Panteleimon Romanov

Black Fritters

Published: Azure Cities, International Publishers 1929;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for in 2000.

WHEN the train was only thirty miles away from Moscow, Katerina could sit still no longer. It seemed to her that she would never reach the place. Her heart beat faster and faster with every mile.

Yesterday she had found out that Andrei, who had worked for the last five years in a Moscow factory, had begun to live with another woman.

He himself had written nothing to her and their relationship had not changed in the least; he still sent her money for the holidays, and now and then a letter. It was said that he was some sort of chairman now and lived well.

Maybe it meant nothing to him to give her the hundred rubles he was sending; he lived on the other four or five hundred with the other woman. The sum of one hundred rubles, which had seemed so large to her before, suddenly became insultingly small.

What should she do when she arrived in Moscow? Break into his place, unmask him on the spot, make a scandal?

Let people see that he was a scoundrel and a cad.

...She would break the window panes–and with her bare hands, so that there might be blood. And she would tear the other woman's hair out.

"Oh, Lord, Lord,–what has he done! And all on account of a bit of red ribbon. .. ." It was not so long ago, it seemed, that they had lived happily together, had gone for hay to the meadow by the river in the evenings; the sun would set, the corncrakes cry in the swamp beyond the river, blurred voices coming from the village through the evening air. She would stand on the wagon, and he, with his shirt collar unbuttoned, with dry, sunbaked hair, with small drops of sweat on his shaven upper lip, would lift the damp, fragrant hay with a pitchfork and throw it up into her hands as she stood on the wagon. Then he would lead the horse to the water, and she would lie on the hay in the wagon, chew a grass-blade, and know that after supper both of them, tired with their work, but happy and lively, would walk barefoot across the yard to the barn to sleep in the fresh hay. Storm would break from a sudden summer cloud, lightning would flare through the cracks in the gates, and the fresh air would smell even more of hay and the fustian of her sarafan.

And now it was all gone.

She felt she was capable of anything.

But when she walked out of the railroad station with a large crowd of people, she was overwhelmed, lost in the great city. What she had wanted to do was to sweep down on him like a tempest, tell him everything, but instead she had to ask how to reach the street where he lived. She was shown the tram, but when she bought her ticket she forgot to ask where she had to get off, and she sat in the tram until it reached a suburb of the city.

She had to ride back and then walk and ask for the number of the house, for she could not read. She would be told–and she would go, afraid to ask again, and when she did ask she would find that she had passed by the house and would have to retrace her steps.

She walked more and more quickly, thinking that while she was walking they would leave the house.

When she found the place, a house with enormous doors and windows, all the apartments were locked, and she had to knock and ring. And which bell was she to ring, how was she to guess which door was his?

"Auntie, what are you doing here?" a man in an apron, holding a chisel in his hand, asked her.

Katerina told him.

"He isn't here. He doesn't live here."

"What do you mean he doesn't live here? Good Lord, what am I to do now!"

She had only one ruble with her, tied in a corner of her kerchief. This was not enough for her fare home.

An old woman with a pail appeared from a door under the stairway, and on finding out what was wanted, said that Andrei Nikanorich had moved to the suburbs. Katerina had to take a train to get there.

Katerina was so happy that she had found a clue, that she almost ran out of the doorway. Because she was happy she had forgotten to ask exactly where he was, and so, when she came to the suburb, she knew the street, but not the number of the house.

Evening was approaching, and clouds. She ran from one end of the street to the other, asking and asking, but she could find out nothing. In her hands she had a kerchief with black fritters. She did not remember why she had taken them. She had come to make a scandal, but she had taken a present along, according to custom,–black rye fritters.

She had only eleven kopeks left now. The place was strange, night approached, a wind began to blow. Her face sweaty and bewildered, she ran along the grassy suburban street flanked by pine trees, and waved her hands in desperation, as she held on to the kerchief with the black fritters.

At the moment when she was most bewildered, when she was in the last threes of despair and fear, she turned into a little alley, and saw a familiar crown of dry hair beyond the railing of a fence.

It was he, Andrei. His tunic unbuttoned, he was squatting near a flower bed and digging the ground.

Katerina could only cry:

"Andriushechka, my dear!"

She ran through the garden gate, and when Andrei rose in surprise from the ground, she embraced him and pressed her head to his breast, powerless to hold back her tears.

"Look who's here! How did you come here? "Why are you crying? Come, I will tell them to put up the samovar."

He preceded her on the path that led to the new cottage painted a fresh yellow, which stood near the fence among tree stumps.

But on the way he stopped, and cried to a passerby in a civilian coat:

"Ivan Kuzmich, you must send to the city for the goods to-morrow. I will write you a note."

His manner of speaking to the man, the way in which the man said "all right" in reply, made Katerina feel that he was the old, clever, practical and kind Andrei, and yet at the same time another Andrei, on whom people depended, who arranged and gave orders in this strange, unknown place just as he had done at home. And he did it so simply and quietly, as if it could never be otherwise.

She approached the cottage with a failing heart. Suddenly she would meet the other woman, dressed like a lady, of course. Involuntarily, Katerina glanced at her own holiday sarafan, and felt a hot wave of shame flood her cheeks because of her village clothes.

When they entered a roomy chamber with new pine walls and partitions, the first things she saw were two beds. Her heart began to beat so that her legs grew weak and almost gave way under her, and her throat went dry.

Everything in the room was so unlike the house where she had lived with him. Near a window was a table covered with a newspaper tacked down at the corners, an inkwell, a pen, a row of books, some papers on a long nail in the wall. Clean city towels near the washstand in the corner.

"Are there no ikons here?" she asked, just to say something.

"No," Andrei answered simply.

He washed his hands, standing with his back to his wife, and wiped them unhurriedly on the clean white towel.

Katerina, sitting uncomfortably on the first chair she had found when she entered, which stood almost in the center of the room, with her bundle in her hands, looked around, and her eyes searched eagerly for signs of the other woman's presence.

Suddenly she saw an old straw hat on the top of a closet. She quickly lowered her eyes so Andrei might not notice that she had seen the hat.

"Well, we are going to drink tea right away," said Andrei, and began to gather up the newspapers and manuscripts from the dining table.

Katerina felt she did not know what to say in order to break the uncomfortable silence. And what was felt most terribly in this silence was that something of which neither of them had said a word still lay between them.

In the old home she would always talk of the same things–of the cow, of the children (there were three of them), of the bad weather.

Now she was trying hard to find something to say to him, but she could find nothing. Suddenly she remembered about their cow, and grew happy.

"Our Lyska calved the other day. It was a fine calf,–just like her."

At the words "our Lyska" she looked involuntarily at the straw hat. With beating heart, she waited for Andrei to speak.

"Just like her?" Andrei echoed mechanically. Still seeming to be engrossed in something, he slowly continued to remove the newspapers from the table and to put them on the bookshelf. Suddenly he looked at his wife with a new expression on his face, as if he had decided to tell her something important. The terrible moment had arrived.

"Katiusha," said Andrei, looking not at his wife, but out of the window, "I did not write to you because that would not have meant anything. I do not live alone, but with a comrade. A fine, honest girl. She will come from work right away, so don't you hurt her. I never chased after women, the thing came about honestly. That is all...."

Katerina looked at him in silence, without blinking,–only her throat was convulsed as she swallowed hard occasionally.

This was the right moment to jump up, rip the shawl from her head, tear out a handful of her hair, shriek like a madwoman with insult and grief. And then smash the window panes.

Instead, she said quietly, she did not know why: "And what about me now?"

"You will live as you have always lived," answered Andrei. "I Shall send you money, and I shall come to help you with the harvest."

Katerina did not answer. Tears suddenly filled her eyes, fell on her hands. She did not dry her eyes; she wiped the tears from her hands with a sleeve.

