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Jan/Feb 2009 Fiction

Semolinian Equinox

by Svetlana Lavochkina

Artwork by Robert Hoover


At Donetsk University, talking about money reveals bad manners—there has been no sight of salary for six months. Students and professors go to the marketplace after classes. They stand at the stalls side by side, their ankles equally soaked in April sleet. They sell groceries, poultry, hosiery—whatever the dealers supply them.

"French socks latest cut, sexy stockings for your butt!" student Andrey recites into the drizzle, helping Professor Nikolai Vassilievich arrange listless bunches of carrots for display on the stone counter. Nikolai Vassilievich guards Andrey's wallet while Andrey heads for an inconspicuous place at the market fringes to relieve himself. Drinking moonshine to get warm, they count their gain in inflated millions, munch the carrots, shoo mongrels from under the stalls, and never talk about the university.

At summer solstice, however, the learner and the learned meet in a short circuit at the State Examination. Andrey feigns due awe of Nikolai Vassilievich of course, but, mumbling unintelligibly as he does, Andrey still knows for sure that his mark will not quite exactly mirror the fact that he has neither opened any book on the course programme nor seen the professor doing his main job at the pulpit, his silver tongue pouring out undiluted Middle English to the drowsing audience, too recently weaned from Mother Goose to be able to partake of swiche licour.

Sighing, Nikolai Vassilievich scribbles "satisfactory" into Andrey's record book. After all, in the domain of cutting edge Ukrainian market folklore, Andrey is far more proficient than Nikolai Vassilievich will ever be. If Andrey, in his turn, were ever to examine Nikolai Vassilievich in retail practice, the professor's mark would inevitably be "poor." In Donetsk, the ability to tell Pushkin from Gogol, Shakespeare from Chaucer, or sinus from logarithm is rather a handicap than a privilege. Such details put one at a tangent to the central focus of survival.

At a tangent I may be, but I am truly privileged today. Andrey has given me a million to get a good chicken at the market. He wishes me to make a three-course dinner out of one bird corpse. He says I must make a broth, then peel off the chicken's skin, stuff it with schmaltz and onions, and serve the filet separately, with mashed potatoes. We will feast in his locked room in the United Hostels, no hungry guests to diminish our delight.

Dizzy in the sweet, festering air of the poultry row, I am glad to see many chubby chickens displayed. I slap them on their thighs and breasts and finally choose the one that resonates most. My mouth is watering at the promise of a golden treat.

"What do you study, lass?" the vendress asks me, wrapping the chicken into a newspaper.

"English," I reply.

Her greasy fingers fumble under the counter to produce a blue hard-cover book. She points at the title, "The ABC of Dirty English." I run the pages between my fingers, incredulously: "Abishag, Able Grable, Abyssinian medal..." The brazen beads descend the page in neat strings, all provided with matter-of-fact Russian translations. Dirty English is not in the curriculum. We learn it combed, buttoned-up, and gelded.

"It's yours for a million," the woman says, knowing she has already won. Chubby chickens are much easier to sell than barmy books in alien tongues. So much for tonight's dinner.

It takes the tram two hours to cross the city of Donetsk. It is warm in the tram, good for the first date. The workers, going home, already Brahms and Liszt with moonshine, wink at me, but then they see at once that I am already promised.

"Taboo words are inseparable from the language," the dictionary preface says. "Their artificial banning leads to the language's impoverishment. It is widely believed that Anglo-Saxon vulgarisms denoting male and female genitals are the true aristocracy of the language."

I don't notice that the tram has traversed the city of Donetsk twice and it has grown dark.

When I come back, Andrey is not asleep yet. His hand is still able to reach his mouth with a cigarette, his elbow resting in a dirty plate.

"Where is my dinner?" He is drilling holes in me with his stare.

My only problem with Andrey is that he is allergic to English for its sheer impracticality. He doesn't see any opportunity for himself ever to live in England or the States, so why bother at all. Andrey tells me off for a long time, hauling objects about the room to give his words more weight. He is very eloquent, and I very ashamed. Yes, he is quite right in calling me a selfish bitch. Andrey is right in saying I don't respect hard-earned money. He is right in saying I always do what my left foot desires. Right or left, around midnight I am being routinely forgiven—let the iron bed bear the brunt of my guilt.

Loud singing wakes us up before dawn. We cannot recognize the male voice whose pitch ranges amply from peacock to goat, but we know the female one by heart and to the marrow of our bones. The walls of the hostel rooms as thin as a calico curtain are being dissolved by the sulphuric acid of voices. Thank God we woke up to the allegro vivace part, which usually precedes the presto culmination with a final fortissimo out of the full breast of the diva and the breathless tenor losing its virility in falsetto heights.

