This page contains:
- Child abuse
- Drug use
I always wanted a lot of children—and also a dog, and a big cozy house, and a home theater and a husband. I was sure I’d make an ideal mother and would always be a friend to my kids. Parents these days don’t spend enough time with their children: their hours are lost in the black hole of work, and in just trying to get by. Well—that wouldn’t happen to me, I thought.
But several years went by, and it turned out my life didn’t resemble that dream at all. I found myself a single mother, living in a one-bedroom apartment with a young son. I was a nervous, tired parent, far from the ideal I’d once had. On the other hand, though, I turned out be a model employee. Brushing the splinters of my dreams off like the dust from a bedside table, I’d sunk right up to my neck in the office swamp.
I named my son in honor of Alexander the Great. I projected onto him all the lost might-have-beens of my bright future—and then watched my motherly hopes fade. My son, little “Shurik” as everyone called him, turned out to be no genius—just a statistically average, lazy kid. And not that brave, either.
“I’m very, very lazy, kind of greedy, very smart, and very, very good”—that was Shurik’s self-evaluation.
He also categorically refused to fight, had a reputation for being quiet, and didn’t much like other kids his age.
I loved him with all of my heart, of course, and I wanted him to be happy. Which meant, I believed, that I had to work stubbornly and hard. We needed a bigger apartment—a child should have his own room. And a car, if we could manage to buy one on credit, would solve a lot of our problems. “You want a little change to spare?” I asked myself each morning in the mirror—and gritting my teeth, I went off to work.
I don’t know what idiot made it fashionable to run around day and night and call that kind of life normal. I didn’t think it was normal. The world of adults rushed past at the kind of deadly speed that makes race car drivers lose control and crash in their prime.
Shurik and I economized on absolutely everything in order to save up the down payment on a new place. There wasn’t enough money left for a full-time nanny, so Sveta came three times a week, picked Shurik up from school, and helped him with his homework until I got home. On the other days I had to beg off work for a few hours, bring him home myself, then rush back to the office.
More and more often, I started returning home after midnight. Shurik took it poorly. He became capricious and irritable, nothing at all like his usual self.
“Mama, when are you coming home?”
“I can’t say, little bead. You know I have to work—it’s very important.”
“Mama—isn’t Aunt Sveta coming today? Why not? It would be better if she came.”
“I know it would be better, dearest. But she simply can’t come today. Read a book, watch cartoons. Don’t worry. I’ll be home soon.”
“You always say that. But you don’t come.”
Shurik was crying quietly—I could tell from his uneven breathing he was struggling to hold back the tears, which made it more difficult for me.
“Shurik, you … you’re a man. I’m relying on you. You understand? If I can’t depend on you, who can I depend on?” I was trying to manipulate him a little: You know, the way the children’s psychology books teach you.
“I don’t want to be alone.”
“Lots of children stay home alone, little one. Nothing bad happens to them.”
“I don’t like the silence,” he said in a trembling voice.
He was frightened—very frightened. He’d call me at work, frantically trying to tell me something, talking so fast I couldn’t interrupt him. And when I had to cut our conversation short, he’d call my friend or her husband and start describing everything he saw around him.
In some countries, they would have pressed criminal charges against me for leaving my child at home without supervision. But what was I to do? My parents lived at the other end of the country, and my relationship with them was strained. My friends all had their own worries—there was no counting on them for help.
Besides, I was also left at home a lot as a child, and I didn’t remember getting hysterical or having any tantrums. But then—I never liked to remember my childhood. What happened is gone. And chronic exhaustion didn’t allow me the time to think deeply about anything anyway.
Soon enough, though, I would have to remember everything, and think very deeply.
I came home one night at half past eleven. The apartment was lit up like a New Year tree. I was ready to scold my son for his wastefulness when my attention was drawn to something more interesting: In the hallway were two punctured bottles of drinking water. Apparently, my little Alexander the Great had stabbed them with some kind of sharp object. Water had run in every direction, into the main room and into the kitchen under the baseboard.
