Excerpt from Aslan’s Bride (Nevesta Aslana, 2016) by Nadezhda Chernova, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. Read Shelley’s introduction to this extract here.
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from Aslan’s Bride
Milochka Olsufyeva was not a pretty girl, and everyone said it, not pretty, but she was twenty years old, and she dreamed of falling in love, going on dates, and hearing someone speaking beautiful words to her, and she would blush, and be shy, and her heart would burst from her chest in happiness. Even now, when she thought about it, her heart beat a little faster.
Milochka worked as a librarian at the children’s library. The children came to get books with their mamas and grandmas, and sometimes with their fathers or big brothers. On the street, men didn’t look at Milochka, and there wasn’t anywhere else to find a husband. But Milochka steeled herself. She bided her time, but her time just wouldn’t come. When Milochka turned twenty-five she started to despair. By then she had been given a room in a dormitory for small families. She collected some nice furniture, she bought a television, she decorated. Now she had everything, but…
“What if I move north?” she thought. “They say there, in the north, it’s easier to get married.” She decided to consult with Antonina, her neighbor.
Antonina rejected the idea at once. “Nonsense! Anyone who can’t get married here won’t have any luck up there. Maybe someone would amuse himself with you a while, dabble a bit, a month maybe, and then—whoosh! They’ve all got lawfully wedded wives sitting down south, waiting for their men to come back rich. Any one of them would slit your throat to protect her own! Don’t even think about it. Sit tight. Don’t be so jumpy.”
Milochka didn’t have any closer friends than Antonina, and she listened to her, and she didn’t go north. But the feeling of despair did not pass. When she came home from work, Milochka wanted her beloved to be waiting for her, someone she could tell all the news to. In the mornings she turned back to look at the windows of her room. What if he was watching her go? She should wave. The lace on the windows shifted a little, as if he were standing right there behind the curtains, seeing her off or welcoming her home.
For a long time she deceived herself, until she reached the very end of her rope. That’s when Styopka, who stoked the furnace in the boiler room, came into her life. He drank heavily and was always two sheets to the wind when he came to see Milochka. She pulled him into the room quickly so nobody would see him, but they knew Styopka came anyway. Milochka fed him, washed his worn-out shirts when the grime soaked through, bought him new underwear. Styopka accepted all those things as his due, and he didn’t want to get married.
“How stupid do you think I am? I have a wife. I’ll go back to her if I feel like it!”
Milochka tried to educate him. She gave him books. Styopka took the books, but he never returned them. One time she found the cover to The Brothers Karamazov in his boiler.
“Where’s the book?” she asked.
Styopka took a drag from his cigarette and blew the smoke out right in her face.
“In there!” He waved a hand at the stove, its scarlet flame rumbling contentedly. “The fire’s reading it!”
“What did you do, burn Dostoevsky?”
“Yup! The other ones too. Buncha bullshit!”
“How could you?” Milochka wailed, but Styopka wasn’t going to listen. He pushed his live-in outside.
“Go on, go scream out there! This isn’t a library! This is a serious facility, got it? Authorized entry only!”
She was offended, but later she forgave him, let him in again, fed him pie and fish fillets, poured his wine, and drank right along with him. Then came the sacred moment when they once again went to the fold-out sofa.
Times when there was nothing to drink, Styopka swore at Milochka. She cried behind the wardrobe. He got even madder, slammed the door, and disappeared for two or three weeks. Milochka suffered. She went to the boiler room and begged, humiliated herself. Styopka was stubborn. Finally Milochka would show him the bottle she had hidden in her purse. Then Styopka would relent and come back to her.
Antonina scolded her severely. “You’re a fool, Milka! Some knight in shining armor you’ve found! No man at all would be better than that one. Get rid of him before it’s too late!”
“I can’t,” Milochka whispered guiltily. “It’s easy for you to say, you’ve got a family, kids…”
Antonina looked down on her, literally. She was tall, she played basketball. She sighed, feeling bad for her friend.
“Why are you so eager to get tied up like a dog? You poor thing. After all this there’ll be nobody left for you but alcoholics and idiots.”
Who knows how long this hopeless affair would have gone on if Styopka had not poisoned himself on homebrewed vodka. That happened on New Year’s Eve, 1975.
One day Milochka was looking herself over in the mirror, and stared, dumbstruck. So ugly! Dull hair, puffy eyes, gray face, covered with dust. She had nothing left to hope for, and this is what she came up with: she would leave this city forever, go somewhere, anywhere, to some backwoods place where only old people lived, and there she would let time drag by forever and ever. Among those old people, maybe her ugliness wouldn’t be so noticeable.
This time she didn’t bother consulting with Antonina. She decided all by herself. She sold her furniture and TV. She settled up with the library. She went to Styopka’s grave and cried for a while. And then she picked up her lightweight little suitcase and set off for she didn’t know where.
She tore along in a train, she suffocated in crowded, dusty buses, she walked on foot, she hitched a jolting ride in a passing cart, she walked some more, she took another train… until she was completely worn out.
She stopped at the very edge of the water — and the breath caught in her lungs! The sharp smell of salt and seaweed made her head spin. Any ancient nomad who had crossed the Gobi Desert and the Asiatic steppe and the winter forests of Old Rus’ would have been just as dumbstruck at the edge of this endless expanse of sea.
The sea was calm. Shallow waves ran toward Milochka and tickled her bare feet, which weren’t used to the earth. She had taken her sandals off right away when she caught sight of the colors of the sky caving in off in the distance: overhead it was brighter, and at her feet it thickened to gleam like black ink.
Milochka held her breath, and it seemed to her that in a single instant she relived her whole life: the bitter tears at night, her incurable ugliness, the affair with Styopka. And then everything flew away as if it had never been.
