Two Fairy Tales

Jersey City, 1999
Eileen Keator, Jersey City, 1999. Courtesy of the artist.

Solzhenitsyn once wrote that if Chekhov’s characters had stuck around for the Soviet Union, they would have gone insane. This is a perfect description of the early stories and plays of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya. In recent years, she has begun to write fairy tales, but the sense remains of people brutalized almost, but not quite, beyond recognition.

Petrushevskaya is the most significant writer now working in Russian.

The Father

Once there lived a father who couldn’t find his children. He went everywhere, asked everyone—had his little children come running in here? But whenever people responded with the simplest of questions—“What do they look like, what are their names, are they boys or girls?”—he didn’t know how to answer. He simply knew that his children were somewhere, and he kept looking. One time, late in the evening, he felt sorry for an old lady and helped carry her bags to her apartment. The old lady didn’t invite him in, she didn’t even say thank you. Instead she suddenly told him to take the local train to the Fortieth Kilometer stop.

“What for?” he asked.

“What do you mean, what for?” And the old lady carefully closed the door behind her and bolted it and locked the chain.

Yet on his very first day off—and it was the middle of a cold, northern winter—he went off to the Fortieth Kilometer. For some reason the train kept stopping all day, for long stretches of time, and it was beginning to grow dark when they finally reached the platform at the station. The hapless traveler found himself on the edge of a forest; for some reason he started tramping through snow-drifts until he reached its very heart. Soon he was on a beaten path, which in the twilight brought him to a little hut. He knocked on the door, but no one answered. He stepped into the hall, knocked again, and again there was nothing. Then he quietly entered the warm hut, took off his boots, coat, and hat, and began to look around. It was warm inside and clean, and a kerosene lamp was burning. Whoever lived there had just gone out, leaving their tea mug and kettle and bread, butter, and sugar on the table. The stove was warm. Our traveler was cold and hungry, and so, apologizing to anyone who might hear, he poured himself a cup of hot water. Then, after some thought, he ate a piece of bread and placed some money on the table.

Meanwhile, outside it had grown completely dark, and the traveling father began to wonder what he should do. He didn’t know the schedule of the trains, and really he was in danger of finding himself in a snowbank, especially as the snow had been coming down and covering all the paths.

The father collapsed on the bench and fell asleep.

He was roused by a knock at the door. He raised himself from the bench and said, “Yes—come in.”

A little child wrapped in some kind of frayed rag entered the hut. He stopped at the table and froze, uncertain what to do.

“Now what’s this?” said the future father, who hadn’t yet entirely awoken. “Where are you coming from? How did you get here? Do you live here?”

The child shrugged and said, “No.”

“Who brought you here?”

The child shook his head, wrapped in his torn-up shawl.

“Are you by yourself?”

“Yes,” said the boy.

“And your mom? Your dad?” The boy sniffled and shrugged his shoulders.

“How old are you?”

“I don’t know.”

“All right. What’s your name?”

The boy shrugged once again. His nose suddenly thawed out and began to drip. He wiped it with his sleeve.

“Hold on there!” said the future dad. “That’s why we have handkerchiefs.”

He wiped the boy’s nose with the handkerchief and then started carefully taking off the boy’s things. He unwound the shawl, took off the old fur hat, and then the little overcoat, which was warm, but very shabby.

“I’m a boy,” the child said suddenly.

“Well, that’s something already,” said the man. He washed the boy’s hands under the faucet—they were very small, with tiny fingernails. In fact the boy looked a lot like an old man, and sometimes like a Chinese, sometimes even like an astronaut, with his puffy eyes and nose.

The man gave the boy some sweet tea and began feeding him bread. It turned out the boy didn’t know how to drink—the man had to give him the tea with a spoon. The man even began sweating, it was such hard work.

“All right, let’s put you to bed,” said the man, by now completely exhausted. “It’s warm on the stove, but you’ll fall off. Sleep tight, sleep tight, ’til the morning comes all bright. We’ll put you on the trunk and surround you with some chairs. Now for some sheets . . .”

