It was nine o’clock on a balmy summer evening when Masha stepped off the last bus to Shelkovskaya, a village in Chechnya. The year was 1938, the second year of what is now known as Yezhovshchina, the bloodiest phase of the Great Purge named in honor of Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the Soviet secret police. Historians from all around the world still argue about the number of unnatural deaths from those two years alone — the upper estimate surpassing a million. But Masha did not know it then. And even if she had, this wouldn’t have been her main concern. She was a girl, a carefree college student until a week ago, when she found out that she was accidentally, unfortunately, unhappily pregnant.
Although she was afraid of the long journey ahead, she believed that if she squeezed her mother’s small, silky hand, and if she watched her father’s coarse, yellow eyebrows wiggle in laughter, and after she spent one night sleeping with her two sisters in their bedroom — the same room where the great Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov had once spent the night a hundred years prior — her thoughts and feelings would gain proper balance. She would know what to do.
Masha watched the bright windows of the sputtering bus until it disappeared around the turn. The two men in workers’ caps and oil-splattered overalls who had gotten off with her at Shelkovskaya were also looking after the bus. Once it was out of view, they turned and regarded her with weary, disappointed expressions — or so it appeared to Masha. They bowed, spun on their heels like soldiers, and hurried off toward their village.
An invisible crow cawed.
Aside from the red First of May banner, which, strangely, still hung from the side of a brick house near the bus stop though it was already July, the village was gray, sinking into twilight. The cows and horses dream-walked in the purple field nearby, knee-deep in fog. In seconds, the backs of the men, too, turned gray, then disappeared. But why only two of them today, Masha wondered. Usually, a crowd of workers disembarked at Shelkovskaya in the evenings. At any rate, they were home now. Masha, on the other hand, had to walk sixteen kilometers on a forest trail to reach Paraboch, the village where her father worked as the director of the Red Star forestry service.
She stood under the solitary light post, hoping that a fellow traveler to Paraboch would appear. The trees seemed swollen and heavy, as if they’d hoarded darkness all day, sucking it up from the rich black soil through the roots and into their branches, and would shoot it into the sky at any moment. The air was still warm and sweet, though she could see no flowering trees. The skin over her ribs and under her breasts began to itch.
This very minute her boyfriend, Sasha, could be climbing the stairs to the two-room apartment Masha shared with four classmates from the university to ask if she wanted to go dancing to the brass band in the park. She hadn’t told him that she urgently needed to see her parents. He would’ve accompanied her. He would’ve been happy to sleep on the threadbare couch that had traveled with her family from Ukraine to Chechnya.
Masha couldn’t wait any longer. She was nauseated yet hungry. She entered the forest, which, despite the full moon in the lilac sky, felt to her like a big house with curtains drawn over all the windows. She scolded herself for forgetting the flashlight. A nightingale trilled on every branch, but there was something mechanical about those trills. Someone called out insistently and close. After a few airless seconds, she turned around. No one. It must’ve been a stray jay. Jays always sounded as if they were in trouble. And then Masha heard it. A plaintive siren — a howl. Another howl. Two howls in a duet. Three howls.
Masha froze, then walked faster. The howls came as if from a great distance. Still, she was afraid. She had become a spoiled city girl, her father would say, she had forgotten with whom she shared the forest. Bears, boars, deer, wolves.
The bushes jolted. A harmless fox, maybe, or a weasel. To scare them, she opened her dry mouth and shrieked a couplet from an old Ukrainian lullaby her mother used to sing to her and her sisters before bed. The trees cringed, stuffing their ears with leaves.
They had met at a dance in the city park three months earlier, Sasha and Masha, and their friends immediately declared them a perfect match. They were both at the top of their respective classes in Grozny, she at the newly founded Teacher Training College and he at the Higher Technical School for Petroleum Studies. They were musically inclined: she sang in the student choir and he was a drummer in a band. Even their names rhymed. When Sasha first saw Masha in the park, the family story goes, he promptly abandoned the bandstand and asked her to dance to the tune that seemed to go on just fine without his drumming. From that day on he didn’t let go of her. And she barely noticed how quickly her Grozny — the steps to the library, the quiet alley behind the movie theater, even the tram ride to her home — became their Grozny. Sasha had very gallantly, very stealthily, invaded and occupied the topography of her surroundings, and, two months ago, she had let him infiltrate her body.
