We board the train to Kazakhstan in the middle of the night; thirty of us stuffed canned-food-style into the last three cars. Once the ticket agent at the Moscow central station found out she was dealing with performers and Gypsies, all the good tickets mysteriously sold out. We were stuck riding the back where everything swerved and rattled and swayed from side to side, like a shark’s tail.
It’s three in the morning. I’m eight and I wonder why my parents couldn’t be veterinarians, or bakers like our neighbors back in Moscow. I hate not being in my own bed. Still, I fall asleep to the mechanical heartbeat under my ear. Say what you will, but a train is an insomniac’s paradise. You can complain about the sheets with stains as old as Kremlin, and the drafts, but once your head hits that pillow, the train song reaches and pulls you under its spell.
The only reason I wake up early is my cousin Zhanna’s voice just outside our compartment door. I wobble out from under the sheet. On the bunk above, my father snores in harmony with the train, and mom is already gone. She’s the band administrator, a mother hen to twenty five fully grown adults.
I open the door, my eyes mostly shut.
“And then, you cut up the goat balls and add them to the salad,” Zhanna says.
“Is that so?” The conductor does her best to sound nice, but I can tell she’s itching to find Zhanna’s parents and lecture them on how to raise a proper little girl. I’m a year older then my cousin so I pick up on those kinds of things faster.
“Yes,” Zhanna continues and nods to me for support. Her golden hair gleams in the sunlight streaming through the wide windows. “But you have to make sure they’re fresh, not shrively or green or something. That would be disgusting.” She makes a face.
The conductor is a woman shaped like a barrel with two sacks of flour hanging off it. She’s standing there with her hands behind her back, probably because they wouldn’t reach around the front. “Little girl. Your language is inappropriate and you should not make up stories like that,” she says, and looks at both of us with a good measure of disapproval.
“But I’m not, am I Oksana? Don’t our parents make goat balls salad all the time?”
My cousin is a troublemaker and she loves every minute. In that moment I wonder why we get along so well. How many times have I been grounded for a prank Zhanna has masterminded? I’m looking at my best friend, her cat’s eyes shiny with mischief, and then up at the barrel woman whose red lipstick is a warning sign of what’s to come if she ever finds our parents.
The conductor smirks. She can smell my fear.And I make up my mind.
“All the time,” I say. “Goat balls, sheep balls, even ferret balls.”
“Yeah, but those are really hard to get, so we don’t use them as much.”
Every time one of us says ‘balls’ the conductor almost cringes. So we make sure to infuse every sentence with a good dose of zoological bollocks.
I put my hands behind my back and act as grown up as I can in my pajamas with yellow duck patterns and ruffles. “I’m surprised they’re not as popular in our country. I mean, goat balls are a delicacy all over the world. Even in Italy.”
In a Russian’s eyes, especially a Russian woman’s eyes, Italians can never go wrong.
“Maybe we know because we travel so much. We’ve seen at least half of the world by now,” I lie.
“Girls, you are horrible.” But she looks like she almost believes us.
“We’re just Gypsy. We’re not afraid to try new things.” Zhanna says.
It’s that last stretch before we win, and we can both feel it. The conductor is eating out of our hands.
“Do gypsies eat them raw?”
“No,” I say, and to my complete astonishment I know we got her.
“But I hear the Kazakhstanys do. Can you imagine?”
“How do the Italian’s eat them?”
Zhanna’s back in her element. Her face is innocent, clean of doubt. She smiles up at the woman, even though her mom has just stepped out of their compartment and into the bright hallway, even though it’s only seconds before all hell breaks loose.
“With spaghetti sauce, of course.”