Like Penelope was first published in 2008 as part of a short story collection that was published in celebration of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya’s 70th birthday. Petrushevskaya, who is one of the most well-known and widely read writers in Russia today, is known as a ruthless writer who has a tendency to focus on the grotesque side of life; misery, neglect and annihilation are examined under a cruel and uncompromising looking glass. However, in Like Penelope something different happens: Like Penelope is a sort of miracle in Petrushevskaya’s writing, a literary miracle. The story takes place as Christmas (Novi God) approaches and culminates in a very Western Christmas miracle. At first glance, there could be nothing more alien to Petrushevskaya than this sugary Western tradition that has been commercialized ad nauseam. But still, a miracle takes place here as Petrushevskaya writes about compassion, humanity and, god forbid, romantic love. Through the sharp observation of reality, realistic handling of her characters and a compassion that stems from some sort of deep source, she tells an alternative tale of a Christmas miracle.
Here once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else. The girl was used to it and didn’t get too upset. Her name was Oksana – a glamorous, fashionable name — but our heroine wished for something plainer: Tanya or Lena or even Xenia. She was a serious-minded young lady, tall but not very graceful.
Oksana studied forestry in a third-tier college – the only one she could attend for free. Upon graduating she could expect to get a clerical job in a state agency tallying birches and firs on paper. She and her mother shared a two-room apartment in a standard concrete building. In one respect their housing situation stood out: right below them, on the third floor, lived an incredibly noisy family of violent alcoholics. Every night the floor shook with screams, banging, and knocking; the lady of the house regularly interrupted her partying to stumble outside and yell “Murder!” and “Help!” Oksana tiptoed past their ravaged door; outside she dressed in dark clothing and wore her hat low over her face.
This was because she came home late, when it was already dark: she had the precious opportunity to take an affordable evening English class her school had introduced. Her mother told her about a certain Vladimir Lenin, who had learned a new language by translating a page of text into Russian and then back into the language, and Oksana adopted Lenin’s method, translating texts about logging, rafting, and skidding – clearly her college expected its students to haul timber on the Thames. The students protested, insisting that England didn’t need Russian loggers with college degrees, and begged to be taught normal spoken English.
At that time, Oksana’s mother was unemployed. She had set aside her hopes of being hired as an editor and tried to pick up at least some copyediting. She called publishers and received “test assignments”: a novel in two volumes, an action thriller of five hundred pages, a pharmacology textbook. Two weeks per project. At first Nina Sergeevna laughed at these assignments and their illiterate language and quoted the best lines to Oksana: “a passerby passed by” or “he was sitting on a seat.” Driven by professional pride, she stayed up all night rewriting these miserable tomes down to the last comma. But when she tried to reach her so-called employers, she always ended up speaking to their secretaries, who told her that, alas, she hadn’t passed the test. Oksana rightly suspected that these so-called publishers took advantage of her mother’s free labor. To make ends meet, Nina Sergeevna worked as an attendant at a day care center, where she shared a tiny unheated booth with an overfed mongrel, a kind of guard dog who never left her quilted blanket and responded with nervous barking to the voice of the teacher behind the thin wall.
Soon this existence, already meager and not very happy, changed for the worse. One night there was a long-distance call: it was Klava, the mother of Nina Sergeevna’s first husband, who had died very young, calling from Poltava in Ukraine. This Klava visited Nina even after she remarried and had Oksana; she used to bring bags of boys’ clothes that had belonged to her grandson, Misha. Before long Klava lost her younger son, too. Misha’s mother remarried and moved to Israel, but Misha refused to leave his school and friends and moved in with Klava. For years Oksana had to wear Misha’s hand-me-downs, including an emerald tuxedo with padded shoulders that made her cry. Oksana had never met Misha, but she couldn’t stand him. And there you have the background to the midnight call.
