When everything in the house is upside down and all mixed up, it means only one thing: we’ve got company. It doesn’t matter how many guests there are — one or thirty-one — before their arrival, the home and hearth are squeaky clean, like the squeaky clean of a plate of leftover fried chicken legs after a dog has licked it — not a speck or a drop left behind. Grandma Rosa runs around with a dust broom, Mama with a mop. Grandpa Yankel scrubs the toilet bowls until they are blindingly white and polishes the taps until they gleam. Meanwhile, Great-Grandma Genya chases after everyone with extra brooms, mops and polishing cloths while giving each cleaner invaluable helpful hints. This running around with brooms goes on for several days until one fine morning the long-awaited guests burst into the house and, like the years of the Tatar-Mongol Yoke, his Highness Mayhem takes the throne.
In the end, tablecloths got mixed up with curtains, the aquarium fish went into the three-liter pickle jar and the pickles went into the aquarium; a crooked pile of dirty dishes rose towards the clouds like the Tower of Pisa, and bits of food were on the plates, on the tablecloth, under the table, on the rug, under the rug and on the ceiling. This was our house after the warm greetings, embraces, questions-interrogations-answers, the endless “We haven’t raised our glasses to…” and “Why haven’t you tried my… it took me hours to make…” and all the rest. Let’s be honest here: our house in the morning was like a train station, or to be more exact — the cafeteria in a train station.
Something’s really bothering me, but Mama tells me in no uncertain terms, “Don’t you dare ask!”
The thing is, these relatives say they’re coming for two days, but judging by the number of suitcases they brought, it looks like they’re moving in with us. How can I not ask?
Pickles, tomatoes and homemade sour cabbage have gotten all mixed up together in a deep salad bowl and released their juices, which are now plopping from the table edge like drops off the roof of a house. I already know that Uncle Yosya will wake up soon and demolish the contents — which he calls “what the Lord created on the eighth day.” “Frosya, you think tzimmes is a mixed fruit stew? This is real tzimmes! When you grow up, you’ll understand!”
Uncle Yosya always says that. He’s Grandma Rosa’s cousin. As he gargles with a magical potion, he unconsciously scratches his left butt cheek and then goes back to the television, where Dnestr — his favorite Odessan football team — is losing again, while he, despite everything, remains their fan, going on 35 years now. He was never as faithful to any of his previous five wives as he is to that team.
Being at home is good, but being at home is best when no one else is there. This happens rarely — it almost never happens — but there is a way around it: wake up when everyone else is still sleeping. I always get up earlier than everyone else. I wander through the halls, through the rooms, through Grandma’s closet, Grandpa’s study, and Papa’s atelier. I stick my nose in the corners, in the closets, in forbidden books. I channel surf with the remote. I try on Mama’s beads, Papa’s boots, and Grandma’s knickers.
I love to do that — try things on. One time, just once — and then return them to their lawful owner. I love new movies, new books, new people, new things, new tastes, sounds, smells — anything that will make me say: “What was that? Can I try it again? Give me one more piece, play another note, read it again…”
It’s like getting your ears boxed, or your face slapped; like a bucket of cold water, but not really painful.
“Let me touch it again, let me take another peek, let’s get to know one another, all right?”
Routine is good. Routine is the triad of whales that hold up the earth, it’s the skeleton, you see? The foundation is there, and that’s wonderful, so now think about what to put on it, what to build. Routine combined with something new — for me, that’s good reason to be happy with life, and if on top of it all you wake up before everyone else, and you greet the new day with a sense of your solitude but the knowledge that there, behind the wall, and here, behind the door, and up there on the second floor are sleeping people — annoying people who constantly ask questions, endlessly drone on, tell me what to do and won’t let me take a breath on my own — but also the people I love and feel closest to — then life seems even better.
I am standing in my bare feet — which grown-ups don’t allow — on the white tile floor in the bathroom. In front of me next to the sink are a row of little soldiers on parade: three beveled glasses, a cup, and one deep soup bowl. In each of these are dentures. A lot of dentures in the bathroom of our house in Pushcha-Voditsa means only one thing: our relatives have come to visit. I wouldn’t be me if I walked by this still life. Why should teeth be white anyway? We have to fix that. It’s good that I have watercolors – red, blue, yellow, and lots of green. And who said you’re supposed to have thirty-two teeth? Twenty sounds like plenty to me. I’ve got big plans. I brought in my paints and got a hammer… I put all the dentures in a hat. I close my eyes and pull one out. I hold it in my hands and am just about ready to make the unsuspecting owner of these dentures very happy… no, no… no need to thank me. And then, as usual, at the most interesting moment… I hear footsteps. Footsteps mean that the grown-ups have woken up and I’m not the head of the household anymore. I look in the hat where the dentures are all mixed up, like cabbage with cucumbers and tomatoes — remember Uncle Yosya’s favorite dish? And so, like a shot I shove the dentures every which way in the glasses and then run out into the garden.
In a few minutes I hear a shout from the bathroom, then a second, and then a third.
“Frosya! Frosya! What have you done now?! Where is that little shit?” Uncle Yosya and Aunt Eva shout in unison, and then Grandma Rosa, Grandpa Yankel and Great-Grandma Genya join in.
Trying on each other’s teeth brought them closer together. Just that once, just one time. Now give the dentures back to their real owners! You don’t have to thank me. There isn’t a single word of gratitude in all your shouting. But if you calm down, when you breathe evenly and go deep down — that is, when you don’t do what you usually do, which is stay on the surface, your eyes on the top layer, without breaking the eggshell and getting down to the yolk, to the very heart of things — if you stop doing that, well then, we might have something to talk about.
My big plans to refurbish the dentures have not been cancelled, just postponed. Don’t worry about me — I’m up in a tree. They can’t get me up here. A dust brush sailed by a few times, and then a broom almost hit me. A polishing cloth missed me and ended up on the top branches like the star on a New Year’s tree. The shouting, moral education, and things thrown at me would have continued for a long time if Aunt Eva hadn’t arrived. She is the sixth wife of Uncle Yosya, and a real beauty. They came together from Odessa, but she spent the first night with a friend she hadn’t seen in a long time. A girlfriend. If you believe Aunt Eva.
“Hello, my dearies! Say hello! Here I am! I made it! I found you… I didn’t get lost. I brought what I promised. I bought what you asked for! Pour me a glass! Fill up my plate! Make yourselves comfortable and give me some love. I’ve missed you!”
Her words — the familiar, standard words she always says and that I love to hear — they saved me.
Aunt Eva came to take a refresher course, and Uncle Yosya came to keep an eye on her. She is a long-legged blonde with big eyes and a pretty chest. Oh, I mean the other way around – pretty eyes and a big chest. She is 20 years younger than her husband. Uncle Yosya is short, with bandy legs, a little bit bald and a great bit overweight. “How can she sleep with him?” All the grown-ups ask that question. But always in a whisper, for some reason. If breakfast is a big bowl of homemade farmer’s cheese with sour cream and jam made of sea-buckthorn berries — that means Aunt Eva has come to stay. That’s what she does — she makes a big bowl of farmer’s cheese for everyone and then dashes off to her courses. Uncle Yosya gets very worried.
“The day will come when I wake up, and instead of Eva there will be a note on the pillow: ‘Forgive me, farewell, do not weep for me.’”
Early in the morning I’m woken up by the sound of howling. Uncle Yosya is sitting on the veranda, his shirt open, crying and drinking at the same time. “His favorite football team lost again,” I thought, and fell back asleep.
When I woke up an hour later, Aunt Eva was sitting on the veranda, smoking and crying at the same time.
“My dear, he’s not worth it!” Mama hugged Aunt Eva, and my aunt cried even harder. “One leaves, another arrives. You’re so pretty!” Mama went on.
Aunt Riva is bewildered. “Can you believe it?! If it were the other way around, it would make sense. It would be logical. But Yosya… Where is he going to go on those short little legs of his? He’s short of breath, he’s got an infected appendix, and he spouts a load of nonsense every time he opens his mouth!”
Aunt Riva is Great-Grandma Genya’s cousin. She always arrives without warning and want us to be happy to see her.
“So, you are happy to see me, eh?”
“Happy. Very happy.”
“So where is this happiness on your face? You want I should leave?” And then, without waiting for a reply, “Genya, do you hear them? They are not happy to see me.”
Aunt Riva is not an easy person. Once my parents and I stayed with her in Moscow. Every morning and every evening she counted all the spoons, forks, carafes and money. Until she retired, Aunt Riva was a math teacher. I think that’s where her habit came from.
“Frosya, you get TWO cheese pancakes (stress on “two”). Pyotr, you get THREE. Bella, you get TWO AND A HALF. Pyotr, how many spoons of tsuker?
“Aunt Riva, thanks, but I’ll help myself to sugar.”
“No, Pyotr. Let me! So how many? Bella, how many for you?”
“Aunt Riva, I drink tea without sugar.”
“Excellent!” Riva replied in a tone close to adoration.
“Aunt Riva, could you pass me the box of sugar cubes? I like to suck on them,” I say.
Thanks to me, that evening Aunt Riva had valerian drops instead of cheese pancakes. Forty drops. Exactly forty. Don’t doubt it. Aunt Riva counted out the drops herself.
A week has passed since Uncle Yosya disappeared to run after “who-do-you-think-his-next-one-is.” I wake up to voices in the yard. I look out the window. Under the tree where I usually hide from grown-ups were Yosya and Eva.
“Eva, sweetheart, I love only you!”
“Why did you go to that other woman?”
“I needed a raise.”
“In what – your qualifications?”
“In my sense of self, Eva dear, my sense of self.”
Yosya begins to cry again, laying his bald head on Eva’s large breasts while his short little legs flutter above the ground and his fat little hands wrap tightly around Aunt Eva’s tiny waist. With one hand the beautiful blonde pets her husband’s bald spot, with the other she makes him farmer’s cheese for breakfast. Being alone is hard, not being not alone is hard, too… When can a person be happy?
Eva and Yosya left for Odessa together.
In my notebook I drew their portrait: Uncle Yosya’s little legs are all tangled up with Aunt Eva’s long legs. Eva wants to run away. She struggles, but she can’t. So they stand there in place. Together.
*“Being Frosya Shneerson” is a stand-alone chapter from “An Ocean in a Three-Liter Jar” by Tasha Karlyuka. The book has recently released at Gorodets Publishing House, Moscow.
The musician Bowzinsky was walking from town to the country house of Prince Bibulov, where an evening of music and dance was to “take place,” as they say, for an engagement party. On his back was an enormous double bass in a leather case. Bowzinsky walked along a river where cool water flowed — not majestically, it must be said, but at least quite poetically.
Suddenly he had an idea: “Why don’t I take a swim?”
Without a second thought, he stripped down and submerged his body into the cool stream. It was a magnificent evening. Bowzinsky’s poetic soul began to attune itself in harmony with his surroundings, but as he swam a hundred feet or so to the side, a sweet feeling engulfed his soul when saw a beautiful young woman sitting on the steep river bank and fishing. He went still and held his breath as a flood of disparate emotions came over him: childhood memories, a painful yearning for the past, awakening love… Good Lord! Here he’d thought that he was no longer capable of love! After he’d lost faith in humanity — his dearly beloved wife ran off with his friend, Cursky the bassoon player — his heart had been filled with a feeling of emptiness. He had become a misanthrope.
“What is life?” he had asked himself many times. “What do we live for? Life is a myth… a dream… a type of ventriloquism…”
But standing before this sleeping beauty (for it was easy to see that she was asleep), he suddenly felt, against his will, something in his heart like love. He stood before her for a long while, devouring her with his eyes…
“But enough of that…” he thought, sighing deeply. “Farewell, marvelous vision! I must be off to His Grace for a ball…”
After one last look at this beauty, he was about to swim off when an idea came to him.
“I should leave her with something to remember me by!” he thought. “I’ll tie something to her line — a surprise from an ‘unknown admirer’.”
Bowzinsky soundlessly swam to the bank, picked a large bouquet of field and water flowers, tied them together with goosefoot and then fastened it to the line.
The bouquet sank down to the river bottom, taking the pretty fishing float along with it.
Reason, the laws of nature and the social standing of my hero demand that this romance end right here, but — alas! — a writer’s fate is uncompromising: due to circumstances beyond the writer’s control, the romance did not end with the bouquet. Contrary to common sense and the nature of things, the poor and undistinguished double bass player was to play an important role in the life of this high-born and wealthy beauty.
When he swam to shore, Bowzinsky got a nasty surprise: his clothes were gone. Stolen! While he was admiring the beautiful young woman, some miscreants had taken everything save his double bass and top hat.
“Curses!” Bowzinsky shouted. “Oh, humanity — a brood of vipers! I am not as distressed by the loss of my clothes (for all is vanity, including clothing), but by the thought that I must walk on naked and, as such, offend public morality!”
He sat on his instrument case and tried to think of a way out of his terrible situation.
“I certainly can’t go naked to Prince Bibulov!” he thought. “There will be ladies present! Besides, along with my trousers, the thieves stole the bow rosin that was in the pocket!”
He agonized for so long that his head ached.
“I’ve got it!” he finally thought. “There’s a little bridge in a thicket close to the riverbank… I can sit under the bridge until it’s nightfall, and then in the evening, when it’s dark, I can make my way to the nearest cottage…”
Having decided on a path of action, Bowzinsky put on his top hat, hoisted the double bass onto his back and trundled off into the thicket. Naked, with that musical instrument on his back, he looked like an ancient, mythical demigod.
And now, gentle reader, as my hero sits under the bridge and gives in to sorrow, we shall leave him for a while and see about the girl who was fishing. What happened to her? When the beauty woke up and didn’t see her fishing float on the water, she gave a tug on the line. The line pulled tight, but the hook and float didn’t rise to the surface. Bowzinsky’s bouquet must have become water-logged and weighted down.
“Either I’ve caught a big fish,” the young woman thought, “or my line has gotten caught on something.”
After tugging on the line some more, she decided that the hook was snagged.
“What a shame!” she thought. “Fish start biting towards dusk. What can I do?”
After thinking a minute, the eccentric girl threw off her diaphanous clothing and submerged her lovely body in the stream of water up to her marble shoulders. It wasn’t easy to unsnag the hook from the bouquet that the line was tangled in, but her patience and effort paid off. After a quarter of an hour the beauty, glowing and happy, came out of the water holding the hook in her hand.
But a cruel fate awaited her. The miscreants who stole Bowzinsky’s clothing took her clothes, too, leaving only her can of worms.
“What am I to do now?” she wept. “How can I go home like this? No! Never! I’d rather die! I’ll wait until it’s dark and then, under cover of darkness, I’ll get to Aunt Agafia’s and send her to my house for some clothing… And in the meantime, I’ll go and hide under the bridge.”
Crouching down, my heroine dashed along a path through tall grass to the little bridge. But when she crawled under the bridge, she saw a naked man with a theatrical mane of hair and a hairy chest. She screamed and fell into a faint.
Bowzinsky took a fright, too. At first he took the girl for a naiad.
“Are you a siren, come to seduce me?” he thought. Given his customary a high opinion of his appearance, he found the notion flattering. “If she is not a siren but a human being, then how can her strange transfiguration be explained? Why is she here, under the bridge? And what is wrong with her?”
While he was pondering these questions, the beauty came to her senses.
“Don’t kill me!” she whispered. “I’m Princess Bibulova. I beg of you! You’ll get a lot of money! I was untangling my fishing line when some thieves took my clothing, boots and all!”
“My good lady!” Bowzinsky said pleadingly. “My clothes were stolen, too. And along with my trousers, they took the bow rosin in my pocket!”
Musicians who play the double bass or the trombone are not usually very resourceful, but Bowzinsky was the pleasant exception to the rule.
“My good lady!” he said after a moment. “I see you are embarrassed by my appearance. But you must agree that I cannot leave here for the same reason that you cannot. So, here’s my thought: would you like to lie down inside my double bass case and close the lid? That would hide my appearance from your sight…”
With that, Bowzinsky took his double bass out of its case. For just a moment as he emptied the case, he wondered if this was a profanation of his sacred art, but his qualms did not linger. The beauty lay down in the case and curled up into a ball, he tightened the strap and was delighted that nature had bestowed him with such a great mind.
“Now, my good lady, you can’t see me,” he said. “You can lie there peacefully. When it is dark, I’ll carry you to your parents’ home. I can return for my double bass later.”
When twilight fell, Bowzinsky hoisted the case containing the beauty up over his shoulder and trundled toward Bibulov’s country house. His plan was this: first he’d walk to the nearest cottage and get some clothes, and then he’d walk on…
“Every cloud has a silver lining,” he thought, bent under the weight of his load and kicking up dust with his bare feet. “For the noble role I’ve played in the life of the princess, Bibulov will surely reward me generously.”
“My good lady, are you comfortable?” he asked in the tone of a cavalier galant inviting a lady to dance the cadrille. “Don’t stand on ceremony. Do make yourself at home in there!”
Suddenly the gallant Bowzinsky thought that he saw two figures ahead, obscured by the darkness. He peered at them. It wasn’t an optical illusion, he was certain; there were, in fact, two figures walking along the road, and they were even carrying some bundles…
“Are those the thieves?” he thought. “They’re carrying something! It must be our clothes!”
Bowzinsky put the case on the road and ran after the figures.
“Stop!” he cried. “Stop! Seize them!”
The figures glanced behind them, and when they saw they were being chased, they took off… For a long time the princess could hear the sound of people running and shouts of “Stop!” Finally, the sounds fell silent.
With Bowzinsky caught up in the chase, the beauty would have lain there in a field by the side of the road for a long time, if not for another happy turn of fate. It so happened that at just that time and along just that road Bowzinsky’s comrades were also walking to Bibulov’s country house — Skutlovsky on flute and Grandzhestov on clarinet. When they tripped over the case they looked around in consternation and then shrugged their shoulders.
“A double bass!” Skutlovsky said. “It must be our Bowzinsky’s double bass! But why on earth is it here?”
“Something must have happened to Bowzinsky,” Grandzhestov said. “Either he got drunk or got robbed… in any case, we can’t leave it here. We’ll take it with us.”
Skutlovsky hoisted the case onto his back, and the musicians continued along their way.
“What a bloody weight this is,” the flautist complained the whole way. “I wouldn’t play this hellish monstrosity for anything…Whew!”
