My shadow curled up as I sat on the ground. I was feeling tired. I had been standing by the roadside for a fairly long time, but I hadn’t seen a single car or person pass by. The sun was blazing hot. The dry, parched ground burned the soles of my feet. The air was boiling hot. I seemed to exhale balls of flame from my lungs. What was I thinking, setting off in the heat of the day?
.I was feeling sorry for the time I had wasted, so I decided to go home. I could have laid down and slept for a while weeded the cabbage beds until the heat subsided, maybe even watered the trees.
The moment I turned towards the village, I heard the distant roar of an engine behind me. It couldn’t be a car. I stopped and swung around to take a look. I saw a military truck in the distance, and my heart leapt with joy. Rushing into the middle of the road, I started to wave my arms frantically.
The truck pulled over, up the road a piece. I ran up to it. The door handle was quite high up, and so was the footboard. I waited for the driver to open the door and offer me a helping hand, but he made no move. I decided to wait a few more seconds, but then, fearing that he would drive off, reached for the handle. I tried a few times, but my efforts were in vain. I was mad. I felt like telling him off. Would it be too much to ask to open the door for me? But I didn’t have the guts. God knows what sort of man the driver was. If I hurt him, he would leave, and I would have to stand there and wait even longer. I stretched as far up as I possibly could to reach the handle. My spine clicked loudly, and I felt a sharp pain in my big toes under my weight. It felt like my spine and neck would split off from my body, but I somehow managed to reach the handle. I finally managed to open the door with just the tips of my fingers.
The driver looked at me and smiled. He was a tall, well-built man, his neck and jaw lost in a mass of straggly hair, his mouth hidden behind a bushy beard. His eyes were large and round. As he looked ahead, his pupils became motionless, almost hypnotic. He clutched the steering wheel in his huge hands. There was oil residue under his fingernails.
“Get a move on, we’re running late!” he said. His eyes brightened and crinkled at the corners. His beard twitched upwards from both sides. He might have cracked a smile.
“The footboard is pretty high. I can’t raise my foot up there.” I glanced at his strong arms, hoping that at least now he would think to stretch out his hand to help me into the cab.
“Your skirt’s narrow and restricting your movements. Tuck it up so to step up more easily,” he advised.
“I wonder why God made you six-foot four with huge hands if I have to pull up my skirt to get into your truck?” I couldn’t help grumbling aloud. I folded up my skirt, put my knee up, and stood on the footboard.
“Not that much, gal, you’ve almost taken your dress off,” he laughed.
“I’m no gal to you,” I snapped irritably. “I have a son twice your height!”
“Some people have sons three times taller,” he laughed, and his eyes filled with tears. He started to cough, unable to finish speaking.
“What a waste of time.” I took my seat without looking at him. “I’d jump off and split if I hadn’t waited so long.”
“Why’s that?” He became serious all of a sudden. “We’re just having a good laugh, that’s all… I haven’t heard myself laugh in a while. Don’t be sore. I liked you right from the start,” he said, turning the key in the ignition. The truck’s engine began to shudder. “What’s wrong with sharing a joke with a woman you like?”
“Oh, come on!” I waved him off. “Maybe I’d better just wait for another lift.”
“It’s up to you, but if you get off now, you’ll scorch in this sun before too long. I’m the only one coming from there,” he pointed his thumb over his shoulder, “…and going back. I expect there’ll be no one else for some time.”
“So now you’re a national hero?” I asked, my voice dripping with contempt. “Our village is within spitting distance of the front line, so we know better than you who’s running in and out.”
The truck started rolling down an old, cracked asphalt road.
“Huh?” he looked at me expectantly. His eyes were aquamarine, like the shallow part of a lake, and fragments of his entire life seemed to settle to the bottom of his weary eyes like so much silt.
“I mean this is the first time I’ve seen you,” I replied. “You must be new to these parts.”
“Do you really think a man my age can be a newcomer?” he shouted at the top of his voice. “I’ve been driving back and forth every single day for the past ten years, since the war started. Then he leaned towards me and shouted, almost into my ear, “Every day I set off when the sun’s up, and go back when it’s down.”
“And death doesn’t scare you either.” I curled my lips contemptuously.
“No, it doesn’t. Death is the best punishment. Why should I be scared?” His voice grew so sincere that it now sounded naïve. “Besides, why should I think about that? My job is to be alive and well. I don’t know about you, but I for one plan to hold tight to this wheel until a ripe old age and carry on driving to the battlefield and back. I’ll be ferrying dead bodies to be buried, delivering letters from loved ones to whiny conscripts, rushing the doctor to the wounded, and taking deserters back and yelling at the cowards. It’s hard, but I’ll keep driving back and forth.” He remained silent for a moment, then continued with a touch of irony in his voice. “And I will sometimes give rides to unkempt women like you, taking them to town so they can spend their yearly savings on a tasteless dress and return to show it off around the village.”
“I want to buy clothing and other things for my children, not myself,” I began to explain in a leisurely manner. “I never have enough money to buy things for everyone, so I always buy things one at a time and always struggle to settle everything.”
“How many children have you got? Are they grown-up?” He looked at my reflection in the the mirror.
“No, they’re still kids,” I replied, yawning. “My daughter is five years old. She can’t manage the broom very well yet, but she’s supposed to sweep the house and the yard, so I get her big red ribbons in town. My youngest son doesn’t like boiled eggs, but he promised to eat them, so he gets a toy gun and a school bag. My eldest son’s voice has turned croaky but it hasn’t broken yet. He’s in charge of the little ones and shouts at them if they start fighting, and I buy him hairspray for that.”
“Do you have a husband?” He tried to catch my eye through the mirror again.
“Is he a good boy?”
“How should I know? He’s not a boy anymore,” I mumbled incoherently.
“Do you love him?”
“You’re weird, you know!” I let out a growl, and looked at him quizzically. “Can you really love someone whose face you’ve been seeing for twenty years on end?”
“Twenty years is not a long time.” His eyes gleamed under bushy eyebrows.
“Not at all,” I agreed, “but what I see is only a human face, not God’s face.”
The roof of the truck had absorbed a lot of heat, and the air in the cab made me drowsy. I gradually dissolved into that heat. I didn’t feel like talking. My head was leaning against the headrest. I felt tired and slightly dizzy. The truck rumbled over a bumpy road, rocking me to sleep. Soon I began to nod off, and it was at this time that a fugitive idea struck terror into my heart: the war might reach our village before I returned home. Who would take my children out of the village, and where would I find them afterwards? Fear roused me from sleep, and I stretched out.
“This life—what does it want from us, anyway?” I sighed, addressing no one in particular.
“Why so bitter?” he asked. There was genuine surprise in his voice. “After all,I am the one returning from the battlefield.”
“What kind of life is this?” I grumbled.
“You shouldn’t be saying things like that.” He stretched out his rough hand and punched me lightly on the shoulder, saying, “War and peace are like the sun and the moon: although they’re knit together, they can never cross. Like it or not, the day is divided into two equal parts: day and night.”
“Where, eh?” I rubbed my shoulder where he punched it. “We keep marching in procession behind the dead. My soul has been ripped to shreds and ruined like a pilgrim’s feet, but the holy place is still nowhere in sight.”
“Up there,” he pointed a thick finger out the window, “in the sky.”
“Up there,” I tried to imitate him. “What’s up there?”
“My dear, even chickens look up at the sky when they drink water. Have you ever really looked up?” he scolded.
“I have.” I sat up, lifting my head from the headrest. “It’s blue sky up there, and it can turn black or red whenever it wants,” I said drily.
“The sun’s up there too!” my fellow traveler added graciously.
He leaned forward, becoming tense as he caught sight of a large pothole further down the road.
“Oh yes,” my voice was faintly mocking, “the sun is the clock and you are the pendulum.”
“Look, my dear! The sun is the Lord’s face, and we see it every day,” he said, patiently explaining, like a parent to a slow-witted child. “I am just a man who gets up with the rising sun and goes to sleep at sunset.”
A brief silence lingered in the air, and then I asked, “Have you ever killed anybody?”
The muscles at the bridge of his nose twitched, and his brows drew together in an angry frown.
“I mean, an enemy,” I clarified.
He slammed on the brakes, and the huge car jerked to a halt. I flew forward and my head almost smacked against the windshield. I turned towards him but wasn’t given a chance to lash out.
“What the hell kind of woman are you?” He flung his arms out wide and shouted furiously. “The hell with calling you a woman! You sit down comfortably here and start sounding off about war and killing people—to a man you don’t know I’m already sick of your moaning. Fuck you!” He continued growling under his breath, probably needed to curse me more in his head.
While he yelled, I forced myself to stay silent. I wanted to get where I was going to as soon as possible. Men like it when you pretend to be a frightened slave. They need to yell and dominate to boost their ego. I focused my eyes on his face so I wouldn’t shout back.. His beard was turning grey from the corners of his mouth to his sideburns. The grey spots were like twisted dry leaves. The whiskers around his chin were still dark.
“Your beard’s starting to go grey, you are becoming a wise man,” my voice had turned suddenly melodious and tender.
“I’m not wise.” He stopped shouting, disarmed by the sound of my gentle voice. He added in an aggrieved tone, like a sulking child, “But I have seen a lot in my life and understand perfectly well all the aches and pains a wise man must endure.”
No sooner had he said it than he put his hand on my shoulder, caressed my neck with his thumb, then pulled me towards himself, and kissed me. I drew away immediately. He removed his hand from my shoulder, laid it on my knee and began stroking it. He must have had calluses on the palm of his hand. They lightly scratched my knee.
“Take your hand off my knee,” I demanded coldly. “I don’t want runs in my tights. This is my only pair of tights–I haven’t got any other.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he agreed straight away, “let’s pull them off to keep them undamaged.”
He slid his hand up my thigh.
“Thank you very much!” I jerked his hand back, opened the door and jumped out of the truck.
I found myself at the edge of a wheat field. I stepped into it. I grazed my arms on the spiky heads of the wheat stalks, but didn’t pay them any attention. I felt a pang of painful regret, and I could hardly walk.
Suddenly someone hugged me tightly from behind, and I was immediately lifted up and shoved to the ground. The rough-stemmed wheat stalks broke under my back with a loud crack. The truck driver fell on me and started kissing me passionately. His hands began chaotically pulling up my skirt. I meant to hit him in the stomach with my knee and roll him off, but I didn’t do that.
He tried to urge me on as we headed back to the truck, saying, “Make it quick! We should hurry to get the soldiers’ corpses to their relatives.” He made a path for me by trampling down clumps of wheat stalks with his heavy boots.
“What corpses?” I asked, baffled.
“Those in the back of my truck.” He pointed to his truck. “Stuffed full with eighteen to twenty-year-olds, covered with a thick tarp.”
“Good Lord!” my knees buckled from fear. I felt dizzy, and knelt down on the ground. The driver carried on, but stopped after a few steps, turned around, and was surprised to see me on my knees. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I’m scared.” My voice had dropped to a whisper. I curled up into a ball and pressed myself against the ground.
“What can I do?” He shrugged his shoulders and pushed on towards the truck. When he got there, he turned around again, and shouted towards me,
“Are you coming now or should I go?”
“Yes, I’m coming,” I tried to shout back. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m coming. . .”
Translated by Marina Yandian