The Store

Olzhas Zhanaidarov

Artwork by Ifada Nisa

The Store, based on true events, has two characters: ZIYASH, who owns a small produce store, and KARLYGASH, who works in it. A despot and her victim. When KARLYGASH came from Kazakhstan to work in Moscow, she had no idea she had essentially become a slave . . .

ZIYASH:  I’ll build a mosque—that’s what I’ve lived for. I’ll save up and go, leave the store behind—leave it to my sister. She can keep an eye on it. I’ve had enough, I’ve worked my fill, I’ve put up with enough, suffered enough, anau-mynau.

I had insomnia, haven’t been able to sleep for six years. Six years I haven’t slept, I turn on the videocams at night and watch what’s happening in the store. I watch how everybody’s working, then I watch them all sleep for three hours. They slept, I didn’t. And I said, “You all sleep too much, you’re going to sleep two hours now.” I was able not to sleep, so they can not sleep too.

One time I fell asleep—that’s when I dreamed of my dad. Yeah, when he had that clock and he said: “The slave gives birth to her mistress.”

KARLYGASH:  Masha wanted citizenship. The boss promised us all. Masha said she’d be strong then. She’d be able to walk the streets proudly.

Sonya wanted a car. The boss promised us all. Sonya wanted to drive fast. Real-real fast.

Olya wanted . . . The boss promised . . .

I wanted. Olya wanted. Masha wanted. Sonya wanted. Olya wanted. Masha wanted. I wanted. What did I want? What did I want . . .

ZIYASH:  I told this one to come see me and I told her Aijan had died.

(KARLYGASH falls out of the high-swinging swing right on the ground. ZIYASH looks at her.)

I already said that once before, “She fell and hurt herself.” Natasha was the first to have a child, and he was the first to fall off the swings in Almaty. So that’s what I said. When I was a child my mother took me to the city, to visit friends. I went into the yard. Kids were swinging on swings and one of them fell, head first. Everybody was scared but I just watched. It was bloody. I remembered that blood my whole life.

The money was good. Things were fine with the kids. I don’t know if it was her heart or her liver, anau-mynau. They took Aijan away and I got my money. And I told that girl, “she fell off the swings.” I always told my sister: I love you more than anybody. But you can always have a new baby, you can always get a new husband. Allah will help.

KARLYGASH:  She would take the telephone and call Kazakhstan once a month. Once a month I would hear Aijan’s voice. Then two months passed and she didn’t call. I asked. I’d work my day shift, I’d work my night shift, I’d drink the vodka—and I’d ask. It was three months running and I asked, but without vodka already. That’s when she called me in and told me about Aijan.

I cried and she told me about Genghis Khan. A woman came to him and asked him to free her relatives—her husband, brother and child. But he said, “Pick one and I’ll execute the rest.” And the woman picked her brother. Because you can always have another child and you can always find another husband.

Except I was an only child. No brother and no sister.

ZIYASH:  The next weeks went badly—sales were down, there was no money, and I had payments on the side to make. The cops would come, the immigration officers would come, bandits would come, anau-mynau. Sacks full of money became empty sacks.

So I gathered everyone in the storeroom. I pointed at the milk and I said, “Pour all that in the bucket.” Each girl took a container of milk, opened it, and poured it in the bucket. We kept doing that until the bucket was full. I went outside and poured milk all around the store, feeding the earth with milk. My mother, my relatives, everybody in my village, they would all come out of their yurts like that, and feed the earth with milk. They were calling on generosity, asking for a good harvest, asking for money. Allah sees everything.

From that moment on everything was fine.

KARLYGASH:  When I learned about Aijan, I was like a sleepwalker the rest of the day. Day, two days, week, month. I didn’t sleep, I called out to her. I thought, what has become of me. I constantly spin in place here. Day and night, morning, evening. The storeroom. Bathroom. Counter. Storeroom. Counter. I wanted a home and family. I wanted to go to Red Square. Nothing.

I lost my mother. I lost my daughter. I was cut off from both ends, I had nothing at all. So what if I die, I need nothing. I want freedom. I need nothing, I want freedom, I need nothing at all. I am not Katya. I am not Katya. My name is Karlygash! My name is Karlygash!

