Give Children their Motherland

In Ukraine there is a city called Kharkov. In this city there is an orphanage. A fine orphanage, with cozy rooms, a handsome aquarium and a large swimming pool. It has received significant support from local authorities and the business community. In showing me the facilities, the head of municipal education department remarked that children from this orphanage go to the regular public school. As I looked out the window, I could see groups of children on their way back from school. Only one little girl was walking apart from the rest.

“That’s Sonia. She’s in Grade One,” the director explained. “She always walks alone. She thinks that she will soon be adopted by a Jewish family.”

“Why a Jewish family?” I asked. “She doesn’t at all look like a Jewish child, with her fair hair. She looks Ukrainian more than anything.”

“Someone at school told her that Sonia is a Jewish name, so she must be Jewish. Sonia agreed, and decided at once that she would definitely be adopted by a Jewish family. And she always walks alone, thinking that if she walks with the group, her future parents might not notice her.”

Kharkov has a fine orphanage. There are orphanages, too, in other cities in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. They are home to children. Yet no matter how cozy the rooms in these orphanages, all children dream of having parents and a family. In her nondescript shoes, small and slender first-grader Sonia trod in a no-nonsense fashion across the asphalt courtyard, separately from her group of classmates. And Sonia, who lived in the orphanage, had a dream …

A day went by then another, then months. Sonia wasn’t aware that children’s shelters had been around a long time in various countries, and that not all children ended up being adopted. Most of them, in fact, are doomed to spend their whole lives parent-less. Sonia wasn’t adopted either. However, her life did not turn out in the usual way. At that time a group of Kharkov residents decided to build a community not far from the city. They managed to acquire a hundred and fifty hectares of land, and a hundred and twenty families decided to set up their own kin’s domains, a hectare each in size.

One lot on the edge of the community remained unspoken for, so they decided to give it to somebody from the orphanage. It turned out that little Sonia was selected as the recipient. They brought the girl out to see her plot, accompanied by one of the housemothers. The housemother began to explain to Sonia:

“Do you see, Sonia, the stakes driven into the ground and the rope stretched between them? This rope marks off your land, a whole hectare. It is a gift to you from people who have also taken a hectare of land nearby to plant gardens and build houses on. When you grow up, you too will be able to build a house and plant a garden. Your land will be waiting for you.”

The little girl walked up to the rope, touched it, and asked the housemother:

“Does that mean that on the other side of this rope is my land and I can do whatever I want with it?”

“Yes, Sonechka, this is your land, and you alone are in charge of everything that will grow on it.”

“And what will grow on it?”

“Well, for the time being, as you can see, a lot of different kinds of grasses. But look over there, on your neighbours’ plots – they’ve already started planting apple trees and pear trees, and a whole bunch of other fruit trees, and they’ll soon have flourishing orchards. And when you grow up, you will decide what to plant on your land and where to put it, so that it will look beautiful, just like the others.”

Sonia bent over and crawled under the rope onto her hectare of land. She took several steps along the rope, carefully examining the ground and all the little creatures twittering and darting about on the grass. She walked as far as a little birch-tree growing on the plot and touched its slender trunk.

She turned to the housemother, and in a somewhat excited voice asked:

“What about this little tree? The little birch tree? Is that mine too?”

“Yes, Sonechka, as of now the birch tree belongs only to you, since it’s growing on your land. When you get older, you’ll be able to plant other trees here… But now it’s time to go. It’ll soon be lunch-time and I have to get back to the group.”

The little girl turned to look at her plot and stood silently contemplating it.

People who have children know that when they play, children often build little rooms for themselves out of various things or, in the country; they set up little lean-tos for themselves to play in. For some reason, every child has a need to fence off a little world of their own from the big world outside, to create their own space. Children who live in orphanages have a common space, but this common space, even if it is very well appointed, can only have a negative effect on them.

Like other orphanage children, Sonia never had a corner to call her own, even a tiny one. And here she was standing on the other side of the rope, where everything belonged exclusively to her- including the grass, and the lively grasshoppers hopping across the ground, and the little birch tree. The slim little girl turned to her housemother and started to speak.

