Alisa Koyrakh is a finalist for The Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
On February third, 1966, a Soviet spacecraft reached the moon. Zhenya read about it on February fifth. The newspaper lay on the stool next to their bed for two days before she looked at it. The headline: The Moon Speaks Russian.
She read: On February 3, Luna 9 landed on the moon. It is the first human object to land on the surface of another planetary body. Five days ago, Zhenya had her second miscarriage—the swelling stomach, the life unstuck—and now she sat propped against both pillows, her empty hands resting against her hollow stomach, waiting for its slow collapse.
Stray snowflakes blew in through the window, cracked open to dispel the stench she’d caused. She drank tea prescribed by the midwife her mother had sent, an ancient woman from some Lithuanian village who promised that if Zhenya had a cup every day, there would be a living child. That’s how far I’ve come, thought Zhenya. She was relying on a witch while Lyona—he was the reason she lifted the cup to the mouth, that hopeful, patient man—worked in the corner of the room, soaking their bloody sheets in ice-cold water, then scrubbing them in warm water.
“We can see the lunar surface consists of adequately durable rocks of the pumice or slag type,” explains Msitislav Keldish, President of the Academy of Sciences and twice-honored Hero of Socialist Labor. “It turned out to be hard enough for the station not to sink.”
“Masha and Igor want to come over tonight,” said Lyona. “I said yes. You could use some cheering up.”
“I’m not ready,” said Zhenya.
“The doctor said you could go about your day. You’re fine—I mean, you know what I mean. Your body is healing.”
“I don’t want to entertain.”
Lyona let the sheet drop in the wide laundry tub—it billowed on the surface like a pink sail. He came over, got up on the bed next to her, checked that the blanket was tucked carefully around her body.
“I’m being punished,” she said.
“By whom? Be rational. One day, we will have a child.”
“I don’t want one anymore.”
“You feel that way right now, but give it time.”
“I won’t change my mind.”
“Well, what do you want instead of a child?”
Her husband was a smart man. By asking her this question he was the good guy once again. She was the foolish one who didn’t know what she wanted.
Photographs, soon to be released, show the lunar surface is covered in rocks and boulders of various sizes, but is smooth enough to be easily traversed by a visiting cosmonaut.
Zhenya agreed to get out of bed. She put on a floor-length purple dress. It was sleeveless and freezing outside, but Lyona knew better than to protest her choice. When their friends arrived, they squeezed her bare arms and cautiously talked about other things. Mainly the Space Race. England had intercepted photographs from the Soviet spaceship and printed them in their newspapers before Russia had a chance to release them.
“Serves us right,” said Lyona. He handed Zhenya a shawl, but she only draped it over the back of her chair.
“What are you talking about?” said Igor. “The West is jealous, like always.”
“I’ve brought a surprise,” said Masha. She pulled a large flat envelope from her bag.
“What—” Zhenya cut herself off when carefully her friend took out a circle of film and held it up to the light. Human bones glowed on the surface. It was an x-ray. “What is that?”
“The Beatles!” Masha said. “Lyona, where is your record player?”
She explained that a friend of hers had altered an old phonograph to record music onto x-rays.
“Where do you get the x-rays?” Zhenya asked.
“The hospital throws them out by the bagful. They’re old. These broken wrists and fractured skulls, poor fellows, serve us well. We cut them into circles, burn a hole with a cigarette, and voila! I’ve started selling them for a couple rubles each.”
“Masha’s always looking for a way to buy a useless trinket,” said Igor.
Ignoring her husband, Masha fit the bootleg film onto the record player. As if she were handling the arm of an infant, she placed the needle.
Music and English filled the room and Masha began to dance.
“Zhenya, come here.”
Zhenya had only heard the Beatles once before. Lyona joined in. Her husband was a horrible dancer, but he pulled her from her chair and spun her and dipped her until she laughed.
When the five songs were over, Zhenya was out of breath. She moved to restart the album.
“Watch out,” said Masha. “It only works seven or eight times.”
