BY JOSEPH HOWSE
Copyright is held by the author.
Book I: Swept Away
Chapter 1: Daydream
CALL HER Nadia; her parents did.
She never once dreamt of lions but there was a time, as a colourless childhood advanced into benighted adolescence, when foreign candy and shortwave radio seemed the stuff of dreams. She and her elder sister Nastya and Nastya’s friends Ida and Jaan collected the candy wrappers. Their rainbow colours had no parallel in the blocks of crumbling tenements that looked like sullied wedding cakes, picked over by all and sundry hands in an atmosphere of sweat, smoke, secrecy, and dubious libations. Hunger, sated briefly — that was a wedding party.
Jaan styled himself “Johnny”. He was the one with the shortwave radio, which he had put together in a shed on a country road somewhere, from parts he scrounged on his truant expeditions by commuter rail. He was pleased to lecture the youngest, Nadia, on the workings of the device and the role of the ionosphere in shortwave propagation. Nastya and Ida were more excited by Johnny’s plan to resurrect a motorcycle he had hauled from a bog.
Lecturing Nadia was one thing but Johnny was not one for chitchat. Nastya never got much out of him when she gushed about the man he would be: an engineer, a scientist, a cosmonaut, a radio anchor, a motorcyclist-adventurer.
“I’m nobody’s worker and nobody’s hero,” Johnny scoffed at Nastya one time.
Ida took a different tack. One summer, day after day, she voiced a daydream about finding a new place to go — instead of the shed in nobody’s hayfield, a beach between nobody’s forest and nobody’s sea. On the high sand dunes, even higher pine trees would give them shade and the breeze would fill their lungs with salt and pine as it rolled the water and the branches and the sand. They could be “just happy, just us,” in such a singular landscape of straight and waving forms.
“A change could be good,” even Johnny admitted at last. The motorcycle was not starting; it had not started since their grandparents went to war. He had sweat in his eyes, greasy gashes on his hands, he stank unbearably even to himself, and he was beginning to imagine that the shed was being watched.
Anyway, the hayfield had become infested with ticks that year, so Nastya and Nadia were ready to support a change.
As if she had already chosen the spot from a library of survey photographs, Ida led them all to it the following day. It was far. They had only two hours of late afternoon to enjoy there but they agreed it would be a fine place to return. “If only we could camp for a night or two and spend the whole day… Hmm,” Ida sighed and by then, all four were living in a daydream.
A youth event in a farther town afforded a pretext to be away. Johnny used connections to falsify their attendance.
On the first evening, around their campfire on the beach, they experimented with lightly roasting a few foreign candy bars in their precious wrappers. This had been Nadia’s idea, she had emptied her secret stash, and she was proud to make this contribution to the illicit party. They laughed like mad as they tried to lick molten chocolate from the singed rainbow foil.
Nastya passed around a bottle of Vana Talinn rum liqueur. “Not for you, Little Hedgehog,” she said to Nadia.
They climbed the dunes to watch the sunset. At the last light, Ida said, “Hmm, I’m going down again. I need a moment.”
She went walking East, her feet straddling the tideline in a kind of dance. As she got farther, Johnny reached into his pack for something else he had scrounged — a pair of large binoculars.
“What’s she doing?” Johnny crowed.
Even without binoculars, it was plain enough that Ida was stripping, tossing her clothes to the wind, and then wading out into the surf. Johnny’s optics just gave him the best view.
“Stop that!” Nastya said.
“Why?” asked Johnny. “I’ll share if that’s the problem; here, look.” He held out the binoculars but it was Nadia who reached for them. “Not you.”
This second refusal stung unexpectedly. Nadia lay back and chose to ignore it all in favour of scanning for Venus and Mercury in the western sky.
“Is she drowning herself?” Johnny asked. “No. False alarm.”
Nadia drifted off to the sound of the wind in the pines. She was tired from the day’s travel and sun and earlier swimming (in bathing suits) and staring into the fire and eating chocolate, along with tons of mussels they had gathered and bread from home.
The stars were many when Ida returned with most of her clothes. Nadia was awake to hear her say, “I lost my neckerchief.” Nastya made chitchat about all the places they could look for it tomorrow. That put everyone to sleep.
The next day, supplies ran out and there was little appetite for mussels alone. “Are you alright to gather mushrooms without me?” Nastya asked her sister. “I did promise Ida I’d help her find her neckerchief.”
