Maria Kuznetsova


Maria Kuznetsova was born in Kiev, Ukraine and grew up mostly in New Jersey. She is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Other stories in this series appear or are forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, The Normal School, and Indiana Review. Her other short fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, Bennington Review, The Pinch, The Florida Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Iowa City, where she is at work on a novel and a linked story collection. Visit her website at



My fear of death was getting to be a problem. Though I promised my husband I would see a doctor instead of calling my father for help, I did just that. I lived in Iowa City, but I am a Soviet born child, and in the Soviet Union, you don’t go to a shrink when you suffer, you call up a friend or relative. This method is particularly helpful if your father is an adjunct physics professor who concocts elixirs in his basement. But when I explained my predicament over the phone, Papa was not sympathetic.

“You have considered accepting the fleeting nature of existence and embracing it anyway?” he said.

“I am standing at the edge of the abyss,” I said. “I might fall in.”

Papa sighed. I heard him opening a cheap beer in the distant land of New Jersey.

“Is your husband home?” he said.

“Not for a few hours.” My husband taught composition at the university, where he was finishing up his dissertation on Gothic American Literature.

“I will be over shortly,” Papa said. “Find a quiet place. Think of the worst that can happen to you and your loved ones.”

“That may take a while,” I said.

“Do as I say, you moldy matzo ball,” he said, and he was gone.

I prepared a pot of tea for his arrival. Then I sunk into my couch and called my black cat, Mr. Snuggles, who sidled up to me as an early fall breeze fluttered through the window. Fall is the most miserable season, reminding me that the earth sheds itself of people as carelessly as a tree lets go of its leaves.

I considered my father’s instructions and images of carnage danced before me. My husband going up in flames in a spectacular car wreck. The rarest and most infectious diseases plaguing my robust organs. The baby inside me showing up only to turn purple and die. Papa expiring without warning as we spoke over the phone. Mr. Snuggles getting mauled by the neighbor’s dog. It was impossible to maintain the good fortune I’ve had since Papa dragged me from Kiev to the land of plenty. The darkness was encroaching.

I was so overwhelmed I clutched Mr. Snuggles wildly, ignoring his protests. When I looked up, my bedraggled father materialized before me.

“You soggy old shoe box,” he said. “Are you going to pour me tea or not?”

I poured the tea and told him I did what he asked.

“Excellent, excellent,” he said, and he dissolved a tiny pill in my cup. “Drink,” he said. “Keep thinking of those fears, and they will materialize.”

I stopped mid-gulp. “Why would I want them to materialize?”

“So we can get rid of them, foolish girl. Do you trust your father or not?”

Papa’s track record was dubious at best. One time, he tried to bring Mama back from the dead and she returned as a petulant iguana; most recently, he gave me an antidote for my writer’s block and for months I could only write stories narrated from the perspective of Gorbachev’s forehead blemish. I told Papa that of course I trusted him.

“Do not be afraid,” he said.

The baby arrived first, purple and gleaming and smiling a moron’s smile. I had pictured him so many times, it felt like a reunion. Then came my husband with a headlight lodged in his chest, his eyes bloodshot and lovely. Dead Papa was gray and mournful and pristine, hands folded over chest. Bizarro Snuggles materialized with dog bites all over his white, overgroomed torso. Mr. Snuggles spotted him and yelped and hid under the couch. At last, Other Me showed. My body sprouted lumps and tumors like an electric coral reef.

“Very well,” Papa said. My creations smelled like rotten eggs and drooled with abandon. They stared at me, and I wasn’t sure what they wanted.

“Some tea?” I said, but they only growled madly.

Papa put a hand on my shoulder. “We must get them out of here.”

“Teleporting?” I said, and he shook his head.

“You expired tub of yogurt,” he said. “Don’t you see it is too big of a job?” He nodded outside, toward a sizeable moving truck. Unfortunately, I happened to spot my husband pulling up at this particular juncture. He entered the living room and found me and Papa fraternizing with my bloody monsters. Tears and mucus and a few stray dog teeth roiled all over our floor.

My husband surveyed the scene and declared, “I am never going to finish my dissertation.”

Papa regarded him and then me. He said, “You allow this beast to walk into your home without taking off his shoes?”

I ignored my father and turned to my beloved. “The doctor was booked,” I said.

“I’m suddenly craving a beer,” my husband said, entering the kitchen. “As you were.”

We continued to ogle our guests. My favorite was chewed-up Mr. Snuggles, who charmed me as he scratched my husband’s favorite reading chair. Papa waited until my husband finished his second craft brew before asking for help.

“My pleasure,” my husband said flatly.

We tied my creatures together with a rope and led them to the back of the truck as darkness fell. Six years earlier, my husband and I drove such a truck to Iowa City from California so I could pursue my writing but I couldn’t write a word without wondering whether it would last, which prevented me from finishing anything. We forced my husband behind the wheel, and when we pulled away I realized I had no idea where we were going.

“South,” Papa said, waving his hand vaguely.

