Two sisters lived together in a two-room apartment. They were very poor. For lunch, they usually had a boiled potato; for breakfast, a slice of bread with a glass of hot water. They were very thin but very neat, and kept their home spotless. Every day they went out to look for cheap groceries—for them, it was a multihour, breathtaking adventure. In addition, they visited their local library once a week to exchange books. They also knit their own sweaters, socks, mittens, scarves, and berets. For yarn, they used moth-eaten woolens people left in the trash. On their walks, they occasionally picked up useful items—a wooden crate or a pile of old magazines with recipes and home remedies. With all these activities, their days were full to the brim.
But everything changes, and the older sister, Rita, who was eighty-seven, became very ill. The younger sister, Liza, who was eighty-five, waited for the ambulance (which never came), going through the old medicines, hoping to find a remedy for old age—a doctor had once told her that old age, too, is an illness.
Rita was dying, that much was clear. She was gasping for air and couldn’t speak. Liza rummaged among yellowed powders and nameless ointments, empty bottles and flacons while Rita wheezed less and less and finally froze, staring at the window. Liza screamed, grabbed an ancient tube of ointment, and squeezed the remains onto the half-open lips of her sister; then, terrified that the stuff was poisonous, rubbed some on her own—at least they’d go together.
As the ointment began to melt on Liza’s lips, she fell into a deep, swooning sleep. She dreamed that black figures were falling out of the ceiling like giant, sooty snowflakes and disappearing under the floor. The air was thick with them. Suddenly, everything cleared and Liza woke. In Rita’s bed, she saw a little girl dressed in Rita’s enormous nightgown staring at her in astonishment.
“Little girl,” Liza addressed her sternly, “what are you doing lounging in Rita’s bed? And stop popping your eyes at me. This is no joke. Where is my Rita?”
“Little girl,” the impostor mimicked Liza in a tiny, unpleasant voice, “how did you get in here? Where is my Liza?”
“I’m not a little girl!” Liza reached for the brat’s collar and suddenly saw a small white hand with pink nails peeking from underneath her old-woman’s sleeve. Someone else’s arm was inside her sleeve! The girl in Rita’s bed sat up and screamed, “Get out of here!” and began kicking Liza with a foot clad in Rita’s gray woolen sock. The last time Liza had seen those socks was when she pulled them on dying Rita’s cold feet the previous night. (Old people wear warm socks to bed.)
“That’s Rita’s sock! She knitted it herself and darned it, too,” screamed Liza.
“That’s right! I made it, I darned it, I am Rita!”
“You are Rita?”
“Of course I am! And who are you, you nasty brat?”
“I am Liza!”
At this point they scuffled, they cried, and then Liza said, “I understand now! I am Liza and you are Rita. You didn’t die?”
“Of course I didn’t. Yesterday you were weeping by my side, but I knew: she shouldn’t waste her tears, I’m not going to leave her.”
“Did you feel the ointment?” asked Liza.
Rita said yes, it had the foulest taste. Her mouth was burning, the ceiling collapsed, black figures were falling . . . “Where is the ointment? We must find it! Do you understand what it can do?”
“I do, but there was very little left.”
“If you had given me more, I’d be lying in diapers right now. How old are we?”
“I must be about twelve.”
“And I feel about thirteen and a half. Almost a grown-up.”
“And where are Papa and Mama?” inquired Liza tearfully. The youngest, she used to be a crybaby and their parents’ favorite.
“You know where Mama and Papa are. At the cemetery, for the past thirty-five years.”
Liza broke into tears. Her heart felt dark and heavy, while outside the sun was shining and birds were dashing through clear skies. Rita began to straighten up the sickroom and look for the ointment. She had to cinch her skirt with a belt to keep it from falling.
Liza was watching Rita, thinking that yet again Rita, being older, would boss her around. Wash your hands, make the bed, run to the store and bring potatoes, listen to Mama and Papa . . . Then Liza remembered that Papa and Mama were dead and squealed with grief. Rita couldn’t find the magical ointment and also became upset. Each sat in her corner and wept.
