Little Fool

Anya returned to this town several years later, because there lived her fairy tale there. There lived the one who loved her. He has always loved her from the very childhood. Despite anything.

When she wanted to be strong this daydream, this fantasy often turned into the illusion, and she seized at it with her last strength being who she was. And at those rare moments she used to smile so happily and foolishly, that the acquaintances knowingly exchanged glances and told her their usual: “Little fool”. And something so habitually was shriveled inside her and she had to caress it for a very long time and to calm it down. But sometimes she failed to do it either.

The town has changed greatly over these years, but Anya did not notice it, as well as she did not notice and did not believe that she had wrinkles. And when her former friend noted that she had considerably grown older, Anya burst out laughing so merrily, that then the friend was sitting alone for long and pondering over something deeply, but then uncomprehendingly shook her head and concluded with relief: “Little fool”.

But the little fool was flying along memorable streets of her childhood, rushing and smiling. And even the voice in the telephone receiver saying: “… has already not lived here for a long time”, did not stop her – she only took a momentary fright at the possibility of being late for the last bus and nothing else.

There, into the village of Lipovka, where they had grown together and where he had dreamt to build a house, into which she would ultimately return, Anya arrived only late in the evening. It was autumn, or even spring, most likely – spring. She was confused. The night was so beautiful and clear, like the one you have only when you are fourteen. On the edges the tops of the trees melted with something transparent and warm, as if painted in watercolours against a wet sheet. The trees were unusually high and the grass was extremely long, and she was just a little spellbound girl. It smelled of smoke, manure and dry grass like in her childhood. Everything, nearly everything was absolutely unrecognizable. Almost all the old houses had disappeared, and there were just a few new and unknown cottages. She was standing near the tumbledown school – the only anchor in her reckless journey into the past, and holding on to its red rough wall with her both hands. An unknown old woman in the bright-blue shawl was going past her like a ghost. She had to ask her, to inquire – Anya silently rushed to her, but suddenly changed her mind giving up the attempt. And the woman was still floating turning round, and shaking her head doubtingly.

And when she had disappeared in the lilac bushes, Anya broke into a run, she flew, like a girl, feeling neither her body nor all those unnecessary, empty years that she had spent far from him.

She hurried so confidently, as if the earth itself prompted her own, recently left footprints. Here is the hillock, no – further, it will be further, now there will be the bridge across the pond, then the park, the acacia, and bird-cherry tree, the entire brushwood of the bird-cherry trees, where they kissed and were carried off their heads about each other, and swore in the eternal love…

Alyoshka and she lived in a large city; they studied in different schools, and they used to see each other only in the village, where their grandmothers lived. Anya’s grandmother lived near the school, Alyosha’s – behind the pond. For Anya the village and city were like two realms – the first was magic and the second was enchanted. In the magic one Anya was a beauty, a clever girl, the queen of the fields and forests. She had golden hair – long and bushy, chocolate eyes with black eyelashes, antique lacy dresses, altered from her granny’s clothes. There was the garden, the forest, the lake, a lot of secret corners, and hiding places – the entire dazzling kingdom of the real queen.

In the enchanted realm of the city she was a plain, unhealthy girl, with thinning plaits and skinny arms. She was not a clever girl, because she was frequently ill and missed school. She had dark brown school uniform “to grow into”, which she had been wearing for three years already and couldn’t grow into enough yet. She did not have her own corner in the one-room apartment, where she huddled with her Mom and three girl-lodgers from the pedagogical institute. She did her homework in the kitchen on the table covered with blue chequered oilcloth, because the window-sill of the room was covered with cosmetics, perfumes and lecture notes of the students. Enchanted was her Mom – always unsmiling, strict and forever dissatisfied with Anya, enchanted were the girls, who passionately dreamed about one thing only – somehow to get married and not to leave to work in the village school. The dreams of many of them came true, and no sooner had Anya wanted to rejoice at their happiness, than new students came to live. She learned to forget those who left and got accustomed to the new ones. Although meager, the money, that the students paid for the dwelling was still a good help for Anya and her Mom. The Mom did not get uncharmed – even when Anya was not ill and learned well, she remained in the realm of the Snow Queen. There was always winter there.

