My cousin's neighbors, not yet New Russians, but people with obvious leanings in that direction and working very hard to that end - I would like to say "asked me to look after"… but no, that is old-fashioned - hired me as nanny-cum-governess for the three summer months: for good, in my view, money. At the institute, all I had left were extra-mural students, so the whole of the summer was mine.
Dasha and I had half of a one-story house at our disposal: three rooms with kitchen and a splendid veranda, lined with plasterboard. We had a separate entrance, before the porch there was a flower-bed and the house was surrounded by a garden.
It was in this garden that, for the first time, I saw how a poppy opens It takes exactly twenty minutes. The bud bursts, and it bursts moreover from the bottom, under the bud there is a lump of what looks like creased cigarette paper. And before one's eyes this lump gradually straightens up, smoothing itself out, until it eventually sheds its rough, green head which is getting in its way. The newly born poppy is still moist - it is only a poppy, but it stands wobbling from side to side, like a one-day-old calf. It has just been born Once you have seen this, you will never be able to pick it.
And in order to watch the sunset - in all its breadth, sometimes in all its multi-tiered, multi-colored depth - all Dasha and I had to do was to go out to the vegetable patch. But when my little girl was not feeling lazy, or playing up, or getting her own back on me for some daytime "don't", we would make tracks for our hillside: below us, as if on someone's calloused palm, lay the village and, up the slope beyond it, to the sky itself, there clambered a dense forest of deciduous and coniferous trees, at these moments already as black as tar, leaving an imprint of its fir-trees upon the clouds. In August, it seemed as if wisps of mist had been scattered by another, free hand over that toil-hardened palm. And, here and there, what looked like haze drifted over the forest. When I was a child, we would decorate the Christmas tree with pieces of cotton-wool. The effect was every bit as mysterious.
When the sun slipped down - it sometimes seemed as if it trickled - behind the fir-trees, which were spread-eagled as if cut out with scissors, dragging with it the last ray of light - the latter, not wishing to disappear, taking its time - Dasha would get angry, her anger was genuine, but she would assume an affected frown, stamping her foot with rage: "It's gone! All gone! All gone…. lets go away from here!' - As if she too could feel real sadness. It was sad, at a certain moment unbearably so, then came loneliness, a moment later - detachment… and, suddenly, things would brighten up. It was beyond words. An aging woman and a little girl of just over four, chance acquaintances, one might even say strangers, would stand there steeped in an experience they could not put a name to - if it is true that when the sun sets, the birds fall silent for a moment, I believe it is for that very reason - and then, immediately, both she and I would feel cold. She would start whimpering, ask for her jacket, demand to be carried home.. And she would often fall asleep, her curls glued to my neck, rocked by the slight roll of my walk. By the time we reached the garden, dusk would have fallen and the tits would be making their last calls, catching up on the day's news.
At night, the apples would literally stride round the garden - in big, measured steps. And there would be no distinguishing now between myself and a silent, defenseless Dasha, on the bed next to mine.. Someone enormous, reliable, upright, was pacing up and down outside. It seemed, he only had to breathe in and blow for one's cradle to start rocking. At night, after all, one sleeps curled up like an embryo…and it is presumably for this reason that all one's ages fall through into the cellar below. One lies in bed, listening to the mice grinding them into dust.
Or to the rain lashing down.
The downpour tore round the garden, it went wild there. The leaves, the earth, the flowers, the roof over one's head, shook, reverberated, cried out in answer. Then, later the wind died away, but the rain came down even harder - it was a guillotine working hell for leather, its raised blade flashing continuously. It severed all the threads linking us to the outside world. My mackintosh, boots, umbrella, the fridge full of food, the mobile left by Dasha's parents - nothing was of any consolation. For the experience was somehow a mystical one. When the rain pours down at night in the city, lying in bed in a pre-fabricated, multi-storied block, one thinks of those who are in the ground, how are they doing there, poor things? - of one's husband, mother. Or if one's father has sat out till late on the bench, one watches the difficulty he has in moving his legs how, already soaked to the bone, his trousers and shirt clinging to his gaunt frame, he hobbles slowly to the door. Or how a chance passerby ducks, caught between the deluges bucketing down off the roof and a sheet of water coming straight at him, thrown up by the wheels of a car…
At a dacha, it is all quite different. You are a baby, the prognostications could not have been worse, your parents believed in them and here you are abandoned in a basket, a basket cast off in a raging, foaming river, you know exactly what lies in store for you but you are powerless to do anything about it.
