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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Jacob's Ladder

A Novel

Ludmila Ulitskaya; Translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



The Willow Chest


The baby boy was lovely from the start. He had a pronounced dimple on his chin and a neatly formed little head, as though fresh from a visit to a good barber. His hair—just like his mother’s—was cropped short, though it was a shade or two lighter. Nora fell in love with him on the spot. She had been uncertain about it before; she was thirty-two years old, and believed she had learned to love people on their own merits, not simply because they were related to her. The baby turned out to be fully deserving of her unconditional love, however. He slept soundly, didn’t bawl, and nursed punctiliously. He examined his own clenched fists in wonder. He didn’t keep to a strict schedule. Sometimes he would sleep for two hours, and sometimes for six hours straight, after which he would wake up and start sucking at the air—and Nora would put him to her breast. She didn’t like schedules either, and she made a mental note that they had this in common.

Her breasts underwent a remarkable transformation. During her pregnancy, they had begun filling out nicely. Before then, they had looked like flat saucers with nipples. Afterward, when her milk began flowing, they made her feel like a preening bird. Nora studied her chest as it blossomed and derived a peculiar satisfaction from the changes. Physiologically speaking, of course, they were somewhat unpleasant—what with the constant heaviness and pressure, and the inconvenience of it all. But nursing itself brought with it a sweet pleasure not directly related to the purpose at hand … It had been three months since the little one had made his entrance into the world, and already they called him Yurik instead of “baby.”

He was installed in the room that had once been considered her mother’s. It had become nobody’s after Amalia Alexandrovna moved for good to Prioksko-Terrasny Nature Reserve, where her new husband, Andrei Ivanovich, worked. Two weeks before Nora went into labor, the room had been hastily whitewashed. When she brought him home, Yurik was snuggled into the white crib that had been a prop for the second act of Three Sisters. By now it was irrelevant, but during the previous theater season the whole troupe had been convulsed by the scandal that erupted when the play was shut down. Nora was the set designer; the director of the play was Tengiz Kuziani.

Before he flew back to Tbilisi, Tengiz vowed never to return to Moscow. A year later, he called Nora to tell her that he had been invited to Barnaul to stage Ostrovsky’s Without a Dowry, and that he was considering the offer. At the end of the conversation, he suggested that she come with him as the set designer. He seemed not to know that Nora had had a baby. Or was he just pretending not to know? That would have been surprising—was it possible that the backstage grapevine had faltered all of a sudden? The theater world was a fetid swamp, where private lives were turned inside out and the most insignificant details were broadcast far and wide. Whoever loved, or failed to love, whom; whoever got tangled up with whom in the bedsheets of provincial hotels while on tour; whichever actress had had to have an abortion because of which actor—it all immediately became common knowledge.

This had no bearing on Nora, however. She was not a star. The only thing that could be said of her was that she had had a serious comedown. And that she now had a baby, of course. The silent question on everyone’s lips was: whose? Everyone knew about her affair with the director. But her absent husband was not part of the theater. He belonged to “the audience”—and she herself was just a young set designer, at the beginning of her career. Which was also, evidently, the end of it. For these reasons, the theater riffraff paid no attention to her. There was no whispering behind her back; there were no covert glances. None of it mattered now, anyway. She had quit the theater.

Yurik was already awake by eight o’clock. Nora was expecting the nurse, Taisia, to arrive at nine, to give him a vaccination. It was past eleven, and she still hadn’t arrived. Nora went to do some laundry, so she didn’t hear the doorbell right away. When she did, she jumped up and ran to open the door. Taisia started babbling even before she stepped inside. She wasn’t simply a nurse from the children’s district polyclinic, but a woman with a mission: to educate foolish young mothers. She imparted to them the age-old secrets of nurturing babies—and, while she was at it, shared with them her pearls of feminine wisdom. She edified them on the subject of the family unit, including how to get along with “mamas-in-law” and the husband’s other relatives, not least his former wives. She was a cheerful gossip, a lively rumormonger, who was certain that without the benefits of her patronage (her official vocation was “Home-Visit Nurse-Patron”) all these little babes would fail to thrive. She did not acknowledge any methods of upbringing but her own, and the mere mention of Dr. Spock shattered her composure.

Nora was the kind of young mother she liked best of all—a single parent, her first child, with no help or support from her own mother. Nora was simply ideal. Because of her postpartum weakness, she needed to rally all her strength merely to survive, and she put up no resistance to Taisia’s science and its applications. Moreover, Nora’s experience in theater, where actors, like little children, were given to endless squabbling and fits of jealousy, had taught her to listen to all kinds of nonsense with polite attention, holding her tongue when necessary, and nodding sympathetically.

Nora stood next to Taisia, absorbing her chatter and watching the snowflakes on the needlelike ends of her fur coat turn into tiny droplets and roll off.

“I’m sorry, I was held up. Can you imagine, I stopped by the Sivkovs’—you know, Natasha Sivkov, in apartment fifteen? Her little Olya, eight months old, is just precious; she’ll make a good match for your little fellow. I walked in right in the middle of a family quarrel. The mother-in-law, who had just arrived from Karaganda, claimed that Natasha wasn’t taking proper care of her precious son, and that the baby had developed allergies on account of poor nourishment. Well, you know me—I gave her a piece of my mind and set things to rights.”

While she was washing her hands in the bathroom, Taisia chided Nora: “How many times do I have to tell you—use children’s soap for washing clothes! That washing powder is no good. I’m not just making it up…”

Yurik had gone back to sleep, and Nora didn’t want to wake him up just yet. She offered Taisia some tea. Taisia settled down at the head of the table in the tiny kitchen. It was a fitting place for her. She had an imposing head, with loose curls gathered up in a clawlike hair clip, and the space she occupied seemed to organize itself around her deferentially—the teacups and saucers arrayed themselves like a flock of sheep around a shepherd. Nice composition, Nora noted to herself.

Nora placed on the table a box of chocolates sporting a picture of a flying deer. Guests sometimes brought them to her, but Nora was indifferent to sweets. The supply of chocolates piled up, waiting for their chance to be eaten, meanwhile growing a thin white veneer.

Inadvertently spraying droplets from her hair around the tabletop, Taisia reached out her hand to pluck the confection of her choice from the expensive box of sweets. Suddenly, her hand still hovering in midair, she said, “Hey, Nora, are you even married?”

She’s inducting me into the secrets of baby care, and now she wants my secrets. In exchange for her tip on children’s soap, Nora thought. Tengiz had taught her to analyze dialogues between characters, to grasp their internal workings, in just this way.

“Yes, I’m married.”

Don’t divulge too much; you might spoil everything. The dialogue has to unfold, it has to suggest itself.

“A long time?”

Copyright © 2015 by Ludmila Ulitskaya

Translation copyright © 2019 by Mary Catherine Gannon