Nami, bathed in sweat, holds his grandma’s blubbery hand. The waves from the lake slap against the concrete jetty. He hears the sound of screams, shrieks, coming from the town beach. It must be a Sunday if he’s here on the blanket with his grandma and grandpa. There’s one other person here too. He recalls the three dark spots of a swimsuit, three triangles of a bikini, with a long dark tail of hair hanging down, brushed out like the tail of a horse, and two dark tufts of hair visible in the underarms. The three triangles move slowly in the sun, turning over again and again, until there is only one. A little ways offshore, a catfish lazily flicks its tail.
“The surface seems lower than it used to be,” Nami’s grandma says, smacking a fly as it lands on her belly. She chews roasted sunflower seeds, bought from the stand on the beach, spitting the shells onto the concrete in front of her.
“What’re you talking about?” Nami’s grandpa says with a laugh. “Women’s wisdom—second worst thing in the world, next to a hangover!”
Nami’s grandpa rocks back as he laughs, hands on his thighs. Wedged between the fingers of one of his dirty, chewed-up hands is an unfiltered cigarette.
The three triangles pick up a thermos, turn to Nami, and pour him a cup of mint tea.
“Have a drink, love.” Well, what do you know? The three triangles have a voice. It’s pleasantly deep, like the old well behind their house. Nami takes a drink. The tea, sweetened with honey, is delicious. It slides down his throat with no resistance.
“Let’s go then, love,” his grandpa says in a placating voice. “Wouldn’t want anyone calling you a sissy. Every boy of three in these parts needs to know how to swim.”
He runs a hand over his rounded belly. Flicks the cigarette butt into the water, where it lands with a hiss. Nami doesn’t want to go in the water. He wants to lie on the blanket, resting his head on his grandma’s soft belly and watching the three red triangles. He attempts to lift a hand, but it just drops lazily back in his lap.
“Go on, Nami,” his grandma says. “I’ll buy you a lollipop.”
The lollipops always have cellophane stuck to them. You can never get it off. The only time Nami ever gets one is World Peace Day or when the three triangles come to visit. They taste of burnt sugar and violets. He doesn’t really like the taste, but to get one is so rare that he looks forward to it every time and does whatever he’s asked to do.
Nami slowly gets to his feet, but before he can fully stand he finds himself flying through the air.
“Now swim, sturgeon!” his grandpa shouts, bursting into laughter. The three triangles scream. So does Nami’s grandma. Landing painfully on his side, Nami breaks through the surface and sinks down through the dark water. Looking up, he can see the faint shine of the sun in the swarm of bubbles trailing behind him. His lungs ache, he’s had the wind knocked out of him. The deeper he sinks, the colder the water gets. Nami sinks numbly, arms outstretched, flapping at his side. Any second now, he thinks, he’s going to see the Spirit of the Lake, which lives at the bottom. The pressure on his lungs grows, his ears feel like they’re about to explode. Instinctively he gasps for breath and swallows a mouthful of water. He can’t see anymore. He waves his arms and legs wildly, struggling toward the surface. Everything is black and shiny.
“Stupid old fool,” his grandma says as Nami finally catches his breath and starts furiously coughing up dirty water. “You old ass, I wouldn’t trust you with a can of worms!”
“What’s wrong? He’s fine, isn’t he? You saw the boy swim, right?” Nami’s grandpa says in a defensive tone. His voice is trembling slightly. “A true warrior!”
“Come here, love,” the three triangles say from the depths of the earth, wrapping Nami into their arms. One pounding chest on another. Nami settles down and stops coughing. The skin beneath the triangles is warm and bronze and smells wonderful. The three triangles hold him close, kissing his hair and speaking in whispers. The woman’s hair tickles his face, and she begins to sing.
“Don’t sing to him!” the old lady shouts. Nami shudders, but then lies still again. He doesn’t move a muscle, pretending he’s dead, that he doesn’t even exist. The singing falls away to nothing but a thick sound with each exhale, like the vibrations of a bell dying down after the clapper has stopped. Nami wishes he could stay that way forever. He steals a glance at the woman’s face, but all he can see is the tip of her nose and her prominent cheekbones.When they walk home, Nami faints and his grandpa has to carry him.
Instead of going across the square with the statue of the Statesman and the ditch the Russians bulldozed for trash, they take the back way, around the apartment complex.
“You’re quite a load, boy,” grumbles Nami’s grandpa. His foot slips and he freezes, barely catching his balance in time to avoid a fall. They reach home and Nami gets his lollipop. He licks it more out of obligation than enjoyment. Out the corner of his eye he watches the three triangles, which meanwhile have changed into a blue-and-green flowerprint dress. He touches it when he has the chance, and is rewarded with a wonderful smell.
