If you let you a leaky ceiling break you now, Nadia, then you deserve whatever dull, unexceptional plans this world has for you. That’s what Nadia told herself as she pulled the last glass from the cupboard and set it under the leak that had sprung overnight. Over the course of a week, her apartment had become a garden of cylindrical things: glasses, coffee mugs, buckets, a vase. And she tended it routinely, emptying each container as it filled, replacing it wherever seemed most urgent.
The landlords lived in the main house just across the yard from Nadia’s, though they were currently out of the country on something called a luxury treehouse tour. They had been gone two weeks. It hadn’t rained in four.
At first, the leak was kind of a thrill, something Nadia could tell the other research interns about when they exchanged renters’ grievances in the break room at work. It was the first time any of them had been on their own, and as they told their stories—one intern’s noisy neighbors, another’s knocking pipes—through their eyerolls and grumbling, their voices betrayed a certain pride.
By this point, for Nadia, the novelty was starting to wear off. Her white tomcat, Eggy, was a different story. He walked slowly through the new obstacles as if considering their fate, deliberating whether to lap up the water from this cup or paw at that one until it overturned. Nadia was cleaning one of his spills, Eggy grooming himself maddeningly across the room, when she got the call from her mother: The great chef Galina was dying five thousand six hundred miles away.
* * *
Nadia’s mother was named Lyudmila, but she went by Mila to save Americans the trouble. Her husband was an American; a sincere, pensive man she had met at university, who was competitive with her about grades back then but had let her win at everything since.
Mila grew up in a place of superlatives: in the world’s coldest town, at the end of the world’s longest railroad line, on the edge of the world’s deepest lake with her parents and her half sister, Galina. And that’s where Galya was currently dying—nearly done dying, it seemed—while Mila enjoyed her comfortable existence with her quiet, reliable husband and a Tommy Hilfiger store not even ten blocks away. On birthdays and Christmases, Mila sent big packages of clothing to her family, full of polo shirts and soft cotton khakis; the import tariffs were so high, it would be impossible for them to get it otherwise. But now Galya was the only family left there, and she wasn’t exactly the Tommy Hilfiger type.
On the phone, Mila told her daughter that she was going to the coldest town to visit Galya, and that she didn’t expect Nadia to come, but that she could if she wanted, given it would be her last chance to meet her aunt: a talented chef and a person who had lived, really, a very different life from Nadia. And it might be good for Nadia to hear the language and learn the traditions. Mila didn’t even spit over her shoulder at the devil anymore, or sit on the road for luck before a big trip, and she never had taken to cooking…
Nadia explained that it wasn’t a good time, that if she fell behind on her work she might never catch up. Mila understood: Her daughter was on her own now. Mila had left home once too and been ecstatic at the distance. She didn’t start sending the Tommy Hilfiger clothes until she was older. She thought it might take Nadia some time to discover her own guilt and repackage it into something she could mail in installments.
We should Skype, though, Nadia suggested, wondering whether the leaks would be taken care of by then, or where she could stand during the video chat so the glasses would be out of frame.
* * *
Galya was known in town for her dumplings. Or rather, she was known for her scars, but the dumplings were less uncomfortable for people to talk about. She worked at a small restaurant that wasn’t popular with summer tourists or the younger crowd because it had no view of the lake, but the older residents still went there for the warm rye bread and the veal with sour plum stew.
Galya mostly kept to the kitchen, smelling of pickled herring, even when there were no guests and her boss left his station to fall asleep in the dining room watching the TV. At such times, she would sneak to the back door and hand a bag or two of her famous dumplings out to a buyer. They were the restaurant’s best seller and she made an extra order whenever the boss wasn’t paying attention, which was often enough. She filled large bags and hid them in the back of the freezer. Frozen, they could last a family weeks or months, and Galya was able to pocket the entire sale. In this way, everyone stocked up for the winter.
Making dumplings was a methodical, time-consuming task, and in most households, exclusively a social one. Doing it alone, you would go insane. Some parties were assigned to mixing, rolling, and cutting the dough; others to grinding the beef and placing the filling delicately in the center of each flat circle. Then everyone would come together to form the dumplings. The repeated series of steps—folding, pinching, joining the ends—was as distinctive to each family as a surname or crest.
Galya had learned from her mother to sprinkle the rolling board with flour so the dough wouldn’t stick, and to dip her fingertips in water before shaping the dough around the meat. Sprinkle the flour, dip in the water, shape around the meat, like a mantra.
Most people could only work up the nerve to prepare dumplings for the holidays, but Galya made them year-round. And her dumplings were unlike anything else. The meat was juicy and flavorful, yes, and the dough never too sticky or prone to breaking before you could take a bite. But more than that, they had this unusual ability to make you the happiest you’d ever been.
But it was a happiness by comparison. Which is to say, eating the dumplings first made you very sad, very quickly, the kind of sadness that pulled you down like ships in deep-water suction. And when you resurfaced from those depths, which felt like they might be the deepest in the world, you would be so happy you could almost cry. So happy you would forget you’d ever felt otherwise. Even though not feeling that way anymore was the reason you were this happy to begin with.
It was a complicated recipe and Galya’s alone. So the townspeople sought her out for the dumplings, then avoided her as best they could.
* * *
In the one-room apartment where the leaks had finally stopped, Nadia woke up choking, her mouth filling with flour. She ran to the sink, coughing up puffs of powdery smoke and scraping at the dryness of her tongue. On the other side of the bed, the tomcat Eggy slept, curled up small and unstirring next to Nadia’s lover, Laurel. The flour spilled in thin lines from the ceiling and pooled on Laurel’s bare hip like snow capping a mountaintop.
Laurel was new: one of those confident, effortless people who made Nadia think just how much she could accomplish if only she spent less time worrying. Laurel’s hair was a nebulous shade between dark blonde and light brown, and she was always telling Nadia that she shouldn’t measure her worth by how much she had accomplished.
Scrubbing the flour off her teeth in the middle of the night, Nadia imagined Laurel waking up in the morning, scooping it up in two hands, drawing lines in it like a zen garden. Or lying on the floor with her arms stretched overhead, making snow angels in the flour, opening her legs and closing them and opening them again, teasing Nadia in the shape of an angel’s billowing skirt.
At work the next day, an important-looking person Nadia didn’t know by name stopped by her desk to ask if she could translate a document.
The important-looking person explained, so-and-so mentioned your resume said you were fluent. Or was it conversational? You’d really be helping me out here. I swear, this vendor’s been trying to pull the wool over my eyes for months.
Nadia glanced at the page lined with tiny, indiscernible characters and told herself not to panic. It was only a few paragraphs. Of course, she forced out, no problem. She tried to remember the tricks her mother had taught her long ago: One character looked like a bug, so it sounded like a bee’s drone. It was a strange language. There were characters that told you where to hold your tongue when you shh-ed someone. There was one that softened the sound that came immediately beforehand, reached over and stroked it like a docile pet.
On second thought, Nadia stammered, is tomorrow okay? She would scan the document to her mother, who was out of practice but could surely still translate it. The important-looking person looked confused but said, sure, okay, tomorrow it is.
At lunch, Nadia told the other interns about the flour incident, how she was up half the night plugging up the holes. One of the interns jealously admitted that Nadia’s place really did sound like a shithole.
* * *
The coldest town where Mila and Galya had been girls together was only that way in the winter, of course. In the summer, the lake thawed and sunflowers grew tall on its shoreline, turning their brown faces in unison toward the sun. Tourists came to see them, and to take part in all the leisure activities the deep water had to offer: fishing, scuba diving, supervised feeding time with the earless seals. They trickled into the town’s improvised guesthouses and bought up all the hand-carved souvenirs and the ceramic whistles shaped like bears. Meanwhile, the lake curled around the town like a witch’s finger beckoning fat children into her hut.
Summer was a difficult time for Galya, more difficult than normal, because she suddenly had twice as many people to avoid. Her mother had explained to her early on that she wouldn’t be able to move through life with the easy spontaneity of her sister. With Galya, things had to be planned in advance. At least in the winter, much of her scarring could be hidden beneath thick wool layers and fur-lined hoods. But in the unforgiving summer, the errands to the butcher, the trips to the lake to collect the smoothest stones—everything was done under the cover of near-darkness.
Svetlana was a blunt, pragmatic woman who dealt only in solutions and had no patience for ways of thinking that didn’t lead to them. She told her eldest daughter that people wanted young bodies to be clean and pure and not yet contaminated by the horrors of the world. Skin so perfect in some places, so gnarled in others: It was a contrast people wouldn’t be able to accept. It stirred a visceral hopelessness. When Galya was older, it would be different. By a certain age, everyone was expected to bear marks of their individual histories of pain.
Still, you tell girls to do one thing and they are sure to do another. Especially in the summer, when the air felt impermanently sweet, like it was taking a rest after months of trying to kill you. On such days, Mila would drag Galya out of the house and the two would run hand in hand in a giggling blur all the way to the lake.
They had a favorite hidden grove, rarely visited by others because it was downwind from the fish market, and in the heat, the stench was especially pronounced. But the girls didn’t mind. They stripped off their clothes and basked in the sun. Galya laid on her back with her arms to her sides and pushed out her belly and said, Look, I am mama’s poppy seed loaf in the oven! They stuck their feet in the water and let the perch nibble on their toes.
But the main event was always the application of the medicine. Mila would trace the perimeter of the grove and come back with her arms full of sunflowers, their heads plucked from their stems. Then the two would work together to match each scar with the appropriately sized sunflower head. As Galya grew, her scars grew with her. Mila was insistent about the matching, declared it essential to the treatment’s efficacy.
Mila told Galya that her scars reminded her of sunflowers. That was the way the boiling water had hit: landing hard and splattering outward, creating many concentrated centers of roughness surrounded by rays of thin, fragile skin. Hearing something so close to a compliment made Galya smile. And as she laid there with a sunflower face down on each scar, waiting for the medicine to absorb, the petals velveteen and pleasant, the sun hot but not too hot, it seemed possible that her sister’s medicine would work. She was old enough to have an adventure, young enough not to think about blame. She felt so happy, she couldn’t remember feeling otherwise.
* * *
The day Nadia received the postcard from her landlords—the pair sunburnt and grinning, thumbs up on either side of a howler monkey—raw meat started to fall from the sky. The whole apartment smelled like dill. Outside, piles of minced beef dotted the yard, waist high and a bright pinkish red so that from a distance they looked like misplaced chunks of coral reef. Before Nadia could stop him, Eggy got out and ate a corner of a meat pile and spent the rest of the day mewing pathetically at her feet.
That night, Nadia dreamt of whispering voices and snowflakes that fell on her tongue and tasted not like water but earth. As she slept, giant rolling pins slid up and down a landscape of gentle, treeless hills. All the world’s seas mixed with all the world’s sand. Wood pounded against wood against flesh against wood.
By the next morning, Eggy seemed to be improving. Nadia went to the window and saw the quantity of meat had more than doubled, but the piles were gone. Instead, the meat had been repackaged in Tupperware containers and stacked in neat columns more than six feet tall, as if by some well-meaning housekeeper.
Nadia called Laurel to see if she would come over and keep an eye on Eggy while she was at work. She explained the stacks in the yard. Laurel, a vegetarian, agreed but asked if she could bring Eggy back to her place instead. The flour was one thing, she said, the meat was another. Then with a wink in her voice: You know I like you, Rhubarb, but I don’t like you that much.
Rhubarb was new, like Laurel: a nickname she had chosen for Nadia’s red hair. Nadia wasn’t big on nicknames ordinarily; she was still learning that they could come from a place of tenderness. Growing up, she was called Red at school. She might’ve thought it was because of her hair, too—that would be the obvious, innocent thing—but it was said with too much venom, too much narrowing of the eyes. And it had sprung up out of nowhere. When she mentioned it to her mother, Mila came marching into the principal’s office with her jaw set in that familiar way that meant this wasn’t going to be a polite conversation.
It turned out that the kids had given personal heritage presentations in social studies class, and some of the parents had found out about Nadia’s. The teachers feigned ignorance when the kids came in the next day with a new word on their tongues. You let them say Red now, Mila spat at the principal, next they’ll be saying commie. And then what? She’s only a girl. We have no control over where we are born.
Mother and daughter had come to America when Nadia was still a baby. Though Mila couldn’t pay for it up front, she convinced the university to give them, on good faith, a large dorm room to themselves with a shower bathroom and a view of the commons. For Mila, everything was negotiable. She liked to remind Nadia that they were both products of a place of superlatives, of a town that produced superlatives, and they were no exception.
As Nadia got older, though, she became harder to convince. Now, when people found out where she was from, she was quick to add that she had moved away when she was very young, before she had taken her first step, before she had uttered her first word even. Oh, the person would usually reply, with a dismissive wave. So you’re, like, barely from there. And Nadia thought, why argue?