Yet, she couldn’t get rid of the feeling that, if only she tried hard enough, she could unhear the verdict, unattend the event, reel back the unspooling time. She could march on into the future — the way it happened with Egor, a schoolmate whom she’d spurned in seventh grade: when she heard the previous year that he had drowned on a fishing trip, she felt guilty — as if he had died shouting her name — then, a week or two later, the shock wore off, the grief retreated, and Egor sunk back to the dark bottom of her memory well, bobbing up as rarely as before. Time took care of everything. But did she love Sasha, she had wondered ever since she found out that she was pregnant, the way Egor had loved her?
Masha hadn’t heard any more howling; as a forester’s daughter she knew that the wolves didn’t howl while on a hunt. But they were close now. She felt them with the tips of her ears. She walked faster still, while little stones and twigs attacked her toes, exposed in her summer sandals.
What a stupid girl she really was, to let this happen. And yet, she wasn’t the first one. In the dormitory bathroom, under the cover of shower steam, she’d heard whispers of an old Chechen woman at an aul south of Grozny who made special black tea. She’d also heard that, if drunk too late, it would kill both the girl and the thing growing inside her.
Masha froze, then walked faster. The howls came as if from a great distance.
Or — if Sasha really meant the things he’d whispered into her blotchy neck under the acacia’s shadow — there was still time to get married quickly. People would not be surprised at the blessing bestowed on a young couple so in love and in a hurry to start their lives. Many years later, Masha could tell her firstborn about how she was pursued by wolves through the forest and survived. Her firstborn would think that his mother was from some ancient time of fairy tales, and Masha would laugh and tell him that such a thing could happen anywhere, anytime, even now.
And, like in a fairy tale, she suddenly remembered that somewhere close stood the cabin of the forester responsible for this sector. She knew she must find it before the wolves snatched her and dragged her into the darkness.
Masha raced through the darkness. She couldn’t see or hear the wolves; they were stealthy on the hunt. But she could smell the dead squirrels on their short breath.
The cabin sprang up as if it had been lying in wait. The forester’s dog s— three dirty brown mutts — exploded with barking. Masha threw open the gate. The shed stirred with bigger animals: a spotted cow, mauve pigs, a white horse glowing in the moonlight like a ghost. Here, the cool forest air was laced with the smell of manure.
Masha pounded on the wooden door. The mutts tore their throats with barks, but kept their distance from her. She put her ear to the door: Were those footsteps? Was that a bump? A clink of glass, a ring of metal?
“Help me! Hide me from the wolves!” she screamed into the door. She darted to one of the curtained windows and banged on the dirty glass.
The door creaked open, and she was struck by the sharp smell of rotting peaches. Before her stood a man with a pale, frightened face. He was dressed as if for a long journey north — in a wool coat and an ushanka hat, a lumpy scarf wrapped tight around his neck. He clutched a cracked leather traveling bag. The purple veins on his temples bulged like scars.
She knew this man, Masha realized: Stepan Dmitrievich. He had been a frequent guest at her father’s house in Paraboch — where she was now headed — the year she turned twelve. Her parents told her that he had fled the Holodomor famine in Ukraine, where a long time before then their families had been neighbors.
That whole year Masha had a crush on Stepan Dmitrievich. She even thought he resembled young Lermontov, the great Russian writer who had a hundred years prior spent the night in their big old wooden house in Paraboch. Then one day Stepan Dmitrievich disappeared. She was shocked to learn that he presently worked for her father. She had seen him neither at the forestry directorate, which occupied the lower part of the house, nor at her parents’ apartment, which occupied the upper part of it. Perhaps he’d been walking through the rooms all these years subtly transformed, a shadow of himself. Perhaps she hadn’t been recognizing him.
He now wore thin-wired round glasses. Was that it?
Stepan Dmitrievich looked her over as if he’d never seen her before: her white summer dress, her worn sandals full of moss and twigs, her satchel, her new watch—a present from Sasha.
“It’s me, Masha! Masha from Paraboch. I — ”
His gaze steeled, then hollowed. He slapped Masha on the cheek.
“The wolves — ” she began to say, tears salting her throat.
The brown mutts yowled into the blackness of the forest.
His soul rushed back into him; his face flushed red.
“I apologize,” Stepan Dmitrievich mumbled. He stepped back, looking at his shoes, then at his bag. He was shorter now, Masha noticed. “I apologize. I apologize.”
“I am Masha,” she said. “Masha Korol.” She quickly wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands.
