January 01, 2018

Cats in the Fridge

After the hospital closed, Mishka Sparrowlegs’ wife Nadyukha – no spring chicken but not eligible for a pension either – was out of work and therefore out of money. And her husband had been in the same boat for a while, ever since the collective farm fell apart. Mishka’s a welder, but what’s he going to weld when there’s no iron to be had? So he just lies around thinking, wondering where the money’s going to come from. Sure, a village doesn’t have everything a town has, but the kitchen garden keeps on birthing potatoes and there’s a piglet grunting away in what passes for a barn. Still, there’s no doing without money. You figure it out. You need flour, right? Matches? Soap too, and who knows what-all else? And then there’s the most important thing in a village, especially in wintertime – firewood. Without firewood, the stove won’t give you the time of day, and in a Russian village, it’s the stove that keeps everything hopping. It gives heat and cooks soup and warms water and dries socks on top of that,  it offers the cats somewhere to dream about mice. And if the snow starts flying, what could be better than clambering onto the sleeping ledge, covering up with an old fur coat, and getting some shut-eye?..

Our village doesn’t have a store of its own, but a mobile store, a trailer on wheels, does come by. It carries the mail too, because what if someone writes a letter to someone else? Although that seldom happens these days: really, what’s there to write about? But we do buy newspapers, and why wouldn’t we? It’s all spelled out in the paper – what the weather’s going to be like, how many rubles there are to the dollar, when the district center’s going to have chickens for sale. No, how can you do without the printed word? And then after you’ve read it, there’s always something to wrap in it, or you can make a hat out of it… And so Nadyukha decided to buy herself a paper too. Why? Who knows – she’s a woman, and a woman’s a riddle. But the newspaper was passed on to me – you’re cultured and all that, they said, you read. So I did, but meanwhile, Nadyukha’s coming unglued next door, yelling that someone’s stolen her newspaper.

I went over to her place. Finding my way with difficulty through the kitchen garden, which was overgrown with mugwort, stepping on old basins and buckets, I finally made it to Nadyukha’s hut. A good ten years ago, the door had been padded with a quilt, cover and all, to keep the drafts out in winter. By now, though, the quilt’s all in tatters, from the dogs or the cats or maybe just because…

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