A Hero's Daughter Part 7

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Ivan knew very well that it was a Beriozka. He also knew what a despicable peasant he was in the eyes of these two dolls in their elegant makeup. But that, precisely, was fine. Yes it was fine that his head was exploding, his shirt sticking to his skin, that the foreigners these extraterrestrials in their light T-shirts should be buying things, laughing, their blue eyes staring straight through him into the distance.

"Go ahead, my girl. Go and serve them," mocked Ivan. "That's all we're good for. Serving them. Some in bed, some behind the counter..."

The salesclerk stopped, exchanged brief glances with her colleague and rapped out: "I repeat: rubles are not accepted here. Vacate the premises or I'll call the militia. And take your hands off that gla.s.s case." And in a lower voice she added: "Any old country b.u.mpkin thinks he can come in here. And then we have to wash the gla.s.s."

Ivan clenched his teeth and leaned with ll his weight on the gla.s.s of the counter. There was a sound of the gla.s.s breaking and at the same time the sales-clerk's cry: "Lyuda, call the duty militiaman!"

"You see these hands," shouted Ivan. "I loaded a whole mountain of sh.e.l.ls into the guns with them. With these hands..."

He said nothing more and erupted into laughter like a barking dog. The agony tore at his eyes. But through the mora.s.s of his confusion suddenly everything became clear to him: "All this is bulls.h.i.t. To them I'm just a Neanderthal. Why am I telling them about those G.o.dd.a.m.ned sh.e.l.ls?" And, still laughing, he yelled out to the bemused foreigners: "Now just you listen to me! I spilled gallons of blood for you, you b.a.s.t.a.r.ds! I saved you from the brown plague, ha! ha! ha...!"

The militiaman came in. Thickset, a dull face, a damp red mark on his forehead left by his cap.

"Your papers, please, Citizen."

"Here are my papers."

Ivan tapped on his Gold Star. There was a smear of blood on his raincoat. The palm of his hand had been cut by a fragment of gla.s.s.

The militiaman tried to grasp him by the elbow.

"You'll have to come to the station."

Ivan jerked his arm free with a sudden movement. The militiaman stumbled; the crunch of gla.s.s could be heard beneath his shoes. The balalaika slipped from the grasp of one of the Swedes, who were watching the scene in amazement. It fell onto the marble paving and emitted a pitiful groan. Everyone was rooted to the spot in a mute, uncertain pose.

"Just a minute, Lyosha," the sales a.s.sistant murmured to the militiaman. "First let me show the foreign visitors out."

At this moment two j.a.panese men came into the Beriozka, almost identically dressed. Had not one of them been slightly taller, they could have been taken for twins. Dark official suits, ties that glittered slightly Smiling, they walked up to the counter and, as if they noticed neither the broken gla.s.s nor the militiaman, nor even the old man with a bloodied hand, they began speaking in melodious English. Pulling herself together, the salesclerk offered them a long black leather case. Ivan stared at them, almost spellbound. He sensed that life, like duckweed displaced by a stone, was about to settle back into the well-ordered equilibrium that was so alien to him.

The j.a.panese, having made their purchase, headed for the exit; the militiaman took a step toward Ivan, crunching a fragment of gla.s.s underfoot. Then Ivan seized a statuette that was standing on the counter and hurled himself, in pursuit of them. The j.a.panese turned. One of them had time to dodge the blow. The other, hit by Ivan, collapsed onto the pavement.

Ivan lashed out blindly, without really managing to harm them. What was more alarming was his yell and his bloodstained raincoat. The Swedes scurried toward the door, yelping and pushing one another. As Ivan's fingers struck out, they knocked over a bronze figurine of a bear cub, an Olympic souvenir, which shattered the gla.s.s storefront into fragments. Commemorative items of this kind had not sold well at the time of the Games, no one wanted to weigh themselves down with such a burden. The whole series had been shipped out to the provinces: only this one had remained. The salesclerks kept it on the counter as a paperweight...

Almendinger came to the Beriozka shortly before closing time. He was glad he knew Moscow so well that he could make his way there not along Gorky Street but following little shady alleys. One of them pleased him particularly. It was quiet, almost deserted. You walked along beside the old brick building of a tobacco factory. Behind its walls could be heard the low, regular hum of machinery. The slightly bitter smell of tobacco hovered all along the alley "Little by little I'm going to forget it all," thought Almendinger. "All those figures, all those Moscow telephone numbers, all these winding alleys... And this smell, too. Now that's something to keep me busy until I die forgetting..."

