New Year’s Eve

My husband was born in a professor’s family, while I was village-born. I didn’t even plan to move to town, but it didn’t turn out the way I thought. My Mum and I, we had large front and back gardens – you could work until you dropped, besides, we had some live-stock, like it should be, you know, – a cow, a few chickens and turkeys. I was to milk the cow and send it to graze and manure the garden and weed out the nettle and chop it for the chicks and mow the grass and pick the Colorado beetles off the potato tops – if I only started enumerating all the chores, I’d never finish. I had almost no time to wash my hands after work; no sooner had I taken a breath than the sun was setting.

One day, a student knocked at our door – they were engaged in practical work by their university and were helping at our collective farm to gather apples. He was thirsty and asked for a glass of cold water. I scooped some icy peppermint kvass[1] – I’d just brought it from the cellar – and gave it to him. He cast me a glance – once, twice, ogling me. And why don’t you go dancing to the club-house? He said. – You think I’ve got time for that, huh? I said. Mum’s fallen, the house-keeping and all is in my charge. He kept drinking the kvass while smiling at me, although I didn’t say anything funny, did I? That’s how our affair started. He was quite an ordinary fella – all our village blokes were much more handsome, take Alyoshka[2], for example, who had proposed to me, or our neighbour, Nick. But this townee had got such a glib tongue (his name was Volodya[3]), no local bloke could speak so sweetly. He also sang Vysotsky’s[4] songs, the ones I’d never heard of. What else can I tell about him? He was neat, presented me with sweets, and he also brought strong Indian tea, which had never been on sale at our local shop. It would be a lie to say that I fell in love with him, but I was flattered, of course, that I was courted by such a town bloke, especially from a professor’s family. He had a broad face, with prominent cheek-bones, his eyes were brown and narrow, he looked a little bit like a Tartar, his hair was thick, chestnut. I liked his shirts, they were special, somewhat soft, the local blokes were mostly wearing T-shits and vests.

“Be careful, girl,” my friends would say. “He is not of our ilk.” But of course they were simply jealous! To be honest, though, that was probably so indeed – what was I – just a country bumpkin who ended up in a professor’s family. I was a beautiful girl by village standards, so who only didn’t propose to me when I reached the age of eighteen. But my heart never went pit-a-pat. I didn’t go out dancing, my Mum and I had hardly time enough to cope with all the household chores. We had a break only in winter, while the outings were mostly in summer, when Muscovites came as numerous as falling raindrops, trendy, with boom boxes.

“Don’t lose your head,” my Mum used to say. “If you get laid, it’ll be too late to regret – your elbow is near, but you can’t bite it, dear. And she scared me so much that way that I was too shy for my age. What’s more, Mum didn’t let me cut my long hair. But I was embarrassed by my plait – I didn’t want it, thick though it was; besides, nobody was wearing plaits in the village any more. That time was over, it was trendy to wear a haircut, it was called ‘Gavroche’. Frankly, it didn’t become everyone, but it was fashionable. My clothes was quite modest, I was content with what I sewed myself. Mum deposited some savings in the bank, for a rainy day, but one can’t deposit much without a man as a breadwinner.

But for my Mum’s being laid low with some ailment, my student would have gone back toMoscowand that would have been the end of it. But Mum got into hospital; she’d been ailing for a while and died shortly. I became absolutely alone in all the wide world. Of course I had aunts, but they were distant relatives. After the funeral, I was driven into the depths of despair, I had no heart to do anything, I was just crying from morning till night. As I began to skip milking, I left my cow at the neighbour’s lest the animal should fall ill. The chickens ran away, the geese didn’t return from the pond. The house was getting deserted, the garden overgrown. But the student was next to me. This was how I found myself in town – I got married to the professor’s son.

