Marinka’s voice on the phone was high and strained, like a collar caught cat struggling against strangling.
Katerina knew immediately something was terribly wrong. Katerina lived in Delaware in sight of the ocean. The wind had been blowing in from the sea for three days. When it gusted it made whistling noises through the trees and against the houses. Katerina flew out to Michigan the next morning.
He thought he had the flu, wouldn’t go to see the doctor. Now Ned, her daughter’s husband was in the ground under the oak up on the hill by the pond where the geese were.
The sun was dazzling bright for the funeral. November wind blew and sculpted hollows in the water.† A few late leaves, brown and crisp, whirled down, hit and scuttled along the ground until they stuck.† Ned had died of a heart attack in the night, the same way his father had died at the same age, fifty-one. He left four daughters. Only Veronica, the second was married.†
A short broad shouldered white-haired woman in a black dress, Katerina stood shoeless in the middle of the brick red linoleoum of the kitchen. She held her arms crossed, hugging her chest just below her bosom. The neighbors had brought food in pots and pans of all different shapes and colors. Crowding the counter top by the sink and spilling over onto the stove, they made a bright variegated society of their own.
Marinka was upstairs in the bedroom, maybe resting, maybe not. Katerina knew Marinka needed to be alone. Her own husband, Marinka’s father, had died eighteen months earlier. It was still hard for Katerina to believe he was gone. The separation seemed temporary, a dream from which she might awaken at any moment. But, then, all separations had started to take on this dreamlike quality.
Death brought back memories. The longer you went on living, the more of those you’d known and loved who were now under the earth, the more memories it brought back. It loosened your tongue and made you tell stories of things and people, times and places you hadn’t thought about in years and years.
Or if you’d thought about them it had been only in stray moments while you cleaned or dusted or polished a table so that the shine came back into it and you caught a quick glimpse of your own face in it. Death brought life back into focus, sharpened it and, in the midst of the grieving, bathed in it the clean crisp light of a gentle entrancement.
Olga, the oldest of her grandchildren, sat in a chair at the table. Tanya, the youngest at eighteen, sat cross legged on the floor. Darjeeling, a ball of rust fur, lay content and full oblivious on the table, purring with his paws tucked neatly under his chin. Mona, a mongrel puppy the color of sand, was stretched fast asleep on her side underneath the table.
Uncanny that she should still have breath in her lungs and be able to talk.
The beauty of these two young women who sat with their eyes on her, waiting and watching, was bewitching. Had she herself ever been that young? Had her skin ever been that smooth? Had her eyes ever glowed the way theirs did? From the living room, where a fire burned in the fireplace, came the hubbub of other conversations, background music.
Katerina took a deep breath, let her gaze fall first on Olga, then on Tanya.
“I was an orphan by the time I was nine years old. The spring I was ten years old was a beautiful spring. It was during the Civil War after the Revolution. The Whites and the Reds fought back and forth. We were frightened of both. Food was scarce and there was no telling what would happen.† When the Armontovs left their estate in their carriage with three large wagons behind it, the cherry trees were in blossom.
They were white as snow. On each side they lined the way from the big house down to the lake. The grass wasn’t kept the way it had been. So dandelions bloomed everywhere like pats of butter against the green of the grass. A few white clouds floated in blue sky.† The cherry blossoms were whiter than the clouds. We waved and called good-byes after them and wept.
Eight of us stayed behind. Yelena Fyodorovna would not hear of going. She said one place was as good as another. Yelena Fyodorovna was in her late twenties. She had lost her husband two years before in the fighting. She had a three year old son, Vanya, a plump little devil with chestnut eyes. She’d taken in four more orphans, three little girls and another little boy, just five months younger than little Vanya. Yelena Fyodorovna had a good heart. She was a second cousin of one of the mistress’s sisters-in-law. That was why the mistress let us stay there.
My older brother Mitya was the only one I had left in the world. We grew up in a village two hours’ walk from the Armontovs’ estate. When Mitya was drafted, he arranged to leave me with Yelena Fyodorovna. As a girl, my mother had worked for Yelena Fyodorovna’s aunt. Yelena Fyodorovna needed someone to help her with the children. I worked hard and she was good to me. The children were good for me, too. They kept my mind off my own sorrows.”
Katerina paused, sighed, took a deep breath after the sigh.
Olga struck a match and lit another cigarette. The flame cast its glow across one side of Katerina’s broad, kindly face. Her presence ruled the room.
“No, it wasn’t a bad time for us. We might as well have been on an island. No one knew or cared what we did. The cellars were well stocked, so we had enough to eat. The house was grand. Usually, there were ten or even fifteen times as many people in it. Old Pavel stayed behind with us, too. He said his joints hurt too much for him to travel. He said he had been born there and he wanted to die where he had been born. I think he stayed because of Yelena Fyodorovna.
