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A few years back, I worked as a nurse in the geriatric unit of the hospital in my hometown. There was one old woman there with pale blue eyes whose mind was still fantastically sharp, and her desire to socialize and make new friends set her apart from most others living in that wing of the facility. That woman and I soon became close for this reason. Her name was Yana, and I still miss her every day since she passed.
The strangest thing about Yana was not her accent (which I could only place vaguely as Eastern European), nor her disinclination to talk about her past (which means I never learned exactly where she had grown up.) No, what fascinated me the most was that a strange young man, badly mutilated and plainly blind and mute, would visit her every single day. His hands appeared deformed, seemingly eroded at each digit down to the first knuckle. But each evening, a little after dinnertime, he would visit and they would sit together. She would read to him, or sometimes sing in her frail, old voice. Sometimes they would just hold hands in silence. Finally, I gathered the courage to ask her about this man, and in a strange moment of openness, she agreed to tell me the story:
“My sister and I were the only surviving members of our family after our father passed away in 1964. These were very hard times for my old country, and Father had grown so sick that we were eventually forced to allow him to starve, rather than waste food to comfort him as he inevitably died. Sister had been losing her mind little-by-little before all this happened, but I could see in her eyes, as we buried Father, that she had finally gone somewhere far away inside herself. I remember the crows, perched in thick groups like clots of preening black movement, watching us in the cemetery from all of the rooftops. We moved to bury Father quickly, because the crows were as hungry as we were…
Sister took to begging in the streets, sometimes trading sex for rides into the city nearby in the hopes that her begging would be more profitable there. It was during these terrible times that she conceived a son – a bastard whose father was not known to her but who was certainly some manner of predatory monster. This was the only kind of man my sister knew in those days of her life. The child was delivered healthy, happy, and with a glowing spirit that broke my heart, because I knew that soon the young boy’s eyes would look like mine, and like my sister’s. Even on the day he was born, I knew his beautiful, joyous innocence could not last.
Sister did not care for her son as she should have – as God and goodness alike demand that a mother should care for her child. She would not change the boy’s soiled diapers, leaving this to me instead, and would ‘forget’ to feed him even when his hungry wailing was ringing shrill and miserable through the whole house. Eventually she began to take him out begging, using the child as a prop with which to elicit the sympathy of strangers. She was most pleased when he looked his worst, and even complained to me once or twice that she could raise no money at all on days that he looked ‘too healthy.’
I can never forget her final act of cruelty against Vasily (I named him myself after Sister could not be bothered). It was morning, and I had walked outside into our yard to smell the air. The child was lying motionless on the ground there, and seemed quite dead – smeared as he was with his own blood. His little fingers and toes were black with frostbite; Sister had not even bundled him in anything when she laid him down hours ago in the dark of night. The crows, which were as hungry as we were, had plucked his beautiful eyes and tongue from his still-living body. I grabbed him up with tears already pouring down my cheeks, thinking that I had claimed a corpse. It was only when he stirred against my breast that I realized he might be saved.
I swaddled him as warmly as I could, and fed him something before rushing him down to the home of the town’s only doctor. I nearly beat down the front door with my fist, and he answered with sleep still in his eyes because it was so early. I paid him with all of the heirloom jewelry from Mother that I had been able to hide from Sister over the years. An hour or so later, the doctor told me Vasily would live, but asked that he be allowed to monitor the child for the rest of the day. I told him that this would be fine, as today would be a busy day for me. And indeed it was. By evening I had smashed Sister’s head to a flattened pulp with the cast-iron skillet from our stove, obtained a train ticket for passage out of our home country, and made plans to give Vasily the best life that he could still yet have.
Vasily – my son now – knows nothing about any of this, of course. I told him only that he was adopted away from a situation which he was likely not to survive. The mirthful optimism I saw on his face when he was born survives to this day inside his heart. Sister, in all her malice, had only managed to suppress it for a while. And now, almost 50 years later, he still visits his elderly mother every single day.”
She beamed with pride as she finished her story, and would say no more. And she was right, Vasily loved her so much, and wore no resentment on his face for his injuries. He always seemed to be smiling pleasantly, even though (in his blindness) he often didn’t know anyone was looking. He visited her every day until she died, and he was holding her hand when she passed. I knew from his interactions with hospital staff that he understood spoken English, and so at Yana’s funeral I told him that I had been a friend of his mother’s. I told him that she was the most amazing, wonderful woman I had ever met. His sad, grateful smile grew deeper, and he nodded his head. His response came in sign language.
CREDIT: David Feuling
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