He was seventeen years old, and he held his body nervously.
His body was made up of an Adam’s apple, strong bones, long arms, absent-minded eyes, and an overheated brain.
In the evenings, when he lay down to sleep in his hut, he used to turn over the phrase ‘and he’s dead... he’s dead’ in his head, listening to it.
He’d try to imagine someone beginning to weep, and then his cousin crying out, whom he loved in a strange, juvenile, unnatural way. Him lying dead, and her crying out.
Somewhere, in the overheated mirage of his brain, it was already understood that he would never want to kill himself, he wanted so dearly and passionately to live: he was made of something other; he was made of warm blood, which wanted to flow and flow along its course - not to burst free through a vein, or a slashed throat, or a pierced chest.
He’d listen to the electrifying, internal voice ‘he’s dead...dead...’ and drift off, alive, with his arms flung out. That’s how people sleep who are condemned to happiness, to the tenderness of others: reachable, light on the tongue.
Sometimes, rats ran across the floorboards.
His grandmother used to poison the rats. She scattered something white for them in the corners, which they ate at night, squabbling and squeaking.
In the mornings he would wash in the yard, listening to the morning chatter: the timid nanny goat; the cheery pig; the loud-mouthed cockerel – and once he forgot to close the door to the house. He came in and saw the silly chickens fussing about near the poison.
They broke out clucking as he chased them away (in the yard, the cockerel crowed, severely).
Jumping, dropping feathers, unable to find the door, (the cockerel in the yard kept on crowing, the vacuous poser) the chickens finally jumped out into the yard.
For a long time – probably a few hours – he worried that the chickens would start to mope about, like all animals at the approach of death, and would stop breathing; his grandmother would be upset.
But the chickens survived. Perhaps they hadn’t gobbled up much, or, more likely, they didn’t have enough chicken brain to realise they’d poisoned themselves.
The rats survived too, but they began to move around much more slowly, as if they were eternally deep in thought and no longer rushed anywhere.
One night, startled by a rustling, he turned on the light in the hut. A rat looked like it was running, but it couldn’t seem to cross the room. Gazing at the sudden light, it forgot where it was going, and started making its way round a weird circle, as in the circus.
He grabbed the poker, held out the sharp end, and with his slender muscles brought it down on the rat’s spine, and again, and again.
He squatted down, and looked over its cunning, laughing eyes, its disgusting tail.
He scooped up the body with the poker and carried it out into the yard, stood, barefoot, gazing at the stars, with the dead rat.
After that, he stopped saying ‘...he’s...dead...’ at night.
After waking up, he used to close the creaky door to the hut, where he spent his days and nights, bothering nobody, reading, looking at the ceiling, messing about, and would go into the house where his grandmother had long since got up to milk the goat, let the chickens out, drive the ducks down to the river, and had still managed to get breakfast ready, while his grandfather sat at the table, thick glassy spectacles on his nose, mending something and breathing loudly.
He used to peek into the big room, see his grandfather’s back, and instantly vanish without a sound, afraid of being asked to help. He could already manage to take something apart, but putting it back together again... the parts immediately lost their meaning, although their order had seemed clear and simple not long before. All you could do was sweep away the metallic rubbish with your hand and throw it away for good into someone else’s dustbin, ashamed of yourself and grinning stupidly.
‘You’re up?’ his grandmother would say warmly. She moved quietly, never fussing over the hob. He would sit down at the small table in the little kitchen, watching the flies buzz around. He’d get up and take the swatter – a wooden stick crowned with a black plastic triangle. Under its ringing smack, flies perished in smears like soft-boiled eggs.
Swatting flies was a pastime, maybe even a game. It wasn’t so long since he did play games, and that time could still be reached. Sometimes when he crawled up into the attic after old, dusty books (which were all the more coveted because of the dust) he would find iron cars without their wheels, and he was tormented by the painful desire to take them over to his hut, if not to push them around on the floor any more, then at least to admire them.
His grandmother was good at being quiet, and her silence demanded no answer.
The potatoes were frying, spitting and flexing when the lid was taken off and they were stirred, piping hot.
Lightly salted gherkins lay limp on a plate, leaking weak brine. The pig fat was fetched warm, softened and breathing out its aroma, after the chill from which it had been taken.
He chased away the flies from the table and suddenly looked at the swatter with interest – at its thin, strong, wooden frame, fitting into the black triangle.
He threw down the swatter, screwed up his face squeamishly, wiped his hand on his shorts, sucked in his stomach, and his chest ached like he’d swallowed a glass of iced water (but the taste of moisture did not remain, only the oppressive ache)
‘Why was this given to me? Why is this given to everyone?... Couldn’t it have been different somehow?’
‘Will your grandfather have breakfast?’ his grandmother asked, turning off the hob.
‘Of course he will,’ her grandson responded cheerfully, pleased at the distraction from himself. He knew his grandfather didn’t sit down at the table without him.
He went into the room and called loudly:
‘Grandmother’s calling you to eat!’
‘To eat?’ replied his grandfather pensively. ‘I don’t really want to... well, let’s go; let’s sit down.’ He took off his glasses, carefully laid down the tiny screws and pliers, and stood up with a groan. His house-shoes shuffled along the floor.
His grandfather ducked under the lintel calmly, with a slight, goose-like movement and went into the kitchen. In passing, he glanced over the table with a proprietorial air, as though he were investigating whether something had suddenly gone missing– but everything was always in its place and, truth be told, had already been there for more than a decade.
‘Will you be taking a drop, Zaharka?’ he asked with well-concealed craftiness.
‘No, why drink in the morning?’ replied his grandson brusquely.
His grandfather nodded ever so slightly: good answer. He ate sedately, sometimes glancing sternly over at Grandmother. He asked something about the housekeeping.
‘Oh, hush, you!’ replied Grandmother. ‘T’aint as though I’d not know what to feed the hens without you around.’
An almost imperceptible expression flitted across his grandfather’s face, as though he were saying: ‘silly woman – always silly...’ But it always ended there.
The old people never argued. Zaharka loved them with all his heart.
‘I’m going to go and visit the girls...’ he said to his grandmother after finishing his breakfast.
‘Go on then,’ she replied jovially, ‘and you all must come to ours for lunch.’
His cousins lived there in the very same village, two doors down.
The younger girl, Ksyusha, was short, pleasing, with cunning eyes and had recently come of age. The older girl, tender-eyed, black-haired Katya, was five years older than her.
Ksyusha used to go to the dancehall at the other end of the village and come back at four in the morning. But she didn’t sleep much and always woke dissatisfied. She would gaze at herself in the little mirror for a long time, sitting by the window so the daylight fell on her face.
By midday she would end up in a better mood and, looking attentively into the eyes of her cousin Zaharka, who had come over to stay, would tease him and ask him frank questions, hoping to hear honest answers.
Her cousin, who had come for the summer, understood at once that Ksyusha had not long gone through that thing that’s important for women, and it made her happy. She felt more sure of herself, just as though she’d got something else interesting to support her.
He wriggled out of his cousin’s questions, getting sidetracked with gusto by the bare-legged little boy, three-year-old Rodik, Katya’s son.
The older sister’s husband was serving his second year in the army.
Rodik spoke very little, although it was already time he talked. He cutely called himself ‘Odik’ with a little, barely audible ‘k’ at the end. He understood everything, only he didn’t remember his daddy.
Zaharka carried the boy with him, sat him on his shoulders, and they would wander around the area, the suntanned lad and the pale child with the fluffy hair.
Sometimes Katya would come out of the house, where Zaharka would hear her replying to Ksyusha, ‘Well of course, you’re the cleverest of us...’ or ‘It’s all the same to me what you do with yourself, but you’re going to peel the potatoes!’
Her strictness wasn’t serious.
She would come out, and watch searchingly as Zaharka, with Rodik on his shoulders, walked slowly towards the house, chatting.
‘Stones,’ said Zaharka.
‘Sto’ repeated Rodik.
‘Stones’ repeated Zaharka.
‘Sto,’ agreed Rodik.
They were walking along the gravel.
Katya, Zaharka understood, was thinking about something important as she gazed at them. But he didn’t reflect on what precisely. He liked living easily, curling up in the sun, never thinking anything over seriously.
‘You’ll be hungry, won’t you, hikers?’ Katya would say, in her pleasant chesty voice, smiling.
‘Grandmother invited us over for lunch,’ Zaharka replied without a smile.
‘Oh, all right then. Plus our Molly Moan is refusing to carry out her orders in the kitchen.’
‘My name’s Ksyusha,’ her sister would reply with all the severity of her sixteen years, walking out onto the road. She had already dolled herself up in a skirt, reckless in the wind. She fluttered about in sandals, and a tiny T-shirt which always showed her tummy. On her face two feelings were wonderfully expressed at once: annoyance with her sister, and interest at the appearance of her cousin.
‘Look how silly she is, Zaharka!’ she seemed to be saying with her whole appearance.
