Life of a butterfly.
This is how for a while now I have been entertaining the thought of visiting the areas around Baku. For redroot(1) and starwort must have sprouted there by now. It turned out I was not alone in my idea. Our accountant said just the other day that if one goes by commuter train to Baglar station, there in an olive grove, on plowed-up wedges, one can run into any kind of grass. "What a pity," she says, "I can't make out which is edible and which is not; otherwise it would be nice to go there." But I, for one, do know grasses. Unlike me, the others have lived their entire lives in the city. Even though thirty years have gone by, if I see the greens that I picked as a child, I will be able to tell at once which grass goes into what dish. The chief of our lab says: "Smart idea. It would be nice to go to Baglar. If the three or four of us women go, there is nothing to be afraid of. We will not wander off far, just walk around the station to see what grows there."
Orchards border the roadbed of the railway. From the looks of things, they must have planted tomatoes and cucumbers. A couple of men were puttering about on patches of land with a hoe or a shovel in hand, "bowing down" to the earth. They straightened up, following us with their eyes. Seeing women and children around a lived-in trailer, we felt more confident and "combed through" a path along the olive grove. Alas! As bad luck would have it, we found nothing but camel's thorn and dried-up grass. Our accountant made me pick some camel's thorn, or rather pull it out together with the root. She says that I have just one kidney and should brew camel's thorn tea and drink it. One can't get medicine, can't get anything, and if the only kidney starts to fail - what next? Allah forbid, you'd have to call a surgeon, then be ready to lay out a million right on the spot for even minor surgery, or else they wouldn't even talk to you. Our chief echoes the accountant. "You," she says, "should listen to her, since she is the one who knows our 'debit-credit' very well. Our Istisu(2) is now in occupied territory, under a foreign boot. Before, one could go there at least once every two or three years for kidney treatments or gall-bladder cleaning. And where are we to go now? If we hadn't had a train pass, how would we have traveled here? Even the mineral spring in Galaalty(3) is beyond reach. Even if, say, you somehow manage to get there, still there is no place to stay and nothing to eat. Health resorts are packed with refugees."
"All right," I said, "are we here for treatment or food?"
The lab chief still kept at it: "This is nothing but psychotherapy and sunbathing too. At least there's enough space and it's restful on the eyes. Or else our life goes from the subway to the bus and from the bus to the 'khrushchoba.'(4) As the saying goes, they herd us in the morning, they stall us in the evening. Also, it wouldn't hurt to pick up some dry grass as hair dye."
"What good would this straw color do?"
"Straw is better than gray. Don't you know dyes are scarce?"
"Onion peel - that's what you need," recommends the accountant, searching the ground with her eyes. "And the brew from it reinforces hair roots, besides."
The lab chief lowers her voice in a conspiratorial manner: "I'll tell you what, gals, the best remedy is urine. Use it as a hair rinse and gray will turn black at the roots."
Our chief has an obsession: to her there is only one universal panacea - urine. She describes in glowing terms the miraculous effect of this liquid. Maybe it makes some sense. In old days, when they dyed yarn or treated sick animals, they used the urine of those very animals. Everything is contained in nature, both the source of an ailment and the remedy for it. It cannot be that such a perfect creature of nature as man would not find a self-made remedy for a malady. In a word, it's a self-supporting economy. "Perpetuum mobile," I say laughing.
"For you this is just a laughing matter . . ." The lab chief was going to put forward new arguments with the enthusiasm of an alchemist, when we saw a truck farmer with a shovel, running toward us and shouting something. It turned out that the "laborers," who kept their eyes on us, became vexed when the accountant broke an olive twig.
"Hey, you! What are you damaging the tree for?" The man shouted threateningly, as if he was going to hit us with a shovel.
However, as he approached, he lowered his voice: "What do you need those burs and whisks for? You make brooms?"
It appeared as if he was looking for a pretext to strike up a conversation. This was a guy about eighteen years of age, with a torso tanned to bronze, holding the shovel handle down, blade up, as if to cover his naked chest.
We were moved by his "shovel" chastity and satisfied his curiosity: "We use the grass in tea and as a hair dye. Now is the right time when redroot and purslane are sprouting. Are you saying the grass is also your property?" we asked sarcastically, growing in bravery.
"Nope, the grass is God's. Take as much as you want. As for purslane, it's not ready yet. Redroot is over there." He nodded in the direction of the hillock.
"So, that's your farm," the lab chief was egging the guy on.
"What do we need redroot for? We weed it out and toss it aside."
"Do you really?" I was surprised. "Why don't you use it in dovga?(5) You can also cook it."
The guy called one of the men and left with an air of indifference, the shovel over his shoulder. From afar, we heard him telling his senior about our intention, and the latter replied in a loud voice saying that everything is packed with redroot and we should be allowed to pick it, or else one can't get rid of it.
We walked along the patches, admiring tomato plants and eggplants which were growing fairly well.
"Look, the redroot is really huge!" My colleagues were awed, wondering how such a heavenly thing could be left untouched.
"Can we pick it?"
"What for?" the man inquired, not without irony.
"It could be used as a filling for gutaby.(6) It could also go into dovga, or into kiukiu(7) - anywhere you want."
"Sorry, but we feed this grass to cows." The toiler of the land did not hide his contempt.
"Well, what is good for cows won't hurt us," our accountant reacted without much thought. She then picked a bunch, and another.
"You'd better take roots and all, so that we have fewer weeds," another man remarked sullenly.
I imagine redroot like an exotic wonder, lush, gigantic in comparison to regular size, spread out in a whimsical way - exactly, neither more nor less, an alien guest, filling up garden patches and irrigation rows, choking plants.
Seeing my surprise, the sullen man said: "Look at her, she knows. You'll need to walk around the patches on this side. We have vegetables over there. We grow them for sale and use fertilizers. And here everything grows without chemicals. So, go ahead and pick."
"Why in the world have you dug furrows upside down? Furrows should face the sun. What you are doing is wearing out what you sowed without water and letting the weeds grow rampant."
"How come you know all that?" The truck farmer shows curiosity. "Are you a country gift? You see, we don't have enough hands. Why don't you come to work for us? When the crop is ripe, you may pick a bucket of tomatoes or cucumbers."
