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Short Story Classics




Yuri Markovich Nagibin


My First and Most Beloved Friend

by Yuri Markovich Nagibin

Translated by Margaret Wettlin


“It is easy to love for no reason. Friendship is not so irresponsible.”

We lived in the same house, on the same stairway, but we did not know each other. Not all of the kids in our house were members of our gang by far. Some parents, protecting their offspring from the influence of the street, sent them with nurse-maids to walk in the park of the Lazarev Institute, or in the church yard where spreading maples threw their shadow upon the sepulcher of the Matveyev boyars.

There bored to death under the surveillance of god-fearing and decrepit old women, these children in hidden ways discovered secrets the kids of the street shouted forth at the top of their lungs. Timidly if greedy they deciphered the "rock legends" inscribed on the boyars' sepulchre and on the pedestal of the monument raised to State Councillor Lazarev, Knight of several orders. Through no fault of his own, my future friend shared the fate of this pitiful hot-house breed.

All the children living in Armyansky Lane and the adjacent street went to either one or the other of the two schools on the other side of Pokrovka. One was in Starosadsky, the other in Spasoglinishchevsky Lane. I had no luck. In the year of my entering school there were so many applicants that those two schools could not accept them all and I became one of a group sent to a school quite a distance from home, School No. 40 in Lobkovsky Lane on the other side of the Chistye Ponds.

We immediately realized that we were in for it. The kids from the Chistye Ponds were at home here, whereas we were looked upon as intuders, uninvited guests. In time the school would boil us all together in its pot and we would be on an equal footing. But at first the healthy instinct of self-preservation made the boys from our district hang together. We sought one another during the intervals and we came to school and went home in a solid body. The most dangerous moment was that of crossing the boulevard. We executed it in military formation. On reaching Telegraph Lane the tension was somewhat relaxed and by the time we got to Potapovsky we felt that we were completely out of danger and began capering, bawling songs, wrestling and, when winter came, throwing snowballs.

It was in Telegraph Lane that I first noticed a tall, thin, pale and freckle-faced boy with blue-grey eyes that seemed to take up half his face. He was standing off to one side with his head inclined, watching our pranks with a quiet, unenvious admiration. He would give a little start whenever a snowball sent by a friendly but unrelenting hand caught somebody in the eye or on the mouth, and if one of us made a particularly daring sally, he would give a restrained smile and a flush of suppressed excitement would color his cheeks. Once I discovered I was shouting too loud, gesticulating with too much vigor and putting on a show of fearlessness not required by the game we were playing. The realization that I was showing off in front of this new boy made me hate him. Why should he be hanging about all the time? What was he after? Could he have been sicked on us by our enemies? When I voiced my suspicions, the other boys laughed at me.

"Dope! He's from our house."

It turned out he was not only from our house, he lived in the flat just below me and went to our school, though he was in a parallel class. How could we have failed to meet before? My attitude to the grey-eyed boy changed immediately. What I had taken for intrusiveness had been reticence that kept him from thrusting himself forward; he had a right to join our gang but he was waiting to be invited. So I took the initiative in my hands.

During our next snowball fight I sent a ball in his direction. It hit him on the shoulder and he looked surprised and seemed to mind it. The next one brought an uncertain smile to his lips, and only with the third did he believe in the miracle of his acceptance as one of us and, picking up a handful of snow, he addressed an answering missile to me.

"You live downstairs from me?" I asked him when the fight was over.

"Yes," he replied. "Our windows face Telegraph Lane."

"I see. Your room's underneath Aunt Katya's. You live in one room?"

"Two. The second's a dark one."

"So's ours. The light one looks out over the dump." The opening small talk over, I introduced myself. "My name's Yura. What's yours?"


That was forty-two years ago. Since then innumerable people have been introduced to me and innumerable names have sounded in my ear, but none of these experiences can compare with that moment in the snow of a Moscow street when my long-legged neighbor pronounced his name: Pavlik.

What a personality that boy must have been (he did not live to be a man) if he could have entered so deeply and permanently into the life of one who, with all his love of his childhood, has never been bound to the past. Undeniably I am fond of conjuring up the spirits of earlier days, yet I do not live in the shadows of yesterday, but in the harsh light of today. And for me Pavlik is not a memory but a part of my being. Sometimes this sense of his oneness with me is so acute that I begin to believe one does not wholely die if the matter of which one is formed can become part of the matter of those who live after. This may not be immortality, but it is something of a victory over death.

