Translated by Andrea Gregovich
Sylvia came to Moscow in the autumn.
She was supposed to come two months before that, because that’s when I asked her to come, and because I explained everything. Get here in the summer, not in the middle of September. Things will be better in the summer.
It wasn’t that something was wrong from September on—quite the contrary, that September entered the world well-rounded and golden. The wind smelled like the river, the tree branches reached out to the sky in farewell, the birds weren’t yet concerned about flying south. There was rustling beneath our feet—dry leaves had already fallen to the pavement, and it was hot, like it had been in July.
The slow river had warm ripples across its water. We went swimming at the dacha until mid-September, carefully dipping our feet in the sun-laden water from the wooden boardwalks, which warmed up nicely during the day. Legs hanging over the water, reflected in the blue, those bugs that skate on the surface of the water darting about. Slip off into the chilly depths and swim out to the middle of the sky.
We gathered mushrooms. It was a good September. At that point I was just heavily and hopelessly pregnant. By September, my six-month belly looked like eight months. My feet were swollen, and the straps of my sandals had imprinted a crisscross pattern of wrinkled creases on my ankles.
I’d walked around pregnant all summer. The sun toasted the city until it had a dry, dusty crust, and I hid like an injured toad in the humid shade of the apartment buildings, under the thin awnings of the tram stops, my belly constantly drawing the sort of prickly stares I wished I could shake off like gadflies.
That was the whole summer. In the fall, when I was in my third trimester and it was time for me to rest, Sylvia finally came from Spain to Moscow.
I would breathe in the salty autumn freshness, listening to the day’s end clattering and sighing on the streets below, or sit in the afternoon with a book on the bench in the courtyard by the entrance to my building that had decorative molding, the one with the iron gates, feeling like the cold finally settling in couldn’t happen soon enough, soon enough the freezing rain and snow would pile up on the peeling molding and protect its intricate little cupolas. I only felt like living halfway in this world—it was welcome to carry on with its affairs without me. I felt like hiding out in some distant suburb, and from there, from the city’s edge, quietly observing the way the sun glowed through the window glass, and noticing how it was getting dark earlier. Like living the way reptiles and beetles live, in a way that’s incomprehensible to us, people, under the rules of our kingdom: in the rind of a lemon still hanging in the leaves, inside its fragrant crust. Like turning my phone off and sluggishly contemplating a nap—my edges frayed, everything having been penetrated with the color of gray daylight. Like buying ripe fruit and digging into it with my teeth right there on the street, cringing at the thick, sweet juice. Like hacking open a watermelon in the kitchen and scooping out the pulp with a spoon, shooing away any circling wasps. I felt like eating and sleeping, but not like hosting foreign guests. Even if they were good, kind, invited guests bearing gifts of aromatic Spanish sausage—didn’t matter, I wouldn’t receive them. They could be knocking on the door, even pounding on the closed door, but I wouldn’t unbolt the lock, wouldn’t pick up the phone, all I would do is stare and keep staring, not tearing my gaze away from the dreary poplar limb trembling outside the window and the autumn bonfires, and gently breathe in their smoky white air until dinner and bedtime. Even if the guest was invited, even then: she was invited two months ago, but didn’t show up until it was September outside, the deadline come and gone, in the midst of my very last autumn.
No longer living outside, but inside. It became impossible for me to live outside: a little time would pass, and the door would open onto a fluffy winter, where everything was sterile and snowy, and I would vanish behind the door, and there I would wait and wait for a tiny little boy with an unimaginable face, a boy not yet born into the world. That was why this was the last autumn for me. There would never be another with him still inside of me. And yet I kept on living my life, I still had so much ahead of me, including a guest from abroad.
In the sixth month, all proper expectant mothers know how and where they will give birth, the color of their stroller, who will pick them up from the hospital, and into whose arms they will put this precious bundle tied with a decorative ribbon. And it was just beginning to dawn on me that all the diminutive hand-me-down clothes that get tucked away in bags and packages, all these comical doll rags left over after children are grown and different, would soon be devoid of their former heritage, the shadows of ancestors, the colorful crystals of DNA, and would actually be worn by a warm baby with a nose and eyes. At that point the stroller and decorative ribbon would also lose all meaning for me.