That evening Nami has a violent vomiting fit. His stomach contracts uncontrollably, ejecting torrents of dirty water, mint tea, and lumps of sheep cheese blini. The blue-and-green flowerprint dress strokes his forehead, holding his head while he vomits, wiping his mouth and whispering in a soothing voice. “Shh, love, everything’s going to be all right.”
The next morning, when Nami wakes up, the blue-and-green dress is gone. He takes a sip of black Russian tea and vomits it right back up.
Nami grew up surrounded by the smell of fish, so he never really noticed it. The small town of Boros has a sturgeon hatchery and, right next door, a fish processing plant. Alea, their neighbor, works in the fish factory. Sometimes she comes over to sit on their doorstep, and brings a bucket of caviar to trade for a sack of potatoes. Then Nami has to eat caviar every day for breakfast and dinner, sitting over the bucket, scooping it up by the spoonful, until he’s sick to his stomach.
“You ate it all?” his grandma asks. Nami lowers his eyes and stares at the floor.
“That’s all right,” his grandma says. “Caviar is the healthiest thing in the world. Next to ginseng!”
“And next to a good fuck,” the old man says with a grin from the corner of the room. He rubs the corner of his eye with his thumb, gripping an unfiltered cigarette between his index finger and his misshapen middle finger.
“Grandpa, you should be ashamed!” Nami’s grandma chides him, but she too is grinning. She fries a batch of blini and slathers them with butter. “You eat like a VIP,” she says, smiling at Nami as she fills his plate. Nami likes caviar, but he feels like that can’t be all there is. He hopes that something more meaningful lies in store, but at four years old he doesn’t have the words yet to express it. He crushes the little black beads between his teeth, absently picking at the scab on his knee.
His grandma has a big lump on her tailbone, broad bony hips, and a soft tummy that Nami likes to fall asleep on. She strokes his hair with a hard, dry hand as she tells him stories about the Spirit of the Lake and the warriors of the Golden Horde, who sleep in the Kolos cliff, waiting until the great warrior comes to wake them up.
“Will that be me?” Nami asks.
“Yes, it will, my boy,” his grandma smiles.
“But how will I find them?”
“Providence will show you the way, love.”
Nami hears his grandma’s words and peacefully drifts off to sleep.
It’s Fishery Day, the biggest holiday of the year. The whole town is gathered on the square around the statue of the Statesman. The children are dressed in snow-white shirts, the boys with colorful neckties, the girls with ribbons in their hair. Akel the vendor, who normally sells herring and sunflower seeds from his stall, also has cotton candy and luscious doughnuts, soaked in burned fat. Today is the day when none of the fishermen go out on the lake, because they’re all celebrating. By eleven a.m., almost nobody’s left standing on their feet; they have sacrificed too mightily to the Spirit of the Lake.
The chairman of the fish processing plant delivers a long speech, singing the praises of progress and collectivization as he shifts his gaze from the lake to the sky and back again. A man with a shaman’s headdress on—though nobody mentions him, as if he weren’t really there—dances around the statue of the Statesman. The Russian engineers and their wives, standing in the first line of listeners, are dressed in big-city fashion; the women in high heels, leather purses over their arms, hair brushed high. The local women speak of them with contempt; sometimes they even spit. One of the small Russian boys, despite the dumb look on his face, is an object of admiration, riding back and forth across the square in a squeaky pedal car. Nami can’t take his eyes off of him. He grips his grandma’s sweaty hand, crossing his legs; he badly needs to go pee. In one hand he holds a parade waver shaped like a fish. His grandpa stands next to him on the other side, swaying unsteadily, head drooping; every now and then he loudly smacks his lips. They hear the sound of thunder, or maybe gunfire from the Russian barracks. The Russian engineers and their wives look at one another in disgust and shake their heads. Nobody has been listening to the speech for a while now. The women converse in a lowered voice, but nobody leaves, out of courtesy. They all have their minds on the banquet that awaits them in the fish processing plant: blini with caviar, herring in mayonnaise, onion tarts, blackberry wine for the women, and plenty of hard liquor for their men. Nami can’t stop watching the green pedal car, cruising over the bumps and potholes like a tank. He tries to look away but can’t. Even when he shuts his eyes he still sees the car. His insides ache, squirming with envy.
“Can we go now, Grandma?”
“Soon, just hold on.”
“How much longer?”
“Just a little while.”
