Eugene Dubnov

THE BRIDGE

MY FINNISH SLEIGH

THE FUSIFORM FACE AREA

 

 



                                                       THE BRIDGE
I.

It was a little mouse that was in the picture, but I don't really like mice all that much, and that's why the thing that came out was a story about the bridge.

What kind of a bridge was it?

It was a long bridge across the sea.

In the morning boys would walk over it to play in the sand on the shore.

There were three of them, and they were friends.

They crossed the bridge every morning and then would play in the sand the whole day long.

It was white and crumbly, the sand - white and crumbly like what? - like sugar - and it felt pleasant to touch it and to scrabble in it with one's fingers.

Under this sand was another kind of sand, damp and brown, and to get down to it you had to dig out a lot of white sand first.

And near the water itself there was no white sand at all, only brown, and tall castles could be made from it, but the water would attack them.

And if you took it away - the sand - to where the waves couldn't reach, the castles wouldn't turn out so well, because all the water would have drained out of it, and then you couldn't get such high sand-dripped spires on the top of the tower.

But if you were to build at the edge of the sea, you could surround the castle with fortifications: with a wall and even a moat.

Most of the waves didn't get as far as the moat, but even if one wave out of eighteen managed to splash into it, the wall would begin to subside, and the moat would become filled with water and sand and soon look as smooth as all the other places close to the water.

Then one more wave would splash over the sunken wall - and the wall, as they say, met the same fate as the moat.

After that the castle itself began to go under, and the towers and the turrets would slide down as if they were on sledges.

(And then, lifting your face, you would notice that the wind was coming nearer and that the light was waning and the sea changing its colour and that the bridge was disappearing into the mist of sea-spray.)

And once, playing and digging in the sand, the boys came across something hard.

They began to dig deeper, but their fingernails got broken, and they couldn't dig any more.

Then they pushed the sand back into the hole and waited till the evening, so that nobody would find this place by accident, and went home across the bridge.

Why did they go home?

To get shovels and spades.

Then, at night, when the moon was full, they returned to the shore over the bridge and set to work together and uncovered first the long boards and then the whole very big wooden chest itself.

What was in this very big wooden chest?

Precious amber: the whole chest was packed full with precious amber. And then from that amber they built themselves a house, and in this house all three of them lived together.

II.

The sea around all the 1500 islands off the coast is calm, and you can stand at the very end of the promontory of Saaretirp (according to legend, the unfinished bridge between the islands of Hiiumaa and Saaremaa) and see how it fades into the smooth silver-grey surface of the Baltic.

But soon a stormy wind is raised which re-awakens the waves, and breakers begin to toss themselves and wash over the sand.

Now the waves roar, the adverse, baffling sea wind rushes inland, covering the causeway which leads to Saaremaa with surge, battering with whiplashes of water the grass-grown and the pebbly beaches of Hiiumaa and Muhu and the thick forests of the Kopu peninsula, and all the coastal dunes, boulders and juniper bushes. The strong gale advances on ports, fishing villages and sea-gates, rushing from the Gulf of Tallinn into the mouth of the Pirita River, reaching over the highway into Kadriorg Park and drenching the memorial to a sunken ship. The storm sweeps the bays and harbours of the mainland, prevails over the islands along the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland and rages through the straits between the Baltic and the North Sea. The lighthouses agitatedly twinkling around the shore vanish in the thick fog, and the precipitous sea submerges the apparent time and shatters the time-scale of memory.

III.

A bridge, a narrow bridge stretches across the sea which is full of song like the cavity of the mouth; a very narrow bridge extends above the multitude of waves where the restless fulmar flickers like the spirit over the turbulent surface.

The towering shape looms larger and larger, curved and multi-coloured. It seems slowly to rotate, at times reaching east towards St Petersburg, at others north-west towards Sweden, and at others still, south-west towards Denmark.

And now, at this very moment, a moment of exceptional visibility, we can clearly see how it is slowly drawn, like the wheels of a plane, into the vault of the sky.

 

Translated from the Russian by Chris Newman and John Heath-Stubbs, with the author

 

Published in full in:
New Contrast 145,
part of the story appeared in
Chicago Review 47-2




 
 
                                                       MY FINNISH SLEIGH


 
                                                     He who's travelled once to Tallinn,
                                                     Kept his eyes alert and open,
                                                     Must have seen that funeral tumulus
                                                     Where descendants of our forebears
                                                     Lovely buildings have erected,
                                                     Many streets and noble towers:
                                                     And this place is now called Toompea -
                                                      Great domed house of God in Tallinn.
 
