Biographies & Memoirs

4. Dacha

MY GRANDPARENTS COME TO visit every summer. From June to September they stay in our dacha thirty kilometers from Leningrad, a little house squatting on a half-acre of land behind a wood fence. It was my mother who initiated buying the dacha soon after I was born, despite my father’s uncertainty about added responsibilities. I’m already eight, and I can conjure up how it happened. The baby needs fresh air, she would have declared in her teaching voice, the same voice that tells me I must finish every crumb on my plate.

My father probably hesitated, since no one wants to do right away what the teaching voice tells you. But his deepest passion was fishing, and the dacha stood a mere four kilometers from the Gulf of Finland, where you could catch pike and perch and sometimes even eel. In a rowboat, he felt at peace, enjoying the solitude infinitely more than he enjoyed the catch.

Now the boards of the dacha have been bleached to gray by years of snow and rain, with only several leftover patches of the original green paint scattered over the wood. A porch, sinking to the left, leads to an enclosed veranda with a table and two long benches in the center. The rest of the house is always dark, since the two small windows sifting light into our tiny bedroom and kitchen are shaded by branches of a sprawling lilac bush. When I enter, my eyes need a few seconds to adjust to the twilight, to make out the contours of a fat, wood-burning stove propping the low ceiling.

Another stove, this one flat-topped to accommodate pots and pans, dominates the kitchen. Its cast-iron body seems to grow out of the floorboards, rooted somewhere in the depths of the earth below the foundation. A metal sink—connected to nothing since there is no plumbing—hangs underneath a washing device, a pot with a hole in the middle plugged with a metal stem. When I jiggle the stem up and down, water trickles onto my hands and, through a hole in the washbasin, falls into a pail underneath. The sink makes you think the washing device is really a faucet that drips water into a pipe instead of a stinky pail—another example of vranyo, which Aunt Polya taught me in nursery school.

Dedushka, my grandfather, loves gardening. Tall and white-haired, his body thick as an oak tree, he turned a half-acre of waist-tall grass into a showcase of neat beds of strawberries, cucumbers, and dill. He planted apple trees, whose branches now bend under the weight of apples, and bushes of gooseberries, their sour fruit covered with soft white fur. In the back, he built a tomato hothouse, a sheet of plastic perched on a wooden frame and held down by bricks.

Dedushka loves to be in charge. The commander, my grandmother calls him. She looks at him out of the kitchen window, washing plates in a kettle of warm water, the skin around her eyes folding into deeper pleats with a smile from behind her glasses.

“Time to water!” he commands precisely at seven, when the sun begins to roll down the sky toward our fence. Obediently, as if she has suddenly become a different person, docile and quiet, my mother carries two watering cans from the barn. Dedushka cranks the rusty handle of our well until a chained bucket falls into the water. Leaning onto the well frame, I look down, but it is so deep I can never see the water; I only hear the bucket twitching on its chain and then a splash. With both hands, Dedushka draws the bucket up, into daylight. Two bucketfuls, one after the other, to fill two watering cans that my mother drags to the beds of radishes, carrots, and beets and then to the hothouse for the tomatoes. She walks slowly, her shoulders pulled down by her load, and I wish it had rained so Dedushka wouldn’t make her do all this lifting and lugging.

Dedushka would like to commandeer my father, too, when he arrives on Saturday night with Uncle Volodya, but he knows better than to try. There’s no road, so they drive up the field dotted with the blue stars of cornflowers and buttery cups of yellow flowers called chicken blindness. If eaten, I am told, these flowers can cause instant blindness, especially in chickens. My father and Uncle Volodya bump on ruts, announcing their arrival with rattling we hear all the way from the veranda, and leave the car by the back gate, next to the compost pile. I run out to meet them, to inhale my father’s smell of tobacco and the car’s odor of gasoline that laps around it in thick, sticky waves. Aside from compulsory watering and weeding, so little happens in the dacha that any distraction—a trip to the grocery store or a truck hurtling by—makes the day memorable. But my father’s arrival is special. A whole Sunday is in front of us, with possibilities that seem infinite, with Uncle Volodya stroking his thinning hair and telling a story about a militia traffic post, with my father at the head of the table, all mine, slurping spoonfuls of cabbage soup.

When my father is in the city working, the head of the table becomes Dedushka’s place. Right now Dedushka is outside. He doesn’t like to give up his commanding post at the table, so the minute Uncle Volodya’s car rattle reaches the house he remembers that it is time to prune or weed or fertilize. I glance out the window and see him by the currant bush, inspecting its branches and sifting white powder from a small bag onto the leaves, pretending he didn’t see the car drive up the field.