The side window at the Beriozka store was cordoned off with a rope stretched between two chairs. The sales-clerks were talking in whispers. All Almendinger could hear was: "Mad... completely mad..." A glazier was at work behind the counter. Bowed over the table, he scored a long groove with his diamond, making a dry, grinding sound. Then with a brief musical tinkling, he snapped the gla.s.s.

Almendinger smiled and asked the salesclerk to show him a small gold watch for a woman. "Or maybe it would be better to buy a necklace or a bracelet, this silver one with amethysts and emeralds? Of course, it would be much simpler to ask her what she would prefer. But what can you do? I'm getting old... It's tempting to play Santa Claus or rather the Count of Monte Cristo of the third age..."

After a fine morning the sun was in hiding and the evening was gray, but, as always at that time of year, luminous and strangely airy. When he emerged, Almendinger turned left and entered a well-tended square in an open s.p.a.ce that was rather provincial in style. At the center of the square a huge bronze column towered upward, covered with a tracery of writing in Russian and Georgian the monument in honor of the friendship between the two peoples. He sat down on a bench, and, with a pleasure he could not quite understand, began watching the people and the long buses that drove around the square with weary dexterity. He caught gestures and s.n.a.t.c.hes of conversation that were quite without significance for him and were for this reason utterly engaging.

Not far away there was a shoe store. People came by with their cardboard boxes, still flushed from the pushing and shoving and the joy of purchase. A woman sat down on the edge of the bench beside him, took off her old down-at-heel pumps and put on those she had just bought. She turned her foot this way and that, studying it from ah angles, then stood up, took a few paces on the spot are they too narrow? and made off for the bus. The toes of the old abandoned shoes were left sticking out from under the bench.

Almendinger realized he was still holding the little parcel from the Beriozka store in his hand. He opened his briefcase and slipped his purchase into a small leather pocket. He saw the wads of paper there, the neatly arranged files and smiled. A tipsy pa.s.serby came up and asked him: "Tell me, friend, you don't happen to have any matches, do you?"

Still smiling, Almendinger held out a lighter to him. When after several attempts the man managed to light his cigarette and mumbled: "Thanks for coming to the rescue, friend," and tried to return the lighter, Almendinger was no longer there. He was already strolling toward the alley that smelled of bitter tobacco.

Ivan remained in the hospital for a long time, recovering from the heart attack he had suffered in the militia van. The inquiry took its course. No serious charges were brought against him. The Emba.s.sy sent a note to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. An article appeared in a Swedish newspaper: "Failed Hold-Up in Moscow Beriozka Store." The following day "Radio Liberty," broadcasting from Munich, gave the facts, mentioning the full names of all the partic.i.p.ants correctly. Everyone knew that the story would soon evolve into one of those piquant anecdotes that are related at diplomatic c.o.c.ktail parties: "It actually happened at the Be-riozka, you know. And a Hero of the Soviet Union, what's more! A Gold Star on his chest... Oh no, he's had his psychiatric a.s.sessment. A man of perfectly sound mind... You're right. Maybe it's what they call the Old Guard syndrome. Have you heard what that fellow Petrov says about it? Quite priceless! He's supposed to have stamped out all that kind of thing. When they told him about it he nodded and growled: 'Yes, the veterans stay young at heart for a long time...' And by the way, the veteran's daughter... Yes, yes... And there's another quite fascinating detail..."

At the beginning of June Ivan was to be transferred into preventive detention. While he was in the hospital Olya had been to see him every day. They did not have much to say to each other. Olya would produce the latest newspapers and fruit and food from her bag, and ask after his health. Then they would go down and sit on a bench in front of a flower bed that gave off the bitter smell of marigolds.

In the course of these two weeks, by borrowing money left and right and exchanging foreign currency, she settled accounts with the Beriozka. She telephoned Alexei... It was sometimes his father, sometimes his mother, who picked up the phone and each time they replied politely that Alexei was not there. His mother added: "You know, Olyechka, he's preparing for the Youth Festival at the moment. He's gone to France to sort out some problems to do with the makeup of the delegation." Olya thanked her and hung up.

