“Well, then. According to the map it must be somewhere here”, – Alexey thought and turned left on the highway. The fresh snow crunched nicely under the wheels of his jeep, and the new one was still hovering in the air like some wondrous magic from the fairy-tale. “Only God knows how much snow fell! Good weather: it should be five or eight degrees below zero”.
Alexey looked at the navigator. The arrow indicated that the goal was close. “From the look of things I should go here”, – he concluded. Up ahead on the column he could see a sign “Cheryomushki village”, although there was nothing like this on the map.
“I should have put a new one, Misha gave me a right piece of advice. Well, I’ll ask someone now”, – he looked around. – “And there are no people, not a soul. Well, but it seems to be the start of the day!” Alexey turned back and ran a car off the road.
“Yeah, it is beautiful here”, - he looked around, opened the door of the car and got out. The nose tingled with the cold. It was easy to breathe in the fresh air. The snow, like an artist, shrouded the trees in a classical way – nice and smooth, in the form of white furry hats. And the sky was clear and had such a pleasant light blue color, with a few dark clouds, from which, probably, the snow was falling. Alexey was standing on the slope of a large river. Beautiful paints. Even fantastically beautiful.
In one sweater, even let it be a hand-knitted one, it became cool, and he went to the car. And here between him and the car a woman appeared as if from nowhere. It gave him a start of surprise.
– You scared me, – Alexey gasped.
The woman was looking at him in silence. The impression was repellent, as if there were a homeless person in front of you. Long and rough hair that seemed to have been unwashed for a long time, pouches under the eyes... She was dressed in a hoodie of some earthy colors.
– You are going to Cheryomushki. Don’t go there! –the stranger said.
– You know… I… – Alexey tried to approach her.
She turned and walked away.
“Oh, my God” – Alexey took a breath. – “Good advice, say nothing: “don’t go there… The Chief Editor will eat me bag and baggage! What a place it is”.
He pulled away and drove in this “Cheryomushki” that appeared from nowhere. Up ahead there was a street where you could see a few houses, rather ramshackle with the wells left and right. It seems that somebody used them: icy tracks were stretching from them. But there was nobody in the street. Only one more strange sign in another tree: “Old Matthew (Uncle Mitya) – twenty steps, well, twenty-five, not more”, – and the arrow indicated directly. The inscription evoked a smile – it’s not difficult to make twenty-five steps, although in the jeep. Up ahead there was a light in one of the houses. “I guess, it’s here”, – Alexey thought and, having given a honk, he went out of the car.
– Coming, – you could hear from the yard. A dog was barking.
Well, the village...
At the gate there appeared a small old man in the vast hairskin coat with a stick in his hands. The coat was obviously off-size: his hands were barely visible in the sleeves. But looking at the clenched fists, you had an impression that there was strength in those hands. The old man rearranged his ear-flapped hat on the head, smiled and said:
– Hi. What is your name? – The old man’s voice was muffled, and Alexey recalled something of his grandpa.
– I am Alexey. I am a correspondent of the newspaper “New Life”. I am collecting materials about the ancient Russian folk that used to live here.
– Well, let’s collect, if you need it. Come on, I will lodge you, the third column.
Alexey smiled at that strange joke and followed the old man to the neighboring house. The old man opened the door.
– And is the house nobody’s? –Alexey asked.
– This place is unusual, but don’t be afraid, nobody lives here. Come in and make yourself comfortable.
– Yeah, I’ve already been dissuaded from going here…
– Oh, Lizka, jadeite! Only devil knows where she is. Don’t pay attention. If need be, say that you are my guest, –old Matthew said and turned on a small light.
Alexey looked around: everything was modest but neat: furnace, old benches… they seemed to have been sat on at the time of Kolchak. There was a bed to the right, and behind it there was a window into the yard. The whitewashing was old, but the house was still standing.
– I’ll go and take the things, –Alexey turned.