He stepped aside, and Masha dashed into the cabin. Slowly, he closed the door. Slowly, he set the bag down, took off his hat, unknotted his scarf—his neck was purple, glistening with sweat—and removed his winter coat. He folded everything into an ancient wooden trunk, then paused and pulled it all out again. He piled his winter clothes on top of the trunk.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Stepan Dmitrievich. I am on my way to Paraboch, to my parents. You remember my parents, don’t you? Can I wait here till the wolves are gone? I beg you.”
Why? Why did he slap her? Or did she imagine it?
She tried to swallow her nausea, her self-pity.
His onion skin was cut with creases around his blue eyes, which, in turn, had a look both blank and startled, like the old gelatin prints where people’s pupils burn with cold fire. His wavy hair was still completely black.
He turned to Masha, tears pooling inside his concave cheeks. “Only the leshy and wood goblins wander the forest at night, knocking on innocent doors.”
“I’m sorry I scared you.”
“You didn’t scare me, Masha!” Stepan Dmitrievich took a deep breath. He must have recognized her at last.
“I know I shouldn’t have left Grozny so late, I shouldn’t have been walking alone.”
“Yes. Well, that can hardly be avoided these days. Nu, sit down, be a guest.”
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
Masha perched on one of the stools at the big roughhewn table by the window. But the stool wasn’t used to a stranger’s bony backside and immediately threw her off with its sharp edge. She bruised her coccyx as she landed on the floor.
“Be careful. Everything is wobbly here, barely holding itself together,” Stepan Dmitrievich said. He remained standing, turned slightly away from her. His arms, limp along his seams, appeared prosthetic. He must be embarrassed by his tears, waiting for them to dry, she thought. She got up, rubbing her back, and sat down on the other stool. She held on to the table.
“Who’d you think was at the door, Stepan Dmitrievich? Whom were you waiting for?”
“Catch your breath while I check on the animals.” He scurried out of the cabin.
Confused, Masha put her hand on her gurgling stomach and looked around.
The giant Russian oven, a whitewashed brick mausoleum, took up most of the one-room cabin. A metal door shut up the oven’s hearth, a black tongue of coal smeared above it, as if something had escaped from there in a blast of fire. The corner of a checkered afghan peeked out from beneath the curtains that concealed the sleeping nook on top of the oven. Some firewood huddled under a bench in the corner. A large metal-frame bed was stripped of all bedding. A portrait of Stalin and two hunting rifles hung on the wall. A lamp, the sole source of light in the cabin, stood on the table. A metal bucket with water and a cupboard with cookware and dishes placed at even distances from each other completed the rustic ensemble.
There wasn’t a single photograph, book, or newspaper. Masha felt as if she were sitting inside a diorama at the museum.
And didn’t Stepan Dmitrievich have a wife, the wife Masha had been so jealous of at twelve? She had a hazy memory of a small woman with short brown hair and a big nose that didn’t make her ugly. Mostly, Masha remembered being mortified whenever her mother reminisced in the company of Stepan Dmitrievich and his wife how, back in Ukraine, Stepan Dmitrievich would put baby Masha on his knees and bounce her “over the hassocks and the hillocks,” and then he would open his legs and she would fall as if into a pit, laughing hysterically. Masha hadn’t wanted to know any personal details about him then; she preferred that he live in her fantasies. She didn’t even ask if her parents knew why he’d disappeared.
Many years later she would learn that he had been arrested as a kulak, and served an eight-year sentence. She would understand that her father had taken a huge risk hiring him and had done a huge favor to Stepan Dmitrievich, who — carrying the documents of an ex-prisoner — would have had trouble finding decent employment. Along with millions who managed to remain on the periphery of purges and repressions, she would attempt to absorb the statistics of suffering and she would find it impossible, sometimes even unnecessary. But, for now, Masha sat in the cabin hungry, nauseated, hurt by the unjust slap, and, most of all, relieved that she had escaped from the wolves.
Stepan Dmitrievich returned in a brighter mood. He sat down on the rebellious stool, which only creaked under his sudden charm, and trained his bespectacled gaze at her. Masha’s blood pushed against her stomach. She looked away. The reflection of his drawn face in the curves of the golden samovar, which she hadn’t noticed before, appeared like a sketch someone had tried to erase but only managed to smudge.
He seized her hand, slipped down her clammy skin, and shook her fingers.
“Forgive me, Mashenka. Really forgive me for what I did earlier. I thought it wouldn’t be you.”
“Whom did you think it would be?” she said, warmth spreading outward from her diaphragm.
“Whom? The wolves!” He broke out in tinny laughter.
