Cinderella: No. 4 from ‘Chain Letters, 2020’

Die vier Zimmer by Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1914

Cinderella: No. 4 from ‘Chain Letters, 2020’

Maxim Osipov

Translator’s note: Over the past few months Maxim has written a series of ‘chain letters,’ which explore a variety of responses to the coronavirus pandemic, self-isolation, and the spread of misinformation by word of mouth, through mainstream media, and on Facebook. In the great tradition of Russian and Soviet satire, the letters blend officialese (in this case, both medical and political) with colloquial speech, fairy-tale tropes, and a wealth of literary and artistic allusions.

While self-isolating, a certain man, aged 65 plus, fell in love. A member of the humanist intelligentsia, he lived alone in a small fifth-floor walk up in Moscow and spent his days poring over a set of pre-Revolutionary encyclopedias. The object of his affection, however, was a young creature – a girl from the charitable organization ‘Cinderella’ (which is classed as a foreign agent under Russian law). She would dash up to his floor, put down his daily ration, and give the agreed-upon signal – five quick raps on the door: yum-yum time, come and get it, bon appétit. ‘What’s that, the football chant?’ the man asked morosely when the girl had taught him the signal: here it was, the generation gap, a rupture in cultural codes (the man had yet to fall in love). ‘No,’ she replied in a clear, youthful voice, ‘it’s from Prokofiev’s Cinderella, the gallop. Comprenez-vous?’ And at that very moment the man fell in love. ‘Love is for every age auspicious,’ as good old Alexander Ognivtsev’s used to sing at the Bolshoi, in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. He was an excellent Gremin. (It was Ognivtsev, incidentally, who first devised a way to boil potatoes in hotel rooms when on tour. All you needed was your own potatoes from home, a toilet tank, and an immersion heater – flush, then add salt and spices to taste: a recipe that fed more than one generation of Soviet performers, saving them loads of foreign currency.)

Love proceeded along the following course: the man would pace his small apartment, constantly glancing out the window –was that her? And suddenly there she’d be, his Cinderella – mask, gloves, a protective suit whiter than snow – not so much walking as flying, despite the heavy bags in her hands. Before long, a knock at the door – and poof: she’s gone, flown away, having set his heart pounding to the rhythm of Prokofiev’s gallop. A trace of her subtle, magical perfume would linger in the stairwell. That might, of course, have just been the cheap scented disinfectant they now use in all stairwells – but lovers rarely accept, much less come up with, such simple explanations.

In accordance with regulations, persons in self-isolation are supposed to keep a medical diary, tracking their vital signs and daily activities. One day the man opened his diary and entered the following: ‘When You are absent,’ he began, eschewing rhyme and ignoring even the most basic rules of punctuation (though he was a Doctor of Letters) –

My heart aches
My ears buzz
My lips crack
My eyes water
My blood runs cold
My feet freeze
My faith wavers
My strength fades
My teeth chatter
My discs slip
My chest feels tight
My gait’s not right
I run a fever
Have pain in my liver
My hands fall limp
And my head spins.

Then the man lowered himself into an armchair and sat there a long, long time without turning on the light. ‘But when You reappear, o Cinderella,’ he eventually continued –

My blood moves
My heart beats
My song flows
My ears prick up
My chest breathes
I thirst for knowledge
And spiritual sustenance
My voice grows louder
Kidneys kinder
Liver livelier
My arms, legs and aorta
Skin, bones and trachea
Pituitary gland and spleen
All gladden, rejoice
And my head spins.

Soon enough every scrap of paper in his apartment was covered with verses of similar quality. Paying no heed to what his neighbors might think, he would post one or several of his opuses on the outside of his front door every day.

The nation greets the end of the pandemic with a salute from all conventional forms of weaponry. Restaurants, concert halls, and stadiums are packed with people – all breathing free, giddily sneezing and coughing at each other, and blithely touching their faces with their hands. Plumes of smoke rise from all industrial chimneys, while the gates of every school, park, and cemetery stand open. Only one person mourns: he will no longer be visited by the object of his adoration. The man is happy for everyone else, of course – happy for the country – but he can’t cope with his other feelings. His tears fall onto the open volume of his pre-Revolutionary encyclopedia, and he doesn’t even notice.

But suddenly – a miracle! – through the roar of the guns he hears the sound of footsteps: he’d recognize these out of a thousand. Five quick raps on the door, and there she is, on the threshold: no mask, gloves, or protective cap. She’s holding a cake topped with 65 candles. It turns out today is her birthday. A former ballerina, she used to dance solo parts – if not quite at the Bolshoi, then certainly not at the Maly – and is still able to perform a dozen or two fouettés. One day, long before the pandemic, she’d seen the man on TV, on some cultural program, and had come to love him with all the might of her female heart.

The female heart, however, is a complicated subject, of which little is known, so we’d better stop here. If you share this story with your friends, our heroes will live happily ever after, like Cinderella and her prince. But if you don’t, they are sure to perish–of tetanus, say, or maybe shigella infection. People perish of all sorts of things besides coronavirus, you know.

Translated by Boris Dralyuk

Maxim Osipov (born 4 October 1963) is a Russian writer and cardiologist. His short stories and essays have won a number of prizes, and his plays have been staged and broadcast on the radio in Russia. He currently lives, writes, and practices medicine in Tarusa, a small town 90 miles from Moscow. Osipov’s fiction and non-fiction have been collected in six Russian-language volumes and translated into 19 languages. His debut collection in English, Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Other Stories, appeared in April 2019 from NYRB Classics.

Boris Dralyuk is a literary translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is co-editor (with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski) of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution and Ten Poems from Russia, and translator of Isaac Babel, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Maxim Osipov, and other authors. His poems have appeared in New Criterion, The Yale Review, Jewish Quarterly, and elsewhere.