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Fiction Online

Before the Test

By Alisa Ganieva

Translated from the RUSSIAN by SABRINA JASZI
  • August 15, 2022
Medical drawing of a pair of forearms and hands cross over one another at the wrist. The drawing shows the system of blood vessels.

Noise, hubbub, hullabaloo. In the vortex of honking cars outside the marshrutka mini-bus1 window, nimble beggar kids skip about and an amputee expertly maneuvers his wheelchair.  

“Thanks be to Allah!” a grubby Turkmen boy wails, insolently smacking the glass with his palms. The driver barks back at him in irritation. The marshrutka, screeching, breaks free of the traffic and turns toward the bridge. On the right, past a disorderly row of high-rise apartments, Tarki-Tau’s bald peak blinks in and out of sight. At Liana’s shoulder, someone is squawking mysterious guttural words into his phone. 

Outside the window, the cylindrical outline of Anzhi Bazaar rolls by, shimmying its cheap colorful sides. Just like a circus tent… Someone was telling her that there was once a temple in the square in place of the museum and later — a zoo with elephants. She’d never seen it… Someone else’s memories, someone else’s vision of the city of Makhachkala2. Donkeys roaming around with kerosene tanks on their backs, rag peddlers, a public bathhouse with a “bad floor” patronized by sodomites, it was said. The sea, not yet befouled, teemed with crayfish and women cleaned the beach, pricking paper trash with sharp sticks. 

And what else? The anchovy-scented buildings of the port, the chorus of soldiers’ songs in the old barracks at the House of Writers, the boogie-woogie dancefloor, the outdoor movie theater in the gardens planted by Germans. Music lovers buzzing about on the boardwalk. Record-swapping, bell-bottoms, the “Ice Cream” cafe. Brawny guys carrying heavy items from the bazaar for a fee, and over there a bronze girl with flowers… It was all someone else’s, long gone. 

“I’m telling you, it’s right there on the rug!” comes a voice from the backseat. 

“For praying?” someone says in surprise.

“What are you, slow? Of course! There’s a counter, right there on the rug. It keeps track of every prostration.”

“Like electronic prayer beads?” 

Someone on the side of the road hails the marshrutka and Liana thinks for a moment, then gets up. She thrusts some copper coins into the driver’s hand and, predictably, the other passengers stare at her ass. Let them. She’s wearing a denim skirt that her mom picked up secondhand. She doesn’t have far to go — past the dump, past the buildings with their slapdash additions, between the scattered heaps of sand, to the gaping front entrance, then up six flights of stairs. The elevator is broken and the light doesn’t work. In a dark corner of the hallway a kitten is mewling. Zaynab throws the door open and smacks Liana’s cheek with her lips. Inside the gold-curtained room, on the table with a matching gold tablecloth, there’s a sprawl of medical textbooks. 

“Studying?” Liana sighs indifferently, then walks over to the open window and leans out. 

Cables hang in the air, suspended between the neighboring five-story buildings. Down below, there are colorful shops, bread and shoe repair stalls, crookedly built additions, and a smattering of cars. A pair of policemen with machine guns stalk through the vehicles, examining their license plates. Car pulls up, then you call, now you’re coming up to me, yeah, you’re tasty as pastry…3 That dumb, old pop song by Glukoza. How’d it get stuck in her head?

“Yeah, I’m studying. What else?” Zaynab yells from the kitchen. “Know how much I’d have to bribe Abdullaev to pass? My dad says he won’t pay for any more of my exams.”

“I passed Abdullaev’s exam no problem,” Liana says, laughing. She looks away from the window, into the kitchen. “He asked my ethnicity. Then where I was from. Turns out we’re practically neighbors. Passed me with flying colors, on the spot.”

“Aren’t you lucky,” Zaynab says, worrying and clinking the glasses. “Tea now or after we eat?”

“I so do not feel like eating,” Liana says, waving her off. She’d looked at herself in the mirror that morning. Seen a new double chin. And one eyebrow thicker than the other. That hairdresser at the salon on Sovetskaya had pulled some kind of trick. She’d never set foot in that place again.