I am aware that I am not yet able to write worthily about Pavlik. Perhaps I never shall be able to. There is much that I do not understand—the symbolic significance, for instance, of the death of twenty-year-olds. Yet I cannot keep him out of this book; without him, the population of my childhood, to use the words of Andrei Platonov, would not be complete.

At first our relationship meant more to Pavlik than to me. I had already tasted friendship. In addition to the usual run of good companions, I had a bosom friend in Mitya Grebennikov, who wore his thick dark hair cut like a girl's. Our friendship had begun at the tender age of four.

Mitya had lived in our house until his parents exchanged their rooms. Now Mitya lived in a big six-storied neighboring house on the corner of Sverchkov and Potapovsky lanes, and he was vastly proud of his new circumstances. Who wouldn't be? The house was a grand one, with a handsome entrance, big heavy doors and a noiseless lift. Mitya was always boasting: "The view of Moscow from the sixth floor...." "How people can live without lifts...." I gently reminded him he had lived in our house until recently and managed very well without a lift. Mitya gazed at me with his moist dark eyes, the kind of eyes our elders were fond of comparing to sloes, and fastidiously remarked that that time seemed to him but a bad dream. He deserved having his face punched for that. But Mitya resembled a girl not only in looks; he was so sensitive, timorous and weepy, despite his hysterical fits of rage, that I could rarely bring myself to hurt him. This time, however, I let him have it. With an ear-splitting scream he snatched up a fruit knife and tried to cut me to pieces. Forgiving as a woman, he sidled up to me next day to make peace: "Our friendship is something bigger than us, we have no right to lose it." Oh, he was a great one for throwing about high-sounding phrases! His father was a lawyer and Mitya inherited his gift for holding forth.

Our priceless friendship was almost wrecked on the first day of school. We went to the same school and our mothers arranged to have us seated next to each other. When class functionaries were to be elected, Mitya nominated me for sanitary inspector. I did not nominate him for any of the other posts—why, I do not know; perhaps because I didn't think of it, perhaps because I was shy of nominating him after he had done the same for me. Mitya made no mention of his disappointment, but the moment when I was elected sanitary inspector marked the moment when I was dismissed from his good graces. My duties consisted of wearing an arm-band with a red cross on it and of examining the hands and necks of my fellows before lessons began and putting a cross in my notebook opposite the names of the unwashed. Three crosses in succession meant either the crime had to be rectified by a scrubbing, or one of the parents had to appear in school. On the face of it, there seemed to be no dazzling splendor in my position, but Mitya was green with envy. Night after night after elections he would telephone our number and in a tone of withering sarcasm ask for "Comrade Sanitary Inspector." I would go to the phone. "Comrade Sanitary Inspector?" "Yes." "You barnacled bladder troll!"—and down would go the receiver. It must have taken a great deal of resentment to think up a cuss-word like that. I accepted the title as the name of some slimy and obscene species of the devil.

I came to look upon Mitya's outbursts, changes of mood, sentimental tirades and zest for quarrelling (if only for the sake of the treacly reconciliations), as an indispensable aspect of friendship. When I came to know Pavlik I did not realize for some time that I had found a different and more genuine kind of friendship. I believed I was merely patronizing a queer egg who was exceedingly shy. To a certain extent this was true of our early relationship. Pavlik had not lived in our house very long and had no friends. Furthermore he was, as I have already said, one of those unfortunate kids taken for outings in the church yard or the park of the Lazarev Institute.

The regimen of supervised outings exhausted his parents' solicitude for his well-being. In later years I knew of no way in which they curbed his activities or intruded upon his life. He enjoyed complete independence, resigning all rights to parental care in favor of his younger brother, he himself seeing to his own upbringing. I am not exaggerating; that is exactly how it was. Pavlik loved his family and was loved by them, but he refused his parents the right to govern his likes and dislikes, the order of his day and his movements. He was much freer than I was, with all the domestic taboos I was subjected to. Even so I played the first fiddle in our friendship. This was not only because I was an old resident of the neighborhood; my advantage lay mainly in my being unaware of our friendship. I still looked upon Mitya Grebennikov as my best friend. It is amazing how adroitly he forced me to play the game of "Sacred Friendship" with him. He liked to walk down school corridors with his arm on my shoulder and to have our pictures taken together with the waters of Chistye Ponds as background. Vaguely I felt that his motives were not wholly disinterested; say what you like, there was something flattering about being the friend of Comrade Sanitary Inspector; and, posed against the camera of one of the Ponds' "shooters" his delicate effeminate beauty gained by contrast with my broad-faced, flat-nosed plainness. While the photographer was busy with his machinations underneath the black rag, nurse-maids vied with one another in admiring Mitya's sloe eyes, his haircut disgustingly styled a Bubikopf and the entrancing black bow that blossomed out from under his collar. "Why, he's as pretty as a girl!" they gushed, and that moron took it as a compliment.

