1. Today, I Have Come Back…
I am slipping, sliding, I am unable to stop, I am about to bump into the girl in a well-worn brown fur coat, I hear my companions who have fallen behind laughing their heads off, and the girl, fair curls, round face — is laughing too. The narrow street is tortuous, it dives down into the ravine, then come the uphill stretch, the clinic, the hospital – and the squat powerful, with red borders around its windows, building of the anatomical theater, that’s where we are running to. It’s cold, it’s windy, it’s November, the roads are sheeted with ice, black and dirty-yellow leaves are frozen into the icy glazing… In the very end of the descend there is a bench, on the bench an old man is sitting, donned in long gray rags with a yellow scarf for the girdle. His name was Nikonov, no – Kononov, and every day at midday he would be having a beer, in the canteen near the railway station, that was a small wooden hut, he would sit with his knees wide open, bowing his bold, with brown spots reckless head over the table, thumping the table not with his fist – with his curled, sprawled, tensed into rigidity, cramping bony fingers, hooks, claws… and his nose was hooked too, and his eyes were white, with piercing pinpoints of the pupils.
“Don’t laugh at the old man, you are young, you don’t know how swift, swift everything is…”
How could I possibly know…
I am about to bump, I am sliding, trying to remain on my feet…
The world shook itself and disappeared for an instant, like after a blow over the head.
Reason is pulsing like the heart, it alternately appears and disappears, the periods of reasonable and unreasonable existence are short, reason blinks. It is an old theory, but there where I have just been running, sliding, it didn’t exist yet. And about the cerebral hemispheres it wasn’t yet known that they are different, and Khalfin was still smiling at me with his shadow of a smile, and he who was to come after him hadn’t yet hatched. They say to me “you are from over there?.. what are your proofs?…” – and shrug their shoulders. The certainty I feel, that is my proof. Nobody believes, naturally… And I see it clearly – the road, the ravine… the anatomical theater… everything that happened there… and farther on it grows vague, very vague… Time, which is empty, gray, gets displaced by force of the feeling exerted in the course of one’s experiences, everything colorful and live stays about you always. They say – “oh, the past…”, but it hasn’t passed, it has never gone anywhere. There are many things there, in the beginning, both good and bad, but one event is the main one. I remember it against my will. Each time I flee over there I try to get to the pleasant places, the merry ones, there were such, there surely were!.. but, in spite of myself, I slide and sink into the one and the same… down the same slope into the ravine, and I cannot help it. I have a stay over there, in that which they call the past… and then I get thrown out, through the invisible gates, back here, where I am an old man.
My desire to forget that incident, in which I got bogged down up to my eyes, was so strong, that when I began to lose hold of my memory, I actually rejoiced – it meant being released, after all the decision making was not mine, I did what I was told… Didn’t work out like this at all, things I started to forget were some insignificant nonsense that wasn’t worth a brass farthing!… That’s old age for you: to live in the present day is disgusting, and to live in the past is painful.
So, the world shuddered, I dropped out, returned to the end of the story, here my return went completely unnoticed, all concerned with maintaining their own face, which is the right attitude, who’d say a word against it. As to for how long I have been absent, for an instant or for quite a time, and whether there are any significant changes in the landscape, it is difficult to say anything positive. My memory holds no details or specifications, there is just this tension gripping the whole of my body and some vague recollections.
And if we address the other end, the beginning, everything is very clear there, and no problems with recalling anything.
Klimanov, he was sitting behind me, hit me in the head with his school bag he had hurled, packed full with lots of things that were anything except books, he could hardly read, and that in the sixth grade… or was it the fifth grade?.. After the War kids would bring to school all kinds of trifles to trade, and he usually brought pieces of sun-flower oil cake in his school bag. Tiny head, the off-spring of a couple of drunkards, an epileptic, stinky, mean, with pale tense face, hunched shoulders… but he didn’t intend to hit me, he was defending himself, he was getting a beating from Veselov and his friends, the merry trio of lanky idiots sporting old, stretched knee-long from wear sweaters with rain-deer and swans on the breast, at that time sweaters with deer and swans design was the leading trend in hand-knitting… The music lesson, the old singer is sitting clutching her head with her hands, her lips are moving, maybe she is singing some old tune to dispel the fear, or maybe she is praying for the bell to sound, she had only half a year till her retirement. At that time they were yet about, these old women with tiny lace hats on, that had managed to endure the current century, the invasions of the multi-colored barbarians, red, white, brown, that went over their life many, many a time like a flat iron, pressing it down real well.
The bag hit me in the back of the neck, it wasn’t painful, but came as a surprise, my head jerked forward, I hit the desk with my forehead, and dropped from my little clasped fists… for the first time I let go of one moment, of only one single moment… I immediately returned, and saw Klimanov’s bag fly on, turning in the air, then hit the floor, split open – and the angular yellow lumps tumble out of it, and everybody rush to snatch, grab, stuff inside the desk, he never gave anything for free, and here was a chance gratuitous distribution.
Loss of memory is a gap in time, you never forget your first losses. Loss of memory is insensitivity, something I have been longing for all my life, but Fate is such a scoffer: you want to forget things – you are welcome… but it palms off to you all the wrong things to forget, time and again…
It was not for the first time that I was gliding swiftly down the tortuous street of my past, down the narrow walk, the road is not much broader actually, it is all made of round boulders thumped deep into the clayish dirt, there is a film of frozen slime covering them… After I don’t know how many previous occasions, once again I, having successfully given the present day the slip, was enjoying the tenacious vitality of the faces, words, things, even if few, but unchangeable, never growing old, after the manner of all good things… And inevitably, unexpectedly and resolutely I drop out back, as if somebody makes the decision for me, briskly and with authority. Reality, the surface stratum, defeats the rest of life solely by dint of brutal force, you can despise it, ignore it for a while, but in the long run you just cannot do anything about it…
Old age is a trick of unspeakable baseness, and an old man is a creature that has consented to baseness, and shouldn’t blame anybody but himself. Time was invented to facilitate shoving people into the pit and replacing them with others. The majority of people are not in their right mind – they keep escaping themselves, time cunningly offers them a path to follow, and they take it, and ask for more… A man in his right mind should live where he wants to live, among his books, people, trees, words… Not submit to time, disregard it. There are things that are ever weighty, time is nothing to them. But why pretend, I myself when turning over in my mind those past events strive to get to some different places, more pleasant… following the convenient rut… Yet everything inevitably repeats itself – I slide and sink… the slope, the ravine, the anatomy theater… it both pains, and draws… This drawing comes either from somewhere inside the breast, or from the locality itself, the low hills, and the squat, mostly one-story high small town situated upon them… These hillocks and humps, these tortuous narrow paths still exercise the same power, which means that time has nothing to do with it.
Having stayed there for a while, I slip out, drop out back to here where I am an old man.
Today it went reasonably well, the dropping out was gentle, smooth, I see the girl’s face register surprise, but that’s my imagination actually – there never happened anything like that, that’s how we create new history, we twist facts… I haven’t got all that far back this time though!.. Light blinked, the Universe went still momentarily … and then the twirling and whirling of the celestial bodies was back, a vulgar demonstration of power, tricks like this can’t impress us, fail to awe – stars, planets, the reportedly infinite space, all this rock-throwing in the dark and cold, or inflamed lava, explosions, and the like…. After the close-circuit once again lighted up in the world the wearied day, the sad warmth is all around, it is summer the departing, a road, a path, leading where to, what for?… Rain has just gone down it, combed it with a wide toothed comb, icy drops are rolling down the leaves… What a truly wonderful nook was arranged, and how much did it cost the senseless stones and frozen void – to squeeze it out of themselves, to give away the last of their possessions for the sake of a tiny warm world?.. That was a sacrifice, and no mistaking about it — to create at least in a single spot some illusion of coziness! And just think what a petty and mean creature one has to be to scorn it, to fail to see its value, to make use of it in such a base way… A betrayal against nature was committed, all its efforts went to waste – rewarded with a full measure of filth. That is how we live, being what we are, human.
I have come back, and I feel – it became colder, my absence benefited nature not at all. So I do have some scraps of recollection existent, though I don’t remember a single thing about the time, that is, of how long I have been absent, and, which is of the utmost importance, if anybody asks me who I am and where I live, I won’t be able to answer, especially off-hand. I only feel, see without a trace of a doubt – I am a miserable oldster, the crazy outing was discontinued, power failure in the young years, so welcome back… Now I will have to, as usual, make some very odd efforts, undertake some greatly detailed investigations, you cannot get away lightly with this kind of playing around, you cannot pay off cheaply, I mean for this partings-and-meetings thing. Now from these feeble hints, like before it was warmer maybe and turned for the worse, or like that now it is raining but it was not raining then, I have to slap up anew my vision of the present day. What would Khalfin say to it, have I confirmed his theory?.. Why would he need a confirmation, when the theory has long become common knowledge throughout the world. How does man finds that which is new, by what sense, I never began to understand.
But there are good points about these sudden dropping-outs, these returns – in spite of my old age and the palsied memory, my power of seeing and feeling is marked with keenness, freshness of perception, I breathe in unhurriedly the cool November air, weightless, limpid, the muted autumnal light flows freely into the pupils of my eyes, yellow, red, brown splashes of color comfort me, speaking plainly and quietly about the coming liberation, and what else besides plainness and quietude I am to wish for now?
But it is time to get plugged into the natural processes, to relinquish pride, vanity, hatred, guilt, to look calm, to live some more, if I have decided to linger about a bit, and I have decided to, whether choosing rightly – or wrongly, I cannot say. Each decision has its own term of useful life, and that of mine is coming close to its end. But there are some things yet to be done – to tell the tale, to do the summing-up, some events shouldn’t vanish without a trace, I think the story of Khalfin is one of such.
Well, having dropped back from the other side I slid onto some thin night-born ice, it has a very high opinion of itself, wouldn’t yield under heel, though it does let you understand that it is prepared to melt somewhat by midday. I am still gliding on, waving my arms, straining to remain on my feet… and suddenly it strikes me, what vanity of vanities all of this is… In my pursuits of the truth I am missing the main thing – the slow, gradual merge has already started, I am merging with it, with the nature, that is, more and more, and finally will merge with it completely, will become, like my father used to say, grass, soil, and it will come as a relief, I hope. But there are yet things to be done.
I don’t know what has gone wrong with the mechanism, but this time I was kicked back when
the acting out hardly started, while approaching the cloak-room so to say, once again back to where I belong… or back to what I am, depends on the point of view. Each time on returning I think – “if only I could go over there just one more time…”, to have a better look at that which had happened – to Khalfin, Alim, me… Mind, I am not a witness, I am a participant, a personage of some importance. Nevertheless I was disregarded in a most humiliating manner, which means I will have to go to pains of staying alive, so as to be able to disappear from here at the first opportunity once again, to go across, to live these few days anew. They say these days are in the past, but I have a theory of my own as to that.
