Available in original Ukrainian: “Подарунок” Дар’я Беззадіна
Sashka pressed her numb feet to the warm side of the stove and turned the page. Almost every winter, she reread “The adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” by Arthur Conan Doyle, greedily soaking up London’s pale winter landscapes and swallowing at every mention of the fragrant Christmas, carbuncle-stuffed, goose. The logs rustled and crackled in the stove, and Murik — family’s pet cat, stirred on an old washing machine behind the girl`s back. Sashka thoughtlessly stroked the cat’s striped back and returned to the book.
Holmes and Dr. Watson have just set out in search of the man who had placed the jewel stolen from Countess of Morcar in a goose’s throat. They wander the streets of London, their necks wrapped with thick scarves from the prickly frost, blizzard whistling around them.
Sashka loved the stories that could be read in the warm kitchen when the January frosts are raging outside the window, where the characters would come smelling of chimney smoke, from the unfriendly cold to a cozy room, and the fireplace is already crackling fire. Another yellowed page rustled, a timid child’s heart froze in anticipation, and suddenly — a whistle. Sasha sighed, looked up, and put the opened book back on the table. The kettle whistled, spitting all over the hot stove. “Who’s up for some tea?” she shouted from the kitchen. “We are!” the friendly choir responded quickly. The girl sighed again and reluctantly left her warm nest.
There were three cups lined up on the table: mom’s oblong blue one, dad’s yellow one with a leaf, and a pot-bellied one with a funny face on the side belonged to Sashka. Rustling tea leaves — one tablespoon in each mug — and one more in a dad’s mug. The kettle faintly squealed at the edge of the stove. She carefully grabbed it and went to pour the boiling water. Sasha was about to sit down with her book again while the tea was brewing when suddenly the doorbell rang.
“Who can it be at this hour?” dad’s bass boomed.
The front door squeaked, voices rumbled, Sasha heard the dogs barking, and stuck her fuzzy head out of the kitchen. She was suddenly so scared for Dad — what if some bandits came to their house? After all, who else would wander into the middle of nowhere at such an hour?
“Good evening, master!” a short red-nosed man thundered from the doorway. Listening to his drawling, Sasha judged that the man was already tipsy, as Dad could be after a couple of glasses.
Sasha went out into the corridor and saw the equally red-nosed woman and a boy not much smaller than herself standing beside the man. The boy’s face was twisted into a painful grimace.
“’Scuse us for you know…for the trouble…couldn’t even get anywhere near your neighbors with their fences this high,” the man waved his hand somewhere above his balding head. “We brought Vecheria to Mishka`s godparents in Zvirivka and good people gave us a ride and left here on the road and went on their way. And we need to get to our village somehow. Me and my wife here…well you know how holidays go…we had a few drinks with the godparents, and no frost can bite us,” the man let out a drunken giggle and coughed, “um…well, and Mishka here is too small for a bevy. The poor child is frozen, can’t waggle a finger. He’s been crying all along…”
“Come on in, come on in, warm up and bring the boy here”, mom came fussing. “The cold today is really terrible – it is a pain even to breathe outside…”
The guests, flushed and rosy, came in pushing the boy in front of them and brought with them a warm, sweet breath into the small house.
“Thank you, good people,” the man said.
Mom led the guests down the hall.
“Honey, take the boy to the stove to warm up, we’ll be in the living room with his parents.”
The boy took off his shoes and silently, as he was in a jacket and hat, clattered along with Sashka to the kitchen.
Without a word, Sasha led the boy to the stove and stood next to him, fidgeting, not knowing what to do. Three cups were steaming on the table, and a disgruntled cat stirred in his nest on the washing machine. Finally, Sasha gathered her strength, took a deep breath, and said:
“Let’s take off your jacket and hat, ok? Because it’s pretty hot here. What’s your name?”
The boy looked at her sideways and, pulling a warm hat from his tousled head, went to unbutton his jacket.
“Mishka,” he finally muttered.
“And I’m Sashka. You can put your hands here on the side of the stove to warm up.”
The boy obediently pressed his palms to the warm side of the stove and suddenly cried.
“What’s wrong?” Sasha was scared. “Why are you crying? Don’t cry,” she muttered in confusion.