In addition to everything else he was a squealer. One day our class teacher ripped into me for playing games for money. Once in my life, and that in my pre-school days, I had paid out seven kopecks and remained a ruble in debt as a result of pitching coins. Believing in the sincerity of my repentance, grandfather paid my debt of honor, and that ended my life as a gambler.

When Mitya was driven into a corner he confessed to having squealed. He did it, he assured me, for my own good, fearing my wicked instincts might once more be aroused and cause the ruin of a promising career (that of a Sanitary Inspector). With tears in his eyes he begged me to return my trust in him for the sake of our Sacred Friendship which was something greater than ourselves, and he attempted to seal it with a Judas kiss. All this smacked of fraud, baseness and hypocrisy; and yet for another two years I prolonged the indecent farce; prolonged it, in fact, until I realized that genuine friendship was to be found elsewhere. Mitya, however, was really attached to me and took our separation very much to heart.

Now Pavlik took up a firm hold of my life. The kids in our yard as well as our schoolmates took it for granted that I was the leader in this association and Pavlik was the led. Those with hostile inclinations looked upon Pavlik as a sort of make-weight attached to me. This attitude was handed down from the days when I "introduced Pavlik into society," first into the society of our yard; later, of our class, when he transferred to it, where he was looked upon as an oddball. In those days I was very severe: I would accept no invitations to birthday, New Year, or any other parties unless Pavlik was invited too. I walked out on our yard's soccer team, in which I was considered the best center forward, because Pavlik had been rejected even as a substitute player, and returned only when he was accepted. In this way an illusion of our inequality was created, which nothing in ensuing years could blast. Public opinion resists change even when contradicted by obvious facts.

In our case the facts were that neither of us depended on the other, but undoubtedly Pavlik was morally superior. His code of honor was stricter and purer than mine. My long friendship with Mitya could not but leave its mark; I had become used to compromising with my conscience. The acceptance of betrayal differs little from betrayal itself. When it came to matters of the conscience, Pavlik was adamant. We were fourteen years old when I was given a hard lesson in how uncompromising the gentle, easy-going Pavlik could be.

I felt like a prince at the German lessons. Not for nothing had mother worn herself out at the typewriter, tapping out roubles to pay Fraulein Schultz for poisoning my young life. My head was not one that easily absorbed foreign languages, and even so it was stuffed with so many German words, poems and grammar rules, to say nothing of recht Berliner Aussprache, that I became the pet of the school German teachers who successively carried on our education in this field. Elena Frantzevna, the one who lasted the longest, was no exception, though I in no way answered her ideal of what a pupil should be.

It was not the ordinary silence and attention that Elena Frantzevna demanded of us, but the pious concentration, as in a cathedral. She was so thin and sallow and had such dark circles under the lemur-like eyes on a face no bigger than a fist, that she seemed to be dying of some dreadful illness. She was, however, extremely healthy and never missed a lesson, not even during the grippe epidemic that made victims of all our other teachers, one after another. She would shout at a pupil for a wandering glance or a stray smile. Worse than her shouts were her upbraidings, every word of which was like a bite. Naturally we called her the Rat behind her back—every school has its Rat—and the sharp, thin, cranky Elena Frantzevna seemed specially made for that nickname. Was she really so wicked? There was no question about it in the minds of the other boys, but I felt she was a harassed unfortunate creature. But then I was the prince! Whenever she called on me to read aloud and I came out with my "genuine Berlin pronunciation" her ugly little face would glow with pleasure.

But my turn came. Elena Frantzevna never asked me the day's lesson. Why should she? She and I just talked German together. And then all of a sudden she called me to the blackboard like any of the other pupils. Just before that I had missed a few days, whether because of sickness or playing truant I don't remember, and I had not the slightest idea of what the homework assignment had been. I suppose she really was malicious and called me to the board just to catch me. At first I made a good showing. I conjugated a certain verb, listed the prepositions governing the dative case, read a sickeningly didactic piece out of the textbook, and retold it in my genuine Berlin pronunciation.

"Excellent," Elena Frantzevna murmured through thin white lips. "And now the poem."

"What poem?"

"The one I gave you to learn."

"I didn't know you had given us a poem."

"You've got the bad habit of day-dreaming during lessons." Marvellous how quickly she got the steam up: "For a big boy like you to be so badly behaved...."

