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White Walls: Collected Stories

White Walls: Collected Stories


    Tatyana Tolstaya’s short stories—with their unpredictable fairy-tale plots, appealingly eccentric characters, and stylistic abundance and flair—established her in the 1980s as one of modern Russia’s finest writers. Since then her work has been translated throughout the world. Edna O’Brien has called Tolstaya “an enchantress.” Anita Desai has spoken of her work’s “richness and ardent life.” Mixing heartbreak and humor, dizzying flights of fantasy and plunging descents to earth, Tolstaya is the natural successor in a great Russian literary lineage that includes Gogol, Yuri Olesha, Bulgakov, and Nabokov.
    White Walls is the most comprehensive collection of Tolstaya’s short fiction to be published in English so far. It presents the contents of her two previous collections, On the Golden Porch and Sleepwalker in a Fog, along with several previously uncollected stories. Tolstaya writes of lonely children and lost love, of philosophers of the absurd and poets working as janitors, of angels and halfwits. She shows how the extraordinary will suddenly erupt in the midst of ordinary life, as she explores the human condition with a matchless combination of unbound imagination and unapologetic sympathy.
A New York Review Books Original
    “Tolstaya carves indelible people who roam the imagination long after the book is put down.”

Tatyana Tolstaya WHITE WALLS Collected Stories Translated by Antonina W. Bouis Jamey Gambrell


    “The other kids get to go out by themselves, but we have to go with Maryvanna!”
    “When you get to be seven, you’ll get to go out alone. And you don’t say ‘disgusting’ about an elderly person. You should be grateful to Maria Ivanovna for spending time with you.”
    “She doesn’t watch us on purpose! And we’re going to get run over, I know we are! And in the park she talks to all the old women and complains about us. And she says: ‘spirit of contradiction.’”
    “But you really do your best to spite her, don’t you?”
    “And I’ll go on doing it! I’m going to tell all those stupid old women ‘how don’t you do’ and ‘bad-bye.’”
    “Shame on you! You must have respect for your elders! Don’t be rude, listen to what they say: they’re older and know more than you.”
    “I do listen! All Maryvanna talks about is her uncle.”
    “And what does she say about him?”
    “That he hanged himself because he had a bad bladder. And that before that he was run over by the wheel of fortune. Because he was in debt and had crossed the street improperly.”
    …Small, heavyset, and short of breath, Maryvanna hates us and we hate her. We hate the hat with a veil, the holey glove, the dried pieces of “sand cookies” she feeds to the pigeons, and we stamp our feet at those pigeons to scare them off. Maryvanna takes us out every day for four hours, reads books to us, and tries to converse in French—basically, that’s what she is hired for. Because our own dear beloved Nanny Grusha, who lives with us, doesn’t know any foreign languages, and doesn’t go outside anymore, and has trouble getting around. Pushkin loved her very much, too, and wrote about her and called her “my ancient dove.” And he didn’t write anything about Maryvanna. And if he had, he’d have written “my fat piggy.”
    But what’s amazing—absolutely impossible to imagine—is that Maryvanna was the beloved nanny of a now grownup girl. And Maryvanna brings up that girl, Katya, every day. She didn’t stick out her tongue, didn’t pick her nose, ate everything on her plate, and hugged and kissed Maryvanna—she was crazy.
    At night, in bed, my sister and I make up conversations between Maryvanna and the obedient Katya.
    “Finish up the worms, dear Katya.”
    “With pleasure, sweet Maryvanna.”
    “Eat a marinated frog, child.”
    “I already have. Please give me some more mashed mice.”
    In the park that Maryvanna called “the boulevard,” pale Leningrad girls dig in the darkened autumn sand, listening to adults talk. Maryvanna, quickly making the acquaintance of some old lady in a hat, takes out her stiff old photographs: herself and Uncle leaning against a grand piano and behind them a waterfall. Could that white airy creature in lace gloves be buried somewhere in the bowels of that gasping fat? “He was father and mother to me and wanted me to call him simply Georges. He educated me, he brought me out into society. Those pearls—you can’t see them well here—were a gift from him. He loved me madly, madly. See how handsome he is here? And here we’re in Piatigorsk. That’s my friend Yulya. And here we’re having tea in the garden.”
    “Marvelous pictures. Is that Yulya too?”
    “No, that’s Zinaida. Georges’ girlfriend. She’s the one who bankrupted him. He was a gambler.”
    “Oh, so that’s it.”
    “Yes. I should throw away this picture, but I can’t. It’s all I have left of him. And his poems—he was a poet.”
    “You don’t say.”
    “Yes, yes, a wonderful poet. There aren’t any like him nowadays. So romantic, a bit of a mystic…”
    The old lady, silly twit, listens with her mouth open and smiles dreamily, looking at me. She shouldn’t stare at me. I stick out my tongue. Maryvanna, shutting her eyes in shame, whispers hatefully, “Hideous creature!”
    That night she’ll read her uncle’s poetry to me again:
Nanny, who screamed so loudly outside,
Flashing past the window,
Creaking the porch door,
Sighing under the bed?

Sleep, don’t worry,
God will watch over you,
Those were ravens calling,
Flying to the cemetery.

Nanny, who touched the candle,
Who’s scratching in the corner,
Who’s stretched in a black shadow
On the floor from the door?

Sleep, child, don’t worry,
The door is strong, the fence is high,
The thief won’t escape the block
The axe will thud in the night.

Nanny, who’s breathing down my back,
Who’s invisible and climbing
Ever closer up my Crumpled bed sheet?

Oh child, don’t frown
Wipe your tears and don’t cry.
The ropes are pulled tight,
The executioner knows his job.

    Well, after hearing a poem like that, who’d be brave enough to lower her feet from the bed, to use the potty, say? Everybody knows that under the bed, near the wall, is the Snake: in lace-up shoes, cap, gloves, motorcycle goggles, and holding a crook in his hand. The Snake isn’t there during the day, but he coagulates by night from twilight stuff and waits very quietly: who will dare lower a leg? And out comes the crook! He’s unlikely to eat you, but he’ll pull you in and shove you under the plinth, and you’ll fall endlessly, under the floor, between the dusty partitions. The room is guarded by other species of nocturnal creatures: the fragile and translucent Dry One, weak but terrible, who stands all night in the closet and in the morning goes into the cracks. Behind the peeling wallpaper are Indrik and Hindrik: one is greenish and the other gray, and they both run fast and have many feet. And in the corner on the floor is a rectangle of copper grating, and under that a black abyss: “ventilation.” It’s dangerous to approach even in the daytime; the Eyes stare out, without blinking. Yes, the most horrible is the nameless one who is always behind me, almost touching my hair (Uncle knows!). Many times he plans to reach out, but he keeps missing his chance and slowly, sadly, lowers his incorporeal hands. I wrap myself tight in the blanket, only my nose sticking out—they don’t attack from the front.
    Having frightened me with her uncle’s poems, Maryvanna goes back to her place in a communal apartment, where, besides her, live Iraida Anatolyevna with her diabetes, and dusty Sonya, and the Badylovs, who were deprived of parental rights, and the hanged uncle—And she’ll be back tomorrow if we don’t get sick. We often are.
    Many times, 104-degree flus would scream and bang at my ears, banging on red drums, surrounding me from eight sides and, swirling wildly, project a delirious film, always the same: a wooden honeycomb filling up with three-digit numbers; more numbers, louder noise, more urgent drums—all the cells will be filled now, just a little time left. My heart can’t take any more, it’ll burst—but it’s been postponed, I’ve been released, forgiven, the honeycomb taken away, a round loaf of bread with a nasty smile runs along an airfield on spindly legs—and it grows quiet… except for tiny planes like dots of bugs which scurry along the pink sky, carrying away the black cloak of fever in their claws. It’s passed.
    Shake the crumbs from my sheet, cool my pillow, smooth my blanket so that there isn’t a single wrinkle, otherwise the planes with claws will be back. Without thoughts, without desires, I lie on my back, in the coolness, in semidarkness—a half-hour’s breather between two attacks of the drummers. A fan of light crosses the ceiling from corner to corner, then another fan, and another. The cars have their headlights on, the evening has descended, a rug of light has been pushed under the door into the next room: they’re having tea there, the orange lamp shade is glowing, and one of the adults is making forbidden braids in its fringe, “ruining it.” Before the planes come back, I can leave my corporeal shell pounding with fever among the cast-iron sheets and mentally slip beyond the door—long nightgown, cold slippers—sit invisibly at the table (I’d forgotten this cup over the week) and, squinting, travel by gaze along the orange humps of the shade. The lamp shade is young and skittish, it isn’t used to me yet—Papa and I got it only recently at the flea market.
    Oh, there were so many people there, so many owners of quilted cotton and plush jackets, of brown Orenburg scarves. And they all gabbled and bustled and shook blue diagonal remnants before Papa’s face and shoved sturdy black felt boots in his nose. Such treasures there! And Papa: he blew it, missed out, he didn’t bring back anything but the lamp shade. He should have bought up everything: vases and saucers and flowered scarves, stuffed owls and porcelain pigs and rag rugs. We could have used the pussycat banks, and whistles and paper flowers—poppies with inked cotton in their centers—and paper fans, red and green trembling jabots on two sticks: you turn the sticks out and the fringed, impermanent lace shakes, turn them some more and it folds back up and disappears. Marvelous oilcloth paintings flickered: Lermontov on a gray wolf snatching up a swooning beauty; or him again wearing a caftan and aiming from bushes at swans with gold crowns; or doing something on a horse… but Papa dragged me on, farther, farther, past invalids with lollipops, to the lamp shade row.
    A man grabbed Papa’s leather sleeve, “Master, sell me your coat!”
    Don’t bother us with nonsense, we need a lamp shade, we have to get over there; I turn my head, I glimpse brooms, baskets, painted wooden eggs, a piglet—watch it, that’s it, let’s go back. Where is it? Oh, there. We push our way back through the crowd, Papa has the lamp shade, still dark and silent, but already a member of the family: it’s ours now, one of us, we’ll come to love it. And it waited quietly: where was it being taken? It didn’t know that time would pass and it, once the favorite, would be mocked, cast down, discarded, exiled, and a new favorite would take its place: a fashionable white five-petaled “shorty.” And then, insulted, mutilated, betrayed, it would go through the last mortification: it would serve as a crinoline in a children’s play and then plunge forever into wastebin oblivion. Sic transit gloria mundi.
    “Papa, buy me that, please.”
    “What is it?”
    A merry, bundled-up peasant woman, glad to see a customer, is spinning in the cold, hopping up and down, stamping her felt boots, shaking the chopped-off golden braid as thick as a hawser.
    “Buy it!”
    “Papa, buy it!”
    “Have you lost your mind? A stranger’s hair! Don’t even touch it—it’s got lice.”
    Phooey, how horrible! I freeze: and really, there they are, enormous lice, each the size of a sparrow, with attentive eyes and shaggy legs and claws clutch the sheet, climb on the blanket, clap hands, louder and louder—The delirium hums again, the fever screams, the fiery wheels spin: flu!
    …A dark urban winter, a cold stream of air from the corridor: one of the adults is hauling in a huge striped sack of firewood to heat up the round brown water heater in the bathroom. Scat, you’re underfoot, get out of the way! Hurrah, we’re going to have baths today! A wooden railing is placed across the tub: heavy chipped basins, pitchers of hot water, the sharp scent of pitch soap, soaked wrinkled skin on the hands, the steamy mirror, stuffiness, the clean, ironed underwear, and whizzz, run down the cold corridor, and plop! into fresh sheets: heaven!
    “Nanny, sing a song.”
    Nanny Grusha is terribly old. She was born in a village and then was brought up by a kindly countess. Her gray head holds thousands of stories about talking bears, and blue snakes that cure people with tuberculosis by climbing in through the chimney during the night, about Pushkin and Lermontov. And she knows for a fact that if you eat raw dough you’ll fly away. And when she was five—like me—the tsar sent her a secret package to Lenin at Smolny Institute. There was a note in the package: “Surrender!” And Lenin replied: “Never!” And shot off a cannon.
    Nanny sings:
The Terek flows over rocks,
Splashing with a stagger…
An evil Chechen crawls ashore,
Sharpening his dagger…

    The curtain trembles on the window, a threateningly shining moon appears from behind a winter cloud; from the murky Karpovka Canal a black Chechen climbs onto the icy shore, shaggy, baring his teeth….
    “Sleep, my darling, sleep tight.”
    …Yes, things aren’t going too well with Maryvanna. Should I be sent to a French group? They go out for walks, and get a snack, and play Lotto. Of course, send me. Hurrah! But that evening, the Frenchwoman returns the black sheep to mother.
    “Madame, your child is completely unprepared. She stuck her tongue out at the other children, tore up pictures, and threw up her cream of wheat. Come back next year. Good-bye. Au revoir.”
    “Bad-bye!” I shout, dragged away by my disappointed mother. “Eat your own crummy cream of wheat! No revoir!”
    (“Is that so? Well, just get out of here! Take your lousy kid!”—“Who needs it! Don’t think you’re so hot, madame.”)
    “Forgive us, please, she’s really quite difficult.”
    “It’s all right, I understand.”
    What a burden you are!
    …Let’s take colored pencils. If you lick the red, it gives a specially smooth, satiny color. Of course, not for long. Well, enough for Maryvanna’s face. Put a huge wart here. Fine. Now the blue: a balloon and another balloon. And two columns. A black pancake on her head. In her hands, a purse; but I don’t know how to draw one. There. Maryvanna’s done. She’s sitting on a peeling vernal bench, her galoshes spread and planted firmly, eyes shut, singing:
I was going ho-o-ome…
My heart was fu-ull…

    Why don’t you go home? Why don’t you go to your precious Katya?
    “Georges always bought halvah for me at Abrikosov’s—remember?”
    “Yes, yes, of course—”
    “Everything was dainty, delicate—”
    “Don’t I know it—”
    “And now. Take these: I thought they were intellectuals! But they cut their bread in huge chunks.”
    “Yes, yes, yes… and I…”
    “I always used the formal ‘you’ with my mother. I showed respect. But these ones, well, all right, I’m a stranger to them, but their parents, at least their parents, but no… nothing… And they grab at the table. Like this! With their hands, their hands.”
    God! How long must we put up with each other?
    And then they shut the little park to let it dry out. And we simply walk the streets. And one day suddenly a tall thin girl— a white mosquito—throws herself screeching on Maryvanna’s neck, weeping, and caressing her shaking red face!
    “My nanny! My dearest nanny!”
    And look: that lump, weeping and gasping, also grabs the girl, and they—strangers—right here before my eyes, are both shouting and weeping over their stupid love.
    “My dearest nanny!”
    Hey, girl, what’s the matter with you? Rub your eyes! It’s Maryvanna. Look, look, she has a wart. It’s our Maryvanna, our laughingstock: stupid, old, fat, silly.
    But does love know that?
    …Get out of here, girl! Don’t hang around here… with all that goopy stuff…. I push on, angry and tired. I’m much better than that girl. But Maryvanna doesn’t love me like her. The world is unfair. The world is upside down. I don’t understand anything. I want to go home! But Maryvanna has this radiant look, holds me tight by the hand, and puffs along ahead.
    “My feet hurt!”
    “We’ll make a circle and head back… soon, soon….”
    Unfamiliar parts. Twilight. The light air has risen and is suspended over the houses; the dark air came out and is standing in the doorways and arches, in the holes of the street. An hour of depression for adults, of depression and fear for children. I’m all alone in the world, Mama has lost me, we’re going to get lost any second, now. I’m in a panic and I clutch Maryvanna’s cold hand.
    “That’s where I live. There’s my window—second from the corner.”
    Disembodied heads frown and open their mouths—they’ll eat me—under every window. The heads are horrible, and the damp darkness of the archway is creepy, and Maryvanna is not family. High up, in the window, nose pressed against the dark glass, the hanged uncle waits, running his hands over the glass, peering. Bug off, uncle! You’ll climb out of the Karpovka at night, disguised as an evil Chechen, grin under the moonlight —eyes rolled back into your head—and you’ll run real fast on all fours over the cobblestone street, across the courtyard to the front door, into the heavy, dense dark, with bare hands up the icy steps, along the square staircase spiral, higher, higher, to our door….
    Hurry, hurry, home! To Nanny! O Nanny Grusha! Darling! Hurry to you! I’ve forgotten your face. I’ll huddle against your dark skirts, and your warm old hands will warm my frozen, lost, bewildered heart.
    Nanny will unwind my scarf, unfasten the button digging into my flesh, and take me into the cavelike warmth of the nursery, where there’s a red night light, where there are soft mountains of beds, and my bitter childish tears will drip into the light blue plate of self-important kasha, so pleased with itself. And seeing that, Nanny will also cry, and sit close, and hug me, and won’t ask but understand with her heart, the way an animal understands an animal, an old person a child, and a wordless creature its fellow.
    Lord, the world is so frightening and hostile, the poor homeless, inexperienced soul huddling in the square in the night wind. Who was so cruel, who filled me with love and hate, fear and depression, pity and shame, but didn’t give me words: stole speech, sealed my mouth, put on iron padlocks, and threw away the keys.
    Maryvanna, having had her fill of tea and feeling cheerier, drops by the nursery to say good night. Why is this child crying? Come on, come on. What happened? Cut yourself? Stomachache? Punished?
    (No, no, that’s not it. Shut up, you don’t understand! It’s just that in the light blue plate, on the bottom the geese and swans are going to catch the running children, and the girl’s hands are chipped off and she can’t cover her head or hold her brother.)
    “Come on, wipe those tears, shame on you, you’re a big girl now! Clean up your plate. And I’ll read you a poem.”
    Elbowing Maryvanna aside, lifting his top hat and squinting, Uncle Georges comes forward:
Not white tulips
In bridal lace
It’s the foam of the ocean
On distant shores.

The ship creaks
Its ancient wood.
Unheard of pleasures
Beyond the foam.

Not black tulips
It’s women in the night.
Noon passions
Are hot at midnight too.

Roll out the barrel!
The native women are fine!
We’ve waited for this night
Let’s find our pleasure!

Not crimson tulips
Floating on his chest
The captains camisole
Has three holes in front;

The merry sailors
Grin on the ocean floor…
The women in that country
Had beautiful hair.

    “What horrors at bedtime for the child,” grumbles Nanny.
    The uncle bows and leaves. Maryvanna shuts the door behind herself: until tomorrow.
    Go away all of you, leave me alone, you don’t understand anything.
    A prickly ball spins in my chest, and unspoken words bubble on my lips, smeared by tears. The red night light nods. Why, she has a fever, someone far far away cries, but he can’t shout over the noise of wings, geese and swans attacking from the noisy sky.
    …The kitchen door is shut. The sun breaks through the matte glass. Noon spills gold onto the parquet floor. Silence. Beyond the door Maryvanna weeps, and complains about us.
    “I can’t take any more! What is this—day after day, it gets worse… contrary, spiteful…. I’ve lived a hard life, always among strangers, and I’ve been treated in many ways, of course…. No, the terms—I’m not complaining, the terms are fine, but at my age… and with my health… Where does that spirit of contradiction, that hostility come from…. I wanted a little poetry, loftiness…Useless… I can’t take any more….”
    She’s leaving us.
    Maryvanna is leaving us. Maryvanna blows her nose into a tiny handkerchief. She powders her red nose, stares deeply into the mirror, hesitates, seems to be seeking something in its inaccessible, sealed universe. And really, deep in its twilight forgotten curtains stir, candle flames flicker, and the pale uncle comes out with a black piece of paper in his hands.
Princess Rose grew weary of life
And ended it at sunset.
She wet her lips sadly
With poisoned wine.

And the prince froze like a statue
In the grim power of sorrow,
And the retinue whispers condolences
That she was innocent.

The porphyry parents
Had their heralds announce
That the grieving populace
Lower flags in the towers.

I enter the funeral procession
As a funereal violin,
I place narcissus on the princess’s
Grave with a melancholy smile.

And pretending sorrow,
I lower my eyes, so that they cannot see:
What a wedding awaits me!
You’ve never seen its like.

    The chandeliers are covered with deathly white netting, and the mirrors with black. Maryvanna pulls down her heavy veil, gathers the ruins of her purse with trembling hands, turns and leaves, her worn shoes scuffing over the doorsill, beyond the limit, forever out of our lives.
    Spring is still weak, but the snow is gone, and the remaining black crusts lie only in stone corners. It’s warm in the sunshine.
    Farewell, Maryvanna!
    We’re ready for summer.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


    When the sun moved into the sign of Scorpio, it grew very windy, dark, and rainy. The wet, streaming city, banging wind against the glass outside the defenseless, uncurtained, bachelor’s window with processed cheeses cooling between the panes on the sill, seemed to be Peter’s evil plan, the revenge of the huge, bug-eyed, big-mouthed, and toothy carpenter-tsar, ship’s axe in his upraised hand, chasing and gaining on his weak and terrified subjects in their nightmares. The rivers, rushing out to the windblown and threatening sea, bucked and with hissing urgency opened the cast-iron hatches and quickly raised their watery backs in museum cellars, licking at the fragile collections that were crumbling into damp sand, at shamans’ masks made of rooster feathers, at crooked foreign swords, at beaded robes, and at the sinewy feet of the angry museum staff brought from their beds in the middle of the night. On days like that, when the rain, darkness, and window-bending wind reflected the white solemn face of loneliness, Simeonov, feeling particularly big-nosed and balding and particularly feeling his years around his face and his cheap socks far below, on the edge of existence, would put on the teakettle, wipe dust with his sleeve from the table, clearing away the books that stuck out their white bookmark tongues, set up the gramophone, selecting the right-sized book to support its listing side, and in blissful anticipation pull out Vera Vasilevna from the torn and yellow-stained jacket—an old and heavy disc, anthracite in color, and not disfigured by smooth concentric circles—one love song on each side.
    “No! it’s not you! I love! so passionately!” Vera Vasilevna skipped, creaking and hissing, quickly spinning under the needle; the hiss creak and spin formed a black tunnel that widened into the gramophone horn, and triumphant in her victory over Simeonov, speeding out of the festooned orchid of her voice, divine, low, dark, lacy, and dusty at first and then throbbing with underwater pressure, rising up from the depths, transforming, trembling on the water like flames—pshsts-pshsts-pshsts, pshsts-pshsts-pshsts—filling like a sail, getting louder, breaking hawsers, speeding unrestrained pshsts-pshsts-pshsts a caravel over the nocturnal waters splashing flames—stronger— spreading its wings, gathering speed, smoothly tearing away from the remaining bulk of the flow that had given birth to it, away from the tiny Simeonov left on shore, his balding bare head lifted to the gigantic, glowing, dimming half sky to the voice coming in a triumphant cry—no, it wasn’t he whom Vera Vasilevna loved so passionately, but still, essentially, she loved only him, and it was mutual. Kh-shch-shch-shch.
    Simeonov carefully removed the now silent Vera Vasilevna, shaking the record, holding it between straightened, respectful hands; he examined the ancient label: Ah, where are you now, Vera Vasilevna? Where are your white bones now? And turning her over on her back, he placed the needle, squinting at the olive-black shimmer of the bobbing thick disc, and listened once more, longing for the long-faded, pshsts, chrysanthemums in the garden, pshsts, where they had met, and once again, gathering underwater pressure, throwing off dust, laces, and years, Vera Vasilevna creaked and appeared as a languorous naiad—an unathletic, slightly plump turn-of-the-century naiad—O sweet pear, guitar, hourglass, slope-hipped champagne bottle!
    And by then the teakettle would be aboil, and Simeonov, fishing some processed cheese or ham scraps from the window-sill, would put the record on again and have a bachelor feast off a newspaper, delighting in the fact that Tamara would not find him today, would not disturb his precious rendezvous with Vera Vasilevna. He was happy alone in his small apartment, alone with Vera Vasilevna. The door was securely locked against Tamara, and the tea was strong and sweet, and the translation of the unneeded book from the rare language was almost complete—he would have money soon, and Simeonov would buy a scarce record from a shark for a high price, one where Vera Vasilevna regrets that spring will come but not for her—a man’s romance, a romance of solitude, and the incorporeal Vera Vasilevna will sing it, merging with Simeonov into a single longing, sobbing voice. O blessed solitude! Solitude eats right out of the frying pan, spears a cold meat patty from a murky half-liter jar, makes tea right in the mug—so what? Peace and freedom! A family rattles the dish cupboard, sets out traps of cups and saucers, catches your soul with knife and fork—gets it under the ribs from both sides—smothers it with a tea caddy, tosses a tablecloth over its head, but the free lone soul slips out through the linen fringe, squeezes like an eel through the napkin ring, and—hop! catch me if you cani—it’s back in the dark magical circle filled with flames, outlined by Vera Vasilevna’s voice, following her skirts and fan from the bright ballroom out onto the summer balcony at night, the spacious semicircle above a sweet-smelling bed of chrysanthemums; well, actually, their white, dry, and bitter aroma is an autumnal one, a harbinger of fall separation, oblivion, but love still lives in my ailing heart— .1 sickly smell, the smell of sadness and decay, where are you now, Vera Vasilevna, perhaps in Paris or Shanghai and which rain—Parisian light blue or Chinese yellow—drizzles over your grave, and whose soil chills your white bones? No, it’s not you I love so passionately. (That’s what you say. Of course it’s me, Vera Vasilevna.)
    Trolleys passed Simeonov’s window, once upon a time clanging their bells and swinging the hanging loops that resembled stirrups—Simeonov kept thinking that the horses were hidden up in the ceiling, like portraits of trolley ancestors taken up to the attic; but the bells grew still, and now all he heard was the rattle, clickety-clack, and squeals on the turns, and at last the red-sided cars with wooden benches died, and the new cars were rounded, noiseless, hissing at stops, and you could sit, plopping down on the soft seat that gasped and gave up the ghost beneath you, and ride off into the blue yonder to the last stop, beckoning with its name: Okkervil River. But Simeonov had never gone there. It was the end of the world and there was nothing there for him, but that wasn’t it, really: without seeing or knowing that distant, almost non-Leningrad river, he could imagine it in any way he chose: a murky greenish flow, for instance, with a slow green sun murkily floating in it, silvery willows softly hanging down from the gentle bank, red brick two-story houses with tile roofs, humped wooden bridges—a quiet world in a sleepy stupor; but actually it was probably filled with warehouses, fences, and some stinking factory spitting out mother-of-pearl toxic gases, a dump smoldering smelly smoke, or something else hopeless, provincial, and trite. No, no reason to be disillusioned by going to Okkervil River, it was better to mentally plant long-haired willows on its banks, set up steep-roofed houses, release slow-moving residents, perhaps in German caps, striped stockings, with long porcelain pipes in their mouths… even better to pave the Okkervil’s embankment, fill the river with gray water, sketch in bridges with towers and chains, smooth out the granite parapets with a curved template, line the embankment with tall gray houses with cast iron grates on the windows—with a fish-scale motif on top of the gates and nasturtiums peeking from the balconies—and settle young Vera Vasilevna there and let her walk, pulling on a long glove, along the paving stones, placing her feet close together, stepping daintily with her black snub-toed slippers with apple-round heels, in a small round hat with a veil, through the still drizzle of a St. Petersburg morning; and in that case, make the fog light blue.
    Let’s have light blue fog. The fog in place, Vera Vasilevna walks, her round heels clicking, across the entire paved section held in Simeonov’s imagination, here’s the edge of the scenery, the director’s run out of means, he is powerless and weary, he releases the actors, crosses out the balconies with nasturtiums, gives those who like it the grating with fish-scale motif, flicks the granite parapets into the water, stuffs the towered bridges into his pockets—the pockets bulge, the chains droop as if from grandfather’s watch, and only the Okkervil River flows on, narrowing and widening feverishly, unable to select a permanent image for itself.
    Simeonov ate processed cheese, translated boring books, sometimes brought women home in the evenings and in the morning, disappointed, saw them out—no! it’s not you!—hid from Tamara, who kept coming over with washed laundry and fried potatoes and flowered curtains for the windows, and who assiduously kept forgetting important things at Simeonov’s—hairpins or a handkerchief she needed urgently by nightfall, and she would travel across the whole city to get them, and Simeonov would put out the light and stand pressed against the foyer wall while she banged on the door, and very often he gave in, and then he had a hot meal for dinner and drank strong tea from a blue and gold cup and had homemade cookies for dessert, and it was too late for Tamara to go back home, of course; the last trolley had gone and it wouldn’t reach the foggy Okkervil River, and Tamara would fluff up the pillows while Vera Vasilevna—turning her back and not listening to Simeonov’s explanations—would walk into the night along the embankment, swaying on her apple-round heels.
    The autumn was thickening when he purchased a heavy disc, chipped on one side, from a shark—they had haggled over the damage, the price was very high, and why? because Vera Vasilevna was forgotten, was never played on the radio, never flashed in a newsreel, and now only refined eccentrics, snobs, amateurs, and aesthetes who felt like throwing money on the incorporeal chased after her records, collected wire recordings, transcribed her low, dark voice that glowed like aged wine. The old woman’s still alive, the shark said, she lives somewhere in Leningrad, in poverty, they say, and shabbiness, she didn’t shine too long in her day, either; she lost her diamonds, husband, apartment, son, two lovers, and finally her voice: in that order; and she managed to handle all those losses before she was thirty-five, and she stopped singing back then, though she’s still alive. So that’s how it is, thought Simeonov with heavy heart on the way home over bridges and through gardens, across trolley tracks, thinking that’s how it is…. And locking the door, making tea, he put on his newly acquired treasure and, looking out the window at the heavy colored clouds looming on the sunset side, built, as usual, a section of the granite embankment, erected a bridge: the towers were heavier this time, and the chains were very cast iron, and the wind ruffled and wrinkled, agitated the broad gray smoothness of the Okkervil River, and Vera Vasilevna, tripping more than she ought in her uncomfortable heels invented by Simeonov, wrung her hands and bent her neatly coiffed head toward her sloping little shoulder—the moon glowed so softly, so softly, and my thoughts are full of you—the moon wouldn’t cooperate and slipped out like soap from his hands, sliding across the Okkervil clouds—there were always problems with the Okkervil skies—how restlessly the transparent, tamed shadows of our imagination scurry when the noises and smells of real life penetrate into their cool, foggy world.
    Looking at the sunset rivers where the Okkervil River also had its source, already blooming with toxic greenery, already poisoned by the living breath of an old woman, Simeonov listened to the arguing voices of two struggling demons: one demanded he throw the old woman out of his head, lock the door—opening it occasionally for Tamara—and go on as before, loving moderately, longing moderately, in moments of solitude listening to the pure sound of the silver horn singing over the unknown foggy river; the other demon, a wild youth with a mind dimmed by translating bad books, demanded that he walk, run, to find Vera Vasilevna, a half-blind, impoverished, emaciated, hoarse, stick-legged old woman; find her, bend over her almost deaf ear, and shout through the years and misfortunes that she is the one and only, that he had passionately loved her always, that love still lives in his ailing heart, that she, the divine Peri, her voice rising from underwater depths, filling sails, speeding along the flaming waters of the night, surging upward, eclipsing half the sky, had destroyed and uplifted him—Simeonov, her faithful knight—and crushed by her silvery voice, the trolleys, books, processed cheeses, wet sidewalks, bird calls, Tamaras, cups, nameless women, passing years, and the weight of the world all rolled off like tiny pieces of gravel. And the old woman, stunned, would look at him with tear-filled eyes: What? You know me? It can’t be! My God! does anyone still care? I never thought—and bewildered, she wouldn’t know where to seat Simeonov, while tenderly holding her elbow and kissing her no longer white hand, covered with age spots, he would lead her to an armchair, peering into her faded face of old-fashioned bone structure. And looking at the part in her thin white hair with tenderness and pity, he would think: Oh, how we missed each other in this world. What madness that time separated us. (“Ugh, don’t” grimaced his inner demon, but Simeonov wanted to do what was right.)
    He obtained Vera Vasilevna’s address in the most mundane and insulting way—for five kopeks at a sidewalk directory kiosk. His heart thumped: would it be Okkervil? of course not.
    And not the embankment either. He bought chrysanthemums at the market—tiny yellow ones wrapped in cellophane. Long faded. And he picked up a cake at the bakery. The saleswoman took off the cardboard cover and showed him his selection on her outstretched hand: will it do?—but Simeonov did not notice what he was buying and recoiled, because Tamara was outside the bakery window—or was it his imagination?—going to get him, nice and warm, in his apartment. Only in the trolley did he untie his purchase and look inside. Not bad. Fruit. Decent looking. Lone fruits slept in the corners under a glassy gel: a slice of apple here; in a more expensive corner a chunk of peach; here half a plum frozen in eternal cold; here a mischievous, ladylike corner with three cherries. The sides were dusted with confectionery dandruff. The trolley jolted, the cake slipped, and Simeonov saw a clear thumbprint on the smooth jellied surface—either the careless baker’s or the clumsy saleswoman’s. No problem, the old woman doesn’t see well. I’ll cut it up right away. (“Go back”—his guardian demon sadly shook his head—“run for your life.”) Simeonov retied the box as best he could and began looking at the sunset. The Okkervil rushed noisily in a narrow stream, slapping the granite shores, and the shores crumbled like sand and crept into the water. He stood before Vera Vasilevnas house, shifting the presents from hand to hand. The gates he had to pass were ornamented with a fish-scale motif. Beyond: a horrible courtyard. A cat scurried by. Just as I thought. A great forgotten artist has to live off a courtyard like this. The back entrance, garbage cans, narrow iron banisters, dirt. His heart was pounding. Long faded. In my ailing heart.
    He rang. (“Fool,” said his inner demon, spat, and left Simeonov.) The door was flung open by the onslaught of noise, singing, and laughter pouring out of the apartment, and Vera Vasilevna appeared, white and huge, rouged, with thick black brows; appeared at the set table in the illuminated segment above a mound of sharply spiced hors d’oeuvres he could smell even from the doorway, above an enormous chocolate cake crowned with a chocolate bunny, laughing loudly, raucously; appeared and was selected by fate forever. He should have turned and left. Fifteen people at the table laughed, watching her: it was Vera Vasilevna’s birthday, and Vera Vasilevna, gasping with laughter, was telling a joke. She had begun telling it while Simeonov was going up the stairs, she was already cheating on him with those fifteen people while he fumbled and worried at the gate, shifting the defective cake from hand to hand, while he was still in the trolley, while he was locking himself in his apartment and clearing space on his dirty table for her silvery voice, while he was taking the heavy black disc with its moonlight radiance from the yellow jacket the very first time; even before he was born, when there was only wind rustling grass and silence reigned in the world. She was not waiting for him, thin, at the lancet window, peering into the distance into the glassy streams of the Okkervil River; she was laughing in a low voice over a table crowded with dishes, over salads, cucumbers, fish, and bottles, and she drank dashingly, the enchantress, and she turned her heavy body dashingly, too. She had betrayed him. Or had he betrayed Vera Vasilevna? It was too late to figure out now.
    “Another one!” someone shouted laughingly, a man, he learned immediately, with the surname Kissov. “You have to pay a fine.” They took the fingerprinted cake and the flowers from Simeonov and squeezed him in at the table, making him drink to the health of Vera Vasilevna, health, as he was convinced, being the last thing she needed. Simeonov sat, smiling automatically, nodding, stabbing a pickled tomato with his fork, watching Vera Vasilevna like everyone else, listening to her loud jokes—his life was crushed, run over into two; it was his own fault, it was too late now; the magical diva had been abducted, she had allowed herself to be abducted, she hadn’t given a damn about the handsome sad balding prince promised her by fate, she didn’t wish to listen for his steps in the noise of the rain and the howling wind outside the autumn window-panes, didn’t wish to sleep enchanted for a hundred years after pricking her finger, she had surrounded herself with mortal, edible people, had made a friend of that horrible Kissov—made even closer, horribly, intimately, by the sound of his name— and Simeonov trampled the tall gray houses by Okkervil River, crushed the bridges with their towers and tossed away the chains, poured garbage into the clear gray water; but the river found itself a new course, and the houses stubbornly rose from the ruins, and carriages pulled by a pair of bays traveled over the bridges.
    “Have a smoke?” Kissov asked. “I quit, so I don’t carry any.” He relieved Simeonov of half a pack. “Who are you? An adoring fan? That’s good. Have your own place? With your own bath? Gut. She has to share one here. You’ll bring her to your place to bathe. She likes to take baths. We gather on the first of the month and listen to recordings. What do you have? Have you got ‘Dark Green Emerald’? Too bad. We’ve been looking for it for years. It’s awful—nowhere to be had. The ones you have were hits, lots of them around, that’s not interesting. Look for ‘Emerald.’ Have you any connections for getting smoked sausage? No, it’s bad for her, it’s for… me. You couldn’t find any punier flowers? I brought roses, they were the size of my fist.” Kissov brought his hairy fist close. “You’re not a journalist, are you? It would be great to have a radio show on her, our little Vera keeps hoping for that. What a face. But her voice is still as strong as a deacon’s. Let me write down your address.”
    He squashed Simeonov into the chair with his big hand, “Don’t get up, I’ll see myself out,” Kissov got up from the table and left, taking Simeonov’s cake with the dactyloscopic memento.
    Strangers instantly inhabited the foggy banks of the Okkervil, hauling their cheap-smelling belongings—pots and mattresses, buckets and marmalade cats; there was no space on the granite embankment, they were singing their own songs, sweeping garbage onto the paving stones laid by Simeonov, giving birth, multiplying, visiting one another; the fat black-browed old woman knocked down the pale shadow with its sloping shoulders, crushed the veiled hat under her foot, and the old-fashioned round heels fell in different directions, and Vera Vasilevna shouted across the table, “Pass the mushrooms!” and Simeonov passed them and she ate some.
    He watched her big nose move, and the mustache under it, watched her large black eyes veiled with a film of age travel from face to face when someone turned on a tape recorder and her silvery voice floated out, gathering strength—it’s all right, thought Simeonov. I’ll get home soon, it’s all right. Vera Vasilevna died, she died long, long ago, killed, dismembered, and eaten by this old woman, the bones were sucked clean, I could enjoy the wake but Kissov took away my cake; but it’s all right, here are chrysanthemums for the grave, dry sick dead flowers, very appropriate, I’ve commemorated the dead, now I can get up and leave.
    Tamara—the darling!—was hanging around by Simeonov’s door. She picked him up, carried him in, washed him, undressed him, and fed him a hot meal. He promised Tamara he would marry her but toward morning, in his sleep, Vera Vasilevna came, spat in his face, called him names, and went clown the damp embankment into the night, swaying on the black heels he had invented. In the morning Kissov knocked and rang at the door, come to examine the bathroom, to prepare it for the evening. And in the evening he brought Vera Vasilevna to bathe at Simeonov’s, smoked Simeonov’s cigarettes, devoured sandwiches, and said, “Ye-e-es… our little Vera is a force! Think how many men she devoured in her time—my God!” And against his will Simeonov listened to the creaks and splashes of Vera Vasilevna’s heavy body in the cramped tub, how her soft, heavy, full hip pulled away from the side of the damp tub with a slurp, how the water drained with a sucking gurgle, how her bare feet padded on the floor and at last, throwing back the hook, out came a red parboiled Vera Vasilevna in a robe, “Oof. That was good.” Kissov hurried with the tea, and Simeonov, enchanted, smiling, went to rinse off after Vera Vasilevna, to use the flexible shower hose to wash the gray pellets of skin from the tub’s drying walls, to scoop the white hairs from the drain. Kissov wound up the gramophone, and the divine stormy voice, gaining strength, rose in a crescendo from the depths, spread its wings, soared above the world, above the steamy body of little Vera drinking tea from the saucer, above Simeonov bent in his lifelong obedience, above warm, domestic Tamara, above everyone beyond help, above the approaching sunset, the gathering rain, the wind, the nameless rivers flowing backwards, overflowing their banks, raging and flooding the city as only rivers can.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


    The first time Alexandra Ernestovna passed me it was early spring, and she was gilded by the pink Moscow sun. Stockings sagging, shoes shabby, black suit shiny and frayed. But her hat!… The four seasons—snow balls, lilies of the valley, cherries, and barberries—were entwined on the pale straw platter fastened to the remainder of her hair with a pin this big. The cherries dropped down and clicked against each other. She has to be ninety, I thought. But I was off by six years. The sunny air ran down a sunbeam from the roof of the cool old building and then ran back up, up, where we rarely look— where the iron balcony hangs suspended in the uninhabited heights, where there is a steep roof, a delicate fretwork erected right in the morning sky, a melting tower, a spire, doves, angels—no, I don’t see so well. Smiling blissfully, eyes clouded by happiness, Alexandra Ernestovna moves along the sunny side, moving her prerevolutionary legs in wide arcs. Cream, a roll, carrots in a net bag weigh down her arm and rub against the heavy black hem of her suit. The wind had walked from the south smelling of sea and roses, promising a path up easy stairs to heavenly blue countries. Alexandra Ernestovna smiles at the morning, at me. The black clothing, the light hat with clicking dead fruit, vanish around the corner.
    Later I came across her sitting on the broiling boulevard— limp, but admiring a sweaty, solitary child marooned in the baking city; she never had children of her own. A horrible slip showed beneath her tattered black skirt. The strange child trustingly dumped his sandy treasures onto Alexandra Ernestovna’s lap. Don’t dirty the lady’s clothing. It’s all right—
    Let him.
    I saw her in the stifling air of the movie theater (take off your hat, granny! we can’t see!). Out of rhythm with the screen passions, Alexandra Ernestovna breathed noisily, rattled foil candy wrappers, gluing together her frail, store-bought teeth with sweet goo.
    Later she was swirled in the flow of fire-breathing cars by the Nikitsky Gates, got flustered and lost her sense of direction, clutched my arm and floated out onto the saving shore, losing forever the respect of the black diplomat behind the green windshield of a low, shiny car and of his pretty, curly-haired children. The black man roared and raced off in the direction of the conservatory with a puff of blue smoke, while Alexandra Ernestovna, trembling, bent over, eyes popping, hung on to me, and dragged me off to her communal refuge—bric-a-brac, oval frames, dried flowers—leaving behind a trail of smelling salts.
    Two tiny rooms, a high ornate ceiling, and on the peeling walls a charming beauty smiles, muses, pouts—sweet Shura, Alexandra Ernestovna. Yes, yes, that’s me! In a hat, without a hat, with hair down. Oh, so beautiful—And that’s her second husband, and well, that’s her third—not a very good choice. But what can you do about it now…. Now, if she had made the decision to run off with Ivan Nikolayevich then…Who is Ivan Nikolayevich? He’s not here, he’s crammed into the album, spread-eagled in four slits in the cardboard, squashed by a lady in a bustle, crushed by some short-lived white lap dogs that died before the Russo-Japanese War.
    Sit down, sit down, what would you like?… Please come visit, of course, please do. Alexandra Ernestovna is all alone in the world, and it would be so nice to chat.
    …Autumn. Rain. Alexandra Ernestovna, do you remember me? It’s me! Remember… well, it doesn’t matter, I’ve come to visit. Visit—ah, how wonderful! Come here, this way, I’ll clear… I still live alone. I’ve survived them all. Three husbands, you know? And Ivan Nikolayevich, he wanted me, but… Maybe I should have gone? What a long life? That’s me. There too. And that’s my second husband. I had three husbands, did you know? Of course, the third wasn’t so…
    The first was a lawyer. Famous. We lived very well. Finland in the spring. The Crimea in the summer. White cakes, black coffee. Hats trimmed with lace. Oysters—very expensive… Theater in the evening. So many admirers! He died in 1919—stabbed in an alley.
    Oh, naturally she had one romance after another all her life, what else do you expect? That’s a woman’s heart for you. Why, just three years ago, Alexandra Ernestovna had rented the small room to a violinist. Twenty-six years old, won competitions, those eyes!… Of course, he hid his feelings; but the eyes, they give it away. In the evenings Alexandra Ernestovna would sometimes ask him, “Some tea?” And he would just look at her and say no-o-thing in response. Well, you get it, don’t you?… Treacherous! He kept silent all the time he lived at Alexandra Ernestovna’s. But you could see he was burning up and his soul was throbbing. Alone in the evenings in those two small rooms—You know, there was something in the air—we both felt it… He couldn’t bear it and would go out. Outside. Wander around till late. Alexandra Ernestovna was steadfast and gave him no encouragement. Later—on the rebound—he married some woman, nothing special. Moved. And once after his marriage he ran into Alexandra Ernestovna on the street and cast such a look at her—he burned her to ashes. But said nothing. Kept it all bottled up in his soul.
    Yes, Alexandra Ernestovna’s heart had never been empty. Three husbands, by the way. She lived with her second husband in an enormous apartment before the war. A famous physician. Famous guests. Flowers. Always gay. And he died merrily: when it was clear that this was the end, Alexandra Ernestovna called in gypsies. You know, when you see beauty, noise, merriment — it’s easier to die, isn’t it? She couldn’t find real gypsies. But Alexandra Ernestovna, inventive, did not lose heart, she hired some dark-skinned boys and girls, dressed them in rustling, shiny, swirling clothes, flung open the doors to her dying husband’s bedroom—and they jangled, howled, babbled, circled and whirled and kicked: pink, gold, gold, pink. My husband didn’t expect them, he had already turned his gaze inward and suddenly here they were, squealing, flashing shawls; he sat up, waved his arms, rasped: go away! But they grew louder, merrier, stamped their feet. And so he died, may he rest in peace. But the third husband wasn’t so…
    But Ivan Nikolayevich… ah, Ivan Nikolayevich. It was so brief: the Crimea, 1913, the striped sun shining through the blinds sawing the white scraped floor into sections… Sixty years passed, but still… Ivan Nikolayevich lost his mind: leave your husband right now and come to the Crimea. Forever. She promised. Then, back in Moscow, she thought: what will we live on? and where? He showered her with letters: “Sweet Shura, come, come to me!” Her husband was busy, rarely home; while there in the Crimea, on the gentle sands under the blue skies, Ivan Nikolayevich paced like a tiger: “Sweet Shura, forever!” While the poor man didn’t have enough money for a ticket to Moscow. Letters, letters, every day letters for a whole year—Alexandra Ernestovna will show them to me.
    Ah, how he loved me! Should I go or not?
    A human life has four seasons. Spring! Summer. Autumn… Winter? But winter was behind Alexandra Ernestovna—where was she now? Where were her moist, colorless eyes directed? Head back, red lid pulled away, Alexandra Ernestovna squeezes yellow drops into her eyes. Her scalp shows like a pink balloon through the thin net. Could this mouse tail have been a thick black peacock tail caressing her shoulders sixty years ago? Had the persistent but poor Ivan Nikolayevich drowned in those eyes—once and for all? Alexandra Ernestovna groans and feels around with her gnarled feet for her slippers.
    “We’ll have some tea now. I won’t let you go without a cup. No-no-no, don’t even think about it.”
    I’m not going anywhere. That’s why I dropped by—for a cup of tea. And I brought pastry. I’ll put the kettle on, don’t worry. And she gets the velvet-covered album and the old letters.
    It was a long way to the kitchen, to another city, along an endlessly shining floor, so polished the red paste left traces on my shoes for two days. At the end of the corridor tunnel, like a light in a deep robber forest, glowed the circle of the kitchen window. Twenty-three neighbors were silent behind the clean white doors. Halfway down was a wall telephone. A white note tacked up once upon a time by Alexandra Ernestovna: “Fire— 01. Emergency—03. In case of my death call Elizaveta Osipovna.” Elizaveta Osipovna herself is long gone. No matter. Alexandra Ernestovna forgot.
    The kitchen is painfully, lifelessly clean. Somebody’s cabbage soup talks to itself on one of the stoves. In the corner stands a curly cone of smell left by a Belomor-smoking neighbor. A chicken hangs in a net bag outside the window as if being punished, twisting in the black wind. A bare wet tree droops in grief. A drunkard unbuttons his coat, resting his face on the fence. And what if Alexandra Ernestovna had agreed to abandon everything and fly south to be with Ivan Nikolayevich? Where would she be now? She had sent a telegram {I’m coming, meet me), packed her things, tucked the ticket away in the secret compartment of her wallet, pinned her peacock hair up high, and sat in an armchair by the window to wait. And far south, Ivan Nikolayevich, agitated, unable to believe his good fortune, rushed to the railroad station—to run, worry, fluster, give orders, hire, negotiate, lose his mind, stare at the horizon enveloped in dull heat. And then? She stayed in the armchair until evening, until the first pure stars. And then? She pulled the pins from her hair, shook her head—And then? Why keep asking and then, and then? Life passed, that’s what happened then.
    The teakettle came to a boil. I’ll make it strong. A simple piece for the kitchen xylophone: lid, lid, spoon, lid, rag, lid, rag, rag, spoon, handle, handle. It’s a long way back down the long corridor with two teakettles in your hands. Twenty-three neighbors behind white doors listen closely: will she spill her crummy tea on our clean floor? I didn’t spill, don’t worry. I push open the gothic doors with my foot. I’ve been gone an eternity, but Alexandra Ernestovna still remembers me.
    She got out cracked raspberry-colored cups, decorated the table with doilies, puttered around in the dark coffin of a cupboard, stirring up bread and cracker smells that come out of its wooden cheeks. Don’t come out, smell! Catch it and squeeze it back with the cut-glass doors: there, stay under lock and key.
    Alexandra Ernestovna gets out wonderful jam, it was a gift, just try it, no, no, you try it, ah, ah, ah, yes, you’re speechless, it’s truly amazing, exquisite, isn’t it? Really, in all my long life, I’ve never… well, I’m so pleased, I knew you’d like it, have some more, please, take it, have some, I beg you. (Damn it, I’ll have another toothache!)
    I like you, Alexandra Ernestovna, I like you very much, especially in that photograph there with that marvelous oval to your face, and in that one, where your head is back and you laugh with those perfect teeth, and in that one, where you pretend to be pouting, and your arm is behind your head so the lacy festoons will fall back from your elbow. I like your life, interesting to no one else, passed in the distance, your youth that rushed off, your decayed admirers and husbands proceeding in triumphant parade, everyone who ever called your name or was called by you, everyone who passed and went over the high hill. I’ll come to you and bring you cream, and carrots, so good for your eyes, and you’ll please open up the long-closed brown velvet albums—let the Gymnasium girls breathe some fresh air, let the mustachioed gentlemen flex their muscles, let brave Ivan Nikolayevich smile. Don’t worry, don’t worry, Alexandra Ernestovna, he can’t see you, really…. You should have done it then. You should have. She’s made up her mind. Here he is— right next to you—just reach out! Here, take him in your hands, hold him, here he is, flat cold shiny with a gold border, slightly yellowed: Ivan Nikolayevich. Hey, do you hear, she’s decided, yes, she’s coming, meet her, she’s stopped hesitating, she’s made up her mind, hey, where are you, yoo-hoo!
    Thousands of years, thousands of days, thousands of translucent impenetrable curtains fell from the heavens, thickened, turned into solid walls, blocked roads, and kept Alexandra Ernestovna from going to her beloved, lost in time. He remained there on the other side of the years, alone at the dusty southern station, wandering along the sunflower seed-spattered platform; he looks at his watch, kicks aside dusty corn cobs with his toe, impatiently tears off blue-gray cypress cones, waiting, waiting, waiting for the steam engine to come from the hot morning distance. She did not come. She will not come. She had deceived him. But no, no, she had wanted to go. She was ready, and the bags had been packed. The white semitranspar-ent dresses had tucked up their knees in the cramped darkness of the trunk, the vanity case’s leather sides creaked and its silver corners shone, the shameless bathing costumes barely covering the knees—baring the arms to the shoulder—awaited their hour, squinting, anticipating… In the hat box—impossible, enticing, insubstantial… ah, there are no words to describe it —white zephyr, a miracle! On the very bottom, belly-up and paws in the air, slept the sewing box—pins, combs, silk laces, emery boards of diamond sand for delicate nails; trifles. A jasmine genie sealed in a crystal flask—ah, how it would shine with a billion rainbows in the blinding seaside sun! She was ready—but what interfered? What always interferes? Well hurry, time’s passing—Time’s passing, and the invisible layers of years get thicker, and the rails get rusty, and the roads get overgrown, and weeds grow taller in the ravines. Time flows and makes sweet Shura’s boat bob on its back and splashes wrinkles into her incomparable face.
    …More tea?
    After the war she returned—with her third husband—here, to these rooms. The third husband kept whining, whining.… The corridor was too long. The light too dim. The windows faced the back. Everything was behind them. The festive guests died out. The flowers faded. Rain hammered at the windows. He whined and whined and died, but when and of what, Alexandra Ernestovna did not notice.
    She got Ivan Nikolayevich out of the album, and looked at him a long time. How he had begged her! She had even bought a ticket—and here it was, the ticket. Hard cardboard—black numbers. If you want, look at it this way, if you want, turn it upside down. It doesn’t matter: forgotten signs of an unknown alphabet, a coded pass to that shore.
    Maybe if you learn the magic word… if you guess it; if you sit down and think hard, or look for it… there has to be a door, a crack, an unnoticed crooked way back there to that day; they shut up everything but they must have missed a crack somewhere: maybe in some old house, maybe if you pull back the floorboards in the attic—or in a dead end, or in a brick wall, there’s a passage carelessly filled with bricks, hurriedly painted, haphazardly nailed shut with crisscrossed boards…. Maybe not here but in another city… Maybe somewhere in the tangle of rails on a siding there stands a railroad car, old and rusted, its ceiling collapsed: the one sweet Shura didn’t get into?
    “There’s my compartment… Excuse me, I’ll get by. Wait, here’s my ticket—it says so right here.” There, down in that end—rusted shock absorbers, reddish buckled wall girders, blue sky in the ceiling, grass underfoot—that’s her place, right here! No one ever took it, no one had a right.
    …More tea? A blizzard.
    …More tea? Apple trees in bloom. Dandelions. Lilacs. Oof, it’s hot. Leave Moscow—to the seaside. Until our next meeting, Alexandra Ernestovna. I’ll tell you all about that part of the world. Whether the sea has dried up, whether the Crimea floated away like a dry leaf, whether the blue sky has faded. Whether your tormented, excited beloved has deserted his volunteer post at the railroad station.
    In Moscow’s stony hell Alexandra Ernestovna waits for me. No, no, it’s all true! There, in the Crimea, the invisible but agitated Ivan Nikolayevich—in white uniform—paces up and down the dusty platform, digs his watch out of his pocket, wipes his shaved neck; up and down along the lattice work fence rubbing off white dust, oblivious and agitated; past him, without noticing, go beautiful, large-faced young women in trousers; hippie boys with their sleeves rolled up, enveloped in transistorized badoobadooms; farm women in white scarves with buckets of plums; southern ladies with plastic earrings; old men in unyielding synthetic hats; smashing right through Ivan Nikolayevich, but he doesn’t know, doesn’t notice, doesn’t care, he’s waiting, time has been derailed, stuck midway somewhere outside of Kursk, tripped on nightingale rivers, lost, blind in fields of sunflowers.
    Ivan Nikolayevich, wait! I’ll tell her, I’ll give her the message; don’t leave, she’ll come, she’ll come, honest; she’s made up her mind, she’s willing, just stand there, don’t worry, she’ll be here soon, she’s packed, she just has to pick it up; she’s even got a ticket: I swear, I’ve seen it—in the velvet album tucked behind a photograph; it’s a bit worn of course, but don’t worry, I think they’ll let her on. There’s a problem back there, something’s in the way, I don’t remember what; but she’ll manage, she’ll think of something—she’s got the ticket, doesn’t she?—that’s important, the ticket, and you know the main thing is she’s made up her mind, it’s certain, I’m telling you.
    Alexandra Ernestovna’s signal is five rings, third button from the top. There’s a breeze on the landing: the dusty stairwell windows are open, ornamented with easygoing lotuses—the flowers of oblivion.
    “Who?… She died.”
    What do you mean… just a minute… why?… I just… I just went there and came back. Are you serious?…
    The hot white air attacks you as you come out of the passageway crypt, trying to get you in the eyes. Wait… The garbage probably hasn’t been picked up, right? The spirals of earthly existence end around the corner on a patch of asphalt, in rubbish bins. Where did you think? Beyond the clouds, maybe? There they are, the spirals—springs sticking out from the rotting couch. They dumped everything here. The oval portrait of sweet Shura—the glass broken, the eyes scratched out. Old woman’s rubbish—stockings… The hat with the four seasons. Do you need chipped cherries? No? Why not? A pitcher with a broken-off spout. The velvet album was stolen. Naturally. It’ll be good for polishing shoes. You’re all so stupid, I’m not crying. Why should I? The garbage steamed in the hot sun and melted in a black banana ooze. The packet of letters trampled into slush. “Sweet Shura, when will you?” “Sweet Shura, just say the word.” And one letter, drier, swirls, a yellow lined butterfly under the dusty poplar, not knowing where to settle.
    What can I do with all this? Turn around and leave. It’s hot. The wind chases the dust around. And Alexandra Ernestovna, sweet Shura, as real as a mirage, crowned with wooden fruit and cardboard flowers, floats smiling along the vibrating crossing, around the corner, southward to the unimaginably distant shimmering south, to the lost platform, floats, melts, and dissolves in the hot midday sun.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


On the golden porch sat:
Tsar, tsarevich, king, prince,
Cobbler, tailor.
Who are you?
Tell me fast, don’t hold us up.

—Children’s counting rhyme
    IN THE beginning was the garden. Childhood was a garden. Without end or limit, without borders and fences, in noises and rustling, golden in the sun, pale green in the shade, a thousand layers thick—from heather to the crowns of the pines: to the south, the well with toads, to the north, white roses and mushrooms, to the west, the mosquitoed raspberry patch, to the east, the huckleberry patch, wasps, the cliff, the lake, the bridges. They say that early in the morning they saw a completely naked man at the lake. Honest. Don’t tell Mother. Do you know who it was?—It can’t be.—Honest, it was. He thought he was alone. We were in the bushes.—What did you see?—Everything.
    Now, that was luck. That happens once every hundred years. Because the only available naked man—in the anatomy textbook—isn’t real. Having torn off his skin for the occasion, brazen, meaty, and red, he shows off his clavicular-sternum-nipple muscles (all dirty words!) to the students of the eighth grade. When we’re promoted (in a hundred years) to the eighth grade, he’ll show us all that too.
    The old woman, Anna Ilyinichna, feeds her tabby cat, Memeka, with red meat like that. Memeka was born after the war and she has no respect for food. Digging her four paws into the pine tree trunk, high above the ground, Memeka is frozen in immobile despair.
    “Memeka, meat, meat!”
    The old woman shakes the dish of steaks, lifts it higher for the cat to see better.
    “Just look at that meat!”
    The cat and the old woman regard each other drearily. “Take it away,” thinks Memeka.
    “Meat, Memeka.”
    In the suffocating undergrowths of Persian red lilac, the cat mauls sparrows. We found a sparrow like that. Someone had scalped its toy head. A naked fragile skull like a gooseberry. A martyred sparrow face. We made it a cap of lace scraps, made it a white shroud, and buried it in a chocolate box. Life is eternal. Only birds die.
    Four carefree dachas stood without fences—go wherever you want. The fifth was a privately owned house. The black log framework spread sideways from beneath the damp overhang of maples and larches and growing brighter, multiplying its windows, thinning out into sun porches, pushing aside nasturtiums, jostling lilacs, avoiding hundred-year-old firs, it ran out laughing onto the southern side and sopped above the smooth strawberry-dahlia slope down-down-down where warm air trembles and the sun breaks up on the open glass lids of magical boxes filled with cucumber babies inside rosettes of orange flowers.
    By the house (and what was inside?), having flung open all the windows of the July-pierced veranda, Veronika Vikentievna, a huge white beauty, weighs strawberries: for jam and for sale to neighbors. Luxurious, golden, applelike beauty! White hens cluck at her heavy feet, turkey-cocks stick their indecent faces out of the burdock, a red-and-green rooster cocks his head and looks at us: what do you want, girls? “We’d like some strawberries.” The beautiful merchant’s wife’s fingers in berry blood. Burdock, scales, basket.
    Tsaritsa! The greediest woman in the world:
They pour foreign wines for her,
She eats iced gingerbread,
Terrifying guards surround her….

    Once she came out of the dark shed with red hands like that, smiling. “I killed a calf…”
Axes over their shoulders….

    Aargh! Let’s get out of here, run, it’s horrible—an icy horror —shed, damp, death….
    And Uncle Pasha is the husband of this scary woman. Uncle Pasha is small, meek, henpecked. An old man: he’s fifty. He works as an accountant in Leningrad; he gets up at five in the morning and runs over hill and dale to make the commuter train. Seven kilometers at a run, ninety minutes on the train, ten minutes on the trolley, then put on black cuff protectors and sit down on a hard yellow chair. Oilcloth-covered doors, a smoky half-basement, weak light, safes, overhead costs—that’s Uncle Pasha’s job. And when the cheerful light blue day has rushed past, its noise done, Uncle Pasha climbs out of the basement and runs back: the postwar clatter of trolleys, the smoky rush-hour station, coal smells, fences, beggars, baskets; the wind chases crumpled paper along the emptied platform. Wearing sandals in summer and patched felt boots in winter, Uncle Pasha hurries to his Garden, his Paradise, where evening peace comes from the lake, to the House where the huge, golden-haired Tsaritsa lies waiting on a bed with four glass legs. But we didn’t see the glass legs until later. Veronika Vikentievna had been feuding a long time with Mother.
    The thing was that one summer she sold Mother an egg. There was an ironclad condition: the egg had to be boiled and eaten immediately. But lighthearted Mother gave the egg to the dacha’s owner. The crime was revealed. The consequences could have been monstrous: the landlady could have let her hen sit on the egg, and in its chicken ignorance it could have incubated a copy of the unique breed of chicken that ran in Veronika Vikentievna’s yard. It’s a good thing nothing happened. The egg was eaten. But Veronika Vikentievna could not forgive Mother’s treachery. She stopped selling us strawberries and milk, and Uncle Pasha smiled guiltily as he ran past. The neighbors shut themselves in; they reinforced the wire fence on metal posts, sprinkled broken glass in strategic points, stretched barbed wire, and got a scary yellow dog. Of course, that wasn’t enough.
    After all, couldn’t Mother still climb over the fence in the dead of night, kill the dog, crawl over the glass, her stomach shredded by barbed wire and bleeding, and with weakening hands steal a runner from the rare variety of strawberries in order to graft it onto her puny ones? After all, couldn’t she still run to the fence with her booty and with her last ounce of strength, groaning and gasping, toss the strawberry runner to Father hiding in the bushes, his round eyeglasses glinting in the moonlight?
    From May to September, Veronika Vikentievna, who suffered from insomnia, came out into the garden at night, stood in her long white nightgown holding a pitchfork like Neptune, listening to the nocturnal birds, breathing jasmine. Of late her hearing had grown more acute: Veronika Vikentievna could hear Mother and Father three hundred yards away in our dacha, with the camel’s hair blanket over their heads, plotting in a whisper to get Veronika Vikentievna: they would dig a tunnel to the greenhouse with her early parsley.
    The night moved on, and the house loomed black behind her. Somewhere in the dark warmth, deep in the house, lost in the bowels on their connubial bed, little Uncle Pasha lay still as a mouse. High above his head swam the oak ceiling, and even higher swam the garrets, trunks of expensive black coats sleeping in mothballs, even higher the attic with pitchforks, clumps of hay, and old magazines, and even higher the roof, the chimney, the weather vane, the moon—across the garden, through dreams, they swam, swaying, carrying Uncle Pasha into the land of lost youth, the land of hopes come true, and the chilled Veronika Vikentievna, white and heavy, would return, stepping on his small warm feet.
    Hey, wake up, Uncle Pasha! Veronika is going to die soon.
    You will wander around the empty house, not a thought in your head, and then you will straighten, blossom, look around, remember, push away memories and desire, and bring—to help with the housekeeping—Veronika’s younger sister, Margarita, just as pale, large, and beautiful. And in June she’ll be laughing in the bright window, bending over the rain barrel, passing among the maples on the sunny lake.
    Oh, in our declining years….
    But we didn’t even notice, we forgot Veronika, we had spent a winter, a whole winter, a winter of mumps and measles, flooding and warts and a Christmas tree blazing with tangerines, and they made a fur coat for me, and a lady in the yard touched it and said: “Mouton.”
    In the winter the yardmen glued golden stars onto the black sky, sprinkled ground diamonds into the connecting courtyards of the Petrograd side of town, and, clambering up the frosty air ladders to our windows, prepared morning surprises: with fine brushes they painted the silver tails of firebirds.
    And when everyone got sick of winter, they took it out of town in trucks, shoving the skinny snowbanks into underground passages protected by gratings, and smeared perfumed mush with yellow seedlings around the parks. And for several days the city was pink, stone, and noisy.
    And from over there, beyond the distant horizon, laughing and rumbling, waving a motley flag, the green summer came running with ants and daisies.
    Uncle Pasha got rid of the yellow dog—he put it in a trunk and sprinkled it with mothballs; he let summer renters onto the second floor—a strange, dark woman and her fat granddaughter; and he invited kids into the house and fed them jam.
    We hung on the fence and watched the strange grandmother fling open the second-story windows every hour and, illuminated by the harlequin rhomboids of the ancient panes, call out:
    “Want milkandcookies?”
    “Want potty?”
    We hopped on one leg, healed scrapes with spit, buried treasures, cut worms in half with scissors, watched the old woman wash pink underpants in the lake, and found a photograph under the owner’s buffet: a surprised, big-eared family with the caption, “Don’t forget us. 1908.”
    Let’s go to Uncle Pasha’s. You go first. No, you. Careful, watch the sill. I can’t see in the dark. Hold on to me. Will he show us the room. He will, but first we have to have tea.
    Ornate spoons, ornate crystal holders. Cherry jam. Silly Margarita laughs in the orange light of the lamp shade. Hurry up and drink! Uncle Pasha knows, he’s waiting, holding open the sacred door to Aladdin’s cave. O room! O children’s dreams! O Uncle Pasha, you are King Solomon! You hold the Horn of Plenty in your mighty arms. A caravan of camels passed with spectral tread through your house and dropped its Baghdad wares in the summer twilight. A waterfall of velvet, ostrich feathers of lace, a shower of porcelain, golden columns of frames, precious tables on bent legs, locked glass cases of mounds where fragile yellow glasses are entwined by black grapes, where Negroes in golden skirts hide in the deep darkness, where something bends, transparent, silvery… Look, a precious clock with foreign numbers and snakelike hands. And this one, with forget-me-nots. Ah, but look, look at that one! There’s a glass room over the face and in it a golden Chevalier seated at a golden table, a golden sandwich in his hand. And next to him, a Lady with a goblet: and when the clock strikes, she strikes the goblet on the table—six, seven, eight…. The lilacs are jealous, they peek through the window, and Uncle Pasha sits down at the piano and plays the Moonlight Sonata. Who are you, Uncle Pasha?
    There it is, the bed on glass legs. Semitransparent in the twilight, invisible and powerful, they raise on high the tangle of lace, the Babylon towers of pillows, the moonlit, lilac scent of the divine music. Uncle Pasha’s noble white head is thrown back, a Mona Lisa smile on Margarita’s golden face as she appears silently in the doorway, the lace curtains sway, the lilacs sway, the waves of dahlias sway on the slope right to the horizon, to the evening lake, to the beam of moonlight.
    Play, play, Uncle Pasha! Caliph for an hour, enchanted prince, starry youth, who gave you this power over us, to enchant us, who gave you those white winds on your back, who carried your silvery head to the evening skies, crowned you with roses, illuminated you with mountain light, surrounded you with lunar wind?
O Milky Way, light brother
Of Canaan’s milky rivers,
Should we swim through the starry fall
To the fogs, where entwined
The bodies of lovers fly?

