An arresting coming of age, an exploration of gender, a modern folktale, a powerful portrait of a family—Katya Kazbek breaks out as a new voice to watch.
When Mitya was two years old, he swallowed his grandmother’s sewing needle. For his family, it marks the beginning of the end, the promise of certain death. For Mitya, it is a small, metal treasure that guides him from within. As he grows, his
life mirrors the uncertain future of his country, which is attempting to rebuild itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union, torn between its past and the promise of modern freedom. Mitya finds himself facing a different sort of ambiguity: is he
a boy, as everyone keeps telling him, or is he not quite a boy, as he often feels?
After suffering horrific abuse from his cousin Vovka who has returned broken from war, Mitya embarks on a journey across underground Moscow to find something better, a place to belong. His experiences are interlaced with a retelling
of a foundational Russian fairytale, Koschei the Deathless, offering an element of fantasy to the brutal realities of Mitya’s everyday life.
Told with deep empathy, humor, and a bit of surreality, Little Foxes Took Up Matches is a revelation about the life of one community in a country of turmoil and upheaval, glimpsed through the eyes of a precocious and empathetic child,
whose heart and mind understand that there are often more than two choices. An arresting coming of age, an exploration of gender, a modern folktale, a comedy about family, Katya Kazbek breaks out as a new voice to watch.
Release date: April 5, 2022
Publisher: Tin House Books
Print pages: 368
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Little Foxes Took Up Matches
It all began when the Soviet Union was still united, which was, by the accounts of everyone around Mitya, a much better time. He couldn’t know for sure because the events surrounding the USSR’s collapse were about as dim as anything that happens in one’s childhood. So Mitya was forced to trust the words of adults until he knew better. Mitya’s grandmother, Alyssa Vitalyevna, liked retelling the events that occurred one night when Mitya was two years old, which made Mitya believe that what happened that night was a fateful, life-altering accident.
According to Alyssa Vitalyevna, Mitya was weak and frail as a toddler but had the stamina of a scavenger bird when it came to picking up small objects that had fallen on the floor, or even on the ground outside. His mother, Yelena Viktorovna, once had to pry a morsel of moldy bread from his tightly shut mouth. She then escorted Mitya off the playground as the other mothers, not even trying to conceal their voices, declared, “That Mowgli.” Yelena Viktorovna and Mitya never returned to that playground. “These other mothers aren’t worth the soles on my shoes,” Yelena Viktorovna hissed. She was of an utmost conviction that she, the daughter of a distinguished space scientist and a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, was far superior to the other women.
After that, she did not let Mitya out of his stroller on walks. He was allowed to go on slides and swings only when escorted by his father, Dmitriy Fyodorovich. After all, Dmitriy Fyodorovich was an Afghan War veteran, and his army brand of discipline was reliable in preventing any mishap.
That one evening, Mitya’s parents went out to dinner at the home of their colleagues from the Rubin factory. Dmitriy Fyodorovich made televisions at Rubin, and Yelena Viktorovna provided bookkeeping services. The colleagues lived in a room in faraway Medvedkovo, and so his parents left Mitya with Babushka, who lived with them in the apartment. Nothing could go wrong.
Alyssa Vitalyevna, who was, by the way, a fourth-generation Muscovite, did not consider herself a natural-born caretaker. She didn’t mind looking after Mitya, of course: he was a lovely, docile child with eyes like blue buttons and blond curls. Most importantly, he looked nothing like his father, whom Alyssa Vitalyevna loathed. She went to great lengths to avoid addressing Dmitriy Fyodorovich in the second person and referred to him as “indyuk,” turkey cock, or “armeysky sapog,” army boot.
Alyssa Vitalyevna was not that kind of Russian grandmother who dedicates herself to baking pies and knitting socks for the grandchildren. She had better things to do than babysit. She had phone calls to make; she had stitch patterns to finish and, maybe, to gift. She had a boyfriend, the Greek Dr. Khristofor Khristoforovich Kherentzis, who would not survive without her guidance and instruction.
