By Mikhail Morgulis
Translated from Russian by Norman Kass and Edward Razinsky
To my mother, who has passed away, but is still alive; for as long as people live in our hearts, they do not die.
Here they are sitting with their anemic skinny fingers separating the mouliné threads. There were threads after the war with this exotic foreign name and they knitted sweaters, berets and scarves with it.
The two sisters; they are dead long ago; but here they sit in front of me. One of them is my mother. I see a sore on my mother’s middle finger. Every day she washes our postwar clothing with this acid brown homemade soap that leaves sores on her hands. Everyone washes with this soap, but not everyone gets sores.
Here they sit. With thread coiled around her hands Mom’s sister is talking about something. My Mom is Jewish, and so all her sisters are Jewish, too.
And yes, the time I am telling you about is somewhere around 1947 and the place is USSR, a country of miserable slaves: lack of food, people casually imprisoned for nothing, and everyone hating one another.
So my aunt with the threads coiled around her hands is saying:
Zugt er... So he says to me: ‘Let us make a date...’ And I tell him, ‘First, doesn't my big nose bother you? And secondly, my husband was killed on the first day of the war, but I think he's still alive, and I'd feel uncomfortable...’
And Mama just sighs. She has dark brown eyes, awash with warmth and naiveté. Dear Mama...
My aunt continues:
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I have one room and two daughters. They understand everything. We also have a warped floor in the kitchen. Our neighbor, a woman who is an alcoholic, does not sleep at night...’ And he goes... Zugt er, ‘I will bring with me a couple of loaves of bread and some thick liver sausage. I might be able to come up with a bit of onion... and I'll bring real vodka from the state liquor store. It understands the soul of war veterans...’
And I say to him, ‘Then, for sure, come to my place. But one would have to leave a gift... You see, I am taking a chance with my children... And my husband, I know that he is alive... But he does not object... .’
‘Of course, I will leave something,’ zugt er, ‘a kilo of sugar and four kilos of potatoes....’
What is this “zugter”? This unfamiliar word confuses me. I try to remember what it means, and finally I recall thankfully that in Yiddish it means “says” or “He says."
'My Iosif is alive, too ... Those death notices they sent are ridiculous. How could they know the names of the millions of people who were killed in the war?’
I see their fingers again, so thin, pale, and Mama with the sore on her middle finger.
I can’t understand what they are doing with the thread, what they are weaving it for. A skinny little fly makes its way in, buzzing piteously in the air. I try to follow its zigzag, and hear Auntie's voice once again.
Sure, there are so many young people around, and he is proposing to me. So I say, ‘It'd be nice to get some buckwheat somewhere’... And he says that he got, zugt er, some American egg powder, and he will pour some out for me ...
My mother is strikingly beautiful. She and all of them thought that I could not speak, but I just didn't want to start speaking. Mama is staring off into the distance. I think she wasn’t listening to Auntie. Her hairdo is decidedly a post-war one. A tuft on the one side, on the other the hair smoothed flat. During the war she would sell her rations coupons and buy me milk in cartons, so I survived. She herself ate potato peels. By the way, my mother gave birth to me at the small railway station "Nasosnaya" (Pumping) in the state of Azerbaijan; they took her there on a donkey. You see, the German planes were bombing the train where my pregnant mother was sleeping in one of the cars. The train came to a stop, the people scattered. Mama ran too, but she got tangled in the rails and slipped; I flipped over from the blow to her abdomen, and contractions started.
The medic said,
‘The child’s legs are coming first. Choose which one of them must die — she or the baby.’
They chose for me to die, but just when the medic was about to pull me out in pieces, they saw that the amniotic sac had not yet burst. And in it, I slid out into the world. The old folks say,
“Lucky beggar, he was born in a shirt.” It happens very, very rarely. They say that it is God’s doing. My aunt, another aunt, one with a short nose, made a vow to God for life―to fast on that day. She fasted on that day for the rest of her life, and consequently each year everyone recalled that day.
Mama is staring off into the past. I am silent, I have nothing to say, I'm looking somewhere. And also, sometimes, I think.
I often dream of meat burgers, of a frying pan with twenty burgers sizzling on it, and I can eat them all. It’s hard to wake up from a dream like that. It’s a nightmare, and I don't tell it to anyone.
The voice of Auntie grows fainter and fainter. I can fall asleep, therefore I am still alive.
Mama taught me to smile when I am hungry. I smile. I smile. Off in the distance, I hear Auntie’s voice:
‘The child dozed off with a smile... Of course, what is it to him, he knows nothing. I would have liked to, at least one time, fall asleep with a smile...’
I can’t see them, but I imagine Mama’s eyes, filled with light. They want to look up into a sky, where no planes are swooping down. Mama’s eyes likely wouldn't want to return to earth. But I am here down on the ground. Mama's tender eyelashes slip down over her eyes, and with her eyes half-open, they glance at me.
Sixty years have gone by since then, but the two sisters are still sitting in front of me…
I can see their delicate pallid fingers. And one of them has a sore on it.
Copyright © Mikhail Morgulis 2014. Translation copyright © Mikhail Morgulis 2014.
Mikhail Morgulis is a Russian writer, editor and theologian born in Kiev, Ukraine. In 1972 Morgulis won a coveted award sponsored by the Ukrainian Union of Soviet Writers and the Soviet Ministry of Culture for his collection of stories entitled It's Hope's Turn. In 2012, he received a literary award from a New York Magazine, New Review, which has published work by the Nobel Laureates Ivan Bunin, Boris Pasternak and Joseph Brodsky. In 2013, he was awarded first prize of the famous Yunost a Moscow literary magazine in Russia. Author of 9 books, he now lives in Florida. Bridgeusa@aol.com