Go into the bathroom and give your nose a good blow. It's disgusting!"
The crown on the princess's head quivers and turns into an idiotic propeller. The princess is no longer a princess, but a repulsive little girl who can inspire nothing but aversion among normal people.
My escape from all these troubles is the wardrobe. In its close, contained space, smelling faintly of moth balls, I feel relatively safe from this world, which is trying to spray me the way Papa, after his morning shave, sprays eau de cologne out of the atomizer: he gently squeezes the small rubber pear and mist comes flying out of the fast-emptying vial with a shrill hiss. As soon as I am inside the wardrobe, I feel filled with my own self. The snug oak walls prevent leakage. I already know that a complete leakage is called death.
One day, Mama finds me in the kitchen, playing happily with a big, brown, whiskery bug. The bug has a flat, shiny brown back and a multitude of nimble little legs, which I cannot begin to count because the bug, despite all my efforts, refuses to stay in one place. When I try to block its path with Papa's slipper, the bug scoots round the slipper and races away from me. But just as it is about to reach its cherished goal and slip through the narrow crack under the cupboard, I manage to scoop it up with the edge of the slipper and flick it back to the middle of the kitchen. And we begin all over again: the bug bolts, I put the slipper in its path... Our game is in full swing when I suddenly hear Mama's heartrending cry: "Misha! Cockroaches!" Mama grabs the slipper out of my hand and thwacks my marvelous bug. I hear the revolting sound of bursting flesh. When Mama lifts up the slipper, the bug is lying motionless on the floor, its shiny back cracked and oozing a thin whitish gruel. Its slender legs twitch feebly a few more times, and freeze. That was the first death I ever saw and the crude simplicity with which it came about shocked me. A fragile carapace, it turns out, is all that separates us from death.
Strangely, death is connected in some mysterious way with both God and a question that has troubled me for some time, where do babies come from? One Sunday Mama takes Tamarka and me for a walk in Lenin Hills. I've been there before so I don't ask silly questions like Tamarka: "But where are the hills?"
"We're standing on them," I explain condescendingly.
"You're lying," Tamarka says, hurt. "We're standing on pavement."
"You stupid," I say. "We're standing on top of a hill."
"You're the one who's stupid," Tamarka snarls.
"Now what's going on?" Mama tugs at my sleeve. "How many times have I told you that stupid is not a nice word."
Tamarka and I are already racing toward the low granite balustrade. We climb up onto it, stretch out on our stomachs on the cold surface, broad as a window ledge, and let our heads hang down:
"This is living!" Tamarka whispers and, overcome with emotion, kicks up her heel in its well-worn boot.
Beneath us lies all of Moscow the Kremlin with its gold church domes, the new Luzhniki sports stadium... It all sparkles, glitters, iridescent in the sun and stirs in me an unbearable desire to jump down into that sparkling, hypnotic abyss.
"That's the Moscow River," I say, pointing toward the bright gray ribbon winding far below. "I'd like to jump off from here and fly and fly!"
"Oh sure," Tamarka scoffs, "and then go splat!"
At these words, we both begin to feel not so much frightened as uneasy, and we slide back down onto the ground sideways. The cursed pink bloomers into which I had again been stuffed against my will that morning spoil my mood by sticking out from under my dress. To keep Tamarka from seeing my embarrassment, I nudge her and point to the left where a white church with a gold onion dome and cross is visible through the thick foliage.
"I'd like to peek inside," Tamarka whispers, "Let's! You want to? While your mother isn't looking."
"Are you crazy!" I reply. "They torture children in there."
"What do you mean torture?!"
Tamarka's face turns ashen and, looking at her, I suddenly feel my stomach begin to ache from fear.
"Inna Alekseyevna told us in kindergarten that sectarians torture children," I explain through chattering teeth. "They also torture Komsomol members. They crucified one girl on a cross and she died."
"What are sectarians?" Tamarka asks.
"People who believe in God."
"Do you believe in God?" Tamarka asks in a whisper, glancing over her shoulder.
"I don't know. Papa says I'm an atheist."