When the musicians got to Prince Bibulov’s house, they put the case in the area set up for the orchestra and headed to the buffet.
By then the chandeliers and sconces were already being lit. The fiancé, the handsome and personable Court Counselor Lakeyvich, who worked in the Transportation Ministry, stood in the center of the hall with his hands in his pockets and chatted with Count Flassky. They were discussing music.
“Once when I was in Naples,” Lakeyvich was saying, “I personally knew a violinist who could literally perform miracles. You wouldn’t believe it! On the double bass… damned if he didn’t pull trills out of an ordinary double bass — it gave you the chills. He played Strauss waltzes!”
The Count couldn’t believe it. “Nonsense! That’s impossible!” he said.
“It’s the truth! He even played one of Liszt’s rhapsodies. I shared a hotel room with him, and once, when I had nothing better to do, he taught me how to play Liszt’s rhapsody on the double bass.”
“Liszt’s rhapsody! Humph! Surely you are joking…”
“You don’t believe me?” Lakeyvich said, laughing. “I’ll prove it to you! Let’s go to the orchestra pit!”
The fiancé and the Count went to the orchestra pit. They went up to the double bass case, quickly untied the strap, and… Oh, the horror!
As the reader gives his imagination free rein to picture how that musical discussion ended, we’ll go back to Bowzinsky… The poor musician couldn’t catch the thieves, so he returned to the spot where he left his case. But he didn’t see his precious burden. Completely at a loss, he walked up and down the road, and when he didn’t find it, he decided that he was on the wrong road.
“Oh, how horrible!” he though, clutching his head and shivering. “She suffocated in the case! I’m a murderer!”
Until midnight Bowzinsky walked along the roads, looking for his case, but finally, when he had no more strength, he went back under the bridge.
“I’ll start looking again at dawn,” he decided.
The search at daybreak produced the same result, and Bowzinsky decided the wait for nightfall under the bridge…
“I’ll find her,” he muttered, taking off his top hat and tugging at his hair. “Even if it takes me a year, I’ll find her!”
Even today, peasants who live in these parts still tell how you might see a naked man with long hair and a top hat at night by the bridge. And sometimes you might even hear the wheeze of a double bass from under the bridge.
From outside there came a soft knock at the door: once. Pause. And again—a bit louder and bonier: twice.
Sutulin, without rising from his bed, extended—as was his wont—a foot toward the knock, threaded a toe through the door handle, and pulled. The door swung open. On the threshold, head grazing the lintel, stood a tall, gray man the color of the dusk seeping in at the window.
Before Sutulin could set his feet on the floor the visitor stepped inside, wedged the door quietly back into its frame, and jabbing first one wall, then another, with a briefcase dangling from an apishly long arm, said, “Yes: a matchbox.”
“Your room, I say: it’s a matchbox. How many square feet?”
“Eighty-six and a bit.”
“Precisely. May I?”
And before Sutulin could open his mouth, the visitor sat down on the edge of the bed and hurriedly unbuckled his bulging briefcase. Lowering his voice almost to a whisper, he went on. “I’m here on business. You see, I, that is, we, are conducting, how shall I put it…well, experiments, I suppose. Under wraps for now. I won’t hide the fact: a well-known foreign firm has an interest in our concern. You want the electric-light switch? No, don’t bother: I’ll only be a minute. So then: we have discovered—this is a secret now—an agent for biggerizing rooms. Well, won’t you try it?”
The stranger’s hand popped out of the briefcase and proffered Sutulin a narrow dark tube, not unlike a tube of paint, with a tightly screwed cap and a leaden seal. Sutulin fidgeted bewilderedly with the slippery tube and, though it was nearly dark in the room, made out on the label the clearly printed word: quadraturin. When he raised his eyes, they came up against the fixed, unblinking stare of his interlocutor.
“So then, you’ll take it? The price? Goodness, it’s gratis. Just for advertising. Now if you’ll”—the guest began quickly leafing through a sort of ledger he had produced from the same brief-case—“just sign this book (a short testimonial, so to say). A pencil? Have mine. Where? Here: column three. That’s it.”
His ledger clapped shut, the guest straightened up, wheeled around, stepped to the door… and a minute later Sutulin, having snapped on the light, was considering with puzzledly raised eyebrows the clearly embossed letters: quadraturin.
On closer inspection it turned out that this zinc packet was tightly fitted—as is often done by the makers of patented agents— with a thin transparent paper whose ends were expertly glued together. Sutulin removed the paper sheath from the Quadraturin, unfurled the rolled-up text, which showed through the paper’s transparent gloss, and read:
Dissolve one teaspoon of the quadraturin essence in one cup of water. Wet a piece of cotton wool or simply a clean rag with the solution; apply this to those of the room’s internal walls designated for proliferspansion. This mixture leaves no stains, will not damage wallpaper, and even contributes—incidentally—to the extermination of bedbugs.
Thus far Sutulin had been only puzzled. Now his puzzlement was gradually overtaken by another feeling, strong and disturbing. He stood up and tried to pace from corner to corner, but the corners of this living cage were too close together: a walk amounted to almost nothing but turns, from toe to heel and back again. Sutulin stopped short, sat down, and closing his eyes, gave himself up to thoughts, which began: Why not…? What if…? Suppose…? To his left, not three feet away from his ear, someone was driving an iron spike into the wall. The hammer kept slipping, banging, and aiming, it seemed, at Sutulin’s head. Rubbing his temples, he opened his eyes: the black tube lay in the middle of the narrow table, which had managed somehow to insinuate itself between the bed, the windowsill, and the wall. Sutulin tore away the leaden seal, and the cap spun off in a spiral. From out of the round aperture came a bitterish gingery smell. The smell made his nostrils flare pleasantly.
“Hmm … Let’s try it. Although …”
And, having removed his jacket, the possessor of Quadraturin proceeded to the experiment. Stool up against door, bed into middle of room, table on top of bed. Nudging across the floor a saucer of transparent liquid, its glassy surface gleaming with a slightly yellowish tinge, Sutulin crawled along after it, systematically dipping a handkerchief wound around a pencil into the Quadraturin and daubing the floorboards and patterned wallpaper. The room really was, as that man today had said, a matchbox. But Sutulin worked slowly and carefully, trying not to miss a single corner. This was rather difficult since the liquid really did evaporate in an instant or was absorbed (he couldn’t tell which) without leaving even the slightest film; there was only its smell, increasingly pungent and spicy, making his head spin, confounding his fingers, and causing his knees, pinned to the floor, to tremble slightly. When he had finished with the floorboards and the bottom of the walls, Sutulin rose to his strangely weak and heavy feet and continued to work standing up. Now and then he had to add a little more of the essence. The tube was gradually emptying. It was already night outside. In the kitchen, to the right, a bolt came crashing down. The apartment was readying for bed. Trying not to make any noise, the experimenter, clutching the last of the essence, climbed up onto the bed and from the bed up onto the tottering table: only the ceiling remained to be Quadraturinized. But just then someone banged on the wall with his fist. “What’s going on? People are trying to sleep, but he’s …”
Turning around at the sound, Sutulin fumbled: the slippery tube spurted out of his hand and landed on the floor. Balancing carefully, Sutulin got down with his already drying brush, but it was too late. The tube was empty, and the rapidly fading spot around it smelled stupefyingly sweet. Grasping at the wall in his exhaustion (to fresh sounds of discontent from the left), he summoned his last bit of strength, put the furniture back where it belonged, and without undressing, fell into bed. A black sleep instantly descended on him from above: both tube and man were empty.
Two voices began in a whisper. Then by degrees of sonority— from piano to mf, from mf to fff—they cut into Sutulin’s sleep.
“Outrageous. I don’t want any new tenants popping out from under that skirt of yours… Put up with all that racket?!”
“Can’t just dump it in the garbage…”
“I don’t want to hear about it. You were told: no dogs, no cats, no children…” At which point there ensued such fff that Sutulin was ripped once and for all from his sleep; unable to part eyelids stitched together with exhaustion, he reached—as was his wont— for the edge of the table on which stood the clock. Then it began. His hand groped for a long time, grappling air: there was no clock and no table. Sutulin opened his eyes at once. In an instant he was sitting up, looking dazedly around the room. The table that usually stood right here, at the head of the bed, had moved off into the middle of a faintly familiar, large, but ungainly room.
Everything was the same: the skimpy, threadbare rug that had trailed after the table somewhere up ahead of him, and the pho-tographs, and the stool, and the yellow patterns on the wallpaper. But they were all strangely spread out inside the expanded room cube.
“Quadraturin,” thought Sutulin, “is terrific!”
And he immediately set about rearranging the furniture to fit the new space. But nothing worked: the abbreviated rug, when moved back beside the bed, exposed worn, bare floorboards; the table and the stool, pushed by habit against the head of the bed, had disencumbered an empty corner latticed with cobwebs and littered with shreds and tatters, once artfully masked by the corner’s own crowdedness and the shadow of the table. With a triumphant but slightly frightened smile, Sutulin went all around his new, practically squared square, scrutinizing every detail. He noted with displeasure that the room had grown more in some places than in others: an external corner, the angle of which was now obtuse, had made the wall askew; Quadraturin, apparently, did not work as well on internal corners; carefully as Sutulin had applied the essence, the experiment had produced somewhat uneven results.
The apartment was beginning to stir. Out in the corridor, occupants shuffled to and fro. The bathroom door kept banging. Sutulin walked up to the threshold and turned the key to the right. Then, hands clasped behind his back, he tried pacing from corner to corner: it worked. Sutulin laughed with joy. How about that! At last! But then he thought: they may hear my footsteps— through the walls—on the right, on the left, at the back. For a minute he stood stock-still. Then he quickly bent down—his temples had suddenly begun to ache with yesterday’s sharp thin pain—and, having removed his boots, gave himself up to the pleasure of a stroll, moving soundlessly about in only his socks.
“May I come in?”
The voice of the landlady. He was on the point of going to the door and unlocking it when he suddenly remembered: he mustn’t. “I’m getting dressed. Wait a minute. I’ll be right out.”
“It’s all very well, but it complicates things. Say I lock the door and take the key with me. What about the keyhole? And then there’s the window: I’ll have to get curtains. Today.” The pain in his temples had become thinner and more nagging. Sutulin gathered up his papers in haste. It was time to go to the office. He dressed. Pushed the pain under his cap. And listened at the door: no one there. He quickly opened it. Quickly slipped out. Quickly turned the key. Now.
Waiting patiently in the entrance hall was the landlady.
“I wanted to talk to you about that girl, what’s her name. Can you believe it, she’s submitted an application to the House Committee saying she’s—”
“I’ve heard. Go on.”
“It’s nothing to you. No one’s going to take your eighty-six square feet away. But put yourself in my—”
“I’m in a hurry,” he nodded, put on his cap, and flew down the stairs.
On his way home from the office, Sutulin paused in front of the window of a furniture dealer: the long curve of a couch, an extendable round table… it would be nice—but how could he carry them in past the eyes and the questions? They would guess, they couldn’t help but guess…
He had to limit himself to the purchase of a yard of canary-yellow material (he did, after all, need a curtain). He didn’t stop by the cafe: he had no appetite. He needed to get home—it would be easier there: he could reflect, look around, and make adjustments at leisure. Having unlocked the door to his room, Sutulin gazed about to see if anyone was looking: they weren’t. He walked in. Then he switched on the light and stood there for a long time, his arms spread flat against the wall, his heart beating wildly: this he had not expected—not at all.
The Quadraturin was still working. during the eight or nine hours Sutulin had been out, it had pushed the walls at least another seven feet apart; the floorboards, stretched by invisible rods, rang out at his first step—like organ pipes. The entire room, distended and monstrously misshapen, was beginning to frighten and torment him. Without taking off his coat, Sutulin sat down on the stool and surveyed his spacious and at the same time oppressive coffin-shaped living box, trying to understand what had caused this unexpected effect. Then he remembered: he hadn’t done the ceiling—the essence had run out. His living box was spreading only sideways, without rising even an inch upward.
“Stop. I have to stop this Quadraturinizing thing. Or I’ll…” He pressed his palms to his temples and listened: the corrosive pain, lodged under his skull since morning, was still drilling away. Though the windows in the house opposite were dark, Sutulin took cover behind the yellow length of curtain. His head would not stop aching. He quietly undressed, snapped out the light, and got into bed. At first he slept, then he was awoken by a feeling of awkwardness. Wrapping the covers more tightly about him, Sutulin again dropped off, and once more an unpleasant sense of mooringlessness interfered with his sleep. He raised himself up on one palm and felt all around him with his free hand: the wall was gone. He struck a match. Um-hmm: he blew out the flame and hugged his knees till his elbows cracked. “It’s growing, damn it, it’s still growing.” Clenching his teeth, Sutulin crawled out of bed and, trying not to make any noise, gently edged first the front legs, then the back legs of the bed toward the receding wall. He felt a little shivery. Without turning the light on again, he went to look for his coat on that nail in the corner so as to wrap himself up more warmly. But there was no hook on the wall where it had been yesterday, and he had to feel around for several seconds before his hands chanced upon fur. twice more during a night that was long and as nagging as the pain in his temples, Sutulin pressed his head and knees to the wall as he was falling asleep and, when he awoke, fiddled about with the legs of the bed again. In doing this—mechanically, meekly, lifelessly—he tried, though it was still dark outside, not to open his eyes: it was better that way.
Toward dusk the next evening, having served out his day, Sutulin was approaching the door to his room: he did not quicken his step and, upon entering, felt neither consternation nor horror. When the dim, sixteen-candle-power bulb lit up somewhere in the distance beneath the long low vault, its yellow rays struggling to reach the dark, ever-receding corners of the vast and dead, yet empty barrack, which only recently, before Quadraturin, had been a cramped but cozy, warm, and lived-in cubbyhole, he walked resignedly toward the yellow square of the window, now diminished by perspective; he tried to count his steps. From there, from a bed squeezed pitifully and fearfully in the corner by the window, he stared dully and wearily through deep-boring pain at the swaying shadows nestled against the floorboards, and at the smooth low overhang of the ceiling. “So, something forces its way out of a tube and can’t stop squaring: a square squared, a square of squares squared. I’ve got to think faster than it: if I don’t outthink it, it will outgrow me and…” And suddenly someone was hammering on the door, “Citizen Sutulin, are you in there?”
From the same faraway place came the muffled and barely audible voice of the landlady. “He’s in there. Must be asleep.”
Sutulin broke into a sweat: “What if I don’t get there in time, and they go ahead and…” And, trying not to make a sound (let them think he was asleep), he slowly made his way through the darkness to the door. There.
“Who is it?”
“Oh, open up! Why’s the door locked? Remeasuring Commission. We’ll remeasure and leave.”
Sutulin stood with his ear pressed to the door. Through the thin panel he could hear the clump of heavy boots. Figures were being mentioned, and room numbers.
“This room next. Open up!”
With one hand Sutulin gripped the knob of the electric-light switch and tried to twist it, as one might twist the head of a bird: the switch spattered light, then crackled, spun feebly around, and drooped down. Again someone hammered on the door: “Well!”
Sutulin turned the key to the left. A broad black shape squeezed itself into the doorway.
“Turn on the light.”
“It’s burned out.”
Clutching at the door handle with his left hand and the bundle of wire with his right, he tried to hide the extended space from view. The black mass took a step back.
“Who’s got a match? Give me that box. We’ll have a look anyway. Do things right.”
Suddenly the landlady began whining, “Oh, what is there to look at? Eighty-six square feet for the eighty-sixth time. Measuring the room won’t make it any bigger. He’s a quiet man, home from a long day at the office—and you won’t let him rest: have to measure and remeasure. Whereas other people, who have no right to the space, but—”
“Ain’t that the truth,” the black mass muttered and, rocking from boot to boot, gently and even almost affectionately drew the door to the light. Sutulin was left alone on wobbling, cottony legs in the middle of the four-cornered, inexorably growing, and proliferating darkness.
He waited until their steps had died away, then quickly dressed and went out. They’d be back, to remeasure or check they hadn’t under-measured or whatever. He could finish thinking better here—from crossroad to crossroad. Toward night a wind came up: it rattled the bare frozen branches on the trees, shook the shadows loose, droned in the wires, and beat against walls, as if trying to knock them down. Hiding the needlelike pain in his temples from the wind’s buffets, Sutulin went on, now diving into the shadows, now plunging into the lamplight. Suddenly, through the wind’s rough thrusts, something softly and tenderly brushed against his elbow. He turned around. Beneath feathers batting against a black brim, a familiar face with provocatively half-closed eyes. And barely audible through the moaning air: “You know you know me. And you look right past me. You ought to bow. That’s it.”
Her slight figure, tossed back by the wind, perched on tenacious stiletto heels, was all insubordination and readiness for battle .
Sutulin tipped his hat. “But you were supposed to be going away. And you’re still here? Then something must have prevented—”
And he felt a chamois finger touch his chest then dart back into the muff. He sought out the narrow pupils of her eyes beneath the dancing black feathers, and it seemed that one more look, one more touch, one more shock to his hot temples, and it would all come unthought, undone, and fall away. Meanwhile she, her face nearing his, said, “Let’s go to your place. Like last time. Remember?”
With that, everything stopped.
She sought out the arm that had been pulled back and clung to it with tenacious chamois fingers.
“My place… Isn’t fit.” He looked away, having again with-drawn both his arms and the pupils of his eyes.
“You mean to say it’s cramped. My god, how silly you are. The more cramped it is…” The wind tore away the end of her phrase. Sutulin did not reply. “Or, perhaps you don’t …”
When he reached the turning, he looked back: the woman was still standing there, pressing her muff to her bosom, like a shield; her narrow shoulders were shivering with cold; the wind cynically flicked her skirt and lifted up the lapels of her coat.
“Tomorrow. Everything tomorrow. But now…” And, quickening his pace, Sutulin turned resolutely back.
“Right now: while everyone’s asleep. Collect my things (only the necessaries) and go. Run away. Leave the door wide open: let them. Why should I be the only one? Why not let them?”