Sometimes a longing overcame her, pathetic in its unreality: like a child who has broken a cup, she wanted to go back, to play the scene over again, so that the cup didn't slip from her hands, so that there should not be this resounding and irremediable silence. But even this pathetic regret vanished.

To her amazement, she saw that she was beginning to get used to a situation, which, a little while previously, would have seemed to her inconceivable. She was getting used to this orange flower bed, to this thin old man emerging from the dull fog of his room to meet her, to the inquisitive and merciless stares in the corridors of the Center. And the fact that nothing had radically changed seemed to her disturbing.

It was very hot in Moscow at the end of May. Sometimes through the open windows of the Center the long, slow siren of a ship could be heard, coming from the Moskva River. It even seemed as if you could smell the warm, muddy smell, the smell of the wet planks of the landing stage in the heat of the sun. And when evening came the streetlights already cast a blue radiance over the thick foliage as they did in summer. In the restaurant, amid the dense aroma of spiced dishes and perfumes, the tinkling of a little spoon or a knife had an agreeably cool resonance.

Svetka consoled Olya as best she could. But she was so happy herself at that time that she went about it clumsily. A little while earlier, her Volodya had sent her a smiling photograph of himself and a letter in which he promised he would be coming home on furlough for a whole month. In the photo two big stars could be seen very clearly on his epaulettes.

"So long as Gorbachev doesn't call it off in Afghanistan," she commented, "Volodya's sure to come back with his three colonel's stars. Of course, it's not much fun for him over there. But are things any better here? Apparently he's been in some garrison miles from anywhere for a long time, somewhere in Chukotka... Oh! I can't wait for August! We'll pop over to the Crimea and rent a little beach house by the sea. At least he'll get a decent tan. Last time he came back, you know, his face was like a Negro's, with just his teeth shining... and the rest of him all white!"

She checked herself, ashamed of her happiness. "Listen, Olya, you mustn't worry. Your father, what can they accuse him of? Only a brawl and maybe they'll throw in that he was drunk. He'll get a year at the end of the world with a suspended sentence... And as for your diplomat, don't worry. With men it's always like that, you know. There are plenty more fish in the sea. Look, when he comes back, Volodya will introduce you to one of his friends from the regiment. And maybe your diplomat will come back to you anyway. Obviously his father and mother have turned him against you. But it'll all calm down and be forgotten. And if he doesn't come back, to h.e.l.l with him! Listen, you remember Katyukha, who worked with the Americans. She married a guy like that. And he bugged her all the time. 'You've got no aesthetic intuition,' he used to say. 'No grasp of style. You can't tell the difference between Bonnard and Vuillard...' That whole artistic elite used to gather at their place, lounging around in armchairs, knocking back Veuve Clicquot and 'telling the difference.' And you know, she's a plain, straightforward girl. One day she'd had enough of all these stuck-up art historian b.i.t.c.hes and guys with shrill voices. They were talking about Pica.s.so at the time. And suddenly she came out with this riddle, which is a real scream: 'What's the difference between Pica.s.so and the Queen of England?' It's a h.o.a.ry old chestnut, of course. You must have heard it a hundred times. 'Pica.s.so only had one blue period in his life and the Queen has them once a month... On account of her blue blood!' You can just imagine the faces they pulled, all those intellectuals! Her husband exploded: 'That's not only an obscenity I'm used to that. It's sacrilege!' The idiots. They'd have done better to laugh instead of acting like constipated cows. Katyukha wouldn't put up with it. 'They're just daubs, your Pica.s.so!' she shouted. 'He was a salesman, that's all. He got the message that there was a market for this kind of vomit it's what you all like so he vomited...' What a hullaballoo! The women all charge out into the corridor and get their mink coats mixed up. The men squeal: 'It's the Attila Complex!' Her dear husband goes into hysterics... He's already opened divorce proceedings, the b.a.s.t.a.r.d. He was always lecturing her: 'Life is an aesthetic act.' And all the time he was injecting himself against impotence. What an aesthete!"

They chattered on till dusk, as in the good old days. And, as in the old days, Ninka the Hungarian came to see them from time to time. She, too, set about consoling Olya, relating melancholy tales of her own life hitting the, rocks many times, of disappointed hopes and other people's black ingrat.i.tude... But she, too, found it hard to conceal her own happiness. In June she was to make her last visit to the Black Sea coast. In October she would marry and would found what she herself laughingly called "a model Soviet family."

