A story by Fazil Iskander
Translated from Russian by Sonia Melnikova
Published by TWO LINES, San Francisco, 2000
In accordance with the Muslim custom, we didn't eat pork in our family. The adults never ate it, and for the kids it was strictly forbidden. Although another commandment of Mohammed's — in regards to alcohol — was violated, as I realize it now, without any restraint, no such liberalism was allowed where pork was concerned.
The taboo engendered both fiery fantasies and icy pride. I dreamed about tasting pork. The smell of roast pork almost made me faint. I used to stand in front of the butcher's window, staring at the sweating sausages with their wrinkled skin and the cuts spotted with white driblets of fat. I imagined myself tearing off the rind and sinking my teeth into their juicy, rubbery flesh. So vividly did I imagine the taste of the sausage that when, eventually, I tried it for the first time, I was surprised at how exactly I had guessed it. Of course, I had many opportunities to taste pork, but I never broke the rule. I remember how, in kindergarten, when they gave us rice pilaf with pork in it, I used to pick out the lumps of meat and give them away to my friends. The sweetness of self-denial helped to overcome the pangs of desire. I felt morally superior to my friends and enjoyed acting mysterious, as if I possessed some knowledge that was hidden from those around me. And it made my dreams about this sinful temptation all the more intense.
A nurse lived in our apartment building. Everybody called her Auntie Sonya. She was a middle-aged woman with short hair and a look of permanent sorrow frozen on her face. She always spoke in a soft voice. She seemed to have decided long ago that there was nothing in life worth raising one's voice about. During the usual battles between the neighbors in our communal backyard, she hardly raised her voice, and that made it especially difficult for her opponents to continue the fight, because without hearing her last words, they missed the beat and lost the thread of the argument.
In the evenings Auntie Sonya often would sit at our place, telling her life story and talking about her first husband, who was killed in the Civil War. Even though I had heard this story many times before, I always froze with horror when she came to the part about the time when she went looking for the body of her beloved husband among the dead. At that point she usually would begin to cry, and my mother and elder sister would start crying too. Then they would try to comfort her and would bring her a glass of water or persuade her to have some tea.
I was always amazed by how quickly the women calmed down and were able to chatter merrily about various trifles; they even seemed somewhat refreshed. Then Auntie Sonya would leave because her husband was about to come home from work. His name was Uncle Shura.
I was very fond of Uncle Shura. In the evenings, after work, he was always repairing something — table lamps, electric irons, radios, even clocks. All these things were brought to him by our neighbors, and he fixed them, it goes without saying, for free. Auntie Sonya would sit across the table, smoking and teasing him, saying that all this repair was not his business, that he was wasting his time, nothing would come of it, and so on.
"We'll see how nothing will come of it," Uncle Shura would mutter through his teeth, as he bit on a cigarette. He would blow the dust off the next broken item, expertly turn it over in his hands, and all of a sudden look at it from a new angle.
"It won't work all the same — you'll see. You'll just make a fool of yourself," Auntie Sonya kept on teasing him, letting a haughty stream of smoke out of her mouth and gloomily wrapping herself up more tightly in her dressing-gown.
Finally, the broken clock would get going, or crackling noises and snatches of music would burst from the radio. He would wink at me, and say:
"Well, did we succeed or not?"
"Okay, okay, enough of this bragging," said Auntie Sonya. "Clear the table and let's have some tea." Even so, I could detect the hidden pride in her voice, and I was glad for Uncle Shura. I thought that he was probably just as good a man as that first husband of hers, the civil war hero whom Auntie Sonya could never forget.
One day, when I was sitting with them as usual, my sister dropped in, and they invited her to stay for tea. Auntie Sonya set the table, cut slices of tender cold pork, put some bread and mustard on the table, and poured the tea. They often ate pork and had offered it to me before, but I always firmly excused myself — which for some reason rather amused Uncle Shura. They offered it to me again — though this time without much insistence, to tell the truth. Then Uncle Shura put several slices of pork on a piece of bread and offered it to my sister. After a short moment of feigned hesitation, she accepted this shameful sandwich and began to eat. In my indignation I felt as if the tea had turned to stone in my throat, and I almost choked on it.
