Sleep, Mama

Translated by Krystyna Steiger

She was a fair-haired baby girl, with wise, gray eyes; they rolled around, comically, in every direction, as though she were trying to take in the big, white room, where she’d only just come into the world. Unexpectedly, the little thing started bawling, and at the sound of the baby’s first cry, Vera was completely enveloped by a sense of unbelievable happiness, as by a cloud. Suddenly weightless, she flew away, the baby in her arms. They flew over the houses, and over the streets of their snow-covered city, where people rushed about their business, without even noticing them. All of her problems, and everyone else’s, too, seemed insignificant now, compared to her great joy.

Her tiny daughter. So sweet. So real. How long she’d waited for her, and finally, here she was!

“But, how is it possible? I wasn’t even pregnant,” she suddenly thought. And the second she’d thought it, the sensation of flying disappeared, as though someone had burst the helium balloon of their shared happiness. Pressing the baby tightly against her chest, Vera flew downward alarmingly fast, and the sensation of freefalling brusquely woke her up.

Vera wasn’t told, at first, she’d never have children. Her husband and mother had colluded with the doctor to withhold the fact, for a little while, that due to a serious uterine inflammation, following her last miscarriage, they’d removed the organ most crucial to carrying a fetus to term. When she found out there was no hope of her ever becoming a mother, Vera wept for days. Unable to see her that way anymore, her husband tried cheering her up with a very peculiar analogy.

“What’s the point in crying like that? It’s like crying over a light bulb that could never stay lit for more than ten seconds. It’s gone now, and thank God for that. Life goes on. And eventually, we can adopt.”

But life didn’t go on for them. Rather, it did, but separately. After what had happened, their marriage lasted about as long as the metaphorical light bulb. The husband quickly found happiness in another family, where a ten-year-old girl needed adopting and, with his help, a baby boy was born soon after. Vera’s friend, Nadia, advised her to just let it go, and wish her husband well, at least mentally, but that didn’t happen right away.

Throughout the course of a year, Vera’s gloomy thoughts managed to drive out every ounce of the cheerfulness her friends once loved about her. Every morning she’d look in the mirror and see a beautiful, platinum blonde with mournful, gray eyes, looking back at her. She’d lost all interest in being liked and stopped wearing makeup. But she was a ‘rare breed’ – one of those women who were even prettier au naturel, so she looked as good as ever.

“Why do you insist on burying yourself alive?!” exclaimed her mother, who’d sometimes drop by with her latest beau. “Why are you so obsessed? Here’s life, bustling all around you, and you’re sitting in a corner, fixated on your broken dreams.”

Vera’s mother was only sixteen years older than her daughter. Unlike Vera, she’d never wanted children. She got pregnant by accident, after having sex with a schoolmate after class, during her student-duty shift. She was Vera’s opposite, changing partners and living situations with ease. She did everything with ease. Vera had never wanted to be like that loud, brightly-rouged woman, and patiently suffered through her obligatory visits.

For the past year, Vera hadn’t wanted to see anybody at all. Not even in her dreams.

But the dream about the baby managed to drive out the indifference she’d so arduously achieved. The baby’s birth was so realistic, that when she ‘landed’ back in her bed, she just couldn’t believe it was only a dream. Then next morning, when she looked at herself in the big, bedroom mirror, she even pulled up her nightie and looked at her belly, as though she needed proof that none of it was true. She even thought she looked tired, like a woman who’d just given birth – the kind she’d always looked at with hatred, every time she ended up at the city hospital’s maternity ward, to keep from miscarrying. But the only thing she’d ever managed to keep was her figure.

She spent the entire next day at work ruminating, in complete silence; wondering what could’ve happened, her senior accounting colleagues decided not to distress her further, and only exchanged astonished glances behind her back, and twirled their forefingers at their temples.

Vera lay in bed that night, remembering her dream. She’d hardly ever remembered her dreams before; but the abruptness of waking up mid-flight, with her long-awaited baby in her arms, had etched every detail, however minute, in her memory: the baby’s blonde little hairs, stuck to her little forehead; the tiny birthmark on her left cheek, exactly like Vera’s own; and the touching way her little eyelashes twitched as she slept. She was unmistakably her daughter – the one God had denied her in this life. Why was her subconscious mind teasing her with this illusory reality? As she drifted off to sleep, Vera remembered their flight over the snowy city and her baby’s tender hair, smelling of sweet buns.

They were together again; the dream picked up, exactly where it had left off. This was so unexpected and odd. It was as though the preceding day, begun in front of the mirror, then spent processing payroll; the lonely evening in front of the television; and the boring educational book she just couldn’t seem to finish, had never existed.

Her baby was sleeping in her arms, just as peacefully as before. Realizing this was a dream, Vera returned, mentally, to her apartment and found herself before the mirror again. Her reflection was somewhat blurry, but that was to be expected. She laid her daughter carefully on the bed, then lay down beside her.

