Alaksiej Kułakoŭski

Water, Water Everywhere...

This spring there was such high flood-water in our village that the more daring youngsters drifted down the streets on rafts and inflated inner-tubes from lorry-wheels. Our neighbours' house stood quite close to the street, so the water had flooded the bottom logs, and all but compelled the owners to abandon their home. And they had a lodger - a girl who worked on a near-by construction site.

As bad luck would have it, she had just been taken ill at the time, and her landlord and the landlady, ordinary people from our sovkhoz*, did not know how to help her. It was impossible to walk or drive into their yard, so they were unable to call in a doctor unless he would agree to be taken across on a rubber inner tube.

* Sovkhoz - a farm run by the state (translator's note).

It came to the ears of Vania Šarejka, a young locksmith from the motor depot, and he made his way to the house on foot, though he could have used any of the depot lorries. The trouble was, however, that one would not have been able to reach the house even in a dump-truck.

In the passage he was met by the landlady, who looked worried and embarrassed.

"Oh, how nice of you to come, Vania. She's all anxious, waiting for some friend or other to call on her."

"How is she - our Lena? What's the matter with her?"

"Well, she must have got her feet wet and caught cold. Now she's better, but she had a high fever and was all of a shiver, poor thing."

The girl's bed was in the corner behind a wardrobe. Between the wardrobe and the wall hung a speckled chintz curtain. Vania rapped on the wardrobe with his knuckles, but no answer came. Then the landlady went behind the curtain first.

Lena was sleeping a light, unhealthy sleep. The soft knock had not woken her, yet she was aroused. She opened her eyes, saw Vania and smiled. It was a wan sort of smile, and yet it was as pleasant and winning as ever: the girl's even, white teeth gleamed for a moment, two identical little dimples came into her cheeks, and her grey slightly sunken eyes lit up. From underneath the blanket she raised her bare arm, which seemed particularly white by the side of her face, and straightened her hair which had spread all over the pillow.

Few of the girls had such hair. Cut partly after the fashion of a young man, partly after the fashion of a school-girl, looking like the pale yolk of an egg in colour, it somehow suited Lena, and made her stand out among all the other girls.

"Sit down here," the landlady told Vania, as she drew a small bench closer to the bed. After that she left the young people alone.

Vania sat down. There was a smile on his face, but it was apparent that it concealed his anxiety, mixed with compassion.

"What is hurting you?" he asked.

"Nothing," she replied (would a girl ever own up to a young man if something were hurting her?)

Then she said, just for the sake of keeping the ball rolling.

"I dropped off a short while ago... quite unexpectedly - probably because I slept badly last night. I wish I could tell you what I dreamt about."

"Well, what?"

"Apples. Ripe apples, and as fresh as if they had just been picked from the tree. I was holding them in my hands, and thought, 'I'll just eat one of them and get well at once".

"So you'd like some apples, would you?" half asking half confirming, said Vania.

"But it was only a dream!" the girl dropped her eyes, looking embarrassed. "You can dream about anything."

It took Vania a few minutes to tell odd snippets of news from the construction site, and then he prepared to take his leave with a somewhat exaggerated determination.

"I'll be with you soon," he told the girl, noticing her saddened glance. "You'll see, I won't be long."

"Is it anything urgent at work?" the girl asked in surprise.

"No. I've got the day-off to-day."

In the passage Šarejka stopped to speak to the landlady.

"Have you any idea," he asked, "whom I can ask for a couple of apples?"

"Apples - in spring?"

"Yes. As fresh as if they were straight from the apple-tree."

"I've not the slightest," the woman shrugged her shoulders. "Some people here have orchards but... Perhaps you might ask Śmiajucha."

"And where is her house?"

"Over there, just across the street. But you won't be able to get there, even in a boat."

"I will," Vania said, and walked off.

Śmiajucha was a woman on the wrong side of fifty, who had never been married, and so had remained childless. She lived alone in her house; only her sister would come once in a while to help her with the vegetable-patch.

The stranger in his rubber boots was met by the old woman with suspicion and distrust: whoever in his right mind would have waded through such high water?

"Can I get a couple of apples from you?" Vania asked with utmost politeness. "There's a sick girl who is asking for them very much."

Śmiajucha stared at him, then waved both her hands.

"What apples are you talking about? I didn't have any even in summer."

"I'll pay."

"No apples for sale, either. A handful of dried ones, perhaps."

"I want them fresh," the young man said softly, and took his leave.

He walked down the street, roamed the kitchen-gardens and called at house after house to talk to people who had orchards. None of them had fresh apples: in some cases, the apples had gone bad even back in the autumn, in others, people had had their cellars flooded, and others still had not even bothered to lay in a store for the winter.

"Haven't you called on Śmiajucha yet?" was the question they asked him at every house.

"I have," the young man would reply. "She hasn't any, either."

"She's been telling you lies, the old screw. Only the other day she had a whole basketful with her at the market."

Eventually Vania called on a man who had no orchard to speak of - there were no more than a dozen newly grafted trees in his vegetable patch. He was still young, and the fingers on his left hand were yellow with tobacco-stains, while the fingers on his right hand were dirty with ink. The unexpected request did not surprise him, and on hearing it he nodded his head in a genial manner and went about putting on his rubber boots - the same as Vania wore.

"I haven't got an orchard of my own - you must have noticed that, I guess," he said in a friendly tone, "but late in the autumn I bought a basket of Antonaŭka apples* and laid them in store for the winter. I'll go and have a look, and you just sit down and get warm."

* Antonaŭka apples - kind of tart winter apples common in Belarus (translator's note).

In a few moments the man brought back four apples; yellow and clean, they looked as if they had come straight from the orchard.

Vania, delighted, rose to meet the man and, forgetting what was the proper thing to do, held out his hands for the apples.

"I'd like to have at least one such apple," he said rapturously, "at least one."

"Why only one?" the man protested with gentle firmness. "I've brought you four. Take them all."

"Thank you. Thank you ever so much."

The young man carefully put the apples into his pockets and spoke again when he was already at the door.

"I work at the motor depot, and my name is Šarejka. If you need something... I'd always be happy to..."

"Drop it!" said the man, sounding a little disgruntled. "Get back to your sick girl, that's more important than anything else."

On his way back Vania rushed along over the deep and shallow places, all alike. He only sat down on the steps of Lena's house to take off his boots and pour the water out of them. His legs were wet all above the knees, drops of dyed water kept dripping from the flaps of his coat.

"Forgive me that I've taken so long over it," he said looking guilty as he came through the curtain. "You see, there's water, water everywhere..."

So saying, he took the Antonaŭka apples out of his pockets and put them all in a row on the pillow.

"Oh, Vania!" the girl exclaimed in a joyful half-reproach. "You shouldn't... What a man you are!"

She took his wet hand, and looked up with concern.

"You must be quite cold. You're all wet."

"I feel warm," the young man replied, taking off his cap and smoothing down a damp shock of hair. "Quite warm."

 

1960




Source: Colours Of The Native Country. Minsk, Byelarus Publishers, 1972.
Translation: A.Weise

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