Yes, everything remained as before. Nothing changed. Just one thing, perhaps. When Olya came home from work now she was vexed to notice that it was as if her face were covered by a sticky mask. She hastened to the bathroom to rid herself of it, scrubbing her cheeks. She tried to rea.s.sure herself: "I'm running around like a madwoman at the moment. And in all this heat..." She remembered how after work Svetka always used to hurry to the bathroom, calling out to her, without stopping: "Hang on, Olyechka. We'll have a word in a minute. Just let me put on a new face." Olya realized it was not just the tiredness and the heat she was talking about.

Prior to the summer vacation there was a great deal of work at the Center. On occasion Olya did not return home for three days in a row. During the day she attended trade meetings and in the evening put on her usual performance at the restaurant. During these three days she had not had a single minute to go see her father in hospital.

One morning, when she was able to get there, he was waiting with cheerful and nervous impatience. They took their places on their usual bench, in front of the flower bed. Ivan lit a cigarette. Then, rapidly stubbing it out, he spoke in a low voice. When Olya heard these muted tones a shiver ran down her spine. She thought her father was going to ask her questions about her work, about her life or worse still try to justify himself. Ivan had something else to say.

"You know, Olyuch, it's a very good thing you've come today. Tomorrow they're giving me my discharge and transferring me into preventive detention.

I want to hand something over to you. Keep it and hide it somewhere. I'm afraid they'll take it away from me when they search me."

Ivan unclenched his fingers in the hollow of his hand shone the Gold Star.

Olya returned home in a rickety, half-empty bus. It was traveling along the beltway. On one side could be seen the new concrete apartment buildings, stuck there amid churned-up clay On the other side open fields, misted over with transparent greenery. Olya sat with her face turned toward the window, so that her tears should not be seen. She had begun crying when she opened her bag and caught sight of the Gold Star, right at the bottom, where normally either her keys or her lipstick would be hiding. "This is still his life," she thought with tender bitterness. "He thinks there are still people around who remember that war long ago, all that comradeship at the front... They're all just like children. A whole generation of grown-up children who've been betrayed. I only hope he doesn't know anything about me! I just hope he doesn't!"

She was still crying as she climbed the stairs to the seventh floor. She did not want to take the elevator for fear of meeting someone she knew. But when she got to the sixth floor she could already hear Svetka's laughter and merry shouts. "Aha," thought Olya. "Ninka's there and they're having a good time." And at once she felt a little comforted. She pictured them already bustling around her, cheering her up, putting the kettle on to boil. No doubt Ninka had come to say good-bye before setting off for the south. With her fund of stories she would be unstoppable. Olya turned the key and went in.

Svetka's bedroom door was wide open. Svetka was sitting on her bed screaming with horrible, sobbing laughter. Her swollen eyes, on which not the smallest trace of mascara was left, glittered wildly, madly. On the floor was a suitcase with several garments spilling out of it. Her shoes lay in two opposite corners of the room as if one giant stride had left them there. Olya stopped on the threshold without trying to understand a word of this horrible howling because it was all too clear. She simply repeated like an incantation: "Svetka... Svetka..."

Choking with tears, Svetka was silent for a moment. She sat there, with her eyes closed, her whole body shuddering, breathing jerkily and noisily. Cautiously Olya sat down beside her. Svetka felt her hand on her shoulder and began wailing in ever more desperate tones: "Olka, a sealed zinc coffin... and you can see nothing... just his eyes, through the little gla.s.s window... no eyelashes, no eyebrows... Maybe there's nothing there... in the coffin!"

And as she shook her head, she burst into tears once more. And once more, in a broken voice she cried out: "A little gla.s.s window... and only his eyes... only his eyes... he's not there... No... burned in the helicopter! There's nothing in that coffin. Nothing..."

Then, breaking free from Olya's arms, she jumped up and rushed to the wardrobe. She opened the door with a violent gesture and began pulling out boxes and cardboard cartons and hurling them to the floor.

"So who's going to make use of any of this stuff now?" she cried. "Who?"

