German Embassy in Kiev, 1992

To hell with precautions, Herr Consul. Don’t you see I am clean? I’m purest vintage from head to foot, maternal and paternal side. I am bursting with evidence—you don’t even need this much. Look at my profile. This lump of a nose, Dad’s pride, my curse. Full face—Mom’s eyelids, a sad pound each. Combs break their teeth in my curls, here a stein, there a berg. Great Uncle’s Levi’s on my legs, almost new. I am five minutes past office time but I have a valid excuse.

A brown smudge in the corner of your mouth—you must have a secret drawer in your desk, full of sweets, one after you’ve dealt with each of us. There is at least one love we share. Do you remember your first sweet? Mine was Swan Milk, chocolate with cream liqueur inside. I snatched it from the birthday table on my first anniversary and bit into it with all four of my teeth.

Swan Milk tasted a bit like Mom’s—I had still been cajoling Mom to raise her blouse when well out of Grandmother’s sight. But this kinky flavor on my palate was new. It was as delicious as Dad’s stubble against my neck, even more thrilling.

The cream liqueur whelmed my infancy in an instant. I felt as strong as Dad, as buxom as Mom, much prettier in fact, and I knew I would never ever want Mom’s bland organics again.

Skipping the walking phase, I flew all the way to the parents’ bedroom. I hid the dripping half of Swan Milk under the carpet, for it to cast roots and grow into a bush, as big as the chandelier above the bed, each twig studded with that chocolate to fuel my wings. How my bum hurt when Grandmother caught me.

Ever since, I have been spending Mom and Dad’s salaries on any sweets available in our local grocery, but Swan Milk is never in stock. “You’ll die of sugar!” Grandmother says.
I have eaten more sweets than there is hair on your head and arms, Herr Consul, and I am still alive. So is Grandmother, who always bullies me into giving her a sweet after each of her six insulin shots a day. “You’ll remain a spinster for life,” she hisses, and bites my hand—my marriage certificate, fresh, Herr Consul.

So, your chauffeur is strictly forbidden to stop your Mercedes on Crashattic Avenue, isn’t he? He drives you hermetically through the chestnut disarray, where baroque mansions shack with tower blocks. In between, hawkers and hookers, pickpockets and cheats, beggars and gypsies crisscross the pavement—step right, step left, your fortune needs no telling, just choose what to get rid of first, your hymen or your purse—my husband be blessed, I have neither.

Do you know, Herr Consul, that this office is reflected wide angle in your shiny fingernails? Your face is rosy, not a wrinkle, but your eyes are sad and your lips are pursed. A chauffeur, a guard, an oak desk—do smile, you are better off than your daddy, a tired Gefreiter, unshielded from Kiev save for the gun. A tiny comma in your daddy’s scrotum, you squeaked with fear when the biggest department store in Ukraine was blown into the air. Fortunately, only a light piece of a nightgown fell on your dad’s helmet, and a yellow chestnut leaf. It was the NKVD that had mined the whole street, but the Gestapo knew better whom to blame—these folks had it coming. They were destined to get into the soup, should it even incur night shifts.

Working in Bye-Bye Yard till dawn was a fatigue for the platoon—three layers of pulp, a layer of herbs, next batch. For you, then a mere promise in Gefreiter’s breeches, the rhythmic thrusts of the pistons were the best lullaby, and the last one, too, before, at sunrise, Daddy evacuated you into a warm shelter: a compassionate platoon nurse exposed among pink birches. The gorge behind was still simmering, and the next October day was ahead with more work to do—forthwith, my birth certificate, Herr Consul.

Your passport show please me” is almost a poem—my hat’s off to your fluency in Ukrainian. A torture despite the best textbooks and titled tutors, it wouldn’t yield to you in its wayward beauty, the Ukrainian mova, the mauve bride, its heels an ever receding tip-tap: mama, mamy, mami, mamu, mamouyu, na mami—six cases and a vocative, Herr Consul—Oh mamo, how your gray matter boiled. Vertiginous declination of its neck in prefix beads and the suffix lace of its petticoat kept you starving awake for many nights until it straddled you for a fleeting moment only to leave you with an aching imperative and broken syntax.

