Baby in the Snow
By Lara Vapnyar
My grandfather was born in 1907 in a Ukrainian village called Talalaevka. There weren’t any cars, buses or trolleys there at the time, there wasn’t the nice and fast Moscow subway, so when people wanted to go somewhere they had to use horses. A horse harnessed to a cart in summer, and to a sleigh in winter.
That was how my grandfather always started the story of his birth, with the description of horses, harnesses, carts, sleighs, and big sheepskin coats that people had to wrap over them when riding in winter. He then proceeded to explain that back in those times Russian Jews had to live within the Pale, in small towns and villages, away from cultural centers, away from big universities, theatres and opera houses. I would always ask why just for the satisfaction of hearing the answer. “Jews were much smarter and stronger than goyim to begin with. Russian Tsar was just too scared of what happens if they’re given equal opportunities.”
My grandfather’s mother went into labor two weeks before she was due. She didn’t expect to go into labor when she and my grandfather’s father decided to visit her aunt in the next village. They traveled in a horse-drawn sleigh. And as soon as they got there my grandfather’s mother went into labor. Luckily, the aunt’s neighbor was a midwife. The labor didn’t last long, and soon my grandfather’s mother gave birth to a large pink boy, so strong and healthy that everybody said, ”What a strong, healthy boy!” The mother felt tired afterwards, but not exhausted, not as exhausted as women usually feel after giving birth. She said, ”Let’s go home.” Her husband, her uncle and aunt tried to talk her into staying longer, but she was stubborn. “The baby must see his own home,” she said. And so they went back. Again in a horse-drawn sleigh.
It was a cold, snowy winter. Winters are always cold and snowy in the Northern Ukraine, but that winter was particularly so. My grandfather’s mother said that they had to wrap the baby very well. And so they wrapped my grandfather in a big sheepskin coat. My grandfather’s father sat in the front of the sleigh, and my grandfather’s mother in the back, holding the wrapped baby in her lap. The sleigh moved fast, but not too fast. They went through the snowy fields, and then the snowy forest, listening to sounds of snow.
“The snow can’t make any sounds,” I usually remarked at that point.
“Oh, yes, it can. And how!” my grandfather said. The snow screeched under the horse’s hoofs. The snow swished when flying from under the sleigh’s runners. The snow rapped softly against the sheepskin. And in the forest, when the tree branches grew tired from snowdrifts pressing down on them, the big patches of snow would fall with a low, heavy “Booh.”
Somewhere in the middle of the forest my grandfather’s mother dozed off. When she opened her eyes and peeked inside the sheepskin coat to check on the baby, she didn’t see him there. She unwrapped the coat and still didn’t see him. She looked around in the sleigh, but he wasn’t there. Then she screamed, “We dropped the baby!” My grandfather’s father turned the sleigh around and they went back, peering hard into the snow so as not to miss the baby.
“Was it night? Was it dark?” I asked at that point.
“Yeah, yeah, it was.”
“But how could they see?”
“Oh, it was a bright night, full moon, stars, and snow. Snow makes everything brighter.”
“Were there wolves in the forest?”
“Yeah, there might have been. So it was very important to find the baby quickly.”
“What if they accidentally ran the baby over?”
“They had to be very careful not to do that.”
They found my grandfather within a mile. Naked and pink against the white snow. Screaming and flailing his arms and legs.
“Naked?” I asked. “What about your diaper? Weren’t you wearing a diaper?”
“No, no diaper. Must have gotten unwrapped and stuck in the sheepskin coat.”
“Were you very very cold and scared?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Why were you screaming then?”
“Babies scream all the time.”
My grandfather’s father jumped off the sleigh and picked up my grandfather, and my grandfather’s mother wrapped him back into the sheepskin coat. Very tight this time. She sat pressing him to her chest the rest of the way.
“Did you catch a cold?”
“You didn’t catch a cold?”
“No. When we got home, my mother rubbed me with some moonshine and gave me some warm milk from her own breast. And then don’t forget that I was a very strong and healthy baby. A Jewish baby!”
I might have asked some more questions after that. I might have asked if they heard the wolves howling. Or I might have asked who was the first to spot the baby in the snow. My grandfather’s mother or my grandfather’s father? Or what happened to the sheepskin coat. Did they keep it as a souvenir? My questions might have seemed skeptical, but they weren’t. I didn’t mean to doubt my grandfather, rather the opposite. I wanted to get as much proof and as much detail as possible, so I could live through the story. My grandfather knew that and patiently provided the proofs and details. “I don’t think the wolves howled loud enough.” “I think it was my mother who saw me first.” “I guess the coat got lost.” And I nodded with a serious, satisfied expression.