Zhenya looked at the film. This one contained the print of someone’s ribs. It was probably the most common x-ray. She wondered whose ribs they were. Whether the person had pneumonia, whether she got an antibiotic and went home, or died from some lung disease. Zhenya pulled the needle from the spinning center, over the stranger’s spine, across the ribs, and placed it gently over a white mass that might be the stranger’s heart.
It occurred to Zhenya that night, while Lyona resumed his work at the kitchen table and she drew herself a bath, how unlikely it had been for her to get pregnant two years ago. More recently she had learned that a woman can only conceive five or six days in a month, she had learned about ovulation, and what it’s like to have sex when the sex itself isn’t the prize and there’s something more that’s wanted and sex must be done, if you want it badly enough, even if you’re tired or angry. And even then, you have to wait and hope, not knowing if you have won.
Except that one time. When it had all happened at once, but she had been given the wrong prize.
After five years of marriage, Zhenya became pregnant for the fourth time. Just when her stomach began to grow and she began to hum quietly to the baby, still afraid to speak to it directly, her father died. Her mother would not let her go to the funeral. Too stressful for a pregnant woman, she argued. “Let’s not take any chances,” Lyona agreed and Natasha obeyed.
She promised her mother that she’d name the baby Aron, after her father, if it was a boy. When she first suggested Senya, her mother said no, sglazit, it will draw the Evil Eye. “We don’t name babies after people who died young,” said her mother. “Death could get confused and come for this one too.”
After Zhenya gave birth to a girl, a healthy, perfect girl with dark hair like her father’s, who cried whenever Zhenya pulled her away from her breast, Zhenya lay in her hospital bed feeling a joy she had never before experienced. She refused to listen to the nurses when they lectured her about scheduled feedings and routines and putting the baby down. If her daughter wanted to stay in her arms, that’s where she’d stay.
She did pay close attention when the nurses showed her how to swaddle the baby. So tightly, Zhenya worried it would hurt her, but the nurses assured her they liked it. It’s true her baby cried less when she was all wrapped up. The baby resembled a little log with a face. At a prearranged time, Lyona stood below her window and she held up the little log and waved. “That’s Papa,” she said to the little log. “You’ll meet him soon and he’ll cover your face in little kisses. Watch out for his prickly mustache though.”
Back home, Zhenya lay in bed staring at her daughter’s wormy fingers, at the fingers curling into a futile fist while for the first time Lyona brought up leaving Russia. At night while their daughter slept a few meters away, he curved his body around Zhenya’s and whispered the plan into her ear.
“We’ll get permission to emigrate to Israel, but when we get to Italy, we’ll go to the American embassy. Many people are doing this now. We’ll apply for refugee status. I’ll show them I’ve been practicing my English. They’ll take us.”
She nodded, trusting the disembodied voice. He brushed the hair from her cheek gratefully, laced his fingers through hers over her breast. Zhenya liked her husband in the dark.
“We can’t live here,” he continued. “There’s nothing, this country is nothing, a trap. We’re trapped.” The child cried out in her sleep.
“Quiet,” said Zhenya. “You’ll wake Natasha.”
She knew he was right, but she thought of walking to the corner store with Masha when they were eight years old. They’d buy a bag of potato chips and make their way through the trees behind the buildings, to a red playground near a little pond. They’d eat the chips as they rode the swings, passing the bag through outstretched arms, laughing wildly when the chips flew from their hands.
“I should be at a university,” Lyona started again. “Among the best minds, running my own laboratory, teaching students who respect me. My salary should match my talent, my efforts. You shouldn’t have to stand in line for food, for scraps of food. You shouldn’t be afraid to use your last name.”
It occurred to Zhenya that her daughter was like her, a sister without a brother.
It would be another four years before Zhenya and Lyona talked themselves into it. While Zhenya pulled Natasha away from cupboards and windows, sewed jumpers for her, taught her to read, Lyona ran around filing visa requests, selling off valuables.
Two days before they left for Italy, Zhenya went with Natasha and her mother to the dachya. The two-story house was beginning to rot. “The beams above the doorway need to be replaced,” Zhenya warned her mother.
