Cossacks and Highwaymen

Published in Bayou, 66 (Fall 2017): 27-38

 

 

In our family, for as long as I can remember, no one talked about my father. My mother didnít talk about him; my grandma didnít talk about him; my grandpa didnít talk about him; neither did our neighbors and friends. He was not there—at birthday parties, holiday gatherings, field trips, doctorsí appointments, anniversaries, or New Yearís Eve celebrations. He didnít call or ring a doorbell unexpectedly, waiting for me to greet him in the hallway with a half-frown half-smile, and then a wide grin. None of it ever happened. And maybe my mother grew tired of waiting for his magical reappearance in her life (just as I grew tired of waiting for Father Frost to arrive on New Yearís Eve—I would fall asleep by the tree and my mother would drag all the presents out from under the couch), but she had stopped sneaking rubles in my slippers on my birthday, stopped pretending that my father had sent them.

My mother and I lived close to my grandparents, so I walked from school to their place and prepared for next-day classes until my mother got back from work. We had suppers together, discussing the sudden disappearance of toilet paper or sugar or butter in stores, as well as the countryís history because it, too, seemed to have disappeared. My grandma always ate her food too fast, often swallowing without chewing, and to the last morsel, sucking on bones or swirling marrow out with her pinkie, as though sheíd been starving for months and there was not enough food in the world to satiate her. She was a short woman with soft pillowy breasts she pressed my head to every time she kissed me. My grandpa, on the other hand, was an oak of a man—tall and sturdy—with a resolute nose and gray spongy hair like moss growing on the sides of his head as though on a tree trunk. He ate with diligence, taking a shot of vodka before switching to the next thing on his plate. His right hand had three fingers missing from the war, so when he ate, he held his fork pinched between his thumb and pinkie. The sewn flesh puckered and the fat red seams resembled the worms we dug out for fishing.

On Fridays and Saturdays, we stayed late at my grandparentsí, drinking tea with thick, starchy cherry preserves, raising pyramids out of blood-red pits on our saucers. My grandpa and I watched war movies on a black-and-white TV while my grandma read my motherís fortune. On the old, scratched dining-room table (the same one her dead mother had lain on for the funeral), my grandma arranged a deck of cards in the shape of a peacockís tail. She tugged at her lower lip and pinched her eyebrows and uttered things like: ace of spades—an imminent disaster (if pointing down) or a binge (if it was up); nine of hearts—an amorous escapade; ten of diamonds—a promotion or a monetary reward; six of clubs—a long journey (possibly overseas). A king of spades presented himself quite regularly, which my grandma interpreted as a noble stranger who would appear in my motherís not-so-distant future and reward her with great happiness and understanding. My mother nodded, eyes closed, forehead pleated in thought, as though she was trying to conjure what the stranger might look like or the kind of happiness he could offer.

Both my grandparents were retired, so I spent my summers with them, at their dacha, just an hour away from Moscow; my mother commuted there on weekends. We had a tiny lot, on which my grandpa managed to build a one-story house, hiring a few workers from a neighboring village, whom heíd paid with vodka and smoked salmon. My grandpa owned a caróa rusty, dented Pobeda that farted and rumbled and made my grandma think of tanks. At the beginning of each dacha season, we loaded that car with blankets, pillows, and sheets, skillets and pans and potbellied bags containing groceries and clothes. We brought a radio and the TV with us (since we only had one), as well as a few pieces of furniture my grandma wouldnít leave at the country house over the winter for fear of them being stolen. There was often no room for us in the car, so she and I rode a train to Belyie Stolby, and my grandpa picked us up at the station, after heíd already unloaded and locked everything inside the house.

The trains were crammed with people, their possessions tied in tarps or burlap sacks. Thorny gooseberry or currant bushes had been nudged under the seats; small children, dogs, cats, and even rabbits sat on travelersí laps. The trains felt drafty and smelled like fried fish and the cigarette butts I often spotted on the floor, picked up, and put in my pockets for no particular reason other than that I liked to feel their soft mysteriously-yellow filters. At times a drunkard or two, whom my mother and grandma called “accidents,” threw up by the door or out the window. I wondered if one of them could have been my father and my family was too embarrassed to admit it.