In the meantime, we are stuffing redroot in our bags, being on the alert, however, so that we can take off in case of danger. Our accountant comes up to me: "Did you hear, he is hiring us? If we work weekends, what do you think, how much are they going to pay us?"
"How much are you paying us?" the lab chief asks point-blank.
"You just start working," the "recruiter" replied. "Our boss is not going to hold things up, he's a good man, he won't mistreat you. We are toiling away here, the whole bunch of relatives. The boss's wife often visits too."
Another man, standing aside, joined the conversation: "We welcome everybody who comes to work here. They'll get money and produce for their labor. You may even take a piece of land from that waste plot and sow it. The arrangement is half and half: half goes to you, half to the boss. He is leasing all these lands. We are here day and night. Otherwise, someone might root out the plants and steal other things as well. Especially when the crop is ripe, you can go broke overnight. Besides, why pine away in concrete cells? It's summer - it's hot, no air to breathe, and mosquitoes won't let you sleep. You won't believe - the former chief physician of the hospital joined us and is weeding. I am a schoolteacher myself. When it was time for me to retire, I left immediately. After all, what do they pay you in state service? Even before, they did not pay a lot, and now it's not even enough to buy bread."
In a word, the former teacher won us over, and we declared that we were ready to get to work immediately: "Look for molasses and hope for honey! We'll work weekends! We'll have money, greens, vegetables, and the pleasure and benefit of breathing fresh air besides. People do exercises as therapy, out of concern for their health. So, we are going to kill two birds with one stone."
The accountant whispered to me: "You'll strike a good deal with these farmers. So, talk over the payment, let's not waste time." But the lab chief hemmed and hawed; as it turned out, she had business after lunch.
"That's all right," we said. "We'll work a while, and you'll join us tomorrow."
The fellow who was hiding his hairy chest behind the shovel hastily fetched some hoes for us, so that we wouldn't change our minds.
For his part, the sullen truck farmer promised, "I'll give you the best hundred-meter plot I have." He pointed to a spacious patch which he was assigning to us to weed and water. "And finally, dig around the tomato plants."
We mentioned the payment. They hastened to reassure us that their boss was a fair man. He had gone to buy a car and upon his return would settle the matter of our payment.
We agreed, so as not to appear mercenary, but inquired just in case: "We hope it'll be as high as fifteen to twenty thousand?"
"Oh, yes. Besides, in the orchards around here they won't give more for hired labor."
As we set out to till the patches of tomato bushes with our hoes, a familiar tart smell of plants bewitched me. I said to the accountant: "I adore the smell of tomato sprouts! There's such aroma, especially in the evening! Even when you are in a car, passing by people picking ripe tomatoes, the fragrance is marvelous. You are breathing in 'brewed' air and can't get enough."
Engrossed in work, the accountant did not respond, as if busy with her ledgers and afraid of losing count.
The tomato bushes, lost in a thicket of sedge and Bermuda grass, looked woeful. In addition, yellow the bindweed entangled them so that even the hoe was getting stuck. Here one needed to pull bindweed by hand, one by one, and only then to thrash them. And here was our accountant, zealously toiling away! Once she got ahold of the stem, she didn't let go until it was pulled out like a thread. She was crawling around the patches on all fours. Good thing the soil in Apsheron(8) is sandy. Hard clods can't be pounded by hand. One needs to water the soil beforehand for it to become friable. If it were watered now, during the heat, the plants would burn at the root. The earth is blazing. Our accountant is bending down, as if polishing the floors, already by the furrow. She is sweating from every pore but won't leave a single weed root. Why in the world is she breaking her back so much, poor thing! Look at her - only skin and bones, so that one feels sorry for her.
This bindweed is like cancer for plants. If its sprout survives, by evening it will reemerge and spread. It has to be removed and burned. It's such a stubborn, tenacious, harmful thing that it can absorb moisture even without roots, right from the air, grow strong, and cling to a suitable "donor."
I wanted to start the fire and asked the men for matches. One of them replied: "What for? Here's a cigarette. Light up!"
I didn't go into explanations. "I need it for something else." I took the matches, not even thanking him out of spite, and headed toward the olive grove. I started the fire and tossed the bindweed and other weeds into it.
I feel that the men are wondering at our enthusiasm and hear them exchange ironic remarks: "Look at them toiling away, bending over backward."
The sun is rising and growing hotter by the minute. Olive leaves are glittering, broiled by the sun. It is surprising that they even preserve some shade of green. I am messing with the fire, and our accountant is busy with her thing, not straightening up at all, crawling on all fours, as if she had forgotten how to use her legs.
"Get up and rest," I told her, "otherwise, you'll be used up." She didn't hear me. After ample persuasion, she looked up at me with her limpid blue eyes but continued to busy herself squatting, like a baby who has just been breast-fed. She shook her head in disagreement: "I need to finish this by noon." Little time remained until midday, but we were still stuck here. If we don't do half of the lot today, we'll hardly finish tomorrow. My back hurts and I have a pounding headache. Here I am - the accountant, who has never worked the land, has outstripped me, and I had doubts as to how she would manage.
One of the men watching us came up. "Shovel up some soil around the tomatoes, or else the wind will turn over the bushes. Besides, it's time to rest. Let's go have some dovga, a snack or something." Seeing that we made excuses, he added: "If you don't want dovga, we can crack a bottle of wine." he laughed as he spoke. "Young cherry wine, how can you refuse? Have a glass and you'll become like a youngster. Come on, let's have some!" he insisted.
"We don't drink," the accountant frowned.
"We're not drunkards either. Let's go and wet our whistles a bit."
Our faces turned even more sour and we thanked the blunderer with sobering severity. Even though he got the point that a joint meal wouldn't work out, he gave no sign and, having uttered in passing, "Follow me," strode toward the trailer.
I glanced in that direction: "They're going to have lunch the English way! It's not even noon, yet they're ready to eat."
As she continued her genuflection, the accountant grumbled: "Bastards, they wanted to lure us with a bottle! Listen, talk to the boss more sternly - the minimum pay is fifteen grand and we won't work for less. At least each of us will get five thousand, and even that won't suffice to buy seven eggs. Tsk, tsk! This kind of work could kill you." She pounded dirt clods with vexation.
"Don't pay attention to their quibbles. They are dropping a hint."
Our blue-eyed one seemed to be downright alarmed. And as if the lab chief couldn't have put off her business. "The three of us would've been more brave."
