This story originally appeared in The New Yorker
Truth be told, I’ve always been afraid of it, since childhood. It’s prepared not casually, or whenever the fancy strikes you, but most often for New Year’s Eve, in the heart of winter, in the shortest and most brutal days of December. Darkness comes early. There is a damp frost; you can see spiky halos around the street lamps. You have to breathe through your mittens. Your forehead aches from the cold, and your cheeks are numb. But, wouldn’t you know it, you still have to boil and chill the aspic—the name of the dish itself makes the temperature of your soul drop, and no thick gray goat-hair shawl will save you. It’s a special kind of religion, making the aspic. It’s a yearly sacrifice, though we don’t know to whom or for what. And what would happen if you didn’t make it is also a question mark.
But, for some reason, it must be done.
You must walk in the cold to the market—it’s always dim there, never warm there. Past the tubs with pickled things, past the cream and the crème fraîche redolent of girlish innocence, past the artillery depot of potatoes, radishes, and cabbages, past the hills of fruit, past the signal lights of clementines—to the farthest corner. That’s where the chopping block is; that’s where the blood and the axe are. “Call Russia to the Axe.” To this one right here, digging its blade into a wooden stump. Russia is here, Russia is picking out a piece of meat.
“Igor, chop up the legs for the lady.” Igor lifts his axe: hack! Lays out the white cow knees, cleaves the shanks. Some buy pieces of the muzzle: lips and nostrils. And those who like pork broth—they get little pig feet with baby hooves. Holding one of those, touching its yellow skin, is creepy—what if it suddenly shook your hand in return?
None of them are really dead: that’s the conundrum. There is no death. They are hacked apart, mutilated; they won’t be walking anywhere, or even crawling; they’ve been killed but they are not dead. They know that you’ve come for them.
Next it’s time to buy something dry and clean: onions, garlic, roots, and herbs. And back home through the snow you go: crunch, crunch. The frosty building entryway. The light bulb has been stolen again. You fumble in the dark for the elevator button; its red eye lights up. First the intestines appear in the elevator’s wrought-iron cage, then the cabin itself. Our ancient St. Petersburg lifts are slow; they click as they pass each floor, testing our patience. The chopped-up legs in the shopping bag are pulling your arm down, and it seems as if at the very last moment they’ll refuse to get into the elevator. They’ll twitch, break free, and run away, clacking across the ceramic tile: clippity-clop, clippity-clop, clippity-clop. Maybe that would be for the best? No. It’s too late.
At home, you wash them and throw them into the pot. You set the burner on high.
Now it’s boiling, raging. Now the surface is coated with gray, dirty ripples: all that’s bad, all that’s weighty, all that’s fearful, all that suffered, darted, and tried to break loose, oinked and mooed, couldn’t understand, resisted, and gasped for breath—all of it turns to muck. All the pain and all the death are gone, congealed into repugnant fluffy felt. Finito. Placidity, forgiveness.
Then it’s time to dump this death water, to thoroughly rinse the sedated pieces under a running faucet, and to put them back into a clean pot filled with fresh water. It’s simply meat, simply food; all that was fearsome is gone. A calm blue flower of propane, just a little bit of heat. Let it simmer quietly; this is a five-to-six-hour undertaking.
While it cooks, you can take your time preparing the herbs and the onions. You’ll be adding them to the pot in two batches. First, two hours before the broth finishes cooking, and then, again, an hour later. Don’t forget to stir in plenty of salt. And your labor is done. By the end of the cooking cycle, there will have been a complete transfiguration of flesh: the pot will be a lake of gold with fragrant meat, and nothing, nothing will remind us of Igor.
The kids are here; they are looking at the pot, unafraid. It’s safe to show them this soup—they won’t ask any tough questions.
Strain the broth, pull the meat apart, slice it with a sharp knife, as they did in the olden days, in the age of the tsar, and the other tsar, and the third tsar, before the advent of the meat grinder, before Vasily the Blind, and Ivan Kalita, and the Cumans, and Rurik, and Sineus and Truvor, who, as it turns out, never even existed.
Set up the bowls and the plates and place some fresh-pressed garlic in each one. Add the chopped-up meat. Use the ladle to pour over it some thick, golden, gelatinous broth. And that’s that. Your job is done; the rest is up to the frost. Carefully take the bowls and plates out to the balcony, cover the coffins with lids, stretch some plastic wrap over them, and wait.
Might as well stay out on the balcony, bundled up in your shawl. Smoke a cigarette and look up at the winter stars, unable to identify a single one. Think about tomorrow’s guests, remind yourself that you need to iron the tablecloth, to add sour cream to the horseradish, to warm the wine and chill the vodka, to grate some cold butter, to place the sauerkraut in a dish, to slice some bread. To wash your hair, to dress up, to do your makeup—foundation, mascara, lipstick.
And if you feel like senselessly crying do it now, while nobody can see you. Do it violently, about nothing and for no reason, sobbing, wiping away your tears with your sleeve, stubbing out your cigarette against the railing of the balcony, not finding it there, and burning your fingers. Because how to reach this thereand where this there is—no one knows.
This story originally appeared in Granta
My grandfather Aleksey Tolstoy, a famous Russian writer, attended the Saint Petersburg Technological Institute in his youth, starting in 1901, thinking he would like to become an engineer. But he never became one. He described to my father how difficult it was for him studying there.
