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Sunstroke (part 1)

The first part to a short story by this Russian author.  You can read the original here.

After lunch they left the hot and brightly lit cafeteria on the deck then lingered by the railing.  She closed her eyes and pressed a hand to her cheek, her palm facing out, laughed that simple, lovely laugh of hers – everything about this young lady was lovely – and said:

"I seem to be drunk ... Where did you come from?  Three hours ago I didn't even suspect you existed.  I don't even know where you got aboard.  In Samara?  But it doesn't matter ... Is my head spinning or are we turning around somewhere?"

Before them lay darkness and harbor lights.  From the darkness a strong, soft wind caressed their faces, the lights slipped somewhat to the side, and the steamer traced with Volga foppishness a wide arc as it approached the small wharf.  

The lieutenant took her hand and raised it to his lips.  The hand, small and forceful, smelled like suntanned skin, and so blissfully and horribly did his heart sink at the thought of how strong and swarthy she was beneath her lightweight dress after an entire month lying under the southern sun on the hot sea sand (she said she was coming from Anapa).  The lieutenant mumbled:

"Let's go ..."

"Where?" she asked, surprised.

"Onto the pier."


He fell silent.  She again placed the back of her hand to her hot cheek. 

"It's madness..."

"Let's go," he repeated bluntly.  "I beg you."

"Oh do whatever you like," she said, turning around.

The steamer continued its steady approach until it hit the dimly lit pier with a light thud and they almost fell on top of one another.  Above their heads flew the end of the cable, then they were thrown backwards as the gangplanks thundered and the water began to roil.  The lieutenant scurried about for their things.

A minute later they had walked past the sleepy office, emerged onto sand as deep as the hub of a wheel, and then sat down silently behind a driver in a dusty open carriage.  Upon that road soft with dust and sporadically lit by crooked street lamps, the gentle climb uphill seemed endless.  Once they had reached the top they began their rumble across the bridge – here was some square or other, there some local government buildings, a watch tower, the warmth and scents of a regional town in summer ... The coachman stopped at an illuminated entryway behind whose closed doors rose an old, wooden spiral staircase.  An old, unshaven footman in a pink garibaldi and frock coat took their things and lurched forward on his haggard legs.  They entered a large if horribly stuffy room which the day's sunlight had left quite hot.  Puffy white curtains guarded the windows and atop a pier table stood two unlit candles, and as soon as they had gone in and the footman had shut the door, the lieutenant impetuously threw himself upon her.  And the couple began kissing each other in such a gasping frenzy that they would remember this minute for many years: in both their lives neither one of them had ever experienced anything like this.

At ten o'clock on a sunny, hot, happy morning filled with church bells, with the bazaar on the square in front of the hotel, with the smell of hay and tar and anew with everything that was complicated and redolent in a Russian regional town, she, this slight, nameless woman, this woman who had not revealed her name but jokingly referred to herself as the beautiful stranger, departed.  She had slept little; but that morning, coming out from behind the partition near the bed, she washed and dressed in five minutes and was as fresh as she had been at seventeen years of age.  Was she embarrassed?  No, only very slightly.  She was back to how she had been before: simple, merry and reasonable.  

"No, no, darling," she said in answer to his desire to keep traveling together.  "No, you'll have to stay until the next steamer comes.  If we go together everything will be ruined.  That would be so unpleasant for me.   I give you my word that I am not at all what you might think I am.  Nothing like this has ever happened to me in my entire life – and it won't happen again.  It's as if I fell under an eclipse ... Or, better, as if we both got something like sunstroke."   

Somehow the lieutenant found himself easily agreeing with her.  In the light and happy air he took her to the pier just as the rose-colored "Plane" was casting off.  He kissed her on the deck in front of everyone, and hardly had he managed to jump off the gangplank when the boat began moving away.   

And just as easily and insouciantly did he return to the hotel.  Something, however, had already changed.  The room without her seemed utterly different than when she had been there.  It was still full of her – and yet empty all the same.  It was so strange!  Her fine English perfume still haunted the room, and on the tray sat her unfinished cup, but she was no longer there.  And the lieutenant's heart was suddenly seized by such tenderness that he scampered off to smoke and paced around the room several times. 

"A strange adventure!"  he said out loud, laughing and feeling that tears were welling up in his eyes.  "'I give you my word that I am not at all what you might think I am,' and now she's gone."

The partition was moved aside; the bed was still unmade; and now he felt that he simply didn't have the strength to look at that bed.   He blocked it off with the partition and shut the windows so as not to hear the bazaar chatter and screech of wheels, and having drawn the puffy white curtains over the windows, he sat down on the couch.  So this was the end to a "road adventure!"  She's gone and now already very far away.  Most likely, she's sitting in the white glass lounge or on the deck admiring the enormous, brilliant river beneath the sun, the approaching rafts, the yellow shoals, the shimmering blue distance of the water and sky, the entire expanse of the Volga.  And so it will be forever and ever ...  For now where could they see other again.  "I can't," he thought, "I just can't go to that town no matter what the reason, that town where her husband and three-year-old daughter live, where all her family lives and where she has her daily life!"  And this town seemed special, off-limits, secluded; and the mere thought that she would go back and live out her lonely life in this town often, perhaps, remembering him, remembering their casual and so fleeting encounter and he would never see her again, this thought amazed and stunned him.  No, no, this simply could not be!  It would be too wild, too unnatural, too improbable!  And he felt such pain and such uselessness in living out the rest of his days without her that he was seized by horror and despair.        

"What the hell!" he thought, getting up and again pacing about the room trying not to look at the bed behind the partition.  "What is it with me?  What is it about her in particular?  And what really happened?  It really was some kind of sunstroke!  More importantly, how I am going to spend the whole day without her in this out-of-the-way place?" 

He still remembered all of her and all her most minute traits and particularities; he remembered the smell of her suntanned skin and her light dress, her strong body, the lively, plain and merry sound of her voice.  In him the feeling of just having experienced all her female loveliness was still extraordinarily alive; but now it was superseded by a second, completely new feeling, a strange, unclear feeling which didn't exist when they were together, a feeling which he couldn't assume even existed within him.  Starting yesterday it was all, he believed, an amusing acquaintance, and yet now he couldn't tell her a thing!  "Even more important," he thought, "is the fact that I'll never be able to tell her!  What do I do?  How can I survive this endless day with these memories, with this unshakable torture, in this godforsaken little town on the banks of the shimmering Volga on which that rose-colored steamer carried her away!"

He had to save himself, occupy himself with something, distract himself, go somewhere.  He decided to put on a peaked cap, grabbed a riding crop and walked through the empty hallway clicking his spurs and running down the narrow staircase to the landing.  Fine, but where should he go now?  At the entryway  a young coachman in a fitted coat was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.  The lieutenant looked at him in confused astonishment: how can he sit there so calmly in his coach smoking and how can he be so indifferent, so simple and so uncaring?  "I'm probably the only horribly unhappy person in this whole town," he thought as he made his way to the bazaar.

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