‘And look at what a nice tummy I’ve got too, and the rest...’ Zaharka kind of read into it as well, though he wasn’t entirely sure he’d understood correctly. Anyhow, he turned away.
‘Shall we go and eat apples in the meantime, Rodik?’ he said to the boy sitting on his shoulders.
‘I’ll come with you,’ said Katya, tagging along.
‘Lessgo,’ said Rodik in delayed response to Zaharka, to Katya’s delight: it was the first time she had heard those words from him.
They walked through the orchard - looking around at the varieties of apple that were still unripe, and the giant kind and yellow ones - towards the tree whose fruit was already good and sweet in July.
‘Apples,’ Zaharka would repeat clearly.
‘Pulls,’ agreed Rodik.
Katya would burst out laughing, with the young, clear, vibrant laughter of a mother.
When Zaharka bit into the strong apple, with its stem removed, it seemed to him that Katya’s laughter would look like this moist, fresh, crunchy whiteness.
‘’But we’re only little, we can’t reach to pick them from the branch,’ Katya groused jokingly and gathered up the ones that had fallen onto the ground overnight. She liked them softer, redder.
They took it in turns to feed Rodik little pieces of apple. He had been put down on the ground - Zaharka was afraid of accidentally scratching the little boy with the twigs in the orchard.
Sometimes, without noticing, they would both give him a piece of apple at the same time. Rodik, who never refused anything, stuffed his mouth full and chewed, staring with ecstatic eyes.
‘Ooh!’ he would point at an apple which hadn’t yet been picked off a branch.
‘Should I pick this one too? What a carnivore you are,’ Zaharka replied sternly; he liked being a bit stern and a little bit dark, when inside him everything was roiling with the joy and irrepressible sweetness of life. When else can you be a little dark, if not at seventeen? And even more so in the presence of women.
After a little while, Ksyusha would appear in the orchard: she was bored on her own in the house. And her cousin was there.
‘Have you peeled the potatoes?’ Katya used to ask.
‘I told you, I’ve just painted my nails, I can’t. Do I have to tell you a dozen times?’
‘Tell your father about your nails. He’ll clean them off for you.’
Ksyusha ripped an apple off another tree, not the kind that was to her older sister’s taste. She didn’t want to copy her sister in any way. She would eat reluctantly, never taking her eyes off her cousin.
‘Is it tasty, all green like that?’ Katya would ask, teasing Ksyusha gently, squinting at her.
‘And how’s yours, all wormy like that?’ replied the younger one.
They would all walk over to the grandparents’ for lunch. The sisters would patch it up at once, when the discussion moved on the village news.
‘That Al’ka’s with Sergei,’ Ksyusha was claiming.
‘That can’t be, he’s meant to be marrying Gal’ka. The matchmakers have already been,’ Katya didn’t believe her.
‘I’m telling you, yesterday they drove past on the motorbike.’
‘Maybe he was giving her a lift?’
‘At three in the morning?’ Ksyusha would reply mockingly. ‘Past the bridges...’
‘Past the bridges’ – that was what those welcoming glades were called where village lovers went on motorbikes, or went out walking for a while.
Zaharka looked at the sisters and thought that Katya had been going ‘past the bridges’, and Ksyusha too. For a painful moment he imagined the hitched-up skirts, the hot mouths, the breathing - and turned his head, chasing away the darkness, such a sweet darkness, almost unbearable.
He dropped back a little, looked at the sisters’ ankles, calves, saw Ksyusha’s tanned, frog-like little thighs and, through the sunlight-filled skirts of her sarafan, Katya’s hips, which had only become more attractive since she gave birth.
He wanted a river to be nearby, only a few steps away: he would have dived into the water at a run and wouldn’t have swum up for a long time, moving slowly, softly touching the sandy bottom, seeing fish dart away in the cloudy darkness.
‘Why’ve you dropped back?’ asked Ksyusha, turning around.
Zaharka wanted Katya to have asked that question. Katya was having a conversation with Rodik.
‘Shall we go for a swim?’ he suggested, instead of answering.
‘Are you going to carry Rodik all that way with you?’ Katya asked, having turned round to face him. She walked a few steps backwards along the road, smiling at her cousin.
Zaharka broke into a smile, against his gloomy will.
‘Ob. Vious. Ly.’ he replied, looking Katya in the eye.
Rodik, imitating his mother, also turned around and walked backwards, turned around for a second, immediately got tangled up in his own legs, fell over, and they all burst out laughing.
They didn’t fit in the kitchen any more, and ate in the big room, at the long table with its garish stick-on cover, here and there accidentally punctured by a knife and also scorched with the semi-circle of an overheated frying-pan edge.
The sisters were crunching on cucumbers.
Zaharka liked their excellent appetite.
It was very sunny.
Katya put a little bit of potato in a small dish for Rodik. He messed it around with his hands, all covered in fat and oil, constantly dropping potato on his legs. Katya picked the potato off her little boy’s legs and ate it, entirely radiant.
Zaharka sat opposite, watching them and gently stroking Katya’s leg with his bare foot. She didn’t move her leg away and, it seemed, was paying no attention to her cousin. She was teasing her younger sister again, listening to her grandmother, telling a story about a woman, their neighbour, and remembering to admire Rodik. Only she didn’t look at Zaharka at all.
But then again, he was watching her steadily.
Ksyusha jealously noticed this.
The bread was very tasty. The potato was wonderfully sweet.
They ate from the same huge frying pan, searingly hot and reliable.
‘Tomorrow, Grandfather’s going to stick the pig,’ said Grandmother.
‘Oh, it’s good you reminded me,’ said Katya.
‘Why?’ asked Grandmother.
‘I won’t come tomorrow. I can’t stand to see it.’
‘Who’s forcing you to? Don’t go into the yard, then you won’t see,’ laughed Grandmother.
‘I won’t come either,’ Ksyusha agreed with her sister for the first time.
The sisters helped clear the table. While they did so, Zaharka crafted a bow outside – rather more for himself, than for Rodik. What good would a bow be for Rodik, how would he manage it?
But the little boy followed Zaharka’s work intently: he watched him first find and cut down a suitable bough; then, having bent it, wind twine around it, which fitted into specially cut grooves.
‘Bow,’ Zaharka said clearly. ‘B-b-bow!’
‘Oh,’ Rodik repeated.
‘He’ll soon start talking with you,’ said Katya, who had come outside.
‘Are you two going hunting?’ asked Ksyusha, who had appeared right after. ‘Will you take me with you? Rodik, will you take me with you?’
Rodik stared at Ksyusha unwinkingly. Zaharka gazed unblinkingly at Katya.
‘Only, the potatoes need to be peeled in any case,’ said Katya ‘Before we go swimming. Otherwise the baby won’t have anything to eat...’
They ran back to the sisters’ house. Katya put a bucket of water, a bucket of potatoes, and a saucepan on the floor. They sat down around it. She gave out the knives. Ksyusha got the smallest, irredeemably blunt one. Grumbling, she went to swap it.
The three of them peeled the potatoes together, laughing at something. Rodik wandered around nearby. Katya sometimes fed him raw potato. Ksyusha would rebuke her:
‘What are you doing? Call yourself a mother... how did they trust you with a child?’
‘Watch out they don’t trust you with one too,’ replied Katya, blowing away a lock of hair that had fallen on her face, then brushing it into place with the hand gripping the knife.
Zaharka was enjoying himself and trying not to look at the sisters’ knees: Ksyusha’s were more tanned, Katya’s whiter. Katya’s were round, and Ksyusha’s were elegantly embossed with bone, like those of some tall wild animal, I don’t know, maybe a deer...
And Katya still sat a little further away from the bucket of potatoes, and when she bent forward...
‘Oh my God, why are you teasing me with that...’
Zaharka went outside. The chickens, stupid with the heat, wandered around slowly.
‘Ahaka!’ Katya burst out laughing from inside the house, her voice was coming closer.
‘Did you hear what he said? Where Ahaka? There’s your Ahaka, Rodik! There he is!’
Rodik ran out on his stumbling little legs, sunlit eyelashes, ears nestled in fluff.
It was a ten-minute walk to the river. Zaharka would take off his shorts, and throw himself into the water with a running jump so that he didn’t see the sisters getting undressed. ‘I’d rather not see them at all,’ he thought cheerfully and untruthfully, and immediately turned around towards their voices.
‘How’s the water?’ both sisters asked at the same time. They looked at each other, first annoyed, as though each suspected the other of mocking her, and then both burst out laughing.
They didn’t quarrel any more that day.
Katya had brought apples with her. Lying on the bank, digging into the sand with their feet, they nibbled on the rosy fruit. Zaharka threw the half-eaten bits into the water.
‘Why are you doing that?’ Ksyusha drawled, disgusted.
‘The fish will eat them up.’
Katya kept on sitting up and calling out: ‘Rodik, don’t go in deep! There’s fishies in there! Hey!’
