The Day the Music Spied
"Bone Music" by Maria Reva, recommended by Lara Prescott
INTRODUCTION BY LARA PRESCOTT
In 2015, when the twelve incoming graduate students at the Michener Center for Writers sent around emails introducing ourselves, one person caught my eye: Maria Reva. Maria had written that she lived in Vancouver—having immigrated there from Ukraine when she was seven—and was currently working construction to support her writing. “I work with some nasty chemicals and lead paint,” she wrote, “but get to wear a space suit (kind of).”
This first glimpse into Maria’s weird and wonderful mind was the perfect introduction to her fiction: stories that have made me laugh out loud, tear up, find shards of hope in the least likely of places, and Google facts like if “bone music” really exists.
It does. I first read Maria’s story “Bone Music” in Elizabeth McCracken’s fiction workshop a few months after our email introductions. Reading this equally hilarious and heartbreaking story about an agoraphobic woman named Smena who hasn’t left her apartment in years but runs a successful underground business selling illegal vinyl records copied onto medical X-rays, broke me in two.
Set on the cusp of the Soviet Union’s demise, Smena lives on the tenth floor of a Ukrainian apartment building, which, due to a clerical error, the government insists doesn’t exist. When the story opens, Smena is visited by a neighbor, Nika, from the fifth floor. Alongside their cups of bitter tea and stale biscuits, Nika sets an X-ray on the table: an image of her own skull with the telltale shadow of a tumor. Nika asks about the music she’s heard Smena produces, cut into such X-rays, and about Smena’s two-room apartment (a rarity), which Smena takes as a possible threat.
As the story unfolds, we too question Nika’s motives; and like Smena, we also start looking forward to her visits.
“Bone Music” is a story that gets to the heart of what it must have been like to live in the crumbling Soviet Republic—a world where trust couldn’t be earned and threats of imprisonment for minor freedoms were still common. “Now an invisible hand was loosening the screws,” writes Maria, “but it was impossible to tell which screws, and for how long the loosening would last.”
I feel so fortunate to have witnessed Maria put her old construction skills to work in building the linked stories that make up the absurd, funny, devastating world in her debut collection Good Citizens Need Not Fear. I often think back to “Bone Music” and wonder what song would be imprinted on an X-ray of Maria’s own head. Not the Megadeth that Smena has grown to enjoy or the Coltrane that makes Nika close her eyes and sway. The answer still eludes me, but I do know this: whatever it is, it will be strange, beautiful, and so very full of life.
– Lara Prescott
Author of The Secrets We Kept
The Day the Music Spied
By Maria Reva
The first time Smena’s neighbor knocked on her door, she asked to borrow cloves. The woman stood in Smena’s doorway, clutching a canvas sack to her chest. Her diminutive frame barely reached the latch. “I’ll bring the cloves back,” she promised. “You can reuse them up to three times.”
This neighbor, Smena knew, associated with the building’s benchers. The woman never sat with them but did spend a good deal of time standing beside them, cracking sunflower seeds, no doubt gossiping, and Smena would often hear the metallic clang of her laughter through the bedroom window. Smena had placed the woman in her mid-sixties, around Smena’s age, but up close her wet lips and bright caramel eyes made her look younger. Her cropped hair, dyed bright red, reminded Smena of the state-made cherry jam she used to see in stores.
She did not let the neighbor in, but made sure to leave a crack between the door and its frame so as not to shut it in the woman’s face—word got around if you were rude, especially to a bencher or bencher affiliate. Smena rummaged in her kitchen drawers for the cloves, then continued the search in her bathroom cabinet, which contained the kitchen overflow. There, the cloves rattled inside a newspaper pouch; they’d lost their peppery tang.
Smena stepped out of the bathroom and blurted “Oi.” The neighbor was sitting in her kitchen. The woman had taken off her clogs, and a grayish middle toe poked through a hole in one of her socks.
Neighbors rarely visited each other, and if they did, it was to complain about a leak in the ceiling or to spy out who had better wallpaper and why. Smena tossed the pouch of cloves on the table, hoping the woman would take what she’d come for and leave.
“I’m Nika, from fifth,” the neighbor said. “Have a biscuit.” From her canvas sack she produced a small plastic bag, rolled down its rim, and Smena felt a pang of delight: inside were the same cheap biscuits Smena used to buy at the bazaar, the ones that had the shape and consistency of a fifty-kopek coin and had to be soaked in tea to save teeth from breaking. This gesture meant her guest wanted tea, which she, the host, should have offered long ago, upon greeting.
Nika craned her neck for a better view down the corridor. “Say, this a one-room or two-room?” Nika pronounced her words with a dawdling slur that was at odds with her quick movements. Smena wondered if the woman was recovering from a stroke.
“For one person?”
Smena tensed. Anything she said, already she could hear being repeated around the block. “My husband snored.” This was true: Smena had shared the sofa bed with her daughter, in the other room, until the girl had moved in with her fiancé’s family many towns away.
To occupy herself, Smena set the kettle on the stove. When she turned back to the woman, beside the biscuits lay a black plastic sheet. An X-ray scan. Smena recognized it instantly; she had a stack of them in the cupboard beside the refrigerator.
“I hear you make a nice ruble copying vinyl records onto X-rays,” said Nika.
Smena’s brows lifted in mock surprise. “Who told you that?”
“A friendly worm in the ground.”
“The friendly worm is mistaken.”