“I don’t want to live with you, mean old Rita,” Liza finally blurted out.
“You think I do? For eighty-five years I tried to teach you neatness and failed! Where did you put that ointment? We could be always young and beautiful, always seventeen!”
“Right, you’d be seventeen and I’d be fifteen forever, and I don’t want that! At fifteen, everyone nags you. I remember I cried all the time at fifteen.”
“But life will gallop by again, like a dream,” sighed Rita.
“Doesn’t matter. The ointment is gone. For myself, I want to grow up, get married, have children . . . ”
“Oh, dear,” sighed Rita. “Everything all over again. Illness, childbirth, laundry, cleaning, cooking. Work. Outside, it’s either protests or war. What do we need all that for? Everyone we loved is gone, and I’d like to be with them.”
“And what will I do all alone, a sick old hag?” Liza sobbed, wiping tears and snot off her little upturned nose. “Who will take pity on me? Who will bury me?”
In the evening, the sisters boiled two potatoes. They dined on potato soup, followed by mashed potatoes and kefir. Being children, they craved pastries, ice cream, and candy, or, at the very least, a slice of bread topped with sugar.
“How could we eat this?” Liza choked on her tasteless potato.
“What else could we do? The pensions are tiny.”
“And what did we need seventeen crates for?”
“We wanted to build a shelf in the hall, remember?”
“Yuck, what a miserable apartment. I can’t invite anyone here,” snorted Liza. “What happened to all the dolls?”
“Don’t you remember? My granddaughter, three years ago . . . ”
“That’s right! That was the last time she visited. She tossed out all her old toys, which we’d been saving for her babies.”
“And where’s my bicycle?” asked Liza.
“Your grandson took it apart. He wanted to build a car but lost one of the screws.”
“Ah, yes. He also ruined our sewing machine.”
“Little darlings. Imagine their surprise when they discover that they have two little girls for grandmothers.”
“They won’t recognize us!” admonished Liza. “They’ll throw us out of our apartment and will start an investigation into who has killed us and replaced us with children.”
“And the postwoman won’t deliver our pensions!”
This was a worrisome thought. Rita’s pension was due in five days, Liza’s a week later. They had to think of something.
There was also the problem of their neighbors. Even before their magical transformation the sisters had lived above a volcano. Their neighbors were very active people. They constantly played music, fought, and dropped dishes; their teenage children hung out on the landings, smoking, drinking, and conversing with such language that the sisters went deaf and blind with shock. The kids kept a close eye on the sisters and broke into their apartment regularly. That usually ended with Rita and Liza weeping to the police and the neighbors testifying that “we didn’t take nothing, just stopped by for a drink of water, like we need their crap.” A report would be filed, and for a long time the sisters’ comings and goings would be accompanied by loud braying. The only safe time to leave was early morning. By dawn, the young revelers had decamped to their homes. At five in the morning—it had been tested—every reveler was in bed.
The grown-ups were to be avoided, too. All the residents had lived in the building for decades and knew one another by sight. Liza and Rita had relocated to this new neighborhood as relatively young women of fifty-five and fifty-seven, when their old downtown building was taken over first by a construction office, then demolished and replaced with an empty lot and a sandbox. Liza and Rita were lucky to be given an apartment with a balcony in a building with an elevator. Unfortunately for them, they were often pestered by individuals who wanted the convenient little apartment for themselves. These people visited the old ladies frequently, especially after sniffing out that Rita wasn’t doing well, and offered rather larger sums of money trying to persuade the sisters to move to an inferior dwelling or even a different city. But the sisters had grown used to their clean rooms and the balcony where they went for “walks” when they couldn’t exit the building by conventional means. (The sisters invented “basket mail” to transport groceries upstairs without getting mugged by the youngsters.)
There was also the problem of clothing. They couldn’t continue to wear what Rita and Liza had been wearing—carefully mended but threadbare skirts, worn several at a time for warmth. Their cardigans were handmade, too; Rita had even assembled a winter coat from knit parts and fabric fragments. The sisters considered their shared coat the last word in fashion and basked in the other crones’ jealous looks. The sisters wore it, in turns, on special occasions. The teenagers choked with laughter when they saw it.