‘There?’ asked Rodik, pointing at the middle of the river with his tiny finger, and inspired, he would strike out further.
‘Zaharka, you tell him, he only pays attention to you.’
Her cousin watched, chewing on the apple stem, as from under Katya’s swimsuit some black curls were escaping, clinging to her damp, white leg, still with undried golden drops on it.
‘Rodik!’ he cried out, unexpectedly loud even for himself, enough to make the boy jump.
‘God, why are you shouting like that?’ Katya said, startled. She had leapt up from the sand like a shot.
‘I’ll go to him, lie down...’ Zaharka caught up with Rodik.
‘Shall we go and cut some reeds?’ he suggested. ‘We’ve already got a bow, we need arrows.’
‘Lessgo,’ Rodik replied eagerly, and crawled out of the water.
They walked along the bank, the small, innocent paw in the young hand with its strange fate line and deep life line.
They came back with broken-off reeds for arrows. On the way Zaharka had found some wire which he wound around one of the stems.
‘Well, froggies, did you get sick of waiting for the prince?’ he asked, twanging on the bowstring.
The sisters turned around smiling drowsily. He raised the bow upwards and let fly the reed-stem, which flew up unexpectedly high.
Rodik immediately lost sight of the arrow and, not understanding where it had got to, looked around, astonished.
He was woken by the squealing of a pig.
‘They’re slaughtering it already! Damn, I didn’t make it!’
He leapt off the bed, dragging on his shorts, almost falling over.
But they were only tying up the pig as of yet: tightly bound with rope which cut into its greasy hide, it stood in the darkness of the barn and every time a human being appeared it began to squeal.
Zaharka observed it, having come to stand in the doorway. He’d hardly opened his eyes; he hadn’t washed yet, and was smiling.
There wasn’t a single thought in his head, but somewhere around his heart, his blood thrilled softly at the strange-tasting sweetness of the death of another, even that of an animal.
‘You’re yelling, pig? Do you want to live?’ or something like it fluttered around in a shadowy, secret corner of his brain.
Although reason, intelligible, human reason whispered to him: you should be sorry for it, how can you be like that, aren’t you sorry?
‘I’m sorry,’ he agreed easily.
Incidentally, the squealing was impossible to bear for long.
He pulled the door shut and walked up to his grandfather who had sat down on a tree stump. His grandfather was sharpening a knife - which was already fearsome - whose long blade kept flashing in the sun.
Zaharka’s dour grandfather did not look at him.
‘How does it know you’re going to slaughter it?’ Zaharka asked loudly, hardly drowning out the squealing.
Grandfather raised his small and, for some reason (it seemed to Zaharka), unfriendly eyes for a moment. He stood up and trudged off into his workshop for something.
‘He didn’t hear me,’ thought Zaharka.
‘Beasts know everything,’ said his grandfather quietly, to himself, not addressing anybody.
A minute or so later, Grandfather came back and Zaharka realised that he had been mistaken about his serious manner.
‘You ever seen a pig stuck?’ his grandfather asked simply.
‘No,’ replied Zaharka happily.
His grandfather nodded. It wasn’t clear what that meant: ‘well, today you’ll find out’, or ‘it’s good you haven’t’.
Grandmother appeared, with two iron basins clinking together. She had contrived to bring six along right away.
She glanced at Grandfather, who was pottering around slowly, but she didn’t start hurrying him, although she really didn’t want to keep hearing the incessant squealing.
Zaharka hung around for a minute or so, and decided to nip to the toilet.
Wooden, welcoming, pasted inside with old wallpaper, the hut stood beside the kitchen garden. When he was walking up to the toilet, Zaharka always looked over at the rows of watermelons.
The watermelons were offensively small and green.
‘They won’t be ready before I leave, they won’t,’ Zaharka said miserably to himself as usual.
Inside the toilet hut, it was always gloomy, but there were pleasant rays of sunlight coming in through cracks between the boards. One or two fat flies flew about, as ever. No-one ever sat down for more than a few seconds.
Once again they were buzzing angrily.
On the nail there was an old agricultural machine-operator magazine. How many times had Zaharka looked through it, not understanding a thing? In lazily looking through the dusty pages, in this incomprehension, in the sunlit cracks, the debauched flies, the closeness of the wooden walls, the yellow wall-covering, torn away here and there, the rusty bolt, in the ceiling covered in black roofing felt so that nothing seeped in – in all of this there was a quiet, almost unattainable, lyrical righteousness.
The pig suddenly squealed more horribly, terribly, desperately. Zaharka began to hurry.
The squealing was cut off before he got there. He also had to let his grandmother through, she was rushing somewhere, and by the way she looked – slightly agitated, but also serene at the same time (‘that’s it, of course, thank goodness...’) - Zaharka understood that they had stuck the pig.
With his red hands, Grandfather was unhurriedly untying the knots which had held the pig to the barn post. He could have cut them right through but he didn’t, to save rope.
‘Did he not wait for me on purpose, or not?’ wondered Zaharka, and found no answer.
Once freed, the pig’s rear end drooped down to begin with, but the animal still held itself up, bound to the post by its powerful neck. Grandfather moved away the basin full of the blood which had flowed out of the slit throat, and loosened the rope around its neck.
The pig fell with a soft sound.
Zaharka came up close to it, looking with interest at the silenced animal.
An ordinary pig, just dead. An even slit across its throat, a lot of white fat.
‘I can’t see that knife,’ his grandfather was casting around, looking. ‘Zaharka, have a look.’
The knife was stuck in the wall of the barn. Its handle was warm, the blade covered in drying blood.
He gave the knife to his grandfather, holding it by the blade. He got his fingers dirty, he looked at them afterwards.
They were cutting open the pig’s belly. It lay there, fallen apart, rent open, scarlet, raw. Its innards were warm; you could have warmed up your hands in them.
If you looked at it through half-closed eyes, perhaps slightly stoned, they could have looked like a bouquet of flowers. A warm bouquet of meaty, living, animal flowers.
Grandfather masterfully extracted the heart, kidneys and liver. He threw them in the basins. With his hand he squeezed out what was held in the rectum.
A living being which used to greet Zaharka sullenly in the mornings, rubbing its side on the barn, which grunted in excitement when the bucket of slops appeared, which had been able at the end of it all to produce a surprisingly powerful squeal – this creature had ended up insignificant, worthless: it was possible to cut it up, dismember it, drag it apart into pieces.
And the stupid, separated pig’s head already lay there with its nose upwards, its jaws open. It looked as though the pig wanted to howl, that it was just about to begin.
And seeing that head, even the chickens were dumbfounded, and the cockerel avoided it, and the goat looked out of the darkness with its suffering Judaic eyes.
Zaharka walked through into the house. His grandmother, hurrying towards him with a cloth in her hand said:
‘Have something to eat; I left it for you...’
But he didn’t start eating - not because he had lost his appetite from seeing the slaughtered hog. He couldn’t wait to go over to the sisters’. All of this living essence, satiated by life in its most true and primal form, entirely devoid of soul – all this, with those bright, aromatic, colourful innards; with legs flung wide open; with the head tipped back, senselessly upwards and the clean smell of fresh blood - didn’t let him; it stopped him staying in one place; it drew him in and distracted him, seethed around inside.
That same oppressive ache - like that of icy water - which tormented him, unexpectedly turned into a sensation of sweet anticipated warmth.
The warmth was in his hands, his heart, kidneys and lungs: Zaharka saw his organs clearly and they looked just like those which had steamed before his eyes a minute before. And in realising his own warm, moist animality, Zaharka felt, especially passionately and not at all painfully, that his heart was being squeezed, his real, fleshy heart, thrusting blood to his hands, to his scorching palms, and into his head, scalding his brain, and downwards, towards his stomach, where everything was...proud with the realization of the endlessness of youth.
For some reason he grabbed the bow, which was lying by the house, walking along, feeling as though he had just killed the animal; and he didn’t seem ridiculous to himself.
The first person he saw was Rodik, who had already scared away the chickens – they were frightened of him anyway. He struggled to hold it in, not to tell Rodik what it had all been like. He even said a few syllables and then cut himself off, moving his awkward lips in vain.
Ksyusha came out. Katya followed behind her.
‘Well, did they slaughter the pig?’ asked Katya, widening her eyes, looking as though the slaughtered pig was just about to trot up, huffing and grunting through its open throat.
Ksyusha also glanced over, scared.
‘We could hear it squealing from here. Katya and I closed all the windows and doors,’ she said.
Zaharka drank in the sisters, his joyful eyes moving from the first, pretty face to the second, beautiful one, and he searched for the right word to begin telling them about the heart, the throat, blood, and suddenly, at once, in a flash, he realised it was pointless to tell them.
‘Do you have any empty tins?’ he asked.
‘We do,’ Ksyusha replied with a shrug. ‘Over there, in the rubbish, I think there were some.’