Zaynab comes in with a tray. 

The medical dictionary is heavy, the same one they have at the university library. Deliria, Deoxycorticosterone, Desogestrel, dextrose… deratisation — the elimination of rodents…

“Hey Zaynab, remember the one about the girl who tore up the Koran and then turned into a rat?”

“Of course — that old wives’ tale is still going around.” 

“You believed it back in school.”

“I did not.”

“How about the prophet’s beard?”

“What’s there to doubt in that?” Zaynab flops into an armchair. “They brought it here. Me and my aunt went. Together with half our building — we all lined up to see it. Some descendants of the prophet, peace be upon him, came along with it. The beard itself was, like, a bunch of hairs — a kind of tuft. Reddish. You never saw it? It was on the news nonstop.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“They left a single hair here, to be preserved for posterity.”

“I wonder whose it really was,” Liana sniggers, but Zaynab stirs her spoon thoughtfully in her glass. “My neighbors are something else. They gaped at the beard like everyone else — went nuts for it — but now they’re up in arms because the call to prayer keeps them up at night.”

“Is there a mosque nearby or something?”

“Nah, but some hotshot converted his garage into one — added a minaret and everything.” 

“I didn’t see it.” 

“It’s on the other side of the building. The call comes right through the windows. It wakes people up. But what are they doing sleeping through the call to prayer?”

Call to prayer, camembert… Download the “Call to Prayer” app from Megafon. A daily schedule of prayers right on your phone, beginning between 4:15 and 4:30 AM. The app costs… Liana goes back over to the window. The policemen are gone. A few boyish figures hop across the garage roofs, whooping. 

“Come sit down, it’ll get cold,” Zaynab grumbles. “Anything new with Amina?”

“No, nothing. She’s gone for good.”

“In Turkey?”

“In the caliphate.”

Astauperulla4! May God forgive her! With her kids?”

“Yeah, she dragged them along.”

“It’ll destroy them. They’ll grow up to be extremists. There’s no coming back from that.”

The medical dictionary has rough pages. An old book, maybe moldy. Two-hundred billion years. Aspergillus fumigatus. It survived in outer space. Settles in the lungs, the intestines, causes cancer… Cancer — the most family-oriented astrological sign. Or is it the smartest? Smart people have more copper and zinc in their hair. Brown-eyed people are more intelligent than blue-eyed people. Are Zaynab’s eyes blue or green? Something in-between — marshy…

“Liana, hello, anyone home?”

“Did you know that one out of every five hundred people on Earth has one blue eye and one brown?”

Zaynab shrugs. “Do I need to know that for the test?” 

Zaynab pours the tea, nibbles a sugar cube. Let her eat it. Sugar builds up in your collagen — causes wrinkles. “To tell you the truth, I can’t even study. I keep getting distracted. My dad’s relatives were staying here and they just left. ‘Get me this, get me that.’ My cousin, what a brat — went and got herself botox at sixteen.” 

“Ay, no good.” 

“That’s what I said, but the mom is even dumber than the daughter. She’s like, ‘it’s preventative, it can’t hurt.’ Her daughter will be a bride soon enough. Paraded herself around at five different weddings. They were so excited to be in Makhachkala, my goodness…”

I love your face, Makhachkala, reflected in the waters of the Caspian, I love your unswerving streets, the gulls flapping their white wings5 Unswerving streets, as if. Blocked off, dug up — you can’t squeeze your way through them. No trees — just construction sites everywhere. Concrete, trash, and the impervious gates of private homes. But there really are gulls. The sea is rough and barely salinated. The waters are never calm. Not long ago there was a storm and a seal washed up. Speckled body, lifeless face, glassy eyes, stiff whiskers… A ringed seal. They live in herds, have a gestation period of around eleven months. 

“Hey Zaynab, has what’s-her-name… Diana, given birth yet?”

“Are you joking? She had an abortion.”

“How come?”