But no matter how I was feeling, Sylvia’s arrival from Seville couldn’t be called off. She had planned to come to Moscow earlier in the spring, when my belly was as carefree and empty as the world the day before its creation; it just took until September for her to finally manage to get here. It was anything but simple to exist side by side with a coquettish, noisy, elegant, very much not pregnant woman, who was periodically touching herself up or trying on clothes that buttoned up the back or down the front. She would throw open the window every morning, toss the breadcrumbs out on the window sill, and holler in Russian to the entire household: “The pigeons are here!”
Had she shown up when I was just a little pregnant, she and I would have gotten on like the best of friends, and her loud laughter and tedious kitchen chatter wouldn’t have grated on me. The trouble was, at this particular point in time I was different, I felt as if I wasn’t quite human—I wasn’t my old self at least, that young, slim persona with a pierced belly button and cropped red hair, who somehow wasn’t that long ago. I had become more of a forest, with a little river of sleepy curves and autumn leaves floating downstream.
Sylvia stayed at my place for two days, and on the third we left to visit Chekhov’s house in Melikhovo, because she was a linguist of Slavic languages with a passionate love of Chekhov. I loved him too, more than all the other Russian writers, even. While I was living in Seville, Sylvia and I once had a serious argument about who loved Chekhov more. The walls in Sylvia’s room in Seville were covered with pictures of him that she bought when she was in Moscow. I didn’t have a single portrait of Chekhov hanging in my Moscow apartment, or portraits of any other writers, for that matter. This seemed dubious to Sylvia: if it’s really love you feel, you would of course want to hang something on the wall. Otherwise, how is that love?
So from Sylvia’s perspective, I didn’t understand how to love.
I loved Chekhov in my own way. As far back as childhood, Chekhov in his hospital coat and round botanist’s glasses was always following me on the journey of my life, guarding me from things that were not good. If I was drawn to something not so good, there would suddenly be a voice in my head: “But what about Chekhov? What would he say about this?” Chekhov shook his finger at me from behind the glass on a high shelf, where there were thirteen dark green volumes of his collected works. The first few volumes of vignettes read to me had deteriorating threadbare patches on the cover: the first was all about animals, the next was scary stories, then there was one all about love, and the rest were organized chronologically, year by year—about life in general. Chekhov could only be outdone by my grim procession of shadowy Jewish ancestors, receding back into the distant antiquity of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. My procession of Jewish ancestors shook their fingers at me when I was on the verge of doing something untoward as well.
Sylvia was eager to get to Melikhovo from the very first day, when she arrived from her bustling Seville. I wasn’t against it; I was fond of Chekhov too, and I had always wanted to go to Melikhovo again, had been putting it off for a long time in fact.
We went by train, then took a taxi from the station to the estate.
Who came up with the idea of calling Moscow train stations “constellations”? What stupid song was it that introduced this word into the vernacular? Train stations are nothing like constellations, they are not nice at all. The main thing is the smell. All the stations on the Ring Line stink: there’s a foul cesspool at Komsomolskaya Square, another at Kursk Square, a third at Paveletskaya Station. Half the city center smelled of unwashed bodies and dried-up feces—that’s probably why the Ring Line was depicted in brown on the metro map.
Such were the fragrant constellations we had to pass through to get there. But we went anyway. There were no other options for us.
