Tag Archives: superstition

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.

Threshold

(Continued from April 8th, 2012.)

When she first arrived, the older woman took off her shoes before stepping over the threshold.  Unusually considerate, light in her step, she made her daughter nervous.

There had been superstitions, back in her mother’s country, about thresholds, doorways, windows.  Table tops and chairs.  And they were treated like traditions by the women in her family, as non-negotiable as laws of gravity and just as final.  To never kiss over a threshold.  To never sit upon a tabletop.  To never let an unmarried woman be positioned at a corner seat, while dining.  And with the slew of superstitions came antidotes, just as important to take notice of; so that when things did NOT work out — the victim could be still the one to blame:  You shoulda knocked three times on wood, spit over the left shoulder, and hidden a fig hand in your pocket.  These things would grow on one unconsciousness like barnacles of paranoid behavior.  And in a nation of world-renowned courage, it puzzled her to see so many doubtful people.

And was her mother brave at all, to just pack-up like that and leave?  To move herself with a child to the furthest removed continent, after the death of her husband?  His — was a death by drinking.  She didn’t want to die — by mourning.

And now, both women — tired but not tired enough to not be cautious of each other — seemed to be waiting for something.  Waiting for the other shoe to drop, albeit both of them standing barefoot in the empty kitchen.  In this new country, where everyone was in love with fun and smiley faces, they each would arrive to their shared home and try to force a lightness to descend.  It would be mostly out of habit, and not desire.  Her mother functioned better in these new rules:  “Have fun!”  “God bless!”  “I love you!”  She had no difficulty throwing these around, without taking any time to match their implications to the worth of the recipient.

The younger woman now waited by the sink full of dishes.  After enough silence, while stealing glances at her mother, who floated from one room to another like a trapped moth, the hostess began to rummage through the dirty dishes.

Had mother always colored her hair with that unnatural shade of black, when last she’d seen her, in New York?  The snow white roots came in aggressively, all over mother’s head, opposing the other color with no mercy.  When did she age this much?  When did this fear and sorrow find time to settle on her face?

A paw of pity stroked across the young woman’s tightly wound nerves:

“Mom.  Why don’t you sit down?”  She caught herself:  All furniture was made of boxes, uncouth for a woman with a living husband, according to her mother’s generation.  Before the older woman managed to react, the daughter hid her gaze in forming mounds of soapsuds and hurriedly amended her first offer:  “Mom.  Wouldn’t you like a drink?”

“Yes, please,” the older woman turned on her heels, seemingly delighted.  “White zinfandel?”

“Well.  Um.  I don’t have alcohol.  But would you like some juice?”

“Oh.  Right.”  An eyebrow went up and froze.  “No, thanks.”

She turned and walked away again — floating, balancing, looming — stopped by the sliding doors of the balcony, at the edge of the living-room.  The palm trees slowly swayed outside like metronomes to one’s slower heartbeat.  West, West, West.

She’d gone out West, with nothing but the ghosts checked-in as her luggage.  The letters from her best friend on the East Coast would hit the bottom of the mailbox on a weekly basis, for the first two months.  She praised her for the courage.  She mentioned pride, and dignity, and all the other things they’d mutually gotten high on, back in college.

It never happened in any of the books she’d read, but in her life, what others titled “courage” — was merely an act of following through.  Besides, she swore, he thought of the idea first.  What else was she suppose to do?

The best friend wrote her with gel pens, whose color was always given careful consideration.

She wrote in pink:  “It’s better to let it all go to the wind.”

In purple:  “Let justice work itself out.”

At least, unlike the others, the best friend never judged.  She wasn’t in a habit of taking sides.  She never called the husband names.  But then again, they’d never really found men to be the leading topic of their friendship.  Men merely existed.  Some men were good.  And back in college, the two of them hadn’t loved enough men to speak of the other gender with that scornful nostalgia of the other women.  Men merely existed.  And then:  There was the whole of the magnificent world outside.

 

Out here — out West — she could just start from scratch.  She only needed to remember how to breathe the even breath:  if not that of her calmer youth — then of her wiser self.  With time, she knew she’d see the point of it, the purpose, the lessons of her little losses.  She had too vivid of an imagination to not weave her life into a story.