* * *
Taking after their fathers, half sisters Galya and Mila looked nothing alike. Galya was a plump, laughing baby with a thick mess of black hair as inconvenient as seaweed. She could be entertained for hours listening to a distant birdsong and cried only when her hair got tangled in one thing or another, and even then she was quick to calm. Svetlana was grateful: For a young mother left on her own, an easy baby felt like a gift.
Mila was the opposite. Still a gift, like all babies, Svetlana acknowledged. She came a year after Galya, two months early, and from then on seemed determined to set her own schedule. She was thin of limb and hair and patience, and she demanded constant attention—though things were not as hard as they could have been, since her father had stuck around.
For a while after Mila came home, the four of them looked like they were going to be just fine. Nobody got much sleep, but everyone was reasonably happy. The girls were fed lumpy mixtures of beetroot and carrot. The parents fell asleep at the table with the feeding spoons still in their hands, their lips pursed in the act of blowing the baby food cool.
* * *
One of the interns was gleefully telling Nadia about his building’s terrible cockroach infestation when Laurel called with the news of Eggy. He was fine! she gasped. He was laying in that sunny spot he liked, and then he just started getting sick. It wouldn’t stop. She took him to the vet but it was too late, it happened so fast, he was fine all morning, then it was like he was going inside out, she was so sorry. Rhubarb. She was so sorry.
That night, Nadia and Laurel wrapped Eggy’s body in a blanket and picked a spot in the yard under the old lemon tree. It seemed crass and unceremonious to just kick the stacks of Tupperware out of the way, so they took the containers down a few at a time and restacked them elsewhere until they had made a clearing. Nadia cried a little. Afterward, they sat with their backs against the tree and their legs stretched out toward the fresh mound of soil, passing a joint between them and recounting their favorite memories of Eggy.
Nadia had brought the tomcat with her when she left home for college. He was getting up in years even then, becoming less hurried and more particular about who could be around him. Nadia remembered how hard it had been to convince her mother to let her bring him home from the shelter all those years ago. She thought it might’ve been his looks. A retired street fighter, he had an odd bend to his tail and his ears were slightly chewed at the tips.
Nadia shouted at Mila: It’s not fair, you don’t like him because he’s not pretty. But Mila insisted she just didn’t much like white cats in general, said they looked too much like little ghosts always underfoot. Why don’t you get a nice gray one, she asked, or an orange one, so you’ll match? She tugged gently on Nadia’s thin red braid. In the end, though, even unyielding Mila couldn’t stand up to the grim persistence of a teenage girl.
* * *
The winter holidays approached, and with her husband at work, Svetlana set to the task of making the dumplings for the week of celebrations with her extended family. She invited her girlfriends over to help and answered the door with a child on each hip. You’ll have to put those down, Sveta, her friend laughed, pink nosed from the cold. You’ll need both hands for all the work we have to do. Pasha has so many brothers, yes, and you don’t tell any of them about me?
It was one of those days that earned the town its reputation: The wind blew fast and urgent against the windows, imploring to be let in. The roof creaked and the shutters over the stovetop banged open and shut, but the women couldn’t hear much over the commotion of their own machine. Baby Mila had just learned to crawl.
Anna rolled the dough, her feet nearly coming off the floor as she pushed all her weight down onto the board. Zia was merciless with the wooden mallet, really a sight to behold. Lada stood uselessly nearby, typical Lada, slowly peeling an onion and complaining about her husband’s insufferable obsession with his new motorbike. Sprinkle the flour, dip in the water, shape around the meat, Svetlana repeated in singsong under her breath. The flour, the water, the meat. All aspects of the operation going smoothly, she found the biggest pot in the cupboard and brought the broth to a boil.
Who can know the routes of people, the trajectory of water? When Svetlana crossed the kitchen, carrying the pot of boiling-hot broth to the table to free up a burner, little Galya was all the way on the other side of the room, grinning up at the resident spider in his corner web. Engrossed in their tasks, the women didn’t notice Mila crawling toward her mother, wanting to be fed or played with or just picked up. Svetlana tripped when their paths collided in the center of the kitchen. But when the broth spilled from her pot, not a drop hit Anna or Zia or Lada. Svetlana was unharmed, and Mila was safe beneath her like a plant that finds shelter in the shade of a larger tree.
