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.
It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog. Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov, who had by then been a fortnight at Yalta, and so was fairly at home there, had begun to take an interest in new arrivals. Sitting in Verney’s pavilion, he saw, walking on the sea-front, a fair-haired young lady of medium height, wearing a béret; a white Pomeranian dog was running behind her.
And afterwards he met her in the public gardens and in the square several times a day. She was walking alone, always wearing the same béret, and always with the same white dog; no one knew who she was, and every one called her simply “the lady with the dog.”
“If she is here alone without a husband or friends, it wouldn’t be amiss to make her acquaintance,” Gurov reflected.
He was under forty, but he had a daughter already twelve years old, and two sons at school. He had been married young, when he was a student in his second year, and by now his wife seemed half as old again as he. She was a tall, erect woman with dark eyebrows, staid and dignified, and, as she said of herself, intellectual. She read a great deal, used phonetic spelling, called her husband, not Dmitri, but Dimitri, and he secretly considered her unintelligent, narrow, inelegant, was afraid of her, and did not like to be at home. He had begun being unfaithful to her long ago—had been unfaithful to her often, and, probably on that account, almost always spoke ill of women, and when they were talked about in his presence, used to call them “the lower race.”
It seemed to him that he had been so schooled by bitter experience that he might call them what he liked, and yet he could not get on for two days together without “the lower race.” In the society of men he was bored and not himself, with them he was cold and uncommunicative; but when he was in the company of women he felt free, and knew what to say to them and how to behave; and he was at ease with them even when he was silent. In his appearance, in his character, in his whole nature, there was something attractive and elusive which allured women and disposed them in his favour; he knew that, and some force seemed to draw him, too, to them.
Experience often repeated, truly bitter experience, had taught him long ago that with decent people, especially Moscow people—always slow to move and irresolute—every intimacy, which at first so agreeably diversifies life and appears a light and charming adventure, inevitably grows into a regular problem of extreme intricacy, and in the long run the situation becomes unbearable. But at every fresh meeting with an interesting woman this experience seemed to slip out of his memory, and he was eager for life, and everything seemed simple and amusing.
One evening he was dining in the gardens, and the lady in the béret came up slowly to take the next table. Her expression, her gait, her dress, and the way she did her hair told him that she was a lady, that she was married, that she was in Yalta for the first time and alone, and that she was dull there…. The stories told of the immorality in such places as Yalta are to a great extent untrue; he despised them, and knew that such stories were for the most part made up by persons who would themselves have been glad to sin if they had been able; but when the lady sat down at the next table three paces from him, he remembered these tales of easy conquests, of trips to the mountains, and the tempting thought of a swift, fleeting love affair, a romance with an unknown woman, whose name he did not know, suddenly took possession of him.
He beckoned coaxingly to the Pomeranian, and when the dog came up to him he shook his finger at it. The Pomeranian growled: Gurov shook his finger at it again.
The lady looked at him and at once dropped her eyes.
“He doesn’t bite,” she said, and blushed.
“May I give him a bone?” he asked; and when she nodded he asked courteously, “Have you been long in Yalta?”
“And I have already dragged out a fortnight here.”
There was a brief silence.
“Time goes fast, and yet it is so dull here!” she said, not looking at him.
“That’s only the fashion to say it is dull here. A provincial will live in Belyov or Zhidra and not be dull, and when he comes here it’s ‘Oh, the dulness! Oh, the dust!’ One would think he came from Grenada.”
She laughed. Then both continued eating in silence, like strangers, but after dinner they walked side by side; and there sprang up between them the light jesting conversation of people who are free and satisfied, to whom it does not matter where they go or what they talk about. They walked and talked of the strange light on the sea: the water was of a soft warm lilac hue, and there was a golden streak from the moon upon it. They talked of how sultry it was after a hot day. Gurov told her that he came from Moscow, that he had taken his degree in Arts, but had a post in a bank; that he had trained as an opera-singer, but had given it up, that he owned two houses in Moscow…. And from her he learnt that she had grown up in Petersburg, but had lived in S—— since her marriage two years before, that she was staying another month in Yalta, and that her husband, who needed a holiday too, might perhaps come and fetch her. She was not sure whether her husband had a post in a Crown Department or under the Provincial Council—and was amused by her own ignorance. And Gurov learnt, too, that she was called Anna Sergeyevna.
Afterwards he thought about her in his room at the hotel—thought she would certainly meet him next day; it would be sure to happen. As he got into bed he thought how lately she had been a girl at school, doing lessons like his own daughter; he recalled the diffidence, the angularity, that was still manifest in her laugh and her manner of talking with a stranger. This must have been the first time in her life she had been alone in surroundings in which she was followed, looked at, and spoken to merely from a secret motive which she could hardly fail to guess. He recalled her slender, delicate neck, her lovely grey eyes.
“There’s something pathetic about her, anyway,” he thought, and fell asleep.
A week had passed since they had made acquaintance. It was a holiday. It was sultry indoors, while in the street the wind whirled the dust round and round, and blew people’s hats off. It was a thirsty day, and Gurov often went into the pavilion, and pressed Anna Sergeyevna to have syrup and water or an ice. One did not know what to do with oneself.
In the evening when the wind had dropped a little, they went out on the groyne to see the steamer come in. There were a great many people walking about the harbour; they had gathered to welcome some one, bringing bouquets. And two peculiarities of a well-dressed Yalta crowd were very conspicuous: the elderly ladies were dressed like young ones, and there were great numbers of generals.
Owing to the roughness of the sea, the steamer arrived late, after the sun had set, and it was a long time turning about before it reached the groyne. Anna Sergeyevna looked through her lorgnette at the steamer and the passengers as though looking for acquaintances, and when she turned to Gurov her eyes were shining. She talked a great deal and asked disconnected questions, forgetting next moment what she had asked; then she dropped her lorgnette in the crush.
The festive crowd began to disperse; it was too dark to see people’s faces. The wind had completely dropped, but Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna still stood as though waiting to see some one else come from the steamer. Anna Sergeyevna was silent now, and sniffed the flowers without looking at Gurov.
“The weather is better this evening,” he said. “Where shall we go now? Shall we drive somewhere?”
She made no answer.
Then he looked at her intently, and all at once put his arm round her and kissed her on the lips, and breathed in the moisture and the fragrance of the flowers; and he immediately looked round him, anxiously wondering whether any one had seen them.
“Let us go to your hotel,” he said softly. And both walked quickly.
The room was close and smelt of the scent she had bought at the Japanese shop. Gurov looked at her and thought: “What different people one meets in the world!” From the past he preserved memories of careless, good-natured women, who loved cheerfully and were grateful to him for the happiness he gave them, however brief it might be; and of women like his wife who loved without any genuine feeling, with superfluous phrases, affectedly, hysterically, with an expression that suggested that it was not love nor passion, but something more significant; and of two or three others, very beautiful, cold women, on whose faces he had caught a glimpse of a rapacious expression—an obstinate desire to snatch from life more than it could give, and these were capricious, unreflecting, domineering, unintelligent women not in their first youth, and when Gurov grew cold to them their beauty excited his hatred, and the lace on their linen seemed to him like scales.
But in this case there was still the diffidence, the angularity of inexperienced youth, an awkward feeling; and there was a sense of consternation as though some one had suddenly knocked at the door. The attitude of Anna Sergeyevna—”the lady with the dog”—to what had happened was somehow peculiar, very grave, as though it were her fall—so it seemed, and it was strange and inappropriate. Her face dropped and faded, and on both sides of it her long hair hung down mournfully; she mused in a dejected attitude like “the woman who was a sinner” in an old-fashioned picture.
“It’s wrong,” she said. “You will be the first to despise me now.”
There was a water-melon on the table. Gurov cut himself a slice and began eating it without haste. There followed at least half an hour of silence.
Anna Sergeyevna was touching; there was about her the purity of a good, simple woman who had seen little of life. The solitary candle burning on the table threw a faint light on her face, yet it was clear that she was very unhappy.
“How could I despise you?” asked Gurov. “You don’t know what you are saying.”
“God forgive me,” she said, and her eyes filled with tears. “It’s awful.”
“You seem to feel you need to be forgiven.”
“Forgiven? No. I am a bad, low woman; I despise myself and don’t attempt to justify myself. It’s not my husband but myself I have deceived. And not only just now; I have been deceiving myself for a long time. My husband may be a good, honest man, but he is a flunkey! I don’t know what he does there, what his work is, but I know he is a flunkey! I was twenty when I was married to him. I have been tormented by curiosity; I wanted something better. ‘There must be a different sort of life,’ I said to myself. I wanted to live! To live, to live!… I was fired by curiosity … you don’t understand it, but, I swear to God, I could not control myself; something happened to me: I could not be restrained. I told my husband I was ill, and came here…. And here I have been walking about as though I were dazed, like a mad creature;… and now I have become a vulgar, contemptible woman whom any one may despise.”
Gurov felt bored already, listening to her. He was irritated by the naïve tone, by this remorse, so unexpected and inopportune; but for the tears in her eyes, he might have thought she was jesting or playing a part.
“I don’t understand,” he said softly. “What is it you want?”
She hid her face on his breast and pressed close to him.
“Believe me, believe me, I beseech you …” she said. “I love a pure, honest life, and sin is loathsome to me. I don’t know what I am doing. Simple people say: ‘The Evil One has beguiled me.’ And I may say of myself now that the Evil One has beguiled me.”
“Hush, hush!…” he muttered.
He looked at her fixed, scared eyes, kissed her, talked softly and affectionately, and by degrees she was comforted, and her gaiety returned; they both began laughing.
Afterwards when they went out there was not a soul on the sea-front. The town with its cypresses had quite a deathlike air, but the sea still broke noisily on the shore; a single barge was rocking on the waves, and a lantern was blinking sleepily on it.
They found a cab and drove to Oreanda.
“I found out your surname in the hall just now: it was written on the board—Von Diderits,” said Gurov. “Is your husband a German?”
“No; I believe his grandfather was a German, but he is an Orthodox Russian himself.”
At Oreanda they sat on a seat not far from the church, looked down at the sea, and were silent. Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist; white clouds stood motionless on the mountain-tops. The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection. Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings—the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky—Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence.
A man walked up to them—probably a keeper—looked at them and walked away. And this detail seemed mysterious and beautiful, too. They saw a steamer come from Theodosia, with its lights out in the glow of dawn.
“There is dew on the grass,” said Anna Sergeyevna, after a silence.
“Yes. It’s time to go home.”
They went back to the town.
Then they met every day at twelve o’clock on the sea-front, lunched and dined together, went for walks, admired the sea. She complained that she slept badly, that her heart throbbed violently; asked the same questions, troubled now by jealousy and now by the fear that he did not respect her sufficiently. And often in the square or gardens, when there was no one near them, he suddenly drew her to him and kissed her passionately. Complete idleness, these kisses in broad daylight while he looked round in dread of some one’s seeing them, the heat, the smell of the sea, and the continual passing to and fro before him of idle, well-dressed, well-fed people, made a new man of him; he told Anna Sergeyevna how beautiful she was, how fascinating. He was impatiently passionate, he would not move a step away from her, while she was often pensive and continually urged him to confess that he did not respect her, did not love her in the least, and thought of her as nothing but a common woman. Rather late almost every evening they drove somewhere out of town, to Oreanda or to the waterfall; and the expedition was always a success, the scenery invariably impressed them as grand and beautiful.
They were expecting her husband to come, but a letter came from him, saying that there was something wrong with his eyes, and he entreated his wife to come home as quickly as possible. Anna Sergeyevna made haste to go.
“It’s a good thing I am going away,” she said to Gurov. “It’s the finger of destiny!”
She went by coach and he went with her. They were driving the whole day. When she had got into a compartment of the express, and when the second bell had rung, she said:
“Let me look at you once more … look at you once again. That’s right.”
She did not shed tears, but was so sad that she seemed ill, and her face was quivering.
“I shall remember you … think of you,” she said. “God be with you; be happy. Don’t remember evil against me. We are parting forever—it must be so, for we ought never to have met. Well, God be with you.”
The train moved off rapidly, its lights soon vanished from sight, and a minute later there was no sound of it, as though everything had conspired together to end as quickly as possible that sweet delirium, that madness. Left alone on the platform, and gazing into the dark distance, Gurov listened to the chirrup of the grasshoppers and the hum of the telegraph wires, feeling as though he had only just waked up. And he thought, musing, that there had been another episode or adventure in his life, and it, too, was at an end, and nothing was left of it but a memory…. He was moved, sad, and conscious of a slight remorse. This young woman whom he would never meet again had not been happy with him; he was genuinely warm and affectionate with her, but yet in his manner, his tone, and his caresses there had been a shade of light irony, the coarse condescension of a happy man who was, besides, almost twice her age. All the time she had called him kind, exceptional, lofty; obviously he had seemed to her different from what he really was, so he had unintentionally deceived her….
Here at the station was already a scent of autumn; it was a cold evening.
“It’s time for me to go north,” thought Gurov as he left the platform. “High time!”