Toompea Hill was erected by the sorrowing Linda over the grave of her husband Kalev, the freedom-loving Estonian epic hero, and built of huge slabs of stone. One stone tumbled out of her hands; the widow wept bitterly, and from her many tears a lake was formed called Julemiste. This lake, clear as a tear, supplies water to the whole city.
                                                                               Brother, if by chance you travel
                                                           To the far-famed town of Tallinn,
                                                            You will see as you drive closer
                                                            To the broad commodious highway
                                                             Julemiste's waters gleaming -
                                                             Lake of a sad widow's tears.
 
"The air of the city makes each man a free man," as a fourteen - century Estonian peasant might have said, shaking the dust of his lord's estate off his feet.
 
From the 48-meter-high summit of Toompea, a view opens up that you are not likely to forget. In one direction you can see the light-blue of the Gulf of Tallinn, in the other - the nobly-proportioned city itself with its sharp-pointed spires, the Gothic gables and red-tiled roofs of its medieval houses, and all the unicorns, winged dragons and cockerels of its famous weather-vanes. If you should strain your eyes, you might make out the fifteen-century clock and the bell whose inscription reads: "I strike the hour truly for the maidservant and the manservant, for the mistress and the master. Nobody can reproach me for that."
 
The way the wind whistles in your ears when you run from Toompea Hill down the narrow path, the way you are hurled forwards, helter-skelter, running for another ten yards or so in the street itself!
And Linda is here yet again: under the old lime-trees mournfully inclining her head, she is sitting on an artificial rock on the slopes of Toompea Hill. These slopes are in fact called Linda Hill, and they are part of Hirve Park where it is so enjoyable to lie down on the grass and roll over and over, on and on, feeling yourself free.
However, should you descend the opposite, northern slope of Toompea Hill, down Patkuli Steps and into the vast Toom Park, skirting the strip of water which was formerly a castle moat - should you do this and turn into Vaksali Street, passing the Baltic Railway Station and continuing along Vana Kalamaya Street where you can already smell the sea - you will at length come to our block of flats.
Here once a week Aasta used to scream, so loudly that I was sure she could be heard on the other side of the Gulf, as far away as Finland.
"Why does Aasta scream like that?" I would ask Mother.
"She drinks, and her father beats her."
How do you mean `she drinks'?"
"Do you remember how one evening, when Father and I had had guests for dinner, we caught you afterwards pouring the dregs from all the wine-glasses into one and drinking them up?"
"Yes, and I still don't understand why you scolded me!"
"Well, Aasta does things like that all the time - but a lot more."
"But it must be all right - it's sweet wine, it tastes nice!"
"Not if you make a habit of it!"
Occasionally I would catch sight of Aasta in the yard. She was big and pudgy in appearance and always seemed frightened. She looked twice as large as her father, and I found it puzzling that it was he who beat her and not the other way round.
"Mother," I would ask, "why does Aasta let her father beat her without beating him back - she's twice his size!"
"Because she knows she's in the wrong," Mother would answer, "and anyway one shouldn't beat up one's parents - but I'm not saying he isn't a brute!"
I liked that word applied to Aasta'a father and henceforth referred to him only by this appellation. "I saw the brute in the dairy shop," I would casually mention to my pal, "he was buying 200 grams of butter and a bottle of milk." And once I ran excitedly home and blurted from the threshold to both my parents: "The brute's just given three sneezes one after another in the yard - I hope he dies soon, and then Aasta will become free, and she won't drink and won't scream!"
Once on a winter evening, as I was pushing off on my old Finnish sleigh, an ambulance drew up and two men got out. A few minutes later they led Aasta out and took her into the ambulance. I followed them for a while on my sleigh but couldn't keep up with them.
The history of sleigh in Estonia has been thoroughly researched by Dr Eduard Kreuzwald, senior lecturer in ethnography at the University of Tartu. In his monograph entitled Sleigh Transport Among the Estonians he traces the development of the sleigh and describes the type currently prevalent in mainland Estonia. This type, he says, consists of two curved runners and several pairs of joggled wedges connected together. Along the runners there are beams fastened to the wedges, while the first pair of wedges is connected to the curved ends of the runners by means of lengthwise binds (for which there is no equivalent term in any language I know and which are called sebavits in Estonian).
My sleigh was the type known as a Finnish sleigh (soome saan) which is a light passenger sleigh. It consists of a high seat with latticed rails and back, mounted on very long runners. Initially it, too, like all the other kinds, must have been horse-drawn, but nowadays all it can be used for - at least in the city - is to give your friends a ride. And it works like this. You put your friend in the seat and position yourself directly behind. Having placed one foot on one runner, you begin to push off with the other along the iced-over road, until the frosty wind sings in your ears and your friend starts to beg you to slow down. You can also drive it on your own, in which case you can go even faster and there's no one to object.
Although there was a bar at the Tallinn Hotel where he was staying, Eduard Kreuzwald turned northwards up the Gagarin Boulevard which was bordered on the east by the railway line and on the west by Toom Park. Soon he came to the Baltic Railway Station with its Tallinn-Balti bar. It was Sunday afternoon, and the bar at his own hotel would have been  packed with colleagues who like himself had come from all parts of the country - and indeed all over the world - to the conference on Estonian ethnography organised by the University of Tallinn. A natural loner, Eduard didn't feel like socialising with them. He had learned loneliness after both his parents had died in a car crash. Then, at the age of twelve, he took up speed-skating, one of the loveliest sports there is, and went on to gain the first prize in the All-Tartu-Schools Competition on leaving school when he was eighteen. Another reason why he decided to escape from his colleagues was that he wanted to think through his next research project which was not in ethnography but philology. The main centre of his interest lay in the creative process whereby a century ago his distant kinsman Friedrich Kreuzwald had transformed the old Estonian lays into the Kalevipoeg, the great Estonian epic poem. Being only forty, still quite young for a scholar, Eduard felt like exploring new horizons.
As he entered the bar, he noticed a woman sitting on a high stool and muttering something under her breath. What she was muttering had some kind of rhythm and sounded as if it could be verse. She seemed to be in her late thirties and had the kind of cold north Baltic looks he liked: flaxen blond hair, fair skin, Chine-blue eyes, and an almost snub nose. But both her face and her body were all puffy, and she was obviously the worse for drink.
The barman frowned and said something to her disapprovingly. She ignored him and went on with her rhythmic mutterings. Intrigued, Eduard came up and sat on the stool nearest to her. He ordered a small whiskey and began to listen closely to what the woman was saying.
It turned out that she was indeed speaking verses under her breath:
 
