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They came from the hot, brightly lit dining room onto the ship's deck after dinner and stood by the handrail. She closed her eyes, pressed the back of her hand against her cheek, and laughed. Her laughter was simple and pleasant, as was everything about this small, attractive woman.
"I think I'm drunk," she said. "Where did you come from? Three hours ago I didn't even know you existed. I don't even know where you got on this boat. Samara? Well, I guess it doesn't matter.... Is my head spinning, or are we turning?"
Darkness and distant lights hung before them. But now the lights fell away; a strong, soft breeze rose from the darkness and blew into their faces as the steamer veered to one side—describing an expansive, slightly grandiose are, it seemed to flaunt the Volga's breadth—and then approached a small pier.
The lieutenant brought her hand to his lips: small and tan, it smelled of the sun. He imagined that all the skin beneath her gingham dress was equally as strong and tan, for she had said that she was coming from Anapa, where she'd spent a solid month lying under the hot southern sun on the sand by the sea—and this thought made his heart go still with fear and joy.
"Let's get off," he mumbled.
"Where?" she asked, surprised.
"On that pier."
He didn't answer. She lay the back of her hand against her warm cheek again.
"Let's get off," the lieutenant repeated stupidly. "I'm begging you."
"Oh, all right. As you wish ...," she said, turning away.
They almost fell over each other when the steamer bumped with a soft thud against the dimly lit pier. A mooring line flew over their heads; the water seemed to boil as the engines reversed and pushed the ship back toward the dock, and then the gangplanks dropped with a bang—the lieutenant rushed to get their bags.
A moment later they emerged from a drowsy little office on the dock, crossed a patch of ankle-deep sand, and climbed into a dusty cab without exchanging words. Soft with dust and lit by only a few crooked lamps, the road seemed endless as they traveled its gradual slope up the mountainside. But at last they reached the top and began to rattle down a paved carriageway past little offices, the local watchtower, a public square. It was warm, and the air was heavy with all the smells of a provincial town on a summer night. The driver stopped before the lighted entrance to an inn, the open doors of which displayed a worn, steep wooden staircase. An old, unshaven porter with big, wide feet, a pink shirt, and a frock coat sullenly took their bags and lugged them up the steps. They entered a large room that was terribly stuffy and still sweltering from the day's sun; white curtains were closed over the windows and two unused candles stood on the mantelpiece. As soon as the porter left and shut the door, the lieutenant rushed to her with such ardent desire, and they both gasped with such ecstasy as they kissed, that each would remember that moment for many years to come: they had never experienced anything similar in all their separate lives.
The next morning was cheerful, sunny, and hot, and at ten o'clock—while church bells rang, while people shopped at a market near the inn, while the warm air was filled with the smell of hay and tar and all the other complex, pungent odors of a provincial Russian town—that small, anonymous woman, who refused to say her name and jokingly referred to herself as "the beautiful stranger," went away. They had slept very little, but after washing and dressing for five minutes, she looked as fresh as a seventeen-year-old girl when she came out from behind the screen near the bed. Was she awkward or ashamed? Not very, no. Instead she was as happy and as open as she'd been the day before, and her mind was clear.
"No, no, darling," she'd said in answer to his request that they continue traveling together. "You should stay here and wait for the next boat. If we go together, everything will be ruined. It would be very unpleasant for me. I give you my honest word that I'm nothing like the person you might imagine me to be. Nothing even remotely similar to this has ever happened to me—and it never will again. I must have lost my mind. Or we've both suffered some kind of sunstroke."
For some reason the lieutenant easily agreed, and he rode with her to the pier in a lighthearted mood. They arrived just before the pink steamer Samolyot left the dock, and he kissed her openly on deck, despite the crowd, then jumped back onto the gangplank as it was being pulled away.
He returned to the inn feeling equally happy and carefree. But something had changed. The room seemed completely different from the room where she had been. It was still full of her, and yet, it was completely empty. How strange! The air still smelled of her English perfume, the cup from which she'd drunk her tea still stood half empty on the tray—and already she was gone. Overwhelmed by a sudden wave of tenderness and longing, the lieutenant hurriedly lit a cigarette and began to pace the room.
"What a strange adventure," he said out loud, laughing as he felt tears well up in his eyes. I give you my honest word that I'm nothing like the person you might imagine me to be. And then she's gone.