    Well, enough. Time to go home. It doesn’t seem right to use the ordinary word “Thanks” with Uncle Pasha. Have to be more ornamental: “I am grateful.” “It’s not worthy of gratitude.”
    “Did you notice they have only one bed in the house?”
    “Where does Margarita sleep, then? In the attic?”
    “Maybe. But that’s where the renters are.”
    “Well, then she must sleep on the porch, on a bench.”
    “What if they sleep in the same bed, head to foot?”
    “Stupid. They’re strangers.”
    “You’re stupid. What if they’re lovers?”
    “But they only have lovers in France.”
    She’s right, of course. I forgot.
    …Life changed the slides ever faster in the magic lantern. With Mother’s help we penetrated into the mirrored corners of the grownups’ atelier, where the bald tubby tailor took our embarrassing measurements, muttering excuse me’s; we envied girls in nylon stockings, with pierced ears, we drew in our textbooks: glasses on Pushkin, a mustache on Mayakovsky, a large white chest on Chekhov, who was otherwise normally endowed. And we were recognized immediately and welcomed joyfully by the patient and defective nude model from the anatomy course generously offering his numbered innards; but the poor fellow no longer excited anyone. And, looking back once, with unbelieving fingers we felt the smoked glass behind which our garden waved a hankie before going down for the last time. But we didn’t feel the loss yet.
    Autumn came into Uncle Pasha’s house and struck him on the face. Autumn, what do you want? Wait; are you kidding?… The leaves fell, the days grew dark, Margarita grew scooped. The white chickens died, the turkey flew off to warmer climes, the yellow dog climbed out of the trunk and, embracing Uncle Pasha, listened to the north wind howl at night. Girls, someone, bring Uncle Pasha some India tea. How you’ve grown. How old you’ve gotten, Uncle Pasha. Your hands are spotted, your knees bent. Why do you wheeze like that? I know, I can guess: in the daytime, vaguely, and at night, clearly, you hear the clang of metal locks. The chain is wearing out.
    What are you bustling about for? You want to show me your treasures? Well, all right, I have five minutes for you. It’s so long since I was here! I’m getting old. So that’s it, that’s what enchanted us? All this secondhand rubbish, these chipped painted night tables, these tacky oilcloth paintings, these brocade curtains, the worn plush velvet, the darned lace, the clumsy fakes from the peasant market, the cheap beads? This sang and glittered, burned and beckoned? What mean jokes you play, life! Dust, ashes, rot. Surfacing from the magical bottom of childhood, from the warm, radiant depths, we open our chilled fist in the cold wind—and what have we brought up with us besides sand? But just a quarter century ago Uncle Pasha wound the golden clock with trembling hands. Above the face, in the glass room, the little inhabitants huddle—the Lady and the Chevalier, masters of Time. The Lady strikes the table with her goblet, and the thin ringing sound tries to break through the shell of decades. Eight, nine, ten. No. Excuse me, Uncle Pasha. I have to go.
    …Uncle Pasha froze to death on the porch. He could not reach the metal ring of the door and fell face down in the snow. White snow daisies grew between his stiff fingers. The yellow dog gently closed his eyes and left through the snowflakes up the starry ladder to the black heights, carrying away the trembling living flame.
    The new owner—Margaritas elderly daughter—poured Uncle Pashas ashes into a metal can and set it on a shelf in the empty chicken house; it was too much trouble to bury him.
    Bent in half by the years, her face turned to the ground, Margarita wanders through the chilled, drafty garden, as if seeking lost footsteps on the silent paths.
    “You’re cruel! Bury him!”
    But her daughter smokes indifferently on the porch. The nights are cold. Let’s turn on the lights early. And the golden Lady of Time, drinking bottoms up from the goblet of life, will strike a final midnight on the table for Uncle Pasha.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


    ZOYA’S a beautiful name, isn’t it? Like bees buzzing by. And she’s beautiful, too: a good height and all that. Details? All right, here are the details: good legs, good figure, good skin, the nose, eyes, all good. Brunette. Why not a blonde? Because you can’t have everything.
    When Zoya met Vladimir, he was stunned. Or well, at least pleasantly surprised.
    “Oh!” said Vladimir.
    That’s just what he said. And wanted to see Zoya very often. But not constantly. And that saddened her.
    In her one-room apartment he kept only his toothbrush—a thing that is certainly intimate, but not so much that it would firmly tie a man to the family hearth. Zoya wanted Vladimir’s shirts, underwear, and socks to settle in, how shall we put it, to make themselves at home in the underwear drawer, even lie around on a chair. To be able to grab a sweater or something and soak it, into the Lotos soap with it, and then dry it neatly spread out.
    But no, he didn’t leave a trace; he kept everything in his communal flat. Even his razor. Though what did he have to shave, with that beard? He had two beards: one thick and dark, and in the middle of it, another, smaller and reddish, growing in a narrow tuft on his chin. A phenomenon! When he ate or laughed, that second beard jumped. Vladimir wasn’t tall, half a head shorter than Zoya, and looked a bit wild and hairy. And he moved very quickly.
    Vladimir was an engineer.
    “You’re an engineer?” Zoya asked tenderly and distractedly on their first date, when they sat in a restaurant and she opened her lips only a millimeter to taste the profiteroles in chocolate sauce, pretending for some intellectual reason that it wasn’t very tasty.
    “Exac-tic-ally,” he said, staring at her chin.
    “Are you at a research institute?…”
    “…or in industry?”
    Go figure him out when he was staring at her like that. And had a bit to drink.
    An engineer wasn’t bad. Of course, a surgeon would have been better. Zoya worked in a hospital, in the information bureau, and she wore a white coat and thereby belonged a bit to that amazing medical world, white and starched, with syringes and test tubes, rolling carts and autoclaves, and piles of rough, clean black-stamped laundry, and roses and tears and chocolates, and a blue corpse rolled swiftly down endless corridors followed by a hurrying sorrowing little angel clutching to its pigeon chest a long-suffering, released soul, diapered like a doll.
    And king of this world is the surgeon, who cannot be regarded without trembling as, dressed with the aid of gentlemen of the chamber in a loose-fitting mantle and green crown with laces, majestically holding his precious hands aloft, he is prepared for his holy kingly mission: to perform the highest judgment, to come down and chop off, to punish and to save, and with his glowing sword give life… What else, if not a king? And Zoya very much wanted to fall into a surgeon’s bloody embrace. But an engineer wasn’t bad.
    They spent a very nice time at the restaurant, getting to know each other, and Vladimir, not realizing yet what he could count on from Zoya, was generous. It was afterward that he began to economize, looking through the menu briskly, ordering only an inexpensive main course for himself, and not lingering in restaurants. There was no need for Zoya to sit languorously with a casual expression on her face, slightly mocking, slightly dreamy—her face was supposed to reflect the fleeting nuances of her complex spiritual life, like exquisite sadness or some refined reminiscence; she ate, staring off into space, her elbows delicately resting on the table, her lower lip pouting, sending lovely smoke rings up to the painted vaulted ceiling. She was playing fairy. But Vladimir didn’t play along: he ate with gusto, without a trace of sadness, gulped down his vodka, smoked without languor: quickly, greedily smelling up the table and squashing the butt in the ashtray with his yellowed finger. He brought the check close to his eyes, was horribly astounded, and always found a mistake. And he never ordered caviar: that was for princesses and thieves, he claimed. Zoya was hurt: wasn’t she a princess, albeit unrecognized? And then they stopped going out completely, and stayed home. Or she stayed home alone. It was boring.
    In the summer she wanted to go south to the Caucasus. There would be noise and wine and midnight swims with squeals of laughter, and masses of handsome men who would look at Zoya and say, “Oh!” and flash their teeth.
    Instead, Vladimir brought a kayak to the apartment and two friends, just like him, in stinky checked shirts, and they crawled around on all fours, putting it together and taking it apart, patching, and sticking sections of the smooth repulsive kayak body in a basin of water, exclaiming: “It leaks! It doesn’t leak!” while Zoya sat on the bed, jealous, annoyed by the crowding, and having to keep lifting her legs so that Vladimir could crawl from spot to spot.
    Then she had to follow him and his friends on that horrible expedition to the north, to some lakes, in search of some allegedly glorious islands, and she got chilled and soaked, and Vladimir smelled of dogs. They hurried along, rowing fast, bouncing on the waves, along a grim, northern lake blown up with leaden dark waters, and Zoya sat right on the floor of the hateful kayak, legs stretched straight out, severely shortened without high heels, so pathetic and scrawny in jogging pants, and felt that her nose was red and her hair matted and the hostile spray of the water was melting her mascara, and ahead lay two more weeks of suffering in a damp tent on an uninhabited cliff covered with pine and bilberries, among offensively hearty strangers bawling cheerfully over their dinner made of pea concentrate.
    And it was Zoya’s turn to wash the greasy aluminum dishes in the deep icy lake, after which they were still dirty. And her hair was dirty and her head itched under her scarf.
    All the engineers had their own women, no one gave Zoya special looks or said “Oh!”, and she felt sexless, a camping buddy, and she hated the laughter around the campfire, and the guitar playing, and the peals of joy over catching a pike. She lay in the tent totally miserable, hating the two-bearded Vladimir, and wanted to get married to him as soon as possible. Then shed have the perfect right as his legal wife not to get ugly in the so-called great outdoors, but stay home in a light and graceful robe (full of ruffles, made in the GDR) on the couch, legs crossed, facing a wall unit with a color TV (let Vladimir buy her one), with pink light coming from the Yugoslav lamp, drinking something light and smoking something good (let the patients’ relatives give her some), and wait for Vladimir to come back from his kayaking trip to greet him a little irritated and suspicious: well, I wonder what you’ve been up to without me? who was with you? did you bring any fish? and later, of course, forgive him for his two-week absence. And during that absence, maybe one of the surgeons would call and flirt, and Zoya, lazily embracing the telephone and with that look on her face, would drawl, “Oh, I don’t know… We’ll see… Do you really think so?” Or she would call a girlfriend, “So what did you say?… And what did he say? And then you?” Ah, the city! Shimmer and evenings and wet asphalt and red neon lights in the puddles under your high heels…
    Here the waves thudded against the cliff, and wind howled in the treetops, and the campfire danced its endless dance, and night stared into your back, and the engineers’ dirty-faced ugly women squeaked in their tents. What a drag!
    Vladimir adored it, got up early, while the lake was quiet and clear, went down the steep slope, grabbing onto the pines and getting resin on his hands, stood with his legs spread wide on the granite shelf leading into the sunny transparent water, washing, snorting, and groaning; looking back with happy eyes at Zoya, sleepy, without makeup, standing grimly with a pitcher in her hands. “Well? Have you ever heard such silence? Just listen to how quiet it is! And the air? Beautiful!” Oh, how disgusting he was! Marry him, hurry up and marry him.
    In the fall Zoya bought slippers for Vladimir. Checked and cozy, they waited for him in the entrance, mouths open: slip your foot in, Vova. You’re at home here, this is your snug harbor. Stay with us. Why do you keep running off, you silly fool?
    Zoya stuck her photograph—chestnut curls, arched brows, severe gaze—into Vladimir’s wallet: whenever he reached for his ttain pass or for money, he’d see her, so beautiful, and cry: ah, why aren’t I marrying her? What if someone beats me to it? In the evenings, waiting for him, she placed a pink round-legged lamp in the window—a family lighthouse in the gloom. To bind the noose, to warm his heart: the tower is dark, the night is dark, but the light still burns—it is the star of his soul not sleeping, perhaps canning fruit, perhaps doing some laundry.
    Soft were the pillows, soft were the dumplings put twice through the grinder, everything beckoned and Zoya buzzed like a bee: hurry, friend. Hurry up, you lousy bum!
    She wanted to be married before she hit twenty-five—it was all over by then, no more youth, you get run out of the hall, and others run to take your place: swift and curly-haired.
    In the mornings they drank coffee. Vladimir read Cutters and Yachts magazine, chewed, scattering crumbs in both beards; Zoya was hostilely silent, staring at his forehead, sending telepathic messages: marry, marry, marry, marry, marry me! In the evenings he read again, and Zoya stared out the window waiting for bedtime. Vladimir didn’t read calmly, he grew excited, scratched his head, jerked his leg, laughed, and cried out, “Just listen to this!” Laughing as he spoke, jabbing Zoya with his finger, he read what he had liked so much. Zoya smiled wanly or stared at him coldly, not responding, and he would shake his head sheepishly, quiet down, and mutter, “What a guy!” and out of pride keep an uncertain smile on his lips.
    She knew how to spoil his fun.
    But really: he had everything he wanted. Everything was swept, cleaned, the refrigerator defrosted on time. His toothbrush was here. His indoor footwear. He was fed here. If something needed to go to the cleaners—no problem. My pleasure. So what about it, you so and so, why won’t you marry me and just ruin my mood? If I knew for sure that you weren’t planning on it, I’d send you packing. Bye-bye. Say hi to the folks. But how to find out his intentions? Zoya didn’t dare ask a direct question. Many centuries of experience kept her from doing that. One bad shot—and it was over, write it off; the prey runs away hard, leaving a cloud of dust and view of the soles of its feet. No, you have to lure it.
    And the viper felt right at home. Became completely tame. Brought his shirts and jackets from the communal flat. His socks were all over the place now. He’d come over and put on the slippers. Rub his hands: “And what are we having for dinner tonight?” Notice the we. That’s how he talked.
    “Meat,” Zoya said through gritted teeth.
    “Meat? Fine! Fine! And why are we in a bad mood?”
    Or he’d start in, “Would you like it if we got a car? We’ll drive wherever we feel like.”
    Mockery! As if he had no plans to leave Zoya. And what if he didn’t? Then marry her. Zoya didn’t want to love without guarantees.
    Zoya set traps: she’d dig a pit, cover it with branches, and nudge him toward it—Suddenly, all dressed and made up, she would refuse to go out, lie down on the couch, and stare bale-fully at the ceiling. What’s the matter? She can’t… Why? Because… No, what’s the matter? Is she sick? What happened? She can’t, she won’t go, she’s ashamed to be a general laughingstock, everyone will point at her: and in what capacity is this one here? Everyone else will have wives—Nonsense, Vladimir would say, at best only a third will be wives there, and they’ll be strangers. And Zoya had been going until now—without a problem? Until now she had, and now she can’t, it’s just her sensitive soul, like a rose, wilting under poor treatment.
    “And when have I ever treated you poorly?”
    And so on and so forth, and always moving away from the camouflaged pit.
    Vladimir took Zoya to visit an artist; they say he’s quite interesting. Zoya pictures the beau monde, groups of art historians: the ladies old biddies, all in turquoise and with turkey necks; the men elegant with colored handkerchiefs in their breast pockets, smelling good. A noble old man with a monocle pushes his way through the crowd. The artist in a velvet smock, pale, and with a palette in his hand. In comes Zoya. Everyone says “Oh!” The artist grows even paler. “You must pose for me.” The noble old man regards her with sadness and nobility: his years are gone, Zoya’s fragrant beauty is not for him. Zoya’s portrait—nude—is taken to Moscow. A show at the Manege. The police hold back the crowds. There is a show abroad. The portrait is behind bulletproof glass. They let in people two at a time. Sirens wail. Everyone squeeze right. The president enters. He is astounded. Where is the original? Who is that woman?… “Watch you don’t break a leg down here,” Vladimir said. They were going down to a basement. Mossy gunk dangled from the hot pipes. It was warm in the studio. The artist—a little snot in a torn T-shirt—dragged out his heavy paintings. They depicted strange things: for instance, a large egg, with lots of tiny people coming out of it, Mao Tse-tung in canvas boots and an embroidered jacket floating in the sky with a teapot in his hand. The whole thing was called Concordance. Or this one: an apple with a worm crawling out of it wearing glasses and carrying a briefcase. Or: a wild craggy cliff, growths of cattails, and from the cattails comes a wooly mammoth in slippers. Someone tiny is aiming at it with a bow and arrow. On one side you can see the little cave: it has a light bulb hanging from a cord, a glowing TV screen, and a gas burner. Even the pressure cooker is drawn in detail, and there’s a bouquet of cattails on the little table. It’s called Hunting the Wooly Mammoth.
    Interesting. “Well, it’s daring,” Vladimir said. “Quite daring—
    What’s the concept?” “Concept?” the artist gleefully demanded. “You’re insulting me. Am I a Peredvizhnik or something? Concept! You have to run from concepts, brother, and don’t look back!” “No, but still, but still…” They argued, waving their arms, the artist set out lopsided ceramic mugs on the low table, clearing not very clean space with his elbow. They drank something that didn’t taste good and followed it with rock-hard pieces of the day-before-yesterday’s leftovers. The host’s radiant but unseeing gaze slid professionally over Zoya’s surface. The gaze did not connect with Zoya’s soul, as if she weren’t even there. Vladimir grew red, his beards were unkempt, both men were shouting, using words like “absurd” and others that sounded like it; one referred to Giotto, the other to Moisenko, and they forgot about Zoya. She had a headache and there was a pounding in her ears: dum, dum, dum. Outside the window in the dark rain was gathering, the dusty lamp on the ceiling floated in layers of bluish smoke, and the crude white shelves were crowded with pitchers holding Crimean brambles, long broken and covered with cobwebs. Zoya wasn’t here or anywhere else, she simply did not exist. The rest of the world did not exist either. Only smoke and the noise: dum, dum, dum.
    On the way home, Vladimir put his arm around Zoya’s shoulders.
    “A most interesting man, even if he is nuts. Did you hear his arguments? Charming, eh?”
    Zoya was silent and angry. It was raining.
    “You’re a trooper!” Vladimir went on. “Let’s go home and have some strong tea, all right?”
    What a louse Vladimir was. Using dishonest, cheating methods. There are rules of the hunt: the mammoth steps back a certain distance, I aim… let loose the arrow: whrrrrrrrr! and he’s a goner. And I drag the carcass home: here’s meat for the long winter. But this one comes on his own, gets up close, grazes, plucking at the grass, rubbing his side against the wall, napping in the sun, pretending to be tame. Allows himself to be milked! While the pen is open on all four sides. My God, I don’t even have a pen. He’ll get away, he will, oh Lord. I need a fence, a picket, ropes, hawsers.
    Dum, dum, dum. The sun set. The sun rose. A pigeon with a banded leg landed on the window and looked severely into Zoya’s eyes. There, there you are! Even a pigeon, a lousy, dirty bird gets banded. Scientists in white coats, with honest, educated faces, PhDs, pick him up, the little bird, by the sides— sorry to disturb you, fellow—and the pigeon understands, doesn’t argue, and without further ado offers them his red leather foot—my pleasure, comrades. You’re in the right. Click! And he flies off a different creature, he doesn’t get underfoot and cry, doesn’t recoil heavy-jawed out of the path of trucks, no—now he flies scientifically from cornice to balcony, intellectually consumes the prescribed grains, and remembers firmly that even the gray splotches of his droppings are illuminated henceforth with the unbribable rays of science: the Academy knows, is in control, and—if necessary—will ask.
    She stopped talking to Vladimir, sat and stared out the window, thinking for hours about the scientific pigeon. Feeling the engineer’s sorrowful eye upon her, she would concentrate: well? Where are the long-awaited words? Say it! Give up?
    “Zoya dear, what’s the matter. I treat you with love, and you treat me like a…” mumbled Mr. Two-Beards.
    Her features hardened and sharpened, and no one has said Oh!” in a long time upon meeting her, and she didn’t need that anymore: the blue flame of endless sorrow, burning in her soul, put out all the fires of the world. She didn’t feel like doing anything, and Vladimir vacuumed, beat the rugs, canned eggplant “caviar” for the winter.
    Dum, dum, dum beat in Zoya’s head, and the pigeon with the fiery wedding ring rose from the dark, his eyes stern and reproachful. Zoya lay down on the couch straight and flat, covered her head with the blanket, and put her arms along her sides. Unbounded Grief, that’s what the medieval masters from the album on the shelf on the left would have called her wooden sculpture. Unbounded Grief; so there. Oh, they would have sculpted her soul, her pain, all the folds of her blanket the right way, they would have sculpted her and then fixed it up on tippy top of a dizzying, lacy cathedral, at the very top, and the photo would be in close up: “Zoya. Detail. Early Gothic.” The blue flame heated the woolen cave, there was no air. The engineer was tiptoeing out of the room. “Where are you going?” Zoya shouted like a crane, and the married pigeon grinned. “I was… just going to… wash up…. You rest,” the monster whispered fearfully.
    “First he goes to wash up, then to the kitchen, and the front door is right there,” the pigeon whispered in her ear. “And then he’s gone.”
    He was right. She tossed a noose around the two-beards’ neck, lay down, jerked, and listened. At that end there was rustling, sighing, shuffling. She had never particularly liked this man. No, let’s be honest, he had always repulsed her. A small, powerful, heavy, quick, hairy, insensitive animal.
    It puttered around for a while—whimpering, fussing—until it quieted down in the blissful thick silence of the great ice age.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


    The world is ended, the world is distorted, the world is closed, and it is closed around Vassily Mikhailovich.
    At sixty, fur coats get heavy, stairs grow steep, and your heart is with you day and night. You’ve walked and walked, from hill to hill, past shimmering lakes, past radiant islands, white birds overhead, speckled snakes underfoot, and you’ve arrived here, and this is where you’ve ended up; it’s dark and lonely here, and your collar chokes you and your blood creaks in your veins. This is sixty.
    This is it, it’s over. Here no grass grows. The soil is frozen, the earth is narrow and stony, and ahead only one sign glows: exit.
    But Vassily Mikhailovich was not willing.
    He sat in the hallway of the beauty shop and waited for his wife. Through the open door he could see the crowded room, partitioned with mirrors, where three… three women his own age squirmed in the hands of mighty blond furies. Could he call what was multiplying in the mirrors “ladies”? With growing horror, Vassily Mikhailovich peered at what sat closest to him. A curly-haired siren planted her feet firmly, grabbed itby the head, pulled it back onto a waiting metal sink, and splashed it with boiling water: steam rose; she lathered wildly; more steam, and before Vassily Mikhailovich could cry out she had fallen upon her victim and was choking it with a white terry towel. He looked away. In another chair—my God—long wires were attached to a reddened, albeit very happy head, with protruding diodes, triodes, and resistors…. In the third chair, he realized, was Yevgeniya Ivanovna, and he went over to her. What at home appeared to be her hair was now wrinkled up, revealing her scalp, and a woman in a white coat was dabbing at it with a stick dipped in a liquid. The odor was stifling.
    “Take off your coat!” several voices cried.
    “Zhenya, I’m going for a walk, just a quick circle,” Vassily Mikhailovich said, waving his arm. He had felt weak in the legs since morning, his heart was thumping and he was thirsty.
    In the lobby stiff green sabers grew hilt-down out of large pots, and photographs of bizarre creatures with not-so-nice hints in their eyes stared from the walls under incredible hair— towers, icing, rams’ horns; or, ripples like mashed potatoes in fancy restaurants. And Yevgeniya Ivanovna wanted to be one of them.
    A cold wind blew, and small dry flakes fell from the sky. The day was dark, empty, brief; its evening had been born with the dawn. Lights burned brightly and cozily in the small stores. A tiny, glowing, sweet-smelling store, a box of miracles, had grown onto the corner. You couldn’t get in: people were pushing and shoving, reaching over heads with their chits, grabbing little somethings. A fat woman was trapped in the doorway, she clutched the jamb, she was being carried away by the flow.
    “Let me out! Let me get out!”
    “What’s in there?”
    “Lip gloss!”
    Vassily Mikhailovich joined the jostling. Woman, woman, do you exist?… What are you?… High up a Siberian tree your hat blinks its eyes in fear; a cow gives birth in suffering so you can have shoes; a lamb is sheared screaming so you can warm yourself with its fleece; a sperm whale is in its death throes; a crocodile weeps; a doomed leopard pants, fleeing. Your pink cheeks come from boxes of flying dust, your smiles from golden containers with strawberry filling, your smooth skin from tubes of grease, your gaze from round transparent jars—He bought Yevgeniya Ivanovna a pair of eyelashes.
    …Everything is predestined and you can’t swerve—that’s what bothered Vassily Mikhailovich. You don’t pick wives: they simply appear out of nowhere by your side, and you’re struggling in fine netting, bound hand and foot; hobbled and gagged, you’re taught thousands and thousands of stifling derails of transient life, put on your knees, your wings clipped; and the darkness gathers, and sun and moon still run and run chasing each other along a circle, the circle, the circle.
    It was revealed to Vassily Mikhailovich how to clean spoons, and the comparative physiology of meatballs and patties; he knew by heart the grievously brief lifespan of sour cream—one of his responsibilities was destroying it at the first signs of mortal agony—he knew the birthplaces of brooms and whisks, distinguished professionally among grains, had in his head all the prices of glassware, and every autumn wiped windowpanes with ammonium chloride to eradicate the ice cherry orchards that planned to grow by winter.
    At times Vassily Mikhailovich imagined that he would finish out this life and begin a new one in a new image. He fussily selected his age, an era, his looks: sometimes he wanted to be born a fiery southern youth; or a medieval alchemist; or the daughter of a millionaire; or a widow’s beloved cat; or a Persian king. Vassily Mikhailovich calculated, compared, deliberated, made conditions, grew ambitious, rejected all suggested possibilities, demanded guarantees, huffed, grew tired, lost his train of thought; and, leaning back in his armchair, stared long and hard in the mirror at himself—the one and only.
    Nothing happened. Vassily Mikhailovich was not visited by a six-winged seraph or any other feathery creature with offers of supernatural services; nothing burst open, there was no voice from the heavens, no one tempted him, carried him aloft, or hurled him down. The three-dimensionality of existence, whose finale was ever approaching, suffocated Vassily Mikhailovich; he tried to get off the tracks, drill a hole in the sky, leave through a drawing of a door. Once, dropping off sheets at the laundry, Vassily Mikhailovich stared into the blossoming clover of cotton expanses, and noticed that the seven-digit notation sewn onto the northeast resembled a telephone number; he secretly called, and was graciously welcomed, and began a boring joyless affair with a woman named Klara. Klara’s house was just like Vassily Mikhailovich’s, with the same clean kitchen, although the windows faced north, and the same cot, and as he got into Klara’s starched bed Vassily Mikhailovich saw yet another telephone number in the corner of the pillow case; he doubted that his fate awaited him there, but, bored by Klara, he called and found the woman Svetlana with her nine-year-old son; in Svetlanas linen closet, clean folded linen lay with pieces of good soap in between the layers.
    Yevgeniya Ivanovna sensed that something was up, looked for clues, rummaged in his pockets, unfolded scraps of paper, unaware that she was sleeping in the pages of a large telephone book with Klara’s telephone number, or that Klara dreamed in Svetlanas telephone numbers, or that Svetlana reposed, as it turned out, in the number of the accounting department of the social security office.
    Vassily Mikhailovich’s women never did learn of one another’s existence; but of course, Vassily Mikhailovich did not pester them with information about himself. And where would he have gotten a surname, a job, an address, or say, a zip code —he, the phantom of blanket covers and pillow cases, born of the whims of chance of the laundry office?
    Vassily Mikhailovich stopped the experiment, not because of the social security office; it was just that he realized that the attempt to escape the system of coordinates was a failure. It wasn’t a new, unheard-of road with breathtaking possibilities that opened before him, not a secret path into the beyond, no; he had simply felt around in the dark and grabbed the usual wheel of fate and if he went around it hand over hand, along the curve, along the circle, he would eventually end up with himself, from the other side.
    For, after all, somewhere in the bustling crowd, in the thick tangle of back streets, a nameless old woman was tossing a sack of worn linen marked with a seven-digit cryptogram into a small wooden window: you were enciphered in it, Vassily Mikhailovich. In all fairness, you belong to the old woman. She has every right to you—what if she makes her demand? You don’t want that? Vassily Mikhailovich—no, no, no—didn’t want a strange old woman, he was afraid of her stockings, and her feet, and her yeasty smell, and the creak of bedsprings under her white elderly body, and he was sure she’d have a tea mushroom growing in a three-liter jar—a slippery eyeless silent creature, living years very quietly on the windowsill without splashing even once.
    But the one who holds the thread of fate in his hands, who determines meetings, who sends algebraic travelers from Point A to Point B, who fills pools from two pipes, had already marked with a red X the intersections where he was to meet Isolde. Now, of course, it was quite some time since she had passed away.
    He saw Isolde at the market and followed her. A peek from the side at her face blue with cold, at her transparent grapelike eyes, and he knew: she would be the one to bring him out of the tight pencil case called the universe. She wore a shabby fur coat with a belt and a thin knit hat—those caps were offered by the dozens by the stocky, heavy women who blocked the entrances to the market; women who like suicides are banned within the gates, turned away from proper stalls, and whose shadows, hard in the frost, wander in crowds along the blue fence, holding in their outstretched hands piles of wooly pancakes—raspberry, green, canary, rustling in the wind—while the early November flakes fall, fall, blowing and whistling, hurrying to wrap the city in winter.
    And Vassily Mikhailovich, his heart contracting with hope, watched the meek Isolde, chilled to the bone, to an icy crunch, wander through the black crowd and drop inside the gates and run her finger along the long, empty counters, looking to see if there was anything tasty left.
    The northern blizzards had blown away the hothouse sellers of capricious summer produce, those sweet marvels created on high by warm air from pink and white flowers. But the last faithful servants of the soil stood firm, frozen to the wooden tables, grimly offering their cold underground catch: for in the face of annual death nature gets scared, turns around, and grows head down, giving birth in the final moments to coarse, harsh, clumsy creatures—the black dome of radish, the monstrous white nerve of horseradish, the secret potato cities.
    And the disappointed Isolde wandered on, along the light blue fence, past the galoshes and plywood crates, past the tattered magazines and wire brooms, past the drunkard offering white porcelain plugs, past the guy indifferently fanning out colored photographs; past and past, sad and shivering, and a pushy woman was already spinning right before her blue face, and praising, and scratching a bright woolen wheel, tugging at it with a big-toothed metal brush.
    Vassily Mikhailovich took Isolde by the arm and offered her some wine, and his words glistened with winy sparkle. He led her to a restaurant and the crowd parted for them, and the coat check took her raiments as if they were the magical swan feathers of a fairy bather who had come from the heavens to a small forest lake. The columns emitted a soft marble aroma, and roses floated in the dim lighting. Vassily Mikhailovich was almost young, and Isolde was like a wild silvery bird, one of a kind.
    Yevgeniya Ivanovna sensed Isolde’s shadow, and she dug pits, put up barbed wire, and forged chains to keep Vassily Mikhailovich from leaving. Lying next to Yevgeniya Ivanovna with his heart pounding, he saw with his inner eye the cool calm of fresh snow glowing on the midnight streets. The untouched whiteness stretched, stretched, smoothly turned the corner: and on the corner, a Venetian window filled with pink light; and within it, Isolde lay awake listening to the unclear blizzard melody in the city, to the dark winter cellos. And Vassily Mikhailovich, gasping in the dark, mentally sent his soul to Isolde, knowing that it would reach her along the sparkling arc that connected them across the city, invisible to the uninitiated:
Night trains jangle in my throat,
It comes, and grabs, and grows silent once more.
The crucified hangs above a deep hole
Where angels of death buzz like gnats:
“Give up! You’re locked in a square,
We’ll come, release you, and start over once more.”
O woman! Apple tree! Candle flame!
Break through, chase away, protect, scream!
Hands tied, mouth contorted,
A black maiden sings in the dark.

    Vassily Mikhailovich chewed through the chain and ran away from Yevgeniya Ivanovna; he and Isolde sat holding hands, and he flung open wide the doors to his soul’s treasures. He was as generous as Ali Babà, and she was astonished and trembled. Isolde did not ask for anything: not a crystal toilette, not the queen of Sheba’s colored sash; she would be happy to sit forever at his side, burning like a wedding candle, burning without extinguishing with a steady quiet flame.
    Soon Vassily Mikhailovich had told her everything he had to tell. Now it was Isolde’s turn: she had to wrap her weak blue arms around him and step with him into a new dimension, so that lightning, with a flash, would shatter the ordinary world like an eggshell. But nothing of the kind happened. Isolde just trembled and trembled, and Vassily Mikhailovich was bored. “Well, Lyalya?” he would say with a yawn.
    He paced the room in his socks, scratched his head, smoked by the window, and stuck the butts in the flower pots, packed his razor in his suitcase: he planned to go back to Yevgeniya Ivanovna. The clock ticked, Isolde cried, not understanding, promising to die, there was slush beneath the window. Why make a scene? Why didn’t she grind some meat and make patties instead? I said I was leaving, that meant I was leaving. What was unclear about that?
    Yevgeniya Ivanovna was so glad she baked a carrot pie, washed her hair, polished the floors. He celebrated his fortieth birthday first at home, then in a restaurant. They packed the uneaten fish and jellied meat in plastic bags, and there was enough for lunch the next day. He got good presents: a radio, a clock with a wooden eagle, and a camera. Yevgeniya Ivanovna had been dreaming of being photographed at the beach in the surf. Isolde did not control herself and sort of ruined the party. She sent some stuff wrapped in paper and an unsigned poem, in her childish handwriting:
Here is a gift for you in parting:
Candle stub,
Shoe laces and a plum pit.
Look closely and smile crookedly.

This was
Your love until it died:
Fire, and skipping, and sweet fruit
Above the abyss, and the brink of disaster.

    She was no longer alive.
    And now he was sixty, and the wind blew up his sleeves, into his heart, and his legs refused to go. Nothing, nothing was happening, nothing lay ahead, and really there was nothing behind, either. For sixty years he’d been waiting for them to come and call him and show him the mystery of mysteries, for red dawn to blaze over half the world, for a staircase of rays to rise from earth to heaven and archangels with trombones and saxophones or whatever they used to blare their unearthly voices to welcome the chosen one. But why were they taking so long? He’d been waiting his whole life.
    He hastened his step. While they shaved Yevgeniya Ivanovna’s neck, boiled her head, and bent her hair with metal hooks, he could reach the market and have some warm beer. It was cold, his fur coat was cheap, a fur coat in name only—fake leather lined with fake fur—which Yevgeniya Ivanovna bought from a speculator. “She skins crocodiles for herself, though,” thought Vassily Mikhailovich. They had gone to the speculator—for crocodile shoes, the fur coat, and other trifles—in the evening, searching a long time for the right house. It was dark on the landing, they felt around, having no matches. Vassily Mikhailovich swore softly. To his amazement he felt a peephole at knee level on one of the doors.
    “That’s the right place, then,” his wife whispered.
    “What does she do, crawl around on all fours?”
    “She’s a dwarf, a circus midget.”
    With bated breath he felt the nearness of a miracle: beyond the vinyl-covered door, perhaps the one and only door in the world, gaped the passageway into another universe, breathed living darkness, and a tiny, translucent elf soared among the stars, trembling on dragonfly wings, tinkling like a bell.
    The dwarf turned out to be old, mad, mean, and didn’t let them touch any of the things. Vassily Mikhailovich surreptitiously looked at the bed with the stepladder, the children’s chairs, the photographs hung low, just above the floor, testimony to the faded charms of the lilliputian. There, in the pictures, standing on the back of a dolled-up horse, in ballet togs, in glass circus diamonds, happy, tiny, the young speculator waved through the glass, through time, through a lifetime. And here, pulling enormous adult clothing out of the closet with tiny wrinkled hands, the evil troll ran back and forth, the guardian of underground gold, and the Gulliver shadow cast by the low-hanging lamp also ran back and forth. Yevgeniya Ivanovna bought the fur coat, and the crocodile shoes, and a winking Japanese wallet, and a scarf with Lurex threads, and an arctic fox skin for a hat from the horrible child, and while they made their way down the dark stairs, supporting each other, she explained to Vassily Mikhailovich that you clean arctic fox with farina grains heated in a dry skillet, and that the skin side of the fur should be kept away from water, and that she now had to buy a half meter of plain ribbon. Vassily Mikhailovich, trying not to remember any of this, thought about what the dwarf had been like in her youth, and whether dwarfs can marry, and that if they were to jail her for speculation, the prison cell would seem so big and frightening to her, every rat would be like a horse, and then he imagined that the young speculator was imprisoned in a gloomy barred castle with nothing but owls and bats: she wrung her doll-like hands, it was dark, and he was creeping toward the castle with a rope ladder over his shoulder through the evil grounds; only the moon ran behind the black branches like a silver apple, and the dwarf clutched the bars of her window and squeezed through, transparent as a lollipop in the moonlight, and he climbed up, tearing his fingers on the mossy medieval stones, and the guards were asleep leaning on their halberds, and a raven steed pawed the ground below ready to gallop around the sawdust arena, on the red carpet, around and around the circle.
    The time allotted to Vassily Mikhailovich was running out. The ocean was behind him, but the unexplored continent had not blocked his path, new lands had not floated out of the mist, and with depression he could make out the dreary palms and familiar minarets of India, which the miscalculating Columbus had thirsted for and which meant the end of the road for Vassily Mikhailovich. The trip around the world was coming to an end: his caravel, having circled life, was sailing up from the other side and was entering familiar territory. The familiar social security office, where the pensions fluttered on flag poles, hove into view, then the opera house, where Svetlana’s son, wearing stage eyebrows, sang about the ephemerality of life to the loud applause of Yevgeniya Ivanovna.
    “If I run into Isolde,” Vassily Mikhailovich made a bet with fate, “my path is over.” But he was cheating: Isolde had passed away a long time ago.
    Sometimes he still got signals: you are not alone. There are clear meadows in the groves of people, where in hermits’ cabins live the ascetics, the chosen who reject the bustle, who seek the secret loophole out of prison.
    News arrived: strange objects were appearing, at first glance insignificant, useless, but imbued with a secret meaning; indicators leading to nowhere. One was Cheburashka, a daring challenge to school Darwinism, an old shaggy evolutionary link that fell out of the measured chain of natural selection. Another was Rubik’s cube, a breakable, changeable, but always whole hexahedron. Having stood four hours in the cold along with thousands of grim fellow sect members, Vassily Mikhailovich became the owner of the marvelous cube and spent weeks twisting and twisting its creaking movable facets, until his eyes grew red, waiting in vain for the light to another universe to shine at last from the window. But sensing one night that of the two of them, the real master was the cube, which was doing whatever it wanted to with helpless Vassily Mikhailovich, he got up, went to the kitchen, and chopped up the monster with a cleaver.
    In anticipation of revelation he leafed through typewritten pages that taught you to breathe a green square in through one nostril at dawn and to chase it with mental power up and down your intestines. He spent hours standing on his head with his legs crossed in someone’s apartment near the railroad station, between two unshaven, also upside-down engineers, and the rumble of the trains outside the house speeding into the distance shook their upraised striped socks. And it was all in vain.
    Ahead was the market, spattered with booths. Twilight, twilight. Illuminated from inside were the icy windows of the booth where winter sells a snowy pulp covered with chocolate on a splintery stick and the colorful gingerbread house where you can buy various kinds of poisonous smoke and a folding spoon and chains of special very cheap gold; and the desired window where a group of black figures huddled, hearts warmed by happiness, and where a beery dawn glowed translucently with wandering flames in the thick glass of mugs. Vassily Mikhailovich got in line and looked around the snowy square.
    There was Isolde, legs spread apart. She was blowing beer foam onto her cloth boots, horrible-looking, with a cracked drunken skull and red wrinkled face. Lights were coming on and the first stars were rising: white, blue, green. The icy wind came from the stars to the earth, stirring her uncovered hair, and after circling around her head, moved on to the dark doorways.
    “Lyalya,” said Vassily Mikhailovich.
    But she was laughing with new friends, stumbling, holding up her mug: a big man was opening a bottle, another man struck the edge of the counter with a dried fish, they were having a good time.
    “My heart sings with joy,” Isolde sang. “Oh, if I could feel this way forever.”
    Vassily Mikhailovich stood and listened to her sing without understanding the words and when he came to, a struggling Isolde was being led away by the militiamen. But that couldn’t be Isolde: she had passed away a long time ago.
    And he, it seemed, was still alive. But now there was no point to it. Darkness pressed against his heart. The hour of departure had struck. He looked back one last time and saw only a long cold tunnel with icy walls, and himself, crawling with a hand extended, grimly smothering all the sparks that flashed on the way. The queue shoved him and hurried him, and he took a step forward, no longer feeling his legs, and he gratefully accepted from gentle hands his well-earned cup of hemlock.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


    HIS WIFE fell asleep the minute she lay down on the couch in the nursery: nothing wears you out as much as a sick child. Good, let her sleep there. Ignatiev covered her with a light blanket, stood around, looked at her open mouth, exhausted face, the black roots of her hair—she had stopped pretending to be a blonde a long time ago—felt sorry for her, for the wan, white, and sweaty Valerik, for himself, left, went to bed, and lay without sleep, staring at the ceiling.
    Depression came to Ignatiev every night. Heavy, confusing, with lowered head, it sat on the edge of the bed and took his hand—a sad sitter for a hopeless patient. And they spent hours in silence, holding hands.
    The house rustled at night, shuddered, lived. There were peaks in the vague din—a dog’s bark, a snatch of music, the thud of the elevator going up and down on a thread—the night boat. Hand in hand with depression Ignatiev said nothing: locked in his heart, gardens, seas, and cities tumbled; Ignatiev was their master, they were born with him, and with him they were doomed to dissolve into nonbeing. My poor world, your master has been conquered by depression. Inhabitants, color the sky in twilight, sit on the stone thresholds of abandoned houses, drop your hands, lower your heads: your good king is ill. Lepers, walk the deserted streets, ring your brass bells, carry the bad tidings: brothers, depression is coming to the cities. The hearths are abandoned and the ashes are cold and grass is growing between the slabs where the bazaar once was boisterous. Soon the low red moon will rise in the inky sky, and the first wolf will come out of the ruins, raise its head, and howl, sending a lone call on high, into the icy expanses, to the distant blue wolves sitting on branches in the black groves of alien universes.
    Ignatiev did not know how to cry, and so he smoked. The light glowed in tiny toy flashes of summer lightning. Ignatiev lay there, depressed, tasting tobacco bitterness and knowing that in it was truth. Bitterness, smoke, a tiny oasis of light in the dark—that was the world. On the other side of the wall the plumbing rumbled. His earthy, tired, dear wife slept under a torn blanket. White Valerik was restless—thin, sickly shoot, pathetic to the point of spasms—rash, glands, dark circles under his eyes. And somewhere in the city, in one of the brightly lit windows, unfaithful, unsteady, evasive Anastasia was drinking wine with someone else. Look at me… but she just laughs and looks away.
    Ignatiev turned on his side. Depression moved closer to him and flung up her ghostly sleeve—a line of ships floated up. The sailors were drinking with the locals in taverns, the captain stayed late on the governor’s veranda (cigars, liqueurs, pet parrot), the watch man left his post for a cockfight and to see the bearded woman at the motley sideshow; the painters quietly untied themselves, a night breeze came up, and the old sailing ships, creaking, left the harbor for points unknown. Sick children, small, trusting boys, sleep soundly in their berths; they snuffle, holding a toy tight in their fists; the blankets slip off, the empty decks sway, the flock of ships sails with a soft splash into the impenetrable dark, and the pointed wake smooths out on the warm black surface.
    Depression waves a sleeve and spreads out a boundless stony desert—hoarfrost shining on the cold rocky plain, stars frozen indifferently, the white moon indifferently drawing circles, the steadily stepping camel’s bridle jangling sadly, a rider drawing near, wrapped in chilled striped cloth of Bukhara. Who are you, rider? Why have you dropped your reins? Why have you wrapped up your face? Let me loosen your stiff fingers. What is this, rider, are you dead?… The rider’s mouth gapes, a bottomless pit; his hair is tangled, and deep sorrowful gutters have been etched in his cheeks by tears flowing for millennia.
    A flutter of the sleeve. Anastasia, floating lights over a swamp. What was that slurp in the thicket? Don’t look back. A hot flower beckons you to step on the springy brown hummocks. A thin, impatient fog moves about, sometimes lying down, sometimes hanging over the kindly beckoning moss: the red flower floats, winking through the white clumps: come here, come here. One step—that’s not scary, is it? One more step— you’re not afraid, are you? Shaggy heads stand in the moss, smiling, winking. A noisy dawn. Don’t be afraid, the sun won’t rise. Don’t be afraid, we still have the fog. Step. Step. Step. Floating, laughing, the flower flashes. Don’t look back! I think I’ll get it. I do think I’ll get it. I will. Step.
    “Oo-oo-oo,” came a groan from the next room. Ignatiev pushed through the door in a bound and rushed to the crib— what’s the matter, what is it? His tangled wife jumped up and they began jerking at Valerik’s sheets and blanket, getting in each other’s way. Just to do something, to act! The little white head tossed and turned in its sleep, muttered, ba-da-da, ba-da-da. Rapidly muttering, pushing them away with his hands; then he calmed down, turned, settled down—He went off into his dreams alone, without his mother, without me, down the narrow path under the pines.
    “What’s the matter with him?”
    “Another fever. I’ll sleep here.”
    “I’ve already brought you a blanket. I’ll get you a pillow.”
    “He’ll be like that till morning. Shut the door. If you want to eat, there are some cheese pastries.”
    “I’m not hungry. Get some sleep.”
    Depression was waiting, lying in the wide bed; moved over, made room for Ignatiev, embraced him, put her head on his chest, on the razed gardens, the dried-up seas, the ashen cities.
    But not everything was killed: toward morning, when Ignatiev slept, Life came out of the dugouts; it pulled apart the burned logs and planted small seedlings: plastic primroses, cardboard oaks; hauled building blocks to erect temporary shelter, filled the seas with a watering can, cut pink bug-eyed crabs out of oilcloth, and with an ordinary pencil drew the dark, convoluted line of the surf.
    After work, Ignatiev did not go straight home, but drank beer with a friend in a little cellar bar. He always hurried to get the best spot, in the corner, but rarely succeeded. And while he hurried, avoiding puddles, speeding up, patiently waiting for the roaring rivers of cars to pass, behind him, shuffled into the crowd of people, depression hurried; here and there, her flat, dull head appeared. There was no way he could get away from her, the doorman let her into the cellar bar, too, and Ignatiev was happy if his friend also came early. Old friend, schoolmate: he waved to him from afar, nodding, smiling gaptoothed; his thinning hair curled over his old, worn jacket. His children were grown. His wife had left him a long time ago and he didn’t want to remarry. Everything was just the opposite with Ignatiev. They met joyously and parted irritated, unhappy with each other, but the next time they started all over again. And when his friend, panting, made his way through the arguing tables, and nodded to Ignatiev, then deep in Ignatiev’s chest, in his solar plexus, Life raised its head and also nodded and waved.
    They ordered beer and pretzels.
    “I’m in despair,” Ignatiev said. “I’m desperate. I’m confused. It’s all so complicated. My wife is a saint. She quit her job, she spends all her time with Valerik. He’s sick, he’s sick all the time. His legs don’t work well. He’s just this tiny little candle stump. Barely burning. The doctors give him shots, he’s afraid. He screams. I can’t stand hearing him scream. The most important thing for him is home care and she kills herself. She’s killing herself. But I can’t go home. Depression. My wife won’t even look me in the eye. And what’s the point? Even if I read The Old Man and the Turnip to Valerik at bedtime, it’s still depressing. And it’s a lie; if a turnip is stuck in the ground, you can’t get it out. I know. Anastasia…. I call and call, she’s never home. And if she is home, what can we talk about? Valerik? Work?… It’s bad, you know, it gets me down. Every day I promise myself: tomorrow I’ll wake up a new man, I’ll perk up, I’ll forget Anastasia, make a pile of money, take Valerik down south—Redo the apartment, start jogging in the morning…
    But at night, I’m depressed.”
    “I don’t understand,” his friend would say. “What are you making this into such a big deal for? We all live pretty much the same way, what’s the problem? We all manage to live somehow.”
    “You don’t understand. Right here”—Ignatiev pointed to his chest—“it’s alive, and it hurts.”
    “You’re such a fool,” his friend said and picked his teeth with a wooden match. “It hurts because it’s alive. What did you expect?”
    “I expected it not to hurt. It’s too hard for me. Believe it or not, I’m suffering. And my wife is suffering, and so is Valerik, and Anastasia must be suffering and that’s why she unplugs the phone. And we all torment one another.”
    “You’re a fool. Just don’t suffer.” I cant.
    “You’re a fool. Big deal, the world-class sufferer! You just don’t want to be hale and hearty, you don’t want to be master of your life.”
    “I’m at the end of my tether,” Ignatiev said, clutching his hair and staring at his foam-flecked mug.
    “You’re an old woman. You’re wallowing in your self-invented suffering.”
    “No, I’m not an old woman. And I’m not wallowing. I’m sick and I want to be well.”
    “If that’s the case, you should know: the diseased organ has to be amputated. Like an appendix.”
    Ignatiev looked up, shocked.
    “What do you mean?”
    “I just told you.”
    “Amputated in what sense?”
    “Medically. They do that now.”
    His friend looked around, lowered his voice, and explained: there’s an institute near Novoslobodskaya, and they operate on it; of course, it’s still semiofficial for now, it’s done privately, but it’s possible. Of course, you have to make it worth the surgeon’s while. People come out completely renewed. Hadn’t Ignatiev heard about it? It’s very widespread in the West, but it’s still underground here. Has to be done on the sly. Bureaucracy.
    Ignatiev listened, stunned.
    “But have they at least… experimented on dogs?”
    His friend made circles near his ear.
    “You’re really nuts. Dogs don’t have it. They have reflexes. Remember Pavlov?”
    “Oh, yes.”
    Ignatiev thought a bit. “But it’s horrible!”
    “There’s nothing horrible about it. The results are excellent: the mental processes become much sharper. Will power increases. All those idiotic, fruitless doubts end forever. Harmony of body and, uh, brain. The intellect beams like a projector. You set your goal, strike without missing, and grab first prize. But I’m not forcing you, you know. If you don’t want treatment, stay sick. With your glum nose. And let your women unplug the phone.”
    Ignatiev did not take offense, he shook his head: those women…
    “Ignatiev, for your information, what you tell a woman, even if she’s Sophia Loren, is: shoo! Then they’ll respect you. Otherwise, you don’t count.”
    “But how can I say that to her? I worship her, I tremble…”
    “Right. Tremble. You tremble, I’m going home.”
    “Wait! Stay a bit. Let’s have another beer. Listen, have you seen any of these… operated people?”
    “You bet.”
    “How do they look?”
    “How? Like you and me. Better. Everything’s just dandy with them, they’re successful, they laugh at fools like us. I have a pal, we were at college together. He’s become a big shot.”
    “Could I have a look at him?”
    “A look? Well, all right, I’ll ask. I don’t know if he’d mind. I’ll ask. Although, what’s it to him? I don’t think he’ll refuse. Big deal!”
    “What’s his name?”
    It was pouring. Ignatiev walked through the city in the evening; red and green lights replaced each other, bubbling on the streets. Ignatiev had two kopeks in his hand, to call Anastasia. A Zhiguli drove right through a puddle on purpose, splashing Ignatiev with murky water, splattering his trousers. Things like that happened frequently to Ignatiev. “Don’t worry, I’ll get that operation,” thought Ignatiev, “buy a car, and I’ll splash others. Revenge on the indifferent for humiliation.” He was ashamed of his base thoughts and shook his head. I’m really sick.
    He had a long wait at the phone booth. First a young man whispered smiling into the phone. Somebody whispered back a long time, too. The man ahead of Ignatiev, a short, dark man, banged his coin against the glass: have a heart. Then he called. Apparently he had his own Anastasia, but her name was Raisa. The short man wanted to marry her, insisted, shouted, pressed his forehead against the cold telephone.
    “What’s the problem?” He couldn’t understand. “Can you please explain what the problem is? What more could you want? Tell me! Just tell me! You’ll be rolling…”—he switched the receiver to his other ear—“You’ll be rolling in clover! Go on. Go on.” He listened a long time, tapping his foot. “Why my whole apartment is covered with rugs. Yeah. Yeah.” He listened a long time, grew bewildered, stared at the phone with its dial tone, left with an angry face, with tears in his eyes, walked into the rain. He didn’t need Ignatiev’s sympathetic smile. Ignatiev crawled into the warm inside of the booth, dialed the magical number, but crawled out with nothing: his long rings found no response, dissolved in the cold rain, in the cold city, beneath the low, cold clouds. And Life whimpered in his chest until morning.
    N. received him the next week. A respectable establishment with lots of name plates. Solid, spacious corridors, carpets. A weeping woman came out of his office. Ignatiev and his friend pushed the heavy door. N. was an important man: desk, jacket, the works. Just look, look! A gold pen in his pocket, and look at the pens in the granite slab on his desk. Look at the desk calendars. And a fine cognac behind the square panes of his cupboard—well, well!
    His friend explained their visit. He was visibly nervous: even though they had been at college together, all those pens… N. was clear and precise. Get all possible analyses. Chest X rays—profile and frontal. Get transferred to the institute by your local hospital, without making a fuss, put the reason: for tests. And at the institute, go to Dr. Ivanov. Yes, Ivanov. Have one hundred fifty rubles ready in an envelope. That’s basically it. That’s what I did. There may be other ways, I don’t know.
    Yes, quick and painless. I’m satisfied.
    “So, they cut it out?”
    “I’d say, tear it out. Extract it. Clean, hygienic.”
    “And afterward… did you see it? After the extraction?”
    “What for?”
    N. was insulted. Ignatiev’s friend kicked him: indecent questions!
    “Well, to know what it was like,” Ignatiev said embarrassedly. “You know, just…”
    “Who could possibly be interested in that? Excuse me…” N. lifted the edge of his cuff: a massive gold timepiece was revealed. With an expensive strap. Did you see, did you notice? The audience was over.
    “Well, what did you think?” His friend peered into his face as they walked along the embankment. “Are you convinced? What do you think?”
    “I don’t know yet. It’s scary.”
    Headlights splashed in the black river waves. Depression, his evening girlfriend, was creeping up on him. Peeking out from behind the rain gutter pipe, running across the wet pavement, blending into the crowd, watching constantly, waiting for Ignatiev to be alone. Windows were lighting up, one after another.
    “You’re in bad shape, Ignatiev. Decide. It’s worth it.”
    “I’m scared. This way I feel bad, the other way I’m scared. I keep thinking, what happens later? What comes after? Death?”
    “Life, Ignatiev! Life! A healthy, superior life, not just chicken scratching. A career. Success. Sport. Women. Get rid of complexes and neuroses! Just look at yourself: what are you? A wimp. Coward! Be a man, Ignatiev! A man! That’s what women want. Otherwise, what are you? Just a rag!”
    Yes, women. Ignatiev drew Anastasia and grew lonely. He remembered her last summer, leaning toward a mirror, radiant, plump, her reddish hair tossed back, putting on carrot-colored lipstick, her lips in a convenient cosmetic position, talking in spurts, with pauses.
    “I doubt. That you’re. A man. Ignatiev. Because men. Are. Decisive. And-by-the-way-change-that-shirt-if-you-have-any-hopes-at-all.” And her red dress burned like a flower.
    And Ignatiev was ashamed of his tea-colored short-sleeved silk shirt, which used to belong to his father. It was a good shirt, long-wearing; he had gotten married in it and had welcomed Valerik home from the hospital in it. But if a shirt stands between us and the woman we love, we’ll burn the shirt—even if it’s made of diamonds. And he burned it. And it helped for a short while. And Anastasia loved him. But now she was drinking red wine with others and laughing in one of the lit windows of this enormous city, he didn’t know which one, but he looked for her silhouette in each one. And—not to him, but to others, shifting her shoulders under the lace shawl, on the second, seventh, sixteenth floor—she was saying her shameless words: “Am I really very pretty?”
    Ignatiev burned his father’s tea-colored shirt; its ashes fall on the bed at night, depression sprinkles him with it, softly sowing it through half-shut fist. Only the weak regret useless sacrifices. He will be strong. He will burn everything that erects obstacles. He’ll grow into the saddle, he’ll tame the evasive, slippery Anastasia. He will lift the claylike, lowered face of his beloved, exhausted wife. Contradictions won’t tear him apart. The benefits will balance clearly and justly. Here is your place, wife. Reign. Here is your place, Anastasia. Rule. And you: smile, little Valerik. Your legs will grow strong and your glands will stop swelling, for Papa loves you, you pale city potato seedling. Papa will be rich, with pens. He will call in expensive doctors in gold-rimmed glasses with leather cases. Carefully handing you from one to the other, they will carry you to the fruity shores of the eternally blue sea, and the lemony, orangey breeze will blow the dark circles away from your eyes. Who’s that coming, tall as a cedar, strong as steel, with his step springy, knowing no shameful doubts? That’s Ignatiev. His path is straight, his income high, his gaze confident. Women watch him pass. Shoo!… Down a green carpet, in a red dress, Anastasia floats toward him nodding through the fog, smiling her shameless smile.
    “I’ll at least get started on the paperwork. That takes ages,” Ignatiev said. “And then I’ll see.”
    Ignatiev’s appointment was for eleven, but he decided to go early. A summer morning chirped outside the kitchen window. Water trucks sprayed brief coolness in rainbow fans, and Life cheeped and hopped in the tangled tree branches. Behind his back, sleepy night seeped through the netting, whispers of depression, foggy pictures of misery, the measured splash of waves on a dull deserted shore, low, low clouds. The silent ceremony of breakfast took place on a corner of the oilcloth—an old ritual whose meaning is forgotten, purpose lost; what remains is only the mechanical motions, signs, and sacred formulas of a lost tongue no longer understood by the priests themselves. His wife’s exhausted face was lowered. Time had long since stolen the pink flush of youth from the thousand-year-old cheeks and their branched fissures…. Ignatiev raised his hand, cupped it, to caress the parchment tresses of the beloved mummy—but his hand encountered only the sarcophagus’ cold. Frozen cliffs, the jangle of a lone camel’s bridle, the lake, frozen solid. She did not lift her face, did not lift her eyes. The mummy’s wrinkled brown stomach: dried up, sunken, the sliced-open rib cage filled with balsamic resins, stuffed with dry tufts of herbs; Osiris is silent. The dry members are tightly bound with linen strips marked with blue signs: asps, eagles, and crosses—the sneaky, minuscule droppings of ibis-headed Toth.
    You don’t know anything yet, my dear, but be patient: just a few more hours, and the shackles will burst and the glass vessel of despair will shatter into small, splashing smithereens, and a new, radiant, shining glorious Ignatiev will appear to the boom and roll of drums and the cries of Phrygian pipes, wise, intense, complete; will arrive riding on a white elephant on a rug-covered seat with colored fans. And you will stand at my right, and on my left—closer to the heart—will stand Anastasia; and white Valerik will smile and reach out, and the mighty elephant will kneel and gently swing him in his kind, ornamented trunk, and pass him to Ignatiev’s strong arms, and Ignatiev will raise him above the world—the small ruler, intoxicated by heights—and the exulting nations will cry: ecce homo! Ecce ruler from sea to sea, from edge to edge, to the glowing cupola, the blue curving border of the gold-and-green planet earth.
    Ignatiev came early, the hallway outside the office was empty, there was only a blond man hanging around, the one with the ten o’clock appointment. A pathetic blond with shifty eyes, biting his nails, nibbling his cuticle, stoop-shouldered; sitting down, then jumping up and examining closely the four-sided colored lanterns with edifying medical tales: “Unwashed Vegetables Are Dangerous.” “Gleb Had a Toothache.” “And the Eye Had to Be Removed” (If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out). “Give the Dysentery Patient Separate Dishes.” “Air Out Your Home Frequently.” An entry light went on over the door, the blond man groaned softly, patted his pockets, and crossed the threshold. Pathetic, pathetic, miserable man! I’m just like him. Time passed. Ignatiev squirmed, sniffed the medicated air, went to look at the pedagogical lanterns; Gleb’s story interested him. A sick tooth tormented Gleb, but then let up; and Gleb, cheerier, in a jogging suit, played chess with a school friend. But you can’t escape your fate. Gleb suffered great torments, and bound up his face with a cloth, and his day turned to night, and he went to the wise, stern doctor, and the doctor did ease his suffering: he did pull Gleb’s tooth and cast it out; and Gleb, transfigured, smiled happily in the final, bottom illuminated window, while the doctor raised his finger in admonition, bequeathing his time-honored wisdom to new generations.
    Behind him came the rattle of a dolly and stifled moans, and two elderly women in white coats drove a writhing, nameless body, wrapped in dried-up bloody bandages—face and chest— only the mouth was a black hole. Could it be the blond?… Impossible… After them came a nurse with an IV, frowning, who stopped when she noticed Ignatiev’s desperate signals. Ignatiev made an effort and remembered the language of humans:
    “The blond?”
    “What did you say? I didn’t understand.”
    “The blond, Ivanov?… He had it, too?… Extracted it, right?”
    The nurse laughed grimly.
    “No, they transplanted it into him. They’ll take yours out and put it in someone else. Don’t worry. He’s an inpatient.”
    “You mean they do the reverse, too? Why such…”
    “He’s doomed. They don’t survive it. We make them sign a disclaimer before the surgery. It’s useless. They don’t live.”
    “Rejection? Immune system?”
    “Heart attack.”
    “They can’t take it. They were born that way, lived their whole lives that way, never knowing what it is. And then they go and have a transplant. It must be a fad or something. There’s a waiting list, we do one a month. Not enough donors.”
    “So, I’m a donor?”
    The nurse laughed, picked up the IV, and left. Ignatiev thought. So that’s how they do it here. An experimental institute, that’s for sure… Ivanov’s office door opened, and a golden-haired someone strode out, haughty, pushy; Ignatiev jumped out of the way, then watched him go… the blond… A superman, dream, ideal, athlete, victor! The sign over the door was blinking impatiently, and Ignatiev crossed the threshold and Life rang like a bell in his trembling chest.
    “Please sit for a minute.”
    The doctor, Professor Ivanov, was writing something on a card. They were always like that: call you in, but they’re not ready. Ignatiev sat down and licked his lips. He looked around the office. A chair like a dentist’s, anesthesia equipment with two silvery tanks, and manometer. Over there, a polished cupboard with small gifts from patients, harmless, innocent trifles: plastic model cars, porcelain birds. It was funny to have porcelain birds in an office where such things were done. The doctor wrote and wrote, and the uncomfortable silence thickened, the only sounds the squeal of the pen, the jangle of the lone black camel’s bridle, and the stiffened rider, and the frozen plain….
    Ignatiev squeezed his hands to control the trembling and looked around: everything was ordinary; the shutters of the old window were open and beyond the white window frame was summer.
    The warm, already dusty leaves of the luxurious linden splashed, whispered, conspired about something, huddling in a tangled green mass, giggling, prompting one another, plotting: let’s do it this way; or how about like this? Good idea: well, then, we’re agreed, but it’s our secret, right? Don’t give it away! And suddenly, quivering as one heady, scented crowd, excited by the secret that united them—a wonderful, happy, warm summer secret—with a rustle, they lunged toward their neighboring, murmuring poplar: Guess, just guess. It’s your turn to guess. And the poplar swayed in embarrassment, caught unawares; and muttered, recoiling: easy, easy, not all at once; calm down, I’m old, you’re all so naughty. They laughed and exchanged glances, the linden’s green inhabitants: we knew it! And some fell down to the ground, laughing, into the warm dust, and others clapped their hands, and still others didn’t even notice, and once more they whispered, inventing a new game. Play, boys; play, girls! Laugh, kiss, live, you short-lived little green town. The summer is still dancing, its colorful flower skirts still fresh, it’s only noon by the clock: the hands triumphantly pointing up. But the sentence has been read, the permission granted, the papers signed. The indifferent executioner—the north wind—has put on his white mask, packed his cold poleaxe, is ready to start. Old age, bankruptcy, destruction are inexorable. And the hour is nigh when here and there on the bare branches there will be only a handful of frozen, contorted, uncomprehending old husks, thousand-year-old furrows on their earthy, suffering faces…. A gust of wind, a wave of the poleaxe, and they too will fall… I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to, thought Ignatiev. I can’t hold on to summer with my weak hands, I can’t stop the decay, the pyramids are collapsing, the crack has sundered my trembling heart and the horror of the witnesses’ useless suffering… No. I’m dropping out of the game. With magic scissors I will cut the enchanted ring and go outside. The shackles will fall, the dry paper cocoon will burst, and astonished by the newness of the blue and gold purity of the world, the lightest, most fragile butterfly will fly out and grow more beautiful….
    Get out your scalpel, your knife, your sickle, whatever you usually use, doctor; be so kind as to sever the branch that is still blooming but is hopelessly dying and toss it in the purifying flames.
    The doctor extended his hand without looking up—and Ignatiev hurried, embarrassed, afraid to do the wrong thing, banded him his pile of test results, references, X rays, and the envelope with one hundred fifty rubles—the envelope with an unseasonal Santa Claus in a painted sleigh with presents for the kiddies. Ignatiev began to look, and saw the doctor. On his head in receding cones sat a cap—a white tiara in blue stripes, a starched ziggurat. Tanned face, eyes lowered onto the papers; and falling powerfully, waterfall-like, terrifying, from his ears down to his waist, in four layers, in forty spirals: a rough, blue Assyrian beard, thick ringlets, black springs, a nocturnal hyacinth. I am Physician of Physicians, Ivanov.
    “He’s no Ivanov,” Ignatiev thought in horror. The Assyrian picked up the Santa Claus envelope, lifted it by one corner, and asked, “What’s this?” He looked up.
    He had no eyes.
    The empty sockets gave off the black abyss of nothingness, the underground entrance to other worlds, on the edges of the dead seas of darkness. And he had to go there.
    There were no eyes, but there was a gaze. He was looking at Ignatiev.
    “What is this?” the Assyrian repeated.
    “Money,” Ignatiev said, moving the letters.
    “What for.”
    “I wanted to… they said… for the operation, I don’t know. You take it. (Ignatiev horrified himself.) I was told, I wanted to. I was told, I asked.”
    “All right.”
    The professor opened a drawer and swept rosy-cheeked Santa with presents for Valerik into it, his tiara shifted on his head.
    “Is surgical intervention indicated for you?”
    Indicated? It’s indicated. Isn’t it indicated for everyone? I don’t know. There are the test results, lots of figures, all kinds of things… The doctor looked down toward the papers, went through the results, good dependable results with clear purple stamps: all the projections of a cone—circle and triangle—were there; all the Pythagorean symbols, the cabalistic secrets of medicine, the backstage mysticism of the Order. The professor’s clean, surgical nail went down the graphs: thrombocytes… erythrocytes… Ignatiev watched the nail jealously, mentally pushing it along: don’t stop, everything is fine, good numbers, sturdy, clean, roasted nuts. Secretly proud: marvelous, healthy zeros without worms; the fours like excellently built footstools, the eights well-washed eyeglasses; everything suitable, satisfactory. Operation indicated. The Assyrian’s finger stopped. What’s the matter? Something wrong? Ignatiev craned his neck and looked anxiously. Doctor, is it that two over there that you don’t like? Really, you’re right, heh-heh, it’s not quite… a small bruise, I agree, but it’s accidental, don’t pay any attention, read on, there are all those sixes over there, spilled like Armenian grapes. What, they’re no good, either?… Wait, wait, let’s figure this out. The Assyrian moved his finger and went down to the bottom of the page, then flipped through the papers, made a neat pile, and clipped it. He took out the chest X ray and held it up to the light for a long time. He added it to the pile. I think he’s willing, thought Ignatiev. But anxiety blew like a draft through his heart, opening doors, moving curtains. But that too would pass. Actually, more precisely, that was exactly what would pass. I’d like to know what it would be like after. My poor heart, your apple orchards still stir. The bees still buzz and dig in the pink flowers, weighed down by heavy pollen. But the evening sky is darkening, the air is still, the shiny axe is being sharpened. Don’t be afraid. Don’t look. Shut your eyes. Everything will be fine. Everything will be fine. Everything will be very fine.
    I wonder if the doctor had it done, too? Should I ask? Why not? I’ll ask. No, I’m afraid. I’m afraid and it’s impolite and maybe I’ll spoil everything. If you ask, your dry tongue moving meekly; smiling tensely, gazing beseechingly into the nightmarish dark gaping like a black hole between his upper and lower lids, vainly trying to meet his gaze, to find a saving human point, find something, some sort of—well, maybe not a welcome, not a smile, no no, I understand—but even scorn, fastidiousness, even revulsion, some answer, some glimmer, some sign, somebody stir, wave your hand, do you hear me? Is anyone in there? I feel around in the dark, I feel the dark, it’s thick; I see nothing, I’m afraid I’ll slip and fall, but where can I fall if there’s no path beneath my feet? I am alone here. I am afraid. Life, are you here?… Doctor, excuse me please, sorry to bother you, but just one question: tell me, is Life there?
    As if in foreboding, something in his chest cringed, scurried, crouched, eyes shut, arms over its head. Be patient. It will be better for everyone.
    The Assyrian let him look into his deep starless pits once more.
    “Sit in the chair, please.”
    And I will, so what, it’s no big deal, I’ll just go sit, casuallike. Ignatiev settled in the leather reclining chair. Rubber straps on his arms and legs. On the side, a hose, tanks, a manometer.
    “General anesthesia?”
    The professor was doing something at his desk, with his back to Ignatiev, and he replied reluctantly, after a pause.
    “Yes, general anesthesia. We’ll remove it, clean it out, fill the canal.”
    “Like a tooth,” thought Ignatiev. He felt a cowardly chill. What unpleasant words. Easy, easy. Be a man. What’s the problem. Easy. It’s not a tooth. No blood. Nothing.
    The doctor selected the proper tray. Something jingled on it. With tweezers he selected and placed on a low table, onto a glass medical slide, a long, thin, disgustingly thin needle, thinner than a mosquito’s whine. Ignatiev squinted at it nervously. Knowing what those things were for was horrible, but not knowing was worse.
    “What’s that?”
    “The extractor.”
    “So small? I wouldn’t have thought.”
    “Do you think yours is big?” the Assyrian said irritatedly. And he stuck the X ray under his nose, but he could make out nothing but foggy spots. The doctor was already wearing rubber gloves fitted tightly over his hands and wrists, and with a bent tweezers he rummaged among the shiny bent needles and vilely narrowing probes and pulled something out: a parody of scissors with a pike’s jaws. The Assyrian scratched his beard with a rubber finger. Ignatiev thought that the doctor was ruining the sterility and meekly mentioned it aloud.
    “What sterility?” The professor raised his eyelids. “I wear gloves to protect my hands.”
    Ignatiev smiled weakly, understandingly. Of course, you never know, there are people with diseases—He suddenly realized that he didn’t know how they would drag it out: Through his mouth? His nose? Maybe they make an incision on the chest? Or in the hole between collarbones, where day and night the soft throb continues: sometimes hurrying, sometimes slowing its endless run?
    “Doctor, how…”
    “Quiet!” The Assyrian exclaimed. “Silence! Shut your mouth. Just listen to me. Look at the bridge of my nose. Count to twenty to yourself: one, two…”
    His nose, mouth, and blue beard were firmly wrapped in white. Between the white mask and the striped tiara the abyss stared from his eyes. Between the two sockets, openings into nowhere, was the bridge of his nose: a tuft of blue hairs on a crumbling mountain range. Ignatiev began looking, turning to ice. The anesthesia hose was moving toward him from the side. A trunk; and from it, the sweet, sweet smell of death. It hung over his face; Ignatiev struggled, but gave up, tied down by rubber straps, stifled his last, too-late doubts—and they splashed in all directions. Out of the corner of his eye he saw depression, his loyal girlfriend, pressed against the window, bidding him farewell, weeping, blocking the white light, and almost voluntarily inhaled the piercing, sweet smell of blossoming nonexistence, once, twice, and more, without moving his eyes from the Assyrian emptiness.
    And there, in the depths of the sockets, in the otherworldly crevasses, a light went on, a path appeared, stumps of black, charred branches grew, and with a soft jolt Ignatiev was sucked from the chair, forward and up, and was tossed there, on the path, and hurrying—seven, eight, nine, ten, I’m lost—he ran along the stones with his almost nonexistent legs. And Life gasped behind him, and the bars clanged, and Anastasia wailed bitterly, wildly…
    And I’m sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry for those left behind and I can’t stop and I’m running upward, and huddled low the dacha station flew past, and with Mama and me—a little boy, no, it’s Valerik—and they turn, mouths open, shouting; but I can’t hear them, Valerik raises his little hand, something in his fist, the wind ruffles their hair….
    Ringing in the ears, darkness, ringing, oblivion.
    Ignatiev—Ignatiev?—slowly floated up from the bottom, his head pushing aside the soft, dark rags—a lake of cloth.
    He lay in the chair, the straps undone, his mouth dry, his head spinning. In his chest, a pleasant, calm warmth. It felt good.
    The bearded man in the white coat was writing something on a medical chart. Ignatiev remembered why he was there— just a simple outpatient operation, he had to have the whatsit removed; what was that word. The hell with it. General anesthesia—that took pull. Not bad.
    “Well, doc, can I split?” Ignatiev asked.
    “Stay five minutes,” the bearded one said dryly. “So pushy all of a sudden.”
    “Did you do it all, no tricks?”
    “Watch it, if you welshed on the deal, I’ll shake my bucks out of you real fast,” Ignatiev joked.
    The doctor looked up from the papers. Well, that was the living end, a real knockout. Holes instead of eyes.
    “What’s the matter, pal, lose your eyeballs?” Ignatiev laughed. He liked his new laugh—sort of a squealing bark. Fastlike. “Well, you’re really something, pal! I’m knocked out. Just don’t trip when you go pick up babes.”
    He liked the dull spot in his solar plexus. It was boss.
    “Hey, man, I’m off. Gimme five. Ciao.”
    He slapped the doctor on the back. He bounded down the worn stairs with sturdy, springy steps, with whiplash turns on the landings. So much to do! And everything would work out. Ignatiev laughed. The sun was shining. Loads of babes on the street. Terrif. First off to Anastasia. Show her what’s what! But first, a few jokes, of course. He had made up a few jokes already, his brain was whizzing. “Gotta keep your shotgun clean,” he’d say. He thought that up. And when he left, he’d say, “Stay cool, suck ice.” He was so funny now: no joke, seriously, the life of the party.
    Should I go home first or what? Home later, now I have to write to the right place and tell the right people that a doctor calling himself Ivanov takes bribes. Write it in full detail, with a lacing of humor: he has no eyes, but all he sees is money. Who’s keeping an eye on things, anyway?
    And then home. I’ve had it keeping that preemie home. It’s not sanitary, you know. Arrange a bed in a home for him. If they give me trouble, I’ll have to slip them something. That’s the way the game is played. It’s normal.
    Ignatiev pushed the post office door.
    “What would you like?” the curly-haired girl asked.
    “A clean sheet of paper,” Ignatiev said. “Just a clean sheet.”
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


    Where is she now, that lunatic Svetlana, nicknamed Pipka, about whom some people, with the nonchalance of youth, used to say, “But I mean, is Pipka really human?” and others, exasperated: “Why do you let her in? Keep an eye on your books! She’ll walk off with everything!” No, they were wrong: the only things assignable to Pipka’s conscience are a light blue Simenon and a white wool sweater with knitted buttons, and it was already darned at the elbow anyway. And to hell with the sweater! Much more valuable things had vanished since that time: Rimma’s radiant youth; the childhood of her children; the freshness of her hopes, blue as the morning sky; the secret, joyful trust with which Rimma listened to the voice of the future whispering for her alone—what laurels, flowers, islands, and rainbows had not been promised to her, and where is it all? She didn’t begrudge the sweater; Rimma herself had forcibly thrust Svetlana into that little-needed sweater when she threw the insane girl, half dressed as always, out into the raging autumn one cold, branch-lashed Moscow midnight. Rimma, already in her nightgown, shifted impatiently from one foot to the other in the doorway, pressing her shivering legs together; she kept nodding, advancing, showing Svetlana the door, but Svetlana was trying to get something out, to finish what she had to say, with a nervous giggle, a quick shrug of the shoulders, and in her pretty white face black eyes burned like an insane abyss and the wet abyss of her mouth mumbled in a hurried dither—a hideous black mouth, where the stumps of the teeth made you think of old, charred ruins. Rimma advanced, gaining ground inch by inch, and Svetlana talked on and on and on, waving her hands all about as if she were doing exercises—nocturnal, night-owl, unbelievable exercises—and then, demonstrating the enormous size of something—but Rimma wasn’t listening—she gestured so expansively that she smashed her knuckles against the wall and in her surprise said nothing for a moment, pressing the salty joints to her lips, which seemed singed by her disconnected pronouncements. That was when the sweater was shoved at her—you’ll warm up in the taxi—the door was slammed shut, and Rimma, vexed and laughing, ran to Fedya under the warm blanket. “I barely managed to get rid of her.” The children tossed and turned in their sleep. Tomorrow was an early day. “You could have let her spend the night,” muttered Fedya through his sleep, through the warmth, and he was very handsome in the red glow of the night-light. Spend the night? Never! And where? In old man Ashkenazi’s room? The old man tossed and turned incessantly on his worn-out couch, smoked something thick and smelly, coughed, and in the middle of the night would get up and go to the kitchen for a drink of water from the tap, but all in all it wasn’t bad, he wasn’t a bother. When guests came he would loan chairs, get out a jar of marinated mushrooms, untangle rats’ nests of sticky tinned fruit drops for the children. They would seat him at one end of the table and he would chuckle, swing his legs, which didn’t reach the floor, and smoke into his sleeve: “Never mind, you young people, be patient—I’ll die soon and the whole apartment will be yours.” “May you live to be a hundred, David Danilich,” Rimma would reassure him, but still it was pleasant to dream about the time when she would be mistress of an entire apartment, not a communal one, but her own, when she would do major remodeling—cover the preposterous five-cornered kitchen from top to bottom in tile and get a new stove. Fedya would defend his dissertation, the children would go to school—English, music, figure skating.… What else could she imagine? A lot of people envied them in advance. But of course it was not tile, not well-rounded children that shone from the wide-open spaces of the future like a rainbow-colored fire, a sparkling arc of wild rapture (and Rimma honestly wished old man Ashkenazi long life —there’s time enough for everything); no, something greater, something completely different, important, overwhelming, and grand clamored and glittered up ahead, as though Rimma’s ship, sailing along a dark channel through blossoming reeds, were on the verge of coming into the green, happy, raging sea.
    In the meantime, life was not quite real, it was life in anticipation, lived out of a suitcase, slipshod, lightweight—a pile of junk in the hallway, midnight guests: Petyunya in his sky-blue tie, the childless Elya and Aiyosha, and others; Pipka’s nocturnal visits and her outrageous conversations. How hideous Pipka was with those black detoothed stumps—yet lots of people liked her, and often at the end of a festive evening one of the men couldn’t be accounted for: Pipka had whisked him away while no one was looking—always in a taxi—to her place in Perlovka. That was where she holed up, renting a cheap little wooden shack with a front yard. At one time Rimma even worried about Fedya—he was flighty and Pipka was crazy and capable of anything. If not for those rotten stumps in her hurried mouth, it might have been worth thinking about not allowing her into the family home. Especially since Fedya often said mysteriously, “If Svetlanka would just keep her mouth shut, you could actually talk to her!” And she was forever trembling, half dressed, or dressed topsy-turvy: crusty stiff children’s boots on bare feet in the middle of winter, her hands all chapped.
    No one knew where Pipka went, just as no one knew where she actually came from—she had simply shown up and that was that. Her stories were outrageous and confused: It seems she’d wanted to go to drama school and had even been accepted, but in a market she met some pickled-garlic merchants and was gagged and taken off to Baku in a white Volga with no license plates. There they supposedly ravished her, knocked out half her teeth, and abandoned her, naked, on the seashore in a pool of oil. The next morning, she claimed, she was found by a wild mountain man in transit through Baku; he carried her off to his hut high in the mountains and held her there all summer, feeding her melon from a knife through the cracks in his shack, and in the fall he traded her to a visiting ethnographer for a watch with no hands. Still completely naked, she and the ethnographer, who called her Svetka-Pipetka, which is where she got her nickname, holed up in an abandoned watchtower, dating back to Shamil’s time, that was covered with rotten Persian rugs—the ethnographer studied their patterns with a magnifying glass. At night eagles defecated on them. “Shoo, shoo, damn you!” Pipka would act it out, racing around the room with an indignant expression, frightening the children. When winter came, the ethnographer left to go higher into the mountains, and at the first snowfall Svetlana descended into a valley where the people calculated time by the lunar calendar and shot at schoolmarms through the school window, publicly marking the number of casualties with notches on a post in the center of the bazaar. There were more than eight hundred notches; the Regional Department of Public Education couldn’t manage—several pedagogical institutes worked exclusively for this valley. There Svetlana had an affair with the local store manager. But she quickly dumped him, finding him insufficiently manly: instead of sleeping as a Caucasian horseman should, on his back in a papakha fur cap with a sword at his side, fiercely displaying his wide, muscular shoulders, the local store manager would curl up, snuffle, and whimper in his sleep, shuffling his legs; he explained in his own defense that he dreamed of gunfire. Toward spring Pipka reached Moscow on foot, sleeping in haystacks and avoiding the high roads; several times she was bitten by dogs. For some reason she went through the Ural Mountains. But then geography gave her even more trouble than her private life; she called the Urals the Caucasus, and placed Baku on the Black Sea. Maybe there really was some kind of truth in her nightmarish stories, who knows. Rimma was used to them and hardly listened; she thought her own thoughts, surrendering to her own unhurried daydreams. Almost nobody listened to Pipka anyway—after all, was she really human? Only occasionally some newcomer, enthralled by Pipkas nonsense, by the disgorged fountain of tales, would exclaim in joyous amazement, “Boy, does she ever lay it on! A thousand and one nights!” That was the type Pipka usually carried off to her semifantastic Perlovka, if it actually existed: was it really possible to believe that Svetlana was employed by the owners to dig troughs around the dahlias and that she ate fish-bone meal along with the chickens? As always, during a simple gathering of friends, amid the noise and chatter and clatter of forks, a dreamy somnolence overtook Rimma, marvelous dream-visions real as life appeared, pink and blue mists, white sails; the roar of the ocean could be heard, far off, beckoning, like the steady roar that issued from the giant shell gracing the sideboard. Rimma loved to close her eyes and put the shell to her ear—from those monstrous, salmon-colored jaws you could hear the call of a faraway country, so far away that a place could no longer be found for it on the globe, and it smoothly ascended, this country, and setded in the sky with all of its lakes, parrots, and crashing coastal breakers. And Rimma also glided in the sky amid pink, feathery clouds—everything promised by life will come to pass. No need to stir, no need to hurry, everything will come all by itself. To slip silently down dark channels… to listen to the approaching roar of the ocean… Rimma would open her eyes and, smiling, look at her guests through the tobacco smoke and dreams—at lazy, satisfied Fedya, at David Danilich swinging his legs—and slowly return to earth. And it will start with something insignificant… it will start bit by bit…. She felt the ground with her legs, which were weakened by the flight. Oh, the apartment would have to be first, of course. The old man’s room would be the bedroom. Baby-blue curtains. No, white ones. White, silky, fluffy, gathered ones. And a white bed. Sunday morning. In a white peignoir, her hair flowing (time to let her hair grow out, but the peignoir had already been secretly bought, she couldn’t resist)… Rimma would stroll through the apartment to the kitchen…. The aroma of coffee… To new acquaintances she would say, “And in this room, where the bedroom is now, an old man used to live…. So sweet… He wasn’t a bother. And after his death we took it over…. It’s a shame—such a wonderful old man!” Rimma would rock back and forth on her chair, smiling at the still-living old man: “You smoke a lot, David Danilich. You should take care of yourself.” The old man only coughed and waved her away, as if to say, Never mind. I’m not long for this place. Why bother?
    How lovely it was to float and meander through time—and time meanders through you and melts away behind, and the sound of the sea keeps beckoning; time to take a trip to the South and breathe the sea air, stand on the shore stretching your arms and listening to the wind…. How sweetly life melts away—the children, and loving Fedya, and the anticipation of the white bedroom. The guests are envious; well, my dears, go ahead and envy, enormous happiness awaits me up ahead— what kind, I won’t say, I myself don’t know, but voices whisper, “Just wait, wait!” Petyunya, sitting over there biting his nails, is envious. He doesn’t have a wife or an apartment, he’s puny, he’s ambitious, he wants to be a journalist, he loves bright ties, we should give him ours, the orange one, we don’t need it, happiness awaits us. Elya and Alyosha are also envious, they don’t have any children, they’ve gone and gotten a dog, how boring.
    Old man Ashkenazi sitting there, he’s envious of my youth, my white bedroom, my ocean roar; farewell, old man, it will soon be time for you to leave, your eyes shut tight under copper coins. Now Svetlana… she envies no one, she has everything, but it’s only imaginary, her eyes and her frightful mouth burn like fire—Fedya shouldn’t sit so close—her talk is crazy, kingdoms rise and fall by the dozens in her head all in one night. Fedya shouldn’t sit so close. Fedya! Come sit over here. She’s spinning her yarns and you’re all ears?
    Life was happy and easy, they laughed at Petyunya, at his passion for ties, said he was destined for a great journalistic future, asked him ahead of time not to put on airs if he traveled overseas; Petyunya was embarrassed, and he wrinkled his mousy little face: What are you talking about, guys, let’s hope I make it through the institute!
    Petyunya was wonderful, but sort of rumpled, and, moreover, he tried to play up to Rimma, though only indirectly, to be sure: he would slice onions for her in the kitchen and hint that he, frankly, had plans for his life. Oh-ho! Rimma laughed. What plans could he have, when such incredible things awaited her! You’d be better offsetting your sights on Elya, she’ll dump Alyosha anyway. Or else Svetka-Pipetka over there. Pipetka was getting married, Petyunya said. To whom, I’d like to know?
    It was soon discovered to whom: to old man Ashkenazi. The old man, feeling sorry for Pipka’s little feet in their children’s boots, for her frozen little hands, distressed about her night-time taxi expenses, and all in all succumbing to a teary senile altruism, conceived the idea—behind Rimma’s back!—of marrying that vagrant who blazed with a black fire and of registering her, naturally, in the living space promised to Rimma and Fedya. A scene complete with sedatives ensued. “You should be ashamed, shame on you!” cried Rimma, her voice breaking. “But I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of,” answered the old man from the couch, where he lay amid broken springs, his head thrown back to stop the flow of blood from his nose. Rimma applied cold compresses and sat up with him all night. When the old man dozed off, his breathing shallow and irregular, she measured the window in his room. Yes, the white material was the right width. Light blue wallpaper over here. In the morning they made up. Rimma forgave the old man, he cried, she gave him Fedya’s shirt and fed him hot pancakes. Svetlana heard something about it and didn’t show up for a long time. Then Petyunya also vanished and the guess was that Svetlana had carried him off to Perlovka. Everyone who ended up there disappeared for ages, and when they returned they were not themselves for quite some time.
    Petyunya showed up one evening six months later with a vague expression on his face, his trousers covered to the waist in mud. Rimma had trouble getting anything out of him. Yes, he had been there. He helped Pipka with the work. It was a very hard life. Everything was very complicated. He had walked all the way from Perlovka. Why was he covered in mud? Oh, that… He and Pipka had wandered around Perlovka with kerosene lanterns all last night, looking for the right house. A Circassian had given birth to a puppy. Yes, that’s what happened. Yes, I know—Petyunya pressed his hands to his chest—I know that there aren’t any Circassian people in Perlovka. This was the last one. Svetlana says she knows for sure. It’s a very good story for the “Only Facts” column of the newspaper. “What’s got into you, are you off your rocker too?” asked Rimma, blinking. “Why do you say that? I saw the puppy myself.” “And the Circassian?” “They weren’t letting anyone in to see him. It was the middle of the night, after all. “Sleep it off,” said Rimma. They put Petyunya in the hall with the junk. Rimma fretted, tossing and turning all night, and in the morning she decided that “Circassian” was a dog’s name. But at breakfast she couldn’t bring herself to increase the lunacy with questions, and, anyway, Petyunya was glum and soon left.
    Then all of a sudden Svetlana had to move her things from Perlovka to some other place right away—figuring out the geography of it was useless; it had to be by taxi, of course, and for some reason Fedya’s help was absolutely essential. Hesitating a bit, Rimma let him go. It was ten in the morning, so it wasn’t very likely that anything could… He returned at three that night, behaving very strangely. “Where were you?” Rimma was waiting in the hall in her nightgown. “You see, there were a lot of complications…. We ended up having to go to Serpukhov, she has twins in the Children’s Home there.” “What twins?” Rimma shouted. “Tiny ones, about a year old, I think. Siamese. their heads are joined together. Karina and Angela.” “What heads? Are you out of your mind? She’s been coming here for ages. Have you ever noticed her having a baby?” No, of course he hadn’t noticed her having a baby or anything like that, but they really did go to Serpukhov, and they did drop off a package: frozen hake. That’s right, hake for the twins. He himself stood in the cashier’s line to pay for the fish. Rimma burst into tears and slammed the door. Fedya remained in the hall, scratching at the door and swearing that he himself didn’t understand anything, but that they were called Karina and Angela—of that he was sure.
    After that Pipka disappeared again for a long while, and the episode was forgotten. But for the first time something in Rimma cracked—she looked around and saw that time kept Mowing on, yet the future still hadn’t arrived, and Fedya was not so handsome anymore, and the children had picked up bad words on the street, and old man Ashkenazi coughed and lived on, and wrinkles had already crept up to her eyes and mouth, and the junk in the hallway was still just lying there. And the roar of the ocean had grown muffled, and they hadn’t gone to the South after all—everything had been put off until the future, which just didn’t want to arrive.
    Troubled days followed. Rimma lost heart; she kept trying to understand at what point she’d taken the wrong path leading to that far-off, melodious happiness, and often she sat lost in thought; meanwhile, her children were growing up and Fedya sat in front of the television, not wanting to write his dissertation, and outside the window either a cottony blizzard blew or an insipid city sun peeked through summer clouds. Their friends grew old, it became harder for them to get themselves going, Petyunya had completely vanished somewhere, flashy ties went out of fashion, Elya and Alyosha got another unruly dog, and there was no one to leave it with evenings. At Rimma’s job new coworkers had appeared, big Lucy and little Lucy, but they didn’t know about Rimma’s plans for happiness and didn’t envy her; rather, they envied Kira from the planning department, who had a large, expensive wardrobe, who exchanged hats for books, books for meat, meat for medicine or hard-to-come-by theater tickets, and spoke in an irritated tone of voice to someone on the phone: “But you know perfectly well how much I love jellied tongue.”
    And one evening, when Fedya was watching television and Rimma was sitting with her head on the table listening to the old man coughing on the other side of the wall, in burst Pipka, all fire and flame, rosy-cheeked, looking younger, as sometimes happens with insane people, and smiling, her blazing mouth full of sparkling white teeth. “Thirty-six!” she shouted from the threshold and banged her fist on the top of the doorway. “Thirty-six what?” said Rimma, lifting her head from the table. “Thirty-six teeth!” said Pipka. And she told the story of how she got a job as a cabin boy on a steamer bound for Japan, and since the steamer was already overstaffed she had to sleep in a cauldron with the meat and rice, and the captain had rendered her honor but the captain’s assistant had rent it; and a rich Japanese man fell in love with her on the way and wanted to arrange their marriage by telegraph without delay, but they couldn’t find the right Japanese characters and the deal fell apart; and then—while they were washing the meat-and-rice cauldron in some port or other—she was kidnapped by a pirate junk and sold to a rich plantation owner, and she spent a year working on Malaysian hemp plantations, where she was bought by a rich Englishman for an Olympics memorial ruble, which, as everyone knows, is highly prized among Malaysian numismatists. The Englishman carried her off to misty Albion; first, he lost her in the thick mist, but then he found her, and to celebrate he footed the bill for the most expensive and fashionable set of thirty-six teeth, which only a real moneybags could afford. He gave her smoked pony for the road and now she, Pipka, was finally going to Perlovka to get her things. “Open your mouth,” said Rimma with hatred. And in Svetlana’s readily opened mouth she counted, fighting vertigo, all thirty-six— how they fit in there was beyond comprehension, but they were indeed teeth. “I can chew steel wire now. If you want, I’ll bite off a bit of the cornice,” the monster started to say, and Fedya was watching with great interest, but Rimma began waving her hands: that’s all, that’s it, it’s late, we want to sleep, and she thrust taxi money on her, and pushed her toward the door, and threw her the volume of Simenon. For heaven’s sake, take it, read a little tonight, only just leave! And Pipka left, clutching the walls to no avail, and no one ever saw her again. “Fedya, shall we take a trip to the South?” Rimma asked. “Absolutely,” Fedya answered readily, as he had done many times over the years. That’s all right, then. That means we will go after all. To the South! And she listened to the voice that still faintly whispered something about the future, about happiness, about long, sound sleep in a white bedroom, but the words were already difficult to make out. “Hey, look—it’s Petyunya!” said Fedya in surprise. On the television screen, under palm trees, small and sullen, with a microphone in his hands, stood Petyunya, and he was cursing some kind of cocoa plantations, and the black people passing by turned around to look at him, and his huge tie erupted like a pustular African sunrise, but there wasn’t a whole lot of happiness to be seen on his face either.
    Now Rimma knew that they’d all been tricked, but by whom and when, she couldn’t remember. She sorted through it all day by day, searching for a mistake, but didn’t find any. Everything was somehow covered with dust. Occasionally— strange to say—she felt like talking it over with Pipka, but Pipka didn’t come around anymore.
    It was summer again, the heat had arrived, and through the thick dust the voice from the future once again whispered something. Rimma’s children were grown, one had married and the other was in the army, the apartment was empty, and she had trouble sleeping at night—the old man coughed incessantly on the other side of the wall. Rimma no longer wanted to turn the old man’s room into a bedroom, and she didn’t have the white peignoir anymore—moths from the junk in the hall had eaten it, without even looking at what they ate. Arriving at work, Rimma complained to big Lucy and little Lucy that moths were now devouring even German things; little Lucy gasped, holding her palms to her cheeks, and big Lucy grew angry and glum. “If you want to outfit yourselves, girls,” said the experienced Kira, breaking away from her telephonic machinations, “I can take you to a place. I have a friend. Her daughter just got back from Bahrain. You can pay later. It’s good stuff. Vera Esafovna got seven hundred rubles’ worth on Saturday. They lived well over there in Bahrain. Swam in a pool, they want to go again.” “Why don’t we?” said big Lucy. “Oh, I have so many debts,” whispered the little one.
    “Quick, quick, girls, we’ll take a taxi,” said Kira, hurrying them. “We can make it during lunch break.” And, feeling like schoolgirls cutting class, they piled into a cab, inundating one another with the smells of perfume and lit cigarettes, and whirled off down hot summer side streets strewn with sunny linden-tree husks and patches of warm shadow; a southerly wind was blowing, and through the gasoline fumes it carried the exultation and brilliance of the far-off South: the blazing blue heavens, the mirrorlike shimmer of vast seas, wild happiness, wild freedom, the madness of hopes coming true—
    Hopes for what? God only knows! And in the apartment they entered, holding their breath in anticipation of a happy consumer adventure, there was also a warm wind fluttering and billowing the white tulle on the windows and doors, which were opened wide onto a spacious balcony—everything here was spacious, large, free. Rimma felt a little envious of this apartment. A powerful woman—the mistress of the goods for sale—swiftly threw open the secret room. The goods were rumpled, heaped up in television boxes on an ever-rising double bed, and reflected in the mirror of a massive wardrobe. “Dig in,” ordered Kira, standing in the doorway. Trembling, the women buried their hands in boxes crammed with silky, velvety, see-through, gold-embroidered stuff; they pulled things out, yanking, getting tangled in ribbons and ruffles; their hands fished things out while their eyes already groped for something else, an alluring bow or frill; inside Rimma a vein twitched rapidly, her ears burned, and her mouth was dry. It was all like a dream. And, as happens in the cruel scenario of dreams, a certain crack in the harmony soon emerged and began to grow, a secret defect, which threatened to resound in catastrophe. These things —what is this anyway?—weren’t right, they weren’t what they seemed at first. The eye began to distinguish the cheapness of these gaudy, fake gauze skirts hardly fit for a corps de ballet, the pretentiousness of those violet turkey-wattle jabots, and the un-fashionable lines of those thick velvet jackets; these were throw-aways; we were invited to the leftovers of someone else’s feast; others have already rummaged here, have already trampled the ground; someone’s greedy hands have already defiled the magical boxes, snatched up and carried off those very things, the real ones that made the heart beat and that particular vein twitch. Rimma fell on other boxes, groped about the disheveled double bed, but neither there, nor there… And the things that she grabbed in despair from the piles and held up to herself, anxiously looking in the mirror, were laughably small, short, or ridiculous. Life had gone and the voice of the future was singing for others. The woman, the owner of the goods, sat like Buddha and watched, astute and scornful. “What about this?” Rimma pointed at the clothes hanging on coat hangers along the walls, fluttering in the warm breeze. “Sold. That’s sold too.” “Is there anything—in my size?” “Go on, give her something,” Kira, who was propped up against the wall, said to the woman. Thinking for a moment, the woman pulled out something gray from behind her back, and Rimma, hurriedly undressing, revealing all the secrets of her cheap undergarments to her girlfriends, slithered into the appropriate openings. Adjusting and tugging, she inspected her mercilessly bright reflection. The warm breeze still played about in the sunny room, indifferent to the commerce being conducted. She didn’t exactly understand what she had put on; she gazed miserably at the little black hairs on her white legs, which looked as if they’d gotten soggy or been stored in dark trunks all winter, at her neck, its goosey flesh stretched out in fright, at her flattened hair, her stomach, her wrinkles, the dark circles under her eyes. The dress smelled of other people—others had already tried it on. “Very good. It’s you. Take it,” pressured Kira, who was the woman’s secret confederate. The woman watched, silent and disdainful. “How much?” “Two hundred.” Rimma choked, trying to tear off the poisoned clothing. “It’s awfully stylish, Rimmochka,” said little Lucy guiltily. And to consummate the humiliation, the wind blew open the door to the next room, revealing a heavenly vision: the woman’s young, divinely sculpted daughter, suntanned to a nut-colored glow—the one who had come back from Bahrain, who darted out of swimming pools filled with clear blue water—a flash of white garments, blue eyes; the woman got up and shut the door. This sight was not for mortal eyes.
    The southerly wind blew the refuse of blossoming lindens into the old entryway, warmed the shabby walls. Little Lucy descended the stairs sideways, hugging the mountain of things she’d chosen, almost crying—once again she’d gotten herself into terrible debt. Big Lucy kept a hostile silence. Rimma walked with her teeth clenched: the summer day had darkened, destiny had teased her and had a laugh. And she already knew that the blouse she’d bought at the last minute in a fit of desperation was junk, last year’s leaves, Satan’s gold, fated to turn into rotten scraps in the morning, a husk sucked and spit out by the blue-eyed Bahrain houri.
    She rode in the saddened, silent taxi and said to herself, Still, I do have Fedya and the children. But the comfort was false, feeble, it was all over, life had shown its empty face, its matted hair and sunken eye sockets. And she imagined the long-desired South, where she’d been dying to go for so many years, as yellowed and dusty, with bunches of prickly dry plants, with spittle and scraps of paper rocking on brackish waves. And at home there was the grimy old communal apartment and the immortal old man, Ashkenazi, and Fedya, whom she knew so well she could scream, and the whole viscous stream of years to come, not yet lived but already known, through which she would have to drag herself as through dust covering a road to the knees, the chest, the neck. And the siren’s song, deceitfully whispering sweet words to the stupid swimmer about what wouldn’t come to pass, fell silent forever.
    No, there were some other events—Kira’s hand withered, Petyunya came back for visits and talked at length about the price of oil, Elya and Alyosha buried their dog and got a new one, old man Ashkenazi finally washed his windows with the help of the Dawn Company, but Pipka never showed up again. Some people knew for a fact that she’d married a blind storyteller and had taken off for Australia—to shine with her new white teeth amid the eucalyptus trees and duck-billed platypuses above the coral reefs, but others crossed their hearts and swore that shed been in a crash and burned up in a taxi on the Yaroslavl highway one rainy, slippery night, and that the flames could be seen from afar rising in a column to the sky. They also said that the fire couldn’t be brought under control, and that when everything had burned out, nothing was found at the site of the accident. Only cinders.
Translated by Jamey Gambrell


