On the way back from the bazaar, Aunt Milena points to the cracks under the balconies of our building. She warns me never to walk or stand under them, unlike those pilgrims lined up for the tomb. “Little by little,” she says, “we’re sinking into the soft earth.”
Knowing what comes next, I lift my net sack to my chest, hide behind the leafy beet stalks. Over the past month Aunt Milena has used any excuse to remind me that our family’s misfortune is my fault. Even the rat-size cockroach she was trapped with in the elevator last week—also, apparently, my doing. If it weren’t for my misbehavior, my mother, sister, and I could have left this collapsing building, this collapsing country.
But Aunt Milena must be feeling generous today. Instead of scolding me, she sits on her haunches, studies her own boot print in the mud. “There used to be a village here,” she says, and I imagine one no larger than her foot. She tells me the villagers spoke Ukrainian and picked cranberries for a living. Then the marshes were drained, sunflowers sown for oil, the villagers pried from their dung huts and stacked on top of each other. Many of them refused to move into the high-rises, never having lived so far from the earth. “The village was called Ivankiv,” she says. “It lives on as our street name, but Russified.” When she lived in the countryside, doing farmwork in exchange for a bed, the villagers would pass down secret lore.
Aunt Milena moved in with us two years ago, after Grandmother died. All she’d brought with her: the clothes on her back, a rapier, a record player and phonograph, and sixteen vinyl records for Mother to sell (but Mother refused, saying the records wouldn’t be worth much these days anyway).
Some mornings I find Mother and Aunt Milena twisted around each other on the foldout, mouths agape, as though they escaped the same nightmare, just barely.Some mornings I find Mother and Aunt Milena twisted around each other on the foldout, mouths agape, as though they escaped the same nightmare, just barely.
Like Mother, Aunt Milena is tall with a long pale face. She and Mother could be sisters. When they drop me and my sister off at school, no one asks, and we don’t tell. The neighbors might whisper, but what can they do? Mother says we’re living in an age of freedom. Aunt Milena says we’re living in an age of fifteen brands of sausage, which is not the same thing as freedom. When I ask where are these fifteen brands of sausage, Mother says we need only visit Kiev to find them. Aunt Milena says no Kirovkavite can afford such an indulgence. But whatever the argument, Aunt Milena never wins, because when Mother takes Aunt Milena’s face in her hands and beams her brightest smile, Aunt Milena breaks every time.
Last year, for a five-month stint, Mother and Aunt Milena sewed fur coats for the black market. Mother was already a master seamstress, and Aunt Milena caught on quickly. A large sweaty man whose face hung slack like a bulldog’s would come for the coats on Mondays. Volkov never wore fur himself, only velvet tracksuits, usually maroon. After inspecting the coats, he’d toss stacks of kupony to Mother and Aunt Milena. Twenty, thirty stacks a week. The new currency looked like play money, with its picture of the Sofia Cathedral getting sucked into a flower-shaped black hole, and Aunt Milena told me it was worth about as much. Volkov would drop the next batch of pelts onto the kitchen table. Always the same slick black pelts, as if Volkov had ripped out the stitching from the week before and returned the pieces to be resewn, over and over. No one knew what type of animal they’d belonged to. Something long, caged. Its thick hairs snuck between our bedsheets, under our eyelids and tongues. I worried I’d start coughing up slimy ropes, as our neighbor’s cat was known to do. We picked at our limbs, scratched our scalps. My schoolmates told the nurse I had lice, and if not lice, then definitely worms.
My little sister, five years old, thought everything sold on the black market had to be black. She liked to sit under the kitchen table, tracing the velvet humps of Volkov’s calves until Mother yanked her hand away. I wanted his soft thick thighs, to bite through the fat and meat until my teeth hit bone. He’d been rounding out, a sign that his business was steady.
Now, because of me, Mother is back at her old job at a chemical plant two towns over, rumored to be shutting down anytime, and Aunt Milena cleans floors at a lamp factory. They get paid in perfumes and lamps, but the managers promise money soon. Lamps are bad for barter on account of the blackouts, but sometimes our right-side neighbor trades balcony-grown beans for the perfume. From his yowls and moans across the thin walls, we know he drinks it, but I like to think he’s taken a lover and the perfume is for her.
As for the left-side neighbor, he gets paid in cosmetics, and Mother says his daughters whore around.