At home in Moscow everything was in its winter routine; the stoves were heated, and in the morning it was still dark when the children were having breakfast and getting ready for school, and the nurse would light the lamp for a short time. The frosts had begun already. When the first snow has fallen, on the first day of sledge-driving it is pleasant to see the white earth, the white roofs, to draw soft, delicious breath, and the season brings back the days of one’s youth. The old limes and birches, white with hoar-frost, have a good-natured expression; they are nearer to one’s heart than cypresses and palms, and near them one doesn’t want to be thinking of the sea and the mountains.
Gurov was Moscow born; he arrived in Moscow on a fine frosty day, and when he put on his fur coat and warm gloves, and walked along Petrovka, and when on Saturday evening he heard the ringing of the bells, his recent trip and the places he had seen lost all charm for him. Little by little he became absorbed in Moscow life, greedily read three newspapers a day, and declared he did not read the Moscow papers on principle! He already felt a longing to go to restaurants, clubs, dinner-parties, anniversary celebrations, and he felt flattered at entertaining distinguished lawyers and artists, and at playing cards with a professor at the doctors’ club. He could already eat a whole plateful of salt fish and cabbage.
In another month, he fancied, the image of Anna Sergeyevna would be shrouded in a mist in his memory, and only from time to time would visit him in his dreams with a touching smile as others did. But more than a month passed, real winter had come, and everything was still clear in his memory as though he had parted with Anna Sergeyevna only the day before. And his memories glowed more and more vividly. When in the evening stillness he heard from his study the voices of his children, preparing their lessons, or when he listened to a song or the organ at the restaurant, or the storm howled in the chimney, suddenly everything would rise up in his memory: what had happened on the groyne, and the early morning with the mist on the mountains, and the steamer coming from Theodosia, and the kisses. He would pace a long time about his room, remembering it all and smiling; then his memories passed into dreams, and in his fancy the past was mingled with what was to come. Anna Sergeyevna did not visit him in dreams, but followed him about everywhere like a shadow and haunted him. When he shut his eyes he saw her as though she were living before him, and she seemed to him lovelier, younger, tenderer than she was; and he imagined himself finer than he had been in Yalta. In the evenings she peeped out at him from the bookcase, from the fireplace, from the corner—he heard her breathing, the caressing rustle of her dress. In the street he watched the women, looking for some one like her.
He was tormented by an intense desire to confide his memories to some one. But in his home it was impossible to talk of his love, and he had no one outside; he could not talk to his tenants nor to any one at the bank. And what had he to talk of? Had he been in love, then? Had there been anything beautiful, poetical, or edifying or simply interesting in his relations with Anna Sergeyevna? And there was nothing for him but to talk vaguely of love, of woman, and no one guessed what it meant; only his wife twitched her black eyebrows, and said:
“The part of a lady-killer does not suit you at all, Dimitri.”
One evening, coming out of the doctors’ club with an official with whom he had been playing cards, he could not resist saying:
“If only you knew what a fascinating woman I made the acquaintance of in Yalta!”
The official got into his sledge and was driving away, but turned suddenly and shouted:
“You were right this evening: the sturgeon was a bit too strong!”
These words, so ordinary, for some reason moved Gurov to indignation, and struck him as degrading and unclean. What savage manners, what people! What senseless nights, what uninteresting, uneventful days! The rage for card-playing, the gluttony, the drunkenness, the continual talk always about the same thing. Useless pursuits and conversations always about the same things absorb the better part of one’s time, the better part of one’s strength, and in the end there is left a life grovelling and curtailed, worthless and trivial, and there is no escaping or getting away from it—just as though one were in a madhouse or a prison.
Gurov did not sleep all night, and was filled with indignation. And he had a headache all next day. And the next night he slept badly; he sat up in bed, thinking, or paced up and down his room. He was sick of his children, sick of the bank; he had no desire to go anywhere or to talk of anything.
In the holidays in December he prepared for a journey, and told his wife he was going to Petersburg to do something in the interests of a young friend—and he set off for S——. What for? He did not very well know himself. He wanted to see Anna Sergeyevna and to talk with her—to arrange a meeting, if possible.
He reached S—— in the morning, and took the best room at the hotel, in which the floor was covered with grey army cloth, and on the table was an inkstand, grey with dust and adorned with a figure on horseback, with its hat in its hand and its head broken off. The hotel porter gave him the necessary information; Von Diderits lived in a house of his own in Old Gontcharny Street—it was not far from the hotel: he was rich and lived in good style, and had his own horses; every one in the town knew him. The porter pronounced the name “Dridirits.”
Gurov went without haste to Old Gontcharny Street and found the house. Just opposite the house stretched a long grey fence adorned with nails.
“One would run away from a fence like that,” thought Gurov, looking from the fence to the windows of the house and back again.
He considered: today was a holiday, and the husband would probably be at home. And in any case it would be tactless to go into the house and upset her. If he were to send her a note it might fall into her husband’s hands, and then it might ruin everything. The best thing was to trust to chance. And he kept walking up and down the street by the fence, waiting for the chance. He saw a beggar go in at the gate and dogs fly at him; then an hour later he heard a piano, and the sounds were faint and indistinct. Probably it was Anna Sergeyevna playing. The front door suddenly opened, and an old woman came out, followed by the familiar white Pomeranian. Gurov was on the point of calling to the dog, but his heart began beating violently, and in his excitement he could not remember the dog’s name.
He walked up and down, and loathed the grey fence more and more, and by now he thought irritably that Anna Sergeyevna had forgotten him, and was perhaps already amusing herself with some one else, and that that was very natural in a young woman who had nothing to look at from morning till night but that confounded fence. He went back to his hotel room and sat for a long while on the sofa, not knowing what to do, then he had dinner and a long nap.
“How stupid and worrying it is!” he thought when he woke and looked at the dark windows: it was already evening. “Here I’ve had a good sleep for some reason. What shall I do in the night?”
He sat on the bed, which was covered by a cheap grey blanket, such as one sees in hospitals, and he taunted himself in his vexation:
“So much for the lady with the dog… so much for the adventure…. You’re in a nice fix….”
That morning at the station a poster in large letters had caught his eye. “The Geisha” was to be performed for the first time. He thought of this and went to the theatre.
“It’s quite possible she may go to the first performance,” he thought.
The theatre was full. As in all provincial theatres, there was a fog above the chandelier, the gallery was noisy and restless; in the front row the local dandies were standing up before the beginning of the performance, with their hands behind them; in the Governor’s box the Governor’s daughter, wearing a boa, was sitting in the front seat, while the Governor himself lurked modestly behind the curtain with only his hands visible; the orchestra was a long time tuning up; the stage curtain swayed. All the time the audience were coming in and taking their seats Gurov looked at them eagerly.
Anna Sergeyevna, too, came in. She sat down in the third row, and when Gurov looked at her his heart contracted, and he understood clearly that for him there was in the whole world no creature so near, so precious, and so important to him; she, this little woman, in no way remarkable, lost in a provincial crowd, with a vulgar lorgnette in her hand, filled his whole life now, was his sorrow and his joy, the one happiness that he now desired for himself, and to the sounds of the inferior orchestra, of the wretched provincial violins, he thought how lovely she was. He thought and dreamed.
A young man with small side-whiskers, tall and stooping, came in with Anna Sergeyevna and sat down beside her; he bent his head at every step and seemed to be continually bowing. Most likely this was the husband whom at Yalta, in a rush of bitter feeling, she had called a flunkey. And there really was in his long figure, his side-whiskers, and the small bald patch on his head, something of the flunkey’s obsequiousness; his smile was sugary, and in his buttonhole there was some badge of distinction like the number on a waiter.
During the first interval the husband went away to smoke; she remained alone in her stall. Gurov, who was sitting in the stalls, too, went up to her and said in a trembling voice, with a forced smile:
She glanced at him and turned pale, then glanced again with horror, unable to believe her eyes, and tightly gripped the fan and the lorgnette in her hands, evidently struggling with herself not to faint. Both were silent. She was sitting, he was standing, frightened by her confusion and not venturing to sit down beside her. The violins and the flute began tuning up. He felt suddenly frightened; it seemed as though all the people in the boxes were looking at them. She got up and went quickly to the door; he followed her, and both walked senselessly along passages, and up and down stairs, and figures in legal, scholastic, and civil service uniforms, all wearing badges, flitted before their eyes. They caught glimpses of ladies, of fur coats hanging on pegs; the draughts blew on them, bringing a smell of stale tobacco. And Gurov, whose heart was beating violently, thought:
“Oh, heavens! Why are these people here and this orchestra!…”
And at that instant he recalled how when he had seen Anna Sergeyevna off at the station he had thought that everything was over and they would never meet again. But how far they were still from the end!
On the narrow, gloomy staircase over which was written “To the Amphitheatre,” she stopped.
“How you have frightened me!” she said, breathing hard, still pale and overwhelmed. “Oh, how you have frightened me! I am half dead. Why have you come? Why?”
“But do understand, Anna, do understand …” he said hastily in a low voice. “I entreat you to understand….”
She looked at him with dread, with entreaty, with love; she looked at him intently, to keep his features more distinctly in her memory.
“I am so unhappy,” she went on, not heeding him. “I have thought of nothing but you all the time; I live only in the thought of you. And I wanted to forget, to forget you; but why, oh, why, have you come?”
On the landing above them two schoolboys were smoking and looking down, but that was nothing to Gurov; he drew Anna Sergeyevna to him, and began kissing her face, her cheeks, and her hands.
“What are you doing, what are you doing!” she cried in horror, pushing him away. “We are mad. Go away to-day; go away at once…. I beseech you by all that is sacred, I implore you…. There are people coming this way!”
Some one was coming up the stairs.
“You must go away,” Anna Sergeyevna went on in a whisper. “Do you hear, Dmitri Dmitritch? I will come and see you in Moscow. I have never been happy; I am miserable now, and I never, never shall be happy, never! Don’t make me suffer still more! I swear I’ll come to Moscow. But now let us part. My precious, good, dear one, we must part!”
She pressed his hand and began rapidly going downstairs, looking round at him, and from her eyes he could see that she really was unhappy. Gurov stood for a little while, listened, then, when all sound had died away, he found his coat and left the theatre.
And Anna Sergeyevna began coming to see him in Moscow. Once in two or three months she left S——, telling her husband that she was going to consult a doctor about an internal complaint—and her husband believed her, and did not believe her. In Moscow she stayed at the Slaviansky Bazaar hotel, and at once sent a man in a red cap to Gurov. Gurov went to see her, and no one in Moscow knew of it.
Once he was going to see her in this way on a winter morning (the messenger had come the evening before when he was out). With him walked his daughter, whom he wanted to take to school: it was on the way. Snow was falling in big wet flakes.
“It’s three degrees above freezing-point, and yet it is snowing,” said Gurov to his daughter. “The thaw is only on the surface of the earth; there is quite a different temperature at a greater height in the atmosphere.”
“And why are there no thunderstorms in the winter, father?”
He explained that, too. He talked, thinking all the while that he was going to see her, and no living soul knew of it, and probably never would know. He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilised man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.
After leaving his daughter at school, Gurov went on to the Slaviansky Bazaar. He took off his fur coat below, went upstairs, and softly knocked at the door. Anna Sergeyevna, wearing his favourite grey dress, exhausted by the journey and the suspense, had been expecting him since the evening before. She was pale; she looked at him, and did not smile, and he had hardly come in when she fell on his breast. Their kiss was slow and prolonged, as though they had not met for two years.
“Well, how are you getting on there?” he asked. “What news?”
“Wait; I’ll tell you directly…. I can’t talk.”
She could not speak; she was crying. She turned away from him, and pressed her handkerchief to her eyes.
“Let her have her cry out. I’ll sit down and wait,” he thought, and he sat down in an arm-chair.
Then he rang and asked for tea to be brought him, and while he drank his tea she remained standing at the window with her back to him. She was crying from emotion, from the miserable consciousness that their life was so hard for them; they could only meet in secret, hiding themselves from people, like thieves! Was not their life shattered?
“Come, do stop!” he said.
It was evident to him that this love of theirs would not soon be over, that he could not see the end of it. Anna Sergeyevna grew more and more attached to him. She adored him, and it was unthinkable to say to her that it was bound to have an end some day; besides, she would not have believed it!
He went up to her and took her by the shoulders to say something affectionate and cheering, and at that moment he saw himself in the looking-glass.
His hair was already beginning to turn grey. And it seemed strange to him that he had grown so much older, so much plainer during the last few years. The shoulders on which his hands rested were warm and quivering. He felt compassion for this life, still so warm and lovely, but probably already not far from beginning to fade and wither like his own. Why did she love him so much? He always seemed to women different from what he was, and they loved in him not himself, but the man created by their imagination, whom they had been eagerly seeking all their lives; and afterwards, when they noticed their mistake, they loved him all the same. And not one of them had been happy with him. Time passed, he had made their acquaintance, got on with them, parted, but he had never once loved; it was anything you like, but not love.
And only now when his head was grey he had fallen properly, really in love—for the first time in his life.
Anna Sergeyevna and he loved each other like people very close and akin, like husband and wife, like tender friends; it seemed to them that fate itself had meant them for one another, and they could not understand why he had a wife and she a husband; and it was as though they were a pair of birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages. They forgave each other for what they were ashamed of in their past, they forgave everything in the present, and felt that this love of theirs had changed them both.