“Already had two daughters. And the ultrasound technician said it was another girl. Her husband didn’t want it. They went and got an abortion. Then they found out — what a nightmare — it was a boy after all. The ultrasound technician messed up.” 

“That’s terrible — they should have sued!”

“They thought about it, but the technician’s second cousin once removed was the chief public prosecutor. So there would have been no point… I’ll get you some more.”

Zaynab leaves the room. Leopard-print robe, soft oval face. I love your face, Makhachkala… The soul is born in mankind on the fortieth day, and in womankind on the ninetieth day. Who was it who said that? Aristotle? Or, no… Egyptian women employed crocodile feces during pregnancy, and Arabs used elephant feces. A zoo on the square… Beyond the square, a mound of earth, Anji-Arka, with a lighthouse on top. Peter the First’s encampment. Port Petrovsk… Port Petrovsk, Makhach-kala. Makhach is just a nickname. Its real name is Magomed-Аli. After the revolutionary. All power to the Soviets! The rights of a nation to self-determination! The Dagestani Red Army! Captured and shot. 

“Hey Liana,” Zaynab returns with a full tray, steaming glasses, “if I pass this test, I’m going to throw a party at some nice cafe.”

“Which one?”

“Lemme think. A hip one.” 

“Just don’t invite Zaira.”

“Ay, just what we need — that careerist. She’s in the youth parliament now. And at the university her whole tribe’s behind her. She calls them up and whines: ‘Uncle Khalilbek, I’m having trouble with my exam…’ The profs fall at her feet instantly.”

“Maybe she’ll find a husband in that parliament of hers,” Liana mumbles. 

“Isn’t she older than us?”

“Yeah, a lot older. And no fiancé yet…”

Eldar. He came around the other week and they played backgammon under her parents’ supervision. His mother took them shopping and they tried on coats. They live by the reservoir with a distant view of the TV tower. They’re building a second floor for the couple’s future family. Their farm in the mountains. With gangsters’ palaces all around, wild grapes, and prehistoric scorpions. A gate with eagles, skillfully forged. Not far off, the abandoned den of the former mayor. Ambushed by helicopter…. What was that song about helicopters? He learned from his brother, the lambs to keep, but above the kutan war helicopters sweep, Magomed stares up at them, driving his sheep…

“I just remembered something,” says Zaynab, perking up — she’d been lost in thought. “How Zaira went to some kind of mullah for advice about why no one would marry her. And he told her what verses to read.”

“I guess the verse didn’t help, since she consulted a gypsy after that.”

“How do you know?”

“I went with her,” Liana says, laughing. “We were seniors in college. The gypsy told her  the date on which she’d meet her future husband.”

“When? When?” Zaynab asks, brightening.

“It’s long passed. Sorry, Zaira.”

The gypsy had gray braids, an ironic smirk, heavy hoop earrings. Told Liana school would be fine, but not to wait for happiness. To change herself, or the wheel of fortune would never turn in her direction. She’d kneaded her hand. The fingers have no muscles. Why would they? To retract and extend claws. But humans have no claws, so no muscles in the fingers…

“I remember, you told me,” Zaynab lets down her henna-dyed hair and, raising her elbows, puts it up again in a plastic clip. “Somewhere behind the central department store.”

Which of Zaynab’s fingers is longer, her pointer or her ring finger? Women whose ring fingers are longer are beautiful. But with men it’s just the opposite. Liana studies her fingers.

“Kind of crooked, aren’t they?” Zaynab blurts out. Liana blushes. 

“What do you mean?” 

“Just kidding. I still have to memorize hands. Twenty-nine bones and as many major joints. One-hundred and three cord ligaments, forty-eight nerves, thirty arteries…”

“We passed algebra ages ago, what are you worried about?” Liana jokes. 

“You know how Abdullaev is. I’m not his neighbor, after all,” Zaynab says, testily, “or a relative of Khalilbek. My dad’s shelling out for me and he’s pissed. Wants to put me in correspondence courses and marry me off to some hick.” 

“That’s terrible, Zaynabka!”

“I know. That’s why I’ve got to study.”