The past depends on the present, the kind of life you are having now, the same kind of the past will be alive within you. As to me, towards the end… well, why cover up, there is no point in covering it up from oneself… in the end, that’s how it is, I happened to have a precipice, or a land-slide, and on the very brink of it is hanging on, gradually sliding downwards, the present day, and on the other side is – a little of that which had been “once upon a time” as they say, the wording I will never accept, time has nothing to do with it. A gap half a life wide, that is a better way to describe it. Incidentally I have certain suspicions that the forgotten part was trash, not worth preserving anyway. And so I hop there and back, with a knapsack on my shoulders, in the knapsack are things that I remember always. That of the main importance I always have about me, and as to puzzles and difficulties, they come from the lack of comprehension, it is not my strong point, I have trouble comprehending…
So I was gliding on, laughing, and disappeared from over there, where the events yet could have been made to take a different course. Or it seems so, the young always believe that they can turn anything around as they please… You return, you land onto some rotten leaves, as if getting from one dream into another, as if becoming blinded and deafened for a moment, as if hit with a heavy object in the neck… It is like waking up in an unfamiliar place, wondering what is it, where am I… is it a continuation of some dream, or is it a safe house?… There is not much safety neither here, nor there, therefore the fear. It is hard when everything about you undergoes a change, it is painful when it stays the same. Nothing can be changed in the old Anatomical theater. They didn’t even let me indoors, did they, I was running, sliding, and they switched the light off… I wasn’t betraying anybody, I just didn’t give it any thought, and when I understood… I didn’t care much anyway, I couldn’t know it was that serious, that it will end this way… Basically I am a by-stander in this affair, I was passing by, moving off in another direction, indifferent to their scientific goings-on. And I respected Khalfin, I liked him, he was a veteran combatant, who had been to the front lines, a reconnaissance man, and he was a misbehaving joker… No, something did stir, very weakly, maybe it was doubt… But everything was happening very quickly, it took half an hour maybe, no, it took less!… If I had refused, everything would have turned out exactly the same for Khalfin. And for me?..
Would my life have taken a different course?..
But I’d better relate everything in proper order.
Bother! You just can’t have any peace here, once again somebody is laughing behind my back!
So, I have arrived, haven’t I?… I look down at my feet, if I am wearing galoshes, it is beyond doubt. Of course I am wearing galoshes, hence I am an old man.
The laughter is rather malicious, and the voice is not familiar.
“Look at him, an old man, and still chasing them petticoats, eh?…”
Instead of that girl there is a squat sturdy old woman with small dull eyes and a crudely shaped broad nose. Nearby, on the bench there are two more old women, and a miserable oldster of a man with a mangy dog – a tame elderly lion, a great main of dazzling yellow and white, and next comes naked back, covered with ulcers and scratches. They say it is the seasonal psoriasis, a trick of the playful metabolism, will go away on its own by the winter, to be back from spring till autumn, to end in negligent funeral. Old people and dogs get much the same kind of funerals.
“My, chasing women at your age, you old goat…”
She means me, I bumped into her while straining to remain on my feet. When returning you find yourself holding most unthinkable stances and positions, like sitting in a puddle, for example. And today I was, up to that very moment, up to the breaking point, running, sliding on, and having returned here I continued that sliding. I’ll have to defend myself, I must impress it upon them that to down me won’t be all that easy.
“Your time is out,” usually say they, and if they don’t say it, they think it, it is their usual base trick.
“Old man, old man… it’s time, time, the road…” and shake their heads with a meaningful air. These are pretending to be respectful.
It doesn’t matter what they say, what matters is that they believe – they have yet a lo-o-ong time before them. And I have a tiny bit of it. Which is true. But they don’t know how close to the truth they have approached. I only wish that before the end… I could have just one more look. And could write it down. And that, I guess, may be considered a suitable finale.
In the beginning events multiply and scatter, so they say – time. And towards the end there remain less and less of – faces, things, words, though one would think, there ought to become more?.. Events come closer to each other, merge, many moments drop out of the general picture altogether… it’s like with complex apparatus, dismantling one is easy, but while reassembling you invariably end up with some extra details… Like with a nighttime shot of a main city street – tracer lights, and nothingness. Emptiness where there is boisterous traffic and noisy life. Instead of the bustle and hustle – night and silence. Whenever you tune yourself for the other impressions, everything around you becomes quiet and empty. That’s age. Why blame the memory for having thrown out, together with some annoying trifles, some silly, but useful details too?… Why be surprised that, after having retreated into the by-gone ravings, you later fall out as a senseless residue, and for a long time cannot remember who you are, where you are to go now, where is your home… The place seems to be the one you belong to… but everything is vague, and the landscape has slightly changed…
The infatuation with the past has to be paid for, and loss of memory for some miserable, though useful, details of the current life is the first payment. Be happy you are paying in soap bubbles. Though they are of help as to keeping on the surface when being ousted by the new people, I dislike the word “young”, it is not the age that matters… They kick you out, these new ones, and not because they are mean, it is just that they are businesslike and restless about looking for some place for themselves, and your place seems to be vacant, you are walking about staring at nothingness, an unwanted creature. In a way their attitude is marked by a sort of justice – they are climbing up by hook or crook, they have deserved it… and where have you been? Where have you come from?… A body on a mission. Here is where you have come to fulfill your mission, oh yes, but your permanent place of dislocation is unknown, it is not marked on any map, it doesn’t have any bunks you can throw your body on to, it lacks all the accommodations for your body. Though maybe it is all for the better, that they are ousting you?.. It is not so very bad over there, in the past, there was much joy too, originating from being silly and healthy… but it is not for long that you can be joyful and merry, one confounded event keeps enforcing itself upon you, looking your in the face again and again.
But since you have already come back here, forget about adventures over there!.. In order not to arise suspicion one needs to restore balance as quickly as possible, and walk away maintaining the airs of a gentleman having a stroll, just a trifling incident, anybody may slip on some rotten leaves, is it not so?.. Acting upon the good old scenario.
But still I cannot but feel that nagging despair, and growing panic, the noisome fear, as if I were standing very high up, and on a narrow ledge. Of the two hemispheres of my brain inside my skull that as yet stubbornly continues swaying on the stalk of that thin neck of mine, as yet continues for the present, it does… only one is — alive, the second one has wrinkled, shrunk, is a live proof of Khalfin’s theory.
I still feel, fear, suffer… but I have no memory, as if I have never had one, and thoughts sicken me.
How many times I wished – let there be God and the other world, and sergeant Khalfin looking at me from up there, that idiot, that genius… he sees that he was right, and because of this is in a kind and joking mood, and he says to me:
“F-forget it. K-kid. Th-things h-happen.”
Things that chance to happen among these stones of ours are wonderfully various indeed, but nothing like this should happen, oh no, it just should not.
2. My Island
I withdraw behind a tree, maintaining that nonchalant air, to observe the land on which I once again happened to find myself – what kind of landscape it is, what trees there are about, what buildings, what animals and people hustle hither and thither, and, the most important – where do I live here, my lee, my refuge, where is it?.. Where are my beloved – the door, the walls, the ceiling, and the window!.. even if a dangerous piece, a breach in the defense lines, the latter is a most necessary aperture opening to the sky and freedom… And, of course, the thing of the primary importance – the door. I have no doubts as to my belonging here, I am sure I live somewhere about, I am not crazy. I must have had some retreat of my own, I have been away for a while, disappeared from here in an uncanny manner, and now again found my body undamaged and in one piece and operative, if we disregard certain petty faults typical for the age. It is terribly important for everybody to have a place of one’s own where to return to after the wanderings, one can go all kinds of places, oh yes, but one has to return. Dropping out back is not very pleasant, quite often it is like plummeting from a great height into a heap of garbage, plunging into it head first, as preceded by sliding down a slope, slanting, ice covered, that ends like a dream, out of which you fall out, whether with regrets, or with relief, but you are bound to slip back out of it. When returning you are sure to be in for some surprises, and for some troubles too, the main ones are the ferocious attitude of the eye-witnesses, and the necessity to reconstruct the chain of the events each time anew. Repetitions do not improve matters at all, quite the contrary, sliding gets steeper and steeper, the slipping-outs more and more sudden, each new one sadder than the previous one… They are flimsy threads that tie me to the common life, the moments of non-existence grow longer, the moments of being present grow shorter, just one more infinitesimal leap, shift, sliding the other way, and I won’t come back any more… But I don’t feel like disappearing yet, there are some things to be done.
So I go on hopping there and back, and cannot do anything about it. And wouldn’t want to do anything, even if I could – without these journeys into the past my island would disappear, my asylum, my core. That very Island, the Deserted Island, from my first book, that sealed with its lasting impression the whole of my life.
So what remained for me to have about?..
Not a single sophisticated word would I remember, all were wiped off, found insignificant, along with charts, laws, rules, the tall tales about another kind of life, and the like.
Little remained – few moments, faces, voices, some plain pictures, some simple events, glances, smiles, touches… well, a couple of words… that’s all that I have salvaged. Accumulation of events brought about memory exhaustion. At first it seemed — how can one possibly live with it!… this disruption, having lost hold of the thread of life, of the general picture!.. But gradually you start to notice, that it is not just a loss, but a great shift being underway – the general shape of life, as you sense it within yourself, is changing. That which had been – the recollection of a dead snake… of a dusty bumpy road… of life as a thing of incredible length, with dull repetitions, dusty platitudes – is getting dissolved, drains into the ground, events rearrange themselves in contradiction with the original order, time, and active causes… the insignificant ones keep melting down and away, and these that remain come closer to each other, come entangled around one single core, the nucleus, all ignorant of time, all equally available, all in plain view for the inner sight… cleansed of the trifling matter they emerge before you as the Island, which is yours, just yours and nobody else’s.
The greatest achievement of the old age… or its saddest property?… — life as your very own deserted Island, the true home.
I am standing behind a tree watching the younger generation trample out the land upon which my lodgings ought to be situated. My lodgings ought to be somewhere about here, the borders are outlined in my memory, but only roughly, and rather loosely too, and embracing quite an area, is it some base trick or a rule of the scoffing game?.. And yet I have come back to the only place that is tangible, it is comforting, though ridiculous too. That’s not for the first time like this with me, remembering things in general, but with the details evading me, like, for example, whither I made my way to the previous time, and where I found the door. And yet having even a lame memory is a consolation, I have somehow escaped getting lost before, hence I will make it this time too.
The place seems to have undergone some slight changes… But I have great faith in the stability of rules, same as I believe that our earth can’t halt even for a moment in its movement: my home is right there where it used to be. As if I have entered into some taciturn agreement with the incomprehensible to me forces. And I on my part I behave the way a normal person should, succumb to the pressure of circumstances stronger than myself. Hands up when meeting reality face to face, it sure has means to demonstrate to you that it really exists. But that is only a part of me, toppled over into the current day, and behind my back lies my sovereign kingdom, where resistance abides, bitter and silent — dwelling in grass, in each leaf, in a tree trunk, in all live creatures, and I with my life support their struggle. Live and support life the best way you can, and you will never be alone. All around you every day and every hour betrayals are being committed, humans are betraying life, and therefore are doomed, that is why they invent for themselves, in their fear, a life beyond the grave.
I have been lucky so far, mostly I return to a reasonably inert environment. I am not wanted here, but nobody gets very vexed when I remind about my existence by some feeble stirring. And I remember that something like that had already happened to me, without any fearful consequences, and it soothes my anxiety.
I am sure I couldn’t have walked far off, and it is in one of the three houses that I can see now that my door is to be found, and these walls of mine. My refuge.
At times I remember whence I have gone out from, and where I am going, but more often I forget it. How easy everything is over there, at that place of mine – I was running quite unconscious of any homes existing or existing not, was sliding down that tortuous narrow street, was laughing, was young… suddenly I receive a slight shove upon my shoulder, and here you are… the space shuddered, and I fell out back. Gloomy day, galoshes, feet feel heavy, and all these troubles at once, concerns about food, and where to pass the night… Can’t be helped, it is a hard job to live by that which had been, rejecting this which is going on; wish I were able to commit to memory at least one or two details of the current day before each disappearing. But I am incorrigible, always forget about safety measures. And later go wandering round and about these three houses, figuring out where my living quarters might be. Each time like having landed on an alien planet. Writing down my own address is no good, the notes invariably go missing, disappear somehow, and to make inquires is dangerous, very dangerous…
Sometimes it is amusing, like solving a mystery problem, like getting engaged in a game, but as often as not just unpleasant, even scary – there is always the possibility of staying outside for the night, and it is not always warm, there are certain shifts in nature coming under the influence of the winds blowing weather in. Yes, I know, I know, there is a theory of seasonal changes coming due to the Earth’s rotation around the sun, once I myself found it most compelling… but later I saw, that even if it is true, it is still an insignificant detail: I have never seen earth rotate about anything, never felt it, and I am much more used to speaking about simple things, on which life depends. About the wind, for example, I can say a lot.
