Two sisters lived together in a two-room apartment. They were very poor. For lunch, they usually had a boiled potato; for breakfast, a slice of bread with a glass of hot water. They were very thin but very neat, and kept their home spotless. Every day they went out to look for cheap groceries—for them, it was a multihour, breathtaking adventure. In addition, they visited their local library once a week to exchange books. They also knit their own sweaters, socks, mittens, scarves, and berets. For yarn, they used moth-eaten woolens people left in the trash. On their walks, they occasionally picked up useful items—a wooden crate or a pile of old magazines with recipes and home remedies. With all these activities, their days were full to the brim.
But everything changes, and the older sister, Rita, who was eighty-seven, became very ill. The younger sister, Liza, who was eighty-five, waited for the ambulance (which never came), going through the old medicines, hoping to find a remedy for old age—a doctor had once told her that old age, too, is an illness.
Rita was dying, that much was clear. She was gasping for air and couldn’t speak. Liza rummaged among yellowed powders and nameless ointments, empty bottles and flacons while Rita wheezed less and less and finally froze, staring at the window. Liza screamed, grabbed an ancient tube of ointment, and squeezed the remains onto the half-open lips of her sister; then, terrified that the stuff was poisonous, rubbed some on her own—at least they’d go together.
As the ointment began to melt on Liza’s lips, she fell into a deep, swooning sleep. She dreamed that black figures were falling out of the ceiling like giant, sooty snowflakes and disappearing under the floor. The air was thick with them. Suddenly, everything cleared and Liza woke. In Rita’s bed, she saw a little girl dressed in Rita’s enormous nightgown staring at her in astonishment.
“Little girl,” Liza addressed her sternly, “what are you doing lounging in Rita’s bed? And stop popping your eyes at me. This is no joke. Where is my Rita?”
“Little girl,” the impostor mimicked Liza in a tiny, unpleasant voice, “how did you get in here? Where is my Liza?”
“I’m not a little girl!” Liza reached for the brat’s collar and suddenly saw a small white hand with pink nails peeking from underneath her old-woman’s sleeve. Someone else’s arm was inside her sleeve! The girl in Rita’s bed sat up and screamed, “Get out of here!” and began kicking Liza with a foot clad in Rita’s gray woolen sock. The last time Liza had seen those socks was when she pulled them on dying Rita’s cold feet the previous night. (Old people wear warm socks to bed.)
“That’s Rita’s sock! She knitted it herself and darned it, too,” screamed Liza.
“That’s right! I made it, I darned it, I am Rita!”
“You are Rita?”
“Of course I am! And who are you, you nasty brat?”
“I am Liza!”
At this point they scuffled, they cried, and then Liza said, “I understand now! I am Liza and you are Rita. You didn’t die?”
“Of course I didn’t. Yesterday you were weeping by my side, but I knew: she shouldn’t waste her tears, I’m not going to leave her.”
“Did you feel the ointment?” asked Liza.
Rita said yes, it had the foulest taste. Her mouth was burning, the ceiling collapsed, black figures were falling . . . “Where is the ointment? We must find it! Do you understand what it can do?”
“I do, but there was very little left.”
“If you had given me more, I’d be lying in diapers right now. How old are we?”
“I must be about twelve.”
“And I feel about thirteen and a half. Almost a grown-up.”
“And where are Papa and Mama?” inquired Liza tearfully. The youngest, she used to be a crybaby and their parents’ favorite.
“You know where Mama and Papa are. At the cemetery, for the past thirty-five years.”
Liza broke into tears. Her heart felt dark and heavy, while outside the sun was shining and birds were dashing through clear skies. Rita began to straighten up the sickroom and look for the ointment. She had to cinch her skirt with a belt to keep it from falling.
Liza was watching Rita, thinking that yet again Rita, being older, would boss her around. Wash your hands, make the bed, run to the store and bring potatoes, listen to Mama and Papa . . . Then Liza remembered that Papa and Mama were dead and squealed with grief. Rita couldn’t find the magical ointment and also became upset. Each sat in her corner and wept.
“I don’t want to live with you, mean old Rita,” Liza finally blurted out.
“You think I do? For eighty-five years I tried to teach you neatness and failed! Where did you put that ointment? We could be always young and beautiful, always seventeen!”
“Right, you’d be seventeen and I’d be fifteen forever, and I don’t want that! At fifteen, everyone nags you. I remember I cried all the time at fifteen.”
