From The Body of the Soul
The eminent Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya has published a number of highly acclaimed novels and collections of short stories. The three stories published here are from her collection O Tele Dushi (The Body of the Soul), which came out in 2019. An outspoken opponent of the Putin regime since 2010, she issued a strong denunciation of the invasion of Ukraine in Novaya Gazeta on February 26, 2022, two days after it began. A month later she moved to Berlin.
Blessed Are Those Who . . .
The elderly sisters Lydia and Nina came to the empty house in a forsaken Italian village by different routes, from different directions. One travelled by way of Milan, the other through Genoa. They had been invited by an Italian woman, Antonella, a disciple of their late mother Alexandra Vikentyevna. Antonella lived in Genoa, where she was a university professor in the Slavic Department, and she had inherited this village house from her childless aunt. In the last ten years, Alexandra Vikentyevna, a distinguished linguist and specialist in ancient texts, spent a great deal of her time in this unoccupied house. Antonella urged the sisters to come and sort out the things left by their mother. Antonella did not venture to do it herself out of reverence for her teacher’s memory.
Antonella brought the sisters to the house on the hill in her car, unlocked the little gate, led them to the house, opened the door and left, telling them that she had to hurry to the university, but that she would come back by seven and take them to dinner. She spoke very good Russian, except that it had an uncustomary but pleasing intonation.
The sisters remained alone together. They had last seen each other in a similar situation when, after their mother’s funeral six months earlier, they had entered her Moscow apartment heaped with papers and books.
Now they were silently sitting on the terrace. The house stood on the crest of a hill and, looking from the street, it was impossible to tell that such an enormous, boundless view opened out from the terrace on the other side. It was a deep ravine, at the bottom of which ran a meandering stony track, the remnant of a dried-up river. The river used to flow down the Beuca Hill, a spur of the Appennine range to the right, while lower to the left the Ligurian Sea flew open, studded with white sails, streaked with the foamy silver tracks of motorboats, and marked off from the indifferent pale blue sky by the sharp dark blue horizon. In the closed space between the sea and the hills ran two roads—one far down along the sea, the other, a little higher, rested on enormous supports and went into a tunnel. Slowly and noiselessly, trailers, trucks, and cars flowed along it.
The sisters did not know that these two highways followed the ancient Roman road that had turned into a pilgrimage way from southern France to Rome—the Via Aurelia.
They were sitting, their eyes wandering, stunned by the enormity and beauty of the view, in a heavy silence, unaccustomed to expressing in words anything more complex than was called for by everyday needs.
“Beautiful,” the older one said finally.
“Yes,” the younger one nodded in agreement.
For many years the sisters had met only on September 1, their mother’s birthday. On that day her small apartment, filled with dusty books, stacks of written paper, and cockroaches, was packed with many people—her colleagues, students, and former students. This was annoying. Why were these people so attached to her? She was a dry stick, didn’t love anything besides the beetle-like letters of Oriental languages and the book trash amidst which she spent her whole life, paying almost no attention to her two daughters. The girls grew up one in the care of the grandmother, the other of hired nannies, who changed frequently, allowing for no time to become loved.
And what sort of family was it anyway? Sheer disaster. After Grandmother Varvara’s death, no one held this female family together with little pies, or stays in summer cottages, or fussing over colds and sore throats with herbal infusions and buckwheat honey.
Even general women’s conversation about life’s little difficulties or cake recipes was totally foreign to Alexandra Vikentyevna. Although the men’s topics—cars and politics—were of no interest to the learned lady either.
Having brought her two daughters into the world and given nature its due, Alexandra Vikentyevna seemed to have completely abandoned the female battlefield. She was learned. She herself liked to tell the old joke: a learned woman is like a guinea pig, neither a guinea, nor a pig . . . She was a learned being—wrote articles, books, gave talks at universities and conferences, was famous throughout the scholarly world, that special sector of mankind that was as wacky about letters as she herself was. She was even an academician in some foreign academies.
Normal men with appropriate sexual attributes never struck root in this family. The marriages of the older generations—Grandmother Varvara’s and Alexandra Vikentyevna’s herself— were short-lived: the husbands were killed in wars. Alexandra Vikentyevna had lived with her husband a little over a year. The death notice came at the end of ’41. She was barely twenty, and her daughter Lida had just been born.
Many years later she lived through a devastating love affair. The affair was brief, its course was stormy, its end was stormy, and, by an oversight, the daughter Nina came into the world, as a memorial of this none-too-happy romance. The appearance of a younger sister badly traumatized the older Lydia, who by then was almost eighteen, and the love affair of the elderly thirty-eight-year-old mother with a former student, who, in terms of his age, would have suited the daughter better, was unbearable and insulting. Lydia was never able to forget or rethink this fact of her mother’s biography.
Lydia took the birth of the extramarital child as her own disgrace. She never managed to come to love her younger sister, the less so as she made an early and hasty marriage and went off to live with her husband.