There was not a single woman among the men having lunch. And those who were milling around by the trailer a while ago had vanished as if into thin air. Unwittingly, I was figuring out how long it would take to run to the station, but to the accountant I said: "Don't be afraid. We have hoes - whoever would like to get knocked on the head, let him try."
Squeezing the handle of the hoe, I felt, for the first time, the working instrument as a weapon, and this reassured me. Having finished dinner, the men left. The one who offered wine was picking his teeth. Before dinner I did not fear him, but now for some reason I felt uneasy with him in his satiety. I made a fierce face and, changing my voice to sound rough, called the accountant: "How come our Akhad is not here yet?"
She stared at me.
"I am talking about your husband. Didn't he promise to arrive by noon?"
The man became curious: "Whose husband?"
I pointed to my friend and said to her: "Maybe you didn't give him good directions?"
Finally, our blue-eyed one caught on to my trick. "Oh no, he knows the road well."
The "teacher" who cheered up after "lunch" in the trailer began to inquire into our entire life stories. Our accountant, as usual, was laying out everything "as is," as if filling out a questionnaire. When my turn came, I introduced myself as a librarian. My real occupation I ascribed to my husband.
"How can your engineer let his wife go for such jobs? Probably you deceived him and don't keep him posted?"
"Why deceive him? Is it really shameful to work on the land?"
"Well," he shrugged. "You probably have many children, don't you?" Thus I "wound up" with four children.
I was thinking to myself: I can just imagine how Makhmud will burst out laughing when he finds out about this whole adventure. He'll laugh at my lies. Maybe he'll get angry? Indeed, what will he think about such "seasonal work"? He, for one, wouldn't have cast prudence to the winds. He'd sooner get dried up like a tree than bow to anybody and wouldn't set about business he considers inappropriate. Not to mention a woman day-laborer. I'll immediately seem diminished in his eyes. Without asking, without advice, to rush into something so unthinkingly - eureka! She found a job! Go and explain how everything happened. Suppose I had explained? Would he really have allowed that? It's as clear as day that he wouldn't. And to come here against his will means to provoke offense. He thinks that a man is responsible for everything and for the woman too. He must take all blows and misfortunes, protecting her. Even if he agreed in his heart with my arguments, his opinion would be unequivocal. Besides, why should I shove our poverty into his face? He might interpret it as a demonstrative gesture of despair. Then I wish the earth would swallow me up. No, it would be nice to tell him everything. Then I'll have only one sin on my soul: setting out on the adventure without asking, without advice.
Meanwhile, the curious man bored us to death with his questions. There was but one question remaining: what did your parents do before the Soviets took power?
"Why did your friend retreat? What does she do?" He was asking about the lab chief.
"She didn't warn her husband. She'll ask permission and come tomorrow." I was making it all up as I went, bestowing in passing a "happy marriage" on our single colleague while hiding her Master's degree. "She's a lab assistant," I said.
And then a comforting thought dawned on me: the chief knows our location and these men saw one of us leave, so what are we afraid of? I was thinking: oh, these women, these dimwits, these featherheads, but never to such a degree!
It appeared that the accountant and I realized our circumstance simultaneously. We became bold, as though that boring man were the rookie and not we ourselves. Now it was our turn to launch an "attack" and shower him with questions, turning the conversation to the subject of pay, but the sly fellow skirted the question, saying, "This is for the boss to decide." Finally, having found out that we had already lived in the wide world for half a century, he became downcast. But then we saw, heading toward us, the bronze Dionysus, still with the shovel but now wearing a tank top, either for the sake of propriety or because of the scorching sun.
"Gialin-baji(9) is asking you to have at least a cup of dovga." The guy's face revealed sincere respect, and we agreed.
The woman who was setting the glasses on the table in front of the trailer treated us with compassion, urging us to have a bite of something. We refused the snack but became embarrassed at our recent fears and dark thoughts while enjoying the dovga, fragrant with fresh greens. We even drank a second cup and felt a surge of energy. Now we were ready to work until dawn. Even the mercilessly broiling sun appeared friendly to us, and we were blessing the boss, whom we had not yet seen, for having created this farm. What a sensible thing to do! In a time of universal want he provided both means for his family and work for persons interested.
"What a bright mind! He has refrigerators, he brought power lines in. The cows are grazing. The man labors away and reaps the fruit. Nothing like us, depending on a pitiful salary."
"We'll come here every weekend," I said to the accountant.
Holding her hand to her blue eyes, she pointed to the train rushing toward the horizon: "There's hunger for food and hunger for space."
Tomato bushes, cleared of weeds, are like babies undressed before bathing. They are shivering with cold, waiting for water. The sight of those plants longing for moisture reminded me of an episode from my distant childhood, an episode which still evokes a burning feeling in my soul. . . . Like a miser agonizing over penny, I couldn't forget the beans I once tried to raise but only destroyed.
The tanned guy with the shovel came to help us with the tomatoes. We wouldn't have managed alone, but still we objected; the guy didn't yield, however, for the irrigation furrow went through their plot. He stood up at the fork of the channel, throwing a shovel of manure into our furrow, a shovel into theirs. This way, the channel was both watering and fertilizing "our" tomatoes. The soil will soften until morning, and we won't have to work in the dust. Otherwise, as you loosen and pound the tussocks and clods, you'll get worn out. I am working without let-up, sweating from every pore. I don't even have the strength to utter a word. We were so depleted that by the end we were unable to pick more than a small bunch of redroot, putting the rest off until tomorrow. I was in pretty bad shape - my dress was short-sleeved, and my arms and legs were burned red. The pain of the bum was already getting to me, and tomorrow I could expect blisters. How then was I going to toil from morning till night? If I could find some matsoni,(10) I would coat my skin with it and at least it would bum less. The accountant says: "If we had matsoni, we would have eaten it. Wet the bums with urine."
I tried this remedy. Bottom line - it got better. At first it burns and then it eases the pain.
If Makhmud only knew. He is right, poor thing, saying: each year in spring you feel an urge to pull a stunt. The year before last it almost caused trouble. The buds were swelling on the trees. I saw several willow branches lying on the road, with leaves already peeking through. I felt sorry for them. "They will get trampled over," I thought. "Let me take them home." I put them in water in a vase. They came to life, spread out their leaves, began blooming and fluffing up. They even sprouted roots.
