Mother Doll

Katya Apekina

March 4, 2024 
The following is from Katya Apekina's second novel, Mother Doll. Apekina is a novelist, screenwriter, and translator. Her debut novel, The Deeper the Water, the Uglier the Fish, was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. She is the recipient of an Elizabeth George grant, an Olin Fellowship, the Alena Wilson prize, and a Third Year Fiction Fellowship from Washington University in St. Louis, where she did her MFA. Born in Moscow, she moved to the US when she was three years old and currently lives in LA.

The first time Paul called, Zhenia was lying in bed, looking at the succulents on the windowsill. They were furry with dust. How long had it been since anybody watered them?

Ben was asleep next to her. He seemed different since coming back from the first round of filming in Atlanta. They’d given him an old-timey haircut and the pomade he’d started using left halos of grease on the pillowcase.

Why hadn’t it occurred to her to water and wipe these plants while he was gone?

Zhenia let the phone vibrate on the bed between them. She didn’t recognize the number so she let it go to voicemail. Ben groaned, turned towards the wall and rearranged the pillow between his knees. She wondered when she would start feeling the baby inside of her, and what that would feel like. When she’d googled ‘quickening’ somebody on a message board described it as a flutter, but she couldn’t really picture that feeling. A phone, vibrating inside of her womb, this she could imagine. The call was coming from inside the house!

She got up and boiled water for tea then played the voicemail in case it was something work related. There was a silence at first, and though she couldn’t hear breathing exactly, there was clearly a person on the other end. Then, finally, a man’s voice: “Hi, Zhenia.”

Her name in his mouth sounded like a tangle.

“We haven’t met. I’m calling about something… Well, I’d rather explain it to you, not to a machine. It’s about a relative of yours.”

Zhenia set the teakettle down. She turned to Ben on reflex but didn’t wake him. Which relative of hers could this message be about? Her brother, probably. He was just starting his freshman year now at Northwestern, a DJ on the side. Maybe he owed somebody money? After being under their mother’s thumb for so long, it would make sense that he would now find an area in which to be immoderate. Her curiosity was piqued.

She poured herself tea and called the number back. A man answered.

“Zhenia!” he said before she had a chance to introduce herself. “I’m so glad you called. My name is Paul Zelmont.” He had a wet way of speaking. She pictured him having thick, damp lips. “I’m a medium. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”

She hadn’t.

“I’m well-known in some circles. I have a website.”

She went over to her laptop and googled him as he talked. The man who came up in the images looked eerily like what she’d been picturing, or perhaps what she pictured was vague enough that it transformed into this man. Head shaved bald, white stubble on his cheeks, prying eyes and yes, thick wet lips, she was right about that. On the website it said he charged $350 for a 15-minute consult.

“I’ve been talking to your great-grandmother,” he continued, “and I need your help.”

“Okay,” Zhenia tensed and stepped out onto the balcony. For a scam, this seemed weirdly involved. “Did she leave me an inheritance and you just need to know my bank account number so you can transfer me the money?”

The man laughed. “Nothing like that. I know it’s strange for you to be getting this call out of nowhere. Her name was Irina Petrovna. She’s on your matrilineal line.”

Zhenia’s grandmother had been raised in a Soviet orphanage for children of spies. This Irina had left her there and sailed to America. Baba Vera had been four, old enough to understand abandonment both viscerally and cerebrally and be haunted by it for the rest of her life. What would Irina’s ghost want with Zhenia? Not that Zhenia even believed in this stuff. But if she did, it wouldn’t make any sense. The whole thing was preposterous.

“She needs to tell you her story, her full story, and then once you have a complete picture you can, if this feels right to you and I very much hope it will, you can offer her forgiveness. We’ve discussed it and the best way to go about all of this is to have her dictate us a memoir. She speaks English, Russian, Yiddish, German, and Hebrew, but she says she needs to dictate this in Russian to get anything honest. Her English-speaking self was founded on deception. So she can dictate her story to me and you can translate. Then I’d like these memoirs to be published, and for us to split the profits. This would be her legacy, as well as your inheritance and my remuneration. I don’t work pro bono for ethical reasons. It’s a way of keeping healthy boundaries around my work.”

Zhenia turned and looked through the glass at Ben, who was sitting up in bed awake now, looking at his phone. She tried to raise her eyebrows and get his attention, but he was looking down, typing something into his phone and smiling.

“We can split 60/40, which is unusually high as far as translation fees, but you’d be doing more than just translating. Her story is for you. You’d be the one receiving it, so this seems fair to me. How does this sound to you?”

Zhenia paused. It sounded insane.

“As I mentioned, I don’t speak Russian,” he continued. “So you will have to transcribe and translate, then send me what you have. She really is a fascinating woman. I’ve never done anything quite like this. It’s taken a lot of leg work on my part to track you down.”

“You couldn’t just close your eyes and see my phone number?”

