Uncovering the bones of a grandmother’s past.
by TATYANA TOLSTAYA
On the windowsill of my childhood stood a dust-colored round tin with black letters printed on it: “Dorset. Stewed Pork.” The tin served as a communal grave for all single buttons. Every now and then, a button would fall off a cuff, roll under the bed—and that was it. Grope as you might or run the broom under the bed, it was gone forever. Then the contents of “Dorset” would be shaken out on the table and picked over with one finger, like grains of buckwheat, in search of a pair, but of course nothing matching could ever be found. After a bit of hesitation, the other button would be snipped off—what can you do?—the orphan would be thrown into the pile, and a half-dozen new buttons wrapped in muddy, tea-colored waxed paper would be purchased at the variety store.
The tram ran outside the window, the glass rattled, the windowsill shook, and the minute population of “Dorset” jangled faintly, as though living its own cantankerous life. In addition to buttons, there were some old-timers in the tin: for instance, a set of needles from the foot-pedal Singer sewing machine that no one had used in so long that it gradually began to dissolve into the air of the room, thinning down into its own shadow before it finally vanished, though it had been a real beauty—black, with a ravishingly slender waist, a clear-cut gold sphinx printed on its shoulder, a gold wheel, a black rawhide drive belt, and a dangerous steel-toothed crevasse that plunged down into mysterious depths, where, shuddering, the shuttle went back and forth and did who knows what. Or there might be a crumbling scrap of paper in the tin, on which hooks and loops sat like black insects; as the paper died, the hooks fell to the bottom of the grave with a gentle clink. Or some metallic thingamabob resembling a dentist’s instrument; no one knew what it was, because there were no dentists in our family. We’d fish out this cold, sharp object with two fingers: “Papa, what is this?” Papa would put on the spectacles that sat on his forehead, take it carefully, and inspect it. “Hard to say . . . It’s . . . something.”
The corpses of tiny objects, shells of sunken islands. One that constantly surfaced, fell to the bottom, and then surfaced again was a dull-white, bony blade, good for nothing. Of course, like everything else, no one ever threw it away. Then one time someone said, “That’s whalebone, a whale whisker.”
Whalebone! Whale whiskers! Instantly, monster whale-fishes came to mind, smooth black mountains in the gray, silvery-slow ocean sea. In the middle of the whale—a fountain like the ones at Petrodvorets, foamy water spouting on both sides. On the monster’s face—small, attentive eyes and a long, fluffy mustache, totally Maupassant. But the encyclopedic dictionary writes, “Teeth are found only in so-called ‘toothed-W.’ (dolphins, narwhals, sperm W., and bottle-nosed W.), which feed mostly on fish; the whiskered, or baleen W. (gray W., right W., rorquals), has horny formations on the roof of the mouth, plates mistakenly called ‘bones’ or ‘whiskers,’ which serve to filter plankton.” Not true, that is, they’re not only for filtering. As late as 1914, a seamstress sewing a stylish dress for Grandmother reproached my absent-minded, happy-go-lucky ancestor, “Nowadays, Natalya Vasilevna, one can’t circulate in society without a busk”; Grandmother was shamed and agreed to a straight busk. The seamstress grabbed a handful of “bones” that came from the mouth of a gray W., or perhaps it was a right W., or maybe even a rorqual, and sewed them into Grandmother’s corset, and Grandmother circulated with great success, wearing under her bust, or at her waist, slivers of the seas, small pieces of those tender, pinkish-gray palates, and she passed through suites of rooms, slim and petite, a decadent Aphrodite with a heavy knot of dark-gold hair, rustling her silks, fragrant with French perfumes and fashionable Norwegian mists; heads turned to watch her, hearts pounded. She loved, rashly and dangerously, and married; then the war began, then the revolution, and she gave birth to Papa—on a day when a machine gun strafed through the fog—and she was anxious and barricaded the frosted window of the bathroom; she fled south, and ate grapes, and then the machine gun began blazing again, and again she fled, on the last steamship out of grapevined, bohemian Odessa, making her way to Marseilles, then to Paris. And she was hungry, poor, and humbled; now she herself sewed for the rich, crawled on her knees around their skirts, her mouth pursed to hold pins; she pinned hems and linings and despaired, and again she fled south (this time the South of France), imagining that she could not only eat grapes but make wine herself—you only have to stomp on them with your feet, it’s called vendange—and then everyone would get rich again and everything would be like it used to be, absent-minded, lighthearted, carefree. But again she came to ruin most shamefully, ridiculously, and in August, 1923, she returned to Petrograd, her hair bobbed, wearing a new, stylishly short skirt and a mushroom-shaped cap, holding a much grown, frightened Papa by the hand. By that time, you could circulate in society without a busk, under different conditions. A lot of things circulated then.
To retell a life you need an entire life. We’ll skip it. Later, perhaps, sometime or another.
I’m really thinking about the whale: how he dove into the cold Norwegian waters suspecting nothing, not a thought for the red-bearded northern fishermen; how he wasn’t on his guard when he rose up to the gray surface of the sea, to the unextinguished yellow sunsets in the overflow of the northern waters, fair-haired girls, pines, stones, Grieg sonatas, to that sea sung by fashionable writers in the modern’s minor key. He didn’t need those baleens, those horny formations on his palate, those so-called whiskers or bones intended as an instrument for filtering plankton; the northern girls found a better use for them. A slender waist; luxuriant hair; a difficult love; a long life; children dragged by the hand across seas and continents. And then the end of war, then the victor’s roar, and the Allies sent us tins of good stewed pork; we ate it and spat the bones, teeth, and whiskers into the empty containers. But it’s the bottle-nosed whales that have the teeth, while ours, our very own, personal, gray, right, rorqual, our poor Yorick, didn’t even eat fish, he didn’t wrong any fishermen, he lived a radiant, short life—no, no, a long, long life, it continues even now and will continue as long as someone’s uncertain, pensive fingers keep fishing out and tossing back, fishing out and tossing back into the tin on the shaking windowsill these hushed, stunning skull shards of time. Clench a fragment of Yorick in your fist—milky and chill—and the heart grows younger, pounds faster, and strains; the suitor wants to snatch the young lady, and water spouts like a fountain to all ends of the sea, and the world circulates, whirling, spinning, wanting to fall; it stands on three whales, and splits away from them into the head-spinning abyss of time.
(Translated, from the Russian, by Jamey Gambrell; New Yorker; Issue of 2005-12-26 and 2006-01-02)