As for the child Nina, somehow the image of the sister left no imprint on her memory. The grandmother did not leave any trace on it either—she died when Nina was not yet one. Nina grew up with nannies who were rather regularly changed. It is with one of the nannies of the early period that the strongest experience of Nina’s childhood was connected. The mother went on a business trip to a conference in Leningrad, leaving the three-year-old girl for a couple of days with a new nanny. This new nanny, a woman of dry intellectual appearance and with the meaningful name of Anna Arkadyevna, was totally unlike the previous country girls fleeing to the city from the life of collective farms. She turned out to be an alcoholic trying her best to overcome her addiction. The heroic resistance of this Anna Arkadyevna collapsed on the very first evening, in the face of the bar chock-full of drinks brought and left unfinished by guests. No one knows how the next three days passed. But, having returned home early in the morning of the fourth day, Alexandra Vikentyevna discovered the intellectual nanny lying on the floor dead drunk in a puddle of drying-up liquid and exhausted Nina, blue with screaming, sitting in her little bed in soiled underwear . . .
Those three days were stamped on her for long years after, maybe for the rest of her life: she did not trust anyone, was suspicious and very lonely.
While the younger sister experienced this three-day nightmare, the older one, who by then had a daughter of her own, went through the difficult breakup with her husband, who from light boozing parties with friends moved on to the phase of heavy Russian drinking.
Alexandra Vikentyevna refused to be distracted from her work by petty everyday problems: friends found her a new nanny, then she herself decided to send Ninochka to kindergarten and, to support Lydia’s crumbled life, appointed her a monthly allowance.
In fact, the sisters were barely acquainted. Each thought that the other had the greater part of their mother’s attention and love. With the years their mutual antipathy only grew, and on their mother’s birthdays they seated themselves at different ends of the table, away from the center, that is, from Alexandra Vikentyevna surrounded by a shield of admirers and disciples.
They had always been absolutely dissimilar: the big, broad-shouldered Lydia and the small Ninochka on spindly legs and with a sparrow-like face. The only thing they had in common was their loneliness, and the older sister’s loneliness was exacerbated by the death of her dearly beloved only daughter, the fourteen-year-old Emmochka, of acute leukemia, which left the mother for the rest of her life in spiteful perplexity.
The death of their ninety-year-old mother changed nothing in the sisters’ relationship. However, for the first time in their lives, they took a common decision: to dispense with the interference of the mother’s countless admirers, who immediately and greedily demanded to be given all her papers . . .
Six months later they entered into the rights of inheritance—the apartment, the property, and the savings account with an unexpectedly significant sum. Here their intentions differed: Lydia would have liked to sell the living space left by their mother, and Nina thought that it would be better to let it and divide the monthly rent. For six months they conducted sluggish phone discussions, all the while being unable to decide what to do with all the paper trash the mother’s apartment was tightly packed with. This total perplexity made them feel somewhat united for the first time.
Antonella’s suggestion to come to Italy distracted them from their burdensome apartment cares. However, having just now peeked into the Italian house, they instantly understood that here they were running into the same problem they had been unable to resolve in Moscow: the same piles of paper, the same dust.
There were no possessions properly speaking: old slippers, a dressing gown, two silk summer dresses. Their mother had this whim: she wore only silk—all other fabrics irritated her skin . . .
They were sitting at the big desk heaped with Italian books. On a reed place mat stood a cup with forever congealed coffee dregs, an opaque green vase with a vitrified flower, an antique table lamp unfit to be used for its intended purpose, and a small bowl with pebbles, shells, some cones of unknown plants, several Venetian beads, and a long-obsolete 200 lira coin.
It was terrifying to think of touching it all.
Their mother had left this house for the last time at the end of August 2009. She flew to Rome, gave a talk to the staff of the Biblical Institute, stunning all her listeners by her research into the last words of Christ: “Eli, eli . . . sabakhtani,” which she was convinced were spoken not in the Aramaic language, as everyone thought, but in a Galilean dialect which not everyone had understood and still did not understand. Then she gave the same talk in the Biblical Society in Moscow, after which she celebrated her last, ninetieth, birthday and two days later suddenly fell on the floor in her Moscow apartment and broke her hip. She was taken to the Botkin Hospital, where a doctor of her acquaintance worked, but they refused to operate on her there and, after keeping her for two weeks, sent her home, a completely bedridden patient.
The sisters, prepared to take care of their mother, discovered that Alexandra Vikentyevna’s admirers and disciples had already hired a round-the-clock nurse, as well as a cleaning woman, with whom Alexandra Vikentyevna had fierce fights each time she raised a damp rag above her desk. Besides the nurse, some colleagues came every day and sat with her, one could even say worked, occasionally organized seminars at home, so that Lydia and Nina, slightly offended, withdrew themselves. They called every other day, asking whether she needed anything; the mother politely declined their help: everything was well with her. As always. All the places at their mother’s side were occupied, and they were completely left out . . .