“But life will gallop by again, like a dream,” sighed Rita.
“Doesn’t matter. The ointment is gone. For myself, I want to grow up, get married, have children . . . ”
“Oh, dear,” sighed Rita. “Everything all over again. Illness, childbirth, laundry, cleaning, cooking. Work. Outside, it’s either protests or war. What do we need all that for? Everyone we loved is gone, and I’d like to be with them.”
“And what will I do all alone, a sick old hag?” Liza sobbed, wiping tears and snot off her little upturned nose. “Who will take pity on me? Who will bury me?”
In the evening, the sisters boiled two potatoes. They dined on potato soup, followed by mashed potatoes and kefir. Being children, they craved pastries, ice cream, and candy, or, at the very least, a slice of bread topped with sugar.
“How could we eat this?” Liza choked on her tasteless potato.
“What else could we do? The pensions are tiny.”
“And what did we need seventeen crates for?”
“We wanted to build a shelf in the hall, remember?”
“Yuck, what a miserable apartment. I can’t invite anyone here,” snorted Liza. “What happened to all the dolls?”
“Don’t you remember? My granddaughter, three years ago . . . ”
“That’s right! That was the last time she visited. She tossed out all her old toys, which we’d been saving for her babies.”
“And where’s my bicycle?” asked Liza.
“Your grandson took it apart. He wanted to build a car but lost one of the screws.”
“Ah, yes. He also ruined our sewing machine.”
“Little darlings. Imagine their surprise when they discover that they have two little girls for grandmothers.”
“They won’t recognize us!” admonished Liza. “They’ll throw us out of our apartment and will start an investigation into who has killed us and replaced us with children.”
“And the postwoman won’t deliver our pensions!”
This was a worrisome thought. Rita’s pension was due in five days, Liza’s a week later. They had to think of something.
There was also the problem of their neighbors. Even before their magical transformation the sisters had lived above a volcano. Their neighbors were very active people. They constantly played music, fought, and dropped dishes; their teenage children hung out on the landings, smoking, drinking, and conversing with such language that the sisters went deaf and blind with shock. The kids kept a close eye on the sisters and broke into their apartment regularly. That usually ended with Rita and Liza weeping to the police and the neighbors testifying that “we didn’t take nothing, just stopped by for a drink of water, like we need their crap.” A report would be filed, and for a long time the sisters’ comings and goings would be accompanied by loud braying. The only safe time to leave was early morning. By dawn, the young revelers had decamped to their homes. At five in the morning—it had been tested—every reveler was in bed.
The grown-ups were to be avoided, too. All the residents had lived in the building for decades and knew one another by sight. Liza and Rita had relocated to this new neighborhood as relatively young women of fifty-five and fifty-seven, when their old downtown building was taken over first by a construction office, then demolished and replaced with an empty lot and a sandbox. Liza and Rita were lucky to be given an apartment with a balcony in a building with an elevator. Unfortunately for them, they were often pestered by individuals who wanted the convenient little apartment for themselves. These people visited the old ladies frequently, especially after sniffing out that Rita wasn’t doing well, and offered rather larger sums of money trying to persuade the sisters to move to an inferior dwelling or even a different city. But the sisters had grown used to their clean rooms and the balcony where they went for “walks” when they couldn’t exit the building by conventional means. (The sisters invented “basket mail” to transport groceries upstairs without getting mugged by the youngsters.)
There was also the problem of clothing. They couldn’t continue to wear what Rita and Liza had been wearing—carefully mended but threadbare skirts, worn several at a time for warmth. Their cardigans were handmade, too; Rita had even assembled a winter coat from knit parts and fabric fragments. The sisters considered their shared coat the last word in fashion and basked in the other crones’ jealous looks. The sisters wore it, in turns, on special occasions. The teenagers choked with laughter when they saw it.
Their old life was full of challenges, true, but it was a vacation compared with what faced the two little girls.
When they were children, they played, quarreled, gossiped. Rita tried to educate Liza, who always resisted her efforts. Their parents forbade them to come in late, keep bad company, bring home poor grades. Those were austere, difficult times. Their parents had experienced long periods of forced separation and in later years always cleaved to each other, conversing without words, occasionally interrupting their silent dialogue to speak to the girls. Father and Mother died a day apart. Father went first, and Mother didn’t get up after that, and in the morning she was gone. At their funeral, people called them lucky, comparing them to the couples in fairy tales who lived happily and died on the same day. But that wasn’t exactly true. One parent had a whole day to mourn the loss and die from a broken heart.