In the course of just a few years, other country houses sprawled around, each fenced off on its scrawny allotment of land. There was no order to the way the dachas grew, like birches in the forest. Behind the settlement, down the hilly landscape thicketed with weeds and brush, a creek split the valley in two. A disfigured plank bridge ran across, two or three boards missing in the middle, like my grandpaís fingers on his right hand. On some mornings, early, when the grass was still wet with dew, my grandpa and I fished sitting on that bridge, while far on the other side a band of gypsies camped out, coiled on blankets around the fire pit. Every now and then, a man would rise and poke at the coals with a long crooked stick, releasing a burst of sparks and ashes in the air. I was not allowed to cross over or talk to gypsies because, as my grandma had warned me, they stole everything they saw. And what they didnít steal, she said, people gave them, hypnotized by their mellifluous voices and dark, doleful eyes.

“What if I didnít have anything to steal?” I had asked my grandma.

“Then they would take your innocent soul and store it in a locket, hooking it on a bracelet. Did you see how many bracelets the gypsies had?” At that point my mother walked into the room and told my grandma to stop scaring me with such nonsense. I was supposed to grow up a man, not a mouse seeking escape. My mother had a way of cutting off conversations, as she did heads off live fish grandpa and I caught. We had no choice but to comply with her curt wisdom.

 

 

That summer I turned twelve, and my family bought me a tape player and a few cassettes with recordings by Nautilus and Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine). I had invited my dacha friends over and helped my grandpa scrape and paint an outside table and benches cerulean-blue, the color my grandma had fought against because it didnít match anything else in the yard.

ďIt matches the sky,Ē my grandpa had finally said, and my grandmother raised her head and gave the universe a hard, questioning stare before stepping back inside the house. My mother poked her head through the narrow window and said, ďBlue is hopeful.Ē She took the Friday off to spend a long weekend at the country house and bake my favorite torteóNapoleon. It was the only non-Russian thing my mother cooked. In school, we had already studied the French war of 1812, so I knew that Napoleon was a dwarf of a man with a gargantuan ambition, but whoíd died in isolation, which my grandpa underscored each time he ate the cake. I wondered if perhaps my father was like that: a short man outgrown by his own ambition that led to his death. But no one in my family supported the version of me having a Napoleon figure for a father, so I shut up and later that evening watched my mother make the cake. She dusted the table with flour and divided the dough in seven parts and rolled each one into a sheet, thick and uneven like life itself, she said.

 

 

The party was hot and lively, with balloons tied to the cherry tree and chicken kebabs roasting on coals and the seven-layer cake towering in the middle of the newly painted table, twelve red skinny candles twisting like hot wires. I made a wish for my father to appear (today, tomorrow, as soon as possible), blew out the tiny flames, and began to unwrap the gifts I got from my friends— Kosolapyi, Goose, Sadman, and Snowgirl. My mother served the cake. Kosolapyi gave me an old pair of German binoculars his grandfather had kept from the war. He said he had no money to buy me anything else, and I said I didnít need anything else, raising the binoculars to my eyes. Through the lenses, his face was a disfigured blur. Goose wrote a song for me, and I turned off the tape player so he could sing it, strumming the chords on his fatherís guitar that looked too big and too frail, like a boat that had been docked outside for eternity. His voice was liquid-like, a gurgle of sounds, creek water caught between the stones. Snowgirl brought two things: a ten-piece set of new magic markers, from which she took a pink one because I was a boy and thus had no use for such a tender color, and the ruler that changed pictures with a shift of a hand—birds on and off the tree. We each took turns shaking and slanting the ruler, standing it on one end and then the other.

Finally, Sadman presented me with a book of Chekhovís short stories (he always carried books around and quoted famous people). He read a passage out loud from “In Exile”: “I want nothing and I am afraid of nobody, and the way I look at it is that thereís nobody richer and freer than I am.” He paused and raised his eyes from the book, as though expecting us to comment, which we didnít because we were steeped in the cake and indeed wanted nothing more. My mother, however, took the book from him (with that same authority she did things around the house—cooked, cleaned, ironed) and continued reading silently for a few minutes and then returned the book to Sadman.

If you want to be happy, the chief thing is not to want anything?” She frowned, adding, “Chekhov once wrote to his brother that he wished his wife had been like the moon—sometimes there, sometimes not.” With that, she climbed the porch steps and vanished in the cloud of cigarette smoke.

We finished our cake while the parents and neighbors clamored inside the house, making generous toasts to my health and the health of my mother and my grandparents, then turning silent—all at once—for a breath of a moment. The day was cloudless, the sun a splendid golden orb. When I looked straight at it, trying not to squint, it seemed time had been suspended and the air was melting, along with the trees and the house and everything else. There was a buzz of insects somewhere close to my ear, and then one of the balloons popped, and Kosolapyi said, “Time to move.” He was a year older than I and also taller than all of us and regarded himself as a fearless leader.

