The Smuggler

By KATIA KAPOVICH

Translated by PHILIP NIKOLAYEV
I wore the same checkered coat for six winters in a row. It had once been warm and even elegant in its way, but then developed holes and faded. Whether because the cotton lining had become matted or because the outer cloth had worn thin from wind and rain, the garment no longer gave any warmth. I felt cold even in reasonably warm weather. Wind would penetrate it in unpredictable spots, now chilling my waist, now freezing my shoulder blades, as if someone had thrown a piece of ice behind my collar. When one time I arrived at the Kolosovs all soaked and melancholy with hunger, Ivan hung my coat on the kitchen radiator and scratched the back of his head.

“Listen, perhaps we could help you make some cash. Do you know the town of Comrat?”

I did.

“It’s an interesting place, ethnographically. The Gagauzians there are descendants of the Turkish invaders. They were converted to Christianity in the eighteenth century, under Catherine the Great, through Prince Potyomkin’s efforts. They’ve kept their own language, but they use the Russian alphabet. You used to be an athlete, right? Can you lift fifty kilos?”

“I was a runner, not a weightlifter.”

“That’ll come in handy too,” Ivan said. “So to get to the point, you go there, you buy some sheepskins, we pay you.”

The bus for Comrat left the station at 9 a.m. I took a window seat. The southbound route wove romantically among misty vineyards and white wattle-and-daub peasant huts with lean-tos for cattle. Toward 10 a.m., as the mists faded, the view worsened. The huts turned out to be not white but a dirty gray. Skeletal, branded sheep turned their heads toward us and bleated their anguish from behind barbed wire. They had heartbreaking faces, like children in concentration camps. Barbed wire is barbed wire is barbed wire. Enough, time to leave, I thought. Not for Comrat, but for America.

Gypsies roamed the Comrat market selling Turkish-made jeans, lipstick and chewing gum. Gagauzian men, swarthy, shrill-spoken, pipe-smoking and with joined eyebrows, looked like honest-to-God Turks. They were by and large more practical and better at housekeeping than their Moldovan neighbors. Virgil, in an eclogue addressed to his favorite youth, boasts of the especial stateliness of his cows, which in the poet’s opinion his rival’s cows cannot begin to match. Similarly, the Moldovans’ sheep were no match for the splendid blonde beasts of the Gagauzians. “Notice the odor,” I recalled Ivan’s instruction. “Healthy sheep give off a healthy odor.” I stubbed out my cigarette and smelled my first candidate for purchase. It reeked unmistakably of rotting sheep cheese. The owner must have marked me down as a novice and was eager to fob off garbage upon me. His short coat wide open, he gestured in sham perplexity: “What odor are you talking about, my beauty?”—“You can’t fool me, no way! Take a sniff of it, it stinks all the way to Kishinev!”—“All right, not thirty! Twenty-five!” he persisted. An hour later, my capacious bags and backpack all crammed with sheepskins, I went back to the bus station. A merry Moldovan tune that was ringing in my head clashed with the song blaring from the market’s music kiosk:a soldier walking in the city down an unfamiliar street . . .

The bus quickly rocked me to sleep, and I did not wake up until we entered Kishinev. The streets were deserted. It was getting dark, the falling snow glittered. A surprised cop stared at me. I had received precise instructions concerning this sort of situation: when stopped, deny everything, talk incoherent nonsense. But then something humane flickered in the cop’s eyes as I was shoving my bags into the telephone booth. It being March 7, the eve of International Women’s Day, perhaps he had qualms about questioning me.

In the receiver, Ivan’s voice sounded briskly formal.

“Yes, speaking.”

“The good have arrived safely,” I reported.

“What goods?”

“The Golden Fleece.”

He met me in the yard in front of his building, where children were running around in the mud of an improvised soccer field under a dangling streetlight. Wood crates served as goalposts.

“A tactical mistake. You shouldn’t have mentioned the Golden Fleece, what has it got to do with anything?” Ivan said.

“But you told me to talk incoherent nonsense! Plus, it’s a cultural allusion.”

He looked at me with pity.

“The younger generation. They need to be taught everything from scratch! For future reference, I suggest you forget all about cultural allusions. Cops are not idiots. I bet you they know their Homer.”

I had strong doubts about that, but what did I know?

 

But, to return to our rams, as the French say, I came down with a high fever for two weeks. That was when my mother seriously undertook my proper winterization.

“I’ve got some savings, let’s buy a coat. Your health is worth more,” she said decisively.