In moments of depression in the past he had comforted himself with any arguments that came into his mind, but now he no longer cared for arguments; he felt profound compassion, he wanted to be sincere and tender….
“Don’t cry, my darling,” he said. “You’ve had your cry; that’s enough…. Let us talk now, let us think of some plan.”
Then they spent a long while taking counsel together, talked of how to avoid the necessity for secrecy, for deception, for living in different towns and not seeing each other for long at a time. How could they be free from this intolerable bondage?
“How? How?” he asked, clutching his head. “How?”
And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.
I – How to Survive with the Aid of Literature.
Astride a Play to Tiflis.
If someone asked me what I deserve, I would say in all honesty before God that I deserve hard labor.
Not because of Tiflis, however; I did not do anything wrong in Tiflis. Because of Vladikavkaz.
I was living out my last days in Vladikavkaz, and the terrible specter of hunger, (Cliché! Cliché!… “terrible specter”… However, I don’t give a damn! These memoirs will never be published!) as I was saying, the terrible specter of hunger knocked at the door of my modest apartment which I had obtained with a permit. And right after the specter knocked Attorney Genzulaev, a pure soul with a brush mustache and an inspired face.
We talked, and here I include a stenographic record:
“What are you so down in the mouth about?” (Genzulaev)
“Apparently, I’m doomed to die of starvation in this crummy Vladikavkaz of yours…”
“There’s no question about that. Vladikavkaz is a crummy city. I doubt there’s a crummier city anywhere in the world. But why do you have to starve to death?”
“There’s nothing else I can do. I’ve exhausted all possibilities. The Subdepartment of the Arts has no money, so they can’t pay any salaries. I won’t be making any more introductory speeches before plays. I had a feuilleton printed in the local Vladikavkaz newspaper for which I received 1,250 rubles and a promise that they would turn me over to the special department1 Secret police.2 if another one like it ever appeared in print.”
“Why?” (Genzulaev was alarmed. Understandably, if they wanted to turn me over to the special department, I must be suspect.)
“For my mocking tone.”
“Oh, rubbish. They just don’t understand anything about feuilletons here. I’ll tell you what…”
And here is what Genzulaev did. He incited me to write a revolutionary play with him about native life. I’m slandering Genzulaev here. He pushed me and, because of my youth and inexperience, I agreed. What does Genzulaev know about the writing of plays? Nothing whatsoever, it was plain to see. Right away he openly admits that he sincerely detests literature, and I myself hated literature, you better believe, even more than he did. But Genzulaev knows native life like the back of his hand, if, of course, you can call native life a combination of shishkebab houses, breakfasts against a backdrop of the most repulsive mountains in the world, daggers of inferior steel, sinewy horses, taverns, and disgusting music that wrenches the soul.
Therefore, I will write the play and Genzulaev will add the local color.
“Only idiots would buy this play.”
“We’re the idiots if we don’t manage to sell this play.”
We wrote it in seven-and-a-half days, thus spending half a day more than was necessary to create the world. Despite this, it turned out even worse than the world.
I can say one thing: if there is ever a competition to see who can write the most stupid, untalented, and presumptuous play, ours will receive first prize (however, several plays from 1921-26 now come to mind, and I begin to have my doubts…), well, if not first prize, certainly second or third.
In short, after writing this play I am forever stigmatized, and naturally I can only hope that the play will molder in the bowels of the local Subdepartment of the Arts. As for the receipt, the devil take it, it can stay there. It was two hundred thousand rubles. One hundred for me. One hundred for Genzulaev. The play ran for three nights (a record), and the authors were called on stage. Genzulaev came out and took a bow, laying his hand against his clavicle. Then I came out and made faces for a long time so that I would be unrecognizable in the photograph (which was taken from below with magnesium). Due to these faces a rumor spread throughout the town that I was brilliant but mad. It was annoying, especially because the faces were totally unnecessary, since the photographer who took our picture was requisitioned and assigned to the theater, so nothing came out on the photograph but a shotgun, the inscription, “Glory to…” and a blurred streak.
I ate up seven thousand in two days and decided to use the remaining ninety-three to leave Vladikavkaz
Why? Why Tiflis of all places? For the life of me, I do not now recall. However, I remember I was told that:
1) in Tiflis all the stores are open,
2) in Tiflis there is wine,
3) in Tiflis it is very hot and the fruit is cheap,
4) in Tiflis there are many newspapers, etc.., etc.
I decided to go. First, I packed my things. I took all my worldly possessions: a blanket, some under-clothes, and a Primus stove.
In 1921 things were not quite the same as in 1924. To be more precise, it was impossible to just pack up and go wherever you wanted! Apparently, those who were in charge of civilian travel reasoned something like this:
“If everyone started traveling, then where would we be?”
Therefore, a permit was required. I immediately submitted an application to the appropriate authorities, and where it asked, “What is the purpose of your trip?” I wrote with pride, “I am going to Tiflis for the production of my revolutionary play.”
In all of Vladikavkaz there was only one person who did not know me by sight, and it happened to be the gallant young fellow with the pistol on his hip who stood as if nailed to the spot by the table where permits for travel to Tiflis were issued.
When my turn came to receive a permit and I reached out to take it, the young man started to give it to me, but then stopped and said in an authoritative, high-pitched voice, “What is the purpose of your trip?”
“The production of my revolutionary play.”
Then the young man sealed the permit in an envelope and handed both me and the envelope over to someone with a rifle, saying, “Take him to the special department.”
The young man did not answer.
A very bright sun (the only good thing in Vladikavkaz) beamed down on me as I walked along the road with the man carrying the rifle to my left. He decided to strike up a conversation with me and said, We’re going to be passing through the bazaar now, but don’t even think about escaping. Nothing good will come of it.”
“Even if you begged me to do it, I wouldn’t,” I replied in all honesty.
Then I offered him a cigarette.
Smoking companionably, we arrived at the special department. As we crossed the courtyard, I fleetingly recalled all my crimes. There were three.
1) In 1907 I was given one ruble and 50 kopecks to buy Kraevich’s Physics but spent it at the cinema.
2) In 1913 I got married against the wishes of my mother.
3) In 1921 I wrote that celebrated feuilleton.
The play? But that play could hardly be called criminal, could it? Quite the contrary.
For the information of those who have never been inside the special department, it is a large room with a rug on the floor, a huge desk of unbelievable proportions, eight telephones of different designs with green, orange, and gray cords attached, and behind the desk, a small man in military uniform with a very pleasant face.
The luxuriant crowns of the chestnut trees could be seen through the open windows. Upon seeing me, the man sitting at the desk attempted to change the pleasant expression on his face to an unfriendly an unpleasant one, but was only partially successful.
He took a photograph out of the desk drawer and began scrutinizing both it and me in turn.
“Oh, no. That’s not me,” I hurriedly announced. “You could have shaved off the mustache,” Mr. pleasant responded thoughtfully.
“Yes, but if you look closely,” I said, “the guy in the picture has hair the color of black shoe polish and is about forty-five. I am blond and twenty-eight.”
“Dye?” the small man asked with uncertainty.
“But what about the bald spot? And besides look closely at the nose. I beg you to take a good look at the nose.”
The small man peered at my nose. He was over-come with despair.
“I believe you. There’s no resemblance.”
There was a pause, and a ray of sunlight sprang up in the inkwell.
“Are you an accountant?”
Pause. The crowns of the chestnuts. The stucco ceiling. Cupids.
“What is the purpose of your trip to Tiflis? Answer immediately without thinking,” the small man said in a rush.
“To stage my revolutionary play,” I answered in a rush.
The small man opened his mouth, but recoiled and was completely radiated by the sun.
“You write plays?”
“Yes, I have to.”
“No kidding. Was the play you wrote a good one?”
There was something in his voice that would have touched any heart but mine. I repeat, I deserve hard labor. Looking away, I said:
“Yes, a good one.”
Yes. Yes. Yes. This was my fourth crime, the worst one of all. If I had wanted to remain pure before the special department, I should have answered: “No it’s not a good play. It’s junk. I just really want to go to Tiflis.”
I looked at the toes of my worn-out boots and did not speak. I came to myself when the small man handed me a cigarette and my travel permit.
He said to the guy with the rifle, “Show the writer to the door.”
The special department! I must forget about it! You see, now I have confessed. I have shed the guilt I have carried for three years. What I committed in the special department was, for me, worse than sabotage, counter-revolution or abuse of power.
But I must forget it!!!
II – Eternal Wanderers
People say that in 1924 it was easy to travel from Vladikavkaz to Tiflis; you simply hire a car in Vladikavkaz and drive along the remarkably scenic Georgian Military Highway. It is only two hundred and ten versts.3 A Russian unit of distance, in this case equal to about 6.5 miles.4 However in Vladikavkaz in 1921 the word “hire,” sounded like a word from a foreign language.
In order to travel you had to go with your blanket and Primus stove to the station and then walk along the tracks, peering into the innumerable freight cars. Wiping the sweat from my brow, on track seven I saw a man with a fan-shaped beard standing in slippers by an open freight car. He was rinsing out a kettle and repeating the vile word, “Baku.”
“Take me with you,” I requested.
“No,” replied the man with the beard.
“Please, so I can stage my revolutionary play,” I said.
The bearded man carried the kettle up a plank and into the freight car. I sat on my blanket beside the hot rails and lit a cigarette. A stifling, intense heat filled the spaces between the freight cars, and I quenched my thirst at the faucet by the tracks. Then I sat down again and felt the scorching heat radiated by the freight car. The bearded man stuck his head out.
“What’s your play about?” he asked.
I unrolled my blanket and took out my play.
“You wrote it yourself?” the proprietor of the freight car asked dubiously.
“Never heard of him.”
“I really need to leave.”
“Well, I’m expecting two more, but if they don’t show up, perhaps I’ll take you. Only don’t have any designs on the plank bed. Don’t think that just because you wrote a play you can try anything funny. it’s a long journey, and as a matter of fact, we ourselves are from the Political Education Committee.”
“I won’t try anything funny,” I said, feeling a breath of hope in the searing heat. “I can sleep on the floor.”
Sitting down on the plank bed, the beard said “Don’t you have any food?”
“I have a little money.”
The bearded man thought for a moment.
“I’ll tell you what… you can share our food on the journey. But you’ll have to help with our railway newspaper. Can you write something for our paper?”
“Anything you want,” I assured him as I took possession of my ration and bit into the upper crust.
“Even feuilletons?” he asked, and the look on his face made it obvious that he thought me a liar.
“Feuilletons are my specialty.”
Three faces appeared out of the shadows of the plank bed, along with bare feet. They all looked at me.
“Fyodor! There’s room for one more on the plank bed. That son-of-a-bitch Stepanov isn’t coming,” the feet said in a bass voice. “I’ll make room for Comrade Feuilletonist.”
“Okay, make room for him,” bearded Fyodor said in confusion. “What feuilleton are you going to write?”
“The Eternal Wanderers.”
“How will it begin?” asked a voice from the plank bed. “Come over here and have some tea with us.” “Sounds good—Eternal Wanderers,” responded Fyodor, taking off his boots. “You should have said you wrote feuilletons to start with, instead of sitting on the tracks for two hours. Welcome aboard.”
A vast and wondrous evening replaces the scorching day in Vladikavkaz. The evening’s edge is the bluish mountains. They are shrouded in evening mist. The plain forms the bottom of the cup. And along the bottom, jolting slightly, wheels began to turn. Eternal Wanderers. Farewell forever, Genzulaev! Farewell, Vladikavkaz!
Agit-train in one of Dziga Vertov‘s famous documentaries
Envy, like all our feelings, had been dulled and weakened by hunger. We lacked the strength to experience emotions, to seek easier work, to walk, to ask, to beg… We envied only our acquaintances, the ones who had been lucky enough to get office work, a job in the hospital or the stables – wherever there was none of the long physical labor glorified as heroic and noble in signs above all the camp gates. In a word, we envied only Shestakov.
External circumstances alone were capable of jolting us out of apathy and distracting us from slowly approaching death. It had to be an external and not an internal force. Inside there was only an empty scorched sensation, and we were indifferent to everything, making plans no further than the next day.
Even now I wanted to go back to the barracks and lie down on the bunk, but instead I was standing at the doors of the commissary. Purchases could be made only by petty criminals and thieves who were repeated offenders. The latter were classified as ‘friends of the people’. There was no reason for us politicals to be there, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the loaves of bread that were brown as chocolate. Our heads swam from the sweet heavy aroma of fresh bread that tickled the nostrils. I stood there, not knowing when I would find the strength within myself to return to the barracks. I was staring at the bread when Shestakov called to me.
I’d known Shestakov on the ‘mainland’, in Butyr Prison where we were cellmates. We weren’t friends, just acquaintances. Shestakov didn’t work in the mine. He was an engineer-geologist, and he was taken into the prospecting group – in the office. The lucky man barely said hallo to his Moscow acquaintances. We weren’t offended. Everyone looked out for himself here.
‘Have a smoke,’ Shestakov said and he handed me a scrap of newspaper, sprinkled some tobacco on it, and lit a match, a real match. I lit up.
‘I have to talk to you,’ Shestakov said.