The screen had been moved aside; he put it back before the unmade bed, knowing that he couldn't bare to look at those sheets and pillows now. He shut the windows in order to escape the sound of carriage wheels creaking in the street and voices rising from the market, then he closed the filmy white curtains and sat down on the couch. Yes, this is it—the end of the "traveler's adventure." She's already gone, already far away, riding in a ship's salon that's all windows and white paint, or sitting on the deck, looking at the huge, gleaming surface of the river in the sun, looking at the yellow sandbars and the rafts drifting downstream, looking at the endless open space of the Volga and a horizon where shimmering water meets the sky.... Goodbye—say goodbye and that's it, always and forever.... For where could they possibly meet again? "I could never turn up in the town where she leads a normal life, has a husband and a three-year-old daughter, all her family," he thought to himself. Indeed, that town seemed to be an utterly forbidden place, and the thought that she would live out her lonely life there, often, perhaps, remembering their fleeting, chance encounter, while he would never see her again—this thought stunned him like a sharp, sudden blow. No, it couldn't be! It was too cruel, impossible, insane. The prospect of his life—all the painful, senseless years he'd spend without her—plunged him into horror and despair. "For God's sake!" he thought, struggling to keep his eyes from the bed behind the screen as he began to pace the room again. "What's wrong with me? What is it about her? What exactly happened yesterday? It must be some kind of sunstroke! And now I'm stuck in this backwater without her. How the hell will I get through the day?"
He still remembered everything about her, remembered all the small, fine details of her presence—the smell of her suntanned skin and her gingham dress, her supple body, the simple, uplifting sound of her voice. Traces of the exquisite pleasure that she'd given him with all her feminine charm remained extraordinarily acute within him, but those sensations were now eclipsed by a strange new feeling that he couldn't comprehend. He could never have imagined such a feeling taking hold of him when he pursued her yesterday, seeking what he thought would be a casual acquaintance; when they were together, there'd been no hint of it—and now it was impossible to tell her what he felt! "I'll never have the chance," he thought. "That's the worst of all—I'll never get to speak to her again! And what now? ... Memories I can't dispel.... Pain I can't relieve.... An interminable day stuck in this godforsaken town. And the Volga shining in the sun while it carries her away on a pink steamer!"
He had to save himself somehow—occupy his mind with something, go somewhere, find some kind of diversion. He put his hat on decisively, picked up his riding crop, and quickly passed through the empty corridor, his spurs chinking. "But where am I going?" he wondered as he bolted down the steep wooden stairs. A young driver waited near the hotel entrance, wearing a trim, sleeveless coat and placidly smoking a cigarette. The lieutenant looked at him uncomprehendingly. "How can he just sit there on his coach, smoke a cigarette, and be perfectly content, carefree, resigned? I must be the only person in this town who feels so miserable," he thought, heading toward the market.
The market was closing down, and many of the merchants had already driven off. But for some reason he walked among the fresh droppings left by the horses, walked among the wagons and carts loaded with cucumbers, the displays of new pots and bowls. And all of it—the men who overwhelmed him with their shouts of Here's a first class cucumber, your lordship, and the women sitting on the ground who vied for his attention, urging him to come closer as they lifted up their pots and rapped them with their knuckles to prove they had no cracks—all of it seemed so stupid and absurd that he quickly ran away and went inside a church, where the choristers were singing with emphatic joy and confidence, and a keen awareness of the duty they were carrying out. Then he wandered into a small, neglected garden on the mountain's edge and slowly walked around in circles, the river's measureless expanse shining like bright steel beneath him.... The shoulder straps and buttons of his uniform grew too hot to touch. The inside of his cap turned wet with sweat. His face began to burn.... When he returned to the inn he felt a certain pleasure as he entered the spacious, cool, and empty dining room on the lower floor. He felt pleasure as he removed his hat and sat down at a small table by an open window that let a little air into the room despite the heat. He ordered botvinya with ice.... Everything was good. There was enormous happiness in everything. Even the heat; even the smells of the marketplace and this unfamiliar, little town; even this old, provincial inn contained great joy: and in its midst his heart was being torn to shreds.... He ate half-sour pickles with dill and downed four shots of vodka, thinking he'd die willingly tomorrow if some miracle would let him bring her back, let him spend one more day with her just so he could tell her everything. That was all he wanted now—to convince her, to show her how ecstatically and miserably he loved her.... What for? Why try to convince her? Why show her anything? He didn't know, but this was more essential than his life.
"I'm falling completely apart," he said out loud, and poured another drink.
