My death will meet me at the spatial and temporal intersection of an icy sidewalk, a gnarly split poplar trunk, early December afternoon, the horn buttons of the coat of a portly stranger, a very negative Celsius, my best friend’s gleeful spirit and my goddamn slippery heels.
Stop me now!
But she continues to push me and I keep sliding over the rind of sooty snow. Off the rind, off the orange of the Earth.
In my city snow falls once, two centimeters deep, in October, and immediately freezes into an impenetrable gray crust. We have a lot of people; and people do not drive, they walk; they take the sidewalk to the store, the daycare, the bus stop; they trample and trample over the snow; in just one day the sidewalks are fit for skating.
People slip, trip and fall. They break their arms, hips and collarbones. In winter fractures are the leading cause for emergency room visits, briefly but overwhelmingly eclipsed by the Happy-New-Year alcohol poisoning around January 1st.
I am skating home from school.
She keeps pushing me in the back for blocks onward. I keep going down, missing the trees narrowly, tumbling into people’s scratchy coats. I am such fun for my so-called best friend, me in my shit winter boots.
The winter boots I have this year look like winter boots enough; they are tall, black and leather-like. However, they don’t work as winter boots. They were made by people who got a permit to have a family business and make footwear for sale right in their little hole-in-the-wall store. It’s a good thing because we can buy shoes now, yet it’s a bad thing because the shoes are awful.
My winter boots have zippers which do not zip and cruddy thin artificial fur lining. The black paint has started coming off the boots immediately, revealing something strangely and off-puttingly pink underneath.
But the worst thing is the soles. They slide around like they are made of glass.
I am the Cinderella of the perestroika age.
All Soviet girls are.
Our good fairies started enterprising as soon as private enterprise became legal. They make shirts with vaguely English words on them, like “Cruising to Morea”, shoes cobbled together from fish scales and snot, and jeans with unfinished seams, faux-stonewashed in boiling cauldrons of aniline dyes. From these good fairies my mother bought me a spring jacket made from mattress ticking, a pair of white fake leather kitten-heel shoes sprouting dried glue, and these blasted winter boots.
I sewed my skirt and my satchel myself. My winter coat is from a consignment store. Fourteen years old, and I have never had a new winter coat.
My past coats and hats are one motley line of shabby garments; they are a bunch of bleary-eyed bums queuing up for their dole at the soup kitchen on a dim December morning in a city of abandoned hopes.
Here we have a checkered blue coat from a consignment store. All colors have bled from it long ago and it is abjectly un-cleanable. The fake fur trim around the hood is matted into knots and looks like the fur trim around a wolf’s anus.
Here we have a hand-me-down sheepskin coat, not shearling but a solid inflexible tube of warm, thick and heavy black sheep, with two smaller inflexible tubes of sheep as sleeves. When I wear it I cannot move my arms, bend or sit down.
Here we have a hat that my mother sewed for me, her lack of experience with fur notwithstanding, from an old red fox that used to be a collar on her coat, a piece of gray fake fur that was lying around unattached for ages, and some gray polyester that had already served two terms as lining for something else. She tried to make it as nice as she could and the most worn-down parts of the fox ended up in the back of the hat – again, looking like an animal’s behind. They tease me in school about the hat. They say: here comes Genghis.
And here – finally – we have my first coat that I got new. I got it when I was eighteen. It is made of a million tiny pieces of dyed rabbit sewn together. Every evening, like all the other Cinderellas who got the same type of coat from the Chinese market, I sit down with a thick needle and black thread to fix the holes that have fissured the coat during the day. Most holes occur under arms. After a month of darning, it becomes impossible to move arms in this coat: the underarm sections have shrunk and are covered in welts and seams like the skin of a burn victim.
Winter provides for a lot of sewing up and patching up: we have to wear so many layers daily and the items of clothing are so few that they get worn through and through, socks and tights becoming particularly holey. We sew and fix through the dark evenings by Grandma’s table lamp with a bendy neck which provides the best light in our thrifty bleak forty-watt house.
But besides all this tweedy drab darning, winter brings shimmer, glitter and glitz.
I wake up in the morning which looks exactly like night and I look at the orange streetlights through the winter-frosted glass. Its egret plumes and peacock tails are beaded with myriads of diamante stars that promise biting cold. Outside, the air will stop your breath and plug your throat unless you put two layers of scarf over your lips.
I see the most beautiful things in winter.
In first grade, as a winter holiday treat, our class is taken to the theater for a matinee. It starts out as a regular old play, with people talking in pretend voices, and then the lights go down and Vasilisa the Beautiful twirls onto the stage in a single beam of beauty. Her gown shines on, crazy diamond, throwing splashes of pale green, pale pink, pale champagne shimmer into the blackness as she moves her billowy blinding fish-scale pallietted sleeves around and around to twinkling music.
I am spellbound.
One inky blue afternoon I slowly walk home from the extended childcare at school. I drag my feet in my round-soled felt boots, lingering by the windows of a grocery store decorated for the New Year’s: snowflakes cut out of reused chocolate-bar foil by the ladies of the dairy counter, multicolored unsafe broken-glass glitter dust made from ground-down Christmas ornaments by the cashier. There is tinsel craftily suspended from the ceiling: the meat counter lady wraps one end of the thread in cotton wool, wets the cotton wool in a small basin of water and throws it at the ceiling where it catches on the rough lime paint with a splop.
I shuffle past the do-it-yourself New Year’s glories of the green grocery and the carpet store and reach the corner with the pastry kiosk and the newsagents. In my pocket, there is twenty two kopecks worth of illegal tender. I am supposed to spend this money on the school lunch, not on a tart with a dollop of brown jam and a swirl of sugar-frosted pink meringue atop a shortbread rosette.
