Eugene Dubnov

HERE IS THE ASPHALT PAVEMENT, DRY AS EYES

1.

Here is the asphalt pavement, dry as eyes, on a sunny day; and here is fresh snow on another sunny day.

In the little room you had your bath, in the tub on the table; mother was scolding father for something or other — not heating the water long enough, or generally not being quick on his feet.

If, returning from school, you didn't turn right towards home but instead continued straight on, you soon came to the railway track — replete with fascinating, diverse little stones, sun-drenched, to collect and collect.

And from the shed roof in the yard it was good to jump into the snow.

(There is the freshly fallen snow and the dark evergreen needles, green foliage and fresh grass. There is a wet asphalt pavement; there a dry cobbled one. The whiteness of snow makes it melt more slowly — to the benefit of plants.)

In new felt boots it is so easy and gentle to run in the streets in the evening; you tell your parents you're just going for a stroll not far from home, and actually run round almost the whole neighbourhood. The pavement sparkles, the ice smells fresh, the sky is black with stars like frost. Ring all the front doorbells and dash away — you can't breathe with all the daring and the fear: what if they had been watching since the night before? What if they catch you before there's time to make it home, they'll catch up or at least notice which block you ran into, and then start asking questions.

(Here is white paper, bright in the lamplight; and here is the sky, all overcast. Here is a street in the midday sun. Here is the wall of a room, bathed in sunlight; and here is its floor, by candlelight. Here is a table in shadowy circles from the lampshade. Above, the sky and its white clouds.)

In the yard across the street a blackcurrant bush grew; a raspberry bush; and a gooseberry bush, each berry like a green ball in a white net; you would hide there, your heart stopping whenever anyone approached.

And in the corner of your own yard there grew an enormous tree, with a comfortable branch in the middle that you could climb on to with a book and some apples, now and again throwing the cores at passers-by on the path between the yard and the building site; they would look in every direction but see nothing.

And in the yard next door, over the fence (the same fence from which, if you stood on the crossbar and jumped as high as you could, you could see a pale blue strip of sea, almost merging into the light blue of the sky), there grew an apple tree. Stretching across the roof it was possible to reach the branches, pull them towards you and pick the apples — one time you and a friend even fixed up a plank with a nail, to try and get the less reachable ones.

In the evening, supplied with a crusty end-of-loaf, you climb over fences into strange yards you have never been in before, full of the thrill of discovery. Everything is new — the fence posts, the size of the yard, the block — but keep going; and at last, having eaten the knob of bread and decided that's enough and it's time to get back out into the wider world, with light from the lamp-posts, with people and cars, suddenly you find yourself in an almost unfamiliar street far away from home, with no idea how you got here just by crossing a few back yards.

The cellar was frightening, rats were hiding there and in the dark depths behind the wooden barrier someone was breathing, lying in wait and well concealed, biding his time; you had to run past it quickly with bated breath, towards the safety of the light at the exit. The bigger and brighter that light became, the greater the hope of deliverance.

(A white street, narrow, with buildings dark against the sun and the sky; arches, a little arch leading to a dingy mews; pathways through a park, with a bright foreground or background. And here, already, the theatre foyer in full lamplight, and the auditorium during the interval, and the auditorium during the performance. Here the earth's surface under a full moon on a white night.)

Past the Lembitu, into the park, around Kalinin's monument — and all of a sudden the railway lines and the station itself, and the tiny stones along and between the rails!

Behind the alleyway was a mysterious building site, a high building with boards instead of steps. You would go up to the very top, terrified by the height and the empty landings; rough, unfinished rooms strewn with stones, no walls between, wires sticking out here and there. Somewhere not far from the site you fell off a pile of logs, spent a week in bed, then began to climb once more and investigate the half-constructed building.

But the real joy was to roll down the grassy slope in the “park of parks” on Toompea Hill, just below the Castle and the High Hermann Tower!

The Officers' Park, on the other hand, had officers, women and a machine to try your strength — and was another great pleasure.

And Pirita is exposed and cold — the wind, the chill blue sea and sand, the cold stone of the monument reaching over Kadriorg Park — stern, terrifying, a woman holding a cross.

That was in summer, but on a fairytale winter evening when the frost began to bite and the streets emptied, how free you were to shoot around on your Finnish sleigh; there was the joy of the skating rink, falling and getting up and falling again; and all around were ice and snow, snow and ice.

And there was the bliss of walking through snowdrifts on the way back from school, crossing the street deliberately to where they were crisp and untouched, trying to step through the deepest ones — the deeper you sank in, the happier you were. You would come home soaking and there, waiting for you, was Pioneers' Pravda with a new instalment of children's adventures in outer space!

2.

Trees, pigeons, fountains, benches, flowers — like stars in a film, now in colour, now in black and white.