And so we did. It was the coat of all coats, with a belt, its authentic leather redolent of the Champs-Élysées. My nondescript Moldovan boots took on a sorry look next to it, a village couple at an urban wedding.

“Super duper!” commented Dunhill-smoking black-marketeer Mila, dropping ashes into a metal Buddha ashtray. The Buddha’s head flapped open and shut.

“It’s not crying for food, so let’s keep it for a while,” my mother said, taking the old coat from my hands. It’s a disease they have, I thought of my parents. My mom, whenever she threw away any old cup that was missing its handle or any moth-eaten shawl, would always regret it afterwards.

“Why do you need it?”

“Sentimental value, your first checkered coat.”

 

People select friends based on interests; they stay friends for want of options. Everyone feels the need to belong. Visiting the Kolosovs gave me that sense of belonging. Why? It was simple: they would forget that I was there, and I could sit all evening in an armchair in the corner listening to their elder daughter, Irina, speaking to a student of hers in English.

Here is how I had first met them. A friend had told me that they had two Nabokov novels. I had heard a lot about Nabokov but had never read him. I telephoned the Kolosovs and was asked to come by. Ivan acted conspiratorially: rather than invite me in, he brought out to the landing a copy of Lolita bound in black calico. When in a few days I stopped by to return it, we got to talking. The book was complex and so provocative that it had been banned even in the States for a while. Moral issues. A master wordsmith. Extreme subtlety. Literature is the only language that can speak of modern man, I offered. What about philosophy? Have I read Lev Shestov? A neighbor lady emerged with her garbage can. She had been eavesdropping on our abstruse conversation for a full fifteen minutes. Good afternoon, Ivan Markovich. Good afternoon, Claudia Garbagevna.

They were an interesting family. I took my time to study them, to figure them out. Unmistakably, they were intellectuals, had degrees, a Moscow accent and all that. So why did they make coats from smuggled sheepskins and work such strange jobs? Ivan held the post of a factory watchman. Vera attached zippers to boots in a shoe repair shop at the local marketplace. When we became close enough, Ivan confided in me that he had spent seven years in jail for political proclamations. Before that he had been a high school history teacher. It was in jail that he had embraced the faith: he had shared his cell with an artist, a devout Russian orthodox convicted for social parasitism. Such was his good luck.

I, too, wanted to have faith. They say don’t be so highbrow and you’ll believe. I couldn’t. There was too much deception and absurdity around. Religion seemed to have its own deceptions too, but at least it appeared to be free from absurdity. “Doubt is a perfectly natural thing,” Ivan insisted, “you can doubt all you like.” After all, God was more interesting to discuss than food prices. Was it not better to be disappointed eventually than disillusioned from the start? I seemed incapable of living like everyone else anyway. Whenever I ran into my former college classmates I saw clearly that our ways had parted. One of them was striving to acquire a Finnish toilet bowl; another, having landed an editorial job and joined the Communist Party, spouted utter baloney. They were petty and tedious, so I always ended up going to the Kolosovs’ to drink tea and talk God and philosophy. And every Sunday I traveled to Comrat.

Ivan Kolosov was a classic “subjective idealist” by nature, but life had by and by turned him into a more objective one.

“Perhaps you should get baptized? Exit visas are granted more easily on grounds of religion.”

I was finishing the raw vegetables. The Kolosovs were strictly vegetarian, performed scary yogic lavages and attended church. You could do jail time just for socializing with them.

“But I’m a Jew.”

“So what, look at me.”

He turned in profile on his chair, his dentures gleaming. I understood now where his real teeth had gone.

“My maternal grandmother was a Roitblatt.”

“I see.”

“Jews are especially welcome and valued.”

“As usual.”

“Don’t be so sarcastic.” Ivan looked hurt. “Do you know what Pascal said?”

“About the Jews?”

“No, about religion. The believer never stands to lose. If there is no God, the believer still doesn’t lose anything, but he gains a great deal if God does exist.”

“Are you sure this is not about the Jews? This is Jewish logic!”

“Maybe.”

Present with us at the table were… Alas, I could never keep their guests straight in my head. They would show up and then disappear in a month or two, emigrating. Irina, who had majored in foreign languages, was giving private English lessons to future émigrés. All her students had curly beards and tired Jewish eyes. Their conversations tended to be politico-philosophical. Sashas and Mishas were prevalent among them. Once the Kolosovs’ six-year-old, another Ivan, answered the phone when his parents were out. The caller introduced himself as Misha and requested to be called back urgently. Ivan had to apologize to his mom and dad: “I forgot to get this Misha’s name!”

