Eagles and Partridges


Eagles and Partridges

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Julia Kissina

Translated from Russian by Steven Volynets


The novel from which this piece is excerpted is a coming-of-age story narrated by a young Soviet Jewish woman who leaves Kiev for Moscow in search of true poetry and love.


“Soul,” said Lidochka, sixteen, frail body, a heavenly face of a little demon. “That’s the most important sex organ!”    


She spoke with the urgency of drowning, lips wet, voice hoarse, a rebellious spirit prowling for a quick breach of morality.


Back in those horrific times, all of us – girls, philosophers, drunks, and even our friend Dürer – were blindingly beautiful. We were brighter than the stars, our faces ablaze with blissful ignorance. We resembled dessert sweets: fruit-topped blancmanges, syrupy streams and sugary divinations. And if you were a young woman, a little caramel, you would inevitably end up surrounded by manure flies bent on soaking up your vitality like candied Mao Zedongs.        


On the very first day, armed with a bottle of champagne, Lidochka read to me her “Futuristic liturgy”, liquid jumping out of the glass, Lidochka out of her armchair. In conclusion, she launched into a discourse about shame, moved on to callousness, and inquired if I had ever kissed anyone on the lips.


“I don’t remember,” I said thoughtfully. Pigeons roamed the adjacent roof. In tiny coquettish steps, a pigeonette retreated further and further away from a plump pompous pigeon, who, with his pathetic feathers cocked, wanted to pass for an eagle.   


“I don’t remember if I ever I kissed anybody on the lips,” I hesitated. “But I am in love with this one person, who–”


“You mean Lavrik?”


“No, this one person, who…”


I couldn’t wait to tell her everything. Surely, she’d understand. She’d certainly appreciate it. I would tell her about Kiev, about the letters, the poems that have struck me to the very depth of my soul. I would induct her into the culinary avant-garde, the vegetative futurism, tell her about the little gears of writing and everything else.


But Lidochka wasn’t listening to me at all. Tall, beautiful, and very gracious, as indelible as a punctuation mark, or like… I couldn’t quite say what, she stared at the pigeons. She interrupted my mulling over the right words to point out that kissing was like eating snails.


“Raw ones, too. Or like slugs!” she added victoriously.


I was upset at her for not listening to me. Both of us drunk, we saw one pigeon walk in tandem with another two, attempting to disrupt their rendezvous, and suddenly I found myself, once again, thinking about my Tomatnik and about how lovely it would be if…


“We are all doomed!” Lidochka shouted.


Having at first missed what she said, I suddenly began to laugh. Or maybe I heard everything, but it only came to me later. I laughed either for no reason or because “doomed” was spoken so incongruously. What did it have to do with anything?


“We are doomed to lose our wholeness, independence, power!” the restless oracle announced severely, quivering her shiny, perfectly undented lips which looked like a pair of little rosy paint rollers.


I laughed so hard I nearly fell off the chair. That's when Lidochka started to sing something ungodly and waltz like mad all over the room, her skirt rising like that of a twirling dervish. She tore me off the chair and, with our hands locked, we began to spin together. Her curls were springing, the room twisting into a grimace.


“To commit an abomination, to experiment with one's own morality!” she bellowed maniacally.


We collapsed on the sofa from dizziness, and suddenly I came face to face with cockroach frozen in amusement. It stared me right in the eyes. Once again, I broke into laughter.


“Go, my friend. Today I am setting you free.” 


The cockroach took off running.


“It's a shame that we have no pistols.” Lidochka suddenly came to, pulling her neck in a funny way. At that moment, with her sharp nose, she looked like a baby ostrich.


“If we had pistols, we could shoot them every which way. But where could we get them? Where do people get weapons?”


“In normal countries they're sold everywhere.”


“That's right, in America, you go to a bakery and it's full of guns, can you imagine?”


“Here, only in the army. They're all crazy in the army. They take boys and cut their balls off.”


“If I had a weapon, I would kill... Who should I kill...?” She hesitated.


“Look!” I took out a slingshot from underneath the sofa, the one I had found there a few days before. And it was at that moment that I felt the touch of her mouth. It was a strange feeling, as though I was forced to eat meat without salt. Something inside me was burning with disgust, and, at the same time – with attraction. Her tongue felt chilly.


“You are so funny,” Lidochka said tenderly, suddenly spitting out my mouth and pushing me away. “As for dying,” she said. “We too will die, without any guns! And I will never touch you again!” 


We both dove into hysterical laughter that quickly turned into the howling of stray dogs. And when the barking finally ceased, a blue streak of early evening glow already lay over the city.


 The next morning, on the 7th of Fishtember of 1985, the Central Committee of the Communist Party adopted a resolution to “combat alcoholism.” All the Party, administrative, and law enforcement agencies were mandated to intensify, vigorously and widely, the fight against drunkenness. The measure provided for a cut in the production of alcoholic beverages, as well as places and times of sale.


As soon as the anti-alcohol law went into effect, punk rockers, religious leaders, dissidents, and black-market operators decided to celebrate. A bonfire went up on the roof of one of the high-rises, a crowd gathered. Soon after dusk everything was consumed by predatory darkness. Reflections of fire in mirror-stirred eyes floated amid the emptiness of the city and the black liquid of sky. Musicians wailed like goats. Everything smelled of weed. The flames were blown about violently, scarves and rucksacks were carried up in the air, but under the safeguard of alcohol no one noticed any of it. Meanwhile, the wind howled above the city with my beloved Tomato’s voice: “Elephantina, my love! Where are you? I am waiting!”


They all came: the Humpback, the Clumsy, the Glum, all of them. But no matter how much I searched for my Tomatik, he was nowhere to be found. 