My grandfather liked telling stories. Often he would be sprawled on the couch with a newspaper, and I would come to him, bend the corner of the newspaper backwards so I could see his face, and ask him to tell me a story. And he would sit up, fold the newspaper and think for a little bit before starting his narrative. Usually he didn’t remove his reading glasses, and his eyes caught behind two black square frames looked, as if they were peering at me from two TV screens. His eyes were here, but they were also somewhere else, at the heart of his stories.
My grandfather told me many stories, and sometimes, out of politeness, I would even ask him to tell something else. But it was this story, about the baby in the snow, that I really wanted. I don’t remember when I heard it for the first time, or rather I don’t remember the time when I didn’t know this story. It’s hard to say now what it was that appealed to me so much, but I loved to imagine how it happened exactly, and I often spent hours of playtime, or bedtime trying to reenact the story, or at least to put myself in place of the characters.
In the winter months, when I played outside, I would turn away from my mother, quickly unbutton my coat, gather a handful of snow, and push it through the opening in my sweater. I felt the shot of cold, the pleasure, the pain, and the numbness in my skin, followed by craving for more. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to submerge your whole body in the snow, expose every tiny part of its surface to something so cold, so wet and delicious.
At night, after my mother had put me to bed and left the room, I would climb right out and open the window, if the pane wasn’t covered with protective tape. I would take off my pajamas and wrap myself very tight into my blanket. When the air in the room had gotten sufficiently cold—I tested it with the tip of my nose—I would kick the blanket off and lay on my back, naked. I imagined that my blanket, my mattress, and my pillow were snow drifts. I stared into the ceiling, but saw pine branches covered with snow, stars and the moon shining between them. I imagined that I was listening to the sounds of snow. And when I put my pajamas back on, closed the window, and wrapped myself in the wonderfully warm blanket, I imagined that my blanket was made of sheepskin, and smelled like sheepskin, and since I didn’t know how sheepskin smelled, I imagined that it had an aroma of lamb stew.
At other times I would think about my grandfather’s mother. I felt uneasy and scared when I thought about her, yet I couldn’t resist it.
She held the baby in her lap and she was falling asleep. She was tired, her eyelids were closing, the bundle with the baby felt hard and heavy in her lap. She put it down next to her in the sleigh. She fell asleep. But she didn’t sleep well. She had a scary dream. That a baby had fallen off the sleigh. She woke up with a start in a few seconds. Looked around uncomprehending, listened to the beat of her racing heart. Checked on the baby. The baby was there, tightly wrapped, quietly sleeping. She dozed off again. The baby woke up, started fussing. Kicked very hard with his little arms and legs. Such a strong, healthy baby! Wiggled himself out of the sheepskin coat. Rolled off the back of the sleigh. The mother woke up. Checked on the baby. And not seeing him in the coat, thought that she was still sleeping, still inside of her nightmare.
I was eight when my grandfather had his last birthday, his seventy-second. He loved birthdays, and we were expecting many guests. At the time, my grandfather, my grandmother, my mother and I lived in a tiny village called Ovrashki about thirty kilometers from Moscow. We rented two small rooms from a fat gloomy woman, who wore big curly wigs and high heels on Sundays and dirty headscarves and rubber boots the rest of the week. The house stood very close to the village train station, and on the day of my grandfather’s birthdays almost every train that came from Moscow brought another cluster of our guests. My two uncles came with their wives, Uncle #1 even brought his first wife along with his current (the third) one. My cousins came. My great uncles and aunts came. My grandfather’s old deaf friend, who served with him during World War II, came. The mother of Uncle’s #1’s first wife came. Other people that I don’t remember came. My mother and my grandmother cooked the whole day, and we had to borrow extra chairs and dishes from the landlady. It was very hot and crowded in the room, so my uncles and the oldest cousin were asked to carry the table and the chairs outside, into the garden, to put them on the clearing under an old, half-dead apple-tree. The garden smelled of jasmine and the grass heated by the sun. The thin iron legs of the chairs slowly sunk into the ground under our weight, especially the legs of the chair under our landlady, who was invited too. From time to time, a puny, green, very hard apple would fall off the tree and bounce off the table, or better yet land with a splash in somebody’s full glass. One apple hit my grandfather right on his bald crown. We ate, we laughed, we said toasts. Uncle #2 said how lucky everybody was that my grandfather’s birthday came in June, providing them all with a nice excuse to get out of the city.
It was then that I thought of my grandfather’s story. We always celebrated grandfather’s birthday in July. Usually while living at one or another’s summer rental. My grandfather’s birthday came in July. My grandfather was born in July. There couldn’t be any snow in July. Not in Moscow. Not in Talalaevka.
