Manzano Mountain Review is an online New Mexico literary journal affiliated with UNM-Valencia.

Yurka's Apples

by Maia Nikitina

Every day for a month Yurka had asked me if I would come with him to steal apples, and in August I said yes. We set off in the morning. "Be careful," my mother told me, and gave me some money for ice-cream and for the bus.

Yurka was ginger and a little overweight. He was older than me, although I never knew by how much. He was in love with me, that I knew for sure, because of the way he looked at me and because he came to the window of our ground floor apartment every day. I had been flattered at first, then had grown resentful of his insistence, but soon I began to wait for his voice, gruff and hopeful. On some days he brought ice-cream, which I accepted through the metal bars on our windows. When we had first moved in, my mother had pointed to them and had said that we had been lucky to have a pretty design compared to the other ground floor flats whose metal bars were simple and even rusty. Our windows were at the back of the building, and when I had been little I had had to come and call out to my mother every thirty minutes when I had played outside, for safety reasons. It was a miracle that she had agreed to let me go with Yurka, and it was a testament of how much she liked him. He had told us that the apple orchard was near his family allotment, and that no one ever claimed the apples which grew there.

Yurka lived with his grandmother in the apartment block behind ours. If I were to look out of my bedroom window on a winter night, I could see the light in his kitchen, and sometimes I saw his grandmother, Baba Lucya, moving around slowly. She groaned quietly whenever she moved, and when I saw her, a hundred or so meters away, I always heard her groans in my mind. Yurka’s grandmother was his mother’s mother. I had never seen his parents, and he had never mentioned them. He rarely talked to anyone apart from me, and when he did talk, he asked me questions and then he listened to my answers, fixing me with his freckled eyes. His lips moved as he listened, as if he was trying to memorise what I was saying. He had a reputation of being strange, and a girl we both knew had told me once that he had tried to strangle someone when they had teased him about his parents. No one had dared approach him since then.

The bus was a little round thing. It was empty until we got to Pashkovskaya, and then a crowd of dacha owners boarded it with their baskets, all talking at once. Yurka stood up and let a woman sit next to me, and for the rest of the journey I threw looks at him and he made funny faces, causing me to giggle. His skin was freckled too. I loved watching Yurka when he wasn’t looking. His face was like a mirror, reflecting both what he saw and his reactions to it. I could never go out with him, not with the reputation he had, but it was pleasant to be loved this way, and the summer had been long and boring.

We got off and walked through a field of wheat. It had already turned golden and the grain was becoming plump. Yurka picked a stem and bit into the grain, and his teeth were white and large against the gold.

"There is corn over there," he said. "And on the way back we’ll get some sunflowers."

Baba Lucya sold roasted sunflower seeds at the corner of our street. She had the best sunflower seeds for miles, and she always put a little extra into the paper cone when my mother or I bought them from her. Na zdorovye, she always said in her sonorous voice. She sold apples too sometimes, and damson, and ripe yellow apricots. In late September, Yurka gathered walnuts that dropped from the walnut trees in our communal yard, and Baba Lucya sold them too.

Yurka was going to a cookery school in September. After he qualified, he was going to work at a canteen or a café somewhere on the coast, he had told me.

"Why on the coast, why not in the city?" I had asked.

"Because I love the sea," he had said.

I loved the sea too, and after he had told me about his cookery plans I had told him about the holiday in Anapa that we had just come from, my mother, my father, and I. Yurka had listened with interest, his lips moving as usual.

"I have never been to the Black Sea," he had said when I had finished.

"Never? Have you been to any sea at all?" I said in wonder, and he shook his head.

The orchard was separated from the fields by a barbed wire fence. Yurka walked along the fence for thirty meters or so, then he stopped and fiddled with the wire, and a section came off. We climbed inside. The apple trees were heavy with fruit, and there were dozens of fallen apples on the ground. Yurka found the sunniest spot and began to shake one of the trees, and I picked up the apples that fell and put them into our bags. When the bags were full, Yurka stopped shaking and sat down under the tree.

"Don’t we need to go?" I asked, and sat down next to him.

"The bus is not due for another hour," he said.

"Does no one guard this orchard?" I said, but he did not hear me. He was looking at the sky where a plane was leaving a white tail behind it.

"One day I will go far away," Yurka said when the plane had disappeared from view.

"Me too," I said. "I will live in the south of France, or maybe in Greece."

"I will go for a swim every morning, so early that the water will feel hot compared to the coolness of the air. Then I will go to the market and buy the freshest ingredients, and then I will cook the best food I can. And one day, they will come to visit the seaside and they will stop at my restaurant, and when they taste the food I have made they will ask about the chef. And then I will come out to meet them."

"Who?" I said, but Yurka put his finger to his lips and in the silence we heard a voice in the distance.

"Come on," Yurka said in a whisper, and we ran towards the opening in the fence. Once we were on the outside, Yurka affixed the wire section to the rest of the fence. The voices were going in the opposite direction now. We set off across the field of wheat.

On the way back, Yurka was silent. I didn’t speak either. I thought about the holiday in Anapa, the green outer shells of hazelnuts and the salted boiled corn that my mother had bought me every day. We had gone to Anapa together, my parents and I, but once we had found a room to rent, my father had announced that he would need to get back to his work. They had left me to wait in the yard while they had talked at a distance, and the house owner had come over to keep me company. She had asked me questions about my school but I had ignored her and had watched my parents instead. My mother had put her hand on my father’s wrist, and he had shaken it off before coming to kiss me goodbye.

Yurka walked me to the door of my flat. It was not late yet, and rows of old ladies sat on the benches by the entrance, snacking on their sunflower seeds. "Say hello to your grandmother," they said to him.

"Who were you talking about, at the orchard?" I asked when we were in front of my door. One of the ladies had come up the stairs too, and was now waiting to get past. Yurka stepped back and ran out into the street, not looking at me. I could hear the old ladies shouting after him as he dropped his bag of apples onto the ground.

My mother was watching a film when I came in. I could tell by her face that she had been crying. It was her favourite film, about an unhappily married woman from a small village who goes on an overnight trip to Moscow and falls in love with her taxi driver. I took the apples to the kitchen, washed them and put them on a dish, and took them to her. They were red and plump, although not large in size. She picked one and took a bite.

"Yurka will be going to a cookery school in September," I said. "He wants to work at a restaurant in Anapa, or maybe in Sochi. One day, we will go there, you and I, and we will stop at his restaurant, not knowing that he is the chef. The food will be so delicious that we will ask to see the chef to thank him for our meal. He will join our table and we will eat and laugh all evening until it is time to go."

My father came home later that evening. I heard them whisper in the living room, their voices rising sometimes then falling again. In my dream, I was on top of a wave, rising and falling, voices coming from the depths of the sea.   

Maia Nikitina was born in Russia during the Soviet era. She holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Creative Writing from The Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, and her short stories have appeared in Necessary Fiction and The Crazy Oik. A regular reviewer for The Bookmunch, Maia is currently working on her first novel. She can be found on Twitter @maianikitina.