“I used to own a few bone albums myself, a long time ago,” Nika went on. “Only played them a couple times before they got worn through. Didn’t compare to vinyl, of course, but that’s how you got the real music.” By “real” she meant banned music. American rock ’n’ roll, decadent capitalist filth, the stuff with sex and narcotics. Smena’s specialty. She had begun copying bootlegged albums in the postwar years, when she and her husband were desperate for money and radiology film was the cheapest, most readily accessible form of plastic. Now, with the national shortage of reel cassettes—the national shortage of everything—Smena was back in business.
“I hear your records are the best,” said Nika. “Can play for days.”
Smena hunched her shoulders in an attempt to make her broad frame appear small, innocuous. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m a simple pensioner, just like you.”
“A simple pensioner like me doesn’t have a two-room all to herself.”
Smena detected judgment in Nika’s voice—it was uncouth for a woman, especially one far along in her years, to take up so much space—but also envy.
When the kettle whistle blew, Smena was wary of turning her back to the woman again; she imagined discovering a pile of X-rays, or the woman’s entire family, in the kitchen. She reached a hand behind her hips to turn off the gas, fumbled with the cutlery drawer for a spoon—then stopped. This was the same drawer that contained the lathe for engraving X-rays. Smena used her fingers to pinch tea leaves into cups, and stirred the tea by whirling each cup in a circle.
“I hope you can help me,” said Nika.
“Sugar in your tea?”
“Please. Say, ever got an X-ray done yourself?”
“The radiation alone is enough to kill you, just slower than whatever it is they’re checking for.” Nika paused, as though waiting for Smena to say something. “What were they checking for?”
“A bout of pneumonia, a couple years ago,” said Smena, distracted. She’d remembered the sugar jar lived in the same cupboard as the record player—which was a perfectly mundane object in itself, but not if seen in conjunction with the lathe. “I forgot, I’m out of sugar.”
The two women drank their tea bitter. Smena observed that once, when Nika made to dip her biscuit, she missed the cup, tapped the table instead, noticed the error, and dipped the biscuit into her cup with vigor. Before her guest left, Smena tried to push the X-ray back into her hands, but Nika refused. “I’ll be back with your cloves,” she said from the doorway.
“You can reuse them up to three times. I read about it.”
“Keep reusing them, then.”
“Oh, I couldn’t.”
Smena forced a smile. “It’s a gift.”
“I’m the one who should be gifting you gifts, for helping me.”
“I haven’t done anything to help you.”
“But you will,” said Nika. “I can always pick out the good people. Like good watermelons.” She was about to head off at last, then paused and turned to face Smena again. “You said your husband snored. What fixed it?”
Nika winked. “I’m divorced, too. They say our building is cursed.”
Smena closed the door on the woman, to hide her own blush. She shoved the X-ray in the garbage bin under the sink. Her underground business made Smena vulnerable to extortion. If Nika visited again, she might ask for more than cloves.
But the X-ray did not stay in the bin long.
Smena’s worst traits, her mother had once informed her, were her height and her curiosity.
It was the golden hour, the best time of day to inspect new X-rays, when the sun hung low and its rays shot directly through Smena’s kitchen window, illuminating each feathery detail of the bones. Smena lived on the tenth floor, and the neighboring building was far enough from hers for the X-ray viewings to be conducted in privacy. She secured Nika’s scan onto her window with suction cups.
The profile of a skull shone at her. The architecture of a human head never failed to shock Smena, or make her wonder how such a large bulbous weight balanced on the thin stack of vertebrae.
Smena couldn’t help but feel excitement: a head X-ray did not come her way as often as those of other body parts. And heads were the most popular with the buyers, fetched the most money. A shame she couldn’t use this one. She would not be lured into Nika’s trap.
The small white letters on the bottom right-hand corner of the film, easily overlooked by the untrained eye, read VERONIKA L. GUPKA, TUMOR. Smena noticed a thinning at the base of the skull, a shadow overtaking it from inside. The thing looked contagious, like a curse. She didn’t like the tumor hanging on her window, projecting its tendrils onto her kitchen wall.
She understood then: the woman was dying. Whatever she wanted from Smena stemmed from this fact.
Smena hid the scan, but this time, despite herself, she did not try to dispose of it.
Megadeth’s growls and screams, banned in all fifteen Soviet republics, came from Smena’s cupboard record player—at minimal volume, of course.
“I’m with the Kremlin on this one,” said Milena, Smena’s dealer. “If these are the latest tunes from the West, maybe the place really is rotting.” As usual, Milena stood leaning against the windowsill, ignoring the vacant stool in front of her. She seemed to prefer heights, like a cat, Smena had noticed.
This was their biweekly meeting. Milena brought wads of cash from selling bone albums at subway stations, public squares, and parks, and Smena counted the profit, taking the largest cut for herself. Next, Milena presented her with an array of X-ray scans procured through her job as a polyclinic custodian, and Smena picked out the most desirable designs. Today’s winning selection included a foot that had been subjected to an asphalt roller; a handsome pelvic girdle; a torso with what looked like a prominent colon but was really the spine of a fetus; a child’s hand curled into an obscene gesture.
