Monthly Archives: August 2012

It’s All Fun and Games Until

(Continued from August 19th, 2012.)

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?

Probably not.

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.)

The Way to a Man’s Heart

(Continued from August 12th, 2012.)

Be it from a life-long deprivation of male attention or grandma Tanya’s diagnosis of Galina’s “messed-up nerves”, cuz’s hormones went berserk as soon as she dropped out of school after the sixth grade.  In all fairness, there was not much use to furthering her education, Galina’s parents presumed:  After the accident, she wasn’t bound for big things any longer.  And the Russian inbred understanding that one was born into one’s circumstances — and no amount of prayer, chance or hard work would transcend a citizen into a higher, more fortunate caste — spiraled Galina’s life into one of a peasant.  She would be following her parents’ path, and in that, no comrade could find much tragedy.

“But I’m going to marry!” she announced one Sunday morning, on the steps of a neighboring town’s church.  The other girls-in-waiting surrounded and teased her for the name of her future husband.  (Competition makes women one mean lot, especially when they are those middle-ground, okay-looking ones that hold onto their men with their teeth and fear.)  But Galina remained secretive, as if she were the best of Soviet spies.

“You don’t have no fiance yet!” the young women challenged.  I mean:  Had she fallen off the rocker?!  Who did she think she was?!  Engagements took months to set up.  Dozens of chaperone shifts were arranged by the elders.  Sunday’s best, collected by the girl’s parents throughout her life, were dug out of the familial traveling trunks, washed and ironed, and put to use.  And the honing of womanly duties — by the river bank where other housewives rinsed their laundry and in the kitchen; by the married women’s lectures on the suddenly poignant topics of personal hygiene and the horrors of their wedding nights — these things demanded serious commitment and courage on a girl’s part!

“It takes a lot of work to lure a man!” the girls-in-waiting lectured the crippled simpleton.  There was no way she presented much competition!  And they supposed they would’ve just let her dream on, had she not perturbed them with such a silly idea, in the first place.

And they did have a point:  No one had ever seen Galina starch her petticoats or outline her eyes with sharpened charcoal sold at the department store, to which one had to ride a bus for two and a half kilometers.  In the later part of summer, Galina had yet to travel to other women’s homes to help them pickle cabbage or to cure pork belly in salt baths whenever a local family decided to lessen its livestock count.  And neither was she known to possess any skill mending socks or warding off a bad eye.  She wasn’t in the know on how to start up a stove or a banya, for a man.  She couldn’t brew home-made liquor or even a jar kvas.  Such skills were expected of any bride, especially from one that could’t bewitch a man based on her looks alone.

“So what?!” Galina obnoxiously defended herself.  She was an innocent, but any challenge against her word of truth — and she could throw a fit which even the devil would overhear.  “My dad’s already traveled to three dinners two towns over!” she continued bragging.  “He says even the chairman of the collective farm over there could be interested.  (He’s got a handsome son, didn’t you know?)”

How much truth there was to Galina’s aspirations — no one knew for certain.  But Galina’s father — an alcoholic who freelanced around town to clean people’s outhouses, or to build new ones — was not to be taken lightly, at least by the townsmen; for quite a sizable physique did uncle Pavel have on him!  The man was a giant, barely fitting into doorways; and he was gossiped to have never shared a bed with his wife because there just wasn’t enough room for two.  Pavel was known to sleep in the cow stable; and that is exactly where, according to the gossip, Galina had to have been conceived.

Every night, Pavel raised hell with vodka on his breath.  Galina’s mother Masha had begun to lock him out of the house; and at dawn, she searched the village’s ditches and liquor store alleys and dragged her alcoholic giant home (where she would deposit him into the cow stable yet again).

So, even though Galina’s self-proclaimed bridal status appeared absurd to most, one had to consider the fear Pavel imposed on young grooms-in-the-making.  And there were other factors to consider, as well:

“She does collect a sizeable pension,” the townswomen speculated after the news of Galina’s betrothal began to spread.  “Not a bad deal for a dowry!”

Others approached the subject with medical facts:  “Lord knows, so deprived her womanly parts have been, for all these year!  I bet she’s not too difficult to bed.”

The women giggled.  The subject of sex was not a frequent one in the idealistic minds of Soviet citizens.  Like anywhere else in the world, men wanted it; but it was entirely a responsibility of the women to a. to put out or to hold out, and b. protect themselves in the process.  But even with one’s gynecologist, it was inappropriate to comfortably, openly discuss such matters.  So, to be born pretty was a questionable blessing, for a Russian girl.  But to be born smart — to know how to negotiate her worth before the broken hymen, to smoothly transition herself from under the care of her father to that of her husband — that, in the eyes of women and their mothers, was a much more important entity.  (So, that part about sex being enjoyable — in some women’s lives, they never knew of it.  Enjoyment was left to the other types of women:  the loose ones, the ones that every town had and loved to judge; and in the cities, they were the second “wives” that some husbands kept on the side, on weeknights.)