I noticed at once – I was not wanted there. The professor was my husband’s father – I got to like him right away. He was tall, in a black suit, with a leather briefcase. His wife was a teacher at a technical college, her name was Zoya Ivanovna. She took immediate dislike of me, I felt her annoyance with my bones. She thought I hankered after their property. If only Mum had been alive, I’d never have had anything to do with them! Or else why would I have been in such a hurry?.. The wedding was celebrated in their five-room flat; on the eve, I’d been peeling potatoes and making salads all night. My tears fell right into the bucket with potato, I felt so sorry for myself. Everybody went to bed, while I had to make the salads. While weeping, I noticed a boy in the doorframe, watching me. Slim, his face untanned – a town boy. “What are you looking at?” I asked him. “Have you never seen a village girl before?” He dashed off like a mouse. I thought he was a young boy, but he turned out to be fourteen, his name was Sashka[5].

I didn’t sleep a wink that night.

The wedding went off. I got pregnant. Soon my husband was enrolled in the army, he had graduated from the university by then[6]. That’s when my hardest time started. I was starving, but I was afraid to go to the kitchen. My mother-in-law taunted me so much! She kept telling me off for mislaying thing, or my slicing manner. She mocked at my manner of speaking; but that was the way everybody spoke in my village! Once she kicked up a row when said I was “hungry a bit”. Then why ask me if I want anything or not? Of course, the town ways were different. She made me so frightened I preferred to keep silent all the time. What’s more, Sashka made up his mind to help his parents in taunting me. He would make some mischief and then shift the blame on me. He was his parents’ blue-eyed boy, they made so much fuss over him! Nobody in their right mind in my village would ever think of spoiling a child so much, no thank you! Professor got up at dawn to make breakfast for Sashka. Mother-in-law rushed home from the technical college during the window in her schedule to make him lunch; she treated him as if he was made of glass! Naturally, they made an egoist of him! He’d never ever washed a dish in his life! Mother-in-law even tidied up his own room.

Sashka didn’t look his age, he was not very tall and rather sickly. But as I settled there, his parents got anxious about his teenage growing pains, his being jealous of me – ‘God only knows what might happen then!’ How could it only  occur to them – his being jealous of me! But soon the hand of Fate was really at the ready to destroy me. Seeing my being absolutely unprotected, Sashka grew insolent by the hour. He would scatter the clothes in the hall, or break a valuable dish and then blame me for that. Mother-in-law screamed at me without ceasing; but now and then the sound seemed to switch off itself for me, I just saw her face growing beetroot red, the veins bulging on her neck. Father-in-law wasn’t as fierce, but he seemed to be rather afraid of his wife and preferred to mind his own business.

It was getting harder for me to move around as I was eight months gone. I lost my prettiness, my face got blotchy.

There was a custom in my husband’s family to gather for meals. I never raised my head when eating, the silence at table was broken only by the sound of cutlery. The meals were so ceremonious that I was choking on bitter depression as if someone added wormwood into the food and poured some bile into the tea. Mother-in-law also took to asking me about some book, whether I’d read this and that. Then she would shrug and smile wryly and exchange glances with her husband and Sashka. Father-in-law would keep silent, but Sashka would break into such a laughter that I cringed at my worthlessness. She also took such delight in making a fool of me in the guests’ presence! “And now Olyushka[7] will tell us what the capital of India is! She used to be an excellent pupil at school and harps on about it!” How could an educated woman like she do such things?! Shame on her! I wanted back to my village so much! There was such limitless freedom there! I think the Bible portrayed my village exactly, there was a land of milk and honey. The sky was blue, the chickens were yellow, the apple orchards were green with a sweet scent of trasparent antonovka[8]. I used to get into the hen house, fumble in the dark for a still warm egg, hit it over the wall gently, and drink it out. Thick, live and sweet – delicious! Or else I would dip a lump of still hot rye bread into the yellow cream – and close my eyes with pleasure! In the yard, fragrant with chamomile, there were motley hens walking about, and our rooster had a bright red tale. Burenka[9] – ginger, with white spots – would push its wet and warm muzzle in my face, its breath steaming, with the scent of fresh milk… I seemed to have lived in a colourful world, but now I’d found myself in the monochrome one.

