The Unknown Soldier
‘A woman is not a cat; she shouldn’t have more than one child’, I heard my mother say on more than one occasion growing up. I was supposed to have been a wanted child and could not make sense of the aplomb with which she would repeat that maxim. It took years before its sudden, baffling conclusiveness came home to me as wounded pride. Until then the submerged grounds of her meaning troubled me obscurely every time she announced one of her absolutes:
‘Don’t ask questions; if people feel like telling you something, they will.’
‘Don’t talk about yourself unless you’re asked a question.’
The two contradictory injunctions locked in my mind into a koan, a principle of silence, incoherent yet impossible to analyze away. She applied it to herself first, and although she loved to tell stories, they were always oblique in their meaning, circumscribed, and never altered in any way though she would often return to the same episode time and again. She had come to Moscow as a student, leaving back in the Caucasus her family: her mother, her maternal grandmother Sonia, and Sonia’s husband Procophy, whom everybody in the family, including Sonia, called Grandpa. Procophy had met Sonia after the war and the occupation that she had weathered as a widowed mother with two children. After marrying Sonia, he would sometimes travel to Moscow for extra work: he was an electrician and could make good money in a few months of contract work on the Metro, Moscow’s spectacular subway system, which was then being reconstructed and expanded. Among the stories that my mother liked to retell was a vignette of one such trip. By way of preface, for provincials, a visit to Moscow was always the time to stock up in the capital’s stores on anything that might be lacking at home. This would have meant everything if not for Moscow prices that forced one to prioritize and think ahead. Before leaving, Procophy asked Sonia and Lyda (my would-be maternal grandmother) about their wishes. Osenniye tufli, Sonia suggested tentatively. A pair of shoes for the fall. Siniye tufli? he repeated. Blue shoes? He thought he had misheard, and he had. No one in the Soviet Union, it seemed, had yet seen a pair of blue shoes. Sonia only laughed at this fantastic idea. Procophy was away for a month. He returned with a present: a pair of indigo patent-leather shoes, the only such pair in town, possibly in the whole country.
My mother, Lucy, was a provincial girl and in some ways always remained one. She idealized her grandparents and life at home, and at the same time longed to break out of the ordinary mold she felt that life impose on her. She picked a field of study that mostly attracted men (and still does). After a year at a local college, she took entrance exams at Moscow’s elite Institute of Physics and Mathematics. The few women at the institute had their choice of boyfriends. She grew interested in an intensely intellectual, quite handsome but remote man a year her junior. Like her, my father had come from the periphery. His parents advised against the match, seeing in my mother nothing more than a provincial bride who could only compound the housing difficulties their son would face in the overcrowded capital. Lucy protested: the relationship, she told him, was an established fact, not a decision yet to be considered or contested. He called his mother and announced his decision: ‘If I don’t marry, I’ll be a bastard.’
Soon after the wedding, she decided to have a child, and soon after that, she miscarried. In her second pregnancy, she was made to spend the entire final trimester on bed rest. When two weeks past due and without signs of labor, she was induced in a hurry and wheeled on a gurney into a room where three other women were laboring unattended: it was past five o’clock, and the medical personnel was going home for the night. She never forgot the woman on the cot next to hers, who had begun to push and soiled the bed sheets. A cleaning woman stripped down the bedding, hissing: ‘If you shit on the linens, you can push your brat right onto the rubber!’ Thirty-three years later, Lucy quoted those words to me verbatim. The story of my birth was something I had to ask her about. It was by nature more stark than the cozy, humorous apocrypha she enjoyed retelling, and the exactitude of her sudden recollection was more vivid and raw than anything I ever heard her say.
When the night gave way to morning, an obstetrician making his rounds noticed that my heartbeat had ceased. An episiotomy was performed quickly, without a warning or anesthesia. I was extracted and taken away. Lucy was conveyed to a recovery room shared by six women with babies in the nursery. The babies were shown to their mothers once daily. To feed the infants, women were expected to express their milk into enameled mugs distributed by the staff. The nurses pooled the milk and bottle-fed the babies in the nursery. For the first three days of my life, my mother was not allowed to see me on the grounds that I was being ‘monitored’. When she finally protested, someone brought in a small object swaddled in hospital flannel. She loosened the cocoon and the baby’s hands shot up into the air. ‘A normal startling reflex’, said the nurse. ‘Is it also normal that her hands are trembling?’ my mother asked, and got no answer.