“One’s life had meaning.  It couldn’t be for forsaken.”  (Oh, how she missed those wonderful convictions of her youth!)

So, while she waited to mature into that wiser self, she set aside some time and space in which the hurting self could flail, abandon graces, wag its finger, then call people back with tearful apologies.  But she would not have to confront her past out here, at least; except for when she opened the envelopes of her phone bills.

“So,” mother started speaking to the window, again.  “Natasha?  Are you looking for a job?”

“I have been looking, yes, mom.”

“Okay,” mom turned around.  Change of subject:  “I hear Mike got a promotion for doing the work on that new bridge, in Brooklyn.”

When rinsing a knife after all pungent foods, one absolutely must use soap.  Because if not, the taste will resonate on every meal for further weeks to come.  

“Oh yeah?  That’s good.”

“Yeah!  He’s a smart boy!  I’ve always liked Mike.  For you.”

It’s better if the handle of the knife is anything but wooden.  Wood stays a living thing forever.  It takes on other substances, breeds them, doesn’t let them go.

Here comes the second round.  Ding, ding, ding:

“I wrote Mike a letter.”  Mom searched for the effects of her intentions on her daughter’s face.  “I know!  I know!  It sounds silly!  We live a borough away.  But I have always relished his opinion.”

She felt exhausted.  “Mom.”

Out West, she’d found herself relearning how to use each thing with an appropriate instrument.  The sense of wonderment!   The love of unexpected beauty!  The curiosity she was resuscitating in herself, like a paralysis patient learning how to walk again.  Her days weren’t daunting, at all times; and they were full of curiosity.

And now:  Mom, barefoot yet armed!   In one woman’s kitchen.  So fearful, she could not release either of them from their pasts.  They stood, displeased with being a reflection of each other.  Another eyebrow arch.  A scoff.  One turned away, demonstratively disappointed.  The other looked down onto her pruned fingers submerged into a sink of cruddy water.

Mom faced the window with no curtains, yet again.  Those horrid, flapping, plastic blinds had been the first thing that Natasha’d taken down.  For the first weeks, she let the wind roam through the apartment, while she, sleepless and exhausted, observed the palm trees wave against the never pitch-black night of her new city:  You are alright.  Remember breathing?

West, West, West.

You still have time.  In your defense.

Uneasy Lies the Head

At first, it was the hair.  Her thick, red hair, with angelic ringlets flocking the frame of her still cherubic face began to slip out of its follicles; and she would watch it slide along the body, in the shower — young garden snakes on sleet — flock her feet, like seaweed, before spiraling down into the drain.

“You ought to be careful, child!  For hair like this, the other females will give you the bad eye!”

Her grandmother was a superstitious woman.  With her thin, brittle fingers, she braided Nola’s curls into tame hair buns or the complex, basket-like constructions on top of her head, which by the end of a day, gave her headaches and made her eyes water.

The tedious ceremonies of the old world’s superstitions slowed down Nola’s childhood to half-speed.  The pinning of safety pins to her underwear after bath, their heads facing downward and away from her heart — “grounding”; the triple twirling and the hanging of a rusty locket, with some dead priest’s hair, around her neck.  Hemp ropes with strange beads tied around her wrists and ankles.  Sometimes, when she drifted off to sleep — but not yet into her dreams — after her grandmother’s bedtime stories, she watched the shadows of the old woman move along the wall:  A giant and magnificent bird casting the whispers of good winds upon her sleeping head.  And in the mornings, when she wasn’t looking — grandmother would slip drops of blessed water into her glass of milk; then keep her hand behind her heart while Nola chugged it down.  All that — to ward off the other women.

Where had this mistrust in the female kind come from?  Nola couldn’t understand it.  And as a child, she was particularly puzzled about that feared bad eye.  Grandma had no tolerance for questions worked up by Nola’s imagination — a quality that later flared up in her own motherhood — so she came up with the answers on her own.  (It was the worst — wasn’t it? — for a child to feel annoying, then dismissed by the habits of the bored and tired grownups.  She hadn’t wanted to become like that!  And yet, she was, right in the midst of it, now.)  These had to be some evil women, Nola decided way back when; some ancient witches with an extra eye to give away.  And they lived among the good and the kind, giving the rest of the womankind a terrible reputation.

