Liuba is a sixteen-year-old Russian girl, born in the USSR a little bit before the fall of the socialist regime. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Liuba’s mother, who worked for a state food storage unit, is fired and is forced to look for work in Greece. Her father also loses his job at the railway, becomes an alcoholic and eventually dies. Liuba is sent to live with her grandfather, whom she dearly loves (he sings old Russian songs to her), until her mother, Elona, decides to bring Liuba to the small mountain village where she has settled. Liuba is happy to help her mother as much as she can, but is resentful for having to abandon her country. She refuses to speak Greek and shuts herself off. To the locals, Liuba is the village idiot and a figure of fun, whereas the children and her peers view her with suspicion and hostility, unwilling to admit that deep down they fear Liuba’s otherness and the strange and unknown she represents. Most villagers agree that Liuba isn’t right in the head.
Liuba’s mother has married an elderly local and works at his grocery store. Soon, the old man dies. The following day Liuba is sent to clean a house where she meets Mitia, the son of the woman who brought her mother to the village. Born to a Russian woman and a Greek man, Mitia also has a dual identity. He falls in love with her, but is also able to understand what it means for someone to be forced to leave their country. To help her loosen up, he starts talking to her in Russian and singing old songs with her. Liuba pretends that she doesn’t speak Greek, but she is soon caught when her mother comes over to pick her up. Mitia is surprised and jokingly plays at being offended. Liuba feels betrayed and blames her mother.
Elona was counting on inheriting her late husband’s house and land. Instead, she finds out that he had secretly agreed to leave everything to his relatives. Liuba continues to argue with her mother and stubbornly ignores her advice to integrate. The reason Elona is so insistent on that is because she wants to maintain a good relationship with the villagers, as she is planning to claim a part of the inheritance in court. Meanwhile, a group of Russian musicians and actors arrive at the village. Liuba is seduced by Nikolka, the leader of the group, and runs away with him. After that, the locals’ mockery gives way to contempt and open hostility. She eventually returns after a few days in a sorry state. Rumours fly; some say that Nikolka beat her, others that he mistreated her, some that he even tried to prostitute her. As always, everyone has a story to tell, irrespective of whether the story is true or not.
Liuba’s mother, who has a weak heart, shuts her in the house for days. Liuba herself sinks into depression; she doesn’t have the strength to do anything and refuses to change clothes, wearing the ones she had on the night she run away. Soon, Elona receives a letter informing her of grandfather’s death. She also receives an eviction note. The village priest offers her work, but her heart gives in and Elona dies. Meanwhile Liuba is getting from bad to worse. There is Mitia, who hasn’t forgotten her and wants to help her, but Liuba, feeling guilty for her mother’s death and realising very well that the whole village has turned against her (they make loud, spiteful comments during the funeral service), runs away to the mountains and disappears for two days in the snow.
Worried sick, Mitia blames himself for her disappearance as he was supposed to be looking after her. Finally, the discover Liuba hiding in a sheep fold belonging to Stephanis, another villager. The young girl, has turned into a wild beast and, although she helps at the fold, she refuses to let anyone near her except Nigger, Stephanis’ dog, who has become a sort of guardian angel to her. They leave her alone, but Mitia returns frequently, hoping to talk her back to her senses.
At first she doesn’t respond, only stares at him. In the meantime, the young man contacts his mother, who eventually decides to take the girl under her custody, as she is still a minor. Little by little, Liuba begins to recover; after some time she allows Mitia to hold her hand; he kisses it. Very soon, the two of them become inseparable. However Liuba still doesn’t feel ready to face the villagers. But Mitia has an idea. Reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Mitia comes across a story that has much in common with Liuba’s. So he decides to invite all the kids that previously made fun of Liuba (Fotis, Mimis, Elli, Elpida and Aspasia) and to read them the story. They realise their mistake and Mitia asks them to go and have a word with her.
A few nights later, Liuba has a strange dream. She is in a small boat floating on a still river. On one bank stands her father; Mitia is on the other. They are both calling out to her, but her tiny boat has only enough space for one. In the end the two men start building a bridge – Mitia using rocks, while her father logs. Once they are finished, Liuba watches her father’s image merge into Mitia’s, until they become one person. Liuba stretches out her arm seeing only one man – Mitia. She wants to ask him something. But at that moment she wakes up realising that she has nothing to fear. That her past can take a new form in the future that is rightfully hers. Later the same day, she and Mitia go to the forest to look for a tree, as Christmas is approaching. In the woods they find a sickly fir with weak roots. Liuba feels sorry for it and asks Mitia not to have it cut down as it reminds her of herself. But Mitia explains that if they leave it there, the winter storms will bring it down and kill it. After a while the village kids arrive. Liuba is scared and makes to leave, but Mitia holds her firmly by his side. They all apologise, while Elpida (Hope) gives her a red jumper as a gift. Finally, the young girl decides to return to the village. They all walk down the hill along with Nigger, the dog, and reach the village, where Liuba is finally ready to begin a new life.
