I’ve loved mist ever since I was little.
The fields came right up to our house in the village. On those August evenings when everything grows dark and more solid, I would watch the white shreds get whipped up into clouds thick as down pillows, then pull each other in like drops of mercury and creep from the fields’ edge up to the porch.
The fields (I don’t remember them ever being sown) were framed by wan, thin woods trailing out into ravines. Any time I could get away from whoever was looking after me, I’d trot over to the ravines and, trembling, watch the shreds of mist accumulate at the bottom of the deepest one, the one that was a perfect oval and looked like the imprint of a giant egg. I kept thinking that any moment a figure would emerge from down there, from the ravine… that something would materialize, so that I’d finally understand why I was so drawn to the place. I imagined that a substance… right, a substance, most likely, or an essence, or a coalescence… I don’t know what to call it… basically, that something near and dear, something familial, would appear to me. Something more like family than my grandparents, anyway, and the life I had with them during school vacations.
In June, I’d try not to sleep. When I managed it, I would watch the entire cycle: how the mist would accumulate around the sheds and buildings at dusk, then thicken, then grow pale for a short while as it was submerged in the half-night of June, and then, after six in the morning, how it would transform, falling apart into dew and wisps of smoke. In other words, I became a mist expert, the way other people become experts on snow, or tracks, or ice.
Once I was able to hold out for three nights in a row without sleep. By the end of the experiment, I felt light as a balloon, but on the fourth day I fell asleep while I was weeding the potato beds. My grandma discovered me in among the flattened plants and apparently thought I’d fainted. A sickly city child poisoned by fresh air. That’s the only thing that explains why I wasn’t punished. She warmed up my feet with a mustard plaster, for some reason, then swaddled me tight in her most prized possession—an Egyptian camel hair blanket—and sent me off to bed, ordering me not to get up until the next morning.
My grandma and grandpa died, and I graduated from high school, got my bachelor’s degree, found a job in the department, entered the graduate program, and got married soon after that. We didn’t bother selling the village house out in the back end of beyond. At some point my parents developed the urge to live there. They had delusions of enjoying their old age out in nature.
But by the end of their first test summer, life in the rough had ceased to bring them joy, and the amount of money they needed to put into the place scared them. So they decided once and for all to stop waffling and just spend the dacha season in the city. The air quality was worse, but then you didn’t have to keep going out to the yard all the time or heat your water on the stove.
My wife Irina never grew to like village life either. She and I are actually very different. I have nothing bad to say about my wife. No. Well, except just that Irina has a habit of scratching her ankles loudly when she’s thinking, and she sort of hunches over, like an old geezer. I’ve asked her several times to pay attention to her posture, but all it does is annoy her. So I quit messing with it. What’s the point of telling a grown woman how to live her life?
To make a long story short: I’m more than happy to spend the summer in the village alone. I sleep, read, cut the grass, prepare lectures for the fall, and, at long last, watch movies.
But this year I’m not just taking it easy during my routine summer reprieve from teaching. Quite the opposite: to keep my brains from drying up, I’ve started working again on my second dissertation, for full professor. I’m determined to finish it by fall. I’ve already taken too egregiously long. All because of those stuffy months in the city. But now, in the fresh air, I’ve set myself a work quota of no less than four hours daily, preferably before noon. Wake up early, enjoy some coffee, and get to work. Ritual, procedure, and quiet: year in and year out, these simple rules have helped me reflect on things and maintain my clarity of thought.
Irina never understood that about me. To her, the love of philosophy was something abstract and distanced from life. But time and again I was confirmed in my conviction that the classical German philosophers comprising my area of research were far more relevant to us than, for example, the idiocy of theater, which my wife, for some reason, adores. Theater is a dead art. Whereas philosophy is a living thing. I can’t quite fathom how anyone could possibly contest that with naïve arguments about “development” and “experiment,” these generalized, meaningless words she learned by heart the way a child learns a little poem by heart for her preschool’s Parents Day show. But let’s not get bothered about it.
The work clears my head. That’s probably why a task, or rather what’s trendier to call a “project,” has been taking shape over the past few days, something no less essential than my dissertation. It appears that I’m getting closer to what I used to feel when I was little, when I was intuitively and naturally open to awe.
Life is so afflicted by clarity and definition these days that the sensations of mystery and beauty I associated with the mist are even more precious to me.
For some time now, I’ve been playing with the thought that I might be able to, how can I say this, blend with it. Feel out our shared rhythm, our affinity.
