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Christina Bencin

Grade: 11

Hathaway Brown School

Instructor: Scott Parsons

Barynya

Short Story

Barynya

It was Christmastime in St. Petersburg; all was happy and all was well. Young children frolicked in the soft snow and flailed their little arms and legs into crooked snow angels, schoolboys flirtatiously threw snowballs at schoolgirls, couples sweetly embraced in the streets as they shared hot drinks, and workers sang carols joyously as they draped strings of colorful tinsel around the pine trees.

Only Mr. Petrov lacked the holiday spirit, but for good reason. He had just been fired from his government position of nearly thirty years-- and right after he tragically spent the last of his paycheck on a lavish Christmas dinner, thinking he would finally get a promotion. And now, naturally, all Mr. Petrov could think about was how much one day of eating like royalty would cost him and his family.

The Christmastime atmosphere faded away as Mr. Petrov trudged past the lively main street and headed toward the old run down brick factory buildings that dripped with sewage from rusty pipes and housed silent orphans. The air here was colder, nippier and the streets were filled with the familiar stench of garbage and unbathed families. Mr. Petrov felt better already.

Finally, Mr. Petrov arrived at his simple home, a one story pale yellow colored stucco home with a slanted tin roof. His daughter, barely seven, twisted and twirled in her ratty school shoes on top of the dense layers of white powder, pausing to run up and hug Mr. Petrov, who now had a sliver of a delightful smile. She peaked through the bags beside him filled to the brim with the ingredients for deviled eggs, mushroom soup, and Olivier salad* from the street market and the neatly wrapped parcels of Peljemi*, Pryaniki*, and Kiev cake* from the local bakery and the paper wrapped roasted goose from the best butcher he knew and squealed so noisily that Mrs. Petrov hurried outside with her oven mitts at hand.

Upon noticing the goodies strewn across the snow, Mrs. Petrov shouted, "Ivan! Oh Ivan!" and ran to kiss Mr. Petrov's cheek.

"Merry Christmas to us all," Mr. Petrov said proudly. He now had a full smile plastered on his face as Mrs. Petrov and his daughter embraced him.

Beyond happy in the moment, almost as if he had forgotten he had lost his job, he cheerfully asked his daughter, who had now gone back to dancing, "Natasha, my dear, what would you like from Grandfather Frost this Christmas?"

Her face instantly lit up and, in a moment of extreme exuberance, her legs twisted over each other and she fell to the snow, giggling.

***

When Natasha was three years old, Mr. Petrov and Mrs. Petrov took her out to Nevsky Prospect on the first day of May: May Day. That day was mostly a blur for young Natasha, but there was one particular eye catching scene on that blue, sunny afternoon that clung to her brain for years: the vivacious dance.

In the middle of the May Day celebration, a group of young men and women made their way to the center of the street. The women in puffy white sleeves and red dresses held onto each other tightly, forming a little train as they happily twirled right and left and shuffled their heels into synchronized patterns. The men dressed in black skillfully kicked their boots and danced low to the ground, almost as if to playfully compete with each other to see who could be the lowest to the ground. After the men and women had danced apart for quite some time, they came together, lacing their fingers in an unbreakable bond with their partners'. Shortly after, the street was blurred with red disks as the men twirled the women round and round.

Street food chefs cheered about their heavy cooked meats and hearty ground vegetables piled on their carts, wafting the strong savory smell to passing noses, along with bakery chefs noisily adding complementary praise of their contrasting, yet perfectly fitting, light, sweet sticky pastries. A small orchestra spaced on a street corner somewhere nearby played lively, freeing music on their stringed instruments, plucking to the beat to the dancers' feet as loudly and full-heartedly as their blackened, calloused fingers would allow. The throng of warm bodies on Natasha's sides hollered and whistled at the astounding scene. Their cheers and the vibrations of the steely strings and the storekeepers' unabating shouts and the clanking of the shoes upon cobblestone reflected a sort of rare togetherness.

And it was all because of the dance.

