by Jim Nichols
In August the summer Ted turned eight a family of Russians moved into the old farmhouse on the other side of the big hayfield. They kept to themselves at first, and all Ted knew about them was that someone there played the piano. When the wind was right he would hear it from his window, delicate as a memory. Lying in bed he would imagine the Russian family gathered around their piano. Then he would imagine visiting. He especially wanted to meet the kids. There were two, his mother had said, and Ted wondered if maybe they could become friends. He and his mother had only been in this new town a few months longer than the Russians, and he hadn't made any friends yet. It was hard to make friends here. He thought maybe the Russian kids were having the same trouble or maybe even more, because they never seemed to leave the house. He didn't see them outside in fact until two weeks after they'd arrived.It was early in the morning, he'd awakened to music just at the edge of his hearing, and for a while he lay still, listening. When he sat up he saw them: a girl and a smaller boy down in the field, running and stooping. He dug the binoculars out from under his mattress, tried to figure just what they were doing. Finally he pulled on his clothes, ran down the stairs and out into the field, halting a respectful distance away, looking down at his sneakers when the Russian girl glanced over. The blueberry plants were dry and dusty, and he heard them crackling as the girl walked up, and then he saw her saddle shoes.
"Look at me," the girl said. "What's your name?"
"Ted," he managed to say, but he still couldn't look.
"My name is Nadia Myachin," she said proudly, "and that's my stupid brother, Gregor."
"Shut up, Nadia." The boy was on hands and knees, staring intently into the blueberries.
"Why won't you look at me?" Nadia said.
Ted finally did. She was beautiful, with high cheekbones, bright blue eyes and blonde hair that fell over her shoulders. As he stared the silence grew between them, until finally he said, "I live right over there."
"Yes, of course," Nadia said.
"What are you guys doing?"
Gregor was patting the bushes with one hand, then the other.
"Looking for grasshoppers," Nadia said. She explained that the grasshoppers were for their pet bird, Yuri. They had found him with an injured wing and their father had let them keep him as long as they made sure he had plenty to eat. Ted was impressed that they had a pet bird, but disappointed that their accents were so mild. He'd imagined them speaking like Ilya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. But he was happy when Nadia asked if he wanted to help, and for the next few minutes he stuck close to Nadia, moving through the blueberry plants, grabbing the squirmy grasshoppers, carefully lifting the punctured lid on a coffee can and dropping the bugs in. And he was thrilled to be asked to come to their house and help feed Yuri. He wasn't even upset that Nadia won the race back. Gregor was, though: he ran stubbornly and cried angrily when he couldn't catch up.
In the farmhouse Mr. Myachin welcomed Ted with a satisfyingly thick accent. He was big and red-faced, his wife slender and delicate. Yuri, it turned out, lived in a jungle of potted plants on top of their grand piano. He didn't mind the music, Nadia said. He looked cockeyed at them from among the plants, and when Nadia put a grasshopper down he hopped out and gulped him. Nadia wouldn't let anyone else feed Yuri. You had to aim them just right, she said, or they'd get away. Gregor growled at this but gave in and handed Nadia the grasshoppers one by one. After a while he let Ted hold the coffee can and open it when he said, so he could reach in and select a grasshopper.
Yuri ate all the grasshoppers and then hopped back behind the plants.
Ted followed Nadia and Gregor into the kitchen, where Mr. Myachin smiled at them and said, "Show hands!"
Ted watched Nadia and Gregor open their hands, and then did so himself.
"Tobacco juice!" Mr. Myachin boomed.
"I call it grasshopper poop," Nadia whispered to Ted.
"No swearing!" Gregor hissed.
"That's not swearing!" Nadia hissed back.
"You, boy," Mr. Myachin said. "Can swim?"
"A little," Ted said.
"Good! Come and swim, wash away tobacco juice!"
Nadia and Gregor cheered and said, "Come on!" to Ted. They ran upstairs and Nadia darted into her bedroom and shut the door. Gregor took Ted into his bedroom and gave him a red bathing suit from his dresser. He took out a blue one for himself, with a cartoon Roadrunner emblazoned on the leg. Ted looked quickly around the room, impressed at its neatness. There was a globe on Gregor's dresser and a map of Soviet Russia on his wall.
They met Nadia back in the hallway and ran downstairs.
"Where are we going?" Ted said.
"The quarry!" Nadia and Gregor shouted.
Mr. Myachin walked with his shoulders back, swinging his arms. He led the way down the field to the bushes and through the bushes to a pine-and-birch wood and through the wood to an old quarry that Ted hadn't known a thing about. Mr. Myachin stopped outside the quarry to make Ted promise that he'd never go there without an adult.
