Author: Kirill Frolov
Translated by Ryan Green
“You should come with us! Why the heck not? You can gather cherries and spend some time with nature,” my mother’s friend Aunt Lilia said to my mother, trying to convince her to accompany her and her husband on a trip to the village of Colonița to pick cherries that workers on the collective farm had left after the harvest.
“I don’t know, I don’t feel comfortable about it. It’s a collective farm,” said my mother doubtfully.
“Oh, come on! If there was something wrong with it, I wouldn’t go myself! But they told us at work, officially, that anyone who wants to can go there. On paper the whole crop’s already been harvested. What they didn’t get will go to waste anyway!”
“But what if we get there and there’s already nothing left?” mom said, still not convinced.
“No big deal! You’ll get to spend time with nature and see a Moldovan village. Your children haven’t ever seen a Moldovan village, have they?”
So there we stood, at the bus stop near the central market, and waited for our bus to Colonița. There were six of us: my sister, me, my parents, Aunt Lilia and her husband, Uncle Vova.
My father, as usual, prepared for the trip very seriously: the day before he had gotten the food and water ready, found Colonița on the map of Moldova, and read about the village in the encyclopedia: Colonița – center of the rural council of the Criuleni District in the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic. He placed the food and the water into a large enamelware pail.
Uncle Vova also prepared for the trip: He took along his cassette player and two cassettes of the most popular songs. While we were waiting for the bus, he had already started to listen to them. If the songs were in Russian, Uncle Vova would sing along. If they were in English, he only moved to the music.
“Lerio gaga!” sang the cassette player. Uncle Vova only repeated the strange words and tapped his right foot, shaking his head to the rhythm of the song.
Aunt Lilia held their pail, which was plastic and smaller than ours. It was also filled with food wrapped up in paper. Lilia and my mother had gone off to the side a bit and were having a lively discussion about something. “Oh, come on! Forget about it! Don’t you even worry about it!” Aunt Lilia would say, reacting to my mother’s monologue.
Finally the bus, an Ikarus, pulled up and quickly filled up with people.
“No big deal! We’ll be there in twenty minutes!” Aunt Lilia assured us, as we were squished between overheated bodies on the sweltering bus.
When we first entered the orchard I was disappointed because there was nothing to be found on the trees in the first row. In the second row of trees there were only a few white cherries.
“Oh, come on! Sweet cherries in July? They’re all long gone!” Aunt Lilia said in response to our confused looks. “Let’s go a bit farther. There are sour cherries over there!”
The sour cherries were few at first, maybe one or two of them on each tree. However, as we ventured further into the orchard, we discovered that there were more and more of them.
“The workers probably were tired. That’s why they didn’t get all of them,” I supposed, carefully picking cherries from the trees and putting them into the pail.
“Don’t you eat them right off the tree?” Aunt Lilia said, surprised.
“You have to wash them first,” I answered shyly, glancing at my mother.
“Oh, come on! They’re from the trees! Everything here is clean! So what, your mommy doesn’t let you? Lara, what have you done to them so that they won’t eat cherries from the tree?”
The orchard in Colonița was large. We spent several hours there. Mother and Aunt Lilia had tied scarves over their heads. They looked just like real kolkhoz women and those female workers from Soviet posters. They told stories about work: mother told of how difficult things were at school with a big course load and teaching classes sizes of thirty. Aunt Lilia told about how things were, shuffling papers at the local agricultural office. Father and Uncle Vova also found topic for conversation: fishing and boat trips. Uncle Vova had already changed the batteries in the cassette player a few times.
“I prefer classical music,” my father said, commenting on Uncle Vova’s musical tastes.
“I got some classical here!” Uncle Vova exclaimed, turning the cassette over and, fast-forwarding a bit, stopped on Rondo Alla Turca, which some people were singing a cappella.
Every so often my sister and I would turn away from collecting cherries to observe huge butterflies with wings that pointed downwards, which we hadn’t ever seen before, the bright southern flowers, and the tiny lizards that darted across the dried up areas of earth.
When we had filled our pails, it was time for a picnic. We unwrapped our sandwiches, which were even more delicious in the fresh air, especially after having eaten an unimaginable amount of sour cherries. Aunt Lilia took out a thermos and enamelware cups and poured each one of us some hot, sweet and strong tea.