    “BOYS! Dinner time!”
    The boys, up to their elbows in sand, looked up and came back to the real world: their mother was on the wooden porch, waving; this way, come on, come on! From the door came the smells of warmth, light, an evening at home.
    Really, it was already dark. The damp sand was cold on their knees. Sand castles, ditches, tunnels—everything had blurred into impenetrability, indistinguishability, formlessness. You couldn’t tell where the path was, where the damp growths of nettles were, where the rain barrel was… But in the west, there was still dim light. And low over the garden, rustling the crowns of the dark wooded hills, rushed a convulsive, sorrowful sigh: that was the day, dying.
    Petya quickly felt around for the heavy metal cars—cranes, trucks; Mother was tapping her foot impatiently, holding the doorknob, and little Lenechka had already made a scene, but they swooped him up, dragged him in, washed him, and wiped his struggling face with a sturdy terry towel.
    Peace and quiet in the circle of light on the white tablecloth. On saucers, fans of cheese, of sausage, wheels of lemon as if a small yellow bicycle had been broken; ruby lights twinkled in the jam.
    Petya was given a large bowl of rice porridge; a melting island of butter floated in the sticky Sargasso Sea. Go under, buttery Atlantis. No one is saved. White palaces with emerald scaly roofs, stepped temples with tall doorways covered with streaming curtains of peacock feathers, enormous golden statues, marble staircases going deep into the sea, sharp silver obelisks with inscriptions in an unknown tongue—everything, everything vanished under water. The transparent green ocean waves were licking the projections of the temples; tanned, crazed people scurried to and fro, children wept…. Looters hauled precious trunks made of aromatic wood and dropped them; a whirlwind of flying clothing spread… Nothing will be of use, nothing will help, no one will be saved, everything will slip, list, into the warm, transparent waves…. The gold eight-story statue of the main god, with a third eye in his forehead, sways, and looks sadly to the east….
    “Stop playing with your food!”
    Petya shuddered and stirred in the butter. Uncle Borya, Mother’s brother—we don’t like him—looks unhappy; he has a black beard and a cigarette in his white teeth; he smokes, having moved his chair closer to the door, open a crack into the corridor. He keeps bugging, nagging, mocking—what does he want?
    “Hurry up kids, straight to bed. Leonid is falling asleep.”
    And really, Lenechka’s nose is in his porridge, and he’s dragging his spoon slowly through the viscous mush. But Petya has no intention of going to bed. If Uncle Borya wants to smoke freely, let him go outside. And stop interrogating him.
    Petya ate doomed Atlantis and scraped the ocean clean with his spoon, and then stuck his lips into his cup of tea—buttery slicks floated on the surface. Mother took away sleeping Le-nechka, Uncle Borya got more comfortable and smoked openly. The smoke from him was disgusting, heavy. Tamila always smoked something aromatic. Uncle Borya read Petya’s thoughts and started probing.
    “You’ve been visiting your dubious friend again?”
    Yes, again. Tamila wasn’t dubious, she was an enchanted beauty with a magical name, she lived on a light blue glass mountain with impenetrable walls, so high up you could see the whole world, as far as the four posts with the signs: South, East, North, West. But she was stolen by a red dragon who flew all over the world with her and brought her here, to this colony of summer dachas. And now she lived in the farthest house, in an enormous room with a veranda filled with tubs of climbing Chinese roses and piled with old books, boxes, chests, and candlesticks; smoked thin cigarettes in a long cigarette holder with jangling copper rings, drank something from small shot glasses, locked in her chair, and laughed as if she were crying. And in memory of the dragon, Tamila wore a black shiny robe with wide sleeves and a mean red dragon on the back. And her long tangled hair reached down to the armrests of the chair. When Petya grew up he would marry Tamila and lock Uncle Borya in a high tower. But later—maybe—he would have mercy, and let him out.
    Uncle Borya read Petya’s mind again, laughed, and sang— for no one in particular, but insulting anyway.
A-a-ana was a seamstress,
And she did embroidery.
Then she went on sta-age
And became an actress!
Tarum-pam-pam! Tarum-pam-pam!

    No, he wouldn’t let him out of the tower.
    Mother came back to the table.
    “Were you feeding Grandfather?” Uncle Borya sucked his tooth as if nothing were wrong.
    Petya’s grandfather was sick in bed in the back room, breathing hard, looking out the low window, depressed.
    “He’s not hungry,” Mother said.
    “He’s not long for this world,” Uncle Borya said, and sucked his tooth. And then he whistled that sleazy tune again: tarum-pam-pam!
    Petya said thank you, made sure the matchbox with his treasure was still in his pocket, and went to bed—to feel sorry for his grandfather and to think about his life. No one was allowed to speak badly of Tamila. No one understood anything.
    …Petya was playing ball at the far dacha, which went down to the lake. Jasmine and lilacs had grown so luxuriantly that you couldn’t find the gate. The ball flew over the bushes and disappeared in the garden. Petya climbed over the fence and through the bushes—and found a flower garden with a sundial in the center, a spacious veranda, and on it, Tamila. She was rocking in a black rocker, in the bright-black robe, legs crossed, pouring herself a drink from a black bottle; her eyelids were black and heavy and her mouth was red.
    “Hi!” Tamila shouted and laughed as if she were crying. “I was waiting for you.”
    The ball lay at her feet, next to her flower-embroidered slippers. She was rocking back and forth, back and forth, and blue smoke rose from her jangling cigarette holder, and there was ash on her robe.
    “I was waiting for you,” Tamila repeated. “Can you break the spell on me? No? Oh dear… I thought… Well, come get your ball.”
    Petya wanted to stand there and look at her and hear what she would say next.
    “What are you drinking?” he asked.
    “Panacea” Tamila said, and drank some more. “Medicine for all evil and suffering, earthly and heavenly, for evening doubts, for nocturnal enemies. Do you like lemons?”
    Petya thought and said: I do.
    “Well, when you eat lemons, save the pits for me, all right? If you collect one hundred thousand pits and make them into a necklace, you can fly even higher than the trees, did you know that? If you want, we can fly together, I’ll show you a place where there’s buried treasure—but I forgot the word to open it up. Maybe we’ll think of it together.”
    Petya didn’t know whether to believe her or not, but he wanted to keep looking at her, to watch her speak, watch her rock in that crazy chair, watch the copper rings jangle. She wasn’t teasing him, slyly watching his eyes to check: Well? This is interesting, isn’t it? Do you like it? She simply rocked and jangled, black and long, and consulted with Petya, and he understood: she would be his friend ages unto ages.
    He came closer to look at the amazing rings shining on her hand. A snake with a blue eye circled her finger three times; next to it squatted a squashed silver toad. Tamila took off the snake and let him look at it, but she wouldn’t let him see the toad.
    “Oh no, oh no; if you take that off, it’s the end of me. I’ll turn into black dust and the wind will scatter me. It protects me. I’m seven thousand years old, didn’t you know?”
    It’s true, she’s seven thousand years old, but she should go on living, she shouldn’t take off the ring. She’s seen so much. She saw Atlantis perish—as she flew over the doomed world wearing her lemon-pit necklace. They had wanted to burn her at the stake for witchcraft, they were dragging her when she struggled free and soared up to the clouds: why else have the necklace? But then a dragon kidnapped her, carried her away from her glass mountain, from the glass palace, and the necklace was still there, hanging from her mirror.
    “Do you want to marry me?”
    Petya blushed and replied: I do.
    “That’s settled. Just don’t let me down! We’ll ratify our union with a word of honor and some chocolates.”
    And she handed him a whole dish of candies. That’s all she ate. And drank from that black bottle.
    “Want to look at the books? They’re piled over there.”
    Petya went over to the dusty mound and opened a book at random. It was a color picture: like a page from a book, but he couldn’t read the letters, and on top in the corner there was a big colored letter, all entwined with flat ribbon, grasses, and bells, and above that a creature, half-bird, half-woman.
    “What’s that?” Petya asked.
    “Who knows. They’re not mine,” Tamila said, rocking, jangling, and exhaling.
    “Why is the bird like that?”
    “Let me see. Ah, that bird. That’s the Sirin, the bird of death. Watch out for it: it will choke you. Have you heard somebody wailing, cuckooing in the woods at night? That’s this bird. It’s a night bird. There’s also the Finist. It used to fly to me often, but then we had a fight. And there’s another bird, the Alkonost. It gets up in the morning at dawn, all pink and transparent, you can see through it, and it sparkles. It makes its nest in water lilies. It lays one egg, very rare. Do you know why people pick lilies? They’re looking for the egg. Whoever finds it will feel a sense of longing all their life. But they still look for it, they still want it. Why, I have it. Would you like it?”
    Tamila rocked once on the black bentwood rocker and went into the house. A beaded cushion fell from the seat. Petya touched it; it was cool. Tamila came back, and in her hand, jingling against the inside of her rings, was the magical egg, pink glass, tightly stuffed with golden sparkles.
    “You’re not afraid? Hold it! Well, come visit me.” She laughed and fell into the rocker, moving the sweet, aromatic air.
    Petya didn’t know what it was to be depressed for life, and took the egg.
    Definitely, he would marry her. He had planned to marry his mother, but now that he had promised Tamila… He would definitely take his mother with him, too; and if it came to that, he could take Lenechka, as well… but Uncle Borya—no way. He loved his mother very, very much, but you’d never hear such strange and marvelous stories as Tamila’s from her. Eat and wash up—that was her whole conversation. And what they bought; onions or fish or something.
    And she’d never even heard of the Alkonost bird. Better not tell her. And hed put the egg in a matchbox and not show it to anybody.
    Petya lay in bed and thought about how he would live with Tamila in the big room with the Chinese roses. He would sit on the veranda steps and whittle sticks for a sailboat hed call The Flying Dutchman. Tamila would rock in her chair, drink the panacea, and talk. Then they would board The Flying Dutchman, the dragon flag on the mast, Tamila in her black robe on the deck, sunshine and salt spray, and they would set sail in search of Atlantis, lost in the shimmering briny deep.
    He used to live a simple life: whittling, digging in the sand, reading adventure books; lying in bed, he would listen to the night trees anxiously moving outside his window, and think that miracles happened on distant islands, in parrot-filled jungles, or in tiny South America, narrowing downward, with its plastic Indians and rubber crocodiles. But the world, it turned out, was imbued with mystery, sadness, and magic, rustling in the branches, swaying in the dark waters. In the evenings, he and his mother walked along the lake: the sun set in the crenellated forest, the air smelled of blueberries and pine resin, and high above the ground red fir cones glimmered gold. The water in the lake looks cold, but when you put your hand in, it’s even hot. A large gray lady in a cream dress walks along the high shore: she walks slowly, using a stick, smiles gently, but her eyes are dark and her gaze empty. Many years ago her little daughter drowned in the lake, and she is waiting for her to come home: it’s bedtime, but the daughter still hasn’t come. The gray lady stops and asks, “What time is it?” When she hears the reply, she shakes her head. “Just think.” And when you come back, she’ll stop and ask again, “What time is it?”
    Petya has felt sorry for the lady ever since he learned her secret. But Tamila says little girls don’t drown, they simply cannot drown. Children have gills: when they get underwater they turn into fish, though not right away. The girl is swimming around, a silver fish, and she pokes her head out, wanting to call to her mother. But she has no voice…
    And here, not far away, is a boarded-up dacha. No one comes to live there, the porch is rotted through, the shutters nailed, the paths overgrown. Evil had been done in that dacha, and now no one can live there. The owners tried to get tenants, even offered them money to live there; but no, no one will. Some people tried, but they didn’t last three days: the lights went out by themselves, the water wouldn’t come to a boil in the kettle, wet laundry wouldn’t dry, knives dulled on their own, and the children couldn’t shut their eyes at night, sitting up like white columns in their beds.
    And on that side—see? You can’t go there, it’s a dark fir forest; twilight, smoothly swept paths, white fields with intoxicating flowers. And that’s where the bird Sirin lives, amid the branches, the bird of death, as big as a wood grouse. Petya’s grandfather is afraid of the bird Sirin, it might sit on his chest and suffocate him. It has six toes on each foot, leathery, cold, and muscular, and a face like a sleeping girl’s. Cu-goo! Cu-goo! the Sirin bird cries in the evenings, fluttering in its fir grove. Don’t let it near Grandfather, shut the windows and doors, light the lamp, let’s read out loud. But Grandfather is afraid, he watches the window anxiously, breathes heavily, plucks at his blanket. Cu-goo! Cu-goo! What do you want from us, bird? Leave Grandfather alone! Grandfather, don’t look at the window like that, what do you see there? Those are just fir branches waving in the dark, it’s just the wind acting up, unable to fall asleep. Grandfather, we’re all here. The lamp is on and the tablecloth is white and I’ve cut out a boat, and Lenechka has drawn a rooster. Grandfather?
    “Go on, go on, children.” Mother shoos them from Grandfather’s room, frowning, with tears in her eyes. Black oxygen pillows lie on a chair in the corner—to chase away the Sirin bird. All night it flies over the house, scratching at windows; and toward morning it finds a crack, climbs up, heavy, on the windowsill, on the bed, walks on the blanket, looking for Grandfather. Mother grabs a scary black pillow, shouts, waves it about, chases the Sirin bird… gets rid of it.
    Petya tells Tamila about the bird: maybe she knows a spell, a word to ward off the Sirin bird? But Tamila shakes her head sadly: no; she used to, but it’s back on the glass mountain. She would give Grandfather her protective toad ring—but then she’d turn into black powder herself… And she drinks from her black bottle.
    She’s so strange! He wanted to think about her, about what she said, to listen to her dreams; he wanted to sit on her veranda steps, steps of the house where everything was allowed: eat bread and jam with unwashed hands, slouch, bite your nails, walk with your shoes on—if you felt like it—right in the flowerbeds; and no one shouted, lectured, called for order, cleanliness, and common sense. You could take a pair of scissors and cut out a picture you liked from any book—Tamila didn’t care, she was capable of tearing out a picture and cutting it herself, except she always did it crooked. You could say whatever came into your head without fear of being laughed at: Tamila shook her head sadly, understanding; and if she did laugh, it was as if she were crying. If you ask, she’ll play cards: Go Fish, anything; but she played badly, mixing up cards and losing.
    Everything rational, boring, customary; all that remained on the other side of the fence overgrown with flowering bushes.
    Ah, he didn’t want to leave! At home he had to be quiet about Tamila (when I grow up and marry her, then you’ll find out); and about the Sirin; and about the sparkling egg of the Alkonost bird, whose owner will be depressed for life….
    Petya remembered the egg, got it out of the matchbox, stuck it under his pillow, and sailed off on The Flying Dutchman over the black nocturnal seas.
    In the morning Uncle Borya, with a puffy face, was smoking before breakfast on the porch. His black beard stuck out challengingly and his eyes were narrowed in disdain. Seeing his nephew, he began whistling yesterday’s disgusting tune… and laughed. His teeth—rarely visible because of the beard—were like a wolf’s. His black eyebrows crawled upward.
    “Greetings to the young romantic.” He nodded briskly. “Come on, Peter, saddle up your bike and go to the store. Your mother needs bread, and you can get me two packs of Kazbeks. They’ll sell it to you, they will. I know Nina in the store, she’ll give kids under sixteen anything at all.”
    Uncle Borya opened his mouth and laughed. Petya took the ruble and walked his sweaty bike out of the shed. On the ruble, written in tiny letters, were incomprehensible words, left over from Atlantis: Bir sum. Bir som. Bir manat. And beneath that, a warning: “Forging state treasury bills is punishable by law.” Boring, adult words. The sober morning had swept away the magical evening birds, the girl-fish had gone down to the bottom of the lake, and the golden three-eyed statues of Atlantis slept under a layer of yellow sand. Uncle Borya had dissipated the fragile secrets with his loud, offensive laughter, had thrown out the fairy-tale rubbish—but not forever, Uncle Borya, just for a while. The sun would start leaning toward the west, the air would turn yellow, the oblique rays would spread, and the mysterious world would awaken, start moving, the mute silvery drowned girl would splash her tail, and the heavy, gray Sirin bird would bustle in the fir forest, and in some unpopulated spot, the morning bird Alkonost perhaps already would have hidden its fiery pink egg in a water lily, so that someone could long for things that did not come to pass… Bir sum, bir som, bir manat.
    Fat-nosed Nina gave him the cigarettes without a word, and asked him to say hello to Uncle Borya—a disgusting hello for a disgusting person—and Petya rode back, ringing his bell, bouncing on the knotty roots that resembled Grandfather’s enormous hands. He carefully rode around a dead crow—a wheel had run over the bird, its eye was covered with a white film, the black dragged wings were covered with ashes, and the beak was frozen in a bitter avian smile.
    At breakfast Mother looked concerned—Grandfather wouldn’t eat again. Uncle Borya whistled, breaking the shell of his egg with a spoon, and watching the boys—looking for something to pick on. Lenechka spilled the milk and Uncle Borya was glad—an excuse to nag. But Lenechka was totally indifferent to his uncle’s lectures: he was still little and his soul was sealed like a chicken egg; everything just rolled off. If, God forbid, he fell into the water, he wouldn’t drown—he’d turn into a fish, a big-browed striped perch. Lenechka finished his milk and, without listening to the end of the lecture, ran out to the sand box: the sand had dried in the morning sun and his towers must have fallen apart. Petya remembered.
    “Mama, did that girl drown a long time ago?”
    “What girl?” his mother asked with a start.
    “You know. The daughter of that old lady who always asks what time it is?”
    “She never had any daughter. What nonsense. She has two grown sons. Who told you that?”
    Petya said nothing. Mother looked at Uncle Borya, who laughed with glee.
    “Drunken delirium of our shaggy friend! Eh? A girl, eh?”
    “What friend?”
    “Oh, nothing… Neither fish nor fowl.”
    Petya went out on the porch. Uncle Borya wanted to dirty everything. He wanted to grill the silver girl-fish and crunch her up with his wolf teeth. It won’t work, Uncle Borya. The egg of the transparent morning bird Alkonost is glowing under my pillow.
    Uncle Borya flung open the window and shouted into the dewy garden: “You should drink less!”
    Petya stood by the gate and dug his nail into the ancient gray wood. The day was just beginning.
    Grandfather wouldn’t eat in the evening, either. Petya sat on the edge of the crumpled bed and patted his grandfather’s wrinkled hand. His grandfather was looking out the window, his head turned. The wind had risen, the treetops were swaying, and Mama took down the laundry—it was flapping like The Flying Dutchman’s white sails. Glass jangled. The dark garden rose and fell like the ocean. The wind chased the Sirin bird from the branches; flapping its mildewed wings, it flew to the house and sniffed around, moving its triangular face with shut eyes: is there a crack? Mama sent Petya away and made her bed in Grandfather’s room.
    There was a storm that night. The trees rioted. Lenechka woke up and cried. Morning was gray, sorrowful, windy. The rain knocked Sirin to the ground, and Grandfather sat up in bed and was fed broth. Petya hovered in the doorway, glad to see his grandfather, and looked out the window—the flowers drooped under the rain, and it smelled of autumn. They lit the stove; wearing hooded jackets, they carried wood from the shed. There was nothing to do outside. Lenechka sat down to draw, Uncle Borya paced, hands behind his back, and whistled.
    The day was boring: they waited for lunch and then waited for dinner. Grandfather ate a hard-boiled egg. It rained again at night.
    That night Petya wandered around underground passages, staircases, in subway tunnels; he couldn’t find the exit, kept changing trains: the trains traveled on ladders with the doors wide open and they passed through strange rooms filled with furniture; Petya had to get out, get outside, get up to where Lenechka and Grandfather were in danger: they forgot to shut the door, it was wide open, and the Sirin bird was walking up the creaking steps, its eyes shut; Petya’s schoolbag was in the way, but he needed it. How to get out? Where was the exit? How do I get upstairs? “You need a bill.” Of course, a bill to get out. There was the booth. Give me a bill. A treasury bill? Yes, yes, please! “Forging state treasury bills is punishable by law.” There they were, the bills: long, black sheets of paper. Wait, they have holes in them. That’s punishable by law. Give me some more. I don’t want to! The schoolbag opens, and long black bills, holes all over, fall out. Hurry, pick them up, quick, I’m being persecuted, they’ll catch me. They scatter all over the floor, Petya picks them up, stuffing them in any which way; the crowd separates, someone is being led through… He can’t get out of the way, so many bills, oh there it is, the horrible thing: they’re leading it by the arms, huge, howling like a siren, its purple gaping face upraised; it’s neither-fish-nor-fowl, it’s the end!
    Petya jumped up with a pounding heart; it wasn’t light yet. Lenechka slept peacefully. He crept barefoot to Grandfather’s room, pushed the door—silence. The night light was on. The black oxygen pillows were in the corner. Grandfather lay with open eyes, hands clutching the blanket. He went over, feeling cold; guessing, he touched Grandfather’s hand and recoiled. Mama!
    No, Mama will scream and be scared. Maybe it can still be fixed. Maybe Tamila can help?
    Petya rushed to the exit—the door was wide open. He stuck his bare feet into rubber boots, put a hood over his head, and rattled down the steps. The rain had ended, but it still dripped from the trees. The sky was turning gray. He ran on legs that buckled and slipped in the mud. He pushed the veranda door. There was a strong waft of cold, stale smoke. Petya bumped into a small table: a jangle and rolling sound. He bent down, felt around, and froze: the ring with the toad, Tamila’s protection, was on the floor. There was noise in the bedroom. Petya flung open the door. There were two silhouettes in the dim light in the bed: Tamila’s tangled black hair on the pillow, her black robe on the chair; she turned and moaned. Uncle Borya sat up in bed, his beard up, his hair disheveled. Tossing the blanket over Tamila’s leg and covering his own legs, he blustered and shouted, peering into the dark: “Eh? Who is it? What is it? Eh!”
    Petya started crying and shouted, trembling in horrible understanding, “Grandfather’s dead! Grandfather’s dead! Grandfather’s dead!”
    Uncle Borya threw back the blanket and spat out horrible, snaking, inhuman words; Petya shuddered in sobs, and ran out blindly: boots in the flowerbeds; his soul was boiled like egg white hanging in clumps on the trees rushing toward him; sour sorrow filled his mouth and he reached the lake and fell down under the wet tree oozing rain; screeching, kicking his feet, he chased Uncle Borya’s horrible words, Uncle Borya’s horrible legs, from his mind.
    He got used to it, quieted down, lay there. Drops fell on him from above. The dead lake, the dead forest: birds fell from the trees and lay feet up; the dead empty world was filled with gray thick oozing depression. Everything was a lie.
    He felt something hard in his hand and unclenched his fist. The squashed silver guard toad popped its eyes at him.
    The match box, radiating eternal longing, lay in his pocket.
    The Sirin bird had suffocated Grandfather.
    No one can escape his fate. It’s all true, child. That’s how it is.
    He lay there a bit longer, wiped his face, and headed for the house.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


    In 1948 Sergei’s mother-in-law’s karakul fur coat was swiped.
    The fur coat, of course, was marvelous—curly, warm, with a rare lining: lilies of the valley embroidered in purple. You could stay in a coat like that forever: shoes on your feet, a muff on your hands, and just go, go, go! And the way they swiped it— brazenly, boorishly, crudely—just snatched it out from under her nose! His mother-in-law—a gorgeous creature, plucked eyebrows, heels clicking—went off to the flea market taking the cleaning woman Panya with her—you don’t remember her, Lenochka. No, Lenochka did remember her vaguely. Don’t be silly, weren’t you born in 1950? You’re confusing her with Klava, remember Klava, she had that pink comb and she was so round, remember? She kept saying, “My sins are great, my sins are great,” and kept worrying she’d burn in hell. But what a cook, and she taught me. And we used to give her our old shoes for her grandchildren in the village. Now no one takes old shoes, you don’t know what to do with them.
    So anyway, she went with Panya. That Panya… His mother-in-law wanted to buy another fur coat, squirrel fur, for every day. A lady was selling one—a decent-looking woman, teary-eyed, with a blue nose; I can see her now… She had Panya hold the karakul, she put on the squirrel, turned around—the lady’s trail was cold and the karakul was gone. Panya, where’s the coat? A shriek, tears: Madame, I don’t know what happened, I was just holding it a second ago. They distracted my eyes, damn them! Well, who knows about her eyes, but couldn’t it have been a conspiracy? It was after the war, times were rough, there were all sorts of gangs around, and who really knew that Panya? And naturally the envy, the profound disapproval of people like his mother-in-law, Maria Maximovna, pretty, flashy, dressed warm and rich. And for what reason? You’d think they were living like birds of paradise, she and Pavel Antonovich, but nothing of the sort. Constant tension, anxiety, separations, night work. Pavel Antonovich was a military doctor, a warrior against the plague, an elderly man, complex, quick to judge; terrible in his wrath, and honest in his work. Here was an opportunity to look at a photograph of Pavel Antonovich, the way he was in the last years of his life, insulted, abandoned, wounded by the classic situation: his students moved on, taking the most precious of their teacher’s work, carrying the slightly soiled banner onward without honoring the founder with a single line or a single footnote.
    Sergei raised his eyes on high and made out, high on the wall, in the warm silky shadows, a pair of glasses, a mustache—
    Lenochka, do you remember Papa? Of course. Maria Maximovna went to the kitchen to get sweet rolls, Sergei leaned over to pat Lenochka’s hand; she offered it to him as if it were an object and explained that actually she barely remembered her father and had only said that for Mother’s sake—She remembered the settled March snow, full of holes, the lacquered shine of the car, and how it smelled inside, and the chauffeur’s steel teeth, his cap… The cloud of her father’s cologne, the creak of the seat, his angry nape, and the naked trees flashing past the window—they were going somewhere… And another day— May, golden, with a harsh sweet wind coming through the window, and the apartment upside down, either the carpets being sent to the cleaners or the winter things being put away in mothballs, everything shifted, people running back and forth. And Pavel Antonovich’s wrathful horrible shout in the hallway, thumping footsteps on the floor; he throws something heavy, bursts into the room, and powerful and red, he pushes through, trampling the teddy bear, trampling the doll’s tea, and the May sun was indignant, shaking and splashing from the lenses of his glasses. The reason was trifling—the dog might have made a mess near the door. But in fact the dog was nothing, an excuse, it was just that life had begun to turn its not-good side toward Pavel Antonovich. And they didn’t have anything to drive in, anymore.
    His mother-in-law returned with the rolls and fresh tea, Lenochka put her hand back in its place, a used object. Lenochka was rather cool for a new bride, she smiled too politely, she burned at half-steam; and what was hidden, what thoughts flashed behind those watercolor eyes? Pale cheeks, hair like seaweed along those cheeks, weak hands, light feet—it was all enchanting, and even though Sergei basically liked his women sturdy, colorful, and black-browed, like the dolls made in Vyatka, he could not resist Lenochka’s watery charms. She entwined herself around him, not hot, her soul friable and inaccessible, with puny female problems: a cough; my shoes are too big; drive a nail in right there, Seryozha—he hammered, twisting the shoes as small as saucers in his hands, everything falls off the tiny Snow Fairy—and rubbed Lenochka’s narrow back with oil of turpentine.
    He married in fear and delight, hazarding a guess, understanding nothing: neither who Lenochka was nor why he had chosen her; he’d find out with time. She was a frail girl, and he was her protector and support, and his mother-in-law was a sweet lady, amiable and tolerably silly, a home economics teacher. She taught girls to sew aprons, to bind seams, or something. Theory of sewing, the basics of fire safety. “A stitch is the intertwining of thread with fabric between two needle punctures.” “A fire is the burning of objects not intended for burning.” Cozy, feminine work. At home, there was family coziness, the family hearth, the modest and respectable space of a three-room apartment, the legacy of the severe Pavel Antonovich. The hallway was lined with books, something was always cooking in the kitchen, and beyond the kitchen was a tiny room, a cell—they always built this way, Seryozha dear, for the maids; this is where that horrible Panya lived, and Klava with the pink comb: do you want me to turn it into your study, a man needs a study of his own. Of course he liked. A small room, but totally his now—what could be better? The table by the window, the chair here, a bookshelf behind him. In the summer, poplar fluff would fly in through the window, and birdsong and children’s voices… Your hand, Maria Maximovna. Allow me to kiss it. There, isn’t everything fine?
    Why, she can’t even imagine how fine it is, what a miracle, what a gift from the gods that room and that family were—for him, an orphan, a boy without a name, without a father, a mother. They invented it all for him at the orphanage: name, surname, age. He had no childhood, his childhood had been burnt up, bombed at an unknown railroad station; someone pulled him out of the fire, threw him on the ground, turning him over and over, slapping his head with a fur hat to put out the flames…. He hadn’t understood that the hat had saved him, a big black smelly hat—it knocked the memory out of him, he had nightmares about that hat, it screamed and blew up and deafened him—he had stammered a long time afterward, crying and covering his head with his hands when they tried to dress him at the home. How old had he been—three, four? And now, in the mid-70s, he, a grown man, felt his heart flipflop when he passed a store with fur hats on display. He would stop and stare, forcing himself to do it, trying to remember: Who am I? Where am I from? Whose son am I? After all, I did have a mother, someone gave birth to me, loved me, was taking me somewhere.
    In the summer he played on trampled playgrounds with children just like him, burned and nameless, pulled out from under wheels. They held hands and formed two lines. “Ali Babà, hey!” “What do you say?” “Pull the line away!” “From which end of the day?” “From dawn and send Seryozha this way.” And he would run in his gray orphanage pants from one line to the other, from his family into another, to push apart the thin clasped hands, and to join them, the strangers, if he could, feeling proud of his strength yet a little treacherous too.
    Long winters, hungry eyes, shaved heads, some adult giving a quick pat on the head as he ran past; the smell of mice in the sheets, the dull light. The older boys beat him, demanded that he steal for them, tempting him with a chunk of undercooked bread under his nose—we’ll share it with you, climb through that narrow window, you’re skinny, you’ll squeeze through. But someone invisible and inaudible seemed to be shaking her head, eyes closed: don’t, don’t take it. Was it his mother, giving him a sign from dark, shattered time, from the other side, beyond the hat; were incorporeal powers protecting him? He finished school and his file said: “Morally stable, orderly.” His longing for his mother, who was nowhere, ate away at him quietly. The idea that in the final analysis, everyone was descended from the apes, somehow did not console him. He invented mothers for himself, imagined himself the son of a favorite teacher—she had lost a small boy and she was looking for him, asking everyone if they had seen him. Skinny and afraid of a hat? And he, he was right there, in the front row, and she didn’t even know it. She would take a good look and cry out, “Seryozha, is that you? Why didn’t you say anything?” He was the son of the cook—he helped slice bread in the kitchen, glancing at her white cap and quick hands, trembling, waiting for the recognition to come; he stared at women in the street—in vain, they all ran past.
    Now, keeping it secret from Lenochka, he wanted to be the son of Maria Maximovna. Hadn’t she had a son who burned to death in some distant, nameless railroad station? The burning of objects not intended for burning?… The cozy room beyond the kitchen, snow beyond the window, the yellow lamp shade, the old wallpaper with maple leaves, the old house—if he could only remember… Didn’t it seem as if he had lived here, as if he were recognizing something?…
    Nonsense; Maria Maximovna never had a lost boy, the only thing she lost was the fur coat, a good fur coat with a silk lining embroidered with purple lilies of the valley Pavel Antonovich, a big man with a lot of stars on his uniform, took that luxurious item from a hook on a wall in a German house—he liked it and he didn’t waste time. He took it and sent it back home.
    What a fur coat it had been. What a shame, Seryozha. You must know the vile feeling of being robbed. I didn’t even have time to turn around, even to gasp—they switched them. Stuck me with the cheap squirrel coat, and not even new, as I learned later: it fell apart at the seams. I think it must have been stolen. Just imagine the situation—Pavel Antonovich’s wife robbed, and wearing a stolen coat… The worst part was having to confess that I had gone to the flea market: I had done it on the sly…. Oh, it was terrible just to look at him: a geyser of anger. Robbed… He couldn’t stand things like that. He, a military doctor, an honored man who had given his whole life to science—and to people—and then something like this. People were in great awe of him then, it was later that they calumnied him, insulted him, forced him into retirement—him, such a respected specialist in infectious diseases. They forgot all his achievements, his bravery and courage, forgot how he had battled the plague in the twenties and thirties—and how he conquered it, Seryozha. Risking his life every minute. He had no patience for cowards.
    It’s a horrible thing, the plague. You don’t hear too much about it nowadays, just the rare case here or there—which, incidentally, is thanks to Pavel Antonovich—but back then it was an epidemic. Infected steppes, villages, whole regions… Pavel Antonovich and his colleagues set up experiments: who is spreading the plague? All right, rats; but which kind? Just imagine; it turned out that all kinds of rats were responsible. Domestic, attic, ship, sewer, migrant rats. Moreover, all those innocent-looking bunnies, gophers, even little mice… Gerbils, hamsters, moles. Look, I couldn’t believe my ears when Pavel Antonovich told me, but he insisted: camels. Understand? You can’t trust anyone. Who would have thought? Yes, yes, camels get the plague too. And can you imagine what it’s like doing experiments on camels? Camels are huge. They had to catch one, infect it, take samples from it; and all by themselves, with their own hands. They kept it penned up, fed it, shoveled its manure. And it didn’t want to give samples, and it spat at them, too—plague-ridden spit. And it tried to hit them in the face.
    I tell you, doctors are saints, I always say that. And then…? And then, when they are sure an animal is infected, they put it to sleep, of course. What else could they do? It would infect the others, wouldn’t it?
    Then the war began and Pavel Antonovich was reassigned. Yes, it meant even more work. The war, the war… Why am I telling you about it, you went through all that yourself?
    It was during the war that they met, his mother-in-law and Pavel Antonovich. They married and saw each other sporadically. He liked that she was so young and lively… He wanted to dress her nicely, that’s why he sent the fur… And he was pleased with it too: why don’t you wear the fur, Mashenka—
    He worried about it, got mothballs for the summer. And then a blow like that…
    A gentle, marvelous, understanding woman, that Maria Maximovna. Just one quirk—can’t forget that fur coat. She’s a woman, those things are important to them. We all have our own memories. She tells him about her fur coat, Sergei tells her about the fur hat. She sympathized. Lenochka smiled at both, soaring in her vague thoughts. Lenochka is steady and passionless, a sister instead of a wife. Mother and sister—what more could a lost boy want?
    Sergei put up shelves in his cubbyhole and placed favorite books on them. If only he could put a cot in there, too. But he went to sleep in the bedroom with Lenochka. At night he lay sleepless, looking at her quiet face with pink shadows near the eyes, and wondered: who is she? What does she think about, what does she dream? If you ask, she shrugs and says nothing. Never raises her voice, if he tracks snow into the house she doesn’t notice, if he smokes in the bedroom she doesn’t care—
    She reads whatever comes her way. If it’s Camus, fine; if it’s Sergeyev-Tsensky, that’s fine, too. She gave off a chill. The daughter of mustachioed, bespectacled Pavel Antonovich… Strange.
    Pavel Antonovich… He hangs on the wall in the living room, in a frame, and night shadows cross his face. An oak grew and collapsed. Collapsed a long time ago, Lenochka doesn’t even remember him. But he’s still here—wandering up and down the hallway, making the floorboards creak, touching the doorknob. He runs his finger along the wallpaper, the maple leaves, along the bookshelves—he left his daughter a good inheritance. Listens for the squeak of a rat. Domestic, attic, field, ship, migrant… You animal, you, tell me your name: are you the death of me? will you eat me? I’m not your death, I won’t eat you: I’m just a bunny, a gray bunny…. Rabbits also carry plague. A particularly dangerous infection… The prognosis is extremely poor—In case of suspected infection with the plague send an urgent report—The patients and everyone who has been in contact with them will be quarantined. Was he afraid? Such an important man. Terrible in his wrath and honest in his work. But why that fur coat?
    And what if Pavel Antonovich were Sergei’s father? What if he had had another wife before Maria Maximovna? Surface out of nonexistence, take on a sturdy chain of ancestors—Pavel Antonovich, Anton Felixovich, Felix Kazimirovich… Why not? It’s a realistic possibility….
    He took the fur coat from the hook, turned it inside out— fur inside, lilies of the valley outside—and the tissue paper rustled. Twine! Bitte. He rested his knee on the package, pulled right, knotted the twine with his clean medical fingers. One more knot. Tugged—it’ll hold. He took it, he stooped to that. Tor the tangled tracks, the explosion, his son’s singed head, the mother who went up in flames, the hat that knocked out the child’s memory. The face with the closed eyes floated up again, shaking its head: don’t, don’t take it. Father, don’t take it! Three years later, it was stolen at the market. How he shouted! Panya, the maid, was in on it, naturally. Think about it—to disappear like that, in the twinkling of an eye… Naturally, it was a gang.
    Maria Maximovna would have let it go, but Pavel Antonovich, with his character, simply could not bear it. Panya had to be arrested. Yes, yes! To whom did you pass the fur coat? Who are your co-conspirators? When did you enter into a criminal conspiracy? How much were you supposed to get for fingering the job? Panya was a stupid woman, uneducated, and she babbled some nonsense, gave conflicting testimony; it was disgusting to hear. In short—they convicted her. But the coat was never found. Gone. Warm, curly, with the silky, slippery lining.
    “I’m hearing this for the fifth time,” Sergei said, angrily pulling the blanket over himself.
    “So what? Mother is still upset.”
    “Yes, but how long can she keep it up? You’d think she’s a suffering Akaky Akakiyevich without his overcoat!”
    “I don’t understand you. What is it, are your sympathies with the thieves?”
    “What does that have to do with it—And besides, didn’t he steal it?”
    “Papa? Papa was the most honest of men.”
    An uneducated woman, that Panya. She split, vanished, disappeared. A village woman, her husband died at the front. The pink comb. No, Klava had the comb. No face, no voice—just a total blank. He was Panya’s son. Perhaps; perhaps. His father died, and she fled with him through swamps, sinking; pushed her way through forests, tripping; begged for hot water at railroad stations, wailing. The train, the explosion. The tracks turned into corkscrews, the hat across his face, the black hat to knock out his memory. You lie there, peering into the dark— deeper, deeper, to the limit—no, there’s a wall there. Panya lost him at the station. She was taken away unconscious. She woke up—where’s Seryozha? Or Petya, Vitya, Yegorushka? Someone must have seen them putting out a burning boy. She goes, seeking him from town to town. Opens all the doors, knocks at all the windows: have you seen him? A dark kerchief and sunken eyes… Takes a job working for Pavel Antonovich. Are you the death of me, will you eat me? No, I’m a bunny, a gray bunny. “Panya, come with me, you’ll hold my fur coat.” Wait, don’t go! “Mistress, I’ve lost my son, what do I care for your coat?” Let her stay home. And another twenty-five years in that room. Then Sergei marries Lenochka, comes to the house, Panya takes a good look and recognizes him…. She couldn’t have stolen it, she had shut her eyes and shook her head: don’t take it. In case of suspected incident send an urgent report. Domestic, attic, migrant, field… Silk lining. Seryozha, drive a nail there.
    All right, what if she did steal it! Impoverished, starving like those thieving boys, her house burned down, her son lost, her husband dead in the swamps. What if she had been tempted by the purple lilies of the valley? I won’t hammer a nail into her. I am her son. Panya is my mother, that’s decided, everyone must know. Why did he take the coat from the hook? That coat belonged to Panya’s husband, he should have reached it, crawled there, extended his scorched hand toward it—no, he wouldn’t have taken it, he wouldn’t have stooped to that. But you, high and mighty gentleman, you stooped. And I am martied to your daughter. Pavel Antonovich is my father. Otherwise why does he torment me with the lost fur coat, rustling his medals, sighing behind the wall? Tell me your name. Holding hands tightly, the chain of ancestors walks into the depths, sinking into the dark jelly of time. Stand with us, nameless one, join us. Find your link in the chain. Pavel Antonovich, Anton Felixovich, Felix Kazimirovich. You are our descendant, you lay on our bed, loved Lenochka without blinking an eye, you ate our sweet rolls—every single currant in them we had to tear away from domestic, attic, and field rats; for you we coughed up horrible phlegm and let our nodes swell, for you we infected camels that spat in our face—you can’t get away from us. We built this for you, you nameless and clean boy, this house, this hearth, kitchen, hallway, bedroom, cubby, we lit the lamps and set up the books. We punished those who lifted their hands to steal our property. Ali Babà, hey! What do you say? Pull the line away. From which end of the day?
    Panya stole from family. But Pavel Antonovich stole from strangers. Panya confessed. Pavel Antonovich suffered from slander. The scales of justice are balanced. And what did you do? You came, you ate, you judged? In anti-plague goggles and rubber boots, with an enormous syringe, Pavel Antonovich approached the camel. I am your death, I’ll eat you up! Mice get sick, and so do rabbits. Everyone gets sick. Everyone. No need to brag.
    Lenochka did not wish to hear about Sergei’s hat anymore. As if there were nothing else to talk about. And really… Children, don’t shout! I don’t understand who she is. Why she married me. If she doesn’t care about anything… She’s waterlogged…. Not a person, but soap suds. Seryozha, you’re shouting so loudly. Just like Pavel Antonovich. Hush, hush. In her condition, Lenochka needs peace.
    Lenochka, don’t be mad at me. All right, all right, Seryozha. Drive a nail there—to hang up the diapers. Why don’t you sleep in the study, won’t little Antosha let you get any sleep? The shadow of leaves falls on the tiny face, the lace-trimmed sheet; the infant sleeps, his wrinkled fists raised, his brow furrowed—struggling to understand something. The fishies are asleep in the pond. The birdies are asleep in the trees. Who’s breathing outside in the garden? We don’t care, my love.
    Sweet dreams, sonny, you’re not to blame for anything at all. The plague corpses in the cemetery are covered with lime, the poppies on the steppe bring sweet dreams, the camels are locked up in the zoos, warm leaves rustle and whisper over your head. What about? What do you care?
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


    A PERSON lived—a person died. Only the name remains—Sonya. “Remember, Sonya used to say…” “A dress like Sonya’s…” “You keep blowing your nose all the time, like Sonya…” Then even the people who used to say that died, and there was only a trace of her voice in my head, incorporeal, seeming to come from the black jaws of the telephone receiver. Or all of a sudden there is a view of a sunny room, like a bright photograph come to life—laughter around a set table, like those hyacinths in a glass vase on the tablecloth, wreathed too with curly pink smiles. Look quickly, before it goes out. Who is that? Is the one you need among them? But the bright room trembles and fades and now the backs of the seated people are translucent like gauze, and with frightening speed, their laugh-ter falls to pieces, recedes in the distance—catch it if you can.
    No, wait, let me look at you. Sit as you were and call out your names in order. But it is futile to try grasping recollections with clumsy corporeal hands. The merry laughing figure turns into a large, crudely painted rag doll and will fall off its chair if it’s not propped up; on its meaningless forehead are drips of glue from the moplike wig; the blue glassy eyes are joined inside the empty skull by a metal arc with a lead ball for counterweight. Just look at that, the old hag! When you think she pretended to be alive and loved. But the laughing company has flown up and away, and contrary to the iron laws of space and time is chattering away in some inaccessible corner of the world, incorruptible unto eternity, festively immortal, and might even appear again at some turn in the road—at the most inappropriate moment, and of course without warning.
    Well, if that’s the way you are, so be it. Chasing you is like catching butterflies waving a shovel. But I would like to learn more about Sonya.
    One thing is clear—Sonya was an utter fool. No one has ever disputed that quality of hers, and now there is no one to do it anyway. Invited out to dinner for the first time, in the distant, yellowish-smoke-shrouded year of 1930, she sat like a dummy at the end of a long, starched table, in front of a napkin cone folded into a house, as was then customary. The bouillon pond cooled. The idle spoon lay before her. The dignity of all the kings of England froze Sonya’s equine features.
    “And you, Sonya,” they said to her (they must have addressed her more formally, using her patronymic, hopelessly lost now), “and you, Sonya, why aren’t you eating?”
    “Waiting for the pepper,” she replied severely with her icy upper lip.
    Actually, after some time had passed and Sonya’s irreplaceability in the kitchen for pre-party preparations and her sewing skills and her willingness to take other people’s children for walks and even babysit if the whole noisy group was heading for some unpostponable festivity became evident—with the passage of time, the crystal of Sonya’s stupidity sparkled with other facets, exquisite in its unpredictability. A sensitive instrument, Sonya’s soul apparently captured the tonality of the mood of the society that had sheltered her yesterday, but, gawking, she failed to attune herself to today’s mood. So, if Sonya gaily shouted out, “Bottoms up!” at a wake, it was clear she was still at somebody’s birthday party; while at weddings, Sonya’s toasts gave off the gloom of yesterday’s funeral meats.
    “I saw you yesterday at the concert with a beautiful lady; I wonder, who was she?” Sonya would ask a bewildered husband as she leaned across his stiffened wife. At moments like that, the mocker Lev Adolfovich would purse his lips, arch his eyebrows, and shake his head, his shallow glasses glinting. “If a person is dead, that’s for a long time; if he’s stupid, that’s forever.” Well, that’s just what happened, time merely confirmed his words.
    Lev Adolfovich’s sister, Ada, a sharp, thin woman of serpentine elegance who was once discomfited by Sonya’s idiocy, dreamed of punishing her. Just a little, of course, so they could have a laugh and give the little fool some amusement. And they whispered in a corner—Lev and Ada—plotting something witty.
    So, Sonya sewed—And how did she dress? Most unbecomingly, friends, most unbecomingly. Something blue, striped, so unflattering. Just imagine: a head like a Przewalski’s horse (Lev Adolfovich noted that), under her jaw the huge dangling bow of her blouse sticking out from her suit’s stiff lapels, and the sleeves were always too long. Sunken chest, legs so fat they looked as if they came from a different person’s set, enormous feet. She wore down her shoes on one side. Well, her chest and legs, that’s not clothing—Yes it is, my dear, it counts as clothing too. You have to take features like that into account, some things you just can’t wear at all—She had a brooch, an enamel dove. She wore it on the lapel of her jacket, never parted with it. And when she changed into another dress, she always pinned on that dove.
    Sonya was a good cook. She whipped up marvelous cakes. And then that, you know, offal, innards—kidneys, udders, brains—it’s so easy to ruin them, but she made them wonder-fully. So those dishes were always assigned to her. It was delicious and an excuse for jokes. Lev Adolfovich, pursing his lips, would call across the table: “Sonechka, your udders simply astonish me today!” And she would nod happily in reply. And Ada would say in a sweet voice, “I, for one, am enraptured by your sheep’s brains.” “They’re veal,” Sonya would reply, not understanding, smiling. And everyone enjoyed it; wasn’t it just too much?
    She liked children, that was clear, and you could go on vacation, even to Kislovodsk, and leave the children and the apartment in her care—why don’t you live at our place for a while, Sonya, all right?—and find everything in perfect order upon your return: the furniture dusted, the children rosy-cheeked and fed, and they played outside every day and even went on field trips to the museum where Sonya worked as some sort of curator; those museum curators lead a boring life, they’re all old maids. The children would become attached to her and be sad when she had to be transferred to another family. But you can’t be egoists and hog Sonya; others might need her, too. In general, they managed, setting up a sensible queuing system.
    Well, what else can I say about her? Basically, I think that’s it. Who remembers any details now? Fifty years later there’s almost no one left alive. And there were so many truly interesting, really worthwhile people, who left behind concert recordings, books, monographs on art. What fates! You could talk endlessly about any of them. Take Lev Adolfovich, a bastard basically, but a brilliant man and in some ways a pussycat. You could ask Ada Adolfovna, but she’s pushing ninety, I think, and… you understand… Something happened to her during the siege of Leningrad. Related to Sonya, incidentally. No, I don’t remember it very well. Something about a glass, and some letters, a joke of some sort.
    How old was Sonya? In 1941—when her tracks break off— she should have been forty. Yes, I think that’s it. From that it’s easy to figure out when she was born and so forth, but what difference could that make if we don’t know who her parents were, what she was like as a child, where she lived, what she did, and who her friends were up to the day when she came into the world out of nebulousness and sat down to wait for the pepper in the sunny, festive dining room?
    Of course, we must believe she was a romantic and, in her own way, lofty. After all, those bows of hers, and the enamel dove, and the poetry quotations, always sentimental, that flew from her lips inappositely, as if spat by her long upper lip that revealed her long ivory-colored teeth, and her love of children—and any children at that—all that characterizes her quite unambiguously. A romantic creature. Was she happy? Oh, yes! That’s certain. You can say what you want, but she was happy.
    And just think—life is full of such tricks—she owed her happiness completely to Ada Adolfovna, that snake. (Too bad you didn’t know her in her youth. An interesting woman.)
    A whole group of them got together—Ada, Lev, and Valerian, Seryozha, I think, and Kotik, and someone else—and worked out this practical joke (since the idea was Ada’s, Lev called it “a plan from Ades”), which turned out to be a great success. This must have been around 1933. Ada was in her prime, though no longer a girl—marvelous figure, dusky face with dark rose cheeks, she was number one at tennis, number one at kayaking, everyone thought she was terrific. Ada was even embarrassed by having so many suitors when Sonya had none. (What a joke! Suitors for Sonya?) And she suggested inventing a mysterious admirer for the poor thing, someone madly in love with her but who had reasons why he couldn’t meet her personally. Excellent idea. The phantom was created instantly, named Nikolai, burdened with a wife and three children, and moved into Ada’s father’s apartment for purposes of correspondence—here protests were voiced: what if Sonya learns, what if she sticks her nose in there?—but the argument was rejected as insubstantial. First of all, Sonya was stupid, that was the point; and secondly, she had a conscience—Nikolai had a family, she wouldn’t try to break it up. There, he wrote quite clearly, Nikolai did: darling, your unforgettable visage is imprinted forever on my wounded heart (“Don’t write ‘wounded,’ she’ll take it literally that he’s an invalid!”), but we are fated never, ever to be near because of my duty to my children… and so on. But my feeling, Nikolai continues—no, sincere feeling is better—will warm my cold members (“What do you mean, Adochka!” “Don’t bother me, you idiots!”) a pathfinding star and all that other moon-june-spoon. A letter like that. Let’s say he saw her at a concert, admired her fine profile (here Valerian fell off the couch laughing), and now wants to start up a lofty correspondence. He found out her address with difficulty. Begs for a photograph. Why can’t he meet for a date, the children won’t be in the way for that? He has a sense of duty. But for some reason they don’t keep him from writing, do they? Well, then he’s paralyzed. From the waist down. Hence the chilled members. Listen, stop fooling around. If necessary, we’ll paralyze him later. Ada sprinkled Chypre cologne on the stationery, Kotik pulled a dried forget-me-not from his childhood herbarium, pink with age, and stuck it in the envelope. Life was fun!
    The correspondence was stormy on both sides. Sonya, the fool, went for it right away. She fell in love so hard you couldn’t drag her away. They had to rein in her ardor: Nikolai wrote about one letter a month, braking Sonya and her raging cupid. Nikolai expressed himself in poetry: Valerian had to sweat a bit. There were pearls there, if you understood—Nikolai compared Sonya to a lily, a liana, and a gazelle, and himself simultaneously to a nightingale and an antelope. Ada wrote the prose text and served as general director, stopping her silly friends and their suggestions to Valerian: “Write that she’s a gnu. In the sense of an antelope. My divine gnu, I perish anew without you.”
    Ada was in top form: she quivered with Nikolai’s tenderness and revealed the depths of his lonely, stormy spirit, insisted on the necessity of preserving the platonic purity of their relations, and at the same time hinted at the destructive passion, whose time to be displayed for some reason had not yet come. Of course, in the evenings, Nikolai and Sonya had to lift their eyes to the same star at an appointed hour. Couldn’t do without that. If the participants in the epistolary novel were nearby at the appointed minute, they tried to keep Sonya from parting the curtains and sneaking a glance at the starry heights, calling her into the hallway: “Sonya, come here a moment. Sonya, here’s what—” relishing her confusion: the significant instant was approaching, and Nikolai’s gaze was in danger of hanging around in vain in the neighborhood of Sirius or whatever it was called—you generally had to look in the direction of Pulkovo Observatory.
    Then the joke got boring: how long could they go on, especially since they could get absolutely nothing out of languid Sonya, no secrets; she didn’t want any bosom buddies and pretended nothing was going on. Just think how secretive she turned out to be, while she burned with unquenchable flames of high feeling in her letters, promising Nikolai eternal fidelity and telling him about every little thing: what she dreamed and what she had heard little birds twittering. She sent wagon loads of dried flowers in envelopes, and for one of Nikolai’s birthdays she sent him her only ornament, taking it off her ugly jacket: the white enamel dove. “Sonya, where’s your dove?” “It flew off,” she said, revealing her ivory equine teeth, and you couldn’t read anything in her eyes. Ada kept planning to kill off Nikolai, who was turning into a pain, but when she got the dove she shuddered and put the murder off for a better time. In the letter that came with the dove, Sonya swore to give her life for Nikolai or follow him, if necessary, to the ends of the earth.
    The whole imaginable crop of laughter had been harvested, damned Nikolai was like a ball and chain underfoot, but it would have been inhumane to abandon Sonya alone on the road without her dove, without her love. The years passed: Valerian, Kotik, and, I think, Seryozha dropped out of the game for various reasons, and Ada carried the epistolary weight alone, hostilely baking monthly hot kisses by mail, like a machine. She had even begun to turn a little like Nikolai herself and at times in evening light she fancied she could see a mustache on her tanned pink face as she looked in the mirror. And so two women in two parts of Leningrad, one in hate, the other in love, wrote letters to each other about a person who had never existed.
    When the war began, neither had time to evacuate. Ada dug ditches thinking about her son, taken out of the city with his kindergarten. No time for love. She ate everything she could find, boiled her leather shoes, drank hot bouillon made from wallpaper—that had a little paste, at least. December came, everything ended. Ada took her father on a sled to a common grave; and then Lev Adolfovich; fueled the stove with Dickens and with stiff fingers wrote Sonya Nikolai’s farewell letter. She wrote that it was all a lie, that she hated everyone, that Sonya was a stupid old fool and a horse, that none of it had been here and damn you all to hell. Neither Ada nor Nikolai wanted to go on living. She unlocked the doors of her father’s big apartment to make it easier for the funeral brigade to get in and lay down on the couch, piling her father’s and her brother’s coats on top of her.
    It’s not clear what happened next. First of all, hardly anyone was interested; and secondly, Ada Adolfovna isn’t very talkative, besides which, as I’ve already said, there’s time! Time has devoured everything. Let’s add that it’s hard to read other people’s souls: it’s dark and not everyone knows how to do it. Vague conclusions, attempts at answers—nothing more.
    I doubt Sonya received Nikolai’s graveside song. Letters didn’t get through that black December, or else took months. Let’s suppose that raising her eyes, half-blind with starvation, to the evening star over bombed-out Pulkovo, she did not feel the magnetic gaze of her beloved that day and realized his hour had come. A loving heart—say what you will—feels such things, you can’t trick it. And realizing that it was time, ready to turn to ashes in order to save her one and only, Sonya took everything she had—a can of prewar tomato juice, saved for a matter of life and death like this—and made her way across all of Leningrad to the dying Nikolai’s apartment. There was exactly enough juice for one life.
    Nikolai lay under a mound of coats, in a hat with ear flaps, with a horrible black face, caked lips, but smooth-shaven. Sonya sank to her knees, pressed her eyes to his swollen hand with its broken fingernails, and wept a bit. Then she spoon-fed him some juice, threw a few books onto the fire, blessed her lucky fate, and left with a pail to get some water, never to return. The bombing was heavy that day.
    That, basically, is all that can be said about Sonya. A person lived—a person died. Only the name remains.
    “Ada Adolfovna, give me Sonya’s letters.”
    Ada Adolfovna rolls from the bedroom to the dining room, turning the big wheels of her chair with her hands. Her wrinkled face twitches. A black dress covers her lifeless legs to her toes. A large cameo is pinned near her throat, someone is killing something on it: shields, spears, the enemy gracefully fallen.
    “Letters, letters, give me Sonya’s letters!”
    “I can’t hear you!”
    “She never can hear the word ‘give,’” her nephew’s wife hisses in irritation, narrowing her eyes at the cameo.
    “Isn’t it time for dinner?” Ada Adolfovna smacks her lips.
    What large dark cupboards, what heavy silverware in them, and vases, and all kinds of supplies: tea, jam, grains, macaroni.
    In the other rooms there are more cupboards, cupboards, chiffonniers, wardrobes—with linens, books, all kinds of things. Where does she keep the packet of Sonya’s letters, an old package wrapped with twine, crackling with dried flowers, yellowed and translucent like dragonfly wings? Does she not remember, or does she not want to tell? And what’s the point in pestering a trembling paralyzed old woman? Didn’t she have enough hard days in her life? Most probably she threw the packet into the fire, standing on her swollen knees that icy winter, in the blazing circle of a minute’s light, and perhaps the letters, starting slowly at first and then quickly blackening at the corners and finally swirling up in a column of roaring flames, warmed her contorted, frozen fingers, if only for a brief instant. Let it be so. But she must have taken the white dove out of there, I think. After all, doves don’t burn.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


