T. C. Boyle
People told her she’d get cancer in her bones, that the mice were growing into monsters the size of dogs, that if she planted a tomato or a cucumber in her own garden she wouldn’t be able to eat it because of the poison in the ground. And the mushrooms she loved so? The ones that sprouted in the shady places after a rain, the big brown-capped porcini that were like meat in your mouth? They were the worst. They concentrated the poison and put it in your body where it gathered and glowed and killed you dead. Was that really what she wanted? Was she touched in the head?
Well, no, she wasn’t. And when the opportunity came to move back to the deserted ruins of her village after living for nearly three years in an inhuman space in a crumbling apartment bloc for evacuees in Kiev, she took it. Leonid Kovalenko, sixty-seven years old and with a pair of ears as big as a donkey’s, who’d been a friend of her late husband, Oleski, and whose wife wouldn’t budge from the apartments because she was afraid, knew of a man with a car who knew of a border guard who, for a bribe, would let you in. Back in. Where you belonged. Where the forest was cool and moist and striped with shade and the smoke unfurled from your chimney like a flag all twenty-four hours of the day so that when you went out to the well on a moonlit night you could see it there, a presence, hovering above the roof on the suspired breath of your ancestors. “How much do you want?” she asked Leonid as they browsed among the inferior cabbages and pulpy potatoes at the market, rutabagas like wet cardboard, overpriced honey in a jar without the comb. “Because I have little.”
He shrugged, weighing a cabbage in one hand while rich people, the educated rich and the corrupt rich alike, went by on the street in their automobiles that roared and belched and gave back the sun in glistening sheets of light. “For you?” he mused, gazing at her appraisingly from beneath the overgrown hedges of his eyebrows. He was a hairy man, hair creeping out from beneath his collar and sleeves, curling out of his nostrils and the pits of his great flapping ears, nothing at all like Oleski, who was smooth as a baby till the day he died, but for his private hair and his beard that came in so sketchily it was barely there at all. “For you,” he repeated, as if the deal had already been struck, “a little is more than enough.”
The man with the car was young, in his thirties, she guessed, and he wore a leather jacket like a hoodlum. He smoked the whole time, lighting one cigarette off the other. In place of conversation he had the radio that thrummed and buzzed with a low-level static and snatches of what someone in Prague or Moscow might have called music but to her was just noise. She sat in back with her two bags of possessions while Leonid, his great wide shoulders sagging against the cheap torn vinyl of the seat, sat up front with the driver. It was night. The road was rutted. From the ditches came the sounds of the spring peepers, awakening from the frost to glory in life and love and the spewing of their eggs that were like pale miniature grapes all bound up in transparent tissue. When they came to the checkpoint and the fence that enclosed the Zone of Alienation for thirty kilometers around, the young man got out and conferred with the guard while Leonid lit his first cigarette of the night and shifted in the seat to study her face in the dim light cast by the guard’s kiosk. “A small bribe,” he said. “Nothing to worry over.”
She wasn’t worried, or not particularly. Word had it that the Ministry of Emergencies was looking the other way and allowing a small number of people—old people, over fifty only—to return to their villages because they knew no other way of life and because they were expendable. The sooner they died, either from natural or unnatural causes, the sooner their pensions would be released to the state. There were rumors of criminals roaming the Zone, of looters dismantling machinery and mining the deserted apartment blocks of Pripyat, the city closest to the reactor, for television sets and stereos and the like, then smuggling them, radiant with poison, out into the larger world. She didn’t care. She peered past Leonid to where the driver was having a laugh with the guard and sharing something out of a bottle. Beyond them was night absolute, the black night of the primordial forest where there were no apartments or automobiles or shops. “I don’t like him,” she whispered. “I don’t like him and I don’t trust him.”
In the half light of the car, Leonid’s hand, blocky and work-hardened, snaked its way between the front seats to rest ever so lightly on her knee, and that was a revelation to her, that was when she began to understand things in the way the peepers in their ditches understood. Leonid’s own bags lay at his feet, two dark humps that were his life compacted. “Everything,” he murmured, his voice gone thick in his throat, “is going to be all right.”