– Come on, I’ll wait here.
– Oh, a good iron horse, – old Matthew clucked his tongue, examining the car. Alexey nodded and invited him into the house.
– Go and have a rest, my son, and in the evening we’ll have dinner and start writing this dissertation of yours.
Gazing the old man, running homeward, Alexey took thought:
“It’s strange. What is he doing here alone? And what kind of place is this? It’s not marked on the map...”
He wanted to sleep after the journey, so he gave up all thoughts, spread a white bed sheet with the smell of freshness and flavor of the winter air, threw the pillow, took the blanket and… he just turned, and on the bed – fancy that! A girl! Naked and calling.
What is this?! Where from? It does not happen! If someone was coming in, he couldn’t help hearing…
Alexey sprang quickly back with surprise. Then he remembered the old man’s advice and said:
– I am a guest of Uncle Mitya.
– Yes, I know whose guest you are, – the beauty said sweetly and ran a hand over her body. – Come here.
Appetizing forms, long curly brown hair, but…
– Who are you?
– I am Maria, – she turned on her stomach. – Are you coming?
– No, I…
– Well, then close your eyes, because I am not dressed.
When he opened his eyes, she was gone.
– Bother it! I got so frightened, – he sat down on the bed. But the fatigue took its course, he had enough strength just to get undressed and go to bed.
He slept well. Fresh cold air penetrated from the street, it was warm in the house. When the dream started to set him free, the first thought turned out to be: “I should ask the old man about the girl”.
Somehow he didn’t feel any shadow of fear, on the contrary – just ease and comfort. He opened his eyes and turned on the light – it was already dark outside, and in the room the table was set. Soft napkins were on the plates with dishes, as in a restaurant.
“Wow”, – Alexey thought. – “Ah, yeah, Uncle Mitya!”
He looked at his watch – it was seven o’clock. “The old man is about to come for dinner, so let’s stop wallowing. Let’s have dinner and get down to business!”
No sooner had Alexey taken off the napkin, Uncle Mitya’s voice sounded:
– Lyaksey, it’s me.
– Yes, Uncle Mit, come in.
The latter came in.
– Hi. Did you get enough sleep?
– Yes, thank you.
– Why didn’t you take Masha? I thought you could relax after the journey, it wouldn’t be out of place.
He walked up to the rack and took off the hareskin coat. Groaned a bit and sat down.
– Uncle Mit, well, I got scared to death.
– Never say this word! – The old man gave a slap on a wrist in the old-age way.
– You are in the unusual place. Believe that dreams come true here.
– Well, – Old Matthew smiled and raised eyebrows. – Well, yeah, I tell you! And don’t be surprised about anything. We have such a nation. Well, you have come for this purpose, haven’t you?
– That’s it. Let’s have dinner? Thank you for your hospitality, Uncle Mitya.
– Come on. You are after the journey, I decided to pamper you.
They made themselves comfortable and started eating.
– Uncle Mit, and why are you Mitya? Your name is Matthew, isn’t it?
– It’s shorter. Matthew is a short version of Mat, which means “mother”, and Mat seems like Mit. Well, tell me about yourself: who are you and what are you doing?
– I am Alexey Matveyev, a correspondent of the newspaper “New Life”. Here, I was given an editorial task – to write about a small Russian nationality, because there is nothing left to read. Readers are spoilt.
– Oh yes. You should write what you need, instead of entertaining. There is such a nation, and I am the only one left of it.
Alexey raised eyebrows.
– Yeah, yeah, Lyaksey, the only one. We all lived here in these parts… Yes, I almost forgot. So that the conversation could get on… – Uncle Mitya stood up and walked to his oversized hareskin coat, ran a hand though his bowels and pulled out a bottle of vodka.
– Ah… no, Uncle Mit. I’m holding my hand.
– Lyaksey! To welcome the company.
– Well, okay, – Alexey finally agreed.
