A child shrieked at the same time a car horn blared and oh, frightening hope struck unexpectedly, overwhelming her as she stood at the open window. Summer gloaming: laughter of the little ones, headlights turning corners and, somewhere beyond brick garden walls, the delicate ring of glass against glass. Sweet, invisible disturbances. Anya leaned far out over the windowsill, dipping into the violet evening. She breathed deep.
It was the right time for optimism, threshold-time. Things emerged from the spirit realm while the world was in mid-stride like this. Fairy-folk and baby snatchers, yes, but also, she hoped, a new life for them both.
Anya eased back inside and shut the window. She turned to face the nursery, a plain space, its walls painted faint blue. It was a mansard room at the top of the house with an angled ceiling. She didn’t really like the weight of this slope hanging overhead – but there was undeniably something cozy, something mousy about the place. It made one want to sprinkle rose petals and thimbles on the miniature furnishings. “A tiny room for a tiny human,” they joked. In one corner was a rocking chair they had whimsically purchased. The first time Anya sat in it, she realized it was too hard: like a dress shoe, it was lovely and completely impractical. She lined it with mismatched cushions, but she did not do much rocking, anyway. She liked to walk, humming old songs in her son’s ear.
Her son was asleep in his crib. She had put him down ten minutes earlier and then gone to open the window. She had winced, thinking the traffic might wake him, but he was fine. He was always fine once he was down. It was the separation he didn’t like. He howled if you tried to place him horizontally while he was still conscious. Anya’s mother-in-law had nodded wisely: “You’re going to have trouble with him. Prams, cots, the lot.”
Anya, to her own surprise, didn’t find the crying too bad. But she was unnerved every time she had to peel him off her chest: it was as if, during those moments in her arms, he merged with her again, flesh stuck fast to flesh. The baby and her midriff were made of the same stuff, pulpy, jiggly. Kolobok. Like in the story where the old couple makes a child out of dough, but the dough-child has a mind of its own, jumps off the windowsill, rolls away into the woods and gets eaten by a fox.
They will do that to you, Anya thought, children. Like everyone, she had decided to be different with her own son. Let him roll, let him roll.
She leaned over the crib and whispered, “Kolobok.” She thought about tickling him but contented herself with lightly placing one finger on his chest. She grinned: he was soft, yeasty, the correct temperature.
She left the door to the nursery ajar to let his smell drift through the house.
In the kitchen Tom had been washing up. “The sky is so beautiful,” Anya told him. “Do you see?” She did not hear his reply over the sound of water running in the sink, but went to crack open the back door that led to their garden. In came the warm and hopeful summer breath and that pealing of silver. Communion of unseen folk, Anya thought. She was suddenly thirsty for a glass of white wine. She hadn’t started drinking again, not yet.
Tom came up to Anya and she put her head on his shoulder. “We should invite some people, Tom.”
“Sure. Could be fun.”
“A dinner party.”
“People from work?”
She nodded. Those were the only kind she knew here. “People from work.”
At one in the morning, after the cycle of crying, feeding, and rocking, Anya lowered her son into his crib again. Tom used the nightlight whenever he was in the nursery, but she liked for her own eyes to get used to the darkness. She felt sharper and wiser that way.
“Goodnight, kolobok,” she whispered to the boy. With one hand on the doorknob she sniffed the air. It was warm and sweet. She thought suddenly, Don’t the English also say that – a bun in the oven? She would have to ask Tom. She rolled the sounds around in her mouth, skeptical. Bun. In the oven.
Well, she had promised herself she’d be making an effort here.
“Goodnight, bun in the oven,” she said.
The people from work were mostly recruited analysts and their spouses. Anya knew them all vaguely. Oh, it was fine, the party. She had bought a crate of white wine but found herself drinking none of it. She flitted between people and looked them all in the eye. The analysts had a way of politely looking through her as if she were semi-transparent; the spouses latched onto her so fiercely with their conversation that she suspected they must have come determined, desperate to secure one new friend in a strange place. What they all had in common was that they came from somewhere else and could agree on a mutual, indulged distaste of where they now found themselves. In their expression they met each other halfway in the bog of English, wading knee-deep into the agitated water, arms held out for balance and careful not to slip lest they go under completely, heads and all.