They say – time, I say – the wind. It blows clean away everything not secured fast, and I remain with Today, Tomorrow, and My Island.
Today remains because I have grabbed it with both of my paws, and am holding it tight. As soon as I appear, fall out, I immediately grab for it. There are certain reasons to assume that Tomorrow also exists, but so far it is neither dead, nor alive – it lies dormant somewhere, only swaying its tail from time to time, so that today’s cares wouldn’t seem quite useless, because why indeed bother to eat, think about getting some roof over your head, about your door, if there is no Tomorrow?.. Surely a person always has enough of everything to last one day only, one can do without food, and manage it outdoors. Yet there is so far dormant somewhere that Tomorrow of mine, with its skinny little tail, and its weak little paws… But as to the Island – it is the most important thing that I have. It also more or less doesn’t exist, but it is something I can return to, even if for a time, and later you are sure to fall back. I usually say – drop out, from habit; around each activity you are keen on, a penchant or a delusion, there come to emerge with time some special words, a jargon is formed, some believe it is a new language… well, I have such words of my own.
Today is a courtyard open for public passage any each way, can’t be helped. But from here take their beginning paths leading to other places of mine, which is important, that is why I have to endure everything, and wait for the moment when it strikes me once again, and I will freeze still in my tracks with my mouth open, and I won’t be here at all. The trouble is, I am not sure I can do it in time…
3. How Did Matters Stand?..
We rushed in, excited from the nipping air and fleet, and were informed:
“Your Khalfin is not about, he was sacked, his chief, Alimov Victor Konstantinovich, will take care of your class.”
So they have kicked him out after all, for heavy drinking, for slipshod attitude, and for contradicting the superiors constantly. No, nobody told us about it in so many words, they don’t report to students, but the rumor spread swiftly, everybody was sorry for him, because he was a most harmless and unpretentious person, he never showed off before the students, never commanded them about, and often told us rather stunning stories about how science is made. We would be studying samples, making sketches and notes in our copybooks, and he, sitting on a table, leaning against the wall, his glasses gleaming, in low voice, stuttering a bit… He didn’t sing his words and phrases out, as they took to teaching lately, but punctuated his speech with frequent stops, and it added weight to his words. It was always cold in the anatomical theater, he was usually wearing his jacket, and he allowed us to throw something over our shoulders too, otherwise it would be unbearable, the next room housed the dead bodies, coolness was good for them. For the night the bodies would be dumped back into the tanks with formaldehyde solution, but in daytime they were laid out on the tables, for the first year students to dissect, as for us, we were studying tissues, tumors… slides and coverslips with mounted sections, the cryostat, the microtomes, etc., but all that would make subject matter for a separate story.
Once somebody asked Khalfin about the discovery made by his chief, Professor Alimov, or “Alim” as we named him among ourselves, while some alluded to him as “Nalim” (burbot).
“It was an important achievement, he found, you may say, a new organ in the brain, a bubble, or an islet. It is on this islet, as it turned out later, that the perception of images depends. Suppose you are looking at a picture, or at yourself in a looking-glass — you see a live image, you take it in earnest, though actually it is just light reflecting off some metal coated glass, isn’t it? …or some paint daubed over a piece of canvas… Without that organ you would be like a cat – who doesn’t recognize itself in a mirror, would look and turn away.”
Alimov was tall, sturdy, with very white skin, with large hands, while walking he would sway his left arm, as if beating out time, and favor one leg, his left knee was injured, a shell wound, they said. In the War they served either together, or not far from each other, Alim was ten years older, a commanding officer, and Khalfin was just a student when drafted, later he was promoted to sergeant. That’s how Alimov used to call him – “our sergeant”, and his attitude was generally that of good-natured irony – “our sergeant has got bogged down in his theories up to his very eyes once again, so I will take care of your class in his stead…” It would be only fair to mention that he had been very tolerant for quite a time. Many years passed since the War, yet one was still a commanding officer, and the other – a sergeant… We also when talking about Khalfin among ourselves would say — sergeant said this, sergeant did that…He was over thirty, yet still walked and talked like a lad.
Khalfin, as usual, was sitting on a table, wrapping about him his old voluminous jacket, dipping his nose inside the turned up collar. He dangled his foot some, kept silent for a little bit more, and then added:
“B-but he n-never. Ch-checked. Th-the other hemi-sph-sphere…”
If he was stuttering, it meant the words were of importance. It was the gist of Sergeant’s theory – that the hemispheres of the brain differ, and in the greatest sense possible: one is in charge of logic and reasoning, and the other of senses and images. He was sure of it, and trying to prove it. With science it is often like this: first you get that feeling of certainty, then look for proofs, and sometimes find them, in which case they will say — “what a genius!”, but more often they say “ramblings of a lunatic”, and enforce the statement with a gesture. It was practically impossible for Khalfin to substantiate his truth with evidence, too great was the thing he set as the goal for himself, alone making an attempt upon the whole of the brain, just like that. And of course he was laughed to scorn. Alim had been a Doctor and a Professor for years, and Sergeant thrice had failed with the Dissertation committee, they would reject his thesis. Alim kept scolding him.
One day I stayed after the lessons to clean up after the whole of our class, we did it in turn, taking everything away from the tables, wiping things clean, the samples were to be dumped into the sink full of alkaline solution, for the lab assistant to finish the job in the morning, to wash, rinse the glassware, have it dried, so that it may be used for the studies anew. And I heard them, I saw them too, through the glass partition, which enclosed Alim’s tiny personal office. Khalfin was sitting on a high stool, hiding his nose deep behind his turned up collar as usual, Alim was bending over him and saying:
“Andrey, what do you think you are doing? I have become a laughingstock – I am the guy who can’t find a normal research-based thesis subject for my man to earn him his academic degree, that miserable Master of Science Diploma, which is kid-stuff if anything is! Consider, just consider what you set out to conquer, and wearing your old house slippers for the occasion too… Some nerve center is one thing, there are dozens of them discovered… but the hemispheres!… It’s… it’s sheer lunacy, the very notion is crazy! The brain!.. the very pinnacle, what can be more complex, and you concoct some little schema, a model as they say now, and aspire to squeeze all the complexity into it?… Can’t you see for yourself, you batty youngster, there are no proves… Besides, you are a sot, I am getting complaints all the time…”
“ C-complicate, y-yes. B-but b-basically. S-simple. Ob-v-vious. D-differences…R-right… L-left… And structures. L-logical. And for the f-feelings. Others. I’m s-s-sure.”
“What structures, you silly kid, there could be a world of reasons… The way you slice it makes the sample what it is, the way you stain it makes it what you get… I have sliced billions of them samples, I ought to know, you can slice and stain a specimen such as to view Brigitte Bardot upon the microscope’s stage, if that is your desire. You are off your rocker, sergeant, chuck this whole business, drop it! It’s a lunatic’s ravings… and harmful too, you play into the hands of the enemies of the science, of them rascals, the clergy… they will laugh at your mechanical approach, at the simplifications… they’ll say, just look at this science of theirs, just look where they are putting their foot in now, these primitives, the godless ones!.. The brain is a very special organ, you may say — it is the soul, poetically speaking, and it does do — all of it does, as a whole, and only as a whole!.. – the thinking and feeling… Of course I myself made that discovery – there are some nerve centers, indeed there are, but they house simple reactions, like reading letters, or the speech… But the very idea of proposing feelings are located in only one hemisphere! And, pray, reason and logic dwelling in the other? It is a harmful trend, yes, harm-ful, it’s sham, it’s fraudulent through and through, you’ve been slicing to suit your purpose… No, no, you are an honest lad, but you are so naï-iiive – monstrously naive! All these horizontal and vertical connections of yours, all these wells… I have never heard worse nonsense!.. Now either you start working on a normal thesis for your dissertation… or you get the hell out, do you understand? You are spoiling students with you banter, distract them from real work… and I have had enough of teaching your class instead of you!…”
That was the conversation they had between them, a reprimand like many others, I didn’t pay much attention to it. It was some time later that I recalled it, and it made me see many things in quite different light.
At first I thought that my leaping hither thither implies playing a very dirty trick on the universal laws, since, as it is only too well known, nobody ever evanesces from here without bestowing his matter and energy upon another body. No, I didn’t actually ponder upon the matter, with this thing you don’t have much time for pondering, yet I did believe myself to be clearing out of the picture completely thus inflicting some permanent injury upon nature. But with time I understood, that everything was going on in the law abiding manner, it followed from bruises, cuts and scratches that I, upon returning, many a time found on my person. The main safety rule is – never cross the three lines, the three roads separating my corner from the rest of the world. Though beyond the borders everything is pretty much the same way as within, still wandering unconscious across borders is fraught with gravest consequences, you may lose that little that you have. That is why I, when I have some of my wits about, stick close to our three houses, do my best to stay within my triangle. All the necessities of life may be found here, even the victuals stored in one of the houses, that has a grocery store on the ground floor, so if one gets hungry, there are provision reserves to draw from. When you disappear, you don’t need food, but when you return, your body is quick to remind you that that it would be nice to have a bite of something… and, which is even more important, to find your door, that is, your dwelling place.
It is not all that bad, if you know how to accept life placidly, there are some interesting points about life to be found, and I do find such points. For example, there are yet some normal people among those who populate my triangle of life, the site bracketed by the three houses. But the most important, there is grass here, there are leaves – I am in concert with them, who are my brothers in this brotherhood of life; they are, just like me, against reason. Life is deeper than reason, in it everything is connected, and reason only divides, shoving every thing into its respective drawer, as they like to say here, and I find the practice most unpleasant. Beasts have a better, a quieter life. Reason gives power, but takes joy away. Though as to joy I am not much of an expert, after that day everything was forever ruined for me.
Once… no, twice I have told my story to a woman, to some chance acquaintances, because it is a story you can tell only to a chance acquaintance, and at night, when it is dark and nothing ties you to each other, even the passion is over. And both women said, like there was collusion between them: “You are out of your mind to be heart-broken all you life over a thing like that… What could you do to change anything about it?.. You didn’t understand what you were doing, and did what you were told to do.”
I couldn’t change anything, but to say no – that I could have done. And I can’t say that I didn’t understand a thing. I just didn’t bother to think about it. I believed it was their business.
And, of course, I couldn’t have known it was that serious.
4. Windows and Doors
In order to find my dwelling place I have to observe the locals. To enter into intricate, subterfuge-charged negotiation, worming out cautiously where I live. The inquiries are to be carried out in such a way as not to reveal my ignorance. As to probing for information regarding who and what I am that I do not dare to attempt – I have had an opportunity to see that they seem to be unable to come up with any sort of an answer, and I think there ought to be some reason to it. I do somehow manage on my own though, and when behind my door, where I usually do gain access to, after innumerable misfortunes and errors about which I’d much rather not talk any further now… I recall a lot about myself. Though it doesn’t make me either happy or content, there always remains something that defies comprehension, it feels very much like walking right into a thick heavy curtain… But never mind all that, at the moment the matter of the utmost importance is to find my home. To get inside my dwelling place before darkness. It seems not much of a deed, but actually it is a tricky and excruciating business, therefore the uneasiness that doesn’t allow me a moment’s rest. And I envy the cat who just makes his way home, knowing everything he ought to know, with easy mind. I also want to have my mind easy, to have it at peace, it is the first of the two hard-earned kinds of happiness – to enjoy one’s peace of mind and to be unafraid to live. The second kind of happiness – to have all the creatures near and dear to you alive and enjoying peace and quiet – is even harder to achieve, there is always too little of it, and it is a thing that cannot but wane with each new day. For the latter kind of happiness there is a substitute – go and save those who are far and strangers to you, it brings less happiness, but causes as much exhaustion… and grants a mite of peace in the way of reward. I learnt it all too well in the time when I was traveling day and night along bumpy country roads, saving fools, drunkards, drug-addicts, and other ill-starred good-for-nothing wretches.
