May 9. I’ve asked to borrow a TV from a neighbor. He put on an understanding face, but thankfully we managed the exchange without any questions. A week ago my mother-in-law came to pick up her things. And now the whole building knows that my wife has left me.
Running into me on the staircase, all women, including the four-year-old Marusya, whom I used to count among my friends, maintain a meaningful silence and turn away, and all men—as if on cue—don that understanding expression.
But I needed a TV not because I was dying of melancholy, as my neighbor had, of course, assumed. Even though I am truly dying. Still, the last thing I’d look to for a cure would be television.
It’s just that May 9 is the only day of the year when I watch TV. Films about war. They don’t let me delude myself. Don’t let me mistake everything we usually occupy ourselves with for real life.
The point isn’t war. I’m a normal person, and mass killings elicit no delight from me. I use these movies, no matter what they are—naïve, pretentious, sentimental, propagandistic—to quench my thirst for the real. Everything in them is serious. “For reals,” as Marusya would say.
Also, war movies always leave me ashamed. In front of these kids (younger than me) who went to their deaths with no faith in their future lives, with only the hope that their grandchildren would be happy, I’m ashamed of the unhappiness I feel because of things that are, in essence, unimportant.
After I finished watching Ascent I couldn’t take any more and walked down to the store. Even though I’d promised myself not to drink—at the very least, for now—I came back with two bottles under my arm. A neighbor, who was smoking on the stoop, followed me with an understanding gaze.
But during the whole evening I only thought about her once. Remembered her screaming: “If you like all this war crap, you should enlist!” She thought I was nostalgic for gunfire, trench fleas, and hand-to-hand combat.
Drank, watched A Ballad about a Soldier, thought about my grandfather, who was declared missing near Smolensk. I only know about him from the stories I’ve heard from my grandma, who despised him. She was in love with a different man her whole life and married my grandfather out of spite after she had a fight with the one she loved. But war evened everything out: neither of them came home.
Grandpa loved her like crazy. Although sometimes he couldn’t take it. And without saying a word would go into the woods for a few days. And that’s how he died: he went into the woods on a surveillance mission, and no one has seen him since. Dead or alive.
This is my story too. To the last detail. Just without the war.
Suddenly, I wanted to visit those woods. And since I was already sufficiently drunk, I didn’t think about it too long. I just gave my neighbor his television back, slammed the door shut, and started walking toward the train station.
The whole way there I drank, toasted the telephone poles, talked to my grandfather, and yelled, “One victory is all we need today.” In other words, I acted silly and stupid, like I always do. On the train, I passed out right away. And in the morning, I was surprised to see the word Smolensk through the window on the gray terminal wall.
Decided to walk around the city. Kremlin and poured-concrete Kruschev-era apartments, same as everywhere. Came across a bus terminal. Got onto the first bus I saw without even asking where it was going. The back of the bus smelled like diesel, it was stuffy, and on each bump my insides jumped into my throat. About forty minutes later I was completely shaken up and nauseated. I asked the driver to stop.
Walked through a field for a long time; it was full of dandelions. The sky looked like a battle mural. The clouds were crowding each other, attacking, intercepting. I craned to watch them until my neck got stiff. There is no sky in the city, after all.
Ended up in some village. Sat down to rest. Lit a smoke in the sun’s warmth. A man looked at me from a rickety house. And, of course, came over to bum a light, even though a lighter was poking out of his chest pocket.
I asked what the name of the village was. The man said, “Paradise,” and spit into the bushes. I thought he was making a joke and asked again.
The man lost it. Ran into the house, immediately jumped back out, and stuck a pile of notarized papers in my face. In the spot where his black finger furiously pointed, it said: smolensk borough, gryazev district, village paradise.
“Cool,” I said. “You live in Paradise.”
“Yep.” He spit again. “It doesn’t get any cooler.”
Rather than argue, I finished my cigarette and got up to go.
“Hey,” the nervous man called to me. “Want a house on the very edge of Paradise?”
“I don’t understand.”
“This house there.”
“This house what?”
“What up your butt! Buy it, I’m telling you. It’s a sturdy shack. It will hold together for another hundred years.”
“How much?” I asked, partly from curiosity and partly leery of angering him by declining too fast.
“Just a box of fuel.”
While I was trying to figure out what he was talking about, the man dragged me inside, haltingly and incoherently explaining something about the fireplace, the basement, and a rake. On the wall hung a big map of Russia.
“Left over from the teach. She ran off to the city, when the school was closed. My sis, damn her!”