Her voice combined tones of both pleading and decisiveness.

“I beg of you, very, very much, to please let me stay here. You go on ahead, and I’ll come back on my own.”

“How will you get back? It’s thirty kilometres!”

“I’ll make it,” replied Sonia firmly. “I’ll walk and I’ll make it. Maybe I’ll take the bus. Please let me have some time on my land all by myself”

The driver of the Zhiguli, who happened to be the proprietor of the plot next door to Sonia’s, overheard the conversation and proposed:

“Let the girl stay here until this evening. I’ll take you back now and bring her home tonight.”

After a moment’s thought the housemother agreed. How could she refuse, after seeing the face of this little girl standing behind the rope, awaiting her decision.

“All right, Sonia, you may stay here until this evening. I’ll send along lunch with the driver.”

“What d’you need to do that for?” responded the Zbiguli driver. “We’ll be happy to share our lunch with our neighbour,” he added, with a respectful emphasis on the word neighbour.

“Do you hear that, Klava?” he called out to his wife, who was busy preparing lunch on the porch of their house. Their house was still under construction. “Make dinner for four – our neighbour will be joining us today.”

“Fine,” answered his wife. “There’s enough for everyone.”

And she added: ‘just give us a shout, Sonia, if there’s anything you need.”

“Thank you,” answered Sonia, now extremely happy.

After the Zbiguli had departed, Sonia walked along the rope strung between the stakes. She walked slowly, sometimes pausing to sit down on the grass and touch something with her hands before continuing on. In this fashion she walked around the whole perimeter of her lot.

Then she stood in the middle of her hectare and surveyed all sides of the perimeter. And then all at once, she threw her hands in the air and began running, jumping and spinning around.

After lunch Klava noticed how tired the girl looked after trotting around her plot and invited her to have a nap on a folding cot. But Sonia, tired as she was, replied:

“If possible, can you give me some old clothing I can spread out to lie down on. I’ll take a nap on my own piece of land, by the birch tree.”

Nikolai set up the cot with a mattress and blanket beside the birch tree on Sonia’s plot. The girl lay down and immediately fell into a deep sleep. This was her first time sleeping in her own kin’s domain.

But now the orphanage was faced with what initially seemed an insoluble problem. Not a day passed but Sonia would ask the housemothers to allow her to go to her own hectare of land. Their explanations – that she was still too young to take the bus all by herself, and the housemothers couldn’t take her since they couldn’t leave the other children – fell on deaf ears.

Sonia began talking with the orphanage’s director. She explained to him that she absolutely had to go see her land. She had to, because on the neighbouring plots people were already planting trees, and would soon have flourishing orchards, while her land would be left abandoned. Nothing would be flourishing on it.

Finally the orphanage’s director came up with a solution that was acceptable to Sonia. He told her:

“Right now, Sonia, it’s not possible to take you out to your plot, since apart from everything else, you still have a fortnight’s study ahead of you. Two weeks from now the summer holidays will begin. I’ll have a word with the neighbours next door to your plot, and if they agree to watch out for you, then during the holidays we’ll send you off to your plot for a time – for a week, at least, or maybe longer.

“By the way; you could spend this coming fortnight getting yourself ready for your land. Here, take these two brochures and read up. One of them tells how to make planting beds, and the other is a guide to medicinal herbs. If you can be on your best behaviour these next two weeks, I’ll also get ready for you a selection of seeds for the holidays.”

Sonia was on her best behaviour. She did all her lessons conscientiously, and devoted all (absolutely all!) her spare time to reading the two brochures the director had given her. When she lay down to sleep, she dreamt about the beautiful plants that would grow on her plot. On one occasion, while all the other children were fast asleep, the night-nurse noticed Sonia drawing sketches of trees and flowers by the moonlight streaming through her window.

