Her name is Natasha, she’s thirty-six years old, and she doesn’t know what to do

*

Natasha is sure that Grandpa would not condone this. She sits in the kitchen, which is rather high up on the ninth floor of a new building in a slightly inconvenient yet promising area just southeast of Moscow. Everyone around’s asleep (despite the holiday). After all, it is four in the morning. Her husband’s asleep, little Steshka is asleep, and Danka’s probably asleep by now too. The neighbors are also asleep. If she steps out onto the balcony, she can see that one, maybe two or three windows are still glowing in the building opposite hers, and the remaining light comes from the street lights and the glow from the distant construction. The construction doesn’t stop even for a minute. There, the cranes move from side to side, the floodlights project unexpected shadows on the usually calm ceiling, and wet concrete flows from its mixer, creating the distant but somehow palpable coolness.

What would he have said about this? No, needless to say, he wouldn’t have condoned anything like this. He probably wouldn’t have disowned him. After all, this isn’t one of Tolstoevsky’s dramatic stories, or school literature, but life. He probably wouldn’t have even understood any of it. Would he have even said anything? Well, maybe. How old was he then, twenty? Twenty-one? Twenty-five?

Well, let’s add it up. So, in 1938, he was three years out of school, so that would have made him twenty-one, not twenty. Natasha remembers herself at twenty — give or take a couple years — though rather vaguely. Everything is drowned in the smell of freshly ironed cloth diapers, in the never-ending hungry wailing, in the May walks through the park, in certain types of porridge, in all the books telling you you’re doing everything wrong. The smells were pretty much the only things left, but what use are they? The linoleum, the other room, the bus, she doesn’t know what to hang on to. She recalls her lecture notes and eating some kind of cottage cheese or something on those dark mornings. What would Natasha have done if someone had told her, back then at twenty-one? She tries, but she just can’t fathom it. Instead, a kind of black and white flickering on a TV screen takes over, and then Danka in the botanical garden as he kicks a maple leaf with his small foot in those little boots of his, jumps around, then falls with a thud and begins to cry, but he quickly calms down when he’s put in his stroller. And then they go to see the Japanese rock garden.

Natasha stands on the balcony with its low railings. Smoking her third light cigarette from the beige pack, she contemplates why the past always leaves us with these little downy feathers of remembrance and we can never recall the most important things. When did this happen? Was it when they went to kindergarten? Or was it when they were already in school? Or was it always like this from the very beginning? It’s not like Natasha had never tried this situation on for herself. Well, of course she had. She wondered, what about grandchildren—and what is it even like anyway? Everyone is trying the idea on now. But, of course, she never especially believed it. Because a movie, a television series is one thing, but she—Natasha, her life, her kitchen, her 75 square feet, the smell of her freshly ironed diapers, her store-bought baby food, banana flavor—that’s another. For some reason the banana is what she remembered most of all. With cream.

Grandpa—who managed to knock up Grandma with Natasha’s papa Seryozha—sent Grandma weekly letters (they didn’t release him on leave; they had other priorities in November). Natasha had read these letters, and they seemed terribly strange to her: we beat the Fascist German bastards before, and we’ll beat ‘em again . . . my dear beloved Lyolya; I couldn’t get away from the kitchen in time yesterday, the mess pot flipped over and everything spilled out . . . they put Syoma, of all people, on watch to guard the commanders’ wives . . . I will always be yours . . . Natasha understood that these are the words people used to talk about themselves back then, but in her heart she just couldn’t believe it.

Grandma saved the letters in a little jewelry box and gave them to Natasha to read when she turned eighteen. The death notice lay there among all the letters. She also read the death notice. Natasha takes a drag of her cigarette and thinks about how she doesn’t save any kind of letter in a jewelry box. She doesn’t save letters at all except for a few emails; she can’t bring herself to erase them. She just doesn’t have the heart to. Danka saves them, but as text messages. And so does her little Steshka, it seems, but what kinds of texts could she have on her phone at her age anyway? Natasha is a good mom. She doesn’t snoop through her kids’ phones and doesn’t look at what they’re saying in their texts. Well, she hadn’t before this. Good mom Natasha stands on the balcony, smoking her fifth cigarette, and tries to somehow piece all of this together. We’ll see what happens. Maybe.

It’s impossible to imagine Grandpa Sasha and her Danka together. Maybe just imagine this: Grandpa Sasha is twenty-one and Danka is sixteen (because he is sixteen right now) and they’re having a conversation. About girls. Because what else is there to talk about? Somehow everything has changed so drastically. And they’re not even actually talking about girls, but about something Natasha doesn’t understand. She can’t at all fathom how to piece together that life (my dear beloved Lyolya) with this one. It seems like she’s not going to be able to make it all fall into place, but to hell with it. Although Natasha feels obligated for some reason. She doesn’t know why, but it feels as if right through her—through her birth-ridden and, honestly, rather flabby body—right through her there’s a wire running from here to there. And she has to do something with it. Not because she absolutely has to, but because it’s bothering her, because she feels that she should have done something, but she didn’t. But she doesn’t know what specifically. And she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do with the wire, either.