And now I keep forgetting almost everything that I used to know, I am making no progress, I am marching in place, repeating in monotone a few salvational truths, and often it seems to be as hopeless an occupation as repeating for a million times the name of the god you don’t believe in. But sometimes in the stead of a thing forgotten, from out of the soil trampled down hard and bare, grows forth a simple word, a new gesture, or a look… That which doesn’t evaporate will grow forth like grass in crevices.
They have something to say about each and all, the people of my triangle, but about me – they have nothing to say. Sometimes I succeed in pumping them for information regarding my dwelling place, though more often I find it on my own. More often I have to manage on my own. I try never to ramble far off, then upon my return I find that people I meet remember me. Remember where I live, to be more precise. I mean the people who live here permanently. You just have to approach them with proper understanding, to be cautious, and never panic, so that they won’t guess something is wrong. An obvious loss of memory is unforgivable, and though humans, with very few exceptions, are generally feeble-minded, yet each human is expected to remember at least about his home and some of his circumstances. Those who forget such things provoke great suspicion.
Humans are quicker than things when it comes to appearance changing, yet they also do it not very often, and change not very much. Those whom I remember, or am quick to remember, they at least are in the habit of keeping their faces about. Each time I see them I rejoice that they are still there, still about, and this makes it easier for me to live on. Sometimes after some prolonged verbal interchange it turns out that so-and-so is no more. Then I can’t help wishing – let me too be swept off and snatched away soon, so that we could meet and have a nice chat in peace and quiet. It doesn’t matter what we are going to chat about, it might be about the weather, or the wind which is so changeable, about these leaves and grass which are immortal, and if those near and dear to me are immortal, the immortality is partly mine too. That is what my father told me, and only now I am beginning to comprehend his meaning.
I observe people, I carry on seemingly simple but actually complicated conversations, that are mostly of very little interest, watching a sunset or some grass stir and sigh would be much more interesting. But whether I am to spend the night inside or outside depends on the humans. Leaves won’t give me a hint, grass is silent, and I also keep silence when in their company, it feels good to know there is something eternal in this world, or nearly eternal, that is what my father told me, and that I remember always. If you compare my life with the life of a butterfly, or an ant, or even with that of a cat, I may be considered a nearly eternal being, so many generations of those creatures have passed through me, they all have been. If I alone know about their existence, it is always sad. That which has been reflected in at least two pairs of eyes will never be singular any more. That which is not singular, even if it does not become eternal, still lives a longer life. Though now my faith in this is waning, humans are so unreliable, reflecting in their eyes is an act of pretty much the same significance as looking at your own reflexion in water. Looking at the leaves and grass bears more significance, even if they cannot see, cannot know me, but after I am no more something eternal, or nearly eternal is to remain about – that is what matters…
But it lies with the humans to help me about many petty, yet necessary particulars of my current life, so I cautiously, never allowing them to see what I am up to, penetrate into their pupils, and little by little learn where my dwelling place is. To enquire about who I am is too dangerous, besides they haven’t the slightest idea anyway, of that I am certain, I have had many a chance to satisfy myself on this point, always reaping only trouble. Not all questions are appropriate in this world. So I stick to the dwelling place locating issue, to avoid making things awkward either for myself, or for others.
And I do it cautiously, lest they see through me, lest they start having suspicions, it is important. I always hope to maneuver the conversation in such a way as to lead them up to a remark that will contain some information that may come in useful, though more often than not I have to rely on myself. Each time I forget what a hopeless course it is, and end up with nothing for my pains in the face of the approaching nightfall. It is growing dark, silently and instantly lights come aglow in the windows, and here I am, a lonely figure in the twilight. Though on the other hand, darkness facilitates my endeavors, while the sun, especially when setting down, hinders: the windows at sunset, now this one, then another, will flash with dazzling light, that jets off and showers down in multitudes of sparkling particles like some fireworks, and I won’t be able to see a thing outside this shining. But these blazes soon subside, thanks to the encroaching dusk, in the dusk it is easier to see whether a window is dark or if there is a light glowing in its depth, and if a window is glowing, it is not mine. Some things are certainties. I am a lone one, and alone I return to my place. That never failed me, never. How can a man be not alone, if he is alone when being born into this world, and dies this way too? It is a simple truth that I live with. Many, on hearing it make a wry face – “why, it’s an oldie, and common knowledge too…” Knowing and remembering is nothing, it is what you live with that matters.
I know that if there is a light glowing in a window, it glows not for me.
But at the very beginning, immediately on my return, I avoid looking at people, the less you look at them, the better, they notice you scarcer. Humans are like beasts, if you don’t stare into their eyes, you have a much quieter life. It’s wrong to look in the face, even more so to look into the eyes, I mean catching the very pupil, and if you do hit it, they will at once remember you, and you are in for questioning and pestering galore. It is better to turn your eyes aside, to escape the pestering and questioning — why all this roaming in between the three houses, and what might be the purpose of your observing the locals. Though there are some who will never forgive you your very appearance, your profile, the way you bend your head, the way you are dressed, these jump upon you at once, showing great vigilance. That being the case I keep silent and smile.
First of all I look up the windows. They are of primary importance, the windows are, though I by no means ignore grass, bushes, leaves, the sun and the wind, the latter I don’t see, but I feel it and hear it. The wind is the main reason why events follow one after the other. They say – time, I say – the wind. Time I don’t feel, why mention it at all. It doesn’t manifest itself in any way whatsoever, and to search for the thing that doesn’t manifest itself is futile. I see a familiar face, then the face becomes a bit different, and they tell me – “that’s time…” and spread their arms wide, like in the circus, when a performer comes out to bow after his act – a broad smile and waiting for the applause to come… They say about themselves “we are men of reason”, and puff up, proud of their design. Well, let them go chase time, but as to me, hunting for fleas in one’s fur, the way beasts do it, makes better sense. As well as listening to the wind, the way the blind do it, with their eyes turned inside.
But the blind wouldn’t see the windows, and upon your return the window identification is of the utmost importance. You absolutely have to identify your window correctly, or you won’t be able to return home, and may fall into the power of people who are eager to pin you up as a new collection item, labeled “Man out of his mind…”
And indeed, losing one’s memory and facility of intelligent discourse… at first I was frightened, and then I was surprised to see that I had lost nothing of value, everybody whom I love are still about – beasts and plants, things and people, and I have a lot to talk about with them.
Then it occurred to me that it was not I, but the world that had gone crazy, but I think I’d better not enlarge upon this point.
Gradually, with the dusk getting nigh, the general picture becomes clearer. There are always several windows that won’t come aglow. Whenever I look at them they are not lighted. I come and go, look at them time and again, and still there is darkness in these windows. And I know for certain that my window is never lighted. Hence it must be among these, and I may relax a bit, the task is not so very difficult, because my window is dark. When I am looking at it, and I am looking at it from the outside, naturally. If I am not at home, there cannot be any lights on in there. I have tested it many a time, and this rule always stands, wherever I might have disappeared into, and wherefrom I might be returning. This is one of the true laws. It is true because it depends on me. Those that do not depend on me are just rules of life, though still to be observed in order to avoid trouble. The laws are to be observed twofold, otherwise you are in for a lot of trouble. For example, if I leave a light on when going out, it will cause a serious trouble. I meant to say – a disaster, but that would have been an exaggeration, actually it would cause trouble, it is very troublesome – to be looking for something that cannot be found, that doesn’t exist, for example, to be looking for your own window when it is not different from all the other windows. My window is different – it is always dark, always, which is important. If you take your time going about, if you are patient while looking, you learn that truly dark windows are actually few, the others will come aglow at least once in the course of the evening. Unless you blunder gravely and leave the light on. If you do blunder, finding your window becomes impossible or very difficult, and it might actually come to looking for the door which is a much more challenging task. I know a lot about doors too, but I’d rather not go into it, it is an unpleasant subject, looking for the door is a much graver and demanding business than looking for the window. On the face of it all windows seem to be alike, though actually they are not, doors are more alike, but they are not identical, even if the resemblance between doors goes deeper than between windows. You just have to look really carefully, and you are sure to recognize your window.
So that is how I do it: I keep walking about making notice of the windows that don’t come aglow, and then I pick up the true one from among their numbers.
It is a very important thing – the light glowing in a window.
Though if we consider the source of light, it is not so much glowing, as a kind of torture: it’s painful to see the white-hot filament shine, a live creature exhausting itself while locked up in a transparent prison. Same with people who radiate energy and feeling upon the world around themselves, meeting incomprehension and hostility. The like void is about them, they live the like way of life, unwanted by all except themselves. Life rests upon several simple supports, well, not upon whales, but upon rather strong supports, or so I was told when I yet had my wits about me – “without these fundamentals there is no life and no development…” I don’t feel like enumerating these crutches, it’s repulsive, they are all false heroes, even their names are dead and unpleasant. I was also told that some things are alive, and some are not, but it turned out to be true not at all, for example there is about as much dead matter in a man as in a stone, and much more dead water into the bargain. Water is fluid, but it may be dead too, motion is often mistaken for life. There is no memory in water, or, to be more precise, its memory is so transient, that recalling oneself becomes impossible, even for the water itself. Stones have long memory, keeping company of a stone is easy. With stones you have things to talk about, things to recall, and what memories one can possibly share with water when it cannot recall itself. Communication with the wind, the most treacherous of all creatures, is even more difficult. As difficult as having intercourse with many humans who are nothing more than the living dead. With them it is actually even worse because they look alive, and at first it is very baffling. Almost everybody eventually get used to it. I never did, so I was stranded with no way out. Or rather there was just one way out – to go out of my mind and live by myself. And by the few things that are alive for me. I began to live that way. I never made any decisions, everything sort of resolved itself. Several events happened, after which I never had anything to make any decisions upon any more.
I must later remind myself to tell about the glass-panes, about the balcony, about many things that allow you to find your window with better accuracy and never mistake another window for it. But at the moment I have to have a very good look at some very many windows, and it takes long, and the weather is not always favorable, I mean the wind.
Last time it worked out so smoothly it was actually fun. When I dropped out, I mean when I returned to where the body is, to the slush, the old age…
I repeatedly go into such detail because many find it confusing: where does he drop to – hither? thither?..
Into the past, when transferring to my place, I shift insensibly, gently, I disappear, I dissolve like one dissolves in the heat of a summer day, in dazzling light… and from over there, when being transferred back, into autumn, old age, ghastliness – I drop, fall out… is that clear?..
Well, the last time, when I dropped out back, returned under the pressure of circumstances beyond my control, compelled by brutal force – reality is a brutal force, isn’t it?.. would you believe it, everything worked out so smoothly and easily it was actually fun: there was an old man reclining under a tree, with tousled hair and wearing just one trouser leg, the other trouser leg lying next to him. I at once recalled who he was, he lives in the house to the left on the ground floor, he has a red cat called Nyurka, and his wife is the janitor. He was quick to address me with great feeling:
“Why, I know who you are… you live in the red house,” and then told me the floor too, though I won’t be able to remember it now however hard I try. And then he said:
“And where do I live?… can’t recall it for the death of me…”
When he was talking about me he nodded towards one of the houses, which was of greatest importance!.. Without that nod it would have taken me very long to figure it out on my own. The old man was a great help, people like him, those who are alive, they understand me easily, and I understand them too.
I moved so as to stand facing the same way he was facing while sitting, to understand which side was which, and happily informed him:
“You live in the left tower, on the ground floor, when you enter, you turn to the right, then go straight ahead, and you will come right to your own door. Nastya the janitor, your wife, must be at home now.”
