The distances were vast, the displacements definitive. There was no going back to the places abandoned, that explains how moss and ivy overran them. Contours and colors faded away until the memories of a military base rapidly shrank to a few gray photos. The long, low house of rough cobblestones at the far eastern edge of the imperium. Flower beds surrounded by whitewashed bits of mortar, overgrown with wild grass. A baby carriage, high and spacious, like a royal coach. Father’s hand grasping a motorcycle by the horns; with the smooth black parts of his body it looks like a gigantic ant. One calls these photos “black-and-white,” but they have long since turned gray—like stone and dust, old wood and time.
I’m sitting at home, in the middle of Berlin. It’s snowing. One above zero—one below, two. Two bargain hunters in Los Angeles have shot each other in a struggle over Christmas super-bargains, and lie there, curled up, a 6 and a 9—both numbers outfitted with tiny comma pistols. Our Christmas shopping too is booming. Britney Spears wants to make her breasts smaller. Mankind has a year to save the earth. That’s the news of my day.
Everything’s sleeping, but behind the lace hanging in the window opposite mine, an old, bald man is sitting, writing. I’ve never seen him during the day, or perhaps I don’t recognize him. But evenings, he is always there. It’s snowing between us, he is my toy soldier and I his cardboard ballerina. The white flakes melt on the spot where they touch the Berlin earth.
When it snows I think of the place of my childhood: a dozen houses around the military base in the Taiga. The snow was deep, and the trees—tall. A river flowed through my childhood as it does through everyone’s. My river was calm and peaceful. The first frost instantly seized up the water, catching all the small water creatures by surprise. I cleared a small screen through the mealy snow and looked inside: a frog carved in meter-deep ice, its legs as if frozen in flight; a baffled fish with rusted scales and reddish fins, as if inflamed, an armored worm disguised as a crooked twig or a small snake. Bundled in felt boots and sheepskin coats, we lay on the ice for hours, attempting to pierce a tunnel to one of the frozen life forms with the warmth of an index finger, trying to coax it back to life. It never worked—these animals slept too deeply. But sometimes we succeeded in freeing a few breaths from these frozen souls, breaths that lingered, white air bubbles trapped in the deep ice.
Warmly bundled, we stamped around like cosmonauts in the snow, which often reached up to the rimed-over windows. Inside, fire whispered and we drew rockets, from whose tiny openings our brave fathers waved. In real life they flew MIGs along the Soviet-Japanese border, and then, stumbled around the billiard table at the Club, in boots, slightly drunk. Our mothers, in curlers, busied themselves singing around petroleum stoves in the communal kitchen. And all of us longed for our West, which began just on the other side of the Urals.
Time went in circles, and we dreamed only the best things about the arcs to come.
“I want to be a Brezhnev!” said I, the five-year-old.
“We already have one, and he’s forever!” my young parents laughed.
“Then I’ll be a cleaning lady, I’ll find a piece of candy or a diamond in some corner. ”
With Seven-League Boots I have exceeded my dreams and the dreams of my mother. I have crossed many a border and ditch, celebrated a revolution, worn out my cashmere coat, consumed a thousand avocados and tasted dozens of kinds of sausage—and now I stop and look around me.
Nothing remains of yesterday’s snow. Black branches of trees, like charcoal, beyond the window. The tile floor in the bathroom is cold. The light switch zaps the bulb; startled by the small explosion I stumble around in the dark and come up against a gentle breath of that morning where the water faucets bear Iron Crosses and the wounded enamel sink bowls let their rusty tears flow. The green walls there, covered with oily bulges and bubbles, resemble the armor of a reptile. One’s feet are cold; the worn wood flooring of the terrace is velvety and warm, like the skin of a hoofed animal. The sun is dazzling.
Duty officer frozen in place, you throw your hand on the pony. You hear: “The Pioneer Group ‘Richard Sorge’ is ready for the morning call! Our slogan is: ‘fight, seek, find, remain steadfast!’”
There, one wants life to pass as quickly as possible. And here, in the fogged morning mirror, you are suddenly a crumpled old maid with grooves on your shoulders, pressed into your skin by hundreds of bras.
I live in Prenzlauer Berg, my neighbors are progressive and successful citizens. Sharing the morning tram with them is pure joy—the drops of their morning showers shining on their hair, their breaths fresh, their thick newspapers printed in muted colors. Mornings, they eat Müsli cereal, pack slices of fruit into plastic boxes, and then on supple leather soles hasten to their well-groomed customers, their slim servile computers, their smart espresso machines and corpulent water coolers. They know how to do things right. I gladly mingle with these smart people, allowing myself a “Wolfskin” outfit, a cup to go, and a friendly, matter-of-fact smile. In my chosen skin I feel as good as if it were my own. Only my shadow betrays my original contours.