Their old life was full of challenges, true, but it was a vacation compared with what faced the two little girls.
When they were children, they played, quarreled, gossiped. Rita tried to educate Liza, who always resisted her efforts. Their parents forbade them to come in late, keep bad company, bring home poor grades. Those were austere, difficult times. Their parents had experienced long periods of forced separation and in later years always cleaved to each other, conversing without words, occasionally interrupting their silent dialogue to speak to the girls. Father and Mother died a day apart. Father went first, and Mother didn’t get up after that, and in the morning she was gone. At their funeral, people called them lucky, comparing them to the couples in fairy tales who lived happily and died on the same day. But that wasn’t exactly true. One parent had a whole day to mourn the loss and die from a broken heart.
The girls discussed their situation all night, running water to avoid being overheard by their neighbors. They reassured themselves that things weren’t so bad: they were young, intelligent; they could learn to protect themselves, sign up for classes in gymnastics and martial arts. One of them could make clothes: they would scavenge the local dumps, sometimes people got rid of old sewing machines. The other could grow plants on the balcony—those crates would come in handy—and sell the seedlings at the metro station. They could learn to climb up a rope and thus solve the problem of the neighbors.
The girls who didn’t die made a lot of plans that first night. They even agreed on how to trick the postwoman: Rita would wrap her face with a scarf, get into bed, and sign her name with a gloved hand, while Liza would play the part of a volunteer from a local school. And the next time they would switch. Everything can be worked out, Rita kept saying. Liza added that it was for the best that their children and grandchildren never visited and they didn’t have a telephone. They were positively lucky!
The night ended. Younger kids, getting ready to be dragged to school or day care, wailed outside. Rita and Liza climbed into their beds and finally slept.
When they awoke, several hours later, it was sunny and cool. For breakfast, the girls had one slice of bread with chamomile tea. Then they pondered what they could wear on such a beautiful day. Threadbare skirts and handmade sweaters were unthinkable. Rita pulled out two bedsheets still in decent condition and a pile of old magazines that could give them an idea of how young people dressed.
“I’ll never wear these ugly rags,” declared Liza. Rita, in the meantime, was measuring the sheets, envisioning an all-white spring ensemble: a skirt with a lace-trimmed blouse. Liza dashed to the closet and rummaged among old suitcases that contained baby onesies, bonnets, and mended little shirts that had been worn first by their children, then by their grandchildren, and finally saved for their great-grandchildren. “Here!” Liza cried triumphantly, proffering a ball of old ribbons and lace. Rita moaned and complained about the mess on the floor.
They stitched all night, and by morning, Liza had assembled a blouse with lace around the throat, and Rita, a simple white shift trimmed with ribbons that used to be blue but had faded to gray. But gray with white is elegant, too. They were faced with the problem of shoes. Luckily, old Rita and Liza never threw anything away. Among the crates and suitcases, they discovered a pair of sneakers that had been fashionable fifty years ago—Rita took those—and a pair of sandals, practically new, but compressed like pancakes. With difficulty Liza pulled them onto her little feet, marveling again at her pink and delicate toenails and her small white toes. “How gorgeous youth is,” sighed Rita, examining herself in a cracked mirror, donated to them by a granddaughter.
The girls could barely wait to go outside. They had a slice of bread, drank a cup of hot water with last year’s mint, and quickly left the building, missing the teenagers. Now there was the problem of transportation. In their previous life, bus drivers didn’t ask the old biddies for tickets, and the ticket collectors avoided them like radiation. The sisters decided to walk to the library, to exchange books. It was still very early and they sat in the park among pigeons and park workers, waiting for the library to open. Then it occurred to Rita that they were supposed to be in school! The librarian would probably wonder why the girls were roaming the streets instead of being in a classroom.
The park gradually filled with grandmothers and young moms. Moms sat on the benches around the sandbox and chatted, sometimes screaming wildly, “Get out of the puddle!” or “Galina, get up this instant!” Grandmothers clung to their charges like prison guards to convicts and formed a line for the swings, jealously guarding their spots. If the infant wanted to get away and do something else, it was captured by the grandma and returned to its spot in the line.