He hadn’t anyone left in the world, either. In the evenings we would walk down, all of us together, through the orchard to the lake. We would sit, Yelena Fyodorovna on the stone bench with little Vanya on her lap, me in the grass with the other children, while old Pavel paced slowly back and forth at the water’s edge. There were all sorts of water birds on the lake. We would listen to them and watch the sun set over the water.
In that part of Russia, there are many nightingales. I knew nothing of Yelena Fyodorovna’s heart or her private thoughts, even though my eyes were always on her. The sight of her soothed me. She wasn’t one of those women who talk about themselves all the time. Her life was that little boy. I think she would have been happy to have a big family, ten or twelve children even. But it was too late. Her husband was already dead. So what could she do?
Yelena Fyodorvna loved the song of the nightingale. I know. I watched her go still to listen. It seemed that she had forgotten everything else. The song of the nightingale was all that there was. We all stopped and waited and listened. It was because of Yelena Fyodorovna that we went so still. I imagined that the nightingales knew that Yelena Fyodorovna was listening and that they sang especially for her.
When it was still light, just after the sun disappeared below the horizon, we would walk back up to the big house, exactly as if we owned it.”
Katerina laughed. The skin of her face crinkled and there was merriment about the corners of her eyes.† She looked much younger. Although her grand-daughters were rapt, Katerina didn’t look at them. She looked not straight ahead, but at an angle upwards, as if what she described was reborn in the telling and immediately present to her.
“Yelena Fyodorvna was an excellent cook. She made the bread herself. There was nothing spoiled about her. When we got back up to the house, old Pavel would make a fire in the fireplace in the parlor, using birch logs he had split himself. There were whole forests of white birch on the Armontov estate. They were beautiful in the snow.
The children would say their prayers. Yelena Fyodorovna would give each one a crust of bread amd off they would go to sleep. Occasionally, old Pavel would tell us a story about his youth, the old days, the harvests and the hunts, the celebrations, the love affairs and the quarrels of times gone by. But mostly he sat still and looked into the fire and watched the children sleep.
Yelena Fyodorovna insisted on teaching me to read and write. She said that sooner or later the world would come back to its senses and life would go on as before.”
Katerina shook her head and took another breath.
“It made no sense to me. But I would never go against Yelena Fyodorovna. Whatever she said had to be right just because she said it. I went along with the lessons, even though it was often hard for me to keep my eyes open after chasing after the children all day long. Even if I wasn’t the best of pupils.
it seemed to please Yelena Fyodorovna to teach me. My mind wandered. Sometimes I would just stare at the page.
She would get a little cross with me, not so very much, though, because she was such a gentle soul. I felt badly when I disappointed her. But what use did I have for knowing how to read and write? It was another world from this one. Reading and writing were for others who were much more important than a simple orphan girl.”
Katerina looked not at Olga, the scholar in the family, but at Tanya, who loved horses, as if to ask if she could possibly understand this. Tanya smiled back, a soft inward smile.
When her grandmother talked like this, what she said seemed natural, obvious, inevitable. For all its strife and violence, the world Katerina described seemed more peaceful, more at one with itself than the one Tanya struggled to live in herself.
“So I would fall asleep over the book, sitting there in front of the fireplace with Yelena Fyodorovna. She would put a blanket over me and a pillow under my head and I would wake up right there early the next morning when one of the children stirred and the light of dawn was streaming into the big windows through the mists that rose off the lake.
Life was sweet then and I would plunge into the new day without a thought to my cares. Each day was like the one before, yet each one seemed a new adventure to me, full of hope and expectation. The children grew right before my eyes. Their little bodies stretched out and they became miniature men and women. Can you believe we were happy? We were happy, except for Yelena Fyodorovna and old Pavel, because we didn’t know any better. It was in our hearts to be happy.”
Katerina stopped. As she pursed her lips, her face grew sad and serious.
It seemed to Tanya that her grandmother’s face now, in this kitchen, in this warm fragrant house full of life where, incredibly, her own and only father had died barely three days before, looked much as old Pavel’s face must have looked in that other house so long ago and so far away.
Tanya wondered if Katerina had any idea how rich and comforting her voice was.
Mona’s paws twitched in her sleep as she chased the rabbit or squirrel or woodchuck of her dreams.
Olga stubbed out one cigarette and lit the next one. Olga would remember the words. Tanya, herself, would remember the music. A yawn spread her lips, stretched the muscles of her back and shoulders, sore from weeping.
“But there were bitter moments, too,” the old woman went on, as if this pause had put her in touch with sorrow present that rhymed with sorrows past.
