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Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov sat in a rough but apparently sturdy wooden chair in ward three on the third floor of the September 1947 Hospital a little over twelve miles outside of Moscow. The September 1947 Hospital got its name from the fact that the city of Moscow was eight hundred years old in the year 1947. The citizens of Moscow had celebrated, cheered, drunk, and wept that their city had survived the war, the Nazis, the antirevolutionary forces.
People had hugged strangers in the street, and Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov, an army veteran at age fifteen with a leg badly mangled in an encounter with a German tank, had sat on a stone bench in front of the Pashkov Mansion, which had become the Lenin Library. The leg had been patched, sawed, stretched, sewn, and supported, and Rostnikov had worked dutifully to use the appendage, which had almost been removed by an overworked and underexperienced young doctor in the field.
Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov allowed no one to see his pain, and not one of his superiors on the uniformed MVD traffic patrol knew of the pain he felt each day as he stood on some prospekt directing postwar traffic. It was that day in September 1947 that he met the woman who lay before him in Bed One of the hospital ward. Sarah had sat next to him on the bench, an old-fashioned kerchief around her head, her cheeks bright with life, her red hair curled over her forehead. She couldn't have been more than twelve years old. She had asked him if he was all right. He had replied that he was fine, and she had offered to share an apple with him. The rarity of an apple and the enormity of sharing such a gift with a stranger overwhelmed him, and he loved her, he loved her at that moment as he loved her at this moment. He had learned her name, her address, and had stayed away from her for six years, waited till she grew up. And then he had found her again.
Rostnikov shifted his weight in the sturdy chair and considered pulling out the battered American paperback mystery in his jacket pocket. His eyes met those of the young girl, Petra Toverinin, in Bed Two. Petra Toverinin was fourteen years old. Officially, she was there for gynecological complications. Unofficially, she was there for an abortion. Rostnikov had discerned this from no direct inquiry but from the guarded comments of the medical staff when he was present. Petra Toverinin was not pretty. She was thin. Her nose was too large and her hair too straggly and lifeless, but her eyes were large and blue and her lips carried a knowing smile, which she exchanged with Rostnikov whenever he came to visit his wife in Bed One. Petra Toverinin and Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov shared a knowledge of life that needed no words and no conversation.
In Bed Three, however, there resided a woman named Irinia Komistok, heavy of heart, body, and thought. Irinia Komistok, somewhere over age sixty, whose heart had been abused by diet and discontent, had undergone one operation and was awaiting another.
"You are a policeman," Irinia Komistok informed Rostnikov, looking at him critically.
Rostnikov exchanged a knowing glance with Petra Toverinin, who put her head down on the pillow and turned away from the older woman in the third bed. Rostnikov looked at his sleeping wife and wondered if after the bandages were removed her red hair would grow back as bright as before, or if the gray would now take over. She was within a month of her fifty-fourth birthday. Dr. Yegeneva had assured him that Sarah would, barring complications, be home for her birthday.
"I am a policeman," Rostnikov confirmed, since Irinia Komistok had made a statement and not asked a question.
"I knew it," said the woman, who folded her hands in front of her over her blanket. "I knew it," she told the wall. "I could tell. My cousin Viktor was a policeman. A man named, named—I don't remember—lived downstairs from us in Volgograd. That was a few years ago. You know Volgograd?"
"No," said Rostnikov. Somewhere beyond the closed door of the ward a voice called out, distant, indistinct.
"Volgograd is beautiful," Irinia informed him, nodding her head. "I was a girl and the policeman looked at me with longing. I was a handsome girl. Not beautiful, mind you. I'll make no great claims. I'm an honest woman. Why did you become a policeman?"
Petra looked at Rostnikov with sympathetic blue eyes.
"I don't know," said Rostnikov. "I had always wanted to be a policeman, perhaps because my parents had named me Porfiry Petrovich. He is the policeman in—"
"Crime and Punishment," Irinia injected impatiently. "I am no uneducated Gypsy."
Another sound, deep, almost a growl beyond the ward's door.
"Have you noticed," Irinia Komistok said with a smile on her face that indicated no joy, "that time moves faster as you get older? When I was a girl, a year took forever, and now two years ago seems like last week."
"I have noticed," said Rostnikov.
And now the sound outside the ward's door could not be ignored. It approached in an echo, the corridor echo of a wounded animal. Petra Toverinin sat up afraid, her wide eyes wider from fear. Sarah stirred and shifted. Rostnikov leaned forward to touch her leg reassuringly through the blanket. Irinia Komistok seemed to have heard nothing. She spoke to the wall and saw ghosts until the door to the ward exploded open and banged with a roar into the wall. A large white sack hurtled through the door, crashed into the wall, and groaned.
An animal bellowed in the doorway, a huge, bearded, and quite naked animal. In the corner, the man who had been thrown against the wall tried to rise, groaned, and sank back to the floor. Irinia Komistok whimpered and Petra Toverinin scrambled painfully from her bed and climbed in next to Irinia, who hugged her. Sarah shifted her weight, and Rostnikov used the edge of the bed and the back of the sturdy wooden chair to stand. His back was to his wife's bed, and he faced the creature, who he knew was a man.
