Once Was Dark
That got his legs going, got him upstairs. Inside, the apartment was freezing, the balcony doors folded open, a wind blowing in. ‘Good evening, lyubimiy,’ he heard his mother chirp, but when he turned to correct her, as he did every morning, she wasn’t even looking at him.
Atop the television, the bird stood staring at them both, over a week since he’d brought it from the village, out of a life that had included night, and still such desperation in its eyes. He’d covered the defunct TV with a tablecloth to keep his mother from trying to turn its knobs, and beneath the bird the lace was smeared with scat. At his first step, the rooster leapt, stumble-landed, took off at a run. Its long tail trailed behind it. Across the room it went, beating its wings so hard Dima felt the wind, no closer to flying than a strange pathetic hop before the weight of its trailing plumage brought it down again.
Still, it took him most of a minute and all the energy he had left to corner the thing. He almost gave in, just stomped down on its tail feather train, but, imagining the six-foot plumes ripped out, he peeled a blanket from around his mother, instead, advanced with it spread before him.
On the tiny square of balcony, he dumped the Golden Phoenix out. ‘Stay,’ he told it, as if it were a dog.
Stepping back inside, he said, ‘Mama, you have to keep the doors closed, OK?’
But she was focused back on her sewing, bent again over the machine. Beneath the table, he could see her foot poking out from the folds of the blanket, working the pump. He crossed the room and, resting his sockfoot on top of her slipper, pressed her treadling still.
She looked up.
‘What are you mending?’ he asked her.
He took the free sleeve in his hand.
‘It was full of holes,’ his mother said.
The cuff had been sewn shut. She was halfway through sealing up the other one. On the couch behind her, the rest of his shirts were piled. He could see their collars had been stitched closed, patches sewn over their buttonholes, turtlenecks turned to traps for an unsuspecting head.
He gave her back the sleeve, lifted his foot off hers.
The chattering of the needle again.
Flopping onto the couch, into the pile of ruined shirts, he watched her. Beyond her, the door to her room was open. At the foot of the bed, he could see his uncle’s old chest, the wood sides whittled with wingspread shapes of geese in flight. He made a mental note to get a padlock before she dragged out Dyadya Avya’s last belongings and went to work on them. To work. It hit him then – tomorrow he wouldn’t go – hit him too hard for a mind so tired; he couldn’t think about it; he wanted only to be already asleep.
‘Mama,’ he said, his lids lowering, ‘have you been doing this all night?’
‘I made you shchi for supper.’
‘It’s breakfast,’ he told her.
But she only bent forward, bit off the thread, and, smiling, proud, held up the shirt for him to see.
He shut his eyes.
So soft, the dry skin of her palm when she pressed it to his cheek. So soft, her voice: ‘It’s been a long day.’
‘A long night,’ he corrected her. ‘You should sleep while I’m gone, Mama, so when you’re up I can be here and . . . ’ His hands searched the pile of clothes, lifted some random part, dropped it again.
When he opened his eyes, she was looking out at the rooster, the sun-blasted concrete, the railing thinned to brittle by the brightness.
‘It’s still light,’ she told him, as if just discovering it.
How many years had it been since the Consortium sent up its satellites? How many dawns and dusks had their set and rise replaced, the zerkala’s mirrored wings refracting sunlight into the city’s once-was-dark? How could his mother forget, day after day, that their lives no longer contained night?
‘It’s always light,’ he told her again.
The wrinkles on her brow seemed to deepen, the skin to shrivel a little more around her mouth. And meeting her confused gaze, her eyes milky and filmed as the zerkala-diluted moon, it was all he could do not to turn away.
They sat at the small table in the kitchen, hunched over their bowls, the two of them and the empty chair at the third place his mother always set. The room was filled with the warmth of the steam and the smell of boiled cabbage. He slurped spoonfuls with his eyes shut, the morning brightness bleeding through his lids, and wondered if now that he’d worked his last mirror-light shift, this would be the last bowl of supper fare he’d have to eat for breakfast. By feel, he tore off a hunk of bread, soaked it in the shchi, and chewed it (but what worse would they have to eat now?) and ripped away another piece (how would he bring home even this?), all the while aware of the empty space beside him (what would his brother say if he was sitting there?). Squeezing his fist around the bread, Dima tried to feel Yarik’s fingers squeezing back. Instead, for the first time since he’d quit, he felt the full weight of what he’d done.