“How old?” demanded a woman named Marianne, looking at Anya’s son. He had been brought down to be presented and now curled his little fist around Anya’s lapel. When someone stared at him too intently, an anxious wrinkle would appear between his eyebrows. Anya thought, ten more minutes and there will be fuss.
“Almost six months,” Anya said.
“He went on the plane, too?”
“No. Born here.”
“Ah!” A ripple moved through the gathered women.
“You have made a root now,” said Soethera.
“You have been here for a long time,” added Marianne.
“No,” Anya protested earnestly. “Not very long… Only a year.”
“Longer than us. It feels like a very extended trip from which we do not go back.”
“Be honest, are you bored?” This was Julia, who did not have children, and had been looking around at the others with a gleam in her eye.
She is insufferable, Anya thought. The kolobok was feeling heavier by the minute, pressing into her chest with soft insistence, perhaps trying to burrow his way back in. She wanted to put him down: then he would cry and she would be allowed to disappear along with him. “Of course I am not bored,” she said. “Only, time runs different now.”
In fact, time was feeling flat and pale, like a river in a desert. She could hardly tell if it were moving and in which direction. But what a question! Anya squeezed the kolobok and willed him to scream.
“No time to be bored,” murmured a woman called Luisa. “Mine is three. Already I am doing first the picture book in the Catalan.” She jerked her head in the direction of a few of the men. “Her father is doing the picture book in the Greek. My Greek is not very good, especially the reading.”
“Well, if it’s a picture book,” said Julia.
“You don’t do English at home?” Anya asked Luisa.
Luisa looked alarmed. “Ah no. Already they get too much outside. In the school, the nursery.”
“Once it is in, it is hard to get out,” supplied Marianne. “In our house, the front door is like a line the English can’t cross. Simply. It stops there. My children do not speak to me in English.”
“Not at all?”
“Not a word.”
Anya looked at the kolobok. It was tyrannical, she thought, to do this to the children. The adults, that was well enough: Anya even understood that their linguistic resistance was a way of not being entirely here. For instance, she and Tom argued over “pram” and “carriage.” Anya wouldn’t give “carriage” up. The first time she heard “baby carriage” (and perhaps it had been on some American television show), she pictured white horses in a train pulling a golden affair, mice coachmen in fleur-de-lis livery. From within, an infant brandished his rattle like a scepter. For this reason – this reason that made her smile and which, she found, she could not explain to Tom – she did not give up the “carriage.”
“And what about the father?” Luisa was asking Marianne. “You are in the same situation as me. Two languages in the family. You have to make time for the first, time for the second…”
“Yes, he speaks Dutch to them. He is not so strict as me, he lets them talk to him in English. I don’t think their Dutch will be very good.” Marianne added, ruefully: “His French is good.”
“So lucky! He will help you out.”
“No, sometimes his pronunciation is wrong. They will speak the language properly, I will make sure. Like they are growing up over there, and not here.”
Anya searched for Tom with her eyes. This had not come up in their discussions. They had decided on a name for their son, on a school, on the color of the walls in his little room – but they had not thought to give him a careful arrangement of languages. Anya had assumed the process would be natural, like breathing.
Julia, who had drained her glass during the conversation, excused herself.
“You do not talk much,” Marianne said, looking at Anya. “You are not afraid he may fall behind?”
“Um,” Anya said. She shifted the kolobok to her other arm and wondered if she could pinch him. Just enough to get her out of here.
“Does he go to bed easily?” asked Soethera, trying to keep the peace. “With mine it was always, cry, cry, cry.”
“It is helpful if I am singing.”
“What language are your lullabies?” Luisa immediately asked.
To Anya’s great relief, the kolobok opened his mouth and issued a perfect howl, like a gong striking midnight at the ball.
What a question! Anya thought again as she climbed the stairs. What language are my lullabies… Truth be told, her lullabies were all incomplete. She had faint melodies from childhood cartoons in her head, no verses and all refrains. She figured those would do. Her son will watch those cartoons, surely, as he grows up. She will find them for him somewhere on the Internet. He will listen to the songs in their completeness, not even knowing that he’d heard parts from his mother first.
