Last Days of Summer
It seems to me now that it has never happened and the more I look back through my memories the more unreal and vague it become. Time took its toll and the shaky reflections of the past faded away and vanished forever becoming a ghostly phantom, a stranger, not me.
* * *
Low voices in the kitchen speak softly: 'You think it's a good idea?' 'Well, don't worry. We'll come back just in a couple of days – a week before he starts…' The door shuts silently, stealing the last words and I fall asleep uneasily waiting for a day to come.
In the early morning a train took us far away from the hectic city and soon its outskirts were left behind and had been changed by vastness and quietness of the country. We got off at a deserted station overgrown with thistle and giant burdock. A wide wild field, surrounded by a distant pine and fir forest, stretched beyond the platform.
It was a hot sunny day at the end of the summer – one of the last warm days of that year. A rutted dirt road ran through rolling hills. The air, filled with the deafening whirr of grasshoppers and the humming of busy bees, was shimmering and moving slightly on the horizon.
I look at the clear blue sky rising above me high and deep with the blinding spot of the sun at the top and the odour of the flowering grass makes me wild, free and dizzy.
An abandoned narrow gauge railway track, going from nowhere to nowhere but in the right direction, invited us to follow it.
Cracked timber sleepers, still heavily creosoted, smell sharp and pungent. Patches of tall grass burst through rustling gravel. My father – young, strong, rational, always why-answering, walks along the way stooped a little under a heavy, baggy rucksack. He is waiting for me smiling. 'Pa! Why sleepers aren’t comfortable to walk?' 'They're not supposed to be walked. It isn't safe. But this track is old. Trains don't run here anymore.' 'Why?'
It suddenly appeared down the hill – a wide, blue giant. The sunset was glimmering on the rippling surface of a great Siberian river and I ran swiftly downhill towards the river inlet, leaving dad behind.
I can't run. I can't stop. I can't breathe. 'He-e-e-y! Grampa-a-a-a!'
Granddad, my father's distorted reflection, met me on a swinging suspension bridge, leading to his fishermen den – an ancient paddle steamer grounded in the inlay. The two-black-chimney monster, flecked with rust stains on the sun gilded sides, grasped my imagination for a moment.
A calloused, harsh palm lies on my shoulder calming me down. He is waiting, secretly impatient for his son, squinting against the descending sun. Handshaking. 'She stayed at home, getting him ready.' Granddad squats in front of me. Piercing eyes on a lean, wrinkled, white bristled face are looking through me, testing me. 'Going to school, young man, huh? Fishing tomorrow?'
All night I was rolling in the damp, stale berth, listening to the old boat creaking, squeaking, speaking, and then I woke up in anticipation.
The rowing boat slides silently in the morning, chilly twilight gently rocking side to side. Only the oars groan in the locks 'wheee-wheee' and its soft splashes break the calm lulling me to sleep.
I am filled with a smell of fish, coming from the boat's wooden skin and dreaming.
Dad pulled on the oars, looking back sometimes over his shoulder, for he knew where to go, and sneaking a look at his father, occupied with the tackle. All silent. An anchor stone plopped into the water and soon short fishing rods stretched long lines down to the bottom, which hung loosely in the dark water with no fish.
'It's gonna be a hot day. No good for fishing. Let's go farther. Go twenty meters deep.'
Suddenly I felt strain. My heart jumped then thumped violently, nearly leaping out of my chest. I pulled the line. Granddad tested it and tugged frantically helping me.
A bulging-eyed bream emerged from the depths. The fish was flickering in the sun desperately fighting for life, then, already in the boat, jumped several times furiously, shivered and swooned goggling at me with an indifferent eye. And dad's voice came from the bow: 'Well done!' and at the same time granddad's contented whisper wafted from the stern 'She's a good four kilo, or more.'
We went home on the last train that day. Tired, exhausted, happy. The carriage, ancient and dim, silent witness of the war, accommodated us on a wooden bench.
People are around me. Cane baskets full of mushrooms and berries scent the air with moss and forest. Darkness hung in the windows. Strange rustic talk starts and stops suddenly. 'What a wonderful boy! Help yourself to the berries!'
Then all subsided. The train ran through the plains and forests, rumbling and whistling on the bends. Its rocking and a patter of the wheels made everyone calm and drowsy. People became alone and quiet, sinking into themselves, thinking, dreaming, nodding.
And then something happened, something that I could never forget. And then something happened, something that might have never happened at all – a strange, unreal dream.
Dad fell asleep, thinking his son was too. But he wasn't. He just pretended. He went to the end of the carriage to an enclosed compartment, where two men were smoking at the open door, leaving a red blinking trail of cigarette sparks into the dark. The boy stood silent behind them, staring at the pitch-black darkness beyond them. The men threw the cigarette butts out of the door and, looking in surprise at the boy, slammed it and left the compartment.
The boy was alone. The door clicked with a broken lock, bounced and opened a little, tempting him to come. He could not resist. He came closer and closer again, and then stepped tentatively on a footboard grasping the outside handrails tight. The wind ruffled his hair, threatening to throw him off but he peered into the darkness with his eyes wide open and a storm of feelings raged inside him – fear, freedom, dread, happiness and something he could not understand, something beyond his comprehension.
Bang! The door slams behind him and instantly, with the sound, with the blow, shock strikes him. Bang! Absolute terror fills his mind till the very edge. Nothing else but the terror. The handrails are hammering into his weakening hands; his legs do not obey him. Lights of distant villages flash and fade passing by in a split second. The roar of the train at full speed and the glaring bottomless darkness grasps him, strangles him, kills him.
At the next station a young man opened the door and looked stunned for a second at the boy on the footboard. Then the people's stream broke through washing the man away. The boy squeezed through alighting people and rushed back to his father, who had never noticed his absence. Ever.
And it seems to me now that I have never been on that train, never stayed on the edge of the burning black night, screaming, dying.
'Look', said my mum when we got home, 'you've got a grey hair!'
And she pulled it out as if it had never happened.
(с) Lev Levin, 2011-11-15