We look ahead anxiously at those holding up the checkout line: three dust-covered men from the construction site next door, each having laid a crooked sausage, a roll, and a bottle of beer on the moving belt of the checkout counter. As payment they hand over a new five-hundred euro bill, the cashier swivels in her chair and summons help. The manager comes.
“Don’t you have anything smaller?” the manager asks loudly.
The strangers confer among themselves in my language. A large lettuce head, some tofu, buttermilk, tangerines—beside my colorful basket their lonely crooked sausages look obscene on the moving counter. The men’s dust-covered hair looks dead, like statues do. Their eyes though, are quick and shy, like schools of small fish. Their hands are raw and brown, their faces too.
But I know that the skin under their clothes is pale, because where they come from, one doesn’t vacation by the sea. They grew up on the edge of Europe, like wild grass, without lawnmowers, without fertilizer. They were the ones who made off with the Berliners’ bicycles in May 1945—which they quickly wrecked, because where we come from it’s a luxury to own a bicycle. I know that because these men were once my playmates. They roasted birds’ eggs in the campfire and cleared out our treasure troves. Do they know it?
We girls dug a small hole in the ground and filled it with candy wrappers and colorful rags, and decorated it with glass beads, buttons, dyed feathers. They had to be arranged nicely, something like the flakes of a kaleidoscope. Then the hole was covered with a piece of glass like a watch face, and on top we piled dirt and leaves.
We also placed in our treasure troves the tiny naked nestlings that fell from the trees at the beginning of summer. I decorated my first corpse with a devotion that resembled our Scythian ancestors’. The next day I pushed the dirt from the glass and looked inside. The hole glimmered with pearls and gold, and the little bird in the middle was blanketed by hungry ants. This living skin swarmed, and it looked as if the nestling was still breathing. That’s how I think of death.
In the place where I grew up there were, as in paradise, no stores and no banks. To get the money to pay monthly wages, a helicopter flew to a larger settlement. A lot of people wanted to go along to do errands, and the seats were apportioned by lot. I was ten when eight passengers and a pilot, my father, were killed in a crash. The helicopter was flying along the craggy coast and crashed into a cliff. The place where it happened was said to have been covered with cash, and a brand new well-sprung baby carriage rolled down the mountain like in that famous film. The dead were quickly buried by the cliff. The steep slope was overgrown with wild rose-hip, whose fruits were gigantic and whose sweet flesh one could nibble, like an apple’s. One couldn’t just bite through to the hairy seeds—the small hairs worked through clothing and one couldn’t get rid of the itching for a long time.
Soon after, we moved in with Grandma in a Caucasian town. It was autumn, large, freshly fallen walnuts lay in the wild grass under the trees. It was a southern, showy town. Flower beds with precise and ornate patterns, like those in Persian carpets; pink-beige-white Stalinist palaces with fountains; Lombardy poplars and ubiquitous busts of bearded thinkers—it looked like an ancient town. Above all the circular market, which resembled a coliseum. From the niches of its pink walls white statues offered us their thick sheaves of wheat and clumps of grapes.
An old woman in black would sit by the magnificent entrance gate, beside her a bucket of roasted black sunflower seeds. For five kopeks she’d shake the rustling seeds into a shot glass and pour them into a newspaper cone. The woman had just one tooth but chewed constantly, and a beard of damp hulls trembled around her sunken mouth.
In the center of town one could also eat ice cream. It was six stations in the tram. I’d go hand in hand with my dolled-up mother. Her hair was kept off her forehead by a broad band, and fell in sharp points along her cheeks. Her dress was simple and elegant, like an umbrella sheath. She occasionally lifted a foot backwards, like a shod horse, and looked to see whether her high, thin, shot-glass heels were still in one piece. She didn’t used to wear such shoes, because father wasn’t tall enough for her.
The excursions to the heavenly fountains were always something special, since we lived at the edge of town, not far from the meat combine, in a big, U-shaped court whose sides were formed by long, low houses. Built right after the last war as spartan rental barracks, in time they ran rampant with outside terraces, second stories, and glassed-in balconies, resembling a termite colony. Everyday life, in the Caucasus, the typical chaos, took place in the shade of the gigantic walnut tree; in the summer, the life behind the windows appeared to be black as ink.
Everything in the vicinity revolved around sausage. The workers decked their bodies with them and sold them outside. Grandma was also in the business and had her own sausage carrier, Lydia. This young woman had a thick golden braid and huge breasts, below them she could pack a lot of meat. Her booty dangled on the hanging scale from blunt, blood-rusted hooks, and all of us stared at the small red tongue until it froze on the scale. The sausages trembled in grandma’s hands, Lydia stuffed the money in her bra and painted her lips red for her gaunt boyfriend, who was waiting outside on the corner.