Out of the cardboard cartons tumbled men's shoes, brand-new shiny boots made of first-rate leather; there were piles of shirts with Beriozka labels, jeans, ties. And, uttering a heavy sigh, Svetka collapsed in a heap on the bed and buried her head in the pillow.

Sitting beside her, Olya scarcely recognized her friend in this woman, now so crumpled and aged. She stroked her hand gently, murmuring: "Don't cry, Svetka, don't cry. It'll be ll right. It'll all come out right in the end. Lopk, things are going badly for me, too, but I'm bearing up... I'm bearing up..."

Svetka was leaving from Kazan Station. She seemed completely calm now, simply s.c.r.e.w.i.n.g up her eyes as if to avoid seeing the happy and excited crowd. Olya made her way along beside her, holding in her hand a big plastic bag into which Svetka had thrown everything that would not go into her suitcase. The bag was a great weight. Heavily burdened people came charging along, b.u.mped into one another, colliding with their luggage. It felt to Olya as if the handles of the bag were slowly stretching and would tear. The crowd moved forward with painful slowness. Sweating faces, skullcaps on shaven heads, children whimpering...

The compartment was pervaded by a warm smell of thick dust.

"Oh, you haven't brought anything to drink on the journey," Olya suddenly realized.

Svetka shook her head silently. Leaping down from the coach, Olya weaved her way toward the buffet. Standing in line in front of a long gla.s.s-fronted counter where there were piles of dried-up sausage sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs and hazelnut biscuits, she consulted her watch nervously.

When she got back to the platform with a bottle of warm lemonade and two biscuits in a little bag, she saw two red lights receding down the track into the distance in a hot gray mist. She stayed on the platform for a moment, then set the bottle and the bag down on a bench and headed for the subway.

During one of those crazy days at the start of the summer, Olya realized that she was pregnant. She accepted the fact with dull and weary resignation. "In fact, there's nothing surprising about it," she reflected on her return from the clinic. "With all that pressure and stressed-out as I was... At such times you could end up producing twins and not notice..." At the Center she asked for three days' break to have an abortion and get herself on her feet again.

She had counted the days and she knew it had happened at the beginning of May when, as she listened to that tall German with the attractive name, she had forgotten the role she was playing. And she knew it was not just a matter of forgetting, either.

She arrived at the hospital two hours before the wards and clinics were due to open. In the stillness of the morning she walked around the pale yellow building, crossed the road, and sat down on a bench in a little courtyard surrounded by old houses on two floors. At the windows there were flowers in pots and crudely painted earthenware statuettes. "It's just like at home in Borissov," she thought. The pale, watery sunlight gradually filled the courtyard, illuminating the entrance halls with their wooden staircases and causing a cat sitting on a little wobbly bench to blink its eyes. Later on, Olya would try to understand what had happened on that sun-drenched early morning. She looked at the pale flowers behind the window panes, the sandbox all pockmarked by the rain that had fallen in the night, the tufts of gra.s.s thrusting up through the trampled earth of the courtyard. She looked as if seeing ll this for the first time. Even the ordinary gray soil mixed with sand was astonishingly present to her eyes, there before her, with its little stones, its twigs, its burned matches. She suddenly felt a sharp and gripping tenderness for this new vision, this joyful and silent wonder. This vision was no longer hers. She could already feel it within herself as something separate from her, but at the same time close, pulsating, inseparable from her breathing and her own life... As if she were experiencing it almost physically. Her eyes followed the cat as it slowly crossed the courtyard, shaking its paws and arching its tail. Olya knew she was not the only one watching it and knew for whom she was silently murmuring: "Oh, look at that pretty little p.u.s.s.y... Look at its lovely whiskers, its white tail, its little gray ears... Let's go stroke it..."

The houses were beginning to wake up. People emerged from the hallways with a busy tread, hurrying toward the bus stop. Olya followed them. Arriving home, she went to bed without undressing and fell asleep at once. Toward evening she was woken by the strident screaming of the swifts. She stayed in bed for a long time, watching the dusk deepening outside the open window. Occasionally a woman's voice would ring out from high up on a balcony: "Maxim, Katya, come in! How many times do I have to call you?"

And at once, echoing in reply, a shrill pair of voices: "Oh please, Mom! Just five little minutes more!"

