BY POLINA SOLOVYEVA
Winner of the 2018 Adroit Prize for Prose
Selected by Rachel Heng
When Lena was seven she sat on the kitchen counter and asked her mother if they believed in God. Her mother did not hear the question so Lena kicked her in the stomach, listened joyfully to the sound that its insides made. Her mother said what do you mean we and don’t kick me again! In response Lena dangled her bare feet. The sunset outside turned everything around them into gold. Lena said she meant their family, her mother frowned and said probably, went back to cutting carrots. Lena’s throat made a funny choking noise and suddenly felt too narrow. In silence she watched her mother’s sharp movements, wondered what it would feel like to be diced. Suffocated by the sunlit kitchen Lena felt herself a ghost spread into the dark peachness of the sky.
In Lena’s Bible for children there were many pictures. She really liked the Saints but Joseph scared her everything about him was lonely even the donkey. Lena imagined him placid and in awe of Mary’s wrists, not a man but a dissolution. At night he pressed his head into Mary’s neck and barely breathed. When she was not there he imagined every single one of her fingers in detail, dreamed of biting each of her nails. In the kitchen that afternoon Lena likened herself to Joseph, fought the temptation to tenderly lick her mother’s hands. Instead she watched her sharpness. Let’s set the table her mother said Lena jumped off the counter, marvelled at the coldness of the floor. She held a stack of plates in her arms and squeezed them in what she thought to be both spilled out anger and intense pleasure. Carrying the plates to the table she talked to them and assigned them names: Martha, Millie, Michelle, Maria, Maggie, Mia. She loved Millie the most but dropped her, couldn’t understand if she did it on purpose or not. Her mother sent her upstairs with a voice that was an empty crack reminiscent of sound. In her room Lena stood on her knees and thought about Joseph.
The dinner was to celebrate Lena’s grandfather. He was going away to the hospital but promised to bring back many toys like stethoscopes and reflex hammers and tongue depressors. Lena specifically asked for a crutch and her grandfather promised to steal one if he had to, winked right into her face as if he understood it all: Joseph, mother’s hands, the dissolution into the sunset. He was the only person who knew about Lena’s hate notebook together they despised the barbie on its cover. In the moments of overwhelming fury Lena sat down at her desk and wrote all of it out. There it was:
MY SISTER’S HANDS SMELL LIKE CABBAGE or
MY FATHER SAID HE LIKES TO SEE MY MOTHER NAKED or
EVERY MORNING MY GRANDMOTHER CRIES
On one of the pages she drew Joseph with his donkey and then scratched both of their eyes out. When her grandfather found her hate notebook he laughed until he cried until he groaned. The cancer in his stomach flipped and pushed, he sat down with Lena in his lap and closed his eyes in what they both thought to be a retraction. Lena knew that he was going to die soon but did not know if that was good or bad. In the Bible they talked about heaven there it was all beautiful white clouds.
During dinner they talked about LOVE that was big sad and monstrous. Lena’s sister laughed her father did too her grandmother went to the bathroom six times, came back with her eyes all red. Her mother’s carrots made Lena’s throat feel sticky, in anger she whispered filthy words at them. Her grandfather couldn’t eat just sat and stared. Lena didn’t know much about LOVE but everyone talked about it including Jesus so once she sat down on the bathroom floor and hugged herself but felt nothing, only a pimple on her shoulder. She tried to hug other people too but did not fit into anyone else’s body: her sister was too short, her mother’s breasts touched her face. When she hugged her grandfather her ear became a part of his belly button somehow it all fit. Lena wondered if that was LOVE but she was not sure, all she knew was that it made her want to squeeze his body until everything inside of it came out as a wonderful sticky mass. Together they would make it into lumps and throw them around as if they were snowballs. Thinking about it Lena giggled everyone looked at her her grandfather smiled with the corners of his mouth. When they ran out of ketchup Lena’s mother fought with Lena’s father over it. He was supposed to buy more but forgot, Lena’s mother said per usual! she said how can you not keep such easy things in your head! she said I asked you for one small thing! Lena’s grandfather said guys don’t worry ketchup causes cancer anyway! then went to the bathroom. When he came back everyone was quiet only Lena was laughing.