Svetlana assigned the roles with her usual efficiency: one woman to distract the screaming Mila and another to pull the clothing off Galya, where it was only holding the boiling liquid against the skin and encouraging it to seep in. One to phone the hospital. One to carry Galya outside and bring all the clean dish rags for God’s sake and pack the raw, bubbling, peeling places carefully with snow.
Galya survived, but she was never the same. She was no longer amused by spiders and birdsongs, for one thing. And for a long time, she couldn’t tolerate any sort of itchiness or tightness against her skin. So while Mila was dressed up like a doll in floral dresses and bright socks with frills around the ankles—a blind spot in Svetlana’s practicality—for Galya, their mother made simple white smocks with no elastic around the arms.
Little Galya crawled around the house on all fours, mostly keeping to the corners, skittish and unwilling to be touched. Before the burns healed, she emitted low moans when she moved, and the white shapelessness of her smocks made her look even more like a ghost. Which was what she was then, what she became, and what she would be her whole life until her death, even if Mila could make it in time.
* * *
The funeral felt like a bad dream, so when Nadia woke to Eggy’s silhouette in the window, she wasn’t completely surprised. She had been convinced of things and wrong about them before. The bed was warm and Laurel was on the far side of the apartment, putting the kettle on for tea and trying to ignore the ever-expanding city of meat in the yard. The stacks of Tupperware formed skyscrapers in miniature, each clear container a window revealing a bloody, pulverized room.
Nadia let out a big, content yawn: breakfast with Laurel, then breakfast in bed…She swung her legs out from under the covers and went to pick up Eggy. These days, he rarely allowed her to pick him up, but sometimes if caught off guard or lured in with the promise of herring, he would make an exception.
The lean of his shoulders, the way his white fur didn’t quite catch the light, Nadia should’ve known something was off. But sometimes, when you are happy, you forget the way things are. As she scooped Eggy up, he felt cold and imperfectly connected. And as she raised him to her chest, his skin fell away at the seams to reveal strings upon strings of uncooked minced beef.
Nadia stood, paralyzed. This uncannily Eggy-like thing had been assembled with some accuracy, maybe even with something like love. It was as if someone had found an instruction manual for how to assemble a cat, but it was written in a language they didn’t understand, so they just looked at the pictures. It was almost Eggy; almost a gift. But the meat quickly lost its shape in Nadia’s arms, dropping to the floor in clumps. Plop, plop, it went, like slick, wet clay.
* * *
The coldest town at the edge of the deepest lake at the end of the longest railroad line—Mila didn’t have to get there by rail anymore. She took a red-eye with a layover in Detroit. When her plane pulled into the gate, she had a voicemail from her daughter, but Mila wouldn’t think to listen to it for a few days.
Nadia was a good girl, she thought, who worked so hard. She was doing so well for herself, even if it meant they didn’t get to talk much anymore. Mila was glad she had made sure Nadia was an only child, relieved her sweet husband had agreed. Having a sister was like giving someone free access to your entire nervous system—exposing it and saying, yes, poke here, pull there—and not realizing that your circuitries were mirrored. Eventually, whatever nerves you meddled with, you would feel the pain in all the same places, though it might take a while to travel to you.
Sitting on the plane, waiting for the seatbelt sign to turn off, Mila decided she would learn to make dumplings the traditional way. It would be her way of carrying on Galya’s legacy. She pictured Nadia home for the holidays, the whole family in matching aprons with the plucky folk music of her childhood playing in the background. Maybe her husband would dab a tiny bit of flour onto her nose.
Maybe her half sister would see fit to give her the family recipe and Mila could make batch after batch trying to get it just right, trying to do the great chef Galina justice. Maybe she would finally see for herself whether the dumplings’ rumored side effects were real. Was it that they made you happy, or sad then happy, or just sad? She couldn’t quite remember the stories.
Meanwhile, five thousand six hundred miles away, Nadia sobbed while Laurel, towel to her mouth, horrified but resolute, cleaned up the remnants of the thing that was not exactly Eggy. Over their heads, a crack in the ceiling reopened into a steady drip.
Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer of short stories and poetry. Her work has been published in Pithead Chapel, Jellyfish Review, b(OINK), and elsewhere; nominated for a Pushcart Prize; and longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50. See more at kristinaten.com.