Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
VITA NOSTRA
Translated by Julia Meitov Hersey

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank everyone who assisted with the English language publication of VITA NOSTRA. First and foremost, our thanks to Julia Meitov Hersey, who translated the novel simply because she loved it. We are greatly indebted to Robert and Mark Gottlieb of Trident Media Group for their tireless encouragement and assistance in the publication process. Thanks to Kimberly Killon for the cover of the digital edition and to Sergey Berezhnoy and Michael Nazarenko for all their insights. We are also beholden to Lev Grossman, a novelist and a literary critic, for his invaluable advice. And special thanks go to film director Timur Bekmambetov, director and screenwriter, and his colleague, producer Olga Kharina.

—Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

Part One

The prices—oh, the prices were simply ludicrous! In the end, Mom rented a tiny room in a five-story building within twenty minutes of the shore, with windows facing west. The other room in the one-bedroom apartment was occupied by a young couple, with whom they would have to share the kitchen, bathroom, and toilet. “Those two are on the beach the whole day,” reasoned the landlady. “They are young… They don’t need much. The sea is right there, you can almost see it out of your window. Pure paradise.”

The landlady departed, leaving behind two keys, one for the main entrance and one for the door to their room. Sasha dug her faded, last year’s swimsuit from the bottom of the suitcase and changed quickly in the bathroom where someone else’s underwear was drying on the space heater. She felt joyful and giddy: just a few more minutes, and hello sea, here we come. Waves, salt on her lips, deep khaki-colored water—all that was forgotten during the long winter. Transparent water changing the color of her skin to yellow-white. Swimming toward the horizon, feeling the sea glide over her stomach and back, then diving deep down, staring at the rocks on the bottom, seaweed and tiny speckled fish…

“Should we eat first?” Mom asked.

She was exhausted by the long trip in the stuffy economy class seats, the apartment search, negotiations with potential landlords—none of it was easy.

“But Mom, we came to spend time at the beach.”

Mom lay down on a couch, a pack of fresh linen under her head substituting for the pillow.

“Want me to run down and get some doughnuts?” Sasha aimed to be a dutiful daughter.

“We’re not going to live on doughnuts here. We have a decent kitchen.”

“Can’t I at least take one little dip?”

“Fine.” Mom closed her eyes. “Get some eggs and yogurt on the way back. Oh, and bread, and some butter.”

Sasha threw a sundress over the swimsuit, slid her feet into a pair of sandals, grabbed one of the towels provided by the landlady and ran outside, into the sunshine.

She had no proper names for the blossoming trees that grew in the yard, but decided to call them “peacock trees.” Behind the unevenly trimmed bushes began the street that led to the shore. Sasha decided it was going to be called just that—The Street That Leads to The Sea. The street sign bore the real name of the street, plain and insignificant. It happened so often—beautiful things had stupid names, and the other way around…

Swinging her bag, she walked, no, ran, down the street. People moved in a thick throng, some carrying inflatable mattresses and large sun umbrellas, others burdened only with a beach bag. Children, as expected, were covered by melting ice cream, and their mothers scolded them and rubbed the spots with their crumpled handkerchiefs. A wide smile on her lips, Sasha walked toward the sea, hot asphalt burning through the soles of her sandals.

They made it.

They made it despite the lack of money, despite Mom’s problems at work. They made it to the seaside, and in only fifteen, no, ten minutes, Sasha would dive into the water.

The street twisted. The sidewalk was almost entirely covered with advertisements for tourist attractions—The Swallow’s Nest, Massandra, Nikitsky Botanical Gardens, Alupka Palace… The din of video games filled the air. A mechanical voice coming from a metal contraption in front of the arcade offered palm reading. Sasha stood on tiptoes and finally saw the sea.

Restraining herself from breaking into a gallop, she ran down a steep hill toward the high tide, toward the happy squeals of children and the music of beachside cafes. So close.

Of course, the closest beach had an entrance fee. Not letting herself be annoyed, Sasha ran around the fence, jumped off a low concrete railing, and felt the pebbles crunch under her feet. She found a spot on the rocks, threw her towel and sundress down on the beach bag, took off her sandals and made her way down, wincing from the gravel biting into her feet. As soon as she got to the water, she plopped on all fours, dove in and swam.

This was happiness.