When the thunder appeared to be pummeling our roof with its fists - once, only half-awake it seemed to me: that an unripe water melon had landed on my head and that white chunks of it were flying in all directions! - Dasha, terrified, would climb into my bed, snuggling up, cold and trembling, to the warmth, perhaps even heat, of my body. The house now became an ark and the dove, dispatched at random in the hope of good tidings, had returned twice already. Who knows, it might have returned a third time - for the book of books had yet to be written. And the words I whispered to the sobbing little bundle in my bed - about the long-awaited water that was now being drunk under the ground by the gnomes and elves, and the worms and the moles and the mice, and by the roots of the trees, and about how the house-sprites were now collecting water for a bath, while the kind kikimori (hobgoblins in female form - tr. n.) were washing their small children (hear the splashing?) in the marshes - did not come from me, I do not know from where they came - childhood? Not mine though - that of my great-great-grandmother, more likely than not..
In the morning, I would wake up in adulthood again or, to be more precise, in old age. I would wash down my fistful of pills with water from the spring. Bid good morning to the spider suspended, always at the level of my eyes, before the door giving on to the veranda.. It looked very much like a crab and was so intricately striped, or perhaps even freckled, that to get to know it really well I would have need of my tenfold magnifying glass which, as usual, I had left behind in Moscow!….Flicking the spider with my nail at which, like the hand of a virtuoso harpist it traveled rapidly upwards - I opened the door. I knew exactly what I would see … But, as always, it took me by surprise.. The grass was white with dew, the sun had not yet risen but the apples, lying in the grass, were shining. Even on the dullest of mornings. The light came from within them. Dasha and my bely naliv (a variety of Russian summer apple with a transparently white skin - tr. n.) - with its inevitable dark bruise on the side that had hit the ground. I would gather up the apples and put them in a basket. Cutting out the soft, bruised bits, I would make apple pur?e
I met Dasha at that moment in her life when the little girl in her coexisted, in some mysterious way, with a young woman, mannered, capricious, at times, petty. "You don't love me, you don't love anyone! That's why you don't have any children! When my Mummy comes, she will chase you away from here to the ends of the earth!" - she would suddenly shout, when I had put my foot down over some totally trivial matter. And she would throw herself on the grass, the floor, once even in some mud - wherever her rage overtook her. Dasha knew how I loved that poppy, it had opened before my eyes when she was still asleep, but I used to tell her about everything I had seen. She would run to it several times a day and, crossing her hands quaintly behind her back, she would sniff it, gently…But then, one day, she pulled it up - where on earth did she get the strength from? - roots and all, just because I had refused to put on for the umpteenth time her favorite film, The Labyrinth, - due to a long walk, we'd been late back for our French lesson. "Now, you too have got nothing left to make you happy, nothing, nothing, nothing!" And she stamped on the poppy.
Little over an hour later, this same child might lay her head on my arm, knee, or kiss my hand - quite genuinely, with a degree of tenderness possible only between a bumble-bee and a flower: "Tatochka, I'm not a bit fed up with you yet. Will you stay with us for ever and ever?" And her moist eyes, swollen from emotion, looked right past my pupils into my startled heart which first shrank back then, suddenly, reached out to her. .
The tits appeared in our garden in mid-July. It was very hot. Two little birds discovered a small, right-angled hole under the roof of our porch and began to try and fly into it. Twisting and turning, they zoomed through the air…But it did not come easily to them straight off… Only towards the evening of day one. In order to keep them by us, we began to feed them. We threw seed in generous quantities along the porch balustrade. And within a day or two we had six 'flying apples' - as Dasha called them - boarding with us.
A couple of weeks later, having become quite used to us, they would snatch seed virtually from out of our hand. If we forgot them, they would dart backwards and forwards in front of us, reducing Dasha to squeals of delight.
Seizing a grain of seed, a bird would fly off to the apple-tree. Holding the seed down with its claw, it would peck at it with its beak. Suddenly one would hear a light crackling sound - just the same as that when one cracks open a sunflower seed with one's teeth. And at that very moment something became clearer - about oneself, about the tit….an awareness perhaps that the gulf dividing us was not as big as it seemed.
