by A. A. Weiss
illustration by Allen Forrest
I struggled to stir the sugar into my tea. At the breakfast table Mama Tanya called me an old man. I ate my potatoes and worried about vitamin deficiency.
After changing into my clothes, before heading over to teach, I took out the resource manual the Peace Corps nurse had given each volunteer at training: a glossy illustrated textbook called, Where There is No Doctor. The text offered equal amounts of amusing, practical and nightmare-inducing information. It warned never to blame local witchcraft practitioners; you never should have trusted them in the first place. (An illustration labeled “NO” shows an incriminating finger pointing at a wrinkled woman with a hooked nose.) From this book I learned how to make a toothbrush from a twig, and also a bone splint from several twigs. The book, in fact, assumed universal twig availability. The scariest thing to do with a twig: retract a parasitic tape worm from your abdomen by tying one end to the handy twig and twisting a little each day; the idea being to retract the worm out of your body a centimeter a day, for as many days as it took (re: weeks).
According to the book, today my symptoms indicated scurvy. I resolved to walk to the bazaar and buy an orange.
When I spoke to strangers I rarely got a speedy response. I would have to wait while they worked out the possibilities of my origins. Many guessed I was Polish. Some thought I might be German, though with only a basic education. Mama Tanya said my accent in Russian sounded familiar but soft, as though it belonged to someone from simpler times. I’d need more presence if I desired an audience; I’d need to project a force that anyone receiving my words would experience as we engaged in conversation, the unspoken subtext of all speech to establish my physical presence, the possibility of instant domination.
Buying an orange proved a difficult chore.
My use of language had become rather specified. At school and at home I’d grown accustomed to being understood. I knew well how to boss kids around a classroom and how to ask for less sugar in my tea. Through practice with my many linguistic imperfections the kids and Mama Tanya frequently knew what I wanted before I could open my mouth. In training I’d been warned that strangers wouldn’t understand me because of my accent. Ethnic Russians in this part of the world weren’t accustomed to hearing foreigners speak their language.
At the first stall with fruit I said oringe instead of orange (in Russian the difference sounded even slighter) with the result being total incomprehension. The next two women laughed off my request and asked where I was born. A fourth woman complimented my Russian. She said I had a beautiful voice and gave me an apple for free. It was brown on the inside and inedible. I went to another stall down by the alley of vodka bars and tried to buy orange juice. All I could find was orange drink. The woman yelled that I was wasting her time; I’d asked for juice and then refused it. I thought it over and decided to pick this battle. “Drink and juice are different!” I explained with force. She yelled and I yelled back. Nobody in a crowd of a hundred turned to look. She said the equivalent of “take it or leave it,” and I left. Before exiting the bazaar I bought a hot dog. In Riscani hot dogs off the street were topped with dill, carrots, cabbage and mayonnaise. I convinced myself the vegetables on top were rich in vitamins.
I went for a walk instead of going home.
An hour later my body felt better. My joints no longer ached. But now my throat hurt whenever I swallowed. I’d probably breathed in too much cold air by the lake. In any case, I still needed vitamins. Before returning home I returned to the bazaar and bought orange drink from a different vendor, motioning with my pointed finger instead of speaking.
published 29 October 2014