No matter how long the winter and the spring dragged on, there always came the summer, and Anya escaped from the paws of the city. An angel with merry tanned face used to meet her – it was her grandmother Anna Gerasimovna. She used to smile all the time – both during the bright day and in the cold rain. She used to praise Annushka, bake toasted puffs, make kulesh – wheaten porridge and cook appetizing omelette. Anya did not put on weight, but her cheeks turned pink, her eyes became bright and sparkling, and her lips – cherry-red. Granny untwisted her plait, combed her hair with yellow comb and her soft, warm hands washed Anya’s hair with thick, green infusion of the sweet-scented chamomile. She put linen dress with red embroidery on her – and then Anya became a queen. She looked at herself in a small mirror on the window-sill – and she couldn’t recognize herself. It was a magic transformation. In the evenings she went to the club, where they showed films about the war, grandmother gave her ten kopecks for the ticket, put on her white shawl and saw her granddaughter off in case “the neighbouring kids offend her”. Anya couldn’t understand what kids she meant. Everybody adored her.

That day the grandmother bought her a new knitted blouse. Fashionable, with the stand-up collar, it excellently concealed the absence of breasts. She put on a mini-skirt.

After cinema there was dancing. A tall fair-haired fellow, who smelled of woods-scented cologne, asked her for a slow dance. No one had asked Anya for a dance before. She was small still. He was a real, big fellow and he was dancing with her. Her soul overflowed with the thirst of love, her voice grew hoarse, and her palms sweated. Alyoshka (so they called him) saw her home as if she were an adult. She was not going – she was walking on air. He was going silently, tearing away the leaves of acacia along the road. She stood stock-still by the efflorescent bird-cherry tree under the window, shut her eyes and protruded her lips. Alyoshka laughed and kissed her into the hair. He was five years older – he was nineteen. He wasn’t going to fall in love with her at all … but he did.

She fearlessly took a real adult fellow by the hand and with dignity introduced him into her kingdom – they crept in the grass, gathering wild strawberries, caught leeches and tadpoles, made secret messages from the colored foil, sketched beauties in magnificent dresses and what not. Grandmother shook her head doubtfully: “Do you really want to wait until she grows!” Alyoshka laughed saying: “I will wait, Anna Gerasimovna, I have nowhere to hurry; let her get mature!”

Anya kept growing and turned into a beauty. And what else do you need to be happy? Alyoshka is with you, institute it finished – get married and have children.

But everything turned out to be not so simple. There was this nuisance, a minor one, but at the same time very great – the thirst of self-assertion, and it was in their love’s way. And where did it only come from? Maybe, this is how Snow Queens do label their children. A distant road, red carpet, and flashes of cameras beckoned to Anya. She kept languishing and had bad dreams, but Alyoshka could in no way help her. What was he as against this Great Thirst? He did not have this very thirst for some reason – he was happy with everything in his life: he was head over heels in love with Anyuta, and built high-quality houses for people.

He did his best to dissuade her from it, he begged her, he frightened her – and all to no avail. And then suddenly and bluntly he said – “Go, see the world, enjoy yourself to your heart’s content and then return to me …”

Anya left. She flew away, she vanished into thin air, she plunged into a new life and forgot about Alyoshka. Anya got everything she had aspired for: lavish banquets and gala receptions, photoflashes and her pictures in glossy magazines, money, success, fees, trips to foreign countries, designer clothes…

She was absorbing everything through every pore soaking it up like a sponge, and she could not quench her thirst yet. But she got drunk all the same. The money was big, but she had failed to invest it wisely – and remained penniless. They didn’t invite her to take part in photocalls any more – she had exceeded the age limit. Somehow everything evaporated at once. Only Alyoshka remained, or rather a dream about him. They had not seen each other during all these years, but she had some strange, unexplainable faith – he had been waiting for her – because he had given her his promise. And nevertheless, she used to avoid fellow-villagers from Lipovkia – which meant, she feared lest she should get to know something …

In the most difficult moments of her life she recalled his words: “Go, see the world, enjoy yourself to your heart’s content and then return to me. I will construct a house near the bird-cherry tree, where I kissed you.”