[Liuba remembers her arrival in Greece]
It was at the airport, in that new country, that she had seen her mother again.
In the middle of a buzzing crowd, among countless people coming and going, the hubbub of unknown languages and the parade of bright colours, her mother stood there, waiting.
But why weren’t her arms as wide as she remembered? There was something coarse in her smell… and at the same time sensually enticing. And it was as if her skin had lost the softness of the moist northern night, faint creases marking the edges of her eyes…
She spoke in their own tongue:
‘Look how you’ve grown…It’s been so long!’ her gaze concealed no tears. She went on:
‘You have to know that here I’m not Elona, but Helen. As for you –pay attention- we’ll not call you Liuba, but Agapi- which means the same thing.’
The first two words in the language of her new country were these: Helen and Agapi. If someone had taken the trouble to remind her that Helen was once the most beautiful woman in the world, and that by the name Agapi, which means love, one can express the warmest emotions that nest in the heart, maybe she would have felt safe – safe in knowing that human joy and human suffering are the same everywhere. But noone explained, and she herself didn’t care to ask how or why as her mother pulled her by the hand and shoved her in front of an old man who was standing a few paces away.
‘This is Mr Thanassis. My new husband!’ she said and gave her a push forward signalling her to greet him.
‘Why hadn’t you told me that you had remarried?’ she would ask her mother several hours later when they were arriving at the village.
During the long bus trip from Athens to the village where her mother had started her new life, Liuba had barely spoken, except to give abrupt one-word answers to her mother’s inquiries about granddad, a few relatives, some old neighbours.
The question ‘why?’ was ringing in her head. A single word that contained so many doubts, so much anger and so much bitterness for that woman who had been loved by a man in blue uniform, a man that carried the smells of their vast country on his skin, and who now shared her life with an old man with stale breath and thick warts spotting his forehead.
[Liuba confronts her mother]
‘Why…You want to know why?’ Her mother’s voice was suddenly coarse. Her eyes had dimmed under the veils of oblivion and had taken on the harshness of her determination to survive.
‘Because we have to live… we have to go on, you and I. Forget everything you know. What you left behind no longer exists…There is no Liuba, only Agapi. And you know, this house, once the old man dies, will be mine and then yours. And his land too, it will all be ours, yours…when…Do you understand me Liuba…Agapi? Yours! I’m offering you a second chance, a country to live in and money. The house, the shop…the fields. I’ll take you there tomorrow, you’ll see, you’ll like them. They’re like those mountains that your father had seen on his journeys…’ her mother’s voice was beginning to crack. ‘Forget what I said! Better they don’t remind you of anything. Everything should be new to you. And you have to learn the language here starting tomorrow. It’s difficult…but you’re a clever girl. And look how pretty you’ve become! Just you wait, and I’m sure that you’ll be a little heartbreaker!’ She let out a forced laugh.
After that, her mother got up to go and attend to the front shop. The girl was left alone. She pursed her lips. ‘My name is Liuba,’ she muttered.
[Liuba meets Mitia]
His right arm had slipped under the blankets and was now hanging on the side of the bed, so thin and skinny. On the other end Liuba could see his bare feet, when, suddenly, his big toe stirred – it could have been a fly or a gnat or a little mosquito – so softly and childishly that for a moment Liuba was confused and took the sleeping man’s body for that of a little boy...
Liuba gave a sudden start. What if the man woke up –he was a man, not a boy- to find her staring at him? Embarrassed, she quickly left the room and went downstairs to start work. She began dusting the shelves and sideboards and opened all the windows to air the place. She was restless; her thoughts flew to the evening’s performance and her mind filled with the melancholic sounds of the balalaika and the wild rhythm of Cossack dances, and Liuba felt almost happy. Alone, amidst the heavily decorated tables and cabinets, she started humming the old songs that she always loved and for a moment Liuba forgot where she was and let her body be carried back to a long-lost dream, when suddenly she felt someone breathing behind her neck.
Startled she turned around and saw the blond man looking at her. Dusting feather in one hand, the smallest babushka in the other, Liuba jumped up in fright and the tiny doll slipped from her fingers and rolled on the wooden floorboards to rest at the man’s bare feet.
Now Liuba was really frightened that the little babushka might have cracked and that the man would shout at her. But more than that, she would never forgive herself if she had carelessly destroyed the tiniest memory of her beloved homeland.