Nine months later, as Alexandra Vikentyevna’s life was running its ideal course, she had a stroke and was taken to the same Botkin Hospital, where she died after several hours without regaining consciousness.
. . . It was a belated May, more like April. Several humble trees at the entrance to the funeral parlor were barely covered with little leaves. A huge crowd of people, come to take leave of Alexandra Vikentyevna, gathered in a big hall outside the closed door. There were even some foreigners, elderly ladies and gentlemen of ambassadorial appearance, one obvious pastor. Everyone crowded around a squat, unattractive man in spectacles, who had become the head of the department after Alexandra Vikentyevna’s retirement. The sisters huddled together, feeling themselves total outsiders.
The manager of the funeral parlor opened the door to the next room. There on the table was an open coffin, and next to it an old priest in a velvet skullcap was bustling—putting on a stole and cuffs. Two altar boys in black helped him to manage the golden harness.
The sisters exchanged glances: a believer? Mother was a believer?
People crowded around the coffin; there was not even enough space for everyone in the long room. The manager found the sisters and installed them at the head. Mother looked totally unlike herself: her face, puffy in the last few years, was now more taut, her nose had become narrow, aquiline—like never before, her lips were stretched in the semblance of a mocking smile. Her head was tightly wrapped in a black silk scarf, so big that it covered her whole body, and no clothes could be seen—only the crossed, knotty hands lay over the black fabric . . .
There was a funeral service, then leave-taking, then the bus with the manager took the coffin away somewhere, and everybody went to a nearby café for a modest meal and loftily rapturous talk about the deceased woman . . . That was all.
The sisters left. Sat in a dark pass-through garden on the way to the “Dynamo” subway station, and for the first time in their lives talked about what they had been keeping to themselves.
“She never loved me . . .”
“She was a terrible mother.”
“Not a mother at all.”
“She didn’t love anyone, only her little letters . . .”
“I took classes of accounting . . . It’s numbers after all . . . I hated her little letters.”
“Me, too. I chose to be a computer programmer. All my life I hated this education of hers.”
“No, I can’t say that. I was angry for many years, because she didn’t give us a decent education. She couldn’t be bothered with us. When I figured it out, it was too late.”
“Yes. She ruined our lives . . .”
“Ruined? I don’t know . . .”
With that they parted.
. . . Lydia moved the bowl with the shells and pebbles toward herself and began to finger them.
“It’s strange that she collected them . . .”
“Yes, it’s somehow . . . not like her . . .”
The second room was a small bedroom. The bed was carelessly made, as if the owner was not going to return soon. And the small desk was neat, not piled with papers. There were only several pages clipped together and over them some leaflet. The writing on it was in Italian: Nostra Signora della Terza etá. It looked like some sort of prayer. It was followed by a Russian text, probably a translation.
“You think she really was a believer?” Nina asked her sister, studying the pages.
“Grandma Varvara certainly was. About our mother I don’t know. She used to be a party member . . . But then—this funeral service. She must have made the arrangements . . .”
Lydia put on her glasses. The handwriting was clear, without a slant, even somewhat like print—big straight letters, straight lines, the spacing between the lines and the words a bit too big, where an author’s corrections could be beautifully accommodated. But there were no corrections, it was a clean text that looked final and even solemn.
She began to read . . .
“Blessed are those who look at me with compassion . . .”
“I think all those around her . . . looked at her simply with adoration,” remarked Nina.
“It’s not about her, Nina, it’s simply some sort of prayer,” Lida remarked and went on reading.
“Blessed are those who adjust their steps to mine, weary and slow.”
“What steps?” Nina grumbled. “She spent nearly a year lying in bed.”
“Don’t you understand, she wrote it before she became bedridden . . .”
“Blessed are those who speak loudly into my deaf ear . . .”
Nina, who was fingering the pebbles and cones on the table, froze. Then she asked softly:
“Lida, she means herself, doesn’t she? True, her hearing had been poor these last years.”
Without raising her head, Lydia responded:
“No, of course, it’s in general . . .” and went on reading ever more slowly:
“Blessed are those who gently press my trembling hands . . .
Blessed are those who are interested in listening to my stories about long-gone youth . . .”
And she stopped:
“Nina, do you ever think about your childhood? Generally, what do we remember? I remember how I went to Crimea with grandmother when I was little . . .”
“That was you . . . No one took me to Crimea. I was sent to the pioneer camp.”
“Right, mama never took a vacation. Once they opened the border, she began to travel . . . to Rome, to Jerusalem . . . and she never told me about it.”
“No one ever told me anything—neither mama nor you . . .” Nina shrugged. “What is it all about? What is it you’re reading? What’s it for?”
“Wait a minute, Nina. I see it now. She simply did the translation, it’s something written by some Italians, see, it’s written in Italian, and there are also ten points.”