The neighbours did agree to watch out for the little girl, and -when the summer holidays began, the director himself helped load a number of items into the baggage compartment of the Zbiguli, including box lunches for two weeks, a small shovel and rake, as well as a packet of seeds.

Nikolai didn’t want to take the box lunches from the orphanage, but the director assured him that Sonia was an extremely independent girl and would never want to be a burden to anyone, so it would be better for her to see she had her own supply of food.

And they also gave her a new sleeping bag in spite of the fact that Nikolai’s family had already fixed up a little room for Sonia on the finished ground floor of their house, complete with sheets and pillows.

As Sonia was getting into the car, a whole lot of people came out to see her off – not just the orphanage staff on duty that day, but a crowd who had come especially to look upon the little girl’s face, which was beaming with happiness.

For the first three nights Sonia slept in the room her neighbours had fixed up for her, spending all day long on her own hectare of land which was so dear to her heart.

The third day was Nikolai’s birthday; and a lot of guests came. One young couple arrived with their tent. On the following day; when the guests departed, the tent was left behind.

“That’s a present for you,” the young couple said to Nikolai.

Then Sonia asked Nikolai if she could sleep in the tent.

Nikolai gave her his permission.

“Of course, go ahead, if you like. What is it – do you find your room stuffy?”

“The room’s fine,” replied the girl. “But everybody here spends the night on their own land, while my land is all alone at night. There are lights burning on many of the other plots at night-time, but mine’s all dark.”

“So, does that mean you’d like to set up the tent on your plot?”

“I’d like that very, very much, Uncle Kolya – if you could set it up beside the birch tree. Only if you have time, and if it’s not too inconvenient … “

Every night after that Sonia slept in the tent Nikolai set up on her plot beside the birch tree.

Upon awakening early in the morning, she would go at once to the bucket of water standing by the tent and draw some water in a mug. After filling her mouth, she would let a thin stream of water splash onto the palms of her hands to wash her face.

Then she would take out a sketch-book in which she had made hand-drawings of the plan for her plot, and study them. After that, she would proceed to dig her flower and vegetable beds.

The small sapper’s spade the director had given her had a sharp edge, but Sonia was unable to get the full blade into the ground; she could only get it in only half-way. But she still managed to make her vegetable beds.

Her neighbour Nikolai offered to plough up any designated areas with a rototiller, but Sonia categorically refused.

She was fiercely jealous of any encroachment on her territory.

People sensed this and endeavoured not to cross over the line (marked out by stakes and rope) without her knowledge. Even Nikolai, upon awaking in the morning, when he went to call Sonia to breakfast, would go only as far as the property line and call out to Sonia from there.

Perhaps it was some kind of extraordinary streak of aspiration toward independence on this young girl’s part, or else the fear of becoming a burden to someone, that prevented her from asking anybody any favours. Even when one of the community residents tried to offer her clothing, or candy, or some sort of equipment, she would politely thank them, but categorically decline the offer.

In the two weeks she spent on her land, Sonia managed to dig out and plant three vegetable beds, with a huge flowerbed in the middle.

On the morning of her last day of her fortnight’s stay; Nikolai went to the perimeter of her plot as usual, to call her to breakfast. The girl was standing by her flower-bed (in which nothing had come up yet). As she stared at it, she replied to Nikolai without turning around:

“Uncle Kolya, you don’t have to call1ne to eat this morning, I don’t feel hungry.”

Nikolai would say later that he could hear her voice cracking, he could tell she was barely holding back her tears. He wasn’t about to try to find out what the matter was. He went back to his place and began observing Sonia through his field-glasses.

The girl was pacing back and forth across her plot, first touching a plant with her hands, or straightening out something in one of the beds. Then she went over to her birch tree and put her arms around it. Nikolai could see her shoulders trembling.

By lunch-time the orphanage’s ageing mini-van arrived.