It was so strange – being at home, lying on her own bed and hugging the tiny, living creature she’d wanted for so long. But stranger still was knowing that all of it – she, the bed, and the mirror in which they were reflected – was merely the fruit of her subconscious’ labor.

She looked at the baby, who was smacking her lips humorously in her sleep.

‘I haven’t even fed her yet, not even once!’ Vera suddenly thought. She touched the tip of the baby’s tiny nose, and the little thing began to stir.

“Time to wake up,” Vera said, tenderly, jerking at the sound of her own words.

But everything stayed as it was. She blew lightly into the baby’s face, which reacted with the funniest expression. The baby opened her eyes and looked at her mother.

“Feel like eating?” Vera asked.

Recalling her strictly theoretical knowledge of how to nurse newborns, she undid her bra. ‘I wonder if I have any milk . . .’ she thought, and she squeezed her nipple lightly. A little, cloudy-white droplet appeared on the tip.

“Want some?” Vera asked, lowering her nipple to the baby’s lips and, after contemplating something for a few seconds, she started to suck on it.

Vera had never experienced the sensation of breast-feeding. She liked it so much, she closed her eyes, as though she were trying to plunge into the very depths of this inexpressibly gratifying sense of intimacy. She hadn’t felt this good in a very long time.

‘God, if only I didn’t have to wake up . . .’ she thought, eyes still closed. What a marvelous, recurring dream. She was stroking the child’s silky hair with the palm of her hand, touching her forehead and those sweet, puffy little cheeks, trying to memorize what she was feeling, physically. ‘If I never see her again, at least I’ll remember what she was like.’ The baby nursed a little and opened her gray eyes, which so resembled Vera’s own. Mother and daughter looked at each other for a few seconds, and the little girl suddenly smiled.

“You’re my little . . . Sonia!” The name occurred to her spontaneously, in a sudden flash. ‘And could it have been any other?’ Vera thought; in her native Russian, it meant ‘sleepyhead.’

Overcome with emotion, Vera started kissing the baby on the cheeks and forehead; she squeezed her little hands tenderly, but firmly, and started kissing every little finger, until the baby started to whimper. A few seconds later, the crying grew very strange; everything in the room began to fade, except for the familiar buzzing sound she woke up to every morning. Vera reached over and hit the off-button without even looking.

Vera spent the next day in a fog. She did everything mechanically, constantly thinking about her dream and waiting impatiently until it was time to go to sleep again.  Knowing her dream could recur, she was almost certain it would. All she had to do was want it to. But that night, she didn’t dream about anything. And the night after that, she dreamed about something else, which she didn’t remember. The dreams came and went, but her little girl didn’t come back. Vera’s friend, Nadia, who lived nearby and sometimes dropped in for a visit, told her, again, to stop obsessing over it: if she dreamed about the baby – good, and if not – fine.

“Find yourself a good book to read – and chuck this one,” she said. And with a firm hand, she grabbed Vera’s boring, educational tome and threw it on top of the wardrobe. Nadia had an easy-going attitude to life. A divorced, single mother of young, Irish twins, she had her own troubles; but she managed to get through them, with a little help from her mom, and a great sense of humor.

Two weeks had gone by, and Vera had begun, slowly, to forget about her two dreams. It was crunch time at work – quarter end, with stacks of accounts to prepare. On the way home late Friday, exhausted, she stopped into a store to pick up a bottle of wine and some cheese, intending to spend the evening with a good movie. She had nowhere to go the next morning, so she wanted to lie around in bed longer than usual.

She dreamed about all kinds of nonsense at first; she was walking around the office, unable to find the right door, until her boss came out of it with a sheaf of papers in his arms, which had grown long enough to embrace her, and all of her bookkeeping colleagues. He was angry, bawling them out and shaking the papers at them; then, he started throwing them out the window: they were useless. Vera tried to stop him; she ran over to the window and managed to save a few pages.

“And another thing!” the boss suddenly shouted. “Clean up after your baby – immediately! What’s the idea of dragging your kids to work, anyway? They’re pissing in here!” he exclaimed, pointing his growing index finger at a two- or three-year-old blonde little girl with gray eyes, who was standing in the corner of the room.

“Mama, I peed in my underpants,” she said, lifting her dress in embarrassment, for Vera to see.

Glaring at her boss, Vera started pulling off the child’s wet panties.

The little girl whimpered.

“Don’t cry, Sonia, don’t cry,” Vera said. “We’re going home, right now. Mama’s sick of working here. She’s fed up!”

She threw the balled-up panties at her boss but, luckily for him, she missed.

