Nanny’s Curse


‘Hello, Kiev Central Cemetery, Director speaking.’

‘Good morning, honourable Director. Do you have any spare plots?’

‘The cemetery has been closed for ten years. We only bury people who bought their plots in advance. Phone Matveevka Cemetery, they still have plenty of spare plots.’

‘Too far. We can’t afford the transportation. Sorry to have bothered you.’

‘Wait one moment. Was your departed one Jewish?’

‘No, honourable Director, she was as gentile as an Easter egg.’

‘A pity. There is one place on the Jewish side. The wife of Barukh Shalmon, God rest his soul, left for Israel and will never join him in their family grave, so we could put your deceased one beside Mr Shalmon to comfort him.’

‘That is out of the question. She has never lain with any man in her lifetime, let alone a Barshell

… whatever his name is.’

‘It’s never too late to start. She will like it, don’t you worry.’


‘I tell you, make up your mind quickly. There is a competition for the right to lie with Barukh Shalmon at the moment.’


… I’m afraid we have no choice. It’s thirty-five degrees above zero and she died on Wednesday.’

‘A wise decision. Congratulations. Want anything on the funeral wreath?’

‘Write, Better Late Than Never.’

On a Tuesday afternoon in August, in the century’s twilight, Frosya was reading in her room. Her lips moved laboriously to grasp the disobedient letters, to form them into bits of edible words to swallow. The only kind of books she could take in were fairy-tales. Other books were, to her, a waste of time and paper.

Bar Shal-mon – that can’t be a Christian name! – went out into the garden, but he… did not see toads and li-zards. What he be-held was a vast ar-ray of de-mons and gob-lins and sprites, and in a rose-bush the princess of Er-getz… his wife… damn, I could break my tongue here, shi-ning like a star, sur-roun-ded by her atten-dant fairies, what the devil is attendant?’

Strands of white hair from underneath her flowered kerchief fell into her eyes. She tugged them back and went on. Reading was hard work for Frosya, but the feeling of being able to do it was as delicious as a walnut prized out of its hard shell.

Satiated, Frosya got up. It was time for an afternoon walk. She put on a coat she wore in all seasons and left the room.

It was a long way downstairs from the fourth floor on feeble legs so she had plenty of time to curse. Frosya cursed passionately. She was an artist in cursing. If Frosya’s cursing were to be painted, it would make a Boschian picture of agony and perversion, coveted by any famous art gallery. She cursed her legs that wouldn’t move. She cursed the communal flat neighbours who had thrown her loaf of bread out of the window yesterday in reprisal, because she had cocked a snook at them. She cursed her whole life spent looking after other people’s wayward children who forgot her name when they grew up. She cursed Anna, though fondly, for being an hour overdue in bringing Frosya rye bread and whey. In fact, Anna was the only one who brought her anything at all, an exception to the ruthless rule of oblivion. Frosya was often asked if Anna was her grand-daughter, upon which she used to answer indignantly, ‘Have you lost your wits? Look at her nose!’

Frosya finally made her descent into the broth of the yard, which steamed in the huge bowl of a crumbling block of flats. Overfilled garbage containers peppered with dung flies served for meat, the scatter of cigarette butts for noodles, motley rags on clothes lines for carrots and beans – they served as the scraps for a beggar giant banished from his fat brothers’ feast. The little bony people in the broth tasted worst of all and were of no nutritional value, so the giant left them to swim around as they pleased and just spat them out when they got between his teeth.

Frosya saw that a boy of eight was carving a word, obviously a four-letter one, on her favourite bench.

‘Valka you ferret’s shit, your mother’s a bald monkey, you keep your paws away from my bench or I’ll smash your ugly head!!’

She raised her walking stick and Valka sprang away to a safe distance, grinning, and threatened her in return with his pocket knife. Frosya sat down and examined the verbal damage done to the bench, which was, even for her skills, easily readable. ‘If your monkey mother hadn’t done this there would be fewer nasty little bastards like you around,’ she uttered weightily.

Anna, a scrawny teenager with a long nose, showed up at last. Frosya opened her mouth to reproach the girl for coming late but then changed her mind. She had cursed enough for today.

Anna put the bag with bread and whey on the bench. She looked excited.

‘Nanny, Nanny, just fancy, they will be shooting a movie in our yard. They came all the way from Hollywood!’

‘Holy what?’

‘Never mind, Nanny, it’s a place where they make tales for the cinema.’

‘A-a, tales, that’s good. What is the tale about?’

‘The Second World War, what else could they shoot here?’

‘War is not a tale, you little smartass!’

‘Nanny, they are even going to pay people who live in the house for the crowd scene – two bucks a day!’

‘U-ugh, bucks are good for nothing these days, except for drink and brawls, no matter two or five.’

‘Nanny, bucks are dollars, it’s American money.’

‘Roubles are money, the rest is toilet paper.’

‘They will pay me ten dollars because I’ve been given a role, a Jewish girl, half a minute on the screen! Nanny, they are coming tomorrow!’

