a short story
FOR VARVARA, SOCHI WOULD FOREVER remain the land of summer. Every vacation season, the city’s population tripled as tourists flocked to its pebble beaches, palm trees, and crumbling piers. Her mother delivered milk every morning to the pensions along the shore, and the girl played soccer barefoot with the visitors’ children. Then, in 1999, Varvara’s mother, having fallen asleep on her route, crushed a pedestrian with her truck on a gravel road north of Mountain Air Beach.
The sentence was three years in prison. Varvara’s grandfather lived in a small village in the Western Urals, and in March Varvara was told to buy warm boots and change to a bus at the train station in Perm.
After three thousand kilometers, she arrived to Kliukovka around midnight. She had been afraid she would not recognize her grandfather when he came to meet her and had squinted for hours on the train trying to remember his face. Yet except for her, the station was empty. The bus creaked and puffed as it drove away. She shivered. Within minutes of arriving, she inhaled a snowflake the size of a peony bloom. The cold gripped the bridge of her nose like a vise.
She waited for an hour before she walked west, toward the loud bass of techno. To her horror, she discovered Kliukovka had a dance club—a hut with lights flashing in the windows and a banner that said, DISCOTHEQUE! over the door. Around the entrance, next to the gray snow banks topped with ice shards, five boys her age stood and smoked.
“You know where Faim Ulyanich lives?” she asked.
“Why on earth do you want Faim Ulyanich? He won’t keep you warm at night, honey,” the tallest one said. He was slurring his words.
“He’s my grandfather,” Varvara said.
The boys hooted. “Kostia, did you hear that? The Snow Maiden is Faim Ulyanich’s granddaughter!”
“It’s a little early for New Year, Snow Maiden. Go back to the forest.”
“The devil had progeny? Aren’t there laws against that?”
“Yeah, like a hump on a camel.”
For three days, Varvara had been carrying all of her things in three bags. One was a green cotton alpinist sack her mother had sewn for her thirteenth birthday. The bag might have been patched and faded, but it was still Varvara’s favorite. She had stuffed it with books she was reading to prepare for the entrance exams to the Kuban University back south the next summer. All of her friends would apply, and the Kub. U. alpinism team was the best. She started crying. Someone snorted. She turned and walked away.
“What, honey, can’t take a joke?”
The music grew quieter as she got farther. Then she realized she was also hearing footsteps behind her. She turned around. One of the boys was following. He was close, only two or three steps behind.
“Help!” she yelled and ran. She felt his hands tugging on one of her bags. “Help!”
“Quiet, you,” the boy whispered. He was short. Clumps of ice hung from three curls of black hair that protruded from underneath his cap. “You’ll wake the whole village.”
“Let go of my bag,” she said.
“I’m just trying to help you carry it silly.”
“Carry it straight to your house, you thief.”
“Just let me—”
“I can manage.”
“You have frozen snot on your face,” he said.
She let go of the bag and wiped her nose with her sleeve. She decided he was short enough that, if she had to, she could take him.
“I’m Nikifor. Nikifor Uganov,” he said. “Your grandfather’s on the other side of the village. I’ll take you.”
“Won’t your friends need you for their comedy troupe?”
“My friends are idiots. The village midwife dropped them on their heads. I was serious about the backpack though. Where’d you get it?”
“That was you?” she asked.
“Yes. I said ‘nice knapsack.’ Call the UN Human Rights Commission.”
She stopped and set down her other bags, rubbing her shoulders. He picked up her luggage. “I have one I take to the mountains, but mine doesn’t have nearly as many pockets.”
“You climb?” she asked.
“You don’t believe me?”
She shrugged. “I just think it’s easier when you live somewhere with summer.”
“So you’ve heard of it?”
“Once, but it was a vile rumor.”
“You going to tell me your name?” he asked.
She sighed. “Varvara.”
“Well, Varvarochka.” He stopped and pointed to a house across the street. “That’s your grandfather. And this is as close as I come.”
“This is the other side?”
“It’s a small village. You want to go for a walk with me tomorrow?”
“So you and your friends can make more juvenile jokes?”
“No, so that you and I can go skiing. You want to?”
