Prose Header

If She Hadn’t Learned To Knit

by Tatyana Yankovskaya

Russian original

part 1 of 2

At the top of the mountain, a New Russian snarled an order into his cell phone. There’s nothing like the good life: yelling at someone from a mountain top, pushing off and skiing down a slope while on the other end of the phone some poor joker in Moscow or Omsk is running himself ragged to make his boss happy. But here it was beautiful, and there were a lot of Russians, as at every fashionable resort.

On the slopes the day before, Ksenia had lagged behind. At a fork in the trails she’d shouted, “Sasha, how do I get to the ski-lift?” hoping that he’d hear her. A guy in a red parka turned around and pointed with his ski pole. “Over there and to the right,” he told her in Russian.

After lunch that day, Sasha wanted to photograph her against the background of the mountain range. As she stood by a stone wall overlooking a precipice, a tall man got up from a neighboring table and put a plate of steak and fried potatoes on the wall near her. Ksenia didn’t know why, but then one of the crows flew down, sat on the plate, and began to devour the meat to cheering shouts from the table, in Russian of course. Who else would feed the crows when there was a sign on the restaurant wall forbidding it? And who else would feed them not bread crumbs, but a plate of a real food? Ksenia laughed.

First she posed for Sasha in front of the magnificent Matterhorn and then took his picture in the same place, appreciating why the Matterhorn was the most photographed scene of nature in the world. Afterwards, Sasha dragged her off to a slope that she could barely ski down.

Ksenia is a cautious skier who doesn’t seek out adventure and is frightened by thrills. She likes to follow maps; Sasha likes to go wherever his fancy leads him. Once he skied towards Italy, but she saw a warning sign in time and didn’t go after him. If she had, she’d have trudged back uphill like Sasha when he realized that he’d taken a wrong turn. Because of that, they missed the last ski-lift.

They could have skied down, but the base of the slope was narrow and icy. Let some daredevil break his leg there, but that wasn’t for Ksenia. Fortunately, a half an hour later one last gondola took the service staff down the mountain, and they were able to go with them.

Today Ksenia returned from the slopes early, luxuriated in a bath at the hotel, and then went out for a walk. She saw a charming café offering Swiss confections, with tables on an open, sunlit terrace. That evening the big dinner in the hotel would be Chinese fondue, so instead of a big meal now, she decided to just have a snack.

Ksenia ordered apple strudel with vanilla sauce and Glühwein. The sauce wasn’t anything special — like a Russian egg flip — but as the Glühwein filled her entire body with sweetness and warmth, her head began to spin — not from the wine, but from happiness. Because this was happiness: sun, snow, mountains, an Alpine village with a roiling river down the center, being still young and pretty, feeling pleasantly sore muscles after skiing and that lofty lightness after taking off heavy ski boots, and there on the slopes among the tiny figures — Sasha, her husband, a daredevil skier. He’d ski until he was exhausted, come home, go to the pool and sauna (without her; she was afraid of catching cold), and then they’d go out together.

Small hotels lined the river, many with restaurants on the first floor. Someone had hung two gloves on a low wire fence so that they stuck out like huge, foam-filled casts of hands. For some reason she remembered the French film Under the Sand. A husband leaves his things on the beach and goes swimming. He disappears. They can’t find the body and his wife doesn’t believe that he drowned. Maybe he just went off without saying anything?

The director hinted at why that might have happened. The couple lived near each other but not together. The audience sees it and the husband knows it, but the wife doesn’t see anything wrong — that’s just the way she is. In the end they find the body, but she still doesn’t want to believe it; it’s easier for her to live protected by a phantom from being together in a relationship, which her new lover wants, because being near her isn’t enough.

Many people live that way their whole lives — some because they are indifferent and self-absorbed, but want the convenience of marriage. Or a child keeps them together. Or they don’t want to admit that they made a mistake when they got married. Or they are afraid of being alone. It’s sad to see people who stay together only for that reason.

The streets gradually filled with skiers returning from the slopes with their skies over their shoulders, clumsily waddling heel to toe in their heavy boots. Some of the men carried two sets of skis — theirs and their women partners’ — while other women lugged their own skis. Does how they carry skis reveal anything about the relationships of those couples? Does it tell which of them are truly together and which are just near each other? Does the man carry his partner’s skis because he is attentive or because he’s under her thumb?

