Larissa Bilevitch

The Long Life of Masha Wo

“The average life expectancy of lice does not exceed 38 days”, V. Y. Lysenko, the Chief Medical Officer of Itcingrad’s Epidemiology Studies Institute, interviewed for the Herald of Insectology Journal, September 1964.

 

Masha was amazingly good-looking. Her large blue eyes were strikingly beautiful. Since having eyes is a rare thing among lice, Masha’s were the object of admiration and even envy. Masha did not like to be envied, so she tried not to mingle with her kind. There was another reason to avoid any contact with other lice, but we will talk about it later… 

Masha also had an unusual family name — Wo. Maybe, somewhere in Vietnam you might come across such family name frequently, but here, in a small town of Itchino, everybody was either Licekin or Nitkin, or Parasitekin, at most.

Once, when Masha was tiny, her mum told her that her dad was from China. Masha then asked her mum “And where is my dad now?” The mum sighed and started mumbling something vague and confusing. The only word Masha could make out, probably because her mum repeated it several times, was “Ke-ro-sine”.

Masha spent all her childhood thinking that “Ke-ro-sine” was a name of the Chinese city where her dad lived. She dreamed of going to this mysterious city, finding her dad there and walking with him around “Ke-ro-sine”, which she imagined to be a huge city with enormous skyscrapers, wide streets and green parks.

Masha would prepare thoroughly for this meeting. There were a lot of questions piling up in her head which she would certainly ask her dad. For example, she would inquire why he had left them, or where he liked it better — in China or in Itchino.  Many questions would start with the words “How do you say in Chinese…?” The list of words she wanted to know in Chinese was constantly growing.

As Masha was growing and becoming more beautiful, so was her dream. To make it come true, Masha decided she would need to move close to the Chinese border. When Masha told her mum about the plan, Natasha burst into tears, then laughed and then cried again. Then she said that Kerosine was not a city, but some terrible liquid used for lice removal.

“And where are lice removed to?” asked Masha.

The mum signed sadly and said:

“You surprise me, daughter! You have turned twenty days, but you are as naïve as a freshly-laid nit!”

Then the mum explained in much detail how and why lice were removed, but Masha hardly listened to her, still thinking about China. She realized she would never find her dad, but the thought that her aunts and uncles, cousins and maybe even half-brothers and sisters still lived in China, made her restless.

“That’s why you must never stay on the same head longer than forty five minutes!” heard Masha her mum’s voice as if in a dream. “The constant change of location makes us invulnerable, and thus, invincible!” went on her mum.

“But how can I know the forty five minutes have passed?” asked Masha.

“By the bell ringing, you silly girl, by the bell!” the mum answered, “We are school lice!”

Masha’s mum had not always been a school louse. She had spent all her childhood and youth in the Opera Theatre of the city of Itchingrad, where her mother, Masha’s granny, had served as the Chief Theatre Louse.

The granny taught her children that they should crawl from head to head during intermissions, just after music stopped, but the lights were still off. The granny knew all the theatre’s repertoire by heart, and instead of lullabies, she would sing to her children her favourite arias from Carmen and Traviata. It can be said that it was her love for opera that killed her.

Once the Bolshoi Theatre was on tour in Itchingrad with the opera “The Snow Maiden.” The granny, who had never heard the opera before, was so enchanted with the wonderful music by Rimskiy-Korsakov, that she completely forgot to crawl to another head.

Thus she stayed through the whole fourth act on the head of an engineer, Ivan Nikiforovich Devyatkin, unaware that his head was almost completely bald. Her children tried in vain to drag her to a safer place. She froze still! Like the Snow Maiden on the stage, she stood in a small puddle. It was not the melted snow though, but her tears.

The tears tickled the bald pate of Ivan Nikifirovich and flew into his ears. Ivan Nikifirovich thought that the theater’s roof was leaking and looked up, but at this moment the lights came on and someone from the back shouted:

“You’ve got an insect on your head!” Ivan Nikiforovich thanked the well-wisher and swatted the granny with his mighty hand.