The tram, yellow and heavy as a juicy armored caterpillar, rolled to Alexanderplatz. The sky was blue, the square gray, wind was roaring through the concrete blocks. “In the closet, you idiot, in the closet!” a woman with a thick gold braid was shouting into the cell phone she pressed to her ear with her shoulder, because both hands were sticking in the narrow opening of the orange garbage bin.
The peddler of Soviet military caps yawns, his teeth resembling the ruins of the Parthenon. His neighbor with the vendor’s tray yawns—the market is just as saturated with Indian jewelry. “Whatever has eyes, don’t eat it!” chant girls in green T-shirts.
And at the urine-scented gates of the train station, the sausage peddlers spread out their aromatic nets. Then a meticulous man comes swanning out of the station, he’s one of those well-combed men with a predilection for elephant-hide colors. As he bites into his impertinently long sausage he glances around furtively, like a visitor at the door of a cheap sex shop.
I was concerned about her love, because Lydia smelled so strongly of blood and cervelat. Of course the whole area did, even in the Library. Mostly there were two of us there, the librarian and I. Leaning against the table, she’d twist a strand of hair around her index finger and read. Occasionally she clicked a shoe, which hung from the toe of her crossed leg, against her heel. And I busied myself with my essay for the Literary Olympiad on the subject of “My Town in the Year 2000.”
I wrote how children from Mars would visit us in the framework of an interplanetary pupil exchange, and how they’d be surprised at our tall and transparent houses, at the lack of hunger and poverty, and at the fact that we measure time by the scents of flowers; at twelve it smells of lilies, at one—of roses.
The parquet floors melted like honey in the midday sun, it was quiet. Only when the occasional bellowing of the slaughter animals penetrated the Library did we exchange fleeting glances and bend lower over the table.
I left the town without regret. At that time I didn’t know that one day I would long for our walnut tree. And Grandma and mother seemed to me to be there for always.
When I got to Leningrad, the city was sinking into chaos. The telephone booths were broken, porous hollows grew in bread loaves, toilet paper wouldn’t tear where it was supposed to, matches were on strike. Overnight, money became nimble and undependable.
Hoarding adults cleaned out the grocery shelves, and the young people strolled through the white nights; the city of gold and glitter had been seized by decadence. From the ruined walls of the imperium the nails and fragments fell, and hurt our feet. Laughing, we ran away.
When we graduated, my lover and I traveled and tented along the the Black Sea coast, and brought a small baby palm and a tiny puppy into our room in Petersburg. We stuffed the palm into a cropped plastic bottle; soon, it came to grief in its provisional home. Flaumi, the puppy, didn’t get to grow up either; the same summer he died of distemper. The room was full, the music loud, Flaumi vomited yellow foam and the guests at the party laughed, thinking he had licked too much frosting off the cakes. He died the next morning. We buried him secretly in the cemetery with the crippled angels, and slowly returned home, with swollen lips, stumbling, hand in hand. At home, in the room that stank of the stale party, we made love, weeping. And we looked at everything that lay around us and behold, it was very good: the decomposing cigarette butts in the beer bottles, opened cans yawning with traces of fishy oil, and even the rags in the corner soaked in the liquids of death.
It’s summer. A closed metal blind now covers the window opposite mine, behind it, a young couple lives. I unpack a dusty moving carton. There lies my limp Pioneer neckerchief. A music box with a one-legged ballerina, who turns when the music plays. With effort I recognize my face among the rows of uniformed, well-combed pupils and among my relatives sitting squeezed together around richly bedecked tables. Among the photos lies the Certificate from the Literary School Olympiad and the diploma from Leningrad University. Bearer of the Order of the Red Flag of Labor, or the Order of Friendship among Peoples, of Solidarity, Brotherhood, Freedom, Equality, Hope, the Glowing Future of Mankind, and other sorts of discarded wraiths.
The military base has long since been dismantled, and the place of my childhood has become a ruin overgrown with moss and ivy. And somewhere there, in the tangled roots, all my treasure troves with the tiny skeletons, glass beads, and bright feathers, are glinting. I don’t want to go back.
I always wanted to go to a big city and live in a tall, transparent house where the flower beds smell of roses.
Beneath my balcony stands a woman in green overalls, a humming machine in her hand. In the villages one de-bristles freshly slaughtered hogs with those kinds of machines. The woman compresses her lips, the flame flares and makes a grab for the green stems, growing unwanted from the cracks in the sidewalk. Charred and black, the stems of wild grass keep their contours for a while, until the ever-circling tornado of fire grinds them to black dust and blows away.