The Tale of Tzarina Alyonushka and Her Brother Ivanushka (a free-verse version of a well-known Russian fairy tale) "I warned my brother not to drink from the lake. I warned him. But, at that age, do they listen? He drank from it. And of course his quick arms and legs became goat limbs, his blond curls became white fleece. --Ivanushka! Beware, kid brother, of the witch and her knives, her pots full of water. Her greed fills them up. Her jealousy heats them. She is the Queen now. She wears my face. She stole my figure, and I-- I worked so hard at it! But who can hear my protests? My voice hardly reaches you from these stinky depths. What does she want with us? Ah, my husband, the Tzar. Does she hold his hands as I used to? And when he admires her face (my cheeks, my skin, my mouth) does he know those eyes --glass eyes, or maybe marble, or even granite-- those eyes aren't what they were. (For a witch can put on another's body, but never the eyes.) You're crying, kid brother. If I could, I'd swim out to you from this slimy sea bottom, these weeds that entangle me, these crabs that bite, and these fishes that make cruel fun of me. But the stone on me is like a planet thrown off its course and put to an evil use by her magic. And all I can do now is think out these words to you. Brother Ivanushka! You're crying again. Her deadly pots are close to boiling. Though this isn't a good time for chiding, let me say to you this: here's what we've come to, all of this grief, and--why? Only because when I said: "Do not drink from this lake, brother," you threw to the winds my big-sister words of advice. And so you turned into a baby goat. But do I blame you? I don't blame you. It is her I blame. You were only a silly child. Who could tell this is how you and I would end up? The sky is so distant from the sea-bottom. Are you still calling out to me? Ivanushka?" Here the Tzarina paused. She didn't like to dwell on misfortune. So she took a deep breath and hastened to the end of her story. "I prayed for the miracle. Suddenly-- the stone became light, the weeds loosened from my ankles, from my knees, and my elbows; and up I swam, up from the slimy sea bottom. On the shore Ivanushka ran to me. His fleece shone like pure gold, sheer happiness. When my husband the Tzar heard us out, he had the witch boiled in the same big pot she'd prepared for cooking Ivanushka. Though Ivanushka's still a goat, he's well and alive. We talk. This is how my miracle happened. Now, ladies, gentle Tzarinas, tell me about yours." ** Strange little men with purple hands came to me at dawn. “Your time is up,” they said. “You’re useless now.” “And who are you?” I asked. “We’re messengers of death,” they said. “That’s a relief. And now will you go away please?” In response, they stretched their little arms to me, and moved in dream-like fashion, growing now larger, now smaller. I could see right through them. I could hear them think. “What does she think she is?” they thought, as their purple fingers pulled at my liver and my lungs. “My thoughts are still my own,” I groaned, “even if my body is not.” I tried to brush their purple fingers off of me, yet they persisted with that nonsense they called “death”. This gathering of purple creatures can’t be real, I thought. And at this point one of them said, “I’m real enough - I have a house in the suburbs!” “No,” I said, “this means the distance between us is so great, you can’t do anything to me at all. And now – scram!" As soon as I said “scram!”, the creatures vanished. Purple men with houses in the suburbs will never bother me again. Scram! Scram! Scram! Scram! ** His Happiness The actual event was no longer of any interest. A destiny, exquisitely thought through, had folded into a life. So much for the fluctuating approximations of intelligent power, purposeful sky. He tested his strength in the essential instances when the life and the image flap their joined wings. Earth, to him, was a belligerent sphere that spewed forth, on occasion, almost perfectly rounded words. Yet it no longer mattered what he concocted the night before, what sonnet of leaves or loss. In the window he shifted his angle of vision onto a cloud that shifted its angle of flight. He thought: nothing sad in the death of contemporaries; they shift their angle of life into their thorough work. That he, too, was but a shifting reflection, not as a stone or grass, no, so much less real than they: this was an island of thought in an ocean of selfsame melancholy. Disguised as a graceless chrysalis, it proceeded to unfold its wings. Look at it! Seize it! Shut it into your cage of ecstasies! The happiness unforeseen, the most singular secret of all. ** Imagine Two I have too clear a mind for dreaming, she said as she ordered her thoughts away from the distances they were meant to approach and surround with incantations of thought, with benedictions that carried cloudiness into the world of too much logic and fact-- to make the most prodigiously dancing statement, to make the most motionless music speak. As she said what she said, newer thoughts formed a tangible world of their own-- with the sky, and the grass, and the earth furiously alive, furiously real, peopled as if by mistake, by the same unidentified men who demanded their newly made lives be a story --differences seen, advantage of each admitted-- and that she be the one to tell: "In the definition of oneself, what is oneself but what the mind of another has one be? A stage of flux, a cycle of expression, a monad of breath, half-fish, half-bird, a human fully conscious of oneself, a story of a life not fully told yet imagined with all the colors one can see and sense in all four worlds susceptible to love and color?" She would be fair: she would define each through his honest love of her, that being an amorphous and hard to define thing not lending itself easily to scales or rulers, laurels of glory or medals of perfection, well-sharpened wits or post-scientific methods of finding the culprit by the manner of his deeds, the manner of his thoughts remaining doubly hidden. She would be fair; she would collect from each a love of just his size and shape of mind, no more than his imagination could contain and give-- a well-formed thought, an inchoate cry, a foppish praise not so much beautiful or kind but truthfully the shadow enshrouding his uninvented self which loved because it lived: not she-- the object of his love but he--love's origin and meaning. She would give back to each one his identity. Each would have a story so suited to his needs that every word would strike a memory in his not so newly hatched as newly defined love mimicked with new meanings yet as century old as himself. A story of his love would be her definition of what he was and what he would become, when all chimeras of his own making fly to the other side of consciousness, while the reality of clouds, snow, rain is brusquely shoved away from heaven, then poured into his lap as well imagined as only true things can be. Alive and moving, always turning back into himself, his mask of words glistening with newer definitions, he is himself at last. And he is hers. One of the many becomes the only one whose story grows to be punctuated by exclamations of her love of long ago, well before she made him up: her thought, an artifice in the artificial world, created him, a man, in the world of rain and snow, a man in the world of things that breathe and wonder at man's being one with trees, her as a tree whose branches sway to give him shade, repose. ** My Room Has Digested Me Like Jonah in a stomach of a giant fish, I sit in the stomach of my room. Here I sit, day in, day out, and wherever I turn, I see junk: I turn to the left – junk. I turn to the right – more junk. My room has digested me and spat me out, it has taken everything out of me, like we take everything out of a cow, its flesh – our succulent dinner, its skin – our boots, its stomach enzymes – our oh so yummy Parmesan cheese. I don’t complain. This is justice. Let the room digest me as much as it wants. It’s time all of us were spat out by this once-upon-a time lush and livable planet as fair payment for turning it into junk.
Nina Kossman is a bilingual writer, poet, memoirist, playwright, and translator of Russian poetry. Her short stories and poems in English have been published in journals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Among her published works are three books of poems in Russian and English, two volumes of translations of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems, two collections of short stories, and a novel. For Oxford University Press, she edited the anthology Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths. Her writing has been translated into French, Greek, Japanese, Dutch, Hebrew, Danish, Persian, and Spanish, and she is the recipient of a UNESCO/PEN Short Story Award, an NEA translation fellowship, and grants from Foundation for Hellenic Culture, the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, and Fundación Valparaiso. While Nina’s native language is Russian, she has deep ties to Ukraine and Latvia: her maternal grandparents and great-grandparents lived in Ukraine, and her paternal grandparents, in Latvia, where they perished in the Holocaust. She lives in New York.