Smena had recruited Milena because of her proximity to X-rays, but also for her proximity to Smena herself. Milena lived two doors down in a one-room she shared with her poet husband, and Smena didn’t even need to cross her own doorway to coax her neighbor in for a chat. From the first, Smena had known Milena would be perfect for the position; no one would suspect the pale middle-aged woman with drab clothes and uneven bangs of dealing illicit albums. At first Milena had refused, recounting how just last month she’d had to shake off a government lackey who had been trailing her husband, and was not sure she would be able to get rid of another, but after a second round of shots Milena confessed she could use the extra money. She was saving up—what for, she didn’t say.
Seated across the kitchen table from Smena was Larissa, the style hunter who supplied hits from the West. “Megadeth is a deliberate misspelling of the English word ‘megadeath,’ one million deaths by nuclear explosion,” she explained. Unlike Milena, who wore only black like a perpetual mourner, Larissa was a carefully choreographed explosion of color: red-and-yellow checkered dress, tangerine tights, peacock-blue heels (which she hadn’t taken off at the door). She sewed most of her clothes herself, copying styles from British and French magazines, complete with embroidered duplicates of the most prestigious logos. Thirty-one years old, Larissa lived with her mother and two daughters in the suite below Smena’s. From the fights Smena overheard through the heating vent—typical topics raised by the mother: Larissa’s low-paying job at the chemical plant two towns over, Larissa’s expensive tastes, Larissa’s failure to keep a man—Smena had gauged that her downstairs neighbor, like Milena, could not refuse a second income. It had only taken Smena two nights of thumping her floor with a broom handle before an irate Larissa paid her first visit.
Smena closed her eyes, taking in Megadeth’s restless rhythms. She couldn’t understand the lyrics, of course, but the singers’ screams were so wrenching, they seemed to be dredging up bits of Smena’s own soul. She wondered how Megadeth would sound at full volume, the power of the screams unharnessed.
“I think there’s something to this,” she said.
Milena’s and Larissa’s eyes swiveled to her in surprise. Smena glared at the women in return. “Oh, come off it. I’m old but I’m not obsolete.”
“The group’s aesthetic is contextual. People scream a lot in America,” offered Larissa, adjusting her horn-rimmed lensless glasses. “They have screaming therapy for terminal patients. Very expensive. I read about it. Doctors drop patients off in the middle of the woods and get them to hurl their lungs out. Barbaric, yes, but most come back happier.”
“The last time I made a person scream they didn’t seem any happier,” Milena remarked with a smirk, “and I did it for free.” Smena nodded without comment, assuming Milena was referring to one of her fencing tournaments.
When the meeting ended and Milena left, Smena found herself alone with Larissa as she gathered her effects into a quilted faux-leather purse. Smena leaned across the table toward the woman and stretched her lips over her teeth into a smile. This felt awkward, so she unstretched them. “You’re doing a fine job, Larissa.”
Larissa simply nodded, without deflecting the compliment. Another of her imports from the West: a lack of modesty.
Smena produced two bills from her pocket. She did not look at the money as she slipped it into Larissa’s breast pocket. She wanted the action of touching money to look easy, as if it was something she did a lot, something she barely noticed anymore. “I hear the bakery by the chemical plant is better than the one around the block. Mind picking up a loaf sometime this week?” she said. And added, “Keep the change.”
A child’s whining cry reached them from the suite below. Larissa gave a weary smile. “I’d be happy to.”
“And a dozen eggs, if you see them.”
“At the bakery?”
Smena slid a few more bills across the table, many more than necessary.
“Brown or white?” asked Larissa.
“White bread, brown eggs.” The pricier options.
Smena had asked Milena to bring potatoes two weeks prior.
If Milena and Larissa picked up an item or two of food for her every now and then, with her small appetite she would be fine. She did not want her neighbors to suspect that, combined, they were part of a greater pattern. She hadn’t been to the bazaar in over a year, hadn’t even ventured past her front door. Each time Smena opened the door, she felt the dank air of the outer hallway cling to her skin, as if she were being pulled into a tomb.
Smena’s fears had begun with a newspaper article: a boy had tripped over exposed rebar and broken both wrists. For years, the townspeople had been privately griping about the poor state of roads, sidewalks, bridges, but this was the first time the consequences of decaying infrastructure were publicized. Soon more and more reports came, from all over the country, each more outlandish than the next. A sinkhole trapped a commuter bus. A family of five plummeted to their deaths in an elevator malfunction. A gas leak gently poisoned preschoolers for weeks before being discovered. Pedestrians were advised to avoid underpasses.
Even previously privileged information was released, about how the town had been built on a not-quite-drained marsh that was slowly reliquifying. Smena’s daughter, and her daughter’s university friends, had cheered on the liberation of the press, which was taking place in their respective towns, too. But Smena had felt safer under the maternal hand of censorship.
Smena’s building, her entire town, now felt like a death trap, but she convinced herself that the concrete walls of her own apartment were secure. After a yearlong renovation, none of the windows or doors creaked. The new checkerboard linoleum felt smooth and sturdy under her feet. As long as she stayed in her space, twelve by twelve steps, she would be safe.
The X-ray of Nika’s skull lay on the kitchen table. Smena admired its smooth round shape. No matter how penetrating the radiology waves, the thoughts and desires within that doomed chamber remained secret. There Nika lived, and there she would die.
Smena felt no pity. Pity masked itself as kindness, but was rooted in condescension. Smena would not want to be pitied herself.
She turned Megadeth back on. Screaming therapy, she thought. Now there’s something useful.