I didn’t tell him about his cat, he had sufficient information as it was. I was amazed to have been able to remember all that. But it was a brief stay away that preceded it, and the old man was quite familiar, I’ve known him for ages. Well, I nodded to him in way of saying goodbye, and began to steer to the right, without any hurry, with the air of a person taking a stroll, so as not to betray my recent ignorance. First of all I entered our block of flats, there was nobody in the entrance hall, then I familiarized myself with the lay-out of the flats on the first floor, and easily figured out where my door ought to be. But I didn’t go home at once, I went around the house, to double-check, to rule out the possibility of an error. I puzzled it out very quickly, it is not difficult if you know the floor, especially in the evening, no room for a mistake. I made a very fast job finding it, though I can’t remember at all where I did it.
Today the old man is not about, and it would be hard to guess where his right side was then. When they say that all knowledge is relative, they know what they are talking about, I will have to do it from scratch.
That time it went smoothly, as for now, I have no idea how it is going to work out. I don’t see any normal people about, and the place itself, it doesn’t seem to be quite the same… it is not at all obvious where exactly I have returned. No, I mean, I have returned to the same place, it never happens any other way, but some things do change, and each new returning is harder than the previous one. Some people understand wherefrom the wind comes and which way it is blowing, these people claim that they know how to live. I only see that many things are changing. That’s the way the world is made, though I don’t approve. I long to see things that are solid and steady, that stand firm and fast the way they used to stand, and I want to live among such things. And I indeed do, from time to time, temporarily, but the aftermath is difficult, when you have dropped back out of it.
Now a few words about myself. For those to whom it may be interesting, and – back to business, otherwise where am I to pass the night, eh?.. This time I have no clues, I am looking at two houses, the third one doesn’t count, it is yellow… Both red houses look quite alike, and I have to remember somehow where I live.
So, about myself.
That which I remember always.
That which I remember always is my Island.
As for the rest, let it sink, hell with it.
5. The House, or That Which Will Remain
My name is Robert. My parents, great opera fans, came to the unanimous decision that Robert sounds fine enough. But I call myself Robin. Robin son of Robin. I was five when Mother started to read that book to me, and then gave it up – due to shortage of time. She abandoned me when we hadn’t even made it to the middle. The Deserted Island had just begun to emerge, and she left me just like that, whether with a certain scheme in mind, or indeed she was short of time – that I never knew, and will never learn now. Well, I couldn’t possibly go on without that Island, so I braced myself, learned the alphabet, and little by little, crawling about on my hands and knees, explored my treasure. And I found nobody there, I was alone. I was stunned. It was like in the shooting gallery – you are firing off your air-rifle, missing all the time, pellets just keep lashing the plywood, and suddenly!… everything comes into motion with tremendous grating sound, here you are – you’ve made a hit. I was hit, I was born with this flaw. I inherited it from my father.
“What do you want to be, sonny?”
Now I often forget what his name was, he was Father for me, and Mother addressed him the same way. He was much older than she was, a former sailor. Once he had to go through the experience that is described in the book, or something greatly resembling that story, which exactly I wouldn’t know, and nobody will ever know now, and nobody can check. The great advantage of the old age… or its sad legacy?.. – is having in your possession truths that are non-provable…
He was lain up in a huge dark room, or maybe it just seemed to me that the place was huge, like in a cave when the walls are concealed in darkness. I saw his fingers. I deliberately avoid using the word “remember”, because you cannot talk about things you don’t remember… Yes, I saw his fingers, they were holding to the edge of the blanket, large, bony, with very thin transparent and smooth, even somewhat shiny, skin… they were holding to the reliable cloth, stroking it… Now and then shiver ran down his hands, then the fingers would clutch the cloth with hasty resolution, as if the ground was being snatched from under my Father’s feet, and he was afraid he would lose his footing. The hands behaved like a couple of crabs, they were attempting all the time to escape somewhere to the side, but they were connected to each other with an invisible cord.
And above his hands loomed his jowl, heavy, covered with dark stubble… I couldn’t see any farther, only from time to time one eye gleamed, he was waiting for my answer. And what could I answer him – how can I be anything when I already am…
“So what is important for you, son?”
“I want to live on the deserted Island.”
His hands twitched, clutched the edge of the blanket convulsively.
“No, no, you ought not to do anything like this, dear. I understand… But man can only hardly bear keeping one’s own company. It is not a profession, nor an occupation… I am asking about something else – what do you want from life? First you have to find out about that, maybe you will manage to get on here… better than I did. One has to try…”
He lacked the strength for going into explanation. But yet one could feel him becoming tense, his annoyance was growing slowly but inevitably, in spite of his fatal illness and general weakness.
“I want to live on the deserted isl…”
“What do you want to become, to be?”
“To live on the deserted… I don’t want to be, I am… I don’t want to be… anything.”
“A youngster’s folly,” said Mother, she has emerged from the darkness, she was standing at the head of the bed, bending over to the gleaming eye and fixing the pillow. “I will light the lamp.”
Father didn’t answer, only his hands clutched the cloth even harder. The wick of the kerosene lamp was slow to take to burning, the lamp was on a little table, to the left from the bed… from my point of view, it was to the left… and the room was lighted, the room in the house where I lived then. It is not without purpose that I emphasize this relational attitude, this right-left thing, based on the simple symmetry of our body, offering two possibilities… I know how important it is, and what difficulties and grievances the situation might be fraught with if one determines sides using oneself as the reference point, ignoring the position of the other, and the other generously concedes, and allows his friend or companion to become the center.
My then pig-headedness was quite senseless, it was book-born predilection and enthusiasm, nothing more… which existed side by side with passionate desire to be with people, with curiosity, and intention to join the mainstream. It is amazing that the truth was divined by a mere youngster, though there was not a grain of sincerity then, it was all fallacy through and through, I had no comprehension of my inadequacy yet… but I had the presentiment that all my attempts to become adequate would be futile. Sentiments never deceive us.
6. How It Happened?
Well, once again I have a spare moment, I am enjoying a brief break, first it was thanks to the arrival of the garbage removal vehicle, then there were the technicians… my triangle is overcrowded with figures that trample the grass down.
We were to have only one more lesson, Khalfin was sacked, and disappeared the very same day, failed to show up at home, which nobody thought the least surprising, he always had a lot of places where women were ever ready to welcome him, young and various women, though he was neither handsome, nor wealthy, nor eloquent… But there was something about him, something very out of the ordinary, that women especially were sensitive to. At the age of thirty seven he was still a young lad, in spite of having seen much blood and death. There are people like this, they seem to be living amongst us, but actually they exist inside themselves and nowhere else, subjects to laws peculiar to themselves, plying their own peculiar routes and trajectories… sooner or later the human mass crushes them, infuriated by their perpetual absence… or just unfeelingly, it doesn’t matter which really.
So he had disappeared, they said, Alim gave the lesson, as usual with him everything was easy to understand and handsomely agreeable, but there were no digressions or conversations on general topics like life and death.
After the lesson everybody was hurrying out – and suddenly he calls me – “I need help with some lab stuff that has to be made ready for the new students to use”. He picked me because I was the tallest, there were some boxes on high shelves that were to be taken down, he said.
We moved to another auditorium, we used to have our lessons there in the beginning of our studies. In the corner there was a door, I had never been behind it, neither had the other students. Alim took out a key and unlocked it, behind the door there was a small room with a single window overlooking the forest beyond the river, one wall was shelved to the very ceiling, at the window there was a working table… a sink in the corner, and the exhaust hood. Alim plugged the sink, took the jar with the alkali, poured out about 100 gram of the stuff maybe, ran water over it to fill the sink by half, the water at once became hot, began to smoke, sharp smell hit the nostrils.
“Never mind that,” said he, “we will turn the exhaust on.”
The exhaust started humming, hissing, making tiny tornados of dust and specks scatter around underneath.
“What a mess… Start with the topmost shelves, they house the most miserable junk,” said he.
I reached up, and began to take down from the upper shelves some riff-raff, there was a broken desk lamp there, and old notebooks, some scraps of paper, a million of broken pens, some pencil stubs, empty India ink bottles, and caps to those bottles saved separately, small nails, clips… All those I was ordered to throw into the big garbage bin that was near the table, the larger articles were to be placed in the corner, for the janitor to remove them later, said he.
The third shelve from the top, and the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, all of them right down to the floor, were crowded with cardboard boxes, much like shoe boxes, at places the boxes formed double rows.
“Old samples. Get the slides out of the boxes and dump them into the sink, the alkaline will dissolve everything, and in the morning the lab assistant will come and wash and dry the glassware, and we will have something to do the new research with.”
That was the routine procedure, we always cleaned up after our own work this way, the only thing that surprised me was the number of the slides, each box contained about a hundred of them, between the slides were scraps of paper with some scribbling.
“The notes go into the garbage bin, I will take it out later,” said he and left me.
On each shelf there were ten, maybe twelve boxes, there were six shelves, which meant… thousands of those slides, wow…
I had cleaned three shelves, the sink was full, the alkaline solution rose threatening to go over the brim… Alim entered, saw at once the sink would never accommodate all of it, opened the door of the hood cabinet a bit wider – there was an enormous glass vessel resembling a fish tank in it, heaped a generous measure of alkali into the tank, added water, and told me to dump the rest into it. I remember a thought crossed my mind: is the tank strong enough, suppose it bursts… He instantly guessed what I was thinking and said – “that’s borosilicate glass, it’s resistant to thermal shocks.” Which means we can proceed with our task unhampered, said he. Took the bin full of scraps of paper, went out, in a minute brought the empty bin back, and left again.
Yet something was bothering me about this assignment. Guess the mere scope of the work was overwhelming, it was a lot of glassware… There remained only a shelf and a half for me to do, and I decided to make a break, to have a look about — what kind of a room it might be, and, well, what all this might mean… there was something weird about the whole business…
And, standing next to the working table, I at last had a good look about.
It was Khalfin’s place, that’s what it was. It was his very own space, his corner of the Universe, so to say, and I had invaded it, trampled upon it in my heavy boots. He worked here, and, apparently, often stayed for the night. There was a small bunk in the far corner, with an old, faded, rusty colored blanket covering it, instead of the cushion there was a rolled up jacket, I remembered I saw him wearing that jacket, on the way back from the collective farm field… in rubber boots, carrying the spade on his shoulder… and his face… One of our girls said — “unearthly face”, and “he is like Blok, Alexander Blok the poet, with these eyes of his…” Sometimes stupid females hit the mark. He was walking and bearing his face through the grayish drizzle, and he bore it high…
Next to the bunk was a chair, there was a large dark-brown earthenware mug on the seat, with some tea left in it that was opaque and dull rusty in color, so strong it had been made, there was a fall-out at the bottom actually. It was said about him that he used nearly an ounce of tea per mug, and indeed it must be so. People knew a lot about him, the town was small, teachers, students, and he had been living here for long enough. He didn’t like to talk about himself, but of course with years information accumulated, and those who were curious about him could easily learn everything they wanted to know. The most enthusiastic investigators were the girls, and we learnt from them.
He was a combatant, during the last two years of the War, was wounded somewhere not far from here, near the Baltic, and after the recuperation period in the hospital stayed, matriculated to the University, after the graduation they took him on the staff, he became the faculty member. Before the War all his folk, his parents, used to live in a small place near Kursk, and they all perished, to a man, and he never returned to his home town.
