My heart is jumping out of my chest as I'm typing this, because with this book I've been through a herd of frolicking flamingoes and I thought at first they were nice and sweet and pink and then they turned into black fucking ravens and stripped me off my skin and opened their terrible mouths and, well...I HAVE FINISHED THE DAMNED BOOK YESTERDAY but what I mean to say here is, when I wrote the 1st draft, some people loved it, but the one to whom I dedicated it didn't (and rightfully so, it was shitty) and suggested improvements, and so I wrote the 2nd draft, and some people liked it a lot, and I got more notes on how to improve it, and then I wrote the 3rd draft, and I had some people outright tell me they fell in love with it, and now I finished the 4th draft, and it has changed so much, that I'm scared shitless. I do hope I didn't toil for nothing for 7 months, so you tell me what you think. I can tell you that I'M SO FUCKING HAPPY I'M DONE WITH THIS BOOK, YOU HAVE NO IDEA.
If you want to compare, here are the versions:
Draft 1 opening - people told me it was like chick lit/women's fiction type stuff, and it's in 3rd person.
Draft 2 opening - people told me it was like historical fiction with an element of horror. I added a magical realism layer.
Draft 3 opening - people told me this turned raw and fresh and it's a psychological thriller. I changed from 3rd person to 1st person and went bonkers.
Draft 4 opening - people told me that the word choice and the imagery is so intense, it makes them want to cry and it's a masterpiece (WUT?? Totally not).
See for yourself. I'm beyond terrified now, and I wonder what this book would've been like if I didn't publicly post the drafts and listened to feedback. Probably something else entirely. I've sent it off to my lovely editor who says I should have it back sometime in October, so to those of you who have pre-ordered it, I think I will have paperback copies in November. Thank you for waiting!
A Novel by Ksenia Anske, Draft 4
Chapter 1. Mouse
I wake up and feel for the boar. The boar is Lyosha Kabansky, mama’s boyfriend. He’s there all right, snoring. It’s September first. I don’t need to go to school anymore and I could’ve slept in, but I’m leaving. He tried to sell me yesterday. He said, “Irkadura, this is Vova. You know what to do. I’ll give you a ruble for some ice cream.” I wouldn’t do it, so he beat me. Then they had me. They took turns, Lyosha and Vova. Drunk.
I turned into a mouse to escape them. It’s easier that way.
I’m sixteen and I’m mute.
It’s good you have a fat dick, Lyosha. Something for me to hold on to, when I gut you.
It’s like he heard me. He grunts and turns to mama.
My mama is a catfish. She sleeps by Lyosha’s other side, filthy, fat and naked. She became a catfish when I was two, on the day I’ve stopped talking.
I was sitting on a potty and I learned how to say my first word, dura. I waddled up to mama and I said, “Dua.” I couldn’t roll the ‘r’.
She kept her eyes closed. “Be quiet.”
I watched the curtains sway, the maroon curtains over the balcony window. The rotting parquet pissed through by cats and dogs. “Dua.” I said, so happy I could say it. “Dua, dua.”
She said, “Go away.”
I touched her shoulder.
“What?” She sat up. “What do you want?”
“Who’s dura? Irka, who taught you this, huh?” Her face was crumpled with pillow creases. “You dumb girl. I’ll show you dura.” She struck me.
I flew to the potty and knocked it over. My urine soaked into my shirt and wet my face. She beat me. When I looked up, my mama was gone. In her place was a catfish. A big scary catfish. It hung over me with its open suckermouth and it breathed its stagnant stink into my face. It hurt me. I bit my tongue lying on the floor by the curtains, right by the maroon curtains.
I never said another word.
Lyosha snorts, opens one eye.
“Where you going?”
Where pigs like you get quartered.
He mumbles something and drops back to sleep.
He showed up at our door last year with red carnations in one hand and a bottle of Stolichnaya in another. A discharged butcher after three years in prison. I knew he was a boar right away, from the greedy glint in his eyes.
On the very first night he got mama drunk and he did me for the first time and every night after that. I was not a virgin and it made him disappointed and angry. He slapped me. There were scores before him, stray dogs my mama picked up from dingy Moscow streets. Grubby men without money who liked to use my parts.
I pinch myself. Go, you dimwit. Get out.
I think about everything I hate.
Lenochka’s taunting and explosive laughter. Auntie Sonya’s jokes. Cat smell, mites in bed, soiled bedding on the floor. Dog sex under the kitchen table. Grandma drowning newborn puppies in the bucket. Piles and piles of dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. And the shouting about who’d be washing them, the yelling and the screaming and the fighting and the pulling of hair.
I dress quietly, steal five rubles from mama’s stash under an empty vodka bottle, stuff my backpack with a change of clothes and tiptoe to the corridor. I know all the planks that don’t creak. I click the front door shut, skid down eighteen flights of stairs and step out into the open, into yellow leaves and wind.
I crane my neck. Grandma is waving at me from the ninth floor window of our Brezhnevka faced with bleached tile and streaked with mold. “Where are you off to? It’s seven in the morning! You don’t need to go to school anymore!” She is the cockroach.
Auntie Sonya leans out, the big herring. “Irkadura! Get back! Take the dogs out!”
Lenochka squeezes in below, the little herring. “Irkadura lost her mind! Irkadura lost her mind! Irkadura—”
Sonya slaps her. “Quiet. People are looking.”
I run without looking and bump into a boy in a navy uniform with a little Octobrist star on his lapel. He holds a bouquet of asters. His mother says to me, “Watch where you’re going.”
I bolt along the long apartment block and its grimy porches and rows of snowberry bushes sprinkled with white berries that I like to pop. Round the corner. Pass the grocery store, the ice cream kiosk that sells coffee gum, my favorite flavor. The sports store with bicycles on display, Kama and Salut. I want a Salut but it costs one hundred rubles and nobody in my family can afford it.
