Coyotes Howl in Fallbrook
Natalya and Yasha
By Thomas Milo SomersIn the twilight before sunrise, Natalya Ivanovna — our Grandma Natalya — propped her body into a sitting position on her bed, which occupied a corner of the kitchen and doubled as a couch when made up nicely, as it always was during the day, with the pillows lined up against the wall. Centered above the bed, a brown polished wood picture frame held a black and white photograph of a young woman with dark hair and eyes, a jacket and a white blouse, a musician perhaps, looking thoughtful and staring into the distance.
Across the kitchen in the opposite corner, four wooden chairs were placed around a small rectangular kitchen table, also of wood and, like the chairs, painted white. The gray plastic tablecloth with a border of little roses printed around its edges was simple and worn, but clean, I noticed, like everything else I had observed in the two small rooms of the old house. On the wall above the table, in a scratched gilded frame, hung a painting, its canvas slightly torn, showing a meadow with flowers in bloom, a grove of birches and a brook. Apart from these two pictures that dominated the room, the kitchen walls were adorned only by faded yellow patterned wallpaper.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Grandma Natalya moved her arms back and forth, shrugging her shoulders, taking stock of yet another day's aches, wondering which part of her body would complain the most, yet hoping the day would be a good one. Reaching down with her sturdy legs, she shifted her weight from the bed to the plain board floor. Her movements were ponderous and painful thanks to a permanent bend in her back, but once her feet were firmly planted she twisted her face upward and from her stooped position surveyed the room, smiling as her eyes found me about to take my seat at the table, ready to make what sense I could of a local newspaper I had just discovered on the doorstep.
“You, sir, are up already? I must have talked your ears off last night, an old woman's stories and you poor thing so tired from your journey from Moscow, the train and then those awful roads! We used to have good roads, before the country fell apart. Forgive my blather. So many memories, but I must have bored you terribly. My God, you haven't had tea or breakfast!”
Grandma Natalya took two steps over to the old iron stove and lightly with her fingertips tapped the smooth black stovetop. Finding the surface wanting for heat, the fire having burnt down overnight, she reached down and curled her thick fingers around the wire handle of an old dented bucket at the foot of the stove.
“I'll get some coal.” With her other hand she grasped her thick cane and took a first wobbly step toward the door to her garden.
“I'll come, too.” I rose from the table and followed.
Now I noticed, even more than the night before, how stooped and crooked was the body of Grandma Natalya and how, bent over at the waist, she walked with her back always parallel to the ground, in the shape of the letter L, her face pointing down toward her feet. Arthritis, she had told me.
We made our way outside in single-file, stepping deliberately through her small orchard consisting of three trees — apple, plum and apricot — their October branches now mostly bare and stark against the heavy white frost that covered the ground. The night's freeze rendered the cement walk treacherous even for me, but Grandma Natalya plodded forward, full of confidence born of habit.
Beyond the fruit trees, the cement ended and our path led through a patch of stubble that might have been a vegetable garden last summer, or some other summer.
Then Grandma Natalya pointed to a rickety structure along her back fence and explained, “The coal pile’s in there.”
When together we had levered open the creaky, stubborn door, we found the coal had frozen into a solid mass, the ancient roof no longer a guarantee against damp.
I picked up the shovel lying at my feet and was starting in on the coal when Grandma Natalya waved me aside. In her eight decades she had tackled plenty of chores tougher than this one. Anyway, the old lady was not about to let a guest from Moscow start breaking coal in her house, not even if he was family and certainly not on his first day. Firmly she pulled the shovel out of my hands and then heaved her bulky frame atop the heap of coal, unhindered either by arthritis or ill-fitting rubber boots. Soon she had broken up enough to fill the bucket, which I carried as we made our way back through the garden to the house.
The modest kitchen now felt almost cozy compared to the icy coal shed. I watched as Grandma Natalya reached down and tossed hunks of coal through the fuel door she had opened in front of the stove, and with her poker she stirred the recalcitrant embers back to life before firmly shutting the door and making certain of its latch.
These chores completed, Grandma Natalya took a large white enameled teakettle from its shelf. The teakettle, with its bold red handle, lid and spout, stood out in the drab surroundings, bigger than life, like an object plucked from a children's Saturday-morning cartoon. Holding the teakettle under the faucet because its girth exceeded the little sink, Grandma Natalya filled it to the brim with fresh water and placed it squarely in the center of the stovetop directly over the fire that was already coming back to life.
As the kitchen started to warm I thought back to the previous night when we had just arrived. Some question had caused Grandma Natalya's memory to jump back over time to her father, her youth and her family's farm. Perhaps I had inquired what kind of work she had done before she retired, or perhaps it was something else entirely. In any event, instead of answering me, Grandma Natalya had begun to speak about what had happened one spring day now seventy years in the past, and as she spoke her voice became younger and all the events of that distant day came flooding back as though they had only just happened, except now, of course, she could see clearly their meaning in a way her younger self would never have thought even to wonder about.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦Natalya's father, Ivan Gavrilovich Nechitailo, had through lifelong hard work built a farm in the village of Liptsy near Harkov, where he cultivated fresh fruits and vegetables and delivered them by wagon for sale to folks in the city. The business flourished before and even after the Great October Revolution, until Ivan’s death in 1925. Ivan's respect for the education he himself had never completed was such that he even bought an apartment in town so his children could have a place to stay while attending school there, which they all did, from the oldest all the way down to the eleventh and youngest, who was Natalya.