“Just because youíre tall, doesnít mean youíre the boss,” I told him. “Napoleon was this short.” I raised my hand level with my head.

“And he got his ass burnt.”

Everyone laughed.

“Letís play Cossacki-Razboiniki,” Goose suggested. He was just as thin as the summer before, with blond bangs brushed to the side and covering one eye completely, as though he had something in that eye he didnít want us to see.

“Where?” Sadman asked. “We canít hide here. Too many witnesses.” Short and stout, he could pass for a barrel. He ate bread with every meal, even with ice cream and watermelon. He once told us that his grandparents had been in the gulags and when they returned, all they wanted was white bread, buttered and sprinkled with sugar.

“Anywhere around the dachas. If you canít see the roofs, youíve gone too far,” I said.

“What about the forest?” Snowgirl asked. “I donít want to be there by myself.” She didnít touch the cake but plucked a candle out and licked the frosting off its end. Her lips turned white. She was half a year younger than I and as willowy as the trees by the creek. She had large, tear-shaped eyes not too dark, like buckwheat honey. Her golden hair was always braided in a single braid and resembled a perfect ear of wheat magnified a hundred times. The braid swung at her waist and I felt tempted to reel it around my arm and test its strength. I didnít know why we started calling her Snowgirl. Perhaps because (despite her hair) she looked fine and fragile, like an icicle in the spring. Around her neck, she had a heart locket with the picture of her mother whoíd died when Snowgirl was three. She was an orphan, according to my family, because one was fatherless without a father, but an orphan without a mother.

“Okay. No forest. To the bridge as far as we can go. Whoíll be a Cossack and whoíll be a highwayman? There are five of us, so it has to be three against two,” I said and cocked my head.

It was getting emotional inside; my grandpa argued with some man whom he accused of being a “piss-ass communist whoíd never seen shit other than his own goddamned face in the goddamned mirror.” And then he shouted something about the war and people eating their pets and babies. “Hunger will turn you shit-crazy,” he added.

My grandpaís fervent expostulations were no surprise to me, even though sometimes the cussing was a bit excessive and the information too explicit (my grandmother would pinch him under the table, and heíd say that the truth was like a hussy—everyone wanted it and no one loved it). Just then, I heard my mother and grandmother start chanting their favorite song, “What you were, you remained—a jaunty Cossack, a steppe eagle....” I knew if we left now, we wouldnít be missed for hours. So I said, “Iím a Cossack.”

“Me too.” Snowgirl raised her hand.

“And me.” Sadman dipped a piece of bread in a bowl of strawberry preserves, shooing a bee off its sticky, wooden lip. The bee landed on a half-melted birthday candle and then took off in a buzzing circle around Snowgirlís head. She leapt up from her seat and scrammed toward the wicket gate.

Outside the dachas, we sauntered along the unpaved, grass-patched road, kicking dust and dry dog turds. Behind the fences, apple trees stood nascent with tiny green fruit. Men hosed off their cars or spread manure under the trees while women tended their gardens, squatting or kneeling, scarves tied around their heads, their faces flushed and glistening. Some dachniki swung in hammocks, some cooked on open fires, some played cards in flimsy gazebos burrowed under grapevines and bindweed. The air smelled of burning wood and fried meat and rich, tilled soil.

We decided that at the crossroads, the two highwaymen—Kosolapyi and Goose—would split up and hide while the Cossacks—Sadman, Snowgirl, and I—would count to a hundred before beginning to search for them.

“Whatís your crime, Goose? What should we charge you with?” I asked as we walked.

“I robbed and tortured my brother to death,” he paused. “I cut off his hands.”

“You canít torture anyone. You canít even kill a fire-fucking-fly,” Kosopalyi said, laughing.

“Not funny. You tore off their bellies,” Goose said.

“Asses,” Kosolapyi pointed out with his finger at no one in particular. “They were asses, and I did it because all of you wanted to see if they could still light up.”

“I didnít,” Snowgirl said and threw her braid across her shoulder.

“How can you be so heartless?”

“Shut up, Sadman. All you do is eat and talk. Youíre so full of shit. And I mean shit, capital S. Fat-fucking-freak.” Kosolapyi spat through his teeth. “I donít want to play your stupid game. Pathetic—all of you.”

As we stood there, unable to move or say anything to him, frozen in place and time like leaves inside a slab of ice, a car drove by, and Kosolapyi took off running after it, but the car sped up and he soon fell hopelessly behind, scooping up a fistful of gravel and hurling it as hard as he could. From afar, he looked like a true highwayman—tall and scrawny, with matted shaggy hair framing his dusty face, a scar above his lip.

