I’ll tell you now, this story ends with a shot. It’s not like in the movies: a little piff and a clean faint. My sister Dato is stumbling through the snow, grabbing me, her chest open on a hash of beets.
There’s a blue boat behind us, frozen in place. And two men thrashing each other: one kind, both completely useless.
Dato and I are in men’s shirts and boots that go high up our legs but aren’t warm. She’s getting her blood all over me, thick and black and hot as spit, and I’m thinking of how ridiculous we look. All leg, like grasshoppers left over from summer.
Dato and I have been living on the ship for half our lives. It’s not a real ship – we’re hours from Lake Baikal and whole days from the sea—just a boat-shaped building with portholes for windows and a rough coat of blue paint.
It’s a bar, but we live upstairs. An old captain built it and left it to our boss Matko. Then Matko went off to drink down his pension in some hut on Okhon Island and left it to us.
Matko was a decent guy. He used to make us blow him once in a while, but we knew it was a chore for him.
Dato and I still wear the uniform he made us wear: men’s shirts belted tight at the waist. No special underwear, though it always shows at some point. And heels. In winter we wear boots, which just makes us look more naked.
It works. Everyone comes to us, even though we’re not young.
Girls here get used to being handled. I’m not from here, but I got used to it, too. When I first came from Yugoslavia, I’d never done more than hold someone’s hand at a circle dance.
Then my father, my Tatko, went mad. Mama and I visited him on Saturdays, after he was put away. His room always smelled of clean floor and coughing. We left after dark, when the mountains were pitch black.
One night the bus rolled right off the road and knocked me out. Mama always let me have the window seat, so she landed on top of me.
And then—it’s not that I was taken or kidnapped. I don’t use words like that. It wasn’t like the talk shows with pictures of blurry tin cans and lonely people talking about probes. I don’t say spacemen or aliens either; I don’t even think them. I just say them.
I don’t know how they found me, but I know I called them. By the time they scraped me off the bus window and brought me on board, I already knew who they were.
It takes me a minute to feel the cold from someone’s hand through my shirt. It’s Slav, one of the regulars.
“What are you, on the rag?” He throws back his head and laughs, showing the black pits in his molars.
I sneak a hand under my shirttails, checking for damp. But he’s teasing, he just wants another round.
When I bring it, his friend asks, “You the one who snuffs?”
“Give me a light.”
He puts one, two, three smokes in his mouth and tries to flick his lighter. His hands are putty already, so I do it for him.
There’s a crowd now; the regulars know what I’m up to. I hear Dato out there somewhere, barking me up: my sister, freak of nature.
I reach my hand out like a wizard shooting spells. Everyone’s quiet as I pinch the lit ends.
It feels like a quick tap on a skillet. Like almost nothing.
When I let go, there’s a smell in the air like charcoal. Dato grabs my hand and waves it over my head, like I’ve won a fight. Everyone’s arguing already about how I did it: she dips them in alcohol; she wears an invisible glove.
Over all the heads, I see Sasho staring at me. He’s married, or something like it, but he’s here every night. The ones who drink alone are like that: their eyes get stuck.
I’m used to eyes; I had plenty on me on the ship. They did a lot of science, but it wasn’t boring like it was in school: they wrapped tape measures with strange characters around me and pinched me with big pliers that didn’t hurt.
They opened me up, too. I was awake for it; I watched them unbutton the skin from my shoulder and look inside me for a long time. They took pictures and blew them up on a huge screen, feeding me things and watching where I lit up. Whenever something hurt me, they found the nerve and snipped it out. It’s a gift not to feel much: I thank them every time I land hard on the ice.
When they were done, they fused me back together with a glowing blade, so gentle they might have been painting me.
It’s Tuesday. The sky is barely violet when I hear someone shouting and a fist on the bar downstairs.
I check myself in the mirror to make sure nothing’s showing and head down. Dato’s out; she can’t help me slap hands away.
There’s a hulk sitting at the bar in his jacket, ice melting off him.
“Wow, Toma, only the chairs get here before you.”
He roars. They like to be teased: how much they drink, what hooligans they are.
“Toma,” he says in a high voice, teasing me. “When will you learn to say Tyoma?”
I’ve lived here 20 years, but I skip the Y in everything; I still say ne instead of nyet. I never learned Russian, not really. I speak Yugoslavian to everyone except Dato, and they speak Russian back.
I slap down a sticky coaster. “Should I read Tolstoy to you degenerates?”
“I wouldn’t mind.” There’s Sasho, lurking in the corner with the spiders.
I snort. “Please. I’d have to learn the alphabet.”
