1. IF FANTASTIC CANVAS OFF
In a log hut it smelled differently from my house though not badly, just otherwise. The scent was perceptible in its cold part already, and they heated the owners’ rooms only. Whenever Granny took me to pay a visit to her old friends, we passed a cold part in the dark. Maybe that’s why I memorized the smell so well.
Then we got to a well-lighted living room with its unpainted floor scraped till it was spotlessly clean. The room was neatly decorated by embroidered towels hung about and well wadded white pillows, one smaller than the other on the only bed, with handmade lacy frills along the bedspread’s edge. More than that, there was a factory-made canvas on the wall, “Ivan Tsarevitch with Elena-the-Beauty”, whom he held in his arms galloping on Big Bad Wolf. The Wolf had his fire red tongue let down right above the bed.
Now I think it was a famous Russian painter Vasnetsov work’s reprint.
The fantastic canvas seemed to conceal a pass to another land outside: dull, mean and scaring. It was inconceivable that anyone could sleep next to the cloth there in a blameless bed. Possibly none slept there ever: they had a plank bed behind a stove, and a long trench bed was stretched out along a wall. I didn’t see anybody to sleep there, but one could easily guess: sometimes they left a rolled-up quilt on a trench bed or even two. That’s why I couldn’t be wrong. Thus it looked at winter village gatherings when I was a child.
First I remember summer as if in a picture too: a young woman is busy with a sheaf of corn, and her kiddy is playing around in the fields. It was alike “Harvest-time”, a painting by Vasnetzov: broad daylight and all bubbling with life, this sunny disposition I keep in my mind still. Apparently, Mom, then young, took me with her into the fields, while gathering in. And I can see myself sitting in a prickly stubble-field which turned light yellow, happy for no reason just watching Mom.
I guess, Mom went there to help Granny, who got an obligatory allotment at the Soviet kolkhoz to gather in. And they had to cut corn by sickle, bind sheaves and rick up them by hand. For some reason I remember a high wall of still green wood, mysterious one, a short way off. Perhaps I had misgivings about a graveyard not far away, at the forest border. But how could I feel it?
…Then I didn’t know anybody interred there. All were safe and sound: my Dad, Granny and some old villagers, she took me to visit once. They all lie there side by side nowadays.
2. DAILY BREAD
In spring and fall a catwalk on the way to the baker’s was under a layer of sludge. To tell the truth, the planked footway was built neatly, but the mud from a pavement, and from a sidewalk, and especially from a pass was taken there by pedestrians to the shop. Folks tramped to the baker’s from near-by villages as well as from far-away ones, and the shop was the only to find bread around. A sales woman knew every an elderly by name, and their kids she recognized by their eyes.
There was no bread at the shop daily, and the shop assistant then said the time it could be brought. Folks would be waiting for it in a long lingering line along the shop’s wall. They concealed themselves from rain under a drip cap. Those lucky enough, who were in front, stepped in the porch and walked up the five steep steps to the shop’s door. Then more bread was brought there in a station wagon, and it was hard to keep standing in queue on every a narrow step. Still there was not enough bread brought sometimes.
The bread bricks would be unloaded in trays through the hatch round the shop’s corner. In order not to set it up again, they would sell the bread throughout the opening. Folks used to buy four, or five, or six loaves, because there could be no more bread next day. It was a hard task to arrange an armful of bread into a shopping bag, one needed more hands. At times they would allow of no more than two loaves per customer, this happened in spring as a rule.
It was considered my duty to go shopping for bread as I was the elder son. Not long ago my younger brother asked me if I remembered going for bread. Maybe he had been eagerly waiting for it at home then. Sometimes they wouldn’t sell bread to strangers from far-away villages though they had been queuing up. Then I didn’t know whether to rejoice or be upset by injustice: more bread was left then for us, but some kids didn’t get it at all.
As less bread was found at the shop, the more filth folks brought up on the light wooden viaduct, while the narrow passageway to the shop got quite impassable. Then I chose another way out: overcoming loathing I get off by a back passage through a gap in fence along a gully’s edge, where a natural latrine was placed with foul odor.
I raised a warm and flavored loaf to my nose and hurried home, trying not to tread upon a wrong stain.
– Wash your hands, dear!
3. I LIKED HIS BRIDE
When in town, I turned to the left by a bank build where a church stood opposite. A local library was to be found nearby, and then there was a post office next. And all that had been familiar to me long ago. Well, the fire station was in the right place, and its gate closed as ever, I don’t know why.
So, we were drinking vodka there for Pete’s funeral repast. It appeared I was late for his official feast, it’d happened the day before. If Pete were not dead, I should have gone to his place. But he’d died, and so I drove to his cousin at the fire station. A fat puppy was running about, teasing an old starved cat and lightly biting its skinny backbone. The puppy rejected my slice of bread, too choosy was he.
Pete’s cousin made excuses to receive a visitor at the local fire station. His name was Mischka, in the military service he had been a submariner in the North. Afterwards he turned out to be a fireman. I got to know him when he was about to be called up: he was good at playing billiards, and we missed him at football afterwards. I wonder if they had had a cat at the submarine. If there was any, it should be a lean one in order to chase rats around in holes.
And Mischka was thin, with a trimmed haircut as if in a wedding picture. After a glass of vodka he said that at depth of hundred meters pressure was of ten atmosphere. Then on a bet he fifteen multiplied by fifteen, twenty five by twenty five, and so on… I never thought he was so smart: he’d never left the town after his active service. When he was back from the Navy, he brought a tape-recorder with him, “Kometa” or “Romantik”, a reel recorder.
