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polirom

Nichita Danilov


Excerpt from

Novel, "Fiction LTD" series, Polirom, 2005, 264 pages

Copyright: Polirom Publishing House

Translation rights sold to: All rights available

Excerpt from

„There is one thing I cannot get out of my head,” said the visitor, continuing to unwind the skein of his thoughts. “Wherever I go, whatever I do, the same scenes keep coming back into my memory. Always the same images seemingly wrenched from a bad dream. I see rivers and mountains and endless plains rolling to the horizon, and a train that advances across the steppe. Well, Mashenka, this train, how shall I tell you, has implanted itself here, in my breast… I carry it with me everywhere. And even when I am thousands and millions of light years from earth, I shall never be rid of these images. It is almost as if I can see it now, a small station not far from the Dniester and a throng of folk pressed together on the railway line. There must have been eight or nine thousand souls. Men and women, old folk huddled against the cold, dressed in tatters, with a mass of bundles at their feet. A soldier patrols the length of the platform. Reaching the end of the train, the soldier climbs up onto the locomotive and from there, he gives the prisoners a short speech. He’s short, lively, his sparse moustache twisted up Cossack-style, and a little tipsy. He tells them : ‘Esteemed comrades, I see that you are tired and hungry. Do not worry, by and by, the Soviet State has not forgotten you. You will sleep and eat your fill.’ The little soldier coughs into his fist, gives a ‘hmm,’ and then continues : ‘With seven loaves and a few fishes, your friend Jesus fed four thousand people, he even gathered seven baskets of crumbs at the end of the feast. Of course, these are nothing but simple stories, in which your grandparents and great-grandparents believed. We have abandoned them. We are transforming the stories into reality. We don’t go in for cheap fairground conjuring tricks. It’s either black or it’s white. For us, things are clear. The Soviet State will give you much more. Each hostage will receive the ration he or she is due : two fishes per cap or bonnet. I say cap or bonnet because, let it be very clear, for us all people have the same right to live and to labour, regardless of whether they are men or women. Consequently, have you understood ?’ The crowd murmured in unison : ‘We understand…’ ‘As well as “we understand”,’ says the soldier, ‘you ought to have added “your honour.” But I’ll let that pass. You still have time to learn. So, you will now receive two fishes to quell your hunger for the time being. And then each time the train stops, we’ll give you as much fish as you like.’ ‘What about water ?’ some voices shout. ‘You will be provided with water,’ the soldier answers them merrily. ‘We’ll give you water, of course we will ! Uncle Joseph Visarionovich doesn’t like to know that a person is suffering from thirst. You will reach the end of the journey sated and rested. Do you understand ?’ ‘We understand !’ they all shout in a chorus. Some of them, heeding the advice, are mindful to add ‘your honour’ after ‘understand.’ ‘That’s more like it,’ the soldier rubs his palms. ‘I see that you are starting to acquire some good manners, aren’t you ?’ ‘We are, we are,’ a number of women’s and men’s voices accompany him. ‘Then shout after me : Long live the proletariat ! Long live Comrade Stalin ! Long live Comrade Lenin ! Long live all-triumphant communism !’ The prisoners, young and old, without pausing to think, repeat the little soldier’s words, they each receive two frozen salted herrings, the soldiers shout all aboard and they climb into the wagons. The troopers, cracking jokes all the while, inspect the train with agile eyes. They close the doors with iron bolts, bend down to have a look underneath the train, to make sure that no one has hidden under the wagons, run up and down, testing the axles with a hammer, and finally, after a protracted wait, the train sets off. After an hour of travelling through scorching heat, for it is now noonday and the sun is writhing against the sky like a lump of flame, the boxcars are sweltering and the people raving with thirst. In their haste, apparently, the soldiers forgot to distribute the prisoners their ration of water. In the red velvet-lined protocol carriage, which had once been in the service of the tsar, the soldiers fall to drinking vodka and champagne brought from the front, and thus they continue to revel until they reach the destination, leaving the prisoners to the mercy of the Lord. Meanwhile, the latter become desperate. The prisoners kick and punch the planks, scratch the tin roof, shouting with all their might to be brought water. After the hurriedly gobbled herrings, the roofs of their mouth and their throats turn into a dried up riverbed. To quench their thirst, they drink their own urine and, with their tongues, they gather beads of sweat from the wagon. The train stops at a station every now and then. The guards, groggy with drink, walk down the track, inspecting the wagons, checking the axles, talking among themselves. They exchange all kinds of lewd remarks, thus mocking the prisoners who are at the height of despair. They pretend not to hear the groans and shouts of agony from the ‘goods’ they are transporting and which they call ‘herring.’ After the locomotive refills with water and coal, the train sets off. And so it happens again, at every stop. Withdrawn in their compartments, the soldiers eat herrings, olives and even Manchurian caviar. They have a delicate mission to fulfil and the reward is in keeping with the work. What can I say, Masha, soldiers are young men, who don’t have many problems of conscience. The harebrained soldiers revel, they make fun of the prisoners, they drink, they play the harmonica, they play chess and backgammon. They have provisions aplenty, while the hostages perish of thirst locked in the wagons, which are so solidly built that not one screw, not one slat will budge from its place, and their fingernails are torn to the flesh. They are dirty and tired to death. The train travelled for two weeks on end, stopping once or at most twice a day at increasingly wretched stations. And in all this time, not a single drop of rain fell. By day, the scorching heat was terrible, at night, it cooled a little – and towards morning, dew would form. The hostages poked their blackened tongues through the cracks and soothed their agony. For the first three days, the shouts and the groans of the prisoners could be heard as a continuous rumble, on the fourth day the lamentation began to fade. After a week, the groans could no longer be heard at all and the train advanced over the endless steppe, leaving behind it the stench of putrefying corpses mixed with the smell of burning coal – all accompanied by the merry din that burst forth from the carriage reserved for the soldiers. It was a horrifying smell, which imprinted itself on your clothes and penetrated to your bowels. To escape from the stench, but also from the tomb-like silence that enveloped the boxcars, the soldiers drank all the more heavily ; they binged day and night, rarely getting off the train. The refuelling was now done by the engine drivers, who hurried past the wagons wearing gas masks so that they wouldn’t be infected. When the train reached its destination, the hung-over soldiers got off, pulled back the iron bolts, unloaded the corpses, and buried them not far from the embankment. They scoured the train, sprinkling it with quicklime, and then they made the journey back. Of the eight thousand people, not one was left alive… These images do not leave my head. I have them before my eyes even now. The stench still persists in my nostrils. I carry it everywhere with me. Yes, strange things, very strange things happen here in your Russia,” sighed the Extraterrestrial. “Very strange…”
“How many times have I told him that this isn’t Russia, but another country, but the man won’t get it into his head…” said Masha angrily.
“And I keep telling you that I’m not a man, but you still keep going on about how the man this, how the man that !” retorted the Extraterrestrial.
“Maybe you told me, but I forgot. I was probably thinking of something else…”
“Your thoughts are always wandering off all over the place,” the guest said all in one breath. “You think about all kinds of nonsense and then you wonder why every one looks at you like you were a freak…”
“If you’re not a man, then what are you ?”
Masha would have wanted to add : “The Increate or one of his brothers ? I see that you can even guess my thoughts…”
“I am nothing more or less than what I am.”
“Excuse me,” Masha dared to contradict, taking on a clever air. “But of course you are what you are, you couldn’t very well be what you are not.”
“How do you know ? Are you really so sure ? I can, of course I can, why don’t you try me ?” the visitor livened up.
“Nobody can be what he is not. How shall I put you to the test ? By getting you to jump a fence, by leading you up the garden path or…”
“I must admit, I like to go up the garden path. When autumn comes, I like to go into the fields…”
“Or by letting you play the wise man, getting everything the wrong way round.”
“Look what a philosopher we have here,” chuckled the guest. “To look at her you’d think she was just a simple woman, but just look at how a simple woman can thrust you into an existential abyss… Bravo, Masha,” he jokingly encouraged her. “Who knows what Plato is hiding in you.”
“There aren’t any Platos hiding in me,” said Masha, who didn’t much like the sound of the name Plato.
“Then maybe an Aristotle or an Ecclesiastes…”
“You’re making fun of me,” said Masha, looking at him reproachfully.
“I’m laughing in the face of adversity,” replied the guest, taking the small glass from the table and twisting it between his fingers. “I want to forget the stench that persists in me. I am trying to wipe the memories from my mind… But it’s not easy. You can’t wipe away everything with a sponge. You wipe away the images, but the sounds remain. You ignore the sounds and the smells come rushing in. Somewhere, something always remains. An unpleasant smell, a claw that grates away at the soul. Even the sponges you wipe with absorb the sounds and the groans, and the blood. It is like a vortex, like a hell…”
“Don’t take it all so much to heart. Fill yourself another glass, to cheer yourself up a bit,” the host urged him. “You’re probably all worn out after the journey,” she added.
“I’ll have another glass, why not,” said the guest. “In itself, the journey was a trifle. Barely do you nod off there, then you wake up here. It all passes in the blinking of an eye. Yes, I’ll have another one, of course I will. Drink is not such a bad thing. It’s like a balm for the wounds of the soul… I’ll help myself, of course I will, but before that, Mashenka, if you would be so kind, I should like you to bring me a pickled gherkin and a piece of bread, because after all this chatter, look, I’m feeling hungry again.”
“What a silly woman,” said the mistress of the house, clutching her head. “I got carried away with all the talk and forgot about the pickles…”


Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth



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