Natasha felt an unfamiliar sense of belonging, comfort, and love overwhelm her tiny body. Something about this moment made these feelings somehow stronger than when she was with her parents. It made her heart palpitate with even more warmth than when her mother hugged her, her smile fuller than when her father bought her treats; these more powerful feelings were attributed to something she was truly passionate about, something she was increasingly obsessed with.

Something she knew she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

Curious as to what exactly this was, Natasha yanked on the hem of her mother's emerald velveteen dress and asked, "Mama, what is that?"

"That, my dear, is Barynya*. It's a type of folk dance." her mother answered, beaming down at her daughter.

"Barynya…" Natasha whispered to herself. She kept watching the dancers, letting the feeling of life and raw joy sweep her away into a fantasy world of princesses in red and princes in black.

***

The same year Natasha saw the folk dance on Nevsky Prospect, when her parents asked her what she wanted from Grandfather Frost at the start of December, she enthusiastically announced she wanted a pretty folk dress and shoes so she could learn Barynya and eventually dance in front of a crowd like that on May Day. Her parents smiled weakly and nodded their drooping heads, but Natasha was too excited to notice their trying reactions.

Later that week, when Natasha woke up in the middle of the night and headed to the kitchen to get a cold, soothing glass of milk, she overheard her parents furiously whispering about how they couldn't possibly afford Natasha's wishes. Pressing her ear to her parents' bedroom's closed door, Natasha heard her mother softly sob and her father shakily sigh. At this moment, Natasha learned two hard truths. The first being that Grandfather Frost was not real but rather a child's figment of imagination and the second being the poor financial state of her family. She didn't realize the burden she was putting on her parents whenever she asked for sweets and pretty outfits for her dolls until then, and how she was wholly guilt ridden!

Natasha stopped asking for the Barynya outfit, knowing her parents couldn't possibly afford her dream.

***

But now, at the looks of the big feast her father had brought home, it appeared the time had come in which Natasha could finally ask.

"I would like Grandfather Frost to bring me a kokoshnik*, dunyasha*, and practice shoes." Natasha answered. "I want to become a Barynya dancer."

Mrs. Petrov, who also seemed to believe they were financially stable for the same reasons as her daughter, faced Mr. Petrov and said, "Well, Ivan, since you've finally gotten that promotion you've always wanted, I think we can ask Grandfather Frost to give Natasha what she wants, right?"

Not wanting to break the bliss, Mr. Petrov forced a smile on his face and nodded silently.

***

The weeks leading up to Christmas day, Mr. Petrov spent the mornings prodding through discount sales racks for Barynya costumes and the afternoons hunting for jobs willing to hire a fifty some year old man with thirty years of government office experience. During the evenings, Mr. Petrov excused himself from the dinner table to beg from sunset up until sun rise at bars where paunchy, ruddy faced, drunk men tossed generous amounts of bills and coins at the beggars. Just a few days before Christmas, Mr. Petrov pawed through his bag of money from the bar, counting how much he earned and how much more money was needed. Seeing that he hadn't earned as much as he anticipated, Mr. Petrov reluctantly headed to the bank and drained a handsome portion of the family's meager savings to purchase the gift for his daughter.

On Christmas day, Natasha scrambled out of her bed early in the morning, exuberantly waking up her groggy parents. She kneeled next to the scrawny, poorly decorated Christmas tree and carefully unwrapped the red wrapping paper off of a big, glossy, red box. There, to Natasha's delight, she found an intricately decorated with a variety of delicate flowers, red headdress, a marvelous, red dress laden with hand sewn flowers of all colors, and a pair of smooth, lustrous, red heels.

Thanking her parents over and over again, Natasha slipped on the dress and heels and went out in the snowy streets, laughing and dancing until she couldn't stand up.

***

It is Christmastime in St. Petersburg; all is happy and all is well. Young children flailing on the sheets of fresh snow on the streets look up at Natasha with wide eyes, offering their food to her. Natasha kindly rejects their thoughtful offers. Schoolboys stop playing and gape at Natasha, schoolgirls hurriedly whisper amongst themselves, sweetly embracing couples drop their hot drinks in shock, and the workers abruptly stop their singing and the colorful tinsel slips through their fingers.

