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XX

***

Natia was only four years older than me, but in my memories of her from when I was a kid, she appeared as someone who knew more than anyone else in my life about everything. Perhaps it was because of her height; she was the oldest person whose mouth was in close proximity to my ear. I am sure there were other people smarter than her around the neighborhood, but they were adults and their mouths were far beyond my periphery. It seemed like, even if they addressed me, they spoke to the air that surrounded my body and over my head, but never straight into my ear. There was also another problem: I could not reach their ears either and this was quite annoying. But then I figured out several solutions to that problem; like, for instance, if you dropped an object by your feet and did not try to pick it up, but instead turned your lip out and took a deep breath, almost any nearby adult would instantly rush to your feet and try to pick it up. They would do this while staring at your face expectantly, carefully observing whether your expression was moving towards tears or not. No adult was keen on listening to a crying, screaming child so they would unwillingly bend in front of you and pick up whatever you had dropped. That would give you several seconds of close proximity to their ear, sometimes just enough time to engage them in your world. With the help of a gentle tap of your small hand on their large shoulder, the sweetest of the angelic smiles you could possibly conjure out of the muscles of your little face would also sometimes do the trick. But most of the time they were already immune, disinterested in your charms—which is when you would, of course, proceed to the second tactic for demanding proper interaction: hysteria.

However, all of this was so weary, so physically and emotionally draining, that by the time you got adults to simply listen to you, you had had nothing left to say. Your simulated hysteria would pull you along with itself like a bowling bowl and before you knew it you were convinced and moved by your own tears—surprisingly, even more than the adult who you had failed to engage. You would cry for yourself, for the stupidity of humankind, for your failed attempts, for your inefficient charms, for the eyes, for the ears, for your disappointing smile—until you swore to yourself never ever to do this again. But then after awhile you would realize that this was a promise that no one your age could keep, that this form of interaction was your only means of survival in the adult world. That for some unknown reason, you appeared to have no positive value, not yet anyway; you had nothing to bargain with but with the currency of lies, smiles, and tears. It was weary indeed.

None of this was necessary with Natia. No simulated hysteria, no tears, no amiable smiles: she was within my reach, she heard me and I heard her, and that is why she was the smartest of the older people around. She was the oldest of us all, the neighborhood girls. Of course there were other older girls in the neighborhood, but somehow those older girls filled another whole category of girlhood. Not quite children, yet and not quite women like our mothers, they were a strange blend of woman and girl. They seemed to have more gravity than us, the little girls, but they also appeared to have less weariness and less weight than our mothers. They were desirable but not yet grounded, as if their bodies still had some undecidability in them. Still shifting shapes: their skin was inconsistent and so were their features, which they were desperately trying to detain with the help of lipsticks and eye makeup. They were also inconsistent in relation to us. When no adults, and especially when no male adults were present, they would greedily jump into the midst of our games, but the instant the older boys and men appeared they would assume an ironic role and immediately pull away from us. They would also turn slightly mean and start to make fun of our rituals, rituals that only a second ago they themselves were part of making. This betrayal was so unclear to us that without discussion we decided in unison to exclude them. In reality, it was more probable that we were the ones who were being excluded. We tried to ignore them and to resist their attention, but we also felt sorry for them. It appeared to us that they were somehow pretending to be someone else; they were indecisive and struggling in the small breach between womanhood and childhood. I did not understand this: their mouths and ears were close enough to adult mouths and ears, and if they had no need to drop objects or hysterically cry to get their attention, then why did they behave as if they were still inadequate and short children like us. Whatever the reason was, we decided to stay away from them; we stuck to each other and ignored them when we could. We did not need them, we had Natia who was close to us in age and better than them all.

I gathered and projected the best of the adult qualities onto Natia: knowledge, care, love, imagination, gentleness, loyalty, and beauty. Then, to make these qualities stick, I would come up with games where she would have to explicitly embody them, mixing roles and situations until her play character perfectly fit my image of her. I was the happiest then. I loved playing “home” with her, a game in which—sometimes reluctantly, but nevertheless without a choice due to my annoying persistence—she always performed the role of my mother. Sometimes I made her pretend to cook and feed me dinner and then put me asleep. I enjoyed this game so much and I would play it so well that at times I would really fall asleep and Natia’s mom would have to call my mom and tell her to pick me up and carry me home. In some games I made her play the role of a teacher, where she would give me homework and I would studiously pretend to write an essay, scribbling gibberish hieroglyphs on the page that in the end she had to grade—granting me an A of course. But my most favorite fantasy role for her was the role of a brave and kind witch. The game consisted of the repetitive motions of Natia saving me from the evil witch, always played by her sister Eka, who halfheartedly but obediently ran after me and tried to pretend to catch me. For a certain period of time I was so obsessed with this game that on my every visit, that is every evening, I would make them play it over and over until I was called home. With an immense joy I would run, run, run from the evil witch and straight into Natia’s arms, where I would rejoice, hug her and then start all over again. This ritual went on forever, at least that’s what it seemed like to me at the time, until one day Eka announced to us, “I will no longer play this game! I am sick of being the evil witch all the time.” And that was that. After Eka’s refusal a certain amount of unstructured time passed in child-sized melancholia and dullness, until I got over it and forgot.