Zaharka cut the lids off three tins. He cut each one in half with a big pair of scissors. With a pair of pliers he bent them around yesterday’s reeds and curled them under. He battered down the resulting sharp point with a hammer.
The sisters went off to do their own things. Only Rodik stayed, shifting from one foot to the other beside him, sometimes saying ‘Oh!’. He fell into doubtful silence for a long time after Zaharka’s:
‘Arrows! Say: arrows!’
‘Precisely,’ Zaharka agreed.
He pulled on the bowstring, let fly an arrow. It soared up rapidly, then, it seemed to hang frozen in the air for a moment, and fell gently downwards to stick into the ground.
‘Wow,’ said Ksyusha, who’d come onto the porch with a floor-cloth in her hand. ‘How pretty!’
The arrow stuck upright, swaying slightly in the breeze.
‘It’s standing up straight,’ added Ksyusha dreamily.
‘She’s in a good mood today,’ thought Zaharka, ‘She’s washing the floors.’
He couldn’t restrain himself and asked:
‘What kind of dirty work are you up to?’
‘We’re starting redecorating today. Our Ksyusha so wants to have her room painted orange, she’s prepared to sacrifice anything for it,’ Katya replied for Ksyusha.
Ksyusha, annoyed with both her sister and her cousin, wrung the dirty water out of the rag.
Zaharka went and wandered in the orchard for a bit, listlessly nibbling on an apple.
He carried Rodik on his shoulders for a while, then the boy was taken off to have a nap, and Zaharka went back to his place so as not to get in the sisters’ way. They were clearing up with a will.
Grandmother had already scrubbed away the blood in the yard, while nothing at all was left of the pig: only meat in basins.
Making the door creak, he went into his hut.
It was stuffy. He took off his shorts and slipped out of his T-shirt, ruffling up his hair a bit.
He fell back on the bed, bouncing a little on its springs. He leant on his side, reached out for an old book, which had a worn-out cover and was missing many pages, but then didn’t bring it closer. He buried his cheek in the pillow, and fell still. Suddenly he remembered that he had not slept enough; he closed his eyes and immediately saw Katya...thought about Katya, Katya’s, those things of Katya’s....
He lay there, remembering the squealing that morning, the arrow’s flight, the black water from the rag, the taste of apple, the apple tree being shaken, swaying, the bark close by, the shaded bark, the rough bark, bark, ba... ark... ba...
The door creaked and he awoke at once. ‘Katya,’ his heart skipped a beat.
In came Ksyusha in a hilarious swimsuit: all made up of some kind of ribbons with bows.
Screwing up his eyes, Zaharka looked at her.
‘Did I wake you up? Were you sleeping?’ she asked quickly.
He didn’t reply, stretching.
‘We were going to go for a swim,’ added Ksyusha, sitting down on the bed so that her thigh touched her cousin’s thigh. ‘Also, I’ve already got a headache from the paint - we started painting. The doors.’
Zaharka nodded and stretched again.
‘Why aren’t you saying anything?’ asked Ksyusha. ‘Why don’t you ever say much?’ she repeated more cheerfully, and her voice was a tone higher – a voice which usually precedes action. And so it was: Ksyusha lightly moved her left leg over Zaharka and sat on his legs, firmly holding his knees in her hands, lightly squeezing them. She looked as though she were getting ready to pounce.
‘Well I sort of do say something...’ thought Zaharka, looking over his cousin with some interest.
With his feet, he felt her firm, cold buttocks now and again. She rocked her bottom from side to side a little and completely unexpectedly shifted position to further up, unacceptably far up – clamping her legs to his thighs. She began tickling Zaharka gently under the arms.
‘Are you afraid of being tickled?’ she asked and without pausing: ‘What a hairy chest you have...like a sailor’s. Where are you going to go and serve in the army? In the navy? They’ll take you on.’
Ksyusha looked completely calm, as though nothing surprising was happening.
But Zaharka, while she moved and wriggled around on top of him, felt distinctly that under her funny material with the bows, the glad rags, something was alive, very alive...
This went on just long enough for it to become clear to both of them: they couldn’t carry on like that anymore; they had to do something else, something impossible.
Ksyusha looked up with calm, clear eyes.
‘I’m uncomfortable like this,’ said Zaharka suddenly. He made Ksyusha get down and sat opposite her, hugging his knees to his chest.
They chatted for another couple of minutes, and Ksyusha left.
‘So, are we going for a swim?’ she asked when she was already outside, turning around.
‘Let’s go, yeah,’ replied Zaharka, who was seeing her out.
‘Then I’ll call Kat, and we’ll pop round to yours,’ Ksyusha walked out of the yard, bows waggling.
‘I’ll call Kat...’ he repeated meaninglessly, like an echo.
He walked over to the hand-basin, which looked like an inverted German helmet. An iron rod stuck out from the hole in the centre of the basin. If you lifted it, water flowed out.
Zaharka stood motionless, staring at the basin, rubbing the tip of his tongue along the inside of his teeth. He lifted the iron rod a tiny bit; it clinked slightly. There was no water. He pulled the rod downwards.
Unexpectedly, he noticed a dried spot of blood on it.
‘Grandfather probably wanted to wash his hands after he slaughtered the pig...’ he guessed.
In the evening, Ksyusha went out to the dance, while Katya and Rodik went to spend the night at the grandparents’, so that the little boy didn’t get sick because of the thick redecorating fumes.
They took a long time over dinner. Sleepy from the food, they chatted softly. The small icon lamp flickered faintly. Zaharka, who had drunk three half-glasses with his grandfather, gazed at the icon for a long time, first finding Katya’s features in the female countenance, and then losing them again. Rodik wasn’t as much like the baby.
They had already sent him to bed several times, but he cried loudly in protest.
Zaharka didn’t want to go out to his own hut, he took delight in his relatives, who were somehow especially wonderful that evening.
Suddenly he imagined, warmly and happily, that he was an adult - maybe even an unshaven peasant man - and certainly smelled of tobacco, although Zaharka himself didn’t smoke yet.
So there he was, bearded, with flakes of tobacco on his lips, and Katya was his wife. And they sat together, and Zaharka was looking at her lovingly.
He had just rowed back home on the big boat, steering it with one oar, bringing back fish, let’s say, and he’d taken off his black boots in the hall. She wanted to help him, but he said sternly: ‘I’ll do it myself...’
Zaharka unexpectedly began to laugh at his silly thoughts. Katya, chatting animatedly with Grandmother, glanced at him, such a peaceful and understanding glance, as though she knew what he was thinking about. It even seemed as if she nodded slightly: ‘Well then, do it yourself...don’t just throw them in the corner, like last time – they won’t dry out...’
Zaharka ate a cucumber loudly, so as to bring himself back to his senses.
Grandfather, who had long since got down from the table to listen to the evening news, walked out of the second bedroom, past them, out of the house. He was speaking aloud as usual, as though to himself, kindly:
‘Are you all still sitting here? As if you’d only just met, or you’d just arrived from far away...’
On a chance word, the conversation moved to the pig slaughtered that day. Katya immediately waved her hands so as not to hear anything about it. Suddenly, speaking out unusually for her, Grandmother told them the story of how when she was young, a witch had lived nearby. Horrible to look at, she was, bony and always went bareheaded – and that wasn’t village custom. She dried herbs, and mice too, and rats’ tails, and the gristle from all kinds of other creatures.
Amongst other things, they said the old crone turned into a pig at night. The mischievous village lads decided to find out the truth about this rumour. One night, they got into the old woman’s yard, into the pig pen, and quickly cut off the pig’s ear.
And early in the morning, they saw the old woman, hurrying to the stream for water in the first light of the sun, wearing a headscarf for the first time, and even under the black kerchief it was clear to see that her head was bound on one side with a rag.
Katya sat, silent, gazing steadily at Grandmother. Zaharka looked past Katya’s shoulder, out of the little window, and suddenly whispered:
‘Kat, what’s that in the window? It can’t be the pig looking in?’
Katya jumped and squealed. Grandmother laughed heartily, covering her handsome mouth with the end of her shawl. Even Katya made an ‘oh!’ sound, hurrying away from the little window to the other end of the table - not entirely seriously. Though she did begin to scold Zaharka quite in earnest:
‘You idiot! I’m really scared of all that...’
They laughed a bit more.
‘Now you’ll go to your hut, and it’ll be you the pig bites,’ Katya promised him quietly.
For some reason Zaharka thought that the pig would bite him in a very definite place, and that was what Katya was talking about. His heart softly skipped a beat again, and he couldn’t find anything to come back with about the pig, because he had begun to think about something else entirely.
‘And you’ll stay and sleep here,’ Grandmother suggested to Zaharka, half-joking, half-seriously, as though she was making sure some unclean power didn’t bite her grandson; Grandmother herself was never afraid of anything.
‘There’s enough room, we’ll all have a bed,’ she added.