              Headlong from afar a wind gust
              Blows and brings the waves' wild clamour,
              Wakens rustling in the forest...
 
Eduard raised his eye-brows. He hesitated for a moment and then said, not out loud but loud enough for the woman to hear:
 
              Like a blizzard, blows the wind gust,
              Makes the tree-tops sing in spinneys,
              Blows between the branches, howling,
              Sets the summer leaves a-tremble...
 
Abruptly he stopped and took a sip from his whiskey.
Without as much as glancing at him, the woman recited the next lines:
 
              Tells the birch tree it must rustle
              And commands the timid aspen
              All unnoticed it must quiver.
 
In point of fact, Aasta - for it was she - had just run away from the hospital.
And that's where I come in, with my old Finnish sleigh. For Eduard who must have fallen in love with her at first sight had devised a stratagem for curing her in which I and my sleigh were destined to play a crucial role.
Later that very Sunday on my way downstairs to the cellar, as I was taking the keys to our section of it out of my pocket to get the sleigh, I met a stranger coming up. He was wearing a training suit and carrying a rucksack.
"Are you the boy with the old Finnish sleigh?"
"Yes," I answered proudly. I liked this description of myself.
"Are your parents at home? Can you take me to them?"
"It's flat six, one floor up," I said, "they're both of them in."
And less than two minutes later, just as I was trying to get the long sleigh runners through the doorway, my older brother came careering, all out of breath.
"Put it back," he said, "and come upstairs - you're wanted there."
"Here he is," my father said to the stranger, indicating myself, "ask him, it's his sleigh and his winter break from school when he takes it out every day - and so it's up to him."
Well, I didn't have much choice, did I? I agreed, on condition that I should have half the credit for Aasta's rehabilitation and that not only she but the brute too should know about the part I had played in it.
"He means Aasta's father," my brother giggled, noticing the stranger's puzzled look.
And so the stranger opened his rucksack, took out a big map of the city, and all five of us sat down at the table to charter routes for the sleigh whereby we could accomplish Aasta's rehabilitation.
An hour later he led her out of the block of flats next door. She was all muffled up and furry in an overcoat and looked five times her size which was, as I have already mentioned, large enough anyway. They were followed by the brute who was shouting in protest.
The conference on ethnography lasted for another ten days - as long in fact as the rest of my winter break. Eduard attended some of the morning sessions, but every day, no later than two o'clock and sometimes as early as mid-day, he would come, borrow my sleigh and lead out the muffled Aasta. Aasta's pudginess began gradually to disappear, and more and more she came to look like an Estonian frost queen getting into her coach to travel to her far-off palace.
In the bitter cold, choosing back streets and side alleys, and even main roads with little or no traffic on them, Eduard would drive Aasta about till evening, till my bed-time. I would be eagerly waiting for the sound of the door-bell and then go out of the warm flat, and Eduard and I - he redolent of frost - together would put the sleigh back in the cellar.
One day he would take her as far west as the Gulf of Kopli, and the next drive her east towards Pirita up to the Passenger Port, and then south-west, almost to the Racecourse, skirting the city centre the while, and yet another day, towards dusk, he risked the city centre itself and took her as far south-east as the famous Kalev Confectionary and the beginning of the Tartu Highway.
On one of these trips he stopped by the Baltic Railway Station to buy two tickets to Tartu for the morning after the end of the conference. On the last evening he solemnly returned my property to me and announced, in my parents' presence, that I indeed had a half-share in Aasta's restoration.
Next morning he waited for her at the Monument - I mean the one erected in memory of the armed uprising of the Estonian proletariat on December, 1, 1924 - just across the road from the railway station - but she never turned up. He kept phoning her flat but there was no reply. Consequently he missed the train, and the tickets were wasted.
He took a taxi to her home, and there an amazing sight met his eyes. Aasta was sitting in a corner with a stupefied air, murmuring under her breath yet another passage from the Kalevipoeg:
 