She lit a cigarette, and paused to appreciate the scratchy vocals and pulse-raising tempo before hitting Stop, resetting the needle to the beginning. Using manicure scissors, Smena cut the radiograph into a circular shape. She made a hole in the middle of the circle with her lit cigarette, right where the ear would be, and the acrid smell of burning plastic rose from the film. She positioned the film on the phonograph, attached a spidery metal arm from the record player’s needle to the cutting stylus on the phonograph, and hit Play on both machines. As the grooves on the vinyl vibrated the needle and produced music, the metal arm transmitted the vibrations to the cutting stylus and reproduced the grooves onto Nika’s skull.
The evening before the next meeting, Larissa’s eleven-year-old daughter knocked on Smena’s door. Given Larissa’s talent for fashioning replicas, Smena found it fitting that Dasha should look just like her wide-eyed mother—down to the cowlick, and the platoon of bobby pins enlisted to flatten it. The girl informed Smena that her mother couldn’t make it to their biweekly study session on dialectical materialism—Smena couldn’t help smiling—because her mother was so sick with the flu she couldn’t crawl up two flights of stairs to tell Smena Timofeevna so herself.
Smena dropped her smile, remembering. “Eggs? Bread?”
Dasha tilted her head, confused. “No thank you.” She turned on her heel and skipped down the corridor, purple dress rustling.
Smena spent the next hour scouring her kitchen, making a mental inventory of the remaining food: three potatoes, two bread heels, nine walnuts, one thimble-size jar of horseradish. Her millet and rice stocks had run out the month prior. If she cut down her already meager consumption, she estimated the supplies would last less than a week.
The smell of boiling chicken now wafting from the heating vent did not help calm Smena’s nerves.
One thing Smena would not do was call her own daughter. After the grandchildren started coming, occasionally the daughter called to suggest Smena come live with her and her family in Crimea. They could sleep on the sofa bed together like old times, her daughter would joke, figure out a cot for the son- in-law. Smena would hear the shrieks of the grandchildren at the other end of the line and try to imagine herself as the babushka depicted in children’s folktales: stout, puffy-cheeked, bending over a cauldron of bubbling pea soup with a wooden spoon in hand, ready to feed, bathe, rear an entire village.
“The time isn’t right for a move,” she had told her daughter the last time they spoke. “I’m too busy.”
“Busy with what?” Her daughter didn’t know about the bone business. “You’re all alone over there!”
Smena took this to mean, “You’re going to die alone over there,” which was where the conversation always headed, and promptly hung up.
Smena’s mother had birthed six other children before she had Smena, and had made a point of telling her that a husband and children were the best insurance against dying alone. The family had lived in a crumbling clay house. One day, when Smena’s father was at work and she and her siblings were at school, Smena’s mother took her metal shears and slashed away at the tall grass outside the window. The blades crunched into an electric cable. Smena was the one who found her mother’s body in the weeds. Smena remembered how her own throat had contracted in shock, how her scream had come out as a hiccup. For a long time Smena had studied her mother’s face, which was set in a wild openmouthed grin, as if she were biting into the sweetest happiness on Earth. Seven children, eighteen years of cleaning, chiding, spanking, loving, pea soup making, and what did it matter? Smena’s mother had died alone, and seemed to have fared all right. Before the accident, Smena had imagined death as a send-off, a majestic ship to board while your party of relatives crowds at the port ledge, waving goodbye. The higher the attendance, the more valued your life. Now, she imagined something more private. Once you got past the ugly physicality of death, you were left with a single boat, a cushion. Room to stretch out the legs.
The second time Nika knocked on the door, she returned the cloves in their newspaper pouch. From the doorway she beamed up at Smena, as though she had proven herself by fulfilling her ridiculous promise. She produced a baking tray of buns from her cloth sack. Fragrant, buttery, they bulged out of the tray in a tight grid, ready to spring into Smena’s mouth. Each had a neat hole on top, from a clove.
“Borrower’s interest,” Nika joked. Her speech had slowed since the last visit, her syllables become more labored.
Smena didn’t know whether it was the hunger, or the shock at this small act of kindness—albeit suspect kindness—that made her say, “Come in for some tea?” before she could stop herself.
“Oh no, thank you. I couldn’t.” But already Nika was kicking off her clogs. “Just for a minute.” She was wearing the same faded socks, with her toe sticking out. Smena offered a pair of furry dalmatian-print slippers, ones Milena usually wore during their meetings.
As Smena brewed tea, Nika separated the buns and arranged them in a circle on a glass platter—also conjured from the magical sack. “Got any butter?” She was quick, ant-like, and before Smena could intervene, she opened the refrigerator. The expanse of white gaped at her, empty. With horror Smena imagined this detail registering in the neatly categorized inventory of Nika’s mind, and wanted to snatch it back out.
Without comment Nika turned and marched out of the apartment, leaving Smena to wonder if the state of the refrigerator had offended her. But a few minutes later Nika returned bearing not only butter, but also bread, eggs, and a pat of lard wrapped in a plastic bag, for frying. She began piling the supplies into the refrigerator.
“You don’t have to do that,” said Smena. “I was going to go to the Gastronom tomorrow.”
“So was I. We’ll go together?”
Smena pretended to consider it. “Actually, tomorrow’s no good.”
“The day after.”
“I’m tied up.”
Nika shut the refrigerator, gave its handle a conciliatory stroke. “The benchers told me they haven’t seen you leave the building in months,” she said softly. “They only see your visitors, not you.”
