Two Fairy Tales

Jersey City, 1999
Eileen Keator, Jersey City, 1999. Courtesy of the artist.

Solzhenitsyn once wrote that if Chekhov’s characters had stuck around for the Soviet Union, they would have gone insane. This is a perfect description of the early stories and plays of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya. In recent years, she has begun to write fairy tales, but the sense remains of people brutalized almost, but not quite, beyond recognition.

Petrushevskaya is the most significant writer now working in Russian.

Once there lived a father who couldn’t find his children. He went everywhere, asked everyone—had his little children come running in here? But whenever people responded with the simplest of questions—“What do they look like, what are their names, are they boys or girls?”—he didn’t know how to answer. He simply knew that his children were somewhere, and he kept looking. One time, late in the evening, he felt sorry for an old lady and helped carry her bags to her apartment. The old lady didn’t invite him in, she didn’t even say thank you. Instead she suddenly told him to take the local train to the Fortieth Kilometer stop.

“What for?” he asked.

“What do you mean, what for?” And the old lady carefully closed the door behind her and bolted it and locked the chain.

Yet on his very first day off—and it was the middle of a cold, northern winter—he went off to the Fortieth Kilometer. For some reason the train kept stopping all day, for long stretches of time, and it was beginning to grow dark when they finally reached the platform at the station. The hapless traveler found himself on the edge of a forest; for some reason he started tramping through snow-drifts until he reached its very heart. Soon he was on a beaten path, which in the twilight brought him to a little hut. He knocked on the door, but no one answered. He stepped into the hall, knocked again, and again there was nothing. Then he quietly entered the warm hut, took off his boots, coat, and hat, and began to look around. It was warm inside and clean, and a kerosene lamp was burning. Whoever lived there had just gone out, leaving their tea mug and kettle and bread, butter, and sugar on the table. The stove was warm. Our traveler was cold and hungry, and so, apologizing to anyone who might hear, he poured himself a cup of hot water. Then, after some thought, he ate a piece of bread and placed some money on the table.

Meanwhile, outside it had grown completely dark, and the traveling father began to wonder what he should do. He didn’t know the schedule of the trains, and really he was in danger of finding himself in a snowbank, especially as the snow had been coming down and covering all the paths.

The father collapsed on the bench and fell asleep.

He was roused by a knock at the door. He raised himself from the bench and said, “Yes—come in.”

A little child wrapped in some kind of frayed rag entered the hut. He stopped at the table and froze, uncertain what to do.

“Now what’s this?” said the future father, who hadn’t yet entirely awoken. “Where are you coming from? How did you get here? Do you live here?”

The child shrugged and said, “No.”

“Who brought you here?”

The child shook his head, wrapped in his torn-up shawl.

“Are you by yourself?”

“Yes,” said the boy.

“And your mom? Your dad?”

The boy sniffled and shrugged his shoulders.

“How old are you?”

“I don’t know.”

“All right. What’s your name?”

The boy shrugged once again. His nose suddenly thawed out and began to drip. He wiped it with his sleeve.

“Hold on there!” said the future dad. “That’s why we have handkerchiefs.”

He wiped the boy’s nose with the handkerchief and then started carefully taking off the boy’s things. He unwound the shawl, took off the old fur hat, and then the little overcoat, which was warm, but very shabby.

“I’m a boy,” the child said suddenly.

“Well, that’s something already,” said the man. He washed the boy’s hands under the faucet—they were very small, with tiny fingernails. In fact the boy looked a lot like an old man, and sometimes like a Chinese, sometimes even like an astronaut, with his puffy eyes and nose.

—Translated by Anya Gessen and Keith Gessen

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