“I didn’t want to!” he bellowed.
“What is this?”
Yell at him, stand him in the corner, deny him ice cream for the whole week—what was I to do?
“It’s a protest,” said Linka.
“It’s a protest,” I agreed, “but against what?”
Linka—the only soul who would agree to listen to me at any time and for any reason. She was terrified of children—and loved talking about how to bring them up.
“Did you talk to him?”
“No, he cried a little and went to sleep. With the light on. I don’t understand what he stabbed holes in the cannisters with. All the knives are hanging where they should be. Shurik can get up there on a stool, of course, and take down a knife, and then put it back afterwards, but it’s a little hard to imagine him doing that.”
“They aren’t easy to get to. And I checked—everything is where it ought to be.”
“So, what do you plan to do?”
“I’ll try to do some of my work from home.”
“With the job you have, that’s just not possible. And what if he’s only getting started? Shurik saw your reaction this time: Now he’ll do this again and again. Look—children are like puppies. They need training.”
“My son doesn’t need training. I just don’t understand why he’s being such a coward. He drew some kind of furry freak at school and told the teacher it lives in our house. When she called him a liar, he burst into tears. He’s never been a crybaby.”
“Do you think it’s something serious? Did his father have anything wrong with him?”
“Do you hear yourself?” I got angry. “Look—his father isn’t the greatest, of course. But he’s normal. And Shurik is normal.”
“I don’t know—he hears voices, sees things … maybe you should go to a psychologist. I’m not saying a psychiatrist. Listen, don’t get mad at me. I mean … you can see it perfectly well for yourself …”
Don’t call her an idiot, I thought. Linka was blunt and rude—that was just Linka. But she didn’t have children of her own, so she couldn’t possibly understand.
“How old is he?”
“Eight,” I answered tiredly. “He’s just little, still. He watched too many horror films, maybe—but I don’t understand how he managed to … I blocked all the channels on the TV except the ones about animals and cartoons.”
“You think this is about ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’ or ‘Ghostbusters?’ Come on, mom. Get real.”
God knows what getting real meant, in Linka’s understanding. For her “reality” was a little different than it was for most normal people. Sometimes she would get off on a tangent and start speaking absolute nonsense. You’d listen to her and start believing some total garbage, like that the world is flat as a disk and the countries of the third world are groaning under the weight of three giant spectral elephants (the fattest of which probably sat on ours).
I was waiting for her to suggest my apartment was some kind of portal between the realms of the living and the dead.
“Have you ever heard of the third eye?” she asked. “The ability to see parallel realities?”
“Linka, what birch tree did you fall out of? Spare me your gobbledygook. What are you getting at?”
“Nothing. It’s just—your son sees monsters. You think that’s nonsense?”
During his next episode, Shurik assured me that—besides the thing that crawled from the dark corners of our apartment—some horrible creature was also hiding in our bathroom. He was afraid a clawed paw would emerge from the toilet and drag him down the drain. I even had to stand next to the bathroom a few times to guard him from being dragged away.
Shurik claimed he had spent the entire evening of the day before under the table with a church candle. To be honest, the whole candle story was a going a bit too far. As far as I could see, he was just bored of sitting at home alone with only his homework for company, so he was inventing monsters to get attention. No need to go to a psychologist over that. But this game was getting old, and something needed to be done.
“You know, dear, you should go out somewhere—find something to distract yourself with,” advised Linka.
There was no benefit in continuing to listen to Linka’s nonsense. I hung up the phone and went over to my son’s bed. Shurik was pretending to sleep, squeezing his eyes shut and sniffling into his pillow.
“You’re not really sleeping,” I said.
“Mama,” Shurik whispered, “can you find a different job?”