I was observant, “you have a good eye”, he said to me once, and then, with a slight smile added – “but you could use some more attentiveness”. And indeed, I observed, but didn’t see, and I arrived to my conclusions only years later, when I began to think over that which I had observed. I have thought a lot about Khalfin. He was a strange person, that cannot be denied. I think that he used to be very much a hearth and home kid, greatly attached to his kin, his family. And he never managed to survive their death, becoming a lone one. Like a child who, having received a blow across his legs sometimes stops to grow, he also was, only in another, inner sense, a case of arrested development – and never became a grown up person. He knew no aim in his everyday life, had no simple goals that a person usually picks up while reaching maturity: to succeed, to surround oneself with a family of one’s own, to make a home, to arrange some sort of daily life, to make things easier, merrier… Not money – who’s talking about money! – money meant little in those times… but nothing seemed to be attractive to him at all – neither food, nor clothes, nor anything… on his entering the University he was allotted accommodation at the students’ hostel, and he still continued living there, without any housekeeping worth mentioning, amidst the non-stop night carousing… of course he had a corner room of his own, that was more like a slot, four square meters… the common kitchen in the end of the huge corridor… He never complained, never demanded anything, he didn’t care. He drank, but not heavier than others, Alim also drank, all the faculty members drank, because there was alcohol for laboratory use always available. Women? There was some oddity about that too, women seemed to be drawn to him, he didn’t mind them being drawn, but there was never any eagerness, or passion, or even excitement on his part, let along pushiness… some women would go away, some new ones would come along… he was sort of drifting, with his hold loose on absolutely everything, drifting on and on…
He was slovenly and careless in his everyday life, he seemed to be roaming a room as if it were forest, as if he didn’t and couldn’t possibly see any difference… you actually began to believe that he might spit on the floor, or go to a corner, open his pants… Well, he did strike you like that, can’t be helped. Alimov winced — “a regular pigsty…”, but put up with it, because if he needed somebody to have five classes in a day – it was Khalfin he would ask to manage it, and if somebody had to go to a collective farm to help them dig potatoes in rainy weather – again it would be Khalfin he’d have to turn to… But when at work… he was an entirely different person. Normally he would move slowly, absent-mindedly – when working he was swift, elegant, precise, chain-smoking Russian cigarettes…
Once I was struggling with my awkward hands – one was holding the forceps, the other the pipette… if only I had a third one!.. He had been watching my struggles for some time, then said:
“W-why c-clutch it s-so… L-loosen your hold. Sh-shoulder d-down. T-turn your wrist… Like th-th-this…”
“N-never. N-never s-struggle with a b-body.”
And smiled lightly looking not at me at all – into the air, into the corner.
It was in autumn, in the beginning of the academic year, we had that centrifugal machine delivered to us, an iron box a yard long, a yard and a half wide, and a yard high, no handles, no wheels, no nothing, and made of the good old cast iron… Everybody was overjoyed, we had had only two machines like that, for the whole of the department. Well, they delivered it and left, but the machine had to go to the fifth floor, and it was like a couple of grand pianos…
“The post-grads go look after the kids,” ordered Alim, “the educational activities must go on.”
Kids – he meant the students, as for the post-graduates doing their research under him, Alim always had hordes of them, and they all vanished in the twinkling of an eye naturally, as for us, our shoulders were broad enough to bear anything, and we started on this lug and heave project. For some reason I always find myself drafted for jobs like this – “give a hand…” – and I, like a fool I am, hurry to lend a shoulder. “The three bays team takes care of the front”, ordered Alim, though only one of us was really “bay” – Filia the lab assistant, a powerfully built young guy, slightly retarded and mostly silent, we flanked him, Khalfin, who had chestnut hair, and me, I am so pale a blond that when I began to turn gray I hardly noticed it… The driver and the door-keeper came running to carry the sides of the machine, beaconed in by the prospect of free access to that alcohol for lab uses in way of the award, and the back end was handled by Alim himself and Yefim Goldberg, another lab assistant, once a physicist, a middle aged dissident bearing the stigma of one who had applied for the exit visa and was refused it, he was classified unto death. Alim the gleaner was quick to salvage him, “we can use a lab-assistant, but the orders are he never goes near the kids…”
It turned out Khalfin and I were about the same height, we even looked a bit alike, both lean, with long sharp noses. Well, we did manage to bring the thing up eventually, and the deed was rewarded with a feast, alcohol galore, the atmosphere of unity, fake of course, an illusion, but a pleasant illusion. And I that day, it was the day before we were to get our scholarship money, hadn’t had any breakfast, and the voices turned booming, the faces grew distant, the space bloated to enormous size, and the skin on my face became numb, as if belonging to somebody else… Khalfin looked at me and said:
“L-let’s w-walk. H-had enough of th-them. All.”
At the end of the corridor there were doors opening to a small balcony that was hanging over the trees, farther on there was the slope descending to the river, over the river were some fields enveloped in gray mist… It was a nice place we lived in, and life, even if deficient in many things, was stable, quiet.
“Fold your arms across your chest,” said he. I was surprised, but did as I was told. He looked at me attentively – “you are left-handed.” Again he surprised me, he couldn’t possibly know I indeed was born left handed, I was taught to do everything the right-handed way when I was quite small, and taught successfully, when handling a rifle, or a spoon, I did everything the normal way, everything…
“Now interlace the fingers of your hands… like this…” and he showed me.
Why not… I thought he was talking to distract me, lest I sank into stupor, it does help sometimes, if you focus on something important, and the spirits meanwhile are evaporating, and you grow sober little by little. But he looked at my hands and became gloomy, and said nothing. We stayed on the balcony for some more time, the world seemed to be a kind of a sea, with the leafage of the trees, the road, the river, the fields fluttering slightly, as if all of this was painted on paper, or on some thin canvas…
Maybe it seemed the same to him too, because he turned to me and said:
“Has it never occurred to you that all of it is inside us, everything there is… Some trick space, with special geometry maybe, and you are like a condensed clot of the whole world, like its nerve end… Well, a bubble, an islet… an island but actually a part?..”
A bit too sophisticated for a couple of too very drunk men. And for me it was too sophisticated period…
We stayed there some more time, and then returned. Don’t know why I remembered about it now…
And one more incident. He had been watching me fret over the microscope, trying to find a better position, and said:
“Mind you are careful about this left eye of yours, you are going to need it…”
Twenty years later, when trying spectacles on, I remembered his words…
Once we were having a test, and he was in charge. There were lots of tests, there was a test to each tissue, every week we had a test or some kind of an examination, Alim took things seriously. Khalfin was bored, he was yawning, staring out of the window, and girls took advantage of it most shamelessly. He had listened to me answer for some time, than gave it up, that’s enough, he said. He sat opposite me, and was silent, well, I also kept silent sitting opposite him…
“Listen, you want to become a doctor, don’t you? Why?”
I shrugged my shoulders, and said that it was an interesting job. And you do help people… sometimes.
He said “yes, that I can understand ”. And then asked:
“But can one help oneself, can one render help to oneself, what do you think?..”
What kind of question it was I never even began to understand, but he didn’t seem to expect an answer. He stayed silent for some time, then said, well, ask the next guy to come in… or the next girl, how many of them are still there for me to see?..
It is trifles like this that come to mind, which is logical, I didn’t actually know him, and we had a talk maybe two, or three times, if you don’t count conversations on general topics, in the presence of the whole of the class, so there was practically nothing personal about our relationships, you may say…
And as for his room… Alim brought me to his room, said there was some mess I had to clean up, so here I am.
Having had a good look about the room I turned to the empty boxes that were heaped on the table, and started to read the legends.
It was horror that gripped me, horror. I knew Khalfin’s hand very well, his crooked letters that tended to overcrowd each other. On some boxes the legend was “left”, on others – “right”… on all of them, there were some other words written there too, but those I didn’t read, I was too stunned by my discovery – so it was his work, it was Sergeant’s work on the right and left hemispheres. I at once believed that it was so, and was at a loss what to do.
Then I came to my senses, and started to reason.
Since then I hate reason, that bastard can explain away and justify anything. It must have been some outdated samples, that had outlived their usefulness long ago, some long forgotten rejects… he was slovenly, wasn’t he?.. they were unwanted, unwanted, those preparations… after all, he did leave them behind, having been sacked, he did disappear… Faulty samples, failed experiments, extra copies?.. Suppose he was researching a new method using those, was trying something out on them… could be anything…
Yet I had that feeling – my conjectures were fallacious, fallacious, all of them…
After all, it was no concern of mine, I was asked to give a hand – I am giving a hand. Let them sort it out between themselves, I have my own road to follow.
So I resumed, and cleared the remaining shelves. The caustic was smoking, eating away the preparations, I still had some doubts, I did, yet I also had some explanations grown, and I was calm, I was taking off, opening, picking up, dumping in, dumping in… it went on for ten minutes, or more, I cannot tell exactly. I moved like an automaton, like a senseless creature, nothing stirred inside me, but a very, very feeble worry: suppose it is something important after all, what am I to do when I meet him, how am I to look him in the eye?..
Silly of me to think about it at all… Alim ought to know… it’s his responsibility… it is no concern of mine… it’s my last days at the University anyway… soon I will be off to start on my new job, I will meet new people… and there is that leave I am going to have before starting on my job – I will go to the Crimea, never mind I have little money… they say the air there is something special, it is the eternal land… much do I care about science… “right-left…” this concerns me in no way whatsoever… interesting? – yes, very interesting, but – I am saying goodbye to all this.
I wanted to cure people, that’s why I had been dissecting corpses, making preparations, staining them, as a good student should, I had to learn to do everything, it’s not in the capital that I am to hold my office, who knows what the situation might demand of me… I happened to walk into the midst of this incident by pure chance. I liked him, I liked Khalfin, our Sergeant, I did my military service too, after the War of course, and I had great respect for real combatants. Besides, all those books I’ve read about soldiers, I’ve read a lot by Remarque, and I’ve read “Arrowsmith”, about doctor Gottlieb, the microbiologist… I admired them… for me Sergeant was a mixture of a Remarque’s character and Dr Gottlieb, a stern and incorruptible hero…
Alim entered, looked at my handiwork, and said:
“Thanks, laddie, now some new kids will have something to make their scientific studies with. You may go.”
I returned to the hostel and forgot about the whole thing. I didn’t forget about it completely, the way I keep forgetting things now, but I shoved this into some far corner. I used to have lots of such corners at the time, unlike now, when my brain is like a dried up lemon.
7. The Island Again
Yet I do remember some things… Why this, but not that, why one, but not the other?.. How many nice, useful, joyful things chuted into this yawning chasm, chuted down there just like that!… I make an effort to remember – to drag them out, they crawl out reluctantly, your grip upon them loosens, you step aside – they are instantly gone, and the former pictures and moments come to take their place, independent from your efforts… strange, unwanted… they keep alive… no effort required… they are drifting before your eyes, drifting… A chance glance… a beggar of an old man… he looked… he said… what business had I with him?!… Yet the memory persists.
With this, the unchangeable, the constant, I have survived, this is my Island, my refuge and my punishment. I am alone on it, unwanted by all, understood by none… But everything here is mine.
That’s how the first book I have read returned to me – as a remembrance and a jeer. The Island turned out to be not at all where I once dreamt of finding it.
And as for this place here?.. – simple skills that help to survive in the crowd – no joy, no Sunday kind of swing… trivialities, and spare parts for old motors.
So what is it that is always with me?
It is hard… Some separate words, some gestures of people whom I came across without meaning to, by chance… Some sounds, whispers, smells… The taste in the mouth… Night, several words that were said… Touches, they are more reliable than eyesight… Acute pity, shame, pain… Compassion, unexpected, incomprehensible… Several live things: that birch-tree, that fence, those leaves, that moss growing near the road. The gaze of a dog looking at you, of a cat… All of this is near, and emerges readily, reveals itself by its own accord – before your eyes, in your ears, in your hands, at your fingertips, in your mouth, in your belly… it doesn’t persuade you, doesn’t defend itself, doesn’t dispute or reject anything – it just comes by and takes its place. All the rest immediately shrinks, withdraws.
And if at first it was possible to straddle both here and there, one day that changed. I disappeared, sailed off to my homeland, where the mystery is buried, the enigma, buried in an invisible and imperceptible manner, permeating the very air, embedded in the details… that is where my true image, my true form dwells, where the fountainhead of all the mistakes and achievements lies… was it possible to foresee, to avoid?.. Actually everything, everything has already happened there!.. and without filth, trash, unnecessary words and distressing blanks that dilute life, that’s why life is such a garbage heap, beauty and filth mashed together… the inevitable which I disappear from occasionally… to inevitably drop back into again.
