The Mean Wife

You want to know about meanness? You’ve come to the right place. The meanest woman in the world lived right here in Sangar, until she died; may she rest in peace. We buried her here, in the churchyard, which caused a scandal, but there was no way that we could ship her body back to Batagay. She died in March, when the river was still frozen, so we had no choice but to keep her here with us, forever. It was hard work too—it took four other men and me three days to dig her grave; the ground was that hard. We wanted to go deep, below the permanent ice and frozen soil, so that when the thaw finally did come, the earth would not heave and serve her up to us again.

She came here as a bride. And she fooled me at first. I can usually pick a mean one, the way I know a bad horse. It’s in the roll of the eye and the glint. A glint, especially in the left eye, is a sure sign. If the eye rolls too, then there’s no doubt. Quick gestures, tapping of the hands and feet…the flare of one nostril… These are signs too.

This woman—her name was Vara—was so beautiful that she could deceive anyone. The first time that I saw her, she stood outside my front door. A crowd had gathered around her, and she was half-hidden behind her husband-to-be. I remember that way she looked, so sweet and shy, peeking out of the corner of her eye.

“A real beauty,” everyone said.

Her neck was long, her head small. The eyes were small, too, when I think back on them. But they didn’t roll and there was no glint. She had a child’s features, small even for the cameo size of her face. Her lips formed a heart shape. Later I would see the upper lip twist a bit, another sure sign; but on that first afternoon, she kept her lip turned up in a little half-smile.

We all rejoiced that Alexey Ivanovich had found himself a good wife. The men congratulated him with their eyes, on what appeared to be her impossibly good figure: so full in the bosom, but not a hand’s span in the waist. And the women of Sangar went out of their heads with joy for him.

“We gave up on you,” they teased, pulling at his lapels. In response, Alexey Ivanovich’s face reddened, and he shook his head from side to side, too happy and excited to say more than “eh…eh…eh.”

Alexey was not old; he was forty-one, but he had a quality that I have noticed in men who do not marry at the usual age but remain at home with their parents. He looked young but not youthful, as if he had merely been preserved. He seemed to belong more to his parents’ generation than to his own, and the parents had been old when he was born.

He was their only child, and by the time he was twenty, the parents were already ailing. The old man, Ivan, worked at the grocery, and one day, he fell over pouring wheat berries into a bin. Ivan Ivanovich didn’t die, not then. But after a few minutes of the hand and foot shaking, that stopped and he never moved his arms and legs again. When Alexey found him, he was lying there like lumber. Only the old man’s head moved—constantly—hitting his right shoulder.

He was tied to his bed, and Alexey Ivanovich learned to do all the functions that must be performed to keep a person clean and fed. It was woman’s work, really, but Alexey did it, and he never complained. His mother, Olga Petrovna, was in no condition to look after a crippled husband. Years of work had stiffened her own back, so she walked around a tilt. I never saw this, but my wife swears to it—when Olga Petrovna was alone, she forgot appearances and gave in to her disability. She crawled on all fours, her breasts and belly dragging on the floor. She’d lost her teeth too, and would wear the false ones only when special guests visited or when she attended the church services.

Their house was next to mine, but it was not as nice on the outside. We keep our place up and always have. Alexey’s place old and the cold got in the through the cracks. Alexey lived in there with his parents for the next twenty years. They got sicker, they got weaker, but they didn’t die. Ivan Ivanovich lost all the fat from under his skin. He was reduced as much as a man can be, without becoming an outright skeleton. At the same time, Ivan Ivanovich whittled down to skin over bone, Olga Petrovna got larger and larger. On the rare times she would go out, I would see her; a bent women, in a man’s parka and unlaced boots.

Everyone said, “He should put them in a charity house.” But Alexey Ivanovich said, “No. I want them to have a happy old age, not be sad and sick, among strangers.” In effect, he surrendered his life for theirs. He had no time for himself. He ran from his house to the store, from the store to his house. His only recreation was to go to church. His only social life was to see my wife and myself, and a few other neighbors who took pity on him. He never courted women. And as my wife would say, “With all his responsibilities, who would marry him?”

