Lake Effect, Spring 2017, Volume 21: "Black Earth"

Black Earth

by J. A. Bernstein


From the window of the northwest wing of the Central District Hospital in Liski, Voronezh Oblast, Russia, one can vaguely descry a far tenement garden. It’s mid-March. The small plot is hedged, like most in the city, with sawed-off brown bottles of kvass. The garden is flecked with cigarette butts, and tiny green buds have just begun to emerge from the earth’s mulchy soil. We’re in the Black Earth Region of Russia, as it’s called, about four hundred miles south of Moscow.

Here in the Stroke Ward, along the third floor, an eerie calm pervades the tall halls, which are painted a dollhouse pink. The hospital has been recently built—possibly with Putin’s gas money—and, despite the deprivation everywhere else, the waxed halls have a glistening sheen. The place reeks of disinfectant, stubbed cigarettes, and heady vanilla perfume. Inside the corner room, where my wife’s grandmother rests, accompanied by her four relatives, there is a single, floral-print, folding chair, which is used to hold bags, since Russians, by their nature, would never set their bags on the floor, and the doorknob is littered with coats.