They aren't looking at Natasha because she is a famous Barynya dancer, no, no, no. They are looking at the striking skin and bones Natasha has become. Very rarely do those living in the richer part of St. Petersburg get a glimpse of malnourished factory workers like Natasha.

***

Nearly twelve years have passed since Natasha received her Barynya dress and shoes. Natasha is nineteen, working as a seamstress at a factory covered in soot and disease, working nonstop from sunrise to sunset for a minimum wage in order to support her family, now that her mother cannot work. The tips of her spidery fingers are raw and constantly exposed and, at the same time, hard to the touch. Everyday, when she arrives home late at night, she eats a few stale crackers as her meal for the day and takes care of her poor mother, then goes to bed just to repeat the exhausting cycle all over again.

Mr. Petrov practices the same night routine when he gets home, too. Despite now being past the age of retirement, he works in a coal mine, often coming home with a face full of black grime and tears in his crinkled eyes. Mr. Petrov's back is compromised after years of bending over in the coal mine to do his job under the low walls but, like his daughter, he continues to work tirelessly in order to support Mrs. Petrov.

Mrs. Petrov, now a tiny, poor little thing, is at home, hooked up to a plethora of beeping machines that help her live. Years ago, after Mr. Petrov admitted to using up a big chunk of the savings for Natasha's Christmas present, Mrs. Petrov fell into a state of extreme stress and in a fear of bankruptcy, overworked herself with odd jobs here and there. When Natasha was eleven, Mrs. Petrov suffered a stroke that left her in a vegetative state doctors said would likely be persistent. But Mr. Petrov and Natasha, both guilt ridden that the Barynya outfit had led Mrs. Petrov into this state, went against the doctor's suggestions of letting go of Mrs. Petrov and instead moved her equipment into the house to care for her there. In order to support Mrs. Petrov, Mr. Petrov and Natasha both had to work, leaving no time for Natasha to even think about dance.

As a result, Natasha quickly forgot about her true passion for Barynya. She forgot the feel of the dress's cotton over her skin, the blisters on her toes from the rub of leather soles, the powerful pulsation of the folk instruments, the freeness, the togetherness the dance brought. She forgot the feeling of life, of happiness, of love-- of what it meant to have a purpose.

***

Dejected at the sight of other people her age enjoying snowball fights and fresh pastries, Natasha walks with her head down as she heads home through the slums. Just as she passes the old factory building full of lonely children, she notices a puppet show for five kopecks*. A puppet show? Natasha would usually say no to such childish treats like a puppet show, but today something inside of her, some sort of jealousy or anger toward the children and young adults her age celebrating, washes over her body and causes her to watch the puppet show.

Natasha bashfully pays the fee and sits beside a pack of children, embarrassed and unsure she should be watching the show. Shortly before she decides to leave, luckily, the little red curtains open and a group of Russian puppet maidens in red start to dance. The puppeteers hum little tunes as the little maidens jump and twirl until they are but spinning disks of color. Suddenly, the happy memories of dancing outside her house in the snow and May Day on Nevsky Prospect throb through her head and Natasha is enchanted by the unmatched spirit of the little puppets. The unfamiliar feeling, the unfaltering obsession she felt years ago watching the Barynya dancers floods her soul and tears of nostalgia, tears of regret with forgetting dance well up in her eyes as she remembers her long lost love of the art.

Natasha jumps from her seat and rushes home and pulls out the still lustrous red box out from under her bed, caressing the soft fabric with her rough fingers. She carefully puts the too-short, too-loose red dress over her skeleton body and tightens her factory shoes. Tapping her shoes against the hardwood floor, in order to ease into dancing after many years, Natasha slowly makes her way outside into the dark night, halting in the middle of the snowy white streets. And just as she did many years ago, Natasha dances under the twinkling stars and whirling snowflakes, dancing until all she can do is fall on the ground and smile.


