Fiction by Olga Zilberbourg
That July afternoon my sister Zoika was playing with our neighbor Artur as they did every night when it wasn’t raining. I sat on a log and kept score. If a shuttlecock landed on the ground within a player’s range, it counted as a miss.
I didn’t always love my sister, but I loved watching her play with Artur. She was quick, her attention never wavered, and she could often predict Artur’s sudden changes of speed and direction. Zoika was capable of bizarre physical feats, like flying sideways or falling to the ground and sliding across the dirt on her knees, with her racquet pushing forward. Her entire body reached up as she jumped for the high ones.
Her braid flew high in the air behind her. I’d always wished for a braid like hers, but my own hair was too curly and the only way to manage it in the summer was to cut it as short as possible. I think she scored sometimes by mesmerizing Artur into a kind of a stupor. He admired her. He joked, sometimes, of being scared of her. Of course, Artur didn’t have to try as hard. He was sixteen years old to her fifteen, and taller, more muscular. He could reach with his arm and hit the shuttle, and it went right back at Zoika, twisting her into the next move.
As the evening descended and the light paled, mosquitos rose from the grass. I felt a sting right beneath my ankle and another in the back of my neck. Swatting at the bugs with my racquet helped little. One hovered and hummed next to my head, and I couldn’t shake it off. I stood up and began slicing the air. I couldn’t stand mosquitos. But the idle exercise grew tiresome. I was itching everywhere and sweating.
We needed the rules to determine when to cut me in. Usually, Zoika let me switch places with her once in a while. But that evening she seemed to forget about me. The shadows were growing long. It wasn’t like in June, when there was enough light to play until midnight. Soon, it would be too dark to see the shuttle.
“Play to win,” I asked.
Zoika shook her head. “Five more minutes.”
“You’ve been saying that for hours!”
Artur was always eager to play competitively. No matter how many times he’d won against Zoika in the past, that didn’t seem to diminish his pleasure. He winked at me. “Fifteen or twenty-one points?”
“Twenty-one,” Zoika said.
“It’s Marina’s call,” Artur insisted.
“Fifteen,” I said.
Zoika was in a particularly good form that day. I forgot about mosquitos for a few moments and stood still, watching her. But more than halfway through the set, when Zoika had only a few more rounds left to win, Katya from across the street showed up, her own racquet in hand. From the attic of her house, where she often hung out with her friends, she could see when we were out here, playing, so this was not accidental. Behind her, at some distance, loomed a few older kids. They were chatting and passing a bottle of alcohol around.
“Pairs?” Katya called out.
My sister hadn’t seen her approach, and the voice startled her. She missed her serve.
“We’re in the middle of a game.” Zoika moved to serve again. I knew she didn’t like Katya. She was Zoika’s age, about fifteen, but she carried herself as a grown woman to Zoika’s boyish ways. Zoika often made fun of the way Katya handled her racquet — it was as though she expected every shuttle to come to her, and she never reached for the shots that were coming in a little high or far to the side. As far as I was concerned, these quirks were useful. I liked to play with her — she made it easy for me to win. Zoika and Artur sometimes let me win, but with them, I always knew they were coddling to my age and size. At thirteen, I wasn’t in the same league with them, and they made me feel it.
Artur remained motionless. There was always the question of where Artur’s loyalties fell. “What’s up with those guys?” he asked Katya.
“Serge and his friends want to join. The more, the merrier, isn’t it? Serge has his guitar — ”
Zoika’s reaction was instant. “No! This is our game.”
Katya continued to look at Artur, as though leaving the decision to him.
“All these guys do is smoke and drink. Why can’t they go back to the burned-down store? That’s a much better hangout for them,” Zoika argued.
“They want to play. Are you afraid of them? I heard Serge say that he really likes you. He thinks you’re shy, but I don’t think that’s true. Artur, what do you think?”
“I don’t want to play with them.” Zoika’s voice went into higher pitch. I could see she was both angry and on the verge of tears. I felt bad for her. She was clearly backing herself into a position that she wouldn’t be able to defend, and becoming angrier the more she recognized the futility of arguing further. Personally, I had nothing against Serge. His father had taken us fishing one summer, and though I hadn’t caught anything, I had enjoyed the change in our routine. They’d had some kind of homemade liquor with them and, despite Zoika’s protests, let me try a few sips. If Serge liked Zoika in any particular way, personally, I didn’t see anything wrong with that.
“Sure,” Artur began, but he didn’t have time to formulate his opinion. Serge approached down the hill, and with him came another boy and two girls. A guitar hung over his shoulder, and even as he walked, his fingers strummed some kind of a melody.
