Free by Polina Klyukina

The Simferopol train and dusty wool blankets. The train conductor with her tangled black locks and her bowing-and-scraping “shh” in the phrase “Hush now, girls, hush now;” the clinking of the metal tea-glass holders. The rail-thin female convicts, puffy with drink, are crawling back home to Novosibirsk. The road consists of short stories about other people’s long lives and the smiling phrase “Now don’t you go being afraid of us,” there between the loudspeakers and the inner ear membranes. The embarrassed passengers cover up children’s ears at the words “little bitch” and listen curiously to stories about murderers as cellmates.

[private]The car is silent: Sveta is talking about Lyokha, the cannibal from Block Three, and sweet human meat. Calmly, she describes the uncle she killed, as if it were the rude saleslady.

“He used to treat my grandma real bad, he’d smother her with the plastic bag from a loaf of bread and rap two fingers on the table whenever he asked for money.” Sveta taps her plastic nails on her knee. Alyona agrees with her, adding, “People like that need to never even get born at all, much less live their lives; I would’ve also … except I’ve got kids, they’d never forgive a mother who was a murderer.”

They’ve left behind them tons of innocent people, guilty only of rapping on their knees the same way. They don’t throw their cigarette butts on the floor for fear of being put in the hole for ten days, and they don’t buy things on the cheap from their cellmates so they won’t get their parole deferred. Parole is a term that gets heard a lot but is rarely explained. It’s like the long-awaited pa-royal treatment, or pa-roll in the hay: all it means is getting out before your sentence is up. But lots of the ones looking through bars (ones like, for example, Alyona) decode this term differently: pa-rope to hang their husbands with, or else their relatives, whoever locked them up for a couple of years. You can always give the rap on your fellow inmates, you’ll get out earlier, but you won’t get any respect. “My whole life, it’s like my whole life is gone …”

As they approach Novgorod, they start seeing abandoned little shacks, with long, straight rows of potato plants sticking up out of the ground. They are right next to enormous white brick dachas protected by barbed wire, with little holes in the walls for cats.

“I can’t f … believe we’re back!”

“I’m gonna get the kids back out of the orphanage! My little girl is starting school this year.”

An elderly woman catches up to Alyona and Sveta on the platform:

“Hey, Alyona! Alyona! Here, take some money, you’re going to see your kids, after all. What were you in for, anyway?”

Alyona pushes the woman back. “I stole three million …” The woman shoves the money in her pocket and trudges heavily past the train cars.

“Just don’t go and get back at ‘em, girls, don’t get back at your relatives; you’ve done real good, you got out, now just don’t go and get back at ‘em!”

Months go by. Other Alyonas and Svetas fill the prison cells and the Novgorod walls accrete more layers.

It’s been six months now since Sveta returned to her grandmother’s widowed house, its unswept floor covered in spruce needles. She put away the glasses that were on the table, moved the stools out of the middle of the room, and freed the icons from their black drapes. As she went out to the courtyard, she knocked over an overflowing enamel bucket and bumped into Tamara. This old lady had always seemed like she was part of the worn window divided into two unequal triangles by a meandering crack. No one in the village knew who this woman was waiting for, except maybe her husband, who replaced her in the window from time to time. They nodded habitually to passersby without ever smiling and didn’t shoo off the dirty urchins playing in the mud with a tractor gear.

“‘lo, Aunt Tamara!” Aunt Tamara gave her usual nod, muttered an aside, and turned away, and to her silhouette was added a silhouette in a cap. Sveta glanced at the clock and remembered that it was suppertime. In prison camp, this was when they used to take the lids off cauldrons of porridge, belching their burnt smell.

Alyona arrived at Uprising Street, made it to the fifteenth building on the auto-pilot she still hadn’t lost even after the camp, and went into apartment thirty-nine. She went in by herself. She sat down on a stool by herself and by herself she turned on the gas. She hadn’t ended up getting her kids back, since her husband had filed a denunciatory scrawl with the district court that, like an ink blot, marred her already far from spotless motherhood. In the kitchen, the radio peeped out nine o’clock, started singing about dreams in a male voice, and imperceptibly went quiet, leaving behind a familiar, unobtrusive “shhhh,” which gradually faded into the “sss” of the gas.

