Translated by Andrew Bromfield
This book includes excerpts from songs by
Vladimir Vysotsky, Yury Burkin, Kipelov, the bands
Aria, Voskresenie, and Nautilus Pompilius.
The entrance did not inspire respect. The coded lock was broken, the floor was littered with the trampled butts of cheap cigarettes. Inside the elevator the walls were covered with graffiti, the word Spartak scrawled as often as the usual crude obscenities. The plastic buttons had been burned through with cigarettes and painstakingly plugged with chewing gum that was now rock-hard.
The door to the apartment on the fourth floor was a good match for the entrance: some kind of hideous old Soviet artificial leather, cheap aluminum numbers barely held on by their crooked screws.
Natasha hesitated for a moment before she pressed the doorbell. She must be insane, hoping for anything from a place like this. If you were so crazy and desperate that you'd decided to try magic, you could just open the newspaper, switch on the TV, or listen to the radio. Legitimate spiritualist salons, experienced mediums with international diplomas… It was all a swindle- that was clear enough. But at least you'd be in pleasant surroundings, with pleasant people-not like this last resort for hopeless losers.
She rang the bell anyway. She didn't want her journey to be a waste of time.
At first it seemed like the apartment was empty. Then she heard hasty footsteps, those typical of someone in a hurry whose worn slippers are falling off their feet as they shuffle along. For a brief instant the tiny spy-hole went dark, then the lock grated and the door opened.
"Oh, Natasha, is it? Come in, come in…"
She had never liked people who spoke too familiarly upon first meeting. There ought to be a little bit more formality.
But the woman who had opened the door was already pulling her into the apartment, clutching her unceremoniously by the hand, and with an expression of such sincere hospitality on her aging, brightly made-up face, that Natasha couldn't bring herself to object.
"My friend told me that you…" Natasha began.
"I don't know, I don't know about that, my dear," said her hostess, waving her hands in the air. "Oh, don't take your shoes off, I was just going to clean the place up… oh, all right then, I'll try to find you a pair of slippers."
Natasha looked around, finding it difficult to conceal her disgust.
The hallway wasn't so very small, but it was crammed full. The light bulb hanging from the ceiling was dull, maybe thirty watts at best, but even that couldn't hide the general squalor. The hallstand was piled high with clothes, including a musquash winter coat that fed the moths. The small open area of the linoleum floor was an indistinct gray color. Natasha's hostess must have been planning her cleaning session for a long time.
"Your name's Natasha, isn't it, my daughter? Mine's Dasha."
Dasha was at least fifteen or twenty years older than her. She could have been Natasha's mother, but with a mother like that you'd want to hang yourself… A pudgy figure, with dirty, dull hair and bright lacquer peeling off her fingernails, wearing a washed-out housecoat and crumbling slippers on her bare feet. Her toenails glittered with bright lacquer too. My God, how vulgar!
"Are you a seer?" Natasha asked. And in her own mind she screamed: "What a fool I am!"
Dasha nodded. She bent down and extracted a pair of rubber slippers from a tangled heap of footwear. The most idiotic slippers ever invented-the kind with all those rubber points sticking out on the inside. A yogi's dream. Some of the rubber prongs had fallen off long ago, but that hadn't made the slippers any more comfortable.
"Put them on!" Dasha suggested joyfully.
As if she were hypnotized, Natasha took off her sandals and put on the slippers. Goodbye, pantyhose. She was bound to get a couple of runs, even in her famous Omsa tights with their famous Lycra. Everything in this world was a swindle invented by cunning fools. And for some reason intelligent people always fell for it.
"Yes, I'm a seer," Dasha declared as she attentively supervised the donning of the slippers. "I got it from my grandma. And my mom too. All of them were seers, they all helped people, it's in our family… Come into the kitchen, Natasha. I haven't tidied up the rooms yet…"
Still cursing herself for being so stupid, Natasha went into the kitchen, which met all her expectations: a heap of dirty dishes in the sink, a filthy table-when they appeared a cockroach crawled lazily off the top and underneath. The windows had obviously not been washed for the spring, and the ceiling was fly-spotted.
"Sit down." Dasha deftly pulled a stool out from under the table and moved it over to the place of honor-between the table and the refrigerator, a convulsively twitching Saratov.
