Half a Life
by Kir Bulychev
translated by Bill Bowler
Nadezhda Sidorova has survived WWII, endured the death of her husband in a car crash, and is struggling to raise her little girl Olya while working as a nurse. Nadezhda has paid her dues, more than her share, and seems now finally on the verge of finding a better life with the kind and loving Timofei. Events suddenly jolt Nadezhda onto a new and unexpected course. She faces a greater struggle than any she has yet endured or could even have imagined.
Just up from Kalyazin, where the Volga flows in a broad, sharp bend held by the high left bank, there is a large island covered with pines. The river surrounds it on three sides. Along the fourth runs a straight channel, which was formed when they built the dam at Uglich that raised the water level. Beyond the island, across the channel, the pine forest begins again.
From the water, the forest seems dark, thick and endless. In reality, it’s not so big and not even very thick. It is crisscrossed by roads and paths laid on the sandy soil, and because of that, it is always dry, even after rain.
One of these roads stretched along the very edge of the forest past a field of rye and ran right up to the water across from the island. On Sundays in the summer, when the weather was good, a bus for vacationers ran along this road and stopped at the channel. The tourists fished and sunbathed. Motorboats and sailboats were often moored offshore, in sight of the silver and orange tents.
Even more tourists put ashore on the island. They thought they could find solitude and assiduously searched for space between the tents already there. They gathered up jars and other trash and berated those before them for the mess, convinced that disrespect for Nature was barbaric. This didn’t hinder them, when leaving, from discarding their own empty jars, bottles and papers on the shore.
In the evenings, they lit fires and drank tea, but in contrast to the hikers, the tourists did not sing songs and make a lot of noise. The hikers were limited to what they could carry in their backpacks, but the tourists most often came with their families, with children, dogs, supplies, and kerosene stoves.
A one-armed forest ranger with a gloomy, worn face emerged near the end of the forest road to swim. He had grown used to the tourists and did not take offense, nor did he worry they would burn down the forest. He knew that his tourists were solid, reliable folk who always doused and stamped out their fires.
The one-armed ranger threw off his double-breasted greatcoat with the oak leaves on the lapels, unbuttoned his pants, adroitly slipped out of his shoes, and carefully entered the water, poking the bottom with his foot so as not to step on a shard from a bottle or a sharp rock. He stopped, waist-deep, took a deep breath, and fell into the water. He swam on his side, paddling with his single arm.
Nadezhda and Olyenka usually remained on shore. Nadezhda would clean the dishes because there was no well in the ranger’s home at that end of the road. If she finished the dishes before the ranger came out of the water, she would sit on a stone and wait for him, gazing at the water and at the row of bonfires on the opposite shore of the channel. They reminded her somehow of a city street at night and evoked in her the wish to run away to Leningrad or to Moscow.
When Nadezhda saw that the ranger was returning, she would wade into the water up to her knees, stretch, and hand him empty buckets. He filled them, returning to where it was a bit deeper and the water more pure.
If tourists were nearby, the ranger threw his greatcoat over his naked body and went to the fire. He tried not to frighten people and spoke with them softly, gently, looking to the left so the scar on his cheek was not visible.
On the way back home, he stopped and gathered up paper and all sorts of trash, and carried it to the hole he dug every spring near the road, the hole that no one but he ever used.
On days when he had no time or if the weather was bad and the shore was deserted, the one-armed ranger did not linger by the water. He took the buckets and hurried home. Nadezhda came only on Saturdays, and during the week, little Olyenka was afraid to stay alone in the evening when her mother was not there.
He walked along the spongy path that lay between the pine trees, whose rose-colored trunks darkened near the earth, where blueberry bushes and mushrooms pushed through the layer of gray needles.
The ranger did not eat mushrooms. He didn’t care for them and didn’t gather them. But Olyenka loved them, and to give her pleasure, the ranger taught himself to salt them and dry them in the attic. And then they gave them to Nadezhda when she arrived.
