Natalia Meschaninova, Divya Ryan

Ma


ISSUE 94 | GENERATION | FEB 2019

Image description: wild grass, with a hint of the sky at the top of the shot.

“Ma” is a short story by Natalia Meschaninova from her debut collection, Rasskazy (Seans, 2017). It was translated from the Russian by Divya Ryan. Read the original story here.


Any phrase of yours, any claim you make, makes me mad as hell.

But I sit and maintain an expression of endurance.

In fact, I am a second away from a meltdown because of the incompatibility between us. I’ve been a millimetre away from this for many years now.

We sit in a restaurant. I always take you to a restaurant when you come visit me in Moscow. You expect a generous gesture from me – I comply. Maybe, incidentally, you aren’t expecting it – I comply anyway.

I look at you – you hold a piece of Olivier salad on your fork and sway to the beat of a song some unbelievable guy is performing live. Of course he, an Armenian singer, performs specifically for you. He sings hideously. Unbearably.

But you sway and don’t sense any hideousness in his performance.

Blood is flowing from my ears, but for you, everything’s OK.

I get the urge to flip the table over, but you’re here for a week. I can get by for a week without flipping tables; my teeth will just get a bit ground down.

Mama.

I love you.

I say that to myself every minute, to keep from transforming into a monster. These words – “I love you” – seem to absolve me a little. It’s like I’m unconsciously attempting to balance the scale with them.

“I love you, Mama,” – it’s an invocation that keeps me from turning into a werewolf with the setting of the sun.

I close my eyes, recalling your scent from my childhood. I remember how I would hug and frantically sniff your pillows whenever you’d go away somewhere. How I waited for you to come back from work, and upon glimpsing your distant figure through the window, would start scampering around the room and singing. How I crept under the table at dinnertime – it was dark there. I saw your knees and was beside myself with joy from seeing them, and crawled around under the table, knowing that your knees were with me. I remember your voice; hands, rough from something, but so nice when you roughly caress my hair – and it hurt a little, sensitive thin hair, but still, I was happy that these were your – your, Mama – hands.

Your stories to me at bedtime, when I – oh, a miracle! – would get to sleep in your bed, and you tell me about your work, about certain sheep, and goats, and ostriches. And I screw up my eyes with joy and sleep sweetly.

How you admired me, doted, when I would go wild, act the fool, pretend to be Philipp Kirkorov, Kuzmin, and all the celebrities you loved. When I put on silly clothes – and you, like a real groupie, applauded me: “Artiste, an artiste is growing!” Your embraces were really gruff, your kisses ever-too-vehement, like in a Soviet movie, when it stings the cheek a little. Your presents – a Cinderella doll whose clothes could be changed, Carlson, whom I always punished for disobedience – like you did me – with a switch from the willow that grew under our window and always turned green before other willows in the spring…

I open my eyes and now I have the strength to smile at you and talk with you more gently.

I artificially maintain feelings, ones I don’t have the right to lose – don’t want to lose.

But they don’t last for very long. You again say something stupid, and I detonate. Nobody in the world is able to ignite me as expertly as you.

We are sitting together in the kitchen, and you say:

“You know, you’re so fat, I don’t even know who you get it from… We have all been thin… I was so thin until I was forty, that – I don’t even know – everyone said, ‘Little Thumbelina.’ Now, of course, I am fat, but that’s understandable. But then on the other hand, now that I am fat, I’ve started to look like Catherine the Great. I am Catherine the Great! Always wanted to be Catherine the Great. I, by the way, like Tsarina Catherine the Great, brought you some great Krasnodar weather. Here you were all freezing. And here I brought the warmth. You see?

“You know, my dear Lenya said this summer dress could be donated to the less fortunate, it just makes me look old. Nooooooo, he doesn’t know how old I am. Are you crazy? God forbid! That, by the way, is why I never call the ambulance, even if I feel really bad. Some auntie would show up and ask me my age right there on our doorstep. Noooooo… I won’t ever call an ambulance in front of Lenya. I usually have some herbs gathered and dried, they’re my ambulance. Like, I drank aloe with honey, though then I got some kind of allergy all over, so I had to call an ambulance anyway… I have such an aloe plant growing on the windowsill, when you come over, I will cut some off for you, you can bring it back to Moscow, otherwise you don’t have anything to treat yourselves with there.