‘House’s big, even for a coach and four,’ said Grandfather, who had come in from outside. He was usually a little hard of hearing, but sometimes he unexpectedly heard what was being said quietly and not even to him. They all burst out laughing again; even Rodik twisted his little pink lips.
For a long time, Grandfather had considered his house to be the biggest – perhaps not in the entire village, but it was definitely a contender.
He would go round to see someone, for example to a wedding, would come back and say:
‘And our house would be a bit bigger, wouldn’t it, our mother? Was a bit tight in there.’
‘They’ve four rooms there, what’re you talking about?’ Grandmother would be surprised. ‘And forty-three people invited.’
‘Well, ‘rooms’...’ Grandfather used to grumble under his breath, ‘Dog kennels.’
‘When my father was alive, eighteen folks used to live here at ours,’ he would add to Zaharka for the umpteenth time, if he happened to be nearby. ‘Six sons, all with their wives, mother, father, children...there were benches along every wall and they slept on them. And now she’s thinking it’s too small for two,’ he grumbled about Grandmother.
This time, he said nothing about the eighteen folks and walked through the room, pretending he couldn’t see or hear the laughter. He turned the television up a bit louder in the room, so that the din probably reached to the house next door where Gavrilo the alcoholic lived, who hadn’t any electrical appliances at all.
Katya helped her grandmother to clear the table. Zaharka played out a battle for Rodik using forks, until they took the forks away from him too, with the rest of the dirty washing-up.
They went into the bedroom, to the pillows and sheets. In the village they always had a faint, but pleasant, almost sour taste of mustiness. It came from the big chests, the huge amount of material which had lain in the stuffy closeness for a long time.
Zaharka got the sofa. He waited until they put out the light, quickly undressed and lay down, wrapping himself up in the blanket, although it was warm.
Grandfather slept in his bed, Grandmother on hers. Katya and Rodik were given the low pull-out bed, which stood in the opposite corner of the room from Zaharka.
Zaharka lay and listened to Katya, her breathing, her movement, her voice, when in a stern whisper she tried to make Rodik see sense.
As though he were afraid that she would see him glancing over in the darkness, Zaharka didn’t look in Katya’s direction.
Rodik would not calm down at all, he couldn’t get used to the new place. He sat up, smacked his heels on the floor, tried to make his mother laugh, wriggling about on the bed. When for the umpteenth time he crawled under the blanket somewhere and got wound up in the covers, Katya sat up sharply, and immediately there was a crack and a crash: something had broken in the wooden bed.
Rodik was smacked on the back of the head. He started whining and ran over to Grandmother’s bed.
They turned on the night-light. You couldn’t sleep on the pull-out bed: it was leaning over on its side.
‘Go and sleep with your cousin,’ Grandmother said simply.
Zaharka moved over to the edge of the sofa with his arms at his sides, eyes on the ceiling. Even so, he noticed the gleam of a triangular shred of white.
Katya lay down by the wall.
They both lay there, not breathing. Zaharka knew that Katya wasn’t asleep. He couldn’t feel Katya’s warmth, he wasn’t touching his cousin’s body with even a millimetre of his own, but he was feeling, acutely and physically, with his whole being, something indescribable coming from her.
They didn’t move and Zaharka could hear Katya’s eyelashes fluttering. Then in the darkness he made out the almost inaudible sound of her slightly dry lips opening, and then Zaharka realised that she was breathing through her mouth. He copied this movement and felt the air striking his teeth, and knew that she was feeling the very same thing: the same air, the same breath...
Rodik lay there quietly for about ten minutes; it seemed he’d already fallen asleep. But suddenly his clear voice rang out.
‘Go to sleep,’ said Grandmother.
‘Mummy,’ he repeated demandingly.
‘You want to go to Mummy?’
‘Yes. To Mummy,’ Rodik repeated clearly.
Katya didn’t respond. But Rodik had already clambered over Grandmother and moving at random through the darkness, walked up to the sofa.
Zaharka caught him up and put him down between himself and Katya. The little boy laughed happily and began, with the help of his tiny legs sticking up in the air, some kind of lively game with the blanket. Because it was cramped, he also dug his sharp little nails into his mother’s side and Zaharka’s at the same time.
‘No, we won’t get to sleep like that,’ said Zaharka.
Quickly, before anybody managed to say anything, he got out, grabbing his shorts from the floor and finally calling out a good-natured:
‘I’m going to go and visit the pig. Go to sleep.’
In the entrance hall, he slid on his sandals, put on his shorts, cursing, and went outside. It was starry, fresh, and joyful.
‘The pig won’t bite,’ he repeated, smiling to himself, not thinking about any pig. ‘He won’t bite, he won’t gobble me up, he won’t squeal on me...’
In his cabin he sat down on the bed and continued to sit, swinging his legs, looking as though he had thought up a pastime for himself for the entire night. He looked out of the little window. Beyond were the moon and clouds.
In the fresh early morning, Zaharka was painting the doors and frames in the sisters’ house.
It was gradually getting hotter.
When Katya appeared in a white shirt, the edges of which were tied together over her stomach, and an old leotard with legs rolled up to the knees, which suited her, ravishingly so, he realised swiftly that he wouldn’t have got a moment’s sleep had he remained beside her.
He laughed a lot, teasing the sisters about silly little things, and he felt as though he had become, at some incomprehensible moment, more sure of himself, stronger.
Ksyusha mooched about a bit with a drooping brush, and then went out somewhere.
Katya, laughing, told him stories about her sister: what she was like in childhood, and how that childhood had come to an end one summer. And she told him stories about herself, the odd things she had done when she was young. And even when she wasn’t young.
‘You idiot,’ said Zaharka as a response to something - something unimportant.
‘What did you say?’
‘You idiot, I said.’
Katya fell silent and went out to dilute the paint, intently scraping round the insides of the can with a stick, then raising it and watching it drip down, thick and slow.
About three hours later, after they’d finished painting, they were sitting on the steps to the house.
Katya was peeling potatoes, Zaharka gnawed on pumpkin seeds, feeding the chickens.
‘You’re the first man who’s called me an idiot,’ Katya told him seriously.
Zaharka didn’t reply. He looked at her quickly and went on chewing the seeds.
‘And what do you think about it?’ Katya asked.
‘Well, I think I was fair,’ he said.
‘And the worst thing was, I didn’t get annoyed at you.’
Zaharka shrugged his shoulders.
‘No, at least say something to me,’ Katya insisted, ‘about it...’
‘And would you get annoyed with your beloved husband?’ asked Zaharka, just for something to ask.
‘I like you more than my husband,’ Katya replied simply, and sliced the last ribbon off the potato.
With a soft splash, the potato, naked as a baby, fell into the bucket.
Zaharka glanced at how many seeds there were left in his hand.
‘So what else shall we do today?’ he asked, after a short silence.
Katya looked somewhere past him with her clear, dreamy eyes.
In the house, Rodik woke up and started to make his presence known.
They hurried to him, almost racing each other, each with their own tenderness, such effusive tenderness, that Rodik shrank away from them in surprise: what’s up with you?
‘Shall we go for a walk?’ Katya suggested. ‘We’ve had enough of work.’
They made their way somewhere, quietly, along an indistinct path which Zaharka had never trodden, at the outskirts of the village, with Rodik on his shoulders as always.
They went through shady bushes, sometimes alongside a stream, and then along a quiet, dusty road which rose upwards slightly, into the sun.
Unexpectedly for Zaharka, they came to an iron fence and an iron gate with a cross on it.
‘The old graveyard,’ said Katya quietly.
It was all the same to Rodik where they’d ended up, and he charged off between the graves and the rusty fences, chattering away in his own language.
They walked with Katya, reading the uncommon Old Russian names, tallying up how long each had lived, taking pleasure in the long spans, astonished at the short ones. They found whole families buried in one plot, old people, gallant young soldiers, young maidens, who had all died on one day. They guessed how, why, where it happened.
At a headstone with no photo, with no dates, they stopped for no reason and looked at it.
Katya was in front and Zaharka stood behind her, close, feeling the warmth of her hair, and sensing, with his whole, burning body, how warm and flexible, unbearable she would be if he were just to embrace her...right now...
Katya stood unmoving, saying nothing, although they had only just been chattering away non-stop about nothing.
Unexpectedly, Rodik leapt out on them like an ambush, and they both came back to life – at first all out of turn, completely awkwardly, gabbling a few odd words, as though they were trying out their voices. But then they began to manage it better, much better, perfectly well.
They came back refreshed, as though they had been somewhere truly lovely and welcoming.
Once again, they took to the paintbrushes with relish.
The whole day, and its paint odours, unnaturally bright colours, a quick lunch – a green onion, radishes, the first baby tomatoes – and then rolls of wallpaper, intoxicating wallpaper paste, Rodik getting under their feet, already smeared in everything possible – in the end, he was taken back to their grandmother’s – and Ksyusha, who was cross the whole time (‘She’s had a tiff with her man...’, whispered Katya), and their hands, already washed with white spirit in the joyful summer darkness – all of this, when Zaharka finally got to bed at night, turned, for some reason, into a very bright swing carousel, the kind with seats on chains, it seemed, on which he whirled round, and wide-eyed faces flashed by, staring intently for some reason, but then the seats on the long chains were whisked far away, and only the colour remained: green, dark blue, green.