Of course you didn’t remember your own lullabies. By the time you were old enough to understand and remember, your parents had stopped singing and started storytelling. If you were lucky, you had siblings, and so eavesdropped in your jealousy.
Anya herself had a younger brother, and with that brother had come knowledge of a shadow of a tune. He had been weeks old: there was a terrible thunderstorm, the baby wouldn’t sleep. Anya had stood by the door to the balcony and pressed her palms against her ears, unsure which was worse – the thunder or the baby’s crying. Anya watched the rain flaying the avenue below while her mother and grandmother paced through the rooms – cold, vaulting rooms, wallpapered yellow-brown. Then a flash of lightning shocked everything white, and Anya jumped, and ran, pigtails horizontal, pursued by the roll of thunder as if by a wolf.
She had run up to the women with the baby, and they shook her off. They returned to their singing. Anya could not remember if there had been words to their song, or only a senseless melody. What is sense to a baby, after all? The tune had gone up and down the scales, simply, traditionally, and ended with a sort of hiccup. It was the kind sung by a chorus of women with flower crowns in their hair. An old song from the dawn of things. Its words might have been simple – sun and stream, birch and fox – written by a people looking, pointing, naming.
How sad, Anya now thought in the darkness of the mansard nursery, that there was no thunderstorm in this country on this night. No mother and grandmother, no yellow-brown wallpaper. Just the kolobok kicking at his mobile. Yes, sad, in a strange way and for them both. She would have liked her son to hear the cottonwoods shaking off the rain in the morning. She would have liked him to catch in his small fists the fluff that drifted from the trees – so much, you woke up one day and thought you’d gone mad, the ground covered in snow in early summer. So much, you imagined you could collect it and weave it into a shirt. Anya’s grandmother could make clothes out of anything. She once made mittens out of hair shed by the cat.
Anya did not even notice herself telling the kolobok all this. Breathing words at him over his cradle like a pagan breathing life into a lump of dough.
They went out for their usual walk, Anya and the kolobok, without having realized that the weather had turned. The kolobok rolled a foot ahead while Anya panted. Her hands slipped in their own sweat on the handle of the baby carriage. At the end of every street the air shimmered and broke.
She turned toward the park, but it was made up of broad lawns, commons baking in the sun. Not a single human soul wandered across the landscape. Realm of the dead, Anya thought. She found a bench under a tree at the intersection of two paths. She tucked her dress close around her legs so the surface would not scald.
Rolling the carriage back and forth with her foot, she thought about the books she’d bought – bought them here, where knowledge was written, not oral. They told her to point and speak to the baby. Identify objects by their proper names in your language. Was this “your” assumed to be the plural version of the word? Was it assumed, wondered Anya as she gazed at the kolobok, who was looking sweaty around the hairline, that the baby and the mother would always share a language? She admitted it had never crossed her mind that it could be otherwise. They were made too much of the same stuff, she and the boy. They always would be.
Perhaps the others had been right. Her son would know English anyway. Tom would speak it to him. Like the dinner table, it would be a common space in which all three of them came together. Anya felt a rush of defensiveness: and what about the mother’s tongue?
Let us name some things, she decided. She took the kolobok out of the carriage. She pointed at the sky, at the fried grass, at the still tree, at the sparrow hopping around the drinking fountain. Especially the sparrow. She followed the bird with her words insistently, repeating its name in the other language until, with a derisive ruffle, the bird took off and vanished into the cloudless sky. Meanwhile her son was puckered and kicking, angry at the heat, twisting his head this way and that as if a door of escape might appear mid-air and lead to some cooler country.
Anya felt a grim satisfaction: you too, eh? That made both of them. She let him pummel her belly for a bit, then placed him back in the carriage and put up the hood.
Where to now? Her usual circuit – bakery, newsagent, the pretty way round through the crescent? Not in this heat. Home, to take refuge in the nursery and wait for Tom to get back?
And anyway, she thought, now pushing the carriage the expanse of the unsheltered park, the words weren’t sticking. Not out here. She could call a sparrow by its other name all she liked, but the other name would still slide off like putty in the sun. Here the bird answered to one way of calling only. The kolobok would grow up and know the names of things as they exist in this place. Pram. Aspen. Supper. Lane. In this place that has no pity, allows no purchase. And time a shallow river in a desert, white and still.