The void left by this interrupted ritual was filled by something else. I turned six and started to go to school. For a few months letters and numbers overshadowed my attachment to Natia. Other faces entered my life, but no one was quite as impressive as her.

****

Natia was already in the fourth grade and good at every subject, but her talents were not limited to school curriculum alone. She played violin and she was very good at that. When she played, her dog would howl along in the minor notes. Natia took fencing classes and she was very good at that too. She painted and this also came to her with grace and ease. Natia was talented at everything. Natia constantly read; she swallowed up volume after volume and in this, just like in everything else, all of us neighborhood girls followed her with slow and reluctant steps.

I was the youngest and to imitate Natia was hardest for me. I still could not read, not to mention fence or play violin. So I pretended. I pretended that I was following her wit; I listened and took in all her accounts of the narratives and the characters from the books she read. When I finally learned to read, I tried to catch up with Natia’s favorite novels, but I read too slowly—I skipped the lines, I dozed off, I got bored and discouraged. I’d much rather hear about these characters from her mouth than from the pictureless, dry pages. I never identified with any of the characters and thus every narrative fell into an anonymous blur at the back of my head. But then Natia would bring them out; she would animate them and I would instantly get confused about my feelings and about my imagination. Why was it that to me these stories only took shape if she narrated them, that I only identified with these characters if they were embodied by Natia?

Natia read everything with deep amusement, without a halt. Unlike those characters from our early childhood games, which were selfishly assigned to her by me and were almost always somehow maternal, it seemed that Natia was selecting different roles from the novels. She was drawn to the characters that were highly active, constructive, decisive, never defensive, and almost always male: one day she was d’Artagnan, brave and romantic, another day she embodied the logical reasoning of Sherlock Holmes and surprised us with her composed and brilliant deduction. As usual we were convinced and deferred to her in all our dilemmas.

One day, Natia came home from school and announced, “There is no God!” This came to us children as a shock, even though no one from our neighborhood’s adult population was particularly religious—they were all atheist opportunists. God was definitely not celebrated publicly, with the rest of the émigré elites of the bourgeois epoch he was exiled from our social space to the west, but the fragments of his old glory could still be found in the darkest corners of the cold, beeswax covered ancient churches that were still standing. The public spiritual communication lines were broken off at the start of XX century, but these dark, myrrh-embalmed, crumbling, fresco-covered temples could still sometimes pick up a weak signal from the Above. However, it was mostly a unidirectional correspondence; people with their excess needs and desires unfulfilled by the Party demanded them in whispers to this retired, old renegade that lived in the western skies. This impotent enemy of the state, ironically by now toothless, occupied the role of the tooth fairy. He was nagged by and addressed with millions of mundane demands, which it seemed like he fulfilled at times with a reluctant wave of his shaking hand. There was no doubt that G’d came in handy at times, “Oi Boje!” “Dai Bog!” “Vaime gmerto!” “God give me this,” “God make this come true.” But no one suspected, until the early 90s, that in their intimate correspondences with the ancient, dissident God, they were leaking their deepest desires into the wide-open hands of the hungry market all along. Their prayers filled in new consumer charts and boosted the production of new commodities, still unknown to them. These new and not yet properly named consumers now required their own little nations and new identities—something to sell, something to bargain with, something so old and so deeply forgotten that it could be dug up and claimed as one’s own. So they dug deeper, whispering ancient tongues into the old tombs, past the concrete and cement, deep into the soft layers of earth, opening up ancestral coffins. Their gaze shifted towards antiquity, the trace of origins deepened: inherited relics, dusty picture frames, white gowns of lace, smell of blood and iron, mary had a child. With their eager hands they dug past the graves of XIX century. Ruins collapsed into ruins, imprinted in marble; they fought over the ancestral dust, they shaped the dust into a story, they spilled blood and congealed red streams into a nation—to last, to outshine the sun. They dug a cellar deep and dark and said what was in it; they told us what to dream. And thus their words woke up old spirits to support them. As the Party failed, the dust of nostalgia grew in the east. New negative pockets appeared in the spaces abandoned both by the state and by the G’d. These pockets first appeared in domestic spaces, in the kitchens and living rooms. They were small in the beginning, but once they grew it was already too late to stop them; they recklessly spun out of control and pierced into the old world. By the time of the 90’s these spiritual dust pockets were swarming with the infestation of various contradicting identities: renegade christian divinities, pagan nationalist spirits, provocateur poltergeists, mean gnomes, and the ghosts of old rotten kings. But then there were also the aliens that emerged in the midst of this chaos. To us the children they were the most exciting; they never provoked, they never listened to or fulfilled the demands of the adults. With their glowing androgynous bodies and their advanced technologies, they appeared and disappeared as the mourning specters of “the future to come,” which was leaking out of our realm as blood from a wounded body. They shone past the dust and intimidated nations.