The driver stopped at the entrance to Nikolai’s territory and sounded his horn. Nikolai would recount the subsequent events as follows:

When I saw her through my field-glasses gather up her simple little things, like the shovel and rake, and head over our direction with such a sad expression on her face, when I looked at that face close-up, I couldn’t hold out any longer. I grabbed my mobile phone and rang the orphanage. Fortunately, I was able to get through to the director right away. I told him I was willing to sign any papers required, accepting responsibility for the child, saying I would take the summer off work to spend the whole time here on the plot, just so the little girl could stay on her piece of land until the end of the holidays.

At first the director started to explain that all the children from their orphanage were to go to summer camp at the sea-side for rest and therapy – that he and his colleagues had spent a long time securing this opportunity; and that now they would be going to the camp, thanks to the generosity of a group of sponsors.

I then spoke with the director frankly, man-to-man, but he wasn’t offended and gave me an equally frank response. Whereupon he asked to have a word with the driver, promising to come out himself tomorrow.

I ran out to the road and handed the telephone to the driver, adding from myself:

“Okay, there, friend. Get out of here pronto!”

The driver left. Then Sonia came up to me and said:

“Uncle Kolya, didn’t the van-driver come for me? But why did he leave?”

For some reason my negotiations with the orphanage director had left me rather tense. I lit a cigarette, my hands were trembling, and I responded to her:

“What makes you think he was coming for you? He simply came to see if you needed any food supplies, or anything else, and I told him everything was okay.”

She looked me straight in the eye. It seemed as though she understood what was going on. Then she said softly:

“Thank you, Uncle Kolya!” Then she began walking, and eventually running, back to her land.

The orphanage director came the following morning. I was already waiting for him. Only he didn’t head my way; but walked straight over in the direction of Sonia’s tent. I didn’t get a chance to warn him not to cross the line without an invitation. But, smart fellow that he is, he guessed as much himself Again, in an apparent effort not to traumatise the child, this clever chap had the sense to say; as the little girl came to meet him:

“Good day; Sonia. I just stopped by to let you know we’re all going off to the sea-side. Would you like to stay here, or join us on our trip?”

“Stay here!” Sonia didn’t just say it but  screamed it.

“I thought as much,” responded the director. “So I brought you something by way of box lunches … “

“No need to trouble yourself, no need to waste your time. I don’t need anything.”

“No need? Then what would you have me do? The state provides us with funds for each child in our care. But you are here taking care of yourself, and feeding yourself Tell me, how can I account for the state funds in a situation like this? No, please be so gracious as to accept these … Okay;

Alexeich, you can go ahead and unload them.

“Will you allow us to come in, Sonia? Maybe you’ll show us your place here?”

Sonia stared at the director for several moments, sizing up the whole situation. Then she noticed the driver of the mini-van unloading some heavy-looking bags, and once she finally realised that she would be staying put here on her land for the whole summer holidays, she joyfully exclaimed:

“Oh, what have I… Come in, come in. The gate’s over there where there’s no rope. Please be my guests. I’ll be happy to show you my place. You too, Uncle Kolya, come on in.”

She led us over to her tent and at once invited us to take a drink of water from the bucket standing alongside.

“Here, have some water. I get it from a spring. It’s good tasting, better than tap water. Do please take a drink.”

“I shan’t say no to that,” replied the director, drawing a half a mugful of water from the bucket and downing it with gusto. “It’s jolly good!”

The driver and I both took a drink and complimented Sonia on her water, to her great delight. It was probably the first time in her life that Sonia had possessed anything of her own. Even if it was just water, it was still something that was hers, something of her own that she could offer to adults. Sonia began to feel like a real participant in the world.

After that, we sat there listening for maybe an hour and a half or two hours while Sonia regaled us with her report of what she had already planted and what she was going to plant. And she showed us her drawings of her future kin’s domain. Only there was no house in the plans she had drawn.

“It’s time for us to go,” the director told Sonia. “You can unpack your things on your own. I threw in a battery-operated flashlight. It’s an electric torch that can shine far into the distance, but if you switch it over to the daylight lamp setting, you can use it to read by. And now you’ll have something to read. I brought you some magazines on landscape design, and gardening books, and books on folk medicine.”