"What are atheists?" Tamarka asks.
"People who believe there is no God."
"Come on girls, let's go back down," Mama calls.
And we start stumbling down the stone steps, which will probably never end. Mama is the first to tire. "Let's rest," she suggests.
We leave the stairs and, holding onto the branches of crowded trees, make our way back up the steep hill towards the pond and sit down on a large snag. From out of her bag Mama pulls sandwiches of Ukrainian sausage and cheese wrapped in newspaper and a white plastic flask of water. Five minutes later, the sandwiches devoured, the water drunk, Tamarka and I, feeling somewhat heavy, run to the pond. Coated with green and pale blue duckweed, the pond is teeming with all sorts of life. Long-legged, gray water striders dash across the surface, looking like large mosquitoes and skaters at the same time. Heavy, rapacious dragonflies with limpid dark blue mica wings and terrible bulging eyes fly over the water. And by the shore, where it's shallow, huge black snails shine through the water. Tamarka and I thrust our hands in and fish out the snails.
"Snail, oh, snail, come out of your shell, we'll give you bread, and pie as well!" we coax them. But the snails remain deaf to our pleas and clearly do not want to come out of their snug little houses. We soon lose interest in them and turn to the soldier bugs. Soldier bugs are little, with flat red backs speckled with black. They scurry back and forth, one at a time, but some of them move in a strange way two at a time their rumps stuck together. This alarms me for some reason, and I try to sever these abnormal unions with a stiff blade of grass.
"Don't touch them!" Tamarka grabs my hand away. "They're making babies."
"Babies?!" I drop the blade of grass and turn anxiously to Tamarka. "Is that really how they make them?"
"How else?" Tamarka looks at me mockingly.
"Mama told me that she and Papa bought me at the store."
"Mama told me!" Tamarka mimics and gives me a mysterious look.
"Well! Well!" I press her.
Tamarka leans over and whispers in my ear. What she says is so awful that I push her away and scream with tears in my eyes: "You're lying! You made it all up!"
"Girls, what's happened?" Mama calls loudly from above. "Come back up here, it's time to go."
"Nothing's happened," I say sullenly, eyeing Tamarka with suspicion. Tamarka is, of course, lying, but then, you never can tell with grownups...
That night in bed I close my eyes and pretend, as always, to be "another girl." First I have light flaxen hair, then a snub nose, then my eyes turn green... But when I get to the eyes, I suddenly and distinctly see the green duckweed on the pond, a huge dragonfly is hanging over me with its terrible bulging eyes and rapacious triangular jaw and whispering loudly in Inna Alekseyevna's voice: "Sectarians torture children." The dragonfly's long body shakes; its cold eyes stare at me unblinkingly. I scream, but I have no voice. I feel something invisible leaning against me, I make a supreme effort and, pushing the resistant air apart, I rush up an endless staircase to Mama. Suddenly I hear a repulsive bursting sound underfoot and see that I have squashed two huge soldier bugs. Their red backs speckled with black are cracked and oozing a whitish gruel in which tiny red ant babies are swarming. I scream with revulsion, my foot goes out from under me and I tumble down into the sparkling gold abyss...
In the morning, Dusya arrives.
"Well, my little frog princess," she says, sitting down on my bed. "What do you say we skip kindergarten? I've got the day off. Get dressed, and we'll go for a walk. Here, let me help you. What is this, why are you so thin? Just skin and bones. Doesn't anybody feed my child when I'm not around? No one to take care of her now that Dusya's gone."
"Oh, Dusya," Mama laughs, "the child is fine. You don't want her to get fat, do you? She's a girl, after all."
"A girl," Dusya frowns. "So that means you can starve her to death? Who's going to marry her so skinny?"
I suddenly remember my terrible nightmare and, sobbing, I scream:
"I don't want to get married!"
"Oh my beloved princess!" Dusya hugs me. "You don't want to marry, so fine, we'll do without husbands. Besides," she adds in a strange, wounded voice, "we don't need them! We'll get along the way we are. Right, Nina?"