You know, when tower blocks were science fiction, my big bottom in Great Uncle’s Levi’s would have caused any male Kievite to drool. But skinny Oksana in her Crashattic garret was doomed to be spinster and poet. She treated her native mova like a favorite doll, decorating it with ever more beads, ever more lace, patiently waiting for fame. She was listening to children in New York and Paris reciting a stunning stanza she had just put to paper when shrieks from the floor below tore her out of the middle of her daydream— these Knoblochs again, sure enough.

Khaim the cobbler and his fecund Rosa—Doovid the firstborn and further matryoshka flock: garlic and cinnamon, comb-breaking curls. Oksana never got used to the tangy Yiddish in which they hurled gut-wrenching curses at each other one moment and heartbreaking endearments the next. Stopping her ears with her fingers, Oksana peeked down. Shoora, the youngest, dangling topsy-turvy from the balcony, a lollipop in her hand: Doovid had caught her by the calf just in time—ow how Shoorochka’s butt hurt from subsequent spanking; aargh, how her cheeks itched from the post-spank kisses.

Doovid the pretty lad, slim, not a pimple on his milk-coffee face—Oksana tore the soles off her spare shoes and brought them down to Khaim for repair, tipping him a generous ten copecks for home delivery—Doovid was suspiciously long in taking the mended shoes a floor higher. In a circumcised hour, he slid downstairs for a fresh cuff on the nape from his father’s palm.

Doovid blew out the candle under his blanket and closed the finished Count of Monte Cristo. He tied up a bun, a garlic clove, and Khaim’s piggy bank into his spare shirt. He carefully stepped over his snoring parents and wound through his siblings piled on the floor.

Half of the ripped piggy’s innards bought a railway ticket to Odessa. The other half sank in the pocket of a freighter captain who agreed to smuggle the boy in the hold. Doovid did not care where he fled and took the ship’s destination to New York as a matter of course. The ghosts of bread and garlic haunted his mouth; real lice occupied his oily curls. As long as he was allowed to walk the deck on clear nights, tuning his breath to the sea’s quiet timbrel, these were minor irritations.

Children in Delhi and Casablanca wept while reciting a sad stanza Oksana had put to paper after the proud Rosa had shown her a photo of the new Doovid from a foreign envelope. Glued to the picture was a crushed lollipop. Well fed, white pants, good boots—Mamo-Tato, I work in a candy shop in Brooklyn. Be not cross—your son David Shylock loves you. Come live with me if you want. Khaim spat on the floor and little Shoora bit the lollipop off Doovid’s left boot—my passport photo, Herr Consul.

“I wouldn’t take his last name,” the registrar whispered to the bride. “Were it Ukrainian or Russian, I would understand, but changing Knobloch to Goldberg makes no sense—what if he is killed tomorrow—or you?”

“I won’t,” Shoora said through her veil—her bridegroom and she had just quarreled. A week on the cargo train for honeymoon, not to mention the destination: Benz Goldberg was to be sent to the rear. The order of the Defense Committee was to relocate the Secret Factory from Kiev to Novosibirsk, his fresh engineering diploma put to the test.

Tin forks bent on the meat in the festive soup—the guests did not ask the hosts whether it was beef; at the butcher’s, Rosa herself had dismissed that horseshoe on the cutting board as a hungry mirage.

The snow-white foam of cherry sweet shall thrive in love with mettle oak,” Oksana chanted. She was scheduled to toast the newlyweds after the bride’s ninth brother. The window glass cracked in praise of the poet, and a pink girdle from the exploded department store across the road fell to her feet.

With moonshine still gurgling in their throats, the guests started home ten minutes past curfew. “Hände hoch,” the tired Gefreiter yawned, and split the dusk with a couple of drowsy shots.

Khaim gave the pale bridegroom a supportive pat on the nape. Rosa divided the back of the room with a calico curtain to give the young couple some privacy for their first night—the muffled fuss, the thudding of limbs against the wall.