Ksenia returned to her room, put on a hotel robe, and sat to read a book on the balcony, her bare legs in the sun. The wonder of a high altitude — snow all around, and yet it’s warm enough to sunbathe. Heaven! The sun slowly slid down towards the mountains across from the Matterhorn — a huge beast rearing its head — and lit up its chest where snow nestled in the folds. It was getting cooler.

Back in the room, she turned on the television — how amazing, they had the Russian channel RTR Planet. Where was Sasha? It was already six o’clock and growing dark. She called him on his cell, but there was no answer. Maybe he was on the slope that had bad cell phone reception. Half past six. Even if he came down with the service personnel, as they did yesterday, or on his own, he should have been here a while ago. He probably skied down into Italy, either on purpose or by mistake, and got stuck there — missing the last ski lift that would take him back up to the Swiss side.

From the very first day Sasha had dreamed of skiing down to Cervinia, walking around, eating lunch and Italian ice cream, seeing the Matterhorn from the side of the border where it’s called Cervino, and then returning. But why hadn’t he called? If his cell battery was low he could call from a pay phone, and if he’d gotten stranded, he’d have to go to a hotel to spend the night — there is no road, and everyone who strays there or misses the ski lift remains until morning. But he could call from there.

She called his cell and left a message. He didn’t answer or call her back. Ksenia decided to get hold of herself and not call again. But after a while she called more and more often. On the one hand, it was obviously senseless, but on the other... What if he’d fallen? What if he was lying unconscious in the woods or on the slope and she called just at the moment when he came to? Or what if the familiar toreador ring tone would wake him up and he’d call? Seven o’clock. Something was wrong — she should go and tell the manager.

Blonde Inga consoled Ksenia: It’s rare that someone gets lost, but staying in Italy happens frequently, although everyone has always called before this time. If only she knew that Sasha wasn’t “everyone.” He’s probably delighted that he got to Italy, sitting somewhere drinking beer or eating ice cream without a moment’s thought that someone was worrying about him. She didn’t care if he’d lost his way and was now drinking and eating — but he should call first!

After a half hour, Inga stopped consoling Ksenia and called wherever one calls in cases like this. “In the twenty years that I’ve worked here, this is the first time I’ve had to raise the alarm.” Ksenia’s husband Alexander wasn’t on the list of people who had medical care today, and nothing was noticed or reported that would help find out what happened to him.

A young woman walked over from the bar: on television today there was a report about a husband and wife in Zermatt who disappeared. They went snowshoeing in the mountains and didn’t come back. Their cell phone doesn’t answer and authorities believe they fell into a crevasse. What if Sasha was lying frozen in a crevasse? They should call him — call him constantly, and maybe the ring would wake him up and he’d think of some way to get out. But what if he broke his leg?

Inga called the crisis center again. They still didn’t have any information about Alexander. They’d already sent a helicopter to look for the couple, but they hadn’t found them yet. They have assumed that they’re dead and will start to look for the bodies tomorrow. Ksenia asks if a helicopter could look for Sasha.

Inga writes down the name of the service and a telephone number for Ksenia to call. It would be very expensive. What’s the best thing to do? Call them and start the search right away? But what can they find in the dark? Wait until morning? But what if he freezes by morning or dies from loss of blood? What do people usually do in this situation?

Inga and the barkeep can’t recall a similar situation. They share Ksenia’s concern. “If your husband is okay, then he owes us some champagne. What a lot of trouble he’s caused!” Inga says. “I’m amazed at how well you’re coping. Anyone else in your situation would be hysterical, and we’d have to call an ambulance by now. In twenty years I’ve seen a lot of nervous wives.”

What does this lovely Swiss German know? If she hadn’t learned to knit — if she hadn’t spent the night many years ago knitting leggings and mastered the craft — a helicopter would already be in the air, and Sasha — if the rat was alive — would be getting a hefty bill the next day. But that other time gave Ksenia strength. Deep in her heart she believes that Sasha lives under a lucky star, and she knows that he is inexplicably... what? Irresponsible? Callous? Unable to empathize? Impractical? Self-absorbed? Infantile? Who the hell knows what it is — probably all of the above. She recalls an old story, and that helps her calm her growing panic.