"I was absent. I was sick."

She stared at me for a moment with her black-ringed lemurlike eyes, then referred to her roll-book. Her fingers were trembling.

"Yes, you were absent, but didn't you have the sense to ask one of your friends for the homework assignment?"

I ought to have simply admitted I didn't have the sense. What could she have done to me? Given me a bad mark? Hardly. But I didn't say that. I found a way out. I said I had asked Pavlik and he had not told me about the poem. Probably forgot. I said this to Elena Frantzevna with a light touch, inviting her to treat the incident in a humorous vein.

"Stand up!" she ordered Pavlik. "Is this the truth?"

He bent his head and said nothing. Suddenly I realized it was not the truth. I had asked him about math, Russian, history, and biology, but I considered it beneath my dignity to do homework in German.

Elena Frantzevna now vented her wrath upon Pavlik. As usual, he took it in silence, without finding excuses or answering back, as if it did not concern him. Having let off her steam, she calmed down and asked me to recite any poem I liked. I spouted Schiller's Glove, for which I was rewarded with the top mark.

That was the end of it. Ah, if only it had been the end! When I, happy and triumphant, went back to my seat I discovered that Pavlik had changed his. He was no longer sitting beside me. He and his books, his papers, his pens and his pencils had disappeared. When I looked round I found he had taken an empty seat behind me.

"What's the idea?"

He didn't answer. His eyes had a strange look—moist and red. I had never seen Pavlik cry, not even after fierce unequal battles ending in defeat, when the toughest boys cry more out of hurt pride than hurt bodies. Now, too, he did not allow his tears to fall, but he was certainly crying.

"Forget it," I said. "The Rat isn't worth it."

He did not answer and looked past me. The Rat? He didn't give a hang for the Rat. His friend had betrayed him. Calmly, callously, publicly, in broad daylight, for the sake of a trifling gain, he had been betrayed by one for whom he would gladly have gone through fire and water.

Nobody wishes to admit his own baseness. I tried to convince myself I had done the right thing. Say what you like, it was his fault I got caught even if he had not meant to harm me. I had to defend myself somehow, didn't I? What if the Rat did shout at him? She shouted at everybody: it wasn't worth noticing. And yet.... If Pavlik had been in my place, would he have named me? Never. He would sooner have bitten off his tongue. A sudden coldness creeping up my spine made me realize that these were not empty words. Recently I had read a book about Giordano Bruno. Of all the people I knew, Pavlik was the only one who could, like Bruno, for the sake of the truth as he saw it.... And indeed, that is how matters turned out: like Bruno, Pavlik was burnt to death. He could have lived, had he but held up his hands.

When the bell rang I suppressed a desire to rush up to him, thereby confessing my guilt and my readiness to be punished.

For almost a year he shunned me. All my attempts to make it up casually, "as if nothing had happened," were rebuffed. There were plenty of opportunities for this. We still studied in the same class, lived in the same house, and walked the same streets. The other boys in the class showed great delicacy of feeling: as formerly they had respected our friendship, now they respected our estrangement and did everything in their power to prevent embarrassing situations. Teachers and other grown-ups, on the other hand, unaware of our quarrel, kept putting their feet in it. Accepting us as the two inseparables we had been, they would invariably put us in the same group for performing chemical experiments, or experiments in the physics laboratory, being on duty in the lunch-room, or carrying out tasks assigned by the Young Pioneer organization. Our classmates would then come to our aid by volunteering to take over for one of us.

In the bottom of my heart I did not thank them for it. They kept dashing my secret hope of making things up with Pavlik "by chance." Even so, there were many occasions when, both of us willing, we could have begun a cool relationship that would have brought us to our former friendship without the Dostoevsky-like baring of souls my friend Mitya took such pleasure in. This did not happen. Pavlik did not want it. He did not want it not only because he despised all round-about ways, all petty tricks and cunning, all the slippery, evasive ambiguous means resorted to by weaklings, but also because he had no need for a friend of the sort I had shown myself to be at the German lesson.

When, a year later, I sent him a note asking him to come and see me, he instantly climbed the stairs as in former days without making the slightest ceremony of it. I was somewhat flustered when I discovered there was no need for me to beg his pardon or in any way refer to what had happened. Pavlik did not expect me to hold myself responsible for what I had been. He was aware that a change had taken place in me and so he came.

Paul Valery has said somewhere that a writer recompenses himself as best he can for the injustices of fate. I am now recompensing myself for the injustice meted out to Pavlik. Not long ago the tenants of our old house held a reunion. I waited in vain for them to speak in kind and lofty terms of him. They recalled Ivan, they recalled Arsenov, Tolya Simakov and Boris Solomatin, but not a word did they say about Pavlik. True, they did send a letter to his parents, but that was a mere formality, however thoughtful.

They did not know him. A rare chastity of soul made him keep his inner world under lock and key. He felt he had no right to force his ideas and conceptions, his views and values, to say nothing of his doubts and hopes on others. Those who did not know him considered him listless, apathetic, prone to let life pass him by without stirring his feelings. But nobody knew better than I did how strong, impassioned, single-minded he was, and how charged with life. He was never given the opportunity to come before the judgment-seat of his fellowmen. Nothing of that which was growing, developing and coming to maturity within him had time to acquire final form.

The nature of friendship is different from that of love. It is easy to love for no reason; difficult to love for some reason. Friendship is not so irresponsible, although there is an element of the mystic in friendship too. I know what drew Pavlik to me and what he meant to me at the beginning of our friendship, but as the years went by we became enveloped in such a warmth of feeling that there was no place for rational analysis.

Pavlik was a "cerebral" boy. Of all the book heroes I know, he most resembled Jude the Obscure, with his irresistible longing for books and learning, with his constant thirst for knowledge. Pavlik's family did not supply him with intellectual nourishment. His father was a watch-maker, whose left eye was made wide and watery from constantly screwing a magnifying glass to it. Nothing in the world was of interest to him except watches and clocks. It is only in fairy-tales that watch-makers are imbued with an air of romanticism and benevolent oddity. Surely, it is thought, one who deals professionally with the mystery of time must not be like ordinary mortals. Pavlik's father repaired seconds, minutes and hours, but he himself lived outside of time, untouched by the affairs and interests evolving within it. True, when he was in good spirits he would recall with pleasure that he had once seen the excellent play Mr. Cabalsky and Love. Pavlik would turn pale when his father trespassed on such territory.

His mother made the impression that she had never heard of the invention of the printing-press. This was the more extraordinary in that her two brothers were eminent scientists, one a chemist, the other a biologist. She did not keep in touch with them (or perhaps they with her). She seemed to go about in this world without having quite awakened from the dark sleep of non-existence: a soft voice, a detached gaze, languid movements, little contact with other people. She reduced the cares of life to a minimum. Pavlik did everything in his power to avoid being drawn into her small world, allowing his younger brother to enjoy all the maternal solicitude that was available. On rare occasions she too had an urge: she would push the revolving stool closer to the piano and disturb the keys with listless fingers, closing her white eyelids which were as thin as the membrane of a bird's eye. At such moments Pavlik would turn as pale as when his father made his cultural sallies.

In my family, everybody exercised their brains, perhaps more than was desirable. We made a cult of books: grandfather collected scientific books, father technical ones, mother and I went in for fiction and memoirs. Violating the injunction that literature should be read but not discussed, we talked about it day and night. It would have been strange if, brought up in such an atmosphere, I had not become a book lover. I was saved from becoming a book worm only by the sinister lure of the streets and of the Akulovs' country place. The culture of our home was as essential to Pavlik as food and drink.

My communication with him gave me something of more importance. He was always Athos when we boys played The Three Musketeers, and he was like Athos: impeccable in his conduct at all times regardless of circumstances.

With every year we became closer and more essential to each other. As we reached adolescence we were both oppressed by the uncertainty of what we wanted to become. This question arose in our minds long before life faced us with the necessity of answering it. We both wanted to be actors and not walkers—on on life's stage. Other boys with marked talent already knew what path they should choose. Mathematics itself singled out Slava Zubkov; music: Tolka Simakov; painting: Sergei Lepkovsky, sport: Arsenov. Others who were not dominated by a talent that asserted itself at an early age at least knew the approximate field in which they wished to develop themselves: technology, medicine, teaching or building. Many of our schoolmates lived from day to day without troubling themselves about the future; they limited their interests to the daily round of school, soccer, movies and girls, letting the morrow take care of itself.

We could not content ourselves with such a vegetative sort of existence. Uncertainty oppressed us. Both of us did equally well in all our subjects, taking a passionate interest in none. Reading is a passive passion, one cannot make a vocation of reading any more than of going to the theatre or visiting museums. We were interested in everything. Now as I look back on those days I can see that we both were destined to serve Apollo rather than the sterner gods, yet we preferred attending scientific lectures by academicians Lazarev and Vavilov to going to plays and concerts. We were in search of ourselves. Pavlik was the one who led the search. It was he who decided we ought to make shoe polish. His uncle, the one who became an eminent chemist, began with making shoe polish; this led him to making something so extraordinary that he immediately became famous. Our efforts did not have such a glorious ending though we did our best, as testified by the pungent odour of blacking paste that pervaded the whole flat. We placated the other tenants by shining their shoes for them gratis, even shining Foma Zubtsov's high boots. Father laughed and said it was not Lavoisier but Rockefeller, who began with shining shoes. We did not even rise to a Rockefeller. Our paste did not polish, and, what was worse, it came off, leaving nasty smudges on everything the polished boot touched. Foma Zubtsov always had his boots repolished by the shine on the corner of Krivokolenny Lane.

Next we tried making red ink. It left indelible stains on hands, clothes, walls, and the dirty-white coat of my dog Jack, but when put to paper it displayed a watery quality we could not explain. Our written lines faded and died out and we began to think we must have discovered by chance a "sympathetic" ink; unfortunately it did not completely fade out.

The dazzling example of Pavlik's uncle made us obdurately pursue a science foreign to our very natures. We ruthlessly broke test-tubes and wasted chemicals; retorts exploded like bombs over our Bunson burner, throwing the tenants into a panic, until at last Pavlik had the courage to declare: "Enough of this! All we do is turn retorts into ground glass." With that we dropped experimenting in chemistry.

We took up physics, the science of the future. We attended lectures by famous physicists, tried to understand the theory of relativity under the encouraging eye of Einstein himself, whose photograph we pinned up on the wall, we argued about the quantum theory without understanding the first thing about it, we sweated over books by Knowlton, Eddington, Bragg, and at the same time we could hardly cope with the physics covered in school because neither of us were any good at mathematics. We were brought to our senses by none other than Pasternak. In his Safe Conduct I read of the tortures the future poet endured in his efforts to become a composer. He did not have a perfect ear for music, and when he discovered that Scriabin, whose genius he worshipped, also did not have a perfect ear and hid the fact as something deeply shameful, Pasternak gave up his efforts in the field of music. When I told Pavlik this in meaningful tones, he did not at first get the point. "Mathematics is as essential for a modern physicist," I explained, "as a perfect ear is for a composer."

"Right you are," he exclaimed and instantly yanked the plug out of the Wheatstone's bridge he was assembling. "To hell with physics !"—adding, after a moment's reflection: "And yet Scriabin became Scriabin without a perfect ear!"

The answer was that Scriabin could not live without composing and Pasternak could. And we could live without physics.

In a similar way we spent incalculable time and energy, but not much love on: geography—studying maps, and globes, reading books about Livingston, Stanley, Miklukho-Maklai and Przhevalsky, making excursions about Moscow, for the sake of learning the names of all places; on botany—collecting herbariums with their delicate odor of dried herbs, flowers and leaves and pooling our funds to buy a weak microscope; electricity, resulting in innumerable blown fuses and one sizable fire, which produced a red fire-engine, the frightening ringing of fire-bells, the unrolling of a hose that first was flat, then bloated like a boa-constrictor, and bustling firemen in shiny brass helmets.

The recreation we chose as a means of resting from our hard labors cost us no less exertion. "Time out!" Pavlik would cry, and at the same moment place a billiard cue, or a chair, or a broom, or even a flower-pot on his nose. I would follow suit.

We were bent on developing our balancing powers after having seen a famous Austrian juggler and magician perform at the Music Hall. Standing on a rope that was not drawn taut, he balanced on the end of his flat nose a five-foot steel rod with a tray on top holding a boiling samovar and a tea service. "We could learn to do that," said Pavlik. The declaration sent cold chills down my spine.

I knew Pavlik was as good as his word. My ribs and a slight concussion of the brain had taught me this. When awards were made to the first girl parachute-jumpers, Pavlik resolved that male honor must be defended by having us execute a jump from his kitchen window with two umbrellas. Happily it was his kitchen window that male honor dictated and not mine, one storey higher.

We found the umbrellas and drew lots as to who should jump first. It fell to me. I was not particularly frightened. A few trial jumps from the top of a wardrobe had convinced us that an umbrella was as good as a parachute. I climbed up on the window-sill, from there on to the cornice. Down below glimmered a stretch of asphalt, further on the yard was paved with cobble-stones. I saw the round tops of carters' caps, the bald pate of our yard-porter Vanya, the backs of horses and the tops of the heads of some little girls playing hop-scotch. I stepped off to join them. For a second it seemed as if a strong current of air was holding me up; the next second the yard and all it contained rushed up and struck me on the heels. Something happened to my head and I lost consciousness.