The only other language I’ve learned is Georgian. Dato taught me ages ago, when I first came to live with her and Baba. The alphabet is the closest thing I’ve seen to the writing they used on the ship.
Dato didn’t understand much in school, and that made her a good teacher. We used to lie in our cots and bat the throat sounds back and forth.
Dato speaks Russian, but she puts the ღ, the letter girls use online for a heart, into every word. She leans forward when she speaks, like a bird squeezing out a song. And she loves the same way she speaks: too hard. She doesn’t know love from pity, and there are so many men here to pity.
Dato keeps two of her own, a pushover and a brute. “One to make my blood boil and one to ice my face,” she always says.
I don’t understand, not really. I don’t have the energy for the fighting and sneaking around wives, but it gives Dato life. Every other night she staggers in, rattling all the glasses, and comes to bed singing, black eye or not. And flops down next to me, love rolling off her like a cat that’s been in the sun.
Sasho is mopey tonight, nursing a paper bag like there’s a kitten inside.
“Should I bring a saucer of milk?” I ask him, after plunking down a carafe for his neighbors.
“It’s for you.” He thrusts it at me without looking up.
There are a pair of soft disks inside: two halves of a bra. It’s not the strangest gift I’ve gotten.
Some of the guys are watching, so I cup them under my tits and shake. “Big enough for you?”
“What’s that?” asks a new guy from Krasnoyarsk, or worse.
“A gift.” I nod at Sasho.
His face is red. “They’re masks, see? There’s a virus going around.”
I’ve read about it in the news—the streets of Tbilisi are locked down—but I play dumb. “And it’s coming here? Please. Nobody comes here.”
I catch Dato’s eye and shake again. “Modi, come put on your mask.”
She laughs. She loves this. She charges at me face-first and bites the mask off my left tit.
The men slap the tables, each other, us. They like it when we play together. It makes them forget how many bills they’ve handed over and what we have or haven’t brought them.
Someone toasts to twins. They throw their shots up and try to catch the clear blobs before they land. For a second, it’s like being in space.
Dato and I aren’t twins. We’re not even real sisters, but we were raised together, if you call what we were raised. Our Baba—not our real Baba, just an old lady in the middle of the taiga who took us in—threw us together in her spare room more than half our lives ago.
When she threw us out a few years later, we shared the pile of quilts next to Matko’s bar. Now we share the giant bed above it.
We kept Matko’s gun, and everyone knows it. It’s in a new spot every night, we tell the regulars. They make a game of groping us to find it.
But we don’t keep it on us; we keep it in the ice bin, deep enough so the cold wakes us up if we’re mean drunk and seeing red. It’s saved Dato more than once.
As for our cash, I keep that in the cellar, in an old freezer that doesn’t work. I’ve tried a safe, but Dato is rubbish with combinations. And keys.
I’m showing her again how much to take out for the tax man, which is what we call whichever mobster stops by on Wednesday afternoons.
“In case anything happens to me,” I say, but we both know there’s only one thing that could.
“God forbid.” She looks at the ceiling and crosses herself in a quick loop. She knows they live in the sky with God, and she doesn’t take chances getting on their good side.
“Anyway.” I wrap her fingers around a stack. “This much.”
We’re wrapping it in paper when I hear feet on the stairs.
I freeze. I meet the tax man outside. If he’s in here—
“Hello?” The footsteps stop.
Dato steps between me and the money, hip-checking a pallet of Korona. SibirskayaKorona, not the stuff you drink with a lime.
“Who is that, a ghost?”
“It’s me.” The voice hobbles the rest of the way down.
His hand claws around for a pocket it can’t find. “I thought I’d stick around. For—protection.”
I hoot. “Fifteen years of this, but today, I need protection.”
We tease Sasho, but we let him stay. He waits until it’s crowded and I’m pouring to mumble something.
I shrug. It’s too loud. We go back and forth a few times before I give in and lean my ear down.
“I’m living alone now.”
I feel myself flush. I want to put him on the spot, ask what it’s got to do with me. If I look like I need a landlord.
But I just shrug again. Let him think I didn’t hear. Or that I did and I don’t care.
I get my period for real the next day. I don’t get cramps; the nerves down there are long gone. It doesn’t feel like anything but a mess. I’ve got a fistful of napkins and I’m headed for our half-frozen bathroom when Sasho lurches over.
I ignore him and lock the door. You never know with men; they’ll watch you do anything.
They watched me, too, but I got over it. I was just an animal to them, a bird cleaning its wing.
I must have lived with them for three months, because I got my period three times. They studied that too, stretching out the clots and smashing them flat on a slide. And bathroom things: they trained me to go in a sample bowl they swapped out in a flash.
