THE MAN YOU’LL MARRY
by NILUFAR SHARIPOVA
From You’ve Got Grave Issues, a collection of short stories by Nilufar Sharipova, translated by Anne O. Fisher.
“All right, now, first we all pay up, and then I’ll tell you what you have to do.” Varvara Ivanovna Charodey went around to every girl, collecting her precious ten-spot from each. Her real last name was different, of course. Plainer. But intrigue is just so very important in this line of work, and also the name “Charodey,” or “enchanter,” did lend a certain authority to her new profession.
“We will be stepping onto the cemetery grounds in exactly fifteen minutes, when it will be seven-thirty. It’s not dark yet, but the sun is already setting. This is important. I’m bringing you to the gold-medal section, so to speak, the plots where academicians, heroes of the Soviet Union, actors, store managers, and just your average well-off citizens are buried. Everyone picks out their favorite grave and… Girls… Listen carefully, girls. I’m not going to repeat this ten times.” Varvara Ivanovna glared at two girls deep in whispered conversation. “As soon as you pick your grave, you need to run around it seventy-eight times. Exactly seventy-eight times, no more, no less. If you chose the grave of an academician, then you run around it seventy-eight times and it’s a done deal: you’re getting a servant of science as a husband. Before a month has passed, you will, without fail, meet an academician. A live one, of course, not the one whose grave you ran around. He’s not getting up from there anytime soon, don’t worry,” Varvara Charodey snickered, seeing the fear in the girls’ eyes. “Results are guaranteed.”
Masha Trostnikova raised her hand like a schoolgirl to ask, “What if you can’t make it seventy-eight times around? What if you run out of steam before then?”
“If you make it fifty-eight times around, then it’ll be a professor, and if you make it thirty-eight times, it’ll be a lecturer. In the worst-case scenario, if you can’t make it past eighteen, you’ll get a grad student. It works out nice with academicians, they’re very reliable. The end result is pleasant, no matter what. But you should’ve just done your P.E. in school to begin with, and not asked for ‘exemptions.’ All that malingering in school, and now they can’t get themselves married, can they,” Charodey finished with a grumble.
Irina Solomonova’s eyes glinted with suspicion behind her thick glasses. “But why such a strange method? Why does it have to be at a cemetery? If it were really so easy, then why are there tens of thousands of unmarried women in this country? And then why are hundreds of thousands married to guys who make less than seventy rubles a month?”
Ah. Varvara Ivanovna sensed that she shouldn’t have let Solomonova in the group. This kind of girl gives you nothing but trouble. Way too smart. But Charodey was not the kind of person who’d actually say no to an extra ten rubles.
“Why, why, why. Just listen to this one, pelting me with questions, a real Doubting Thomasina. I’ll take it one at a time.” Varvara Ivanovna the sorceress knew that the only thing that works with girls like that is to speak in their language: be systematic and methodical, and, if possible, use special jargon. “Let’s start with methodology and location. Everyone knows that the planet Earth turns around the sun. And around the Earth itself there is a magnetic field. When the Earth’s magnetic field resonates with an individual subject’s magnetic field, that is, with a person’s aura, the result is that the energy of desire harmonizes with its embodiment. A cemetery, around the graves, is the precise place where it’s easiest to take the bearings of Earth’s magnetic fields.” Charodey was especially proud of her new word, “aura”; and although she didn’t really know what “taking bearings” meant, she did know that it never failed to impress. “As for why women don’t get married, or marry badly… Well, some don’t want to employ my method, while others simply don’t know about it. What, do you think it’s easy to sign up for my sessions? Look at all of you, every last one of you heard about me through a friend. I don’t just take anybody who wanders by. I have to stand by my guarantee, you see. All right, it’s time for us to go. It’ll be seven-thirty soon, and we’re standing here jawing.”
“Yeah, let’s get going already,” said Liza Katushkina impatiently, shifting from one foot to the other. She looked Solomonova up and down, sniffed, and added, “If anybody here doesn’t believe in this, or doesn’t think they could ever get married anyway, then let them stay behind and quit keeping other people from finding happiness.”