And after that, snowflakes whirled around in the grey air. A solitary passer-by was walking along the river bank, his hands in his pockets.

The sounds that inhabited Rupniecibas street were quite different from those of Graniidi, vowels especially. Further down past the Navy School, over the tramlines, riding a bicycle as if on wings along the embankment between one stairway to the water's edge and another. Gothic spires and trees. By the flowing waters. Round turrets, and over them, clouds; the rustling of light and shadow; little streets, blind alleys, tiny courtyards paved with cobbles; flanking them, tinned roofs and slated, straight-sided areas of light on pockmarked walls; always a strip of sky and clouds visible overhead.

(Light is essential here, or how is one to see an object with even a small, let alone large, continuity of perspective; to see the earth's surface at the twilight hour?)

The tall, narrow, arching windows of the dome, the ivy creeping up under their curves; the light of the columns. A horse is drawing a cart along the cobbled street with its narrow pavement; the stone kerb is broken away in places so that now and again the wheels mount the pavement, then off again. Everywhere there are windows with blinds and semicircular gates and little poles by the entrance under the arch.

And this arch, covered in light and shade and the work of phantom scribes, leads from the road to the park, both warm and cool, holding both lake and ice rink, both grass with foliage and icy hills.

In winter the windows were covered in frost, the panes trembled, shivered, shook and rattled, and everywhere there would be dense, drifting snow. If you opened the window only half way and for a fraction of a second, a freezing blast of air thick with snowflakes hit your face.

And over there is the square, its cobbles glistening. It is growing dark, the windows are lighting up. Then the ancient multi-faceted lanterns; their wrought-iron grating looks so fine with the bare branches of winter, the greenery of the summer months.

It is sunny, merry, children are walking past the drifts. A frosty day in the boulevard, shadows cast by the trees almost as black and sharp as the trees themselves or the iron park fence. By the Drama Theatre the snow is deep, it lies on the shoulders of the Caryatids, they are cold.

(Some details are in the shadow, some in the sun; the greater the contrast, the more brightness makes the details stand out from each other. Under a spotlight, patches of sunlight emerge on the object; when lit from one side, sharp shadows appear.)

The Naiads bear on their heads a fountain, shaped like a conch. Jasmine is blossoming on the Bastion Mound, its flowers rising everywhere above ruined walls. The scent is all-pervasive and follows you everywhere.

And further on, up the wide staircase of the Museum with all its naked nymphs — Cupid and Lenin greet you in the vestibule!

And here she is — Winter: the almost horizontal boles are exactly half white; the vertical ones (trees and lamp-posts) a third or only lightly powdered; the tiniest twigs alone, too weak to bear any weight, are clear of snow. You are shivering. Straight ahead you see the familiar slope and the dome — and the benches between, when no one was around and the trees crackled. There were circular milky lanterns and hillocks showing ski tracks.

A winter evening in the park, frozen snow on the bench, the bare silhouettes of deciduous trees, the young spruces and pines, all in the chilly mist.

The street lamps are bright, silence is everywhere, the trees cast shadows, the footprints of people, dogs and birds have a frosty coating.

Black water along the edges of the path, pools among the trees; the road is glistening, so is the pavement by the cinema entrance.

You used to climb the long, shallow steps up to the sculpture in the fountain (whose sculpture, why was it there?). How many times you leaned against the fence by this oak tree!

In autumn the trees' shadows are broken up, crossed by watery tracks, pools and wet leaves; leaves are scattered everywhere, like scraps of paper, pieces of rough draft.

So many trees along the pavement that even at noon in midsummer the whole street is in shadow. And now, girls in white pinafores and red ties are carrying their little two-lock school bags below the hanging traffic lights; it's a warm summer's day, school windows are open, pupils throng the street but some are standing by the school wall — it seems to be the last school break. At the street corner, a tree leans like the Tower of Pisa, a pole both helps it grow straight and carries electric wires.

Past the market with its horrible, ugly pavilions you went by tram to a date with your first and unrepeatable love.

3.

What do you feel now?

I am listening to music.

What are you thinking of?

Today I saw a singing tree. It was full of birds. I put my head in among the leaves, and the birds started to hop between the twigs and branches. I recalled how I would sometimes wake up to the dawn chorus and then bare my flesh to the raindrops and nibble at bitter pine needles.

And the sky — have you ever been in the sky?

I have often dreamt of flying. It would usually start with my running up through the meadow, manoeuvring past the horses, and just before the river I would take wing. I would fly over bridges, rise higher so as not to brush the hillsides, soar over the sea, dip towards the valley and gain height once more as the woods approached.

Who are you and what is your name?

I am a speaking soul, a mortal man.

Translated from the Russian by Justin Lumley with the author
Published: Denver Quarterly 40-3