“About as much as I want to lose a toe to frostbite,” she said and took back her bags. She crossed the street. The snow crunched under her boots.
“Is it because I’m shorter?” he yelled. “‘Cause I don’t mind.”
Varvara turned and waved, then closed the lattice gate behind her. The footpath to the izba was cleared, and she felt relieved not to have to wade through any more snow drifts. Yet all the lights were out. No one was waiting for her. She pounded on the wooden door. A few minutes later, she heard footsteps.
“Who’s there?” a hoarse voice asked.
“Varvara,” she said.
The door opened. A thin old man towered over her with a kerosene lamp. He wore a striped terrycloth robe and pilled wool slippers two sizes too large.
Varvara rushed in. “I thought you were meeting me at the bus station.”
The man’s toothless jaws moved, as if munching on something. “I didn’t see you.”
“Oh? It might have helped if you’d been there to look.”
The old man squinted at her. “I was right. Your mother was a whore. Your skin’s so dark I thought you were a gypsy.”
“It’s a tan,” Varvara said.
“A tan. Sun. Rays. Melanin. Tan.” To demonstrate, she removed a mitten and peeled a burnt patch of skin from her nose.
“There’s pickled trout if you want it,” the old man told her and blew out his candle. “You can sleep with me on the stove. I’ll heat another room for you tomorrow.”
In the dark, Varvara could hear him shuffling away. The snow covering her coat was beginning to melt and drip. Slowly, she followed. She’d always heard her mother say her entire family had slept on a single furnace during the winter. When she was little she had nightmares about being put to bed on the stovetop and boiled in her sleep. She discovered that the kiln was made of brick and that its surface was wide enough to fit three adults. The embers from the logs inside still glowed and crackled through the iron shutter. Varvara could see little else. She removed her coat and lay under a sheepskin blanket. By then, her grandfather was already snoring.
The rooster woke Varvara. Her grandfather was nowhere in sight, and she went to look around. Faim had built the izba himself, and the house had six rooms—large by village standards. Three contained furnaces, three others were heated through the common walls. Five were meticulously clean and shut. In the room used by Faim, there was a stove in the corner, a rug, some benches, a broom, a chest, and a table with two chairs and a tea kettle.
The house itself was built of basswood logs rabbeted together. From the outside, the corners looked like interlocked fingers. The yard was fenced in by pickets of birch, which seemed to Varvara to do little more than prop up the mounds of snow. By the front door, in the ice box next to a birch bench, she finally found the promised trout. She bit into a fish, ignoring its head. The eye glinted at her like a soap bubble. She shivered and went back inside.
Faim had fathered seven children. One died from cancer, two from cirrhosis of the liver, and one in a boating accident. Of the remaining three, two refused to speak to him, and one—the youngest, Varvara’s mother—was in prison. All of their pictures hung above the table. Varvara studied them as she sucked on the fish.
Her grandfather reentered, stomping the snow off his boots in the anteroom. “I bought a box,” he said. The container was made of recycled cedar, heavy and unfinished. Varvara thought that if she touched it, she’d have to pluck splinters out of her fingers for an hour.
Faim continued, “It’s for your mother. We ought to send her a package.”
Faim set a few dried fish on the table and wrapped them in an old newspaper. Then he shuffled over to the chest and rummaged through it for three pairs of gray wool socks. Varvara smiled and approached him as he started to stack the things in the box. Reaching behind her neck, she untied her necklace of Sochi sea shells and placed it on top of the trout.
Her grandfather looked in and took out the choker. “What’s this?”
“Something to remind her of Sochi,” Varvara said. “Maybe she’ll look at it and feel like she’s still in the sun, feel warm.”
Faim slammed the shells into the table and ground a few of them with his thumb. “These are going to crumble in the box right over everything. They’ll ruin it all.” He rapped on Varvara’s forehead with his knuckles. “Is there anything left in there, or did you have one too many heat strokes? Now, sit down and write your mother a letter.”
Varvara sulked in her chair as Faim fetched paper and two pens. She looked through her knapsack for something else to send. She found photos. In one, Varvara and her mother were sitting cross-legged on the beach and eating shrimp. Her fingers orange from the spice, Alla was dangling a crustacean over her mouth. Varvara was pointing and laughing. She smiled and slid the photo back into her Herodotus book.
