“Martachka!” Her mother’s voice wafts over the sidewalk, “Obyed gotov!” Marta responded with precision to a clear defined objective abandoned her post and walked exactly three-quarters of a block, past Vanya, Andrewsha and Alexei who were poking a dead rat in an exposed sewer grate with hockey sticks. She says little and never makes her mother wait to end her work-shift and heads home. I asked her one day why she never asked for more time like the rest of us. She always told me, “Ya ne hochyu shot-be mama cerdeelas.” (She never wanted to make mama mad.)
Marta was born a silent baby. Her mother considered it rather serendipitous to have kept such a quiet baby in the house, her father was apathetic towards his daughter, his wife, and his own existence, due to suffering from hypertension, and a debilitating heart condition. Marta’s mother was a woman defined by the sounds she made, her heals balancing weight against hardwood, earring singing as they swung against her neck, body pushing through air as if it were a palpable obstacle, constantly in her way. She talked to Marta in a quiet tone, murmuring routine occasions of the day: “dinner’s ready, water’s heated for your bath, time for bed, put away your toys now.” Her mother’s voice never addressed Marta’s father. He was merely a mannequin that required feeding, no changing, a measly throw pillow that you couldn’t mold to your own comfort, he resembled the potatoes that served as Marta’s toys, teaching her how to count, both neglecting any motor skills, devoid of any particular input of life.
It was a frugal time indeed for the Kovechik family right after Marta began to speak; their last several dinners over the course of three weeks contained the same recipe: fried potatoes, mushrooms, and onions with pounded beef cutlets. Disposable diapers ceased to grace Marta’s posterior, while reusable and hardly re-washable pilyenki cloth graced her delicates instead. Their neighbor, Vera Abramova was discharged as Marta’s nanny, leaving Marta to sit in front of her unresponsive father for the hours until her mother returned from work.
Marta was sitting on the carpet one evening, her back resting against the foot of the couch on which her dormant father lay. The voice of the news broadcaster from the T.V. stated that “the number of inhabitants of each household that didn’t work but received a pension would now betaken into account for the allotment of food stamps,” a concept that neither of them comprehended or acknowledged. Marta’s mother walked into the room, accustomed to the silence but hesitant none-the-less of the two stationary lumps of flesh that were so dependant on her care, though they never voiced it. Advancing towards Marta, she lifted her daughter up by the armpits, walked into the bedroom and deposited her on the single full sized mattress which she hardly shared with her husband anymore.
“Would you like to see what I have?” Her mother produced a paper shopping bag that she had concealed somewhere in the closet. Marta didn’t respond, her eyes following the movements of her mother’s fingers fishing out blue cloth from the depths of crinkling tissue paper, watching the unfolding of denim and taking the shape of hollow pants adorned with buttons that shone like flashlights and thick stitching on the back pocket of a butterfly. “Aren’t they perfect?!” Marta’s mother pressed the fabric along her hips, twirling around in place, allowing the pant legs to flap like the ends of a ball gown. “I’ve been saving for three weeks for these!” Her mother continued to twirl, dancing now with an invisible partner, “they’re just like what the American’s wear! Doesn’t your mother look like an American model?” Marta’s silence seemed to be reassurance enough for her mother and that evening’s dinner, though meager in sustenance, was passed with a particularly cheerful chewing from her mother’s happy mouth.
After finishing dinner, one which Marta, nor her father, refrained from eating, her mother announced that she would be taking a trip into the city. The three of them sat at the table, Marta keeping her back straight, her father shedding a rare smile onto his cutlets, while her mother focused on her breathing with the new denim constraining her waist line.
“Olya is taking me with her to visit a friend in Navski Prospect.” Her mother began, as she circled the table, clearing it, speaking in no particular direction. “I’ll be gone all evening. I’m counting on you to go to bed on time.” She never even looked at her husband, who remained a motionless blob of human verve. Marta didn’t reply. Sometimes she wished she had never learned how to speak. Instead she inspected her mother, noticing the difference in her face: faded shades of pink, the texture of blush, brightened and plumper ruby lips, and eyelids looking bruised, much darker than her own. Marta checked herself in the reflection of her spoon, closing one eyelid at a time to make sure hers were not bruised as well.
“Why are you visiting someone else’s friend?” Marta ventured. “Can we come too?”
“No, don’t be stupid,” her mother’s voice was sharp with scents of onions and cutlets. The plates were hurriedly swept into the sink and forgotten as a horn blared out in the street. Her mother jerked at the honking, then scrambled into her coat and heels which were already positioned by the doorway. She rushed outside, and in her haste slammed the door shut, the brief sounds of the inside and outside worlds smothered by a shutting door was enough of a farewell for everyone.
