One summer, when Papa was a little boy, he went on a trip to a city called Leningrad. ‘So what?’ I hear you say. Sure, it would make it much more exciting to write that he went to the jungles of Borneo, or, say, some undiscovered island in the Pacific. But you see, until that time little Papa had never set foot outside of Odessa, the city he lived in. Nowadays, of course, kids of little Papa’s age fly off to Hawaii or Mexico or Florida at the drop of a hat, and think nothing of it. For little Papa, however, going to another city was a big deal indeed. Never mind going to a different country. At that time in Russia, to go abroad you had to get a special permission from the government, and only very important people could get a permission like that.
So in a way, going to another city was exciting enough, a little like going to a different country. Besides, sometimes you can spend a perfectly boring day in the middle of Africa, and have a most thrilling adventure waiting for you right outside your front door.
Their traveling team was made up of five people: Little Papa, his mom, her friend Lusya, Lusya’s son Borya who was a year younger than Papa, and Aunt Linka. They were going to ride the train all night.
As soon as little Papa saw Borya at the train station, he smirked with glee. Borya was a pudgy, freckled-faced mama’s boy who spent hours each day practicing piano – which made him a sissy in little Papa’s books. Borya knew what was coming, and edged closer to his mother, who was having a lively conversation with little Papa’s mom.
“Well-well,” said little Papa. “If it isn’t the great Shmozart himself. Long time no see, Shmozart. So, Shmozart, how’s your latest symphony coming along?”
Borya tried to look like he was ignoring little Papa, but his trembling lower lip gave him away. Hah, worked every time!
“Hey, Mo-zart, Mozzarella fart, written any masterpieces lately?” little Papa went on with his little routine. Little Papa wasn’t a bully, but he just couldn’t help it: Borya was such an easy target.
Borya looked up at his mother hopefully, but she was too busy chatting to be of any help.
“What’s the matter? Are you deaf like Mozart too?”
“You mean Beethoven,” said Borya quietly.
“Beethoven,” repeated Borya more loudly. “He was the deaf one.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” said little Papa. He felt he was losing the advantage. He was clearly out of his musical depths. This called for a new line of attack. A couple of days ago, he had seen this adventure movie, where the hero says to the villain: “Put up your sword, you wretched vermin! I shall make you pay for this!” Now, that was a great line. Little Papa was dying to try it on someone. Here was his chance. He looked Borya squarely in the eye, put his hand on the hilt of his sword, and opened his mouth – when his mom grabbed him by his sword hand and pulled him along. It was time to board the train.
After they had settled in and stowed away their luggage, they headed for the dining car. The train corridor was very narrow, barely enough for two people to squeeze by. A fat woman was walking towards them, with a little blond girl in tow. His mom and the woman met halfway, and after some shuffling and apologizing, they got into a conversation. Meanwhile, little Papa took a better look at the girl –and his heart stopped for a spit second, and then started racing like mad. She had blond silky hair, blue eyes, and a turned up nose. She was everything a girl should be. She was the girl of little Papa’s dreams.
The fat woman looked down and beamed at little Papa. “My, what a cute little boy you’ve got there,” she said, and pinched his cheek. Little Papa hated that.
“Cute?” said Mom. “Oh, he’s cute all right.” Then came the punch line: “When he is sleeping with his teeth to the wall.” That’s what she usually said when someone called little Papa cute. Or else she would say: “Who, this ugly little monkey?”
Little Papa, he didn’t know what to think. Actually, he did know. Mom had told him that she only said those things to ward off the evil eye. This meant that when people said nice things about you, you should pretend they are not true, or else something bad would happen to you.
While his mom and the fat lady went on chatting about nothing the way grown-ups do, little Papa kept sneaking glances at the girl. Each time he did that, he saw the girl looking straight back at him. Of course, he immediately looked away to make it very clear he had other, much more important things to do, like stare through the train window – where all he could see was darkness and his own blurry reflection. Finally, the two women said good night and they all went their separate ways. Little Papa saw the fat lady and the girl enter the compartment right next to theirs. Little Papa was in love.