The man searched the hut for a warm blanket, but couldn’t find one, and instead put down his warm coat. He took off his sweater to cover the child with it. And then he looked at the trunk: What if there was something in there, some kind of blanket?

The man opened the trunk and removed a blue silk quilted blanket, a pillow with lace, a little mattress, and a pile of little sheets. Under those he found a bundle of thin little shirts, also with lace, and then some warm flannel shirts and a knot of little knit pants, tied together with a light blue ribbon.

“How do you like that? There’s a whole dowry here!” cried the man. “Of course this belongs to another little boy—but all children get equally cold and equally hungry—so they should share with one another!” the future father concluded loudly. “It wouldn’t be right for one child to have nothing, to walk around in rags, while another child has too much. Right?”

But the child had already fallen asleep on the bench.

With his clumsy hands the man prepared a luxurious blue bed, very carefully changed the child out of his old clothes and into clean ones, and put him down to sleep. For himself he threw his jacket on the floor next to the trunk and its chairs, and covered up with a sweater. The future father was so tired that he fell asleep right away, and slept as he’d never slept before.

A knock on the door roused him.

A woman, all encrusted by snow but barefoot, was entering the hut. Leaping up and shielding the trunk, the man said, “I’m sorry, we made ourselves a little at home here. But I’ll pay you.”

“Excuse me,” said the woman, not hearing him, “I got lost in the forest. I thought I’d come in here for a minute and warm up. It’s a real blizzard out there, I thought I’d freeze to death. May I?”

The man saw that this woman didn’t live here at all.

“I’ll make you some tea,” he said. “Please, sit down.”

He had to feed firewood to the stove and look for the water bucket in the hall. Along the way they discovered a clay pot with potatoes that were still warm and another one with millet kasha with milk.

“All right, we’ll eat this,” said the man. “But the kasha we’ll save for the child.”

“What child?” said the woman.

“Why, that one,” said the man, and pointed to the trunk, where the baby slept sweetly, his little arms up over his head.

The woman knelt before the trunk and suddenly began to weep.

“Oh God, it’s him, my little one!” she said.

And she kissed the edge of the blue blanket.

“Yours?” said the man, surprised. “What’s his name?”

“I don’t know, I haven’t named him yet,” said the woman. “I’m so tired after this night, a whole night of suffering. There was no one to help me. Not a soul in the world.”

“What is he, then,” said the man suspiciously, “a boy or a girl?”

“It doesn’t matter—whatever he is, we’ll love him.”

And once again she kissed the edge of the blanket.

The man looked closely at the woman and saw that her face really did show traces of suffering—her lips were cracked, her eyes were collapsed, her hair hung like string. Her legs turned out to be very thin. But some time passed and the woman warmed up, apparently, and became prettier. Her eyes began to shine and her sunken cheeks became rosy. She looked thoughtfully at the ugly, bald little boy. Her arms, holding tightly to the edge of the trunk, trembled.

The boy, too, changed. He shrank, and now looked like a little old man with a puffy nose and little eyes like slits.

This all struck the man as very strange—the way the woman and boy changed before his very eyes, literally in an instant. The man even grew frightened.

“Well, if he’s yours, I won’t bother you anymore,” the failed father said, turning away. “I’ll go. My train is leaving soon.”

He dressed hurriedly and went away.

It was already growing light out, and the path, strangely, was clear and well-beaten, as if there had been no blizzard the night before. Our traveler went away from the house quickly and after several hours of walking found himself at a house exactly like the one he’d left. No longer surprised, he went in without even knocking.

The hall was the same, the room was exactly the same, and just as before there was a teapot on the table and some bread.

The traveler was tired and cold, and so without pausing he gulped down the tea, scarfed down a piece of bread, and lay down on the bench and waited. But no one came. Then the man leapt up and threw himself at the trunk. Once again there were kids’ clothes inside, though this time they were warm little clothes—a little coat and hat, tiny little felt boots, warm little flannel pants, even a resplendent snow-suit and at the bottom of the trunk a little fur sleeping bag with a hood.

