Good Boys and Where to Find Them

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Raya and the Evil rooster

The first time I saw auntie Raya I knew she was a witch. She had to be! Now tell me, would a nice non-witch auntie have this kind of face? All scrunched up, dark, with a big misshapen nose and an assortment of moles and knots. She most definitely would not. And then there were her ears: peeking out of her babushka head scarf, they looked like a giantess’ ears and were almost as hairy as a dog’s. Our dog Trezor even had shorter ear hairs! All of this at once I considered when auntie Raya came to see my grandma. Upon considering, I cried in terror. It wasn’t even the face or the surreal ears that scared me, but her teeth! She had only three teeth, all of them long and yellow and looking like they belong in a wolf’s mouth, not an aunties’. When Raya spoke, I could see her tongue slither behind the scary teeth like a wet snake I once saw in a puddle behind the wooden toilet, and she sounded like she had tea in her mouth. After a few moments, when I have finished screaming, I informed her that actually only wolves have teeth like these. Rather loudly, from the comfort of my mother’s arms. Mom let out a giggle, and grandma covered her mouth with her hand. Maybe she was trying to hide her teeth, I don’t know, hers weren’t nearly as scary anyway. But auntie Raya suddenly started crying, turned her back on us and walked toward her izba, which was just across the road from our house. There was a wooden footbridge and a small bench beside her old wicket gate, and along the fence there was a ditch surrounded by great big pine trees. But I never went there. This was my enemy’s territory.

Raya had an enormous black rooster, almost as big as me. Whenever it spread its wings, craned its neck and started crowing, making all of the hens scatter, I always darted behind our wicket. The rooster was just as ugly as Raya herself. It had no teeth of course, but what it lacked in teeth it made up for in moles and knots, which covered its head, comb and wattles. It’s eyes were pitch black with a fiery red rim, its legs were always covered in mud because it liked to stomp on dirt like a stallion. My grandpa had made a sandpit just by our wicket for me to play in, but even there I was afraid. The rooster would stalk me, and whenever it would locate me, it would lower its head like a bull and start towards me, at first slowly but then faster and faster, until it was running at full speed, spreading its enormous wings… by that time I was usually behind the wicket. Once I couldn’t hear the rooster approach and it pecked my leg and my butt. It hurt a lot, but what hurt more was the fear. I couldn’t even run away, my legs had given up on me because of fear. I fell face down in the dirt, covered my head and yelled as loud as I could. Thankfully, grandpa heard me screaming, jumped out of the barn holding a shovel and dashed towards us. The rooster didn’t let go of me immediately, it kept eluding grandpa’s foot, screeching and roaring and landing more painful pecks. …What a terrible day. I stayed inside for the rest of it, and I heard grandpa say that he told Raya that if the rooster attacked anyone else, then he, grandpa, would kill it. I didn’t believe it of course, I don’t even think this kind of a rooster could be killed, so I decided to stay home indefinitely.

Next morning my parents were all set to visit my great grandmother Malvina who lived on the other side of the village, but I was determined to stay inside. Then my father proposed to give me a ride on his back, and I, having considered how high could a hypothetical rooster jump, agreed. I still kept sneaking a glance behind us, just to make sure a hypothetical rooster was not in fact chasing us.

Great grandma Malvina had nasty goats, a cat that always hissed and clawed, a deep pond with a rotting wooden planked footway in front of it, handsome tritons inside of it, stinging nettle and prickly gooseberry bushes all around it, that made walking near the pond to look at those tritons very painful, but you couldn’t not walk there because how could you go to great grandma and not see the tritons? Because the tritons were indeed very handsome. I used to get scared walking through the vegetable garden alone, but without the threat of the terrible rooster everything looked friendly and inviting.

When we came back home, auntie Raya was visiting. She was sitting in the kitchen with grandma, but I was hungry, so I approached and stood silently in the doorway. Raya noticed me, covered her mouth, and although I could see she was smiling, asked me in a stern voice: «What is it, Antosha, don’t you like me? Would you not marry me?» I said no, you are old. She burst out laughing and dropped her hand, so that I had to look at my feet to avoid seeing her teeth. But just in case, I whispered to grandma if it was possible for me to not marry Raya. This made everyone laugh so much I couldn’t understand if I had to marry old Raya or not, and I ran crying to mom. But Raya wasn’t mad at me, later we even became friends, and she locked the rooster in the dark barn, where he cried in rage, no doubt dreaming of pecking me to death. This is how our friendship came to be.

