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Babushka by Kristen Loesch


We’re pleased to feature Kristen Loesch’s historical flash fiction piece “Babushka,” a finalist in CRAFT’s 2020 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Leesa Cross-Smith. As the story opens, Babushka and her young granddaughter watch crowds of people on television flood the streets as they celebrate the fall of the Soviet Union. Babushka’s past experiences cause her to greet this new hopefulness not only with hesitancy, but also with a fierce desire to protect her granddaughter from an uncertain future.

Inspired by Loesch’s own grandmother (please see Loesch’s accompanying author’s note), Babushka’s characterization comes across to the reader as being complex and dimensional. As you read, you will notice how Babushka uses her dry humor to counterbalance the painful memories she carries with her as she tries to explain to her granddaughter this new world they are actively witnessing unfold. This “element of light,” as Loesch calls it, resonates with so many of us who’ve felt a similar weight as we, too, try our best to protect and prepare the next generation.  —CRAFT


 

The television gives off a low hum, like a bumblebee. Buzz. Buzz. I make the sound too, hoping she will turn away from the screen, but tonight my granddaughter is entranced by the grainy sight of hundreds, thousands of people hugging, kissing, screaming. She is twelve years old and has never seen anything like this. Joy sweeps the nation, or what was the nation until yesterday. Democracy and capitalism have come at last! The people have spoken! The masses are victorious!

“Is my Mama there too, Babushka?” my granddaughter asks.

Her Mama never screamed. Only whispered. They heard it anyway.

“Your Mama is everywhere,” I say.

She smiles, and Nina is there.

The television can’t keep up with the crowds. The images change. A reporter from Vremya stops citizens on the street; the camera freezes on their suddenly wary faces. Where are we? What country do we live in right now? Face the camera, please! The former USSR? No? The Commonwealth of Independent States? Imperial Russia, all over again? We don’t get to find out, because the reception fizzes and fades. My granddaughter looks back at me. She is confident there is a right answer, but of course she is, because she is young. Like the people hugging and kissing. They are all too new.

“I’ll ask at school what country we live in, Babushka,” she says.

I wonder if they’ll have anything left to teach at school, now that communism is over. Nina would have taught her at home, raised her on samizdat, pamphlets and poems and preaching against the regime.

“Why not call our country… The Big Jar of Pickled Onions?” I say.

She laughs, because I pickle everything. I keep a lid on everything.

The television flickers on and off. It reminds me of the faulty electric bulb that hung from the kitchen ceiling when I was my granddaughter’s age, showing me my father’s face and then darkness and then my father’s face. The kitchen filled with men in uniform and the sound of my mother’s cries. My father shouted at me as they pulled him out the door, down the hall: I’ll be back, this is all a mistake, you’ll be a good girl and take care of your mother until then, won’t you? Won’t you—won’t you—won’t— They returned him years later, but not properly. He often flickered too.

The television cracks and cackles. It settles on a replay of Mikhail Gorbachev’s final address to the nation as our great leader, the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union.

“Why do they keep showing this, Babushka?” my granddaughter asks.

“They must like his face,” I say.

She giggles, not seeing everything they don’t show. I will have no pension now. Our money will be worth nothing. We will burn Nina’s old pamphlets for warmth. We will eat her words. There will be violence in the streets, and no more room for reporters. Maybe I should explain all this to my granddaughter; maybe I should tell her my own mother witnessed the end of a dynasty through the windows of her childhood home.

“This is boring. I want to do something else, Babushka,” my granddaughter says.

My friends and neighbors think I am too paranoid, too cautious, too deeply rooted in the past. We are living in a new world, a different era! they tell me. Why do you sound as if we are in the midst of the Great Patriotic War? And I say, as if it’s a joke, just something else funny from the funny babushka who lives upstairs, that if the Germans invade Russia again and lay siege to our city, my granddaughter and I will be the only survivors. I do not say, this is the only voice I have.

My granddaughter shuts off the television.

It already feels like we are the only survivors.

“Do you want to look at the maps?” I ask.

She hauls out the box containing enough maps to cover the southern steppe. These were my parents’ maps, and the street names are wrong, but they’ll be right again. I show her different ways to move around our city. Nina only went one way. I come up with tricks to help my granddaughter remember how many steps it would take to get everywhere and back, if she were on her own. I switch off the lights and tickle her in the dark, and she cries with laughter. In this country, whatever this country is, you never know when all the streetlamps might go out, just like that.

 


KRISTEN LOESCH is an Asian-American writer based in the Pacific Northwest. She placed runner-up in the 2019 Mslexia Short Story Competition and the Funny Pearls Short Story Competition 2020. Her short fiction can be found in SmokeLong Quarterly, Fractured Lit, FlashBack Fiction, and Barren Magazine, among others, and will appear in the upcoming Bath Short Story Award and Bath Flash Fiction Award anthologies. She is represented by Zeitgeist Agency. She lives with her husband and children.

 

Featured image by Ray Shrewsberry courtesy of Pixabay

 

Author’s Note

If you write any kind of historical fiction, no matter what you’re working on, by the time you’re done you end up with leftover bits and pieces of research. You’d love to shoehorn them into your work, if only you could find the right place, but there doesn’t seem to be one. So, grudgingly, you file it all away—or, you squeeze a whole new story out of one small detail you just can’t let go of.

From the moment I first read about it, I loved the idea of the broadcast in which a reporter went around asking people on the streets what country they lived in. I just didn’t know what to do about it; I had already finished a novel that partly takes place during the last summer of Soviet Russia and I’d written a short story set in early 1990s Moscow, too. Were there any angles left?

My maternal grandmother had passed away a few months earlier, and I had set a story in Taiwan as a way of remembering her. I decided she was going to inspire this story too. I now have an entire ‘grandmother’ series that I sincerely hope to turn into a collection one day.

Babushka herself quickly took over this story. She unexpectedly turned out to have a sense of humor, an off-key, slightly deadpan manner that’s maybe a defense mechanism. She makes her granddaughter smile and laugh throughout the piece, and I like to think she’s that way with her friends, neighbors, even supermarket cashiers. I also wanted, given the weight of the historical setting and the events in Babushka’s memory, for there to be some element of light.

There are several patterns throughout this piece: the television; the way the granddaughter speaks; the way Babushka answers. This repetition was done for an echo effect, to reflect Babushka’s own reality of regimes and rulers coming and going, of loved ones disappearing and reappearing. Babushka is right that the street names will change again; Dzerzhinsky Square (for example), named during the Soviet period after the notoriously ruthless head of the Bolshevik Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, was renamed Lubyanskaya. Babushka is also right that she will lose her pension, in this “new” Russia. Her experiences have rendered her jaded and disillusioned, even numb, but also fiercely protective of the one thing that still matters: her granddaughter.

 


KRISTEN LOESCH is an Asian-American writer based in the Pacific Northwest. She placed runner-up in the 2019 Mslexia Short Story Competition and the Funny Pearls Short Story Competition 2020. Her short fiction can be found in SmokeLong Quarterly, Fractured Lit, FlashBack Fiction, and Barren Magazine, among others, and will appear in the upcoming Bath Short Story Award and Bath Flash Fiction Award anthologies. She is represented by Zeitgeist Agency. She lives with her husband and children.