The man immediately thought that the boy must have nothing to wear outside—sure, he had some shirts, and all sorts of junk, but that was it! Apologizing to the empty room, he took only the most necessary items—the fur sleeping bag, the snow-suit, boots, and the hat. Then he also grabbed the sled, which stood in the corner, because he noticed there was another one in the other corner.

Once again begging forgiveness, he took from the pile of felt boots behind the trunk one adult pair that looked like they would fit a woman—she had been barefoot! With this load he ran back to the first hut as fast as he could through the cold.

Already there was no one there. The teapot was still hot, and there was bread on the table. The trunk was empty.

“She must have dressed him in those rags,” said the failed father. “But that’s so silly—I have everything he needs!”

He ran out the door onto the other path and, dragging the sled behind him, soon caught up with the woman, who could barely stand and even swayed a little. Her bare feet were red from the snow. She carried the child wrapped in all its rags.

“Hold on!” cried the father. “Wait! This won’t do at all! First you need to dress a guy up. I have everything he needs.”

He took the child from her, and she, obediently, closing her eyes, gave him her burden, and together they walked back to their hut.

Only then did the father remember the strange old lady whose bags he had carried home, and he asked the woman: “Tell me, did the old woman give you the address, too?”

“No,” said the woman, who was nearly asleep on her feet, “she only told me the name of the train station, Fortieth Kilometer.”

But just then the child started crying, and both of them rushed to change his clothes, and he was suddenly so small that no boots could fit him, and instead they had to put him in diapers, wrap him up in a blanket, and that’s when the fur sleeping bag with its hood came in handy. The rest of it they tied up in a bundle, the woman put on her new boots, and the three of them continued back together. The newfound father carried the baby, and the woman dragged the things, and along the way they forgot all about how they met, and the name of the station. They remembered only that there had been a trying night, a long road, and painful loneliness—but now they’d given birth to a child, and found what they’d been looking for.

Two Kingdoms

In the beginning they flew through a celestial paradise, just as they said it would be, through a glorious blue landscape and over thick curly clouds. The stewardess was from there already and she wore a wondrous linen suit with no buttons. The beverages she served had a foreign taste.

The passengers were all dozing with fatigue. As Lina walked through the rows she was struck by how much they resembled one another, with their yellowish faces and their black crew cuts. She even became frightened, thinking an army regiment was being transported to this new place. All the soldiers slept, reclining tiredly in the same exact way, their parched mouths half-open. But then again they might have been the staff of some exotic southern country’s embassy.

Then night fell. Lina had never flown so far and for so long, and she spent part of the night in the bathroom, looking out the little window. She saw stars above them and on both sides, as well as far below, where they could easily have been mistaken for dim village lights. Racing along through the black night, through the astral profusion, one’s soul felt elated, aware of itself at the center of the universe, in absolute and utter darkness among the large, furry, flickering stars. Alone among the stars! Lina even began to cry. It was with difficulty now that she recalled the moments of parting from her family and everything she loved: it all seemed like an enormous tiresome ball of yarn, and she could no longer remember what happened first and what happened next. The miraculous reappearance of Vasya with the tickets and the marriage license; the complex formalities; her mother’s tears when the women dressed Lina in white and wheeled her downstairs into the elevator, where Vasya took her in his arms and carried her to the car. Either she fainted or she was sick from the drive—everything was like a dream: the stupid music, the bewildered, terrified spectators on all sides, the mirrors showing Vasya with his beard, and then Lina, gray, emaciated, in white lace and with sunken eyes.

They must have done the operation they were planning before she left, but what happened after that, Lina was already unable to say. Her mother was howling for some reason, the sound muffled as if by a pillow, and her son was crying, frightened by the music, the flowers, and Lina’s face. He was crying the way frightened children always cry when they see their mother being beaten or taken, clinging, away from them: he shrieked, loudly, it was heart-wrenching. He was too small, he had to stay with his grandmother because Lina needed another operation, in a foreign city, a foreign country, and with this new husband, this Vasya who had appeared out of nowhere with his beard.