But it was still 1985 when Natia came home from school and announced, “There is no God! My teacher said that there is only Nature and nothing else!” We were all extremely flustered, but did not exactly understand the reason for it. Ok, so we were not raised with religious rituals; we were never forced to pray and if we visited a church it was mostly for educational purposes—to look and acknowledge the importance of these historical monuments, but also to understand their contemporary irrelevance. Still, to hear a declaration like this was not very common at that time, the anti tone of it immediately underlined the God/Nature polarity. There is no God; there is only Nature. I never thought that there really WAS a God, but at the same time I never really thought of Nature as something that IS. Nature… does Nature think? Does Nature love me or hate me as a human? Or maybe it is completely indifferent towards me? Does that mean that Nature Exists? Or is it there in a form of infinite negativity? I looked out of the window into the early March sky, bright but cold. A Surp Sarkis wind was pulling the trees towards the east; they were leaning so far in one direction that my body felt diagonal to the ground. The clouds were also speeding the same way. I looked up at mountain covered with pine trees, blue and green, fading into the distance. They were also swaying warily. Only I was not moving; I was behind a window, between the heavy concrete walls. Am I also part of Nature? Am I also infinite negativity? Am I something that is unpredictable and immeasurable? But I do exist: I have a name, I have the body of a seven year old girl, I have a mother that I love and a brother that I feel inferior to, I have a grandma and a grandpa that are nice to me, I have the shadow of a father in the distance, I have friends and relatives who are all different from each other, but also some of them are so similar—all the fathers with their slippers and the mothers with their scissors and knifes, all the boys with their balls and the girls with their dolls. If there is no god, then there is no spirit that moves us, but there must be something that defines us. Or am I undefined? Am I an agent of my own happiness? Is there a gravitational pull somewhere inside me that I have not yet found? That thought made me smile with excitement; I felt strong and confident, but then a shadow of doubt passed over my thoughts, which I was not yet familiar with.

Nevertheless I started to look inside myself and study my Nature, my inner gravitational pull. Yes, there was definitely something there, but why was this power somehow not compliant to me? I looked at my mother and started to study her patterns. Yes, she also had this power inside her, but it seemed like it was not really compliant to her either—it was being pulled by something external. I looked at my brother and to my surprise noticed that his inner power was solid and coarse: it was actually pulled in and for himself. He was strong; he was independent and selfish. Was there really nothing but himself inside his shell? Well at least that is what it appeared like; he moved, spoke, and acted as if there was no one else but him and caught by surprise I noticed my mother’s gravitational pattern. I noticed that my brother’s so called Nature was affecting and subordinating my mother’s Nature, which was bigger in shape but more malleable and liquid. I was devastated: if this was the Nature that Natia spoke of I did not like it. There was nothing infinite about these “natural” patterns; something must be wrong cause this was not right.

