Galina Petrova was walking to work under the weight of a humid, suffocating heat. There were only two blocks to go, but she had started dragging her feet. She stopped at the kiosk on the corner to catch her breath and drank from her water bottle. She thought of the conversation she’d had that morning with her husband, Liosha, and instinctively bit her lip. That’s how birds make their nests, by stealing. Well, we’re birds, too. Those had been his exact words. Exhausted, she crossed the street. The building, a freshly painted corner property, stood out from the rest of the houses, with their low roofs and vine-covered terraces. As she approached, she noticed Nelly standing motionless at one of the windows on the third floor. There was something so distressing about that motionlessness, something that oppressed Galina, without her knowing why.
That summer Nelly was as white as milk and hadn’t grown so much as a centimeter. Her face had shrunk and her eyes were sunken. Her elbows and knees were red and chapped, as if she had scraped them against stone. But Nelly stopped leaving the house the previous autumn. She was afraid of slipping off the earth and falling.
“Falling where?” her girlfriends would ask when they came to see her—every day during the first week, and then less frequently.
Nelly didn’t know what to say. Face down on the bed, she gripped the bedframe and stared at them.
“I want my daughter back,” the mistress had whispered into the phone.
Ever since Nelly had gotten sick, Galina had been working double shifts. She came at eight in the morning and left at nine at night. Some evenings, when the mistress needed her, she didn’t go home at all, but slept in the little room next to the kitchen. At first Liosha complained, but he soon got used to the new arrangement. With the extra money he could buy as much beer as he wanted, by April he could bargain for cars, and in June he managed to buy a little used Fiat.
“Do you understand?” she sighed in closing.
“I understand,” Galina said. But her mind was elsewhere; she was thinking of Liosha and his tricks.
“The doctor will be here at two,” the mistress said. “Ask if he wants coffee.”
Nelly had spent the winter and spring in the clinic, and though she’d been able to get out of bed and wander from room to room since early June, she never went outside.
“Be careful, Galina, understand?”
A suitcase was yawning open on the armchair in the bedroom, some clothes neatly folded beside a pillowcase. The mistress picked up her make-up bag, unzipped it, and stuck in a bottle of sunscreen. Then she opened the wardrobe, rummaged through the drawers and took out two bathing suits.
“Do you need me for anything else?” Galina asked, turning to leave.
“Nelly’s in the living room,” the mistress said. “Please, keep an eye on her…”
“I’ll make her hamburgers for lunch,” Galina said.
The mistress turned and looked at her as if trying to guess what she was thinking. “It’s a very important meeting,” she said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be going.”
“I’ll take care of her.”
They were standing in the foyer in front of the open door. Mr. Tsirimokos from next door appeared in the hall, dragging a cart full of groceries. “Going on vacation?” he asked.
“I wish,” the mistress said. Her tone was a little sour, but then she smiled. “A business trip, I’m afraid… but I’ll try to find time for a swim.”
At one the phone rang. It was Liosha. “I think I’ll come over,” he said.
“I’ll lose my job,” Galina told him.
Liosha laughed, then fell silent. Galina could picture him with his feet up on the kitchen table, a beer in his hand.
“Talk to you later,” he said and hung up.
Galina wiped her hands on her apron and looked down the hall at the floor shining in the afternoon light. She opened the door to the living room and went over to Nelly.
“What are you looking at?” she asked.
“The nest,” Nelly said, and Galina followed her gaze. Outside, stuck to the balcony wall, was a long, narrow, funnel-shaped nest made of mud. “I’ve been watching it for three hours and nothing’s happened.”
Just then a big bird flew up, chirping. It circled the nest a few times and left.
“There are no baby birds.”
“They must be sleeping,” said Galina.
“The big bird killed them,” Nelly said.
The big bird had come back. In its beak was a sliver of wood, which it was trying to press into the mud of the nest. As soon as the wood stuck the bird flew off.
“It’s been doing that all day,” Nelly said, then looked at Galina, waiting for a response.
The nest appeared to be hermetically sealed, there was no opening, not even a little hole to let the air in.
“That nest is a tomb,” Nelly said.
Galina couldn’t think of anything worth saying. She went into the hall, where the phone was. She dialed her own number and let the phone ring several times. No one answered. Liosha must already have left.
“The earth is turning,” Nelly was saying, “and we’re stuck to it and we have to hold on so we don’t fall… like terrified ants…”
“Wonderful,” Sparrownose broke in. He glanced absentmindedly out the window and sat down in the armchair. “So, the way you see it, we’ve been holding on tight for… oh, five, six thousand years…”
“Ten thousand,” said Nelly.
“Ten!” Sparrownose exclaimed. “Just imagine—ten thousand years, and not a single one of us has fallen!”
But that wasn’t proof enough for Nelly, who stood up angrily and went over to the window. Galina took the opportunity to set the tray down on the desk and leave.
It must have been past six when Galina heard the doorbell. The living room was boiling in the late-afternoon sun and she was bathed in sweat. Liosha was leaning against the door frame, smiling widely. “You shouldn’t have come,” Galina said. She looked over to make sure the neighbor’s door was closed, then stepped aside to let him in.
