Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2018    poetry    all issues


Cover Elena Koycheva

L. L. Babb
Admit One

Katherine Enggass

John Maki
The Easy One

John Etcheverry
The Third Daughter

Gibson Monk
The Poison Oracle

Jan Allen
My Real Mother

Bill Hodgins
Interior Decorating Suicide

Efrem Sigel
Born Again

Noëlle Gallagher
Le Fanu's Host of Curiosities

AJ Powell
Delivery Man

Gretchen Mayer
To Keep A Promise

JP Roarke

Brett Ramseyer
God Will Provide

Joe Zugelder

John Etcheverry

The Third Daughter

Asal’s father has no sons. When he learned that his wife gave birth to a second girl, he drank enough vodka to hospitalize him for four days. Asal is his third daughter. When she was eleven, he told her she would never attract a suitable husband and declared that this truth was her burden to bear, not his. Her mother is less callous, but she regrets that Asal possesses few of the traits Uzbek men seek in a wife.

Two days had passed since Asal’s sixteenth birthday and her mother had been distant in that time. Tonight she called her daughter to the kitchen for tea. Her voice was thin, the way it gets in the late hours when her husband has not yet found his way home. “The time has come for you to understand men,” she said. “To understand their needs.”

Asal had already figured out what men need, but said nothing. Her friend Katya talks about sex incessantly and even detailed the mechanics of the act to her a number of times. Like Asal, she lacks experience, but she has a sister in Kyiv who has made herself an authority on the subject. Asal could not imagine why her mother wanted to have this talk now, but her account would be less enthusiastic than Katya’s were, and for that, she was grateful.

Her mother sat at the opposite end of the kitchen table clutching her cup in her hands. “Some women enjoy it,” she said, initiating the discussion. Her inability to utter the word aloud exasperated Asal. “And they live at the mercy of their cravings.”

Asal wondered but refused to believe that her mother was one of those women. “Why are you telling me this, Onam?”

The cup slipped in her mother’s hand and the tea splashed over the top. “You are older now.” She wiped the table with the towel she kept tucked into her apron strings. “Before long you will marry.”

Asal disagreed but listened for what seemed an hour, though when her mother concluded and left her alone in the kitchen, the tea was still warm.

Asal’s father forbids her from talking with Katya not because her friend is Ukrainian, but because the girl is not Uzbek. Still, they meet every morning and walk together to school. Asal’s home is the biggest on their street and has the highest wall. The neighbors smile when she greets them, but they huddle and gossip in rushed whispers as she passes. Her father paved the roadway from the main street to their home and the neighbors along the way revere him for that, but the families off the asphalt path—those like Katya’s, whose apartments mire in mud and gravel—owe him no gratitude.

Katya met her at the corner and Asal jumped into a briefing of her talk with her mother, while Katya said something about not waiting for marriage to have sex. The idea that they both had the act on their minds had them laughing louder than they should have, a hazard of passing time with Katya. A gaunt, graying man in a Brezhnev-era suit poked his head out from under the hood of an ancient Zhyguli Kopeyka and stared the girls down. They smothered each other’s giggles and Asal encouraged Katya to tell her story first.

“I decided that if I fall in love with someone at university next year, I’m going to sleep with him.”

“You will not!” Asal said, though she saw otherwise in Katya’s smile. She envied the freedom in that caprice. “I am going to miss you when you leave.”

“Come with me,” Katya said. “My aunt has space for both of us.”

How many times would Asal have to go through this with her? “My father will never allow me to study, especially in Kyiv. You know that.”

Fire ignited in her eyes. “Your father is an idiot.”

Enough time had passed when school let out that Asal could forgive Katya. Her father was troublesome, but she didn’t need to hear about it from her friend. Katya apologized with a hug and they picked up their earlier talk. “Do you think boys would like me?”

“They follow you like puppies now,” Katya said. “What else do you want?”

Boys had started noticing Asal, but she hadn’t yet figured out what to do about them. She handled them when she played soccer on the street as a young girl, tolerating their pinches and pokes for love of the game, even putting up with rougher treatment as she improved. They would never forgive her talent, though, and when her skills surpassed those of even the older boys, a collective of parents rang the bell at her house. They demanded that her father compel her to comport herself with greater modesty, and that ended sports for her. Disconsolate, she clipped her exchanges with the other sex and adopted the labels of shy and awkward.

“What I mean is that I wonder if they would like an educated girl,” she told Katya. “You know . . . if I were to study.”

“They’ll screw anyone, but it takes an educated man to appreciate an educated woman.”