She stared at him until a visual memory—something from her childhood—floated up to the surface of his skin and softened it.
Stepan Dmitrievich got up and sprang toward the cupboard. Masha was unnerved to watch him just barely miss the steps of his old self. He produced a bottle of vodka and put it on the table.
“Always make sure you have enough vodka for your night guests,” he exclaimed, beaming wildly now, showing his crooked, bluish teeth. “Let’s drink to our narrow escape!”
Masha covered her stomach with her hand. Then, paranoid, she threw her hand off. Stepan Dmitrievich grabbed two glasses from the cupboard and filled them to the brim. He took one and pushed the other toward Masha.
You remember my parents, don’t you? Can I wait here till the wolves are gone? I beg you.
“I’d rather have some tea,” she said. She was ravenous, despite the smell of rotting peaches, despite her nausea. “I feel sick after vodka.” She looked toward the oven. The coal tongue mocked her, the two small holes — one a square and the other a half-moon — smirked. But she couldn’t ask for food; she was struck dumb with the shyness of a kid.
“Drink, Masha, drink. You never know when it will be your last glass.” Stepan Dmitrievich sat back down.
“Or your last cup of tea,” she tried to joke as he brought his glass to hers and clinked it.
Masha took a small sip so as not to offend him. He shook his head and emptied both glasses to the last drop.
“How are you liking a student’s life, then? It must be so exciting to be in the city after your father hid you girls in the forest for so long, like little secret princesses.” Stepan Dmitrievich smiled with his silverish eyes.
“I really like living in Grozny,” Masha said.
He nodded, but it seemed to Masha that he was thinking about something else entirely.
“Remind me your subject.”
“Russian Language and Literature.”
“Ah yes, I remember. Whenever I came to visit your papa, you always hid behind a book. You never wanted to come out of your made-up little world. No point in even trying to start a game with you. Going to be a teacher?”
“Yes.” She shifted under his stare and itched her arms.
“A noble profession, teaching.” Stepan Dmitrievich became animated, jerking like a puppet on strings. “My mother always wanted to learn to read, but she was busy helping my father run the farm. Farming is backbreaking work. Every chick, every kid, every calf she tended to like her own child. Did you know that I grew up in a house as big as your father’s? Both floors.”
“No,” she said. “And did you know that a hundred years ago Lermontov spent the night in my sisters’ room?” She felt stupid for saying this, young.
“Lermontov. Whom you look like.” She blushed. “The poet of the Caucasus. You don’t know? A Hero of Our Time. Also, ‘A little golden cloud spent the night on the breast of the behemoth cliff — ’”
“Nu da, some hero of our time,” Stepan Dmitrievich said. He poured another glass of vodka for himself and threw the liquid down his throat. The vodka lit up something in his stomach; he looked at her with new hunger: “You love poetry?”
She chuckled. “Of course.”
“And your parents love poetry, don’t they? I know.”
He rubbed the grain of the table’s wood with his right hand. His fingers were thin, with big, knotty joints. Two of the nails on his right hand were gone—one completely, exposing a spoon of hardened watermelon flesh, and another halfway.
“Who are your parents’ favorite poets, I forgot — ”
Masha didn’t understand why Stepan Dmitrievich cared about her parents’ preferences, not hers. She wanted to be older for him, more serious.
“Pushkin,” she said.
“Everyone loves Pushkin.” Stepan Dmitrievich’s mouth was open, his lips glistened. “Who else?”
Masha thought back to all the books that had once stood on her parents’ shelves and now lay hidden in their own ancient wooden trunk, the same books she remembered traveling with like family members from house to house during the many moves of her childhood.
“Fet, Nekrasov, Lermontov, of course.”
“Of course, your Lermontov. Mendelstump?”
“Mandelstam? No, not him.”
“Oh, yes, of course, never him. God forbid. What about this Gamalov?”
The gleaming white plates gawked at her with dumb innocence.
“You mean Gumilyov?” she whispered. “Don’t you know — he, just like Mandelstam, is listed as an enemy of the people.”
Maybe Stepan Dmitrievich hadn’t heard from where he’d been all these years, Masha thought, though this was old news.
Stepan Dmitrievich nodded quickly and worked his thin lips, as if chewing. The white cups on the shelf wanted more; they had one handle of an ear each.
“My parents don’t read much poetry these days,” Masha said. “They only joke about Lermontov’s ghost.”
“What kind of joke?”
“How he haunts my sisters’ room, not letting them sleep at night.”
Stepan Dmitrievich groaned.