I was playing outside in the sand pit while Raya sat on her wooden bench, petting her goat Zoya. Funny, the goat had my mom’s name! Zoya (the goat, not mom) just had a little goatling, and it was the cutest thing. I kept staring at his soft fur and little baby hooves, until Raya noticed and beckoned me to come closer, the rooster was locked away, she said, and Muchtar would never hurt you, that’s her dog — Muchtar. He is a good looking dog, like Lassie from tv, but I had never seen him run, only walk. I ran over to the baby goat and pet him, he responded with a gentle head butt. He had no horns yet, only small bumps, so it didn’t hurt. I asked what the baby goat’s name way, and Raya said Antosha, I guess. Is his father’s name Borya then, like my father, I asked. Raya laughed for a long time and then said yes, but don’t tell anyone I said that. Later she brought me a glass of goat milk, it was very good, thick like the starchy kissel* they gave us in kindergarten, and strong-smelling, nothing like cow milk I was used to.

Me and Raya became great friends. I visited her almost every day. She showed me a secret spot she knew that grew white mushrooms*, but told me to never let my grandpa know where I found them because he was the sneaky type she said, and there would no mushrooms left for her. The secret spot was along the ditch, under the great big pine trees littered with crows’ nests, where crows always perched and cawed loudly. It wasn’t only white mushrooms either, I found all sorts of them: russula, goat’s beard, milk mushroom, birch mushroom… I came home with a great loot, but never uttered a word about where I found it to anyone at home. Grandpa even got mad at me because it was always him who brought home white mushrooms he usually found behind our vegetable garden, along the fence. And still I kept my secret. Grandpa decided I found them near the fence of evil Raya. Forgot to mention her! Her fence was two meters higher and so dense you couldn’t see through it. She had a dog too, but not Muchtar, her dog didn’t even have a name, it was a big scary wolf hound chained to the side of the house. Her house was across the street from ours too, on the side of the well. Grandpa believed that evil Raya’s fence was a good spot for mushroom hunting too, I realized. Maybe I should go look. I wouldn’t be friends with evil Raya though, she never even says hi to us. Sometimes when me and the boys rode our bikes through the village, and maybe yelled, just a little bit, she would jump out holding a stick and shriek that we were good for nothing dead beats who ought to be put in prison. Grandpa even told her off in front of us once, said she should stay inside her hole and stop harassing the children, said we didn’t need a jailer. That’s why I was scared to look for mushrooms near her fence even though sometimes we found very big white ones there. One time I saw her through a crack in the fence, she was coming at me fast, hissing that she will throw me in jail for stealing. I asked grandma if one could be thrown in jail for stealing mushrooms that were on the other side of the fence, not inside someone’s garden, but grandma told me to stop going to evil Raya’s fence, just to be on the safe side. How did she know I was talking about that fence?

And then mom left for Leningrad. She didn’t tell me, no one told me she was going. She just hugged me, said goodbye and left. I didn’t understand at first, but when I saw her take her bag and start towards the wicket, I cried out that she must not leave me, that I would come with her because there’s something I have to show her, that we have to go to the river, and to the forest, and we have to do all of these things together because SHE hasn’t seen all of them and because… I don’t think she understood, words don’t come out how you want them when you’re crying, they get tangled in your mouth with tears and snot. And it felt like mom was leaving me for good, because no one had told me that she was leaving, she didn’t say she had a doctor appointment or something else, she just left me there forever! Why else would grandpa be holding me, not letting me run after mom, and why would grandma be crying too, if mom wasn’t leaving me forever, if she was coming back. Grandpa is tearing up too… If mom’s not giving up on me, why is everyone crying? Then I was suddenly very tired, mom was gone. I ate soup, looking at the reflection of my cheeks, eyelashes and nose whenever I looked down, with tears sometimes rippling the surface of the soup. I didn’t finish the soup, it was cold and watered down with tears. Then I took a quick nap, not because I’m a small child, but because grandma works early hours and needs to sleep after lunch and I wouldn’t let her, would I? I dreamt about riding the baby goat, he was saying something, but I couldn’t remember what. When I woke up grandma had already left. I went out, turned the corner of the fence and sat on the wooden footbridge over the ditch. Grasshoppers were chirping, wild strawberries were in bloom, but there were first still unripened berries gleaming in the sunlight. I was looking past the street, past the well on the other side, past the black izba with beautifully carved window frames, past the house with a Great Dane (it’s a type of dog that’s big and covered in black and white spots), past the house of the postwoman whose son drowned a long time ago, and she went mad, past the bath house with the dive bar, that’s how dad calls it, past the station where a commuter train was taking mom away from me… The train must’ve left already, mom should be home by now, without me. Why would mom be without me? Is she doing things there without me? How can she? There, a lizard and a smaller lizard behind it. Must be her son? Crows cawing in their nests, their sons are there with them. Even Raya’s rooster has its hens and chicks. And the goat with the goatling… Only my mom left me to go to Leningrad. My vision became blurred. I picked some unripe strawberries and swallowed them. I’ll eat green strawberries and die, that’ll show her! But there weren’t many more berries. It was starting to become cold and I was feeling peckish. I went home to grandma because she hadn’t betrayed me and because I wanted pancakes and didn’t want to die, not really. Grandma’s pancakes are way better than mom’s anyway. They’re plump, nicely browned on both sides, grandpa eats them with salty bacon crisps, I didn’t use to like it this way, but now I eat pancakes just like grandpa! He folds the pancake in half, sticks a fork through it, dips it into the saucer, where bacon crisps float in hot lard and puts it right into his mouth, while my pancakes are pre-cut by grandma because a whole pancake is too big for me, I put a crisp on every piece and eat it. They also go great with sour cream, or jam, or just by themselves, even cold. I don’t think I want to die just now, not while there are pancakes like these in this world.

