Grapes

He was not sick. He has never talked about the death. He was an ordinary man and a father in the average family. He worked in a bank, although he did not really like that white-collar work, he did not dream about something different and did not suffer from adventurism. He had several friends since the school years and was calm about his wife’s friends and his son’s friends from school. There were no bad habits. But he had a hobby – grapes… Or rather – viticulture, which became his fiery passion – in a country house, to grow a bush-vine from a little stick and wait for the harvest – is it not a pleasure? And even began to experiment with his own wine, and the wife-confectioner joked that in their old age, they would have own business – “Wine and sweets”, and will be fed with that because you will not survive on a pension payment. However, the retirement was too far away, both were not yet forty years old.

But on one January day, altogether collapsed, brazenly and unexpectedly. Leonid was returning from work, a car skidded on the ice, the driver lost the control, the car flew into the sidewalk, where people were waiting for permission to go. Someone jumped back, someone was hit. Everyone got minor bruises and uncritical fractures, Leonid was thrown aside, he bashed his head and died without regaining consciousness even before the ambulance arrived.

It was a long and hard winter. The first days, Nastya still could not believe that the irreparable happened. In the evenings she listened to the sound of the elevator, hoping against hope that now there would be a tinkle of the doorbell, and she would rush to open – the husband came home from work! And then everything – a terrible dream, knock a wood!… Yurchyk the only eleven-year-old son, left his room and went to the kitchen, saw a sad mother, came up and just hugged her. So they stood for several minutes, both sighed, but only one began to sob, the second hastened to calm…

On the Ninth Day Leonid’s parents, two of his friends-schoolmates, Nastya’s girlfriends came to remember the deceased. The girls gave her their shoulders, as often as possible, all this time, and also helped with purchases and dishes.

Nastya put home-made wine from the last harvest on the table. The last… They drank for the Kingdom Heavenly, there were conversations about the past, parents brought an album with children’s photos, where Leonid resembled Yurchyk. Classmates joked, recalling joint school adventures, women remembered how they first saw Nastya’s betrothed, and what each of them thought about him then, and how then they were getting married, Lyonya generously gave them a ransom for a young bride – everything he had.

The evening turned out to be cozy, as Leonid was with them all, smiling from the photo like he was glad that there is an occasion to gather around a lively table. The young mistress thought that the photo of a man with a black ribbon across the corner was nonsense, an inappropriate joke because he was about to return from work and join the group. Only Yurko sat for about ten minutes with them at the table and, gloomy, went to do the homework. It’s hard for a child to realize how adults can sort out stupid memories and laugh at such circumstances…

***

Winter seemed incredibly long and cold that year. Nastya and Yurko were learning to live in a family without a father, the son tried to support his mother, and she in her turn – did not show her pain in front of the child. But both knew perfectly well how difficult it is to pretend that you are holding the blow of fate.

When the spring, thaw, daylight dips, icicles and chirping of sparrows outside the window came, Nastya suddenly realized that a new summer season was about to start… She realized it physically as if someone had hit her in the chest and everything was cramped and aching there. How, how will she come to those six hundred square meters, where everything was made from the scratch by their joint efforts?! How to walk there and howl, remembering the last ten years of work and rest, picnics, shashlyk cooking and… a husband’s viticulture? Lord, what will she do with his “child”? There are a half-dozen varieties, and the bushes are even larger, and each needs its own approach, as the husband said…

On a fortieth day came his parents and the same friends of the family. For tea Nastya served her own cooked “Napoleon” – Leonid’s favourite cake, and also offered to taste their new fad – grape Turkish delight. She placed a plate of vinous powdered cubes on the table and sighed…

And again, they all talked, recalled the past, tasted, and it seemed that the owner is here, with them, was smiling from that photo and was glad that his relatives like everything.

“And also my dad and I wanted to make an arbour in the summer in the country house and put high grapes on it, for a shadow”, the boy said for the first time in the evening, then paused and his lips quivered.