"Right," I whisper gratefully, pressing closer to her. "You know how much I love you, Dusya?"
"How much?" Dusya smiles.
"Soooooooooo much!"
"Have you heard, Dusya, how your darling disgraced us the other day?" Mama asks. "Rimma came by..."
"The one who smokes?" my nanny says sternly.
"Don't you know Rimma?" Mama looks surprised. "She lives on the third floor."
"I know your Rimma. Smokes like a chimney."
"For goodness sake, Dusya! Keep it to yourself. Her husband doesn't know."
"I'll say! If he did, he'd tear her dress off and give her a good whipping."
The thought of Aunt Rimma getting a good whipping so appeals to me that I burst out laughing. Mama looks at Dusya and me disapprovingly, but then she too breaks down and we all three laugh till we can't laugh any more.
"Oh no, you'll make me late for work," Mama suddenly remembers. "I've got to go."
Now it's just the two of us.
"I brought you a little present," says Dusya, reaching into her big, black oilcloth bag.
"Pies!" I cry.
Dusya's pies are nothing like the ones they sell on the street. The ones on the street aren't bad either, but they're fried and filled with jam. Any fool can make them. Dusya's are baked specially in the oven; they are light and shaped like boats. And the fillings are all different: cabbage, meat, eggs and onion...
"Now wash your face and brush your teeth!" Dusya takes charge. "Then we'll have breakfast and..." She pauses enigmatically.
"Where are we going? Where?"
"Over the hills and far away," Dusya teases me.
"Dusya, where?"
"To the Town."
And we set off for Young Pioneer Town. To get there you have to take trolleybus No. 4. We get off the trolleybus, go through the iron gates and find ourselves in autumn. Autumn yellow and purple, it crackles underfoot, hangs overhead, gently envelops us on all sides. Inside it, something clicks now and then and knocks, as in clockwork.
"A woodpecker," says Dusya.
We start looking for the woodpecker. But instead of a bird, we spy a ladder. It is growing in the middle of a vast playground right out of the ground and up into the sky. It is the same reddish yellow as everything around it. I climb up towards the sky, up the ladder, higher and higher. But soon my legs begin slipping off the wet rungs and I feel scared. I don't know why I needed this sky in the first place, so inviting when you look at it from below, and so frightening when you start climbing up to it and it tries to push you down. But going down is frightening too. I sit down on a rung between heaven and earth, hug the reddish yellow iron and prepare for the worst. I can barely see Dusya way down below. I know that if she suddenly says "For shame, a big girl like you!" I'll fall off the ladder and be badly hurt. Dusya slowly lifts up her face to me and says in a loud whisper:
"Come on down now, that's high enough. What a brave girl you are! Lean one foot against the corner, that's it. Good for you. Now the other. That's it, now look how close you are to the bottom. Now jump. Whoop-ah! Here, let me dust you off. What an acrobat you are! Now, how about the swings?"
"The swings!" the agile little acrobat replies. "When I grow up, Dusya, I'm going to join the circus."
"You could do that," Dusya muses approvingly. "They probably rake the money in."
We go swing on the swings. Or rather, I swing while Dusya pushes me I fly up almost to the crossbar, then drop down into the abyss. The wind whistles in my ears, my coat and dress keep riding up to my head, the elastic air beats in my nostrils I become light and elastic like this air, I can no longer tell where I am, where the swing is, where Dusya is. I become all of this together I no longer exist, the only thing that exists is this mad flight up and down, up and down...
Then Dusya and I sit on a bench and we eat, eat, eat the pies.
"So what did you do to Rimma?" Dusya asks between mouthfuls.
Here's what happened with Aunt Rimma. She came to visit and gave me a pink caramel, which I, naturally, popped straight in my mouth.
"Don't swallow it," Aunt Rimma says in an odd sort of voice. "You mustn't swallow it, only chew it."
"Why?" I can't understand what all the fuss is about.
"It's chewing gum," she says with pride in her eyes.
"Chewing gum?" I don't know what she means.
"American chewing gum," Aunt Rimma explains. "Mentor's sister sent it to us from America."
