My granddaughter, Natasha, has a long history of caring for unfortunate creatures. When she was a little girl, a recent transplant to America, she and her father would rescue endless varieties of pathetic fauna from the woods behind their dilapidated New Jerseyan duplex—broken-winged birds and feeble rabbits and one-eyed kittens that they would fail to nurse back to health until their dim flames were nearly extinguished. Whenever I visited from Kiev, I would try to put a stop to this nonsense, of course. Natasha’s mother and I would take the pitiful creatures to the backyard and put them out of their misery with a frying pan under cover of night. Oh, her mother, Valentina, was a force, a stunning, steely woman with a vicious gleam in her eye as she wiped the bloody pan on the grass, wanting to harden her daughter against the cold world. But what can you do, she died of breast cancer when Natasha was seventeen, leaving her alone with my hapless son, so the girl has remained as soft as a whore’s bottom.
When my son was felled by a heart attack five years ago and handsome Yuri, his former student, began courting Natasha, I thought finally, finally, she will settle down, stop caring for useless men, and have someone care for her. And last year, when she told me she and Yuri were expecting a child, I thought, Well, yes, she will have to make some compromises with her acting career, but she will be a natural! I recalled her rapturous, Madonna-like gaze when she beheld her ailing creatures, and later, the slew of stinky pets she took into her various cramped New York apartments, and I thought, She has my simpleton sister’s animal-caretaking genes; she’ll also love holding a crying nothing to her breast, much more than I did anyway. But when she first materialized on my computer screen with the rat-faced girl in her arms, she looked weary and ruined and sweatcovered, shaking my faith in her abilities. She has spent most of the three months since her daughter’s birth chained to her infant and lately, also caring for Stas, Yuri’s overly young, greasy-haired deadbeat of a friend who fled the Boston suburb where they were raised under murky circumstances, whom she was kind enough to take in.
When I see her this evening, her pale skin emerging in the morning light of her living room, her dark eyes swollen and sleepless, she brings to mind a clump of hair I yanked out of my shower drain just last week. She is holding her hideous baby girl, Talia, stroking her cheek in hopes that she will drift off.
“Now, listen, child,” I say. “If you train that girl to sleep in your arms, she will become a mother-dependent namby-pamby. You should do what my parents did to me, and what I did to your father. Put her in her crib until she is filled with existential understanding. She will see that she is all alone in a cold universe and must drift off on her own. And while she’s in there, you should leave the apartment and go for a stroll or see a movie.”
She laughs and shakes her wilted head. “I’ll consider it.”
“Some would call that child abuse,” says Stas from a dark corner of the apartment. Lately, his presence has been as reliable as that of Sharik, Natasha’s vulgar orange cat.
“Oh please,” I tell him. “Everyone did it in the Soviet Union, and we raised a generation of strong men.”
“Alcoholics,” he says.
“Strong alcoholics,” I concede. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
“Not at all,” he says, approaching the computer to give me a slick little smile, and I shake my head at Natasha for not telling this pesky creature to leave.
She turns to the derelict boy at last. “Why don’t you go take that stroll my grandmother was talking about?”
“Fine, fine,” he says, lifting a grubby hand at me, and soon enough the door slams shut. Natasha watches him go and then fusses with the quilt on her worn green leather couch and then the threadbare garage sale rug on the floor with her free hand, a desperate attempt to create order. When her gaze returns to me, she looks even more out of sorts.
“Listen,” she says, “there’s something I wanted to ask you.”
“Oh dear,” I say, and I feel nervous all of a sudden, though what could she possibly want from me? Could she be asking for money at last?
“Don’t freak out,” she says, but she does nothing to calm me down. “But I was wondering—would you mind telling me the story of how your grandmother died during World War Two?”
I take a moment to collect myself. Why on Earth is she asking now? “Of course I can tell you,” I say. “She threw herself under a train. Then the war ended.”
“Right,” she says. “But I was wondering if you would go a bit more in-depth? You always promised to tell me the whole story, and I thought, Tally would want to learn her history one day—”
“And soon I will evaporate and you will have no story to remember.”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“You didn’t have to.”
I take a drag on my cigarette and consider the days ahead. I wonder if she truly wants the story, or if she is only asking because she thinks I need more help than one of her mangled rabbits, a distraction to keep the abyss at bay. I have told her bits and pieces of the story over the years, but never from start to finish, because the girl has the attention span of a ferret and because talking about the war for too long wears at my heart. But what else do I have to live for?
Old isn’t gold—I am approaching my ninetieth brutal year and wouldn’t mind being clubbed over the head with a frying pan myself. A season has passed since I buried my husband and the days are long. My body is betraying me and my dear Kiev is of no use to me now. Seeing it in its early summer glory without having the able body to enjoy its lush gardens and verdant parks reminds me of longing for Styopa Antonov, a graduate student and Lermontov scholar who studied under me in 1962, a charming man with the firmest buttocks whom I could not touch on account of my marriage—well, now that I think of it, we did carry on after a while, but you get the point. So! I used to hold literary salons in my elegant home filled with obscenely youthful, lust-crazed students arguing about whether or not Yesenin truly committed suicide and sneaking off to neck on the balcony. Now my main source of entertainment is packing up the few things I’d like to take from my apartment down to my cottage on the Black Sea, and letting my husband’s men sell the rest. Chatting with Natasha could only ease my suffering.
“Fine, fine,” I tell her. “Why not?”
“Really?” she says, her bloodshot eyes lighting up in genuine surprise. “I thought it would take a bit more convincing.”
“Let’s get on with it.”
She is startled once more, caressing the limp strands on her daughter’s head. “Right now?”
“I don’t have forever.”
“All right then,” she says.
She puts a finger to her lips and tells me to wait a second, she has to figure out how to record the call, if that’s all right with me. Then she pats her girl’s butt, and the helpless thing shuts her unknowable eyes, a creature as alien to me as a space monkey, as far away from my Kiev kitchen as a distant planet, an American-born girl whose parents left their homeland as schoolchildren and will hardly be able to pass their Soviet legacy down to her, though they did surprise me by naming her Natalia after my mother, and now Natasha seems to think the girl will one day feel tied to her mother’s Motherland from hearing my sad story. Currently, the only Soviet thing about the child is that with the cosmically disappointed look on her face, she brings to mind Gorbachev during his resignation announcement. Well, what else is there for me to do? I wait for my pathetic little greatgranddaughter to settle, and then I begin.