“How idiotic,” observed Liza. Rita didn’t reply. Life appeared to her impossibly complicated. How to live through the summer holidays? That wasn’t the worst of it. How not to go to school afterward? If they did, they’d be on the grid, visible to the authorities. Rita and Liza were well-read old ladies, but chemistry, physics, and especially math had made them yawn even as children.
Their bellies were rumbling with hunger when the sisters finally walked into the library. The librarian took their books and let them check out new ones—ostensibly for the sick old sisters whom they were nursing. Instead of the usual Dickens and Balzac, the sisters chose a volume of fairy tales for Liza and an Italian romance novel for Rita. Then Liza begged Rita to buy them the cheapest ice-cream cone. They gobbled it down, sitting on a park bench and looking at the boats.
“Boats,” sighed Liza.
“My pension comes the day after tomorrow,” sighed Rita.
Sighing and relishing the taste of the ice cream, the sisters stayed by the pond until early evening. Rita was the first to come to her senses. “We must run home, it’s almost six!” At seven, the teenagers took over the courtyard, forced outside by the arrival of their mothers, who were wound up and exhausted after the day of work, the long commute, and grocery shopping. The moment their mothers walked in, the kids walked out, not wanting to be questioned about grades and homework.
The sisters raced home. The courtyard was still filled with younger kids who had been picked up from day care. They were running around wildly, yelping and shouting, while their parents perched, tightly packed, on the benches, heavy grocery bags positioned at their feet.
Rita and Liza ran into their apartment and bolted the door. Rita’s plan for the night was to make a new doormat from the scraps of fabric they found in the suitcase of baby clothes, but Liza implored Rita to make her a skirt. In the subsequent scuffle, Rita won. For dinner they had kefir, which Liza drank sobbing loudly, while Rita hugged the pillowcase with the disputed scraps of fabric.
“I have nothing to wear,” sobbed Liza. “I don’t have a watch, nothing. No bicycle either. Look at the kids outside. They all have watches and bicycles. I didn’t have a childhood. All girls had friends and girlfriends. I had only you!”
“Interesting childhood at eighty-five,” observed Rita.
Liza choked on her kefir and fell silent.
“You had a beautiful old age,” said Rita. “That should be enough.”
“My old age was beautiful? I spent it dancing to your fiddle,” screamed Liza. “I’ll run away from you! I don’t want to grow old as your employee all over again.”
Rita answered, “If you run away, you will end up in an orphanage. Do you know what it can be like for a girl your age?”
“At least it will be full of kids and I’ll be fed and there will be school. Yes, I know where I should go!”
“Don’t you remember the story in that magazine about orphanages?”
“Yes, they all wait for their papas and mamas! But my parents aren’t coming! Mummy, Daddy, where are you?” And poor Liza began to cry and sob anew.
Rita couldn’t bear the misery and shoved the pillowcase at Liza. “Take your scraps and stop whimpering.”
“But you’re not sewing! I need a skirt. Make me a skirt!”
“If you brush your teeth and go to bed, I’ll start on your skirt first thing in the morning.”
Naturally, Liza declared that she would brush her teeth only if Rita began sewing immediately. Rita clutched her head and tried to remember what their mother used to do in such cases. Without a word, she turned around, locked herself in the bathroom, and stood in the shower, recovering. When she came out, Liza was sitting on the floor, assembling pieces into a skirt.
“Tomorrow. We’ll do everything tomorrow,” said Rita calmly. “Help me collect the pieces. Try to remember what went with what.”
In the morning, they slipped out unseen, very early. The park was still empty, except for the deliverymen unloading crates of soda bottles at the food kiosk and a yawning mom with a toddler who kept calling to the swans, “Swanny bird, swanny bird!” The birds knew better and ignored him.