She went on reading more slowly:
“Blessed are those who understand my craving for companionship . . .”
“My God, what craving?” interrupted Nina. “She kept company with all those people only for business; all she cared about was herself, and she wasn’t interested in anyone . . .”
“Stop talking, Nina, we don’t really know that. She wasn’t interested in us, not at all, but those others she did talk with . . . they always crowded around her . . . maybe in them she was . . .”
“Blessed are those who give me their precious time . . .”
“The more you read, the more it angers me: she never gave her precious time to us! Maybe Grandma gave hers to you! And when Grandma died, only the kindergarten gave me . . . its precious time.”
Lida waved her away.
“Stop grumbling! You just don’t understand: I’m already old, almost seventy, I understand it better.”
“Blessed are those who remember my loneliness . . .”
“I can’t listen to it, Lida! It’s not about her at all, it’s about you and me. It’s we who owe our loneliness to her . . .”
“Don’t be stupid, Nina! I left home when I was going on nineteen, and you lived with her for many years, until we had to move to the Ostozhenka house. Don’t interrupt!”
“But it’s infuriating, Lida! Simply infuriating!”
“Listen, it’s simply someone else’s prayer, she didn’t write it, she just translated . . .”
“Blessed are those who are with me in the moments of my suffering . . .”
“But she didn’t want to see us.” Unexpectedly for herself, Nina burst into tears. “She herself didn’t want to!”
“We weren’t there . . . that’s true,” Lida said softly. She was now reading slowly, as if spelling it out:
“Blessed are those who gladden me in the last days of my life . . .
Blessed is the one who will hold my hand in the moment of my departure . . .”
Lida carefully put the pages down where they had lain before, dropped her face into her big cupped hands. And wept . . .
“O Lord,” Nina whispered, “this is about us . . .”
They wept, sitting at the small wooden carpenter’s table.
“And who held her hand . . . we’ll never know . . .”
“But you know her, she didn’t need us . . .”
“Now I really don’t know . . . why on earth she translated it into Russian . . . Maybe for us . . .”
“We’ll never know.”
Lida put her big heavy hand on Nina’s frail shoulder.
“What have we done, Nina? . . . Forgive me . . .”
“You forgive me, Lidochka.”
They flew to Moscow, taking with them their mother’s notebooks and the translation of the prayer of the third age that Antonella told them about—it was she who, during Alexandra Vikentyevna’s last visit, had taken her to the San Donato church where stood the sculpture of the Mother of God of Old People—Nostra Signora della Terza etá. Maybe it was better to translate it that way—not “the third age,” but “old people”? And there on the wall hung this prayer . . . They took along the china bowl with the shells, pebbles, and beads that had been sharing their mother’s loneliness . . .
On the plane they raised the dividing armrest, and Nina buried her frail shoulder and sparrow-like face in her sister’s big, soft breast. And they both fell asleep. Loneliness had left them.
A Serpentine Road
Nadezhda Georgievna had worked as a bibliographer since ancient pre-computer days. When computers appeared in the life of her generation, she was the first to admire the cleverness of the new device and felt to the bottom of her heart that the world had changed enormously and irrevocably. And she was the first in the whole huge library to master all this new wisdom.
Library workers, surrounded by old books and dated news, are—by their protective nature—conservative folk, resisting any, even the most insignificant, innovations, like transferring the box of catalogue cards from one corner of a storeroom to another. Then, at the beginning of the computer age, a deep divide emerged, which some people stepped over—easily or with great difficulty—while others accepted that they would forever remain in the world where bibliographic cards covered with neat handwriting are securely impaled on a metal rod. They had on them everything that was necessary: the title of the book, the name of the author, the publisher’s imprint.
Nadezhda Georgievna, far from the youngest of the library workers, made the leap into the new millennium quite painlessly. Neither her daughter Lida nor her son Misha showed such agility. Yet no one was particularly surprised at her achievements, because everyone around knew that her memory was boundless and her character had the power of a steam engine.
Anticipating her future success, Nadezhda Georgievna began the total reorganization of the library in a new way. The oldest colleagues, feeling professional inferiority, hastened to take their retirement, and the new girls who came to replace them after library courses or even university were all goofy and daffy, and so Nadezhda Georgievna organized an almost underground team of bold hopefuls and began to teach them the new computer science.
Some grasped everything on the fly, at one touch, and those who could not changed profession. Incidentally, often to a much more lucrative one. Everyone knows that in all times, in libraries Babylonian or Alexandrian, a special breed of people worked, who believed in books as others believe in the Lord God.
Nadezhda Georgievna, who had already gone beyond the age of retirement, belonged to this breed of book-worshipers and had no intention of leaving her work. Because first, and second, and third . . .
All these numerous reasons were presented to her daughter Lida, who was unable to cope with her belatedly born twins and dreamed of living together with her mother and having her babysit the grandchildren . . . But Nadezhda Georgievna would not even hear of it: children, as we all know, grow by themselves, and the book business needed care, especially in this period crucial for the life of libraries.
