During the last several days Kulpash felt especially bad. Everything she had on was threadbare, patched up, worn though, and the rotted torn short sheepskin coat was like a callous sheepskin at all. Her head was wound with a worn, colourless kerchief that had been downy some time, but it did not keep warm too. And her face – swollen up, seedy, gray - was exactly like a leather milk pale. Having shrunk with cold, leant her back against the cold stove in the corner of the clay-walled hut she is sitting being lost in her dreary thoughts. Side by side having huddled himself up Kaly’s son lies wrapped himself up in the same worn through sheepskin coat.
Penetrating through all chinks icy wind is blowing free all along the clay-walled hut. It would be good to light the stove but they do not have any firewood. And they do not have any idea where to get it. At home – it is as bare as a bone. They have been suffering from hunger already for six long winter months, and now the third day they live just on water. Her husband – Maktym, their bread-winner and the only hope – walks, gathers aims around auls. He goes away very early and comes back very late. And most often empty-handed… But all the same Kulpash makes belief the whole day long that maybe exactly today kind people will give him at least something. This expectation and the hope became her habit. Her cheeks have already hollowed, her face has become pale and yellow, she began already swelling but she still hoped for something.
Up to now she cared more about her son than about herself. Everything that it was possible to cadge, impetrate from their aul neighbours – was it some pottage or some broth – first of all she gave it to her son. In these latter days they had no more even this. As they say in the aul almost everybody was about to fall apart. Now it happens very rarely, as it used to be, when somebody shares his or her last crust. It happens you drop in by accident to somebody’s place during a meal and at once all people shrink and leer at you unkindly. Because of these looks she feels especially ill at ease. She always was ashamed to peep into other people’s mouths. Because of this she went almost never to her neighbors’. Yes… the third day not a wink of bread in the mouth. It seemed that the bejesus dried on the spine, in the eyes there are black circles, and the heart presses the breast. She was caught by death torpor. But first of all she did not have her own hunger on her mind but her little son. From time to time she threw at him a dull look and then she uttered a groan from her breast:
- Good heavens! For what sins do you punish us?
She sobbed heart out. Big hot tears rolled all round the collar of the hard-shelled scuffed short sheepskin coat…
But except the feeling of hunger Kulpash was plagued with one more troublesome thought. It especially troubled her for the second day. At the beginning of this winter thieves stole the only horse, it was left nothing for a living and then Maktym came a-begging on foot. At these days having come to her place Kulpash’s half-sister switched this conversation.
- You have already drugged enough with this bad egg, - she started. – It is just time for you to see life needlessly and not imposing hardship. There comes a hard year. Care about yourself, think about food and warmth.
Raushan has already found a man who was going to do her unhappy sister a great favour. It was Shumagasy.
- He has about five dozen heads of cattle, - she said about him, - there is no richer one in the aul. His wife is dead. He does not have any children. This year he was just forty. If you marry him you yourself will become both han and biy1, - Raushan said.
Then early in the winter they did not feel hunger so much yet and something felt to their lot from their aul neighbours, and that is why Kulpash felt rummy only from the thought to leave her husband.
- How can you say so, Raushanshan! – She cried in horror. – How could your tongue get around about this?
But two-three months later the hunger began pricking stronger its clutches into the whole her family. There was absolutely nothing for eating. Little Kaly whined often and often. And looking at her poor kid at times Kulpash surrendered herself in such despair that every now and again she remembered her sister’s proposition. She has not decided yet if she can marry him or not but however she was not able just to shake this thought out of her head.
And here Raushan came again, saw the sister and began crying.
- You can really die from hunger, poor egg… What have I told you about?!
Kulpash kept silent. She tugged with doubts within herself. An idea flashed through her mind: “If I marry Shumagasy, I will be dressed, shod and sated… And Kaly, my boy, will forget about hunger…” But at the same time she thought: “How can I leave my husband? Will not I pay for the harm done to him?” Her mind was reeling without this and because of these thoughts she could crack her brain.
Understanding that Kulpash was tired and did not object with previous vigour Raushan began speaking more insistently:
- You will not live out long with such a husband. As for us, we could not help you, we ourselves swear by Shumagazy… So decide before it is too late.
- And what to do with Kalishan?
- Oibai, sister, are we speaking about the kid? At first you’d better to think about yourself. You will take the boy some time later.