The girls discussed their situation all night, running water to avoid being overheard by their neighbors. They reassured themselves that things weren’t so bad: they were young, intelligent; they could learn to protect themselves, sign up for classes in gymnastics and martial arts. One of them could make clothes: they would scavenge the local dumps, sometimes people got rid of old sewing machines. The other could grow plants on the balcony—those crates would come in handy—and sell the seedlings at the metro station. They could learn to climb up a rope and thus solve the problem of the neighbors.
The girls who didn’t die made a lot of plans that first night. They even agreed on how to trick the postwoman: Rita would wrap her face with a scarf, get into bed, and sign her name with a gloved hand, while Liza would play the part of a volunteer from a local school. And the next time they would switch. Everything can be worked out, Rita kept saying. Liza added that it was for the best that their children and grandchildren never visited and they didn’t have a telephone. They were positively lucky!
The night ended. Younger kids, getting ready to be dragged to school or day care, wailed outside. Rita and Liza climbed into their beds and finally slept.
When they awoke, several hours later, it was sunny and cool. For breakfast, the girls had one slice of bread with chamomile tea. Then they pondered what they could wear on such a beautiful day. Threadbare skirts and handmade sweaters were unthinkable. Rita pulled out two bedsheets still in decent condition and a pile of old magazines that could give them an idea of how young people dressed.
“I’ll never wear these ugly rags,” declared Liza. Rita, in the meantime, was measuring the sheets, envisioning an all-white spring ensemble: a skirt with a lace-trimmed blouse. Liza dashed to the closet and rummaged among old suitcases that contained baby onesies, bonnets, and mended little shirts that had been worn first by their children, then by their grandchildren, and finally saved for their great-grandchildren. “Here!” Liza cried triumphantly, proffering a ball of old ribbons and lace. Rita moaned and complained about the mess on the floor.
They stitched all night, and by morning, Liza had assembled a blouse with lace around the throat, and Rita, a simple white shift trimmed with ribbons that used to be blue but had faded to gray. But gray with white is elegant, too. They were faced with the problem of shoes. Luckily, old Rita and Liza never threw anything away. Among the crates and suitcases, they discovered a pair of sneakers that had been fashionable fifty years ago—Rita took those—and a pair of sandals, practically new, but compressed like pancakes. With difficulty Liza pulled them onto her little feet, marveling again at her pink and delicate toenails and her small white toes. “How gorgeous youth is,” sighed Rita, examining herself in a cracked mirror, donated to them by a granddaughter.
The girls could barely wait to go outside. They had a slice of bread, drank a cup of hot water with last year’s mint, and quickly left the building, missing the teenagers. Now there was the problem of transportation. In their previous life, bus drivers didn’t ask the old biddies for tickets, and the ticket collectors avoided them like radiation. The sisters decided to walk to the library, to exchange books. It was still very early and they sat in the park among pigeons and park workers, waiting for the library to open. Then it occurred to Rita that they were supposed to be in school! The librarian would probably wonder why the girls were roaming the streets instead of being in a classroom.
The park gradually filled with grandmothers and young moms. Moms sat on the benches around the sandbox and chatted, sometimes screaming wildly, “Get out of the puddle!” or “Galina, get up this instant!” Grandmothers clung to their charges like prison guards to convicts and formed a line for the swings, jealously guarding their spots. If the infant wanted to get away and do something else, it was captured by the grandma and returned to its spot in the line.
“How idiotic,” observed Liza. Rita didn’t reply. Life appeared to her impossibly complicated. How to live through the summer holidays? That wasn’t the worst of it. How not to go to school afterward? If they did, they’d be on the grid, visible to the authorities. Rita and Liza were well-read old ladies, but chemistry, physics, and especially math had made them yawn even as children.
Their bellies were rumbling with hunger when the sisters finally walked into the library. The librarian took their books and let them check out new ones—ostensibly for the sick old sisters whom they were nursing. Instead of the usual Dickens and Balzac, the sisters chose a volume of fairy tales for Liza and an Italian romance novel for Rita. Then Liza begged Rita to buy them the cheapest ice-cream cone. They gobbled it down, sitting on a park bench and looking at the boats.