Their apartment was roomy, the hall seemed endless. The kitchen, my poky little room, then Sashka’s room, further on the one of father-in-law Ivan Alexeyevich’s, and finally, the one of Zoya Ivanovna’s. Opposite her room there was a vast sitting-room, which was quite uncomfortable. The walls were white, with bookcases up to the ceiling all around, filled with books. You couldn’t see the sky through the window, and there were no birds. Mother-in-law’s indoor plants didn’t take root for some unknown reason – they withered away. And the noise from cars was too loud at night…

I couldn’t console myself – my heart couldn’t stop pining. I felt so lonely! If only there was a single person to pity me! My husband wrote to me very seldom. I wept at night, my body pressed to the cold wall, tears running down my cheeks onto the pillow…

Sashka often skipped school because of being ill. There was always some food left, specially for him. I would sneak into the kitchen, and there always was a dish covered with a white napkin – for Sashka – fried chicken with appetizing crust, or some open sandwiches with red caviar. All that made my mouth water – my only diet was soup and potatoes. Sashka was very choosy about what he ate, that’s probably why he couldn’t grow tall.

He always had some pocket money, to my surprise – his parents did spoil him, but they never gave him money. Once I spied on him. He took a thick book out of the bookcase and put it into his bag. Then he went out and came back without the book, but together with his friends. They were in Sashka’s room, laughing, smoking and drinking something. I realized later that books were quite valuable, and in short supply in those days, people used to queue at night to buy them. My parents-in-law had got very rare books – there was nothing of the kind in our village library – so Sashka sold them on the quiet.

Once Father-in-law noticed a book missing. They were receiving guests – some university teachers, very important-looking, all of them. The table was laid in the sitting-room; they played chess and laughed a lot. Then they started arguing about some rare sea fish and in which particular sea its habitat was. Ivan Alexeyevich, my father-in-law, went to look it up in that book, and found it missing. He took Sashka out into the hall and began to question him about it. I was walking out of the kitchen at the moment, I stopped short at the wall, waiting, expecting Sashka to put the blame on me again! Oh, I hated him so much then! And why not? I’d cried my eyes out because of him! He was nothing even to look at – a puny little shrimp, but so condescending! Even the head of our collective farm didn’t have that air about him! Sashka went white under his father’s hard stare, his lips trembling. He was clearly going to get his hot for it. Father-in-law was henpecked, of course, but he could show his temper all right. He stood there frowning, his eyes glowing. I shuddered inwardly! I felt he was going to swipe at Sashka, I could see him clench his fist behind him. I didn’t know what had come over me, but I felt so sorry for Sashka that I took the blame on myself.

“It’s me,” I said. “I’ve taken the book.” What the heck! What was I going to lose? Would I stop being an outsider? And Sashka was weak. I’d seen how hard he’d been trying to please his classmates. It was quite understandable. Sashka was feeble, and shorter than all of them, how else could he maintain his reputation?

“Alright,” my father-in-law hissed. “Later…” He went to join his guests. Sashka and I were left alone in the hall, with Sashka staring at me. He was all eyes, big and black, now even blacker on the white face. My composure vanished all of a sudden. Why had I done all that? It so happens sometimes – a momentary aberration – you don’t want to do something, but still do it against your will… And then I felt a sudden contraction, I even gave out a cry of pain, and then my mind went blank.