When she was little, Natasha read about a signal officer from the special radio troops.  About how he finds a wire in the snow, tugs at it, cleans it with his teeth, connects it—and just then an enemy grenade explodes, but he had already joined the wires, and they are in his mouth as he dies (because of the shrapnel), but he doesn’t unclench his teeth—and everything is okay, everything works out for us. The signal officer died, but the ones who haven’t died yet, they go on talking to each other, coordinating operations, and all of their words flow through his mouth, which he can no longer use, but if he hadn’t done it they would’ve shot their own men, there by Kolpino, for example. As a child, Natasha had often imagined that she was that exact signaler. She lies under her blanket, clenching her teeth, biting the starched corner of her duvet cover. She feels the shrapnel digging into her from all over, like wasps from a disturbed nest at a rented dacha. She falls asleep nevertheless. Because she had done everything she could. Everything that was in her power. She had earned her rest and she slept a dreamless sleep.

Even now, Natasha sometimes feels like this signal officer.

Only now she doesn’t have to clench her teeth. Now she has to reconcile the little twenty-year-old lieutenant in the photo from the box with Danka, her son of only sixteen and a half. In the photo, Grandpa is snuggled up to young, curly-headed Grandma (complete with bow in hair), and she to him. Steshka’ll be fine. She’ll understand once she’s a little older. Maybe she already understands now; no telling with that one. Papa will be upset, but he won’t say anything, of course. Mama will sob and then warm up to it. He’s her grandson, after all. Grandma would also be able to make sense of it, if she’d lived long enough. It’s just Grandpa. Natasha doesn’t know what to do about him. Somewhere far away, on Tkatskaya Street, three green firecrackers soar into the sky: Chinese gunpowder rockets, because a normal fireworks display is never enough. Natasha throws down her unfinished cigarette. The poplars started budding a couple days ago; she watches the little red light break apart into sparks in their branches. Then she goes into Danka’s room. First she kisses her son, who is sprawled out on the very edge as always, right next to the wide-open window; then she kisses Senya, the tow-headed boy embracing her Danka in his dreams, clinging to him like only a sixteen-year-old can cling to his beloved. She kisses them, adjusts their blanket, leaves the room, closes the door. She turns back and watches them for a long time, pressing her forehead to the glass door separating the kids’ bedroom—no, Danka’s bedroom—and the living room, where the worn black and white photograph of Grandpa hangs over the piano next to Natasha’s own picture of herself and her classmates on her first day of school, the gladioli taller than she was, the low autumn sun.

Natasha gets in bed, wraps herself head to toe in a down blanket that’s warm on both sides, remembers, gets up, sets the alarm clock for quarter to seven, and gets back in bed. Need to get up in time to make everybody breakfast. She doesn’t know what to do with all this. She knows Grandpa wouldn’t condone it, but she feels that everything will work out somehow. She is positive that everything will work out because she is the signal officer; how long has she been crawling now through this snow, this winter, always crawling with the wires in her teeth until morning, until daybreak, to give them the chance to say even just a couple of words to each other, the chance for Grandpa to understand how everything works different now, with this generation, nothing’s the way it’s supposed to be. The chance for Danka to have enough time to explain to him, at least a little, how this all happened, how this all works, and how beautiful his boy Senya is.

Bios

Stanislav Lvovsky

Stanislav Lvovsky (b. 1972) was born in Moscow and has worked in advertising, cultural events management, and journalism. Lvovsky is the former editor-in-chief of the “Literature” section of OPENSPACE.RU/COLTA.RU and the winner of several Russian literary awards. He is the author of six published collections of poetry, one short story collection, and one novel (written in co-authorship with Linor Goralik). One of his poems was the basis of the project “Quiet War Songs” (2015) by six contemporary Russian composers. Lvovsky regularly publishes articles on political and social issues as well as on cultural history and contemporary Russian poetry in various periodicals and academic journals. His poetry has been translated into and published in English, French, Chinese, Italian, and other languages. Currently he is finishing his DPhil thesis on Soviet cultural history at the University of Oxford.

Anne O. Fisher and David Louden

Anne O. Fisher’s recent translations are Ksenia Buksha’s avant-garde novel The Freedom Factory (2018) and, with her husband, poet Derek Mong, The Joyous Science: Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin (2018), winner of the Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation. As a Senior Lecturer in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Translation and Interpreting Studies program, Fisher teaches remotely from her 114-year-old home in Indiana, which she shares with her family, dog, and many choice specimens of local wildlife. *********************************************************************************** David Louden received his BA in Russian from the University of Oklahoma in May 2019. After completing a Fulbright Fellowship for the academic year 2019-2020, he will begin his PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He plans to continue studying translation and LGBTQIA+ Russia and Eastern Europe in graduate school.

Copyright (c) Stanislav Lvovsky. English translation copyright (c) Anne O. Fisher and David Louden, 2019.