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Borscht

Anatoly Belilovsky is a Russian-American author and translator of speculative fiction. He was born in a city that went through six or seven owners in the last century, all of whom used it to do a lot more than drive to church on Sundays; he is old enough to remember tanks rolling through it on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968. After being traded to the US for a shipload of grain and a defector to be named later (see Wikipedia, Jackson-Vanik amendment), he learned English from Star Trek reruns and went on to become a paediatrician in an area of New York where English is only the fourth most commonly used language. His original work appeared or will appear in the Unidentified Funny Objects anthology, Nature Futures, Daily SF, Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk, and Genius Loci, and has been podcast by Cast of Wonders, Tales of Old, and Toasted Cake; his translations from Russian have sold to F&SF, Year's Best SF #32 (edited by Gardner Dozois,) Podcastle, and Kasma. He blogs about writing at loldoc.net.
Her grandmother's borscht smelled of lemon and potato; it was the color of claret. It tasted of summer twilight that lasted forever, and just a little bit of garlic.
"What's this?" she asks her husband in English and points at her plate.
"Borscht," he says in Russian. His tone tugs at a memory of an old Russian joke:
A man walks into a restaurant, says to the waiter: "Bring me three-day-old bread, a plate of cold borscht, throw it on the table, and growl, 'I hope you choke.'"--"Certainly, but... Why?"--"I miss home cooking."
She finds it hard to even look at her husband's borscht. Its color is the pale orange-tan expressed by RGB 180-60-10, the wine-dark betanin of the beet hydrolyzed to betaxanthine in the alkaline broth.
"I can't eat that," she tries to say in Russian, but what she catches as it teeters at the tip of her tongue is: "Throw out this shit!" She switches to English at the last moment. "I can't eat that," she says. English is great for declarative sentences, having the color and the flavor of a glass of cold tap water, its words clink at the surface like ice cubes.
The armistice was in English, though both sides spoke Russian. It holds, perhaps because it is in English. So is their marriage certificate, sanctified by the State of Nevada. There are no Russian words in it at all. Russian words are like chunks of cabbage in pale alkaline borscht. Once said, they sit at the bottom of the stomach like an undigested meal--
Why did he switch to Russian today? His English is perfect--
"What don't you like about it?" he says.
Hunger and nausea. She clamps her jaw, blinks tears away. The borscht is mocking her, cabbage leaves laughing in her face like kids in school. Didn't anyone ever laugh at her in English? Not that she'd remembered. If anyone did, it didn't hurt as much.
"It smells," she says.
"Of what?"
She wants to say, of cabbage, but nausea hits before her mouth can shape the word. "Of dimethyl sulfide," she says slowly, and adds: "It's the end product of degradation of dimethyl propiosulfonate."
Why can't she just say, "I hate cabbage?"
He nods. "I see."
"I don't want it," she whispers. "Let's go out."
Her grandmother used to whisper, "We have to leave this country." Grandma whispered it to the broken window and to the rock that went through it, she whispered it to the bruises her granddaughter brought home from school, while Grandpa whispered: "Or shoot the bastards."
Why did he switch to Russian today?
Why did he cook this borscht?
She stands up, walks to the refrigerator. She picks up a glass, puts it onto the dispenser shelf, presses first the ice button, then water. The glass clinks and gurgles.
"Want some?" she says, reaching for another glass.
"No ice," he says.
Back in the old country there was a cartoon of an evil American capitalist putting ice in a child's drink. All sicknesses came from cold, everyone knew that. You really had to hate children to put ice in their drinks.
She thought the same of cabbage.
She brings him water, no ice, sits down and sips her own.
"It's my grandmother's recipe," he says and nods at the plate. He says it in Russian: "Eto babushkin retsept."
A tear escapes her eye, shaken loose by the word "babushkin:" "grandmother's" in Russian. Words translate; their power does not. One tear for her babushka; another for his.
They'd probably hate each other, their babushki. They'd whisper ethnic epithets at each other, all day long. Too bad they didn't live to see the wedding; they'd probably live forever, each to deny the other the satisfaction.
Their grandfathers would probably have shot each other.
At Grandpa's deathbed, as he lay gasping, waiting for an ambulance that never came, Grandma got the last word in. "We have to leave this country," she said out loud.
Whoever got the last word in his family was probably much like her grandmother.
She wipes her tears, and only then can see his eyes. They, too, are moist and red.
"What's going on?" she says.
"Dinner."
She shakes her head. "No, not just dinner. What's really going on? Why--"
"You talk in your sleep," he says.
She drops her gaze before she can stop herself.
"Are all your dreams in Russian?" he says.
She shakes her head. "Only the nightmares," she says, in Russian for the first time. He waits, and she continues: "Nightmares... of kindergarten. When I was little." Little, and weak, and alone. "They fed us..." She stops, swallows bile.
"Cabbage," he says. "Borscht with cabbage."
Nausea hits her, ties knots inside her, knots that bind past to the present and reach for the future, everything simultaneous: she sits, she stands, she runs, she kneels at the toilet, she vomits, she sobs, she feels his arm around her waist, his hand holding a towel wiping at her mouth, she hears his voice calling her name, the Russian diminutive that her grandmother used to call her.
Much later, all in Russian:
"How do you feel?" he asks.
She meets his eyes. "No one can hurt me in English," she says.
He does not flinch. "Like I said," he says. "You talk in your sleep."
She opens her mouth to ask what she says, remembers last night's nightmare, and clamps her jaw shut.
"You don't hate in English," he says.
"Well then," she says, "we can just--"
"You don't love in English, either," he says. "I'm sorry. I'm not looking for an armistice."
She thinks of huddling in the dark, of shells whining overhead, of deafening crashes, of stucco spalling off the ceiling--
Of pale cabbage borscht, and of eyes that say, "I hope you choke--"
His eyes say something very different.
"I hate cabbage," she says. "Never cook cabbage again. Ever."
"As long as we shall both live," he says, a line from liturgy in Old Church Slavonic. She never heard that line before; their marriage was in English. Until now.
"Amin,'", she says and kisses him. He tastes of summer twilight, and just a little bit of garlic.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 30th, 2016

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