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…
They pass by us…
The times are piling up…”
* * *
Those were the hard days of July4; Russia shook.
* * *
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:
“Behold, I come!”5
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.”
On Thursday Anna found out that she was pregnant. When she came home from work, she didn’t start dinner but instead sat at the tiny kitchen table, put her gaunt hands on the new oilcloth, and stared at them in a stupor.
Nikolai came home as usual at 9 p.m.
Anna heard him taking off his coat in the narrow, over-furnished hallway. Then she walked up to him, threw her arms around his neck, greasy with ground-in diesel fuel, and held him tightly.
“Kolya, I can’t go on anymore. We have to do it.”
Nikolai sighed and delicately brushed his lips against her pale, thin hair.
“Everything will be fine. Don’t be scared.”
Her arms, like two pale snakes, crawled along her husband’s bony shoulders.
“Why are you trying to calm me down? Did you read yesterday’s ‘Truth’?”
“Of course I did.”
“So what are you waiting for? For them to come for us? Or denounce us as ‘spitters against the wind’?”
“Of course not. I’m just thinking.”
Anna turned away from him.
“You’re thinking… meanwhile He is still on the windowsill. Everyone sees Him.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll do it today. For sure.”
Twilight flattened the city into an uneven multicolored plane of flames that held up a strip of evening sky. The sky, squeezed in between the city and the paint-chipped window frame, quickly grew dark, filling up with acrid fog. The darker it became, the sharper and clearer His profile stood out against the gloomy plane of the city.
Nikolai had noticed before that His knobby, pale rose flesh seemed to light up against the background of the deepening darkness.
Twelve years ago, a tiny rose-colored tuber pushed its way up through the black earth that was packed into a silver flower pot shaped like an enormous wine glass, and Nikolai had been amazed at how quickly it brightened when twilight fell.
That evening the family had been celebrating the Day of the First Sprouting. They’d had to move a chest of drawers to seat everyone around the table. Nikolai remembered turning out the lights, listening to the Anthem and his now deceased father giving the Main Toast. He remembered how they drank wine and took turns shaking drops of wine from the glasses onto the unctuous black fertilized earth.
“Grow for our happiness o’er the centuries! Grow for the death of all our enemies!” Father proclaimed as he turned over his glass third, after the two fat representatives of the DSP (Directorate of Selectional Propaganda) and then quickly leaned over to kiss the tuber…
In three years, He grew by 13 centimeters, and Nikolai could make out the outline of the Leader in the knotty body, which was like an elongated potato. One morning he told his mother. She laughed and pushed Nikolai onto the bed.
“You silly boy! Did you think we didn’t notice?”
And then she added mysteriously, “Soon you won’t believe your eyes!”
And indeed, a year hadn’t gone by before the top part of what seemed at first glance to be a shapeless tuber became round, the lower part widened, and two protuberances pushed out on either side and slanted downward.
Then Father gathered the guests together again, cut his right hand, rubbed his blood into the top of the tuber and announced the Day of Formation.
Over the next two years the tuber grew another 10 centimeters, the rosy head became even rounder, a thick neck took shape, the shoulders became broader and a belly stuck out over the knobby waist.
“It’s the miracle of selection, son!” his father exclaimed, fiddling with his prematurely gray beard. “Only our miracle-working people could have invented it! Just imagine – a living Father of the Great Country! On the windowsill of every family, in every home, in every corner of our boundless state!”
Soon a meaty nose pushed out of the round head, then two swellings indicated eyebrows, a chin jutted forward, and ears appeared. His body, which was in the potting soil up to His waist, broadened and strengthened. A few pockmarks and warts gradually disappeared, and the knobbiness smoothed out.
After another year, lips appeared on the rosy face, brows majestically furrowed and pushed the bridge of his nose in, and his forehead became domed. A ridge with a short tuft of hair appeared at the top of His forehead. His neck was tightly encased in the collar of His field jacket, and his belly was even more solidly rooted in the earth.
Nikolai had already graduated from school when dimples appeared on the Leader’s cheeks, ear cavities were carved out and slight folds appeared in the tightly fitted jacket.
Two years later Nikolai’s father died.
And a year later they celebrated the Day of Enlightenment —two dark little beads pushed up the puffy eyelids. Nikolai had to lead the celebration. He powdered his face and sang the Anthem to the gathered guests. His mother poured a cup of family spit they’d saved up into the pot of the Leader. From that day on they only fed Him spit. And every twelfth day Nikolai gave Him his sperm.
When little bands of military ribbons appeared on His jacked and the end of a pen peeped out of His pocket, it was the Day of Complete Growth. They celebrated it without Nikolai’s mother.
Soon Nikolai married Anna and went to work at the factory.
From her first day in the house, Anna tended Him with great care. Every morning she wiped off the dust, watered the tuber with spit, raked the black soil and polished the silver flower pot until it shone.
And so it went for almost two years.
But on the twelfth June morning terrible news spread across the Land: The Great Leader had died.
No one worked for two weeks — everyone stayed home in a state of shock. At the end of two weeks, after the deceased had been buried, the new Leader ceremonially accepted the Helm. Unlike his predecessor, the new One was tall and thin. He gave speeches, wrote addresses, and spoke to the people. But none of his speeches so much as mentioned the previous Leader who had been at the Helm for 47 years. That frightened people. Some people lost their minds; others jumped out their windows holding on to their potted tubers.
After a month, the new Leader gave an address to the nation in which he mentioned “the former One at the Helm, made former due to necessary but sufficient reasons.”
No matter how Nikolai and Anna struggled to grasp the hidden meaning of those words, it eluded them. The people understood it in two ways and immediately paid for both: people who took their tubers off the windowsills were immediately arrested and people who left them on the sills received a warning. For some reason they forgot about Nikolai and Anna – they weren’t sent the red postcard with a warning and the image of a person spitting against the wind. But that didn’t make the couple happy; it upset them.
A month and a half went by in this information vacuum and tension. Their neighbors continued to be arrested and warned. Soon a directive was issued banning suicide. And the suicides stopped…
Nikolai didn’t notice Anna walking up behind him. Her hands touched his shoulders.
“Are you afraid, Kolya?”
Nikolai turned around. “What have we got to be afraid of? We have the right. We’re good people.”
“We’re good people, Kolya. Are we going to begin?”
Nikolai nodded. Anna turned out the light.
Nikolai got a knife and poked at the tuber to find the waist, and then, after he steadied the shaking of his wiry hands, he made a slit along the waist. His body turned out to be harder than a potato. The tuber weakly cracked under the knife. When Nikolai cut Him, Anna grabbed Him and delicately carried Him in the dark, like a child, to the table. Nikolai got out an eight-liter glass jar with a wide mouth. Anna lit the stove, filled a bucket with water, and put it on to heat.
They sat in the darkness, only illuminated by the weak gas flame, and stared at Him lying there. Both Nikolai and Anna thought that He moved. When the water came to a boil, Anna put it on the balcony to cool, poured it into the jar, added salt, vinegar, bay leaves and cloves. Then they carefully slipped Him into the jar. As He displaced the steaming water, He bobbed as if He wanted to crawl out of the jar. But Nikolai pushed down his head with the metal lid, grabbed the sealer and began to quickly and deftly tighten the lid.
When it was all done, the couple picked up the jar and carefully lifted it up onto the windowsill in the same place. Anna carefully wiped the warm jar with a towel. After a moment of hesitation, Nikolai turned on the light. The jar stood on the sill, its glass sides shining. His bobbing in the water, surrounded by a few bay leaves, was barely noticeable.
“Beautiful,” Anna said after a long pause.
“Yes,” Nikolai sighed.
He embraced his wife and lightly placed his hand on her belly. Anna smiled and covered his hand with her wan hands.
The next morning Anna got up as usual, a half-hour before her husband, and went into the kitchen, turned on the stove and put the kettle on. After that she would usually water Him with the spit that they had saved up over the day. Sleepily scratching herself, Anna automatically reached for the spit cup standing on the shelf and froze: the cup was empty. Anna glanced over at the windowsill and saw the jar with the tuber. She breathed out in relief as she remembered the procedure they’d done the night before. She walked over and put her hand on the jar. She looked out the window. The city was waking up and lights were going on in the windows. But something had changed in the city. Changed significantly. Anna rubbed her eyes as she looked: On the windowsills the silver and gold flowerpots that she was used to seeing since childhood were gone and in their place were glass jars with rose tubers.
I could think of nothing else all month: Would they let me go to the Christmas party, or not?
I was cunning. I prepared the ground. I told my mother about the glorious achievements of Zhenya Ryazanova, for whom the party was being given. I said that Zhenya was doing very well at school, that she was almost top of the class and was always being held up as an example to us. And that she wasn’t just a little girl, but a very serious woman: she was already sixteen.
In short, I didn’t waste any time. And then, one fine morning I was called into the living room and told to stand in front of the big mirror and try on a white dress with a blue sash; I understood that I had won. I would be going to the party.
After that, preparations began in earnest: I took oil from the icon lamp in Nanny’s room and smeared it on my eyebrows every evening to make them grow thicker in time for the ball; I altered a corset my older sister had thrown away and then hid it under the mattress; I rehearsed sophisticated poses and enigmatic smiles in front of the mirror. My family expressed surprise. “Why’s Nadya looking so idiotic?” people kept asking. “I suppose she’s at that awkward age. Oh well, she’ll grow out of it.”
The Christmas party would be on the 24th. Zhenya’s name day.
I did everything in my power on the aesthetic front. With no resources at my disposal but a torn corset, I still managed to achieve a quite extraordinary effect. I cinched myself in so tight at the waist that I could only stand on tiptoe. I could barely breathe, and my face took on an imploring look. But it was a joy to make my first sacrifices in the name of beauty.
Nanny was to take me to the party. I put on my fur coat before saying goodbye to my family so as not to overwhelm them with my shapeliness.
There were a lot of people at the Ryazanovs, and most of them grown up: officers, friends of Zhenya’s brother, ladies of various ages. There were only two or three younger girls like myself, and only one cadet between us, so we had to dance with the officers. This was a great honour, of course, but a little intimidating.
At dinner, despite all my attempts to manoeuvre myself into the place next to the cadet, I was seated beside a large officer with a black beard. He was probably about thirty, but at the time he seemed to me a decrepit creature whose life was behind him.
“A fine old relic to be sitting next to,” I thought. “Seems I’m in for a jolly evening!”
The officer studied me very seriously and said, “You’re a typical Cleopatra. Quite remarkable.”
Alarmed, I said nothing.
“I just said,” he went on, “that you remind me of Cleopatra. Have you done Cleopatra at school yet?”
“You have her regal air, and you are just as sophisticated and experienced a flirt. The only thing is, your feet don’t touch the ground. But that’s a minor detail.”‘
My heart beat faster. That I was an experienced flirt, I had no doubt. But how had this old man spotted it so very quickly?
“Look inside your napkin,” he said.
I looked. A pink chenille ballerina was poking out of the napkin.
“Look what I have.”
He had a green devil, with a tail made from silver metallic cord. The tail shook and the devil danced on a wire, so jolly and so beautiful that I gasped and reached my hand out towards it.
“Stop it!” he said. “He’s my devil! You have a ballerina. Tell her how pretty she is!”
He stood the devil in front of his plate.
“Look at him. Isn’t he wonderful? I can honestly say he’s the finest work of art I’ve ever seen. Still, I don’t suppose you’re interested in art. You’re a flirt. A Cleopatra. You just want to lure men to their doom.”
“Yes, he really is the very most handsome,” I babbled. “Nobody else has anyone like him.”
The officer briskly inspected the other guests. Everybody had a small chenille figure: a dog wearing a skirt, a chimney sweep, a monkey. Nobody had a devil like he did. Or anything the least bit like him.
“Well, of course, a devil like him doesn’t come along every day of the week. Look at his tail. It shakes all by itself without anyone even touching it. And he’s such a jolly little fellow!”
There was no need to tell me all this. I was already very taken with the devil. So much so that I didn’t even feel like eating.
“Why aren’t you eating? Did your mother tell you not to?”
Ugh, how very rude! What did my mother have to do with it, when I was a society woman dining with an officer at a ball?
“No, merci, I just don’t feel like it. I never eat much at balls.”
“Really? Well, you know what’s best for you, you must have been to lots of balls over the years. But why aren’t you looking at my little devil? You won’t be able to admire him much longer, you know. Dinner will be over soon and I’ll be putting him in my pocket and going back home with him.”
“What will you do with him?” I asked, with timid hope.
“What do you mean? He will bring beauty to my lonely life. And then I’ll get married and show him to my wife, if she’s well-behaved. He’s a wonderful little devil, isn’t he?”
Horrid old, mean old man, I thought. Didn’t he understand how I loved that jolly devil? How I loved him!
