Then Grandpa walked in. Tall—he just cleared the lintel—and smiling, undoubtedly well over seventy, but quite strong. He was holding a prickly plaid lap blanket. He handed it to me and stepped over to the stove.
“So then, girls, getting colder?”
He squatted before the stove, opened the stove door, and dug around inside it with a poker. He shut the door. He stood up. Easily, like a forty-year-old. He brushed off his knees.
“Now for some wood…”
Silence hung over us after he left. Anna Ivanovna and I forgot what we’d been talking about.
“Wrap up tight in the blanket, now.”
I wrapped myself up.
“He’s not bad, eh?” she asked, nodding at the door.
“He’s in marvelous shape,” I agreed.
“Almost sixty years we’ve been together.”
I looked at her: it seemed like I was supposed to reply, “How wonderful.” But there was no pride in the way Anna Ivanovna uttered the words. She sat hunched over, her slumped shoulders covered by a dingy-white Orenburg shawl. She always sat like that. She looked like a pensive snowman: round, soft, unhurried. Anytime she told a story, she told it clearly and gradually. It was pleasant to be silent with her. I’d never had occasion to be silent with someone before, by a stove in a caretaker’s room in autumn.
The caretaker’s room, around twenty feet square, nestled at the end of a long, echoing hallway punctuated by gigantic doors leading to the workshops. At night, the workshops really did look like stage sets. Some had fifteen-foot ceilings, long banks of grungy windows, busts, molds, and kilns. Others had gigantic, slogan-covered canvas panels leaned against each other, along with rolls of butcher paper and canvas. The one bad thing about the caretaker’s room was that it had no radiator. But Grandpa so enjoyed stoking the stove that we couldn’t complain.
Owing to some bureaucratic caprice, I, a PhD student in philology, had been sent to do my graduate internship in an integrated studio of theater design and monumental sculpture. As a night watchman.
In 1992, there was no longer much demand for this particular enterprise. It was tired and quiet. Dust-blanketed heads of leaders moldered in their workshops, along with mosaics of Young Pioneers and rainbows or allegorical depictions of Labor and the Motherland (depicted, needless to say, as a Junoesque woman with broad calves).
When I got here a week ago I discovered Anna Ivanovna and her husband, whom Anna Ivanovna usually called Grandpa, and only occasionally Oleg. They drank tea from big, identical mugs decorated with nice little blue men in shorts standing on green grass, blowing horns.
The old folks had been guarding the studio for six years now. When I showed up and announced that I had been sent to them for my three-week internship, they didn’t show any sign of surprise. Anna Ivanovna had told Grandpa, “Move over.” He’d not only moved over, he’d reached behind him, taken a mug from the windowsill and set it in front of me. “Want some tea?”
Grandpa, who was nimbler and more energetic than Anna Ivanovna, obeyed her and did everything for the both of them. It was obvious that this was their usual mode of operation.
Grandpa came back with an armful of short, thin logs. He threw some of them into the fire. Then he unplugged the teakettle and went for some water. In the echoing hallway his footsteps resounded, then grew silent, then resounded again.
Anna Ivanovna and I kept silent the entire time.
At first, night duty had seemed like the pinnacle of uselessness; by the second night, I realized I was enjoying it. I liked the room, and my companions, and the silence; I liked the contrast between the well-heated caretaker’s room and the workshops’ dust-layered expanses; and I liked that it was all ours, and quiet, and calm, like a trained dog at his master’s feet.
Grandpa brought in the teakettle: aluminum, shaped something like a squat cookpot with a narrow, blunt spout, as though the end had broken off. You can’t get that kind of kettle anymore. He put the water on, then headed out to the television.
The television was in the entrance checkpoint at the far end of the hallway. Grandpa had set up house a little bit over there, too: a drywall cubicle with a table, two chairs, and the TV.
Anna Ivanovna started talking, as though she were picking the thread of a story back up after a break.
“We met in forty-nine. I was twenty-seven. I was still very pretty back then.”
The way Anna Ivanovna talked, it sounded like she was describing an illness.
“I was working at an industrial bakery in Bryansk. Vitalik, my fiancé, had been captured. He was sent to the camps when he got away. So I was the bride of a convict. He did manage to spend about two months at home after he got away, though. We were putting the wedding off. We wanted to forget the war a little and make some money.”
She sighed. Underneath my heavy blanket, I froze: I didn’t want her to break off her story.
