Olga had never been one for numbers, rarely thought in pictures, and couldn't carry a tune to save her soul - had in fact been asked many times to not sing. But as a girl she'd collected languages the same way people collected keys or buttons. At night she dreamt in other languages and she woke in the morning with spoonfuls of those foreign sounds still on her tongue. Her mother, like all mothers did in the '50s, took care to teach Olga to edit her thoughts, to rein in her curiosity so as to keep them from wavering into the dangerous territory of the speculative. But there was no help for it.
'In what language do angels speak?' Olga asked her mother when she was only six. They stood at the river's edge washing laundry. Upriver at the airbase, engineers were testing turbines and across the murky waters at the tank manufacturing plant, loud rumbles shook the ground. It all seemed safe enough to Olga. 'Yiddish,' her mother said without hesitation. But then because the wind had a way of taking voices and putting them in other people's ears, her mother added, 'Please, not another question like that one, not when we are standing in the wide open.'
In those days it was forbidden to bake matzoh, so after prayers, at the time people told stories, Olga's mother put bread out on the east-facing windowsill. The east window some people called the dog window, and so it was for the dogs that Olga thought her mother set the bread. 'No,' her mother said, 'for wisdom.' The bread was an invitation and an appeal to that old woman, who stood on the corner of busy streets, shaking the dust off her skirts. Without her any story would be heard the wrong way, as a jumble of words. 'Listen,' her mother laid her hand on Olga's forehead, the signal for Olga to climb under the covers. Then she told a story, as she did every night, her way of ferrying Olga to sleep.
'One day, in the good times when matzoh still fell from the sky and men lay about up to their elbows in cockroach milk, a few men got a big idea. “Let's build a tower with bricks. Let's build it so tall it pokes a hole in the heavens,” they said. “We'll tug on God's ear and make Him explain why - with all our great knowledge - our lives feel meaningless and we are so quickly forgotten.”
'This the men of the land said to one another in the single common language that they all knew and shared. Because everybody's sorrow wore the same clothes, knotted and threaded the same way, they all understood what they were working for. But knowing each other so well, never having occasion to misunderstand one another, men in those days were single-minded creatures. They were proud, having forgotten that humility comes with not understanding.'
'And then what?' Olga asked. 'With wind at his fingertips God toppled the tower. It fell into thousands of pieces, and each fallen brick became another heavy language to carry.'
'I don't understand,' Olga said.
'Exactly! The language of man became the language of men, and do you know how many men there are on the land?' Her mother gazed over the top of her glasses at Olga. The answer? Too many to count, and counting lives brought bad luck. At six years of age, already Olga knew this much.
But if all this were meant to discourage Olga from languages, then her mother failed. Miserably. By the time she'd entered the lower grades Olga already had a good working knowledge of written Hebrew - though she made sure to only speak it in whispers, and then only if all the doors and windows were closed. But it was clear to everyone living in their tiny town on the steppe in the way she murmured the positions of stars in Arabic and Greek that Olga was destined for a life in letters.
As a teenager she devoured languages whole the way some people consume entire rounds of cheese, wax rinds and all. 'It'll be heartbreak for you, smart people always suffer at the hands of the stupid, but at least you'll develop your personality, because looks you do not have,' her mother offered by way of encouragement. And her mother was right. Olga was not a great beauty, or even a minor one. But she had a brain in her head. Because of this she was allowed entrance into university where, owing to excessive overcrowding in the dormitories, she shared a room with an Uzbek, a Buryat, a Kumyk, and a Kazakh, each one carrying the smell of wet cotton and cabbage in their hair and dark soil under their fingernails. At night their combined longing for home and the people they'd left behind filled the cramped room in hushed prayers and stinging dreams narrated and translated from one tongue to another. By the end of the first year Olga had picked up their languages and hung them out to dry over the creaking and clanging central heating pipes, which groaned when the early snows fell and sighed all winter long. But in the same way that a great ability can be a terrible curse, the more languages Olga acquired, the more trouble she had articulating her own ideas in any language.