Father, from whom I had it passed down to me, suffered more than I did, too forbidding was the reality surrounding him, he could afford going into retreat only on rare occasions. I can do it more often, even if at some small risk to myself, actually the damage is negligible, never found anything graver than a scratch or a bruise upon my person on return.
Maybe the world and the humans are changing for the better after all, and now are less inclined to treat those who ignore them cruelly?
Or it’s just that I have been having better luck, any mechanism would have some chinks and cracks in it.
Over Mother and Father’ bed there hang a single-leaf print, a woodcut, a woodcut engraving, an octagonal block of yellow with some pinkish tint wood, framed in a modest also wooden frame, the surface bearing a representation – once upon a time a Chinese craftsman had extricated from a mass of live matter a room that was very much like this one, a bed, a dying old man on the bed, three women, one is bending over the sick man, the other two are near the table, on the table there are some fruits in a big basket, adorned with leaves. Their faces, rising a quarter of an inch out of the yellow and pink wood, devoid of any meaningful expression, smiling the eternal smile, are turned to look at me.
“Again you fail to understand,” the old man on the bed is beginning to lose his patience. “That I have been there… it’s a story, a tale, everything was not like this at all!.. Some crank had conjured up a pack of lies, a hack-writer, a journalist, and made himself famous by it, he slapped up a heap of novels later, but only this story of his remained. He distorted the very essence, he sent me overseas to the other end of the world… That was not the point at all!..”
At that time I believed him to be raving… and later I myself started to rave, I turned out to have inherited this propensity from my Father. Not to live, but stay in the presence of life, inwardly always striving to be away!… All my life I have been ashamed of this ability of mine, as if it were a kind of a vice… and yet in my old age I returned to it, again I am striving to get to the very beginning… not to make amends, not to fix anything, that I don’t believe to be possible, it’s not that – just to live it through one more time. This bed, and the wall behind the bed, the live matter of the old boards with traces of paint, from beyond the layer of the worn-out raddle shows some green, which is even older, and beyond it, even deeper… — that’s the true time for you, the live strata!… — something gray, or yellowish peeks, it isn’t even possible to discern whether it is paint of the flesh of the board itself… And right next to it is the woodcut engraving, the eternity of life as captured with the sharp crooked knife.
I have seen a knife like that, an old Korean was wielding it, he was carving whistles from wood at the old market, and I stood near spellbound by his slow unconscious craftsmanship. He was cutting off, planning off, he was incising with a carefully and unerringly performed circular incision, and the twig would break with a thin and short wheezing sound that only a live creature can produce, one that has been breathing, and suddenly the throat is caught, and out comes this short stopping sound, a wheeze, a crunch… I heard something very much like that on the ocean shore, when standing behind a tree, watching the savages, the aborigines, land from their boats, jump ashore with their strong bare feet hitting the dark wet sand, that coarse, crumbly sand, and the heel, each time it made contact, struck the ground, forced its way in making an impression…a short wheezing sound… a broken twig, the knife… as if I knew it always…
From the woodcut engraving glance effortlessly and aimlessly moves to the kerosene lamp, that is now burning brightly, there was no other kind of lighting – no “real” light, they only told me tales about it, they were city folk, the War crushed them badly, but didn’t erase their memory – a thousand years ago it used to be like this: silently and instantly daylight would come to be from darkness, that was the electric light reigning overhead. And later this light indeed would switch on for me, would for a million times – that has come true, that has got fixed, it was working, it was shining, and yet invariably failing to be the thing. At the very core it was still that same kerosene glow-worm going, feeble, wavering… stinky, not just “lighting”, but a part of your life… it was richer, sterner, deeper – more alive, and only next came the other one, the dazzling and noiseless one, that produced never a whisper, nor a waif of smell…
And now the backward movement of the glance – to the semidarkness, the bed, the woodcut engraving, the Chinese…
“He was a self-taught man,” my father would say, “his name was Lin Biao, yes,” would he repeat knitting his brows musingly, “I believe it was Lin Biao… It’s important – to remember, nobody remembers him now… This man Lin Biao suffered the loss of his family, and for many years lived on a small Island… a Deserted Island… fishing, and there were goats there… on that Island… and then he made his mind, when quite an old man already, picked up his knife, which he had used for very different purposes, on many, many an occasion, and started to carve… And when he was carving his face registered nothing, that’s why I like the Chinese, they never go into the fussy premature raptures over their own creativity… and they have no fear, they are the big children of nature… Now you always hear people talking about “reason, reasoning”, but the ability to be aware of one’s knowledge and aptitude is not enough: it is the ability to see and feel that makes the foundation of everything, people forgot about it, the world became dry and paltry, turned into an inventory of things one is expected to possess, if you please! — and things themselves closed up, locked us out. But some of them are still alive…
The Island is hard to bear, what is going to remain of me, just think about it… There is a beast sitting inside me, a brute of a creature I myself have produced, it is eating me and smacking its lips, each morning through the wheezing inside my breast I can hear it smacking its lips… What is to remain, have you ever thought about it, what is to remain? Things, children? And where am I? Where have I been, generally speaking?.. What has grown, taken root, what is thriving on my Island?.. Nobody can understand it, all think it strange and absurd!… What for have I lived, what is to remain of a just one more state in the world, one more shred of life and fear? Nothing will remain, nowhere. The Island is sinking, sinking, going under the water…”
Those feverish ramblings became a part of me, and I… I continued to nurse my reveries about the quietude, the peace, about the place of my own…
He was going under, moments when he regained consciousness were sparse, and then all of a sudden one morning he was sprite and vigorous, sitting among the pillows, eating porridge…
That’s memory for you, that confounded traitor!.. he was half lying, he was practically a skeleton, the black hole of the empty mouth, the dry tongue… he could hardly swallow that porridge, after each spoon he would strain his neck like a wounded bird, looking at something before himself that only he could see. The lamp was smoking, the tiny flame eagerly grasped for and consumed air that was streaming fast in its haste to be drawn into the part of space that was confined within the light glass, over the mouth of the glass the air was fluttering and melting, it trembled, it twinkled, and the only stable thing about was that white-hot circle of glass, that brim, that enchanted passage through time.
“But what is to remain, what is it?”
I didn’t mean to cause him any anguish, but my need to know was great, and only he could help me, because things he understood were many, and he was like me. At that time I was trying to believe in God, a supernatural being that is supposed to have made us, and hold sway over us, determining the whole of our life, having reserved for us the free will though they say, but what will is there to talk about, and how anything may be free about that will, where can it possibly fit into our life, if you get born without your consent, and die contrary to your wishes?.. Faith that emerged from fear before life and death I deemed repulsive and humiliating. And I was prepared to agree that existence was meaningless, but for a flicker of a question that was stirring in my mind – what is it that remains after us, here, on this here earth, I was never much bothered about any other places. There where I am not integral, whole, complete with all my bones, my flesh, my fears, my sins, pangs of guilty conscious, anguish, pride… there could be no continuation for me, those abridged joys, rosy and fleshless, are false and uninteresting, they equal death.
And yet I was demanding something from my father, trying to get through that capsule of bitterness and fear, through all those “nothing will remain, nowhere” of his.
He wouldn’t answer for a long, long time, then he raised his eyes to look at me, and I saw the white of his eyes return from the depth, from the darkness they had sunk into… fill the eye-sockets, the angular holes in his skull over which his yellowish worn-out skin was stretched so very tightly… the color that Nature had borrowed from the canvases of the old Dutch, where white lead is engrained in the prime coating…
“To remain – are the leaves, that’s what!”
He shouted it out, and after a moment’s consideration, or after staying still for a moment, because it is highly unlikely that he needed to consider the matter at all, he uttered that which he had known for so long:
“And the grass. And the trunks of the trees too, though for them it is a much harder job, they are vulnerable.”
And now I repeat after him, with confidence and determination. To remains after me is also grass, it is. And the leaves, and the trunks of the trees. I would, on consideration, also add – the sky, because I know what it was like at two distinct moments… no, three moment, that nobody but me saw, nobody on earth noticed, but they were, have been… yet I remember them not with the profoundness and acuteness that would have made me cry it out without thinking, as the first and the sacred word. That which you utter after consideration is false or incidental, and doesn’t matter. Grass doesn’t consider, never a murmur, nor a shout from it, it is omnipresent, scorning neither crevices, nor scars of the earth, nor the pyramids, it is noiselessly conquering all, it is winning over, without struggle, always… So I, just like he did, will go into the grass, into the leaves, they live eternally, even if being burned, carried away by the wind, trampled over by rain into a mass of dirt – still they are indestructible.
And I will live – in them, and, maybe, in the tree trunks too, if I am to be that lucky. And a little of me will live in the animals that are always in haste to pass you by, you inspire them with fear, therefore I side with them. You inspire every creature on earth with fear. Some might find this flattering, yet it is just dirty.
Youth doesn’t win, but it knows how to shove a lot into some back corner. Father died, I forgot him, I was a student at the University, and came across those two people, Alim and Khalfin.
Nobody offered me any choices, I was used as a tool in the perpetration of an unforgivable deed.
But no, I did have a choice, I figured everything out rather soon, I should have said no then.
He would have destroyed everything on his own anyway, Alim would. And Khalfin would have died all the same.
Sure, I couldn’t have prevented it. But I shouldn’t have helped.
Nevertheless, it was Alim who died, and Khalfin – who remained. It is so and will go on like this till there is at least one man who knows about it.
I – am.
8. Khalfin’s Death, My Life
Several days later I dropped in to the faculty, a girl I knew worked as a lab assistant there. I came to say goodbye, I was departing the next day.
I had no premonitions, I was sure that Khalfin had departed, had disappeared, leaving behind some glassware he didn’t want any more… Maybe to start somewhere else anew, maybe to forget about his crazy idea altogether, nobody believed there was anything to it after all.
I came – and got caught in it, to be lost for good.
I ascended the stairs, the entrance door was half opened, I entered and proceeded down the long corridor, peeking into the doors, to the right, to the left. Not a soul about. I was surprised, it was the height of a working day, there ought to be hustle and bustle, young post-grade researchers feverishly preparing for the lessons, people bursting out of the doors, talking in loud voices… Yet it was quiet. Though I did discern some stirring and murmur coming from somewhere further on, and moved to the sound. I zeroed in on it and found myself at the very same room where Alim and I had done such a great cleaning job recently, a few people were crowding in the open door, they stood still and were silent, only now and then exchanging a word or two in whisper. They were not all that tall, those people in the doorway, so I came closer and looked over their heads inside.
There were two guys inside, wearing civil clothes but showing military bearing, and one more man whose bearing was not remarkable in any way, the two were watching the third one work. He was deftly and skillfully looking for fingerprints and recovering them, picking up with forceps certain objects from the table and putting them in plastic bags.
It would be hard to find a more banal cliché for describing it, yet that which I saw made a forever impression in my memory. There was some filter paper neatly spread over the table, it was a wide sheet of paper, it was hanging down the edges of the table. On the paper there stood a large mortar, with the pestle lying nearby, and next to it was an enormous syringe, for horses maybe, with the hypodermic needle the gorge of which was so large, I had actually never seen the like of such before. The paper and the floor around the table were bespattered with tiny red and violet specks, in the mortar, at the very bottom of it, was some small dark residue and there was a little of pinkish water over the residue. Next to the mortar lay a piece of gauze, folded several times over, the gauze was tainted with pink… And several large pieces of cotton, brownish-red of color, black in places, it was only after some time that I realized that it was no cotton, what cotton, why would he want any cotton!… they were large clots of congealed blood, lumps of curdled blood, what had he turned his blood into, it defied comprehension.