The apartment was indeed sleepy and dark. Sutulin walked down the corridor, straight and to the right, opened the door with resolve, and as always, wanted to turn the light switch, but it spun feebly in his fingers, reminding him that the circuit had been broken. This was an annoying obstacle. But it couldn’t be helped. Sutulin rummaged in his pockets and found a box of matches: it was almost empty. Good for three or four flares— that’s all. He would have to husband both light and time. When he reached the coat pegs, he struck the first match: light crept in yellow radiuses through the black air. Sutulin purposely, overcoming temptation, concentrated on the illuminated scrap of wall and the coats and jackets hanging from hooks. He knew that there, behind his back, the dead, Quadraturinized space with its black corners was still spreading. He knew and did not look around. The match smoldered in his left hand, his right pulled things off hooks and flung them on the floor. He needed another flare; looking at the floor, he started toward the corner—if it was still a corner and if it was still there—where, by his calculations, the bed should have fetched up, but he accidentally held the flame under his breath—and again the black wilderness closed in. One last match remained: he struck it over and over: it would not light. One more time—and its crackling head fell off and slipped through his fingers. Then, having turned around, afraid to go any farther into the depths, he started back toward the bundle he had abandoned under the hooks. But he had made the turn, apparently, inexactly. He walked—heel to toe, heel to toe—holding his fingers out in front of him, and found nothing: neither the bundle, nor the hooks, nor even the walls. “I’ll get there in the end. I must get there.” His body was sticky with cold and sweat. His legs wobbled oddly. He squatted down, palms on the floorboards: “I shouldn’t have come back. Now here I am alone, nowhere to turn.” And suddenly it struck him: “I’m waiting here, but it’s growing, I’m waiting, but it’s…”
In their sleep and in their fear, the occupants of the quadratures adjacent to citizen Sutulin’s eighty-six square feet couldn’t make head or tail of the timbre and intonation of the cry that woke them in the middle of the night and compelled them to rush to the threshold of the Sutulin cell: for a man who is lost and dying in the wilderness to cry out is both futile and belated: but if even so—against all sense—he does cry out, then, most likely, thus.
An Unexpected Bender
One day Antonina Alekseevna struck her husband with a rubber stamp and smeared his forehead with ink.
The deeply offended Pyotr Leonidovich, Antonina Alekseevna’s husband, locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn’t let anyone in.
However the residents of the communal apartment, in great need of going where Pyotr Leonidovich was sitting, decided they would break down the locked door.
Seeing that he had lost the battle, Pyotr Leonidovich came out of the bathroom, went to his room and lay down on the bed.
But Antonina Alekseevna decided to torment her husband thoroughly. She tore paper into little pieces and sprinkled them over Pyotr Leonidovich, who was lying on the bed…
An infuriated Pyotr Leonidovich jumped to his feet and ran into the corridor, where he began tearing down the wallpaper.
At this point the other residents ran out of their rooms, and when they saw what poor Pyotr Leonidovich was up to, they ganged up on him and tore his vest to pieces.
Pyotr Leonidovich ran off to the housing cooperative office.
In the meantime Antonina Alekseevna had removed her clothing and hidden herself away in a trunk.
Ten minutes later Pyotr Leonidovich returned with the head of the housing cooperative office in tow.
Not finding his wife in the room, Pyotr Leonidovich and the head of the housing cooperative office decided to make use of the available space and have a little vodka. Pyotr Leonidovich took it on himself to run to the corner for this beverage.
When Pyotr Leonidovich had gone, Antonina Alekseevna emerged from the trunk and stood naked before the head of the housing cooperative office.
The shocked building manager jumped from his chair and ran to the window, but then, on seeing the powerful physique of the youthful twenty-six-year-old woman, he was overcome by wild rapture.
At this point Pyotr Leonidovich returned with a litre of vodka.
Seeing what was going on in his room, Pyotr Leonidovich began to frown.
But his spouse Antonina Alekseevna showed him the rubber stamp and Pyotr Leonidovich calmed down.
Antonina Alekseevna expressed her desire to participate in the bender, but on condition that she was naked, and not only that but sitting on the table where the food to go with the vodka would be laid out.
The men sat in the chairs, Antonina sat on the table, and the bender began.
It’s hardly hygienic when a naked young woman is sitting on a table where people are eating. Besides, Antonina Alekseevna was a rather full-figured woman and not particularly clean, so the devil knows what was what.
Soon, however, they had all drunk their fill and fallen asleep: the men on the floor and Antonina Alekseevna on the table.
And silence was established in the communal apartment.
22 January 1935
Masha found a mushroom, picked it and took it to the market. At the market Masha was hit on the head and told that she’d get hit on the legs, too. Masha took fright and ran away.
Masha ran to the cooperative, where she wanted to hide behind the till. But the manager saw Masha and said:
“What’s that you’re holding?”
And Masha said:
The manager said:
“How lively you are! If you want I can put you to work here.”
“You won’t put me to work.”
The manager said:
“Oh yes I will!” and he put Masha to work turning the crank on the till.
Masha turned and turned the crank on the till, then suddenly she died. The police came, wrote up a report and ordered the manager to pay a fine of 15 rubles.
The manager said:
“What are you fining me for?”
And the police replied:
The manager took fright. He immediately paid the fine and said:
“Just be sure to take this dead cashier away immediately.”
But the sales assistant in the fruit department said:
“No, that’s not right, she wasn’t a cashier. All she did was turn the crank on the till. The cashier is sitting over there.”
The police said:
“It’s all the same to us: we’ve been told to take away the cashier, and that’s what we’ll do.”
The police headed towards the cashier.
The cashier lay down on the floor behind the till and said:
“I won’t go.”
The police said:
“Why won’t you go, you fool?”
The cashier said:
“You’ll bury me alive.”
The police tried to lift the cashier up off the floor, but try as they might they were unable to lift her, for the cashier was very plump.
“You should take her by the legs,” said the sales assistant in the fruit department.
“No,” said the manager. “This cashier is serving as my wife. Therefore I must ask you not to expose her bottom.”
The cashier said:
“Do you hear that? Don’t you dare expose my bottom.”
The police took the cashier under the arms and dragged her out of the cooperative.
The manager ordered the sales assistants to straighten up the shop and begin the trading.
“But what about the dead woman?” said the sales assistant in the fruit department, pointing at Masha.
“Good grief,” said the manager. “We’ve made a right fudge of it. Yes indeed, what about the dead woman?”
“And who’s going to sit at the till?” asked the sales assistant.
The manager clasped his head in his hands. Scattering a few apples round the shop with his knee, he said:
“It’s just outrageous!”
“Outrageous!” said the sales assistants as one.
Then the manager scratched his moustache and said:
“Ha-ha. You won’t trip me up as easily as that! We’ll seat the dead woman at the till, and the customers may not even notice who’s sitting there.”
They seated the dead woman at the till, put a cigarette between her teeth to make her look more alive, and for the sake of verisimilitude gave her a mushroom to hold.
The dead woman sat at the till as if alive, although her face was very green, and one eye was open while the other was completely closed.
“That’s OK,” said the manager. “It will do.”
But the customers were already beating anxiously at the door. Why wasn’t the cooperative open yet? In particular, a housewife in a silk cloak had begun raising hell: she was shaking her bag and had already aimed a heel at the door handle. And behind the housewife an old woman with a pillow case on her head was screaming and swearing and calling the cooperative manager a tightwad.
The manager opened the door and admitted the customers. The customers immediately dashed to the meat department, then to where the sugar and pepper were sold. The old woman, however, made straight for the fish department, but along the way she glanced at the cashier and stopped.
“Good gracious,” she said. “Oh Lord save us!”
The housewife in a silk cloak had now been to all the departments and was bearing down on the till. But as soon as she glanced at the cashier, she stopped immediately and stood looking wordlessly. The sales assistants also looked wordlessly at the manager. And the manager looked out from behind the counter to see what would happen next.
The housewife in a silk cloak turned to the sales assistants and said:
“Who’s this sitting at your till?”
But the sales assistants didn’t say anything, because they didn’t know what to say.
The manager didn’t say anything either.
At this point people came running from all directions. On the street there was already a crowd. The janitors appeared. Whistles were blown. In a word, it was a real scandal.
The crowd was ready to stand at the cooperative right up until evening, but then someone said that old women were falling out of a window in Ozerny Street. Then the crowd at the cooperative thinned out, because many people had gone over to Ozerny Street.
31 August 1936
(From Pyotr Ivanitch To Ivan Petrovitch)
Dear Sir and Most Precious Friend, Ivan Petrovitch,
For the last two days I have been, I may say, in pursuit of you, my friend, having to talk over most urgent business with you, and I cannot come across you anywhere. Yesterday, while we were at Semyon Alexeyitch’s, my wife made a very good joke about you, saying that Tatyana Petrovna and you were a pair of birds always on the wing. You have not been married three months and you already neglect your domestic hearth. We all laughed heartily — from our genuine kindly feeling for you, of course — but, joking apart, my precious friend, you have given me a lot of trouble. Semyon Alexeyitch said to me that you might be going to the ball at the Social Union’s club! Leaving my wife with Semyon Alexeyitch’s good lady, I flew off to the Social Union. It was funny and tragic! Fancy my position! Me at the ball — and alone, without my wife! Ivan Andreyitch meeting me in the porter’s lodge and seeing me alone, at once concluded (the rascal!) that I had a passion for dances, and taking me by the arm, wanted to drag me off by force to a dancing class, saying that it was too crowded at the Social Union, that an ardent spirit had not room to turn, and that his head ached from the patchouli and mignonette. I found neither you, nor Tatyana Petrovna. Ivan Andreyitch vowed and declared that you would be at Woe from Wit, at the Alexandrinsky theatre.
I flew off to the Alexandrinsky theatre: you were not there either. This morning I expected to find you at Tchistoganov’s — no sign of you there. Tchistoganov sent to the Perepalkins’ — the same thing there. In fact, I am quite worn out; you can judge how much trouble I have taken! Now I am writing to you (there is nothing else I can do). My business is by no means a literary one (you understand me?); it would be better to meet face to face, it is extremely necessary to discuss something with you and as quickly as possible, and so I beg you to come to us to-day with Tatyana Petrovna to tea and for a chat in the evening. My Anna Mihalovna will be extremely pleased to see you. You will truly, as they say, oblige me to my dying day. By the way, my precious friend — since I have taken up my pen I’ll go into all I have against you — I have a slight complaint I must make; in fact, I must reproach you, my worthy friend, for an apparently very innocent little trick which you have played at my expense… You are a rascal, a man without conscience. About the middle of last month, you brought into my house an acquaintance of yours, Yevgeny Nikolaitch; you vouched for him by your friendly and, for me, of course, sacred recommendation; I rejoiced at the opportunity of receiving the young man with open arms, and when I did so I put my head in a noose. A noose it hardly is, but it has turned out a pretty business. I have not time now to explain, and indeed it is an awkward thing to do in writing, only a very humble request to you, my malicious friend: could you not somehow very delicately, in passing, drop a hint into the young man’s ear that there are a great many houses in the metropolis besides ours? It’s more than I can stand, my dear fellow! We fall at your feet, as our friend Semyonovitch says. I will tell you all about it when we meet. I don’t mean to say that the young man has sinned against good manners, or is lacking in spiritual qualities, or is not up to the mark in some other way. On the contrary, he is an amiable and pleasant fellow; but wait, we shall meet; meanwhile if you see him, for goodness’ sake whisper a hint to him, my good friend. I would do it myself, but you know what I am, I simply can’t, and that’s all about it. You introduced him. But I will explain myself more fully this evening, anyway. Now good-bye. I remain, etc.
P.S. — My little boy has been ailing for the last week, and gets worse and worse every day; he is cutting his poor little teeth. My wife is nursing him all the time, and is depressed, poor thing. Be sure to come, you will give us real pleasure, my precious friend.
(From Ivan Petrovitch to Pyotr Ivanitch)
Dear Sir, Pyotr Ivanitch!
I got your letter yesterday, I read it and was perplexed. You looked for me, goodness knows where, and I was simply at home. Till ten o’clock I was expecting Ivan Ivanitch Tolokonov. At once on getting your letter I set out with my wife, I went to the expense of taking a cab, and reached your house about half-past six. You were not at home, but we were met by your wife. I waited to see you till half-past ten, I could not stay later. I set off with my wife, went to the expense of a cab again, saw her home, and went on myself to the Perepalkins’, thinking I might meet you there, but again I was out in my reckoning. When I got home I did not sleep all night, I felt uneasy; in the morning I drove round to you three times, at nine, at ten and at eleven; three times I went to the expense of a cab, and again you left me in the lurch.
I read your letter and was amazed. You write about Yevgeny Nikolaitch, beg me to whisper some hint, and do not tell me what about. I commend your caution, but all letters are not alike, and I don’t give documents of importance to my wife for curl-papers. I am puzzled, in fact, to know with what motive you wrote all this to me. However, if it comes to that, why should I meddle in the matter? I don’t poke my nose into other people’s business. You can be not at home to him; I only see that I must have a brief and decisive explanation with you, and, moreover, time is passing. And I am in straits and don’t know what to do if you are going to neglect the terms of our agreement. A journey for nothing; a journey costs something, too, and my wife’s whining for me to get her a velvet mantle of the latest fashion. About Yevgeny Nikolaitch I hasten to mention that when I was at Pavel Semyonovitch Perepalkin’s yesterday I made inquiries without loss of time. He has five hundred serfs in the province of Yaroslav, and he has expectations from his grandmother of an estate of three hundred serfs near Moscow. How much money he has I cannot tell; I think you ought to know that better. I beg you once and for all to appoint a place where I can meet you. You met Ivan Andreyitch yesterday, and you write that he told you that I was at the Alexandrinsky theatre with my wife. I write, that he is a liar, and it shows how little he is to be trusted in such cases, that only the day before yesterday he did his grandmother out of eight hundred roubles. I have the honour to remain, etc.
P.S. — My wife is going to have a baby; she is nervous about it and feels depressed at times. At the theatre they sometimes have fire-arms going off and sham thunderstorms. And so for fear of a shock to my wife’s nerves I do not take her to the theatre. I have no great partiality for the theatre myself.
(From Pyotr Ivanitch to Ivan Petrovitch)
My Precious Friend, Ivan Petrovitch,
I am to blame, to blame, a thousand times to blame, but I hasten to defend myself. Between five and six yesterday, just as we were talking of you with the warmest affection, a messenger from Uncle Stepan Alexeyitch galloped up with the news that my aunt was very bad. Being afraid of alarming my wife, I did not say a word of this to her, but on the pretext of other urgent business I drove off to my aunt’s house. I found her almost dying. Just at five o’clock she had had a stroke, the third she has had in the last two years. Karl Fyodoritch, their family doctor, told us that she might not live through the night. You can judge my position, dearest friend. We were on our legs all night in grief and anxiety. It was not till morning that, utterly exhausted and overcome by moral and physical weakness, I lay down on the sofa; I forgot to tell them to wake me, and only woke at half-past eleven. My aunt was better. I drove home to my wife. She, poor thing, was quite worn out expecting me. I snatched a bite of something, embraced my little boy, reassured my wife and set off to call on you. You were not at home. At your flat I found Yevgeny Nikolaitch. When I got home I took up a pen, and here I am writing to you. Don’t grumble and be cross to me, my true friend. Beat me, chop my guilty head off my shoulders, but don’t deprive me of your affection. From your wife I learned that you will be at the Slavyanovs’ this evening. I will certainly be there. I look forward with the greatest impatience to seeing you.
I remain, etc.
P.S. — We are in perfect despair about our little boy. Karl Fyodoritch prescribes rhubarb. He moans. Yesterday he did not know any one. This morning he did know us, and began lisping papa, mamma, boo… My wife was in tears the whole morning.
(From Ivan Petrovitch to Pyotr Ivanitch)
My Dear Sir, Pyotr Ivanitch!
I am writing to you, in your room, at your bureau; and before taking up my pen, I have been waiting for more than two and a half hours for you. Now allow me to tell you straight out, Pyotr Ivanitch, my frank opinion about this shabby incident. From your last letter I gathered that you were expected at the Slavyanovs’, that you were inviting me to go there; I turned up, I stayed for five hours and there was no sign of you. Why, am I to be made a laughing-stock to people, do you suppose? Excuse me, my dear sir… I came to you this morning, I hoped to find you, not imitating certain deceitful persons who look for people, God knows where, when they can be found at home at any suitably chosen time. There is no sign of you at home. I don’t know what restrains me from telling you now the whole harsh truth. I will only say that I see you seem to be going back on your bargain regarding our agreement. And only now reflecting on the whole affair, I cannot but confess that I am absolutely astounded at the artful workings of your mind. I see clearly now that you have been cherishing your unfriendly design for a long time. This supposition of mine is confirmed by the fact that last week in an almost unpardonable way you took possession of that letter of yours addressed to me, in which you laid down yourself, though rather vaguely and incoherently, the terms of our agreement in regard to a circumstance of which I need not remind you. You are afraid of documents, you destroy them, and you try to make a fool of me. But I won’t allow myself to be made a fool of, for no one has ever considered me one hitherto, and every one has thought well of me in that respect. I am opening my eyes. You try and put me off, confuse me with talk of Yevgeny Nikolaitch, and when with your letter of the seventh of this month, which I am still at a loss to understand, I seek a personal explanation from you, you make humbugging appointments, while you keep out of the way. Surely you do not suppose, sir, that I am not equal to noticing all this? You promised to reward me for my services, of which you are very well aware, in the way of introducing various persons, and at the same time, and I don’t know how you do it, you contrive to borrow money from me in considerable sums without giving a receipt, as happened no longer ago than last week. Now, having got the money, you keep out of the way, and what’s more, you repudiate the service I have done you in regard to Yevgeny Nikolaitch. You are probably reckoning on my speedy departure to Simbirsk, and hoping I may not have time to settle your business. But I assure you solemnly and testify on my word of honour that if it comes to that, I am prepared to spend two more months in Petersburg expressly to carry through my business, to attain my objects, and to get hold of you. For I, too, on occasion know how to get the better of people. In conclusion, I beg to inform you that if you do not give me a satisfactory explanation to-day, first in writing, and then personally face to face, and do not make a fresh statement in your letter of the chief points of the agreement existing between us, and do not explain fully your views in regard to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, I shall be compelled to have recourse to measures that will be highly unpleasant to you, and indeed repugnant to me also.
Allow me to remain, etc.
(From Pyotr Ivanitch to Ivan Petrovitch)
My Dear and Honoured Friend, Ivan Petrovitch!