And then the hoodlum was back in the car and the gate swung aside as if by magic and they were on a road that was no longer a road, jostling and scraping, shrieking through the brush of the dried and dead plants from the years past, dodging fallen trees no one had bothered to cut because there was no one to bother. They hadn’t gone more than a mile when the hoodlum tugged violently at the wheel and the car spun round in an exaggerated loop and came to a stop, the motor still ratcheting beneath them. “This is as far as I go,” he said.
“But it’s still seven miles to the village,” Leonid protested. And then, a wheedling tone come into his voice, “Maryska Syshylayeva is an old woman—don’t make her walk all that way. Not in the dark and the cold of night.”
Before she knew she was going to speak, the words were out: “I’m sixty-two years old and while I may be stout—I don’t deny it—I can out-walk you, Leonid Kovalenko, with your creaky knees and big fumbling feet.” She could picture the cabin she and Oleski had built of peeled logs cut from the forest and the thatch they’d laid across the roof that bloomed with wildflowers in the spring—and the stove, her pride, that had never gone cold a day in her life, until the order came to evacuate, that is. “And you too,” she said, turning to the black-jacketed driver and honing her voice, “whatever your name is.”
She hadn’t thought to bring a flashlight but Leonid had and that was a good thing because the night was moonless and the road she’d reconstructed in her dreams a hundred nights running all but invisible beneath her feet. It wasn’t cold for April, or not particularly, but her breath hung before her like a veil and she was glad of the sweater and cloth coat she was wearing. Out here, the peepers were louder, shrieking as if their lives were going out of them. There were other noises too—the irregular hooting of owls from their hidden perches, a furtive dash and rustle in the brush, and then, startlingly, a sudden rising open-throated cry she hadn’t heard even the faintest trace of since she was a girl. “Do you hear that?” she said, her feet driving on, the straps of the bags digging into her shoulders.
“Wolves,” he said, between breaths. She’d been walking long distances lately to build up her stamina and she didn’t feel winded or tired in the least, but after the first mile or so she had to adjust her pace so that he could keep up. He breathed hollowly through his smoker’s lungs and in that moment she found herself worrying for him: what if he couldn’t make it? What would she do then?
“So the rumors are true,” she said. “About the animals returning.”
His feet shuffled through the mat of dead grasses that had colonized the cracks of the road. “I’m told there are moose now,” he said, pausing to catch his breath. “Roe deer like flocks of sheep, boar, rabbits, squirrels. Like in the time of Adam. Or our grandparents anyway.”
She held that picture a moment, even as something scurried across the road ahead of them. She saw her cabin restored to what it was, the deer clustered round, the fields standing high and green, rabbits jumping out of their skins and right into the pot even as she set it on the stove to boil, but then the image dissolved. “What of the poison? They say you can’t eat a tomato from your own garden, let alone a rabbit that’s grazed here all along—”
“Ridiculous. Rumors, nonsense. They just want to have an excuse to keep us out. What do you think, the meat’s going to glow? Nobody can tell, nobody, and if you don’t think poachers are feasting on venison and rabbit and goose even now, then you’re crazy. We’ll eat it, you can bet we will. Just think of it, all that game, all the fish in the lakes and rivers no one’s touched in three years now.”
She wanted to agree with him, wanted to say that she didn’t care about radiation or anything else because we all have to die and the sooner the better, that all she cared about was the peace of the forest and her home where she’d buried her husband fourteen years ago, but she was afraid despite herself. She pictured rats with five legs, birds without wings, her own self sprouting a long furred tail beneath her skirts while the meat shone in the pan as if it were lit from within. The night deepened. Leonid huffed for air. She hurried on.