The girl I knew was in the crowd, she was having a quiet cry and blowing her nose, little by little, talking in whisper, she told me the whole story. Later I heard certain things from other people, I talked to the nurse and the woman who was the cleaner at the casualty ward, and, I guess, that added up to a more or less complete picture of what had happened, though, of course, I never learned anything about that which was of the utmost importance — about the despair and anguish of the man who had committed that deed, this will stay an enigma forever, as well as his passionate desire to die.
But I have had enough as it was, I had got it in full measure, to last me all my life.
So Alim kicked Khalfin out, the latter went loafing somewhere for a week, then returned to pick up his belongings, and saw what there was to be seen. Judging by his blood counts he had been drinking surprisingly little, so it couldn’t be blamed on liquor, it was the empty shelves that did it. The poisons were locked in the safe, the keys were to be found in the pocket of the working smock of Vera Pavlovna, the chief lab assistant, he knew about the keys, but didn’t want to make any trouble for her, and for some reason he wouldn’t settle on hanging himself, or jumping out of the window, why?.. Why did he choose something so very surpassing imagination and so horrible?.. I have spent my life working with an ambulance team, I saw a lot, but never have I come upon a case like this.
He decided to produce the poison himself, get the mercuric chloride from harmless calomel, an insoluble mercury compound. That’s very simple chemistry: add some potassium permanganate to calomel, pour in little water, grind the mixture into paste in mortar… He did everything with great care and precision, then filtered the stuff through the folded piece of gauze… He produced quite a supply – enough to do a regiment of soldiers, a batch of college students… and then inaptly, improvidently added too much water… Though it is a bit bizarre to talk about providence in such circumstances, isn’t it? At first he decided to drink it, but it made him vomit at once, and he grew anxious that that which stayed in might not be enough. And he found that large syringe, picked the needle with the largest gorge there was, that horrible stuff wouldn’t go through any thin needle, and tried to inject the solution intravenously, attempting it many times at many spots, but the blood congealed quickly, the veins wouldn’t take as much poison as he intended to inject. The first dose would have been enough, but he had to inject everything, to make sure they wouldn’t save him!… So fierce was his struggle against life, that he must have ceased to feel pain, and started to inject it into his arms, his legs, wherever he could reach… At last, having done everything he wanted to do, he just stayed sitting at the table, in the morning the janitor found him, he was still breathing.
I saw that casualty ward afterwards, everything was bespattered with blood there, even the window-panes… the floor, the walls were also dotted with the same small rusty colored specks, the nurse and the cleaning woman were washing them off and crying. They did their best to save him, trying blood transfusion, solutions, cutting out the locations and muscles where the poison lingered, but all was in vain, he was dying, and he was struggling desperately too – he didn’t want to be saved, didn’t want to live.
I left the casualty ward, it was in the same building the faculty was, only across a small yard. Next to the casualty ward there was a small room with its door opening to the corridor, a tiny lab for making some preparations right on the spot, close to the operation room, the casualty ward, and the morgue, which was a small building round the corner.
I started down the corridor, and suddenly there was a man in front of me, he went out of that small lab, and also headed towards the exit. He walked slowly, as if he had difficulty discerning the light. It was Alim. He heard my footsteps and turned round. His face was gray, his eyes were white, I realized that he was terribly, stone drunk. They used to keep a small storage of alcohol in this small lab, for preparations as well as for the night-time vigils, about a liter maybe, and, I’d reckon, he had drunk everything there was. Yet he recognized me, his eyes focused and stared me in the face. I didn’t know what to say to him, he spoke first.
“It’s not your fault, private soldier.”
He had called me that before, not once, he was aware of everything, he understood everything.
“It’s not your fault. He was off his rocker… A maniac… Some silly slides… A crazy idea, crazy and harmful… Different hemispheres indeed – ha! Three attempts to defend it – and failing all three times!…”
He stopped, it must have dawned upon him that all those words he was saying were off the mark, beside the point!
“I can’t bear the sight of you, go away!.. It just never happened, and that’s that. Anybody would say the cause was drinking heavily, that he did it under the influence of a bad hangover. And I can stand it. I got my orders, I sent my whole regiment to be slaughtered under fire, and what for?.. Now there is one more… But I can stand it… What an idiot, what a cretin…”
It was a mixture of anger, fear, and revulsion that I felt, what filth he had dragged me into!… I wasn’t thinking about Khalfin at all at that moment, it was only later that I started to think about him, and at first I was frightened, I was stunned, overwhelmed by all those details, I really don’t know how to name that feeling… After all I am a man of the Island, since childhood it was like a law for me that one must skirt contentious issues, “no boon gained, no damage done”, the primary rule is “not to harm”, and so on… And to be caught in a mess like this!… As the result my life went off the track. That shock made something shift inside me, and the projected path became different. Was it for the better, or for the worse, that’s besides the point…
It’s now that I have some words for it, then I had none, and a strong desire to strike him!…
At that moment his face twisted and froze, and I saw that he was crying, he was talking nonsense and crying, with real tears, laboriously and quietly. I walked around him, and went out of the building into the bright air, and left, and never met him again.
Nobody ever learned, nobody ever even bothered to enquire about those slides, people grieved some, gossiped some, a nice guy, a looser, himself screwed up his own life, heavy drinking was the ruin of many a man… and forgot about the whole incident. Alim with time became famous, he was elected a member of the Academy and all this kind of stuff, and actually I did come in contact with him one more time, though he couldn’t see me, and I was seeing him on the TV screen, and it was by chance too, yet, with life never failing to surprise us with most amazing coincidences, it happened to be exactly at the moment that was very, very trying for him, when once again he was to receive a blow, and so was I.
About thirty years passed, I had quitted the ambulance job, was working part time at the local clinic, and had that woman living with me at that time, a doctor… It was evening, I was sitting in the room reading, and she was in the kitchen, watching TV, and suddenly she called me, what an interesting programme, would you believe it, they made a discovery that the hemispheres of the brain are different, one lobe is for reason, the other for feelings!..
Something sank inside me, I dashed to the kitchen, and made it in time. Some young guy, a cheerful foreigner, charts, diagrams… several people sitting at a table, among them Alim – enormous, bloated, with his lips and eyelids turned out, I hardly recognized him, but it was he. Leaning forward, with his palm at his ear, he was listening, listening, listening…
And then it flickered off, but I had already got what it was about.
Several months later I read in a newspaper that he died. Of course he was ill, very ill, still I’d like to think that it was this incident that finished him off. It didn’t matter actually whether Khalfin was right or wrong in his theorizing, whether he was a genius, or wasn’t a genius… But Alim would never think along these lines, at first he firmly believed that to shoo away a fool and looser to make room for a better person was the right and proper thing, then, presumably, saw it as a horrible misunderstanding, a very unlucky coincidence… but it was only an idiot of a lad, his thesis trash, ravings and nonsense!.. And suddenly it turns out that it was no ravings, and no nonsense, but worth the Nobel Award, so that which happened was not just an accident, but a double murder.
But these are my conjectures, it might have been nothing like this at all, humans are in the habit of making mistakes, and horrible mistakes, and generally are much more likely to grow callous, than repent.
And I felt even more bitterness. Justice, if it ever wakes up at all, arrives too late, always too late.
I went away, and started on my job, and at first there was little change. No, I mean I was badly shocked, but I didn’t blame myself all that much, how could I possibly know, I was asked to give a hand – I obliged… If not me, somebody else would have done it. He would have ended up dead anyway, etc.
There are things that are hard to bear, though at first it seems that you have got over them, have had it like a whooping cough, and are recovering nicely. The internal injuries are hard to spot and the most dangerous, and something happened to me – I ceased to find my own company amusing, and I used to enjoy it, I used to find myself interesting. I used to anticipate life, and now each morning I had to make myself to live, I shambled to my day like to a very boring lesson. I was not in a mood for living any more, I lost those high spirits that made me eager to live, and gloomy were the days that started to drip by ever since. Before I used to dream about my working in the clinic: pondering over cases, making mental efforts, going into details, searching for causes… I tried to live up to my dreams, and failed – it was depressing, interminable, one could never be certain what brought what results … I rushed this way, that way in my confusion, lost sight of the goal, and I cannot go on without a goal, I am not that kind of a person.
All the good and all the bad come by chance, though of cause it also matters whether you catch on that chance. I was asked to replace temporarily a doctor in an ambulance team, I agreed… and stayed for good. I grasped for that job with both hands… to save, to save unconditionally… That story?.. No, I haven’t forgotten it, naturally, but wouldn’t remember about it for months, and thirty years flicked by like this. Never begging off, already the oldest in the team, irritated from constant lack of sleep, with my hair always tousled, day and night, hurrying to get now here, now there… I rendered help, saved, those whom I could save I saved… Could it be that I hoped to come upon a like case and save?.. I don’t remember, it’s unlikely… and naïve too. Though the best deeds come done from being naïve, when you believe that your cause is worth your life, the way Khalfin believed it. And as for the youthful old men, wise and cynical, I have seen enough of them… and what did they all come to?..
I foresee the complaints being lodged, why, you outline the whole of your life so sparingly, with a few strokes, as if it never were… Can’t be helped, my life did become a thing outlined sparingly, with very few strokes, since that day. No, I mean it was full of events, various events… but as compared to that incident they were all trifling and vanity of vanities, that’s how I felt about it, and what one is supposed to listen to but one’s feeling?.. And before, before that incident? – some curious reader might ask – why be so taciturn about that period? But what would you care about it, before that I was doing my military service, there was nothing out of the ordinary about it, it was just like with anybody else, other people have written about such things. And even before that – how about the hatching from the Cult of the Leader experiences? – why, where else could anybody of my generation hatch from, may I ask, and I deem discussions on slavery versus freedom tedious, these palavers give me headaches. Of the utmost importance is not that which you remember and know, knowing how to talk one’s head off is a common skill — of the utmost importance is what it is that you live by, and there is something specially strange about it: as it turns out, talks are talks, rules are rules, but life goes on on its own, and only life shows what you have hatched into in the long run. Conversations, discussions, shared bedrooms and kitchens… but later each goes to live through that which is destined for him to live by himself, and this is the main thing, the loneliness of any single creature, of a cat, or a flower, or a man… What else is there to talk about outside this insurmountable loneliness?..
But back to my narration… The emergency calls, this saving business, left little room for life as it is, it was a lot like running down a narrow corridor… What next? Once we had a call, cardiac massage, and I was alone, and it would overstrain even a young man… The running came cut short, it must have been a weird sight – a young robust guy prostrate on the floor, and next to him is sprawled senseless a lanky lean old man with a shaggy beard… They brought the young one about within an hour, and I came to only in the morning. I was no more a man of considerable physical strength, I got myself transferred to the local clinic, to the surgery at the outpatients’ department, which meant small injuries, stitches, cuts – trifles, I invented a couple of things, nothing close to Khalfin’s level, yet they were useful, practical things… Then it started getting foggier, foggier, I kept forgetting, forgetting… the fog crawled up to the very yesterday… At first I welcomed it, let that story fade away at last!.. Fat chance!.. Anything would fade away but it. Wouldn’t work on it.
At last I indeed am alone, like my youthful follies suggested… I started to go back, further and further back, to Father, to our conversations, to my Island… But even there it was one and the same thing happening over and over again, the road, the ravine, the Anatomical theater, Khalfin in the semidarkness telling us about what a strange thing science is… And yet it is the only place that attracts, that draws me, I return there, clamber over those days, expecting some clarity, some, well, fulfillment to come… that one day the whole of the picture will be revealed to me, the whole of the meaning…
It so happened that all my life I spent saving, saving… then I came to my senses practically in the dark of the nightfall… at the sunset of my declining years, to word it flowerily, you do like it worded flowerily, don’t you?… and now I see – that is what has to be saved!…
Though it is too late to save it.
But no, there is some sense in it – at least to say… about things, faces, beasts, whom nobody but you know about.
Sergeant, Andrey, there is nobody to say it for you. And it shouldn’t be like this.