(c) Tomoko Takahashi Harvey 2006
A short story by Nora Ikstena
Soon Ella will no longer be able to manage the winding staircase. She should have fixed up a place for Francis down here, in the little kitchen. It's nice here. A tiled stove. An inglenook on which she dries beans, herb teas, mushrooms. She's got everything she needs at her fingertips - water, the garbage pails, an ironing board. Here she chats with the mail carrier who brings the two of them their old-age pension installments, and sometimes the neighbor stops by as she brings fresh milk to the houses of the well-to-do on her old Erenpreis bike.
Ella and Francis's house is fancy too. When they arrived here, they wanted the biggest house in the neighborhood. In those days they could afford it. They dug, planted, harvested, sold, sold, dug, planted, harvested. You could take in a good bit of money that way. In that whole muddle the kids scattered here and there, and the grandkids fled too.
Ella is of the opinion that all her life she's been very fair, and she has worked hard. Francis believes whatever Ella believes, or else he keeps his opinions to himself. But why did they all leave?
Her son-in-law was a graphic artist, and after helping with the potato harvest or haymaking his hands would shake for several days from lifting the heavy weights - he was the first to stop coming. Ella thought he was a wimp. A doodler. As for her daughter-in-law's profession, she couldn't tell a soul about it. A doctor of women's butts. When she was assigned to do her practical work not far from their house, Ella installed her daughter-in-law in the shed, for she had all sorts of outlandish instruments. Of course, the autumn mornings were chilly, but let her toughen up, let her toughen up. One daughter studied to be an actress. Ella liked that - actors are people that the public respects, their anniversaries are remembered with such lovely ceremonies - onstage in a decorated chair, with everyone bringing them gifts and flowers, and the government awards them honorary titles. Her daughter was assigned to a job as a dresser in a provincial theater. The trouble Ella went to - producers and actors sitting at her groaning tables weekend after weekend, drinking her homemade wines and brandies. Finally her daughter got the chance to read the story "White Bim, Black Ear" at the house of culture. Ella hardly missed a performance. She sat in the first row with a shawl about her shoulders and flowers in her hands, feeling like the mother of a real actress. And what a story! She could have a good cry. Those were the short moments when Ella felt happy, for the rest of the time her daughter came home to get some food, yelled at her that she had ruined her life, and left. She had neither art nor kids.
She had no luck with the granddaughters either, later on. Her other daughter's daughter took after her father, good at drawing, they said. Ella took her into her house as part of the work training program. Forget about drawing pictures. Why not learn to play the 'cordion instead? That song, so pretty it just about tears your heart in two - "Stillness in the grove, not a rustling sound, Softly shines the moon clear and bright. Dear, if you could know How I treasure so The most beautiful Moscow night..." The two of them sounded so lovely together. When her granddaughter got older, Ella found the 'cordion in the fir grove, and the girl was gone.
As for her son's daughters, there was no way she could handle them. One she didn't get at all, it seems she was teaching the cello in town. Another good-for-nothing. She got the other one for two weeks every summer. Oh? You like to make up stories and write? Get to work on that math! - Ella had a good prewar ruler, for rapping the kid over the knuckles. If that didn't help, punishment worked fine - scrubbing the clay floor in the garden shed, where pumpkins, seeds, and other useful things were stored. As soon as she had some say in the matter, her granddaughter stopped coming.
How had it come to this. All she had wanted was to raise decent human beings. Decent human beings.
Francis upstairs sort of gives a cough, or a kind of wheeze, mumbles something. Ella takes the clean gauze bandages, a package of Pampers, calendula ointment and heavily climbs the winding staircase. Graceful, narrow. Francis's own handiwork. But not for her old, crooked bones, her aching back.
Francis lies there like an emperor. Smiling. What are you smiling for, you idiot, why can't you die - thinks Ella. Wasted away like an old dago, but just look at him, still going strong.
Yepkepkepkep - Francis says to Ella instead of good morning.
Wanna pee? - exclaims Ella. It seems to her that Francis can't hear.
Ella throws aside the blanket, takes a wide-mouthed bottle and stuffs the wrinkled little pecker inside.
Francis smiles.
Dope, thinks Ella.
This time Francis passes water in the bottle. But often he plays a trick on Ella. When, after holding the bottle for half an hour, she gives up, Francis gaily floods the white sheets. At such times Ella at first scolds angrily, then sinks down on the bed and wails that Francis will be the death of her. That it's too early to tell which of them will go to the pearly gates first. But Francis just watches calmly. What does he care, lying there like an emperor.