I came to myself. White was all around me – the walls, the swinging ceiling – a hospital. That was the hardest moment of my life… I’d lost my baby. I felt so empty. I was coming round after the anesthesia rather slowly, and, frankly, I didn’t want to come back to life. Nothing kept me there. My husband was in the army, so distant now, almost estranged, I didn’t even remember his face. He wrote so seldom. Our only connection – the baby – was now lost. The inevitable need to return to my husband’s home made me think about killing myself. Demons seemed to open the door into the pitch-dark night for me. My Mum used to read me from the Bible, “Cut off your hair and cast it away; raise a lamentation on the bare heights, for the LORD has rejected and forsaken the generation of his wrath”… I lay with my face down and wept. I wept quietly, because I wasn’t alone in the hospital room, but my sobs seemed to go far beyond, as far as my village, reaching my mother…

Suddenly, I felt somebody touch my hand, the palm was small, childlike, hot. I opened my eyes – it was Sashka. He was sitting on the edge of my bed, holding my hand, firmly. How had he managed to get here? Who had let him in the gynecology ward? Then I remembered that the hospital almost shared the yard with my in-laws’ house, maybe that’s why he’d managed to sneak in. I closed my eyes, as the bright daylight hurt them.

“I want you to live,” said Sashka, his voice quivered and trailed off. And suddenly these words made me feel so comfortable that started weeping even harder. But these were different kind of tears, quite different ones. There was a person, a single person in the entire world, young though he was, who wanted me to live. But Sashka got frightened by my tears and began telling me fairy-tales, not the ones I knew. These were odd stories, I hardly understood them, while Sashka hurried on telling them, as if afraid of something. He told me later that he had thought I would have died if he had stopped. What on earth made him think so?

I listened to him as if rising into a mysterious world; the hospital walls expanded and I saw a unique crystal heaven in front of me – the whole spectrum of the ripe cornflower – from navy blue to light-turquoise, to transparent-lilac. Angels were jingling their silver bells, and speaking lilies were glowing among the fresh clouds. I didn’t notice myself fall asleep to Sashka’s voice. It had been a major operation, I had lost a lot of blood and was still very weak. Sashka came to see me every day and brought along all the food left for him. I couldn’t hate my ex-enemy any longer; and each day took the bitter memories farther and farther away…

Everyone in the room had a visitor, and mine was Sashka. We talked very little, he mostly read to me. In my entire life hadn’t I learned as much as I had throughout those few days! There was a large planet earth, there also was the lofty world of the Gods, which only the chosen ones could enter, and I seemed to scent its fragrance and the whisper of the stars… My troubles and tribulations were nothing compared with this inconceivable mystery of life! Standing on the summit of a colossal mountain, among the white clouds and the crystal stars, I gazed at the earth and thought, now I could endure a lot…

Having been discharged from hospital, I found a job and started renting a cheap one-bedroom flat. I worked quite a lot, I needed to buy some clothes for myself and some furnishings for the flat as I had neither furniture nor crockery. Sashka was a frequent guest and always helped me about the house, fixing the shelves and all; he even fried potatoes for me sometimes. That was some experience for him! He seemed to have smoked the entire flat until he finally learned how to do it. So persistent he was! He would whisk about the kitchen, performing his chores, until I eventually fell asleep right on my chair while waiting, and couldn’t hear him calling me.

Sashka became my only relative, I regarded him as my younger brother. It was Sashka who didn’t allow me to cut my braid. He begged me so much not to that I finally gave in. OK, let the braid be, who cares? He fondled my hair all the time. I would nap on the chair, and Sashka would braid my hair at the temples, leaving the rest of the hair loose, claiming later that it was fashionable, the name of the style was ‘Malvina’. To my great surprise, all his reticence vanished. Like father like son indeed! I wondered what this professor’s son didn’t know! He taught me what clothes to wear to look urban, he taught me to speak correctly. He would bring a book on painters and talk for hours on end about which painter made which picture. I decided against buying a TV set, I didn’t listened to the radio either – I had Sashka instead! A real chatterbox, you couldn’t stop his mouth. I wasn’t even aware that I’d become so attached to him…

Then my husband demobilized. It felt odd how estranged I had become – he was a complete stranger. How could I go to bed with a stranger? Then I got used to him. Sashka and my parents-in-law went abroad for the summer together. My husband made up his mind to set up his own business. I couldn’t stop wondering why his father didn’t want to get him to work at his university. He was chairman of the university trade union committee and in charge of staff housing. But my in-laws ware surely the people of principle, they wanted us to manage on our own. So my husband went out of his way to prove his parents that he could cope with anything. He bought a van on credit and began to drive from town to town selling sugar, yeast and the like. I stayed all by myself again.