Reluctantly, Alyssa Vitalyevna joined Mitya in the living room, which doubled as his bedroom. The Communist Party had given the apartment to Alyssa Vitalyevna’s recently deceased husband, Mitya’s grandfather. He was one of the scientists who invented the first space toilet for the Soyuz spacecraft: a suction cup and a tube for urinating, a small bucket for defecating, all connected to a vacuum pump. “I am the woman who made cosmonauts stop shitting into diapers,” Babushka said when she felt that life was treating her unfairly. It was her utmost conviction that without being inspired by her, Dedushka and his colleagues would never have been able to invent the space toilet. She kept a prototype of the device in her credenza and sometimes took it out. Alyssa Vitalyevna always mentioned how she was a crucial part of the prototyping process—and Mitya never dared ask what this implied, afraid it might have been something intimate, like her trying out the toilet before the cosmonauts.
Alyssa Vitalyevna, regal and flushed with menopause, sat on Mitya’s mustard-yellow sofa that evening wearing a red mohair beret that she never took off in the colder months for fear of drafts. Behind her was a rug tapestry depicting Peresvet, a Russian monk, fighting Tatar warrior Chelubey. Beneath her was another rug, a Middle Eastern red-and-black pattern of crows’ feet and geometric flower shapes. Mitya was crawling on it, trying to find something to put in his mouth. There was nothing but crumbs. He licked them off the carpet and tasted kurabie biscuits and three-kopeck bread rolls with a touch of wet dog.
Alyssa Vitalyevna paid her grandson no mind. She was working on an embroidery: Dr. Khristofor Khristoforovich Kherentzis’s initials on an off-white handkerchief. She was also talking on the phone to her best friend and occasional nemesis, Cleopatra. The TV in front of her was on, at full volume, and both ladies were discussing the events of Santa Barbara, an American soap opera that was all the rage. The main character, C. C. Capwell, a gray-haired millionaire, was splitting from his much younger wife, Gina. In protest, Gina took off her jewelry, got undressed, and left the Capwell mansion naked.
Alyssa Vitalyevna gasped into the receiver. She briefly glanced at Mitya to check if he had seen the impropriety, but the boy was busy studying the rug. Unseen, the needle had detached from the embroidery. And as Alyssa Vitalyevna was shuffling the receiver, she caused the needle to fall off the sofa and onto the rug. Mitya picked up the needle with his little hand. It was thin, shiny, small—Alyssa Vitalyevna was working on the tiniest details, using her most delicate needle.
It was like nothing Mitya had seen before. Maybe if he had stung himself with it, he would have broken down in tears and thrown the needle back on the floor. But it stayed firmly in the boy’s fist. He put the needle into his mouth and swallowed.
Or at least, that’s what Alyssa Vitalyevna figured had happened.
While the end credits were rolling, she realized that something was amiss. She looked at her embroidery, couldn’t find the needle, and gasped. She patted the area on the couch around her, looking. She searched beneath her feet. Then Babushka stood up and explored the area where her buttocks had been. When she couldn’t see the needle there, she bent down and started looking beneath the couch. She moved her open palm across the floor, but all she could find were dust bunnies.
Her attention shifted to Mitya.
“Mitya, did you swallow the needle?” she asked him.
And he replied: “Yes, Baba.”
Alyssa Vitalyevna believed that once a person swallowed a needle or even as much as stepped on it, the sharp little piece of steel would immediately get absorbed into the flesh and it would be mere hours before it reached the bloodstream and set on its way to the heart to kill the person. Babushka knew that she had to rush Mitya to the emergency room, but not until she relayed all that to Cleopatra on the other end of the phone line.
Fortunately, it was mid-October, and it was not snowing yet. Alyssa Vitalyevna put on her lambswool coat, grabbed her pocketbook, and rushed down in the elevator with Mitya in tow. As soon as she ran out of the building and stepped into a puddle, Alyssa Vitalyevna realized that she was still wearing her slippers. It was too late to turn back. She ran through the inner courtyard and out into the street. Mitya held on to the front of her cardigan and felt the cold wind brush against his naked calves.