“No, that’s not how it works at all,” he said wearily. “I could see it had a seven in it, but that was all I had to work with. Anyway, would now be a good time to start?”

Zhenia picked up a plastic water bottle next to the lawn chair she was sitting on.  It was filled with cigarette butts. She shook it like a dirty snow globe. There was a strong impulse to stall.

“She had other children, other grandchildren and great-grandchildren who she was probably much closer to. Why wouldn’t she go to them?”

“No. They have nothing to do with this. She wanted it to be you. Your grandmother is indisposed. Your mother is not open to these sorts of messages—“

“Because she’s a scientist?”

“No, I don’t think that has very much to do with it. She’s just closed off. Anyway, that leaves you, and I guess also the life you’re carrying inside of you.”

Zhenia froze. Her pregnancy wasn’t a guarded secret, but who knew besides Ben? Was this Ben’s idea of a joke?

“Did Ben hire you to scare me?” She set the ashtray water bottle down carefully and turned to look back through the sliding glass door, but it was her own reflection she was seeing, not Ben.

“I assure you nobody has hired me. And my intention is certainly not to scare you. Your great-grandmother has enlisted me in a project that I think could benefit all of us. And, she’s eager, she’s eager to start.”

“How did you know I was pregnant?”

“Knowledge exists all around us and as a psychic I know how to interpret it.”

Zhenia blinked, not knowing what to believe. “Is she here with me now?”

“In a sense. Spirits are in their own world, but there are places where you can overlap.”

“Can she see what I’m wearing?” Zhenia looked down at her peach, terrycloth bathrobe. “Can she see inside of me?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think she can see your physical body. She’s not near you in that sense.”

“Then in what sense is she near me?”

“Through me. I’m the channeler. Listen, do you have a pen and paper? I would like to begin?”

There was a level of genuine alarm in his voice. The way she sounded when she asked people in stores with ‘No Public Restroom’ signs if she could use their restroom.

“Fine,” Zhenia said, not certain she believed in any of this but also curious about where this was going. She went back inside, got a pen and a notebook.

“If this is even real, then why does she feel like she needs my forgiveness?” Zhenia muttered, adjusting her chair at the kitchen counter. “She’s dead. She got away with it, whatever ‘it’ was.”

“I’m starting,” Paul Zelmont squeaked, not seeming to hear her.

The words began to pour out—it was his voice still, not a falsetto or anything like that. But he was not a Russian speaker and he clearly was struggling to make the necessary sounds with his face and tongue muscles.

Zhenia didn’t resist once it started. She translated in her head and transcribed the results dutifully as she went. As the Russian words came out in English as her hand moved quickly over the page, she felt almost like she was in a trance.

“What?” Ben asked, peeking out of the bathroom, the only other room in their studio apartment. “Oh, I thought you were talking to me,” he said, and closed the door behind himself.


The rolling hills gleam strangely in Paul’s light. Their scale is unclear— they could be on another planet, or inside of a body.

“Lean in and talk,” Paul says to Irina, “I’m ready.” He opens his mouth very wide. She leans forward, clears her throat and speaks.

“Vera’s granddaughter?” she says, peering into his blinding gullet. “Zhenia? Can you hear me, then?”

Paul nods, gurgles.


“Oh. This might work. I worried that you’d be difficult to contact like your mother, that all my words would sink like rocks to the bottom of you, and what good would that do either of us? But I can tell you’re different from her. You have an openness. Some might call it a gullibility!”

Zhenia cleared her throat. “Is she insulting me?” she asked Paul, setting down her pen.

“Well, I don’t know what she’s saying, but I don’t think so. That’s not the sense I’m getting standing next to her. Maybe she is just not expressing herself well?”

“I’m not insulting you. I am saying that this quality in you… this pliability… maybe it’s what I need. You are listening after all. And what I am about to tell you, I haven’t told anybody. I lived many, many years with secrets that I repressed and repressed until I was formed from them. I am the shame that nobody in my second life knew about. I don’t know what will happen when you hear me out—for either of us. Perhaps you will witness me and then forgive me? I know my actions have rippled out into you. Maybe hearing my story will be useful for you. Maybe forgiving me will be useful for you too? I certainly hope it will be useful to me, but I’m getting ahead of myself.”

Zhenia blinked a few times. Forgiveness… that seemed a bit much. Probably not something she would realistically be able to offer.

“My daughter, as you know, is indisposed, but you’re the closest thing to her. Receive this story for Vera’s sake if nothing else. May I begin?”

Zhenia could hear Ben turning on the shower in the bathroom.

“Yes, okay,” Zhenia said, once her grandmother was invoked she couldn’t say no, and a begrudging curiosity began to claw at her insides. She creased down the notebook page with the side of her thumb.


From Mother Doll by Katya Apekina. Used with permission of the publisher, Abrams Books. Copyright © 2024 by Katya Apekina. 

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