The train ride was bumpy and cold, she wrote. Grandfather’s the abominable snowman. I’m going to start taking pictures and selling them to periodicals. She smiled to herself and decided she’d have fit right in among Tolstoy’s aristocrats with her bons mots. When she finished, she folded the letter and tried to slide it into the box, but Faim intercepted her hand. “My dearest mamochka,” he read out loud. “Good, good.” But he soon fell silent and lowered himself onto a chair.
“I ought to whip you.”
“That was private.”
“I ought to crack that forehead of yours.”
“It’s also a joke. Did your sense of humor freeze off?”
He crumpled the letter. “You think your mother’s life isn’t hard enough without worrying about you?” Then he shuffled off to the chest again—slower, Varvara thought. She sighed and started over. The train ride was long. There’s so much snow. Grandfather looks healthy. She went over to show Faim, but he wouldn’t look. “Just put it in,” he said.
Life in Kliukovka had changed little since its founding three hundred years earlier. The residents ate the food they grew or gathered in the summers and heated their homes with wood. Many had left for the cities. Only twelve students and one classroom remained in the village school. Only two places still hired. Nikifor’s parents, the Uganovs, sold matreshkas and wooden spoons to stores in Yekaterinburg, where foreign businessmen bought souvenirs during their trips to Siberia for oil and gas deals. Faim’s neighbors ran a store in their home. The collective farm went bankrupt after being privatized, and its tractors rusted in the empty fields, like dinosaur skeletons.
Faim lived on his pension, which was enough to pay for electricity, a gallon of pressurized gas for the range, four loaves of bread, two gallons of milk, and an occasional kielbasa. With Varvara there, he had to dispense with the sausage and buy more of everything else instead. He had made all the things he owned with his hands, except for the nugget of malachite he had found in the mountains. A few days after their fight, he showed Varvara where he kept the gem—wrapped in pantyhose at the bottom of the chest.
“Sell it when you need money for the coffin and the wake,” he said.
Varvara did not answer. She did not make a single sarcastic remark that day because the old man had sniffed his dead wife’s stockings as he talked.
Every day, Varvara walked to and from school. She still moved clumsily on the snow. The wind blew at, over, and under her, and no matter what she did, a stray flurry always wormed its way into her eye or mouth, or under her mitten, where it burned her the whole way. She skidded and fell and even lost a boot in a snowbank.
One afternoon, about a week after she arrived, she noticed Nikifor Uganov watching her from a hill as she stumbled home. In class, he sat a row over and said nothing, not even when the others teased her. Varvara had made no friends. The boys still remembered her crying at the discotheque. Varvara’s chest was flat, her shoulders wide, her arms thick, and her thighs muscled. Dresses never flattered her, and she wore boys’ jeans. She hadn’t even spoken to the girls, who stalked through the school in mini skirts and fake eyelashes.
Just as she became aware that Nikifor was looking, she slid and fell, cursing. He ran to her and pulled her up.
“What happened to the skinny bully who walks you home?” she asked.
“You are welcome,” he said. “And Kostia was drafted.”
“I hope they send him to Chechnya.”
He let go of her coat. “He’s my brother.”
“Why are you always so angry?”
She shrugged. “I haven’t had the warmest of welcomes.”
“You might try being friendlier.”
“Oh, it’s my fault?”
“For example. Come for a walk with me.”
She told him no. She said never. Yet Nikifor would not give up. He would follow her every day and ask her to go to the movies if the truck with the projector was around. And though Varvara refused every time, she began noticing how well-made the young man was, how the fabric of his shirt stretched and tautened like the skin on a tambourine every time he turned or twisted. Once, she caught herself wanting to pluck an ice crystal out of the bristles of his rabbit fur collar. She wanted to slip it into her mouth in secret and suck it and taste it as it dissolved. But by then, Nikifor stopped asking and talked to her about mountains instead.
Faim noticed they were becoming friends. Over dinner of potatoes and more fish, which Varvara had oversalted and overfried, he said, “That boy I see skulking around you, Nikifor. He’s not good news, Varvara. You stay away from him, you hear?”