He was really just a rumor, this Vasya, he would show up once a year, emerge from the crowd, kiss her hand, taking it in his big cold palm, would promise Lina piles of gold and a future for her son—not now, but soon. Later. Just then, at that particular moment, it was impossible. But later, later he would take them away, her and her son, and her mum, too, to an earthly paradise far far away, somewhere on the shores of a warm sea, amid marble columns, where they had—was it little elves?—flying about; in short, she’d live like Thumbelina from the fairy tale.

And later, when Lina became seriously ill at all of thirty-seven, this Vasily appeared more often, bringing consolation. He visited after the first operation, walked right into the intensive care unit, it was very touching, when Lina was about to reunite with her Maker, lying with an IV and staring at her scrawny, disappearing arm. He came clad in white, like a doctor (actually, he always adored white things), the only problem was he walked barefoot. But no one noticed him. He wanted to take Lina away immediately when he saw the state she was in, and her stitch. Just then the nurse came running in, out of breath, shooed Vasya away and gave Lina another shot, then called for the doctor, and Vasya disappeared for a long time.

The next time, though, he came straight to the hospital, told her that everything had been arranged, her mother said yes, she and the boy could be brought over later, he’d leave them everything they needed. But Lina must be taken there right away, there was no time to lose. In his country they knew how to cure Lina’s illness, they had discovered a vaccine, and so on. By then Lina didn’t care either way, she was so tired this second time, she couldn’t resist anything, the sickness, death. They had her on very strong narcotics, and she was floating as through a fog. She wasn’t even tormented this time by thoughts of her boy, her Seryozhenka. “And if I die here?” thought Lina. “Would that be any better? This way I’ll live, and then I’ll bring them over to me.”

So Vasya arranged everything, although the doctors insisted on an operation, saying that without it the patient wouldn’t make it through another day. Vasya waited for them to finish, took care of all the formalities, and came to pick up Lina and take her again directly from intensive care. They drove her carefully, changed her outfit so that she could no longer see or hear anything, and when she came to she was already flying through the blue sky and the endless, deserted, fluffy field of clouds. Lina was surprised to find herself sitting next to Vasya, and what is more drinking some light sparkling wine from a glass. Later she even got up—Vasya was asleep, exhausted from all the preparations—and walked around the plane with a surprisingly light step. Nothing hurt—they must already have given her a shot of some local anesthetic.

The plane passed very low over a magnificent city that unfolded underneath them like an architectural model, with a glistening river, bridges, and an enormous toy cathedral. It looked so much like Paris! And then right away the roar of the plane landing, and the plane with its flat nose, wide as a hotel window, rattling and shaking like a cart, rode into a quiet garden. The window had a door in it and it looked onto a terrace, and in the distance the river sparkled with its bridges and also some kind of triumphal arch.

“Place de Pigalle!” Lina said for some reason and pointed. “Look!”

Vasya went to open the door to the terrace and a fairy tale life began.

But Lina wasn’t allowed to go across the river just yet, though her treatment had started and was going well. Vasya would leave and then be gone all day. He never forbade Lina anything, but it was clear that the river and the cathedral were still very far away from her. In the meantime she began to go out little by little, wandering down the same tiny street, since she still wasn’t very strong.

Everyone here, she noticed, dressed just like Vasya, like the hippies she’d seen in foreign films. Long hair, lovely thin arms, white clothes, even little wreaths. The stores, it was true, had everything you could imagine, but, first of all, Vasya never left Lina any money—it must have all gone to pay for her treatment, which was probably very expensive. And second, it was impossible to send packages from here, and even letters. People in this country just didn’t write! There wasn’t a single sheet of paper anywhere, not a single pen. There was no connection—perhaps Lina had found herself in a kind of quarantine, a transitional place.

There, across the river, she saw the bubbling, real life of a foreign city. They had everything here, too—restaurants, stores. But there was no connection. For now Lina moved holding onto the wall with both hands, like a newborn who has just learned to walk. When she complained to Vasya that she wanted to go shopping, he immediately brought her a pile of clothing, including some that had been worn, men’s, women’s, children’s, and what’s more of different sizes. He also brought a suitcase full of shoes, the way friends from abroad bring these to Russia. Among the clothing there was a pair of gray men’s army-issue long underwear, which Lina found a little embarrassing. Who knew what those were, or whose! And what was she supposed to do with all this clothing? Herself, she had quite quickly begun to wear only Vasya’s things—a white chemise and over that a thin white linen dress. She and Vasya were the same height, and Vasya’s build, though he was healthy, was the same as that of the emaciated Lina. She cried over the mountain of clothes, and in the evening told Vasya that she really wanted to send a package to little Seryozha and her mother, and pointed at the two small piles. Vasya frowned and didn’t say anything; the next morning all the clothes were gone.