If he hadn’t been so delighted with the devil himself, I might have suggested a swap. My ballerina for his devil. But he was so entranced with this devil that there seemed no point in pestering him.
“Why are you so sad all of a sudden?” he asked. “Is it because all this will be over soon? And you’ll never again see anything like him? It’s true, you don’t come across his sort so very often.”
I hated this unkind man. I even refused a second helping of ice cream, which I really wanted. I refused because I was very unhappy. Nothing in the world mattered to me any more. I had no use for any of life’s pleasures and believed in nothing.
Everyone got up from the table. And my companion hurried off, too. But the little devil was still there on the table. I waited. Not that I was thinking anything in particular. I wasn’t thinking with my head. It seemed that only my heart was thinking, because it began to beat fast and hard against the top of my tight corset.
The officer didn’t come back.
I took the devil. The springy silver tail whipped against my hand. Quick—into my pocket he went.
They were dancing again in the hall. The nice young cadet asked me for a dance. I didn’t dare. I was afraid the devil would jump out of my pocket.
I didn’t love the devil any more. He had not brought me joy. Only worry and anxiety. Perhaps I just needed to take a quick look at him then I’d be ready to suffer for his sake. But as it was… What had I gone and done? Should I just slip in and put him back on the table? But the dining room door was locked now. Probably they were already clearing the table.
“Why are you looking so sad, my charming lady?”
The “old man” was standing beside me, smiling roguishly “I’ve suffered a real tragedy,” he said. “My devil’s gone missing. I’m at my wit’s end. I’m going to ring the police. They need to carry out a search. There may be a dangerous criminal in our midst.”
He smiled. What he said about the police was, of course, a joke.
“How old are you?” he asked suddenly.
“I’ll be fifteen soon. In ten months.”
“Aha! As soon as that! So in three years’ time I could be marrying you. If only my dear little devil hadn’t disappeared so inexplicably. How will I be able to make my wife happy now? Why are you so silent? Do you think I’m too old for you?”
“Not now,” I answered gloomily. “But in three years’ time you’ll be an important general.”
“A general. That’s a nice thought. But what can have happened to my devil?”
I looked up into his face. I hated him so much and I was so hugely unhappy that he stopped smiling and walked away.
And I went to my friend’s room and, hiding behind the curtain (not that there was anyone else in the room), I took out the devil. He was a little squashed, but there was something else besides. He had changed. Looking at him no longer made me feel the least bit happy. I didn’t want to touch him, and I didn’t want to laugh. He was just the most ordinary devil, green chenille with a little silver tail. How could he make anybody happy? How ridiculous it all was!
I stood up on the window sill, opened the small pane at the top and threw him out on the street.
Nanny was waiting for me in the hall.
The officer walked up to us, glanced at Nanny and chuckled: “Here to collect our Queen Cleopatra, are you?”
And then he fell silent, looked at me thoughtfully and said, simply and kindly, “Off you go. Off to bed with you, little one. You’ve gone quite pale. God bless you.”
I said goodbye and left, quiet and tired.
*Taken from Rasputin and Other Stories by Teffi, ed. Robert Chandler and Ann Marie Jackson, Pushkin Press London
(A true story)
Since she was beautiful and foolish —and she became more foolish when she was beautiful and more beautiful when she was foolish — and since he loved her, and since he had nothing to give her but the position of commissar, he made her Commissar of the Circus.
And so the beautiful Nina began to chair regular and special meetings while holding her beautiful infant. When she had to give a small speech, she handed the baby to her neighbor on the right – the “he” of our prologue — or to her neighbor on the left (on the side of her heart) — a Hungarian horse rider who might have been half as powerful as the one on the right but was, it must be said in his favor, half his age. The baby preferred this one, since the rider didn’t have a beard. But the child also loved the all-powerful man, since a certain object glittered and danced between that one’s myopic, trusting eyes, the object called a “pince-nez” in my country. The infant pinched the nose of the Commissar and tugged at the pretty curl of the Hungarian. So the clever little baby had two favorite past-times with both nannies of the male gender.
But while this was going on, what was her husband doing? Yes, there is also a husband in our story. The husband was elsewhere, at the other end of the city on the lawn in front of the former mansion of the former Counts Sollogubov, now a “Palace of Arts,” where he was writing poetry, or to be more precise — ruminating on writing poetry — at some point, when he had time, inspiration and so on, in short: on one fine day when “all this comes to an end.” But there was no end to “all this,” and he did well to be elsewhere, at the other end of the city, since the baby, occupied with the pince-nez and the curl, didn’t have an extra hand for or interest in the red beard of Nina’s husband. He, Nina’s husband, had a red beard that was endless and pointless (as all beards are pointless), a beard that he let grow as God lets the grass grow, but which — the beard — grew faster and longer than grass. And so, redder against green, flame on emerald, beard on grass: Nina’s husband dreamed. He dreamed and drank straight from the bottle.
The Revolution had broken all the glasses and the Restoration, that great Atoner and Mender, had not arrived yet, so he really did drink “straight from,” just like a baby drinks milk and just as greedily — in fact, even more greedily. Certainly the beard made him thirsty. When he noticed the bottle becoming empty, Barbarossa 1, the true son of a Russian merchant, was troubled by the sight of its emptiness and felt remorse over the emptying he had done, and he began to whisper prayers. Which prayers? All of them. Even for the repose of the soul. If the sun was too hot, he’d go through a little door into the former family chapel of the former Counts Sollogubov, which had been turned into a Museum of Cults, whose director and sole visitor he was, and busied himself there for hours with icons and crosses of all sizes.
Toward evening Barbarossa exchanged the green carpet and baking sun for an ordinary chair and the only candle, and, sitting at the table in front of a bottle that would fill up as soon as it was empty and empty as soon as it was full, he would tell anyone who would listen to him the same story, the only story in his life: how he abducted the beautiful Nina.
“In Crimea, you know, my friend, how black the nights are. So not a drop could be seen (“glug-glug” and swallow). And the roads, you know, all lead down (the level of liquid in the bottle also went down)… of course, there are roads up, but then you find yourself on the top of the mountain, and there’s nothing there — nothing except a dreadful peak, absolutely bald, with an eagle that pecks your eyes out. So it looked like we had to choose the roads that led down, since we decided to go to… Well, now I don’t remember where. In any case, we decided to go to the place you could leave from, seeing as I abducted her. Aha! I figured that the ones that led down — see where I’m going with this? — led to the sea and the ones that went up — got it? —led into the mountains. And since we soon decided to take the ferry — you see? —we naturally needed water… but the driver was really drunk… really very drunk. The car tore off… with Nina inside… and Nina tore off since she’d abandoned her father and mother because of me (tender emotions; a long “glug-glug”). So the car sped off with Nina, who sped off inside… You wouldn’t believe how fast it went, that car! The night was black, the roads ran off in all directions, the wheels slipped, the driver was drunk, drunk as the black night!”
The faster the car sped along in the story, the slower the storyteller spoke; the faster the story went, the more the storyteller abbreviated it.
“You see, Nina inside… the driver – drunk. The night – black… Potholes. Gouged… the car sped… it sped…the car at top sp—(“—eed.” His mouth open on the last syllable, the storyteller fell asleep.)
Meanwhile, Nina, dressed in all her finery, like a jinn, put one hand, wide with rings, on the hands of the all-powerful one and used her other hand to throw a red flower across the red railing of her theater loge to the Hungarian rider, who once again basked in glory, flowers, smiles, and sweat.
The clever little baby lay deep inside the loge and slept.
* * *
Every morning we humble people, who had fetched up here in this former neighborhood of the nobility, watched raptly as Nina, like the rising sun, glided between two rows of ancient linden trees in a yellow cabriolet on two enormous wheels that turned like two suns, pulled by two horses that were also yellow.
A poet would say: Aurora in her chariot.
We all said, “Look the Commissar of the Circus.” Or “Look — the wife of Barbarossa.” Everyone, poet or not, expressed one profound thought: “Such good fortune! In these times, for one woman to have ten legs…”
We were not envious since we were Scythians — or Sarmatians — or Slavs (captives, Tatars, Barbarians) — in short, since we were Russians, we weren’t envious and were able to take pleasure from the beauty gliding past us.
(What would I, who called up this vision, do in my actual poet’s garret with two yellow horses, two wheels — also yellow — a husband with a red beard, a commissar in a pince-nez, a red-headed Hungarian rider, and who knows whose baby? No thanks. I’d change nothing. To each their own!)
And so, every morning Povarskaya Ulitsa turned into the pagan firmament and Nina became Aurora.
But also every morning, on the same street, in a lovely, large, round and very old white church dedicated to the brothers and martyr princes Boris and Gleb, an old and stubborn priest held Matins.
And also every morning the Red Army replied to the church service right there in front of the white church with a marching band.
It is a Sunday morning in sunny May. All hungry Moscow is out on the street to taste the scent of the lindens, drink in the blueness and especially – to imbibe the music, that regimental music that is always so soothing, exactly like the sight of a beautiful horse or two beautiful horses, especially yellow ones, especially driven if not by the masterful hand of the man who kept them, at least by the hand of his kept woman.
But what is happening with our two yellow horses today? Have they been lit on fire from the beard of Barbarossa? Or did the sprite of the linden trees addle their minds? Instead of stopping by the Palace of Arts next to the automobile that was already waiting for the all-powerful one to make his morning visit, they galloped to Kudrino Square, where, even more skittish, they ran around in circles, in circles around the square, not heeding Nina’s heart-rending shouts or obeying the reins in her hands, which were growing weak.
Spin ‘round, spin ‘round, wooden horses! But these horses are not made of wood, and they should run straight. But these… have they finally gone mad? They spin around like whirling dervishes, turning their necks, swinging their chestnut manes over the old cobblestones of the old square, with no mercy for the cabriolet or rider, who was standing on legs turning to wood with arms shaking spasmodically and a mane wilder than those of the horses.
This will not end well! Being the Commissar of the Circus, throwing flowers to the Hungarian rider, suckling a baby who also might be from the Hungarian — that does not make her Hungarian or a rider.
A poet from the Palace of Arts shouts: “It’s a race from hell!” An artist from the same palace pronounces: “Phaeton.” Everyone else, like people always do everywhere, watched and did nothing but comment: “It’s the end of Nina. The all-powerful one is witness to his own powerlessness… The Hungarian rider is witness to his absence…” Suddenly a shout goes up: “Barbarossa!”
Yes, Barbarossa, Red Beard, verily risen from his crypt of grass, Barbarossa in flesh and beard, running out and jumping like a kangaroo, holding an enormous silver cross. He holds it right in front of the horses’ noses, shaking it at them. They suddenly come to a halt, since they are horses and they can halt suddenly. But that is not all. They kneel down. Yes, both of them — and they do it gracefully, like people. And that is not all. They bow. They bow with dignity, like people, as the Commissar and Barbarossa take Aurora, weeping copious tears but already breaking into a smile, into their united, or rather, separate hands.
And from the people, from us — people who don’t know envy, people who don’t know irony — from the people come only exclamations: “It’s a miracle! How can you say that there is no God, if even horses believe in Him?”
Caught up in the heat of events, or rather, by the events of the heat, I forgot to say that the end of the horses’ race coincided with the end of the music — the ceremonial and daily march from former times in the recent past when they were still just simple circus horses who did not have to pull a cabriolet with a Commissar astride.
But if in past times their bows were intended for the public, couldn’t their current bows — considering the extraordinary circumstances — be intended for God?
And since the horses kept on bowing, we applauded.
Most of all I hate the sun, loud human voices, and pounding. Rapid, rapid pounding. I am so afraid of people that if I hear someone else’s footsteps and the sound of voices in the corridor in the evening, I start to scream. Because of this I have a special room, the quietest and the best, No. 27, at the very end of the corridor. No one can get to me. But in order to protect myself further, I kept begging Ivan Vasilievich for a long time (actually, I cried in front of him), to give me an official typed authorization. He consented and wrote that I was under his protection and that no one had the right to take me away. But, to tell you the truth, I did not have much confidence in the weight of his signature. So he persuaded a professor to sign it too, and affixed a round blue seal to the paper. That made all the difference. I know of many instances where people have avoided death solely because they had a piece of paper with a round blue seal on it in their pockets. True, that worker in Berdyansk with the cheek smeared with soot was hung from a lamppost after they found a crumpled piece of paper with a stamp on it in his boot. But that was altogether different. He was a criminal Bolshevik and the blue seal was a criminal seal. It reserved him a place on that lamppost and the lamppost was the reason for my illness (don’t worry, I know perfectly well that I am ill).
In fact, something had happened to me even before Kolya. I walked away in order to avoid seeing a man being hanged, but fear walked with me in my trembling legs. At the time, of course, there was nothing I could do, but now I would boldly say, “General, you are an animal! How dare you hang people!”