I fold the napkins in half and wash my hands in the freezing trickle. They had running water on the ship. Not water, but a liquid that heated on the skin and got you twice as clean. I still wish for it on the days the pipes freeze.
They made only one mistake: they sewed my arm up with my watch inside. I found it by accident, from the ticking. You can feel the face, even the band, if you know where to press. The battery’s almost thirty now—old enough to be a person.
I wake up to Dato playing on her phone. Her head is on my arm, listening to me tick, and she’s scrolling through pictures of creatures with no hair and giant eyes. She locks her phone when she sees me looking.
“How big were their dicks?” She asks about them all the time, like they’re my family or my lovers.
I yawn. “Don’t know.”
Dato grabs a wad of fleece at her crotch. “You never saw?”
I close my eyes and look my memory of them up and down. Their bodies were lean and straight, the kind Dato’s spent her life trying to starve herself down to.
I shake my head.
“They wore clothes?”
“A long shirt thing. It just hung on them. Nothing like—” I make the shapes for tits and junk.
“Why didn’t you ask?”
I swat her. “The same reason we didn’t ask Baba about her piz.”
“They beat you?”
She knows they didn’t. She just wants to hear how nice everything was, all silver and clean like an expensive hotel. No mud, no grease, no impossible sticky spots.
“It’s so romantic,” she sighs, and stretching out to all four corners of the bed. “Like Beauty and the Beast.”
I rumple her hair, making it crackle. “More like being a baby.”
It’s true: they sat me in a tall chair and taught me the sounds they made when they pointed at themselves. I could tell they liked when I repeated them, because their mouths turned up and their faces got pink. And sometimes they said my name with different endings, so I knew they were joking with me.
When we passed the sun, I watched them hold their faces up to the window until green bloomed on them. The rest of the time they were the color of putty, and as cool. They smelled like dust and tasted like raw potato: I tasted their fingers when they reached in my mouth and swabbed.
It’s quiet, or close to it, the next time Sasho gets serious with me. I’m clearing the shot glasses off the bar when he grabs my arm.
“Have you cut yourself?” His eyes are liquid, ready to cry for us both.
I shake him off. “Just on bottles from you drunks. “
He reaches for the perfect square on my wrist: a little door outlined in Xs. I jerk away before he can feel the ticking.
“My cousin wanted to be a doctor, and someone had to be the cadaver.” I force out a laugh and hold it until he joins in. Everyone here has scars from family.
My cousin was the only smart person I knew, so I asked him about them. What they were. Where they were from. How I could get back. Why I could still walk after three months of machines breathing and eating for me.
He wasn’t handsome, and I was his cousin, but I felt important with his eyes on me. When he tugged my sleeve and said I need to examine you.
He couldn’t leave me alone. Whenever Mama was out strong-arming the relatives for loans, he would drag me into the bathroom with the rakija. We had a cellar full of bottles, all made right there in the bathtub.
“If I’m quick, I can catch them alive.” He meant my cells: the blood and skin cells I’d studied in school. He could slice a transparent square off me and mount it in half a second.
I pretended it stung when he poured rakija over each new row of stitches. Little red X’s, like a row of comic-book laughter: XA XA XA.
After he opened me up down there, Mama and my aunt, my Teta, threw me out.
They caught him scrubbing the stains out of the towels and gave me three days. I was still passing clots like heavy black stars when they shipped me off to someone’s baba—an aunt of a cousin of Teta’s—somewhere in Poland.
Mama squeezed my wrist before putting me on the train. “You can call me sometimes.”
But those were the days before mobile phones. I wasn’t about to memorize a number and get this baba’s permission to dial it just to listen to Mama complain.
The first baba died not long after I got there, and her family sent me east to the next one. And Dato.
Sasho won’t drop it. He points out this scar, that one. Asks if I’m alright, if I need salve or an aspirin.
“I’m fine,” I tell him. “I’ve always had a face for radio and a body for science.”
He shakes his head. “Why are beautiful women always fishing for compliments?”
I’m not beautiful. I’m not fishing, either. I feel sorry for Sasho. He doesn’t have anyone else to bother. There are pretty girls at the high school, but they’re like the flat-screen TVs they make over at the factory: not for anyone here.
Dato and I were pretty enough in high school. Girls like us smoked and acted fast with boys, so that was what we did. We held a boy’s thing the way we held our cigarettes: like equipment.
Dato used to test me, too, but I didn’t mind. She’d take Baba’s embroidery needle and pass it through my skin until it made a ripping sound and blood came. She couldn’t understand how my feelings were so far away. Delayed, like a bad connection.
“I feel it, but it’s a long time ago. Like, my grandmother’s grandmother.”
