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A Sketch

Dmitrii Emets

Translated from Russian by

Jane H. Buckingham

©Jane H. Buckingham 2011


In the courtyard in March, the sun is shining whimsically, tears of icicles are flowing, but here, in apartment № 15, where it smells of old things and where porcelain knickknacks stand on shelves, it is always autumn. The old lady is God’s dandelion, you blow and she goes to pieces. On the wrong side of eighty. The hair is sparse, thin, just a bit of fluff. Smooth throughout, only one strand above the right ear rebels, which imparts a little flippant look to her. She is standing by the window, pinching the dry flowers off the violet. Only her thoughts are not here, not in the violet and not in the sound of water dripping. It is evident that the old lady is rather impatient, she looks back, moves around, opens her mouth, and then immediately closes it. Finally, having decided, with quick mincing steps she approaches the door and calls ingratiatingly, “Coral Alekseevna! Coral Alekseevna!” After the second call, the squeaking of a bed and an annoyed huff are heard in the next room. Dandelion is frightened. “What is it? Are you sleeping, love?” “You have a nap, my darling Tamara Vasilevna!” a thick voice mimics in irritation. “Barely struggled with blood pressure and now woken up, old fool!” Dandelion pulls her head into her shoulders. However, she has already decided, she will back down later. “Coral Alekseevna, will you be so kind… Can I trouble you?” she calls with the delicate hyperpoliteness of an old woman. The bed frame squeaks furiously. The muffled thud of bare feet on carpet, and then louder on linoleum. Dandelion, listening to these angry steps, shrinks even more. A stout moustached old woman about seventy starts to walk into the room. This is Carol Alekseevna Shvydchenko, the niece of God’s dandelion’s brother’s wife or something in this vein. Flowers, a cross between a poppy and a rose, nonexistent in nature, scatter like large spots on her blue robe. Her speech betrays the Ukrainian in her. Her “g” sounds as in Ukrainian, with an audible puff of breath. Her “t” after “sh” is muted, and at moments of surprise or happiness, she lifts her hands, utters “Pooh! Good Lord!” with an indescribable expression. But now is not such a moment. Now the awakened old woman is out of sorts. After entering the room, Coral fixes a scowl on God’s dandelion. “How much more can there be? Cook – me, the market – me, prescriptions – me… Now I’ll die like a dog, and you’ll outlive me still,” she hisses. “Well what can I do for you, Tamara Vasilevna? Read again?” God’s dandelion nods with hope. “Why read? You must know it by heart already. Or will something new appear there from reading?” Coral Alekseyevna is being sarcastic and, walking along the room, begins to grumble. God’s dandelion blinks guiltily and waits until the storm passes. Finally, the stout old woman takes the tattered letter from the table, brings it up to her eyes, and is already about to read, but here it comes into her head that she still has not yet needled enough for the interrupted sleep. “Why don’t you read it yourself? It’s written to you, not to me! Here, read, enough for me!” she snorts, jumping from the formal “you” to the informal and shoving the letter into God’s dandelion’s hand. The old lady takes the letter and, squinting, twists it. Coral watches searchingly. Her entire massive figure expresses superiority and provocation. Suddenly Dandelion changes. She is ready to give in to everything else, but not the single most important thing to her. She is choking with indignation, stutters, and even does not finish her words. The moustached old woman listens indifferently. There is nothing unusual for her in Dandelion’s agitation and stuttering, she has already heard all this repeatedly. Coral
©Jane H. Buckingham 2011