The conversation was getting on, the glasses were swigging off one after another. Alexey was even worried that he would have a drop too much.
– Don’t be afraid, – the old man guessed his thoughts, – this vodka is special, it doesn’t make you drunk.
– Well, watch it, Uncle Mit. Listen, and what did you sing in your youth?
– “I don’t pass through the windows of the village council without any jokes…”
Alexey burst into laughing.
– And seriously?
– Well, we sang all Russian songs. We are a small nation.
– Well, and how did you live? I dare say that you lacked blessings of the civilization?
– What kind of blessings? A TV set? There, you have all the blessings outside. Look, what a beauty!
– Well, I agree, Uncle Mit. The paints are magical here.
– The place is unusual – that’s why, –old Matthew concluded, pouring some more vodka. – I don’t have a TV set in the izba. I don’t like it: exuberance of high spirits, reality-shows only, everybody is joyful about something, but you, modern people, don’t have any time to think about yourself and about your soul. We used to live in harmony with nature, with the God. Should a stranger attack us, we’ll clock him, and then – well, if he wants, he could stay with us. If not, we’ll give him some money for a trip and let him go. We were all equal. When Pete’s house was burned down, we built it all together. There was no money – so what? Look: there is water in the river, it’s nobody’s, ours, go and take as much as you want. And so we used to live and used to have everything. Ah…– Old Matthew talked round corners and waved his hand.
– You are right, – Alexey leaned back in the armchair and stared at the ceiling. – And as for the TV set, I agree with you: it’s impossible to watch it now. And anyway… we are running somewhere all the time, we are in a hurry, and it takes us nowhere.
– Golden words. To succeed in everything! – Old Matthew raised his glass.
– Come on!
They finished well after the midnight. The whole conversation was on the recorder. Alexey gratefully showed Uncle Mitya to the gate and went to bed.
He had to wake up early in the morning from a severe headache. It seemed that the previous day’s bottle was the one too many. But next to him he could hear a voice:
– Lyaksey! Wake up and take a hair of the dog that bit one!
– Oh, Uncle Mit, I shouldn’t have followed your advice yesterday…
“I’ll get up today before the dawn. I’ll pour myself and I’ll drink myself. I’ll smash the neighbor’s shutters, because I am the only one local…” – singing gaily, Uncle Mitya poured something into a glass and handed it to Alexey. The latter drank it… and everything was vanished as if by magic!
– Oh, Uncle Mit, what is it? It’s not vodka…
– Oh! I do say to you: listen to Uncle Mitya and everything will be alright.
– A clear head. There is not any hint at the morning hangover, as if there were nothing yesterday.
– It’s our vodka made according to the ancient recipe. That’s so. Then, it is such a place – you can do everything here. The weather is good today, so we’ll go and meet the dawn. I always get up so early. I’ll tell you something more on the way.
Alexey stood up and started to get dressed, and Uncle Mitya began to hurry up:
– Uh, we have guests. I’ll be back right now, – he left.
Alexey looked out of the window and saw right in front of the house … a Red Army soldier of the times of the Civil War with a rifle in his hands and Budyonovka on his head. Uncle Mitya approached him and they started to discuss something. Watching this conversation with enthralling eyes, Alexey tried hard to understand: where is he after all and what is that?
– Uh, how it is, – Uncle Mitya returned. – 65 years have passed, and they are still being found. But we won’t be sad.
– Who are being found? – the dumbfounded guest asked, almost stammering.
– I will tell you later, – the old man snapped. – Let’s go and watch the sunrise.
– Let’s have breakfast, don’t we?
– We’ll eat on-site, at the river.
On gathering all the necessary things, they walked to the end of the long street. People were peeping from behind the windows of neighboring houses. Alexey just managed to nod his head to the left and right.
The weather was not frosty. They settled down comfortably at the river and watched the sunrise.
– Put on sunglasses. Your eyes won’t survive such a view, – old Matthew handed the sunglasses to Alexey.
The paints were really unprecedented, Alexey was watching open-mouthed. Meanwhile, Uncle Mitya took all the accessories for winter fishing and got off the dime.
– So, we’ll have some breakfast. I’ll fish some for the fish broth…
The conversation was getting on easily at the breakfast, as if it didn’t stop the day before.
– Uncle Mit, – Alexey asked by the way, – you are a clever one, tell me: there are two women, both are splendorous, one is attracting like a magnet, and the other one is not? Just doesn’t evoke any emotions. Why is it so?
– The body tells the best object for procreation, – Uncle Mitya said somehow thoughtfully and sighed.
They were silent for a bit.
– If fishing didn’t ease the nerves, I would strangle everybody! – The old man suddenly snapped to the side of the hole. – Lyaksey, we have been sitting for three hours, and no fish!
Alexey burst into laughing, and they started to get ready to leave.
On the way back a familiar face suddenly glimpsed in one of the windows: a recent guest, a Red Army soldier was looking at Alexey and smiling, holding a pillow in his arms; he seemed to have been making his bed.
“He feels at ease”, –Alexey thought. – “So did I yesterday – after the journey I went to bed at once… There is something wrong here”, – He didn’t manage to get rid of the general strange feeling of what was happening.
Old Matthew, dissatisfied with fishing, was silent all the way.
– Uncle Mit, let me treat you today, don’t worry so much, – Alexey patted his shoulder.
– Everything is okay, – the latter waved aside discontentedly. – Ah, huh, Lyaksey, come afterwards, we’ll sit for a while at my place.
– You would better have a walk. The weather is wonderful today! The places are good here and the air is clean.
They said good-bye, and Alexey decided to go for a walk.
– Just don’t go to the cemetery. You have no business being there, – the old man shouted after him and began to move away.
Alexey looked back at him and went to the forest, thinking to go around the other side of the river and see how it was there. A walk through a pine forest in the winter – what can be better?
The thoughts blew over. There was silence and peace. He forgot about all the problems in the editorial office, about “hot” material and about Lucy. Although Lucy was the only person who always haunted his mind. Constant quarrels, squabbles, and there were enough reasons for jealousy.
If only he could meet her now and tell her everything of what he was thinking. As that day when they went to the forest with her friends and she hugged Misha all the way. Why not? He could understand him: she is a fabulous woman.
Alexey turned to a well-trodden path and went into the very depths of the forest… It was she who was walking towards him, Lucy!
How?! Here? Oh, my God, where am I? “It is such a place, everything is possible”, – the recent words of old Matthew sounded in his mind.
Well, then, that’s true. Come what may!
– Lyosha, hi, – he heard a voice, so sweet to his heart. Lucy walked towards him, smiling.
– Hello, Lucy, – he began speaking coldly. Then he gathered his thoughts and blurted out: – I’ll tell you at once, I am sick and tired of your eternal hysterics! I am pop boring to be jealous of you, and I will never get used to it, even taking into account your past profession…
– Oh, and you have thrown off reserve! What’s wrong with you? – She said with a light smile. – Yes, I am a slut. Did you say everything?
– Yes, – Alexey looked at her with surprise. She turned back and began to move away.
Suddenly, he realized that she was leaving forever and started running after her. But what a paradox! – it was impossible to catch a quietly walking woman, even bending over backwards.
Pooh! What is this place, huh? “Where am I???” – He shouted in a fit of temper. He caught his breath, looked around and found nothing better as to walk down the path running between two tall pines. A peaceful state to which the soul returned after seemingly earnest emotional outbursts and the feelings of inspiration and flight, not astringent with the impossibility of everything that was happening, impressed him more and more.
Going down to the river, Alexey once again could not help but admire the nature of this region that was giving a thrill. In the fullness of his heart, he scooped up fives of snow, quickly made a snowball and, choking with delight as a child, threw it away towards the river. “Beauty!..” He was still standing for one more minute, until a man’s cry penetrated into his thoughts:
– Help! Help save the girl!
