By Ksenia Panova
The little Soviet-era apartment we lived in had been built some thirty years prior to our moving in. It was planned to the exact allowance of nine square meters per person, no more, no less, because that is how much an individual was worth: nine square meters. Entire cities were planned with this value in mind so that space could be used most effectively. I was six and in the way just like everyone else, we knew all that, but we still went to church (the girls wrapped kerchiefs around their hair and mothers rouged their cheeks with beets). Sometimes we picked flowers and wild thyme that grew in the fields between towns even though it was illegal. We had to keep our bouquets in our jackets or schoolbags. We’d cautiously display our bouquets on little kitchen tables but hid them in the cupboard when people knocked. Nothing was ours except for the nine square meters.
Grandmother was forever in the linoleum-plastered kitchen boiling orange rinds in sugared water for marmalade, occasionally reaching down with her long wooden spoon to let me lick off the foam that she’d scrape off the top of the in-progress mixture like that of a questionable god that was making some other prototype in a warm primordial mixture. I’d sit on the floor with a metal tea box full of buttons making snake shapes with them in the evenings while she cooked and the swallows played around the patchy poplars with the sunset catching them and throwing their quick and mad shadows on the walls. They had the whole sunset to themselves, if they wanted it. So did the pigeons, finches, mosquitoes, and dust motes which is why I guess my grandmother didn’t like looking outside much and maybe why everyone kept their eyes to the ground when they went out for vegetables. No one ever commented on how the bees sounded in the summer or the swallows’ maddening almost-vibration as they flew hard above our heads, but we were all aware of it; we were just jealous. Our apartment building was near a dirt patch that grew hollyhocks on accident in the only spot of the yard that wasn’t covered with a tree’s shadow or concrete and a street away from the corner drug store and the warehouse. Vegetables were brought in from the neighboring farmland and bread was brought in bricks. The clerk who handed out rations and stamped my grandfather’s identification booklet never looked up either.
Spring and summer were met with resentment by the adults because they were obligated to move more freely, which our furs and felts hadn’t allowed as much when it was cold. It brought the noise of birds that owned the sky and air. Everyone seemed to have a matching little crease, deep as the middle of an open book which grew deeper with every noise of outside that seemed like an exertion to produce. Pushkin was said to have hated the springtime because it highlighted the dirt and other gray things that ran with the rain, and I pretended I did too. Spring and summer was the time the birds came back alive, or at least came out of their holes. I didn’t know how birth and death worked yet, just leaving and coming back, so I asked my grandparents every morning if mother and father were going to come back today. The pigeons never left, though. They, grey like us, huddled on rooftops closer to the sun, or around the steel mill pipes to keep warm.
I liked the pigeons when I was small. My nine square meters was on the fifth floor with my grandparents and our windows faced west. I’d stand at the kitchen window, gazing seriously at the gurgling birds in the poplars and on the power lines. When the sun had set low enough for me not to see green I turned my gaze back kitchen-ward. The sun and the birds’ own contours caught them pearly and colored them in like my pre-k colored pencil drawings. And I used to sprinkle out some crumbs onto the ledge of the window and watch the rounded, ceramic-looking birds swarm the window. I didn’t know what a ration was or why dropping a piece of bread on the street and into a puddle was a sin; punishable by a whack to the back of my head which knocked off my cap. When my grandmother was done in the kitchen, she took her nine square meters into the living room, I made use of mine by the window. She always took a head of a sunflower with her and I would not move until I heard her cheeks working in the next room, the moist smack of lips that I knew signaled her practiced extraction of the meat of the seed she’d just chewed open.
Our bread was always carefully wrapped up in some wax paper that had been folded so many times it was flaccid as the old gingham skirts everyone wore and mended. When it was summer and the birds had enough energy to show play in all the air they owned, I’d unstick myself from the linoleum floor like peeling a sticker as quietly as a petal unfurling itself (and just as slowly) stand with my taut shoulder blades against the counter. I wouldn’t breathe, nor would I take my eyes from the little constellation of fly droppings on the doorframe that led into the hall until I heard the third wet smack in the next room. At this point, my grandfather would start to clear his throat and rearrange a paper he was reading to drown out her chewing and I’d let my still chest slowly collapse with a breath. Turning around on toes soft as an indoor cat’s paws and just as quiet, I’d gaze over the edge of the counter at the package of bread, then snatch the little bundle from the bubbled countertop.