              Tempest-mother raised her wing -
              And the storm-winds broke the forest,
              Forced tall billows to roll onward
              On the wide expanse of ocean.
 
However absurdly inappropriate these verses were to the whole situation, Eduard found himself moved. Hearing her pronounce the words with the northern vowels of her Tallinn accent, he could not but fall in love with her all over again - he himself came from the Highlands to the south-east, on the border with Latvia, and his vowel sounds were different.
The brute meanwhile was pacing up and down the room making odd noises as he did so. Upon his seeing Eduard, these noises became louder and coalesced into words.
"She knows she can't leave her old father alone, especially after her mother had deserted him - by dying. She knows her mother's last wish was we should forever be together. And I can always phone the hospital: they'd come and fetch her straightaway - treatment's compulsory! They've already called - and I told them she was better - but I can easily change that!"
And I came into the picture for the last time.
There was a ring at the door, and Eduard asked my parents' permission to "borrow" me, as he put it, for a couple of hours. He took me to Aasta's flat where she appeared just to have completed her packing, and led me into the bedroom. There on the bed the brute was lying, all trussed up and gagged. He was quite unable to move anything, except his rolling eyes.
"Wait until I phone you," Eduard said to me, "the phone is over there on the bed-side table - and when I do so, you will untie the brute."
The road from Tallinn to Tartu, sometimes called the intellectual capital of Estonia, is very beautiful. It is breathtakingly so in the summer when the plains and highlands, the rolling hills and the sheltered valleys are either tenderly green or brilliantly emerald. It is no less lovely in the winter when the ancient forts, ruined castles and manor houses are covered in snow and all the pine forests assume the hoary dignity of old age. At last, when you catch sight of the Emajogi River and next to it of the lake in the University Botanic Gardens, you know you have arrived at Tartu.
 
              All the mountain ash has wafted
              Down to me, and the wild cherry
              Whispered, and the mighty oak trunk
              Told me in its knotty dialect -
              Everything that I have treasured
              In my heart throughout my lifetime -
              All this I with love have woven
              In the golden web of language.
 
Translated from the Russian by John Heath-Stubbs with the author 
 
Published in full in 
Stand Magazine 3(2) & 3(3)




                                                       THE FUSIFORM FACE AREA


I bumped into Vishnyakov at our faculty entrance. I was leaving calmly with a sense of self-respect, but he was hurrying in with jerky, nervous movements.

"Hello there," I said. "Where are you off to in such a hurry? Got a date?"

Vishnyakov halted for a moment, gave me a puzzled look and started pulling the door towards himself; it opened inwards. When he'd finally mastered the door's workings - he'd been here for three years - and entered triumphantly he turned, gave me a now completely mad look and disappeared up the staircase.

What's up with him? I wondered. Is he still sulking about yesterday and doesn't want to know me?

Okay, so I sent him to get my shoes repaired. But didn't I also get him a woman? Didn't I make possible his first sexual experience? Without me he'd have stayed clueless for the rest of his life. I phoned Felix for him, explained the situation, arranged a sensitive, understanding call girl for a twenty-year-old virgin. For a service like that I was entitled to do more than just send him to the shoe repairer: I could demand from my beneficiary that he do all my shopping, posting, visits to the dry cleaner, the pawnshop and so on. I could even have demanded money, a commission so to speak; but I didn't take a kopeck, and I gave him money to get the shoes fixed.

He got the repairs done all right, went there twice, once to hand in and once again in the evening to collect. He didn't seem to mind. It wasn't far to walk. Who knows though, maybe he gave the matter some thought and then took offence. But at what? Did I ask anything more in return for losing him his virginity? Though I could have, God knows!