The singers harvest their storm of applause from the listeners in adjacent rooms along with a loud account of their performance.

"Six times!" heralds the neighbour downstairs.

"No, seven!" argues the neighbour upstairs.

Andrey addresses me meaningfully, pointing in the direction the singing has been coming from. "Learn, Semolina, learn!"

The diva so praised is notoriously famous in the labyrinths of the United Hostels of Donetsk University. Nourished on raisin buns and peasant butter, now almost in possession of an intellectually unobliging diploma in English philology, Tanya spends her nights in cockroach-teeming cells not out of bitter necessity. Her parents are, for Donetsk standards, well-off. They live in a high-ceilinged flat in Artem Main Avenue, where Tanya disposes of a whole room. If Tanya were asked to explain her behaviour, she would say that she is just enjoying her student life before stepping into all too early adulthood, skimming cream from the thin milk of the toppled times. She would also imply that she is escaping the pressure of her philistine family and gaining invaluable experience for life.

Our parents and teachers told us that God was invented to stupefy and poison people. It is only upon ourselves, the summits of creation, that we are to rely to thrive and multiply. But then Donetsk's embrace has become too sultry, too tight, so we have had to find some more ethereal air to breathe.

When the sky is as starry as it can ever get in Donetsk, I wriggle out from under sleeping Andrey's biceps and sneak upstairs to the twelfth floor, through a narrow door to the roof of the United Hostels. I cuddle up against the belly of Ursa Major because she is my only friend up there to listen to my complaints. I tell her that I am in love—impossible, unrequited, shameful, carnal love. I follow him, I covet him and yet cannot possess—he is made of the green sea, of the chalk curve, of flowing ink, of topaz breath, my Angle, my Saxon, my Jute.

"You will soon have him," Ursa says to me. "Fill your limbs with his tide, your head with his mind, your heart with his beat—and then your loins –fill them with his final spice. He will then take you in his arms and carry you far away from the United Hostels, up into the vernal equinox." The only thing Ursa Major does not say is when.

Tanya is awake in small hours to lay an offering of flesh and voice on the altar of a Ukrainian goddess, moon-faced and arch-browed, full-bosomed and heavy-hipped. It is this goddess who will protect her faithful Tanya, under the condition that she learns the art of lovemaking in all diligence and devotion, because in Donetsk it is through men that all women's dreams come true. The goddess will care for Tatyana's steeply rising career in Kiev, the capital on seven hills, marry her to a rich, dignified Englishman, or American, Tanya doesn't mind, and bring her several meridians west. The way is long but well-lit, and it is not only at night that Tanya toils. To facilitate Venus' tutelage, she studies English in a shrewd, practical way, to be able to compete at the markets of business and love. How I wish I were her.

 

Tanya and I spend lecture breaks together smoking American cigarettes we buy for ten thousand apiece, for none of us can afford the luxury of a whole pack. We share her cigarette today because I am too broke for even one snout.

"Was I too loud this night?"

"Not louder than usual."

Tanya informs me abundantly, as she always will, of Alyosha's codpiece contents. Alyosha is her latest infatuation whom we had the boon of perceiving. The last inhalation of Pall Mall is hers. In a bluish, bridal veil of smoke, she confides me the latest Secret of Secrets.

"This night Alyosha said he wants a baby by me."

In Donetsk, as everybody knows, children are rather aborted than born.

"Lucky you," I say. "No one has ever wanted children by me. But you can give it a try."

"God forbid," Tanya says. "I'm waiting for the reply from the Kiev Travel Star. I wish they would take me!"

The bell to the next lecture rings, and we go to listen to the Truth of the Truths of Theoretical Phonetics of the English Language delivered by Lubov Gavrilovna, a fierce spinster. Tanya is sitting next to me, looking directly into Lubov Gavrilovna's mouth and zealously copying transcription signs from the blackboard, begging her goddess to forgive her premature thoughts of progeny: "/θ/ as in 'thick': voiceless, dental, fricative. /ð/ as in 'then': voiced, dental, fricative. /æ/ as in 'bag': front, open, short."

The blue book under my desk is revealing different truths to me. I am copying them, pretending to be in a theoretically-phonetic trance.

"A Bag of snakes in Birthday clothes is in Bad shape."

"The Calf's lesson in Curve is well-learnt."

