By Dmitry Bykov
Translated by Julia Meitov Hersey
When Vera Fomina’s husband returned from war, he was dead. She got lucky: the others came back missing an arm or a leg. It was a small town, quite poor, no place to hide. Vera heard wailing from the houses down the street, she saw terrified children and blubbering hags. She tried to avoid the disabled ones, their eyes full of misguided hatred toward their neighbors as though it were the neighbors who hurt them. Vera’s husband came back right after the victory; sometimes she even thought it was just before. By then her memory was all garbled up.
Things like a deceased fiancé or a dead man returning from the war popped up in conversations every now and then. It wasn’t that unusual. When Vera was a little girl, children talked in terrified whispers about night guests, but her recollection was off. She never noticed any smell, and obviously he never drank anyone’s blood. It was all old wives’ tales, and so she never suspected anything until they threw a party celebrating his return. He had started to dance, and when he danced, everyone stopped in their tracks, and the harmonica player dropped his instrument and recoiled.
And so Stepan danced alone, staring straight ahead, his moves unlike any dance style known to men: again and again he would lean over to one side, cast his fist up and down, then stomp violently upon the ground, throwing all his weight onto one foot, and every move of his was slanted and skewed. He twirled around in place, tossing his head back, then slammed his hand across his shoulders, worshipping an unknown god in a strange ritual. Finally, he bowed and stood still.
No one knew where he learned to dance like that. He drank little but ate greedily.
Night guests were completely different. They came, they rang the doorbell, they knocked; sometimes they broke down the door, then ransacked everything and took away the man of the house, and his wife, and sometimes their children. Night guests were living beings, albeit unusually dressed, but they followed the law and had nothing otherworldly about them, and thus they were indeed to be feared. The dead were not often discussed since the general rule was still in place, “of the dead either speak well, or say nothing.” Vera was aware of all this in principle, she just didn’t expect to be that lucky. What was so special about her? Not much aside from the so-called muted Northern beauty. She also made delicious potato fritters, but then again, potato fritters are hard to screw up. Locals called them floaties because a good fritter would float when tossed into the water. Floaties were even served in a basin.
Stepan was very fond of potato fritters. Dogs did not fear him and even pressed lovingly against his leg, but Dashka the cat bolted at the sight of Stepan, hid in the corner, and bared her fangs with a hair-curling hiss. But very few cats remained in town. Most had gone somewhere.
Instead there were suddenly plenty of children: during the war they kept very quiet, and now they ran around, yelling, playing war games.
They all loved Stepan as if he were a kindred spirit. He made strange toys for them: a carved bird with one wing—perhaps because death was somehow incomplete—or a clay horse with five legs. The children did not play with these toys, that’s not what the toys were for. Instead, the children liked to stop on their way and lean against Stepan as he sat on a bench by the door, his face turned up to the sun. The war ended in the spring, as usual, and the sunshine was plentiful.
“Uncle Stepan,” the children cried, “tell us about the war!”
“Boom, boom,” Stepan would say.
“And then what?”
“I don’t remember,” he’d reply.
The children laughed and ran away, and then came back to warm themselves up at Stepan’s side.
At night, Stepan went for walks. Normal men do that thing, roll off, and start snoring, but it seemed as if for Stepan it was a source of energy, because that thing is close to death, and doing it recharged him.
He would wander around, basking in the moonlight, and sometimes he would untie the dog and take it with him. They roamed around, the man and his guardian, and the street rolled smoothly under their feet, and even dust seemed to have gone to sleep. They walked in the moonlight, drenched in silver, so happy that one wanted to envy them. “No, I don’t envy you, Vera,” her neighbor Anna said, an insult always at the tip of her tongue. Anna’s husband did not return, but she got regular visits from the people’s assessor. The people’s assessor had a squat, stocky body and his head was so deeply drawn into his shoulders that he appeared to be privy to a secret. He and Stepan always exchanged glances, as if they shared some secret knowledge.
But the assessor was alive, and despite his corpulence he did not appear sturdy. He looked cozy, sure, but not sturdy. Coziness is the epitome of fragility: it may feel good but a moment later it all falls apart. The assessor was alive, he was lively, and so in the business of lovemaking he was of little use. As opposed to Stepan, who after the war became magnificent, unlike anyone, anywhere, or anytime. A normal man tries to finish as soon possible, rushing through the process. Stepan acted as if he’d already finished absolutely everything and had no reason to rush, and now he simply kept warm by Vera’s side, as if she were death herself, and he took his time to be fully sated. