Having arrived to the city a few hours earlier, father walked around the bus terminal in hopes of running into Inna and her mother, en their route back home.
“Bad news from Baykalsk,” Inna overheard from where her mother had run off, to hug her handsome, uniformed husband. The hush among the other awaiting passengers meant that mother’s emotional outburst earned her the desired audience, yet again. Her legs below the pink-lavender skirt appeared shapely; and her heels, that lifted out of the boats of the red stilettos, as reached to kiss her man, were round and soft.
Father’s mother — an Amazonian looking woman, with arms of sinew and leathery skin earned by working in the fields of the town’s collective farm — had suffered a heart attack that morning. Inna’s grandfather, who could never beat his wife in rising early to tend to their livestock, found her still in bed, after he had returned from the outhouse.
“Will you look at her?!” he joked, at half voice, nudging the sheeted mound under which his wife had always slept, with her head fully covered. “I think I’m feeding this one for nothing!”
As Inna remembered, there was always a bawdy familiarity between her grandparents, something that she had never witnessed in her own parents’ interactions. When the tall woman worked in the kitchen, sweating over steaming pots or pummeling dumpling dough with admirable punches, Inna, who liked to hide out on top of the brick stove, had often watched her grandfather come up from behind his wife and land a loud smack onto his wife’s hips. He would then leave his hand resting there, while he nuzzled her neck and demanded to be given a taste of things. The woman would laugh and attempt to shake her husband’s hand off her ass, his chin — off her shoulder; but even Inna could see she wasn’t trying too hard.
The display of such affection tickled the girl. But Inna’s mother had a different reaction:
“Such peasants!” she had once muttered as the family gathered for dinner, in the garden behind the grandparents’ house.
That early evening, grandmother, having climbed onto a short ladder, was reaching for the top branches of overgrown raspberry bushes, from which she was retracting giant, fuzzy berries, still warm from that day’s sun. Her kerchief had slid off, and the cotton housedress, of matching material, rode up the woman’s legs to reveal the white elastic bands that held up her brown knee-highs. For the first time, Inna took notice of her grandmother’s stark white skin and her protruding veins. It was drastically different from the supple and brown skin of her mother, who had, minutes ago, came down from tanning on the house rooftop, for most of that afternoon.
When the men entered the gate, from their day of flipping hay in the field, all the women perked up. Mother began to giggle and trace her hand over the top of her breasts, as if to wipe away the sweat from the hours of leisure in the sun, but then leaving it there to linger. Inna’s aunt — a tall and slim woman with brutally protruding facial bones — checked her reflection in the brass samovar, that mounted the wooden table like a tzar before his court. A field of mismatching serving dishes — covered with lids or saucers that warded off the flies — began to accumulate around the samovar.
The men, tired but boisterous from the gulps of home-brewed, iced beer, attacked the table on which Inna’s aunt kept rearranging the assortment of zakuski.
“Get! Get!” the aunt began shooing them away, slapping their tan, hairy arms with a kitchen towel. The men, grumbled and laughed; but managed to lift up the saucers and stick their dirty fingers into their contents, smacking their lips in approval.
Mother joined in: “We aren’t finished yet!” she said, shooting her sister-in-law a conspiring look. In loud laughter, she revealed her shiny front crowns, that glistened like plastic pearls, against her increasingly tan face. “Go wash up!”
Having grabbed a handful of scallions and ducked them into a nearby cup of salt, Inna’s grandfather was the first to scurry off.
“Papa!” Inna’s mother scolded him, flirtatiously.
The old man paid her no attention. Instead, he approached his wife, who remained unperturbed by the presence of men and the commotion they have caused among the younger women. With each reach, her housedress continued riding above and below the white elastic bands at her knees; and she continued sizing up each berry with a concentration of a scientist. Grandpa watched at first, the stems of scallions still sticking out of his mouth, moving in unison, as he chewed them. When the plan of action appeared to have finally formulated in his head, he discarded the last of the stems with a theatrical gesture, ran up on his wife, and stuck his head underneath her dress.
“Oy, Vanya! Vanyetcka!” — grandmother couldn’t help but laugh — “Vanyush, oy!” She slapped her husband’s balding head hidden under her dress but managed to mostly miss her target. The old man lifted her off the ladder; and despite the flurry of her disoriented slaps and girly punches, delivered her to the dinner table.
The young couples looked on. Inna’s father, sitting on the bench, stole occasional glances while he gnawed on rectangular slices of salt-curried fatback. The boyfriend of Inna’s aunt now busied himself with loosening, rolling and lighting up some tobacco. Meanwhile, Inna, surprised by her grandfather’s strength, grinned while making a go of stealing handfuls of warm raspberries that spilled from her grandmother’s basket, onto the table top.
Mother — alas! — interrupted the silence: “In-na?” she said in her suddenly uptight, authoritarian voice, the sound of which made Inna’s stomach tighten. “What do we do with our hands before dinner?”
Every adult at the table seemed to look over. Inna looked for her father; but finding him preoccupied with fishing out semi-pickled cucumbers from a barrel in the shadow patch in the garden’s corner, she had no choice but to admit defeat. She earned a light yank by the scruff of the tattered sailor’s undershirt that used to belong to her grandfather, which she had made a habit of wearing; and was sent to wash up, upstairs.
“How many times must I repeat myself?” mother hissed.
Only when both mother and daughter reached the dirt room of the house that Inna was made privy to the cause of her mother’s sudden irritation: “Such peasants, these people!” she muttered. Her face appeared to harden, all the sun-induced laziness of her movements gone instantaneously.
“Ah, dear god!” mother was now saying with an admirable annunciation for someone crying her eyes out. With her face pressed against her husband’s decorated lapel, mother reminded Inna, yet again, that she was quite a small woman. “At least, she died in her sleep,” mother said with a quivering voice, reaching for her husband’s ear on her tippy toes. “At least, she didn’t suffer.” She paused, to then crescendo to a sob, followed by: “My god, I loved her so much!”
Inna’s father appeared to be at a loss. He stared at the tips of his shoes and shifted from one foot to another. He soon looked up to find Inna who fumbled with the now filthy bit of dough between her fingers. Her eyes, welled-up with giant tears, were on him all this time.
Father winked: “What’s happening, my brown-eyed girl?” he said.
On that, mother wiped her own face with the giant polkadot bow at her left shoulder and shot Inna a look. It was enough for Inna’s eyes to release their tears. She began to blink rapidly, focusing only on the sensation in her finger tips. Through the blur, she saw her father motion her over; to which Inna gratefully surrendered, fitting herself another his free arm and letting her tears soak the side of his jacket, near the pocket with a bundle of keys.
“Everything will be alright, my little larks,” she heard her father say. “I promise: Everything will be alright.”