This Christmas story has a sad beginning and a happy ending. It begins in March with a certain Misha, a struggling composer from the provinces. He’d written a dozen children’s songs and two symphonies, “Fifth” and “Tenth,” so named as a joke. Misha survived by moonlighting at clubs with various bands. On stage he wore a lace blouse and a fake bust, like Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot. That spring, he was hired to write a score for a senior show at a drama school, an assignment for which he got paid by the hour, next to nothing. He wrote in his kitchen at night, while his wife’s family, which unanimously despised Misha, slept nearby.
Luckily, Karpenko was assigned the part of a horse, with a little dancing but no singing, in the senior show Getting Matches, which was based on a Finnish novel. Her vocal professor insisted that Karpenko perform one short song. As there were no songs in the play, Karpenko and Misha met in an empty auditorium to write one. Misha created a catchy tune, and Karpenko assembled some lyrics. Misha, impressed, batted his eyes and shook his head in disbelief.
Karpenko, blind with happiness, flew to her dorm. No one had ever looked at her with such admiration. She grew up in the Far North, in a family of former political exiles. Her ancestors owned country estates and danced in their own ballrooms, but now the family counted four children; the mother worked as a nurse; and they all survived thanks to their vegetable patch. The Karpenko women were known for their reticence and regal beauty, but the little froggy took after the father, a bush pilot who left his family when he retired. A little later Karpenko departed for the capital to become an actress and her mother seemed to forget her. They didn’t meet for five years. Between her village and the capital, one rode on a train for seven days, then on a bus for thirty-six hours, then on another bus, which sometimes didn’t run, for seven more. Froggy’s letters went unanswered for three, four months.
Misha and Karpenko had a fruitful collaboration, and at the end of March the play was performed in front of the faculty and students. The maestro praised the part of the horse, especially her tap dance, and the professor of vocal bored everyone with a lecture on how to teach singing to students with insufficient talent. The audience loved the horse and yelled bravo. Misha and Karpenko, both exhausted, took a long time packing their music and texts. When they were finished, the subway was closed. They walked up to the attic, and there, on an old mattress, Misha for the first time betrayed his wife, and Karpenko became a woman. That summer their play was performed at a student festival in Finland, where Karpenko won best supporting actress. Her diploma, written in Finnish, was displayed at the department.
The maestro selected a new professional company from the graduates. Municipal authorities allowed them to use a warehouse on the city outskirts. Maestro’s old friend, Mr. Osip Tartiuk, became the company’s general manager. He proceeded to cast a new play, as Finnish singing horses couldn’t be expected to attract much interest in that blue-collar neighborhood or among the theater’s municipal benefactors. Karpenko didn’t win the job. Tartiuk liked his women fat; on every heavy derrière he commented, “What a centaur!” At the banquets, after the third glass, he liked to confess that he was interested only in a large butt.
The unemployed Karpenko tried this and that, and finally got hired to sell vegetables at a big outdoor food market, two days a week. Her situation was dire—she was four months pregnant.
She rented a cot in the kitchen of an alcoholic couple who were themselves children and grandchildren of alcoholics. Pasha was the husband’s name. His enormous wife was called Elephant. Their two sons were currently in jail. In the summer, the couple paraded in shorts and lavender sun hats donated by some international aid organization, and hunted promising spots for cans and bottles like experienced mushroom pickers. In the winter, Pasha and Elephant impersonated blind beggars. They stashed their equipment—dark glasses, two canes, and, for some reason, a dog’s leash—under Karpenko’s cot, behind her suitcase.
Luckily, Elephant never cooked; she visited the kitchen where Karpenko lived only by mistake, when she roamed the apartment on the verge of delirium tremens. At night, the couple relaxed in the company of selected neighbors. Their room filled with the local elite—prominent alcoholics and their girlfriends in various stages of decline. The excluded spent the night banging on their broken-down door. These soirees invariably ended in fights that were occasionally attended by sleepy patrolmen.
Every day, Karpenko scrubbed the toilet and the tub. She replaced the broken glass in the kitchen door with thick plywood. At night, she stuffed her ears with soft wax, like Odysseus on his ship.
Once, she dropped by the new theater dorms and left some fruit for the girls. Just in case, she also left her new address. Misha soon discovered her location, and came to see her. She had nothing for him to eat, beyond some potatoes and carrots, which she was allowed to bring home from the market where she worked. Misha stayed the night but he couldn’t sleep because of the drunken screaming and banging; in the morning, he scrambled away as soon as the subway reopened. Karpenko, who hadn’t mentioned her pregnancy, didn’t expect him back.
