Guillermo Erades

excerpted from Back to Moscow

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​AS FAR AS I COULD tell, Nadezhda Nikolaevna was the oldest person I’d ever met. With ashy hair and deep wrinkles, she had reached that age where old people start to shrink and look pitiful. Yet, like most babushkas in Moscow, she radiated determination, a historical toughness visible in the way she pressed her lips together firmly and looked straight into your eyes.
I was meeting Nadezhda Nikolaevna four times a week in a small classroom at the humanities faculty. If I had been out the night before, which was often the case, I would spend our three academic hours—which each lasted forty minutes—struggling to keep my eyes open while she read bits from old Soviet books and made me repeat words such as perpadavaltelnotsa, prepadavaltelnetsa, prepodavatelnitsa, which I couldn’t quite pronounce but just meant teacher, for chrissake.
But, against my own expectations, the combination of lessons at university and chatting up dyevs in nightclubs seemed to be working—I was picking up the language. During our lessons, Nadezhda Nikolaevna, who had been teaching Russian to foreigners for decades, spoke simple Russian and mimed vividly, so, after a few weeks, I was able to figure out, if not exactly what she was saying, at least the general idea she was trying to convey.
Sometimes I got it badly wrong though. One day Nadezhda Nikolaevna walked into the classroom looking particularly morose and told me she was devastated because her cherepakha had just passed away. I’d been to the Duck the night before, so cherepakha day must have been a Wednesday. The remains of vodka in my blood had put me in a dark mood, and Nadezhda Nikolaevna’s tragic loss made a strong impression on me.
“I’m sorry,” I said, regretting my inability to express proper condolences in Russian.
I didn’t know the word cherepakha. In my mind, I went through all family-related vocabulary I had learned so far, which at the time was limited: brat, brother; sestra, sister; syn, son; dochka, daughter. As far as I could tell, cherepakha had not entered my lexicon.
“Life goes on,” Nadezhda Nikolaevna said. “Let’s get to work.”
At that moment, confused by my unexpected encounter with death at such an early hour of the day, I couldn’t help but admire what I identified as yet another example of Russian resilience. I found myself thinking of Ilyusha’s death in The Brothers Karamazov, about The Death of Ivan Illich, about the natural and yet intimate relationship Russians have with mortality.
Cherepakha?” Nadezhda Nikolaevna asked.
“I don’t think I know the word.”
“Yes, Martin, you know, something that something slow and something hard.”
“I’m sorry, Nadezhda Nikolaevna, I don’t understand.” Then, in a gesture I will never forget, Nadezhda Nikolaevna raised her elbows and moved her arms in a slow crawling motion. She tilted her head, inflated her wrinkled cheeks, and stuck her tongue out. It made a gruesome sight.
Cherepakha, cherepakha!” she repeated.
She took my notebook, started to draw. First,