“Oh, I forgot something again,” spluttered Sonia. ‘just a moment.” She pulled back one of the tent flaps, and we saw bunches of various herbs hanging on a tent wire stretched taut. She took out several bunches and offered them to the director.

“This is celandine. A special kind of herb … This is for Katya in our group, she needs to make a brew with it and drink it. She’s so often ill. I read up on celandine in the brochure you gave me. I’ve dried it already.

“Thank you … “

In sum, this director’s a pretty fine fellow, and he loves children. I had a talk with him later. He asked me how Sonia was behaving herself and gave me some concrete advice.

Sonia spent the whole summer in her tent on her own piece of land. The bed at the centre of her garden blossomed with magnificent flowers, while the produce from the vegetable beds included onions and radishes.

In the evenings, when the days began to grow shorter, you could often see the light of the electric torch flickering in the tent. Every evening Sonia read books on folk medicine and made drawings of her future plans for her land in her sketch-book.

When the orphanage’s mini-van came to collect her at the end of the summer, I helped Sonia load up her things. And there was quite a bit to load! Just the bunches of herbs she had dried numbered around two hundred. Her yield also included a sack of potatoes and three pumpkins. The van had a full load. I asked Sonia:

“What about next year? Shall I hold on to your tent for you?”

“I’ll definitely come again next summer. First day of the holidays, I’ll be here. You’re a good neighbour, Uncle Kolya. Thank you for being such a good neighbour!”

And she shook my hand just like an adult. And this time it was a much stronger handshake. Sonia had not only got herself a good tan, but she had got stronger and more self-confident as well.

When she came the next year she brought fruit-tree saplings along with her, as well as some kind of seedlings, and got down to business right off.

At a community meeting people from our settlement decided to build Sonia a little house.

But Zina, whose husband was an entrepreneur and had built the biggest mansion in the community; began to insist that Sonia’s house should be more than ‘little’.

“I’m ashamed to look visitors in the eye. The foundations of all the houses in the settlement are being set up as though they were palaces, and here’s one only child living in a tent. What can visitors think?”

Knowing the girl’s feelings, especially her resentment at any kind of offers of assistance, they entrusted me to negotiate with her.

I went to see her and said:

“Sonia, at a community meeting the residents decided to build you a little house to live in. All you have to do is show us where you would like it placed.”

In response, she asked me rather guardedly:

“Uncle Kolya, how much would a little house cost?”

Not suspecting anything, I replied:

“Oh, somewhere in the neighbourhood of two hundred thousand roubles. In other words, about two thousand per family.”

“Two thousand each? But that’s a lot of money. That means people would have to buy less of something for their own children – just to spend on me. Uncle Kolya, I beg of you: tell the people I don’t need a house right now. I haven’t even thought of a place to put it yet. I beg of you, Uncle Kolya, please explain to the people … “She was greatly concerned, and I could understand why. Upon receiving her piece of land, Sonia felt independent for the first time in her life. Her plot of land substituted for her parents – it needed her, and she needed it. By some kind of internal instinct, the girl felt or imagined that her land didn’t want any outsiders laying their hands on it.

And God forbid anyone might criticise her after the house was completed, even tacitly. Her own sense of independence was far dearer to her than having her own house.

I tried to persuade the residents not to force any gifts on the girl. But then something completely unexpected happened. A group of kids on their way back from the lake ran past Sonia’s plot. Out in front, on a fine-looking bicycle was the entrepreneur’s son, Edik. He was always teasing Sonia, calling her Mialyavka (a condescending nickname indicating someone younger or shorter than one’s self, something on the order of ‘Little One’ or ‘Shorty’.), even though he himself was only three years her senior.

“Hey, there, Malyavka!” Edik called out to Sonia. “You spend your whole-time landscaping – aren’t you bored with that already? Why don’t you come with us to see the fireworks?”

“What ‘fireworks’?” asked Sonia.