She held enormous plans in her head and, having begun something, never stopped until she brought it to a triumphal end. And there was another astonishing feature in her behavior: she spoke both with her superiors and with her subordinates with the same intonation of friendly sympathy, in which there was no superiority towards those below nor special, respectful ingratiation towards those above . . . She omitted nothing, forgot nothing, not even the name of the cleaning woman’s granddaughter.
Nadezhda Georgievna was a little under sixty when she forgot the word “serpentine.” She was telling a friend about her childhood in a village near Gagry, and what a beautiful steep path used to lead up the hill to her grandmother’s house, and how later this path got overgrown, because a road was laid up that steep hill, a kind of . . . here she stumbled. The word “serpentine” left her mind, and in its place yawned a distinct emptiness. A blank . . . A white spot.
Unruffled, she drew a zigzag in the air with her fingers. And zigzagged the conversation in a different direction, a culinary one, and told what a tasty pie her grandmother baked during the hungry years practically out of the grass under their feet . . . all the while searching for the vanished word at the bottom of her memory, in order to fill up this blank. And then she suddenly realized that it was not the first time this had happened to her—this lapsing of a word. Yes, recently she had tried to remember her school friend’s phone number—and could not. Yet all her life she had remembered all phone numbers by heart, like the “Our Father.” She just lost them.
She was confused, perplexed, nervous. Maybe just overtired?
The word “serpentine” came back the next day as if nothing had happened. But it turned out to be only the first bell. The next day she could not remember the title of McEwan’s novel that she liked so much . . .
She was losing words, names, numbers. Words and numbers—nothing. It was worse—she noticed that going to the kitchen to get a glass of water, she would forget why she was going, return to where she had been in order to remember, and then go again . . .
Those multiple trips to get a cup, a plate, a towel. She lost her passport . . . though found it a bit later. She needed the passport very much just then for getting a working visa to Germany. The matter was of great importance, not a pointless promenade for the beauty of it: she had to return to a museum in Leipzig the books taken from it during the war.
She would stop more and more often in a momentary stupor, trying to restore the sequence of actions she used to perform automatically. No one noticed it except herself. She did not even have anyone with whom she could share her trouble, concealed so far. More acute grew the uneasiness about forgetting something important and urgent at work.
She began to write little notices for herself—don’t forget. This or that person to call, to meet. Separate ones—to remember what to buy in the supermarket. And then forgot where she put the list . . .
One day, when her daughter came to see her with the grandchildren, she forgot the name of one of them. When they were gone, Nadezhda Georgievna remembered the boy’s name—Maxim! And wept . . . She realized that she was suffering from a disgusting and shameful illness.
Nadezhda Georgievna called it “the serpentine illness” and was quite successful in concealing it from the people around her. After six months it was clear that she was losing even the names of her colleagues, and she learned to fill the resulting pauses with all sorts of impersonal words like “my dear,” “dear heart,” “my friend” . . .
Being already used to getting all answers to all questions from the internet, Nadezhda Georgievna looked up “deterioration of memory and how to fight it.” Information poured out in torrents. The research demonstrated that cognitive destruction occurs, which leads to the malfunction of operative memory. Treatments were suggested: promenades, vitamin B12, some special sort of apple in mild cases; for more serious cases—medications from glycine to Nootropyl, plus a whole heap of other things.
She bought it all, wrote down on a scrap of paper what to take and how to take it. Three copies. One by the bed, another in the kitchen, the third in the entryway, by the door . . . It seemed to help, she thought. But—strangely!—words kept escaping, getting lost, and when she concentrated on trying to catch the fugitive, instead of the Russian words she recalled the same words in German or in English. For some reason her native Russian turned out to be the most volatile, and the wind of oblivion blew away precisely the Russian words. Instead arrived words in German, the first foreign language she had been taught in her childhood by her mother: Die Deutsche Sprache . . . Ich erinnere mich . . . kleines Mädchen . . . or some useless English ones: keep silence, you crazy guy . . . I can’t help you, my honey . . . serpentine . . .
This cursed forgetfulness began with a breakfast she could skip, thinking she had already had it, or would have a second time, forgetting that she had just had it. The knowledge of what happened just now, a day or a week before, dissolved, but the further back from the present day the memory was, the firmer it held.
Nadezhda Georgievna took a vacation from work. She had vacation time saved up from the last three years.
Her son Misha came. She could not recall when she had last seen him.
“Why haven’t you been to see me for so long?” she asked him.
“But, Mom, I was here two days ago.”
Then she told him that she had troubles with her memory, that she kept forgetting everything . . . Misha was a very busy man, overloaded with his own work, but he instantly realized that he had to pick up and carry, and that he did.