The swifts sped by, close to the window, with a rapid rustling of wings. It sounded as if someone were abruptly tearing a thin strip of silk. "How simple everything is," thought Olya. "And no one understands it. They go charging along, pushing and shoving. They don't even have time to ask themselves, 'What's the point?' And yet everything's so simple. And I was going crazy, too Alyosha, the apartment in Moscow, abroad... It's painful to think about it, but I'd begun to hate his parents so violently it gave me nightmares. All the time I dreaded them persuading him not to marry me. I almost prayed for them to be killed in a car or a plane crash! How horrible!"

It was so silent in the purple dusk that the sizzling of potatoes in a frying pan could be heard through an open kitchen window. Olya thought about the one whose presence in the world she had so clearly felt that morning. And now she immersed herself with calm joy in the future needs of the child, its little clothes, feeding it. Without knowing why, she was sure she would have a boy. She knew she would call him Kolka, that she would live with him at Borissov, that she would find some dull, monotonous job there, and the monotony of the peaceful, gray days that lay ahead suddenly seemed to her an unspeakable blessing.

She pictured how he would learn about the life of his grandfather, Ivan, and her own life. What had seemed to them like the disastrous collapse of all their plans would pa.s.s into his childish mind like a fairy tale, a kind of family legend: his heroic grandfather, who had suffered for the truth in his old age; his mother who had refused to live in Moscow, because the life they lead there is noisy, and dangerous even, on account of the crazy cars.

"For the moment I'll say nothing to my father," she thought. "After the court case, when he's well again, I'll tell him everything."

Vitaly Ivanovich listened to Olya without interrupting. His silence slightly disconcerted her. She spoke calmly, striving to be logical and convincing. Vitaly Ivanovich kneaded his face with his hand, nodding his head and from time to time threw her a twinkling and somewhat distant glance. Olya knew that from her very first words he had grasped everything she was about to tell him and was now patiently waiting for the conclusion of her speech. She uttered her final words in louder and more resolute tones: "You know, Vitaly Ivanovich, maybe this is my destiny. In the end we each have our cross to bear. For some it's Moscow for others, Borissov..."

Olya thought he would be in a hurry to dissuade her, and start to reason with her in an amiable and friendly manner: "Listen, this is just a whim, you'll get over it," or, alternatively, remind her in a dry voice of her duty and her responsibilities. But he continued rubbing his face, nodded, and said nothing. It was only when he heard her final words that he murmured: "Yes, yes, destiny... destiny..." Then, lifting up his face with its reddened cheekbones, he said: "It's been a crazy night, the telephone didn't stop ringing. I'm finding it hard to keep my eyes open. As soon as I sit down I fall asleep. I'm telling you this because, as you so aptly pointed out just now, we each have our cross to bear."

He smiled, weary and absent-minded. "When I was a student, you know, I studied philosophy at first; it was only later I changed to law. I was, so to speak, looking for myself. It always seemed to me that something didn't quite hang together, that it wasn't... When I embarked on philosophy I thought I should be immersed at once in the unfathomable mysteries of existence. Very well, I open Aristotle and he argues as follows: Why excuse me does the urine of a man who's eaten onions smell of onion? And the pinnacle of all philosophical thought was Brezhnev's speech to the last historic Party Plenum. When you're young all that's very painful! Now, of course, it's ridiculous even to think about it. We had a professor, you know, a kind of last of the Mohicans, one of the remaining ones who had qualified at St. Petersburg University. And been in the camps under Stalin, of course. Young people love professors like this. So I ran to him.

"'Here's how it is, Igor Valerianovich. I'm in the middle of an intellectual crisis, a crisis as profound as that of bourgeois philosophy itself. Suppose I do law studies. I qualify and I set out to crush the Rostov mafia as an investigating magistrate, braving the gangsters' bullets...'

"And then, of course, I talk to him about destiny, about vocation, about the cross I have to bear. And this old philosopher went on listening and then said to me: 'And you, distinguished young man, do you know the parable of the human cross?'

" 'No,' I told him. 'Never heard of it.'

" 'Well, listen. A man was bearing his heavy cross. He bore it and bore it and in the end he started cursing G.o.d. Too heavy, this cross. It's cutting into his neck, crushing him, bowing him low over the earth. He can't stand it any longer. G.o.d heard his lamentations and took pity on him.'