Marta led her stagnant father into the bedroom it was bedtime for both of them. She helped the sluggish man she called “papa,” into bed while she climbed into her own crib by their bedside, (they hadn’t been issued a stamp for a new piece of furniture by the government yet so Marta still slept within the confines of her crib.) The dishes from dinner were still soaking in the sink and since their apartment was so small, their bedroom was engorged with the stench of onions and cutlets.
She could hear her father sleep through the darkness, her own mind in a state of wakefulness, looking through the manipulation of night, the gloom encasing like a forest, the moon shone yellow and sickly. She didn’t think about her pajamas, the shape of the curtains or the weight of her own body. Marta pretended to be asleep when her mother returned home, disregarding the clatter that accompanied her, her thud-thudding footsteps, an unstable heart. Marta concentrated on the sounds of her breathing, sharp intakes at first, then slower emissions as she undressed (struggling to remove the stiff denim,) and even a suppressed giggle as she slid under the covers next to her sleeping husband.
Her memory was a slideshow of sounds that night: the disembodied breathing of her dormant parents – blunt distant car horns – sleeping breaths rising, racing, relaxing – jagged creaks – inhalations falling into synch – fluttering of shadows – exhalations continuing separately. For the moments of their cohesiveness, Marta timed her own breathing to match, allowing the room to harbor only one sound: the collective breath of family. As the night progressed, and Marta drudged into a late sleep, she heard the snoring spates of the mother, but her father’s breathing had vanished.
Marta woke without prompting that morning, sitting up and surveying the bedroom. Her mother had left for work early and Marta could see, over the jumbled sheets and muddled comforter, the shape of her father. She climbed out of her crib and slunk over to the bed, crawling underneath the still-warm covers of her mother’s side, allowing the silence of the room to blanket her ears. She examined the intricacies of his collapsed features: – caved in cheeks – untrimmed nose, mustache, beard-hair – pallid dried skin – gaped mouth – sallow teeth – shriveled tongue – saliva-less. She lay there all day, snuggled against the hardened back of her father, reveling in quiet, remaining still until the sound of her mother’s keys fitting into the locks rang from the hallway. Marta could hear her walking through the apartment, heels left at the doorway, slippery stockings shimmying across carpet, not at all disturbed by the stillness.
By chance she decided to change her earrings to something less dangly before working with food and was already in the process of removing the clasps from around her earlobes as she slid into the bedroom. She stopped in the doorway. Marta was now upright, sitting cross-legged beside her motionless father. Marta examined her mother, whose already blanch face receded to an even fairer white. Her mother’s feet retreated in panic now, faster and faster until they were out in the hallway, kicking at the door of their neighbor’s apartment, “telephone please! I need to use your telephone!” After some confused commotion only sobs of, “no, god don’t make me go back in there! No! I can’t! So let her, god forgive me, but I can’t!” Marta remained detached, incoherent, disconnected, most of the images were fleeting, while others were left uncertain of their own credibility: right foot forward – rickety hands – sudden weightlessness – wrought grip upon shoulders – buttocks departing from beside – father at arm’s reach – three feet – hallway – vanished. - Red: Sirens: Blue: Lights.
It took two days before Marta’s mother was able to re-enter their old apartment. They spent nights sharing the couch in their neighbor’s living room. Upon following her mother back into the apartment, everything appeared lucid, and unfamiliar. They sat on the couch in the living room and after about twenty minutes of silence, her mother went into the kitchen, made herself a cup of tea and then finally washed the dishes that remained crusted with stains and mildew untouched by the caress of soap or human hand. Marta remained speechless. Many of the words she heard, noises and clatter that gathered, swooped, and left in a blur clung to her skin and thoughts, “myocardial infarction, God, funeral ceremony.” She watched her mother organize in her meticulous motions, moving, cleaning, wiping, tidying, maneuvering, relocating, and then finally examining, pointer finger erect and scanning the room from left to right, her eyes dry as the hottest day and just as fierce. Once finished she pulled out one of the dinning room chairs and called Marta to her side. Examining her daughter she then dabbed at a non-existent smudge on her cheek. A faint heat began ascending in Marta, circling her feet at first, and then glazing over her extremities like hundreds of uncomfortable bulbous hands each with coursing heat sweating its way out through the palms, then a final combustion arcing in a crescendo of inferno imploding into her brain like a trapped phoenix. Her mother clamped her chin and lower cheeks with a talon like swoop and made sure to look into her daughter, trying to speak to that area of the mind and heart, the visceral region where there are droughts of sympathy, passion, and emotional vibration – that precise locale in the omniscient spirit that fluctuates and then parallels directly with influence. She spoke slowly as her grip tightened, “Your father left us Marta. This is why you need to marry a man with a big heart, so he will never leave you. Do you understand now?” Marta nodded her head as most children do when they are asked a question to which they are expected to know the answer.