For a five-year-old boy, a little while is practically an eternity.
“What is it now?”
Nami says nothing.
“You peed yourself.”
Nami’s grandpa wakes from his snooze and looks around uncertainly.
“The boy peed himself,” Nami’s grandma whispers, elbowing the old man.
“Idiot,” he rasps.
A stain slowly spreads across the front of Nami’s shorts as a stream of urine runs down his thighs. The thunder rumbles again, and this time there’s lightning too. Wind whips the last few pages of the speech the factory chairman still has left in front of him, and without further warning the sky rips open, water gushing like when Nami’s grandma empties out the washtub. As the women’s hair collapses, blue makeup streams down their faces in hydrologic maps, and their high heels slip in the mud that has suddenly formed on the square, but the chairman of the fish factory won’t stop speaking. The statue of the Statesman silently raises its arms to the sky. In an instant, Nami is soaked to the skin. All that’s left of his parade wand is a wooden rod and streaks of red paint on his arm. The square has turned into a ploughed field, people sunk in mud up to their ankles and losing their shoes. The boy in the pedal car gets stuck in the mud and starts crying. Nami’s grandpa tips his head back and lets the rain fall on his face. The square lies on a slight slope, so it doesn’t take the boys long to realize the mud is great for sliding in. Akel desperately tries to keep his stand from slipping away downhill. Doughnuts tumble off the counter, dropping in the mud.
“It’s the Apocalypse,” Nami’s grandpa mumbles, beginning to sober up.
Water continues to pour from the sky, gradually filling the boy’s pedal car. The microphone gives out entirely, but the chairman goes on speaking. It’s like a silent comedy, except for the roar of the rain and the thunder, which every now and then strikes so nearby that Nami’s grandma twitches and looks toward the lake with terror on her face. The shaman slowly walks away, gripping his headdress. Then, following his lead, the masses of people hypnotically stir into motion. The factory chairman lowers his arm holding the microphone. Water runs down the collar of his jacket, down his shirt. He gazes accusingly at the sky. Nami can’t help himself, overcome by uncontrollable laughter, giggling like a madman. His grandma rolls her eyes at him, but Nami just laughs even more, still laughing hysterically as his grandma drags him home by the hand.
Nami doesn’t stop laughing until they cross the threshold of his house. His grandma slaps him across his sopping-wet thighs and his laughter finally stops, but he still hiccups long into the night.
They caught a lot of fish that year.
Sometimes Nami wakes up in the morning in bed and the sun is shining into his eyes. It must be vacation, since otherwise his grandma would have woken him up. It’s probably warmer outside than indoors. From the kitchen Nami can hear his grandpa’s smoker’s cough and the horn of a tugboat in the distance. He throws his arms and legs wide on the bed and stares up at the ceiling, where bunches of thyme and lady’s-mantle are drying. He feels like he could spend the rest of his life like this. If he sits up in bed, he can see all the way to the lake. He stretches out and puts on his clothes. On the kitchen table he finds a plateful of doughnuts waiting, fried for breakfast by his grandma. They’re only lukewarm now. He runs outside, determined to build a hideout in the branches that will hold up—not like last time, when it all fell apart and he got a scrape on his back.
The only tree for miles around is a cherry tree with a reddish-brown trunk that got struck by lightning, now half its branches are withered. Nami drags over a few large boards of various length and thickness. They slip and start to fall, he has to tie them together with rope. He tries to nail them in place with his grandpa’s carpenter’s hammer, which weighs at least ten pounds. The tree groans, the branches shake, and the boards resist, sliding away. The nail runs right through the board into empty space.
“For fuck’s sake!” Nami screams, throwing the hammer to the ground.
“What are you doing up there, boy?” Nami’s grandpa bellows, stepping out of the outhouse. “Lucky for you you don’t have a father, you miserable brat, or he’d tan your hide!”
Nami stops and thinks a minute, wondering what it would be like to have his hide tanned by a father. He actually likes the idea.
“Our only tree and he goes and wrecks it. As if he hasn’t done enough damage already,” Nami’s grandpa hollers in the direction of his grandma. She stands with one hand propped on her hip, the other one shading her eyes as she searches for Nami.
Nami sits on the ground now, behind the toolshed, breaking rocks. He lifts the heavy hammer high over his head, then brings it down, closing his eyes. He repeats the motion again and again, till streams of sweat run off of him and the stone turns to dust. He finds it satisfying. He stares in amazement at the palms of his hands, which have broken out in huge blisters. He tosses the hammer into the grass and runs down to the lake to wash off the dust.