Blasted benchers, Smena thought. Nothing better to do. “Most of those old stumps are half-blind,” she said. “And I move very fast.” She pulled a bill from a metal tin on the counter, knowing she risked insulting the woman. But Nika only laughed, swatted the money away. “Please,” she said. “Kak aúknetsja, tak i otklíknetsja.” Do as you would be done by.
The women sat down together. Smena’s discomfort melted away when she took her first bite of bun. Its thin caramelized crust, where egg whites had been painted on in crisscross, protected a warm flaky interior. The best bun she had ever tasted.
Nika ran her hand along the chrome length of the table. “This is nice. Quiet. Where I live it’s a zoo. Fourteen people, another one in my daughter-in-law’s belly. Imagine! Despite his position, my son and his family still haven’t been assigned their own peace.”
Smena wondered if she meant “place,” and if the tumor was pressing a fibrous finger on just the wrong spot. “Which factory does he work for?”
“Timko works for the government.” She let the last word fall heavily, significant.
Perhaps this was a threat? Working for the government meant anything from licking envelopes to spying on high-profile citizens.
“A nice two-room, is that so much to ask?”
Smena wasn’t sure to whom, exactly, the woman was directing the question. But there it was: the dying woman’s motive. A lovely two-room for her lovely family. Her legacy secured. If Smena were to be imprisoned for the bone business, Nika’s growing, government-affiliated family would be next in line for her apartment. Smena wanted to jump up, scream “Gotcha!” like she’d seen a man do at the bazaar once, after he’d stabbed his finger into a vendor’s pot of golden honey to reveal the cheap sugar syrup underneath.
Before Nika left, she placed a second sheet of black film on the table, without inquiring about the first.
An hour later, the new scan glowed on the kitchen window. Smena wanted to track the progression—again, for curiosity’s sake.
The sun’s rays showed more thinning of the bone as the tumor burrowed toward the spinal column. Smena couldn’t help being impressed by the thing—an organism living by its own will, clawing for space in the tight dome of the skull.
The next meeting, Larissa forgot about the bread and eggs, but did bring two albums by John Coltrane.
“Never heard of him,” said Milena, who stood at the window, left thigh resting on the sill.
Larissa straightened the velvet lapels of her blazer and looked up at Milena. “John Coltrane,” she explained, “was one of the most prominent jazz musicians of the twentieth century.” Her nose and cheeks were red and puffy. Despite her best efforts to appear composed, she looked in danger of crumpling to the floor any moment.
“How am I supposed to know? No one’s ever asked for a Coltrane,” said Milena. She eyed the tray of buns poking over the top of the refrigerator, then glanced at Smena for permission. Smena nodded—she regretted not having offered them herself.
“You’re supposed to know what you’re selling,” said Larissa, hoarse voice rising. Smena shushed her. “How else do you test for fake clients, impostors?” Larissa whispered.
“Speaking of,” Milena said through a mouthful of bun.
Smena and Larissa turned to her.
“It’s probably nothing,” Milena tried.
“Tell us the nothing,” said Smena.
Milena scratched a spot of grime off the window with her fingernail. “I was at the park, my usual spot by the thousand-year oak, when a guy came up to me. Skinny, with a sad attempt at a mustache. Asked for a KISS. Like the group. The music group.”
“Very good,” said Larissa, rolling her eyes.
“I started to grill him,” Milena continued. “Year the band got together, band leader’s middle name, year of their breakout single, whichever useless facts Larissa shoves down my ear.” She winked at Larissa, who turned away in a huff. “The guy was doing well, seemed to know everything. Then he started grilling me. Asked why Ace Frehley added eyeliner to his iconic ‘Space Ace’ makeup design. What was I supposed to do, look stupid? I played along, answered best I could, but when I asked, ‘So are you buying the album or not?’ he only said, ‘Nah, I got what I came for.’ ”
“And then?” asked Smena.
“He just walked off.”
Milena helped herself to another bun. She mashed the entire thing into her mouth, and Smena watched her masticate it without any apparent enjoyment. There were only four buns left, and she imagined what would happen once they were all gone, how she’d gnaw on laurel leaves, suck peppercorns for taste.
After a while Milena said in a low voice, “It’s what they do. Play with you first, see you flail, knowing you have nowhere to go.”
“Play is all it is,” countered Larissa. “No one gets sent to the camps anymore. Human rights,” she proclaimed, chin tilted up, “are in vogue.”
“My sweet thing,” cried Milena. She sank down to the stool beside Larissa, grasped the young woman’s hand. At first Smena took Milena’s outburst for sarcasm, but Milena seemed genuinely shocked by Larissa’s innocence, as if she’d discovered a kitten playing in a dumpster. Larissa blushed, but did not retract her hand before Milena let go.
When Smena had starting making bone records, in the fifties, the risks were clear, the boundaries stable. Now an invisible hand was loosening the screws, but it was impossible to tell which screws, and for how long the loosening would last. Although no one got sent to the camps (for now), every citizen was able to imagine more clearly than ever before what might await them in those very camps; the newspapers had begun publishing prisoners’ accounts, down to the gauge of the torture instruments.
“Camps or no camps,” Milena said, “prison wouldn’t be fun either.” She turned to Smena. “So what do we do?”
“You didn’t show the man any of the albums?” Smena asked. “You kept them inside your coat the whole time?”
Milena nodded. “He saw nothing.”
