A black-eyed little girl of about seven came running into the house, panting breathlessly. Seeing a strange person in the house, she cast me a casual glance, ran up to her mother who was sitting on a bench, settled herself comfortably in her mother's lap, clasped her swarthy arms round her mother's neck, and said in a voice that was at once a command and a request: "Mamma, something to eat, please!"
"What shall I give you, darling?" her mother asked, as she gently smoothed down her daughter's unruly hair and pressed the child close to her bosom.
"Anything you've got!" in the same voice as before, making her request a little clearer.
"Then wait a little. Daddy will be coming home soon and then we'll have dinner."
"Where's Daddy?" her tone suddenly becoming serious.
"The kolkhoz chairman sent for him to attend a meeting."
"A meeting of brigade-leaders."
"And what'll they do there?"
"They are going to talk things over, to decide which work is the most important and must be done first."
"A-ha!" uttered the child, as if now everything was quite clear to her.
A momentary silence followed, then looking slyly into her mother's eyes, "Maybe you could give me something to nibble?" she said.
"What shall I give you to nibble? Perhaps a stick, or the broom-handle over there?"
"Oh, I want something n-i-i-i-ce!" drawing the word out.
"And aren't they nice?" her mother said jokingly.
"No-o! Don't you really know what I want? Oh, you do, you do, Mummy!" again there appeared a merry twinkle in the little black eyes. "Some children are waiting for me. We are going to pick blackberries. So don't keep me, but give me a bite to take with me, and a jug and I'll be off. I haven't a minute to spare," adding the last words quite like a grown-up.
It was pleasant to watch the way in which the woman, tall and not very young, talked with her little seven-year-old.
"It looks like a strange little girl you have here, for she's not a bit like her mother," I said, meaning it as a joke, but it turned out otherwise.
Mother and child exchanged involuntary glances; a glance of disapproval flashed in the parent's eye, while the child's look was both quizzical and confused.
Overcoming her sudden emotion, the woman hugged the little girl even closer to her breast, and in a low voice, with a smile on her lips, said: ''What makes you think she is not mine? As if daughters must all look like their mothers! She takes after her father."
The little girl cast a sullen glance at me. My question had apparently cut her childish heart to the quick. Gone now was the carefree, merry look that had previously sparkled in her eyes.
"Mamma," she pleaded quietly, "Let me go now."
"Aren't you going to wait for Daddy?"
"No," shaking her head. "I'll be back soon."
"All right then, run off, dear. But wait a moment. I'd better give you some buttered bread to nibble, as you say," the mother added, putting her daughter down.
"Mummy, tell Daddy I'll be back soon, and we'll go together to bring the sheaves." She disappeared through the doorway.
The woman sat fingering her apron. Then she looked out of the window, and without waiting for a question from me, began quietly to tell her story.
"We were being evacuated, during the war. We were not far from Saratov when my baby fell ill. I hadn't enough milk in my breast to feed him, so I would give him boiled water to drink, which I managed to get at different station-stops. Luckily, I had a little sugar left. I would sweeten the water and feed it to him with a teaspoon. I was afraid to give him anything else. And yet, in spite of all my efforts, my baby fell ill. I did all I could, but in vain. Slowly but surely, he was losing his hold on life. People advised me to get off the train at the nearest station, and go to a children's clinic. When we arrived in Saratov I did so. But it was too late. Nothing could save him. In two days my Miša was dead."
She stopped, fell silent, struggled with painful memories, and continued her story. "On the day my baby died, a woman died there, too. She had been removed from a train, wounded by a shell fragment. In an explosion, the splinter had struck her while she was nursing her baby. It had pierced her breast, but left the baby unharmed. There is evidently some truth in the saying, that if a person is fated to live, live he will, no matter what; whereas my baby -"
Again she fell silent.
"I don't remember what I did, nor how I screamed and cried. I only remember wondering what I should say to my husband on his return home after the war, when he asked me about our son. Here was I alive, safe and sound, but the baby was dead. Him I had not been able to save.
Then, on top of it all, that woman's death. The little baby girl would go off into fits of crying, and yelled and yelled.
She would take neither the milk they gave her, nor the gruel. She ate nothing, drank nothing. The nurses were in a fix. And really, what can you do with such a tiny baby? What does it understand? It just yells, that's all. You can't ask it any questions, nor can it tell you anything.