The former mother-in-law informed Nina Sergeevna in an expressionless, metallic voice that Misha had lost everything; people to whom he owed money had taken over his company, and Klava had had to sell her apartment and move into a summer shack. The shack is made of plywood, Klava droned, the water and power are turned off after the summer, and someone has filled her well with trash. The firewood has run out; she tried to burn tree branches, but they wouldn’t burn. The cold has been incredible this winter — already it’s started snowing. She went to the city to collect her pension but steered clear of her former building: Misha told her she may be taken hostage if someone recognizes her. A happy New Year to you all, Klava concluded her monologue.
Nina Sergeevna used the pause to invite Klava to come stay with them, then hung up the phone and stared with her big eyes at her tall daughter, who stared back. “Here we go again,” concluded Oksana with a sigh. She was used to her mother’s almost daily acts of irrational charity. The most recent one happened just the day before at the Belorussky Station. Nina Sergeevna was crossing the bridge, sadly contemplating her editorial career that ended in a guard’s booth, when in front of her she noticed a tall woman with ramrod-straight posture who walked woodenly and carried a pile of snow on her head like a Pushkin monument. Nina Sergeevna bypassed the strange creature and hurried toward the warm metro station. But the woman caught up with her and asked if she was going to Minsk — because she was; that is, she wanted to, but she had no money — she’d been cheated. She came from Belarus, she said, having brought with her some cosmetics for sale, but the buyer didn’t show up, and she wasn’t paid. The woman produced a Belarusian passport. Nina Sergeevna told her to come inside the metro station, it was too cold to talk in the street, but the woman looked at her in terror: “Are you going to give me away to the cops?” Ah, of course! The poor thing didn’t have a Moscow registration and could be arrested at the entrance to the subway! Nina Sergeevna asked how much she needed to get home. The poor woman tried to calculate: five hundred thousand, no, three hundred thousand, no, three hundred rubles! Nina Sergeevna gave her the money and also a baguette she’d been carrying home. Three hundred rubles was exactly one third of what remained of her pension after paying the rent. Thank God the monument hadn’t asked for five hundred or a thousand — Nina Sergeevna would have satisfied any request for help; often she didn’t wait for people to ask and just gave away what she had.
Two days later they picked up Baba Klava at the station. Baba Klava had some luggage with her: the familiar backpack with summer work clothes from her dacha, two paper icons, and a sack of apples. Misha the grandson had forbidden her to go back to the apartment, and as a result Klava had not a stitch of winter clothing and was wearing a summer shirt in December.
At Nina Sergeevna’s, Klava installed her paper icons behind the glass front of the bookcase. She prayed to them constantly yet, she believed, discreetly. Her apples were left to rot under the kitchen table: Klava expected them to ripen by New Year’s Eve. She shared Nina Sergeevna’s sofa bed in the walk-through room but couldn’t sleep — she did her best to lie still between Nina Sergeevna and the wall. Meanwhile, the tired mother and daughter slept dreamlessly, treasuring every moment of rest.
Nina Sergeevna got back in touch with a half forgotten friend who dabbled in philanthropy. That friend helped her get an appointment at a decent secondhand store, and Nina brought home a warm jacket and two quilted house robes for Klava, and also a length of light, gold-toned material — a former curtain. Oksana asked her mother sharply what the rag was for — they had plenty of rags as it was. “They offered; I took it,” explained Nina Sergeevna innocently. “Looks like silk, almost.”
Later, Klava reluctantly recounted the tragic events that had led to her homelessness. Misha the grandson had had a small publishing business that printed calendars. He’d wanted to expand, and so he put out an expensive monograph by a Moscow artist (who had convinced Misha that he was the artist of the moment). The book didn’t sell, and Misha owed money all around. The meter was ticking, and finally his creditor sent “shakers” — thugs who shake out money.
By then Oksana was taking classes part-time, in the evenings, and had found work at a landscape design company. Graduation was postponed by two years. She was paid very little but did impeccable work for both the owner and her bookkeeper. What Oksana missed most was her English class. She always carried in her purse the same book, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and tried to read it on the train but immediately would doze off.