As if knowledge were a deep wound from which she'd spend the rest of her life recovering, everything she had learned at university bit by bit she had begun to forget. Thanks to her many dissertations on linguistics, none of which were approved or published, she had become a permanent invalid, the wisest fool, Ilke - Zvi's mother - said just days before Zvi and Olga's wedding. And yet, by some incredible oversight (had the staffing chief not noticed on her internal passport her line-five classification as Jew? Had the pool of applicants really been so inferior that the local office of such an important newspaper as the Red Star found themselves so desperate?), Olga was offered a job at the Red Star.
'Oh, take it! Take this job!' Ilke said when Olga delivered the news all those years ago: she, a Jew with multiple unpublished dissertations, had been hired to translate at what was possibly at that time the most conservative, hard-line, military-propaganda-churning newspaper in the country. 'Take it and don't complain, Olya. What with all this business with Afghanistan and your failed dissertations, you'll not find another job like this one!'
And Ilke was right: nowhere in all of Russia would Olga have encountered a more absurd working arrangement than that of the translation offices of the Red Star. For purposes of maintaining mental clarity, Olga had over the years numbered the absurdities.
Absurdity no. 1
…was rumoured to be lurking about in the building - somewhere - and hard at work. But in the twenty years that Olga had laboured at the Red Star, first as an earnest young Soviet of the late seventies, then, after Zvi was called up, as a single mother with a boy to raise, and now as a middle-aged woman (forty-four already!), not once had she ever met Editor-in-Chief Mrosik, whose name appeared in the signature portion of her increasingly meager and rare pay cheques. It was also speculated that when he was either very happy or very unhappy, Editor-in-Chief Mrosik brayed like a donkey, but this, too, Olga had never actually witnessed, though strange trumpeting sometimes did float up through the non-functioning elevator, an old metal cage with a retractable guard arm. Every now and then Olga opened the metal guard and stepped inside the small casket-shaped box, just to see if it might be functioning. As her eyes slowly grew accustomed to the dark, messages scrawled across the walls began to assert themselves: 'This carriage last inspected by #49, 7-OCT-1992,' read one; 'We Can Withstand Anything But Close Scrutiny,' read another. 'Better to Overfart than Underfart Incompletely!' proclaimed another slogan scribbled in orange crayon. But by far the strangest:
Fundamental particle: A particle with no internal substructure. In the standard model the quarks, lepton, photons, muons, W+, W- Bosons are fundamental. All other objects are made from these. It is pointless to ask how.
Olga re-emerged from the non-functioning lift and began the long climb up the steps to the fourth floor. When she reached the translation office, she stood at the threshold, out of breath, her bosom heaving, the straps of her plastic bag - every working woman's purse and briefcase - digging into the flesh of her hands. She was waiting for the jabbing pain behind her ribs to ease into a dull ache. Only then could she start breathing normally. Olga sucked in her stomach and eased her backside onto her metal folding chair stationed behind a small metal desk.
Absurdity no. 2
…would be ample, spacious even, if she didn't have to share it with Arkady, who was at this very moment on his hands and knees fumbling with the power cord to the hot plate. For nearly twenty years - Olga sitting on one side and Arkady the other - they had shared bad jokes, flu remedies, family secrets and access to the enormous Topic Guide, a bulwark of a book fastened to the centre of the desk by a thick chain. They spent the better part of each day trying not to nudge or bump knees or trample each other's feet. Difficult to do, as Olga, rounded and padded, in every way resembled more and more a matryoshka. Yes, she was fat. And where she had extra padding, Arkady had none. Arkady had the look of a deprived dog, painfully thin, abused by this life and well aware of it. And where Olga had henna-dyed hair, the only colour of dye she could get, Arkady's hair was a dull brick red salted with grey. This hair - curly no less - together with his slightly olive skin tone, was further visual confirmation of Arkady's line-five nationality status of Jew.
The hotplate plugged in and a small kettle balanced on the plate, Arkady - now repositioned behind the desk - passed gas with gusto. For a long time they sat ignoring the robust odour and looking at the large windows that afforded an expansive view of the rolling paper wheels and cutting blades of the newspaper work floor.
'Ach!' Arkady scratched a circular bruise on his forearm that bore the distinct look of a full set of bite marks. He did this, Olga knew, when he was feeling nostalgic and thinking of his wife, who had run off nearly thirty years ago. She woke in the middle of the night and bit Arkady on the arm and in other places unmentionable and then went dashing off - nude - into the forest, where she later contracted rabies and died.