Shaking with fear, Masha’s mum and her brother Seryiozha watched this terrible scene sitting on the curly hair of Elena Mihailovna, Ivan Nikifirovich’s wife.

This curly head, which had spent covered in curlers all the previous night, was the last place where Natasha, Masha’s mums saw her brother. She failed to convince him to leave the theatre, where each aria, even each note would forever remind them of their terrible loss. Despite all that had happened, Seryiozha still believed that the theater was the most amazing place a louse could only dream of. He said that leaving the theater would be plain stupid and that Natasha would regret it for the rest of her lousy life.

Having said goodbye to her brother, Natasha crawled to the nearest head on Elena Mihailovna’s right, which transported her to Itchino. The head belonged to Vitaliy Vladimirovich Potapov, the headmaster of a local high school.

Vitaliy Vladimirovich had three children who all went to the same school where their father worked. Natasha visited the heads of all the five members of the family overnight. She liked best the head of the youngest daughter, Mashenka. That was when she decided that if she was ever to have a daughter, she would call her Masha.

On Mashenka’s pretty head Natasha started her new life. At first she didn’t like the school, which was too noisy and bright, but soon she got used to it. But as time passed, she even started to think that the school life was more interesting and diverse than the theatre life. The repertoire in the Itchingrad’s theatre was rarely renewed and the same operas were on for years, whereas each day at school was different. All lessons were different, and the students and teachers were different too.

Every day Natasha learned something new. In the first grade she learned to read and count to twenty. In the second grade she learned to write and count to hundred. She traced letters with her tiny leg on her hosts’ skin. Her letters came out invisible, so she wouldn’t be able to show off her writing skills, but that didn’t upset her much.

Natasha loved learning. At weekends, when the classrooms were empty, she had nothing to do. To entertain herself Natasha invented a new kind of sport which she called “curtaineering”. First she would climb the curtain all the way up to the ceiling, then, having rested a bit at the top, she would go down.

Natasha was sure that she was doing “curtaineering” all alone. Probably, it was so during the first year, but already halfway through the second grade, Natasha started noticing strange things.

For example, she would smell something unusual, even exotic. This smell would get stronger whenever Natasha would reach the “peak”.

One Sunday morning climbing up the curtain, she heard someone sniffling softly somewhere nearby.

“Miss, you are crawl fast very! I can’t catch up with she!” complained the unfamiliar voice.

Natasha looked down and saw a male insect, very similar to herself, who was scrambling up the same curtain a few inches below her.

“Wh-who are you and h-h-how did you come h-h-ere?” asked Natasha, stammering from excitement. It had been a year and a half since she saw another louse.

“My name is Wo Yu. Wo is my surname. I came to Itchino from China.”

“Why?” exclaimed Natasha, surprised. The question seemed to her quite tactless.

“I always was dream of go to Russia! Russian louse-girl most beautiful louse in world!” replied Yu, eating Natasha up with his almond-shaped eyes.

From that day on Natasha and Yu wouldn’t part. They would do everything together: solve math problems, write essays, learn poems and songs and … reproduce! In ten days of their life together there was not a louse-free head left in the second grade.

The couple decided they would like to spend the winter break away from the classroom. Any louse that had to starve through the winter break knows that it is no fun at all. They would argue endlessly which head to pick as their holiday home. Yu would settle for nothing less than “a five-star hotel”. Natasha insisted that the head should belong to a child from a large family, while Yu believed that they should choose a head with “tasty blood.”

Natasha won the argument. She convinced Yu that there wouldn’t be enough time to sample blood from all the kids’ and teachers’ heads, as there was only one day left before the school break. In addition, their blood tastes differed. While Yu preferred Rh negative blood, Natasha liked ordinary, Rh positive one.

So, they settled for the head of Sasha Karandashov.  They agreed that his head was the best location for the lice to spend their winter holidays. Sasha was one of seven children of the school janitor Dasha. Natasha thought that if they would crawl from one Karandashovs’ head to another, they would never get caught. That turned out to be a huge mistake.