Back in their compartment, they began to settle in for the night. There were five of them and only four bunks. Since Borya was afraid of heights anyway, he was sleeping on the floor. Little Papa was given the choice of the two top bunks. He picked the one on the side of the girl’s compartment. He had a brilliant idea. Chances were, the girl next door was sleeping on the top bunk as well (he couldn’t imagine the fat woman ever making it up the ladder). And chances were, she was on the side facing him, with only a thin wall between them. What he would do, he would send her secret messages by knocking on that wall. Of course, she would know it was him, and then maybe, just maybe, she would knock back. And that would mean that she liked him too.
As soon as little Papa began to hear even breathing and little snores coming form the other bunks, he proceeded with his plan. First he tapped on the wall quietly with his knuckles. Then he held his breath and waited. Nothing, except the creaking and rattling of the moving train. He knocked again, a little louder. And again. And finally he heard an answering knock. Yes! No, wait. Could it be just random noises? He knocked again, to make sure. He heard another knock in reply, a little louder this time. No, this was definitely human knocking. Hurray, it worked!
Little Papa lay there in the dark, knocking and listening. He imagined the girl on the other side, tapping on the wall, thinking of him. This was like those stories he had read, where prisoners talked to each other by tapping on the walls of their cells in a secret code. This was exciting stuff. Little Papa could have gone on all night, but the knocking from the other side was getting a little too loud. Someone might wake up. It was time to stop. He gave one last goodnight knock, and turned over in his bunk.
Little Papa lay awake for a long time, happy in the knowledge that the girl he loved loved him back. Eventually he must have fallen asleep, because the next thing he knew he was standing on the edge of a cliff, with nothing behind him but a long, sheer drop to the jagged rocks below. The enemy, his eyes glinting through the slits in his black mask, was pressing a sword to little Papa’s throat and grinning an evil grin. Little Papa took a desperate step back – and then he was tumbling through the air. Somehow he managed to grab on to the edges of the top bunks. Only one of his feet landed on Aunt Linka, who sat up with a grunt. “Damn it, I think I fell down,” mumbled little Papa, climbed up the ladder and went right back to sleep.
The next morning, he didn’t remember any of this. He only found out what had happened when Aunt Linka told everyone about the frightful shock she had last night, and showed a bruise on her arm to prove it.
The train was slowing down. They dragged their suitcases into the corridor. The fat lady and the girl were there too. Little Papa tried to catch the girl’s eye, and when he did, he gave her a look filled with meaning, to remind her of their last night’s shared secret. The girl frowned and looked away.
“Good morning,” little Papa’s mom was saying to the fat lady. “Did you sleep well?”
“Actually, no,” replied the lady sternly. “Someone,” – and she glared down at little Papa – “someone was banging on the wall right next to my ear all night long! I didn’t sleep a wink!”
Little Papa turned beet-red and stared at his toes. His heart was shattered.
With a grinding of brakes, the train came to a stop. They were in Leningrad.
They were all staying in the apartment of some friends of little Papa’s parents, who were away at their summer cottage. The next morning, after a quick breakfast they headed out to see the Peterhof. This was where Peter the Great, the emperor of Russia back when Russia still had emperors, had built his grand palace. Oh, the place was grand all right, with all sorts of beautiful buildings, gardens and statues. But best of all were the Joke Fountains. This was a big round area covered with paving stones. If you stepped on a particular stone, a jet of water would come shooting out and spraying everyone nearby. There were lots of kids and even some grown-ups running around and jumping up and down, trying to hit the right stone that would make the water come gushing out. But there were so many people rushing about, so many feet stomping and jumping, that there was absolutely no way to tell when the water would come and from where. That was the beauty of it!
Borya stayed outside: he was afraid to catch a cold. Little Papa jumped right in. At first he tried to guess when the next spray would come. He looked around him to watch the others. He tried stepping now on one stone, now on another, to see is there was some kind of a pattern. But after a while he just gave up and joined the pandemonium of squealing, dripping and delighted kids.
The sun was hot. The water was cool. Little rainbows formed in the air where the two met. The suspense of now knowing when the water would hit you was delicious. This was heaven!