“And this?” She made holes in my ear, one for each set of studs we’d palmed from the old witch at the market.
“Like it’s happening to the girl down the street.”
Dato would laugh, but before long she’d be pawing me and crying. “I shouldn’t have, I’m sorry.”
Then she’d wrap me in a blanket and make me toast with sugar and butter in Baba’s skillet. And feed me as if I were a baby instead of a girl a whole year older.
I’m reading the news in Georgian when Dato comes in howling. Even from upstairs, I can hear the layer of snot.
One of her idiots must have broken off with her. They take up with the mothers of their children every few weeks and come back to Dato when they get kicked out.
When the door of the ice bin rattles open, I race down the stairs. She’s holding the gun, water dripping off her blue arm.
“He left me.” She cocks it at her temple.
I pounce. She’s sloppy; I get her arm twisted behind her in no time and bury the gun deep in my sweatpants.
“Stop talking stupid. You still have the other one.”
She wails, clawing me. “I can’t take it; I don’t have a skin.”
Baba had always said that to her. With a disgusted look on her face, as if Dato really was standing there with her insides out, fly-covered and shining.
“I can’t live in this world.” She throws herself at me, knocking us both against the bar. I feel it, but it’s far away: two generations removed.
We’re on the sticky floor now, in a pile. I straighten my leg so Dato won’t see the gun poking through.
Across the floor, my phone lights up and skitters. She lunges, swirling a greasy thumb over the lockscreen. “Open it! Call them!”
She thinks going back to the ship is like a holiday you can book. A cruise.
“You have to need them,” I remind her. “You have to be ready to die.” They didn’t come when the mob held us up or when I knocked myself out in the cellar. When I had pneumonia, they only sent air. Cold space air that smelled like the ship.
“I am,” she insists. But she’s on her back, calmer now, scrolling through my news feed. She doesn’t understand it—the Georgian Dream party, the Russian occupation—but she likes the pictures of the Tbilisi streets, the rows of type from home.
When she puts it down, I look through my messages. There’s a text from one of her idiots—the pushover or the brute, I can’t remember. Keep an eye on her for me. I snort.
“It’s them, isn’t it?” Dato sits up and grabs my foot, pulling my sock off.
She puts her face on my leg and tries to bite, but my sweatpants are too thick. She tries again, and again, filling her mouth with fabric. I start teasing her, holding the fleece out like a bullfighter, and she charges into it with her face.
She’s laughing again, before long. “I should shoot us both.”
“I guess you’ll have to.”
She falls on my shoulder and giggles, blowing her sticky lemon breath into my hair.
The next time Sasho grabs my wrist and doesn’t let go, I lead him to the supply closet to get it out of his system. It’s just skin hunger. I could be anyone.
I moisten him under the tap and squeeze him between my legs. I don’t put anyone all the way in: it’s a hassle, and it’s messy. They don’t know the difference.
After a few weak thrusts, I clean him and pull my shirttails down over the angry skin.
There’s a crowd the next night. I haven’t looked at my phone; I don’t see that Dato’s lighting it up with a long scroll of sad harsad harsad har. Where are you, where are you.
I serve and serve, clearing, teasing, linking arms in Bruderschaft and tipping back shots. I’m choking down a bubble of horseradish vodka when Sasho grabs me.
“Leave me, Sasho.” I’m warm and slurry and can’t read his lips through all the noise.
“Your sister’s outside.”
The blood in my cheeks switches on. Two minutes of rubbing in the bathroom, and he’s telling me my business.
“Leave her, she doesn’t mind the cold.” When one of the idiots locks her out, she’ll pound on the door for an hour. Not because she wants in, but because she wants him to come out.
I lean at Sasho, ready to fight him, and he leans in too. To punch me or kiss me, I don’t know.
Instead he lifts me up, legs dangling like a bad puppy’s, and drops me outside.
The wind digs into me, cold and unbreathable. Someone’s left a bike running, and the exhaust tastes good, metallic.
Dato’s idiots are thrashing each other, yelping every time they land a punch. Then she’s all over me, wearing most of her blood. There’s no weight to her; no doctor could get here in time.
“Call them,” she slurs, but I still don’t know how. It’s flat here, no mountains to roll off. Just the worn blue wall and the bike: rattling, running rich. If I get some speed, if I knock us both out, we might have a chance.
All I can do is lay us out like cheap caviar and hope they come scrape us up. I pull Dato onto my lap and rev, aiming her wound at the sky.
By day, T. Vojnovski writes nonfiction about learning methodology and design. By night, she writes a proprietary blend of fact and fiction about life in Eastern Europe, particularly the former Yugoslavia. Her interests include geopolitical underdogs, educational justice, and world languages.