"That's the way!" said Uncle Shura. "You don't have to be such a monk!"
What could I say? My sister was eating her sandwich with a kind of shameless refinement, once in a while looking up at me with a vacant stare. She was pretending that she was eating this pork only to be polite to our hosts. With this vacant stare she tried to tell me that this was not a serious matter, and that it didn't really count for much after all.
"Oh, it counts all right!" I thought to myself with malicious triumph, watching the sandwich in her hand growing smaller and smaller, bite by agonizing bite. One could tell that she was eating with great pleasure. It was obvious by the way she neatly licked her lips clean of the crumbs of bread which were defiled by the blasphemous delicacy, and by the way she paused and lingered over every bite she swallowed, as if listening to the process taking place in her mouth and throat. Furthermore, she was eating the thin slices of pork first, and this was the most telling evidence of all, since kids always save the best bite for last. In a word, it was clear.
As she ate, she glanced at me once in a while to see whether I continued watching her, or whether I would get distracted and forget about what she was doing. But my eyes clearly told her that I was keeping track of her. In return, she stared back at me, as if she couldn't believe that I would pay attention to such trifles for so long. I smiled ironically, hinting vaguely at some future punishment.
The very next moment, the punishment seemed to arrive: my sister choked. First, she coughed discretely, trying to clear her throat. I watched with interest to see what would happen next. Uncle Shura slapped her on the back, she blushed and for a moment stopped coughing, as if it worked, and as if her embarrassment was over. But I could tell that the piece of pork was still stuck in her throat. Pretending that order was restored, she took another bite of her sandwich.
"Chew away," I thought. "We shall see whether you can swallow it!"
But apparently the gods decided to postpone her punishment until another time. My sister safely swallowed this latest bite, and, evidently, she even managed to push down the previous bite, because she sighed with relief and became cheerful again. Now she chewed with special care, and after every bite she licked her lips with exaggeration, secretly sticking her tongue out at me a little bit to tease me. At last she reached the edge of the sandwich with the thickest piece of pork on it. Before she put it in her mouth, she bit off a piece of bread that was not covered with meat, to intensify the flavor of the very last bite. Eventually she swallowed it too, and licked her lips again, as if reliving the pleasure she had just received and, at the same time, removing the last traces of her transgression.
The whole thing happened in less time than it takes to tell about it, and it was scarcely noticed by anyone else. Having finished her sandwich, my sister went on to her tea, continuing to act as if nothing special had happened. As soon as she lifted up her cup, I finished my tea, so that there would be nothing in common between us. In addition, I declined the cookies they served with tea, in order to suffer to the very end, and in general not to enjoy myself in her presence.
In short, the mood was ruined, and as soon as I had finished my tea, I got up to leave. They urged me to stay, but I was unbending.
"I have homework to do," I said with an air of virtue, giving the others complete freedom to wallow in sin. My sister almost begged me to stay. She was sure that the first thing I would do when I got home would be to tell on her. Besides, she was afraid to cross the yard alone at night.
When I got home, I quickly undressed and went to bed. I sank into sweet contemplation of my sister's fall from grace. Strange visions floated around my head. Now I am a Red partisan captured by the Whites, and they are trying to make me eat pork. They torture me, but I don't give in. My captors shake their heads in amazement: "What a boy!" I myself am amazed — but I don't eat it, and that's that. They can kill me, but they won't make me eat pork!
The door creaked open and my sister came in. I was afraid she was about to ask me to forgive her and stuff like that. But there could be no talk of forgiveness. Anyway, I didn't feel like ruining my elevated state of mind, so I pretended to be asleep. She stood around for a little while, then stroked my head gently. But I turned over on the other side, demonstrating that even in my sleep I could recognize the hand of a traitor.
The next day the whole family was sitting at the table waiting for our father to come home for dinner. He came late and got angry at Mama for making us wait for him. Things had not been going well at work, and often he was grouchy and preoccupied with something. Until then, I had been planning to tell about my sister's transgression during dinner, but now I realized that this was not good time to speak of it. All the same, I glanced at my sister every once in a while, and pretended that I was on the verge of speaking up. I would actually open my mouth and then spoke about something else. As soon as my lips parted, she lowered her eyes and bent her head, as if ready to receive the fatal blow. I realized that to keep her in suspense, on the brink of exposure, was even more fun than to actually expose her. She hardly touched her food, and pushed away her bowl of soup. Mama tried to persuade her to finish it.