Three days later, Misha reappeared with a keyboard. While he performed his score for Karpenko, the landlords and their visitors gathered outside the kitchen door and treated themselves to an impromptu dancing party, obviously approving of Misha’s music. Karpenko, inspired, pulled out her most precious possession, an old typewriter, and wrote a play.
At that time, theaters were interested only in plays translated from Italian. Misha and Karpenko invented an author: “Alidada Nektolai, as translated from the Italian by U. Karpui.” Their cast included a philandering lawyer and his skinny wife; the wife’s girlfriend, who slept with the lawyer and was married to the mayor; the mayor and his mafia friends, named Kafka, Lorka, and Petrarch; and so on. The heroine was a beautiful aspiring singer named Gallina Bianca. Misha observed that Karpenko would never get the lead, and so they created a character for her, a television executive named Julietta Mamasina who spoke entirely in Elephant’s morning monologues.
One day Elephant returned home covered in bruises and carrying a box of powdered milk that she’d discovered in a dumpster behind an expensive supermarket—that dumpster was a serious battlefield. Pasha and Elephant sent a few packages to the market with Karpenko. But no one wanted to buy expired milk, and Elephant lost interest in the box. (Her guests did try to snack on the powder along with their vodka, but the mix made them itchy.) The milk was left for the undernourished Karpenko, who added to her diet of raw carrots and beets, cottage cheese, and one boiled egg, a serving of oatmeal cooked with milk.
The play was retyped, the songs recorded, and the arrangement copyrighted. Misha went to see the theater’s general manager, Mr. Osip Tartiuk, who received the play with indifference. Three days later, however, Tartiuk invited Misha to a staff meeting, where Misha sang and played his heart out. The play was accepted on the spot. Everyone was pleasantly excited, until Misha announced that Alidada Nektolai demanded four thousand dollars for his play. Osip nearly lost his voice.
“We are young! We are poor!” he squeaked.
“Nektolai says that every company tells him they are young and poor. You want the play, pay up. Otherwise, there’s a long line.”
Osip cautiously inquired if there were other options.
“Another option would be to pay directly to the translator, half.”
“But I know her! She’s a regular centaur!” Osip showed with his hands. “An ass like hers . . . She’ll give us a discount!”
“I seriously doubt it. Theaters like yours are a dime a dozen and they all want her.”
“We’ll offer her a thousand! A whole thousand!”
“If she gets a thousand, then so do I, as the author of the score.”
“Who needs your score! We’ll put some soundtrack together!” Osip glared at Misha’s poor little keyboard.
“Translator Karpui insists that her lyrics and my music stay together,” Misha piped up nervously. “It’s a musical, don’t you get it? Every theater in Moscow makes money on musicals except you in your dump!”
Osip looked deflated. He promised Misha an appropriate solution and drew him into his office.
After a lengthy discussion Misha was promised $1,500, and, for Karpenko, a room in the theater dorm, a part in the play, and a permanent position in the company.
“What’s going on between you and this Karpenko, young man? Has your wife been informed?” Osip asked suspiciously.
“We are getting a divorce,” Misha blurted out, surprising himself.
“And do you actually know this Karpui?”
“Karpui is Karpenko, she wrote the play herself. We hold copyright both to the play and the music.”
“You can shut up now! This Karpenko and her play are worth maybe a hundred on a good day. If you want, I’ll make her a janitor, we need one in the theater.”
“Great! We’ll sell the play to the best theater in Moscow for my price!”
At this moment the maestro walked in, beaming, and announced that he’d never seen such enthusiasm among the actors about a new play. “I can see it on stage! And you,” here the maestro called Misha several names, “are in my way with your music!”
Enraged, Misha lost his normally meek temper and demanded a thousand each—immediately and in dollars, not rubles.
“Immediately I can’t,” Osip replied in a moderate tone.
“The translator and I will come in on Monday.”
“On Monday I can’t either. Mmm . . . Make it Wednesday.”
“So on Wednesday you’ll meet all my conditions, right?”
“Look, Misha!” Osip started yelling again. “I need a janitor! Renovations are almost over! Who’s going to clean up this mess?”
“By the way,” Osip announced to the confused maestro. “Your former student Karpenko has just returned from Finland where she’s been working in television.”
“From Finland? That’s where she was! Suddenly my student disappears . . . So she’ll play Gallina Bianca, she’ll be perfect! In the first act she’s a skinny little thing, in the second, she’ll have big boobs and high heels . . .”
“Actually, she wanted to play Julietta Mamasina,” interrupted Misha.
“Who cares what she wants!” screamed Osip. “Fine, let her play already,” he finished quietly.