Silence fell for a moment, the grandfather hugged his grandson:

“We’ll go together to the country house in the summer, you will tell what you planned there and how. Maybe we’ll manage this business, and if no, friends of your dad will help. Will you, guys?”

“The guys” nodded, they started talking about the man stuff, and while Yurko listened to them, Nastya took a deep breath and put her hand to her lips:

“Oh, girls… And how can I manage his grapes? I did not go into that science. Lyonchyk did everything by himself, and I managed with flower beds and tomatoes. Spring began, and now what will I do with his vineyard?!”, the voice of the young widow trembled, and tears welled up in her eyes.

***

So it was – she went on a spring, but ugly, still without greens and flowers, area, and everything, every plant reminded her about her husband. And though, it could not be said that they really had passionate love, rather calm and flexible love-friendship, when there were mutual understanding and respect for the interests. They laughed together, and plans were built, and no one could think that so suddenly everything will be cut off… Nastya sighed, hold back the tears, but as she went between the rows of grapes – it was tilted to the ground and covered, or fixed to trellis from last season (because it is harder) – and tears rolled down her cheeks. The woman gave the will to tears without witnesses, she went by bus without her son – she wanted to be alone, to think how to live on… And who knows how, now? She cannot live the other way, thirteen years together…

She cried, sighed, saw from afar that a neighbour, who lives one site from them, just cut off his vine, had already opened winter shelters, picked up the plant on the trellis and wielded a pruner.

“Is it really time to cut?”, the woman thought, and her heart pounded. “Maybe I should try? But if something goes wrong, if I hurt a plant, what will Lenya think?”

She often caught herself thinking about how her husband would evaluate her current independent actions, like looking up to him, as a grammar check in the Word – if suddenly something is wrong, then it will emphasize on the screen-sheet for you. It is possible, of course, there she could ask the neighbour few questions about it, but he was not very friendly, he even quarrelled with them because they burned leaves, and he, you see, cannot breathe smoke… And she did not want to tell a stranger about her loss. Nastya sighed and began to unwrap the vine and raise it on the trellis. If Lyonchyk looks at her from above, let him rejoice that the wife cares about his vineyard…

Immersed in her thoughts, she gradually moved between the two grape rows. Ahead of her, the vines lay covered with a special agrocloth, and behind them were already obligingly leaned on horizontal wires, fixed with special ropes. But suddenly, because of some awkward movement, one branch cracked. It did not break completely, but it clearly suffered. Nastya gasped, and when she saw that transparent juice dripped from the crack, tears rolled down her cheeks again.

“I’m sorry, Lyonchyk, you see how clumsy I am… Why did not you teach me how to behave with the grapes? How am I going to keep all this in order?”, the woman sniffed and, as if apologizing, stroked the injured twig with her fingers.

That day she did not dare to cut the grapes. She decided to google at home, maybe she’ll figure it out. Back in the city, Nastya caressed her son, told him how uncomfortable, cold and not green it was there, and that there is a lot of spring work… And yet, how everything needs the father, his hands, his knowledge, jokes and mood of the day off, which they always had. Yurchyk nestled against his mother, embraced her, said quietly that he misses his dad too, but he is now the only man in the family, so he will help with the housework, he also already knows a lot of things…

The mother was contented, stroked the child over his unruly hair, embraced him and thought that her son had really grown up in recent months.

And as for the vineyard, Nastya held a telephone conference with friends, who advised her not to waste time on agrarian self-education on the Internet, at least for now, and to entrust a vine specialist with spring works. The girls promised to find him next weekend so that he was inexpensive and with experience, after all, there is no time to wait – spring has swiftly entered into its rights.

***

It was clear from him that a person does not work for money, although the price was determined in a telephone conversation. She still worried that this craftsman would not be an insufficiently qualified specialist, but her sharp eye noticed everything – how a man was touching the vine, and how he whispered over it while pruning, like a sorceress, who “speaks” the blood. And he also cleverly bandaged in his own manner, which last time Nastya made at her own discretion. Doubts in the qualification of the “grape god”, as her girlfriend has christened him, have dissipated. Maybe, indeed, he is such an expert, that familiars pass him “from hand to hand”, although there are not so many vineyards in our latitudes, except for some plants in every country house, just in case, you will not get rich on this. He set a moderate price, and she promised to prepare a dinner for him, glad that all the necessary work will be completed in one day, quickly and with understanding.