‘Tomorrow you will bring me some eggs from the market. Don’t let those old bitches give you ducks’ eggs instead of hens’.’

‘Nanny, I know. Don’t start it all over again.’

‘And watch out for the pickpockets. They live on dunderheads like you.’

At night Frosya stirred restlessly in her iron bed. She had a strange dream. The late Barukh, whose marriage proposal she had rejected scornfully when she was eighteen and whose surname she had long forgotten, appeared in front of her, young and handsome.

‘We will meet soon,’ he said.

‘I know what you’re hinting at, but we will never meet. I will go to Paradise, and you are in hell.’

‘Hell is where you are now, but where I am is very much like your Paradise. My place is called Gan Eden. You will be well-loved there.’

‘You can stay wherever you are and I will go to MY Paradise.’

‘No you won’t. I applied for your reassignment at Headquarters and they acceded to my request.’

At such blasphemy Frosya woke up. She shook her head to free herself from Barukh’s touches and words and said, ‘what a load of rubbish’. She tore yesterday’s page from the calendar on the wall. Today’s page read, ‘Wednesday’.

For breakfast Frosya had a slice of rye bread and a glass of whey. For sweet she had a small passage of her endless fairy-tale. She cursed a little and hobbled downstairs to sit down on her yard bench.

When Frosya opened the dilapidated entrance door she started back. The obnoxious sun, blazing down from the top of the sky onto the bowl of the yard like an infernal grill, could roast her in seconds. The beggar giant had been unexpectedly invited to his fat brothers’ cannibal feast and was sampling a dramatic change in his monotonous diet.

It took Frosya a while to adjust to the magma-like light and temperature. She finally stepped out of the hallway and headed for her bench. She knew every square inch of the yard by heart, so had the sun turned her eyeballs into scrambled eggs she would still have been able to find her way. Usually, Frosya was so full of her inner life that she didn’t bother to observe her habitual surroundings. But today something prompted her to turn right, not towards the bench, which was on the left. She limped along the house wall.

At the second entrance, where Valka the little bastard lived, there were people, too many people for a Wednesday morning. She moved her kerchief back from her forehead and shielded her eyes from the blinding sun to see better.

Valka and his monkey mother were there, with younger brothers and sisters and their snotty cronies, other yard children, and Frosya’s brutal neighbours who had thrown her bread out of the window. A dozen other people had gathered: dishevelled women in bleak calico dresses and gloomy unshaved men whose faces Frosya recognised but whose names she didn’t know, all of them inhabitants of the big house. They were frozen, as if afraid to make a move or a sound. Opposite them a soldier was standing, legs far apart, a big Alsatian beside him. With a terrible chill of awakened memory Frosya realised what kind of uniform he was wearing. Two other strangers, in modern T-shirts and jeans, were on both sides of the setting, with huge weird machine-guns on rollers, no doubt an innovation of war. ‘The Germans are back!’ flashed in Frosya’s head. She retreated into the shadows; they hadn’t noticed her.

Suddenly, the entrance door swung open and Anna, sobbing loudly, staggered out, pushed forward by another Nazi soldier holding a pistol to her back. The soldier spat out some curt words Frosya had heard half a century ago. Frosya knew too well what was to come. Anna fell on her knees. Frosya saw her profile, which she had so often ridiculed and which now seemed to her both beautiful and fragile. The soldier put his pistol to the back of Anna’s head.

Frosya could neither run nor fight. And yet, she had a weapon that could travel faster than a bullet. In a voice that tore the heavy curtain of the hot air as well as the ear drums of everybody present, she yelled:


The soldier drew the pistol aside. The Alsatian burst into loud barking.

The fiery arrow of Frosya’s last message split the beggar giant’s feast bowl into pieces. Alas, the tired bowstring that had sent the arrow burst too.

The cameramen, the director, the actors who played German soldiers and all the two-dollar neighbours opened their mouths in amazement and looked to the left, where, about twenty steps away, the valiant old woman sank to the ground as if in a slow-motion shot.

Frosya, in the halo of heads bent over her, had uttered one more word before she met the sun with an unblinking eye. It sounded like ‘brook’, or maybe ‘barque’, no one could tell.

The City Social Security Department determined Frosya’s final earthly destination and covered the travelling costs, for she had neither living relatives nor friends nor a rouble to her name.

The Orthodox cross on Nanny’s tombstone surrounded by Stars of David on other graves reminded Anna of a ghost gardener proudly showing the visitors around his rose garden. Anna sat down on the bench facing the marital grave and opened Frosya’s volume of fairy-tales on the bookmarked page.

‘… As the princess spoke the giant fell dead at her feet. At a sign from the princess, her retinue of fairies and demons flew out of the building and up into the air with their royal mistress in their midst and vanished.’

Nanny, wherever she sojourns now, must be curious to know the end of the fairy-tale she never found time to read.

© Svetlana Lavochkina 2008


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>