“You know, I bought you a sheepskin coat in size 52. What? You won’t wear it? But it’s good, look, so warm and toasty. And it’s brown. I remember, you always loved brown suede coats. No? Come now, why are you yelling? Well… give it away then, to whomever needs it. Oh, come on, come on – I didn’t waste money, I didn’t buy it, a woman gave it to me, you know, such a nice lady, she also writes poems.

“You know, the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed was built before Christ? What’s on Wikipedia? What is Wikipedia? Well, and who cares what’s written there? What Ivan the Terrible! This is a pagan cathedral, I tell you, it was built by our ancestors, even Moscow didn’t exist yet. It was a pagan temple in honour of the god Ra! Your Wikipedia is all crap – what’s with you! I will give you a book to read, everything written there is true!

“You know that dolmens cure cancer? There was a woman who drank a tincture of calendula and sat by a dolmen for three whole months – and was cured of cancer. Have you gotten checked for cancer? I won’t go anywhere to get checked, I know what to do if need be. Back home, everyone gets cured by the dolmens. One woman was cured of infertility there. And people go there to jump across bonfires. But that’s not near the dolmens. You aren’t allowed to have bonfires nearby, you can only go there to be cured. We burn bonfires near the stream downhill. I walked across coals there, Natasha, love, it was amazing! It’s true, I got badly burnt, of course… You need to get your heels all calloused so that you won’t burn yourself. It’s like, you know, those silicone mitts for taking pots and pans off the stove. And people who have heels with calluses, there they walk across the coals all day, they couldn’t care less. I have calluses too, but – I’m not sure – they didn’t help. Anyway, the burns that time hurt forever. Maybe I’ll try again, I’ll have some kind of immunity on my heels from the fire.

“And here in this photograph Stepa is sitting with some girl, look, she is so pretty! And was he really not in love with her? Look at that nose! I don’t know – simply beautiful. An actress? An actress, yes… You, remember, also wanted to be an actress. But with your looks… It’s true, by the way, that the director has real power. It’s good to boss everyone around. Though you still can’t hold onto a good-looking man. You know, Mama told me, ‘A good-looking man is always someone else’s.’ You understand? Listen! No, well, this girl, such a treasure, so pretty.

“Listen, you are, of course, neurotic. When you were small, you were so good, so obedient! So affectionate! Always hugging me! Why have you become so coarse now?”

“MAMA, I’M GOING TO SMOKE AND SLEEP.”

Mama, I’m going to smoke and sleep, and I’m also going to get wasted. You talk utter gibberish, I can listen to it only when I’m drunk.

When I’m sober, I can’t listen to it, I’m sorry. My blood boils, it’s unhealthy for me. I also have my own maladies – one of them is migraines, and the other is alcoholism. You provoke both with your speeches. Mama, keep mum for a little while, why don’t you value a quiet evening?

Mama.

I’m no longer ready to make sacrifices.

Yes, and you aren’t either, of course…

“Mama, maybe you could stay for another couple of days? We haven’t seen each other in a year…”

“Are you nuts? My dogwood has blossomed, the tomatoes need to be watered, there’s the garden, there’s the onions, there…”

“Mama, will you come visit in summer?”

“What do you mean, summer? That’s when the tomatoes-cucumbers ripen, there are the bees, chickens…”

In the summer, Mama, I have shoots, castings, expeditions, rehearsals, montages, footage, fuckery…

Well, Ma.

The point is, we don’t need each other.

When did it become like that, that I started being infuriated by you, and you started being afraid of me?

At what fatal moment could a good analyst have declared – these two are now disconnected?

You probably think that all the misfortunes came from the moment I got on a plane and flew away from you into the sunset. Contrary to your concocted dreams, that I – your youngest daughter – would sit by the bed and bring glasses of water. And in the best-case scenario we would die on the same day; in the worst, I would outlive you by a year. But in any case, at least I would have been by your side until your death.

