Today, I’d like to give you an excerpt from a new collection of short stories entitled Blue Mood, which will be out on Amazon in a couple of months. These stories feed into my interest in globalism, individual isolation, artistic creativity and warped families, which manifests throughout my work.
This particular story is my personal favorite. It’s called Chains.
Sashenka Dashenka, the boys all called her, imitating her mother’s reedy voice and laughing. But Sasha never paid attention to them, walking with her head bowed, clasping her books to her chest tightly.
She grew up like that and hated being noticed. In school she hung back, turning in her work quietly, quickly walking home where her mother was waiting and fretting.
Her mother never knew if there would be a scene when her father arrived, if he would like his dinner or throw it on the floor. If he was drunk and happy he’d pick up his guitar and sing sad love songs to her, and she would be happy for a while, though her eyes were always sad. But if he was drunk and angry, they would scramble out of his way until they were sure he was asleep, and they would be quiet, so quiet and careful, never raising their voices above a whisper so as not to wake him.
Sashenka’s mother tried to make everything beautiful as if they were living in an enchanted land. She had worked in the theater before she was married and she sewed and painted old broken furniture and reupholstered and painted some more. She carved wood and embroidered, and showed Sashenka how to decorate Easter eggs. But everything Sashenka tried to create was odd. She saw things in a skewed way, convex for concave and long where there was short. When she drew, her world was populated by talking bears and old witches who lived in tree houses and ate small children.
As she grew older, Sashenka continued to fill whole notebooks with her creatures despite her mothers looks of dismay.
‘She’s wondering why I’m not normal, why I don’t grow out of it,’ Sashenka said to herself. But she only grew odder.
She collected fallen nests and old feathers, stones and branches and pine cones and leaves.
‘What do you need that for?’ her mother asked, but Sashenka only shrugged and continued to fill her notebooks.
One day she came home from school with a painting depicting four witches in a forest dismembering and eating a group of children.
‘They want you to sign something, Mama,’ Sashenka said. ‘They want to send me for testing.’ Sashenka’s mother signed but did not sleep whole nights for fear until the report came back. Sashenka seemed normal enough according to the psychiatrist, a case of an overactive imagination. He advised her to take up sports. And so Sashenka’s mother dutifully bought her a bicycle which Sashenka rode everywhere though it did not diminish her enthusiasm for her secret wold.
She hid her findings, which went undiscovered until spring cleaning, under her bed, when her irate mother threw everything away. Sashenka did not despair. She circumvented her mother’s eye by adding to her cache in the cellar each time she put her bicycle away. Her mother had an horror of cellars, having had survived the Red Army’s operations in Kiev during the terrible German occupation in World War II, and never went down there.
In time Sashenka created an entire tableau, an enchanted forest of twigs and moss, and streams of pebbles spiraling through it. She painted the sun and the moon with human faces and filled the night sky with shining stars and hung it as a back drop. She curled herself in an old blanket and having learned her lesson at school, only dared to imagine the figures living in the forest.
Her favorite was a girl with long blond hair, three breasts and one leg who was married to a giant black wolf. The wolf could breath fire and lived in the hollow of an old chestnut tree. A dragon with golden scales and a green underbelly dwelt in a paper- mache cave on the other side of the woods guarding a ruby treasure. Azure and celadon horses with white wings lived on the mountain and visited with the girl when her husband was away hunting people. A wizard with a magic cloak made himself invisible and tricked the devil, who had his sites on taking over the entire forest and cutting it down for firewood. The princess in the castle, though unbeknown to her furry subjects, was really a shape-shifting toad.
Sashenka’s mother could not understand why Sashenka had no friends and for her thirteenth birthday hand crafted invitations for the entire class, which Sashenka undutifully stashed behind some loose bricks in the cellar. Sashenka’s mother cooked and baked all week preparing for the great event. She forced Sashenka to sit at the piano for hours, practicing in anticipation of her guests.
‘You have to learn to entertain properly,’ she said. Sashenka nodded, wondering if the boys and girls in her mother’s home town had turned off the lights at their parties to feel each others bodies and exchange kisses.
Later that evening, Sashenka stood at the window in her poofy pink party dress, knobby knees showing, a white bow in her hair and announced, ‘Mama, I don’t think anyone is coming.’ Her mother put the food away wordlessly and never mentioned the evening or asked if Sashenka had made new friends again.
When Sashenka entered high school school, she had the additional burden of eyeglasses. Her mother picked a cat’s eyed style, and Sashenka asked for them in purple not realizing they would make her an object of ridicule. She wore them proudly until she heard the taunting behind her. Sashenka rushed home without turning around.
‘I hate high school,’ she announced in a rare outburst of passion.
‘We all have to do things we hate, life being what it is,’ her mother added, chewing her lip. And so Sashenka redoubled her efforts to remain inconspicuous. Once after art class, she managed to say a few words about her cellar project to her teacher, a woman who exhibited her own work, interlocking monochromatic squares, as if she had deconstructed a thousand years of western art singlehandedly. Listening to Sashenka’s confused stuttering patently, the teacher commented, ‘That’s all been done before,’ with a frown.
After school that day, Sashenka went down to the cellar with a trash bag intending to dismantle her entire world. However she was distracted by the dragon who had swallowed a large ruby and needed to be resuscitated by the bear physician. The bear had prepared a special brew culled over a long time from the marrow of art teachers who had wandered into the forest.
The art teacher left under a curse and moved away. The new art teacher, an attractive young man with sandy hair, took notice of Sashenka one day when she was staring out into space. She herself had noticed that she would have long lapses when she was completely disconnected from her surroundings. She had chalked it up as another oddity, but he said, ‘Only the most creative people can do that.’
He saw her in the schoolyard one day, collecting stones and asked her what they were for. She told him of her spiraling designs, her overlapping leaves, her collection of abandoned bird’s nests. He showed her photographs of artists who worked with natural materials and their installations.
‘Have you ever seen this kind of work before?’ he asked. Sashenka shook her head, no. Her mother only allowed her to take serious literature home from the library, she said. He brought her some of his own books to look at. She told him about the forest in the cellar.
‘I can’t see it Sashenka. It wouldn’t be proper for me to come to your house,’ he said, but seeing her disappointment, lent her his camera.
It took her a long time to understand how to light her project and to take the shots. Fortunately her mother was in the hospital having her tonsils removed and no questions were asked.
‘This is great Sashenka, ‘ her teacher said enthusiastically.’ It’s not the norm for a kid your age to have an original style.’
Sashenka turned those words over and over in her mind for days. In the forest, the wolf husband ran off with a pink squirrel and the one legged girl fell in love with a handsome young knight at the castle.
At school, her teacher gave her a canvas and oil paints. Day after day, she stayed in the studio until the janitor kicked her out. She waited for her teacher to comment, but he said nothing. She went ahead and painted a pink and red world with water falls and ferns and tall trees. Behind rents in the fabric of the forest, evil humans with long noses and eyes in the middle of their foreheads, made mischief and engaged in unholy acts. One nasty boy, who appeared over and over again, was seen garroting a cat and stepping on a mound of ants. When it was finished she couldn’t sleep all night, worried her teacher would think her mad. But when she arrived to class that morning, he said, ‘It’s great Sashenka. Can you do more like it?’
She could. She painted all that year and then she made installations. He photographed them all and showed them to his friends saying, ‘The girl is unusual.’