Short story by Natalia Lialina
Linked up with Write and Link #6
“Do you believe in magique?”
The woman’s voice, with a lovely French accent, sounded soft and ingratiating, and her eyes were calling me to follow her. As if charmed by the sound of a magic flute, I made a few steps, then suddenly the voice started laughing louder and louder, sounding unpleasantly piercing. I covered my ears and… woke up.
I was sweating, it felt hot under the covers, and my mouth was dry as a desert.
“Mom, mom,” I said quietly, but no one responded.
Then I cried out loud, from all my lungs, which still felt weak, “Mo-om!”
“I’m coming, I’m coming, my little one,” Grandma opened the door to my bedroom, with a cup of hot herbal tea-like substance which she cooked on the stove for at least one hour, adding berries, leaves, lemon and spices to it and calling it by the name of the British inspector, “mors”. She’d watched the show on Netflix almost every single night. Honestly? I thought she had a little crush on him.
“Mors has nothing to do with Morse, silly,” she’d say every time I brought it up. “It is a Russian drink, and all Russians have it in winter. They made it long before his time. Maybe his parents were Russian?”
“Do you mean his ancestors, Grandma?”
“Yes, yes, you know what I mean.”
“You should have married Ivan, you should listen to your mother,” Grandma repeated to Mom when she divorced her first husband, a Korean guy, my Dad.
She said the same when Mom divorced her second husband, an Italian, or rather an American who had Italian ancestors.
But of course, Mom did not listen to Grandma, I mean her Mom. Would you?
My throat was scratchy, and the hot tart drink made me frown.
“Yuck! Grandma, why can’t I have medicine like all normal kids do, instead of this sour murder slop?”
Grandma only laughed.
“Just drink it, bottom up,” she said, holding the cup in her wrinkly, dry hands, I’d call them witchy if I did not love her so much.
“Where is Mom?”
“Work. You know your Mom. It’s work, always work.”
I checked my phone – sure, there was a text from Mom. “Get better, my little one. I love you to the moon and back.” Mo-om! I’m not a baby any more.
Mom came back earlier that evening. She quickly kissed my forehead (the trick to check on fever she learned from Grandma) and cuddled me as if I still was indeed her baby.
“We need to buy you new pajamas – these pants are in threads already.”
“No. I love these pants.”
“How was your day?”
“Okay I guess. Grandma is trying to poison me with her Russian mix.”
“You’ll survive. I did.”
“Mom, do you believe in magic?”
“In what sense?”
“I don’t know. Magic, you know?”
“Well, Cynthia just told me about this new generation cream which supposedly is magic. I’m going to check it out. Other than that…”
I knew she’d say something like that. Hello and welcome to the grown up world. But I still did not want her to leave my room. I’m sick. She’s my mom – twice divorced, working like a horse to provide for us, trying to believe in a magical cream to stay young and beautiful for as long as possible. And she was indeed young and beautiful.
“It’s all good genes. No magic,” Grandma liked to say when mom would bring home shopping bags full of tubes, jars and boxes with French words sparkling on them. Who knew what they meant, all those words. Mom tried to read with her two years of French in high school, making up the sounds as she’d imagine they are supposed to sound in French.
“Pure poetry,” she’d say. “It does not sound like instructions or a list of ingredients. I think they just print poetry on these jars and boxes.”
“I have a date tonight,” Mom said as the garden behind my bedroom window was getting darker.
“Good luck, Mom,” I said and kissed her forehead.
“Thanks, kid, I need it.”
“Grandma,” I called when Mom left.
“Do you believe in magic?’
“Magic? All right, I’ll tell you about magic,” said Grandma tucking my blankets under my body.
“Doctors say you need to cool off your body when you have a fever, Grandma.”
“What do doctors know,” said Grandma kissing my forehead. “And you don’t have fever. It’s gone. The crisis is over.”
I knew she was right about it – my body did not burn any more, I felt like I could jump out of the bed and do stuff. It was so cozy staying in bed though, with dim light from my desk lamp and IKEA stars twinkling from the door frame.
“Before the war, I had a fiancé. His name was Ivan.”
“Ivan? That’s why you always tell mom about marrying some Ivan,” I said.
“Don’t be silly. Ivan has nothing to do with Ivan,” said Grandma. “And don’t interrupt older people, bad manners.”
“He went to war. He was killed. Soon, in his first fight. He was only eighteen.”
Eighteen? He was just a kid! I’ll be eighteen in five short years.
“Then after the war, his friend came to our village. He wanted to tell me that Ivan loved me. But I knew.”
Grandma’s voice got softer.
“He wanted to leave the next day, but didn’t. He was from Leningrad. His whole family died during the blockade. No one survived. He survived, he went through the war, through everything, and survived. And he came to tell me that his best friend loved me more than life.”
I heard Grandma’s breathing as she made a pause. I heard the clock ticking and our cat licking her paw on the chair next to the window.
“Grandma, I know. It’s okay, Grandma. You don’t need to tell me…”
“What do you know, child? In the village, they never heard such names, they said he was a gypsy or something. They did not trust gypsies. But he was honest guy. He was kind and smart. And he wanted to marry me and take me to new world.”
“And he did,” I said.
“And he did,” she repeated.
The clock was ticking louder.
“Have you fallen in love with him?”
“It’s not like that. I liked him and respected him. I trusted him. That was more than falling in love. We had good life together, not easy, but good. And we had your uncle, and your aunt, and your mom… and then we had you.”
I did not remember my grandfather – he passed away long before I was born. But I heard the story of him escaping first to France, then to New York, with his young bride and one wooden suitcase. He was a musician, a talented one, and Russian musicians are praised in the Western world, so eventually he was able to make a good life for himself and his family – the one he created after he lost the family he had. It was a new world for both of them.
“Babushka,” I said in Russian, in which I barely knew a few words. “Ya tyebya lyublyu.”
“I love you too, my little one,” she said and kissed my forehead.
January 26, 2016