    Filin turned up—unexpectedly as always—on the phone, with an invitation to have a look at his new flame. The evenings program was clear: a crisp white tablecloth, light, warmth, special puff-pastry pirozhki à la Tmutarakan, the nicest music coming from somewhere in the ceiling, and engrossing conversation. Blue curtains everywhere, cupboards with his collections, beads hanging along the walls. Then there might be new toys: a snuffbox with a portrait of a lady in transports over her own pink naked powderiness, a beaded purse, perhaps an Easter egg, or something else useless but valuable.
    Filin wasn’t offensive to the eye, either—clean, not large, wearing an at-home velvet jacket, a small hand weighted down with a ring. And not a clichéd, corny, “ruble fifty with the box” ring—why no, his is straight from an excavation, Venetian if he’s not lying, or a setting of a coin from, God help me, Antioch, or something even grander than that…. That was Filin.
    He’ll sit in a chair dangling his slipper, fingers folded in a tent, eyebrows like pitch—marvelous Anatolian eyes like soot, a dry silvery beard that rustled, black only around the mouth, as if he had been eating coal.
    Plenty to look at.
    Filin’s women weren’t run-of-the-mill, either—collector’s rarities. Either a circus performer, say, twisting on a trapeze silvery scales shimmering, to a drum roll; or simply a young woman, a mama’s girl who dabbled in water colors, a brain the size of a kopek but dazzlingly white, so that Filin, in issuing his invitation to view, will warn you to bring sunglasses to avoid snow blindness.
    Some people privately didn’t approve of Filin, with all those rings, pastries, and snuffboxes; they giggled over his raspberry robe with tassels and those supposedly silver Mongol slippers with turned-up noses; and it was funny that in his bathroom he had a special brush for his beard and hand cream: a bachelor… But whenever he called, they came; and secretly always worried: would he invite them again? Would he let them sit in the warmth and light, in comfort and luxury, and in general— what did he ever see in us ordinary people, what does he need us for?
    “If you’re not busy tonight, please come at eight. Meet Alisa, a cha-arming creature.”
    “Thank you, thank you, of course.”
    Well, as usual, at the last minute! Yura reached for his razor, and Galya, slithering into her panty hose like a snake, left instructions with her daughter: the kasha is in the pot, don’t open the door to anyone, do your homework, and straight to bed. And don’t hang on me, let go, we’re late already. Galya stuffed plastic bags into her purse: Filin lived in a high-rise, with a grocery store on the ground floor; maybe they’ll have herring oil, or something else.
    Beyond the house the boundary road lay like a hoop of darkness where the frosty wind howled, the cold of uninhabited plains penetrated your clothes, and the world for a second seemed as horrible as a graveyard; and they didn’t want to wait for a bus or be squashed in the metro and they got a taxi; and lounging comfortably, cautiously berated Filin for his velvet jacket, for his collector’s passion, for the unknown Alisa: where’s the last one, that Ninochka? nowhere to be found now; and wondered whether Matvei Matveich would be there, and roundly denounced Matvei Matveich.
    They had met him at Filin’s and were charmed by the old man: those stories of his about the reign of Anna Ivanovna and those pastries, and the steam from English tea, and blue-and-gold collector’s cups, and Mozart bubbling from somewhere up above, and Filin caressing the guests with his Mephistophelian eyes—and, oh, heads spinning—they got Matvei Matveich to invite them. Some visit! He received them in the kitchen, the floor was made of planks, the walls brown and bare, a horrible neighborhood, nothing but fences and potholes, and he was wearing jogging pants that were threadbare and the tea was stale and the jam crystallized, and he just thumped the jar on the table, stuck a spoon in it—dig it out yourselves, dear guests. And you had to smoke on the landing: asthma, please understand. And Anna Ivanovna was a flop, too. They sat down—the hell with the tea—to listen to his purring speech about palace intrigues, all kinds of revolts; but the old man kept untying these awful folders and poking them with his finger shouting about land reform and that Kuzin, the mediocrity clerk backstabber, won’t let him get published and has set the whole department against Matvei Matveich, but here, here: invaluable documents, he’d been collecting them all his life. Galya and Yura wanted to hear about villains, torture, the ice house, and the dwarf wedding, but Filin wasn’t there to steer the conversation to interesting topics, and all they heard that evening was Ku-u-zin! Ku-u-uzin! and the finger-jabbing of the files, and the valerian sedative drops. They put the old man to bed and left, and Galya tore her panty hose on the old man’s chair.
    “What about Vlasov the bard?” Yura recalled.
    “Bite your tongue!”
    With him, it was just the opposite; but the shame was terrible: they picked him up at Filin’s, too, and invited him to their house and invited lots of guests to hear him sing, spent two hours in line to get a special cake. They locked their daughter in her room and the dog in the kitchen. Vlasov the bard came, grim, with his guitar, didn’t even try the cake: cream softens the voice and he wanted his voice hoarse. He sang a couple of songs: “Aunt Motya, your shoulders, your pecs and cheeks, like Nadia Comaneci, are developed by gymnastique…” Yura made a fool of himself, showing his ignorance, loudly whispering in the middle of the song, “I forget, what part are the pecs?” Galya grew anxious, and, hand laid on heart in emotion, said he must sing “Friends”—it’s such a marvelous, marvelous song. He had sung it at Filin’s—gently, sadly—about “around the table covered with oilcloth, over a bottle of beer” sit a group of old friends, bald, all losers. Each one’s life went wrong, each has his own sorrow: “one can’t love, the other can’t rule”—and no one can help, alas!—but at least they’re together, they’re friends, they need one another, and isn’t that the most important thing in life? You listen and you feel that—yes-yes-yes—the same thing happened in your life, yes, just like it. “What a song. A hit.” Yura whispered. Vlasov the bard frowned even more, looked off into the distance—off into that imagined room where the mutually admiring baldies were uncapping a distant beer; he strummed the guitar and began sadly, “around the table covered with oilcloth…” Julie, locked in the kitchen, scratched at the floor and howled. “With a bottle of beer,” Vlasov continued. “Woof woof woof,” the dog persisted. Someone snorted, the bard put his hand on the strings with an injured air, and took a cigarette. Yura went to deal with Julie.
    “Is that autobiographical?” some idiot asked reverently.
    “What? All my songs are autobiographical to a degree.”
    Yura returned, the bard tossed away his butt, and concentrated. “Around the table, covered with oilcloth…” A tortured howl came from the kitchen.
    “A musical dog,” the bard said viciously.
    Galya dragged the resisting German shepherd to the neighbors, the bard hurriedly finished the song—the howling came through the co-op’s walls—he shortened his program, and then in the foyer as he zipped up his jacket announced with disgust that he usually charged two rubles a head but since they didn’t know how to organize a creative atmosphere, he’d settle for a ruble apiece. And Galya ran back to the neighbors—a nightmare, lend me a ten—and they, also just before payday, dug around, collecting change and shaking the kids’ piggy bank to the howls of the robbed children and the barking of overjoyed Julie.
    Yes, Filin knows how to deal with people, and we sure don’t. Well, maybe next time it’ll go better.
    It wasn’t quite eight yet—just enough time to stand in line for paté in the store at the bottom of the block of flats where Filin lived. There’s no trouble finding cows in our suburb, but you just try finding pàté. At three minutes to eight they got into the elevator, and Galya, as usual, looked around and said, “I could live in an elevator like this,” then the polished parquet floor of the landing, the brass plate: “I. I. Filin,” the bell; and then the man himself on the doorstep, black eyes glowing, head tilted to one side: “Punctuality is the politeness of princes…”
    And it’s so pleasant hearing that, those words, as if Filin were a sultan and they truly were princes, Galya in her inexpensive coat and Yura in his jacket and knit cap.
    And they floated in, the royal pair, chosen for one evening, into the warmth and light, the sweet piano trills, and proceeded to the table where the hothouse roses refuse to acknowledge the frost, wind, darkness that have besieged Filin’s impregnable tower, powerless to penetrate.
    Something elusive is different in the apartment… ah, they see: the glass case with the beaded trifles has been moved, the candelabra has moved to the other wall, the arch leading to the back room is curtained, and moving that curtain aside… Alisa, the allegedly charming creature, comes out and offers her hand.
    “Well, yes, she is Allochka, but we will call her Alisa, isn’t that right? Please, sit down,” said Filin. “Well, I recommend the pàté. A rarity. You know, pàtés like this…”
    “I see you got it downstairs,” Yura said happily. “We go down. From the conquered heights. Even the gods descended’—isn’t that how it goes?”
    Filin smiled thinly and twitched an eyebrow—to say maybe I got it downstairs and maybe I didn’t. You have to know everything, don’t you? Galya mentally kicked her husband for his tactlessness.
    “Appreciate the tartlets,” Filin started anew. “I’m afraid that you are the last people to have them on this sinful earth.”
    Tonight he called the pirozhki “tartlets” for some reason— probably because of Alisa.
    “Why, what happened, have they stopped selling flour? On a global scale?” Yura was in good humor, rubbing his hands, his bony nose red in the heat. The tea gurgled.
    “Nothing of the kind. What is flour?” Filin’s beard nodded.
    “Some sugar, Galya…. What is flour? The secret is lost, my friends. The last person to know the ancient recipe is dying—I just got a call. Ninety-eight, a stroke. Try them, Alisa; may I pour you tea in my favorite cup?”
    Filin’s gaze grew misty, as if hinting at the possibilities of special closeness that could result from such intimate contact with his beloved dishes. The charming Alisa smiled. What was so charming about her? Her black hair shone as if it were greased, a hook nose, mustache. Simple dress, knit, the color of a pickle. Big deal. Better women than she have sat here, and where were they now?
    “And just think,” Filin was saying. “Just two days ago I ordered the tartlets from this Ignaty Kirillych. Just yesterday he baked them. Just this morning I got them, each wrapped in tissue paper. And now, a stroke. They called me from Sklifosovsky hospital.” Filin bit into a puff pastry bomb, raised his handsome brows, and sighed. “When still a lad, Ignaty worked at the Yar, and the old pastry chef Kuzma gave him the secret of these pastries on his deathbed. Just try them.” Filin wiped his beard. “And Kuzma had worked in Petersburg in his day at Wolf and Beranger—the famous pastry shop. They say that before his fatal duel, Pushkin dropped by Wolf’s and asked for tartlets. That day Kuzma was sleeping off a binge and hadn’t baked any. Well, the manager said, we don’t have any. These people are like that, Alexander Sergeyevich. Wouldn’t you like a bouchée? Or a cream horn? Pushkin got upset, waved his hat, and left. Well, you know what happened later. Kuzma overslept, and Pushkin is in his grave.”
    “Oh, my god,” said Galya.
    “Oh, yes. And do you know it had repercussions on everyone? Wolf shot himself. Beranger converted to Russian Orthodoxy, the manager donated thirty thousand to a religious institution, and Kuzma simply lost his mind. He kept muttering, ‘Oh, Alexander Sergeyevich…. You didn’t have my tartlets… If only you had waited a bit…’”
    Filin tossed another pirozhok in his mouth and crunched. “However, that Kuzma lived to our day. He passed on the recipe to his students with shaking hands. Ignaty got the dough; someone else, the filling. Well, then came the revolution, the civil war. The one who knew the filling joined the Social Revolutionaries. Ignaty lost track of him. A few years later— Ignaty was still with the restaurant—something prompted him, he came out of the kitchen, and there at a table is that man with a lady. He’s got a monocle, a mustache—unrecognizable. Ignaty runs over to him as is, covered with flour. ‘Come with me, comrade.’ The man had no choice. White as a sheet, into the kitchen he went. ‘Bastard, tell me the meat filling.’ What could he do, his past could cause him trouble. He told. ‘Tell me the cabbage filling.’ He trembled, but he did it. And now the fish.’ That was absolutely top secret. He said nothing. Ignaty: ‘The fish!’ And he picked up his rolling pin. The man said nothing. Then suddenly he screamed and ran out. They chased him, tied him up, and looked at him—he’d lost his mind, he was rolling his eyes and foaming at the mouth. So the fish remained a secret. Yes… That Ignaty Kirillych was an interesting old man, so fastidious. How he felt puff pastry, what a feel for it!… He baked at home. He’d draw the curtains, double lock the door. I would say, ‘Ignaty Kirillych, dear man, share your secret, what’s it to you?’ but he wouldn’t budge. He kept waiting for a worthy recipient. And now the stroke… Try one.”
    “Oh, I’m so sorry,” the charming Alisa said. “How can I eat them now? I’m always so sorry for the last of anything…. My mother had a brooch before the war….”
    “The last one, an accidental one!” sighed Filin and took another pirozhok.
    “The last storm cloud,” Galya entered the game.
    “The last of the Mohicans,” added Yura.
    “No, my mother had this pearl brooch before the war….”
    “Everything is transitory, dear Alisa,” Filin said, chewing in satisfaction. “Everything ages—dogs, women, pearls. Let us sigh over the fleeting nature of existence and thank the creator for giving us a chance to taste this and that at the feast of life. Eat and wipe your tears.”
    “Perhaps he’ll regain consciousness, that Ignaty?”
    “He can’t,” the host assured them. “Forget about it.”
    They chewed. Music sang overhead. It was good.
    “What new pleasures do you have?” Yura asked.
    “Ah… I’m glad you reminded me. Wedgwood—cups and saucers. Creamer. See, blue on the shelf. Why I’ll just… Here…”
    “Ah…” Galya touched the cup carefully with her finger— white carefree dances on a blue foggy meadow.
    “Do you like it, Alisa?”
    “Nice… Now before the war my mother had…”
    “Do you know where I got it? Guess… From a partisan.”
    “In what sense?”
    “Just listen. It’s a curious story.” Filin made a tent with his fingers and looked lovingly at the shelf where the captive service sat cautiously, afraid of falling. “I was wandering around villages this fall with a rifle. I stopped by one hut. A man brought out some fresh milk for me. In a cup. I look—it’s real Wedgwood. How could it be? Well, we got to talking, his name is Uncle Sasha, I have the address somewhere… well, it doesn’t matter. Here’s what I learned. During the war he was a partisan in the woods. Early morning. German plane flying over. Bzzzzzzz,” Filin added an imitation. “Uncle Sasha looked up just when the pilot spat—right in his face. An accident, of course. But Uncle Sasha’s temper flared, naturally, he went bang with his gun—and hit the German. Also accidentally. The plane fell, they looked inside—five crates of cocoa, and the sixth had these dishes. He must have been delivering breakfast. I bought the set. The creamer is cracked, but that’s all right. Considering the circumstances.”
    “Your partisan is a liar.” Yura was delighted, he looked around and slapped his thigh. “What a great liar. Fantastic!”
    “Nothing of the sort.” Filin was not pleased. “Of course, I can’t rule out that he’s no partisan at all but just a vulgar little thief, but you know… somehow I prefer to believe.”
    He grew huffy and took the cup back.
    “Of course, you have to believe people.” Galya stepped on Yura’s foot under the table. “An amazing thing happened to me, too. Remember, Yura? I bought a wallet, brought it home, and inside were three rubles. No one believes it.”
    “Why not, I believe it. It happens,” Alisa mused. “Now, my mother…”
    They talked about the amazing, about premonitions, and dreams. Alisa had a girlfriend who had predicted her entire life ahead of time—marriage, two children, divorce, division of the apartment and property. Yura told in great detail how a friend’s car was stolen and how the police cleverly figured the thief’s identity and caught him, but the real trick was—he couldn’t remember it right now. Filin described a dog he knew that unlocked the door with its own key and heated up dinner for its masters.
    “Really, how?” the women gasped.
    “Easily. They have a French oven, electric, with a control panel. Push a button, everything goes on. The dog looks at the time: goes to the kitchen, works there; well, warms something up for itself, too. The owners come home from work and the soup is on the boil, the bread sliced, the table set. Convenient.”
    Filin talked, smiled, turned his ankle, glanced over at satisfied Alisa, the music died down, and the city made itself heard through the windows. Dark tea steamed in their cups, sweet cigarette smoke curled upward, the roses gave off their scent and beyond the window the Sadovoye Ring Road quietly squealed beneath tires and people cheerfully plowed through the streets, the city glowed in wreaths of golden street lamps, frosty rainbow rings, multicolored crunchy snow, while the capital’s sky sowed new charming snow, fresh, just made. And just think, this entire feast, this evening of miracles was created especially for this completely unspecial Allochka, extravagantly renamed Alisa—there she sat in her vegetable dress, mustached mouth open, delightedly staring at the all-powerful gentleman who with a wave of the hand, the flicker of an eyebrow can transform the world to the point of unrecognizability Soon Galya and Yura would leave, crawling back to their outskirts, and she would stay, she was allowed…. Galya grew depressed. Why, oh, why?
    Filin’s tower nestled in the middle of the capital, a pink mountain, ornamented here and there in the most varied way—with all sorts of architectural doodads, thingamajigs, and whatnots: there were towers on the socles, crenels on the towers, and ribbons and wreaths between the crenellations, and out of the laurel garlands peeked a book, the source of knowledge, or a compass stuck out its pedagogic leg; or, if you looked, you’d see a puffy obelisk in the middle, and standing firmly on it, embracing a sheaf, a firm plaster woman with a clear gaze that rebuffs storms and night, with flawless braids and an innocent chin…. You kept expecting trumpets to sound and drums to play something governmental and heroic.
    And the evening sky above Filin and his curlicued palace plays with light—brick, lilac—a real Moscow, theatrical sky.
    While back in their outskirts… oh my God it’ll be nothing but thick oily cold darkness, empty in the cool abysses between houses, you can’t even see the houses, they’ve blended into the night sky weighted down by snow clouds with an occasional window burning in an uneven pattern: gold, green, red squares struggling to push aside the polar murk…. It’s late, the stores are locked and bolted, the last old lady has rolled out, carrying a packet of margarine and an eggbeater, no one is walking along the streets just for the fun of it, no one is looking around, strolling; everyone has slipped into his own door, drawn the curtains, and is reaching for the TV knob. If you look out the window, you see the boundary road, an abyss of darkness marked by doubled red lights and the yellow beetles of someone’s headlights…. Something big drove by, its lights nodding in a pothole…. Here comes a stick of light—the headlights in the bus’s forehead, a trembling nucleus of yellow light, live roe of people inside…. And beyond the regional road, beyond the last weak strip of life, on the other side of the snow-filled ravine, the invisible sky slipped down, resting its heavy edge on a beet field—right there, on the other side of the ravine. It was impossible, unthinkable, unbearable to realize that the thick darkness extended farther, over the fields that blended into a white roar, over badly constructed fences, over trees pressed into the cold earth where a doomed dull light quivers as if held in an indifferent fist… and farther once again, the dark white cold, a crust of forest where the darkness is even thicker, where perhaps a pathetic wolf is forced to live: it comes out on a hill in its rough wool coat smelling of juniper and blood, wildness, disaster, gazes grimly and with disgust at the blind windy vistas, clumps of snow hardening between its cracked claws, and its teeth are gritted in sadness, and a cold tear hangs like a stinking bead on the furry cheek, and everyone is the enemy and everyone is the killer….
    For dessert they had pineapple. And then they had to get out. And it was so far to the house…. Avenues, avenues, avenues, dark blizzardy squares, deserted lots, bridges and forests, and more lots, and unexpected not-sleeping factories, light blue inside, and more forests and the snow in the headlights. And at home—boring green wallpaper, the cut-glass lamp fixture in the foyer, the dull cramped feeling and the familiar smell, and the color cover of a woman’s magazine tacked to the wall for decoration. A rosy, disgusting couple on skis. She’s grinning, he’s warming her hands. ” Chilled?” it’s called. “Chilled?” She’d tear it off the wall, but Yura won’t let her, he likes things sporty, optimistic…. So let him find a taxi.
    Night had entered the deep hours, all the gates were closed, joyriding trucks zipped by, the starry ceiling hardened with the cold. The rough air had formed into clumps. “Hey, chief, take us to the city line?” Yura ran from car to car. Galya whimpered and switched from foot to foot, hopping on the side of the road, and behind her, in the palace, the last lights were going out, the roses plunging into sleep, Alisa babbling about her mother’s brooch, while Filin, in his tasseled robe, tickled her with his silvery beard: ooh, darling. More pineapple?
    That winter they were invited once more, and Allochka hung around the apartment as if she belonged there, bravely grabbing the expensive dishes and smelling of lily of the valley and yawning.
    Filin demonstrated Valtasarov to his guests—a dreamy bearded muzhik, amazing in his ventriloquism skills. Valtasarov could imitate a knock at the door, a cow being milked, the rattle of a wagon, the distant howl of wolves, and a woman killing cockroaches. He couldn’t do industrial sounds. Yura begged him to try, to at least do a trolley, but he refused flat out: “Fraid of busting my gut.” Galya was uncomfortable: she sensed in Valtasarov the degree of noncivilization from which she and Yura were a stone’s throw—over the city line, beyond the ravine, to the other side.
    She must have gotten weary of late…. Just six months ago she would have actively pursued Valtasarov, invited him and a group of friends, served cracked sugar, rye cakes, and radishes—and whatever else the old peasant liked to eat—and he would have mooed and rattled the well chain to general excitement. But now it suddenly was clear to her: it wouldn’t work. If she were to invite him, the guests would laugh and leave, but Valtasarov would stay, ask to spend the night, probably—and she’d have to clear the room, and it was right in the middle of the apartment; he’d go to bed around nine or something, and it would smell of sheep, and shag, and haylofts; at night he’d stumble to the kitchen in the dark for a drink of water and knock over a chair…. A quiet curse. Julie would start barking, their daughter would wake up…. Or maybe he was a lunatic and would come into their bedroom in the dark… in a white shirt and felt boots… rummaging…. And in the morning, when you don’t feel like seeing anyone at all, when you’re in a hurry to get to work and your hair’s a mess and it’s cold—the old man would sit in the kitchen making a production of having tea, and then pull out illiterate scraps of paper from his pocket: “Girl, they wrote down this medicine for me…. It cures everything…. How can I get it?”
    No, no, no! Don’t even think about getting involved with him.
    It was only Filin, untiring, who was capable of picking up, feeding, and amusing anyone at all—well, including us, too, of course! Oh, Filin! Generous owner of golden fruit, he hands them out right and left, giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty; he waves his hand, and gardens bloom, women grow more beautiful, bores get inspired, and crows sing like nightingales.
    That’s what he’s like. That’s him.
    And what marvelous friends he has…. Ignaty Kirillych, the pastry wizard. Or that ballerina he visits—Doltseva-Elanskaya…
    “Of course, that’s her stage name,” said Filin, kicking his foot and admiring the ceiling. “Her maiden name was Dogina, Olga Ieronimovna. Her first husband was Katkin, the second Mousekin. A game of diminishing returns, so to speak. She was quite a hit in her day. Grand dukes stood in line, bringing her topazes by the sack. That was her weakness, smoky topazes. But she was a very simple, heartfelt, progressive woman. After the revolution she decided to give her stones to the people. She was as good as her word: she took off her necklace, tore the thread, poured them out on the table. There was a knock at the door: they came to move more people into her apartment. While they talked and so on, by the time she came back the parrot had eaten them all. Birds, as you know, need stones for their digestion. He’d devoured about five million’s worth—and he flew out the window. She followed. ‘Kokosha, where are you going? What about the people?’ He went south. She followed. She reached Odessa, don’t ask me how. The ship was taking off, the stacks smoking, shouts, suitcases—people fleeing to Constantinople. The parrot landed on the smokestack and sat there. He was warm. So this Olga Dogina, what do you think, she hooked her trained leg over the side of the ship and stopped the ship. And she wouldn’t let go until they got her the parrot. She shook everything out of it down to the last kopek and donated it to the Red Cross. Of course, they had to amputate her leg, but she didn’t give up, she danced in hospitals on crutches. Now she’s hundreds of years old, flat on her back, put on weight. I visit her, read Sterne to her. Yes, Olga Dogina, from a merchant family… Think what power there is in our people. So much untapped power…”
    Galya regarded Filin with adoration. Suddenly he was clear to her—handsome, giving, hospitable… Oh, how lucky that mustachioed Allochka was. She didn’t appreciate him, turning her indifferent lemur-shiny eyes at the guests, Filin, the flowers and cookies, as if this were the usual order of things, as if this is just the way things should be. As if far away at the ends of the earth, Galya’s daughter, dog, and “Chilled?” were not languishing, hostages in the dark on the threshold of the aspen forest, quivering with rage.
    For dessert they had grapefruit stuffed with shrimp, and the magical old man drank tea from his saucer.
    A stone lay on her heart.
    At home, in the darkness, listening to the glassy ringing of the aspens, the roar of the sleepless boundary road, the rustles of wolf fur in the distant forest, the slither of the chilled beet greens under their snow blanket, she thought: we’ll never get out of here. Someone unnamed, indifferent, like fate, had decided: this one, this one, and this one will live in a palace. Life will be good for them. And these, and these, and these ones, too, including Galya and Yura, will live there. No, not there, wa-a-ay over there, that’s right, yes. By the ravine, beyond the deserted lots. And don’t be pushy, don’t bother. End of conversation. Wait a minute! What is this? But fate has already turned its back, laughing with its friends, and its iron back is solid— you can’t get its attention by knocking. If you want, you can have hysterics, roll on the floor, kick your legs, if you want, you can lie low and gradually turn wild, collecting portions of cold poison in your teeth.
    They tried clambering, tried switching, posting notices, turned the apartment exchange newsletter into Swiss cheese, gutting it, telephoned in humiliation: “We have a forest… wonderful air… it’s great for the child, and you don’t need a dacha… same to you. You’re nuts!” They filled notebooks with hurried notations: “Zinaida Samoilovna is thinking it over….” “Hana will call back….” “Peter Ivanych has to have a balcony.…” Miraculously, Yura found an old woman who had a three-room apartment on the second floor in Patriarshie Prudy, in the middle of Moscow, and she was willful and spoiled. Fifteen families got entangled in an exchange chain, each with its own demands, heart attacks, crazy neighbors, broken hearts, and lost birth certificates. They taxied the capricious old woman hither and yon, got expensive medications for her, as well as warm boots and ham, and promised her money. It was on the verge of happening, thirty-eight people trembled and grumbled, weddings were called off, summer vacations burst, somewhere in the chain a certain Simakov dropped out, bleeding ulcers—doesn’t matter, forget him—the ranks closed, more efforts, the old woman equivocated and resisted, under horrible pressure signed the documents, and just at the moment when somewhere in the cloudy skies a pink angel filled out the order with an air pen, bam! she changed her mind. Just like that— upped and changed it. And just leave her alone.
    The howl of fifteen families shook the earth, the axis shifted, volcanoes erupted, Hurricane Anna wiped out a young underdeveloped nation, the Himalayas grew even taller and the Marianas Trench deeper, but Galya and Yura remained where they were. And the wolves giggled in the forest. For it was written: if you are meant to chirp, don’t purr. If you are meant to purr, don’t chirp.
    “Should we denounce the old woman?” Galya said.
    “But to whom?” Haggard Yura burned with an evil flame, it was sad to look at him. He figured this and that—no go.
    Maybe complain to St. Peter, so that he wouldn’t let the lousy woman into Heaven. Yura picked up a lot of rocks in the quarry and went one night to her house to break her windows, but came back with the news that they were broken—they weren’t the only ones with the bright idea.
    Then they cooled off, of course.
    Now she lay and thought about Filin: how he folded his fingers into a tent, smiled, dangled his foot, how he raised his eyes to the ceiling when he talked…. There was so much she had to tell him…. Bright light, bright flowers, the bright silvery beard with the black spot around his mouth. Of course, Alisa was no match for him, and she couldn’t appreciate the wonderland. Nor did she deserve it. He needed someone understanding….
    “Blah-blah-blah,” said Yura in his sleep.
    …Yes, someone understanding and sensitive… to steam his raspberry robe… run his bath… do something with his slippers…
    They’d divide their property like this: Yura could have the apartment, the dog, and the furniture. Galya would take their daughter, some of the linens, the iron, and the washing machine. The toaster. The mirror from the hallway. Mother’s good forks. The African violet. That’s all, probably.
    No, that’s nonsense. How could you understand Galya’s life, Galya’s third-rate existence, the humiliation, the jabs at her soul? How can you describe it? How can you describe—well, how about the time Galya managed to get—through chicanery, bribery, and the necessary phone calls—a ticket to the Bolshoi—in the orchestra!—just one lousy ticket (of course, Yura wasn’t interested in culture), how she bathed, steamed, and curled herself, preparing for the big event, how she left the house on tiptoe, cherishing the golden atmosphere of the lofty and beautiful in herself—but it was autumn, it started to pour, and she couldn’t get a taxi, and Galya rushed around in the slush, damning the skies, fate, the city builders, and when she finally got to the theater she realized she had left her good shoes at home and her boots were full of mud and the soles had red cakes with clumps of grass sticking out of them—a vulgar bumpkin, a country creep, a local yokel. Even the hem of her dress was messed up.
    So Galya—and what was so bad about that?—simply crept to the ladies’ room quietly and washed her boots with her hankie and rinsed off the shameful hem. And then this toad—not an employee, but an art lover—like lilac jelly, her cameos jiggling, started in on her: How dare you! At the Bolshoi, scraping your filthy feet, you’re not in a bathhouse, you know! And she went on and on and people started to stare and whisper and, not knowing what was going on, to give her dirty looks.
    And it was ruined for her, spoiled and lost, and Galya wasn’t up to high drama, and the small swans wasted their famous dance at a slow canter. Angry tears boiling, tormented by unavenged injury, Galya flattened the dancers with her gaze without any pleasure, making out through her binoculars their yellowish working faces, their laboring neck muscles, and severely, ruthlessly told herself that they weren’t swans at all but union members, that their lives were like everyone else’s—ingrown toenails, unfaithful husbands—and that as soon as they finished their dance, they would pull on warm knit pants and head for home, for home: in icy Zyuzino, and puddly Korovino, and even to that horrible city limits road where Galya howled silently at night, into that impenetrable misery where you can only run and croak inhumanly. And let’s see that white insouciant fluttery one, that one, take Galya’s daily path, let her fall belly-deep into the tortuous mud, in the viscous Precam-brian of the outskirts, and let’s see her twist and clamber out— now, that would be some fouetté.
    How can you describe that?
    In March he didn’t call, and in April he didn’t call, and the summer passed in vain, and Galya was going crazy: What was wrong? Was he sick of them? Were they unworthy? She was tired of dreaming, of waiting for the phone call, she began to forget the beloved features: now she pictured him as a giant, frightening black gaze, huge hands with sparkling rings, dry, oriental beard with a metallic rustle.
    And she didn’t recognize him right away when he passed her in the subway—small, hurrying, careworn—he went around her without noticing and just walked on, and it was too late to hail him.
    He walked like an ordinary man; his small feet, accustomed to polished parquet, spoiled by velvet slippers, stepped on the spittle-covered bathroom tiles of the passageway, ran up the ordinary steps; small fists rummaged in pockets, located a handkerchief, hit his nose—boof, boof!—and back in the pocket; then he shook himself like a dog, adjusted his scarf, and went on, under the archway with faded gold mosaics, past the statue of a partisan patriarch, confusedly spreading his bronze hand with an annoying error in the position of his fingers.
    He walked through the crowd, and the crowd, thickening and thinning, rustled, pushed against him—a cheerful overweight woman, an amber Hindu in snow-white Muslim underpants, a soldier with boils, old mountain women in galoshes, stunned by the bustle.
    He walked without looking back, he had no time for Galya, her greedy eyes, extended neck—he leaped up like a schoolboy and onto the escalator—and he was gone, vanished, no more, only the warm rubber wind from an approaching train, the hiss and bang of the doors, and the speech of the crowd like the speech of many waters.
    And that same evening Allochka called and informed her indignantly that she and Filin went to get married and there, filling out the forms, she discovered he was a pretender, that he was subletting the apartment in the high-rise from some polar explorer, and all those things probably belong to the explorer and not to him, and that he was actually registered as living in the town of Domodedovo. And that she proudly threw the papers at him and left, not because of Domodedovo, of course, but because her pride wouldn’t let her marry a man who had lied to her even this much. And they should know whom they’re dealing with.
    So that was it…. And they had associated with him. Why he was no better than they, he was just like them, he was simply pretending, mimicking, that pathetic midget, that clown in a shah’s robe.
    Even on the landing she could smell the boiled fish. Galya rang the bell, Filin opened the door and was astonished. He was alone and looked terrible, worse than Julie. Tell him everything. Why stand on ceremony? He was alone and was brazenly eating cod and listening to Brahms, and he had placed a vase with white carnations on the table in front of him.
    “Galochka, what a surprise. You haven’t forgotten me…. Please, have some perch Orly, it’s fresh.” Filin offered the cod.
    “I know everything,” Galya said and sat down, as is, in her coat. “Alisa told me everything.”
    “Yes, Alisa, Alisa, what a treacherous woman. Well, how about the fish?”
    “No, thank you. And I know about Domodedovo. And about the polar explorer.”
    “Yes, a horrible story,” Filin said sadly. “The man spent three years in the Antarctic and he’d still be there—it’s romantic— and for such a thing to happen to him. But Dr. Ilizarov will be able to help, I’m sure of it. They do that here.”
    “Do what?” Galya was bewildered.
    “Ears. Don’t you know? My explorer froze off his ears. He’s a Siberian, expansive and generous, they were having an International Women’s Day party with some Norwegians, and one Norwegian liked his fur cap with ear flaps, and so he traded with him. For a cap. It was eighty below outside and seventy degrees indoors. That’s a hundred-fifty-degree difference, can you imagine? Someone called his name from the street: ‘Petya!’ he stuck out his head, and his ears—wham!—just fell off. Of course, there was general panic, they hauled him over the coals, stuck his ears in a box, and flew him immediately to Kurgan, to Dr. Ilizarov. So here’s what… I’m leaving.”
    Galya sought words in vain. Something painful.
    “Really,” sighed Filin. “It’s autumn. It’s sad. Everyone’s abandoned me. Alisa abandoned me…. Matvei Matveich hasn’t shown his nose…. Maybe he’s dead? You’re the only one, Galochka…. You’re the only one who could, if you wanted to. But now I’ll be closer to you. I’ll be closer now. Have some perch. Einmal in der Woche, Fisch, which means, fish once a week. Who said that? Well, which famous person said that?”
    “Goethe?” Galya muttered, softening against her will.
    “Close. Close, but not quite.” Filin was animated and younger. “We’re forgetting our history of literature, tsk-tsk-tsk…. I’ll give you a hint: when Goethe—you were right there—was an old man, he fell in love with the young and charming Ulrike. He was foolish enough to offer his hand and was cruelly refused. From the doorway. Rather, from the window. The beauty stuck her head out the window and berated the Olympian—well, you know all that, you have to know. You’re old, and so on. A real Faust. You should eat more fish— it has phosphorus to make your brain work. Einmal in der Woche, Fisch. And she slammed the window.”
    “No!” Galya said. “But why… I’ve read…”
    “We’ve all read something, my dear,” Filin said, blooming. “I’m giving you the bare facts.” He sat more comfortably and raised his eyes to the ceiling. “So the old man wanders home, shattered. As they say, farewell, Antonina Petrovna, my unsung song…. He was stooped, the star on his neck went jingle jangle, jingle jangle…. It’s evening, dinner time. They serve game with peas. He loved game, I hope you’re not going to argue with that? The candles were lit, silverware on the table, you know, the German kind with knobs, and the aroma…. So, the children were there, and the grandchildren there. And in the corner, his secretary, Eckerman, settled in, writing. Goethe picked on a wing and tossed it aside. He couldn’t eat it. Nor the peas. The grandchildren say, Gramps, what’s the matter? He got up, threw his chair down, and said bitterly: once a week, she says, eat fish. He burst into tears and left. The Germans are sentimental. Eckerman, of course, put it all down. If you haven’t had a chance, read Conversations with Goethe. An edifying book. By the way, they used to exhibit that game bird— absolutely petrified by then—in a museum in Weimar, until 1932.”
    “What did they do with the peas?” Galya asked furiously.
    “Fed them to the cat.”
    “Since when do cats eat vegetables?”
    “Just try not eating them with the Germans. They have discipline.”
    “What, did Eckerman write about the cat too?”
    “Yes, it’s in the notes. Depends on the edition, of course.”
    Galya got up, left, went downstairs and outside. Farewell, pink palace, farewell, my dream. Go fly in all four directions, Filin! We stood with arms extended—to whom? What did you give us? Your tree of golden fruit has withered and your words are just fireworks in the night, a brief sprint of colored wind, the hysteria of fiery roses in the darkness above our hair.
    It was growing dark. The autumn wind played with bits of paper, scooping them out of the rubbish bins. She took one last look inside the store that gnawed at the foot of the palace like a transparent worm. She stood at the cheerless counters—beef bones, jars of “Dawn” brand vegetable puree. So then, let’s rub the tears across our cheeks, put out the candles with our spit: our god is dead, and his temple is empty. Farewell!
    And now—home. The road is long. Ahead—is a new winter, new hopes, new songs. Well, then, let’s sing to the outskirts of town, sing the praises of the rain, of buildings gone gray, long evenings on the threshold of darkness. Let’s sing the empty lots, the brown grasses, the earth’s cold layers under an apprehensive foot, let’s sing the slow autumn dawn, the barking of a dog amid the aspen trees, fragile golden webs, and the first ice, the first bluish ice forming in the deep print of another’s footstep.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


    Even AS a child, Peters had flat feet and a woman’s broad belly. His late grandmother, who loved him as he was, taught him good manners—chew every little bit thoroughly, tuck your napkin under your chin, and be quiet when adults are talking. So his grandmother’s friends all liked him. When she took him visiting with her, he could safely be allowed to touch an expensive book with illustrations—he wouldn’t tear it—and at the table he never pulled the fringe from the tablecloth or crumbled his cookies—a wonderful boy. They liked the way he entered, too, tugging down his jacket in a dignified manner, adjusting his bow tie or lace jabot, as yellowed as his grandmother’s cheeks; and clicking the heels of his flat feet, he would introduce himself to the old ladies using the old Russian “s” (a contraction for “sir”) at the end of his name. “Peter-s!” He noticed that amused and touched them.
    “Ah, Petya, child! So you call him Peter, do you?” “Yes… well… we’re studying German now,” his grandmother would say casually. And reflected in dull mirrors, Peters walked in measured tread down the hallway, past old trunks, past old smells, into rooms where rag dolls sat in corners, where green cheese dreamt under a green cover on the table and homemade cookies gave off a vanilla aroma. While the hostess put out the small silver spoons, corroded on one side, Peters wandered around the room, examining the dolls on the chest, the portrait of the severe, offended old man with a mustache like a long spoke, the vignettes on the wallpaper, or approached the window and looked through the thickets of aloe out into the sunny cold air where blue pigeons flew and rosy-cheeked children sledded down tracked hills. He wasn’t allowed to go outside.
    The stupid nickname Peters stuck the rest of his life.
    Peters’s mother, Grandmother’s daughter, ran off to warmer climes with a scoundrel, his father spent time with loose women and took no interest in his son. Listening to the grownups’ conversation, Peters pictured the scoundrel as a Negro under a banana palm and Father’s women as light blue and airy, floating around untethered like spring clouds; but, well brought up by his grandmother, he said nothing. Besides a grandmother, he also had a grandfather who used to lie quietly in the corner in an armchair, saying nothing and watching Peters with shining glassy eyes, then they laid him out on the dining room table, kept him there for two days, and then took him away. They had rice porridge that day.
    Grandmother promised Peters that if he behaved, he would live marvelously when he grew up. Peters said nothing. In the evenings, in bed with his fuzzy bunny, he described his future life to it—how he would go out whenever he felt like it, play with all the kids, how Mama and the scoundrel would come visit and bring him sweet fruits, how Father’s loose women would float around with him, as if in a dream. The bunny believed him.
    His grandmother gave Peters slapdash German lessons. They played the very old game, Black Peter, drawing cards from each other’s hand and matching up pairs—goose and gander, rooster and hen, dogs with haughty faces. Only the cat, Black Peter, had no pair, he was always alone—grim and withdrawn—and whoever got stuck with Black Peter at the end of the game lost and just sat there like a fool.
    They also had color postcards with captions: Wiesbaden, Karlsruhe; there were transparent inserts without feathers but with a window: if you look into the window, you see someone distant, tiny, on horseback. They also sang “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum!” All that was German lessons.
    When Peters turned six, his grandmother took him to a New Year’s party. The children had been checked out: not infectious. Peters walked as fast as he could in the snow, his grandmother barely kept up. His throat was snugly wrapped in a white scarf, his eyes shone in the dark like a cat’s. He was in a hurry to make friends. The marvelous life was beginning. The big hot apartment smelled of pine, toys and stars sparkled, other people’s mothers bustled with pies and soft pretzels, quick, agile children squealed and raced around. Peters stopped in the middle of the room and waited for them to make friends. “Catch us, tubby!” they shouted. Peters ran blindly and then stopped. They smashed into him, he fell and stood up, like a weighted doll. Hard adult hands moved him toward the wall. He stood there until tea was served.
    At tea all the children behaved badly except Peters. He ate his portion, wiped his mouth, and awaited events, but there were no events. Only one girl, as black as a beetle, asked him if he had any warts and showed him hers.
    Peters immediately fell in love with the girl with the warts and dogged her every step. He asked her to sit on the couch with him and that no one else come near her. But he couldn’t wiggle his ears or roll his tongue into a tube, which she requested, and she quickly grew bored and abandoned him. Then he didn’t know what to do. Then he wanted to spin in place and shout loudly, and he spun and shouted, and then his grandmother was dragging him home through blue snow hanks saying indignantly that she simply didn’t recognize him, that he was all sweaty and that they would no longer visit children. And in fact, they were never there again.
    Until he was fifteen, Peters held his grandmother’s hand when they walked on the street. First she supported him and then vice versa. At home they played dominoes and solitaire. Peters used a jigsaw. He wasn’t a good student. Before dying, his grandmother got Peters into a library school and willed him to protect his throat and wash his hands thoroughly.
    The day she was buried the ice broke on the Neva River.
    In the library where Peters worked, the women were not attractive. And he liked attractive women. But what could he offer such a woman, if he ever met one? A pink belly and tiny eyes? If only he were a brilliant conversationalist, if only he knew German well; but no, all he remembered from his childhood was Karlsruhe. But in his imagination he has an affair with a gorgeous woman. While she does this and that, he reads Schiller out loud to her. In the original. Or Holderlin. She doesn’t understand a word, naturally, nor could she, but that’s not important; what’s important is how he reads—with inspiration, with a musical ripple in his voice… Holding the book close to his nearsighted eyes… No, no, of course he’ll get contact lenses. Though they say they pinch. So, here he is reading. “Drop the book,” she says. Kisses, tears, and the dawn, the dawn… And the contacts pinch. He’ll blink and squint and poke his fingers in his eyes…. She’ll wait a bit and then say, “Just peel those damned bits of glass off, good lord!” And get up and slam the door.
    No. This is better. A sweet, quiet blonde. Her head on his shoulder. He is reading Holderlin out loud. Maybe Schiller. Dark forests, mermaids… He’s reading and reading, his mouth is dried out. She’ll yawn and say, “Good lord, how long am I supposed to listen to this stuff?”
    No, that wouldn’t do, either.
    What if he left out the German? Without the German, it could go something like this: a knockout woman, like a leopard. And he’s like a tiger. Have to have ostrich feathers, a lithe silhouette on the couch…. (Have it slipcovered.) The silhouette, then. The cushions fall to the floor. And the dawn, the dawn… Maybe I’ll even marry her. Why not? Peters looked at his reflection in the mirror, the fat nose, the eyes rolling with passion, the soft flat feet. And so what? He looked a bit like a polar bear, women ought to like that and be pleasantly frightened. Peters blew at himself in the mirror to cool off. But neither friendships nor affairs happened.
    Peters tried going to dances, stumbling about, panting, and stepping on young ladies’ feet: he would approach a group of laughing and chatting people, clasp his hands behind his back, tilt his head to one side, and listen to the conversation. It was getting dark, August was blowing cool air from the stiff bushes, sprinkling the red dust of the last rays over the black foliage and the park’s paths; lights went on in the stalls and kiosks selling wine and meat, and Peters went past severely holding on to his wallet, but unable to resist the wave of hunger that engulfed him, bought a half dozen pastries, went off to the side, and in the gathered darkness hurriedly consumed them from the glinting metal plate. When he came out of the darkness, blinking, licking his lips, with white cream on his chin, and mustered his courage, he approached people and introduced himself— blindly, headlong, seeing nothing out of fear, clicking the heels of his flat feet—and women recoiled and men intended to punch him, but took a closer look and changed their minds.
    No one wanted to play with him.
    At home Peters beat egg yolks and sugar for his throat, washed and dried the glass, then set his slippers neatly on the bedside rug, got into bed, stretching his arms out on top of the covers, and lay motionless, staring into the twilit, pulsating ceiling until sleep came for him.
    Sleep came, invited him into its loopholes and corridors, made dates on secret stairways, locked the doors and rebuilt familiar houses, frightening him with trunks and women and bubonic plagues and black diamonds, quickly led him along dark passages, and pushed him into a stuffy room where a man sat at a table twiddling his thumbs, shaggy and laughing mockingly, knowledgeable in many nasty things.
    Peters thrashed in his sheets, begged forgiveness, and forgiven this time, once again plunged to the bottom until morning, confused in the reflections of the crooked mirrors of the magic theater.
    When a new person appeared in the library, dark and perfumed, in a berry-colored dress, Peters grew agitated. He went to the barber and had his colorless hair cut, then swept his apartment an extra time, and switched the chest of drawers and armchair around. Not that he expected Faina to come over right away; but just in case, Peters had to be ready.
    At work there was a New Year’s party, and Peters bustled about, cutting out snowflakes the size of saucers and pasting them on the library windows, hanging pink crepe paper, getting tangled in foil icicles, the small Christmas tree lights were reflected in his rolling eyes, it smelled of pine and garlic, and dry snow came through the open window. He thought: if she has, say, a fiance, I could come over to him, quietly take him by the hand and ask in a regular, man-to-man way: leave Faina, leave her for me, what’s it to you, you can find someone else for yourself, you know how to do it. But I don’t, my mother ran off with a scoundrel, my father’s floating in the sky with blue women, Grandmother ate Grandfather with the rice porridge, ate my childhood, my only childhood, and girls with warts don’t want to sit on the couch with me. Come on, give me something, huh?
    The burning candles stood, chest-high in translucent apple light, a promise of goodness and peace, the pink-yellow flame nodded its head, champagne fizzed, Faina sang to guitar accompaniment, Dostoevsky’s picture on the wall averted its eyes; then they told fortunes, opening Pushkin at random. Peters got: “Adele, love my reed.” They laughed at him and asked him to introduce them to Adele; they forgot about it, talking on their own, and he sat quietly in the corner, crunching on cake, figuring out how he would see Faina home. As the party broke up, he ran after her to the coat room, held her fur coat in outstretched arms, watched her change shoes, putting her foot in colored stocking into the cozy fur-lined boot, wrapping a white scarf around her head, and hoisting her bag on her shoulder— everything excited him. She slammed the door, and he saw only her—she waved a mitten, jumped into the trolley, and vanished in the white blizzard. But even that was like a promise.
    Triumphant bells rang in his ears, and his eye saw what had previously been invisible. All roads led to Faina, all winds trumpeted her glory, shouted out her dark name, whirled over the steep slate roofs, over towers and spires, snaked in snowy strands and threw themselves at her feet, and the whole city, all the islands and the water and embankments, statues and gardens, bridges and fences, wrought-iron roses and horses, everything blended into a circle, weaving a rattling winter wreath for his beloved.
    He could never manage to be alone with her and he sought her out on the street, but she always whizzed past him like the wind, a ball, a snowball thrown by a strong arm. And her friend who looked in at the library in the evenings was horrible, impossible, like a toothache—an outgoing journalist, all creaking leather, long-legged, long-haired, full of international jokes about a Russian, a German, and a Pole measuring the fatness of their women and the Russian winning. The journalist wrote an article in the paper, where he lied and said that “it is always very crowded at the stands with books on beet raising” and that “visitors call librarian Faina A. the pilot of the sea of books.”
    Faina laughed, happy to be in the newspaper, Peters suffered in silence. He kept mustering his strength to at last take her by the hand, lead her to his house, and after a session of passion discuss their future life together.
    Toward the end of winter on a damp, tubercular evening Peters was drying his hands in the men’s room under the hot blast of air and eavesdropping on Faina talking on the telephone in the corridor. The dryer shuddered and shut up, and in the ensuing silence the beloved voice laughed: “No, we have nothing but women on our staff. Who?… Him?… That’s not a man; he’s a wimp. An endocrinological sissy.”
    Adele, love my reed. Inside, Peters felt as if he had been run over by a trolley. He looked around at the pathetic yellowed tile, the old mirror, swollen from inside with silver sores, the faucet leaking rust—life had selected the right place for the final humiliation. He wound the scarf around his throat carefully, so as not to catch cold in his glands, wended his way home, felt for his slippers, went to the window, out of which he planned to fall, and pulled the blind. The window was thoroughly taped for the winter and he didn’t want to waste his work. Then he turned on the oven, placed his head on the rack with cold bread crumbs, and waited. Who would eat rice porridge in his memory? Then Peters remembered that there hadn’t been any gas all day, they were doing repairs, grew furious, with trembling finger dialed the dispatcher and screamed horribly and incoherently about the outrageous service, got into his grandfather’s chair, and sat there till morning.
    In the morning, large snowflakes fell slowly. Peters looked at the snow, at the chastened sky, at the new snow banks, and quietly rejoiced that he would have no more youth.
    But a new spring came, through the connecting courtyards, the snows died, a cloying smell of decay came from the soil, blue ripples ran over puddles, and Leningrad’s cherry trees once again showered white on the matchbox sailboats and newspaper ships—and did it matter at all where you start a new voyage, in a ditch or an ocean, when spring calls and the wind is the same everywhere? And marvelous were the new galoshes Peters bought—their insides laid with the flesh of flowering fuchsia, the taut rubber shining like patent leather, promising to mark his earthly paths with a chain of waffle ovals no matter where he went in search of happiness. And without hurrying, hands behind his back, he strolled along the stone streets, peering deeply into yellow archways, sniffing the air of canals and rivers; and the evening and Saturday women gave him long looks that boded no good, thinking: here’s a sickie, we don’t need him.
    But he didn’t need them, either; but Valentina caught his eyes, small and sinfully young—she was buying spring postcards on the sunny embankment, and the fortunate wind, gust-ing, built, changed, and rebuilt hairdos on her black, short-cropped head. Peters dogged Valentina’s steps, afraid to come too close, afraid of failure. Athletic young men ran up to the beauty, grabbed her, laughing, and she went off with them, bouncing, and Peters saw violets—dark, purple—bought and presented, heard them call her by name—it tore away and flew with the wind, the laughing people turned the corner, and Peters was left with nothing—dumpy, white, unloved. And what could he have said to her—to her, so young, so be-vileted? Come up on his flabby legs and offer his flabby hand: “Peter-s…” (“What a strange name…” “My grandmother…” “Why did your grandmother…” “A little German…” “You know German?” “No, but Grandmother…”)
    Ah, if only he had learned German then! Oh then, probably… Then, of course… Such a difficult language, it hisses, clicks, and moves around in the mouth, O Tannenbaum, probably no one even knows it…. But Peters will go and learn it and astonish the beauty….
    Looking over his shoulder for the police, he posted notices on street lamps: “German Lessons Wanted.” They hung all through the summer, fading, moving their pseudopods. Peters visited his native lampposts, touching up the letters washed away by rain, gluing the torn corners, and in late fall he was called, and it was like a miracle—from the sea of humanity two floated up, responding to his quiet, faint call, slanted purple on white. Hey, did you call? I did, I did! He rejected the persistent and deep-voiced one, who dissolved once more into oblivion, while he thoroughly questioned the tinny lady, Elizaveta Frantsevna from Vasiliyevsky Island: how to get there, where exactly, and how much, and was there a dog, for he was afraid of dogs.
    Everything was settled, Elizaveta Frantsevna expected him in the evening, and Peters went to his favorite corner to wait for Valentina—he had been watching and he knew she would come by as usual, waving her gym bag, at twenty to four, and would hop into the big red building, and would work out on the beam amid others like her, swift and young. She would pass, not suspecting that Peters existed, that he had a great plan, that life was marvelous. He decided that the best way would be to buy a bouquet, a big yellow bouquet, and silently, that was important, silently but with a bow hand it to Valentina on the familiar corner. “What’s this? Ah!”—and so on.
    The wind was blowing, swirling, and it was pouring when he came out on the embankment. Through the veil of rain the red barrier of the damp fortress showed murkily, its lead spire murkily raised its index finger. It had been pouring since last night, and they had laid in a generous supply of water up there. The Swedes, when they left these rotten shores, forgot to take away the sky, and now they probably gloated on their neat little peninsula—they had clear, blue frost, black firs and white rabbits, while Peters was coughing here amid the granite and mildew.
    In the fall, Peters took great pleasure in hating his home town, and the city repaid him in kind: it spat icy streams from pounding roof tops, filling his eyes with opaque, dark flows, shoved especially damp and deep puddles under his feet, slapped the cheeks of his nearsighted face, his felt hat, and his tummy with lashes of rain. The slimy buildings that bumped into Peters were purposely covered with tiny white mushrooms and a mossy toxic velvet, and the wind, which had come from big highwayman roads, tumbled around his soggy feet in deathly tubercular figure eights.
    He took his post with the bouquet, and October poured from the skies, and his galoshes were like bathtubs, and the newspaper wrapped three times around the expensive yellow flowers fell apart into shreds, the time came and went and Valentina did not come and would not come but he stood there chilled through to his underwear, to his white hairless body sprinkled with tender red birthmarks.
    The clock struck four. Peters shoved his bouquet in a garbage can. Why wait? He understood it was stupid and too late to learn German, that the lovely Valentina, brought up among athletic and vernal youths, would merely laugh and step over him, lumpy and broadwaisted; not for him were fiery passions and light steps, fast dances and leaps on the beam, or casually bought damp April violets, or the sunny wind from the gray waters of the Neva, or laughter and youth; that all attempts were futile, that he should have married his own grandmother and quietly melted away in the warm room to the ticking of the clock, eating sugar buns and planting his old stuffed rabbit in front of his plate for coziness and amusement.
    He was hungry, and he went to the first friendly light he saw, bought some soup, and sat down next to two beauties eating patties with onions and blowing away the foggy skin on their cooling pinkish cocoa.
    The girls were chattering about love, of course, and Peters heard the story of a certain Irochka, who had been working a long time on a comrade from fraternal Yemen, or maybe Kuwait, in hopes that he would marry her. Irochka had heard that there in the sandy steppes of the Arabian land, oil was as plentiful as berries, every decent man was a millionaire and flew in his own jet with a gold toilet seat. It was that gold seat that drove Irochka crazy, for she grew up in the Yaroslavl region, where the conveniences were three walls without the fourth with a view of the pea field; all in all, it was like Ilya Repin’s painting Space. But the Arab was in no hurry to wed, and when Irochka put it to him straight, he replied in the vein of, “Oh, yeah, your mother wears army boots. So long, sucker!” and so on, and tossed Irochka out with her pathetic belongings. The girls paid no attention to Peters, and he listened and felt sorry for the unknown Irochka and pictured the pea-covered expanses of Yaroslavl, trimmed around the horizon with dark, wolf-filled forests, melting in the blissful silence under the blue shimmer of the northern sun, or the dry, grim squeak of millions of sand grains, the taut push of a desert hurricane, the brown light through the deep murk, forgotten white palaces filmed with mortal dust or enchanted by long-dead sorcerers.
    The girls moved to the story of the complicated relationship of Olya and Valéry, of Anyuta’s heartlessness, and Peters, drinking his broth, listened openly, entering someone else’s story invisibly, he came in close contact with someone’s secrets, he was standing at the door with bated breath, he felt, smelled, and saw, as if in a magical movie, and it was all unbearably accessible—just reach out—flickering faces, tears in injured eyes, explosions of smiles, sunlight in hair, cascading pink and green sparks, dust motes in the ray and the heat of warmed parquet floors, creaking nearby, in that strange, happy, and lively life.
    “We’re done, let’s go!” one beauty commanded the other, and spreading their transparent umbrellas, like signs of another, higher existence, they floated out into the rain and rose into the skies, into the blue beyond the clouds, hidden from his eyes.
    Peters selected a rough piece of cardboard from the plastic glass serving as napkin holder and wiped his mouth. Life roared by, bypassing him, and hurried on, like a swift-flowing river goes around a heavy mound of rocks.
    The cleaning woman whirled like a sand storm among the tables, flipped her rag in Peters’s face, and deftly picked up twenty dirty dishes and disappeared in the yeasty air.
    “It’s not my fault,” Peters said to someone. “It’s not my fault at all. I want to participate. But they won’t take me. No one wants to play with me. Why? But I’ll try harder, I’ll win!”
    He went out—under icy splashes, under the cold, lashing water. I’ll win. Win. I’ll clench my teeth and push on through. And I will learn that damned language. There, on Vasiliyevsky Island, in the dampest of Leningrad’s damp, Elizaveta Frantsevna is waiting, swimming like a seal or mermaid, mumbling easily in the dark German tongue. He would come and they would chatter together. O Tannenbaum! O, I repeat, Tannenbaum! How does it go after that? I’ll find out when I get there.
    Oh, well, farewell Valentina and her quick sister, ahead lies only an old German woman—he braced himself…. Peters imagined his path, his looplike track in the wet city, and failure, running on his tail, sniffing the waffle prints of his shoes, and the old woman at the end of his path, and in order to confuse fate he hailed a taxi and sailed through the rain—steam rose from his feet, the driver was grim, and he wanted to get out right away. Tacka-tacka-tacka-tacka, ticked away his money.
    “Stop here.”
    A doorman guarded the entrance to a gilded place—a door into a subcellar, and beyond it muffled music blared, and lamps shone in the windows like long tubes of acid syrup. Young men—all pretenders for Valentina’s hand, farewell Valentina— huddled in front of the door, teeth chattering in the whirlwinds of rain, there was no room in the restaurant, but the doorman, deceived by Peters’s solid appearance, let him in, and Peters passed through and two others slipped in by his side. A good place. Peters took off his hat and raincoat in a dignified manner, promised a tip with his eyes, stepped into the noisy room, and trumpeted his arrival in his handkerchief. A fine place. He ordered a pink cocktail, a pagoda pastry, drank, ate, drank some more, and relaxed. A very, very fine place. And at his elbow appeared a moth-girl, from out of thin air, from the colored cigarette smoke; her red, green dress—the colored lights blinked—blossomed on her like an orchid, and her eyelashes blinked like wings, and bracelets jangled on her thin arms, and she was completely loyal to Peters to her dying breath. He signaled for more pink alcohol, afraid to speak, to scare off the girl, the marvelous Peri, the flying flower, and they sat in silence, as amazed by each other as would be a goat and an angel upon meeting.
    He waved his hand—and they gave even more and some meat.
    “Ahem,” said Peters, praying to heaven not to recall its messenger right away. “As a child I had a stuffed bunny—a friend in fact and I promised him so much. And now I’m off to my German lesson, ahem.”
    “I like stuffed bunnies, they’re really cute,” the Peri noted coldly.
    Peters was surprised by the angel’s stupidity—a stuffed bunny couldn’t be cute, he was either a friend or a nonentity, a sack of sawdust.
    “And we also played cards and I always got the cat,” Peters recalled.
    “Cats are really cute, too,” the girl replied through her teeth, like a familiar lesson, looking over the crowd.
    “No! Why do you say that?” Peters countered, getting upset. “That’s not the point. I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about life, it keeps teasing you, showing and taking away, showing and taking away. You know, it’s like a shop window, it shines and it’s locked, and you can’t take anything. And, I ask, why not?”
    “You’re really cute, too,” the indifferent girl insisted, not listening. “You dropped something.”
    When he finally got up from the table, the angel had risen to heaven, and with it, Peters’s wallet and money. Got it. Well. So be it. Peters sat with his leftovers, as immobile as a suitcase, sobering up, imagining how he would have to explain, ask— the scorn and mockery of the coat check—fish for damp rubles in the swampy pockets of his raincoat, shaking out change that slipped fishlike into the lining… The music machine stomped and beat the drums, announcing someone’s coming passion. The cocktail evaporated through his ears. Cuc-koo! There.
    What are you, life? A silent theater of Chinese shadows, a chain of dreams, a charlatan’s store? Or a gift of unrequited love—that’s all that is intended for me? What about happiness? What is happiness? Ingrate, you’re alive, you weep love strive fall and that’s not enough? What?… Not enough? Oh, is that so? There isn’t anything else.
    “I’m waiting! I’m waiting!” shouted Elizaveta Frantsevna, a quick, curly-haired lady, throwing back latches and bolts, letting in the robbed Peters, dark, dangerous, full of misery up to his throat, to his top tight button.
    “This way. Let’s start right away. Sit down on the couch. First lotto, then tea. All right? Quickly take a card. Who has a goat? I have a goat? Who has a guinea hen?”
    I’m going to kill her, decided Peters. Elizaveta Frantsevna, look away, I’m going to kill you. You, and my late grand-mother, and the girl with warts, and Valentina, and the fake angel, and all those others—all of them who promised and tricked me, seduced and abandoned me; I’ll kill them in the name of all fat and wheezy, tongue-tied and awkward men, in the name of all of those locked in the dark closet, all those not invited to the party, get ready, Elizaveta Frantsevna, I’m going to smother you with that embroidered pillow. And no one will ever know.
    “Frantsevna!” someone shouted and pounded on the door. “Give me three rubles, I’ll wash the hallway for you.”
    The urge passed, Peters put aside the pillow. He wanted to sleep. The old woman rustled her money, Peters looked down at the “Domestic Animals” card.
    “What are you thinking about? Who has a cat?”
    “I have a cat,” Peters said. “Who else has one?” And he sidled out, crushing the cardboard cat in his fist. The hell with life. Sleep, sleep, fall asleep and don’t wake up.
    Spring came and spring went and came again, and spread out blue flowers in the meadows and waved her hand and called through his sleep, “Peters! Peters!” but he slept soundly and heard nothing.
    Summer rustled, wandered free in gardens, sitting on benches, swinging bare feet in the dust, calling Peters out on the warm street, the hot sidewalks; whispered, sparkling in the shimmer of linden trees, in the flutter of poplars; called, didn’t get an answer, and left, dragging its hem, into the light part of the horizon.
    Life got on tiptoe and peered into the window in surprise: why was Peters asleep, why wasn’t he coming out to play its cruel games?
    But Peters slept and slept and lived in his dream: neatly wiping his mouth, he ate vegetables and drank dairy products; he shaved his dull face—around his shut mouth and under his sleeping eyes—and once, accidentally, in passing, he married a cold, hard woman with big feet, with a dull name. The woman regarded people severely, knowing that people were crooks, that you couldn’t trust anyone; her basket held dry bread.
    She took Peters with her everywhere, holding his hand tight, the way his grandmother once did, on Sundays they went to the zoological museum, into the resonant, polite halls—to look at still, woolen mice or the white bones of a whale; on weekdays they went out to stores, bought dead yellow macaroni, old people’s brown soap, and watched heavy vegetable oil pour through the narrow funnel, as thick as depression, endless and viscous, like the sands of the Arabian desert.
    “Tell me,” the woman asked severely, “are the chickens chilled? Give me that one.” And “that one” is placed in the old shopping bag, and sleeping Peters carried home the cold young chicken, who had known neither love nor freedom, nor green grass nor the merry round eye of a girlfriend. And at home, under the watchful eye of the hard woman, Peters himself had to open up the chest of the chilled creature with knife and axe and tear out the slippery purplish heart, the red roses of the lungs, and the blue breathing stalk, in order to wipe out the memory in the ages of the one who was born and hoped, moved his young wings and dreamed of a green royal tail, of pearl grains, of the golden dawn over the waking world.
    The summers and winters slipped by and melted, dissolving and fading, harvests of rainbows hung over distant houses, young greedy blizzards marauded from the northern forests, moving time forward, and the day came when the woman with big feet abandoned Peters, quietly shutting the door and leaving to buy soap and stir pots for another. Then Peters carefully opened his eyes and woke up.
    The clock was ticking, fruit compote floated in a glass pitcher, and his slippers had grown cold overnight. Peters felt himself, counted his fingers and hairs. Regret flickered and passed. His body still remembered the quiet of past years, the heavy sleep of the calendar, but in the depths of his spiritual flesh something long forgotten, young and trusting, was stirring, sitting up, shaking itself, and smiling.
    Old Peters pushed the window frame—the blue glass rang, a thousand yellow birds flew up, and the naked golden spring cried, laughing: catch me, catch me! New children played in the puddles with their buckets. And wanting nothing, regretting nothing, Peters smiled gratefully at life—running past, indifferent, ungrateful, treacherous, mocking, meaningless, alien —marvelous, marvelous, marvelous.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis


    HAVING made it halfway through his earthly life, Denisov grew pensive. He started thinking about life, about its meaning, about the fleetingness of his half-spent existence, about his nighttime fears, about the vermin of the earth, about the beautiful Lora and several other women, about the fact that summers were humid nowadays, and about distant countries, in whose existence, truth be told, he found it hard to believe.
    Australia aroused special doubt. He was prepared to believe in New Guinea, in the squeaky snap of its fleshy greenery, in the muggy swamps and black crocodiles: a strange place, but, all right. He conceded the existence of the tiny, colorful Philippines, he was ready to grant the light blue stopper of Antarctica—it hung right over his head, threatening to dislodge and shower him with stinging iceberg chips. Stretching out on a sofa with stiff, antediluvian bolsters and worn-out springs, smoking, Denisov glanced at the map of the hemispheres and disapproved of the continents’ placement. The top part’s not bad, reasonable enough: Landmasses here, water there, it’ll do. Another couple of seas in Siberia wouldn’t hurt. Africa could be lower. India’s all right. But down below everything’s badly laid out: the continents narrow down to nothing, islands are strewn about with no rhyme or reason, there are all kinds of troughs and trenches…. And Australia is obviously neither here nor there: anyone can see that logically there should be water in its place, but just look what you’ve got! Denisov blew smoke at Australia and scanned the water-stained ceiling: on the floor above him lived a seafaring captain, as white, gold, and magnificent as a dream, as ephemeral as smoke, as unreal as the dark blue southern seas. Once or twice a year he materialized, showed up at home, took a bath, and drenched Denisov’s apartment along with everything in it, though there wasn’t anything in it other than the sofa and Denisov. Well, a refrigerator stood in the kitchen. A tactful man, Denisov couldn’t bring himself to ask: What’s the matter?—especially since no later than the morning following the cataclysm the splendid captain would ring the doorbell, hand him an envelope with a couple of hundred rubles—for repairs—and depart with a firm stride. He was off on a new voyage.
    Denisov reflected on Australia irritatedly; on his fiancee, Lora, distractedly. Everything had already been pretty much decided; sooner or later he intended to become her fourth husband, not because she lit up the world, as the saying goes, but because with her no light was needed. In the light she talked incessantly, saying whatever came into her head.
    “An awful lot of women,” said Lora, “dream of having a tail. Think about it yourself. First of all, wouldn’t it be pretty—a thick fluffy tail, it could be striped, black and white, for example—that would look good on me—and you know, on Pushkin Square I saw a little fur coat that would have been just the thing for that kind of tail. Short, with wide sleeves, and a shawl collar. It would go with a black skirt like the one that Katerina Ivanna made for Ruzanna, but Ruzanna wants to sell, so just imagine—if you had a tail, you could get by in a coat without a collar. Wrap it around your neck—and you’re all warm. Then, say you’re going to the theater. A simple open dress, and over it—your own fur. Fabulous! Second, it would be convenient. In the metro you could hold on to the straps with it; if it’s too hot—you’ve got a fan; and if someone gets fresh—slap him with your tail! Wouldn’t you like me to have a tail?… What do you mean, you don’t care?”
    “Ah, my beauty, I should have your worries,” Denisov said morosely.
    But Denisov knew that he himself was no prize—with his smoke-stale jacket, his ponderous thoughts, his nocturnal heart palpitations, his predawn fear of dying and being forgotten, being erased from human memory, vanishing without a trace in the air.
    Half of his earthly life was behind him, ahead lay the second half, the bad half. At this rate Denisov would just whir over the earth and depart, and no one would have reason to remember him! Petrovs and Ivanovs die every day, their simple names are carved in marble. Why couldn’t Denisov linger on some memorial plaque, why couldn’t his profile grace the neighborhood of Orekhovo-Borisovo? “In this house I dwell…. ” Now he was going to marry Lora and die—she wouldn’t have it in her to make an appeal to the place where these things are decided, whether or not to immortalize… “Comrades, immortalize my fourth husband, okay? Comrades, pleeease.” “Ho-ho-ho…” Who was he anyway, in point of fact? He hadn’t composed anything, or sung anything, or shot anyone. He hadn’t discovered anything new and named it after himself. And for that matter, everything had already been discovered, enumerated, denominated; everything alive and dead, from cockroaches to comets, from cheese mold to the spiral arms of abstruse nebulae. Take some old virus—swill, worthless rubbish, couldn’t make a chicken sneeze, but no, it’s already been grabbed, named, and adopted by a couple of your scholarly Germans—just have a look at today’s paper. If you think about it—how do they share it? They probably found the useless bit of scum in some unwashed glass and fainted from happiness—then the shoving and shouting started: “Mine!” “No, mine!” They smashed eyeglasses, ripped suspenders, gave each other a thrashing, puffed and panted, then sat down with the glass on the sofa and embraced: “Hey, pal, let’s go fifty-fifty!” “All right, what can I do with you?…”
    People assert themselves, sink their hooks in, refuse to go— it’s only natural! Take the recording of a concert, for example. A hush falls over the hall, the piano thunders, the keys flash like lozenges gone berserk, lickety-split, hand over fist, wilder and wilder; the sweet tornado swirls, the heart can’t stand it, it’ll pop right out, it quivers on the last strand, and suddenly: ahem. Ahe he kherr hem. Khu khu khu. Someone coughed. A real solid, throaty cough. And that’s that. The concert is branded from birth with a juicy, influenza stamp, multiplied on millions of black suns, dispersed in all possible directions. The heavenly bodies will burn out, the earth will become crusted in ice, and the planet will move along inscrutable stellar paths like a frozen lump for all time, but that smart aleck’s cough won’t be erased, it won’t disappear, it will be forever inscribed on the diamond tablets of immortal music—after all, music is immortal, isn’t it?—like a rusty nail hammered into eternity; the resourceful fellow asserted himself, scribbled his name in oil paint on the cupola, splashed sulfuric acid on the divine features.
    Denisov had tried inventing things—nothing got invented. He had tried writing poems—they wouldn’t be written. He started a treatise on the impossibility of Australia’s existence: He made himself a pot of strong coffee and sat at the table all night. He worked well, with élan, but in the morning he reread what he had written, tore it up, cried without shedding tears, and went to sleep in his socks. It was soon after this that he met Lora and was nourished, listened to, and comforted many a time, both at his place in Orekhovo-Borisovo, where the captain of course drenched them in a golden rain, draining his Kingston valves again, as well as in her messy little apartment, where something rustled in the hallway all night.
    “What is that,” asked Denisov, alarmed, “not mice?”
    “No, no, go to sleep, Denisov, it’s something else. I’ll tell you later. Sleep!”
    What was there to do? He slept, dreamt nasty dreams, woke up, thought over what he’d dreamt, and dozed off again, and in the morning he drank coffee in the kitchen with the sweet-smelling Lora and her widower father, a retired zoologist, a most gentle old man, blue-eyed, a bit on the strange side—but who isn’t a bit strange? Papa’s beard was whiter than salt, his eyes clearer than spring; he was quiet, quick to shed tears of joy, a lover of caramels, raisins, rolls with jam; he bore no resemblance to the noisy, excitable Lora, all gold and black. “You know, Denisov, my papa’s wonderful, a real dove of peace, but I’ve got problems with him, I’ll tell you about it later. He’s so sensitive, intelligent, knowing, he could go on working and working, but he’s retired—some ill-wishers schemed against him. He gave a paper in his institute on the kinship of birds and reptiles or crocodiles or something—you know what I mean, right?—the ones that run and bite. But the research director’s last name is Bird, so he took it personally. These zoologists are always on the lookout for ideological rot, because they haven’t decided yet whether man is actually a monkey or if it just seems that way. So they sacked poor Papa, bless his heart, now he stays at home, cries, eats, and popularizes. He writes those, you know, notes of a phenologist, for magazines, well, you know what I mean. On the seasons, on toads, why the cock crows, and what it is that makes elephants so cute. He writes really well, none of that wishy-washy puffery, but like an educated person, plus he’s lyrical. Poppykins, I tell him, you’re my Turgenev—and he cries. Love him, Denisov, he deserves it.”
    His head lowered, sad and humble, Lora’s snow-white papa listened to her monologues, dabbed the corners of his eyes with a handkerchief, and shuffled off to his study with little steps. “Shhhhh,” whispered Lora, “quiet now…he’s gone to popularize.” The study is silent, desolate, the shelves are cracking, the encyclopedias, reference books, yellowed journals, and packets with reprints of someone’s articles are all gathering dust—everything is unneeded, disintegrating, grown cold. In a corner of the necropolis, like a solitary grave, stands Papa’s desk, a pile of papers, copies of a children’s magazine: Papa writes for children; Papa squeezes his many years of knowledge into the undeveloped heads of Young Pioneers; Papa adapts, squats, gets down on all fours; noise, exclamations, sobs, and the crackle of ripping paper issue from the study. Lora sweeps up the scraps, it’s all right, he’ll calm down now, now everything will work out. Papa’s on the wolf today, he’s tackling the wolf, he’s bending him, breaking, squeezing him into the proper framework. Denisov looked distractedly at the swept-up scraps:
    “The Wolf. Canis lupus. Diet.”
    “The wolf’s diet is varied.”
    “The wolf has a varied diet: rodents, domesticated livestock.”
    “Varied is the diet of the gray one: here you have both rodents and domesticated livestock.”
    “How varied is the diet of the wolfling cub—our little gray dumpling tub: you’ll find both bitty baby rabbits and curly little lambs….”
    Don’t worry, don’t worry, Papa, my darling, write on; everything will pass. Everything will be fine. Denisov is the one destroyed by doubts, worm-eaten thoughts, cast-iron dreams. Denisov is the one who suffers, as if from heartburn, who kisses Lora on the top of the head, rides home, collapses on the sofa under the map of the hemispheres, his socks toward Tierra del Fuego, his head beneath the Philippines. It’s Denisov who sets an ashtray on his chest and envelops the cold mountains of Antarctica in smoke—after all, someone is sitting there right now, digging in the snow in the mighty name of science; here’s some smoke for you, guys—warm yourselves up; it’s Denisov who denies the existence of Australia, nature’s mistake, who feebly dreams of the captain—time for another drenching, the money’s run out—and whose thoughts again turn to fame, memory, immortality….
    He had a dream. He bought some bread, it seems—the usual: one loaf, round, and a dozen bagels. And he’s taking it somewhere. He’s in some sort of house. Maybe an office building—there are hallways, staircases. Suddenly three people, a man, a woman, and an old man, who had just been talking with him calmly—one was explaining something, one was giving him advice about how to get somewhere—saw the bread and sort of jerked, as if they were about to attack him but immediately refrained. And the woman says: “Excuse me, is that bread you have there?” “Yes, I bought it—” “Won’t you give it to us?” He looks and suddenly sees: Why, they’re siege victims. They’re hungry. Their eyes are very strange. And he immediately understands: Aha, they’re victims of the siege of Leningrad, that means I’m one too. That means there’s nothing to eat. Greed instantly overwhelms him. Only a minute ago bread was a trifle, nothing special, he bought it just like he always does, and now suddenly he begrudges it. And he says: “We-ell, I don’t know. I need it myself. I don’t know. I don’t know.” They say nothing and look him straight in the eyes. The woman is trembling. Then he takes one bagel, the one with the fewest poppy seeds, breaks it into pieces, and hands it out; but he takes one piece for himself all the same, he holds it back. He crooks his hand strangely—in real life you couldn’t bend it that way—and keeps the piece of bagel. He doesn’t know why, well, simply… so as not to give everything away at once…. And he leaves posthaste, leaves these people with their outstretched hands, and suddenly he’s back at home and he understands: What the devil kind of siege? There is no siege. We’re living in Moscow anyway, seven hundred kilometers away—what is this all of a sudden? The refrigerator is full, and I’m full, and out the window people are walking around contented, smiling…. And he is instantly ashamed, and feels an unpleasant queasiness around his heart, and that plump loaf oppresses him, and the remaining bagels are like the links of a broken chain, and he thinks: So there, I shouldn’t have been so greedy! Why was I? What a swine… And he rushes back: Where are they, those hungry people? But they aren’t anywhere to be found, that’s it, too late, my friend, you blew it, go look your heart out, all the doors are locked, time has opened and slammed shut, go on then, live, live, you’re allowed! But let me in!… Open up! It all happened so fast, I didn’t even have time to be horrified, I wasn’t prepared. But I simply wasn’t prepared! He knocks at a door, bangs on it with his foot, kicks it with his heel. The door opens wide and there is a cafeteria, a café of some sort; tranquil diners are coming out, wiping well-fed mouths, macaroni and meat patties lie picked apart on the plates…. Those three passed by like shades lost in time; they dissolved, disintegrated, they’re gone, gone, and will never come back. The branches of a naked tree sway, reflected in the water, there’s a low sky, the burning stripe of the sunset, farewell.
    Farewell! And he surfaces on his bed, on the sofa, he’s surfaced, the sheets are all tangled around his legs, he doesn’t understand anything. What nonsense, really, what is all this? If he would just fall asleep again immediately, everything would pass and by morning it would be forgotten, erased, like words written on sand, on the sea’s sonorous shore—but no, unsettled by what he had seen, he got up for some reason, went to the kitchen, and, staring senselessly straight ahead, ate a meat-patty sandwich.
    A dark July dawn was just breaking, the birds weren’t even singing yet, no one was walking on the street—just the right sort of time for shades, visions, succubi, and phantoms.
    How did they put it? “Give it to us”—was that it? The more he thought about them, the clearer the details became. As alive as you and me, honestly. No, worse than alive. The old man’s neck, for example, materialized and persisted, stubbornly incarnating itself, a wrinkled, congealed brown neck, as dark as the skin of a smoked salmon. The collar of a whitish, faded blue shirt. And a bone button, broken in half. The face was indistinct—an old man’s face, that’s all. But the neck, the collar, and the button stayed before his eyes. The woman, metamorphosing, pulsating this way and that, took the shape of a thin, tired blonde. She looked a little like his deceased Aunt Rita.
    But the other man was fat.
    No, no, they behaved improperly. That woman, how did she ask: “What’ve you got there, bread?” As if it weren’t obvious! Yes, bread! He shouldn’t have carried it in his string bag, but in a plastic bag, or at least wrapped in paper. And what was this: “Give it to us”? Now what kind of thing is that to say? What if he had a family, children? Maybe he has ten children? Maybe he was bringing it to his children, how do they know? So what if he doesn’t have any children, that’s his business, after all. He bought the bread, therefore he needed it. He was walking along minding his own business. And suddenly: “Give it to us!” How’s that for a declaration?
    Why did they pester him? Yes, he did begrudge the bread, he did have that reflex, it’s true, but he gave them a bagel, and a flavorful, expensive, rosy bagel, by the way, is better, more valuable than black bread, if you come right down to it. That’s for starters. Second, he immediately came to his senses and rushed back, he wanted to set things right, but everything had moved, changed, warped—what could he do? He looked for them— honestly, clearly, with full awareness of his guilt; he banged on doors, what could he do if they decided not to wait and vanished? They should have stayed put, held on to the railings— there were railings—and waited quietly until he ran back to help them. They just couldn’t be patient for ten seconds, how do you like that? No, not ten, not seconds, everything’s different there, space slips away, and time collapses sideways like a ragged wave, and everything spins, spins like a top: there, one second is huge, slow, and resonant, like an abandoned cathedral, another is tiny, sharp, fast—you strike a match and burn up a thousand millennia; a step to the side—and you’re in another universe…
    And that man, come to think of it, was the most unpleasant of them all. For one thing, he was very stout, sloppily stout. He held himself a bit apart, and although he was aloof, he looked on with displeasure. And he didn’t try to explain the way to Denisov either, he didn’t take part in the conversation at all, but he did take the bagel. Ha, he took the bagel, he pushed himself ahead of the others. He even elbowed the old man. And him, fatter than everyone. And his hand was so white, like a child’s, stretched taut and covered with freckles like spilt millet, and he had a hook nose and a head like an egg, and those glasses. A nasty sort all round, and you couldn’t even figure out what he was doing there, in that company. He obviously wasn’t with them, he had simply run up and hung around, saw that something was being given out—so, why not…. The woman, Aunt Rita… She seemed the hungriest of the three…. But I gave her a bagel, after all! It’s a real luxury in their situation—a fresh, rosy morsel like that…. Oh God, what a situation! Who am I justifying myself to? They don’t exist, they don’t. Not here, not there, nowhere. A murky, fleeting, nighttime vision, a trickle of water on glass, a momentary spasm in some deep dead end of the brain; some worthless, useless capillary burst, a hormone gurgled, something skipped a beat in the cerebellum or the hippocampus—what do they call them, those neglected side streets? Neglected side streets, paved thoroughfares, dead houses, night, a street lamp sways, a shadow flits by—was it a bat, a night-flying bird, or simply an autumn leaf falling? Suddenly everything trembles, dampens, floats, and stops again—a short, cold rain had fallen and vanished.
    Where was I?
    Aunt Rita. Strange traveling companions Aunt Rita had chosen for herself. If, of course, it was her.
    No, it wasn’t her. No. Aunt Rita was young, she had a different hairdo: a roll of bangs on her forehead, fair, wispy hair. She would whirl in front of the mirror, trying on a sash and singing. What else? Why, nothing else. She just sang.
    She must have been planning to get married.
    And she disappeared, and Denisov’s mother ordered him never to ask about her again. To forget. Denisov obeyed and forgot. Her perfume flacon, all that remained of her, a glass one with an atomizer and a dark blue silk tassel, he traded in the courtyard for a penknife and his mother hit him and cried that night—he heard her. Thirty-five years had passed. Why torment him?…
    What does the siege have to do with it, I’d like to know. The siege was already long past by then. That’s what comes of reading all sorts of things at bedtime…
    I wonder who those people are. The old man looks like the farmer-fisherman type. How did he get in there?… And the fat guy—what, is he dead too? Oh, how he must have hated dying, his kind are afraid of dying. What squealing there must have been. And his children probably shouted, Papa, Papa!… Why did he die?
    But comrades, why visit me? What do I have to do with it? What did I do, murder someone? These aren’t my dreams, I don’t have anything to do with it, it’s not my fault. Go away, comrades. Please, go away.
    Lord, how sick I make myself!
    Better to think about Lora. A pretty woman. And one good thing about her—although she shows all signs of really loving Denisov, she doesn’t pester him, doesn’t demand uninterrupted attention, hasn’t set her sights on changing his way of life, but entertains herself, goes to the theater, to underground art openings, to saunas, while Denisov, thinking arduously, wastes away on his sofa and searches for the path to immortality. What problems could she be having with her father? He’s a good, quiet papa, just what the doctor ordered, he keeps himself busy. He sits in his study, doesn’t meddle in anything, nibbles on chocolates, writes articles that he puts by for winter: “The master of the woodlands loves a tasty treat of dry, fleshy multicarpels and dry indehiscents…. But as soon as the north wind blows, as soon as foul weather begins to sport and play, the Bruin’s overall metabolism slows abruptly, the tone of the gastrointestinal tract lowers, and we observe a corresponding growth of the lipid layer. But the minus range doesn’t frighten our friend Mikhailo Ivanych: a first-rate scalp and a splendid epidermis…” Oh, to crawl into a cave like a bear, to burrow into the snow, close your eyes tight, grow deaf, depart into sleep, pass through the dead city along the fortress wall from gate to gate, along the paved streets, counting the windows, losing count: this one’s dark, that one’s dark, and this one too, and that one will never light up—and there are only owls, and the moon, and dust grown cold, and the squeak of a door on rusty hinges… but where have they all gone? Aunt Rita, now there’s a nice little house, tiny windows, a staircase to the second floor, flowers on the windowsill, an apron and a broom, a candle, a sash, and a round mirror, why don’t you live here? Why don’t you look out the window in the morning? The old man in the blue shirt is sitting on a bench, resting from his long life, the freckled fat man is bringing greens from the marketplace, he’ll smile and wave; here the knife grinder sharpens scissors, and over there they’re beating rugs… And there’s Lora’s papa riding a bicycle, turning the pedals, dogs are following him, they get in the way of the wheels.
    Lora! I’m sick, my thoughts oppress me. Lora, come on over, say something. Lora? Hello!
    But Lora doesn’t have the strength to come all the way out to Orekhovo-Borisovo, Lora’s terribly tired today, I’m sorry, Denisov, Lora went to see Ruzanna, something’s wrong with Ruzanna’s leg, it’s a real nightmare. She showed the doctor, but the doctor doesn’t have a clue—as usual—but there’s a woman named Viktoria Kirillovna, she took one look and immediately said: You’ve been jinxed, Ruzannochka. And when they put the hex on you, it always affects the legs. And you could probably find out who put this spell on you, Viktoria said, but that is a secondary question because there are thousands of witches in Moscow, and right now the main thing is to try and lift the spell. First off you have to fumigate the apartment with onion stalks, all the corners. So we went and fumigated, and then Viktoria Kirillovna checked out all the potted plants and said: These are all right, you can keep them, but this one—what, are you crazy, keeping this in the house? Throw it out immediately. Ruzanna said that she knows who’s out to get her, it’s the women at work. She bought herself a third fur coat, went to work, and right away she felt the atmosphere tense up. It’s just plain envy, and it’s not even clear why they have such base feelings; after all, like Ruzanna says, it’s not like she bought the fur coat for herself, she really bought it for others, to raise the aesthetic level of the landscape. Ruzanna herself can’t see anything from inside the coat anyway, but it makes things more interesting for everyone on the outside, there’s more variety for the soul. And for free too. I mean, it’s almost like an art show, like the Mona Lisa or Glazunov; for that they push and shove and wait in humongous lines for five hours and have to pay their own hard-earned rubles to boot. But here Ruzanna spends her own money and presto—art delivered to your door. And then they’re unhappy about it. It’s just crass ignorance. And Viktoria Kirillovna agreed: That’s right, it’s crass ignorance, and instructed Ruzanna to lie on the bed with her head to the east. Ruzanna showed her a photo of the dacha that she and Armen have on the Black Sea so that Viktoria could tell her whether everything was all right there, and Viktoria looked at it carefully and said: No, not everything. The house is heavy. A very heavy house. And Ruzanna got upset, because so much money’s been put into that dacha, would they really have to redo everything? But Viktoria reassured her; she said shed find some time and visit the dacha with her husband—he possesses amazing abilities too—she’d stay there awhile and see what could be done to help. She asked Ruzanna whether the beach and the market were nearby, because they are sources of negative energy. It turned out that they’re very close, so Ruzanna got even more upset and asked Viktoria to help right away. She begged her to fly to the Caucasus immediately and do everything possible to screen out these sources. So Viktoria—she’s really got a heart of gold—is taking a photograph of Ruzanna’s leg with her so she can work on healing her down south.
    And Viktoria told Lora that her energy core had become completely unfocused, her spinal cord was polluted, and her yin was constantly sparking, which could mean serious trouble. It’s because we live near the TV tower and Papa’s and my fields are incredibly warped. And as for Papa’s case—I’m having some problems with Papa—Viktoria said it’s beyond her capabilities, but there’s an absolutely amazing guru visiting Moscow now, with some unpronounceable name, Pafnuty Epaminondovich, or something like that; he cures people who believe in him, with his spittle. A wonderful, totally uneducated old fellow with a beard to his knees and piercing, piercing eyes. He doesn’t believe in blood circulation and has already convinced a lot of people that it doesn’t exist—even a woman doctor from the departmental clinic, a big fan of his, is completely convinced that he’s basically right. Pafnuty teaches that there’s no such thing as blood circulation, only the appearance of it, but juices, on the other hand, do exist, that’s certain. If a person’s juices have stagnated—he gets sick; if they’ve coagulated—he’ll be disabled; but if they’ve gone to hell and completely dried up, then it’s curtains for the poor guy. Pafnuty won’t treat everybody, only those who believe in his teachings. And he demands humility, you have to fall at his feet and beg—“Grandfather, help me, poor, wretched worm that I am”—and if you do it just right, then he spits in your mouth and they say you feel better instantly, it’s as if you’ve seen the light and your soul has been uplifted. The healing takes two weeks, and you can’t smoke or drink tea, or even take a drop of milk, God forbid—you can only drink unboiled water through your nose. Well, the academicians are furious, of course. You see, all their scientific work is shot, and their graduate students are beginning to look elsewhere, but they can’t touch him because he cured some bigwig. They say that firm from Switzerland came—what’s it called, Sandoz or something—anyway, they took his saliva to analyze —those guys won’t do anything without chemistry, they’ve got no spirituality, it’s just awful—so, well, the results are top secret, but supposedly they found levomycitin, tetracycline, and some sort of psi factor in the old man’s saliva. And back in Basel they’re building two factories for the production of this factor, and that journalist Postrelov, you know, the famous one, he’s writing a very polemical article about how we shouldn’t stand for bureaucratic red tape and the squandering of our national saliva, or else we’ll end up having to buy back our own resources for foreign currency. Yes, I’m sure of this, and just yesterday I was in that shop called Natasha, waiting in line for Peruvian tops—not bad, only the collars were pretty crude— and I started talking to a woman who knows this Pafnuty and can arrange a meeting with him while he’s still in Moscow, or else he’ll leave and go back to his Bodaibo in the Far East again. Are you listening to me?… Hello!
    Silly woman, she, too, ambles along haphazardly, her arms outstretched, groping at ledges and fissures, tripping in the fog; she shudders and twitches in her sleep, reaches for will-o’-the-wisps, her graceless fingers grasp at the reflection of candles; she grabs ripples on the water’s surface, lunges after smoke shadows; she leans her head to one side, listens to the swish of wind and dust, smiles a distracted smile, and looks around: something flickered by just now—where has it gone?
    Something bubbled, rippled, tripped, skipped, snapped— pay attention!—behind, up above, upside down, it’s vanished, it’s gone!
    The ocean is empty, the ocean rages, mountains of black water crowned by wedding wreaths of seething foam move with a roar: These watery mountains can run far and free—there are no obstacles, nothing to limit the gale-force turmoil. Denisov abolished Australia, tore it out with a crackling rip like a molar. He dug one foot into Africa—the tip broke off—and then dug in more firmly: good. He pressed the other foot into Antarctica —the cliffs jabbed him and snow got into his boot—steady now. He grasped the erroneous continent more firmly and swayed back and forth. Australia was staunchly moored in its maritime nest; his fingers slipped in the slimy seaweed, coral reefs scratched his knuckles. Come on now! One more time… there we go! He ripped it out, broke into a sweat, held it with both hands, wiped his brow on his forearm; Australia was dripping at the root, sand flaked from the top—a regular desert. The sides were cold and slippery, the slime had grown fairly thick. Well, and where to put it now? In the Northern Hemisphere? Is there any room there? Denisov stood with Australia in his hands, the sun shone on the nape of his neck, evening was coming on, he could see far into the distance. His arm itched under the flannel shirt—yikes, there are bugs or something crawling on it. They’re biting! Damn! He flopped the heavy stump back—spray shot up—it gurgled, listed, sank. Ehh… That’s not the way he wanted to… But something had bitten him. He squatted and disappointedly ran his hand through the murky water. To hell with Australia. It doesn’t matter. The population there is uninteresting. A bunch of ex-convicts. He only wanted what was best. But he did feel sorry for Aunt Rita—Denisov turned on the sofa, knocking over the ashtray; he bit his pillow and howled.
    Deep in the night he nurtured the thought that it would be fine to lead some small, pure movement. For honesty, say. Or against theft, for example. To purify himself and call on others to follow. For starters hed return all borrowed books. Not filch any more matches and pens. Not steal toilet paper from offices and trains. Then greater and greater things—before you knew it, people would follow. Hed nip evil in the bud, wherever he encountered it. Before you knew it, people would remember you with a kind word.
    The very next evening, standing in line for meat, Denisov noticed that the shop assistant was cheating, and he decided to expose him immediately in word and deed. He loudly informed his fellow citizens of his observations and proposed that everyone whose meat had already been weighed and who was waiting in line to pay, return to the counter and demand that it be reweighed and the price recalculated. There are the control scales right over there. How long, O compatriots, will we tolerate falsehood and injury? How long will the greedy beasts, those insatiable leeches, flout the sweat of our labor and mock our dovelike timidity? You, old grandfather, reweigh your brisket. I swear on my honor that there’s twenty kopecks’ worth of paper there.
    The line grew agitated. But the old man to whom Denisov’s righteous appeal had been directed cheered up immediately and said that he had cut down counterrevolutionaries like Denisov on the southern and southeastern fronts, that he had fought against Denikin, that as a participant in the Great Patriotic War he now received his bit of caviar on holidays, an iron-shaped tin of ham made in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and even two packets of yeast, which testified to the government’s unconditional trust in him, a participant of the GPW, in the sense that he wouldn’t use the yeast improperly and make moonshine. He said that now, in response to the government’s trust, he was trying to stamp out sexual dissolution in their Black Swan cooperative and he wouldn’t allow any lowlifes in Japanese jackets to lead a revolt against our Soviet butchers, that a correctly oriented person should understand that the meat shortage was due to the fact that certain individuals had gotten an expensive breed of dog inaccessible to simple people, and the dogs had eaten all the meat; and so what if there’s no butter—that means there won’t be any war, because all the money from butter has gone into defense, and those who wear Adidas shoes will betray our motherland. When he had spoken his piece, the old man left contented.
    Having listened to the old-timer’s speech, a few people grew serious and vigilantly examined Denisov’s clothes and feet, but the majority willingly made a fuss, and returned their meat to be weighed. Convinced that they had indeed been variously cheated, they grew joyfully irate and, pleased with their just cause, crowded toward the manager’s office in the basement. Denisov led the masses, and it was as though church banners were waving in the air and the unseen sun of Bloody Sunday were rising, and in the back rows some people apparently even began singing. But then the manager’s door flew open and out of the dim storeroom, laden with bursting bags—women’s bags, quilted ones with flowers—emerged the famous actor, the handsome Rykushin, who just that week had frowned manfully and smoked meaningfully into the face of each and every one of them from the television screen. The rebellion fell apart instantly; the recognition was joyous, if not mutually so. The women formed a ring around Rykushin, the curly-headed manager beamed, fraternization ensued, a few people shed tears, unacquainted people embraced one another, one stout woman who couldn’t see what was going on climbed onto a small barrel of herring and delivered such an impassioned speech that it was decided then and there to direct a note of collective gratitude to the central trading organization, and to ask Rykushin to take on the creative leadership of Nursery School No. 238, with an annual appearance as Santa Claus. Rykushin riffled a notebook, tore off pages with autographs, and sent them wafting over the waves of heads; new admirers poured in from the store up above; they led a four-time award-winning schoolteacher who had gone blind with excitement, and Pioneer scouts and schoolchildren slid whistling down the shaky banister, plopping into the cabbage bins. Denisov kept talking hoarsely about truth. No one listened to him. He took a risk, bent down, lifted the edge of Rykushin’s bag, and picked at the paper. There were tongues of beef in there. So that’s who eats them. Squatting, he glanced up into the cold eyes of the gourmand and received an answering look: Yes. That’s how it goes. Put it back. The people are with me.
    Denisov acknowledged his accuracy, apologized, and took off against the stream.
    The view of a serenely existing Australia infuriated him. Fake that! He yanked at the map and tore off the fifth continent plus New Zealand. The Philippines cracked in the bargain.
    The ceiling oozed during the night. The captain was back. There’d be some money. Why not write a story about the captain? Who he is and where he comes from. Where he sails. Why he drips. Why does he drip, anyway? Can’t do without water, is that it?
    Maybe his pipes have rusted.
    Or he’s drunk.
    Or maybe he goes into the bathroom, lays his head on the edge of the sink, and cries, cries like Denisov, cries and mourns his meaningless life, the emptiness of the seas, the deceptive beauty of lilac islands, human vice, feminine silliness, mourns the drowned, the perished, the forgotten, the betrayed, the unneeded; tears overflow the soiled ceramic glaze of the sink, pour onto the floor, they’re already up to the ankles, now they’ve risen to the knees, ripples, circles, wind, storm. After all, isn’t there a saying: the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
    Aunt Rita, where are you? In what spaces does your weightless spirit wander, is peace known to you? Do you sweep like a wan breeze across the meadows of the dead, where hollyhocks and asphodels grow, do you howl like a winter storm, pushing your way through the cracks of warm human dwellings, is it you singing in the sounds of the piano, living and dying with the music? Maybe you whimper like a homeless dog, run across the night road like a hurrying hedgehog, curl up under a damp stone like an eyeless worm? You must be in a bad way wherever you are now, otherwise why infiltrate our dreams, reach out your hand, ask for alms—bread, or, perhaps, simply memory? And who are these people you’ve taken up with, you, so pretty, with your fair hair and colored sash? Or are the roads that all of you take so dangerous, the forests where you spend the night so cold and deserted, that you band together, press close to one another, and hold hands as you fly over our lighted houses at night?…
    Can it really be that this is what lies in store for me as well: to wander, whimper, pound on doors—remember, remember!… The predawn clatter of hooves on cobblestone, the dull thud of an apple in an orchard gone to seed, the splash of a wave in the autumn sea—someone is beseeching, scratching, someone wants to return, but the gates are closed, the locks have rusted, the key has been thrown away, the caretaker has died, and no one has come back.
    No one, do you hear, no one has come back! Do you hear? I’m going to scream!!! Aaaaaaaa! No one! No one! And we are all pulled that way, an invincible force pushes at our backs, our legs slip on the crumbling incline, our hands clutch at clumps of grass, at least give me time to collect myself, to catch my breath. What will remain of us? What will remain of us? Don’t touch me! Lora! Lora! For heaven’s sake, Lora!!!
    …And she arose from the dark, from the damp fog, arose and moved toward him, unhurried—clip-clop, slip-slop—in some sort of outrageous, slit-open gold boots, in brazen, wantonly short boots; her thin, orphaned ankles creaked, wobbling in the gold leather, higher up a flamboyant raincoat furled and rustled in the black beads of the night fog, buckles clinked and clanked, higher still her smile played, the lunar rainbows of streetlamps set her rosy teeth ablaze; above the smile hung her heavy eyes, and all this rustling, all this effrontery and finery, triumph and abomination, the entire living, swirling maelstrom was topped off with a tragic man’s hat. Lord almighty, Father in heaven, it was with her that he would share his bed, his table, and his dreams. What dreams? It doesn’t matter. All sorts. A beautiful woman, a garrulous woman, a head full of rubbish, but a beautiful woman.
    “Well, hello there, Denisov, I haven’t seen you in ages.”
    “What are those puttees you’re wearing, my lovely?” Denisov asked disapprovingly as Lora kissed him.
    She was surprised and looked down at her boots, at their dead, gold cuffs, rolled inside out like the pale flesh of poisonous mushrooms. What’s that supposed to mean? What’s with him? She’d been wearing them for a whole year already, had he forgotten? Of course, it was definitely time to buy new ones, but she wasn’t up to it at the moment, because while he had been off keeping himself in seclusion, she’d had a horrific misfortune. She got out to the theater only once in a blue moon, and she wanted to take a little break from Papa and live like a human being, so she sent Papa to the country and asked Zoya Trofimovna to keep an eye on him. Zoya Trofimovna couldn’t stand it more than three days—well, no one could, but that’s beside the point—so anyway, while she was cooling out in one of those basement theaters—a very fashionable little theater and very hard to get tickets to—where the whole decor is only matting and thumbtacks, where the ceiling drips, but there’s a lofty spirit, where there’s always a draft on your legs, but as soon as you enter you have this instant catharsis, there’s so much enthusiasm and the tears are so divine that you want to burst. So anyway, while she was hanging out there and lapping it all up, hoodlums cleaned out their apartment. They took everything, literally everything: candlesticks, brassieres, an entire subscription set of Molière, a poisonous pink Filimonovsky clay toy in the shape of a man with a book—it was a gift from one of those village writers, a born genius, they won’t publish him, but he came on foot from the backwoods, he spends the night with kind people and he doesn’t bathe on principle; on principle, because he knows the Fundamental Truth and hates tile with a fierce hatred, he simply turns purple if he sees glazed or brick tile somewhere, he even has a cycle of anti-tile poems—powerful lines with the strength of timber, all full of “Hail!” this and “Hail!” that, and about magical singing zithers, something really profound—so anyway, his present disappeared and so did that Vietnamese bamboo curtain, and whatever they couldn’t carry off they either moved somewhere else or piled up. What kind of people are these, tell me, I just don’t know; naturally, she had reported it to the police, but of course nothing would come of it, because they have such awful bulletin boards there—missing children, women they haven’t been able to find for years—so how could they be expected to rush out and comb Moscow for a bunch of brassieres? It was good that they didn’t throw out Papa’s manuscripts, only scattered them. Anyway, she was terribly depressed about all this, and she was also depressed because she went to a reunion of her former classmates—they graduated from school fifteen years ago—and everyone had changed so much that you simply couldn’t recognize them, it was a nightmare, total strangers.
    But that’s not the main thing, the main thing is that there were these guys, Makov and Sysoev, they used to sit at a desk in the back row and shoot spitballs, they brought sparrows to school, and on the whole were thick as thieves. So anyway, Makov died in the mountains—and remained there—that was four years ago, and no one knew, just think, a real hero, nothing less, while Sysoev had become fat and happy—he arrived in a black car with a chauffeur and ordered the chauffeur to wait, and the fellow actually slept in the car the whole evening, but when the guys found out that Sysoev was so important and such a big shot, and that Makov was lying somewhere in a crevice under the snow and couldn’t come, and that swine Sysoev was too lazy to walk over on his own two feet and rolled up in an official car just to show off—there was a scuffle and a rumble, and instead of warm embraces and beautiful memories they boycotted Sysoev, as if there were nothing else to talk about! As if it were his fault that Makov had climbed those mountains. And everyone became simply beastly, it was all so sad, and one boy—of course, he’s completely bald now, Kolya Pishchalsky— picked all the crabs out of the salad and threw them right in Sysoev’s face and shouted: Go on, eat them, you’re used to it, but we’re just simple people. And everyone thought that Sysoev would kill him for it, but no, he got terribly embarrassed and tried to be friendly, but everyone gave him the cold shoulder, and he walked around completely flustered, offering antifog headlights to anyone who wanted to buy them. And then he sort of slipped out, and the girls began to feel sorry for him and started screaming at the others: You aren’t human! What did he do to you? So everybody left hostile and angry, and nothing came of the evening. So there you have it, Denisov, why are you being so quiet, I’ve missed you. Let’s go to my place, it’s completely ransacked, but I’ve managed to make everything more or less presentable.
    Lora’s gold boots squeaked, her raincoat rustled, her eyes shone from beneath the hat, her eyebrows smelled of roses and rain… while at home, in the stale smoky room, under the wet ceiling, squeezed between dislocated layers of time, Aunt Rita and her comrades thrash about; she perished, the sash tore, the perfume spilled, and the fair hair rotted; she didn’t accomplish anything during her short life, only sang in front of the mirror, and now, lifeless, old, hungry, and frightened, she rushes about in the realm of dreams, begging: remember me!… Denisov tightened his grip on Lora’s elbow and turned toward her house, driving away the fog: they shouldn’t split up, they should remain together always, united inside one pair of equation brackets, inseparable, indivisible, indissoluble, merged, like Tristan and Isolde, Khor and Kalinych, cigarettes and matches.
    The cups had been stolen, so they drank tea from glasses. Snow-white Papa, cozy, like a Siberian tomcat, ate doughnuts, shutting his eyes in contentment. We, too, are like those three —the old man, the woman, the fat man—thought Denisov; we, too, have banded together high above the city; seen from the outside, what unites us? A little family, we need each other, we’re weak and confused, robbed by fate: he’s out of work, she’s out of her mind, I’m out of a future. Perhaps we should huddle even closer, hold hands—if one of us trips, the other two will hold him up—eat doughnuts, and not strive for anything, lock ourselves away from people, live without raising our heads, not expecting fame… and at the appointed hour close our eyes a bit tighter, tie up our jaws, cross our hands on our chests… and safely dissolve into nonbeing? No, no—not for anything!
    “They took all the curtains, the creeps.” Lora sighed. “What do they need my curtains for anyway?”
    The fog settled, or perhaps it hadn’t risen to the sixteenth floor, that light summer fog. Pure blackness and the jeweled lights of distant dwellings looked into the naked windows, and on the horizon, in the Japanese-lacquer dark, the orange half-circle of the rising moon swelled, looking like a mountaintop that had pushed through, illuminated by fruit-colored morning light. Somewhere in the mountains Lora’s classmate Makov, who had risen higher than everyone and remained there forever, slept an eternal sleep.
    The rose-colored summit grows lighter, the cliffs are dusted with snow, Makov lies there gazing into the firmament; cold and magnificent, pure and free, he won’t decay, won’t grow old, won’t cry, won’t destroy anyone, won’t become disillusioned by anything. He is immortal. Could there be a more enviable fate?
    “Listen,” Denisov said to Lora, impressed, “if those jerks of yours didn’t know anything about this Makov, then maybe his coworkers do?… Couldn’t a museum be organized or something? And why not rename your school in his honor? After all, he made it famous.”
    Lora was surprised: what museum, good Lord, Denisov, a museum, why? As a student he was nothing to brag about, he dropped out of college, then he went into the army, did this and that, and in recent years worked as a stoker because he liked to read books. He drove his family crazy, it was awful, I know from Ninka Zaitseva, because her mother-in-law works with Makov’s mother. There’s no way the school can be named after Makov anyway, because it’s already named after A. Kolbasiavichius. And his story isn’t all that straightforward either, because, you see, there were two Kolbasiavichius brothers, twins, one was killed by Lithuanian partisan rebels in ’46, and the second was a rebel himself and died from eating bad mushrooms. And since their initials were the same, and even their own mother couldn’t tell them apart, an extremely ambiguous situation arises. You could say that the school is named after the hero-brother, but at one time local hero-trackers came up with the theory that the hero-brother infiltrated the rebel den and was perfidiously killed by the bandits, who saw through the substitution and fed him poisonous soup, while the bandit-brother realized the error of his ways and honorably went to turn himself in, but was accidentally shot. Do you get it, Denisov? One of them is a hero for sure, but which one hasn’t been established. Our director was just going crazy, she even filed a petition to have the school’s name changed. But there can’t even be any question of naming it after Makov, I mean, he’s not some steelworker, right?
    There you have it, human memory, human gratitude, thought Denisov, and he felt guilty. Who am I? No one. Who is Makov? A forgotten hero. Perhaps fate, shod in gold boots, is giving me a hint. Stop tossing and turning, Denisov—here is your goal in life, Denisov! Extricate this perished youth from nonbeing, save him from oblivion; if they laugh at you—be patient, if they persecute you—stand firm, if they humiliate you—suffer for your idea. Don’t betray the forgotten, the forgotten are knocking at our dreams, begging for alms, howling in the night.
    Later, as Denisov was falling asleep in the pillaged apartment high above Moscow, and Lora was falling asleep next to him, her dark hair redolent of roses, the blue moon climbed in the sky, deep shadows fell, something creaked in the depths of the apartment, rustled in the foyer, thumped beyond the door, and softly, evenly, slowly—click-clack—moved along the corridor, skipped to the kitchen, made a door squeak, turned around, and—clack-clack-clack—went back again.
    “Hey, Lora, what is that?”
    “Sleep, Denisov, it’s nothing. Later.”
    “What do you mean, later? Do you hear what’s going on?”
    “Oh Lord,” whispered Lora. “Well, it’s Papa, Papa! I told you I had problems with Papa. He’s a somnambulist—he walks in his sleep. I told you that they kicked him out of work, well, it started right after that. What can I do? I’ve been to see the best doctors! Tengiz Georgievich said: He’ll run around a bit and stop. But Anna Efimovna said: What do you want, it’s his age. And Ivan Kuzmich said: Just thank your lucky stars he’s not out chasing devils. And through Ruzanna I found a psychic at the Ministry of Heavy Industry, but after that session it only got worse: he runs around naked. Go to sleep Denisov, we can’t do anything to help him anyway.”
    But how could he possibly sleep, especially since the zoologist, judging by the sound, had skipped back to the kitchen, and something fell with a crash.
    “Oh, I’m going to go stark-raving mad,” Lora said, growing anxious. “He’ll break the last glasses.”
    Denisov pulled on his pants and Lora ran to her father; shouts could be heard.
    “Now what is he doing? Lord almighty, he’s put on my boots! Papa, I’ve told you a thousand times…. Papa, for heaven’s sake, wake up!”
    “Warm-blooded, ha-ha!” shouted the old man, sobbing. “They call themselves warm-blooded. Mere protozoa, I say. Get your pseudopods out of here!”
    “Denisov, grab him from the side! Papochka, Papochka, calm down! I’ll get some valerian…. His hands, hold his hands!”
    “Let me go! There they are! I see them!” The sleepwalker broke away, and somehow he mustered incredible strength. His mustache and beard seemed like wintry, woolly things on his naked body.
    “Papa, for heaven’s sake!”
    “Vasily Vasilevich!”
    Night flew over the world, in the distant dark the ocean seethed, distraught Australians looked around, distressed by the disappearance of their continent, the captain drenched Denisov’s smoke-filled lair with bitter tears, Rykushin, famished with fame, ate cold leftovers straight out of the pot, Ruzanna slept facing east, Makov slept facing nowhere. Each was occupied with his own affairs, and who cared that in the middle of the city, many stories up, in the moon’s mother-of-pearl light, real live people were in the throes of struggling, stamping, shouting, and suffering: Lora in her transparent nightshirt—a sight that even tsars would not be loath to gaze upon—the zoologist in gold boots, and Denisov, tormented by visions and doubts.
    …The countryside around this cluster of dachas was marvelous—oaks everywhere and under the oaks, lawns, and on the lawns people playing volleyball in the reddish evening light. The ball smacked resonantly, a slow wind passed through the oaks, and the oaks slowly answered the wind. And Makov’s dacha was also marvelous—old, gray, with little towers. Amid the flower beds, under the damp evening-time wild cherry tree, his four sisters, mother, stepfather, and aunt sat at a round table drinking tea with raspberries and laughing. The aunt held an infant in her arms, and he waved a plastic parrot; to the side a harmless dog lay endearingly; and some kind of bird walked unhurriedly about its business along the path, not troubling, even out of courtesy, to become alarmed and flutter off at the sight of Denisov. Denisov was a little disappointed by the idyllic scene. It would have been pointless, of course, to expect that the house and garden would be draped in mourning banners, that everyone would walk on tiptoe, that the mother, black with grief, would be lying motionless on the bed, unable to take her eyes off her son’s ice axe, and that from time to time first one, then another member of the family would clutch a crumpled handkerchief and bite it to stifle the sobs—but all the same, he had expected something sad. But they had forgotten, they had all forgotten! Then again, who was he to talk, arriving with a bouquet, as if to congratulate them?… They turned to Denisov with perplexed, frightened smiles, looked at the bunch of carnations in his hand, crimson like a sunset before foul weather, like clotted, bloody scabs, like memento mori. The infant, the most sensitive, having not yet forgotten that frightening darkness from which he had recently been called, immediately guessed who had sent Denisov; he kicked and screamed, wanted to warn them, but didn’t know the words.
    No, there was nothing sad to be seen, the only sad thing was that Makov wasn’t here: he wasn’t playing volleyball under the slow oaks, wasn’t drinking tea under the wild cherry tree, he wasn’t shooing away unseasonably late mosquitoes. Denisov, having firmly resolved to suffer in the name of the deceased, overcame the awkwardness, presented the flowers, straightened his mourning tie, sat down at the table, and explained himself. He was the envoy of the forgotten. Such was his mission. He wanted to know everything about their son. Perhaps he would write his biography. A museum, but if that wasn’t feasible, then he could at least arrange a corner of a museum. Display cases. His childhood things. His hobbies. Maybe he collected butterflies, beetles? Tea? Yes, yes, with sugar, thank you, two spoonfuls. He’d have to get in touch with glaciologists. It’s possible that Makov’s climb was in some way important for science. Immortalization of his memory. Annual Makovian readings. Let us dare to dream: Makov Peak—why not? The Makov Foundation with voluntary donations. The possibilities!…
    The sisters sighed, the stepfather smoked and raised his gray eyebrows in boredom, the mother, aunt, and infant started crying, but it was a sun shower—all tears dried out here amid the raspberries, oaks, and wild cherry. The slow wind, flying in from distant flowering glades, whispered in his ear: Drop it.
    Everything’s fine. Everything’s peaceful. Drop it…. The mother squeezed her nose with a handkerchief to stop the tears. Yes, it’s sad, sad…. But it’s all over, thank God, over, forgotten, water under the bridge, it’s all covered with yellow water lilies. You know how it is, life goes on. There’s Zhannochka’s firstborn.
    He’s our little Vasya. Vasya, come on now, where’s Grandma’s nose? That’s ri-iiight. Goo goo goo, ga ga ga. Vera, he’s wet.
    This is our garden. Flower beds, do you see? Well, what else….
    There’s our hammock. Comfortable, isn’t it? And this is our Irochka, she’s getting married. There’s a lot to do, you know. You have to get the youngsters settled, you have to take care of everything for them.
    Irochka was extremely pretty—young, tanned. The mosquitoes were feasting on her bare back. Denisov couldn’t take his eyes off Irochka. A breeze swayed the black berries on the wild cherry.
    “Come, let’s look at the garden. My tomatoes have really taken off.” Makov’s mother led Denisov deep into the garden and whispered: “The girls really loved Sasha. Especially Irochka. Well, what can you do. You have a heart, I can tell, you want to help. We have a request to make of you…. She’s getting married, we’re trying to get ahold of furniture for them…. And you know, she wants a Sylvia china cabinet.
    We’ve tried everything. After all, they’re young, you know…. They want to live it up a bit. If Sasha were alive, he would have turned Moscow inside out…. In Sasha’s memory… for Irochka… a Sylvia, eh? What do you say, young man?”
    A Sylvia for the deceased!—cried invisible forces. Eternal memory!
    “A Sylvia cabinet, Sylvia… Sasha would be so pleased…. How happy he would have been…. Come on, have some more tea.”
    And they drank tea with raspberries, and the oaks hurried nowhere, and Makov lay on high in the diamond splendor, baring his unaging teeth to the sky.

    Duty is duty. All right then, let it be a cabinet. Why not? From Makov a cabinet will remain. From Aunt Rita—a glass perfume flacon. I traded the flacon. Nothing remained. Sepulchral darkness. The scorched steppe. An icy crust. The mushroom damp of a cellar. The ferrous smell of blood. One-sixth of the earth, torn out with flesh. No! I don’t want to know anything. I couldn’t help. I was little! I am only helping Makov, for all of them, for all, all! And when the polite, heavyset orderlies took away the sobbing captain and he grabbed onto the lintels, the mailboxes, the elevator shaft, spread his legs wide, bent his knees, and shrieked, and then they carried hundreds of little paper boats out of the apartment and gave them to the Pioneer scouts for recycling, as all the neighbors and I stood by and watched—I couldn’t help then either, I am only helping Makov!
    I don’t want to know anything! The cabinet, only the cabinet. The cabinet, a sideboard, a wall unit with bronze inlay—a golden hair’s width, no thicker—with shiny corners, delicate fretwork, and the slight gleam of diamond-shaped panes. Gentle dimples of carving—so soft and light, as though a wild hare had run past—a marvelous, marvelous piece of home.
    As though a wild hare had run down the hallway. Lora’s papa. Ping!—he broke something. A flacon? No, a glass. They drink tea with raspberries from glasses. Makov looks at the sky. Get hold of a cabinet in my name. All right. I’ll try. I’m prepared to suffer. I’ll suffer—and Makov will release me. And so will the captain. And Aunt Rita. And her comrades will lower their unbearable eyes.
    Lora breathes evenly in her sleep, her hair smells of roses, the zoologist stirs in the hall, the doors are locked—where will you run away to?—let him run around—he’ll wear himself out, get tired, he’ll sleep better. “I knew, but I forgot, I knew, but I forgot,” he mutters, and his eyes are closed and his legs lithe. Back and forth, back and forth, across the moonlit squares, past the bookshelves, from the front door to the kitchen door. Back and forth, perhaps he’s put on Lora’s hat or sandals, perhaps he’s wound a gauze scarf round his neck or adorned his head with a colander, he likes nocturnal knick-knacks; back and forth, from door to door, with soft skips, lifting his knees high, his hands outstretched as though he were trying to catch something, but hadn’t caught it yet—a festive hunt, an innocuous blindman’s buff, no harm done. “I knew, but I forgot!”
    In the morning the red dawn arrived, the mountain with the black bug of Makov on its peak dissolved, the weary lunatic fell sweetly asleep, degenerate city birds struck up a song, and two sky-blue tears rolled from Denisov’s eyes into Denisov’s ears.
    In search of Sylvia, Denisov knocked on all sorts of doors, but everywhere he ran up against rejection. Are you crazy? Imports have been cut back. And Sylvia all the more so. Hah!… Even a general couldn’t get one! Maybe a marshal, but it depends what kind, what kind of troops. No, Comrade Petryukov won’t help you. Neither will Kozlov. And don’t bother approaching Lyulko —there’s no point. Now, Comrade Bakhtiyarov… Comrade Bakhtiyarov could do it, help that is, but he’s a capricious, eccentric fellow, he’s got a sort of florid, unpredictable personality, and the devil knows how you can pressure Bakhtiyarov. But you’ve definitely got to catch him out of his office, in the Woodland Fairy Tale restaurant, for instance, when the comrade is eating and relaxing. You could try going to the baths, the baths would be best of all, and it’s an old trick—wait for the moment when the beauty drops her swan feathers to bathe in the spring, so to speak—then you’ve caught the little bird, you close in and stash the feathers somewhere, and you can ask whatever your heart desires. But Bakhtiyarov is no beauty, as you’ll see for yourself, and his feathers and pants and suitcase with underwear and all kinds of tasty goodies are so well guarded, and getting into the bathhouse is so difficult—like Babà Yaga’s house, it can turn its face to the forest and rear to people quick as a wink—that you shouldn’t even think of getting in there without a magic password. So why don’t you try to find him out of town, in the Fairy Tale? Well, what can you do, give it a try. He goes there to relax.
    And the Fairy Tale came to pass.
    Whew, how warm it was in there, how fancy, and how glorious it smelled. If only Lora were here, and I had a bit more money, yes, over there in that corner under the yellow lampshade, where the napkins are folded like fans and the armchairs are soft. Peace for a tormented, half-mad soul!
    Waiters were passing by and Denisov asked the sweetest and friendliest of them: Comrade Bakhtiyarov isn’t here by any chance, is he? And the waiter immediately took to Denisov like a brother and pointed with his little finger, directing him: The comrade’s relaxing over there. In a circle of friends and lovely ladies.
    Now go on over there—what will be, will be—over there— I’m not asking for myself—over there, where a dome of blue smoke billows, where giggles cavort like gusts of wind, where champagne leaps out onto the tablecloth in a frothy arc, where heavy female backs sit, where someone in a lilac-colored tie, puny, doglike, quickly prances around the Boss, incessantly adoring him. Take a step—and Denisov stepped, he crossed the line and became the envoy of the forgotten, the nameless, those who hover in dreams, who lie covered with snow, whose white bones protrude from the ruts of the steppe.
    Comrade Bakhtiyarov turned out to be a round, soft, Chinese-looking person, he even seemed rather a fine fellow, and it was impossible to say how old he was, sixty or two hundred. He saw straight through people, saw everything—the liver, spleen, and heart, but he had no use for your liver or spleen—what good were they?—so he didn’t look straight at you lest he pierce right through you, and he wound conversations around somewhere to the side and past you. Comrade Bakhtiyarov was consuming veal of a downright disgraceful tenderness, as well as criminally young suckling pig; and the salad—a mere three minutes separated it from the garden—was so innocent, it hadn’t even had a chance to come to its senses; there it had been, minding its own business, growing, and suddenly—whoosh!—it was picked, and before it had time to cry out, it was being eaten.
    “I love to eat young things,” said Bakhtiyarov. “But you, my little bunny rabbit, shouldn’t—you have an ulcer, I can see it in your face.” He was right on target: Denisov had had an ulcer for ages. “So I’ll treat you to something that’s for your own good,” said Bakhtiyarov. “Drink to my health, drink deep to my hospitality.”
    And at the snap of his fingers they brought Denisov stewed carrots and sweet Buratino soda water.
    “I keep thinking, thinking,” said Bakhtiyarov, as he ate. “Day and night I keep thinking, and I can’t figure out the answer. You look like a scholarly fellow—your eyes are oh so gloomy—come on, tell me. Why is the brewery named after Stenka Razin? After all, my little lovebirds, it’s a government organization with plans and quotas to fill, fiscal accountability, socialist competition, Party committees and—oh, goodness, I can’t take it—lo-ocal trade union committees. Trade union committees. This is serious business, it’s no joke. And then they go and name it after some bandit! No, I don’t get it. In my opinion it’s funny. Go on, laugh!”
    The friends and ladies laughed, the lilac-colored one even shrieked. Denisov also smiled politely and took a sip of his warm Buratino.
    “But if you look at it from the other side: Razin, Stepan Timofeevich—he’s a folk hero, an inspiration, our national pride and joy:
The wench has seduced him, he’s lost all his senses
The cossacks they grumbled—how could he betray?
So Stenka took heed and he sent for the princess
And cast Persia’s pearl to the swift running wave….

    “That, you see, is an event with great political resonance—and now we have some measly little factory with, you get my meaning, a dubious profile. To my way of thinking, it’s funny. Go on, laugh!”
    The ladies again opened their mouths and laughed.
    “Like Grandma’s furs stored in the chest… he doesn’t rot, he doesn’t rust, he doesn’t sweat, he gets his rest,” the lilac-colored one suddenly sang, wiggling his shoulders and stamping his heels.
    “See what great fun we’re having here,” said the contented Bakhtiyarov. “We play around and laugh like innocent children, and it’s all within the bounds of the permissible, we don’t go beyond what’s allowed, now do we?… And everything’s just hunky-dory, but I can see you’ve got a little favor to ask of me, so ask away, we’ll have a listen….”
    “Well, actually, it’s very simple, that is, it’s very complicated,” said Denisov, trying to concentrate. “That is, you see, I’m not really asking for myself—personally, I don’t need anything….”
    “Oh my willow, green willow, who asks favors for himself? Nowadays nobody asks for himself…. Nowadays you only have to spit—and a bunch of those inspectoring fellows grab you by your little white arms—did you spit in the right place, where did you get that spit, and on just what grounds—but what do we have to do with it, we didn’t do anything, we’re clean as a whistle…. Can I call you my little chickypoo? ‘You’re my frost—frost, don’t freeze me out,’” comrade Bakhtiyarov began to sing. “Sing, my little lovebirds!”
    “Don’t freeze me out!” they struck up at the table.
    “Like Grandma’s furs stored in a chest…” the lilac-colored one tried to sing against the chorus, but he was drowned out. They sang well.
    “Klavdiya’s soprano isn’t just any old la-di-da,” said Bakhtiyarov. “Our Zykina! Maria, so to speak, Callas, or maybe even better. You sing too, chickypoo.”
    Well, they warned me, thought Denisov, opening his mouth in time to the rhythm. They warned me, and I was prepared— after all, it’s not for myself, and you don’t get something for nothing, without suffering you won’t get anywhere, I just didn’t realize that suffering would be so incredibly unpleasant.
    “No sweat, no sweets,” affirmed Comrade Bakhtiyarov, looking straight into Denisov’s heart, “what did you think, my pretty boy? You need some kind of article? A ca-a-abinet, is it? Oooh, we’re a naughty boy…. Why don’t you sing for us personally, eh? Something simple, heartfelt? Give us your best consumer solo, make our spirits rejoice. We’re listening. Quiet, my little lovebirds. Be respectful.”
    Denisov sang hurriedly, suffering under the gaze of Bakhtiyarov’s guests; he sang whatever came to mind, what’s sung in courtyards, on camping trips, in trains—an urban ballad about Lenka Sharova, who believed in love and was deceived, and who decided to destroy the fruit of her frivolous lapse from virtue: “She dug a hole, pushed the stones inside, and then wee Zina gave one last cry!” he sang, already realizing that he was in a desert, that there were no people about. He sang of the sentence pronounced by the heartless judges: “To the firing squad with her, to the firing squad it be!” of the sad and unjust end of the girl who’d gone astray: “I walked right up to the prison wall, and there lay Lenka in her death pall,” and Bakhtiyarov nodded his soft head sympathetically. No, Bakhtiyarov himself was all right, not bad at all, really, his face even began to reveal some nice cozy nooks and crannies, and if you squinted, it was even possible to believe for a minute that here was a grandfather, an old-timer who loved his grandchildren… but of course only if you squinted. The others were much worse: that woman over there, for instance, an awful woman, she resembled a ski— her front was entirely encased in brocade, but her back was completely bare; or that other one, the beauty with the eyes of a cemetery caretaker; but the most horrible of them all was that fidgety giggler, that unstrung Punch with his lilac tie and toadlike mouth and woolly head; if only someone would wipe him out, exterminate him, or burn him with Mercurochrome so that he wouldn’t dare look!… But then, actually, they’re only horrid because they’re celebrating my humiliation, my trials and tribulations, otherwise—they’re just citizens like anyone else. Nothing special. “There lay Lenka in her death pall.”
    “How fine, my sweets!” exclaimed Bakhtiyarov in surprise. “How fine our comrade sang for us. Downright pianissimo and nothing else. No other word for it. Come on now, let’s show him our stuff. In reply. Let’s give our guest a taste of our D-flat.”
    The guests burst into song; the lilac fidget—all attentiveness—conducted with a fork, tears streamed from the beauty’s dead eyes; the diners from neighboring tables, wiping their mouths with their napkins, joined the chorus, Klavdiya’s soprano entered on a piercing, violinlike note:
“Mother, sweet Mother, oh, Mother dear,
Why did you forsake me and leave me behind?
Your son has turned into a thief I do fear,
And my father—that scoundrel—you never did find.”

    There, in the mountains, the snow began to fall thicker and thicker, sweeping into drifts, burying Makov, his sprawled legs, his face turned toward eternity. He doesn’t rot, he doesn’t rust, he doesn’t sweat, he gets his rest. The snowdrifts rose higher and higher, the mountain creaked under the weight of the snow; it groaned and cracked, and with the roar of a steam engine the avalanche fell, and nothing remained on the peak. A snowy mist smoked a bit and settled on the cliffs.
    “Dear visitor! Aren’t I your friend—to the bitter end!” cried Bakhtiyarov, grabbing Denisov by the cheeks. “How do you like that? I’m talking in verse. That’s me. No stranger to poetry. Eh? That’s just the way I am. Drink your Buratino to my health. Bottoms up, bottoms up! That’s the ticket. You know what: Humor an old friend. If you go to town, go all the way. Crawl under the table. For fun! Go on!”
    “What the…” said Denisov, free of Makov. “Who do you think you are, old man? Arrivederci to you, I don’t need your cabinet. I changed my mind.” And he started to get up.
    “Under the table. What’s going on? What’s the matter?” Bakhtiyarov tore at his coat. “We’re asking you. Gentlemen!”
    “Go on, go on!” shouted the ladies, friends, guests, waiters, even the cook, who appeared from out of the blue, and the entire room, rising to its feet, moving out from behind the tables, still chewing, made a scene and clapped: “Go on!”
    No, for goodness’ sake, no, no, no! Why? I’m a human being, and proud to be one. I won’t crawl, go ahead and kill me!… Yes, but what about suffering? Hey, remember! Suffering! You’re the one who wanted it.
    He plunged into despair, as though facing death, he lost heart, he frowned—it didn’t help, he wanted to take a deep breath—there was no air left to breathe. And Bakhtiyarov had already thrown back the tablecloth and seated himself sideways so that his legs wouldn’t be in the way. He gestured invitingly with his hand: Go ahead, be my guest!
    …He huddled in the half-light of the darned linen, hugging his knees like an embryo, and gazed dumbly at the women’s legs, the silvered tails, and the lacquered hooves; the insidious repast had clouded his hearing and sight; the soprano set his teeth on edge. Here’s what I’ll do. I know. I’ll erect a monument to the forgotten. Even if it’s only a flat patch of land in the middle of the steppes, with no fence, no marker—let feather grass or rushes grow there, let the sun scorch the earth till the salt comes out, let gravel or broken glass litter the ground, let a jackal howl in the evenings or a boisterous crowd feast. Greetings to you, tin cans, and to you, beer caps, glory to spittle, hurrah for squashed tomatoes. A hill of garbage or a salty clearing, the whoosh of feather grass or the whistle of the wind—anything will do, it makes no difference, nothing frightens the forgotten—after all, nothing else can happen to them.
    A tearstained, eyeless female face hung under the table and muttered, seeking sympathy:
    “Why, tell me why’s it allays rile lires, salastically yuffy for some, and others only get lurdle, glud, and droom, why?”
    The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning.
    The Buratino had made Denisov drowsy, and he fell asleep.
    A moonbeam, breaking through a darned patch, stabbed him in the eye. The moonlit tablecloth lay on the parquet floor, a silvery garden stood beyond the window, August ignited stars in the dark. It was as if all the snow from all the mountains were cascading onto the garden, the silence, and the mute paths. Denisov creaked across the floorboards and stood by the window. He hadn’t dreamt about anyone today.
    The cock crowed, Bakhtiyarov and his warlocks had vanished, the shades were sleeping, the world was at peace.
    And what kind of nonsense was this anyway—to be tormented by memories of nothing at all, to ask forgiveness from a dead man for something you weren’t guilty of in human reckoning, to clutch handfuls of fog? There isn’t any fifth dimension, and no one will keep count of your sins and victories, and there isn’t any punishment or reward at the end of the road, there isn’t even a road, and fame is smoke, and the soul is vapor, and if you crawled under the table, well, pardon me, my dear, but that was your choice, a matter of personal taste, and humanity will not follow after you in a grateful throng, and unseen forces won’t cry out from the everlasting azure: “Good going, Denisov, attaboy! Keep up the good work! We fully approve and support you!”
    He walked around the Fairy Tale, pulling on doors, all of which were locked. Well, what a pickle! Now just sit there till morning. Break a window, or what? There’s probably an alarm here. It’s a small village, everything’s out in the open—they’ll whistle, lights will blink, the police will move in; if they don’t catch you in the garden, then they’ll get you on the highway for sure. “The heavens are wondrous and exultant, earth slumbers in a luminous blue glow,” and Denisov is going to rush about among the bushes and watchman’s booths, squat behind trash cans, and rustle in the hawthorn to elude the searchlights. There’s no point in it. A rampart of darkness encircles the world; incorporeal moon sugar will sift from leaf to leaf, trembling and glinting; sugar, snow, dreams, depths, everything has frozen, everything’s dying, growing dull in the senseless beauty, everything’s forgotten, forgiven, and anyway nothing happened, and nothing ever will.
    Oh, here’s the phone. Call Lora. I myself have died—help others to help themselves.
    Lora sounded congested.
    “Oh, Denisov, take a taxi, come over. A horrific accident happened. What do you mean, you’re locked in? In what fairy tale? Have you gone out of your mind, Denisov, I’m in the middle of a nightmare, it’s the problem with Papa, I took him to the country, to an old woman, you don’t know her, old lady Liza, she’s a healer and a wonderful woman. Ruzanna recommended her, to read Papa; how do they do that? Well, they sit you on a stool under an icon, light a candle, the wax drips into a basin, old lady Liza reads prayers, the energy field improves a lot; it’s all calculated to last several sessions; so you can imagine, in the meantime I took off for the village store, they have a good selection there, men’s shirts from Holland, I wanted to get you some, but they were all gone, and I got held up looking at the goods for shareholders, I don’t know what shareholders, some kind of consumer co-op or something. Well, for people who bring in birch sponge mushrooms they have men’s moccasins, white ones, Austrian, exactly what you need, you can get jeans for meat and felt pens for carrots, we don’t need any of that, but the moccasins would be good; so I said to the salesgirls: Girls, I don’t have any birch sponges, maybe you’d sell me a pair anyway? And one of them, really nice, said: Wait for the boss, maybe you can arrange something; I waited and waited, and it was already dark, but no one came, and they said: It’s not likely she’ll come back—her boyfriend from Severomorsk was supposed to visit her, so I went back, and old lady Liza was in a frightful panic. She said he was just sitting, sitting there and he fell asleep, and when he falls asleep, well, you know what he gets like; he fell asleep, jumped up, threw the door open and started running, and it was dark outside, and the area’s completely unfamiliar, and he just ran off, I don’t know what to do, Denisov, I’ve been to the police and they just laugh at me. Anyway, I’m home now, completely wiped out, I mean, Papa doesn’t have a penny on him, he’ll wake up somewhere in the forest, he’ll lose his way, he’ll freeze, he’ll die, he doesn’t know where I took him, he’s lost. Denisov, what have I gone and done!”
    …So he ran away, he broke out and ran away. He knew, he knew the road all along! The forgotten roused themselves, the shades lifted their heads, transparent apparitions pricked up their ears, listening: he’s running, they’ve released him, go and meet him, go out on patrol, wave flags, light beacons! The sleepwalker is running along impassable paths, his eyelids closed, his arms outstretched, a quiet smile on his lips, as though he sees what the seeing cannot, as though he knows what they have forgotten, as though at night he grasps what is lost during the day. He runs over the dewy grass, through patches of moonlight and deep black shadows, over mushrooms and pale nocturnal bluebells, tiny baby frogs. He flies up hills, runs down hills, pure and bright, and under the bright moon, the heather lashes his fleet legs, night blows in his sleeping face, his white hair flutters in the wind, the forest parts, the maples blossom, light begins to appear.
    Surely he’ll keep running till he meets the light?
Translated by Jamey Gambrell


    “GO AWAY! Go awaaay, you lousy beast!”
    Someone’s dog—white, matted, disgusting—not only jumped into the elevator after Serafim and whimpered, its paws pacing the dim, clunking box racing up toward the sixteenth floor, but dared to rush to the apartment, scratching insistently at the padding of the door while Serafim struggled with the keys on the landing.
    “Get out of here!”
    Serafim was squeamish about nudging the warm brute with his clean foot. The dog was possessed by a frightful impatience: it drummed at the door, quickly wedged its nose to the crack and snuffed the air, drummed again, insisted, would not be dissuaded.
    Serafim stamped his foot and yelled—useless. He tried to trick the animal by swiftly pushing his way into the apartment, but, shuddering and wriggling like a furry snake, the filthy cur slithered in with hideous speed, rubbing against Serafim’s legs in the process, and ran around the dark room, its claws clicking. Serafim squealed, grabbed a mop, overtook the dog, struck it, struck again, kicked it out, slammed the door, and with a pounding heart collapsed against the frame. The fiend of hell quietly fluttered about on the landing, circling and rustling. It left.
    His legs could still feel the revolting sensation of dog flesh slinking by. He felt nauseous.
    Serafini lay against the door, calming himself. Better now? Almost.
    Leave me alone. What do you all want from me? I don’t want anyone. I am separate. Higher. I descended from the starry fields to this filth, and when I’ve completed my earthly circle, I’ll go back from whence I came. Don’t touch me.
    Serafini took off his coat, drank a glass of cold, clean water, lit two candles, sat down in front of the mirror, and took a look at himself. Handsome. He narrowed his eyes appraisingly, threw back his head, observed from the side—excellent! That’s me. Uncommonly fine! That’s—me! Mind your own business, all of you. He remembered the dog. Disgusting beast. He jumped up in horror and glanced at his trousers. Just as he thought—fur. Get rid of it immediately. A hot shower. He sat down at the mirror again.
    …What a vile world. Women, children, old people, dogs… Yellow, heaving swill. Flesh is nauseating. The flesh of others is revolting. Only what’s mine is ravishing, pure, transparent. I am fleshless and sexless. I don’t play your games. Get your muck out of here.
    Serafini looked into the dark mirror. On both sides of the glass was a pure, living flame. Heavenly countenance. Candles. Heavenly countenance. But only I am permitted to admire this marvelous, inhuman sight. Turn your nasty faces away from me.
    To go to work Serafim was obliged to ride the bus. He tried not to look at the swinish snouts, the camellike muzzles, the hippopotamus cheeks. People are all vile! And all of them, base, revolting, are staring at Serafim with bug eyes, grinning their grins. Yes, I am magnificent. Yes, my face shines with an unworldly light. Yes, golden curls. Snow-white wings. Angelic eyes. Part, crowd. Stand aside—Serafim goes here!
    He looked in the mirror once more. Serafim’s countenance swam up from the dark depths, wavering in the warm flame. A rosy glow, the reflected light of white wings behind his back. To gaze forever… Who are you, my beauty? Serafim sank into the divine reflection. Time to go to bed. Tomorrow would be a hard day. He blew out the flames, folded his wings together, and hung in the soft twilight.
    For the Montgolfier brothers’ jubilee, the district was planning a mass flight of thirty kilometers. Serafim was also participating. He had to collect various papers: a bilirubin blood test, a general urine analysis, and a certificate of residency. I’ll fly higher than all of them, thought Serafim while the nurse drew his delicate blue blood through a tube. Higher than the crowd, higher than the human throng, higher than their base passions. I, a child of the ether, will spread my blinding, silky, snow-white wings like a million white hummingbirds. Oh, how magnificent my triumphant flight will be!
    He strolled leisurely along the drying spring path, carrying his curly golden head high. The quacking word ZHEK—the housing office—squatted on a brown plaque. Get the residency certificate.
    He pushed open the door and entered. Two old ladies were asleep in a room without curtains, furnished with rows of chairs. A middle-aged lecturer slowly read from a notebook covered with oilcloth:
    “According to the absolutely apocryphal legend, god-the-father, who doesn’t exist, supposedly fertilized the so-called virgin Mary by way of the nonexistent holy spirit; the result of this fraudulent conception, according to the mendacious allegations of the clergymen, was the mythical figure of Christ, who is totally alien to us. These unfounded fabrications…”
    The old ladies woke up.
    “Come in, come in, Serafim!” cried the lecturer. “Today we’re having an anti-Easter lecture on the evil of the so-called immaculate conception. Have a seat, it’ll do you good to listen.”
    Serafim looked at him coldly, slammed the door, and left. I’m against any kind of conception. Fight, lecturer. Fight. Eradicate. I’m above human beings, above their fables about vulgar gods giving birth to idiot infants in dirty cow sheds. I am pure spirit, I am Serafim!
    At the store “Woodland Gifts they had pigeons. Serafim took a pair. Simmer in a covered pot for up to an hour and a half.
    The pigeons bubbled in the pot. The doorbell rang. So. It’s Magda, his neighbor. She wants to get married. She visits Serafim under various pretexts, the redheaded scourge! Serafim folded his arms and began looking out the window, began to heat up. Magda sat down on the edge of the chair, her legs under it; she never knows where to put her hands. She likes Serafim. Vile thing! “Khhem…”
    She’s thinking about how to start. She glances around the kitchen.
    “You’re boiling a chicken?”
    “I bought some pork, too, you know, a fairly large piece, well, I mean, about three pounds, I kept looking at it, thinking, should I take it or shouldn’t I, but I did; I thought I’d bake it or something, I stood in line a long time; when I got home and unwrapped it—all fat. All fat!”
    Fat is nauseating muck. The whole world of flesh—is fat. Fatty, sticky children, fatty old ladies, fatty redheaded Magda.
    “Ahem. I thought, maybe, I could do some washing for you, dirty sheets or whatever. You live alone.”
    Go away, you nauseating creature. Go away, don’t soil my clean, clear, mountain spirit with your swinish hands. Go away.
    She went away Serafim threw out the pigeons, drank a cup of clear broth. A pure, lean bird.
    There. Get the results of the blood test; one last humiliation—and upward! To the stars! Serafim knew the results beforehand: no traces of filth, nothing lowly, denigrating, or shameful would be detected. Not like these others.
    Serafim got on the bus. People pressed in. Careful there, those are wings!
    “You should take taxis,” said a woman. But she looked at Serafim’s luminous face—and smiled. Get away, you base thing!
    He made his way to the middle. Someone touched one wing with a finger. Stung, he turned around. A small boy, hideous-looking—glasses, crossed eyes, no front teeth—was looking at Serafim’s luxurious, swanlike feathering. His whole body winced: the snotty freak… with dirty hands!
    Yes and here’s the result of the blood test: aqua distillata [sic!]. What did you think it would be?… Swine!
    The day was ending. The sweaty din, sticky dirt, stench, the human swarm—everything was loaded onto wagons and carted away. The deep blue evening, brandishing a broom, nodded to Serafim as it advanced from the east. A gentle silvery sheen set in on high. On the emptying streets each black silhouette was i ndividually underlined. Piggish faces dared to smile at Serafim, to look into his face. Annihilate them all, thought Serafim. Incinerate every one of them. Yes, my face shines. Not for you! How dare you look!
    By the time he approached his building, it was completely dark. A temptingly empty bench. I’ll have a breath of fresh air. And tomorrow—the flight.
    He spread his wings, looked upward. The starry wheel turns slowly, slowly. Berenice’s Hair, Virgo, the Herdsman, the Hunting Dogs—clean, cold, April diamonds. That was the place for Serafim. A sexless, shining body, he would glide in silvery raiment through the resonant heights, let the streaming cold of the constellations run between his fingers, dive into ethereal currents. Dling! Dling!—the starry threads jingled like the strings of a harp. He would drink his fill of the clean, sparkling bubbles of the twenty-star Cup—And burn up the filthy earth. He’d pluck out the double, transfusing star from the Hunting Dogs constellation—the Heart of Charles… And he’d scorch the earth with fire.
    Behind the bench, in the thick, bare bushes, something rustled, crackled, yapped—the white dog ran out, spun around, waved its tail, jumped on Serafim’s lap—joyfully, joyfully, as if it had found a long-lost friend. It jumped about noisily, trying to lick his face.
    Serafim fell from the sky, jerked away, screamed, thrust out his arms. The dog jumped back, sat on its hind legs, tilted its head, and looked straight at Serafim endearingly. The sight of the affectionate muzzle and dark dog eyes caused something hot and dirty to rise in Serafim’s chest, fill his throat. Silently, gritting his teeth, trembling, hating, Serafim moved toward the dog. It didn’t understand and was overjoyed, wagged its tail, grinned, and ran to meet him. Serafim kicked at the dog’s eyes with his heel, lost his footing, kicked, kicked, kicked! There we go.
    He stood for a while. The dog lay stretched out. Quiet. The stars dripped. A woman’s voice called:
    “Sha-arik, Sharik, Sharik!… Sha-aaaarinka, Sharinka, Sha-rinka!…”
    The same for you, thought Serafim. Stamp out everyone. Trying not to make any noise with his wings, he quickly moved toward the building.
    He slept badly that night. His jawbones ached. He awoke at dawn, and felt his alarmingly changed palate with his tongue. Something was wrong. He yawned—and had difficulty opening his mouth. Everything had somehow become different. Something’s in the way. It had gotten colder. He wiped his face with his hand and looked—blood: he’d cut his palm on the end of his nose. The mirror! From the white morning murk, from the oval frame, someone was looking out at Serafim: a red, horny beak; a low forehead covered with blue-gray scales; from the mouth, the edges of a narrow slit, two large, long milk-white fangs. Serafim looked coldly into the frame. He ran the split tongue along the fangs. They’re strong. He looked at the clock: Off to the dentist. The private doctor. There’s time before the flight.
    Tap tap tap went his claws on the asphalt. Faster—tap, tap tap tap tap…
    “The monster Serpent Gorynych!” shouted some boys. “Look there’s Serpent Gorynych!”
    Serafim tucked his coat tight around him, grabbed his wide black wings, and took off at a run—the bus had already rounded the corner.
Translated by Jamey Gambrell


    SHE WAS born some fifty years ago. They called her Natasha. The name promised large gray eyes, soft lips, a delicate silhouette, perky hair with highlights. But what came out was a fat, porous face, an eggplant nose, a dejected chest, and short, bulging bicycle calves.
    In childhood she was whisked from under the gloomy arches of gray Liteiny Prospect to a dacha outside Leningrad: where exactly—had been forgotten. The name had faded, crumbled, scattered to the winds like a dry leaf; sometimes at night it thrashed against the glass, its shadow rustled—a long, long, Finnish word stretched out in the middle.
    The name was lost, the days were long gone, her curly-headed little girlfriends had melted along the way—in dreams only the whisper of their feet could be heard, only the dim, distant laughter, transparent like a drawing on the air.
    On lonely nights memories of gigantic trees, roads of boundless breadth, and cupolas soaring into ceiling heights came to Natasha in dreamy gusts, like a shadow sliding by. Everything had slipped away, disappeared into thin air, vanished without a trace. Long ago in that now disintegrated world, they played the most delightful games on green lawns, and an ominous significance haunted the dark, immutable incantations that resounded like alarm bells:
The moon came out behind a cloud,
He drew a knife and cried out loud:
Now I’ll stab you,
Now I’ll hit,
I don’t care, ’cause you are IT!

    And the horrid, yellow, horned moon with a human face rose up from the clouds of blue-black billowing fog, and its armor clanked dimly and its word—was law. I don’t care, ’cause you are it! And they were afraid of the Moon and did not violate its oppressive, threatening will. Except when one of them cried out the colorful, catchy, lizardlike word: chooreekee! allyallyin-comefree! Then for a second the horrific wheel of the world stopped running, stood rooted to the spot, the iron gates locked open, the fetters unfastened—and inside the charmed, delicate rainbow bubble of sudden freedom the little rebel himself stiffened in surprise, stopped in shock.
    Heavenly valleys, tall rose-colored grasses swaying in the warm breeze; hills rising with floral breath. And in the evenings, a never-extinguished sunset beyond the black spruce peaks—orange, raspberry; in the evenings—gray, red-eyed wolves carefully distributed between the tree trunks, waiting in vain for their sinister wolfish opportunity—but no one would lie near the edge of the bed or cradle.
    And in the heights above everything stretched the world of grownups—noisy, droning high overhead like pines in foul weather. Grownups: large, warm pillars, reliable, eternal columns that held out glasses of milk and offered trays of latticed blueberry pie, that ran out with prickly wool sweaters in their outstretched hands and got down on their knees to fasten small dusty sandals.
    And then something broke, something went wrong. The kaleidoscope—and everything in it—shattered: a handful of dull glass shards, bits of cardboard, and strips of fiery, crimson-backed mirror. The world began to dwindle and wither, the grass receded, the ceiling lowered, borders started to show through, the delightful games were forgotten. The evening fog, the wolves and the forest, it turned out, were painted on canvas carelessly tacked on wood stretchers that leaned against the cold wall. Grownups broke all the rules and died: Father was crossed out by the red line of war, Mother shriveled and extinguished; their faces dissolved in a tremulous netting of rain. The only one to dig in, hold on, the only one to stay—was Grandmother. And like a barrier, like Baba Yaga’s pike fence, impenetrable, pitch-black adolescence rose up in front of Natasha: twisted dead-ends, shameful thoughts, revolting conjectures.
    The sky was silent, the earth died. Slushy rains fell for centuries. Natasha dragged the swelling caldron of her body, lumbering along on her pawish feet—there are five of them, seven of them, they’re in the way; in the mirror, heavy, clumsy eyes looked out at her from a thick, rubbery face. People walked around up to the waist in filth, they concealed stench and open sores under their clothes, and all of them thought only of one thing. And with a shudder, suspecting her own unclean, female, animal nature, Natasha felt attacked night and day by a foul wind blowing and blowing from below at her gut, at her unprotected depths.
    She began to dream of silent ravines, closed underground dens, staircases with collapsing steps. Every night, ripping her nails, Natasha tore off the cold, padded doors, and behind one of those doors her dead father, his huge mouth yawning, blew a monstrous black bubble from ash-colored lips—a hellish balloon.
    And Natasha lay for hours, covering herself with a blanket from head to toe so that neither humans nor the stars could discern the marshy rubbish heap writhing like putrid mushrooms in her soul, so they wouldn’t recognize the unmentionable.

    At this time Konovalov began to drop in.
    He came in from the cold, took out a handkerchief, and carefully dried his nose as it defrosted in the warmth; he gazed intently with his blue eyes, wiped his hands, made friends with Grandmother’s cheesecake: Natasha attracted him. Konovalov helped Grandmother with money, gave advice about Natasha’s future, moved the furniture, screwed in pale light bulbs high up on the ceiling, and, flustered, even offered a princely gift: he rented them a cheap dacha for the summer. And Natasha waited for the squeak of the door from the communal hall, the shudder of the dusty ball fringe on the door curtains, waited for the moment when, bearing a questioning blue fire in his eyes, Konovalov would enter.
    But Konovalov was clean and Natasha was dirty, and she battened down all the hatches, caulked all the cracks, stood like a mute black tower. Konovalov’s blue flares fizzled out against her cold surface.
    Like a frenzied falcon, Konovalov looked this way and that, circled, clicked his beak, and then, unwillingly, shot up into the air and hid himself far beyond the deep blue forest. No one ever loved her again.
    …But that summer, that summer in the country, the magical farewell feather that Konovalov let fall.
    In a tight sundress, with a waffle towel slung over her neck, Natasha went out on the June porch. An early sun—timid, cold, pure—trembled on high, entangled in the pine. The air was colored in unsteady morning tones—not quite color, but the intimation of color: a sigh of pink, a hint at transparency. The earth was black, firm, the grass wet, thick, and under every bush lay a hard block of lilac shade. It was damp, lush, shadowy, the garden was neglected. And the sun climbed upward and pierced the pine summits with pale rainbow knitting needles. There, at the very top, dark blue birds flitted about, and the tiny, green, sharp-tipped umbrellas shone with an unbearable, sun-filled happiness. There the morning was being made, a holiday was being celebrated, there was joy, joy, joy—a young June bride.
    Beneath one’s feet was a green, prickly country, dove-gray blueberry undergrowth, the green-pea shapes of unripened wild strawberries, whitish pink fields of cockles, and beyond the bright forest—the smooth quiet of a lake burning under the sun.
    And Natasha carried in her soul a limpid golden glass of champagne happiness.
    By autumn she was despondent, her heart pounded, she heard voices, had dreams. From rows of late gypsy poppies, spun from gentle soporific substances, the wind blew potions, visions of bedchambers, connecting suites, cool boudoirs, light blue lacy bridges over misty waterways, muddled paths that led to a nocturnal country: a pliant, soft, brown, elusive country; to a sleepy forest with neat yellow paths, literate bears that walked on their hind legs, friendly old women who willingly lived alone in thickets and waved plump hands from gingerbread windows; and you walk farther and farther on, you’ve already made it past the round table buried in the ground, and the old gray hammock stretched between resinous spruces, you’ve passed the abandoned, child-size watering can; and you see yourself, sitting on your haunches, with a yellow silk ribbon in your hair; and on the bench, ornamented by bark beetles, your dead parents are sitting and waiting. Now you remember their faces. Mama wears white tennis shoes and a white beret; Papa sports a mustache. He’s drawing a word of some sort on the sand with a black umbrella. A strange word, you can’t quite make it out. You’re on the verge of getting it… but no. They’re looking straight at Natasha, they’re silent, smiling: What’s the problem? Well? Didn’t you understand? Just a minute, wait, any second now… there… but the thick cloth curtains of dream quiver, the faces blur, the forest grows thin as gauze, and like a fish jerked out of the water, panting and weighty, Natasha is once again here. Upon awakening the unambiguous temples of her today throb. The obscure water closes up, the lid slams shut, on the white ceiling the undeciphered abracadabra—the futile missive from her dead father—melts swiftly.
    Grandmother took Natasha to the doctor, Natasha swallowed white tablets, and she no longer dreamt of anything except sighing, black waves of air.
    After graduating from the institute, Natasha taught geography to schoolchildren. The word “geography” caused vast expanses to unfold in her mind: a hawk glided above the poppy fields, the muffled, nighttime sea roared, poisonous lily-white flowers swayed high overhead, and at the very bottom of the heavy, round earth, where the blue string bag of the meridians tightens into a stiff knot, a frost-covered skier, following the trail of whining dogs, slowly wandered upside down among the delicate ice glades of Queen Maud Land. But she didn’t know how to talk about this, and for that matter, no one asked her to; in fact, there was no science on earth devoted to studying the fragrance of a garden at night, the moan of sea foam, the dark splendor of the ocean’s pearls, and the dull thud of a lonely heart. What if the children were to guess—how shameful— that Natasha, their melancholy, large-nosed teacher, imagined “bauxite deposits” as forest caves from which fat, reddish, short-haired dogs in round boxing gloves tumbled one after another, and “Tung Sten” as a raven-haired Chinese prince in a robe of iridescent cast? So, afraid of being found out, Natasha spoke in a dull, confusing manner, gazed imploringly at the awkward, chapped-knuckled eighth graders, whom she feared, hinted at the answers herself, and drew pretty blue A’s on their papers with a sense of relief.
    Time was passing, her heart beat, and no one arrived to love Natasha. But there were omens, premonitions, and visions, those ambiguous signs that fate proffers every so often—hadn’t the Yellow Moon, emerging with a knife from the blue billows of misty clouds, promised her something ominous, enormous, and petrifying? But now the Yellow Moon was silent and only played with the carved black shadows on Grandmother’s grave.
    A long communal corridor ran through Natasha’s dwelling; overhead in the half-dark swam washbasin tambourines, dusty Aeolian bicycle harps, and over the exit, rising like a plague cemetery up in arms, the black skulls of electric meters huddled together; as night fell the white stripes of their teeth, each row marked by a single bloody tooth, began madly spinning to the right. In the evening, soccer games whistled and blazed blue behind other people’s doors, other people’s husbands argued loudly; grandmothers sitting on high beds scratched their legs. A cheerful plumber reached for his rosy young neighbor in the kitchen; the neighbor woman flapped her elbows and the cheerful plumber exclaimed delightedly: “Goooood and spunky!”
    In the evenings Natasha played poker with yellow, tobacco-permeated Konkordia Benediktovna, who gave her advice on how to dress; Konkordia Benediktovna herself wore a dark, glinting brooch at her breast, she fetched large faceted beads horn little boxes, turned cups over, and tapped her fingernail against the porcelain bottoms with their pale blue pedigree stamps—antiques, ancient antiques. Natasha gazed at the worn little cards and wanted to look like the Russian Queen of Diamonds—soft, blue-eyed, dressed in a white gathered head scarf and a sable vest. The old widower Gagin would stop in, looking like a graying crane in a red muffler; every year he drew a crazed Santa Claus and a violently lunatic Snow White for the windows of the vegetable store: mammoth, red-faced, ready to take on anything, they raced furiously through a curly blizzard on princely sleighs with silver spangles.

    In the morning there was the humiliating visit to the toilet with its oozing pistachio walls, carefully torn rectangles of Socialist Industry or The Week, and a swaying dog-leash chain ending in an old-fashioned porcelain pear, on which some wise Englishman, to help things along, had written the black word “Pull” in English and had even drawn a tiny pointing hand in a black cuff: which direction to pull. But just for fun, the cheerful plumber always deliberately disobeyed the Englishman’s directions, and while Natasha fumed indignantly in the slime-covered isolation booth, old lady Morshanskaya, ailing and disheveled in her nightgown, was already pounding on the door, shouting in her whiskered voice:
    “Have some consideration for old people!… Natalia, is that you?…. Your insides will fall out!…”
    The bathroom window opened onto the back stair, and old lady Morshanskaya, fearing an attack by Young Pioneer scouts out collecting materials for recycling, barricaded it with a wooden washtub—the very same cracked one, the last hand-me-down from the Magic Golden Fish. The bathroom was used exclusively for washing clothes—they went to the baths to wash themselves. Natasha went as well: she looked at the strange, undressed women, pink, like wet ham, and found fault with them all. Once, in the steam room, on the slippery, sloping floor, the fat, naked high-school headmistress passed by with a wet knot of hair on her forehead and a tub tucked under her arm like a class register, the same headmistress who, that very morning, had sternly declared: “We, pedagogues, collectively recognize.” And long afterward, whenever the headmistress—her face purple, her medal clinking—yelled at adolescents who giggled during the ceremonial lineup, all Natasha could see was the horrid, red, distended creature that shuffled hurriedly past along the wet, terra-cotta tile.
    On the summer boulevards sat old women who had known a better life: gilded cups, the frosty flora of lace hems, the tiny ant-like facets of foreign fragrance vials, and perhaps—indeed, most likely—secret lovers; they sat with one leg crossed over the other, their gaze lifted to where the heavenly evening theater silently lavished burning crimsons, golden treasures; and the loving western light crowned the blue hair of these former women with tea roses.
    But nearby, heavily spreading their swollen legs, with drooping hands and drooping heads wrapped in dotted kerchiefs, flames all snuffed out, like dead swans sat those who had lived for years in brown communal kitchens, in dim corridors, those who had slept on iron frame beds next to deep-set windows, where beyond the speckled blue casserole, beyond the heavy smell of fermentation, beyond the tearstained glass, another person’s wall darkens and swells with autumn anguish.
    And Natasha began to dream: if old age must come to me as well, then let me turn into a clean, pink, white-haired old lady, a beloved schoolteacher, kind and funny, like a hot cross bun. But she wasn’t made to be a hot cross bun and so was obliged to become a stooped, muddy-gray old lady with jowls.
    She only made it to Moscow once, by chance. In a taxi, scared stiff, she zoomed along the nighttime streets squeaky with frost; she gazed up at the enormous buildings—rearing black chests of drawers, the gloomy castles of vanished titans, gigantic honeycombs crowned with bloody embers standing guard. And in the morning she looked out of the hotel window onto a hushed thaw, the soft, gray day, the jumble of little two-story yellow buildings and annexes pierced by morning lights—muslin is drawn back from a small window, a kettle whistles, a grandmother in felt boots entertains her grandson with white rolls— sweet, soft, Russian Moscow!
    She immediately wanted to live there, wanted to exhale frosty steam in the small lanes, clear little paths in the snowdrifts, wear loose, ample blouses untucked, drink tea with hard round pretzels purchased in a little, ruddy, golden shop.
    Elated by the strong morning air, by Moscow’s slapdash shabbiness, by the smoldering geranium lampposts in low windowsills, Natasha awoke, threw her arms open wide, laughed, and fell in love—swiftly and uninhibitedly, on meeting the bearded, sandy-haired Pyotr Petrovich from the city of Izium, who had come to Moscow to go shopping. Happy, she laughed, leaning her chest on the table of the dumpling shop, and watched with shining eyes as Pyotr Petrovich heartily tossed the steaming white blobs into his large mouth; she trotted around to stores with the cheerful Iziumer like a dog, waved from long lines, helped him lug blue shoeboxes, elbowed her way through to the steep Eliseevsky counter windows, and in the crowd accidentally pressed her cheek to the wide, fragrant back of that beloved sheepskin coat.
    And Pyotr Petrovich, unaware, laughed joyfully, turned around toward Natasha as he swayed in the roaring surf at the counters of Children’s World, and in a booming voice called through the storm of heads: “Miss! Over here, Miss! Give me a tabletop ring toss.” And from afar he raised his victorious hands and linked them over his head, nodding to Natasha: I’m alive, alive, I bought it, await me on the shore….
    And at the station, near the train to Izium, he shook Natasha’s hand joyfully: Thank you, you’re a wonderful woman, come visit Izium, you’ll get on splendidly with my wife, you’ll meet my children….
    Pyotr Petrovich sank, Natasha howled like a wolf after the departing green train, and her howl—a wartime, train station howl—flew over the ringing rails, over the redbrick barracks, over the cruel, bitter-cold earth. And behind Natasha, holding her firmly by the shoulder, stood old age, like a stern, patient doctor who has prepared his usual instruments.