Sashka had returned by autumn. He had grown up so much that I couldn’t recognize him! He was taller than I, broad-shouldered, and was wearing his hair long now – a real bloke! I was turning him this way and that, feeling his muscles in wonder. He also acquired a healthy appetite – during the meal he ate a plateful of macaroni with chops and asked for another helping twice!

Once some relatives of my husband’s paid us a visit. Actually, they were staying at my in-laws’s, while my husband and I were invited to dinner. It so happened that my husband had already arrived there, while I didn’t know it and was sitting at home. Sashka came to fetch me.

We were on a bus, it was the evening rush hour, thousands of people were commuting from work, you couldn’t put a pin between their heads! At the next bus stop more passengers boarded, I was jammed to the window pane. So Sashka put his arms around me and pressed me to himself a little for the people to stop jostling me. That’s when I felt his heart begin to race, it seemed to pound against his ribs so loudly! And I realized all of a sudden – there was such vibration coming from Sashka, as if he was shivering from cold. I looked up at him and froze. He was looking at me in such a way, his eyes dark, oh, so dark, without luster, his lashes long and black. I couldn’t take my eyes off his lips, boyish lips, full, with a dark fluff over the upper lip. His gaze was so mesmerizing – when did he grow up so much?..

After we had arrived, there began some kind of awkwardness between us from then onwards. Every time I told him something, he looked away and appeared to be quite nervous. What did I care? He was just my husband’s brother, wasn’t he?..

It was summer time. My husband left for some faraway town, bidding Sashka call on me every evening and see to it that I was alright. Actually, it meant that Sashka was to keep an eye on me lest I should start cheating. After his return from the army, my husband had grown jealous of me. He kept saying I’d got different.

So Sashka kept coming over. He brought sweets, in beautiful bright wrappers. But I failed to feel their taste; nor did I feel the taste of the Indian tea. We would sit in the small kitchen, there always were some watercolours, brushes and an album on the table – I was sure to be painting something. It was mostly the sea. It always looked the same, dark-blue, with huge scary waves. There was something disastrous even in their white foam flecks. Sashka would tell about something, but I didn’t understand a single word. It was sheer lunacy. My eyes downcast, I kept dipping my brush into the red paint, without knowing where I should put the red colour on my sea. Sashka kept talking nonstop, hurriedly, the way he had done in the hospital back then. What was he afraid of now?

What fear and beauty was there in his voice! It was as if someone whispered to me – have a look at him… Shuddering in awe, I couldn’t help looking at Sashka… He looked as if he were in fever, his eyes seemed ablaze with black fire, wide with passion. He was trembling all over. The thrill of his desire communicated to me. How did it all happen? Dear God, please get me rid of this obsession. Don’t let me disgrace myself!

I was losing my mind more and more with each coming day. A mere thought of  Sashka made my head reel.

I realized the futility of this love, but I wanted him so much! I couldn’t take my eyes off his hands, his long supple fingers, the wonderful lace of the prominent veins, his tanned body, radiant with youthful charm… He wore his dark-auburn hair shoulder-length, and when he turned his back to me, a transparent woman stepped out of my body to hug him… This was true, I believe, I pressed my lips to his hot skin, I inhaled the fragrance of his hair avidly! This was the moment of self-oblivion, the greatest intensity of my whole being…

I dreaded the moment when I might fail to cope with myself, and longed for this moment with all my heart. I pleaded with God for salvation, but my lips blackened as they uttered something quite different…This unbridled avalanche of lust and my shame, like two giants, rose to the stars in mortal combat daily. Heavens burnt above me in hellish fire and melted ruby red…

Being without Sashka was an inconsolable grief for me, being with him was an unbearable torment… When my husband returned, and I heard his voice again, I was both horrified and glad. Sashka never came again…

My husband made up his mind to celebrate New Year at his parents’. I resisted this as much as I could, but he was adamant.