“He’s all right.”
“All boys like that want from ugly girls like you is something they can get easy. At least until they start wanting a real skilled woman around the house for a wife. You keep away.”
“No one in this village except for him has said a kind word to me because they all hate you, you old, shriveled wretch.”
He pounded on the table. The dishes jumped. “You little snot! I marched two thousand kilometers to Moscow and then another two thousand to Berlin for you. In the winter. In just one sock! You’d all be speaking German if it weren’t for me, you guttersnipes!” He rose. His face was red, but the knuckles of his fists were blanching.
Varvara ran outside without her coat and sat on the bench in front of the neighbors’ house for an hour.
In the morning, the thaw began, but Varvara could not go out to look; she had pneumonia. After the doctor came and left antibiotics, she lay in her bed, which she preferred to the furnace, and listened to the ringing of the water drops on the metal top of the icebox. She wondered what it would be like to stand right under the roof and catch them with her tongue.
Her grandfather walked in around noon with a pine crate. It was squeaking. Her curiosity piqued, Varvara sat up.
“I thought you’d need something to do while I went hunting in the summer,” Faim said. He set the box on the floor, reached into it, and lifted up a small bird. It was yellow, and it peeped as it pecked Faim’s thumb with its rose beak. He brought it over to Varvara, and she petted it.
“There are a dozen in there,” Faim said.
The gosling stepped out Faim’s callused palm onto Varvara’s blanket, squeaked and stumbled over her fingers, tickling her. It pecked at her wrist. She laughed, and, cupping it with her palms, rubbed its soft fuzz against her nose. It was May, and spring was finally coming. She would have freckles soon, she thought. She always looked prettier with freckles.
Two weeks later, Varvara woke feeling better and went outside to the bank of the Kama, where, after months of being caged in ice, the river resurged, roaring. Icebergs—racing, breaking, rumbling—floated southward. The snow was almost gone, and she galloped along the shore.
To the Volga! Varvara thought, her heart leaping, To the sea!
When she returned home, Nikifor was waiting in the common room with Faim. “There she is!” the boy exclaimed.
Glaring, Faim cleared his throat and left. Varvara sat down and elbowed Nikifor, who handed her a handmade get well card. “You’re just in time,” he said. “Faim Ulyanich just finished with the questions about my immunizations and medical records.”
She opened the front flap and realized that Nikifor had gotten the teacher and all their schoolmates to sign. The word “camel” had been written only once and crossed out with a marker. She smiled. “Is this what took you two weeks?”
“I also brought you your homework. I knew you’d just die if you didn’t get it.”
“Now I know you’ve got to be after something.”
He told her he needed a tutor for the entrance exams in July. The Army was worse than he had imagined, Kostia had written. The soldiers in the second year of their military obligation had kicked in his bunkmate’s ribs. Another greenhorn was whipped with a leather belt because he stepped onto a floor board in the barracks the Army “grandfathers” had arbitrarily chosen as a no first-year zone. Nikifor would apply everywhere and anywhere to receive a draft deferment.
Varvara agreed to help. “Even though I have my own grandfather problem at home,” she joked.
The June days were endless, the clear northern skies staying light until dawn. Varvara, Nikifor, and a dozen geese—all of them occasionally interrogated by Faim—spent the month together, in the forest. Every morning, she would rise with the first rooster to chase the birds out into the clearing where they feasted on baby grass. They would teeter from foot to foot, quack, peck at each other and at Varvara, and, in the afternoon, nap with their beaks tucked under their wings. She had a favorite—the small one—whom she fed bread crusts instead of barley.
Nikifor would join them after lunch and pretend to study. She brought him novels, choosing the ones with erotic scenes. She stopped him every hour to ask how far he’d gotten, and, as he approached the sexy parts, she’d ask him to read to her. Her head pillowed by moss, she listened as Pechorin seduced Bella and Ruslan waited keenly for his first night with Ludmila. She gave him A Thousand and One Nights and wondered if he had fallen in love with her yet. Like Scheherazade, she had plied him with stories.