I stop in the small public garden by my school number 318. It’s framed in chestnut trees. In the center of the asphalt square begonia flowerbeds surround a life-size statue of Lenin. His one arm is pointed at the bright proletariat future and another clutches his coat’s lapel. His eyes are dead and splotched with bird poop.
I kick at the chestnut shells. Some are cracked with shiny kernels inside. I pick one up, peel it and throw it at the flock of pigeons. They scatter.
Festive children and their parents begin arriving at the square for the first school day. Boys in uniform navy suits and girls in white lacy aprons over brown dresses, their braids tied with ribbons, led by their mamas and papas and grandmas.
I gather a handful of chestnuts and aim at one girl. She looks about eight, plump and smiley, her hand held by a modish lipsticked mama.
Too bad these aren’t stones to take out your smile.
I throw and miss her by a meter, gather more.
Why are you so happy? What did you eat for breakfast, caviar? Did you fry your fat little tummy all summer in the hot Krymsky sun?
I whirl around.
The statue of Lenin is talking to me. “Come, citizen. I have an important question to ask you. What is your goal in life?”
I have no life.
“You don’t know? Ay-ay, that’s not good. I will tell you. Your goal in life is to devote yourself to the Soviet state and to become a Bolshevik.”
The chestnuts drop from my hand.
Lenin shakes a finger at me. “Who is a Bolshevik? A Bolshevik is the one who leads our revolutionary work.” He rolls his ‘r’ in a strange crippled way. “You know what work I’m speaking of, Myshko?” A thunderous step off the pedestal, smashed begonias under his boots.
My palms are sweaty. I back off into a bench.
“No, I see that you do not. That’s a shame. Ten school years and all of them wasted. You, citizen Myshko, are of Menshevik faction. I can see it.” Another step. “You’re a mouse, a selfish vermin. A criminal."
I can’t move.
“Your crime is that you don’t understand the essence of the Soviet power.”
Pioneers in red neckerchiefs detach from the school crowd and come to his aide.
“Are you ready?” He asks them.
“Always ready!” They say and change into giant woodpeckers with small hungry eyes. They peck at me.
“You forgot your neckerchief again!”
“You didn’t iron it!”
“You’ll be banned from the Pioneer Organization!”
“Do you know what happens to bad pioneers, citizen Myshko?” Says Lenin. “To those pioneers who refuse to join the communist revolution?”
They turn into deranged maniacs, their heads stuffed with your bogus equality theories.
“Their necks get snapped like this.” Lenin grabs a woodpecker and flips it around. There is a bone crunch. Wings flap spasmodically and hang limp. He throws the dead woodpecker at my feet. “This is what happens to those who don’t believe in the Soviet power. The Soviet power will triumph all over the world!” The second woodpecker is cracked in a blur. “Necessarily!” The third. “Inevitably!” The fourth. “Permanently!”
I believe in my ass, because your government is shit. Your propaganda is lies. I’d rather die than fit your ideals.
I whack the statue across the face with my backpack. It topples over and lands in a cloud of dust. The woodpeckers screech and disband.
I run under the arch between two conjoined dismal apartment blocks, cross a broken playground and emerge by the line of busses and trolleybuses at the Belyaevo metro station where I join the sweaty mob squeezing through the flapping glass doors. Nausea seizes my gut. My mouth tastes sour. I pass by the booth attendant yelling at a pensioner for an outdated permit, press both thumbs into the turnstyle barriers and skip without paying.
“Hey! Stop! Militia!”
I ford a noisy platform thick with people. Marble columns, steel panels embossed with fairytale birds. I halt on the very edge and watch the train emerge from the tunnel as if from the bowels of Moscow metro. It crawls along the tracks like a greenish tapeworm with five eyes and eight body segments.
The sliding doors open. Eager bodies push me inside. There is no space to stand freely and no air to breathe. More people press from the platform. A squabble breaks out.
“Let go of the doors.” Says the machinist’s voice over the intercom.
I grip the handrail and hang over those who managed to sit down. The next station is announced and the doors slam shut. The train lurches to a measured staccato of wheels. Bodies shift with it, their bad breath, their unwashed skin odor, yellowing teeth and dull eyes.
A hand lands on my buttock.
There is no room for me to turn and my vision swims from an urge to retch. I swallow to keep it down, squint. The train car walls wilt to the color of rotten yolk. Lights dim. A drop of warm sweat rolls down my back under my shirt and I know it’s coming. The air around me folds with a squelch and I shrink and—
The mouse sits on the gritty floor in a narrow gap between endless shoes. It squeals. It’s afraid. It feels a long and slimy thing sloshing inside it, the thing that came from the boar. It sprung out and uncoiled and lodged itself in the mouse’s belly and latched onto its gut. The mouse taps a frantic dance. The train stops and it hurries out, dodging stomping feet.
I’m back to myself and I blink and press my head on the cool marble column. Bright light shines in my eyes. Stale metro warmth clings to my skin. The hum of commuters and trains coming and going. A solicitous face asks, “Are you alright?” A pat on the shoulder. I nod. I have almost fainted. This is not good. That dreadful thought is back at me again. I don’t want it, but it stays. It nags at me with annoying repetitiveness.
Despite the lemon wedge, despite the potassium permanganate.
I lift my sweater and grab a handful of skin and twist it until it hurts.
You deserve this, dura. You deserve this.
My diaphragm pushes up sour bile and I don’t know how I don’t throw up. I heave, swallow, wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and walk to the center of the vestibule and tilt my head up.
The indicator board says it’s Teatralnaya station.