She walked along the seashore to a village. It was nestled at the foot of some hills. Scorching hot sand. Stone huts with flat roofs, put together any which way, as if by clumsy children. In the thresholds of the open doors stood women dressed in black. Women in black garments walked the streets as well, as if this village was in mourning. Their faces were stern, unmoving. It was impossible to know what these people might be thinking. They didn’t look at Milochka. They walked right past. Strange, thought Milochka. They ought to look, if only out of curiosity. All women are curious, but these don’t even seem alive.
The steppe reached expansively in all directions, but the village was crowded up against the water, like a herd of sheep wrapped around by the blue backs of the modest hills. They were grown over with sage. A gentle green in April, by midsummer it would turn blue and stink horribly in the heat. After the autumn rains the sage gets white, its venom accumulates, and it starts poisoning the milk of the quick-moving nanny goats. If you don’t watch them they run into the hills and stuff themselves on bitterweed, because the good grass in the lowlands and the sprigs of acacia aren’t enough for them. The goats always long for the hills! They leap over the rocky rises, sending out caustic sparks.
The air was dry, even though the sea was so close. The water, gleaming metallically under the sun, looked red-hot as well, and dry. It murmured rather than sloshed, running up on the rustling sand, which never dried here, and it barely rolled up into waves.
It hurt to walk barefoot. Milochka put her shoes on, but soon the hot earth started to burn through the thin soles of her sandals. Her face and bare shoulders had gone red in the sun, and now they ached. She tossed a kerchief over her burned shoulders and went from house to house. She wanted to rent a room, hopefully with windows over the sea, hopefully not too expensive, or at least she hoped the owner wouldn’t be mean. Catch her breath for a while, and then she’d be able to see what to do next.
The people didn’t understand Milochka. They gave her dour looks and pressed the edges of their black kerchiefs to their lips. “They must be scared at how ugly I am,” Milochka thought glumly, and she wasn’t angry at these dour people. “They’ll probably kick me out, but maybe they’ll get used to me.”
Finally she found an old man who didn’t turn away from her, and most importantly, he more or less spoke Russian. She asked him if anyone had a room to rent, not holding out much hope, now, and not knowing where to turn. And to tell the truth, she didn’t want to go anywhere anymore, she liked it here so desperately much. She didn’t want to be separated from the sea, from these untamed hills, from the call of the goats and the cry of the seagulls. She even thought that maybe sometime, in some past life, she might have lived here, and now she was recognizing with joy this scenery so dear to her heart.
Like everyone else, this old man was sitting at the stone threshold of his home, on a low bench, but he was not idle. He was working, slowly. He had put an enormous shoe made of thick buffalo leather on an iron stand, and he was replacing the sole. The old man smelled of Chypre cologne, as if he had poured a whole bottle all over himself.
Short of stature, he had such a sizable nose that it was strange the nose didn’t bend his whole frail body double and topple him over onto the ground. The old man reminded her of a solitary eagle, sitting on a heap of rocks. Especially because his hut looked like a messy pile of lumpy stone.
He also had an eagle’s gaze, sharp, but his neck was thin and wrinkled just like a turkey’s, covered in remnants of gray fluff. It was a funny combination, and Milochka barely kept herself from laughing out loud.
The old man’s outfit was comical too. He had wrapped himself tight in two shirts, one pink with little flowers, one coarse calico in white. “What a sloppy old slob!” Milochka giggled to herself. “Now that’s a sight!” The old man’s thin, striped cotton pants were tucked into thick wool socks with big red patches darned on the heels. For shoes he had soft, well-worn slippers.
His graying curls burst exuberantly out from under a beach cap with dark blue anchors. That cap only emphasized the old man’s awkwardness, and Milochka, though bashful by nature, felt superior to him. The old man looked Milochka over too. Then, shrugging his shoulders and muttering something in his own language, he walked away into the hut. He brought his guest a yellow folding chair. She sat down and felt embarrassed to still be taller than the old man: he had perched on his low bench again and was now at her feet. But he wasn’t bothered in the least, as if he had sat at her feet his whole life long, smelling of Chypre. The scent made Milochka’s head hurt, not to mention the lavender blowing in from the steppe.
Milochka hadn’t made up her mind yet to repeat her question about the room, and the old man seemed to have forgotten all about it. He was busy working, holding brass tacks between his lips.
Behind the old man, inside the half-lit hut, Milochka could make out colorful pictures on the smoke-cured wall, torn from magazines: alluringly beautiful women, brightly made up, hair curled; the Indian actor Raj Kapoor in a straw hat, with a handkerchief knotted at his neck; Fidel Castro and his black beard and beret, and in the most prominent place of all, the obligatory mascot of all shoemakers, Stalin. That was a magazine illustration too. Georgia’s native son, in a white jacket and boots, holds an elderly Georgian woman by the arm. She is dressed in black and looks like the women in this settlement. His mother, apparently.
What a mess, Milochka thought, with another look at all the pictures on the wall.
The old man pounded on the sole, whittled it down with a file, and looked it over, satisfied, giving it a pat with his small, brown palm. Finally, Milochka made up her mind to speak again.
“Who has a foot that big? Like a giant!” She nodded toward the shoe that was ready. The old man put it down near the door and picked up the next one.
“These are Aslan’s shoes!” he said gently. The old man used pliers to coax the gleaming nails from the sole of the second shoe, and put them down neatly, side by side on the threshold.
Milochka felt braver now, encouraged by his friendly tone.
“And who is this Aslan?” To herself, she wondered if he might be a young man, and a possible boyfriend.
“Aslan is Tomiko’s son. He’s at the war.”
“What war do you think? The one they had… That’s where he is.” And the old man nodded toward the sea.
Translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. You can read more about Shelley’s translation project here.