I told Makhmud: let us plant them somewhere, they are live trees. And he said: "As if you don't have enough to worry about. At home that they feel fine, but in the soil they'll perish - kids will break them or animals will eat them. Besides, willows need moist soil. Where are you going to get that?" I said: "It's not a big deal to water one tree. I'll do it myself. They'll get stronger, grow roots deep into the soil, and will then be on their own." I dinned it into his ears, and he gave up. We planted a couple of cuttings nearby in the park. I said: "One is yours, the other is mine. Let them grow." I made an enclosure out of twigs. I could have done it better, but Makhmud dissuaded me, saying: "The stronger the fence, the more they'll try to pull it down. Better to leave it that way, the cuttings won't be an eyesore to anybody." "In general," he said, "I don't like your idea - a labor of Sisyphus. They're not going to take root." "Why not?" I said. "They are live cuttings."
They sprouted beautifully! Golden leaves turned green, the cuttings filled with strength and shot up, as becomes their kith and kin. Then the twigs curved, bent down to earth - and here's a weeping willow for you.
I kept on bringing water and fertilized the soil with manure. Frankly speaking, even though I argued with Makhmud, doubts began to creep into my own heart: and what if they won't take root? Each time, seeing the cuttings doing well, I thought: this is a miracle. I was dying to show them to Makhmud. Alas, a week later I came there and saw that my willows had been crushed. I tried to assure myself that if the roots were intact, they would come back to life. They never did. I noticed that something had knocked them down, trying to uproot them. It looked as if some beast had sunk its teeth into them, picked them over, and left. I looked around and thought: where would this beast come from?
Next thing I know, there is a man between the trees, hurrying in my direction - I was taken aback. Though a park, still the place is remote, and there was not a soul in it. The unknown man moved stealthily, in a crouch, as one does when chasing a hen. I grabbed the watering can and took off. When I reached the highway, I slowed down - there were cars, people. Maybe it was not me toward whom the fellow walked. What a panic-monger I am! But no, still it looked as though he was heading toward me and saying something, either grumbling to himself or addressing me. That's the way he passed me by, talking. Now it was clear: the poor fellow was not in his right mind. My fear was gone, and I forgot about him while walking on and grieving over the willows. I did not even have time to tell Makhmud, and if I tell him now, he won't believe me.
Deep in thought, I suddenly came to myself. Who is the man walking up ahead? He was walking with his hands behind his back in the manner of country aksakals.(11) They walk with their hands folded behind their backs as if the burden of labor of all those years were pressing on them, and now these work-weary hands can rightfully give themselves up to deserved rest. But such an old man with the measured step of a young man seemed strange to me. In his hand he had a piece of paper or . . . no! a stack of banknotes! I looked closely - the man is walking, holding banknotes unfolded like a fan behind his back. Maybe he is an unfortunate gambler. He is walking as if shuffling the deck. From time to time he turns back and says something to me. Obviously nuts. Hey, that's the same very fellow from the park! What in the world did he want? What times these are!
When I told all that to Makhmud, laughing about it, he got very angry: "You are a grown woman but you have no brains. You are making no sense! Give up these ideas! Like a butterfly, you are hopping up hill and down dale!"
And now, while we were plodding along to the station, scarcely dragging our feet, I was thinking about one thing: how is he going to react to our idea? We got on the train, found a place to sit, and hastily occupied it. The windows had been shattered. Thus we traveled "in a breezy way." It was a filthy wreck of a car, with a nauseating odor, and the seats - yuck! There were pieces of glass in the window too. How do people ride in winter, when the wind blows through the car?
"The war has been on for five years. Good thing this buggy still moves," says the accountant, massaging her "heart" point. That's a habit she has had since childhood, since undergoing heart surgery. From time to time she seeks out various cures. She has picked up a smattering of the wisdom of Chinese medicine in the process. "Each organ," she would say, "has receptive points on the skin. If you massage the proper point, you stimulate the activity of the ailing organ."
I fear for her precisely because she is not strong. This kind of work is unusual for her. She looks worn out, about to fall apart. The man in front of us, however, is dying to strike up a conversation with her. If he is not prattling about himself, he is asking us to tell him from where and to where we are traveling.
Our accountant behaves as if at an inquest - she always answers everything as truthfully as possible. All these years, and still we haven't been able to teach her flexibility and cunning. Meanwhile, the talker offers us work at his dacha. He pays fifteen grand a day and has a place to sleep over. Last year, you see, he had a woman from Krasnoyarsk work for him for three months. So, he persuades us, if we come, we won't regret it.
He meant not me but our blue-eyed one. He described in glowing terms what figs he has, his swimming pool, the fish, the water lilies! he wouldn't leave the poor girl alone. However, had we been high-spirited, the conversation could have turned pleasant, since our companion spoke so enthusiastically about his dacha. He is a veteran of the oil industry, now retired, and lives on the crops from his dacha.
"This is such a pleasure," he moved his finger across his Adam's apple. He was as tanned as a black man, lean, skin and bone, as if the sun had dried him out to the point of leaving only the skeleton to put clothes on. If we worked one whole summer, we would become like that. There was only one benefit from the tiresome chatter: we learned how the pay of hired workers is apportioned. As it turned out, we figured correctly. This reassured us that tomorrow we would get our fifteen grand.
The heat of the sun, absorbed by the body, was now raging inside. When I touched my shoulder, it was like an oven, and it left fingerprints as in dough. The whirlwind blowing in the railroad car did not refresh but rather scorched. However, if there were no such ventilation in Apsheron, just imagine what the heat would be! Besides, the level of the Caspian Sea had risen.
It is possible that the winds of Apsheron might change direction and, within a single generation, these dry steppes would turn into humid subtropics, with lemons, tangerines, feijoa. After all, things previously inconceivable do happen! For the past two years even the map of the world has changed, and the way of life along with it. Now, as in primeval times, you almost have to get your food with your teeth.
We parted with the accountant, having agreed to meet at seven in the morning at the train station. I thought in disdain: who is going to fetch water for bathing, who is going to cook? As soon as I enter my apartment, I will collapse on my bed.