When father took out a bottle of water, Aunt Lilia protested:
“Sasha, are we really going to drink warm water right now?”
“What? You’re supposed to stay hydrated when it’s this hot out.”
“Oh, come on! We’ll go and hydrate! There’s a village over here. Let’s walk out of the orchard and find the well.”
The village turned out to be very large. The streets were very hot because, as opposed to shady Chisinau, the streets of Colonița weren’t lined with trees with sprawling branches.
The houses in Colonița didn’t look like the village houses I had seen in Russia when I went to visit my great-grandmother. There weren’t any wooden houses with shutters and decorative wooden window frames. Most of the houses here were a light, sky blue, while others were pure white, and a few were light yellow.
“Ukrainian women paint their whole houses inside and out in just one day!” Uncle Vova announced proudly.
Most of the roofs were tiled, but every once in a while there would be the richer and newer houses with slate roofs. When an old thatched roof hut appeared through the grapevines, Aunt Lilia stopped and gasped, saying:
“Just like what my grandmother had!”
“What grandmother?” my mother said, surprised because she had been friends with Aunt Lilia since they were really small, when they lived off the same yard in Chisinau, off Balanovskaya, but had never seen Lilia’s grandmother.
“My grandmother was Moldovan. My father’s mother.”
“But you didn’t know your father.”
“Yes, I didn’t know my father, but my mother took me to see his mother a few times when I was a little.”
At this time my sister started to whine.
“Mom! I’m thirsty! Will we be at the well soon?”
At this point my mother decided to show off her knowledge of the Moldovan language, which nobody present knew except her.
“We need to go up to someone and ask: ‘Unde e fântână?’Remember that if you are even alone in a Moldovan village and you are thirsty, just ask someone: ‘Unde e fântână?’”
Except for us, there was not a soul in sight on the scorching street, so the new expression did not come in handy. When we came up to an intersection, we looked to the left and saw the well with a gate, near which there stood a wooden crucifix.
“What an interesting sculpture! The face is so alive,” my father noted.
“Oh, there used to be wooden crucifixes near every well and at every intersection. I remember from when we went to see Uncle Grisha in Scoreni in 1958,” my mother said. “Then there was the anti-religious campaign in Moldova and they took them all down. Such a shame!”
Then my father opened the well and stuck his head in to look inside. The water was so far down that you could only see a tiny, distant square.
“No way!” I exclaimed with admiration.
Father took the crooked bucket from the iron chain and lowered it for a while. Finally he took it out the full bucket and poured us ice cold water into our enamelware cups.
When we had drunk a cup, Uncle Vova pulled out a second bucket, and after some time I was trusted to bring up the third bucket.
There’s been no other time in my life, before or after that sweltering July day, when water has tasted so sweet.
After we had indulged in the well water, we went on down the village’s main street, which started to descend below.
On the way we were met by a hunchbacked old lady with a head scarf, dressed in a faded flowery dress. She was leaning on a gnarled walking stick.
“Bună ziua!” my mother shouted to the old lady, who answered with a bow of the head, dipping it even lower than it already was.
“You’re supposed to say hello to everyone in Moldovan villages,” my mother explained. “I remember that from the trip to Scoreni.”
“It’s the same in Ukrainian villages,” Uncle Vova added.
Here the road came to a rather steep downslope, and before lie a small lake that at the bottom of a small valley, surrounded on all sides by hills. The lake sparkled and shone in the sun and reflected the blue, cloudless sky.
“Let’s go there!” my sister and I whined.
My parents glanced at their watches and, having decided that we had enough time to make it to the bus, agreed. We all really wanted to take a dip in the cold water.
However, when we got to the lake, we were disappointed. The banks consisted not of yellow sand, like they did in the lakes in the parks in Chisinau. Rather, there was deep and unpleasantly soft black mud. Mother and Aunt Lilia sighed, and, complaining about the “filth,” sat down in the shade in the bushes by the banks to continue their conversation. My sister and I whined, pacing the silty bank in our bare feet. Only my father seemed satisfied:
“It’s a nice lake. Over there, where it’s deeper, it should be clean.”
After that he undressed to his underwear, took a few steps and dove in. After a few minutes Uncle Vova followed his example, gazing down beneath his feet in disgust.