    She began to like gray goosedown scarves, to be pickier about her shoes: were they well-cut, did they pinch? She went to visit old lady Morshanskaya, and inspected her boxes of homeopathic remedies: sulfur iodine, salvia, hamamelis. For the old woman’s birthday she gave her an enema bag: light blue, cheerful, with a relief drawing: little bouquets of lily of the valley against a sunrise. Konkordia Benediktovna returned from visiting her sister in Paris and brought Natasha a red plastic spoon. The widower Gagin would drop in with a crossword puzzle: Now then, Natasha, this is your territory—a river in Kazakhstan, five letters, ending with “sh”?
    At New Year’s, Gagin drank champagne and offered Natasha his heart and hand; Natasha laughed, Gagin laughed too; he was a jovial old man, and every year his drunken Santa Clauses and pedigree milk-cow Snow Whites turned out cheerier and cheerier.
    Natasha moved the buffet and remembered Konovalov; at first he flared like a blue spark in the dark, then he flew in more and more often, hovered in the air, blotted his nose, and timidly disappeared if someone knocked at the door. While canning tomatoes, throwing the whole weight of her body onto the stiff lids of the jars, Natasha imagined how Konovalov, gratefully surprised, would fish out a soft, cool, dripping ball with two fingers, and ask for seconds.
    Asleep in Serafimovsky Cemetery, Grandmother approved of Konovalov, but she’d gone and taken his address with her. Natasha flipped through the phone book: Konovalovs multiplied like cards in a deck, they scattered about the city like ants, their little black numbers blinked—one lived here, on Liteiny. It was easy to say: find Konovalov…. A copper bell with a round inscription: “please turn.” Brrring, brring, brrriiinngg! Silence.
    Slip-slap—footsteps. The bar clanks; squealing, a two-foot-long iron-smelling hook flies off; a chain scrapes. A suspicious old lady sticks a yellow, hairy nose out from the darkness, the smell of kasha wafts through the door: “Who do you want?”— “Konovalov.”—“He’s not home.” Bang!—the door slams shut. Maybe he lives in a new building, on Rzhevka, or Grazhdanka, or on Silvery Boulevard, all riddled with rusty wire?… “Who’s there?” “I’m looking for Konovalov, please….” A surprised wife —dark, thin—wipes her hands on her apron, perplexed: Come in, please, but… Behind her—an unfamiliar, alien apartment, their apartment, the unread story of a life that has passed without me…. Konovalov comes out, chewing: “Who are you?…”
    No, but maybe he actually lives out of town? In some two-story wooden house…. A rooster wanders about the yard, tiger lilies bloom near the porch, the ground is trampled, packed down by feet…. A front door—like a dacha outhouse, and farther on, up a steep stair—a dark entryway, a hanging horse collar, wooden washtubs…. “It’s Konovalov you want? Upstairs, upstairs, knock on the door….” And he’s lying in his boots on the bed, a cigarette in his hand, flowers in the windows, a grandfather clock: ticktock, ticktock; the pinecone weight crawls down…. And what will I say to him? “Oh, Konovalov! If once you loved a green, unripe sapling, then won’t you now take autumn’s withering, rotting fallen fruit?…”
    In the cemetery where old lady Morshanskaya was buried there was also a Konovalov, but that one was four years old, and in the last century for that matter; and besides, the little tombstone angel, pressing a green finger to his mossy lips, invited silence.
    Natasha knitted Gagin a pair of socks: The old man’s room was damp. She mustn’t forget to caulk the windows for the winter. Some wonderful star pupils presented her with a colorful album for her birthday: Cats of Europe. The elevator began to break down more frequently. You can rarely buy good tea nowadays. Did you hear, there’s a cold front coming in tomorrow? Listen to that wind howl. And Natasha went to the window and listened, and nothing, nothing could be heard but the din of passing life.
Translated by Jamey Gambrell


    IN THE mornings Alexei Petrovich’s mama yawns loud and long: hurrah, onward, a new morning gushes in through the window; the cactuses shine, the curtains quiver; the gates of the nighttime realm have slammed shut; dragons, mushrooms, and frightening dwarfs have plunged below the earth once again, life triumphs, the heralds blow their horns: a new day! a new day! Da-da-da da da-daa!
    Mamochka combs her thinning hair oh so quickly with her hands, throws her bluish legs over the high bed frame—let them hang for a moment and think: all day they’ll have to drag around the 135 kilos that Mamochka has accumulated in the course of eighty years.
    Alexei Petrovich opened his eyes: sleep slips serenely from his body; everything is forgotten, the last crow flies off into the gloom; the nocturnal guests, gathering their ghostly, ambiguous props, have interrupted the play until next time. A breeze sweetly fans Alexei Petrovich’s bald spot, the newly grown bristle on his cheeks pricks his palm. Isn’t it time to get up? Mamochka will give the order. Mamochka is so big, loud, and spacious, and Alexei Petrovich is so little. Mamochka knows everything, can do everything, gets in everywhere. Mamochka is all powerful. Whatever she says, goes. And he—is a late child, a little bundle, nature’s blunder, a soap sliver, a weed intended for burning that accidentally wormed its way in among its healthy brethren when the Sower generously scattered the full-blooded seeds of life about the earth.
    Can I get up already, or is it early? Don’t squawk. Mamochka is carrying out her morning ritual: She honks into a handkerchief, pulls her stockings, sticking and prickling, onto the columns of her legs, fastens them under her swollen knees with little rings of white rubber. She hoists a linen frame with fifteen buttons onto her monstrous breast; buttoning it in the back is probably hard. The gray chignon is reattached at Mamochka’s zenith; shaken from a clean nighttime glass, her freshened teeth flutter. Mamochka’s facade will be concealed under a white, pleated dickey, and, hiding the seams on the back, the insides out, napes, back stairs, and emergency exits—a sturdy dark blue jacket will cover the whole majestic building. The palace has been erected.
    Everything you do is good, Mamochka. Everything’s right.
    Everyone is already awake in the apartment, everyone’s stirring, all the Men and Women have started talking. They slam doors, burble water, jingle on the other side of the wall. The morning ship has left the slip, it cuts through the blue water, the sails fill with wind, the well-dressed travelers, laughing, exchange remarks with one another on the deck. What shores lie ahead? Mamochka is at the wheel, Mamochka is on the captain’s bridge, from the crow’s nest Mamochka looks onto the shining ripples.
    “Alexei, get up! Shave, brush your teeth, wash your ears. Take a clean towel. Put the cap back on the toothpaste. Don’t forget to flush. And don’t touch anything in there, you hear me?”
    All right, all right, Mamochka. How right everything you say is. How much sense everything immediately makes, how open the horizons become, how reliable a voyage with an experienced pilot. The old colored maps are unrolled, the route is drawn in with a red dotted line, all the dangers are marked with bright, clear pictures: there’s the dread lion, and on this shore —a rhinoceros; here a whale spouts a toylike fountain, and over there—is the most dangerous creature, the big-eyed, big-tailed Sea Girl, slippery, malicious, alluring.
    Alexei Petrovich will wash up, put himself together; Mamochka will come and check whether he messed anything, or else the neighbors will yell again; and then it’s food time. What did Mamochka make today? To get to the bathroom you have to go through the kitchen. Old ladies grumble at the hot stove, they’re stewing poison in pots, they add the roots of terrible plants, follow Alexei Petrovich with bad looks. Mamochka! don’t let them hurt me!
    Dripped a little on the floor. Oh no.
    There’s already a crowd in the hallway: the Men and Women are leaving, noisily checking for their keys, coin purses.
    The corner door with opaque glass is wide open; on the threshold stands that brazen Sea Girl, smirking. She winks at Alexei Petrovich; she’s all tilted; she puffs Tobacco, her Leg is stuck out, her nets laid—don’t you want to be caught, eh? But Mamochka’s to the rescue, she’s already racing like a locomotive, her red wheels pound, she whistles, out of the way!
    “Shameless hussy! Get out of here, I say! Not enough for you… have to have a sick man as well!…”
    “Ga-ga-ga!” The Sea Girl isn’t afraid.
    Dart—and into the room. Saved. Yu-u-ck. Women—are terrifying. It isn’t clear what they’re here for, but they’re very unsettling. They walk by—smelling like they do… and they have —Legs. There are lots of them on the street, and in every house, in this one, and that one, and that one, behind every door, they’ve hidden, they’re doing something, bending, rummaging around, giggling into their fists; they know something and they won’t tell Alexei Petrovich. He’ll sit down at the table and think about Women. Once Mamochka took him with her out of town, to the beach; there were lots of them there. There was one… a wavy sort of fairy… like a little dog… Alexei Petro-vich liked her. He went up close and looked at her.
    “Well, what are you staring at?” shouted the fairy. “Get out of here, you retard!”
    Mamochka came in with a bubbling pot. He looked in. There were the pink weenies of sausages. He was glad. Mamochka sets the table, moves, wipes up. The knife pops out of his fingers, strikes the oilcloth somewhere to the side.
    “In your hands, take the sausage in your hands.”
    Ah, Mamochka, guiding star! Heart of gold! You’ll fix everything. Wise, you’ll unravel all the tangles, you’ll destroy all the back alleys, all the labyrinths of this incomprehensible, unnavi-gable world with your powerful hand, you’ll sweep away all the walls—here’s an even, leveled plaza. Boldly take one more step. Farther on—wind-fallen trees.
    Alexei Petrovich has his own world—in his head, the real one. Everything’s allowed there. But this one, outside—is bad, wrong. And it’s very hard to remember what’s good and what’s bad. They’ve set up and agreed upon written Rules that are awfully complicated. They’ve learned them, their memory is good. But it’s hard for him to live by someone else’s Rules.
    Mamochka poured coffee. Coffee has a Smell. You drink it—and the smell goes over to you. Why aren’t you allowed to make your lips into a tube, cross your eyes to look at your mouth, and smell yourself? Let Mamochka turn her back.
    “Alexei, behave yourself!”
    After breakfast they cleaned the table, set out the glue, cardboard, scissors, tied a napkin around Alexei Petrovich: he’s going to glue boxes. When he’s done a hundred of them—they’ll take them to the pharmacy. They’ll get some money. Alexei Petrovich loves these boxes, he doesn’t like to part with them. He wants to hide them on the sly, save at least some for himself, but Mamochka watches carefully and takes them away.
    And then other people carry them out of the pharmacy, eat little white balls from them, and they tear up the boxes and throw them away. They throw them right in the trash bin, even worse, in their apartments, in the kitchen, in the trash he saw a ripped-up, dirtied box with a cigarette butt inside. A fearful black rage then filled Alexei Petrovich, his eyes flashed, he foamed at the mouth, forgot words, fiery spots flashed in front of his eyes, he could have strangled, torn them to pieces. Who did this? Who dared do this? Come on out, why don’t you! He rolled up his sleeves: Where is he? Mamochka ran over, calmed him down, led the enraged Alexei Petrovich off, took away the knife, tore the hammer from his convulsed fingers. The Men and Women were afraid and sat quietly, hidden in their rooms.
    The sun has moved to another window. Alexei Petrovich has finished his work. Mamochka fell asleep in the chair, she’s snoring, her cheeks gurgle, she whistles: pssshhew-ew-ew… Alexei Petrovich oh so quietly takes two boxes, ca-arefully, on tip-tip-tippy-toes—goes to his bed, ca-aarefully, carefully puts them under his pillow. At night he’ll take them out and sniff them. How the glue smells! Soft, sour, muffled, like the letter F.
    Mamochka woke up, it’s time to take a walk. Down the stairs, only not in the elevator—you can’t close Alexei Petrovich up in the elevator: he’ll begin to flail and squeal like a rabbit; why don’t you understand?—they’re pulling, pulling on my legs, dragging them down.
    Mamochka floats ahead, nods at acquaintances. Today we’ll deliver the boxes: unpleasant. Alexei Petrovich deliberately drags his feet: he doesn’t want to go to the pharmacy.
    “Alexei, don’t stick out your tongue!”
    The dawn has fallen behind the tall buildings. The gold windowpanes burn right under the roof. Special people live there, not the same kind as us: they fly like white doves, flitting from balcony to balcony. A smooth, feathery breast, human face—if a bird like that roosts on your railings, tilts its head and starts to coo and bill—you’ll look into its eyes, forget human speech, and start clucking in bird language, you’ll jump along the iron poles with fuzzy little legs.
    Under the horizon, under the bowl of the earth, giant wheels have started turning, monstrous conveyer belts are winding, toothed gears are pulling the sun down and the moon up. The day is tired, it has folded its white wings, flies westward, big, in loose clothes, it waves a sleeve, releases stars, blesses the people walking on the chilling earth: good-bye, good-bye, I’ll come again tomorrow.
    They’re selling ice cream on the corner. He’d really like some ice cream. Men and Women—but especially Women—stick money into the square window and get a frosty, crunchy goblet. They laugh; they throw the round, sticky papers on the ground or stick them on the wall, they open their mouths wide, lick the sweet, needlelike cold with red tongues.
    “Mamochka, ice cream!”
    “You’re not allowed. You have a sore throat.”
    If he mustn’t, he mustn’t. But he really, really wants some. It’s awful how much he wants some. If he had one of those monies, like other Men and Women have, one of the silvery, shiny ones; or a little yellow piece of paper that smells like bread—they also take those at the square windows. Ooh, ooh, ooh, how he wants ice cream, they’re all allowed, they all get ice cream.
    “Alexei, don’t twist your head around!”
    Mamochka knows best. I’m going to listen to Mamochka. Only she knows the safe path through the thickets of the world. But if Mamochka turned away… Pushkin Square.
    “Mamochka, Pushkin—is he a writer?”
    “A writer.”
    “I’m going to be a writer too.”
    “Of course you will. If you want to—you will.”
    And why not? He wants to, so he will be. He’ll get some paper, a pencil, and he’ll be a writer. There, that’s decided. He’ll be a writer. That’s fine.
    In the evenings Mamochka sits in a spacious armchair, pushes her glasses down on her nose, and reads thickly:
“A pall the storm casts on the sky,
And whirls the twisting snow,
First like a beast she’ll howl and cry,
Then like a child sob soft and low.”

    Alexei Petrovich really loves this. He laughs heartily, baring his yellow teeth; happy, he stamps his foot.
“First like a beast she’ll howl and cry,
Then like a child sob soft and low.”

    The words get to the end—and turn around, get to the end again—and turn around again.
“Apall thus tormcas tson thus ky,
An dwhirls thet wistings no!
First likab eastsheel howland cry,
Then likach ild sobs off tandlow!”

    Very good. This is how she’ll howl: oo-oooooo!
    Shhh, sshhh, Alexei, calm down!
    The sky is all sprinkled with stars. Alexei Petrovich knows them: little shining beads, hanging all by themselves in the black emptiness. When Alexei Petrovich lies in bed and wants to go to sleep, his legs start growing on their own, down, down, and his head grows up, up, to the black dome, up, and sways like the top of a tree in a storm, while the stars scrape his skull like sand. And the second Alexei Petrovich, inside, keeps shrinking and shrinking, compressing, he disappears in a poppy seed, in a sharp needle tip, in a microbe, in nothingness, and if he’s not stopped, he’ll vanish there completely. But the outside, giant Alexei Petrovich sways like a pine log mast, grows, scratches his bald spot against the night dome, doesn’t allow the little one to disappear into a dot. And these two Alexei Petroviches are one and the same. And this makes sense, this is right.
    At home Mamochka undresses, demolishes her daytime corpus, puts on a red robe, becomes simpler, warmer, more comprehensible. Alexei Petrovich wants Mamochka to pick him up. What nonsense! Mamochka goes out into the kitchen. It seems like she’s been gone an awful long time. Alexei Petrovich checked whether the boxes were still there, sniffed the oilcloth, took a chance, and went out into the hall. The corner door, where the guests of the Sea Girl giggle at night, was cracked open. A white bed was visible. Where’s Mamochka? Maybe she’s in there? Alexei Petrovich peeped in the crack cautiously. No one. Maybe Mamochka hid in the closet? Should he go in? The room is empty. On the Sea Girl’s table—an open tin can, bread, a nibbled pickle. And—a little piece of yellow paper and silver circles. Money! Take the money, run downstairs along the dark staircase, into the labyrinth of streets, look for the square window, and they’ll give him a sweet cold cup.
    Alexei Petrovich grabs, jingles, knocks things over, runs, slams the door, breathes loud and fast, trips. The street. It’s dark. Which way? That way? Or this way? What’s in his fist? Money! Someone else’s money! The money shows through his hairy fist. Stick his hand in his pocket. No, it’ll show through anyway. Someone else’s money! He took someone else’s money! Passersby turn around, whisper to one another: “He took someone else’s money!” People press to the windows, shoving each other: Let me look. Where is he? There he is! He has money! Aha! You took it, did you? Alexei Petrovich runs in the dark. Clink clink clink clink—the coins in his pocket. The whole city has spilled out onto the street. The shutters are thrown open. Hands point from every window, eyes shine, long red tongues stick out: “He took the money!” Let out the dogs. The fire engines blare, the hoses uncoil: Where is he? Over there! After him! Crazed, Alexei Petrovich rushes about. Throw it away, tear it from his hands, away, away, there it is, there it is! With his foot! Stamp on it with his foot! Traaaammmpple it!
    That’s it…. There…. It’s not breathing. It’s quiet. It’s died out.
    He wiped his face. There. Now where? Night. There’s a smell. Where’s Mamochka? Night. In the entryways wolves stand in black columns: they’re waiting. I’ll walk backward. I’ll trick them. Good. It’s stifling. I’ll unbutton. I’ll unbutton everything. Good. Now? Women with Legs walked by. They turned around. Snorted. So that’s the way it is? Whaaaat? Me? I’m a wolf! I walk backward!!! Aha, scared are you? I’ll catch up with you, I’ll pounce, we’ll see just what these Legs of yours are! He rushed at them. A cry. A-a-a-a! A blow. Don’t hit! A blow. Men smell of Tobacco, they hit you in the stomach, the teeth! Don’t! Forget it, leave him alone—don’t you see?… Let’s go.
    Alexei Petrovich leans against a drainpipe, spits something black, whines. Little one, so little, alone, you got lost on the street, you came into this world by mistake. Get out of here, it’s not for you! Alexei Petrovich cries with a loud howl, raising his disfigured face to the stars.
    Mamochka, Mamochka, where are you? Mamochka, the road is black, the voices are silent, the paths lead into a deep swamp. Mamochka, your child is crying, dying, your only one, beloved, long-awaited, long-suffered….
    Mamochka is running, Mamochka is gasping, she stretches out her hands, shouts, grabs, presses him to her breast, feels him all over, kisses him. Mamochka is sobbing—she’s found him, found him!
    Mamochka leads Alexei Petrovich by the reins into a warm den, into a soft nest, under a white wing.
    The swollen face is washed. Alexei Petrovich snuffles at the table, a napkin tied round him.
    “Do you want a soft-boiled egg? Soft-boiled, a runny one?”
    Alexei Petrovich nods his head: Yes, I want one. The grandfather clock ticks. It’s peaceful. Delicious hot milk, soft, like the letter TV. Something clears inside his head. That’s right, he wanted to be…
    “Mamochka, give me paper and a pencil! Quick! I’m going to be a writer!”
    “Lord almighty! My poor baby! Why on earth… Well, now, don’t cry, calm down, I’ll give you some; just wait, you have to blow your nose.”
    White paper, a sharp pencil. Quickly, quickly, while he hasn’t forgotten! He knows everything, he has understood the world, understood the Rules, grasped the laws of connection of millions of snatches and of odd bits and pieces! Lightning strikes Alexei Petrovich’s brain! He frets, he grumbles, grabs a piece of paper, pushes the glasses aside with his elbow, and, surprised at his own joyful renewal, hurriedly writes the newly acquired truth in big letters: “Night. Night. Night. Night. Night. Night. Night. Night. Night. Night…”
Translated by Jamey Gambrell


    THIS KOROBEINIKOV, he would come over to the dacha from the neighboring sanatorium. They operated on him there for an ulcer. That’s what doctors always say: for an ulcer. After all, you don’t just go cutting someone open without rhyme or reason, although I know a lot of people think it’d be interesting to get opened up, so they can take a look and see what’s in there just in case. But you can’t go and do that for no reason. So they give a reason to cut—an ulcer, let’s say—and then it’s up to God; our citizen goes and dies for some entirely different reason, and the doctors had nothing to do with it.
    So anyway, Korobeinikov would come visit the dacha from his sanatorium. It’s a nice walk, not hard, a couple of kilometers among hills, through a little birch forest. It’s August; the birds aren’t singing anymore, but it’s pure bliss all the same. The weather’s dry, the leaves are turning yellow and dropping off, here and there a mushroom sticks up. Korobeinikov would pick the mushroom and bring it to the house.
    You can’t make anything with one mushroom, but it was still a gift. An offering to the house. Olga Mikhailovna would stand on the porch, watching him come from behind the high-spiked birch-trunk fence, and say, “Here comes Korobeinikov, he’s got a mushroom.” And her words made everyone feel good, kind of peaceful, like in childhood: the sun shines serenely; the seasons slip by serenely; serenely, with no shouting or panic, autumn draws near. A nice man is coming, carrying a bit of nature. How sweet.
    Who knows how or why he got into the habit of going over to their place, why he became attached to them. But they were glad to have him. Having company in the country—it’s not like having company in the city. There’s a pleasant lack of obligation. In the city a guest won’t just drop in, he’ll phone first to say, I’d like to come by and visit you. The hostess will glance quickly at the floor: is there a lot of dust?—she’ll do a mental check: is the bed still unmade?—she’ll give a nervous thought to the refrigerator shelves—all in all, it makes for tension. Stress. But in the country none of that matters: what to sit on, what to drink, or from what cups. And it’s no disaster if you leave a guest alone for five minutes—in the city that’s a cardinal sin, but not in the country. It’s a different type of hospitality. The guest lounges in a wicker armchair, has a smoke, or just sits quietly, gazing out the window at the view, at the sky, and there’s a sunset playing through all its colors—it’ll give off a red or lilac stripe, then a golden crust will flare on a cloud, or everything will be tinged with a frosty green or lemon—a star will sparkle—Better than television.
    Then the hostess returns carrying a teapot under a padded-cotton cozy, she slices a loaf of pound cake, turns on the light. Moths fly in from the garden, flutter about. Small talk, this and that, everyone laughs, argues, sits around, sighs. Korobeinikov would be better off not smoking, what with his ulcer, but he smokes, launches into his discussions of mysterious phenomena. He believes in aliens, in little green men; he’s concerned about giant spiders, and triangles in the Nazca desert. In the newspaper Labor he read that a flying saucer came and hovered over the city of Sverdlovsk, that the sky near Leningrad shone with a strange light and no one knew why. This disturbs him. It disturbs Olga Mikhailovna too: she’s always wanted to meet little green men; she has plans for them. Korobeinikov says that in South America the little green men took this woman Dolores up with them in their saucer, gave her a ride, showed her a bird’s-eye view of the earth, then set her down—in the city of Boston. Dolores, a simple peasant woman, was completely bewildered—she didn’t know the language, didn’t know where to go. She’s got sixteen children at home howling to eat, and here she is, gadding about the city of Boston like a chicken, while her husband, José, also a simple peasant, doesn’t have a clue what’s going on either, and is so furious he’s sharpening his switchblade and threatening to take care of his faithless wife— just let her cross the threshold of their house! Olga Mikhailovna both believes and doesn’t believe, but she’s extremely annoyed: she would have figured things out just fine over there in the city of Boston, what with her common sense and clear thinking; she would have known what was what right away— these little green men are forever picking up the wrong people. Everyone laughs and gives Olga Mikhailovna instructions about what to bring them from Boston if the same thing ever happens to her. Olga Mikhailovna’s husband says just let her try; he’ll sharpen his switchblade, too, he won’t stand for any of these little men. Someone says aliens only take people to Boston if they’re from South America; anyone from the Moscow suburbs, it stands to reason, they’d take somewhere like Tyumen or the Matochkin Strait, and what would Olga Mikhailovna do in that case? Olga Mikhailovna’s husband says this is all nonsense—as if Labor was any authority!—and that there’s no such thing as aliens, it’s all meteors with megahertz. What hertz? Well, he couldn’t say for sure, he’s no astronomer, but they’ve all got megahertz. Oh, there goes Olga Mikhailovna’s husband again with his cheap materialism—he’s always reducing the dreams of progressive mankind to some little turd. One witty fellow immediately starts punning. “Whatever hertz, a person blurtz.” Who hertz where, comrades? Korobeinikov’s ulcer hertz, but he feels good here at this dacha; everything is so relaxed that he somehow forgets about his pain. One hour of time spent with pleasant people, a single hour an evening, is worth all the medicines they cram down him at the sanatorium.
    Korobeinikov savors one last cigarette: he taps it against the table; he kneads the hollow cardboard tip, lights a match; the pale flame illuminates his yellowish face, the fat lenses of his glasses, a bulging forehead with locks of thick black hair. Korobeinikov has extraordinary hair: the man is nearly sixty years old, and look what a mane he’s got! Everyone else already has bald spots of various shapes, except for the young people, of course. Olga Mikhailovna’s husband, glancing at Korobeinikov, runs his hand over his own balding head with chagrin—oh well, to each his own. At least I don’t have an ulcer.
    But now it’s dark outside the window—in August it gets dark early—and time for Korobeinikov to go. He’s expected for supper at the sanatorium: his piece of baked cheese pie with its beggarly puddle of sour cream has already grown cold, and the tea urn, too, and the lights have been turned out. He’ll sit in the half-empty cafeteria, deep in thought, brushing crumbs off the tablecloth, staring at his shaggy reflection in the black win-dowpanes, listening closely to the mustard-hot pain somewhere inside him—to the pain that awakens with the darkness and drones, drones like a distant transformer.
    Dolores—that is, Olga Mikhailovna—walks Korobeinikov out to the porch, and everyone else stands up as well, nodding and shaking his hand: It’s not too cold for you? Maybe you should take a jacket? No? Are you sure now? He will carefully step down from the porch, his glasses glinting, he’ll turn on a pocket flashlight, the bright circle will play at his feet, catching a bit of the green grass, the fence spikes, the trampled path, the startled, white tree trunks. Korobeinikov directs the beam to the skies, but the weak light scatters and the skies remain just as dark as ever; only the top branches and the crows’ nests are lit for a moment. Playful, he turns the flashlight back toward the porch, and then nothing can be seen in the night but a white star where Korobeinikov had been standing.
    At some point Olga Mikhailovna finds out that Dmitry Ilich has also rented a little dacha in their village—Dmitry Ilich, whom she knew slightly in the city; she’d run into him at friends’ houses, and they even kind of took to one another. Olga Mikhailovna thinks it’s only natural that people like her; she’s considered pretty, and from Dmitry Ilich’s viewpoint she’s still quite young. Dmitry Ilich is an interesting man, too: he’s a sculptor, and he knows tons of stories and amazing incidents, like for instance how once they unveiled a monument and it was headless! Well, and stuff like that. Dmitry Ilich limps, he walks with a stick, and it suits him. He says things like “No, I’m not Byron, I’m something else,” but somehow it ends up that he is sort of Byron, after all—he’s lame, he writes a little poetry, and he was in Greece for a day and a half on a cruise. He’s seen Europe, and this automatically commands respect. He says, “Italy—huh, nothing special. But Greece, now— Greece is something,” and though everyone understands that Italy is probably not exactly nothing special, he’s been there and they haven’t, so it’s hard to argue. Well, he says a lot of other things—he’s had plenty of adventures in his time. He was at the front for a speck, and in the camps—he “went camping” in Siberia for two years, as he puts it, not for any particular reason, naturally—but he doesn’t hold a grudge, he believes in destiny and has a sense of humor. So when Olga Mikhailovna runs into him in the village, she says, “Drop by and see us some evening,” and he thanks her and says, “I will be sure to limp by.” He’s really a gorgeous man—he plays the bohemian, of course, but so what?—he has hair down to his shoulders, streaked with gray, a slightly pockmarked face, yellow hawk eyes, and he wears a smock. He says to Olga Mikhailovna, “I must sculpt you.”
    So he actually does come to see them one evening, and they slice a pound cake and put the kettle on. Dmitry Ilich tells them about his cruise, and about how one old guy in their group blew all his foreign currency the first day out, and when they were already on their way home through Turkey he suddenly remembered that he hadn’t bought anything for his wife, so then he raced down to the Turkish market and traded his hearing aid—which he passed off as a radio—for a necklace. And he brought his old lady this necklace. Everyone’s laughing, including Olga Mikhailovna’s husband, and Olga Mikhailovna looks out the window and says, “Here comes Korobeinikov, he’s got a mushroom. Oh, he’s such a dear, and he tells the most amusing stories—about this woman named Dolores and all!”
    Dmitry Ilich says, “Korobeinikov! Which Korobeinikov? Could it really be the same Korobeinikov?” And he doesn’t explain what he means. Olga Mikhailovna is intrigued, of course, and looks to and fro, and in comes Korobeinikov with his mushroom and his stories, sweet and affable as ever—he likes it here, and it’s a nice day, and the air is good, and the woods are lovely, and the people are nice, and he’d be happy to stay forever.
    The guests are introduced to each other, everybody has tea, the evening chitchat begins. Korobeinikov, it must be said, is in top form, and Olga Mikhailovna is simply thrilled, but Dmitry Ilich is watching sort of intently and there’s some thought glimmering in his yellow eyes. Olga Mikhailovna is dying of curiosity—what did he mean?—her eyes shine, and everyone finds her charming. As always, for that matter.
    “Hmm. Well, what do you know?” says Dmitry Ilich, after the ulcer patient, playing with his flashlight, has disappeared into the grove. “Who would have thought?”
    “Well, what? What is it?”
    “No, who would have thought?” And he drums his fingers on the table. Then he lays out everything he knows about this Korobeinikov. They were in school together, as it happens. In different classes. Korobeinikov, of course, has forgotten Dmitry Ilich—well, it’s been forty years now, that’s only natural. But Dmitry Ilich hasn’t forgotten, no sir, because at one time this Korobeinikov pulled a really dirty trick on him! You see, in his youth Dmitry Ilich used to write poetry, a sin he still commits even now. They were bad poems, he knows that—nothing that would’ve made a name for him, just little exercises in the fair art of letters, you know, for the soul. That’s not the point. But, as it happened, when Dmitry Ilich had his little legal mishap and went camping for two years, the manuscripts of these immature poems of his ended up in this Korobeinikov’s hands. And the fellow published them under his own name. So, that’s the story. Fate, of course, sorted everything out: Dmitry Ilich was actually glad that these poems had appeared under someone else’s name; nowadays he’d be ashamed to show such rubbish to a dog; he doesn’t need that kind of fame. And it didn’t bring Korobeinikov any happiness: he got neither praise nor abuse for his reward; nothing came of it. Korobeinikov never did make it as an artist, either: he changed professions, and now he does some kind of technical work, it seems. That’s the way the cookie crumbles.
    “How do you like that,” says Olga Mikhailovna.
    “How do you like that,” says her husband. “What a bastard!”
    “Now then, I wouldn’t call him a bastard,” said Dmitry Ilich, softening. “At that time people saw things differently. Who could have known that I would come back? And this way my humble verse didn’t perish—at least it saw the light of day. Maybe he was even prompted by noble motives.”
    “But he could have apologized after your return,” says Olga Mikhailovna. “That’s what I would have done, at any rate.”
    “Those were different times, my child,” Dmitry Ilich explains indulgently. Olga Mikhailovna likes it when he calls her a child. At forty, it’s pleasant. “Different times. And how would he have known that I came back? I didn’t report to him. We weren’t even really acquainted. God will forgive him, and I already have. Right here and now I’ve forgiven him.”
    So once again evening falls, and from the woods comes that vile Korobeinikov, carrying his foul toadstool. Everyone already knows about his treachery, about the mark of Cain on him. Olga Mikhailovna stands on the porch. “You have to forgive him,” said Dmitry Ilich, but she doesn’t want to forgive him. “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” said Dmitry Ilich. All right, so she’ll be judged, but at least she’ll have the satisfaction of making judgments herself. She loves truth, what can you do, that’s how she is. Of course, she’s not about to persecute Korobeinikov—he has an ulcer, after all—but inside, in the pure house of her soul, she has the right to keep things in their proper place. And the place for trash is the kitchen, not the parlor.
    There he sits, in the wicker chair, weaving a lot of nonsense about miracles. There he goes, slurping tea and chomping on cake. There he goes, singing like a nightingale about how some kind of mysterious voids were supposedly found deep inside the pyramid of Cheops, and what could this signify? You’re the pyramid of Cheops yourself, thinks Olga Mikhailovna. “Megahertz…” mutters Olga Mikhailovna’s husband. And everyone else thinks hostile thoughts. And Korobeinikov can’t help but feel this.
    Korobeinikov is confused; Korobeinikov mumbles on—about how one fine evening, see, the skies over Petrozavodsk convulsed and a heavenly flame descended, a column of horrendous force, and everything turned bright as day, while crimson stripes ranged the sky and the whole shebang flashed and quaked, and what could this possibly signify? But knowing what they now know about Korobeinikov, the hosts and their guests no longer ooh and ah, no longer laugh, no longer cry out in disbelief. Olga Mikhailovna forces a smile, even though it’s about as easy for her to smile as it would be to lift weights, and she curses herself for her fake smile, her female cowardice: if only she could somehow give Korobeinikov to understand that that’s it—that’s it!—he needn’t come around here again, that’s enough, we don’t want him anymore. We know about your low-down dirty trick. And your ulcer is no excuse! Your ulcer is a heavenly flame sent down on you as a punishment, that’s what! We wish you no ill—go and get yourself cured, take your little vitamin pills, go drink buttermilk in your sanatorium—but don’t come around here! And don’t bring us any mushrooms.
    Korobeinikov, of course, can feel that the temperature at the dacha has dropped for some reason. He’s nervous; he smokes one cigarette after another; behind the thick lenses of his glasses his eyes watch, frightened and uneasy; he thinks the problem must be his stories—maybe he’s repeating himself, maybe they aren’t interested in this stuff. He hastens to inform them about the Filipino healers—it doesn’t help; he remembers a marvelous story about the Berdichev bonesetter who puts hopeless paralytics back on their feet—useless; the ice stays ice; they stare at him, their eyes hard as nuts. Finally he gets up to leave, and they all nod, but it’s not quite the same; they offer him the jacket again, but they don’t even pretend to rise, don’t walk him out to the porch, don’t see him off—it’s as though their joints had turned to stone. True, Olga Mikhailovna can’t help but do her duty as hostess: she opens the front door, waits for him to descend from the porch, turn on his flashlight, and disappear deep into the birch grove. The beam floats steadily, thoughtfully, through the severe, white tree trunks; it doesn’t soar or circle, doesn’t dance in the darkness.
    Korobeinikov’s ashtray is full of butts—geez, look how much he smoked! Everyone stares after the ashtray meaningfully as Olga Mikhailovna’s husband goes to dump it—that mound of empty, stinking cardboard tips—as if it measured the guilt of an unclean man.
    Korobeinikov walks through the unsheltering grove. The birch trunks are chilly, and the ground feels cold through his shoes; ahead smolder the lights of the sanatorium, a vale of woe: the beds there are white and the bed tables are white, the walls shine with white oil paint, white lamps hang from the ceilings, and on the staircase landing, where Korobeinikov goes to smoke, a fire hose is curled up in a white cabinet with glass doors. The hose is brown, flat, long—infinitely long, longer than life—and at night, when Korobeinikov falls asleep, headless orderlies will sail into the ward without touching the floor and order Korobeinikov to swallow the hose—that’s what you have to do before an operation—and, choking, he will swallow, swallow those long, endless yards of dull, rough ribbon.
    The next day, Korobeinikov sits at his boring meal, listlessly pokes at his fish balls with a fork, stares out the wide sanatorium windows to where August burns with gold, green, and deep blue—he’ll go for his usual walk and then he’ll drop by that house after all: he was only imagining things, he must have been in a bad mood himself, it’s just the illness, it’s the pain, the rumble, the spoonful of fire he must have swallowed somehow by mistake, those people have nothing to do with it. He walks through the grove, touches the cold bushes, leans his spectacles earthward, looking for a mushroom, but there aren’t any; lots of people hunt for them here.
    He sits on the veranda, trying to joke and be entertaining, but Olga Mikhailovna only narrows her eyes, and Olga Mikhailovna’s husband, who whenever he hears a good joke repeats it again and again, asks, “So how’s your megahertz—still hurts?” although the question is really unnecessary. And the conversation flags, halts, dries up, as if everything on earth had already been said.
    It must be boring for them to listen to the same thing over and over again—why hadn’t he considered that? Now, when that yellow-eyed sculptor puts on a show, they’re all pleased as Punch, they all laugh. Still, an old friend is better than two new ones, Korobeinikov thinks vaguely to himself; no matter, he’ll just have to outtalk him. He’ll prepare something for tomorrow. About life after death, for instance. What a person sees when he faints or is in a coma, when he’s clinically dead. Oh, there’s a lot of gripping stuff! The witnesses are completely reliable. He actually talked to one of these people. This guy told him that on the other side, everything is sky blue and transparent, but there’s no air, and you don’t need to breathe, you don’t even miss it. And, you know, the feeling is like when you’re young, or you just got out of the army, or you just had a son— a really good feeling. And then someone appears—you can’t exactly see anyone, but he’s there all the same—and this someone talks to you, but without any voice. “It’s not time yet,” he says. In a kind of respectful way. And then, whoosh!—you’re suddenly back on the operating table again, everybody’s running around you, frantic, but you’re lying there and you’re thinking, What do any of you know!… Yes, that’s a good story. Only it has to be told with elan, with spirit. Have to rouse the audience, right?… No, I won’t go there anymore, thinks Korobeinikov, heading back, tripping over a root. It’s humiliating, for heaven’s sake! If only it weren’t for the whiteness of the hospital, the dull shine of the linoleum, the sterile, deathly cigarette bucket! If only the fire hose didn’t come sneaking up in the evenings, didn’t stick to you with suction cups, didn’t sting you to the very core.
    Completely yellow, Korobeinikov walks along the evening path. Dmitry Ilich embraces Olga Mikhailovna in the birch forest.
    “Why does he keep dragging himself over here?” says Olga Mikhailovna indignantly, her eyes following the gaunt figure.
    “Oh, don’t pay him any mind, little one,” says Dmitry Ilich, kissing her.
    “How do you stand him, Dima, you’re simply a saint!”
    “Don’t be silly, my child, what’s there to get excited about! He’s got it bad enough as is, let him live out his life in peace! For him the time has come to wither; for you, to blossom. You see, even my walking stick is blooming at the sight of you.” Olga Mikhailovna’s head spins; if no one could see her she’d jump up and down and do cartwheels—wow, what a romance! Dmitry Ilich combs back his hair with his fingers, flashes his hawk eyes, and feasts them on Olga Mikhailovna.
    It grows dark. Korobeinikov, completely black, shuffles from the village to the sanatorium; a little ball of light bounces about on the roots. Dmitry Ilich has no secrets from Olga Mikhailovna: “By the way, my child, I was only joking,” he says, knocking leaves from a bush with a stick. “It was a practical joke— punish me. That story about the poems—it never happened, and I’ve never seen that Korobeinikov of yours before in my life.”
    “What do you mean, Dima?” says Olga Mikhailovna, scared.
    “The devil led me astray. Or maybe I was jealous of him. I thought, Who is this Korobeinikov character? But I pulled it off, didn’t I?”
    “Ohhhh, Dimochka, you’re so bad,” pouts Olga Mikhailovna. “What are we going to do with you? Come on, let’s go have our tea. My husband is probably sharpening his switchblade by now.”
    Over tea they giggle like conspirators. “What’s with you two?” says Olga Mikhailovna’s husband, surprised. So they have to tell about how Dmitry Ilich played a joke on Korobeinikov.
    Dmitry Ilich is very amusing about doing penance—he clasps his hands together and begs to be forgiven. He even wants to get down on his knees in front of everyone, only his lame leg gets in his way. “Don’t be ridiculous!” everyone shouts. No, he insists, he’ll get down on his knees! At least on one knee. He’s repented, repented! On one knee, and the other leg cocked like a pistol: how do you prefer the other leg—in front or behind? Everyone laughs: this Dmitry Ilich is so awfully artistic! And though Korobeinikov may be vindicated now, he’s a bore anyway. And somehow they’ve got used to thinking badly of him. Oh, to hell with him! “Heavenly flame!” “Megahertz!” “It hertz until it stoptz!” “Did you hear that?” shouts Olga Mikhailovna’s husband. “It hertz until it stoptz!” Anyway, he always talked such a lot of nonsense, and told such lies—did you notice? And tomorrow he’ll drag himself over here again. He ought to at least be ashamed—he can see how people feel about him; he could just stay put in that sanatorium of his! Spit in his face and he thinks it’s a spring rain!
    The next day Olga Mikhailovna feels very uncomfortable. First of all, around her husband, who doesn’t suspect a thing— oh well, that doesn’t matter—and secondly around Korobeinikov. It would be better if he didn’t come. It’s uncomfortable to look someone straight in the eye when we’ve treated him like crap for no reason and we can’t admit it. But, on the other hand, he’s been cleared. And now we don’t have to live with that awful feeling of having invited a bastard into the house. Dima behaved badly, of course. But he’s repented—and all on his own, too, no one twisted his arm. It takes guts to do that, whatever you say. That’s courage.
    But Korobeinikov does come, of course. And he tries really hard. Why does he try so hard? It’s all over with! And Olga Mikhailovna puts up with him, soiled as he is, and she’s solicitous, emphatically solicitous, as she pours him tea and feeds him pound cake. “Everything they give you in the sanatorium is probably mush—isn’t it? At least here you can eat like a real person.” Korobeinikov is startled, he looks bewilderedly through his thick glasses. He doesn’t understand—what was all that about, last week? What’s going on now? There’s some kind of tension in the air. And does anyone like this tension? No one does. It’s hard to be with him, Korobeinikov. He’s already turned completely yellow. And it would be nice if he’d realize that, since the conflict is resolved and everything’s cleared up now, it would just be better if he didn’t come here anymore. Because it’s hard to be with him. And when he looks closely into their faces, trying to understand, that’s hard too. And there’s no point staring. As it turns out, it’s nothing to do with him. He’s been acquitted and now he can just leave.
    Olga Mikhailovna looks at Korobeinikov with hatred. These nightly visits drive her crazy. And they drive everyone else in the house crazy, too. What—don’t we have the right to live like human beings? Among our own friends? Honestly, it would be better if he died. Yes, well, that’s what’ll probably happen soon. That’s no ulcer he’s got, oh no. It’s not an ulcer; see how lemony-looking he is, and he’s aged right before our very eyes. And another sign that the end is near is that insensitivity and tactlessness, that thickheaded stubbornness—when the sick person doesn’t care about proprieties anymore and just clings to life, to people, to whatever there is. Yes, as an honest person, she freely admits it to herself: she wishes he would die. There you have it. Everyone would rest easier.
    The nights are cold: she goes out on the porch, offers Korobeinikov a jacket, knowing that he won’t take it; she waits while he lights the flashlight, steps down from the porch; she listens greedily to his feeble feet shuffling through the fallen leaves. She hopes that she’s right about the symptoms. Soon, very soon. It would be nice if it were before the end of the summer. She stands for a long time and watches the flashlight’s pale fire count the hospital-white birch trunks, watches the corridor of light close in, the darkness thicken, the heavenly flame sweep blindly by, searching out its victim.
Translated by Jamey Gambrell


    AT NIGHT spring blows through Leningrad. River wind, garden wind, and stone wind collide, whirl together in a powerful rush, and race through the empty troughs of the streets, shatter the glass of attic windows with a peal and lift the damp, limp sleeves of laundry drying between rafters; the winds fling themselves flat on the ground, soar up again, and take off, speeding the scents of granite and budding leaves out to the night sea where, on a distant ship under a fleet sea star, a sleepless traveler crossing the night will raise his head, inhale the arriving air, and think: land.
    But by early summer the city begins to wear on the soul. In the pale evening you stand at the window above the emptying street and watch the arc lamps come on quietly—one moment they’re dead and silent, and then suddenly, like a sick, technological star, a rosy manganese point lights up, and it swells, spills, grows, and brightens until it shines full strength with a dead, lunar whiteness. Meanwhile, outside of town, the grasses have already quietly risen from the earth, and without a thought for us the trees rustle and the gardens change flowers. Somewhere out there are dusty white roads with tiny violets growing along their shoulders, the swish of summer stillness at the summit of century-old birches.
    Somewhere out there our dacha is aging, collapsing on one side. The weight of February snows has crushed the roof, winter storms have toppled the double-horned chimney. The window frames are cracking and weakened diamonds of colored glass fall onto the ground, onto the brittle litter of two years’ flowers, onto the dry muddle of spent stems; they fall with a faint chime no one will hear. There’s no one to weed out the stinging nettle and goosefoot, sweep the pine needles from the rickety porch, no one to open the creaky, unpainted shutters.
    There used to be Zhenechka for all this. Even now it seems she might be limping along the garden path, in her hand the first bouquet of dill, raised like a torch. Perhaps she actually is somewhere around here right now, only we can’t see her. But the cemetery is definitely not the right place for her—for anyone else in the world, yes, but not for her. After all, she meant to live forever, until the seas dry up. It never even crossed her mind that she could stop living, and, truth be told, we too were certain of her immortality—as we were of our own, for that matter.
    Long, long ago, on the far side of dreams, childhood reigned on earth, the winds slept quietly beyond the distant, dark blue woods, and Zhenechka was alive…. And now, from the herbarium of bygone days which grows with every year—green and motley days, dull and brightly colored ones—memory fondly extracts one and the same pressed leaf: the first morning at the dacha.
    On the first morning at the dacha, the damp glassed-in veranda still swims in green, underwater shadow. The front door is open wide, cold creeps in from the garden; the pails are in place, empty and resonant, ready for a run to the lake, to the smooth, blinding lake, where the reflected world fell upside down in the early hours of the morning. The old pail gurgles, a distant echo gurgles. You ladle the deep, cold silence, the stilled, smooth surface, and sit for a while on a fallen tree.
    Cars will soon start honking outside the gates of the dachas, summer folk will pour out of the automobiles, and, sighing and moaning, a taxi-truck will turn around in the narrow, wooded dead end of the road, scraping on the low branches of maples, breaking off the fragile flowering elder. It will give a gasp of blue smoke and fall quiet. In the returning silence the only sound will be the thunder of the truck’s wood side-panels dropping, and on its high platform strangers’ belongings, crowned with an upturned Viennese chair, will be shamelessly revealed to the eye.
    And one automobile will drive straight through the gates, and from the wide-flung door will emerge a firm, elderly hand gripping a walking stick, then a leg in a high-buttoned orthopedic shoe, then a small straw hat with a black ribbon, and finally smiling Zhenechka herself, who will straightaway cry out in a high voice: “Look at the lilacs!” and then, “My suitcases!” But the bored driver will already be standing with the canvas bags in both hands.
    Zhenechka will hurry into the house, exclaiming loudly over the aromas of the garden; she’ll push open the casements impatiently, and with both hands—strong like a sailor’s—pull branches of lilac into the rooms, their cold, purple curls rustling with noisy importance. Then she’ll hurry to the sideboard to see whether the winter mice have broken her favorite cup, and the cabinet will grudgingly open its swollen doors, behind which Zhenechka’s treasure whiled away the January nights alone in the stale, empty depths, alone with a graying, forgotten cookie.
    She will walk through the rooms, as yet unwarmed by the sun; she’ll unpack, hand out presents crackling with paper, shake fruit fudge and sweet cakes from packets, cram the corners of the rooms with bouquets of wild flowers, hang our smiling photographs above her bed; then she’ll clear the desk, and stack it with textbooks, dictionaries, and dictation books. Not a single idle day will she allow us; she’ll sit us each down for at least an hour of lessons geared to our respective ages. “We are legion—you can’t teach us all!” We’ll wriggle and hop about in front of Zhenechka. “Yes, I can,” she’ll answer calmly, looking for the inkwell. “Take pity on yourself,” someone will whine. “Like Pushkin says, we’re disgusting, lazy—no curiosity….” “All of you are going to grow up to be educated people.” “We won’t grow up! We’re slaves to our stomachs! We’re denizens of the dark kingdom! Take the books and burn them all!” “Never mind, we’ll manage,” says Zhenechka, and she’ll seize us roughly and kiss us each harshly with a convulsive love we accept indulgently: All right, let her love us. Already she’s dragging the first victim to her lesson, saying, as always, “I taught your mama, you know. Your grandmother and I were childhood friends….”
    And on her chest, in the folds of her dress, her hearing aid begins to chirr like a nightingale—the hearing aid that for some reason never works quite right. Well, then, we’re back to lessons again, exercises and dictations; once again, sitting in the creaky wicker armchair, propping her bad leg against the walking stick, Zhenechka, in her measured voice, will begin patiently turning us into educated people, and with the heedlessness of childhood, we will again start to bait her. We’ll crawl into the room where the current captive languishes at the copybook; we’ll crouch behind Zhenechka’s armchair—her hunched linen back, her clean soap smell, the willow creak—and take advantage of her deafness to prompt the giggling victim with wrong or indecent or ridiculous answers, or pass notes with calls to rebel against the slave driver, until Zhenechka notices something’s up and, all in a dither, banishes the spies.
    And beyond the windows, beyond the tinted panes: a fresh, flowered stillness, warm shadows beneath the pines, and the midday lake filled with blue, glinting through the boughs, all covered with patches of sun, with fleet wedges of rippled brightness…. But here we are, locked indoors, the table covered in green blotting paper, the thumbtacks rusted over the winter, the ink stains bleeding an official-looking lilac rainbow. And everything Zhenechka says—is boring, correct, old. If only shed go into the garden or go drink coffee! “Zhenechka, how much longer?” “Underline the subject with one line, the predicate with two….” “Zhenechka, the summer will be over!” The willow armchair gives a heavy sigh, the blue eyes gaze with calm reproach, the patient voice says: “There’s a time to sow and a time to reap…. Sluggards never make scholars…. Live and…”
    Ohh, isn’t there something she’s dying to do?
    The evening fades, the dust on the road grows cold, dogs bark far away. We lie in our beds on cool pillows, listening to the sighs and purrs of the day winding down, the whispers of doors, muffled laughter. From the attic—lighter than shadow, quieter than dust—dreams descend, surging in a transparent wave and confusing what has been with what never was.
    Knocking, squeaking, and rustling, groping through the twilight of the house, Zhenechka makes her way to our beds, settles in, and takes up an unending story about bygone years —about the children she taught and loved, about the wind that scattered them throughout the wide world: some disappeared, some grew up and forgot, some returned to dust. Dreams swirl like a warm shadow; from the invisible cloud of soap and mint only her voice emerges, sympathetic and soft, then cooing and enraptured, unhurried, like a blissful June day. Transparent visions float in dozing waters: a boy surfaces, a faraway dark-eyed, light-haired, antique boy, who long, long ago lay just like this in a dizzyingly distant white bed and listened to the murmur, the gurgle, the rise and fall of Zhenechka’s voice—a boat rocking on waves of drowsiness. His eyes drooped and shut, his fingers relaxed, his speechless lips parted—for the dark-eyed boy was mute. That’s why Zhenechka was asked to come: to pity, love, and care for him; to croon lullabies and babble fairy tales about dark forests, about the cat and the wolf, about the seven orphaned goats; and, as the boy fell asleep, his muteness mingled with the night’s, and his bed set sail under the low vault of dreams.
    Zhenechka had been in our house from time immemorial, and through the darkness of infancy I can make out her blue gaze bent over me on the day when the good fairies customarily gather with gifts and greetings for the newborn. I don’t know what gift she intended for me: amid the bounty of gifts called life, Zhenechka’s own gift, humble and small, could easily have been lost, or maybe she had nothing to offer but herself, nothing but the steady glow of love and tranquillity that emanated from her smooth, clear soul.
    Once she gave one of us, one of her girls, a pretty box: luxurious, satin, full of light blue envelopes for love letters. Embarrassed, she threw back the top, so that its taut blue silk reins quivered; on the inner side, hidden from idle eyes, she had written in her clear schoolteacher’s hand: “If you were to ask for advice, I would say only one thing: Don’t wish to be the prettiest, wish to be the most beloved.” And we did wish this. But nothing came of it, of course, no more than it did for Zhenechka herself.
    Her mouth was not made for kissing. No. It was simply a dry, prim, pedagogical mouth, which with age acquired that particular array of surrounding wrinkles that unmistakably indicates honesty, goodness, and simplicity—all those tiresome, well-meant, inarguable truths that its owner hastens to share with you: The north is cold, the south is hot; May mornings are better than November fogs; sun, lilies of the valley, and golden curls are good; tornadoes, toads, and bald patches are bad. And roses—roses are the best thing on earth.
    Zhenechka always stuck to her routine, of course. She exercised in the morning. In all seasons, she kept the window cracked open at night, and made a point of waking early—not because she liked gray, dank dawns, but because she could be useful in the mornings. The luxury of idleness was unknown to her, coquetry beyond her ken, playfulness alien, intrigue incomprehensible, that’s the reason Hymen ran from her, not because he was the least bit scared off by her hearing aid or her orthopedic shoe. No, those trifles appeared later—after the war, after the bomb that exploded close to her, when Zhenechka was already over fifty. That wasn’t the reason, of course. After all, even legless people can get married and have a family; it’s the soul that counts. And her soul was—well, they don’t come any simpler.
    If our souls are usually constructed like a kind of dark labyrinth—so that any feeling running in at one end comes out the other all rumpled and disheveled, squinting in the bright light and most likely wanting to run back inside—then Zhenechka’s soul was built rather like a smooth pipe, with none of those back streets, dead ends, secret places, or, God forbid, trick mirrors.
    And the face matched the soul: simple blue eyes, a simple Russian nose. It would even have been quite a nice-looking face if it hadn’t taken forever to get from the nose to the upper lip. Short, fluffy hair, a style called “smoke.” Braids when she was young, of course.
    She wore simple muslin dresses, undergarments that were clean and cheerless; in winter she put on a shabby quilted cotton coat that she called her “fur,” and covered her head with a tall boyar’s hat; summer or winter she never removed her amber beads, worn not for beauty’s sake but for her health, because she believed some sort of electricity emanated from them.
    She taught Russian her whole life, and—if you think about it—how could it have been otherwise?
    Giving presents was her favorite activity. Winters in our Leningrad apartment, at the core of my childhood, there would be a ring at the door, and—smiling, squinting, treading heavily on her orthopedic shoe, leaning on her staff—little boyar Zhenechka would enter in her cloth “fur,” a real fur hat over her puffed hair, a fresh ruddiness on her middle-aged cheeks, in her hands a pastry box and other tiny, mysterious bundles.
    We would all run out into the foyer; smiling silently, Zhenechka would hand over her things—the staff to the right, the tall hat to the left—and unbutton her heavy coat. Freed from its padding, the hearing aid on her chest filled with our cries and greetings, the smack of our kisses, shouts about how young she’d gotten and how well she looked. Having combed the fluffy smoke at the mirror and straightened the heavy amber beads, Zhenechka got down to passing out her gifts: for the grownups, useful, serious books that got leafed through, set aside, and never picked up again; for us, tiny flasks of perfume, little notebooks, or surprising trifles miraculously preserved from prerevolutionary times—statuettes, embroidered brooches, ancient cups with broken handles—treasures to take any little girl’s breath away. Amazing how all these easily lost, perishable little things filtered down through the years. Time’s meat grinder readily destroys big, solid, cumbersome objects—cabinets, pianos, people—while all manner of fragile odds and ends that appeared on God’s earth to gibes and raised eyebrows—all those little porcelain dogs, miniature cups, minuscule vases, rings, drawings, snapshots, boxes, notes, knickknacks, thinga-majigs, and whatchamacallits—pass through unscathed. Zhenechka’s tiny apartment somewhere on the edge of the city near the sea was crammed with all this marvelous junk, while her sisters—the three here and the fourth, who’d gone to live in Helsingfors, beyond that sea, beyond its sad, gray waters—had vanished like smoke. We were all she had left in the world.
    Having handed everything out and received the happy squeals and kisses due her, Zhenechka picked up her pastries and marched off to the parlor to drink coffee.
    The pastries, of course, were from Nord—the best. On her bad legs, Zhenechka had stood in a long line for them in that magical basement, that gathering place for all believers in sugary terrestrial bliss, where impatient ladies intent on instant happiness elbow their way over to the side gripping a pastry in tremulous fingers and—pressed by the crowd to the mirrored column, to their own agitated reflections—snort like eager fairy-tale stallions, their nostrils exhaling a double, swirling puff of sweet powder that slowly settles on their silver-fox collars.
    Zhenechka would open the box wherein reposed the grand, monarchical pastries Napoleon and Alexander; beside them, like Dmitry the Pretender, the despised shortbread ring, that constant of railroad snack bars, had wormed its way in. No one would eat it, but to Zhenechka it, too, seemed wonderful—the ruddy embodiment of a sated, crumbly dream dreamt during the not-yet-forgotten hungry nights of the wartime blockade.
    Until the pastries are gone, being with Zhenechka holds my interest, and then, alas, it’s boring. She talks in detail about her health, the contents of a book she read, the flowers that grow so luxuriantly in summer at a friend’s house near the Peri station (from the station walk straight ahead, turn left, then one more turn, and it’s the second house) but don’t grow at all in winter because of the fact that in the winter the ground is covered with snow, which falls from the sky, and thus unfortunately nothing can grow, but as soon as spring comes and the days get longer and the nights shorter and the sun starts warming things and leaves appear on the trees, then, of course, the flowers will bloom again….
    I slip quietly out of the room and off to the kitchen; that’s where real life is! Marfa, the housekeeper, is drinking tea with the lady who operates the elevator. Marfa is a tall, bald, cunning old peasant woman who was washed up at our door by the war; she knows absolutely everything better than everybody.
    “…So he says keep an eye on my suitcase, lady, will you? I’ll be back, he says, in the wink of an eye. So she takes it from him. Right away he’s up and gone. Well, he’s gone for an hour, and he’s gone for two, and now she has to go home. She’s bone-tired of waiting. She figures she’ll hand it over to the police, but she thinks, well, I’ll just take a look-see. So she peeks inside.” Marfa raises her eyebrows up high, pokes the sugar lumps with the tongs.
    “Well?” says the elevator lady, alarmed.
    “Well to you too. A fine how-de-do! She thought maybe there’s valuables in there, or something. Opens it up—Heavenly Mother of God!… A head, with mustaches!”
    “Chopped off?!”
    “Right to here. Just a head, deary, with mustaches. Some guy, not too old. And the head tells her: Shut the suitcase, he says, and don’t stick your nose where it don’t belong!”
    “Oh my! The head says that?”
    “Yes. Well, she’s off and running for all she’s worth. And the head yells after her: ‘Shut the suitcase, you stupid fool, or you’ll be in big trouble!’ And he starts cussin’ her something fierce.”
    “These was a pack of thieves, deary. That’s what they was. They’d take him along in that suitcase, give him to someone in line to hold on to, and from inside there he hears everything— who’s got bonds hidden where, or lengths of cloth.”
    “So that’s what they do!”
    Horrified, I ask:
    “The head, who was it?”
    “Who, who, what’s it to you? You go play…. That what’s-her-name of yours—she still here? The one with the beads?”
    Marfa doesn’t like Zhenechka: she doesn’t like her shabby coat, her beads, her nose—
    “What a nose—a regular hose! If I had me a horn like that, I’d toot it on holidays! Such a laaa-dy! The same old gab all the time—yackety yackety yak…”
    Marfa laughs, the elevator lady also laughs, politely, into her hand, and I laugh along with them, betraying poor unsuspecting Zhenechka, may she forgive me! But it’s true, she does go on—yackety, yackety…
    “And I heard another,” Marfa starts.
    But there’s already a deep blue beyond the windows, and there are voices in the foyer—Zhenechka is getting ready to go home. Exhausted, everyone rushes to kiss her, a bit ashamed that they were so blatantly bored and Zhenechka, a pure soul, didn’t notice anything amiss.
    And someone walks her to the tram while the rest watch out the window: under softly falling snow, leaning on her staff, in her tall hat, Zhenechka slowly shuffles away, back to her lonely dwelling.
    And the tram will rush past wastelands, snowdrifts, fences, past low brick factories that send a roaring appeal into the steely winter murk, past buildings decimated by the war. And somewhere at the edge of town, where the cold fields begin, a wizened amputee tumbles into the dim, clanking car, stretches out his accordion, and sings, “Oh, woe is me, a poor old cripple, I’m only half a man, they think; if you don’t help, my cares will triple, for I still need to eat and drink,” and warm, shame-ridden coppers fly into his filthy hat.
    The snowflakes are thicker, the white shroud denser, the streetlamp sways, seeing off the small, lame figure, the snowstorm sweeps away the faint, barely visible footsteps.
    But she was actually young once! Just think—the sky above was not a whit paler than it is now, and the very same velvety black butterflies fluttered above the splendid rose beds, and the whistle of the grass under Zhenechka’s cloth shoes was just as silky when she walked down the drive, canvas suitcase in hand, to her first pupil, the mute, dark-eyed boy.
    His parents were good-looking and rich, of course; they had an estate, and the estate had a greenhouse with peach trees, and young Evgeniya Ivanovna, who had just finished school with honors, was photographed among the peach blossoms— homely, smiling pleasantly, with two long, fluffy braids remarkable for the fact that they grew thicker and fluffier at the bottom. The picture faded to an iodine yellow, but Zhenechka’s smile and the peach blossoms still showed, while her mute charge had bleached away entirely—all we could see was a bright patch nestled up against Zhenechka.
    When she came to that long-ago family, the boy could speak only his name: Buba. The rest of the world was engulfed in his silence, although he heard everything and loved everyone, and must have come to love Zhenechka especially, for he often sat close by her, gazed at her with his dark eyes, and stroked her face with his little palms.
    It was enough to move a person to tears, and the rich parents wept, blowing their noses into lacy handkerchiefs, while the bearded family doctor, whom they paid exorbitant sums to examine Buba, gave his indulgent approval to the new governess, though he didn’t find her pretty. But Zhenechka wasn’t touched and she didn’t weep. All business, she immediately established a daily routine and never deviated from it in all the years that she lived with her charge. After a while, to the amazement of the parents and the envy of the bearded doctor, the boy began to talk—quietly and slowly, glancing at serious, attentive Zhenechka, forgetting by morning the words that he had learned the night before, mixing up his letters and losing his way in the maelstrom of sentences, but, still and all, he did begin to talk, and could even draw some scribbles. The letter izhitsa came out best—the least used, most unnecessary letter in the Russian alphabet.
    On Zhenechka’s instructions the rich parents bought dozens of lotto games, and mornings she would wake to a knock at the door; the boy was already waiting for her, holding under his arm a rattling box full of little cardboard squares covered with elusive, difficult, slippery black words: ball, bird, hoopstick.
    Once she took a vacation and paid a visit to her Petersburg sisters—she was not destined to see the fourth, the most beloved one, in far-off Helsingfors. Called back to the peach estate by an urgent telegram, she found the rich parents sobbing, the bearded doctor tranquilly triumphant, and the boy silent. The flimsy film of words had washed from his memory during Zhenechka’s absence; the enormous rumbling world, fearsome and noisy, had reared up in menace and crashed down on him in all its nameless inarticulateness, and only when Zhenechka hurriedly unpacked her canvas bag and retrieved the bright ball she’d bought him did the boy cry out in recognition, gasping: “Moon, moon!”
    They wouldn’t let Zhenechka go off again; now her Petersburg sisters had to come to her. But her favorite sister somehow couldn’t manage to get away from Helsingfors for a visit. And she never did.
    There was some fear that Zhenechka would marry and abandon the peach family—a needless fear: her youth fluttered by and departed without attracting anyone’s attention. There must have been men Zhenechka liked, who appeared and disappeared in her life, just as, if you turn a kaleidoscope for a long time, a rare, yellow shard of glass will occasionally tumble free and bloom like a broken star. But not one of them asked more of Zhenechka than true, steady friendship; there was no one whose eyes misted over at the thought of Zhenechka, and no one who made a secret of his acquaintance with her—such a pure, respectable, ennobling acquaintance. Zhenechka is an extraordinarily good person, someone would say, and everyone else would ardently take up the cry: Oh, yes, wonderful! Simply unique! So honest. And decent. Uncommonly conscientious. A crystal-pure soul!
    There was one short, stunted, meager love in Zhenechka’s life; there was someone who troubled Zhenechka’s clear soul—perhaps for a week, perhaps for her whole life; we never asked. But whenever she told the story of how she lived and whom she taught before the war, one episode trembled plaintively through the years; there was one episode she always faltered over, and her high, calm voice would suddenly break for a moment, always on the very same phrase: “Good tea, Evgeniya Ivanovna. It’s hot.” That’s what someone said to her at three o’clock on one prewar February afternoon, in a warm wooden building. At the time, Zhenechka was teaching Russian in a quiet sewing school, vegetating amid the apple trees and kitchen gardens somewhere on the outskirts of the city. Tearing themselves away from the subtleties of constructing “Under-garments, Women’s Winter” and bolero jackets, uncounted generations of young seamstresses plunged into the refreshing, well-ordered streams of Russian grammar, only to forget forever the blur of Zhenechka’s face after leaving their alma mater. They scattered around the world, loving, giving birth, stitching, pressing; they sang, saw husbands off to war, cried, grew old, and died. But, resolutely taught by Zhenechka, even on their conjugal beds they remembered the correct spelling of negative prefixes, and on their deathbeds, in a mortal swoon, they could, if necessary, have parsed a sentence.
    Zhenechka traveled to the seamstresses through the black dawn by ice-cold tram; she ran, cold and ruddy, into the thoroughly heated wooden office and immediately looked about for the one she cherished: a rather gloomy, stoop-shouldered history teacher. He would walk toward her without noticing her and pass her by, and she dared not gaze after him. Her face burned, her hands trembled a little as she opened the workbooks, but he—he walked about the same building as she and thought his own thoughts. Such was the love that was her lot.
    No one knew, and no one will ever know, what words she silently sent him while he stood by the window of the teachers’ lounge and looked out at the snowy yard, where sparrows swayed like dark berries on branches. She probably yearned to say something honest, serious, and unremarkable, to make a modest request: notice me, love me—but who says that sort of thing out loud? No one knew where he had been before, this man, nor where he went, but he must have come from somewhere. Dark-faced, taciturn—hed been gassed in the first war, people said. He coughed dully in the wooden corridors, clutching his sunken chest in its soldier’s shirt, and he smoked, smoked in the cold vestibule, where clumps of cotton batting stuck out of the insulated doors, where a feeble pink sun shattered against frosty purple stems on the frozen sill. He warmed his hands at the tile stove, smoked another cigarette, and left to lecture the seamstresses on history; the sound of his cough and his quiet, rather strained voice came from behind the tightly closed doors. Such was the man who pierced Zhenechka’s heart, but neither of them said anything important to the other. And then who was Zhenechka to him? Just a good coworker. There was nothing between them except the mugs of tea that she poured for him in the teachers’ lounge after lessons—trembling, her knees weak from her own foolhardiness. Madness, madness… It was no ordinary cup; it was a loving cup, adroitly disguised as a comradely one: Zhenechka poured tea for all the teachers, but she didn’t give everyone so much sugar. A dark blue, chipped mug with a black border—that was all. And he drank it gratefully and nodded: “Good tea, Evgeniya Ivanovna. It’s hot.” And Zhenechka’s love—a homely, barefoot orphan—danced for joy.
    That was it, and there was nothing more at all, and soon he disappeared, and there was no one to ask.
    Far outside the city, beyond the wasteland of the outskirts, beyond the weedy alder copses, off the big roads, amid the pine forests and glades of fireweed, abandoned, surrounded by overgrown lilac, the dacha quietly ages. The lock is rusting, the porch rots, thistle has strangled the flower beds, and prickly raspberry edges away from the fence and across the garden, timidly at first, then ever more boldly, twining into the nettle to form a burning hedge.
    At night the wind rises and flies over the blustery, deserted lake; collecting a misty dust and the hum of uninhabited expanses, it tears an iron sheet from the roof, rumbles it about, and flings it into the garden. The wind-bent grass whistles, wild berries and the seeds of wild plants scatter on the humid night earth, sowing a gloomy harvest of dragon’s teeth. And we thought Zhenechka was immortal.
    We didn’t listen to the end of her stories, and now no one will ever know what happened to the mute boy; we threw out unread the books she gave us; we promised to come visit her in her Leningrad apartment but we didn’t mean it; and the older we grew the more excuses we found to avoid her cold, lonely home. And when we finally did come, how she rushed to and fro with joy, how she clutched us—already grown a head taller than she—with small, dry hands, how she flung herself from the table to the stove, where an apple pie was already well under way, how hurriedly she straightened a festive tablecloth on the round table, anchoring it firmly with a vase of autumn roses! And how hastily she smoothed out the high bed’s worn silk coverlet, pale, like the fluid, frayed petal of an enormous rose abandoned by August and possessed by a dusty, indoor spirit, a coverlet so light it couldn’t be thrown over the bed with one broad flap; rumpling in a slow glide, slack and indifferent, it descended unevenly, riding handfuls of stale household air as it fell and shuddering long after it landed, stirred by the thin streams of a warm draft, by the rumble of trucks outside. And, having eaten her pie, we would depart feeling awkward and relieved, and we would relish the autumn air, and laugh at everything, looking all around us eagerly for the arrival of love, which we expected any minute now—long, true love, everlasting and unique—while the love that leaned against the win-dowpane above and watched us go was too simple and mundane for us. But Zhenechka, thank God, didn’t realize that. And she fervently awaited the new summer, awaited her rendezvous with the old dacha, with the new flowers, and with us, her beloved ones.
    And summer came.
    The era of cooks passed. Fed up, Marfa left, taking away in her trunk the little capital she’d accumulated from milk bottle deposits; the silver fox furs rotted in the storerooms, the factory fences fell apart, and Leningrad gardens turned crimson with wild roses. The school years were coming to an end, the examinations loomed ahead, and energetic Zhenechka prepared for a decisive summer of work. But all this voluntary service— drumming Russian grammar into the heads of ungrateful, sarcastic lazybones day after day; clearing the jungles of dense, stubborn, wily ignorance; planting the cleared terrain with shapely grammatical trees, their spreading branches sibilant with the fuzzy suffixes of Russian participles; trimming away dry knots; grafting flowering branches into place and gathering the fallen fruit—all this toil was apparently not enough for her. The uneasiness of the eternal cultivator drove her into the garden, once as untended and wild as the heads of her pupils. We would urge her to stretch out in the chaise lounge in the sun: what could be better for an old person—just cover your head with burdock leaves and doze till dinnertime. But instead it was we who collapsed in the chaise lounge, languid from sun and adolescence, while Zhenechka tied a kerchief on her head and marched into the overgrowth with shears and a rake. Who had the time to notice that in place of molehills and mountains of stinging nettle, swaying flowers rose in a gentle froth. In her hands flowers seem to soar: ornate pink hydrangeas like bombs ready to burst into red, or else blue ones like a mousse of whisked sky tinged with smoky thunderheads; thick peonies of dark, swooning velvet; and some frizzy, nameless trifle that was splashed all about like a quivering white rain. Only her beloved roses did poorly, no matter how hard she tried. We knew that Zhenechka dreamed of a genuine red rose, pure and deep like the sound of a cello; but either the meager northern warmth held them back, or the earth in our garden rejected the timid roots—the roses grew small, waifish, consumptive.
    Zhenechka would come onto the veranda greatly distressed, and casting an alarmed look at us, she’d say, “Worms are eating the roses.” “Give ’em the old one-two,” we answered, bored. “Make an example of them.” “Cut off their quarterly bonus.”
    But she was afraid of them—of flower worms, and rain worms, and especially of mushroom worms; it was difficult to slip a basket of mushrooms past her watchful eye. Arrest, inspection, and destruction threatened our booty, so we had to hand the basket straight through the low kitchen window while someone stood watch. Hastily dashing icy well water over the slippery, jumping, liplike brown boletuses stuck with leaves, or the pale, wide russulas that crumbled like shortbread and squeaked in our hands, we would throw them into the noisily boiling pot, using a straining spoon to hold back the mushrooms crawling over the rim and to skim off the turbid foam full of dead, floating worms. At the clunk of Zhenechka’s orthopedic shoe we would work faster, bustling and giggling, and by the time she ceremoniously entered the kitchen, pushing open the door with a royal gesture, the burbling broth already shone with a dark, transparent purity.
    “No worms?” she would ask, grave and anxious. “No, no, Zhenechka, perfectly wonderful mushrooms each and every one!” And she would calm down, never dreaming that we could possibly fib, while behind her back, wild with adolescent laughter, someone would wipe the straining spoon clean of the dried gray foam teeming with white corpses.
    And everyone else would look away in embarrassment, as if we’d deceived a child.
    …August approaches, evening descends; the dark forest stands with its back to us, facing the sunset, and watches the liquid crimson islands burn out in orange seas high overhead. The first star is out. The night damp gathers. Women sitting on porches pull the hems of their skirts over their knees, speak more softly, raise their dark faces to the heavenly stillness. A black tomcat steps noiselessly out of the black grass, places a black mouse on the stoop. Soon the last heavenly island will be extinguished, darkness will move in from the east, the lake will speak in heavy, muffled waves; the wild lake wind will billow, straighten out, and moan, tearing off into dark, unpeopled expanses to bend bushes, fell ripe seeds, drive nameless, prickly orbs through cooling clover valleys and through untrodden copses; with a drone, it will ascend to the agitated sky in order to blow away the first wisps of feeble, ephemeral stars as they slip into the abyss. Soon it will be time to get up, sigh, shake off specters, walk across the old boards; cups will clink, gas burners will flare like blue asters, the evening tea will trill. Refrigerators will clank open, and the women, back from the stars, will stare mindlessly into their rumbling, dimly lit interiors, slowly recognizing the contours of terrestrial cutlets or dense, frozen cottage cheese.
    Zhenechka, quietly aging, goes through the house, opens the kitchen drawers, whisks some sort of rag about, and steps out onto the silenced porch, holding her breath so as not to frighten the stillness. She puts her hands on my shoulders—dry old hands, chilled to the marrow—and I suddenly feel how small and light she is, how easily the night wind could carry her away to the dark, clamoring distances.
    A lengthy, tranquil moment sets in, one of those moments when superstition says an angel is passing over, and Zhenechka begins, “Now, I remember…,” but we’ve all come to, started talking, and stood up; the porch clatters under our feet, and Zhenechka rushes to tell us the rest, but it’s too late, the angel has come and gone in a gust of wind that covers her words. I see her lips moving, her naive, loving gaze reach out; the wind grabs Zhenechka, the years spill from the sky like stars and fall onto the greedy earth where they grow like thistle, goosefoot, and couch grass; the grasses rise higher, close in; the old house chokes and dies, footsteps are erased, paths are lost, and oblivion blossoms everywhere.
    An old person is like an apple tree in November: Everything in him is falling asleep. In anticipation of night the sap stops flowing, the insensitive roots grow chill and turn to ice, while slowly, slowly the split branch of the dusty Milky Way spins overhead. With its head leaning back, its dry stumps stretched to the frost-furred stars, the obedient, perishable creature waits, submerged in somnolence, expecting neither resurrection nor spring, waits for the dull, speechless swell of time to roll over it, carrying everything along.
    Time passed, and we became adults. Busy with our urgent affairs and our friends, our books, and our children, we brushed Zhenechka’s life aside; it was harder and harder for her to leave her house, and she would phone to relate things that interested no one.
    For a minute or two, I listen to her slow voice, then lay the receiver softly on the telephone table and run off: in the kitchen pots are boiling, hot oil is shooting from the skillet; in the dining room there’s lively conversation, laughter, and news, and they’re calling me to share it all. The doorbell rings, a frozen, rosy crowd enters in raucous fur coats, there’s the clatter of skis, the thud of feet, the floors shake, the windowpanes shake, and beyond the windowpanes the frosty trees shake, bathed in a dusky winter gold.
    Zhenechka’s voice lies cozily on the tablecloth, unhurriedly telling the telephone book, ashtray, and apple core about its joys and worries. Complaining and marveling, admiring and wondering, her soul flows from the telephone receiver holes in an even stream, spills over the tablecloth, evaporates like smoke, dances like dust in the last rays of the sun.
    “Why is the receiver off the hook?” someone asks. I grab the phone with barely wiped wet fingers, and shout: “Yes, Zhenechka! Of course, Zhenechka!” and rush away again. Her hearing aid sings and chirps; she doesn’t notice a thing.
    “Well, what’s she saying?” asks a passing member of the household.
    “Let me listen…. Something about some Sofia Sergeevna who went to the sanatorium last summer and the roses they had there…. She says the roses were red and their leaves were green… in the sky was the sun… but at night the moon… and the sea was full of water… people swam, and got out of the water… and dressed in dry clothes and the wet clothes dried out… oh, and she asks how we are. Fine, Zhenechka! I said, we’re fine, Zhenechka! Just fi-ine! Yes! I’ll tell them! I’ll tell them!”
    We were all she had left in the world.
    But there came a day in the middle of winter when—shaken to the depths of her soul, armed with a cracked walking staff, the remains of her boyar hat pulled low—Zhenechka appeared on the threshold with a long blue envelope in her hands.
    Words buzzed and fluttered in the envelope, telling her that she was not alone in this world; that quite close by—just a stone’s throw away, beyond the cold gulf, beyond the arc of green ice and the swishing pines, in the snow-covered city of Helsinki (formerly Helsingfors), in an A-frame house, around a cheerful fireplace—there lived the offspring of Zhenechka’s long-lost favorite sister; that these offspring were waiting, couldn’t wait for dear Aunt Eugénie to enter under the peaked roof, into their hospitable half-Finnish embraces, and to lay cellophane-wrapped flowers on the grave of her dear sister, who rests in a neat Finnish cemetery.
    We saw Zhenechka off at the station. She was flustered and embarrassed, like Cinderella stepping into the pumpkin carriage drawn by mice; she clutched her canvas suitcase with her toothbrush and a change of underclothes inside it. We had seen these undergarments at the dacha, on the lakeshore at dawn, when Zhenechka did the hygienic exercises suitable for her age. The shifts consisted of rectangular, sackcloth panels, meticulously joined with a solid, eternal seam; these severe, soldierly items knew neither darts, nor flounces, nor any other tailor’s mischief—they were just sturdy panels, like the white pages of a story about an honest, hardworking life, usefully lived.
    A month later we went to meet her at the same station, ran the entire length of the train, and couldn’t find her. From one car emerged an impressive old lady with eyebrows black like a fallen angel’s and thickly blushed cheeks, dressed in fluffy furs and a dignified hat. The porter carried her scented suitcases. Someone recognized Zhenechka by her orthopedic shoe.
    “Well?” we asked.
    “They’ve got everything over there,” she said. And, overcome, she nearly fainted.
    We took her home and made her tea.
    After that, Zhenechka went to Finland every spring. And then each summer—shining and crazed, happy and youthful, she grew unheard-of flowers from Finnish seeds in the fragrant, revitalized garden of our dacha. Zhenechka’s lacy underwear, celestial and lemon-colored, hung on a line above the flowers, and in her room incredible objects were heaped on her shelf: perfumes, lipsticks, nail polish. And the roses—red roses which had behaved capriciously for many years—suddenly flourished under Zhenechka’s hands, shooting out new buds in swift succession. The Finnish fertilizer must have helped.
    Zhenechka would catch us at the front door or in the garden, and excitedly thrust photographs at us for the umpteenth time: Zhenechka on a Finnish sofa in the living room, Zhenechka with her great-nephew—her new, adored pupil—clinging poignantly to her hand (what’s his name again, Zhenechka? Koko or Pupu?), Zhenechka in the dining room at dinner: lettuce leaves and a couple of green weeds.
    “They’re very thrifty. And they follow a strict diet.”
    We looked at Zhenechka’s belatedly blackened eyebrows and yawned, listening as she sang her hymns to the untold riches of the fish stores.
    “But Zhenechka, do they have sprats in tomato sauce?”
    “No, now I don’t think I saw any sprats.”
    “Well, there you are. How about Wave fish paste?”
    “I don’t think so.”
    “Well, then! They’re way behind us! Just look, our shelves are filled with them!”
    And earnest Zhenechka did her best to argue and persuade.
    “And where did you go while you were there?”
    “Oh, I stayed at home. I took care of my great-nephew.”
    “And them?”
    “They went to the Azores. They’d already bought the tickets,” she said in justification.
    So while the relatives lolled about on ocean beaches, the infatuated Zhenechka watered, weeded, and coddled her new sapling with the stubbornness of an insane gardener; she drew the barbarian alphabet on blue paper, so that the boy could meet his suntanned parents with a Russian poem or unpronounceable greeting. On her return to Leningrad, she took to writing postcards, choosing the prettiest: bouquets, golden Petersburg bridges, and the statue of the Bronze Horseman (her relatives mistook Peter the Great on his horse for the anarchist Kropotkin). And new love, which never comes too late, thundered and raged and cascaded over her from head to toe.
    And we believed that Zhenechka was immortal, that youth can return, that a candle once lit will never go out, and that virtue, whatever we might think of it, will eventually be rewarded.
    We’ll choose a day, lock the doors behind us, descend the cold staircase, go out into the stuffy morning city, and leave for the dacha. Out there, pink grass sways and rustles in the warm wind, pine needles cover the old porch; with a slight shush there passes through the emptied, abandoned house the shadow of a shadow of she who once lived, simple as a leaf, clear as light, still as morning water: she who once naively desired to be most beloved.
    We’ll step off the train onto the bare cement platform, walk under the aspen hum of the wires and on—through marsh and thicket, across hills and copses—to where the empty house sleeps beyond the glades of overgrown fireweed, where lilac has gone wild, where a crow taps his beak along the porch, where mice say to one another: “Let’s live here for a while.”
    We wade through the grass, parting the dense overgrowth with our hands like swimmers; we find the long-forgotten keys and look around, stretching arms numb from the weight of the bags. It’s a damp, lushly blooming northern June. The old, crooked dacha sinks into the grass like a half-drowned boat. Lilac darkens the rooms, pines have crushed the veranda’s fragile breast. The brittle fifes of bedstraw have opened their white umbrellas; disturbed, a mysterious young bird cries loudly; and tiny veronica blossoms litter every sunny clump of dry earth with dark blue.
    There are no roads or paths in the ocean of grass yet, the flowers are not yet crushed, only a slight corridor can be discerned where we walked from the gates to the porch. It’s a shame to break the dense, stiff clusters of lilac—a blue, snowy shadow lies on them as on a new-fallen, sparkling crust of ice. It’s a shame to trample the quiet, thick grass forests.
    We drink tea on the veranda. Let’s spend the night. Why don’t we ever come here? We could live here! But it’s a long way to lug supplies. We should weed out the nettle. Plant some flowers. Repair the porch. Prop it up somehow. The words fall into the stillness, the impatient lilac has burst through the open windows and sways as it listens to our empty promises, our impossible projects, our rosy dreams fading in an instant: it’s not true, no one will come, there is no one to come, she’s gone, she’s a shadow, and the night wind will blow away her dilapidated dwelling.
    Once again Zhenechka packed her bags to go visit her Finnish relatives: for the baby an ABC book, for the nephews something stronger. She was only waiting for the letter, and it arrived. The relatives came straight to the point—they couldn’t invite dear Eugénie to visit them anymore. She would understand, of course; after all, she had reached such a venerable age that what had happened to their neighbors’ Aunt Nika could happen to her any minute. And enclosed was a photograph of this aunt in her coffin, all dressed up and motionless, surrounded by Russian Orthodox lace and Finnish bouquets. Look how badly Aunt Nika behaved; if dear Eugénie were to do the same thing during her visit there might be complications, trouble, misunderstandings… and who would pay for it all? Had dear Eugénie considered this? And she needn’t write anymore, why strain her eyes—and she might get a cramp in her hand!
    Zhenechka stood and stared at the photograph of an unknown old lady in a neat coffin, a graphic reproach to Zhenechka’s lack of foresight. And the nightingale that had sung songs on her chest for many years grew deaf and shut its eyes tight. And fate, like a black wind flying into an open window, turned, stuck out its tongue, and shouted, “Just try and be most beloved!” and with a deafening cackle snuffed the candle out.
    …A light Karelian night. There’s neither darkness nor crimson dawn: an endless white dusk. All the colors have drained away; the grainy half-moon seems a cloudy brushstroke in the luminous heights; gray garden shadows and crevasses of clotted twilight crawl along the earth; between the tree trunks in the distance, the flat lake glimmers in lackluster coves. A mosquito whines, eyes close. There’s a rustling in the gray grass, the creak of cracked shutters. Overnight yet another colored pane will fall from the veranda, overnight the grasses will rise still higher, the path we walked in the morning will be swallowed up and our footsteps will vanish; fresh mold will bloom on the front porch, a spider will spin the keyhole shut, and the house will fall asleep for another hundred years—from the underground passages where the Mouse King roams, to the high attic vaults from which the fleshless steeds of our dreams take flight.
Translated by Jamey Gambrell