“It s-stings,” he stammered, smearing tears on his ruddy cheeks. “My palms are burning…”
“Poor thing, it’s frostbite. Don’t cry, I’ll give you my mittens.”
“You will?” Misha sniffled.
“Sure,” Sasha nodded. “Do you want to pet the cat?”
The boy forgot about the tears and reached for the cat’s striped back with his pink as a pig’s back hand. Murik jerked his ear but allowed himself to be stroked.
Sashka watched in silence as the boy carefully ran his hand along the striped cat’s back: from the head between the ears and along the spine to the chubby bottom while listening to the chatter of the adults in the other room.
“We would gladly drive you home, but our wheels are broken,” Dad’s voice was booming as if from the barrel. “Our Zhiguli are buried under the snow and will remain there till spring…” Sasha could not discern further.
“Oh, it’s ok, we will get to the center on foot, and from there…”
As if remembering something at once, she rushed somewhere and returned to the kitchen with a pair of gray mittens with embroidered snowflakes.
“Here,” she offered. “As promised.”
The boy blushed at first, then took the gift.
“Thank you,” he mumbled.
“You are welcome.”
They stood in silence and the boy reached out again to scratch the cat’s ear.
“Misha! Sonny!” The boy’s mother came into the kitchen. “Warmed up a bit?”
“But he has a whole company here!” the red-nosed man stretched his lips in a wide smile until his salted eyes hid in the folds of wrinkles. “Put your jacket on, son, let’s move on.”
The boy grimaced as if he bit a lemon, and reluctantly shuffled to put his shoes on.
“Well, thank you, good people,” said the man, putting a faded red fur hat on his shiny forehead beaded with sweat. “For warmth, for your good hearts. Not everyone will let a stranger into their house nowadays. You are good people,” he said in a strange, almost sober voice.
“And it’s time for us to go,” his wife interjected. “Thank you very much. Misha, say thank you to people.”
“Thank you,” he mumbled.
Sasha stood by the window and watched the strange guests stumbling along the narrow, trodden path through the garden. As if sensing her gaze on his back, Mishka turned and waved at her a warm-mittened hand. Sasha waved back and a sly smile crept over the boy’s face: he pulled a spruce paw over his head and it sprinkled white powder on all three of them. They dissolved into silent laughter, throwing their heads back as if someone had whispered a funny joke in their ear. And then they disappeared into thin air. Sasha goggled and leaned forward, slamming her forehead against the window. They were gone!
Sasha hesitated, grimacing and pursing her lips.
“What is it, honey?”
“I um…Well I gave Mishka my mittens,” she finally exhaled and sniffed. She knew they wouldn’t have the money to buy new ones anytime soon. She overheard mom lamenting that her winter boots leaked and she had to wait to get her pay to fix them.
Mom smiled sadly and put her hand on her daughter’s fluffy head.
“You did well. The boy will be warm. And Dad will get his pay soon and we’ll buy you new ones.”
Sashka gratefully stuck her nose into her mother’s warm shoulder and sighed.
Sasha sat down with the book again and sipped her lukewarm tea that her mother called “slop”. The wood crackled in the stove; the cat slept blissfully on the washing machine. She could not read. The words jumped before her eyes, and three strange guests did not leave her mind: here they are standing under a spruce paw and laughing like crazy, but in another instant, they were gone. Was she imagining things? Did the wild imagination paint a vivid picture? Sasha did not have time to think because she heard her mom’s voice:
“Sashka! What is this, did you make fun of your old mother?”
“Why would you say that?”
“Look what I found.”
Mom held Sasha’s mittens with snowflakes in her hands and smiled, her big blue eyes sparkling.
Sasha just blinked.
“Mom, you won’t believe it.”
 Orthodox Christian tradition popular in most regions of Ukraine that has paganistic roots. Traditionally vecheria (“dinner” or “meal”) is brought on the Eve of Orthodox Christmas – on the sixth of January but with time the date fluctuated. Children bring vecheria to their relatives and godparents who christened them. It mostly consists of bread or kalach, kutia, and uzvar but again it varies from region to region.
Illustration: “Night Before Christmas” by Grygoriy Matsehora