And then the tits began to chime like a bell. While they were cracking open seed or chirping, they were birds. But their metallic, bell-like chime, and at times it was crystal-clear, made them into beings of another order - mechanical, angelical, of which I do not know - but not of this earth, certainly. I cry easily. But to suddenly shed tears at the tit's bell-like voice, to listen to it with a lump in my throat?….Was this because every garden is the Garden?
When a cloud sailed over it - monumental, intricate, subtly molded by both light and shade, in all the boundlessness of time and providence - one of a kind, changing virtually imperceptibly before one's eyes, existing only at this moment, erect and floating, disproportionate to oneself, a ladybird, a tree, and yet inviting total comprehension and in view of this alone making us all equal - the garden too became an island, cloud, asteroid, the promise of a meeting with those whom never again will one see on earth. The garden so alive and vital, astonishing one every moment now with its powdery, milky-white jasmine, now with the festive, crimson luminescence of the barberry, now with the sudden fiery blaze of the nasturtiums by the fence, or with its raspberries which, however many one picked, became more and more plentiful by the day…. At the end of August, as only happens before a parting, it was as if the garden had gone dead in me, then as if it had turned to stone…. It now seemed to me to be a stone tablet, worn away by a million touches, but if one were to close one's eyes and explore it with one's 'seeing' fingers suddenly odd letters would take shape beneath them. These letters would not form into a word. I believe I was simply lacking in imagination. Or, perhaps, memory.
Memory lurked in Dasha's unpredictable reactions. Sweeping some shriveled up insects off the veranda, she extracted a bee from the pile and laid it on her palm, as she muttered in tearful voice: "Bee, come on little bee! Why don't you fly away?!" - and she threw it into the air in the firm belief there was no such thing as death. Taking small, cautious steps, the little girl approached the green-house - it was the first time the owner of the dacha had invited us to admire it. From the impact of what she was seeing, Dasha hunched her shoulders and stole forwards, on her face was something close to fear, her eyes registered astonishment: it appeared tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers actually grew on trees, that tomatoes could be yellow, reddish-brown and even black, while the tomato known as "bull's heart", picked before her eyes and presented to her, had just the same shape as the little heart on the slide in her hair, only it was much bigger. She pressed it carefully to her chest as if it were a young chick. We emerged into the fresh air from the damp heat of the cellophane. I expected Dasha to burst into tears, the only way she would be able to cope with what she had seen. She walked sniffing along the path, without uttering a word. When we reached our porch she asked in guarded tone: "If I eat it, what will happen? Will my heart become just as big and stop beating?" - "No, don't worry! It won't!" "Yes, it will! As soon as I eat it! You must eat it too, Tatochka!" - "I don't want my heart to stop beating!" - "But I want it to! I want it to for you. Since it is in smithereens again!" Her nostrils dilated, like her mother's, and reflected in her eyes, she has her father's big eyes, moist and dull like chestnuts only just freed of their prickly skin - was mockery, then suddenly bewilderment, tenderness. Putting the tomato down on the porch, she pressed up against my knees, embracing them. August was coming to an end. Our parting was imminent.
Evidently Dasha's mother, who came to visit us regularly over her one and a half day's off - which gave me a break and more important enabled me to go into town to my father - was preparing her little girl well in advance for this parting.. For a long time I was under the illusion that in Moscow too we would continue, at least once a week, with our French, reading and arithmetic lessons. For over the summer, surprisingly, we had managed to do a fair bit of work. But Dasha's mother who was a determined and practical young woman, thought otherwise. She had no intention of sharing her little girl's love with strangers.
And yet Dasha and I had the garden. I believe that only aging women and very little girls are capable of hearing 'have' in the word 'had'. For everyone else life is a river full of rapids, its banks always changing, new horizons continually appearing to right and left ….The fact that this river flows out of the garden and back into it again is not understood or, rather, tends to be forgotten. And, had it not been for that summer I too, almost certainly, would have forgotten .
It was not till the beginning of October that Dasha's father brought round the money for August. He stood in the doorway and apologized perfunctorily, casting a fleeting gaze over our dismal hall: flooded by our neighbors the year before, it still had to be re-decorated….. He held out the envelope and was on the point of leaving when he suddenly said: "Do you know what she came out with yesterday, when she was already in bed?" I shrugged my shoulders. "Daddy, why has Tata got such a pretty face? I want to see her head and eyes!" And then, as if regretting his remark, he gave a dismissive gesture of the hand….or perhaps this was his way of saying goodbye to me, and made off hurriedly for the lift.