Liza and Rita plopped onto the bench where they’d always sat as old women. They used to have three bench mates: gentle Genrikovna, whose full name they’d never caught, both being slightly deaf; and the two crones whom they nicknamed Plague and Cholera. Both had occupied management positions in the past; both resembled Emperor Nero. Plague’s skirt was a bit shorter, but that was the only difference between them.
Gentle Genrikovna, a former pediatrician, lived completely alone, having been forsaken by her relatives under murky circumstances. As for Plague and Cholera, they were perpetually engaged in civil wars: Plague with her neighbors, Cholera with her family. As a result, they stayed out in the park all day, munching on bread and feeding the pigeons. Rita and Liza were forced to listen to their endless laments. What else could they do? It was the only park in the area, and every bench in it had been claimed by an established faction. Women occupied the benches around the flower bed; the men congregated on the opposite side, watching chess and dominoes players. The occasional passage of an old geezer past the flower bed elicited dignified silence from some benches and coquettish giggles from others, whose occupants still hoped to find a husband, apparently. The quiet benches despised all men regardless of age and situation.
Rita and Liza sat in a morose silence. It was time to join the food line, scour the dumpsters for a sewing machine, then race home to make a skirt for Liza. But neither sister could move.
Suddenly, an old woman sat down next to them. The girls froze: it was Genrikovna! She looked at them kindly. “Good morning, children!” Rita and Liza exchanged glances and gave a curt nod. Their old-fashioned good manners disappeared, and they transformed into real teens, defensive and rude. Why was this old bag pestering them?
“Girls, can I ask you something?” said Genrikovna.
“Huh?” said Rita, while Liza got up, saying, “Screw it, let’s get out of here.”
Genrikovna smiled weakly and closed her eyes.
“Is she sick or what?” wondered Rita. Genrikovna’s eyes remained closed.
“Liza, I’m going to the pharmacy,” said Rita, “you stay here.”
“No way, I’m scared of stiffs!”
“Idiot! She’s breathing. Feel her pulse.”
They spoke exactly like the neighborhood brats, omitting only the curse words.
Rita felt the old woman’s pulse.
“She needs, you know, what’s the name—nitroglycerin, for her heart.”
“I used to keep some in my purse,” blurted out Liza, then stopped herself. The time when she shuffled around with a large shabby satchel full of medications had passed. “Grandma? Hey, Grandma! Look, she’s about to pop off. Let’s scram!”
“Sure. Just let me tie my shoelaces. Stay here, I said.”
Liza stayed with Genrikovna, mumbling angrily, “Dumb hag, why didn’t she call a doctor or something?” Then she thought of checking Genrikovna’s purse: like most old people, she probably carried her essential medications. And sure enough, there was a plastic bottle. Liza squeezed out a pill and placed it in Genrikovna’s mouth. The old woman sucked on it instinctively and eventually swallowed. After a minute or two her eyes opened.
“What is it? Where am I?” whispered the old woman.
“Look, I didn’t take nothing,” protested Liza, just in case. “You were about to kick it, so I found you a pill in your bag. Check your stuff and see.”
“Sweetie, you saved my life. Can you walk me home?”
“I’m waiting for my sis.”
Genrikovna nodded. Finally, Rita returned and reported, “I couldn’t believe the incompetence of today’s pharmacy employees . . . ” Then she checked herself and switched to the teen lingo. “Totally sucks! Stupid crone wouldn’t give nothing without a prescription. ‘Call an ambulance,’ she says. And the phone is in the director’s office! ‘Go and use the pay phone,’ she says. And the pay phone’s broke!”
“Girls, I can’t make it home on my own,” said the old woman. “My name is Maya Genrikovna. Walk with me, and I’ll give you something in return. I have a crepe de chine blouse, almost new, it may fit you.”
“Huh,” said Liza, meaning “sure.” They walked the old woman to her apartment, boiled some tea, and fetched a loaf of bread from the bakery. In return, they received a lovely blouse with frills. What’s more, they noticed an old sewing machine in Genrikovna’s apartment, which Genrikovna promised to give to them. She offered to call their parents to explain the blouse.
“We don’t have a phone,” said Rita.
“Or parents,” added Liza, and bit her tongue.