When the order came to evacuate, after the explosion that jolted people from their beds and combusted the sky in the dead hours of the night, after the preternaturally darkened days—nearly a week of them—in which rumors flew and everybody who wasn’t in the fields or milking or out in the orchards hovered over their radios, the government sent in troops to force compliance. The core of the reactor was heating up again—there could be a second explosion. It wasn’t safe. Everyone must board the buses that rolled through the villages, no exceptions made. Two bags only, that was what the radio said and it was reiterated by the loudspeakers blaring from the jeeps and army trucks that stopped outside each house. What of our things? people wanted to know. What of the livestock, our pets? The government reassured them, one and all, that they would be able to return in three days’ time, and that the livestock would be evacuated too. The dogs—and the government didn’t reveal this—were to be shot on sight, nearly ten thousand of them across Polissia, for fear of rabies. And the livestock, including her own milk cow, Rusalka, were ultimately to be slaughtered en masse and mixed with the flesh of uncontaminated animals for feeding to luckier dogs and cats living in places where there were no evacuations and life went on as usual.
She believed the voice of the radio. Believed the reports of the invisible poison. Believed what she was told. There was no alternative. She had electricity in the cabin, a loop of wire strung from a pole that connected to another pole and on and on ad infinitum, but no telephone, and so she went in that suspended week when no one knew anything to the cottage of the Melnychenkos to pay for the use of theirs. What had they heard? They’d heard that to the north of them the city of Pripyat stood deserted, all forty-nine thousand inhabitants shunted onto buses and whisked away; beyond that, they knew no more than she. She stood by the stove in the Melnychenkos’ front room, the log walls of which were decorated with icons and pages torn from color magazines, just like her own, and placed a call to her son, Nikolai, the professor of language studies in Kharkov. He would know what to do. He would know the truth. Unfortunately, however, the receiver only gave back a buzz in her ear and when the bus came she carried her two bags up the steps and found a seat among her neighbors.
And so now, in the black hours of night in a haunted place that was the only place she’d ever wanted to be, she trudged up the overgrown road with Leonid Kovalenko, waiting for the light of dawn so that she could see what had become of her life. Had the looters been here? Or the animals? What of her sheets and comforter—her bed? Would there be a place to sleep even? Four walls? A roof? Her father used to say that if you ever wanted to get rid of a barn or a shed or even a house all you had to do was poke a hole in the roof and nature would bring it down for you. Her left shoe began to rub against the place where her toes fought the grip of the worn leather. Her ankles felt swollen and her shoulders burned under the weight of her bags.
Leonid had long since fallen silent, the shaft of his flashlight growing dimmer as they walked on, moving ever more slowly, to his pace. She wanted to leave him behind, maddened by his wheezing and shuffling—he was an old man, that was what he was—and it was all she could do to keep from snatching the flashlight away from him and rushing off into the night. She heard the wolves again, a sound like interference on the radio, starting low and tailing off in a high, broken whine. There was a smell of bog and muck and fallow land. She was focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, all the while mentally sorting through her cupboards, the tinned goods there, the rice, flour, and sugar she stored in jars on the highest shelf to frustrate the rodents, her spices, her crockery, her cookware, when the sky to the east began to grow pale and she saw the world as it once had been. Five minutes later, hurrying on, no thought for Leonid or his flashlight now, she was there, in her own yard with the spring flowers gone to riot and the apple tree she’d planted herself already in bloom and the dark horizontal lines of the cabin materializing from the grip of the shadows as if she’d never been away at all.
That first day was among the happiest of her life. She felt like a songbird caged all these years and suddenly set free, felt giddy, a girl all over again. And the house, the house was a miracle, everything as she’d left it, the smells awakening a thousand recollections, of Oleski, of the good times, the summer nights when the light seemed as if it would never fade, the snowbound winters when the two of them sat playing chess and checkers in front of the stove while the cat purred in her lap and the samovar steamed and the silence was so absolute you could wrap yourself in it. Her bed was still made, though the comforter was damp with mold and the pillowcase slick to the touch, but they could be washed, everything could be washed and no harm done. Of course, there was damage, she could see that at a glance. A pane of glass in the back window lay shattered on the carpet and a birch tree thick around as her waist had fallen against the roof. What had been her garden was now a forest of weeds and saplings, there were mice in the stove and birds nesting atop the cupboard, but the looters hadn’t come—they’d stuck to the cities, to Chernobyl and Pripyat—and if you could ignore the dust that lay over everything and the dirt of the spiders and mice and birds, there was nothing a broom and a mop and a good strong back couldn’t put to rights.
