I must confess, I never loved him. I never loved Vitko, my uncle, my mother’s younger brother. He was always blowzy and often rough. He threw his hat to the ground. He pulled his accordion bellows so hard that I was terrified at the thought that it was about to be torn. He looked after horses and calves at the farm and rubbed his cheek on their manes. He swore thunderously. He whistled like Nightingale the Robber. He slaughtered pigs and calves – at home and around the village. He brought fresh meat home. He wore his shirt unbuttoned on his chest. When he couldn’t find his belt, he girded his pants with a rope. He turned back from the woods with pockets full of hazelnuts: he gave them to my sister, and never shared with me.
I hated wrestling with him on the floor, I never laughed at his jokes and I just lost my temper when he hid in the corner to suddenly yelp over my ear. I didn’t like it when he murmured lickerously before lunch “tummy, tummy, stop it now, soon you’ll get two hundred grams.” Ew! But my sister seemed to love it all. She liked his piggyback rides and rolling on the top tube of his bicycle – to the woods, meadow and for a swim, she played cards with him and aided his foolish pranks. Once they wrote “To beloved grandma from her granddaughter Vita” on the empty chocolate box, drew a fig below and hung it on the wall. To them it was funny.
Vitko had epilepsy – it was a souvenir he brought from the army. About once every two months he had seizures. Each of such breakdowns brought harsh sufferings to the whole family. We called it “Vitko fell”. Vitko could fall in bed, in the middle of the yard or street. Both grandpa and grandma, and even my mother corresponded with numerous wizards, clairvoyants, psychics, witches, molfars and with Zdorovia magazine in the search of a remedy. I remember one of these prophets advising to grind cow’s horn into powder, pour water drip by drip into it and drink this mixture every day before sunrise… I even saw such seizure once – Vitko croaked and floundered disorderly on the bed until the women put a black shawl upon him. Looking at it was terrifying.
Vitko was constantly involved with some suspicious companies and hung out with all sorts of crooks. For all his friends I thought up nicknames such as “killer”, “cutthroat”, “convict”, “flunky”, “horse thief” and the like. My grandfather made an enormous effort to take it into his tight skull that such friends aren’t doing him much good.
“So, what?!” usually threw back Vitko, put on his boots and a hat – one ear up, one down – and slammed the door.
“Vityk, my son, listen to my words,” wound up great-grandmother viscously.
“What kind of father is that! Are you normal or not?!” yelled my mother at her brother.
“Vitia, remember, the farm is your gold mine!” even my stepfather got involved in this education.
But the progress in Vitko’s disciplining was about the same as if someone suddenly started to tell to a cat how bad it is to eat chickens. He snapped, resented and walked away to the cote where collective farm horses huddled.
“May your liver rot, you scum! May your children feed you as much as you feed the horses!” yelled Vitko to the lazy groom, who was yet drunk and asleep and heard nothing while a horse was finishing the twelfth bucket of water out of Vitko’s hands.
I hated it when he came to our house and talked loudly with my mother in the kitchen. I never liked any of his numerous women, whom he often took into the grandmother’s apartment. Although one of them – I guess, Liubka – even ironed my suit once for the celebration of the First of May. Disheveled, in a crumpled nightgown, she was standing at the table and ironing, while the uncle slugged loudly in bed and shouted rude flatteries at her. I’d read one beautiful word in the Trud newspaper shortly before – “prostitute”. And while she was ironing and laughing foolishly at Vitko’s jokes, throwing a poorly dyed red hair strand sideways, I stood aside and furiously called her a prostitute. In my head, of course. But with all the contempt that I was capable of at the age of ten. And then I put on the shirt that she carefully ironed and left for the demonstration…
On that June morning, Vitko threw a piece of bread with lard into his bag and set off for work as usual. But for some reason just before leaving he asked me:
“So, did you catch anything?”
I just arrived from the riverside where I was casting my precious fishnets.
I indifferently raised the metal cage and showed it to him – there were a dozen well-fed green tenches.
“Oh, well done, sailor!” said Vitko and ruffled my hair.
“Strange,” I thought. “Quite strange.” He didn’t plunk between my shoulders. He didn’t flick me with his fingers. Nor did he rattle me. He just ruffled my forelock gently. It was so strange that for a while instead of taking my sleepy tenches to the grandma’s summer kitchen, I stood there watching him go along the bound between wheat and potatoes, while the wind was blowing his constantly undone shirt.
Then my friend Alioshka and I went to catch fish with the fishnet, though the weather was nasty. Later I returned home.