At night they drank tea and let Natasha stay up late. Her grandmother poured sweetened condensed milk on a plate for her.
“Look, you can make designs in it,” Zhenya said, carving the shape of a cloud in the thick milk. Then her mother drew a star that quickly disappeared. Natasha tried to copy them exactly.
“It goes away so fast,” she complained.
“You can be anything in America,” said Zhenya’s mother to Zhenya. “Maybe even an actress.”
“You never wanted me to be an actress.” Her mother did not respond. “Anyways, how would that work? An actor who can’t speak the language?”
“Slava Polunin doesn’t speak at all. Remember when we saw him? Troupe Lisedey?”
Zhenya watched as her daughter aimed the spoon into her mouth. The mime had been incredible, he’d made her cry without saying a word. “I’m going to America because it will be a different life.” She said it again because she was angry: “I want a different life.”
“Different doesn’t always mean better,” said her mother. “I hope it’s a better life.”
“It will be,” said Zhenya.
“Time for bed,” said her mother, wiping Natasha’s mouth with a napkin. “One last time with Babushka,” she said, lifting the child from her seat.
Zhenya cleared the table as she listened to her mother’s lullabies and Natasha’s shouts for more. They hadn’t talked about the fact that they may never see each other again, thought Zhenya. When it was quiet, she climbed the stairs to her childhood bedroom. Her mother and daughter lay in the same cot, her daughter’s body next to the wall, almost hidden by her mother’s.
The next day, while her mother and daughter baked, Zhenya visited the little country cemetery where they buried her father last year next to Senya. She planted flowers around the headstone they shared and she stroked the enameled portrait on the stone, kissed it. She told her father she would miss him in America. She told him that Natasha looked just like her, except her hair was dark and thick like Lyona’s, and that she was a happy, unfocused child, always playing imaginary games with herself, swaying and talking to herself in a high-pitched voice. “She comes back from the yard with a soup made of dandelions, dirt, and mud, and laughs hysterically when I pretend to eat it.”
Back at the house, Zhenya found a cloth sac and went into the yard. She’d promised her mother she’d grab a few apples, though it was still early in the season. While searching for ripe ones, Zhenya saw something move at the end of the yard, behind the pines.
Zhenya returned inside and found a pair of scissors. She propped an old mirror on a shelf in their bedroom. Her blond hair curled to her shoulders now. When she was pregnant with Natasha it only became healthier, shinier, and it stayed that way. Zhenya cut it below the ear. When she emerged in the kitchen, her mother and daughter looked at her.
“I saw a deer by the yard,” Zhenya said.
“There haven’t been deer around here in years,” said her mother.
“Natasha,” Zhenya said, kneeling down on the wooden floor. “Come here. We need to stop the deer from eating Babushka’s apples.” She held out an arm to her daughter, who came immediately.
Carefully, she cut her daughter’s curls. The girl stood still, maybe in shock or simply trusting. Natasha cut a hand’s width around her head, brushed the hair off Natasha’s shirt and gathered it into a pile on the floor. She added it to the bag that contained her own hair.
While Natasha played in the grass, Zhenya and her mother hung the hair from the trees. They wound it around leaves to secure it. Zhenya’s strands looked white in the sun, like glimmering spiderwebs; Natasha’s dark ones looked like the shadows of twigs. Zhenya imagined the deer circling, but never approaching. She imagined the birds that would find the hair and pull it off. They’d carry it away to build their nests, lacing the hair between twigs to strengthen their homes. Wind and rain would wash away any strands that were left and spread them over the forest until finally the deer return.
Alisa Koyrakh received her BA in Comparative Literature from Barnard College and her MFA in Fiction
from NYU. With support from NYU’s Global Research Initiative, Alisa spent four months researching
her novel in Eastern Europe. The daughter of Soviet Jewish immigrants, Alisa writes to explore the
precarious nature of morality and our need to feel at ease in a world that is never truly our own. Her work has most recently appeared in New England Review. She lives in Carrboro, North Carolina with her