Government warnings about radiation levels in her hometown (a stone’s throw from Chernobyl) be damned! Baba Dunja is going home. And she’s taking a motley bunch of her former neighbors with her. With strangely misshapen forest fruits to spare and the town largely to themselves, they have pretty much everything they need and they plan to start anew.
The terminally ill Petrov passes the time reading love poems in his hammock; Marja takes up with the almost 100-year-old Sidorow; Baba Dunja whiles away her days writing letters to her daughter. Life is beautiful. That is until one day a stranger turns up in the village and once again the little idyllic settlement faces annihilation.
From the prodigiously talented Alina Bronsky, this is a return to the iron-willed and infuriatingly misguided older female protagonist that she made famous with her unforgettable Russian matriarch, Rosa Achmetowna, in The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. Here she tells the story of a post-meltdown settlement, and of an unusual woman, Baba Dunja, who, late in life, finds her version of paradise.
|Publisher:||Europa Editions, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Russian-born Alina Bronksy is the author of Broken Glass Park (Europa, 2010); The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (Europa, 2011), named a Best Book of 2011 by The Wall Street Journal , The Huffington Post , and Publishers Weekly ; and Just Call Me Superhero (Europa, 2014).
Read an Excerpt
I'm awoken in the night again by Marja's rooster, Konstantin. He's like an ersatz husband for Marja. She raised him, and she pampered and spoiled him even as a chick; now he's full-grown and good for nothing. Struts around the yard imperiously and leers at me. His internal clock is messed up, always has been, though I don't think it has anything to do with the radiation. You can't blame the radiation for every stupid thing in the world.
I lift up the covers and let my feet drop to the ground. On the floorboards is a carpet I crocheted out of strips of old bedsheets. I have a lot of time in winter because I don't have to tend to my garden. I rarely go out during winter, only to fetch water or wood or to shovel snow from my doorstep. But it's summer now, and I'm on my feet at five in the morning to go wring the neck of Marja's rooster.
Every morning I'm surprised when I look at my feet, which look knobby and swollen in my German hiking sandals. The sandals are tough. They'll outlive everything, surely including me.
I didn't always have such swollen feet. They used to be delicate and slim, caked with dried mud, beautiful without any shoes at all. Jegor loved my feet. He forbade me to walk around barefoot because so much as a glance at my toes made men hot under the collar.
When he stops by now, I point to the bulges protruding from the hiking sandals and say, See what's left of all their splendor?
And he laughs and says they're still pretty. He's been very polite since he died, the liar.
I need a few minutes to get my blood pumping. I stand there and brace myself on the end of the bed. Things are still a bit hazy in my head. Marja's rooster Konstantin is screeching as if it's being strangled. Maybe someone has beaten me to it.
I grab my bathrobe from the chair. It used to be brightly colored, red flowers on a black background. You can't see the flowers anymore. But it's clean, which is important to me. Irina promised to send me a new one. I slip it on and tie the belt. I shake out the down-filled duvet, lay it on the bed and pat it smooth, then put the embroidered bedspread on top of it. Then I head for the door. The first few steps after waking up are always slow.
The sky hangs light blue over the village like a washed-out sheet. There's a bit of sunlight. I just can't get it through my head that the same sun shines for everyone: for the queen of England, for the black president of America, for Irina in Germany, for Marja's rooster Konstantin. And for me, Baba Dunja, who until thirty years ago set broken bones in splints and delivered other people's babies, and who has today decided to become a murderer. Konstantin is a stupid creature, always making such a racket for no reason. And besides, I haven't had chicken soup in a long time.
The rooster is sitting on the fence looking at me. Out of the corner of my eye I see Jegor, who's leaning against the trunk of my apple tree. I'm sure his mouth is contorted in a derisive sneer. The fence is crooked and leaning precariously, and it wobbles in the wind. The dumb bird balances atop it like a drunken tightrope walker.
"Come here, my dear," I say. "Come, I'll quiet you down."
I stretch out my hand. The rooster flaps his wings and screeches. His wattle is more gray than red, and it shakes nervously. I try to remember how old the creature is. Marja won't forgive me, I think. My outstretched hand hangs in the air.
And then, before I've even touched him, the rooster falls at my feet.
* * *
Marja said it would break her heart. So I have to do it.
She sits with me in the yard and sniffles into a checkered handkerchief. She has turned her back to me so she doesn't have to see me plucking out the pale speckled feathers and tossing them into a plastic bag. Down floats on the air.
"He loved me," she says. "He looked at me a certain way whenever I entered the yard."
The plastic bag is half full. Konstantin is nearly indecent, naked in my lap. One of his eyes is half-open, gazing up at the sky.
"Look," she says. "It's like he's still listening."
"There's certainly nothing he hasn't heard out of you before."
That's the truth. Marja always talked to him. Which makes me worry that I'll have less peace and quiet now. Aside from me, everyone seems to need somebody to talk to, and Marja more than most. I'm her nearest neighbor, the fence is all that divides our properties. The fence might have been solid at some point. But these days it's not much more than a notion of a fence.