“You know very well I have to make money. We don’t have any other way out right now. How are we supposed to live? We need more space. And you need to eat, don’t you? You need clothes, don’t you? You like getting presents, right? And if you get sick, what then? Don’t you remember the house we drew together? Don’t you want to have your own room?”
Shurik crumpled into a ball and, covering his face with his hands, started crying hysterically.
“When you grow up, you’ll understand how important this all is.”
“It’s not important! I hate your work, and I hate you!” he screamed, and threw his blanket over himself.
“I dare you to say that again!”
It was clear Shurik didn’t understand himself what he had said. I was against any corporal punishment of children, but—maybe due to the constant stress—my nerves had begun to fail. Without a father, maybe I would have to play the role of disciplinarian. In Linka’s opinion, there was no discipline without the belt. Especially if you’re talking about boys.
I was in total disagreement with Linka’s disturbing opinions about boys. She basically believed they should be strangled before birth. Personally, I’d much rather strangle a certain pair of girls that were constantly teasing Shurik in class.
I reached for my belt, then froze in place. What was happening to me?
Shurik, clutching his blanket in a death grip, rolled off the bed onto the floor.
Then I noticed something lying on the blue sheets and reached for it. It was a big, old pair of scissors I had long thought were lost. How had they ended up in my son’s bed?
“Shurik—what is this? Are you sleeping with scissors?”
Shurik was silent.
“Is this what you punched holes in those bottles with?”
He didn’t answer.
“Alexander, look at me please. I never, ever want to see you with scissors again—do you understand? If you need them for school, ask me for them.”
“I … didn’t do anything. I didn’t poke holes in anything,” Shurik stammered.
“Then who did, according to you? The toilet monster? Look, I’m getting tired of your fairy tales. I don’t want to hear about this garbage again. I just don’t want to hear it.”
“Mama, why don’t you believe me?”
“Because it’s nonsense. Because you’re making it all up so I won’t leave you home alone. You’re a boy. You’re supposed to be brave.”
What the hell am I saying, I thought to myself. He’s just a kid. He’s not supposed to be anything.
Over the weekend, I got a call from a friend—a fading ghost from the past. Giving in to persuasion, I agreed to meet him at some dumpy little restaurant. Two glasses of wine into dinner, the world started to look a bit better. And the old friend was getting more handsome as well. Until my phone rang.
“What’s the matter, Shurik?”
“Mama! Mama—where did you put the scissors?”
“No scissors, Shurik. Go to bed, you hear me?”
“But Mama—where are the scissors?”
“Go to sleep. I’ll be home soon.”
But I could hear his teeth chattering in terror—as if he were not in a warm, cozy apartment, but rather some kind of underworld. I remembered I had hidden the scissors at the back of the wardrobe. There was no way Shurik could find them.
I shouldn’t worry—it made no sense to worry. What could possibly happen to him? Did he really believe in monsters? Or what if – what if he really was seeing something?
And why couldn’t I remember my own childhood fears?
I didn’t want to go over this anymore. I worked myself almost to death. I had a right to some kind of personal life. One night out, at least once in a while. And Shurik would be a man someday. There was no sense in encouraging this kind of nonsense.
The restaurant was a crypt where people spoke in half-whispers and couldn’t see the contents of their plates. I rarely drank anymore. After two glasses of wine, I was already tipsy. Reality was a slow-motion video. Leaning back in my chair, I watched with indifference as the waitress poured coffee on my date’s snow-white shirt. He was terribly angry: He had always been terrified of looking ridiculous. Too late—nothing could save him from that now.
What was I afraid of? Losing Shurik. Nothing could be more terrifying. What was Shurik afraid of? Of the monsters that live under the bed and in the pipes when his mother is nowhere to be found. An empty apartment in the evening.
It would pass. It was just a phase. There was nothing to be done about it. And let Linka go to a psychologist herself—my child was perfectly normal. He didn’t need help—not from a doctor, at least. He was just afraid, that’s all. All children are afraid of being left alone.
