Book 3. The Space of Love (1998)
When words change destinies
“After what we experienced,” Alexander began, “our group took a while to regain a sense of normalcy. Nobody spoke with anyone else. We stood there right in the same spot and it was only after some time had passed that we began to look to either side of us and take in the surrounding world in a different way from before, as though we were sensing it for the first time. And now we noticed a group of residents approaching us from the direction of the village. The local population was quite small, only about a dozen people lived in the six houses of this remote Siberian settlement. And they were nearly all oldsters, some of them quite frail. One woman was bent over double — she walked with a limp, carried a cane, but she still came with the others. Those who did not require a walking stick were armed with various tools — one carried a cross-beam, another an oar. They had evidently come to defend Anastasia. These old and frail people were advancing against young, healthy, stalwart fellows carrying weapons. They advanced without fear, determined to come to Anastasia’s defence, no matter who might be standing in their way.
“Their resolve was terrifying. When they drew near to us, the old fellow carrying the oar and wearing rubber boots, who was walking slightly ahead of the others, stopped, which brought a halt to the group of villagers as a whole. They paid no attention to us, treating our group as empty space. With a sedate stroke of his beard he looked right at Anastasia and greeted her respectfully:
“‘I wish you good health, my dear, dear Anastasia, on behalf of all of us.’
“‘Good day to you, kind people,’ Anastasia responded, clasping her hand to her breast and bowing to the elderly villagers.
“‘The water in the river is dropping early this year,’ the old fellow went on. ‘The summer hasn’t been too rainy’
“‘Not so rainy just now,’ Anastasia confirmed, ‘but more rain will come, the water level will rise, and the river will return to its former strength.’
‘As they continued talking that way, out from the group of elderly villagers emerged a frail little girl, about six years old, with pale yellowish skin. She was wearing an old jacket, pieced together from fragments of some adult garment, her thin legs were covered by patched pantyhose, and she had little old boots on her feet.
“Later I found out the girl’s name was Aniuta. She was a sickly child, with a congenital heart disease. Her mother had brought her from the city when she was just six months old and left her with the oldsters, not coming back even once to see her daughter. They say she works somewhere as a painter for a construction firm.
‘Aniuta went up to Anastasia and started tugging on the hem of her skirt, pleading with her:
“‘Bend down, Auntie Anastasia. Bend down to me.’
‘Anastasia looked at the little girl and squatted down in front of her. The girl quickly took off the old white kerchief she was wearing on her head. She salivated on one edge of it and began to carefully wipe the blood which had already dried on Anastasia’s face and temple, saying:
“‘You don’t come any more, Auntie Anastasia, to sit on your little log by the shore. Grandpa said that earlier you used to come more often. You would sit on the log and watch the river. Now you don’t come. Grandpa showed me the little log where you used to sit, Auntie Anastasia. Grandpa showed me, and I started coming to it, to your log, myself. I sat there all alone, waiting for you to come, Auntie Anastasia. I really wanted to see you. I have a secret to tell you. But you wouldn’t come to sit on your log and watch the river. Maybe ’cause the log is quite old. I kept asking Grandpa and he brought a new little log for you. There it is, lying right beside the old one.’
“The little girl took Anastasia by the hand and started pulling her over to the log.
‘“Let’s go, let’s go, Auntie Anastasia, let’s go sit on the new log. Grandpa hewed out two seats on it with his axe. I was the one who asked him to do that, so that when you came we could sit together.’
‘Anastasia at once responded to the little girl’s request, and they sat down together on the log. They just sat there silently for a while, not paying any attention to anyone. It was as though there had been no one else around. And everyone stood silently, without budging. Then the little girl started talking:
“‘Grandma told me a lot about you, Auntie Anastasia. And when my Grandma died, I began asking Grandpa, and he told me about you, too. Whenever Grandpa talks about you, I think about my little secret I have to tell you. Grandpa told me that when I was little, my heart wasn’t working right. It wasn’t ticking evenly One time its tick was way off Then they brought in Auntie Doctor in a boat. Auntie Doctor said there was nothing they could do with such a bad heart — there was no one it would obey And that it would die before long.
“‘Grandpa told me how you, Auntie Anastasia, were sitting at the time on your old little log and watching the river. Then you got up and came into our hut. You took me in your arms and put me on the grass outside the house. Then you lay down beside me and put your hand on my chest. You put your hand here, where you could hear my heart ticking. Right here.’ And the girl clasped her hand to the left side of her thin little chest.
‘“Grandpa said that you too, Auntie Anastasia, started lying next to me as if you were breathless, since your own heart had started ticking ever so softly, just like mine. Then your heart started beating faster, and called out to mine to catch up. My heart obeyed yours, and together they started ticking the way they ought to. That is what Grandpa told me. Did he tell me everything right? Right, Auntie Anastasia?’
