Noah Cohen-Greenberg

The Little Doll

Sashka and I have been in the car for many miles. Five hundred, maybe a thousand, maybe five thousand, each mile containing within it hundreds more. The sun, setting and rising, the sickly appearance of the moon, we fly across the great landscape of the Russian steppe.

In the daytime, birds clog the air, the glory of the highway is on full display, naked, flashing past us with vivid colors, thick clumps of wild rye, dark plumes of shack smoke, roadkill of all different colors and sizes, a single animal torn up and stretched down the length of a dented guardrail. Sashka’s beat-down Cruiser tears along, its stomach roaring, its air-conditioning broken, the remains of pit stop plunder strewn in plastic packaging on the mud-flaked floor mats. Sashka is twenty-two. He has red hair and is missing a tooth. I am twenty-one.

Now the sky is dark, a heavy blanket suffocating the stars, shrinking the outside world. There is only the road, an endless golden river flickering in the beams of the headlights, and the fat cicadas exploding off the windshield in pairs. 

Our fuel gauge creaks to empty. We pull off at an old station near Krivlyak where the pump leaks oily tears but nothing comes from the nozzle. We go inside and are arrested by the station’s splintering interior. Cobwebbed cabinets and shelves of miscellany huddle together as if for warmth, and in the light of the moon, what look like statuette trophies can be faintly glimpsed lining the bowels of the store. At the counter, we meet a limping, pot-bellied old shopkeeper, and his little toy soldier, who is wooden, about the size of a paring knife, and armed with a bayonet and mustache. The old man, who seems to be hard of hearing, shakes our hands. A scar runs from the corner of his lip to the bottom of his chin. His name is Vasily. His left leg is bent in the wrong places.

We ask about the pump, and he shakes his head. There is no fuel for us now; the tank comes tomorrow. “You stay the night here,” he insists. He goes to fetch us drinks, his left hip shuddering up and back in jagged motion. Sashka and I lock eyes. He is always more hesitant, but the old man has left us little choice. And the shop is more comfortable than a car.

Vasily returns with vodka and cigarettes. Sashka pulls a lighter out of his pocket. “It is very late,” says the old man. “You have been driving for a while?” We nod and sip his liquor. 

Vasily leans on the counter. “You know, I once drove with my brother Ivan for fifteen days. He had a bad fever, and he wanted to see the country again.” He takes a sip and speaks conspiratorially. “Our parents would not have allowed it if they had known. Ivan was the favorite, and very ill. Well, we pushed along for hundreds of miles, much farther than either of us had been. We met a woman with no teeth, and a man with eleven fingers. We saw mountains and quarries and waterfalls. But we were far from home, and soon Ivan tired. It was a long journey back. On the final night of the trip, his fever broke. We were parked in a large field. He turned to me and said, ‘Vasily, I would like to see the stars. Let us sleep outside, so we can see the stars.’”

Vasily shrugs. “I gave him his wish. What was I supposed to do? But it was October, and the temperature was dropping. We huddled together in rags on the ground. There was Cygnus, the great swan, above our heads. The next morning, we drove home. My father was a soldier. A little man. Vicious. He knew a belt would kill Ivan, so he focused on me.” The old man smiles. “It didn’t matter. Ivan was dead within the week.”

He falls silent. Sashka takes a pull of his cigarette, and says, “I’m sorry.” 

Vasily laughs. “Do not worry. All is well. My father, he died, too. That’s the thing, we all die!” He finishes his liquor. “For him, it was a couple weeks later.” He licks his lips. “Freak accident.” 

Vasily grabs the little soldier by its head. It sways in his fingers, and his eyes drift to Sashka, shivering beside me. “You like my little doll?” asks Vasily. “You know, he looks just like my father.” 

Vasily plucks the doll from the counter and shuffles to the back of the store, muttering. He tosses it onto a shelf beside what we thought were trophies, and Sashka and I inch closer together. “Here,” he calls. “I have another doll to show you.”

Noah Cohen-Greenberg studied creative writing at Williams College, where he was a Roche Fellow, a Wilmers Fellow, a two-time winner of the Dunbar Student Writing Award, and a winner of the Williams Literary Review’s Wharton Laurel Prize. He lives on a hay farm in upstate New York and is looking forward to the fame and fortune that typically accompany a career in the literary arts.

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