already knows that now, among other words, the word “cataract,” biting like a crab with claws, will be heard. Carol waits. Finally, the word “cataract” rings out, and the very distant relative nods with satisfaction. Dandelion pauses to breathe, and, hiccupping, blinks her slightly swollen eyelids. “You would go to Vinnitsa… Just that they don’t really expect you there…” she sobs. This observation disrupts the customary flow of disagreement. An offended Coral seethes and begins to shout. She shouts loudly, defeating the enemy not so much by the validity of argument as with the power of sound. She isn’t wanted? They don’t expect her? And what on Earth has this Moscow yielded to her! Why the hell is she babysitting an old woman here? Coral shouts so loudly because she actually knows: she isn’t wanted in Vinnitsa, and even nobody there for her to go to. The decibels increase. A frightened Dandelion huddled up her flabby back to the windowsill and gets ready to squeak “Help!” But at the very moment when, according to all expectations, a monstrous explosion must take place and break Dandelion into pieces, Coral suddenly loses steam. She still mutters for some time, but already listlessly, without heat, and finally falls silent. Silence hangs in the room with pink shutters. Dandelion blinks, Coral thuds her heels on the carpet, cooling down. After about ten minutes, the distant relative stops angrily and takes the letter. Dandelion gingerly sits down on the edge of the sofa. There is truce. “Well, listen, Tamara Vasilevna, my dove!” Coral says sourly and begins to read. She reads clearly, loudly, but without expression. She does not separate the sentences, the reason why it seems that at regular intervals a large bean is dropped onto an iron sheet. Dear Granny, Each letter you ask me how I am. Everything is as always with me, that is, nowhere better. I live in Tyumen. My health is good, no pain, no frostbites, also do not need to stay in the hospital. Do not worry, old lady. I no longer drink vodka, because it is all wrong, only wine and beer sometimes, but only for special occasions or holidays. I eat well. The stomach works normally and this is good, because many here acquired intestinal ulcer from dry food. “Oh, good gracious! Ulcer!” Dandelion exclaims with horror. Coral looks sourly at her and continues reading. I dress warmly. Recently bought myself an imported jacket with a high collar, called “Alaska.” I also wear shoes that the weather demands. So, Granny, do not worry. Every night I watch TV, including “News” to keep track of what is happening around the world. It shows here perfectly, although the tower is rather far away. “Read about the skinny ones, read about the skinny ones!” Dandelion prompts impatiently. Coral frowns and raises her thick voice. Granny, you ask in a letter if I am married. How is one to get married as there are no decent girls here, and those that are, are all married. They paint their lips, the skirts are stretched in such a way that you see their bottom from underneath, and the way they walk, parade, even when the stockings freeze to their legs. Disgusting even
©Jane H. Buckingham 2011


just to look at them. Besides, they are also so skinny. I recently went out with one. All skin and bones, as the saying goes. You try to hold her and she will slip between your fingers. After reading to this place, Coral would spit loudly, look sideways at Dandelion, and continue. So, Granny, I am not married yet and have no intention to… Well what else to write to you? You write that I should come soon or bring you here with me, else you will not live long, and there will be no one to bury you. Do not even think about it, Granny, you will live for a long time, you are my strong old Granny, but I cannot bring you here, because here does not suit you and even the climate is not good. And I also cannot come, because the tickets are so expensive and also so far to travel. For the same reason that with little money I cannot help you materially. Please forgive me for that, Granny. Well, that is all for now, I am wrapping this up, because the whole sheet is already filled. Have to go drill a hole. Your grandson Serozha. The letter is read, and Dandelion sits all the time on the sofa with a peaceful and happy face. She has listened to the same letter both the day before and the week before. If there were no letters to her, she would be completely consumed with worry, and there would be nothing to live for. Pity that her eyes cannot see, even cannot make out Serozha’s handwriting. Well, that is okay, Coral will read, although it is difficult with her, with Carol, well, that is okay too, God be her judge. Then the old women have supper. Dandelion chews, swallows, but does not taste. She is again in dreams. “Coral Alekseevna, love, we’ll write back?” she timidly asks. “And he’ll read them, nothing doing!” Carol answers with a good-natured tingling in her voice. Dandelion sighs, but does not insist, only asks, “And you filled in the address correctly?” Coral stirs, but without offence. She has already become silent for today. “The first time, or what?” she grumbles. In an hour, Dandelion again gets worried and minces over to Coral. “Seems a long time no new letters from Serozha! Something has happened, perhaps?” “You’ll have to hex… Men just don’t write much. No news is good news,” Carol answers. So passes this day, one of the many days in March. The same was in February, January, the same, if they keep living, will be in May. In the evening, when Dandelion has fallen asleep, Coral quietly looks into her room. After standing for a while by the door, she goes into the kitchen, takes out a sheet of paper and, almost without thinking, begins to write. Dear Granny, Here I am writing to you again because I know that you are already worried. My health is good as before, no aches, even colds do not stick… Carol writes enthusiastically, even, perhaps, gets into the role. Nevertheless, indeed she has become skilled at it. What is this letter? The thirtieth, the fiftieth? She has already lost count.
©Jane H. Buckingham 2011


Dandelion has no one else besides the grandson. But the grandson at seventeen had already left for Yakutia to drill oil wells there and disappeared. No letter, no postcard, no phone call. Coral tried to find out, but really what to find out? The answer was “the addressee has left,” period. Either the grandson has forgotten grandma or the village, but most likely he has been dead for a long time. The usual story, in the north, get drunks, falls asleep in freezing weather, then you are ready to die. And earlier Serozha loved to drink hard. Having finished writing, Coral yawns and, after re-reading the letter, hides it in one of the old envelopes. Then she gets up and, resonantly waddling on her stone heels, goes to bed. March 2001

©Jane H. Buckingham 2011