The worst is when he does his big business. Many's the time Ella sits there for an hour, having put a flat chamber pot under Francis, repeating, "Come on, go poopie, poop, poop, poop, go poopie now..." That's how god tests her patience. If she doesn't pass the test, she is severely punished for her impatience - all the sheets have to be changed, Francis has to be washed from head to foot.
Ella wipes Francis dry, puts some gauze between his legs. Can't always use Pampers, you can get a sore from them. Then she washes his face, fluffs up his pillows, combs his hair. Just look at that, like a prince.
Ella carries the bottle of pee downstairs. Goddamn winding staircase.
She likes the smells in her little kitchen. That's her only refuge. But once, when her daughter came, she screwed up her face and said the kitchen smelled of pee and old herbs. Well, then those are my favorite smells, thinks Ella.
On three kitchen window sills there are nine flower pots. An amaryllis in each. Ella's favorite flower. It's February and they're all in bloom. The white one with rosy little veins, the carmine red one, the pale pink one, the pure white one, the bright red one....Each has at least four flowers on a thick, firm stalk. Amaryllises obey Ella, and look - here's the result. They're blooming like crazy to give her pleasure.
You have to know how to take care of amaryllises. Ella does, Ella's lucky. In spring, when they've stopped blooming and the first sun appears again, you've got to take them outside, put them somewhere in the bushes. Not quite in the sun, not quite in the shade. Then you have to stress them all summer. Let them go thirsty, without water. Toward fall the bulbs look like they've run the gauntlet. Then you take them indoors and start watering them regularly. By November they put forth those strong, green swords, and then the firm stalk appears and the buds burst open.
In summer, when Ella goes past the pots of amaryllis with the watering can, she fingers them and complacently says, "Suffer, go ahead, suffer"...
Ella among the amaryllises makes breakfast for Francis. Cream of wheat with a little eye of jam, an egg, a little piece of herring. He enjoys his food. Ella is of the opinion that Francis has caused her a lot of pain. He was sent to Siberia because during the German occupation he got mixed up with the SS, and took away a distant neighbor to be shot. Now that's nothing heroic, regardless who's in power - thinks Ella. After the country got back its independence she made up the official version, how Francis, while a station guard, had derailed a Russian troop train. For his seven years in Siberia Francis got a deportee's pension. That's why they can now manage without help from the children.
But in those years, when Francis was gone, Ella realized what hell on earth is like. She was all alone with three small kids. She was the wife of a man who had betrayed his people. And so he had - he had betrayed one of their own. So that all of this, to Ella's mind, was only right. Both the official authorities and her compatriots turned away from her. To be safe, she decided to serve the authorities, not her compatriots. She made complaints, betrayed, unmasked. Where necessary, the authorities made use of her, but since the authorities were just ordinary people - they hated her all the more. Ella thought that justice was on her side, for she did it all for the sake of a better future for her children.
Only hard work for the good of their state would train them to be decent human beings.
They must learn suffering and renunciation.
Suffer, go on, suffer.
A beautiful garden is ruined under the hooves of a foal that's been allowed to roam free.
If the neighbors' chickens scratch for earthworms in our compost pile, it isn't right, they've got their own compost pile to scratch around in. It isn't right: Such trifles can result in great crimes.
If the principal of the school - a family man - has fallen in love with his married colleague, this is a serious offense against communist morality that must be reported to the appropriate authorities.
If somebody is incapable of adapting himself to a collective, he still has to do a lot of work to suppress his individualistic tendencies.
Here's the most horrifying nightmare that haunted Ella at night in those years. She's been summoned to the parish Party committee. The troika is seated at the table and each of them has a 1938 issue of the magazine Holiday in front of him. And on the cover is a smiling President Karlis Ulmanis being handed a little basket of apples by a pretty young girl. Her curly hair is cut in a pageboy, she's wearing a dark dress and a crucifix around her neck. And it's Ella.
Every time Ella, sweating with terror, sat up in bed with a scream. For she knew that this magazine cover was the unadulterated truth, only so far no one had come across it yet.
A baptized Catholic, she had denied god and learned to spell his name with a lowercase letter, but after these nightmares she did pray - softly, softly in bed, with the curtains drawn, under her blanket, in thought only - that the devil would take that Holiday, cover picture and all.
Again Ella manages the difficult climb up the winding staircase. She puts the food on the little table next to Francis's bed.
Have to eat - she says loudly.
Brumbrumbrumbrum - mumbles Francis.