She was at the stove, arranging sticks of three-year-old kindling in the depths of the firebox, thinking the mice could look out for themselves, thinking she’d warm the place, dry it out, then tape newspaper over the broken pane, boil water to wash the sheets and scrub the tabletop and sink—and here, right at hand, was her sturdiest pot hanging on its hook where she’d left it, ready to receive the soup she would prepare from the pork, cabbage, and potatoes she’d brought along and maybe something off the shelves of her larder too because unless the cans had burst they were good, weren’t they?—when she heard a noise behind her and turned to see Leonid there, his face drained of everything but exhaustion. He came forward heavily and sank into her armchair. “I just need to rest a moment,” he said, his breath leaving him in a thin wheeze that made her think of a child releasing a balloon.
“Rest,” she said, her smile blooming so that her cheeks felt flushed with it, “I’ll make us tea.” And then, because she couldn’t contain herself, she swept across the room to plant a kiss on his cheek. “Nobody’s been here,” she crowed, “nobody at all!”
It was at that precise moment that the hinges of the cupboard below the sink gave a short, sharp groan and the slick head and labile shoulders of a weasel emerged, one paw arrested. The animal shot them an indignant look, its body a dun writhe of snakelike muscle flowing from the cabinet to the floor, before it vanished through a hole in the wall no wider around than a wind-drift apple. Leonid caught her eye, grinning himself now, and said, “Nobody?” before they both dissolved in laughter.
She fetched water from the well while he fell into a heavy sleep in the armchair, then filled all her pots and stoked the stove till the water came to a furious boil and the room began ever so gradually to take on warmth. Next, she washed her cutting board and knives and all the dishes she could lay hands on, just to remove any hint of grime from them—and the poison, the poison too—then stripped the sheets from the bed and washed them, along with the comforter, in her big tub. In the yard—it was so overgrown with weeds it was as if no one had lived here in a century—she discovered that her clothesline had been snapped in two by a fallen branch, the ends of the frayed rope lying sodden on the ground, but she was able to knot them and hang out the sheets and her comforter in the hope they’d dry by nightfall. When she came back through the door, she found Leonid awake and alert.
“Where’s that cup of tea I was promised?” he asked, his voice rising in merriment as if he’d just delivered the punchline of a joke. He was feeling exactly the same way she was, feeling liberated, relieved, as joyful and rejuvenated as if he’d just won the lottery.
She poured them each a cup, but she wouldn’t sit down, taking hers to the cutting board, where she began to cube the pork and dice the vegetables and feed them into the pot. There were so many things to do, infinite things, and the funny part of it was that she didn’t feel tired at all, though she’d been up all night and walked those seven miles in the dark.
From the armchair, Leonid lifted his voice in supposition: “That’s the meat you brought along, isn’t it? And the vegetables?”
“What do you think—I shot a boar while you were snoring there in the chair? And sprouted a whole garden outside the window like in some fairy tale?” She turned to face him, hands on her hips, and here was where the doubt crept in, here was where she was glad to have him there with her if only to get a second opinion on the parameters of this tentative new world they were inhabiting. “But the rice in this jar? I’m going to use it, because we are going to have to eke out every bite till we can grow a garden and snare rabbits and catch fish from the river. The poison can’t invade glass, can it? Or tins?”
He was on his feet now, setting down the empty teacup and taking up the broom, which he began to whisk across the floor in a running storm of dust and leaves. Had she really said “we?” As if it were already decided that he wouldn’t go home to his own cottage but stay on here with her?
“No,” he said, over his shoulder, “I don’t think so, not after three years. But anything you’ve canned—tomatoes, snap beans—we have to be careful if the seal’s broken, because then we’ll get the real poison, ptomaine or what have you—”
“Yes,” she said, cutting him off, “and die fast, right here tonight, instead of waiting for the radiation to do the job.”