I almost shed a tear on account of my noble actions. As for Vishnyakov, if he'd taken offence for no reason then whose fault was that?

But my mood was, if not spoilt, then considerably dampened. One upset after another, I thought. Everything's fine and then some fellow full of hang-ups and warped notions of morality will come and spit in your soul, just like that.


'Not bad on the whole,' was Professor Schwarzband's verdict on my first draft term paper, The activity of the higher nerve centers during the processes of memorizing and recognition and their mechanisms in the cortex and subcortex structures. She was a world expert on memory. I'd always envied her looks - a large, strong face with a prominent chin and a shock of graying hair over a wide brow that to me, for some reason, had always looked furrowed in deep thought. 'Two points. One very tiny, about organizing your text. And another, also small but a tad bigger, about content. You define memorizing at the beginning, quite correctly. But what is recognition?'

'I gave the definition on page three, didn't I? Following Smirnov of course, but changing him slightly,' I replied, rather peeked, and began reciting from memory. "Recognition is an awareness that what is being perceived has been perceived before. It is included in new perception as part of the former within the repeated, endowing it with a special character. In a number of respects it is analogous to recreating, but is less demanding..."' 'Quite so,' interjected Schwarzband, 'but why on page three? The definitions must be given together, at the beginning, or there'll be confusion. But that's easily amended. My second criticism will need a little more effort. You haven't worked through properly the theme of organic damage to the brain and comparing its influence on involuntary recreating and retaining on the one hand, and on memorizing and recognizing on the other. Study Mikheev on the subject. But overall, I congratulate you. For a first draft it's very good indeed.'


I would have liked, of course, to stop Vishnyakov for just a few seconds and boast to him - Schwarzband was famously mean with her praise - but if he was going to be the way he was, then too bad. Instead I'd share my elation with Valya. She lived in Razin Street, a fifteen-minute walk across Alexander Gardens and Red Square.

'All I have to do is move recognition and write more about the influence on it of cortex and subcortex organic damage.' I shocked Valya deliberately, knowing full well she’d understand not a jot in this jargon and I'd then explain things on her own level.

'Who are you and what do you want?' She pretended to speak sharply, putting on quite a successful show of anger.

All right, if you want to play games then let's play. I like fun too.

'I'll call the police!'

'So we can all decide its meaning together? Valya, do you really think the police will be much help?'

'How do you know my name? Is this some kind of wind-up? Did any of my friends send you to have me on? Sorry, no time for this nonsense.'

The door slammed in my face.


My oh my, I was thinking as I paced to and fro at the entrance to her block. What's got into her? What's going on here? Okay, so we had a row last week when she upset me by saying I was learning psychology but understood nothing about the female psyche. I replied justifiably that there was nothing to understand there - only manipulation, playing hard to get. Besides, I'd given her a cooling-off period. Had I not been certain they didn't know each other, I'd have sworn she'd teamed up with Vishnyakov. Well, let them both stew in their own juice. If they don't want to acknowledge me, so be it. Meanwhile I'd better head for the Lenin Hills and the dorm.


I was already afraid Zhora, my roommate, might also decide not to acknowledge me. But everything was fine with him and he even asked me how things were. I calmed down a little and decided not to tell him anything. I needed to go and feed the cat in the park. It was true she'd scratched me the day before, but I'd more or less forgiven her.


The cat, it seemed, really lived in the park between Lomonosov Avenue and Academician Khokhlov Street, at least for the greater part of the year, from March till October, or even November if it was not too cold. In winter she disappeared, probably staying warm in some cellar, or perhaps taken in by one of the local residents. Or so said the students in the fifth and final year, especially the girls who fed her from time to time. That was in my fourth academic year and my second summer in the University of Moscow Central Hall of Residence. I'd also had time to grow fond of the cat. She was a beauty, black and white with powerful paws, a supple body that moved with great precision and a daring, independent expression on her face. She loved milk, and I took with me the remaining third of a bottle of milk and a little glass dish kept specially for the purpose.

I sat down on the bench from which I usually fed her and waited. As a rule she'd appear in a few minutes, having sensed either me or the milk which I'd immediately pour into the dish and place on the path in front of the bench. There were few other people around, only occasional passers-by who didn't bother us.

The cat appeared but for some reason walked past me and the milk.

'Nadezhda Konstantinovna!' I called softly to her, afraid of attracting the attention of an elderly woman standing not far away with her back to me and facing a flowerbed. I'd given the cat the first name and the patronymic of Lenin's lifelong partner; the authorities would have considered such lack of respect for their saints' almanac a form of ideological subversion. You could get kicked out of university for that.