While the possible punishment was unclear, something else was not: they all needed the money.
Larissa turned to Milena. “When the man asked why Ace started using eyeliner, what did you say?”
“To keep the silver face paint out of his eyes. He’s become allergic.”
Larissa smiled proudly.
Now Nika visited Smena every week. She would bring soup or cabbage pie, and the pair would sit down for a midday meal followed by tea. Each time Nika knocked, Smena vowed to confront her. If Nika really was looking to extort her, Smena was willing to preempt, negotiate, even give her a cut of the bone music profits. But confronting Nika would also mean admitting to the business, and what if the woman wasn’t willing to negotiate? And, a distant possibility: What if Nika wasn’t trying to extort her at all? More and more, Smena was willing to believe it.
In truth, she didn’t mind Nika’s visits. The woman’s chatter offered a lens into the outer world that the newspapers—which Smena had mostly stopped reading anyway—could not. From Nika, Smena learned that the irises were blooming, the flowers floppy as used handkerchiefs; that it was the time of year when woodpeckers drummed on utility poles down by the river, to woo their mates. Nika exclaimed, “Can you imagine the ruckus?” Yes, Smena could.
Week to week, Smena watched the change in Nika over the rim of her teacup. One visit, Nika’s slur was so pronounced Smena could barely understand her, and the pair sat in silence, pretending nothing was wrong. Another visit, Nika regaled Smena with jokes, but as she spoke her face lacked expression, as though she were posing for a government identification photo.
“You keep giving me a funny look,” Nika remarked on that occasion.
Smena tried to brush it off. “I’m impressed. You tell a joke but keep such a straight face.”
“I’m losing feeling in my face.”
“My daughter-in-law says it’ll do wonders for the wrinkles.”
“I’ll look all the better when they bury me.” A strand of hair fell over Nika’s eyes and her hand pecked at her forehead, trying and failing to find the strand.
“You should be in the hospital, Nika.”
The women locked eyes.
“So you’ve looked at the scans,” said Nika.
“I don’t know why you keep giving them to me.”
Nika shrugged. “They’re as useless to me as they are to the doctors who order them.”
“What do you mean?”
“The polyclinic has quotas for tests, so they do tests. Or they just make the numbers up to fill the quotas, so their money and supplies don’t get cut. The polyclinic’s filled with these ghost patients and can’t admit new ones.”
“You have a growth in your brain the size of a lemon and they can’t admit you?”
“They can’t admit me because of the lemon. I’m not a viable patient.”
“With your new face I can’t tell when you’re joking.”
“Really, Smena, when was the last time you went out into the world?” Nika sighed, as if she were about to explain basic arithmetic. “The polyclinic doesn’t want to exceed their death quota.”
“Which I’m sure they’ve made up.”
“Doesn’t matter. The nurse said if they exceed the quota, they get investigated, and if they get investigated, it’s worse for all of us.”
“How nice of her to give you an explanation.”
“It was,” she said softly. “I gave her chocolates.”
Smena looked at her neighbor. She was a shell of the woman who had first come to Smena’s door two months ago, determined to get her way.
“At least you can make something useful out of the scans,” said Nika. “Something beautiful.”
Smena heaved herself to her feet. A vertiginous feeling overwhelmed her. She saw herself on the edge of a precipice, its bottom beckoning. She feared heights, perhaps because she also loved them—she always wondered what would happen if she jumped.
Smena swung open the cabinet above the fridge. She retrieved the five albums she had made for Nika and spread them out on the table in chronological order. She pointed to the first, the Megadeth. “You won’t like this one at first but it’ll grow on you. Listen to it when you’re alone, and imagine the sounds pouring from your own mouth.” She pointed to the rest: “Pink Floyd, to relax to. Suzi Quatro and Julio Iglesias, to cheer up to.” Nika studied the scans on the table, the ripening shadow at the base of the cranium.
Smena set the fifth, Coltrane, on the record player, and watched Nika see her skull spin into a milky blur as the needle sucked music from the grooves. The horn section came in, ecstatic, then melted away into the oily tones of solo sax. Nika closed her eyes, swayed lightly to the music. At the end of the song Smena lifted the needle from the record. She searched her friend’s face for a twitch, a nudge, but was met with an unsettling blankness.
Nika opened her eyes. “Thank you.”
Smena gathered up the bone albums. “Take them, they’re yours.”
“I said you were a good watermelon. Didn’t even have to thump you to know it. Didn’t I tell you?” Nika took the scans, placed them in her cloth sack with great care.
Smena wasn’t sure what to say, or why she settled on “Cut me up and eat me.”
“Don’t think I won’t.”
“I’m all seed.”
“I’m smiling, Smena. You just can’t tell.”
When Nika made to leave shortly afterward, Smena asked, “No more scans for me this week?” Nika shook her head. “No more.”
A few days later, Smena woke to hurried knocking on her door. On the other side of the peephole: Milena. Smena checked herself in the hallway mirror, discerned the blurry shape of her body through her thin cotton nightgown. She swung a fur coat over her shoulders before unhinging the locks.
“Heading out?” Milena asked when she stepped inside. “Yes,” Smena lied. “You’d better make this quick.”