The rest of us resumed walking in the direction of the creek, past the dachas and a lonely water well, the bucket missing from the chain.

“Itís my fault he acts like that,” Snowgirl finally said.

“How is it your fault? Heís an asshole,” I said. “Cruel shit. Last year he was skinning frogs, this year heís tearing up lightening bugs. To see if they could still light up?!”

“He wanted to French-kiss me, and I said no.”

I narrowed my eyes at her. She was almost as pretty as my mother with her shiny hair and marble skin against her peach-colored shirt. She had budding breasts, and her legs were immeasurably long and skinny in her mangled jean shorts. One knee showed a crooked purplish scab, where she fell from Kosolapyiís bike a few weeks ago.

“You could get horrible diseases from kissing, like hepatitis and syphilis,” Sadman said.

“Those come from sex,” I said.

“Na-ah. Lenin had common syphilis. It can be contracted through a simple handshake,” Sadman demonstrated by rubbing his hands together.

“I wonít have sex. Ever,” Snowgirl said.

“Or course you will,” Goose brushed hair away from his eye, adding, “When you marry or want to have children. You have to fuck.”

“Then I wonít marry or have children.”

“Everyone does,” Goose said.

“Not me,” she shook her head furiously so that her braid jerked left and right.

“Me neither,” I said.

“Me neither,” Sadman echoed. “Who would love such a fat-fucking-freak?” He tapped his belly with his finger.

“Iíll love you,” Snowgirl said, smiling.

“You canít,” I said. “Youíll die.”

“From love?” she asked, still smiling, showing off her small, perfectly-aligned teeth.

“Yes. Thatís in Ostrovskyís tale,” Sadman confirmed. “Snowgirl falls in love with Lielí. She jumps over the fire and melts.”

“Thatís sad.”

“All love stories are sad, thatís what my mom says. And my grandma says love died when Communists took over in 1917,” I said.

“I wouldnít be repeating such things,” Sadman said.

“Why? No one is here but us,” Goose shrugged.

“Really,” I nodded.

“Trees have ears, too—thatís what my grandma used to say.” Sadman grinned, but his grin was tight and unnatural, as though his teeth were about to fall out. We crossed the valley, the grass up to our knees, dotted with buttercups and cornflowers. Dragonflies stalling, darting by, a light breeze from the creek. The willows shivered, their branches like old spindly fingers dabbling in the water. Here and there, the banks were penciled with reeds, a mob of furry cattails. We got down low, took the shoes off and stretched on our backs, feet in the creek, which rippled through our toes. It was quiet; the gypsies were gone, but in the field on the other side, we could see a small tent fashioned out of old blankets. In front of it, a fire had burnt down to coals, a trickle of smoke wavering.

Although the sun had slipped down a notch, it was still hot and humid. I closed my eyes, blinded by the rays, and for a moment the earth felt liquid, passing under me, my body weightless. I thought of my father and how once, in my sleep, he appeared to me dressed like a gypsy king, in a red silk shirt and loose black pants, barefoot. He was a tall thick-chested man with large ebony eyes and curly hair (just like mine) and a beard that masked half of his face. A golden hoop dangled in his ear, and when he laughed—throaty and loud—the earring caught the sun and burst into flames. He sat atop a white horse too beautiful not to touch, so I tried, stretching my hand all the way. But the closer I got, the farther he appeared to be. He began to gallop across the steppe, and I found myself running after him, offering him my shoes, my toys, all the money I had been saving up for a pair of jeans.

“Letís check out that marquee,” I suggested, surprising myself, as well as the others. They turned their dreamy faces and blinked.

“What if thereís still someone there?” Goose asked.

“Weíll be quiet.”

“I donít know,” Sadman said. “Iíd rather stay where we are.”

“Youíre so sad, Sadman. Iíll go.” Snowgirl stood up, the sun right behind her; her skin, her hair glowing.

We fitted our shoes back on, climbed the bridge and crept along the rotten boards, hopping over the few that were missing. The creek grumbled, lapped against the banks. Once on the other side, we crawled on our bellies, like slugs or caterpillars, a ripple through the grass. Every now and then, we paused to make sure we were still together, no more than a glance away. As we got closer, we saw that those were not blankets but wraparound skirts draped over the marquee (perhaps to dry, perhaps to shelter it from smoke or rain). It was still quiet, but the marquee seemed to be shaking from the inside. I put my finger to my lips and everyone nodded; Sadman closed his eyes for a moment. I inched toward the opening and pressed my face to the slit, my hands already pulling the sides apart. I held my breath and for a moment didnít know what I was looking at.