‘Poor thing,’ his mother said.
He opened his eyes. From beneath her flowered head scarf a few strands of white hair floated, backlit by the window, aglow with morning. For a moment, he thought something was fluttering against the glass behind her – some bird trying to get in – and then he realized the wing-clatter was coming from the balcony behind him.
His mother beamed. ‘A mute rooster.’
Wiping a wedge of bread around the inside of his bowl, he told her, ‘He’s not mute.’
But her smile only grew. ‘A cock,’ she said, ‘that can’t crow.’ And, sinking back against her chair, the old woman let out a hoot.
It was the wild unloosed laughter of a child. He tried not to look at her. ‘Mama,’ he snapped, ‘can’t you understand that there’s no sunrise?’
In the window’s slant of morning light, that seemed to only make her laugh harder.
‘There’s no break,’ he told her, reaching for a second helping. ‘No break between the night and the day.’ He grabbed the bowl she’d set out for her other son. ‘Nothing but the zerkala, and work, and the zerkala, and work, and the goddamn –’
The hurled soup bowl, the smashed window glass: they seemed to disappear at the same exact time, nothing left behind but the sound of the crash.
A breeze prickled the hairs of Dima’s arms, shook the dishtowel on its hook. He closed his hands around the back of the chair. He didn’t remember having stood up. But in his eyes he could feel the same desperate thing he’d seen in the rooster’s. Quietly, he pushed his chair in. He went to his mother. He knelt down, and kissed her cheek, and whispered a plea that she might stop crying.
Later, after he had gotten her to brush her teeth and put on her nightgown, after he had watched her shuffle to the couch, after he had bunched himself into the cushions beside her, silently handing her shirt after shirt, after she had sewn closed cuff after cuff until finally falling asleep over the machine, and after he had carried her into her bedroom and lowered her to her bed and shut the door, he went back to the couch and picked up one of the shirts and began to break the stitches she had put in.
Her sewing scissors were in the spools of threads in the wooden sewing box she’d had since he’d been born. They were shaped like one of the great herons of the lake, and he used its sharp beak to pry beneath a thread, cut it, pry beneath the next. Its handles were wings plated in gold. Years ago, most of his lifetime ago, sometime in the months after they had found his father, after his mother had stopped going to work, after she had refused to leave the house, and then the bed, after her hair had become streaked with white and crinkly as an old man’s, after they had gone – he and his brother – to live with their uncle, sometime in those months their old dyadya had told them about the scissors.
‘Once upon a time,’ Dyadya Avya had begun, the way he always began, ‘there was a woman who had the most beautiful hair.’ He was lying on his back on the worn wood floor beside the warm woodstove, a bottle resting on his belly below his bare chest sheened with sweat. ‘Even when she was a girl, strangers would ask to touch it. Her mother used to wake her long before dawn, long before the others in the house were up. She would burn half an hour of kerosene brushing her daughter’s hair by lantern light. She wouldn’t let anyone else near it. Not even the girl’s aunt was allowed to braid it for her. So much her parents spent on oils! On scents! Her father never touched her. Not a kiss on the cheek. Not a hug. Except when he would come behind her and lift her hair in his hands and admire the weight of what he called her dowry.
‘When she grew older, of course, everyone wanted to touch it. To touch her. She had lovers. It was very wavy.’ He lifted a hand, eeled it over the floor, as if riding the swells of the lake. ‘It was very black,’ he said. ‘Black as this.’ He looked at the iron stove door and drank from the bottle and shook his head violently. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Blacker. Black as . . . ’ He looked at the two boys. His eyes widened, his face smiled. ‘Black as yours,’ he said. ‘But by then, it was long. So long that when she held her skirt to her knees to wade across the creek, the tip of her hair would get wet. So long that in a strong wind it became a great flowing tail. When she tied it up beneath a kosinka it was so huge on her head that she looked like a Turk! But she almost never wore it up.