(To Be Continued.)

Offbeat

 (Continued from August 5th, 2012.)

For several generations, Galina was the boogeywoman of the town!  Myths about her bodily disfigurements had been roaming the village for decades.  One couldn’t find a single bench or kitchen sink in the place by which the poor cripple was not discussed (“rinsing the bones,” the Russian women called it).

Young misbehaving children were threatened into obedience by the mere mention of Galina’s arrival at nighttime; and all the homely girls summoned their gratitude for not having it in the worst of ways, whenever cousin’s name was mentioned at the summer dances in the open air.  (Bound to a cane from a young age, Galina wasn’t a visitor of such events.  But her name, turned synonymous with her life’s tragedy, was there — along with her bones — “to be rinsed”.)

In the days of summer, murders of children hid behind the fence of Galina’s garden every morning, to get a peek of her washing routine by the outside basin:

“Is it true she doesn’t have any hair underneath that scarf?” the rascals challenged each other.

“I hear her feet are just charred stumps.  I dare you to look!”

They would come from the cities, along with their cultured parents, to visit their grandfolks for the summer; and in a way that most fairytales originated from Russia’s countrysides, thusly did Galina become an unbelievable rarity unseen elsewhere.  A freak.

But when the cuz walked through the dusty roads or windy paths along the green hills, the other townspeople let her be.  When she scratched at the snowed-in gates, every household welcomed her in.  Because isn’t it a quality innately human to, even if secretly, be drawn to the tales of others’ accidents with fortune?  Galina always arrived bearing the news of the worst; and no matter one’s altruistic intentions, the relief of knowing presented itself in the darkest corners of one’s conscience:  “At least, bad luck wasn’t happening — to me!”  And into most companies of the village gabbers and gossipers, Galina was admitted, too.  Like a debilitating snowstorm that strikes a town with chaos but also an eventual promise of a good harvest, the old cripple was accepted with a certain surrender, with which most Russians honed their spirits.  For no easy habit it was to live through Russia’s troubles!  One often chose to float along and to not fight back one’s destiny.

It was in the summer of my twelfth year that I became particularly interested in the history of Galina’s womanhood.  Truth be told, I sympathized with the cuz, watching her eat with her fingers at my grandparents’ dinner table because most utensil were too cumbersome for her misshapen mouth.  Earlier that school year, most of my girl classmates had gotten their periods, and they began to skip morning gym classes.  Instead, they sat them out on benches, with mysteriously bashful expressions on their faces; and no one — not even the Afghan veteran Timofeitch, who’d been teaching us for the past two years — could say a word to them.  I, in the mean time, was still bound to my flat-chested, thinner-then-a-broom physique, with no growing pains in my breasts to prevent me from relay competitions.

“Oh, but at least you have very pretty eyes!” mother offered me her lame consolation, when after our fifth grade dance I came home in tears.  Despite the Korean-made dress of hideous neon-green, in which mother had decked me out that afternoon, I spent the entire gathering leaning against the wall; and watching Alyoshka — the dreamiest creature in my class — take turns dancing with any girl who had boobs.

What was it like to be pretty, I was dying to know; and when would my turn finally come?  Mother claimed it was a curse even more brutal than being unmemorable, as other boys, I was certain, found me to be.  “Beauty comes with a responsibility,” the woman claimed, lowering her gorgeous Georgian eyes underneath the bushy eyebrow.  “Oh, Lord help us all, poor women folk:  The responsibility!”

Surely, cousin Galina had lived through my suffering!  She must’ve understood it!  But the very idea of having a heart-to-heart with the complaining relative sent me into a state of anxious shyness.  I suspected she would avoid the topic altogether, and instead try to pond off information about the terrible luck in store for some other unfortunate adult.  And just like the smells of her flesh, I found her gossip oppressive.

“So, grandma?” I started up one evening, while helping grandma Irina transfer a woolen thread from a spool into a yarn ball.  The winters were unforgiving in the Urals, with snowfalls of at least a meter deep; and as the harvest season was winding down, grandma Irina busied herself with supplying her entire family — from the distant relatives in Siberia and to her best friend in the Ukraine — with woolen sock.  The tips of the spool rotated against my fingertips, leaving them slightly raw with early blisters.  So, I’d switch them out periodically:  The pain was nothing in comparison to my desire to dig up some information on the cuz.

“How come babushka Galina had never been married?”

Grandma Irina knitted her brow but didn’t stop masterfully looping the thread around the yarn ball.  Her fingers moved quickly.  The yarn looked like a blurry trail.  “She isn’t your babushka,” she corrected me.  “Now hold the spool evenly!  Level out the left side!”