    NINA WAS a marvelous woman, an ordinary woman, a doctor, and it goes without saying that she had her right to personal happiness like everyone else. Of this she was well aware. Nearing the age of thirty-five after a lengthy period of joyless trial and error—not even worth talking about—she knew precisely what she needed: a wild, true love, with tears, bouquets, midnight phone vigils, nocturnal taxi chases, fateful obstacles, betrayals, and forgiveness. She needed a—you know—an animal passion, dark windy nights with streetlamps aglow. She needed to perform a heroine’s classical feat as if it were a mere trifle: to wear out seven pairs of iron boots, break seven iron staffs in two, devour seven loaves of iron bread, and receive in supreme reward not some golden rose or snow-white pedestal but a burned-out match or a crumpled ball of a bus ticket—a crumb from the banquet table where the radiant king, her heart’s desire, had feasted. Well, of course, quite a few women need pretty much the same thing, so in this sense Nina was, as has already been said, a perfectly ordinary woman, a marvelous woman, a doctor.
    She had been married: it was as if she’d done an interminable, boring stretch on a transcontinental train and emerged—tired, dispirited, and yawning uncontrollably—into the starless night of a strange city, where the only kindred soul was her suitcase.
    Then she lived the life of a recluse for a while: she took up washing and polishing the floors in her spotless little Moscow apartment, developed an interest in patterns and sewing, and once again grew bored. An affair with the dermatologist Arkady Borisovich, who had two families not counting Nina, smoldered sluggishly along. After work she would drop by his office to see him. There was nothing the least bit romantic about it; the cleaning lady would be emptying out the trash cans and slopping a wet mop across the linoleum while Arkady Borisovich washed his hands over and over, scrubbing them with a brush, suspiciously inspecting his pink nails and examining himself in the mirror with disgust. He would stand there, pink, well fed, and stiff, egg-shaped, and take no notice of Nina, though she was already in her coat on her way out the door. Then he would stick out his triangular tongue and twist it this way and that—he was afraid of infection. A fine Prince Charming! What sort of passion could she find with Arkady Borisovich? None, of course.
    Yet she’d certainly earned the right to happiness, she was entitled to a place in the line where it was being handed out: her face was white and pretty and her eyebrows broad, her smooth black hair grew low from her temples and was gathered at the back in a bun. And her eyes were black, so that out in public men took her for a Moldavian Gypsy, and once, in the metro, in the passageway to the Kirovskaya station, a fellow had even pestered her, claiming that he was a sculptor and she must come along with him immediately, supposedly to sit for the head of a houri—right away, his clay was drying out. Of course she didn’t go with him; she had a natural mistrust of people in the creative professions, since she had already been through the sorry experience of going for a cup of coffee with an alleged film director and barely escaping in one piece—the fellow had a large apartment with Chinese vases and a slanted garret ceiling in an old building.
    But time was marching on, and at the thought that out of the approximately 125 million men in the USSR fate in all its generosity had managed to dribble out only Arkady Borisovich for her, Nina sometimes got upset. She could have found someone else, but the other men who came her way weren’t right either. After all, her soul was growing richer as the years passed, she experienced and understood her own being with ever greater subtlety, and on autumn evenings she felt more and more self-pity: there was no one to whom she could give herself—she, so slim and black-browed.
    Occasionally Nina would visit some married girlfriend and, having stopped off to buy chocolates at the nearest candy shop for someone else’s big-eared child, would drink tea and talk for a long time, eyeing herself all the while in the dark glass of the kitchen door, where her reflection was even more enigmatic, and more alluring in comparison with her friend’s spreading silhouette. Justice demanded that someone sing her praises. Having finally heard her friend out—what had been bought, what had been burnt, what ailments the big-eared child had survived—and having examined someone else’s standard-issue husband (a receding hairline, sweatpants stretched at the knees —no, she didn’t need one like that), she left feeling dismayed. She carried her elegant self out the door, onto the landing, and down the staircase into the refreshing night: these weren’t the right sort of people, she should never have come, in vain had she given of herself and left her perfumed trace in the drab kitchen, she had pointlessly treated someone else’s child to exquisite bittersweet chocolate—the child just gobbled it down with no appreciation; oh, well, let the little beast break out in an allergic rash from head to toe.
    She yawned.
    And then came the epidemic of Japanese flu. All the doctors were pulled out of the district clinics for house calls, and Arkady Borisovich went, too, putting on a gauze face mask and rubber gloves to keep the virus from getting a hold on him, but he couldn’t protect himself and came down with it, and his patients were assigned to Nina. And there, as it turned out, was where fate lay in wait for her—in the person of Grisha, stretched out completely unconscious on a bench in a custodian’s lodge, under knit blankets, his beard sticking up. That was where it all happened. The near-corpse quickly abducted Nina’s weary heart: the mournful shadows on his porcelain brow, the darkness around his sunken eyes, and the tender beard, wispy as a springtime forest—all this made for a magical scene. Invisible violins played a wedding waltz, and the trap sprang shut. Well, everybody knows how it usually happens.
    A sickeningly beautiful woman with tragically undisciplined hair was wringing her hands over the dying man. (Later on, to be sure, it turned out that she was no one special, just Agniya, a school friend of Grisha’s, an unsuccessful actress who sang a little to a guitar, nothing to worry about, that wasn’t where the threat lay.) Yes, yes, she said, she was the one who’d called the doctor—you must save him! She had just, you know, dropped in by chance, after all he doesn’t lock his door, and he’d never call for help himself, not Grisha—custodian, poet, genius, saint! Nina unglued her gaze from the demonically handsome custodian and proceeded to look the place over: a large room, beer bottles under the table, dusty molding on the ceiling, the bluish light of snowdrifts from the windows, an abandoned fireplace stuffed with rags and rubbish.
    “He’s a poet, a poet—he works as a custodian so he can have the apartment,” mumbled Agniya.
    Nina kicked Agniya out, lifted her bag from her shoulder, and hung it on a nail, carefully took her heart from Grishunya’s hands and nailed it to the bedstead. Grishunya muttered deliriously, in rhyme. Arkady Borisovich melted away like sugar in hot tea. The thorny path lay ahead.
    On recovering the use of his eyes and ears, Grishunya learned that the joyous Nina meant to stay with him to the bitter end. At first he was a bit taken aback, and suggested deferring this unexpected happiness, or—if that wasn’t possible— hastening his meeting with that end; later, though, softhearted fellow that he was, he became more complaisant, and asked only that he not be parted from his friends. Nina compromised for the time being, while he regained his strength. This, of course, was a mistake; he was soon back on his feet, and he resumed his senseless socializing with the entire, endless horde. There were a few young people of indeterminate profession; an old man with a guitar; teenage poets; actors who turned out to be chauffeurs, and chauffeurs who turned out to be actors; a demobilized ballerina who was always crying, “Hey, I’ll call our gang over, too”; ladies in diamonds; unlicensed jewelers; unattached girls with spiritual aspirations in their eyes; philosophers with unfinished dissertations; a deacon from Novorossisk who always brought a suitcase full of salted fish; and a Tungus from eastern Siberia, who’d got stuck in Moscow—he was afraid the capital’s cuisine would spoil his digestion and so would ingest only some kind of fat, which he ate out of a jar with his fingers.
    All of them—some one evening, some the next—crammed into the custodian’s lodge; the little three-story outbuilding creaked, the upstairs neighbors came in, people strummed guitars, sang, read poems of their own and others, but mainly listened to those of their host. They all considered Grishunya a genius; a collection of his verse had been on the verge of publication for years, but a certain pernicious Makushkin, on whom everything depended, was blocking it—Makushkin, who had sworn that only over his dead body… They cursed Makushkin, extolled Grishunya, the women asked him to read more, more. Flushed, self-conscious, Grisha read on—thick, significant poems that recalled expensive, custom-made cakes covered with ornamental inscriptions and triumphant meringue towers, poems slathered with sticky linguistic icing, poems containing abrupt, nutlike crunches of clustered sounds and excruciating, indigestible caramel confections of rhyme. “Eh-eh-eh,” said the Tungus, shaking his head; apparently he didn’t understand a word of Russian. “What’s wrong? Doesn’t he like it?” murmured the other guests. “No, no—I’m told that’s the way they express praise,” said Agniya, fluffing her hair nervously, afraid that the Tungus would jinx her. The guests couldn’t take their eyes off Agniya, and invited her to continue the evening with them elsewhere.
    Naturally, this abundance of people was unpleasant for Nina. But most unpleasant of all was that every time she dropped by, whether during the day or in the evening after her shift, there was this wretched creature sitting in the custodian’s lodge—no fatter than a fork, wearing a black skirt down to her heels and a plastic comb in her lackluster hair, drinking tea and openly admiring Grisha’s soft beard: a person named Lizaveta. Of course, there couldn’t possibly be any affair going on between Grishunya and this doleful aphid. You had only to watch her extricate a red, bony hand from her sleeve and reach timidly for an ancient, rock-hard piece of gingerbread—as if she expected any moment to be slapped and the gingerbread snatched away. She had rather less cheek than a human being needs, and rather more jowl; her nose was gristly; in fact, there was something of the fish about her—a dark, colorless deepwater fish that slinks through the impenetrable gloom on the ocean floor, never rising to the sunstreaked shallows where azure and crimson creatures sport and play.
    No, no love affair, there couldn’t be. Nonetheless, Grishunya, the beatific little soul, would gaze with pleasure at that human hull; he read poems to her, wailing and dipping on the rhymes, and afterward, deeply moved by his own verse, he would blink hard and turn his eyes up toward the ceiling as if to stanch his tears, and Lizaveta would shake her head to show the shock to her entire organism, blow her nose and imitate a child’s sporadic whimpers, as if she, too, had just been sobbing copiously.
    No, this was all extremely unpleasant for Nina. Lizaveta had to be gotten rid of. Grishunya liked this brazen worship, but then, he wasn’t picky; he liked everything on earth. He liked swishing a shovel about in the loose snow in the morning, living in a room with a fireplace full of trash, being on the ground floor with the door open so anyone could drop in; he liked the crowd and the aimless comings and goings, the puddle of melted snow in the vestibule, all those girls and boys, actors and old men; he liked the ownerless Agniya, supposedly the kindest creature in the world, and the Tungus, who came for who knows what reason; he liked all the eccentrics, licensed and unlicensed, the geniuses and the outcasts; he liked raw-boned Lizaveta, and—to round things out—he liked Nina as well.
    Among the little outbuilding’s visitors, Lizaveta was considered an artist, and indeed she did exhibit in second-rate shows. Grishunya found inspiration in her dark daubings, and composed a corresponding cycle of poems. In order to concoct her pictures, Lizaveta had to work herself into an unbridled frenzy, like some African shaman: a flame would light up in her dim eyes, and with shouts, wheezes, and a sort of grubby fury she would attack the canvas, kneading blue, black, and yellow paint with her fists, and scratching the wet, oily mush with her fingernails. The style was called “nailism”—it was a terrible sight to behold. True, the resulting images looked rather like underwater plants and stars and castles hanging in the sky— something that seemed to crawl and fly simultaneously.
    “Does she have to get so excited?” Nina whispered to Grishunya once as they observed a session of nailism.
    “Well, I guess it just doesn’t happen otherwise,” dear Grishunya whispered back, exhaling sweet toffee breath. “It’s inspiration, the spirit, what can you do, it goes its own way.” And his eyes shone with affection and respect for the possessed scrabbler.
    Lizaveta’s bony hands bloomed with sores from caustic paints, and similar sores soon covered Nina’s jealous heart, still nailed to Grisha’s bedstead. She did not want to share Grisha; the handsome custodian’s blue eyes and wispy beard should belong to her and her alone. Oh, if only she could become the fully empowered mistress of the house once and for all, instead of just a casual, precarious girlfriend; if only she could put Grisha in a trunk, pack him in mothballs, cover him with a canvas cloth, bang the lid shut, and sit on it, tugging at the locks to check: are they secure?
    Oh, if only… Yes, then he could have whatever he wanted —even Lizaveta. Let Lizaveta live and scratch out her paintings, let her grind them out with her teeth if she wanted, let her stand on her head and stay that way, trembling like a nervous pillar beside her barbaric canvases at her annual exhibitions, her dull hair decked out with an orange ribbon, red-handed, red-faced, sweaty, and ready to cry from hurt or happiness, while over in the corner various citizens sit at a rickety table cupping their palms to shield against inquisitive eyes as they write their unknown comments in the gallery’s luxurious red album: “Revolting,” perhaps; or “Fabulous”; or “What does the arts administration think it’s doing?” or else something maudlin and mannered, signed by a group of provincial librarians, about how sacred and eternal art had supposedly pierced them to the core.
    Oh, to wrest Grisha from that noxious milieu! To scrape away the extraneous women who’d stuck to him like barnacles to the bottom of a boat; to pull him from the stormy sea, turn him upside down, tar and caulk him, and set him in dry dock in some calm, quiet place.
    But he—a carefree spirit ready to embrace any street mongrel, shelter any unsanitary vagrant—went on squandering himself on the crowd, giving himself out by the handful. This simple soul took a shopping bag, loaded it with yogurt and sour cream, and went to visit Lizaveta, who had fallen ill. And of course Nina had to go with him—and, my God, what a hovel! what a place! yellow, frightful, filthy, a dark little closet, not a single window! There lay Lizaveta, barely discernible on an iron cot under an army blanket, blissfully filling her black mouth with white sour cream. Bent over school notebooks at a table was Lizaveta’s fat, frightened daughter, who bore no resemblance to her mother but looked as though Lizaveta had once upon a time bred with a St. Bernard.
    “Well, how are you doing here?” asked Grishunya.
    Lizaveta stirred beside the dingy wall: “All right.”
    “Do you need anything?” Grishunya insisted.
    The iron cot creaked. “Nastya will take care of everything.”
    “Well then, study hard.” The poet shuffled about and stroked fat Nastya on the head; he backed into the hallway, but the enfeebled Lizaveta was already dozing, a stagnant lake of unswallowed yogurt apparently frozen in her half-open mouth.
    “She and I should really, er, hook up or something,” Grishunya said to Nina, gesturing vaguely and looking the other way. “You see what problems she has getting an apartment. She’s from way up north, from Totma, she can only rent this storeroom, but what talent, no? And her daughter’s very drawn to art, too. She sculpts, she’s good—and who can she study with in Totma?”
    “You and I are getting married. I’m all yours,” Nina reminded him sternly.
    “Yes, of course, I forgot,” Grishunya apologized. He was a gentle man; it was just that his head was full of a lot of nonsense.
    Destroying Lizaveta turned out to be as hard as cutting a tough apple worm in half. When they came to fine her for violating the residence permit in her passport, she was already holed up in a different place, and Nina sent the troops over there. Lizaveta hid out in basements and Nina flooded basements; she spent the night in sheds and Nina tore them down; finally, Lizaveta evaporated to a mere shadow.
    Seven pairs of iron boots had Nina worn out tramping across passport desks and through police stations, seven iron staffs had she broken on Lizaveta’s back, seven kilos of iron gingerbread had she devoured in the hated custodian’s lodge: it was time for the wedding.
    The motley crowd had already thinned out, a pleasant quiet reigned in the little house in the evenings, and now it was with due respect that the occasional daredevil knocked at the door, carefully wiping his feet under Nina’s watchful gaze and immediately regretting that he had ever come by. Soon Grishunya would no longer be slaving with a shovel and burying his talent in the snowdrifts; he would be moving to Nina’s where a sturdy, spacious glass-topped desk awaited him, with two willow switches in a vase on the left, and, on the right, from one of those frames that lean on a tail, Nina’s photo smiled at him. And her smile promised that everything would be fine, that he’d be well fed and warm and clean, that Nina herself would go to see Comrade Makushkin and finally resolve the long-drawn-out question of the poetry collection: she would ask Comrade Makushkin to look over the material carefully, to give his advice, fix a few things, and cut up the thick, sticky layer cake of Grisha’s verse into edible slices.
    Nina allowed Grishunya a final good-bye to his friends, and the innumerable horde poured in for the farewell supper—girls and freaks, old men and jewelers. Three balletic youths with women’s eyes arrived prancing on turned-out toes, a lame man limped in on crutches, someone brought a blind boy, and Lizaveta’s now nearly fleshless shadow flitted about. The crowd kept coming; it buzzed and blew around like trash from a vacuum cleaner hooked up backward; bearded types scurried past; the walls of the little house bulged under the human pressure; and there were shouts, sobs, and hysterics. Dishes were broken. The balletic youths made off with the hysterical Agniya, catching her hair in the door; Lizaveta’s shadow gnawed her hands to shreds and thrashed on the floor, demanding to be walked all over (the request was honored); the deacon led the Tungus into a corner and questioned him in sign language on the faith of his people, and the Tungus answered, also by signs, that their faith was the best of all faiths.
    Grisha beat his porcelain brow against the wall and cried out that fine, all right, he was prepared to die, but after his death— you’ll see—he’d come back to his friends and never be parted from them again. The deacon didn’t approve of such proclamations. Neither did Nina.
    By morning all the scum had vanished, and, packing Grishunya into a taxi, Nina carried him off to her crystal palace.
    Ah, who could possibly paint a portrait of one’s beloved when, rubbing his sleep-filled blue eyes and freeing a young, hairy leg from beneath the blankets, he yawns with all his might. Entranced, you gaze at him: Everything about him is yours, yours! The gap between his teeth, and the bald spot, and that marvelous wart!
    You feel you’re a queen, and people make way for you on the street, and your colleagues nod respectfully, and Arkady Bori-sovich politely offers you his hand, wrapped in sterilized paper.
    How fine it was to doctor trusting patients, to bring home bags full of goodies, to check in the evenings, like a solicitous sister, to see what Grishunya had written during the day.
    Only he was a frail thing: he cried a lot and didn’t want to eat, and he didn’t want to write neatly on clean paper but, out of habit, kept on picking up scraps and cigarette packs, and doodling or else just drawing flourishes and curlicues. And he wrote about a yellow, yellow road, on and on about a yellow road, and high above the road hung a white star. Nina shook her head: “Think about it, sweetheart. You can’t show poems like that to Comrade Makushkin, and you should be thinking about your book. We live in the real world.” But he didn’t listen, and kept on writing about the road and the star, and Nina shouted, “Did you understand me, sweetheart? Don’t you dare write things like that!” And he was frightened and jerked his head about, and Nina, softening, said, “Now, now, now,” and put him to bed. She fed him mint-and-lime-blossom tea, infusions of adonis and motherwort, but the ungrateful man whimpered and made up poems that offended Nina, about how motherwort had sprouted in his heart, his garden had gone to seed, the forests had burned to the ground, and some sort of crow was plucking, so to speak, the last star from the now silent horizon, and how he, Grishunya, seemed to be inside some hut, pushing and pushing at the frozen door, but there was no way out, there was only the pounding of red heels in the distance…. “Whose heels are those?” demanded Nina, waving the piece of paper. “I’m just interested—whose heels are they?”
    “You don’t understand anything.” Grishunya snatched the paper.
    “No, I understand everything perfectly well,” answered Nina bitterly. “I just want to know whose heels they are and where it is they’re pounding.”
    “Aaa-agh!!! They’re pounding in my head!!!” screamed Grishunya, covering his head with the blanket, and Nina went into the bathroom, tore up the poems, and scattered them into the watery netherworld, the little domestic Niagara.
    Men are men; you have to keep an eye on them.
    Once a week she checked his desk and threw out the poems that were indecent for a married man to compose. And once in a while she would rouse him at night for interrogation: was he writing for Comrade Makushkin, or was he shirking? And he would cover his head with his hands, lacking the strength to withstand the bright light of her merciless truth.
    They managed this way for two years, but Grishunya, though surrounded by every care and concern, did not appreciate her love, and stopped making an effort. He roamed the apartment and muttered—muttered that he would soon die, and the earth would be heaped over him in clayey, cemeterial layers, and the slender gold of birch coins would drift over his grave mound like alms, and the wooden cross or pyramid marker (whichever they didn’t begrudge him) would rot beneath the autumn rains, and everyone would forget him, and no one would visit, only the idle passerby would struggle for a moment to read the four-digit dates. He strayed from poetry into ponderous free verse as damp as pine kindling, or into rhythmic lugubrious prose, and instead of a pure flame a sort of white, suffocating smoke poured from his malignant lines, so that Nina coughed and hacked, waved her hands about, and, choking, screamed, “For heaven’s sake, stop writing!”
    Then some kindhearted people told her that Grishunya wanted to return to his little house, that he had gone to see the custodian hired in his place—a fat woman—and bargained to see how much she would ask for handing him back his former life, and the woman had actually entered into negotiations. Nina had connections in the Municipal Health Department, and she dropped hints that there was a wonderful three-story building in the center of town, it could be taken over by an institution, hadn’t they been looking for something? Municipal Health thanked her, it did suit them, and very soon the little building was no longer a custodian’s lodge: the fireplace was torn out, and one of the medical institutes settled its faculty there.
    Grisha fell silent, and for about two weeks he was quiet and obedient. Then he actually cheered up, took to singing in the bath and laughing—but he completely stopped eating, and he kept going up to the mirror and pinching himself. “What are you so cheerful about?” Nina interrogated him. He opened his identity card and showed her the blue margins freshly stamped with fat lilac letters reading “Not Subject to Burial.” “What does that mean?” asked Nina, frightened. Grishunya laughed again and told her that he had sold his skeleton for sixty rubles to the Academy of Sciences, that “his ashes he would outlast, and the worms elude,” that he would never lie in the damp ground, as he had feared, but would stand among lots of people in a clean, warm room, laced together and inventoried, and students—a fun crowd—would slap him on the shoulder, flick his forehead, and treat him to cigarettes; he’d figured it all out perfectly. And he wouldn’t say another word in answer to Nina’s shouts; he simply proposed that they go to bed. But she should keep in mind that from now on she was embracing government property and thus was materially responsible before the law for the sum of sixty rubles and twenty-five kopecks.
    And from that moment on, as Nina said later, their love seemed to go awry, because how could she burn with full-fledged passion for public property, or kiss academic inventory? Nothing about him belonged to her anymore.
    And just think what she must have gone through—she, a marvelous, ordinary woman, a doctor, who had indisputably earned her piece of the pie like everyone else, a woman who had fought for her personal happiness, as we were all taught to do, and had won her right in battle.
    Despite all the grief he’d caused her, she was still left with pure, radiant feelings, she said. And if love didn’t turn out quite the way she had dreamed, well, Nina was hardly to blame. Life was to blame. And after his death she suffered a good deal, and her girlfriends sympathized with her, and at work they were kind and gave her ten unpaid days off. And when all the red tape was done with, Nina made the rounds of her friends and told them that Grisha now stood in the little house as a teaching aid, tagged with an inventory number they’d given him, and she’d already gone to have a look. And everything was actually just as he had wanted: the students joke with him, they tug on his wrist to make him dance about, and they put a white cap on his head. The place is well heated, at night he’s locked up in the closet, but otherwise he’s always around people.
    And Nina also said that at first she was very upset about everything, but then it was all right, she calmed down after a woman she knew—also a lovely woman, whose husband had also died—told her that she, for one, was even rather pleased. The thing was that this woman had a two-room apartment and she’d always wanted to decorate one room Russian style, just a table in the middle, nothing else, and benches, benches all around the sides, very simple ones, rough wood. And the walls would be covered with all kinds of peasant shoes, icons, sickles, spinning wheels—that kind of thing. And so now that one of her rooms was free, this woman had apparently gone and done it, and it’s her dining room, and she always gets a lot of compliments from visitors.
Translated by Jamey Gambrell


    JUDY’S LITTLE grave was dug up last year and a highway was laid down in its place. I didn’t go out to see it: it’s already done, I was told, cars whoosh and zoom by, children sit in the cars eating sandwiches and dogs smile zipping along in the embrace of their mistresses—they come and go in a flash. What would I do there?
    In cases like this a condolence letter is usually sent to the near and dear: step lively, so to speak, and get your dear departed ashes out of here, because we’ve got a shock crew on the job, the fires of the five-year plan are burning, and stuff like that. But Judy had no near, no relatives—at least not in our hemisphere—and of dear there was only Lyonechka, and where can you find Lyonechka these days? There is that group of energetic enthusiasts who’ve been looking for him, of course, but more on that later.
    Last year was the fifteenth anniversary of Judy’s death, and not knowing anything about the highway, I lit a candle as I always do on that day, set an empty glass out on the table, covered it with a piece of bread, sat down across from it, and drank a toast to her memory with rowanberry cordial. The candle burned, and the mirror watched from the wall, and a snowstorm raged out the window, but nothing danced in the flame or passed across the dark glass or summoned me from the snowflakes. Maybe that wasn’t the right way to remember poor Judy, maybe I should have wrapped myself up in a sheet, lit incense sticks, and beat on a drum until daylight, or shaved my head, spread lion’s fat on my eyebrows, and squatted facing a corner for nine days—who knows how it’s done over there in Africa?
    I don’t even remember exactly what her name was: you had to sort of howl in a special way, clack your teeth, and yawn— and you’d said it. You couldn’t write it down on paper in our letters, but, Judy told us, it was really a very sweet, lyrical name, which according to the dictionary meant “a small plant of the liliaceous order with edible tubers”; in the spring they all go off into the hills to dig this stuff up with sharp sticks, and then they bake it in cinders and dance all night until the cold dawn, dance until the huge, crimson sun rises to dance in turn on their faces, black as oil, on the poisonous blue flowers stuck in their wiry hair, and on their dogs’ teeth necklaces.
    Whether that’s what they really do over there or not is hard to say now, especially since Lyonechka—in a burst of inspiration further encouraged by Judy’s ear-to-ear smile—wrote tons of poems on the subject (they’re still lying around here somewhere) ; fact and fancy got so mixed up that now, after all these years, you can’t figure out whether shining black people did in fact dance in the hills, joyfully greeting the rising sun, whether a blue river, steaming in the dawn, ever flowed at the foot of those hills, whether the equator curved like a morning rainbow melting in the sky, whether Judy actually did have sixty-four cousins, or whether it was true that her maternal grandfather thought he was a crocodile and would hide among the dry rushes to grab the legs of children and ducks swimming by.
    Everything’s possible! Why not? Everything’s exotic over there, but here, nothing but nothing at all ever happens anywhere, anytime, anyhow.
    Dances are all well and fine, but Judy apparently managed to grab a scrap of some kind of education somewhere, for she came to us to do a residency (in veterinary school, for heaven’s sake!). We unwound scarves, scarves, and more scarves; wraps, plaid shawls, shawls made of goat yarn with knots and splinters, shawls that were gauzy and orange, with gold threads, shawls of blue linen and striped linen; we unwound; we looked: what was there left of her to reside? There was nothing to reside, much less fight with livestock and swine: horns, tails, hooves, tripe, and abomasum, dung and udders, moo-oooo and baaa-baaaa, horrors! To combat this rough host—only a little pillar of living darkness, a slice of shadow shivering from the cold, with dark brown dog eyes—that was all there was. But Lyonechka was instantly captivated, bewitched, spellbound; moreover, the reasons for this sudden gush of passion were, as were all of Lyonechka’s reasons, purely ideological, a mental tornado, or to put it simply you could say that rationalism was always one of his dominant characteristics.
    Well, first of all, he was a poet, and motes of distant countries carried a lot of weight on his poetic scales; second, as a creative individual he was constantly protesting something— exactly what didn’t really matter, the subject of the protest emerged in the process of indignation—and Judy arose like protest incarnate, like a challenge to everything in the world, a scrap of darkness, a coal amidst the snowstorm, tangerine shawls in the fierce Moscow January, almost Candlemas—to quote Lyonechka. As I saw it—nothing special. Third, she was not just black, but black like a stoker, Lyonechka enthused, and stokers were Lyonechka’s favorite heroes—along with custodians, night watchmen, woodsmen, doormen, and more or less anyone who froze in a sheepskin jacket under the cruel stars, or wandered in felt boots squeaking with snow to guard a construction site at night with the bared fangs of its vertical piles, or kept a drowsy watch on the hard chair of an official building, or stood next to pipes wrapped in rags, checking the pressure gauge in the dim light of a boiler. I’m afraid that his notion of a stoker was either unnecessarily romantic or out-dated—stokers, as far as I know, are not at all that black. I knew one once—but we’ll forgive the poet.
    Lyonechka admired all these professions as the last bastions of the genuine intelligentsia. Because outside, the times were such—in Lyonechka’s words—that the spiritual elite, no longer able to watch its weak but honest candle crackle and smoke in the foul air of the epoch, had retreated, had turned away, and, accompanied by the hooting of the mob, gone into the basements, the watchmen’s lodges, shacks, cracks, and crevices, in order, having hidden itself, to preserve the last candle, the last tear, the last letter of its dispersed alphabet. Almost no one returned from the cracks: some were lost to drink while others went mad, either on paper or in reality, like Seryozha B., who got a job guarding the attic of a cooperative apartment building and one spring saw heavenly bouquets and silver bushes with sparkling lights in the dark sky beckoning to his ensavaged soul with a portent of the Second Coming, which he went to meet, stepping from the window of the fourteenth floor right into the fresh air, thereby casting a pall on the pure delight of the working classes out to enjoy the holiday fireworks.
    Many people flew off into stern, high-minded flights of fancy about pure, princely air, about maidens in green peasant frocks, about dandelions growing next to wooden fences, about radiant waters and faithful steeds, embroidered ribbons and emboldened riders; they sorrowed and saddened, cursed the course of the times and grew significant, golden beards; they hewed birch blocks to carve spoons, bought themselves samovars, grandfather clocks with cuckoos, woven doormats, crosses, and felt boots; they condemned tea and ink, walked with a ponderous gait, would say “A lady, and you stink” to women who smoked, and with a third eye, which opens forth on the forehead after lengthy fasts and mental stoppages, they began to see sorcery and black magic everywhere.
    And there were those who ripped open their shirts to free their suffocating throats, tore off their clothes, fouled by poison and pus, and renounced henceforth and forevermore, crying out: Anathema to Augeas and his works, to his wives and his heirs, his steeds and his chariots, his golden stores, and his servants, his idols and his sepulchers!… And, having screamed their fill, they wiped away their saliva, tightened the belts and strings on their bundles and duffel bags, took their children in their arms and old people on their shoulders, and, without looking back or crossing themselves, dissolved into the sunset. A step forward—over the hunchbacked bridge—through the waters of the Lethe—a wood trampoline—darkened air—a whistling in the ears—the sobbing of the globe, quieter and quieter, and then: the world is different, blossoming thistle, spring blackthorn, wormwood cordial, capers shall scatter and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and… Ah, the new stars are so innocent, and the thronging lights below are so golden, as if a burning being had passed by and left traces, his step wide and uneven—golden, segmented worms and shining tentacles wriggle and burrow, and then the cake of an alien city spins, bloody-blue, doused with rum and set ablaze, stinging the eyes and fingers, hissing in the black water, while the sea with its smoking river tongues inches forward into space—a cooling, darkened, sluggish space already covered with a thin film. Farewell, you who were too slow, farewell, you who remain, forever, forever farewell.
    And others survived, preserved themselves, guarded against changes, laid low behind the strips of unglued wallpaper, behind the loosened doorframes, under the tattered felt, and now they emerged, honest and old-fashioned, redolent of ancient virtues and devalued sins. They emerged and couldn’t understand, they recognized neither the air, nor the streets, nor a single soul—“this is not the same city, nor is the night the same!” They came out, carrying under their arms valuables safeguarded in their lethargic sleep: decayed novelties, frayed audacities, moldy discoveries, expired insights, amen; squinting, strange, rare, and useless, they came out the way an antiquarian, albino cockroach might emerge from a pile of old newspapers, and the hosts, amazed by nature’s play, can’t bring themselves to raise their slippers and crush the creature, who seems as noble as a Siberian fox.
    But that’s now. Then—it was January, a black frost, two-sided, double-lobar love, and the two of them, standing opposite each other in the foyer of my old apartment, gazing at each other in amazement—oh, to hell with them, I should have pulled them apart right away and nipped imminent misfortune and the whole disgraceful mess in the bud.
    I guess it’s no good talking about it now.
    We forgot her real name and simply called her Judy; as for the country she came from, well, I couldn’t find it in the new atlas, and I turned the old one in for recycling—in a hurry, without thinking, since I urgently needed to buy the recycled edition of Backcountry River by P. Raskovyrov: everyone remembers that those two volumes traded well for Baudelaire, and Baudelaire was needed by a masseur I knew, who knew the fixer who finally helped me to get the apartment, though he ended up creating a lot of bad blood along the way. However, that’s beside the point. But I couldn’t find the country. Apparently, after the usual battles, partitions, witchcraft, and cannibalism, Judy’s compatriots tore apart the hills, the smoky river, and the fresh morning valley, sawed the crocodiles in three, dispersed the people, and scorched the straw huts. It happens. There was a war going on there, that’s the thing, that’s why Judy ended up stuck here with us: no money, no home, and no one answered any letters.
    But in the beginning she was just a muffled, freezing young woman who didn’t understand much of anything, who wanted to nurse animals and who believed Lyonechka’s every word.
    I knew him well, however. I knew Lyonechka from grammar school, and therefore I could neither trust nor respect him, but as for others—well, I never stopped anyone else from respecting him. All in all he was a great guy, a childhood friend—you don’t respect those kind of people, you just love them—and at one time he and I hurried together through the same iron-gray morning gloom, past the same snowdrifts, fences, and swaying streetlamps to the same redbrick school whose facade was girded with medallions sporting the alabaster profiles of frostbitten literary classics. And we shared the melancholy of green walls and floors smeared with red floor-polish, of echoing staircases and warm coatroom stench, and of stern-eyed Saltykov-Shchedrin on the landing of the third floor—a scary, murky presence who wrote obscurely about a carp which you had to condemn in the biannual exam that bore the purple stamp of the city board of education. This Saltykov was always either “castigating ulcers” or “revealing birthmarks,” and behind his rabid, arrested gaze there arose the bloodied apron of the sadist, the torturer’s tense tongs, and the slimy dock, at which it was better not to look.
    Those painted floors, and the muddy carp, and the ulcers, and the hiss of the strap that Lyonechka’s father used to thrash him—all that had passed; the horizon, as they say, was lost in haze, and what does any of it really matter? Lyonechka was now an inspired liar and a poet—which is much the same thing—a small, bowlegged young man, with a head of mutton-blond hair and the round, not fully closed mouth of a skinned rabbit. Friends are like that. They aren’t pretty.
    He fought for truth, of course, wherever he imagined it to be. If the coffee in the cafeteria was watery, Lyonechka would run into the Food Inspectorate offices and, saying he was a public inspector, demand an accounting and a response; if the train couchettes were made up with damp linens, Lyonechka would blow up and, banging the walls, crashing through the cars, break in to see the conductor, announcing himself as an inspector of the Ministry of Transportation and threatening to smash this thieves’ jalopy of theirs to smithereens, including the engineer’s cabin and the radio room, and especially the dining car: he’d mash the mashed potatoes and spatter all their borscht with the impact of powerful fists, and he’d bury each and every one of them under an avalanche of hard-boiled eggs. At the time I’m talking about they’d already kicked Lyonechka off the editorial staff of the evening newspaper, where, under the banner of truth and sincerity, he had tried without authorization to add a literary luster to the obituaries:
    In horrible torment
    passed on. Head engineer of a sugar-refining factory, member of the CPSU since 1953.
    We can’t speak for the whole collective, but most of the packing department workers, two of the accountants and the assistant director of the local committee, L. L. Koshevaya, will remember him with a quiet, not unkind word for at least a little while.
    The long-awaited death of
    former director of a soft toy factory, came during the night of February 2-3, neither surprising nor upsetting anyone in particular. He’d lived long enough.
    Ninety years old, that’s no joke! Whoever wants to show up at the funeral, well, it’ll probably be on Wednesday the sixth, if they deliver the coffins, but then anything can happen here.
    Noticed to be missing only a week later
    an individual with no particular occupation, born in 1930, a confirmed drunk. Found by her neighbors on the balcony, she gave no signs of life, and she certainly won’t give any now. It’ll happen to all of us one of these days, what can we say? Too bad.
    or, finally,
    Baby PETER played with matches, Now he’s up in heaven fair, Where bananas grow in batches, Baby PETER, hear our prayer!
    Lyonechka was outraged by the narrow-mindedness and callousness of his newspaper colleagues, who didn’t accept his style. He felt that their position was based on poverty of intellect, acceptance of the cliché, lack of inspiration, and persecution of the creative intelligentsia—quite justly, in my view; he deplored their indifference to the Russian word, so powerful and poisonous and yet loving and lithe; he saw their disinclination to expand the limits of genre, and most important—he perceived their dishonesty, their dishonesty and their scorn for the simple, terrifying event that awaits us all, for the trappings of a simple man’s death.
    Lyonechka drank tea in my communal apartment kitchen, drawing my neighbor Spiridonov into arguments and shouting matches. Spiridonov had also suffered in the struggle with indifference: the perforated five-kopeck paper piece he invented had cost him an early heart attack, divorce from his wife, expulsion from the Party, and the loss of his illusions. Once a fanatic and now a lifeless, gray-haired man, Spiridonov would show up with tea in a railway tea-glass holder presented to him by his coworkers for his jubilee, set out hard vanilla cookies, and the two of them would grumble and shout at each other. “Dim-witted Hegels… he says to me: Did you substantiate the documentation?… The imagination of a worm… I said, how much metal alone are we throwing under a dog’s tail, these are the Altai Mountains we’re talking about… fly-brains with sclerotic arteries…. All the bus fleets—right? the whole subway— right?” They embraced and cried about all that was pure, fresh, and untarnished, about trust in ideas, love of one’s fellowman, about a simple smile—they cried about a lot of things in those days. Woe is me, oh, ach, alas and alack—as Barkhudarov and Kryuchkov, compilers of a glossary of our native tongue’s sighs, wrote sadly once upon a time. “They’ve done in Pushkin!” Spiridonov shouted ardently: “Ekh, if only Pushkin were here!” “Pushkin will come! We’ll make another Pushkin,” Lyonechka promised.
    He laid out his plan to Spiridonov. I’m supposed to be an intellectual, right? said Lyonechka. An intellectual… you know, you’ve seen the posters… the one shown in the back, behind the worker and the peasant woman, wearing glasses just begging to be smashed by, say, a length of pipe or a chunk of cement—the one with a kind of watery, uncertain smile ready to turn into a humiliated smile any second: as if he’s saying, I know, I know my place! The intellectual on the posters knows his place: it’s in the back, in the doorways, at the threshold—and one undrawn foot is already groping backward for the step down, the way back, the path to retreat; that’s the place where they chuck out leftovers, hand-me-downs, scraps, rags, dregs, dribbles, butts, slops, slivers, splinters, mismatches, misreadings, mis-seeings, mis-thoughts. What, you dare to stand up! I’ll teach you! Aha, so you don’t like it… You don’t li-i-i-ke it? Take that, take that, take that! Sic ’im! son of a b—. Now he’s trying to bite, is he?… Look, he’s baring his teeth… he doesn’t li-i-i-ke it. So get the hell outta here! Bastard. Kick ’im, kick ’im out, hey, guys, let’s go, let’s give it to him! Aha, he ran off. Run, run… You won’t get far, ha! And he wanted to talk his way out of it, the louse.
    It’s no accident, oh no, it’s no accident that intellectuals are placed in the back on official paintings—posters, that is—it’s not by chance they’re depicted as second-rate, last and least, just like the posters calling for friendship of peoples, by the way, treat black people as second-rate—behind the whites, set back a little. As if to say, friendship is all well and good, but, well, comrades, they’re still black… you know what I mean.
    It therefore followed that the intellectual (Lyonechka) and the black (Judy) should be joined in the bonds of matrimony, and this union of the insulted and injured, the wounded and outcast, this minus, multiplied by a minus, would yield a plus—a curly-headed, plump-bellied, swarthy little plus: if our luck holds we’ll get a Pushkin right off; if not, we’ll go at it again and again, or wait for our grandsons, great-grandsons—and going to the grave my blessing will I give!—decreed Lyonechka. “Go for it,” sighed Spiridonov, and left, taking away his jubilee tea-glass holder, on which three silver satellites orbited a pea-sized earth with one lone country on its bulging side.
    Lyonechka went for it.
    It was the most nebulous possible time for this, it must be said, since it was precisely then that Judy, or whatever her name really was, turned out to have no citizenship status. That is, she simply had no status of any kind—in place of her African homeland a theater of military operations had opened up. One country wouldn’t recognize her, another wanted to expel her, a third invited her to be interned for an indefinite period, and our country exceptionally regretted, shrugged its shoulders, scratched its head, blew the dandruff off its comb, smiled politely, and looked distractedly out the window, but could definitively propose nothing comforting at that given nebulous point. Just be glad it’s no worse.
    Aunt Zina, Lyonechka’s aunt, not yet suspecting what a dirty trick her nephew was planning to play on her and her well-being, said to Judy, “Chin up, daughter. Life is hard on everyone.” But her husband, Uncle Zhenya, whose diplomatic career was taking off—and who was expecting appointment to the corner of the African continent opposite Judy’s at any moment, as it so happened—did not approve of contact with the foreign citizen, even though she was homeless. As the hour of the final paperwork on his appointment drew nearer, he became more strict and vigilant, so as not to take a false step in any direction. Thus, he forbade Aunt Zina to subscribe to Novyi Mir, remembering that its poisonous aura had not yet evaporated; he crossed all suspiciously surnamed acquaintances out of his address book, and hesitating, even crossed out a certain Nurmukhammedov (which he bitterly regretted later, when, straining his eyes, he held the page up to the light in an attempt to restore the telephone number, since the guy turned out to be nothing but a car repair swindler); and in the last, crisis-fraught week, he even smashed all the jars of imported food in the house and threw them into the incinerator, including the Bulgarian apple jam, and was already eyeing products from the other republics, but Aunt Zina protected the beet horseradish with her body.
    And then, if you please, just as he had brought himself to an unheard of, unbelievable, inhuman ideological purity, just when he virtually glowed, like a good, ripe persimmon—all the pits shine through and there’s not a bruise to be found whichever way you turn it—no, no, no, I am not now nor have I ever been under investigation, I never participated, possessed, belonged, intended, pronounced or met, never even considered, never heard of in my life, never entertained the least thought, never had the foggiest notion; but he rested not day or night, saying: holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty, Which was, and is and is to come—at this very moment a boy, a snot-nosed boy, his nephew, scientifically speaking, a near relative, sullies, do you understand, his reputation, compared to which the hermits of Mount Athos are simply delinquents, vandals writing indecent words in elevators, mongrels, sorcerers, fornicators, murderers, and idolaters!
    So Uncle Zhenya had a screaming fit and flailed about on the floor. Because of Lyonechka’s matrimonial intentions his career hung on a thread, and in his mind he had already traveled, served his time, and returned, bringing oodles of stuff with him: wall masks, and rugs, and a fuzzy lampshade, not to mention large-scale items. He could already picture how future guests—the ones that might arise five or six years from now— would change from their boots into slippers and peruse the living room in apparent impartiality, their souls in fact racked with envy; how he would then relieve the tension of the evening with jokes: he’d take a Hong Kong rubber spider out of a packet and throw it against the wall—sticking and tearing itself away, and sticking again, the loathsome thing would crawl down, provoking happy cries and frightening the ladies; he envisioned how they would drink tea from a blue tin with a kind of dancing girl in bloomers—a diamond in her nose, and in her eyes, you know, a certain something, a sort of false innocence; Indian tea would they drink, while the small fry would make do with Georgian tea. In short, Uncle Zhenya planned to live luxuriously, to live forever. But God ruled differently. Jumping ahead, I’ll say that after a few glorious months of his African career—which did happen after all—when he visited the national animal preserve where he teased a baboon with a stick, he got distracted and was torn into teensy pieces by one of those African animals passing by. Before his end, however, almost as if he’d had a premonition, as if he were uneasy, he did manage to send Lyonechka a present—the above-mentioned sticky spider; but the parcel took so long to arrive that when it came the spider had expired and it wouldn’t crawl, it simply splatted; it took so long that even the newspapers promising that Uncle Zhenya’s memory would remain forever in our hearts had been handed over for recycling, to return, in the eternal circulation and transformation of matter, as eighty-kopeck wallpaper, the line for which was long and dismal, as if in mockery of our aspirations.
    But all this was later. At that moment Uncle Zhenya was still alive and happy. His wife was just what was called for—the daughter of a military man—and the tile in the john was lettuce green, Czechoslovakian, and on the wall hung a balalaika, a sign of loyalty. So his screaming was completely natural and justified.
    He screamed at Lyonechka’s father—the right of a younger, but successful brother—for giving who the hell knows what kind of upbringing to his children: Lyonechka, who had failed miserably in the corridors of the press—the pup could have grown into a strong, international sports journalist if he’d only listened to his uncle; Svetlana, Lyonechka’s sister, an undisciplined girl prone to hanging around cafes and riding in cars with God knows whom; Vasilyok, the youngest, a fifth-grade pupil, also got his share, though he was definitely not guilty of anything and had even just taken second place in the municipal skating Olympics. He screamed at his wife, Aunt Zina, accusing her of permissiveness, absentmindedness, self-indulgence, and of the fact that the husband of her second cousin once considered working for the Planning Department, and for that matter the grandfather of one of the former employees of this Planning Department lived next to a peasant who had owned two cows in 1909, and this could be regarded as wittingly dangerous proximity to kulak circles; he screamed at the cat, who with the approach of March looked ever more frequently out the window; he screamed at the custodian, at the radish seller in the courtyard entrance, at the elevator lady, at the cooperative parking lot guard, at the head of the housing office, and even at the hamster living in a cage in the kitchen—and as a matter of fact, the hamster, having listened to Uncle Zhenya, up and died.
    Anyway, Uncle Zhenya’s screams were horrible, as horrible, no doubt, as the scream of a falling man slipping into the abyss, who tries to hold on by clumps of grass: the pliant dry soil raises dust and crumbles, and the roots swell, leaving their earthy nest; close, close to the eyes a startled spider or ant has already run out of his little house. He’ll remain, but you’ll fly off, blossoming for a short while like a bird, like a towel, like a still-warm, living bundle swaddled in its own cry; the feet are already scratching the empty air, and the world is ready, spinning and turning, to offer you its fluffy, green, rough bowl.
    And I felt sorry for him, as one always feels sorry for those who’ve been beaten to a bloody pulp, as one pities the eyeless people you see in dreams.
    Meanwhile, Lyonechka, having ordered Vasilyok to take up the jigsaw and make the shelves on which he planned to place the future Pushkin’s works, applied himself in earnest to Judy’s education, to her initiation into his poetic faith. He couldn’t bring her home, nor to his uncle’s, needless to say, and my communal kitchen, enlivened by the invalid Spiridonov, resounded with Lyonechka’s crazed texts, protests, and toasts.
    “Well, what do you want? Tell me! I’ll take care of everything,” said Lyonechka, strewing the standard lovers’ promises, drinking his fill of tea and crunching the invalid’s cookies.
    Judy was embarrassed. She wanted to become a veterinarian as soon as possible…. She wanted to be useful and nurse little animals…. Cows, horses…
    “Sweetheart, those aren’t little animals, those are large, horned livestock!”
    “Horses don’t have horns….”
    “That’s fallacious thinking. That’s a fallacy!” seethed Lyonechka. “Horses used to have horns, but they fell off in the process of evolution when the horse came down from the trees in obedience to social demands and went to work for man in the fields, where horns only got in the way. Do you have cows and horses in Africa? And do they hibernate in the winter?” the poet amused himself. And he explained to Judy that the cow, having taken care of her business and seen to the calf, goes off into the forest, digs a hole, and, settling in cozily, curling up like a bun, sleeps until the spring, swept by snow, with a gentle smile, her lovely eyes closed, eyes whose praises have been sung in epics ours and not ours, and she dreams of swift streams, lo, and green meadows scattered with daisies; meanwhile, forming a chain, hunters are already out on the winter hunt with flashlights and red flags; and they poke the snowdrifts with rakes and lift the sleeping cow with oven forks—that’s why we only have frozen meat here. These aren’t any of your plain old zebu.
    When the snows melt, Judy dear, we’ll go to the country, to the thick forests and wide fields—the fir trees are dark, their stumps are huge—and you’ll see our northern fauna: curly-headed silky nightingales with blue eyes, white-fleeced sheep with silver hooves who sing wonderful refrains above the fleet waters; and what cats we have, dressed in caftans of ribbed velvet with copper buttons, and what goats—if only you knew— politically literate, tidy, with uncompromising civic attitudes, in steel-framed glasses. And our spiders, our flies—jolly creatures in red boots with gingerbread cookies under their arms—tell her, Spiridonov! Chin up, Spiridonov, let’s drink to the spider.
    I can’t say that I liked this evening Sabbath very much, this daily commotion and tea drinking on my tiny territory—I had my own plans for life, and a few dreams: to marry, to move Mama to my place from the suburb of Friazino or exchange my communal rooms for a one-room apartment. Frankly although barely defined, these plans were somehow getting all confused and falling apart; it wasn’t that there weren’t any husbands or opportunities to exchange apartments—everything was there, but it was all somewhat shopworn, squalid, fifth-rate, with cavities and defects, abscesses and flaws.
    It was impossible, for instance, to take my suitor Valéry seriously: strong and tall, and ardently admiring himself for these qualities, with the face of a policeman or an executive, Valéry ate a lot of meat, kept weights, springs, a bicycle, skis, and other unnecessary sports thingamajigs at home; his dream was to buy a blue jacket with metallic buttons, but none could be found for love or money. Without the jacket Valéry felt himself to be out of life’s mainstream. Once we took a walk in the autumn along the windy embankment of the Yauza: it was a cold, orange evening, the last leaves were flying about, a clear star shone in the sky, and there was a feeling of winter’s closeness in the air, a feeling of melancholy, of the meaningless, ineluctably nearing New Year; the wind rose and tossed freezing urban dust at us. Valéry stopped and burst into tears. I stood there, waiting through it, looking at the sky and the star in the emptiness. I understood that words meant nothing, that no comfort was needed, I understood that this was grief, failure, ruin: the blue jacket had gone out of fashion, floating by Valéry; like a rosy morning cloud, an ephemeral vision, cranes flying overhead, or an angel in the lunar heights, the jacket sailed off—it had beckoned, agitated, clouded his soul, entered his dreams, and passed, just as the luxurious, colorful, spicy empires of the East had passed, resounding and shining. Having cried his fill, Valéry wiped his rigid Komsomol face with a red hand, and we went on, hushed and sad, and parted at the vegetable store on the corner, never to meet again.
    Neither was Garik, a spiritual man, a suitable fiance. Not that the constant searches of his kennel bothered me: the government kept attacking Garik, confiscating his spiritual papers and pictures, taking away his favorite books, and sometimes picking up Garik himself. It’s not that I was scared off by his six children from his former wife—Garik was a kind, loving, sweet, and unusually resourceful young man: he managed to feed the children, and indefatigably bustling about, he somehow quickly resurrected the papers at the same time. But I got sort of bored listening to him—everything was “vineyards” and more “vineyards,” and paths, and quests, and bliss, and the sweetest and not of this world, and yet life went on—a bad life, but the only one around, and his den was full of rubbish, rags, dust, and glue bottles on the windowsills, and meatless porridge in a burned pot, and tatters on a wobbly nail… and could it really be that this, this puny, ugly world, was the one whispered about and promised, proclaimed and presaged when everything began, when the unseen gates opened and the inaudible gong sounded?
    To tell the truth, love was what I wanted, and it was there too, because love is always there, right here inside you, only you don’t know whom to share it with, whom you can entrust with carrying such a marvelous, heavy burden—this one’s a bit weak, and that one will tire quickly, and those—you should run from as fast as you can, before they’ve grabbed you like a jam roll on sale near the store Children’s World, slapping down a coin and wrapping up their catch in oiled paper.
    Yes, I wanted something… something that would be heavier than Valery’s weights and lighter than Garik’s homespun wings. I wanted to travel or just leave, or talk for a long, long time, and maybe listen, and I imagined an indistinct traveling companion, friend, passerby, and the road appeared dimly: a path at nighttime, the fusty scent of rot, drops from wet bushes, laughter in the dark and a light ahead, a wooden house and a washed floor, and a book in which everything was written—and the sound of the high, unseen trees all night long until morning.
    And also… but it doesn’t matter. There was reality: the kitchen, the shouts, the gray stubble of Spiridonov’s beard diving into a glass of tea, the crowdedness and the two of them, this unnatural pair with far-flung plans. We closed the window tight, so as not to hear the distant, needle-sharp, endless, tormenting cry of Uncle Zhenya.
    “You know what, old girl,” Lyonechka hinted, “if the fate of Russian letters is dear to you, why not bring the cot out into the kitchen?”
    I didn’t want to sleep in the kitchen, or “go out for a walk,” or spend a week in Friazino, and Spiridonov didn’t want to either. But Lyonechka swore, fought, and cursed Spiridonov and me—both privately, as a matter of course, and in poems, for eternity—and bought us tickets to a double feature with news-reels.
    Spring was in the air—cold, nocturnal. The wind already droned in the trees, and water flew in the wind, and birds, cawing, bunched in billows in transparent trees, on rusty domes; clear puddles trembled, reflecting the lights of stands selling dumplings, vodka, and meat pies; and alarm, life, and desire breathed, sailed, and ran in the air—common property, unclaimed, no one’s. I shuffled arm in arm with the gloomy, foot-dragging invalid Spiridonov along the crooked lanes, under Moscow’s Muslim moon, and his foot, laced up in a fourteen-ruble, thirty-kopeck shoe, traced a long, meandering line through Moscow, as if plowing the barren urban asphalt, as if preparing a furrow for unknowable industrial seeds. And then, hunkered down in our damp coats in the movie theater, the invalid and I sullenly watched some fleetingly glimpsed factories, pig iron, awkward heroes of labor, tempered iron beams, tractors, record-setting hogs, bald, well-fed people in tweed suits rubbing ears of wheat between their fingers; we watched the stream of ideologically consistent grain flood us; we watched, waiting submissively for the friendship of homeless people to gel somewhere out there in the form of the illegal infant Pushkin, our last hope.
    By summer there was still no Pushkin, and my life had become completely unbearable: the international lovers had made themselves at home in my room, they ate noodles straight from the pot, played the zurna, walked around naked, and even tried to start a campfire on the floor on a sheet of metal; for scientific entertainment Lyonechka bought Judy some white mice and a white tomcat; being a convinced pacifist, Lyonechka imposed his views on the cat—he developed a system of enlightening lectures and conducted practical seminars on restraint from mouse eating.
    The Hannibals were always short of money. Lyonechka got a half-time job for a while working on a women’s daybook calendar as an ethnic cuisine columnist. But here, too, love of truth did him poor service, because no one at the calendar wanted base truths, critical harping, and exposes, they didn’t want the recipe for May salad to start with the words: “Let’s be frank—there ain’t nothin’ to eat.” They didn’t want missives and sermons like: “Ladies, if you can afford to buy tomatoes at the market, stop and ask yourselves: Have you been living the right life? Where did you sin? When did you take the wrong step, turning from the narrow path of virtue onto the beaten track of temptation?…” And he was fired again, and again he was proud and indignant and immediately picked up a couple of friends, or rather pupils and followers: bearded guys dressed in rumpled clothes, draped with crosses and bells, with wandering smiles and aloof, bovine gazes, and, inviting them home— to my place, that is—he gave them edifying lectures, taught them to choose the unfalse path, and produced as a living visual aid the cat, who, having experienced the power of the True Word, had already become the most perfect Buddhist and had transcended all earthly, ephemeral, and scurrying things.
    A warm summer, an emptied, Sunday city—I would go out to wander the side streets, choosing the old, dark corners where it smells of beer spilled in the dust, of cheap stucco, of the wood fences of construction sites, places where shingles stick out of the walls of buildings, and dandelions—no matter how you trample them—innocently and stupidly sprout at the foot of sheds and temples from the time of Ivan Kalita. The grave luster of a church dome in the distance, the meaningless, unceasing rustle of already darkening leaves, fleet coins of sun, rags, and reek around garages, grass in linden shadow and bald earth patches in the courtyards where laundry hangs to dry— this was where I was to live and die, not meeting a soul, not speaking a word to anyone.
    Maybe there actually was a certain someone in another city… but who cares, what does it matter if nothing came of it, and now, after so many years, I’ll sit alone and drink a glass of rowanberry cordial to the memory of Judy’s soul, and I’ll look into the candle’s flame for a long time, and won’t see anything in it except a shining petal with a white core, except for emptiness burning in emptiness.
    Farewell, Judy, I’ll say to her, you’re not the only one who didn’t make it. I’m done for, too, all the beasts of my breed have scattered to the four winds—they’ve gone beyond the green waters of the Lethe, beyond the glass wall of the ocean, which won’t part to allow passage; those who didn’t pay close attention were shot and wounded, the hunters had a glorious hunt, their mustaches are bloody, and fresh feathers have stuck to their teeth; and the ones who bounded off in all directions in the desperate hope of surviving hastily changed into alien clothes, adjusted their horns and tails in shards of mirror, pulled on gloves with claws, and now you can’t tear off the dead, fake fur. I run into them sometimes, and we look at each other turbidly, as if from underwater, and I should probably say something, but there’s no point in talking. It’s like when someone is seeing you off on a trip and you stand inside the train car behind the unwashed double glass, and he stands on the platform in gusts of night rain, and you’re both smiling tensely; everything has already been said, but you can’t leave, and you nod and draw waves on your palm: “write,” and he nods too: I get it, got it, I’ll write. But he won’t write, and you both know this, and the train keeps standing there, it won’t budge, none of it will start—the jolts of movement, the sheets, the rubles, the neighbors’ chatter, the dark, sickly sweet tea and oiled paper, the dull flash of lampposts on an empty railway platform, the blazing, beaded gold of raindrops in dotted lines on the glass, the sinful, sidelong glance of a soldier, the swaying crush of bodies in the corridor, the shameless cold of the John where the rumble of the wheels is stronger and more demeaning, and your own reflection stares at you from the murky half-dark, close and unflattering, your own reflection—humiliation—destruction… But this is all to come: right now the train is still standing and hasn’t moved, and your smile is strained and ready to slip, to drift into a tear; and in anticipation of the jolt, the end, the last wave of the hand, you move your lips, whispering senseless words; eighty-seven, seventy-eight; seventy-eight, eighty-seven—and on the other side of this deafness he also moves his lips and lies with relief: “Definitely.”
    It was then that Spiridonov, who had ruined his teeth on cheap crackers and the damaging effects of the hot water he drank every evening, was obliged to order himself new crowns. The scatterbrained invalid supposed that he was having gold ones put in, but his very mouth was ripped off for a pretty sum as it turned out later. However, the variety of metals in his middle-aged mouth created a rare but marvelous effect: Spiridonov himself began to receive radio broadcasts without any supplementary appliances. Soft tangos floated out from him, distant foreign voices and prayers, soccer matches howled, raging who knows where. He usually worked on shortwave and turned on in the evenings. In the early hours he transmitted all kinds of rubbish, “For all you inquisitive people out there,” or a concert of machine operators’ requests, but the thicker the darkness grew, the more mysteriously the world muttered and laughed, and lights escaped from the gloom, and there were colored lanterns and drums… and water ran somewhere, full of lights. What kind of water and what kind of lights, and what the drums were saying—how could we possibly know?… And at midnight the invalid broadcast in Portuguese, I think. Maybe it wasn’t Portuguese, how would we know? But oh, what a beautiful language! A taut, flat ocean rhythmically beat at the shore in a wave as long as a whip, colorful sails entered the harbor, and stone steps descended to the water, and there was the smell of seashells and boiled rice, and under red roofs stern women sang loudly of flowers, murders, vessels freighted with burlap and lacquered boxes, birds and beads, purple silk and fragrant pepper. Perhaps it wasn’t like that at all—but how could we possibly know if we had never seen it and would never, never, never see it—never, to our dying day, to the squeak of the cheap, painted coffin of wet pine slabs lowered on a hairy rope in jolts, spurts, and last earthly lengths into the sandy autumn soil, loam, red earth… to the last aster, the royal flower, stamped into the November earth, its head bitten off by the heel of a purple-faced, hurried grave-digger? Never, never, sang Spiridonov; never, I sobbed; never, shouted Lyonechka. Time has stopped, space has dried up, people have hidden in the cracks, the domes have rusted, and the fences are wrapped round with bindweed; you yell—and can’t be heard, you look—and can’t lift your sleepy eyelids, there’s dust as high as the clouds, and Pushkin’s grave is grown over with thick goosefoot! cried Lyonechka. O’er summer’s thickened goosefoot dragon-geese go flocking by. Like beasts at first they’ll howl, or stamp their feathery feet and cry. A lonely maid is frightened—bearded dragon-geese fly by, Is that you Ivan Susanin? See me home, dear, or I’ll cry. To our plans there are no limits, the whole nation reaches high; blackened crabs have picked the flesh off of a dead and bloated thigh. Peter’s pinching peppered pickles, pinching pecks of parsnips too; slews of Slavs have sharpened sickles, but can’t figure what to do. Beyond the gates the cold winds blow—the nightingale its teeth has bared; the fiend, sweet home’s ferocious foe, refuses to be spared! The night bird croaks upon his bough, beneath him breaks the cradle slim; and cock-a-doodle-do bewails aloud the six-winged seraphim. God’s little birdie knows no mercy—neither knows he shame; he’ll tear your heart out, eat it whole, and gaily seek his fame. Midst foggy mist a string resounds—the road is all in dust; if life should e’er deceive you, then it’s homeward that you must.
    But Spiridonov, deaf to Lyonechka’s decadent poetry, dreamed his own dreams, and his plans were grandiose: some sort of antennas, amplifiers, coils of wire, radio vacuum tubes, musical light shows. Ha! What light shows; he already planned to wire entire imaginary dance halls and stadiums for sound; he fantasized television images, festivals, cross-country friendship races, the investiture of Olympic medals, the erection of congratulatory statues in the motherland—marble to the neck, bronze to the nipple, a full five stories of granite with sword in hand; he was already razing mountains and excavating tunnels, damming rivers, and redrawing the borders of republics, he was already traveling into outer space and from there, his fake gold caps twinkling, his telescopic eyes rolling, huge as King Kong, he would knock down ballistic missiles and establish eternal peace throughout the whole world.
    And there was still no Pushkin.
    Then the vigilant comrades from the house management committee visited the apartment, led by old man Dushkin, who, if he slipped on the street or the sour cream had turned, never wrote to any less an authority than the Politburo. The comrades wanted to know: Why all the noise and music, and why did the lights burn at night? Your documents, please. Spiridonov took the blame on himself: he was an inventor, he worked at night, the sounds of the zurna and drums stimulated him. He brought out his eighth-grade achievement certificate from boy’s school #415 of the Red Guard region, a publication from Science and Life, “MAKE a handy new MOP from old TOOTHBRUSHES,” and a museum curio: the text of Lenin’s “How We Should Reorganize the Worker-Peasant Inspectorate,” reproduced in encrusted fish bones on a walrus tusk by an unknown folk master. If it’s not allowed, said Spiridonov, then he wouldn’t do it anymore, but his documents were in order, we know the residence rules. We, thank God, aren’t children, we know that everything’s forbidden: we mustn’t stand at night on the side of the Moscow Ring Road, operate without support, pull except in case of emergency, lean over the driver’s cabin, take more than six hundred grams per person, tamper with the packaging, bring a bottle for consumption on the premises, place objects on the handrails, peddle without a license, open before coming to a complete stop, walk without a muzzle, transport foul-smelling, poisonous, or oversized items, talk more than three minutes, descend and walk along the rails, stick our heads out, climb up, photograph, offer resistance, croak, whistle, shout thrice in the dawn like a basilisk, or engage in the sawing of firewood after eleven o’clock at night local time.
    It was better not to joke with the comrades from the house management committee. I kicked out Lyonechka’s pupils; the white cat left on his own, having talked the mice into voyaging with him—and that autumn, by the way, they were seen in the upper regions of the Volga; the cat walked, leaning on a staff in a garland of forget-me-nots, aloof; the mice, six of them, ran behind carrying their tiny belongings, salt and matches—I’m afraid that they lit campfires in inappropriate places, and we were to blame; and to add to it all, Uncle Zhenya—who had arrived at his appointed place, and had already strolled through the official rooms of his new dwelling, yanked on the windows, doors, locks, and blinds, checking for sturdiness, unpacked his suitcases with striped ties, checked ties, and peacock feather ties, explained to Aunt Zina how to use the air conditioner (“Zhenya! Hey, Zhenya! I don’t quite… I can’t figure it out!”)—Uncle Zhenya did not relax his vigilance for a second and sent Lyonechka a letter by diplomatic mail with a copy to Lyonechka’s parents, warning that Lyonechka should stop it (he knew what Uncle Zhenya was talking about) and shouldn’t even think of doing any such thing; that someone had already been warned and would follow through strictly, for he had been empowered to do so; and if Lyonechka didn’t turn over a new leaf, Uncle Zhenya would let it be known in certain quarters and then he’d really catch it. And Lyonechka shouldn’t think that just because Uncle Zhenya is in certain places he doesn’t give a hoot. No, it’s all very serious, because—you understand yourself, and especially now, when… well, precisely. There you have it.
    Poor Uncle Zhenya—he wrote, he thought hard, and chose subtleties of meaning, but his death had already left the distant forests and, sniffing around, was running to meet him on soft paws, flexing its muscles. Uncle Zhenya finished writing, drank the coffee that was now available, and looked into the empty cup—and all the coffee grinds of the world, all the daisies, palm lines, pictures in distant stars and packs of cards with frowning kings and arrogant knaves had already fallen into the simple contour of a tombstone, trustingly revealing to Uncle Zhenya his imminent fate, but he couldn’t read it, for this knowledge was not given to him. And Uncle Zhenya sealed the envelope and daydreamed of the future’s fruits, of swimming in the sea, of new spare tires for a new car, of official reports and labyrinths of intrigue—he became lost in sweet thoughts of things that eventually came to pass, of course, but that no longer had the slightest relationship to him. It’s strange to think that he died almost at the same time as Judy, and that as he pierced the metaphysical heights, he may perchance have bumped into her in the gray light of otherworldly bodies and not recognized her.
    Uncle Zhenya wasn’t joking: he pushed the buttons available to him, and in October—I remember the day: panic, Lyo-nechka’s shouts, Judy’s tears, and in the southern side of the sky that night, the distant, trembling dawn of Uncle Zhenya’s malicious delight—in October Judy was summoned to a certain unpleasant place, an official building, and it was suggested that she be so kind as to get the hell out, go wherever she liked, only get lost. Obviously, we didn’t sleep all night: Lyonechka gave Decembrist speeches, his sister Svetlana, in tight ringlets and heavily made up, ran back and forth from us to her parents (Mama was a real cow, and Papa was even more uncouth) despite the late hour (who knows, what if love were suddenly waiting around the corner) conveying, on the one hand, her brother’s radical plans: to marry, emigrate, leave for the north, for the south, for Mars, contrive an act of self-immolation on Pushkin Square, and so forth; and on the other hand—everything that one expects in such circumstances. When Svetlana informed us toward dawn that a telephone call had been placed to the Southern Hemisphere (they announced that “Lyonia something or other,” and he replied “call so-and-so”) all of us— lovers, Spiridonov, Svetlana, and I—took off in an undisclosed direction, as they say, and fought along the way. Svetlana wanted to head for the sea, since she really liked sailors and the gifts they bring to girls of Svetlana’s life-style; I proposed Friazino, where Mama had a little house, planted around with black currants and lupine; Lyonechka was attracted by the taiga (as usual, for ideological reasons); and as a result Spiridonov won, carrying us off to the town of R., where his sister Antonina Sergeevna was a bigwig in the city government.
    Although the authorities in the town of R. lived better than simple people, as the authorities always do—for the May holidays they could sign up to buy marshmallows, Chinese towels, and even Stories of Burma in a colorful binding, and for the November holidays they got to stand on a heated tribune, sincerely waving their mittened hands to the freezing masses— and many simple people dream of such a life while tossing in their beds at night—still, the authorities have their dramas, too, and it seems to me that there’s no point in maligning or envying them from the word go. Antonina Sergeevna, who sheltered us, had to answer somewhere high up in her empyrean for the hot-water pipes, and when the asphalt in the town of R. began collapsing and people started falling irretrievably into the boiling water underground, the empyrean raised the question of Antonina Sergeevna’s responsibility for this unplanned broth. But, after all, the asphalt itself wasn’t under her jurisdiction, it was under the jurisdiction of Vasily Paramono-vich, and a stern warning should be issued to him, claimed the angered Antonina Sergeevna, slapping her palm on the light-colored, polished table in the office, and on the dark one at home. When the people collapsed, Vasily Paramonovich was absent, however—a general had invited him to Naryan-Mar to hunt the kolkhoz deer from a helicopter—and he most decidedly did not care to be sternly warned. He drew Antonina Sergeevna’s attention to his friendship with the general as if it added a lily-white cast to the pure pallor of his nomenclatural raiment; he hinted at such and such and also at this and that, and, deftly summarizing, juggling and shuffling everything, emphasized the fact that had Antonina Sergeevna’s pipes not rusted, the water would not have eroded Vasily Paramonovich’s asphalt. Correct? Correct. While this mutual bickering continued, the water undermined Akhmed Khasianovich’s trees, which fell over and squashed a couple of homeless dogs belonging to Olga Khristoforovna, for whom it was already time to retire on her special pension. Naturally, it was she who bore the brunt of responsibility in the end, since, as she was reminded, the department under her jurisdiction hadn’t shot its quota of ownerless dogs, and during that fiscal period these dogs had insulted the dignity of our people in the public squares and children’s playgrounds, and the dignity of our people is a golden, unchangeable currency, the pledge and guarantee of our continual, unquestioned success, our pride and joy, for it is better to die standing in boiling water than to live on our knees, picking up all kinds of I don’t even want to say what after her undisciplined dogs—mongrels, it must be stressed—and besides, it’s not altogether impossible that it was in fact her dogs that toppled the trees, dug up the asphalt, and gnawed through the hot pipes, which is what led to fourteen people boiling in our dear native earth—not an inch of which will we yield—moreover the Western radio programs are slanderously claiming that it was fifteen, but, ladies and gentlemen, they miscalculated— as always for that matter—since the fifteenth recovered and joined the work brigade of the blind workers’ cooperative that produces Flycatcher sticky tape, and the spurious slander of overseas stooges and the hysterics and yes-men of the right-wing emigres are only fit for the “Gotcha” column of the regional newspaper.
    Thus was the true face of Olga Khristoforovna revealed, and without a second thought she ran off on her special pension, in order to resolutely write her battle memoirs, for in her time she had galloped with a cavalry squadron, had known Commander Shchors, and even been awarded an engraved sword, which still hung across the raspberry-colored wall rug with blue zigzags that had been given to her by a Dagestan delegation, and under which, on the narrow bed, covered with an army blanket, her unclaimed spinsterhood languished at night.
    By the way, I’d like to note—for the sake of fairness and the bigger picture—that though Antonina Sergeevna acted faintheartedly, sloughing off her guilt in the affair of the boiled citizens of R. (and who wouldn’t have acted faintheartedly?), all in all she remained on top of the situation: she thoroughly understood and appreciated Olga Khristoforovna’s role and her contribution to our successes, to our lofty today, as she liked to say; and although she certainly could have, she didn’t cross Olga Khristoforovna off the Timur Scout’s list of old people, but every October sent her two transitional age adolescents with an axe to chop firewood for the winter. In turn, Olga Khristoforovna tactfully refrained from pointing out that her building had long since switched to central heating and that she didn’t need firewood; she didn’t shoo away the adolescents, but gave them tea with quince jam and showed them how to handle a sword, without a thought to sparing the white geraniums on her windowsill; as a gesture of friendship she even sent them to get cigarettes—she was an inveterate smoker—at a nearby kiosk, which the adolescents then chopped open with the axe around New Year, carrying off four kilos of hard candies and two packs each of cheap macaroni for Mama and Grandma. At the trial they referred to Prudhomme, who taught that all property is theft, and likewise manifested a good knowledge of Bakunin’s works; leaving for the camp, they promised upon their return to apply to the philosophy department, and waved their prison handkerchiefs at a sobbing Olga Khristoforovna.
    As a matter of fact, Antonina Sergeevna was a great gal, even though she wasn’t one of us; she had steel teeth, a head of curls, and the nape of her neck was shaved high. “Girls!” she would say to us. “You don’t know how to work, oh, go jump in a creek, the lot of you, what am I going to do with you?” Her jacket was official and inflexible: under it in a rose blouse resided her warm, unembraceable, already rather elderly expanses; she wore a wooden brooch at her throat, and her lipstick was bright, Parisian, and poisonous—we all had a taste of it ourselves when Antonina Sergeevna would suddenly jump up from behind the bountiful table (“the tomatoes! set out the tomatoes!”) and press our heads to her stomach with emotion, kissing us with unabated strength.
    Antonina Sergeevna took our motley crew in stride, said that she was very, very, very glad we had come—there was much ado, a lot of work, and we, of course, would help her. R. was preparing for a holiday: they were expecting guests from the Greater Tulumbass tribe, which was a collective sister region of the whole R. region. A three-day friendship festival was planned and the authorities were beside themselves. The undertaking was ambitious: to create all the necessary conditions for the Tulumbasses to feel at home. Plywood mountains and ravines were urgently erected, the string factory wove lianas, and in order to be stained black, a color closer to the heart of the sister region, the pigs were forced to wade twice across the Unka River, which had been noted in a chronicle of the eleventh century (“And the Prince came on the Unka River. And it was wide and terrifying”), but had since lost its strategic significance.
    Pushing aside the plates, Antonina Sergeevna immediately laid papers out on the table, and waving away the clothes moths, acquainted us with the heart of the leadership’s arguments. She herself proposed a thorough, comprehensive plan: an international scramble up a smooth pole; a sauna for the chief; a visit to the embroidery factory with gifts of dust ruffles and embroidered towels; a sight-seeing excursion around the city to include the ruins of the nunnery, the house where legend had it another house had stood, and the bakery that was being built; the placing of earth at a friendship tree; the signing of joint protests against international tensions here and there; and tea in the foyer of the House of Culture. Vasily Paramonovich made a counterproposal: a meeting with Party activists; an excursion to the acid guild of a chemical factory; a concert of the voluntary militia choir; the presentation of memorial envelopes; the signing of a proposal to name one of the Tulumbasses an honorary member of the cosmonaut detachment; and a picnic on the banks of the Unka with campfires and fishing. For the dust ruffles he proposed substituting the Urdu language edition of South Seas explorer and ethnographer Miklukho-Maklai’s collected works, which had appeared recently in local stores in unlimited quantities. Akhmed Khasianovich reproached his colleagues with a lack of imagination: all this had been done, he said, when they received the delegation of Vaka-Vaka Indians. Fresh ideas were needed: a mass swim across the river, a parachute jump, or on the contrary, an excursion down into the local limestone caves, but a friendly two-week trek across the desert or the tundra would be best of all; however they’d have to agree on the route immediately and set up stands with lemonade and sour-cream buns along the way. The best gift of all would be a copy of the famous painting The Poet Musa Jalil in the Moabit Prison, since it had everything one could want in a painting: ethnicity, folk elements, protest, and optimism, expressed in the rays of light pouring through the barred window. Antonina Sergeevna objected that, as far as she could recall, there weren’t any windows in the painting, and even if she were mistaken, the prison is depicted from the inside, which could be depressing, and wouldn’t the painting Life Is Everywhere, in which the prison is seen from the outside, be better? The sweet faces of children peer out of the windows in that one, which inspires warm feelings even in unprepared viewers. Vasily Paramonovich, who was not strong on art, said in a conciliatory fashion that the safest thing would be the poster “With Every Year—Our Step Grows Wider,” there are several hundred rolls in the warehouse, we could give a copy to each of the Tulumbasses. They had decided on the poster, but now Antonina Sergeevna wanted to know our opinion, as people more in touch with the capital.
    Antonina Sergeevna has to be given credit: Judy’s past, present, and future, her looks, name, bad pronunciation, and clothes, which in their abundance and quality reminded one of the increased production at the Three Mountain Manufacturing plant at the end of the year, utterly failed to rattle her: Spiridonov knew where he was taking us. Judy was Judy, the Tulumbasses were Tulumbasses, five guests or twenty-five guests—it was all the same to Antonina Sergeevna, a woman who thought in categories and documents.
    Twilight was already upon us and distant islands awoke in Spiridonov: the ocean seethed, Trinidad and Tobago stirred, a little wind played in the tops of the palms, a coconut fell, the blind coral threw out a new prickly arrow, and seashells opened their gates in the warm murk of the lagoon; and in the smoky dream of a pearl oyster what must have been Paris floated by— in a gray rain, in grape cluster of lights, quivering, Paris floated by like a sweet intimation of existence beyond the grave. Violins squealed like the brakes of heavenly chariots.
    “Keep it down, Kuzma,” remarked Antonina Sergeevna, raising her head from the papers and unseeingly glancing over the top of her glasses. “So then, Vasily Paramonovich wants to call in the blimps—he has good connections—and stretch a holiday banner between them—a few sickles, golden ears of wheat as symbols of peaceful labor—the sketch has already been approved by the censors. In this regard, a question for you Moscow comrades: do we need a little slogan or two for the ears, what do you think?”
    At the word “slogan,” Lyonechka became politically aroused with dangerous speed, and, noticing the negative symptoms (sweat, trembling, electrical lightning storms of protest in his eyes), we all retreated quietly to the porch.