An hour later, the neighbours from apartment forty, who’d started coughing uncontrollably, opened the windows in apartment thirty-nine and called an ambulance to pick up the dead woman.

The stray dogs were barking furiously, upset at their interrupted sleep; the little boys were getting their heavy-toothed disc stuck in the muddy road, growling and making sound effects with every move.

“Wait, boys, let me just get by.” Sveta was headed for her relatives, and was stepping in every stirred-up puddle. She’d put on a bead necklace, bought some wine, and said a prayer for mercy and forgiveness for all. When she arrived, she knocked on the kitchen window, but when no one came, she went into the outer hallway. It smelled like the frost was drunk. Her brother was sleeping on a mattress, surrounded by colorful cigarette butts. He didn’t notice either the tired barking, or the children’s laughter at the gear stuck in the mud, or Sveta’s appearance in the room.

“Pasha, Pasha, I got out, Pasha, I’m back!”

The courtyards turned morose. Sveta was going back home and was angry at the prayer that hadn’t done her any good. In her hand she carried a thread with the remainder of her beads on it and all the way back to her house she kept repeating “I hate ‘em all!” – familiar words to the cell. She took off her boots, walked in, and started shuffling over to the stove, but feeling a sudden pain, she looked around at the porch. It was the leftovers from the funeral: once the spruce needles had turned into sewing needles, they’d waited that whole time for someone’s feet. Sveta poured iodine over the pinpricks and limped herself over to bed on her tip-toes.

“Sveta! Sveta! Something’s wrong with my old man! Sveta, we’ve got to get an ambulance! Wake up, dummy!” Tamara, wrapped in a calico-print housecoat and holding her shawl in her hand, stood in the doorway. “He can’t talk at all, he’s just moaning something, Sveta, go for help, go right now, or else he’s gonna die!” Forty minutes later the ambulance ambled, rather than raced, up to help Tamara.

“Now what are you all panicked about? Old age is just like that…”

Neither Tamara nor Sveta could sleep that night. It took Sveta three pots of mint tea to recount several years of incarceration and a couple days of freedom. “They took everything from me, the bitches,” combining her brother and the prison camp in the same word, taking a deep drag and, apologising each time, spitting on the floor. She sobbed, wiping the tears into her crude cheekbones and embracing “dear Aunt Tamara, my favourite, my best gramma.”

She came back home at noon. She took the clock off the wall, turned on the radio, and caught the song about dreams, then got to work on the needles on the porch. It wasn’t until evening, when the grey stream of warmth from the oven had swallowed the peeling walls, that Sveta wrote her letter:

“Hey, Alyona! Hello, little sister! It’s hard for you, right? It is for me too. My house isn’t mine any more. Now I fall asleep on my grandmother’s bed looking at that same floor, where he was lying, rapping his fingers on the table, remember? It’s really cold here. Almost as cold as in the cell. I stoke up the stove and choke nights from the smoke. Turns out that’s what freedom smells like: carbon monoxide.

Alyona, so how are you? I can just imagine how happy you are now! You probably go and get the kids in the evening, and you all go for a walk around town. Then you come home and make supper together, and you put them to bed as you sing one of your dumb little songs, like Dreams Come True

Alyona, everything’s really hard for me these days, but summer will come, there won’t be any smoke, it won’t be cold, and I’ll probably even find another place to live. And I was here thinking, maybe I could just go on and move in with you in town? Alyona, we can do it. I promise you. We did it in prison camp, we did it with dignity, but here … Alyona, here we’re free.”[/private]

Translated by Annie Fisher

Polina Klyukina was born in 1986 in the city of Perm in the Urals. She is currently studying at the Moscow Literary Institute and the Publishing University’s Department of Journalism. Her stories have appeared in leading literary magazines. She was a finalist in the Debut Prize in 2008.

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