We walked behind the barracks and sat down on the lip of the old mine. My legs immediately became heavy, but Shestakov kept swinging his new regulation-issue boots that smelled slightly of fish grease. His pant legs were rolled up, revealing checkered socks. I stared at Shestakov’s feet with sincere admiration, even delight. At least one person from our cell didn’t wear foot rags. Under us the ground shook from dull explosions; they were preparing the ground for the night shift. Small stones fell at our feet, rustling like unobtrusive gray birds.
‘Let’s go farther,’ said Shestakov.
‘Don’t worry, it won’t kill us. Your socks will stay in one piece.’
‘That’s not what I’m talking about,’ said Shestakov and swept his index finger along the line of the horizon. ‘What do you think of all that?’
‘It’s sure to kill us,’ I said. It was the last thing I wanted to think of.
‘Nothing doing. I’m not willing to die.’
‘I have a map,’ Shestakov said sluggishly. ‘I’ll make up a group of workers, take you and we’ll go to Black Springs. That’s fifteen kilometers from here. I’ll have a pass. And we’ll make a run for the sea. Agreed?’
He recited all this as indifferently as he did quickly.
‘And when we get to the sea? What then? Swim?’
‘Who cares. The important thing is to begin. I can’t live like this any longer. “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” ’ Shestakov pronounced the sentence with an air of pomp. ‘Who said that?’
It was a familiar sentence. I tried, but lacked the strength to remember who had said those words and when. All that smacked of books was forgotten. No one believed in books.
I rolled up my pants and showed the breaks in the skin from scurvy.
‘You’ll be all right in the woods,’ said Shestakov. ‘Berries, vitamins. I’ll lead the way. I know the road. I have a map.’
I closed my eyes and thought. There were three roads to the sea from here – all of them five hundred kilometers long, no less. Even Shestakov wouldn’t make it, not to mention me. Could he be taking me along as food? No, of course not. But why was he lying? He knew all that as well as I did. And suddenly I was afraid of Shestakov, the only one of us who was working in the field in which he’d been trained. Who had set him up here and at what price? Everything here had to be paid for. Either with another man’s blood or another man’s life.
‘OK,’ I said, opening my eyes. ‘But I need to eat and get my strength up.’
‘Great, great. You definitely have to do that. I’ll bring you some… canned food. We can get it…’
There are a lot of canned foods in the world – meat, fish, fruit, vegetables… But best of all was condensed milk. Of course, there was no sense drinking it with hot water. You had to eat it with a spoon, smear it on bread, or swallow it slowly, from the can, eat it little by little, watching how the light liquid mass grew yellow and how a small sugar star would stick to the can…
‘Tomorrow,’ I said, choking from joy. ‘Condensed milk.’
‘Fine, fine, condensed milk.’ And Shestakov left.
I returned to the barracks and closed my eyes. It was hard to think. For the first time I could visualize the material nature of our psyche in all its palpability. It was painful to think, but necessary.
He’d make a group for an escape and turn everyone in. That was crystal clear. He’d pay for his office job with our blood, with my blood. They’d either kill us there, at Black Springs, or bring us in alive and give us an extra sentence – ten or fifteen years. He couldn’t help but know that there was no escape. But the milk, the condensed milk…
I fell asleep and in my ragged hungry dreams saw Shestakov’s can of condensed milk, a monstrous can with a sky-blue label. Enormous and blue as the night sky, the can had a thousand holes punched in it, and the milk seeped out and flowed in a stream as broad as the Milky Way. My hands easily reached the sky and greedily I drank the thick, sweet, starry milk.
I don’t remember what I did that day nor how I worked. I waited. I waited for the sun to set in the west and for the horses to neigh, for they guessed the end of the work day better than people.
The work horn roared hoarsely, and I set out for the barracks where I found Shestakov. He pulled two cans of condensed milk from his pockets.
I punched a hole in each of the cans with the edge of an axe, and a thick white stream flowed over the lid on to my hand.
‘You should punch a second hole for the air,’ said Shestakov.
‘That’s all right,’ I said, licking my dirty sweet fingers.
‘Let’s have a spoon,’ said Shestakov, turning to the laborers surrounding us. Licked clean, ten glistening spoons were stretched out over the table. Everyone stood and watched as I ate. No one was indelicate about it, nor was there the slightest expectation that they might be permitted to participate. None of them could even hope that I would share this milk with them. Such things were unheard of, and their interest was absolutely selfless. I also knew that it was impossible not to stare at food disappearing in another man’s mouth. I sat down so as to be comfortable and drank the milk without any bread, washing it down from time to time with cold water. I finished both cans. The audience disappeared – the show was over. Shestakov watched me with sympathy.
‘You know,’ I said, carefully licking the spoon, ‘I changed my mind. Go without me.’
Shestakov comprehended immediately and left without saying a word to me.
It was, of course, a weak, worthless act of vengeance just like all my feelings. But what else could I do? Warn the others? I didn’t know them. But they needed a warning. Shestakov managed to convince five people. They made their escape the next week; two were killed at Black Springs and the other three stood trial a month later. Shestakov’s case was considered separately ‘because of production considerations’. He was taken away, and I met him again at a different mine six months later. He wasn’t given any extra sentence for the escape attempt; the authorities played the game honestly with him even though they could have acted quite differently.
He was working in the prospecting group, was shaved and well fed, and his checkered socks were in one piece. He didn’t say hallo to me, but there was really no reason for him to act that way. I mean, after all, two cans of condensed milk aren’t such a big deal.
*this story is taken from: “Kolyma Tales” by Varlam Shalamov, Penguin Books, 1994. Translation copyright © John Glad, 1980, 1981,1994.
The Death-Bed Notes of a Fool
My life is coming to an end. Soon Death will tap its boney finger on my door… soon! Suffering has so withered my chest that no maiden’s kisses can warm it. For the sins of my life, for my battle against Reason, harsh Fate has torn all the hair from my head, and not even Macassar oil will help it grow back! It’s hard to die when you have done as many foolish things in life as I have. It’s hard to die with the bitter knowledge that you have more sins on your soul than you had hairs on your head in your prime. It’s hard to settle accounts with this earthly life when you have so many debts… it’s hard, so very hard! Oh, what a wretch I am! What a fool! Why didn’t I think before I acted? Why did it take me so long to know myself? My fellow man! Have pity on your poor neighbor, who realized so late that he was a fool and that his entire life purpose was to keep from doing foolish things. Have pity on your wretched neighbor, who did not know himself in time and acted against his purpose in life…
I blame no one for succumbing to temptation. No one planted these temptations in me; they took root on their own. I thank you, kind journalists. You tried to bring me to my senses; you proved to me in print the bitter truth that I came to understand so late and the ignorance that was the cause of such unhappiness and sinfulness! My foolish vanity kept me from believing that I was a fool!
Not long before this moment I had intended to bequeath to the world the history of my follies, but the task of the historian is hard. It is hard to maintain objectivity about oneself, as you know from your own experience. With that in mind, I decided not to tear off the veil from my past life. I feel compelled, however, to lift up the veil a bit, since I think that my openness may be useful to humanity. Perhaps I am mistaken. Do not censure me for such a bold thought. Remember: I am a fool.
I think the tale of what happened to me in my youth and threw such a strong shadow on the rest of my life will be useful to someone. Be patient: I want to tell you about the greatest folly of my life.
Of all the passions that inflamed my tempestuous youth, envy was in first place, if only by mite. I suffered greatly from it. I do not wish, however, to unconditionally condemn this emotion. I must suppress my personal hatred for envy and first express my honest opinion of it. Envy is not a useless emotion, although it can be quite harmful. It stirs the blood and prevents the deadly stagnation of the soul; it awakens a person from the inaction that is so harmful to society; it may make someone do absolutely stupid things so extraordinarily boldly that they appear to be well-considered acts. When a person is possessed by envy, it puts him under the great pressure of the powers to act — Reason and Will. I do not speak of the petty, everyday envy that you may meet at every step in London and Kaluga, on the Vyborg side of the Neva River or on Nevsky Prospekt, but I will speak of envy that is more worthy of attention.
There are people who envy Napoleon and Suvorov, Shakespeare and Baron Brambeus, Croesus and Sinebrychoff; there are others who envy Baucis and Philemon, Petrach and Laura, Peter and John, Stanislav and Anna; there is a third group that envies Manfred and Faust; and fourth that envies yet others… in a word, we all envy someone. You come across envy in the theater watching Hamlet, in the pastry shop reading the military newspaper “Russian Invalid,” at the ball dancing with a young beauty who will be forever out of reach of the person who envies her. Envy is especially pervasive in trade, service and literature.
But enough on where you might come across envy. I want to tell you where I felt it… I hold my left hand over my heart, gather up the remnants of my strength, and pray that kind Fate will not end my life before I can finish my instructive talk with my benevolent reader…
I was born on one of the streets of Vasilievsky Island to noble but poor parents. After I turned 18, I was orphaned and received an inheritance of ten thousand rubles. Obeying my father’s death-bed advice, I lent it out to private investors, but since the returns weren’t enough to live on, I had to give lessons… I bitterly complained about my fate, having to run sometimes as much as 10 versts a day to make just five rubles. “So many people travel in carriages!” I thought. “How are they better than me?” Little by little, those complaints arose more and more often. Unhappy creature! I did not understand then how much I sinned against Providence when I dared to lament its good will. Whenever I saw a carriage my heart nearly burst from ire and envy. I hated anyone who owned one… Envy sucked my soul dry… No matter what I did, no matter where I went, the thought of a carriage never left me. I missed lessons, used vulgar language, committed follies — and the only reason was one thought. I cried out in sinful despair: “Why, cruel Fate, did you make me a poor man? What good deeds did so many people do to be blessed with a carriage? What transgressions did I commit to be sentenced to walk on foot my whole life?”
Inclement weather had an even more dreadful effect on me. When there was rain, mud, lightning and thunder outside, the same storm raged within me. A glance at my muddy boots conquered the resolve of my heart. Tears streamed down my face, my eyes flashed like lightning, and a tempest pounded in my head. “Terrible! How terrible not to own a carriage!” I said as I tiptoed across muddy streets. Suddenly I heard a sound far off. I peered into the distance. My fury turned me to stone: A carriage was passing me! I could not control myself! I was ready to leap into the maw of that monstrous four-seater. I was ready to devour that square bulk with my eyes, swallow up its repellent rattle, and clamp down with my teeth to stop it in its path. My blood boiled, my knees buckled: I couldn’t walk as rain poured down on me, thunder cracked above my head, and fear of being late for my lesson burnt my heart by a stroke of lightning. The monstrosity rattled by me. I calmed down, but not for long. Once again I heard the rattle in the distance — another monstrosity! But sometimes — the horror! — two, three, four of them all at once… there was truly no salvation! Clumps of mud flew up and hit my side, my leg, my arm, my face, my mouth… The horror of it! So many reasons to hate mankind! They force you to eat mud in public, so you don’t dare to open your mouth! “Crash into pieces, you despicable tool of Satan!” I shouted, dashing out from under the horses’ hooves.
The torture became unbearable. The love I felt for the sister of one of my students yielded to unfathomable feelings — for carriages. I say “unfathomable” because they were truly unfathomable. I loved carriages, which is why I envied their owners; I hated them and wished them every conceivable harm, since they were the source of all my suffering. Oh, how foolish I was! Once again I say that my love almost turned to hatred because the object of my adoration rode in a carriage. I was tortured, I fulminated, I suffered like the Prisoner of Chillon, I cursed like Byron, and in my terrible despair I didn’t notice that I had failed to lend out my capital… To calm my heart, I needed to take my revenge on mankind, and for that revenge I needed a carriage… I felt that owning one would make me happier, but the delight of having that beast on springs in my power, to have the right to smash it at the first flash of anger… Oh, that would be worth the sacrifice! I fought with myself for a long time. For a long time the spark of Reason, however fading, saved me from the shameful moniker of “arrant fool.” But finally one terrible event decided my lot in life and helped Fate transform me into one of the “utter fools” that I have to honor to be…
One day when the weather was fair, I took a walk along Nevsky Prospekt. I was at ease because I hadn’t seen any carriages for a long time. I thought about my love. There was nothing comforting about my love but the promise of much pure pleasure in the present. My love was wealthy, meant to ride in a carriage and live in joy and luxury. I was a creature born to walk on foot, marked by a strange defect — envy of carriages! But the greatest obstacles in fools often turn into their illusory advantages: I persuaded myself that the obstacles meant nothing, that everything would be fine, and came to the most inane conclusions that seemed completely plausible to my limited intellect.
Suddenly it began to rain and the streets became muddy. My vision was sullied by more and more carriages. As was my wont, I thought that the owners smirked at me and the drivers purposely went out of their way to nearly trample this poor little pedestrian as they even shouted to fall, that is, “Fall and say good-bye to life!” Foolish, so foolish! But I must admit that such madness seemed plausible to me then. There I was crossing the street, when I saw a carriage in the distance. I turned to avoid falling under the horses’ hooves… and suddenly a disgusting clump of mud flew up and hit me right in the face. I shook in horror and outrage. I wanted to wipe it off, but just then I heard a peal of laughter from inside the carriage… Good Lord! Who was laughing? I dropped my hands. I turned around and saw Lyuba, my dream, the object of my love. She stuck her head out the door and screamed with laughter. I can still hear her laughter in my ears! I can’t recall what I said. I just remember that I uttered some dreadful nonsense… My fate was sealed. Like a madman I ran home. That clump of mud was still stuck to my face, and feeling it there kept my fury white-hot.