Mom was gone for a long time, maybe for three days. While she was away, grandpa got sick and had to be taken to the hospital, and grandma needed to visit him. She asked if I wanted to stay with Raya, just for a tiny bit, one night only. I think grandma was scared I would start crying like when mom left, but I understood because she explained how grandpa had pulmonary inflammation and how she, grandma, had to visit him in the hospital to bring him food and to talk to the doctor. I even forgot to be upset, because everything at Raya’s was so fun and different: her izba, the garden, her old barn. Our house was tidy, with neat rows of flowers lining the front yard, well-kept vegetable patches and delicate apple trees. Grandma was always busy in the garden, while grandpa worked in the barn. He even had a furnace there, and sometimes he forged fences for the cemetery and such. Raya’s place was different, it was littered with trash, her apple trees were giant and unkempt, the vegetable garden had no beds, things just grew at random places, carrots with strawberries, potatoes with chives, and even the hens somehow looked dirty. Our garden had a big rhubarb bush, its reddish-green leaves so huge, a cat could sleep on one without breaking it, and when a sprig with tiny flowers shot up to the sky it almost looked like it could touch the clouds. Raya’s garden had a pond overgrown with green duckweed, and frogs that never stopped croaking.

That’s how I found myself inside Raya’s izba. Everything there was different too. Grandma never let our cat go past the seni*, and our dog Trezor wasn’t allowed to even enter the house. Raya let all her pets inside. When we came in, a hen was pecking at the kitchen floor, and Muchtar was laying beside a chair, nibbling at its wooden leg. Raya said he was an old dog and his teeth hurt. I lightly pet Muchtar on the head and he responded with a lazy tail wag. He was very sweet. Then Raya was gone to fetch water from the well, and I tried to ride Muchtar. I mounted him all right while he was laying down, but each time he got up, I inevitably tumbled down. I even hit my head on the stove once, and got very scared, but the stove turned out to be lukewarm. Then finally I got Muchtar to sit, mounted him from behind, held onto his fur, but when he got up I felt that I was sliding down again, so I grabbed his ears. In that exact moment Raya came back with a bucket, Muchtar wagged his tail, lowered his head, and down I tumbled down once again, almost spilling the water. Raya took Muchtar and locked him in the seni, where he whimpered a little and then got silent, maybe he fell asleep.

After lunch I laid down on Raya’s bed, and she turned on the radio. Her radio was an old big black device the kind I only ever saw in movies about the great patriotic war. Nothing fun was on, and I fell asleep. After my nap we went to the other side of the village together. Turns out, there was a shepherd there, and every evening people came by to take their goats home. That’s why the goats walk through the village in the evening, and I always thought they were just out enjoying the air. We walked with the goats, the road was littered with goat droppings, and Raya told me a story from when I was a little boy. I had just started walking, and Zoya was still a baby goat, I used to pick up her droppings, I must have thought they were candies or raisins, and eat them. Filled my mouth with the stuff, and wouldn’t let grandpa pick it out. I didn’t believe her of course, how could I eat poop? It’s not at all like raisins, everyone can see that. I understand one little pellet, but a mouthful? That doesn’t sound like me at all. Raya never explained and just laughed, and I laughed with her because it must have looked funny, a little boy with a mouth full of poop.