“They won’t be surprised,” confirmed Rita.
The girls made it home just in time for the brats’ evening stroll. For dinner, they had hot water and bread. They spent most of the night working on the skirt. “How we lived like this is beyond me,” murmured Liza, stitching pieces together at three in the morning. Rita was fast asleep. In the morning, Liza wailed that it was a quilt, not a skirt! Rita, also upset, added two rows of ribbons and an underskirt made from an old sheet. Liza tried on the skirt with Genrikovna’s blouse, twirled in front of the mirror, then collapsed on the bed, sobbing that she could no longer wear such disgraceful sandals, fit only for toddlers. Exhausted, the girls went to bed and slept until the afternoon. In the cupboard, they had a little bread, four potatoes, and one beet. Rita was first to wake and, taking pity on poor Liza, made some borscht with toast.
That day they were expecting Rita’s pension. Rita climbed into her bed and wrapped herself in a large kerchief. Her hands were disguised by a mitten and a glove (they had only one of each). When the postwoman rang the bell, Liza opened the door with a funereal expression, explaining that her great-grandmother was in bed with severe eczema, but that she would sign, no problem. The postwoman gave Liza the receipt, which Rita signed in her room. The postwoman yelled “Get better!” and left—the signature matched.
But growing children couldn’t live on that money—just feeble, resigned crones could, because they weren’t getting any taller, weren’t gaining weight, and grew only whiskers and fingernails. All they needed to do was hoard enough rags over their lifetime so they could wear them without embarrassment to the end.
Rita was thinking hard about how to survive. Summer was less scary. She knew several stores that put out crates with rotted produce: impoverished old folks like them could pick through the otherwise unaffordable fruits and vegetables. There were also outdoor markets to try, where rich, lazy vendors sometimes amused themselves by tossing crumbs to old geezers who staggered down the aisles, reeling with hunger, pretending to be tasting pickled cabbage and farmer cheese. But children—children were another matter. No one would let them beg, taste the food, or sell mittens. They would be immediately handed over to the police.
Rita was a little girl of immense, vast life experience and she foresaw a myriad of expenses. As for Liza, it was as if she’d never been a mother and grandmother. She could see only her present self in the mirror—a beautiful, in her opinion, little girl, who should be pampered and given presents. And that’s how she’d lived her whole life. First she was pampered by her parents, then by her husband, who had treated her like a child. But then her own children grew up pampered and in turn pampered their offspring, who were now pampering their babies but not poor old Liza.
Rita didn’t share her bitter thoughts with her younger sister. She preferred to follow the example of their late mother: never complain, never ask for help, but in return demand complete obedience. They needed to leave the house quickly: Rita wanted to purchase toothbrushes and toothpaste—they hadn’t been using them before, not having any teeth. She intended to make Liza brush her teeth twice a day.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang. Before Rita could stop her, Liza rushed to open. There entered a stocky individual with reddish hair. “It’s me again,” he announced. “And where are the ladies of the house?”
Terribly scared, Rita replied: “Our grandmas aren’t home.”
“Hmm. I thought if I tried early morning I’d catch them at home. Can I wait for them?”
“They aren’t coming back today.”
“Oh. Where are they?”
“At the summerhouse.”
“And what are you two doing here?”
“We are about to leave, too.”
“And why aren’t you at school?”
“We have scarlet fever. Our school has been quarantined.”
“Aha. I see.” The man strolled around the apartment, examining ceilings, pipes, and faucets, touching window frames with peeling paint.
“Hmm. The apartment will need a complete renovation. Hmm.” He checked the view from the balcony.
“And what do they need all these crates for? Fine, whatever. The metro is nearby, correct? No phone, as I remember?”
The girls watched him with irritation. Finally, Rita announced, “We need to go.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll stay here for now. I’ve had scarlet fever before. I need to see your grandmothers. I must speak to them urgently.”
“They left for the summer,” exclaimed Rita.
“They are not coming back,” squeaked Liza.
“That’s fine. I’ll stay here. I have time.”
“What is it you want?!”
“What do you mean, what? I’m going to register here, become their guardian.”