I sold everything I owned, took all my money and bought a carriage. Oh, what a fool I was!
After committing this enormous folly, I had a few hundred rubles left. Meanwhile, my expenses had soared: the cursed carriage needed a shed; the horses needed a stall and oats; the staff needed apartments and bread. I rented a small room with a big stable. The first trip I took in my carriage was to them — to give a lesson. The entire family and an officer I didn’t know greeted me with laughter. I turned hot and then cold. She, that devilish woman, laughed more than the others!
“Just imagine!” the mother told the officer. “We just went out to buy a trousseau for our girl Lyuba…”
“Trousseau? For your daughter?” I repeated with a horrible foreboding.
“Yes,” Lyuba laughed. “We went to buy gowns and we weren’t careful… ha ha ha!… and we splashed…”
Zumpt’s Latin Grammar fell from my hands…
“I’ll get my revenge!” I said as I ran from the room.
“Where to?” asked the footman.
“Wherever you want! Just drive as fast as you can to the muddiest streets and splash all the pedestrians!” I screamed at the coachman.
The coachman and footman rolled their eyes at me, thinking that I was mad… but I was merely a fool…
After that, my favorite pasttime was to gallop along the streets and watch the mud from my carriage hit passersby in the face. As soon as the weather was foul and the streets were muddy, I would order the carriage to be harnessed up and then gallop, gallop, gallop while taking indescribable pleasure watching the mud fly up from under the wheels and the horses’ hooves! I consoled myself with the thought that in avenging the insults inflicted upon me, I was muddying all of mankind. What a fool I was.
But no matter how I tried, I was never able to sling mud onto the faces of those who once inflicted that humiliation on me…
In the end, my capital ran out. I stopped eating so that I could feed my horses, but it was all for naught. The bitter moment came when I had to accept my poverty and realize that I could no longer afford the carriage. But I didn’t sell it. In a fit of mindless fury at the mute instrument of my misery, I tore my carriage apart with my own hands. And in my poverty and despair I consoled myself with the thought that I had wiped off the face of the earth at least one of those two-seated monstrosities that had splashed mud on so many people, including sinful me. Oh, how stupid I was!
What else can I say? I already told you that this event had a disastrous effect of the rest of my life. I destroyed the carriage and took to my bed. After a long illness I finally got up from my sick bed pale and emaciated, deeply disappointed, with a broken heart. I was still weak, but I thirsted for God’s light and clean air, and so I went outside. On Nevsky Prospekt I fell under a carriage and lost my right leg.
Learn from my sad tale, all you who are fated to walk about on foot, and do not envy people riding in carriages. If my example will cure two or three envious wretches, I will be consoled that I did at least one wise thing at the end of my life. For a fool, that’s a lot!
In my will I ask those who bury me to ensure that not a single carriage follows after my coffin. I recognize that my ill feeling is foolish, but I cannot be completely free of its influence. Such is the power of habit. But I am an old fool and may be forgiven.
Mr. Harlamov was a big man. He was a fearless man too and when he sat himself down at the harmonium (which was a kind of piano played with a foot bellows, or a kind of accordion with legs like a piano’s, an exotic instrument that served as the standard medium of instruction in Music Pedagogy and Appreciation at the Bet Hakerem Hebrew Teachers College of Jerusalem)— when he sat himself down, as big and fearless as a bear tickling a kitten, and picked out the keys with his big, fearless fingers whose palms covered the keyboard while pumping the bellows with his feet, the whole harmonium shook with its wheezing, creaking pedals as if about to give out in one last excruciating and unmusical gasp. Above the crash of its chords, Mr. Harlamov sang in his big, fearless voice. If he hadn’t had to work the pedals he could have easily strode around the room with it instead of intermittently rearing in his seat to scan the class for anyone slacking or off-key, calling out parenthetically to the culprit without breaking the tempo of the song, You there, or That young lady in the back. Which was enough to make whoever it was cringe and join the mighty chorus.
If truth be told, the monumental sight of Mr. Harlamov thumping away at the wheezing harmonium while the class accompanied him at full volume was impressive. It was also comical, mixing giggles into the harmonies whose frequent parentheses were filled with a Hebrew that was far from untainted by Mr. Harlarnov’s big, fearless Russian errors. You please to sing, he would scold. You no laugh, you. And with a scowl he went on adjusting our mighty chorus to his big, fearless notes, hunching over his harmonium and fiercely rearing up to review his troops.
There was really nothing very fierce about him. There was even an inherent good nature that might have prevailed were it not that nothing was as it should have been – neither the poor substitute for a piano, nor our voices that kept going flat, nor our young, grinning faces that showed scant respect for The Heavens Tell The Glory Of The Lord. He was constantly correcting us. C! he would shout. C Major! The more roughshod we ran over the music, the more desperately he increased the volume of the harmonium to salvage what he could of its beauty, doing his best to drown us out while bent over his instrument, a very lonely, uncompromising man.
I never had much luck with Mr. Harmalov. I didn’t even notice it when, while we were singing a choral number one day, he reared up and signalled for silence so that he might spot the villain who was making a mockery of the music. For a moment nothing was heard but my unsuspecting voice, booming out the words of the Internationale. You, Mr. Harlamov whispered in a voice that made the ceiling recoil. You. Mr. Dinburg. Scram you from here! I tell dean he give you boot. I tell you without with no, murder music. I tell, for what I work? And maybe I tell too: if you know what is Russia and what is do to me there, you not sing that song. It wouldn’t have helped if I had sworn on a stack of Bibles that it was only a harmless joke. It wouldn’t even have cleared my own conscience. Why did I do it? Sometimes the only answer is because, and this because was a feeble one. Unless (but this wasn’t something I could have said out loud, not even to myself) it was to make an impression on the flushed wearer of a brown sweater who was singing her heart out next to me.
Little wonder that I received a “D” in music at the end of the term and even that was an act of mercy to the young buffoon on the great man’s part. Next to my “A”s in Bible, Literature, and History, it stood out like a sore thumb. (Not that my Arabic was any better; I flunked with an “F” courtesy of the esteemed and resplendent Jerusalem orientalist, Yosef Yoel Rivlin. And my English too, in the words of Mr. Morris, a short but stern pedagogue whose heels clicked when he walked, left “a great deal to be desired.” To say nothing of math, all my efforts at which satisfied neither the sphinx-like Mr. Hevroni nor the laws of algebra. I didn’t do very well either when I tried pacifying Mr. Harlamov by remarking as I walked beside him, half-running to keep up with his big, fearless steps in the portico flanking the rocky lot that was slated to become an athletics field for our fabled gym teacher Mr. Yekutieli, that I, simple farm boy though I was, was so musically sophisticated that I had actually listened at my friend Habkin’s house to records of Beethoven (mainly the Fifth), Mozart (the E-Minor), and Bach (the Third Brandenburg). At which point I committed the grievous faux pas of adding enthusiastically that I also liked the symphonies of Chopin. Breaking off his fearless stride, Mr. Harlamov threw me a downward, withering glance. Chopin write no symphonies! he said with disgusted finality, walking on to leave me more foolish than ever and unable to explain that I had meant Schumann, and especially the Spring Symphony, which had left me damp- eyed with weltschmerz, most of all for the wearer of a brown sweater whose shy beholder found her more adorable than approachable.
The fact was that all those European names, like Schumann and Chopin, could have confused anybody, especially if he was bad at languages, and most especially if he had an idealistic father who had insisted on speaking only Hebrew at home because that was what a proud Jew should speak. But go explain all that to Mr. Harlamov. The man was as big as the steppes of Russia, where he would have had a great future had not a cruel fate reduced him to a Palestinian music teacher who did not even have a proper piano.
Who could count the times I had been corrected with a tolerant smile by Habkin, who, with his gramophone, his record collection, and his violin, had so much knowledge that, when he wasn’t eking out a living as Professor Gruenfeld’s secretary, he was copying scores in a calligraphic hand I never tired of watching, scrolling clefs and staffs and bars and notes, multi-angled and magical with the secret glyphs of music-making: It’s not Ber Ahms. It’s not Yiddish. It’s Brahms, in a single syllable: Johannes Brahms.
Once, though, it was different. Once, as Mr. Harlamov was playing and singing while we sang along with him, grinning as we sometimes did, we suddenly found ourselves listening as if something were happening and we had to know what it was. All at once, without even a rear or a scowl, Mr. Harlamov was transformed at the faltering old harmonium, which gasped out great chords that seemed beyond its powers of endurance. Something was definitely happening. The chords and music were no longer the same. Although Mr. Harlaniov was still singing and playing while hunched over the keys like a giant snail, or an eagle feeding its fledglings between its talons, the whole class had fallen silent with a great, concentrated attention. He was singing differently too, as though to himself, as though he were alone and had suddenly realized something and didn’t care that no one else knew, or had discovered a new truth that was now coming into focus and of which he only knew meanwhile that it was on its way. It wasn’t Tchaikovsky, in case you’re wondering. It wasn’t Borodin, or Scriabin, or one of your Rimski—Korsakoffs. It was different and special, not yet itself as he sang hunched like a snail in his big voice, which came through slightly muffled but clean the way something sounds when it’s true and you know it’s happening and that he isn’t here and is perhaps more than you always thought, beyond all your stupid jokes when you knew nothing about it.
It was happening to us too, so that, humbled and longing for what we now knew was there and had never known before, we listened with a catch in our throats. It would be easy to spout something about the vast steppes of Russia sobbing in that harmonium, or the Cossacks, or the Tartars, or the cold winds of Siberia, or something of the sort, but it wasn’t that at all. It was only a man singing and you hearing and knowing that was it, a place beyond the class and the room and the Bet Hakerem Teachers College of Jerusalem, something coming from afar that was maybe a bit like the child Samuel when he heard the voice in the quiet of the night the voice that said Samuel Samuel and he answered here I am.
Then there was silence and it was over. Nobody knew \vhat to do next, not even Mr. Harlamov, who finally rose all at once to become as tall as the ceiling and then let his shoulders slump and grew smaller again, his big hands dangling in air. His wiped his big, bald skull with a handkerchief and grew even smaller, and then he turned and walked without a word to the door and turned again when he reached it and waved a limp hand and was gone.
And still no one spoke. A few of us began getting to our feet. One by one, we stooped forlornly out of the classroom. I started down the stairs, not knowing what to say. Which way are you going? asked the girl in the brown sweater, who did not know what to say either. It was such an unanticipated question that the young man it was asked of forgot how long he had been waiting for it, and how many wonderful stories he had told himself about it, and how now that it had happened he had never imagined that it would be like this. They descended the stairs. How about you? he asked with an awkward gesture. I’ll walk you. He couldn’t believe that it was so simple or that he had been so bold. I live quite near here, at the bottom of Hehalutz Street, she said. The Jerusalem cold brought a flush to her cheeks, and when, in her brown sweater, she noticed that he’d noticed, she blushed until she was as red as an autumn apple in a poem. She was so scandalously red that she would have liked to run away, but she raised her collar to blush level and the two of them headed for the steps of Hama’alot Street, skipping down them as if dancing not only because they were so skippety young, but because dance is a wordless art form. Of the sort we’re most in need of at this moment, she added without words, the casuarina trees dripping wet pearls on a rain-washed street that was already Hehalutz. Three or four houses further on they turned to the right and there, on the ground floor, she lived.
They stood there, the rosy girl and the young man with the wild head of hair and the too-slender back. He gives me piano lessons, she confessed. Mr. Harlamov. I didn’t ask for them, but he asked me if I’d like them, and I asked if it wouldn’t put him out, and he said no, he’d be glad to, I had a talent and he didn’t even want to be paid. Believe me, that’s the kind of man he is.
They stood there a while longer without thinking of anything to say, shifting their weight from leg to leg. Then they leaned their arms against a tree, an electric charge flowing between their fingers that were not yet ready to touch. the blush gone from her face that was now simply ruddy with cold. His heart was in his throat. He couldn’t think of a word. It was great, what he played, she said. Tremendous, he said. Utterly fantastic. Extraordinary. Unbelievable. The drops falling from the needles of the casuarina trees were clean and pure enough to drink.
If he were to shake a branch it would shower down on her and make him laugh at her sudden shriek. Well, she said.
Yes, he said. All right, then. She stood a while longer. I guess I’d better turn in. Good night. Good night. And still neither of them made a move to go. Well I’ll see you, she said. She had chestnut hair above the warm brown of her sweater. Look how pearly the raindrops are, he said. Yes, she said. And he said, Yes, well, so long, and she came running back to him and planted a kiss on his cheek and spun around and fled down the stairs.
Incredulous, he stood there, his hand on his cheek. It was too much to take in but there it was.