He was as far from medicine as from the sky. All his affairs were very down to earth. At the time he was dealing in some building lots near Moscow, built cottages, bought, sold, resold. And he immediately busied himself with his mother with the same clarity and consistency that was inherent in him. Maybe it was from her that he took it . . .
He sent her to see all the renowned and expensive doctors, first the generalists and neurologists, who prescribed to her the same pills she had dug up on the internet, gave her some infusions, but nothing helped. She was getting worse. Then Misha made a second go at it—homeopaths, Chinese doctors with cauterizations and acupunctures, a real Tibetan herbalist, who worked with an interpreter. Misha’s wife, Svetlana, inclined to folk mysticism, brought Nadezhda Georgievna a famous sorceress in a man’s fur hat, who boiled some water in a dirty pot she had with her, put some magic trash in it, looked for a long time at the bubbling scraps of some roots, waited till the water cooled, mixed it with some oil, smeared Nadezhda Georgievna’s ears, nose and mouth with it, and had her drink the rest . . . Some sort of swill.
When the old woman left, Nadezhda Georgievna went to the bathroom, washed the magic potion off, and said: “That’s it, children . . . Genug . . . finita la commedia . . . Enough.”
This was probably the last decision of her life.
Her world was shrinking, the blank spots of escaped and forgotten things expanded, the names of people, the titles of books, the memories disappeared—not only the memories from yesterday, but also the precious notches from childhood: how she was bitten by a dog in the yard, how she spilled ink on a white school pinafore, how in the sixth grade she broke her leg at the exam for the badge in physical and patriotic fitness. She forgot her mother, father, husband . . . Everything abstract, speculative, obtained in the course of life through reading, learning, contacts with people dissolved. All the immense library of knowledge that she valued so much. As if her thoughts were descending from a height into a hollow: where is the boiling kettle—she forgot, the water boiled away . . . the blackened kettle . . . her son brought an electric one . . . here’s the switch, the light goes on . . .
Her daughter Lida came. Nadezhda Georgievna gave her a friendly smile, nodded, and asked: “How are you doing, dear miss?” Lida burst into tears.
Her son arranged for Nadezhda Georgievna to stay in a special, very expensive old people’s home in a Moscow suburb . . . It was comfortable there, she calmed down, the loss of words no longer made her suffer, partly because they abandoned her completely and no longer vexed her with a temporary absence, partly because she was given injections of special calmative and restorative drugs that made her sleep most of the time. Occasionally she got up, seated herself by the window in her beautiful mauve house robe, and looked out. The calming snowy blankness outside merged with the blankness inside her, which used to torment her so much. Now her inner emptiness was total, whereas before it had been spotty, chaotic, with a struggle for little islands tinged with love, anxiety, desire for action—there had been movement in it, as in a children’s game . . . the game of . . . no, she forgot its name. The present blankness was not anxious, not menacing as in an operating room, but of a totally different kind—calming, gentle, reassuring. On a par with the thick and heavy blanket of snow opening outside the window . . .
That morning Nadezhda Georgievna, with the help of a nurse, ate some oatmeal and cottage cheese, drank coffee with milk, as she always did in the morning, and then for a long time sat before the window, given to the sense of blankness inside and outside, without beginning or end . . . She sat in benumbed concentration until the moment when this immobile blankness was torn open by a cluster of blue lightnings, one of which struck her head. The stroke broke into this calming blankness; with a high ringing it split and turned out to be only a curtain. And the curtain fell.
Nadezhda Georgievna cried out. The picture that opened before her was much bigger than the world she lived in. There were no blank or empty spaces—the thick and beautiful fabric was the cosmos in which the earth and everything living on it and all the knowledge of plants, microbes, ants, elephants, and people were gathered together and communicated by flowing into each other. This was complete knowledge, perfect and constantly increasing.
All her life she had been reading books, filling in catalogue cards, and wondering at the huge amount of varied knowledge in the world, diverse and disjointed. When computers came, it turned out that the boundaries of the known extended much further than she had been thinking. And she was learning to tread the new paths . . .
But here was a world not of learning but of perfect knowledge, and it had no boundaries . . . Everything she knew from books—from the school grammar to the anthology of the ancient world, from the proof of the Pythagorean theorem to the structure of phloem—was only a small part of the space that opened to her.
. . . This intelligent chaos was beckoning to her, it needed her.
“Where are my glasses?” flashed the thought. But she realized at once that her vision was excellent and that now she saw everything in a different way than before, as if not in the habitual three-dimensional way, but somehow differently. This was the great beauty she had anticipated sitting in her library, in the department of new arrivals, but she never thought, never hoped she would see herself in this place, and happiness filled her to the brim, to the point of losing her own boundaries. She felt that she had been accepted here forever, and what she loved most of all in her life—studying, learning the new, and expanding this knowledge to the furthermost points her ailing, overcharged, work-weary consciousness could embrace—all of it was given her at once and forever. This radiant world had no boundaries. It moved, developed, expanded, and unfolded like a serpentine road . . .