“Engineer-schmengineer, can’t even use his second head,” Khaim sneered from the rug in the opposite corner.

Some can’t even use their first,” Rosa snapped. “Shut up—let the boy concentrate.”

Ten wagons, twelve boxcars, Herr Consul, the knobbly parade of rails. Shoora peered through the chink between the wooden planks: forest steppe had swallowed the city slums. Murders of firs, shoals of birches along the railway were running for life to catch the last messy spurts of the sun.

Plaits, kerchiefs, sweat, bundles—the soothing density of passengers, mostly women and children, made Shoora feel almost home. Different was the odd silence in the boxcar, perhaps an awed appreciation of fortune: belonging to men who belonged to a factory that deserved being saved from the war. A pail of water was passed, two gulps not more, as agreed. Shoora reached under her skirt and poured a triple ratio onto her freshly sore crotch—she didn’t miss her husband at all. She passed the pail on, ignoring the angry glances, and leaned herself against the breathing mass.

Bolts, beds, slides, tailstocks—Benz Goldberg hadn’t sat down since the train pulled out. The order was to stay with the Main Lathe round the clock, not that he minded much.

Tenderly, tirelessly, he was oiling his protégé with wiper pads, checking its joints, tucking in its tarpaulin blanket. When rubbed, the machine smelled like Shoora behind the curtain, only the metal shone with pleasure under his hands. “You will adore this curve line,” the matchmaker had said. The photo hadn’t lied about the sweet undulations; neither had it betrayed the bride’s zero conductivity or high-voltage obstinacy.

Benz wished he could stay in the wagon until the war was over, until his wife aged, until Communism came. Main Lathe was an endearing companion, yet somewhat boring, too straight. Revamped to produce bomb shells instead of pans and ladles, it was irrelevant for the personal needs of a cultivated man. No matter how many decades it would take, one day Benz would craft the technical consort he deserved.

Turn on, turn off with a button; the size of a square tea tray; a smooth mermaid body of cool silver; a face of robust Plexiglas. Benz tickles the face with his right thumb: it lights up like a rainbow and sings him a fanfare hello. For starters, fresh news of the future: dead Stalin; first man on the moon. Main course: Jules Verne, now a genie in the magic gadget with no chance to flee as he did when Benz had to trade the unfinished book for a wedding bow tie. To and fro goes the thumb, turning the ghostly pages—hold on, there is a fancy dessert. No milkmaid—a Hollywood bombshell, blue-eyed, civilized, shiksa-blond. Thumb right—off slings the fox muff, thumb left, off flies the pink gown. Thumb down—she will shortly be naked: quick, quick, before the bomb aims at the train with a major seventh. Thumb up—the stop crane is torn down: from the jackknifed mess, the crescent moon picks Benz Goldberg on the tarpaulin blanket up onto its naked lap.

Shoora crawls up the rampart through derelict kerchiefs and plaits—on moves the train. Six wagons, nine boxcars, Herr Consul. Main Lathe is intact, knock on wood.

My chestnuts, my gold ostentation—flare out your trains, fight the foe,” Oksana wrote on the last piece of wallpaper she could reach to scrape off. An hour past curfew, and too quiet to fall asleep: the Schweißlochs had been summoned to Bye-Bye Yard, upon the order of the Commandant of Kiev, as well as the Goldbergs and the Steins, “to be saved from the war.” Oksana had already used up all her notebooks, all the old newspapers, and then she had run out of ink. But that night the new stanza wouldn’t come out the way she wished. The head of the line would show up and then disappear again. Oksana lingered a little and went to the kitchen.

A boning knife is a strict midwife for a poem, a kitchen table a hard bed. Keep it plain for less pain and no risk of infection. Cut—scatter the prefix beads, dash—off with the suffix lace. Farewell children in Berlin and Warsaw, fame is not for a poet alive.

My verse—my son—you will live on—the stanza was delivered at last.