“I’m getting in your way…”

“Don’t go, Liana,” Zaynab pleads. “Help me. Ask me how many joints there are in the hand.” 

“You just said.”

“Fine, then ask me something else. I’ll get the questions.” 

Zaynab disappears again. The gold curtains flutter in the wind. A wheezing sound, and then the call to prayer bursts through the window. Liana gets up and closes the window, goes over to the table and looks through the textbooks. The heart, the lungs… If you put an animal’s internal organs in a bowl of water, they’d all sink — only the lungs would float. In communal courtyards, on old, rutted backstreets not far from the coast they slaughter sheep and hand the meat out to their neighbors. The birth of a son. Unless the ultrasound technican messes up…  Before slaughtering a sheep they whisper a prayer and pour water into its mouth. Crocodile tears. A dying wish. Reincarnation will never happen. Regeneration, like with lizards. As a child she’d caught lizards outside the city, snatched them by their tails. They’d flapped around, cast-off… Just a few drops of blood. Zaynab returns, agitated, with a heap of notebooks and papers. 

“Hey Zaynab, did you know that a newborn’s fingertips can regenerate?”

“You think they’ll ask about that?”

“I don’t know, but it’s interesting, isn’t it? If a fingertip is cut off no farther than the base of the nail, it will grow back.”

“How about the fingerprint?” 

“Dunno. It probably comes back different. If that worked for adults, no criminal would ever be caught. Kill someone, cut off your fingertips, sit tight for a month, and, when they grow back, you go on with your life like nothing happened. A whole new fingerprint.” 

“They’d catch you with DNA evidence.” 

The mullah in his garage minaret belts out the prayer. Or maybe it’s a recording? A stereo with an amp. It is too loud. Zaynab looks around anxiously, whispers, repeating the words of the muezzin. 

“Will you hold on a minute, Liana? I’m going to pray. I have a rug for you, too. You wash up first, then I’ll go.”

Ablutions. She needs to make some excuse. Hasn’t prayed in a long time, and she’s forgotten the movements. Bow, stand, bow, knees, turn around, forehead to the ground. No, she’s forgotten it all. Zaynab will notice and she’ll be embarrassed. 

“I can’t. I’m on my period,” Liana lies. 

Eldar had asked her whether she prays. He says the call to prayer sounds continuously twenty-four hours a day on Earth. In one place, then another — going on like that forever. But Zaira repeated all the charmed verses and never found a husband. She’d only accept a rich one, with a good position…

Liana looks out into the courtyard through the windowpane. A black plastic bag is flying through the sky. A shaggy, multicolored cat is climbing up the trash heap outside the “Hypermarket” grocery store. Maybe it’s the mother of the kitten crying on the landing? 

Yes, even Zaira will find a match. At some meeting or other. The Youth Association. She’s an activist, a patriot. Black eyes, I die when I remember them.6 Black eyes, passionate eyes.7 The gypsy fortuneteller behind the department store. The policemen stroll by again with their machine guns. The machine guns thrown lazily over their shoulders. Water running in the bathroom. Ablutions. If Zaynab fails another exam…

She should go — Zaynab’s family will be home soon. She’ll catch the marshrutka and transfer on Lenin Avenue. By the restaurants, pharmacies, beauty salons, dental clinics, and bridal boutiques. How did they all stay in business? There were ten of them on each block. Then up Tarki-Tau, up the winding, rutted road. Formerly Semender, the Khazar capital. What became of the wooden tents? Where did all the churches and synagogues go?

Walk as far as the spring and then turn in toward a little mud-brick house. There, in the inner courtyard, a half-washed rug is lying out on the cement. She needs to finish washing and drying it before Eldar’s mom arrives. Down below is Makhachkala: the white, potbellied Dzhuma Mosque, the boxy Leningrad Hotel to its right and, farther on, the Ferris wheel at the edge of the lake. Ak-Gyol means “white lake” in Kumyk… Colors: brown, sandy. Yellow-gray, unsettled, noisy chaos, and only a single patch of green: the Weiner Gardens where they used to boogie-woogie. Farther on — the bottle-blue sea dissolving into the horizon…

Zaynab comes back with a prayer rug. In place of her leopard robe, a long polka-dot skirt, sleeves to the wrist, and a strange, sparkly head scarf. Gold like the curtains. There’s a counter on the rug showing the number of completed prostrations. Its little screen faintly flashes “0.”

