♦ By Vladimir Nabokov [The New Yorker // FICTION, JUNE 9 & 16, 2008 ISSUE]
On the stairs Natasha ran into her neighbor from across the hall, Baron Wolfe. He was somewhat laboriously ascending the bare wooden steps, caressing the bannister with his hand and whistling softly through his teeth.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry, Natasha?”
“To the drugstore to get a prescription filled. The doctor was just here. Father is better.”
“Ah, that’s good news.”
She flitted past in her rustling raincoat, hatless.
Leaning over the bannister, Wolfe glanced back at her. For an instant he caught sight from overhead of the sleek, girlish part in her hair. Still whistling, he climbed to the top floor, threw his rain-soaked briefcase on the bed, then thoroughly and satisfyingly washed and dried his hands.
Then he knocked on old Khrenov’s door.
Khrenov lived in the room across the hall with his daughter, who slept on a couch, a couch with amazing springs that rolled and swelled like metal tussocks through the flabby plush. There was also a table, unpainted and covered with ink-spotted newspapers. Sick Khrenov, a shrivelled old man in a nightshirt that reached to his heels, creakily darted back into bed and pulled up the sheet just as Wolfe’s large shaved head poked through the door.
“Come in, glad to see you, come on in.”
The old man was breathing with difficulty, and the door of his night table remained half open.
“I hear you’ve almost totally recovered, Alexey Ivanych,” Baron Wolfe said, seating himself by the bed and slapping his knees.
Khrenov offered his yellow, sticky hand and shook his head.
“I don’t know what you’ve been hearing, but I do know perfectly well that I’ll die tomorrow.”
He made a popping sound with his lips.
“Nonsense,” Wolfe merrily interrupted, and extracted from his hip pocket an enormous silver cigar case. “Mind if I smoke?”
He fiddled for a long time with his lighter, clicking its cogged screw. Khrenov half-closed his eyes. His eyelids were bluish, like a frog’s webbing. Graying bristles covered his protruding chin. Without opening his eyes, he said, “That’s how it’ll be. They killed my two sons and heaved me and Natasha out of our natal nest. Now we’re supposed to go and die in a strange city. How stupid, all things considered. . . .”
Wolfe started speaking loudly and distinctly. He spoke of how Khrenov still had a long time to live, thank goodness, and how everyone would be returning to Russia in the spring, together with the storks. And then he proceeded to recount an incident from his past.
“It was back when I was wandering around the Congo,” he was saying, and his large, somewhat corpulent figure swayed slightly. “Ah, the distant Congo, my dear Alexey Ivanych, such distant wilds—you know . . . Imagine a village in the woods, women with pendulous breasts, and the shimmer of water, black as karakul, amid the huts. There, under a gigantic tree—a kiroku—lay orange fruit like rubber balls, and at night there came from inside the trunk what seemed like the sound of the sea. I had a long chat with the local kinglet. Our translator was a Belgian engineer, another curious man. He swore, by the way, that, in 1895, he had seen an ichthyosaur in the swamps not far from Tanganyika. The kinglet was smeared with cobalt, adorned with rings, and blubbery, with a belly like jelly. Here’s what happened—”
Wolfe, relishing his story, smiled and stroked his pale-blue head.
“Natasha is back,” Khrenov quietly and firmly interjected, without raising his eyelids.
Instantly turning pink, Wolfe looked around. A moment later, somewhere far off, the lock of the front door clinked, then steps rustled along the hall. Natasha entered quickly, with radiant eyes.
“How are you, Daddy?”
Wolfe got up and said, with feigned nonchalance, “Your father is perfectly well, and I have no idea why he’s in bed… I’m going to tell him about a certain African sorcerer.”
Natasha smiled at her father and began unwrapping the medicine.
“It’s raining,” she said softly. “The weather is terrible.”