Drought yielded to flood. The season shifted, months and months of rain. One night the boiler broke. In the morning Anya heated water on the stove, somehow gratified. She had been bathed with boiled water from a pot; she would boil water in a pot with which to bathe her son.
Around Christmastime a fine dusting of snow fell, shocking everyone. The first white streaks appeared in Anya’s russet hair.
She spent a lot of time in the nursery, more than she used to. She read, scrolled through the web, and above all watched the kolobok. She talked; he crawled, then he climbed. Sometimes Anya even slept up here, pleading some maternal anxiety with Tom, surprising herself.
She pulled woolen sweaters over her son’s head as he wailed his discontent. She watched him straining – straining, she suspected, to say his first word. The gurgles and murmurs were swiftly moving toward sense. The boy held himself up by the bars of his crib as he cast his eyes about the room. Anya waited anxiously to see if she would be dubbed first. Mama?
“Mghu,” said the kolobok. Anya rocked back and forth in her chair.
Around seven Tom came home, shaking icy drops off his coat. He slid down the nursery wall to sit on the floor and rubbed his hands together: “Lord, it’s nice and warm in here.” The kolobok waved at his father.
“I think he’s trying to say his first word,” Anya said.
“Is he now?” Cross-legged, Tom reached out to the boy. “Say Dada. Dada? Mama?”
The baby laughed, spring-like, and she could’ve sworn she saw her son give his father a shake of the head.
The nursery acquired a certain odor. Anya couldn’t be sure: perhaps it was she who had a cold, or perhaps she’d been spending too much time in that room. She walked around the house to clear her nose, then returned to the nursery. There it was. Not warm, not fleshy; somehow feral.
She sniffed and looked at Tom. “See what I mean?”
“Kind of,” said Tom with alarm. “Mice?”
The baby was taken out of the nursery while the room’s crannies and edges were inspected, fingers run along the skirting. But the room appeared as hermetic as the first day they’d seen it. So the crib was put back in its usual spot. The baby, too, was turned over in consternation, but the boy looked as well as ever.
Anya tried to remember what it reminded her of, this faint smell, as she sat up in the nursery and counted headlights illuminating the wall. Something animal-like, to be sure. A wet dog? She couldn’t say; she’d never had a dog. Some trees stank, she knew. She craned her neck to look out the window, where empty winter branches formed lattices.
Suddenly aware that her son was awake, she turned back around. From the crib the baby was looking at her with glittering eyes.
She lifted herself an inch out of the rocking chair.
The kolobok opened his mouth and said:
She rushed over – floated over, without feeling her limbs – and, grabbing each side of the crib, leaned over the child:
“**** *** *******?” she asked.
“*****!” the baby repeated.
She laughed, snatched him up in her arms and danced with him around the room. He laughed along with her, complicit.
Her legs formed a v-shape on the nursery room floor and the baby played between them. Now that he had learned the word, he repeated it endlessly. Tower of blocks: “*****.” The foot of the crib for the chewing: “*****.” Mama’s hands wrapping themselves around his body: “*****.”
“What does it mean?” asked Tom, leaning against the doorframe, perplexed.
“It’s… difficult to translate.”
“But is it a simple word?” Tom laughed. “Or is our baby a born genius?”
“Oh yes, it’s simple.” Anya beamed. It was a word that indicated comfort, home; a particular type of watering can with a round handle that you leave outside the door when you come in, trailing mud and smelling of earth; also, the crook of a mother’s arm in which an infant nestles, and, by extension, mama herself, although this word had little aural resemblance to most other mamas.
“Anyway, he’ll pick up loads of stuff now that he’s started. We should take him for a walk, show him the birds, the cars and everything.”
“Oh, not yet,” said Anya. She shivered. “It is still very chilly.”
In the shower that night she thought she picked up the doggish scent from the nursery. It seemed to be on her skin. She licked the water off her forearm. Sniffed. She grabbed a washcloth and scrubbed hard.
Her parents-in-law came over for cake in honor of the baby’s first word. Anya tried to teach them the word and they all mispronounced it. “A baby can say it but I can’t?” her father-in-law muttered.