“I should get going,” I said. I didn’t know how to get away from him.
“You lost your mind? It’s a seven-kilometer schlep! We’ll get there in my rattletrap faster than a fly!”
I thought he was offering to give me a lift to the highway. And only after his Zaporozhets, roaring like a fighter jet, tore out onto the country road, did I finally gather from some scattered snippets of conversation that we were driving to formalize my purchase of his house. This did not fit into my plans at all.
“Listen, man, what is your name? Lyokha? You know what, Lyokha, why don’t I just give you some money for booze? We don’t need all this production with documents, all right?”
Immediately I was swept away by a deluge of unrepeatable cursing, which basically came down to how honest and businesslike he was being with me, and how I had taken him for a lush and a beggar. With every word, Lyokha jerked the steering wheel wildly. Probably for extra emphasis.
At first I lost my cool. I was afraid that I was going to die, so stupidly and ingloriously, on the same soil where my grandfather fell to a courageous death. And then I became ashamed. I had actually offended him.
“All right, don’t freak out,” I shouted at Lyokha. “I was just testing you. Because who knows?”
This completely nonsensical phrase worked instantly. Lyokha calmed down and stopped talking. The car was still skidding all over the place, and suddenly I saw that he was simply navigating around the potholes rather than trying to kill me. Fear has big eyes.
In the city center of Gryazevo we roared up next to a two-story merchant’s home. A large lock hung on the doors. For a moment, I thought I might escape. But it wasn’t to be. Lyokha, still cursing, ran into the yard and, before I could make it down the stairs, came back escorted by a pudgy functionary with small violet curls.
The woman silently looked me up and down. Then opened the lock, still ogling me, then began lumbering up a steep wooden staircase to the second floor. Even while walking up, she managed to keep looking back at me. I was worried that she was going to twist her neck.
Inside the office Lyokha began an incomprehensible conversation in his own hopped-up language with the functionary, whom he called “Tanyukha-tartukha.”
“Still not sick of the monstrosity?” He seemed to be referring to the woman’s husband.
“What am I supposed do with him?” Tanyuha flashed her gold tooth in a coquettish way while pulling a stamp out of the drawer.
“Just stick him in your vegetable patch instead of the scarecrow!” Lyokha, I was beginning to suspect, had a more than friendly interest in this paper pusher. And from the ensuing conversation I gathered that Tanyuha’s “monstrosity” was Lyokha’s son.
Half an hour later, I descended from the office porch holding the ownership documents to a house in the village of Paradise. Lyokha, having received his eight hundred rubles, quickly said goodbye, jumped into his fighter jet, and sped away toward the store.
I got on the bus to Smolensk and all the way there thought about how my wife was right to leave me. I’m not a man. I’m a total mess. Flying off somewhere stone drunk, buying a house . . . How stupid!
On the first day of my vacation, I had a strange dream. As if I’m walking, tripping over myself, across a gray field. Dry prickles clinging to a military overcoat, something I’ve never worn in my life. In the forest’s clearing I meet another soldier. I recognize him as my grandfather. But for some reason, I’m not supposed to tell him who I am. He asks me for a smoke. We sit down in the hills, warmed by the sun. Grandfather, laughing, tells me that the Germans fired two rounds directly at him:
“My chest is like a sieve! As if it matters! Everything just keeps going!”
He’s covered in blood. I can see that he’s dead, but for some reason, he doesn’t understand this. And I don’t know how to explain it to him. Or whether I should explain it to him.
“Let’s go to paradise!” he suddenly suggests. “Drink our fill of fresh milk!”
We go through the small forest and walk out to a wooden house. Grandpa disappears somewhere. I peer in the window, see the map of Russia on the wall—and remember. And become overjoyed, as if some torturous secret has just been solved. And feel—in my sleep—a huge relief and even, just maybe, happiness.
In the morning, I took from the crawl space Grandpa’s ancient backpack, filled with tools. Cleaned it up a little and began loading it with books. Without them, I couldn’t imagine a life, even in Paradise. The backpack turned out to be terribly heavy. I struggled to get it onto my shoulders and set out for the train station.
As I walked, I imagined that I wasn’t leaving for a month but forever. Just like that, without saying a word to anyone, with a bag of books. These thoughts made me feel joyful and light. A long-forgotten feeling.
Back in Paradise, I was again convinced of my incurable impracticality. Of course instead of books, I should have brought kitchenware, some type of grain, salt. The house contained nothing, not even matches. And I had lost my lighter somewhere.