'Oy!' Now Arkady ran his fingers through what remained of his hair.
Olga peered around the Topic Guide, a dictionary of military, economic, and ethnic and cultural nomenclature.
'I thought we agreed last week that we wouldn't discuss our family problems,' she said, pushing the Memos that Can't Be Ignored to Arkady's side of the desk. Arkady sniffed and pushed them back. This was part of their daily ritual which over the course of twenty years they had groomed and perfected as a married couple who, so accustomed to one another, had little need to actually speak to one another. The physical arrangement of the office space only reinforced their protracted silences; the super-sized Topic Guide created a metre-high barrier between them, while an oversize wire egg basket dangling from the particle board made eye contact almost impossible.
Absurdity no. 3
The wire basket…
…was, according to Arkady, God's way of reminding them to be humble and keep their heads lowered. He said this because by the end of any given day, Olga, in a hurry for the lavs, would stand too quickly and bash her head into the basket at least five times, usually six. For this reason Olga deduced that the basket was Chief Editor Kaminsky's idea of a practical joke. Or perhaps it was the visual representation of a rusty metaphor straining too hard for the literal. The basket, Chief Editor Kaminsky told her all those years ago on her first day of work, had been salvaged from a defunct Kolkoz farm. It was now meant to inspire a sense of nostalgia for all things lost, which included but was not limited to the collective farms and perhaps the memory of the former brilliance of the collective Soviet state. That is to say, a time when the shops had butter and sausage and workers like her had just enough money to buy some of it. Olga could still remember that first day when Chief Editor Kaminsky tapped the basket with his corrector's blue pen. 'This is why Red Star workers shouldn't mind working for little or no pay. Sacrifice is the stone that paves the road to glory.' Olga couldn't see the connection between the oversize wire basket and their empty wallets, but Chief Editor Kaminsky seemed untroubled by her confusion. In all honesty, it had been hard enough for her to pay any attention to his words. Everything about Chief Editor Kaminsky's appearance reminded her of an editing sample gone awry. He had two typesetter's bushy insertion marks - sharp mountains - for eyebrows. He was entirely bald except for two long patches of hair - exclamation points - that he tried to subdue with hair dressing. But when he walked the two swatches flopped this way and that. And his eyes! Olga had always believed the tired cliché that the eyes were the window to the soul, an invitation to look and contemplate. But in Chief Editor Kaminsky's mercury-coloured irises, a strange non-reactive colour, Olga could not read a thing.
'Do you see what I mean?' Chief Editor Kaminsky asked, his hands joined behind his back and his pear-shaped body swaying from side to side, his whole body marking the time of his words.
'No. Not at all,' Olga admitted.
Chief Editor Kaminsky smiled. 'You don't understand now,' he rocked on his heels, 'but you will. Later.'
And Olga bobbed her head in assent. It was, perhaps, the longest conversation they'd ever had. And ever since then, each morning, as if by magic, new assignments appeared in the basket which swung, ever so slightly, as if gently pushed by an invisible hand.
The items that found their way to the basket ranged from Letters to the Editor, to soft features like local weather reports and current events (last week she translated the election results of the Magadan Oblast, where a dog had been elected mayor, and from the Amur region, with its sightings of werewolves in nightgowns), to 'work-on-the-left' assignments. The Letters to the Editor, very often discussions of opinions regarding such volatile matters as foreign policy or ethics in time of war, were promptly gathered and trundled off to the women's lavs where they were recycled in a most environmentally sound and utilitarian fashion. That is, they were used for toilet paper. The soft features she and Arkady had permission to translate as transparently as they wished. Harder to handle were the work-on-the-left assignments, which were given, she knew, as a way to generate a little extra money to keep the newspaper afloat in these unbuoyant times. But here again, more absurdity; the translators - that is, Olga and Arkady - never saw a single rouble for all their troubles.