“Oh yeah?! You’re fired!” he shouted, and he left the room, slamming the door, which opened again a second later and, like a flock of snow-white birds, the rest of the papers in the office flew out behind him.

“Mama, make me an airplane?” the little girl asked, picking a sheet of paper up off the floor.

And as Vera held it in her hands, the paper plane suddenly started growing, until it was as a big as a fairytale flying carpet. Hovering over the floor, it seemed to be inviting them to get on, for a ride. And as in the first dream, they were suddenly flying over the city again, until they landed in the playground beside the building, where they lived. It was a warm, summer evening, and you could smell the lilacs. Vera broke off a little branch and immediately found a blossom with five petals.

“See this little blossom?” she asked, showing it to the child, as she crouched down beside her. “It’s a lucky one, so I’m going to eat it and make a wish.”

“What will you wish for?” the little girl asked, examining the little blossom.

“For us to always be together,” Vera replied. She put the sweet-smelling blossom on her tongue and embraced the child.

“So, you adopted after all?” someone suddenly asked, and Vera recognized her ex-husband’s voice, right beside her.

“No. I gave birth,” she replied. She looked at his grinning face, and suddenly felt something tearing her off the ground. She quickly grabbed her daughter by the hand.

“Hey, where are you going?” he asked, from below, and she felt an irresistible urge to spit on his expanding bald spot.

And why not? This was only a dream! And she did it – with gusto. Vera didn’t know if she’d hit the bullseye or not, but it didn’t matter. The important thing was that she and her daughter were flying above the green treetops like birds, except holding hands. The little girl had come to resemble her even more, since the last time they saw each other – she was a carbon-copy of Vera, in one of her childhood photos. She could already babble and ask the funniest questions.

“Mama, how come other people can’t fly like us?”

“Because you and I are special.”

As she lay her daughter down to sleep on the bed, Vera looked at herself in the mirror again, as though hoping the other Vera, behind the mirror, would reveal what lay ahead for them. And explain how two-and-a-half years had elapsed so rapidly when, in fact, it had been less than a month . . . ‘Then again, is it really so important?’ she suddenly thought, sitting on the bed and stroking her daughter’s hair as she drifted off. And the very second the child fell asleep, Vera opened her eyes.

For the next two months, she and her daughter saw each other almost every night. The child always appeared in her dream at the most unexpected moment, wearing the same dress, which grew in size right along with her.

“Sonia, let’s buy you a new dress!” Vera suggested, when her daughter was eight years old.

“No, Mom, I totally love this one!”

‘Totally’ was her favorite word. This tastes totally good. I totally slept.

The ‘totallies’ weren’t always totally appropriate, but they were very funny, and Vera smiled, every time she heard them.

Vera’s real life seemed to have receded into the background – there was nothing new, always just more of the same: waking up early, getting ready for work, spending the whole day in the office, except for lunch, and in the evening – stopping for groceries, before going home. The interesting things only happened in her dreams: she and her daughter were always walking, running, or flying somewhere. She could manipulate the dreams, now; one time, they found themselves in Paris, on the Eiffel Tower, which Vera had wanted to visit for years, but never did.

“Mama, it’s totally beautiful!” the little girl exclaimed, looking down at the snow-white city.

She was well aware, now, of how special they were, and wasn’t surprised, anymore, that  other people didn’t fly around like birds.

Imperceptibly, in dream after dream, autumn had arrived, and Sonia’s birthday drew near: January 17. Vera had marked the day on which she’d first dreamt of her daughter on the wall-calendar, as the day of her birth. She was already contemplating gift ideas.

December marked another quarter end at work; Vera was awfully tired, but the worst thing was, her fatigue had induced insomnia. She tossed and turned for half the night, unable to will herself to sleep, and went to work in the morning completely debilitated. And if she did manage to lose herself in slumber for a short time, it was visionless, like looking at a blank television screen. Home remedies nauseated her: bran with honey, kefir with honey, honey in water or apple juice . . . Before long, the very sight of honey made her sick.

Enervated by lack of sleep, and terribly homesick for her daughter, Vera finally saw a doctor, who prescribed sleeping pills – one tablet per night, at bedtime. The medication worked like a charm; that night, Vera finally fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.

“Mama!” her daughter cried, throwing her arms around Vera’s neck. In the month since they’d seen each other last, she’d grown considerably, and their mutual resemblance was even more striking. “You look totally exhausted,” she continued, running her hand gently across her mother’s face, as though she were trying to erase the traces of fatigue. It was the first time she’d used her favorite word correctly.

“I’ve missed you so much!” Vera exclaimed, smiling, as she stroked her daughter’s blonde hair.

“Me too,” Sonia replied, also smiling. “I never want you to leave again – that stupid job’s going to drive you to an early grave. You need a holiday.”

She’d really grown. The next day she’d be turning . . .

“Eleven! You’ll be eleven years-old tomorrow!”