Nevertheless, I did find the strength to wash off the dust and dirt. I even cooked the redroot and ate some of it. Although I had dreamt the whole day of lying down on my bed, when I finally did so, I couldn't close my eyes. I couldn't keep my eyelids open, yet wasn't able to fall asleep either. My whole body ached, and I was restless. Finally, I dozed off and saw my late brother and father - our house was on fire, and they were rushing about. My brother, who died young, was distressed that I had started working as a sharecropper. When he was alive, he cared all his life about all of us, although he was the youngest.
Morning came. "Oh God, my legs!" I wailed, and I was scarcely able to get up, having to lift my jaded body out of bed virtually part by part. However, contrary to my expectations, my burned skin had not blistered and the nagging pain was gone. The skin had hardened and darkened overnight. Here was the effect of folk medicine - the burn had disappeared at a single stroke. It turns out that the popular monologues of our chief about this refuse of the human organism have some truth to them. In order not to get burned like yesterday, I put on a dress with long sleeves. In general, it wouldn't be a bad idea to find some sort of army-surplus clothing. No civilian garb will hold up if we toil away like that every weekend. We'll wind up in rags.
Not seeing the accountant at the station, I became worried. Maybe her heart is affected and she is sick? And what shall I do without her? Shall I go or not? The lab chief promised to arrive by noon. What shall I do there alone? But then again, if I don't go, the chief will be alone. I must go. And the train is late. As I looked at the rails, I started feeling depressed. In general, ever since I was little, trains have always made me feel sad. In my imagination, trains have always torn people away from homes and taken them somewhere to the end of the world. In our family, nobody has boarded a train voluntarily. Trains took my grandfather, a "kulak," into exile, my father, an intellectual, to the camps, my brother, a rebel, to distant provinces. In a word, all the kinsmen who used to wear a papakha(12) were scattered by trains. And here I am waiting for the train, pacifying the pain of memories in the yellow light of the morning sun, the train that will tear me away from scientific experiments that I have been conducting for years, from the work that I have been writing.
And as soon as the train arrived, I rolled into the car like an inanimate cart and occupied a seat. I closed my eyes not to see the filth in the decrepit train wagon, the semidilapidated hovels along the road, the backyards crammed with trash. My body had become heavy in just one day, and I almost did not have enough strength to raise a hand. How in the world was I going to work with such pain? I got up when they called, "Station Baglar." Like old people do, I first bent forward and, tearing myself from the seat, dragged my body onto the platform. I had already set out toward our plot when I heard the accountant calling me. She caught up with me, breathless.
"I was late . . . while transferring from one bus to another. Good thing the train waited for me." She was joking.
"Well, at least don't run now."
"As soon as I ran up to the train, I saw you being shoved into the car together with the crowd, and I rushed for the nearest car. Imagine, they gave me a seat! Otherwise, I would have gone to find you. I thought: we'll meet after we get off the train, anyway."
"OK, now take a breath," I said, and thought: oh, the darling of the institute, our blue-eyed one, can you possibly leave anyone in trouble?
My mood improved. The depressing presentiment of the day-labor to come took flight. With such a friend I am ready to go to the ends of the earth. After a day of work, she has a pinched face and sunken eyes.
"Is your heart bothering you?"
"Not at all." She brushes aside my question, but the tone of her voice is saying, "Don't even ask." Shadows under her eyes give everything away.
The tomato bushes that we watered and weeded seem to have risen overnight. The men from yesterday were already on their patches. The wine-praiser gave it out immediately: yesterday, he said, he spoke with the boss over the phone, and the boss promised to arrive after noon and pay us for our bloody labor. "Maybe you'll stay and work more?" he inquired searchingly.
We shook our heads with determination. The thrashing motion of our hoes set all our insides shaking. The tools that we operated so easily yesterday now seemed like weights, heavy enough to cause us to overstrain ourselves. We sized up the plot - we had so much to weed, everything grew dark before our eyes.
If the lab chief is not coming today as well, we are in trouble. Having intuited my thoughts, the accountant said:
"Then, even if we were Gullivers, we couldn't handle that."
"Even if we have to toil away until dark, we'll need to finish."
My partner, it seems, was seized by fear at the amount of work to be done. She already looks pale, she looks awful, and her eyes are like lakes overgrown with sedge.
"Maybe you'll lie down under the olive trees?"
"You've got to be kidding! To be lying around in front of them?!"
"Then sit down and take a rest."
Neglecting my advice, she is sprawling over the patch and pulling the weeds.
"Work a while and you'll pick up speed," she reassures either herself or me.
"Then let's do the following. You'll pull the weeds and I'll thrash them. Otherwise, your heart will be jolted too much by the hoe."
"No, I'll manage myself." She resisted. I had to leave her alone. I didn't have the strength to argue. The sun is scorching even more than yesterday, beating down even through the headscarf.
"Don't become limp," I keep telling myself. "You are not a goner!" But I can't wind myself up. Good thing that yesterday they at least filled the furrows with water. Otherwise, today we wouldn't have enough strength to break up clods and hummocks with the hoe.
It's a day and a half that we have spent with hoe in hand, but time seems to have stopped the moment we arrived here. There's no end either to work or to the day. If it were not for the trains roaring by, we would feel as if we were on another planet. Another train, deep-voiced, rushed by without stopping.
The "wine-lover," propping his chin upon the handle of the shovel, followed the train with his eyes and told the young fellow: "That's a government train. Did you see, it didn't stop? It's taking a big shot to a government dacha."
With our eyes we instinctively follow the train as it moves away. It seems the man is right. The cars are clean, green, the glass is intact, even the curtains are white. The whole train is festive, jolly, boisterous. It is as if it emerged for a moment from another world and entered our dingy life. The men on the patches were making caustic remarks about it. It was strange that the train's victorious march stirred in them such envious attention. The train changed our mood but little, although I had time to wonder that there still exist people heading for recreation. All resorts and dachas are packed with refugees. In these five years the government has changed at least four times, but the privileges, as it turns out, still remain! I felt a kind of relief: if there are still people vacationing, then not everything is wrong with the world after all.
As far as the men are concerned, after the episode with the train, they were less enthusiastic about work. "Let's go and have some tea." They started off toward the trailer. "Come with us," said the "wine-lover." "Have some tea. Work is not going to run away." But having heard our gloomy "Thanks," he left us alone.