Sonya Solodova, a lean middle-aged woman with clear angry eyes, grasped the meaning of life after her divorce from her husband. The meaning turned out to be in food or, rather, in the way of eating. But she discovered it gradually. Volodya suddenly up and left. After ten years of quiet, monotonous marriage, he collected his belongings, announced that he was leaving, and moved out. First Sonya lapsed into a tearless stupor, then she began to clean the apartment. She started by scrubbing the kitchen clean, so that there were no more traces of any grease constantly flying from the overheated frying pan in all directions. Volodya ate fried meat every day, and he especially liked pork. He fried it himself in hot butter on an old cast-iron pan. He would not allow Sonya to do it.
After two days of assiduous scouring, the smell of burnt meat was replaced by an abstract smell of detergent that had no relation to food . . . From the kitchen Sonya extended her cleaning to the entire one-and-a-half-room apartment. She cleaned thoroughly, driving out all traces of her husband and the smells connected to him. She threw out several books on metallurgy and a stack of instructions for some household appliances, and also his old shirts, which, though laundered, still kept the smell of tobacco and burnt meat. She even threw away his winter hat, which fell out of the wardrobe. “So that not a trace of you remains!” she not so much thought as manifested in her soul and body.
She passionately scrubbed every floorboard, she polished the windows, she got into all the corners. And having finished this total sanitary treatment, she sprayed half a flacon of the French perfume Aqua Allegoria that she had won in the New Year’s lottery at work, when she still had a job. There was a smell of happiness and the wild guess that the promises, as if given in childhood and then taken away, had now begun to glimmer again and simply hovered in the air. This smell came to the apartment from outside and was akin to the Aqua Allegoria perfume.
The first week Sonya did not eat anything—she drank tea, munched on the long-stored apples from the garden plot of her cousin Nelya, and when she suddenly remembered that she had not eaten any real food for quite a while, she cooked some buckwheat kasha from the grain stored in the newly washed kitchen cabinet. When Sonya finished the last spoonful of the tasteless kasha, which she had even forgotten to salt, Nelya arrived, not empty-handed, but with apples and a homemade fruit bar.
The older Nelya’s life was spent entirely on the six thousand square feet of a garden plot, transformed by her insane industriousness into a garden producing vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers, and a wretched shack containing a trove of food treasures. Her farming was extremely productive . . . The apple harvest was good that year, and Nelya had already filled the shelves with rows of identical jars with labels identifying the year, and also the name of the product and the number of the apple tree . . . There were four apple trees: three were Melba, with cheerful red streaks, and the fourth Antonovka, which ripened last, a beauty both outside and inside. The shelves were chock-full of good produce, but there was no end of apples, and Nelya shared the extras with Sonya and with her former superior, a decent woman of Oriental origin.
They sat down to tea. Nelya told about her petty sufferings over apples, and Sonya did not say a word about the main event, her husband’s leaving her. Portly and puckered Nelya cut a quarter of the fruit bar she had brought, put it on her plate, and made a habitual complaint:
“I see you lose weight without any dieting, Sonya. And I suffered all last year with this Dukan diet, lost six pounds, then spat on it and gained ten! No pastry, no candy, nothing but meat, all those proteins, so boring, and you spend the whole day thinking of something tasty to eat . . . But you’re always skinny without any diet. What is it you eat?”
Sonya laughed: “All last week I ate your apples, and also cooked some kasha.”
Sonya never had any thoughts about slenderness; she ate whatever was at hand, as long as there was no need to wait in line. She did not like fish, even felt squeamish about it. Everything greasy felt inedible—it was like eating the soil from a flower pot or brown all-purpose soap. Meat had left her home of itself together with Volodya. Generally, her eating habits were not serious.
After Nelya left, Sonya realized that the air in the apartment was getting better not of itself, but from the apple presence. She also realized that no other food was necessary, that it was good the way it was. Out of a sense of duty she was finishing the store of grains, but she felt that kashas only spoil the joy and burden the body. Only the apples did not interfere with the happy lightness. When Nelya’s apples were coming to an end, Sonya realized that she had no wish to go to the grocery store. There, on the lower level, wine in bottles, dry goods, and all sorts of household objects were sold. All useless stuff. On the upper level was meat and fish. When she imagined those counters, she caught a whiff of the enemy’s presence. And she did not go anywhere . . . She still had four apples left, and she sliced them thinly to last longer . . .
“How could I live so many years with all that meat?” Sonya wondered, and she was thinking at that moment of the meat that lay in the refrigerator only a few months ago, and not at all of the man who brought it home . . .
Sonya ate the apple slices bit by bit and for a long time. She was sitting in the kitchen, facing the window, in the place where Volodya used to sit, and her eyes delighted in the sight of the foliage that was bright and attractive just across from the windows of her third floor. True, this picture was now turning a bit yellow and slightly bald.
