She seemed to have always been here – on this spacious yard, surrounded by the walls of the immense Stalin house. During the wartime, the bomb hit the house and it became less for one entrance. Now it’s green and cool here. Children’s teeter-totters. Pump station. Laundry on the ropes. If you sit on the bench, especially in autumn, you feel almost physically how the time flows around and entwines you. It’s so cozy here that you want to sleep.
She was born in this house. In 1932. Her father was a talented engineer, he was engaged in the urban water supply. The mother was from a village. She entered a pedagogical college but dropped her studies because she gave birth to her, Halia. Her first memory – bright sun on the wide steps, the mother runs upstairs, laughs, the rays play with her curls, amuse with her light silk dress and in her hands – a sack with two bottles of milk. At home – the radio, covered with a lacy napkin. The piano stood in the living room but nobody could play it. The father bought it for her, for Halia: we’ll send her to music school when she grows up. Sometimes the girl carefully, so that her mother didn’t hear, opened a heavy piano top and touched with a finger the keys – first slightly, then more bravely. They responded – each had its own sound. Spring dripping. Siren. The creak of the door. The noise of water from the gutter.
“What a naughty girl you are!” mother firmly closed the top and stood over Halia for some time, frowning her thin eyebrows.
That’s why nobody took up playing that piano.
The father was taken away one night. Halia hid under the polished table in the hall and watched the people in leather jackets. They were saying something through gritted teeth, pacing from one room to another, leaving gross black footprints on the parquet. Mother lamented, shaking her wheat perm, twisted on papillotes, father was tucking the shirt in the pants, grabbed a hat from the racks, couldn’t tie the laces. Halia ran the finger on a warm wooden curl – from the bottom up, from top to bottom, and stopped where it twisted like a snail…
She didn’t see how her mother was arrested. But that day she was taken from the kindergarten by a woman with a coarse, like a driver’s, hand. Halia wasn’t taken home but somewhere where many children in the same gray clothes lived. Falling asleep, the girl missed her mother less than her dresses: blue, green, with butterflies and dotted, with white collars and without collars.
Neither about war nor about destructive piercing hunger Zhabuleta doesn’t like to recall. She is sitting on the folding stool under the apricot tree, aptly working with a knife – she cuts the chess. The dust is falling on her slippers.
“Then a prosecutor lived in our flat. His daughter, Liolia, was taught playing my piano. The prosecutor was taken at the end of 1938. Liolia appeared on the bed next to me.”
“Who knows. There was a communal flat for a long time.”
Counting the stitches or embroidering crosses wouldn’t suit her. She seems to have never made jam. She doesn’t discuss the recipes of prickles with her neighbors. Zhabuleta worked her whole life at the cotton mill. As a fixer. She walked in the overalls with a huge key. When she hangs her sheets and pillowcases, she never flaps them to flatten like other women – simply hangs.
We go fishing together. Mother trusts her for some reason but when I tell her about Zhabuleta’s tricks, she gives a screw-loose sign. But she lets me go out with her. We carry our tied with ropes rods past women who sit on the benches with children in the prams, with needles and morning newspapers.
“Huh! Again fishing! Halia take me with you!” Nadia with a nickname Lightning Rod shouts.
“What for… to slobber there?” Zhabuleta answers slowly.
We go to the commuter train, sit in the stinky carriage and go past several stations. Zhabuleta knows all ponds in the environs. Zhabuleta knows where to fish for free in the paid pond. Zhabuleta knows what to answer to an angry owner if he caught us. It isn’t scary with her.
“Why do you live alone? Don’t you have a husband?”
“Why do I need someone if I have myself?” Zhabuleta answers with a question and pulls out of a bottomless coat pocket a yellow alarm clock – she doesn’t have a watch. She doesn’t need it…
In her pocket, there are plenty of things: a pair of knives, a wire, hooks, corks, tiny bags, capable of opening up like parachutes to the size of a huge bag, matches, salt, ropes.
“I don’t like this bird,” Zhabuleta squints, after seeing a huge white turkey which took a nap just on the fence.
She carefully looks around and takes a few steps towards imprudent poultry but then gives up, “If I knew, I wouldn’t have taken you with me. It’s bad to take a child for a theft.”
“But how would you take him?! From the fence?!
Zhabuleta pishes, “How how… Come closer, squeeze the beak and – hide under the coat.”
Zhabuleta aptly unscrews the heads of sunflowers, in winter breaks selective guelder rose in nurseries, knows where the cucumbers, where the onion grow. She spent the life with her son, without a husband, for a miserable salary of a fixer. Scrawny as a skeleton. Totally wrapped with a headscarf so that nobody remembered her face.
She tells, laughing, how she stole tomatoes from the field.
“I picked up two sacks already and saw the watchman running, shaking a wooden stick at me. And I thought – I’d better sit down or he runs up and hits me. I sat down. He ran up and screamed and screamed, foaming at the mouth. I listened to him a bit and then I thought – time to eat so not to waste time. I took a piece of bread with lard, chewed and listened, he was close to bursting out. Ate. But he didn’t stop. And here I thought: if I cry? He froze, spat, cut my bags and ran away with that stick.”
“And you?” I ask astonished.
“What me? I took out two bags from the pocket, picked up all tomatoes and went to the station.”
In childhood, I wanted Zhabuleta to read the books that I read. I stealthily brought her Stevenson, Mark Twain, Bradbury. She took them and thanked.
“How was the book? Was it good?!” I asked her with hope after several days.
“Yes,” Halka agreed, “a good sleeping pill.”
Once black realtors tried to smoke her out of the flat. In the 90s. They wanted “to take custody of her”, called psychiatrists, tried to bribe house and utility service. The neighbors rescued her and Zhabuleta herself was a special person. She stayed in her flat – even though not in the one where she had been born.
I went to study and then left our yard, tightly surrounded by the Stalin house. Mom said that Zhabuleta’s son died from alcohol abuse, she didn’t have grandchildren. She said that Halka herself became very weak. Lightning Rod died – there is no one to flap the laundry before hanging on the ropes. Now, nobody dries the laundry in the yard.
The last time I saw Zhabuleta was fifteen years ago, in November. It was drizzling. Deep rotten dusk fell on the yard. Halka stood next to the entrance and pushed the door. I hid under the apricot tree – strangely, but I felt embarrassed that I saw her here in a grey raincoat with dirty bandages on the legs. She pushed the metal doors with a combination lock – decisively, stubbornly, nervously. I was stricken. I froze. Zhabuleta was forcing herself not to her entrance but to the one, where was the radio covered with a napkin on the third floor, where mother’s perm was weakly trembling, where a good old piano, which nobody learned how to play, gleamed from the darkness…