Only just before morning did an unexpected silence come, transparent and tender, as in the graveyard, with the far-off singing of birds.
‘All my sin...’ Zaharka thought sleepily, ‘all my sin will torment me...And the good I’ve done – it’s light as down. Any puff could carry it off...’
The summer days that followed, which had started out so slow and long, suddenly began to race past at full pelt, doing nearly a whole round of the swing carousel, flashing past indiscernibly, each just as happy as the next, until their image was wiped away.
On the last morning, with everything packed up already, wearing his jeans and a heavy shirt, in boots that surprised his feet, Zaharka was wandering around in the yard.
He was thinking about what else there was to do. He couldn’t think of anything.
He found the bow and its last arrow. He pulled back the bowstring and let it fly.
The arrow fell into the dust, a pink feather on its end.
‘What an idiot,’ he said to himself cheerfully, ‘you’re acting like an idiot.’
He kissed his grandmother, hugged his grandfather, walked out so they didn’t see his tears. Light, weightless, he almost flew to the main road – that’s what they called the metalled road beyond the village, where the bus went by at six in the morning.
He didn’t go to the sisters’ to say goodbye, why wake them?
‘They squabbled like rooks,’ he thought while on his way.
And he also thought ‘Thistle, and scented burdock.’
He rode on the bus with a clear heart.
‘How right everything is, my God!’ he repeated brightly. ‘How right, my God. What a long life lies ahead. There’ll be another summer, and it will be warm again, and there will be armfuls of flowers...’
But there was never another summer.
That spring I left my job at the bar where I worked as a bouncer. I was flowing with the milk of human kindness to such an extent that I decided to join some foreign legion as a mercenary. I had to calm myself down somehow or other.
I had turned 23: a strange age when it’s so easy to die. I wasn’t married; I was physically strong, energetic and cheerful. I was a good shot and open to the possibility of shooting at whatever I had to, especially in another country, where they worshipped different gods – who couldn’t care less about me.
In the city to which I had moved from a distant suburb, there was some kind of legion recruitment centre. They took my documents and talked to me a bit about some specific subjects.
I squeezed as much as they needed out of myself, pulled myself up as much as they wanted, cheerfully did a five-kilometre run, and did a few other things too, whether I did some jumps, and I did some squats too, probably a hundred or maybe a hundred and fifty times.
After the psychological test, (which ran to ten pages) the psychiatrist raised his apathetic eyebrows at me and said wearily: ‘Well, there’s someone to envy... Are you really like this or have you already done this test?’
Waiting for the call-up from the recruitment centre, I wandered around the town and breathed in its warmth, which smelled of bushes and petrol, with my young lungs. In filling them with air you could, if you wanted, take off just a little.
Soon, two weeks later, my money ran out. I had nothing to pay the rent on my tiny empty room with the wonderful hard bed and two dumb-bells under it, and almost nothing to feed myself with. But like every lucky person, the solution to the situation found me by itself, calling out to me during my daily, half-day-long wandering on foot.
Hearing my name, I turned around without a care in the world, always ready for anything, but at the same time not expecting anything from life other than goodness.
He was called Aleksey.
We’d been introduced one time by my weird girlfriend who sewed pictures, I can’t remember what the right name is for them, those creations. She gave me a few of the pictures, and I immediately hid them in a shoebox, sincerely thinking that it was much more difficult to sew epaulettes.
I took the box around with me. Along with the dumb-bells it was my most prized possession. In the box there were two or three semi-literate letters from my former comrades at my old army barracks, and a bundle of affectionate and aching letters from my brother, who was doing time for ten, maybe twelve robberies.
Alongside the box lay a volume with three novels by the great Russian emigre, who’d been a soldier in the Volunteer Army, and a French taxi driver. Reading these novels, I felt a clear, warm, grief in my heart, almost beyond my understanding. I would melt into a smile even before I punched someone.
There was also a grid-paper exercise book in which sometimes, not more than once a week, but usually much less often, I wrote down verses of poetry - surprising even myself. They were easy to compose, but inside I realised that almost nothing I’d written down was something I was feeling or had felt even once. From time to time I re-read what I’d written and was once again surprised – where had I got this from?
But I never looked at my girlfriend’s embroidery.
Then she started having exhibitions. It seems it wasn’t a damn thing like epaulettes, and she asked me to return the pictures, but I had lost them, of course – I had to make up some fib.
But I went to the exhibition, and there she introduced me to Aleksey for some reason, although I hadn’t expressed any desire to get to know him or indeed anyone at all.
At first glance, he created a strange impression. He was an unhealthily fat person with the unhealed traces of teenage acne. His features blurred into one another as though they had been drawn on damp paper.
However, Aleksey turned out to be a friendly guy. He immediately suggested to me that we went and had a drink, his treat, somewhere nearby. That’s why I didn’t see the exhibition properly.
For some reason, he was the one who popped up on that springtime street, to call out to me when my money had run out. And he did say my name loudly.
We said hello and he crouched down at once to tie up the laces on his boots. I gazed thoughtfully at the crown of his head with its sparse, sweaty, fine hair – like that of children who are still almost babies.
He had a large, round head.
Then he stood up and I didn’t think to start a conversation, but he began to make small-talk first. He simply seized on some word on the fly, whatever was closest – maybe that word was ‘asphalt’, maybe it was ‘shoelace’, and he’d set off after it and talk and talk. It never made any difference to him which shoelace he started with.
Without any deliberation I agreed to go for a drink with him again, on his tab.
After half-emptying a bottle of vodka and having listened to everything he said as we did so, over the course of about a half-hour, I finally got one sentence in. It was only ‘Me? I’m getting along all right, only I don’t have a job’.
He immediately offered me some work. At the same place he worked.
We quickly became friends. I don’t know why he needed me. He didn’t weigh me down or annoy me, and he even cheered me up sometimes. He loved to talk, and I wasn’t averse to listening. Miracles of some kind were always happening to him – he was forever falling asleep drunk in stairwells, on night trains and in parks, and waking up robbed or beaten up, or in the drying-out cell at the police station - where he’d also been robbed, actually.
He had a gentle and wholly considerate sense of humour. Sometimes his ponderings on life spilled over into colourful maxims. Sober, he moved around quickly, but never went very far – to the smoking room, say. He smoked a lot, he loved baggy shirts, and he only wore dusty shoes, always lace-up ones.
I affectionately called him Alyosha, the name he used to his friends. He had just turned thirty, graduated from the famous Literary Institute and served in the army, where somehow, I couldn’t imagine how, he hadn’t got himself killed.
Our work wasn’t hard. We were extra hands in one of those pointless offices which had become so numerous in our strange times. They were born and died out almost painlessly, sometimes, incidentally, leaving their oblivious workers, who hadn’t sensed the approaching collapse, without their wages.
In the evenings, at the end of the working day, he would come up to me quietly and bending down, would say in a whisper:
‘Something’s getting me down, Zakhar. Shall we go and have a drop of vodka?’
We would wander on out from work, already feeling the sweet anxiety of impending alcoholic intoxication, and so we began to talk more loudly because of that, laughing at nothing much.
He was almost always the one who talked, and I only gave responses, no more than ten words in a row. If what I said amused him, then for some reason I cheered up. I didn’t ask much of our acquaintance, I’m used to making do with what there is.
As we got closer to the kiosk, Alyosha would begin to talk more quietly, like he was afraid someone would catch him buying vodka. If I didn’t copy Alyosha and quiet down as we approached the kiosk, and carried on being stupid, he would humph at me. I would fall silent, secretly enjoying myself. I have the weird habit of sometimes going along with decent, good-hearted, weak people.
We both chipped in for the vodka, usually splitting it equally – though Alyosha never once trusted me with buying something: he would select the banknote and take the bottle away from the kiosk hatch, looking as though if he didn’t do everything himself, I would undoubtedly get in a muddle and buy a box of lollipops instead.
He took the bottle of spirits, the thick yellow bladder of lemonade and two little plastic glasses. Alyosha refused to recognise any drinking snacks, zakuski. He thought that the left-over money would surely come in useful afterwards, when everything had been drunk and then, of course, it would turn out not to be enough.
We would go out into the quiet, neglected little yard. In the corner of the yard there was a small bench. On the right hand side of it there twisted the old, barrack-like yellow house, and to the left – a row of constantly damp, rotten sheds, where we went to pee after we had finished drinking.
Walking towards the bench, he used to say with relief, ‘Well now...’. By this, he meant that everything was sorted now, despite my awkward, noisy behaviour and tiresome advice to buy at least something to munch on.
He always put the vodka away in his bag, pouring it out when he thought necessary.
We would brush off the rubbish which was on the bench, lay down newspapers for ourselves, make a wisecrack or two softly. The jokes were already on another level: our vocal chords dampening down, as though they were preparing themselves for the burning to come, and didn’t vibrate loudly and cheerfully.
We used to light up, and we would sit for a little while in silence, gazing at the smoke.
Then Alyosha would pour out the vodka; I would sit with my head down, watching the soft flow of the clear liquid.
After the first glass he would begin to cough and cough for a long time, with a look of unusual disgust. I’d chew the stem of a fallen leaf, cursing myself – without malice – for not having taken some money off Alyosha to buy myself some food.
Sometimes out of the yellow building, blinded in every window, teenage boys used to emerge. They slouched around, with stupid faces, in baggy-kneed leotards or in sandals. They talked loudly, swearing unceasingly and hawking up on the ground.
I twisted round and kept staring at them.
‘Don’t overdo it, Zaharka, please. You don’t need to make a scene,’ said Alyosha, casting a sidelong glance, as though he didn’t want to catch the disgusting youths with his eye.
‘I won’t, I won’t,’ I laughed.
When drunk I have the habit of picking fights, giving lip and pulling off all kinds of stupid things. But no matter what intoxicated state I was in, I would never start involving this massive, clumsy man, who no doubt had liver disease, in my eccentric behaviour. He couldn’t fight and he couldn’t run away – what could he do, die and then because of my stupidity?
‘I won’t,’ I repeated, honestly.
The young lads would shout out something to their girlfriends, who’d appear first in one window on the first or second floor, then another. The girls pressed their faces to the glass; they registered a strange mixture of interest and disdain. Pulling a face and shouting something unintelligible in reply, the girls would go back into the depths of their disgusting flats, with the piles of iron pans in the kitchen. Sometimes, after the girls went, the annoyed faces of their mothers would momentarily appear in the windows after them.
Finally the lads would wander off, taking away the bladders on their knees and the vile echo of their foul, mindless swearing with them.
After the second glass, he cheered up and drank more easily, still frowning and looking hostile, but not coughing any more.
After warming up a little and making his horrible face a little rosier, Alyosha used to start talking. It seemed as though the world opened up to him anew, childlike and surprising. In any monologue, Alyosha invariably played the lyrical hero. He was a calm, gentle, good man, a stranger to envy, who was worth loving dearly. Why not love Alyosha, if he was so touching, gentle and joyful? it occurred to me.
Sometimes out of absent-mindedness I would try to tell him a story from my own life, about my work in the bar, about when crazy things had happened and I wasn’t even beaten up or brought down, but Alyosha would always begin shifting around impatiently right away, and would finally interrupt me without having heard the end of it.
After having another smoke, both utterly content and relaxed, we’d once again set off for the kiosk, looking back at the bench doubtfully – we didn’t want anyone else to take it.
We had a tradition: we would always visit a bookshop after the first bottle, but we never bought anything. Alyosha only got books when he was sober, after pay-day, and I took them out of the library.
We just used to stroll round the shop, like at the museum. We touched the book-spines, opened them to the first page, and looked at the authors’ faces.
‘Do you like Hemi?’ I would ask, casting an eye over the slim, beautiful, dark-blue tomes.
‘You’ll get tired of his main character pretty quickly, he’s an obnoxiously strong guy. Built like a tank, boxer’s stance. Tigers, bulls. Tiger habits, bull’s balls...’
I looked at Alyosha’s figure sarcastically and didn’t say anything. He didn’t notice my sarcasm. It looked to me as though he hadn’t noticed.
Alyosha was already into his fifth year of writing a novel with the ok, but somehow cliched name of ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’. I still can’t explain how I knew it was passe.
Once, I asked Alyosha to read to me the first chapters he’d written, and he didn’t refuse. Alyosha himself was the protagonist, renamed Seryozha. Over the course of a few pages, Seryozha suffered from the absurdity of the world: peeling potatoes in the kitchen (I liked the ‘bestarched knives’) and even sitting on the toilet – alongside him, like an abscess on the wall, hung a basin on a nail. I also liked the abscess, but not as much.
I told Alyosha about the knives and the basin. He pulled a face. But after putting up with it for a short interval of a few hours, Alyosha unexpectedly demanded, in a disgruntled voice:
‘You write something, surely. And you even get published? Why you need that, I don’t know...Maybe you could give me your texts to read?’
The next morning he gave the manuscript back to me and looking askance, grumbled:
‘Well, I didn’t like it. But don’t get upset, I’ll read some more of it.’
I laughed whole-heartedly. We got into the minibus and I tried to cheer Alyosha up somehow, as though I’d wronged him.
An evil, sweaty summer held sway, exhausting its very self. In the interior of the minibus it smelled of petrol and all the open windows and hatches couldn’t save us from the sultry air. We were driving across the bridge, barely moving in a huge, stop-start traffic jam. The river flowed by below, looking like someone had poured oil and petrol onto it.
The minibus shook, crammed beyond the limit; people with suffering faces hung from the straps. For my bulky and thoroughly damp Alyosha, who was being squeezed from all sides, it was particularly awful.
The driver was loudly playing hoarse singing on his cassette tape. He clearly wanted everyone on the bus be converted to the swaggering gangster music he sulkily loved.
Stupid from the heat, the stuffiness, other people’s bodies, but most of all from the abomination drifting towards us from the driver’s speakers, I closed my eyes and imagined I was slicing the guilty party from bottom to top with a nice hefty knife.
The traffic jam kept slowing down.
Cars honked their horns angrily and hysterically.
Alyosha was staring dully at some point above my head. Sweat was constantly streaming down his face. It was clear that he could also hear what was happening, and it was nauseating him. Alyosha chewed on his lips and separating the words, almost syllable by syllable, said:
‘Now I know what hell must look like for Mozart.’
Unable to bear the journey, we got out long before our workplace and decided to drink some beer. My friend was panting and rolling his eyes, gradually reviving. The beer was ice cold.
‘Alyosha, what a great guy you are!’ I said, marvelling at him.
He didn’t look like he was very pleased with what I’d said.
‘Well, come on, my old mate, shall we not go to work?’ suggested Alyosha. ‘Shall we go and tell them a porkie?’
We rang the office, lied, didn’t go to work, and sat in the dark pouring ourselves beer.
Then we went for a walk, almost arm in arm, and knowing for certain – though we didn’t say it out loud - that by the evening we would be hideously drunk.
‘There’s our bookshop!’ said Alyosha lyrically. ‘Let’s go and remind ourselves of the books we might’ve bought and read cover to cover.’
We wandered around between the rows of books again, brushing the beautiful covers and touching the books’ spines, which gave out – I always remember this – an astringent smell.
‘Gaito, the wonderful Gaito...take a look, Alyosha! Have you read Gaito?’
‘Yeah,’ Alyosha twisted round, ‘I’ve read him.’
‘And?’ I raised my eyebrows, sensing something.
‘He’s not a bad author. But these boring little tricks of his on the horizontal bar, I don’t know why he mentions them...that hero of his, only anxious about his own manliness, and what’s more, it’s like he’s solving metaphysical problems...it’s one and the same guy in from novel to novel, playing with his triceps when he thinks you’re not looking, always knowing how to break a man’s finger...It’s a hidden aesthetic of violence. Do you remember that he was staring, enchanted, at the pimp being beaten up?’
‘Alyosha, stop it, you’ve gone crazy,’ I cut him off, and left the shop. I didn’t know why, but I was really angry.
My comrade came out after me, not looking at me. He was in a mood to drink vodka and fixed an eagle eye on the kiosk like it might walk away.
‘What about the Russian-American, the butterfly collector? His books?’ I asked, an hour later.
‘It’s strange, you knowing literature,’ said Alyosha instead of answering. ‘You’d be better suited to... knife-throwing... or spear-throwing. And then you’d shave your head with them. With the blunt blades.’
‘His Russian period is particularly unpleasant,’ Alyosha replied, a moment later, pouring in the remains of the vodka. ‘By the way, I haven’t read anything from his American period, apart from the book about the young girl. But many Russian novels are disgusting because of the narrator. A sport snob, scornful of everyone...’ here Alyosha searched for a word, but unable to find it, added ‘...everyone else...’
‘Just like you,’ Alyosha added suddenly in a completely sober voice, and then immediately began to talk about something else.
He sat, huge and bulky, on the little bench. The sides of his white, fattened body strained at his shirt. I smoked a lot and watched Alyosha attentively, sometimes forgetting to listen.
For some reason I remembered Alyosha’s old story about his father. He was disabled and never left his flat; he had been bed-bound for many years now. Alyosha never went to visit his father, although he didn’t live far away. Alyosha’s mother was taking care of the disabled man, her ex-husband, whom she had divorced long ago.
‘The last time I saw him, I was probably twelve,’ said Alyosha, ‘or maybe eleven.’
