DURING THE WAR, A COLONEL RECEIVED A LETTER FROM HIS wife. She misses him very much, it said, and won’t he come visit because she’s worried she’ll die without having seen him. The colonel applied for leave right away, and as it happened that just a few days earlier he’d been awarded a medal, he was granted three days. He got a plane home, but just an hour before his arrival his wife died. He wept, buried his wife, and got on a train back to his base—and then suddenly discovered he had lost his Party card. He dug through all his things, returned to the train station—all this with great difficulty—but couldn’t find it. Finally he just went home. There he fell asleep and dreamed that he saw his wife, who said that his Party card was in her coffin—it had fallen out when the colonel bent over to kiss her during the funeral. In his dream his wife also told the colonel not to lift the veil from her face.
The colonel did as he was told: he dug up the coffin, opened it, and found his Party card inside. But then he couldn’t resist: he lifted the covering from his wife’s face. She lay there as if still alive, but there was a little worm on her left cheek. The colonel wiped away the worm with his hand, covered up his wife’s face, and reburied the coffin.
Now he had very little time, and he went directly to the airfield. The plane he needed wasn’t there, but then a pilot in a charred jacket pulled him aside and said he was flying to the same place as the colonel and could drop him off. The colonel was surprised that the pilot knew where he was going, but then he saw it was the same pilot who had flown him home.
“Are you all right?” asked the colonel.
“I had a little crash on the way back,” said the pilot, “but it’s all right. I’ll drop you off, it’s on the way.”
They flew at night. The colonel sat on a metal bench running the length of the plane. In truth he was surprised the plane could fly at all. It was in terrible shape: clumps of material hung everywhere, some kind of charred stump kept rolling into the colonel’s feet, and there was a strong odor of burned flesh. They soon landed, and the colonel asked the pilot if he was sure this was the right place. The pilot said he was absolutely sure.
“Why is your plane in such poor shape?” the colonel demanded, and the pilot explained that his navigator usually cleaned up, but he’d just been killed. And right away he started lugging the charred stump off the plane, saying, “There he is, my navigator.”
The plane stood in a field, and all through this field wandered wounded men. There was forest in every direction, a campfire burned in the distance, and among the burned-out cars and artillery, people were lying and sitting, others were standing, and others were milling about.
“Damn it!” the colonel yelled. “Where have you brought me? This isn’t my base!”
“This is your base now,” said the pilot. “I’ve brought you back to where I picked you up.”
The colonel understood that his division had been surrounded and destroyed, everyone killed or wounded, and he cursed everything on earth, including the pilot, who was still messing with his charred stump, which he insisted on calling his navigator, and pleading with it to get up and go.
“Let’s start evacuating everyone,” ordered the colonel. “We’ll begin with the military files, then the coats of arms and the heavily wounded.”
“This plane won’t fly anymore,” the pilot noted.
The colonel drew his pistol and promised to shoot the pilot then and there for disobeying an order. But the pilot ignored him and went on trying to stand the stump on the ground, first one way, then another, saying over and over, “Come on, let’s go.”
The colonel fired his pistol, but he must have missed because the pilot kept mumbling, “Come on, come on,” to his navigator, and in the meantime the roar of vehicles could be heard, and suddenly the field was filled with a mechanized column of German infantry.
The colonel took cover in the grass as the trucks kept coming and coming, but there was neither shooting nor shouting of orders, nor did the motors stop running. Ten minutes later the column was gone, and the colonel raised his head—the pilot was still fussing with his charred stump, and over by the fire people were still lying down, sitting, walking around. The colonel stood and approached the fire. He didn’t recognize anyone—this wasn’t his division at all. There was infantry here, and artillery, and God knows what else, all in torn uniforms, with open wounds on their arms, legs, stomachs. Only their faces were clean. They talked quietly among themselves. Next to the fire, her back to the colonel, sat a woman in civilian dress with a kerchief on her head.
“Who’s the senior officer here?” demanded the colonel. “I need an immediate report on the situation.”
No one moved, and no one paid any attention to the colonel when he started shooting, although when the pilot finally managed to roll his charred stump over to them, everyone helped him throw his navigator on the flames and thereby put out the fire. It became completely dark.
The colonel was shivering from the cold and began cursing again: now it would be impossible to get warm, he said—you can’t light a fire with a log like that.
And without turning around, the woman by the fire said: “Oh why did you look at my face, why did you lift my veil? Now your arm is going to wither.”
It was the voice of the colonel’s wife.
The colonel lost consciousness, and when next he woke up he was in a hospital. He was told that they’d found him in the cemetery, next to his wife’s grave, and that the arm on which he’d been lying was seriously injured, and now might have to be removed.
THERE ONCE LIVED A WOMAN WHO HATED HER NEIGHBOR—A single mother with a small child. As the child grew and learned to crawl, the woman would sometimes leave a pot of boiling water in the corridor, or a container full of bleach, or she’d just spread out a whole box of needles right there in the hall. The poor mother didn’t suspect anything—her little girl hadn’t learned to walk yet, and she didn’t let her out in the corridor during the winter when the floor was cold. But the time was fast approaching when her daughter would be able to leave the room on her own. The mother would say to her neighbor, “Raya, sweetie, you dropped your needles again,” at which point Raya would blame her poor memory. “I’m always forgetting things,” she’d say.
They’d once been friends. Two unmarried women living in a communal apartment, they had a lot in common. They even shared friends who came by, and on their birthdays they gave each other gifts. They told each other everything. But then Zina became pregnant, and Raya found herself consumed with hatred. She couldn’t bear to be in the same apartment as the pregnant woman and began to come home late at night. She couldn’t sleep because she kept hearing a man’s voice coming from Zina’s room; she imagined she heard them talking and moving about, when in fact Zina was living there all by herself.
Zina, on the other hand, grew more and more attached to Raya. She even told her once how wonderful it was to have a neighbor like her, practically an older sister, who would never abandon her in a time of need.
And Raya did in fact help her friend sew clothes in anticipation of the newborn, and she drove Zina to the hospital when the time came. But she didn’t come to pick her up after the birth, so that Zina had to stay in the hospital an extra day and ended up taking the baby home wrapped in a ragged hospital blanket that she promised to return right away. Raya explained that she hadn’t been feeling well. In the weeks that followed she didn’t once go to the store for Zina, or help her bathe the baby, but just sat in her room with warm compresses over her shoulders. She wouldn’t even look at the baby, though Zina often took the girl to the bath or the kitchen or just out for a little walk, and kept the door to her room open all the time, as if to say: Come look.
Before the baby came, Zina learned how to use the sewing machine and began to work from home. She had no family to help her, and as for her once-kind neighbor, well, deep down Zina knew she couldn’t count on anyone but herself—it had been her idea to have a child, and now she had to bear the burden. When the girl was very little, Zina could take finished clothes to the shop while the baby slept, but when the baby got a little bigger and slept less, Zina’s problems began: she had to take the girl with her. Raya continued to complain about her bad joints, and even took time off from work, but Zina wouldn’t dare ask her to babysit.
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was born in 1938 in Moscow, where she still lives. She is the author of more than fifteen collections of prose, including the short novel The Time: Night shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize in 1992, and Svoi Krug, a modern classic about the 1980s Soviet intelligentsia. The progenitor of the women’s fiction movement in modern Russian letters, she is also a playwright whose work has been staged by leading theater companies all over the world. In 2002 she received Russia’s most prestigious prize, The Triumph, for lifetime achievement.
—from Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (translated by Anna Summers), Penguin Books, 2009