When the dinner was over it was time for Lena’s sister to go to bed. Lena thought it was better with her gone. She never cared much for her sister only for furniture like chairs and sofas and bathtubs. When Lena was leaving for a summer camp a few months ago she made sure to hug every single curtain with what she hoped to be big sad and monstrous LOVE. Pressing the fabric against her body Lena confessed her affection with words of foolish tenderness. Afterwards she became friends with a trash can. She checked on the new trash every evening said hello to the ugliest banana peels so that they wouldn’t feel lonely decomposing. Lena wanted to remove loneliness from all things made sure that all of her dolls were sitting together kissed all of her trash before bedtime when no one saw. In her bed she slept on both of her pillows woke up in the middle of the night and switched the bottom one to the top. Whenever she had food Lena made sure to finish all of it felt bad for the leftovers touched the last pieces lovingly with the tip of her tongue. In these tender moments a strange wave of violence overwhelmed her, made her want to bite her grandfather’s wrists but softly. Thinking of loneliness made Lena’s insides twist and swirl during these moments she always thought of Joseph, wondered if he wanted to have Jesus in the first place. In her mind he did not want to share Mary with anyone longed for an exclusive privilege of kissing her knees. Sometimes Lena imagined Joseph and his donkey talking to each other during sunrises, no Mary around only the two of them sitting on the ground. Joseph would complain about the bitterness of his shattering, his donkey would bray. When Lena told her grandfather about it he said HM! Then he painted a small picture of them at sunrise and put it under Lena’s pillow.
While everyone was cleaning up after dinner (washing plates, not mentioning ketchup) Lena went to the basement to see her insects. She collected bugs of different kinds pretended that they were her babies took them on morning walks. The way the bugs looked when they died made her heart hurt so she didn’t bury them but put them into a huge jar and kept them there in a pile until they started to rot. Lena wanted to feel LOVE like this for people but was too clumsy about it. When her mother tried to take the jar away Lena bit her index finger until it bled and then she bit it some more. When all of her bugs died Lena sang them a funeral song petted their boneless backs tried to close their tiny eyes. Then she put all of them into the lasagna that her mother was making, could barely contain giggles while doing it. The next day she watched her father try eating it and laughed until she drooled. When he asked her why she did that Lena said because bugs don’t cause cancer daddy!
Her grandfather found her in the basement and watched the bugs with her for a little. Lena showed him Tommy the bug with just one wing he was happy all three of them were. Lena told her grandfather about the bug lasagna and the lonely banana peels he frowned but not in anger together they watched Tommy trying to fly. Then Lena asked her grandfather if they believed in God he said do you mean our family she said no just you and me. Her grandfather kept watching Tommy and watched and watched and then he said yes we do. Lena felt the room around them shrinking. In the dusty condensed space that was them she wanted to squeeze herself into her grandfather’s skin, turn into a birthmark. She said will you go to heaven from the hospital can you come back to bring some toys her grandfather said anything you want Lena said okay thank you. For some reason Tommy stopped trying to fly Lena’s grandfather said that he must be really tired. They laid down on the floor together and breathed. Lena said will you travel between here and heaven her grandfather did not respond only stared. She took Tommy out of his jar and squeezed him until he became one disgusting bloody mass, then she put him on her grandpa’s cheek. Like this they breathed some more.
The next morning she went to the river with her grandmother barely talked only crawled on all fours and smiled with the corners of her mouth. Her grandmother told her to act like a girl not an animal in response Lena showed all of her teeth, made a clacking noise. They laid down on the grass and watched the clouds move everything around them was still. Her grandmother sang. Lena made growling noises, chewed some flowers. She thought she remembered how she went down to this river with her grandfather grilled sausages and splashed water but her grandmother told her it never happened. Lena thought maybe it was a dream but in her dreams she mostly flew. Her grandmother kept singing Lena started to bite her toenails. Suddenly she felt like Joseph so lonely and old only without a donkey.
On their way home Lena’s grandmother held Lena’s hand, ignored her attempts to squeeze and scratch. Lena felt like she was losing all of her words, couldn’t get her tongue to move the right way. She watched the sky around them swirl and point, her grandmother murmured a song but did not feel attached to her own mouth. When they got home Lena searched for her grandfather tried to locate his smell in the house. When she realized that he was not there she ran around more and knocked on walls, checked in every single closet. Her mother and grandmother watched in silence Lena said is he already gone her mother nodded. Together they all stood in the kitchen then Lena crawled under the table. There she turned herself into detached body parts two arms two legs no substance in between. A pile of messy bones she suddenly started wanting to sing. Her mother joined her under the table and said I am sorry we did not let you see him off but it is just easier this way. Together they sat there. With her back against the wall Lena’s mother pretended to be a rock in that moment Lena was a rock too. Her grandmother started to make lunch. Through the ceiling Lena thought she saw her grandfather riding a cloud like a horse. She went into the kitchen and started kicking the trash can until it broke and spilled all of its nastiness on the floor. Her grandmother waved her arms at her in an ambiguous gesture her mother was still a rock. Lena went upstairs opened her hate notebook drew her grandfather in heaven smiling and scratched his stomach out.
Polina Solovyeva is originally from Moscow, Russia, but currently lives in New York. She was named a 2016 Finalist in Writing by the National YoungArts Foundation & her previous work has appeared in the Adroit Journal and plain china.
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