“Yelena Fyodorvna had her moods.A darkness would come over her. Maybe she thought of her dead husband, remembered his face and his eyes and the touch of his skin.”
Olga and Tanya knew their grandmother was remembering their grandfather.
“I was just a girl myself, with no experience of such things. For days, she was like a shadow, drifting here and there among us. The spirit went out of here. She seemed to forget where she was. Little Vanya noticed. I did my best to comfort him. He would watch her with hungry eyes. He was afraid. We all were.
Then a spark caught again. It brought the fire of life back into her. She would be as gay and energetic as she had been sad and forlorn. She was always dreaming up some project to do, as if she meant to apologize to us, to little Vanya in particular for having gone off and left us. That year there was a wonderful crop of cherries. Yelena Fyodorovna got it into her head to make varieniki.”
Katerina looked first at Olga and then at Tanya.
“Varieniki are like blini, a cherry filling wrapped in dough. When I was very little, before my mother or even my father had died, we had a cherry tree, too. Just one. Not a whole orchard like the Armontovs, because we were simple folk. I remember she would make varieniki, too, in the springtime. My own mother.”
Memory had played another one of its tricks. The sadness was gone from Katerina’s face and also from her voice.
“It was a hot day near the end of June. Yellow and white cabbage butterflies played tag, skipping over the top of the grass that was going to seed. In the whole sky, there wasn’t a single cloud. Everything was a full rich green. Yelena Fyodorvna’s gaiety was contagious. You can imagine how excited we were as we set off for the orchard to pick cherries.
I propped little Vanya up in the crotch of a tree. The ripe cherries hung so red. Their sides gleamed. A breeze blew and the leaves quivered. The cherries swayed on their stems. With his dark curly hair, Vanya looked like a little angel, standing there in the tree, reaching eagerly for cherry after cherry, dropping them into the bowl between his legs. He laughed aloud with delight as he grabbed them.”
Marinka slipped into the room. It was Olga who first noticed her presence.
“Grandma’s telling stories,” Olga said.
Marinka looked from her daughter’s face to her mother’s. Katerina’s face didn’t change expression. Marinka was staunch in the same way as her mother. Marinka smiled a small smile, sad and tender, at Olga.
Then she sat down at the table. Darjeeling stirred, got to his feet and walked to the table edge nearest her. He stretched, made a welcoming noise deep in his throat, jumped into her lap. Marinka scratched behind his ears. He settled.
“We filled the bowl. We made a heap of tart red cherries. We carried the bowl back into the kitchen and set it down on a wooden table. It was just before noon. It was a hot, still time. Little Vanya stood next to the table. I lifted him up so that he could look at the cherries. He beamed. He had never tasted varieniki. I was as excited about watching the little ones taste them, as I was about eating them myself.
Yelena Fyodorovna had just covered the bowl with a white linen towel when Pavel came running in, all out of breath. He had been up the road gathering mushrooms. He had seen soldiers, Whites. They were coming this way. There were Reds near, too. There was going to be a battle. Yelena Fyodorovna and Pavel looked at each other.
Yelena snatched up little Vanya and I his little friend, five months younger. I grabbed the littlest girl.† Without another thought, we rushed out of the house and headed into the woods. At the edge of the woods, we stopped and counted. Old Pavel joined us. All eight of us set off together. Barely a quarter of an hour later, we heard the first shots.”
Tanya drew her legs up to her body and rested her chin on her knees.
“I wasn’t frightened at all. It was an adventure. Pavel led us into the woods until we came to a place where there was a small spring. We could still hear gunfire. But the birds were singing, too. About fifty feet from the spring was a small meadow. In the middle of the meadow was a zimlanka.”
Katerina stopped. She looked perplexed. Marinka knew her mother was trying to find the right English word.
“Tell us what it is,” Marinka said. “A house, a kind of house,” Katerina said. “A hut?” Olga suggested. “No, no, no,” Katerina objected, shaking her head indignantly.
It wasn’t easy, Marinka knew, to help her mother. She asked for help. Then, when you tried to provide it, the usual result was that Katerina took the occasion to demonstrate she could manage perfectly well on her own. Olga looked hurt. Marinka saw her hide it.
Marinka was a widow like her mother. Now she and her mother were like sisters. Only her mother was a quarter of a century older than she was. A quarter of a century wasn’t as long as it used to be. Overnight everything had been transformed. Marinka felt a floating sensation. She was grateful for the weight of the cat in her lap.
“I will tell you what kind of a house,” Katerina was saying. “It is under the ground. Very cool in the summer. Very warm in the winter. It has a round top made of earth.” “You mean an earthen igloo?” Olga tried again. “No, no, no,” Katerina shook her head.