They had cake and tea in the nursery. So we can all sit on the floor with him, Anya had said. The mother-in-law had come in a skirt and nylon stockings and tucked her legs sideways with great effort. “Well this is very oriental,” she said.
Anya was at ease, moving among the limbs and teacups with a shameless lope. When she brushed past, her mother-in-law asked, “Are you wearing perfume?”
Anya blushed. “Only a little.”
“That can’t be good for the baby!”
“It’s been smelling a little musty inside the house,” said Tom. “It’s the damp.”
“The baby needs fresh air.”
“It’s just the weather is so unpleasant right now.”
“Should break in a few days, isn’t that right?”
“Forecast says there’s sunshine starting Monday.”
The kolobok, chewing on a ring, caught Anya’s eye and grinned. They all followed his motions lovingly.
“Such a scrumptious baby,” said the mother-in-law.
Anya moved a plate of cake out of the kolobok’s path. “Scrumptious? What does it mean?”
“Means tasty, doesn’t it?”
“Delightful and tasty.”
“Oh yes,” said Anya. “He absolutely is.”
A world thawed anew and blossoming: the sphere had passed into death and out again. Time was a river and now it swelled with the rains. Unseen things were squawking in the hedgerows and her son was no longer rolling, but walking. The bigger he grew, the stranger Anya felt. Kolobok, kolobok had sprouted limbs. Anya was afraid that, in what was still largely a stream of babble that belonged to no identifiable language, he was singing the old refrain:
I’ve run away from grandmama…
I’ve run away from grandpapa…
I’ll run away from you…
Tom offered to take him on walks by himself. He thought Anya needed some rest; he thought Anya should get a job, make some friends, claim some time back for herself. The two of them returned, bright-eyed, from where they had gone crushing snowdrops underfoot, pearls on their raincoats. “We saw a sparrow,” Tom said excitedly. “We said, a sparrow!”
The kolobok looked up at Anya. “Sa-wow,” he pronounced.
“Oh darling,” said Anya, and swept him up in her arms. She murmured other words into his ear with which to undo the damage.
Claim some time? Carve out some space? Her son was her only space, the only foothold in this world. He was the familiar promontory jutting out of the rushing water. Slip off that, and she was drowned.
The kolobok laughed at his mother. He was warm and heavy between her hands. Sweet like sugar, honeyed like a bun.
She licked her lips and heaved him closer.
Now the sky remained pale for longer. Pockets of pink and gold shone around rainclouds, promising warm fronts to come, and apple blossoms, and glassware to be forgotten on garden furniture again.
In the nursery, Anya and the kolobok were turning the pages of a book when the storm announced itself. She shut the window as the rain began to lash, and that odd nursery smell rose to overtake all other smells. By now she was certain that it was more than the damp. It was like the acrid part of the woods in which poisonous things grew.
A clap of thunder sounded unexpectedly close. Anya jumped, and the kolobok, who had been restless and discontent the better half of the day, began to cry. She hoisted him onto her shoulder and patted his back: shush shush shush.
Anya felt the next roll of thunder in her collarbone. The kolobok howled, as if to compete with the elements. His cries reverberated around the base of Anya’s skull. She smiled and thought – it must have been nicer inside me, right? Warm and quiet.
How good this fact now seemed, how desirable!
She trod circles with the boy in her arms. He had never been so heavy, and never, it seemed, so loud. His mouth was leaving a damp imprint on her shirt. He was wording something through his tears. “*****?”
Shush shush, Anya thought. Let’s have a tune to make you sleep: come closer so that I can hear you better, come closer so that I can taste you better…
In the street the gutters overflowed; in the street the waters rose.
Anya wrapped both arms around the boy, fiercely, hungrily. His weight was reassuring. Little foothold in the river! She was never letting go. She bade, let it be like this forever: child and thunderstorm and lullaby.
Hear the thunder softening now, see the baby’s eyelids drooping; put your tongue against the baby’s skin and taste its sweet unstrangeness.
Anya thought, oh morsel of the mother country!
Yawned wide –
And swallowed him whole.
Daria Chernysheva was born in Russia and moved to the United States as a child. She is a writer and translator from Russian and French. Her translations have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, AzonaL, and Triple Canopy. She was the recipient of the 2019 French Voices Award for excellence in literary translation. She is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Critical Writing at University College London.