“My Papa’s going to burn down the construction trailer

his workers have been using. Come and you’ll see. We’ve already got a fire-engine there on stand-by.”

“Why burn it down?”

‘”Cause it’s spoiling the view.”

“But after it burns down, nothing will grow on that spot for a long time.”

“Why not?”

‘”Cause all the helpful worms, all the bugs, they’ll get burnt up too. I tried lighting a fire by my tent one time and see, nothing’s ever grown on that spot since.”

“Wow, Malyavka! You’re really observant! So, come and save our worms. Take the old trailer away, otherwise Papa won’t know how else to get rid of it.”

“How am I going to take it away? Isn’t it heavy?”

“What d’you mean, how? With a crane, of course! The crane’s coming the day after tomorrow to set up our windmill. So, either you take it or we’re going to have a big bonfire.”

“Okay, Edik. I’ll agree to take your trailer.”

“Then let’s go.”

A crowd of adult neighbours, along with a whole lot of children, had gathered at Edik’s parents’ estate. Afire crew was standing by at the ready. Edik approached his father, who was already on his way over to the construction trailer, carrying a can of gasoline. To the disappointment of the younger crowd and the glad astonishment of the adults, he told his father:

“Papa, you don’t need to burn the trailer.”

“What d’you mean, I don’t need to? How come?”

‘”Cause I’ve given it away.”

“To whom?”

“To the Malyavka.”

“What Malyavka?”

“To Sonia, from the plot on the far side of the settlement.”

“Well! Did she agree? Did she agree to accept it from you?”

“Hey, Papa, if you don’t believe me, ask her yourself”

Sonia was standing in the crowd of youngsters. Edik took her by the hand and brought her over to his father.

“Tell him, Sonia, that you agree to take this shack off his hands. Tell him.”

“I agree,” Sonia answered quietly.

Oh, how the entrepreneur just bubbled over with pride at his son’s accomplishment! Quite a coup! Here was this girl who never took anything from anyone, and now the capricious Sonia had decided to accept a gift from his Edik. As soon as the children had left, the entrepreneur summoned the whole construction brigade that had been putting the finishing touches on his mansion, and said to the foreman:

“So, now, lads. Take any materials you need and start working around the clock – I’ll pay you double time, if you can only refit the trailer’s interior to modern European living standards in forty-eight hours. You can leave the exterior shabby, the way it is. But the interior… “

Forty-eight hours later, next to the birch tree where the tent had been standing on Sonia’s plot, the construction trailer with its shabby exterior was set up on a brand-new brick foundation. The exterior was indeed shabby, but the builders had primed it for painting, and left tins of Finnish paint and brushes inside.

Sonia later painted the exterior herself. She now had, for the first time in her life, her very own little house, standing on her own dear piece of land. By the following year this house had been transformed into a little fairy-tale chateau, covered with ivy and wild grapevines and surrounded by flowerbeds.

Ten years went by. Sonia finished school and had already spent a whole year living in her domain. Mansions could be seen throughout the community; which was already dripping in lush green vegetation and flourishing orchards. But the best and prettiest estate belonged to Sonia.

While her classmates were leaving the orphanage and going off to parts unknown, trying to get accepted into any kind of academic institution just to get a roof over their heads, or to find any kind of work so they could at least feed themselves, Sonia was already a wealthy woman. The residents of the community would give their surplus fruits and vegetables to a manager. Products grown on domains fetched a higher than average price. They were exported to countries in the European Union, where they were sold in stores specialising in eco-friendly produce. Sonia gave what she grew on her plot to the manager as well. Though most of what she produced was bought by visitors from the city who had heard about this extraordinary girl and her fabulous domain.

Sonia had also been gathering medicinal herbs and had helped save a great many people from disease.

One day Edik came back for a visit to his parents, who were now living full-time in their domain. For the past three years he had been studying at a prestigious university in America.

He was about to undergo a serious medical operation. He was suffering from liver and kidney disorders, probably caused by the poor quality of food and water abroad. Before the operation, Edik decided to spend a week visiting his parents. His mother, Zinaida, made a suggestion:

“Maybe, son, we should pay a visit to our local healer? Just in case she can help.”