" 'Right,' he told him. 'Follow me, unhappy man.' He leads him to a vast pile of crosses.

" 'Behold. All these are human destinies, you see. Cast aside your own cross and choose another. Perhaps you'll find a lighter one.'

"The man is overjoyed and begins trying them out. He puts one of them on his shoulder. 'No, too heavy. Heavier than mine.' And he takes up another one. He spends the whole day running around the mountain of crosses and doesn't manage to choose one. Heavy are the crosses humans bear. Finally, toward evening, he finds one.

" 'Here,' he says. 'This one is lighter than the rest. It's not a cross, it's a real delight.'

"And G.o.d smiles. 'But that's your old cross, the one you cast aside this morning...'

"And that's the story. I approve of the professor myself, of course, and in my heart of hearts I think, like Goethe, as perhaps you do now: 'All theory's gray, my friend, and green and golden is the tree of life.' Ah, well. But in practical terms this is what we'll do, Olya. When is your vacation due? In October? We'll bring it forward to July. You'll have the time you need for reflection. To choose a lighter cross..."

Ivan's case came up at the beginning of July in the ugly little court building for the area, from which the Moskva River and the huge dockside warehouses could be seen. It was an old building on two floors, the staircases were worn and the courtrooms full of dust. In the dark corridor there was a whole row of doors, padded with black imitation leather. When one of them opened there was a glimpse of dark shelves piled high with thick files, a desk covered in papers, and, in the corner, a kettle on an electric burner. Out in the noisy, sun-drenched streets it was difficult to imagine that just two steps away from there such a place could exist, drab and silent, with people making tea on electric burner in this somnolent semi-darkness.

At one o'clock in the afternoon Ivan was led into one of the courtrooms where shaky chairs were set out in untidy rows. On a little platform stood the desk for the judge and the a.s.sessors; fastened to the front of this desk was the emblem of the Soviet Union. Behind a wooden rail could be seen the bench for the accused. The rail had been marked by hundreds of hands: scratches, crosses, dates, initials... On each side of the judge's desk stood the rather smaller tables for the prosecutor and the defense lawyer.

At one o'clock in the afternoon Ivan walked into this courtroom escorted by two militiamen: three hours later he was carried out from it, dead.

The window in the courtroom was half open but no coolness could be felt. The sun shone, hot and un-moving. Swaying gently, the fluffy seeds from the poplar trees floated in through the windows.

During those three hours facts had been produced apparently connected with the trial but at the same time infinitely remote from it. There were a lot of people. Everyone wanted to know all the details. The air in the courtroom was heavy and stifling. Some people fanned themselves with newspapers; others, going through clumsy contortions, took off their jackets, causing the chairs to creak. Two women in the back row talked the whole time, listening neither to Ivan's replies nor to the judge, nor to the witnesses. It was hard to understand why they had come there to waste their time in a Turkish bath like that.

The voices rang out dully, as if m.u.f.fled by the lightly fluttering poplar down. One of the women a.s.sessors was allergic to these fluffy flakes. She was constantly blowing her nose, blinking her red eyes and thinking only one thing: let it end as quickly as possible! All her colleagues thought the same. The sun made people sleepy. Most of them were already getting ready to go on vacation, gleefully counting the days: just another week and then...

The judge, also a woman, had done too much sunbathing at her dacha the previous Sunday, and beneath her severe suit she now felt a stinging pain on her shoulders. She, too, wanted to make an end of these proceedings, p.r.o.nounce sentence a year's suspended sentence, she thought and, as soon as possible, on her return home, anoint her shoulders with soothing cream. That was the advice of the a.s.sessor who was suffering from the poplar down. "Perhaps it's not an allergy but flu," the judge thought. "You sometimes get it in summer."

No one could quite remember at what moment the accused, Demidov, instead of the brief reply he was asked for, began talking very loudly, stammering, almost shouting. The judge tried to interrupt him, tapping on the desk with a pencil and saying in a deliberately formal voice: "That has no relevance to your case." Then she thought it was better to let the veteran get it all off his chest all the more so because she had received a telephone call from on high advising her to bring the matter to a quiet conclusion, not to be too zealous.

