The Attendants

Ruben Gallego

Editor’s note: Ruben Gallego was born in Moscow in 1968. His mother, a student, was the daughter of the general secretary of the Communist Party of Spain. Born with cerebral palsy, Gallego at age one was abandoned to the Soviet orphanage system by his grandfather, who told his daughter that her hospitalized son had died. Gallego miraculously survived a child-care regime that was described as “shocking [for its] level of cruelty and neglect” in a 1998 Human Rights Watch report (Abandoned to the State: Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanages, At age 15 he “graduated” from a children’s home to a retirement home where the severely disabled typically died for lack of care and food, frequently within a matter of weeks or months.

Against all odds, Gallego cheated death, escaped his institutional confinement, married, and fathered two children. Donated American technology came to his rescue in the form of a motorized wheelchair and a computer which he mastered with the use of his left index finger. In 2000 Gallego was reunited with his mother, with whom he now lives in Germany. Gallego’s largely  utobiographical White on Black won the Russian Booker Prize for best novel in 2003.

A Few Good Attendants

There were very few of them. Genuine nyanyas– caring attendants, full of kindness and concern. I don’t remember their names, or rather, I don’t remember the names of all the good-hearted ones. Among ourselves we divided them up into “evil” and “good.” For a long time I’ve tried – unsuccessfully– to shake the bad children’s-home habit of dividing all people into good and evil. The good attendants believed in God. All of them. There, I’ve gone and divided people up into categories again. I can’t seem to get away from it.

Believing Attendants

Believing in God was forbidden. They told us there was no God. Atheism was the norm. Nowadays hardly anyone would credit this, but that’s how it was. I don’t know whether any of the teachers were believers. They probably were. The teachers were forbidden to talk to us about that. Making the sign of the cross or dying an Easter egg could get a teacher fired, but not an attendant. An attendant’s wages were low, and there was a lot of work. There weren’t many people eager to wash floors and change children’s pants. The bosses simply turned a blind eye to the believing attendants. And they did believe. They believed no matter what. They prayed for a long time on night duty, lighting candle they’d brought along. They made the sign of the cross over us at night. At Easter they brought us dyed eggs and blini [pancakes]. It was forbidden to bring food into the children’s home, but what could the strict bosses do to these illiterate women?

An Attendant’s Story

There were just a few good attendants. I remember them all. Right now I’ll try to tell a story about one of them. This is a real story, told to me by an attendant. I’ll try to retell what my childish memory retained, as accurately as I can. “I’ve been working here a long time. When I arrived, I looked, and there were little children, some without feet, some without hands. And everyone was dirty. You wash one, then he crawls across the floor– and he’s dirty again. Some you have to spoon-feed, some you have to wash every hour. I was so tired. My first night shift I didn’t get a wink of sleep. They’d brought in a new one, and he kept calling for his mama all night long. I sat by his bed, took his hand, and stayed like that with him until morning. I cried and cried. In the morning I went to the priest to ask for his blessing to quit. ‘I can’t do it,’ I said, ‘I can’t watch this. I feel so sorry for everyone, it breaks my heart.’ But the priest wouldn’t give his blessing. He said, ‘This is your cross to the end of your days.’ I begged and pleaded with him. But then I worked for while and learned to live with it. “Still it’s hard. I write down the names of all the children I take care of on a piece of paper. I have a notebook at home, and that’s where I write all of you down. And at Easter alight a candle for each one of you. It’s getting to be alot of candles. It’s expensive. But still I light one and say an Our Father for each of you. Because the Lord told us to pray for all the innocent children. But you have such a strange name, Ruben. Must be Armenian.

 The Armenians are Christians, I know that for sure. Not Armenian, you say? Then I thought, since his parents don’t come to visit, they must be Baseman’s or something. A christened soul wouldn’t abandon her child. They’re bitches – forgive me, Lord, old fool that I am, no matter how hard you try, you still sin. But you’re going to be in my notebook without a last name recorded. Your last name is so queer, I wouldn’t Be able to write it. Everyone’s written down with alas name, except you. In prayer you’re only supposed to say the first name, but it’s still not good that there’s not a last name.”  

What can I add to this story? I grew up, read scads of different books, and now I think I’m very Smart. Thank you to my teachers, who taught me tread. Thank you to the Soviet state, which raised me. Thank you to the smart Americans, who created the computer and gave me a chance to type this text with my left index finger.

 Thank you to all the good-hearted attendants for teaching me about goodness, for the warmth in my heart that I carried through all my trials. Thank you for what can’t be expressed in words, or entered on a computer, or measured. Thank you for your love and Christian mercy, for the fact that I’m a Catholic, and for my little children. For everything. F

Excerpt from White on Black, copyright ©2004by Ruben Gallego, English translation copyright©2006 by Marian Schwartz, reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. By permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.