“Please, help yourself,” Klavdiia Dmytrivna reaches out a plate slowly, with dignity, and her old jelly arms, covered with goose bumps, flecked with bluish nets are swaying heavily.
“Thank you-u-u, Klavdiia Dmytrivna,” my grandma drawls, hastily wearing the smile of an orphan in front of the Princess-Trustee in furs and rings.
This Klavdia Dmytrivna is the owner of the apartment. Our, unchangeable, centenarian. The owner of the dark stairs, the scalloped door to the attic, children strokes packed with glassware to the rafters, secret storerooms, outhouses, barns, the paths paved with white bricks which lead to nowhere, hens, strange children, rusty constructions with patches of rain and one glass rooster.
Every morning, it screams neatly – somewhere from the backyard, over a hundred-meter barbed wire, over the rotten boards, fish bones, spilled lime. This is a tiny rooster, decorative, some Indian one. It had descended on Klavdia Dmytrivna’s metal roof long before I was born. Sure thing, she grabbed a huge knife, shaking her yellow jelly arms and was already about cutting its throat and roasting him whole, placing it between dorades and jellyfish but something stopped her. Maybe, the door had squeaked. Maybe, the feet had stuck to the red mastic. Or, maybe, Klavdia Dmytrivna’s nameless husband had returned from fishing, bony, like the spirit of the forest, rattling the scales.
And for a thousand years, this rooster is pecking blue Odesan sky with its screams. I feel sorry for it, I want to hide it under my sweater (it’s also Indian) and take it away from here secretly, under the shadow of the night, by train. But no. The barbed wire cuts the hands, the lime corrodes the soles.
“It’s my birthday today,” Klavdia Dmytrivna dreamily says, immediately infecting the whole room with a languid sigh – the walls pained dark-green, the beds with nickel balls, the clothes on the beds, bags, sacks, suitcases, carton boxes for hats.
“Congratula-a-tions, we wish you good health for many years… And I think, why you look so smart today,” my grandma pours the chrism.
“Thank you,” Klavdia Dmytrivna answers mercifully, gathering the place where ordinary people have lips into a wrinkled bundle, and approaches the door, breathing November, validol and naphthalene, soughing with the springs of the skirt of color “ashes of roses”, apparently dug out from the bottomless sack this morning.
To come up to the gates, open them, squeaking the ageing rust, – and there is the sea. Just downstairs. There are summer, greens, moiré and emerald, piercing freshness, women with newspaper packages of shrimp, children in caps, salt, sand. But in this yard, it is always autumn. And these concrete paths all, even the shortest, lead to the surgery room. And on this swing one wants to swing only crying.
I am afraid of coming out. Especially now. I seem to be only eight or ten. It’s not yet embarrassing to be afraid. I’d better sit here, next to the grandma, next to the canned meat with scraped stains of lard, next to the sacks. Because there, it’s scary. There – oh Lord! – Klavdia Dmytrivna’s friends dance in the garden to the broken by half black record. There are all of them, in the spider web, in the leaves, in the rust, with the messy knotted dyed hair, each of them holds metal jaws, brings lornets to the eye sockets, straightens festoons, veils, adjusts the torn off band to the decayed skirts. They are – Svinorylova, Tmutarakanova, Koshmarova… They move the hinges of hands and legs, rustle with rotten trees, their palms are red, so red as if they had just squished tender Odesan cherries and strawberries. The rooster lurks between a huge tub and a fence, presses its wings to the ground, forces itself not to listen to the dark music. And me too… and me too.
“You will sleep today at my sister’s. You’ll be comfortable there. Let’s go,” Klavdia Dmytrivna invites with her gesture, emerging from the autumn darkness – where? – to the door, to death, to the end of the tunnel, to the bottom of a huge tank, to obscurity. She talks but doesn’t move her lips, half melts, separates the body from the legs, hovers in the air for a moment, she is all in talmas, corsets, tournures, gorgets, belted by a poisonous viper, tied with a pink scarf, like an odalisk. She can’t be trusted.