One time, walking in her grandmother’s footsteps, through the pre-sunrise layer of the summer fog only to be seen in the Far, Far East of Russia (and in the magical place of which she’d read once, called “San Francisco”), she saw a yellow raincoat.  It balanced on a pair of emaciated legs; and when they caught up with it, Nola looked back:  An old woman, with wet gray hair stuck to her caved-in temples, was staring right back at her from underneath the bright yellow hood.  She reminded Nola of one of those Mexican skeleton dolls of rich, exotic colors, dressed in human clothing that hung on them, like parachutes on manikins.  From behind the fog that clung to every moving or inanimate object, she could hardly see the color of the woman’s eyes.  They seemed to appear milky though, crowded with cataracts.  But the sinister smile that stretched the old woman’s toothless mouth into a keyhole told Nola that she could see well enough to look right through into her heart.

She felt an icy shiver:  A drop of accumulated rainwater slipped under her raincoat collar and began its slow avalanche down the back, along the spine, meeting up with other raindrops and her sudden sweat, growing, gaining weight; gaining momentum.

“Is this it?” Nola thought.  Was this the female owner of the feared bad eye?  Expecting a feeling of sickly slime, terrified yet thrilled at the same time, Nola slipped her hands into her pockets.

“Stop dragging your feet, like a tooth comb through my armpit hair!” her grandmother barked from a few steps ahead.  Nola started running.

 

In adolescence, when all the other girls acquired breasts and waistlines, Nola cultivated auburn braids; and boys began communicating their flared-up desires by yanking them hard, that she would cry.  And if ever she chased after one of such brutal Romeos, uncertain about her own manic urge, the hair whipped her back like two wet ropes.

At night, after her solitude was pretty much assured, she wrapped the clouds of her scratchy hair around her head, so she could doze off — off and away from the voices of her parents, bickering in the kitchen.  (On planes, she dreamed that she could do the same to clouds.  God bless her, soon enough!)  When her braids began reaching the crests of her hips, Nola began the practice of making dolls out of them; and she would rest each on her pillow, next to her lips, and whisper to it her speculations about the far removed and kinder places.

“Is this how you care for your wife ‘n’ child?!” her mother would be squealing in the downstairs dirt room, if dad showed up tipsy from a few chugs of dark Russian beer.

From what Nola understood in other children’s reenactments in their shared sandboxes, her father was not a hopeless drunk at all:  He never fell down in the alleys, later to be found by the female cashiers of the local delis, unlocking the back doors for early morning deliveries or briberies from those savvier Soviets who knew how to get their share of deficit produce to come that week.  Never-ever, had father been taken to the Emergency Room on a sled — pulled by his same “wife ‘n’ child”, in a middle of the Russian winter — to get his stomach pumped from alcohol poisoning.  No, Nola’s dad was just a jolly drunk, occasionally guilty of having a reason to celebrate something — anything! — in his Russian destiny:  A National Fisherman Day.  The fall of Bastille Saint Antoine.  A successful summoning of mere three meals for his family, that day.  Another Day in the Life of…

But mom went off, pulling at her own thinning hair, whenever the man showed up with that harmless — and actually endearing to Nola — goofy smile.  Whenever Nina slipped out her bed and did an army crawl to the top of the stairs, she watched her mother’s body shiver, the skin of her arms vibrate, all — from what looked like an inside job.  The woman wailed and howled, and threw herself against the hard surfaces and all the sharp corners, as if possessed by a death wish.  Mom always took everything too far, into a place of difficult ultimatums and points beyond forgiveness.  And watching her in such a state set off anxiety-ridden arrhythmia in Nola’s heart.

Her mother’s sad, all-knowing smile.  Her choir of scoffs and sighs, and terrorizing whimpers.  Her melancholic, slow head shake belonging to a cartoonish bobblehead stuck to a dashboard of a Moscow’s taxicab:  getting around but not going anywhere!  She felt an urge to run away from all of it — from here and from her — to somewhere, where people didn’t readily construct their painful sentences and woke up with faces drained of all curiosity or tenderness.  Could that be “San Francisco”?  She slept on pillows of her hair and wondered.

(To Be Continued.)