(KARLYGASH stands next to the swings and looks at ZIYASH, who stands next to the swings and looks at at KARLYGASH.)

Karlygash means little swallow. I knew this girl in school, Raushan. She was very, very mean. She hated animals, especially birds. I would say, don’t kill them. She liked to trap pigeons. I said, Don’t kill them! She would kick sparrows. I would say . . . She once caught a swallow in the yard and strangled it. Two months later she died of appendicitis.

I stood at the counter and looked at my fingers. My father wanted me to play the dombra. He bought a dombra and brought it home and I said, “later, later.” I looked at my fingers and they were crooked, like my Uncle Ardagelda’s Turkish sabre. They were broken. Just like my soul. You can’t play the dombra with fingers like that, and you won’t hear music with a soul like that.

ZIYASH:  I never touched the thumb, the basbarmak. You need to respect it, it’s the seat of the Kazakh’s good fortune. The other fingers you use to teach lessons.

I didn’t punish them for nothing. When I broke fingers it was for a reason. It meant you were behaving badly. It meant you were working badly. It meant you had disappointed the Almighty. The mullah told me, “Lethargy is the friend of the devil Eblis.” And I read to him from the Koran: “Did you really think you would enter Paradise if Allah still does not know who among you has worked hard and has been submissive?”

Submission and willing hands—that’s what I like. I see somebody trying, I see somebody wants something. They want a car, a house, an apartment, citizenship, Persian rugs—and I get a warm, soft feeling. But there are too few of them. There are none at all.

KARLYGASH:  She called us together in the evening for lessons. We sat there, not drunk yet, not yet bruised from blows, and she spoke. She taught us. She taught us the Koran, about patience and labor, love and joy, and other things. She begged our forgiveness, cried and embraced us. That’s what she was like. Anya believed her, Natasha believed her. Tanya, Liza, Sveta, Lena—they all believed her. I believed her before. I saw her as a mentor. She said she was trying. She said she would get rings and earrings and would give them to us all. She’d kiss you and stroke your bald head. She even let us cry. Because we could cry only when she said we could. If you cried any other time, she would beat you. She would say, “Don’t cry or I’ll have your eye!”

Now she was reading the Koran and, as I looked at her, I saw my Aijan. And I realized—I had to go.

ZIYASH:  I had people escape from my first store. It always happens that there’s one who gets the idea in her head. You beat them all, you teach them all, you keep order, anau-mynau. They just want money, want to see their kids, want to go to Red Square. You beat them all again, teach them lessons again, keep order, anau-mynau. And everybody calms down. Vodka, men, punishment. Allah is at your side. Then everything is calm and quiet. Although then you have yourself to calm.

I was in my room watching who was talking to who. At the counter, in the storeroom, in the bathroom. Three words a day—that’s all you could let them have. I had some Kyrgyz girls. They worked real well, very compliant. Then they all up and escaped. They just started talking and thinking and taking pity on one another. And they ran, the bitches.

KARLYGASH:  I’d go to Anya. I’d go to Tanya. I’d go to Serik. I’d go to Liza, Lena, and Sveta. You couldn’t go to Natasha, she was the boss’s favorite. She’d been in the store fifteen years. Her soul had changed, I could feel her soul. Anya would say nothing. Tanya would say nothing. Liza, Lena, and Sveta would say nothing. Serik would just turn away. “You want some vodka?” That’s all you’d hear from him.

At night I’d tell him—you drove a car. At first he was a driver, drove all over the city. He had his license, everything was fine. He did whatever he wanted, went wherever he wanted, wore a sports jacket, earned a wage. Then the boss asked him to, and he began hauling crates and drinking vodka. He slept in the store. They took away his car, he quit driving and he quit going out on the town. He hauled crates, never had any money, got rid of his sports jacket, and gave up his license. Now he just washed the floor and drank vodka. He became a nobody. You want to leave? No, I don’t, he’d say.

ZIYASH:  I had to build a mosque, I needed money. More and more money. I’d store it in sacks and send it off. If I earned it, I sent it off. If I borrowed it, I sent it off. I kept an eye on my people, to see who was working and who deserved what—and I talked to ’em.

I told Anya—you keep trying. You’re pretty and young—you keep trying. I’d give her vodka, send her into that room—and I’d tell her to keep trying, anau-mynau.