The girls trooped out to the precious section under the leadership of Varvara Ivanovna.
“All right. We’re here. Make your choice,” Charodey commanded.
Irina Solomonova wasn’t giving in. “What if two of us like the same grave?”
“No big deal. One of you waits while the other one runs, or you can both run together. Just don’t choose a cosmonaut’s grave. We only have a few of them in the whole country. There aren’t enough cosmonauts for everyone.”
“Are you sure you brought us to the right place? Look what a little gravestone that is, you can barely even see it,” said Liza, suspiciously eyeing a modest headstone shaped like a book.
Varvara Ivanovna couldn’t help herself. “Phooey! Young people these days… Do you have any idea how much that ‘little’ gravestone costs? It’s pink granite. Pricewise it’s like pink diamond. Go with that one, you won’t regret it. Your groom will be rich and have a good head on him.”
“No, I like this one better,” said Liza Katushkina, walking over to a massive black stone featuring a portrait of a man in dark glasses wearing a thick gold chain on his neck.
“So you choose Gabriashvili? He’s a crime boss. I’m obligated to give you fair warning, but it’s up to you to decide whether you want somebody with this profession or not.”
“What if I don’t get all seventy-eight laps around him? What’ll I get then?” Liza had evidently set her cap for a criminal.
“A petty thief. A gofer,” replied Varvara Ivanovna knowledgeably.
“Ew, I don’t want a gofer.”
“What are you standing around waffling for? The others have already figured it out and started running. Pick an academician, no way to lose on that one.” Charodey was beginning to get a little tired of this group. Too active.
“No, I don’t want an academician, too boring. I don’t want an actor, either. They smile all over the place, and blow kisses to everyone. Try keeping track of them. I want somebody who’ll run after me.” Liza sighed and rolled her eyes pensively.
“You be careful what you wish for, girlie,” sighed the practical Varvara Ivanovna, dismayed to discover yet another form of girlish idiocy.
Suddenly a noise came from the tall hedge dividing their section from the others. “Let’s not get worried now, girls, let’s keep running. That’s Sergey, the cemetery watchman, who’s also moonlighting today as our guard. Did you think I’d leave you in here all by yourselves? I’ve got it all figured out. This is my business, after all,” Charodey proclaimed authoritatively. She instructed the young man, “Now Sergey, don’t you go scaring the girls. Come over here and sit by me.”
Meanwhile, Liza Katushkina was still wandering around, peering at gravestones. It must’ve been the deepening dusk affecting her, or perhaps it was Sergey with his curly bangs, but either way, Liza finally started racing around a memorial stone. From that distance, Varvara Ivanovna couldn’t make out who Liza had chosen to marry. Nobody had ever picked that grave before. Charodey, dying of curiosity, made her way over to Liza, as though merely making the rounds. She needed to check on all her charges’ progress, after all. And it was a good thing she did. Liza suddenly collapsed and made no attempt to get back up. Charodey and the cemetery watchman jumped up in unison and ran over to the girl. It was only after Sergey tenderly picked her up in his arms, and she fluttered her eyes and murmured “eighteen laps,” that Charodey thought to look down at the gravestone: “Konstantin Nikolayevich Bushuyev. Beloved father and irreplaceable director of Cemetery Number One. Rest in Peace.”
Nilufar Sharipova was born into a family of journalists and cemetery managers in the Soviet Union. This unusual combination has defined her writing, and her stories often revolve around life in a cemetery during Soviet and post-Soviet times. Nilufar now lives in London. “The Man You’ll Marry” is her first published work of fiction.
Anne O. Fisher translated Ilf and Petrov’s novels The Twelve Chairs (Northwestern UP, 2011) and The Little Golden Calf (Russian Life Books, 2009). She has also translated the fiction of Andrey Platonov, Margarita Meklina, and Ksenia Buksha. With co-translator Derek Mong, she won an NEA translation grant to support work on Maxim Amelin’s poetry; their translations have appeared in Asymptote, the Brooklyn Rail, Lunch Ticket, Two Lines, and elsewhere.