- A Quiet Pilgrimage to Every Last Ruined Saint
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We meet throwing rocks at the Shkola 837, and right away I know we’ll be friends. Zhivka has a terrible overhand but an angry set to her jaw that makes me step back and watch. A stone sails whitely through the air and connects with glass, and then she goes for another. The window shatters. We’re thirteen years old, artists in the making. Failure running through our lives like a rotted thread. [End Page 41]
We become inseparable almost immediately. We break into peasants’ gardens and climb the black cherry trees to shake down handfuls of fruit. We walk past the Shkola 837 and smell the sharp fumes of paint wafting out and assure ourselves that we’re not jealous, not even a little. We run half-feral through the streets, and we make plans to start our own studios and art schools. We may have been born into shit, but we won’t stay here forever.
This is Spasyavane: grim housing blocks, metal factories and highways that sling around mountains toward nowhere in particular. We grow up surrounded by broken glass and concrete, and we hardly know how much we’ve been cheated. Our parents work in the factories or they sell cigarettes and prepaid phones in the corner stores or else they drive to the next gray city and work at vague government posts, and at night they come home and fill the hallways with the blue tick of television.
Not Zhivka and me. We’re going to make it out. We’re dreaming of our first masterpieces because there’s nothing else to dream of. Growing up in Spasyavane, we need no prophets to tell us the odds against us. Our home lives are disasters, and this is no place for miracles, but we are not going to be like these other people. She is going to be a painter and I am going to be a woodworker, and together we will become famous.
Before Zhivka, I know nothing about art. I’ve read instruction manuals and made clumsy pipes and crooked hairbrushes; I’ve stumbled blindly through projects, chisels in hand. On unlucky days when my father brings me to church with his red handprint still on my face, I sit in the pew with hot blood sliding between my teeth and commit the manuals to memory. The basic dovetail joint consists of the flared tails and the slender pins, Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, istis Sanctis et omnibus Sanctis, once properly constructed, the dovetail cannot be twisted or racked or destroyed except by fire.
With Zhivka by my side, I learn how to be an artist. I begin to read about woodworkers, and I pin the pictures of famous works to the wall above my bed at home. We take ideas and spend hours pulling them apart like orange pith. I begin to consider pieces of wood as stories and start unlocking abstract shapes within them. I wear my hair long over my eyes and spend all my time arguing about form and function.
She teaches me to steal bent hammers and chisels from the scrap heap behind the Shkola 837 and smuggle them home under my jacket. She lives with her grandmother in a single room in Block 6, where she lets [End Page 42] me keep my tools under her bed. She doesn’t ask questions about my black eyes, so I don’t ask questions about her parents: Who are they and where have they gone? Sometimes your father is a sadist and sometimes he’s a holy bastard and sometimes he’s poisoned by the state and it is never, ever wise to ask too many questions.
Fourteen years old. Zhivka makes me pose nude for a painting.
Not like that, she says. I just want to study you.
I take off my clothes, and she folds them and places them on the ground. Her grandmother is out on a weekly walk with the baker’s widow, the bricklayer’s widow; everyone in this town...