I was cut to the heart by your letter. I wonder you were not ashamed, my dear but unjust friend, to behave like this to one of your most devoted friends. Why be in such a hurry, and without explaining things fully, wound me with such insulting suspicions? But I hasten to reply to your charges. You did not find me yesterday, Ivan Petrovitch, because I was suddenly and quite unexpectedly called away to a death-bed. My aunt, Yefimya Nikolaevna, passed away yesterday evening at eleven o’clock in the night. By the general consent of the relatives I was selected to make the arrangements for the sad and sorrowful ceremony. I had so much to do that I had not time to see you this morning, nor even to send you a line. I am grieved to the heart at the misunderstanding which has arisen between us. My words about Yevgeny Nikolaitch uttered casually and in jest you have taken in quite a wrong sense, and have ascribed to them a meaning deeply offensive to me. You refer to money and express your anxiety about it. But without wasting words I am ready to satisfy all your claims and demands, though I must remind you that the three hundred and fifty roubles I had from you last week were in accordance with a certain agreement and not by way of a loan. In the latter case there would certainly have been a receipt. I will not condescend to discuss the other points mentioned in your letter. I see that it is a misunderstanding. I see it is your habitual hastiness, hot temper and obstinacy. I know that your goodheartedness and open character will not allow doubts to persist in your heart, and that you will be, in fact, the first to hold out your hand to me. You are mistaken, Ivan Petrovitch, you are greatly mistaken!
Although your letter has deeply wounded me, I should be prepared even to-day to come to you and apologise, but I have been since yesterday in such a rush and flurry that I am utterly exhausted and can scarcely stand on my feet. To complete my troubles, my wife is laid up; I am afraid she is seriously ill. Our little boy, thank God, is better; but I must lay down my pen, I have a mass of things to do and they are urgent. Allow me, my dear friend, to remain, etc.
(From Ivan Petrovitch to Pyotr Ivanitch)
Dear Sir, Pyotr Ivanitch!
I have been waiting for three days, I tried to make a profitable use of them—meanwhile I feel that politeness and good manners are the greatest of ornaments for every one. Since my last letter of the tenth of this month, I have neither by word nor deed reminded you of my existence, partly in order to allow you undisturbed to perform the duty of a Christian in regard to your aunt, partly because I needed the time for certain considerations and investigations in regard to a business you know of. Now I hasten to explain myself to you in the most thoroughgoing and decisive manner.
I frankly confess that on reading your first two letters I seriously supposed that you did not understand what I wanted; that was how it was that I rather sought an interview with you and explanations face to face. I was afraid of writing, and blamed myself for lack of clearness in the expression of my thoughts on paper. You are aware that I have not the advantages of education and good manners, and that I shun a hollow show of gentility because I have learned from bitter experience how misleading appearances often are, and that a snake sometimes lies hidden under flowers. But you understood me; you did not answer me as you should have done because, in the treachery of your heart, you had planned beforehand to be faithless to your word of honour and to the friendly relations existing between us. You have proved this absolutely by your abominable conduct towards me of late, which is fatal to my interests, which I did not expect and which I refused to believe till the present moment. From the very beginning of our acquaintance you captivated me by your clever manners, by the subtlety of your behaviour, your knowledge of affairs and the advantages to be gained by association with you. I imagined that I had found a true friend and well-wisher. Now I recognise clearly that there are many people who under a flattering and brilliant exterior hide venom in their hearts, who use their cleverness to weave snares for their neighbour and for unpardonable deception, and so are afraid of pen and paper, and at the same time use their fine language not for the benefit of their neighbour and their country, but to drug and bewitch the reason of those who have entered into business relations of any sort with them. Your treachery to me, my dear sir, can be clearly seen from what follows.
In the first place, when, in the clear and distinct terms of my letter, I described my position, sir, and at the same time asked you in my first letter what you meant by certain expressions and intentions of yours, principally in regard to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, you tried for the most part to avoid answering, and confounding me by doubts and suspicions, you calmly put the subject aside. Then after treating me in a way which cannot be described by any seemly word, you began writing that you were wounded. Pray, what am I to call that, sir? Then when every minute was precious to me and when you had set me running after you all over the town, you wrote, pretending personal friendship, letters in which, intentionally avoiding all mention of business, you spoke of utterly irrelevant matters; to wit, of the illnesses of your good lady for whom I have, in any case, every respect, and of how your baby had been dosed with rhubarb and was cutting a tooth. All this you alluded to in every letter with a disgusting regularity that was insulting to me. Of course I am prepared to admit that a father’s heart may be torn by the sufferings of his babe, but why make mention of this when something different, far more important and interesting, was needed? I endured it in silence, but now when time has elapsed I think it my duty to explain myself. Finally, treacherously deceiving me several times by making humbugging appointments, you tried, it seems, to make me play the part of a fool and a laughing-stock for you, which I never intend to be. Then after first inviting me and thoroughly deceiving me, you informed me that you were called away to your suffering aunt who had had a stroke, precisely at five o’clock as you stated with shameful exactitude. Luckily for me, sir, in the course of these three days I have succeeded in making inquiries and have learnt from them that your aunt had a stroke on the day before the seventh not long before midnight. From this fact I see that you have made use of sacred family relations in order to deceive persons in no way concerned with them. Finally, in your last letter you mention the death of your relatives as though it had taken place precisely at the time when I was to have visited you to consult about various business matters. But here the vileness of your arts and calculations exceeds all belief, for from trustworthy information which I was able by a lucky chance to obtain just in the nick of time, I have found out that your aunt died twenty-four hours later than the time you so impiously fixed for her decease in your letter. I shall never have done if I enumerate all the signs by which I have discovered your treachery in regard to me. It is sufficient, indeed, for any impartial observer that in every letter you style me, your true friend, and call me all sorts of polite names, which you do, to the best of my belief, for no other object than to put my conscience to sleep.
I have come now to your principal act of deceit and treachery in regard to me, to wit, your continual silence of late in regard to everything concerning our common interests, in regard to your wicked theft of the letter in which you stated, though in language somewhat obscure and not perfectly intelligible to me, our mutual agreements, your barbarous forcible loan of three hundred and fifty roubles which you borrowed from me as your partner without giving any receipt, and finally, your abominable slanders of our common acquaintance, Yevgeny Nikolaitch. I see clearly now that you meant to show me that he was, if you will allow me to say so, like a billy-goat, good for neither milk nor wool, that he was neither one thing nor the other, neither fish nor flesh, which you put down as a vice in him in your letter of the sixth instant. I knew Yevgeny Nikolaitch as a modest and well-behaved young man, whereby he may well attract, gain and deserve respect in society. I know also that every evening for the last fortnight you’ve put into your pocket dozens and sometimes even hundreds of roubles, playing games of chance with Yevgeny Nikolaitch. Now you disavow all this, and not only refuse to compensate me for what I have suffered, but have even appropriated money belonging to me, tempting me by suggestions that I should be partner in the affair, and luring me with various advantages which were to accrue. After having appropriated, in a most illegal way, money of mine and of Yevgeny Nikolaitch’s, you decline to compensate me, resorting for that object to calumny with which you have unjustifiably blackened in my eyes a man whom I, by my efforts and exertions, introduced into your house. While on the contrary, from what I hear from your friends, you are still almost slobbering over him, and give out to the whole world that he is your dearest friend, though there is no one in the world such a fool as not to guess at once what your designs are aiming at and what your friendly relations really mean. I should say that they mean deceit, treachery, forgetfulness of human duties and proprieties, contrary to the law of God and vicious in every way. I take myself as a proof and example. In what way have I offended you and why have you treated me in this godless fashion?
I will end my letter. I have explained myself. Now in conclusion. If, sir, you do not in the shortest possible time after receiving this letter return me in full, first, the three hundred and fifty roubles I gave you, and, secondly, all the sums that should come to me according to your promise, I will have recourse to every possible means to compel you to return it, even to open force, secondly to the protection of the laws, and finally I beg to inform you that I am in possession of facts, which, if they remain in the hands of your humble servant, may ruin and disgrace your name in the eyes of all the world. Allow me to remain, etc.
(From Pyotr Ivanitch to Ivan Petrovitch)
When I received your vulgar and at the same time queer letter, my impulse for the first minute was to tear it into shreds, but I have preserved it as a curiosity. I do, however, sincerely regret our misunderstandings and unpleasant relations. I did not mean to answer you. But I am compelled by necessity. I must in these lines inform you that it would be very unpleasant for me to see you in my house at any time; my wife feels the same: she is in delicate health and the smell of tar upsets her. My wife sends your wife the book, Don Quixote de la Mancha, with her sincere thanks. As for the galoshes you say you left behind here on your last visit, I must regretfully inform you that they are nowhere to be found. They are still being looked for; but if they do not turn up, then I will buy you a new pair.
I have the honour to remain your sincere friend,
On the sixteenth of November, Pyotr Ivanitch received by post two letters addressed to him. Opening the first envelope, he took out a carefully folded note on pale pink paper. The handwriting was his wife’s. It was addressed to Yevgeny Nikolaitch and dated November the second. There was nothing else in the envelope. Pyotr Ivanitch read:
Yesterday was utterly impossible. My husband was at home the whole evening. Be sure to come to-morrow punctually at eleven. At half-past ten my husband is going to Tsarskoe and not coming back till evening. I was in a rage all night. Thank you for sending me the information and the correspondence. What a lot of paper. Did she really write all that? She has style though; many thanks, dear; I see that you love me. Don’t be angry, but, for goodness sake, come to-morrow.
Pyotr Ivanitch tore open the other letter:
I should never have set foot again in your house anyway; you need not have troubled to soil paper about it.
Next week I am going to Simbirsk. Yevgany Nikolaitch remains your precious and beloved friend. I wish you luck, and don’t trouble about the galoshes.
On the seventeenth of November Ivan Petrovitch received by post two letters addressed to him. Opening the first letter, he took out a hasty and carelessly written note. The handwriting was his wife’s; it was addressed to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, and dated August the fourth. There was nothing else in the envelope. Ivan Petrovitch read:
Good-bye, good-bye, Yevgeny Nikolaitch! The Lord reward you for this too. May you be happy, but my lot is bitter, terribly bitter! It is your choice. If it had not been for my aunt I should not have put such trust in you. Do not laugh at me nor at my aunt. To-morrow is our wedding. Aunt is relieved that a good man has been found, and that he will take me without a dowry. I took a good look at him for the first time to-day. He seems good-natured. They are hurrying me. Farewell, farewell…. My darling!! Think of me sometimes; I shall never forget you. Farewell! I sign this last like my first letter, do you remember?
The second letter was as follows:
To-morrow you will receive a new pair of galoshes. It is not my habit to filch from other men’s pockets, and I am not fond of picking up all sorts of rubbish in the streets.
Yevgeny Nikolaitch is going to Simbirsk in a day or two on his grandfather’s business, and he has asked me to find a travelling companion for him; wouldn’t you like to take him with you?
Yasha Hein woke up while it was still dark – long before the alarm clock rang – because of a strange quietness that was filling him up from within.
During the evening of the previous day he had already felt a little unwell: a sort of pre-flu state. All of his joints and muscles had ached, he had had a headache, he had kept coming over dreadfully weak. The thermometer had showed 37.2 – not exactly a high temperature, of course, but subfebrile, which is even worse. At bedtime Yasha had taken two effervescent soluble aspirins, put some nasal drops in his nose to be on the safe side, even though it wasn’t blocked for the time being, and asked his wife to draw iodine grids on his chest and back – so that he didn’t develop a cough, because there was no way he could rest up in bed the next day, he had to get to work without fail, no matter what.
And so now Yasha was sitting in bed, wrapped up in a blanket, feeling appalling. It was as if his chest and stomach – but not just his chest and stomach, his whole body – were filled with congealed, sticky cotton wool. Or cold apple jelly. But the main thing was – this quietness… This strange quietness. Something inside him was clearly out of order, and out of order in a serious way. Now Yasha had to find the broken cogwheel that was preventing the whole complicated mechanism of his thirty-five-year-old body, faulty at times, but nonetheless relatively orderly, from working normally – find and eliminate the fault. By medicinal means. Perhaps even with antibiotics – he had to get to work at all costs.
Yasha stretched out on the bed and lay motionless for five minutes or so, listening closely to himself, feeling himself over, as it were, from within, carefully studying every organ to see if it was healthy.
His throat wasn’t sore. There was no cough or blocked nose, and his eyes weren’t hurting at all. Even the headache of the previous day had completely gone – in short, it wasn’t like a cold at all, not like flu really either. More likely there was something wrong with his blood pressure – ups or downs of some kind… Yasha’s health was dependent on the weather. Or his heart – he had had tachycardia since he was a child, after all.
Yasha reached out for his watch. He waited until the second hand was on the twelve, and took his left wrist in his right hand to check his pulse. Then he put his hand to the artery on his neck. Then to his chest.
Then he touched the bony shoulder of his wife, who was breathing heavily beside him, and said quietly:
‘Ira, I think I’m ill.’
‘A-hm,’ came a mumble of suffering in reply, and she rolled over onto her other side.
‘I’m ill,’ he said more loudly.
‘You’re always ill. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Let me sleep,’ but she did open her eyes. ‘What is it this time?’
‘There’s something wrong with my…’ Yasha said haltingly, and licked his cold lips with the tip of his tongue. ‘My heart doesn’t seem to be beating.’
‘Good Lord, what sort of nonsense is that?’ with an effort Ira forced the words out through a heavy yawn, and closed her eyes once more.
* * *
Yasha got up and went into the kitchen. He pressed his hand to his chest once again. Quietness, absolute quietness from within. He switched on the electric kettle – it began hissing malevolently, demanding water. Yasha filled it and switched it on again. And it was then that he was seized by genuine panic. ‘If my heart really has stopped,’ thought Yasha, ‘that means I’m about to die. In a second. Well, in two seconds. I won’t have time to drink my tea. I probably won’t even have time to take the cup off the shelf.’
Yasha pattered across to the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a cup. Well then, I did have time. But what does that tell you? Absolutely nothing. It could happen any time all the same, at any moment. If the heart isn’t beating, that means the blood isn’t moving through the veins, and that means… what? Some problem with oxygen. A shortage of oxygen must develop, and so a man can no longer breathe and soon dies. Yes, a man stops breathing… Yasha held his breath. And suddenly realised that he didn’t actually have to breathe at all. That is, he was capable of breathing, but solely out of habit, and if he wanted, he could even manage quite happily without doing so – as long as he liked.
‘An ambulance! Call an ambulance!’ He ran back into the bedroom where his wife was asleep.
‘What are you yelling for?’ She finally woke up fully and looked weary and bad-tempered.
‘I need an ambulance! I’m not breathing!’
‘You need to go to the madhouse, Yasha. What’s all this nonsense you’re talking? Don’t addle my brains.’
Yasha leant against the chest of drawers and covered his face with his hands. She climbed out from under the blanket, stuck her bony feet into slippers with plush pompons and gave him a look that was almost sympathetic.
‘If you really need one, call it yourself. Ring them and say exactly that: “Hello, I want to call an ambulance, because I’ve stopped breathing, and my heart’s not beating either.” Maybe someone will come, too. They may even give you sick leave, on account of your disability. When you’re sick in the head, that’s serious too, after all. How can a man like that work? A man like that…’
At this point Yasha switched off as usual, stopped listening. The loud, steady drone, moving around with his wife (back and forth across the bedroom, then into the bathroom, the kitchen, and back again into the bedroom), sounded almost reassuring – meaningless words like husks, devoid of any sense, devoid of any core.
Coming up for fifteen years before, Yasha had married this woman, not really for love exactly, but for something of the sort. Or maybe not for love, but simply because of being young. Or being stupid. Or because that was the way everything was heading, and she was ten years older than him, and her mother was thirty years older than him, and both of them knew very well how to deal with a twenty-year-old, long-nosed boy. In short, the motives by which Yasha had then been guided weren’t very clear to him now. However, if he had wanted to clear the question up, he would, of course, have done so with no difficulty – and if he still hadn’t done so, it was solely because he didn’t feel any such need. And whatever there had been there, at the beginning, there was now a lot that bound them – the years they had lived together, the things they had bought together, the rows during which they had sucked one another dry – day and night, like demented vampires – their shared tiresomeness, shared irritation, and very much more besides.
Just a year after the wedding, swiftly and inexorably – the way Cinderella loses her expensive accessories at midnight, the way a werewolf grows a coat of hair at full moon – she had turned into her mother. And her mother was a highly strung and touchy individual, and unbelievably garrulous.
Take flight? Yes, in his time Yasha had cherished a dream of liberation. Yet not one real attempt at escape had he actually undertaken. Instead, he had developed a simple means of psychological defence, a sort of know-how; whenever she spoke for longer than a few seconds, he would press an invisible little button in his head that was responsible for the perception of human speech. The sound of her voice remained – but in such a form that it meant no more than, say, the noise of surf or the squeal of car tyres when someone put the brakes on sharply.
Upon mature consideration, Yasha decided not to call an ambulance after all: by the time they’d arrived, by the time this and that had been done… he could be late for work. Apart from that, who said competent doctors worked in ambulances? Those gloomy fellows, tired and short of sleep after the night shift? The best thing now, thought Yasha, is to calm down a bit, have some tea and go to work. And then in the evening go to a private health centre and see a good specialist.
The indignant buzzing that filled the entire room and was insistently trying to filter through to him, finally swept away all the obstacles in its path and at last invaded the zone of Yasha’s perception: ‘… what, can’t you hear… as if… cook some eggs… can’t you hear… like a statue… some eggs… as I’ve got up anyway… get cold… as I’ve had to anyway… go…’
* * *
The magazine called Fun Magazine would first open, then close, then open, then close, like a faulty lift stuck between floors. And this had been going on for about three years.
Nonetheless, people continued to work on FM. The instability of the situation got on the staff’s nerves only to begin with – they gradually got used to it and settled down. ‘Do you know, has he already found it?’ colleagues would ask one another quietly. ‘Apparently, yes.’
Their financial director was something of a magician. At least, he certainly possessed one magical quality: he always found finance.
Yasha arrived in good time for the emergency meeting. To do so, he ran all the way from the Metro, and then ran down the long, boring corridor of the editorial offices too. In actual fact, it wasn’t so much punctuality that made him resolve upon this heroic race, as the secret hope that such a warm-up might have a stimulating effect on his heart, but… In his chest there was still that same cotton-wool quietness.