So I had to call on the neighbors. The first living being I met in Paradise was a large smoky cat on the stoop of the house across the way. Where there are animals, there are people, I concluded, and, stepping over the cat, which didn’t so much as twitch, I knocked. There was no answer.
I entered. In the middle of the room there sat a fallen support beam. Grass grew through holes in the floor. There was the stuffy smell of a dwelling that has not been lived in for a long time, something rotten and moist. On the buckling wallpaper hung a reproduction of Raphael’s Madonna, faded nearly into oblivion. This was the only remaining evidence of any human presence.
Checked out several more houses; the scene was the same everywhere. The only difference was the degree of dilapidation. So when I saw two little old women, who were digging in a garden, I was as happy to see them as if they were family.
Toma and Lucia—they insisted that I should address them exactly like this—were sisters. They talked nonstop and often uttered whole phrases in chorus. Each time this happened they would grow amazed and triumphant, as if something unbelievable was happening.
After half an hour, I knew the whole history of Paradise. The cat on the stoop—his name is Vasily. His owners left several years ago, but he didn’t want to go—climbed out of the basket and came back. Keeps living like this in the empty house.
Toma and Lucia were born here. In their youth, they were accepted to a technical college in Smolensk and so they moved to the city. They still had a two-bedroom apartment there. They came to Paradise for the summer. In winter it was too hard for them in the country.
“And you will of course live here permanently?” asked one of the sisters.
“Yes,” I answered suddenly, surprising myself.
“Oh, how great, that’s just fantastic!” exclaimed Toma and Lucia in unison and laughed. “You can take care of our house. Otherwise, each winter Cherenok breaks into it; it’s impossible to leave anything here. We have to bring everything to the city with us. But he, that devil, will always find something to steal. And if he doesn’t, he’ll just break through a window and poop in the middle of the room, like a mischievous dog. He’s a delinquent from Gryazevo. He served out his prison term and doesn’t know what to do with himself now, poor thing!”
The sisters fed me boiled potatoes and bestowed various housewares upon me. I promised to till them a row for planting garlic the next day. After I returned to the house, I discovered that Russia had lost the Far East. The map was disintegrating and falling apart at the creases.
And so it began like this. I would help the sisters with their garden. Every once in a while walk to Gryazevo for groceries. Toma and Lucia fed me, took care of me, gave me advice, and every evening told me a story about their Kostya.
“Oh, our Kostya was such a tall stately hunk!” one of them would begin, folding her hands on her apron endearingly.
“A smoking brunet!” picked up the other. “The exact likeness of Lev Frichinsky!”
“What are you saying! Yevgeniy Urbansky!” the first would take offense.
“Gerard Philippe!” the sisters agreed suddenly and continued. “Oh, no one else could dance the waltz like our Kostya!”
“He was the most enviable partner!”
“But he only asked us to dance!” Alternating: Lucia, Toma, Lucia, Toma . . .
“He was just crazy about us!”
“And he couldn’t make up his mind!”
“And then he was reprimanded at the Party meeting!”
“They told him that love between three people is bourgeois excess!”
“He looked so upset!”
“He came over and said: I love the two of you equally!”
“Yes! And I’m proposing to both of you!”
“And which one shall marry me is up to you, sisters!”
“We cried all night long!”
“And in the morning, we both declined him!”
“Because we also loved him equally!”
“And we couldn’t choose either.”
I walked around the surrounding forests. Gazed into the large puddles, where black moss stood. Jumped over the flooded patches. Slipped on wet roots. Watched, for a long time, throwing my head back, the tips of the birch trees bowing in the faraway sky. And I myself began to waver to their rhythm, becoming a tree.
Then I would scramble onto the road that led to Paradise, completely drunk—from the air, the scent of the forest, the birch seesaw. I walked and I sang, scaring away the crows: “Our Kostya, it seems, is in love! screamed the dockhands at the port . . .”
A week later, I ran into two more inhabitants of Paradise. First I noticed the goat. It was studying me intently from the tall grass. On a nearby log sat a fierce old woman in a puffy coat and valenki. Unlike the curious goat, the woman didn’t so much as turn around. I came over and greeted her.
“Beh-eh-eh!” replied the goat. It was much friendlier than its owner.
“What are you called?” I asked.
“Where is he going to call us to?” the old lady said angrily to the goat. “To teatime with those city fufus? I’ve already said I won’t go! No business of yours! You’ve flattened all my grass! Now, shoo, get away from here!”
The goat lowered its horned head and stepped toward me aggressively.
In the evening, I asked the sisters about the old lady.
