It was getting dark now, and a thin, wet, detestable substance, neither rain nor snow, had started to fall from the heavens. The flagstone path slanted up the embankment on the shore of the Dnieper, and the flat stones were covered with a crust of snow and mud.
Marina's high heels slid backwards with every step. She caught hold of the railing, but it too was covered with a veneer of ice.
It was nearly seven. Time to turn back.
But she was almost opposite the barge, frozen into the ice in the middle of the river; she could see its long, dark, iron shape. The small island it rested on was almost invisible under the snow.
It really was time to go back.
She had to be home by eight, to feed her cat and to make a big pot of soup, so that she wouldn't have to cook during the week. She was so tired after work. And she needed to get to that bloody thesis at last at least write a few pages.
Home by eight, she thought, but, nevertheless, she pushed herself on, just a few more feet, and soon she stood on the embankment gazing out at the barge, as usual. She stood there for a few minutes, as she did every day, looking into the frozen river.
Then she felt a hand on her elbow. There was someone behind her.
"Is it you?"
She had been waiting for his touch for such a long time that she was almost not surprised.
* * *
"But why? It's all frozen there. And it might be falling to pieces already…."
"Why don't we walk … here?"
She did not turn back. She heard that he had stopped.
"You don't want to?"
She got scared. What if he left right away; or disappeared; or if it turned out that there was no him…? Fright, and a feeling of aching emptiness in her throat. It was even more frightful than to look over her shoulder and to…
She looked back.
His silhouette was scarcely visible in the dusk - the dark figure against the dark background. So tall and slim, in something like a long cloak. It surprised her because there was something wrong about it. Where could he possibly have gotten that cloak?
His face was not distinguishable.
"How will we get there?" she asked with a nervous laugh. "Over the ice?"
"In a boat," he said. "Like back then."
She glanced at the river. How strange! A minute ago there was ice, and now ebony water.... But then, they had promised warming weather over the radio.
Most likely it should be like this.
When she turned back, she started to panic; it appeared that he was not there. But, thank God, below there were dark footprints on the melting ice crust. She rushed down the slippery stairs, lost her balance, awkwardly flung her purse and slid, as if from a slide, on the three last steps. She recovered her breath on seeing him.
He was standing in the bow of a boat, leaning forward and holding on to the ring cemented into the pier. A thin black belt very slowly stretched between the boat and bank.
If he lets his hand go the boat would drift away.
And never again.
She ran along the thin granite edge of the embankment, which tiny waves licked, over and over again. She jumped without looking down and fell onto a low wooden bench of that boat.
He pushed off from the wall and began working the oars.
His face was still in shadow, though the dark no longer seemed to be that of dusk.. He was rowing with wide, strong strokes, and the bank was moving away into the distance. She turned to her side on the bench and fixed her eyes on the looming barge. It was a gloomy angular outline against the brightening sky.
She grew uncomfortably warm and took off her heavy fur coat. Then she pulled off her thick sweater. The barge was approaching so close that it was possible to touch it with her hand, which she did.
A brown mark of warm rust was left on her fingers.
* * *
"When is the boat going to come pick us up?"
"In about an hour. Don't worry, Marina! I arranged it for us."
She stretched her body on the spreading sand. The slanting beams of the evening sun could not possibly tan her further, of course. Marina sat up and clasped her hands around her knees. Something tickled her back and she jerked her shoulders to throw off the man's hand.
"Stop, you! We have to get the boys to finish the fruit. What is the point of taking it back? Misha! Volodia! Where are those rascals?"
She leaned over his belly, so soft and warm with the sun, stretched her hand and groped for a packet with four damp and battered peaches on the sand. She could not straighten up all at once…. Gosh, he fools about like a child!
"On the barge, maybe" he suggested lightly. "The boys have so much freedom there."
Marina's voice resonated off the hot rusty iron and she began to worry. She put the packet down and got up.
Her older son's shaggy head appeared from behind the boxes piled on the barge; Misha waved his hand and shouted something she didn't catch. Four-year-old Volodia was supposed to be somewhere nearby. He always trailed his brother but he was not in sight for some reason, and she could not calm down.
"Why don't you let them alone?" Yegor sat up lazily. "Let them play. I can eat those peaches myself."
"Just you try! Misha! Where's Volodia?"
"Mummy, I'm here! Look!"
She saw how her suntanned, strong-as-an-ox child climbed to the edge of the stern, rocked on his widely set legs, slapped his hands, and fell into the water, splashing furiously.
* * *
"How many times did I tell you! Volodia, what if there was some iron thing at the bottom? You could have hit your head and that'd have been it. You could have been taken far, far away…. You know yourself what a strong current there is! Misha, how often have I asked you to look after your brother? You are big enough! This fall you are going to school! You should be ashamed of yourself!"