The editor-in-chief, Vladimir Vladimirovich Stayomov, conducted the meeting very briskly, finishing in five minutes. It was only a couple of weeks before that FM had enjoyed its latest resurrection, for which reason Stayomov (or, to friends, simply Stay-home) was clearly in a good mood: his shiny button-eyes looked at his subordinates in a friendly way, and with what a dashing movement did he toss back onto the crown of his head the unruly forelocks which dangled down to the left in long, black strands, reluctant to cover the moist editorial bald patch.
After the meeting, a lot of people headed for the canteen, as usual, for a bite to eat. Yasha dragged along after them at first, but changed his mind halfway there. The memory of his recent breakfast was still too fresh… the tea pours into his throat in a warm, unbroken stream, washing down the last slippery bits of fried egg… it doesn’t have to be swallowed at all… the liquid flows freely down the oesophagus… with a slight gurgling sound – like a spring stream through the bars of a drain-hole…
Yasha stood there for a while, then moved off slowly down the empty, yellow-walled corridor. Clambered clumsily into the little plywood box of his workspace. Turned on the computer. Something inside the case gave a painful bleep, and then a disenchanted squeak, and the room was filled with a loud, oppressive buzzing. Yasha opened Word. Stared miserably at the flickering screen, lay his hands on the grey, beslobbered keyboard with repugnance. Felt with his index fingers in the customary way for the little ridges on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys – the celebrated ‘touch’ method. Today he had to write a big to-order exposé (commissioned, actually, by FM’s new investor). It would run under the rubric ‘Topic of the Week’. And then he would be given a bonus.
‘The main thing is not to think about your breathing,’ Yasha said to himself, ‘not to think about your heart. Think about taxes. And about corruption. I’m writing about taxes, using the ten-finger method, writing ever so quickly, writing – and not breathing… but it’s all right, I’m simply over-excited. I’m writing very quickly – and not… writing quickly, and going to see a doctor straight away.’
The white screen chirped irritably and was plunged into darkness. Jolly green seaweed appeared against a black background. Little yellow fish swam up from out of a distant, otherworldly ocean and stared at Yasha senselessly from the monitor.
* * *
The working day was already almost over, but Dr Zuckerbaum was in a bad mood. His impending liberation from the cramped white office where he had been conducting his surgery promised nothing pleasant: frozen vegetables or ravioli for dinner, an empty evening, an empty home, an empty bed. Dr Zuckerbaum had recently lost his wife.
Dr Zuckerbaum may not have been the best cardiologist. But on the other hand he did have a big heart. By virtue of this latter fact, he often married his patients, weary Balzacian ladies with heart defects. And by virtue of the former, he often lost them, and was greatly upset every time. However, it is worth noting that the unfortunate former fact was a hindrance to the doctor only in his personal life, and told on his work not one bit. His attitude to his work was a serious one. Zuckerbaum sympathised sincerely with all his patients, and the utterly human warmth of his manner compensated in full for his professional incompetence in some matters. The patients liked him, and in the commercial medical centre ‘Heartmed’ he was considered the top specialist.
Yasha Hein liked and respected Dr Zuckerbaum too, and, although Zuckerbaum’s consultations weren’t cheap, he went to see him from time to time about his tachycardia.
Tachycardia would have seemed a pleasure to him now – better a hundred and fifty beats a minute than none.
In the registry, Yasha was informed that Zuckerbaum had already finished his surgery.
‘Mine is a very very serious case Miss a question of life and death,’ Yasha began jabbering in alarm, ‘Miss you don’t understand Miss I really do very much need…’
The withered, fifty-year-old Miss raised her wise eyes to Yasha, examined his distrustfully and said:
‘Wait, I’ll just give it a try – if he’s still in the office… Hello! Lev Samuilovich? It’s the registry here… There’s a patient here bursting to see you… And I’ve already told him it’s finished… He says it’s very urgent – although, to be honest, it seems to me… Just a minute… What’s the name? His name’s Hein. What? Very well, he’ll be up right away…’
Yasha grabbed the ticket from her hands and rushed to the office.
Dr Zuckerbaum was a responsive man, and that day he had no desire whatsoever to go home either, so he had decided to stay a little late. Particularly as Yasha’s was such a simple case – banal sinusoidal tachycardia. Listening to the complaints, taking the pulse, prescribing Isoptin and walks in the fresh air – it would all take about ten minutes, no more.
But Dr Zuckerbaum was mistaken.
An hour later he tried for the last time to take Yasha’s cardio-gram – on a different, newer machine; without any particular hope of success he fingered Yasha’s wrist, then decisively detached the sticky suckers from his legs and chest. He stared sadly at Yasha and said:
‘I’m very sorry, young man…’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Yakov Markovich! You and I are grown-ups, are we not?’
‘What’s the matter with me?’
‘Unfortunately, it comes to all of us sooner or later…’
‘But what’s the matter with me, Doctor?’ Yasha asked again, and for some reason giggled.
‘I’m very sorry. I’ve done all that I could.’
* * *
‘What is there to think about? First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna declared, plunging Yasha into a state of agonising déjà vu.
The last time his mother-in-law had pronounced those same words was fifteen years before. She hadn’t very much liked the youthful, useless Yasha with the traces of recent adolescent zits on his forehead. More than that, she hadn’t liked him at all, and had even found him repellent – like all the rest of Irina’s admirers who had ever had the misfortune to drop in for half an hour to have some tea, and to squeeze into the narrow space between the table, the fridge, the windowsill and the wall.
However, it was the very time when Yasha had been invited to tea that maternal instinct and common sense had unexpectedly united in Klavdia Mikhailovna in the most unhappy way for Yasha, and won certain victory over her personal sympathies and antipathies. In other words, Klavdia Mikhailovna had finally come to the conclusion that it was high time her daughter set herself up with, firstly, a family, and secondly, an apartment.
Yasha had an apartment.
Squashed into the stuffy corner of the five and a bit square metres of his beloved’s kitchen, Yasha had felt like a luckless little insect, stuck fast in the middle of a small, but sound and very professionally spun spider’s web. The wall of the kitchen beside which the guest had been made to sit was furnished with a gigantic radiator (a peculiar bonus for the residents of five-storey apartment blocks of the Khrushchev era), and the heat rising from his back to his head had deadened his consciousness and plunged Yasha into a state close to fainting. The spider-mother had looked into his eyes with a fixed and angry stare. Under the table, through a hole in his slipper, the spider-daughter had been stroking the big toe of his right foot with her elegant, hairy little one. He hadn’t had the strength to resist.
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office,’ Klavdia Mikhailovna had said then.
‘Very well,’ Yasha had submitted.
Over the following fifteen years, her attitude to her son-in-law hadn’t undergone any particular changes – as before, she didn’t like him. Maternal concern and common sense had remained with her too, and so at the family conference, urgently convened by Ira in connection with ‘the unpleasantness Yasha was having’, Klavdia Mikhailovna declared:
‘…First of all, you need to go to the Registry Office. And draw up a death certificate – so that you can register your entitlement to inherit the apartment.’
‘What, go with him?’ wondered Ira.
‘You can do…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna began, with doubt in her voice. Yet after some reflection she added, ‘But actually you’d do better to go by yourself. After all, the case isn’t very… sort of… typical. And all they ever want to do is find fault. And in general, what use is he? He’s an intellectual, isn’t he, can’t even stake a place in a queue: he’s too shy to ask whose turn it is before him,’ his mother-in-law glanced quickly at Yasha, who was sitting in an armchair and pretending to watch the game show The Weakest Link, ‘that is, he used to be too shy, I meant…’
Yasha coughed nervously.
‘Well, all right, you mustn’t speak ill of the dead,’ again she gave her son-in-law a sidelong glance, ‘may he rest in peace… although… that’s not clear either…’ Klavdia Mikhailovna fell into an embarrassed silence. But, as ever, not for long. ‘Incidentally, about rest. Do forgive me, Yasha, for indelicacy, but we ought to give some thought to the funeral too. Because this isn’t the way these things are normally done somehow.’
‘But how can you give him a funeral?’ exclaimed Ira in annoyance. ‘I mean, he’s sort of… it’s not as if he’s actually deceased.’
‘What, want to bury me alive, do you?’ Yasha interjected. Klavdia Mikhailovna ignored her son-in-law’s comment. She gave her plump mouth a scornful twist. Then she started jabbering in a falsetto, mimicking her daughter:
‘Oh dear, really, how can we, it’s not as if he’s, I mean, he’s sort of… What is he then, in your opinion?’ she asked, in a normal voice now.
‘Why do you keep on repeating things after me, Mama?’ Ira grew angry in her turn.
‘Who’s dragging the whole team down?’ the television presenter enquired.
‘Because I’m lost for words, that’s why I’m repeating them,’ the mother-in-law snapped. ‘And so what are you going to do with him?’
‘Well… let him live here for the time being. And later on maybe everything will sort itself out… well, later on, that is, we’ll see.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Yasha butted in once more, ‘I’ll never forget it.’
‘Who gets frightened by elementary questions? Who’ll have to leave with nothing?’
‘Why are you acting the goat?’ his wife pulled him up. ‘Now why are you acting the goat? This is no joke, you know! It really is a serious problem! It really isn’t clear what’s to be done with you! What do you yourself suggest?’
The telephone rang in the kitchen.
‘Well, what are you standing there like a statue for? Go and pick it up,’ his wife commanded.
Yasha left the room.
‘Statistically, the weakest link in that round was Mikhail,’ a pleasant male voice filled the silence that had arisen, ‘he answered only one question. The strongest link was Arkady. He gave the greatest number of correct answers and banked money. However, we shall see…’
‘He has no business being here,’ whispered Klavdia Mikhailovna, nodding in the direction of the kitchen, ‘this isn’t the way these things are done at all – letting the deceased stay at home.’
‘Olga, why do you think it’s Mikhail that ought to go?’
‘Well, I don’t know, Mama…’
‘Well, Mikhail seems kind of overtired to me. I don’t kind of sense any potential in him somehow. With some of his answers to some of the questions he’s kind of bringing the good name of the team into disrepute, and he’s got no sense of its spirit…’
Yasha returned to the room, his face grey with worry.
‘Who was it?’ inquired his wife.
‘You are the weakest link. Goodbye!’
‘Turn that bitch off!’ said his mother-in-law in exasperation.
‘From work,’ Yasha replied quietly.
‘… but all the same, Olga really upset me, because I don’t know why she had to get personal and be so rude about me bringing the team’s name into disrepute and…’
Ira turned the volume down.
‘In any event, it’s no use our thinking about a funeral for at least a month now,’ said Yasha, not without malicious glee.
‘And why’s that?’ his mother-in-law narrowed her eyes.
‘Because I’ve been…
* * *
That ill-starred day when Yasha was hurrying to the doctor’s, he had submitted his article without reading it through. And so he had failed to notice a dreadful blunder he had committed in his haste. The section editor had failed to notice it as well; perhaps he had been late getting away somewhere too, or had been thinking of some matter of his own, or, most likely, had simply trusted Yasha and read his text inattentively. The publishing editor had failed to notice it too, because he trusted the section editor implicitly. To be fair, it should be added that Yasha’s blunder was noticed by the proofreader, yet he considered quite reasonably that it was nothing to do with him, because his business was spelling and punctuation marks. And Yasha had put all the punctuation marks in correctly. In short, the article went out quite happily in its original form. And the name of the investor (Spichkin was his name – but does that really matter very much?) who had recently undertaken to fund the magazine, and who had actually commissioned this very article, accidentally migrated from a list of oligarchs who meticulously paid their taxes into a list of inveterate tax-dodgers.
The denial that was published a day later looked pathetic and unconvincing.
Spichkin was upset. He called the financial director an idiot, the editor-in-chief a two-faced bastard, and Yasha a bloody Yid, and he left for Tibet to take his mind off it. But for some reason he became even more upset in Tibet, got depressed, came back a day later and stopped his funding. Fun Magazine closed down.
Not entirely, however. Once again the financial director briskly set about searching. At an emergency meeting of the editorial board it was decided to continue publishing FM for the time being in a heavily cut-down electronic version.
And after the meeting, Stay-home rang Yasha Hein at home and inquired irritably why he wasn’t at work. Yasha briefly explained the situation, apologised, and promised to bring his death certificate in to the personnel department in the very near future. Stay-home’s bewilderment was palpable. He paused for a while, breathing hard into the receiver, and was already on the point of saying goodbye, but then changed his mind and decided to say what he had phoned for after all. Clearing his throat well, he informed Yasha that, because of ‘the business with Spichkin’, he, Yasha, was, firstly, dismissed at his own request, and secondly, before leaving, had to work out a month’s notice in the office in accordance with his contractual obligations.
Yasha was silent. Stay-home waited, breathing hard, for a little longer, then sighed heavily and finally forced out of himself, half-questioningly:
‘But… in the light of your circumstances… your sad circumstances… you probably won’t be able…’
‘No, no, everything’s in order. I’ll work out my notice. Of course.’
Yasha was a responsible person and considered the fulfilment of contractual obligations to be his sacred duty.
‘Well then,’ Stay-home became perceptibly more animated, ‘if you really can?…’
‘Yes, I really can…’
‘All right. See you soon, then… er, er, er… and… please accept my condolences.’
* * *
The gaze is intelligent and stern. And a little tired as well – because of the dark rings under the eyes. The long, uncut, wavy hair is in some disorder, but the hairstyle doesn’t spoil the face at all, on the contrary, it lends it a certain charm, a sort of mysterious quality, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just that black-and-white photographs are always a little mysterious. It’s a good photograph. Big, glossy. But the wreath, on the other hand, is a cheap little one. Some revolting plastic daisies and bluebells…
Yasha was standing in the vestibule of the editorial offices and examining his own photograph, framed in black, with sorrow and pride. This must be the way an elderly father feasts his eyes on the photo of a son who has recently left for the front.
Since the previous day, an astonishing calm had set in in Yasha’s soul. Yes, in the evening, after his mother-in-law had gone home, after that awful discussion of the impending funeral, he had had another panic attack: and what if this isn’t a dream after all? But the attack was shorter than the previous ones, and this time Yasha didn’t even think of pinching his nose, biting his fingers, and banging his head against the wall in order to wake up. Instead he took some valerian drops, walked to and fro around the apartment, sat in front of the television and fell asleep.
Yasha was received well at work and he was very touched. Firstly, a fine obituary was put on the Fun Magazine website. Secondly, his colleagues greeted him cordially, despite the fact that, thanks to him, they found themselves once more ‘in a state of suspension’. They all expressed their sympathy – regarding both his dismissal and his sudden demise. The men shook Yasha’s cold hand warily, and with particular solicitude somehow, while the women offered him some handmade chocolates. Then everybody went off to the canteen (for some reason he wasn’t invited), and Yasha remained alone in the room. He turned the air-conditioning off. He used his mouse to prod at a small black rectangle with the inscription: ‘A special correspondent of the magazine dies [read more].’ He read it through once again.
Then he opened the news feed: it had been decided not to give him any more responsible tasks, and his duties in the coming month included the regular posting of fresh news on the FM website.
* * *
‘In Kamchatka the All-Russian Alpine Skiing competition “The Volcanoes of Kamchatka” is starting…’
‘In the Koryak Autonomous Area fifteen reindeer-herders are missing. The search for them goes on for a sixth day…’
‘In the capital of Indonesia an international forum on questions of infrastructure opens…’
‘In France a coach carrying Belgians has crashed…’
‘Federal benefit receivers want to receive benefits…’
‘In Novgorod the Great a memorial athletics meeting has taken place in memory of Marshal Meretskov…’
‘In Saransk the Russian Greco-Roman wrestling championships have come to an end…’
‘Madonna and Roger Waters have sung for victims of the tsunami…’
‘In Hong Kong there have been races for solar-powered cars…’
‘The corpses of the fighters in the ruined building may have been destroyed by fire…’
It had been for two weeks now that Yasha had been obediently appearing day after day in the offices of the closed Fun Magazine, delving into the news feeds, posting things on the website – but utterly mechanically, without any pleasure, ‘without zest’, as the editor-in-chief would sometimes say.
The news of this transient world no longer engaged him.
Over the past two weeks, an invisible slender crack between him and all other people had grown menacingly, it had turned into an insurmountable obstacle. Yasha had become absent-minded, and, coming in to work, he had forgotten to ask colleagues how things were, then had stopped offering his hand, and then completely stopped greeting people at all. His colleagues, in their turn, had been looking at him strangely somehow. Yasha remembered how, a year before, everyone had looked in exactly the same way at the secretary Olya, whose time had come to take maternity leave, but who had just kept on coming in with her huge belly, and it had already looked even indecent somehow… And every day, when meeting her, the staff had been more and more surprised, and had enquired ever more persistently after her health, and had looked almost censorious. She had been an irritation. You couldn’t smoke when she was there, she mustn’t be upset, but the main thing was, her time had come.
People stopped smoking in Yasha’s presence too, although he didn’t ask them to at all. And they spoke in muffled voices. And looked at him as if… as if his time had come too. His time had come.
Everything had changed at home as well. Without waiting for the conclusion of the red tape over the inheritance, his wife had organised refurbishment of the apartment so as, in her expression, ‘to freshen everything up’. There were newspapers spread out on the floor now, soiled with lime, glue, and God knows what else, there was the stench of dust and paint, and standing proudly in the middle of the living room was a battered stepladder. There too, next to the stepladder, stood the folding bed on which Yasha, banished from the conjugal bedroom, now slept. (‘You can go to prison in Russia for necrophilia, you know,’ Ira explained calmly, putting an old, striped mattress that bulged in places on the folding bed, ‘and apart from that, you’ve been snoring too loudly of late. At least I’ll get a good night’s sleep this way.’)
Running into one another in the kitchen in the mornings, Yasha and his widow experienced a certain awkwardness – and every time it seemed to Yasha that he was something along the lines of a house-sprite.
Then the gloomy, hung-over hulks of the decorating team would arrive. They felt no awkwardness, and simply paid Yasha no attention. They unceremoniously caught him with their elbows in passing. They drank vodka in front of him without embarrassment (when his wife was out, of course), and gloomily stole salami from the fridge. And didn’t speak to him as a matter of principle. With the exception of the one instance when the red-faced foreman Lyokha, breaking into a disarmingly genial smile – from which, in the course of the previous night, the two front teeth had disappeared – asked Yasha for ‘a loan’ of twenty roubles. But Lyokha the foreman had been in such a drunken state at that moment that he could quite easily have addressed the same request to a cupboard or, say, a light fitting.