Ivan talked about the war, about Stalin, about the Victory. He stuttered a little, alarmed by the silence that arose between his words, trying to break through the dense sleepiness of the afternoon. For no good reason he mentioned the Bolshoi, Afghanistan (here the judge began tapping on the desk with her pencil again), and the one-legged Semyonov. People p.r.i.c.ked up their ears at first, then relapsed into uncomprehending indifference. Gorbachev had already allowed all this to be discussed in the newspapers. The women looked at their watches and the men, antic.i.p.ating the suspension of the hearing, fiddled with their cigarettes. The ones in the back row, as before, paid no attention to anyone and were whispering. The judge said something in the ear of the a.s.sessor next to her. The prosecutor, picking at his sleeves, was removing little pieces of fluff from them.

At length Ivan fell abruptly silent. He embraced the courtroom with a slightly mad look and, addressing no one in particular, cried out with an old man's hiss: "You have turned my daughter into a prost.i.tute!"

At that moment he caught Olya's eye. He no longer heard the hubbub arising from the public nor the judge's voice announcing that the hearing was suspended. He grasped that what had just occurred was something utterly monstrous, compared with which his drunkenness and the brawl at the Beriozka were but trifles. His daughter's face was hidden from him by someone getting up to go. He turned his gaze toward the windows and was astonished to see that the win-dowsill was gleaming in the sunlight with a strange iridescent glow. Then this light swelled, became dazzling and painful and suddenly the sill turned black. Ivan sat down heavily and his head fell onto the wooden handrail, marked with old dates and unknown names.

It was with some difficulty that the van pulled clear of Moscow in mid-festival, picked up speed, as if in relief, and plunged onto the freeway to Riazan. The driver and his colleague came from Riazan themselves. They did not know Moscow well and were apprehensive of running into the traffic police, who were in evidence at every crossroads on account of the festival. But everything pa.s.sed off all right.

Olya was seated in the dark interior of the van. With her lightly shod foot she steadied the coffin draped in red cloth as it slithered about at each bend in the road. The van was open at the back and above the tailgate there was a bright rectangle of light. As they drove through Moscow there were glimpses, sometimes of a street Olya knew well, sometimes of a group of tourists in garish clothes. Coaches bearing the emblems of the festival scurried up and down the streets and here and there one could often make out the white jackets and blue pants of the interpreters. All this reminded Olya of the Olympic Games and that summer, now so long ago. Then open fields began to slip past in the rectangle of light, the gray freeway, the first villages.

Miraculously, after two days of fruitless searching, Olya had found this vehicle and succeeded in persuading the driver to take her. He had agreed simply because they were going in the same direction. Olya had given him almost all the money she had left.

Halfway there the driver turned off into a side road and stopped. The van doors slammed and his colleague's head appeared at the back above the tailgate.

"Not too shaken? We'll be there in an hour. Wait a while; we're just going to call in at a store. Everywhere's dry in Moscow, you know, especially now that the festival's on..."

Olya heard the footsteps moving off. In the sunny rectangle could be seen part of an izba, a fence, a garden in which an old woman was stooping down to pull something out of the ground. It was hot. Little rays of sunlight filtered in through the cracks. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked lazily.

Olya was convinced that at Borissov, once they learned of her arrival, everyone would rally around to arrange the funeral and find the musicians. She even imagined a procession of local dignitaries in their grotesque dark suits, the tinny grinding of the band, the condolences to which she would have to respond with meaningless set phrases.

But it all turned out differently. The driver and his colleague, sweating and panting in an exaggerated manner, let the coffin drop on the table and made off, after extracting another ten rubles from her on account of it being on the third floor. Olya was left all alone facing this long red box, fearsome in its silence.

In the morning she went to the motor pool where her father had worked. She was received by the new boss in jeans that were baggy at the knees. Once he had grasped what this was about, he began talking rapidly, without letting her get a word in edgewise. All the vehicles were requisitioned for summer work at the kolkhoz, the only two remaining ones lacked wheels, and half the personnel were away on holiday. And, in self-justification, he showed her the deserted yard, spotted with black patches of oil, and a truck, into whose engine a disheveled lad was plunged up to the waist. "And in any case," added the boss, "we're operating a self-financing regime now."

"But I'll pay," Olya hastened to say, to calm him down. "Just give me a vehicle and some men."

"But I've just told you, I can't," groaned the boss, spreading out his arms in a gesture of helplessness.

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