Her guilty sons looked gloomily into the sand. Volodia sniveled; he must have swum for too long, she thought, though his imagination was very vivid and he no doubt he could see himself carried away by the stream and dragged along the bottom, right this very moment. Marina sighed.
"They are ashamed," said Yegor, getting up. "That's why I suggested you check out our tackle before the boat gets here. C'mon, let's go!"
A cool evening breeze came up; she sat and threw the ends of the shawl over her shoulders. Her husband and sons, a small and merry squadron, went to the other side of the island where several poles stuck up from the sand. They had tied fish nets to them in the morning, naively hoping to catch something…. Men!
Marina smiled looking back at them.
Misha has grown so much up during this summer … he'll soon reach his father's shoulder. I should take him to get some athletic training: I don't want him to grow so thin. And Volodia, my hat! It seems Yegor came to pick them up from the maternity ward just yesterday.... And was he disappointed that the child was not a girl! Now her younger son has started to dive from this cursed barge. Time flows.... Life passes swiftly....
She cast a glance a the unfortunate peaches, which had become a bit squashed inside the cellophane. It would be a shame to throw them away. She picked up one of the sticky fruits peeled it, and sucked up its warm flesh. Trickles of juice ran down her chin and began to drop on to her shawl. That's okay. It needed washing anyway...
"Are you cold?"
She raised her head. Marina's husband had returned and was really close to her; curly hair on his tanned legs, blue trunks, a not-too-flat belly, peels of sunburned skin on his chest. His laughing eyes were so near… Behind his back their sons were busy with the fish nets.
"A bit. Listen, Yegor, let's not come here anymore. This cursed barge… I can't…"
He grinned. He leaned, got a peach, twisted it open before her eyes and stuffed it into his mouth. He answered unintelligibly, almost not opening his mouth.
"Don't you worry. Nothing will happen to them."
She got up. "There is a wonderful beach on the other side, behind the bridge. And for that, we won't need a boat."
"As you wish." Yegor spit out the pit and shook his shoulders. "But crowds of people got to that beach behind the bridge, especially on the weekends. And this place belongs to us."
He licked his fingers, stepped forward, and hugged his wife. He repeated what he had said with a special emphasis, as if it held some secret meaning.
* * *
"Do you remember?"
"Indeed. You told me you were going to show me some super-duper place and I believed you, like a dummy. Can you imagine how pissed I was when it turned out that it was only an old barge?"
"I did not notice."
"You were a hick and such a silly guy …"
They were sitting on the warm iron edge of the barge with their feet overboard, just as in the past. And just as it happened before, a sunbeam crawled to their legs and split the still black water in half.
Yegor laughed softly.
"Hah! You fell for me at first sight! You told me I looked like a young Marlon Brando."
"You didn't know who that was!"
"I decided you were joking, because you were a student and a year older than me. I was a measly bookworm from a village, and my exams were scheduled the next week..."
"You should have crammed for your exams instead of taking girls to old barges. And you let the boat go!"
"Hey, I arranged for it to come back in an hour!"
"What was I supposed to think?"
"And what did you think?"
She looked back. Misha and Volodia were still romping with the nets in the waning twilight. Yegor was good at inventing things for their sons to do if he wanted to have some time alone with his wife.
She cuddled up against him and put her head on his warm shoulder.
"And what did you think…" he asked, "…back then?"
"You won't believe it… I was looking at you and thinking that we would have very pretty children."
"Even then?" he asked.
"I wish I had known… You looked an impregnable conservative. I made up my mind to kiss you here at the barge, but I chickened out."
"It was the right thing to do." She shook her heaad. "How long had we known each other for? About two hours?"
"You know, I have never picked anyone up like that, in the street. And I would never have swum with just any man to some barge. At that time I didn't know anything about you except one thing: you were mine."
"And I looked like Marlon Brando. And was a gold-medalist. And had come from a far away village to apply to the Institute of Foreign Affairs. And was a champion diver. I told you all about it!"
"What a braggart! You even showed me how to do a forward somersault with two twists.… From over there, from the stern."
"Do you remember? Wasn't it great?"
"Yes, it was really great."
Suddenly she became quiet. She stared hard into the dark water under her feet. It was no longer sparkling as the sun fell behind the roofs of the houses on the riverbank. Opaque smooth black depths, its surface broken by small waves.
She started softly, as if she was afraid of her words and was afraid to speak.
"At first I thought that you you were simply showing off. Well, I can stay long enough under water... Then I thought it was a joke. That in reality you had surfaced long ago somewhere on the other side and were spooking me on purpose… so silly, but true. Then I was scared, but I couldn't believe… Then I could not swim like you, you know. I still can't. I screamed, screamed for so long... But the boat didn't come for an hour. Just as you had arranged."
His voice was almost unchanged.
"You were not supposed to …remember that."
* * *
She made herself look at him. She made herself take his hand.
"How was it?" Marina whispered. "Was it painful?"