She looked toward the oven. It seemed to be growing hotter.
Though she was a smart university girl, she didn’t understand what he wanted from her. Some part of her didn’t even want to try.
“So, how’s the groom?”
Masha started. She had completely forgotten about Sasha.
“Your parents told me how dedicated Comrade Biryukov is to you.”
“He’s not my groom. He — ”
Stepan Dmitrievich glanced toward the door. His dogs began to bark, then stopped abruptly, as though gagged.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Masha whispered.
He turned back to her, his face zapped clean of all expression. He took a breath. His features resettled. “And Sasha has already been recommended for the Party?” he said in a trembling voice.
“Yes.” She didn’t care about politics — no one in her family did — but she’d noted the extra dose of respect most people, including her parents, paid to Sasha.
“Excellent. Admirable. Marry him.”
Masha’s face flared. Could he have really sensed her condition the way foresters sensed disease in the trees and changes in insect populations, like the wolves sensed her fear?
A noise slipped from the oven. Or behind the oven. A mouse?
“Stepan Dmitrievich, if you’re hungry, I can throw something together for you. You seem so alone here, so abandoned.”
He chortled. “I may be abandoned, but I am certainly not alone.” He glanced toward the wall where Stalin’s portrait and the rifles hung. “The wolves are rabid this year. They’ve bred so much, you can’t take a step without running into one.”
“My father said that, too.”
“Your father knows.”
Stepan Dmitrievich poured more vodka into his glass. His right, birdlike shoulder stuck out higher than the left. The right side of his chest was ever so slightly concave, as if missing a bone or two. A pang of hunger dug under Masha’s ribs; her head began to spin.
Though she was a smart university girl, she didn’t understand what he wanted from her. Some part of her didn’t even want to try.
“Yes… time marches on. And now we have a new constitution,” he said.
“And the first elections to the Supreme Soviet under the new constitution are to be held soon. What do your parents make of it?”
“The Supreme Soviet.”
“I don’t know.”
“No, of course, you wouldn’t know.”
“I could ask Sasha — ”
“Don’t bother. My questions are too simplistic for him.”
She could see that Stepan Dmitrievich was disappointed. She hated to have disappointed him.
He turned on the radio on the table and fiddled with the knobs. A tango came on, and a distracted expression returned to his face. He looked as though he hadn’t slept in days.
“When you were a baby in that beautiful house of yours in Ukraine, I would dance with you,” he said, staring at the thick window curtains. “I danced with you all the time. Even your father got jealous. You didn’t cry in my arms.”
Masha’s body softened at these words, became heavier and more liquid somehow. She found she was physically unable to turn her thoughts toward her most pressing question. The lightbulb in the lamp fizzled and grew dimmer. She felt inexplicable tenderness toward Stepan Dmitrievich, a man who earlier in the night had slapped her.
He took off his wire-rimmed glasses and pressed his fists against his eyes. He downed his vodka. He no longer offered any to her. She felt as if she’d stepped off the careening train of time and was waiting at a station. Simultaneously, the creature inside her seemed to be growing not by days but by hours.
Weary sun tenderly bid farewell to the sea, sang the crooner on the radio. In this hour you confessed that there is no love . . .
“Would you like to dance?” Masha blurted out before her mind could stop her.
We are parting, I won’t be angry . . . You and I are to blame for it.
Red-faced, Stepan Dmitrievich planted his feet between the beats, on top of her feet. His right hand swept across her back, up and down, up and down. His left hand clutched hers in a clammy grip. The room spun, as if she were the one who had drunk all that vodka. At last he threw her into a dip and, afraid to fall, she screamed.
The radio began to chirp the late news program. He lunged to shut it off. Dark patches spread in his armpits. The scar-veins on his neck glistened with sweat. He smiled at her wildly, as if he’d just jumped from a tall cliff and hadn’t broken his legs. She still didn’t understand what was happening. She still felt like a little girl.
“Stepan Dmitrievich, please, can you give me something to eat? I am starving,” she finally confessed, fighting through her embarrassment.
“Ah, of course. How rude of me not to offer. I always keep something warm in my oven especially for my night visitors.”
As he moved aside the metal door, the oven let out an angry, smoked-through sigh and reluctantly disgorged a big cast-iron pot. He took two immaculate plates off the shelf. One bolted out of his hand and shattered on the floor. He put the surviving plate on the table and began to gather the fragments of the broken plate with such speed and care as if they were diamonds. He refused Masha’s offer of help, saying that she’d prick her fingers on the shards.