This alone shows you that I’m no coward. I did not go on about the seal because I am afraid of death. Oh, no. I am not afraid of that. I am going to shoot myself, and it will be soon, because Kolya will drive me to despair. I will shoot myself so that I do not have to see or hear Kolya. As for the thought that other people might come… It is loathsome.
For days on end I have been lying on the couch and staring out the window. Above our green garden is an empty void. Beyond it the yellow bulk of a seven-story building turns its deaf, windowless wall to me, and right under the roof is a rusty square. A sign. Dental Laboratory. In white letters. At first I hated it. Then I got used to it and if it were gone I might even miss it. It can be seen clearly the whole day. I focus my attention on it and ponder many important things. But evening is falling. The cupola darkens, the white letters fade from view. I become gray and dissolve in the gloom just like my thoughts. Twilight. A frightening and portentous time of day. Everything fades, everything becomes indistinct. A pale ginger cat begins to slink along the corridor with velvety steps and from time to time I scream. But I will not allow a lamp to be lit because the glare of the lamp will cause me to wring my hands and sob all night. It is better to wait submissively for the moment when that most important last picture begins to burn in the quivering darkness.
My aged mother said to me: “I can’t go on like this much longer. All I see is madness. You are the oldest, and I know that you love him. Bring Kolya back. Bring him back. You are the oldest.”
I said nothing. ٠
So she put all of her yearning and all of her pain into her words.
“Find him. You pretend that nothing can be done. But I know you. You are intelligent, you have long understood that this is all madness. Bring him to me for a day. For just one day. I’ll let him go again.”
She was lying. Would she really let him go again?
I said nothing.
“I only want to kiss his eyes. I know he will be killed. Don’t you understand? He’s my baby. Who else can I ask? You are the oldest. Bring him.”
I could not stand it, so avoiding her eyes, I said, “Okay.”
But she grabbed my sleeve and turned me around so that she could look into my face.
“No, you will swear that you will bring him back alive.”
How could I swear any such thing?
But being the insane person that I am, I did it: “I swear.”
My mother is fainthearted. With that thought I left. But in Berdyansk I saw the crooked lamppost. General, Sir, I agree that I was no less criminal than you, I accept great responsibility for the man smeared with soot, but my brother does not have anything to do with it. He is nineteen years old.
After Berdyansk, I resolutely fulfilled my oath and found him by a small stream twenty versts away. The day was unusually bright. Along the road to the village, from which came the smell of ashes, a cavalry column moved slowly, stirring up clouds of white dust. He rode at the end of the first rank, with the visor of his cap pulled down over his eyes. I remember every detail. The right spur came all the way down to his heel. The strap of his cap stretched across his cheek and down under his chin.
“Kolya. Kolya!” I yelled, and ran down to the roadside ditch.
He started. Along the ranks the sullen, sweaty soldiers turned their heads.
“Ah… brother!” he cried in response. For some reason he never called me by my name, but always said brother. I am ten years older than he. And he always listened carefully to what I said. “Wait, wait here,” he continued, “by the little wood. We’ll be back right away I can’t leave the troop.”
At the edge of the wood, a little away from the dismounted troop, we smoked greedily I was calm and insistent. Everything was madness. Mother was absolutely right.
I whispered to him, “As soon as you return from the village, come with me into town. Then get out of here and never come back.”
“What are you saying, brother?”
“Be quiet,” I said, “Be quiet. I know what I’m saying.”
The troop had mounted. They were swaying, moving at a trot toward the billowing black smoke. In the distance a pounding began. Rapid, rapid pounding.
What could happen in just an hour? They would come back. I settled down to wait by the tent with the red cross on it.
An hour later I saw him. He also returned at a trot. But there was no troop. Only one horseman with a lance galloped on either side of him, and one of them, the one on the right, leaned towards my brother periodically, as if he were whispering something to him. Squinting into the sun, I watched the strange masquerade. He had left in a gray cap and was returning in a red one. The sun was setting. Only a black silhouette crowned with brightness remained. There was no hair and there was no forehead. Instead, there was a red crown with yellow spikes in clumps.
My brother, the horseman, wearing a ragged red crown, sat motionless on a lathered horse, and if the horseman on the right had not been carefully supporting him, he might have been on his way to a parade.
The horseman sat proud in the saddle, but he was blind and mute. There were two red blotches with streaks where an hour ago bright eyes had shone…
The horseman on the left dismounted, his left hand clutched the reins, but the one on the right very carefully led Kolya by the hand. Kolya swayed.
A voice said, “I’m afraid our volunteer… he’s been hit by a shell fragment. Orderly, call a doctor…”
The other sighed and said, “Sure… but why call a doctor, buddy? Better a priest.”
Then the black veil thickened and everything was obscured, even the head gear…
I have gotten used to everything. To this white building of ours, to the twilight, to the ginger cat who purrs at the door, but I cannot get used to his visits. The first time it happened, when I was still living downstairs in No. 63, he came out of the wall. He was wearing the red crown. There was nothing terrifying in that. I had seen him like that in dreams. But of course I knew that since he was wearing the crown he was dead. Then he spoke, moving his lips, which were caked with blood. He eased them apart, clicked his heels, put his hand to the crown in a salute, and said: “Brother, I can’t leave the troop.”
Since then it is always the same. He comes wearing his field shirt, with straps across his chest, with a curved saber and silent spurs, and says the same thing. Salute. Then: “Brother, I can’t leave the troop. “
You cannot imagine how it affected me the first time it happened! He gave the whole clinic a fright. Anyway, it is all over for me. It stands to reason that since he is wearing a halo, he has been killed, and if the dead come and talk to me, it means I have gone mad.
Yes. Now it’s twilight. It is the hour of reckoning. But once I dozed off and saw the living room with the worn red velvet furniture. The comfortable armchair with a cracked leg. The portrait in a dusty black frame on the wall. Flowers on stands. The piano was open and on it was the score from Faust. He stood in the doorway, and a wild happiness warmed my heart. He was not a horseman. He was as he had been before those accursed days. In a black double-breasted jacket with a smudge of chalk on the elbow. His lively eyes smiled playfully and a lock of hair hung down over his forehead. He was nodding to me.
“Brother, let’s go to my room. Do I have something to show you!… “
The rays from his eyes lit up the living room, and the burden of remorse melted inside me. That ill-fated day when I told him: “Go” had never existed, there was no pounding or acrid smoke. He had never gone away and had never been a horseman. He played the piano, the ivory keys tinkled, the golden rays of light touched everything, and his voice was expressive and he laughed.
Then I woke up. There was nothing. No light, no eyes. I never had that dream again. Then that very night, to compound my unbearable torture, he came anyway, stepping silently, the horseman in full military regalia, and he spoke to me the way he has decided to speak to me for eternity.
I decided to put an end to it. I said forcefully, “What are you, my eternal torturer? Why do you come? I admit everything. I take the blame for sending you on that doomed mission. I also take the blame for the hanging. Since I admit all this, forgive me and leave me alone.”
I tell you. General, Sir, he said nothing and left.
So I became bitter from this torment and wished with all my might that he would come to you just once and put his hand to the crown in a salute. I assure you, you would be finished, just like me. At one stroke. However, perhaps you, too, are not alone at night? Who knows, perhaps you are visited by that soot-smeared man from the lamppost in Berdyansk? If this is so, we suffer it as we must. I sent Kolya to help you carry out the hanging, but you were the one who actually did it. By verbal order.
So, he did not leave. Then I scared him away with a scream. Everyone woke up. The attendant came running, they woke Ivan Vasilievich. I could not face the next day, but they wouldn’t let me do myself in. They bound me with canvas straps, tore the glass from my hands, and bandaged me. Since then I have been in No. 27. After I was drugged I began to doze off, and heard the attendant talking in the corridor:
“A hopeless case. “
It’s true. I have no hope. Futilely, in burning anguish, I wait in the twilight for the dream to come – that old familiar room and the peaceful light from those radiant eyes. But all of that is gone forever.
The burden does not ease. And at night I wait submissively for the familiar horseman with the sightless eyes to come and say hoarsely: “I can’t leave the troop.”
Yes, I am hopeless. He will drive me to my grave.
His heart suddenly flipped over in his chest. “Just like a carp in the kitchen sink,” Grigory Katz thought. To calm himself down, he stuck his nose into his scarf and breathed in his own warm air for a few seconds. Then he began to watch the tracks where a train ought to appear, but it was late and instead he ended up watching, like an eager child, another train pulling up to the next platform. Since he was untroubled by the trifling concerns of passengers, Katz was already enjoying the sight of that other train slithering along like a gray snake, adroitly swerving like mercury around the bend and then pulling up to the platform with inexorable stately majesty, like a wave, and just like a wave — iridescent — the lights of Tel Aviv were reflected on it. The train was gone, but Grigory Katz’s curiosity, like a warm wasp, had awakened and hung in the air, quivering, somewhere to the side, and then, with a sense of relief finally descended into someone’s bag. Katz saw a man’s swarthy hands groping around for something in the bag, then taking out a tube of toothpaste and a toothbrush and putting them into a backpack. This was clearly well thought-out beforehand: the man had already known where the bag would be and that the backpack was close by, and for some reason Katz felt contented to be privy to the other person’s minor logistical considerations. The young man looked like an Indian. What awaited him today — a night in a stranger’s house, a stay in a hostel or a night flight? No matter what it was, Katz knew that there would be people and places the fellow didn’t know, and it would take place just before night fall, which concerned and agitated the man slightly; Katz envied his anxiety, and he happily and tenderly imagined the other man’s evening. But then he immediately felt sad. He was like a stray dog that walked alongside people, taking a few steps with everyone who went by. When will I finally have a home? He did have a home, but after the loss of his daughter and the death of his wife, for some reason he constantly forgot it.
But he had something better. He had the street. He now looked at the poor and homeless in a different way. He recalled hearing that some of them stubbornly refused to go into the warmth, to sleep with a roof over their heads, and now he understood that some of them felt more comfortable on the street. He couldn’t decide if grief had made him hard, or if a slice of life had been revealed to him — truly opened to him — and so it no longer seemed as dreadful as it had in the past. Now when he saw a homeless person on a bench, he saw in this unremarkable form a person whose kettle was just about to come to a boil on the stove. And sometimes he was right. Maybe not about the kettle, but look, for example, at the two men playing chess with a plastic cup instead of a queen. Next to them a bottle of cola, half-drunk, stood on an old advertisement. Now Katz never agonized over whether or not to give a hand-out. He could grope around in his pockets for a long time, looking for the exact coin he wanted to give, and then secret the rest of his money back in his pocket without being embarrassed. Did he feel like one of them, was the street his home? Of course not. Katz loved warmth and comfort, but it was on the street that he was able to have his “rooms” — that’s what he called the small but perceptible spaces that sometimes appeared during his brief contact with strangers.
His housing — a clean little corner apartment in a freshly built house that he moved into after his wife’s death — had frozen and turned into something ethereal and transparent. The plastic drop cloths that he had left up after the walls were whitewashed certainly added to the apartment’s unsubstantial aura, but there were more tangible signs. From time to time the apartment gave up to him its airy fauna: pale lice, ants with rickets (both of them were weak, semi-transparent). There were completely extraordinary little spiders with bead-like bodies and the most delicate, awkward legs — he was terrified of hitting them with his mop. Sometimes he found their fragile, white cocoons in the corner. Then ethereal flora appeared. In the sink where he once washed his clay-covered boots with reckless bachelor abandon, a tiny lavender flower on a white stem grew out of the drain, and next to it another one sprung up, this one with a bud curled inward, like a large-headed fetus. Perhaps all of those creatures were waiting for him to buy a lampshade to cover the bare lightbulb, and then, in soft interior lighting, they’d warm up, take on whatever it was they should have had — fuzzy legs, whiskers, or pigmentation for heaven’s sake… But Grigory Katz didn’t buy a lampshade. He quickly walked down the bare winter street that smelled of porridge, then of rubber, and then for some reason of magic markers, and he stopped at the crosswalk; on the other side of the street a woman waited at the crosswalk just like him, and then they were walking in opposite directions across the black and white stripes, and their movement toward each other had an extraordinary painterly quality, a kind of symmetry fraught with meaning, and Katz lost heart and wanted to shamble along clumsily to shake off the solemnity of the movement, but he didn’t give in to it and passed her without speeding up or looking at her, sensing how a room took shape: an entire life lived with that woman — the room hung over the intersection… but like an architect testing the durability and beauty of a structure, he walked down the sidewalk and strode on, led by the beacon of a yellow orange in the mesh pocket of a big strapping fellow, but then he immediately forgot about it because the shawarma vendor had put speakers on the street playing whooping and hooting, and Katz had already become a gangster crossing Harlem at night: he did the first take, and that very first take was a good one — he could tell — and walked along under the gaze of the cameramen and make-up artists, walked across dozens of monitors, walked, slouched and bounced along, and he forgot that he had meant to sit at a table and have a bite to eat, but it was too late – he’d already moved on, he never ate on the set, the king of hip-hop needed a light empty stomach so no shawarma for him now — and then he’d gone by, it was history now.