I had been so keen at noticing tiny discrepancies in my grandfather’s narrative, yet this huge one had somehow escaped me. But once I saw it, there was no way to get round it. I couldn’t ask my grandfather for some details or explanation like I did before. “The moon shone bright enough for them to see the baby.” “Don’t forget that I was an unusually strong baby.” “I didn’t catch cold because they rubbed me with moonshine.” I knew that no explanation would make this new discrepancy go away. The whole story of The Baby in the Snow simply never happened. The discovery was too enormous, too sharp-edged for me to digest. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel about my grandfather now on.
His other stories probably weren’t true either. Of course, they weren’t. The story of his running away at the age of ten, joining the Red Army, and fighting in the Civil War wasn’t true. The story of his meeting with the famous Ataman Makhno wasn’t true. The story of his being the best correspondent for the Pravda (The Truth) newspaper couldn’t possibly be true, especially the part where he got fired because he once rode right into his office on horse-back. I remembered now how my mother rolled her eyes at the beginning of one or another of his narratives, and how my uncle chuckled when he once came to our place and overheard my grandfather telling “the Red Army story.” I was such a fool, I was such a stupid little baby, and my grandfather took advantage of it.
Here he was reaching for yet another piece of herring, trying to hook some slices of onion on his fork. Removing a tiny apple from the bowl with boiled potatoes. Smiling, laughing. Winking at me from his side of the table. Offering more wine to his pretty daughters-in-law. Telling them something in his booming voice. His face tomato red, his bold forehead covered with beads of sweat, the curly graying hair on his chest pushing through the opening of his “good” shirt. I decided that I felt disgusted and angry.
I pushed my chair away and ran to the house, where I sat alone in the dark stuffy room, not answering my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and my grandfather’s pleas to come back, not even for the cake.
But later that night after everybody had gone, after I had sneaked into the kitchen and eaten a big piece of cake, and when I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep, I didn’t feel disgusted anymore. Instead, I was strangely excited. My grandfather told a story that didn’t happen. He lied. I had been well familiar with lying by that time. I told my mother that I had a severe stomachache when I didn’t want to go to school. I told her that it wasn’t me but my cousin Serezha who kept throwing my teddy bear around the room and finally hit and broke the lamp. I was familiar with adult lying too. I knew that my mother didn’t go to sleep after she put me to bed, as she said. She watched TV while munching on chocolate candy, the very ones that were “so bad for your teeth.” But in all those cases lying served a certain purpose. I lied about stomachache because I didn’t want to go to school. I lied about the lamp to avoid punishment. My mother lied about going to bed right after me to get away with watching TV and eating candy.
There was no purpose to my grandfather’s lying. He didn’t try to acquire what he wanted, or to get away with anything, or to portray himself as a hero. He did stress that he was very strong as a baby, but that was hardly a valuable praise. My mother said all the time what a nice, smiley, quiet baby I was. I knew that this wasn’t a compliment, but rather expression of reproach that I wasn’t as nice, smiley, and quiet anymore.
I wondered if something similar to my grandfather’s story really happened. Not at the day of his birth, but maybe when he was five or six. He probably didn’t fall off the sleigh, but was just sitting so close to the edge that somebody said, ”Careful, Feigele, don’t fall off the sleigh.” Maybe he thought, “What if he did fall off?” And what if it happened when he was a newborn baby? On a bright, snowy night, in a forest full of howling wolves? My grandfather had three choices. He could not tell the story at all. He could tell it the way it happened. Or he could make it brighter and larger, in a way that would make me listen to him. Make me think about the story all the time. Make me want to be part of the story. Make me pick up a handful of snow and push it onto my naked chest. Make me hear sounds of snow.
I got off my bed and tiptoed across the room to look at my sleeping grandfather. He was lying on his back, his flabby, hairy arms resting on top of his chest, which was raising and falling as he breathed. He snored loudly and with dignity.
I decided that I was in awe of him.
My grandfather died a month and a half after his birthday. We were still living at that summer place, and one day my grandfather went to the shopping expedition in Moscow and didn’t come back. There was a sleepless night in Ovrashki filled with countless phone calls. We didn’t have a phone there, so my mother had to run to the village store that had a phone booth next to it. Apparently it was one of my uncles who called the hospitals, and my mother had to call him to get the news. Every hour or so, she would throw over a thin jacket and walk to the store, and then come back and say, ”No news.” The door slammed and my mother’s steps resonated off the wooden steps of the porch, and our landlady banged on the wall to quiet us down. While my mother was gone, my grandmother sat on her bed, not moving, very erect, shushing me all the time, even though I wasn’t the one who made noise. My mother made her last run to the store closer to dawn. She came back and said that they had found him. She then said on the bed next to my grandmother and they cried together until the morning came, and my uncle arrived in his car to bring us to Moscow.