"I promise," Ted said.
"Good boy!" Mr. Myachin said.
The path led through a rocky barricade onto an outcropping that looked out over the flooded quarry. Carefully they descended a steep trail along the quarry wall to a flat ledge down by the water. Mr. Myachin set the towels down, took off his shirt—his belly was big and white compared to his tanned arms—and dove in with a thunderclap of a splash. He swam hard, kicking out into the middle, blowing a stream of water into the air like a whale. The children laughed and jumped in carefully, chins high to keep their faces dry. The boys dogpaddled, but Nadia swam in a proud, stiff-necked crawl. The water—warm on top, cold underneath—made Ted a little afraid, so he stuck close to the ledge. After a while Mr. Myachin caught hold of a rope that someone had rigged from cables that criss-crossed the top of the quarry. The rope was thick and had a thinner line attached that dragged in the water. Holding the thin rope in his teeth, Mr. Myachin swam back to the ledge, then climbed up to where the trail came in and, after waving energetically at the kids below, ran right off the edge of the rock outcropping, the rope in his hands. The rope jerked him into an arc out over the water, where he let go and hung suspended, twisting slowly, before falling the rest of the way into the drink with another thunderous splash.
Nadia, Gregor and Ted cheered.
"I want a turn!" Nadia said when Mr. Myachin had pulled himself back onto the ledge, but he told her it was too dangerous for little kids.
"I'm not a little kid!" Nadia said.
"You are little kid one more year!" Mr. Myachin said. He was toweling vigorously. Nadia sat down on the ledge and pouted and didn't join them when Ted and Gregor went back in the water for a last swim.
When Ted got home that day he told his mother about the bird and the grasshoppers and then about the quarry and she said, "Quarries aren't very safe, Teddy. You make sure there's a grown-up along with you whenever you go."
Ted said Mr. Myachin had already made him promise that.
"Good," Ted's mother said.
Ted went next door to catch grasshoppers and swim several times over the next few weeks. Once he even stayed overnight, sleeping on a cot in Gregor's room, listening to Mr. Myachin play the piano. Ted still felt pretty lucky they'd moved in. He hadn't been successful in finding a best friend—Gregor was kind of a pill, and Nadia was five years older—but it was still nice to visit, and to go swimming almost any time you wanted. Mr. Myachin never seemed to mind, and Mrs. Myachin would walk down and sit on the rocks if her husband was gone. One day in August, though—the hottest day so far, so hot that the tar on the road was soft enough to chew—Mr. and Mrs. Myachin drove into town to shop for a new car, and there was no one left to take them swimming. It was a Saturday, and after feeding grasshoppers to Yuri they settled onto the couch in the living room to watch cartoons. Ted didn't mind—he figured they'd swim when the grown-ups got home—and Gregor loved cartoons almost as much as swimming anyway. But Nadia complained and fidgeted. Every time she moved, her skin made a sound like Scotch Tape against the leather couch. Finally she stood with her hands on her hips and said it was stupid to stay inside when she was perfectly capable of being the grown-up, since she would be an eighth-grader in the fall.
"You're not a grown-up!" Gregor yelled, with his eyes fixed on the TV.
"Don't be a sissy," Nadia said. "Grasshopper Greg."
Ted knew that was supposed to mean he'd made tobacco juice in his pants.
Gregor crossed his arms and scowled at the TV, where Wile. E. Coyote had just run off a cliff and was falling a long way to the ground. When he hit there was a puff of smoke and the Roadrunner beeped happily and zoomed off.
"All right then, I'll call and ask permission!" Nadia said.
She marched into the kitchen and after a moment Ted heard her say, "Oh, thank you, Father!" very loud, and then hang up the phone so that its bell dinged. She came back into the living room and said Mr. Myachin had told her it was all right this once, but they had to promise to mind Nadia and do everything she said. Then she switched off the TV. So Gregor put on his blue Roadrunner bathing suit and loaned Ted the red one again. Nadia met them downstairs with three towels slung over her shoulder. They walked past the piano, where Yuri cocked his head from between the plants.
"Can we bring grasshoppers back?" Ted said.
"Get the coffee can," Nadia said.
Ted grabbed the can off the top of the piano and they ran out of the house and followed Nadia as she skipped across the shaggy lawn to the path. Nadia could skip very fast, almost as if her feet didn't touch the ground, and the boys had to run hard to try and keep up. When Ted stopped to catch his breath, Gregor kept running slowly, fists clenched, a moan coming from his lips. In the field Nadia slowed to a walk and the boys caught up. There were dozens of grasshoppers jumping randomly around.
