Thursday, 26 November

The slapping foot

She lived on the outskirts of our town, in a garden that connected spring with autumn. When the real cold was about to get there, Vira with a spade on her shoulder waddled to dig out her dahlias. During the warm season butterflies, beetles and dragonflies were landing on those red, even black, royal dahlias, on roses, on lilies. All sorts of quirky insects sweetly buzzed, filtering the thick, fragrant air. The black-eyed elderberry was breathing on those flowers, enviously leaning on the stick, and at midnight, the fairies would probably sit on their petals and foresee a happy fate to the new-born. And how come you can’t go here, if there are tiny chairs on side of the paths and the vine that turned into a gazebo next to the white wall. The house glows so yellow and cozy that you simply can’t bypass it.

Vira is from the orphanage. From far away. If you ask her where it is, she closes her eyes tightly and shakes her head, she doesn’t want to recall. Maybe it’s the right thing to do. Vira is the cleaning lady at my school. Every morning, when I go to the classroom, I see Vira limping far ahead, terribly unnaturally twisting her left foot. She has a stretched Turkish sweater, a very long skirt, and a knitted hat on her head, not down on her ears but fixed just above the temples. A hat hangs above Vira as a haystack. Therefore, sometimes they called her “Cossack Mamay”.

Vira shuns people just in case. Especially children. Especially us. During the breaks, she sits in a dead-end – far away behind the library and a sealed shut toilet. She sits on a chair with her elbows on the windowsill and sometimes glancing towards the wide corridor where kids create a total mess. If any kid inadvertently runs into Vira’s realm – to ask what time is it now or where and for how much she got such a wonderful hat, Vira hides her feet under a chair, presses the crude, somewhat dingy white bag against her chest, as if she hides inside her shell. Like a bird that covers its nest.

If a busy teacher passes by, wiping chalk from her palm, she will surely look at the prankster and scold him or her. And, maybe, he will even run away, and Vira, maybe, will spread her petrified wings – as if the danger’s past. But children are ruthless. Especially in a group, especially when they are being watched. Alone, at home, in the evening, in the corner of the couch, they maybe regret bullying Vira, tripping her, catching a lizard to scare her. But during the day everything is completely different. In the daytime everything seems very cheerful when Vira turns pale, almost without opening her mouth, spitting on them her futile and defenseless words, threatening to go to the principal. But it won’t help anyway.

“You know, that’s the age. We can do nothing here,” a deputy principal sorrowfully sighs and touches Vira’s elbow, “just try not to react.”

Vira nods. The deputy principal fixes the protractor under her armpit and goes to her lessons. Halfway there she stops and asks,

“Maybe we can help you? Write a request if you need anything. The school will do whatever…”

Vira nods.

At that time when she got a cleaning lady’s job, it seems, I was already in the last grade. At first, I also laughed and silently called her the Slapping-foot or Cossack Mamay. I was never brave enough for open amusements. But I couldn’t stand up for Vira when she was attacked by underage maggots for a very long time. The collective feeling was preventing me from doing it. High school students are almost constantly in their own world, dreaming of entering the most prestigious universities, living the most wonderful life, meeting… well, in a word… at that age, they rarely pay attention to a grey bird that is stuck in the dead-end between the blue wall and the radiator. The scale doesn’t match.

As well, I had the status of having “a screw loose” in the class. Needless to say, I was sitting at the back, on my own. I did not want to confirm my outsider status once again.

But I had to.

I don’t remember how it started or where. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t remember. But I chatted with Vira during breaks in secret. At first, she was scared but then realized that I had no bad intentions. So she melted to the point that she had started shyly getting different calendars and cards out of her bag and showing them to me. There were either kittens or roses. Vira was sincerely convinced that there was nothing more beautiful in the world than fluffy kittens in baskets and roses with dewdrops on petals. She even suggested me several times to take one such picture. I did not take it because I was not interested in it, and it was clear that Vira didn’t want to part with her treasure. Back then she was, to be honest, maybe 32 years old…

Then I began to visit Vira at her home, though my entire family, and especially my grandfather, was against it.

“Why are you going there?! You see, she’s gone bananas. Why can’t you find yourself normal friends? Hanging around with miserable ones, capable of nothing else.”

Grandfather’s words painfully stabbed and reached deeply. Even though it was completely untrue, because in front of him I had wonderful communication with the peers in the village, still – over time, I began to believe that I was not able to be friends with anyone, but with such people as this Vira. Cossack Mamay. The slapping foot. Well, that’s the truth.

