Two-wheeler looking horn rims planted on the nose, lurching walk, cracked, almost placable, voice completed her image.
Only a blue faded tattoo on the left wrist betrayed her. She had evidently been in jail, but her crime and time were unknown. And no one dared to ask, tremendously interesting as it was.
How would you imagine it? “What did you do a stretch for, Nadia?” Sounds impolite, eh? We had many ex-cons then and there and it was against the rules to meddle in other people’s past.
Sometimes old Nadia got dead-drunk. Her speech turned indistinct, she was swanning around the town, lank and creepy, swinging in the wind and belching forth seething, cock-a-hoop rants.
Her eyes were dripping behind the glasses and she childishly rubbed them with a fist.
That was a sinister and mind blowing sight.
After these wanderings like a living dead until dawn she tottered into her house, as sinister as herself.
The house was surprisingly large, evidently meant initially for a big family. But apart from Nadia herself the only living soul to dwell there was her son Leonid. And sometimes her grandson Sashka stayed overnight.
Uncle Leo was lame. He had a shuffling way of walking and wrenched his foot in the process.
He never wore a shirt in summer showing his body, not yet old but fallen into neglect. He had chestnut curly hair, as straight out of Russian fairy tale heroes Ivan the Fool or a tsarevich.
He was said to have been fallen off something when a child, whereas old Nadia was drunk and did not notice him being maimed for several days. The word also has it that because of heavy drinking she was unable to breastfeed him, and her neighbor, prompted by mercy, shared what was left from her own newborn son of the same age with her.
The house, too large for its current inhabitants, was shabby. Complete privation reigned there; everything imaginable was guzzled away. It had only bare uneven walls covered with damp whitewash and moldering floor with rats playing gambols beneath.
This same floor accommodated the sleeping places made of rags. A rent in the wall was camouflaged with an old carpet. The carpet had photos attached to it: long gone husband, of whom nobody knew absolutely anything. Old Nadia herself did not seem to remember exactly his identity and origin. Daughter-in-law, Sashka’s mother, a pretty woman slightly goggle-eyed with fear. She had asymmetric face, unruly black hair and died from drinking jake.
Also Alexei, one more son. He was the polar opposite of Leo: swarthy, with aquiline nose and piercing, malicious glance.
Alexei was the only nondrinker in the family. And the only healthy member of it.
He was called up and sent to Afghanistan, once in a while sent a letter from Kandagar scratched with pale ink on a sheet from exercise book, and then gone missing. The relevant short typewritten status notification was sent.
Old Nadia grieved for a day, got loaded in the evening, and next morning only vaguely remembered she once had two sons.
Nadia and her son did not do neither evil, nor good to anyone.
And yet Uncle Leo was facile as a God’s fool and showed no greed. He was an apt angler, and once caught a tremendous pike, fried its caviar and treated us, local young folks, to it for nothing. That was delish!
We, usually merciless children, did not even tease him for lameness. Which was not the case with old Nadia, because we sometimes mocked at her. But never at Uncle Leo.
Sashka, Leonid’s son, grew a real street boy: he stole trifles, dressed in some tatters, was a flunker in school. However, he inherited his father’s nature: cheerfulness and easy-going childish joy of the poor, when there’s nothing to lose and you feel at peace with all the world.
Once in our group of kids we were talking of the food consumed on that day prepared by our moms and grannies: soup, pies, cereal. Mozilla, that is, Sashka, so dubbed after his surname, when it was his turn, simply answered, with his chin propped in his scrawny hand: “And I was eating water today”.
We felt sort of ill-at-ease. Whereas he, happy nobody’s in particular field weed, sagebrush of the steppe, smiled and looked as if nothing happened. We gave him sunflower seeds and that was his dinner.
How could they tread this earth, permanently under the weather, we knew not. Neither could we guess where they got cash for constant boozing.
Old Nadia kept growing thinner, stretched herself out and looked more and more like a picket.
Once Alexei came back from Afghanistan all of a sudden. He was a meagre bloke, with aquiline nose, as brown as a berry.
Some people are destroyed by the war; to him it seemed to add power. He became slim, flexible, fierce and… alien.
Needless to say, a person is different after war. But this was a particular case: he was not human. We, children, felt that. As did cats and dogs, who steered clear of him.
When you heard mad howl of enchained critters in our village street, you could be sure it was Alexei passing by.
The creature turned back was not him. It was an oriental desert demon, Iblis in flesh, a devil of Hindukush, Jinn, who assumed the guise of Alexei.