“What for?” asked Liza.
“I’ll be registered here, and the apartment won’t go to waste after they croak. One is a goner, the postwoman told me. And the other is not far behind.”
“Nonsense,” exclaimed Liza. “What are you mumbling about, young man? What does this have to do with you?”
“Where did you come by this information, anyway?” asked Rita. Her cheeks were burning with indignation.
“Where, where . . . I just know. Good people referred me.”
“Well,” concluded Rita, “I guess we’ll have to summon Sveta’s husband and his brother.”
“And who are you, huh? You are not registered here. This isn’t your apartment. The decision is up to the surviving sister.”
“She won’t register you! She will register us, her great-granddaughters!”
“You are minors,” the man stated. “It will be against the law.”
“You must leave now. Get out.”
“No,” the man replied. He flopped onto Liza’s little cot, then sat up and took off his shoes. He turned to the wall and fell asleep like someone who hadn’t slept in a week. The sisters perched on the chairs in the next room.
“He’s a nutcase and a crook,” declared Liza.
“Liza, how many times have I asked you not to open the door to strangers? Mama also used to tell you. Now we are in this mess all because of you!”
“I’m still small!” And Liza cried bitterly. Loud snoring came from the next room.
“Look,” proposed Liza. “Let’s find that ointment and use it on him.”
“Right, and then we’ll be stuck with a little hoodlum.”
“So we’ll use more ointment!”
“These types are the same at any age. Remember our little neighbor on Bozhedomka Street? He was five and he kicked us every time we walked by!”
“We’ll take him to a day care and dump him there!”
“Then better cut his throat!”
“Have you lost your mind?”
“He’s an aggressor! He wants to take our home!”
“True. But he has nowhere to live, nowhere to sleep. Can’t you see that?”
“You always pity everyone but me. Imagine: we leave and he replaces the locks and doesn’t let us back in? And if we somehow manage to get rid of him, he’ll break in during our absence!”
“Then let’s dress you up as a grandmother again! Right now.”
Rita began to dress feverishly. A glove and a mitten for her hands; glasses over her nose; a kerchief and scarf. Then she mixed some flour with water and rubbed that into her face, so the mixture dried in folds and stripes. Finally, she drew some wrinkles with a crayon. While she worked on that, the snoring in the next room paused and the crook mumbled: “What? What’s that? You talking to me?” Rita picked up her cane. They slammed the front door noisily, and Liza announced, “Grandma, we asked you to come because some creep wants to move in here.”
“Nonsense!” shouted Rita in her best basso, swinging her cane. “Where is he?”
Liza led her to the cot. “Granny,” mumbled the crook.
Rita slugged him over the head with her cane and yelled, “Police, help! A suspicious element escaped from prison!”
Clutching his head, the man sat up quickly. Rita slugged him again and ordered her sister, “Run, Liza, open the door, tell the neighbors to call the police.” Liza jumped outside and banged on their door. The man got up, looked around wistfully, picked up his shoes, and scrambled down the stairs in just his socks.
Liza slammed the door shut. The sisters hugged each other. Then Rita announced, “We need a mother!”
“Genrikovna!” both exclaimed.
The sisters set off for Genrikovna’s house. They decided to invite Genrikovna to stay with them for a while. Plus, she had a sewing machine.
They knocked on Genrikovna’s door—no response. Then they pummeled it with their fists and feet until a very angry, rotund lady walked up from the floor below.
“What are you raising such racket for, little snakes?”
“So sorry, ma’am,” apologized Rita in a silky voice. “We came to visit the patient, but she isn’t answering, something must be wrong.”
“So why pummel like crazies?” growled the neighbor, calming down. She rang the next door. In the crack they saw someone’s large wrinkled ear.
“Uncle Senya, what happened to the one in number ten?”
“Won’t open up. Shall I call the cops?”
“How should I know?” And Uncle Senya appeared in all his glory: a blue tank top, a furry winter hat, and gray long johns. He’d been shaved—about two weeks ago.
“What’s wrong with you?” inquired the neighbor.