You can feel a total saturation of your existence when you crack open the little window on the train at full speed, exposing your flushed face to a relentless headwind, a wind that makes your eyes water. I stuck my face and hands out into the wind on the way to Melikhovo, and they glowed like toadstools in the forest. The train rattled like it was about to break up into pieces. Spots of sun glided across the yellow train car and its empty seats and hit Sylvia right in the eyes, but she didn’t turn away, she was used to the sun from Seville so all she did was blink and laugh. Her eyelashes lit up, like dust in a room when it moves into a column of sunlight, and it seemed like she was peering through a golden peephole into an unseen angelic world, where there was nothing but rays of light and smiles. It was noisy and cheerful, and I was already over my regret that Sylvia was in Moscow, realizing that, in my grim state of self-absorption, I had encroached on someone else’s talkative and energetic presence, and that she and I were sitting together on the train at that moment. I was glad it was such a sunny autumn, and glad for what awaited us in Melikhovo.
We got a ride from the station to the estate in a clunker with peeling paint, one so old I was seriously worried about the bottom falling out of the car en route. But the bottom didn’t fall out, and I willed myself out of the car to get away from the reek of gasoline, stuck my shoes in the dry, withered leaves, made a wide berth around the car, and felt an urgent need for something to drink, not to mention a little something to eat. This was what I wanted almost all the time—one or the other, sometimes both at the same time. When we got to Melikhovo, everything felt so intense right away I found myself flustered. And that was how I came to arrive at the estate with a lost face, stricken with uncertainty.
Sylvia got out of the taxi as well, snapping her head around vigorously this way and that, looking for landmarks. Her heels sunk into the fallen leaves. She took note of my bored face and was taken aback: “Aren’t you happy we’re in Melikhovo?”
You’d think they would understand, these foreigners, but it’s not that easy. Sylvia had the opinion that I should have been smiling and exclaiming: “How wonderful it is that I am in Melikhovo!” This was what she was doing and now it was my turn, but I was silent, shifting from foot to foot. I didn’t even make the effort to explain in human language why it was that I wasn’t particularly pleased to be in Melikhovo. Finally someone happened to point out the toilet, and after I got back to Sylvia I felt so much lighter that I blurted out, from a distance, breathing heavily: “I am very, very glad to be in Melikhovo, honestly.” Now everything was in order, chaos drew back out into the cosmos, and Sylvia busily arranged her glasses on her nose and cozied up to the guide.
To tell the truth, I was pleased to be at Melikhovo later, when I discovered ripe apples in the thick autumn garden, as well as bushy dahlias and a copper samovar on the veranda. I wanted to pick the apples and drink sweet tea from the samovar, but instead I went with Sylvia to look around the estate.
Melikhovo is a small, one-story house with tall windows. We found ourselves waiting on the porch: there was a line of elderly Dutchwomen waiting to get in. Their bus was hidden off somewhere behind the trees. The Dutch ladies filed in ceremoniously one after the other, smiling politely, their eyes meeting ours—they were so squeaky clean, smelling of chaste sweat and detergent, looking not unlike white-pink cotton candy on a stick. It seemed to me like some kind of special tour for fans of Chekhov. And yet for some reason I thought: “Flying Dutchwomen.”
I don’t know where I got the idea that they were Dutch. They could just as easily be from a number of places—Swedes, Danes, Norwegians. They shuffled past, talking quietly amongst themselves in their strange language. A breeze of starch trailed behind them. It was chilly inside the estate, and there were sweet smells of wood, old furniture varnish, dusty upholstery, and dried cranberries. I wished I could go to sleep. Just curl up on the tiny sofa, turn toward the wall and doze off, and let Chekhov appear to me in a dream, with his young lover Lika Mizinova and his dachshund. He’d be heading to the garden with a shovel. These people had such humble little beds in bygone eras, like they were dwarves—I could have curled up on one and nobody would have noticed.
I examined the portraits, the furniture, the colorful stained-glass windows in the room that was dedicated to Pushkin. Sylvia wandered around the house with a tragic face—mascara running, nose red, this was what she had come to see. She stood before Chekhov’s office like it was an altar. It wasn’t possible to get right up to the office—the Dutchwomen were crowding the entrance in a tight semicircle, everyone in their whole group. They reminded me of parishioners of some obscure church, sisters of a secret sect: the Order of Chekhov Fangirls. They stood completely still, with serious, solemn faces. One was crying silently, her back turned to the others and facing me. Opalescent tears ran down her smooth cheeks, and she collected them neatly in a handkerchief beneath her chin. Pure, monastic tears. Another Dutchwoman approached her politely, took her by the elbow, took the eyeglasses carefully from her tiny little sweaty nose, and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief.