marionette, Son, summertime

Poetry

marionette, Son, summertime

marionette

maroon wool sweater embellished with specks of dust
blood stained cheeks upon cracked porcelain
ever so slightly frizzed chocolate hair
she thought she was beautiful
her imperfections making her all the more so
no one else felt the same way as her
they only liked the ones
with clean plastic faces
slick synthetic threads of gold
prim lavish gowns of emerald velvet with swirls of rich purple
her beautiful full smile was more candid than all of the others
her warm eyes promising
infinite rainy afternoons of stories and fun
yet they only saw cracks and subpar clothes
laden with dirt and laced with holes
they said she was old and ugly and dirty and beyond repair
and moved to select a doll of artificial perfection
despite the web of cracks on the outside
she was never truly broken until then

Son

pans of caramelized onions and
greasy meat pierogies
trays of chocolate eclairs
buckets of sweet iced tea
piled atop the kitchen table
Father never once questioned Son why he ate this much for lunch

Son was still sad about Mother's death

food was his only coping mechanism
to fill the gaping hole in his unmended heart
Father slapped a false smile on his face as he baked slabs of thick fudge
and wiped up mounds of candied apples for Son
who was busily shoving handfuls of crisps into his face
if Father had just stopped to ask why…
Son's broken heart would've been
patched together
properly
with love
rather than fat

summertime

she stuck her head out the window
wind teasing her dark wispy hair, sunbeams dancing on her black sunglasses
his eyes sparkled as he blissfully tapped the leather steering wheel
occasionally glancing at her
she slowly took his hand in hers and held it tightly
their hearts soared and melted and fluttered and flipped and rushed
they glanced at each other with looks of joy painted over their faces
and turned away, both blushing love beyond belief
they drove in silence past
salty waves crashing against the jagged rocks
vineyard vines loaded with fresh, juicy grapes
endlessly rolling green hills
they stopped at a pond filled with waterlilies
they talked and smiled and laughed
shared their truths, their hopes, their fears
confessed their love for each other
under the black satin sky dotted with diamonds stars
for a while, they went on more wild midnight adventures
often just sitting silently
and taking in the sweet smell of summer rain
the healing of old wounds left by family and friends and society soon stopped
they started to mask their truths
not wanting to burden one another out of fear
of losing the other to their own problems
they knew that this wouldn't last more than a summer
but they deeply wanted the sweet bliss to last a lifetime
soon the lies enveloped their midnight lilies
and the only thing left was two broken souls


The Dog Ate My Homework

Humor

The Dog Ate My Homework

It was a muggy Friday afternoon and it was the start of dreaded 8th period. A group of sullen teens trudged into Ms. Koch's classroom and fell into their assigned seats, laying with their mouths open and eyes locked on the ceiling as if they were dead fish.

"Everyone, please get out your homework and open your textbooks to page 81." Ms. Koch said, lazily tossing up the homework basket on a first row student's desk. The class groaned, but they got out the homework, turned it in, and flipped their textbooks open to page 81. Only Alex sat at his desk doing nothing. Noticing that Alex had not obeyed, Ms. Koch sighed and asked, exasperated, "Alex, where is your homework?"

Alex smiled and sat up straight at his desk.

"Oh, Ms. Koch, do I have a story to tell about that, may I?"

Ms. Koch tiredly sighed. "Go ahead, Alex. Make it quick."

"Yes ma'am, I'll try to retell it as quickly as humanly possible. So yesterday, I drove to my house right after school ended, per usual, and got out some milk, Oreos, and your homework so I could get finished with the assignment early--"

"Ok… how are those details relevant?"

"I'm not done! They are very relevant, just hold your horses. Please. Anyway, I did about half of the homework, but the milk made me feel very woozy-- I think it was too warm? Or maybe expired?-- so I had to lie on my couch and take a nap.

But then, when I woke up, it was already 6:30! So I had to eat dinner with my family, of course, and because my mom was ranting about her annoying Soccer Moms Facebook group and my dad was complaining about how they didn't have the correct oil at the store and my sister kept rambling on about how hard her math test was, I didn't get to leave the table until 7:30.