"Only at the beginning. My neck ... while I was still alive. And later nothing. No feeling."
"Nobody ever found you... Floating... Though you do know about it."
He shook his shoulders.
"Just a minute ago I knew that other life…our life…where I have come from. We got married when you were a junior and I was a sophomore…. I did not go to the Foreign Affairs Institute but to the Polytechnic School. Entered any old place just to stay in the city. Then Mishka was born…you know it for yourself. Knew it…"
His name suddenly was a senseless array of sounds.
He turned away. He spoke to the side, to nowhere.
"Every person who has gone accidentally can come back if there is a matrix, a core array of elements in someone else's mind. Those elements, impressed by events that have had great significance for that person, can spontaneously create a three-dimensional scenario of destiny where one can naturally take another's place. You gave me the that scenario…you almost believed in it. Unfortunately, artificially created matrixes are unstable. An hour, not more, and then "
"Because there are other matrixes, that are natural and that conflict with it. For example, it is winter in the world, but it is summer here at the barge. You have your own life, and as for me "
"I have no life. If I had it why would I come here? Almost every day, for ten years in a row… And only now when you came, at last and you say such awful things…. Wait, what about the children?!"
She started, turned, ran from the barge. Misha… Volodia… Boys!!! She could not discern anything in the deepening darkness.
He did not let her go.
He sharply jerked her hand and seated her next to him.
"Don't. It is natural. It is only turning one type of matrix into another... You needn't see it."
Need not see it.
* * *
"What about you? What will happen to you?"
"You know, nothing special. As usual. I'm used to it. As for you, believe me, you will get better. I know that for sure."
"How could you "
"My mother. She used to come here to the barge, used to come from far away, from our village. I was her only son, her hope, her future... She had created a matrix for me. And once, some years ago it happens only rarely: so many factors, beginning with basic ones, must align themselves: time, place, the arrangement of the stars, and so on. Anyway, I came back. I seemed to have become a famous attaché married to some president's daughter somewhere." He shrugged. "Never mind. It ended quickly. She never returned. I know she got better. That's all."
"No. If she died, got sick or went mad, I would have known. It is this: she built my possible life to perfection in that short period, and she was able to live on."
"I will not be able to."
"Why? You knew me only for several hours, not more. All the rest is just a matrix that we brought to the peak of reality. It is about to self-destruct both in the material world and in your consciousness. You will forget."
"And I… At the place where I'm going to there is no difference. Do you feel how cold it became?"
"I do not any more."
* * *
The ebony water under the barge wrinkled, making circles and dots. Something loathsome, wet and small, neither rain nor snow, began to fall from the sky. A piercing wind started to blow. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.
"Your clothes are in the boat," he said.
She did not turn back. The winter mist was opaque: it would not be possible to see his face clearly.
Even if it were possible, she should not.
"I can't make you warm." It seemed to her that he had smiled. "Go dress …they will find you soon."
She got up and immediately slipped on the deck of the barge ,which was covered with ice. She slapped her hands and shakily dragged herself to the bow of the barge, buried in the sand of the island.
She must write to the Environmental Protection Committee and suggest they get rid of the barge from the river at last.
Must not turn back.
* * *
Steps. Resounding and jerky steps, as if on prostheses, with a scarcely audible, yet eerie, sticky, clump. Steps moving away, near the stern.
She knew she would be too late, that she should have reacted earlier, but not now and never again....
She started back toward the stern.
A quarter of a second after, a quiet splash. She leaned over the stern; the rusty board cut into her waist. Freezing water oozed through her desperate, tenacious fingers…
Did she catch hold?
Marina noticed then that the stern was much lower over the water than it had been, that summer when, all of a sudden, the only boy she ever loved shouted to her: "Look!"
It would soon sink under the water, this old and dilapidated barge.… And she knew that she must think about something other than that, something different.…
Her fingers grabbed something thin, cold, and slimy.
Ice was spinning in the black water.
She was holding on.
Yana Dubynianska is a writer and journalist, author of twelve science-fiction books published in Russia and Ukraine, and of numerous stories and narratives appearing in periodicals and anthologies.
Ms. Dubynianska is a Portal Prize laureate for 2005, awarded yearly at the International SF and Fantasy Assembly "Portal" for the best science fiction book published in Ukraine.
Her Russian publisher is AST (Moscow). Ukrainian translations of her books have been published in Ukraine as the Yana Dubynianska's Puzzles series (Nora-Print Publishers, Kyiv).
Svitlana Shurma, who translated "Barge Over Black Water" into English from Russian, lives in Kyiv and tutors at Kyiv National Linguistic University. She has translated for FACT
Publishers and Nash Chas Publishers. In October, 2008, she will defend her thesis, "Poetics of Image and Symbol in the American Gothic Short Story:
A Linguocognitive Approach," which is based on short stories by Edgar Allen Poe, Ambrose Bierce and