The man knelt down to pick up the doll and toyed with it for a moment between his fingers…the little babushka was intact.
‘I like your song…’ the man’s voice was soft and a bit hoarse from sleep. From his throat rose the deep husky sounds of the Russian language. Strange, it sounded as if it was the man’s own mother tongue, but at the same time foreign too.
‘What’s your name? You must be Elona’s daughter. Your mother did mention something,’ then abruptly stopped and looked at her quizzically.
‘Do you speak the language here? What’s your name?’ he had decided to try again in Russian.
He was wearing a long white caftan that fell to his bare ankles. His hair had only carelessly been brushed and unruly locks shaded his eyebrows. Yes, he was a man disguised as a boy; there was something about him, although it was difficult to put one’s finger on it. Maybe it was his eyes or the thin line of his lips… Even his short beard looked unreal, as if someone had plastered it on. He was boy, an adolescent pretending to be a man.
Liuba ignored the first part of his question, whether she spoke Greek or not, and replied in a proud Russian accent:
‘Liuba! Liuba means love… I’m Mitia.’
And suddenly the house lifted itself off its foundations and soared through the skies to land in a moist plain run through with railway lines and marked with tall chimneys and small houses and trees with thick leaves covered in dew…
And Liuba set off chirping like a sparrow and freely talking in the language she loved. Lost to the world, in the great hall of the mansion, amidst the caved stones, the heavy furniture and the richly embroidered cushions casting their colourful reflections on the silver trays, two children were playing with words and gestures – words that recounted the legends of the Russian soil and gestures that evoked the lives of the simple muziks and the long-forgotten land-owners of the Russian steppe.
Liuba’s eyes were glittering and her cheeks had flashed red in sheer delight.
And the man with the skinny body had sat on the floor and had become a little boy himself – his small beard looked now out of place – as his blue eyes were glowing with innocent joy although, if you looked closer, you would see the first sparks of a childish, unexpected love.
Their fingers would briefly meet over the smooth colourful body of the babushka, their lips would almost touch their earlobes as the leaned over to whisper little secrets and then they would both fall back bursting out in a laughter that climbed to the high rafters.
They wouldn’t be able to tell for how long they were babbling away in the robust language with the liquid consonants, when Mitia places his slender adolescent fingers on the guitar and stroke the first cords of the Volga song.
[Mitia visits Liuba in the fold]
It’s an elusive thing-the mountain. Its stillness belies its true nature. Sweet and alluring even in the middle of winter, it starts shaking from its foundations when the rains come. The waters dash onto the earth violently forming torrents and foaming rivers threatening to carry you away. And yet, as soon as the skies have emptied, comes the soft sunlight, the rich smell of the moist soil and the tree branches emerge, glittering with thick drops of water.
It was winter, and Mitia was worried about Liuba.
He wanted to convince her to follow him, to go down to the village or even to town, why not?
But Liuba would only let him sing to her, hold her hand and kiss her fingertips; every time he tried taking her to the mountain ledge to show her the path that led to the village, she would shake her head nervously, pull back her hand and run back to the fold. Back to the sheep, back to Nigger…
‘Say something!’ Mitia would plead. ‘Talk to me!’
But she remained silent. They who refuse to speak – what else is it that they refuse?
Often the village kids, would climb the mountain to reach the fold. They would stay hidden behind the bushes observing the three of them, Liuba, Mitia and Nigger, until Nigger sniffed them out and started barking manically at them. At those times, Liuba would run to hide in the fold, while Mitia remained standing and looking sombrely at the young people...
One day Stephanis asked to have a word with Mitia. ‘The kid has to go,’ he said. ‘I don’t have any daughters and anyway, the Albanians who work for me will be returning any day now. They’ve been on vacation long enough!’ typical Stephanis –always a joker. ‘But seriously now, I can’t have the girl with two men in there.’ He added.
Mitia scratched his beard.
‘I’ll take care of it,’ he promised, although he had no idea as to what he was going to do.
Of course he could very well grab Liuba by the arm and drag her down, but then he would lose her forever.
‘Maybe it’s time for Fyodor,’ he though and felt a shudder run down his spine.
He returned to the village and when classes were over, he set for the school.
‘Come to mine this evening,’ he told the kids –Fotis, Mimis and the girls.
They stared at him, perplexed.
‘I want to tell you a story,’ he added. Then he turned and walked away.
The five kids looked at him climbing down the cobbled path. The way he walked, his stature, his movements, all seemed strange. As if they belonged to a different era. Was he a creature of yesterday? Or maybe of tomorrow?
In any case, it wouldn’t be long until they unravelled the meaning of this bizarre riddle. They’d only have to wait three-four hours tops for evening to come. Just four small hours…