Like a drunk he staggered up the wet, empty street. under his breath breaking into The Heavens Tell The Glory Of The Lord and then beginning to hum and then to sing until he was roarine like an ox in the sleepy streets of Jerusalem whose good folk he was keeping awake. He wasn’t thumbing a proletarian nose at them, he was simply 1etting them know the great truth newly revealed to him on Hehalutz Street that the heavens told the glory of the Lord. He went on singing even when it began tc rain so wonderfully hard that he only wanted to let it be and to turn cold and wet inside him. He only wanted to sing with the choir— -three, four! “His handiwork is written in the sky.”
*This story is taken from: S. Yizhar, Asides, Zmora-Bitan, 1996.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
With a leg–tossing military marching step (toes in, heels out, knees to the side, pelvis down), Stasik the mosquito wended his way home. He had asked the veterinarian, Akop the condor, to bandage the spot where the bedbug Mstislav bit him, since the bite throbbed so much that he couldn’t walk at all otherwise.
Naturally, Stasik the mosquito dreamed of a hot meal.
However, as he walked up to his house he heard the muffled cry of his mosquito wife Tomka (“That’s it, hold on, just a sec, just one more second, wait just a minute”) and the raspy reply: “I can’t.”
Stasik froze for a moment, but then he went into his house and saw Tomka pulling out Zoya the hyena’s beard, hair by hair (cosmetic facial cleansing).
On the issue of a hot meal, Tomka said in a rush, “Go to the swamp.”
“Go to the swamp” meant going to the swamp, picking, squashing, washing, cleaning, cutting, pouring, turning on, putting on, stirring and so on, and the food would only be ready in forty minutes, and it would probably be burnt and leave sand between his teeth.
Thanks for nothing.
Sighing bitterly while his wife shouted and Zoya the hyena growled in the background, Stasik got out the precious bottle from Auntie Lida the beetle, what they called “the bottle of last resort,” and drank down a dose of what was left.
He forgot about everything but Alla the pig’s swaying miniskirt.
Stasik wept and sang his favorite song: “Back there, where the sea of lights…” and swiftly flew out of his house towards the pigsty, forgetting all about his wounds.
When Tomka the mosquito was tucking her fee into her boot and Zoya the hyena was looking at her smooth face with tears of joy, Stasik was flying around Alla the pig, who was lying comfortably without any miniskirt, and asking her questions in his high chirping voice: a) had she consorted with the bedbug Mstislav recently; and b) did she know that Mstislav had a nasty disease —tooth decay — that would require a bandage and frequent changes of dressing for a very long time?
But it fell on deaf ears, since Stasik wasn’t Alla the pig’s only guest. There was a big gang there already – the grown children of Domna Ivanovna the fly, for instance, who had already helped themselves generously and were barnstorming like they were on fire to the sound of their own inner rock n’ roll; and Afanasy the spider, who was giving a class in macramé in the corner, organized especially for the gathering.
The party was hopping, but Stasik the mosquito was lonely.
With a fidgety military marching step, knees out and pelvis down, but now even hungrier, he showed up at home ready for a fight. But instead he smelled the marvelous scent of a hot meal.
Tomka had cooked dinner, set the table and was waiting for him in her apron, like Penelope.
Stasik just about burst into tears.
“It is sometimes much easier to call up a spirit
than to get rid of it.” – A. B. CALMET
The strange adventure I intend to tell took place several years ago, and can now be freely told, the more so as I reserve for myself the right not to use a single proper name in doing so. In the winter of the year 186–, there came to settle in Petersburg a very prosperous and distinguished family, consisting of three persons: the mother— a middle-aged lady, a princess, reputed to be a woman of refined education and with the best social connections in Russia and abroad; her son, a young man, who that year had set out on his career in the diplomatic corps; and her daughter, the young princess, who was just going on seventeen.
Up to then the newly arrived family had usually lived abroad, where the old princess’s late husband had occupied the post of Russian representative at one of the minor European courts. The young prince and princess were born and grew up in foreign parts, receiving there a completely foreign but very thorough education.
The princess was a woman of highly strict principles and deservedly enjoyed a most irreproachable reputation in society. In her opinions and tastes she adhered to the views of French women renowned for their intelligence and talents in the time of the blossoming of women’s intelligence and talents in France. The princess was considered very well read, and it was said that she read with great discrimination. Her favorite reading was the letters of Mmes de Sévigné, La Fayette, and Maintenon, as well as of Caylus, Dangeau, and Coulanges, but most of all she respected Mme de Genlis, for whom she had a weakness to the point of adoration. The small volumes of the finely made Paris edition of this intelligent writer, modestly and elegantly bound in pale blue morocco, always occupied a beautiful little bookshelf hanging on the wall over a big armchair, which was the princess’s favorite place. Over the edge of the bookshelf, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, reaching slightly beyond its dark velvet cushion, rested a miniature hand, perfectly formed from terracotta, which Voltaire had kissed in his Ferney, not suspecting that it was going to let fall on him the first drop of a refined but caustic criticism. How often the princess had reread the little volumes traced by that small hand, I do not know, but she always had them near her, and the princess used to say that they had for her a particular, so to speak, mysterious meaning, of which she would not venture to tell just anyone, because not everyone would believe it. From what she said, it followed that she had never parted from these volumes “since she could remember herself,” and that they would go with her to the grave. “I have instructed my son,” she said, “to put these little books into the coffin with me, under the pillow, and I’m certain they will be useful to me even after death.”
I cautiously expressed a wish to receive an explanation, however remote, of these last words— and I received it.
“These little books,” the princess said, “are suffused with the spirit of Felicity” (so she called Mme de Genlis, probably as a sign of the closeness of their relations). “Yes, piously believing in the immortality of the human spirit, I also believe in its ability to communicate freely, from beyond the grave, with those who have need of such communication and are able to appreciate it. I am certain that the fine fluid of Felicity chose itself a pleasant abode under the fortunate morocco that embraces the pages on which her thoughts have found rest, and if you are not a total unbeliever, I should hope that would be understandable to you.”
I bowed silently. It evidently pleased the princess that I did not contradict her, and in reward she added that everything she had just told me was not merely a belief, but a real and full conviction, which had such a firm foundation that no powers could shake it.
“And that precisely,” she concluded, “because I have a multitude of proofs that the spirit of Felicity lives, and lives precisely here!” At the last word the princess raised her hand above her head and pointed her elegant finger at the shelf on which the pale blue volumes stood.
I am slightly superstitious by nature and always listen with pleasure to stories in which there is at least some place for the mysterious. That, it seems, is why perspicacious critics, who kept including me in various bad categories, spoke for a time of my being a spiritualist.
Besides, let it be said, everything we are talking about now took place just at the time when an abundance of news about spiritualist phenomena was coming to us from abroad. It aroused curiosity then, and I saw no reason not to be interested in something people were beginning to believe in.
The “multitude of proofs” the princess mentioned could be heard from her a multitude of times: these proofs consisted in the princess having long since formed the habit, in moments of the most diverse states of mind, of turning to the works of Mme de Genlis as to an oracle, and the pale blue volumes, in their turn, invariably displayed an ability to respond reasonably to her mental questions.
That, in the princess’s words, became one of her habitudes,1 which she never changed, and the “spirit” abiding in the books never once told her anything inappropriate.
I could see that I was dealing with a very convinced follower of spiritualism, who besides was not without her share of intelligence, experience, and education, and therefore I became extremely interested in it all.
I already knew a thing or two about the nature of spirits, and, in what I had happened to witness, I had always been struck by a strange thing common to all spirits, that, appearing from beyond the grave, they behaved themselves much more light-mindedly and, frankly speaking, stupidly, than they had shown themselves in earthly life.
I was already familiar with Kardec’s theory of “mischievous spirits” and was now greatly interested in how the spirit of the witty marquise de Sillery, Comtesse Brûlart, would deign to show itself in my presence.
The occasion was not slow in coming, but since in a short story, as in a small household, order ought not to be upset, I ask for another minute of patience before matters are brought to a supernatural moment capable of going beyond all expectations.
The people who made up the princess’s small but very select circle were probably aware of her whimsicality; but since they were all well-bred and courteous people, they knew enough to respect another’s beliefs, even in cases when those beliefs diverged sharply from their own and could not stand up under criticism. Therefore no one ever argued about it with the princess. However, it might also be that the princess’s friends were not sure whether the princess considered her pale blue volumes the abode of their author’s “spirit” in a direct and immediate sense, or took these words as a rhetorical figure. Finally, more simply still, they may have taken it all as a joke.
The only one who could not look at the matter in such fashion was, unfortunately, I myself; and I had my reasons for it, which may have been rooted in the gullibility and impressionability of my nature.
The attention of this high-society lady, who opened the doors of her respectable house to me, lowed to three causes: first, for some reason she liked my story “The Sealed Angel,” which had been published shortly before then in The Russian Messenger; second, she was interested in the bitter persecutions, beyond count and measure, to which I had been subjected for a number of years by my good literary brethren, who wished, of course, to correct my misunderstandings and errors; and third, I had been well recommended to the princess in Paris by a Russian Jesuit, the most kindly Prince Gagarin— an old man with whom I had enjoyed many conversations and who had not formed the worst opinion of me.
This last was especially important, because the princess was concerned with my way of thinking and state of mind; she needed, or at least fancied she might need, some small services from me. Strange though it was for a man of such modest significance as myself, it was so. This need was created for the princess by maternal solicitude for her daughter, who knew almost no Russian… Bringing the lovely girl to her native land, the mother wanted to find a man who could acquaint the young princess at least somewhat with Russian literature— good literature exclusively, to be sure, that is, real literature, not infected by the “evil of the day.”
About the latter the princess had very vague notions, and extremely exaggerated ones besides. It was rather difficult to understand precisely what she feared on the part of the contemporary titans of Russian— thought their strength and courage, or their weakness and pathetic self-importance; but having somehow grasped, with the help of suggestions and surmises, the “heads and tails” of the princess’s thoughts, I arrived at the conviction, unmistaken in my view, that she most definitely feared the “unchaste allusions” by which, to her mind, all our immodest literature had been utterly corrupted.
To try to dissuade the princess of that was useless, because she had reached the age when one’s opinions are already firmly formed, and it is a very rare person who is capable of subjecting them to a new review and testing. She was undoubtedly not one of those, and to make her change her mind about something she believed in, the words of an ordinary man were insufficient, though it might perhaps have been done through the power of a spirit, who deemed it necessary to come from hell or paradise with that aim. But could such petty concerns interest the bodiless spirits of the unknown world? Were not all arguments and concerns about literature too petty for them, like our contemporary ones, which even the vast majority of living people consider the empty occupation of empty heads?
Circumstances soon showed, however, that I was greatly mistaken in reasoning this way. The habit of literary peccadilloes, as we shall soon see, does not abandon literary spirits even beyond the grave, and the reader will be faced with the task of deciding to what extent these spirits act successfully and remain faithful to their literary past.
Owing to the fact that the princess had strictly formed views about everything, my task in helping her to choose literary works for the young princess was very well defined. It was required that the young princess be able to learn about Russian life from this reading, while not coming upon anything that might trouble her maidenly ear. The princess’s maternal censorship did not allow the whole of any author, not even Derzhavin or Zhukovsky. None of them seemed fully safe to her. There was, naturally, no speaking of Gogol— he was banished entirely. Of Pushkin, The Captain’s Daughter and Evgeny Onegin were allowed, the latter with considerable cuts, which were marked by the princess’s own hand. Lermontov, like Gogol, was not allowed. Of new authors, Turgenev alone was approved without question, but minus the passages “where they talk of love,” while Goncharov was banished, and though I interceded for him quite boldly, it did not help. The princess replied:
“I know he’s a great artist, but so much the worse— you must admit there are arousing subjects in him.”
I wished at all costs to know what precisely the princess meant by the arousing subjects she found in the works of Goncharov. How could he, with the mildness of his attitude towards people and the passions that possess them, offend anyone’s feelings?
This was intriguing to such a degree that I plucked up my courage and asked outright what the arousing subjects in Goncharov were.
To this frank question I received a frank, terse reply, uttered in a sharp whisper: “Elbows.”
I thought I had not heard right or had not understood.
“Elbows, elbows,” the princess repeated and, seeing my perplexity, seemed to grow angry. “Don’t you remember… how that one… the hero at some point… admires the bare elbows of his… of some very simple lady?”
Now, of course, I recalled the well-known episode from Oblomov and could not find a word of reply. As a matter of fact, it was more convenient for me to say nothing, since I neither needed nor wished to argue with the princess, who was beyond the reach of persuasion, and whom, to tell the truth, I had long been observing much more zealously than I tried to serve her with my recommendations and advice. And what recommendations could I make to her, since she considered “elbows” an outrageous indecency, and all the latest literature had stepped so far beyond such revelations?
What boldness one had to have, knowing all that, to name even one recent work, in which the coverings of beauty are raised far more resolutely! I felt that, circumstances being revealed in this way, my role as an adviser should be over— and I resolved not to advise, but to contradict.
“Princess,” I said, “it seems to me that you are being unfair: there is something exaggerated in your demands on artistic literature.”
I laid out everything that, in my opinion, had to do with the matter.
Carried away, I not only delivered a whole critique of false purism, but also quoted a well-known anecdote about a French lady who could neither write nor speak the word culotte,2 and when she once could not avoid saying this word in front of the queen, faltered and made everyone burst out laughing. But I simply could not remember in which French writer I had read about this terrible court scandal, which would not have taken place at all if the lady had spoken the word culotte as simply as the queen herself did with her august little lips.