‘They probably reckon my time’s come as well,’ Yasha thought in anguish, and didn’t give him the twenty roubles.
* * *
There was an interesting programme made by the BBC on the ‘Culture’ channel – American astronauts were talking about how they felt in a vacuum – and Yasha settled down to watch, although really it was time to go to work.
‘For the first two days you feel awful nauseous,’ a round, ruddy physiognomy, seemingly specially destined to be put into a spacesuit, reported joyfully, ‘because all the fluid in your organism is freed from the effects of the law of gravity and comes up; so we always have bags with us… But sometimes they don’t help,’ the physiognomy gave a vile smirk, ‘and then everything flies all over the place. And then it floats around the ship until the end of the flight, and you get to feel real awkward, well, you understand…’
‘An exercise room’s essential on the ship,’ declared a shaven-headed beanpole with unnaturally thin lips, ‘it’s real important in space to maintain your physical shape. Doing sport in conditions of weightlessness is much easier than on earth. There’s only one problem – sweat. Water behaves completely differently in space. It doesn’t flow down, but turns into these little balls, you know? And you’re sitting there, pedalling away on the exercise bike, and these little balls are crawling over your back, and at every abrupt movement they fly off in different directions…’
‘The closet.’ The first physiognomy occupied the entire screen once again. ‘I’d say the main problem for any astronaut is specifically the closet. In conditions of weightlessness it’s real hard…’
Yasha switched off the television, went into the corridor, put on his boots and started to cry.
Something had suddenly torn inside him. The continual hassle, the stress, the humiliation, the craziness of recent weeks, this awful inescapable dream (or was it a dream? – yes, of course it was), this refurbishment – up until now he had somehow endured it, with difficulty, and yet he had, but space… Beautiful, radiant space, without beginning or end, which had attracted him since childhood and was his most beautiful dream… Now he had been deprived of it. It’s nice rocking about in weightlessness with a book in your hand, floating here and there in the ship’s cabin and, finally, clinging to a porthole and spending a long time gazing at the distant Earth, at the fiery tails of comets rushing by… But no, of course not! Gripping a smelly paper bag in a trembling hand, dodging the little balls of sweat flying past, nausea, headache, a toilet with straps and a ventilator – that’s what there was there, in infinity!
It wasn’t that Yasha was intending to go into space – it’s obvious that he wasn’t intending to go there at all. Nevertheless, until now space had seemed to him something like a final opportunity, like an emergency exit in the very last resort. When there was nowhere else to go.
‘What a life,’ Yasha thought out loud, and went into the living room with his boots still on. He leant his head against the steamed-up window. ‘It’s time to go to work… What a life… What a stupid dream… But I suppose I can probably do the same as the one in that film, Groundhog Day, now,’ Yasha opened the window and clambered up onto the ledge, ‘what’s his name… it starts with an M…’
Yasha closed his eyes and jumped from the eleventh floor.
The morning street greeted him with its customary, deafening, grating sound. How many days was it now that there had been some mysterious work going on around the apartment block, either building work or repairs, and the whole building proved to be surrounded by a deep, man-made ditch, across which, here and there, rotten little wooden bridges had been thrown. A short distance away, the lightly frozen autumnal earth was bulging with formless brown heaps.
Yasha got to his feet and brushed off the yellow leaves that had stuck to his trousers. Balancing with his arms and looking straight ahead, he carefully crossed over a bridge. And only when he found himself on the other side did he look down squeamishly. In the bottom of the pit, some little Tadzhiks in orange uniforms were swarming about. In a cloud of steam and dazzling sparks, one was drilling into some rusty pipes that poked out of the ground like a fragment of the charred skeleton of some gigantic prehistoric animal. The others were unhurriedly digging.
Digging, digging the earth.
When he was already at the entrance to the Metro, Yasha suddenly decided that he wouldn’t go to work. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
He stood for a while.
Two frozen girls were frenziedly thrusting some bits of yellow paper into the hands of passers-by. A fat woman in a green beret was cheerfully selling sausage rolls. But for some reason there was the smell of rotten fish and seaweed, like after a storm at sea – even though there was no sea anywhere near the Metro. Perhaps it was from the upturned autumnal earth, from the holey sewage pipes that this distant smell came…
‘It’s time I went,’ Yasha thought, and drew the air in through his nose, ‘to the sea somewhere… travelling.’
* * *
And for long years he wandered over the earth. He lived in various countries and various cities, and hundreds of women shared their beds with him. With some he remained for a long time, and they aged and died beside him; while from others he parted, leaving it to them to age and die in solitude.
And different peoples gave him different names. Many, very many names did he change. And for so long did he wander that he could remember no more who he had been first, and who he had been afterwards, or whether he was alive or dead, or what held him so firmly on this tedious earth.
And so long did he wander that all the peoples aged and vanished from the face of the earth, and the cities turned into sand and stones. He saw the earth settled by astonishing new animals. And he himself remained the only human amongst them.
Envy, like all our feelings, had been dulled and weakened by hunger. We lacked the strength to experience emotions, to seek easier work, to walk, to ask, to beg… We envied only our acquaintances, the ones who had been lucky enough to get office work, a job in the hospital or the stables – wherever there was none of the long physical labor glorified as heroic and noble in signs above all the camp gates. In a word, we envied only Shestakov.
External circumstances alone were capable of jolting us out of apathy and distracting us from slowly approaching death. It had to be an external and not an internal force. Inside there was only an empty scorched sensation, and we were indifferent to everything, making plans no further than the next day.
Even now I wanted to go back to the barracks and lie down on the bunk, but instead I was standing at the doors of the commissary. Purchases could be made only by petty criminals and thieves who were repeated offenders. The latter were classified as ‘friends of the people’. There was no reason for us politicals to be there, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the loaves of bread that were brown as chocolate. Our heads swam from the sweet heavy aroma of fresh bread that tickled the nostrils. I stood there, not knowing when I would find the strength within myself to return to the barracks. I was staring at the bread when Shestakov called to me.
I’d known Shestakov on the ‘mainland’, in Butyr Prison where we were cellmates. We weren’t friends, just acquaintances. Shestakov didn’t work in the mine. He was an engineer-geologist, and he was taken into the prospecting group – in the office. The lucky man barely said hallo to his Moscow acquaintances. We weren’t offended. Everyone looked out for himself here.
‘Have a smoke,’ Shestakov said and he handed me a scrap of newspaper, sprinkled some tobacco on it, and lit a match, a real match. I lit up.
‘I have to talk to you,’ Shestakov said.
We walked behind the barracks and sat down on the lip of the old mine. My legs immediately became heavy, but Shestakov kept swinging his new regulation-issue boots that smelled slightly of fish grease. His pant legs were rolled up, revealing checkered socks. I stared at Shestakov’s feet with sincere admiration, even delight. At least one person from our cell didn’t wear foot rags. Under us the ground shook from dull explosions; they were preparing the ground for the night shift. Small stones fell at our feet, rustling like unobtrusive gray birds.
‘Let’s go farther,’ said Shestakov.
‘Don’t worry, it won’t kill us. Your socks will stay in one piece.’
‘That’s not what I’m talking about,’ said Shestakov and swept his index finger along the line of the horizon. ‘What do you think of all that?’
‘It’s sure to kill us,’ I said. It was the last thing I wanted to think of.
‘Nothing doing. I’m not willing to die.’
‘I have a map,’ Shestakov said sluggishly. ‘I’ll make up a group of workers, take you and we’ll go to Black Springs. That’s fifteen kilometers from here. I’ll have a pass. And we’ll make a run for the sea. Agreed?’
He recited all this as indifferently as he did quickly.
‘And when we get to the sea? What then? Swim?’
‘Who cares. The important thing is to begin. I can’t live like this any longer. “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” ’ Shestakov pronounced the sentence with an air of pomp. ‘Who said that?’
It was a familiar sentence. I tried, but lacked the strength to remember who had said those words and when. All that smacked of books was forgotten. No one believed in books.
I rolled up my pants and showed the breaks in the skin from scurvy.
‘You’ll be all right in the woods,’ said Shestakov. ‘Berries, vitamins. I’ll lead the way. I know the road. I have a map.’
I closed my eyes and thought. There were three roads to the sea from here – all of them five hundred kilometers long, no less. Even Shestakov wouldn’t make it, not to mention me. Could he be taking me along as food? No, of course not. But why was he lying? He knew all that as well as I did. And suddenly I was afraid of Shestakov, the only one of us who was working in the field in which he’d been trained. Who had set him up here and at what price? Everything here had to be paid for. Either with another man’s blood or another man’s life.
‘OK,’ I said, opening my eyes. ‘But I need to eat and get my strength up.’
‘Great, great. You definitely have to do that. I’ll bring you some… canned food. We can get it…’
There are a lot of canned foods in the world – meat, fish, fruit, vegetables… But best of all was condensed milk. Of course, there was no sense drinking it with hot water. You had to eat it with a spoon, smear it on bread, or swallow it slowly, from the can, eat it little by little, watching how the light liquid mass grew yellow and how a small sugar star would stick to the can…
‘Tomorrow,’ I said, choking from joy. ‘Condensed milk.’
‘Fine, fine, condensed milk.’ And Shestakov left.
I returned to the barracks and closed my eyes. It was hard to think. For the first time I could visualize the material nature of our psyche in all its palpability. It was painful to think, but necessary.
He’d make a group for an escape and turn everyone in. That was crystal clear. He’d pay for his office job with our blood, with my blood. They’d either kill us there, at Black Springs, or bring us in alive and give us an extra sentence – ten or fifteen years. He couldn’t help but know that there was no escape. But the milk, the condensed milk…
I fell asleep and in my ragged hungry dreams saw Shestakov’s can of condensed milk, a monstrous can with a sky-blue label. Enormous and blue as the night sky, the can had a thousand holes punched in it, and the milk seeped out and flowed in a stream as broad as the Milky Way. My hands easily reached the sky and greedily I drank the thick, sweet, starry milk.
I don’t remember what I did that day nor how I worked. I waited. I waited for the sun to set in the west and for the horses to neigh, for they guessed the end of the work day better than people.
The work horn roared hoarsely, and I set out for the barracks where I found Shestakov. He pulled two cans of condensed milk from his pockets.
I punched a hole in each of the cans with the edge of an axe, and a thick white stream flowed over the lid on to my hand.
‘You should punch a second hole for the air,’ said Shestakov.
‘That’s all right,’ I said, licking my dirty sweet fingers.
‘Let’s have a spoon,’ said Shestakov, turning to the laborers surrounding us. Licked clean, ten glistening spoons were stretched out over the table. Everyone stood and watched as I ate. No one was indelicate about it, nor was there the slightest expectation that they might be permitted to participate. None of them could even hope that I would share this milk with them. Such things were unheard of, and their interest was absolutely selfless. I also knew that it was impossible not to stare at food disappearing in another man’s mouth. I sat down so as to be comfortable and drank the milk without any bread, washing it down from time to time with cold water. I finished both cans. The audience disappeared – the show was over. Shestakov watched me with sympathy.
‘You know,’ I said, carefully licking the spoon, ‘I changed my mind. Go without me.’
Shestakov comprehended immediately and left without saying a word to me.
It was, of course, a weak, worthless act of vengeance just like all my feelings. But what else could I do? Warn the others? I didn’t know them. But they needed a warning. Shestakov managed to convince five people. They made their escape the next week; two were killed at Black Springs and the other three stood trial a month later. Shestakov’s case was considered separately ‘because of production considerations’. He was taken away, and I met him again at a different mine six months later. He wasn’t given any extra sentence for the escape attempt; the authorities played the game honestly with him even though they could have acted quite differently.
He was working in the prospecting group, was shaved and well fed, and his checkered socks were in one piece. He didn’t say hallo to me, but there was really no reason for him to act that way. I mean, after all, two cans of condensed milk aren’t such a big deal.
They are nomads. Only Paris is graced with their presence for months; they are stingy to Berlin, Vienna, Neapoli, Madrid and other capitals. In Paris they feel quasi-at home. For them, Paris is the capital, their residence, and all the rest of Europe is a boring, pointless province which is best seen through the lowered curtains of grand hôtels or from the stage. They are not old, but they have already been to all the European capitals two or three times. They are bored with Europe. They have begun to talk about a trip to America and will continue to talk about it until someone persuades them that her voice is not so splendid that it must be shared on both hemispheres.
It’s hard to catch a glimpse of them. You can’t see them on the streets because they travel in carriages, and they travel in the evening or at night when it is already dark. The sleep until lunchtime. They usually awaken in poor spirits and do not receive anyone. They receive visitors only occasionally, at odd moments backstage or at dinner.
You can see her on postcards, which are for sale. On postcards she is a great beauty, although she has never been beautiful. Do not believe her postcards. She is hideously ugly. Most people see her on stage. But on stage she is unrecognizable: White face, rouge, eye shadow and someone else’s hair cover her face like a mask. It is the same at her concerts.
When she plays Margarita, this 27-year-old, wrinkled, lumbering woman with a nose covered in freckles looks like a slender, lovely, 17-year-old girl. On stage she couldn’t look less like herself.
Should you want to see them, wangle an invitation to attend a luncheon given in her honor or occasionally given by her before they depart from one capital for another. Getting an invitation isn’t as easy as it might seem at first; only the chosen few sit around her luncheon table… The chosen few include such gentlemen as reviewers; social climbers passing themselves off as reviewers, local singers, directors, bandleaders, music lovers and devotees with their hair slicked back over bald spots, theater habitués, and hangers-on who were invited thanks to their gold, their silver or their bloodlines. These luncheons are not at all boring. They are quite interesting to an observer. Dining with them once or twice is worth it.
The famous among them (and there are many) eat and talk. They are informal: neck turned one way, head the other and an elbow on the table. The older ones even pick their teeth.
The newspaper men grab the chairs closest to her. They are almost all drunk, and they take too many liberties, acting as if they’ve known her forever. Just a bit more to drink, and they’d step out of line. They make loud jokes, drink and interrupt each other (always with a “pardon!”), make high-flown toasts and don’t seem to care if they make fools of themselves. Some of them lever themselves across the table with great courtesy and kiss her hand.
The social climbers passing themselves off as reviewers chat in a patronizing tone with the music lovers and devotees. The music lovers and devotees are silent. They are envious of the newspapermen, smile beatifically and drink only red wine, which is often quite good at the luncheons.
She, the queen of the table, is dressed in attire that is modest but terribly expensive. A large diamond glitters under lacy chiffon on her neck. She wears a massive, smooth bracelet on each wrist. Her hairdo is highly controversial: ladies like it, men do not. She beams at all her fellow diners. She can smile at each person, speak with everyone, nod her head sweetly at each person at the table. If you look at her expression, you’d think that she is sitting with some of her closest and dearest friends. At the end of the luncheon, she gives some of them her postcards. Right at the table, she writes the name and surname of the lucky recipient on the back and autographs it. Naturally, she speaks French and switches to other languages at the end of the meal. Her English and German are comically bad, but poor language skills sound sweet coming from her. Indeed, she is so sweet that you can forget for a while how hideously ugly she really is.
And him? Le mari d’elle, he sits five chairs from her, where he drinks a lot, eats a lot, is silent a lot, rolls the bread into little balls and rereads the labels on the bottles. You look at him and think that he has nothing to do, that he’s bored, lazy and sick of it all.
He is extremely fair with bald streaks. Women, wine, sleepless nights and traipsing all over the world have taken a toll on his face and left deep wrinkles in their wake. He is not even 35 years old but looks older. His face seems to have been pickled in kvass. His eyes are fine, but lazy… Once he was not hideous, but now he is. Bowed legs, sallow hands, a hairy neck. In Europe they gave him the odd nickname of “pram” because of his crooked legs and strange gait. In his frock coat he looks like a wet jackdaw with a dry tail. The diners pay no attention to him. He returns the favor.
If you are at the luncheon, look at them, that husband and wife, observe them and tell me what brought these them together and keeps them together.
After you look at them, you’ll reply (more or less), like this:
“She is a famous singer and he is just the husband of a famous singer, or, to use backstage jargon, he is the husband of his wife. She earns up to 80,000 a year in Russian money, and he does nothing, so he has time to be her servant. She needs an accountant and someone to deal with the theater owners, contracts, and agreements. She only spends time with her adoring public and does not stoop to deal with the box office proceeds or the prosaic side of her work. She has no time for that. So, she needs him. She needs him as a lackey, a servant… She’d get rid of him if she could take care of things herself. He gets a substantial salary from her (she doesn’t know the value of money!), and like two times two is four, together with the maid he robs her, fritters away her money, goes on wild benders, and very likely puts away something for a rainy day — and is as pleased with his place as a worm on a juicy apple. He’d leave her if she didn’t have any money.”
That’s what everyone who sees them at a luncheon thinks and says about them. They think and say that since they can’t get to the heart of their relationship and can only judge by appearances. To them, she is a diva, and they avoid him like a pygmy covered in toad slime. But actually, that European diva is tied to that toad by the most enviable, noble bond.
This is what he writes:
People ask why I love this virago. This woman truly is not worthy of love. And neither is she worthy of hatred. You shouldn’t pay a whit of attention to her. You ought to ignore her very existence. To love her, you must be either me or insane — which is, in the end, one and the same thing.
She is not pretty. When I married her, she was hideously ugly, and now she’s even worse. She has no forehead. In place of eyebrows, there are two barely noticeable lines above her eyes. Instead of eyes, there are two shallow crevices. Nothing shines out of those crevices — not intelligence, not desire, not passion. She has a potato nose. Her mouth is small and pretty, but she has terrible teeth. She has no bust or waist. That last flaw is covered up prettily by her fiendish ability to lace herself up in a corset with extraordinarily agility. She is short and stout. She is flabby. En masse, her figure has one flaw that I consider the worst of all — a total absence of femininity. I do not consider skin pallor and physical weakness to be feminine, and in that I do not share the views of a great many people. She is not a lady or a woman of fine breeding. She is a shopkeeper with bad manners: when she walks, she waves her arms around; when she sits, she crosses her legs and rocks back and forth; when she lies down, she raises her legs, and so on.