“After Vitalik was taken away, I found I was pregnant; I decided to keep working, of course, as long as I could. We were forbidden to take bread out of the factory. Even the unsalable loaves. But we took it out anyway. One of my girlfriends, her fellow was a guard at the entrance checkpoint. We always took some out when he was on duty. A brick apiece. That was best. That was enough for half a week. Then he landed in the hospital and a new fellow showed up on his shift. Oleg, his name was. I noticed right off that he watched me closely.
“At the checkpoint one time, he decided to strike up a conversation with me. ‘Why so sad, citizen Nefedova?’ he said. I smiled at him, that was all. Two weeks later I decided to try it, and I took a loaf. Seems to be a good guy, I thought, and he likes me.”
At this point the corridor filled with resounding footsteps, echoing in the dust. Oleg Palych—Grandpa—appeared in the doorway again.
“Hey, Anka,” he said. “The figure skating’s on. Interested?”
She shook her head. So he went over to the teakettle, which we’d forgotten about. He lifted the lid. The water was already at a rolling boil. He pulled the plug from the socket, topped up the brewed tea, placed two mugs at the edge of the table, and filled both. Then he dug around in the pocket of his grey jacket, drew out two chocolate candies, and placed them in front of us.
“Well, you two talk. I’ll be right here next to you.”
He left. I noted, again, how nothing about him smacked of little old man. It was odd, actually. Anna Ivanovna, now, she was a little old lady through-and-through. She looked her age.
Anna Ivanovna chose a candy and unwrapped it, slowly. She bit off a third, washed it down with a sip of tea, and continued.
“So then. I’m standing at the checkpoint and he’s going through my string bag. Then he says, ‘And what is this?’ I say, ‘Bread.’ By then I was going around with a very pregnant belly, you could tell even through my coat. It was December. He says, ‘Didn’t you know, citizen Nefedova, that taking factory products out of a factory is considered the same as sabotage?’ I kept silent. He says, ’Come over past the barrier. According to the rules, I have to write up a report now, documenting an incident of product theft.’
“There was nothing I felt like saying. Everything inside me went silent all at once, somehow, as though I’d stepped into the freezing cold. Maybe he thought I’d try to make excuses or something… He led me into their little room, sat at the desk, and got out a sheet of lined paper.
“I’m standing there. He’s filling the pen and taking little glances at me.
“’How long have you worked at the factory, citizen Nefedova?’
“’A little over a year and a month.’
“’And here you are, about to take off work and give birth; you’re counting on getting aid, no doubt?’
“I didn’t answer him. Because I wasn’t counting on anything, but I was hoping for something. I was thinking that in the worst case I’d have the baby, then after a week I’d leave the baby with my mother and go back to work.
“’Did you know, citizen Nefedova, that all I have to do is file this piece of paper, and you—especially as the wife of a convict—you’re done?’
“At that, I looked at him closely, for the first time. Turned out he knew everything about me. Oleg also looked me right in the eyes. He was waiting for something. He was so handsome, could’ve been an actor, almost; his face was bright, it had character. I kept silent, and he kept silent, moving his hand over the sheet of paper. Then he said, ‘I made some inquiries. Your fiancé is very sick, there’s no way he’ll get out alive.’
“It was true. Vitalik had picked up hepatitis from the other prisoners of war, and then in the camps he’d gone through a bout of typhoid fever and lost his strength. But I kept silent, same as before.
“He put the pen aside, stood up, and said, ‘Marry me, citizen Nefedova, and I will not only not file this sheet of paper, I will raise your child as my own, in peace and plenty. You’ll know no hardship with me.’
“I kept even more silent.
“He waited, then said, ‘I’m confiscating the bread and giving you three days to reflect on this. In three days I will pass this paper up to my superiors.’
“I went back to the barracks, to my mother, and sat by the window all that evening. And the next. Mama cried, quietly. She probably thought I wanted to do something to the baby.”
Anna Ivanovna put the last bit of candy in her mouth. She washed it down with a sip of tea, adjusted her headscarf, and took to folding the paper part of the candy wrapper in half lengthwise, repeatedly, carefully matching up the corners; then she made a ring with the foil part.
“So Oleg and I got married. Kolenka was born. Oleg was promoted to Chief of Security. He always did well for himself when it came to his career. Then we moved to our own apartment and took my mother with us. He got along with her well. He was a wonderful husband, just as he’d promised. He never refused me anything. Everyone was envious of me. Kolenka called him father, of course, and doted on him.