At the dorm, Karpenko moved into a room belonging to two girls who were forced to move to doubles, which now became triples. The aggravation intensified as new parts were distributed. Oh theater, the snake pit of snake pits! The question suddenly arose as to why Misha was residing in the dorm without any registration, while the rest of them had to pay extra for gas and electricity. Also, did Misha’s wife know what was happening? Somebody should inform her. The wife and their ten-year-old son once came to see Misha, waiting for him until the last train. God knows how Osip found out, but he warned Misha, and he and Karpenko hid at the Domodedovo airport.
The new season opened with previews. Karpenko made sure her stage outfit provided room for her growing belly. Fake bust, a mini skirt, red wig, high boots on flat soles—comic in the extreme. The premiere was a great success. Julietta sang off-key and danced like an elephant, instructing future starlets. In the dorm everyone knew about Karpenko’s pregnancy and felt ready to take over her part.
A few weeks later, Osip Tartiuk stopped by Karpenko’s room. Karpenko was lying on the bed. Misha, in headphones, was bent over his keyboard.
“So what are we going to do?” Osip inquired. “When are you due? We need time to replace you!”
“So what do we do? We have two weeks left.”
“Let Misha do it. He knows the part. You don’t have any actresses who can play it.”
Tartiuk looked stunned.
“Misha!” Karpenko shook him by the shoulder. Misha took off his headphones. Karpenko ordered him to change into Julietta’s costume. Twisting his arms like a flamenco dancer, Misha squeezed into the outfit. He looked beyond funny: a miniskirt; enormous breasts; a butt like two watermelons; and under red curls, an unshaved sallow mug with a huge schnozzle.
“A regular centaur . . . Well, well. Have a safe delivery. Ciao!” Osip left. Karpenko lay in bed, swallowed by her belly. Misha saw nothing notable in her swollen body. He was used to large women—his previous wife was the biggest centaur in the pack. A week later, he took over Karpenko’s role.
On December 31 the show ended at 9:30. Misha called Karpenko’s phone, but no one answered. He tried the dorm; the line was hopelessly busy. He changed, threw flowers into a cab, and arrived at the dorm ahead of everyone else. The phone’s receiver was lying on the floor. Their door was open. The floor was wet. Everything in the room was turned upside down. What happened here? Where could she have gone in such a condition? He checked under the bed. There, by the wall, he found her purse. A passport, mobile phone, her medical history . . . OK, let’s see: Nadezhda A. Karpenko, pregnant, due December 31. He dialed the medical emergency number. An hour later he found out that Nadezhda Karpenko hadn’t been admitted to any hospital, including any maternity wards. Misha collapsed on the floor. Suddenly he heard explosions in the street. New Year’s fireworks.
Karpenko had dragged herself to a nearby maternity ward. She had knocked for a long time. A tipsy nurse finally admitted her. “I’m not feeling well,” Karpenko whispered. The nurse, who didn’t look too good either, announced, “Lissssssste . . .” sounding exactly like Elephant, but she couldn’t finish the sentence and stumbled off. Karpenko lay down on the bench and closed her eyes. A cannonball was rolling in her belly, trying to make more room. A young woman in white loomed over her. Karpenko managed to recite her lines: “Couldn’t find my papers, somebody took my purse, everything was there, my phone, my passport, my medical history . . . Had some cash in my coat but couldn’t find a cab . . . My father flew away . . . No one wants us, no . . .” Someone kept asking for her name and date of birth. “I’m an actress,” that’s all she could tell them before she passed out.
She awoke in a large room with tiled walls that looked like a swimming pool. People in white masks stood over her.
“Hey, you! Open your eyes,” she heard.
“There you go. Are you planning to push or what? What’s your name?”
Karp . . .”
“Lovely name. Hey, don’t you die on us, don’t ruin our New Year!”
The pain came. Her body was turning inside out.
“Push, push! OK, stop for now!”
She felt them stab her with a knife and then twist it. They’ll cut up the baby!
“Don’t, don’t stab me!” she screamed in her stage voice.
“Calm down, it’s the baby, not us. The baby’s pulling you apart. There, I can see the crown!”
She heard a low sound like a train whistle.
“Mom, look up! It’s a girl! A real beauty! Somebody, give her salts. What’s your last name?”
“Karpenko. Nadezha Alexandrovna Karpenko.”
“Finally! Now take a good look: it’s a girl, see for yourself, we don’t want any complaints afterward!”
Eyes over white gauze masks. Laughing.
One of them was holding a little baby doll, tiny, unwashed. All crinkled up, crying. She’s cold! Never before had Karpenko felt such heart-wrenching pity.
“Rejoice, mom! Such a big beautiful gal! A Happy New Year!”
“Just give her to me . . . Give her to me, please . . . Just give her to me . . .”
Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers.