“We Were Geniuses” first appeared in The Provo Canyon Review, now defunct. Both stories below are excerpted from Like Water and Other Stories and reprinted here with permission from WTAW Press and Olga Zilberbourg.
We Were Geniuses
We were geniuses. It was our birthright. Our parents were geniuses and, in many cases, our grandparents and our siblings. They worked in the areas of functional analysis, algebra, topology, group and probability theories, solved Poincaré conjectures and Hilbert problems, named countless theorems after themselves, and won chess championships. We were destined to follow in their footsteps. So what if we weren’t geniuses in mathematics? By the age of fourteen or fifteen, it was clear that we were deficient in that department. We simply had to apply ourselves to other disciplines. As we went from physics to programming to chemistry to biology to history to language and literature to geography, we watched each other carefully for the signs of the budding genius. We knew exactly what it would look like.
During one spectacular ping-pong match in the school basement, Misha and I, playing in tandem, defeated a pair of clearly superior players. Our opponents were a year older, and they had been seen practicing their master strikes on each other every day during lunch break. To win against them was an effort of supreme concentration and nonverbal communication; as Misha hit the ball with his paddle, I could predict the trajectory two moves ahead, not only where the ball would land on the opposite side of the table, but also the position I needed to take to deflect the next shot. Misha had a strong serve and he could cut, but I could spin with such power that after hitting the opposite side, the ball would ricochet back to ours before one of the opposing players could reach it.
This game was genius, and if only we wanted to become professional ping-pong players, we would start serious training the very next day. But what did sports matter in the world where we could be using mathematical methods to unify quantum mechanics with general relativity or build time machines? When the game ended, Misha and I shook hands and went to the neighborhood bakery to share half-a-dozen doughnuts. Misha told me about his brother who was an astronomer, discovering new planets every day. I told Misha about my grandmother who had registered a patent in the method of transportation and storage of nuclear waste.
“What do you think you will apply yourself to?” Misha asked, a standard question we asked each other twice every day. All of us except for Lena 2, who was still studying music because she claimed that a woman’s true voice didn’t settle until the age of twenty-two. We thought that she was brave and not very clever putting her eggs into one basket. What if her voice turned out uninteresting? At the age of twenty-two, her options would be limited and she would be pretty much destined for a life of mediocrity. And this was the daughter of a man who designed supersonic jets! Misha and I pitied her. Misha was dejectedly considering going into programming or computer science, and I was all but settled on the study of theoretical physics.
At the ages of sixteen and seventeen, our search grew desperate. We went to school every day with the idea that it was either now or never. I started cutting classes to attend lectures on quantum theory. Misha signed up for every computer club in Leningrad. The pressure was getting to us. At home, instead of doing homework, I read science fiction. Misha played computer games and called me to report his scores. On the phone, we made fun of Lena 2, who earned perfect scores on tests in history and language and composition classes. At the end of that school year, Misha told me he was in love with Lena 2 and it was mutual.
Sometimes, it seemed like the entire world was against us in our efforts. Our final exam in mathematics was scheduled on the same day the Beatles movies “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” would be shown on the big screen for the first time. These movies were thirty years old but new to us. We’d heard they were genius. The theater was located in our school yard, and the poster announcing the event teased us daily with its neatly stenciled red and black letters. Our parents and grandparents and siblings were thrown off their abstract trains of thought into lengthy suppertime discussions of the cultural implications of this screening. We made mix tapes for each other and taught ourselves to play the Beatles songs on our guitars. Misha learned to play the guitar so he could accompany Lena 2’s singing. I figured out the chords to “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You.”
We came to feel that the importune scheduling of the exam was a form of censure by the school administration, and a test of our will and desire for change. We sent a delegation to negotiate with the principal, and the principal promptly found work for the members of the delegation, polishing the parquet flooring in the hallways with wax. In the spirit of the times, we looked for drastic solutions. On the day of the exam, as the teachers began handing out booklets with our assignments, the twenty-two of us, girls and boys in our proper brown and white uniforms, stood up and marched out of the classroom.
In orderly ranks, two by two, and some of us holding hands, we proceeded down two flights of granite stairs, through the arched hallway, outside, and into the movie theater. We were united in our goals and this was our strength. If all else failed, our parents and grandparents and siblings would have to advocate for us with the school administration. All of their abstract calculations and self-named theories predicted that the times were changing. We were geniuses.
My son, a beginning reader, brought home an illustrated book by the Brothers Grimm. The fairy tale, hardly two hundred words, begins with a little girl, who goes to the forest and there meets an old woman. The woman gives her a magic pot and teaches her to say “Little pot, cook”—and the pot cooks sweet millet porridge. The girl gives the pot to her mother. The mother, experimenting with the pot while the girl is away, forgets the incantation to stop the cooking, and so the pot goes on and on until the whole town is flooded with porridge. But the porridge is so sweet and delicious, the villagers don’t mind. They eat. The end.