I wanted to swim as well, but I didn’t know how, and I had to stay behind, watching enviously at the grown up men cooling down in the water. Father slowly and skillfully did a back stroke back and forth in the middle of the lake, while Uncle Vova swam to the middle of the lake, dove under, and headed back to shore.
“It’s cold! That underground water is really pumping,” Uncle Vova said, sitting in the sun and explaining why he had returned to shore so soon.
I only vaguely remember the trip home. I remember only that when my parents decided to go into a store, they left my sister and me at the door with the pail of cherries. Some old guy with a walking stick came up to us, blatantly took a few cherries from our pail and ate them. Then he asked:
“Hey, guy, how much for the cherries?”
“Itsyk Kanambedzhik!” Uncle Vova’s cassette player sang to us as we left.
Two years went by and we were again staying at my mother’s parents’ house in Chisinau and visiting my mother’s old friends. My father didn’t join us this time.
Aunt Lilia had obviously aged, but she was just as loud and jocular as ever. While my mother, sister, and Lilia bustled about in the kitchen, I sat and waited for them in the living room. Uncle Vova sat by the open window, chain smoking stinking Vatra cigarettes. He poured himself a drink out of a dark bottle into a cup with a broken off handle. When he tried to start a conversation with me, I scurried into the kitchen and loudly whispered to my mother:
“We should leave. I think Uncle Vova is drunk.”
“What, did he scare you?” Aunt Lilia said, having overheard my whisper. “Don’t worry about it. He is nice. It’s just that things are really hard for him now.”
“Vovka! What are you doing, scaring kids in there?” she shouted into the living room to him.
Uncle Vova staggered to the kitchen doorway.
“First of all, I’m not Vovka. Vovk is a wolf in Ukrainian, and they are scary and bad and I am nice and good. And second, Mr Kirill, how old are you? What the heck are you scared of?”
“I’m twelve. And I’m not scared,” I said, turning bright red and trying to slip out of the shameful situation.
“There you go! You got nothing to be afraid of. Let the boy see what life’s like. It’s good for him.”
“Vovka, why don’t you take a hike? You see how he isn’t used to drunk people!”
“So what, Lara, your husband never gets drunk?”
“Voldemar, please, calm down,” my mother said, also starting to feel uncomfortable.
“Calm down?! I can’t calm down! I just can’t! You know that they laid me off at work, don’t you? Me! An engineer with a degree! I toiled at that factory for seventeen years! And they just threw me out on the street! And that illiterate Muntean, who’s been there for three years and who would come up to me ten times a day to ask how to do something, is allowed to stay! Why is that? Because he is Moldovan and I’m just a Yuke.”
“Then try to find a new job!” my mother said, flustered.
“And why should I look for a new job? Why should I sweep streets and move boxes? Why should I learn their language? This is my city! I was born here! My father was sent here after the war to rebuild the city. They survived the famine here, they toiled from dusk till dawn, and after work they dug the lake in the park. My father took night courses. And now what? I’m nobody? Now I am supposed to learn their language and clean up their shit after them?”
Uncle Vova left the kitchen, poured himself another drink, and lit a cigarette. Then, not taking the cigarette from his mouth, went back into the kitchen, and, not saying a word, took me by the wrist with one hand and my mother with the other, and took us into the bedroom. There he opened the cabinet and started to take out carved wooden cutting boards, spoons, plates, pots, and pipes. Some of them were painted, others covered with varnish.
“Look at this! You’re artists. You should understand! I did all of this with my own hands! I can do anything – with my hands and with my brain! But I just can’t sweep streets. Why should I sweep streets?”
“That’s our life now,” Aunt Lilia said quietly, looking down at the floor on the elevator ride down as she escorted us out.
Two years later, Voldemar passed away. He died of lung cancer at the age of forty-four. Aunt Lilia sold her apartment in Botanica and moved to Germany to live with her daughter, who had recently married a German man.
A few years later my father died. He drowned in a lake, just as deep and clean as the lake in Colonița.
Thirty years have passed since the day we went out to pick cherries. And now, standing at the bus stop in Chisinau, I see a bus pull up with that familiar name on it, written in Latin letters. But I don’t get on it: either way, it won’t take me back to that happy day.