And then I realized, oh no, I have lacrosse practice at The Force today! So I grabbed the textbook and homework assignment so I could do it in the car, because I thought my dad was going to drive me, but then my dad said 'not today, sport' and laughed. Dad jokes, ugh. Anyway, he said that he couldn't because he had to find the correct oil for his car somewhere else. So I was like, ok whatever, I should probably still do my homework in the car, so I went to ask my sister, since she is a new driver and loves to drive. But she just slammed her door on me, started crying about her math test, and told me to go away.

And then I was like, fine I don't like her anyway, so I asked my mom, who said she could drive me-- which was great, because I was running late at that point. So I got in the car, hurriedly put on my gear and stuff, and did a few more questions on the homework and then got out of the car for lacrosse practice. But I left my homework in my mom's car and my mom said that she was going to drive down to a family friend's house to catch up and express her anger about their Soccer Moms Facebook group. Once lacrosse practice was over at 10:00-- here's where I get to the crazy, interesting part-- I had my friend Spencer drive me down there to get my homework because I knew that my mom was probably not going to return home until 1:00 and I wanted to sleep before then because I was tired and the health teacher is always saying how we teens need more sleep, which is true. Preach, Mr. Andrews!

So while Spence and I were on our way, this freakishly giant dog with these long, white dreadlocks ran across the road and we almost ran it over but luckily, Spence stopped in time. Then this old, homeless hippie jumped out of nowhere and started to scream at the dog and cradle the dog. Spence rolled down the window and asked what was wrong and the guy just started rambling on about how weird his dog was acting lately and how his dog needs treatment and then he said some random, very well thought out and philosophical, stuff about life. We ended up dropping off him and the dog at the vet office so that his dog with hair cancer could get treatment. I didn't know hair cancer was a thing until then, but apparently the symptoms are terrible. Anywho, in return for driving him and his dog, the man gave us a little bag of green stuff and winked. But don't worry, Ms. Koch, we didn't smoke it-- Spence and I have a huge game in which testing is required so… oh and also, we're great kids. We would never do that! As Mr. Andrews, my man, says, drugs are bad!

Spence and I arrived at my mother's friend's house at 11:00 and I had to knock on the door to ask for the key, but then my mom and her friend made me sit and talk with them so I did. It was mostly about school, work, lacrosse, you know, the usual and then they opened a memory book and gushed at photos of me and my mom's friend's son as five year olds. So, finally I nabbed my mom's car keys and got my homework out of the car and my friend Spencer drove me back home. Since I didn't want to go back in there, I left the keys in my mom's car. It was late so I might've accidentally locked the car, too… I wonder how mad she was at me. Guess I'll find out later. And yes, I finished the assignment on the way home-- to my delight. On the way home, Spence stopped the car on the side of the highway because he saw some UFO in the sky. And actually, I kid you not, the old hippie man and his big dog were being sucked into the UFO! It was nuts. We just kind of stood outside the car and watched for a while so by the time Spence dropped me off, it was 12:15. I was exhausted so I dropped off all my stuff on the kitchen ground and went to bed.

Little did I know that my mother forgot to lock up the dog's cage, since she was the last one home and that is the rule, and this morning, I woke up at 7:00 only to find my homework missing from my unzipped backpack on the ground. I decided it was probably at the bottom of the bag, somewhere, so I ate my breakfast and walked my dog. When he went to poop, I noticed that there were little pieces of paper in it and I pieced it together: my dog ate my homework, which at this point, I physically couldn't patch up. So I accepted the L and came to school and… here we are. And that's why I don't have my homework, because my dog ate it and excreted it into tiny, mushy pieces."

Ms. Koch stood staring at Alex with eyes, stunned.

"Wow, Alex. Uh, what a story indeed. But why didn't you just say that your dog ate your homework like a normal human being? I definitely wouldn't have bought it-- just like I didn't buy this-- but still. Why the elaborate tale for such a simple excuse?"

"Because now class is over!" Alex grinned, laughing as he jumped out of his seat to the ring of the bell. "See you on Monday, Ms. Koch!"

The class flew past Ms. Koch, who murmured, "What a lifesaver!"