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Authors: Ludmila Ulitskaya

The Big Green Tent

BOOK: The Big Green Tent
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Do not be consoled by the injustice of our time. Its immorality does not prove our own moral worth; its inhumanity is not sufficient to render us human merely by opposing it.

—Boris Pasternak to Varlam Shalamov, July 9, 1952

 

PROLOGUE

Tamara sat before a runny omelet on a plate, the vestiges of sleep still clinging to her.

Trying not to yank at the living pelt, Raisa Ilinichna, her mother, nudged a wide-tooth comb through Tamara's hair as gently as she could.

The radio disgorged strains of triumphal music, but it wasn't terribly loud: Grandmother was asleep behind the partition wall. Then the music died out. The pause that followed was too long, and seemed to portend something. The familiar, solemn radio voice resounded: “Attention! This is Moscow speaking. Transmitting an official announcement to all radio stations of the Soviet Union.”

The comb froze in Tamara's hair. She snapped out of her half-sleep, swallowed down the last of the omelet, and in a hoarse, morning voice said, “It's probably just some dumb cold, and they have to go broadcasting it to the entire—”

She didn't get to finish her thought. Raisa Ilinichna jerked Tamara's head back with a violent tug of the comb, so that her jaw snapped shut.

“Shush!” Raisa Ilinichna's voice was tight.

Grandmother, wearing a robe as ancient as the Great Wall of China, appeared in the doorway. She listened to the announcement, and at the end, her face and eyes shining, said, “Raisa, dear, run down to the store and get us something sweet. Today is, after all, Purim. Besides, the Big Samekh seems to have kicked the bucket.”

Tamara didn't yet know what Purim was, or why it required something sweet; nor did she know who this Big Samekh was who had most likely kicked the bucket. She was still too young to know that in her family they had always referred to Stalin and Lenin in code, calling them conspiratorially by the first letters of their names, in an ancient secret language—Hebrew. The letters were samekh and lamed
.

Meanwhile, the beloved official voice of the nation, familiar to every household in the land, was announcing an illness far worse than a cold.

*   *   *

Galya had already thrown on her school dress and was now looking for the pinafore. Where could it be? She fished around under the trestle bed—maybe it had fallen behind it.

Suddenly her mother burst in, with a kitchen knife in one hand and a potato in the other. She wailed in a voice so strange that Galya thought she might have cut her hand open. But there was no blood.

Her father, grouchy in the mornings, pulled his head from the pillow. “What are you yelling about, Ninka? Isn't it too early for that?”

But her mother wailed even louder, a jumble of incoherent words streaming out.

“He's dead! Wake up, you idiot! Get out of bed! Stalin's dead!”

“Did they make an announcement, or what?” Her father raised his big head; a lock of hair stuck to his forehead.

“They say he's ill. But he's dead, I swear to God! I feel it in my bones.”

Then the incoherent wailing resumed, punctuated by a plaintive, melodramatic lament: “Lord in heaven! What will become of us?”

Wincing, her father barked, “Quit moaning, woman! How much worse can things get?”

Just then Galya's fingers grasped the pinafore, which had indeed fallen behind the bed.

So what if it's wrinkled. I'm not ironing it
, she decided.

*   *   *

By morning her fever had subsided, and Olga fell into a sound sleep, undisturbed by sweating or coughing. She slept all the way through till dinnertime, when her mother came in and announced, in a stern, resonant voice, “Olga, get up! Misfortune has befallen us.”

Without opening her eyes, clutching the pillow in the hope that it was all a dream, but already feeling terror pulsing in her throat, Olga thought,
War! The Fascists are attacking! War has started!

“Olga, get up!”

What a catastrophe! The Fascist hordes are trampling our holy Motherland, and everyone will get to go to the front to fight, but me …

“Stalin's dead!”

Her heart was caught in her throat, but she still didn't open her eyes: thank goodness it wasn't war after all. When the war started, she would be bigger and they would take her, too. And she buried her head under the blanket, muttering, “And then they'll take me, too,” and fell asleep to this comforting thought.

Her mother let her sleep.

 

THOSE WONDROUS SCHOOL YEARS

It's fascinating to trace the trajectories of people destined to meet. Sometimes such encounters happen without any special help from fate, without elaborate convolutions of plot, following the natural course of events—say, people live in adjacent buildings, or go to the same school.