She is slovenly. Her suitcases are a prime example: she throws clean underclothes in with soiled ones, cuffs with shoes and my boots, new corsets with broken ones. We never receive anyone because our rooms are always a filthy mess. But why tell you about it? Just look at her when she wakes up at noon and lazily crawls out from under the covers. You’d never guess that she was a woman with the voice of a nightingale. Her hair unbrushed and snarled, her eyes puffy with sleep, in a nightgown torn at the shoulders, barefoot, hunched over and surrounded by a cloud of yesterday’s tobacco smoke… is that your notion of a nightingale?
She drinks. She drinks like a sailor, whenever and whatever. She’s been drinking for a long time. If she didn’t drink, she’d be better than Adelina Patti, or at least as good. She ruined half of her career because of her drinking and she’ll ruin the other half soon enough. Some nasty Germans taught her to drink beer, and now she won’t go to sleep without drinking two or three bottles before bed. If she didn’t drink, she wouldn’t have gastritis.
She is impolite, which the students who sometimes invite her to their concerts can testify to.
She loves advertising. Advertisements cost us several thousand francs every year. I loathe advertising with all my being. No matter how expensive that silly advertisement is, it is always worth less than her voice. My wife likes it when she is patted on the head. She doesn’t like to hear the truth about herself unless it is praise. For her, a Judas kiss that is paid for is finer than honest criticism. She has no sense of dignity whatsoever.
She is intelligent, but her intelligence is untrained. Her brain, flabby and torpid, lost its plasticity long ago.
She is capricious and fickle. She doesn’t have a single firm conviction. Yesterday she said that money is nothing, that the purpose of life is not money, and today she is giving concerts in four places because there is nothing on earth more important than money. Tomorrow she’ll say what she said yesterday. She doesn’t want to learn anything about her homeland; she has no political heroes, no favorite newspapers, no beloved writers.
She is rich but doesn’t help the poor. In fact, she often shortchanges milliners and hairdressers. She has no heart.
A thoroughly wicked woman!
But look at that virago when she is made-up, corseted and every hair in place as she approaches the footlights to begin her duel with nightingales and larks as they welcome the May dawn. Such dignity and such loveliness in her swan-like walk. Look at her; look carefully, I beg you. When she first raises her hand and opens her mouth, the crevices are transformed into enormous eyes, glimmering with passion… Nowhere else will you find such magnificent eyes. When she, my wife, begins to sing, when the first trills fly through the air, when I begin to feel my tumultuous soul quietening under the influence of those marvelous sounds, then look at my face and you will understand the secret of my love.
“Isn’t she magnificent?” I ask my neighbors.
They say, “yes,” but that is not enough for me. I want to destroy anyone who might think that this extraordinary woman is not my wife. I forget everything that came before, and I live only in the present.
Do you see what an artist she is! How much profound meaning she puts in every one of her gestures! She understands everything: love, hatred, the human soul… It is no wonder that the applause nearly brings the theater down.
After the last act, I escort her from the theater. She is pale, exhausted, having lived an entire life in one evening. I am also pale and fatigued. We get into the carriage and go to the hotel. In the hotel, without a word and fully dressed, she throws herself onto the bed. I silently sit on the edge of the bed and kiss her hand. That evening she doesn’t push me away. Together we fall asleep. We sleep until morning and wake up to curse each another…
Do you know when else I love her? When she is at balls or luncheons. On those occasions I love the fine actress in her. What an actress she must be to get around and overcome her own nature the way she does! I don’t recognize her at those silly luncheons… she turns a plucked chicken into a peacock.
This letter was written in a drunken, barely legible hand. It was written in German peppered with spelling mistakes.
This is what she wrote:
You ask if I love that boy? Yes, sometimes. Why? God only knows.
He really is not handsome or likeable. Men like him are not born for requited love. Men like him can only buy love; they never get it for free. See for yourself.
He’s drunk as a sailor day and night. His hands shake, which is very unattractive. When he is drunk, he is ill-tempered and gets into fights. He hits even me. When he is sober, he lies on whatever is around and doesn’t say a word.
He always dresses very shabbily although he has plenty of funds for clothing. Half of my earnings slip through his hands, who knows where.
I’ll never check up on him. Accountants are so very expensive for poor married artists. Husbands receive half the box office take for their work.
He doesn’t spend it on women — I know that. He looks down on women.
He is lazy. I have never seen him do anything. He drinks, eats and sleeps. And that’s all.
He never graduated from school. In his first year, he was expelled from the university for insolence.
He is not a nobleman. He is the very worst — a German.
I don’t like the German people. Ninety-nine out of Hundred Germans are idiots and the last one is a genius. I learned that from a prince, a German with some French blood.
He smokes repulsive tobacco.
But he does have some good qualities. He loves my noble art more than he loves me. If they announce before a performance that I can’t sing due to illness — that is, if I’m acting up — he stomps around, clenching his fists and looking like death.
He is not a coward and is not afraid of people. I love this quality most of all in people. I’ll tell you a little story from my past. It was in Paris, a year after I had graduated from the Conservatory. I was still very young and learning to sing. Every night I caroused as much as my youthful strength would allow. And, of course, I caroused in a group. On one spree, as I was clinking glasses with my distinguished admirers, a very unattractive boy I didn’t know walked up to the table, looked me right in the eye and asked, “Why do you drink?”
We laughed. My boy wasn’t embarrassed.
The second question was more insolent and came straight from the heart.
“Why are you laughing? These blackguards pouring you glass after glass of wine won’t give you a cent when you ruin your voice from drink and lose all your money!”
Such cheek! My guests became very upset. I seated the boy next to me and ordered him wine. It turned out that this worker from the temperance society enjoys wine very much indeed. A propos, I call him a boy only because he has a very small moustache.
I paid for his impudence with marriage.
Most of the time he says nothing. When he speaks, it’s usually just one word. When he uses a chest voice to say this word, it catches in his throat and his cheek twitches. He might say the word when he is sitting with some people at a luncheon or a ball… When someone — it doesn’t matter who — tells a lie, he raises his head, and without a glance and not the least bit ill at ease, he says: “Untrue!”
That’s his favorite word. What woman could resist the glint in his eye when he says that word? I love that word. I love the way his eyes shine and his face twitches. Not just anyone can say that fine, bold word, but my husband says it everywhere and any time. I love him sometimes, and that “sometimes” — as far as I recall — is when he utters that fine word. But really, God only knows why I love him. I’m a bad psychologist, and in this case, I suspect a psychological issue is involved…
That letter is written in French in splendid, almost masculine handwriting — and without a single grammatical error.
Our friends the Zaitsevs live out of town “The air is so much better out in the suburbs,” they say. That is, they can’t afford to live where the air is bad. A small group of us went to visit them.
We set off without any mishap. That is, apart from minor details: we didn’t take enough cigarettes, one of us lost her gloves, another forgot her door key. And then, at the station, we bought one ticket less than we needed. Well, anyone can make a mistake. We counted wrong. Even though there were only four of us.
It was a little awkward, actually, that we counted wrong. Apparently, in Hamburg, there was once a horse that could count beautifully, right up to six…
And we got out without any mishap at the right station. Though we did get out once or twice before—at every station, as a matter of fact. But every time, realizing our mistake, we had, very sensibly, got back in the carriage.
When we arrived at our destination we had a few more awkward moments. It turned out that none of us knew the Zaitsevs’ address. Each of us was relying on the others.
A quiet, gentle voice came to our aid: “You’re here!”
It was the Zaitsevs’ daughter: a girl of eleven, clear-eyed, with blond Russian plaits just like I had had at that age (plaits pulled so many, many times by other children, plaits that brought me no end of grief!).
She had come to meet us.
“I really didn’t think you’d get here!” she said.
“Well, Mama kept saying that you’d either miss the train or get the wrong one.”
I was a little offended. I’m actually very punctual. Recently, when I was invited to a ball, not only did I not arrive late—I was a whole week early.
“Ah, Natasha, Natasha!” I said. “You don’t know me very well yet!”
Her clear eyes looked at me thoughtfully, then down at the ground.
Delighted that we now knew where we were going, we decided to go and sit in a café for a while, then to hunt down some cigarettes, then try to telephone Paris and then…
But the fair-haired girl said very seriously, “No, you absolutely mustn’t. We must go back home right away. They’re expecting us.”
So, shamefaced and obedient, we set off in single file behind the young girl.
We found our hostess at the stove.
She was looking bemusedly into a saucepan.
“Natasha, quick! Tell me what you think? What is this I’ve ended up with—roast beef or salt beef?”
The girl had a look.
“No, my angel,” she said. “This time it looks like beef stew.”
“Wonderful! Who’d have thought it?” cried Madame Zaitseva, delighted.
Dinner was a noisy affair.
We were all very fond of one another, all enjoying ourselves, and all in the mood to talk. We all talked at once. Somebody talked about the journal Contemporary Notes. Somebody talked about how you shouldn’t pray for Lenin. That would be a sin. After all, the Church didn’t pray for Judas. Somebody talked about Parisian women and dresses, about Dostoevsky, about the recent spelling reform, about the situation of writers abroad and about the Dukhobors, and somebody wanted to tell us how the Czechs cook eggs, but she never succeeded. She kept talking away, but she was constantly interrupted.
And in all the hubbub the young girl, now wearing an apron, walked round the table, picking up a fork that had fallen onto the floor, moving a glass away from the edge of the table, seeing to all our needs, taking our worries to heart, her blond plaits glinting as bright as ever.
At one point she came up to one of us and held out a ticket.
“Look,” she said. “I want to show you something. In your own home, is it you who looks after the housekeeping? Well, when you next buy some wine, ask for one of these tickets. When you’ve collected a hundred tickets, they’ll give you six towels.”
She kept pointing things out to us and explaining things. She very much wanted to help—to help us live in the world.
“How wonderful it is here,” enthused our hostess. “After the lives we led under the Bolsheviks! It’s barely believable. You turn on a tap—and water comes out. You go to light the stove—and there’s firewood already there.”
“Eat up, my angel,” the girl whispered. “Your food will go cold.”
We talked until it grew dark. The fair-haired girl had for some time been repeating something to each of us in turn. At last somebody paid attention.
“You need to catch the seven o’clock train,” she had been saying. “You must go to the station straight away.”
We grabbed our things and ran to the station.
There we had one last, hurried conversation.
“We need to buy Madame Zaitseva a dress tomorrow. Very modest, but showy. Black, but not too black. Narrow, but it must look full. And most important of all, one she won’t grow tired of.”
“Let’s take Natasha with us. She can advise us.”
And off we went again: Contemporary Notes, Gorky, French literature, Rome-
And the fair-haired girl was walking about, saying something, trying to convince us of something. At last, somebody listened.
“You need to go over the bridge to the other platform. Don’t wait till the train comes in or you’ll have to rush and you might miss it.”
The next day, in the shop, the graceful figure of Madame Zaitseva was reflected in two triple mirrors. A little salesgirl with pomaded hair and short legs was draping one dress after another over her. And on a chair, her hands politely folded, sat the fair-haired girl, dispensing advice.
“Oh!” said Madame Zaitseva, flitting about between the mirrors. “This one is lovely. Natasha, why aren’t you giving me any advice? Look, isn’t that beautiful—with the grey embroidery on the front. Quick, tell me what you think!”
“No, my angel, you mustn’t buy a dress like that. How could you go about every day with a grey stomach? It would be different if you had a lot of dresses. But as it is, it’s not very practical.”
“Well, fancy you saying that!” her mother protested. But she didn’t dare disobey.
We began to make our way out.
“Oh!” cried Madame Zaitseva, “Just look at these collars! They’re just what I’ve been dreaming of! Natasha, take me away from them quickly, don’t let me get carried away!”
Concerned, the fair-haired girl took her mother by the hand.
“Come this way, my angel, don’t look over there. Come over here and look at the needles and thread.”
“You know what?” whispered Madame Zaitseva, with a sideways glance at her daughter. “She heard what we were saying about Lenin yesterday. And in the evening she said, ‘I pray for him every day. People say he has much blood on his conscience. It’s a burden on his soul… I can’t help it,’ she said to me, ‘I pray for him.’”
*Taken from Rasputin and Other Stories by Teffi, ed. Robert Chandler and Ann Marie Jackson, Pushkin Press London
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin was employed in one of Moscow’s museums as the head of its library department for forty years now, at least.
In summer, and during winters, autumns and springs his old, bent frame would unfailingly appear in the museum lobby. During summer — in a white, breezy jacket, wearing galoshes, carrying an overlarge umbrella; winters — in a coon-skin fur reddened with age; in a frayed overcoat in the damp autumn; and during spring — in a trench coat.
Smacking his lips and smoothing out his tufted beard, he groans his way slowly up the stairs, eventually overcoming all the twenty four steps leading up to the reading hall, already packed full. He nods to the visitors racing past — he does not know them, but they have already known him a long time.
After walking into the library, he looks through memos and puts them aside — marking each off with a pencil.
Sometimes he looks a colleague over, and abruptly tears him away from his work with some worthy phrase, recalling a dictum of Lomonosov’s:
Sciences sustain the young
He then rubs his palms together and leans his head back while a broad, pleased smile spreads over his face; in an instant a face severe and dry, recalling portraits of the poet and censor Maikov becomes transparent, illuminated, simply — a child’s face:
“Iconography, young man, is science!” rings out amidst the dead quiet of the rooms adjacent to the reading hall, but when that young man, torn away from his work looks up, he sees: a face severe and dry, recalling portraits of the poet and censor Maikov.
They say that once, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin, strolling through the museum’s tree-lined court proclaimed:
“Paradise, gentlemen, is, in essence, a garden…”
“We’re in a garden.”
“That is to say, we’re in paradise…”
They say that the features of his faded visage transformed themselves suddenly; such indisputability shone through them; the museum director’s assistant, walking alongside, for an instant
seemed to see: Ivan Ivanovich transported enraptured to heaven’s highest firmament suffers an
inexpressible sweetness — as he related to Agrafina Kondrativna that evening.
“Wouldn’t you know, Agrafina Kondrativna, God knows, who he is — or even — what he might be… isn’t he a Mason, now; and, see, the late Ma-yevski gave him the job; and about Ma-yevski they’d say, back in the day, that he was a Mason… And he’d wear some special type of ring on his index finger.”
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin had no acquaintances; he never became close with anyone; visitors would try to come by for a visit, and — stop coming by; he was once met walking out of his home in Galosh Lane 1 with a large bronze tub, carefully covered over — and what, do you suppose, was in that tub? You’ll never guess: cockroaches.
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin filled the tub with sugar and caught himself cockroaches; Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin had gotten cockroaches; he couldn’t exterminate them (he was soft-hearted), so he caught them in the tub, and then let them out of the tub, after taking it out into the street.
Not once one or another co-worker noticed the upon himself the old man’s trying gaze, originating from behind an enormous pair of blue spectacles; and noticed a desire: to relate a deeply interesting yet enigmatic event; but such elderly eccentricities were ignored. It so happened many times: Ivan Ivanovich directs his attention to someone, singling them out for no reason; and suddenly — withdraws: again — for no reason.
It was also noticed that these moments of attention to whomever it may be coincided, usually, with one or another everyday misfortune of that whoever it may be — a misfortune that Ivan Ivanovich could not possibly have known about just then; quite the opposite: the circumstances of whoever it may be luckily flowed across Ivan Ivanovich’s path; so, once, while N. N. Pustovalov and N. T. Kosich were having an argument, he mixed himself up right in the middle of their argument, and impolitely cutting off Pustovalov, took out his waistcoat watch, and looking at the second hand remarked:
“I’d give you, Nikolai Nikolaiovich, six minutes to explain your position… Well then, I’m listening: one minute…”
After such an intrusion into the argument, everything was turned upside down; and — the argument dissipated; with a face recalling the poet and censor Maikov, the respected Ivan Ivanovich laid out a weighty quote:
“Science lies in the sphere of fact: hypotheticals damage science… an argument, you see, is a game of hypotheticals, an inflation of hyperbole.”
“Read The Heuristics, now that is a study on the art of matching wits.”
Amazingly, one of the parties to the argument received an inheritance in forty-six days and resigned.
Bureaucrats avoided Ivan Ivanovich; essentially, they were unfamiliar with the events of his long life; he was already past seventy; he had served in the museum some forty years; he had begun work at a mature age, appearing in our parts from Tavrid2; he was given the position by the late Ma–yevski, a powerful influence from that long-gone epoch of czar Nicholas.
It was known only that Ivan Ivanovich himself was an epoch; and also: he resides in Galosh Lane, above the courtyard of a many-storied gray building, from which he unfailingly appears, going to work: autumns — in a coat, in summer — in a breezy canvas jacket, with an overlarge umbrella, winters — in a faded coon-skin fur.
In that old coon-skin fur he was seen running through a winter blizzard along Zhamenka Street, through a thick of snowflakes brocading the foot of the fence at the enormous Alexander institute.
Korobkin appears at 25 minutes to 5 on Galosh Lane, and at 5 exactly he sits in a worn, comfortable leather chair, wearing comfortable fur-lined slippers; after changing his frock-coat – for an exact (flimsier) same one – he sits at a table strewn with books and manuscripts; books of a particular kind – enormous parchment-bound folios: Principia Rerum Naturainm, Sive Novorum Tentanium Phenomena Mundi Elementaris. Or – rows of the Zion Herald‘s volumes.
Charming tomes were thrown about everywhere, like: The Letters of S.G., which nohow indicated authorship, but Ivan Ivanovich’s hand appended amalei to the G, so Gamalei came out.
On the wall, above the writing-desk, Ivan Ivanovich regularly hung out lists bearing the cursive motto of the day; everyday had its own motto for Ivan Ivanovich; mornings, before setting off to work, Ivan Ivanovich selects the motto of the day; and lives by it that whole day; all else was waved aside with: “Sufficient onto the day are its own troubles.”
The day’s trouble was often provided by: Foma Kempeiski’s dicta: “Read those books that would break your heart sooner than amuse it” …Or Latin mottoes. And so on, and so on.
Upon waking, before choosing a motto, Ivan Ivanovich spends some 10 minutes exercising concentration of thought; for this he takes a very plain, very simple thought, for example — of a pin; fixing that pin before his mental gaze, he considers everything concerning a pin, wholly avoiding any desultory associations and ideas; in Ivan Ivanovich’s language this exercise was called The first rule: that of mental control; and everything tied with the selected motto in Ivan Ivanovich’s language was called The second rule: that of initiation to action; Ivan Ivanovich had still a third, fourth, fifth rule, but that is not worth dwelling on. They say: Ivan Ivanovich had a journal, received by inheritance, and it accompanied him throughout his life as he observed all his rules over the span of thirty and then some years, and observed them so subtly that his colleagues never suspected the root cause of his actions, actions that his irreproachable service in the museum but masked, concealing the wisest of rituals, practiced in the realm of pure morality: Ivan Ivanovich was, in essence, a yogi, not an employee.