“Oh, that’s Auntie Montie!” Toma and Lucia burst into giggles, like little girls.
“She’s a savage!”
“Not friendly with anybody!”
“Except for her goat!””
A month passed. Kamchatka quietly fell off the map. My vacation time was about to end. A decision had ripened inside me a long time ago. Probably it was there from the very beginning. Considering how, on my way to the train station, I had dreamed of never returning to the city and, having arrived in Paradise, on my very first day had declared to the sisters that I was here to stay . . .
And so all that I could do was take everything as an already committed-to eventuality. Because in secret, I’d thought about something like this for a long time. About an escape. About a different life, where everything is for real. But this seemed impossible. And consciously, I would have never had the courage for such a step. Everything had happened on its own. Without any action on my part. All that was required from me was to agree, and not to resist my fate.
Still, a day before I was supposed to return to work I loaded my books into grandfather’s backpack—books that I hadn’t touched once—swept the floor, closed and latched the window shutters, and began walking toward the highway. I didn’t say anything to Toma and Lucia. And they were busy with weeding and did not notice me.
I dragged my feet, telling myself that the backpack was too heavy for me to walk any faster. I even sat down on a tree stump and had a smoke, even though I didn’t want one at all. And when, having walked up the last hill, I saw the bus leaving the terminal, for some reason I even put on a show: ran after it, waved my hands (I knew, of course, that the driver couldn’t see me), and then—as if frustrated to the core—threw the backpack with the books into the dust and stamped my foot.
Only then did I burst into laughter. And I couldn’t stop for nearly ten minutes. My stomach started hurting, and my jaw tightened. The last time I had laughed like this was in sixth grade. I returned to the village the back way, through the vegetable patches, so I wouldn’t have to explain anything to anybody.
There, in the woods, I tripped over an old soldier’s helmet. Rainwater pooled in the bottom, and there swam the sky and a black last-year’s leaf. Carefully, I untangled the grass, scraped the earth from around the helmet with my hands, and freed it. Water flooded out, all over me. The helmet had been shot through in two places.
The soldier who had worn it must have been lying somewhere near. I combed the clearing. No luck. I could gather only a handful of spent shells. I decided to return the next day with a shovel and search in earnest.
But when I went back, the clearing had disappeared as if wiped away. Along with the crooked tree stump and the anthills. I wandered around the forest for a whole week, slipping in marshes, crashing through the undergrowth, and cursing with the foulest language I could muster my city-dweller’s uselessness.
Having given up hope of finding the place where the soldier had perished, I decided at least to bury the helmet and shells. I carried them to an old cemetery, unfenced and open to the surrounding fields, just beyond the limits of Paradise, on a sunny half hill.
Toma and Lucia placed a bouquet of bluebells on a small bump, which looked like a newborn’s grave, and had a small cry while I nailed a piece of crooked plywood to a pole that read: unknown soldier, year 1941. In vain, I tried to get away from thoughts of my grandfather, repeating to myself that life is not a sentimental novel, and coincidences like that don’t happen.
The next morning I, for some reason, headed to the cemetery again. And stopped in awe. In front of our handmade burial had grown a strong wooden cross, as tall as myself. I turned around and ran back to Paradise as fast as I could.
“It’s the mute carpenter from Gryazevo.” The sisters’ words—after they’d had their fill of laughter at my mystical terror—calmed me down. “He sells coffins. And the crosses—he has this quirk, likes to put them everywhere. Who knows why?”
Soon after, I saw the carpenter himself. Wearing camouflage, with a gray prophet’s beard covering his entire chest. He was dragging, heaved onto his shoulder, another cross. For a moment I wanted to catch up to him and help. But for some reason I didn’t move an inch. It seemed that he didn’t notice me. When I came home I was in a bad mood. In the evening, a piece of Taymir fell off the map.
The freeze began. In the morning, the grass in tire tracks and ditches glistened with ice. I burned summer’s trash in the sisters’ garden while Toma and Lucia cooked apple preserves in the laundry tub and gossiped. The magpies on the fence harmonized with them.
On the last evening before their departure to the city they told me the story of how once, a long time ago—even before they went off to school—a fighter plane crashed in the field behind Paradise. And they were in such a rush to see it that they both fell into the same ditch. Toma broke her right arm; Lucia, her left.
The sisters walked to the bus stop with almost no luggage. All of their belongings, all of the priceless plates, forks, and pots were left as my responsibility. Of course I had promised to keep their little house safe from the Gryazevo punks.