My grandfather died a few days later without regaining consciousness.
The doctor said that he grandfather had had a stroke and fainted on the floor of a supermarket. “Probably quarreled with a salesperson again,” my mother whispered to my uncle.
I didn’t feel grief during the first few weeks. The oddness, the enormity, the excitement of the event of my grandfather’s disappearance and death—the first family death that I witnessed—somehow blurred the tragic aspect of it. The funeral was a noisy affair full with sweaty people wearing black in August, smelly live-flower wreaths, four gloomy unshaven men playing brass off the back of a small pick up truck, and a red coffin with a large dead doll in it that only vaguely resembled my grandfather. The open coffin stood on the steps of our building for a few hours so that the neighbors could say their goodbyes. My grandmother lamented the open coffin. She insisted that my grandfather would be buried according to Jewish customs. But my mother and two uncles wouldn’t let her. If the neighbors found out and told on them, they all could have lost their jobs. The times changed. Unlike Jews of the Tsarist Russia, Soviet Jews were now allowed to live in big cities and attend universities and opera houses. What they weren’t allowed to do was practice Jewish customs. Still my grandmother insisted that we cover all the mirrors in the apartment. “The neighbors don’t have to know, do they?” she said.
The whole week following the funeral I enjoyed the spotlight as a playground celebrity. Many kids from our building were still away for the summer, but among those who stayed, nobody’d ever experienced a family death, and as soon as I came outside they were eager to hear me talk. We would sit inside the small rusty merry-go-round, the kind that you were supposed to push from the outside to make it go, and since nobody pushed it, it stayed in place, only swaying from side to side with a nasty screech, whenever one of us moved. There were about six of us, all girls, ages five to ten.
“My grandfather loved shopping,” I would start. “He went to the village store every day, and he walked three miles to the farmer’s market in Malakhovka every week, and sometimes he would even take a train to Moscow and go to the supermarket there. That day he took a ten a.m. train to Moscow, and he was supposed to return at 4, 6 tops. But he didn’t.” I always stopped at that point to heighten the suspense and to savor the frightened and alert expression on their faces. “When he didn’t come with the last train, I knew that something was wrong.” I told them about my mother’s phone calls at night. I told them about our trip back to Moscow. I told them what was it like to have a coffin standing in the middle of your living room. I said that it wasn’t “scary” or “disgusting” to kiss my grandfather’s dead cheek. I said that the skin felt warm. I didn’t tell them that I cheated and just brought my lips close but didn’t actually touch the skin. But what they really wanted to know was what exactly happened to my grandfather. He had a stroke. How? What was a stroke? I had asked my uncle that. He said that stroke happened when the blood rushed to one’s head and didn’t rush back, stopped there. So my grandfather had the blood rush to his head. He fainted and fell and stayed lying on a dirty supermarket floor up until 911 people came for him. That was it. That was how he died. I knew that I simply couldn’t tell it like that.
“There was a fight,“ I said.
“Yes. There was a huge line in the supermarket, and my grandfather went to the very end, even though he had his World War II veteran card and he didn’t have to stay in line at all.”
“What were they selling?” one girl asked, “Kolbasa?”
I thought. Why not?
“Yes, salami, of the very best quality.”
“Salami!” They all cried out in disbelief.
“Yes, you can imagine how long the line was.
“By the time my grandfather made it to the counter, they said that there was no more salami. But my grandfather knew that wasn’t true. He saw how a salesman moved a couple of boxes far under the counter. My grandfather told the salesman that he saw it. But the salesman only grinned. He was a huge man with meaty arms, and my grandfather was old, short, and bold. The salesman grinned as if saying “So, what are you gonna do about it?” “You’re a liar and a thief,” my grandfather yelled. “You’re a liar yourself,” the salesman answered back. My grandfather would’ve never allowed anybody to call him a liar. ‘I’m a veteran of World War II—you can’t call me a liar!’ He swung his arm and hit the salesman right in the face.”
At that point I became confident that I wasn’t telling a lie. Nobody, not even my mother, or my uncles knew how it happened exactly. My mother said that he always got into fights with salesmen. So, why couldn’t it happen the way I was telling it?
“The salesman wasn’t used to people standing up to him. He got really mad. He took his butcher’s axe from the counter, ran toward my grandfather, and hit him on the head. The stroke made all the blood rush to my grandfather’s head and freeze there. The stroke was so hard that anybody else would be dead right away. But my grandfather lived for three more days. He was a very strong man.”