We returned to our conversation about faith in a week.

“The Tolstoy Fund gives a lot of help, especially to those persecuted.”

“But no one is persecuting me!”

“Be patient, they will,” Ivan replied firmly. “Besides, you’ve just been fired from your job, which also needs to be mentioned. Read the Bible today and tomorrow. Irina will prepare you.”

“Is there a test?”

“No, but it’s good form to read the Bible before your baptism.”

First thing on leaving the church, I called my mother. For some reason I thought she would be happy to hear my news.

“You’re out of your skull,” she said. “How did you manage to think up such a stupid thing?”

I was hurt.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she continued. “You should have at least discussed this with someone in our family. After all, your great-grandfather was a rabbi, and not just any rabbi, but the most famous rabbi in Odessa…”

I interrupted her.

“What does my great-grandfather got to do with it?”

“I will now be ashamed to visit his grave. What shall I tell him?” my mother replied with dignity.

It occurred to me that it mattered little what she told him. If the same mother were to be believed, my famous rabbinical great-grandpa knew only two words in Russian: commissar and revolution.

I should explain that to her some time, I thought.

My joblessness worried me more. On the one hand, it’s for the best, I reasoned. Kishinev was a small town, and now I had no chance at all of finding employment. So I figured I would submit my emigration papers and get out. My record of service was a single line long: typist and office assistant at Vegetable Store #17. Term of employment: six months. Fired for skipping work. I wasn’t sure this counted as political persecution.

I did not like the church. First of all, it was stuffy inside, and second, an intelligent-looking woman who was praying next to me suddenly broke my concentration one day.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You should be wearing a kerchief. You aren’t supposed to enter the church bare-headed!”

Our bickering began to attract attention. Two elderly ladies approached me from the opposite flank and insisted on giving me some gauze rags.

“What’s up with that? What’s their problem?” I asked Ivan.

He did not reply, but led me to the priest and pressed a crumpled note in my hand.

“And now you confess, get it?”

I remained alone, save for the priest who stared at me with a ram’s eyes and stroked his beard slowly. Words stuck in my throat. I exerted myself to recall my recent thoughts about religion. I felt I had to find the right tone: everyone here talked differently, not like in real life.

“I am not without sin, father,” I mumbled. “I am given, how should I put it, to great doubt.”

The priest remained silent.

“I interact a great deal with people of genuine faith. They are full of fervor. But I feel empty inside. There is no flame. I have even read some of the works of Father Paul Florensky. Do you know his On the Threshold of Thought?”

The priest frowned slightly.

“You keep illicit relations with anyone?” he enquired.

“What relations?”

“You keep illicit, sinful relations with any men?” I thought that by “illicit” he meant “illegal,” so I replied that I had such relations with hardly anyone except for two Gagauzians in the Moldovan market.

“Gagauzians?”

“Yes.”

“What Gagauzians?”

“Regular Moldovan Gagauzians. They live there, in Comrat.”

“How come?”

“I don’t know. They must have been born there?”

“You smoke?” he continued vapidly.

“Yes.”

“That’s bad, burning incense for the devil.”

He shook his head and stared into space.

“I’m planning to quit,” I lied.

“That’s good.”

Rising, the priest blessed me quickly with the sign of the cross and extended his plump hand toward me. I shook it with relief, and the crumpled note about which I had forgotten fell to the floor. The priest and I stared at it simultaneously. It was a five ruble bill.

“Come on,” he said and offered his hand again.

I gave him the fiver and withdrew.

 

Sasha was expected back by lunch. He was a friend of the Kolosovs whom I had learned to know from the rest because he had been a refusenik for three years now. His petitions to emigrate were being denied. He wore red socks and was interested in poetry.

Meanwhile, Ivan was telling me off.

“Give me a break, why are you so sensitive? The priest is just an intermediary. What do you care about his human qualities?”

“I have a hard time taking it abstractly,” I complained. “What if he is really KGB?”

“Of course he’s KGB, a second lieutenant most likely.”

“So why confess to him? It would be easier to denounce myself to the 
KGB directly.”

“When in church he assumes a different capacity,” Sasha said.

“First lieutenant?”

“It’s a pity you take it this way,” Sasha said. “Let me try to explain. When writing poems, you take on a whole different aspect? Don’t you?”

“Probably.”

“So it’s the same with him. He may be whoever in everyday life, but in Church he ceases to be a man and turns into God’s own ear.”