Today probably few young mothers know how to knit. And why should they? You can buy anything you want, even if it’s expensive — just wait until it goes on sale. But in the 1980s in Russia, a woman who didn’t knit was as rare as a woman without a single filling in her teeth. That was Ksenia. She didn’t knit and didn’t have a single filling, which sent impressionable dentists into holy fits.

When she was pregnant and went in for a check-up, the dentist gasped and called the other dentists in the office to come look in her mouth. And a few years later at a check-up in the research institute where Ksenia worked, the dentist was so excited that she went out into the hall and had the waiting patients come in to look and share her professional joy. “Will you just look at those teeth! Healthy, beautiful! How did you take such good care of them? I’ve never seen a 30-year-old woman without a single filling. Where did you grow up? What did you eat?”

Vika said the same thing: “Good Lord, Ksenia, where did you grow up? How did you turn out this way? You’re good with your hands, and yet you’ve never learned how to handle knitting needles. Watch.”

But no matter how long Ksenia watched, it was no good. For one thing, Vika looped the yarn over the needle, but Ksenia’s mother had somehow hooked it under. Ksenia tried it both ways, but she couldn’t get it. You have to get the knack of knitting so that it becomes automatic. And what about the women who knit while they watch television?

If Ksenia bought some good wool or unraveled an old sweater, her mother would knit her a hat and scarf, or Vika would say: “All right, bring me the yarn. I’ll knit your Dasha a dress.” Ksenia gave up the thought of mastering this ancient craft.

When Dasha grew older and went to school, Ksenia came home from work one day and found her daughter knitting. Dasha was making a dress for her doll. “Mom, it’s so easy — look!”

“How did you learn that?”

“When I was at Grandma’s on Sunday, she taught me. Want me to teach you?”

Who wouldn’t want their child to teach them to knit — teach them anything at all? Ksenia thought she’d start with something easy: she had unraveled a black sweater and decided that she would knit leggings for Dasha. What else could you knit a child from black yarn? She’d start Friday evening, when Sasha was going to a party with people he met on a tour of Germany. A year ago she’d also gone on a tour — to Czechoslovakia — and later the group also got together to look at slides. Her slides were the best in the group, but people always raved about Sasha’s.

Down to work, comrades! Ksenia began slowly with Dasha helping her. After dinner, when her daughter went to play with the neighbor’s children, she kept knitting on her own, gradually getting faster. Then Dasha went to bed and Ksenia moved to the other room. Her fingers moved more and more deftly, and she took pleasure in her own ability and the rhythm of her work.

Unfortunately, she hadn’t asked Sasha when he’d be home. It was already 11.30 and time for him to be back. She put on a record with the sound low. Vivaldi was perfect for knitting, and both the knitting and the music were calming.

The record came to an end. The metro had closed and soon the trams would stop running for the night. Where did he go? In what part of the city did the girl who invited them live? He hadn’t left a phone number and it had never occurred to her to ask. Back to work. She had to decrease the stitches to narrow the legs.

It might be time to call the police. But she wouldn’t call them. Three years ago, when Sasha had called from work and said that he was going to Saenko’s apartment to work on an article, at three o’clock in the morning she couldn’t take it any more and called the police. Just as the duty officer replied, she heard the key in the door and Sasha walked in. He had simply been at Saenko’s.

After dinner Sasha and Saenko had continued to discuss the article they were writing, and then Sergei had showed him his paintings — Sasha hadn’t known that painting was his hobby — what talent! — and they’d forgotten about time, and Saenko didn’t have a phone...

No, she wouldn’t call the police. Which girl’s apartment did they go to? Wait — where’s his trip diary? He must have written down phone numbers — he certainly wrote down Igor’s number. But Igor might be there, too. Maybe his parents would know something? But she couldn’t call them in the middle of the night.

Ksenia found a thick notebook in the pile on the desk. In the front were her drawings — the shoes and purse she wanted him to bring back from Germany. To her amazement, he’d found exactly what she’d wanted. And he brought back the same color gloves, too. They were lovely.

Here was the description of the first day, the second... finally she found several names and telephone numbers. There were two women’s names, one of them near Grazhdansky Prospekt. That’s probably where they all went. Should she call or not? What if he didn’t call her on purpose? What if he had decided to leave her and their child, just like that, without an explanation?

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2012 by Tatyana Yankovskaya
translation © 2012 by Michele A. Berdy

Home Page