Dasha noticed lice on Sasha’s head the first day of the holidays and wasted no time getting rid of the plague. She locked Sasha in the bathroom and went to the basement to get the “tried and tested” delousing remedy her grandmother had used.

A few minutes later she came back with a huge jar in which some transparent liquid was sloshing about. Natasha never heard of kerosene, but as soon as she sensed the unpleasant, acrid odor, she was quick to realize that they had to run for their lives.

Yu, on the contrary, was not going to run anywhere. He was inhaling the soaked in kerosene air avidly saying that it was “the smell of the motherland.” Natasha begged him to slide with her down Sasha’s forehead and hide in his thick eyebrows. It was all in vain! He was chanting his mantra, oblivious of what was going on. 

Natasha understood that there was no time left — in a few seconds Sasha’s head would be covered with a plastic bag and it would be the end. She kissed Yu silently on the top of his head. Then she wrapped her legs around her newborn daughter Masha, a just hatched out of the egg nymph, and slid down Sasha’s sloping forehead.

 

Natasha had no idea how many hours she spent in Sasha’s eyebrows, holding  Masha the nymph close to her chest and thinking about the silliness of her husband’s death. She was remembering their happy days together and planning her revenge.

At the earliest opportunity, she together with Masha crawled up Dasha’s head and bit into her scalp unmercifully. But when Dasha stretched to reach kerosene with her rough, chapped hands, Natasha with her daughter had already crawled over to Misha’s head.

The amount of blood Natasha had sucked out of Dasha was enough to make it through the winter break. Misha’s head was their refuge till he went back to school in late January.

This meant that Natasha skipped three years of school, since Sasha’s brother Misha was a six-grader.

Natasha, who was good at most subjects back in the third grade, suddenly felt completely lost, especially in maths. When they moved to complex equations, Natasha got depressed. She would sit on the same head for hours, staring blankly at the board.

Masha was left on her own for the most part of the day, which she didn’t seem to mind at all. She was growing up a curious, cheerful and playful little louse. Since she was born she roamed from head to head on her own, amusing herself with new games she made up.

She loved making snowmen out of dandruff and swinging on eyelashes. But her favorite pastime was crawling into noses and ears. She was skating on thin ice, but she would always manage to escape from being squashed.

Her favorite subjects were English and Geography, probably because these were the subjects she hadn’t fallen behind in. At Itchino’s school English was introduced only in the Fifth Grade, and Geography only in the Sixth.

Masha was very upset by the fact that Chinese was not a part of the curriculum at Itchino School. She secretly hoped that her Chinese relatives would know English, so she put extra effort into learning it.

She would sometimes dream of being a guide to a group of foreign lice visitors. She would show them around the school and tell them all about its history and its hairy population.

At Geography lessons her greatest joy was to find herself beside the map. At first, it was just a coincidence. A student whose head Masha was on at that time was asked to come to the map. Masha discovered that biting the kids’ heads would be a sure way to get closer to the map. The teacher would invariably interpret the students’ wincing and twitching as a sure sign of their urge to show off their knowledge of the map.

Masha believed that a good knowledge of geography, especially that of the map, would help her to make her dream come true. As Masha was expanding her knowledge of the subject, she came to realize that her dream was more distant than ever. First, Masha learnt that neither Itchino nor even Itchingrad was on the world map. Even Moscow, the capital city, was thousands of miles away from the Chinese border.

Masha was utterly dismayed. She moved back to her mother’s and almost a week lived in a condition close to depression till she accidentally overheard a conversation between two six-graders.

“We’re moving to Moscow. Dad got a new job there,” said Liosha Yozhikov to the boy sitting next to him, Vitya Samolyotov.

“When?” asked Vitya.

“Next Friday,” responded Lyosha.

The conversation struck a brilliant idea into Masha’s head. She rushed from one temple to the other like a mad louse, chanting excitedly “to Moscow, to Moscow, to Moscow”.