“Twelve, Mom. I’ll be twelve,” Sonia said, correcting her. “How are we going to celebrate?” she asked, excited to know.

“Well, we’ll just sit together, and light the candles on your birthday cake,” her mom replied.

“We’re not going to fly to Paris?” Sonia asked, and she started to laugh.

“If we want to, we will. We can do whatever we want.”

“Yes, I remember – we’re special!”

“Totally,” Vera said, and she sighed, happily.

Sonia’s twelfth birthday happened to fall on a Monday. That day, everybody came to work tired after their weekend, all of them grumbling about how Monday was the worst day ever invented by humankind. But unlike the others, Vera was walking tall and looking exceptionally happy.

“Vera, you’re simply glowing, today! Did something fabulous happen?” asked her boss, setting another pile of documents on her desk for proofing.

But Vera’s response was one of mysterious silence.

Rather than eat during her lunch break, she went shopping and bought a blue dress – similar to the one Sonia loved, except brighter, and dressier. On her way back to the office, she called Nadia and asked her to drop by her place that evening.

“Did something happen?” Nadia asked, as intrigued as Vera’s boss had been.

“We’ve got something to celebrate.”

“Ok, then, I’ll grab a bottle of wine on the way,” Nadia replied, with a laugh.

But that evening, on discovering the nature of the celebratory occasion, she grew very serious.

“Vera, I’m worried you,” Nadia said. “You seem to have confused your dreams, with reality.”

“I haven’t confused anything,” Vera replied. “It’s just that my real life is ‘there.’”

“No,” Nadia said, taking her by the hand. “You have to face facts. Real life is ‘here.’ And you have to come to terms with that. Even though your wish has come true in the non-physical realm, you must understand that you’re not some metaphysical being – you’re an actual person, and no matter how much you fly around, you’ll always come back to this world. You’re still going to wake up in the morning, and the rest of it ends. You can’t stay in your dream life. And what happens if you stop dreaming about your daughter altogether?”

That was something Vera couldn’t even imagine.

When Nadia left, she started getting ready for bed. Her head was a little fuzzy from the wine, and she suddenly remembered her mother, always bubbling over with happiness, and decided to call her. Judging by the cheerful voices and loud music in the background, she’d called at a bad time.

“No-no, I don’t need anything – I was just calling to say hi,” she replied, but her mother could barely hear her. “Ok, then, we’ll talk later,” Vera said, to the dial-tone, now.

‘Why can’t I be that free-and-easy?’ she thought. ‘Why can some people be happy in this reality, while I can only be so in the other?’

After she had a shower and brushed her teeth, she remembered the dress she’d bought that afternoon. She unwrapped it, held it up against her and looked at herself in the mirror. She looked good in blue; it brought out her gray eyes – they actually lit up, like they used to in her youth, when she was full of hope. ‘Sonia’s going to love it,’ she thought, pleased with her purchase.

She suddenly remembered she hadn’t taken a sleeping pill. They were on a shelf by the window that looked out on the dark winter sky, sprinkled here and there with bright, glittering stars. One clumsy movement as she opened the vial, and almost all the pills spilled out onto the kitchen table. Against the background of the deep-blue tablecloth, they looked a lot like the stars in the sky.

‘It’s like perpetual night,’ Vera thought, amazed at the similarity, as she picked the pills up off the table. There, in the palm of her hand, was a fistful of the little stars she was about to put back into the vial. Suddenly, she heard Nadia’s voice in her head, saying, “You can’t stay in your dream life,” and her hand seemed to raise the pills to her mouth of its own volition. She picked up the glass of water she’d had on the table and gulped them down.

“Mama, you look totally beautiful today!” Sonia exclaimed, as she greeted her mom. There was a birthday cake with twelve, lit candles, sitting on the kitchen table, covered with the deep-blue tablecloth. The look on Sonia’s face was one of pride, and glee.

“You didn’t bake it yourself, did you?” Vera asked in amazement.

Sonia nodded, clearly pleased with herself. There was something different about her, today – her dress! She was wearing the blue dress Vera had bought as her birthday present.

“It really suits you!” Vera exclaimed, hugging her daughter. “Happy Birthday! I’m so happy you put it on! Now, blow out the candles, before they burn out. And don’t forget to make a wish.”

Sonia bent over the cake and squeezed her eyes shut.

“I wish my mom would never go away again, and that we’d always be together,” she announced. Then she opened her eyes and blew out the candles – except for one.

Sonia gave Vera an inquisitive look.

“Does that mean my wish won’t come true?” she asked.

“Yes, it will – totally,” Vera said, and she blew out the last candle.


Berkeley, California, 24 September 2015

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Hope Silver (Nadezhda Serebrennikova)
Publishers:  Evolved PublishingThurston Howl Publications