A woman finds herself filling a pit in the forest in the middle of the night; a family lock each other in their bedrooms to battle a strange plague; a wizard punishes two beautiful ballerinas by turning them into one hugely fat circus performer; a colonel is warned not to lift the veil from his dead wife's face; and a distraught father brings his daughter back to life by eating human hearts in his dreams.
In these blackly comic tales of revenge, disturbing deaths and haunting melancholy, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya blends miracles and madness in the darkest of modern fairy tales.
There once lived a woman who hated her neighbor—a
single mother with a small child. As the child grew and
learned to crawl, the woman would sometimes leave a pot of
boiling water in the corridor, or a container full of bleach, or
she’d just spread out a whole box of needles right there in the
hall. The poor mother didn’t suspect anything—her little girl
hadn’t learned to walk yet, and she didn’t let her out in the
corridor during the winter when the fl oor was cold. But the
time was fast approaching when her daughter would be able
to leave the room on her own. The mother would say to her
neighbor, “Raya, sweetie, you dropped your needles again,”
at which point Raya would blame her poor memory. “I’m
always forgetting things,” she’d say.
They’d once been friends. Two unmarried women living
in a communal apartment, they had a lot in common.
They even shared friends who came by, and on their birthdays
they gave each other gifts. They told each other everything.
But then Zina became pregnant, and Raya found
herself consumed with hatred. She couldn’t bear to be in the
same apartment as the pregnant woman and began to come
home late at night. She couldn’t sleep because she kept hearing
a man’s voice coming from Zina’s room; she imagined she
heard them talking and moving about, when in fact Zina was
living there all by herself.
Zina, on the other hand, grew more and more attached to
Raya. She even told her once how wonderful it was to have a
neighbor like her, practically an older sister, who would never
abandon her in a time of need.
And Raya did in fact help her friend sew clothes in
anticipation of the newborn, and she drove Zina to the hospital
when the time came. But she didn’t come to pick her
up after the birth, so that Zina had to stay in the hospital an
extra day and ended up taking the baby home wrapped in
a ragged hospital blanket that she promised to return right
away. Raya explained that she hadn’t been feeling well. In the
weeks that followed she didn’t once go to the store for Zina,
or help her bathe the baby, but just sat in her room with warm
compresses over her shoulders. She wouldn’t even look at
the baby, though Zina often took the girl to the bath or the
kitchen or just out for a little walk, and kept the door to her
room open all the time, as if to say: Come look.
Before the baby came, Zina learned how to use the sewing
machine and began to work from home. She had no family to
help her, and as for her once-kind neighbor, well, deep down
Zina knew she couldn’t count on anyone but herself—it had
been her idea to have a child, and now she had to bear the
burden. When the girl was very little, Zina could take fi nished
clothes to the shop while the baby slept, but when the
baby got a little bigger and slept less, Zina’s problems began:
she had to take the girl with her. Raya continued to complain
about her bad joints, and even took time off from work, but
Zina wouldn’t dare ask her to babysit.
Meanwhile, Raya was planning the girl’s murder. More and
more often, as Zina carried the child through the apartment,
she would notice a canister on the kitchen fl oor fi lled with
what was supposed to look like water, or a steaming kettle left
precariously balanced on a stool—but still she didn’t suspect
anything. She continued to play with her daughter just as
happily as before, chirping to her, “Say Mommy. Say Mommy.”
It’s true, though, that when leaving for the store or to drop off
her work, Zina began locking the door to her room.
This infuriated Raya. One time when Zina left, the girl
woke up and fell out of her crib—at least that’s what it sounded
like to Raya, who heard something crash to the fl oor in Zina’s
room, and then the girl started crying. Raya knew the girl didn’t
yet walk well on her own, and she must have been badly hurt
because she was emitting terrible cries on the other side of the
door. Raya couldn’t bear them anymore, and fi nally she put on
rubber gloves, poured bleach into a bucket, and began mopping
the fl oors with it, making sure to splash as much as possible
under the girl’s door. The cries turned into heart-wrenching
screams. Raya fi nished mopping, then washed everything—
the bucket, the mop, the gloves—got dressed, and went to a
doctor’s appointment. After the doctor’s, she went to a movie,
walked around to some stores, and came home late.
It was dark and quiet behind the door to Zina’s room.
Raya watched a little bit of television and went to bed. But
she couldn’t sleep. Zina was gone all night and the whole of
the next day. Raya couldn’t stand it anymore. She took an
ax, broke down the door, and found the room covered with
a thin fi lm of dust, with dried spots of blood next to the crib,
and a widening trail of blood to the door. There was no trace
of the bleach. Raya washed her neighbor’s fl oor, cleaned the
room, and sat down to wait, feeling great anticipation.
Finally, after a week, Zina came back home. She said
she’d buried her girl and found work on a night shift. That
was all she said. Her dark and sunken eyes and her sallow,
haggard skin spoke for themselves.
Raya made no attempt to console her neighbor, and life
in the apartment came to a standstill. Raya watched television
alone while Zina went to work nights and then slept
during the day. She seemed to have gone mad from grief and
hung photos of her little daughter everywhere. The infl ammation
in Raya’s joints grew worse. She couldn’t raise her
arms or even walk, and the shots the doctors gave her no
longer helped. In the end, Raya couldn’t even make herself
dinner or put water on to boil. When Zina was home she’d
feed Raya herself, but she was home less and less, explaining
that it was too painful for her to be there, where her daughter
had died. Raya could no longer sleep because of the pain in
her shoulders. When she learned that Zina was working at
a hospital, she asked her for a strong painkiller, morphine if
possible. Zina said she couldn’t do it. “I don’t smuggle drugs,”
“Then I need to take more of these pills,” Raya said. “Give
“No. I’m not helping you die.”
“But I can’t do it myself,” Raya pleaded.
“You won’t get off so easily,” Zina said.
So with a superhuman effort, the sick woman lifted the
bottle of pills with her mouth, removed the cap, and spilled
its entire contents down her throat. Zina sat by the bed. Raya
took her time dying. When the sun came up, Zina fi nally
said: “Now you listen to me. I lied to you. My little girl is alive
and well. She lives at a preschool, and I work there as a cleaning
lady. The stuff you spilled under the door wasn’t bleach—it
was baking soda. I switched the cans. The blood on the fl oor
was from Lena bumping her nose when she fell out of bed. So
it’s not your fault. Nothing is your fault.
“But neither is anything my fault. We’re even.”
And here, on the face of the dying woman, she saw a
smile slowly dawn.