Masha’s odd behavior was noticed by Natasha, who for the first time in three weeks lifted her gaze from the birthmark on Vitya’s nape.

“Mashenka, what’s the matter with you?” begged she a few times, but her daughter kept racing from one Vitya’s ear to the other, paying no attention to her.

“Daughter, why on earth would you need to go to Moscow? Aren’t we happy here!” yelled Natasha, as Masha was dashing past her.

“Why?” asked Masha surprisingly, “Moscow is the heart of our great Motherland!” rapped out Masha in a well-modulated, teacher-like voice.

“There no room for everyone in the capital!” objected Natasha.

“I want to live in a city which at least can be found on the map!” announced Masha, her accusatory tone suggesting it was her mother’s fault that Itchino was not on the map.

Natasha went silent, contemplating her fate. Was she destined to live the rest of her days all alone after losing everyone but her precious daughter?

Masha sensed what Natasha was thinking about, because she said to her in an unnaturally joyful and cheerful voice:

“Ma, let’s go to Moscow together! Why would you want to live here alone? We’ll see the Red Square and the Bolshoi Theat…

Masha didn’t finish the word. Suddenly she saw Natasha’s face distorted in fear and pain. She realized mentioning the theatre was a huge mistake.

“Don’t you dare speak to me about theatres!” groaned Natasha, gasping for air. Her lips were trembling and her right eye was twitching out of control.

“Okay, Ma, don’t get upset! If you don’t want to, we won’t go to the theatre. There are so many other interesting places in Moscow, museums, VDNH[1], all sorts of shops…and the famous Moscow Metro.

Masha spent the whole week trying to persuade her mum to move to the capital, but Natasha wouldn’t have it.

She had only two arguments against moving to Moscow.

She insisted she was too old to travel to Moscow, and she always wanted to spend her last days at her birthplace. As silly and unconvincing these arguments seemed to Masha, she failed to convince her mother.

The day before her planned departure Masha said goodbye to her mum and crawled up to Lyesha Yozhikov’s head, still not believing her luck. That was Lyesha’s last day at school.

The Yozhikovs were leaving Itchino early in the morning. A cold march wind was blowing and Masha was grateful to Lyesha’s dad, Konstantin Sergeevich for his fur hat under which she felt warm and safe.

First they had to drive to Itchingrad and then take a train to Moscow. She could barely remember the car trip. It took about thirty minutes during which Konstantin Sergeevich never took his gorgeous mink hat off.

But the train trip would remain permanently etched into her memory. She loved everything there, the steady double tap of the train wheels, the metal glass-holders clinking and the surreally bright yellow hair of Galya, the train attendant.

But more than anything else Masha loved looking through the window at the trees and buildings flashing by. The only thing she wanted was to stay on the train for the rest of her life, not thinking about or regretting anything.

Fascinated by the landscapes, Masha didn’t notice that the train had reached its destination. Only when the Yozhikovs got off at Kazan Railway station, she realized that she had already arrived in Moscow.

It took Yozhikovs forever to get to their new place. First, they had to go down a scary tunnel on a moving staircase, whose name Masha couldn’t remember.  The staircase was overcrowded and for a moment Masha almost gave in to the temptation to crawl over to someone else’s head. But something told her she would be better off continuing her journey among the familiar hairs. Over those few days Masha spent with the Yozhikovs’ family, she grew really attached to them.

Then at bottom of the scary staircase Masha saw a long walk way, which led to a huge brightly- lit hall with a very high ceiling. All of a sudden, a train pulled up and the Yozhikovs boarded it.

It was a strange underground type of train, which Masha didn’t like at all. She wanted to see the fields, the trees and the houses again, but instead the train was going through some dark long corridors, stopping from time to time at some halls, as vast as was the first one. They were all different, some were very beautiful, the other ones were plain.

It seemed that the trip to the Yozhikovs’ new home would take forever. They had to change trains twice and then go by bus for twenty more minutes.

Masha wouldn’t leave the house the whole week. First, it was terribly cold. Second, Masha got utterly absorbed in the process of unpacking the luggage, which Leosha’s mum Olya was engaged in. Masha never thought people could have so many possessions!

