by Nod Ghosh
A meteor flew through the window when we’d been in Chriyat six days. I found a note tied to it with a piece of string. That was how I knew it wasn’t really a meteor.
Get out of here, the crumpled paper said. Leave before the devil takes you. A child’s scrawl, but who would know in these days of decay and decrepitude? The ink was maroon, the colour of oxidised blood.
We’ve been in Chriyat for four years. My mother is buried on the hill five minutes walk from our shack.
Father sleeps in the back room, mother’s shawl wrapped around his fingers like an extra skin. He keeps a piece of broken mirror, his weapon. It rests on the cracked tiles beside his bed, next to a beaker of yellow water containing what remains of his teeth. The worn mattress barely supports the balsa-wood of his bones. A silvery wind plays through cracks in the shingles, undermining the warmth of his eiderdown.
Elizaveta and I sleep in the front room. Olga is tucked into the alcove, sandwiched between her parents and grandfather.
This morning, I kissed my wife on her forehead, and told her we would leave Chriyat before her next birthday.
“Those are empty dreams, Maxim,” she said, but held me tight. Dawn’s cold fingers couldn’t reach me whilst cocooned in her embrace. She slipped out of bed to light the fire.
We have electricity today. Olga reads her schoolbook in dilute light. It picks out cracks in the plasterwork. The tap whistles and coughs in gassy spurts, as Elizaveta prepares breakfast.
“It will be the water that finishes us,” she says against the plumbing’s hiss, her voice oddly cheerful. The water she’s drawn stands in a jug, tainted grey-ochre. We’ll drink it after the sediment settles. My wife’s hands are raw, though that’s to be expected. She tills frozen soil, splits logs, and scrubs our overalls with blocks of soap, ineffective as chalk.
Elizaveta pulls a bottle of lotion from a brown paper bag. She removes the stopper. Olga knows to take her hat off. My wife slides the sponge applicator over the dome of our child’s head. It shines like an egg-yolk in the muted sepia light. Olga turns the page of her book, and I don’t know whether it is medicine or tears that run down her cheeks.
Then the lights go out, and the girl slides her finger over the pages, as if to extract their meaning by touch alone.
If we could afford the glass, I’d pull the boards down and repair the window. I’d let the sun into the front of our house again.
The groan of the bus calls us out into the frigid air. Olga’s gloved hand is in mine. The driver snorts through his facemask when he counts my coins. It’s not enough, but he lets us on anyway. Olga’s body pushes against mine as the bus swerves and dances around the bends on the hillside. I arch my neck and scan the cemetery for mother’s gravestone, but everything is dusted with snow.
At the school stop, Olga rushes off with a tide of mottled children. I move to a vacated seat, and place my duffle bag between my legs. The driver hums a popular song, his voice muffled through the mask. The hills glisten like a row of gibbous moons, as we head towards the industrial zone. In the distance to the left, I glimpse the hulk of abandoned buildings.
This day will be like any other in Chriyat.
When Olga’s hair began to fall out, the children at school stopped playing with her. Elizaveta feared our daughter would go the way of my mother. Mother’s grave is marked with a stone she found by the river. My mother had beautiful silver hair, like spiders’ webs in the morning. She asked us to cut her name and birth date onto the stone, so she could see it.
Galina Ivanovna Pushkina
Mother had lost most of her hair when we put her in the ground. We carved 1987 after we buried her.
We have electricity in the evening. Elizaveta has made borscht with beet my father grew. She serves pork rolls in mushroom sauce, a treat for her birthday.
“You don’t need to leave the poisonous ones,” I joke, “when picking mushrooms.” I sip on my drink. It burns my throat. “Because they’re all deadly in this godforsaken place!” We laugh, even though it’s an old joke, and it’s not funny.
Elizaveta has made a cake, but it is flat and uninviting. Even Olga leaves a little on her plate. She reaches for her mother’s ears, tugging them for every one of her thirty-one years.
Father takes out his violin.
“Oh Pavel, play for us!” Elizaveta’s eyes light up as father scratches out a folksong. Olga dances like an acrobat, spinning her leg around her. The child’s woollen hat slides off the stony surface of her scalp. She gasps and rushes into the darkness of her alcove. The old man stops playing.
Olga stays in her cubbyhole for the rest of the night.
“It’s late, Maks,” Elizaveta says, “I’m going to bed.” She disappears to tend to our daughter. My father folds his violin back into its case, throws the remainder of his drink down his throat.
“Ay son. I’ll retire as well,” he says.
I sit in darkness.
At that moment, I want to cry, I want to pull my own hair out. I want to hurl rocks into the darkness through the remaining windows. I want to die.
When I join Elizaveta in bed, she stirs and then takes me in her arms.
We make love with the ferocity of wolves.
Nod Ghosh is a graduate of the Hagley Writers’ Institute, Christchurch, New Zealand. Short stories and poems appear in various New Zealand and international publications. Her work features in anthologies: Love on the Road 2015 (Liberties Press), Landmarks (U.K. 2015 NFFD), Horizons 2 (Top of the South NZSA) and Leaving the Red Zone (Clerestory Press). She is an associate editor for Flash Frontier. Further details: http://www.nodghosh.com/