Sunday Stories: “Riverbeyond”

by Stas Holodnak

Joe, so you know, Peter and I come from the same town sprawling along grassy banks of the quiet Ros River. I hail from the Ros River’s east bank and Peter is from the west bank. In my town the west bank was commonly referred to as ‘beyond the river’ or Riverbeyond if you will. Not many boys from the East dared to come over there due to a solid chance that roaming, wild gangs of Riverbeyond would receive them in the least friendly manner.

But there was a boy who dared to cross the Ros because the accursed Riverbeyond boasted a bicycle shop that sold bikes. In the east bank, in broad daylight, no one could ever spot a bike in a bike shop. Rumor has it that the employees moved all the bicycles to the black market. And with the word bicycle, with Peter’s kind permission, I will omit the relatively available ‘Ukraina’ bikes that were considered peasant bikes and as such were a no go for any cultured East banker under the age of bar mitzvah.

Oddly, thanks to Riverbeyond’s notorious reputation and remoteness there was plenty of merchandise in the bike shop. The shop offered motorcycles, boat motors and other fascinating gadgets. Considering time and place this Riverbeyond bike shop generated no less awe in any typical boy than Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington would inspire.

The boy crossed over the bridge carefully avoiding deserted areas which were most of that forsaken place. When he finally arrived, the store did not disappoint. All kinds of bicycles were showcased there, race bikes, mountain bikes even girls’ bikes, but one of them still stood out. Its tires were big enough to ride over the kaluzhas (large mud puddles), our area’s prevalent terrain, but fit enough to take it inside a bus. Mirrors, hand brakes, bells, anything the boy would wish for was installed. This was ‘Salute’ – a bike from heaven. The boy pleaded with the store clerk to keep the bike for him until the next day when he could return with money.

The boy was elated. He walked back thinking about nothing but his Salute. He forgot about the hours, gone as the blink of an eye, he spent in the store. He ignored the warning colors sun has sent him as it was setting under the vast agrarian fields. It was too late when the boy saw a gang of local desperadoes blocking the way and it was too late to run.

The gang members, three in total, were not much older than the boy. Bare-chested, they wore brown pants, part of complementary school uniform, and adult sized worn out shoes. This style was the source for jokes about Riverbeyonders but this time it was the boy who felt overdressed. The tallest of the gang came face to face with the boy and looking down at him hissed “Where are you from?”

Now Joe, I would like to explain why the boy’s origin bore such importance in this encounter. People living in metropolitan areas felt they were more cultured than their rural compatriots. Residents from my town center looked down upon Riverbeyonders. People from Kiev would have fun at my townsfolk’s expense and Muscovites were convinced that the whole reason of existence of province between Finland and China was to meet their needs. On their part, people from rural areas scolded city dwellers for this attitude.

“The east bank”, said the boy, struggling to make an audible sound for every letter. “Who do you know?” shot back the gang leader grabbing the boy by the shirt. He wanted to be certain that no infamous thug will take revenge on his gang for roughing up the boy. The boy mumbled the names of a few bullies from his school. He might have named local cats just as well. The gang’s leader was holding the boy while the gang circled around. “Look – a label!” one of them shouted happily. What would have been just another routine beating has morphed into a treasure recovery.

Joe, you did not expect this tirade after innocently inquiring where we came from, but please let me give you a final prospective before I am done. Both Peter and I grew up behind the iron curtain of the cold war. Our river town had more buses then cars and more tanks than buses. As children we only saw bananas and pineapples in the cartoons. This of course did not make our childhood any less happy, but we valued goods, such as bubble gum and soft drinks, that trickled down to us from beyond the border. Made in the USA jeans were in great demand and their lather label was considered a piece of fashion.

Initially, the boy’s jeans were purchased in the black market for the boy’s father. With time the jeans became worn out, so the local tailor patched and altered them to fit the boy. The boy’s father was a man of few words.  Even his son oftentimes could not get a verbal response out of him. In turn, the boy treated any gesture from his father as a kind of a dialog.  The neighborhood kids started a conversation with “my father said …” The boy would counter with “my father gave me…” These jeans were his most prized possession.

When he heard the “label” cry the boy froze. He feared the gang, but even more so he was terrified of losing the label. Holding the boy fast with one hand, the thug was yanking the label with the other one. Well-sewn into the jeans the label did not give way, and now the Riverbeyonder was pulling with two hands. Methodically yanking the label, the thug was oblivious to the rising force on the human Beaufort scale he himself was inducing. The boy’s fear was pushed out by an overwhelming despair that mounted into anger and then ire. Swiftly, he turned around and pushed the thug, already off balance, away from him. The boy couldn’t remember making a choice, his hands just pushed. With a loud splash of mud, the Riverbeyonder was submerged in a kaluzha.  Then, after a few moments, a head rose above the kaluzha’s stale waters. Shaking mud particles from the hair, the head called out to the startled gang for help.

The boy kept running toward the bridge. Oddly, stones hurled at him by the gang had a calming effect for he who throws stones at your back is no longer willing to meet you face to face. The first sign of the East bank that came into the boy’s view was the hilltop. After a few more seconds, the cliffs, which the boy never dared to climb let alone dive from, became visible. And then there was his Ros – the river that showed the boy how to fish and swim, the river the boy raced across to Riverbeyond and back.

Stas Holodnak, originally from the Soviet Union, now lives and writes in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.