Yet!

In fairy tales, the youngest daughters always went off after those fucking scarlet blossoms. So did I. Headed off too. I left, disappeared with no trace, a traitor to my roots.

But even that’s not the heart of it, of how we are now sitting on the sofa, two strangers. You touch my shoulder, and I flinch in protest.

How, when, how did it happen that I went from a love so blind, inconceivable, bleeding, that I could have – without embellishing – without blinking, killed for it, how did I step into hate? As if from the Sun, I’d passed into shadow, stepped over the border on the Moon.

You are unlikely to take upon yourself the courage to think that you haven’t loved me for a long time. It would be blasphemy for you, a violation of a taboo. You’re allowed to not love outsiders, but your own – you have to. And I so want, so want, to condemn you, to shove your face into this falsehood, this indifference and egoism.

And every time we meet, I waste all of our time on this, and when you leave – I bawl with abandonment – I haven’t had my fill of you. To the point of spasms in my stomach. Of nightmarish dreams, where I lose you forever…

“Mam, why don’t you stay another three days…”

“That’s a lot! The chickens, there’s Leon going off to work, and no one to feed the chickens, the seedlings are already…”

Ma.

How about this. What if this is it. And we’ll never meet again. First of all, you have hypertension and an ailing heart, and you’re already 72.

Second of all, I am an alcoholic and am also susceptible to possibly all kinds of medical bullshit.

Where, Mam, are the chickens and seedlings in this hierarchy of likely demises? On what pedestal do they stand?

Where are my shoots and montages? Where are the problems with money and voices of producers from on high?

Why the fuck do we meet once a year, so you can keep an eye on me being nervous at work for a week, and I, you, in conversations about chickens and other nonsense?

But fine. Say we kicked out all the producers and chickens (after all, they’re basically one and the same, they must be served, to hell with anything human), and say we have piles of time to spend together – what would we do?

I will answer with almost one-hundred percent confidence.

I would get worked up by every one of your sentences because of their unbelievable stupidity.

You would take offence and feign, if not a faint, then lightheadedness, to elicit sympathy from me.

The script from year to year is the same.

Of course, if we lived together, then some kind of catastrophe would already have occurred, but as it is, mother and daughter are by necessity separated.

I flee from physical contact, you instigate it.

You try and capture the past me – gentle, bepimpled, enthusiastic, singing and dancing untamed Indian dances with you in the rain. The girl howling at the top of her lungs because the cat ate the mouse. The girl who slept hugging you, and talked with aliens in dreams in order to amaze you, to shock, to command attention, to convey in some kind of foolish way that she was different, not like everyone else. The girl who wrote outrageous stories for you with open elements of sex, just so you would understand – the girl’s all grown up.

And then, this already-grown girl, who took care of you, didn’t let you make mistakes, was always nearby, drove off your men, protecting you, donated litres of blood to save you, was always close by – and always on your side, no matter what. In short, you always needed that girl specifically, who had still not wholly understood you.

And I, on the contrary, am trying to escape from the new, unwanted, clumsy you. Because that you, specifically, now presents herself to me. Because understanding dawned. And at a fairly advanced age I suddenly went apeshit over how things truly are.

You try to bring back the past. All of that, that whole solid world of ours against everybody else. Against all of my fathers and all of our relatives, all of our neighbours and everyone who looked a little off at the village shop.

Those songs of ours on the grass. You and me, Mama, we sang like crickets all the time, as soon as the sun set. We loved sunsets and went to watch them from the field. I really liked that… We frolicked among the blossoming apple orchards, you sang or made up poems the whole time, and I sang along with you and also wrote something about spring and snowdrops. We loved each other fiercely, and I always, you hear, always felt your heart and your warmth.

And so you grasp at the past, all the time trying to remember – what did I love until my own epiphany? And I…

I try to put aside the present.