Alexey turned. A hefty man was running towards him, waving his arms like blades of a mill. His face was red, weather-beaten – in such a cold he was without any hat.
– A girl is drowning there, –a sturdy guy outbreathed, and Alexey ran with him to the river.
Thank God, they managed to save the girl of about six years old. The man took her and carried to old Matthew.
– What a disobedient girl, what were you doing there again? – Uncle Mitya growled, seeing the child. Then he quickly took off her wet clothes, put her on the bed and started to rub her with his vodka. Soon she started to come to consciousness.
– Well, why are you standing there like a stuffed dummy? – The old man cried at the man. – Go and chop the firewood, it’s not for the first time, is it?
Alexey even started: “Not for the first time – but what time?” – He thought and pulled back to the wall.
– Well, sit down, – the old man suggested and went on talking with a caring smile:
– The main thing is not to be afraid of anything and not to react to anything.
The old man’s smile calmed him down. And it happened in time, because further there were difficult events, hardly fitting into the consciousness.
Old Matthew covered the girl with a blanket, sat next to her on a chair and started reading aloud a book. From the first sounds Alexey thought that they were ancient spells. And not without a reason. Something incredible started to happen to the child! First becoming red and then pale, suffering in delirium, sweating, she was moaning, crying, periodically calming down and falling asleep, and then waking up again. The old man was reading casually, as if a cookbook, only once waved Alexey with his hand – meaning, be quiet!
At one time or another it seemed that everything was over: the child calmed down and was lying with closed eyes, but the old man didn’t hurry to stop. Suddenly this angelic creature with the hair of the color of the sun gave a jump on the bed and turned into a brown-eyed beast, staring at Uncle Mitya with an ominous look:
– What else can you say?! – Something hissed with the child’s lips.
The old man went on reading, as if nothing had happened.
And everything started from the very beginning: delirium, screaming, moaning, cramps... It seemed that it would never end, and then everything ceased, the child started breathing calmly and fell asleep.
– That’s enough! – Old Matthew concluded and took a deep breath. – Lyaksey, go and see what the fighter is doing, – he looked at Lyosha and smiled again.
Stunned, to say the least of it, hardly realizing what was happening; Alexey obediently went into the yard. The sturdy guy was chopping firewood like a machine. His face was red, and the hands, violently gripping the ax, were bloodless from the pressure. Still in the state of groggy, Alexey stood by and asked without thinking:
– And who are you?
The latter took a deep breath and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
– It doesn’t matter who I am, listen to Uncle Mitya. I am up to go, – the stranger stammered out under breath, stroke the ax into the deck and went away. Alexey remained standing in the yard.
– Well, where have you been, – the old man looked out, – we are already going crazy!
He seemed to have in mind games with the child: Alexey could hear a childish rolling laughter from the izba.
– Come here, let’s have some tea with cranberries.
Alexey, being confused – let it be so! – went in. The girl, who turned out to be Nastya, sat at the table drinking tea with the old man, as if nothing had happened. On the table there was a samovar, cups with steaming tea, a plate with cranberries and cracknels. Amused Uncle Mitya was laughing and screwing around with the child: and who will eat a cracknel with more crunch, and who will lick the spoon with jam so that it could shine brighter... Alexey just stood there frozen to the spot – how touching this picture was, the old man was likely to be on cloud nine: probably he has always dreamt about a granddaughter.
– Take a seat near us! – Uncle Mitya demanded once again. His eyes were shining.
After tea the old man commanded:
– Okay, Lyaksey, we should go. Today we have newcomers. You go with us: with me and a booger, – he looked at Nastenka impishly.
– I am not a booger, grandpa, – a child screamed.
– Then a mite, – the old man continued to insist.
– And I am not a mite! I am Nastenka.