I finally made up my mind and took the first step.
As evening drew on, I tore myself away from my desk, went out into the field, and wandered this way and that, this way and that, until at some point I found myself dancing. At first it was awful: I kept stopping and looking around. But then awareness yielded to motion. I was scooping up great armfuls of mist, plunging deeper and deeper into it, moving ever more freely. And then I completely lost myself in it.
I woke up the next morning in the field. It was late. It was already hot, and my shirt was damp and badly wrinkled. I went back home and got into my cot. My forehead and cheeks were burning, while my arms and legs were the opposite: cold, and trembling just the slightest bit. I didn’t wake up until evening. I meant to do some work, but as soon as I opened my book, I flipped it closed again.
I finished a chapter. I write and can’t stop writing. It’s astounding.
I’m writing. From this moment on, everything’s going to be made new. I’ve only just begun.
The text. Evening meetings. A wondrous feeling of fullness. Keep going.
The sun’s still high now; the day is sweltering, wordless, and menacing; but in a couple of hours the shadows will being to grow dark and long, and everything around me will soften. It’ll be like it’s losing something in terms of pride, but gaining something in terms of acceptance. I will get up from my desk and head out to the porch with a cup of tea to wait. How will I know the moment has come? It’s not the clock time; it’s not the first coolness of evening; it’s not the singing of grasshoppers. My body knows on its own; it gives the command itself, it leads me itself. I will get up and walk.
* * *
It’s been ten days since I talked to Yura. That last time he sounded unusually elated. He said his work was going gangbusters and that he’s going through exceptional, fundamental—that’s what he said, “fundamental”—changes. He wouldn’t go into detail, he just said “we’ll talk when you come out here.” I forgot that intonation years ago, but you know, when we first met, that’s exactly how he was: he’d go on for hours about how if you can just stay interested in the world around you and how it’s fashioned, your life will never be boring. Oh, and let’s not forget his endless Kant this, Hegel that, the way other men tell stories about their army sergeants or school buddies.
The house doesn’t have electricity, so I had to give up on the idea of calling his cell. But he calls me twice a week from the post office. Of course, the telephone at the post office could break, too; I think they’ve only got the one line. When you’re out in the sticks like that, anything can happen. Nothing would surprise me, in any case. And on top of that, you can count the number of dacha people on one hand. It takes too long to get out there, and in all that whole time, nobody ever built even just a service road.
Now me, I get that. But Yura doesn’t. He doesn’t understand that only a person with happy childhood memories could look at the back end of beyond, a place ravaged by ravines, and see something romantic.
To be honest, I’m not sad that we’re spending the summer apart. We spend so much time sitting around the apartment in fall and winter that it doesn’t do us any harm to live separately for a little while. But two or three times over the summer I still go ahead and haul myself all the way out there. Do something nice for him.
Today is Thursday. If he doesn’t call tomorrow, I’ll have to go out there Saturday. I wish he’d call.
He didn’t call.
I hung around at home, by the phone, all evening. I didn’t go see a show, I didn’t go anywhere at all. I’m looking for the commuter train schedule and getting pissed. Is that really any way to behave? Could he really find absolutely no way to let me know how he was doing? He could’ve walked over to the neighbors, for example. Yes, it is one whole kilometer away! So?
I don’t like the village. I just don’t like it. And I don’t like crowded commuter trains, or stinking buses. But him, he does like them. Right after we first got married, I felt like we were one body, that we would always move in unison. But at some point, I discovered that we were two separate people. How did that happen? And when?
But most importantly: what am I supposed to do about it?
I made it to the village. It rained yesterday, so there are huge puddles everywhere, and mud and muck, and my flats are ruined, and my head is spinning after that stinking bus, and my back aches, but somehow I managed it.
The house is unlocked and empty. There’s an abandoned book on the porch, one of his fat German monographs. On Kant. It’s swollen with damp. He didn’t respond to my shouts. The bed is disheveled, but somehow it seems like nobody’s slept in it for a long time. The desk is covered with scattered notebooks and sheaves of paper. His handwriting looks like hieroglyphs. He’s never cared that he has to write by hand out here because there’s no electricity. The dishes have been washed. The bread’s still unwrapped.
At the post office, they said the telephone was working. But Yura didn’t turn up. Need to find his journal. He’s the kind of person who habitually notes down every step, every breath. That’s Yura for you: a closed book. A human container. There it is. His last entry… couldn’t have worse handwriting if he were a doctor… it corresponds to the day he called. Did he go out to the village on a drinking binge? Not like him.