Back from the hospital, she felt caught between the hard-to-understand needs of a baby and the disturbing strangeness of her own postpartum body. She feared that the wreckage of childbirth might be irreversible. The terror and the pain were not what she had agreed to or prepared for. I cried and she cried. When I finally fell down from a desk where she’d arranged me for a nap, Lucy suspended her pride and booked herself and me a flight to the Caucasus. To acknowledge the help she needed so badly, she named me after her grandmother, babushka Sonia, and I became Sophrosynia.
Tick-tock, tick-tock: unequal filigree hands move over the clock-face. A cockscomb floats in my soup plate. Sunlight falls to the bottom of the plate and lights up the broth. I swizzle a dessert spoon in the soup, breaking up drops of liquid fat. I eat by taking the whole spoon into my mouth, and for that reason I only recently graduated from a teaspoon. The kitchen faces east, and by late morning the food-storage box outside our window becomes a sun deck for stray cats. When no one is around, I sneak up to an old, tiger-striped cat I like the best and grasp her tail. The cat leaps off the food box with a thud of paws on the wood.
Babushka Sonia is in the kitchen with me. A goat’s-wool shawl is wrapped around her waist over a patterned flannel housecoat. From my seat at the table, I watch her pause before the gas stove, looking into the blue flame. I ask her why she is sad, but she replies only that Lyda had been coarse with her. I stir my soup, trying to think of something helpful to say. I’ve just read an Indian folk tale where villains are punished satisfyingly in the end, and I venture: ‘She deserves to be buried alive.’ To my surprise, Sonia bursts into a soft, full-hearted laughter.
I am supposed to live in Moscow with my parents, but in reality I have spent the greater part of my life here, in the Caucasus, visiting my great-grandparents and my grandmother Lyda. I call my great-grandparents babushka Sonia and dedushka Procophy, as if having assumed my mother’s place as the child in the family. My maternal grandmother is, in my mind, simply Lyda. I arrived two months ago, early in March, when a warm cyclone swept in from Turkey, or maybe even Africa, melted the icicles on our cornices, and the lilac shrub outside burst into green leaf. ‘Poor lilac’, Sonia would shake her head with concern whenever she looked at the bush.
I never got used to the kindergarten’s institutional regime and to the long, five-day-and-four-night stays it required. Still, what I remember most vividly, even now, about the Moscow winters of my childhood is the deep-indigo darkness on those mornings when my mother had to wake me up long before sunrise and bundle me in a shearling coat, a balaclava, a pair of goats-wool mittens, and felt boots with rubber galoshes for our weekly journey to the kindergarten where she was finally given a spot after much trouble. The street outside the sleeping row-house where we inhabit a communal flat is deep with unploughed blue snow and lined with heavy snowbanks. My mother sets me down on a wooden sled and harnesses herself into the rope. Her dim figure moves briskly several feet ahead of me, wrapped in a fashionable Afghan shearling and topped with a fox-fur hat. From my sled, I watch snow crystals ignite under the streetlights in great constellations; each moment’s burst of adamantine light dies away, replaced by new bursts of blue, gold, and diamond-white light. We move across the park full of old, black firs casting blue shadows. The bus stop we come to is graced by forged-metal garbage urns designed to look like penguins. Their red beaks are stuffed full with cigarette butts.
That February I came down with bronchitis and spent the whole week that my mother was home with me describing to her how much I wanted to quit the kindergarten. She gave in and returned to work next week having left me at home by myself, locked in our room in the communal apartment. This situation troubled her. In the spring I was sent to the Caucasus, much earlier than usual. My mother could not take the time off to fly with me, and I was sent with a chaperone—a sympathetic woman traveling on the same flight, whom Lucy bribed to keep me company on the plane and to deliver me to Lyda at the Ordzhonikidze airport. I did not say a word to the woman on the plane, looking straight ahead of me in my seat until she gave up her attempts to cheer me up. When Lyda and I finally arrived in the familiar courtyard, neighbors gathered around, each of them wanting to give me a pat. ‘Our little Moscow doll is back’, said the gentle, elderly Osetin woman from the second floor. Everywhere I went with Lyda, people were kind to me just because I was a child. Even strangers in the street sometimes joked with Lyda about the serious-looking child in pants and suspenders: ‘What a handsome boy, a real jighit!’ I enjoyed being called a jighit—a Caucasian daredevil—but luckily I was no such thing. When playing outside the store where Sonia was standing in a long line, I was approached by a man. Come with us, he said, we’re people, too. He gestured towards a second man who stood some ten feet away from him. I sensed some stone-dead wave, originating in those two men, hit me—and I ran inside, back to where Sonia, warm, soft, and alive, stood in line.
