Construction Literary Magazine

June 2019

Sunstroke

Sunstroke

Photograph via Flickr by EP Holcomb

They came out after dinner, leaving the hot, bright lights of the cafeteria, walking on the upper deck, and stopping at the banisters. She closed her eyes, touching her cheek with the back of her hand, and laughed a free, delightful laugh—everything was delightful about this little woman.

She said, “It seems I’m drunk . . . Where ever did you come from? Three hours ago I didn’t even suspect your existence. I don’t even know where you boarded. In Samara? But it’s all the same . . . Is my head spinning or are we turning somewhere?”

There was blackness ahead, and there were lights. From the blackness, a balmy and powerful wind whipped their faces, and the lights raced off somewhere to the side. With Volgian flair the steamer traced a wide, impetuous arc and sped toward a small landing.

The lieutenant took her hand, raising it to his lips. This hand, small and strong, smelled of suntan. His heart froze, thrilled and frightened by the thought that after a whole month spent lying on the hot sand under the southern sun (she told him she was riding from Anapa) she was probably all firm and tan beneath that light cotton dress.

The lieutenant muttered, “Let’s get off . . .”

“Where?” she asked, surprised.

“At the landing.”

“What for?”

He said nothing. Again, she touched her hot cheek with the back of her hand.

“Insanity . . .”

“Let’s get off,” he repeated, foolishly. “I beg you . . .”

“Oh do what you want,” she said, turning away.

The ship had gained too much speed, hitting the dimly lit landing with a soft thud, and they nearly fell on one another. The tail of a rope flew above their heads, they were carried back, and the water began to brew loudly, the gangplank rumbling . . . The lieutenant sprang for their things.

Within a minute they were walking past the sleepy ticket office, emerging in hub-deep sand and silently boarding a dusty carriage. They rode uphill, a slight incline amidst sparse, crooked lamp posts, the road soft with dust—the ascent seemed infinite. But here they were on top, rattling along the pavement, there was a square, offices, a lighthouse, the warmth and smells of a resort town at night . . . The driver stopped by an illuminated lobby with an ancient wooden staircase rising steep behind its closed doors, an ancient unshaven porter in a frock and pink collared shirt begrudgingly taking their things and walking ahead of them on his worn feet. They came into a large but terribly stuffy hotel room, smoldering from the day’s sun, white curtains covering the windows and two unlit candles on a dressing table. They came in, and right as the porter shut the door the lieutenant sprang after her so impulsively and both of them suffocated in such a delirious kiss, that for many years they remembered this moment, and neither one experienced anything like it for the rest of their lives.

At ten on that sunny morning, hot and joyful with rings of church bells, sounds of the bazaar on the square by the hotel, smells of hay, coal and again everything complicated and fragrant about a Russian resort town, she, this little nameless woman (she never did say her name, jokingly calling herself a lovely stranger), rode away. They slept little, but in the morning she emerged from behind the folding-screen by the bed, washed and dressed, and within five minutes, looked as fresh as a seventeen-year-old. Was she embarrassed? No, hardly. She was still gay, and free, and—already level-headed.

“No, no, darling,” she said, in response to his pleas to keep riding together. “No, you have to stay until the next ship. If we go together, everything will be ruined. I would find that very unpleasant. I swear I’m not at all what you might think of me. I’ve never experienced anything even remotely like this, and I never will again. I must have blacked out, been under some sort of spell . . . Or better yet, we both had something of a sunstroke . . .”

And the lieutenant agreed with her, somewhat easily. Feeling easy and joyful still, he took her to the landing—making it just in time for the departure of the rose-colored steamer—he kissed her on deck, in front of everyone, and barely had time to hop onto the already retreating gangplank.

And he was back in the room, just as easy and carefree. Yet something had changed. Without her the room seemed somehow completely different; nothing like it had been with her in it. It was still full of her—and empty. This was strange! It still smelled of her fine English eau de toilette, her half-drunk tea-cup still stood on the tray, but she was gone . . . And the lieutenant’s heart suddenly clenched with such tenderness, that he rushed for a smoke and paced several times across the room.

“A strange adventure!” he said aloud, laughing and feeling his eyes well with tears. “I swear that I’m not at all what you might think of me . . . And already she’s ridden away . . .”