It was a Monday visit from Volkov, six months ago, that sealed our fate. He laid a bundle of parchment paper on the kitchen table, slowly unwrapped it. The furs inside glowed white, making everything else look tired and dirty. Each pelt began with two angry slits, the eyes, and ended with a black-tipped tail.
“Ermine,” Volkov said. “Turns white in the winter, except for the tail.”
“Why not the tail?” Mother asked.
“Must be how the animals find each other in the snow,” Aunt Milena said. “Tiny flags.”
“It’s how hunters find them,” he said.
My sister reached out to stroke a tail but Volkov shook his head, as though worried the furs would wake.
“Royal furs were made from ermine,” he said. More impressive still: “Marilyn Monroe wore ermine.”
We didn’t know what to do with such narrow pieces. Aunt Milena nailed them to wooden boards for stretching, but they seized up, as though panicked. I dug my fingers into the smalls of their backs, the spot that makes the most skittish dog melt. Nothing worked. I understood: the thought of being sewn to rows and rows of other girls turned my skin stiff, too.
I suggested we sew a girl’s coat, and Volkov loved the idea. One of his buyers, an Italian who lived in Canada (“double foreigner, double rich”), liked to spoil her daughter. As with every coat sold, we’d get a percentage of the profit. The ermine coat would earn a pretty sum. Volkov named a number high enough—in steady U.S. dollars, he assured us—to change a life, even ruin it. But the coat had to be perfect, he warned. The Italian who lived in Canada didn’t just throw her money around. She bred miniature dogs, judged competitions. She could spot a blemish a continent away.
Volkov turned to me. “Her girl’s about your age.” His gray eyes sliced across the key points of my body: chest, waist, hips. Other men had begun looking at me this way on the streets. I’d become the sum of my chest, waist, hips—someone to be assembled. Soon I’d start wearing Aunt Milena’s oversize frocks, wanting to be whole again.
That evening, when Mother pressed the tape measure to my skin, its cold metal lip made me think of Volkov. I conjured the buyer’s daughter instead, soft in her ermine coat. She trudged across a snowy field, no trees or bushes around, not even a speck of dirt, nothing to mark movement except the slow crunch of her feet, and she’d better not slip and fall because no one would find her, despite her tiny flags.
Before the Union fell apart, the foreign films that made it into our country were dubbed by the same man. You could hear his dentures slap against his gums. No matter the character—man, woman, toddler—same droning voice. It flattened the characters’ joy and sorrow, made us doubt their confessions. Did the heroine really love that man as much as she said? Vowing to die for him was going a bit far, wasn’t it?
Sometimes the dubbing lagged so far behind, you had to guess who said what, guess how the film ended.
Volkov’s buyers live around the world. Combined, they speak twenty-eight languages. I never met a single one of them, but somehow I knew they possessed that awful voice.
As Volkov said, the ermine coat had to be perfect: no visible seams or loose threads, the wooden claw clasps sanded by hand, lacquered without a single bubble. Normally a coat took four days to sew. This one ate up a week, two weeks. The closer Mother and Aunt Milena came to finishing the coat, the more undone they looked. Pins slipped from between their teeth. Their hands pecked at the same spot on the carpet over and over, until my sister or I found the pin for them. They seemed awake only at night, when they clattered around the kitchen chopping and frying whatever they could, mostly beets and onions. Aunt Milena would carry the ermine, a glowing bride in her arms, to the balcony, away from the smell.
How Mother and Aunt Milena met again, as told by Mother: Two years ago on her way home from work, her bus broke down near one of the villages. The next bus wasn’t due for another hour, and she had to use the ladies’ room. No such room was in sight, of course, only dirt fields and a few huts, their outhouses fenced off like prized bulls. Never had she relieved herself en plein air, like a brute, and she wasn’t about to start now. She paced the road, every minute stretching longer and longer and her panic building, until finally she sank into a ditch, hitched up her dress, rolled down her tights, and let out a long moan. Only afterward did she realize she had nothing to wipe with. The panties she’d worn that day were more symbol than fabric, and she couldn’t ruin the acorn-pattern tights she had crocheted herself, over five months, stealing time between work, chores, sleep. She would have reached for a leaf, but what was stinging nettle and what wasn’t? She’d rather use the back of her own hand, then lick it clean. So she did. When she straightened up, a voice startled her from above: “Larissa?” A woman was peering into the ditch. Not just any woman, but our former neighbor—now a villager with a rake in hand and a grin so wide that Mother knew she’d witnessed all. Determined to keep a shred of dignity, Mother did what any neighbor, past or present, should do: she invited Aunt Milena over for tea.
