“Mama,” said Jemina. “Look, Mama.”
“What is it, Baby?”
“The doll, Mama.”
“The doll? What happened to the doll? Ah, its head. You’ve broken off the doll’s head.”
“Mama, I didn’t. It fell off by itself. I picked it up and it was like this already.”
“It’s okay, Baby. I’m not blaming you.”
“But you said that I…”
“That was just a way of speaking, Baby. When I saw that the doll’s head was broken, I commented on it to myself. It doesn’t matter who broke it, or whether it just happened by itself.”
“What we have to think about, Baby, is how to fix it. Do you think we can fix it?”
“Yes!” Jemina gave a little jump. “We can glue it back together, so it’ll be back like before!”
“It might not be so easy, Baby. You see, regular glue is not going to work here. It’s not strong enough. Let me think. We have to find a better solution, don’t we, Baby, because I know how you love this doll.”
Mother sat for a few minutes, holding the doll’s body and head on her lap, saying nothing, just sitting and looking at the doll.
“Are you thinking, Mama?”
“I’m thinking, Baby.”
A few more minutes passed, with the mother still sitting and looking.
“Are you still thinking, Mama?”
“Yes, Baby. I’m still thinking.”
Jemina was becoming impatient. She was sure that Mother knew how to fix the doll, and if she didn’t know how to, then what was the use of thinking for so long?”
“I’m thinking,” the Mother explained, “about the past.”
“You see, Baby, this doll… it’s not like the other toys you have. All your other toys we bought especially for you. But this doll used to be mine. I played with it when I was little. And before that, it was my mother’s. So you see, it’s a very, very old little doll.”
“I see…” It was Jemina’s turn to be quiet and thoughtful. She was thinking of Mother as a little girl, Mother playing with this doll. It was hard to imagine Mother being a little girl. It was the kind of thing one just knows but doesn’t think about, because thinking about it made you feel uncertain about everything. It was like trying to imagine the universe. How immense it was and how terribly small we were by comparison. Jemina’s mother was not a large woman; she was actually quite small, not much taller than Jemina, and she often did un-grownup kinds of things, like riding her bicycle to a store instead of driving a family car, the way other children’s mothers did. But to Jemina she was as grown up as anyone. Therefore, Jemina had to concentrate really hard and think of an old photo of her mother as a little girl, with pig tails sticking out like two little horns, tucking in Jemina’s doll in a little doll bed, just like she tucked in Jemina. Whenever Jemina concentrated like this, she narrowed her eyes, which was something her mother knew about her. Seeing her daughter narrow her eyes again, the mother asked her what she was thinking about so hard. This time they were both thinking about the same thing, only for the mother it was something she had really known, and for Jemina it was something she tried to imagine.
“Will you tell me more about it?” Jemina asked.
“More about what?”
“You as a little girl. Your childhood.”
“Maybe, but first we’ll fix this doll’s head, Baby. I think we’ll use epoxy for glue; it works wonders. Speaking of my childhood, that’s the glue I used for my sculptures.”
“The root thingies in the backyard?”
“Well, once upon a time, before they became root thingies in our back yard, they had been root thingies in a forest. When I was a little girl, I’d bring them from a forest, glue several roots together to make them look like creatures, and I’d paint them. I thought I’d become famous—the first ever sculptor of roots! Now wasn’t that silly, Baby?”
“Not at all, Mama! They look like—”
“Like what, Baby?”
“Like something from a dream that I once had, Mama. It was one of those thingies from the backyard, one of your root sculptures. It looked huge and it was… I knew, and everyone knew that it was…a king or some kind of a powerful…monster. Whatever it was, it used to rule the world. But then its head fell off. All its strength was in its head, and it couldn’t rule the world anymore. And it wanted somebody to find its head and to put it back on, you know? Back on its neck? And it pointed at me and said that I was that somebody. That I had to find the head and glue it back on. And I didn’t know why me. Why me, I kept saying, why me? And it didn’t answer. It just pointed at me, that’s all. It’s like I was assigned to do this thing that no one had ever done before, to find the ruler’s head and to glue it back on. It was like this doll, you know. Only in the dream the head wasn’t lying next to the king’s body. You had to go looking for it, and it was scary.”
Mother was looking at Jemina with an odd expression. It could have been pity, or it could have been love. But no matter whether it was love or pity, it was so intense, it made Jemina a little uncomfortable.
“So what did you do?” asked Mother. “Did you find the head? Did you glue it on the thingie’s neck?”
“I don’t remember,” said Jemina. “I woke up. But I thought of this dream for many days. It wasn’t like my other dreams. It was like… I knew it was just a dream, but it was more real than real things, you know?”
“Come here,” said Mother. She put Jemina on her lap as though Jemina was still a baby and not a big girl of ten going on eleven. And she kissed Jemina’s eyes and nose and cheeks and sang to her one of the Russian lullabies Jemina heard Mother sing to her before she had even learned to walk or talk. She still didn’t know what the words meant, and now she wondered how come she never asked Mother about it.
