The train to the village takes just under two days. Sometimes we get a compartment with doors, sometimes without, sometimes we get a nice clean car with dark-red vinyl berths, sometimes we get an old one with pressed green laminated paper on the walls, but we never take the firmenny express train, because the express train does not stop where we need to get off.
Even the trains that stop at our station only do so for a minute, and when the train runs late, which it nearly always does, the train does not stop as much as slow down briefly before picking up speed again. Usually, we arrive at our station at six in the morning. Our parents wake us up when the windows are dark so we have time to get dressed, roll up our mattresses, give our bed sheets to the sleepy train attendant in wrinkled railroad uniform, pack away our toothbrushes and books, and brush our hair nice so our relatives at the station do not think we are poorly brought-up.
When the train slows down, we are already at the door, and the attendant hastily lowers the retractable steps for us to hop onto and leave, leave the car, go-go-go to our intended destination. The departing and the arriving have forty seconds to switch positions: train to platform, platform to train. The attendant is scrambling.
The station is named after some hero, I guess; there is a bust of a blind-eyed curly-haired man painted the same silver they use on low cemetery fences. The blind bust rises out of orange and yellow nasturtiums. The nasturtiums are just like the ones my Stern Grandma has growing in a chipped-enamel washbasin all rusted through with holes.
I have two grandmothers: Stern Grandma and Kind Grandma. I go to Kind Grandma’s village every summer for at least a month. My parents have jobs; they cannot babysit us kids when we are out of school.
What part of the summer is not spent with the Kind Grandma is spent at the dacha of the stern one.
My Stern Grandma’s garden is small and cultivated within an inch of its life. It is weeded and fertilized, and we are not allowed to eat any berries or vegetables without permission. That is really important. Once, someone ate the first raspberry of the season off the bush; maybe the berry just fell off. Stern Grandma cried with real tears. She wants to save everything and make it into jams, pickles, preserves.
Kind Grandma’s garden is huge, rambling and weedy, with fields of tall sunflowers and hens laying eggs in the beans, and if you make it all the way to the end of it, which you might never even do in just one short summer, there are wild strawberries and peonies, tiger lilies and wild leeks, crawly beetles, creepy caterpillars, expanses of the collective farm land where they grow buckwheat, corn and experimental hybrid grains, and beyond are oak groves, cemeteries, places in which a town child would disappear forever without a trace, while a country child knows them like the back of her brown mosquito-bit hand.
My Stern Grandma always lectures me on this or that when I am in her garden. “Potatoes like sandy soil. I am adding nitrogen fertilizers to help leaves grow. This is wild mustard, it is a weed, pull it out. These are carrot tops, don’t yank them out with the wild mustard. Throw the pea shells back into the garden. If the berry does not come off easily, don’t pick it, it is unripe. If you don’t give the cucumbers enough water, they will grow bitter.”
Blah-blah-blah. Gypsophila. Dimorphotheca. Who needs to know all this? Why would I possibly ever care?
She makes me do boring, inane things. She gives me a tray of gooseberries and a pair of scissors and tells me to snip the tail off each berry, off a million fuzzy green gooseberries shot with tiny red capillaries. Each berry has a front end and a tail end, a front tail and a tail tail. Snip. Snip. But don’t bruise the berry. Be precise. Snip. Snip. Front tail. End tail. Snip. Snip. Wait, this story isn’t over yet. Front tail. End. Front end snip. Snip. Snip. Snip. You need the same amount sugar as you have berries. Snip. Snip. In volume, not in weight. Tail end snip. Snip. Snip.
My Kind Grandma never lectures me nor makes me do anything. I wake up in the morning and she is already making cookies, frying airy dough in a deep pan to a golden crisp, drowning the crumbly twigs in powdered sugar. She knows this poor kid is stuck in the middle of nowhere without any city treats; so, we make our own treats. We fill ice-cube trays with water cut with blackcurrant preserves, or with milk, water, sugar and imitation vanilla, and we stick them in the freezer. In a few hours, we take out tiny Popsicle cubes.
In the dog days of July, the green wooden shutters remain shut. It is cool and dim in the house. I am allowed to stay inside on the mattress on the floor and read. I need to turn on the lights to be able to make out the letters in the shuttered darkness.