Outside, Alyssa Vitalyevna stopped a car by jumping in front of it.
“Quickly, or the child will perish,” she shouted at the driver, a middle-aged Georgian man in a cat fur hat, as she got into the passenger seat. The man had no option but to obey. Babushka had quite a commanding presence. She propped Mitya against the front panel and gave out instructions on how to get to the hospital. It was about thirty minutes away, on Leninskiy Prospect. When they reached the hospital, a converted pre-Soviet mansion, Alyssa Vitalyevna barely waited for the car to stop. She jumped out and rushed Mitya to the entrance. The driver shouted his phone number after them. His name was Vakhtang. He must have liked Alyssa Vitalyevna, she later surmised.
The receptionist told Alyssa Vitalyevna and Mitya to wait in line to be helped. The waiting room was full of adults who did not look sick enough to be tended to earlier than Mitya. There were no empty spaces on the benches upholstered in cheap brown pleather along the walls. A wailing preschooler latched on to her mother, who kept shoving a whole peeled onion into her daughter’s mouth. The air smelled of the eternal tug-of-war between urine and chlorine.
Babushka rotated on the barely existent heels of her slippers to face the receptionist once again.
“This child is dying,” she announced.
“You have to wait, zhenshina,” the woman said, oblivious to Alyssa Vitalyevna’s dominating charms.
Babushka had no patience for bureaucracy. She took hold of the phone on the receptionist’s desk and ferociously spun the rotary dial.
“Khristik?” she asked as soon as the call was connected. The usage of a diminutive conveyed the urgency of the situation. “Khristik, dear, Mitya is about to perish, and they will not see him at your hospital!”
Dr. Khristofor Khristoforovich Kherentzis, one of the chief surgeons of the hospital, was not expecting to hear from his beloved Alyssa that evening. His brother-in-law Zhora was visiting from Sukhumi and mercilessly winning at backgammon.
“Can I maybe put you in touch with my friend Alexei?” he offered.
“But Khristik! You must come right away! I am here alone, and I see no help from anyone!”
Babushka glared at the receptionist.
It was quite pleasant at Khristofor Khristoforovich’s apartment. He and Zhora were halfway through the second bottle, and there was some lamb and ajapsandali left over for a snack later that night. But he also knew that going against Alyssa Vitalyevna’s will could propel him to visit the ER himself.
“I am coming, Alyssa,” Khristofor Khristoforovich sighed.
They waited for him in the corner, Alyssa Vitalyevna perched on the windowsill and quite magnificent in her lambswool. Mitya tried to reach the nearby ficus plant and treat himself to its luscious, dust-absorbent foliage, but his arms were too short.
Dr. Khristofor Khristoforovich Kherentzis arrived disheveled in his white undershirt and loosened suspenders beneath his winter coat, smelling like homemade wine. The receptionist immediately began collecting the necessary information to get Mitya’s medical record out of the archive.
“Year of birth?” she asked his grandmother.
“1937,” Alyssa Vitalyevna exclaimed proudly. Now the younger woman had no way of ignoring the importance of her plea.
The receptionist looked at Babushka over her thick-rimmed glasses with a question in her eyes.
“Not you, Alyssa, the boy,” Khristofor Khristoforovich crooned.
“And the name?”
“Dmitriy Dmitriyevich.” She propped Mitya on her chest.
“Last name?” the receptionist asked.
“Noskov,” Alyssa Vitalyevna replied less enthusiastically.
She had always disliked Mitya’s last name. Not only did it signify the fact that both her daughter and her grandson belonged to that ridiculous indyuk, but it also came from the word nosok, sock. Whenever she thought of that last name, she could sense the odor of dirty feet in her nose. And the smell, albeit imaginary, had to come from Dmitriy Fyodorovich’s army boots, there could be no doubt about that.