He pushed his bowl of soup away, ordered black coffee, and began to smoke, wondering desperately what he could do to save himself from this sudden, completely unexpected love. But even as he sought some means of escape, he felt all too clearly that escaping was impossible. And suddenly he got up again, grabbed his hat and riding crop, asked directions to the post office, and hurried off—a telegram already written in his head: "My entire life is yours from this day on—completely yours, forever, until I die." But he stopped in horror as he approached the old, squat building that housed the postal center: he knew the town where she lived, knew she had a husband and a three-year-old daughter, but he didn't know her name! He'd asked her several times at dinner and at the hotel, but she had only laughed. Why do you need to know my name, or who I am?
A shop window on the corner near the post office was filled with photographs. He looked for a long time at the portrait of some military type with bulging eyes, a low forehead, and a stunning pair of lavish sideburns. He wore thick epaulets, and his exceedingly broad chest was completely covered with medals.... How terrible and savage everything mundane and ordinary becomes when the heart's been destroyed—yes, he understood that now—destroyed by sunstroke, destroyed by too much happiness and love. He glanced at a photograph of two newlyweds—a young man with a crew cut stood at attention in a long frock coat and a white tie, his bride in a gauzy wedding dress on his arm—then moved his eyes to the portrait of an attractive, upper-class girl with an ardent expression and a student's cap cocked to one side on her head. And then, overwhelmed with envy for all these unknown people who were free of suffering, he began to study the street, looking desperately for something.
Where to? What now?
The street was completely empty and all the buildings looked identical: white, two-story merchant-class homes with big gardens and not a soul inside. A thick white dust lay on the paving stones; and all of it was blinding, all of it was flooded with hot, joyful, flaming sunlight which now seemed useless beyond words. The street rose in the distance, then dipped down, as if stooping under the cloudless sky. The glare reflected from its surface turned the horizon slightly grey, which reminded him of the south—of Sevastopol, Ketch, Anapa. And that was more than he could bare: stumbling and tripping on his spurs, squinting in the light, struggling to see the ground beneath his feet, the lieutenant staggered back the way he'd come.
When he reached the inn, he was as exhausted as a man who'd marched for miles in Turkestan or the Sahara. Gathering the last of his strength, he re-entered his large and empty room: it had been cleaned—every trace of her was gone except for a forgotten hairpin that now lay on the nightstand. He removed his jacket and glanced at his reflection in the mirror: his moustache had been bleached white and his face looked grey from the sun; the whites of his eyes—slightly tinged with blue—stood out sharply against his darkened skin. It was an ordinary officer's face, but it now looked haggard and deranged, and there was something both youthful and profoundly sad about his thin white shirt and its small starched collar. He lay down on his back on the bed and propped his dusty boots up on the footboard. The curtains hung loose before the open windows, rustling occasionally as a small breeze blew into the room, laden with more heat from the scorching metal roofs—more heat from all the silent, glaring, lifeless world around him. He put his hands behind his head and stared fixedly in front of him, then clenched his teeth and closed his eyes, feeling tears spill down his cheeks—and finally, he dozed off. It was evening when he awoke: a red and yellow sun hung behind the curtains, the breeze had died away, the room felt as hot and dry as an oven. When the morning and the day before resurfaced in his memory, it seemed they'd taken place ten years ago.
He rose unhurriedly and washed, opened the curtains, asked for his bill and a samovar, slowly drank a cup of tea with lemon. Then he ordered a driver, had his bags brought out, climbed into the coach's rusty, sun-scorched seat, and handed five whole rubles to the porter.
"I think it was me who brought you here last night," the driver said cheerfully, picking up his reins.
The summer evening sky had already turned dark blue above the Volga by the time they reached the dock. Different colored lights were scattered in profusion along the river, other, larger lights hung in the masts of an approaching steamer.
"Right on time," the driver said ingratiatingly.
The lieutenant tipped him five rubles as well, bought his ticket, walked out onto the landing. Everything was like the day before: a soft blow to the pier and a slight giddiness as it rocks underfoot, a glimpse of the mooring line flying through the air, and then the engine's thrown into reverse, the river surges forward from the paddle wheel, and the water seems to boil as the steamer's driven back toward the dock.... This time the ship seemed unusually welcoming: its brightly lit deck was crowded with people, and the air smelled of cooking smoke from the galley.
A moment later they were being carried up the river, just as she'd been carried off so recently.
The summer dusk was dying out in the distance ahead: it glowed in drowsy, muted colors on the water, while trembling ripples flashed sporadically beneath the last, spent traces of the setting sun—and all the lights scattered in the surrounding dark kept on drifting, drifting off.
The lieutenant sat under an awning on deck, feeling like he'd aged ten years.
Excerpted from Sunstroke by Ivan Bunin. Copyright © 2002 by Ivan R. Dee, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.