"What do you expect?" I said. "She ate too much yesterday at Uncle Shura's."
"What did you eat?" asked our brother, not understanding anything, as usual.
Mother looked anxiously at me and shook her head discretely, so that my father wouldn't notice. My sister silently pulled the plate toward her and started eating her soup again. I was really getting a taste for the situation. I took a boiled onion off my plate and put it onto hers. Boiled onion was the nightmare of our childhood. We all hated it. Mother looked at me sternly and questioningly.
"It's O.K., she likes onion," I said. "Don't you?" I asked my sister fondly. She didn't answer, but only bent lower over her plate.
"If you like it, you can have mine too," said my brother, and he fished an onion out from his soup. He was just about to put it on her plate, but at that moment Father gave him such look that his spoon froze in mid-air and then beat a cowardly retreat.
In a word, the dinner passed wonderfully. Virtue did the blackmailing, and vice hung its head. After dinner we had tea. Father noticeably cheered up, and all the rest of us cheered up along with him. My sister was relieved. She began to tell some school story, calling on me to furnish the details, as if nothing had happened between us. I was slightly disgusted by this familiarity. One would think that a person with a past like hers would behave with a little more modesty. I was about to carry out a small execution of some kind, but just then Father unwrapped an old newspaper and took out a bundle of brand new notebooks.
I should explain that in those pre-war years, notebooks were as hard to come by as clothing or certain foods. And these were the best shiny notebooks, with precise red margin lines drawn on cool, heavy leaves of paper that were bluish, like skimmed milk. There were nine notebooks in all, and Father divided them equally between us, three for each. My mood was spoiled. Such lack of distinction seemed to me to be the greatest injustice.
The thing was, among our friends and family I was touted as the model student — perhaps in order to counterbalance the bad reputation of my brother. And here was I, the practically perfect student, reduced to the same level as my brother and to the same level as my sister, who only the day before gobbled pork, and today was receiving a present she in no way deserved.
"Look, I've got two blotters in mine!" my sister exclaimed in delighted surprise, as she opened one of her notebooks. This was the last straw. If this extra sheet of blotting paper had not fallen her way, what happened next might never have happened.
I stood up, and turning to my father said in a trembling voice:
"She ate pork yesterday..."
A horrible silence settled over the room. With a sense of dread, I realized that I had done something terribly wrong. Either I hadn't expressed myself clearly, or the great teachings of Mohammed and my own small-minded desire to gain possession of someone else's notebooks, came too close to each other. Father stared at me gravely from under his slightly swollen eye lids. Slowly his eyes filled with fury. I knew that this look promised nothing good for me. I made another final pitiful attempt to repair the situation and to redirect his rage in the right direction.
"She ate pork yesterday at Uncle Shura's," I said desperately, feeling that the whole world was collapsing around me.
The next moment, my father grabbed me by the ears and shook my head, as if to satisfy himself that it wouldn't come off; and then lifted me up and threw me on the floor. I felt a stab of pain, and heard a crunching sound in my ears.
"Rat!" shouted my father. "On top of everything else, now I have a traitor and informer in my own house!" He grabbed his leather jacket and rushed out of the room, slamming the door so hard that plaster fell down from the walls. I remember what shocked me most of all — not the pain or the words but that expression of disgust when he grabbed me by the ears. With such an expression on the face one would kill a snake.
Stunned by what happened, I remained lying on the floor for a long time. Mama tried to lift me up while my brother grew frantically excited, and ran around me in circles, pointing at my ears and shouting with delight: "Our perfect student!"
I loved my father very much, and this was the only time he ever punished me. Many years have passed since then. For a long time now I have been commonly eating pork, though I don't seem to have become any happier for it. But the lesson was not wasted. It taught me for the rest of my life that no high principle can justify or beautify malice, and that out of a small cocoon of petty envy, an ugly moth of betrayal can grow.
© 1992 Sonia Melnikova