I don’t remember turning eight or nine. I only remember turning seven and four.
“Today is your birthday”, said Grandma, lying on the couch and scratching the streak on her thigh that was chafed by the elastic of her long, bright-green underpants.
I was surprised and asked what it meant. Grandma explained that I was no longer six years old but seven. She had forgotten to tell me about my fifth and sixth birthdays, so I was under the impression that a birthday was just another holiday, with no relation to age. Turned out it was the other way around: a holiday has no relation to a birthday.
That a birthday is a holiday I decided a long time ago, back when I was still living with my Mom and she took me to Sochi. I remember sitting in the taxi cab and watching with interest how Grandma, who I didn’t know very well back then, grabbed Mom by the hand and wouldn’t let her get in the car. And Mom shouted that they already forced one husband of hers out of the house, and that she didn’t want to have to beg for money for stockings any more and be treated like an idiot. Then she tore herself away, and we took off. Grandma ran after the cab, shouting: “’May you be cursed by the heavens, God and the earth!..,” and I thought that I had to wave her goodbye, so I turned halfway around and waved through the rear window.
Then we rode on a train and looked out the window. I sat in Mom’s lap and wondered how she suddenly grew so tall: at home, her head didn’t reach the ceiling, while on the train it suddenly did. Then I remember some house with paintings and a stocky red-faced guy who kept hugging me and calling me Sasha boy. I asked Mom what this guy wanted from me, and she explained that this was Uncle Tolya, who we had come to visit.
I didn’t like Uncle Tolya at first. He kept bugging me and apparently was eager to show how much he loved me. But then he must have forgotten about it, made Mom laugh, and me too, so I thought that he actually was a lot of fun. The three of us ate at a cafe, walked along the seaside promenade, and then it turned out it was my birthday. Uncle Tolya said that it called for a celebration, and took me to see a ship. The huge ship, bigger than our building, stood at the dock, and Uncle Tolya arranged for us to go on board. Mom stayed behind on shore, and I was afraid that while we wandered through the long, carpeted corridors and looked inside the cabins, the ship would slip out to sea, and we would lose Mom. I was so afraid that I didn’t really care and didn’t see much of anything; I just wanted to get off. After the ship, we toured a tugboat, and that wasn’t scary at all. The little tugboat couldn’t slip away unnoticed, and if anything, I would have enough time to rush out onto the deck. The sailors on the tugboat treated me to some dried fish, and then it turned out that Uncle Tolya knew the captain, so on the occasion of my birthday, the captain gave the three of us a ride around the whole harbor. Now that was fun!
And then we walked in the park. Colorful lights hanging on palm trees shone cheerfully through the warm black night, the surf boomed in the distance, and right in front of us a huge, brightly lit carousel went round and round. We bought three tickets and went flying on it, one behind the other. Ahead of me, Mom roared with laughter; behind me, Uncle Tolya whistled and hooted, while I held on to the chains for dear life and screamed, my heart sinking in terror and delight. The ground flashed under my feet, the lights streamed around me like bright shining threads, and the headwind wouldn’t let the screams leave my mouth, forcing them back.
At home, Uncle Tolya put a cake with four candles on the table and said that I had to blow them out. I didn’t want to. The candles were colorful and reminded me of the park where we just walked, but Uncle Tolya explained that this is what you’re supposed to do. So I did, and then we had tea with cake. After that, I drew a fish on the fogged-over window with my finger. It didn’t look like a fish. Uncle Tolya laughed, added a few strokes, some fins, and suddenly it looked like a real fish. On the same window, we also drew a ship and a car, and on another window, Uncle Tolya drew my Mom. The drawing was very simple, I tried to repeat it later, but instead of Mom, I came up with some messy curves.
After tea, Uncle Tolya climbed into the bathtub, while Mom sat down on the edge and talked to him. I got bored and came over to join them. I launched soap dishes into the bathtub, while Uncle Tolya stuck his hand out of the water and sank them, pretending he was a submarine. Then he demonstrated how a depth charge explodes, splashing so hard that Mom got all wet and had to change into his striped navy shirt. Mom said she was a boatswain and that she’d call all our hands on deck, but then she didn’t, so we went to sleep in a big bed. I snuggled up to Mom, thinking that the next day would also be a birthday, and maybe even more fun than today.