We go out. We are on our way. I want to hear the sea but no, there is no sea, you just open the gates – and there is an abyss with firs on the yellow clay, frightening gorges, the bones of beautiful princesses – Dorada and Jellyfish… We can’t go there.
Klavdia Dmytrivna leads us, squinting. When we don’t see, she swiftly tears lemon stars from the sky and stealthily hides them in the pocket – tomorrow she would buy in the green shop overdue jam and stick it to the rails of the tram No. 5. Grandma grasps hold of my hand, it’s dangerous to go, there are reptiles in the dry leaves, grape dragons wink through the violet gaps. Lanes, paths, turns, scalloped gates, under-roofs, galleries, dips in the walls. Just make a wrong turn, make an extra step, not even a step but half a step and everything will fall apart, writhe, bend as a doll box, everything would disappear.
Finally – creak, squeak, whoop – the door. It’s light. There is an old woman sitting on a bed, behind her – probably a hundred icons. Dark brown. The old woman is surrounded with the pillows, her glasses are lave-held. She says something – not to us, but to Klavdia Dmytrivna.
Klavdia Dmytrivna turns on the light in the adjoining room and shows the bed.
“You’ll sleep here today.”
I sigh with relief when she finally goes away. I touch the bed – the springs are squeaking. I want to sit and calm down already, to take out all thorns and hardships, to fall asleep, to fall into obscurity – but suddenly someone touches my sleeve.
A little, like a nail, girl rises up on the toes, laughs with her tiny mouth, touching my elbow.
Grandma claps her hands:
“Go to bed!”
The girl is silent. She laughs, strokes my hand, she is dirty with messy gypsy hair and with the tear stains on the glossy cheeks.
Grandma takes out a pack of waffles from the pocket.
A girl nibbles the sweets, crumbles sugar dust on the striped rugs, smiles and emerald clots of the sea fall down her cheeks and hang on the chin. The girl steps toward the bed, gets a package from under the pillow and thrusts it to me.
I unpack it slowly – seems like a piece of clay mixed with sand, tiny teeth marks. It is written “Cocoa”.
The girl throws her leg up, grabs at the bed, climbs, wraps into a colorful rag and lies there, gleaming her eyes. The hair is scattered over the pillow like a black peony. The girl doesn’t answer when grandma inquires: “Who are you? What is your name? Where is your mom?”. She keeps silent sneakily squinting. And there is a glass Odesan rooster behind her shoulder which furtively peeks out. It peeks out and hides, peeks and hides. I don’t see it full-size, only the transparent head, decorated with silver, the gorge with hardly noticeable blue trickle inside.
The darkness falls. On that side of the wall, Svinorylova, Tmutarakanova, and Koshmarova, nightmarish as a fairy tale, touch their dry bony hands to the lime. Grape leaves fall on the buckram. And here a girl cries. Or laughs? It’s hard to distinguish…
She falls asleep, not saying a word. And I fall asleep too. And grandma. I see nightmares. Overturned tanks. The screech of the breaks. Princess in cages. Mermaids. Rusty swings. Dolls with stabbed eyes. Bumping at the door. Broken nose. The nail in the heel. Temperature.
“Where is she?” I ask waking up.
“Who?! Oh my God, there are the bugs. I suffered. Let me see your belly. Damn this Klavdia! Let’s go home!”
“Where is she?” I ask, enchantedly looking at the barely noticeable pit.
“Who?! Let’s go, I say! Hurry up!”
We go out into Odesan autumn morning. Out there, it is June but here – it’s October. There is a green shop with dry halva, the premises of Filatov Institute, the sea with shells but here, it is leaves, leaves, leaves. Every minute spent here is the year of life in reality. The colorful, desperate, with ice-cream and lizards, with sea and checked notebooks. Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up!
We go out. Forever. Carefully tip-toeing. Along the narrow tunnel. The glass rooster neatly pecks the dew from the grape leaves, sprinkling behind my collar. Never more alive.