"Tell me exactly how it happened." Marja's voice is like a widow's.
"I told you a thousand times already. I came out because he was screeching, and then he suddenly fell over. Right at my feet."
"Maybe someone put a curse on him."
I nod. Marja believes in that stuff. Tears run down her face and disappear in the deep wrinkles of her face. Even though she's at least ten years younger than I am. She doesn't have much of an education, she worked as a milkmaid, she's a simple woman. Here she doesn't even have a cow, though she does have a goat that lives with her in the house and watches TV with her whenever there's anything on. At least that way she has the company of a living, breathing entity. Except the goat can't hold up its end of the conversation. So I answer.
"Who would want to put a curse on your stupid bird?"
"Shhh. Don't speak ill of the dead. Anyway, people are evil."
"People are lazy," I say. "Do you want to boil him?"
She waves her hand dismissively.
"Fine. Then I'll do it."
She nods and looks furtively at the bag of feathers. "I wanted to bury him."
"You should have told me earlier. Now you'll have to bury the feathers with him so his people don't laugh at him in heaven."
Marja thinks for a moment. "Ach, what's the point. You cook him and give me half of the soup."
I knew it would work out that way. We don't eat meat very often, and Marja is a glutton.
I nod and pull the shriveled eyelid down over the rooster's glassy eye.
* * *
The stuff about heaven I didn't really mean. I don't believe in it. I mean, I believe there's a heaven above our heads, but I know that our dead aren't there. Even as a little girl I didn't believe that people snuggled in the clouds like in a down-filled duvet. But I did think you could eat the clouds like cotton candy.
Our dead are among us, often they don't even know they're dead and that their bodies are rotting in the ground.
Tschernowo isn't big, but we have our own cemetery because the people in Malyschi don't want our corpses. At the moment their city council is debating whether to require a lead coffin for Tschernowo corpses buried there, because radioactive materials continue to give off radiation even if they're no longer alive. In the meantime we have a provisional cemetery here, in a spot where a hundred and fifty years ago a church stood and thirty years ago a village schoolhouse. It's a humble plot with wooden crosses, and the few graves there aren't even fenced in.
As far as I'm concerned, I don't even want to be buried in Malyschi. After the reactor mishap, I left like almost everyone else. It was 1986, and at first we didn't know what had happened. Then liquidators showed up in Tschernowo in protective suits, carrying beeping devices up and down the main street. Panic broke out, families with little children were the fastest to pack up their things, rolling up mattresses and stuffing jewelry and socks into teakettles, roping furniture to their roof racks and roaring off. Speed was now a necessity, since it wasn't as if the mishap had taken place the day before, it was just that nobody had told us about it until then.
I was still very young, fiftysomething, but my children were no longer at home. So I wasn't too worried. Irina was studying in Moskow, and Alexej was on a tour of the Altai mountains. I was one of the last to leave Tschernowo. I helped others to stuff their clothes in sacks and to rip up floorboards to get at the money they'd hidden underneath. I didn't really see why I should leave at all.
Jegor shoved me into one of the last cars that was sent from the capital and squeezed in beside me. Jegor had let himself get swept up in the panic, as if his balls needed to produce any more children and needed to be rushed to safety. Despite the fact that he'd long since drunk his crotch sterile and limp. The news of the reactor brought him temporarily to his senses, and he started yammering on about the end of the world and got on my nerves.
I don't have any large pots at home because I've lived alone since I returned. Houseguests aren't exactly lined up around the block. I never cook to save leftovers, I always cook fresh every day. Borscht is the only thing I warm up day after day. But it gets better with every day it sits.
I take the biggest pot I can find out of the cabinet. And look for a top that will fit. I've accumulated a lot of tops over the years, none of which fit properly, but they're good enough for me. I cut the head and feet off the rooster, they'll go into the soup. Then I cut off the rump, which I give to the cat. I put the rooster in the pot along with the head and feet, a peeled carrot from the garden, and an onion with the skin on so the broth will have a nice golden color. I pour water in from the bucket, just enough so everything is covered. It'll be a nourishing broth, fatty and glistening.
When the reactor happened, I counted myself among those who got off lightly. My children were safe, my husband wasn't going to live much longer anyway, and my flesh was already toughened with age. In essence I had nothing to lose. And anyway, I was prepared to die. My work had taught me always to keep that possibility in mind so as never to be caught by surprise.
I marvel every single day at the fact that I'm still here. And every second day I ask myself whether I might be one of the many dead who wander around unwilling to acknowledge that their name is already inscribed on a gravestone somewhere. They need to be told, but who is that brazen? I'm happy that nobody has anything left to say to me. I've seen everything and have no more fears. Death can come, just let it come gracefully, please.
The water in the pot is bubbling. I turn down the heat, grab a ladle from a hook, and begin to scoop off the thick gray foam that's pushing up the sides of the pot. If the water were to keep boiling so hard, the foam would break up into tiny bits and get mixed into the broth. On the ladle the foam looks dreary and unappetizing, like a collapsed gray cloud. I let it drip into the cat's bowl. Cats are even less sensitive than we are. This cat is the daughter of the one that was in my house when I came back. She was really the lady of the house and I was just her guest.
