by Boris Sandler, translated by Jordan Kutzik
Indecision, fear, and overcoming them to find hope are the overarching themes of Boris Sandler's 1987 short story "Daddy's Day." As the story's young hero Vira tries to understand the changing relationship between her parents, the adults in the story must also navigate changing social and political realities. Though only alluded to in the story, the great wave of Soviet-Jewish emigration and the final tumultuous years of the USSR loom large over "Daddy's Day."
Vira's favorite cartoon, Yuriy Norstein's "The Hedgehog and the Fog", follows the struggles of the titular creature as he attempts to find his way at a time when reality, fantasy, and nightmare seem to blend together. Like Vira facing her parents' collapsing relationship, Norstein's hedgehog uses the disorienting nature of fantasy and imagination to cope with the pressures of changing circumstances.
Despite being written in Yiddish, the mention of "The Hedgehog and the Fog" is the story's only reference to Jewish history and culture and quite an oblique one at that. But as Sandler's Soviet readers in 1987 would have been aware, Norstein was born during WWII to Jewish parents who had evacuated deep into Soviet Russia to avoid the Nazi onslaught. Like everything in Sandler's fiction, the reference to Norstein's most iconic work was not an afterthought. While the mass emigration of the late 1980s is the immediate focus of the story, Norstein’s biography brings to mind an even more disorienting and tragic moment in Jewish history: the Holocaust. —Jordan Kutzik
Vira sat at the little round table in the café, delighting in her ice cream. She was happy. And not only because she was eating ice cream on a lovely Sunday afternoon when she didn’t have to go to kindergarten or because she had just seen her favorite cartoon “The Hedgehog in the Fog.” No. Vira was happy because she was with her father. She deeply loved her father, not even one bit less than she loved her mother.
The white ribbon with blue spots in her hair was reminiscent of a large butterfly that had just landed on a sunflower and spread its translucent wings. Yes, on a sunflower and not on any other type of flower because Vira’s hair and sunflowers were the same color—the color of the sun. That’s what Vira’s father believed.
Another thing: Vira’s entire face—her cheeks, her forehead, and even her little snub nose—were covered in freckles.
Relishing in her ice cream, Vira swung her legs under the table. Her father sat facing her. He had finished his portion long before. A curious bee buzzed around his silver saucer. Vira already knew that the drops of sap that bees search for in blossoms are soon turned into honey. Just recently, her grandmother had returned from the market with a glass jar and told her that inside was pure lime-blossom honey.
“What is pure lime-blossom honey?” Vira had wondered.
Her grandmother explained to her that bees had collected it from the flowers of a blooming linden tree.
The bee landed cautiously on the edge of the silver saucer and snacked on what was left of her father’s ice cream. “Interesting,” Vira thought. “I wonder what kind of honey comes from bees that eat ice cream?”
Vira nearly forgot about her own ice cream. She remained seated, holding the spoon in her mouth.
“What’s happened, Vira?” asked her father. “Has the spoon gotten stuck to your tongue?”
Vira laughed. Looking at her father’s dark sunglasses, she saw two little girls laughing along with her. Yes, two identical, laughing girls who shared the same name—Vira.
One time, Vira had pressed the bridge of her father’s large sunglasses onto her little nose. Peering through them, she saw that day had darkened into evening. The blue sky was no longer blue; the leaves on the trees and the grass, no longer green; and the red roses in the flowerbeds, no longer red. It was as if it had truly become evening, as if it were time for Vira to turn in for the night and go to bed. But once she lowered the glasses it was sunny again. Vira was puzzled. Why did adults wear sunglasses when without them everything was so colorful and pretty?
Vira and her father left the café and headed toward the amusement park. Her father walked with long strides. Vira held his hand and hopped beside him. She hopped on her right foot, then on her left. And the ribbon, that spotted butterfly, hopped along with her on her forehead.
Vira thought about the hedgehog from the cartoon. He had been visiting the bear for his birthday party, and on the way there, he was caught in a fog so white and thick that he got lost and maybe even a bit scared. What little girl wouldn’t be frightened if she were in the hedgehog’s place? Vira suddenly stopped hopping and pressed her cheek against her father’s hand.
No, she thought to herself. “I’m not afraid of anyone when I’m with my daddy.” Her father was strong and brave. She loved him not even one bit less than she loved her mother.
Vira suddenly turned her head toward her father, and that strange word she had heard her mother say rang in her head like a bell. Vira had been lying in bed with her doll Natasha while her mother was speaking to her grandmother about something in the kitchen. More accurately, her grandmother was talking, and her mother was listening in hushed silence.