She’d meant to be funny, or irreverent at any rate, but he didn’t laugh. He just went on sweeping till he threw open the door and swept all the litter out into the yard. Then he set the broom carefully aside and said, “I’d better get the saw from my place and cut that birch tree away from the eaves. We,” he said, emphasizing the pronoun, “wouldn’t want a leaky roof, now would we?”
That first night they slept together in her marriage bed, but not as lovers—more in the way of brother and sister, in the way of practicality, because where else would he sleep except between his own slimy sheets in his cottage three quarters of a mile away? In the morning they each had a bowl of soup fortified with rice and then he went out the door and vanished up the road while she busied herself with all manner of things, not the least of which was scrubbing the mold from the walls with the remains of an old jug of bleach. It was past noon, the sun high, birdsong like a symphony, deer nosing through the yard and the evicted weasel sunning itself atop the woodpile, when he returned, pushing a wheelbarrow filled with foodstuffs from his own larder, another set of bedsheets, a fur comforter, his rifle and fishing pole, and a coil of rope for snares. And more: there was a dog trotting along behind him. It was no dog she’d ever seen before, not amongst the pets of her neighbors, or not that she could remember anyway. She regarded it dubiously, its ribs showing like stripes and the scrap of its tail wagging feebly over the scent of the soup drifting out the open door. It was of medium size, not big enough to be a proper watchdog, its coat the color of suet shading to a dark patch over one eye. “We can’t keep it,” she said flatly. “It’ll be a struggle just to feed ourselves.”
“Too late,” he said, grinning wide. “I’ve already named him.”
“As if that means anything.”
“Sobaka,” he called, appending a low whistle, and the dog came to him even as he set the wheelbarrow down in the high weeds.
“‘Dog?’ You’ve named him ‘dog?’ What kind of a name is that?”
He was on the doorstep now, proffering the fur, which smelled of ancient history. His ears shone. He was grinning through the gap in his beard, which seemed to have grown even thicker and grayer overnight. Then he took her in his arms, hard arms, lean and muscular, not an old man’s arms at all, and squeezed her to him. “What kind of name? The perfect name. Maybe, just maybe, if you behave yourself, Maryska Shyshylayeva, I’ll call you ‘woman.’ What do you think of that?”
And when night came and the lantern burned low, they slept together again, only this time there was no euphemism interposed between them.
Time went on. The days broadened. Her garden, planted from the seed packets she’d brought with her from Kiev, rose straight and true, as if it had arisen from virgin soil. Leonid put up wire fencing borrowed from a derelict field to discourage the rabbits and used his rifle on the hogs that stole in to dig up her potatoes, so that the smell of smoking meat hung thick over the yard and attracted a whole menagerie of fox, lynx, raccoon dog, bear, and wolf. When the wolves came, and they came as much for the deer crowding the meadows as for the scent of Leonid’s meat, Sobaka kept close to the house, and in time he began to thicken around the ribs and haunches and his bark rang out in defiance of the interlopers. He was a superior mouser, better even than the big striped cat—Grusha, that was her name—she’d had to leave behind. Three years was an eon in a cat’s life. As soft and old as she’d become, the cat would have been an easy target for a fox or hawk or one of the big white-tailed eagles that had reappeared to soar over the Zone on motionless wings—or the poison, the poison would have gotten her by now, sure it would. Still, if this dog had survived, she couldn’t help thinking, maybe Grusha had too. Maybe one day she’d be there meowing at the door as if the calendar had stood still. And wouldn’t that be a miracle, among so many others?
The thing was—and she couldn’t put this out of her mind—the fact of the poison increasingly seemed less a liability than a benefit. The government that had collectivized all the big farms to the north and east of them and suppressed any notion of individual effort and freedom was gone, withdrawn to the safety of its eternal offices in all the sanitized regions of the country. And the people who for centuries had tamed and beaten and leached the land were gone too, while in their absence the animals had come back to thrive in all their abundance. Neither she nor Leonid had been sick a day—he was leaner now, his shoulders thrust back, his face tanned, and the work of the place had hardened her too so that she’d lost the excess flesh she’d put on in the apartments—and the dire warnings, the predictions of cancers and mutations and all the rest seemed nothing more than wives’ tales now. What more would she want? A cow, so they could have dairy. And Grusha returned to her. But she was content, and when she served Leonid a plate of dumplings or holubtsi, she saw nothing but love in his face. About his wife, he never spoke a word.