The man was taciturn. A little above average height, thin, swarthy, dark-eyed. Before dinner, he said that his name is Marat. He ate in silence. Praised the borshch, which Nastya brought in a large thermos from home, and then asked permission to cook on the stove the coffee that he had with him, said he wanted to treat her in return. Nastya agreed, but since there was no cezve at the country house, she gave the “grape god” the smallest saucepan.

Hot and tart coffee was similar to oriental coffee, they somehow drank with Leonid in Istanbul… Nastya sighed and… said it out loud. And then, unexpectedly for herself, briefly told what happened to them last winter. And that she and her son are coping with everything somehow, but the vineyard…

And Marat said that he is a Crimean, from Dzhankoy, an agronomist, and he worked all his life with grapes, like his deceased father – this was the specialization in their farms. Therefore, he knows everything about this culture, and maybe more – this is his love. But a year already, as he was not at home and is unlikely to be able to return there in the near future… A smile touched his lips, but his eyes were sad.

“Oh… I see. I feel sorry for it… This is probably very painful. And there’s no way out… But something must happen, something… completely unexpected, and you will return to your grapes again. You must believe.”

“Thank you.”

***

He did not take money for the work, thanked her for the joy of touching the vines. He drove Nastya to the city on his old car. Left a strange card – on the standard rectangle at the top was printed only the name and phone number, and below was painted with a pen a brush of grapes. He said that she can call in case of questions about the vineyard. They said goodbye.

Spring swept quickly, several times Nastya’s friends came to the country house; the girls helped whitewash the trees, rake up dry leaves and grass, men set up a watering pump, cut the firewood and made shashlyk. The vineyard served as a place for revered excursions and rapturous exclamations. Not every man has the patience and love to look after this!

At lunch in the open air, Leonid was again remembered, they wished him to rest in peace and expressed the hope that he sees and rejoices there – the vineyard in the young light green leaves, and faithful friends, who did not leave Nastya and Yurko alone, and that life goes on.

A school year ended, and Nastya sent her son to her parents in the district centre. Although, not a village, not a private house, but grandparents in retirement, there is a river nearby, and also the cousins for a company. There is no time for sadness. Still, it is some entertainment, not sitting in a metropolitan apartment by the computer.

Yurko regularly called and reported about the rest; while waiting for a holiday, Nastya continued to make sweets in a private confectionery, and went to the country house on weekends, as it always needed working hands – watering, weeding, feeding plants and fighting with different misfortune. And then one Sunday she went into the vineyard and froze – leaves that were not so thin, tender and light green, but came in both density, colour, and size, were covered with white spots of different sizes like they were sprinkled with flour or powdered sugar. Nastya gasped and pressed her palm to her lips. Quickly walked between the rows, turning her head right and left – practically all the bushes to a greater or lesser extent had such signs. Not knowing what it was, the woman still realized that it was no good, and quickly began to look for Marat’s mobile phone number. She couldn’t find it until she remembered that he was not saved under his name, but code-named “Grape god”.

***

Nastya thought she called not on time, and she apologized. But the man in a businesslike way said: “Continue!”. She emotionally, but briefly described everything she saw, and asked hopefully if he could come faster than he could consider everything, and maybe take some measures.

“No, I cannot. I’m not in Kyiv.”

“And when will you? Maybe in the middle of the week? I would take a day off…”

“No. I’ll be there not soon. But do not be nervous. I will now tell you what to do. Take something to write down, but quickly, I’m a little busy.”

Nastya apologized for interfering and offered to call later, but Marat said shortly.

“I’ll dictate. Write down!”

She had already reached the veranda, grabbed a pencil and began to write in the margins of the old newspaper, turning it when the place for writing ended.