The cat departed without granting me an audience. It was the woman who reacted.

She turned. Now I noticed her lips were moving: had she been praying or talking to herself? She came up to me. She looked about fifty.

'If you wanted to name the animal in honor of the leader's family' - I shook my head emphatically and held out both arms in protest - 'then it should be not Nadezhda Konstantinovna but Vladimir Ilyich. It's a tom.'

'How do you know? I was sure it was female. How can you tell the difference unless you check it out? Not very easy with a stray. Yesterday I just wanted to stroke her and she scratched me.'

'Take a good look at the figure and physiognomy. Queen cats show femininity, grace and poise. But toms are masculine, manly. This one's a hundred per cent tom. Why doesn't he drink your milk?'

'I don't know.' I felt ashamed because the animal had ignored me. 'He's probably satisfied. Let me get him some cream. That's his favorite; he'll lap that up for sure. Are you going to be around? I'll be back in about twenty minutes.'

'Yes, I'll talk to him in the meantime. I've finished talking to the flowers.'

What a day, I thought. Vishnyakov and Valya don't talk to me, the female cat turns out to be a tom and spurns me and my milk, but the local madwoman shares her crazy stuff with me!

'The flowers?' I smiled, humoring her as you would a child who tells you a fairy tale in all seriousness, as if it were real.

'Do you want to watch? Creep up, then, close but not too close, so you can see the flowers but not hear me whisper to them.'

'And what do you say to them?

'My own words - good, kind, tender, respectful.'

'And what do they answer?

'They react - you'll see for yourself.'

I could have sworn that after she'd whispered over the flowerbed for a couple of minutes two closed flowers opened up and a third, still half closed, had opened wider.

'You know,' I said after we'd returned to the bench and sat down, 'there've been some interesting experiments done on this. Not here but in the West. But although they've been repeated a number of times I've always been skeptical about them - until this moment. They weren't experiments really, more like biological and psychological observations. There was a plant in a room that also had an aquarium in it. If a fish in the aquarium died, the plant gradually withered and nothing could save it, no amount of water or fertilizer. It's known that plants communicate with each other through pheromones. But empathy between flora and fauna - to me that sounded like science fiction.'

'There's nothing surprising here. All living things are one organism. Communication takes place at all levels.'

I took a closer look at her. She seemed like at least half the middle-aged Muscovite women: a baggy, ill-fitting dress in a dirty, unnamable shade of brown; a cheap, thin, cotton kerchief covering her head, white with a pattern of red roosters; in her hands a worn handbag of indeterminate color and of an uncertain material; a face that attracted no one with its nose upturned, Slav-fashion, calling down the centuries from the Tatar Mongol Yoke - protruding jawbone and slanting eyes. Only on closer inspection did I notice in those slits a cold, analytical expression. Then I noticed also she was wearing shoes that were half sneakers, with no socks or stockings - footwear that was nicknamed Farewell Youth and didn't fit the image.

When I returned the woman was whispering to the cat and stroking him. He was mewing aplenty and uttering much else that sounded like feline tongue-twisters. I approached and stood near the bench. I heard her call him Lev Davidovich.

'Like Trotsky!' I was amazed.

'But only because of the intellect they share, and their gift of the gab,' she explained. 'In other respects they're quite different. One was a merciless, evil man and this one's a warmhearted, trusting creature. See how he's telling me about his life. All its privations and misfortunes. See what human warmth and sympathy can do.'

I stayed silent, jealous, as I poured the cream. Lev Davidovich had never told me a thing and the previous night, when I'd tried to stroke him, he'd scratched me - painfully too, drawing blood.

But not even cream took his fancy. He went on mewing, arching his back and pressing his face into the hands of his interlocutor.

'He's stopped recognizing me, or he's making a point of ignoring me,' I complained. 'It was he who scratched me, now he's dictating terms. And I've been feeding him for months!'

I told her what had happened yesterday.

'But that's your own fault. You should have talked first, calmed him down, explained your intentions. You're so clever, yet you failed to notice there was a difference between the two of you: you're big and strong, he's small and weak. How's he to know you want to stroke him? He's told me how much he's suffered. The life of any stray cat is unending misery - so many bad people who want to pick on a helpless animal. So to be on the safe side, he tried to defend himself. Perhaps you made a sudden movement and frightened him.

'Well, generally speaking... maybe... a little… There's something in this,' I mumbled, full of embarrassment.

'And when he scratched you, what did you do then? Why didn't he want to know you?'

'I... pushed him away slightly.'

'With your hand?'