The Gefreiter wiped a tear with his knuckle—his eyes were watering for lack of sleep. The last batch had been especially exhausting—an endless Gorgone-haired family smelling of cobbler’s glue. The patriarch couldn’t stop quarreling with his wife even at the edge of the ravine: it was embarrassing to understand their dialect so well. With no more break than a quick date with a nice platoon nurse at sunrise, the next order was issued: clean the quarter to the last human item, whatever its faith. The door of the garret at the end of a long staircase was so feeble it gave in with the first strike.

At the History Museum, you can’t fail to find Oksana’s table, Herr Consul—it is the first exhibit you’ll see. Not even the dumbest schoolchild can fail to learn the boning knife lines by heart—Ukrainian language curriculum, grade one.

Shoora had no intention of drowning herself in the Ob River with Mom’s gills flapping anxiously in her belly. Rather, she wished to stand out from all the young widows at the factory, to be sympathized with, to be caught by the curls just in time, neck-deep in Siberian November, or she wouldn’t have gone into the water straight at the construction site, with Mechanic Popov on a vigil at the Main Lathe. The prettiest girl in the field kitchen, Shoora was worth being pulled out. In his barrack, Popov poured Shoora a mug of moonshine for the warm-up, then melted a spoonful of sugar on the kerosene stove—mmm, how delicious was the treat under his blanket, how comfortingly the spoon fitted. (In the dawn’s early light in Brooklyn, fondly, calligraphically, in strict alphabetical order, fat David Shylock finished labeling the jars in Shoora, his first candy store.)

“Shoora Khaimovna, you will bury us all,” Dad says, wiping his perspiring brow after shooting Grandmother her second daily portion. She bites a lollipop off his subservient palm—my application filled out, Herr Consul—don’t think I am in better command of Ukrainian than you.

Oksana would turn in her grave to hear us Kievites debase the mauve bride to a Russianized argot: if there are any poets left on the Crashattic, they are in good disguise. Lost vocative, wrung declinations—we swear and cheat and count inflated millions to buy bread and lard—blame the new candy kiosk at the junction with Gogol Street for my coming late.

Neither in labeled jars nor in particular order under the tarpaulin awning, here was my life displayed, dismembered in plastic bags on the iron counter.

Goose Feet, fibrous caramel in red wrapping—the hairdresser scowled when shearing my black wool. Mom wouldn’t have minded gleaning egg after egg from the tainted locks under the chandelier above the bed but Grandmother administered kerosene. “This is what sleeping next to that dirty brat ends with,” she said, putting on rubber gloves. Jumping on my head like on hell’s frying pans, the beasts were catapulting themselves into the bathtub while the hot water ran. Trying not to be sick, Mom wrapped me in a towel, her apologetic fingers covertly pushing Goose Feet into my mouth. Mom was always trying hard not to vex Grandmother, for fear of drowning in a pool of her anger. Have I ever been persecuted for my ethnicity? No, Herr Consul, never in life.

Galina Mikhailovna ordered the children to sit down in a circle. She handed out one big and fourteen smaller dolls dressed in national costumes: Mama Russia with daughters; time to introduce the preschool group to the Friendly Family of the Soviet Nations. “In Kiev, we are mostly Russians and Ukrainians,” she said, “but other Soviet peoples can sometimes be found here, too. They may look different but they are just as good as we are. In our kindergarten, Manana is Georgian and Aidar is Kazakh.” Aidar blushed and blinked his slant eyelids. Galina Mikhailovna looked at me as if to say something but didn’t. Simón, a handsome Russian boy from my tower block, bent the Ukrainian doll and raised her skirt. Our cots often stood next to each other at after-lunch nap—too often for me not to fall in love, too close not to catch lice.

To be Russian or Ukrainian seemed to me so boring, so common. I asked Dad, secretly hoping I was something different: the Azerbaijan doll was dressed like a princess, and the Uzbek doll had a shock of lovely black plaits. Dad leaned to my ear and whispered a word I hadn’t heard before; neither was it mentioned in the kindergarten: “Don’t tell it around,” he added (Speckled Hen, dark chocolate with nuts).