“‘Yes, Aniuta. Your grandpa told you right. Your heart will always be good now.’
“‘That means your heart called to mine and mine obeyed? It obeyed, did it?’
“‘Yes, Aniuta dear, your heart obeyed.’
“‘Now I shall tell you my secret, Auntie Anastasia. It is a very, very important secret!’
“‘Tell me your important secret, Aniuta.’
‘Aniuta got up from the log and stood in front of Anastasia, clasping her thin little hands to her chest. Then all of a sudden she... Suddenly little Aniuta fell on her knees before Anastasia. She barely managed to restrain the excitement in her voice when she said:
“Auntie Anastasia, dear Auntie Anastasia, ask your heart again! Ask it! Ask your heart to call to my Mama’s heart. Have my Mama come see me. Even just for a day. To see me. That’s my secret. Have your heart... Mama’s... heart... hear...’
‘Aniuta choked from emotion, then fell silent, her eyes fixed on Anastasia.
‘Anastasia squinted her eyes and looked off into the distance, past the little girl kneeling in front of her. Then she looked at the girl once more and quietly stated a fact that must have been horrifying for the child. She answered her as she would have an adult:
“Aniuta, dear, my heart is unable to call to your Mama. Your Mama is far away in the city. She tried to find happiness but did not find it. She does not have a home of her own, she does not have any money to buy you gifts. And unless she can bring you gifts she does not want to come and see you. It is hard for her in the city But if she should come and see you, it will be even harder for her. A visit with you would become a sad and tormenting experience. It would be more difficult and frightening for her to see you so sickly and so poorly clothed. She would see how the houses in your village are falling apart, and how dirty and shabby the house you live in is. It would be all the more difficult since your Mama no longer believes she can do anything good for you. She simply does not believe it. She feels she has tried everything and this is what fate has determined for her. She has given in to the very hopelessness she has imagined for herself.’
“Little Aniuta listened to the terrible truth, and her wee body trembled. It seemed to me awfully cruel to talk to a child that way I thought a white lie would have been more appropriate here. Like stroking the poor little girl’s head and promising her mother would arrive soon. And saying they would have a happy meeting.
“But that is not what Anastasia did. She told this helpless, defenceless little girl the whole bitter truth. Then after spending some time watching her body shake all over, she began talking to her again.
“‘I know, Aniuta dear, you do love your Mama.’
“£I love... love... I love my poor dear Mamochka,’ the girl replied, her child’s voice on the point of breaking into tears.
‘“Then you make your Mamochka happy. You are the only one, the only one in all the world who can make her happy. It is very simple. You become healthy and strong, and learn how to sing. You will be a singer. Your marvellous, pure voice will sing together with your heart. Your Mama may meet you in twenty years, and seeing you will make her very happy Or your Mama may come to see you next summer. By that time you should already be healthy and strong. To welcome her. Get some presents ready for your Mamochka. Show her how strong and beautiful you are, and you will make your Mamochka very happy, and your meeting with her will be a joyful one indeed.’
“‘But I will never be able to be healthy or strong.’
“‘You know Auntie Doctor? She wears a white coat. Auntie Doctor told Grandma. I heard her say I’ll always be a weakling ’cause I was a bottle baby My Mama wasn’t able to give me any mother’s milk. My Mama had no milk in her breasts. And children, when they are small, always drink milk from their mama’s breasts.
“‘I saw it once, when a lady came to the village with a little baby. I went over to the house she had come to. I really wanted to see how babies drink milk from their mother’s teats. I tried to sit there ever so quietly But they kept chasing me out. The mama-lady wondered why I was sitting there without blinking. I was afraid to blink my eyes in case I missed something.’
“‘Do not you think, Aniuta, that Auntie Doctor might have been mistaken when she said you would never be healthy and strong?’
“‘How could she have been mistaken? She wears a white coat. Everybody listens to her — the grandfathers and grandmothers. She knows everything. She knows that I was a bottle baby’
“And why did you go to see how babies are breast-fed?’
“‘I thought I would see how good the baby felt when he got fed from his mother’s teat. I thought I would see how good he felt, and then I would feel better, too.’
“‘You will get better, Aniuta dear. You will be healthy and strong,’ Anastasia said quietly and confidently. And then
Anastasia gradually unbuttoned her cardigan and exposed her breasts.
‘Aniuta stared at the exposed breasts in amazement, quite overwhelmed by the unexpected action. From the ends of the nipples tiny drops of breast milk emerged.
“‘Milk! Mother’s milk! Auntie Anastasia, are you feeding a baby, too? Are you a mama?’
‘“This milk is to feed my little son.’
“Drops of breast milk kept coming. One of the drops fluttered in a passing breeze. The breeze tore the drop from Anastasia’s breast.