At the end of July, Faim announced over breakfast that time had come to start slaughtering the geese. “I’ll kill the lone gander tomorrow. He hasn’t paired. There’ll be no one to grieve.”
Varvara was buttering her burnt toast. “But he’s my favorite. I read Derrida to him.”
“You ever see a goose grieve for its partner?” Faim asked. “It loses the will to live. Will put its neck right in a dog’s jaws on its own. It’ll break your heart to watch.”
“Why do we have to kill them at all?”
“Be serious,” Faim said. “We’ve got to send some food to your mother.”
“And what are you going to eat in the winter?”
“I’ll become a vegetarian!”
“A vegetarian! And you say you want to be treated like an adult.”
That day, Nikifor tried to make her laugh. He juggled pine cones. He sang gibberish out of tune. Nothing worked. Then in the evening, after she fed the geese, the gander disappeared. How men underestimated beasts sometimes—the bird, whom Varvara had started calling Derrida, had sensed a threat and escaped. Her grandfather was unperturbed, and, despite her objections, killed another instead.
The next morning, she was sitting on her log and reading when Derrida stumbled up, quacking, with a red bow around his neck and a note. She opened the envelope. “Now will you come for a walk with me?” it said. She laughed and looked up to find Nikifor, squinting at her.
“You saved him!” she screamed.
He sauntered over. “Calm down. No need to have kittens.”
“I could just kiss you.”
“All right. If you want.”
But her tongue was numb. Her feet and hands felt heavy, as if filled with lead. Everything about Nikifor was perfect. The crook of his nose was perfect. The scar on the left hill of his lip was perfect. Wanting to touch him felt perfect too. She was terrified of spoiling something. After a minute, Nikifor sat down next to her and, from inside her book, removed the photo of her and her mother on the beach. He twirled it between his fingers. “What did you love most about Sochi?”
She smiled. “Sochi kisses.”
“Because they are just so different?”
“If you have a real Sochi kiss, it is. You kiss on the beach, and you’re covered in sand, and your lips are salty and wet, and you touch—”
Nikifor smiled. “Have you ever had one?”
Varvara shook her head.
Nikifor rummaged through her lunch sack and found the match box with the salt. He dipped his fingers into it and smothered the crystals over Varvara’s lips. “Don’t know what we’ll do for sand,” he whispered.
She could smell apricots on his breath. “It’s all right.”
Then he kissed her.
Faim’s goose holocaust continued. He killed one every Saturday and expected Varvara to help with the plucking. The down sidled into her eyes, and, unlike the chickens her mother had bought, the geese were still warm when she tore off their feathers. At least Derrida, safe in the Uganovs’ barn, was exempt.
Her grandfather hated her whining. “When I was your age, I lay in a wet trench for three months for the Fatherland and didn’t complain a peep!”
“Was it because otherwise they’d starve you?”
“And there were bullets!” The grandfather drew his finger through the air and whistled.
Four dead geese and a mountain expedition later, in August, Nikifor went to Yekaterinburg to take his exams. He failed. He scored high on math but low on composition. After he told her, he sat on her bed as she paced across her room, reading the essay he’d written in response to the prompt “Some historians claim that Russia’s God-intended destiny is to save our civilization. Discuss.” He wrote ten pages and used no commas. When she pointed this out, he sighed and kissed her. His hands swept over her breasts.
“My grandfather will kill you,” she whispered.
He chuckled. “Better than Chechnya.”
That evening, after Faim had fallen asleep, Varvara grabbed an armful of blankets and went to meet Nikifor at the clearing. She watched him from the shadows of the trees. He had started a fire and was fiddling with the pack of condoms he’d brought from the city as she’d asked. He stretched the latex with his hands, seeing how far he could pull it. It snapped, and Varvara chuckled. He turned and smiled.
They undressed each other. Their mouths grazed and their fingers wandered. He was Varvara’s first lover, and when he was halfway inside her, she yelped. He froze, moving neither forward nor back, whispering, “Did I hurt you?” His palms rested on the ground next to her shoulders as he held himself above her, and his arms were trembling—either from desire or from the effort, she could not tell. Grabbing his buttocks, she pulled him inward. “Aah,” she sighed, and he kissed her neck.