    Early autumn had already crawled into the town of R. and showed itself here and there—sometimes in brown bushes, sometimes in bald patches on the foliage of subdued trees. The air smelled of chickens, the john, and wet grass, the moon rose so coppery and enormous that it was as if the end of the world had already come; Spiridonov smoked and the music of other worlds issued from his mouth, mingled with the smoke; unshaven and lame, elderly and not too swift, he had been chosen by someone to give witness to another life—distant, impossible, unattainable—the kind in which there was no place for any of us. The town of R. was our place, it was as familiar as the back of our hands, known by heart, inside out, whether you went to the right or the left or down into the basement or up to the rooftop and, held up by your slipping feet on the rusty tin and clasping the warm, potato-smelling pipe, cried out to the whole world: to the thinning forests, to the dark blue fog in the cold cleared fields, to the drunken tractor drivers crawling into the tractor furrows and to the wolves gnawing at the drivers’ trousers and neck, and to the tiny country store where there’s nothing but packets of gelatin and rubber boots, to the sleeping beetles and cranes overhead, to the black, lonely old ladies who’ve forgotten how they trembled before their wedding and wailed at coffin’s side; go on, cry out—everything’s known ahead of time, everything’s been trampled, verified, searched, settled, shaken out, there’s no exit, the exits have been sealed, every house, window, attic, and cellar has been explored through and through, examined thoroughly. They’ve touched every barrel, tugged on the latches, driven in or pulled out bent nails, rummaged in the basement corners that are either slippery from mold or dried up, they’ve picked at the window frames, peeled off the brown paint, hung and torn down locks, moved piles of loose, discarded paper; there’s not a single empty, somehow accidentally forgotten room, corner, or hallway; there’s not a chair that hasn’t been sat on; not a single stuffy-smelling copper door handle that hasn’t been handled, a catch or bolt that hasn’t been drawn; there’s no exit, but there’s no guard either—leaving just isn’t in the cards.
    But the people who sing noisily in the fire and smoke in the invalid’s illegal mouth—aren’t they also searching for a way out of their own universe, diving, jumping, dancing, glancing from under their hands toward the ocean horizon, seeing off and meeting the ships: Hello, sailors, what have you brought us— rugs? plague? earrings? herring? Tell us quickly, is there another life, and which way should we run to seize its gilded edges?
    Svetlana sighed heavily. She suffered because all over the world there were men, unattainable and magnificent, in the mines and in airplanes, in restaurants and on prison bunks, on night watch and under festive white sails, men whom she’d never meet: small ones and big ones, with mustaches and automobiles, ties and bald spots, long underwear and gold signet rings, with pockets full of money and a passionate desire to spend this money on Svetlana—who’s right here on the evening porch, all curls and powder, ready to fall deeply in love with each and every one who asks.
    Blending with the darkness, Judy sat silently, like everyone else. She hadn’t said anything in a long time, but only now, when Spiridonov played a solo on his horn, could one suddenly hear how deep, powerless, and black her silence was; it was like the lonely obedient silence of a beast—that fantastic beast she wanted to nurse without knowing or seeing who beckoned with a hoof or claw; wrapping herself in scarves and shawls, she boldly set off into the distance, beyond the seas and mountains in search of that beast, in search of a warm, quiet, useful friend with soft wool, with silly dark eyes, with sparse hair on its face and a secret emptiness blowing from the pitted, rosy cartilage of its ear canals, with milk in its satiny stomach or a column of transparent seed in the curly caches of its loins; a beast with long, spiral horns and a tail resembling a geisha’s hair in the morning, with a silver chain on its neck and a daisy in its carefree mouth, an affectionate, loyal, make-believe beast, imagined in dreams.
    I wanted to hug her, to stroke her fuzzy head, and say: Now now, what do you want from us, foolish woman, how can we help you if we ourselves don’t know whom to call, where to run, what to look for, and from whom to hide? We’re all running in different directions: I am, and you are, and so is Antonina Sergeevna, who sweats from her immense government responsibilities, and so is Uncle Zhenya, who’s already far away, southern, almost otherworldly, comfortably wriggling his toes in his brand-new inexpensive sandals, ready to set out on the walk from which he won’t return; and so is the maiden-knight Olga Khristoforovna, who wanted to do what was best, but was cut down by colleagues who wanted to do even better—the moon rises and torments Olga Khristoforovna with forgotten dreams, forgotten fields torn up by the cavalry’s hooves, the hiss of transparent sabers, the smoke of soundless gunshot, the smell of porridge from the collective pots, the smell of sheepskin, blood, youth, and unreceived kisses. Look around, listen carefully, or even open a book. Everyone’s running, running away from himself or in search of himself: Odysseus runs endlessly, spinning and marking time in the small bowl of the Mediterranean Sea; the three sisters are running to Moscow, motionlessly and eternally, like in a nightmare, moving their six legs, running in place; Doctor Doolittle who, rather like you, got lost in dreams of sick, overseas animals, is also running—“and Doctor Doolittle ran all that day, and only one word would he say: Limpopo, Limpopo, Limpopo!” Moscow, Limpopo, the town of R., or the island of Ithaca—isn’t it all the same?
    But I didn’t say any of this, because at that moment the gate jingled and from the dew-befogged hawthorn bushes emerged Vasily Paramonovich, the devotee of the airways, white in his embroidered shirt, arm in arm with Perkhushkov, the regional ideological dragon.
    “Who’s there?” Vasily Paramonovich hooted, cheerful and alert, from the twilight. “I’ve come to work things out, I’ve got new plans with me, and then I hear: someone’s misbehaving with music. And is this none other than Antonina Sergeevna’s brother come to pay a visit? Welcome home!”
    “What’s that?” said Perkhushkov, roused, sensing Judy’s darkness in the dark. “Don’t tell me the foreign comrades have already arrived? The reservations aren’t till the twentieth.”
    And he returned us to the house, where the sight and effect of tomatoes and cognac revived dim historical memories of the Battle of Borodino. “We’re expecting the air squadron by morning,” said Vasily Paramonovich. “Oh, what a celebration it’ll be!”
    “But where will they land?” said Antonina Sergeevna, surprised.
    “Oh, they won’t land anywhere: they don’t have a permit,” replied Vasily Paramonovich, casting a sidelong glance at Perkhushkov. Perkhushkov nodded. “They’re going to circle and make figures. Tomorrow they’ll rehearse, and then when our sister-regional comrades get here, they’ll give them a real show.”
    “Couldn’t we throw red carnations from the fighter planes? Paper ones?” asked Antonina Sergeevna.
    “We used up our quota of paper way back in June! Now, then, Antonina, just what we need, more paper.”
    “What if we get the private sector in, the ones who knit flowers for the cemetery?”
    “Under no circumstances! They knit roses, not carnations, and roses are apolitical,” interrupted Perkhushkov. “You have to understand the difference. In fact, the cemetery is one of our sorest spots and a source of consternation,” said Perkhushkov sadly, “a neglected plot of ideological work, I have to admit. It has a despondent, depressed spirit and a touch of mysticism uncharacteristic of our society: crosses, crypts, and some people even allow themselves to carve pessimistic inscriptions or erect cement angels, which are essentially unmasked subversions of materialism and empiriocriticism. And just think, on the tombstones and gravestones they carve—completely irresponsibly—not only the date of birth, but the date of so-called death, and most of the time neither have been cleared with the proper authorities. It’s just plain cosmopolitanism. That’s why there’s a move now to enter stern reprimands—stern, mind you!—in the dossiers of deceased comrades if mystical figures and unauthorized dates appear on their graves—after all, we can’t allow the Three Sources and Three Spare Parts of Marxism to be obstructed and squandered by a bunch of little cherubims introduced from the outside. And take other problem spots. No need to go far—why right over here, two blocks away, in the old-age home, what goes on there if you just scratch beneath the surface. Gaidukov, Andrei Borisovich: an Honored Worker, medals from armpit to armpit, so many of them that at last November’s holidays they had to add panels to his jacket, thrice laureate of the Blue Sword. He’s completely forgotten himself, hunts rabbits under his bed, shames the authorities. Boiko, Raisa Nikolaevna: you’d think that all the necessary conditions had been provided, they brought her to the political seminars on a hospital bed, camphor—be our guest, an IV—to your health, an oxygen pillow—our pleasure, everything’s right at hand. And then she goes and confuses Jaspers with Kierkegaard, can’t name the seventeen reasons of gradual transformation, and insists that Martin Luther King nailed the April theses to the Berlin Wall! What is this? And Ivanova, Sulamif Semyonovna? Quite understandable if she’d had a bad class origin, but no, she’s a first-generation member of the intelligentsia, a doctoral candidate and everything, and at one time she even invented some kind of syrup for calming the nerves that was very popular at the end of the thirties, so popular that Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin himself congratulated her, stuck a medal on her chest, embraced and kissed her, shook her hands, feet, neck, everything—he greeted her very warmly. This Sulamif became horribly senile—though I suspect it’s not senility but a diversion—and pretends she’s a young, capricious girl, moreover of the most vulgar sort: give her some bouquets of lilac, she says, she’ll wallow around in them, and she wants elves with feather fans to blow zephyrs on her, for example, or—horrors!—siroccos. Can you imagine? This is one of our own Soviet old ladies—and to make such a political error. Friends, honestly now, how could there be siroccos in our country?”
    Perkhushkov burst into tears, shaking his head, and Svetlana, drawn to male secretions—even if only tears—like a snake to heat, nestled up against the weakened commissar and set about drying all forty of his eyes with her fair locks, which she had dipped in sugar water for strength and set in strips of the newspaper Red Star the evening before.
    And on the whole, said Perkhushkov, plunging into melancholy, how frightening and difficult it is to live on this earth, my friends. What dramas, collisions, hurricanes, tempests, tornadoes, cyclones, anticyclones, typhoons, tsunamis, mistrals, barguzins, khamsins, and North Winds, not to mention shai-tans, occur at every step of our spiritual life. O! Literally this summer, just this August, this very August, Perkhushkov lived through a drama that no pen would dare take up—the Homer has not yet been blinded who could tackle this theme. Hell— Perkhushkov recounted bitterly—was nothing but a party with girls, just an amusement park, to put it mildly, compared to what he went through. That universal fool Dante, who supposedly roamed around the circles of hell with his pal Virgil, would have hanged himself on the spot if he’d had to go through anything like this; he wouldn’t have bothered suffering. From the first to the fourteenth of August—days of mourning, weeks of woe—Perkhushkov suffered the hell of separation from his homeland. Yes. He went to Italy. Yes. He went there in an airplane, and came back—to increase his torment—by train. The result: he went gray overnight (Perkhushkov moved Svetlana aside and showed his gray hair), and bitter wrinkles sprouted over his entire face, ears, and even the nape of his neck.
    How to describe it?—after all, Perkhushkov isn’t Homer or Lope de Vega, or even the Pleiades poets. How to describe the loneliness, the feeling of breakdown, the profound, interminable depression? And the oppression which seemed to suffuse the very air? In Italy there’s always a gray, gray sky, Perkhushkov related, low, leaden clouds gather over the flat roofs and press on you heavily, crushing you. The howling wind only slightly enlivens the empty, pitiful streets. Bent low, an old lady will hobble past, a beggar will crawl by waving the bloody stump of a limb wrapped in filthy rags, and then silence descends once again. An occasional snowflake, swirling slowly, falls in the horrifying, stifling atmosphere. Industrial smoke covers the crooked lanes of the cities in black billows so thick that you can’t see farther than your outstretched arm—and there’s nothing to look at anyway. The Italians are a gloomy, morose people, hunchbacked from centuries of excessive labor; they have sunken, consumptive chests and are constantly hawking blood, so that the streets are entirely covered with bloody tubercular spittle. Rarely, oh, so rarely, a weak smile illuminates the pale, haggard face of an Italian, exposing his bloodless, toothless gums—and this happens only if he encounters one of us, a Soviet citizen; then the Italian will stretch out his thin, rag-covered arms and quietly wheeze: “Comrade! Kremlin!”—and again let his weakened limbs fall powerlessly to his side.
    In the middle of Italy rises a black, gloomy fortress—the Vatican. A horrible, foul-smelling moat surrounds the fortress on all sides, and only once a year a squeaking drawbridge lowers its rusty chains to let in trucks full of gold. Crows circle the Vatican cawing ominously, and higher up helicopters zoom around, and even higher—Pershing missiles. Once in a while a wheezing laugh sounds from within the fortress walls—it’s the pope of Rome, a dreary old man whom no one has ever seen. He’s well-fed and rich, of course; he has his own fields and flocks, so he eats sausage, fat, and dumplings every day, and pizza on holidays. In the Vatican cellar there’s a harem: hundreds of magnificent girls languish there, including some of our Soviet girls who traded their native expanses for a pottage of lentils. Well, they miscalculated—they’re only given lentils once a year, on International Women’s Day, most of the time they only get gruel. And the piss pots aren’t even emptied every day.
    The Vatican guards are terrifying—whoever approaches is shot without warning. A step to the left or right is considered an attempt on the pope’s life. That’s why no one can do anything with him. Well-trained German shepherds and electrified barbed wire complete the oppressive effect.
    Rats dart about Italy in such numbers that cars can hardly get through. And anyway, who has the money for cars? Per-khushkov cried bitterly. Only fat cats and the rich! They ride around happy as clams in linguini, drinking wine day and night in luxurious palaces and cathedrals and laughing loudly at simple Italians, who can only clench their gaunt fists powerlessly. The shelves in the stores are empty, and often, constantly even, you see little children—every last one of whom is on crutches, by the way—fighting in the garbage over a piece of bread.
    “Who throws away bread, if there’s nothing in the stores?” said Antonina Sergeevna, starting up in horror.
    “The Mafia,” Perkhushkov said sternly. “The Mafia throws bread away.”
    “My G-o-d…”
    “Yes. And I can say this out loud to you, because you and I have nothing to fear, but for exposing this secret the Mafia killed all the police commissars, all the republic’s prosecutors, all the carabinieri, and now it’s holding the members of their families—including great aunts—hostage to unceasing terror. And the Mafia itself lives in luxurious palaces and cathedrals and laughs loudly.”
    Perkhushkov was so upset by the sight of the luxurious palaces and cathedrals built with loathing by the simple oppressed medieval masses that he couldn’t even look at these odious edifices, which were barely perceptible through the smoke, and so covered his eyes with his hands; in fact, the entire Soviet delegation walked along with their eyes shut tight. A completely different, noble feeling seized him at the sight of the dilapidated hovels of simple Italians, and it was with particular warmth and tenderness that his eyes followed simple unemployed folk and the simple oppressed masses crawling by on crutches, and he even caught up with one of them and gave him a ruble with Lomonosov’s profile. If he ran into someone wealthier, Perkhushkov clenched his fists and ground his teeth in rage, and between his eyebrows a fierce fold appeared instantly, smoothing out for good only on the way home when the train switched wheels at the border in Chop. From the very beginning Perkhushkov was tormented by homesickness. He began pining and feeling uncomfortable while still waiting for his passport to be issued. Worse! As soon as the word “Italy” had been pronounced, Perkhushkov was pierced by such intolerable anguish that he flew out into the courtyard like a pterodactyl and embraced a birch tree planted recently during a voluntary labor day in such a death grip that he had to be torn off together with the leaves and bark: before parting he had wanted to at least drink his fill of birch sap. Sitting in the airplane he pined: he pressed greedily to the window and watched with swollen eyes as his homeland slipped back. When the airplane crossed the border, Perkhushkov felt as though he’d been pierced by a white-hot rod, he was overcome, stricken. He tore himself from his seat, knocking over the packets of sugar and salt, the plastic cup with mineral water, and the meat patty in tomato sauce—so beloved and familiar!—and dashed, sobbing, to the emergency exit to unclamp the locks. It was only with great difficulty that he was held back by two stewardesses, the flight engineer, and the second pilot, whose eyes were also swollen from tears and longing for our native buckwheat expanses. Similar attacks of nostalgia, ever more frequent, overwhelmed him in Italy as well: at night he tossed about and bit his clenched, whitened fists; and during the day he sat in his room on the bed with a lackluster gaze, his head lowered, his arms limp as seaweed at his side, and continually muttered: “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” His comrades invited him to go to dilapidated theaters, drink disagreeable wine, ride in a leaky gondola—how could he? So it’s understandable that on encountering a compatriot—one of our guys, from Tver—Perkhushkov threw himself on the fellow and clutched him so powerfully that the guy suffocated in Perkhushkov’s embrace, in connection with which there was even a bit of unpleasantness about the corpse, an explanatory note had to be written to the institution which had sent the deceased to the capitalist country and a little fuss made about a pension for the widow and orphans, but that’s unimportant, what’s important is the agonizing patriotic feeling which seized Perkhushkov on his return: a feeling of pride in his homeland, her skies and other analogous spaces, her majestic achievements, broad step, steady stride, and high dairy yield.
    “The homeland,” cried an agitated Perkhushkov, “oh, what could be dearer than the homeland in a world of Final Resolutions? Nothing! And indeed, how wise are the golden Final Resolutions with their piercing light, how timely and yet how unexpectedly they occur, with what profound heat they scorch our souls, even like unto a gleaming sword, double-edged, bilaterally sinuous, filled with untold radiance, indestructible, indivisible, invincible forever and ever more! And truly—how would we live without Resolutions, we, who are pitiful, white, naked, blind, and trembling, like the cold worms and legless water larvae? O, shall we be likened unto the transparent lice, who in dense ignorance and animal unbelief gnaw the green leaf; O, shall we be likened unto the simple insects, who throng unaware in a drop of well water? O, shall we be likened unto the undifferentiated amoebas thirsting and fearing the division of their very selves—and sinfully thirsting in vain, for nothing which divideth in itself will stand; O, how dark, empty, and fearful it would be for us without Resolutions, how timidly we crawl between the stony desert’s mountain outcrops, starting in fear at the least flutter or squeak, how pitifully we whine, stretching our hands, tentacles, metamerie segments, chewers, pincers, and cilia into the utter darkness, which giveth forth only cold and a fetid roar: enlighten us! O, enlighten us! And how dimly the chill, extinguished, previous Final Resolutions glimmer, as if coated with fog and rust, for they have lost their currency and topical interest, like a maid loseth the color of youth, like a rose—its springtime pollen…
    “And behold, the hour chimeth, and it cannot be foreseen, a voice thundereth—and who would dare envision it? The heavens open wide and the shrouds are rent, and the hundred-eyed Beast, whose number is twelve, sort of all in purple and scarlet, revealeth himself in a terrible thunder, rolling his legs:
    “—and a papakha hat of costly lamb’s wool is his miter, and his clothes are of wool, the finest spun and the color of evening mists;
    “—and his breast and his loins are of rubies and purest unpolluted gold, his shroud is double-breasted, and in number his snaps equal the sands of the seas;
    “—at his head lies the star Saryn, a corpse lieth at his feet; girdled is he with inexpressible crenulations;
    “—and, raising high a horn, with a voice like the sound of the waters he thrice exclaimeth: Behold, behold, behold the Final Resolutions!
    “And with uncompared strength, and sound equally beyond compare, the Beast unfoldeth the list of Final Resolutions, and their light, my compatriots—their light was like unto the explosion of a thousand suns, and seeing it, all gloom, foulness, and filth ran, hiding from the face of the earth, letting forth a stream of helpless maledictions.
    “So, describe this, my friend, my young poet,” Perkhushkov asked Lyonechka, “describe it as a citizen, as a soldier, one of the ranks. And may this book be as sweet as honey on our tongues, in our belly let it be ever as bitter as the root of the wormwood of Kara Kum, as the medicinal resin of the Pamir caves, as the salt of the lakes of Elton and Baskunchak, may its effect be ever purifying as the Carlsbad salts.”
    Perkhushkov peeled off Svetlana, stood up, and straightened his shirt, vest, army jacket, overcoat, cloak, parka, shroud, and black cape with an azure lining—he straightened everything that he had on or imagined he wore.
    “And as far as the homeland is concerned,” he said from the threshold, piercing a terrified Judy with his forty eyes, “I’ve explained it. Whosoever abideth in it, he will abide. As for those who can’t—we’ll find the right abode for them.” And, narrowing some of his eyes, he flashed his spurs and left.
    “Well, now,” sighed Antonina Sergeevna, “home is always best, who can argue? This year there was even butter in the stores, and in the work rations there’s always butter for 3.50 a kilo.”
    “There was yeast,” affirmed Vasily Paramonovich.
    “Yeast there was. And there’s always flour. I don’t know what else one needs. Veterans get raisins. Live as you please. Who needs any old Italy?”
    “But he doesn’t travel of his own free will,” noted Vasily Paramonovich. “It’s for his job. And about writing that story— he’s right. That’s good. You write, young man, and you listen to me,” he recommended to Lyonechka. “I’ll give you a story too. Now, let’s say we take a certain comrade. A simple lad, a Russian. Served at the front, for that matter. Two wounds, but one of them’s not really serious, well, in the soft tissues, let’s say, that’s it. But the other’s worse. Yes. The second should be a bit more serious. But then, of course, that’s not the point, I leave that to your imagination. So he returns from the front, straight to the factory as a wire maker, the girls there are nice, there’s one particularly spunky one… but that’s also up to your imagination. That’s not the point. So, the years pass. They elect him to management. And the years pass. He’s in management, I can’t deny it. But! You see, the plot is that, well, they won’t move him up higher, not for anything. He soft-soaps Kuznetsov and Agafonov—I’m just giving an example—no soap. It’s like he’s caught his pants on a nail, to use the vernacular. What’s going on? he wonders. What’s going on? Yes… There’s a story for you. From real life. They’re always writing a lot of stuff and nonsense. Kisses. All beside the point. And when you’re in Moscow, you publish it—what I told you, this story. Those in the know—will be downright horridified, I tell you. There might even be disturbances. They might even have to bring in the troops. So you go easy on it, don’t overdo it. Keep the brakes on. Okay?”
    On the eve of the Tulumbasses’ arrival, Olga Khristoforovna galloped through the town of R. on the kolkhoz steed with a black banner in her right hand and an ultimatum in her left. She demanded the abolition of money, of privilege rations and regular ration tickets, demanded the closing of special distribution order desks, the cancellation of exams in schools and universities, and proclaimed the emancipation of horses, dogs, and parrots, if it should happen that such were to be found in the personal use of the inhabitants of the town of R.; she demanded the destruction of fences, locks, keys, curtains, rugs, sheets, pillowcases with and without rickrack, pillows, feath-erbeds, house slippers, underwear, handkerchiefs, beads, earrings, rings, brooches and pendants, tablecloths, forks, spoons, tea and coffee china—with the exception of plain tea glasses— ties, hats, ladies’ purses, woolens, silk, synthetics, viscose, and nylon. Olga Khristoforovna permitted the inhabitants of the town of R. to keep for their personal use no more than one table, two stools, one zinc bucket, tin cups with handles (three), folding knives (two), one Primus stove with monthly registration, and one and a half cubic meters of firewood per family; blankets—one per capita; cigarettes and lighters—ad libitum.
    Moreover, Olga Khristoforovna declared that she had renamed nature once and for all, on a global basis, and that henceforth the town of R. and the rest of the world would be granted August Bebel Autumn Rains, Vera Slutskaya Foggy Dawns, Nogin Clouds, Uritsky Sunrises, and Red Banner Snowstorms named after the Awakening Women of the Trans-Caucasus.
    In conclusion, Olga Khristoforovna certified that her teaching was correct, because it was right.
    It was in connection with Olga Khristoforovna’s dangerous behavior that a nearby military unit was called in to assist; this was made all the more necessary, Vasily Paramonovich explained, because in any event you could expect excesses on the part of the population: after all, there have been cases in which local hotheads have forced their way through to visiting sister regionals and demanded that they convey slander of one kind or another to the United Nations: whether it’s that the wheat is infected with beetles, or that horned fish are being sold and that they’re supposedly radioactive—whereas if the fish happen to have horns, then it’s for completely different, personal reasons known only to the fish—or that men’s socks end up in the margarine and it’s hard to spread on bread, which isn’t true. It spreads beautifully.
    The Tulumbasses began arriving from the south, and from the north came an unlimited contingent of troops. Blimps hovered on high, decorated with mustachioed ears of wheat and a short accompanying text: “Oh, rye, rye!”—all the rest had been crossed out by the censor. Between the south, north, and on high, Olga Khristoforovna galloped like the spirit of vengeance, and the underground caverns, roaring with liberated hot water, sonorously responded to the blows of the horses’ hooves.
    In anticipation of meeting the Tulumbasses the comrades in charge ascended the hill and Antonina Sergeevna demanded that we, as guests from the capital and partly relatives, also stand on the hill with kerchiefs and bread and salt in outstretched hands. Vasily Paramonovich had donned his sturdiest suit and his electronic watch; Akhmed Khasianovich had shaved three times and now worriedly fingered the quickly darkening bristle rushing to grow out again; Antonina Sergeevna looked as though she had recently died and been stylishly, expensively mummified—the cold wind blew on her curls, amongst which rollers, forgotten in her haste, could be fleetingly glimpsed. Perkhushkov was also around somewhere pretending to be either a boulder overgrown with late, frost-bitten plantains, or maybe that dead branch over there. The rowan-berry blazed, promising a stormy winter soon to come, and far off, as far as the eye could see, the distant woods were already yellow and reddish brown, enveloped in an autumnal haze.
    And the gray vault of the heaven over us where the squadron howled, racing by with no place to land, and the distant brown forests, and the hill in the middle of the globe where we stamped our feet in the wind that blew salt out of the carved salt cellars, and the frozen earth, shuddering under the hooves of the raven black steed, invisible from here—at that moment all this was our life, our one and only, full, hermetic, real, palpable life. This is what it was and nothing else. And there was only one way out of it.
    “No, this is not life,” Judy said suddenly in a loud voice, reading my thoughts, and everyone looked around in bewilderment. But she was wrong. This was life, life. This was it. Because life, as we were taught, is a form of existence of protein molecules, and anything else is just empty pretense, patterns on the water, pictures in smoke. All you have to do is accept this wise view and the heart won’t hurt so much, “and if it should— then just a little bit,” as the poet wrote. If only we dreamed a little less—life is cruel to dreamers. What had I done wrong? But I wasn’t even the issue. What had Judy done wrong: Judy who caught a cold on the hill in the town of R. and died two weeks later of pneumonia, not having given birth to Pushkin for us after all, not having encountered a single sick animal, Judy who vanished in vain? To tell the truth, she died like a dog, in a strange country, amid strangers to whom—why beat around the bush?—she was nothing but a burden. You remember her once in a while and think: who was she, what did she want, and what was her real name after all? And what did she think about these odd people who surrounded her, hiding, shouting, fearing, and lying—people white as beetle grubs, fly larvae, raw dough, people who would start babbling and waving their arms frantically, or suddenly stand stock-still at the window in tears, as if it were they who had gone astray in life’s thicket? And Uncle Zhenya—what had he done wrong, he who was torn into pieces, into basic protein molecules next to a waterfall in an alien land—a stick in his hand, an uneaten banana in his mouth, pain and bewilderment in his bulging diplomatic eyes? And truthfully, feeling a romantic kinship with him, I won’t judge him, as I will judge neither Olga Khristoforovna with her nightly spinsterish dreams of sabers and smoke and dappled steeds, nor Vasily Paramonovich, who was born to crawl, but flew with rapture like a child whenever possible, nor Svetlana, a simple Moscow girl with the appetite of a padishah.
    Then the hawthorn bush shook, and coughing, Perkhushkov spoke up unseen from the bush:
    “Oh damn! Mea culpa. You people will be the death of me. We didn’t foresee possible currency operations.”
    “What currency operations?” said Akhmed Khasianovich, looking around with his mad, magnificent goat eyes. Svetlana glanced at Akhmed Khasianovich, fell in love with him to the grave, and pressed herself to his breast.
    “What kind, what kind,” came the shout from the bush, “forbidden ones, that’s what kind! Don’t you realize what awaits us? I sit on high, look far and wide, never close my eyes, I spy, I spy: our sister-region comrades pass through town and village, our sister-region comrades bear Tulumbass currency: its light is blinding, its quantity uncounted, in town and village they’re buying up milk and cabbage, galoshes and caramels, undermining the allowable, violating the permissible. Soon the Tulumbass comrades will set foot in the town of R., which is entrusted to my care: pillars will collapse and roofs will crack, walls will sway and the earth will yawn, the savings banks will go up in black smoke and a heavenly fire will devour the housing offices and government insurance departments if the tiniest unit of currency touches the right hand of even our lowliest compatriot. Terror, noose, and pit!” shouted the bush.
    And, as if in answer to his speech, down below, at the foot of the hill, a horn rang out: it was Olga Khristoforovna announcing the assembly of all the units, which, however, weren’t there.
    “There’s bad luck for you…” whispered Vasily Paramono-vich. “Or maybe it’ll work out? It seems the central authorities informed us that their currency is shells on twine. Tiny little things, yellow, with spots. Shaped like a baby’s privates. There were instructions.”
    “Maybe it will work out,” the bush said, calming down. “And anyway, Akhmed Khasianovich is responsible.”
    “They’re coming!” shouted Akhmed Khasianovich. The Tulumbasses walked on and on in an endless stream, breaking bushes and crushing trees.
    “About five thousand,” estimated Vasily Paramonovich, swearing as nastily as a soldier.
    “Tartars through and through,” said Antonina Sergeevna sadly in a very old-fashioned way, to which the Tartar Akhmed Khasianovich replied, “I beg your pardon?”
    “Why are they armed?” cried the keen-eyed Perkhushkov. “I’m going to have to annihilate a few people with entries in their dossiers.”
    “That’s the way he always is,” said Antonina Sergeevna. “Tries to scare you, but he’s really a kind soul. He also loves fowl. At home he’s got baby chickens and ducklings and turkey chicks. He recognizes them all and knows them by name. Feeds them himself and eats them himself. And he always writes down which one he’s eaten: Rainbow or Buck Buck or White Tail, and he pastes a photo in his album. Just like children, honestly.”
    The sun broke through the clouds and shone on the gun barrels of the approaching crowd.
    “Hey, it’s our guys! Soldiers!” Vasily Paramonovich laughed joyfully. “They got here on time. Bread and salt retreat! Those are our guys. There, the tanks have appeared. Lord, what a wonderful sight!”
    And truly, they were our guys. They moved harmoniously, beautifully, leaving behind them an even swath, like a highway. They moved on foot and on motorcycles, on jeeps, and tanks, and Volgas, black and milk-colored, and one Mercedes, camouflaged as a train trackman’s hut.
    The hut turned its back to the forest, its face to us, and from the lacquered door Colonel Zmeev emerged, glowing with unbearable male beauty.
    On seeing him, Svetlana even let out a cry.
    “Heigh-ho!” Colonel Zmeev greeted our leadership in English. “To your health. How many magnificent multicolored women and stylish civilians. How marvelously the sun shines and the frosty wind refreshes. How symbolic are the generous gifts of our rich earth: bread, and likewise salt. But we’re no slouches: allow me to thank you for your attention and hospitality and offer you these modest gifts, made or requisitioned by our departmental craftsmen in their rare hours of leisure. Amangeldyev! Hand out the modest gifts.”
    Amangeldyev, a soldier of medium height whose face expressed constant readiness either for fright or for immediate physical pleasure, offered the box with the modest gifts and spread out on the withered grass a fringed tablecloth which was somehow instantly and densely covered with bottles of cognac and cold fish snacks.
    “To your arrival!” Vasily Paramonovich clinked glasses with the guests. “Thank God. You got here in time. We had already started to worry. The aviation up there—they didn’t disappoint us, they’ve been around since morning. The sixth ocean! You get my meaning!”
    “The wild blue yonder,” agreed Akhmed Khasianovich, glancing jealously at the colonel, who was thrice entwined by Svetlana. “Heavenly eagles.”
    “Steel birds zoom in where tanks fear to crawl,” said Vasily Paramonovich joyfully.
    “It’s not quite like that,” smiled Colonel Zmeev. “With the help of contemporary technology we can crawl in where our grandfathers never dreamed. The song’s outdated.”
    “Pickles! Help yourselves to pickles! Dig in!” bustled Antonina Sergeevna, treating the guests to their own goods.
    “Oh, the eternally feminine,” said Zmeev, approving Antonina Sergeevna’s fussing, and Svetlana squeezed him even harder.
    Lyonechka looked at Amangeldyev, who, as a representative of a national minority and moreover a simple subordinate, had instantly endeared himself to the poet.
    After a snack, the colonel distributed the gifts. Lyonechka was presented a length of green Syrian brocade 240 by 70 centimeters, which he gave straightaway to Amangeldyev for puttees. (Like a shout in the mountains, this act provoked an entire avalanche of events: Amangeldyev’s grateful relatives sent Lyonechka’s family monthly parcels of dried apricots, whetting stones, fake medicinal resin, and dark blue raisins for two years; since by that time Lyonechka had already disappeared, his flabbergasted family, suffocating under the landslide of gifts and not understanding what it owed to the unknown givers, scrupulously tried to stop this bounty with no return address. Then three of Amangeldyev’s cousins descended, wanting to rent an apartment, sell melons, buy rugs, and enter law school to become prosecutors; greeted with insufficient affection, in their view, they burned down a cooperative garage, tore up a children’s sandbox, and bent in half the linden saplings recently planted by Pioneer scouts; not having fully appreciated the effectiveness of Aunt Zina’s old connections, however, they were captured in the Hunters’ Café in the middle of bartering a suitcase full of turquoise for yellow-striped certificate rubles with a certain Gokht, for whom the police had long been searching, but this is all beside the point.) Judy received dried fish, Svetlana a pen on a granite base, and I got a Warsaw Pact Armed Forces calendar of memorable dates.
    Then from the town the horn sounded once again and Olga Khristoforovna could be heard shouting through the megaphone:
    “Everyone lay down your weapons! I’ll count to 3,864,881. One! Two! Three! Four! Five! Six! Seven! Eight!…”
    “There’s time,” said Zmeev. “Another round of drinks—and then we’ll start shooting.”
    “Shoot her, my dears, she sings songs,” complained Vasily Paramonovich.
    And sure enough, far below, Olga Khristoforovna, having counted to ninety-nine, interrupted her count and started singing:
“Like conscience to tyrants, the blackness of treason,
The cold autumn night is now here!
Much darker than night in the deadliest season,
The desolate vision of prison is near!”

    “That’s all right, she’s singing about the Vatican,” said Perkhushkov, listening closely. “That’s allowed.”
    “You don’t have to shoot her, just catch her,” said Antonina Sergeevna sympathetically. “She’s not so bad.”
    “What do you mean, not shoot her, when she’s right out in the open?” said Zmeev in amazement. “Amangeldyev, give me the gun.”
    The colonel hoisted the gun on his shoulder and fired. Olga Khristoforovna fell from the horse.
    “Now she’s not singing,” explained the colonel. “Let’s have another drink. The pickles are good.”
    “What are you doing?” Lyonechka screamed. “Why are you shooting people?”
    But no one listened to him.
    “Shooting—is beautiful. It’s moving,” Zmeev told his drink-flushed comrades. “After all, what do we value in life—what pleasures, I mean? In pickles—we value the crunch, in kisses— the smack, and in gunshots—the loud, clear bang. Just now we were coming here through the woods, and suddenly from all sides—a bunch of Negroes. Like this little lady here,” he said, pointing at Judy. “All painted white, feathers in their noses, feathers in their ears, even, forgive me, in front of the ladies I won’t say where, but there were feathers there too. Superb targets, little toys. We had a good shoot.”
    “Was anyone left alive?” asked Akhmed Khasianovich.
    “Not a one, I assure you. It was all clean.”
    “Well, all right, then. We’ll call off the blimps. Retreat,” sighed Akhmed Khasianovich.
    “Let them stay!” cried the inebriated Vasily Paramonovich. “Aren’t they beautiful? Just like silver pigeons. I remember when I was just a little tyke I used to keep pigeons. You wave your hand and they—frrrrr!—they fly off! And how they quiver, quiver, quiver! Ah!”
    “Well, one last round—and we’ll go for a ride,” proposed the colonel. “What do you young people say? We’ll look for mushrooms.”
    “Let’s go, let’s go,” Svetlana begged, admiring the colonel. “I want mushrooms, mushrooms.”
    “Amangeldyev, Mush… rrrooooms!!!”
    In the tipsiness and turmoil it was hard to say who sat, lay, or stood where, or who hung on whom, but, twining into a living lump, we were already racing in the Mercedes over hummocks and roots, and the pines zipped by, merging into a sturdy fence, and the wild raspberry whipped the windows, and Judy cheeped, pushing away the fat stomach of the sleeping Vasily Paramonovich, and Antonina Sergeevna bleated, and Spiridonov, squeezed in somewhere just under the roof, played someone’s national anthem, and no one divided us into the clean and unclean, and the sunset that appeared out of nowhere blazed like the yawn of a scarlatina-infected throat, and it was too early to let the crow out of the ark, for it was farther than ever to firm ground.
    “My little rifle!” said the colonel, tickling Svetlana.
    “Are you married?” Svetlana asked her magnificent beloved.
    “Yes, siree. I’m married.”
    “But it doesn’t matter, does it?”
    “No, siree, it doesn’t matter.”
    “I want mushrooms right now,” begged Svetlana.
    “You’ll have your mushrooms. I’ll show you a toadstool you’ll never forget,” promised the colonel.
    “Oh, the girl is going to get herself into trouble,” whined Spiridonov through his anthem, feasting his eyes on Svetlana. And she was something to look at—but Svetlana, shining with happiness, was not meant for the invalid—her hair glowed with its own light, her eyes had turned purple like a mermaid’s, her powder had blown away and her makeup fallen off, and she was so beautiful that Spiridonov swore quietly and pledged that he would give away half a kingdom for a glance from her—half a kingdom with all its half-palaces, half-stables, half-barrels of kvass, with all its mushrooms, pearls, tin, and brocade, with its kulich and gingerbread dough, raisins, bridles, saffron, burlap mats, sickles, plows, and rubies, its wild turkeys, azure flowers, and morocco leather half-boots. Only he didn’t have any of this.
    The ark stopped, and Svetlana, arm in arm with Colonel Zmeev, walked into the forest on tiptoe.
    “I’ll hire myself out as a sailor, and carry you off to Bombay!” Spiridonov shouted after her like a fool. And he himself blushed.
    “We, too, were young turks once upon a time,” sighed Vasily Paramonovich who had awakened. “And what are you doing here?” he suddenly jumped on Judy. “What’s she doing here?”
    “I… animals… want to cure animals…” babbled Judy.
    “She wants to cure animals. You should cure us, that’s what,” Vasily Paramonovich raged, suddenly angry for some unknown reason. “Any fool can cure animals! I soft-soaped Agafonov, I soft-soaped Kuznetsov, I worked hard at it, how much good I did for people—anyone else would have puked.
    Need cement—go to Vasily Paramonovich, need stucco—go to Vasily Paramonovich, but for promotions—go to someone else. That’s the point, not curing animals. All they do is walk around and around, around and around.”
    “He’s kind, very kind,” explained Antonina Sergeevna. “The weather’s affected him, but he’s very kind. At home he’s got canaries, ten of them, and in the morning as soon as he’s up, he sings to them—cheep, cheep, cheep, and they already know him, they chirp. They can feel kindness. Well, now, where are our people?”
    Straightening his military jacket, Colonel Zmeev came out of the forest.
    “Everything’s in order. Let’s go have dinner.”
    “But where’s Svetlana?”
    “I accidentally killed her,” laughed the colonel. “I was hugging her and hugging her, well and… I squashed her a little. You know how it happens. It’s all right, I’ll send a unit up later, they’ll dig a hole. There’s not much work there. It’s army business. Well, let’s go. Amangeldyev!”
    It’s strange now, after fifteen years have passed, to think that not one of us has remained—neither Svetlana, who died, one likes to think, of happiness; nor Judy—even her grave is gone now, replaced by a road; nor Lyonechka, who lost his reason after Judy’s death and ran into the forest on all fours—though they do say that he’s alive and that some frightened children saw him lapping water at a stream, and there’s a group of engineers, aficionados of the mysterious, who organized a society for the capture of “the wild mid-Russian man,” as they refer to him scientifically, and every summer they set up ambushes with strings, nets, and hooks and set out bait—cakes, Danish, rolls with marzipan—not understanding that Lyonechka, an exalted and poetic individual, will only fall for the spiritual. Spiridonov’s gone, he ended his life quietly with a natural death at a venerable age, and had subsequently invented many interesting things: a talking teapot, and automatic slippers, and a cigarette case with an alarm clock. There’s no one left, and you don’t know whether to regret this, whether to grieve, or whether to bless the time, which took these unfit, unnecessary people back into its thick, impenetrable stream.
    Well, at least they sank into it untouched, whole, but Uncle Zhenya was picked up in pieces, in fasciae, hairs, and tufts; moreover they never did find one of his eyes, and he lay in his coffin with a black velvet patch on his face just like Moshe Dayan or Nelson, in a new striped suit borrowed from the embassy cook, to whom, by the way, they kept promising and promising but never did pay any compensation, which pushed him into counterfeiting invoices for marinated guava. And it’s well known: once you start it’s hard to stop; the cook got carried away, it turned his head, and although every day he promised himself he’d stop, the demon was stronger. Somehow a Rolls-Royce appeared, then a second, a third, a fourth; then, of course, he developed a passion for art and began to understand all the subtleties of the expensive contemporary avant-garde and didn’t like politics anymore, the ambassador and certain of the embassy secretaries didn’t suit him—careful, cook!—then came the connection with the local mafia, the racket and narcotics business, secret control over a network of banks and brothels, intrigues with the military, and plans for a widespread government coup.
    So by the time the cook, exposed at last, once again found himself amid the whortleberry copses and cumulous clouds of the homeland, he had managed to complicate the international situation so thoroughly, to inflate the prices on natural resources so enormously, and to introduce such bedlam into the art market, that it’s unlikely to be corrected by the end of the current millennium. The oil boom was also his doing, said the cook on visiting Aunt Zina at the May and November holidays. Hed already gone to pieces by this time, was unshaven and dressed in a quilted jacket; Aunt Zina spread a newspaper on the kitchen floor so that the cook wouldn’t drip while he drank a few shots of vodka; “I’m not asking you for money for the suit,” said the cook, “I understand you’re a widow, I only ask respect for my services, because the oil boom—that was my doing; and I never tasted that guava in my life, and there’s no cause to go dumping it all on me, only honor and respect, I don’t need any suits, and if I’ve got a real head on my shoulders then you should appreciate it, and not attack me—in another government I would have been oh so useful, they’d have asked me to be president and everything. They’d have said: Mikhail Ivanych, be our president, and you’ll be honored and respected, and the suit, a piece of junk, is totally unnecessary, to hell with your suits… Here’s where I had them all,” said the cook, showing his fist, “this is where they all were, and if need be I’ll have them in the same place again: all those kings and presidents and general-admirals and all sorts of shahs. If you want to know the truth, I already had Norodom Sihanouk on a hook, I’d call him on a direct line: So, Norodom, how’s it going, you still hanging in there?” “I’m still hanging in, Mikhail Ivanych!”
    “Well, then, you just keep on hanging…” “What is it, what can I do for you, Mikhail Ivanych?” “Nothing, I say to him, just checking… Keep on hanging, just don’t let go…” Or else the emperor of Japan would call me on the direct line: Here I am, Mikhail Ivanych, he’d say, I sat down to eat raw fish, but it’s no fun without you, why don’t you fly over and keep us company; yeah, sure, as if I hadn’t ever eaten that fish of yours; no, he says, hee-hee-hee, you haven’t eaten this kind, only I eat this kind… but everybody keeps on talking about this guava business,” swore the cook, as Aunt Zina pushed him toward the door. “Don’t you touch me! You, there, don’t grab my sleeve!” And snatching a ruble or sometimes even three, he would tumble noisily into the elevator, where he vomited the grated carrot and beet stars of a recently eaten salad.
    Having done the appropriate amount of crying and mourning, Aunt Zina had long since calmed down, and, seeing as people are weak and vain, found satisfaction in calling herself a social consultant on the capture of the wild mid-Russian man. She emphasized proudly that he was a close relative, and her neighbors envied her and even tried to arrange intrigues to deny her relationship, but, of course, they were put to shame. “How proud Zhenya would be if he’d lived to see this,” Aunt Zina repeated, her eyes shining like a young woman’s.
    Every year in the fall, regardless of the weather, I drop by to fetch her; she straightens the lace scarf on her head, takes my arm, and we walk—in no hurry, a step at a time, to visit Pushkin, to place flowers at his feet. “If they’d just made a little more effort—he would have been born,” whispers Aunt Zina with love. She gazes up at his lowered, blind, greenish face, soiled to the ears by the doves of peace, gazes into his sorrowful chin, forever frozen to his unwarming, metallic foulard blanketed with Moscow’s snows, as if expecting that he, hearing her through the cold and gloom of his new, commendatore-like countenance, would raise his head, reach his hand out from his bosom, and bless everyone: bless those near and far, crawling and flying, deceased and unborn, tender and scaly, bivalve and molluscan; bless those who sing in the groves and curl up under the bark of trees, who buzz amid the flowers and crowd in a column of light; bless those who vanished amid the feasts, in the sea of life, and in the dismal abysses of the earth.
    “And the Slavs’ proud grandson now grown wild…” Aunt Zina triumphantly whispers. “How does the rest of the poem go?”
    “I don’t remember,” I say. “Let’s leave, Aunt Zina, before the police chase us off.”
    And it’s true, I don’t remember another word.
Translated by Jamey Gambrell


    ON THE windowsill of my childhood stood a dust-colored round tin with black letters printed on it: “Dorset. Stewed Pork.” The tin served as a communal grave for all single buttons. Every now and then, a button would fall off a cuff, roll under the bed—and that was it. Grope as you might or run the broom under the bed, it was gone forever. Then the contents of “Dorset” would be shaken out on the table and picked over with one finger, like grains of buckwheat, in search of a pair, but of course nothing matching could ever be found. After a bit of hesitation, the other button would be snipped off—what can you do?—the orphan would be thrown into the pile, and a half-dozen new buttons wrapped in muddy, tea-colored waxed paper would be purchased at the variety store.
    The tram ran outside the window, the glass rattled, the windowsill shook, and the minute population of “Dorset” jangled faintly, as though living its own cantankerous life. In addition to buttons, there were some old-timers in the tin: for instance, a set of needles from the foot-pedal Singer sewing machine that no one had used in so long that it gradually began to dissolve into the air of the room, thinning down into its own shadow before it finally vanished, though it had been a real beauty—black, with a ravishingly slender waist, a clear-cut gold sphinx printed on its shoulder, a gold wheel, a black rawhide drive belt, and a dangerous steel-toothed crevasse that plunged down into mysterious depths, where, shuddering, the shuttle went back and forth and did who knows what. Or there might be a crumbling scrap of paper in the tin, on which hooks and loops sat like black insects; as the paper died, the hooks fell to the bottom of the grave with a gentle clink. Or some metallic thingamabob resembling a dentist’s instrument; no one knew what it was, because there were no dentists in our family. We’d fish out this cold, sharp object with two fingers: “Papa, what is this?” Papa would put on the spectacles that sat on his forehead, take it carefully, and inspect it. “Hard to say… It’s… something.”
    The corpses of tiny objects, shells of sunken islands. One that constantly surfaced, fell to the bottom, and then surfaced again was a dull-white, bony blade, good for nothing. Of course, like everything else, no one ever threw it away. Then one time someone said, “That’s whalebone, a whale whisker.”
    Whalebone! Whale whiskers! Instantly, monster whale-fishes came to mind, smooth black mountains in the gray, silvery-slow ocean sea. In the middle of the whale—a fountain like the ones at Petrodvorets, foamy water spouting on both sides. On the monster’s face—small, attentive eyes and a long, fluffy mustache, totally Maupassant. But the encyclopedic dictionary writes, “Teeth are found only in so-called ‘toothed-W.’ (dolphins, narwhals, sperm W, and bottle-nosed W), which feed mostly on fish; the whiskered, or baleen W. (gray W, right W., rorquals), has horny formations on the roof of the mouth, plates mistakenly called ‘bones’ or ‘whiskers,’ which serve to filter plankton.” Not true, that is, they’re not only for filtering. As late as 1914, a seamstress sewing a stylish dress for Grandmother reproached my absent-minded, happy-go-lucky ancestor, “Nowadays, Natalya Vasilevna, one can’t circulate in society without a busk”; Grandmother was shamed and agreed to a straight busk. The seamstress grabbed a handful of “bones” that came from the mouth of a gray W, or perhaps it was a right W, or maybe even a rorqual, and sewed them into Grand-mothers corset, and Grandmother circulated with great success, wearing under her bust, or at her waist, slivers of the seas, small pieces of those tender, pinkish-gray palates, and she passed through suites of rooms, slim and petite, a decadent Aphrodite with a heavy knot of dark-gold hair, rustling her silks, fragrant with French perfumes and fashionable Norwegian mists; heads turned to watch her, hearts pounded. She loved, rashly and dangerously, and married; then the war began, then the revolution, and she gave birth to Papa—on a day when a machine gun strafed through the fog—and she was anxious and barricaded the frosted window of the bathroom; she fled south, and ate grapes, and then the machine gun began blazing again, and again she fled, on the last steamship out of grapevined, bohemian Odessa, making her way to Marseilles, then to Paris. And she was hungry, poor, and humbled; now she herself sewed for the rich, crawled on her knees around their skirts, her mouth pursed to hold pins; she pinned hems and linings and despaired, and again she fled south (this time the South of France), imagining that she could not only eat grapes but make wine herself—you only have to stomp on them with your feet, it’s called vendange—and then everyone would get rich again and everything would be like it used to be, absent-minded, lighthearted, carefree. But again she came to ruin most shamefully, ridiculously, and in August, 1923, she returned to Petrograd, her hair bobbed, wearing a new, stylishly short skirt and a mushroom-shaped cap, holding a much grown, frightened Papa by the hand. By that time, you could circulate in society without a busk, under different conditions. A lot of things circulated then.
    To retell a life you need an entire life. We’ll skip it. Later, perhaps, sometime or another.
    I’m really thinking about the whale: how he dove into the cold Norwegian waters suspecting nothing, not a thought for the red-bearded northern fishermen; how he wasn’t on his guard when he rose up to the gray surface of the sea, to the unextinguished yellow sunsets in the overflow of the northern waters, fair-haired girls, pines, stones, Grieg sonatas, to that sea sung by fashionable writers in the modern’s minor key. He didn’t need those baleens, those horny formations on his palate, those so-called whiskers or bones intended as an instrument for filtering plankton; the northern girls found a better use for them. A slender waist; luxuriant hair; a difficult love; a long life; children dragged by the hand across seas and continents. And then the end of war, then the victor’s roar, and the Allies sent us tins of good stewed pork; we ate it and spat the bones, teeth, and whiskers into the empty containers. But it’s the bottle-nosed whales that have the teeth, while ours, our very own, personal, gray, right, rorqual, our poor Yorick, didn’t even eat fish, he didn’t wrong any fishermen, he lived a radiant, short life—no, no, a long, long life, it continues even now and will continue as long as someone’s uncertain, pensive fingers keep fishing out and tossing back, fishing out and tossing back into the tin on the shaking windowsill these hushed, stunning skull shards of time. Clench a fragment of Yorick in your fist—milky and chill—and the heart grows younger, pounds faster, and strains; the suitor wants to snatch the young lady, and water spouts like a fountain to all ends of the sea, and the world circulates, whirling, spinning, wanting to fall; it stands on three whales, and splits away from them into the head-spinning abyss of time.
Translated by Jamey Gambrell


    In 1948, Mikhail Avgustovich Janson, a pharmacist of Swedish descent, built a dacha near Leningrad to rent out to city folk for the summers. For himself, he added a little greenhouse and two small rooms over a chicken coop. He planned to live a long, happy life there, eating fresh eggs and cucumbers and selling valerian tincture made from plants that he lovingly grew with his own hands. By June, he was ready for an onslaught of tenants with trunks, children, and an unruly dog. The Lord had something else in mind, however. Janson died, and my family, the tenants, later bought the dacha from his widow.
    All this was years ago. I never saw Janson, and I don’t remember his widow. If you spread out our photographs in a fan of seasons and years, you could watch the Genghis Khan—like horde of my brothers and sisters multiplying madly; you could see how our dog grew old and decrepit, how Janson’s cozy homestead fell apart and was overgrown with goosefoot. Where there once were chickens, you’d find seven pairs of skis and a pile of skates, and on the former site of the greenhouse you could discover my sisters and me lying in the grass, our arms flung wide, tanning our young bodies in the white satin brassieres of the Khrushchev era and flowery underpants that didn’t match anything.
    In 1968, my brothers and sisters and I climbed up to the attic. We found some hay that Janson had cut years before Stalin’s death and an enormous trunk filled with tiny corks, with which Janson had intended to stopper his vials of valerian. There was another trunk as well, cinched with metal straps and dry to the touch; in it six pairs of huge lightweight felt boots of a sombre color had been perfectly preserved. Under the boots, in a careful pile, lay several dark dresses for a small, birdlike woman; and under the dresses, already disintegrating into molecules, was some grayish-yellow lace—you could pulverize it with your finger and scatter it on the bottom of the trunk, where time had already ground and scattered a dusty layer of some unrecognizable thing that had once belonged to someone.
    In 1980, to plant strawberries, we dug up the tall weeds in the corner of the garden where, according to the old-timers, the pharmacist’s Eden had once blossomed and borne fruit. At a certain depth, we unearthed a large iron object that scared us silly. The same old-timers assured us that it wasn’t a bomb, because no bombs had fallen here during the war, but, still frightened, we reburied it, packing down the earth on top of it.
    When we replaced the stove, we found nothing of Jan-son’s. Nothing again when we replaced the stovepipes. When the kitchen collapsed into the cellar and the washbasin into the chicken coop we had great hopes, but all in vain. When we patched up a huge hole the proletariat had left between the perfectly new pipe and the perfectly new stove, we found some trousers and were overjoyed, but they turned out to be our own trousers, lost so long ago that we didn’t recognize them right away.
    Janson had dispersed, disintegrated, vanished into the earth. His world had long since been buried under the trash of our four generations. And shockingly new children had already grown up, children who didn’t remember the plaque trumpeting “M. A. Janson,” which had been stolen by an admirer of nonferrous metals, children who hadn’t spent hours throwing tiny corks at one another, who had never discovered the white umbrellas of stray valerian plants in the overgrowth of stinging nettles.

    Two summers ago, the summer of 1997, we mistakenly calculated that our dacha was half a century old, and, in honor of the event, bought rolls of white wallpaper with green garlands. Well, we decided, in that shed where the sink is falling off the wall, where jars of dried-up linseed oil and boxes of rusty nails lie forgotten on the shelf, we will create a little Versailles. First, we’ll scrape off the old green-and-white checkered wallpaper and then we’ll glue our pompadour onto the bare wood. If we’re going to do a real European-style renovation, then let’s do it right.
    But under the green and white checks there was white wallpaper with dark-blue speckles; under the speckles, a grayish spring motif with weeping-birch blossoms; under that, lilac wallpaper with embossed white roses; under the lilac, brownish-red wallpaper densely decorated with maple leaves; under the maples appeared newspapers—Oryol and Belgorod liberated and a celebratory fireworks display; under the fireworks, “the people demand the death penalty for the bloody Zinoviev-Bukharinite dogs”; and, under the dogs, a photograph of mourners in line at Lenin’s funeral. Under Lenin, in a group portrait taken in Galicia, there were dashing officers, belted and thickly mustachioed, who gazed directly and anxiously at us as if they had never been plastered over with starch glue. And then, under that fraternal grave, under graves, graves, and more graves, on the very bottom, next to the wood, with a last hurrah, came “MUSTACHIN CREAM” (what else!) and “AMERICAN HIGH SOCIETY USES ONLY KOKIO LILY-OF-THE-VALLEY TEA. DUBININ TEA WAREHOUSE, MOSCOW, 51 PETROVKA STREET” and “WHY AM I SO YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL? FREE BOOKLET BY IONACHIVARA MASAKADO” and “WHEN YOU BUY CIGARETTE PAPERS, DON’T SAY, ‘GIVE ME A BOX OF GOOD PAPERS,’ SAY, ‘GIVE ME KATYKA PAPERS.’ ONLY THEN CAN YOU BE SURE THAT YOU HAVE CIGARETTE PAPERS THAT DON’T TEAR, DON’T WRINKLE, ARE THIN AND HYGIENIC. YES, ONLY KATYKA PAPERS WILL DO.”
    Having started to rip and crumple, we kept on ripping and crumpling layers of time, as brittle as old glued newspapers; we tore newspapers that were as brittle as layers of time; having started to tear, we couldn’t stop; from under the old paper, from under the bubbles and buckles, fell a fine wood dust, the residue deposited by the timber worms, the mice, and the bark beetles, after the weevil and its family had joyously feasted on dry starch, leaving behind a micron-size cushion of air between the strata of history, between the tectonic plates of someone else’s misfortunes.
    That washroom, smelling of soap and rotting boards, had been the bedroom of the pharmacist Janson. Intending to live a modest, happy, and long life there, he had lovingly pasted to its walls all the newspapers he’d kept from childhood—page after page, with nothing thrown out, nothing wasted—and, over that, his first layer of wallpaper. Meticulous and clean as he must have been, a Russified Swede, he had built himself a cozy little sleeping nest, a private corner, behind a thick door with a heavy bolt, and under the floor his own clean chickens. The little room next door, with a balcony and windows facing the sunset and the black Karelian spruce, had been his dining-living room: there he could drink a cup of coffee with chicory, sitting in a hard Lutheran armchair; there he could think about the past and the future, about how he had survived up to now, how he was going to grow medicinal herbs, and how when the first snow fell he would take a walk in his lightweight black felt boots, leaving tracks.
    We tore off all the paper, everything down to the naked boards. The excitement of cleaning seized all four generations of our family, and we sandpapered and rubbed. We worked hard, careless of fingernails and scrapers. The local store, which for thirty years had got by in a complete stupor, never offering anything but rubber boots in the wrong size and hard candies called “pillows with jam,” came to life in the new era and crammed the shelves with Johnson & Johnson products. What could one Janson do against two Johnsons and all the other foreigners? From abroad, there were quick-acting cleaners and spot removers—aerosols to erase memory, acids to eliminate the past. We scraped everything off: the white roses on a lilac background, the bloody dogs, the puffs of frosty breath lining up to view the revolutionary son of a public-school inspector, and the rows of tomorrow’s cripples and casualties, trustingly buying round tins of the charlatan “Mustachin Cream” a week before their mutilation or death, counting on love and happiness, as had the pharmacist Janson, who bought six pairs of felt boots for future legs, now unneeded.
    We scraped the boards bare, down to the faint rings on the planed wood. We let the walls dry out. Then we took a large brush, dipped it in guaranteed, sticky, synthetic glue, and, following the instructions, slathered it the right way— with no bubbles—on the back of the Versailles wallpaper. Then we pressed hard with an old cloth and rubbed the fresh wallpaper onto the fresh wall, which still smelled like the Johnsons. The glue took, and the wallpaper stuck in a passionate kiss without air.
    All in all, it was a good summer near Petersburg, dry and hot. Everything dried quickly. The next morning, our wallpaper looked as if it had always hung there: no dark spots, not a blotch. It wasn’t so difficult after all—this tearing off and gluing on. Of course, the effect wasn’t exactly palatial, and, to be honest, it wasn’t the least bit European. Not that there wasn’t a certain artistic quality to it, but, frankly—why beat around the bush?—it was a sorry sight. The room looked like a flowery barn. A doghouse. A shelter for Pushkin’s wretched Finn, born blind. Things never seem the same on the walls as they do in small pieces, do they?
    Now, we could always buy more wallpaper, plain white wallpaper with no pattern—these days you can find everything, after all—and then it would look great. Then our misguided decoration would be hidden under even, white, aristocratically indifferent, democratically neutral, benign layers of Buddhist simplicity. Plain white is straightforward and elegant. At home in the city, everyone’s switching to it, and eventually I’ll switch, too. White wallpaper. Or, better yet, just a paintbrush or a roller, water-based paint or plaster, and presto!—all clean. Nothing superfluous. Just welcoming white walls.
    Cautiously, so as not to disturb us, like a barely perceptible shadow tiptoeing in wool socks over the new linoleum, with felt boots under his arm and a bouquet of valerian stars in his hands, with corks and vials stuffed in his bulging pockets, with the mustachioed and shaven cripples of all times in his frightened memory, Mikhail Avgustovich Janson takes his final leave. A Swede, a Lutheran, a petit bourgeois, a pharmacist, a hardworking gardener, a frugal and meticulous man, faceless, with no distinguishing marks—Mikhail Avgustovich, the heirless husband of a small wife, an inhabitant of small rooms, a discreet preserver of the forbidden past, a witness to the history we scraped off the bare walls of his former shack. Mikhail Avgustovich, about whom I know nothing and now will never know anything—other than the fact that he buried a strange iron object in the garden, hid some useless rags in the attic, covered the impermissible and unrecoverable under wallpaper in the bedroom. With my own hands, I tore the last traces of Mikhail Avgustovich from the walls that he had held on to for half a century, and, no longer needed by anyone in this new, bleached, laundered, and disinfected world, he faded, probably forever, into the grass and the leaves, into the chlorophyll, into the roots of the weeds, into the mute, unnamed, and blissful kingdom of pharmacopoeia.
Translated by Jamey Gambrell


    A HOT DAY in May in Ravenna, the small Italian city where Dante is buried. Once upon a time—right at the start of the fifth century A.D.—the Emperor Honorius transferred the capital of the Western Roman Empire to this city. Once there was a port here, but the sea receded long ago, and in its place are swamps, roses, dust, and vineyards. Ravenna is famous for its mosaics; hordes of tourists move from one church to another, craning their necks to glimpse the dim luster of tiny multicolored smalti high up under the dusky vaults. Something can be made out there, but not very well. One of the glossy postcards will give you a better view, though awfully bright, flat, and cheap-looking.
    I’m suffocating, hot, and dusty. I’m depressed. My father died, and I loved him so much! Once, long, long ago, almost forty years back, he passed through Ravenna and sent me a postcard showing one of the famous mosaics. On the reverse side—in pencil for some reason, he must have been in a hurry—he wrote: “Sweetheart! I have never seen anything so sublime (see the other side) in my life! Makes you want to cry! Oh, if only you were here! Your Father!”
    Each sentence ends with a silly exclamation mark—he was young, he was cheerful, maybe he’d had a glass of wine. I can see him with his felt hat cocked in the manner of the late fifties, a cigarette between white teeth—which were still his own then—beads of sweat on his forehead. Tall, slim, handsome: his eyes shine happily behind the glass circles of his spectacles… The postcard—which he dropped in a mailbox, lightheartedly entrusting it to two unreliable postal services, the Italian and the Russian—shows heaven. The Lord sits in the midst of a blindingly green paradise of eternal spring, white sheep grazing all around. The two unreliable postal services, Russian and Italian, crumpled the corners of the postcard, but it was all right, the message was received and everything could be seen.
    If heaven exists, then my father is there. Where else would he be? But the only thing is, he died—he died and doesn’t write me postcards with exclamation marks anymore, he no longer sends tidings from all points of the globe: I’m here, I love you. Do you love me? Do you share my pleasure and joy? Do you see the beauty that I see? Greetings! Here’s a postcard! Here’s a cheap, glossy photograph—I was here! It’s wonderful! Oh, if only you could be here, too!
    He traveled all over the world, and he liked the world.
    Now, as much as I can, I follow his footsteps. I go to the same towns, try to see them with his eyes, try to imagine him young, turning that corner, climbing those steps, leaning on the railing of the embankment with a cigarette in his teeth. This time I’m in Ravenna, a dusty, stuffy, exhausting place like all tourist sites where crowds fill narrow streets. It’s a dead, trivial, hot town, with no place to sit down. The tomb of Dante, exiled from his native Florence. The tomb of Theodorich. The mausoleum of Galla Placidia, sister of Flavius Honorius, the very same one who made Ravenna the capital of the Western Empire. Fifteen centuries passed. Everything changed. Everything grew dusty, the mosaics crumbled. What had once been important—is unimportant; what once excited—has vanished in the sands. The sea itself receded, and where merry green waves once splashed, there are now wastelands, dust, silence, hot vineyards. Forty years ago—a whole lifetime ago—my father strolled and laughed here; his myopic eyes squinted; he sat at a street table, drank red wine, and tore off bites of pizza with his own strong teeth. The dark blue night fell. And on the edge of a table, in pencil, he scribbled a few hurried words to me scattering exclamation marks all over, expressing his delight and love for the world.
    The overcast sky is stifling. It’s hot, but the sun can’t be seen. Dust is everywhere. Land that was once the bottom of the sea now lies around the town in wide, fertile fields; where crabs once crawled, donkeys now pick their way; in place of seaweed, roses grow rampant. Everything died and went to seed. Along the once splendid streets of the Western world’s capital, disappointed American tourists wander in pink sweatshirts, unhappy because the tourist agency has tricked them once again: everything in this Europe is so dinky, so small, and so old! Fifteen centuries. Dante’s grave. The tomb of Galla Placidia. My father’s grave. Some sort of naive green paradise on a wrinkled postcard.
    What was it that amazed him here? I find the right church, I look up—yes, there’s something green there, high up under the vault. White sheep on a green meadow. The usual dim light. The discordant hum of tourists below. Their fingers point, they look for explanations in their guidebooks. Such-and-such a century, such-and-such a style. Everything’s the same everywhere, always. You can hardly see.
    In every Italian church there’s a box on the wall for money—an added service for those interested. If you put in three hundred lira—a quarter of a dollar—then for several moments bright spotlights turn on near the ceiling, illuminating the stones of the mosaic in fresh white light. The colors brighten. You can see details. The crowd grows excited, its hum grows louder. Only a quarter of a dollar. You’ve already come so far, you paid for the plane ticket, for the train, for the hotel, the pizza, the cold drinks, the coffee. What is it now, you begrudge a few extra cents? But many do. They’re annoyed; they weren’t forewarned. They want to see heaven for free. A bunch of tourists waits for some generous, impatient person to deposit a coin in the slot of the swindling Italian apparatus—all Italians are swindlers, isn’t that right?—and then the spotlights will flare, and for a short moment, insufficient for the human eye, paradise will be greener, the sheep more innocent, the Lord— kinder. The crowd rumbles more loudly… but the light goes off, and the din of disappointed tourists collapses from a momentary grumble of protest to a greedy growl, to a whispered disappointment. And again everything is coated in gloom.
    I wander from church to church along with the crowd. I listen to its muffled, multilingual murmur, like the rush of the sea; a slow human whirlpool spins me around, and tired, inane faces flash by—as inane as my own; eyeglasses glint, the pages of guidebooks rustle. I squeeze through the narrow doors of churches, trying to push past my neighbor, trying, like everyone else, to get a better spot, trying not to become irritated. After all, I think, if heaven truly exists, then it’s likely I’ll enter it with just such a flock of sheep, of people—old, not very smart, a bit greedy. Because if heaven isn’t for us, then who’s it for, I’d like to know? Are there really others, special people, people who are noticeably better than us ordinary, statistically average souls?
    No, there aren’t any, so I may have to plod across those green meadows in a herd of American tourists, disgruntled because everything is so ancient and small-scale. And if that’s the case, then that means heaven is awful and boring—which by definition shouldn’t be true. Everything in heaven should be utterly sublime.
    “I have never seen anything so sublime (see the other side) in my life!” my father wrote me. See the other side. An ordinary paradise. What did he see that I don’t see?
    Along with the crowd I squeeze into a small building about which the early-twentieth-century Russian traveler Pavel Muratov once wrote in his famous book Images of Italy:
    The blue of the ceiling of the mausoleum of Galla Placidia is unusually dark and deep—almost inscrutably so. Depending on the light penetrating through the small windows, it will shimmer, in a wonderful and unexpectedly marvelous manner with either a greenish, lilac, or crimson hue. It is against this background that the famous depiction of the youthful Good Shepherd, sitting among snow-white sheep, is placed. The half-circles near the windows are decorated with a large ornamental motif of deer drinking from a spring. Garlands of fruit and leaves wind along the lower arches. On viewing their magnificence one cannot help but think that never has mankind arrived at a more satisfactory solution to the problem of decorating a church wall. Owing to the small size of the mausoleum chapel, the mosaics do not create the impression of vain, cold pomp. The very air around the sarcophagus itself, which once contained the embalmed body of the Empress, appears to shine with blue fire; it is worthy of being the dream of an ardently religious imagination. Was this not what the stained-glass artists strove to achieve in the Gothic cathedrals, though in a different way?
    Marvelous words! But, having pushed myself into the chapel, I can’t see anything. Maybe the guide once illuminated the church with a torch for Muratov, but now it’s simply dark here, and the scanty light that only barely makes its way through the windows is blocked by tourists’ backs. The crowd stands dense and stubborn, elbow to elbow. You have to put coins in the light box, but no one’s in a hurry, everyone is waiting for someone else to do it. I’m in no hurry either. “I’ve put coins in lots of times,” my internal voice says, in justification, “let others do it this time.” A minute passes in the stuffy dark. Another minute. “I won’t give in,” each of us thinks. The darkness presses on your head. It smells like mice, mold, and something else very old—as though time itself smelled that way. Then human smells come through—aging flesh, perfume, breath mints, sweat, tobacco. That’s the way it will be right after death: dark, someone’s breathing and sniffling in the dark; heat, anticipation, a subtle hostility to one’s fellow travelers, a polite decision not to show this hostility; small egotism, stubbornness, hope, doubt. The waiting room on the road to heaven—where else is there to go? “I have never seen anything so sublime (see the other side) in my life! Makes you want to cry!” my father wrote from paradise.
    Finally, the familiar click resounds—someone has taken the plunge; as before, the light turns on briefly for an instant. The shortest moment—the eye doesn’t have time to take in the ceiling, the eye casts about—for a short moment the dull, hot darkness overhead suddenly becomes a starry sky, a dark blue cupola with huge, shimmering stars close to the eyes. “Ahhhhh!” comes the sound from below, and the light goes out, and again there’s darkness, even darker than before. And again the click, and again the fantastic, multicolored stars, like spinning Ferris wheels, and that very same “air shining with blue fire”—a momentary vision—and again gloom. Once again the clink of a falling coin, again the click—the glorious vision, don’t leave, stay with us!—and again the blow of darkness. The crowd of sinners stands as though enchanted, faces lifted. A path has opened in the darkness, a promise has been given, evidence has been presented: all will be saved, no explanations necessary—the magical dark blue abyss, raised over us by nameless artists, speaks for itself, sings in a wordless language. The blue flows down toward the baskets of fruits and leaves… everything disappears, but again and again the light flashes, and the fete becomes endless, and the angels will begin singing any minute now. Let there be light!
    I squeeze carefully through the crowd, I want to steal a glance at the insatiable being who has put on these fireworks, who has rolled back the walls of the sepulcher with light. He sits in a wheelchair, his face lowered. There’s a box of coins on his lap. His hand gropes for a coin, sticks it into the machine’s slot, and for a short moment, while the blue is tinted with lilac and crimson fire, a woman guide hurriedly whispers words in his ear that I can’t hear, and even if I could, I wouldn’t understand: I don’t know this language.
    This man—is blind. He has the reserved and patient face of all blind people, his eyelids are closed, his head bowed, his ear bent toward his companion. Who is she to him—daughter, wife, or simply a person hired to accompany him on his travels? He listens to her whisper and occasionally nods his head: yes yes. He wants to hear more, he puts in coin after coin. He throws coins into the darkness, and from the darkness sounds a voice that tells him, as well as possible, about the great comfort of beauty.
    He listens his fill, nods, smiles, and the woman deftly wheels his chair around in the crowd and rolls him out of the mausoleum. People look at them: he doesn’t care, and she’s probably used to it. The chair bounces along the cobblestones of the square, affording the sitter a little additional suffering. A bit of rain drips from the clouds, but soon stops.
    “See the other side!” But there’s nothing on the other side, on the other side there’s only darkness, heat, silence, irritation, doubt, dejection. On the other side—there’s the depiction, worn with age, of something that was important long, long ago, but not to me. “Makes you want to cry,” father wrote forty years ago of the beauty that struck him then (and perhaps about something greater). I feel like crying because he no longer exists, and I don’t know where he’s gone, and all that’s left of him is a mountain of papers and this postcard with the green heaven, which I move from volume to volume like a bookmark.
    But maybe that is not the way things are, maybe everything was calculated long, long ago, everything has gone according to plan, and only now has the plan taken effect? An anonymous Byzantine master, inspired by faith, imagined the beauty of the Lord’s garden. He expressed it in his language as well as he could, maybe he was even frustrated that he didn’t have the skill to do more. Centuries passed, my father arrived in Ravenna, lifted his head, saw the vision of Eden, bought a cheap little picture of the picture, and sent it to me with love fortified by exclamation marks—everyone chooses their own language. And if he hadn’t sent it, I wouldn’t have come here, I wouldn’t have visited the dark chapel, I wouldn’t have encountered the blind man, I wouldn’t have seen how, with a wave of his hand, the blue light of heaven’s threshold flares on the other side of the darkness.
    Because we are just as blind, no, we’re a thousand times blinder than that old man in the wheelchair. We hear whispers but we plug our ears, we are shown but we turn away. We have no faith: we’re afraid to believe because we’re afraid that we’ll be deceived. We are certain that we are in the tomb. We are certain that there’s nothing in the dark. There can’t be anything in the dark.
    They move away down the narrow streets of the small, dead town, and the woman pushes the chair and says something, leaning over toward the blind man’s ear, and she probably falters, and she chooses her words, words I would never choose. He laughs at something and she straightens his collar, adds coins to the box on his lap, then goes into a taverna and brings him out a piece of pizza. He eats gratefully, messily, his hand touching the invisible, marvelous food in the darkness.
Translated by Jamey Gambrell


    1755 Broadway, New York, NY 10019
    Copyright © 1987,1991, 2006, 2007 by Tatyana Tolstaya
    Translations copyrighted as follows: “Loves Me, Loves Me Not,” “Okkcrvil River,” “Sweet Shura,” “On the Golden Porch,” “Hunting the Wooly Mammoth,” “The Circle,” “A Clean Sheet,” “Date with a Bird,” “Sweet Dreams, Son,” “Sonya,” “The Fakir,” and “Peters” © 1990; “Fire and Dust” copyright © 1986, “Sleepwalker in a Fog,” “Serafim,” “The Moon Came Out,” “Night,” “Heavenly Flame,” “Most Beloved,” “The Poet and the Muse,” “Limpopo” © 1991, “Yorick” © 2006, “White Walls” © 2000, and “See the Other Side” © 2007 by Jamey Gambrell
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
    Tolstaia, Tat’iana, 1951 May 3-
    [Short stories. English. Selections]
    White walls : collected stories / by Tatyana Tolstaya ; translated by Antonina W. Bouis and Jamey Gambrell.
    p. cm. — (New York Review Books classics)
    ISBN-13: 978-1-59017-197-4 (alk. paper)
    ISBN-10: 1-59017-197-7 (alk. paper)
    1. Tolstaia, Tat’iana, 1951 May 3– —Translations into English.
    I. Gambrell, Jamey. II. Bouis, Antonina W. III. Title.
    PG3489.0476A2 2007
    ISBN 978-1-59017-197-4
    Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper.
    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1