‘Because, you see, she was ugly. At least she felt ugly. Because others made her feel ugly. Her lovers?’ He looked at the boys. ‘How old are you?’
‘Nine,’ they said.
‘Nine!’ their uncle bellowed. ‘When I was nine what was there to think about but humping? Humping and humping. Are you humping yet?’
‘No,’ they said.
His sigh seemed too heavy to rise off his lips. ‘Her lovers . . . ’ He shrugged his shoulders against the floor, said, ‘Nine!’ needed another swig of the bottle to go on. ‘They would ask her to spread it out. If it was humping from the back. If it was from the front, and she was lying below them, they would lift it with their hands, her hair, and cover her with it. She told me this. She told me she preferred to be on top. So she could cover her face with her hair herself. Poor girl!’ He drank again.
‘Until your father. Your father gave her that.’ He made to point at them with the hand that was steadying the bottle on his belly and caught the bottle and instead flapped in their direction with his other hand. Dima was holding the scissors. Yarik had asked about them. They were the one thing she had tried to take with her, the one thing that had been pried from her hands, the one thing that, in all the weeks since their father had been found, had brought her tears.
‘He gave her them,’ their uncle continued, ‘one night about nine months before you were born. Yup.’ He belched. ‘Just before the act. They were naked. He lay down on the bed. He said, ‘Stand over me.’ She stood. She flung her hair over her head, down over her face, a curtain of it so long it almost touched his thing. Maybe it did. All right, it barely brushed his thing. She was about to sit, when he brought the scissors out, when he held them up to her, when he told her, “Cut your hair.”’
Sitting on the couch with the heron-shaped scissors in his hand, Dima knew that his uncle must have told them the rest – how long it took with the tiny scissors, how they’d gazed into each other’s eyes each excruciating second of the wait – must have ended his story with the way his father had called her his beauty, the way he’d said, ‘Now, marry me,’ but he was seeing it, again, the way Dima had seen it in the hot dry air in the house that smelled of liquor and old man sweat and his brother’s skin and the smoke of burning beech wood, seeing again the way she cut her hair in small strips, bit by bit, the lamplight slowly slipping in, flicker by flicker, where her black curtain had kept it out, the impossibly long strands falling onto his father’s chest, belly, thighs, until he was blanketed with them. How their oils must have shone! How soft they must have felt dropping to his skin! How warm and heavy before she was done.
By the time the door to his mother’s room opened again and she came out, the knob rattling in her hand, Dima had reopened only half of the sleeves. She was still in her nightgown, and the old yellow fabric was so thin he could see through it the shape of her, no longer a woman’s shape, but just an old person’s, with skin hanging heavier in places than it might have on an old man. Her mouth in the past years had shrivelled inwards, as if her lips now found more comfort in their closeness to each other than to anything of the outside world. Her eyes were as blue as ever. Her thinned hair was wrapped in a white bun beneath her kosinka, as he had always known it, and her breathing the low whistling wheeze it had become, and the confusion in her face put a sadness on his as it had done now for years.
‘I must have slept late,’ she said. She was looking out the window, a tremoring hand shielding her eyes from the morning’s light. ‘But I feel like I haven’t slept at all.’
‘You haven’t,’ he told her.
And when she came and sat at the machine and reached for one of the shirts he had unsewn, he gave her the scissors instead. They shook with the unsteadiness of her hand. ‘We’re opening these up,’ he told her, giving her one of the sleeves. But she just sat there, the cloth in one hand, the scissors in the other, both shaking.
‘Aren’t you going to work?’ she said.
That day, he tore down the light-bleeding curtains from the windows, the winter-heavy rugs from the walls, and nailed the kovry up where the curtains had been. He hung an especially long one over the glass doors to the balcony, the rooster standing on its railing perch watching him make it and all the world outside disappear. Inside, it was so dark he had to stumble to the foyer to find the flashlight. In its yellow beam he hunted in his mother’s sewing box for her larger shears, went to her bedroom and dug through his uncle’s carved chest, found Avya’s old felt vest and hat, but could not do it. Instead, he cut the dead man’s heavy felt boots into strips. He took the apartment door off its hinges and nailed the strips all around its edges and put it back up. All the while his mother kept asking what he was doing, and when he was done he shut the flashlight off again. In the blackness he went to her. He felt with his hands until he touched her and then he knelt behind her chair and put his arms around her and could feel beneath his forearms the insubstantiality of her breasts. He kissed her where her kosinka covered her temple.