“Will I be back in time for dinner?” said my husband, but he got no answer. I placed a hand on my darling’s arm. After teaching, he liked to go on long, therapeutic runs in the charming park behind our home, and this was the opposite of therapeutic. We drove until we reached an old house at the edge of thick, dense woods. It resembled a melting octopus.

Papa told us to park and said, “That is where you will leave your monsters, silly girl.”

“It looks haunted.”

“You old soup ladle,” said Papa. “Don’t you know there’s no such thing?”

We dragged out the monsters and untied them once we got them in the musty furniture-free house. They groaned and reached out to me and coughed up blood and mucus. Then we slammed the door. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Though I felt a weight lifting, I pitied my trapped creatures. I turned back and saw Bizarro Snuggles pressing his gnarled paws against the window like a blood-splattered starfish.

“We could have at least opened the windows,” I said.

“No matter,” Papa said. “No looking back, do you hear me? And no going back, I should add. Absolutely under no circumstances.” He nodded at my stomach and his eyes brimmed with soulful, future-oriented tears. He said, “You must look forward now.”

The others joined Bizarro Snuggles and pressed themselves against the glass. They looked so sweet and bloody that I wanted to stroke them, to tell them they were loved.

“Why would I want to go back there?” I said.


Once the monsters were gone, I finished a story without wondering if it would make me immortal. I didn’t imagine Papa dying during our calls. I figured millions of babies got born just fine, and decided mine probably would, too. And if my husband was late, I didn’t call the local hospital. I even let Mr. Snuggles wander on our porch without thinking the neighbor’s dog would trounce him. I’d watch my husband drink several craft brews during dinner and tell him how much better I felt, giving him a big wifely smooch and scratching Mr. Snuggles under his chin for emphasis. I slept without dreaming of my own demise.

I was miserable. My world was crisp and empty.

“I’m going to see a therapist,” I told my husband a week in, and then I drove south. My creatures were waiting for me there, garish sentries at the windows. They looked hungry, which was good, because I brought pizza for the humans and tuna for Bizarro Snuggles. They were thrilled to see me. The house smelled primordial and welcoming, a divine armpit.

I lit three old menorahs I dug up from my basement. We stuffed our faces and sprawled on the rotting floor. They hummed while I sang Soviet ballads, sensing that they too wanted to sing. I visited them often after that. I made them wool slippers and put them on their bloodied feet so they wouldn’t catch cold. They grew outrageously large. They were crowding the house, but I couldn’t stop feeding them. After a month, they barely fit in there and could hardly breathe, and I didn’t know what to do. They would smother me before the universe had a chance to do it. I had no choice. I had to call Papa and admit my failure.

“You pinnacle of a nincompoop,” he said. “Why do I bother?”

“Because you love me.”

Papa sighed profoundly. “Only a few weeks remain until Halloween. Do not visit until then, do you understand? Then we will open a haunted house. People will take your monsters home as pets.”

“How do we get anyone to come?” I said, missing them already.

“Did you learn nothing from your mother?” he said. “Free food.”


“I planned to proofread my final chapter today,” my husband said on Halloween. He stood at the door of the haunted house dressed as Edgar Allan Poe. Papa was a poodle and I was Raggedy Ann. I watched the sun sneaking below the red and orange and yellow trees and wondered how three people could see the same thing so differently: I saw the bright leaves as a harbinger of doom, Papa perceived a testimony of life’s transient beauty, and my husband saw a mess somebody would have to rake up later.

“Come one, come all,” said my husband, ringing a bell as Papa let a few people at a time enter the house—after they removed their shoes—which boasted a cornucopia of treats in cauldrons by the door, caramel apples, candy corn, and gummy worms all coated with a powder to make the guests amenable to taking my monsters. My dear creatures had shrunk considerably since I stopped feeding them, looking lost among the cobwebs and plastic skeletons.

The guests filed out after midnight with my darlings in tow. That is, each creature found an owner to take him on. They lumbered past me like spurned lovers, already morphing into the likenesses of other future dead people, the husbands and children and fathers of strangers. Then walked to the car and Papa closed his eyes and removed his poodle ears, because he was tired and a little bit sad. My husband did not open the door for me.

“Taking a Valium would have been easier,” he noted.

Papa shook his head and said, “So profoundly American.”


Chewed up Mr. Snuggles was the only creature nobody would take. He died again pretty much as soon as we carried him home. Real Mr. Snuggles wanted nothing to do with him, at first; he turned to his scratching post, nose high in the air as I washed the blood from his double’s body. Papa was adamant the cat could not be buried, so I put him in a glass case in our basement, freezing him and his rapturous, terrified gaze right above the old menorahs.

Winter has blanketed the earth in white oblivion; the leaves are long gone. I am due any day now, and I still go to the basement to look at the dead cat, sometimes. As my husband interviews for jobs with his completed dissertation, I stand under a flickering bulb and face the cat’s tortured visage. I am not the only one. A few weeks ago, I caught Mr. Snuggles studying this defeated creature like a sailor facing a vast horizon. He clawed at the glass madly before retreating. He does go back there, from time to time, to remember how lucky he is to be alive.