I helped him to select some records for his wedding party. We drove for his bride to the next village by “Zaporozhets”, a Soviet mini-car. It was the only car in my village then in Russia, it belonged to a WWII vet, who allowed Mischka to take it for the occasion. I was the youngest in the car, a teenager, and was happy for the event. Before that I’d helped Mischka to do his house renovation, that’s why he took me with him for a bride, possibly.
When drinking at the fire station, we talked of one thing and another after so much time of my absence, and mostly of Pete. And I didn’t ask Mischka about his wife, a real beauty when his bride, covered with white then. And I hadn’t dared to envy Mischka his bride at the wedding, he was my friend.
…And Mischka was next to pass away soon. No, it wasn’t because of a fire; he dyed while taking a bath, for a heart attack, in a year or so. I was in time for his funeral feast, with Mischka’s widow covered black there.
4. PENULTIMATE CIGARETTE
Once in the street a Rottweiler dog tasted my hand as if biting. It didn’t consider hurting me; it was just running out of the house against me. A stupid dog it was, stupid and gluttonous, tried to swallow a ball then.
As a matter of fact, no dog ever bit me, though I’m not a dog-fancier. I’m rather on friendly terms with dogs, neighborly, I would say, it’s no use to fall out with them.
My girl-friend had a giant schnauzer or rather a black terrier. It was a wire-haired dog, black and quick, with a stump to wag fast, instead of tail there. That’s nice, but I couldn’t see the dog’s eyes because of its moustache and shaggy eyebrows, and that embarrassed me. One couldn’t tell its desire, and I had to watch the stump wagging, though that was not telling proper.
Dogs are different in town and country. A dog would make off if one waves his hand in the rural side, and in town it’s attacking when you raise your hand. One never knows then if the dog is playing or offensive; at least I didn’t know when I joined her to walk her dog sometimes. In her opinion the dog was just into my friendship.
In the country dogs are more cultured, they do their deed when nobody is around, and in town they do it in full view. And more dogs’ bad manners were to be found in St. Petersburg, where were few grass plots, and all were dirty as well as sidewalks. So, dogs in my town were not too bad, though some of them had propensity for ostentation, or even exhibitionism possibly.
While village dogs for coupling found a nook, in town dogs lost all sense of shame: courting, then caresses, and sex at last all was in public view; I’m somewhat ashamed of them.
Why do dogs changed so much while in town? I knew a dog, boxer; he died at home before folks’ very eyes as if on the stage. In the country one never saw a dog to pass away; there they vanished from sight then as birds of passage.
And the boxer was dying to the loud music I could hear from a neighbor’s apartment on the New Year’s night, when I paid a visit. The boxer was so old that he nearly never went out, and he almost forgot a fight he’d had the last time. He was just passing away on his favorite mat and he liked his folks to stay nearby, his dearest, he spent his life with. And I wasn’t so close to him, just someone off the street.
The music was unbearable, and I had no more cigarettes. I didn’t wait for the end of him and left the house. From an upper balcony someone in undershirt wished me a happy New Year, he was just smoking there.
Maybe I should give up smoking, shouldn’t I?
5. BLOODY VOSTOK
It’s my dear friend Tatiana calling me from Oxford. It meant that the British Queen was all right there in Britain, and Tatiana was fine too. She woke up, thought of me and gave me a call. It made me happy: by all appearances they kept me in mind more in Britain than here. And they get me better there; maybe, I’d rather speak English here in Russia: how do you do…
Tatiana was half-awake and was recounting not logically, just some snatches from here and there, and again from the very beginning, as if a kid nibbling a sticky bun here and there, chewing it to its heart’s content:
– The floor in the kitchen, on the ground floor, is cold for some reason…
– There is little sun at the lawn behind the house…
– Oh, I like a bookshop around the corner, one can never get out of there, they give coffee even… yes, I like Oxford…
– That’s nice to get home from Winston, a remote town with a clinic, where I undergo practical training. It takes me an hour to get there by bus…
And they had strict rules and order there at the clinic, but she couldn’t do without her cross on a chain. Did it interfere with medicine anyhow as well as her two small finger rings, she felt undressed without?
And a stern senior nurse gripped her fingers in order to display, that it could be hurting because of the two rings on, if a patient would squeeze her hand. And she was patient enough not to yell at the nurse, but didn’t remove her keepsake off, though they could dismiss her. She silently recollected various Russian bad words she had heard when a little girl, and she kept them in mind still.
Maybe, that’s why young English nurse hold up at the remote clinic asked her to teach to call names in Russian. It was fraught with serious consequences for one to use bad language there! Once a small girl she had taken home a swearword, daughter of a priest, and dad prohibited her from uttering it even in a whisper. Well, how could one express one then? The pastor told his daughter to have a strange word for that, an unknown one. The word she had taken was Russian then, and she found it delighting: Vlady-Vostok!
Some day ago she’d asked Tatiana the meaning of it: “Vladyvostok? It sounds great!”
Mr. Valery V. Petrovskiy is a freelance journalist and short story writer from Russia. He is a Chuvash University, Cheboksary graduate in English, graduated VKSch Higher School, Moscow in journalism, and had a degree at Kazan State Technological University in psychology. He has two dozens of his prose work published in the U.S.A. in such magazines as The Legendary, The Scrambler, The Other Room, Appolo’s Lyre and some of pieces released in Australian journals GDS, The Fringe and Skive. Some short stories are forthcoming in Canadian RYGA literary magazine. Valery lives in Russia at a remote village by the Volga River.