He remembered little of his past life. Did not recognize any of his former friends, who cowardly kept aloof from him after the first contact in spite of being hefty fellows and miners without prejudices.
Old Nadia was drunk and accepted Alexei’s return with calmness, at that time she did not seem to care who was around: the living, the dead or demons.
She showed him his MIA notification: he smiled crookedly, silently crushed the paper in his hand and threw it in the stove.
Nobody asked what befell him. Those who did try received a glance, which excluded further inquiries.
Alexei joined the dwellers of that wretched house.
He did not contact anyone. Spent the nights elsewhere.
We tried several times to follow him hiding in the bushes, and every time he seemed to vanish in the haze of the night street to reappear entering the house in the morning out of thin air.
Then, quite unexpectedly, he got married. Nobody knew his wife Genia before. She lived somewhere near Grodovka, where her parents recently died. The new family had settled in her small house and since that time, he seldom visited old Nadia.
A son was born. Two years passed and appalling news came: the house was burned down. Genia and their son perished in fire. Alexei survived because he lodged out.
An investigation soon stopped. Those times were the roaring late eighties – early nineties and there were more urgent matters things to think about. All was chalked up to an accident, though the police were suspicious about very strong smell of sulfur and ammonia on the site of fire, as if chemical depot was committed to the flames and not a house with a summer kitchen.
Alexei returned to old Nadia. He did not say a word, only disappeared each night as before with dog barking that followed him.
One fine day old Nadia received a letter, which was the death certificate of her son Alexei, who had spent many years as prisoner of the mujahedeen, was discovered by chance and freed, but died in hospital from a disease, which ruined him in captivity due to want of medical care.
His body was being transported home in a zinc coffin.
Old Nadia was blankly reading the certificate and the cover letter, the sense of which escaped her through ebriety, when Alexei came home. He snatched the letter from her, ran his eyes over it, got angry and threw it in the stove as before.
That same night he was gone, vanished as usual in the failing light of a street lamp, but did not come in the morning and nobody ever saw him anywhere.
The grave of his wife and son remained intact for many years and it all grew over with weeds. Then the cemetery was transferred, a road was built next to it, and their remains were re-buried in a mass grave.
Old Nadia took the new disappearance of her son in stride. And promptly grew accustomed to the idea that she again had only one son Leo.
With the onset of the nineties, the drugs arrived in our town.
People died by the dozens.
I stood in the street looking at a dope head coming to see old Nadia. His eyes were glassy, face meagre, weary and almost intelligent.
Poorly seeing the way he hit his forehead against a concrete block, to which a wooden pole was fastened with hard metal wire winding, which held a conductor going across the whole village.
The wire pierced in the forehead and a gush of blood ran over it.
He stepped away then again spit the forehead on the wire. And did it again unable to overcome the invisible obstacle. Grinding his teeth, he started to push the pole with his head. Blood ran in torrents turning his face into a red mask.
Then he sank to the ground and wept helplessly.
I stood gazing at his thin body somewhat resembling that of my brother. He sank his head on his bloodstained hands and wept. I went on gazing.
Old Nadia let the house to dopers. They wined her and prepared their stuff in the kitchen, then took their portions and went away without closing the doors to roam the streets like dreadful brown shadows.
Leo and Sashka had gone to live with distant relatives. Old Nadia lived out her days alone.
One night someone was being killed in the house. It was a long and gory scene. They seemed to knife the poor soul and he was unable to run away, but could only yell and go crazy with squelching sounds of stabs being heard.
Only one house in the whole street had a phone and police was called.
A slumberous voice on the other side of the line answered that a squad would not come for lack of gas.
It was in the early nineties. The mine was closed, there was no work and even the red warning lights on the winding towers were extinguished.
An ambulance came in the morning; police still had no gas. They pulled cadavers out of the house: of two personages who died from blood loss after multiple stabbing and of two others who did not awake after poppy overdose. The rest certainly scattered away.
Old Nadia slept in her shoebox of a room. Once got up she did not quite understand what was going on and who all those people were. They brought her to the old folks’ home without asking too much and, when they led her to the ambulance, she only nodded, dry and brittle like a November stalk.
Dopers’ pilgrimage to the house had ceased. All Jinn’s worshippers perished. Uncle Leo was a rare visitor there. Until he died of inveterate tuberculosis, which he knew nothing of to the last days even when he spat blood.
As for Sashka Mazilla, he is alive up to now.
I saw his photos in SNS the other day. He did not much change: the same recognizable, little, nippy guy. With the same free-and-easy, gypsy vagabond eyes that do not care a cuss.