“Do they really need all these things?” she kept asking herself.

Masha settled on Olya’s head. She had decided that she wouldn’t find a better home for the moment. She wanted to stay away from Leosha’s school.

“I don’t think there’s anything to see there that I haven’t seen already,” thought Masha.

She could have moved back to Konstantin Sergeevich, but he worked too far from home and just one thought of another long journey on that train put her off the idea.

Leosha had also a baby sister, Nastenka, but she was moving to such fluffy and thin dandelion-like hair was not a good option. So, Masha had nothing left to do but stay on Olya’s head and wait to be taken out for a walk. Masha was waiting patiently for the moment when Olya would put on one of her fancy dresses at last and go out, to the Bolshoi Theatre or to the Tretyakov Gallery or somewhere else.

Days and weeks would pass, but Olya would not get out of her jeans and wouldn’t go further than the children’s playground in the yard or a supermarket which was a five-minute walk from home.

Two months of such mundane existence triggered a depression in Masha’s inquisitive mind. She kept thinking about her mother and wished she hadn’t moved to Moscow. She was pondering whether she should go back to school.

“It makes no difference. I would miss my mum everywhere, school or home. I might as well go and learn something new and practise my English!” contemplated Masha, swinging from hair to hair.

But when she finally decided to move to Leosha’s head, he got sick with tonsillitis. He lay in bed with terribly high fever and Masha was afraid even to go near him. So as not to get sick, Masha chose to relocate to a big stuffed dog which was left on an armchair to cover an ugly brown stain of some unknown origin.

Masha chose the hungry and boring life on the stuffed dog, knowing that there would be no one to look after her had she got sick. Another thing that helped Masha to endure hunger was her wish to lose weight. Since she got to Moscow, Masha would gorge on blood and became fat.

Masha was convinced she would shed two grams by the summer. On the fourth day of her diet her inner voice, which for some reason sounded just like her mother’s, suddenly asked her:

“And who will need all this slender you? Who needs you at all?”

“I am doing this for myself and no one else!” screamed Masha so loudly, that Olya who was just passing by, almost dropped the thermometer.

    “She is going to make contact with the sick one again,” mumbled Masha to herself with disapproval and envy.

Masha started daydreaming about meeting her soulmate and starting a family, but she immediately checked the impulse. She knew too well how that would end.

“I need to get real,” she thought to herself, “for lice it’s either a short family life or a long struggle on their own.” Masha made her choice in favor of living a long life.

The remaining three days untill Leosha’s complete recovery Masha spent on the dog in a state that Masha herself would describe as “solemn longing”.

On the third day, exhausted Konstantin Sergeevich flopped down on the armchair, right on the dog’s front paws.

“They’re sending me on a business trip,” he said signing wearily.

“How long for?” asked Olya grumpily.

“Just a month.”

“For one month?” asked Olya again, her eyes welling up with tears.

“Don’t you want to know where they’re sending me?” said Konstantin  Sergeevich.

“What difference would that make? You’ll be living there in a fancy hotel, wining and dining, doing interesting work, while I will be struggling on my own with two kids.

Bursting into tears, Olya threw herself face down on the sofa next to the armchair. Konstantin Sergeevich got up to comfort his wife.

“Olik, don’t get so upset! I’ll be back before you know it!” said Konstantin Sergeevich to his wife, stroking her gently on the head.

Masha quickly crawled over to the sofa and onto Konstantin Sergeevich’s head. She was rubbing her legs impatiently, anticipating an adventure.

“I’ll bring you best silk, pearls, green tea,” K.S. continued consoling his wife.

“As if you can’t get it here, in Moscow,” said Olya indifferently. She stopped crying, but was still snuffling.

“Of course you can” agreed with her K.S., “But in China all such things are much cheaper!”

Masha could not believe her luck. Her dream to reach the homeland of her forefathers would come true. Leaving Itchino and her poor mother behind had not been in vain. She was not so sure about the latter, but now was not the time for regrets.