– Oh, my darling, well, let’s get ready. You are with us, aren’t you? – This time he turned to Alexey.
– Well, of course, Uncle Mit, – Alexey uttered, not knowing what to say.
Five minutes later all the company was walking down the street.
Soon they came into a house. There were people, very pale; they were about ten. Sitting on a couch in front of the old man, they had their ears flapping, keeping an eye on him. Nastya, sitting next to Alexey, didn’t get tired of whispering:
– Don’t be afraid, everything is okay, nobody will hurt you here.
Being in earnest and not having a clue, Alexey just nodded obediently.
Then they went to another izba, and the same started there.
They returned home after midnight. The stars were shining, lighting the way, the snow was crunching under their feet, – for three of them it was funny.
They spent the night at Uncle Mitya. And a rooster’s crow awoke everybody in the morning.
– Fuh, what a beast! – The old man grumbled.
The rooster seemed to have gone silent, and everybody started to fall asleep, but then again: cock-a-doodle-doo.
Old Matthew, grunting discontentedly, turned on the other side.
His nap was interrupted by the third crow.
– Could you ever shut up or not? – The old man cried in a fit of temper.
– Uncle Mit, be quieter, you can wake up the child! – Alexey couldn’t be silent.
– I can’t. She has gone.
– Where has she gone? How? – Alexey jumped on the bed.
– It doesn’t matter… sleep, – one could hear a heavy sigh. – My booger won’t come to me any more… well, everything comes to the end sooner or later.
And here, away from the point, the forth rooster’s crow followed.
– Lyaksey! Do you like rooster soup? – The old man jumped in his pants and ran for the rooster.
It is not easy to catch a rooster alone, and some time later you could hear from the yard:
– Alexey, I need your help.
Rooster soup was ready by the dinner time.
Alexey spent the whole morning at his place: the information received from the old man needed to be processed. And Uncle Mitya asked not to go to his place:
– Household cares, why do you need them? I’ll cope with everything, make soup, and then come.
That was a deal. Alexey worked with pleasure and had some inspiration – proper words went on a clean sheet themselves, a pen seemed to slipper on the paper without any pressure like a figure-skater, making hooks and curls. From a certain moment Alexey even stopped to recognize his handwriting – it was so neat. A crazy thought came to his mind: maybe, it was the old man who had a finger in the pie...
The mood wasn’t just great – it was sublime! He created! The old man’s stories gained visibility and scope right in front of his eyes, becoming a reliable picture of the history and life of a distant people, visible so clearly, as if you were a part of it yourself: some people build, others plow, warriors protect their land from greedy and envious enemies… The material started to acquire definite outlines, and it seemed that everything was almost ready, just a little bit more, the last item and the final touch…
Setting aside the pen and putting his hands on the nape, he leaned back in his armchair. He had to catch his breath.
“How nice it is here!” – Alexey exclaimed, looking dreamily out of the window.
It has always seemed to him that nothing lasts forever, and neither does the sense of pleasure. How do we live? Today we are well and tomorrow we’ll be bad. And here everything was the other way. Flush, one continuous flush. How nice it was in the heart!
Not so that he’d notice, it was lunch time. He threw on his jacket, put on his boots and went to the old man.
– You know what the soup is made from, – Uncle Mitya put a hot plate in front of the guest. – Lyaksey, as a favor, get it out of the hareskin coat.
Alexey grinned, realizing that he meant a bottle.
They sat down.
– Well, how’s your work? – Uncle Mitya asked, scooping the soup with a spoon.
– Well, almost everything is ready, there are only finishing touches left…
– And what do you need? – The old man didn’t let him finish.
– You know, Uncle Mit, probably just tell me. And then we’ll see.