"Why should you cry? It will be settled somehow," said Andrei, and glancing out of the window, added: "There she comes now. Her name is Katerina too–Katya. Wipe your eyes. I have told her about you."

Hurriedly, obediently, Katerina wiped her eyes.

She expected to see a large woman with plump elbows and big breast, with a white face, grown fat on the four or five hundred rubles while she, his lawful wife, was drying up, feeding and nursing his children, harvesting wheat in the fields where her arms had become rough and tanned, and her elbows, once round and white, had grown sharp.

And again a burning, jealous hatred surged darkly from her heart to her head. But her eyes suddenly rounded with surprise when a thin, emaciated girl in a white waist, a short blue skirt, and worn tan slippers entered the room. The girl's blond hair was bobbed like a boy's and held in place by a round horn comb.

The girl, a bundle of papers in her hands, stopped short in surprise.

"What did he find in her? She has a chest like a board," thought Katerina.

"Katya, we have a guest," said Andrei, noticing the girl's questioning glance. "Katerinushka is here."

Katya smiled, blushing confusedly, and offered the guest a thin, pale hand.

"I did not guess at once," she said, smiling again, guiltily and yet at the same time kindly. And recovering almost at once, she added: "I suppose you want to eat after your long journey."

"I told the landlady to put up the samovar," said Andrei.

"Good...I just came from work," Katya turned to Katerina. Then for a fleeting moment she looked at herself in a hand mirror which hung on the wall near the towels, fixed her hair, and disappeared behind the partition.

Katerina still sat uncomfortably on the same chair in the middle of the room. She did not know what to say, and how to treat her husband when his wife was there, behind the partition. She spoke against her own will:

"She is small and thin."

"That is nothing. She is a fine, kind person," Andrei answered.

As if suddenly remembering something, Katerina hurriedly unwound her bundle, and took out the black fritters.

"Here, presents... ."

And when Katya, with an apron on, and with hands black from charcoal, entered the room, Katerina, still against her will, said to her too, as if ashamed of the black fritters:

"Here, a village present."

Katya blushed again and glanced at Andrei. "Take them, take them," said the latter, busy with something in a corner. "She is a fine woman."

"Why did you bring them? It's too much, really." And Katya added at once: "But I love them terribly. Are they with buttermilk?"

"With buttermilk, with buttermilk," Katerina answered quickly, overjoyed that the girl knew what buttermilk was.

Later the three of them drank tea together.

"Ivanov was kicked out anyway," Katya said, turning to Andrei. "There was a general meeting, a lot of noise .. ."

"You don't say! It was time long ago," Andrei answered, livening up. He wanted to say something else, but Katya cut him short, and turned to Katerina.

"You have calluses on your palms. I have them on my fingers. I bang all day long on the typewriter."

Katerina also wanted to say something that would interest and enliven Andrei as much as Katya's words about Ivanov had done. She wanted to tell him about her railroad journey and what she had seen, but she did not know how to begin. All that she could say when she looked at Katya, was:

"Our Lyska calved,–our cow. I sat up with her all that night. The calf is just like her."

"I love calves," said Katya.

There was a silence.

"I've got warts on my hands," said Katya suddenly.

Katerina was glad that warts had been mentioned, for she knew of a remedy for them,–some acid. She began at once to tell how they were to be removed, and tried to keep on talking, for fear that she would soon end and have nothing else to speak about.

After supper, which tormented Katerina because she could not manage her knife and fork, dropping now one, now the other, Katya removed the dishes, and Katerina began guessing where they would put her to sleep. They would take her to the neighbor's, she thought, and would stay here by themselves.

This thought raised a dark wave of jealousy and resentment from the bottom of her soul. But Katya brought a folding bed from somewhere and began to put it up in the room.

Katerina, approaching the table and looking at the papers lying on it, said:

"Lord, I can understand nothing. How do you make head or tail of it?"

Before bedtime, Katya sent Andrei out of the room. He put on his cap and went out.

