Excerpt: 'There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor's Baby'

There Once Was A Woman Cover

REVENGE

There once lived a woman who hated her neighbor — a single mother with a small child. As the child grew and learned to crawl, the woman would sometimes leave a pot of boiling water in the corridor, or a container full of bleach, or she'd just spread out a whole box of needles right there in the hall. The poor mother didn't suspect anything — her little girl hadn't learned to walk yet, and she didn't let her out in the corridor during the winter when the floor was cold. But the time was fast approaching when her daughter would be able to leave the room on her own. The mother would say to her neighbor, "Raya, sweetie, you dropped your needles again," at which point Raya would blame her poor memory. "I'm always forgetting things," she'd say.

They'd once been friends. Two unmarried women living in a communal apartment, they had a lot in common. They even shared friends who came by, and on their birthdays they gave each other gifts. They told each other everything. But then Zina became pregnant, and Raya found herself consumed with hatred. She couldn't bear to be in the same apartment as the pregnant woman and began to come home late at night. She couldn't sleep because she kept hearing a man's voice coming from Zina's room; she imagined she heard them talking and moving about, when in fact Zina was living there all by herself.

There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor's Baby
By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Translated from Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers)
Paperback, 224 pages
Penguin
List price: $15

Zina, on the other hand, grew more and more attached to Raya. She even told her once how wonderful it was to have a neighbor like her, practically an older sister, who would never abandon her in a time of need.

And Raya did in fact help her friend sew clothes in anticipation of the newborn, and she drove Zina to the hospital when the time came. But she didn't come to pick her up after the birth, so that Zina had to stay in the hospital an extra day and ended up taking the baby home wrapped in a ragged hospital blanket that she promised to return right away. Raya explained that she hadn't been feeling well. In the weeks that followed she didn't once go to the store for Zina, or help her bathe the baby, but just sat in her room with warm compresses over her shoulders. She wouldn't even look at the baby, though Zina often took the girl to the bath or the kitchen or just out for a little walk, and kept the door to her room open all the time, as if to say: Come look.

Before the baby came, Zina learned how to use the sewing machine and began to work from home. She had no family to help her, and as for her once-kind neighbor, well, deep down Zina knew she couldn't count on anyone but herself — it had been her idea to have a child, and now she had to bear the burden. When the girl was very little, Zina could take finished clothes to the shop while the baby slept, but when the baby got a little bigger and slept less, Zina's problems began: she had to take the girl with her. Raya continued to complain about her bad joints, and even took time off from work, but Zina wouldn't dare ask her to babysit.

Meanwhile, Raya was planning the girl's murder. More and more often, as Zina carried the child through the apartment, she would notice a canister on the kitchen floor filled with what was supposed to look like water, or a steaming kettle left precariously balanced on a stool — but still she didn't suspect anything. She continued to play with her daughter just as happily as before, chirping to her, "Say Mommy. Say Mommy." It's true, though, that when leaving for the store or to drop off her work, Zina began locking the door to her room.

This infuriated Raya. One time when Zina left, the girl woke up and fell out of her crib — at least that's what it sounded like to Raya, who heard something crash to the floor in Zina's room, and then the girl start crying. Raya knew the girl didn't yet walk well on her own, and she must have been badly hurt because she was emitting terrible cries on the other side of the door. Raya couldn't bear them anymore, and finally she put on rubber gloves, poured bleach into a bucket, and began mopping the floors with it, making sure to splash as much as possible under the girl's door. The cries turned into heart-wrenching screams. Raya finished mopping, then washed everything — the bucket, the mop, the gloves — got dressed, and went to a doctor's appointment. After the doctor's, she went to a movie, walked around to some stores, and came home late.

It was dark and quiet behind the door to Zina's room. Raya watched a little bit of television and went to bed. But she couldn't sleep. Zina was gone all night and the whole of the next day. Raya couldn't stand it anymore. She took an ax, broke down the door, and found the room covered with a thin film of dust, with dried spots of blood next to the crib, and a widening trail of blood to the door. There was no trace of the bleach. Raya washed her neighbor's floor, cleaned the room, and sat down to wait, feeling great anticipation.

Finally, after a week, Zina came back home. She said she'd buried her girl and found work on a night shift. That was all she said. Her dark and sunken eyes and her sallow, haggard skin spoke for themselves.

Raya made no attempt to console her neighbor, and life in the apartment came to a standstill. Raya watched television alone while Zina went to work nights and then slept during the day. She seemed to have gone mad from grief and hung photos of her little daughter everywhere. The inflammation in Raya's joints grew worse. She couldn't raise her arms or even walk, and the shots the doctors gave her no longer helped. In the end, Raya couldn't even make herself dinner or put water on to boil. When Zina was home she'd feed Raya herself, but she was home less and less, explaining that it was too painful for her to be there, where her daughter had died. Raya could no longer sleep because of the pain in her shoulders. When she learned that Zina was working at a hospital, she asked her for a strong painkiller, morphine if possible. Zina said she couldn't do it. "I don't smuggle drugs," she said.

"Then I need to take more of these pills," Raya said. "Give me thirty."

"No. I'm not helping you die."

"But I can't do it myself," Raya pleaded.

"You won't get off so easily," Zina said.

So with a superhuman effort, the sick woman lifted the bottle of pills with her mouth, removed the cap, and spilled its entire contents down her throat. Zina sat by the bed. Raya took her time dying. When the sun came up, Zina finally said: "Now you listen to me. I lied to you. My little girl is alive and well. She lives in a boarding preschool, and I work there as a cleaning lady. The stuff you spilled under the door wasn't bleach — it was baking soda. I switched the cans. The blood on the floor was from Lena bumping her nose when she fell out of bed. So it's not your fault. Nothing is your fault.

"But neither is anything my fault. We're even."

And here, on the face of the dying woman, she saw a smile slowly dawn.

Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Copyright © 2009 by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

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