But the next morning Uncle Tolya got sick. He couldn’t get up, he didn’t laugh or make jokes. He spent the whole day in bed, and we couldn’t go anywhere because of him. Good thing he gave me a little racing car, at least I had something to play with. In the evening, Mom and I got on the train again and went back to Moscow. Mom said she would leave me with Grandma for a few days and return to Uncle Tolya. I didn’t want to part with her and cried, but she told me,
“You’re healthy, and you’ll be with Grandma, while he’s sick and all alone. Don’t you feel sorry for him?”
I did feel sorry for Uncle Tolya, but it didn’t make it any easier to part with Mom. Had it not been for the race car, Uncle Tolya would have completely faded from my memory by then, and I was hoping that by the next morning, Mom would forget about him too and would stay with me. But in the morning I got sick myself and didn’t care about anything. Mom left the sick me with Grandma, and when I got better, I was told that now I would be living with her all the time.
Since that time, I couldn’t imagine that my life ever was, might have been, or ever would be different. This life revolved around Grandma, while Mom entered it very rarely, with Grandma’s consent. I got used to it and never thought it could be any different. Sochi, the night with the colorful light bulbs, and the cake with the candles all stayed in my memory as a pleasant but already forgotten dream. There was also something scary in that dream: a circus, some argument during which I was choking and cried very hard, but I couldn’t remember what exactly happened and why I was crying - and I didn’t even try. There was no reason.
Grandma explained to me that Uncle Tolya was a bloodsucking midget who wanted to move to Moscow and take everything we owned. He wanted Mom’s and Grandma’s apartments, Grandpa’s car, his garage, and all our belongings. For that, he needed us all to die. He shouldn’t hold his breath for her and Grandpa’s death, though, but he had already infected me with the staph and nearly finished me off. Even the little car he gave me was black with golden wheels, like a hearse. Grandma threw the car out, saying that she’d buy me ten of those, but in normal colors. Then I committed some infraction, and she declared that the only reason she’d buy any would be to smash them against my head.
I did believe that the bloodsucking midget wanted to take everything we owned, but Grandma kept saying that she wouldn’t let him, and so I felt like I was inside a fortress that the midget would never be able to capture.
“So he’d get nothing, right?” I would ask, just to admire once again Grandma’s readiness to defend me and our stuff.
“Not even the little elephant?”
I had seen the little elephant in our sarcophagus-like china cabinet, and I thought it was the kind of curiosity that had to be protected from the midget above all else.
“Even the elephant... What elephant?”
“Oh, nothing, never mind...,” I stumbled, just in time. Grandma had warned me that if I ever opened the china cabinet, I’d stay in there forever.
“Yes, the elephant, the hellephant, and all the other crap! She couldn’t get her winter coat out of me for over two years now, never mind the car with the garage. But he’s counting on it, of course! He already moved to Moscow, now he’ll marry her and get a residency permit. That goddamn bastard! He knows it: when we kick the bucket, you and that idiot woman will be our heirs. And if you’re gone, she’ll get everything - meaning he will. You’re like a thorn in his side, he can’t wait till you drop dead. But he’s got more waiting to do, I’ll take him to court.”
For a long time now, I had almost pictured the bloodsucking midget with a knife and a black mask, and I was scared of him like he was a real murderer. Shortly before I turned seven, he moved in with Mom and showed up on our doorstep with a large box of grapes from the Crimea. Recognizing his voice, I crouched under the table and waited for him to push Grandma aside, grab me and strangle me. But Grandma was vigilant.
“Grapes? I pick the bones out of fish for him!” she screamed like a siren, raising her voice at every vowel, and the midget was blown away from our door as if by a hurricane. “The bastard shows up here with grapes,” said Grandma, bolting the door shut. “And he chooses the kind that’s full of seeds, on purpose. He wants you to choke.”