They went single-file along a path into the woods that led downhill to the opening in the wall surrounding the quarry. The air cooled as soon as they came out the other side overlooking the water. Ted felt funny to be here alone, but Nadia dropped the towels and raised her arms in the air and said, "Ahhh!" Then she walked out on the outcropping and put a hand on the heavy, cabled rope that Mr. Myachin had left tied by its small line to a bush growing out of a fissure in the rock.
"I might just take a swing," she said.
"Father said no!" Gregor said.
Nadia stuck out her tongue. Gregor picked up a rock and threw it as hard as he could against the wall of the quarry. Then he turned and started carefully down the rocky trail to the flat ledge. Ted followed, picking his way between the rock edges. When he reached bottom he saw Nadia was still on the outcropping, holding the rope in one hand, leaning back against its weight.
"I'll tell!" Gregor yelled.
"Go ahead, Grasshopper Greg!" Nadia stuck her bottom out and snapped the edge of her bathing suit against her leg. Then she ran to the edge and skidded to a stop, teetering, then steadying. She grinned down at Gregor. But Gregor only crossed his arms and glared, so she backed away again, took a deep breath and this time ran right off the rock, jumping way out and falling, pulling the slack out of the rope. Ted watched for her to swing out over the water, but when she reached the rope's limit it snapped itself right out of her hands, sending her into a long tumble that ended in an awkward, flat splash into the water.
The boys ran to the edge of the ledge and when Nadia's head reappeared, her long hair fanning out along the surface, Ted clapped his hands and even Gregor yelled, "Wheee!" But Nadia only looked at them across the water and sank again. Bubbles broke the surface and a shock went through Ted, and he stared at the water, holding his breath. Finally Gregor said, "Come on!" and they waded out until the rock dropped away, and then dogpaddled toward the rope trembling into the water, marking where Nadia had disappeared. But they couldn't find Nadia. They looked until they were exhausted—Ted even put his face into the water and opened his eyes—and finally they splashed back to the ledge. They climbed to the top of the quarry and ran gasping back to the field and through the springing grasshoppers to the path to the house. When they burst into the kitchen, Mrs. Myachin smiled and said, "Did you see my new car, you boys?"
But Mr. Myachin frowned at their wet suits. "Where is Nadia?"
Gregor sobbed and blubbered incoherently.
Mr. Myachin looked fiercely at Ted.
Ted started crying.
Mr. Myachin tore out of the house. The boys and Mrs. Myachin ran after him. Ted had never seen anyone's mother run like that before. When they got to the field Mr. Myachin wasn't there, but the grasshoppers were all stirred up. Ted had never seen so many grasshoppers. The boys followed Mrs. Myachin across the field and along the path through the woods. They kept up with her, even though Ted's legs were heavy as granite and Gregor was gasping and straining.
"Oh, please God no," Mrs. Myachin kept saying.
When they came out of the woods Mr. Myachin was standing in the quarry entrance with Nadia in his arms, both of them dripping water onto the rock. He stared wildly at them and then said, "Run back, call 911!" He looked at his daughter's slack face.
Mrs. Myachin ran off, knock-kneed, choking.
Mr. Myachin put Nadia down and knelt over her. He blew into her mouth. Then he pushed on her thin chest. Her hair was in the dirt, and when Gregor scooched over to try and brush it clean, Mr. Myachin pushed him away with one hand.
Greg fell backwards and started crying.
"Shut up," Mr. Myachin said. He blew again into Nadia's mouth, pushed rhythmically on her chest. Water came out of her mouth, but nothing else happened. He kept at it until a siren wailed in the distance, and then he picked her up and ran heavily back.
Ted and Gregor fell far behind, stumbling through the field, the alders and across the lawn. There was an ambulance in the driveway with its lights bouncing red flashes off the Myachins' new car. Mrs. Myachin was looking into the ambulance with her hands clenched at her sides, and when the boys came up she turned and said, "Gregor, you go to Teddy's house and wait there." Her face was red and wet. Men were talking urgently inside the ambulance, and seatbelts were clicking together. Mrs. Myachin climbed into the ambulance and a man reached out and pulled the door shut and the ambulance zoomed off, flashing and beeping. Ted and Gregor looked at each other, then started across the hayfield.
Toward the end of that summer the Myachins sold their house so they could move back to Russia. Ted's mother said it was because they needed someone to talk to in their own language.
"It's so sad, Teddy," she said.
Ted hadn't been to visit since that hot Saturday, but when he heard they were leaving he asked his mother if it would be all right to go over and say goodbye to Gregor, and his mother said she thought it would, but he should hurry because it was almost supper-time. So Ted set out across the field and knocked on the side door, the one with the metal latch that the Myachins used instead of their front door. After a minute Gregor opened the door and looked out at Ted.