If my mother had boarded a different bus? If she’d chosen a different ditch? She’d still be speeding by Aunt Milena’s village.
The power cuts out every evening, but the moment of failure still catches me by surprise. Some secret flits between the lamps, refrigerator, television, the mixer in my mother’s hand, and everything falls silent. The silence scares me more than the dark. Should we take cover, too? From what? From whom?
In our daily blind spells we’ve learned the geography of our apartment. The matches live two steps from the kitchen, in the bathroom cabinet, bottom shelf, but I’m not allowed to touch them anymore. The first candle: three steps down the corridor, to the left of the record player. The second candle: four steps to the right, on the windowsill by the onions sprouting from mayonnaise jars. To pass the time Aunt Milena sings folk songs she learned in the village. My sister and I belt along, garbling the Ukrainian words, understanding few of them. I had a favorite song, an especially cheery one, until Aunt Milena told me what it was about. Two Cossacks take a girl into the dark forest and tie her to a pine by her own braids and set the pine on fire— the pine burns, burns and won’t go out, and the girl cries, cries and won’t quiet down. After that, I want to cut off my braids but Mother won’t let me. She says I’ll need them, although she won’t say what for. I tuck them under my collar and never ask Aunt Milena what the words in the other songs mean.
When the coat was finished, I tried it on for the last time. The red silk lining—bought from one of Mother’s old schoolmates, a urologist who also bred silkworms and therapeutic leeches— felt slippery and warm, as if the ermine had been freshly skinned. Volkov always said a good coat ought to feel like a second skin. This one became my own skin. To peel it off was painful. I’d briefly forgotten how cold the air felt, how sharp.
That evening, when my sister was safely asleep, Aunt Milena and Mother sat me down at the kitchen table, and spoke in stilted turns. They must have rehearsed who would say what. Aunt Milena: We’ll use the money from the coat to get you, your sister, and your mother out of the country. Mother: They need chemists like me in the oil fields in Canada. Aunt Milena: It’s so safe there, people leave their cars unlocked. (Mother, to Aunt Milena, voice low, off script: To provide pedestrians shelter from the polar bears.) (Aunt Milena, to Mother: Only in one town, up north.) Aunt Milena: Who knows, maybe one day you’ll meet the girl in the ermine coat. Mother: You’ll be wearing one just as lovely. Aunt Milena: Lovelier.
I asked why Aunt Milena wouldn’t come with us.
“Canada will only take people who are related,” Aunt Milena said, her voice suddenly hard, as if she herself had made the rules and the rules were perfectly sensible.
I waited to hear the rest of the plan.
Mother’s teeth were clenched, her smile rigid.
Aunt Milena looked silently at a point above my head, maybe at an older, taller version of me, who might one day come back for a visit and thank her for letting us go, and say, “Yes, dear Aunt Milena, surely it was all for the best.”
Back when we’d received our first batch of pelts, Aunt Milena had plucked a hair from one of them, held the hair over a lit match. It crackled, then burned back a few millimeters, into a neat nub.
“It smells just like burning human hair,” she told me, “which smells like burning fat, only sweeter. Fake fur will stink like plastic and curl into little beads. That’s how you can tell.”
I remembered these words when, alone in the apartment the day after I was told about the plan, I let the flame eat away at the ermine coat. The angry fur sputtered in the bathtub, its many ermine backs arching and twisting until, all at once, with a last sigh, they gave in to the flame. Later that evening, when my mother slapped me raw, I lied and said I was only trying to see if the fur was real. It had smelled just like Aunt Milena promised.
Now and then, we still find slick black hairs on the sofa bed or on our clothes, and sometimes even a soft white hair. The hairs remind us of Volkov, the debt we owe him, as though he himself shed them for this purpose.
This is what I remember most: Before the blackouts. Before the ermine coat, before even the black coats. Aunt Milena’s bag by the door, still unpacked. The four of us squeezed around the kitchen table. We had turned the lights off, lit the candles. Candlelit dinners were a luxury then. I’d learned a new song at school that day, and I taught it to my sister between forkfuls of fried cabbage. Mother got up, drew the curtains, and pulled Aunt Milena to her. As my sister and I sang, they clutched each other, tilting this way and that, as though to keep each other from falling. My sister turned to me, her face a question. “Silly,” I said to her, “they’re dancing.”
From Good Citizens Need Not Fear: Stories by Maria Reva. Copyright © 2020 by Maria Reva. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC..