Potatoes were harvested very recently if one counts calendar days—or a while ago if one looks back to that borderline between the summer and the fall, to that cold watershed that emerges every year and makes everything seem different than it was a day before. The sky opens up like a trapdoor; the fish dives deep all of a sudden, away from a tricky fisherman’s bait; the boat stops abruptly in the middle of the river, letting the slow-moving water underneath it go by. Unusual things that are not really there start happening at every turn, above and below, all around Chumakivshchyna hamlet.
A cow that was chased away from the vegetable patch throughout the summer can now freely go there and feast on whatever it wants. At first, the cow just stands there, confused; then it picks up wilted cabbage loaves, tries to chew them, basking in the late-afternoon sun, and then it bellows, long and low, complaining to its fellows about those humans you just can’t trust, as one moment they shoo you away and the next they sweet-talk you. Its fellows, grazing on the neighbouring vegetable patches, make loud, cheerful sounds in response to its call:
“…Oh yes, it’s so boring in the barn. Hay prickles our skin. There’s no green grass any longer. And these humans..well, god knows what they want…”
“Why did I grow that much beetroot, auntie? I’d run my mail route for the whole day, and then in the afternoon I’d get down to those beets and would prune them till dusk.”
“What do you mean ‘why’? To eat them yourself!” says an old woman, wrapped up, like a cabbage, in ten checkered woollen headscarves.
“But I’m not a swine to eat beets! There’re you go, Serioha—take that newspaper to you grandpa for me, will you?”
Nadka the mailwoman swigs her leg over the bike saddle and moves on. Something is broken in her bike—it trumpets like a crane, spurring the dogs to rise to its call, to yelp, to bark, to praise the fine fall day.
One can see a light like this only in fall, only on a sunny day, only from noon till dusk. It doesn’t flow down or surround you—it catches you by surprise, like someone catching a thief in their garden. It makes you see everything as if for the first time. Any sound made in a light like this sets your nerves on edge. I am waiting for Katka. Nervous, I send her call-me-back messages, one after another. She and I agreed to go somewhere—to visit someone or just to go pick nuts in the woods. Something like that. I keep pressing the buttons on my phone, but it won’t send anything in a light like this. I pull a wooden crank handle, sending a bucket down into the well, and hear the old wood whisper.
“Shoo, shoo, you silly cat! Look at him! I was chasing him away from chickens in summer—and now he stalks my hens!”
The fall light has no effect on my grandma. Chickens, silly cats, and other down-to-earth things keep her feet firmly planted on the ground.
“What a bastard! Stop staring at your phone, Seriozhka, and chase that silly cat away. Come on, where’s my stick?”
A clay-coloured rooster with blue tail feathers attacks the cat all of a sudden, flapping its wings and crowing loudly. The cat runs away and hides under the barn with its tail between its legs. It wasn’t even thinking about that. Those hens are too big, and grandma is watching, in any case. Nah, it did that just out of curiosity and its prey drive, just for fun. That light streaming down from the sky has its effect on the cat, too—it makes it mew, jump on the gates or stretch out in the dirt, raising clouds of dust.
“Okay, okay, keep rolling in that dirt!” grandma grumbles meanwhile. “Just try to climb into my bed at night—you’ll see. I’ll kick you out into the barn, you silly cat!”
Finally, Katka shows up. She’s walking along the street in her bright-red jacket, shaking off some weeds stuck to her pants. Katka has such a beautiful, decisive manner of walking that straw stubble underneath her feet jumps up and down, and old women in the neighbourhood click their tongues in disapproval, cross themselves, and sigh, regretting their lost years. Katka’s blondish hair is spread out on her red jacket, making the old women’s hearts even heavier, while I’m standing there, holding back my smile, happy that I’m about to go for a walk, arm in arm with this beauty, this mermaid, this Firebird.
“He’s out there, somewhere in the village.”
Grandma considers Katka evil incarnate and tries to stand in her way to her beloved grandson. Katka spotted me from afar, though. She graces my grandma with a queen’s smile as if saying “go on, granny, keep lying, I still love you, a bit”, and moves straight toward me.
Grandma makes final desperate attempt:
“Where’re you going? Your grandpa told you many times…Dinner’s ready…Get the cow back at least…”
But Katka and I are already far away, straw stubble cracking underneath our feet.
The village is taking a breather before the nightfall; it prunes beets, leaving large checkered headscarves on the field boundaries, cuts down corn stalks, covers pumpkins with canvas sheets, gets the cows back to the barns, splits firewood, and tries to stoke the fire carefully late at night. The smoke gets into the villagers’ throats, making their chests burn. They blow the smoke away; they keep blowing it until another smell—the scent of fall—fills in the walls.
Katka and I walk somewhere, though we don’t really know where or why. Late-afternoon light of the fall sneaks up on us, and we perceive the world in a sharp, youthfully fresh manner. The dirt road takes us through Zaluzhok to Leshkivka, and then to Bairak. We just ramble around. On the roadside, people in plastic raincoats sell end-of-the-season watermelons, overripe, fragrant, hopeless. Wind breaks down the makeshift shelters of watermelon guards and, snatching them away, carries them far across the meadow. Katka and I keep walking, exchanging a few words on our way—words that are meaningful only here, only now, only for the two of us.
We say hello to the passers-by, stop to do up the laces, remove some weeds from our clothes. But we do it all unwittingly, unintentionally, jokingly. In earnest, we just walk together in this piercing fall light somewhere far away beyond the woods, beyond the mushroom spots, beyond the secret clearings and the faraway villages. Holding hands, we see things that are not really there.