'No. He'd scratched me so I was bleeding. I pushed him away with my shoe.' (I almost added, 'the shoe I'd sent Vishnyakov to get mended'.) 'But not so's to hurt him. More like to defend myself.'

The woman looked at me for a few seconds, shook her head, looked at me again - I'd begun to gaze at the lilac trees in the distance - then said: 'I'll go and fetch a cat carrier and we'll take him to my home. He can be my pet. Time his misery was ended. But first let's feed him your cream. Why let a good thing go to waste? Lev Davidovich, refreshment is served, should you wish to partake!'

She took the dish and placed it in front of her, and the cat at once began lapping the cream up greedily.

I felt my face turning red.

'Can I ask a personal question?' enquired the woman, and without waiting for a reply went on: 'What is for you the most important thing in life?'

'Want an honest answer?' I decided to be frank with her. 'Success. Fame.'

'That's a long-term thing. What about now, at this moment? But give it thought. Don't rush.'

I thought for a minute.

'The most important thing for me right now is to be loved and respected. Actually, the other way round. Respected and loved.'

'So trust me, this will remain the most important thing to you for the rest of your life. Respect and love are the most basic needs of all living and even - as it's called -non-living matter. So meanwhile, sit and talk to him, distract him so he doesn't follow me and I'll be back in about an hour.'

Can somebody explain to me how all these things hang together? I followed her with my eyes. Those red roosters on the cheap cotton kerchief, the holding forth on living and non-living matter... Is there something I don't quite understand? Am I losing my marbles? She could, incidentally, have asked whether I actually can spare an hour to sit here. All she did was throw me a few words, 'Sit here till I come back'. It didn't occur to her I might feel humiliated.

Suppressing my mortification, I addressed the cat. 'Don't hold it against me, Lev Davidovich, if I haven’t always treated you as you deserved. I haven't that much experience with animals, you see. We did some animal psychology in the first year - I got an Excellent for it actually. But it was about completely wild animals, not the half-domesticated kind like you.'

The cat came closer, licking his lips, and looked me in the eye. I spoke still more softly and tenderly: 'From now on, my good fellow, I'll know you're fearful and won't make a teddy bear of you. But let me give you some more cream, I see you've nearly finished.'

The cat lapped steadily, looking up at me from time to time. I stretched out my arm over the dish, talking to him all the while, sympathizing with his difficult life, whingeing about my own, promising him a wonderful new life with his new owner. In a couple of minutes he was rubbing his neck and jaw against my palm. When the woman returned with her cat carrier I was stroking him all over and he was purring contentedly.

'I'll give you my number,' she said, taking a notebook from her handbag and tearing out a page. 'You can always come and visit him. Taissia. And your name' - she stopped me - 'I don't need for now. Give it to me when you come. When you phone, say you're the kind young man in the park who loves animals.'

All very strange, I thought as I walked back to the dorm. First they dress you down, cry shame on you, make you red as a beetroot, then they laud you to the skies.

On my return I wrote a note to Vishnyakov thanking him for the shoes and apologizing for the inconvenience. I didn't want to see him face to face, so I waited till the corridor was empty, crept up to the door of his unit and pushed the note under the door.

He showed up late, just as I was about to hit the hay.

'It's okay, we're mates, aren't we?' he said.

'I'm glad you didn't take offence,' I said.

'No problem,' he said.

'It's just that this morning, in college, you didn't seem to acknowledge me.'

'This morning, in college?' He was surprised. 'I haven't seen you the whole day, surely?'

'You probably didn't notice me.' I tactfully avoided further attempts to clear the matter up. 'It happened by the entrance. I was leaving but you were in a hurry, almost running. So maybe you didn't catch sight of me.'

'No, I didn't see you there. There was some very strange fellow hanging around the main door this morning. Never seen him before but that didn't stop him from waylaying me and asking if I'd got a date. Very familiar manner, like I was a close friend. He also said, "Hello there" - and that got me more than anything, you'd think we were buddies. Cheeky sod. Or a fool. Or a nutter. One of those.'

'Yes,' I agreed. 'One of those. No other words will do.'


Next on the list was to try and set things straight with Valya.

She worked as a hairdresser at the unisex salon Hair Magic in Kalinin Avenue, not far from Arbat.

'Is Senior Stylist Alekseeva working today?' I enquired by phone.

'She is but she's fully booked. I can make you an appointment for next week.'

'No thanks. Another time.'

If she's working today she'll be in the cafe on the corner from two to three.