“It’s hot out,” he said, and went into the kitchen. He had been to the house once before, when Nelly was in the clinic and the mistress was still spending nights with her. It had been winter, and he and Galina had slept in one another’s arms and made love in the mistress’s bed, despite Galina’s protests. In the morning she fried him some eggs, sunny side up, and they ate naked in bed, the tray resting on the covers. But that had been a different Liosha, a calmer, more reasonable Liosha who only drank on the weekends, not every day.
“There are leftover hamburgers,” Galina said.
“Hamburgers again?” he asked, raising his voice.
“The girl is sleeping,” Galina said.
“I don’t give a shit about the girl,” Liosha grunted. He sat down at the table, lit a cigarette and looked around. “Nice,” he said, exhaling smoke. “Nice…”
“You can eat, but then you have to go,” Galina said.
Liosha looked at her through narrowed eyes. He had no intention of leaving, it was perfectly clear. He ate, smoked another cigarette, and went into the living room. Galina brought some beer. They sat on the couch and watched the news. Liosha put an arm around her shoulder; he had his way of trying to win her over. And what’s wrong with that? Galina thought. He’s lonely, too, that’s why he came, to have some company.
“Liosha, my husband,” Galina said. She started to get up but Liosha pulled her back down.
“Hello,” Nelly said.
“Here, come sit with us,” Liosha said, making room for her on the couch.
Nelly looked at him without moving.
“What time is it? I have to give you your medicine,” Galina said, realizing that she’d forgotten all about Nelly’s medicine, and the drops, too.
“You’re not going to give her anything,” Liosha said, and gestured again for Nelly to sit.
The girl came toward them hesitantly.
“Want a beer?” Liosha asked.
“It’s not right,” Galina said.
“Yes,” Nelly said, and sat down on the couch.
Liosha filled his glass and handed it to Nelly. She drank it down in a single gulp and licked the foam.
“Okay, enough,” Galina said. But she felt numb, unable to react.
“How come you won’t go outside?” Liosha asked.
“I don’t want to do them the favor,” Nelly said seriously.
Liosha opened another beer and sat there thinking. “Good for you,” he said, and smiled. Galina elbowed him in the side, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“They’re all after me,” Nelly said a little while later.
“Who’s after you?” Liosha asked, speaking unusually slowly.
“The ones who want me to not hold on, to fall.”
“To fall where?”
“Into the universe, the galaxy, I don’t know.” Nelly made a vague gesture. “You never know exactly where you might fall.”
“Mmm…good point.” Liosha said.
Galina’s face was flushed from the beer. The sound from the television was drumming into her skull. She picked up the remote to change the channel.
“Turn it off,” Liosha said, “I want to think.” He put his feet up on the coffee table and laced his hands behind his head. “So tell me,” he turned to Nelly, “who are those people?”
“Rednose, Sparrownose, Slug and Bigear,” Nelly explained. These were the various doctors who had been treating her ever since she’d left the clinic.
“I’ll take care of them,” Liosha said.
“They’re snails in suits, a black cloud of worms,” Nelly said excitedly.
“I know,” Liosha agreed.
“What are you telling her?” Galina muttered.
“We’ll go and find them,” Liosha said. His eyes were shining. “Nelly and I are going to—”
“Wait,” Galina broke in. “Wait, please…” She tried to get up but fell back down. She felt strangely dizzy. She saw Nelly watching Liosha with a blurry sheen in her eyes and then saw Liosha watching the girl, too, magnetized. With enormous effort she pushed off the arm of the couch and got to her feet. She went out of the living room and stopped in the middle of the hall. She had to do something, right away, that instant. She took a few steps backward and closed the door to the living room, then stood thinking again in the middle of the hall. Quick, Galina, quick. She opened the front door of the apartment, rang the neighbor’s bell and waited. She seemed to hear footsteps somewhere inside his apartment. “Mr. Tsirimokos,” she whispered. She rang the bell again. Nothing. “Can anybody hear me?” she shouted.
Breathless, she ran to the front entrance. Outside, the shops had all closed. People were coming and going on the sidewalk. She turned back. Again she seemed to hear footsteps inside Mr. Tsirimokos’s apartment. She pounded on the door with her fists.
“Can anybody hear me? Can anybody hear me?”
She went back into the apartment, closed the door behind her and leaned against it. She stood there for a few minutes, breathing deeply. Then she went into the living room. “Time for us to get going,” Liosha said, and held his hand out to Nelly. Nelly looked at him, then glanced at Galina and stood up.
“Wait,” Galina said.
“I want to go outside,” Nelly said, and started walking.
Nelly went down the stairs of the apartment building, clinging to Galina and Liosha’s arms. They went out into the street. She took a few steps on her own between them.
“It’s scary to walk without holding onto anything,” she said.
“Yes,” Galina said. Her heart was about to burst.
“Now I’m a tightrope walker.”
“Yes, a tightrope walker,” Galina repeated.
They got into the Fiat, all three of them crowding into the front seat. Liosha turned on the engine. The car started moving.
“An unknown power has taken me under its wing,” Nelly said. She hung out the window and stared, entranced.
Liosha turned toward her, ecstatic, and stepped on the gas.
They sped up. The car was flying and everything else was flying, too: the kiosk, the peddlers selling grilled corn and coconut from pushcarts by the fountain, the withered foliage on the trees, the newspaper stand. The whole road was flying, disappearing into the distance. It’s terrifying that not a single image stays in my mind, Galina thought. Only the sky, the sparse clouds, and the moon staggering between them—only these were still.