Verka the Lame
Svetlana Keren Gorzhaltsan
In a crowded Russian apartment block, Svetlana Gorzhaltsan and her friends make their fun by tormenting Verka, the older woman who lives on the ground floor. Verka wears heavy orthopedic shoes and walks with a limp. That is enough to make her the target of relentless childish cruelty. From the perspective of adulthood, Svetlana Gorzhaltsan reflects on the burden those shoes placed on the long-dead Verka.
She moved into our apartment building well before I was born. And one way or another, my early memories include this grotesque figure. Her bachelor den was located on the first floor of our five-storey building. Whenever she went out, she would pass by my window, limping hard. One of her legs was much shorter than the other. That’s why she wore these custom-made, black orthopedic shoes. The left one was especially ugly. Its sole was about seven inches thick. She could not walk upright. Her black shoes clattered on the sidewalk, while her upper body could be described as some sort of a half-circle almost parallel to the ground.
“Look, Verka is walking,” some of us would say. “Let’s chase the twister!”
And so we did. When Verka noticed us little stalkers, she would panic and move as fast as she possibly could. Her body whirled. If she’d been able to go faster, she’d have looked like a tornado.
We thought it was a funny walk. And the shoes were funny too, always the same pair. Of course, all of us local kids wore the same style of shoes, simple leather sandals closed at the toes with a little fastener on the side, maybe in different colours and sizes, but unchanging: Russian Proletarian, kid’s version. But Verka’s shoes stood out as different from any we had seen in the vast motherland.
Although she made no trouble for anyone, we hated Verka’s guts. Everything about her made us want to play some cruel prank. And we were very creative about it. There was no playground around, and we needed something to entertain ourselves. We liked running by with long sticks in our hands banging at the metal ledge of her first-floor window. We stood at her door, pressing hard on the doorbell. Verka smoked a lot. My dad was a smoker too, and I was used to the reek, but I convinced myself it was especially bad near Verka’s lonely place. Despite this, we rang the doorbell continually until the clattering of her ugly shoes was right behind the door, and the doorknob turned. Then we ran headlong around the building and laughed.
I wonder if she had a family or friends at all. If anyone ever touched that doorbell of hers, it was one of us kids because nobody ever visited Verka. I suppose she was extremely lonely, but that is what I think now. Thoughts like that never crossed my mind back then. Eventually, we grew up and left Verka alone, but younger kids carried on the tradition, giving the poor cripple no peace whatsoever.
I recently received a letter from a friend, telling me that Verka had died just as she had lived, all alone in her apartment. The funeral was small. Just a few neighbours attended. The closed coffin was put on a truck, and that’s the end of her story.
Was she wearing her ugly custom-made shoes when lying in the coffin, I wonder? Does she need them wherever she is now? I hope she doesn’t. Or maybe she got a pair of snow-white wings instead. I pray that they are perfectly symmetrical and that there is no one there to treat her the way we used to.
SVETLANA KEREN GORZHALTSAN: A native of Russia, Svetlana lived in Jerusalem before immigrating to Canada in 1998. She currently works as a visual artist and a visual art teacher in Toronto.