“Ready? Did you understand it? Do it! And without panic. It happens. Nothing wrong. Working moments, it is good, that noticed in time”, she heard that he smiled. “I’m sorry, I must say goodbye. Call me when you’ve managed.”

Nastya did not even have time to thank when the connection was interrupted. She shrugged her shoulders. Who knows what business that man had. Maybe the work. Or maybe the family and a jealous wife, and here she is with her problems…

She found a sprayer in the barn of her husband and already wanted to go to Kyiv to buy the necessary things for combating powdery mildew, that’s what Marat called it, but on the shelf in the shed she saw a transparent, tightly closed plastic container with a dozen different coloured bags. She opened it, looked at the contents, consulted the “abstract” on the old newspaper and sighed with relief – her husband was stocky! He had everything she needed, just in case. And she was never interested in what he was doing there between his beloved ranks – her husband is at home – and this is good.

***

When Nastya dialled Marat in the evening to report on the work done, he declined the call. And she was already prepared to share her new experience, tell how she coped, put a couple more questions. But the conversation did not take place.

He dialled her the next day, on Sunday. The woman reported on the task told how she went with the sprayer along the rows in the evening and carefully processed almost every leaf – both from above and from below. Marat listened, then asked if there was no wind and whether she covered her face and eyes from chemical sprays. But she did not have time to answer, as there in the distance, from where this Grape god called, something loudly slammed, echoed, there were screams, and the connection was interrupted. Nastya was at loss and standing in the middle of her plot, holding a phone in her hand and not knowing what to do next – to call or to wait for the call… She sat down on a bench, and texted, “Are you OK?”. Sent. There was no answer. She went to care for flowers.

Soon the cell phone started to ring, Nastya grabbed it, but it was her father-in-law, asked how things are in the country house if she needs some help. She told him about the disease of the grapes, about the telephone consultation with the vine-grower and about the measures taken.

“You are such a fine woman, Nastya! Thank you for taking care of what our son started!”, the voice of the father-in-law trembled. “Be strong, daughter. They say that work heals…”

“Thank you for your support!”, the woman sighed and examined all her possessions, not knowing how to manage all this. “Come, I’ll be glad. Yurko will return soon, we’ll make shashlyk…”

In the evening, when she got to the city, she took out her bags, took a shower and, having no strength to eat, lay down in bed, the cell phone beeped – it was the text from Marat.

“Sorry. Did not mean to disturb you. I’m in Mariinka. The shelling began then. Do not worry. Take care of the grapes! When I back – I’ll check”.

The shivers went down the woman’s spine… More than once the name of some distant, unknown town was heard in the news, suddenly personified, approached, became different from all other names that sounded the second year in the harsh news.

She texted shortly, “Take care of yourself”.

She opened the map of Ukraine on the smartphone’s screen and examined its eastern part, changing the scale and moving the finger along the picture. She also has read fresh reports about the fighting there. The dead. The wounded… And she became frightened for the man, whom she saw only once, stranger, who now seemed not so much like a stranger. And she became ashamed of her calls – the man risks own life, protecting Ukraine, and she is interfering here with her grape diseases… But he himself said – if anything – call…

***

And then he was transported with injuries and burns – first by car to the hospital in Dnipropetrovsk, from there – by plane to Kyiv. Nastya, when came to see Marat, saw for the first time how many mutilated men and very young guys lay there, and how the hospital requires help. She got acquainted with the volunteers and came, two or three times a week, how she organized the best she could between summer country works and her job. And when Marat felt better, he asked about the vineyard and gave professional advice. True, even scolded the woman, just in case, so that she slowed down the volunteer activity and kept her strength, joked that autumn was starting, harvesting and processing were nearing, strength would be needed there.

And when Nastya was going home, tired, but pleased with the fact that she was involved in the recovery of our soldiers, neighbours in the ward joked with Marat:

“And they say, Ukrainians are cunning! Look at that woman, this Crimean Tatar found! Not only cute, quick, hardworking but also with the vineyard! Confess, Marat, have you been looking for someone with a vineyard as a dowry for a long time, eh?!”