Being excused from that errand suited Nadia well enough, so she spent the morning in the pine forest. She knew from their grandmother what was poison and what was not. The old woman had survived among partisans.
The party got back together for lunch on the beach. There were plenty of mushrooms, as well as clams that Johnny had dug. He was showing Nadia another of his recent scroungings — a portable radio — and they were about to string an antenna up the dunes when Nastya and Ida arrived with a red neckerchief full of red-and-gold cloudberries. By luck, they had found both and thought they made a pretty presentation to share between sisters and friends.
Nastya and Ida laid the fire as Nadia and Johnny strung the antenna and tuned in a faint crackle of rock and roll. They were less well equipped than in the shed and hayfield, where they had hidden a splendid antenna by stringing it along a rotten fence. “En tout cas,” said Nadia, putting on airs of an international scholar, “l’ionosphère fonctionne mieux la nuit.” She got a little smile from her teacher. He was good with languages, on account of his shortwave listening.
They baked the clams and seared the mushrooms with rocks in the fire; the cloudberries they ate raw. The feast was briny, earthy, and tart.
Everybody sat, sated. They were hot from their labours and the fire, sun, and sand, and a diet newly rich in molluscs.
The wind had died down. The radio reception was improving just a little.
A distant freighter passed from East to West.
They lay burning. Nadia read a book of Chekhov’s tales. Nastya embroidered little cloudberries on Ida’s neckerchief. Ida took Johnny’s binoculars and studied an island a good kilometre away — just more dunes and pines, pines and dunes, but captivating to her. Johnny was at a loose end.
“I can swim there,” Ida said.
“You can’t,” Johnny informed her.
“You’ll have to stop me.”
The binoculars went down in the sand. Ida was on her feet, striding out to sea, and — once more — stripping on the way.
The other three sat up. Nastya rested her sewing in her lap and appeared unable to breathe. Nadia placed a bookmark in Chekhov and put him away in her satchel.
Ida, now thigh-deep in water, was bending to throw it on her face and back. From below her shoulder blades, down to her buttocks, she was crisscrossed by red and purple stripes; she had taken a beating for something lately. The deepest wounds were C-shaped — a buckle — while her upper back bore a more diffuse bruise, faded to yellow, where she had probably been held down. Doesn’t that hurt? Nadia wondered about the salt. Ida did not show it. She finished splashing herself and just kept wading deeper.
Johnny tensed, stood up, and tensed some more.
Up to her breasts in the surf, Ida paused to unbraid her long hair — blond, which seemed whiteish against her burning face and neck — and then she dove headlong against a surge. Rolling back a little and then forwards in fierce strokes, she made her way out to sea.
“She’ll drown,” Johnny said, as if to cue the hero to action. Finding no man but himself, he stripped to his shorts and raced after her.
Now in deep water, Ida rolled over in a wave and started to backstroke. She was a good swimmer and Nadia thought there was no need to panic as yet.
Johnny was not closing the distance.
The daydream ended, for some of them, within the next couple of minutes, which can be a long time to swimmers. The wind picked up again fast. Ida, on full display, went under in a swell. Johnny kept paddling after her like mad and went under in the next one.
They came up together choking. That awful sound blew ashore and further covered up the crackling rock and roll.
The wind lulled a little and they got to shallow water before the next big swell. Linked shoulder-to-shoulder, sputtering all the way, they marched ashore.
Pair of fools, Nadia thought. Ida was actually coughing out a laugh. Her clothes, except the neckerchief, had washed out to sea. Johnny looked back out there as if unsure he were wise to have left the depths.
What Nastya thought was in her eyes. She was crying.
“Nastya?” her sister asked.
“We’re leaving,” Nastya rasped. “I was wrong to bring you here.”
Chapter 2: Suitcase
That autumn, when Ida got an abortion (and Nadia was not supposed to know), it was the end of the fellowship of four; the sisters’ parents made sure of that much even if they had not made sure of much till then.
Their father, Misha, and mother, Katya, pulled strings to relocate the family from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
(He was a shipping and receiving clerk. She was a factory worker.)
Misha’s colleague from Odessa suggested to him that it was a fine city, sure to be edifying for the girls. Odessans are famous as practical jokers.