The receptionist retrieved Mitya’s medical record, a thin stack of papers bound in a frivolous floral fabric and filled with illegible doctors’ writing. They were admitted to the X-ray room immediately, and Babushka paraded, proudly, in front of all the ailing patients still waiting in line. She was greeted by the radiologist, an old d
The Old Arbat, the street where the Noskovs lived, was one of the oldest, most historical and beautiful streets in Moscow. However, in his earliest childhood, Mitya did not get to see any of it much. His world was confined to the apartment. More precisely, to his room, which was also the living room, and the kitchen, where he saw Yelena Viktorovna cook and clean. There was also a narrow space between the wall and the bookshelf, where he liked to stand and tug at the loose piece of wallpaper, to reveal old newspaper. Mitya did not know which time, exactly, it came from. There were some young women in old-fashioned dresses in front of a movie theater, and the text below that advertised the theater’s opening.
Having the boy at home was a hindrance for all concerned, but there was no other choice. Mitya would get sick right when the grown-ups attempted to place him in a kindergarten. It was as if the boy learned about the plan, and absorbed the bacteria from the air in the apartment with all the urgency of his little, weak lungs. The minute Mama came to him to offer help packing up for kindergarten, Mitya responded with a thread of brown snot hanging from his nose.
Whenever he had the flu, Mitya lay down on the living room sofa that doubled as his bed, swaddled in many blankets to sweat it out. Sticking to her promise, Alyssa Vitalyevna nursed him. She brought Mitya glasses of warm milk with raspberry jam, vodka, and pepper, and put her lips against his forehead to measure his temperature. Everything around Mitya swam in a fever, and halfway between dreaming and waking, he distinguished his babushka’s soothing whispers. Sometimes she read Pushkin to him. Sometimes she read Tolstoy. Sometimes she talked on the phone. Sometimes she hissed at the TV screen, where another soap opera was unwrapping.
When Yelena Viktorovna came home in the evening, she relieved Alyssa Vitalyevna. She lacked her mother’s force of spirit and had a much grimmer outlook on her son’s fate. She knew she couldn’t have more children—she had had a hysterectomy—and so Mitya was her only bet on motherhood. She enjoyed him when he was an infant, but the older he grew, the more she realized that her son was becoming an entity separate from her. She did not like that. She had no control over her temperamental mother, and though she achieved a bit more success with her husband, controlling him took careful planning and skillful manipulation. And since a foreign object had overtaken her toddler’s body, he simply became a ticking time bomb, over which she had no say.
So Mama came up with the best idea she could. She came to terms with his inevitable death. “I can’t do anything, so I’ll do my best in the circumstances, and he will pass away, slowly,” she mentioned to a colleague. The role of a mother who had lost her child in his prime was, to her, a romantic one, noble, one she could learn to enjoy. So even while the child was still alive, she began practicing.
When nursing sick Mitya, Yelena Viktorovna started out sweet and dreamy. She would talk about Mitya as a baby, perfect in every way. But grief was always lurking around the corner. If she stayed by Mitya’s side long enough, Yelena Viktorovna mentioned the future loss, her whispers breaking down into sobs. “Bedniy moy detochka,” she cried. My poor baby.
Mitya did not die. And then, shortly before he was four, he made it out of the apartment, to kindergarten. Mama’s hand firmly held his as they made their way through the 7:00 AM dusk of the Old Arbat. The world lay around them in its sleepy splendor. Mitya raised his eyes to see the bluish-yellow sky above the buildings of painted yellow brick. He saw a woman on a balcony, her ample breasts spilling across the railing. A man shook violently from behind. Mitya told his mother of the dangerous situation, but Mama led him farther and told him not to look.
The children in kindergarten were the first ones Mitya had encountered closely. His overzealous parents were not pulling him away from the kids this time. The realization that there were real lives outside their apartment, and that people functioned there, and formed their own opinions of him, was a strange discovery. He did not know what to make of the people he met. Two women, Olga and Yevgeniya, took care of the children in his group and helped everyone change into room shoes. All the children were wearing chunky tights like Mitya, in various muted colors, with shorts or dresses or nothing but a sweater, always sagging and bubbling at the knee.
Mitya had spent the morning staring at himself in the mirror that hung by the entrance to the apartment. The tights, ...
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