blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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translation from Russian by Andrew Wachtel

Death is White

Who is it said that death is black,
with narrow shoulders, silent,
and always standing just behind your back?
Yes. Silent.
Yes. Narrow shouldered.
And, maybe, two hands crossed
right here and now,
she sits upon the sofa’s edge.
Painfully tender.
But nothing’s whiter than her vestal dress.
And all at once white birds are taking off
and heading north—they’re going home.

Masha’s voice came over the intercom.

“My mom died. The funeral service is tomorrow at ten.”

My mother opened the gate. Masha was standing there, a bewildered expression on her face. Her hair, dyed strawberry-blonde, was mussed up, and the roots were already going gray. At the ripe old age of thirty-two! She stood stock-still, staring into the ground. And then she said abruptly:

“I’m scared.”

“What are you scared of?” my mother asked. “You’re not alone. You have children.”

Masha has two children. The dads were convicts. “Mail-order love.” You could say that Masha lucked out. One of them almost married her. But before anyone could lay eyes on her beloved, he managed to get himself killed in a car crash. Didn’t even have time to give her an engagement ring. Masha lived on her mother’s pension and the government’s miserable child support payments. A wooden house, built after the war, with a small turret. Where are these houses today? The motley rhomboids of colored glass that look like the stained-glass windows of some provincial church fell out of their frames long ago. And the holes in the walls are covered with plywood. On the second floor there’s just one room and a two-meter long galley kitchen in the corridor with cold water only.

From time to time Masha’s boyfriends would beat her mom. And then the old lady would come downstairs and sit on the bench out front with a purple bruise covering her entire face. Her daughter would kick her mother out, afraid to lose yet another lover.

Her mother always wore the same blue nylon coat. Over the years the coat faded, and the filthy padding started to work through the holes in the fabric. Though I’ve come to wonder whether that coat was really blue or whether my memory is playing tricks.

And now—she’s dead.

And I thought: Once upon a time she, too, was a child, a young girl who probably blushed looking at daisies, ran home clutching a heavy May beetle in her hand, dreamt about her wedding dress.


No one was surprised by Katka’s death. And the fact that we called her Katka was no insult. Her name just wouldn’t come out any other way.

She’d sit on her bench or stumble over to the nearest street corner, poking her homemade cane into the ground. An old lady just like any other. There are thousands of them. She would stop by the main road and look off into the distance. Never said hello to her neighbors and so they also stopped greeting her. Katka lived a miserable life. And no one noticed when she disappeared.


“So, will you go?”

“To the church? No, I won’t,” my mother answered.


I looked over at the open door of the doghouse and shuddered. It was as if the two of you were still out on an evening walk with the leash in your hand.

“What the heck? No umbrella and the dog soaked. Mom, why can’t you learn to come back home before it gets dark?”

The door remained open. The pine seedlings planted along the fence by my mother’s hands said there would be no more walks.

A strange life. Like a will-o’-the-wisp in a swamp.

I started to feel cold. I’m always cold in this unhappy and godforsaken part of the world.

I myself felt forsaken in my endless desire for a different fate.

It started to snow. Or were those chokecherry blossoms being blown about by the wind?

Winter, winter all around. In whatever part of the world you find yourself, winter will always catch up to you. Like the edge of a blade, snow will penetrate through your eyes, which tear painfully from the monotony of the landscape: earth and sky. Today, tomorrow—for eternity. And it falls deep within. Forever.

Snow within.

I remembered what a friend told me about the death of his father. The old man had begun to go blind. The doctor proposed an operation on his left eye. Nothing serious, a clear film, like the membrane of a wing, had covered his iris. After the operation, when his vision started to come back, he suddenly started having dreams about white birds. Leafless trees, completely covered with silent white birds. The old man threw his metal mug at them. He broke a window, but the birds didn’t move. They just sat stolidly in the branches. Then one day the birds took off all at once, heading north; they covered the sky and some unknown force whisked them beyond the horizon. Every day, the tree got whiter. Soon, everything became white: the black hair of the nurses, all the surrounding objects, the night sky. It swallowed up the stars. The world lost its outlines. The father could no longer recognize his son.

The old man was a religious fanatic. He had attended the same church since childhood. And it was some unusual church. I don’t know the name.

“Let me go!” he kept saying to the doctors.

But they didn’t understand, and they kept putting some kind of salve on his eyes.

Within two weeks, he was gone.