“So, now we’re headed to Pokrovskoe,” said Sasha, the driver of the off-road vehicle to his traveling companions. “There’s a church there from the early nineteenth century and it’s possible some of its frescos have survived. I was there about thirty years ago and even then it was already a dying village. It’s probably abandoned by now.”
The objective of the expedition through remote villages of the Vesyegonsk and Sandovsky districts was abandoned landmarks: churches, manors, and in some places even the remains of mills and pre-revolutionary fire stations. The travelers had snapped photos in a few of the towns of very lovely wooden houses adorned with woodcarvings.
The majority of the villages were abandoned and the rest were occupied by a few old people and dacha dwellers, who were relatively few in these parts due to the lack of roads. In a few of the villages, the travelers stumbled upon farms, community centers, medical clinics, daycare centers, schools, and stores, all abandoned. In Zabolotye the school still had intact windows, and in the classrooms there were desks, chairs, glass-paned cabinets, formalin-soaked frogs, maps and portraits of writers and scientists hung on the walls. In one of the classes, on the board, written in chalk was a message: “School, we miss you! Class of ’01.” From above, Russian classics glared at the uninvited guests: an angry Tolstoy, a sullen Turgenev, and a pensive Pushkin, who was separated from Turgenev by a random nail that was framed by a barely noticeable square contour on the wall.
The road to Pokrovskoe was unpaved, in places dotted with permanent puddles. Along some stretches of the road the wheel tracks were so deep that Sasha the driver worried about the suspension. “Only an ATV could get through here!”
To the surprise of the visiting art historians, Pokrovskoe turned out to be inhabited. Many of the houses were surrounded by rather neat gardens and in their patches there were flowers—black-eyed-susans, mallows, marigolds, and columbines. Answering to the noise of the passing car, the little white drapes in the windows lifted up.
The car drove up to the church and the four travelers got out. They went to the church’s doors but saw that there was a lock on them.
“What is it you want?” they heard a screechy voice say from behind. Turning around, the travelers saw a very old woman in a white floral headscarf and a mud-colored cardigan over a worn flannel gown.
“We, uh…we’re from Moscow. We’re exploring old landmarks,” said Marina, hesitating.
“How do you get in?” Andrei dared to say, under the harsh glare of the old woman.
“Oh! Then you need to go see Tatyana Ivanovna,” the old woman answered. “But she is at work right now. It’s business hours now, work’s in full swing!”
The guests were surprised: in most of the other surrounding villages there were just old people and dacha dwellers. If someone was in fact working then it was only on their own plots of land.
“Where does Tatyana Ivanovna work?” Marina continued the exchange.
“Oh, well everyone knows that! In the library, in the House of Culture. Do you see that one white building over there across the cemetery? That’s where you want to go. That’s the House of Culture.”
Tatyana Ivanovna, who was herself no less than eighty years old, gray, with thick glasses, was wearing a brown suit jacket with a rose brooch over a white jabot blouse. She sat grandly at her desk and was writing on some old yellowed square pieces of paper.
“I’m Tatyana Ivanovna Kozlova, Pokrovskoe Rural Library, head librarian,” the old woman ceremonially introduced herself to the guests.
Aside from Tatyana Ivanovna, there were three other old women in the library. One of them, wearing thick glasses with a strap, ran her fingers over the pages of the thick book she was leaning close into, and silently moving her lips. The second woman was leafing through the pages of yellowed newspapers. The third was knitting. When the guests entered, the newspaper leafer and the knitter lifted their heads to examine the newcomers. Over the next few minutes the library began to fill up with some more people: first came the woman with the mud-colored cardigan, whom the guests had already seen, then a few other old women, and, behind them all, a very dark old man with a single snaggle tooth sticking out of his mouth.
“Excuse us, Tatyana Ivanovna. Could you open up the church for us?” asked Marina, smiling. “We heard that there are still some frescoes there.”
“Yes, of course! I’d be glad to do it! In forty minutes I have lunch. I’ll show you then. You know, our church is a registered landmark, and it is our duty to preserve it. That’s why we keep it locked—you never know who can get in! And in the meantime, you can explore our collection here: over there are the classics, here we have Soviet literature, over here is foreign literature, children’s, periodicals…”
Tatyana Ivanovna pointed to the shelves with stenciled letters colored in with red gouache and made an abashed stop at the sign “New Arrivals”.