And then one morning as they were lingering over breakfast—porridge, a fresh loaf she’d baked the night before, strawberry preserves she’d put up all those years ago, and a pot of the good rich China tea Leonid had discovered in an abandoned house on one of his jaunts through the woods—a strange terrible mechanical sound suddenly erupted out of nowhere and drove down the chatter of the birds and the symphony of the bees. At first she thought the reactor had blown again, thought they were doomed, but then the noise began to settle into a pattern she recognized from long ago: somebody was driving a vehicle down the forgotten street out front of the house.
In the next moment they were both on their feet. They moved as if entranced to the door that stood open to admit the breeze and saw a car there, a jeep with battered fenders and no top and a single man behind the wheel, turning that wheel now and pulling right on up to the door. They couldn’t have been more astonished if the premier himself had showed up—or a man from space. Her heart sank. They were going to be evicted, that was it, she was sure of it. But then she got a good look at the man behind the wheel and understood in a flash: it was Nikolai, his face flushed, his blond hair in a tangle, his eyes obscured behind a pair of dark glasses.
“Mama,” he said, stepping down from the jeep and coming to her embrace, holding her tight to him in a mad whirling hug. Then there was the awkward introduction to Leonid, whom he knew, of course, from his days here as a boy before he went off to the state school and never returned, and then he was handing her packages, gifts of food from the city and a book by William Faulkner, the American agrarian writer he was forever translating, though she’d told him years ago that the Bible and Chekhov were enough for her.
Oh, but he was fat! Ushering him to the table and fussing over the loaf and his tea, she couldn’t help noticing the girth of him that wouldn’t allow him to button his shirt around the midsection and the way his cheeks sagged with the weight of easy living. He was thirty-six years old. He was her son, the professor. And in all those days, weeks, and months of the three years she was entombed in those apartments, he had visited her exactly once.
At first, they talked of the little things—the weather, the strikes and movements and tragedies of the outside world, the health of his fragile and childless wife—but then, within minutes of his stepping through the door, he started in on the subject he’d come expressly to address, or not simply to address, but to harangue her with: the poison. Did she know the danger she was exposing herself to? Did she understand? Could she imagine? His hands were like balls of butter, his eyes sunk to glittering blue slits in the reddened globe of his face. He pushed the bread aside. He wouldn’t touch the tea.
After a moment he snatched up the jar of honey—wild honey, honey they’d collected themselves, with the comb intact—and waved it in her face. “Do you have any idea how radioactive this is? You couldn’t poison yourself more thoroughly if you stirred arsenic into your tea. Bees collect pollen, don’t you know that? Every grain of it shot through with radionuclides—they concentrate it, Mama, don’t you understand?”
There was something attached to his belt, a little machine with a white plastic cover, and he took it up now, depressed the button on top and held it to the jar. Immediately, it began to release a quick breathless high-pitched chirp, as if a field of crickets were trapped inside. “Do you hear that?” he demanded, and he got up from the table to run the little machine across the walls, the plates, the food in the cupboard, and all the while it chirped and chirped again. “That,” he said, “is the sound of cancer, Mama, of disease. You’re getting it from the environment, from everything you touch, but more than that from the food, the meat, the vegetables in your garden. It’s suicide to be here, Mama, suicide, slow and sure.”
It was then that Leonid pushed himself up from the table with a sigh and ambled out the door, his bulky frame shimmering in the wash of golden summer light. She was left with her son, the professor, and his little white machine. He ran it over the antlers of the deer Leonid had hung on the wall above the sofa and it screeched out its insectoid warning—“Strontium 90, concentrated in the bones, Mama, in your bones too”—and then over the ashes in the bucket by the stove. “The worst,” he said, “the very worst, because the radionuclides are bound up in the wood and when you burn it they’re released all over again into the atmosphere. To breathe. For you to breathe. And Leonid. And your dog.”