My wife and all the women in Sangar loved Alexey Ivanovich. They loved him because he was a good son. He also had a high forehead, a good sign. He would even have been considered handsome—he’s tall and well set up—except that he dressed in old man’s clothes and always looked as if his mind was someplace else. If you knocked on his door, when he was sitting with a book or simply staring into space, Alexey Ivanovich would jump, as if you had fired a shot. More than once, he screamed when I walked into the kitchen. It was a reflex.

The wives were always taking pity on Alexey Ivanovich, leaving him trays of baked pastries, sometimes even a stew pot on the doorstep. Everybody said, “He’ll go to heaven.” Watch out when you hear about “heaven.” You hear about “heaven” when your life is hell.

One day, his mother collapsed while washing her floor. She had to be carried up the steps to the bedroom. From that time on, Alexey had to care for his mother also, although he had to receive special dispensation from Father Mikhail to do so. After all, there was a personal aspect on this care, and they were man and woman in there. Opposite sexes. After hearing the circumstances, Father Mikhail said: “There is no temptation to sin.”

In spite of is hard life, Alexey did not show the strain physically. In fact, he continued to resemble a young boy. It was as if, remaining with his parents, his hair stayed thick and dark brown, without a strand of gray. “It must be hard,” my wife said to him, whenever she came by with some of her excellent baked goods.

“I’m happy with my books,” he said, but his expression changed. His lower eyelids drooped, showing yellow sockets, while his brown irises protruded, sure signs of hopelessness.

My wife and I made a real effort to help. Every Sunday we would go over and visit. We’d bring a meat pie or a loaf of fresh-baked bread. We would go to the parents’ bedroom and sit on stools. My wife and I tried to make pleasant social conversation. But the sight of Ivan, with his twitching head and his bony arms and legs…this sight, combined with an odor from Olga Petrovna…the words came from her mouth propelled on a sour gas…All these aspects made the visits not so enjoyable. During the snow-locked season, we made certain to see them as often as we could manage—sometimes two or three times a week.

Alexey would protest in his soft, mumbling voice: “You don’t have to come here…”

But I would put my arm around his sloped shoulder and say, “We want to be here…” And my wife tried to compliment Alexey: She’d say, watching him walk with a loaded tray, “Not many sons would do this.”

You would think Olga Petrovna would praise him, but she didn’t. She shooed him away, the way you would the black flies in their season. “Eh,” she’d say. “What do you want from me? Leave me alone.”

“Just take a taste. It’s cabbage,” he would say. “You like cabbage.”

I’ll never forget the way Olga Petrovna would spit it back at him. She did not make an attractive picture. She was growing whiskers, the way old women can do; hairs sprouted over her lip and on her chin. The whiskers were thick and black, and had more wiry life in them than the fine white hair on her head. And when Olga spit, flecks of steamed cabbage or shreds of fish would catch on her whiskers and hang.

Thinking it best to excuse ourselves at such times—my wife and I do not like to intrude, we’d get up from the stools and leave. But we would always come back and find a similar scene, the next time. “He’s a saint,” my wife said. The parents might have lived longer than they did: They did not die naturally. When I recall our last visit with the old people, we said good bye, never realizing, of course, that it was.

We never saw them again.

It happened in the early evening, at the time when the sun stains the snow pink, and the sky appears hemmed in purple—at this hour, the most beautiful time—Alexey’s house caught fire and burned to the frozen ground.

The fire melted snow banked against the house. For a few minutes, a frozen brook thawed and water rushed downhill once more. When I tried to get closer to the flaming house, the heat opened pores in my face. All that remained of Alexey’s house was the chimney and a few distorted pots. Ivan and Olga Petrovna had burned in their beds. Let us pray that they did not suffer. There is no way to find out. Some people say it’s not so bad to die in a fire: The smoke puts you to sleep first. We can hope.

Alexey Ivanovich himself had escaped. He’d driven to Verkhoyansk, to pick up a shipment of flour and sugar. When he returned, he stood in the puddle of melted snow and watched his home char and crumble. It was so cold; the water froze again, instantly, over his boots, rooting him to the spot. We had to pour kettles of boiling water on his feet, to free him.