My goal was to show that too much delicacy could be detrimental to modesty, and therefore an overly strict selection of reading was hardly necessary.
The princess, to my no little amazement, heard me out without showing the least displeasure, and, not leaving her seat, raised her hand over her head and took one of the pale blue volumes.
“You,” she said, “have arguments, but I have an oracle.”
“I would be interested to hear it,” I said.
“Without delay: I invoke the spirit of Genlis, and it will answer you. Open the book and read.”
“Be so kind as to point out where I should read,” I asked, accepting the little volume.
“Point out? That’s not my business: the spirit itself will do the pointing out. Open it at random.”
This was becoming slightly ridiculous for me, and I even felt ashamed, as it were, for my interlocutrice; however, I did as she wanted, and as soon as I glanced at the first sentence of the open page, I felt a vexing surprise.
“You’re puzzled?” asked the princess.
“Yes, it’s happened to many. I ask you to read it.”
“Reading is an occupation far too serious and far too important in its consequences for young people’s tastes not to be guided in its selection. There is reading which young people like, but which makes them careless and predisposes them to flightiness, after which it is difficult to correct the character. All this I know from experience.” I read that and stopped.
The princess, with a quiet smile, spread her arms and, tactfully triumphant in her victory over me, said:
“In Latin I believe it’s known as dixi.”3
After that we did not argue, but the princess could not deny herself the pleasure of sometimes speaking in my presence about the ill breeding of Russian writers who, in her opinion, “could not possibly be read aloud without preliminary revision.”
To the “spirit” of Genlis, naturally, I gave no serious thought. People say all kinds of things.
But the “spirit” indeed lived and was active, and, in addition, seemed to be on our side, that is, on the side of literature. Literary nature took the upper hand in it over dry philosophizing, and, unassailable on the score of decency, the “spirit” of Mme de Genlis, having spoken du fond du coeur,4 pulled off (yes, precisely pulled off) such a schoolboy stunt in that strict salon that the consequences of it were filled with deep tragicomedy.
Once a week “three friends” used to gather at the princess’s in the evening for tea. These were distinguished people, excellently placed. Two were senators, and the third was a diplomat. Naturally, we did not play cards, but conversed.
Usually the older ones, that is, the princess and the “three friends,” did the talking, while the young prince, the young princess, and I very rarely put in a word of our own. We were learning, and it must be said to the credit of our elders that we did have something to learn from them— especially from the diplomat, who amazed us with his subtle observations. I enjoyed his favor, though I do not know why. In fact, I am obliged to think he considered me no better than the others, and in his eyes “littérateurs” all shared “the same root.” He said jokingly, “The best of serpents is still a serpent.”
This same opinion gave rise to the terrible incident that follows.
Being stoically faithful to her friends, the princess did not want such a general definition to extend to Mme de Genlis and the “women’s pleiade” that the writer kept under her protection. And so, when we gathered in this esteemed person’s home to quietly see in the New Year, shortly before midnight the usual conversation started among us, in which the name of Mme de Genlis was mentioned, and the diplomat recalled his observation that “the best of serpents is still a serpent.”
“There is no rule without its exception,” said the princess.
The diplomat understood who the exception must be, and said nothing.
The princess could not contain herself and, glancing in the direction of Genlis’s portrait, said:
“What kind of serpent is she!”
But the worldly-wise diplomat stood his ground: he gently shook his finger and gently smiled— he believed neither flesh nor spirit.
To resolve the disagreement, proofs were obviously needed, and here the method of addressing the spirit came in pat.
The small company was in an excellent mood for such experiments, and the hostess, first reminding us of what we knew concerning her beliefs, then suggested an
“I claim,” she said, “that the most faultfinding person will not find anything in Genlis that could not be read aloud by the most innocent young girl, and we are going to test it right now.”
Again, as the first time, she reached her hand to the bookshelf that was still situated over her établissement, took a volume at random— and turned to her daughter.
“My child! Open it and read us a page.”
The young princess obeyed.
We all became pictures of earnest expectation.
The writer who begins to describe the appearance of his characters at the end of his story is blameworthy; but I have written this little trifle in such a way that no one in it should be recognized. Therefore I have not set down any names or given any portraits. The portrait of the young princess would in any case have exceeded my powers, because she was fully what is known as “an angel in the flesh.” As far as her all-perfect purity and innocence were concerned— they were so great that she could even have been entrusted with resolving the insuperably difficult theological problem posed in Heine’s “Bernardiner und Rabiner.” Of course, something standing higher than the world and its passions had to speak for this soul not privy to any sin. And the young princess, with that very innocence, charmingly rolling her r‘s, read Genlis’s interesting memoirs about the old age of
Mme du Deffand, when she became “weak in the eyes.” The text spoke of the fat Gibbon, who had been recommended to the French writer as a famous author. Genlis, as we know, quickly sized him up and sharply derided the French who were made enthusiastic by the inflated reputation of this foreigner.
Here I will quote from the well-known translation of the French original read by the young princess who was capable of resolving the argument between “Bernardiner und Rabiner”:
“Gibbon was of small stature, extremely fat, and had a most remarkable face. It was impossible to make out any features on this face. Neither the nose, nor the eyes, nor the mouth could be seen at all; two huge, fat cheeks, resembling the devil knows what, engulfed everything… They were so puffed up that they quite departed from all proportion ever so slightly proper even for the biggest cheeks; anyone seeing them must have wondered: why has that place not been put in the right place? I would characterize Gibbon’s face with one word, if it were only possible to speak such a word. Lauzun, who was on close terms with Gibbon, once brought him to du Deffand. Mme du Deffand was already blind then and had the habit of feeling with her hands the faces of distinguished people newly introduced to her. In this way she would acquire a rather accurate notion of the features of her new acquaintance. She applied this tactile method to Gibbon, and the result was terrible. The Englishman approached her chair and with especial good-naturedness offered her his astonishing face. Mme du Deffand brought her hands to it and passed her fingers over this ball-shaped face. She tried to find something to stop at, but it was impossible. All at once the blind lady’s face expressed first astonishment, then wrath, and at last, quickly pulling her hands away in disgust, she cried: ‘What a vile joke!'”
That was the end of the reading, and of the friends’ conversation, and of the anticipated celebration of the New Year, because, when the young princess closed the book and asked, “What was it that Mme du Deffand imagined?” the mother’s look was so terrible that the girl cried out, covered her face with her hands, and rushed headlong to another room, from where her weeping was heard at once, verging on hysterics.
The brother rushed to his sister, and at the same moment the princess hastened there on long strides.
The presence of outsiders was now inappropriate, and therefore the “three friends” and I all quietly cleared off that minute, and the bottle of Veuve Clicquot prepared for seeing in the New Year remained wrapped in a napkin, as yet uncorked.
The feelings with which we left were painful, but did no credit to our hearts, for, while keeping our faces strenuously serious, we could barely refrain from bursting into laughter, and bent down with exaggerated care to look for our galoshes, which was necessary because the servants had also scattered on occasion of the alarm caused by the young lady’s sudden illness.
The senators got into their carriages, but the diplomat accompanied me on foot. He wished to take some fresh air and, it seems, was interested in knowing my insignificant opinion about what might have presented itself to the young princess’s mental eyes after reading the above passage from the writings of Mme de Genlis.
But I decidedly did not dare to make any suggestions about it.
From the unfortunate day when this incident took place, I saw no more of the princess or her daughter. I could not resolve to go and wish her a Happy New
Year, and only sent to inquire after the young princess’s health, but even that with great hesitation, lest it be taken in some other sense. Visits of condoléance seemed totally out of place to me. The situation was a most stupid one: to suddenly stop visiting acquaintances would be rude, but to appear there also seemed inappropriate.
Perhaps I was wrong in my conclusions, but they seemed right to me; and I was not mistaken: the blow that the princess suffered on New Year’s Eve from the “spirit” of Mme de Genlis was very heavy and had serious consequences.
About a month later I met the diplomat on N evsky Prospect: he was very affable, and we fell to talking.
“I haven’t seen you for a long time,” he said.
“We have nowhere to meet,” I replied.
“Yes, we’ve lost the dear house of the esteemed princess: the poor woman had to leave.”
“Leave?” I said. “For where?”
“As if you don’t know.”
“I know nothing.”
“They all left for abroad, and I’m very happy that I was able to find a post there for her son. It was impossible not to do so after what happened then… So terrible! You know, the unfortunate woman burned all her volumes that same night and smashed the little terracotta hand to smithereens, though one finger, or better say a fig, seems to have survived as a souvenir.
Generally, it was a most unpleasant incident, but then it serves as an excellent proof of one great truth.”
“Even two or three, in my opinion.” The diplomat smiled and, looking fixedly at me, asked:
“First, it proves that the books we decide to talk about, we should read beforehand.”
“And second— that it’s not reasonable to keep a young girl in such childish ignorance as the young princess was in before that occurrence; otherwise she would certainly have stopped reading about Gibbon much sooner.”
“Third, that spirits are just as unreliable as living people.”
“And that’s not all: the spirit confirms one of my opinions, that ‘the best of serpents is still a serpent,’ and what’s more, the better the serpent, the more dangerous it is, because it holds its venom in its tail.”
If we had satire in our country, this would be an excellent subject for it.
Unfortunately, having no satirical ability, I can recount it only in the simple form of a story.
*The Editorial team had made all possible efforts to contact the rights holder of this work. We ask them to write to us here.
“To whom shall I tell my grief?”
The twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses’ backs, shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as the living body can be bent. If a regular snowdrift fell on him it seems as though even then he would not think it necessary to shake it off… His little mare is white and motionless too. Her stillness, the angularity of her lines, and the stick-like straightness of her legs make her look like a halfpenny gingerbread horse. She is probably lost in thought. Anyone who has been torn away from the plough, from the familiar gray landscapes, and cast into this slough, full of monstrous lights, of unceasing uproar and hurrying people, is bound to think.
It is a long time since Iona and his nag have budged. They came out of the yard before dinnertime and not a single fare yet. But now the shades of evening are falling on the town. The pale light of the street lamps changes to a vivid color, and the bustle of the street grows noisier.
“Sledge to Vyborgskaya!” Iona hears. “Sledge!”
Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.
“To Vyborgskaya,” repeats the officer. “Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!”
In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse’s back and shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets of…
“Where are you shoving, you devil?” Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. “Where the devil are you going? Keep to the r-right!”
“You don’t know how to drive! Keep to the right,” says the officer angrily.
A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse’s nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.
“What rascals they all are!” says the officer jocosely. “They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse’s feet. They must be doing it on purpose.”
Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips… Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.
“What?” inquires the officer.
Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: “My son… er… my son died this week, sir.”
“H’m! What did he die of?”
Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:
“Who can tell! It must have been from fever… He lay three days in the hospital and then he died… God’s will.”
“Turn round, you devil!” comes out of the darkness. “Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!”
“Drive on! drive on!…” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!”
The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box… Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white. One hour passes, and then another…
Three young men, two tall and thin, one short and hunchbacked, come up, railing at each other and loudly stamping on the pavement with their goloshes.
“Cabby, to the Police Bridge!” the hunchback cries in a cracked voice. “The three of us,… twenty kopecks!”
Iona tugs at the reins and clicks to his horse. Twenty kopecks is not a fair price, but he has no thoughts for that. Whether it is a rouble or whether it is five kopecks does not matter to him now so long as he has a fare… The three young men, shoving each other and using bad language, go up to the sledge, and all three try to sit down at once. The question remains to be settled: Which are to sit down and which one is to stand? After a long altercation, ill-temper, and abuse, they come to the conclusion that the hunchback must stand because he is the shortest.
“Well, drive on,” says the hunchback in his cracked voice, settling himself and breathing down Iona’s neck. “Cut along! What a cap you’ve got, my friend! You wouldn’t find a worse one in all Petersburg…”
“He-he!… he-he!…” laughs Iona. “It’s nothing to boast of!”
“Well, then, nothing to boast of, drive on! Are you going to drive like this all the way? Eh? Shall I give you one in the neck?”
“My head aches,” says one of the tall ones. “At the Dukmasovs’ yesterday Vaska and I drank four bottles of brandy between us.”
“I can’t make out why you talk such stuff,” says the other tall one angrily. “You lie like a brute.”
“Strike me dead, it’s the truth!…”
“It’s about as true as that a louse coughs.”
“He-he!” grins Iona. “Me-er-ry gentlemen!”
“Tfoo! the devil take you!” cries the hunchback indignantly. “Will you get on, you old plague, or won’t you? Is that the way to drive? Give her one with the whip. Hang it all, give it to her well.”
Iona feels behind his back the jolting person and quivering voice of the hunchback. He hears abuse addressed to him, he sees people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart. The hunchback swears at him, till he chokes over some elaborately whimsical string of epithets and is overpowered by his cough. His tall companions begin talking of a certain Nadyezhda Petrovna. Iona looks round at them. Waiting till there is a brief pause, he looks round once more and says:
“This week… er… my… er… son died!”
