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My dad doesn't have any eccentricities. He doesn't collect anything, doesn't play the violin, doesn't chase women, doesn't have any phobias, and he doesn't pick his nails with a comb. For all his positive qualities culture, decency, intellect and in spite of his rather important position on the city council, Dad has a taste for the lifestyle of the average citizen. He goes to work regularly, consumes food regularly; in fact he likes to eat, and in the evening he has no objection to stretching out on the sofa with a newspaper or a book. He has no urge to fix anything or to solve crossword puzzles without an audience. He tries to do away with any deviation from the established order as quickly as possible, and even though he manages to get out of unusual situations, even precarious ones, with surprising dignity, any disturbance naturally takes a heavy toll on his spirits. Dad is forced to compensate for such losses with extended walks in the woods. In the absence of any other eccentricities, his urge to take solitary walks in the woods could probably be considered an eccentricity, but in that case we'd all be taken for pathological deviants. What's more, Dad has no use for hunting, picking mushrooms, or fishing. For this I respect him.
My respect for him was conceived and confirmed a long time ago, when I was still a teenager. I remember well how we were coming home late one evening from a tailor's shop where I was having my first pair of trendy pants made and I, dizzied by the starry sky and theanticipation of a fashion make-over, asked Dad about the meaning of life. I was at that happy age when people take an entirely sincere interest in things like that and have an entirely sincere belief that every question has an answer. Perhaps it was precisely my existence at that time under a particular kind of sky without a particular kind of pants that aroused a suspicion as to the meaninglessness of being, but I was still hoping for a miracle, for there being a meaning that I just wasn't grasping because of my immaturity. Dad dispelled these last doubts of mine. And, to his credit, he did so openly, without stuttering, but also without superfluous affectation.
My respect grew and strengthened when in time I observed my father at work. As has already been mentioned, he occupied a rather important position on the city council head of the control commission for the educational process or something like that. It was a revelation for me that Dad, who was so gentle and accommodating at home, could be so firm and principled in managing all sorts of riff-raff at work.
In the course of my life in general I often had occasion to make such discoveries for myself, and this only strengthened my father's authority. For example, when everyone all around was no less than gagging with hatred and disdain towards Russians, Dad said, "But you can't just reject a great people as simply as that. In spite of everything (of anything, of nothing at all) the Russians did create a great culture." A similar loyalty and tolerance distinguished him with regard to the Polish and Jewish questions as well.
Without ever trying to do so directly, my father nevertheless had a significant influence on the formation of my personality. He had an appealing image thanks to his restrained conduct and dignified lifestyle. He seemed to live by the principle that "all is vanity." And although we rarely actually, almost never got into any sort of frankness, so-called heart-to-heart talks or baring our souls, I always valued our feeling of oneness, which only people who are really close can experience.
Besides the absence of eccentricities, it is also worth mentioning that Dad didn't have any of the status symbols with which people like to enhance their own value antiques, securities, or family heirlooms, say. Thus, for example, Dad didn't even own any weapons.
That's why we were forced to use an automobile.
Actually, my father's car was also as average as you can get, maybe even too unimposing by today's standards.
Right at Christmas, after a good supper, we got in the car Father at the steering wheel, me at his side and drove to the town square. As usual we drove unhurriedly, almost cautiously, religiously observing the traffic rules. In the square, across from the city hall, shone a tall Christmas tree, with merry, tipsy citizens frolicking around it and singing carols. Driving into the square, we speeded up a bit and cut into the circle of carollers, splattering slush as we went. The first incursion was very successful, because no one had had a chance yet to get scared and run away. Our second try, after a U-turn in the course of which, driving in reverse, we managed to knock down a few people, wasn't too bad either. The crowd got flustered and couldn't get its bearings for about fifteen seconds. But the rest was more complicated. People started running in all directions, and although the panic was actually playing into our hands, it was hard to play an aiming game, and accidental victims were just getting in the way. What saved us was the fact that the car kept skidding on the wet pavement, and slipping and sliding like that was how we knocked down probably the most of our fellow countrymen. But it was hard to pick up speed, and slow driving was becoming dangerous some of the citizens had come to their senses and naturally decided to fight back. Sticks and rocks found their way into the hands of these daredevils, and they used every chance they could to strike a blow at us. The corpses, of which there weren't all that many, but enough to get in the way, deprived us of our manoeuvrability, and this gave our foes more chances. We managed to knock down a few who were armed with sticks, but the people, aroused by alcohol and the sight of blood, were no longer reacting to the danger and constituted a serious threat.