Her language embarrassed Asal and it caught the attention of an elderly woman sitting in a chair outside her home. The wall behind her was crumbling, but regardless of the conditions on the other side, the family kept its space on the street swept and tidy. “Stay clear of that tramp,” the grandmother called out in Uzbek. She had a sack of raisins in her lap and she was pulling stems from the fruit. “I know you live in the big house up the way, so mind me girl or I’ll tell your mother about you whoring around with foreigners.” She glared at Katya as she leaned to her side and spat at the ground.

Katya spoke little Uzbek, but she could spot an insult in any language. “Oh, look.” She pointed at the woman. “Another bitter old granny has confused the emptiness in her life for the authority to judge others.” This prompted a response that Asal refused to translate to Russian for her friend, and they hurried along. “You’re going to Kyiv with me,” Katya said.

Heat marched up the back of Asal’s neck and the skin there prickled in anticipation of what she was about to say. “My father believes there is no sense in girls attending university. He says studying won’t make me a better wife.”

Katya became so infuriated that Asal had to look away, which was how she noticed her mother. They had reached the intersection where she turns and where Katya continues down the broken path to her home. Asal’s mother was pacing outside their wall, her back to them, and Asal pulled her friend aside before her mother doubled back in their direction.

“She’s upset over something. Stay here until I get inside.” She made her way up the street alone.

“You are late,” Asal’s mother said. She explained that this was her regular time, but her mother chastened her for arguing and pulled her into their courtyard. “Your father has a guest and you need to make a proper impression.”

She rarely interacted with her father’s visitors, but her mother went to work fixing her hair before she could ask for an explanation, and then the condition of her dress took priority. They went into the house and the men’s voices reached them from the living room. Her mother led her to the powder room, where she complained about how Asal neglected her appearance. Asal protested and her mother clapped a palm over her mouth and listened for a moment, then lowered her hand and squared her daughter’s shoulders. Tapping her lips with her forefinger, she said, “Come with me.”

“No.” Asal had never resisted like this and she found it exhilarating. “Tell me what is happening or I go nowhere.”

Not yet forty but twice a grandmother, her mother looked ten years older than her age. “Your father’s associate . . .” She made a sound, a moan, and hooked a drifting strand of hair over her ear. “Don’t make trouble. Please.”

With that, she understood last night’s talk. Her mother had to guide her from the bathroom by the elbow because she couldn’t move on her own. They crossed the foyer and entered the living room.

The men were laughing at something one of them said before Asal and her mother stepped in. The stranger was twice her age and he had a barrel-shaped body. His face bore the ruddy sheen of a drinker and his suit was the picture of good intentions gone amiss. He stopped as he brought a cigarette to his lips and nodded to Asal’s father, whose back was to them, to indicate that the women had entered the room. The fetid odor of lamb fat that this stranger exuded enveloped Asal.

As her father turned to her, his smile faded to the gaze of reproach that she knew well. His look demanded to know what she had done with his son. She had seen it every day of her life and had no response, so she turned to the stranger. As repulsive as this situation was, and as desperately as she wanted to leave and never return, she needed this man’s approval. She needed him to desire her now, if never again, because she could survive neither his rejection nor her parents’ dishonor if he turned her away.

The stranger sized her up like a slab of meat at the market. The men traded glances—the bargaining had begun—and her father sent her out of the room. Back in the entryway, she could not release her breath and her mother pulled her to the kitchen, where she brought Asal a glass of water.

“I am sixteen years old.” She refused to drink.

“Start young and enjoy your grandchildren. Tahmina from here in our neighborhood was fifteen when she married.”

“And she nearly died giving birth. Now she is nineteen and her husband ran off to Moscow.”

“She was an unfit wife.”

“She was a child, Onam.”

“Besides,” she said, ignoring her daughter’s words. “Her family made a bad choice of husband for her.”

She did not doubt the sincerity in her mother’s eyes when she swore that Asal would marry better. “I am not getting married,” Asal insisted. “Not yet, anyway. I’m going to university.”

Her mother laughed a cackle so cruel in its honesty that Asal had to stare at her shoes. Tears came slowly, and then they rolled. Her mother laid a hand to her shoulder, but she was stiff and unyielding. “Our daughters do not attend university,” she said. Asal started to object and her mother stopped her. “This is a burden that you must bear. Now, go upstairs and wash your face. No man wants to look at a woman with swollen eyes.”

“I will not marry that man,” she said. The words tumbled out so clumsily that she failed to convince even herself.

She went to her room and as she opened the bathroom door, the draft through the window extinguished the pilot light in the water heater. Her father had taken the appliance apart weeks earlier to adjust a temperature setting and he busted it. Hiring a technician would require that he confess his ineptitude, so he instead insisted that the unit was fine and dismissed Asal’s fear of a gas leak as female hysteria. When the flame goes out, she relights it with a match from the box she keeps on the shelf for that purpose.