“I’m praying so I’ll pass the test,” Zaynab says. 

“Inshallah,” Liana responds, not exactly joking and not exactly serious. 

The sea wind smacks the closed windows like an impudent beggar. Down below, some watermelon rinds cartwheel across the ground. And up above, the soaring plastic bag beats hysterically against the branches of a dead tree where it’s gotten stuck. 

Zaynab prays and Liana nibbles a sugar cube. Eldar once told her that if you took the empty space out of each atom, every person on Earth, all seven billion, would fit inside a single lump of sugar. “What did God make all that empty space for?” Liana wondered. They’d been walking along the putrid October Revolution Canal. Shock construction. Kulak sweat. Eldar had scolded her: “One should never question God’s will. We don’t have the right to ask.” Eldar’s teeth pushed against one another like accordion keys. His belly protruded underneath his shirt. When they went to a café, he was always belching and picking his teeth. At first, people tried to talk Liana into it: Good family, reliable guy. So what if he wasn’t good-looking? It wouldn’t kill her. 

Or would it? You could die from laughter. Out on dates, at every turn. Some British politician in a dress, with a peeled orange in his mouth. Her history professor who, every class, ranted breathlessly about Anglo-Saxon imperialism. America cultivates Islamists on purpose to get their hands on cheap oil. Russia is the last bulwark. We will not allow disintegration or provocation… To die with an orange in your mouth. Brothels… Eldar, when they’d been walking back from the movies — the streetlights barely burning, the important thing was not to trip — had gestured toward an inconspicuous, unmarked metal door: “Look, that’s a bathhouse.” 

He’d confided in her that one of the girls there went around in a hijab during the day so that no one would recognize her. A college student—her parents far away in the mountains, no one knew but Eldar had spotted her long ago. Why had he run his mouth about this to Liana — why? We don’t have the right to ask. We don’t have the right. Like that prosecutor from Crimea said: We don’t have the right to stand on the sidelines. We must assist the public prosecutor of this country8 She’d never been to Crimea. Just once to Krasnodar. Was Crimea in the Taurida or Kolkhida region? She always mixed them up. 

Zaynab cycles through her prayer beads, whispers the words she knows by heart. What if Liana has to answer for all the times she hasn’t prayed later on? It must be more than a thousand times already. Oh well, you could always go to the mosque and give the right people 15,000 rubles to pray for you. Or could you? Maybe that’s only for the deceased. Before the forty days of mourning begin. Spiritual trials. What were they? The history professor in her department always talked about them. Trials. Russia — between decadent Europe and the Asian tigers. Dagestan hadn’t entered into any of this voluntarily and would never get out. “Makhachkala: The Best City in Russia,” and people laugh.

Liana sneaks into the kitchen. The cabinets sparkle. There’s mustard powder by the sink instead of store-bought soap. Zaynab’s mom heard about all the poisonous chemicals in soap. Liana turns on the water and washes the dishes. The glasses squeak. They say a paste made from a quarter cup of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide will clean up any mess. And Eldar’s mom washes the dishes with half a lemon, sprinkled with baking soda. Tea stains can be erased from cups with toothpaste, and ink stains from lacquered furniture with a rag soaked in beer — just dry it and apply wax. To get ink off a carpet, use boiled milk. If you drink milk, you’ll run far, jump high… What kind of milk is it that never curdles? Camel? Coagulation… As a child, when they lived in a five-story building with a small front garden, she sometimes found flowers with milk in their stems and tasted it. It was sour. Baby flowers…

“I’m all done. What are you washing the dishes for?” Zaynab’s voice wafts in, and then Zaynab herself materializes beside her. 