It was unclear whether he was ashamed of this or not. I thought about Alyosha for a little while at that point, his words and his father, and I didn’t come to any conclusion. In general, I don’t like thinking about things like that.
Soon Alyosha got fired, because he’d got completely out of the habit of turning up and doing at least something by a deadline. A little while later, actually, the same fate befell me.
I didn’t see Alyosha for a long time. It was like he’d taken serious offence at something, but him being offended was no business of mine.
The recruitment office for the legion didn’t call me, either.
I used to not turn on the light in the room and I would roll a black dumbbell along with my bare, frozen-toed foot, look out of the window, and dream about having a smoke. There wasn’t any money for cigarettes.
I got the strange, almost inexplicable feeling that the world, which had lain so solid under me, was beginning to float weirdly, like when your head’s spinning and you’re about to be sick.
Going against habit, I couldn’t restrain myself, and once I went round in person to my neighbour’s, whose telephone number I had left with the recruitment office at the interview. I asked my neighbour ‘Did anyone ring for me?’
At that point, no-one had called for me, but a couple of days later, my neighbour knocked on my door: ‘Someone’s phoning you!’
I ran barefoot across the landing and grabbed the receiver.
‘Well, are you still working? Cretins like you, they keep their head above water anywhere,’ I heard Alyosha’s voice. He was, of course, drunk. ‘Aren’t they going to take you up for that...what’s it called? Pension... legion...Did you miss some manly work? D’you want to shoot someone’s noddle off, eh?’ Alyosha laughed heartily down the phone. ‘A lyrical cannibal...you, you, I’m talking about you...a cannibal and a lyricist. Do you think it’ll be that way forever?...’
‘How did you get this number?’ I asked, turning to the wall and suddenly seeing my annoyed reflection in the mirror which hung behind the door, next to the telephone.
‘Shouldn’t that question come first?’ asked Alyosha. ‘Maybe you’ll take an interest in how I’m feeling? How I’m putting food on the table for my family, my daughter...’
‘Your daughter’s no concern of mine,’ I replied.
‘Sure, your only concern’s your reflection in the mirror.’
I hung up, apologised to my neighbour and went back to my room. I walked up to the bed and quite by accident booted the box with the letters in it – it fell over. The papers scattered with a fluttering sound and a few sheets flew out from under the bed and settled on the floor with a slight rustle. There was no carpet on the floor, just painted boards. Coins sometimes rolled between them when I took off and folded my trousers. The night before I had stupidly rooted around in the cracks with a metal ruler which the previous tenants had left behind, and I could hardly resist the temptation of breaking a board. It looked like there was a coin there with the figure 5 on it. A packet of Korean macaroons. Even two packets, if I got the cheapest ones.
For the first time in recent years, I was really aggravated.
I threw on a light jacket - there’d been some coins jingling in the pocket the day before: two, to be precise - and went out to buy some bread. A sign hung on the door of the small, quiet little shop: ‘Loader needed immediately’
The next evening I went out to work.
Loading bread was great. Three times a night, there came a knock on the iron shutters on the window. ‘Who is it?’ I was meant to ask, though I never did, just opened them at once – only because a minute beforehand I’d heard the sound of an approaching bread lorry. The surly driver was already standing on the other side of the window. He gave me the work sheet, I signed it off. There was always a ball-point pen in the pocket of my grey overalls.
Then he would open up the doors of his lorry, which was tucked up snugly against the window of the shop’s rear entrance. The inside of the lorry was filled with trays of bread. He gave them to me, and I carried the trays at a run around the shop, wedging them into special stands – the white bread in the white one, and the brown bread into the brown one.
The bread was still warm. I bent my face down to it, and every time I could hardly stop myself biting off a sweet-smelling chunk of it on the trot.
Once, in the very early morning, the driver put each tray of bread on the windowsill before I came back. Without waiting for me, the driver jumped into the van after the next tray, and the one which was standing on the windowsill fell off. Bread scattered all over the floor, and a few rolls ended up smeared with the dirt I had tracked in on my shoes.
‘What? You dicking about?’ The driver was quick to turn on me, bellyaching about me being a dimwit, though it was his fault.
I didn’t say anything back. To punch him in his stupid face, I’d have had to go through the shop, to the exit, open the iron door with the two locks, the long key, and you wouldn’t be able to get the key in the lock right off...
The van soon drove off. I turned on the overhead light in the place and picked up the rolls from the floor. When I had wiped them on my sleeve, I put them on the tray again. Two of the pinkish rolls hadn’t been rubbed clean – the dirt on them had just got more smeared around, so I spat on their pink sides a few times: the dirt came off better and more easily that way.
Alyosha appeared by the shop totally at random, and even now I can’t get my head round why he got shoved towards me that time.
I was just going on shift. I was finishing a fag, taking the last few drags, and was throwing the butt-end into the bin when Alyosha came out towards me through the open doors of my shop.
I couldn’t see any reason to still be angry with him, so I greeted Alyosha and even gave him a bit of a hug.
‘What, do you work here?’ he asked.
‘I do the loading,’ I replied, smiling.
‘Can I pop in for a moment? Warm up a bit? Not for long,’ Alyosha asked hurriedly, clearly not wanting to hear a refusal. ‘I’m going home soon anyway; I bought some presents for my daughter.’ He held up the bag as evidence.
‘No, you can’t right now,’ I replied. ‘Only when the boss lady and the shop assistants leave. In an hour.’
An hour later, a hammering came at the door. Alyosha was already drunk, and he also had a friend with him.
Admittedly, his friend seemed a nice guy to me, with a child-like look; healthy, taller than me, very likeable. He had little ears on his big head and a warm palm. He was almost always silent, not even trying to take part in the conversation, but smiling so appealingly that you wanted to shake his hand the whole time.
I showed them my bread and my trays. I took them into the cubby-hole where recently I had spent my nights pining away, as though expecting some kind of hard luck, really not knowing what form it would take precisely. Since that time in fourth grade when some older kids took my money for the last time, I hadn’t had any hard luck.
The guys had brought vodka with them.
‘There’ll be nice hot bread soon,’ I offered.
By the time the bread arrived, we were already drunk and laughing a lot.
Alyosha was in the middle of showing me the presents for his daughter. Firstly, a strange, anaemic plush animal. I tickled its nose, to Alyosha’s absolute outrage. Then the book ‘Karlsson’, with colour illustrations.
‘It’s my favourite story,’ said Alyosha, in an unexpectedly seriously. ‘I used to read it from when I was four till I was fourteen, several times a year.’
He conveyed this in a tone that sounded like he was confessing something incredibly important.
‘I’ve never been able to stand that little book, ever since I was a kid,’ I thought with clarity, but I didn’t say it out loud.
I stomped over the stone floor to go and open the little hatch through which they passed the bread to me, and I recalled how Alyosha had just then clapped his new friend on the shoulder affectionately and said:
‘Drink up, kiddo!’ and turning to me, added, ‘But you’re not a kid anymore.’ And we all cracked up, not really understanding why precisely.
A moment later, guffawing, all three of us unloaded the bread. The driver – the same one, it would seem – watched us with interest. Taking the last tray of bread, I said something cheeky to him for no particular reason. He responded – not very angrily either. He even grasped my mood immediately, and tried to right the situation, saying something placating. But I’d already given the tray over to Alyosha’s new friend and gone to open the door.
‘Stay there, I’m going out now,’ I tossed back over my shoulder to the driver.
On the way, I remembered that I was going to the door without the keys. It looked like I’d put them down on the table in my cubby hole. I went back there and couldn’t find them anywhere. I moved the half-empty bottles and half-eaten bread. I found the keys in the inner pocket of my overalls. As a matter of fact, I had felt them dig in painfully if I pressed the tray to my chest.
When I went out onto the street, the lorry had already left. The scent of bread emanated onto the street from the shop.
Alyosha wandered out behind me too, with a cigarette in his teeth. Following him and smiling sweetly, his companion appeared in the open doors.
We threw snowballs, trying to hit the street lamp, but we didn’t manage it – so then we hit the window, from which, in an attempt to save the street lighting from us, an unknown woman threatened us and banged on the glass.
Fooling about, I knocked shoulders with Alyosha’s friend, and I dared him to have a fight – not seriously, just for fun – hitting each other with open palms, not fists. He agreed to it.
We took our positions. I was prancing about enthusiastically; he wasn’t moving. He was gazing at me almost affectionately.
I took a step forward and got decked at once with a direct punch to the forehead. The fist, the one that punched me, was tightly clenched.
After I came round, about a minute later, I rubbed my forehead and temples for a long time with snow. The snow was rough and odourless.
‘Did you fall?’ said Alyosha, putting no kind of emotion in his question whatsoever.
I shook my head and turned my eyes on him; it was painful to turn my head round. He was very calm, smoking under the direct light of the street lamp, very bright because of the snow.
The next day, the legion office called me. I told them I wasn’t going anywhere.