“We have quite the misfortune with our New Arrivals section. I don’t know what to do about it. Every quarter I fill out request forms to update our collection and send them over with the truck to Sandovo. I’ve even written to library storage in Tver! And not a word from them since ninety-eight! What you see here is from Dima. That’s Klavdia Ivanovna’s great-grandson. He gave us these books after Klavdia died: an old Bible, Jack London, Chekhov, and Serafimovich. I was thankful, of course, but we really would like something new, something modern.”
“Excuse me. How many people live in this village?” asked Oleg, who was photographing the room and the people in it while Tatyana Ivanovna was giving her monologue.
Tatyana Ivanovna slowed down and, taking a deep breath, said:
“Seventeen. Sixteen of them are registered at the library.”
“Sergeich is the only one not registered!” sang out a high screechy voice of one of the silent readers, unheard until this moment.
“Don’t even start,” croaked the snaggle-toothed old man. “These books of yours are nothing but made-up nonsense! I can tell the same stories about my own darn life! ‘Nough to fill ten no-vels!”
Tatyana Ivanovna shot Sergeich a stern look and continued.
“You see, the library also serves as our cultural center. We haven’t had young people here in a very long time. The House of Culture is closed, so the library became the new center of culture here. Three times a week we have our folklore group meeting, today at three we have a book club meeting, where we talk about what we read the previous week. We also operate a folk handicrafts club: those birch boxes in the corner over there were made by our local handymen. — here Sergeich smiled widely, showing his red gums and one remaining ugly tooth. — We have a children’s collection. When he was a boy Klavdia Ivanovna’s great-grandson, Dima, used to come here, especially when it rained. I still keep his log here, just in case. But now our youngest reader is sixty-eight.”
“That’s Lida. She’s got high blood pressure today,” said one of the old women proudly.
“And the oldest is ninety-four.”
“Ey, Fillipovna, you hear? They’re talking about you!” Sergeich barked in the ear of the old woman with the glasses on a string, who had been reading the whole time and moving her lips, not paying attention to the guests. Only now, reacting to Sergeich’s shout, did she lift up her head.
“Huh?” Filippovna belted out.
“What are you reading?” Sergeich shouted.
Filippovna looked at the cover of the book, drew her finger across the title and read it aloud:
“No way! I’m also reading Sister Carrie,” said one of the old women to another. “Have you read it? I liked it a lot!” Then she added, louder so everyone could hear: “Marya Filippovna likes Fadeev most of all!”
“Oh yes! I think Fadeev is the best!” Filippovna ultimately answered and dipped her head back down into the open book.
Then Tatyana Ivanovna looked at the clock and announced that it was finally time for a lunch break. Everyone who was gathered, with the exception of Filippovna, filed out of the library, past the cemetery, and toward the church. Tatyana Ivanovna unlocked the heavy padlock and the massive door opened with a creak. Light penetrated the darkness inside only through the doorway, as the windows were all boarded up.
“Two summers ago Vladimir Sergeevich and Dima, Klavdia Ivanovna’s great-grandson, boarded up the windows and covered the floors. But of course it’s only a temporary measure. This place is in need of a complete restoration, both the building itself and the frescoes,” said Tatyana Ivanovna, and then, almost unintentionally, added: “By the way, most of the images are based on engravings by Doré.”
One of the Muscovites took out a flashlight and shined it on the rather well-preserved images on the walls. Marina was most impressed by the sorrowful Mother of God, holding a white swaddling cloth in her outstretched hands. Oleg took pictures. A silence took over, which after a few minutes was interrupted by Tatyana Ivanovna.
“By the way, now that you mention it, could you maybe in Moscow somehow help facilitate the update of our collection? We haven’t had any new books in thirty years! Honestly speaking, in the next year or two there won’t be anything left to read!” There was a hint of desperation in Tatyana Ivanovna’s voice. She put her head down and looked at the ground, then, after standing there for a few minutes, again livened up:
“Hey, are you guys by any chance writers? If you are, we could organize a meet and greet with our readers while you’re here.”
“No, we’re just art historians, lovers of the old.”
“Well, then, you must write some sort of articles! We read articles too!”
“Nah, we have to get going. We still need to make it to Terekhovo and Spasskoe today.”
“My, my! You have to have something to eat before you go!” one of the old women shouted, worriedly waiving her arms.