Grandma was very wary of seeds and bones, and so when I was eating fish, she did indeed go through all of it, squishing morsels of the white flesh with her fingers until they turned into small grayish lumps, like tiny fish balls. She’d arrange these lumps around the rim of my plate, and I’d eat them with hot buckwheat and grated apple. Eating was also done with Grandma’s assistance. Having prepared the boneless lumps, Grandma would scoop some buckwheat from the plate that sat in front of me, put one lump in the middle of the spoon on top of it, cover all this with grated apple from another spoon, and tamp it all down with the apple spoon - like an ice cream vendor. Then I’d open my mouth, and she’d insert this multi-story edifice inside, accompanying the closing of my lips with an odd movement of her own. It looked like she was eating with me, but only in her mind.
After the contents of the spoon were placed in my mouth, Grandma would say,
“Chew. Chew it, you hear me!”
“I am chewing.”
“Like hell you are! You swallow it up as is, nothing gets digested. Professor Amosov wrote that even water has to be held in your mouth, savored like this...” Grandma would flap her lips. - “And food needs to be chewed even more. Chew! Chew, may you choke on it! Chew, don’t swallow!”
One of my favorite ways to amuse myself was to make Grandma yell and then immediately make her see that she was yelling over nothing. Once, when she was feeding me fish, I glanced at a package of tea and uttered gravely:
“Cough it up! Cough it up now, you bastard! Now!”
“Cough up what?”
“Oh no,” I pointed to the package. “I’m just reading this. Bone set herbal tea.”
“Boneset, you moron!” Grandma jumped up from her stool, but she had absolutely no reason to yell.
I was delighted with my prank!
On my birthday, the one that Grandma announced while scratching the streak that was chafed by the elastic of her underpants, I was also eating fish with buckwheat. And even though I already knew that a birthday was not a holiday, it occurred to me that it might be a good excuse to have for dessert some of the chocolates set aside for the doctors, or at least a candy bar.
“Well, fucktee-do, a chocolate! You already had one yesterday, that’s enough.”
“But yesterday it was for no reason, and today it’s my birthday.”
“We could celebrate.”
“What’s there to celebrate? Life is passing, what’s so good about that? Chew.”
Nevertheless, after the meal Grandma presented me with a tiny Pushkin’s Fairy Tales candy bar, added to it an allergy pill, and sent me outside for some fresh air. That’s where I was supposed to meet Mom.
I didn’t see my Mom very often. The last time was over a month ago, when a wind storm blew in. I was outside, and the wind really frightened me. The familiar courtyard suddenly felt strange and hostile; the trees above my head howled terrifyingly, torn cardboard boxes and garbage flew around like they were under a spell, and although our building was just a few steps away, I suddenly felt lost, as if in the woods. The wind ruffled my clothes and threw dust in my eyes, but I just marched in place, covering my eyes with my hands and not knowing what to do. That’s when Mom appeared. She took me by the hand and brought me to her friend’s place in the same building. There, we sat down in the kitchen and lit a small lamp above the table, cozy like a campfire. The wind that I escaped from was tormenting the trees outside, taking its frustration out on them, while we sat and ate mashed potatoes. The potatoes were incredibly good; I quickly ate mine, wanted more, and started tamping my fork on Mom’s plate, explaining that the potatoes weren’t mashed enough. After pressing down three times, I’d lick off what got stuck between the prongs, and went on mashing. Seeing through my trick, Mom laughed and gave me half of what was on her plate. We sat in the kitchen until the wind died down, and then Mom took me home. At home, I told Grandma that Mom saved me from the storm, and that was what I actually believed.
Mom’s rare visits were the happiest times of my life. Only Mom brought me joy and fun. Only she told me things that were really interesting, and she alone gave me the things that I really wanted to have. Grandma and Grandpa bought me the miserable tights and flannel shirts. All the toys that I had came from Mom. Grandma scolded her for that and promised to throw everything out.