When spring arrives, I spend my days outside, like all the other neighborhood children, Russian, Ingush and Osetin: we band up in the yard formed by several two-story apartment buildings and shaded by old acacia trees. Most of the time, we play war: the Russian children get to be Russian, leaving it to the Osetin and the Ingush to play the Germans. We ride bicycles, climb trees, trap mice, and forage: we play with what we have. Once we found a tiny kitten in the grass. The kitten was a newborn and its eyes were still sealed; a dark leathery afterbirth dangled from its belly by a shriveled black cord. The kitten was covered with smoky-grey fur, not so different from a mouse’s coat, and meowed almost inaudibly, opening wide its little maw and spreading its digits with outsize, fully-formed claws. We squatted around it in a circle, trying to decide what to do with it. It was then that Adam came up to our group. I had never seen Adam at close range. He lived at the end of the street and was known on our street as a deranged drunk. He never spoke to anyone, and his sporadic appearances in the daylight gave the block a haunted feeling. Now he was walking fast towards our hushed little circle swinging his long arms. Instinctively, the children moved to make room for the gaunt, disheveled man with a red face. Adam’s eyes were bloodshot but in a sudden ray of sun his irises flashed a clear, fierce shade of blue. He squatted over the kitten, picked it up carefully, and then yanked at the placenta, breaking off the cord. ‘He will die!’ one of the little boys gasped. ‘He won’t!’ Adam roared, glaring. We squatted with our heads pulled into our shoulders as Adam turned away and began walking with his cupped palms close to his face.
The days grow hot and muggy. When I return to the apartment at night, my sandaled feet are covered with grey dust. I’ve discovered that washing them with soap under ice-cold water in the kitchen sink is a most enjoyable way to get ready for bed.
I have a bright-orange velvet elephant draped with a fringed blanket. His black eyes, attached with nothing better than glue, fell off one by one. This upset me, and I pointed it out to Procophy, who was then sitting near me in his tool shed. He shook his head sympathetically: ‘The elephant has gone blind.’ Since my first visit to the Caucasus, Procophy and I have spent countless days together. At seventy-three, he appears to me very strong. I am used to seeing him do things in the yard wearing a faded indigo work jacket and a checked cap to protect his head from the sun. His posture is upright, his movements deliberate, measured, and sure: when they aren’t, as the time when Procophy threw a hoe after a rat and instead chopped down Sonia’s‘lady’s heart’, the memory bears the mark of an aberration.
Procophy becomes pensive when he sits down to tend to his instruments. I often see him sharpen his scythe. Haymaking is one of the things we do together. For our walks to the meadow, he has fashioned a cart that he can pull behind him by a handle wrapped several times in blue insulation tape. I ride this cart—whose wheels must have come from my old pram—like a chariot. Procophy always hones the scythe beforehand, keeping me at a distance as he strokes a hand block over the length of the blade. When he pauses to wipe his brow, he sighs and says distinctly in the sudden quiet: ‘My greatest friend, that’s what you are, Sophrosynia Vladimirovna. You and I—we’re like fish and water.’ When ready, he sets me atop of the hand-cart, by a coil of rope and a sickle, and looks over the whole arrangement. Assured that I’m not about to topple, he takes the handle. ‘You are my joy, and I am your toy’, he says, and pulls on the cart.