We sat around and drank tea from a tea set. The piano behind the wall continued to tinkle with unobtrusive classical music; then its lid slammed down and the music teacher’s blond head appeared in the living room door.

“Ivan Markovich, we are done for today.”

“All right, all right, give me a moment.”

He exited. I heard him talking to the music teacher about contemporary music. Schnittke. Counterpoint. Banned from performance. It will dawn on them some day that they had overlooked a genius in their midst.

That’ll dawn on them about me too, I thought.

“Is the poetry coming along?” Sasha said.

“With a vengeance.”

“Huh?”

“Sometimes.”

“Don’t abandon it.”

“All right, I won’t.”

Sasha reclined on the sofa. It was slightly too short for him, and his red-socked feet dangled from the plush bolster. If it weren’t for those awful socks, I thought. Sasha rested his nape on his hands and stared at the ceiling.

“Ever since childhood I’ve had this sensation that someone is watching me. When I’m walking down the street or sitting in my room, I feel those eyes on me. Does this ever happen to you?”

“No.”

“Never mind, it manifests itself differently to different people.”

“What manifests itself?”

“The presence.”

At home, I recalled this conversation with sudden joy. My life was so interesting, my circle comprised such fascinating types. I didn’t exactly seem run-of-the-mill myself, either. Smuggler, poet, Christian … I was surviving extreme conditions, so to speak, and risking my freedom. A howling ambulance dashed by behind my window along Soviet Army Boulevard, the dog next door howled in response, and all was silent again. I took a sheet of paper and began to write.
    That night our waking hours turned wee and went
AWOL, whence they can’t come back to resolve
their irreversible predicament
with all the contrariety of love
in the return cry of an ambulance.
All night we stood and gaped like exit wounds
in palisade askanceness of the fence
to the black backyard, to the white front porch,
whereat the stars glimmered their green reproach
to the effect that there was, no, no chance…

I submitted my petition to emigrate. This news enlivened the conversation the next time I sat at the Kolosovs’ table and somehow drew me closer to the other young people in their circle.

Sasha noticed that my hand grabbed my side as I rose with some effort from the chair.

“Intervetebral disc?”

“No, I pulled a muscle.”

“Let me fix it.”

“You mean you’re a doctor now?”

“That too. Sit down there.”

I sat down on a child’s bench. He made motions with his hands over my head.

“How does it feel now?”

I stood up and walked across the room and back.

“I do feel better.”

“Did you doubt it?”

Wow, what amazing people, I thought on my way home. Perhaps they’re right about stuff that’s lost on me? I should get to know them better, they emit a good energy. Since they don’t ask for anything in return, what does it matter if I’m different from them? Still, why am I so incapable of rising above particulars to the level of metaphysical abstraction? What’s stopping me? My experience? My entire experience screams to me that we are alone in the universe, there’s no one out there. Does theirs tell them something else? We share the same experience, so experience can’t be the reason. Should I be reading up on this?

On the nightstand by the sofa lay the unfinished Florensky volume: Come out into a garden on a moonless night. The trees’ tentacles will reach out to you, probing deep into your soul, touching your face—and suddenly there are no boundaries: the creature’s very pores…—here I reclined on the sofa—the creature’s very pores absorb the enigma of the created world.

The aforementioned merry Gagauzian, the first to sell me sheepskins, invited me to his house. His name was Pavel, and he was about fifty.

“It’s right around the corner. I have lots more sheepskins there, you’ll 
be amazed!”

The fence demarcated a neat garden where fruit trees leaned on wood crosses and wore white stockings of lime against caterpillars. Pavel’s house, large and bright on the outside, turned out to be dark and tight on the inside. There were many rooms, about five or six, but they were appended to each in preposterous succession, like cars in a train. In the dining car—the long kitchen—three men were lunching at a table covered with white. Pavel’s Bulgarian wife Maria had served two dishes of stuffed cabbage leaves in sour cream. Pavel poured wine from a jug into mugs and looked at me.

“I see you wear a cross.”

“Uh-huh.”

We ate in silence for a while. Maria never sat down with us.

“Don’t be afraid, we also believe in Christ. Isn’t that so, wife?”

The wife shook her head negatively, which in Bulgarian means “yes.”

“Look here.”

He opened a drawer and took out an iron cross. Next to it in the drawer were a prayer book and a paper icon.

“I bought this cross in Kiev.”

A great simple truth is now going to be revealed to me by this simple man, I thought.