The three boys all went to the same school. Ilya and Sanya had known each other since the first grade. Mikha joined them later. In the hierarchy that takes shape willy-nilly in every herd, all three of them occupied the lowest rung—due to their complete disinclination to fight or be cruel. Ilya was long and lanky, his hands and feet stuck out from his short sleeves and trouser legs. Moreover, there wasn't a single nail or sharp piece of metal he hadn't snagged his clothes on. His mother, the doleful, single Maria Fedorovna, wore herself out attaching unsightly patches to his clothes with her graceless fingers. Sewing was not her forte. Ilya was always dressed more poorly than the other students, who were themselves poorly dressed. He liked to cut up and play the clown, making a spectacle of his poverty and thereby overcoming it.

Sanya had it even worse. His classmates were filled with envy and disgust at his zippered jacket, his girlish eyelashes, the irksome sweetness of his face, and the cloth napkin his homemade lunch came wrapped in every day. Added to that, he took piano lessons. Many of the kids had seen him walking down Chernyshevsky Street, the former and future Pokrovka, to the Igumnov Music School, one of his hands clutching his grandmother's hand, the other clutching a folder with sheet music. Sometimes they saw him even on days when he was sick with one of his frequent minor, but protracted, illnesses. His grandmother was all profile. She would place one slender leg in front of the other like a circus horse, her head swaying rhythmically in time. Sanya walked by her side, but slightly behind, as befits a groom.

Contrary to his regular school, at music school everyone sang the praises of Sanya. In his second year there, he played Grieg at his recital with a skill that few fifth-year students could muster. The small stature of the performer was also touching. At eight years old he was mistaken for a preschooler, and at twelve he looked like he was eight. For this reason, they dubbed him Gnome at his regular school. And the nickname was not an affectionate one; they made fun of him mercilessly. Sanya consciously avoided Ilya, not so much because of his teasing—which was not directed at Sanya, but which sometimes grazed him nonetheless—but because of their humiliating difference in size.

Mikha was the one who brought Sanya and Ilya together when he appeared in their midst in the fifth grade. His arrival was greeted with delight. A classic redhead, he was the ideal target for gibes.

His head was shaved bare, except for a crooked, reddish-gold tuft in front. He had translucent magenta-colored ears that stuck out from the sides of his head like sails; but they were in the wrong place, too close to his cheeks, somehow. He had milky white skin and freckles, and his eyes even had an orangey hue. As if all that weren't enough, he was bespectacled, and a Jew, to boot.

The first time Mikha got beaten up was on the first day of school. The beating, which took place in the bathroom during recess, was a mild one—just a formality, to give him something to think about. It wasn't even Murygin and Mutyukin who did it—they had better things to do—but their sidekicks and underlings. Mikha stoically took what was coming to him, then opened his book bag to take out a handkerchief and wipe away his snot. At that moment, a kitten squirmed out of the bag. The other boys grabbed the kitten and started tossing it back and forth. Just then, Ilya, the tallest boy in the class, walked in. He managed to intercept the kitten in midair, over the heads of the makeshift volleyball team, when the bell sounded, putting an end to the game.

When they returned to the classroom, Ilya thrust the kitten at Sanya, who had materialized right beside him, and who then stuffed the kitten into his book bag.

During the final break, those archenemies of the human race, Murygin and Mutyukin, whose names will serve as the basis for a future philological conceit and so deserve mention, looked around for the kitten, but soon forgot about it. That day, school was dismissed after only four classes, and the boys tore out of the school building, whooping and hollering. These three were left to their own devices in the empty classroom bedecked with brightly colored asters—first-day-of-school offerings for the teacher. Sanya extracted the half-smothered kitten from the satchel and handed it to Ilya. Ilya gave it to Mikha. Sanya smiled at Ilya, Ilya at Mikha, Mikha at Sanya.

“I wrote a poem. About him,” Mikha said shyly. “Here it is.”

He was the handsomest of cats,

And just about to meet his death,

When Ilya jumped into the fray.

And now the kitten's here today.

“Not bad. Though it's no Pushkin,” Ilya said.

“‘Now the kitten's here today' is too pompous,” said Sanya. Mikha agreed humbly.

“How about ‘And now the kitten's here to stay.' That sounds better.”

Mikha then told them in great detail how in the morning, on his way to school, he had snatched the unfortunate creature out of the jaws of a canine predator. He couldn't take the kitten home, however, because he didn't know how his aunt would react. He had been living with her only since the previous Monday.

Sanya stroked the kitten's back and sighed. “I can't take him home with me. We've already got a cat. He wouldn't like it.”

BOOK: The Big Green Tent
13.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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