A crowd had gathered round me when Pavlik came dashing down the stairs. With inhuman lack of feeling he did not so much as glance at his injured friend, but seized the umbrellas and, having tested their soundness, went like a shot back up the stairs. The next instant he was lying next to me. His landing was more successful than mine: he came off with only a broken front tooth.

And so I knew that mastering a balancing act with Pavlik as partner would be no joke. This is how the act looked when, after long and merciless training, we felt we could compete with the Austrian juggler.

By command we placed some object on our noses, chins or foreheads. A moment or two and we had found the centere of equilibrium; the object froze in a state of absolute immobility. Ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes passed. Our heads were thrown back, our muscles grew numb, but neither of us wanted to be the first to give up.

Mother came home after shopping, laden with purchases. We greeted her without changing our poses. She went into the dark room, changed her clothes, took her work-box out of the wardrobe and sat down to mend or darn something humming to herself as she worked. Then she put the box away and came out to find us just as she had left us.

"The inquisition," she groaned as she passed us on her way to the kitchen.

A few minutes later she returned carrying a coffee-pot. Nothing had changed.

"Good God! If you could see what you look like! Blooming idiots! You'll have a stroke!"

And we very well might have. The backs of our heads throbbed as if all the blood was concentrated there. I tried to move Pavlik by reminding him that we hadn't done our homework and there was that play by Girandoux I borrowed for just one evening and hadn't begun. I might have been talking to myself. Another twenty minutes went by. It began to look as if death was the only way out.

"Look, I'll count to three and we'll quit," I said.

"Just as you like," he casually replied.

"One, two, three."

Release at last. Pavlik's purpose had not been to beat me in a contest: he had no interest in petty victories like that. He had wanted to teach me endurance.

Our efforts to find ourselves continued. By this time I had begun writing stories and Pavlik was acting in amateur dramatic groups. We made no attempt to join forces; I did not ask Pavlik to collaborate with me and he did not ask me to be his partner. This, no doubt, was because each of us had met his fate, had discovered the one thing he wanted to do in life. We did not admit to ourselves that our final choice had been made. Indeed we deceived ourselves, and did it so convincingly that both of us filed applications to enter medical college, the resort of all those who cannot cope with mathematics and have no faith in their abilities in the humanities. Only when we became convinced that our application of "hard common sense" was out of place and when the necessity of learning so many things by heart robbed us of any opportunity to devote time to occupations we could not live without did we realize our mistake and corrected it by dropping medicine in the middle of the semester and trying to enter the newly opened Cinema Institute. I passed my entrance exams for the Script Writers Department, though not with flying colors. Pavlik failed his for the Directors Department but six months later was accepted by three institutes: the Theatre Art Institute, which he entered; the same Cinema Institute, just to show them he could; and, to reassure his anxious parents, the History and Archives Institute. "Seems Pavlik is not to be a physician," sighed his father. "Well. maybe I'll see his production of Mr. Cabalsky and Love some day."

That day never came. On the very first day of war the boys of Armyansky Lane signed up. Tolya Simakov and I were rejected: the war was discriminating in the early days. Pavlik was lucky. In September I received a hastily scribbled card from him saying: Those bastards don't care how many bombs they throw, but we're still alive and kicking."

Pavlik's days, however, were numbered. He was killed near Sukhinichi. The Germans surrounded a group of Soviet soldiers inside the headquarters of the local soviet and promised to spare the lives of all who threw down their weapons on the bullet-riddled floor and came out one by one with their hands up. The few soldiers remaining in the squad Pavlik commanded were incapable of such a thing. And so the Germans, enraged by the losses they had suffered, set fire to the building. Not a single man came out; instead, they kept shooting through the smoke and flames till the end. That at least, is what the local population told our forces when they took back the village, reduced by that time to charred ruins.

