Kristina Ten – This House It Is Like

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In This House It Is Like This

You do not exchange greetings on the threshold of the door. You step inside, or they step outside, and then you may hug and kiss and remark on the weather or go on about how self-important Vera has become since she moved to the city. When are you finished, remove your coat and then put it back on starting with the arm opposite the one you usually use. Your host will lead you into the kitchen and hand you a dish—lift it over your head and throw it down as hard as you can. If it breaks, good, if not, leave immediately. Either way, sweep up the pieces and do not even think of sharp objects for the rest of the night.

Baba Is Not Your Friend

No one knows the details of the misfortunes that befell Baba when she was young, only that her branch of the family tree is thin and sparse and grows in one direction. She never knew her parents, she was never married, and her siblings all died or disappeared before she could walk. There has been talk of some burly lovers she kept in her seaside town, where she worked hard days at the chemical plant, and just as much speculation about the unusual ends they all met. “What do you mean unusual?” I once asked my mother. “What do you mean, what do I mean?” she said brusquely. “Ribka, you know I don’t know a thing.”

In This House It Is Like This

There should be no empty water vessels. The host will make sure of this beforehand, but the guests would do good to do a quick inspection as they move through the house. If you see a forgotten cup left upside down on the drying rack, do not mention it to your host immediately but instead wait until later in the night and excuse yourself to use the bathroom. Then take the cup, quietly fill it in the sink, and leave it on the counter. When you return to the table, you may find more guests have arrived. Arrange yourselves so that the unmarried people are not sitting at the corners. If you step on someone’s foot, they will step lightly back on yours to avoid future conflict.

And God Help You If You Disagree

Baba says the way you spend New Year’s Eve is the way you will spend the year. This is the only time I see her now, so I have to brush up on the rules beforehand. She wears her red hair curled close to her scalp and says that its never going gray is one example of the many ways she has been smiled upon. Growing up, visits with Baba were frequent and I made a point to establish myself as the good child. My mother showed a disobedient streak from when she was a girl and it is no secret she was beaten into adulthood. Baba once told me that women are most beautiful when they wear pink on their lips and their nails, and I have never forgotten. When I step through the threshold, she winks and sneaks into my pocket a small glass figurine.

 In This House It Is Like This

A chicken will be killed and set in the middle of the table but not eaten. Everyone must bring with them a small purse filled with coins. Remove one coin and slide it inside your shoe, under your heel, then place the purse with the rest of the coins on your left knee. On your right knee, the host will leave a bundle of fur, feathers, and bay leaves. The unmarried men will be given a spoon, the promise of a female guest in their future, and the unmarried women will be given a knife—wrapped in cloth, so that they will not think of its sharpness. If married, you may hold hands but do not drape your arm over another’s shoulder, for this will guarantee they will never grow to their full height.

Not About You and All About You

I do not talk about it often, because if you do not know Baba, it is hard to understand. She is not a religious woman. Her house is clean and plain and not hung with crosses and not particularly interesting in any way but for the fact that she lives in it and she would call it living. She has a busy schedule and many friends. They phone to wish her a healthy, fulfilling new year and ask about me, my job and love life. I do not find her New Year’s Eve parties “torture” like my mother does, or “several hours spent dodging mouse traps that have been laid at your feet” like my father. It is more like suppressing the urge to sing around someone who for decades has been holding their breath.
Of course, mistakes are inevitable. With Baba, you are allowed one or two. I made mine once, when I sat too close to the table corner, and twice, when I explained to my little brother in her presence that it was about good luck and bad luck. I was eight, and Baba looked at me as if she had just been bitten by her most loyal dog. Luck, she growled, had nothing to do with it. It was work, constant work, to dig up and lay fresh a new foundation over one that had nearly toppled you.

 In This House It Is Like This

We will drink now. Every time you get up from the table—and you will find yourself getting up from the table often—you must drink a full glass first. We call this the staff you walk away on. Then do not put your empty glass back on the table, but leave it to sit under the table while you are gone. At midnight, everyone says happy new year. Do not say happy new year before midnight, not a minute before, not a second before. When the party is over, spit over your right shoulder five times to simulate rain—rain upon departure means you will one day return. You may return on this day, even, unless it is because you have forgotten something. You must never return home for forgotten things.

 

 

 

 

Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer of short stories and poetry. Her work can be found in b(OINK)Jellyfish ReviewThe AwlDrunk in a Midnight Choir, Pantheon Magazine, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominee, Kristina lives in Oakland, California, with her dog, Shapka. See more at kristinaten.com.

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