‘Go to sleep, Mama,’ he said.
Sometimes he could see in the confusion and sadness and fear in her eyes a glimpse of what had happened to her when he and Yarik had been boys. Sometimes he felt the same tightness twist through his chest. Though then, at least, it had happened fast, weeks instead of years: by the time the men had come to carry her out of the apartment and down the stairs and to the sanitarium she had refused to leave her bed for almost a month. He and Yarik had sat beside her on the mattress, one son’s fingers trying to smooth her brow, the other with his hands buried in her stiffened hair. But her shoulders had refused to ease, her face to soften. Her eyes had stayed open, found her children, held them hard, as if gripped by her hands. What had she been trying to make them understand? That she loved them? That they would be all right? That she would be?
Sometimes, now, he wished that he could tell her the same. Sometimes he thought what was happening to her now was worse. Then, at least, they had had hope that there was something they could do to help bring her back. Visit her, the doctors had said. Bring her things that will remind her of her life before. And each Sunday, squeezed beside their uncle on the bench seat of the old Ural the kolkhoz loaned him, they had ridden in the loud quiet of tires rumbling on the Kosha road, holding in their laps the gifts they’d brought: craft projects from school, photographs from field trips with their Pioneer Group, wax paper wrapped around river fish they’d caught and kippered the way she liked. Rounding a bend there it would suddenly be, the compound, those high ivied walls that hid the gardens, its high stone towers, wrought iron lamp posts standing sentry, the ancient oaks spreading their heavy canopies over the entrance road. Their uncle stopped the truck. In their chests, the gravel kept on crumbling. He left them at the cloister’s gates, went to wander on his own among the gardens, scared of the inside of that place in a way they had never seen him scared before, and together they had gone up the wide stone steps to the big double doors and raised their hands – two small fists side by side, pale against black paint – to knock.
Inside, a nurse led them through the rotunda, down a green-walled hall, past the open double doors that leaked a ceaseless clattering of work – the cavernous chamber where patients sat all day at long rows of sewing machines, doctors pacing between them scribbling notes – past the patients’ rooms, doors sanded down to try to hide the scratches, heavy brass racks bolted to the floor, some holding men’s shoes, some women’s, one their mother’s.
Always, before they entered, Dima would open his hand. He would feel his brother’s fingers slip in between his own. He would hold on as they went in together. In their other hands they would hold the gifts they hoped might help to make her better. They would put them on the blanket beside her body.
‘Mama,’ they would say, ‘how are you feeling today?’ And wait for her to turn to them and show the answer in her eyes.
Always the same. Except for the day they brought her the book.
In Dima’s memory it seemed like a story Dyadya Avya might have told: how he and Yarik had taken the small skiff from the lakeshore and rowed out into the ever-blacker dark; how they had almost drowned that night out on the lake; how the state had threatened to take them from their uncle’s care; how their uncle had cried, and then laughed, and then, as always, turned it into a tale; how in his telling it had turned into a fable worthy of a book; how with his help they had turned it into a real one, each scrawling the words beneath the pictures the other drew, bound it with a leather shoelace stitched though its binding like the suture of a wound; how they had brought her this story of what they’d done – Once upon a time and lost their oars and almost drowned – how she had pulled them to her, worry crowding out everything else in her eyes; how the next visit she had spoken first, asked over and over if they were all right; how she had made them promise to never do something like that again; how that had been the beginning of the months that in the end had brought her back; how he wished there was something he could bring her now to do the same; how he knew there was not. He could still feel the pressure of her hand on his cheek, his other cheek pressed to her breast, his own hand holding his brother’s, his gaze locked on the part of the window he could see – those thin birches gathered just outside the garden wall, all those still white trunks beneath the shimmering leaves. ?
‘Once Was Dark’ is an extract from Josh Weil’s forthcoming novel, The Great Glass Sea.