Grandma was just finishing to fry my morning tenches as someone knocked on the gate. I jumped out into the yard and saw Alioshka’s mother, a paramedic, our neighbor – she stood behind the gate in a white coat.
I didn’t have time even for a single thought, as she cried:
“Vitko was dragged by horses! He was taken unconscious by an ambulance to Bahachka. Things are bad! Very bad. Tell your grandpa!”
The doors of the ambulance slammed, the engine buzzed, irritating our shaggy dog even more. This woman, Nadka, left without me. I had to go inside and tell my grandfather that… well, at least I had to repeat her words. That the one that I never liked is laying somewhere. That the one that never gave me hazelnuts is not returning to consciousness. That he might be in blood. That he was shortly throwing his obscene jokes at Liubka from his bed, and now I need to say the words that don’t seem to relate to him at all. Or should I make up the new ones? Retell it in my own words? We were taught this at school. Oral reciting of the text. And written… I shouldn’t say it the exact same way, I should be more delicate, softer so that those words wouldn’t hit grandpa just as they hit me.
I can’t remember saying that. Which words I used. But I did. I brought him the news. Fifteen years later, when my mother died just as suddenly, and I had to enter the house and tell my grandfather about it, I did not dare. I stopped in the hallway and made two steps back. And he was notified by some mother’s friends in black shawls. But it was me who told him about Vitko – and my feet were covered in mud and duckweed…
And I went to the river for the third time that day. I undressed on the beach, wandered into the water and walked two or three kilometers by the river bank. It was cold, stone-cold. The wind ruffled the waves. There was no hint of sunshine at all. I was raising water-plants under the reeds, looking at tadpoles and juveniles, approaching the strangers’ fishnets, releasing large well-fed tenches from them, and saw a man cross the river on a boat. The rain, obtrusive like acid, started to drip. A penduline tit swung on a willow branch together with its nest. I went further and further. I thought that soon I would return to my clothes, take them and go home skipping, and the grandpa would tell me that everything turned out okay and Vitko revived, that it only seemed at first it was that bad. And I might even rejoice that very soon Vitko would bark again over my ear, hurt me by tickling and irritate me with his silly jokes. Walking so in the water, I got all the way to the summer farm. There, right in the middle of the meadow, strapped horses were grazing. It seems, then for the first time in my life, I had this thought that it is probably very uncomfortable for the horses to walk this way, with their legs tangled.
Grandpa was standing at the gate. I didn’t reach it yet when he said very quietly:
“Apparently, Vitko will not survive…”
In the evening the cow refused to go into the yard. It was standing at the gate until grandpa slapped it with a stick.
In the night the storm took off. Turbulent summer storm with lightning, wind and rain tore the wires. When at two o’clock in the night my mother and my grandmother approached the window and wanted to knock, the grandfather said:
“Don’t knock. I see. I get it.”
The coffin clothes for my uncle, who hadn’t even turned thirty, were gathered by candlelight. Old women were crying. The grandpa howled like a wolf. Like a real wolf in the dead of night. I lay down on the bed, covered myself fully and tried not to think about anything. I was persuading myself: “You just have to go through these two days, this funeral, that’s it. Anyway, you never loved him, he annoyed and irritated you.” But for some reason from the darkness of this stormy moonless night Vitko’s hand was arising stubbornly to ruffle my hair. I was covering myself with a blanket even tighter, I was hiding my head under the pillow, I was shielding my face with my palms – but it still arose and ruffled. I wanted to remember all of his kicks, hits and acrid words, but all I could think of was that path between wheat and potatoes and the wind that blew his faded shirt.
At the funeral, my mother and sister cried and clung to his hands. Grandma and grandpa wouldn’t do it anymore. They stood stone-frozen upon his bandaged bald head. The priest ruled, the funeral singer echoed: “there is no disease, no sorrow, no sighing, but only endless life…”.
Outside the window, under the mulberry tree, the uncle’s former classmate stood wearing dark glasses. Tears were rolling down from under the glasses. She would take them off, wipe her eyes with a handkerchief, and put them on again. But the tears were rolling out on and on. Instead of looking at Vitko, I was looking at his classmate – her eyes got red and her lipstick smudged.
My sister told me a few days later that Vitko came to her at night. He approached her, she told, greeted her and asked if he could sit down next to her on a bed. My sister told him to sit down, and thought to herself: “now he would sit down, the metal spring would creak loudly, and I would have a heart attack.” He understood it and did not sit down, he simply vanished into the darkness, as the dead usually do.
…a few years later, there were no horses left in our farm. Not even one. We had cows, calves, and in awhile – geese. But never after did we keep horses.