Onysia’s legs would stiffen, whenever his voice would ring nearby. She was always barely alive when she passed him, and didn’t even have the nerve to raise her brow in his direction.
And Victor would scream:
“Onysia! When are you going to say that I’m the most handsome fellow you know?”
“When you get a pailful of milk from a billy goat I will,” she snapped.
“I’m not going to run around after you,” he teased.
“I’ll just ask you to marry me.”
“Do that—the pumpkins* are big this year,” she filtered the words, as if through a strainer, damming the pain and the outrage and hope behind the brilliant whiteness of her teeth.
Once in a while, the milkmaids’ patience would give way, and they’d begin to defend Onysia.
“You’re not even worth her little finger.”
“Ah! I just have to call and she comes running like a mother hen,” the bookkeeper went on.
“Be careful—you might have to hatch your eggs alone,” she snapped amidst the general laughter.
Only to her father could Onysia trust the secret of how much her flippancy cost her.
Father was really youthful. He went to war at thirty and remained that age forever. Onysia often wished she
could see him mustachioed and gray. It just never happened. Mother had greeted her old age but Father stayed
forever young. Time had lost its grip on him.
“It’s really—so hard, Father,” Onysia would say, letting the thickness of her braids fall to her waist. “How I love him and how… I hate him!” She stamped her little foot. “What should I do, Father?”
But her father remained silent and then the girl’s arched brows crawled down to her pug-nose and her eyelids fluttered ever-so-quickly, chasing back the inobedient tears.
The autumn dawn was as uneasy as a dream. Onysia would touch its gray bottomlessness with her sleepy eyes and dive into its anxiety. On the way to the farm, she finished dreaming her girlish dreams.
One time Victor woke her.
“Why are you walking like a lunatic?’’ He laughed by her very ear and Onysia felt her legs get numb again.
But her head and tongue were never numb.
“Better yet,” she said, “why did you climb out from under your covers so early?”
He fell silent, and then somehow timidly he took her by the hand. Onysia didn’t feel like pulling it away.
“Never thought you had such delicate hands…”
“A peasant won’t believe until he touches it,” she hid her spite in a smirk.
“Would you have me?” Victor asked out of nowhere.
“Maybe I will… take your place as the bookkeeper,” she pulled away her hand after all and walked away, as if on sharpened blades.
“Then I’ll come to ask your hand,” he said as if he hadn’t heard her words, and just as quickly as he’d materialized, he disappeared in the gray transparency.
All week, wherever she’d go, the whispers and the snickers crawled after Onysia. Her shoulders hunched
beneath the visibly curious stares, and the insult weighed down on her thoughts.
“He’s blabbed it all over the village,” the pain pressed tightly in her chest.
Victor came on Saturday. Wearing a cap on the side of his head, with his chrome leather shoes polished to a shine, handsome and slicked up, like a poster. He rolled down onto the bench, crossed his legs, as if putting his new boots on show. And he immediately began some hollow discussion with her mother. He talked long and swaggered manifestly, and later, as if casually, added:
“I’ve come to ask your Onysia’s hand…”
Her mother raised her head and said insultedly:
“Does one really bargain with parents nowadays?
Onysia has her own head on her shoulders,” and as if to emphasize her uninvolvement in that which was going on in the house, she slowly strolled outside.
They both sat in the house in silence. The roosters crowed on the embroidery and from their silent singing there was a ringing in their ears.
“So, what do you say, Onysia,” his voice fell with fear from afar.
“You haven’t asked me anything.”
“You know why I’m here,” he gazed so entreatingly and guiltily, that her entire body filled with a listless longing.
“You haven’t yet beaten a path to my gate, and you’re already knocking at my heart,” she shook off her languor.
“But you love me…”
“How do you know?” She mockingly raised her eyes.
“The whole village is talking about it…”
“But one person isn’t saying it,” Onysia threw the embroidery into a comer and didn’t know what to do with her hands. Her dark eyes burned with anger.
It was as if he’d seen her for the first time.
“And you would shame me in front of the entire village?” he immediately realized the stupid regretability of his question.
“Victor, you’re so…” Not words, but tears flowed from her lips. “Get away from here and take as many pumpkins as you wish and can from the garden. Drive up with a wagon.” Onysia scoffed at her torment. “One’s not enough for you, take a wagon-load and feed your insolence…”
He walked away, hunched over, as if he really bore a wagonload of pumpkins on his back.
Onysia wept on her embroidery.
* In colloquial Ukrainian, “Getting a pumpkin” means rejection.
Перекладач: Andriy M. Freishyn-Chirovsky
Оригінал: Кукурікали півні на рушниках…