 

Andrey has just performed what he sardonically calls his marital duty. He is lying on his back, his head resting on my forearm, seeing the evening off with his last cigarette.

"Have you ever wanted children?" I ask.

Andrey turns his head to me.

"By whom? You? No thanks. You're too inept to wipe your own ass."

He raises his head, propping it on his own elbow.

"Don't take it personally," he says. There are basically no women in Donetsk to have children by. They're all either sluts or fools, and you're the latter."

I know that Andrey is right about me, but I want to redeem the female gender of Donetsk—I know an example.

"Alyosha does want a baby by Tanya," I say.

"Really? What a hoot! He was thinking with his other head when he said that."

I shouldn't have aired Tanya's secret, but it is too late.

"A baby by a slut! That's a good one!" Andrey grins, his teeth glaring in the fag light.

 

Alyosha has left for his native village for the weekend. He needs a rest from incessant performances. He badly needs a substantial meal of mama's purple borsch, with a hunk of generously larded rye bread. Tanya is at home. Yawning, she puts on a flowered nightgown which has no idea of its mistress' night life in foreign quarters. She has taken up a deadly boring textbook she has never progressed beyond Page 14 when the phone in the hallway rings. She hastens barefoot to be the first to pick up the receiver and make her nosy mother retreat into the kitchen.

"Hellooo," Tatyana says in the deepest of her bosom tones.

"Oh, Andrey, it's you." She switches into standby mode, knowing why he usually calls.

"I would like you to help me, Tanya."

"I know you want my lecture notes again. Listen, can't you try and do your homework yourself, for a change?"

"Tanya, it's not your notes I want."

"Be quick, I'm falling asleep."

"Tanya... I would like you to give me a gift."

"Your birthday was two months ago, dear, and you got a whole pack of Marlboro from me!"

"Tatyana, it's a different gift I am asking you for. I would like you to give me a baby."

"Have you lost your wits? Have Semolina give you a baby."

Deeply, though, Tanya is flattered by the request. Even Andrey the market champion... She is half-wondering if she could secretly refit her duet score for his bass.

"Let me think," she says. "Call me tomorrow."

In the morning before classes Tanya runs into Dmitri the baritone at the cigarette kiosk. He leaves his entourage of two blondes and takes her by the hand to the side.

"May I ask you a question?"

"I didn't sleep with anyone yesterday. This is why it was so quiet in the hostel at night," Tatyana snaps.

"It would never occur to me to doubt your innocence, dear. It is a different question I have."

Tanya understands that she has been betrayed. A deaf-mute janitor publicly inserts a note into Tanya's curvaceous décolleté. A joint choir of male students chants on her entering the lecture hall, "We want a baby by Tanya!"

 

Tonight the diva is not up to singing. Neither is she up to it the next day or the day after. At college she bears a stern face and moves like an ice-breaker. She refuses to visit Alyosha in the hostel. She is not on speaking terms with me. I miss her cigarettes, and even more, her detailed lecture notes.

In Donetsk, the air temperature at summer solstice does not differ much from that of a furnace. The weather enhances the Great Account feeling for the examinees. Fifty heads in a single long row, sweat in rivulets streaming down their foreheads, recline, yielding to the fate and the heat against the hallway wall, waiting for their names to be called to enter purgatory. Every quarter of an hour a victim is thrown out of the examination room, squeezed, bedraggled, sucked dry. The examination board is presided over by Lubov Gavrilovna, a spinster sans merci, an expert in torture. Lubov Gavrilovna is sometimes known to favor assiduous, simple, healthy-looking girls of peasant descent, but pale decadent species with long noses stand no chance with Lubov Gavrilovna, this is well-known.

Tanya has just been resurrected from the dead. Her hair is combed into a tight ponytail, her blouse buttoned to the top, her dark skirt sweeping the floor. Sweat must be trickling all the way down her legs, but she emerges nonchalant. "Excellent," Tatyana pronounces to those of us who are still in the anguish of waiting.

The secretary calls my name.

I am ushered into the place of execution. The table is covered with a once white table cloth, now stained, creased by the racked martyrs' fingers. Nikolai Vassilievich is placed next to Lubov Gavrilovna but seems to be blissfully away in vibrant April, seeping ale at the Tabard Inn. A withered bunch of carrots is peeking out of his string bag on the floor, for summer solstice makes no exception from his market chore, to be performed after the examination is over. With a climacteric rustle of fingernails, Lubov Gavrilovna opens my record book. Her toad eyes rise at me without expression.