Afterwards, as they lay beneath a camel-hair blanket, she said, “I feel like a witch. Sneaking out to the forest to be naked with you.”
He chuckled. “All you need is a broom.”
“Well, I know where to find the handle.” She reached for his sex.
The first snow fell early, in October, but this time Nikifor, a true northman, showed Varvara how to winter. They went sledding. They skied. They sculpted obscene snowmen at night and skated across the Kama. They climbed trees and broke icicles off the tin shingles of the roofs. Varvara learned to love the pink fuzz of the snow at dawn, as Pouchkine wrote she should. She loved that, when she cracked the surface of a puddle with her boots, the ice crackled like a crème brûlée.
Meanwhile, the Uganovs exhausted their options. They could not afford a medical or a psychological diagnosis that would get Nikifor a deferment. No university had accepted him, and Nikifor’s War Commission summons was served in December. He was to appear at the training center by January 20.
“How nice. They gave me some time to sober up after the holidays,” he said. But his voice trembled, and no one found the joke funny.
On Orthodox Christmas Eve, January 6, his parents went to mass and Varvara sneaked into his bedroom. As they made love, the squealing of the mattress springs and Varvara’s single moan melded into the choir of carolers singing outside. They laughed about it afterwards and Varvara was still smiling when he asked, “Why don’t we get married?”
“Seriously. I bet your grandfather’s a funny drunk.”
Varvara laughed. “Mmhm. Tempting. But then what?”
“We live together. Have babies. Grow old.”
“Nikifor, I am sixteen!”
“So? Ma got married around then.”
“You want to tell me what this is really about?”
Nikifor sighed. “Kostia wrote that a guy who was drafted with him got turned into a woman.”
Varvara arched her eyebrow. “I’m sure having to wear a skirt’s bad—”
“No, Varia. They cut his balls off. He’s their woman.” Nikifor smoothed a wisp of hair from Varvara’s forehead. “I can get an extension if we get married.”
She cupped his cheek with her hand. “Nikifor,” she mumbled.
“I love you, Varia.”
“What’s a few months going to do?”
“I can get three years if we have a baby. And I’ll never have to go if we have two.”
It seemed to Varvara that the blood in her veins froze. “A baby?”
“We can live with Ma for now. I’ve already asked.”
“I’m moving back south in the fall, Nikifor.”
“Only if you get into a university. And I didn’t.”
“You realize you might be killing me right now?”
“You manipulative ass! Get out!” She pulled the blanket off him.
“Technically, this being my place—”
She started crying. “Why did you have to ruin everything again?”
“I just want to get married,” he whispered and started kissing her. She reached for his lips. There were dozens of things she wanted to believe but could not. She grimaced, as if she’d tasted curdled milk, then bit his nose, grabbed her clothes, and, still naked, ran out the door.
The next few days, Varvara stayed home and sat in front of the oven, poking the coals and watching the wood burn through the open shutter. She waited for Nikifor to apologize, but he did not come. He did not visit the next day or the day after. Faim gloated. “These boys are like dandelions now. Blow and they’re gone. What did I tell you?”
But Varvara didn’t answer, and after a while her grandfather stopped.
A week passed before, in the middle of the night, she realized she had forgotten about Derrida. He was still with Nikifor. Varvara threw a coat over her nightgown and snuck out. The door of the Uganovs’ barn creaked and their cow bellowed at her from its stall. Shushing the animal, she petted its muzzle. She did not see Derrida anywhere and gabbled to summon him. He did not come. She called louder. Perhaps he was in the Uganovs’ chicken coop, where he slept sometimes because it kept the smaller birds calm. She tiptoed into the picketed promenade and flinched as the ground, covered with a layer of snow and chicken droppings, squished underneath her boots. The door of the henhouse was padlocked.
Varvara returned to ask about Derrida in the morning, wearing a ruby pendant and some blush. She found Kostia and Nikifor home alone, eating inside the izba. Kostia, she had heard, had been wounded in the left buttock during a firefight in Chechnya and had been discharged. The men rose when they saw her walk in.
She nodded instead of saying hello. Her mouth was dry. “When are you leaving?”