“Want to go fishing tomorrow?” My father puts the spoon down and looks at Uncle Volodya.

“I want to go fishing!” I shout and jump off the bench.

“Sit down,” says my mother. “You haven’t finished your compote.”

I don’t want any more compote. I want to go fishing.

“What kind of fisherman are you?” asks my father. “Ot gorshka dva vershka.” Two inches taller than a potty.

“I’ll be the best fisherman,” I promise and press my palms to the sides of my sundress, standing at attention for a moment. “I’ll catch a fish this big.” I open my arms as wide as I can and push my shoulder blades together to increase the span.

“The house needs painting,” my mother says. “Last Sunday it rained.”

Uncle Volodya, who already heard this argument a week earlier, feels in his pockets for cigarettes and goes out onto the porch.

“No,” says my father. “You’ll catch a fish this big.” He holds his thumb and forefinger an inch apart.

Dedushka walks up the porch past Uncle Volodya, waving away the cigarette smoke.

“Do we have enough paint?” my mother asks, directing her question to Dedushka, who is now conveniently within earshot.

“Let’s go, I need some help with the stove,” says grandma, and she pulls Dedushka by the sleeve toward the kitchen, away from the painting debate my father doesn’t like.

He pulls his elbow out of her grip. “We have five liters in the barn,” he says and straightens his shoulders. “That should be enough.”

“I want to go fishing,” I wail after my father as he gets up, leaves the veranda, and joins Uncle Volodya on the porch. “Please, please, please.” I know he left because he doesn’t like to take orders from Dedushka, who thinks he can be the commander of all of us.

My mother and Dedushka are on the veranda alone now. No one else wants to think about painting the house, not with Sunday almost here, not with my father clattering inside the barn in search of fishing rods.

AT NIGHT, I DREAM about fishing. In my hand I am holding an oar, heavy and damp, which silently cuts into the dark water beneath the boat. I cannot see my father’s face under the visor of his cap: he has lowered his head to his cupped hands, trying to light a cigarette. Writhing on the bottom of the boat, in an inch of murky water, are two purple worms that have escaped from a tin filled with dirt. We dug them up at five that morning, from the boat keeper’s compost pile.

The clouds over the Gulf of Finland glimmer with a lemon tinge along the line where they roll into the water—a hint of the sun still hidden away, like a row of dimmed stage lights.

“Look beyond that light,” says my father. “Look hard and you’ll see people filing into the theater. You’ll see ushers run up and down the aisles; people talk, programs rustle—you’ll hear a murmur. When the lights start to dim, the murmur rises, and then, just a moment before the curtain goes up, the noise stops—everyone in the house holds their breath, everyone knows what is going to happen. This is the moment I’ve always loved most: the anticipation of magic, the expectation of illusion.”

I don’t know why my father is speaking about theater as if he were an actor, or even a devoted fan, but I don’t question it. I cannot see his face because he is looking away, at the horizon, into the audience. “Don’t let the magic slip away,” he says, “or you’ll sink into the quicksand of the ordinary.”

“How will I recognize the magic?” I ask, but I have no voice, and I just keep opening my mouth, like the perch I caught last summer, twitching on the bottom of our boat.

Somehow, in a way that happens only in dreams, he hears the question. “You will know,” he says and looks at me from under the visor of his cap. “You will know because the noise will stop.”

I WAKE UP WHEN light has already bled into the air and made the sky blush. I am petrified that I may have overslept and missed the fishing trip, all as a result of wallowing in weird dreams about theater and fishing.

It is almost seven. A kettle begins to whistle on a hot plate and my mother, her hand wrapped in a rag, takes it off and pours boiling water into a teapot. I run to the veranda in search of my father.

He sits in his place at the head of the table, with his glasses on, reading the Pravda he brought with him from the city as though this is an ordinary day with nothing planned.

“When are we going fishing?” I demand.

He lowers the paper and his glasses, peering at me from above the rims, which gives his face a slightly facetious look.

My mother enters the veranda with the teapot in one hand and the kettle in the other. “Who is it that is going fishing?” she asks. Her tone is too familiar, the voice of a professor admonishing a student.

I look at my father. “You said yesterday we could go.” I try not to glance at my mother pouring boiling water into his cup. “You said we would go fishing.” I see her straightening up, preparing to speak. “You promised,” I say, bending what was said yesterday in the veranda a few millimeters to my advantage.

“You’re not going anywhere,” says my mother, looking directly at me. “You’re staying right here, helping us with the painting.” She scoops two teaspoonfuls of sugar out of the sugar bowl, pours them into my father’s cup, and gives the tea a couple of swirls.