I walked around the house a little more, then made my way to the garden. The Dutch women were already there, pacing sedately among the apple trees. They fell silent, as if they were pious parishioners, savoring the sacred mysteries. When, where, and in what language did they learn to love Chekhov? Maybe that’s what’s in style now—the wild, wide-open countryside, and an intelligent man like Chekhov with his glasses and silky beard. The Russian soul is dark and unpredictable, and it’s as though Chekhov is the key.
Sylvia came out before long with her running mascara. She stood on the porch, breathing the rustic freshness, and leaned against the railing, her feet shifting in her glossy heels like an overheated racehorse. She really did have the look of a thoroughbred—I don’t mean that insultingly, but in a positive sense. I could tell she was content—her mascara had dried and her face had brightened. She had a notebook in one hand and a white handkerchief dotted with mascara in the other. I knew what she was thinking: it was such a shame that Chekhov had such a good life going, and then up and died. He saved so many patients, it’s just such a shame. He could have composed a bunch more stories or plays, so there would have been that much more for the Slavic linguist from Seville to study. She had already managed to buy a couple of books and a set of cards, and then picked up a rock from the garden and slipped it into her pocket as a souvenir. I had a thought that it would be possible to start a line of tee shirts and pins with Chekhov on them—they would sell like hotcakes. Che Guevara got built into a brand, isn’t our Chekhov worth at least that? I most definitely would have bought a tee shirt and pin and would have worn them abroad, and I could wear them in Moscow too, why not? The Dutch people would also probably buy them, both the pin and the tee shirt. Upon first glance it would look like an ordinary Dutch person to them, but if you looked closely it would be Chekhov in his glasses. Sylvia herself would huff and snort like a horse indeed, and then buy the pin on the sly.
Moscow is definitely not Seville. Spanish people feel chilly here even in the heat, and they dress however they want. Sylvia wore stern skirt suits in Moscow, in her portrayal of a Russian aristocrat. She dyed her dark hair a yellow color and balled it up in the back, bound by a big hair clip, her face spared from sunburn all summer, with huge enamel art earrings hanging in her ears. It would be too complicated to explain how, but when she had the total package put together she looked very much like a Russian woman, with the suit, hair clip, enamel art earrings, and yellow hair. At the same time she also looked like Evita Peron, wife of the Argentinian dictator. The Dutchwomen were all wearing pants—nobody wears skirts in the Netherlands, probably. The Dutchwomen didn’t actually want to be Russian, so they put themselves together differently—they loved Chekhov and all, they just didn’t care so much. They were Dutch, so that was how they looked. Soon they would fly back to Amsterdam and continue to love Chekhov from over there.
Softly cooing amongst themselves, the Dutchwomen munched on the bananas and sandwiches they had brought with them in their knapsacks. The apples weren’t of any interest to them—they were hanging from the trees so that meant they weren’t food, they were some kind of decoration. But I had a desperate desire to eat an apple. If it hadn’t been for my cumbersome belly, I would have gone for it right away—ventured deeper into the garden, hid behind an apple tree, and calmly scarfed down an apple. The wind rustled their dark leaves. The apples were blazing in the sun, the wind carrying their sharp, cold aroma. I imagined how I might wrap my fingers around a snug, slippery apple, and how I would clasp my mouth around its waxy side, like teeth piercing the skin and digging into the flesh. Then I surprised myself: I reached out and plucked an apple, the branch didn’t even sway. I went off to a distant corner of the garden and took a bite. It turned out to be hard, and as tasteless as a raw potato. But I ate the whole thing, even swallowed the core. All that was left in my fingers was the apple’s little brown tail.
