Konstantin Paustovsky. Nastya the lace maker

by lapostina

I really enjoyed reading this short story in Russian. I couldn’t find any English translations of this on the internet, so I decided to translate it myself. Happy Reading.

At night, in the Alatau mountains there was a thundering storm. Frightened by the thunder, a big, green grasshopper hopped onto the window of the hospital and sat on the lace curtain. Rudnev, an injured lieutenant, rose from his bed and for a long time looked at the grasshopper and curtain. A complex pattern flashed from the blue piercing of the lightning: lush roses and small, crested rooters.

And then it was morning. Yellow from the lighting, the sky  was still steaming outside. Two rainbows toppled over the mountain tops. The wet flowers of the wild peonies burned on the window sill like live coal. It was stuffy. Steam was rising from the dewy cliffs. The creek was roaring and rolling stones in the abyss.

“Asia as it is,” sighed Rudnev.

“But the lace on our curtain is from the north…and probably some beauty Nastya* weaved it”.

“Why do you think that?” Rudnev smiled.

“I remember this one time which happened on my battery at Leningrad”.

He told me this story.

In the summer of 1940, Balashavov, an artist from Leningrad left to hunt and work at our desterted north. Balashov left the old river steam boat at the very first village which he liked and settled in the home of a local teacher. Nastya lived in this village with her father, a forest guard. In the area she was known as a lace maker and a beautiful girl. Like most girls from the north, Nastya was quiet and had grey coloured eyes. Once, while hunting, Nastya’s  father unintentionally injured Balashov in the chest. The wounded was taken to the home of the village teacher. Dejected by the mishap, the old man sent Nastya to look after Balashov. Nastya nursed Balashov, and out of pity for the wounded  her first girlish love was born. However, Balashov didn’t notice anything as the the love was hardly expressed and reserved.

Balashov had a wife back in Leningrad, but he never told anyone about her, not even Nastya. Everyone in the village was convinced that Balashov  was a single man.

As soon as the wound healed, Balashov returned to Leningrad. Before leaving he came to Nastya’s izba** without calling and brought her presents. Nastya accepted them. It was the first time Balashov had come to the north. He didn’t know any of the local customs. Those who live in the north are very persistent, they hold on and don’t immediately surrender under the pressure of a new age. Balashov didn’t know that if a man came to the home of a girl without calling and brings her gifts, and the gifts are accepted, it is considered that he is her fiancee. This is how love is expressed in the north. Nastya shyly asked Balashov when he’ll return to her village from Leningrad. Balashov, without suspecting anything, jokingly replied that he’ll return very soon.

Balashov left. Nastya waited for him. The bright summer passed, the damp and bitter autumn passed, but Balashov still hadn’t returned. Nastya’s eager, joyful anticipation turned into anxiety, despair and shame. There were rumours going around the village that the groom had deceived her. However, Nastya didn’t believe the rumours.  She was convinvced that something bad  happened to Balashov.

Spring brought new pain. She came late and stretched  on for very long. The rivers burst their banks and did not feel like returning to their usual state. Without stopping, only in the beginning of June did  the first steam boat came past the village. Without telling her father, Nastya decided to run away to Leningrad and find Balashov. She left the village at night. After two days she arrived at the train station and found out that in the morning the war began. The peasant girl, who had never seen a train before, walked accross the huge and  formidable country, made her way to Leningrad and found Balashov’s home.  Balashov’s wife opened the door for Nastya; she was a skinny woman in her pyjamas, with a cigarette clenched between her teeth. Puzzled, she looked at Nastya and told her that Balashov wasn’t home. He was at the front near Leningrad.

Nastya found out the truth – Balashov was married. It meant that he lied to her, laughed at her love. Nastya was scared of talking to his wife. She was scared of the city apartment, the dusty sofas, spilt face powder and the persistent phone calls. Nastya ran away. In despair, she walked around the enormous city, which had turned into an armed camp. She didn’t notice the zenith cannons in the streets, or the monuments which were cluttered with bags of dirt, or the cool gardens which were centuries old, or any ceremonial buildings. She went to the Neva river. The river water was level with the granite shores. Here, the water was probably the only place to escape from unbearable pain and love.