"Thank you, I'll stand." Natasha had made her mind up not to sit down. The stool inspired even less confidence than the table or the floor. "Dasha… That's Darya?"
"Darya, I really only wanted to find out…"
The woman shrugged. She clicked the switch on the electric kettle-probably the only object in the kitchen that didn't look as if it had been retrieved from a garbage heap. She looked at Natasha. "Find out? There's nothing to find out. Everything's just as clear as day."
For a moment Natasha had an unpleasant, oppressive sensation, as if there weren't enough light in the kitchen. Everything went gray, the agonized rumbling of the refrigerator and the noise of the traffic on the avenue nearby fell silent. She wiped the icy perspiration off her forehead. It was the heat. The summer, the heat, the long journey in the metro, the crush in the trolley… Why hadn't she taken a taxi? She'd sent away the driver with the car-well, she'd been ashamed to give anyone even a hint of where she was going and why… but why hadn't she taken a taxi?
"Your husband's left you, Natashenka," Darya said affectionately. "Two weeks ago. Left all of a sudden, packed, threw his things into a suitcase and just upped and left you. Without any quarrels, without any arguments. He left the apartment, left the car. And he went to your rival, a pretty young bitch with black eyebrows… but you're not old yet, my daughter."
This time Natasha didn't even react to the words "my daughter." She was trying desperately to remember what she'd told her friend and what she hadn't. She didn't think she'd mentioned black eyebrows. Although the girl really did have a dark complexion, and black hair… Natasha was overcome once again by a wild, blind fury.
"And I know why he left, Natashenka… Forgive me for calling you 'my daughter'-you're a strong woman, used to making up your own mind about things, but you're all like my own daughters to me… You didn't have any children, Natasha. Did you?"
"No," Natasha whispered.
"But why not, my dear?" the seer asked, shaking her head reproachfully. "He wants a daughter, right?"
"Yes, a daughter…"
"Then why didn't you have one?" Darya asked with a shrug. "I've got five children. Two of them went into the army-the eldest. One daughter's married-she's nursing her baby now. The other's studying. And the youngest, the wild one…" She waved her hand through the air. "Sit down, why don't you…"
Natasha reluctantly lowered herself onto the stool, holding her purse firmly on her knees. Trying to seize the initiative, she said, "It's just the way life worked out. Well, I would have had a child for him, but you can't ruin your career for that."
"That's true too." The seer didn't try to argue. She rubbed her face with her hands. "It's your choice… Right then, you want to bring him back? But why did he leave? Your rival's already carrying his child… and she made a real effort too. Listening to him, and sympathizing with him, and getting up to all sorts of tricks in bed… You had a good man, the kind every woman wants to get. Do you want to bring him back? Even now?"
Natasha pursed her lips.
The seer sighed.
"We can bring him back… we can."
Her tone of voice had changed subtly, become heavy and emphatic.
"… Only it won't be easy. Just bringing him back isn't all that hard; it's keeping him that's the problem!"
"I want to anyway."
"All of us, my daughter, have our own magic inside us." Darya leaned forward across the table. Her eyes seemed to be drilling right through Natasha. "Simple, ancient female magic. With all your ambitions, you've completely forgotten about it, and that's a mistake! But never mind. I'll help you. Only we'll have to do everything in three stages."
She knocked gently on the table.
"The first thing. I'll give you a love potion. This is not a great sin… The potion will bring your man back home. It will bring him back, but it won't keep him there."
Natasha nodded uncertainly. The idea of dividing the enchantment into "three stages" seemed inappropriate somehow- especially coming from this woman in this apartment…
"The second thing… Your rival's child must never be born. If it is, you won't be able to keep your man. You'll have to commit a great sin, destroy an innocent child in the womb…"
"What are you talking about!" Natasha said with a shudder. "I'm not going to end up in court!"
"I'm not talking about poison, Natashenka. I'll make a pass with my hands,"-and the seer really did make a pass with her open palms-"and then clap them… And the job's done, the sin's committed. No court involved."
Natasha didn't say anything.
"Only I won't take that sin on myself," said Darya, crossing herself frenziedly. "I'll help you if you like, but then you'll have to answer to God!"
Evidently taking the silence as consent, she continued:
"The third thing… You'll have a child yourself. I'll help with that too. You'll have a beautiful, clever daughter who'll be a help to you and a joy to your husband. Then all your troubles will be over."