Nobody saw me—not Sylvia, not the Dutchwomen, and not the docile museum people—as I scarfed down the apples really quickly, scarfing so hard my hands couldn’t keep up, stashing them in the underbelly of my knapsack and eating one after the other. I was already on my third firm apple from Chekhov’s garden, my mouth stinging from the tart white juice, but my hunger didn’t pass.
“Excuse me, where is there to eat around here?” I asked, my mouth still full.
“There used to be a pub tent, but they lost their liquor license. There’s nowhere to get alcohol now, just the train station,” I was told.
It was dark when we got back to the train station, and it wasn’t too hot, not at that time of day. And it was very much autumn. A bell sounded somewhere in the distance, and the smell of oxidized copper was on the wind. Kebabs were turning on a spit at the station, which had flags and colorful lanterns hanging all over it, as though Russia had quietly come to an end and somehow we had found ourselves somewhere festive like Colombia.
We sat at a little table by the window in the restaurant. I was all antsy. I grabbed a menu and started ordering everything: pickles, fish, salad, chicken. Sylvia wasn’t very happy—there we were in the realm of the noblest, loftiest domicile, and I had nothing but chicken and salads on my mind. She nibbled her potato pasty like a well-mannered little bird. When I finally raised my face from the plate, my fullness so profound and overwhelming that it wasn’t unlike drunkenness, it was impossible for me to listen to Sylvia and respond appropriately.
That night I threw up all the menu items I ordered at the restaurant—chicken, salad, fish, pickles. Finally, the pieces of hurriedly chewed, undigested Chekhov apples came up. I wandered down the hall with my robe hanging open like a big, gray night moth. Like the female guppies in the aquarium, pregnant with hundreds of transparent fry.
A hot stream of tears ran down my neck, like a difficult, overgrown river was running across me. Even my ribs ached. Sylvia darted around the apartment with a plastic basin. She had thrown a colorful shawl with fringe over her shoulders, since it was night and all, managing to act quite Russian, as though the woman running around behind me with a basin was not Sylvia from Seville, but some overly theatrical caricature from a bygone era, a kind of Cherubina de Gabriak. I wanted to put her at ease, pat her on the shoulder and say, “Relax, wearisome Cherubina, set the basin down and get yourself some rest, you’re of no use to me here.” But she was a foreigner, you can’t hurt their feelings because they’re like little kids.
The window was wide open on the evening, and into it peered the thousand-eyed city. Somebody’s steps broke the silence on the dry asphalt below. The invisible footsteps stopped short beneath the window, like the person was listening. The bathroom smelled of sweet scents from Seville. And for some reason everything was so sad: Cherubina with the basin, Chekhov with his shovel, the little dog, the wild garden, the inedible apples, the devout Dutchwomen, the mature green forest untouched by autumn, the gloomy, dying villages around the estate. Those poverty-stricken villages in particular were somehow overwhelmingly sad to look at—they’re only ever seen from the windows of the train or bus, nobody would ever actually go there.
An ambulance got called for me. When the doorbell rang, I had this thought that when I opened the door, Chekhov would enter with a doctor’s bag in his hand. But instead of Chekhov it was a chubby nurse, demanding from the doorstep that I get dressed to go to the hospital. But I already felt better, it was all over.
My little boy was born in the winter under a delicate new moon, in a dark blue Christmas frost. We called him Anton, and Sylvia from Seville no longer doubted the sincerity of my feelings for Chekhov.
A native of Moscow, Nadezhda Belenkaya has written many short stories and has also translated a number of Spanish works into Russian. Wake in Winter, her first novel and first work available in English translation explores the big money underworld of black-market Russian adoptions.
Andrea Gregovich’s translation of Nadezhda Belenkaya’s novel Wake in Winter was published in 2016. She has also translated Russian short stories and essays for numerous journals and anthologies including AGNI, Tin House, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Guernica, and Best European Fiction, as well as the novel USSR by Vladimir Kozlov.
“Chekhov, Sex Symbol of the Flying Dutchwomen” appears in our issue, Physics (Summer 2017).