I wanted a good store, a proper one. Without that white dust, without the vodka, without the men. If the laws were better, if the police, if the authorities . . . So nobody got in your way. Whatever you earn is yours, it depends on you. But that’s not how things are. They’re not like that.

(KARLYGASH turns her back on ZIYASH, walks away from the swing, walks around. ZIYASH stares at her gloomily.)

KARLYGASH:  I’d already packed my things and thought it through. I was terrified as soon as I did that. You can’t go anywhere without documents. Without money. You need help. Where are you going to go if you need help?

My things were in the storeroom. Tanya, Lena, and Liza were behind the counter. Natasha wasn’t there. Amantai had gone somewhere on errands. Serik poured himself a glass of vodka and I went out. I looked around me and it was winter. Snow was falling, people were walking places and I was walking too. The air was fresh, the streets were white, and I thought, “Where was I before?” Freedom is when you can go to the movies or walk in the yard. When you decide for yourself what to eat—pilaf or soup. I looked at my own tracks in the snow and felt joy: “These are my tracks. Mine!” I’m leaving something of myself behind. In the store I didn’t belong to myself, but here, everything is mine—my hands, my feet, my face, my purse, my clothes. And my tracks.

Then I saw a police station and I went there.

ZIYASH:  I was upstairs. I came down to the store and I saw Katya was gone. Tanya’s working, Liza and Lena are working. Serik was drunk. Amantai was at the bazaar. Natasha was upstairs. But Katya was gone. I went to my room and turned on the monitor to see what happened. Ah, there she was. She gathered her things and left. Zhezokshe, the slut.

That shouldn’t have happened. I knew. I have experience, anau-mynau. They run for home only in the first six months. They want to go outside, they want money, they want something else—then they get used to it. After three years I let Natasha go. Because I knew she’d come back like a dog. It wouldn’t occur to her to leave. She’ll do anything I say. But this one—the unbelieving devil.

I went to the counter—slugged Tanya, and slugged Lena. Let them see. I wanted blood, I appealed to Allah.

That’s when the phone call came.

KARLYGASH:  I sat in the police station and wrote my declaration. One policeman stood beside me, another sat a way away, he even smiled. I wrote about being beaten, that I was never paid, that my documents were taken away, that our children are killed and their organs are sold . . . I wrote about the drugs and the corpses in the trash bins. I wrote about the bums who died from drinking our vodka, and about the spoiled food sold as good. About how Sonya died, how Masha died, how Olya died. I wrote it all down. He smiled and I smiled.

Then I waited and thought, what am I going to do. They’ll give me back my passport, they’ll give me my money and I’ll go home to father. I’ll sleep a long time. I’ll listen to music and I’ll pick up the dombra. I’ll work a normal job. I don’t need a house or a car or money. I want a family and a child again.

Then the door opened and the boss walked in with Amantai.

ZIYASH:  The cop on duty said, “Can’t keep track of your own, I see.” I said I let this one slip out of my sight and I gave him some money and some food. We’d long had a deal to help each other out. They told me to take care of it myself. I understand, they’re busy, got lots of things on their mind. Better for me to do it, but Ramadan had just begun—aren’t people supposed to help each other out?

Amantai and I took her—I gave her a tongue-lashing as we walked back, why’d you do this, how could you? I wanted the best for you. You eat and you have a job. You know the Koran, you even began to pray—why would you do this? I said I’d give her her money and she could visit her father if she wanted, and she could go see Red Square. It’s because of your daughter, you did this because of your daughter.

We got back to the store and I punished her.

KARLYGASH:  They stripped me and tied me belly-down to the table. I couldn’t move. And they beat me. I spent the whole evening on that table, then the whole night and the next day too. I was tied up there, naked as the day I was born. I was cold and I had splinters in my knees. I was thirsty. They walked around and, from time to time, they beat me. The boss said, “Hit her when you go by.” Even Serik. He let me have it worst of all, my former husband.

They untied me in the evening and I lay there two hours. Then I went back to work. I washed the floors, washed the laundry, poured vodka for everybody. I stood at the counter and the boss bound my leg with a chain. And I worked like that.

It was Ramadan—the month of mercy.

translated from the Russian by John Freedman