After crawling around on all fours to check that he had collected every last piece and, while he was at it, test the stability of some of the floorboards, Stepan Dmitrievich seemed satisfied. He brought over another plate, clutching it with both hands — one finger on his left hand was also missing a nail — and ladled some of the dark mass for Masha.
Her whole body seemed to fall through the brick partition and into the oven’s fiery belly, where witches were known to cook stray children for dinner.
“Eat, Masha, and don’t worry about anything. Morning is wiser than the night.”
She put a chunk of meat into her mouth. It melted on her tongue. It was the most delicious stew she’d ever tried. She stared hard at each piece of the meat she ate, cradling it in the spoon. Happiness penetrated her body with insistent, quickening breath. She felt the baby eat the meat inside of her. It liked the meat. Her nausea retreated. Her skin quieted down, stopped listening.
“Where did you disappear, Stepan Dmitrievich? Eight years ago?”
Stepan Dmitrievich cocked his head to one side and smiled.
“Do you collect stamps, Masha? I used to love collecting stamps as a child. Have you seen any foreign stamps at your parents’ house?”
“No,” she said.
Stepan Dmitrievich looked crushed. The air in the cabin hung heavy. Masha looked toward the ceiling as if expecting to see actual soot clouds. She wiped the sweat off her forehead. Even though hunger had left her, she kept eating for strength.
“One of my sisters collects stamps. I think I’ve seen an unusual one in her album before. Are you interested in a trade?”
In the near darkness the oven winked at her with its crooked eyes.
“I am interested in a trade. Can you check what she has?”
He sighed. “It might still amount to nothing.”
“I’ll look hard, I promise. And thank you so much for saving me.”
“No need to thank me. Your wolves I’d fight with my bare hands. The night is not over yet, but let’s try to sleep.”
She looked at the wall: the tight-lipped rifles seemed to have switched places with each other. “I think I should go home.”
“You’ll have to stay the night.”
As if pushed by a cold hand, she sat down on the bare metal bed.
“Don’t sit on that!”
Masha shot up, but her happiness stayed lodged in her throat.
“It’s broken, it’s not for you,” Stepan Dmitrievich said slowly, as if already half-asleep. “You can sleep with me on top of the oven. I don’t take up much space these days, I turn into a little worm. Or you can stay up if you like. Sorry I don’t have any great books to offer. None of your Lermontovs, and definitely no Gamalovs.”
“I don’t need them.” Masha wanted to stop him from doing something, but she wasn’t sure what. She wanted to keep talking; she wanted to keep swimming in the viscous air of the cabin, like in a hot bath.
Stepan Dmitrievich stood guard “for the wolves” while she went to the outhouse, distracting himself with a song, like she’d asked, because she was embarrassed to go to the bathroom so near him. Afterward, he poured cold water from the well over a metal bowl as Masha washed her hands and face. She did the same for him, flinching when she touched his bird-boned shoulder, when she stepped on his little foot.
He put his glasses on the table, climbed on top of the oven, and disappeared behind the curtain.
Masha sat at the table. She looked at her hands, her arms — several coarse black hairs had sprouted between the soft chick down she’d had since childhood. The scratched them until she drew blood.
Something began to scrape at the door.
“It’s just my cat, Anton,” Stepan Dmitrievich said from behind the curtain.
“Should I let him in?”
“No use. He’ll be running in and out all night.”
“He must be hungry.”
“There are things for him to hunt in the forest. Come to bed, Masha.”
And, as if hypnotized, Masha turned off the light and felt her way up the warm oven. She lay down on her side, facing away from Stepan Dmitrievich. The oven pressed against her ribs, pushing the sweet curtain of sleep away from her eyes. Anton stopped scratching. She waited for him to start again. And a few minutes or hours later, he resumed, more frantic.
“Are you asleep?” Masha whispered.
Stepan Dmitrievich shuddered and threw his arm over her. Her whole body seemed to fall through the brick partition and into the oven’s fiery belly, where witches were known to cook stray children for dinner. She could feel his elbow against her hip, the caps of his knees against her thighs. She could imagine him sliding his hand lower, lower. She could fathom turning to him in the hot darkness. Testing his birdlike shoulder, counting his cold ribs, waiting for his response to her secret, shameful, awkward, inopportune love. She wanted to. And this scared her more than the wolves, more than telling Sasha about the pregnancy, more than looking for the Chechen woman who made the black herb tea that could put her to sleep forever. “Tell me a story,” Masha whispered, her tongue a dead fish in her mouth. She wanted relief, comfort. She wanted to think of anything but her chaotic heart.