It was somewhat dark inside the marquee; the dirt floor paved with sheep skins, on top of which lay a naked woman, her legs wide open and bloody. She arched her back and let out a growling sound and raised her feet up high. Blood poured out of her, and the air filled with the smell of rain and mushrooms, but also rusty bike chains. At that moment, Snowgirl wedged her face next to mine, and then Goose, and Sadman, who informed us in the lowest of whispers that the woman was having a baby. Snowgirl found my hand and clutched it, her hot fingers pinching my skin. We swallowed, both frightened and mesmerized, watching the woman jerk and writhe and low and claw at the blankets. Her belly heaved, her breasts like two balloons tied at the end with the brown knots.

“I think I lost my locket,” Snowgirl said, her hand groping around her neck and chest.

The woman dropped her legs down and rose on her elbows, glaring at us, her tan face wet from tears or sweat. Her hair was black and messy, a coil of snakes. I stared at her, spellbound, unable to avert my eyes from hers, their strange, orange glow. My muscles tightened, my belly quivered. For a moment, I thought she was about to smile, but she parted her lips and spat at us, and then her body was crippled with pain again and she collapsed on the sheepskins. We could no longer see her face, but the wound between her legs grew wider and wider, with a babyís head, like an angry fist, forcing its way out.

We took off running, through the grass, toward the creek, entering it with loud splashes and screams. We shook from the cold of the water, but also from fear and shame and excitement, having witnessed something private and forbidden. Snowgirl was the first one to crouch and slide into the creek all the way, her head going under. Goose was wading after her, trying to catch her braid like a fish tail wavering back and forth. Sadman bent over and filled his mouth with water. He stood up and made a tight hole of his mouth and looked like a gluttonous beast. His hair bristled; his eyes glinted with mischief as he shot a fat stream in my face. I flinched and brought my hands forward, slapping the creek water as hard as I could, and kept on slapping and pushing my way closer to him. He didnít try to escape or protect himself, although I knew he couldnít swim. The two of us grappled and laughed and said things to each other, ducking in and out of the creek, our nostrils and ears flooded.

Snowgirl and Goose were already on the bank, already squeezing water out of their clothes. They both took off their shorts and spread them on the grass to dry. With her back to us, Snowgirl unbuttoned her shirt and slid it down her shoulders, the slim curves of her figure etched against the blue of the sky. Her braid became undone and dripped all over her body. Water flowed between her legs. Sadman and I stopped giggling, and Goose started to put on his shorts to hide his erection. What we wanted is for her to turn around, to let us see her breasts. We wanted to touch them too, to feel them against our cold trembling fingers. We were awkward in our desire and speechless, embarrassed and overwhelmed. We were years away from discovering what love was, but at that moment we thought we knew, we thought that if we could only touch her, press our stiffened bodies against hers, she would turn us into men, real warriors—strong, fierce, invincible.

Snowgirl couldnít read our minds, of course, or view our bulging crotches. She reached down and picked up something from the grass—her locket—and was swinging it before her eyes. In the full dazzle of the sun, she looked almost transparent, about to melt.

 

 

As expected, our parents didnít believe our story, and we didnít return to the creek or see the gypsies again, and that summer, that day, would be the last one we would spend together.

Goose would become a popular musician and form a band. He would publish a memoir, in which he revealed the truth about his older brother, who had molested him since he was three. He never married or had children and died from a drug overdose the year his memoir had come out.

Sadman would become a baker, one of the finest in the area. In the 90s, his family immigrated to Israel, where he was able to open his own business. An on-line source stated that he put his heart into every loaf he baked. He was married twice but had no children. He was killed in a suicide bombing.

Snowgirl would become a model and keep her nickname. She never cut her hair or ate cakes. She and Kosolapyi would be engaged on and off for many turbulent years, but she refused to marry him, despite his rising wealth. She died in childbirth at the age of twenty-seven.

Kosolapyi would not finish high school. His parents divorced the year I turned twelve, and he lived with his grandparents for the next six years. He counterfeited jeans, antique icons, and hard currency (mostly American dollars). He was shot in the heart in his ritzy Moscow apartment filled with posters and pictures of Snowgirl.

Soon after my birthday party, my mother would meet an American via Internet, and we would move to Salem, Virginia, the next summer. Right before we left, I finally got acquainted with my father, who had abandoned my mother when I was born. To my surprise, he didnít look like Napoleon or a gypsy king or any men Iíd imagined or wanted him to be. He wasnít tall or short, famous or infamous. He was no one I knew.



“Cossacks and Highwaymen” appeared in Bayou, 66 (Fall 2017): 27-38.