All images by Olivia Hinds
Tanya Paperny is a writer, translator, and professor in Washington, DC. Her essays and translations have appeared in the Millions, Bitch, HEEB, the Literary Review, the Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. More at tpaperny.com and twitter.com/tpaperny.
Andrei Krasnyashykh's short-story collection, which includes "Russian Roller-Coaster," is titled The Park of Culture and Relaxation and was published in Ukraine in 2008. It was nominated for Russia's oldest independent literary award, the prestigious Andrei Bely Prize.
I’m afraid of God. Not the afterlife God, who doesn’t exist. But now. Wherever I look, God is looking back at me. I wanted him to be far away, like in my childhood, but instead he’s all around me. He’s like a chicken. He watches what my next step will be and is silent. It’s scary that he watches and that he’s the only one. If there were seven gods watching over me, maybe they’d argue. But just one never fights. Not even with me.
God has always been, and when he showed up, I decided I would love him. But I didn’t end up loving him, because I immediately got frightened since he’s everywhere. They say: you made up the everywhere God or read it in books. But actually they think I’m an idiot and made it up so I could tell them about it. How clever. But how am I making it up when I take the phone and there’s God and he hears me? I want water, and in the cup—God. What do I tell him? He doesn’t say what he wants from me, and how would I know? I could say something, and he could want, or not want, me to say something else, and I don’t know.
In the cup, God is silent. Then suddenly he’s silent not just because, but to tell me something. That the water is poisoned, for example. And I drink it. Like an idiot.
It’s so simple, after all. God is everywhere. A shirt button fell off because God. They were showing a movie on TV because God. I got hungry because God. Women put on makeup because God. My neighbor’s dog got lost because God, because I poisoned it, because God wanted it this way, so I, so it wouldn’t bark at me.
God knows everything I don’t know. Like, I don’t know who lives in Brazil, but God knows. I don’t know why salt is white, like sugar, but not tasty, but God knows.
Sometimes I act like a mouse, because suddenly God thinks I’m a mouse. Then I think, and then suddenly God thinks I’m not a mouse, and I start to fly, because God suddenly thinks I’m a bird. And they say: you’re flying because you know how to fly, and maybe God doesn’t even know you know how to fly. I say: if God didn’t know that I know how to fly, then I’d be swimming, and God would have known I swim.
And they say: but we swim when God doesn’t know we swim. I say: And your tail and fins, where are they? Who swims without fins? Without fins shit swims. And when God knows I can swim, I swim with fins and a tail. Like you’re supposed to.
But people are stupid, because they don’t know God knows, because they aren’t afraid of not knowing. I’m afraid of not knowing God knows about me. I think: I’ll figure it out now. I sit down and think up that God thinks about me, that I’m a book, to read. And then I sneeze and feel my nose, and it’s funny to me that I thought I was a book and then sneezed. And then I think, God did it this way so that I’d sneeze and stop thinking I’m a book. And I get scared, not because I was a book, but because I sneezed.
People say: whoever’s a book is an idiot. And I respond: God didn’t want me to be an idiot, so I sneezed. People say: Maybe it’s God sneezing inside you? I respond: if God wanted to sneeze, he would have just said so, instead of sneezing. I’m the one sneezing, and God wants me to sneeze. And they say: And what if God wants you to poke your eye out? And I respond: then I’ll poke my eye out, because if I want to poke out my eye, I won’t do it, but I’m more afraid of God than myself so I’ll poke my eye out. I’m basically not afraid of myself, because it’s embarrassing to be afraid of yourself when you can fear God. I’m honest, I say, and instead of myself, I fear God.
And if I hit you, one says to me, God wants that too? He wants it, I say. And that one says: bam! And when I fall, I start to think. God doesn’t want me to get hit for no reason. When God hit me, he was thinking about me. I love to think and start to think about what God thought about when he wanted me to get hit. You can’t just hit a person for no reason, not a mouse, not a fly—so it means I’m a ball. I roll around and hop on the grass. And people laugh, and I laugh because they laugh. And they yell: ball, hey you, ball! And I understand that I understood God correctly, because I became a ball and not a frog. And I’m happy because I understood that God thought about me.
But it’s still scary: What if I hadn’t guessed right? If I became a frog, and people were yelling: hey you, ball! But I’m a frog, so it means I didn’t guess what God was thinking. It’s so great that I’m a ball, and everyone is happy.