The grass has grown fairly high, although he loves cutting it. I walk around the yard and look into the shed.
I’ll go for a walk. Maybe he’s out there having a stroll, wandering around? I pull the rubber boots on my bare feet and wander out into the fields.
It’s getting dark. I’m getting uneasy. Time to head back to the village and go to the police. Or better: to the district headquarters. But I’m not up to it right now. Tomorrow. Right now I need to catch my breath, calm down, and figure things out.
He’s done this kind of thing before: run out to get some bread and not come back until evening, explaining that he’d had a thought and gone for a walk. At the ocean he stayed on the beach one time after our evening dip, said he was going to spend the night there. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t talk him out of it. But apart from that, everything seems to be okay. He talks, we go places together, he does the cooking sometimes. When he feels like it, he cooks pretty well; but it’s always something of his own creation, not out of a book. It’s like he just makes it up out of thin air. Choppity-chop and there’s a pie, slicey-dicey and poof—pasta sauce.
The fields have ended. I’m in the gullies. My feet are soaked, they’re squelching inside the rubber boots. I’m done. Time to head back. When he turns up I’ll tell him everything. Everything. I’m done. Done. And anyway, we need to kind of start life over again. Come to some kind of arrangement about something. Kind of get ourselves moving, if that makes sense… Both of us. Maybe even raze this peasant hovel already and put in a regular little log cabin, as long as we’re at it. It is true that then we’d need both a shower and a well, though, and electricity, too. We have to either sell off the whole shebang or do something else with it.
Something gleams white, way over there on the grassy slope. Yes, there’s something white over there. Okay then. I’ve gone to great lengths over this already, what’s a few more.
I walk up to it and see a t-shirt with the faded letters Jūrmala, 1999. Should’ve been cut into rags a long time ago. (We bought it in Jūrmala when we went there on our first vacation together. For some reason he used to call me “Irun” back then. I found it horribly off-putting, but he loved it. “Irun, come here.” Actually, I liked it too, but only coming from him. I couldn’t stand it from anybody else. Then he quit saying it.) The fabric’s damp. When I pick it up, a bumblebee flies out of a fold and, bewildered, buzzes straight into my forehead. I’m so taken aback that I drop the t-shirt. It lies in the grass, looking lifeless.
My breathing, raspy and ragged, runs alongside me. The grass enfolds my legs, lashing at them, caressing them. A thick layer of mist settles evenly over the fields, up to my knees. It’s like I’m running a race on a track of milk. I keep wanting to wipe it off, as though it were clinging, thawing snow.
For some reason I turn around. The mist stretches out its arms to me.
Just get to the village. Get to the village, and then figure it out.
Little lights meander here and there in the cotton stuffing spilling out of the ravines. On the other side of the fields, the village settles into the brief summer night with a gentle sigh.
JULIA LUKSHINA (b. 1974) is a Russian fiction writer, screenwriter, and playwright. A new voice in Russian fiction, Lukshina’s work has appeared in Russian in Znamya, Sovremennaya dramaturgiya, Novyi bereg, Novyi mir, and elsewhere. In 2016, her one-act play “Nervous” was a finalist at the 2016 Lyubimovka Young Playwrights Festival in Moscow. In 2018, the Russian TV series “The Optimists,” for which Lukshina is a writer, won the prize for Best TV Series from the National Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of Russia. Lukshina teaches dramaturgy and creative writing and lives in Moscow.
ANNE O. FISHER’s recent publications include “Monitor-1” by Shura Burtin (winner of the inaugural True Story Award for long-form journalism); “Nervous,” a one-act play by Julia Lukshina (Asymptote); and poetry and prose by Ilya Danishevsky and Dmitry Kuzmin in the folio Fisher co-edited, Life Stories, Death Sentences: Contemporary Russian-Language LGBTQ+ Writing (In Translation). Fisher is a past recipient of NEA and NEH translation grants and her translations have been recognized by the Northern California Book Awards, AATSEEL, and Academia Rossica. With poet and husband Derek Mong, Fisher co-translated The Joyous Science: Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin, winner of the 2018 Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation. Fisher teaches remotely for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Translation and Interpreting Studies program and is the Vice-President of ALTA (American Literary Translators Association). She lives in Indiana with her family.
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Translation of Andrey Filimonov in B O D Y