“Can we watch for a bit?”
“We were in the middle of the game!” Zoika shouted.
“Go ahead and finish your game. Who’s stopping you?” said one of the girls. She took a sip from the bottle of what was likely cheap vodka and passed it on to the other.
But it wasn’t clear which game needed to be finished. We’d never settled into the pairs game; the game that Zoika had been playing against Artur was ancient history.
Zoika stepped back to the patch of grass we’d been using as our imaginary serve line and threw the shuttlecock in the air.
“How can you play badminton without a net?”
Badminton? But who really cared what the game was called. This had been our game. We played it the way we always did. The question had come from Vovka, the other boy in the group. I remembered him from the fishing trip. He was very handy. That day, though nobody had caught much, he’d been the one with the biggest haul: two gray spotted fish that he kept for his cat’s dinner. But Zoika seemed to like him even less than Serge. She had that kind of expression, nearly a grimace, on her face, each time Vovka spoke.
“We’re not playing professionally, or anything,” Artur said. “We’re just fooling around.”
“So, here’s what you do.” Vovka picked up a stick and started drawing the court lines. “The first rung of the ladder on that transformer booth is the bottom of the net, and the edge of the platform is the top. Any serve that goes in between is considered invalid.”
“That’s not how we play,” Zoika said.
“Yes, but technically, Vovka is right. Haven’t you seen last year’s Olympics?” I knew she hadn’t — but this was beside the point. Uttering these words, Artur chose a side against her.
Zoika struck the ground with her racquet, raising dust in the air.
“Somebody is having a bad day,” one of the girls commented.
“You’re only going to break it,” Artur said. “Anyway, what’s your problem? You’re being such a girl! I didn’t know you were even old enough to have PMS.”
“I’m being a girl?”
The way Zoika repeated the words, it sounded like Artur had given her the ultimate put-down. A total betrayal. She swung her racquet at some weeds growing at the edge of our makeshift court with force enough that her braid flew across her shoulder and onto her chest. She yanked at the braid, as though trying to tear it off, but all she could do was push it behind her. Years later, I recall this moment vividly: I could tell how uncomfortable she was in her body; it wasn’t Artur who had betrayed her as much as her own body, the body of a growing woman. The braid that our parents and grandparents praised so highly. I recall observing her discomfort in an impersonal way, as though it had nothing to do with me. I think at thirteen I still believed that Zoika’s problems would never be mine.
She swung the racquet at the weeds again, shaving grass from its stems.
“You’re going to ruin your racquet,” Artur said, in an openly patronizing way. “This grass is very caustic.”
She threw her racquet in his direction. Not at him, but close enough.
She didn’t answer, but yanked me by the hand and pulled me up the hill. “Never again,” she repeated while she dragged me to our grandmother’s house. “I hate him, I hate all of them.”
It was pointless, trying to ask her “Why?” and “What do you have against Artur? Against Serge?”
“Marina, come! Zoika’s in a mood, but you can stay,” Artur called.
“I can teach you some chords,” Serge said, strumming his guitar.
Zoika looked at me and squeezed my hand harder. I didn’t protest.
She was behaving unreasonably; she wasn’t fully in control of her emotions and their physical manifestations. She started crying, and I became fully convinced that something was really wrong with her. It took me many years and a lot of learning, intentional and accidental, to understand that moment as my first realization of Zoika’s refusal to conform to the norms of her gender. She hated being a girl, but neither could she find a way to fit in among the boys of our neighborhood. She was okay hanging out with Artur, who for the most part treated her as a peer. But the other boys — that was different. I was just old enough to guess that, though I missed the specific signs, they must’ve expressed a sexual interest in her, and she couldn’t stand it. What I knew for sure at that moment was that by staying by her side, I was forgoing an opportunity. Artur, Serge, Vovka — these were the people, the men, among whom my future lay, with whom I would have to learn how to deal as I grew up, in school, in the countryside. I knew that I needed to sidestep Zoika’s grip and stay with them. But I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t because of Zoika, or it was only partially because of Zoika. I didn’t want to.
I remember I kept glancing back as we walked up the hill, until Zoika pulled me around the corner. Serge picked up Zoika’s racquet from the ground. They took positions, then Artur stepped back and hit the shuttle in a powerful serve.
“Net!” Serge shouted. He threw his arm forward, pointing, and it was as though I could truly see the net dividing the players. It was a strange experience. This was no longer my sister’s game. Thinking back on of those summer evenings spent playing together, I have to make a mental effort to remind myself that for a long time we’d been playing without the net.