But did I really not remember my own childhood fears? Or was I afraid to remember them? Every child went through the same thing Shurik was going through. At some time or another, there comes a moment when your parents aren’t around. An empty apartment in the evening. Shurik couldn’t live without the television: It was always on when I wasn’t home. He said the television distracted them. Distracted the monsters… what else distracted them? The scissors. I remembered them from before. In my bed, as a child. Why had I hidden the scissors? I remembered their cold steel blades, the ovals of their crocodile-colored handles. Huge, blunt, reliable, laying on a white sheet under the covers. Protecting me.
“I’ll be right back!” yelled my date, running off to the bathroom.
Of course—let him crawl off to wash his stained shirt. I, in the meantime, found myself sitting on the narrow windowsill of my childhood room. Unlike Shurik, I’d had my own room—cozy, bright, with lots of toys scattered around. In my hands I’m holding a picture book, trying to read—but it’s just for show. There’s no-one home—but Kuzya, our cat, is tracking something. He heads into the corridor. Then he freezes, hisses, runs under the couch. He hides there so silently I begin to think he is lost forever.
Out the window I can see people, and it makes it seem less frightening to be alone in the empty apartment. I listen to every sound coming from the street, so as not to hear the squeaks and muffled hissing in the apartment.
Monsters live in scary stories I don’t read. They can’t possibly be here. Papa say they don’t exist. After a while, I climb down from the windowsill and decide to play in my parents’ room. Out of the corner of my eye I can clearly see the dark throat of the corridor.
There is nothing there, of course. But for some reason, I can’t turn my head to face it. I pretend to play with my building blocks, now and then freezing in horror. I build a house out of yellow, red and green plastic pieces. My hands won’t obey me. The house I am building is sad, unstable. There’s not a single doll that would choose to live in it.
Where are my scissors? Where has papa hidden them?
I breathe deeply, trying to be calm, almost imagining there could be a happy ending in store for me.
Then from the kitchen comes the unmistakable sound of a drawer opening. My entire being, from every organ in my body to the tips of my fingers, is crusted over with fear. I carefully crawl into my bed and pull the covers over my head.
On the bedside table next to the head of my bed is a colored ceramic plate. I can see everything, peeking out from under my covers. But I can’t move. Wild with fear, I see a furred black hand with yellowed nails on the plate. I close my eyes, praying that when I open them there will be nothing there. But when I do open them, the hand has not disappeared.
I lie there for two, or three, or even four hours in that frozen position, repeating a line from a lullaby to myself, like a mantra: “A grey wolf will come and bite you in the side…”
I fall asleep for just a moment. When I wake, I can’t remember where I am. In my dream it was hot, I pushed off the blankets. Now nothing is protecting my head. The monster can get to it.
The shelves bristle with the ragged spines of books. The lamp casts an apricot light on the world. There is no hand on the plate.
I am ready to believe it was all a dream. That’s what adults say, and for some reason you’re supposed to believe them. But something is going on in the entryway of the apartment. Someone is scraping at the keyhole. In the icy silence of late evening, my heart beats as if about to explode. I feel myself turning into something else: my fingers are as thin and wrinkled as a chicken’s.
“The gray wolf will come…”
Huddled in a ball, I wait to pay the price for not being a good girl. Something sticky and dark touches my shoulder. In that moment, all I want is to disappear quickly and painlessly. I don’t want to be anymore.
But then the front door slams, and I hear my mother’s footsteps.
I throw myself at her and hang from her neck as if she had been gone for months.
She doesn’t even suspect her return saved my life.
Shurik didn’t pick up the phone. The nerve endings stung in my temples. Where was he? Asleep? I hid all the knives and scissors where Shurik would not be able to find them. And now my son was alone at home, without scissors, without a knife—unarmed.
I ran out of the café without saying goodbye, grabbed a taxi and called Linka. I was out of my head. I needed to know—did she remember anything similar from her own childhood?