She closed the valve in the gas line to allow the air to clear as she washed. The cool water was refreshing and the towel, soft against her face, hid the reflection of her image in the mirror. She backed to the tub and lowered herself to its edge. The sound of laughter from the men downstairs made it to her and the conspiracy in their tone declared that they had come to terms.

Asal left early in the morning and marched to Katya’s house. She avoided mud holes by hopping from one high spot to the next. From somewhere beyond the row of ramshackle tenements, the scramble of panicking chickens and the baying of a dog in pursuit broke the morning quiet as she approached the apartment.

Katya opened the door, wide-eyed. “You’re early.” Her smile faded once she had a second look. “Come inside.”

Katya pulled a pair of threadbare slippers from under a stool for her and left to tend to the teapot while Asal removed her shoes. Each room in the apartment was visible from her position. The living room, which doubled as Katya’s bedroom, was at the far end. It opened into a narrow passage that led past the bathroom and to the kitchen, which connected to the entryway where she now sat. A bedroom that she had once mistaken as a closet was off the entry. Linoleum the color of brick spanned the floor, but it had a worn spot that a rug failed to capture fully. The place bespoke the family’s humble status, but beneath that veneer lay a warmth foreign to Asal’s experience.

The moment she took her seat in the kitchen, her resolve failed. “They are making me get married.”

Katya took the news as if she were its subject. Asal told her that the wedding would be in two weeks and her friend’s face whitened, but angry red blotches fought their way forward. “I know your people do this,” she said, “but you will not. I will not let you.”

“There is nothing you can do.”

Katya reached a hand out. “There must be.”

She shook her head. “My sisters were so excited when they married, but they were both eighteen. Now, they complain about their empty lives. Their stupid husbands.”

Katya hit the tabletop with closed fists, disturbing the tea. “Your parents are old fashioned but Tashkent has changed. This country is changing.” She turned in her seat and reached for the sugar bowl on the countertop. “We’re not going to school today. We have to figure this out. My parents will get you to my aunt in Kyiv.”

“I need my parents’ consent to leave and I cannot dishonor my family.”

Katya shook her head at this but let it pass. “What does this man do?”

“I don’t know.”

Her eyes narrowed. “What is his name?”

Asal had to look away.

“In two weeks you’re marrying a man whose name you don’t—”

“I am not marrying him.”

Katya hugged her and the tears just came. Would they ever cease? That afternoon Asal was careful to return home at her usual time. As they separated, Katya said, “I will get you through this. I promise.”

The neighborhood women milled around Asal’s mother outside their home. The sight of her approaching scattered them like hens and her mother pulled her into the courtyard, where a foreign sound drew her attention after the door closed. She turned to see a new lock on the inside of that door, its shining combination wheels conspicuous against the black paint. The unfamiliar noise was the bolt of that lock sliding home. Her mother waited for her to figure out what was happening and Asal’s confusion turned to alarm once she did.

“You will thank me when you are wiser,” her mother said.

She pushed her way into the house and up the stairs to her room. Earlier that day, she had prayed that she would get past the crying, but she saw now that the place beyond tears was darker than her mind could endure.

Asal’s bedroom was at the back of the house. From her window, she saw the neighboring row of apartments and the tiny square of yard behind Katya’s home. Katya stood there, looking up to her, and Asal pulled the curtain closed and dropped to her bed. No one called her for dinner, nor did she bother to go downstairs on her own. Instead, she alternated between staring at the floor and sobbing, not daring to approach the window again.

In the morning, Katya rang the doorbell until Asal’s mother could no longer stand it. She yelled into the intercom for her to go away, saying that Asal would no longer attend school. What followed was an assault of foul-mouthed abuse from Katya that barraged the home until the intercom timed out. Asal laughed and wept—the line between the two was in tatters—as her friend continued her rant out on the street.

All that day her mother and sisters made wedding arrangements. They asked her once if she wanted to join and she didn’t trouble herself to answer, so they left her alone. She ventured to her window about the time Katya would return from school. Her friend was out there, seated on a stool, and she hopped to her feet at the sight of Asal and called out. The sound came across muffled so Asal opened the window. “What?”

“I said I promised you. I won’t forget.”

She replied in a voice not nearly loud enough to be heard, “There is nothing you can do.”

Katya cupped her hands to her ears. “I didn’t hear. Louder!”

The sound of footfalls on the stairs reached Asal and she closed the window and curtains as her sister pushed into the bedroom. “Mother is calling the police. Stop this before your friend has trouble.”

Asal saw only regret in her sister’s eyes. “How can you participate in this?” she asked. “As lonely as you are.”

Her sister stepped back as if she’d taken a knee to the gut. She recovered and any sympathy she might have harbored for her younger sibling was gone, replaced with contempt. “Don’t make this worse than it needs to be.”