He loved being outside his house more and more and began to live only in his street “rooms.” He stretched out his walks when he had somewhere to go, and if he had nowhere to go, he organized fake forays on errands with meticulously invented legends. But no one asked him about them, and no one had any intention of catching him in the act. But most important — and this was amazing — his morbid, insatiable curiosity went absolutely unpunished. People didn’t notice his attentive gaze, probably because his body’s overall benign contour was immediately perceived as non-threatening. That was certainly true, but for some reason he still felt like he was a scout on reconnaissance, or maybe — however embarrassing to admit — a secret agent. Someone whose life was in danger because “he knew too much.”
Because, actually, he did know too much. All he had to do was get on the tram and he already knew about the love between the tall, gray-haired man and the older woman sitting up front. When they got off and a student carrying a cardboard portfolio sat in their place, Katz again somehow knew that this boy, an artist, was, unfortunately, completely without talent. “Why is he without talent?” he asked himself sternly. “How can you say that, off the top of your head?” “I can,” someone very calm and merciless replied, and deigned to explain. “His portfolio is too thin. The boy is a slacker. And on top of it, he doesn’t have drive.” (The artist thoughtfully itched his long neck which had a boil coming to a head at the spot where the chain of his feeble, scrawny vertebrae began.) “Go on, take a good look,” the same merciless voice said to Katz, indicating the boil as if it were incontrovertible proof of mediocrity. “Look! What did I tell you?!”
Katz suspected that his grief was to blame for all this. It was his grief that gave him this stern new way of seeing, this new person to talk to, whom he both loved and hated. If he turned that gaze on his wife or daughter, what would he have seen? Would he have begun to loathe them or would he have loved them even more? Suddenly he wanted to look there, into the past, using his new lens. He squinted, expecting to see at least something that would tug at the edge of memory, like pulling the corner of a silk scarf.
He recalled, of course, some bit of nonsense. He remembered blindly groping in her handbag. (She had asked him to get money to pay the gas bill — her hands were covered with flour.) He was amazed by the black sateen lining. He recalled the handbags of his mother and grandmother from his childhood, after the war, with red satin or dark blue velvet mouths exhaling warm breath that smelled of the theater. His wife’s handbag — actually not a handbag but a shoulder bag, to be exact — was spacious and empty. He groped around until he found her wallet and one other thing, which surprised his blind hand. It was a vial — a glass pyramid. He held the vial in his hand, it was a perfume bottle, probably French. The black obelisk shimmered wickedly and seemed to have been specially made to be awkward — no matter how you turned it, it wouldn’t lie in your hand. He said, it seems, to his wife then, “This thing — you could kill someone with it. Do you really carry it around with you?” “That’s why I carry it,” his wife laughed, “For self-defense.” But his mother and grandmother never carried perfume in their purses. They stood in front of the mirror and tapped out several drops onto a handkerchief. But it would have been stupid to tell her that; fashions change. Now that he thought of it, how did it smell, her perfume? He couldn’t remember. She never put on perfume at home in front of the mirror. She put it on somewhere else, at work. In the cloakroom? The ladies’ room? Where? And for whom, by the way? Should he try to direct his new gaze on the black pyramid, screaming at it soundlessly “Attack!”? But he didn’t want to. He wanted to remember how pleasantly squat the base of the bottle was, how he peered at the glass in the ashy half-light. And his heart flipped over again and he thought, “like a carp,” and realized the similarity: although the heart beats constantly, we don’t notice it, but when we do, we get scared, as if it were bad to be beating, although it’s the opposite — it’s a good thing. Those carp were called “live fish,” but they were dead, and everyone knew that they were dead, and that’s why people were scared when a fish flipped over — it was unexpectedly alive and it frightened them. He leaned against the wall, unwinding his scarf, and, smiling, remembering how the carp slapped his tail and grandmother and mother squealed and jumped back from the sink.
Our school was named after Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, the first woman awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union. Therefore, we had endless lectures about her life: how Zoya did in school, what she read, what essays she wrote. This was supposed to inspire us, as we were told, though they didn’t explain inspire to do what exactly. But even without that explanation it was obvious — to do great deeds, what else? We Soviet children were always supposed to be ready for Heroic Deeds. Moreover, they told us all about Zoya’s heroic death, especially focusing on the torture that she was subjected to by the fascists — in great detail. They described how the Nazis pulled out her fingernails and burned her lips with a kerosene lamp, how they stripped her naked and barefoot and led her along the streets while soldiers spit at her and poured latrine slop on her, and then hanged her and desecrated her body — her left breast was cut off. For some strange reason, her feat — what exactly this young heroine did — was barely mentioned at all. She burned something down or blew something up — she was a partisan after all, and that’s what partisans did.
Once a year they took us to the museum in the village of Petrishchevo outside Moscow where she was killed. Not every school had the honor of being named after a hero — most schools didn’t have names at all — but nevertheless there were dozens of sister schools and Pioneer groups bearing the name of Kosmodemyanskaya all over the country. Delegations from provincial Russian cities and even from other Soviet republics paid regular visits to our school, and at the end of every visit we held ceremonial processions, parades, and concerts in the school auditorium. Since the number of poems, verses, speeches, songs, films and plays dedicated to Zoya by Soviet authors was endless, the program was rather packed, even though it didn’t change much from year to year.
At home my family didn’t like Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. My father insisted that there weren’t and could not have been any partisans outside Moscow in 1941, that she didn’t exist, that she was a character made up by some correspondent in a front-line newspaper, Red Star probably, most likely a Jew, and publicized by the Stalinist propaganda machine for the completely obvious reasons.
“Not ‘most likely,’ but a Jew for sure, and not for the Red Star but for Pravda,” my mother would interject. “His name was Lidov and he wrote the first article with that famous photograph of the cut-off breast and the rope around her neck. But it’s not a photograph — it’s a fake, because how could they have photographed her if by the time the Red Army got there she’d already been dead and buried?”
“Don’t you see? They couldn’t have buried her because she never existed!” my father would shout back. “Instead of telling the truth about real life everyday heroism of millions of people who bore the burdens of the war with their sweat and blood and won, they make up fairy tales mixed up with the perverted fantasies of some pathetic sexual impotent! It’s pure pornography!” My mom would open her eyes wide and put her finger to her lips.
The older we got, the stranger the effect of those “memorial evenings” on us. The huge photograph of Zoya, excruciatingly beautiful, with her head thrown back, torn clothing and one breast — the remaining breast — with its pointed nipple catching your eye while the second — the one cut off — is terrifying and repulsive. Her hair splayed on the snow, her eyes closed — the image upset us 12-year-olds in some gripping, mysterious way. Something dark and hot rose from the depths of our bellies and our heads spun…
Meanwhile, on stage an older student read an excerpt from an article by Alexander Dovzhenko, her voice cracking: “Zoya is cold. Her hands, swollen from the cold and beatings, are clenched into fists. Her bare feet have turned black from the horrible night in the freezing cold. Her lips, swollen and bitten and bloody: two hundred blows by German belts throughout the night tried to beat a confession from those tender lips, but to no avail. She didn’t cry out, she didn’t weep, she didn’t moan.”
During one of those evenings I couldn’t stand the stuffy room, the pathos and those mysterious things happening to my body, and escaped the auditorium. I don’t know how, but I found myself next to the empty gym locker room. There I ran into Sasha Zorin and Sergei Fadeyev from our class, who also ran away from the concert and were aimlessly wandering about the school. The small locker room was blocked off by a clothes rack and a tall cupboard for shoes. Without saying a word, we moved quickly to the corner by the far wall and began to feverishly examine each other’s bodies. Their hands fumbled, unhooked, lifted up, pulled down. Mine struggled with idiotic buckles and school belts until the boys helped me with them. We touched, stroked, groped, and squeezed, all without a word, trying not to look each other in the eye. I was ashamed to look them in the face, they also tried to look away, but our hands and bodies so closely pressed together knew no shame or embarrassment. We were so caught up in what we were doing that we didn’t notice the janitress standing before us: a tiny, hunchbacked old woman, with constantly rheumy, pale blue eyes.
Finally she regained her ability to speak. “What are you up to, you little wretches? Just you wait!”
She shook her wet floor cloth and drenched us in a stream of spray. The cold, filthy water instantly brought us to our senses. We jumped up and ran off in different directions.
The barrel of a German Tiger pointed straight at me. It was a terrifying machine — a huge, clumsy, disgusting tank. The personification of evil .I shuddered. “Death to the Fascist Invaders!” I shouted as loud as I could and kicked the tank’s caterpillar track. That gave me some relief. The spring that had been tightly wound in my stomach over the last few days relaxed a bit. There was no one around, and I could have even climbed up on the tank if I wanted to. That I didn’t want, instead I had a whim to look down the barrel which I wasn’t tall enough to do. There were some boulders scattered around, so I rolled one closer and climbed it up. One of Dostoevsky’s characters, Svidrigailov, was afraid that eternity was a sooty jar filled with spiders. The jar wasn’t too bad, compared to that terrifying, frigid, all-encompassing darkness.
It was drizzling even though the radio had promised dry and warm weather. An interesting choice to spend holidays — wandering alone in the rain, examining old tanks and thinking about eternity.
“Stop that smoking right away! Girl, I’m talking to you!” A fat elderly woman was trotting up to me at full speed, one hand supporting her chest while the other one extended out to me, as if she was going to yank the cigarette out of my mouth.
I retreated the way I came, climbed over the fence and hid in the woods, figuring she was unlikely to chase after me. I probably took a wrong turn, and instead of coming out in the dacha settlement, I just went deeper into the woods. After wandering around for about 20 minutes I realized that I had no idea where I was. I wasn’t afraid of getting lost — all around there were dacha villages and I’d get to people at some point, but the whole situation pissed me off. Why should I be alone again, and what was I doing in these woods?! It was all Alyona’s fault. She showed up right before the holidays. As if nothing had happened. And she asked me out to the dacha. Since she had gone to live with her father and his new family, we hadn’t seen each other for several months and didn’t even talk on the phone. She wouldn’t call me, and I didn’t know her new number.
The last we saw each other was on her birthday. Sixteen years old — that’s a big deal. She invited just about everyone: our entire old class — by then we’d both left, me to a medical vocational school, her to a fancy charter school. She invited rich kids from her new class; street toughs that made the juvie home weep; friends of friends who crashed the party. The door to the apartment was left wide open and new people streamed in, mostly in big crowds. I had hoped that Alyona and I would spend the evening by ourselves, having a heart-to-heart chat the way we used to, but she yakked non-stop with her new girlfriends, laughed at stupid jokes and then disappeared from the apartment altogether — she ran out with the juvies to ride on a motorcycle.
Since the start of the school year I hadn’t seen any of my old classmates — let alone I barely saw Alyona — and I didn’t miss them much. Out of boredom, I decided to show off a bit – in fact, it was not my intention, it just happened. They all stared at me as if I were an alien from the outer space, like they had expected me to put on a show. “You want songs? I’ve got‘em for you!” I spun out medical tales and they listened with their mouths open. Everything fell into place at that moment: they were silly little schoolchildren who’d never seen real life, and I was the experienced she-wolf who’d been there and done that. I got carried away. I talked and talked, washing down each new story with a glass of Kavkaz port wine. I talked about the morgue, hospital geriatric wards where old ladies lived for months until they died of dementia or bedsores; about the smells that stick to you constantly no matter how you try to kill them with cigarettes and alcohol; about the emergency ward of hospitals where the ambulances bring patients off the street at night — mostly drunk men who collapse in the snow and fall asleep. Oh my God, how they cry when they wake up and realize that their extremities have frozen during the night and now several fingers have to be amputated. How could they work and support their families?
Once — that night the orderlies gathered up all the bits of soap and melt it all down in a huge vat and the fumes and stench made you want to kill yourself — a couple was brought in. Both of them were drunk. She had a knife wound and his hands were burned so badly that the skin was coming off in sheets and he had burn spots on his face. Typical case — they had a fight over booze. He stabbed her with the knife and she responded by splashing him with boiling water, but he had time to cover his face with his hands. That was, of course, just an educated guess since they refused to give each other up. The guy stood by his story and wouldn’t budge: she fell and stabbed herself with the knife. He rushed to help her and knocked over a pot of boiling soup on himself. No one took care of them. They were assigned to different rooms, the nurses argued, the doctors yelled at the ambulance medics for bringing such lowlifes into the hospital, and the orderlies went off to boil more soap. That’s when we heard moans and cries. We ran up and saw a bloody trail going down the hall. We followed it to the room where we’d left the burnt boyfriend. It turned out she had crawled to him on her stomach — our Juliet couldn’t stand on her feet — and now they loved each other. They shouted in passion, moaned from their wounds, or, well, maybe it was the other way around. The orderlies dragged them away from one another, of course. We called the police.