“What does it mean?”
“What? Your dream?”
“No. This song. You always sang it to me. When I was little, you always sang it.”
“Ah, it just means…fall asleep, my baby. My brave little girl. Fall asleep and don’t worry about monsters without heads.”
“Is that what it says?”
“Nothing. I just thought it meant something else. You know, something more.”
And so they sat and held each other, mother and daughter, while the doll with the broken head lay on the floor at their feet, forgotten.
They passed the first streetlamp. Now they were walking past a neighbor’s house. He said he was driving, but where was his car? Perhaps behind the corner. But they continued walking straight ahead, into the park.
She stood and looked at the two figures, one short, the other tall, receding into the distance. Every time she parted from her daughter, beginning with that first time she left her at daycare when Jemina was 12 months old, this is how she stood and looked. That time, nine years ago, the door that separated them seemed to heave with her baby’s cries. It was the first time she had been left alone with strangers—a baby who was used to being carried in a snuggly, her cheek resting on the mother’s chest, her little bare feet dangling at the mother’s thighs. The day of their first separation, she had been taken out of the snuggly and handed over to the daycare attendant.
“I’m sorry, Baby, but I can’t take you to the doctor’s office. I have to go there alone. I’ll be back in three hours. Please don’t cry, please…”
But Baby didn’t listen, and kept reaching its little arms after her, the tiny body trying to break free from the hold of the daycare worker. Three hours later, the mother was back, standing behind the same door for a moment before walking in, listening to the same hopeless cry.
“She never stopped crying,” reported the daycare worker, handing Jemina back to the mother. Jemina put her head on the mother’s left shoulder and instantly fell asleep.
Until Jemina becomes a mother herself, she will never know what it was like—being with her, parting from her. When she was little, being with her was work, constant, unrelenting. The work itself may have been easy, but because it was around the clock, day and night, without a break, it seemed hard, harder than anything she had done before. Being there for Jemina meant not being for herself anymore. During the first year, when Jemina’s body was glued to hers, she stopped dreaming, because even in sleep she had to be there for her daughter. That first parting was a relief because for a few hours she had her own body back, and her own thoughts, but it was also a pain because the daughter’s cries reverberated through the mother’s body, no matter how far away the mother went.
As months went by, the partings became easier, and then there came a time when the child looked forward to her time in daycare. Daycare had more toys; it had children her own age; it had singing and dancing. And the mother got her days back to herself, and when the daughter started sleeping through the night in her own room, the mother started dreaming again.
The daughter started first grade, and every morning after she left, the mother stood and looked at her disappearing figure happily hopping away. The distance between their two bodies was growing each day, but the daughter didn’t notice it. The mother did. During the daughter’s first year on earth, her clinging was a heavy burden for the mother who felt that she had lost her freedom forever. Now the daughter was a carefree child, and the mother missed the old clinging, the stretched-out arms that said pick me up, and the small round head snuffling quietly on the mother’s left shoulder.
Now the mother was standing, as she stood every weekday morning for the last nine years, following with her eyes as her child was swallowed up by the distance. Only this time, she knew she was not going to see the child at the end of a day or a week or a year. This was the final separation. If everything went well, and her daughter stayed safe from all danger, they might be reunited in a year, maybe two. The daughter would be all grown up then, the mother thought. They would be strangers; two women with nothing to talk about.
The mother could not stop the daughter from going away. But she had to do something, although she didn’t know yet what it would be, what she should do, so the bond between them would not break completely. She waved at the vanishing figures one last time and ran back home. Suddenly she knew what she had to do. She would write a book. She would record everything she remembered, from the daughter’s first day of life up to now. She would describe her first year as a mother, especially the first months: the wrapping and unwrapping of the tiny body, the first baths in a kitchen sink, the feeding routine which went on with intervals, all day and all night; the changing of nappies at night, and the crying, the crying…
When the daughter returns, the mother thought, she will have this testament to my love. This is how I loved you. You don’t owe me anything for it. It was a huge love and a huge burden. Now that your life has separated from mine, now that you tower over me, and I look small next to you, I just want you to know how it was.
Moscow born, Nina Kossman is a bilingual writer, poet, translator of Russian poetry, painter, and playwright. Her English short stories and poems have been published in US, Canadian and British journal. Her Russian poems and short stories have been published in major Russian literary journals. Among her published works are two books of poems in Russian and English, two volumes of translations of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems, two collections of short stories, an anthology, Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myth, published by Oxford University Press, and a novel. Her new book of poems and translations has just been published. Her work has been translated into Greek, Japanese, Dutch, Russian, and Spanish. She received a UNESCO/PEN Short Story Award, an NEA fellowship, and grants from Foundation for Hellenic Culture, the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, and Fundacion Valparaiso. She lives in New York.