Ella tucks the big bib inside Francis's pajama collar. First the porridge. Come on, numm numm, just don't drool. Francis eats a proper meal, and with pleasure. Every once in a while Ella scrapes bits of porridge with a spoon from the corners of his lips, his chin, if any of it has spilled. Now the egg. I mashed it with a fork. Hey, here's a bit of herring. Look at you, you greedy thing.... Francis just eats and, after swallowing, smiles.
Also, every meal passes slowly. Ella is afraid that Francis will choke. That's why she feeds him bit by bit, mashing everything in the wooden spoon. February is almost over, the sun shines into the room where they are performing the breakfast ritual. Wonder if he'll survive the spring, thinks Ella. When the leaves open, he'll pass away. Just a couple more months.
Come on, numm, numm, finish it, that's it. Sometimes Ella feels like shoving the whole bowl of porridge in Francis's face. For all the ways he hurt her, for the pain. But he smiles such a silly smile, in his second childhood, his face all withered, eyes open wide, ears sticking out, transparent in the sunlight. Not like a human being anymore, more like some animal. A rodent or something, thinks Ella.
When Francis came back from Siberia, Ella deprived him of all his human rights. He was allowed to work, eat, and sleep. And he was supposed to be grateful that she had taken him back. He was not supposed to have his own point of view. But the kids loved their dad a lot, because he had all sorts of interesting skills, such as making dentures. He played the mouth organ, was able to show off all kinds of tricks with matches and cards, screwed together on his own all sorts of gadgets that were useful around the house, carved little wooden boxes and spoons, made little stools, fixed the old radio, and everybody's shoes, he even knew how to sew new shoes, nail a little wooden heel on them, and what a pair of shoes that was....
However, very soon Francis realized that just as he couldn't get along without Ella, Ella couldn't get along without him either... He never maliciously took advantage of his insight. Only once, when he'd had a bit too much to drink and Ella was scolding him again about something, he pounded his fist on the table and called Ella a whore. The next day he had to sign a paper prepared by Ella, written in his name as a confession that he had called her a whore. Francis signed, using the pseudonym Pushkin. Ella wouldn't call him to lunch for three days.
What a tasty bit of herring - thinks Francis. Why does Ella talk so loud? He can hear just fine. He simply can't say the words. He is dried up, tired, he so wants to leave. If he could only see his son and granddaughters. What's happened to them all? He wasn't allowed to interfere, Ella arranged the whole thing. Since he came back from Siberia, he hasn't been himself anymore, come to think of it. It was stupidity that got him there, and duty that brought him back. He looks at Ella's old, wrinkled face, the mouth that swallows an empty mouthful every time he swallows a full one. Ella was a strapping young girl, bore him three children. But it wasn't till he got to Siberia that he realized what love is. Good thing Ella doesn't know, if she knew, her sense of righteousness would become even more menacing.
Delicious, delicious herring - Francis smiles at Ella.
She was Russian. Olga, her name was. She snatched him from the jaws of death. The first borscht she gave him he threw up, because he was used to living on bark and frozen potatoes. She made no demands, just gave. Her food, her shelter, her body. They'd swim naked in the river, make love among the berry bushes, go logging together, bake pirogi together. He built her a new cottage, no one there had ever seen anything like it. A table, chairs, the round mirror, a dresser, a wardrobe.... Little bowls and spoons. He started a little garden. Everything grew like wild. Taught her how to make wine.
When he got his release, he had no peace for nights on end. He wandered around alone under the starry sky, prayed to God to decide for him.
For Christmas Ella sent him a picture of his three children. On the back, in pencil, each of them had traced a word or two as best they could - "For dear daddy far away."
When he told Olga that he was going back to his wife and children, she sank down on her knees without a word, hugged his legs and cried.
"Well, what are you grinning about, like you've stepped into a warm cow pie? You've had a good meal. Gonna go poopie?"- Ella's loud voice cuts in. She puts the flat chamber pot under Francis's bottom, recites the big business litany, collects the empty dishes and heads down the winding staircase. Wonder how he dreamed up such a thing. In the old days Ella did like it, but now it's hard for her to clamber up and down.
She puts the dirty dishes in the sink. Makes the rounds of the flower pots. Feels if they're damp. Oh, my lovely little crowns, how I make you suffer, how you bloom for me.
Suffer, go on, suffer.
As for her second daughter, Ella probably really did hurt her. After her divorce, she thought they'd take her little daughter from her. She snuck into the school cafeteria so as to taste whether the food her little girl would eat was poisoned. Ella immediately took her daughter to the Alexander Heights hospital. The doctor said it had been only a short-term nervous breakdown because of her great heartache. He said they could have dealt with it using common sense and loving kindness. So what? Ella took her granddaug

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