Auntie Nina stood in the middle of her hut and wept. The place once occupied by the Russian stove built back in her grandma’s day, in the 1930s, the place where that unfailing dispenser of tender loving care once stood, was empty. A ragged hole yawned in the ceiling above, giving a clear view of a mournful sky and the white caterpillar of an airplane vapor trail. Auntie Nina even pinched herself in the side, but no – it wasn’t a dream.
Grandpa Yerofeyich had built that stove, so the family lovingly called it Yerofeyich too. And why not, because what’s most important of all in a Russian village? The stove, sure enough. In times past, after the war, only the stoves loomed like solitary monuments in the burned-out villages. The huts were rebuilt around them, and life began anew. Auntie Nina remembered her grandmother’s saying, that the Russian stove was the empress of the home. It warmed the whole huge hut, giving out a steady, welcoming heat, and everyone – grandpa, grandma, ma and pa, and the little ones too – would crowd around it, rubbing their hands. Grandma would sleep on the stove’s high wooden shelf, while the kiddies monkeyed around on the floor, and mom put a cast-iron pot of kasha and milk onto the stove to stew, and deep in its enormous, ship-like innards, the stuffed pies baked, and you could see the dough rising and the plate pies browning before your eyes. And as night fell, the coals were raked, and the children sat and watched, and to them, it seemed that they were peering into the sky and the bright little embers were stars.
Auntie Nina wiped her eyes. For a long time, the stove had been smoking and sneezing, and its flanks were no longer giving off heat. She’d been urged to bring in one of those new-fangled stove repairmen to clean the flue and the pipes, to replace the crumbling tiles, and fix the whole thing up.
So Papanin, a burly fellow with fists the size of footballs, appeared, asked for payment in advance, rustled up some buddies, and sent Auntie Nina off to stay with her sister on the outskirts of the village, so she wouldn’t get in the way. Nina left with a light heart, although she did take with her the satchel that held her cash and documents.
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