There was a time when business was slow in our market, a threatening winter when the leaves we pretended were food stamps were scarce and Marta and I sat at our picnic table discussing how our neighborhood customers would ever manage through times like these. You have to marry a man with a big heart and grow very fat, Marta said to me. That’s what my mama told me. She said that his heart was far too weak, his body to skinny. That’s why she goes to the city now. To find herself a big heart and lots of fat.
Her mother’s trips into the city did indeed continue, but the only thing she managed to bring home with her one night was a tiny black puppy whose first act in his new home was to lift his leg and pee directly onto the couch. The stench of his urine was so poignant and lasting that the couch was soon disposed. Instead of waiting for that new bed(for which government permission would never come) Marta’s mother simply removed the bars off of her crib, turning it into a mattress with no headboard, and the puppy was allowed to sleep with her, adding his own satisfied sniffles into the darkness which already carried many sounds. For a month their new life appeased them. But it appeared that the city had more heart than it needed because Marta’s mother soon began brining some of the inhabitants’ home with her. Every other day it appeared that her mother was brining home another stranger. Some would come with the whistle of the boiling kettle for afternoon tea, others would show up awkwardly at Marta’s bedside in the blue light of dawn, scrambling for their own denim and leaving before her mother woke. Others still would insist on staying for breakfast, ignoring Marta completely and watching her mother’s figure hungrily shifting pans and egg shells over the counter-top proclaiming, “How nice it is to see a woman finally submit to her duties of feeding and gratifying without answering back!” At this remark her mother flinched and dropped her whisk while pulling her sleeve down over what was clearly a plum sized bruise.
Marta heard this man on only one other occasion when he came and stood outside the door of their apartment knocking furiously and shouting something about teaching lessons while she, the puppy and her mother say silently together in the dark on the floor of their couch-less living-room waiting until the angry man smashed some bottle against their door and left still shouting, knocking angrily on their neighbors doors.
“It isn’t easy,” her mother said one day over dinner, “to find someone with a big heart. As it turns out Martachka, some people don’t have hearts at all.”
We employed Marta’s new puppy in sniffing out the best grasses to sell in our supermarket. He usually preferred dandelions and led us to patches of land infested with worms. They were a great help as the season became busier, spring thawed ice-skating activities and kids had to resort to the supermarket again for entertainment. I asked Marta one day if Sashka (her puppy) could have a big heart, since he did come from the city and all, but she was too afraid to ask her mother such a question.
And it really didn’t matter to Marta, that she didn’t know why people love each other or other things the way they do. Did the love of a husband and wife vary from that of friends or pets and their owners? Was there a way to measure something’s heart before you decided it was good enough to invest yourself in? Was her own heart worth anything since it didn’t come from this tricky city to which her mother embarked only under the cover of nightfall and denim? These were questions whose urgency Marta’s current complacency suppressed. She had her friend, her Sashka, and a place where she felt useful and productive.
That is until an evening which brought the return of her mother accompanied by a man whose denim was ripped around the knees and fringed as the calves. He took two steps past the threshold, sniffed the air and sneezed asking, “Where’s the bitch?” Then after spotting Sashka responded, “ah, it’s a bastard after all.”
“Don’t worry yourself about him Danya,” Marta’s mother was laughed, walking backwards in her nylons, tripping into the bedroom beckoning to the stranger with the still crinkled nose. “Martachka you be a good girl and keep the mutt out of our way wont you sweet girl?” Her voice was distant now, half guffawing into her pillows. The man strode past Marta and paused in front of the cowering puppy, “I won’t worry myself alright,” he called toward the bedroom and in one quick motion kicked the puppy in the stomach having it slide with a yelp across the threshold and into the hallway after which Danya shut the door and grabbed Marta by her braids, whispering deeply into her ear, “Make a sound and you won’t wake to see morning you little shit!” Then with a swift shake by the hair he dragged her into the dark bedroom, shutting the door behind him, crumpling Marta into the corner, the last sound she heard was his weight plummeting onto the bed and her mother.