"Are you serious about all this?" Natasha asked in a quiet voice. "You can do all this…"
"I'll tell you how it is," said Darya, standing up. "You say 'yes," and it will all happen. Your husband will come back tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, your rival will miscarry. And I won't take any money from you until you get pregnant. But afterward I will-and I'll take a lot. I tell you that now, I swear by Christ the Lord."
Natasha gave a crooked smile.
"And what if I cheat you and don't bring you the money? After everything's already been done…"
She stopped short. The seer was looking at her sternly, without speaking. With an air of gentle sympathy, like a mother looking at a foolish daughter. "You won't cheat me, Natashenka. Just think for a moment and you'll realize it's not worth trying."
Natasha swallowed hard. She tried to make a joke of it:
"So it's payment on delivery?"
"Ah, my little businesswoman," Darya said ironically. "Who's going to love you, so practical and clever? A woman should always have some foolishness in her… ah… On delivery. Delivery of all three items."
"You want five?" Natasha burst out and broke off. "I thought it was a lot cheaper than that!"
"If you just want to get your husband back, that will be cheaper. But then after a while, he'll go away again. I'm offering you real help, a certain cure."
"I want to do it," Natasha said with a nod. She had the feeling that what was happening was slightly unreal. So that was all: Just a clap of the hands and the unborn child would be gone? Another clap and she would bear her beloved idiot a child of her own?
"Do you take the sin on yourself?" the seer asked insistently.
"What sin is there in that?" Natasha retorted, her irritation suddenly breaking through. "Every woman's committed that sin at least once!- Perhaps there isn't anything there anyway!"
The seer pondered, as if she were listening to something. She nodded her head.
"There is… And I think it's definitely a daughter."
"I'll take it," said Natasha, still in an irritated voice. "I'll take all the sins on myself, any you like. Do we have a deal?"
The seer looked at her sternly, disapprovingly.
"That's not right, my daughter… About all the sins. Who knows what sins I might hang on you? My own, or somebody else's… then afterward you would have to answer to God."
"We'll sort it out somehow."
Darya sighed: "Oh, these young people are so foolish. Do you think He wastes his time rummaging about in people's sins? Every sin leaves its own trace, and the judgment matches the traces… All right, don't be afraid. I won't put anybody else's sins down to you."
"I'm not afraid."
The seer didn't seem to be listening to her anymore. She was sitting there as if she were listening alertly to something else. Then she shrugged: "All right… let's get the job done. Give me your hand!"
Natasha held out her right hand uncertainly, keeping a worried eye on her diamond ring. It didn't come off her finger very easily, but…
The seer had pricked her little finger so quickly and deftly that Natasha hadn't felt a thing. She froze, dumbfounded, watching the red drop welling up. As if this were all perfectly normal, Darya tossed the medical needle into a dirty plate with the solidified remains of borscht in it. The needle was flat, with a sharp little point-the kind they use to take blood in laboratories.
"Don't be afraid, everything's sterile, the needles are disposable."
"What do you think you're doing?" Natasha tried to pull her hand away, but Darya shifted her grip with a surprisingly powerful and precise movement.
"Stop, you fool! Or I'll have to prick you again!"
She took a small pharmacy bottle of dark-brown glass out of her pocket. The label had been washed off, but poorly. The first letters were still visible: "Tinc…" She deftly twisted out the cork, set the bottle down and shook Natasha's little finger over it. The drop of blood fell into the bottle.
"Some people believe," the seer said in a contented voice, "that the more blood there is in a potion, the stronger it will be. It's not true. The blood in it has to be good quality, but the amount makes no difference at all…"
The medicine woman opened the refrigerator and took out a fifty-gram bottle of Privet vodka. Natasha remembered her driver calling that kind of vodka "the reanimator."
A few drops of the vodka went onto a wisp of cotton wool that wound round Natasha's little finger. The medicine woman held out the bottle to Natasha.
For some reason Natasha had a clear vision of herself waking up the next morning, somewhere at the far end of the city, robbed, raped, and not remembering a single thing about what had happened. She shook her head.
"Well, I'll have a drop." Darya raised the "reanimator" to her lips and drained the vodka in a single gulp. "That's a bit easier… for working. And you, you've no need to be afraid of me. I don't make my living by robbing people."