And when everyone is happy, they won’t beat me anymore. But then that first one yells: soccer!—and they all start kicking my face. But God doesn’t want me to play soccer, so I straighten out my wings and quickly take flight over the earth, circle around the soccer players, and fly straight home. At home, God will open the window for me and feed me dinner. People on the street say: get married, you idiot. A wife would cook and clean. And I say: you don’t know God, which is why you all got married. Whoever has God doesn’t need a wife. Instead of a wife, I have God. He knows everything and does everything.
God thinks about me, that I want to eat, and I feel that I want to eat.
I’m scared that someday God might forget about me, and I won’t be able to want to eat and will starve to death. I’m afraid of forgetting that I want to eat. But God never forgets about me, and I always remember I want to eat.
I always eat when God thinks I want to eat, because I’m scared of not eating when God thinks that I want to eat. When there isn’t enough food, God thinks about me like a gopher, and I eat what gophers eat, or like a spider, since spiders basically eat whatever lands. When there’s no food at all, God thinks I’m a table, because tables eat nothing, and then I eat nothing.
I love when I’m scared that God is everywhere, because when I am not scared of God, I feel like he forgot me and isn’t watching me, because I’m bad, and I get even more scared, but in a different way. And this different fear is even worse, because this is the scariness of death. But it’s better to be scared of God than death. When I’m not scared that God is there, I make myself scared that God is there.
To get scared of God, I start to think of myself on my own. I look at my hand and say: my hand, here’s my hand, my fingers, my nails. And then I think: And what is mine? Whose are these—mine? Who is this—me? I look at my hand for a long time, and my fingers go numb and start to hurt because they are mine and not God’s. How can they be “mine” when I don’t even know who I am myself?
When my fingers are God’s, they live on their own. They twitch, do their work, take what they want, pick my nose and ear, and tickle one another. And when I think they are mine, they don’t know what to do and they don’t twitch. I don’t know what to do with my hands, but God knows.
One time I was hot all night, and for a long time, I didn’t fear God. And then I thought: my eyes are mine, my legs—mine, my teeth—mine, my hair—mine, my hands—mine. And when I’d thought that my whole body was mine, I didn’t know what to do with it, and for three days, I sat in one spot, not looking at anything. I thought: my ideas are mine, and so I stopped thinking all together. I didn’t want to eat, didn’t want to sleep, didn’t want anything, because I don’t know how to want on my own. God wants for me, but I wanted to want everything myself.
When I stopped thinking, somewhere I felt my heart. But I didn’t think: my heart is mine, because I had basically stopped thinking. I knew that I was me, but didn’t know where I sits: in my hand, in my leg, in my head, or in my chest. I didn’t feel this I in myself, but it couldn’t be anywhere outside, because outside were other things: table, lamp, window, chair, bed, pants, clock. And in these things, of course, my I couldn’t be found. But inside myself, it also couldn’t be found.
Then I decided to catch my I. I squinted and sat very, very quietly for a long, long time so that I would stop fearing me and climb out. Then I’d catch him and inspect him. But I didn’t climb out, as if he didn’t exist at all. I decided to wait and be patient, and I waited and was patient for a long time—a hundred years, or even more, maybe two or three hundred.
I didn’t move at all, and soon the things around me noticed and got used to me. Before, I was running around the room, and they didn’t notice me. Now, that I had stopped, they started to inspect me. I myself love to inspect things and think about them, and now things started to think about me.
That table is so clever, but the window is stupid, and the chair is nasty. He always gets mad at the table since he’s lower. The balcony argues with the whole apartment and thinks that he’s the street. The clock is nice, when it’s not fast. The lamp is sick. The door is serious. One wall is cheerful, the other is always making faces—my photos are hanging on her, and the third is serious—photos of God from a magazine are on that one. There’s no fourth, because that’s the balcony with the street. And the corner is on its own. He has pants, lazy ones because they’re dirty.
All things have personality. They have a face but no eyes, so they look at me not with their eyes but from all sides. How do they see me? Smart or stupid? Nice or mean? Good or bad? Friend or foe? They don’t speak because they don’t have mouths, and on my own, I can’t know because I don’t know where my I is.
Things think I’m God because I am just like them but not real. They think I’m pretending, to seem like them, but that in reality I am different. They don’t know me, so they love me. I am becoming the god of things. They pray to me and say that I’m good, and I act as if I don’t exist. Then they pray to me even more and say that I’m the best and the only one. But I stay silent, as if I don’t hear them. But they think I’m helping them and say thank you.