I went to her in secret. As they say – from the backyard. Now I don’t remember conversations we had or candies we ate. Only some kind of shaky image – the wings of dragonflies and cicadas, the fragrant air filtered by them, fireflies, paths paved with white brick. Vira sits in the middle of the paths in her signature hat, smiles and paints another chair, “let the one half be pink and the other half green as an apple. And I will put it under the jasmine bush. It will be nice, right? So the shadow will fall, there will be a gap, and the path will be over there. Beautiful, isn’t it?

On the day she was born, the fairies also flew into the garden. Three or four. I do not know. They sat on a chrysanthemum. It was in autumn. The wicket gate was creaking. The wind was blowing with all its evening power. The fairies were frozen. They looked at a pile of firewood with a peeled bark and wondered – what virtues to give this girl, limp from birth. So many babies were born that day, and the fairies were already tired of flying and there was cold and that frost… I don’t know. Maybe there was no garden where she was born. Maybe the fairies were sitting on a wet wire. But it seems they only gave her naivety. Sweet naivety. And nothing more.

And then Vira got married. Yes, don’t be so surprised. They met in the newspaper. “A lonely friendly woman is looking for a good, loyal, decent life companion. I guarantee you my soul.” Well, you know.

The groom worked as a librarian in a nearby village, wore a stunned smile on his face all the time, and was cat-like in general. Only his eyes were somewhat motionless and glassy.

My grandfather knew him. And even more so – he knew his mother. She used to be a teacher. She even taught my grandfather. Mokryna Matviivna. I knew her too. And her favorite word combination was “you need to”.

Vira quickly sold her dollhouse “with all the trinkets” – with tiny chairs, with painted wickets, dahlias and grapes. She collected her poor belongings and moved to her husband.

We were talking with her for a while at school, by the window, behind a closet and a locked toilet. Vira complained that her mother-in-law loves neither kittens nor roses, but loves straight rows of beets and potatoes instead. They have four gardens, sixty chickens and something over one hundred rabbits. That mother-in-law hides all the money somewhere and gives only two hryvnias for a ride. And she takes away all the salary. And where she puts it – Vira didn’t know. She rubbed her dry palms against each other, something dark green covered them forever. Her hat was already something not Cossack-like, but some tiny, black, monastic one. Vira was no longer getting out her cards. Apparently, she was ashamed. I sympathized with her, a shadow shrouded my face.

“Let’s eat candy!” I said to Vira and unwrapped two.

She thanked quietly and slowly ate, often glancing at the piece of paper – checking how much was left…

One summer, my friends and I were in the village. We saw Vira’s new home. Mokryna Matviivna walked with a sieve and shouted at high frequencies “chuck-chuck-chuck”, a man that looked like a red cat was circling around rabbit cells. The summer sun was frantically scorching. I was looking for Vira – and found that she was bent in the middle of a hectare of garden beds. She was digging something with her hands there. I involuntarily moved my eyes to see at least some dingy flowers near the house. There was nothing. The cabbage was growing under the windows. White and red. Watered in the morning.

Later on, when I was studying at university, I learned from my grandfather that the cat and Mokryna had expelled Vira when she became pregnant. The school gave her a room in a house above a ditch. That house was named the orphanage – once upon a time children from surrounding villages who found it difficult to get to school were living there. I don’t know how she lived there, to be honest. Looked down at the clay from her window? At the pond below?

Well, I already had lectures on psychology and ancient literature. Life seemed like a landscape through an open huge window – it would be whatever I want. And, of course, I want the best – and I will succeed. What kind of obstacles? What troubles? What downed birds?

Already in the late autumn or winter, I was told that Vira gave birth to a baby girl. The kid was taken away from her because Vira is disabled. It was taken to Kremenchuh, to the orphanage. So Vira left school and went there for the baby. And, they said, she still hasn’t returned.

“Who knows? Maybe she died there… or maybe your friend found someone. Of course, she had no good life at Mokryna’s place – that’s for sure. This is…” grandpa didn’t finish. But I didn’t listen as well.

For a moment, Vira appeared in front of me. She sits at an empty bus stop and grabs her bag. She hides her ill foot under a bench and moves her rough palms. I drove that vision away. I had to hurry – to the place where they had already uncorked bottles and lit bonfires, white strong teeth were shining there, they threw each other the elastic and shiny ball of youth. Well, then I forgot completely.

In the fall, my mother moved to a new apartment. In the spring a woman who was living in our house came to her. She brought an envelope. It seems that it was in the dingy mailbox for a long time. The address and my name were on the envelope. The envelope had a calendar with three fluffy kittens. Kittens were crawling out of the basket and looked at me with happy thoughtless eyes. Of course, there was no return address.

Serhiy Osoka

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