Marinka saw Olga withdraw again. Olga had been this way since she was a little girl. It was so easy to hurt her. Katerina didn’t notice. Marinka felt guilty. She was certain she’d missed it, too, many times. She and her mother had so many fo the same strengths and weaknesses. She hated the way her mother brooded over grown children. Now here she was starting the same thing.
“Zimlanka is not igloo.”
Slavic in intonation, Katerina’s voice was full of energy.
“I will tell you how to build zimlanka. You dig a hole in the ground as deep as a man. Walls you make strong with wood. The floor is bare. Floor is earth. Roof you make strong with wood, too.† Then you cover it with earth.† Three feet, four feet.† You let grass grow over it.† It is a little hill in the middle of the field.† If you want, you can make window, too.”
Pleased with having overcome the difficulty, Katerina bobbed her head and smiled.
“Da,” she said. “But Grandma,” Olga asked, both because she wanted to know and because she’d been hurt, “how do you get in and out?” “On one side you leave an opening. You make…”
Katerina hesitated again.
“Like a ramp?” Olga finished, finally connecting, so that when Katerina’s head nodded approving agreement, her own face softened and tinged with pink.
“Was no window in this zimlanka. Inside it was cool and quiet. We couldn’t hear the fighting. There were two sacks of potatoes. Old Pavel brought water from the spring. There was kerosene and a lamp, too. Old Pavel had grabbed a loaf of bread from the house when we ran away. He had mushrooms, too. So we had cold water and bread and mushrooms for lunch. The children soon fell asleep. I fell asleep, too
We spent three days in the zimlanka. Each day old Pavel went off by himself and came back. On the third night, he said it would be safe for us to go back the next morning. The fighting was over. The fourth day was very hot. Old Pavel left early in the morning to make sure it was safe. He didn’t come back.
So we spent the fourth day in the zimlanka. Yelena Fyodorovna told me to go into the woods and listen. I heard only the birds. Once I thought I heard shots. But it was only a wood≠ pecker.”
Katerina stopped and took another deep breath. She had not moved her feet since she started telling her story.
“On the morning of the fifth day, Yelena Fyodorvna sent me out to listen again. This day was different. It was hot, but overcast. There was a storm coming. Again, I heard nothing. When I told Yelena Fyodorovna, her face darkened. She said nothing. I didn’t disturb her. I tried to soothe the children. They were starting to get cross. After a half hour, Yelena Fyodorovna said we were going to return.”
Katerina’s laugh was deep in her chest and melancholy.
“A child’s world is so different. I hadn’t thought about the big house or what was happening there. Even when Yelena Fyodorovna sent me out by myself in the woods, I didn’t worry. Now we were going back. Things would go on as usual.
It was slower going back. We didn’t have old Pavel to help us. Only just as we came to the edge of the woods did I remember the varieniki. My mouth began to water.
The big house and the lake were both still. A battle had taken place. A dead horse lay on its side in the grass. Flies buzzed around its eye. A man lay on his back, staring up at the sky. By the steps there was a red handkerchief. Also one boot. I remember both the dead man’s feet were bare.
All I could think of was the varieniki. It was a miracle. The house was just as we had left it. The Whites and the Reds must have driven each other off, so that neither had the time to stop and loot.
I ran to the kitchen. There it was, the same bowl with the linen towel covering it. It hadn’t budged.† We could have varieniki that very day. I would get right to work pitting the cherries. I could already taste the varieniki in my mouth.
My heart raced. I took the towel off the bowl. There was a sour smell. A terrible disappointment took hold of me. I began to sob. While we were hiding, the cherries had fermented. It was too hot for them.”
Now Katerina was looking down at her stockinged feet.
“Yelena Fyodorovna found me there in the kitchen sobbing. She tried to comfort me. She put her arms around me and held me. She had never seen me like this. She said we could go and pick more cherries. She said we could go that very afternoon. I tried to stop sobbing. Just as I caught my breath, Yelena Fyodorovna and I, both in the same instant, heard the first thunder off in the distance.
We went back out onto the porch in front of the house. Lightning danced across the sky beyond the lake. Black clouds were rolling in. Within five minutes, the first drops fell. The wind picked up. It drove sheets of rain against the house.
It rained all that afternoon and all that evening and all the next day. When the sun came back out, the cherries were all gone. The season was over. The birds had eaten their fill, but we got no varieniki.”
Katerina looked up. She turned her head towards Marinka.
“It’s foolish, isn’t it, but that’s the pain I remember.”
Marinka didn’t say anything.
“But what about old Pavel?” Tanya asked. “Old Pavel,” Katerina shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t know what happened to him. We never saw him again.”