– Okay, Lyaksey, then listen, – old Matthew started talking. – Do you understand what was important for us? We had to leave something behind ourselves. For example, a shoemaker leaves his boots, a writer – a book. The nation should enrich with something. You’ll die – and what? What will be there after you? You say, children – well, that’s right, but the children will die as well, and you need eternal things: a book, a word, the good, boots…
Alexey burst into laughing, suspecting that there won’t be any relationship between a book and boots.
– Don’t interrupt the old man, – Uncle Mitya joked. – Well, it must be the best boots: if you die, people will remember you. The civilization is enriched in such a way. What is the difference for you whether you high off a stick of sausage or off the fanciest trousers? Here a high is ingenuous, fungible. So, should you chase after a new pair of trousers, if the old one is out of fashion?.. And you, Lyosha, go to the forest, to the river – the nature talks to you in thousands of voices, and maybe, millions. And feel: you are a human-being, a part of this life, improve yourself – and the life will feel your care about its part. That’s the morality we had… Yes, lots of things have happened… well, then, let’s eat.
– You tell in an interesting way, Uncle Mit.
The latter grinned and started eating in silence. Alexey finished the soup more quickly, put a napkin to his lips and said:
– Uncle Mit, I’ll go and take a walk. Everything is almost done!
– I see you are in a good mood, – the old man smiled.
– After yesterday, you know… – Alexey started.
– Go, go, the third column, – the old man hurried up for shits and giggles, apparently, meaning the “fifth column” again.
– Uncle Mitya! – Alexey was about to take offence.
–Well, I’m just joking… Only don’t go to the cemetery!
A small well-kept cemetery was in the open field, covered with snow. The path was trampled with bloody traces…Something made Alexey come closer.
There was a portrait of Nastya on one of the plates, and further – a portrait of that sturdy guy who tried to save her. And this is… Lucy! Lucy-y-y-y!.. He cried with all his might, fell to his knees and closed the face with his hands. And his echo sounded for a long time. And suddenly he felt that there was nothing… Water and snow, field and sky… but there was nothing of this. It was not even a void – there wasn’t any space, and he was alone here. His grandma’s story, that he had heard once, sounded in his ears. She saw a deceased neighbor in her dreams. She asked: “Well, what is there?..” – And he answered: “Nothing. And it’s very cold”. So, that was it. And that was the truth, it was cold. Cold and awful.
– So, why have you got there? – Old Matthew leant over Alexey’s bed. – And I am a fool: how can I forbid you something, – he grunted in the old-age way.
– Is it very scary? Uncle Mit? Forgive me, Uncle Mit, – Alexey said, being sick of speech. The sweat was raining down him.
– Time might have sucked you. You would be somewhere there, it’s not clear where exactly, in a pit of the time. And bang! – it’s a good thing that Lizka, jadeite, is gadding about and only the devil knows where, so there is some sense from her.
– Uncle Mit… – Alexey tried to say something, but the old man didn’t let him finish:
– Okay, I will tell you what it is. That sturdy guy in the river drowned that girl because of the inheritance. And then he kicked the bucket in the same lake. Now, here. He rescues her every day, he wants to make it up to the God. This Red Army soldier has been found recently, he also got to me. He is a NKVD officer, he sent so many people to the skies, that… oh, don’t want to talk about it!
– Uncle Mit, are we alive?
– Yes, we are alive. You and me. We are sitting here with the skeletons accused by the God!
– I think you make them better… praying.
– Maybe you are right, – old Matthew got up, walked up to the fireplace and threw another log that was seized by the fire. Then he returned to his armchair and covered himself with a blanket.
– You know, there is no time, it was proved by Einstein. The past is as real as the present. But where is it? It’s here. I don’t know at all where we are. The God does not give answers to all questions so that you could develop somewhere, strive for something. I don’t know where we are, don’t ask me. Yes, your…
– Lucy? What has happened to her? – Alexey startled.
– Lie calm, don’t jump, you were not jealous of her in vain, she died in a bed with her lover. He… her… to death…
– Lyuska, Lyuska, she loved that thing, – Alexey wailed.