Toma rolled a cart with the squash while Lucia carried a huge bouquet of golden heliopsis. They waved to me for a long time from the bus window. I stood on the side of the road, in clouds of dust, and felt suddenly orphaned.
That day, Auntie Montie spoke to me for the first time. She angrily put a one-liter jar of goat’s milk on my table, suspiciously eyed the pile of books in the corner, warily touched the cold stove, and said, in a hoarse, rusty voice: “So they’ve gone back to their city, have they, your fashionista chatterboxes? And they’ve left the rowanberries to the jackdaws, I see? Go gather the berries, don’t let a good thing go to waste. I’ll make up some rowan-berry liqueur,” and here Auntie Montie, suddenly agile, winked and clicked her tongue. “My liqueur puts your city spirits to shame—it will knock you off your feet!”
I gathered the red berries. Chopped some wood for the winter for Auntie Montie and myself. Tried to glue Yakutiya back to the map, but it stayed on the wall for less than a minute. Outside my window grew a stout birch. While falling asleep, I listened to the lullaby of rustling leaves. Each day, the lullaby became more dry and rarefied.
One chilly morning I discovered that Vasily the cat croaked on my porch. Probably having sensed his death approaching, he was instinctively drawn to be near a human being. But this hadn’t saved him. I wrapped him in an old tablecloth, carried him to the cemetery hill, and buried him next to the unknown soldier. In the evening, Auntie Montie and I toasted the both of them with gut-burning rowanberry liqueur. That night, the first snow fell.
Auntie Montie’s basement contained one-pound burlap bags with an endless supply of grain, sugar, and peas. As soon as darkness fell, I went to her place. We ate buckwheat pancakes. We sat with our backs to the stove. I smoked, Auntie Montie sewed something, and the goat, with her front hooves on the bench, gazed out the window with a tense and almost intelligent melancholy. She now lived right here in the house and had somehow become completely human.
We were spending longer periods of time in silence. Auntie Montie answered my questions without pause. I was able to find out that she had a daughter who lived somewhere on the Kolsky peninsula with her husband, a military man.
“She used to send me postcards on New Year’s. The pictures on them were different, but the writing was always the same: ‘Health, happiness, many long years.’ As if she couldn’t write a word of her own. I wrote to her and told her not to waste any more money on stamps. On New Year’s, I’ll pull out each—‘Health, happiness, many long years’—from the dresser and stare at them. Same words, different pictures . . . and that’s all. Since that time I’ve heard and seen nothing of my dear daughter.”
Alarming, foreign noises invaded my sleep. I tried to wake myself up several times, but kept falling back into swampy, squelching oblivion. Woke up with an aching head and a premonition of some sort of menace. While I was getting dressed, the south of Siberia peeled off the map and slowly drifted to the floor.
I walked outside and immediately heard a sound. It was the unlocked door, rhythmically slamming in the wind. The broken windows of Toma and Lucia’s house looked at me with surprise. As if asking: “How could this be?” Tire tracks blackened the snow near the porch.
All this notwithstanding, I didn’t anticipate what I found inside: ab-so-lute-ly nothing. The robbers got away with everything—from the tall iron-post bed to the very last knife. They even peeled the faded wallpaper with pink flowers from the walls.
“Did you hear them?” I asked Auntie Montie.
“Maybe I did hear it.”
“So why didn’t you stop them?”
“Have you lost your mind? They’d stick a knife in my forehead—and goodbye. No one would notice I was gone. I trembled the whole night, hoping the devil wouldn’t drag you out of bed to get in their way! Thank God you’ve got enough wits to sit it out.”
“Sleeping! I was sleeping! Not sitting it out!”
“. . .”
“Where are you going?”
“To Gryazevo, of course! To that bastard! I’ll make him drag everything back! Even if he has to carry it! And he’ll put the windows back in, stupid pig!”
“Don’t you dare! I won’t let you!” Auntie Montie jumped into the doorway and jabbed an oven fork toward me. The goat appeared next to her and threateningly lowered her horns.
“All right, move away,” I said quietly, and began heading toward the door.
After running all the way to Gryazevo, I cooled down a bit. The gray February sky was almost low enough to hide the roofs. The crows screamed bloody murder. There was no one around. Only two disheveled strays pissed in front of the grocery store doors. I thought about it a bit, then I headed to the police station.
“Well, write a statement, since you’re up for it,” sighed the young, round-faced sergeant with a full-cheek, rosy glow. “But you really shouldn’t bother—we won’t find it.”
“Will you look for it?”