“Now there, Mama, what century are we living in, eh?

Medicine in the West has been highly developed for quite a while now. They just cut out and replace whatever they need to. Don’t worry. I’m not going to see any witch-doctors. That’s ancient!”

“I’m not suggesting you go to any witch-doctors. Let’s go see … you remember that little girl from the orphanage on the far side of our settlement who surprised everyone by fixing up the piece of land they gave her, all on her own?”

“Oh, you mean that Malyavka? I vaguely remember her.”

“Well, now she’s no longer a Malyavka, son, but a very respected woman. Managers are willing to pay double the price for anything grown by her hand. And people come from faraway places for her blend of medicinal herbs. Even though she doesn’t advertise it at all.”

“How did our Malyavka get to be such an expert?”

“Well, she’s been spending every summer since Grade One on her plot, and every day during the winter she’s been reading books on gardening and folk medicine. The child’s mind is sharp, and she picks up everything so quickly. She got a lot of it from books. Only people say her real understanding came more from herself They say, too, that the plants understand her. She talks with them.”

“Well, that’s our Malyavka for you! How much does she charge for treatment?”

“Sometimes she charges, but she’s also been known to offer help for free. One day last autumn I happened to meet her by the pond. She looked me in the eye and told me:

‘”Auntie Zina, the whites of your eyes don’t look too good. Here, take this herb, make a tea with it and drink it, and it’ll get better.’ And it did. And there was really something wrong with my eyes, since I had a liver complaint. Now that’s gone too.

“Let’s go, son. We’ll go and see her. Maybe she can help your liver too.”

“It’s not just my liver, Mama. They’ve already made their diagnosis and they’re going to remove one of my kidneys. And no tea’s going to help that. Anyway, let’s go pay her a visit – it’ll be interesting to see Malyavka’s domain. They say it’s like a Paradise there.”

“Yes, indeed! She’s done a fantastic job!” exclaimed Edik, as he and his mother approached Sonia’s domain. “Most people in the community seem to have put all their efforts into building mansions with stone fences, whereas she’s created a real Paradise. Just look, Mama, the fence she’s created from greenery!”

“You would have held some of that exclamation in reserve if you knew what her garden looked like,” observed Zinaida. “Only very few people get to see it.”

She opened the gate a little and called out loudly:

“Sonia! If you’re home, come on out. Sonia, are you home?”

The door of the little house the former construction trailer – opened wide, and out onto the porch stepped a young woman. With a deft movement of her hand she tossed her tightly woven braid of chestnut-coloured hair over her shoulder. When she caught sight of Zinaida accompanied by her son, her cheeks flushed with a rosy glow. She fastened the top button on her cardigan which fit snugly over her supple breasts, and with a soft and light but still gracious step this young and beautiful girl made her way down the porch steps and along the path to the gate, where Zinaida and Edik were standing.

“Hello, Auntie Zina! Welcome back, Edward! If you’d like, come into my house or into my garden.”

“Thank you for the invitation. We accept with pleasure,” replied Zinaida.

But Edik didn’t say a word and didn’t even return Sonia’s greeting.

“You know, Sonia,” Zinaida went on as they headed for the garden, “my son has a problem. He’s about to have an operation. Even though it’ll take place in America, it’s still pretty upsetting to me as a mother.”

Sonia stopped, turned around and asked Edik:

“What’s the trouble with you, Edward?”

“My heart,” Edik replied, gasping in his throat.

“What d’you mean, your heart?” exclaimed Zinaida. “You told me it was your liver and your kidneys. Does that mean you were lying so I wouldn’t get overly concerned?”

“I wasn’t lying. But now, Mama, my heart is beating so fast – can’t you feel it right here?!” He took his mother’s hand and placed it against his chest. “Listen – it’s going to rupture and explode if you don’t convince this beautiful maiden to marry me at once!”