Eventually, panting and soaking wet, he left the circle and came to take a breather on a bench next to his mom. At first he just sat there and watched the action. Then he noticed a man sitting on the other side of the bench. Something about that man caught little Papa’s eye. Maybe it was the bored expression on his face, in the middle of all the fun that was going on. Or the way his knee kept rising up and down, as if he was playing the piano.
Little Papa leaned over and pretended that he was tying his shoelaces. Out of the corner of his eye, he followed the man’s knee down to his foot – and then he froze! There were pedals hidden under the bench. The man’s foot kept pressing the pedals, sometimes one, sometimes two or three at a time. Little Papa was puzzled at first. He looked up at the fountains. He looked back at the man’s foot. And then it all clicked into place. Every time the man pressed a pedal down here, a jet of water would shoot out over there. The man was controlling the jets! There were no right stones to step on! This was all a set-up!
Little Papa whirled back to his mom and nudged her with his elbow. In a shocked whisper, he told her what he had seen. His mom leaned over and peeked at the man, who kept raising and lowering his knee with the same bored expression. She leaned back with a sigh. “Well, what do you know,” she said, shaking her head.
“Mom, shouldn’t we tell everyone about this?” whispered little Papa, nodding at all the kids squealing and running through the water jets. “Mom?”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said his mom.
He looked again at the man next to him. Well, this would be a perfect time to deliver his line. To stand up, face the man, and exclaim: “Put up your sword, you wretched vermin! I shall make you pay for this!” And then watch him squirm, the lousy cheat. He didn’t do it, though. Somehow his heart wasn’t in it.
As they walked away from the fountains, little Papa kept looking back at the screaming children and the shooting water and the hunched figure on the bench. All the gladness was gone out of him like air from a punctured balloon.
And then he saw something that made him forget all about it. He knew what these things were. He had seen them in pictures and movies about cowboys and Mexican bandits. But he had never seen them in real life before: cactuses! Rows and rows of cactuses all along the sides of the path. Some were tall and spindly, others round and fat. Some looked like big balls, others like Mickey Mouse with ears sticking out on top.
Little Papa thought how cool it would be to take one along and show it to his friends back home. He let the others walk ahead. When he was sure no one was looking, he quickly bent down and tore an ear off a Mickey Mouse. Then he hid it in the first place he could find: down the front of his shirt. Which, if he had only stopped to think, was not such a great idea.
It took his mom quite a while to pluck all the tiny thorns out of little Papa’s chest and stomach. She threw away the cactus ear, and little Papa wasn’t a bit sorry. In fact, he would have been quite happy not to see another cactus for the rest of his life.
All in all, that day’s disappointments were getting to be a little too much. It didn’t help when, back in the apartment, little Papa lost to Borya in checkers, three games in a row. Little Papa called Borya a fat blob, and was sent to bed without desert. A perfect ending to a perfect day.
“Why in the world are you taking the raincoat?” little Papa’s mom was asking Lusya. “”It’s a sunny day out there.”
“Well, you just never know,” replied Lusya with a shrug. In her other hand, she held a buldging handbag. She had been lugging this bag during their entire trip. It contained everything one needed to survive for a week in the snake-infested jungles of the Amazon. Bandages, matches, a flashlight, a roll of toilet paper. Hard-boiled eggs, apple slices and cucumber sandwiches to keep her precious little Borya from starving. Even a kitchen knife, for god’s sake. Because, that’s right, “you just never know”.
Today, they were going for a walk along the Neva River to look at Leningrad’s famous bridges. Little’s Papa’s mom had already seen the famous bridges before, and so she stayed behind to make supper. They took a bus to the river, and then had a nice enough walk, although little Papa was feeling a little bored with the famous bridges. They all looked pretty much the same to him. He couldn’t even pick on Borya, because Borya was sticking to his mother’s side all the way.
As they walked back, heavy drops of rain were starting to fall. Within minutes, it was pouring. With a look of “Well, now you know!”, Lusya produced the raincoat, which she spread over the heads of Borya and little Papa. They all began to trot in the direction of the bus stop.