Finally one of them managed to throw a rock into our windshield, and for a moment the world disappeared from view, covered with a dense screen of cracks. I hit it with my fist, the glass shattered, the cold air whipped our faces, and the car ploughed full force into the trunk of the Christmas tree. More rocks flew in our direction, and we were quickly being surrounded. Still, Dad didn't get flustered, and within a second or so we were already rushing at the rank of our attackers. Blows thudded on our roof; the rear window also shattered, and several men who had obviously lost their minds ran to intercept us, putting out their arms as if they meant to catch a pig. Dad was unerring. From what I could tell, we managed to put down three at once. One corpse got stuck on the hood, but we slammed on the brakes and knocked it off.
"Well, that's enough," Father shouted. "The radiator's cracked. We have to go before the engine stalls."
And we left the city behind.
Christmas Night was turning into a quiet morning, and Dad and I were standing on the roof of the car under a spreading tree. It was certainly the first time in a long while that Dad wasn't alone in the woods. He was looking at the sky and the ravens that had settled all over the branches of our tree. And I was looking beneath my feet at our beat-up car.
"So, jazda?" I said in Polish. "Ready?"
"Jazda," said Dad. "On the count of three."
This, I must confess, was the first time I tricked my father, and even though he will never find out about it, I still have a grave sin on my conscience. I did what little boys often do when they're competing to see who can stay under water longest. Everyone dives in on the count of "three," but the cleverest one stands there laughing or dives in later. And so I didn't jump on the count of "three" and saw how Father's body swung in the noose, how the frightened ravens took to the sky, and how a convulsion ran through his body. I sinned, but before I died I had time to repent and managed to jump before the birds came back to the tree.
He clearly heard the short, hollow sound. Something like "fra-uf-k-s-s" wheezed in the pristine air. The ensign ran his tongue over his parched and crusted lips, which had swelled up overnight from drink. Or, rather, he sensed it, because it was time. He stirred in the slimy, stuffy darkness. A wave of heat struck him in the nape of the neck. Pain clawed down from the crown of his head, pulsed in his temples, coursed through his softened muscles, and stabbed at his fingertips. He could tell by the thudding of boot heels on the baked, trampled earth and by the strident isolated cries of the crew beside the barbed-wire enclosure that this was a car from headquarters and not an armoured personnel carrier. Pushing aside the camouflage net, he tried to look around, but did not see anything. A swarm of gnats cut through the rectangular piece of illuminated space, and the blanched sky highlighted his strong, jutting cheek-bones and the bulging arteries in his neck. He twirled an empty bottle and then flung it into the corner. He flared his nostrils at the sour, acrid smell of his own body and sweat. He flapped his greasy shirt. The sun was scattering wisps of light from behind the flattened crests of the low mountains. The sky was turning the colour of rust.
In a minute the car spurted, sputtering and spreading exhaust fumes along the valley. Its tires crackled over the packed gravel and echoed between the barbed wire and the rows of modules as it rolled away. Even now Didenko did not see the car. It was only from the way the door slammed and from the way the shadows were lengthening that he guessed that they were coming in his direction. He sat motionless, like a paralytic. He let out a thick, drunken belch. The door squeaked and cut out a luminous square, and on it appeared a long, black hunched figure. Behind it another, smaller, figure kept trying to slip in ahead of the first. Through the lit rents Didenko saw two figures passing by the fence. The shadows quivered briefly on the peeling boards and crawled along the walls of the modules. Behind them were two more men, with sub-machine-guns, sleepy and bleary-eyed. "Motherfuckers." The thought flashed through his mind and then went out.
The man who was standing in front of him was short-sighted. Without his glasses he seemed a bit insolent, or more frightened than insolent. This wasn't the way Didenko remembered him from the year before, when they had marched on Djalalabad. For a minute the short-sighted man felt around the darkness with a colourless gaze, and his shape darted like quicksilver in the square of light.