“Well, we’ll look for it, of course . . .” The sergeant stretched his answer out noncommittally.
I threw the pen down.
“Does he share it with you, or something?”
“If he was sharing, I would have married Lyubka,” the sergeant chuckled mirthlessly. “Sadly, I’m living on only one salary . . . Do you want some pierogies? My mammy baked them . . . No? Well, as you wish. But I will have some, I think.”
“I could see right away that you’re new,” he continued with a full mouth. “You don’t know the local ways. Don’t stick your nose where you shouldn’t. No one deals with Vasyukhin. With Cherenok, I mean. He’s completely off his rocker. Mental.”
“Well, how can you be like this!” I shouted. “One ex-con has the whole borough quaking in its boots! And you call yourself the police?”
“Exactly right, the police! Cherenok got only four years for offing the mayor! The mayor! And I’m only a cop! Get it?”
“So you’re afraid, is that right?”
“My mammy is old. And I want to marry Lyubka. I’m still young.”
“Well, you could call for reinforcements, tough guy!”
“Are you kidding? Who will give them to me? They’ve busted into a house! Big deal! How many houses are broken into every day?”
I looked around the room. Pierogies, a rosy glow, a dusty ficus snoozing in a pot. And understood that it was completely useless. I crumpled up the unfinished statement, threw it into the corner, and walked out, slamming the door. I was choking with rage. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to change anything.
Cherenok was waiting for me on the porch. Even though I had imagined him to be completely different, I recognized him instantly. He was a short, patchy chap with a gray face and unexpressive little eyes. He stood there with his hands deep in the pockets of his track pants, rocking on his heels.
“Whoa, homie, swilling tea with the sergeant?” Cherenok grinned with half his mouth.
Suddenly I didn’t feel well. Once in my childhood I got pushed into an open grave that had been torn up by vandals. It was common back then—digging up and breaking open old coffins, looking for treasures. My friends and I would run to the cemetery—to watch.
I fell into the grave and my hands touched some sort of clay-smeared rags. The smell of rot and cold hit my face. I couldn’t even scream. Everything that was alive in me convulsed with sorrow and an unconscious terror turned inside out, straining to escape the proximity to death, to survive.
I experienced the same thing now. Cherenok rocked back and forth on his heels, senselessly repeating the word homie. And nothing else. I hurried off the porch. And almost ran down the deserted street. Behind my back, someone barked. It was Cherenok, laughing. I couldn’t give a shit. Justice, humiliation, virtue—these words were foreign to me in that moment.
I only wanted one thing: to get back to my house as quickly as possible and bolt the door. There even flickered the thought to just drop everything and go directly back to Moscow. I lit a smoke and my panic subsided a little. It was getting dark. To walk would be unwise. A bus that passed the turn to Paradise departed in a half hour.
I stopped by the post office and prepaid for three minutes to call Smolensk. Knowing the sisters’ chattiness, I was worried that it wouldn’t be enough time. And I barely had enough money. Toma picked up the phone. She heard me out. And didn’t ask me a single question.
“It’s not that big a deal,” I stated with a fake cheerfulness. “I’ll lend you my bed. We’ll figure out the rest somehow!”
“I probably won’t come there any longer,” said Toma bleakly.
“Huh . . . ?” I began, and in the same second understood everything and stopped short.
“Yes,” confirmed Toma. “Lucia passed away.”
I remained silent. Toma hung up the phone.
After I went to Gryazevo, Auntie Montie stopped talking to me again. The deceitful spring winds began blowing. I would walk into the fields, stand on the thawing hill, and watch the columns of light split open the clouds. Every once in a while, the sun would peek out right above my head, and I would find myself standing inside a ray of light. And it seemed to me that between myself and the faraway, invisible sky there was a brief, unbreakable connection. But then the clouds would draw closer together, the sunbeam would break, and I remained alone on the cold, alien earth.
Sometimes I would utter aloud some word. Just to remember what my voice sounded like. My lips moved unsteadily and unwillingly. The entire Urals had fallen off the map. At night, something was sneaking around, mumbling behind the windows.
On one of these restless nights, all of the wires disappeared off the telephone poles. The lights went off in Paradise. The wires were cut all the way to the highway. I didn’t even bother going to Gryazevo to figure it out. I knew that no one would install new electrical lines for the sake of one old woman.
Auntie Montie produced a dozen paraffin candles from her supplies. Silently separated one half for me. We began going to bed at dawn and getting up at dusk. Why am I here? What am I doing here? I thought again and again.