Olyenka was the ranger’s niece, the little daughter of his brother, a chauffeur who had died three years earlier. Both of them — the ranger, whose name was Timofei Fedorovich, and his brother Nikolai — were from these parts. Timofei had returned from the war with one arm, and settled down in the forest. Nikolai was younger and had missed the fighting. Timofei remained a bachelor, but Nikolai married Nadezhda in 1948. A daughter was born to them, and they lived together peacefully.
Then Nikolai had an accident and died in the hospital. Before Nikolai’s death, the ranger rarely saw his brother or his brother’s family. But when the first summer came after Nikolai’s death, the ranger somehow was in the city. He went to Nadezhda, and invited her and her daughter to come visit him in the forest. He knew that Nadezhda had to scrimp her money, that she had no other relatives, that she worked as a nurse in the hospital. So he invited her to come stay with him and bring her daughter.
From that time on, Nadezhda brought Olyenka to Uncle Timofei for a month every summer, and sometimes longer. Nadezhda herself came on Saturdays, cleaned the house, swept, washed the floors, and tried to be useful, since Timofei, of course, would not accept any money for taking care of Olyenka. And the fact that Nadezhda worked around the house instead of resting angered Timofei and touched him.
It was already the end of August and the weather had gotten bad. The night air had become cold and damp, like a draft from the cellar or from the Rybinsky Sea itself. The tourists had scattered. It was the last Saturday. Timofei had promised to bring Olya to school in three days. It was time for her to enter first grade. This was the last night that Nadezhda would sleep in Timofei’s home until spring. Maybe the ranger would come to Kalyazin for the November holidays, or maybe he would not see them until the New Year.
Nadezhda was washing the dishes. On the sand lay a piece of soap. She washed the cups and plates that had piled up from lunch and dinner, ran a rag along the soap, and wiped the dishes with it, going into the water ankle deep. Then she polished each cup. Olya had felt chilly and had run off somewhere in the bushes, searching for mushrooms. The ranger threw off his greatcoat and sat by the camp fire. He was not going swimming, but there was nothing to do at the house. They were both silent.
Polishing a cup, Nadezhda leaned over, and the ranger saw her strong, sunburned, still youthful legs. He felt awkward because he didn’t know what to say, how to ask her to stay with him for good. It would have been easier for him if Nikolai had never existed. So Timofei tried to look past Nadezhda at the grey twilit water, the dark wall of the forest on the island, and the lonely flame of a fire on the far shore, a fire lit not by tourists, but by fishermen, locals.
Nadezhda also felt awkward that evening, as if she were waiting for something, and when the gaze of the ranger returned to her, she straightened up and tucked her braid of straight red hair under her white and red polka-dot scarf. During the summer, her hair had grown lighter than her skin. She had gotten sunburned, and her teeth and the whites of her eyes seemed even whiter. Especially now.
Timofei averted his eyes. Nadezhda looked at him somehow too openly, in a way that was impossible to look at him because he was ugly, because he was an invalid, because he was the older brother of her dead husband — and because he wanted her to stay here.
She stood and looked at him. And he could not avoid seeing her, even by averting his eyes. Her breasts were small, her neck long, her waist slender. Her legs were sturdy and solid. And her arms were strong and plump. In the twilight, her eyes glowed. They seemed light blue. Timofei inadvertently met her gaze, and a sweet pain, starting in his shoulder, spread through his chest and reached his throat, in expectation of what could and must happen today.
Timofei could not tear his gaze from Nadezhda. And when her lips moved, he was frightened by the coming words and the sound of her voice.
Nadezhda said, “You, dear Tima, go on home. Take Olyenka. She’s freezing. I’ll be along soon.”
Timofei rose at once, with relief, full of gratitude to Nadezhda, that she had found such inconsequential, but kind and necessary words.
He called Olya and headed towards home. And Nadezhda stayed to finish washing the dishes.
To be continued...