Nelya came, bringing the fourth apples, as she put it—Antonovka. She brought two full shopping bags—ever since youth Nelya had been very strong; Sonya would not have been able to carry such weight. Sonya caressed the Antonovka apples with her slender fingers and gave her cousin their grandmother’s garnet brooch. Nelya was pleased with such fairness: the grandmother was theirs in common, but the round garnet brooch had gone to her daughter, not to the son, and thus it was that Sonya got it, though Nelya bore the grandmother’s last name, and the brooch, being a family treasure, should have gone to her. Happy Nelya left with the round brooch, the value of which, to her mind, was greatly exaggerated. Sonya inhaled the air and realized that the Antonovka smell intensified and even improved the almost evaporated smell of Aqua Allegoria.
The Antonovka apples, lying there wrapped in paper, were getting tinged with yellow. Inside they were filling with a slowly beautiful and dreamy taste. Some apples were still left when snow covered the ground outside, and, instead of birch greenery, the house across the street was glimpsed through bare branches. Sonya felt less and less hungry. She was sleepy. And thirsty. She did not drink water but sipped through a straw the diluted apple juice also of Nelya’s making. Nelya stinted on sugar, but she sterilized the jars so well that her juice did not go bad till the next spring. The neighbors’ juice always fermented, but Nelya’s—never.
Sonya’s sleepiness did not go away. It must be from the smell, she thought, noticing that the air in her apartment was getting thicker, filling with the powerful, unearthly smell of solitary happiness, in which there was not a shadow of the need to share it with another human being. From deep inside her a thought would even emerge: It’s good that I don’t have a child; it would move around and befoul the air. She did not remember about Volodya at all.
Sonya made the bed with beautiful new sheets and lay in it. She would get up to pour more juice into the glass. She walked less and less. Occasionally she wondered what would happen when the juice in the jar came to an end . . . but it had not come to an end, there was even a little left, when something strange occurred: in those places where she had fine little hairs and a barely noticeable down growing, some colorless gossamer threads suddenly appeared, silky, pleasant—on her arms and on her legs, and she wrapped them around herself so that it all looked neat. She worked and worked with her legs and arms while she still had strength. She did not want to cut these soft threads off.
She had less and less strength, she had long ago lost the wish to eat, and now even the juice lost its allure. Sleep was overcoming her. She slept more and more, and in the end fell asleep definitively. She lay there like a pupa, all wound in fine hairs of her own natural light brown color with a beautiful ashen tint. The apartment was filled with fragrance, which did not come from the Antonovka apples left in the box, but from Sonya herself. But she no longer felt it.
Cousin Nelya called her from time to time but could not reach her. She took a long time to decide to go, and when she finally came, all her ringing at the door was in vain: Sonya was not at home. Nelya was even slightly miffed: if she had gone somewhere, she might have called. Cousins don’t do that. But the bad thought crossed her mind and stayed.
The brown hair-wrapped pupa lay in Sonya’s bed for forty days. Then it cracked from top to bottom and out of this hairy husk came a wet butterfly with bright green eyes composed of a multitude of facets. The butterfly sat drying for three long hours, then opened her now dried wings, and there was no one to admire it.
First its transparent wings began to flush with tender color. The scales were colorless, but by some mysterious law of optics the light from the window refracted so that they shone with a greenish-blue. Orange spots and streaks emerged in the upper part, and only an entomologist could have a clue that this enormous insect was related to an apple tortrix moth. The moth fluttered its four wings, rose, made a farewell circle under the low ceiling, and flew out through the open vent pane.
After another week, the alarmed Nelya came. She rang the doorbell for a long time, then tried the neighbors, who knew nothing about Sonya. One scruffy-looking old woman was surprised: hadn’t she left for somewhere long ago? . . . Nelya ran to the police. First a district officer came and knocked for a long time. He called the emergency service, who broke open the door. The corpse they expected to find was not discovered. The only living beings were flies who had had time to hatch in the apple rot of the last two Antonovka apples. There was a dark quivering cloud of them. That was all. On the bed lay some strange rags resembling woolen castoffs.
The passport was in a handbag. There was a photo in it, and no other photos of Sophia Sergeevna Solodova were found in the apartment. A copy of the passport photo was included in the announcement of the vanished woman, and Sonya was put on the list of people lost that year. No one really looked for them, true, but the announcements were put up in the train stations and other populous places.
Sonya settled in an interesting place: moths like herself fluttered around her, and other butterflies, bigger and brighter. She recognized some of them. One was certainly her first school teacher Margarita Mikhailovna: she was big, resembling a tortoiseshell butterfly, and was flying solemnly and slowly without any light-minded fluttering. The air was light and mirthful, the fruity smell was strong and changing from apple to peach, from peach to strawberry.
There was no sign at all of any Kafkian insects.
[Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky]
From The Body of the Soul: Stories, by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, to be published by Yale University Press in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series in October 2023. By permission of Yale University Press.