As usually happens when the weather is mentioned, the others looked out the window. That made a bluish-gray vein on Khrenov’s neck contract. Then he threw his head back on the pillow again. With a pout, Natasha counted the drops, and her eyelashes kept time. Her sleek dark hair was beaded with rain, and under her eyes there were adorable blue shadows.
Back in his room, Wolfe paced for a long time, with a flustered and happy smile, dropping heavily now into an armchair, now onto the edge of the bed. Then, for some reason, he opened a window and peered into the dark, gurgling courtyard below. At last he shrugged one shoulder spasmodically, put on his green hat, and went out.
Old Khrenov, who was sitting slumped on the couch while Natasha straightened his bed for the night, observed indifferently, in a low voice, “Wolfe has gone out to dinner.”
Then he sighed and pulled the blanket more tightly around him.
“Ready,” Natasha said. “Climb back in, Daddy.”
All around there was the wet evening city, the black torrents of the streets, the mobile, shiny cupolas of umbrellas, the blaze of shopwindows trickling down onto the asphalt. Along with the rain the night began to flow, filling the depths of the courtyards, flickering in the eyes of the thin-legged prostitutes, who slowly strolled to and fro at the crowded intersections. And, somewhere above, the circular lights of an advertisement flashed intermittently like a spinning illuminated wheel.
Toward nightfall, Khrenov’s temperature had risen. The thermometer was warm, alive— the column of mercury climbed high on the little red ladder. For a long time he muttered unintelligibly, kept biting his lips and gently shaking his head. Then he fell asleep. Natasha undressed by a candle’s wan flame, and saw her reflection in the murky glass of the window— her pale, thin neck, the dark braid that had fallen across her clavicle. She stood like that, in motionless languor, and suddenly it seemed to her that the room, together with the couch, the table littered with cigarette stubs, the bed on which, with open mouth, a sharp-nosed, sweaty old man slept restlessly— all this started to move, and was now floating, like the deck of a ship, into the black night. She sighed, ran a hand across her warm bare shoulder, and, transported partly by dizziness, lowered herself onto the couch. Then, with a vague smile, she began rolling down and pulling off her old, oft-mended stockings. Once again the room started floating, and she felt as if someone were blowing hot air onto the back of her head. She opened her eyes wide— dark, elongated eyes, whose whites had a bluish sheen. An autumn fly began to circle the candle and, like a buzzing black pea, collided with the wall. Natasha slowly crawled under the blanket and stretched, sensing, like a bystander, the warmth of her own body, her long thighs, and her bare arms thrown back behind her head. She felt too lazy to douse the candle, to shoo away the silken formication that was making her involuntarily compress her knees and shut her eyes. Khrenov gave a deep groan and raised one arm in his sleep. The arm fell back as if it were dead. Natasha lifted herself slightly and blew toward the candle. Multicolored circles started to swim before her eyes.
I feel so wonderful, she thought, laughing into her pillow. She was now lying curled up, and seemed to herself to be incredibly small, and all the thoughts in her head were like warm sparks that were gently scattering and sliding. She was just falling asleep when her torpor was shattered by a deep, frenzied cry.
“Daddy, what’s the matter?”
She fumbled on the table and lit the candle.
Khrenov was sitting up in bed, breathing furiously, his fingers clutching the collar of his shirt. A few minutes earlier, he had awakened and was frozen with horror, having mistaken the luminous dial of the watch lying on a chair nearby for the muzzle of a rifle motionlessly aiming at him. He had awaited the gunshot, not daring to stir, then, losing control, started screaming. Now he looked at his daughter, blinking and smiling a tremulous smile.
“Daddy, calm down, it’s nothing…”
Her naked feet softly shuffling on the floor, she straightened his pillows and touched his brow, which was sticky and cold with sweat. With a deep sigh, and still shaken by spasms, he turned toward the wall and muttered, “All of them, all… and me, too. It’s a nightmare… No, you mustn’t.”