– Let’s drink! It won’t hurt.
Alexey smiled wryly.
– Close your eyes, – Uncle Mitya said.
Alexey closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he saw that the table was set. He slowly got out of bed and went over to the table.
– Uncle Mit…
Old Matthew didn’t let him finish again.
– I didn’t tell you why I am here, – his tone changed and became a little sadder. – I am waiting for her. She will come here… Forty years have passed and I still can’t forget her. Oh, come on. Let’s change the subject.
Old Matthew poured some more of his magic vodka and they distracted from sad thoughts. The old man was joking again, recalling some stories.
– Oh, Lyaksey! Will you take Masha today?.. Do you want some striptease?
– Uncle Mit, what are you talking about, – Alexey smiled, lifting his hands aside in dismay.
All of a sudden, there appeared a pole. Naked Masha hung on it and, following the shouts of the old man “Manya, bring it on”, started pulling off such things...
They spent half a night in such a way. Old Matthew said good-bye and went to his place.
– How do you think, I am not too bad after all? – Old Matthew posed this question to Alexey, when he came to him early in the morning. The sun was shining in all its glory. Alexey opened the window, and a frosty smell of winter reined in the house. The old man stood in the doorway smiling. Shaved once in a blue moon, dressed in the old, but clean white shirt, combed (two hairs in two rows) and happy.
– She died, – he said, satisfied. – She is in the coffin in front of the house. Well, another two hours, and she will be here. And she will be mine. And now let people grieve about her there, sing at the funeral, weep... But then, – the expression of Uncle Mitya’s face quickly changed, – then she – mine! Oh, and I with her! Here, on each bed! I’ll catch up the past!
Alexey shied at hearing these words.
– Well, you know, Old Matthew, I’ve been listening to you all the way… but now… – and suddenly, a guess pierced him out of the blue: – You… you are dead… dead, yeah? – Panting, he forced himself to speak and rushed hotfoot out of the izba.
Not remembering himself, Alexey ran into old Matthew’s house. That’s so, he was sitting there, in an armchair, in front of the fireplace, where he sat yesterday. And he died in the arm-chair, wrapped in the blanket. And this one… who was this, a clean-shaved one, in a shirt?
When he returned to his place, old Matthew was still standing in the doorway, waiting for Alexey.
– Well, finally came? How stupid of you. Because you are young. But what is the difference whether I am dead or alive? It’s all just words. The main thing is that she will be near, and not for seventy or eighty years … but for the eternity! That’s the main thing when you have a beloved one! Lyaksey, don’t cry!
Tears were flowing spontaneously: the mental stress of the last days was evident. Trying to control himself, Alexey put the old man in an armchair. Then he pulled himself together, smiled at the old man and decided to help him look like a million bucks: he corrected his inept shave, put on him a suit that he had taken for the journey and a tie with a white shirt.
– Well, then, Lyaksey, you got to go! – Old Matthew said in a serious tone. They embraced. Alexey went out and walked to the car, and Uncle Mitya remained gazing after him, standing beside the road. Suddenly Alexey had a strong desire to look back, and…
There was spring, only starting to rein. The birds were singing, the sun’s rays barely caressed but didn’t warm. On the road there was old Matthew in the similitude of a twenty-year boy with brown hair, dressed in a stylish green suit. He had a bouquet of flowers in his hands, and next to him was she, in a summer beige dress.
Alexey haven’t seen a more beautiful woman for the whole of his life.
He got into the car and looked back at the road: snow, blizzard… – turned on the wipers and put on speed. In a folder on the adjacent seat, as he thought, there was a report on a small nation, written by Old Matthew, but in Alexey’s neat handwriting. And in the end of the report there was a postscript, but already in a different handwriting:
– After all, that’s the shit, Lyaksey. “Passing through the windows of the village council” – that’s harsh! Here it is, national folklore!
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