For this reason, when these left-work assignments arrived mysteriously in the egg basket, it was Arkady and Olga's long-established habit to leave them exactly where they lay in the hopes that Editor-in-Chief Mrosik would forget he'd assigned them in the first place. The curled yellowed pages lining the bottom of the basket were, in fact, the text of a children's primer. It had been in the basket for well over a year and Olga knew why: they had been asked to rewrite the history portions so that they more accurately reflected an interpretation of events everyone could more comfortably live with. This, she knew, would involve constant consultation of the massive Topic Guide. Every news agency had such a guide, which was really a hernia-inducing dictionary replete with recommendations to the media on how to describe or define various terms. Certain phrases like 'protest demonstrations', 'miners' hunger strike', 'freedom of speech' and 'banking crisis' had no alternate suggestion and therefore were forbidden nomenclature, having been classified as 'Pointless in the context of the editorial mission and policies of a paper such as the Red Star.'
Yet in spite of the Topic Guide's conspicuous lapses, they were fortunate, Chief Editor Kaminsky liked to remind them, to have such a guide in the first place.
'How else would we know what to say?' he'd ask with a chuckle. How else would they know, for instance, to rephrase theft of fuel as 'thrift of fuel', Stalin's mass deportations and executions of Jews and Gypsies and other groups of 'rootless cosmopolitans' as 'improving the view', and filtration camps as 'containment resorts'? And without the Topic Guide, how else would they know how to navigate words describing the human body, parts and functions - all of which could be for the naturally sensitive Russian embarrassing, indelicate and undignified? How else would they know that urine was water, and blood nothing more than a nutritive fluid? How else would they know to call forced abortions 'necessary interruptions' (though in the case of Gypsy and other women of swarthy complexion, it was called a 'mop-up', the type of which usually resulted in sterilization)? What would they do without these terms tidily rendering innocuous the words that broadcast to the readership the frailties of this life, a reality they were all doing their level best to ignore?
Olga closed her eyes and thrust her hand into the swirl of papers in the basket, feeling for the least offensive one. At last she withdrew a single curled sheet of fax paper.
Nadezhda Radova Vulpin, a chemical engineer from the Kamchatka region, was charged with disturbing the peace after she slashed part of the right breast belonging to another woman. The victim, her sister, Lyuda Radova Vulpin, retaliated by shearing off a portion of her older sister's left breast. Back and forth they went, tit for tat, until both women were rendered entirely breastless.
Fairly painless, as far as translations go, and just the kind of soft feature Chief Editor Kaminsky preferred to run on the front pages so as to dampen the effect of the other bad news. Olga translated the report from Koryak to Russian word by word, only altering the references to body parts while preserving the raw essence of paranoid ethnocentrism: people in the east behaved like animals and should be considered as such. Sadly, in all the offices of the Red Star the general feeling was that if it were happening to the people in the east or the south - that is, to the Mongols, the Uzbeks, the Buryats, the Avars, the Chechens, the Laks, the Lezghins, the Kazakhs - then those savages certainly deserved it. Which explains the newspaper's policy of bestowing upon these events an air of the inculpable, the inescapable and thus unavoidable, at all times suggesting that these atrocities had happened to people who in some way asked for it.
Olga dipped her hand into the basket and withdrew another slip of paper. A recent report of anti-Semitism in the oil-rich Nefteyugansk area. Hardly surprising. Olga bit the nib of her pencil and scribbled a draft copy, writing up the incident as a low-grade malaise of ancient origin with a high nationalistic fibre content. The translation completed, Olga rolled the original work order with her rewrite into a tight scroll and slipped it into a bullet-shaped canister that rested in the open mouth of the howling tubes.
Absurdity no. 4
…consisted of a vascular network of transparent pneumatic tubing that snaked the walls then hooked sharply to disappear into the ceiling and floor. The moment either Arkady or Olga finished translating a report they sent both the original and translated version to Chief Editor Kaminsky for verification and approval. But it was hazardous work, retrieving or sending canisters, and Vera, Olga's best friend and senior fact-checker, told Olga about a former translator who had thrust her head in the open canister dock. Her bosom, which was not insubstantial, had been pulled into the dock. It took three men and all their strength to pry the poor woman free. What bothered the woman most was not the indignities to which her body had been subjected, but that she'd lost her brassiere. Even worse, she had been left with bruises in compromising places. And it took some effort on the part of the internal-memo-translation team to render the on-site production trauma sufficiently oblique in writing as to not make the woman the butt of everyone's break-time jokes.
Yes, the tubes were a danger. Olga herself had witnessed the terrifying sucking power of their internal wind and had seen cufflinks and buttons, even the occasional set of dentures, clatter through the pipes, and heard their clacking and rattling against the sides.
