Not so long ago I was asked if I know a lot of happy families. I did not answer, because I could not remember no matter how hard I tried. It seems like such a simple definition – a happy family, but… No, it’s not about those who got used to each other, who are kept together by children, joint affairs, or just the force of inertia. No, not those. Happiness is something different, more than a habit, happiness splatters and flourishes, happiness shines and flickers. Where have I seen this? And for sure I have seen this, but long ago…
I was brought to visit them when I was a child. They were relatives, just relatives, not very close and not very distant. A village. Vegetable gardens. A cow. Not the village I loved. Not that one, and therefore not my village. He wore a plaid shirt, unbuttoned right down to the navel, and a cap, he had an overbite and drove some truck. I was indifferent to those dirty wheels, to those levers in the cabin, to the colorful toy hanging on the windshield. The car drove to another yard, not the one where my heart was buried. She worked as a nurse in the children’s department, every day she took other people’s sick children into her arms, and because of this her voice gradually fell from her throat to her chest, so low that sometimes it was difficult to tell what she was saying – she was all please, warmed up milk, gently pushed blanket. I could not hear anything, I was sitting on the grass all the time and foolishly waited to be taken away to my promised land.
The may rain thrashed at the glass, into the gutters, rolled down with muddy streams down a slate roof, shook an orange plastic duck in a puddle. I dropped an illustrated book somewhere on the floor and looked out the window at the cemented paths between the house and the summer kitchen, where the rain had spread the apple tree petals. I was half-napping, half-dreaming, with the lacy curtain drawn open. I think it was evening, though, it could as well be morning – the water flows draped the time. My aunt Nina also sat nearby with a baby girl in her arms. She sighed. She looked at the window, beyond the window, beyond the garden, beyond the well, where, probably, some bizarre guises were rambling and collecting something from the veil of grass. She was sad, I was sad too, but we were apart, we couldn’t share this anguish. It was not even anguish… Just the rain, in which the car, that truck, had just stopped, the doors had slammed, and after a moment they both laughed, my aunt Nina under a plastic raincoat and my uncle Vasyl without a raincoat. He said something through his laughter, but she didn’t hear it, she kept wrapping herself into that raincoat, and gave him those looks… I didn’t know such words then. Now I also do not know such words, and therefore I do not describe anything, but simply state that in a moment the green plastic raincoat was already flying somewhere beyond the well, beyond the slum, beyond the garden, beyond the truck, and they kept laughing, blowing off the wet strands from their faces.
And it was not the first, not the second or even the seventh year of their life together. I have never heard – I stayed there often and for a long time – them shouting, or even raising their voices at each other. And aunt Nina never hid in the room to cry, and uncle Vasyl never slammed the cabin door to drive wherever his eyes would see. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. A table, taken out into the yard, under the apple tree, chairs, cemented paths, a fence. The foreground, where in addition to them, other characters – not the main ones – were rambling, changing places, saying something. I do not remember. The rain covered everything. It is not important. Therefore, I do not remember. No one glowed there except for two of them.
In summer they went to the river. As they do in the village, with godfathers, with huge covers and rubber cameras, with numerous children, with two-three cars, for the whole day. The covers turned into magic tablecloths on the shore – with cucumbers and tomatoes, crispy thin fried zucchinis, sausages, the water that got warm quickly, beer. The children screamed, perhaps, including me. Uncle Vasyl splattered his Green Apple shampoo foam throughout Psel, everyone splashed, dived, wrapped their shoulders into some small towels, jumped on one leg, pouring out water from their ears.
And when a noisy group sat down on the covers, and with the hunger, caught up in the river, vigorously started the dishes and drinks, the two weren’t there. The first and second time I looked for them with my eyes, and later I already knew: in the middle of the river, which will smell like Green Apple till night, Vasyl was swimming, and just above, right on him, on his back, on his broad back with a typical rural tan, on his tank-top-sun-traced back, clasping her hands around his neck, there was Nina. He didn’t seem to be swimming anywhere, and she wasn’t. No, they weren’t. They were not swimming, but just floating there in their hugs, in a continuous zoom, twitter and flickering. They said something to each other, but no one heard. And I don’t want to know what they said.
Never did I see the two who have lived many years together, swimming this way. Though, of course, it is not about swimming, for it is not a miracle, right? It is about the things that have no clear and intelligible words to them. Those splatters, high sun, the time that stops.
And then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Operation. The vegetable garden was forbidden. The river was forbidden. The sun was forbidden. Even eating under the apple tree was forbidden. And sitting on a chair, in the foreground, in the light, in the center of the light, in the epicenter, in the core. It was forbidden. Forever. It was even forbidden to cook soup on a gas stove. How could she not cook? How?
I’ll tell you how. For twenty years, Nina sat in the dim living room, peeled potatoes, scraped and sliced carrots, and Vasyl took a cutting board with it all and threw it into the pot.
“Stir it. Turn it over. Turn down the gas. Remove the foam. Put more salt…”
For twenty years.
The minor characters, the ones that were not illuminated, disappeared one after another. Some into their new families, some – into the place where the word Exit is glowing over the black door. Wherever. And he patiently kept stirring the roasting with a spoon, turned off the gas and turned the pan over the pot, trying not to stain the stove. He scraped green onions and yellow carrots from the board, listening to her voice from the dim living room. For more than twenty years, Nina had never ignited the burners.
And you say it never happens… It is just rare…
I think she has already retired, stopped hugging and caressing other people’s children, increasingly deepening her voice. And he also only rarely took any boards with his truck somewhere. On weekends, children visited them and brought their grandchildren. Actually, I didn’t see it, but I’m not lying. It was exactly this way. She squatted on her haunches in the middle of the cemented path with the apple blossom remnants, widely opened her arms to embrace the red-cheeked child with big ears, and it fell into these embraces. Vasyl wrestled with the grandson and showed him the levers in the cabin:
“It’s gas. And it’s brake…”
I don’t know. I wasn’t even there then. My heart was buried in another yard. But it was exactly this way. You can skip checking – I am telling the exact truth.
And twenty years later the disease returned to her. And no operation could help. It was too late.
He had also returned in the spring, after taking some boards somewhere and stuffing some crumpled papers into his pocket. He slammed the cabin door. He entered the dim living room passing the veranda with a gas stove. She was breathing, but barely. He grabbed her in his arms, shouted, knocked the doors that he could open, but then he would need to let her out of his hands, he ran barefoot through the streams of rain – she needs to go to the hospital, to the hospital. Having opened the cabin door, he looked into her face and realized that she had already… He sat this way on the cabin step until the evening, clutching his Nina to his chest. Until people, the neighbors… well… but he didn’t let her go right away.
This is what I was told. But I didn’t see it. Twenty years. Rain. Apple blossom. Carrots on a chipped cutting board. The lid of the coffin near the threshold. Towels. Wreaths. They took her out. The weather got better. The car mirrors were covered with handkerchiefs.
No. I didn’t see it. So, let them swim. Or rather, not swim, but let them be a mirage to the weeds, willows, and waves, that smell like Green Apple shampoo.
And you say – it never happens…