“With pleasure. Listen carefully then, my darling. Once upon a time — ” And immediately, as if by the power of that magical incantation, she turned into a young child again. A secret door opened inside her mind, and she was pushed into a cozy room, a room where she would believe anything. He moved closer to her, rubbing his nail-less fingers against her palm. “Once upon a time there lived a beautiful young girl in one of the fairest cities of a big and mighty empire. She had three brothers, whom she adored and admired like no other. She could not imagine her life without them and sometimes missed them even at night, in her dreams, because they slept in different rooms at the ends of long hallways in their big wooden castle. They grew up in abundance and happiness, fighting only over the petty kinds of things children fight over during peaceful times.
She could feel his elbow against her hip, the caps of his knees against her thighs. She could imagine him sliding his hand lower, lower.
“Then came the Great War. The three brothers became officers and went to the front to fight for the czar. They fought bravely and became, one could say, the heroes of their time. The youngest brother was killed in the first month of the war. The entire fair city came out for his funeral. I was there, I saw their young sister in mourning, beautiful like a blackbird except when she opened her mouth and cackled like a wounded crow. The other two brothers continued to fight even harder, with even more courage and abandon. When the mighty empire pulled out of the war because, it realized, it had a greater war to fight at home, the czar awarded the two older brothers three Crosses of Saint George each, and their names were engraved on the honorary wall in the Kremlin. But then the revolution came.”
Masha had never heard of fairy tales about revolutions. The real revolution hadn’t yet fallen deep enough into the black well in the forest from which all the fairy tales were drawn.
“The brothers escaped on the last ship leaving Crimea for Turkey. And where are they now? Their sister, who is all grown up and has raised her own happy family in abundance, claims not to know. France? Maybe, Bulgaria. Maybe even America. Some people still remember them, you see.”
Why was he telling her this? What was he asking? He was drunk; he was raving mad from spending so much time alone in a cabin where his own broken plates waited for the right moment to latch on to his throat.
“Half an army abroad, half an army disappeared. Too many valiant soldiers to keep track of, too many bereft sisters,” Stepan Dmitrievich continued still. “But if the brothers were writing to their sister from abroad, from Europe, that could be very dangerous.”
“Yes, very dangerous.” Masha heard her voice echo flatly in the dark. Perhaps, it was the walls who said this. Officers. Crosses of Saint George. France. She didn’t want to know any of this. She knew of no one who had so many uncles. She wanted to hear another story, a real fairy tale this time.
“You are a bright girl, with a bright future. You must be vigilant,” he said.
But, oh, it was too late, she wanted to tell him. She hadn’t been vigilant, and soon she would be unable to hide the evidence under any of her dresses.
For the rest of the night, Masha lay pinned to the oven by Stepan Dmitrievich’s arm, which grew heavier and heavier. Her mind was on fire, her body paralyzed. From time to time something hooted outside, something snorted with disdain in the shed. A crow cawed, and, for some reason, she thought of her mother, and how she had never seen her cry.
He had seen many such girls run into the forest before, and only a few of them had ever come out.
Though she heard no more howls, in the very black of the night, when she was still feverishly awake, she began to think the wolves were scraping at the door. Or was Sasha? Or the White officers, who had come in the night from France and Bulgaria and America to tell her something very important, something she didn’t want to know? She didn’t let them in. She sensed that Stepan Dmitrievich was awake too, watching her through his closed silver lids. The rifles on the wall clenched their teeth but didn’t fire. The portrait of Stalin, however, had pronounced his final, silent verdict on her unpremeditated crimes.
In the morning, Stepan Dmitrievich lifted his arm and let her escape.
The forest was awash with golden light. It was a different, wholly new forest. Every joint in Masha’s body ached. Her feet were pure ice. She ran toward Shelkovskaya station, toward Grozny, toward Sasha. She hoped the acacia tree hadn’t yet shed its leaves and there was time yet to turn her blotchy neck toward Sasha’s lips under its shade. He could be her shelter from the wildness inside her and out in the world.
A nightingale, exhausted by his night song, sat on a tree branch and watched the girl in the white dress stumble over the roots and crags on the forest trail. He had seen many such girls run into the forest before, and only a few of them had ever come out. The nightingale shook the morning dew from his feathers and flew higher and higher, his heart beating violently, past the crowns of the trees, toward the white yawning sun. From the top of the forest the nightingale saw the timber-processing buildings of the Red Star forestry huddled in the distance, the piles of cut trees, and rectangular batteries of trees stripped of leaves and bark — no longer recognized as trees. They had become lumber.