In the first second, the water seemed cold; in the second, warm, like freshly-drawn milk. Right near the beach, seaweed and fragments of plastic bags swayed gently in the waves, but Sasha swam further and further away, and the water became clear and changed color, leaving behind inflatable mattresses and children with bright-colored floaties, the sea opened all around her and a scarlet buoy flashed like a sign of perfection between two stretches of turquoise cloth.

Sasha dove, opened her eyes and saw a school of gray elongated fish.

* * *

On the way back she ran—Mom was probably worried. The uphill road seemed unexpectedly long and steep. In the store, a harried saleswoman sold bread, eggs and potatoes, and the queue was long and solemn. Sasha secured her spot with a sturdy tanned woman (“You’ll tell them I’m behind you, won’t you please?”) and ran down The Street That Leads to the Sea into the garden with the “peacock” trees.

The man stood near the rental agency, a green booth with permanently closed shutters. Despite the heat, he wore a dark denim suit. Under the peak of his dark-blue cap his face had a jaundiced, waxy tint. Dark glasses reflected the sun rays, but Sasha managed to catch his glance. She cringed.

She looked away from the strange man, entered the hallway that smelled of many generations of cats, and walked up to the second floor, to the door upholstered in black faux-leather, with a tin number 25.

* * *

Every morning they woke up at four, when their neighbors, the young couple, returned from a nightclub. The neighbors stumbled up and down the corridor, made tea, made the bedsprings creak and eventually fell quiet; Sasha and her mother dozed off again and woke up next around seven thirty.

Sasha made instant coffee for both of them (the kitchen sink brimmed with dirty plates — the neighbors apologized profusely for the mess, but never did the dishes), and they headed for the beach. On the way to the shore, they bought little cups of yogurt, or freshly cooked corn sparkling with salt crystals, or jam doughnuts. They rented one plastic lounge chair to share, spread their towels over it and ran toward the water, stumbling on the sharp gravel and hissing from pain. They plopped into the water, dove in, and lingered in the waves for half an hour and even longer.

On the second day Sasha got a sunburn, and Mom smeared yogurt on her shoulders to calm the sting. On the fourth day they went on a harbor cruise, but the waves were choppy, and both of them felt a touch of motion sickness. On the fifth day there was a real storm, and half-naked lifeguards strolled around the beach, announcing: “Can’t swim— alligators are abound,” as Sasha’s mother quoted from an old children’s rhyme. Sasha played with the waves and once managed to get slammed by an errant rock; the painful bruise took a long time to heal.

In the evenings the whole town was drowned in music streaming from the nightclubs. Clusters of guys and girls armed with cigarettes stood near the kiosks or box office windows, sat around old iron benches and participated in social engagements expected of adolescent mammals. Occasionally, Sasha caught their appraising looks. She did not like those guys with their obnoxious, overly made up girlfriends, yet she felt uneasy—it was embarrassing for a normal sixteen-year-old to be vacationing with her mother like a little girl. Sasha would have liked to stand just like this, in the center of a noisy group, leaning on a bench and laughing with everybody else, or to linger in a café, sipping gin and coke from a tin can, or to play volleyball on a square patch of asphalt, split by long cracks like an elephant hide. She walked by, pretending she had some urgent, much more fascinating business to attend, and spent her evenings strolling around with her mother in the park or along the boardwalk, gazing at the creations of the never-ending street artists, haggling over lacquered shells and clay candleholders, doing all these really nice and not-at-all-boring things—but the peals of laughter coming from the teenage clusters sometimes made her sigh heavily.

The storm subsided. The water has been freed of the mud that clung to it, the sea regained its transparency, and Sasha caught a crab, as tiny as a spider. She let it go right away. Half of their vacation had already dissolved; it seemed as if they’d just arrived, and now only eight days remained.

She met the man in a blue cap at a street market. Moving along the rows, Sasha was pricing black cherries, when, rounding the corner, she saw him in the midst of the shoppers. The man stood nearby, his dark mirrored glasses turned toward Sasha. She was sure he was watching her, and her alone.

Sasha turned and pushed toward the market exit. After all, she could buy the cherries at her street corner; it was more expensive, but not too much. Swinging her plastic bag, she entered The Street That Leads to the Sea and strode up to her apartment building, trying to stay in the shade thrown by the acacia and linden trees.

She looked back after half a block. The man in the dark denim suit was following her.