Even today such eccentrics live among us. Upright citizens, simply — you see them daily, find yourself exchanging hellos with them, and unable to discern the nature of their actions you see — mere peculiarities.
Ivan Ivanovich’s peculiarity of three and them some years’ time: he did not pronounce the first person pronoun “I”, maneuvering so delicately that none could suspect him, even were they, during those three and some years, to have asked Ivan Ivanovich:
“Say, did you read today’s paper?” — then Ivan Ivanovich would answer: “why, certainly,” instead of answering: “I certainly read it.” This rule of avoiding the personal pronoun “I” he called: the rule of fortifying self-consciousness. After three and some years Ivan Ivanovich built up enormous power over the personal pronoun “I.” And then, when the museum director’s assistant once doubted the soundness of setting out the exhibits according to Ivan Ivanovich’s plans, Ivan Ivanovich remarked to him:
“I know my work.”
And he said it just so, so that the director’s assistant saw the very walls stepping aside, and he and his plans flew right past, straight into Hades.
In the evening he proclaimed:
“Wouldn’t you know, Agrafina Kondrativna, everything happens in this world… They say, there
are Masons; and about Ma-yevski they’d say, that he was a Mason; he’d wear some special type of ring
there. Maybe, right among our acquaintances — aha! — they stroll about, so calmly; but just that we don’t know who they are.”
The rules of his exercises brought Ivan Ivanovich into particular states of consciousness, which he divided into three areas: 1) the concentration of thought, 2) meditation, and 3) contemplation, adopting the terms from an order of monks in St. Victor’s monastery in the middle ages.
Contemplation brought him to a state of clarity of thought bordering on clairvoyance; meditation pulled his entire soul into the circle of thought before him. And concentration?
Well, better we describe it.
Pressing his hands to his knees while stretched out in the leather chair Ivan Ivanovich grabs hold of a string of thought understandable to him alone that pierces his entire being; this string of thought evokes a sharpened state of awareness accompanied by the sensations, the recent protests of a dry, seventy-year-old body.
Fires spread around his hands, furious vibrations, furious vibrations felt by his thoughts; his thoughts poured into his hands, so that his hands thought; and – his head blossoms, the way a bud would into a luxurious, many-petaled rose, and his mind’s shutters open out into sensation, like hands around his head, plucking up the thoughts of those around Ivan Ivanovich: and so it might seem that Ivan Ivanovich can swallow thoughts whole.
Ivan Ivanovich spreads out over himself hands made of hands; hands of hands that start to circle, to carry him away.
And the familiar contours of the books, shelves, wardrobe, table, room become somehow transparent, and become shot through with the approach of new, roiling life, of the ever-seething world; within and without his own self everything boils over, spins, trails smoke in weightless strands; all manner of spark-clusters, brocades, diaphanous and glowing films wheel and spread without limit; Ivan Ivanovich sees himself as a roiling knot of thought-strings.
Many-winged and transforming, he is pulled off himself so that he dive into the ever-seething sea of beings, presented as: spark-clusters, brocades, diaphanous and glowing films, which all collapse through into the spark-clusters, brocades, the diaphanous and glowing films that were Ivan Ivanovich himself.
And so he could, pouring out of himself, pour into the roiling life of nearby beings; pouring out of one being into another he could clearly flow through the soul of this or that tenant in the building on Galosh Lane; and he could even flow through the soul of — well, for example: Milyukov, Vinaver, Karl Liebkhent, and maybe even: Bismark, Wikensfeld, Napoleon and Hannibal; and among these roiling, wheeling and warmly glowing forms there glimmer, of course, personages from long-gone epochs.
He could observe much in that world; but he could not bring out his illuminations, contain them in any clear words, and if he try to contain them in a clear word, that word would shatter and open into a fan of words, and pass through a metamorphosis of lexical meanings and through the thousand thoughts and sounds secreted away within him, and emerge a clumsy muddle.
He had lived in this clumsy muddle for many years.
So, what then? A habit of keeping silent, or a habit of communicating with the help of epigrams — such were but the ordinary traces of an extraordinary life.
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin, boiling over out of one form and into another is flung out beyond forms, and the wheeling creation of his rhythms (the wheelings of his soul) dissolve into the boundless in outwardly flowing orbits (like ripples on a pond’s surface) and melt in the formless; here the stuff of his states of consciousness resembles universal emptiness, and he – emptiness, mute, speechless, motionless – addresses his own exploded center of emptiness with an intimate ”you”, and this you stands acenter his soul; this you bears the stamp of the Unknown, and yet seems to be Known since time immemorial; and this you, the one who we have forgotten declares:
“The days pass by!
“Behold! I come!”
And upon returning to himself, finding himself seated (and wearing comfortable slippers), he feels a warm gladness spill out in the middle of his chest.
This is concentration!
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin knew this deeply: the times — they have piled up, crowded up; possibilities take shape; new days come; a new era arises; with a majestic crash majestic culture bends and groans; under the skies of the old, the new ascends.
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin loved the youth with all his heart; he knew — there will be children among children; clumsy rumors were spread that Ivan Ivanovich was something like a, but not quite a, confirmed mystic, but, so to say… a Gnostic — an Apocalyptic; not really a Socialist, nor really a Heliist.
Among his museum co-workers he behaved like an old-fashioned gentleman, avoiding politics; he was even apprehensive of political life; more than anyone he avoided the cadets3, members of the National Freedom Party who, after the rare conversation with Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin, decidedly labeled him a backward reactionary. So, once, in the museum building, a philosopher-cadet was espousing his view of the ideal government, one whose humane principles were so wide-reaching that even imprisoned convicts would be offered new and improved methods of entertaining themselves and one another.
Here Ivan Ivanovich interrupted his interlocutor:
“There will, after all, be prisons?”
To which the other responded:
“And how else?”
“I presumed that humanity would become enlightened by a lucid understanding of the principles of fairness and humane treatment.”
“No — there’ll be prisons… but those sitting locked-up in them will listen to symphonies. Right from behind the wall they’ll be played Bach’s fugues and Beethoven’s sonatas.”
But, Ivan Ivanovich, blowing his nose, and with a sour, dry face recalling the poet and censor Maikov, cut off the philosophizing:
“I prefer my prisons with bugs, and — without the sound of Beethoven.”
And so he became listed with the reactionaries.
Besides that, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin denied the need for war in the year of the war; patriotic fervor did not buoy his spirits, and he supposed, contrary to the obvious, that it wasn’t worth making so much noise over a small, half-savage race; this gave everyone cause to think that he was secretly germanophiling. He kept silent about the current regime and made no remarks concerning Rasputin; the February Revolution didn’t please him.
But, as Russia boiled and melted, as fragments broke off of her — Poland, Finland, Latvia, Belorussia, the Caucuses, and the Ukraine, and as the museum screamed itself hoarse, as the residents of Galosh Lane lost their appetites and sleep from anxiety, as the the yellowish-brown pillars of dust swept through Moscow, eating out everyone’s eyes, as a tornado of papers whirled along the avenues, boulevards and squares encrusted with invalids who appeared from God knows where, and as the trams twisted more and more out of shape, and fringes stuck out from between the bodies squeezing and shoving one another within — Ivan Ivanovich, to everyone’s surprise, began to experience an unexplainable yet pleasant emotion, his eyes grew gentler, more radiant, and his elderly mouth bent more often into a smile.
What was it that was forming in Ivan Ivanovich’s mind? It was difficult to say; Russia’s annihilation pleased him, certainly.
Evenings, he would gaze out at the sunset from his window, and one summer (in June of 1917), he even once during a day off appeared at Agrafina Kondrativna’s summer estate, the very same Agrafina Kondrativna who, or, rather: whose… but that is not the point, the point is that – strolling through the field with the museum director’s assistant, Ivan Ivanovich surveyed the surroundings and then crisply remarked:
Yes, yes, yes
How clear and bright the air!”
From then on his colleagues noticed: among the epigrams uttered by Ivan Ivanovich, new epigrams appeared.
After walking into the library, he looks through memos; and he then suddenly flashes an uncanny smile and rub his palms together; looking at him, you would think that his spirit drank in a strange, aromatic drink, one that no one had yet drunk to the bottom — or so it seemed. After a long march of years, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin made use of one of his days off to go spend time out in the open air.
Sometimes, sorting through his memos, he would grab his chest like one suffering from a heart disorder; but this was no disorder; it was his mind intently diving into his fluttering heart; he rolled down, like a pearl, into the cup of his heart, sending ripples along the surface of his blood; you would simply say:
“My heart jumped!”
And so, with a heart that just took an untimely jump (right in the museum!), Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin addressed his colleagues not with the usual sentence, not with something like:
“Iconography, gentlemen, is a science!”
No, rather he addressed them with the strange-sounding phrase:
“Yes, yes, yes — how clear and bright the air.”
Undoubtedly he spoke not of the museum air, thick with dust; nor did he mean the air over the fields; the subject of his awkward declaration was the air found in that realm of thought-feelings where he traveled evenings; that realm – of thought-feelings — was light and air; the composition of that air disturbed Ivan Ivanovich; he distinctly saw how before the revolution Russia was fogged up, dulled; how clouds of choking smoke escaped into the dancing light; only since the revolution did he notice a clarity of atmosphere (all the plumes of choking smoke sank, settling on the outside layer of our life, effecting an inner collapse — in the same manner that dust, packed down by rain, collects on the surfaces of objects in clumps, but the air, cleansed, shines more radiantly).
His words “How clear and bright the air” referred to that particular state of the atmosphere.
When the date reached the 20’s of July 1917, Ivan Ivanovich once appeared in the museum lobby with an overlarge umbrella, in a canvas jacket, but wearing galoshes, and while handing the umbrella to the doorman remarked:
The days pass by, Feramont Semyonivich, they pass by…
Before the October Revolution, when Ivan Ivanovich appeared in the museum already wearing the frayed autumnal overcoat (not the trench-coat), he fixed his gaze on a young man who recently took a post in the museum, a member of one of the newly-formed parties; lifting up his glasses, Ivan Ivanovich stood before him from time to time; Ivan Ivanovich shook his gray head with a feeling of deepest sympathy; and just as if he were caught in the middle of a sigh that began long ago and that seemed to go on without end, Ivan Ivanovich thought aloud:
“And so, young man, the never-setting and limitless makes its way forward; and – oh, yes!” he interrupted himself.
And, wiping off his glasses and returning to his papers, his face changed; his face recalled in rare instants the prophet Jeremiah’s face, as depicted by Michelangelo.
A few days later, that young man was killed on a sidewalk in a crossfire of machine-guns.
We have forgotten to mention one very important detail in Ivan Ivanovich’s life: 15 minutes to 10 every night, he brings the day’s affairs to a close, and views all of the day’s events in reverse: from the last moment to the moment of waking; after this, his thoughts and attention gather a particular solidity and strength; 5 minutes to 11 he lays down to sleep.
He stretches out on his back, his head covered, and lies motionless. The mental screw inside his head unravels spiralwise, and its point wedges against the inside of a seventy-year old skull, and that skull cracks, and the contents of Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin’s head stretch out immeasurably into sensation; at first, it seems to him that a tiara lay atop his head; the tiara then grows into his head and stretches out into an impossibly tall tower — just then, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin’s heels feel pulled by the currents of his elongating and melting legs. First, Ivan Ivanovich felt his heels at the level of, say, his knees (his legs extended beyond his heels), then in his stomach, and finally Ivan Ivanovich feels his body circumscribed into some enormous body, newly pulsing from heart to throat — in a word, he feels himself within himself a pygmy in a giant’s body; so might a tired and drowsy traveler who wandered into a cavernous, empty and abandoned tower feel; Ivan Ivanovich distinctly sees that the tower’s walls are stitched of the sky’s daylight fabric; perceives that fabric to be none other than the skin blanketing us, or, better yet, the covering of some enormous body, from whose inside bones and skin crystallize outward; better yet — he feels himself a crystal in a glass in relation to the solution from which it precipitated.
In those minutes of transition to sleep, Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin knows that our body is a body circumscribed, folded inside of another, enormous body; and that larger body is a sky, and each of us travels under his own sky (if a chick could run inside its egg, it would roll the egg forward, stepping along the inside of the eggshell); such is the sky we walk under — an eggshell around our head. But Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin finds himself both inside and outside his own skin (inside the enormous body’s skin, and outside of his regular skin).
Here with an effort of will he squeezes into himself and feels himself as a concentrated, bright, forever straining point; a shudder passes through him; the body laying between the sheets breaks into a flowing stream, and Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin is free to move within the enormous tower (from the heart to the throat, toward the shadowed portal ahead); he feels himself running inside the tower, along the staircase, step by step (organ by organ), and he runs out onto the terrace of a magnificent tower (outside his physical body and outside the elemental body).
He stands out there before a heavenly expanse glittering with stars, but these particular stars glide and fly just like birds; Ivan Ivanovich, freed from his body, reaches the terrace where he contemplates them, and they become many-feathered beings; and they pour forth fountainous flames like feathers, out of their centers; and one being – one star-bird (Ivan Ivanovich’s star) descends to him and embraces him in a crackling fire of rays, or wings, and carries him away; it feels as if boiling water scald Ivan Ivanovich’s very essence; the sensation of hands becomes the sensation of the star’s wings, embracing him in conflagration; Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin flew through all into spark-clusters, brocades, diaphanous and glowing films – by way of spark-clusters, brocades, diaphanous and glowing films — into nothing, where at the core rises up our Old, Forgotten Teacher, greeting us since time immemorial — and he says:
And so Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin came to clearly recognize within himself that ancient Celestial who secretly moved and filled him, exalted him with that light and air, with the stuff of his life.
Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin ordinarily drifted into unconsciousness during these sacred and hidden conversations with the Secret Teacher of life, and the most important parts of the conversation fogged over.
But, the dream conversations with the Teacher became lately edged with unusual clarity; with unusual clarity Ivan Ivanovich understood that his cloud drifts among earthly, murky ones, so that the hour, the fated moment, the foretold day may come when his cloud may rise up like a prophet above the gathered crowd; and hurl words into the crowd, not his own, but the Teacher’s, spoken through him like through a horn:
“Behold, I come!
We’ll build a grand temple…
The times are piling up…
Our homes — destroyed…
The hard soil melts,
And the floodwaters will surround you all.
Behold, I come!”
* * *
During one July day in 1918, when meetings gathered on the outskirts of the city, and when Mirbach’s murder was being planned, everyone noticed that Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin, entering the museum, did not even touch the day’s work, his face and posture recalling the prophet Jeremiah, as depicted by Michelangelo.
On finishing work at 20 to 5, Ivan Ivanovich found himself in a tram bound for the city’s outskirts; the time, he felt, was ripe.
A meeting was taking place under the open sky.
There was talk of freedom; of the chance to create life anew; there was talk of love and equality; of the brotherhood of man.
And then, after keeping silent all those years and awaiting in his solitary cell that shining day when the secrets of life would be distilled, and when maybe Spirit enter the heart – he stood up above the crowd.
From beneath gray and heavy brows his gaze penetrated the crowd with an inexpressible love; above the laughter, yells and gibes his inspired head turned, recalling the prophet Jeremiah’s, as depicted by Michelangelo; words sounded: a swansong in crystalline time; for an instant it seemed that something drew irrevocably closer, and life itself was melted upon those words, running like rivulets down into souls, the life that flew – a gold fabric of images (a shimmer of the Spirit) – back to primeval source.
For a moment, everyone felt a relieving sigh rise from the depths of his being; an unending sigh; and he, he who had ripened for so many long years towered above the crowd.
If just then anyone’s eyes could have opened up to gaze suddenly through the veil of illusions that shrouds us all, he would have seen the timeless Celestial, the Teacher taking wing like a bird from the distant spirit-world and hurling himself down into the lifeless abyss, rending a tear in the spirit- world, hurling himself into the divide of Nothing; and whoever could just then have seen, would have seen the soul of Ivan Ivanovich’s words bursting into that divide of Nothing up from the fogged-over, earthly realm (bursting out from the crown of his head); and — the unity of man and spirit, all while an earthly seventy year old body stood above the crowd and uttered words, not its own, but the Teacher’s, who spoke through him, like through a horn:
We’ll build a grand temple…
The times are piling up…
The whirlwinds gather…
Our homes destroyed…
The hard soil melts,
And the floodwaters will surround you all.
Behold, He comes!”
From the rostrum Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin clearly saw bloody passions rearing their heads like grunting leopards in the throng below; he saw: sallow faces, flushed brows, hateful eyes, lips twisting into snarls.
And he clearly understood that it isn’t time for a transformation, not yet; the future rose up from the depths of a discharged atmosphere, and then stepped aside and took no guests along.
He understood his error: an untimely revelation of the Spirit’s writ.
There was an old, worn-out man with blank, dim eyes fixed straight ahead, his eyes ringed with the feathery cinders of lightning burning itself away; so does a still smoldering coal grow gray with cold ash on its surface; eyes like scattered ash swept about the droning crowd, and the enfeebled body, crawling off the rostrum, fell, as if into deep night, seen off by gibes.
* * *
An enfeebled body trudged home, mashing its mouth; it walked along the sleeping city’s alleys and streets with a rumpled brimmed hat pulled down on its forehead, and from under the gray, rumpled hat, eye-whites helplessly stared into a puddle and turned in their orbits; they were set in a thing cast of flesh — a face recalling the censor and poet A. Maikov’s — in his grave.
* * *
But then: the true Ivan Ivanovich Korobkin climbs up to the enormous tower’s terrace and stands, leaning against the railing, contemplating the world of those stars, changing places in that sky; his star speeds toward him, to. . . to take him away to the Teacher awaiting him.
* * *
In the beginning of July 1918, a funeral procession moved toward the Novodevichy Monastery6. Ivan Ivanovich was being buried. His co-workers carried the coffin, and the museum director’s assistant thoughtfully remarked to the charming lady he accompanied:
“Wouldn’t you know, Agrafina Kondrativna, everything happens in this world. . . They say, there are Masons; and about Ma-yevski they’d say, that he was a Mason. . . and I know for sure that our dear departed here was a mason.”