The railway to Beslan is flanked by mulberry trees and wild meadows where the grass is tall enough for me to get lost in. Procophy mows with the scythe and heaps the freshly cut grass on the cart. At home, he pitches it to the sunny roof over a shed that touches a plum-tree’s crown. I climb up a ladder to the roof to collect the plums whose waxy, pigeon-gray cast smudges at the barest touch of a finger. My first visit in the Caucasus lasted until I turned three. My mother could only stay for the first five months: at the end of her maternity leave she returned to Moscow. She remembered Procophy’s unexpected assertiveness about the way a baby should be cared for: ‘The baby is crying: you need to nurse her.’ ‘I nursed only just now.’ ‘Do it anyway. There’s no better consolation for a baby.’ Procophy would reminisce about our early days with the simplicity of a former soldier: ‘You would shit yourself, and I would wash you up.’ ‘My bluebell, my crystal doll’, he would add gently, nodding his head.
What did I know about Procophy? Everything there was to know—in the sense that his whole being was expressing itself continuously in the things he did, things that I was a part of—and also very little. He had been in the war but ignored my questions about it. The story of Procophy’s life is vague and approximate in my mind. He had come back from the war carrying a man on his shoulders. The two friends had escaped together from a German prisoner-of-war camp where they had met. Of the two of them, only Procophy could walk, climb, and run, and those things he did, with his friend, a wounded young soldier named Fyodor, on his shoulders. Upon reaching the Eastern Front they decided to go together to Fyodor’s hometown, Ordzhonikidze, formerly the Cossack fort Vladikavkaz. Upon their arrival Fyodor was hospitalized and Procophy decided to stay until he got better. He had no job and no connections in town, but what life he had left behind in his own hometown, Red Sulin, did not endure the war to reclaim him. Procophy flirted with nurses in the hospital park: successfully, as a married nurse became pregnant with his son, who later grew up to be a petty criminal and once nearly strangled Procophy while extorting money from him. In the same park, Procophy met Sonia. Fyodor came out of the hospital and arranged for Procophy to make some money as an electrician. Procophy took that offer, and later took others. Some time later, he bought an orchard on the outskirts of town and set up a few beehives. The ‘good soldier Svejk’, as he liked to call himself, was setting up a peacetime life.
Procophy collected books on war history and chess. It was he who had first taught me to play. He had an unusual plastic chess set with a board checked black and pink and with large, legible figures. Once when I grew frustrated over losing, Procophy pointed out: ‘If I were to lose on purpose it would mean that I did not respect you. Now why don’t you try to get your revanche.’
Late in the summer when Procophy fell ill, someone thought of asking our neighbor, a retired schoolteacher, to show me the proper way to write by hand. I was just a year away from starting first grade and had been trying to write in block letters for some time. I remember going to her apartment, next door to our own on the first floor of the two-story prewar building. Lyudmila offered little to the imagination: she was a squat woman in her sixties who wore a kerchief tied at the back of her head in the manner of a kolkhoz worker. Once before she had me open up my palms as she placed in them a tiny newborn rabbit from her hutch. When I asked about it the next day, she told me that the rabbit had died. ‘You must have gripped it too hard’, she admonished me, with a hint of satisfaction.
I remember little of our lessons except the flame-red exercise book whose every line began with sample cursive letterforms to be copied. Lyudmila sat beside me by the table covered with a claret tablecloth. I could feel the cool caress of its frayed silk fringe when I hid my hands under the table. Lyudmila directed me to place my left hand over the book to keep it in place. Squeezing the ballpoint pen, I would letter a couple of pages before she sent me off with a homework assignment. Once I brought back to her an exercise lettered in a hand imitating my great-grandmother’s: the descending loops of her ys and zs were dimpled at the bottom, like two-lobed gingko leaves. Lyudmila peered at my writing and bid me to redo the exercises, without the flourishes. Another time I showed to her the hard, round writing callus that had grown on my middle finger after the first lessons. She tried to teach me a different way of holding the pen, but it felt wrong, and the callus stayed.
I would do my homework in the shady Big Room, at a table covered with the same kind of fringed velvet cloth, lit by a lamp under an apricot-colored shade. At dusk, neighbors would gather around the stoop just outside the open window. Screened in from view by an old lilac shrub and mosquito netting, I only paid attention when their voices fell to a careful murmur. ‘Does he still get up?’ ‘No, not anymore. I keep a bucket in his room. If he has to go, I help him get across from the bed. He doesn’t empty his bowel but he won’t urinate into a bottle.’ ‘It will not be long now’, someone said and added with a sigh, ‘What a pity’. Large drops of a sudden evening rain hit the pavement; the odor of dust rose in the warm air, mixing with the fragrance of the yellow acacia. The rain picked up and the courtyard became empty. The noise of a downpour swallowed the world beyond the circle of lamplight.