For some reason, she’d believed he had stayed at the market. Of course, there was the possibility that he needed to go in the same direction, but she was not that naïve. Staring into the black opaque lenses, she felt unutterable terror.

The street was packed with beachgoers and vacationers. Ice cream was melting down children’s fronts in the same way as before, open-air kiosks were just as busy selling bubblegum, beer and vegetables, the afternoon sun was just as scorching, but Sasha’s instant chill felt like a lining of frost in her stomach. Not really aware of why she was so afraid of the dark man, Sasha shot up the street, her sandals drumming a feverish rhythm and passersby hastily moving out of her way.

Gulping air, not daring to look back, she burst into the yard with the “peacock” trees. She leapt into the hallway and rang the doorbell. Mom took a long time to open the door; downstairs, in the entrance hall, a door opened, and Sasha heard footsteps…

Mom finally opened the door. Sasha dove into the apartment, nearly toppling her mother. She slammed the door closed and turned the key.

“Are you crazy?”

Sasha clung to the peephole. Looking distorted, as if through a funny mirror, their next-door neighbor walked up the stairs, carrying a bag of cherry plums, and went further up to the third floor.

Sasha started breathing again.

“What happened?” Mom’s voice was tense.

“Nothing, really.” Embarrassment moved in. “Somebody was following me…”

“Who was?”

Sasha began to explain. The story of the dark man, when narrated logically, did not seem frightening, only ridiculous.

“I assume you did not buy any cherries,” Mom concluded.

Sasha shrugged guiltily. The right thing to do was to pick up her bag and return to the market, but the very idea of opening the door and walking out into the yard made her knees shake.

“That’s new,” Mom sighed. She picked up the bag and money and left silently.

* * *

Next morning, on the way to the beach, Sasha saw the dark man again. He stood at the tourist booth, pretending to examine the offered tours and prices, but in reality he was watching Sasha from behind his dark mirrored lenses.

“Mom, look…”

Mom followed Sasha’s gaze. Her eyebrow lifted:

“I don’t understand. Some guy standing there. And?”

“You don’t see anything weird?”

Mom continued walking, each step bringing her closer to the dark man. Sasha slowed down.

“I’m going to cross to the other side of the street.”

“Cross if you want. I think your brain is getting too much sun lately.”

Sasha crossed the asphalt, wrinkled and covered by tire tracks. Mom passed the dark man, but he didn’t pay her any attention. He watched Sasha, and only her. His gaze followed her.

Once settled on the shore, they rented a beach chair, placed it in the usual spot, but for the first time, Sasha did not feel like swimming. She wanted to return home and lock herself up in the apartment. Although, if she thought about it, the door in the apartment was flimsy, made of plywood, a mere illusion covered with ancient faux leather. It was safer here, on the beach, crowded and noisy, with inflatable mattresses floating in the water; a little boy with a floatie around his belly stood knee deep in the water, and his floatie was shaped like a swan with a long neck, and the boy was squeezing its pliant white throat.

Mom bought some baklava from a street seller clad in a white apron. Sasha took a long time licking her sweet sticky fingers, then strolled over to the water to rinse her hands. She walked into the waves, still wearing her plastic flip-flops. The red buoy, a sigh of perfection halfway to the horizon, moved gently in the water, the sun reflected in its opaque side. Sasha smiled, shrugging off her tension. And really, such a funny story. Why should she be afraid? In a week she’ll be going home, and, seriously, what can he do to her?

She moved deeper into the water, took off her flip-flops and tossed them onto the beach, aiming far to avoid losing them to a chance wave. She dove, swam a few feet under water, resurfaced, snorted, laughed and made a beeline for the buoy, leaving behind the shore, the din, the baklava seller, her fear of the dark man…

In the afternoon they discovered that they’d forgotten to buy oil to fry their fish.

* * *

Pink blossoms swayed on the “peacock” trees. Further down, in the bushes, something else blooming and aromatic was trying to attract bees. An old woman dozed off on the bench. A boy of about four dragged colored chalk over the concrete ridge of the sidewalk. The usual throng poured down The Street That Leads to the Sea.

Sasha entered the street and took another look around. She ran to the store, to get her errand over with as quickly as possible.

“Excuse me, are you the last one in line?”

The queue moved not too fast, but not too slowly either. Sasha had only three people in front of her when she felt his gaze.