* * *

A quarter of a century has passed since the end of the war: I have lived the best and the most important part of my life yet every year, more or less frequently, I dream of Pavlik. Sleep is an artist to be envied. It draws its pictures without unity of composition. It has no need to worry about being true to life and convincing, about logically motivating behavior. It knows the secret of convincing you despite incongruities, even absurdities. Except for details that fade out of my mind as soon as I wake up, my dreams about Pavlik are always the same: he is alive and has come back. The only thing that remains unexplained is where he has been all these years and why he has not let us hear from him. I find in this nothing, however, to reproach him with. The cause is assumed to be loss of memory or a prolonged state of lethargy—sleep is not required to give explanations. It is enough that Pavlik is alive and has come back. Uneasiness and bewilderment which the unsolved mystery of his resurrection causes me are as nothing compared with the unspeakable joy of knowing he is alive! He is alive! Then begins a hazy and sorrowful passage. Pavlik does not approach me. He has no need of me. His silent mother, as phantomlike in the dream as in life, hovers about him, and she is more necessary to the returned Pavlik than I am, his only friend; they are united by some common concern that I do not share. But all these lost years—haven't he and I got to make up for them in talk and tears? Doesn't he realize this? Has he quite forgotten me? No, he hasn't. He understands everything and has forgotten nothing He deliberately excludes me from his life. Why? I have done nothing wrong, he has nothing to reproach me with. In the dream I explain all this elaborately to somebody—to his mother, perhaps, in the hope that she will intercede for me—or to Pavlik himself—and not out loud but in the voiceless language of dreams. And he hears me but makes no response. Suddenly I discover him beside me; he nods coldly and goes away without a word.

When I wake up my face is wet and I lie for a long time thinking about the dream in a state of great misery. I go over in my mind all my thoughts, actions, relations with others, the sum of my entire living, and I find nothing meriting such punishment. Perhaps where Pavlik comes from they have a different sense of values; perhaps we too once had a different sense.

* * *

Last summer my love of mushrooming took me to a distant part of the Kaluga district. A friend who had bought himself a house for a song in an almost abandoned village, assured me I would find this a mushroom paradise. As a newcomer to these parts, he did not know the way to the mushroom haunts and for a long time we roamed about over old roads and new turnpikes. As a certain road-sign flashed past I felt my heart scratched by a name: "To Sukhinichi." I didn't see how many kilometres away from Sukhinichi we were. At last we found ourselves in a young wood of birches, aspens and small firs. In a dubious tone, as if asking my advice, my friend said: "Looks as if we've arrived...."

Perhaps we had not arrived at the place we set out for, but it did look enchanting to us, used as we were to Moscow's suburbs with their thin woods and grass flattened by the trodding of many feet. We found many sorts of mushrooms, most of them second-rate, but among them were some "birch" mushrooms and a few "white" ones. The wood itself was delightful: clean, untrodden, undesecrated, steeped in sunlight, without cobwebs and pestering flies. Walking was easy in this wood, which had neither thick underbrush nor bogs where you might suddenly find yourself knee-deep in peat. The young and cheerful trees sprang no unpleasant surprises on us. Perhaps that was why I felt more resentment than pain when I stepped on something sharp hidden in the grass. I lunged forward, miraculously keeping my balance though my feet were entangled, in barbed wire. My friend hurried to my aid. After we had freed my tennis shoes and trousers from the barbs, we unearthed a large coil of wire that is essential equipment on any front line. There it lay at our feet, in places dry and rusty, in others wet and black and covered with mould—ugly and long dead but still capable of biting painfully.

I was not at all expecting to be confronted by war. Yet this young wood had grown up on land where there had once been dug-outs, communication trenches, machine-gun nests, barbed wire entanglements, mine fields and razed villages.

At this point I was pierced by the arrow of the road-sign: "To Sukhinichi." It was here, perhaps close at hand, perhaps on this very spot that Pavlik had lived out his brief life. It was the end of his living I thought of, rather than his death. Until all was transformed into flame he lived the life of the mind; he had thoughts, feelings, memory, words and little desires: the desire to drink water, smoke a cigarette, wipe the sweat off his brow. He lived and, like all who live he had a past. Before him rose the faces of those he had had time to love and of those he had not had time to hate; he saw them against the background of boulevards, streets, theatres, lecture halls, barrack-rooms. Some of them he kept and took with him, others he rejected as unnecessary and unwanted.

And again, for the hundredth time, the thought occurred to me that if I appraised my life in the light of Pavlik's final act, I could hardly consider myself guiltless. I was guilty in many ways, guilty of not having given my life for my friend, of not having saved or even defended the millions who perished, of concentration camps' and jails' existence. I was guilty of the assassination of presidents and preachers, of the world's endless shootings and burnings, of the death of children and the sufferings of the needy.

Each who gives his life saves the life of another. Pavlik allowed himself to be burnt that I might live. I have made poor use of his gift. Never for a moment must we forget the heroism of those who sacrificed their lives; perhaps then the evil of the world will disappear and man's loftiest dream, that of bringing back to life those who have perished, will come true.



Last updated:
December 30, 2003
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