Here is the white bird-cherry tree on the edge of the village. Suffocating and fragrant, it has grown in different directions with bushy bunches. The brushwood is impenetrable with old trees and thorny branches, which catch on you like hooks. White petals keep falling as if winter came. It smells bitter-fresh. And there is no house. Anya shook off the fallen bird-cherry petals and looked around perplexedly. The charms were dispelled. It was a desolate village in a state of neglect, where no street lamp was on. The moon was getting obscured and everything was getting dark before her eyes. Scary, black, deserted houses, rock cellars, which were overgrown with nettle. And these new houses with the empty windows and dead silence. She had been deceiving herself all those years. She was a fool indeed, and for good reason they called her so. She had moved to Moscow chasing after many-colored fog and had missed the main thing in life. Alyoshka has always been a well-built, fair-haired fellow, as if he were from the fairy tale. He must have long been married – for this very reason she used to avoid questions about the village. He must have long forgotten her – it was an old child’s recollection and nothing more. Oh, Lord, it’s so terrible! Anya was rushing about the dead village like a bird in the cemetery – there were destroyed houses everywhere – here old woman Polina used to live, there lived old man Vanya, here is another house, there are more ruined houses there and here. How could she have lost her head from the white fog, which enveloped the dead village?

Sheer panic gripped Anya, she did not know how to get out of there, to awake from the terrible sleep – everything was unknown, she had already grown up, and the fairy tale had ended. She had to spend the night somewhere …

It would be nice to go to her grandmother, but her granny and her mom had long been dead, that’s why she was scared to death to approach her granny’s house – she wouldn’t bear to see it in ruins. Nevertheless she kept on going and it seemed her feet happened to take her there. She recalled that three years ago she met her granny’s neighbor in the city, who told her that their house fell into ruin and she had been cultivating their vegetable-garden just to keep it. It means that the neighbor still lives here and Anya will knock at her door. The burrs clutched at her dress and dry branches tore her hair.

No, she had to get out of the village. Quick! To the motorway! There is life there; there are cars and buses there with flesh and blood in them. Anya was lost completely. Now she was looking for the way back. She was moving almost blindly in the darkness, groping for cold stones and prickly branches with her hands. Her face – already not young, with her hair disheveled and her eyes bleary and exhausted – was reflected in the fragments of the glass that stuck out of the empty windows. Finally she got on the dirt road and sighed with relief. Only eight kilometers and she will get to the bus stop. And there are only forty kilometers to the city.

But Alyoshka had promised to build a house near the bird-cherry tree, where they had kissed. But there was nothing there. Enchanted sleepy kingdom. Or even worse. In the fairy tale the characters slept, and here everybody is dead…

Suddenly Anya recalled that he kissed her for the first time right near her granny’s house, where the bird-cherry was in full blossom. Although he kissed her hair only and they then went out of the village, where there was that endless bird-cherry tree ocean, but it was a real kiss. Anya turned back abruptly and broke into a run. Luminous trees, the school, the paths leading to three different sides. She needs the left one. Two more houses to pass by. Her granny’s house was the last one, and it seemed to her that there was a tall wooden log cabin in its place. The tears were streaming down her cheeks. She was going mad.

When Anya approached the last but one house, she suddenly got really frightened and sat near the bushes of something very familiar, harsh-scenting and fragrant.

And at this first stop of the continuous motion of her soul and body she suddenly felt that she had lost her only and unshakable faith and it was being transformed into the cold, aching, terrestrial void. She shut her eyes. The ground smelled of something damp and musty. Black grass was moving, as though snakes were slithering across it. Her heart was hammering.

At the same moment strong hands of somebody invisible confidently caught her and helped to get up like they used to do all those years, when she was completely exhausted.

Now she was no longer surprised at this new house that smelled of pine tree and was covered by the clouds of the blossoming bird-cherry tree, at the door left unlocked for the night. The chirping of crickets, the corridor – here are her grey woolen socks on the shelf – Alyoshka used to joke at her constant sensitivity to chill. Feeling only extreme fatigue and trying not to make noise, she opened one more door. Someone was sleeping, his face to the wall … And carefully, without undressing she lay down near him and fell asleep almost immediately.

And only in the dead of night, she suddenly awoke and yelled, with difficulty drifting out of the nightmarish sleep, and having seen his long-awaited shining eyes in pitch darkness, she heard him say quietly: “My little fool. My only. You’ve come back to me …”


January, 1991


Translated by Nataly Orlova






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