I woke up the next morning in a closet. What happened and how I ended up spending the night in the closet I couldn’t remember. Alyona cleared the situation for me.
The night before I had become offended — no one could understand who I was mad at and what for — but I suddenly started to yell all kinds of curses at them and threatened to beat them up. I chased them all into the kitchen and threw boots from the hallway at them. I picked up a rolling pin and ran after my childhood friend, the one who had once been Tyl when we played “The Legend of the Glorious Adventures of Tyl Ulenspiegel,” but now was a scraggly freak with a shaved head who had blurted out something about Jews. Outside I’d had it out with the juvies and their protectors and then lay in the snow for a while to chill out — not on my own initiative, of course. Wet and miserable I came back to the apartment, said that I was leaving, walked inside the closet and closed the door behind me. Alyona decided to leave me alone, and later when she looked through a crack she saw that I was asleep.
We sat for a while and drank. Then I helped her clean up the mess in the apartment and went home. A few days later she moved in with her father.
Five of us had gone out to the dacha: me, Alyona, a friend from our old class, Nadya Velichko, the owner of the dacha, Vera and Yegor. We met on the train platform. Alyona had talked my ear off about Vera and especially Yegor, the kids of her father’s wife, but I’d never met them before. Vera — a tall, big-boned girl with a face as flat as a rag doll — never even glanced in my direction. Or maybe she did, but no one could see her eyes behind those dark sunglasses she wouldn’t take off. Yegor smoked, spit on the platform and then rubbed the spit with the toe of his shoe. Contrary to Alyona’s description, he looked nothing like Ivan Karamazov. There he was, a morose, gloomy guy with a strong jawline, a bull neck and shoulders so wide that they made him look shorter than he was. He didn’t say hello, just looked me over from head to toe and turned away. Delicate restless soul; a maverick, an intellectual and a philosopher —where was all that? I knew, of course, that Alyona was madly in love with him as long as she could remember, but really — how can you deceive yourself that much?!
In the commuter train Yegor hit on Velichko and ignored Alyona completely. Velichko giggled and peeped at Alyona. Vera didn’t say a word the whole trip, she just looked out the window. Every ten minutes Alyona dragged me out to the tambour to smoke, complained about Yegor and asked me to be careful with Vera. “She’s going through a really bad patch. You see, she went with her father on a field trip and started up an affair with one of his grad students. She got knocked up, and back in Moscow he dumped her. So she had to have an abortion. Her father didn’t want to get involved and was really mad at Vera. And then at the exact same time, I moved in and Yegor dropped out of school. Their mother thought that I was the bad influence and turned my father against me, and they ended up kicking me out back to my mother’s.”
Velichko’s dacha turned out to be a tiny wooden cabin that five people could fit into only lying on their sides in sleeping bags. The plan was to go for a walk in the woods, maybe rent a boat and paddle around the lake, and then in the evening make a fire on the lakeshore and roast potatoes. We brought booze, but for food we had only dry crackers and canned fish. We had a drink. Yegor blushed, Vera paled, Velichko got happy and Alyona got really sad. No one wanted to go for a walk any more. Yegor and Velichko disappeared. After them, Alyona vanished. I walked around but I didn’t find them anywhere. I returned to the cabin but there was absolutely nothing to do. Vera had her nose buried in the book and wasn’t interested in conversation. I think she hadn’t said a single word since morning. I was dying of boredom and annoyance.
“I guess I’ll go for a walk or something…” I got up. She didn’t even lift her head. I went out. The dacha village had a single street, and along it I walked. On the either side of the street were wooden houses, hawthorn shrubs, and birches — a typical village outside Moscow. Our family didn’t have a dacha.
I grew up as a city kid and never went outside the city for a picnic or to pick mushrooms. I spent the entire school year in Moscow, and in the summer we went to Lithuania or the Black Sea. The houses were no more in sight and I went through the woods. The path led me to a large meadow surrounded by a low wicker fence. Right there in front of me there were several tanks and mortars from the war.
“Hi. What are you doing sitting here all alone and sad in the rain? Are you lost?”
Two guys in their early twenties stood before me, most likely students. They looked like perfect three-A guys: A-students-athletes-activists. One was medium height, the other was taller, both with open faces, rosy cheeks, light brown hair, and smiling eyes. Normal guys — no hint of threat coming from them. It turned out that they’d been observing me since I was on the tank site, and then lost sight of me. The students volunteered to walk me back to the village. Along the way they told me that they were living at the campsite, going kayaking in the reservoir and rivers feeding into it, sometimes setting up tents and sleeping under the open sky, going fishing. Okay, so I was in the woods outside Moscow for the first time in five years and had never even been to a camp ground. The romance of hiking, freshly made fish soup, songs sung to a guitar around the campfire, on the water in rafts and kayaks, climbing mountains, chasing the mists into the taiga, and all the while being just a delightful bit anti-establishment — all this was a parallel reality to my life, something I read about in newspapers or heard about from people I didn’t know well. My parents thought this way of leisure to be utterly Soviet, therefore they didn’t approve of it, like they never approved of all things Soviet. The people who went on hikes were Soviet techie intellectuals, a social group my father couldn’t stand. He called them and their culture “educatedness.” They were, in his view, strong supporters of the regime, and that’s why he loathed them. “A simple working class guy lives a hard life. He doesn’t see anything beyond and can’t do a thing. That’s the way his parents lived, and their parents before them. I don’t have anything against them. But engineers and technical workers know better, are endowed with some grey matter — in any case they’re smart enough to get an engineering degree. But they don’t want to use their brains to think and they’re afraid of having their own opinions. Vulgar, law-abiding, conservative masses that will never give birth to anything alive… They go on hikes and then, sitting around the camp fire drinking vodka and strumming guitars, they rip into members of the Politburo, discuss how great Tarkovsky is because they’ve never seen anything else, and think that they’re heroes and intellectuals. And then they go back to work and attend Party meetings, vote “yes” and sign letters denouncing Israeli Zionism and American imperialism. Their only thought: obey the authorities always in everything and respect their bosses.” I didn’t see anything wrong with camping. I mean, if a Soviet citizen doesn’t have any chance to see the Grand Canyon or coral reefs, what’s he supposed to do? Not get off the sofa like my father as a sign of protest? And Tarkovsky I loved. Alyona and I stood in line for hours to buy tickets for a half-underground screening of one of his films at the “Vstryecha” movie house. We got there at 6 a.m. thinking that we’d be first in line, when suddenly a guy emerged from the icy fog and wrote a number on the palm of our hands with an indelible ink pen: It was like 300-something. In the end we got in to see the film, but Alyona was so frozen by the point she entered the hall, that she thawed out, and fell asleep.
On the way to the dacha one of the students fell back, and the taller one, Oleg, walked me home. I liked him. He was outgoing, good-natured, and athletic but all in good measure. Not like Yegor, being shorter he made an impression of enormous physical strength.
“Want to take a boat ride around the lake tonight?”
I froze. That summer I was turning 16. He was 23. Tall, good looking — you wouldn’t be embarrassed to introduce him to your girlfriends. I hadn’t been spoiled with male attention. I mean, I had many male friends, but no one had asked me out on a date. And it would count a date if the two of you took a boat ride in the moonlight, wouldn’t it? Of course I hadn’t told him how old I was. I lied that I was in the first year of med school. He believed me — why wouldn’t he? I always looked older than I was, I had an adult face, was pretty tall, and I had big breasts. There was a long silence that Oleg took for a sign of doubt.
“If you want, we can go out to an island. The locals say that sometimes at night there’s a strange glow and weird noises there. It’s a paranormal zone.”
“Yeah, right, ‘paranormal’… The villagers just see things when they’re drunk. All of them make moonshine. My friend who has a house here told me all about it. She says that a lot of them have seen a Yeti in the woods. Can you believe it – a Yeti? We even wanted to go look for him. As a joke, I mean. I didn’t see any Yetis when I walked around.”
“A Yeti —that’s an old wife’s tale I’d guess. But at our camp site they even organized a search team that went out in the woods. They didn’t find a thing but they all came back scared. There’s something weird around here. As far as the island goes — I talked about it with some perfectly sane people and they all described pretty much the same thing. And they don’t know each other, so they couldn’t have come up with a story together. It would be interesting to take a look. But if you’re scared, we won’t go out on the island. We’ll just take a boat ride.” We agreed that he’d come for me at eight.
There was still no one home except Vera. She was stuck to her book and gave no signs of life. I decided it was best to think of her as a piece of furniture and I hadn’t started to talk to the furniture yet. Maybe when I got old, out of loneliness and senile dementia I’d start talking with a chest of drawers or a bookcase, but for now I didn’t feel the urge. Velichko’s rubber boots came in handy, and just in case I put on Yegor’s warm jacket — he had gone out lightly dressed in just a sweater. I put a bottle of wine in my bag along with some crackers and two wedges of soft cheese.
“Where is it you are going?” Vera asked, like it was alright. I was so shocked I almost choked myself with Yegor’s scarf that I also decided to borrow and was wrapping around my neck.
“Oh wow. I’ve never seen a talking stool before!”
“What?” she said, squinting at me.
“Adieu, ma jolie,” I said. I don’t know why I suddenly switched to French but if I’d just cursed her to hell and back it wouldn’t have made a bigger impression on Vera. But despite that she went out after me into the yard. Oleg was waiting for me by the gate.
“And who’s that?”
I decided that she wasn’t the one to report to so I said nothing.
“Hey, where are you taking her? Listen, dude, I’m talking to you!”
“My name is Oleg. I’m a grad student at the Moscow Energy Institute, living at the campgrounds, and we’re going for a ride on the lake.”
“On the lake in this cold? Don’t even think about it! Grad students ought to sit and study and not try to charm the pants off of a minor.” She walked right up to the fence, and now they were less than a meter apart.
I grabbed him by the sleeve and started to drag him away from the fence. “Why are you even talking to her? Let’s go already!” Thank God she didn’t run after us, but she had such an expression on her face that she just might have.
“What a tough girl! For a second I thought she’d hit me. Is she your older sister?”
“Oh, don’t pay any attention to her. She’s going through a rough patch.” I decided not to set him straight. Let him think that I wasn’t here alone.
“Why would she call you a minor? How old are you anyway?”
“Come on, have you never met an older sister before? She’s six years older than me and she thinks that I’m a little girl. My mother’s sister is also six years older than her and she still treats her like a baby.”
“She’s 24? Who’d think, she’s my age. I wouldn’t say she’s older than 20.”
“I missed the bit when we decided to talk about her. Maybe she is the one you want to invite to take a spin on the lake instead of me?”
Oleg laughed and pulled me to him. I pressed my nose into the rough rubberized material of his jacket.
The village seemed to have died. We didn’t meet a single person on the way. We went through the birch grove, turned into the woods and silently walked along the path until we got to wooden planks that took us right to the water. We walked a bit along the shore until we got to a sandy beach. Oleg threw down his heavy backpack, pulled out a folded up rubber boat and started to pump it up.
When it was ready, this rubber thing looked to me like a blow-up mattress with high sides. It sure didn’t look like a boat. It was oval without a stern or bow.
“Are you sure it will hold us both?”
“It’s for a man-and-a-half, like for an adult and a child. I’m average weight – 70 kilograms. You probably weigh around 45, I’d guess.
“We round up and get 120 kilograms. The boat can hold up to 150 kilograms, so we’ve even got a margin for error. Hop in. Sit at the bottom. I get the seat. Don’t think that I’m not a gentleman. It’s just that that’s where the oarlocks are. Unless you want to row?”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to row. Nor did I want to climb into the boat. Mist hung over the lake and damp cold rose from the water. The moon hid behind the clouds as the gloomy wall of woods on the shores blended with the black surface of the water, which reflected, upside down, the black, starless sky.
“Are there waves? We’ll capsize.”
“There won’t be any waves, don’t worry.”
I couldn’t bring up any other excuse, so, with a heavy sigh, I climbed into the boat and sat down on the bottom as instructed. Oleg pushed the boat into the water, moved it a bit deeper, and then jumped in himself. He quickly set up the oars, rowed powerfully a couple of times, and we sailed into the middle of the lake. The boat sunk down a bit under our weight. Water didn’t seep in — the sides were pretty high — but it still seemed to me that half my body was under water.
“Why are you squirming around? Are you uncomfortable?”
“Not uncomfortable exactly, but you know — it’s really cold. It feels like I’m sitting bare-assed on a block of ice.”