And it was then, at that ill-fated roof, like a fly buzzing around manure, I was cornered by an art critic named Cockbeatle. He was an ancient old man (of about thirty).


“There is nothing more wonderful in the world than Great Stallions,” he rustled, cordoning off the wind.




Cockbeatle nodded eagerly. He was covered from head to toe with an invisible but very potent ointment, the kind used on a sticky tape for catching flies. At once, he leaned close to my ear and began to speak, quicker and quicker.


“You see, in Moscow a man loves nature lodged between bricks, stock between buildings adorned with stone, under bridges and alleys. A great many wooden structures are hidden there, smelling of Old Russia's dust.”


“Why yes,” I agreed vacantly.


“On the outskirts of Moscow you can still find beautiful old huts with hand-carved verandas, and velvety golden manure, and blue little bells, and fat geese, and by October there is already a sharp crust of ice. And there are apples and roosters! And best of all, I'll show you–”


“Would you?”


Suddenly, he looked embarrassed.


“So what are you going to show me?”


“A collection of modern art. My own collection.”


That's when Dürer, by then drunk himself, interrupted our conversation and began to ape this Cockbeetle: “Myth has it that in those Moscow dachas people die, burn up, drink, hang themselves, lose their minds, bask in lust, execute each other in the ravines by firing squads and walk barefoot in the show!”


Sometimes, when he did that, when he acted like a fool, Dürer was magnificent. And just as laughter was starting to creep up my nose, somebody shouted: “Okay gamebirds, spread out!”




“Get out of here!”


It was the first time I saw a gun. One of the guests held it up, hand raised high in the air. It all seemed like a movie.


“This is not your roof!” he barked. “Who is in charge here?”


Shards of glass started tinkling. The musicians went silent and everyone's attention suddenly shifted to a tall blonde swaying drunkenly at the very edge of the roof. The bonfires were burning out and the sky was already rippled with the gray dye of morning.


“People, lions, eagles and partridges, geese, spiders, silent waterborn creatures, starfish, and those not visible to the naked eye!” she howled. “Hear me, see me, for I am a seagull!”


“You are a rat!” somebody shot back.


Her performance as a would-be Chekhovian heroine was more than out of place. Then, from below, came the sound of synchronous stomping, the crowd began to move, and an agent of authority appeared on the roof. With not as much as a chance to bid goodbye to Cockbeetle, I darted to the staircase right before the cop's nose. Quickly-quickly-quickly, picking off stairs under my feet, I conquered five thousand zigzags. Another minute – and I stood outside in the courtyard. The sky was already white. Windows were clapping. And I suddenly realized that this was the historic day when Lidochka got ahead of me in everything.


Soon Lavrik would be pacing the room, occasionally standing up on the chairs and even the table in sudden fits of oratory passion.


“Ancient Indian poems never mention the erotic kiss, only the maternal one,” he flailed his arms. “Meanwhile, the latest Hindu poems offer descriptions of as many as twelve kinds of kisses. Which points to the fact that, in the times of antiquity in India and Greece, a kiss was not an expression of erotic love.”


While he was speaking, Lidochka walked in on tiptoe and leaned against the doorframe, listening with the look of someone who had just found a million in cash. Typically, she would spill everything right at the doorstep. But it was as though everyone had conspired to stay silent at all cost. That's when she opened the window, leaned over the ledge, and roared across the entire yard:


“Long live the Great Socialist Deflowering! Hooray!”


We all nearly threw up.


“Long live the Great Socialist Deflowering!”


Before things got too ugly, we pulled her back into the room and set up an interrogation. Lavrik didn't participate, too busy with his nose in some book.


“It isn't that scary at all, in fact it's quite interesting. It's a scientific experiment,” Lidochka announced and began to cry. “In the past, hero-doctors injected themselves with horrific diseases in the name of science!”            


She looked awful: eyes bulging over her forehead, shirt collar dangling, hair sticking up like barbed wire, the tip of her nose shuddering with sobs. Sitting on the floor, in tears, she shimmered with festive radiation.


“It had to be done,” she sniffled. “Had to be – period. I thought about it for a long time and realized that losing one’s virginity is purely a technical problem.”


As soon she said that, Lavrik tossed his book in the corner, got up, put on his coat, and walked out without saying a word.


Later that evening we celebrated this momentous occasion in Lidochka's life. Pistol-Olga baked a cake. We invited old man Dürer, having agreed never to tell him exactly what we were celebrating. While he sat with us, like a woodpecker among oysters, diligently blowing into his saxophone until the neighbors ratted us to the cops, from the roof, her wings spread out, slowly and murderously, flew a drunk girl.


This is an excerpt from the novel Elephantina which was published in both Russian and German in 2016. © Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin 2016
English translation copyright © Suhrkamp Verlag and Steven Volynets

Julia Kissina (the author) is an award winning Russian and German-language novelist living in Berlin and New York City. A longtime member of the Moscow Conceptualist movement and Russian literary avant-garde, she is the author of several novels, including Elephantina, Springtime on the Moon and The Devil's Childhood, as well as a collection of stories, Forget Tarantino. Her books became cult hits of Samizdat in the early 1990s and have since been translated into several languages. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Kissina

Steven Volynets (the translator) is the first-prize winner of the 2016 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation international fiction contest, judged by Nicholas Delbanco. His work has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize and received honorable mention in Glimmer Train. Lauded by The Paris Review, his translations of Russian prose can be found in Asymptote, Origins and Exchanges. His translation of The Hemingway Game, a novel by a best-selling Russian author Evgeniy Grishkovets is forthcoming from Glagoslav Books. Steven has recently completed a collection of stories and is at work on a novel.

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