The nearby villages are all abandoned. The buildings are still there, but the walls are flimsy and collapsing, and the nettles grow as high as the eaves. There aren't even rats because rats need garbage, fresh, greasy garbage. Rats need people.
I could have taken my pick of houses in Tschernowo when I came back. I chose my old one. The door was open, the gas tank was only half empty, the well was just a few minutes' walk away, and the garden was still recognizable. I cleared the nettles and cut back the blackberries, for weeks I didn't do anything else. I knew: I need this garden. I can't manage the walk to the bus stop and the long ride into Malyschi very often. But I need to eat three times a day.
Ever since, I've planted a third of the garden. That's enough. If I had a large family I would use the entire garden. I benefit from the fact that I took such good care of it before the reactor. The greenhouse is a jewel, handcrafted by Jegor, and I harvest tomatoes and cucumbers a week before everyone else in the village, just as I did before the reactor. There are gooseberries in green and red and currants in red, white, and black, old bushes that I carefully prune each fall so they produce new shoots. I have two apple trees and a raspberry patch. It's a fertile area here.
The soup is simmering on the lowest flame. I'll let it cook for two or even better three hours, so the old flesh softens and falls from the bone. It's the same with people: it's hard to choke down old flesh.
The smell of the chicken soup makes the cat twitchy. She slinks around my feet, meowing, and rubs herself against my calves in their thick wool stockings. I know I'm getting older because I'm always cold. Even in summer I don't leave the house without wool socks.
The cat is pregnant, I'll give her the skin and gristle of the rooster later. Sometimes she hunts beetles and spiders. We have a lot of spiders in Tschernowo. The amount of bugs has increased since the reactor. A year ago a biologist came and photographed all the spiderwebs in my house. I leave them be, even when Marja calls me a slovenly housewife.
The good thing about being old is that you don't need to ask anyone's permission anymore — you don't need to ask whether you can live in your old house, or whether it's okay to leave the spiderwebs be. The spiders were here before me, too. The biologist took pictures of them with a camera that looked like a weapon. He set up spotlights and lit up every corner of my house. I didn't have any objection, no reason he shouldn't go ahead and do his job. He just had to turn down the sound on his device because the beeps sent chills down my spine.
The biologist explained to me why we have so many bugs. It's because there are far fewer birds in the area since the reactor. So the beetles and spiders can multiply unhindered. He was unable to tell me, however, why there are so many cats. Cats probably have something that protects them against bad things.
A second cat slips into the doorway. The cat that lives with me immediately arches her back. She's a beast and doesn't let anyone across the threshold.
"Come on, be nice," I say, but she isn't nice. She makes hissing noises and her hair stands on end. She has only half a tail, someone clipped off the rest. I always had cats and chickens and, earlier, a dog, it's a part of village life that I like. Another reason I came back. The animals here aren't sick in their heads the way they are in the city, even if they are irradiated and crippled. The noise and constriction of the city makes cats and dogs crazy.
Irina flew all the way from Germany just to try to keep me from moving back to Tschernowo. She tried all means, even crying. My Irina, who never cried, not even as a little girl. It wasn't that I forbade her to cry; on the contrary, it would have been healthy to cry sometimes. But she was like a boy, climbing trees and fences and sometimes falling off, even getting smacked, and still she never cried. She ended up studying medicine and now she's a surgeon with the German military. That's my girl. And then, of all times, she thought she needed to cry because I wanted to move back home.
"I have never told you what you have to do," I explained to her. "And I don't want you to tell me what I have to do."
"But, Mother, who in their right mind could possibly want to go back to the death zone?"
"You're saying words that you don't understand, my girl. I've already gone to look, the buildings are all still standing, and weeds are growing in the garden."
"Mother, you know what radioactivity is. Everything is irradiated."
"I'm old, nothing can irradiate me anymore, and even if it does it's not the end of the world."
She dabbed her eyes dry in a way that made it clear she was a surgeon.
"I won't come visit you there."
"I know," I said, "but you don't come very often anyway."
"Is that a reproach?"
"No. I think it's good. Why should anyone hover around their parents?"
She had looked at me suspiciously, like she used to many years before, when she was still little. She didn't believe me. But I meant it just as I said it. There's nothing for her here, and I don't try to make her feel guilty about that, either.
"We can meet every couple of years in Malyschi," I said. "Or whenever you come. As long as I live."
I knew she didn't have a lot of vacation days. And when she took them she didn't need to spend them here. And back then flights were still really expensive, far more expensive than they are now.
There was one thing we didn't talk about. When something is particularly important, you don't talk about it. Irina has a daughter, and I have a granddaughter, who goes by the very pretty name of Laura. No girls are named Laura around here, only my granddaughter who I have never seen. When I went back to the village, Laura had just turned one. When I went back home, I knew I would never see her.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Baba Dunja's Last Love"
Copyright © 2015 Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Köln.
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