When Procophy became confined to the Little Room, I stopped seeing him almost completely. Other adults in the house did not seem to think anything of it. From breakfast to lunch and from lunch to dinner, I was usually outside, in our own garden or in the shady big yard of the next house over.
He must have sent for me. I came in and sat by his side on the iron bed, feeling a little uneasy. Only once before did I come to his room, summoned by Sonia, to find him supine on his bed. That time, it was about an apology. We were at the tool shed when Procophy opened a bottle of beer and poured himself a mug, as he would sometimes do on hot afternoons. Covered with fine condensation, the mug with dark beer looked appealing. I asked to try the beer, and Procophy handed me the mug. I took a small sip; it was bitter. ‘But Papa says that only fools drink beer’, I mused aloud. ‘Really?’ Procophy inquired. ‘Only fools?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And do you think so, too?’ I sensed that something unusual was brewing but replied, ‘Yes.’ ‘Does that mean that I am also a fool?’ All venues of retreat cut off, I lunged: ‘Yes.’ The conversation was over. Procophy withdrew to the Little Room and lay there in the half-shade of the late afternoon, just as I saw him now. But now he complained of a dull ache in his heart: ‘Will you stroke me a bit, right here,’ he asked me, gesturing to a place above his breastbone. ‘It might be harmful to do that,’ I ventured evasively, and added: ‘You are not going to die, Grampa. You’ll get better, you’ll see.’
At lunchtime the next day, I found the door between the kitchen and Procophy’s room ajar; strange voices and the sounds of splashing and trickling water escaped from the room. I glimpsed the floor strewn with wet newspaper, the edge of an enameled basin, and on the floor a bare, white body being turned by a pair of hands whose owner could not be seen. The newspaper swished against the bare floor, and I saw Procophy’s profile, the back of his round head with closely cropped gray hair, and a flash of his broad upper back and his shoulders. There was a dull thud. ‘Close the door’, someone said from the far end of the room, and the door was pulled in shut from the other side.
I walked down the corridor to the Big Room. My mother stood before the chiffonier looking for some linens. I came closer and stood in a cloud of lavender aroma exhaled by the open chiffonier. ‘Do you know what has happened?’ she asked. I shook my head, looking up from just above her waistline. ‘Grandpa has died’, she said neutrally. I held my breath. My eyes welled up just enough for two minuscule tears to roll, slowly, halfway down my cheeks. She took a stack of folded linens from the shelf, closed the chiffonier carefully, and left the room. I stood still for a few moments, then walked in a half-circle past the crystal cabinet and the triptych of the mirror. There, my reflection split and multiplied, receding down the illusory halls in the corners of the trifold. I thought that I was supposed to feel grief but instead felt nothing at all.
I have looked forward to my mother’s arrival, counting days on the kitchen page-a-day calendar whenever I sat down for a meal. She arrives on a warm August day, looking energized and fashionable. She took a taxi from the airport; it’s already gone. She walks in, light on her feet, excited, admirably adult in my eyes but also much younger than Sonia and Lyda, the adult women in my life. Instead of the flurry of greetings that certainly took place first, I remember the scene that followed less than an hour later: my mother slumped in tears at the kitchen table and Lyda whispering, through clenched jaws, as to contain the enormous pressure of her anger: ‘What were you thinking? Irresponsible! Mindless! Fool!’ In her excitement, Lucy had forgotten to get one of her bags from the taxi’s trunk. To be precise, it was the bag packed tightly with frozen meat that she had been asked to bring with her from Moscow. Beef was scarce in the Caucasus, and Lyda had asked her to bring as much as she could for the anticipated wake. The rest of that day and the day that follows are spent tracking down the taxi that drove off with the frozen meat. Finally, the driver’s house is found, but his wife and mother-in-law tell my mother and Lyda from the doorway that the meat is ‘gone’. However fantastic that sounds, there’s nothing to be done, and we return home empty-handed on a hot and crowded tram that rolls unhurriedly from the center of town to the outskirts. The adults, finally reconciled somehow by the fiasco, agree that it would be nice for all of us to have a bath. Towards the end of the afternoon, we stroll down the street to the banya.