“Yeah, the water is still very cold. The last ice has just melted. I didn’t think of that. Here, sit on the backpack.”
After manipulations with the backpack — I was afraid that we’d capsize for sure — I got more or less settled and looked around. A breeze sprang up and blew away the mist. The smooth watery surface spread out ahead as far as the eye could see. The moon, as if on command, came out from behind the clouds and shone a silver path on the water. And then everything was fine. This was exactly how I had imagined night on the lake.
The silence was broken by female voices screaming my name at the top of their lungs. First they sounded distant, and then seemed to come closer and closer. Four figures stood on the shore. And they didn’t resemble mermaids.
“Hey, you there! Come back right now!” Yegor shouted with his frightful deep voice.
“Is that you?” Alyona screamed with such emotion that I had to reply.
I held up my hands to my mouth to make a megaphone. “I’m here! We’re going to the island, to the paranormal zone!” An echo ricocheted over the water.
“Oleg wants to show me the paranormal zone. Go home!”
“You idiot! I know exactly what he wants to show you! Row to the shore, you moron!” Yegor cut in.
“Alyona, take them away! I’m on a date, what’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?”
Oleg had frozen with the oars suspended over the water and spun his head to look at me and then the group on the shore.
“Why aren’t you moving, Oleg? Come on, let’s go. Don’t pay attention to them.” I had to even nudge him a bit to shake him out of his stupor. But he didn’t move.
“Listen, you piece of crap, either you come back to shore right away and then I’ll let you walk away…”
“And if we don’t? If we sail on? What then?” Oleg suddenly blurted out in a higher pitch voice than he’d used before.
“Why are you even talking to them? What are you asking? Keep rowing!”
“Who is he — your boyfriend? Your brother? Is your father going to come down here, too?” Now Oleg didn’t seem so attractive any more. His features got sharp and he reminded me of a big squirrel. His glance was squirrelly, too — prickly.
“He’s no one to me! I met him today for the first time in my life. Give me the oars and I’ll row.” I tried to take the oars from Oleg but then I plopped back down on the backpack.
“If you don’t come back here right now, right this instant, I’ll find you at the campsite and you’ll be sorry you were ever born!” Yegor had walked up to the very edge of the water. For a second I had the crazy thought that he’d fling himself in the water and swim after us. It looked like Oleg had the same thought, because to be on the safe side he rowed us further away.
“You are so dead! Row back here right now!” Vera screamed hysterically and ran flat-out into the lake, spraying everyone else with a fountain of water. Alyona and Velichko grabbed her to keep her from going further.
I watched in horror as they fought with each other, up to their knees in the icy water, illuminated by the cold moonlight. Had they all lost their minds, all four of them at once?
Oleg stood up in the boat. “Get out of the water and walk back three meters from the shore! Until you get out I won’t move!”
I didn’t say anything. It was clear he’d made a decision and it was useless to argue with him. One more nutcase, up to five. Was the moon affecting them all like this? Then why was I still normal?
They got out of the water. Yegor sat on the sand, took off his wet socks, and put his sneakers on bare feet. Vera shook out the water from her boots.
“Walk back and stand,” Oleg shouted again.
When they moved back, we rowed up. A few meters from the shore Oleg stopped.
“What? Are you kidding? Row in closer.”
“I row in and they will jump at me.”
“No one’s going to touch you. They’re standing far back.”
He reluctantly drew closer to the shore, just about pushed me out of the boat and started rowing so hard that with a few strong strokes he was in the center of the lake again. He didn’t stop there. He went even farther, to where the moon was going down over the woods. I turned around and dragged myself toward shore. No one said a word to me. I didn’t speak either. Yegor and Vera went ahead, Velichko followed ten steps behind them, and Alyona and I took up the rear of the procession.
“This place is creepy and the woods are so… it feels like someone’s watching you, but when you look around, no one’s there,” Alyona said, finally.
“They’re just woods,” I said, glad to break the oppressive silence. “Where the devil were you all day? What were you doing the whole time?”
“Listen, it was strange. There are these old, overgrown tracks running through the woods, and no one remembers anymore where they went, and now they just break off. Velichko says that all kinds of mysterious stuff happens out there. She took Yegor to take a look, and I went after them.”
“That Oleg said something about that, too. What stuff happens here, exactly?”
“Oh, like watches suddenly stop and then start going backwards or there are loud voices, noises, like there’s a big crowd right next to you but there’s actually nothing around.”
“Did you hear anything or see it with your own eyes?”
She shook her head.
“None of us was wearing a watch…”
“So there was nothing there and nothing could be. The most that could happen is that someone could be raped.”
“Funny that you should say that.”
“Because it was you who went off with a complete stranger to God knows where. You don’t think that’s weird? You weren’t afraid that you’d be raped?”
“Oleg is a normal guy. No, I mean he’s a jerk, of course, as it turned out in the end, but he doesn’t look like a rapist at all.”
“But in any case, do you really think it’s okay to go off alone with a stranger?”
“While running up and threatening to drown a guy for asking me out on a date is okay? Forget it, moving right along… But why did you invite me anyway, if I’m here like the fifth wheel? I didn’t have anything to do all day.”
“No one planned on going off for long! We drank a little bit and then…” Alyona stammered and then fell silent. I waited for the story to continue, but the pause dragged on. In the end, she shook her head, like she was shaking off a thought that bothered her. “You’d laugh anyway. The thing is, it turned out stupid.”
We stood on the porch. Everyone else had already gone inside. Alyona looked at me questioningly.
“Inside, don’t pick a fight, who knows what might happen. Vera is really, really mad at you.”
“She’s mad at me, is she? Is she sick in the head? What did I do to her? For the whole day she made a show of not talking to me and then wrecked my date. I should be mad at her!”
“Don’t provoke her, okay? Promise?” She took my hand in her hand, chapped and red from the cold, and held it to her chest.
“I solemnly swear as I stand before my comrades!” I said like a good little Communist Pioneer. “Let’s go inside and warm up. I’m freaking frozen.”
Yegor and Velichko were fiddling with the stove, a terrifying looking ancient wrought-iron stove on legs. I’d only seen one in the movies, those about the war.
“They won’t be able to light it,” Alyona whispered in my ear.
It was like she was clairvoyant. Despite all their efforts, the flame didn’t want to catch and the smoke was bothering my throat. A couple of pairs of socks and pants were found in Velichko’s stuff to change out of wet clothing, and boots had been stuffed with crinkled up newspaper and placed close to the stove, just in case. Yegor didn’t give up. He continued to tinker with the stove. Now the flame didn’t die out immediately but held on for a few minutes. It was a bit warmer and almost stopped smoking. Alyona wrapped herself in a throw and fell asleep. Vera dozed next to her. Velichko left Yegor to figure out the stove by himself, dragged me into a far cubbyhole and started whispering furiously, practically smashing her moist lips into my ear.
“What a day! If I had known it would be like this, I’d never have come. I went for a walk and Yegor came after me, with Alyona right behind him. You can’t believe what happened. She made an incredible mess of that train car!”
“What train car?” I asked loudly.
“Quiet!” Velichko grabbed me by the arm. “What are you shouting for? She’ll wake up,” — nodding at the dozing Vera. “It was a regular train car, for cargo, standing in the woods on an old railroad line. When the rain started we climbed in. I had never gone in there before and was afraid. You know, I thought it would be all crapped up inside, but it wasn’t so bad — just dusty. Then suddenly Alyona barfs. I’ve never seen anything like it. She puked all over the car — the walls, the ceiling— everything! Every time it seemed like she had stopped, she’d start up again. She even fainted. I was holding her head while Yegor hovered around outside because he couldn’t stand the smell of vomit. While this was going on he drank a bottle of vodka all by himself, and he was okay, just real gloomy. It was awful.”
“Yeah, like in his regular life he is Mr. Sunshine.”
Yegor squatted in front of the stove. Red shadows fell across his face. As soon as he heard our last words, he stood up and walked over to us.
“Looks like it’s drawing. I fiddled with the damper to the chimney… but the wood is really damp. Do you have any gas oil around?”
“There’s probably a fuel can in the shed. What do you need it for?”
“We got to soak bricks in the gas oil and then use them for heat. Two bricks will last for a long time — all night. That’s what they do up north. So…” He turned to me. “Take off my jacket and I’ll go look for bricks.” I’d forgotten that I was still wearing his jacket and scarf.
He put on his jacket, slipped into Velichko’s father’s boots, and went outside.
“You hear that — heat the house with bricks?” Velichko made circles with her finger by her temple. “The whole family is like that! We barely dragged Alyona home and that nutcase goes on a tear! She says that you were taken away by a maniac. Actually, they say people here do weird stuff. Yegor didn’t want to go but she made him. Who’s going to argue with her? I tell you — I’m scared of her!
We giggled but quickly fell silent. Vera sat on the daybed with her legs tucked under her. She stared at me, her chin jutted out. For the first time I noticed how much she and Yegor looked alike.
“What a rude bitch — you think it’s funny? Like everything is just fine? You slut — you ruined the whole weekend. You followed your pussy and we had to run and save you.”
“My, what a language, and coming from a literature student! Who asked you to save me? You should have minded your own business and not stuck you nose where it didn’t belong.”
“Aren’t you brave! A regular Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya!”
Oh, she should not have dragged Kosmodemyanskaya into it. Zoya and I did not get along. Especially since that memorable evening in the sixth grade.
“That’s right: Zoya is a hero and you’re a whore.”
Vera stared at me with hatred.
“You’re the whore! And your Zoya is a hero the kind of Pavlik Morozov or the Young Guard,” – I fired back.
“In what sense?”
“In this sense: No one knows what really happened there. But all that stuff they shove down our throats in school is a load of crap. It is all fake, propaganda. Not a word of it is true!”
“Oh, how fascinating! Tell us all about it. What is true, in your opinion?
“That Zoya, if she had even existed at all, didn’t fight the Germans. She burned down villages, the houses of Russian peasants, forcing them out on the street in the freezing cold in the middle of winter. Because Stalin gave a secret order to burn down all the villages and all the houses so that the Germans would freeze outside. It didn’t bother him in the least how our people would survive: old people, women and children. In Petrishchevo there weren’t even any Germans…”
“Shut up, you snake! I hate your race, you disgusting brat! You, stinking Jews, walk on our soil and poison the air with your stinking breath. We were fighting, we shed our blood on this land while you were feeding your bellies in Tashkent. And now, you worm, instead of saying ‘thank you,’ you drag our heroes through the mud.”
I couldn’t catch my breath. I hadn’t seen that coming. I could tell her that both my grandfathers had fought in the war from start to finish and that my grandmother had been evacuated to a defense factory in Siberia, but my tongue was caught in my throat. I was so furious that I couldn’t utter a word to prove something to her, to justify myself. I stared at the floor just so I didn’t have to look at her contorted face. A shadow went by and I was hit with a wave of cold and the smell of tobacco.
“Because of you, because of your kind —“
She suddenly began to choke on her words and there was a crash of something heavy falling on the floor. I raised my head. Yegor had knocked Vera off her feet, he was leaning over her body lying spread-eagle on the floor with his hands around her throat.
“Shut up, shut the fuck up! I don’t want to hear another word out of you. Got it? Keep your mouth shut. One more sound and I’ll choke you like a rat.”
Alyona woke up, sat up on the couch and watched them with indifference that was incomprehensible to me, as if there was nothing the least bit out of the ordinary in the scene unfolding before her. A couple of meters from her Vera writhed and kicked her feet on the floor, but she couldn’t get out of Yegor’s grip.
“Calm down and stop squirming, it’s only making it worse. Just lie there. If you get it, pound on the floor.
Vera squirmed for a moment longer and then did what he said. Yegor unclenched his fist, stood up, and yanked his sister up from the floor. They stared at each other without saying a word. Then she went and sat down again on the couch. Yegor turned to me. His gaze sent me right out of the house. To me he wouldn’t give a chance to surrender. He’ll choke me to death for sure. Velichko ran out after me.
“The last train to Moscow leaves in 15 minutes. If we run, we can make it.”
We went to bed in total silence. Alyona stayed where she was on the daybed, wrapped up in a throw. Velichko opened up the couch for her and Vera. Next to the door was a rickety child’s bed that you could lie on if you pulled your legs up and tucked yourself into a ball. A draft came in through a crack under the door and I couldn’t get warm no matter how I tried to wrap myself in the old sheepskin coat reeking of mothballs that Velichko had given me for a blanket. Yegor lay down on the floor in the bedroom.