“Got sick . . . ”
“There you go. Better live with roommates than by yourself.”
“Roommates are the ones who get you committed,” proclaimed Uncle Senya. He was covered in down—he must have been hugging his pillow.
“Well, I got to go. My Volodya is asleep, and these two started banging . . . Who are you to her, anyway?”
“We’re related,” lied Liza.
“But not directly,” corrected Rita.
“Well, then, she probably stepped out for groceries,” yawned Uncle Senya, and bolted his door.
The girls walked outside. It was evening, but still light—the white nights weren’t far away. Windows were lighting up. Little kids, home after a full day in day care, dashed around wildly, intoxicated with freedom. People were playing music in their apartments. Residents walked in and out, but Genrikovna was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she had collapsed on the street and an ambulance picked her up? The girls waited until midnight, then dragged themselves home. The stairs were empty. The girls slipped inside. Oh, happiness! They were home. They took a shower, gulped down some borscht, and collapsed on their beds.
Liza was whimpering in her sleep. Rita didn’t cry. She was thinking about Genrikovna. She remembered her composure, her tact, her impeccable manners even when Plague and Cholera pestered her endlessly with their health problems. But Genrikovna had been a postnatal pediatrician, specializing in newborns—she lent a sympathetic ear, but did not give out prescriptions. Old Liza, on the other hand, loved physicking and readily suggested home remedies. “In essence, Liza saved me with her ointment,” thought Rita. She got up and blew on Liza’s forehead, the way their mother used to do. Liza took a deep breath and stopped her whimpering.
In the morning, the girls positioned themselves outside Genrikovna’s door. They rang for a long time. Then something moved in the depths of the apartment. Half an hour later, the door opened a crack. Genrikovna was prostrate on the floor.
“Oh, hello,” the girls mumbled. “We’ve been trying to visit, we were worried, we are the girls from the park, you gave us some tea once . . . ”
Genrikovna looked up at them wistfully. She opened her mouth but couldn’t say anything.
“Can you talk?”
Genrikovna began to cry.
“You need to get to a hospital!” The sisters dragged her into the room. Inside, a chair was lying upside down in a puddle of water, next to a broken glass.
“That’s where she was all day yesterday. Liza, run home and look for the ointment.” Liza nodded and skipped off.
Rita managed to pull Genrikovna onto the bed, then cooked some porridge and fed the old woman. Liza hadn’t come back. It was getting late. Where could a twelve-year-old girl disappear?
Finally Liza returned, very pale. “There was no ointment. I looked and looked. When I was leaving, they were already out on the stairs. But the elevator came quickly, and I managed to slip out.”
Rita and Liza moved in with Genrikovna. They visited their old apartment only once, to collect Liza’s pension. They used the same disguise. They warned the postwoman not to give their address to anyone.
They fed Baba Maya, as they’d taken to calling Genrikovna. Rita gave her massages, as she used to do for her father, and picked up medications at the pharmacy. They arranged for a nurse to give her some strengthening shots. Baba Maya understood everything and worked hard. First she moved her fingers, then her hands. In six weeks, she could say “A-ee-a.”
“Thank you,” translated Liza.
“You are good girls.”
By August, Baba Maya was taking strolls in the courtyard, where she told everyone, “My granddaughters have come to visit.”
In September the girls went to school. Maya Genrikovna spoke with the principal and persuaded her to accept her granddaughters without paperwork. Not that anyone cared. At first, the girls enjoyed school, then they began complaining and didn’t want to get up in the morning, especially Liza.
In the evening, the three of them had long conversations. Genrikovna was amazed at the girls’ wisdom and forgiveness. “These are not ordinary children,” she liked to say, making the sign of the cross over their beds.
The two underage grandmothers slept and dreamed of finding the magical ointment for their beloved Genrikovna. In Rita’s dreams, Genrikovna resembled their mother, stern and beautiful. As for silly Liza, she dreamed that Genrikovna was lying in diapers, and she and Rita didn’t have enough milk for her.
On Saturdays, they went to the metro station to sell socks and mittens.
Perhaps you saw them there.