“We shall all die,…” says the hunchback with a sigh, wiping his lips after coughing. “Come, drive on! drive on! My friends, I simply cannot stand crawling like this! When will he get us there?”
“Well, you give him a little encouragement… one in the neck!”
“Do you hear, you old plague? I’ll make you smart. If one stands on ceremony with fellows like you one may as well walk. Do you hear, you old dragon? Or don’t you care a hang what we say?”
And Iona hears rather than feels a slap on the back of his neck.
“He-he!…” he laughs. “Merry gentlemen… God give you health!”
“Cabman, are you married?” asks one of the tall ones.
“I? He he! Me-er-ry gentlemen. The only wife for me now is the damp earth… He-ho-ho!… The grave that is!… Here my son’s dead and I am alive… It’s a strange thing, death has come in at the wrong door… Instead of coming for me it went for my son…”
And Iona turns round to tell them how his son died, but at that point the hunchback gives a faint sigh and announces that, thank God! they have arrived at last. After taking his twenty kopecks, Iona gazes for a long while after the revelers, who disappear into a dark entry. Again he is alone and again there is silence for him… The misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona’s eyes stray restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of the street: can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery… His misery is immense, beyond all bounds. If Iona’s heart were to burst and his misery to flow out, it would flood the whole world, it seems, but yet it is not seen. It has found a hiding-place in such an insignificant shell that one would not have found it with a candle by daylight…
Iona sees a house-porter with a parcel and makes up his mind to address him.
“What time will it be, friend?” he asks.
“Going on for ten… Why have you stopped here? Drive on!”
Iona drives a few paces away, bends himself double, and gives himself up to his misery. He feels it is no good to appeal to people. But before five minutes have passed he draws himself up, shakes his head as though he feels a sharp pain, and tugs at the reins… He can bear it no longer.
“Back to the yard!” he thinks. “To the yard!”
And his little mare, as though she knew his thoughts, falls to trotting. An hour and a half later Iona is sitting by a big dirty stove. On the stove, on the floor, and on the benches are people snoring. The air is full of smells and stuffiness. Iona looks at the sleeping figures, scratches himself, and regrets that he has come home so early…
“I have not earned enough to pay for the oats, even,” he thinks. “That’s why I am so miserable. A man who knows how to do his work,… who has had enough to eat, and whose horse has had enough to eat, is always at ease…”
In one of the corners a young cabman gets up, clears his throat sleepily, and makes for the water-bucket.
“Want a drink?” Iona asks him.
“May it do you good… But my son is dead, mate… Do you hear? This week in the hospital… It’s a queer business…”
Iona looks to see the effect produced by his words, but he sees nothing. The young man has covered his head over and is already asleep. The old man sighs and scratches himself… Just as the young man had been thirsty for water, he thirsts for speech. His son will soon have been dead a week, and he has not really talked to anybody yet… He wants to talk of it properly, with deliberation… He wants to tell how his son was taken ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died… He wants to describe the funeral, and how he went to the hospital to get his son’s clothes. He still has his daughter Anisya in the country… And he wants to talk about her too… Yes, he has plenty to talk about now. His listener ought to sigh and exclaim and lament… It would be even better to talk to women. Though they are silly creatures, they blubber at the first word.
“Let’s go out and have a look at the mare,” Iona thinks. “There is always time for sleep… You’ll have sleep enough, no fear…”
He puts on his coat and goes into the stables where his mare is standing. He thinks about oats, about hay, about the weather… He cannot think about his son when he is alone… To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish…
“Are you munching?” Iona asks his mare, seeing her shining eyes. “There, munch away, munch away… Since we have not earned enough for oats, we will eat hay… Yes,… I have grown too old to drive… My son ought to be driving, not I… He was a real cabman… He ought to have lived…”
Iona is silent for a while, and then he goes on:
“That’s how it is, old girl… Kuzma Ionitch is gone… He said good-by to me… He went and died for no reason… Now, suppose you had a little colt, and you were own mother to that little colt. … And all at once that same little colt went and died… You’d be sorry, wouldn’t you?…”
The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.
“Pavel Vassilyevitch, there’s a lady here, asking for you,” Luka announced. “She’s been waiting a good hour….”
Pavel Vassilyevitch had only just finished lunch. Hearing of the lady, he frowned and said:
“Oh, damn her! Tell her I’m busy.”
“She has been here five times already, Pavel Vassilyevitch. She says she really must see you…. She’s almost crying.”
“H’m… very well, then, ask her into the study.”
Without haste Pavel Vassilyevitch put on his coat, took a pen in one hand, and a book in the other, and trying to look as though he were very busy he went into the study. There the visitor was awaiting him – a large stout lady with a red, beefy face, in spectacles. She looked very respectable, and her dress was more than fashionable (she had on a crinolette of four storeys and a high hat with a reddish bird in it). On seeing him she turned up her eyes and folded her hands in supplication.
“You don’t remember me, of course,” she began in a high masculine tenor, visibly agitated. ” I… I have had the pleasure of meeting you at the Hrutskys…. I am Mme. Murashkin….”
“A… a… a… h’m… Sit down! What can I do for you?”
“You… you see… I… I…” the lady went on, sitting down and becoming still more agitated. “You don’t remember me…. I’m Mme. Murashkin…. You see I’m a great admirer of your talent and always read your articles with great enjoyment…. Don’t imagine I’m flattering you – God forbid! – I’m only giving honour where honour is due…. I am always reading you… always! To some extent I am myself not a stranger to literature – that is, of course… I will not venture to call myself an authoress, but… still I have added my little quota… I have published at different times three stories for children…. You have not read them, of course…. I have translated a good deal and… and my late brother used to write for The Cause.“
“To be sure… er – er – er — What can I do for you?”
“You see… (the lady cast down her eyes and turned redder) I know your talents… your views, Pavel Vassilyevitch, and I have been longing to learn your opinion, or more exactly… to ask your advice. I must tell you I have perpetrated a play, my first-born – pardon pour l’expression! – and before sending it to the Censor I should like above all things to have your opinion on it.
Nervously, with the flutter of a captured bird, the lady fumbled in her skirt and drew out a fat manuscript.
Pavel Vassilyevitch liked no articles but his own. When threatened with the necessity of reading other people’s, or listening to them, he felt as though he were facing the cannon’s mouth. Seeing the manuscript he took fright and hastened to say:
“Very good, … leave it, … I’ll read it.”
“Pavel Vassilyevitch,” the lady said languishingly, clasping her hands and raising them in supplication, “I know you’re busy…. Your every minute is precious, and I know you’re inwardly cursing me at this moment, but… Be kind, allow me to read you my play…. Do be so very sweet!”
“I should be delighted…” faltered Pavel Vassilyevitch; “but, Madam, I’m… I’m very busy…. I’m… I’m obliged to set off this minute.”
“Pavel Vassilyevitch,” moaned the lady and her eyes filled with tears, “I’m asking a sacrifice! I am insolent, I am intrusive, but be magnanimous. To-morrow I’m leaving for Kazan and I should like to know your opinion to-day. Grant me half an hour of your attention… only one half-hour… I implore you!
Pavel Vassilyevitch was cotton-wool at core, and could not refuse. When it seemed to him that the lady was about to burst into sobs and fall on her knees, he was overcome with confusion and muttered helplessly.
“Very well; certainly… I will listen… I will give you half an hour.”
The lady uttered a shriek of joy, took off her hat and settling herself, began to read. At first she read a scene in which a footman and a house maid, tidying up a sumptuous drawing-room, talked at length about their young lady, Anna Sergyevna, who was building a school and a hospital in the village. When the footman had left the room, the maidservant pronounced a monologue to the effect that education is light and ignorance is darkness; then Mme. Murashkin brought the footman back into the drawing-room and set him uttering a long monologue concerning his master, the General, who disliked his daughter’s views, intended to marry her to a rich kammer junker, and held that the salvation of the people lay in unadulterated ignorance. Then, when the servants had left the stage, the young lady herself appeared and informed the audience that she had not slept all night, but had been thinking of Valentin Ivanovitch, who was the son of a poor teacher and assisted his sick father gratuitously. Valentin had studied all the sciences, but had no faith in friendship nor in love; he had no object in life and longed for death, and therefore she, the young lady, must save him.
Pavel Vassilyevitch listened, and thought with yearning anguish of his sofa. He scanned the lady viciously, felt her masculine tenor thumping on his eardrums, understood nothing, and thought:
“The devil sent you… as though I wanted to listen to your tosh! It’s not my fault you’ve written a play, is it? My God! what a thick manuscript! What an infliction!”
Pavel Vassilyevitch glanced at the wall where the portrait of his wife was hanging and remembered that his wife had asked him to buy and bring to their summer cottage five yards of tape, a pound of cheese, and some tooth-powder.
“I hope I’ve not lost the pattern of that tape,” he thought, “where did I put it? I believe it’s in my blue reefer jacket…. Those wretched flies have covered her portrait with spots already, I must tell Olga to wash the glass…. She’s reading the twelfth scene, so we must soon be at the end of the first act. As though inspiration were possible in this heat and with such a mountain of flesh, too! Instead of writing plays she’d much better eat cold vinegar hash and sleep in a cellar….”
“You don’t think that monologue’s a little too long?” the lady asked suddenly, raising her eyes.
Pavel Vassilyevitch had not heard the monologue, and said in a voice as guilty as though not the lady but he had written that monologue:
“No, no, not at all. It’s very nice….”
The lady beamed with happiness and continued reading:
ANNA: You are consumed by analysis. Too early you have ceased to live in the heart and have put your faith in the intellect.
VALENTIN: What do you mean by the heart? That is a concept of anatomy. As a conventional term for what are called the feelings, I do not admit it.
ANNA (confused): And love? Surely that is not merely a product of the association of ideas? Tell me frankly, have you ever loved?
VALENTIN (bitterly): Let us not touch on old wounds not yet healed. (A pause.) What are you thinking of?
ANNA: I believe you are unhappy.
During the sixteenth scene Pavel Vassilyevitch yawned, and accidently made with his teeth the sound dogs make when they catch a fly. He was dismayed at this unseemly sound, and to cover it assumed an expression of rapt attention.
“Scene seventeen! When will it end?” he thought. “Oh, my God! If this torture is prolonged another ten minutes I shall shout for the police. It’s insufferable.”
But at last the lady began reading more loudly and more rapidly, and finally raising her voice she read “Curtain.”
Pavel Vassilyevitch uttered a faint sigh and was about to get up, but the lady promptly turned the page and went on reading.
ACT II. – Scene, a village street. On right, School. On left, Hospital. Villagers, male and female, sitting on the hospital steps.
“Excuse me,” Pavel Vassilyevitch broke in, “how many acts are there?”
“Five,” answered the lady, and at once, as though fearing her audience might escape her, she went on rapidly.
VALENTIN is looking out of the schoolhouse window. In the background Villagers can be seen taking their goods to the Inn.
Like a man condemned to be executed and convinced of the impossibility of a reprieve, Pavel Vassilyevitch gave up expecting the end, abandoned all hope, and simply tried to prevent his eyes from closing, and to retain an expression of attention on his face…. The future when the lady would finish her play and depart seemed to him so remote that he did not even think of it.
“Trooo – too – too – too…” the lady’s voice sounded in his ears.”Troo – too – too… sh – sh – sh – sh…”
“I forgot to take my soda,” he thought. “What am I thinking about? Oh – my soda…. Most likely I shall have a bilious attack…. It’s extraordinary, Smirnovsky swills vodka all day long and yet he never has a bilious attack…. There’s a bird settled on the window… a sparrow….”
Pavel Vassilyevitch made an effort to unglue his strained and closing eyelids, yawned without opening his mouth, and stared at Mme. Murashkin. She grew misty and swayed before his eyes, turned into a triangle and her head pressed against the ceiling….
VALENTIN: No, let me depart.
ANNA (in dismay): Why?
VALENTIN (aside): She has turned pale! (To her) Do not force me to explain. Sooner would I die than you should know the reason.
ANNA (after a pause): You cannot go away….
The lady began to swell, swelled to an immense size, and melted into the dingy atmosphere of the study – only her moving mouth was visible; then she suddenly dwindled to the size of a bottle, swayed from side to side, and with the table retreated to the further end of the room…
VALENTIN (holding ANNA in his arms): You have given me new life! You have shown me an object to live for! You have renewed me as the Spring rain renews the awakened earth! But… it is too late, too late! The ill that gnaws at my heart is beyond cure….
Pavel Vassilyevitch started and with dim and smarting eyes stared at the reading lady; for a minute he gazed fixedly as though understanding nothing….
SCENE XI. – The same. The BARON and the POLICE INSPECTOR with assistants.
VALENTIN: Take me!
ANNA: I am his! Take me too! Yes, take me too! I love him, I love him more than life!
BARON: Anna Sergyevna, you forget that you are ruining your father….
The lady began swelling again…. Looking round him wildly Pavel Vassilyevitch got up, yelled in a deep, unnatural voice, snatched from the table a heavy paper-weight, and beside himself, brought it down with all his force on the authoress’s head….
* * * * * *
“Give me in charge, I’ve killed her!” he said to the maidservant who ran in, a minute later.
The jury acquitted him.
The Short Story Project C | The Short Story Project INC 2018
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