The man groaned and ambled forward like a great black bear Rostnikov had seen in the Moscow Circus the year before, a bear, he understood, who later attacked its trainer during a visit to Canada. The bear man slouched forward. Behind him Petra whimpered and Irinia comforted. The creature took a step toward Sarah's bed, and Rostnikov put up a hand.
The moment was fixed, frozen. The great creature, who stood a foot taller than the compact barrel of a policeman, let out a low growl and took two steps toward the window. Rostnikov stepped between the man and the window.
"No," Rostnikov said softly, firmly. "You are frightening these women."
The bearded creature blinked and looked around at the three women, noticing them for the first time.
"Sit in that chair," Rostnikov said, nodding at the chair in which he had been sitting.
The creature looked at the chair and then back at the policeman.
Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov was, with good reason, known to his colleagues as the Washtub. There was nothing imposing about the fifty-seven-year-old man with one good leg and one very bad one, but Rostnikov had his passions—his books, his wife and son, his job, his weights. The creature before Rostnikov was at least fifteen years younger and at least fifty pounds heavier, in addition to which the man was obviously quite mad.
In the hall and far away footsteps echoed, clattered. Someone was running. Voices were calling out in fear, and the man before Rostnikov heard them, too. He took another step toward the third-floor window. He was stomach to stomach with Rostnikov.
"Please," said the man, but it was less a human voice than the hum of a wounded dog.
"Sit," said Rostnikov gently.
The moment was absurd and Rostnikov felt the absurdity of himself and the creature in front of him. They were a bad joke. The man's breath smelled of black bread. The man's enormous penis brushed Rostnikov's chest.
"Please," the man insisted this time.
The footsteps were clambering closer.
"What?" Sarah said behind him, waking from her drugged sleep.
And this time the creature put his hairy hand on Rostnikov's shoulder, crunched his jacket in a great fist, and tried to shove the man in front of him to the side so he could get to the window. But the shorter man did not move.
"Please," bellowed the man, his head turned upward in near prayer and total panic.
"Sit," Rostnikov said firmly. "You are a man, not an animal. Sit."
The man looked at Rostnikov and raised both hands into tightfisted hammers. Someone stood in the doorway, but Rostnikov couldn't look. Petra screamed behind him. Rostnikov stepped forward quickly under the descending fists and locked his arms around the man's body at the waist. The massive man's fists thundered down on Rostnikov's back, but Rostnikov tightened his grip and lifted.
"Sit," Rostnikov repeated, but the man was thrashing and screaming and could hear nothing.
Rostnikov lifted him and stepped forward, forcing himself to put weight on his left leg, a weight that sent a familiar spasm of cold electricity through the policeman's body. He felt tears of pain in his eyes but took another step and placed the writhing creature in the chair.
Two white-uniformed men rushed forward and pinned the man's arms behind him, or attempted to. The creature threw one of the men from him. Rostnikov moved behind the chair and pushed the man down just as he was about to rise again. A stream of urine, dark and yellowish, shot forward from the man in the chair and barely missed one of the two uniformed men, who struck out with his closed fist at the nearly secured man in the chair, who kicked forward and sent the chair sliding back several feet.
"Leave him alone," Rostnikov said to the two uniformed men.
"Leave him ..." one of the two uniformed men said, panting. Rostnikov couldn't tell which one spoke. He had not yet taken a look at them.
"Leave him," Rostnikov repeated firmly. The orderly who had spoken ignored him and reached out for the man. Rostnikov grabbed the orderly's wrist and repeated, "Leave him."
The orderly tried to pull away but couldn't free himself from the grasp. The man who walked like a bear tried to rise from the chair but Rostnikov firmly pushed him back down and said, "Sit."
Rostnikov looked up at the second orderly, a heavyset man with straight white-yellow hair who stood back and folded his arms waiting to see what the little round madman planned to do with the enormous creature. Rostnikov thought he detected a touch of intelligence or at least cunning in the orderly, in contrast to the fear he felt in the man whose wrist he held.
"Leave him, Anatoli," the man with white-yellow hair said.
Rostnikov released the wrist, and Anatoli backed away with a curse and moved to the wall to help the hurtled orderly, who sat stunned and disoriented. The creature in the chair kicked out with an animal growl and tried to rise again, but Rostnikov could feel that there was less desperation in his throes. Standing behind the chair, Rostnikov put both hands on the man's shoulders, pushing him down and whispering, "You are a man, a man with a name."
The man breathed heavily, clenched his teeth, and tried to rise again. Rostnikov pushed him down.
"You are a man," Rostnikov repeated. "Behave like a man, not an animal. What is your name? You are a man. You have a name. What is your name?"
"His name is—" the orderly began.