I’ll just make sure to wipe my face thoroughly after.
Lick, lick. I quickly scan the newsagents’ boring window for traces of rare and elusive butterfly-shaped hair barrettes. Expectedly, none. But what is this?
Among the incomprehensible smudgy Pravdas there is a glossy magazine with a most well-put-together woman on the cover. And foreign letters! “Kobieta i Życie”, whatever that may mean.
The woman’s eyes are peridot-green, translucent, rimmed in fuzzy black eyelashes curling up like a doll’s.
The woman’s lips are frosted pink. Girls in our school make their own frosted pink lipstick by melting red lipstick, silver powder paint and petroleum jelly in small aluminum pots over low heat. But it never comes out quite so pink, so silvery, so reflective, so rich.
And the most mesmerizing thing is the woman’s blouse. It is of tight sheer black lace shot through with silver thread. I have never seen fabric this wondrous! Oh I want to grow up her!
I am spellbound.
I will, I will be beautiful, if only once or twice.
My mother, my grandmother, all the women I know talk about the beautiful clothes they had, or could have had, with wistfulness and sensuality. Talking about clothes is a spoken word genre. It has its own vocabulary and an assortment of gestures: a yoke (hands smoothly circumscribe the bosom), a Mandarin collar (thumbs and forefingers of both hands gently circumnavigate the neck), an A-line skirt (palms sail away from the waist in opposite directions.)
My summer grandmother makes me at least one recycled outfit a year, out of something flowery from the back of her pithy closet. She loves to talk clothes. Our favorite story is about the bolt of Chinese brocade her brother-in-law once brought home as a war trophy from Harbin.
“Silky, navy blue, with flowers and birds!” she says dreamily as I rifle through her button box. “My sister made a Sunday-go-to-town dress out of it, with a Mandarin collar (fingers around the neck) and tiny shell buttons down the front (a swift arpeggio down the center of the breastbone.)”
I find a round diamante in her button box and marry it to a big and proud brassy button off a Navy uniform.
And she says, a sequined non-sequitur: “And I used to have such small and pretty ears, like shells!”
Her brother-in-law brought two bolts of fabric from China: the blue brocade and a malachite green cotton velvet with glued-on gold dots made of real metal foil.
The velvet was made into a gown for my grandmother, and then it became a floor-length party skirt for my mother. For as long as I am little enough to fit in, I go visit the skirt in the armoire. I sit under its dark and murky softness and look at its mysterious constellations. Stella, estrella, nebula.
When I am in second grade my mother uses the skirt to make me a costume for the New Year’s party at school. I am the Mistress of Copper Mountain. The skirt begins under my arms and flows well into the floor.
It is very important for a little girl to be able to twirl in a proper wide swirl of a sweeping skirt, and if the skirt throws off tiny beams of light, all the better.
The Mistress of Copper Mountain is a fairy story by Pavel Bazhov. The Mistress is a spirit of the mountain, able to turn into a green lizard, masterful of many enchantments; those who work the rock in the Ural Mountains to mine gems, copper and malachite should be wary of meeting her, for she can show them her best chambers, walls upon walls of lapis lazuli studded with diamonds – or she can kill them, banish them, make them lose their mind. Worse, she can fall in love with them and want to keep them under her crimson ceilings forever. She gives and she takes away.
What power of beauty upon men.
I have a book of stories by Pavel Bazhov, with a dark green embossed cover. They are written in dialect, but as a child I do not know this. I think they are written in a magical language, which is like Russian and unlike Russian, which is understandable and not, which has just enough of here to be penetrable, and a lot of the beyond.
My favorite Bazhov story is The Little Silver Hoof.
A little girl stays in a hunting cabin in the woods all winter. No parents: a Cinderella. She stays with a kindly old man who is not related to her and is nearly always away. Her one steady companion is a kitten who grows into a big honking feline brute by the end of the winter. The old man gathers wood before going off hunting. There is enough fire in the cabin to warm the tiny seven-year-old bones of the peasant girl with soot on her cheeks, sweat in her hair and uncomfortable scratchy hand-me-down clothes.
The sun goes down early in winter; her only light and warmth are the ambers in the stove and the purring of the cat.
The old man tells the girl about the Little Silver Hoof, a small magical deer with one magical silver hoof. When the deer stamps the ground with his hoof once, a gem appears; twice, two gems; and when the deer gets excited and paws the ground over and over, he makes a veritable stampede of gems. Red, pink, blue, white, green, purple. Shiny, sparkly, pretty, precious gems.
She is spellbound.
She starts looking for the Little Silver Hoof; nothing happens for a while, the cabin stands drab, the ashes gray, the snow boring, and the woods woody.
One night she sees the Little Silver Hoof briefly, but before anything beautiful happens he runs away, scared.
Worse, the cat runs away and gets lost.
Lonely, resolute, the girl puts on her shawl, fits on her skis over her round-soled felt boots and off she is into the big beyond, to look for her cat.
She finds her cat and the Little Silver Hoof playing together in the snow, nodding at each other as if in conversation.
The Little Silver Hoof runs around the cabin and stamps the ground here and there; gems fall away, excitedly gleaming, from under his hoof. Then he runs onto the roof of the cabin and starts in on it in earnest. The cabin is covered in the avalanche of gems, piled under fireworks, and as it all happens in the middle of a moonlit night in snow-covered woods, the spectacle is all the more spectacular.
The little girl and the old man salvage a few handfuls of the precious stones and take them to the cabin. These rocks will remain material. In the morning, the deer, the cat and the bounteous glorious riches outside are gone forever.
Years go by and the old cabin is no more, time layers itself upon time, dirt layers itself upon dirt – but still.
If you come to that place and dig around, you can still find them: vivid green, refractive, precious and, as the Russian description goes, clear as a tear.