This is so unfair that I burst out crying. I wail and sob. My nose begins to run, and I rub the tears and snot around my face.

My father doesn’t know what to do. Crying makes him uncomfortable, sending him out of the veranda, his shoulders curled forward, glasses off his nose, crushed in his fist. I see his figure, smudged at the contour, move toward the barn where Uncle Volodya is sleeping in the hayloft.

Hearing my wailing, Grandma sails in from the garden, where she has been cutting off strawberry shoots. Whiskers, she calls them, as if strawberry plants were aristocratic gentlemen out of Tolstoy. “Nu, nu,” she murmurs, circling her arms around me, holding me pressed to a stomach so soft that my mother’s diminutive term mamochka suddenly fits her. She mutters her line of wisdom, “Whatever happens, happens for the best.”

This is the perfect example of the absurdity of her philosophy because painting the house on Sunday is obviously not better than going fishing with my father. But I don’t say anything since her arms feel warm and soft as a blanket.

My mother is back in the kitchen, clomping between the bucket with drinking water on one end and the table on the other. I hate her, I hate these peeling walls, I hate this ruined Sunday. I hate Dedushka, whom I see in the garden yanking yellow suns of dandelions out of a scallion bed. When he is done with the last one, he straightens up and stares at his palms, which I know are black and sticky with dandelion milk. Then he takes a ladder out of the barn, carries it to the house, and leans it against the outside wall.

I wipe my face with the back of my hand, wriggle out of Grandma’s embrace, and march out of the gate into the field where the flowers known as chicken blindness are in full bloom. The grass around me is protective and soft, like grandma’s arms. I’ll eat the yellow flowers and go blind, which will prevent me from helping my mother and Dedushka paint the outside of the house. Feeling the air in front of me with my feeble hands, I’ll be walking around our garden, stumbling into the apple trees, tripping over the hothouse bricks, wavering precariously on the lip of the well. “Look at her,” kind neighbors will whisper behind my back, out of my mother’s earshot, telling their children not to stare. “Once her mother didn’t allow her to go on a fishing trip …”

BY THE END OF August the dacha chores change. There is no more watering and weeding; all our forces, under Dedushka’s command, are charged with gathering and preserving. When the strawberry season ends in July, it is time for raspberries and currants. Currants become translucent, with white veins running through their flesh, ready to soak in the ripe sunshine of August. Raspberries soften and blush in the sun, little flashlights among jungles of nettle plants. Raspberries and nettles—always together.

No matter how hard I try to avoid the burning nettle leaves, my arms swell in welts every time I venture into a raspberry patch with a bowl. And if, miraculously, I manage to avoid being stung by the nettles, I get scratched by the thorns of the raspberries themselves. Yet it is impossible to pass the raspberry patch without dipping my arm into the midst of it, into the heart of the bushes, where berries grow the biggest and sweetest. If my mother sees me, she’ll bunch her eyebrows together and say I am an egoistka, one who fails to think about other people.

I know I am not supposed to eat the berries, one of the dacha’s unwritten rules. All of them—strawberries, raspberries, red and black currants, hairy gooseberries, and purple plums—are collected in pots and baskets, cleaned, sorted into piles on the kitchen table, and turned into jam for the winter.

The giant kitchen stove is ablaze, snake-tongues of fire hissing through the metal rings of burners. Next to it is a stack of firewood—you have to feed the stove constantly, you can’t let it feel even a twinge of hunger. Every fifteen minutes Dedushka opens the blazing throat with an iron stick and shoves another log into the flames. Otherwise the jams that are boiling on its top in big copper bowls will not take: the alchemy of sugar and fruit comes together only at a constant temperature.

My mother is wearing an old apron across her belly. Underneath the apron is nothing but a cotton brassiere and pink underpants that come down to her knees. Her face glistens with sweat, beads growing above her upper lip and rolling down her chin. She stirs the boiling jams with a ladle, keeping them from getting stuck to the bottoms of the bowls. The raspberries are boiling more and more slowly, until they start to bubble with a sighing sound, a lazy noise of exhaustion—my mother’s readiness test. She fills a spoon with hot jam and slowly spills its contents back into the bowl: if it spills easily, in a stream, the jam needs more boiling, but if it drops hesitantly, one heavy drop at a time, it is ready.

This is the moment that makes everything—cranking the old well, the nettle burns, the kitchen heat—worth enduring, the moment when I can lick the bowls after the jam has been transferred into three-liter jars to store for the winter. The thick film coating the bowls, a gooey mixture of cooked sugar and fruit, is the ultimate reward.