"I asked him." Rostnikov stopped him. "I asked this man who sits before me. What is your name? My name is Porfiry. My wife in that bed is Sarah. In the bed in the corner cowering in fear, thinking you are an animal and not a man, are an old woman and a little girl. Let them know you are a man."
"Bulgarin," rasped the man, going limp.
"Bul—" Rostnikov began.
"Bulgarin," the man repeated in a whisper so low that only Rostnikov could hear.
"Bulgarin," Rostnikov repeated. "Can I release you now? Will you go calmly with these men?"
Bulgarin shook his head no.
"We can't sit here all morning, Bulgarin," said Rostnikov with a sigh. "I have work to do. The women need rest. These comrades have other patients to deal with. And you've made a mess in here. Someone will have to come clean it up."
"I'm sorry," said Bulgarin, his head going down.
"You want to be covered?" asked Rostnikov quietly.
Bulgarin nodded his head yes and Rostnikov nodded at the orderly with yellow-white hair. The orderly, amusement on his lips, stepped over to Petra's bed and pulled off a rumpled sheet. He threw the sheet to Rostnikov; who wrapped it around the now shivering giant.
"Go with them quietly, Bulgarin," Rostnikov said, releasing his hands from the man in the chair.
Bulgarin rose, wrapping the sheet closely to him, shaking. The three orderlies moved to the man's side and Bulgarin went gently with them to the door and then stopped suddenly and turned to Rostnikov.
"I had to," Bulgarin said, nearly weeping. "The devil came to devour the factory and I couldn't stop him. And he's found me here and has come to devour me."
"There is no devil, Bulgarin," Rostnikov said.
"Yes, there is," said Bulgarin, being led out the door and into the hall.
And Rostnikov thought but did not say that the world would be easier to deal with if there were a devil, if evil were clear and announced itself and wore the proper clothes or even disguised itself. In his thirty years of criminal investigation, Rostnikov had encountered only two criminals who admitted they were evil, and both of them were as mad as Bulgarin and not nearly as evil as dozens of criminals Rostnikov had encountered who defended their murders and rapes till the cell doors clanged closed at Lubyanka.
Rostnikov limped over to the door and closed it gently before he turned back into the room to face Sarah, whose white-turbaned head rested on the white pillow. Her face was pale, and there was a smile on her lips. The surgeon had assured Rostnikov that the tumor that had pressed against Sarah's brain had been removed and that she would gradually recover completely.
"I need rest, not entertainment, Porfiry Petrovich," she said.
Rostnikov moved to her side, touched her hand. Her hand was still cool. Not cold, but cool.
"He'll come back!" Petra cried from Irinia's bed.
Rostnikov looked over at the girl, who had less than three months ago been raped by a trio of drunks. Irinia was comforting her and herself.
"No," Rostnikov said. "He won't."
"He'll come back and—" Petra went on.
"He didn't come here to get you," Sarah said, taking her husband's stubby hand in both of hers. "He came in search of a window."
The door opened behind him and Petra let out a frightened squeal. Dr. Yegeneva, who had operated on Sarah, stepped in.
"They just told me," she began. "Are you all all right?"
Dr. Yegeneva adjusted her glasses and pushed her straight hair from her face. Dr. Yegeneva was somewhere in her thirties and, Rostnikov knew, had two children. "I don't know how that patient got up here. The mental ward is two flights up in the south section and—"
"I've got to get back to the city," Rostnikov said as the doctor moved to the far bed to comfort the girl and reassure the old woman.
"I wasn't afraid, Porfiry Petrovich," Sarah whispered.
"Thank you," he said.
"No, not just because of you," Sarah said, squeezing his hand. "I awoke from a dream I can't remember and I saw him there and there was such pain in his face. He reminded me of Benjamin."
Benjamin was Sarah's older brother, a large, dark, sullen, and suspicious man who had, from the first, been opposed to Sarah's having anything to do with Porfiry Petrovich. Sarah's father had died in the war. No one knew how or where. No one was even certain. He had gone, and when the war ended, he did not return. There were no records. But Benjamin had returned angry and bitter over the treatment he had received at the hands of the goyim, the non-Jews. He had received neither deserved promotions nor the small considerations that were common. He never considered that part of the fault might lie not in the anti-Semitism of his superiors but in his own attitude. Even under the best of situations, Sarah had admitted, Benjamin carried with him a rage so deep its roots could not be found.
And so Benjamin hated Porfiry Petrovich, and the reasons he gave were many. Porfiry Petrovich was not a Jew, and though there was not great profit in being Jewish in the Soviet Union, it was still safer to remain with your own people, the chosen people. In addition, Porfiry Petrovich was young, crippled, and a policeman. Porfiry Petrovich remembered the last time he had seen Sarah's brother. Benjamin had warned Rostnikov that neither he nor his mother wanted Rostnikov to see Sarah again, that if he persisted, Benjamin would kill him.
Rostnikov had looked into the blue eyes of his future brother-in-law and believed him.
Excerpted from The Man Who Walked Like A Bear by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 1990 Stuart M. Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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