She looked at him bitterly. What was he trying to do—terrify her? Ruin her life? Give her bad dreams so she couldn’t sleep at night?
“Mama,” he said, and he had his hand on her arm now, “I’ve come to take you back.”
And now she spoke for the first time since he’d brandished his little chirping machine: “I won’t go.”
Suddenly Leonid was back in the room, the dog at his side. He seemed to have something in his hand, an axe handle, as it turned out. Sobaka, who’d slunk away when the jeep approached, stood his ground now and showed his teeth. Leonid said: “You heard your mother.”
She couldn’t sleep that night, imagining the poison in her bones, illuminating her from the inside out like in the X-rays they took of her lungs when she was in the apartments. The rot was working in her and she’d been fooling herself all along. Any day now she’d fall sick—or Leonid would, sinking into himself till the flesh dropped away and she would have to haul him out by his attenuated ankles and bury him beside Oleski. She saw that, saw him dead, even as he lay next to her, oblivious, stretched out like a fallen tree, snoring mightily. She listened to him in the dark and heard the creatures of the night rustling outside the window, and finally, near dawn, fell asleep to the ancient sound of the wolves on their hunt.
Next morning she was up as usual, working in the garden, and when she was done, she cooked, washed, and cleaned, no different from any other day, but the heaviness stayed with her. Leonid was tentative around her, as if sensing her thoughts. He brought her a pair of rabbits he’d caught in his snares and then went about doing what he did best: repairing things. She tried to drive down her uneasiness, but it wasn’t till late in the day, the rabbits roasting on a bed of onions, carrots, and potatoes and the breeze as sweet as a hand on your cheek, that she began to relax. She took a chair out into the yard and sat there in the sun with Leonid, sipping a glass of the Żubróvka he’d very patiently distilled from bison grass, drop by drop, and thought about one of the stories he’d told her from his time when he’d slipped across the border into Turkey and gone to sea as a merchantman.
He’d had a shipmate from a place called Tobago, an island in a tropical sea, and this man—his skin as weathered and black as an old bicycle horn—had a disease called ciguatera. It came from eating certain reef fishes from his native waters, fishes that accumulated poison in them, and it attacked his nervous system so that he was always twitching and jerking about. All his teeth but one had fallen out and his eyes were affected, too, so that he wore the thickest lenses just to see. One day, when they were all on shore leave in a tropical port, Leonid and another shipmate were strolling by a café and saw this man there, a beer in hand, a plate of barracuda set before him. “What are you doing, my friend?” Leonid said.
“Don’t you realize that barra is the very fish that gives you the disease?” And the man just smiled at him, his mouth full now, and said, “Yes, this I know, but it’s de sweetest fish in de sea.”
That was it, exactly. And she glanced at Leonid, at his big ears and drooping stolid features, and raised her glass to him. His own glass rose to click the rim of hers and he gave her his broad toothy grin. “To your health,” she said.
The first frost arrived late that year and when it came to swab the trees with color and shrivel the leaves of her tomato plants, it was immediately succeeded by a brief return to summer, one of those autumn idylls that comes round every once in a lucky year. She was out in her garden under the full force of the sun, harvesting her squash and cucumbers and beans while the pots boiled away on the stove and Leonid gave up all his time to her and the canning that consumed their every waking moment, when she heard the sound of hooves on the road out front. She glanced up, expecting one of the moose or big strutting red deer that thronged the woods and gave her pleasure every time she saw one, but she was surprised. There was a man on the road, a young man in his twenties with the same look as the hoodlum who’d driven the car for them last spring, and for a moment she caught her breath, expecting trouble. But then she saw he was dressed in simple clothes—no boots and leather jacket—and that his face was shaded by the broad-brimmed felt hat of a farmer. Even more surprising—startling, amazing—he was leading two milk cows on a tether, both of them laden with his possessions wrapped up in burlap.