Here is his professor by the blackboard, addressing the students: ‘Let’s picture a cigarlike object . . .’ And that’s it! My young grandpa is in a trance. He is picturing something cigar-like . . . he sees a cigar . . . You need to clip the end of it before you can smoke it . . . Golden cutters carefully trim away the dry brown leaves – what wonderful aroma wafts from quality Havana tobacco! . . . Out of nowhere appears a balloon-shaped brandy snifter full of heavy, red-brown cognac, casting golden reflections . . . Oh, to grasp the glass in your palm, warming it . . . the undulating golden flickers . . . the bluish smoke . . . you inhale it, you tap the cigar to break off the ash. It’s dusk, the heavy drapes drawn back. Outside, through the window, there is a crepuscular early evening on snowy Saint Petersburg streets; a sleigh pulled by a courser silently whooshes by – who’s rushing, and where? To the theater? To a romantic rendezvous?
Suddenly reality interrupts this waking dream. Chairs thunder, the professor erases the blackboard, wiping away formulas interesting and useful to any engineer – ‘See you next time, gentlemen!’
Grandfather never finished his studies at the Institute; he committed himself wholly to literature, becoming famous for, among other things, his historical novels. Writers who knew him personally described his imagination in the later years as clairvoyant: he was able to improvise, creating on the fly the most complicated dialogues, keeping them psychologically astute and peppering them with convincing historical specifics. He saw the past in great detail: every button on a jacket, every wrinkle in a dress.
This ability to daydream was passed on to me, although not to the same extent. I didn’t start out a writer, and had no plans of becoming one. Although I happily swam in imaginary expanses, I had no words to describe them.
Then one fine day, when I was thirty-two years old, I decided to correct my myopia by undergoing surgery in the famous eye clinic of Professor Fedorov. This was in 1983, before they used lasers for the procedure, as they do now, but instead made corneal incisions by hand, with a regular razor blade. The incisions took three long months to heal. All this time, while the eyes recuperated, you could see things only poorly, approximately, through tears that constantly streamed like rain on the windowpane. And after it was over, one day you’d literally wake up with perfect vision, 20/20.
But before that happened, you had to sit in complete darkness; such were the idiosyncrasies of the process that any light caused insufferable eye pain. At first, for three or four days, the agony was so great that no analgesics, no sleeping pills brought any relief. Then it subsided a bit. Nonetheless, even at dusk my eyes were ablaze, and the temporary respite of night was interrupted by accidental glances at the stars, their light burning like fiery needles. Finally it was all I could do to sit at home wearing dark sunglasses, the black drapes closed, living by touch. Not a single word – neither handwritten nor typed – did my eyes take in during that prison sentence; only music, invisible in its essence, saved me from this existential desert. All that was left of the world was music and pain.
Gradually, something unfamiliar began to happen to my mind. The blindness was still near-total. I didn’t yet dare take off my sunglasses to peer outside, but in my mind’s eye I began to see bright visions from my past. They were not simply visions as before, similar to dreams – no, these were words, phrases, pages of text, plotlines; it was as if someone awoke in my head, a second me, one who had been slumbering until now. Visual experiences now came with a narrative; in fact, they were inseparable from it. If the wording wasn’t exact, then the imagery it conjured seemed obscured by dust or fog, and only the right words cleared it away.
I was remembering – no, I was seeing – my childhood. Our neighbor who lived on the other side of the fence and whom I had long forgotten: I was six when he was sixty – never before could he have been interesting to me. And why him, specifically? No matter: suddenly I saw him, I understood his life, I felt his anxiety and his joy; suddenly his house, his garden, his beautiful but not-so-young tsarina of a wife appeared before me, and with these images words emerged, words that could describe them; a plotline materialized and filled up with meaning. Unexpectedly, the subtext and hidden significance of this yet-to-be-written story appeared – the eternal metaphor of banishment from paradise.
My external eyes were still awaiting the sunrise, while my internal ones were looking around, seeking out details. Here is one. Here is another. Here is a whole bunch. As soon as I was able to emerge from my room into the dim light of the table lamp, I typed up my first-ever short story in great haste. I knew just how to do it – what to write, what not to write – and I understood that what remains unwritten possesses a special kind of power, a certain gravity by absence, similar to a magnetic force that can both attract and repel, a force we can’t see but that is nonetheless there.
This heretofore invisible, hidden world was now within my reach. I could enter it at any point, but it had particular doors – with keys of sound, with lock picks of intonation. The doors could be opened with love. Or with tears.
One day, all of a sudden, my sliced-up eyes could see again; my vision returned completely and immediately, 20/20, as promised. And this was bliss! Meanwhile, I found that the second world, having first appeared to me in darkness, was here to stay; it turned out to be a multifaceted underside of so-called reality, a dungeon full of treasure, an aetherial world through the looking glass, a mysterious box with passcodes to all enigmas, an address book with the exact coordinates of those who never existed.
I don’t know its geography, its mountains, or its seas; it’s so vast, it must be limitless. Or perhaps it’s not simply one world – perhaps there are many. They are unpredictable; they can show themselves to you, or not. Some days they may not let you inside: Sorry, the doors are locked, we’re on holiday. But to the patient and the devoted, they will in the end always yield. The doors will open, and you won’t know what you will come across until you enter.
Both stories from Aetherial Worlds. Used with permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2018 by Tatyana Tolstaya.