“Next Monday,” Nikifor said and brought his right hand from the table to his mouth. He was eating a wing. Varvara froze. She watched as he, seeming unconscious of her gaze, gnawed on the meat. It was the fried wing of a bird. She wanted to bite his fat-glossed lip. She wanted to bite him until he bled.
“You murderer,” she said. She had not moved.
He looked up at her in surprise.
“You killed him. You killed Derrida. I came to get him from the barn, but he wasn’t there.”
Nikifor looked at his hand, then at Varvara. He smiled. “Better me than your grandfather. He’s tasty.” He bit into the flesh so forcefully that the meat spurted juice, dotting his cheek.
Varvara bolted and ran home. On the way, she stopped to uproot a colony of snowdrops with the toes of her boots. Nikifor had brought her a bouquet of them once. The flowers’ blossoms faced downwards because of the weight of the melting snow, and, as they toppled, turned up towards the sky. Then she crushed their stems with her steel-tipped toes and stomped them into the ground.
Varvara did not speak to Nikifor again before he left. He did not write. She began watching Mexican soap operas, calling it her hour of comic relief. Faim’s neighbors bought two cell phones and no longer had to walk to the post office like the other Kliukovkians to make calls. From then on, they shoveled snow and weeded with their behinds thrust up toward the sun and mobiles nestled between their shoulders and their ears.
Varvara blamed Nikifor most for forcing her to start paying attention to people. She’d spent six months getting used to thinking about him and anticipating everything he wanted. Paying attention had become a habit, and now that he no longer consumed her every thought, she found herself noticing things about others. She noticed that her teacher wanted to be left alone with the principal, that the mailman’s coat needed a new lining, and that in the mornings, Faim needed a drink—his voice was hoarse. She offered the mailman hot tea and filled Faim’s tin mug with water before he even said a word.
One day, her grandfather had entered the common room of the izba and started bathing his feet in a bucket as she studied on the bench. Faim’s breeches were rolled up to his knees, and for the first time Varvara noticed that his soles were scarred and scaly. She went to the oven and put in a kettle. When it boiled, she offered it to Faim. “More hot water, Grandpa?”
“Hmm,” he said and chewed on his cheeks.
She poured some into the bucket and handed him a towel.
He looked at it. “Stop being so lazy, Varia. Go fetch me a clean one.”
“What, are you blind? That’s just a pattern.”
A week later, Kostia came to visit with a snowgoose on a leash. He yanked it behind him, and the bird’s neck jolted forward. It gaggled loudly to protest.
“We were eating chicken,” Kostia told Varvara. “He’d hidden the goose in the henhouse so that you’d come and talk to him rather than sneak your pet out in the middle of the night.”
Varvara hugged Derrida, who was impossibly fat now, almost unable to move, and the gander pecked at her ear lobe, as if angry. “How is he?”
“As you can see, alive and obese.”
“I meant Nikifor.”
“Oh. He charmed some Arctic Fleet major into letting him become a sailor. Thank god Chechnya’s land-locked.”
Varvara laughed and nodded.
“The grandfathers took away his warm coat his first day on the ship, of course. That, and someone beat his nose to a pulp, so he may no longer be quite as pretty.”
Varvara looked away from Kostia, kissing her goose on the beak.
“He tried to kill the bird after you called him a murderer, by the way. Just for your information, you don’t get to start calling us names until after Chechnya.”
“You called me a camel,” Varvara said.
“Did I?” Kostia asked.
“Yes. On my first day here.”
He nodded. “Sounds like me. Nikifor got a butcher knife and everything. Caught the fat bastard and held him between his knees, but he just couldn’t cut its neck. He said he could hear the heart beating. Said he’d never heard anyone’s but yours before.”
He waited for Varvara to answer, but she felt stubborn. Eventually, Kostia saluted, turned on his heels and, with small penguin-like steps, marched out the door.
Snows melted. Icebergs calved. Winds shook the glass in the windows of her grandfather’s izba, and naked branches of the linden trees scratched it. Derrida became a changed bird. He turned lazy. It took him half an hour just to amble from his shed to the lattice gate of Faim’s yard, and yet he still managed to run away every other day. Inevitably, she found him in Nikifor’s barn, honking at her through the small vent in his orange beak. He bathed in puddles of mud, and she shuddered at the thought of washing him.
In May, thunderstorms tore the shutters off Varvara’s windows. Soon the sunsets merged with dawns. The days were interminable. Spring and summer seemed to Varvara to be seasons of violence. They burned, melted, and transfigured everything. She had no curtains to shut out the light, and she lay awake missing the previous winter.
She reminded Faim to fix her windows for three days before he finally tried. As he started hammering the first nail into the rotted wood of the frame, he slipped in the mud and fell on his back. He lay in the muck for hours before Varvara returned from school and heard him calling and cursing everyone he could name. No bones were broken, but he’d bruised his back and thighs and needed weeks of bed rest. He could not eat unless Varvara cooked and served him his meal, and he lashed out at her with furor.
“When are you going to learn how to cook properly? There’s too much salt.”
She did not blame him. She too was angry because she needed someone.
Soon after, she wrote to the University of Perm for information on the entrance exams. She could make it back to Kliukovka in less than a day if her grandfather ever fell again. And, though she was afraid to admit it, she knew she wrote to them because in another year and a half Nikifor would return.
One day at the end of June, after Faim had recovered, she finally asked. “Grandpa?”
He looked up from his newspaper.
“When we send a package to Ma next Monday, can we send one to Nikifor as well?”
He smirked. “Ay. The girl’s lost. That bad, eh?”
“Like a goose with its neck in the mouth of a bulldog,” she said.
“Well, suit yourself. But all we’ve got is your beloved gander.”
Varvara nodded. “C-could you? I’ll can the meat Sunday.”
The grandfather rose. “You stay inside, Varia. Put another kettle in.”
“No, I’ll help.”
They dressed and went into the yard where she picked up Derrida. He was heavy and pecked at a strand of her hair with his beak, quacking in recognition. His webbed feet teetered on her hand, nipping her skin. She carried him to where the grandfather waited on a bench with a small axe. She set the bird down, bent his neck over an oak stump, and cupped the head with her palms so the goose would not see. Still, through the tips of her fingers, she could feel his pulse quickening. Glimmering, the axe came down.
Weeks passed without a word from Nikifor. Preparing for another winter, Faim went hunting and fishing for days at a time. Dirty, hungry, and mean, he’d return once in a while to sleep, then leave again. Varvara was alone. She wrote to her mother, but not too often—if Alla received letters daily, she would worry about why.
Then the mailman brought something with a military stamp. The paper sheet, folded into a soldier’s triangle, served as its own envelope, and at first Varvara could not understand how to get inside. Her fingers trembled.
“Varvara,” Nikifor wrote, “so far, no one’s tried to rape me. You didn’t ask, but I knew, you’d be worried. Personally, I’m hurt. It makes me feel unpretty.
My ship’s captain’s promised vacations to anyone, who kills ten rats, and I’m up to seven. I can hear them, scurrying in the walls, the varmints, so, there’s plenty more, I just have to get them, all, before October, because otherwise we’ll freeze solid, in the water, and have to wait weeks for the icebreaker to pull around. But I’ll manage. I’m persistent, as you well know.
Wherever you decide to apply, be it Yekaterinburg, be it Sochi, or be it the South Pole, is all kittens by me. I’ve been to one end of the geography, and I’m ready and willing to go to any other.
Thank your grandfather for the socks. You didn’t say they were from him. But I figured.
PS: I hope you don’t miss that goose more than you miss me. It was tasty.”
Varvara reread the letter a dozen times, went outside, and sprinted downstream along the bank. She hopped over the gnarled roots of the linden trees. She felt that her heart was beating faster than it should. She felt as strong as the river, carrying the riches of the North down into the Caspian Sea.
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This short story first appeared in Best New American Voices 2009. All rights reserved. Please feel free to quote an excerpt, link, print, and distribute, but do not republish without permission.
Photo credit: Russia. Moscow Region. Ramensky area, Winter pine wood, lake Kratovskoe area, by Aleks G. Used under a creative commons license. Available at Wikimedia.