“It so happens that this cross has saved my family. We had no children for a long time. We even went to the hospital. But it didn’t help. Maria was empty. Isn’t that the truth, woman?”

Maria confirmed.

“Then a kind man recommended we go to the Kiev Caves Monastery to see the holy relics. We went, first by bus up to Tiraspol, then by train to Kiev, and we started looking for this monastery. And found it. Isn’t that so, woman? We lit some candles and bought this icon. Just four rubles for such a powerful thing! What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“It worked.”

He again poured each of us a mug.

“She was completely cured.”

“And then what happened?”

“See for yourself, aren’t they a bunch of lookers!”

The lookers showed no reaction to the compliment; they must have heard this story many times. Each was graced with heavy eyebrows joined at the top of the nose and a pair of large bovine eyes.

“Hasn’t it worked out nicely?”

I nodded.

Pavel briskly refreshed our mugs and we clinked them.

“Why aren’t you married? No candidates?”

“None.”

“My youngest son is also slow to get married … Sasha. Isn’t he a dreamboat?”

“Yeah.”

“And what do you do?”

“A bit of everything. I mostly make coats.”

“That’s nice. If you deal with me I’ll give you a discount of one-third of the price. Let’s go look at the goods.”

He wiped his lips with a homespun towel and, heavy with food, pushed himself away from the table. We walked forward through the house and into a dim room hung with Turkish rugs. Sheepskins were piled up in a corner. “You pick what you want and I’m going to read a little,” said Pavel, fishing large black-rimmed eyeglasses out of his pants pocket. In a couple of minutes I heard his monotonous, businesslike snoring. I went on turning over the sheepskins. Pavel lay asleep across the ottoman. His eyeglasses had slid down the bridge of his nose and settled on its tip. I stuffed my sheepskins into bags and, leaving the money next to him on the pillow, exited into the lane through the backyard.

It’s not as if I believe in nothing at all, I thought on the way back. The very fact that my life path has led from my childhood all the way to the Kolosovs proves that I must believe in something. In fate, for example. After all, I didn’t give up when my dog wasn’t returned to me all those years ago. I asked a question then, but I have to date received no answer. So perhaps God can’t be felt like a shock from an electrical socket, after all. Perhaps it’s all not merely coincidental, these people, these books, these conversations lasting into the wee hours. . . Give me some sign, some hint that I’m going in the right direction, for man is weak and flits about in the dark like a moth around a lamp. The simile was flawed, but it worked for me. The bus vibrated as it entered the city. Peasants sat dormant around me. The hull of a highrise under construction flashed by in the window. There were exactly nine floors. The top floors still wore scaffolding, but a political placard was already affixed to the roof. To be sure, it showed the Leader of the Revolution, and the slogan above his outstretched arm read in large crimson lettering: “You have chosen the right path, comrades!”

It was night all around when I alighted at the terminus.

“Wait up,” someone said behind me.

I turned around and did not see anyone.

“What’s the hurry, where to?”

I continued uphill at a sprightly and independent pace. Lenin Street was five or six short blocks away. It was flooded with streetlights, glowing in the distance.

“Too proud to talk to me, huh?” The voice had taken offense. I turned and saw its owner, a tall bozo in baggy sweatpants and a quilted jacket.

“Hey, take off your coat!” he suddenly screamed. A metallic object flashed in his raised hand.

A revolver, I thought. Sizing up the uphill lane, I ran. I was afraid and seemed slow to myself. For the first time in my life I was being pursued, an unpleasant sensation. A major portion of my strength went into balancing the sheepskin load. Should I drop the bags? I’d make the remaining two hundred yards easily without them. I had had a training partner in my athletic childhood: we ran hurdles together. She almost always won, although I was every bit as good as her as a runner. Natasha Panenko, Natasha Panenko, I’m going to show you now, I started repeating to myself. When I stopped the lane was again dark and empty, like a spyglass aimed at a distant stretch of asphalt. A mangy cat stood by the familiarly locked supermarket door. I sat down on the doorstep and motioned for the cat to come closer. She arched her skinny back and rubbed herself against my knee.

“Did you see that?” I asked.

She sat down by me, a plain gray feline with clever eyes that had seen a great deal in this life. Why does one feel so much at ease with animals? Because they have faith. Without even knowing it. But why? Because they don’t extrapolate. She doesn’t think she will ever die. That’s the way to live.

As I approached my house I saw Sasha in front of it, a bread loaf in his hand. I told him about my misadventures.

“Strange, I thought you traveled by train.”

“No train goes to Comrat.”

