Recently, my friend sent me a short story I had written a six yrs ago. I thought it had been lost forever in the great hard drive meltdown of 2005…but then he sent me an email saying he had read it, and that he thought I should be a writer, and also that “the original computer [he] had this saved on also crashed, but we recovered everything from the hard drive and put it onto this computer. This is a lucky document!” ^_^
It was interesting to see how I wrote back when I was still in high school, to see what ideas I was preoccupied w/. There are a fair amount of problems in this story, of course, anachronisms or improbabilities that may disturb the reader. But overall, I’m proud of this little piece.
ETA: I couldn’t resist “cleaning up” the text a bit…but it’s mostly intact.
1945—Here it is cold. Here the ground is as vast and empty as the barren night sky above. There is no moon; there are no stars. The world is icily silent, comfortless. This is not a good place, it is not a stopping place. And yet, the soldier does not think he can take another step. He has been walking for two days. He is going home. The war is over! Yes, the war is over. But there is not much to celebrate right now. His backpack is empty of food, weak and deflated, and clings to back like the remains of some shriveled old cocoon he cannot shed. He has only a little water, and it is probably frozen; he can no longer hear it sloshing in his canteen, harmonizing with his footfalls. He is not cold. Well, he does not feel cold. He knows he must be cold, because his breath is no longer coming out in silky white puffs. Bad sign. For a while, his entire body hurt, especially his feet in their tired boots, but now he feels nothing. He thinks that maybe he took a wrong turn somewhere; stepped out of this world and into a void. How this night obliterates the senses! He cannot even smell anything but pure, dry, powdery air. It seared his nostrils as if it were hot instead of so cold. But now, he can’ t feel anything. Poor man, he may collapse at any minute, dead from exposure. What will be his salvation? He thinks about praying, but his lips won’ t form the words. And how can God hear him through this silence weighted with ice? Besides, he and God are not on the best of terms right now. He knows better than to expect any divine interventions. Twin lights appear, easing their way closer, sailing gracefully over the gravelly road—the lanterns of angels. He clutches his coat around him and trudges on, not daring to hope, still too prideful to drop dead before a stranger. The car slows, stops. So does he. A window is rolled down, and a woman sticks her head out.“ Hello,” she says. “ Where are you going?”
He doesn’ t care where she’ s going, he will go there too. He will go anywhere to get away from this timeless, frozen road. He doesn’ t want to scare her off, though, doesn’ t want to seem like trouble. “Not far.”
“Want a ride?”
“Please,” he says, his voice cracking a little, like water poured over ice. She leans over and opens the door. “Thank you.” The interior of the car feels ridiculously warm, tropically warm. He rubs his hands together so that they sting and smart. He will not lose any fingers. Maybe some toes, maybe the tips of the ears, but his hands are intact. The air smells sweet, like clovers, like honey. He wonders if it is the scent of the stranger, or if he is just smelling life.“ What is your name?” she asks.
“I am Vera. Where are you from?”
“What a coincidence! I was recently there myself, though I live in Eysk. Why did you leave? There is nothing to be found out here.”
“My home is here. I must see to my affairs.”
They drive, neither saying anything for a while. He tries to get a good look at Vera’ s face, but this proves impossible. He can only catch tantalizing glimpses, the slight upward tilt of her nose, the long curve of her mouth.
“What company were you with?” Vera asks. He stiffens. Does she want to ask him about
the war? He is not the one to ask. He is nothing; the fact that he is still alive means nothing. War had gorged itself so much that when it finally stuffed him into its jaws, it could hold no more, and vomited him back up. Nevertheless, he feels indebted to Vera enough that he will answer her question.
“I was with the 2nd Tank Company—part of the 1st Tank Battalion.”
“Did you know a man named Innokenty Chernyshev?”
“Kesha Chernyshev? Yes, I knew him a little.” His hands are trembling, so he clutches his knees to keep them still.
“You did! Where is he? I have been searching for him; I heard he lived here.”
“ He is dead.”
“ Dead! And I was going to kill him myself. He stabbed my brother to death over a few rubles in a bar brawl.”
“How awful. Who was your brother?”
“His name was Marik Bykovsky.”
“ Well, Kesha died in Leningrad,” he assures her.
He is sleepier than he has ever been in his life. He was drowsy as a child, fatigued as a soldier, but this irresistible exhaustion utterly overpowers him. He gives a sigh that scaresVera because it sounds so final, and sinks back into his seat to rest. He does not wake up until an hour later, when the car grinds slowly to a stop. It has stopped in front of a grubby little pub that he used to frequent when he was young and foolish. His vision wavers. He tries to focus on the battered sign hanging above the door, the one spot of color in this place of chill blues and grays, and he is disturbed to find he cannot decipher it. It takes him a full two minutes to realize the sign is no longer legible. Vera has already left the car. He stumbles out after her, follows her through the rough wooden door.
The pub is filled with large, ruddy men drinking shots of oily-looking vodka. There is something wrong. It takes a moment for him to realize what it is: the silence. There is no happy chatter, no laughter. Just a low, furtive murmur, and everyone is talking carefully, as if there is something dormant they do not want to wake.
A waitress wearing a stained blouse and wool stockings that bunch around her knees comes up to them. She has a pink sonsy face and blonde braids. “Hello,” she says, greeting Vera. “ We don’ t see new faces here often.”
Vera smiles. “I’ m Vera, and this is Anatoli. I found him.”
The waitress laughs. “A castoff, is he?” He ducks his head, pulling the lapels of hiscoat around his face, appearing shy. She shakes their hands. “ I’ m Pava.” Pavlina. Pava. Yes, he knows. They—he and Vera—sit at a small rickety table, scarred with deep scratches. You and I, he thinks fondly at the table, oh, what stories we could tell.