The one-story cement bathhouse with squat columns framing a central door stood at the end of our street. It had a foyer with a ticket window and two doors. Above one of the doors, there was the sign: WOMEN. In the next room, rows of benches for undressing with overhead storage cabinets stood from wall to wall. The windowpanes were painted white. There was a smell of soap and fungus. We undressed completely and entered the next room, where women of all ages stood by long cement tables washing themselves over tin basins. Stacks of free basins were piled up high in the corner of the room, by an open door that revealed nothing but an even denser veil of steam. Intercepting Lucy’s sideways glance, I looked towards the steam-room and saw, in the flat light of a painted window, the glistening apparition: a woman with a large, white pregnant belly, moving slowly amid the clouds of steam.
The moment after a pair of forceps gripped me and drew me out of the birth canal, I was whisked off to re-animation, presumably to yoke my soul back to my limp infant body from which it had become detached in the course of the long night. I can only guess whether this was the first expression of an innate reluctance to occupy space in the real world, as against an experience that turned me once and for all into an ambivalent, hard-to-please tenant. I could never stand up to bullies, probably because some amount of sound conviction is necessary to defend one’s space. I lack that conviction. There is no fight-or-flight dilemma for me: as I type these words, what my fingers put on the screen is actually ‘flight-or-flight’, and my second-guessing eyenearly passes over this betrayal. Icatch it, correct it, and then undo the correction, letting stay this absurd expression of a paralyzing dilemma. When I stay, it is not to stand my ground but because flight itself is precluded by some peril, as on a muggy afternoon when, in hindsight, danger was not at all real. Our chickens were scratching placidly and bathing in the dust when some guests of our neighbors’ suddenly pulled into the long driveway. A swarthy, middle-aged Armenian man stepped out of a car. He noticed me behind our garden’s plank fence and came closer. ‘Why don’t you catch me one of your chickens? How about that red one?’ He pointed to a hen lying on her side in a dirt bath, wings splayed out the better to soak up the sun and the dust. My terror found instantly its three-branch form: If I don’t give him the chicken, he’ll kill me; if I give him the chicken, Lyda will kill me; if I call for help, he’ll kill me before Lyda comes. I stood dumb with terror until, unexpectedly to me, the man turned away and went into the house.
We’d wash ourselves and take a final rinse in the only shower in the corner of the room where I would also shampoo my hair. It was hard to comb afterwards, when still wet, and long strands of hair would hang around my face dripping like icicles. It was after one of these baths that Lyda once took me to the building where she moonlighted as a boiler-room technician. Though retired, she couldn’t help taking on ever new odd jobs. In the back yard, a sandbox stood under an acacia tree. The building was a workers’ dormitory. The back yard opened up to the back of a tram depot. Spare tracks spread over an acre of dirt covered with an abundance of flowering weeds. A mulberry tree leaned over the branching tracks, the ground beneath the tree splattered with purple ink-stains. A boy my own age came from behind that tree with a brick in his hands. He looked me over before coming closer and, raising the brick over my head, my hair still dripping with water, said slowly: ‘You are the ugliest thing ever! I’m going to kill you!’ I stood still, not saying a word when Lyda came out of her basement office, saw the boy poised with a brick over my head, and bellowed something that got the boy to toss his brick to the side and run, run all the way across the yard.
In the three days between Procophy’s death and his burial, no one needed me. Sonia, Lyda, my mother, and everyone who came to our house were consumed by preparations for the funeral and wake. ‘He only wanted a plaque’, I remember someone saying. ‘He said a gravestone would weigh on him.’ ‘Tough’, Lyda replied, for she was ordering a gravestone of polished concrete with ‘marble crumbles’: cheaper than solid marble or granite, yet still respectable.Death was too much of a mystery for me to take in at once, but its various refractions in facets of custom and ritual absorbed my imagination completely. All the mirrors, even the mirrored crystal cabinet, had been draped with starched bed sheets. White chrysanthemums stood by the window in vases, in sixes and dozens. A still life of bread on a plate and a glass of water was set on top of a folded drop-leaf table. Day by day, I could see water evaporating from the glass. The loaf of gray bread was touched by blue mold within a day; in two more days that velveteen growth spread over the whole loaf. Only Sonia would explain to me the significance of these strange alterations to the apartment, but I remember nothing of what she said because her words, registered but briefly on the surface of my consciousness, sank right down into the depths of my being. I roamed in and out of the house the way Procophy’s soul, I was told, would do for three days before the burial.
