The picture of meekness

As many times as we had crisscrossed Russia, we had never met anyone quite like Pyoter Grigorovich. He gave us a bottle of fresh goat's milk. His face, like his gift, was simple and kindly. He was so Russian, and he was everything I loved about Russia. He was tall and lanky, and pleasantly old-fashioned. He could as easily have stepped out of a book as out his back door - one of Tolstoy's well-bred peasants of czarist times. When he took off his hat, his fine, sandy brown hair was still neatly combed.

He also gave us his whole catch of fish, as if his conscience had taken him aside and quietly scolded him for not being generous enough. They were in a small sack on the top rack of the refrigerator. The rest of the shelves appeared to be jars of goat's milk. The fish were freshly caught that morning, Pyoter Grigorovich assured us. No, he didn't want to keep any for his breakfast the next day. He would get up at five and set his nets again. He was happy to share them.

His silvery cat seemed equally happy. She was as gentle as Pyoter Grigorovich was meek, with delicate strands of white and tan around her neck like a fine silk scarf. She sat still at his feet, seeking neither fish nor attention. She was simply happy to be there next to him, wholly unconcerned by the planting of his big heavy boots all around her. She occasionally looked up at him and blinked, waiting, once his guests were gone, to sit on his lap and fall off to sleep with him.

Except for his cat and his goats, Pyoter Grigorovich was all alone, though he was not the type of person who abided well alone. So he had come to pay a neighborly visit, and, standing at the gate with his hat in hand, he had realizing only then that his neighbors had company.

We were in Shalya at the dacha (summer home) of a couple who had seen more than a few difficult days. Now, however, Vladimir and Luba had good jobs, each other, and enough income to have acquired, just 10 days before, a newly built dacha next door to Pyoter Grigorovich. It was in the heart of a beautiful valley that was filled with a lake, birdsong, and, by the time we arrived, the long golden rays of the afternoon sun.

Pyoter Grigorovich was upset with himself for not having realized the presence of guests, and he apologized profusely, though he hadn't intruded in the least. This, after all, was where hours were to be spent digging happily in the garden, catching fish, and, of course, reading poetry. There was no need to change your shirt or what you were doing if someone turned up at the door. Regardless of who appeared, you pulled up a chair and invited him or her to have something to eat.

Finally, Vladimir and Luba persuaded him to join us, though the only chair left was in need of repair. Nikolai quickly grabbed it, making the one he had been sitting on available. Well, then, said Pyoter Grigorovich, feeling more than welcome, could he return in just a few minutes?

When he opened the gate again, removing his hat and smoothing the top of his head with a quick sweep of his hand, he was wearing a greenish-brown suit with a white shirt buttoned at the top. He gently shook everyone's hand, saying what a pleasure it was to join us.

We moved to the back, where a wood fire was being stoked for shashlik (Russian barbecue). I had never seen someone wear a suit to eat shashlik in. It set him slightly apart, being, as he was, a bit old-fashioned. But there was, unmistakably, something else about it.

You couldn't help feeling something when you saw Pyoter Grigorovich's thoughtfulness, wearing his suit of many years. In any case, it was what made him memorable - more than anything else that afternoon.

Vladimir and Luba had even planned fireworks. It was most likely the first time the village had had its own fireworks bursting overhead. There were four large boxes of them, which lasted a good five minutes. No one seemed more pleased than Pyoter Grigorovich. It was then, after the last red starburst sank into the black sky, that he turned to Nikolai and said that he would like to give us a jar of goat's milk.

Had I ever had goat's milk? he asked eagerly. He wasn't surprised that I hadn't, and he got a cup out as soon as we arrived. He was pleased that I genuinely enjoyed it.

He then apologized for not being able to show us his goats (he had five). But they were already asleep, and he did not want to disturb them. We smiled at his consideration. I looked down at his huge boots and only then did I understand the perfect calm of his silvery cat, who could not have been in a more protected spot.

We left Shalya with our milk and fish. The next day, we were disappointed to realize that neither of us had thought to take a picture of Pyoter Grigorovich in his greenish-brown suit. "Just think," mused Nikolai, "He's no doubt lived his whole life that way."

You couldn't help noticing.

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