I woke up from someone tugging at my shoulder. I struggled to open my gluey eyes. In front of me there was a white shape but I couldn’t see who it was in the darkness. “Get up, wake up,” said a female voice. It must be Alyona, or maybe Vera. Could she really have woken up in the middle of the night and wanted to go outside to have it out with me while everyone was asleep? I sat up in the bed. I had a terrible headache and my throat was dry. I stood up and wanted to go to the kitchen to drink some water, but the darkness swirled around me, my rubbery legs collapsed and I fell down on the floor. I didn’t feel any pain from the fall and just blacked out. The same voice brought me back to consciousness: “Wake up! Scream! Wake them all up!” I tried to scream but my tongue wouldn’t obey me. Her face appeared before me, but it was like my eyes were filled with sand and I couldn’t make her out. I wasn’t able to understand what was going on, and there was a foggy emptiness in my head. I started to crawl and crashed into Yegor. He sat up, moaned and grabbed his head. “Alyona!” I dragged myself along the floor to the couch, got up on my knees, and saw Vera lying with her eyes closed. Velichko on the other side of her, turned to the wall.
“Vera!” I called out. She abruptly opened her eyes and suddenly let out a single-note scream. Her body went into convulsions, and then the shaking stopped just as suddenly as it had begun. She opened her mouth soundlessly like a fish. But, thank God, her scream woke up Velichko, who jerked upright on the couch, her eyes wide open, and looked not at me but off to the side somewhere.
“Open the door and air out the house!” the voice said. I didn’t understand why we had to do it, but I used my last strength to crawl to the door. My power began to fade away and my movements became more and more sluggish. When I got to the door I reached up to the handle and turned it. Leaning on the door with all my weight, I fell out, slid down the steps and fell on the frost-covered ground.
The cold woke me up. I was shivering so much that my teeth chattered. There was still noise in my ears, like voices drifting in through cotton. I tried to get up. The voices stopped, and someone carefully and tenderly helped me to sit up. I looked around.
The five of us sat together by the fence, not far from the house: pale, unkempt, shaking from the cold but yet alive. They looked at me lovingly, even Vera.
“You were great! If you hadn’t woken up and then gotten everyone else up, we would have all died of carbon monoxide poisoning for sure,” Yegor said as he lit a cigarette and handed it to me. “We ought to throw that stove into the river. Nadya, you’ll thank me for it later.”
“Don’t even think of it. My father will kill me. It’s a good stove, it’s been here working for a hundred years and everything was fine, until you started tinkering around with that damper.”
“It wasn’t me.” It was hard to speak, like I’d chewed sandpaper.
“I wasn’t me who woke you up. It was Zoya.”
“What Zoya?” they asked, bewildered.
“Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. She came in, poked me and told me to wake everyone else up. I didn’t understand why. There was no smoke, no smell. But she told me to and so I did.”
They stared at me without saying a word.
“Why do you think it was Zoya?”Alyona asked me carefully.
“Who else? She was wearing one of those side caps, you know, with a red star.”
“Uh-huh,” Vera chortled. “And they say I am the crazy one.”
“Sonya, how could you? How can you wear those short dresses covered with pea-green dots?”
“Sonya, have you said your prayers?”
“Sonya, how can you listen to those fascists?”
“Sonya, have you read Sholem Aleichem?”
“Sonya, what are you eating? That’s not kosher!”
“Bubbe, I like peas on me, not in me.”
“How long can this go on? I can’t stand it!”
“It’s Wagner, Bach! They weren’t fascists. It’s not their fault they were born Germans and not Jews.”
“He’s writing about love and I don’t know what that is yet. I don’t understand what he’s saying.”
“But Bubbe, it tastes so good!”
I — Sonya — and my grandmother— Gittel Yakovlevna— live in a communal apartment in Odessa. I’m 15 years old, taking drum lessons but Bubbe thinks they’re piano lessons. I have unusual blonde hair and blue eyes. In my passport it says “Jewish,” but in Odessa they think I’m the illegitimate daughter of a German who lived here more than a quarter century ago.
If it weren’t for the line in my passport, the Torah my grandmother gave me on my third birthday, the endless Sholem Aleichem on the bookshelves, attendance at the synagogue and the lighting of Sabbath candles, I’d think I was German, but the way things are — I don’t think I’m German.
There’s a boy in my class who is also Jewish. I can’t stand him. He’s constantly pouring sand in my backpack, lifting up my dress and eating my fruit jellies in the cafeteria. But when they call Senya Hebe — that’s his real last name — when they call him “Heebie Hebe,” I go fight for him. I can’t fight at all, but I go anyway since Bubbe says that the war against the fascists started just like that — some blockhead called a Jew a “Hebe,” but no one noticed or everyone pretended like they didn’t notice. I don’t want a war. I want to live. I want to go to dances. And wear perfume. I want to learn to walk in high heels. And to kiss, to kiss — I really want to learn how to kiss.
A week ago Masha Koloradova brought a quiz to class. You know the kind — a notebook with questions like: “Who is your favorite actor?” “What’s your favorite color?” “Who do you love?” She gave it to me to fill out, and one question was, “When did you have your first kiss?” I looked at the answers of the other girls, and they all wrote things like, “A long time ago!” “A year ago,” or “When I was 12.” But I hadn’t kissed anyone. Can you imagine? I hadn’t kissed anyone, and I was so ashamed! You can’t even imagine how ashamed I was. You know what’s strange about it? I don’t know how to make borscht or use the washing machine or speak English. I’m not ashamed about that. But I’ve never kissed anyone and I’m ashamed. Really ashamed.
So that I wouldn’t embarrass myself, I wrote “When I was 11.” So? Let them envy me. No one will ever know the truth anyway.
Bubbe says that you should only kiss the one you think you’ll spend your whole life with. “So if you think you’ll spend your whole life with Fedya, kiss him,” Bubbe said. Which Fedya she had in mind, I don’t know. In fact I don’t know anyone named Fedya, but I really want to kiss. What’s it like — kissing?
When I pray before I go to bed, I don’t recite those boring old prayers that Bubbe taught me. I just talk with God. I ask to meet the one I’ll spend my life really soon with so that I can kiss him. Even if Bubbe sees. It’s good that there’s God. Even if He doesn’t exist. But the thing is, no one knows for sure. Whoever has God will never be alone. If you have God, that means you have someone to talk to. You can even imagine that He answers you.
I don’t have friends. There are kids I hang out with. We go to the movies or to the beach in the summer. I’ve got friends that I talk about acne cream with, but I don’t have a true friend — a person I can tell everything to. I keep it all inside me. Bubbe says that I’m very anti-social. I am anti-social with some people to keep from hurting them. And with others to keep from being hurt. For now, I’ve got God, and that’s the way it’s going to be. I share my secrets with Him and only Him.
Our communal apartment has five rooms, one kitchen, three stoves, one toilet and an old shower that breaks all the time. The line for the toilet can only be compared to the line outside the shop around the corner in the morning when they deliver fresh bread. All of world literature can be found in our toilet, beginning with Hugo and ending with Dostoevsky. But our neighbors love Chekhov’s short stories most of all.
“The man didn’t write bricks like comrade Tolstoy. He wrote normal-sized little stones — you have your morning movement and are five pages better read,” Isaak Fishilevich said. He lives in the room across the hall from us. He is, by the way, a decorated veterinarian and humanist.
I have the worst luck — someone always wants to use the toilet when I do. If I go first, after five minutes someone starts knocking on the door. If I go after someone else, after someone else you could die of asphyxiation. Only Uncle Isaak, the humanist, is tactful. He holds it. He holds it in and waits. So you can imagine my surprise when I saw Uncle Isaak carrying “Mein Kampf” in his string bag a while back. He bought it at the flea market. But when I went into our crapper I saw little cut-up pieces of paper in place of toilet paper. That was “Mein Kampf.” The paper was rough, but I left with a sense of duty well done and the image of dozens of little scraps floating down the sewer. In the symbolic battle, fascism lay dead on the dung pile.
Bubbe is 78 years old. She still puts on lipstick, puts combs in her hair, and buys lacy bras. Not for men! For herself. Bubbe says that she still feels like a woman thanks to her foundation garments. Men adore her. Bubbe still smokes, even today — she uses a cigarette holder. In the evenings she goes to the park to play card games and dominos with the men. She has beautiful large eyes, gray hair and a bedroom voice. People who don’t know her think that when she was young she sang arias, had affairs, and walked around in furs and jewels. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Bubbe doesn’t tell me. She doesn’t tell anyone anything. Probably her best friend is God, too.
Bubbe always tells me, “Smile even when you feel bad! Better people should envy you than feel sorry for you.” I never talked about sex with Bubbe. I always thought that she didn’t even know the word. But yesterday she told me, “I won’t tell you anything about sex. When you have a husband, let him tell you and show you. And even if you know everything about sex before you meet your husband, don’t say a thing. Keep your mouth shut and listen to your husband! If you want a smart husband, you have to be a little fool.”
Bubbe is considered wise. But you ought to see her in the morning — when she’s looking for yesterday. That’s what she calls it. She flips through all her books and turns her clothes inside out searching for her pension money and glasses. Bubbe is losing her memory. One old lady from Odessa, when she saw grandmother go by, she whispered in that way that is always really loud, “Old prostitute!” and she hissed like a snake, you know? I always want to walk up to her and punch her big nose, but Bubbe stops me, turns to face her and says, “Musichka, darling, it’s not my fault that in fifty-six Lenya Utesov fell in love with my tush and not your bones.” The old snake hisses even more as we walk away with our heads proudly held high and our tushes swaying.
Men still look adoringly at my grandmother, but I’m not pretty. When she hears me say I’m not pretty, she tells me I’m stupid. “Not only am I not pretty, I’m stupid, too. I’ve got the whole package!” I tell her. Then Bubbe takes me by the hand over to the mirror. “Look at my big nose,” she says. I look and see that her nose is big. “Look at my eyes,” she tells me. I look and see that the left is bigger than the right one, or the right is smaller than the left. “Look at my lips.” I look and see that they are thin and wrinkled. Grandmother seats me in a chair and smiles, and then she begins to walk around the room. You should see her walk! She’s a goddess! She sits on the edge of a chair and lights a cigarette. Her fingers, her neck, an untidy hair across her face… Oh, gods! I don’t see her big nose, or notice that her eyes are different, or see her thin lips. Sometimes I think she isn’t getting old, she’s just maturing. She’s maturing beautifully. “A person is beautiful on the outside when they aren’t rotting on the inside,” Bubbe says. “You’re like wine — you get better with age. But I’m like meat — I spoil the older I get,” I tell her.
It was autumn. It was raining. Yellow leaves stuck to my boots and didn’t want to let them go. I was sad, really sad for the first time. Like when it’s empty inside and you want to howl. I both wanted to hide and for someone to hug me without asking any questions. I wanted to be silent and scream at the same time. I headed for the sea. I got to the shore. I took off my boots and began to walk along the sand. I got a razor out of my pocket (I took it from home, special), took off my coat, and rolled up the sleeves of my chiffon blouse. Veins. My green veins. You could see them so easily. In a movie once I saw a razor gliding beautifully through veins. Like a knife through soft butter. I lowered the razor. One more centimeter and it would slide through butter.
The neighbor’s boy ran into our courtyard and rang the doorbell to our apartment. Our bright room, Bubbe putting on lipstick. “Do you know what happened? Did you see what your Sonya did,” Dima asked. “Gittel! Gittel! Did you see? Did you see Sonya? We warned you, didn’t we? We told you she could get up to anything,” our neighbor said. All our neighbors ran into our room and asked Bubbe the same questions, but no one dared to say what happened. They were afraid. Bubbe got up, walked up to the window and saw me. Sonya! Her Sonya! Holding a bouquet of yellow flowers with a shaved head. She started to laugh so hard that she could only say, “Well, maybe now my Sonya will start to wear a hat.”
That was the first debilitating depression. The first time I left home. With a razor. The first time I brought Bubbe flowers for no reason. The first time a razor came so close to my veins. Like in a movie.
But I’m afraid of pain.
I want to live. I want to go to dances. I want to wear perfume. I want to learn how to walk in heels. And to kiss — I really want to learn how to kiss.
I didn’t tell anyone what I wanted to do to myself. Only He and I knew about it. Later I was so ashamed before Him and Bubbe. And the stray dog Velvet, who I feed. If I didn’t feed her she might die. When winter came, I felt fine.
I love winter. In winter everything’s more straight-forward. Women don’t bare their legs and shoulders. Men don’t have to look at naked women’s bodies or shout vulgar things after high heels. All that’s left are eyes — sad, playful, varied — and desires, all cloaked by garments and God, who lives inside everyone. I love a lot of clothing on me and chicken is more expensive in the winter, so we don’t buy it often. And that’s good! In the summer chicken is cheaper, and Bubbe can’t cook anything but chicken and chicken cutlets. It’s chicken morning, noon and night. That poor, poor bird. And poor, poor Sonya. The bird and I are unhappy for the same reason: because I eat it.