I wanted to believe that by staying in Paradise I was doing the right thing. This was how it was supposed to be. But after my run-in with Cherenok, my feeling of being aligned with fate began to subside, and by spring it disappeared. And again, as had happened often in the city, I stopped understanding what life wanted with me. I was depressed, couldn’t make myself crawl out from the old padded jackets under which I slept until noon.
One day, while gruffly digging into the floor with one end of a broomstick, I heard joyful voices outside my window. Clear among them, a bell-like girl’s voice. Warily I peered outside. In the middle of Paradise, looking around and giggling, stood two guys in tall boots and one girl in a smartly tied red bandanna. I felt as if I’d been stranded for a year on an uninhabited island and had just seen a boat.
Her name was Lesya. The guys couldn’t tear their lovelorn eyes away from her. One was Mitya, and the other one was Dima. My disgusting house was soon filled with backpacks, sleeping bags, wild activity, and Lesya’s voice.
“We’re from Smolensk. Students,” she said, peeling the potatoes quickly. “It’s so boring, being stuck in the city. We’re always taking trips somewhere. On the weekends, on holidays . . .”
“And is now a weekend or a holiday?”
“What’s wrong with you? Tomorrow is May 9!” Lesya burst out laughing, a potato slipped from her hands and rolled to Mitya’s feet. “So, we’re on a trip. But to just take trips is boring, you know? So we try to do something helpful during each trip.”
“Well, anything you want! Usually we help grandmothers with their house chores.”
“Are you Timurites?” I asked bitterly, ready to start hating my sudden guests.
“No way!” she gaily dismissed me. “We’re un-idealists!”
Again I was enchanted with Lesya and her entourage. Asked more questions. She merrily answered. The guys sulked in the corners. Lesya dug out a thick notebook from her bag and trustingly showed me the various odd conversations overheard in villages, domestic stories and fairy tales, requests from her grandmothers that she’d been writing down. Usually they asked her to buy some sort of magical herbs from the city, about which they’d heard on the radio, and to find out if godmother so-and-so still lived in the next village.
The same notebook contained quotes from books of regional studies. Lesya endearingly prepared for each trip at the library.
“Can you imagine, Princess Ulita was born in Gryazevo, the wife of Vasily, who was blinded by his brothers! I love that name so much: Ulita! I would like to name my daughter that. And they,” Lesya threw a quick, laughing look at Mitya and Dima, “are teasing me! Saying: ‘Snailita, show your horns!’ . . . Also nearby there lived monk Illarion, right in the ground, in a cave. And during the war there were battles in these places . . .”
After they finished eating, they headed on to Gryazevo. I wandered around Paradise all day, couldn’t find the right place for myself to think. It began to get dark. I started to think they would not return. I smoked continuously, and my teeth were stained with tar. Suddenly I imagined that Lesya had been killed by Cherenok. Immediately, I flew into some sort of frenzy. But then I heard her sonorous voice beyond the fence.
“We were painting a war obelisk,” growled Mitya or Dima. “From the twenty casualties fourteen were Vasily’s—imagine!”
“And there were crosses everywhere!” continued Lesya. “Where the monk had lived and where Ulita was born and where the battle was! We later found Stephan, the carpenter, who installs them, and chatted with him until dark. He’s such an interesting person! A philosopher!”
“Chatted with whom?” I was amazed. “He’s mute!”
“What do you mean, mute?” Lesya was amazed in turn.
At night she sat on the stoop and, smiling, jotted things down in her notebook. One night I looked over her shoulder. Lesya had written:
We will go to village Paradise
In our tall boots.
One shed stands there,
Tangled in roots.
In the shed sleeps tractor driver
Drunken and blue.
Yellow leaves are falling,
And the cows moo.
I sat down next to her, for some reason feeling embarrassed.
“So am I the tractor driver?”
“Don’t be silly! It’s an image!” Lesya explained, as if to a child. “Look, you don’t have cows here, either. Or leaves. Especially yellow ones.”
We were silent for a while. Lesya looked up at the stars. Shivered. I wanted to cover her shoulders with my sweater but didn’t.
“Back to the city tomorrow,” sighed Lesya. “I really don’t want to . . .”
“Stay,” I offered and, surprising myself, added, “You could get married to me. We’ll have a daughter, Ulita. I won’t tease you. I give my word.”
Lesya stopped smiling and lowered her eyes onto her notebook, like a panicked student unprepared for her exam.
“Well, first I need to finish school. I’m still neither this nor that, with no degree.”
“How much longer do you have?”
“Three more years.”