I was not satisfied, so I started to look around and study the natures of other families. I wanted to know and understand their gravitational patterns, to see if they were different. After many days of eavesdropping and quiet staring I noticed that every mother was pulled towards the closest male in their familial proximity, but I also noticed that in the absence of males mothers used the biggest man of all as a substitute: they summoned God. That was extremely rare, but apparent nonetheless. From my direct surroundings I noticed that most of my girlfriends did not have fathers. I never noticed this before, but now somehow it all made sense. Natia’s household consisted of all women and so did Ruso’s, but unlike Natia’s mother, who was a complete atheist, Ruso’s mother was periodically feeding on the power of God. However, this was less a feast and more a snack, so mild that you could barely sense it. It was like she was sipping from God just one drop of power per month so that she could pour it into her only daughter Ruso. It was the prophylactic faith of a single mother, a medicinal drop for the difficult times—just a gulp for the health, just a spoonful for the strength. Natia’s mother, on the other hand, seemed to summon her power from the void; like a witch she sucked it out from the nothingness, from her general and abstract surrounding, and poured it all into Natia. Inevitably from Natia the power seeped down to her younger sisters, Anna and Eka, but also to me and Ruso, and so on. Natia glowed and radiated with confidence and calm love. To us children, when outside of our homes, she resembled the center of gravity. And that is why we never wanted to leave her home. All of us fatherless and fathered children drifted towards Natia’s home like pins towards a magnet. This was the place of infinite joy, fun and play, with no boundaries and with very minimal rules. So much so that 25 years later my father, in drunken argument with one of my neighbors, exclaimed, “It’s all their fault! At their house is where she,” speaking of me, “learned to distrust the paternal authority!” That was true. There was no competition from the paternal family structures, even the softest of the fathers from our periphery sucked up all the power from their surroundings. They not only sucked in their wives, mothers, mother in laws and their children, but also us, the unrelated neighborhood children. It was weary, who would want to play like that!

For example, I had a friend from school whose name was Keti. Keti had a heavy father, an aspiring to be heavy brother, and an amazingly witty, but obedient to her husband mother. Keti’s family structure was like this: at the center of her familial universe was her father, and around him in the orbital rails were circling first her brother, and then her mother and grandmother. Keti was the last floating planet from the farthest periphery of this orbital ghetto; she was barely even a planet. I liked Keti, but I always felt very strange when visiting her home. It was like a weird feudal reenactment, with her barefoot father reclined on the couch, always resting like a provincial lord, while Keti, her mother, grandmother, and even her brother served him in careful silence. After some time, Keti’s brother grew and the familial gravitational center got slightly reshaped. Now Keti, Keti’s mother, and grandmother started to orbit around these two males in an 8-shaped route, from one to the other they sucked their power. Somehow Keti barely got any of it. It always seemed like from the time of her birth Keti was being prepared to orbit her own man and this all along was just a rehearsal for her already determined future.

After this analysis I could better see my family’s orbital structure. My brother was the sun of our solar system, around him orbited my mother, and reluctantly but dutifully followed my grandmother and my grandfather. I had the role of my mother’s dwarf star. I was resisting the gravity of my brother and thus, like a moon, I was orbiting her away from him, in the prograde direction. But I could not break away, I was bound to him in being bound to her.

So this was Nature!? Domesticated, unbreakable, and immobile? I started to feel helpless and overdetermined. This could not be it, there had to be an outside to this gravitational order. I could not keep exiling myself from the world of men at Natia’s home forever. This was worse than God, at least the idea of God was something one could keep to themselves and define in whatever way they needed at the time, but this seemed to be beyond us all, a planetary order ruled by the material bodies of men and boys. But it was too late for God; he was dead and after all he was also a man.

I was about to turn 8 and it was all hopeless, so I decided to run away from home: far into the woods, away from the city, where I could find an answer to this mistake of Nature. I put on my coat and went downstairs to see Natia. “I wanna run away from home. Will you come with me?” I asked her. “Here, I took all the money from my piggy bank; I have 5 rubles. I know that my mom will miss me, but it’s ok—I will bring her back a ring with a bright red ruby.” Natia understood everything, agreed with me without words and started to pack her bag immediately. Her mother was not home, she went to pick up her two sisters from school so we had enough time to pack in haste. She packed sugar candy, bread, warm clothes, a hand full of various unknown pills, and a beach umbrella. “We don’t have a tent, but I will bring a beach umbrella; it’s better than nothing. It could be a roof that we can built a tent around, at least we won’t get wet!”

Outside it was a cold and dark early evening in November. Everything was ready. We started down the stairs and up the street towards Turtle Lake Mountain. Our bags were heavy, mostly it was the beach umbrella that gave us away, but luckily it was too dark for anyone to really notice our suspicious silhouettes. We did not speak to each other, but just marched on, our gloved hands swinging with deliberation. Like cats, we walked along the walls, trying to will our bodies to camouflage themselves into the stained concrete of our neighborhood housing blocks. We held our breathing to a minimum, worried that someone might trace us by our smell, trying to leave as little trace as possible. We reached the dark playground and walked past the benches where men played dominos, but they were too busy to see us and we moved on unnoticed. We walked among the bushes that surrounded the rusty swings of the playground; we passed through the arch that marked the end of our residential blocks. “This is it, we are out. Now where do we go?” Natia finally said. “I guess up to the lake? I don’t know any other way that is not full of adults who will take us back home straightaway if they see us.” And so up we went, through the park into the woods.