It was obvious:  The topic, alas, would have come to a halt — if grandpa Sergei hadn’t stepped in.

“Oh, but as the Lord himself had witnessed:  She promised herself to so many men, none wanted her after they were done!”

“Seryozha!”  Grandma scolded, shooting me a look of pure horror.  “The child’s too young to know such things!”

But grandpop was already on a roll:  “Oh yes!  In her time, Galina was the biggest floozy this town has ever seen!”  He smirked:  The Sunday banya with his drinking comrades had loosened up his demeanor and tongue.   “Not a single skirt has been able to live up to cuz’s reputation since!”

(To Be Continued.)

As Luck Would Have It

Cousin Galina always arrived with bad news:  the neighbor’s pig had died during the previous night’s drop of the outside temperatures, making its meat too stiff to consume.  But what else was the family to do, at the end of the coldest winter of the last two decades?  The postmaster had collapsed one morning from an infarct, on his way to work.  (“Well, don’t expect to get any mail until next month, now!”)  Ilyinithna — the richest and the stingiest woman in the village — was still suffering from a bout of hiccups; and the Army draft had yet again passed Ivan, the Lame Arm, which, you could bet, didn’t thrill his widowed mother much:  She was hoping he could learn more useful skills than hanging out in apples trees and shooting the crows from a homemade bow that he pulled with his teeth.

The concept of karma wasn’t even heard of in the heart my grandparents’ village at the time, but cousin Galina had a special talent for making the connections with the flow of the universal force.  She possessed an impressive memory and retained the history of every family’s generations.  Every misstep, every shame was kept on file in the old woman’s brain, allowing her to masterfully connect the dots at the culminations of each misfortune.

“Oh, no!  Here comes the thunder cloud,” my grandpa would grumble, hearing the stomping of Galina’s walking stick on the wooden staircase and making a run for the back door.  “Hold on to your courage, comrades!”

He couldn’t stand the woman and would scurry off to play dominos at the bath house.  But even though Russians weren’t big on karma (after all, it was all in the hands of either a. god or b. the Party), there was no more certain way to fuck up the good luck for one’s own and all the future generations — than to turn on one’s family.

“And shame on you, Sergei!” grandma protested, albeit unconvincingly, on behalf of her first cousin.  “We must have some mercy on the cripple!”

She was right:  Cousin Galina wore the family’s misfortune on her face.  From the age of three, when she was burnt from a bucket in which her mother was boiling the family’s whites in bleach, Galina’s face was a mangle of leathery skin.  It was impossible not to wince when looking at her stretched, shiny face with blotchy patches of red and purplish-brown, and at the unevenly misshapen eye sockets with rapidly jittering whites of her eyes inside them.  Most children in the village feared her, but what discomforted grandpa Sergei the most was the sour smell of Galina’s unwashed flesh that accompanied her, made more pungent by the tobacco that she never took a break from chewing.  The tobacco stained her teeth and colored her spit; and while the other babushkas, who flocked the village benches, projectile spat the black shells of roasted sunflower seeds, Galina marked her territory with puddles of puss-colored, foaming saliva.

He could always smell it too, grandpa Sergei, when he return home and found his wife in the kitchen:

“Had the thunder cloud passed yet?” he’d joke; and after an askance glance from his wife, proceed to open all the windows in the house.  A trail of reeking flesh hung heavy.  A scraped aluminum ashtray in the dish drain would confirm his suspicions.  “At least, she had the decency to not spit onto the floor this time.”

Truth be told, the old woman missed sometimes.  Perhaps, that’s why Galina’s thick ankles were permanently adorned with shiny galoshes:  in case she misjudged and spat onto her own foot.  No matter the weather, the season, or the heat, she also wore gray socks of thick wool.  Say what would wish about the expedited process of aging for the Russian women, but at the fairly young age of forty — bundled up in thermal underwear underneath her housedress and a cotton-stuffed peasant jacket on top — Galina looked like an arthritic.  Never could get warm, never stopped complaining about her aching joints and high blood pressure.

“The burn must’ve messed up her nerve endings!” grandma explained.  “She may not ever get comfortable again, that poor soul.”

But grandpa Sergei scoffed and offered his own bit:  “Oh, come on!  Lord knows, the cuz has skin thick enough to outlive us all, in the end!”

He had theories, my grandpop!  Coached either to fear or to compete with the remainder of the world, he harbored little hope for humanity.  So, he was often heard pontificating on the subject of the world’s ending:  which continent would be the cause of it and which race would take the majority of the blow.  And the one thing grandpa had made clear was that when the fateful hour of godly justice stuck, he would be found nowhere near other humans.  To live off of and to die from the Ocean’s insatiable force — that was the destiny the old fisherman had envisioned for himself.