I thought: If my whole body—all my arms and legs—are mine, then who thinks in me? If the arm thinks, then how does the leg do what the arms thinks. And if the leg thinks, how does it turn the head? Use your head, they’d say. But how do you use your head? I don’t believe that the head thinks. The head eats and sleeps, spits and hiccups. The head is the stupidest and most useless part of the body. How can it make fingers twitch and legs walk? Who in me tells my fingers to twitch and my legs to walk? No one. No one is sitting inside me. No one in me is commanding my fingers. Even if some cockroach or fast beetle lived inside me, one who would run around and say: "Finger, bend, go to the nose and pick it,” the finger still wouldn’t move because it wouldn’t obey the cockroach. Then who orders my fingers around? I? Only if these fingers are mine.
I can’t command my own fingers because I don’t know how to twitch them. I can use my other hand to bend the fingers, but first someone has to order the other hand to bend the fingers of this one.
I never know what to do or where to go, but I always do something and go somewhere. Why do I go, if I don’t know where to? Who needs me to go?
When I was a kid, Mom would say: “My little idiot, who taught you to smoke and curse?” And I didn’t understand how she didn’t understand, and would respond: “God.” And then the guys beat me up over God a lot: “God wants this, yeah? Since he wants everything, then that means this too.” They thought their fists were independent, that they were independent from God. They’d get mad because they didn’t understand.
“God just told me to make you eat shit. Eat!”
“I won’t do it. You said this, not God. God never talks. God thinks and wants for you.”
“Then who is beating you up: me or God? Me or God?”
“God wants you to hit, but it’s you who wants to hit me.”
Then I lived with this one smart man. He looked for God everywhere. He’d peek in the nightstand and wait. He was looking for God. He’d crack open the window and look at how God would fly in. Or he’d walk out of his room as if he weren’t coming back, and he’d catch God through the keyhole. Where would God crawl out of when he thought that the man had left for good?
And I said to him: “Sasha!”
“Sasha,” I said to him, “you stop looking for God. You’ll go crazy like this, looking for God all the time. You’ll scare yourself with God. Don’t keep looking for God, he’s there anyway. Look for yourself. Where are you, Sasha? Sa-sha! Here’s an arm—is this Sasha?”
“A leg—this Sasha?”
“Not Sasha. Sasha is when there are two arms, two legs, a nose, and a head. Then that’s Sasha.”
Inside me, God started giggling, and I started laughing. “Sasha,” I said, “where’s Sasha? If you tear off one of Sasha’s legs, will it be Sasha?”
“And if you tear off everything, so nothing’s left, where will Sasha be?”
He yelled, “Sasha is mute! Sasha is mute! Sasha is mute!”
I yelled: “Your hand is Sasha. Your leg—Misha. Your ear—Yasha. And God—Grisha. And he sits inside you and not in the nightstand. Don’t look for him, but listen to what he wants.”
Then God led me to the bathroom, and when he brought me back, Sasha was pressing his torn-off finger into his leg. I said, “You’re strong. I couldn’t have done that.”
And he said, “This finger is Pasha. And Pasha called me an idiot and made me kiss a dog.”
“No,” I said, “this finger isn’t Pasha but Lyosha. Don’t torment him.”
“Then where’s Pasha?” he asked.
“I don’t know where Pasha is.”
And then two came over and sewed Pasha back onto to Sasha. I said: “Sew Sergei back onto me.”
When they sewed Sergei onto me, then God disappeared. I went looking for God. I was walking and people were saying: “Who are you?”
And I said: “I’m Sergei without God. Have you seen God without Sergei?”
“We’ve seen many Gods,” they said, “but all of them with Sergei. There is no God without Sergei.”
And they didn’t laugh and didn’t hit.
“Do you want to eat?” they asked.
“No,” I said.
“Good,” they said, “we don’t have anything to eat. None of us eat. Our God is this way— noneating. And what kind is yours?”
“My God,” I said, “is a little one. He sat inside me. And what his name was, he didn’t say.”
“Ours doesn’t either. Ours just thinks.”
“And mine thought. A lot. And all about me.”
“Tell us about your God,” they said.
“He is kind,” I said. “He wants everyone to love. He wants us not to fight. To think about good things. To have no money. For everyone to eat and drink wine. For kids to grow up without moms and dads. For everyone to know about him. Not to cry when they beat us up.”
And they said: “Let’s go look for your God. Ours doesn’t let us eat, and yours even gives wine.”
And then we walked a lot, and we spoke good words about God, so he would know. And we didn’t rob the stalls, and I never promised to burn down the church, and about the president, that’s all not true. I just fed them. They always wanted to eat. Don’t beat me anymore. I won’t tell anyone about God anymore. I’ll just stay like this.
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