These were not wild woods of course; there was nothing on this mountain until the mid XX century, when the committee of parks and recreational centers decided to expand the greenery of the city and covered the whole mountain in pine trees. By the time we were born the pine forest had already grown out of control and thickened. This dusky fall evening the trees completely hid the sky and created a premature night, a great hideaway for us. We kept walking past the beginning of the forest and deep into the dark, until the sounds of the city faded away and different sounds crept in—trees swayed and creaked, branches broke and pinecones fell. We jumped at every one of these sudden sounds, but we did not speak a word. Not giving away our fear to the other just to keep one another going. We marched on past the trees and bushes, deeper into the woods.

Then suddenly the pattern of the sounds changed and the rustling became a bit more repetitive, more like a heartbeat paced to the sounds of our footsteps. I grabbed Natia’s arm tightly, “Someone is following us!” I said. “It must me a stray dog, don’t worry,” Natia tried to calm me dispassionately. I think this was the first time ever that I heard a touch of doubt in her voice. That scared me immensely, more than the sound of the breaking branches behind our cold necks in the dark. I tried not to look back, but that made the shadows grow even bigger; I saw various horrors morphing and shifting undecidedly, trying to mirror my deepest fears. The darkness grew in size and shrunk to the molecular all in one second: everything ever and the absolute nothingness gathered in one shadow behind our backs. Nature in its infinite negativity, in its infinite darkness. This was a mistake! Away from the gravitational poles of the men there was nothing, nothing but fear and wilderness. I despaired, full of regret. Time was frozen and I had no thoughts. Then I felt warm flesh in my hand, my fear peaked in my throat, and everything stopped: my breath, my heartbeat, it was all suspended. There was no one in the whole world but the darkness and me. My fingers stiffened; there was a glowing figure next to me, white and hollow, made of pure light and it was gripping my hand. It was blinding and infinite. But then this light triggered a memory that was unexpected and warm, a memory of a familiar voice from afar calling my name. I felt a contradiction grow inside my head, “I should be scared now, why do I feel so safe,” was the first thought that came to my mind. In slow motion I looked down my arm and followed the shape that extended from my fingertips: bright white light, but then, yellow, red, blue, two white circles, and a half moon. “Natia!” It was her! She was next to me and she was smiling. That smile, her glowing teeth and a squeeze of her hand brought me back from the swamp of fear within. “Natia!” I said. “Yep, that’s my name! Don’t worry silly! You know, I also brought a knife.”

In the darkness of nature I found her, as if for the first time, and with a jolt of a surprise I found myself next to her. I was there, I was alive and away from home, we were together. Our eyes got used to the dark and the sounds fell into the background. It was funny to me how the smallest separation from the point of my dependency, home, immediately threw me straight into the abyss of fear. I did not even notice how the destiny that was stuck to me from the moment of birth defined my world so completely, that even one kilometer away from my little universe shattered my perception to the point of total, blinding terror. But now all of a sudden everything was ok, we were together and the darkness of the forest seemed like a mere backdrop to us and our adventure.

We turned right onto the road that weaved through the trees, still aiming up towards the lake. The light had completely faded by now, so much so that there was no need to stay away from the road. “Here, let’s cross the road and cut through the trees from there, it’ll be faster this way.” We crossed the street, approaching the second patch of trees. As we stepped from asphalt to the soft earth we heard the sound of a barking dog echoing up from the dark road bellow. “Natia! Natia!” a small voice that sounded almost like a squeak swallowed up by the echo of the bark. “Who the hell is that?” exclaimed Natia, but this time with annoyance rather than fear because the voice was so familiar to us. “It sounds like Ruso! Could it really be her?” “What is she doing out so late!” “Probably the same thing we are doing… running away?” “Ruso? Is it you?” Natia shouted, staring intensely into the dark distance. The sound of a barking dog was growing louder. Then before we knew it, tongue out and galloping our direction we saw the white swinging tail and spotty body of our dog Miki. “Miki!” She smashed into our legs, taking turns rubbing her face excitedly onto me and then Natia’s, C-curving her whole body from left to right in the rhythm of her tale. “Miki! Where did you come from?” Then we saw a small shape struggling up the road trying to catch up with the dog, a hooded head followed by swinging arms amplified by red mittens tips. It was Ruso no doubt. “What are you guys doing?” she shouted at us before even saying hello, before even making sure that the us was actually us. “Where are you going? Are you crazy! I saw you walk past the arch and then you kept going, so I followed. First I wanted to surprise you, I wanted to wait for you by the store and jump out to scare you, I thought you were going to the store to get some bread, but then when you turned up this way I did not understand, I almost turned back home to get someone to come with me and find you, but then I did not want to scare your parents for no reason, I just did not know what to do. I don’t like coming here at night, but Miki kept pulling me, and then she found you so, here I am…” She muttered away dumbly, zooming in on us with her mouth slightly open. Then, as if just seeing us now the first time, “Why do you have a beach umbrella?”