Yesterday my favorite ballet troupe came to Odessa. Bubbe doesn’t like them. She says that before they go on stage they take or sniff something. But I sat in the upper balcony and wept, and then laughed, and then wept again. I want to live my life on stage to that music, with those people, in that dance. But I have to go to synagogue. Today is Friday and almost the Sabbath.
Bubbe sat like usual with her cigarette holder and barely smiled. My hair had grown out to a buzz-cut, and for some reason everyone thought that I’d had lice and had my head shaved. That’s why parents didn’t let their children get close to me. Bubbe thought this was hysterical. Lately only two things made her laugh: Mikhail Katsman’s courtship and my buzz-cut.
I love to go to synagogue. And I love to go to church, too. And to mosques.
But those people who call themselves the servants of God…
They act as if God Himself personally offered His friendship them, and even His protection to some people. Their crossword puzzles in cassocks. Their faces on the television. Their bank accounts. Their memorized, empty words that they try to fill other people’s ears and souls with. In vain. Sometimes I turn into a fly and buzz into their rooms when they’re alone. With my little paws I close their ears so that they don’t hear; I close their eyes so that they do not see. Shameful. I’m ashamed of them. And I go back to sinners. I feel better with them. I think it’s because God doesn’t live on their tongues. He is hidden deep down, so that they can cherish Him.
Yesterday Senya Hebe didn’t come to school. The teacher said he was sick. I sent him a bouquet of flowers. I always send flowers to people when they’re sick. No one has ever sent me flowers. But that’s just because I’m never sick.
A week ago Bubbe’s admirer came over — Uncle Misha, or rather Mikhail Katsman. He called me over quietly, so that Bubbe wouldn’t hear. “Sonya, what does your grandmother dream of?” Uncle Misha asked. I thought about it. She doesn’t really care much for Uncle Misha — she’s still head-over-heels in love with Utesov — so I said: “She’s dreams of a black typewriter.”
That very day the doorbell rang. It was a box — not for us but for Bubbe. A gift from Mikhail Katsman. She was puzzled and so I had to tell her everything.
Bubbe? What is it, Bubbe?
She shouted. There was a row. For the nth time she reminded me that I was cheeky, snotty and would go far. And when I left the room and she thought I couldn’t hear her, she burst out laughing.
Bubbe wants me to be a doctor, but I’m going to be a writer. The problem is, Bubbe says, that with the way I look now, only the circus school would take me. And even then we’d have to bribe my way in. Not long ago Uncle Misha sent Bubbe tulips. Where did he get them in the winter? Mikhail Katsman has a job in the government, and he’s 80 years old. He has always dreamed of being repatriated to Israel and living on the shores of the Red Sea with my grandmother.
I think Bubbe is falling in love. Yesterday she bought herself a new bra with roses on it and Guerlain perfume. She even went on a diet. And that old hag Musichka painted under our windows: “Gittel is a tramp.” Uncle Misha spent half a day scrubbing off the inscription. Bubbe sat by the window and watched him as he sent air kisses into our window. To her.
Humph. Either spring is in the air or I’ll have to go to synagogue and arrange with the Rabbi for a wedding soon.
Now Bubbe is Katsman. Gittel Yakovlevna Katsman. Tomorrow the newlyweds are going on their honeymoon to Israel. And Uncle Misha is prepared to put up with chicken morning, noon, and night.
And then for some reason flowers have been delivered to our room lately. Well, not to us, but to me. And on little cards there is something about love. I don’t know what love is yet. I don’t understand what he’s writing. It’s Senya Hebe who’s writing. I wrote about it in a letter to Bubbe in Israel. “What can I say, Sonya? If you take that last name on top of your personality, you’re sure to go far. And when you become a writer, you won’t have to worry about thinking up a pen name,” Bubbe replied.
Bubbe and Uncle Misha kiss all day long — so that means what they have is for eternity. Meanwhile, Senya and I like to sit on the shore of the Black Sea and get close to eternity. Yesterday I wrote my first short story about my favorite old lady, and Senya really liked it. Basically Senya likes everything about me. The only thing is that I can’t cook. Or rather, I can, but like Bubbe: it’s chicken morning, noon, and night.
He looks like me and is the same height, but he appears to be a half-head taller – the cad.
—From an old comedy
As it happened, Alexander Golts came out of the vaudeville show and arrived at the rendez-vous exactly one half-hour early. As he waited for the object of his love, he ran his eyes over every skirt mincing across the street, and impatiently tapped his cane on a wooden box. He waited in misery and passion, darkly certain of the outcome. And sometimes, smiling as he remembered the past, he thought that maybe things would work out just fine after all.
Evening fell. Cur Street, as narrow as a crevasse, was misted over with a cloud of golden dust as cooking smells wafted out of dirty windows, sending the stench of scorched food and damp laundry through the air. Green grocers and ragmen walked down the street, hoarsely shouting out their wares. From time to time slow-moving men fell out the door of the beer hall. When they came out, they first sought some support, then sighed, shoved their hats down to their noses and walked off with exaggeratedly steady steps, wavering between grim and blissful.
Alexander Golts’ whole body shuddered. He turned around. She stood before him in a casual pose, as if she’d just stopped for a second and would instantly be off. Her dark, lively face with its sad look and whimsically cocked eyebrows avoided Golts’ eye. She looked at the people passing by.
“My dear!” Golts said in a tense but affectionate voice and then stopped.
She turned to face him and nonchalantly swept her eyes over his bright tie, the feather in his hat, his smoothly shaved and slightly trembling chin. He was still hoping for something; we’ll see about that.
“I…” Golts whispered something and began to chew at his lip. Then he thrust his hand into his pocket, pulled out a scrap of an advertisement and tossed it away.
“If I may…” At this, his hand touched the rim of his hat. “So it’s all over between us?”
“It’s all over,” the woman echoed. “Why did you want to see me?”
“More… for no reason,” Golts said forcefully. His head swam with grief. He stepped forward and then, to his surprise, took her thin, contemptuously obedient hand and then instantly let it go.
“Good-bye,” he said, squeezing out the word, as heavy as a mountain. “Are you leaving soon?
Now someone else was speaking for him while he listened, paralyzed by this agonizing nightmare.
“I’ve still got your umbrella.”
“I bought another. Good-bye.”
She slowly nodded at him and then left. The box proved to be sturdier than Golts’ cane; the fragile ivory object shattered into little pieces. He stared at the back of the girl’s head as she walked away, but she never once turned around. Then a coalman carrying a huge basket obstructed his view of her. A bit of her hat glimpsed from around the corner — and that was all.
Golts went through the doors of the nearest restaurant. Inside it was filled with noise and people; slanted rays of iridescent sunshine quivered in bottles standing like soldiers. Golts sat down at an empty table and shouted, “Garcon!”
A deferential but impersonal man in a filthy shirtfront ran up to Golts and smacked the dust off the table.
“A bottle of vodka.”
When he was given his order, he poured a glass, sipped and spit it out. Angry sparks flashed in his eyes and he snorted furiously.
“Garcon!” Golts shouted. “I didn’t order water, for God’s sake! Take away this liquid — there’s plenty in any water barrel. Bring me vodka! Make it fast!”
Everyone in the bar, even the most phlegmatic customer, jumped out of their seats and surrounded Golts. The waiter, shocked, swore that there was real vodka in the bottle. In the general turmoil as all the customers sipped a little bit of water to be sure that Golts was right, a new sealed bottle was brought to the table. The insulted and pouting owner of the café, finding himself in an uncertain and unpleasant position, removed the cork himself. He carefully poured a glass of the liquid with hands that trembled nervously. Out of pride he didn’t want to taste it, but suddenly, overcome with doubt, he sipped. He spit it out. There was water in the bottle.
Enjoying himself and quietly laughing, Golts continued to ask for vodka. There was an incredible racket. The owner, his face waxy with fear, turned from side to side as if seeking protection. Some people shouted that the restaurant owner was a crook and they ought to call the police. Others stoutly insisted that the swindler here was Golts. A few religious types thought of the devil; their little brains, terrified all their lives, refused to provide any explanation that was not connected with the All-Mighty.
Panting from heat and nerves, the owner said, “Forgive me… honest to God, I can’t imagine how this happened. I don’t know anything about it –– leave me be. Holy Mother of God! I’ve been serving it for 20 years! Twenty years!”
Golts stood up and patted the fat man on the shoulder.
“My dear man,” he announced as he put on his hat. “I have no complaints. Your bottles are most certainly made of mesh –– it’s no wonder that the alcohol evaporated. Good-bye!”
As he left he didn’t turn around, but he knew that behind him mouths were falling open in amazement.
From the moment Golts went outside, the description of the historian (whose testimony I used to write all the text above and below) strongly contradicts the testimony of the butcher. The butcher asserted that the strange young man headed to the bakery and asked for a pound of rusks. The historian, whose name I will not reveal at his request but whose face is, in any case, more respectable than the face of the butcher, swears that he began to sell eggs next to the old lady on the corner of Cur Street and Blind Man’s Lane.
This contradiction, however, does not substantially change the import of what happened, and so I will stop into the bakery. Golts opened the door, looked inside and saw a crowd. People from all walks of life, old folks, children and women pushed behind him, discretely gesturing and pointing out the strange man who had scandalized the tavern owner. They were on his heels like a pack of dogs, driven by a kind of frenzied curiosity mixed a black fear borne of ignorance. Golts frowned, shrugged and then instantly burst out laughing. Let them puzzle it out — it was his last, fantastical entertainment.
So he walked up to the counter and asked for a pound of sugar-covered rusks. The bakery filled up with customers. Everyone asked for this or that whether they needed it or not and hungrily stared at the stern, stone-faced Golts. He seemed not to notice them.
The voice of the shop assistant cut through the thick haze of tension.
“Sir, what on earth is going on?”
The weighing pan of the scale, filled to the brim with rusks, did not weigh more than the one-pound weight. The salesgirl stretched out her hand and yanked down the chain of the weight pan, but the other pan didn’t even budge.
Golts laughed and shook his head, but his laughter was the last drop in the bystanders’ cup of fear. They ran off, pushing and shrieking. Little boys stuck in the doors cried out as if they’d been stabbed. The shop assistant stood there, at a loss, florid with fear.
Golts went out again, slamming the door so hard that the glass rattled. He wanted to break something, smash something, hit the first man he saw. Stumbling, with a pale, bloated face, his hat pulled down over one ear, he looked like a lunatic. It would have been better for the old woman if he hadn’t noticed her. He took an egg from her basket, broke the shell and pulled out a gold coin. “Oh my!” the astonished woman cried out, and her cry was picked up and carried by the crowd blocking the street: “Ohhhh!”
Golts instantly stepped away and rummaged around in his pocket. What was he looking for?
The people standing around the old lady shrieked, some sputtering with laughter, others with inane curses. It was really something to see. Ancient, greedy hands frantically cracked egg after egg. Their contents flowed onto the road and coagulated into shiny patches in the dust. But there wasn’t gold in any other egg. Out of her toothless mouth came a torrent of senile cursing, as the people surrounding her held their bellies, howling with laughter.
Golts walked to the square. He took a gun — yes, a gun — out of his pocket and, with preternatural calm, put the barrel up to his temple. The pale feather of the hat that had disappeared around the corner haunted him. He pulled the trigger. The boom of the shot punched through the evening quiet, and a corpse fell to the earth, warm and twitching.
People had kept a polite distance from the living man, but they raced over to the dead one. But was he really just a man? Was he really dead? The air buzzed with questions and exclamations. A note found in Golts’ pocket was thoroughly discussed. Over a skirt? Think of that! A man who shocked the entire street, who evoked callow delight in some and furious indignation in others, who terrified children and women, who pulled gold out of place where it had no business being — that man killed himself over a skirt? Ha ha! What’s so surprising about that?
The graveside speeches over Golts’ body were spoken right then and there, on the street, by the tavern owner and the old lady. The latter shrieked happily, “Charlatan!”
The tavern-owner spit out with sweet spite, “So there!”
The men on the street went off holding hands with their wives or lovers. It was a rare man who didn’t love his girl at that moment and tighten his grip on her hand. They had what the dead man didn’t — their arms around someone’s waist. In their eyes he was helpless and pathetic, and so what if he had some special qualities; in the end he was unhappy — oh, how delightful, how delightful, how indescribably delightful!
Have no doubt — everyone was happy. And like stamping out a smoldering match in a wooden house, they put out the thought in their minds: “But maybe… maybe… he needed something more?”
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.
‘I don’t know.’
‘“I don’t know” what?’ Klavdia Mikhailovna grew angry.
‘It’s a moot point.’
‘Aha, a moot point…’
‘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.
*This story is taken from: An Awkward Age by Anna Starobinets, Hesperus Press Limited, 2010. First published in Russian as Perekhodnyj vozrast © Limbus Press, St. Petersburg (Russia), 2005.