"Now you can lie down," said Katya with the same confused smile, turning to Katerina, and pointed at her own bed in which she had just changed the linen.

Katerina, feeling that she was expected to say something polite, uttered:

"Why should you bother yourself? I can lie down on the floor."

"No, no, why?"

Katerina took off her boots, glad that she had not come in her best shoes. Then she pulled the sarafan off over her head, and ashamed of her coarse village shirt, covered herself hurriedly.

Katya got some acid from a closet, and sitting next to Katerina, applied it amateurishly to her warts with a feather. Katerina showed her how to do it and helped her.

Then Katya undressed. Katerina looked with involuntary, strange, painful curiosity at the bony legs and the thin abdomen. Her eyes grew dark again.

"What tempted him?" She, Katerina, could carry a full barrel of swill to the pigs with her own hands. This girl couldn't even lift a pail of milk.

"Well, are you settled yet?" they heard Andrei's voice outside the door.

"Come in, come in," cried Katya.

Andrei came in, hung his cap on a nail, and looking around the room, sat down on the folding bed. He asked:

"Shall I put out the light?"

"Put it out."

The room was dark. They could hear the bed creak under him when he lay down.

Katerina, blinking now and then, looked into the darkness to the side where Andrei's bed stood, and heavy thoughts crept into her mind about him, about Katya, about Lyska....

Katerina was to go home in the morning. Andrei took her to the station. Katya overtook them when they were already out of the house, and gave a package to Katerina, saying:

"A present–for the children."

"Why should you bother?"

"But you must," insisted Katya. Then she added: "Maybe you will stay a little longer?"

"I must go home," answered Katerina.

She wondered if it were possible that she should leave without speaking to Andrei. But what could she say to him, when Lyska always turned up on her tongue for some reason or other? She was also bothered by the fact that she had only eleven kopeks. Would he give her money himself, or would she have to ask for it?

Andrei, who was walking in silence, suddenly turned to Katya, and said:

"Ivan Kuzmich is going to the city. Go and write note to the co-operative."

Katya understood that he wished to be alone with s wife, offered her thin hand to Katerina, and wishing her a pleasant journey, walked off. She waved her handkerchief to them from the distance.

Katerina walked at her husband's side on the soft, mossy path between the tall, scattered pine trees, and avoiding the stumps on her way, waited–perhaps he would begin to speak himself about the most important thing between them. They had lived together twelve years. Was it possible they would find nothing to say to each other at such a moment in their lives?

Andrei, on reaching the crossroads from which he would have to turn back, voiced nothing of what she had expected, but stopped, and said:

"Well. ... If you need anything, write, and at harvest time I will come to help you."

He gave her two gold pieces, worn at the edges, and kissed her.

Katerina hugged his neck awkwardly with her left arm, holding the gold pieces in her right hand, and kissed him.

"Good-bye. Come and see Lyska."

"Good-bye. I shall come."

She walked away. But after she took several steps she looked around. Andrei still stood in the same place, and she could see that he had left something unsaid, that he was sorry to let her go without telling her something more.

She stopped, her heart sinking, and leaned forward.

Andrei stood for a few moments, as if looking for words, then, waving his hand, cried: "Take care of Lyska!"

"I will take care of her," Katerina answered, sighing.

Andrei turned in his tracks, and made off.

"They fixed the old woman. They met her with kindly words and sealed her mouth so that she couldn't even move her tongue. In the village people will ask: 'Well, did you fix that good-for-nothing husband of yours? Did you tear the harlot's hair out? Did you smash the windows?' But she–not only had she not broken the window panes–she had made a present of the black fritters to the other woman. And they had given her two gold pieces and a package for the children. Never fear, the girl is laughing now over her black fritters–even white ones are not good enough for her with her four or five hundred rubles."

Katerina even stopped, as if ready to return. But she remembered the thin, weak hands of Katya and her confused, caressing smile. Waving her hand in final farewell, Katerina crossed herself, and went her way.