“And then in fifty-four, Vitalik came back to Bryansk. Oleg told me. He’d been keeping tabs on him, clearly. After supper he called me out into the entryway and said, ‘If I find out you’re seeing him, I’ll send him to prison. On criminal charges. Don’t even think of doubting it. So if he comes here, tell him to leave town, that same day. It’ll be better. Better for him, too. For everyone.’
“I knew he’d do what he said. By then I’d seen that Oleg doesn’t waste his breath and he doesn’t tolerate constraint. In anything. I knew he’d be the death of my Vitalik.
“Sure enough, Vitalik found me quickly. He’d changed a lot. I went limp as soon as I saw him. It was in our courtyard, well into May. It’d been a mean winter that year, and everyone was very glad for the warmth. Oleg had bought me a lot of Chinese satin. I had nice dresses. Almost nobody had dresses like those; my mother sewed me three, and we had a seamstress make two. I was wearing the best one, chrysanthemums all the way down to the hem. I sat down on the rotted planks of the sandbox and cried. Vitalik stood right there next to me, watching. I cried myself out and asked him to forgive me. For everything. Back in forty-nine, while he was in the camp, I’d sent him a letter that I was getting married. I did my best to explain some things to him. It probably didn’t make much sense. I had to wipe my nose with my chrysanthemums. That’s how it was.”
In the stove, the fire breathed quietly; the stove was living its own fiery life. I ate my chocolate candy. It was the kind with a white filling, the kind I like. My mother and I used to call that kind “the four-fifty candy.” There were a lot of different flavors sold at that price.
I asked, “And then what?”
“And then,” said Anna Ivanovna, “life went on. It went on. At one point I got it into my head to drive Oleg crazy, as best I could. I acted up. He took it all in stride. Gradually I started drinking. Then mama died. I stopped drinking. I didn’t want Kolenka to only love Oleg. Then we moved to Moscow; Kolya was already a teenager. Then Oleg’s kidneys went bad, and he was sick for a long time. But we cured him. He’s strong. He recovered.”
She paused, plainly trying to think what else to say. She sighed and said, “And so on.”
I couldn’t help it. “What about Vitalik?”
“I don’t know. We didn’t see each other,” she replied, without turning her head. She cradled the mug in both hands. The little foil ring hung on the mug’s handle. Footsteps resounded in the corridor, and Grandpa appeared once more in the doorway. “Let’s warm the dear ladies up a bit, then,” he said, and stepped over to the stove.
Julia Lukshina’s writing is a joy for the translator, or at least this translator: due, I suspect, to her art history and screenwriting background, she is adept with the short phrase and the expressive image. In Julia’s story we see and hear the polite, caring ritual between the elderly married couple, but decades of trauma hide under the surface. I should mention that Russian is an inflected language while English is not; as a result, meaning that can be conveyed in a single word in Russian often requires two or more separate words in English. It is this morphological consideration, in addition to Julia’s compact style and the characters’ terse dialogue, which makes retaining the original’s condensed expressivity a delightful challenge. Another challenge was retaining the subtle, interwoven leitmotifs. One of these is molchat / molchanie (to be silent / silence”), which I could easily preserve by using “silence” or “silent” throughout. But two other threads tying the story together were words expressing a woman choosing or deciding (reshila. zabrala) and words expressing a woman taking (zabrala, vzyala). These repetitions and echoes of a woman’s choosing, deciding, and taking—or, rather, of her not being able to do so—are the backbone of the story. So I used “chose” when Anna Ivanovna takes the chocolate candy, instead of “took” or “picked up,” since I wanted to echo the thematic emphasis on choices (or being robbed of choices) and on these choices’ consequences.
Anne O. Fisher is a Russian translator who has translated novels by Ilf and Petrov and Ksenia Buksha, fiction by Andrey Filimonov, fiction and drama by Julia Lukshina, and—with co-translator Derek Mong—poetry by Maxim Amelin. In 2020, Fisher and co-translator Alex Karsavin were awarded a RusTrans grant to translate Ilya Danishevsky’s 2018 novel Mannelig v tsepyakh (Mannelig in Chains). Fisher, the Vice President of the American Literary Translators Association, has a PhD from the University of Michigan and teaches in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Translation and Interpreting Studies program.