"Semolina. Absent for seven lectures. Covert reading of extraneous sources in class. We look forward to hear what you have learnt about the phonemic system of English."

I take a communal water glass from the table, half-empty, its rim scalloped with lipstick of various shades—scarlet, pink, orange—a token of mercy, a last gulp from the executioner. My hand remains suspended in the air as if in a toast to Lubov Gavrilovna and summer solstice.

"The phonemic system of English is very beautiful," I start. "The sounds are of many colors and shapes. They purr, they moan, they bark, puke, squeak, and sometimes spit. They live in people and animals and leave them only with their last 'h.'"

Lubov Gavrilovna parts her lips to pronounce my verdict, but then, upon a second thought, tightens them up again to hear what comes next.

"For example, /θ/ as in 'thunder thighs,'" I continue. "It looks like the Wife of Bath's leg in a red stocking. /ð/ as in 'tether one's nag' is Chanticleer about to love his Pertelote. And here is the /æ/ as in 'abishag'—it's made of rough leather, broad and bawdy—like Absalom's kiss. Then there is O, as in..."

Nikolai Vassilievich awakens from his slumber at the mention of the creatures he knew so well. But Lubov Gavrilovna has had enough of my phonemic system.

"Out! Out with her!" she yells. "Expel her from the university!"

Nikolai Vassilievich's string bag tilts on the side, and the carrots all tumble down in a fan of "i's, /i:/" as in "shit Street."

"Come on, let's buy the little fool some chocolate," Andrey says. He is not upset. So much the better. Didn't he tell me a thousand times that honest studying is not worth the hassle? At last I can do something useful. Now that he has become a market dealer himself, I can take his place at the counter beside Nikolai Vassilievich. There is so much to sell, so many millions to earn. Andrey himself has not needed to come to the State Examination. He sent the rector a hundred pairs of socks, which are enough for a "satisfactory," and not even Lubov Gavrilovna could do anything about it.

 

With no haste, already in possession of the intellectually unobliging diploma in English Phililogy with honors, Tanya picks up the receiver. She hears an unfamiliar male voice on the line. "Could I speak to Miss Tatyana Prokopenko, please? There is a matter of some importance that I would like to discuss with her."

The humiliating events of the recent past surge into Tatyana's head.

"You fucking bastard, go to hell, you hear me? You go to hell with your fucking offers, and I don't want anything. Fuck you!"

She hangs up with a bang, and, when the telephone rings again, lets her eager mother answer the call.

"Tanya, a nice gentleman has just told me that he was sorry you don't want to work in Kiev, for the Travel Star. He said you must be snowed up with job offers to curse him as you did."

Tanya picks up the telephone and throws it against the wall. The machine is smashed to smithereens. Tanya utters The Cry of Cries, louder than any of her final duet chords. The cry is drowned in the Whirlpool of Tears. She leaves the house in her night gown and slippers. She runs to the United Hostels. Alyosha can't believe his fortune. He jumps to his feet, throws the half-finished cigarette out of the window, lifts her solid weight as if it were a feather, and hauls her onto the iron bed.

"Not before we marry," Tanya says, pushing him away with a firm hand.

If her goddess dumped her, she has now to take the remnants of her once promising fate by the horns.

 

In Donetsk United Hospitals, men are neither allowed into delivery room, nor can they visit the mother at the Obstetrics, so the babies are shown to fathers through ward windows. Alyosha, like every young father, appears daily for a two-minute display of the son. It is, however, difficult to define Tanya as an ordinary mother, at least as seen from the point of view of the hospital staff. No less than twenty times in five days Tanya spent in hospital, the perplexed nurses have been accepting flowers and cards from sundry men. The contents of the cards stuck in the bouquets does not vary in a single word. Each of them says, "Tanya—Thank you for the son!"

I am at the United Hospitals, toonothing serious, just family planning. Andrey says that they will serve me a chicken wing when I wake up. He has paid for that. I am sprawled like a starfish, and there is a needle in my arm bend. One doctor is behind my head, and one is between my knees.

"Why is she still twitching? That dose should have put her under by now!"

"Ah, what the hell. Just get on with it."

My limbs are washed by the green tide, my mind crumbles like stardust and flows down into my stomach. Zazzy, zaftig, zing, zigzag. The alphabet is over now. My loins are full of the final spice. "Well-done," says Ursa Major. "You have deserved your prize."

I hear his topaz breath, I feel the swing of his cloak. He wraps me into its folds, and off we start, away from Donetsk, away from everything united, up into the vernal equinox. He is holding me tight, my Angle, my Saxon, my Jute.

 

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