"Who are you looking for, lieutenant?"
"Are you Didenko?"
Something stirred in the module. The camouflage net fell onto the threshold and spread out like a hand. Water bubbled in the gullet of the kettle, and there was a croaking sound. The lieutenant dropped his head, then raised it and heard a muffled, contented smacking of lips. "Right, there's no fucking tea. Well, let's have the paper." A brown suntanned arm covered with prickly hair reached out into the light right up to its elbow.
"Here's the paper ... your orders." The lieutenant stepped into the module, raised the camouflage net, and threw it into the corner, dragging in after him the smell of a washed and pressed uniform and the scent of talcum powder and cologne. He caught sight of Didenko's pockmarked, scarred, rough-hewn face with its high cheek-bones, full, blue, drooping lips, and bulging eyes. The two spheres cast a grey, gloomy glance at him, and the lieutenant added, standing heels in, toes out, "Everything here ... you know.... Yes, some tea wouldn't hurt. And also, Didenko, the sooner you do it, the better."
"Who for?" The ensign bent over, and blood rushed to his neck. He put the orders down in front of him and slapped the paper with his broad, calloused hand, flattening out the dog-eared corners. "What did you do, wipe yourself with it? Heh-heh."
The sun reached the cloven peak. The shadows twitched, then deflated like rubber balls, changed direction, and fell still. The lieutenant's eyes filled with moisture. The window of the module was swimming in the messenger's pupils. A mullah intoned to the sky, for the second time that day. Didenko had missed the first prayer. Somewhere nearby a dog let out a protracted, strident bark. Shooing away the gnats and wiping the beads of sweat from his brow, Didenko raised up his square chin with its blue clefts, overgrown with two days' worth of grey bristles, and lowered his long lashes over his bulbous eyes. "Mother-fucking mullah! Someday I'll knock him off with a grenade thrower. Yeah, and there's no more tea. I have to get to the inn. There's nothing at all in the depot."
He was still diligently smoothing out the piece of paper with his chapped fingertips. The nails were chipped and black from being hit. A brief, musty draught rumpled the hair on his head. Didenko raised his knotty hand and stroked his head. "They're still young, lieutenant, kids.... Ye-eah. But this is the thing. Ye-eah, there's no point in moving that senior lieutenant. I knew him back in the Soviet Union. No one thought he wouldn't last and would cr ... die. They really overdid it. Kids, and they're bad, and you must understand that's a terrible thing when you're young and bad. Well, they think we're all jackals. Jackals and that's all. There's more than one side to war, lieutenant. I've been thinking about this all my life. When I was serving under Beria. And with these guys. Ye-eah, some tea, ye-eah."
The lieutenant sat down on the edge of the slatted bed and raised his bony knees. His boots squeaked, and a sunbeam scorched through the smeared windowpane and fell on the toes, lighting up a thin layer of red dust. A smile split his face. A dog with a white muzzle and white circles around its eyes poked its head in through the slightly open door.
"Tsu-tsu-tsutsu!" the lieutenant called. The mullah howled at the sky. The dog ran off, its tail tucked between its legs, raising a cloud of dust and filling the air with yelps.
"I took him away from some privates. The bastards were fattening him up for shish kebab. The dog may be stupid, but it was still a pity. He barks at anything you point at. A stupid dog, but still a pity."
Didenko was standing in the middle of the module, pulling on his pants and trying to suck in his belly. The sun had clambered up to the rocky peak and was flooding it with red, and you could see the blue valley, spotted with green garden plots, mulberry bushes, and, off to one side, a few peasant huts.
"For us, Didenko, here's the thing, we've got to take the senior lieutenant away." The lieutenant put on his glasses and adjusted them with his finger. Yellow balls of sunlight bounced over the lenses.
"You'll take him away. I don't need him. What do I need him for? I'll give you a paper if you like, or you can go to the regimental co. The whole thing makes me sick. They go on and on about the end, but it doesn't come to anything. You'll die before it's over, lieutenant. Ye-eah, no end in sight. In Stalin's day when they talked about the end, everybody believed and knew that it was the end. That's how it was, ye-eah."