“What dishes? It was just a couple of glasses.” 

“Know what I was thinking, Liana? Whenever I pray, my mind wanders. I just repeat the words mechanically, while Abdullaev or something else gets into my head.” 

“Eldar was telling me that when he’s praying the cat always comes and starts rubbing against him. He even consulted some learned people about it. They said that a cat is no problem. But if a woman — or a dog, or a donkey — walks by, then you’re done.” 

“What if your phone rings?”

“Oh man, I forget. I think you’re only allowed one extra movement. If your phone’s on silent but you keep praying while thinking about it — that’s a sin. Same thing if you need to go to the bathroom…”

Zaynab pulls off her headscarf and knots it nervously. 

“Think Abdullaev will pass me?”

“Study, even a little, and he will.”

They go back to the table and open the books. Liana remembers that she forgot to stop at DagEnergo to pay her energy bill. Lines, disorder, endless price hikes. People jostling with legal documents. 

“Mechanisms for bilirubin production…” Zaynab drones on.

Bile, liver… Her mom’s sister who lives by the railroad post not far from the old, dilapidated concert hall makes delicious liver. Now she’s hungry. Soak the liver in milk. Or water and vinegar. She’d love some smoked balyk fish right now with the crust of a warm, local loaf. In the mornings, Nogais9 women wander through Makhachkala’s courtyards, selling their catch. They cry out in a loud, piercing falsetto: “Fresh-fish-fresh-fish-fresh-fish!” She could really go for some of that. Or…

There’s a popping sound outside. Car alarms crying out in unison. Zaynab strides over to the window — the glass trembles a bit, or maybe it only seems to. People are congregating down below. A saleswoman emerges from a store, shades her eyes, and stares in the direction of the busier street. It seems like something is happening there beyond the buildings, but no matter how people crane their necks, they can’t see what. Little boys tear through the garages, burning with curiosity. 

“An accident?” Zaynab says, perplexed, and then, noticing some of her neighbors in the crowd, shouts down to them:

“Yo, Patya, what’s going on?”

They yell back indecipherably. Liana tries to get a look at the neighbors over Zaynab’s shoulder. It’s crowded. The sea wind acts the fool, flinging dust around. Horns and alarms bark. A scared cat with a puffed tail crosses the rubberneckers’ path as they hurry to investigate. Liana smelled, or perhaps imagined smelling, smoke — something burning or bleeding, she couldn’t tell. She felt fear, excitement, a beast within. And she opened her mouth wide as if to swallow the wind.

This essay was originally published in Russian by Daptar.

 

ENDNOTES

1. A routed minibus.

2. The capital city of the Republic of Dagestan in Russia, located on the Caspian Sea.

3. A line from the 2004 pop hit “Nevesta” (Bride) by the Russian girl-group Glukoza.

4. May God forgive her.

5. Lines from the poem “Makhachkala” by the Soviet Avar poet Rasul Gamzatov.

6. Lines from the 2004 pop hit “Chernye glaza” (“Black Eyes”) by the Russian-Circassian singer Aydamir Mugu.

7. Lines from the classic folk-romance song “Ochi chernye” (“Black Eyes”).

8. Lines from the 2014 viral video “Nash Miash” featuring a speech by the Russian politician Natalia Poklonskaya, then the Prosecutor of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

9. Turkic ethnic group who live in the North Caucasus region, with their largest concentration in Dagestan.

 

Alisa Ganieva is an award-winning Russian author of fiction and essays. Her novels – The Mountain And The Wall (Праздничная гора, AST, 2012), Bride and Groom (Жених и невеста, AST, 2015) and Offended Sensibilities (Оскорбленные чувства, AST, 2018) have been translated into a number of world languages and published internationally. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine and consequent adoption of repressive laws in Russia, she left the country in order to be able to speak out against the war. She currently lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Sabrina Jaszi is a translator and writer in Oakland, California. She is a co-founder of Turkoslavia, a translators collective, and an editor of Turkoslavia Translation Journal, whose first issue will appear in fall 2022.