We had been hoping only for heavenly grace, until the lab chief arrived. The accountant crawled along the patch inch by inch in desperate determination, as if breaking the wall with her forehead, without exchanging a word, as though she were saving her strength. She wouldn't even groan like me. The chief's arrival cheered us up. She brought tea as well, brewed with rose hips. We are already reassured - the three of us will do it, it's clear. Yet we are concerned about the boss: what if he won't deign to visit us? Then how many times do we have to come here for our pay?
The chief was wound up. She poured tea in glasses and said, "Girls, I'm leaving."
"Why did you come then? You should be taking care of your business." The accountant regretted that the chief had covered such a distance in order to keep her word.
"No, I am leaving for good . . . abroad. Today I received a visa."
We froze with glasses in our hands.
"Where to?" we appealed in unison. "what about us? What about our homeland?"
"You know," the chief looked down guiltily. "I've never had anything but work." She paused. "It's not a matter of a hard life. We live not by bread alone. We can earn our bread somehow, even if we have a bad time of it. But I am losing my professionalism. The course to which I dedicated my entire life fell apart in front of my eyes. Our lab no longer exists. Our going to work there is like a prolonging of agony. You understand it better than I." She nervously shook her head. "But it'll be impossible to create such a lab for another twenty years. Even if we could create it, it won't be in my lifetime. You are younger, and maybe you'll make it till then." Rubbing her hands, she fell into a silence which was disturbed only by the murmur of water in the furrow.
The accountant sniffed resentfully: "Do you think that abroad there is a land flowing with milk and honey?"
"Foreign land, lonely land," I echoed.
"Does it mean that here we never experience loneliness?" The chief gave us a steady look. "I don't flatter myself a bit. Who needs us here? By the same token, they're not waiting for us there. I'm not chasing comforts and delicacies. You yourselves know that. Without work, life loses all meaning for me."
"But do you think they're going to hand you work there on a silver platter?" The accountant all but attacked her.
"Nobody and nothing is waiting for me there. Professionals from all over the world gather there. Maybe I'll get a chance, one out of a hundred. At least I'll know I've fought until the end!" She took out of her bag a starched, ironed headscarf and, covering her head, tied the corners under her chin. Then she went to work.
The accountant laughed. "What a sight! A kindergarten teacher, no more, no less!"
I did see her like that once - in the subway. It was crowded, and I noticed our chief on the steps, with a flower pot. She was selling violets, no doubt about it. Some people stared at her in bewilderment, others asked about the price and passed by. She replied, lowering her gaze. She grew numb, would not look up. And she had that same bright white headscarf on. If you saw her, she would seem an angel with a halo. In our cosmic research lab, we are accustomed to seeing her conjure routinely amid retorts and test tubes. There, in the crowd, in the muddle, she seemed like an alien, something put there for contrast, to underscore the surrounding squalor and slovenliness. The violets were washed and bright, and so were her clothes. She does laundry endlessly. The accountant jokes: "Our chief is not getting married because she can't launder her husband."
Having gone round the subway, I got the idea to have one of the men hanging out there buy some violets for me. I talked one of them into it. It seemed as if, had I bought them myself, she wouldn't have recognized me, so detached was she, so withdrawn into herself. One could take her for a sphinx and nothing else.
I thought at the time that she was doing this for sustenance. It turned out, you see, that she was getting ready for a trip.
Having finished our rose-hips tea in silence, we headed for the irrigation furrows and explained to her what needed to be done.
The day was waning, but the boss still had not shown up. The men reassured us: "He's sure to come. Normally, he spends a great deal of time here, but the troubles of buying a car drew him away. That woman - do you see her? - came to work here from the countryside. The boss will have to settle with her as well. We'd better go and have some dovga in the meantime. Work is not going to run away."
We had a couple or more furrows to take care of, and we thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to wash and freshen up.
The woman with a child by the trailer turned out to be working on contract also. She was neither local nor a relative, as we thought. In this scorching heat she was dressed in all black - sure to get roasted. The shiny synthetics clung to her scrawny body like snakeskin. But she seemed to care little about the heat. Squinting, she anxiously followed her boy with her eyes as he walked away with the son of the woman who had treated us to dovga.
She shyly called her little son, but the latter was walking with his young friend, romping and hopping like a colt separated from a mare. He either did not hear his mother's call or pretended not to hear.
The mother would have started off after him, but the woman-cook stopped her, saying they'd be back soon. Seeing that the woman in black nevertheless headed after the two boys, the cook, swaying her burly body, called her son, giving such a bark that it rang in our ears. It is not for nothing that they say you can recognize the master's dog from afar. The cook's son turned around, and the cook menacingly snarled a couple of strong words or more and sank down in the shade by the trailer, like a hen hatching eggs. The woman in black calmed down a little.
Before the boys came back, the "wine-lover" showed up, obviously having just been awakened. As though justifying his appearance among the women, he reproached the burly "brood hen": "What was all this shouting about, Salmi?" Then he turned to the woman in black: "So, have you decided to stay?"
The latter was in agonizing doubt, shifting her glance from her approaching son to us. Then, as though answering all of us, she said: "I am not afraid of work." She looked round the whole space of the plot, as if tracing a falling star in the sky. "What's so special about it? I used to sow land by the acre." She squinted: was her son coming? We involuntarily looked at her sinewy arms. They were like axes, with the sleeves rolled up. And her nose in her tanned face was sticking out like a peg. Her build, her whole wiry figure revealed such confident strength that she herself looked like a working tool.
"So, what's the problem?"
She said as if cut off: "One thing doesn't suit me - that not a single woman stays here overnight."
"Well, you know better. During harvest time all of us spend days and nights here. Now we stay here in shifts," the man replied indifferently, as if informing us of a weather forecast. "That is, stay if you want. If not, bye-bye."
The woman in black, as one freezing in the rain and defending herself from something, said, "Not a single one stays."
"If you have a place to stay in town, spend the night there. You'll be here during the day and there in the evening." The man, still sure in her consent, pointed to us: "There you have people with higher education. They too will be working on weekends."
The woman stared at us, bewildered. We nodded at the words of the "recruiter." The latter said: "What can you buy with a salary? It's enough only for bread. But one has many more expenses - transportation, sugar, tea, not to mention clothing and shoes. Soap too. People are not getting even this miserable pay for months. What's the use, if they get paid when money is devalued?"