He started when he saw her there, rising from her knees and wiping her hands on her skirts, but then he called out a greeting and in the next moment he was in the yard, coming up the path to her. She didn’t know what to do. They’d seen no one since Nikolai, all sense of grace and propriety lost to her, and even as she called out a hello in response, her voice seemed out of practice.
He was no more than twenty feet from her, the cows lurching this way and that on their tether and finally dipping their heads to the grass, when she saw that he wasn’t alone. Coming round the bend in the road was a young woman hunched under the weight of a backpack, her blond hair wrapped high on her head and shining in the sun, and behind her were two children, lean and long-legged and striding right along, though they couldn’t have been more than seven or eight. “Hello,” the man called out again, and now Sobaka was there, barking and showing his teeth, and the figure of Leonid shadowed the doorway, his rifle in hand. “I didn’t know anyone was living out here now,” the man said, and if the dog intimidated him—or the sight of Leonid in the doorway—he didn’t let it show. In fact, he seemed so relaxed he might have been standing in his own yard, with his own dog, and she and Leonid the outsiders.
One of the children let out a cry and then both of them were running across the yard in a bright flash of bare knees and working arms as Sobaka danced round their heels and the young woman strode into the yard behind them to shrug out from under her backpack and set it down in the high grass. “Do you know if the Ilyenok place is still standing?” the woman asked, coming forward till she stood shoulder to shoulder with her husband.
“Ilyenok?” Maryska echoed stupidly, but she could feel something opening up inside her—the notion of what was going on here, what this promised, settling into her brain like a little bird winged down from the trees.
“Aren’t you Maryska Shyshylayeva?” the man said, but he was hardly a man—he was an overgrown boy, that was what he was. “I’m Sava, Sava Ilyenok—don’t you recognize me?”
In the next moment, Leonid was out of the house, the rifle forgotten, embracing this boy, son of deceased parents, son of the earth, son of the village, come home again. “Yes,” Leonid boomed, rocking back from the boy to take in the sight of the pretty young wife and the two children, who were frolicking with the dog now, “We know you, of course we know you, and welcome, welcome!”
And Maryska, coming back to herself, held out her hands in delight. “You must be exhausted,” she said. “Come, come in. I’ve got soup on the stove, hot tea, bread and jam for the children.” She paused to gaze longingly on the cows. “But no cheese, I’m afraid.”
Husband and wife exchanged a glance, then turned their faces to her. He was the one who spoke. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “I think we can fix that.”
When the snow came, the first snow, it was light and wet, limning the bare branches of the poplars and bowing the evergreens. The stove ticked and hissed throughout the day. Everything was still. In the oven was the pheasant Leonid had shot that morning, which she planned to serve with potato dumplings and sour cream. She was reading, for the tenth time, the tenth time at least, the Chekhov story about the peasants and their miserable lives and how one misery propagates another, when she set the book aside and went out into the yard to smell the air and watch the heavy snowflakes whirl down out of the sky.
The trees stood sentinel, black lines etched against the accumulation of snow. A pair of squirrels were busy at the base of the apple tree, darkening the whiteness with their miniature digging. She wasn’t worried about herself any longer or about Leonid either, but she did worry for the children, for Ilya and Nadia Ilyenok, and what the days might bring them. What of their bones? What of the strontium 90 in the grass the cows chewed all day long? What would Nikolai say about it? He would say that they were crazy, suicidal, that to live in nature under the open sky and walk the earth that gave up everything, even its poisons, was somehow unnatural—as if the apartments, with their crush and stink of humanity, were some sort of heaven.
She was about to turn and go back into the house, to her roasting bird and Leonid and the Żubróvka they would sip over the chessboard before dinner, when a movement beside the woodshed caught her eye. There was something there, small, compact, lithe, and at first she thought it was the weasel come back to them, but then she saw her mistake: it was a cat. Gray, striped, with a long fluff of hair and a tail tipped in white.
“Grusha,” she called softly, “can it really be you?” The cat—Grusha had been darker, hadn’t she?—gave her a long steady gaze before melting away behind the shed. She didn’t want to spook it and so she moved forward very slowly, step by step, but by the time she got there, it was gone, nothing left but fading tracks in a wet snow.