That was it. We were not prepared for this at all. We did not want to freak her out so we tried to lie our way out of it unsuccessfully. “We were, umm, going for a walk.” “In the forest at night with a beach umbrella!?” “No, we were curious what happens here at night, so we just wanted to peek in” “Ok, so now that you have peeked in enough can we go home? What if there is someone in the woods, some creepy man?” “There are no creepy men here!” said Natia authoritatively, “It’s just us: three creepy girls and a dirty dog. Ok, enough, I’m getting cold, let’s go home.”

We had no choice—no ruby stone for my mother, no umbrella tents, no days in the wilderness, no place away from home—we had to turn back. Us running away was one thing, but dragging Ruso into this adventure was something different. She would not come with us anyway, but even if she agreed we would not take her. Not because we did not love her, but specifically for that reason—we loved her too much and we also knew that she was her single mother’s only child. That was not right; for us to drag her along would feel like an abduction. Another option was of course to send her back home and continue our journey, but that would also not work. Sooner or later she would have to admit that she saw us and that surely would not end well: we would be found. Ruso was not good at lying—she was too honest, too sincere. Ruso was a year older than I. She was small, as small as me, but more independent somehow. She loved animals, which sensing her love, never left her, and perhaps that is what gave her a bigger appearance. She would wander around the nearing neighborhoods, fearlessly, with a dirty white dog on her side.

We turned back, walking briskly down the road. On the way up we were not rushing at all—one hour, a few days, or a few years made no difference—but now that we were back in adult time, we had to rush back as soon as possible, we had to blend back in unnoticed. “Why were you running away?” Ruso repeated over and over without giving in. She did not accept any of our lie variations, each time she let us finish the sentence and then in 30 seconds asked the same question again, “Why were you running away?” “Ruso stop it! You would not understand,” Natia snapped back at her briskly, “and it’s better if you don’t know why anyway. Let’s just hurry up and forget about this, please.”

The way back felt much shorter. We returned to our yard in less than twenty minutes. How was that possible? The darkness, the woods, the fear had stretched my perception of time completely, turning it to a syrupy substance, but in reality we were probably not even gone for more than an hour. It was late, yes, but it was still possible to pass unnoticed. We were back in adult time now and to them this one hour probably seemed like a blink of the eye anyway. Ruso kept her eyes on us scornfully, but also protectively. She would not let us out of her sight until we were safely locked away behind the metal doors of our apartments. “Let’s throw our bags into the cellar,” Natia suggested as we entered the stairwell, “otherwise they will realize what we were up to.” The gate to the cellar was always closed, but the space between the bars was wide enough for all our stuff and the umbrella to fit through. We threw everything in and ran upstairs. Natia’s mom was worried and scolded us for wandering around so late. We blamed everything on Ruso and the dog. Ruso had no problem with that, she took the blame as the grownup that she was, elaborating on our plot, “Yes, it is my fault auntie Nino, I asked them to come with me and help me find Miki. She was missing and I got worried, I thought the dog snatchers had come again and took her away, but I wanted to make sure so they agreed to help me look for her. Yes… you are right. We are all sorry, but there was no other way. Sorry, good night, good night.” With a stern glance at us, the look that spoke, “you owe me,” she shut the door. “Your mother is looking for you, she called three times,” Natia’s mom addressed me, “go home, it’s late.” I said goodbye to Natia meaningfully, and said bye to her mother and her sisters casually, as if nothing happened.

My mother was angry with me for leaving home without any notice, but she was not very angry, because Natia’s mom had not told her anything; she left it all up to me. So I got away easy, I told her that we were playing with Ruso in the backyard and did not hear them call us. It was not a pleasant night: I cried, my brother laughed at me crying, but I made it through. I went to sleep.

My dreams changed after that night. I felt stronger. Natia and I had a secret now that bound us to each other more than ever before and I was happy about that, I liked that bind. It made me feel that it was not all doomed, even if in reality everything was still the same as before we left—I was still a little girl and the word still disregarded me. The Nature was still strong and men controlled women. But Natia was my friend and now I knew that I could rely on her in anything. Everything changed.