Relying on the brief experience with Vishnyakov, I reasoned thus: if he hadn't connected my two appearances there was a strong probability Valya wouldn't either. If he eventually recognized the old me, then she was most likely to do so too. As for yesterday's visit, I could simply forget it had happened. But I had to prepare for all eventualities. I'd stand in the queue behind her, brush against her lightly, and apologies. If she recognized me in my first form as a friend, I'd turn it all into a joke and say how I was waiting and waiting for her finally to notice me. If she saw me in my second form, as a bore and a sex pest, then I'd apologize for what had happened yesterday and explain that visit had been a mistake, the result of a silly bet with friends whether I'd have the courage to ring at a strange door and start talking to a strange girl.

'It's all right,' she said. I searched her eyes for a sign she recognized me in one form of the other, or any form, but there was none.

Such a turn of events I never had expected.

'It's so crowded here... in lunch hours that is... I mean it's not always like this, there are very few people in the morning...' I rabbited on nervously, unable to stop. 'And in the evenings too, though I think perhaps in the evenings there may be as many as there are now... Maybe even more... because people in the evenings...'

'Yes,' she smiled. 'In the evening everybody likes to go out and sit in a cafe. I've never been here in the evening but it must be nice. Look what beautiful lamps they have here.'

For the first time I noticed her face was most unusual, a perfect oval tapering towards the chin, a thin, almost aristocratic nose, greenish-blue eyes rather far apart.

'Why are you staring at me?' She blushed.

'Because you're even more beautiful than those lamps. And what are you doing tonight?' I replied, not knowing what I was saying.

She laughed. 'Well, if I'm more beautiful than the lamps then I guess I'm doing nothing particular tonight.'

'In that case, will you come here this evening - with me?' You said it must be very nice here in the evening. I didn't mean it about the lamps, I mean you have a very striking face.'

It was her turn to scrutinize me. Ah, I thought, she's remembering me at last. If not one me, then another me. Either me from last week or me from yesterday.

But still she didn't recognize me.

'All right,' she said. 'Let's meet here at seven. Sorry, must dash back. Queue's too long and I've a long day ahead still.'

'But you've had nothing to eat!' I was upset.

'No, don't worry. I'll grab something on the way. Look forward to tonight - but I warn you I'm not at all striking. I'm a very ordinary girl, very ordinary name too - Valentina. Call me Valya.'


Two months have passed. Professor Schwarzband gave me an Excellent for my term paper, calling it 'outstanding work'.

Valya and I had already been kissing when I tried to persuade her to give herself to me. But she wouldn't, citing a previous traumatic experience.

And finally it came about.

When, in the middle of making love, I stopped and kissed her shoulder, she began to cry.

'What's wrong?'

'I'm so glad you did this,' she said through her tears.

'Why? What's so special about my kissing your shoulder?'

'It's so important for a woman to know she's loved, and not just needed for sex. She can never be sure about that. I'm so grateful to you we're making love and not having sex.'

An hour later we were lying side by side. 'I know who you remind me of,' she said. 'I had a friend before you but we quarreled and parted, thank God!'

'Quarreled? What about?'

'He was just so rude. He went straight in, like a tank crushing everything underneath. He didn't believe I had doubts and fears - just thought I was playing hard to get. You look a little bit like him, but only outwardly, apart from that you're completely different. You understand everything; you never hurt me or put me down. And I can rely on that.'

'Well, I'm sure I fall short of perfection,' I replied modestly. 'But I agree I've a head start on that friend of yours... judging from what you've told me about him of course.'

That night, in Valya's bed and with her chestnut hair spread across my chest, I had a dream. I was walking along a line of people and domestic animals - cats, dogs and others such as wallabies, tortoises and hamsters - arranged, I guessed, in ascending order of age. At the start were infants, puppies and kittens, all newborn. Next I passed young lads and lasses, careless in their youth, embracing life and looking to the future; and creatures in their prime, brimming with energy, jumping, sporting, locking horns. Then they reached adulthood, grew older and older, heavier or thinner, on each stretch of the way; and at the very end passed into doddering old age, man and beast alike. I felt sad; and woke up.

My first thought on waking - a rather banal one, alas - was that life ended in death and what came after, no one knew. So what to conclude, I asked myself? To my surprise, the answer came of its own accord: in the short time we have to live, we must all find time to gain the regard, respect and care in the measure we deserve.

And then I went on my date with Lev Davidovich.

The moment Taissia opened the door and we greeted each other, he rushed up from somewhere at the end of the corridor, tail erect as a stair-rod, and pushed his nose into first one hand, then the other.

'This is the first time he's run out at full pelt like that and wanted a guest to stroke him,' she said. 'He's recognized you.'

'Yes,' I replied, slowly and not without a little pride, 'he has indeed.'

 

Translated from the Russian by Justin Lumley with the author

 

Published in
The Massachusetts Review LIII-4