When I was a kid, the Savior of the Apple Feast Day—just like any other August holiday from the Feast of the Prophet Elijah and on—seldom made me happy. The water in the river was no longer as smooth and gentle, as it used to be. Wheat fields were covered with stubble. A wretched obligation was looming ahead—much hated school was about to start in a few days, in a few breaths of freedom. That bitter passing of time, those parched harvest fields, that vast sky rising higher and higher every single day, that anxiety on the edge of fall—all of that clouded everything else, blotting the beauty out. I vaguely remember the consecrated apples lying on the tablecloth in the garden, though it seems like it never happened. Everything in August seemed as if it happened to someone else. I only felt nostalgic about the summer.
Hapka passed away right on the Savior of the Apple Feast Day. My great grandma didn’t like her name. “When you say it—Hapka!—your lips patch together. What an ugly name,” she said. It was that woman that my childhood buddy Alioshka mocked, humming a made-up song that resembled a tune from a popular cartoon about snowmen: “Hapka’s melting, melting…” It was that woman that always gave just three coins to a dozen Christmas Carol singers to the utter contempt of all village kids. It was that woman that villagers knew almost nothing about. Hapka didn’t keep company with other people. She never gossiped with her neighbours or borrowed money from them. She never went to crowded wedding receptions, birthday parties, or baptism celebrations. You could only see her working on her vegetable patch or standing in line to buy bread at the local grocery store.
If someone was so keen on hiding from the world—especially if that someone was a woman—people quickly called her a witch and spread the word of how she swallowed the sun yesterday night—“I saw it with my own eyes, I’m telling you!”, how she practised witchcraft with her old cat at the cemetery at night, or how she made friends with demons, vampires, and house spirits. Hapka was surrounded by an aura of dark mystery that urged people to stay away from her house night and day. My childhood buddy Alioshka would hum his song very quietly so that Hapka wouldn’t hear it by any chance.
Hapka herself kept away from the hearsay—so far away that it didn’t bother her at all. She endowed fellow villagers with the pure gold of her silence that looked so good on her. There were expressive, energetic, lively faces, but Hapka’s was not one of those. Her features seemed to be carved from stone as if someone brought a frowning, rigid nomad idol and installed it as a guard in her yard.
And now she passed away—not on a midsummer night, like a proper witch, but in the morning. Coming home from church, she left her basket with the consecrated apples by the door and went to her vegetable patch to pick some tomatoes, as people later said. She lay down on the ground, putting her hand around the plants. She was lying like that until Dmytro the tractor driver saw her when he was lugging wood from the forest. Why do I remember it all in such detail? Or even worse—why do I see it that way? Her fingers grasped the limp stems, her headscarf awry, and an ocean of sunlight above her.
People always talk a lot about those who just died, and they do it with respect and reserve, not like they did when the dead were still alive. Our house was no exception. My grandma told me that back in the day, Hapka had had a fiancé who’d been killed later, in the first days of World War II. He was a good match for her, as he was handsome, too, and he never talked much. They would’ve been a perfect couple.
“What do you mean “too”? Was she…pretty?” I asked, dumbfounded. I would have never thought of her as a pretty woman. Hmm.
“Oh, you wouldn’t believe it,” great grandma, who never thought much about women, smacked her lips. “She was so beautiful that boys all around here were losing their minds over her. They kept courting her after the war for god knows how long…”
“But no Mr Right among them, huh?” I said.
“All of them were right! Heads of collective farms, party secretaries, god knows who else. But she wouldn’t budge. She’d open the door and just stand at the doorway. Please go away, she’d say… That’s when they turned against her. She didn’t let anyone come close to her, and they didn’t let her either. So, she spent her whole life alone.”
But I was no longer listening to her. I was knocked down by that weird, striking contrast: Hapka? Beautiful? That’s incredible. Impossible. Back then, I could only perceive the world as it was. That statement came as a complete shock to me.
Hapka’s funeral was arranged next day. People went over her things, taking home whatever they liked. Hapka had no relatives. Among her towels, sweaters, and woollen headscarves, someone found an old yellowed photograph. Grandma Olena, her neighbour, took it. When I heard about it, I went to Olena’s place right away and asked her to show me the photo. My great grandma chastened me, twisting her finger at her temple, but a young Hapka haunted me. A haystack covered with a piece of cloth and a young girl beside it, in an embroidered shirt and a sleeveless blouse, with a long dark plait. She looked like a diva from a silent movie. Like a firebird. Like a gorgeous flower that sprang up by Hapka’s shabby house.
“What a surprise,” I thought on my way home. “A real miracle. How could she be that beautiful? It’s just impossible.”
The Savior tinkled his ripe apples far above me, portending a spell of cold, and told me the same thing, putting his hands around the silent, sun-warmed yards. Don’t always trust everything you see, he said. Sometimes, you have to look deeper. Each of us witnesses different stages of someone’s life, drawing wrong conclusions. See the stubble over there? It used to be wheat. All of us were young in our time, all of us bloomed, even though it’s almost impossible to believe now. And summer, of course. Summer was young, too.