"In the evening they came to me. 'You have got milk in your breast, haven't you? Perhaps you would nurse the baby. It's dying of hunger.' When I heard the word 'dying' something all of a sudden snapped inside me. It was only the night before that my own son had died -. And she, poor little thing, when I began to nurse her, grabbed at my breast with her tiny hands, and her skinny little fingers. Her eyes were all that was left of her face, big black eyes. Suddenly there welled up within me such a sorrow for her, such pity, as if she were my own child, my very own.
"I stayed there two more weeks. I nursed the baby, helped the trained nurses and the dry-nurses. They also knew no rest in those days. But I had to be on my way. At the thought of abandoning my Miša's tiny grave, I felt my heart would break. Each evening I went to his grave. Then I went there for the final time. I parted with my little darling.
"When they brought the baby to me, so that I should nurse her for the last time, it seemed as if I were forsaking one more grave. The little mite recovered somewhat, and grown a little stronger. Her little cheeks had fattened out a bit, and her tiny hands had lost their frightful skinni-ness. I was torn between two desires, the desire to stay and the desire to leave, while she, poor child, as if feeling my indecision, piteously called 'Mama' -. That decided me. From that moment, all my doubts vanished.
"Now the worst is over, a thing of the past. We have suffered much, and endured all. We are back home again. Back in our own house. We rebuilt it after the war. The collective farm helped us with the building, and the Village Soviet with the money. Our daughter, thank God, is growing up no worse than other people's children," she ended contentedly.
"How about her father?" I asked her, "Didn't you make any inquiries about him?"
"Of course I did. I knew all about him from the very beginning. Her mother had with her all their papers. Now they are in my safe keeping. I have them hidden away. Who knows what may happen? I don't want Ludmiła ever to reproach me for not having preserved the papers and documents concerning her parents. You'd like to know who her father was? He was a Russian, Ivan Mikhailovich Petrov, a captain serving in the army stationed in Biełastok. Her mother was a Tatar woman. She had a strange name, unusual in these parts: Yevgar. She was still very young."
"How did your husband welcome you home with your daughter?"
"We returned home first, so it was we who did the welcoming, not he. He was demobilized only a year later. In the very beginning it was apparent that he felt strange about it, and ill at ease. He kept away from her, never took her up in his arms, and she, too, shunned him, staring at him like a wolf-cub. There were times when he stretched out his arms, pretending he wanted to catch her. Looking at her, my blood would grow cold with fear: a strained look would appear in her eyes, all of her somehow shrinking up, and she would rush over to me. This dragged on for a year. I did a lot of thinking. Could they continue avoiding each other like that forever? My Ryhor is a soft-hearted man; I have never seen him angry, never heard a harsh word from him, while now - this situation! The little one would soon become merry again and loving, but she would have nothing to do with him.
"Afterwards, very gradually, they began to grow accustomed to each other. Now they are as thick as thieves. Wherever he goes, there she is sure to go too. He takes his tripod to measure the field, and she goes running after him. On their return both of them are carrying the tripod. She is already a great help to her father," the woman said, satisfied.
"She is evidently now aware of the fact that you - are not really her mother?" I could not help but put the question.
"She is," the woman replied. "A long time passed before we told her anything. And she didn't seem to guess the truth. Then one fine day she came running home crying as if her heart was breaking. I was stricken with fright. I thought kiddies in the street had hurt her. With great difficulty I learned the truth: one of the children in the street said that she had neither father not mother, that she was not our daughter. You can imagine her childish grief. It took a long time to tell her the truth. She sat quietly crying and listening attentively, as if she were a grown-up. Several days she stayed inside the house, going nowhere, keeping close to me all the time.
"I would begin to plead with her, 'Aren't you happy here with us?' She would become even gloomier, and remain silent, or begin to cry. Then, little by little, the pain in her heart quieted down, she grew merry again, and there came the moment when she ran out into the street again to play. A child's heart is soon healed."
I got up, thanked my hostess for the delicious birch kvass she had treated me to, and for the story she had told me with such simplicity and openheartedness.
"What do you find so out of the way in what I did?" the woman said in wonderment. "Or was I the only one? Every Soviet mother would have acted in the same way. It is nothing at all out of the ordinary. Just a usual thing."