The folding-screen had been moved aside, the bed still unmade. And he felt that now, he simply lacked the strength to look at that bed. He blocked it with the folding-screen, shut the windows to hush the murmurs of the bazaar and the screeching of the wheels, lowered the billowing white curtains, sat on the sofa . . . Yes, here it ends, this “travel” adventure. She sailed away—at this point she is far, sitting, probably, in the white glass saloon or on deck, looking at that enormous river glistening under the sun, the oncoming rafts, the yellow sandbanks, and the water and sky glowing into the distance, that entire immeasurable expanse of the Volga . . . And goodbye now forever, for eternity . . . Because, where can they ever meet again? “Because of course,” he thought, “I can’t just show up, out of nowhere, in that town with her husband, her three-year-old daughter, her entire family and her entire regular life!” And that town seemed to him somehow special, an enchanted town, and the thought that she would continue her lonely life there, often remembering him, maybe, remembering their accidental . . . this fleeting encounter, and now he would never see her again, this thought overwhelmed and astonished him. No, it can’t be! It was too bizarre, unnatural, unbelievable! And he felt such pain and such a sense of how useless the rest of his life would be without her, that he was gripped by horror, despair.

“What the devil!” he thought. Again, he took to pacing the room, trying not to look at the bed behind the folding-screen. “What is it with me? And what’s so special about her? And what actually happened? It really is some kind of sunstroke! And most importantly, how will I spend an entire day in this hole without her?”

He still remembered all of her, each tiny feature, remembered the smell of her tan and the cotton dress, her firm body, the lively sound of her voice, gay and free . . . The feeling of the just-experienced pleasure of all her feminine charm was still remarkably alive inside of him, but now the most important was really this second completely novel feeling—this strange, incomprehensible feeling that was not at all there while they were together, that he couldn’t even imagine yesterday when he started all this, thinking that it was just some silly acquaintance, and now, he couldn’t even tell her about it! “And most importantly,” he thought, “I’ll never be able to tell her! And what can I do? How can I survive this endless day, with these memories, with this inextricable torment, in this godforsaken town, above this same glowing Volga where that rose-colored steamer has carried her away?”

He needed salvation, something to engage in, to distract himself, to go somewhere. He threw on his cap decisively , took his swagger stick and walked quickly, his spurs ringing along the empty hallway, ran down the steep stairs to the lobby . . . But, where could he go? By the lobby a young cabby in a neat, long-fitting coat peacefully smoked a cigarette. The lieutenant glanced at him feeling bewildered and amazed: how is it that he can sit at the reins so peacefully, smoking, and in general free, careless, and indifferent? “I am probably the only one in this entire town who is so terribly miserable,” he thought, making toward the bazaar.

The bazaar was already disbanding. He found himself walking on the fresh manure through the wagons, the cartloads of cucumbers, the brand new bowls and pots, the peasant women sitting on the ground hollering over each other, calling him, taking the pots in their hands and banging, the taps of their fingers ringing inside of them, demonstrating their worth, peasant men deafening him, yelling: “Sir, these cucumbers are first rate!” All of it was so foolish, absurd, that he ran from the bazaar. He went to the cathedral where they were singing, it was already loud, gay, and emphatic, a consciousness of duty fulfilled . . . then for a long time he marched, circled the very hot overgrown little garden on the cliff, above the boundless metallic width of the river . . . The epaulettes and the buttons of his tunic were scalding hot, so much that it hurt to touch them. The inner band of his hat was soaked with sweat, his face was ablaze . . . He returned to the hotel with pleasure and walked into the spacious, empty cafeteria on the bottom floor, took off his tunic with the same pleasure, and sat at the table in front of the open window, the heat poured in, but at least there was a breeze, he ordered iced fish soup. Everything was swell, there was immeasurable happiness in all of it, great joy; even in this sweltering heat, in all of the bazaar’s smells, in this entire unfamiliar little town, and even in this old resort hotel, there it was, this joy, and alongside all of it his heart was just ripping to shreds. He drank several glasses of vodka, chasing it with lightly salted pickles and dill, and feeling that he would in an instant choose to die tomorrow if he could just by some miracle bring her back, spend another day—spend it just so . . . so he could tell her, prove to her somehow, convince her how painfully and exuberantly he loves her . . . Why prove it? Why convince? He didn’t know why, but it was more essential to him than life.

“My nerves are completely shot!” he said, pouring his fifth glass of vodka. He pushed the soup aside, asked for a cup of black coffee, and began to smoke and anxiously reflect: what could he do at this point? How could he escape this sudden, unexpected love? But to escape it—he felt far too acutely—was impossible. And suddenly he got up again, took his cap and his swagger stick, asked for directions to the post office and walked there in a hurry, having already composed a telegram: “From now on, until death, my life is yours, it will forever be in your power.” But upon reaching the old, thick-walled building containing the post and telegraph offices, he stopped, horrified; he knew the town, where she lived, knew that she had a husband and three-year-old daughter, but he knew neither her first or last name! He’d asked her several times yesterday, over dinner and in the hotel and each time she’d laughed and said:

“Why do you need to know my name, who I am?”

