Letters & Essays

Young Berries

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

A mother brought her girl to a sanatorium for sickly children and left. I was that girl.

The sanatorium looked over a big pond that was encircled by an autumnal park, with meadows and paths. The tall trees seemed ablaze with gold and copper; the scent of their falling leaves made the girl dizzy, after the city’s stench. Once upon a time, the sanatorium had been a gentleman’s stately manor, with classical pillars, arched ceilings, and upper galleries. The girls’ dormitory, called a dortoir, once was a drawing room with a grand piano.

The revolution had repurposed the estate into a sanatorium and school for proletarian children with tuberculosis. By the time the girl reached fifth grade, of course, all Soviet citizens were proletarians. They lived in crowded, communal apartments, traveled in trams stuffed with commuters, waited in lines for seats in public cafeterias, and so on. (They waited also for bread, potatoes, shoes, and, on rare occasions, for a luxury like a winter coat; in communal apartments, workers stood in line to use the bathroom.) A well-regulated line represented fairness. One had only to wait long enough for one’s portion, as, indeed, the girl had waited for her spot at the Forest School—that was the name of the sanatorium.

I cannot describe the girl’s appearance. Appearances cannot reveal inner life, and the girl, who was twelve at the time, carried on a continual, inner monologue, deciding every second—what to say, where to sit, how to answer—with the single purpose of behaving exactly like the other children, to avoid being kicked and shunned.

 

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