A soup spoon in hand, I savor every scrape, especially the abundance of sticky treasure that nestles along the seam where the walls of the bowl meet the bottom. When the spoonwork is done and I know from experience that scraping will not yield another drop, it is time to start licking. The sidewalls are easy. It is reaching to the bottom that is a challenge, and I stick my tongue out as far as I can until it reaches the sugary ridges left by the spoon on the bottom. My whole head is inside the bowl now, my hair sticking to the walls, the copper sides leaving gummy marks on my neck and ears.

SOMETHING HAPPENS AT THE end of August: summer curls like a scorched leaf, folding into itself, shrinking. The breeze from the Gulf of Finland turns into an icy wind, and the sun becomes cool and distant as if it has lost interest in our dacha and our garden.

It’s my father’s last chance to go fishing, and he plans a real fishing trip—no children, no one allowed but him. He leaves at night, sleeps in the boat keeper’s barn, and sets off at three in the morning, in pitch blackness, before the sun is even contemplating getting up. We see him off at the gate, my grandma, my mother, and I, waving vigorously and then watching him walk across the field, three fishing rods bobbing on his shoulder in synch with his steps.

He doesn’t return the following morning. At noon my mother stops pinching gooseberries off the bush, sets the basket down on the veranda floor, and checks her watch against the alarm clock on the table. With Grandma, they go over the times again: how long it should have taken him to take the boat out into the Gulf, how many hours to bring it back, pull it into the boat keeper’s barn, and then walk four kilometers back home.

“He might be talking to the boat keeper,” offers Grandma. “Maybe he’s fallen asleep. Or decided to clean the fish there, right away. With men you never know.”

Her voice is sweet and thick as honey, but my mother is hard to fool. She gets up, spreads a newspaper on the table in the veranda, and pours the gooseberries out to clean. Instead of cleaning, though, she sits in front of the berry mound and pulls off bits of skin around her fingernails.

They don’t say anything for a while, and we watch Dedushka outside pruning the old pear tree, clipping off branches and rubbing the fresh cuts with something white from a can.

Then it’s two in the afternoon, and three, and four.

“I shouldn’t have let him go. I felt something would happen, felt it right here,” says my mother and drives her fist into her chest.

“Men are men,” Grandma says. “They’ll do what they want.” She shuffles around the veranda, back and forth, pausing by the window to look at Dedushka, who is now pulling out the last handfuls of dill. They are wilted and sinewy, good only for pickling, with yellow umbrellas of blossoms on the top.

“I should have said no,” says my mother. “Just no, you cannot go. And now—here we are.” She opens her hands as if presenting us with the news we already know. Lamenting her own softness, she seems to take this anxious waiting, this possibility of the unspeakable, as punishment for her lenience. Had she been a little stronger, a bit more willful and persistent, the three of us wouldn’t be in the veranda now, avoiding looking at the clock.

“There could’ve been a storm. It’s the Gulf of Finland. It’s the Baltic Sea, after all,” says my mother, adding another log to the blaze of her worry.

Although I participate in this restless waiting, I know my father is safe. Nothing could have happened to him. Nothing could ever happen to him. He is a fisherman, he has three rods and knows how to hook a perfect worm. He knows how to work the oars so that the boat glides noiselessly and turns at a slightest nudge from his hand. In case of a storm, he will simply row hard and fast, stronger than the waves. He is invincible, my father. I know he is waiting somewhere, tired of being told what to do, sick of Dedushka’s commandeering, testing them all with his absence.

At eight, when dusk begins to dissolve the trees’ contours, he staggers across the field, lumbers up the porch steps, and collapses on the couch. I wiggle next to him, but he waves me away. My mother brings him tea, but he waves that away, too.

I glare triumphantly at both my mother and Grandma, letting them know with my eyes that my father stretched on the couch is an indelible proof that I’ve been right all along, that the only thing their worrying did was make him seem weak and vulnerable, as if he could ever succumb to a storm. As if he could succumb to anything.

“So what happened?” asks my mother, her voice tinged with the remains of anguish but also with a demand to know what it was that kept her and Grandma looking at the clock, forced to come up with reasons why a man would be hours late to return home.

There was a storm, he says, a storm he survived by being able to maneuver the boat into a marshy creek—a piece of damn luck—where he tied the boat to a tree and huddled until it was safe to leave.

My mother gasps, but I am the only one to see it because she quickly turns away, and the hands that she held up to her chest are now wiping her dress at her thighs.

I watch my father close his eyes and fall asleep. I watch my mother bring a blanket into the veranda and spread it over him and tuck the sides under his shoulders and his knees. He turns on his side and puts his elbows over his ears as though he doesn’t want to hear any more ruckus over his absence.

I knew my father was stronger than the storm, stronger than anyone here thought he was. I knew he would be all right.

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