“No, but thank you!” Marina said quickly, turning down the offer.
“Well at least take some milk for the road! Sergeich, go run to my house. There’s a three-liter bottle of milk in my kitchen. From my own cow, all-natural!”
On the road to Terekhovo, Oleg went through his pictures. Besides the frescoes and the church, he really liked the shots from the library: Filippovna in her glasses with the strap, running her fingers over the lines, Tatyana Ivanovna in her jacket and white blouse under the sign “Russian Classics” written on a faded band of paper. Andrei was holding the three-liter bottle of milk, Marina had a basket of fragrant black currants, and Sasha, sitting behind the wheel, had in his pocket a folded up yellowed piece of notebook paper with a list of requested literature, written in Tatyana Ivanovna’s neat handwriting. Storm clouds rolled in overhead, starting to cover the hot July sun. The travelers looked at them and didn’t say a word.
Alechka* was crying that day I went to see her.
This wasn’t anything completely unusual, as she cried often. She cried when our team lost in soccer. She cried when they won as well, but from happiness.
She also cried when she read books that told of injustice and when she watched films in which the hero or heroine, especially if they were young and handsome, dies in the end, in the beginning, or in the middle of the story.
Once she cried almost three weeks straight because she suddenly began to think that life was at its end and that, despite the fact that everyone was still young and beautiful, they would very soon grow old and die. She would turn on the television and look at the young soccer players and her heart began to ache, as she knew that they would be young for such a ridiculously short time, and pretty soon old age and death would creep up on them. Finally her parents decided to do away with this and sent her on a three-week trip to Crimea so she could swim in the sea, sunbathe, eat some grub cooked up by her Crimean Tatar relatives, and perhaps meet someone young and handsome. Alechka ate her relatives’ baklava, bathed in the Black Sea, sunbathed, and married a young and handsome rock musician, a dark and broody misunderstood genius, and the fear of inevitable old age and death settled for a while.
That day Alechka cried differently: unnoticeably quiet, but somewhat hopelessly and bitter.
“I was washing the floors,” she explained.
Alechka’s parents met while they were students of the philology department at the Kalinin Teachers’ College. Her mother, Olya, was a local whose parents had escaped to the city from a kolkhoz in a Karelian village near Likhoslavl. From her childhood Olya loved to read Russian classical literature. She read the entire school library and started writing herself, and so she decided to become a literature teacher, which is why she entered the teachers’ college. Every summer she went to her grandmother’s in the village in boggy cranberry country where everyone spoke the queer, ringing language of the Tver Karelians. She would go with her grandmother to the forest to gather mushrooms and berries and breathed the wet, cool and piney air of the thick wood. She poked around in the garden with her grandmother and listened to the joyful ruckus of potatoes rolling around at the bottom of the pail. She liked to feel the ripe bunches of black currants and then eat them right off the bush. In the evenings her grandmother would sit with the neighbors on the ledge of the house’s protruding foundation and chatted about something, swatting away mosquitoes with a birch branch and repeating the magic word “Avoivoivelle!” Olya listened to the old women and remembered them for the rest of her life.
In her first year Olya fell in love with the dark, brown-eyed, brooding Rustam, who had wandered down unknown and untold roads and happened upon this city. He had come from Uzbekistan, where his Crimean Tatar parents were exiled during the war.
“I would travel to the ends of the Earth with him!” Olya once declared to her friend Rayka, who had also read all of Turgenev.
After college she had to act as such: the newlyweds settled in the young Uzbek city of Navoi to teach the local children the Russian language and introduce them to the mighty body of Russian classic literature. Olya did not want to go. She didn’t believe that there wasn’t a single village school in the area that was in need of a Russian teacher. She tried crying about her fortune in the college provost’s office and they explained to her that she could stay alone, only her poor husband had to be sent home, to Uzbekistan, and those were the conditions under which he was accepted to the college.