“Strange.”

He broke off a piece of the loaf and handed it to me.

“I’ve got news: my petition has been approved.”

“Congratulations.”

We sat down on the front stairs of the drugstore.

“So there,” Sasha said, inexplicably sad. Some of the sentiment transferred to me.

“When are you leaving?”

“I’ll stay another month or so. I have to go to Moscow for my visa, take care of this and that. But I wanted to say goodbye. We’ll be thinking of you; you’re the last one left. God willing, we’ll see each other in the West.”

“We definitely will.”

“I’ll send you my address.”

“Certainly.”

“And Irina has turned me down.”

“Huh?”

“She doesn’t want to leave her parents.” He sighed. “End of story.”

“Perhaps she’ll change her mind?”

Sasha shrugged. “Unlikely. I don’t feel like leaving.”

As we embraced, I remarked a drugstore vacancy notice fluttering in the wind behind his shoulder: “Urgent! Pharmacist’s Assistant Needed.”

 

“I foresaw it,” Ivan said, not long after I said goodbye to Sasha. They had now stopped issuing exit visas to Christians. On the other hand, the Australians were suddenly being active. They mostly accepted young people with good professions. Programmers, construction engineers, nurses and pharmacists were in demand.

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to apply at the Australian agency while simultaneously signing up for some six-month nursing or pharmacology course…”

“Yeah, it’s not bad,” I replied, thinking that now truly everyone in our motherland wanted to turn me into either a pharmacist or a nurse.

One night I boarded a trolleybus and rode it in circles, from one end of the route to the other and back, just for fun. I wanted to say goodbye to the city where I had grown up. The weather was vernally warm and I didn’t need to wear a coat. All I needed was some hope of life ahead, of new people and new poems. Why, I wondered, do I always feel that everything that is going on is mere preparation and that true life will come once I am duly prepared? What if this is the life, what if there’s nothing else? I was thinking, I will emigrate, a new, real life will begin. And before that I used to think, I will graduate from college and a new life will begin. . . . What if these thoughts were a mistake? Or was I extrapolating again?

A young girl with a dog boarded the trolleybus, sat down and began staring through the window. The dog was also staring through the window. It was late. Where were they going at such an hour? The clock in the square in front of the railroad station marked a time long past. I recalled my first foray into God-seeking. It had come spontaneously. When I was eight, I happened to read a book published before the Revolution. I forget the title and the author. It was the story of an orphan girl who grew up in a family that belonged to the Old Believer sect. The girl’s foster parents loved her in their own way, but because they were Old Believers, they never tired of tormenting her. I was too young to understand the ideological purpose of the narrative, all I cared about was the plot. I, too, was eight-years-old, but, unlike the story’s heroine, I had many friends and a dog named Atos, with whom I would wander around at length in a nearby wood, trudging through the underbrush and impersonating an Amerindian. Then one day the dog died, and it got me thinking. There were many people of faith among our neighbors. “God resurrects those who are without sin,” Lena Hadjiu, a neighbor girl, told me. I decided to try my luck. My dog was definitely without sin. He may have gnawed a couple of my shoes to bits, but I had long forgiven him. I climbed the drainpipe all the way to the church roof and, waiting till dark for the sake of greater certainty, I asked that my dog be returned to me. Below me, a server lady emerged backwards out of the beerhouse, wheeling behind her a container full of empty beer bottles. Then she disappeared behind the back door, only to emerge again in a crimplene jacket and with a string-bag jangling with beer bottles that were full. Another half an hour later, a group of Gypsies with an accordion walked by the church. One of them saw me. “Get down, or your dad will spank you,” he said and shook a first at me. As they receded, I saw their hair glow in the liquid streetlamp light. I slid down the drainpipe, cutting my palm with a steel nail. The scar is still there.

“God is not like electricity, you don’t feel Him by sticking two fingers in a power socket,” Lena Hadjiu told me the next day. She was one year younger than me, but I always felt as if she were older. Probably because she knew something I didn’t. She didn’t deign to argue with me. In general, she was the quiet sort.

 

Katia Kapovich hails from Soviet Moldova. Her membership in the late seventies and early eighties in a samiszdat dissident group precluded publication of her writing in the USSR. A recipient of the 2001 Witter Bynner Fellowship from the U. S. Library of Congress, Kapovich writes poetry and short fiction. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches literary courses at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and co-edits Fulcrum.

Philip Nikolayev has published several collections of poems, including Monkey Time and Letters from Aldenderry.

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The Smuggler

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