The fact that now Kulpash has remembered only her son but not her husband said already about her despair, hopelessness and broken will. Having noticed that her sister boggled Raushan (and she was sent by Shumagasy himself) started praising her future life in all sharps and flats:
- Bai has all that one can wish for, there is in his house both smoked meat and horsy sausage, and untouched kasy… They do not lay the table without some bread. When my husband begins speaking about you in bai’s presence he starts twisting and smacking lips in a sweat. “I would not like, - he says, - a better wife!”
Having just heard the words – “smoked meat”, “untouched kasy” – Kulpash got a cramp in her lips. Unendurable hunger clouded all her feelings and will. Tears welled in her eyes, she was about to cry: “I agree…” And having broken down she started writhing as in hysterics.
- Ah, dear!.. Darling!.. You can do with me everything you want… Carry me out… Carry me o-o-u-t, - she sobbed.
Kaly began moving under the torn sheepskin coat.
- Mum, - he called her feebly.
- What’s up, the apple of my eye? – Kulpash replied.
- Has my father come back home?
- Hey, my dear… Damn him, your father!..
Maktym went away early in the morning and did not return yet. The sun was already setting, the wind tailed away and the snow drift lay down. The sunbeams looked out from under the clouds and, having peeked through the dim window lit for a moment the gloomy clay-walled hut up tothe very threshold, but the husband did not return yet.
Kulpash was sitting at the stove. Having shrunk, Kaly huddled up to her. And as if having awoken from bad thoughts she sighed deeply. Usually women sigh like this in the evening when it is just time to burn wood in a stove and cook dinner. But now these memories troubled and tormented poor Kulpash. Grief and distress paralyzed and tortured her like an incurable malady. Raushan managed to embarrass Kulpash’s pure stout heart. And here for good measure the hunger with empty eyes stuck cruelly into her neck. Out of despair she was on the edge of doing the thing what recently she did not dare even to think about: she gave her consent to leave the husband and marry the other one whom earlier she had not seen even in a frightening dream. It means tomorrow she will go away. But how? Will she just leave the house? Will she part with her husband for ages? Kulpash could not even imagine this.
After Raushan’s departure all the time she thought about her husband. She remembered how he had come to ask in marriage. It happened in summer and it was the first time when she saw him. Then Maktym was handsome and stately: a sharp-nosed, slouchy dzhigit with gray face, thick eyebrows and goodly body. She liked him at a glance. And in such a way things went on to proceed in this train.
Peace and order reigned in their life. “Only death can do us apart,” – they said to each other. And when Maktym was out even for a short time Kulpash felt antsy. As often happened she absolutely burnt out while waiting. And now she decided to leave her Maktym. Eh, rough luck! Eh, dad-blamed need! How much tears were spilt because of it! How long they bit the bullet!
Kulpash started crying again. Kaly began moving under the coat.
- What’s up, the apple of my eye?
- Has the father come back home?
There were heard some steps behind the wall, then the door creaked. On the threshold there appeared a man in a short hardened sheepskin coat, in an old cap with three earflaps hardened in the frost, in down-at-heel, sewn on boots scuffed up to whiteness. There hang a thin feedbag on his neck. His cheeks sank in. Not a human but a piss poor feeble shadow of him.
Kulpash glanced at her husband and drooped. Kaly poked his head from under the coat.
- Have you come, father?
- I have come, my dear, come…
Maktym’s jaw started shivering. Shuffling feebly along, rattling with his iced boots he toddled to the girder in the middle of the clay-walled hut and dropped strengthlessly on his knees.
Kaly lamely moved to him. His eyes groped greedily the feedbag on his father’s neck. He came up and stretched his patties.
Maktym began crying.
- My son, my darling! I… I… have no-o-thing…
Kulpash also started crying.
The boy sighed like a grown-up, toddled reeling to the stove, rolled himself up into the coat and having said nothing huddled up to his mother.
They kept silent long. Dense darkness mantled the clay-walled hut. Maktym was still sitting having leant his back to the girder being completely depressed and shabby.
Kulpash sank into her endless dreary thoughts. Suddenly she raised her head as if she awaked.
- Hey! – she called her husband out.
Her voice was strange and foreign. Husky echo returned in the empty cold clay-walled hut.
Kulpash felt silent again. She did not know what and how to say…
Her eyes ran with tears again.
-Did you want anything to say?
-Yes… no matter… Raushan has come in today.
Kulpas could not speak, she was chocked with tears. Sometime later she called her husband again:
- What is up? Say already!
- How are we going to live?
- I do not know…
- We will kick the bucket indeed.
- It may be…
- So we could… - she stopped talking. – So… perhaps… it could be better for us to part from each other?!
Maktym rolled over. Then they sank into dead silence again. The new moon peeped coolly into the broken window.
- What have you said right now?