“Pava, bring us something, could you?” calls Vera. “ I’ m parched!” A couple of men toast to that.“ Do you have any money?” She asks him. He shakes his head and gives a bitter smile. He spent it all in Moscow.
“No matter,” she says.
“I can pay you later.”
“No matter,” she says again. Pava brings them a tray with drinks. He takes a great swig, feels the liquid burning through him, imagines it thawing his organs. Vera swallows, makes a face, and sets down her glass.“ I can’ t afford more,” she tells him regretfully, then goes up to the counter to pay. He watches her. She is wearing a long, black coat and a thick black scarf wound around her neck and head. Curls of dark brown hair have escaped, and stick to her forehead like dashes of paint. He watches her mouth move as she talks to the cashier, hands him a few coins. It is a thin, expressive mouth, a mouth like a red rubber band. He realizes suddenly that he has to get to a bathroom. He gets up awkwardly—the vodka has gone straight to his head—and shambles over to the privy. Inside it is smoky and lit with an old-fashioned lamp that smells strongly. There is a cracked mirror which for a moment reflects a harrowed white face with hollow eyes like a skull’ s. When He returns to the main room, Vera is still by the register. Pava is on tiptoe, whispering something in her ear. Vera replies, makes a decisive gesture, then returns to the table. Pava comes with her, and glances at him over Vera’ s shoulder.
When they go out again, the cold is cruel. He feels like an exposed belly, and the cold is an iron knife, stabbing him. He wonders if his limbs will snap off. He wishes they would, for then he would not have to feel them. He tries to gather to himself vestiges of warmth from the oily vodka and the snug interior of the nameless pub. They walk briskly to the car. For some reason, he finds himself overcome with grief, at a time when he should be most happy and grateful. He looks out the window, trying to confine his feelings into one of the words he knows (lost, sad), when he hears the faint click of a pistol hammer being cocked. He looks over. Vera is still driving, but she is steering with only one hand. The other is holding a gun, its barrel pointed at him, the small, dark hole like a bottomless eye.
“You have been lying to me.” Her voice, as perfectly measured and flat as the beat of ametronome, betrays nothing.
“I didn’ t know it was you. It was the waitress who told me who you were. She said she almost didn’ t recognize you, your face is so changed.” That was what he had been counting on.
She laughs savagely; a sound like tearing flesh. “I saved your life! I saved the life of my brother’ s murderer, when I have devoted all my time, all my savings, to hunting him down and killing him!” She has an undercurrent of a scream in her voice. “I suppose you’re going to try and kill me now.”
“You’ re the one with the gun.”
“Yes. And I will shoot you if you move.”
“I don’ t have any killing left in me,” he confides.
“ Open the door.”
“ Open the door. I don’ t want to have to cart your carcass around after I shoot you.”
“Please,” he says. “Please, could you just take me home first? I just want to see my home, and then you can kill me. I must know if my family is all right. After that, I’ ll shoot myself if you wish it.”
“You didn’ t let Marik ask such mercy.”
“Please,” he says again, that tattered word.
There is a long pause. “All right.”
“Thank you,” he whispers, and allows his head to sink down, his torso a crumbling tower.
“Shut up!” she jabs him in the ribs with the gun, making him straighten and start. “No more words!”
After a little time, he dares to say, “Turn here,” and braces himself, waiting for a blow. He recognizes immediately the clump of birch trees that grows in the front of the house. They stand still and solemn now, a circle of dark priests, far removed from the sunny memories of his childhood, when he dangled barefoot from their patient branches. Vera stops the car, but does not turn it off. The headlights illuminate his house.
“Ah,” he says softly.
His house has been burnt down, perhaps by ravening Germans. Oh, where was the glorious Red Army when his house was in flames? There is just rubble there, lying behind the birch trees, which were miraculously spared. Sticks and stones like broken bones, he thinks inanely, looking at the charred heap. He struggles to find the proper words, tomake a fitting eulogy, but gives up quickly. There is nothing in him left to absorb this new grief. He is too cold and tired for poetry. He picks up a stone that he recognizes as having belonged to his hearth.
“Ah,” he says again. “They have left me with nothing.”
“You deserve nothing, you murderous pig, except death,” says Vera. She has come upbehind him, holding the gun. Her face is crumpled and awash with tears.
“I’ m ready to die now,” he says. The long night is over. There is a white light on the horizon, as if the inky dark is being scrubbed away. He kneels before Vera, his hands clenched over the unyielding earth. She stands there, aiming the gun at him, a shot she cannot miss; but she does not move. He thinks that perhaps she is reveling in the destruction of his home and wants him to suffer a little more, and he thinks this is fair. He tries to imagine what it will be like once he is dead, but he can’ t. All he can do is hope that it will be quiet. Not the tense quiet before a storm, when all the birds have stopped singing, nor the terrible quiet of a battlefield littered with dead, once the fighting is over. He wants peace. And perhaps there will be birch trees. He would like that. Up, up rises the slow red sun, and all the world burns. He wants her to shoot him now. The cold hurts.
“Get up,” whispers Vera. Then louder, “Are you an idiot? Can you not hear me? Get up, get up!” She stows the gun in her jacket and begins to walk away. He staggers after her stiffly.
“You promised to kill me.”
“I was going to. I still want to. But I can’ t, I can’ t. I can’ t even kill myself for failing my brother!” She raises her face to heaven, as if she expects to find Marik frowning sternly back among the clouds. “Oh Marik—Marik forgive me, I cannot kill this man!”
“Many have died,” says he. “What’ s one more?”
Vera turns away from him, and squints at the blazing sky. “Too many.”