Galina dried the dishes and stacked them in the cupboard above her head. She put the aluminum pot on the lower shelf, shoving it deeper with her foot, then shut the cupboard door with a bang. She wondered if Raya heard the clatter. Sharp sounds made Raya shudder. Everything. A fork falling on the floor, a door's squeak, somebody's sneezing, the toilet flushing. For a long time, Galina had tried to do everything as quietly as possible. Now she didn't care. Raya herself was quiet as a mouse. That's what she told Galina when she came: "I'll be quiet as a mouse." Galina wondered then where this expression came from, why mice were considered so quiet. Because they weren't. Galina grew up in the country, and there were a lot of mice in their house. At night, they made these distinctive mice sounds--scratching and nibbling and knocking against the floor with their tiny claws when they ran from one corner to another. Little Galina lay in bed thinking that if she opened her eyes she would see a mouse with crooked yellow teeth and moist eyes staring right at her.
Galina went into the living room, removing her wet apron. The usual picture: the girls were on the sofa, making a dress for Leeza's doll from some scraps. As always, Tanya was doing all the work and Leeza giving instructions, Galina thought with annoyance. The doll's pink, shiny body was turning swiftly in Tanya's hands as she dressed her. It was a beautiful, expensive doll with the torso made from hard plastic and the head and limbs from some other, softer kind. It had blond hair shaped into long, springy curls and round light blue eyes that seemed to stare right at you. Galina didn't have toys like that as a child, and she couldn't afford to buy them for Tanya.
Galina peeked into the back room. Raya didn't turn to her, only bent lower. She was scribbling something with Galina's rusty ink pen. The pen was almost dry and made heart-rending sounds, scratching the paper.
Galina covered her ears and looked around. She had always liked that her room was so plain. There weren't any crocheted doilies, marble elephants, or crystal vases. The windowsills weren't decorated with pots of geraniums, the floors with rugs, or the walls with framed paintings. She didn't even have an image of the Madonna in the corner where it always hung in her mother's house. The only thing on the wall was a framed black-and-white photograph of Galina's mother. Now, Galina wished they had a painting--any painting, something to rest her gaze on. She uncovered her ears and immediately heard the awful scratching sound of Raya's pen, Leeza's troubled breathing, the snapping of the big tailor's scissors in Tanya's hands, Leeza's cackling cough. Galina wanted to scream, open her mouth and scream at the top of her lungs.
She rushed to the hall, mumbling that she was going to get some air before the curfew. She wondered if Raya heard her. She probably didn't. Because if she did, she would have darted out of the back room, asking: "What? What did you just say? You're going where?" Her face would have been distorted and her voice faltering. During the last few days, it happened every time Galina went out of the house. Every time. When Galina went to the market in the morning, when she left to talk with one of the neighbors or their former coworkers, when she simply went out for a breath of fresh air, like today. Every time, when Galina touched the doorknob of the exit door, she felt Raya's begging stare on her. She saw that Raya wanted to fall on her knees, to clutch at the edge of Galina's dress and not let her go. But she didn't do it, she just stood in the doorway, shifting from one foot to the other, clasping the doorframe with yellowed fingers, clearing her throat to ask in her thin, trembling voice again and again: "Where're you going? When will you be back?"
Galina opened the door and glanced in the direction of the back room. Raya hadn't moved.
Excerpted from There Are Jews in My House by Lara Vapnyar Copyright© 2003 by Lara Vapnyar. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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