Milena locked the dead bolt behind her. “I got approached again,” she said, her posture unusually straight. “Not by the same guy as last time, but this one was just as wormy. He gave me a record.” From her long raincoat Milena produced a yellow vinyl sleeve, the same type Smena used for distribution. She slid out a bone album, set it on the record player. Smena recognized the perky melody. The Beach Boys. The quality of the copy was poor, mostly scratching and bubbling, as though the singers were being drowned.
After a few seconds, the music cut out.
A man’s voice came on, in low and booming Russian. Came for the latest tunes? You’re done listening. A slew of curses dipped in and out of the hisses and pops.
Smena let out a bark of nervous laughter. “Hardly the latest tune. That song is almost twenty years old.”
“Smena Timofeevna.” Milena hadn’t used Smena’s patronymic in years, and the sudden formality was more frightening than the cursing still blasting from the player. Milena slowed the record to a stop with her thumb. “We’re fucked.”
She looked at Smena, expecting instruction.
Smena picked up the X-ray record and did what she did with every new X-ray that fell into her hands: she hung it on her kitchen window. The morning light shone strong enough for her to make out a pair of lungs and a shadow of a heart. The center hole of the record had been burned through the aorta. With a sickening familiarity, she saw the tiny bulbous alveoli filled with mucus, laced around the bottom of the right lung. Pneumonia. Right where her own had been, a couple years ago. Since the corners of the film had been cut off, she couldn’t check for the patient’s name. Many people get pneumonia, she thought. This could be anyone’s scan. Still, she couldn’t shake the suspicion it was hers. It made her uneasy, to think of looking at her insides outside her own body, as though she were being dissected. She felt a peculiar wringing in her chest, a hand palpating her organs. She thought about the few people in her life who knew she’d been sick: her daughter. And, most recently, Nika.
Since Nika’s first visit, Smena had known that she’d been caught. But she’d been foolish enough to believe the woman wouldn’t follow through with her scheme. She’d allowed herself to forget: neighbors never visited each other.
She curled her fingers into fists, uncurled them, let her hands flop to her sides. “We’ll need to warn Larissa.”
“I just did. She almost seemed happy about it, our little martyr. Made me promise to teach her sparring techniques.” Milena saw the pained look on Smena’s face. “Don’t worry about her. She comes from a model family with a squeaky-clean record. Worry about yourself.”
Smena walked around the room, aimless. She took vinyl albums from the bookshelf at random, put them back. With Larissa’s careful hands, each original sleeve and center label had been replaced with state-approved ones, from acts like Jolly Fellows, Good Guys, Contemporanul, Red Poppies. That Smena’s music library presented as perfectly flavorless had always amused the three women, an inside joke. Perhaps she could keep just one or two albums? She briefly let herself entertain the possibility, then admonished herself. If back in the fifties keeping one album would have been as risky as keeping one hundred, why should things be different now? She turned to Milena, who was stationed by the balcony door, watching in silence. “We’ll need to get rid of the equipment,” Smena said. “And the music.”
Milena gave a curt nod. “Leave it to me, Smena Timofeevna.”
From her wardrobe Smena retrieved a linen sheet. She wrapped it around the record player and phonograph. “Wouldn’t want them to get scratched.” With utmost care she placed the cutting lathe and its metal arm into a pillowcase. She slipped the forbidden vinyls into another, trying not to think of the effort Larissa had put into procuring them. It would only take Milena two trips to her husband’s beat-up Kombi, parked in the courtyard, to make the bone music studio disappear.
When Milena came up to get the second load, Smena asked, “What will you do with yourself now?”
“Leave town, get lost in the countryside. Something I’ve been saving up for anyway.” Milena was trying to sound casual, but Smena thought she detected a tremor in her voice.
“Hard to imagine your husband in the country.” The last time Smena had seen him two balconies over, polishing a loafer, she’d marveled at his delicate hands.
“Isn’t it.” Milena shot Smena a sly look, and for one moment Smena wondered if she intended to leave him behind.
Milena stalked down the hall with the rest of the equipment, her footsteps eerily quiet. Smena wondered if she would ever see her neighbor again. Then she imagined leaving her own apartment, sharing a sofa bed with her daughter again, and her daughter’s husband, and her daughter’s husband’s family, and all those lovely, spirited grandchildren, and the knobby cats they brought home from the streets. She wept into the sleeve of her fur coat.
Smena was searching her apartment for tools or X-rays she might have overlooked when she heard the wail of a siren. She dropped to the floor. Her heart flapped against the linoleum, loose and arrhythmic. She wanted to shush it so the downstairs neighbors wouldn’t hear. The siren grew louder, until it reached their building, then cut out. Hurried footsteps echoed from the depths of the building, but never reached her floor. Smena crawled to her bedroom window, peeked out. The source of the siren was not the police but an ambulance. After a few minutes, a pair of paramedics emerged from the building’s entryway carrying a stretcher, and on the stretcher lay Nika. Sunlight glimmered on her cherry-red hair as the paramedics loaded her into the ambulance. Smena wanted to rush downstairs and—what? Strangle the woman? Embrace her? Both?
The vehicle lurched into motion, rounded the street corner, and disappeared.
Smena stood back from the window. She was still wearing the fur coat. The coat would have to do. The polyclinic was only four blocks away, but she thought she might be away for longer than the four blocks and so made preparations. She retrieved her reserve of cash from a jar hidden in the toilet tank, packed a few changes of clothing into a duffel bag. A dull ache set into her knees and hips from the earlier drop to the floor, from the crawling, but she quickened her movements, ignoring the pain.