The night dripped into dawn. In the hallway echoed a muffled scratching which ceased towards the morning along with the crippling moans from within the walls of the bedroom. Marta lay on the floor where she was disposed of, wanting only her Sashka. She lay awake until the man had gone and her mother was left alone in the kitchen, blowing across the top of her mug. They didn’t talk about what happened the night before. In fact, after all her years of silence, this was the day when the absence of sound was too much for Marta. “Where’s Sashka?” she asked finally, the two words melting into the tears that fell inwardly, refusing to stain her cheeks.
“He’s gone.” Her mother relied severely, “He’s a dog. Let him go. Dogs don’t bring home food stamps.”
I was surprised when Marta came to work unaccompanied by our favorite helper. “Sashka’s gone.” She explained, eyes blurring like the in coming tide and then abruptly sobering she added, “I think he had it though, a big heart. He’ll come back to me. There can’t be many of us with big hearts so we’ll find each other.” And then we set to work, hopeful and curious, saddened but not defeated. Business was slow that day and perked up suspiciously when Andrewsha rode up to our table and presented us with a dirty potato sack saying out of breath, “Wanna see what I have?”
Marta merely scowled but I leaned in, morals and experiences with strange boys not as profoundly developed as hers at this point. Andrewshka was encouraged by my curiousity, he undid the knot and separated the sack’s sides. The rank stench of the contents struck us with a spicy slap of singed vinegar, feces, and dried urine, but it was the sight inside that nearly made us vomit. Andrewshka, ignoring our display of revulsion proudly boasted, “We caught him in the alley, me, Vanya, and Alexei, baited him into the sack with a dead rat, swung the sack over that birch down the block and beat it with the pipes we stole from the construction site on Sadnick Street.” He gave the sack a healthy shake and Sashka, who was rutted inside, ears torn off, black snout cracked and hemorrhaging, eyeballs beaten in and teeth bitten through their own lips, let loose a whimper, almost human, followed by immediate silence.
“Then I tied the sack to the back of my bike and rode it past the school playground,” Andrewshka continued, his breathing escalating with dynamism, “I let all the kids take a look at him for a kopeka!” He looked into his own sack and his smile faded instantly at the quiescent state of his victim. He shook the sack again, watching potato peels mingle in the wounds, the bottom of the sack mahogany from dried blood. “I had him really going a minute ago,” he scuffed his shoe against the dirt. “That’s just rotten luck, we were gonna feed him to Mikey’s bulldog, but it’s bad sport if there’s no chase to watch.” With that he sighed and rubbed a booger into his sleeve absentmindedly.
“Can I have him?” Marta’s composed voice jarred me out of my own horror.
“What for?” Andrewsha grinned, wondering if he can assist her in whatever she has planned for the corpse. But Marta remained firm, unwilling to disclose her intentions.
“I’ll pay you for him.”
“Oh yeah?” Andrewsha replied skeptically, shoving the sack behind his back, his tone changing to that of an Uzbek merchant selling meat pies on the street corner, eyeing the thickness of one’s change purse. “How much?”
Marta withdrew four copper kopeks from her sock and presented them to Andrewsha who snatched the money out of her hand without a moment of consideration, dropped the bag, mounted his bike in mid-run and pedaled away with an urgency that makes him think he’s made a good deal. He smiled the way a little boy smiles after winning a fight in the schoolyard, cheering loudly into the dying day.
Marta knelt down beside the unmoving burlap sack and unrolled Sashka out onto the sidewalk. The fatty heat casing the rancid aroma to bake, the sun casting a duplicate silhouette of the fallen corpse draping elongated onto the earth. Marta disregarded the stench, and merely searched for that weightlessness, soundlessness, a mere spate of Sashka’s aura to surround her and make this tacking pain subside. “He didn’t leave me,” she said finally. “I don’t think dad left mama and me either. They couldn’t have chose to leave us for this.” She paused again. “Maybe my mother found big hearts. Maybe hers is just too small to keep them.” Sashka remained on the sidewalk, burlap sack open and exposed, potato peels and his ear scattered along the heated gravel, hefty air filling Marta’s expanding lungs making her stomach bloated and ache, the streets of Tashkent motionless, cracked and rundown, a bus screeching to a halt its exhaust sternly popping.
This is a small section from a future work entitled the Chronicles of an Insomniac, Marta’s story deals with the sufferings of a childhood in Tashkent, Russia, and the endeavors of pain and misfortune that smother her growing innocence.