"My mama became a catfish when I was two, on the day I stopped talking."
Neglected since birth by her mother, Irina Myshko hasn’t spoken a word for most of her short Soviet life. Outcast as a mute idiot and abused by her mother's boyfriends, she escapes into an alternate reality where true natures show and people are revealed as the beasts they are. Pregnant, homeless, and penniless, Irina has to make a choice — learn to live in this splintered world or descend into madness.
I halt at the top of the underpass stairs and grip the handrail to stop the swaying. The avenue is congested with traffic. Hysterical crowing rises from the middle of the Theatre Square by the two-ton granite statue of Karl Marx. Roosters congregate around it, shaking their combs and wattles and red flags in clamor and outrage. A cock climbs onto a platform and cries into a megaphone short phrases that bound off the walls. “We demand!” and “Hold dear the fate of Russia!” and “For Stalin!”
I venture along the sidewalk against the flow of the onlookers. The light turns green and I cross the street, walking away from this farce and rounding the corner into a quiet bedroom neighborhood.
After a while I stop by a Stalinist apartment block and walk under its archway into an inner court. Something about it feels calm and enticing. Four buildings form a stone sack with countless windows ten stories high. The alleyways are planted with poplars and overgrown maples. In the shadow at the deep end of the yard there is a two-story mansion the color of eggshells. A peeling colonnade runs across its porch, and two heavy doors with gilded handles display posters in their windows.
THE CHAMBER THEATER is printed on the sign.
The theater is surrounded by a low wrought-iron fence. I open the rusty gate and walk through, coming upon the side entrance with its own small separate courtyard hedged off by snowberry bushes. Three benches stand by a broken fountain choked with decaying leaves. I pick a cluster of berries, drop them on the ground, and pop them with my foot, leaving shiny smears on the asphalt.
An expensive-looking car rolls up to the gate and parks. A Mercedes. The man who gets out from the driver’s side is about twenty years old and tall and blond and effeminate in his movements. His passenger is younger and shorter and wirier and his hair is dark.
The blond one is a macaw, the long-tailed parrot, I decide, for his blue coat and his golden hair. And the other one is a butterfly, a black admiral, black like the black silk of his hair.
They glance at me and through me and over me as if I’m a fixture or a stone statue, and hop up the stairs and disappear inside.
My heart beats fast and loud.
Oh, you sentimental romantic, Irina Myshko. Haven’t you seen actors before?
But my feet don’t listen and carry me up the steps into the gloom of the theater’s foyer. A worn marble staircase runs up and down from the landing. On the wall to the right hangs a bulletin board pinned with announcements so old their paper has turned yellow. To the left is a glass partition and behind it is a small room where a woman is hunched over a desk. She is in her fifties or even sixties; her shoulders are wrapped in a fuzzy shawl, and her button nose supports a pair of oversized glasses.
A turtle, I think. A Russian tortoise.
The phone rings and she picks it up.
“Chamber Theater. Ah, Tanechka! No, he’s not here yet, but he’s coming soon, you hear me?” She passes the receiver to her other hand. “You know Sim, he never says the time.” She taps a pen on an open ledger. “Pavlik and Kostya just got here, so you better hurry.”
I make my way to her. She hears me and raises her questioning eyes, still listening to the receiver.
I notice a paper taped to the glass.
CLEANING WOMAN NEEDED.