****

One early autumn day Natia’s younger sister Anna, our neighbor Gio, and I were sitting on the small patch of grass in front of our house. This small field was formed in the shape of a square: two adjoining sides that were framed by a four-foot high, trimmed row of leafy evergreen bushes. With us, rolling around on the grass, was also our neighborhood dog Miki. All three of us were chatting and gazing up into the clear, night sky. All of a sudden from the corner of my eye I saw a bright, white figure emerge from behind the row of the bushes. I instantly spun my head towards the bushes; I looked directly at the white glow for a split second after which it, the white glowing hat—which is what I thought it was—dove down and disappeared behind the green wall of leaves. “Hey! Sandro!” I exclaimed. Who else would play a silly trick like that, it had to be him, our youngest neighborhood boy. Young enough and fidgety enough to be amused by such a simple form of mischief. We knew where all our neighborhood kids were that evening, we also knew their particular style of perversions; no one would simply peek at us and then run away, that was just too mundane for anyone else but our youngest friend Sandro. Our parents were completely out of the question, they were too grown up for tricks like this. Anyway, at that moment they were most likely watching Gorbachev’s daily evening monologue—tense in their neck, trying with their whole hearted intellect to comprehend the obscure new terminology of the Perestroika: pri-va-ti-za-tion, in-fla-tion, glo-ba-li-za-tion. No, it could only be Sandro. “Hey Sandro! Come out we saw you.” In that instant Miki ran to the bushes and started barking incessantly; then all four us ran to peak around the leaves. There was no one there, neither a boy nor a white hat. None of us could believe it; we were all, including our dog Miki, convinced that we definitely saw someone in a white hat. “Come on, let’s go and confront him at home,” said Anna. We ran into the stairwell and knocked on Sandro’s door. “Hello children, what do you need?” Shorena, Sandro’s strict grandma, greeted us politely, but with annoyance. She looked down and through us, with her eyes half closed. She always held her gaze directly parallel to the tip of her nose, as if looking through imaginary pince-nez glasses that were never actually there. Her graying, black hair was pulled tightly into a neat bun that always rested at the same spot on her neck, an inch above the collar. “Is Sandro at home?” one of us spoke shyly. “He’s sleeping and so should you! What are your parents thinking of, I do not understand, letting you wander around so late! Go home!” “Thank you, sorry to bother you.. thank you.. good night,” we squirmed away cautiously down the stairs. No one could fool that lady. If she said that Sandro was asleep, then he had definitely successfully passed from REM to the second or even the third stage of deep sleep—she would not hesitate to make sure of that. Ok, so it was not Sandro, but who was it then?

We immediately ran to Natia. Competing in the sensationalism of our tale, we relayed the whole story to her. From the armchair with her fingers intertwined and eyes closed, Natia listened to our choppy, excited tale calmly. She let us finish and once we were done she immediately told us off, “I still have some homework to finish; go home, it’s late!” This unmistakably was her Sherlock Holmes phase.

The next day after school with Natia’s leadership we started an investigation. We carefully brushed through the whole area under and behind the bushes. Natia effortlessly and confidently directed us about, and made us pick up and collect every suspiciously placed pebble. There was not much to gather; we mostly found a lot of cigarette buds and some strangely shaped broken balloons. She carefully went through all of our findings, then with a magnifying glass she studied the direction and the patterns of the dirt. After few hours she announced, “It was an alien! Look at these footprints, they are so long—no man has feet this big.” It was an alien: a white glowing alien, or maybe an alien in a white helmet, or an alien in a white woolen hat. None of us for a second doubted her word, because she was the best of us all and because she knew. Thus aliens entered our realm.

****

A few years following our encounter with the alien the trend had caught on. By then we, the children, were already familiar with the motion of looking up into the night sky, but all of a sudden it seemed like everyone else followed us in this ritual. It took only a year for the alien encounter to become a frequent tale. By the late 1980’s the phenomena was not only associated with the night skies: sorcerers, poltergeists, and spirits of all sorts broke into the crevices and corners of the Soviet Union, smearing the hammer and sickle with green ectoplasm. Like the unnatural phenomena from Ghostbusters, everyone—and if not everyone, at least everyone’s someone—had a vision of their own to tell. Kitchen cabinets started to rattle at night, things would disappear and if you asked nicely, addressing your supernatural domestic dweller of course, the lost objects would sometimes find their way back to the realms of your dimension. These spirits, as if with nothing better to do, appeared to be quite content with shocking and entertaining their dull audience. These phenomena became so common that you could walk in the street and encounter a whole group of people—women with heavy grocery bags, self-important professional men with ties, cab drivers, children, and grandparents—all looking up into the sky together. “Good evening, what’s happening?” “Oh nothing, it’s just that a flying saucer has been hovering over that residential block over there.” “And..?” “Nothing, we just wanted to see what it does next.”