The grandmother would stay. “I made a promise to Misha’s father,” she said, “and anyway, dears, the South would never suit me. I’ll take the long winter nights with the long summer days.”
They stuffed their lives in one suitcase apiece, Nadia’s being the smallest. She had little besides books and clothes. There was a formal photograph: grandmother and granddaughters. It showed the old woman in a wooden chair with little Nastya and Nadia standing by her knees and her husband’s mariner’s cap in her lap. There was the candy wrapper collection. There was a leftover length of antenna wire that had served as a bookmark. To Nadia’s regret (if hers alone), there was nothing as a keepsake of Ida.
They travelled two days and nights by train via Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev. Nastya and Nadia had never travelled overnight, nor such a distance. The dormitory car had fifty-four bunks, with sheets spilling into the corridor. On one side, each grouping of four shared a little table, not big enough to spread a newspaper. On the other side, the bunks were in twos with no tables. The toilets were locked whenever the train got near a city, in order to create a “sanitary zone” where no waste was flushed.
People chitchatted, wandered, chitchatted with somebody new, nibbled and drank, wandered, shared their nibbles and drinks, lounged, slept, played cards or chess, changed their socks, opened windows, waited for the toilets, took potions for indigestion or a cough, closed windows, and looked for missing socks.
The world unfolded. The world got warmer. The world stank of socks. Everything brushed together; every sense was overwhelmed by pickled herring, pickled men, shirtless men, farts, and foul breath.
Nadia barfed in the cavernous Kiev station in the middle of Night II. This drew attention to her family and then a tramp tried to sell them a bronze ring. “Gold?” he asked. “Something fine in gold for a girl’s hand?”
Enticed to look, Nadia thought, That’s pretty. He’s rubbed it till it’s bright. Poor, dirty fingers and a bright ring with X’s cut into the face.
“Go away!” hollered Katya, throwing herself between her nauseated younger daughter and the tramp. “Go away or it’s you who’ll pay!” The tramp moved on without a word.
Nadia felt regret (a distraction from her discomfort, at least). Had that ring been a keepsake? She thought the tramp misunderstood the ring because it looked to her like a gift a girl would give, rather than one she would find flattering from a man.
“Let’s go,” whispered Misha. “Katya — Mama — girls, let’s go.”
“Come on, Nadia,” Nastya said, “hold on to my arm. Papa, take our cases, please.”
They continued on to Odessa in a car recently vacated by another fifty-four people, shifted from various states of unconsciousness.
Nadia begged to lie in an upper bunk and to have the window open so she could feel the updraught. The neighbours bitched about it and chastised Katya as a madwoman of a mother; the girl would die of cold. “I’ll shut the window if you stick your tongues in it!” Katya hissed. “Anyone who isn’t blind drunk can see my daughter is sick from this stuffy air. Whose fault is that? You, you hustle alongside like parrots on a perch and you echo your great-grandmothers’ wisdom and for all your preening, all you do is shit and stink up the air! Die of cold in autumn, wrapped in blankets on a train? Let me tell you, her grandmother was a partisan! Tell them!”
“As my wife says, we would prefer to have the window open.”
The train is going in circles, Nadia thought — or perhaps she said it aloud but no one heard. She was burning. She tried to ask Nastya for water, ask Nastya to read to her, ask Nastya for anything but no words would come out.
A conductor thrust his way down the shaking corridor. He bellowed threats and everybody shut up.
On the bunk below Nadia, Nastya was holding her breath in an effort not to sob.
Rocked to sleep, Nadia felt a little relief again. She dreamt of a sand dune and pines, Venus and Mercury, and in her dream she woke in the night as she felt on her face something hot, which was ash. It had blown from a cigarette Ida was smoking. “Bad luck,” said Ida. “Here,” and Ida offered the cigarette to Nadia. Had something like that been real?
Joseph Howse lives in a Nova Scotian fishing village, where he chats with cats, crafts books, and nurtures an orchard of hardy fruit trees. When he can, he goes roaming in a pair of old work boots, which have lasted twelve years on six continents, though the soles have twice been replaced. His debut novel, The Girl in the Water, has won the 2023 Independent Press Award for Literary Fiction and the 2023 IPPY Awards Bronze Medal for Best Regional Ebook (Fiction). You can read more about this novel at https://nummist.com/stories/.