We were walking around the city in the evening. A street full of museums. It was as if the odor of the distant past had permeated the walls. This is the smell of fallen leaves. I imagined the horror of rooms filled with portraits that had somehow come down to us from god-knows-which Middle Ages. The doubles of people whom time had swallowed up long ago, groping in the empty darkness with their insomniac eyes.

“Liberate us, Master!”—that’s what the unfortunate women in pearl necklaces on their well-formed necks, youths in silly hats, and magnificent doges are crying. But the Master himself turned to dust long ago.

A night out of a Rembrandt painting.

A lemonish-blue light on the tops of the skyscrapers is reflected over the surface of the water as if I’m looking at a glossy magazine with pictures of the aurora borealis.

The city is particularly beautiful at night. My city, which no longer belongs to me.

Carved doors at house number thirty-seven. We stand in front of it for a few minutes. Take a breather. Inside, through the windows, we can hear light music and see tables laden with snacks and tannic wine. An exhibition of South African drawings.

“Death is white, despite what you think. But you won’t believe me in any case,” I say suddenly.

My friend doesn’t answer. He’s seventy-four years old. And he doesn’t want to continue the conversation.

I can understand where he’s coming from.


On Friday my mother went neither to the church nor to the wake.

“We should give Masha a little money,” she said.

When it was all finished, she went over and knocked at the gate. No one opened it, but it turned out to be unlocked. A tipsy woman, no longer young, came out of the house.

“I’d like to see Masha,” my mother said.

“And who might you be?”

“I live around here.”

“She’s sleeping,” the woman said and laughed drunkenly.

It wasn’t late.

“And the kids?”

“The kids are also sleeping,” the woman said and waved her hand toward the side of the house.

“But it seems to me that I saw the girl in the yard.”

“Hang on. I’ll go look.” She made a gesture as if inviting the guest inside the house.

Mama entered the small, foyerless room. It stank of alcohol and stale food.

By the door, in the space between the wall and the stairway leading to the second floor, there was a bed with a charred mattress. Two people were sleeping on it.

The woman walked up to the bed.

“There she is.”

“Take a closer look, that isn’t Masha,” said my mother.

At that point the woman rolled up the flannel sleeve of her robe and grabbed the sleeping woman’s hair with her fat hand, lifting her up and turning her head.

“Yup, you’re right. It’s not her. It’s her sister.”

The sister didn’t wake up. Next to her was her husband, in his underwear, a plaid shirt, and rubber boots. There were clumps of mud stuck to the soles. Husband and wife were sleeping face down on the mattress. His head was cradled on his arm.

“Strange,” said the woman, shrugging her shoulders and again laughing gaily.

In the gathering twilight two people were standing by the birch tree. They were whispering something. The young man had his arm around the girl’s waist.


Masha leaned heavily into him. The guy was Masha’s nephew, and he pulled his hand away. He looked older than he was. This muscular and well-built nephew had run away from his home village and was living in the shed in Katka’s yard, trying to find work in the city. The ones out cold by the stairs, who had arrived early in the morning for the funeral, were his parents.

“Here, Masha. I wasn’t able to get there today. The car had already left,” my mom said, clumsily trying to give Masha some crumpled bills.

“Hardly anyone came. So we didn’t wait around,” Masha said, clutching the money in her fist. She expressed neither thanks nor sorrow. She simply stared at the ground, just as blankly as she had yesterday.

Mom stood there for a bit out of respect.

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” said Masha, flicking a small stone with the toe of her shoe.

“It’s gotten dark, I’ll be going,” Mom said.

Masha nodded.

“We’ll walk you to the corner.”

The three of them stood below the streetlight, which was giving off a soft terra-cotta light. A few meters away from our house.

“You know,” Masha said abruptly, “my mom wanted to be washed before she died.”

A tear flowed down her cheek. She wiped it away with the back of her hand.

Big, nighttime butterflies banged against the streetlamp.

They burned their wings and again flew back toward the light.

“Mom kept saying, ‘I’ll die unwashed.’”

They were all silent.

“But how could I have lifted her? Her bones were like flour,” Masha said, sticking her finger into her collarbone. And she burst out crying.


Opening the door, my mom turned around.

They just remained standing on the street, under the chokecherry bushes that were already in full flower.

Yes, those were the petals of a drunken spring inflorescence. Bitterly drunk, because without intoxication it’s impossible to get through life.

The streetlight illuminated the whole street and you could see the single long shadow of the embracing couple.

It was as if neither Katka, nor the street, nor even the two of them had ever existed.  

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