Dad was senior engineer of the Secret Factory, which, as they said, had been serving the arms race since its reestablishment in Kiev. At home, Dad never talked about anything but science fiction: when communism comes, robots will do all for us and we’ll picnic on the moon. Once, he came home sad: “Main Lathe died,” he whispered to Mom, “a million items in fifty years.” For the first day of school, Dad crafted an ingenious sucker to fasten the white ribbons on my scorched scalp—I haven’t had my hair cut since grade one. By grade nine, Mom’s eyes and Dad’s nose had finally defeated my face. I tried to curtain them with my witchy coils, but they would bulge all the same, inspiring Simón to shorten Moora to Moo.

Simón had forgotten all about our kindergarten naps, his hair the color of summer solstice, his eyes a murderous blue—neither a chestnut tree nor a blonde on the Crashattic unclimbed. For my own sake, I wrote tests for Simón, trying to imitate his offhand scrawl, throwing in a generous fistful of mistakes for camouflage. If he had had to repeat a grade, I wouldn’t be able to sit next to him anymore, dying of pride and shame—my marrow curdled in awe when he happened to utter a word more than four letters long. Mom said one day I would be pretty (Ugly Duckling, a fudge-layered wafer, crumbled all over my school uniform—brown dress, black apron, white lace cuffs in need of a wash).

“Your account of the Battle of Stalingrad was accurate,” the head of the History department said, “a pity we can’t enroll you. Officially, you lack one point, but, truth be told, the ethnic quota is exhausted. Try again next year”: which left me at the ticket box of the history museum for another year (Thunderbird, milky fondant with vodka and a gentle vanilla touch).

“Say, Moora—I know you’re, umm…you know what I mean. The likes of you always go somewhere abroad—are you going soon? Israel? America? Germany? Then I’d marry you and we’d go together.” So many nice words at once and hearing my real name on Simón’s lips wrung my blood vessels in ropes. Mom and Dad were indeed starting to think about leaving, Israel being the quickest and easiest goal, but “please, let’s not,” Mom implored Dad under the bedroom chandelier, “Mother won’t survive the heat.”

“Sister Shoorochka and your further flock,” said the letter inside a foreign parcel, “I never stopped thinking of you—my first store even bears your name. I hope Mamo-Tato lived long and died in their bed, and that our brothers and sisters are thriving. I am much concerned about your life—the newspapers say it has been awful since the Soviets fell apart. I would love to invite you all to live with me in Brooklyn, but I can’t vouch for you as the law requires—my stocks, my five candy stores, and the insulin six times a day. So accept good gifts to sweeten your hard times: a Hershey’s bar, fifty dollars, and a pair of Levi’s, almost new.” Grandmother Shoora spat on the floor and threw the Hershey’s to Dad; of the family butts, only mine matched Great Uncle’s in girth.

Windhoek, Bratislava, now Kiev—slow steps up the envoy’s staircase. Your mother, her own midwife in a trench, spent your childhood through teenage years forever away on paramedic shifts (no use asking her questions: where’s Daddy? Did you take part in the war?) A wonder you went so far without a single book at home, with licorice the only sweet you knew until senior year: A-levels, French major, foreign ministry. To fight fear during nights without mother, you lay in bed with a map of Paris scavenged from the abandoned flat upstairs. From Monmartre to the Seine, each tiny street branded its name and flow in your mind’s folds, stitched your gray matter with fine rippled letters.

The pimpled scapegoat of grade ten became a sudden hero on the class trip to Paris. Frau Schwarz was so inept with the map she let you lead the lost herd of teens to the Eiffel Tower—by heart, your unerring step a ruler, left to right: the bullies, the haughty girls, all following you like sheep. At the top, the map came alive for you, a gift the size of a lifespan, the promise of future grandeur, and pretty Gerda let you bite into the éclair right where her teeth had printed a crescent moon in its rich cream.

Your summit is nearing, Herr Consul, as soon as you are finished with us. Your mother dropped the receiver when you told her of your task (no use calling her for another year). Move paper mountains, hit the keyboard—two hundred thousand of us to process. When you’re finished, you will be appointed German Ambassador to France (your dad’s ribcage endlessly combs the bottom of the Volga River, free from the choice between hatred and pride.)