“Like a lightning-fast steel spring, Aniuta dashed after the little drop of breast milk. And she... Imagine, this thin, sickly little girl was nimble enough to catch the drop! She fell to the ground, but as she was falling she put out the palms of her hands and caught the little drop of breastmilk! She caught it just as it reached the ground. Getting up on her knees, she lifted her cupped hands to her face and opened them, examining the tiny wet spot they were holding. Then she held out her hands to Anastasia.
“‘Here. I caught it. Here it is. Your son’s milk is not lost.’
“‘You saved the little drop, Aniuta. Now it belongs to you.’
“‘Yes. Just to you.’
‘Aniuta raised her cupped hands to her face and touched the drop with her lips. The frail little girl closed her eyes and held her hands pressed against her lips for a long time. Then she dropped her hands, looked at Anastasia, and with a voice fall of gratitude, whispered:
“‘Come close to me, Aniuta dear.’
‘Anastasia took hold of the little girl by her shoulders. She stroked her hair, then sat her on her lap. She gently inclined the little one’s head to her breast, as she would an infant, and began singing quietly.
‘Aniuta’s lips were now very close to one of Anastasia’s nipples. Almost in a half-sleep, Aniuta slowly drew her lips closer and closer to Anastasia’s breast, felt the moist nipple, gave a tiny shudder and began greedily sucking on Anastasia’s milk- filled breast.
“Judging by the tape recording, she awakened about nine minutes later. She raised her head and jumped down from Anastasia’s lap.
“1... Oh, dear, what have I done? I’ve drunk up your son’s milk.’ “‘Not to worry, Aniuta. There is enough left for him. You only drank the milk from one of my breasts, and there is still milk left in the other one. There is enough for him. My son can also eat pollen from the flowers if he wants to. And now you have been provided with all you need, so you will have no fear about being strong and beautiful and happy. Now go and draw your happiness from life, from each day it brings.’
“‘I shall be strong and healthy. I shall think about how to greet Mamochka, so that she will not find it difficult to see me, but she will be extremely happy Only I shan’t be able to sing. I used to sing with Grandma. Then Grandma died. I keep asking Grandpa, but he doesn’t sing. Only when he drinks vodka will he sing me a song, and then I sing along with him. But it is hard for me to sing along with him, ’cause his voice croaks. I also tried to sing along with the radio, but our old receiver crackles so much I can’t get the words.’
“Aniuta dear, just try singing without words, try to imitate the birds when you hear them sing, or the water when it burbles, or the rustling of the leaves and the wind when it is strong and whistles through the branches. And there are a lot of sounds in the grass. You will hear many pure sounds around you if you are willing to listen. Try imitating them with your voice. They will be your best teachers...
“‘I am going now, Aniuta, good-bye. It is time for me to g°-’
‘Anastasia got up from the log. Aniuta remained sitting, listening to the world of sounds around her. Anastasia went up to the young guard who had shot at her. The guard was still very pale in the face, and his hands were shaking. His pistol was lying nearby on the ground. Anastasia told the guard:
“‘Do not blame yourself, do not torture your soul. It was not a partner in what you did. You acted out of instinct. You were trained to protect whatever you were ordered to, without thinking about the situation. And your instinct took its course. It is not good for instinct to gain supremacy in Man. When instinct takes first place, then Man takes second place. The result is something less than a Man. Think about it — perhaps it would be better to return to yourself — to the Man that you are.’
“When the guard heard the calming tones of Anastasia’s voice his hands stopped shaking, and the paleness disappeared from his face. And by the time she had finished speaking, his face was flush with a reddish colour, right to the tips of his ears.
“Then Anastasia said good-bye to the elderly villagers and headed off in the direction of the taiga. For a long time we watched her as she drew further and further away Then all at once we heard an extraordinarily pure child’s voice singing.
‘Aniuta was still sitting on the log, singing a beautiful, old- time song — probably one she had learnt from her grandmother. And how she sang! Her pure voice hit unusually high notes, filling the space around and enchanting the heart:
Sprinkling raindrops glisten.
Brother rocks his sister,
Brother rocks his sister,
Sings to her — she listens.
‘Aniuta finished her song and began staring at our group, still standing there motionless. Then she got up, picked up a thin stick from the ground and said:
‘“You chaps are bad. You’re so big, but you’re still bad.’ ‘After saying this she started coming at us, armed with the little stick. The group of elderly villagers shuffled silently along behind her. And all of us to a man began withdrawing before them. We retreated right back to our ship which was docked by the riverbank, then scrambled up the gangplank, not without some pushing and shoving. We were on the point of pulling up the gangplank when the captain suddenly noticed the two helicopter pilots were also on board.
“‘How come you’re here?’ he shouted from the bridge. ‘Who’s looking after the chopper?’
“The pilots jumped down from the ship and ran over to their ’copter.
“We left, abandoning the barrels of fuel and tents remaining on the shore. Nobody even thought of collecting them.”