In her free time Nina Sergeevna worked on getting poor Baba Klava recognized as a Russian citizen or at least a legal resident, so she could see a doctor. Moscow’s plutocracy treated Klava as a foreign spy, simply because she was Ukrainian, and denied her all rights. After talking to fellow sufferers in endless lines, Nina decided she needed to go to Poltava to get a piece of paper from the local archive saying Klava had been born in Stavropol and was therefore a Russian citizen. Klava froze up. She was terrified the shakers would find out her address in Moscow. When the exhausted Nina returned with the necessary paper in hand, Klava asked in a fearful whisper whether Nina had visited her house. “Of course not!” Nina told her lightly. “I only stopped by the city hall and came right back. You will now receive your citizenship and a pension!”
When Klava went to watch television, Nina explained to Oksana that she had visited Klava’s courtyard and chatted with some neighbors, that was all; told them she was a Muscovite wanting to move to Poltava — were there any apartments for sale in that building? Nothing, they told her. But, she said, apartment ten had just been sold, she’d heard. No comment. When she was leaving, one of the women caught up with her and took her phone number. Oksana almost fainted. “When will you learn to think? Why did you give that woman our number?”
“You know how I can read people!”
“That’s right, you read that monument from Belarus the other day real well.”
“This woman, Valentina, mentioned Klava: she remembered Misha as well as his mother, who had immigrated, and his dead father, Klava’s son. She used to work as a pediatric nurse and treated Misha as a child. I spoke to her, true, but I knew what I was doing!”
“Oh, Mama. I bet we’ll have visitors soon.” And Oksana was right.
Late at night on December 28, the phone rang out with long-distance calls. “Oksana, get Klava, quick!”
Klava’s body formed a little bump under a heavy blanket. The bump was trembling. “Who is it, shakers?”
“No, no, it’s Misha’s mom calling from Jerusalem!”
As soon as Klava said hello in her metallic voice, the connection broke. “Couldn’t bear to speak to me. Finally remembered Misha. Too late — he’s probably gone,” Klava said, and marched off to the bathroom.
The next day Oksana brought home from her office a small potted juniper — a Christmas tree. “Oh, jumper,” Klava whispered solemnly. “Just like the one on our family gravesite. My two sons are there, and my dear husband. Thank you, Oksanochka.” Klava’s mood was solemn these days. She loved watching TV police dramas in which justice temporarily triumphed. They calmed her down but didn’t make her any more optimistic.
Nina Sergeevna was busily working on the piece of almost-silk from the secondhand store. The prerevolutionary Singer filled the little apartment with knocking. Klava was in the kitchen making a holiday pie with the rescued dacha apples. Oksana was trying to study in her little room when Nina Sergeevna emerged with a pile of golden fabric.
“Our New Year’s present to you, honey,” she tentatively addressed her stern daughter. “To wear when you go out!”
“Mama! Stop imagining things! I’m not going out, and I’m not wearing this!”
“But, honey, Klava worked on it, too! She used to be a professional tailor. Remember the green tuxedo? She made it herself!”
“Tuxedo? Mama! I have finals in two weeks! My boss wouldn’t give me any time off! She says she can’t afford to give me time off — she’s supporting a husband. She yelled at me for an hour. Now think, Mama: Do you really believe I can be interested in your secondhand garments?”
Klava walked into the room, saw the heap of silk, pursed her lips, and whispered, “Sorry, Oksanochka, I used to sew well, but my hands are not what they used to be. Nina, I told you she wouldn’t wear it!” She turned back to the walk-through room and loudly began to pray.
Oksana glanced at the clock: an hour before New Year’s. She took a bath, then sat down with wet hair at her old computer. Nina Sergeevna stroked her shoulder. “Please, baby. Klavochka is terribly upset that you won’t even try it on. What will it cost you? She is eighty years old!”