And thus a long, sometimes rapturously happy, sometimes tearfully sad life stretched on. Olya worked a lot; there were not enough Russian language teachers to go around in Navoi. Then came children, two lovely daughters who took after their father. The girls grew and her students did, too. Thin, white streaks appeared unnoticed in her thick, dark braid. But one thing remained unchanged: the feeling of the temporariness of her situation in this desert land. In the evenings, after washing the thin sandy dust off all the floors and wiped down all the furniture, Olga Petrovna loved to tell her daughters and her students from the neighborhood about how there was a time when she would sled down snowy hills, about how her cheeks would burn when she ran into her house and out of the frosty air, about how she would gather hefty mushrooms after the summer rain, and about how in the fall she would go to the bog with her parents to pick cranberries. She spoke beautifully and with enthusiasm and the neighbor girls struggled to picture what a mushroom was and dreamed of one day seeing one.
When the Soviet Union began to die its painful death, Alechka’s family found itself right at the epicenter of its agony.
“It’s time to go home,” mama said one morning. It was obvious to everyone at that point that she was right.
The next few months in Navoi were dedicated to finding a place to live in Tver and a buyer for their current apartment and similar things akin to sitting in a waiting room at a train station, where you may actually be busy doing something, perhaps going to the buffet or studying the train schedule or reading a book. But you’re really not there—you’re waiting and you don’t pay attention to the people and events going on around you. That’s how Alechka was feeling for those days, and even months. The entirety of her previous life seemed to her pointless wandering in the hot sandy dust, and life in grandmother’s far-away Tver seemed to her new, succulent, rich in vivid colors, juicy berries, striking impressions and bright new people.
And that’s what happened to her when she moved to Tver. She quickly became popular in her class. She made friends with the girls and the boys liked her. She learned how to ski and went to the forest with her friends on the weekends. It was so quiet in the forest that you could hear the pounding of your own heart. The fresh snow sparkled in the sun. In the spring the forest filled with the singing of birds, with soft and bright colors, with chilly darkness. Her heart ached from all of this new and hopeless beauty, and unwanted tears swelled up in her throat to then shamelessly pour out over her cheeks.
Soon school was finished and Alya easily entered the university. She made herself even more friends. New people started coming over. They had lively discussions with Alechka about books, films, music and soccer. They told her funny stories and really wanted her to like them. Alya went to the theater, on hikes and to dances and watched soccer on television. She rushed through this life unwaveringly. It was as if she swallowed it in big gulps, not always affording herself to savor its full bouquet.
One July morning she woke up in a very strange mood. She was sad from the very moment she was awakened. This sadness was not a bittersweet ruefulness, and it wasn’t sadness about the fullness of life that’s common among the young. It was deaf, indifferent emptiness. A little while later Alya figured out that this feeling was a result of a dream that she had had just before waking up. She struggled to remember it but couldn’t and only the feeling of disconsolate emptiness followed her. She forked breakfast into herself without pleasure, drank a cup of hot coffee and decided to clean her room. After stuffing books and cassettes into their places on the shelves, she filled a pail with water, grabbed a rag and began, with a habit acquired in childhood, to wash the floor.
And suddenly, lifting up her head slightly, she saw something familiar to her from very early, still wordless childhood. On a sunny strip stretching from the window little specks of dust danced, played and frolicked. How long it had been since she had seen them! As a little baby she watched the dance of these tiny creatures, not knowing that they were just specks of dust. But where were they this whole time? Why didn’t they catch her eye? It was as if they came to her this morning from childhood, where there were so many of them and where mama greedily and angrily chased after them with a wet rag.
Alya put the rag into the pail and covered her face with her wet hands. The usual tears once again filled her throat but did not rush out. She closed her eyes and the dream she had the previous night clearly played out in front of her. She dreamed of her hot, sandy childhood city soaked in blinding sunlight. She had not dreamt of it once since she had moved to Russia. It seemed forgotten and useless, like an old dress or a broken toy. But now it appeared before her, burning, shining, searing the bottom of her feet, which she no longer used to run across the soft, red-hot sand of her yard.
Sitting on the floor next to the pail of water, Alya cried quietly and shamelessly, mercilessly indulging in memories of her distant childhood in a forgotten city. Running along the paths of memory, she saw her friend Gulka, with whom she would play and chat all evening about plans for a future, never-ending life before the instant onset of the southern night. Huge butterflies began to swarm in the thick twilight, crickets began to chirp, and mama went out onto the balcony and belted out to the whole area in her booming teacher’s voice:
* In the Russian language most names have diminutives, e.g. the name Olya used in the story is short for Olga, while Alechka and Alya can be used as diminutives for several names like Alexandra, Alina, Alevtina, etc.