He was crying, the tears froze on his cheeks into immediate icicles. He blamed himself. He should not have left them alone in the house, with the stove, burning wood. We all know it can be dangerous. Because Sangar is said to be the coldest inhabited place on earth—there may be colder places but no humans live there—our lives revolve around keeping warm. We burn what we can: wood, coal, kerosene, dried dung. We keep our homes hot. Heat dries our skin and ages us, but we fear the cold because we know it well. Walk outside for a few feet, without proper covering on your face, and you will lose your nose. Remove your gloves to shake hands, and you will freeze your fingers. On the coldest days, cover your eyes, or even the eyeballs can freeze. Fingers have snapped like kindling; eyeballs have rolled from their sockets like marbles.

Most people do not comprehend cold as we know it; it is a wall we walk through, and it stabs our lungs like twin blades. Fire is what we need, and keeping warm is not an uncommon way to die, for fire is greedy in our clear winter air. It snaps and crackles, straight to heaven, taking a few souls each winter. But if we do not heat the house, they can crack like nuts, splitting apart to display the rooms.

Later, Alexey said he could imagine how the fire started: how a spark must have first hit the floor, smoldered awhile. The two old people unable to get out of bed…

He said he wished he had died also. He had to be dragged away from the smoking ruin. I almost tore his heavy sleeve, as he tried to run back into the blackened foundation. The snow was falling again by then, and it hissed as it struck the hot ash. The air went white—a steam formed—and I couldn’t see Alexey’s face as my wife and I led him away to the shelter of our warm home. He stayed with us until the thaw. I made an improvised bed for him, with three chairs set together and a heavy quilt. In the night, my wife and I could hear him toss, gnash his teeth, and cry out “God help me.”

In the spring, his house was rebuilt; I helped. We achieved a much finer house than the one that burned. We felt sad that for the rest of his days, he would live there grieving and alone. But one day, while you could still smell the fresh sawdust, Alexey Ivanovich rode the ferry to Batagay and returned with her: his bride.

You can imagine our joy. That happiness lasted through the hot summer, as we rejoiced he had found this beauty. How little we knew then. What was the first sign, incident that revealed her true nature?

There were so many that followed, I strain to recall. At first she seemed the soul of piety and domestic perfection. The house shone and the crystal glasses she had brought with her, glittered. She cleaned and baked.

I believe it was the bread. For many years, my own dear wife had been famous for her loaves. Now, this Vara began to bake and her loaves rose higher, and she braided the dough into more complicated shapes. My poor wife tried to keep up with these accomplishments, but after a time, her knuckles reddened and turned stiff. At the time, I did not think so much of this.

Then they hired Sergei Nikolaevich as a handyman. We were surprised as Sergei was known to drink. But Alexey Ivanovich announced that the man should be given a chance, that he had been reduced to sleeping in barns, next to animals for heat.

That, too, seemed to work out well, at first. Then without warning, Sergei ran out of that house and asked to sleep in my shed. Of course, I said yes. And then we heard the way this Vara had made him suffer, that she fed him only the weakest soup, almost all water, and pieces of bread so hard that he complained: He “ broke two good teeth.”

Yet I wanted to believe in this woman’s goodness. Sergei, after all, was a drunkard and perhaps he was not to be believed. Then came Ekaterina, a young woman from Batagay, who was hired to help Vara around the house. She, too, fled soon, with tales of Vara’s cruelty. “She gave me her own castoff dresses, which were too small and pinched my waist. Yet she insisted that I wear them. She served fine meals, but did not eat them; she circled while Alexey Ivanovich dined. At night, Ekaterina heard cries from the bedroom shared by Alexey Ivanovich and this bride, sounds so animal-like, she could not discern whether they were cries of pain or some unknown form of pleasure.