From Klava’s room came loud mumbling. Oksana gave in. In the bathroom, in front of the little mirror, she changed into the new dress. It was a very open evening gown with a slip and a weightless scarf to cover her bare shoulders. The scarf’s edges were embroidered by Nina Sergeevna. For goodness’ sake, thought Oksana, why did she waste her time on this embroidery? Who’s going to see it? Who’s going to see me? Her future of endless toil, without romance or happiness, flashed before her eyes. A messy office with bookkeeper Dina, an aging beauty from the provinces whose daughter refused to speak to her; her boss Olga, an emaciated workhorse with bags under her eyes, darting from client to client in a broken-down car. And the clients, wives of the new Russians, with their dreams of garden gnomes and potted junipers as seen in soap operas and their contempt of simple Russian trees. Suddenly Oksana reached for her never-used cosmetics purse and brushed her lashes thickly with mascara, shook out her damp hair to create a wave, applied her mother’s blush to her cheekbones, painted her lips generously. Why she was doing all this, for whom, Oksana didn’t know. New Year’s Eve. New dress. Black hair down to her waist. Big, rosy mouth.
Oksana stepped into the hall. The usual bangs and screams could be heard from the apartment downstairs. Oksana opened the door to her mother’s room. Nina’s eyes widened. “Klavochka!” she yelled in the direction of the kitchen. “Come here! Our princess has put on your dress.”
Klava pursed her lips into a tight smile and announced, “Like Penélope like Cruz.” The Moscow like had become Klava’s default expression of strong emotion.
Nina Sergeevna laughed with delight. “Once, at the dacha, years ago,” she said, “we all decided to go mushroom picking, and our neighbor Vera — she was at least eighty at the time — dashed over to the mirror and started painting her lips. My mother said to her, ‘Aunt Vera, we are going to the woods; who’s the lipstick for?’ And Vera replied — I’ll never forget it — ‘Who knows? Maybe that’s where it will happen!’ ’’
Klava pursed her lips again, Oksana shrugged, and the doorbell rang. Nina opened the door a crack and saw a strange young man.
“A happy New Year to you, ma’am,” said the man. “You should call the cops: somebody’s getting killed downstairs.”
“Don’t worry, the cops stopped coming here a long time ago. They’ll come when someone finally dies, they told us,” said Oksana’s mother, shutting the door and then rushing to the kitchen, where the chicken was burning. The doorbell rang again and kept on ringing. Oksana sighed, grabbed the phone, and shuffled to the door. Alcoholics are human, too, she thought — let them use the damn phone.
The young man was still standing on the doorstep, holding his expensive leather suitcase. When he saw Oksana, his jaw dropped. “Excuse me,” he mumbled, “may I speak with you?”
“What is it?” Oksana asked impatiently. Suddenly Klava began screaming, “Misha!” Downstairs a man drunkenly yelled, “Friend, friend, come back!” and a woman begged them to call an ambulance — their own phone had been disconnected. Klava continued screaming, “Misha, is that you?”
The stranger nodded silently, staring at Oksana, unable to say a word. “May I come in?” he finally asked — the voices from downstairs were approaching. Oksana sighed and stepped aside.
“Babushka, please stop yelling; let me get undressed,” said Misha. Then he addressed Oksana: “May I ask your name, Miss?”
Oksana looked at him with her enormous eyes, straightened her long neck, and answered quietly, “Xenia.”
“Xenia,” repeated Misha. “What a lovely name. I need nothing else in this life.”
Klava was brought to the scene. Oohs and aahs, hugs and kisses followed, along with Misha’s assurances that Klava would have a new apartment; that everything would be taken care of — here are some presents for everyone.
Mama Nina observed her daughter and wondered where this new slow grace in her movements had come from, the twinkles in her laughing black eyes, the wave in her hair, the gorgeous dress… Of course: she had made it herself.
*Copyright © Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, 2013. Translation copyright © Anna Summers, 2013, used by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Limited.