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.