Washed and dressed in a black suit and his best tie, Procophy’s body was laid out on starched sheets spread over a sofa. His cheeks had been shaved, his close-cropped hair brushed, his hands folded over his heart and tied with a kerchief to train the body into proper repose. The weather was hot, and Sonia sprinkled coffee beans around the body, to cover up the sweet, cloying odor that now wafted through the room, mixing with the humid vapors of flower vases. Death was a disappearance and a discontinuity: the body that used to be Procophy ceased to be him and became just a body. No one could explain to me the difference between Procophy’s body, the body that was now lying on the sofa, and Procophy himself, Procophy who had nearly snatched a sparrow from a tree to save us the trip to a pet shop on my birthday. I was instead told, for the first time in my life, about the soul and that it would linger in the world for three, nine, and forty days after death, distancing itself gradually from its past life. My confusion would not resolve in sorrow. Intrigued by the strangeness of death, I asked Sonia: ‘Babushka, are you now a widow?’ ‘Yes’, she nodded, with only a slight downward twitch in one corner of her mouth.
It had begun, after all, with her. Procophy was working outside as usual when his visiting nurse came to check on him—this was part of the preventive care practiced at the time. Sonia, whose voice was naturally soft, tried to shout to him from the window. ‘Father!’ Her voice broke off to a high-pitched squeal. What he heard was a shrill cry that could only have been a cry for help, a cry of something terrible happening to Sonia. The look on his face when he rushed in made the women chuckle guiltily. Just as the young nurse said hello, Procophy grasped at his chest.
Sonia’s first husband, a Red commander and my great-grandfather by blood, had died before the invasion. During the war, Sonia lived for her children and for her brother’s letters from the front. Each day in the spring of 1945, his return grew nearer and more and more certain—until he was shot, on V-Day, near the Reichstag. A photograph of Alexey with a great pompadour of blond, naturally wavy hair was pinned against a deep-blue rug on the wall above babushka’s bed. When she lay down for an afternoon rest, I would straddle her waist and bounce on top of her. ‘Careful’, she moans, ‘you’ll squash my liver’. ‘Gramma, do you know if there’s a god?’ ‘I do not know’, she says carefully, softly. ‘But I know! There isn’t any god at all.’ Bounce, bounce.
Because Procophy’s body lays in the Big Room, I now sleep on Sonia’s bed in the Little Room. Mom sleeps next to me. Half-awake from a bad dream, I murmur to her: ‘I wish I could just disappear somewhere inside of you.’ Her breath laughs as she strokes my back with her fingertips and I sink back into sleep. Sonia lays on Procophy’s bed. Lyda has to sleep in the Big Room, sharing it with Procophy’s body. That may be why she is the first person I ever heard using the word ‘corpse’. When I wake up in the morning in this small lemon-yellow room, several pillars of sunlight lean against the window. Apricot-tree branches waver and cast moving shadows on the mosquito netting. No one else is there, the adults have long been up. Warm on the feather mattress, with a huge pillow at my back, I listen to their voices behind the closed door as I watch the dust turning slowly in the sunlit air. They are talking about me, about where to send me to school, and I hear the words ‘Moscow’ and ‘Ordzhonikidze’ and others that sound unfamiliar: someone brings up ‘Lithuania’. The day Procophy died, the first of September, was exactly one year before I would have to enter the first grade.
Someone new enters the kitchen and the tone of the voices changes. Then my door opens and a kind-looking, elderly man in a formal suit enters and sits next to me on the bed. I feel that I should get up but realize with shame that my nightdress rode up to my waist and now I cannot get out of bed in front of this visitor. I am gruff with the nice man, whose name is Fyodor Ivanovich. He says a few more words to me, gets up, and leaves the room. It is the day of Procophy’s funeral.