“You’re such a jokester,” laughed Zinaida. “You practically scared me to death!”

“I’m not joking, Mama.”

“Well, if you aren’t joking,” Zinaida gaily continued, “you ought to know that half the community have already sent matchmakers over on behalf of their sons. But to no avail – Sonia doesn’t want to get married. You can ask her yourself why she doesn’t want to, but don’t set your poor mother up for a fall.”

Edik went up to Sonia and quietly enquired:

“Sonia, why have you never married anyone?”

“Because,” Sonia softly responded, “I’ve been waiting for you, Edik.”

“Oh you teasers! What are you making fun of a mother like that for?”

“Bless us, Mama, right now. I’m not teasing,” Edik declared firmly, and took Sonia by the hand.

“And I’m not teasing either, Auntie Zina,” Sonia said in a serious tone.

“You aren’t teasing? That means you too, Sonia? … You’re not joking? Well, if you’re not joking, then what are you still calling me: Auntie’ for, instead of ‘Mama’?”

“Fine. I’ll call you Mama,” replied Sonia, her voice trembling. She took a step in Zinaida’s direction, but then paused in hesitation.

Zinaida couldn’t immediately catch on to what was happening – was this some kind of stalemate, a joke? She anxiously glanced back and forth between Sonia’s face and her son’s. Then there came the moment when she realised how serious the young couple’s intentions really were, and at this point she rushed over to Sonia, embraced her and broke into tears:

“Sonia! Sonechka! Daughter! I know you’re serious about each other.”

Sonia’s shoulders were trembling too. She hugged Zinaida and repeated:

“Yes, Mama, we’re serious. Very serious indeed.”

Whereupon the young couple, holding hands, slowly and without eyes for anyone but each other, walked down the community street to the domain belonging to Edik’s family. Zinaida walked out in front. She was laughing and crying at the same time, and chattered on incessantly, accosting each person they met:

“We’ve just come … And they – bang!- they’ve fallen in love with each other … And I – bang!- I blessed them. At first, I thought they were joking. But they bang! – they fell in love right off. And I told them … And they said they wanted ‘to get married, Mama, today!’ Good people, how is that possible? There’s preparations to be made – it all has to be done officially. That’s just not possible!”

Presently they saw Edik’s father, the entrepreneur, coining out of the house to greet the1n. Upon hearing this same (more or less) disconnected account fro1n his wife’s lips, he looked at the young couple and said:

“Well, now; you’re chattering on as usual, Zinaida. And what d’you mean, a wedding today is impossible? Just look at these young’uns. We have to hold the wedding not just today, but right now!”

Edik went up to his father and embraced him.

“Thank you, Papa.”

“What are you thanking me for? Let’s not waste time hugging each other! Everybody say Gor’ko! ( Gor’ko! a call for the bride and groom to kiss at a wedding reception (in the sense that the wine is bitter and needs a kiss to make it sweet).

“Gor’ko! Gor’ko!” all the people cried out that had gathered round.

Edik and Sonia kissed each other for the first time in front of the residents of the community. Everyone who happened to be home at the ti1ne assembled for the wedding. An improvised table was set up in the fresh air and they all helped set it together. The ceremony didn’t just ‘buzz’ the way things did at traditional Russian parties – it ‘sang’ well into the night.

Despite the parents’ pleadings, the young couple decided to settle down not in Edik’s parents’ mansion, which was actually more like a palace, but in Sonia’s little house.

“You see, Father,” Edik explained, “this palace we’ve built here with all its different wings takes up practically half a hectare. But we don’t have the beauty that Sonia’s domain has, or even the air. We’ve got to take half the additions down.”

The entrepreneur started drinking, and kept at it for a whole week. But after that, to everyone’s surprise, he started taking down the wings he had added to his mansion. He explained:

“We were pretty silly; putting up all the additions. Our grandchildren won’t want to move into catacombs like these!”

And Sonia and Edik went on living happily …


Excerpt from the book “The Energy of Life” by Vladimir Megre