Your Ministry of the Interior has invented a new humanitarian project: re-implanting the extinct species on the German soil, in homeopathic quantities. You will call us contingent refugees, whereas no one has seriously harmed us for the last fifty years. Green card, social benefits—even on welfare, they say we will live like kings as long as we prove that at least one spouse is genuine. The newest forgery detector is at your service, no chance for deceit. Isn’t it funny, Herr Consul, that suddenly it has become a boon to be ethnic: whatever my looks, I married the hottest guy—no, my marriage is not fictive. My husband loves me without hiding the fact that he loves beer at least as much (he says that in Germany, beer, not water, is in taps.) What, three years to wait for the residence permit? Don’t tell me such things: my husband can’t wait that long.

“Why are you giving up your nice Russian last name for a Stein?” the baffled registrar asked my bridegroom.

“’Cos this heifer will give me milk and meat,” he said,—ooh, how mauve my lips bloomed in the kiss. When I tell my family I got married, I’ll persuade them that Simón is a caring son-in-law: what’s the use of Great Uncle’s banknote hidden under Grandmother’s mattress? “We’ll lend it to hawkers, the interest rate at fifty per cent. Your old ones will thank me for that.”

Not a soul in the history museum—two visitors a day is a lot. I lead my husband to the first floor, for better privacy on our first wedding day.

My verse—my son—you will live on,” Simón reads aloud at exhibit one, recognizing the only piece of poetry he knows by heart. “You will, too, if you’re a good girl,” he laughs, pulling me against its edge. My heart on the boning knife stanza, my coils swathed around my husband’s fist, a thousand cream chandeliers burst behind my closed eyes. My arms flung out, I soar over the Crashattic, the happiest wife alive.

Simón zips up his Wranglers. I pull on my Levi’s. I can swear we set off for the appointment in time—blame this kiosk two blocks from your embassy. At first, I don’t notice the unassuming box at the far end of the counter, the delirious cream liqueur-filled chocolate that deflowered my taste buds so early.

“Stop staring, we’re running late,” Simón says. “Choose one box as a wedding gift—you can have it if you’re a success.”

“S-s-wan Milk,” I stammer, my nostrils flared, my crotch a jackknifed mess. Just look out the window. He is waiting for me outside, isn’t he gorgeous, his shoulders the wings of a condor, his lips a dizzy highway. Let me out, Herr Consul, enough of precautions: my husband is finishing off my Swan Milk with his sixth bottle of beer.

At the embassy portico, an angel-white travel bus has opened its doors. The first batch is to be transported to special hostels from Dresden to Munich. They are the smartest people, the ones who had to wait just a couple of months, having heard of your project before word spread. Into the baggage compartment the men push identical checked bags with their owners’ last names written in marker along the zipper (“My porcelain, you hedgehog!” a woman shrieks)—the first batch take their seats in the bus.

Your face is softening, Herr Consul. You’ve switched off the forgery detector. Didn’t I tell you I’m genuine through and through? Well pleased, you Xerox and file my papers. You reach into your secret drawer for a deserved Haribo. I can almost taste it myself.

I look out the window. I see Simón swaying a bit, calling the bus driver aside. My husband is taking out my wallet and proffering Great Uncle’s banknote to the driver. Impassively, the man pockets it, descends from the bus, re-opens the rear baggage compartment, and Simón climbs in. I wish I could leap through the window and stop that already speeding bus.

No doubt, the frontier guard will see my Simón first thing tomorrow morning, hungover and exhaust-gassed, when he opens the baggage compartment for the customs check. The driver will feign bewilderment—“Must have sneaked in at some stop, silly punk.”

An attempt at illegal border crossing means a criminal record. As is written in the guidelines, this is not what the gentile spouse of a pure species can afford.

Herr Consul, I don’t want your Germany. Give me back my papers, to hell with your project. Let me out. I must pick up some Swan Milk foil to twist around my ring finger—before the janitor sweeps the Crashattic clean.

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