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THE BEST IN CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN FICTION
IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION


Larissa Miller

CHILDHOOD IN POST-WAR MOSCOW

(from Dim and Distant Days, Glas 25)

My first close friend was Galia Zaitseva, tow-headed and snub-nosed. She lived in the apartment next door. We communicated by tapping on the wall and we would frequently drop in on each other. One day she and I decided to stage Marshak's play The Twelve Months for the New Year's Eve. We distributed the parts among the neighbourhood children. I was to be the stage director since the idea was mine, and so was the book. Each picked the part he liked best. I wanted very much to be the poor but virtuous Step Daughter who looked for snowdrops in the forest, but I magnanimously gave the part to Galia. I was the stage director, after all, and it was unbecoming to grab the best role too. I would be the Princess, wilful and eccentric. Late in the evening, as I sat at the table copying the lines for the other actors, the doorbell rang. 'Where's your Lara?' The door of our room opened and Galia's mother burst in, followed by Granny.
'Who do you think you are?' she railed. 'How dare you make my girl the Step-Daughter? You think you can be a Princess and she's going to be a Step-Daughter, eh? You have no right! I know you Kikes. Always out for number one.' She turned to Granny: 'And where've you been, Madam? You think you can teach the teachers while your granddaughter is making fun of my child? She'll never come here again! Princess, my foot!' Granny tried to say something, but Galia's mother wouldn't listen and rushed out.
The play was off. But that didn't spoil our friendship. I would signal to Galia, as before, when I was going out, and she would tap back or call out the window: 'Coming! I'm getting dressed.'
The older I got, the harder it was to find consolation and the fewer were the events and chores I could bury my cares in. The early morning hours were not so sweet as before. And the events of the day were disturbing.
'Go away! You're a Jew!' the oldest of my friends declared.
'What does that mean?' I asked.
'Jews have black hair. Jews are bad. Remember how you pushed me when I had a sore foot?' I didn't remember, but my brain started feverishly putting two and two together: Jew, black hair, pushed. I had to go home and ask. 'Don't listen to her,' Granny said. 'She's just a silly girl.' But how could I not listen when a whole gang now followed me around the yard, chanting:

What's the time, kids?
My watch says: three Yids
And a dirty kike,
All riding a bike!

That's when I realised I was totally defenceless. It seemed to me that if I'd had a father, even a sick old man, always coughing like our neighbour, everything would have been different. But what could Mother, Granny and my meek grandfather do against a gang of kids? After all, my family was just as vulnerable.
For the first time I felt I was different. Did I imagine then that henceforth I would be an outcast and that there was no escape? No, I had no idea. At the time, I was sure I would go into the yard the next morning and see the other children's repentant faces. Luda Vedemina, the oldest of the girls, would come up to me and say... I couldn't imagine what exactly she would say, but my heart would miss a beat and my eyes would brim.
However the next morning, the teasing started again and I felt the ground slipping from under my feet. The ground slipping away - sometimes it's a sweet feeling. Once a boy I had been playing with in the yard said he was thirsty and wanted to go home. He invited me to come along. That was the first time I found myself inside a house I'd seen only from the outside. From the yard, the house was familiar down to the last little scratch on the wall, but suddenly I found myself in a strange room. One moment had separated the usual from the unusual, the street din from the quiet, the sunshine from the indoor dusk. The usual was revealed to me from a new point of view. Everything started to swim before my eyes: the lacy curtains, the ticking alarm clock, the carafe on the table.
I had once experienced the same dizziness in the country, when I got lost and found myself in a dank gully, blue with forget-me-nots. I gathered them, kneeling in the damp moss, oblivious to everything. When I remembered where I was, I was scared I wouldn't find my way back, and ran out of the gully. A few moments later I saw the familiar roof and realised I was near home. From this new vantage point, our house looked strange, unreal.
When such things happen, the trite, boring connections disappear. Everything breaks up. It is not destroyed, but disintegrates into self-contained moments which can later be reconnected, but in a different, unpredictable order. Meanwhile, you're out of the game, you view everything, even your own life, as if from a distance. Not that you're an outcast - no, you're in full harmony with the world, merged with it, but it has fallen apart into separate moments which have, however, retained their beauty and integrity.

Translated by Natalie Roy