It was snowing slightly, the snow was white and pure.

There were already quite a few people at the in-laws’ when we came – various friends and relatives. The table was laid lavishly – what only wasn’t there! My husband whispered to me that most of the dishes were ordered from the restaurant.

I didn’t look out for Sashka but I knew he was somewhere there. I didn’t hear the people talking – I could hear nothing but the beating of my own heart. We were all at table when Sashka switched on some slow music.

“Anyone would care for a dance?” said Sashka loudly all of a sudden, his voice ringing with excitement.

“Shall we, Sashka?” I shouted desperately to him across the table. He nodded, without looking at me. I stood up and walked towards him. Someone rang the door bell at that moment. There was a sudden commotion as everybody jumped up to their feet – they were expecting the rector of the university, in which Ivan Alexeyevich worked. A bigwig – everyone poured out into the hall. But I put my arms on Sashka’s shoulders, ready to start dancing. Suddenly, we clang to each other so tightly – I would never be able to put it into words in my entire life! He pressed me to himself, taking me in his hot embrace, as if I were a wounded bird. He was kissing me – but I didn’t feel the touch of his lips – I dissolved in an indescribable delight, in complete bliss! How could I have lived without knowing such self-oblivion, without knowing how endless the time can be?

Even after death would I probably remember it – I felt as if I stepped out of the dark room into the blinding daylight, it was bright-cornflower, though; there were distant sparkling lands behind it and the stars calling invitingly. There remained no one else but Sashka and I in the whole world…

I came to myself at table, everybody around me were drinking and having fun. Sashka was nowhere to be seen. He’d come back only by dawn. My husband told me about it later. Nobody had noticed anything…Gods protect the reckless indeed! Why hadn’t we used the thousands of opportunities when having been alone? Why had Sashka kissed me, while putting at risk my and his own fate and reputations? And I flew towards him like a butterfly, enchanted by the light…

In the spring, Sashka left forMoscowto enroll in the university. I have never seen him afterwards…

Plenty of time has passed since then. My parents-in-law have died. I’ve divorced and set up my own business. I’ve travelled the world over. I’ve known many men. Young and mature, wonderful and intelligent, skillful in love-making, able to give pleasure…

But whatever sacred I’d got, I’d freely give away for that New Year’s Eve, for that kiss… And every New Year’s Eve, I press my forehead to the dark window pane, behind which the white snow is falling and prey inwardly – my Lord, when you call me up to serve you in Heaven, please let Sashka be the only man next to me, let him be the only one

/translated by Elena Sturova/




[1] kvass – a Russian drink (fermented beverage) made by steeping, boiling and fermenting rather than distilling from rye, barley, rye bread, etc. and often flavoured

[2] Alyoshka – an informal variant of the Russian male name ‘Aleksey’

[3] Volodya – an informal variant of the Russian male name ‘Vladimir’

[4] Vysotsky – Vladimir Semoynovich (25 January 1938 – 25 July 1980), a Soviet singer, songwriter, poet, and actor whose career had an immense and enduring effect on Russian culture. He became widely known for his unique singing style and for his lyrics, which featured social and political commentary in often humorous street jargon.

[5] Sashka – an informal variant of the Russian male name ‘Alexander’

[6] Russian young men are supposed to serve one year in the regular army forces after graduation

[7] Olyushka – an informal/tender variant of the female name Olga

[8] Antonovka – a kind of winter apples

[9] Burenka – a common Russian name of a brown cow

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