Mitya and Dima returned from gathering firewood. And this was the last time that Lesya and I were alone. In the morning, I saw them off to the bus station.
“Come back!” I yelled when the doors slammed shut.
Lesya nodded and smiled through the dusty glass.
I was planting potatoes when the goat stormed, bewildered, into the vegetable patch. And began bleating in despair. For some reason I immediately guessed what was going on. I threw the shovel down and followed her, wiping my hands on my pants on the way. The goat jogged down the only street in Paradise, turning around every once in a while and continuing to bleat.
Auntie Montie lay on the very same hill where she’d spent all her days with the goat. She was still alive. Inside her chest, something bubbled and hissed.
“The Sweeps are sweeping,” she mouthed. I didn’t understand.
I leaned Auntie Montie against a tree stump, squatted, grasped her under her arms, and heaved her onto my back.
“Hold on tight, I’ll fly you home like the wind! Then we’ll call a doctor. Don’t be afraid. Everything will be all right!”
I was carrying Auntie Montie. Irrelevant thoughts kept forcing their way into my head. I unfortunately remembered how I had dragged my grandfather’s pack with the books—now covered with dust in the corner—here. For some reason, I thought about my wife. If only she could see me now!
What an idiot! I could hear her say. Left his prestigious job and fancy apartment in Moscow so he can carry peasant hags around on his back!
Auntie Montie began sliding off to the side.
“Hey, Mother, hang on!” I called to her.
A tiny woman, small as a child, she had suddenly become unbearably heavy. The goat was no longer bleating, but screaming, with a voice that seemed human. I awkwardly tried to rebalance Auntie Montie, who continued sliding down. My hands slipped. And she dropped to the ground.
In that very same second I understood that she no longer cared. The goat came closer, stared Auntie Montie in the face. And suddenly jumped back. And sped away like a hurricane. I haven’t seen her since. Probably the wolves devoured her in the forest.
I dragged Auntie Montie to her house and laid her down on the table. I began looking for documents since I didn’t even know her last name. But the dresser only contained bundles of string, patches of cloth, buttons, and other assorted nonsense. I couldn’t even find her daughter’s postcards. I turned the whole house upside down. Nothing. No passport, no pension book.
The house had been cleaned. All of the jars and cans, usually filling the table, were gone. On the bed there was a clean, homemade robe. I understood what I had to do. Went and got a bucket of water. Hesitated for a moment. I felt a little out of sorts. I’d never dealt with the dead before. But there was no one else who could do it.
I took a pair of large rusty scissors from the dresser and cut apart Auntie Montie’s skirt and sweater. Took a clean towel and began to wash her down. Rivulets of water ran onto the floor. I wasn’t thinking. Just doing.
I then dressed the body in the clean robe. Folded her hands on her chest. Closed her eyelids. Went outside for a smoke, thinking about which boards would be best for nailing together a coffin. It was very quiet out in the world. Or did it only seem that way to me?
With a lot of effort, I was able to crack open the shed door, which had grown into the earth. Pulled out the tools. The second half of the shed was always locked. Suddenly—another foreign thought—I became curious about what was inside. Not spending too much time thinking further, I split open the dried-up door with an axe.
In the shed stood a coffin. Auntie Montie had taken care of everything ahead of time. And, seemingly, a long time ago: the coffin was completely covered in cobwebs.
I buried her next to the nameless soldier and Vasily the cat. And wrote on the sign just: “Auntie Montie.” I couldn’t even invent a full name for her. I stood above the fresh grave and couldn’t make myself leave, feeling that I had not yet done everything.
Suddenly I thought about Gogol’s Homa Brut, and I had an epiphany. But it was useless to look for religious literature in Auntie Montie’s house. She had been an atheist. And I myself did not know a single prayer by heart but this . . .
“Our father . . .” I began tenuously. And suddenly I remembered the second line somehow: “Who art in heaven . . .”
How does the rest go? I stiffened. My head was empty. Then I stopped trying to remember. And immediately, without any effort, recited the whole prayer. Then again, one more time. And again. Three times. It started drizzling. I felt that I could now go.
As soon as I stepped through the doorway, what was left of the map of Russia, as if it had been waiting for me, began slowly peeling off the wall. I ran over and held it up with my hands. The urge to smoke was unbearable. I turned around so that the map lay across my shoulders; I pushed it against the wall with my back and took the cigarettes out of my pocket.
Outside the window, darkness was falling quickly. I smoked, holding up the motherland. I wasn’t in a hurry to be anywhere.
© Copyright 2009 by Natalya Klyuchareva