The pigeons knew when I was there and knew it was I who handed out crumbs. They’d wait, eye-level, in the poplars, arrogantly wide-eyed and staring. They’re the only living things that made prolonged eye contact in the whole wide world and I wanted one. Most evenings, I’d find myself staring enviously at how easily they hopped over one another and how, when a more aggressive one pushed a more timid bird out of the way, the latter would fly off the ledge, circle around, and come right back because he knew he could. I’d watch their rough little orange feet that looked violent compared to their vase-like necks and smooth heads and one evening that was sticky and cloying with linden drippings, I stuck my hand out slowly and reached toward one’s foot. The birds, thinking I had more to offer, took to twitching their heads at my hand and arm but never touched it. When I tried to close my fingers around a yellow claw, they flew up in a great offended swarm without a cry and,east, where there were no windows and I couldn’t see where they had flown. In a panic, I thought, I’ll ,never do that again, promise promise promise, just come back. My cheeks were wet, though I didn’t even know why and when I turned around I saw my grandmother, tired and her front all crumby with bits of sunflower seed shells, standing in the doorway. The frame with its little galaxies of sprayed oil and fly droppings framed her like a god that had created this disappointing realm and here was her granddaughter hugging a loaf of bread nearly in half. She said “don’t,” then gently took the bread from my hands, put it on top of the refrigerator where I couldn’t reach, and led me with her fingertips on the back of my wispy head off to bed. She didn’t say anything to me. She just made me float along on my orbit around her and our finite matters, and left me to cover myself with the linens without singing her usual lullaby about a gray wolf that would snatch me away if I was bad.
My little girl head didn’t go to sleep for hours and when it did, it dreamed of pigeons and swallows and clouds. There were claws and eyes that looked offended and tense, but it wasn’t scary. When I was half awakened by my grandparents hushing one another, I heard “…to the country” and sighs before my grandfather went to work and my mind returned from wherever the pigeons were to my bed and eventually my brain. My grandmother had put on her soft boots. She, still god-like and magnificent in her shawl, floated like a burden through the kitchen and gathered hard-boiled eggs and pulpy apple juice we made from the bumper crop last fall. I, miserable from being wakened from bird dreams and still ashamed of trying to catch one, crawled into a pair of neat trousers she had pleated for me and a real cotton shirt without even asking if mother and father were going to come home today. I even made an effort to fix my own collar which was normally warped from the hasty movements of my hands and twitches of my neck.
We walked to a bus station, eyes down, and I, for once, genuinely resented the bird sounds and tufts of fluff that came from some variety of tree I can’t remember but can still smell in my head. The bus roared along all diesel but human-quiet as I felt my forehead for the crease I’d been nursing since last night. My head was down, but I darted my eyes up beneath my fringe to look at the old ladies and capped men to see how they managed to look so effortlessly miserable. Their hands were folded and their angles were collapsed even while their clothing was so bright and mismatched like the flowers and cats in our apartment yard. It was sad. Kind of like how the flowers were there on accident and the stray cats always fought in earnest and limped, that was their color and variation.
We got off at a stop between a birch forest and a sunflower crop that was somehow being grown out in the temperamental landscape and quietly walked between the two competing growths. Half an hour passed and I complained by rubbing the hair out of my eyes, hard, and shifting around the little bag of food my grandmother made me carry. She didn’t say a word and I barely noticed that she had shifted her eyes upward from the dirt. We walked past the edge of the young sunflowers and dizzying little wood and I never thought anything of it except her eyes were up and it smelled like wild grass.
She sat down heavily in a nest of fragrant hay, which was my sign to drop our things and dart off into the hot grasses. It smelled purple, like when a lilac shrub was wilting and it tasted hot and dusty. Not city-dusty, though, not diesel and cement dusty, but like a bee looks chalky or how the middle of a hollyhock looks unswept and right for being so. My mad running and bolting made my grandmother smile, but maybe that’s because she knew I’d be tired in a little while. And so I was. I sat next to her, cautiously put my head on her big arm and she, just as cautiously, touched my head with her fingers and I felt myself going to sleep on God’s own earth while she got up and started walking, lighter now, further and further down the road we’d come from. You couldn’t even tell that she only owned nine square meters in the city as she kept walking and I, every now and again, blinked my windy lashes open, less often and rarely still as I drifted. She kept walking and I was pretty sure I’d never see her again. I knew how to find the road back, though.
Ksenia Panova moved to America from Russia in 1997. The time she spent there during her childhood, as well as her visits to the country every summer, has been a source of great tension, so she writes in order to reconcile her American identity with her Russian one. Thus far, this duality has made its way into her short stories, poems, and creative nonfiction pieces and will continue to influence her work. Ksenia hopes to graduate this coming December, after which she plans on entering graduate school to pursue a degree in Russian Literature and specialize in the translation of literature from Russian to English.