The nightingale rose higher still. There was Paraboch, much closer than it appeared in the misty distance, and on its main street stood the beautiful big house, and on its second floor was the comfortable apartment of Masha’s parents, and in that apartment was the room where the great Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov had once spent the night a hundred years ago. In that room, Masha’s young sisters still slept their child’s sleep, dreaming of the cabin on chicken legs, the magic frog skin, and the milk river with fruit jelly shores. Farther away were the great mountains of the North Caucasus, and beyond them lay Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, and the rest of the blue world, where, borderlessly, the birds were limited in their flight by their strength and their hunger alone.
Masha never looked for foreign stamps in her sister’s album. Mostly because she was busy with planning for her wedding and the arrival of her first child. But also — if someone had pressed her in the night for truth — out of blurry fear that she might find them. And then everything that was old and unspoken — and there were such things in every family, especially the ones who had moved so many times — would rise from the bottom of the cold, dark well and say its name, demand that its days and years be counted by the survivors, the descendants.
Not long after that night — she didn’t know the exact date — Stepan Dmitrievich disappeared from her life for the third and final time. In the late ‘50s, when her son entered university and the country’s murderous policies became public — when millions of people realized that they had been dancing on the edge of a precipice — Masha came to believe that Stepan Dmitrievich had been rearrested, like so many former kulaks, and possibly shot.
She had cried many nights for him, and for herself, for her vague suspicion that there had been something off about her encounter with Stepan Dmitrievich that night had finally coalesced into a stark realization: Stepan Dmitrievich, sensing danger, had been probing for any evidence with which to inform on Masha’s family — a common way, she now knew, for former prisoners to preempt a rearrest, to prove that they had decisively transformed into good Soviet patriots.
She never knew exactly how close she had brought her family to danger with her idle talk, her stupidity, her willful ignorance. It could have been death. It could have been nothing.
A few more years later, when Masha’s grandson started happily shouting his first words, she learned that Stepan Dmitrievich’s story had been no fable, after all. Her mother had three brothers once, White officers in the last czar’s army. The youngest one was killed, and the other two had fled Russia on the last ship from Crimea, just like Stepan Dmitrievich had said all those years ago. One settled in Bulgaria and another in France, in Paris. Both brothers wrote to their sister when it was considered safe. The Bulgarian brother returned to Russia in the ’60s to reunite with his sister after a forty-year absence. And the French brother — well, like so many others, he was forever lost to history and geography.
She never knew exactly how close she had brought her family to danger with her idle talk, her stupidity, her willful ignorance.
Now, Masha, who is more than ninety, has told the story of that night for the first time — to her great-granddaughter, who wants to be a writer, who’s been worming her way into Masha’s decaying memories to find meaning in the past. She finds it more narratively interesting than the present.
“You gained political consciousness that night, right? You lost your innocence, you stopped being in denial. You came out of the cabin changed, reborn,” the quick-witted great-granddaughter insists. “The epiphany was twofold: you realized that you didn’t love Sasha/loved Stepan Dmitrievich, and that the pregnancy might not have been the biggest problem for you and your family. Our family.”
Masha snorts, baring her toothless gums. How sharp, how wolfish is the girl’s hindsight.
“But does it still feel real? Does it feel like it happened to you?” the girl asks.
“After all these years, it didn’t happen to me, it happened to someone else.”
“So, you decided to keep the baby and marry Great-grandpa Sasha to hedge the bets against a possible arrest? I mean, I think you’ve made the right choice, by the way. I know I’m biased because, well, I was born! So maybe, in a way, we can all be a little grateful to Stepan Dmitrievich. Or because it was the easier choice?”
“Your great-grandpa could have been arrested. Almost anyone could have been arrested,” Masha says. “I didn’t know it then.”
She is already regretting having told the story to her great-granddaughter, who is smart but seems to lack a certain kind of imagination.
“I still don’t understand how you could not have known anything. Did you feel like you were in a fairy tale, in a kind of horror fairy tale?”
For a moment Masha wants to slap the girl.
“You, a grown girl with such odd, public ambitions, you should clean the wax out of your ears, trim the claws of your heart. Pull back the curtains.”
* * *
This short story first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Tin House. Our thanks to Kseniya Melnik and the Tin House staff for allowing us to share it with the Longreads community.