As he walked out, Didenko looked at a beet-red shipping container that had grown into the ground, straddling the barbed-wire fence. A face flashed in a window that had been cut out in it on the diagonal, half a metre square and crisscrossed by two concrete reinforcement rods. The face was unshaven, pale, covered in a green netting of sleeplessness, and with white fuzz on the upper lip. It leaned away, and the black shadow of the frame fell on the forehead. The lieutenant cracked his knuckles and ground his teeth. Didenko heard, but did not turn around. Breathing heavily and glancing at the container out of the corner of his eye, he went down to a long rectangular building that was so old that it had tilted to the left.
"What's this? The morgue?" the messenger interjected.
Didenko merely grunted.
They stopped beside a pit. Didenko sucked in his belly, crouched at the edge, and put his hands on his knees. The wind was blowing through the tarpaulin and bringing up the nauseating, suffocating smell of formalin and chlorine. Didenko threw back the edge and peered inside.
"Ye-eah, it's been hot lately, awfully hot. So get in there and look. I put a tag on him because they were all swelling up. There are three of them. The one at the edge is the senior lieutenant. The others are greenhorns blown up by a land-mine the day before yesterday. Ye-eah, take them away."
A sweet, heavy stench was breaking through the formalin and emerging from the pit. The lieutenant held his nostrils with two thin, white, pampered fingers. His brow was perspiring, and the lenses of his glasses were covered in moisture.
"Ye-eah. I won't have time today."
"What are you talking about?" The lieutenant was still holding his nose, and the tip was turning red. He watched the messenger expectorating, spitting, swearing, and howling again and again, while beating his thighs as if from frost and pulling out the polyethylene bag with the dead man. "What couldn't they divvy up, Didenko?"
"Who the fuck knows." He was troubled, and he sat there squatting and staring at the edge of the pit, where the wind was rustling a thorn bush. "They were boozing together. You should have figured it out back at headquarters and then issued your orders."
"Do your job, Didenko. You know yourself ... and everything will be over soon. I'm telling you as one countryman to another."
"What did I say? I didn't say anything. Only tomorrow, according to regulations, at dawn. Because it isn't allowed."
"Well, we'll see about that. I'll be here at 0400."
On the road Didenko fell on all fours and threw up bile. The dog was running around him, barking, wagging his tail, falling to his front paws, putting down his head, jumping, and kicking up a cloud of dust. Didenko chased him away, vomited once more, got up, and went down the slope to the mess-hall.
In the mess-hall he sat down at a long table with oilcloth tacked on and fixed his gaze on the tiny window. It was quiet in the mountains. There hadn't been any shooting for three days. Sometimes single shots would blurt out, but they didn't give anyone a real scare. Far away, at regimental headquarters, they were thinking something up and waiting. Didenko thought about the lieutenant, how he had held his nose with his fingers, how he had smiled, and then about the next day. He felt nauseated again. His stomach growled, and a bitter saliva rose up to his throat. He vomited it out at his feet.
The sun was a white-hot sphere. It clambered up high and trembled at the zenith. An eagle's scream settled over the silent tents and the CO's camp and hung in the air for a long time. Didenko went into the kitchen. A woman was sitting on an overturned insulated can and peeling potatoes. He went in quietly, so that she wouldn't notice. A dress with white flowers on a red border was escaping from under her dirty smock. Her left leg was rounded, white, and bared so that you could see the small blue blood vessels. When the woman turned her face, shaded by the metal exhaust, Didenko made an effort to smile.
"I'll be done soon, and then we can go," she said.
"I'm in no hurry. Ye-eah, let's...." He looked at her back, ran his eyes over her round, strong buttock, and slapped it with his chapped hand.
The woman turned around. "Don't be a nuisance. I'll be done soon. You've been drinking all night again."
"It's the job."
"Well, all right."
He was sitting beside the woman, breathing the smell of potatoes in through his nostrils, crumbling a crust of bread, and smiling to himself. If they met when the war was over, it would all be different, He wasn't young any more, old age and liquor and a job that could make you howl like a wolf, but somebody had to do it. It was an inconspicuous job, as long as nobody knew, because if some bastard found out and blurted something out, as if by accident, then you'd understand the whole business. Ye-eah. He stroked the woman's buttock one more time. She gave him a guilty smile. The sun was smearing shadows over the floor and skipping in her green eyes.