The coffin arrived the day before. Procophy now lays in this crib lined with satin, on a white pillow filled, as someone explained to me, with sawdust. Untied, Procophy’s hands rest over his heart. His face, clean-shaven three days ago, is shaded with a faint stubble. Suddenly I remember the way he would clear the kitchen table to set up an enameled basin, a mirror, a soap dish with a block of soap, a shaving brush. A fresh blade comes out of a miniature paper envelope. Procophy fits his razor with the blade, heats some water over the gas, fills the basin, and sits on a stool before the mottled rectangle of his beveled-edge mirror. He soaks a small towel in the hot water, wrings it out, waits for it to cool off for a second, and lowers his face into his cupped, towel-draped hands. His cheeks rosy from the steam bath, he whips up some lather and brushes it carefully over his face and neck. I am watching from behind his broad back under the thin white undershirt. He warms the razor in water and begins to shave, pushing out his cheeks now and then with his tongue, sometimes stretching a patch of skin with his fingers, tilting his head this way and that, working down his cheeks, scraping carefully the upper lip, rinsing the razor after each pass that leaves a clean track through the lather. He tilts his head back as he scrapes under his chin and around his throat. His face fully shaven, he wipes it once more with the moist towel, twists open the bottle of ‘triple cologne’, shakes some into his left palm, passes the right over the left and both palms over his face and neck. He clears the table and goes into his room to get dressed. I am finishing my breakfast, a slow eater, when he emerges wearing a gray summer suit and carrying a cream-colored fedora in his hand. ‘Grandpa, why are you so dressed up?’ ‘I dress up so you wouldn’t have to feel ashamed of me’, he says. We’re going to town. He wears a gray tie touched with metallic thread—his one dress tie. He wears it now as he lays on his sawdust pillow.
The mystery of Procophy’s absence and of his transformed presence as a body receded in my attention before the somber excitement of the funeral. Dressed in a dark-blue dress that looked, according to my mother, like a school uniform, I experienced a sudden and grotesque inflation. I felt very mature, very wise for having met death so sensibly and stoically, for being able to participate in it together with the adults. I was now going to a funeral and would grieve properly, together with the others there, at that adult occasion where I would be the only child. When four young men from the neighborhood picked up Procophy’s coffin and the procession started from our house after a brass band, I wailed in a frenzy of pious, dutiful sorrow. When we reached the bathhouse, the music stopped and everyone except the band, whose job was done, climbed into a bus to follow the hearse to the cemetery.
Even in the hottest hours of the afternoon, Procophy’s tool shed stayed cool. It had a certain odor composed of traces of the well-worn wood of the tools, machine oil, sometimes the nostril-tickling fragrance of beer, dust, and mold, all suspended in the fresh, sun-warmed air streaming in each time the door swung open. The walls were decorated with Sonia’s embroideries, one showing a blue peacock, the other a family of deer. A framed reproduction of Kramskoy’s portrait of ‘the unknown woman’ was my window into a distant and beguiling world that was no longer a part of reality. Another framed period picture was of a very pretty young woman with large gray eyes stroking a small gray kitten. Both—the young woman and the kitten—wore moiré ribbons around their necks.
Procophy’s shed had a tiny second room, separated by a door from the larger one, where his sofa stood. He must have built it for storage. The room was filled with glass pickling jars. There weren’t many shelves and the jars sat all over the floor. A little window placed high on the wall lit the room with peaceful filtered light. Once, feeling the urge to relieve myself, I got the idea of depositing my feces into one of those glass jars. There was a pleasant secrecy about pooping into a glass jar in a shed well out of anybody’s sight. After I finished, I put a lid on the jar. The procedure was novel and convenient, and I repeated it several times in the following weeks. I was squatting over a new jar when I heard my mother calling my name from the stoop. I kept quiet, thinking I would go in when I finished. Lucy went back inside. The wind blew through the plum tree outside the small window of my hiding place. I was wiping myself with a grape leaf when I heard my mother calling again, this time from the kitchen window facing my shed. I sensed tension in her voice and immediately became curious about what would happen next. Lyda’s voice was now also calling me. She was by the cellar’s door and probably calling down into the cellar, where children were not allowed on their own. My mother ran into the garden, calling, opened the tool shed and called again.I stayed silent in the jar room. She closed the shed and ran towards the chicken coop, calling. Lyda came back up from the basement, and, as their shouting grew more and more panicked, I finally came out of my hiding place.