“What the heck do you want?” she said in a groggy voice … “No, I don’t remember anything like that. Sure, I would get scared, but what of it? I imagined there was someone wandering around in our attic.”
“Did you see him?”
‘The thing walking around up there. Linka—do you remember anything strange from childhood? Think!”
“Yeah, I remember Peter Pan came flying in.”
Okay, okay. Anything strange … okay, fine. When I was five years old, I saw a ‘fuzzball.’ Well – that was what I called it, anyway. I thought it was a rat—only really big, and covered in long, thick fur. If my parents had seen him, they would have killed him for sure. But they didn’t—and that’s the point. Only I saw him. Because kids are always making up invisible friends and that kind of nonsense. He went away after a little while.”
“A ‘fuzzball’—are you serious?”
“I don’t know—at that age, every fairy tale we read seemed possible. I mean, kids believe Father Frost comes by their house on New Year’s Eve.”
“But what if he was real?”
“Come again? What’s the matter with you? Do I need to come over there?”
“They think Father Frost is real. They really think that. What kind of effect does that have on them? On Shurik, on everyone under ten? What I mean is … maybe children aren’t afraid of being alone for nothing. They say kids are like animals: they see more than regular people.”
I was having trouble breathing. It seemed as if the darkness and the air were the same substance.
When I got home, I found the apartment dark. All the fuses had been tripped. The door to the bedroom was closed. Maybe Shurik really was asleep. But all my attempts to open the door were in vain: someone was holding it shut from the inside.
“Shurik! Open this door right now! You hear me?” I screamed in a voice not my own.
Shurik didn’t answer. From inside the room came the sound of stomping and a struggle.
Shurik jumped from the darkness of the hall and seized my hand tightly.
“Where were you?”
“In the cupboard with the pots and pans.”
“If you are here, then who is in there?” I whispered.
Shurik tried to pull me toward the entranceway. I wanted to follow, but I needed to know what was going on in my home. Pulling away from him, I leaned against the door again—and it swung open.
“Mama! Don’t go in there! Mama!”
Something yanked me inside.
I came to on the carpet among the shattered ruins of a Lego tower. Shurik was pounding on the closed door, but I was afraid to turn around. He wasn’t a coward—not if he was trying so hard to save me.
Turning on my side I saw her—black and long and yellow-nailed, lying so close!
The darkness at the edges of the room increased. I knew they were all around me now. All I would have to do is turn my head, and I would see the rest of them.
“God, please just let me find…” I prayed. I dug into my purse, looking for the one thing that would save me. There, in a side pocket, lay my only weapon against the monsters of the night.
“There!” Squeezing my eyes shut in terror, I brandished my tiny pair of nail scissors in front of me.
When frozen in terror, you come to realize how loud silence can be. In that moment, when the world goes quiet, it feels as if your eardrums will burst. The pain makes you want to curl up into a ball, covering up all your soft, vulnerable parts.
It seemed like a thousand years before I came to. Shurik was sitting next to me, stroking my hair. My hands were shaking. I still felt as if my soul wanted to leap out of my body in horror.
How could this have happened? What you don’t believe in shouldn’t exist. It’s a rule …
The indifferent rays of a new day shone through the drawn curtains. Probably, somewhere, roosters were crowing—and all evil spirits, by tradition, were returning to hell.
After a month we moved to the other side of the country, where my relatives and old friends were living out their happy, boring lives.
“People can live here just fine too, mama. Trust me. We’re going to be okay here,” said Shurik as we stepped across the threshold of our dilapidated little house on the outskirts.
And I believed him. The rat race was over for me anyway. The big city with its colossal opportunities—the city that despises every solitary soul living in it—was behind me. Just like Shurik’s monsters of the night.
What we don’t believe in doesn’t exist. That’s the rule. But sometimes, rules don’t work. Children know this for certain, but adults always need proof.