Mom never forbade me anything. Once we went for a walk, and I told her that I had tried to climb a tree but then got scared and couldn’t do it. I knew that Mom would find it interesting, but I had no idea that she would suggest trying one more time, and would even watch me climb, cheering me from below and advising me which branch to grab. Climbing in Mom’s presence wasn’t scary at all, and I made it as high as Boris and the other kids usually did.
Mom always laughed at my fears and didn’t share any of them. And I was afraid of many things. I was afraid of bad omens; I was afraid that if someone startles me when I’m making a funny face, I’d get stuck like that; I was afraid of matches because they are covered with poisonous sulphur. I once took a few steps backwards and was afraid for a whole week because Grandma said, “Whoever walks backwards, his mother will die.” For the same reason I was afraid to get my slippers mixed up and put the right one on the left foot. I once saw an open faucet in the basement, with the water running, and started worrying about the upcoming flood. I told the custodians about the flood and tried to convince them that the faucet had to be turned off immediately, but they didn’t understand and just exchanged blank looks.
Mom explained to me that all my fears were for nothing. She said that the water in the basement would drain away through the pipes, that I could walk backwards all I wanted, and that only good omens come true. She even nibbled on a match just to show me that its sulphur tip wasn’t that poisonous. I listened in thrilled disbelief and looked at her like she was a magician. The fancy word “dissent” that I once heard on TV described her views perfectly. So now, while getting some fresh air outside, I looked forward to hearing what she’d have to say in response to Grandma’s claim that there is a God who sees how I torture her and punishes me with diseases.
It was late in the day when Mom appeared in the courtyard. She sat down on a bench and I settled in her lap. I wanted to hug her and snuggle up to her as hard as I could. I did, but my longing didn’t go away. I knew that it wouldn’t go away no matter how much I hugged her, so I did it one more time, and then we started talking. Mom told me that she bought a train set for me, but that I’d receive it from Grandpa so that Grandma would think it was from him and wouldn’t do anything bad to it. I asked what the set looked like, Mom described it to me, and then I said that I was afraid of God.
“Why are you such a chicken about everything?” asked Mom, looking at me in amused disbelief. “Now it’s God. Did Grandma scare you again?”
I told her where this particular fear came from, and Mom explained that nobody knows whether there is a God or not, but if there is, I had nothing to worry about because I was a child. God would never punish a child.
We got up from the bench. I walked with Mom and thought that by her side, I would never be afraid of anything. I would never, never be afraid by her side. And then I got so scared that I froze in my tracks...
Right in front of us, the bloodsucking midget appeared from around the corner. It was him, I recognized him immediately, and my throat went dry.
“I’ve been looking for you for half an hour,” said the midget with a sinister smile and stretched his dreadful hands toward me. “Happy birthday, Sasha boy!” he cried out... then grabbed me by the head and lifted me into the air!
I have never been so terrified. The only reason why I didn’t run away was that when I found myself back on the ground, I couldn’t move a finger. It was like in a dream, when you can’t run from an approaching train or a knife. I don’t remember how we said goodbye or how I made it home. I do remember that it was only when I saw Grandma that I sighed with relief and felt my reassured heart descend from my mouth back to its usual place: I had escaped...
“The bastard grabbed him by the head!” Grandma would say later. “A little fork and a little stick in the neck are connected like this.” Grandma showed with her fingers exactly how. “A child has thin bones; one slight twist - and the stick comes out of the fork. And then you’re gone. Didn’t I tell you to run fast the moment you see him? Didn’t I? So that’s how you listen to me? Well, just wait... God will punish you for that!”
“God doesn’t punish children,” I said tentatively.
“So he’ll punish you when you grow up. Although you won’t make it that far, you’ll rot away by the time you’re sixteen or so. And keep in mind that if he shows up here just one more time, you won’t see her again. You think I can’t do it? Oh yes, I can! Got it? Remember it!”
I did remember, and for a long time I was afraid of God, and of rotting away, but most of all, of the dreadful midget who could stop me from seeing Mom again.