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“You know her husband’s been calling, right? Threatening to send someone to take the baby?”
His face hardened. “Don’t worry Movladi. I can take care Movladi.” He sat back down on his chair, facing away from the house.
Upstairs in her apartment, Helena found Zabet sitting on the sofa with Alla’s baby, a curly-haired little girl named Malina.
“Galina, come sit!” Zabet moved the baby onto her lap and patted the cushion next to her.
“Just give me a moment,” Helena said, taking off her tool belt.
“I am showing Malina her mother’s wedding video. Sit for a minute.”
Helena sat down.
A snow-topped mountain, a sky of impossible blue. A waterfall dissolving into a beautiful sunset. A pure white dove gliding across the screen, peeling away the sunset with its beak to reveal the image beneath: three old women chopping vegetables in an outdoor kitchen. “Those are Movladi’s aunties,” Zabet said. She pressed fast-forward as a wedding tent went up in juddering video frames. She took her thumb off the button to show Adlan offering a stack of dollar bills to another young man. “Movladi. This is, they are pretending only. A — “
“A ritual?” asked Helena.”
“Yes, a ritual. See, Movladi turn him away.”
Young women danced across a cement courtyard in long, brightly colored dresses, hands held high in elegant shapes. Zabet’s free hand twisted with the rhythm of the pandur music in the background. “See, Malinochka? Your mother is the best dancer. You remember, Galina. You take her to dance class.”
More chopping of vegetables. Cartoon animals scampered through the scene — a squirrel, a deer, a porcupine.
“Movladi’s family pay a lot of money for this video,” Zabet said. “Is the best director in Almaty.”
Now the camera followed a line of white Mercedes limousines, and now a row of men in dark, old-fashioned clothes sitting on wooden chairs. Helena recognized Axmet among them. She was startled for a moment, as though she had spotted him in a Stalin-era ethnographic film.
“Zabet, how is Axmet doing? He didn’t seem well when I saw him just now.”
Zabet sucked air between her teeth: tsstch. “You know his headache get all the time worse. And he don’t eat without throwing up.”
“What does the doctor say?”
“The doctor said he have to stop working, he need resting. But what working?” She offered a palm to the sky.
The camera wobbled around a room full of women, stopping at Alla in her wedding dress. Zabet was fixing the veil on her head, which was surrounded by yellow cartoon birds.
“There,” Zabet said, hitting pause. “There, see?” Handing the baby to Helena, she got up and tapped the screen. “One of my necklace — garnet and pearl. That one is Alla’s favorite. Galina, I have to get dinner started. There’s a bottle in the fridge for Malina, and Alla will coming home soon. She say 5:30, latest.” She kissed Malina on the cheek and let herself out the back door.
Helena carried Malina to the kitchen and put her in her high chair. The baby reached up expectantly with her starfish hand, and Helena gave her a spoon — something for her to bang on her tray.
“Buh,” said Malina.
“Buh,” answered Helena.
Helena was thinking about Alla’s wedding dress, its scoop neck and princess sleeves. She wondered if Alla wore her headscarf and abaya in Grozny.
The front door slammed, then the bedroom door. Helena picked up the baby. She found Alla in the bedroom, dumping her suitcases out on the floor. The recent illness had made her face narrower, and Helena was struck by how different she looked from the girl in the video. She pushed her sleeves back and clawed through the pile. She still had on the thin black rubber bracelets she’d worn in high school — a dozen on each wrist.
“What are you looking for?” Helena asked.
“Malina’s passport.” She extracted it from a zippered pouch and tried to tear it in half, then started ripping out pages and crumpling them.
“Stop that, Alla, and tell me what happened.”
Alla dropped the passport and leaned against the bed. “He says I have to send her to Movladi’s family.” Her eyes watered, and she bent forward, hiding her face.
“Who said that?”
“Papa,” she said through her hands. “I can’t believe you told him about Horizon House.”
“Oh, Alla, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know it was a secret.”
“Did you tell him about the herpes, too?”
“Of course not!” But she wasn’t sure. Had she mentioned it?
Malina whined and twisted toward her mother. Helena set her down on the floor next to Alla. “I’m sorry,” she said again, and she really was. Nothing she did turned out right.
Jonathan’s mother looked up at him anxiously while he disassembled the top layer of scaffolding. He could see it was killing her not to be holding the hammer herself.
“I would have come over and helped you with the shingles if you’d said something.”
“I didn’t need help with the shingles. I just need you to loosen those couplings for me.”
She was wearing a wraparound skirt and a sleeveless blouse. Her legs were covered in bruises. He noticed that her hair, pinned in a messy bun on top of her head, had turned from blonde to white.
“You can’t do this by yourself,” he said. He hammered in silence for a while. “You know — ” He stopped himself.
“What? What do I know?”
He turned around. “Okay. You could hire someone to do this shit for you if you’d stop giving your money away.”
“I don’t want to hire someone.” Her mouth was puckered stubbornly. “I’m perfectly capable of shingling my own house. And it was a loan.”
Jonathan exhaled “Right, the necklaces. I forgot.” He went back to hammering. “They aren’t your family,” he said. “You have a family. If they were your family, Adlan would be up here doing this instead of strutting around like a holy pimp. Treating his own sister like chattel.”
“You don’t know anything about it,” Helena said, shouting over the clang of Jonathan’s hammer.
“I know you think you’re helping, but you’re not,” he said reasononably. “Throwing money at those people will not solve their problems.”
When he looked down again, she’d gone inside the house. He’d resolved to go upstairs and make some sort of conciliatory gesture when she reappeared, holding a sheet of paper.
“Axmet asked me to show you this,” she said. “Adlan’s college essay. He wants a man’s opinion.” She handed it up to him and went back inside.
I would like to thank the Admission Committee for wondering to know more about me. As you will see in my record, I am a very good student in math, and also Physics. I hope to be a mechanical engineer one day, so it is not important that I don’t have such a good marks in English and some other subjects, though of course I love the English Language very much. Also, that I graduated from Highschool over two years ago.