 Nastya took off the old scarf from her head, a gift from her mother, and hung it on the railing. She then fixed her heavy braids and placed her foot on the curl of the railing. Someone grabbed her by the hand. Nastya turned around. A skinny man with floor polishing brushes under his arm was standing behind her. His work attire was stained with yellow paint. 

The floor polisher shook his head and said, “At a time like this what are you up to? Stupid girl!”. This was floor polisher Trofimov. He took Nastya home with him and passed her on to his wife, an elevator girl. She was a loud, decisive woman who despised men. The Trofimovs sheltered Nastya. She was ill for a very long time and stayed in a tiny room. She first heard from the floor polishers wife that Balashov was not to blame, nobody is obliged to know her Northern customs, and only clumsy girls like her can fall terribly in love with the first person they meet. She scolded Nastya, but Nastya only became happier. She was happy that she wasn’t deceived and still hopped to see Balashov.

The floor polisher was soon enlisted in the army, his wife and Nastya were on their own. When Nastya recovered, the floor polishers wife arranged a nurses course for her. Nastya’s teachers were amazed by her ability to make dressings and the dexterity of her thin, strong fingers. She would happily reply to them, “Why, I’m a lace maker.”

Winter and the Leningrad siege with their iron nights and cannonades passed. Nastya finished her courses and waited to be sent to the front. At night she thought of Balashov and her old father, he perhaps will never know why she secretly left. He won’t scold her- he’ll forgive her, but he will never understand her.

Finally in spring, Nastya was sent to the front near Leningrad.She searched and  asked about Balashov everywhere: in the destroyed palace parks, among the ruins and fires, in the dugouts, on the batteries and in the fields and forests. Nastya bumped into the floor polisher at the front and the chatty man,  told soldiers from his unit of the girl who had come to the front from the North to search for her loved one. The rumour of this girl began growing and spreading fast, like a legend. It passed on from place to place, from one artillery unit to the next. It was spread by motorcyclists, drivers, orderlies and signalmen. The soldiers were jealous of the unknown man the girl was looking for and thought of their loved ones. Each and everyone of them had girlfriends when life was peaceful and everyone was holding onto them in their hearts. The soldiers told each other of the girl from the North and changed details of the story, depending on the power of their imagination. Every man swore that Nastya was from his hometown. Ukranians counted her as theirs, Siberians also as theirs, Ryazanians assured others that Nastya was of course from Ryazan, and even Kazakhs from distant Asian steppes said the girl who came to the front  must of  been from Kazakhstan.

The tale of Nastya even reached the coastal artillery unit where Balashov served. The instigator, like other soldiers, was deeply  touched by the story of the strange girl who was searching for her loved one. He was amazed by the power of her love. He often thought of the girl and began to feel jealous of the man she loved. How could he of known that he was jealous of himself?

Balashov’s personal life failed. Nothing good happened out of his marriage. But some are lucky! All his life he dreamed of a great love, but now it was too late to think about it. He was graying at the temples…

It happened that Nastya finally found the battery where Balashov was serving at, but didn’t find Balashov- he was killed three days earlier and burried in a pine forest near the shore of a small bay.

Rudnev went silent.

“And what happened next?”

“Next?”, Rudnev asked. “Next was that the soldiers were fighting madly and we destroyed the hell out of the German defense line. We carried it to the sky and brought it down to  the ground in the form of dust and dirt.”

Rarely do I see people in such a solemn and furious anger.

“And Nastya?”

“What about Nastya! She gives all her care to the wounded. She is the best nurse in our sector of the front.


* Nastya is a common Russian girl’s name, by its popularity it is similar to the English name Jane.

** izba – A Russian peasant’s hut or cottage.

More on Soviet literature can be found on Sovlit.net