Asal looked over her shoulder at the window. Her sister was right; Katya was only making trouble for herself and her parents.

In the ensuing two weeks, she ignored her family to the extent that she could, though they continued with their wedding planning. She peeked out through the bedroom curtains and the bathroom window at different times, but saw no sign of her friend. Her mother and sisters, whom she had come to loathe for their contrived cheer in their marriages, brought in dresses for her to preview. She picked one only so they would take them away, but then they laid out shoes, gloves; it was endless. On the morning of the wedding, a woman came to give her a manicure and pedicure, and another did her hair and makeup. One sister brought in tea, along with a pill “to make this easier” for her. She spit it into the teacup without anyone noticing, committed to scratching the eyes out of the first person to press her.

Her mother ran everyone out of the room and took a position on the edge of the mattress. She cradled Asal’s hand in hers and spelled out the details of the wedding night. It was to take place in the home of the groom’s family, where Asal was to live. The specifics of how they would display the bloodied bedsheets over the apartment balcony in testimony of her lost virginity sickened Asal and her mother took notice. She moved closer and Asal wanted both to draw her in and to shove her away.

“Your friend has confused you with her Slavic fairytales. The truth is that love grows slowly as you come to know your husband, like a kettle of cold water put to a low flame.”

“What of your love, Onam? What happened to your flame?” She could not help thinking of her father’s impotent advance on the water heater.

“You’re too young to understand.”

“I’m too young to marry.”

Her mother’s lips pressed thin. “This life has been fine for me and it will be good enough for you.”

“Do you think I am so naïve? You are miserable. You always have been.”

She pushed Asal away and walked to the door. “A woman unacquainted with misery can never know joy. Get dressed. The car will be here soon.”

She left Asal alone in the room with the gown, and it was tragic that an article so exquisite could usher in such despair. She went into the bathroom and the draft rushed through and snuffed the flame. As she reached for the matches, her reflection in the mirror caught her attention and the change she saw enchanted her. She turned on the hot water in the sink to make the gas flow. Without the pilot light burning, it passed unheeded into the bathroom, crowding away both the oxygen and her concerns. She closed the window and locked the door. There was a gap at the floor, but she tucked a towel into the open space and solved that problem.

She pulled her hair down and scrubbed away the makeup. The nail polish had to go, as well. Fully clothed and already lightheaded, she climbed into the bathtub and reached for the hand mirror on the countertop. Studying herself in it, she allowed a smile.

Soon, she would be free of the burdens—not hers, but those she carried for others. Something inside her head felt like it was beginning to boil and she would have sworn that the pounding between her ears was loud enough to be heard on the other side of the door.

This had to be right, she thought, because the alternative was so wrong. She wanted to live, but not their way. And yes, she wanted to prove something to them, but understanding was beyond their grasp.

The pounding worsened and she raised her fingers to her temples. No, they would learn nothing and she would be gone.


She looked to the window. For some reason, the noise seemed to originate there now, and it had changed to a rapping sound. She had to be hallucinating because her bathroom was on the second floor, yet she was staring into Katya’s eyes through the glass.

“Open the goddamned window, Asal.”

She was thinking that an angel would never use that language just as a stone busted through the pane and banked off the tub before settling to the floor. Asal scrambled to turn off the gas and managed the window open just before vomiting straight out and into the yard below. The hurting had already receded in her head as she drew in fresh air.

Katya straddled the wall dividing the properties. She held a coiled garden hose, the end of which she had tied around a branch of a persimmon tree in the adjoining yard, and the tips of a ladder poked up above the wall. “Catch this and tie it to the heating radiator.”

“Why are you here?”

“Shut up and do it.” She hurled the hose the few meters to the house and it would have clipped Asal in the face if she hadn’t caught it.

Asal still didn’t comprehend what was happening and the nausea had not abated. Someone knocked on the bathroom door, stirring her confusion. Was it Katya again? On this side now? How did she get here?

“Are you alright?” Her sister.

“I am fine.” She felt the floor tottering beneath her.

“We’ve come to help you into your dress.”

“Give me one minute.”

Katya waved her over and she at last understood: get out. She had a couple of meters of hose to work with and tried to run it through the fins of the heating radiator. The thing was mounted within the wall and she couldn’t maneuver the stiff hose in the confined space. Another knock on the bathroom door came, but the broken water heater stole her attention. She tugged at one of its wall mounts to test its strength. The unit was fine. Her father had been right about that, after all.

Originally from Modesto, California, John Etcheverry has spent twenty-something years immersed in the cultures and stories of the former Soviet Union. His fiction has been honored in GSU Review, Writer’s Digest, Sixfold, and other publications. He is hard at work putting the finishing touches to his novel, Generation Я. John lives with his family in Tbilisi.

Dotted Line