Did Galina ever seduce a man into her bed? Did she ever find herself in that mellow surrender, with an even heartbeat, as she groomed her body — the millions of skin cells she had never cared for before — as she waited for her lover to take her out on the town, for a walk or a dinner at his parent’s home; so that later she could be disrobed, explored and tasted? consumed and worshiped, cared for?
Had she ever learned what it was like to know a man so intimately she could tell what he’d drunk for dinner just by the flavors of his bodily liquids? And had Galina known elation, the best kind of which can be experienced only in the highs of being in love; and was she then able to foresee that even though loss would eventually follow — always follow — it was all worth it, while unfolding?
But the word of Galina’s “willingness” began to roam the village. The bachelors reconsidered the cripple’s appearance: After all, she didn’t need to be a beauty queen for frolicking in the hay. They began to scheme amongst themselves. She probably wouldn’t put up too much of a fight; or demand for a man to leap through the endless rings of fire that belong to courtship. The married men with a lusty eye took notice of her waiting on the outskirts of fields at the end of their working day. So did their women:
“Hey, Mash? Isn’t that your girl hugging the fence over there, behind the tractor?” the women approached Galina’s mother, amused at first, but not for long.
“The devil’s dragged her out again!” the old woman grumbled, embarrassed. Lord knew, she’d had her hands full with this child! “I wish any man or death would just take her already!” (Oh, you think that’s uncharitable? I’ll see what blues you’d sing if ever you found yourself stuck in living out a Russian’s destiny! That roller coaster — is no joke!)
The women of the village began to shun the cripple. A fair competition or not, for all they knew, Galina shared the same anatomy between her legs; and men, being a canine type, let’s face it, wouldn’t have the will power to say “nyet” when an opportunity of getting some — of getting any — splayed out in front of their panting mouths. No longer was Galina invited to join the girls-in-waiting on village benches whenever they saw her limping with her cane, at dusk. They didn’t brush her hair, didn’t massage her bow-like back; or reached to scratch mosquito bites through her thick woolen tights, during the summer nights. When she showed up at church, the girls dispersed, but not before hissing a few slurs that could be overheard even by a deaf-mute. As far as they were concerned, it was better to be safe than find their boyfriends venturing out for some lay on the side, which, considering Galina’s growing neediness, was always nearby and easily available.
Galina, whose accident left her stuck in the mind of a child, couldn’t understand the change in their favors. Not at least until her mother Masha broke it down one day, while scrubbing her daughter’s unattractive body on a banya shelf:
“You ought to stop blabbering like this, my poor child!” she gently rubbed a straw clump against the raised red scars on her daughter’s back. “It’s not modest for a girl, first of all, to show off like this. And then, you’re making all the females jealous.”
Picking at her bellybutton, Galina defended herself: “But I speak the truth, didn’t you know? I will marry! I am no worse than all those other silly girls!”
“Of course, of course,” Masha soothed. “Of course, you will, my child. In time, you will.”
Galina’s mother took mercy on her daughter. What else did she have going for her but those innocent fantasies of rescue via marriage and the care of a man? But the poor simpleton! She had yet to learn that guilt and pity she provoked in other women made terrible accomplices, in the end; and that a woman’s generosity ran only as thick as her man’s attentiveness.
But listen she did. The very next Sunday, Galina didn’t dress up for church. She didn’t leave the veranda where she slept in the summer, to then wait by the side of the dirt road, to catch a ride in the milkman’s horse-drawn carriage. She stopped visiting the fields, or strolling through the village in search of young girls’ congregations. It seemed she locked herself at home during daylight. And only at sunset did she begin to leave the house and joining the babushkas: those old retired women who were cared for by their children if they were lucky; and if unlucky, the women who worked until their daily duties were completed after the last cow got home. They sat on the benches, like brown sparrows along a telephone line; stretching their arthritic limbs, adjusting their kerchiefs and shacking roasted sunflower seed with toothless gums, until their fingernails turned black and their tongues were raw and scarred by salt. There they sat, watching the rest of the living go by, and calling out to either Jesus or Mother Death, for the end of their — or others’ — misery.
At first, the old women scolded the cuz:
“You ought to waste your time by the band stage, and not with us!”
“Oy, don’t even tell me!” the others chimed in. “Now, did you see just what these youngsters wear, these days?! In my time, I wouldn’t show my naked knee to even my own husband.”
“Oy, dear little lord of ours! My granddaughter chops off her skirts like this on purpose! I found the tailor’s bill.”
The old women crossed themselves. Their religiousness did not die down, not with the revolution or the Party’s teachings. Harmless to most, they worshiped openly; and these old women had a point: What else would there be left of Russia’s soul, if not its fear of Father God or Mother Nature?
There, in the companies of babushkas, Galina started to pick up the dirt on every household in the village. And what a way to make a recovery! No matter the shared elation or tragedy, most mortals couldn’t resist a juicy piece of gossip.
Quite rapidly, Galina became the go-to for the latest news: She was the younger generation’s Sputnik that circled the village — from one bench to another — to measure and deliver back the temperatures around town. The misstep of her own fictional marriage was long forgotten, and by the fall — before the hay had finished drying out and got transported into hay storage shacks; and long before the housewives completed pickling cabbage and lining up their cellar shelves with jams; before the men piled up the wood for heating the stove in the winter — Galina became every household’s most welcomed guest.
(To Be Continued.)