"Go on already. I'll come see you."
Didenko wrinkled his brow. "Bring something to drink. I feel lousy all the time. Ye-eah.... And tomorrow's a tough day."
He set off along the road, past the container and the wooden tower, and glanced at the shed, long and rectangular like a railway car, which had once been a peasant's slaughterhouse. The sun stood out at the zenith. He crawled into the module, fell on the slatted bed, and tried to fall asleep. His nausea receded. The sun was striking against the windowpane, and Didenko cracked a vertebra and fell into a deep sleep, thinking at the last moment, "It's all right. It's like having a tooth pulled. At first it hurts, but then it's all right."
The woman came when the sun was colouring the mountains red and purple. The suffocating heat, now powerless, was falling off, and the coolness was coming down into the valley. Didenko lifted his head, and as he lifted it he listened to the muscles cracking in the nape of his neck. Smearing the cool sticky sweat, he looked at the window. There was shooting in the mountains: the thudding of a machine-gun alternated with brief rounds of sub-machine-gun fire. It lasted a good minute and looked like flashes of lightning. Young soldiers think of how it resembles sunsets, yellow and indistinct on the windows of the modules and in the mountains, but this looks so little like lightning, and the recruits feel awkward from it. Only later are they overcome by an unsettling horror, and then the real meaning dawns on them. Didenko thought about this and clicked his tongue.
"My God, how I want to go home, Vasia. If you only knew."
"Ye-eah. Set up housekeeping." Didenko stroked her knee.
The wind splashed sand against the windowpane with a rustle, as if someone had poured water. Didenko undid his fly, pulled up the woman's dress, and threw her down onto the slats. "Well, come on, open up, because I feel sick." He wheezed in the dark, fidgeted about, and then threw himself onto his back. "Yeah, Masha, I can't get anywhere, I've got old. Yeeeah, maybe later." A sunbeam picked out his bulging, bloodshot eye. The woman stood up, pulled down her dress, and put her hand on the ensign's head. Didenko shuddered and pulled his head in between his shoulders.
"It's all right, Vasia, it's all right. Here, have some hair of the dog."
She tore apart a loaf of bread along the fold, white bread with a golden crust, and uncorked a bottle with her teeth. Ye-eah, if you didn't think about it, then everything was fine. Hadn't anybody done that back in the old days? And what had he seen? And what was the use of thinking about it all? No, it was better to think, and then by morning everything would come out normal and take on the right forms, and it would be as if nothing had happened. Somebody had to do it. Who if not us oldsters, who had saved the world once and were saving it now? Or maybe there was something wrong here? Yeah, lieutenant, you'll lose for sure, and we'll all be disgraced, and the whole country will lose for sure. Ye-eah, death is the kind of thing that if you run into it, then you'll always be wearing yourself out with it.
Damn, when had he learned to think this way? Ye-eah, here was a woman with a round ass, and he'd get his discharge soon. He had done his time, and he would grow potatoes and cabbage. The vodka was warm and nauseating to the taste. At first it took his breath away, but then it was fine.
"Somebody's come from the Soviet Union, eh?" Masha stirred in the darkness, and Didenko's sensitive nostrils caught the odours of the woman's body.
"No, it's the old supply. Yeah, yeah, better think about that and drink a little vodka, and it will all go back to the way it was when I was young and wore blue riding-breeches with a luxurious nap. Ye-eah, our young people were allowed to, but now it's the other way around. But it's not our fault, it's the fault of those four-eyed lieutenants, a bunch of greenhorns. And I can tell you, they got scared. Ye-eah, there's never been anything like it. Everybody has headed for the mainland, but here there was this bird. I knew him, that senior lieutenant."
The woman raised her head and turned on the lantern. Her gaze hung between Didenko and the window. "Does this mean anything? Kids to the mainland?"
Didenko didn't answer at first, but belched sweetly and spread a slice of stewed pork on a heel of bread. "God only knows.... Ye-eah, only God. They say there isn't one, but you know, Masha, there is something."