Forgive me. I can’t call today. I’ll go to pieces as soon as I call. And it’s such a lovely evening, so nice with my husband, I want so badly to get a little lost on FB. I won’t call. Tomorrow. But tomorrow, again – the morning is wonderful, have to make Sasha lunch, and then to write a script, and then a meeting, and then friends come over, and then I’ve drunk too much already, and then again it’s evening and I want to preserve its blissfulness, not make it painful – since as soon as I call, I’ll feel that pain. From your forlorn voice, from my idiotic temper. From not being near (though I don’t want to be near) but why does it hurt so much that I’m not near…

You fear me, my irascibility, and so you often make shit up. Bullshit has become your style. But now you’re already – I repeat – 72, and you’ve started losing what you remember, entangled in your testimony. And so your bullshit is not really bullshit. Idiosyncrasies of character. That’s all.

So almost all of our conversations are useless. You yank them out of your memory in a second, like turning over a sheet of newspaper.

I remember this scene from a good documentary, where the granddaughter came to the grandmother with questions about the most important stuff, but the grandmother already was not all there. Or she was pretending she wasn’t all there. Didn’t remember anything, didn’t answer a thing.

And you too, don’t really answer all my painful questions. Like it’s a joke, to answer the questions of grown-up children, why everything was the way it was in their childhood.

Why did you, Mama – why did you always go around things, like a friend or classmate who was capable of listening well and having a good cry with you, but not capable of defending you?

There won’t be – it’s impossible, that there’d be any sort of answer – you have in response only teardrops and pursed lips.

And you say:

“Oh come on, sweetie, we’re all alive and well, right?

“Oh come on sweetie, you were always so independent, I put such trust in you.

“Oh come on sweetie, you remember, you said, that you wouldn’t go to school anymore, and we bought you a diploma at the market, remember? And all of our relatives yelled that you were going to be a cleaning lady, and you became a director, you see?

“Oh come on sweetie, don’t you remember, I let you go alone to the sea when you were 13. I was always so sure of your judgement, you indeed were always older than me! Right from when you were born…

“Come now, what are you yelling about again?”

I yell, Ma. I yell at night too. Really, I’m just a yeller. I am coarse, yes, I yell obscenities at you sometimes, and I yell at your tomatoes, and at your bees. I will never get an answer. No matter how many times I torment you, no matter what revelations are revealed.

All of this already doesn’t concern the present you, and not the present me, either. And I’m already Mama to my own Sashka, and already some nights I don’t yell with hatred. And even (guess what!) don’t want very much to get answers. There just plain isn’t one. Such is life, and everyone’s alive and well, and what more should there be? And everything sinks, and must sink into the muddy river Anapka, there, where nothing that sinks is ever seen again.

Don’t open up old wounds, don’t speak, don’t remember, don’t go near what’s frightening, don’t wake bears, don’t take the safety off your gun. May everyone nap in our vineyard valley, where the stars shone so brightly. And this valley, Mama, I will never forget. Like a great paradox of love and blindness.

And when you die (if I’m still alive), I will yell at myself for having yelled at you.

Thinking of you, I always shiver, Ma. Your childish weakness and helplessness are my greatest pain.

I can accept you, I can accept you.

But I can’t. I’ve become too disappointed.

I often dream of our home, which I hate and which pulls me like a magnet. This tiny, stuffy apartment of ours with creaky wooden floors, and cockroaches, this balcony… I often dream that I’m looking up from the street at our balcony and seeing that a light burns there, and I think, if the light burns – it means you’re there, you’re alive. But I cannot go in the entrance and go upstairs. I stand in the dream, like an idiot, and watch. And I think in the dream, wonder, if I want to go in, to see this home again, which is kind of mine, but in actual fact not mine at all.

And the surrounding grass is so green, and so tall.

We laid in this grass. I would have liked to lie like that for eternity.

I would have liked if our grass had never been touched by Uncle Sasha, your somnambulistic indifference, your heart attacks, and that yellow cowardice of yours, and my scarlet hatred.

Ma.

Why don’t we lie in the green-green grass of ours and look at our balcony, where the light burns, where you are. And we will sing together – you openly, Kuban-style, and I will sing falsely in a falsetto this song:

There the mountains are tall,
There the plains are wide
There the winds fly
Along the dusty road
We’re children of the galaxy
But most importantly
We are your children
Deeeeeeeeear land.


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