I stubbornly persisted in visiting them. For years. A typical dysfunctional family with frequent moves, alcohol addiction, the police, and the social services in its personal history. Families like these rarely lose something, simply because they have nothing to. Barely anyone knows about their life from the inside. They are like the untouchables: people would hire them to pull weeds or clean up their pigsty, but they wouldn’t ask them to come over or to join their families for dinner. The odor of booze and petty thefts—nagging, sickly-sweet—trailed behind them. The villagers could smell it two miles away.
My grandpa, no doubt, didn’t allow me to mix with them. A small, rigid village community held up to shame anyone who smelled like smoke from their drunken fires.
“Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare to go to those infected! Back off!
“Infected? What do you mean? What are they infected with?” I pretended as if I didn’t understand what he meant.
“Don’t you dare! Or get the hell out of here back to your dear mom!”
In the evening, I went to see them all the same. I roamed about, scared, losing my way. But some mysterious destructive force pushed me toward their house. Into that hellhole, into that dump, into that goddamn den without a bite of food for dinner, without any light, with slow winter conversations dragging on by the dim glow of the wood stove.
I smuggled slabs of back fat, potatoes, homemade pickles, sugar, and cereal out of the house; I begged mom to give me old clothes no one wore any longer or just stole them and brought it all to them. To them—hungry, drunk, good-natured. That family’s hellish machine ground my gifts right away. Plastic bags were all that was left from food in five minutes, the clothes turning into rags the next day. They washed the floor with them—merrily, without thinking about tomorrow, just like they did everything else. It was either a lack of some gene that didn’t allow them to care about the future, or the booze clouded their minds. Nobody could tell. I was young and stubborn, but as time went on, I also felt as if I were standing at the edge of the abyss, trying to fill it, throwing anything I could find into it, scared of falling there myself, while the abyss devoured all my offerings and the people inside it enjoyed themselves, having fun, getting tipsy.
Rayka was different. I always distinguished her from the rest of her family: her husband, so soaked through with alcohol that you could strike a match against him, her two daughters who regularly went on week-long “cruises” with long-haul truckers since they turned ten, and her grandma Virka who lost her senses, when drunk, and tried to get back home through the window instead of the door.
Rayka was different. She’d had some good life, a husband who was a big boss, a nice house, and two kids, tidy and neat. Her husband had fallen in love with a shop assistant and, taking parental rights away from her through court, kicked her out—get out of here, he said, wherever the road takes you. Rayka had hopped on her motorbike and wanted to drive it off the bridge into a swollen river, but some gypsies had stopped her, offering her a cigarette. Today, I have a somewhat critical attitude toward these apocryphal stories. One never knows how this all happened for real. There’s no smoke without fire… But… I felt more honest and confident when I took Rayka’s stories at face value.
She was a skillful storyteller of her life, full of struggles and adventures. Her family didn’t treat her seriously and barely listened to her tales, whereas I was always eager to lend her an ear. It seemed that she needed those stories as much as I did—they didn’t let her drown in disgrace and recklessness. Cursed by her daughters in the morning, beaten up by her husband in the afternoon, she half-daydreamed, half-slept in the evening, telling unhurried tales about her personal things, so distant and out-of-reach that they acquired almost a fairy-tale quality. Wrapped up in rags, she lit up another cigarette butt, bending over a stove. She was completely different from everyone else in her family.
My pathetic attempts to save them suffered a miserable defeat. Each slab of back fat, each bag of cereal gave way to new mouths that kept growing like the heads of a dragon, hungrier and hungrier. The hellish mincing machine ground and mashed everything, demanding new helpings. No matter how much stuff I cadged from my mom, stole from my grandpa’s or bought with my stipend, they never had—and couldn’t have had—enough. Later, I understood why. I realized it only recently. That family didn’t want to live like I did. They didn’t care about comfort. They couldn’t care less about a good life. Confidence in tomorrow didn’t cheer them up. Shrouded in acrid intoxicating smoke, they devoured food and ripped clothes, grinding their life, chopping it down, scraping it until sparks started flying around. It was those sparks that they needed. They craved for them, basking in their glow.
Sometimes, it was dangerous to visit them. Some shady characters with a distinct odor of their murky past and present hung out at their place. It never stopped me, though. I kept frequenting their house, dead sure that I was charged with a mission of saving them. I had to. I would do it… Probably I was just bolstering my self-esteem at their expense, breathing a sigh of relief like in that joke about a doctor: “Thanks God…Thanks God I don’t have it.” Or perhaps my intentions were quite sincere and I was eager to help. I don’t know. Youth is that time of life when you’re vague about things. In any case, I liked visiting them. I liked doing what I did. I wasn’t doing anything wrong anyway…
After graduating from the university, I found a job at the TV channel. I had only a few days-off at that first job of mine. So I no longer went to my grandpa’s village. Or at least not that often. I drifted away from them, from my drunkards, my vagabonds, my sufferers. The waters of time closed over their heads, burying the ambitious dreams of my youth: to save them, to take them away, to pull them out of hell. I slowly realized the genuine, yet bitter truth that you cannot save anyone against their will. I gradually understood that the inertia of everyday circumstances can be so powerful that no good intentions can overcome it. Of course, I gave up. I failed. And I found a way to set my mind at ease.
After a while, Rayka died. Her death was quite expected given her way of life. Her daughters hadn’t let her home in December after she’d gotten drunk. She’d lain down on the bench near her doorstep and had frozen to death until the morning had come. Her daughters and I visited her grave. They laughed, bumming smokes from me. No longer little girls, they already turned eighteen. They saw all kinds of things in their lives.
One of the twin-sisters, Valka, also died of TB, liver cirrhosis or something else shortly after. She didn’t even live to see twenty. At the moment of her death, they said, she weighed fifty five pounds. When I learned about it, my heart skipped a beat—quietly, though, without anguish. I had long been living another life; I had long left their abyss in the middle of the vegetable garden with Rayka’s strawberries overgrown with weeds.
Someone bought their house at the corner—that hellhole, that dump. They re-installed the electricity, whitewashed the walls, put in the windows, painted the door, planted onions and cucumbers in neat rows in the garden. Whenever I pass that house, it seems I no longer care about it.
Sometimes, I come across the other twin—Liubka. She is luckier than her sister. Not too much, though. She married a drunkard and gave him kids. Now she’s living in a shabby, gray house without electricity, but with draughts. When her better half gets drunk, Liubka runs away from home. From time to time, she also knocks back a glass or two—out of despair. Her daughters, grown up now, look longingly after the trucks. Inertia is a thing you can’t overcome easily. You lack willpower. Barely anyone has enough of it. Or is it her destiny, perhaps? Her atonement?
The last time I bumped into Liubka, I asked her how it was going. She looked me up and down, contempt and bitterness in her gaze, and, snapping at her daughter who was on her way god knows where, turned back hopelessly, waved her hand, and left without saying a word. She didn’t even bum a smoke off me.
I know what she would have told me, if she’d had a better command of her language. She’d have said that she’d been better off without any hope. That she shouldn’t have been given a peek into another world with its shafts of soft, homely light and the smell of tasty food. Afterward, she’d always felt much worse in her own world.
I think I promised them that I’d take them away with me, that I’d find them jobs, and so on and so forth… One day. Once they grow up.
I thought they’ve forgotten about it.