- I say: perhaps… it would be better to part?
- Has Raushan proposed it?
- Yes, she has.
- And what are you going to do with the boy? – It guggled in Maktym’s throat, he grated teeth.
-Christ in heaven!... What for do we have such a punishment?! – she cried.
Having hidden into the pigeonhole between the stove and Kulpash Kaly called silently:
-Well, what do you want, dear?
-It is cold…
The middle of March. The snowstorm raved the whole week. Only today it withered at last and calmed down. The sun turned to the spring. It turned notably warmer.
Piercing dead cold was not already felt from the ground. The cattle wasted away because of lack of fodder roamed around the yards, muzzled round each bunch of straw and muck hills.
A young woman plodded along a hardly noticeable path at the direction of the clay-walled hut, along a pipe covered with snowdrifts and being situated on the outskirts, on the very edge of a long stretched aul. It was Kulpash. Already for twenty days she was living in the house of her new husband. Severe hunger made her take this step. With the help of this she got rid of famishment, but however grief did not come off from her face. The twenty days in Shumagasy’s house seemed long and leaden like twenty years. Especially she missed her little Kaly. He appeared in her dreams at the first night at Shumagasy’s. Before leaving the house Kulpash came up to her son and with the words: “The apple of my eys” – began kissing him. But he pouted aggrievedly, was frozen up and turned his eyes. Like this he appeared in her dream. Sad, with unchildish offence on his beaten face. Unwinking he stared somewhere into the distance. In the dream Kulpash caressed him, cuddled him but through thick and thin the boy did not move from his place as if he were petrified. Then she also saw Maktym in her dream. She tried to speak to him but he did not answer her usual “Hey! Hey!” And he had a doleful and injured look.
Now she was pursued by remorse. For the sake of her own well-being she hung out to dry the most significant and dearest people in the world – her son and her husband. Often and often she thought: “It would be better to die with them together than live in such a way”. Miserable Maktym was constantly on her mind. Having hung the striped feedbag on his neck early in the morning her poor husband went on to look for some swag – beg from door to door but in the evening he always came back home. It means that first of all he did not think about himself but about his wife and his child, tried to ease their sufferings insofar as he could and such a man she betrayed – she took herself off to have a dripping roast and came away to other, foreign and loveless man…
Fullness in the bai’s house only escalated anxieties, she spent days and nights crying her heart out and finally today using the fact that Shumagasy went somewhere away Kulpash hurriedly hit the road. The hope lingered on in her breast: if Maktym forgives her she will come back to the left chimney.
She walked and from time to time touched the sacred bundle in her bosom. In the bundle there were two lumps of meat - for Maktym and Kaly. She has boiled them on the sly looking forward that she will bring home a gift.
“My darling, - she thought about her son, - what will he say when he sees the meat?”
Three barking dogs met her in the aul. She waved them away. The first one at the entrance into the aul was Ibrai’s house. Its host himself stood on a high snow drift. Kulpash greeted him hurriedly and went on. As if wanting something to say Ibrai even made several steps towards her but he stopped at once.
There her house was! She looked at the door with the lop-sided sign and ran cold at once. Snow storm blew a huge snowdrift but there were no steps on it at all. From time to time disappearing in the snow she got to the door and began raking away the snow with her feet feeling that fear gripped her more and more and it got dark in her eyes. She did not realize yet why she had this presentiment. It must be said she understood nothing at all…
Having mustered up the rest of her strength Kulpash gave a wrench at the creaky door. Icy dead air blew in her face. Even the smallest sunbeam did not penetrate through the window. It was dark in the clay-walled hut as in a grave.
Kulpash started unwittingly back and delayed at the threshold. Holding on to the door with one hand she called thick:
- The apple of my eye!
Not a sound…
She did not know what to do. She looked around, ran to the window – everything happened as in a dream – and began raking chop-chop the snow. At last she raked the half and the sun flushed into the room having lit the stove, the floor, and the walls.
She felt facedown on the snowdrift, flattened herself against the window, and peeped inside. The father and the son were sleeping at the stove having embraced hard and pulled up their legs. Pity melted her heart. Doddering as before, stumbling, falling down and crying she ran into the house shouting:
- The apple of my eye! Kalishan! Wake up!..
And having run up she dropped harshly on knees before her son to raise him, fold him to her breast, kiss his dear face and here suddenly she saw Maktym. His eyes already glazed over, his mouth was open, he grinned his teeth.
Kulpash shivered, hopped and cried:
And what happened then she did not remember. When the people came in she was lying unconscious embracing the frozen bodies of her son and her husband…