At the corner, in front of the post office, there was a window-display for a photography studio. For a long time he looked at large portrait of some soldier with thick epaulettes, bulging eyes, a low forehead, astonishingly magnificent whiskers and a very broad chest completely covered with decorations . . . How bizarre and frightening everything ordinary can seem when the heart is afflicted—yes, afflicted, he understood that now—with this terrifying “sunstroke,” a love too large, a joy too great! He glanced at а newlywed couple; a young man in a long frock coat and a white tie, crew cut hair, standing to attention, holding the arm of a young woman in a wedding veil, then shifted his eyes towards the portrait of some pretty and lively young student in a skewed cap . . . Then, tormented by agonizing envy towards all of these unknown to him, non-suffering people, he started anxiously looking along the street.

“Where to go? What to do?”

The street was completely empty. The houses were all the same, white, two-story merchant houses with big yards—and it seemed that within them, there was not a soul; thick white dust covered the pavement, all of it was blinding him, all of it flooded with hot, white, flaming and joyful, but here, kind of pointless, sunlight. The road ascended in the distance, twisted and ran into a cloudless, shimmering, grayish horizon. There was something southern about it all, reminiscent of Sevostopol, Kеrch . . . Anapa. That was especially unbearable. And the lieutenant marched back, head down, squinting from the light and focusing on his feet, wobbling, stumbling, spur catching on spur.

He returned to the hotel room so much broken from exhaustion, that it seemed he’d been on a long march somewhere in Turkestan, or Sahara. Gathering his last bit of strength, he walked into his large, empty room. The room had already been cleaned, stripped of the last traces of her (Except for the lone hairpin she’d left lying on the night stand!) He took off his tunic and glanced at himself in the mirror; his face—a regular officer’s face, gray with suntan, а whitish, sun-bleached mustache, and the bluish whiteness of his eyes that seemed even whiter from his tan—now had a feverish, deranged expression, and there was something youthful and deeply melancholy about his thin white shirt with its tall starched collar. He lay back on the bed, leaning his dusty boots against the footboard. The windows were open, the curtains drawn together, and a light breeze inflated them from time to time, wafting the heat of the smoldering tin roofs, and that entire luciferous and now silent and completely deserted Volgian world. He lay there, resting his head on his hands, fixated on a spot in front of him. Then he clenched his teeth, feeling the tears roll through his closed eyelids down his cheeks, and finally fell asleep. When he re-opened his eyes, the evening sun was already yellowing and reddening. The wind had calmed, the room was stuffy and dry, like an oven . . . And both yesterday and that entire day seemed like they were ten years ago.

He took his time to rise, took his time to wash his face, opened the curtains, called, asking for a samovar and the bill, and sipped on tea with lemon for a long time. Then he ordered a cabby, for someone to carry out his things, and gave the porter an entire five rubles as he boarded the carriage, sitting on its bleached orange seats.

“Sir it looks like it was I who’d brought you last night!” the cabby said cheerfully, taking the reins.

Once they’d descended to the landing, a blue summer night was already falling above the Volga, lots of multi-colored lights dotted the river and white ones dangled on the masts of the approaching steamer.

“Got you here in perfect time!” the cabby said with ingratiation.

The lieutenant gave him five rubles too, took the ticket and walked onto the landing . . . Just like yesterday there was a soft thud upon the ramp and a light dizziness from the instability underfoot, then the flying tail, the rumble of the water brewing and streaming ahead, under the wheels of the slightly retreating steamer . . . And the crowds on the steamer, which was lit up already and wafting the smells of cooking, made everything seem remarkably welcoming and good.

Within a minute they raced on, upstream, to the same place where she’d been carried away just that morning.

The dark summer dusk was dying out far ahead, reflecting in the river gloomily, sleepily and in an array of colors, the river still somewhat glowing with ripples, trembling in the distance under it, under this dusk, and the lights swimming and swimming backwards, scattered in the surrounding darkness.

The lieutenant sat on the deck under the awning feeling like he’d aged ten years.


Translated in October 2010 from the original as it appears in I.A. Bunin: The Collected Works in Nine Volumes (Izdatel’stvo Khudozhestvennaya Literatura), 1966.