She took a breath, held it, then opened the plastic hatch and slid the canister in, one centimetre at a time. The canister trembled, as if it too were afraid. Then it shot up and away through the tubing, through the hole in the office ceiling built specifically for this device. Olga wiggled her fingers, sighed in relief. A good day, all in all, and taking it as a sign, she decided to quit early while she was still ahead.
Through the snow Olga trudged, dimly aware that in faraway places people spoke with purer words of unvarnished meaning. Or maybe not. Maybe at other news agencies in other countries people simply told more palatable lies. And as she rounded the corner and climbed over the remains of the broken stone archway that marked the entrance to the courtyard, she felt despair sliding down her throat, setting up quick residence in her stomach. Language was, after all, just wordshaped stains, simply another way people hide themselves from one another, one more way to evade and obscure the truth.
And then, perched on the roof of their apartment building, was Mircha, a one-armed weathervane leaning into a thin-set snow. 'Truth,' Mircha shook his fist, 'is a whore! And history,' Mircha stopped to point his finger at Olga, 'is giving me indigestion!'
'Mr Aliyev,' Olga said, both a greeting and a dismissal, 'come down from the rooftop. You are drunk.'
'I am fishing,' Mircha pronounced.
Olga surveyed the heap of refuse glistening under a hard drop of frost. Everyone threw their trash out of their windows onto the heap; given the fact that the wind pushed from the east and that the sanitation crews were on perpetual strike, the window-toss method of garbage collection and containment was as efficient as any other. Also, it served as a visual catalogue of items no longer fit for any earthly purpose: rusted cables, engine blocks, even the burnt shell of a PT-76, an amphibious light tank. Balanced on the roof of this tank sat a typewriter minus the strikers and ribbon. And wedged in the typewriter was a fishing rod. Olga pointed to the ungainly pile. 'But your rod is on the heap.'
Mircha leaned over the edge of the roof. 'Where I am going I have no need for such a rod; what I am fishing for requires a much larger hook.'
Olga dismissed Mircha with a single-handed flick of the wrist and began her climb up the stairs to the third floor. At the threshold of the apartment she shared with her son, Yuri, and his semi-permanent girlfriend, Zoya, she stamped her feet and jangled her keys, wordless noise being the best way of alerting them that she was entering.
In the kitchen Yuri sat at the table as he often did these days, swaying slowly from side to side as if in agony. Yuri, Olga knew, was born to suffer and nothing she'd done for him as a child or a man had deterred him from hewing a path through a thicket of sorrow. But she tried to encourage him. She did not pester him about his hobbies, that assortment of fishing flies, wire, paper clips, and goat hair spread across yesterday's copy of the Red Star which was in turn spread over the kitchen table. She tried not to mind the fact that Zoya spent much of her time in the kitchen, filing her nails, as she was doing at this very moment.
'Who is making all that noise?' Zoya looked up briefly from her nails.
'Mr Aliyev. On the rooftop again,' Olga said, bending for her jars of schi stacked under the sink. It was extremely rude to point her backside toward Zoya like that, but it was just the kind of mood she was in. Who invited this girl into her apartment? Not Olga, and as the girl had done little to familiarize herself with the kitchen and how to cook or clean in one, she was for Olga simply one more adult-child to care for. Olga emptied the soup into a large pot, slid it onto the ring and waited for it to burn bright red. Now that Sabbath had crept in on the hem of dark, they'd say a prayer, as good Jews should, and eat the soup. And like turning out her pockets by a river, the badness of the days of that week would leave her, if only for a short time. But then the soup heated too quickly in some places, not enough in other. The cabbage despaired in the pot, turning tired and stringy. It was a very bad sign, the soup being life itself. Cabbage and schi, that's our life. An old saying she'd learned. She used to know so many more of the sayings, but now they'd flown away from her. And Olga stamped her feet and fumed quietly.
'What the matter, Mother?' Yuri looked up from his fly, which for all the world looked to Olga like a silly wad of ratty hair wrapped around a paper clip.
Zoya sniffed mightily in the direction of the pot.
Olga scowled. 'Pay no attention. It's just the soup.'