Vasya worked, it turned out, on this side of the river, in this zone, and he didn’t have any desire to go across the river to the arches and cathedrals. Lina was forced to get used to his quiet, measured existence. She knew, of course, from her old life, that anything could happen: the youthful Vasya could fall in love with another woman and leave her. He didn’t really love her, this Vasya with his beard, though he protected her from all cares. Their food appeared all by itself, their clothes sparkled. When did he find the time? Their room, which Lina in her feverish state still imagined to be part of a spacecraft, looked out on a white-columned terrace, but there was no happiness. Lina was brave, enduring her separation from little Seryozha, her mother, her girlfriends, and her college friend Lev. She understood now that her condition was incurable, and the best she could hope for was to keep to her current state—without pain but also without strength. What talk could there be of bringing her loud little Seryozha here, with his wild tears and eyes all red from crying! And then her mother especially, with her insinuating hellos, and also tearful. There was neither grief nor tears here. It was another country. As long as she could take it, Lina watched people who lived here hovering in their circle dance over the river to the monotonous music of the harpies (a silly activity, by the way), their silent sessions at the long common tables in the restaurant with glasses of the lovely local wine. Lina very much wanted to share her impressions with her girlfriends back home and her mom, at least drop them a note that everything was all right, her treatment is going well, the stores have everything but you can’t buy it—first of all because it’s very expensive, and second because no one dresses that way here, the food is strange but she can’t eat too much yet anyway. And so on. That she wants to send Seryozha a package but so far no one is going back there, and there is no postal service between their two countries. Lina dragged herself down the streets, holding onto whatever she could, and wrote letters home in her head.

Eventually, though, Lina began to see that the letters were hopeless. Vasya definitively promised that her mom and Seryozha would visit eventually, especially her mom. But her mom without Seryozha? Or Seryozha without his grandmother? “In time,” said the bearded Vasya. “In time.”

Lina wanted to start buying things in preparation for her mother’s visit, but Vasya made it clear that by then everything would be taken care of.

In general, in fact, no one here worried about the future, everyone was too busy, but nonetheless things were organized perfectly, comfortably, cleanly.

Vasya worked at a bookstore that he’d inherited from an aunt, but never brought home any books since Lina could not read the language, and the store had nothing in Russian. It turned out Vasya could not even write in Russian.

Then the time finally came when Lina learned to move in the flying way of the natives. It turned out to be very simple. You just got up on a step above the ground and then took a big wide stride into the air. The next stride, too, came from the force of the initial push, and every stride thereafter was freer and lighter, as in a dream. Bearded Vasya didn’t say anything, but at the appointed time he disappeared forever, probably across the river into the rich city. Lina was left on her own, although fully provided for. At first she thought—without fear or crying—that soon they would chase her out of their spacecraft—the food couldn’t always be in the refrigerator! But the refrigerator kept filling up, as through a dumbwaiter, though Lina didn’t eat anything, just drank juice and stayed healthy.

And then the day finally came when, after much lonely and sad contemplation, she tore herself from her front steps and with wide strides raced to the bank of the river to the circle dance and, separating their hands, entered the stream and began to fly around the circle.

She understood, she knew, that something was not right, and she no longer wanted to have her mom here, or her son. She didn’t even want to run into that army regiment again, and in fact she didn’t want to see anyone again, or if she did see someone she didn’t want to know who it was, hoped that she’d be unable to distinguish among the young, pale, calm faces in the circle dance, flying free like her—and hoping not to meet anyone at all anymore, in this kingdom of the dead, and hoping never to learn just how much they grieved, in that other kingdom, of the living.

—Translated by Anna Summers and Keith Gessen

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