Having heard the recruiter's reasons, the woman still held her ground. "I repeat: this is not difficult for me. All my life I have been planting tomatoes and cucumbers." Again her gaze outlined the trajectory of a falling star.
The employer ran out of arguments. "As you wish," he said, and walked off into the field.
Still approaching under the mother's watchful eyes, the boy finally reached her and immediately stuck his head into her skirt. The mother's gaze at last tore itself away from him, and we had her undivided attention.
"How could you let your house in the village go?" I said, looking for a pretext to express my concern over her.
"It just happened," she replied reluctantly, letting me know that she didn't want to dwell upon the subject.
"Well, there's work everywhere." I tried to express my sympathy but, seeing that she didn't feel like conversing, soon fell silent.
Probably her child is to start school this year. If the mother gets stuck here, then school will have to wait for a long time.
No sooner did we start working than the men informed us: "Hurrah, the boss has showed up!"
The latter, a middle-aged man, was already talking to the woman in black, making gestures and pointing to the garden patches.
Then he headed toward us, greeting us from afar as if we were old acquaintances: "I got a call in the evening and was told our ranks have swelled. They say you are giving it an honest shot, not leaving a single mote on the patches. Good job! Until our people understand one needs to get down to working on the land, they'll have a dog's life ahead of them. One simply can't walk past the marketplace - bozos there are saying: 'Buying dollars! Buying Russian rubles!' Is there no end to it? What are you getting from it, my poor people?! Five years of war . . . they grabbed so much of our land. At least plow and sow what's left. How long are we going to beg? Is it possible to survive setting one's hopes upon a good foreign uncle?"
"But do they give land there to be plowed and sowed?" I am saying this as a person who is ready to start farming instantly.
The boss waved his hand: "Nothing happens by magic. Do you know how much it costs me to keep this parcel? The policeman says pay me, the executive says pay me, pay taxes, buy fertilizer and other things - seeds, water. As for the daredevils from the local village, they also have to be buttered up on time so they won't bother you. Otherwise, you won't have a single seedling left. The lion's share of income flows into spongers' pockets. And still, thank Allah, we are breaking even."
The accountant was making me a sign from behind his back - two fingers, meaning "Get to business and demand no less than twenty grand." The boss himself led the conversation around to payment.
"That's how we do it. All expenses are counted - gathering crops, selling them, a daily meal, etc. What remains is divided in half: a part to me, a part to you."
Having heard about our conditions, he stared at me: "Nothing of the kind! For a bottle of wine, for a piece of bread, people toil away for two days. There, at the Zabrat station, huge crowds of men gather, a thousand or fifteen hundred a day. I can hardly even get out of the car before they start asking for work."
The accountant railed at him: "We are not sots!"
"Well, that's just the way it is. You aren't worth more than half a grand per head."
The lab chief shivered at such a cynical price list. Still hoping that maybe she had misunderstood what was said, she stared at me with her owlish eyes, bewildered, as if looking for help. Even though I too was choking with tears from the insult, I got a grip on myself: "Watch what you're saying!"
It appeared that I was counting on preserving civil ethics, whereas he said bluntly, without beating about the bush: "Let's talk straight. This is not the place to play the pampered darling. Here we have all sorts of people. It happens, you know - they run away from dens of iniquity and come to us for good money."
The hoes fell from our hands. Hardly had we opened our mouths in order to tell off the boor, when he departed, shaking the dust from his pants and grumbling something along the way.
"This horseshit of a salesman palmed ornamental-tomato seeds off on me. Had they been high-yielding bushes, it would've been a small loss."
We could not look at each other out of shame and humiliation. The chief stood gasping for air and the accountant was shaking the dirt from her hands, as if trying to clean off the filth of the uttered words.
"As it came down to us, even the tomatoes became ornamental," I said, pulling at the weeds fiercely.
"What's the matter with you, are you still working?!" the accountant almost cried with vexation. "As if you were trying to gain his favor - that's what he'll think." She grabbed the hoe from my hands, throwing it aside.
The lab chief, as usual, drew scholarly conclusions: "There's nothing we can do, gals! This was to be expected in a country where nobody gives a damn about labor, about work. He was boorish with us intentionally, in order to reject us and not pay us."
"He made it clear to us: we are old hags and we are not in demand on the other market - that's what brought us here." It seems the accountant wished to relieve her soul by these desperate effusions.
"To hell with him! The women he has here are like escapees from brothels. There, that brood hen by the trailer - suppose she found herself in our situation, what would she do?" I blurted this out and grasped the hoe as if in a righteous anger, ready, it seems, to attack the country bumpkin and smash his mug, to shut his dirty mouth.
The accountant pulled the hoe away from me, almost wringing my hand. The lab chief gave me a piercing look of reproach: "Look at you." I became ashamed of my words. I even got angry at myself, recalling how the woman against whom I had just spoken had treated us to dovga.
"We did get ourselves into a pretty mess! Indeed, there's a beast dormant in every man."
It seems a snake awakened in me - I was ready to bite everybody.
The chief attempted to ease the tension with a joke: "That's how revolutions start."
"This is my country. Am I some sort of hired labor?"
"No, you're a servant," the chief uttered seriously, disconcerting me. She didn't have the slightest intention of joking. "Remember what you wrote when you filled out that questionnaire: 'social origin - civil servant.' Servant, derived from the word servant. Your predecessors therefore had a similar occupation."
"They did serve, but they didn't wait on anybody! In general, are there going to be laws in this country or not?"
"There have always been and there still are," she continued with ironclad conviction. "Strong laws." Seeing my perplexity, she reconfirmed: "Yes, tribal law. This law will last throughout our lifetime and for years to come. Look around: here and there dear relatives are holding on to one another. Everybody got oriented and established themselves. And you are a pariah without rights in your own country."
"True . . . I am beyond any law. Even my marriage is called 'civil'."
The chief grasped at this: "And what do you think? What kind of word is that? 'Citizen husband,' 'civil family.' Like a convict, you can't say 'comrade' as others do."
Seeing that the chief was rubbing salt into my wounds, the accountant tried to moderate the conversation. "Let's go, Citizen Makhmud is tired of waiting for his wife."
"He is not even at home," I replied in the same manner. "He went to his former wife. Time to go home. And what we earned - let them choke on it!"