Just once did she interrupt Grandma, nearly yelling, “How long can one live with such illusions?”
And then she fell silent again.
Vira really liked this unknown new word. She caught ahold of it and began repeating it to herself and to Natasha. “Illusions. You, Natasha, live with illusions.” And she fell asleep with the word on her lips. She had wanted to ask her mother about it in the morning, but that catchy word had, apparently, flown out of her head overnight.
And now here, with her father, it had unexpectedly returned to her. She would ask him what “illusions” meant. If not, the word would surely vanish again.
Vira opened her mouth to ask, but instead of “illusions” she found herself saying “hello” because just at that moment a man approached them like a marble rolling on the floor. He was actually quite similar to a marble but with a curly black beard.
“And what’s this nice girl’s name?” the marble asked her father. Since he was looking at her, Vira answered the question herself.
The marble addressed her father again. “And how old is nice little Vira?”
“I’m starting school in half a year,” Vira said with great dignity.
She could of course tell the man, Edik, that she already knew how to read. True, not so well, but not too poorly either. She could also count quickly to 100. And she even knew three words in English: “Good morning,” “doll,” and “love.” But Edik didn’t ask her about anything else. In fact, he no longer seemed to notice her at all. Rather, as if trying to ring a doorbell, he began pressing a button on her father’s shirt with his short index finger. With each press he repeated, “Don’t make me tell you again! Without connections, without protection, you’re nothing!”
“Well, another new word,” Vira thought to herself. “‘Protection.’ Maybe adults really do speak to each other in another language?”
Vira had recently heard her mother tell her grandmother, “It’s like we’re speaking to each other in different languages. He and I don’t understand each other anymore!”
And her grandmother had said, “You understood each other before. Why not now?”
And her mother had answered, “What we once had is gone. Anyway, Mom, I’m begging you not to interfere in my life.”
Edik kept pressing the button as if he really expected it to ring. “No,” Vira thought. “I’m not going to make it to the amusement park today, and I’m not going to get to ride the great big swans.” She had spent all week dreaming of them. Yes, her mother had apparently been right when she had said, “My best years will all be gone by the time he finishes his doctorate.”
Vira tugged at her father’s hand.
“One minute, Vira.”
When her father finally said good-bye to Edik, the round man nodded toward her with his curly beard. “Take care, nice little Vira!”
They began walking again. Even from far away Vira could tell that they were approaching the amusement park. Although she couldn’t see anything, she recognized the rhythmic music from the rides. She wanted to run, no fly, to the sounds that called her. Her father could barely hold her back.
“Don’t even think about taking a step without me,” her father said.
“Why, you’re afraid of getting lost, Daddy?”
The attractions didn’t let anyone, not the adults or the children, rest. All sorts of carousels, roller coasters, arcade games, slot machines, shooting galleries, and other wonderful things spun, swung, leaped toward the sky, and chased each other on the ground. The rides buzzed, crackled, and whistled only to vanish into the sun in multicolored hues. The mechanical sounds of the attractions mixed together with the lively shouts of children laughing and shrieking in rapturous joy.
Vira stood amazed, not sure where to look first. She wanted to grab ahold of all of the toys and squeeze them against herself. She’d only ever felt that way at her birthday parties when, after the cake and the sweet cocoa were served, all the children sat on the floor and her mother brought in all of the beautiful presents for the birthday girl.
Her little eyes burned. Now it was all hers!
Vira’s father bought a whole ribbon of blue tickets. He teased her with them, much as one would tease a kitten.
“What should we start with? Maybe that train with the green cars? Or what about the racetrack? I’ll be the driver and you’ll be my passenger, okay?”
“No, this way, to the big white swans!” Vira said. Unable to contain herself, she sprang toward the white birds all by herself. The swans were spinning in a circle. Nearly identical, they looked like five brothers from a fairy tale.
Suddenly Vira was sitting on one of the swans. As if a magic wand had been waved, the carousel began to twirl, at first slowly, then faster and faster. Vira felt it shoot toward the sky, over thousands of upturned heads. Her father, seemingly frozen, waved to her as if to say, “Return soon, my dear daughter.” And Vira waved back as if to say, “Of course I’ll return to you, to Mommy, and to Grandma.”
A warm wind caressed her face, blowing her hair, and the string, the translucent butterfly, flapped its wings. Flapped and suddenly . . . flew away. Vira grabbed the swan by its long thin neck, closed her eyes, and whispered: “Make my wish come true, dear swan. When we return, let daddy come live with us again. Then we’ll sit at the table every evening and drink tea with lime-blossom honey. We’ll all speak the same language, and every day will be like a long cloudless Sunday because every day I’ll be with my father.”