Yuri swayed on the chair slightly. 'And if it's good…'
'…you don't need anything else in this world or the next,' Olga finished the saying. There. That's what she was trying to remember. Another thing about schi: it's a winter soup. You put it up in summer and let it sour through the autumn. Then in winter, when the stomach turned nostalgic, you ate it, a little at a time, stretching it through the months until May when the first cabbage of the season could be planted. Her mother taught her these things, and told her it was every woman's responsibility to teach at least one other woman how to make it.
But it was so hard to pass on the bits of knowledge, the traditions, to people who did not care to learn them. Olga studied Zoya from the corner of her eye. Yes, the girl was good looking, hair dark as Voronezh soil. But she'd not cultivated in herself any curiosity whatsoever about the past, and little concern for the present. The girl, it seemed, lived entirely for industrial cosmetics. Olga turned back to the pot, quietly muttering her disapproval.
'Why not consult a cookbook?' Zoya tapped a pointed fingernail against the glossy varnish of the wooden table.
Yes, all in all it was a bad day. And now this: opinions. Olga sighed loudly. But Yuri, busy tying flies for an imaginary fishing rod, didn't seem to notice. 'I don't trust cookbooks,' Olga stated.
Zoya started in on another coat of varnish. 'You only say that because you work for a military newspaper. Naturally, then, you are suspicious of all print media.'
Olga clamped her jaw and ground down on the molars. The girl was right. A cookbook was a fantasy, another form of a lie, promising things that could never happen in ordinary kitchens: that an onion sliced a certain way would not weep and neither would the cook who cuts it, that a miracle will boil up from beans if only one remembered to throw off the first three farting waters. But, as any well-seasoned cook knows, the best recipes cannot suffer being placed on permanent record. These recipes, many of them containing guarded family jokes, curses, blessings, and secrets, were never meant to be written, and certainly never meant to be read. This has to be why, Olga deduced, in the steppe culture of displaced Jews, the ultimate insult was to compliment a woman's cooking by asking for a recipe.
The pot boiled over and hissed. 'Too much salt,' Zoya pronounced and Olga shook her head sadly. The second insult was to offer advice in the form of a helpful suggestion. Because soups were like our lives, were like our very selves, they had to be made with a flaw. This is what Olga wished she could teach Zoya. Because only God is perfect and because good Jews like Olga know that until they see God face to face, they can never be perfect, a wise cook deliberately flaws the soup. The imperfection reminds each of them that as they drain that last drop of broth, they take that imperfection - a pinch too much of white pepper, an extra dollop of pickled cabbage, a twinge of the lavender bud - into themselves, a taste on the tongue to remind them that even good things sometimes settle badly.
The simplest of these soups is called the bride's soup, a dish Olga remembered preparing on her wedding day under the watchful eye of Ilke, her soon-to-be mother-in-law. There was Zvi, his best trousers rolled up and the guests standing behind him. Ilke brought in a basin of river water and Olga knelt and washed Zvi's feet. When she'd washed to Ilke's satisfaction, Olga drank the water, drank until she drained even the dirt. For a Jewish wife it has to be this way, taking the dust of the road, of her husband's journey, into herself so that they can carry the road between them. What words? No words, just the dust, the only true element. 'Cry out,' the rabbi canted. 'What shall we cry?' the guests asked. All men are like grass, like the flower that fades. To dust they return. 'It's bitter,' a male guest sang. 'So a kiss to make it sweet,' they all replied. And they kissed. For the first time, Olga with grains of dirt lodged between her molars.
It was just one of the many old steppe traditions that Olga wanted to teach her future daughter-in-law, whoever that might be - but this girl here, dumb as a Tula cookie, simply could not or would not catch on. At this precise moment, for some reason - God only knew why - maybe because her eyes and ears had become well turned for a disaster in progress - Olga looked up. A dark form fell past the kitchen window and landed on the heap with a loud thud.
'Good God!' Yuri jumped from his chair. Olga threw open the window. For a long moment Olga, Yuri and Zoya observed Mircha's broken body, steaming in the snow beside the heap. A disaster all right, and Olga couldn't find the words for it. All the phrases and euphemisms flapped about uselessly, overcoats four sizes too big.
'Go and bring him in,' Olga turned to Yuri at last. 'We'll put him in the bath,' she said, pulling the window closed and drawing the curtain over it.