That spring day, when Natalya Ivanovna was twenty, she heard the dog announce the arrival of strangers at the farmhouse. Yellow sunshine peaked between the kitchen curtains, fluttering in a faint breeze as Natalya opened the door to behold two uniformed men. The older of the two, a stranger with a military demeanor, wore the kind of cap that marked him as a Party official. A Commissar, thought Natalya.
The younger man standing next to him and a little further back, shifted from one foot to the other, ill at ease, as though wearing his official clothes for the first time. Natalya recognized him as Vasya from a neighboring farm. They had been sweethearts in Harkov in first grade.
Natalya thought to herself, Where did that time go? Last I saw Vasya he was just a kid. But then he really doesn't look like much more than a boy now.
With all this in mind Natalya, polite but wary, opened the door wider and spoke aloud, “How can I help you?”
“Is this the farm of Ivan Gavrilovich Nechitailo? We need to see him.”
It was the Commissar who spoke. With his first words he nudged his cap back off his forehead with two fingers of his right hand, in a kind of clumsy salute that made him, Natalya thought, a little less threatening.
“Why Vasya,” she said addressing the younger man, “You should have told them it is too late to speak to my father. You know that he died last year.”
Vasya looked down in silence. He's ashamed, Natalya thought.
“Then who is in charge here?” It was the older man again.
“Since my father passed away, everything has been up to me and my sister, Vera, only she's not here right now.” Natalya looked directly at the stranger, and asked, “Who are you and what do you want?”
“We are sent by the Party Committee, and we have a job to do.” As he spoke, the Commissar looked left, toward the barn and then right in the direction of the pigsty and chicken coop. “Where are your workers? We were told you have hired help.”
“Workers?” said Natalya, looking surprised. “There are no workers here now, only for a few weeks at harvest time. Otherwise, we do everything ourselves, my father and brothers and sisters, until he passed and they all moved away and started their own families. Now Vera and I manage as best we can. Maybe we'll need workers later in the summer. Maybe not. We'll see. We also have a job to do!”
The older man looked suddenly tired. “I understand. Nevertheless, it is our duty to inform you that the local party organization has announced that hiring labor is illegal and that those who do it are committing the crime of exploitation. They are enemies of the Party and the people.”
For weeks throughout the countryside there had been talk and dread anticipation of confiscations and farm closures.
So the rumors are true! Natalya felt relief that her father was not around to see this day, the theft of his life's work. And then, No point in arguing. The man's just doing his job.
It was not in Natalya’s nature to beg. She stepped outside, motioning to the visitors to follow. She showed them to the barn and stable, hoping that whatever they did would not take long.
When in the end the men could not subdue one of the workhorses that had taken fright, rearing up at them, Natalya moved in to avert a scene.
“Poor Yasha! You want to stay home with us but you cannot.” Deftly she grasped his halter and all the while soothing him with baby talk Natalya led Yasha to the wagon, where she kissed him, patted his forehead and tied him up to be led away by his new masters.
The Commissar had watched the whole scene, how Natalya Ivanovna handled a horse that two men had been unable to subdue. When all was ready, he thanked her and said to her, not unkindly, “The Party needs teachers. You should enroll in the new teaching academy in town. Mention my name.”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦The fat red-and-white teakettle on the stove boiled and suddenly came to life with a low whistle, bringing me back with a start from last night's story to the present. Grandma Natalya using a towel pushed the heavy teakettle to the right side of the stove where it would just stay warm and prepared our cups and saucers, I was sure, for a new conversation.
“So you see what it means to ask me a simple question,” Grandma Natalya chuckled, lively eyes aimed up at me. “You asked me last night what my job was before I went on pension. I had been for many years the principal of the local high school. I raised a lot of local kids. I could have just told you that last night and politely answered your question, instead of going on about how we lost the family farm in the razkulatchka and fate decided for me that what I really wanted to do in life was to become a teacher.”
“I came from Moscow precisely to hear your stories, Natalya Ivanovna,” I assured her, adding, “After breakfast I'll be ready for another.”
At Grandma Natalya's invitation I sweetened my hot tea from a dish of apricot jam on the table, and we sipped together in silence under the distant gaze of the black-haired woman in the photograph, while in the next room the other members of the household continued to slumber in the half-light of dawn.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦In 2001, Tom Somers moved his family to Fallbrook, where they enjoy the friendly, rural character of the community. Originally from Torrance, Tom spent 25 years working in the field of international trade and business development in Eastern Europe and Russia, while living for various periods in New York, Vienna and Moscow, before bringing his family back with him to California in 1998. This story is Tom's first attempt at fiction.
A note on the illustration: Natasha is a portrait from memory of Natalya Ivanovna Chvala (nee Nechitailo), Grandma Natalya, by her son Leonid Chvala who just sketched it, in Fallbrook, December 26, 2010.