We had dinner, Raya fried up white mushrooms with onions and potatoes. She served delicious jam with bad tea. And then I went to bed. I don’t know where Raya slept because her bed was the only one in the house. I asked her to tell me a bedtime story, and she told me about her life, about her husband who had died, about the war… I was bored and scared. Lying in someone else’s bed was funny, the bedroom was different, a different streetlight shone a different light through a different window… Raya’s izba had no wallpaper under the wall carpets, like our house, it only had a wardrobe, a cabinet, a table and a single shelf. Some walls were just exposed logs. I could hear mice behind the carpet, or maybe they were rats. Mice are nicer. I suddenly remembered how grandpa demolished our old barn to build another one in its place, and under the floor boards we found a nest with tiny pink rat pups. I put one pup in my palm and went home to show it to grandma. I have never known her to be this fast of a runner or this loud of a shrieker. When I came back to the barn, I saw that grandpa was slicing the rat pups with a shovel. I watched silently, tears streaming down my face and neck. I didn’t shriek like grandma, but there was a knot in my throat, I couldn’t bear the thought of those small blind babies, completely bald, pink and warm, squealing for their mom, because their mom had left them just like my mom had left me, because their house was demolished and then they were killed with a shovel, and this was all so, so wrong. I stopped talking to grandpa for a long time, even though he made a bow and arrows for me and taught me how to make a screw tied to a feather with a thread fly up… I was laying on Raya’s bed and I was happy that her rat or mouse pups were safe there, behind the carpet, like I was safe under the duvet, and that their mom must be with them.

And then mom came back. I immediately wasn’t mad anymore and was instead very happy. We went fishing together, and I tried to teach her, but she was too squeamish about the worms. She dumped the worms right on the ground, and I was mad at her again, because I spent hours digging for them and because who throws out perfectly good worms like that? No one. Then I had to skewer a worm onto the hook for her because of course she couldn’t, hers all floated away. We caught no fish that day. I couldn’t see both corks at the same time and kept missing the bite which made me very upset. Still, this was a happy day, fishing with mom. A very happy day. Pity I ever got to go with her this once…

And then summer was suddenly over. Of course, before it has ended, I got to go mushroom hunting and raspberry picking with grandpa, we even went fishing, and he caught many ablets and small roaches*, and dad took me fishing for crayfish, and many other grownup things. And then one day we picked a bunch of flowers in the garden and went home, to Leningrad. This time grandma was the one crying, and I was telling her that she shouldn’t cry because we would come back, it’s just that I had kindergarten, but that I would come back in the winter to build a snow slide.

And of course we came back in the winter. Uncle Serezha, mom’s younger brother built us a snow slide together with dad, and we busted it up that same day with my brothers, Misha and Valera, because we were fighting about who would get to try it first. Then he built a whole snow house, first clearing out a footpath near the fence, throwing the snow into the ditch that was already covered, and then making a long tunnel right through the ditch! We played house inside, but when grandma saw us, she made us all come out because she got scared the snow roof would collapse on us and we would suffocate. Then uncle Serezha jumped on top of the snow house and fell inside, but he didn’t suffocate, he just laughed, while we all yelled at him for breaking such a good house. We laughed with him, too.

The next morning I left our house and went across the street towards auntie Raya’s izba. Her yard was full of strangers, they told me that Raya had died, and that Muchtar had ran away. I asked about the rooster, but they didn’t answer. Outside in the snow I saw a black radio and some stray things. There was no sign of the goat or the goatling. The snow was dirty, not like the white snow in our yard, where we only dust the pathways with sand to make them less slippery. The wooden bench near Raya’s wicket gate was completely covered in snow, the path where I used to pick mushrooms was invisible. The strangers in the yard were arguing loudly. I went home.

Everyone was watching someone sing on tv. I laid down on the sofa by grandma’s side and put my head on her stomach. I liked to make grandma laugh so that her stomach would jiggle making my head jump. I would say grandma had a big frog in her stomach, and that would make her laugh harder, in turn making my head jump even higher. But this time I didn’t feel like laughing. I was thinking about Raya, about Zoya the goat and Antosha the goatling, and about their father and about where could they be, I wonder… I asked grandma when she would die, but she said I’m talking nonsense, and I went to bed.

I was laying awake, in the small bedroom next to the kitchen. Above my bed was a small lamp in the shape of a pretty rose, my dad had bought it for me so that I would not be scared of the dark. I thought about how it would have been better if Raya had warned me that she would die, instead of just disappearing like mom did. Grandma should warn and explain when she was going to die also, and then no one would cry because everyone would be ready and prepared. Maybe we die just like those rat pups, one minute we have a home, the next minute we don’t, and it’s all so sudden. I imagined someone big standing over our house with a giant shovel, looking at us without any love or compassion, maybe even searching for the weakest among us, then letting the shovel down, and us disappearing without ever learning what happens next, without knowing that someone remembers us, like I remembered Raya, and the goats, and the rat babies, and then there will be a new barn where our house stood, and the past will no longer exist. Already drifting off to sleep I whispered that I would never forget you, Raya, you’re not an evil witch, maybe you’re even a little beautiful, but I still wouldn’t marry you, I would just visit you a lot, if only you didn’t die!

*Izba — a traditional Slavic house, usually made of logs.

*Kissel — a fruit drink thickened with starch, popular in Eastern Europe.

*Seni — a room inside an izba that separates the living area from the street.

Good boys and where to find them

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