My Kind Grandma lets me stay up as long as I want and read what I want: The Prince and the Pauper, The Rose and the Ring, The Little Lord Fauntleroy. Often, I read till two or three in the morning. The night mosquitoes are beastly. I am allowed to sleep on the sun porch. I am allowed to decorate the wall above my bed any way I want. I cut out a hundred photos from Around the World Magazine: oceans, volcanoes, Kon-Tiki, divers in gear, naked caramel-colored aboriginal ladies adorn the plywood wall painted dirty blue. Sea corals, sea urchins, seashells, Seychelles. Treasures untold.
My Kind Grandma has both treasures and books about them. Every summer, she takes history students on archaeological digs. There are a lot of things underneath these wild peonies, buckwheat fields and secret military towns: burial grounds, primitive villages, Mongol gold, shaman coats and baby skulls left by the indigenous people who used to live along the Amur River. She has photos, coins, arrowheads, books about the Scythians, Egypt, Greece. I learn golden words like cobalt, smalt, embalming, Amun-Ra. Luxuries, treasures untold.
Her shelves are full of books on the history of the region, of Russia, of the world. Till all hours of the morning I read about the exploration of Siberia by Russians, Americans, the Chinese. Pelts. Rifles. Rivalries. Oroqen and Daur. Yerofey Khabarov. Gnats. Death toll. Tracts upon tracts of land given to peasants willing to move across the continent from their depleted homes on the European side of the Urals; land covered with taiga, rich in timber, game, fish and permafrost. Woods unconquerable, murders unpunished, wills indomitable, treasures untold.
My Stern Grandma makes us go to bed the minute it gets dark and all gardening is done for the day. We sleep on army cots in the little back room. Sometimes the smaller kid sleeps in Grandma’s bed with her.
When it is dark, it is really dark; the only light comes from small silvery celestial bodies. Going to the bathroom is terrifying: a long, dark and twisty journey across the potatoes, over the water barrels, through the brambles, ghosts, wolves, taiga, to the outhouse hole-of-death.
We keep a dented aluminum bucket on the sun porch, for the nightly needs.
When it is dark, it is really dark, so sometimes we listen to the radio. Its raspberry-red eye glows comfortingly above the golden bar of Warsaw-Berlin-Moscow-Peking.
After we are tucked in for the night, my Stern Grandma retells us books, long books, abridged and serialized. Once, she took a month to tell us the entire Count of Monte Cristo. Alexander Dumas’ novels lend themselves well to serialization: murders, duels, fights, hanged men, cliffhangers. Innocence avenged, villainy punished, wills indomitable.
She favors the adventure genre: James Fenimore Cooper, Sir Walter Scott 1st Baronet. One summer, she read a year’s worth of sci-fi magazines left at the dacha by one of our older cousins. She told us a story about one-eyed aliens who have captured an Earth spaceship and turned everyone into an alien. She told us the story over the course of a week; we could not sleep for a month. In the daytime, the terror would melt and disperse under the blistering sun, hide its last slimy droplets under the raspberry bushes. At night, when it was dark, it was really, really dark, save for the spooky light coming from the small silvery celestial bodies of aliens.
She remembers not only the plot of the book but the most memorable things characters said to one another. When she talks, she sniffles every sentence or two. The sniffling is not from a cold; it is neurological, a tic. Sniff. Sniff. Always twice.
The tic is an after-effect of the smallpox she’d had as a young freckled peasant girl in a depleted and famished Ukrainian village. She sniffles every few seconds, always twice, and her nose twitches. Twitch. Twitch. Her sniffling sounds comforting in the very dark darkness.
My Stern Grandma’s garden is no longer fertilized with super-phosphates within an inch of its life. There is dead silence between Warsaw and Berlin, and the Count of Monte Cristo has joined his beloved Mercedes forever. My Kind Grandma’s coin collection is in the local museum; her Tutankhamen has left the building; his blue-and-golden-arrowed eyes are no longer winking at orange aboriginal women; her Kon-Tiki has sailed.
Villainy is forgotten, innocence is forgotten, and crickets rule over the fields of summer sleep.