Little Papa was feeling uncomfortable all hunched over under the raincoat. It was hard to see where he was going. So he slipped out from under it. As he did so, the raincoat fell over Borya’s head, completely covering his face. Borya veered off the path and ran headfirst into an iron lamppost. There was a resounding crack. Borya stood swaying for a moment, then fell over and opened his mouth in a blood-curdling scream. Aunt Linka and Lusya braked to a stop and came rushing back.
“What happened!” cried Lusya and put her arms around Borya, who was wailing at the top of his lungs.
Little Papa told her. She scowled at him as if it were his fault, then rummaged in her bag and whipped out the kitchen knife. Little Papa stepped back in alarm, but all she did was press the knife blade against the bump the size of a golf-ball that had sprouted in the middle of Borya’s forehead. “There, there, my sweetie-pie, my precious,“ she crooned. “This will stop the swelling, you’ll see, it will all be better in a moment.” Borya wailed even louder, vainly trying to push the knife away.
Somehow they made it to the bus stop. The people on the bus stared open-mouthed as the four of them, drenched to the bone, tumbled into their seats. Borya kept screaming non-stop. Lusya was wiping his wet cheeks with toilet paper and waving the knife dangerously close to his nose.
As they were crossing the road from the bus stop to the apartment, little Papa’s mom happened to look through the window. What she saw made her gasp in shock. In the pouring rain, four figures were crossing the road at a run. First came Linka, pulling little Papa by the hand. They were followed by Borya, who was tripping over the raincoat and wailing so loudly little Papa’s mom could almost hear him through the glass. Last came Lusya, wet hair plastered over her face, shouting at Borya’s back and brandishing the kitchen knife.
What went through little Papa’s mom’s head, before they all came bursting through the front door, is best left to imagination.
They were at the train station again. This time waiting for the train to take them back home. Aunt Linka and little Papa stayed to guard the suitcases, while the others went to the cafeteria to get some sandwiches and water for the road.
Little Papa looked around the platform. Not far from where they were standing, there was a family of three: father, mother – and a little girl. She had light-brown hair, gray eyes, and dimples in her cheeks. She was everything a girl should be. Little Papa was in love.
Suddenly little Papa noticed that Aunt Linka wasn’t alone. A tall young man was talking to her. Little Papa moved closer so he could to hear better. The young man was grinning, and for some reason asking Aunt Linka for her name and phone number. Aunt Linka was blushing, shaking her head and smiling in an embarrassed sort of way.
Little Papa didn’t like this man. He didn’t like the way he smiled. He was clearly bothering Aunt Linka. Something had to be done. He looked around, but the others were nowhere in sight. It was all up to him. It was now or never.
He came right up to the young man and took a breath. He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. Then, in a shaking voice, he said: ““Put up your sword, you wretched vermin! I shall make you pay for this!”
As soon as the words left his mouth, he couldn’t believe he actually said it. Apparently, neither could the man. He raised his eyebrows in astonishment. He looked like he was about to say something, but no words came out. He just stared down at little Papa, and little Papa stared up at him, his face bright red, his heart beating hard. Then the young man curved his lips in a thin smile. He shrugged, gave Aunt Linka a wink, and moved away down the platform.
Little Papa couldn’t believe it! He won! He won! It worked!
Aunt Linka looked at the young man’s retreating back with a mixture of relief, and strangely, what looked like regret. She gave a little sigh, then turned to little Papa.
“My hero,” she said, and tousled his hair.
In their compartment, little Papa climbed into a top bunk. He lay on his stomach and stared through the window. Houses, lampposts, trees and sky streaked past in a blurry stream. The wheels of the train beat out a soothing, hypnotic rhythm. He closed his eyes, and images came rushing in. A man was playing the organ. Every time he pressed the pedals, jets of multi-colored water came shooting out of the organ pipes. Then he turned, and little Papa saw it was Borya. A horn from growing from the middle of his head. Little Papa ran. Lusya was chasing him through the train corridors, with a sword in one hand and a cucumber sandwich in the other. He jumped from the train and swam through the air in slow motion. There was a river, with a bridge over it. Little Papa began to walk across the bridge. At the other end, the girl of his dreams was waiting for him. She was smiling and holding out a cactus.