He fell asleep as if falling into an abyss.
Natasha lay down again. The couch had become even bumpier, the springs pressed now into her side, now into her shoulder blades, but at last she got comfortable and floated back into the interrupted, incredibly warm dream that she still sensed but no longer remembered. Then, at dawn, she awoke again. Her father was calling to her.
“Natasha, I don’t feel well. Give me some water.”
Slightly unsteady, her somnolence permeated by the light-blue dawn, she moved toward the washbasin, making the pitcher clink. Khrenov drank avidly and deeply. He said, “It will be awful if I never return.”
“Go to sleep, Daddy. Try to get some more sleep.”
Natasha threw on her flannel robe and sat down at the foot of her father’s bed. He repeated the words “This is awful” several times, then gave a frightened smile.
“Natasha, I keep imagining that I am walking through our village. Remember the place by the river, near the sawmill? And it’s hard to walk. You know—all the sawdust. Sawdust and sand. My feet sink in. It tickles. One time, when we travelled abroad…” He frowned, struggling to follow the course of his own stumbling thoughts.
Natasha recalled with extraordinary clarity how he had looked then, recalled his fair little beard, his gray suède gloves, his checkered travelling cap that resembled a rubber pouch for a sponge— and suddenly felt that she was about to cry.
“Yes. So that’s that,” Khrenov drawled indifferently, peering into the dawn mist.
“Sleep some more, Daddy. I remember everything.”
He awkwardly took a swallow of water, rubbed his face, and leaned back on the pillows. From the courtyard came a cock’s sweet throbbing cry.
At about eleven the next morning, Wolfe knocked on the Khrenovs’ door. Some dishes tinkled with fright in the room, and Natasha’s laughter spilled forth. An instant later, she slipped out into the hall, carefully closing the door behind her.
“I’m so glad—Father is a lot better today.”
She was wearing a white blouse and a beige skirt with buttons along the hips. Her elongated, shiny eyes were happy.
“Awfully restless night,” she continued rapidly, “and now he’s cooled down completely. His temperature is normal. He has even decided to get up. They’ve just bathed him.”
“It’s sunny out today,” Wolfe said mysteriously. “I didn’t go to work.”
They were standing in the half-lit hall, leaning against the wall, not knowing what else to talk about.
“You know what, Natasha?” Wolfe suddenly ventured, pushing his broad, soft back away from the wall and thrusting his hands deep into the pockets of his wrinkled gray trousers. “Let’s take a trip to the country today. We’ll be back by six. What do you say?”
Natasha stood with one shoulder pressed against the wall, also pushing away slightly.
“How can I leave Father alone? Still, though…”
Wolfe suddenly cheered up.
“Natasha, sweetheart, come on— please. Your dad is all right today, isn’t he? And the landlady is nearby in case he needs anything.”
“Yes, that’s true,” Natasha said slowly. “I’ll tell him.”
And, with a flip of her skirt, she turned back into the room.
Fully dressed but without his shirt collar, Khrenov was feebly groping for something on the table.
“Natasha, Natasha, you forgot to buy the papers yesterday…”
Natasha busied herself brewing some tea on the alcohol stove.
“Daddy, today I’d like to take a trip to the country. Wolfe invited me.”
“Of course, darling, you must go,” Khrenov said, and the bluish whites of his eyes filled with tears. “Believe me, I’m better today. If only it weren’t for this ridiculous weakness…”
When Natasha had left he again started slowly groping about the room, still searching for something . . . With a soft grunt he tried to move the couch. Then he looked under it—he lay prone on the floor, and stayed there, his head spinning nauseatingly. Slowly, laboriously, he got back on his feet, struggled over to his bed, lay down . . . And again he had the sensation that he was crossing some bridge, that he could hear the sound of a lumber mill, that yellow tree trunks were floating, that his feet were sinking deep into the moist sawdust, that a cool wind was blowing from the river, chilling him through and through…