The woman took a drink from a mug. Her eyes were two yellow lakes. She was no more than thirty, a civilian. He had taken her away from the quartermaster, who liked boys better, people said. He had acquired the taste in Cuba. Ye-eah Cuba, as much as he had dreamed about it, he had never got out of the Soviet Union, ye-eah. The dog pushed his muzzle through the crack in the doorway and gave a long, tedious yowl. Didenko put his finger in the tin can, went over the bottom with it, threw a piece to the dog, undid his fly, and crawled up on the slats. For an hour he tossed around, licking the woman's breasts. A mosquito was buzzing, first approaching and then flying up to the ceiling. It bit him on the elbow. Didenko fell on his back and started snoring with his mouth open. In the light of the lantern the woman saw the saliva that was running onto his outstretched hand. It was beginning to dawn.
The lieutenant's hunched black figure was plodding in front, and his polished chrome-leather boots were squeaking rhythmically. Didenko was trotting behind him, taking in the smell of soap and cologne with his nostrils. Two privates with sub-machine-guns were ambling in his tracks, and the dog was running underfoot. Didenko unlocked the container and led out the arrested soldiers. They crouched down a few times and called the dog, whistling and saying, "Shish kebab, shish kebab!" Didenko wanted to rip off their epaulettes, but the lieutenant motioned that he would not let him, and they went down the hill. Along the way the soldiers joked that they were being discharged, so to speak, because they'd be back in the Soviet Union sooner than the ensign, and generally speaking the way he had put down roots it would suit him to stay here. Without Didenko there could be no service. They lit cigarettes. Wisps of smoke hung helplessly in the motionless air. The lieutenant was now striding at a distance, and the ensign could see the fine sweat on his forehead and glasses and the way his clenched fists had turned white. The soldiers whistled time and again to the dog, which yelped loudly and sonorously and cocked its tail. When they approached the slaughterhouse, the soldiers fell silent, sucked on their cigarettes, and spat the tobacco off their lips. One of them had a low forehead and big ears. His eyes were darting about, and his pupils contracted into pinholes. His legs were shaking at the knees. Didenko prodded him on, and he, limping on both legs, set off after his buddy.
The shed, which was divided by a few partitions, with rusty hooks in the ceiling, smelled of fresh sawdust. Flies were buzzing sleepily. Shooed away by the people, they drummed on the clay walls. One of the soldiers caught a fly in his gaze, and for a long time he watched it struggling in the slanted sunbeam that cut through a hole in the roof. They took one of them behind a partition, while the other soldier, who was shorter, with drooping ears, stopped, stamping in his boots, beside the table on which a water bottle filled with vodka was standing and where the lieutenant had sat down, sticking out his polished boots and flashing his glasses. Then the lieutenant began reading the orders. The soldier started fighting to get free, but Didenko and his private pressed down on his shoulders, bent his arms behind him, and pushed him down to the clay floor, which had turned cold overnight. The soldier cried out, "Pasha, run for it!"
Didenko felt for the round burnished handle of his pistol, set the muzzle against the nape of the soldier's neck, and fired. "You can't do fuck all, you motherfuckers!"
Blood splattered onto the lieutenant's pants, and his face twisted like a baked apple. Didenko was nauseated. He took the water bottle from the table and swallowed a gulp, but felt woozy and went out the slightly open door.
"How do you like that? He said to run for it, really, run for it, there it is. How do you like that? Run for it."
In a minute a wailing started. The door squeaked, and the staff lieutenant ran out, bloodstained and dirtied. "Go in and finish him off. I can't."
Breathing heavily, Didenko walked back into the shed. They had stuffed the first man into a polyethylene bag. The second man was thrashing about nearby in a heap of bloody sawdust. His legs had been shattered by bullets.
"He tried to make a run for it."
"Ye-e-eah, Pasha, it's like a tooth. At first it hurts, but then there's nothing to it." Didenko scratched the nape of his neck out of habit and swore under his breath at the lieutenant. "You're sheep, too. This isn't livestock, you know. It's a human being."
He pointed his pistol; a shot rang out; the body convulsed, and the pants turned yellow with faeces. The body struggled for a moment, raked the bloodstained sawdust with its arms, and then fell still.
The red sun came up. The mullah intoned a long, high-pitched prayer. The dog whined and ran towards the voice.