Before the ice formed on the river, making passage impossible, Ekaterina returned to Batagay. At this point, Alexey stopped going to church. As he had always attended, we took this to be the influence of his bride. For a short time, she continued to visit our home, and we would visit with her and Alexey. But soon that stopped also. It seemed that Alexey Ivanovich and Vara sealed themselves inside the new house and turned their back to the good people of Sangar who I will point out, had been generous and helped them.

The winter season returned; it would be Vara’s first, and as it turned out her last winter in our village. She seldom left the house; it seemed Alexey conducted his business as quickly as possible and then returned with provisions. What did they do there, inside that house, day after day, night after night?

It happened that my own bedroom window faced into the parlor of Alexey’s house, and one night I saw a scene I shall never forget. It was dimly lit by the fluctuant flames of the fireplace, but I could see plainly enough what took place.

I could make out the two figures as they entered the room. Then, despite the cold outside, Vara removed all her clothing. This alone was shocking. I have not seen my own good wife in such a state; I can feel her skin when we perform our marital duties but never have I seen her display herself in this manner. Alexey’s reaction was a mystery as his back was to me, but I could see that he had lifted her to the mantel, and by his repeated motions, I deduced that he had entered her. Grunts and pants could be heard, even through the walls of both houses. I leaned forward and saw Vara’s face reflected in the mirror above the mantel, and her eyes met mine.

I slid back to my own bed and crawled under the quilts to lie against my own wife. She slept heavily, and I pressed hard to her back, for warmth, to feel the sweated stripe of the flesh between us.

I never told her what I had seen but performed my marital duty in silence, as always. The next day, heavy shutters closed across Alexey Ivanovich’s parlor window.

At this point, everyone in Sangar despaired of resuming our life as it had once included Alexey Ivanovich. He and Vara never attended church services, weddings, or baptisms; they did attend funerals. But after services, they left, as if in a great hurry and once more locked themselves inside their home.

The way she died was, in a way, no surprise. Although I could not see them, I heard cries from Alexey’s house and I was sure I could discern a woman’s voice, screaming, “No…” But then the snow, which began to fall so heavily there was no space between the flakes, muffled the cries and the grunts that mingled with them.

The next day, when I, by chance went out at dawn into the blue and pinkness that gradually suffused the winter sky, I saw a strange shape in the drifted snow between our two houses. I bent closer and saw what at first appeared to be a statue, stiffened with one upraised arm. But there could be no white marble statues in Sangar. I brushed the snow from the surface and saw, to my shock, the naked frozen corpse of Vara. Her lips were set, I swear to you, in a wicked smile.

The burial proceeded as I have told you, and for a time, although he was bent in grief, Alexey Ivanovich seemed restored to his former self and to the society of his neighbors. My wife brought bubbling stews to him, and her own less elaborate but still tasty breads. We spent more and more time with him, to help him recover his true self.

All was well until the dog appeared. She was a pitiful thing, half-frozen, emaciated and lame in one hind leg, which she kept tucked up… To our surprise, Alexey Ivanovich took this dog into his house, nourished it until it regained its weight. He worked salves into the wounded leg and it healed. But come spring, he began to keep the dog chained near his front door. Every day, he would walk further away, and then return to her with a scrap of meat, until one day, he didn’t give it to her right away, but waited for her to whine and plead for it.

Now, the dog will respond only to Alexey Ivanovich. If I approach his house, the bitch lunges for me, chain rattling, with her teeth bared. She emits a growl such as I have never heard from any animal.

I stay away now but ask my wife: “What force weds a man to meanness?” And she answers, “I don’t know. Just keep your distance.”



About the Author

Laura Shaine Cunningham is a novelist, memoirist, journalist, and playwright. She has published nine books with mainstream publishers such as Knopf, Riverhead, Simon & Schuster, etc.; two memoirs; and hundreds of articles in The New York Times. Her two memoirs, Sleeping Arrangements and A Place in the Country, were excerpted in The New Yorker and The New York Times. A Place in the Country was a New York Times Notable Book. She has also written a column for The New York Observer and published pieces in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Esquire, Mademoiselle, Hawaii Pacific Review, Ascent, Critical Pass Review, the London Times, and regional US publications.