“C’mere, you little runt! I’ll hammer you like a nail!” his grandpa shouts after him. Nami keeps running. He knows his grandpa will never catch him.
“I don’t know, but it seems weird to me, having the fish processing plant right next to the hatchery,” Nami’s neighbor Alea muses. “I know fish’ve got little brains, but still. It’s like putting a graveyard next to the hospital where babies are born, don’t you think?”
“Pour us some more Chardonnay, boy,” says Nami’s grandma, sitting at the table. Nami tops up their shotglasses with potato spirits. His grandma runs a hand over the plastic tablecloth, breathes a sigh, and stares off into the distance.
“Not many of ’em either and they’re dying like flies,” Alea goes on.
“What?” Nami’s grandma replies absently. Today she and Alea are rolling dough for bureks, one sheet after the next, coating it with a layer of butter, then laying another layer on top. Instead of a rolling pin, they use a three-foot-long wooden bar, like the one they have in the school gymnasium. Nami’s grandma huffs and puffs, setting her hands behind her hips and stretching her back.
“The sturgeons,” Alea says, visibly annoyed.
The house is painted blue, with a white roof. The door is made of hard black locust. The roof has a hole in it. When the weather’s nice, it lets in sunbeams; when it’s raining, water. Little snakes live underneath the old floorboards, but they’re harmless, vanishing into the cracks at the first sound of footsteps. Nami’s grandma says they keep good luck in the house, and pours milk into a dish for them.
The house sits on a little hill overlooking the lake. From the front door you can see the boats sailing back into harbor. It’s just one step up to the stoop with the railing. Nami’s grandma likes to sit there and watch the men returning home. Elbows propped against the table, she knits, embroiders, slices vegetables for dinner, peels potatoes, pits cherries with a hairpin, receives visitors.
“I don’t like the looks of it,” she says wearily. Heavy clouds are gathering on the horizon, where the lake comes to an end. That usually means a storm is on the way.
“Don’t be so gloomy!” Alea says. “More Chardonnay, Nami. We get those clouds from the east here every April.”
The old lady sighs, sprinkling lumps of sheep cheese onto the layer of dough. “Look, the Spirit is frowning. He’s still angry.”
“That wasn’t enough.”
“He still wants more!”
The sky above the lake looks heavy as lead. The ponderous clouds cover over the horizon like a fat old man atop his wife on their wedding night. Nami is collecting snails from the garden and stacking them in a pile. He calls it snail school, pairing them in schoolbenches, frowning as he scolds them for giving the wrong answer. Sometimes he even uses a cane.
“I’m worried, Alea,” Nami’s grandma says softly, hanging her hands at her side.
“Me too, you old goose,” Alea says, giving her a hug. The two women fall together to form a sculpture, pressing close as hard as they can, trembling—how many times have they done this before? Someday, someone will make a statue of the fisherman’s wife, shading her eyes as she gazes out to the horizon; whole throngs of women, their right arms taut with muscle from constantly gazing out to sea.
“Go run and fetch the shaman, Nami!” his grandma calls to him.
“Don’t go anywhere, Nami. Your grandma’s drunk,” Alea corrects her. Nami rubs his hands on his thighs, awaiting further orders.
“They’ll come back. They always do, you silly thing. Don’t get hysterical,” Alea says, giving Nami’s grandma an awkward pat on the arm.
As she pulls the burek out of the oven, the first drops begin to fall. They chew the buttery dough, peering out the window through the torrents of water streaming down. Neither woman says a word.
Nami lies on the ground in his room, up on the second floor, drawing in his notebook with his grandpa’s purple ink pen. The rain pounds against the windowpanes, the wind slaps the loose sheet tied to the shed. He’s got the transistor radio on, tuned in to the same program he listens to every night. A soothing female voice recites the 24-hour forecast for sailors and fishermen. In a rich, full alto, she announces the wind speed and expected rainfall and cloud conditions for each individual part of the lake. She describes gale-force winds of 10 on the Beaufort scale with the same steady voice as she does a breeze rustling the leaves in the trees. Nami finds it calming. He lays his head down on the floor and falls asleep. When he wakes up in the morning, the sky looks swept clean and the sun is blazing hot. His body feels like it’s broken and he’s starving. He goes downstairs to get breakfast. He looks at his hands and discovers they’re covered in purple ink. There’s a candle burning on the kitchen table, and his grandma sits in the corner, leaning her back against the wall, staring wide-eyed straight ahead.
Nami’s grandpa, Alea’s husband, and six other fishermen are missing.
(Translated by Alex Zucker)