The following morning Masha was watching in excitement K.S. was packing his suitcase. Olya was fidgeting around him, trying to slip something she thought useful inside her husband’s suitcase, such as one more shirt or an extra pair of socks. As soon as Olya left the room K.S. would remove all these unnecessary duds and bury them in the bottom drawer of the closet. He loved travelling light.

The same night Masha and K.S. left for the airport. They set off on their long journey, which started with a bumpy ride on a crowded bus, two metro trains and another bus which took them to the airport. But Masha did not mind that at all. Every minute of the journey she would repeat to herself:

“To China, to China, to China!”

Now everything delighted her. Each metro station looked prettier than the previous one, the moving staircases didn’t frighten her any more, but rather thrilled her, the noise of the approaching train promised an exciting, long and happy life.

At the airport Masha got so excited, she couldn’t sit still. Masha started crawling impatiently from head to head down the long line of passengers waiting to check-in.

Somewhere in the middle of the line, very close to her, she suddenly heard a quiet and suave voice saying:

 “The blue-eyed maiden, let me introduce myself. My name is…”

In panic Masha dashed in the opposite direction, without finding out who the sweet talker was.  A few minutes later she was back in the comfort of K.S’s familiar, greying head. All her body was trembling and she was breathing heavily. During her life in the capital she got out of the habit of crawling fast. Besides, her encounter with a male specimen seriously frightened her. She wouldn’t dare think what that encounter could have led to, hadn’t she run away.

Masha calmed down only on the plane. Contemplating pinkish white clouds that looked like huge lumps of cotton wool, Masha wished that her mum was beside her.

“I wish I had persuaded her to come with me,” she told herself with a deep sign.

Food smells interrupted Masha’s self-flagellation.

“They even serve food here!” said Masha to herself with surprise. She suddenly realized she hadn’t had a drop of blood for more than a day in all the excitement. Masha waited till K.S. got his tray with food and thrusted her teeth into his scalp with delight.

Having satiated her hunger, Masha fell asleep. She slept through the whole flight to Beijing. She woke up when the plane was about to land. Masha got nauseous and started having headaches, but as soon as the plane touched down, the pains stopped.

At Beijing airport Masha felt uncomfortable again. The number of people waiting in queues amazed and scared her at the same time. She let out a sigh of relief as the “EXIT” sign appeared in view.  

Right under the sign there stood a medium height man with glasses on his pale face. He was holding a piece of cardboard with YOZHIKOV’s name written in large red letters.

K.S. approached the man and said in English:

“Here, here.”

“Hello,” answered the man in Russian, putting away his piece of cardboard, “I am your interpreter. My name is Tao Xi.”

The man with glasses was trying to put the cardboard in the pocket of his jacket nervously. When he managed to fit it in, Tao held out his hand to Yozhikov.

“Nice to meet you,” said Yozhikov, “You speak Russian really well!”

“Thank you, I lived in Moscow for ten years,” said Tao, his face going slightly red.

K.S. followed the interpreter through the arrival hall to the parking lot. It took him a while to find his car among the thousands parked there.

There was a young man reading a Chinese newspaper behind the wheel of the car. Masha studied his hair. It was inky black, shiny and greasy, as if generously sprinkled with oil.

“Best kind of hair for extreme sports ,” grinned Masha, imagining her sliding down the slippery hair to the floor at breakneck speed.

Tao exchanged a few words in Chinese with the driver and they set off for the hotel.

On the way to the hotel Tao asked K.S. some questions about the life in the capital, but K. S. would give one-word answers only and the conversation soon dried up.

For a while they drove in silence, pretending to listen to the radio. Suddenly Tao said something to the driver and he turned the volume up.

“My favourite song,” said Tao to Yozhikov.

A pleasant baritone was narrating something slowly and it seemed to Masha that the voice was talking personally to her. Despite not understanding a word in Chinese, Masha knew exactly what he was singing about:

“Life is a long journey and despite obstacles you need to move on because there’s just no other way.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy

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