Smena swung her door open, and stepped over the threshold. The exterior corridor was cold, dimly lit, smelled of stale tobacco. The damp climbed her calves and thighs, made her shiver in her coat. She wanted to turn around, banish the hostile world with a flick of the dead bolt. But her apartment had lost the protection it once held.
Taking the elevator was out of the question. Clutching the rickety metal banister, Smena descended one step at a time. She tried not to look at the cracks in the walls. A piece of candy perched on a stair and she reached for it before thinking, hungry, but the puffy wrapper was hollow inside, a child’s trick. The entranceway at the ground floor greeted her with the stench of garbage and urine, a waft of boiled potatoes.
Smena stepped outside and, for the first time in more than a year, felt live air move across her face. Her windows and glassed-in balcony had been sealed against drafts—she’d forgotten that drafts could feel nice, like a gentle tickling. She parted her lips, let the warm autumn light fill the cavity of her mouth and throat.
“I’ll be damned! She’s alive,” exclaimed one of the pensioners on the bench outside. The man had acquired a new sprinkling of moles and sun spots on his face since the last time she’d seen him. “How long’s it been, Smena Timofeevna?”
“Too long, Palashkin,” she answered.
She shuffled on, her feet unsteady on the cracked slabs of the sidewalk. The concrete ten-stories around her were identical to the one she had just exited and Smena had the impression she was walking the same block over and over. She kept her eyes on the ground. She stepped on a curled dry leaf and its crunch underfoot delighted her. She stepped on another, then another, progressing leaf to leaf. Parts of the roads sagged. The edge of the town, where the sunflowers normally grew, was being closed in by cattails. Let it all sink, she thought. She imagined herself and the townspeople on the bottom of a great marsh, to be discovered centuries later, open-eyed, their skin blue, hair orange from the gases, preserved for eternity.
The next time she looked up, she stood in front of the building she thought might be the polyclinic. The gleaming white-tiled edifice in her memory cowered under the poplars, its walls matte with graffiti, many of the tiles missing.
Inside, wooden benches lined the walls of a small lobby. A nurse pushed a mop around the floor, transferring dirty water from one corner of the room to another. It didn’t take long to find Nika, who lay on a wheeled bed in a corridor off the lobby. The two paramedics who had collected her were arguing with the receptionist. As Smena approached Nika, the expression on her neighbor’s face transformed from happy surprise to terror. By the time Smena reached her bed, Nika had lifted the covers over her nose, as though expecting to be hit.
Smena stepped back. She’d been feared before, certainly— by Milena and Larissa, whenever she chastised them for an oversight—but not like this. It stung. “You can move your face again,” she observed, attempting a level tone.
“Now it’s my feet.”
“Where’s your son and the rest of them?”
“Work, the park, and the belly,” said Nika. “But you came.”
It sounded like a question, Nika wondering aloud which version of Smena had come: the vengeful or the forgiving one. Smena still wasn’t sure herself.
“So they’re finally admitting you,” said Smena.
Nika nodded at the men and receptionist yelling at each other. “To be decided.” She lowered the cover from her face. The skull with which Smena had become so well acquainted shone under Nika’s pale, cracked skin, its outline disturbingly visible, now in three dimensions.
Nika gave a nervous laugh. “This is a bed, Smena. Look at it. It doesn’t fold into anything. It’s not a couch or a desk or a storage box. It’s a bed and you don’t feel bad lying in it. Try it.”
“This bed. You’re going to try this bed.” Nika pushed her head and shoulders into her pillow, wriggled the rest of her body toward the rail at the edge of the bed. Smena thought Nika was playing a joke until a pale leg poked out from under the sheets and draped itself over the rail.
“No, Nika—” She grabbed Nika’s bony ankle. Nika swung a second leg over the rail, and now Smena held on to both ankles. “Keep down, will you?”
“You can’t know till you’re in it.”
Nika’s breaths were heavy, rasping, and Smena now saw the immense strength Nika’s seemingly whimsical gesture had required. She heaved Nika’s legs back onto the bed, rearranged the sheets.
“Tell you what,” said Smena. “When you’re well again and ready to go home, we’ll get you a real bed. A big one. Have your son and his family move into my apartment. I don’t need the space anymore. And as for me, if you want, I mean, only if the prospect doesn’t sound too awful—”
“You’ll move in with me.” Nika’s face softened. “It’ll be like back in the dorms,” she said. “But only the best parts. No exams. And you’ll take the bed. I’ll take the foldout.”
“We’ll get two beds. They’ll take up the whole room.”
“What if one of us takes a lover?”
“We’ll work out a visitation schedule.”
Nika looked up at the ceiling, spread her arms and legs out, letting herself float in the daydream. “If only we’d decided all this sooner.”
“It’s not too late.” It felt so easy now, to play along, to plot their future together. Smena stroked her friend’s hair. The roots were oily and she longed to grab them by the fistful, let the musky sheen settle between her fingers.
The nurse with the mop was eyeing them. Smena said, “I have to go.” Where, she wasn’t sure. It would be midday, the sun at its warmest. She could go to the bazaar, buy something to eat right from the stalls. Fried dumplings, filled with mushrooms or ground beef. Or sour cream, fatty yellow and runny, which she’d drink straight from the jar. And afterward? She could go anywhere, board any bus or train. The thought was terrifying and thrilling.
“Wait till I’m asleep,” said Nika.
Smena didn’t have to wait long.