The accountant just stood there blinking: "How's that? For two days nobody has given Akhad a sip of water. I leave him all alone in order at least to make something myself, not to return home empty-handed. And you're saying let's go home? For three months, with great difficulty, I've been trying to get a pension for Akhad, and also some medicine. Let them pay us for our work! And I'll pick some red-root besides."
In silence, we helped her pick the grass.
She had married a handicapped man. They had no children but lived in harmony. Sometimes she praised Akhad: he did this, he helped with that. She wouldn't eat a piece of candy, saving it for him instead.
The lab chief again started in on the subject of urine, saying, "It's the best medicine."
"I can't make him drink it," complained the accountant. "'I can't for the life of me,' he says."
We saw the fellow who helped us water the tomato bushes approaching. He was walking with such an air as if he had been ordered to chase us away. His fumbling as he spoke revealed his shame at the duty with which he had been entrusted. He shyly handed us several banknotes. "The boss sent this."
Our chief became indignant: "Doesn't your boss have a name? Or has he forgotten his name? That's a boss for you!"
The man lowered his eyes and looked aside, as if he were the one to blame for everything. He even gave a shudder when the accountant angrily pulled the money from his hand. We hurried to the train without looking back.
"Each of us gets a loaf of bread," the accountant said as she handed as little as a thousand to each of us.
The lab chief put on airs, saying, "I haven't earned anything, share it between yourselves."
"Don't argue," I said. "We'd better give everything for Akhad."
The chief completely approved of my idea, but when she tried to prevail upon the accountant, the mood suddenly soured.
"Well, all right," agreed the accountant. "Then half a loaf is yours." This was enough to make the chief angry.
I suddenly recalled that I had taken some scissors with me in order to cut burdock heads. When they are covered with small purple flowers, it becomes such a lovely sight, like a cosmic wonder. If they are put in water at home, they will turn toward bright light, like dwarf Chinese trees. I cut several burdock heads not far from the roadbed.
"Flowers are nice when they are given to you," the accountant hardly moved her tongue.
"It depends on who gives them," the chief noted playfully, as if all her life her beloved had been giving her flowers.
"No, flowers bring joy even when you buy them yourself. When you recall their names, you feel light at heart."
The tongue is always wagging, they say. At that moment I could not have cared less either about those exotic thorns or about the fact that they were occasionally pricking my legs through the bag. The flower theme seemed to me as uninteresting as the whims of idle people.
I couldn't think of anything else but sitting down on a train seat and returning to the city.
The accountant closed her eyes and withdrew into herself. She didn't even stroke the "heart point" on her hand. Only the chief was still talking. She importuned me: had she given me Shikhabeddin Sukhraverdi to read? No, she hadn't. She persisted: "Ask those acquaintances of yours who are admirers of Sukhraverdi."
"I can't recall anybody. Moreover, it's not my custom to borrow books and not return them. Don't you know that?"
"Why get so down in the dumps right away? I want you to have it as a keepsake."
"I already have keepsake from you," I was thinking. "A violet-pot. But you'll never know about it."
The accountant opened her eyes as though she had forgotten something.
"What's today's date?"
"June 9, 1993," the chief pronounced in measured tones, as if it were a historical date.
"I hope I didn't confuse the day Akhad is due for his complete physical."
The chief grumbled: "What a stupid routine - every year a grown man has to be dragged to the hospital in order to reconfirm his handicap. As if his spine could become intact again." Then, in order to distract the accountant from gloomy thoughts, she started talking on and on about what a great philosopher Sukhraverdi is. As for me, everything I have ever read and studied has turned into a thin ray the size of a needle point, fading away with incredible speed somewhere in the depths of memory. In place of the body, I felt an uncontrollable bulk, swelled with pain and weight, that seemed to have come off its axis. Having reached home, already lying in bed, I couldn't soothe this nagging bulk and immerse it in dreamy oblivion. I kept on stirring in bed, seeing somewhere in space the eyes of the woman in black, and under those eyes I was failing and falling somewhere into the abyss. "Did she stay?" - the importunate thought about the woman in black became fixed in my mind. It suddenly appeared to me that some insect, having rustled over my head, were touching my face. I opened my eyes, afraid of the thought that I was going out of my mind. A butterfly. . . . It is impossible to see such a motley, figured butterfly on the meager land of Apsheron.
This was one of those beauties I remember from childhood, when they would hop over my bean sprouts wilting from heat. I felt revived. That's a good sign, I thought. When I get up, I'll set it free. Then I remembered that butterflies have a short life. There are even ephemerae. With an agonizing effort, I made myself get off the bed. May no butterfly ever know captivity!
Translated from the Russian By Siiavush Mamedzade
1 Redroot: an edible grass.
2 Istisu: a health resort in the Caucasus region of Azerbaijan.
3 Galaalty: another health resort in the Caucasus region of Azerbaijan.
4 Khrushchoba: state housing, the widespread construction of which was carried out in the 1960s as Nikita Khrushchev's proposed solution to the housing problem. The word also bears an association with trushchoba, meaning "slum," which suggests quite poor quality.
5 Dovga: a popular drink in Azerbaijan.
6 Gutaby: an Azerbaijani dish.
7 Kiukiu: a kind of omelet with greens.
8 The Apsheron Peninsula, on whose southern shore Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is located. Apsheron makes up the eastern end of the Caucasus on the territory of Azerbaijan. It is a rolling valley with salt lakes and alkaline soil.
9 Gialin-baji: a sister-in-law.
10 Matsoni: a kind of yogurt.
11 Aksakal: an elected village elder; also, an honorable and respectable man.
12 Papakha: a tall Caucasian fur hat.
SARA MOLLACHYKYZY NAZIROVA (b. 1944) worked for twenty-two years as a curator, guide, and section chief at the Mustafaev Azerbaijan State Art Museum in Baku. Since 1988 she has been a consultant and literary associate with the Azerbaijan Writers Union, serving as fiction editor of the journal Azerbaijan and chief cultural editor of the journal Iurd. In addition to articles on art history and theory, she has been publishing fiction since 1979 in Azeri, Russian, and English. Her books include Tree of Gratitude (1986) and The Sign of Destiny (1992). She is also the author of several works for the stage and screen, among them The Bridge of Courage and The Assassination.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||short story|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1996|
|Previous Article:||Your eyes extinguished.|
|Next Article:||Kazakhstan: a dilettante's marginal notes on national literature.|