♦ 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.