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!”