The guys laughed, Marat pretended that he was angry and assured that they were just friends. But, indeed, he often felt the unexpected gallop of his heart when he saw her approaching their corps. Handbag on her shoulder, heavy bags in her hands, but at the same time a quick gait – she hurries to the guys like to relatives. So, she is a widow, but still young and pretty, she has a job, an apartment, a country house and even a ready son – and, who knows, maybe, she has some admirer with all her virtues. And what does he have to offer? No roof and no walls, a refugee who will not soon be able to bow to his own graves, even his wife refused from him because of his principles, such a life-worn “Grape god” with a concussion and wounded leg, gathered from the wreckage – great happiness such the consignment!

***

And Nastya, after the shift near a hot oven in the confectionery and duty in the hospital, thought, while falling asleep, how much has changed in her life in recent months. If she used to feel sorry for herself, afraid of the uncertain future, missed Leonid, realized herself to be a single woman, whom all the friends comforted, but now she rushed to help, rendered support, literally and figuratively supported those, who needed it even more. So many sorrows, mutilations, losses, other people’s stories passed before her eyes for several months, she saw so much strength and will to live in those wounded and in their loved ones that her conscience did not allow her to live as before, having locked herself in her own sufferings. And recently in the fourth ward, there was a wedding. The young lieutenant married the heavenly beautiful girl, who had been waiting for him since the war, then, after learning about his injury and amputation, she rushed to Kyiv and did not leave him, and each small progress he devoted to her – his Angel… Moms, friends, medical staff – were smiling and crying, congratulating and engulfing the newlyweds with flowers and toys… And Nastya then caught Marat’s gaze, embarrassed and looked away.

Who is she to him? Why would he have a tail of her problems? The wound from loss, her own issues, her son… There are so many young and beautiful girls… He is a handsome man, he can find his own Angel… And all these talks about the grape is just the only common theme that they have… And it is too early to think about that. What will people say? Her mother-in-law, father-in-law, and especially Yurko… No, no. It’s not for her.

***

The toloka (work in a group for free – translator’s note) was announced for harvesting – school friends of Leonid, Nastya’s friends, Yurchyk with his friend, grandfather and grandmother – came in several cars and coped as expected. Not without the tears of his parents and Nastya’s in response to words of gratitude for the memory of their son and care for his vineyard.

They cooked shashlyk, ate after a friendly work, again recalled, laughed and even sang. Yurko told them how he and his mother took care of father’s vineyard and, thanks to the advice of uncle Marat, learned a lot. And the father-in-law said that he hopes that his son sees all this and, apparently, is grateful for this day to his wife, his son, and all those present…

Nastya and her mother-in-law decided to give each of the assistants a package of grapes, so to speak, a present from Lyonchyk. And choosing a minute, when no one was around, the elderly woman said to the daughter-in-law:

“Thank you, Nastya! You are a good person… Probably not every mother-in-law will say such a thing… But you know, I would… my husband and I would like you to be happy. You deserve it. Do not lock yourself up, if you meet a worthy person, arrange your life, do not look back at us. If it is a good man and kind to Yurchyk… And we will help with grandson, will explain everything…”

“What are you…?”, Nastya blushed from the unexpected turn of the conversation.

“Do not interrupt. I saw a dream tonight, Lyonya was there… For the first time after all this. He said that he loved us all, apologized…”, the woman sobbed. “And he also said, that’s true, he said, ‘Tell Nastya, let her marry him, they will be a good couple”.

After these quietly spoken words, the women froze, looking at each other with wide-open eyes – with fear, anxiety and hope that Leonid sees better from there…

And it is not known how much they would stand, one holding a packet in hands, and another- big bunch of grapes, if Yurko did not come running with his mother’s cell phone in his hands and shouted:

“Mom! Can’t you hear? Already two missed calls from “Grape god”!”

Mila Ivantsova

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