This fairy tale meant a lot to me when I was a child. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my grandmother. Even before I was tall enough to reach the stove, I was asked to stand on a chair and stir the round yellow grains as they thickened with milk. Of the several porridges my grandmother rotated for our meals, millet required the most stamina. Semolina developed clumps easier, but was ready three minutes after the milk boiled. Millet required nearly constant stirring for thirty minutes, reaching with the spoon deep to the bottom of the aluminum pot, lest the gluey mix burn. As a reward for the physically difficult and tedious job, I got to lick the spoon. The drawing in my edition of the Brothers Grimm tale depicted a clay pot set in the middle of a wooden table, no stove or stirring required to cook the porridge. I remember losing myself in that picture, trying to imagine what it would’ve been like to not have to lift a finger to have plentiful food to eat whenever I wanted it.
My son, born in the United States, is reading this fairy tale in English, and certain details from his version strike me as unfamiliar. Following a hunch, I search online for the text of the Soviet translation. True enough, the two versions are different. In the English tale, a close translation from the Grimms’ German, the girl is poor and pious. She goes to the forest to gather the berries when she and her mother run out of things to eat. The moral is unstated but clear from the order of the sentences and the causality that order implies. The old woman, handing her the pot, saves the girl from starvation and rewards her piety.
The Soviet-era Russian-language version omits mentions of both piousness and poverty. Soviet children were supposed to be atheist, so references to religious belief were routinely excised from old books. The girl goes to the forest to gather berries. Period. The old woman asks to have some berries, and the girl shares. When the girl gives the woman some of her berries, she is rewarded with the magic pot. The Soviet state took care that its children didn’t starve; so, at least on paper, poverty didn’t exist. There’s no explicit mention of hunger, but even the well-meaning censor could do nothing about our everyday life, which revolved around the quest for gathering, growing, making, and in other ways, procuring food. Food was the top preoccupation of adults and children alike. Hunger was supplied by the context. We understood the awesomeness of the old woman’s gift, but instead of a morality tale in which the girl’s piousness and need are recognized and redeemed, we, the Soviet children, received a nonsensical transaction in which the girl’s small kindness earned her an exceptional prize.
Rereading the story at dinnertime, alternating each sentence with a bite of his buckwheat with mushrooms, my six-year-old breezes past the word “pious,” but he wants to know what it means to be poor.
“Don’t you know?”
“Poor means that they don’t have any money. But what does it really mean?”
He’s looking at a picture where the girl and the mother are sitting at a wooden table, staring at each other across the empty tabletop.
“They don’t have anything to eat,” I explain. “The girl must be very hungry, and she goes to the forest to gather berries to eat.”
“But look,” he says, pointing at the details of the drawing. “Look at the clothes they have on. Look, there’s a stove, a table and chairs. They have a house.”
“Imagine that they are peasants and nothing grew that year. Yes, they have a house and a stove, but nothing to cook on that stove.”
“But if they were really poor, they wouldn’t have a house,” my son insists.
“The book says they are poor. That’s why the girl goes to the forest to look for berries.”
“I like berries better than porridge.” This sounds like a change of subject, but I know what he means. If the girl can have the things she likes, life can’t be that bad. She’s not really poor.
“Porridge is yucky,” my son says and pushes away his half-finished bowl.
I suppress my frustration as I always do. My grandmother would call him spoiled. He has never had to lift a finger to have food on his plate. I’ve never told him how I feel when he refuses to eat the food I make for him. But I know that a different world awaits him, a world of plenty, and to prepare him for it, I have to be patient while he learns to navigate his choices. He actually loves buckwheat; it’s one of his few staples. Once a month, I make a trip to a Russian store on the other side of town to buy the groats that are roasted just right.
“So, you think the girl made a bad exchange? You’d keep the berries?”
“The girl was cheated,” my son says, resolutely.
Later that night, when he’s asleep and I stand over the sink and finish his leftovers, I wonder if, perhaps, misreading is in the nature of reading, particularly when it comes to fairy tales. The more I think about this story, the more vividly I recall that, as a child, I was very suspicious of the girl’s motives. She must’ve divined, somehow, that the old woman had something special to give. No matter how good and generous the girl was, she couldn’t have parted with her berries that easily. I wouldn’t have. The forest near the house where I spent my summers was tall and dark, and the bilberry patches were few and far between. By the time I stumbled onto one, most of the berries had been picked over by our neighbors. It took an entire afternoon of crouching to gather half a basket, and after I was done, my back and legs ached from the strain and itched from mosquito bites. No, no. I would’ve kept the berries for myself. The magic pot, too. If I’d ever gotten my hands on a pot like that, I would never have shown it to my mother or my grandmother. I would make a secret hiding spot for it under my bed and wake up in the middle of the night to eat the porridge. I might feel guilty, but I would sleep better with my stomach full.
Olga Zilberbourg’s English-language debut Like Water and Other Stories comes out September 5, 2019, from WTAW Press. She is the author of three story collections published in Russia. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Narrative Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Common, and Electric Literature. Born in Leningrad, USSR, she came of age during the country’s disintegration, when the fall of the Iron Curtain created unprecedented travel and educational opportunities. Among the first in a wave of post-Soviet youth to study abroad and in the United States, Zilberbourg attended the Rochester Institute of Technology, the Goethe Institute in Germany, and San Francisco State University, where she earned an M.A. in Comparative Literature. She has worked as an associate editor at Narrative Magazine and currently lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children.
Image: Flickr / Nick Webb