Alien vessels came in many different shapes. The standard ones of course were shaped as plates that would hover in the distance and then pull away into the shape of a star, glimmer a bit, and then disappear. But there were also other untraditional alien vessels. There was one account of a bright floating arrow, which slid along the sky before diving behind the funicular. And then there was the account of the flying brick. A gigantic flying brick was seen over our neighborhood, all decked out in multi-colored, glowing lights. It moved slowly over the blue sky on a spring afternoon. The day was bright, but the multi-colored lights of the brick were even brighter. So much so that, apparently, it outshone the sun and then quickly disappeared, leaving its witnesses with the negative shape of a brick imprinted on the back of their eyelids for the rest of the week. They had to be assisted home and laid to rest for the remainder of the day, of course.

Out of all these phenomena we loved the alien incidents the most, because they had this amazing affect of dissolving the boundaries between the adult and the children worlds, and it also seemed like they affected the boundaries between the adults of different genders and occupations. They would bring individuals out of their stupor into a collective undecidability. These apparently random street gatherings became places for political debate and fantastic speculations. It would force adults of every kind to interact with each other and with the children without irony, because somehow standing under a glimmering brick shaped UFO left no space for superiority or for scripted monologues. We were all looking at a thing that was unknown and undecided for all of us, a thing that was material and technologically developed in a more advanced way than us.

This collective utopia did not last for long though. In the political climate of the time, which was leaning away from the technological utopia and drifting towards total privatization, the UFO phenomena was quickly hijacked and declared to be a threat to humanity. “I occasionally think how quickly our differences, worldwide, would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world,” announced Ronald Reagan, in a conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev. We did not approve of this direction. A threat to humanity meant a threat to adultness and to us the children, a threat to the world of set structures, no play, marital binds and tears—and this we had no problem with having aliens shred to a pulp. So we disputed and lethally threatened anyone who made fun of us or doubted the rightness of aliens. It was mostly the older boys, my brother and his friends, who first dismissed our alien story as a little girl fantasy. They used it to make fun of us. We took this as a personal offence to our whole being, as if Natia and all the rest of us were nobodies. As if we were full of lies and only lies, as if they were superior to us—and in reality they were. They were listened to while we were dismissed, they could do whatever they wanted while we were bound to their standard of what was acceptable for girls to do; they were excluding us from their world, snitching on us to our parents to enjoy watching us cry. They were even ruining the older girls, turning them into hysterical clowns; they were driving them to lipstick and outbreaks of nervous laughter. These young men became our enemies. “Let’s poison them!” I said one day to Natia and her sisters. “With what?” “Mom has rat poison on the shelf in the bathroom, we can use some of that,” said Anna, “but what if we accidentally kill them?” “Don’t worry,” said Natia, “we will use a drop of it, just enough to give them very strong diarrhea.” So we took a drop from the bottle of rat poison and poured it into a lemonade bottle. We sealed it all carefully to make it look like it was unopened and went down to the yard. We walked over to them innocently and pushed Anna slightly ahead of us, who looked slightly more honest than the rest of us. She was to do the offering: they would never believe us, but there was a small chance of them believing her. “Hey guys, do you want some lemonade?” asked Ann in her sweetest of tones. “Get lost!” responded my brother without even looking at her. “Hey, why don’t you want our lemonade! You don’t trust us or what?” Natia shouted a bit more aggressively than she intended. That was it, we gave ourselves away instantly; they dropped the ball that they were lazily throwing into the hoop up until then and turned towards us with threatening grins. “What the fuck did you shits put into that bottle? Are you trying to poison us?” Now my brother addressed me directly, “Get lost or I’ll tell mom.” We left disappointed and threw away the bottle.

“The phenomenon of UFOs does exist, and it must be treated seriously.”

Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet Youth, May 4, 1988

It was 1988 now and aliens were fading in and out of Soviet reality. We still raged our loyal war in defense of their existence with anyone who would doubt it, but it seemed like things were just out of our control. There was another whole war going on simultaneous to ours, a war between the alienness as such and something bigger. Something that in the following days was about to change everything for good.

It was June of 1988 when the announcement came, “Who wants to be the very first Miss USSR? This September the capital Moscow will be hosting the very first beauty pageant of the USSR! All young ladies between the age of 16 and 34 are welcome to apply.” That was it, the final blow to the aliens. “The beauty pageant! The first ever! Like the kind they have in the west!” Our bodies now finally had a chance to be evaluated, rated and ranked!

Aliens were forgotten.

To be continued…

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