"Hi," Ted said.
"Hi," Gregor said. "You can come in if you want."
The rooms were nearly empty of furniture, but the grand piano was still there in the living room and Yuri was still there, too: he hopped out from behind a plant and looked at them.
"Are you really going back to Russia?" Ted said.
"Yes," Gregor said. He put his finger on a piano key and played a high, plinky note. He played the note again. Then he put his hands in his pockets.
Yuri looked at them with his head cocked.
"Want to go get some grasshoppers?" Ted asked.
"Okay," Gregor said.
The boys went out though the side door. The field was cropped now and it was cooler but there were still a few grasshoppers dodging around at half-speed. They hadn't brought a container—the coffee can was still down at the quarry—but managed to grab enough grasshoppers with both hands to make Yuri a reasonable meal. Ted could feel them squirming inside his fists. They were strong little bugs. He walked back to the house with his hands out to the side. Indoors, he and Gregor put them on the piano one at a time and Yuri chased them down and ate them. But Gregor aimed the last one wrong and it jumped off the piano and hopped down the short hallway to the kitchen.
"Catch him!" Gregor said.
Ted ran after the grasshopper, dropping to his knees and trapping it against the baseboard next to the kitchen table, where Gregor's parents stood wrapping dishes in newspaper.
Ted squeezed the grasshopper in his fist and looked up at them. Mr. Myachin just stared back with his big, dark eyes, but Mrs. Myachin patted him softly on the head. Ted stood up and pulled the grasshopper's legs off so it couldn't escape again. He was very angry at it for trying to get away. He took it back to the piano and gave it to Yuri, who pecked it twice and swallowed it down. Ted gave him the legs, and Yuri ate those, too, then cocked his head and ruffled his wings. Ted thought he looked pretty healthy. He asked Gregor if they were going to turn him loose when they moved. Gregor said they already had—a couple of times—but Yuri kept coming back and tapping on the window.
"Really?" Ted said.
"Yes," Gregor said.
Mrs. Myachin came into the room. She looked very tired. "I'm sorry, Teddy," she said, "but you have to go home now." She patted his head again and went back to the kitchen.
Gregor led Ted to the side door and held out his hand. Ted noticed a smear of tobacco juice on his palm. They put their hands together and solemnly shook. "I'll probably never see you again," Gregor said. He jiggled the latch and opened it and they went into the yard. "My father said he'll leave a window open for Yuri when we leave," Gregor said.
"Good," Ted said. His whole chest felt tight.
"Maybe he'll fly over to your house."
"We don't have a piano," Ted said, and then he turned and walked off, holding his breath. He couldn't talk and he couldn't look back, not even when Gregor called, "Bye!" When he heard the side door shut, it freed him to run across the field. Halfway back a big grasshopper hopped out of his way, and Ted tried to stomp on him, but the grasshopper was too fast.
In the house Ted dodged past his mother and ran to his bedroom and jumped into his bed. When she tapped on his door he said, "Stay out!" because he couldn't talk to anyone just then. He rolled onto his stomach and the sheet went wet under his face and a breeze through his window made the sheet cool. He got the hiccups then and held his pillow over his head until they went away. Then he threw the pillow on the floor and turned to lie on his back. He held his breath so the hiccups wouldn't return, and it got quiet and he could hear his heart beating. After another moment he heard the piano playing faintly from the Russians' house. It was a slow song that made Ted's chest ache. The song went on, and then something changed and it became just noise, like someone banging on the keys. And then it stopped altogether. Ted lay still on his bed for a long time, waiting for the music to start again, but finally his mother called and he had to go downstairs for supper. That afternoon turned out to be the last time he ever heard the piano from across the field, and he never saw any of the Myachins again. But he never forgot about them, either. He remembered whenever he looked at the farmhouse, or thought about the quarry. He remembered when school began in the fall and he still didn't make any friends, and he kept remembering every time summer came around and he walked through the jumping grasshoppers in the hayfield. Oh, he never ever forgot them. Even thirty and forty years later, after everything else that had happened in his life, he would sometimes come slowly awake early in the morning and realize that he was holding his breath and listening, as if there might still be music out there.
Lives in Warren, ME with wife Anne. Published in numerous magazines, including Night Train, Narrative, Esquire, elimae, Portland Monthly, Fried Chicken and Coffee, American Fiction, Zoetrope All-Story Extra, paris transcontinental, The Clackamas Review and River City. Collection Slow Monkeys and Other Stories published by Carnegie Mellon in 2002. Novel Hull Creek published by Downeast Books April 1, 2011.