"Oh, from America? Is that where the capitalists are? What is she doing there?"
"She's living there," says Aunt Rimma, condescending to my foolishness.
But I'm not as foolish as I used to be. I know that Armenians live in Armenia. Our country is very big and has many republics: Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Byelorussia, the Caucasus and Transcaucasia. And all of this combined is the Soviet Union. Americans and blacks live in America. Clearly, Mentor's sister cannot possibly be American. Nor can she be black. Yet Rimma goes on boasting:
"Oh! The underwear they have! Lace here, lace there. And the children's clothes! My God! Through friends she sent me a blouse that had almost never been worn, and she sent Mentor a shirt and a tie. I don't need to tell you, the quality has it all over ours. That's America for you!"
I begin to feel a bit envious. By now I realize that Uncle Mentor's sister is not the fruit of Aunt Rimma's feverish imagination, but does indeed exist. And since she sent American presents, that means she really does live in America. Nobody in our apartment has anyone living in America, but Aunt Rimma does! My envy becomes unbearable. And I decide to smite our boastful neighbor on the spot:
"Well we have cockroaches! This big! Lots and lots of them!"
"Your Rimma's a big liar," Dusya concludes, after listening to the whole story. "Where on earth would a Soviet person get foreign relatives from?"
It's so easy with Dusya. Oddly, she never makes me want to turn into her. Probably because she's too good: not one word stings or irritates me or lures me out of myself. Her words are soothing, but not compelling, because they conceal no surprises. I'm attracted to uncertainty. Perhaps I'm never bored with myself because I can never get used to myself. "That's me," I say, but the idea takes me unawares every time, startles me. How can this be "me" if I am one person in my short pink dress, and entirely another in the lilac dressing gown? My "I" is as elusive and unfathomable as a strange land. It attracts me and troubles me. I feel this especially on the metro in the morning, when my father is taking me to kindergarten. We get on the train and pass from light into darkness. Squeezed between passengers, I press up against the glass doors marked DO NOT LEAN and try to catch the moment that separates darkness from light. But since my father sticks to his rule of not sitting in the first car, or in the last, we always sit in the middle and by the time we approach the line separating the two worlds, I with my eyes open wide as wide, the train has picked up speed and the black tunnel swallows us so fast that before I know it the light has turned into darkness. Then my other face appears. It rises up from the depths of the black tunnel to meet me, presses against the glass from the other side and stares at me. My other face is almost exactly like mine except for one thing it is transparent and the long black pipes shine through it as it runs along them, as if along rails. The spectacle of my own face, existing separately from me in a black world, fascinates me. I begin cautiously moving my head up and down and my face repeats the movements. But the face also changes: its eyes narrow, then grow wide, the nose becomes longer, then flat and thick, the mouth constantly changes size and expression. All these changes in my face, separated from me by only a thin pane that says DO NOT LEAN, fill me with an acute sense of both ecstasy and horror, just as when I looked down from Lenin Hills into the sparkling and hypnotic abyss I felt an unbearable desire to jump. Mirrors have always attracted me, and not because I love to look at myself, as Mama supposes when she finds me in front of one. I go to the mirror to experience horror. But it also gives me a strange satisfaction. If I stare into the eyes of my reflection long enough, a quiet ringing begins in my head, then the sound swells, and I stop feeling my body, stop understanding where I am, where my reflection is and which of the rooms is real the one where I am, or the one in the mirror. There is something shameful in this pursuit, and I do not like to be caught at it. This is why now, on the metro, I try not to let my father see what I'm doing. But then the train comes out of the tunnel and my face is obliterated. A minute later, though, my other face is approaching me again from the depths of the next tunnel where it waits for me in the dark. The din of the darkness swells, a strange sound appears in my ears and expands. The face of the woman in the lilac dressing gown races along the black rails, forever changing and refusing to let me fuse with myself.


1 Come here, my little one, do you speak American?
2 Dear child
3 Good night
4 One, two, three...
5 Four, five, six
6 Albert is a son of an ass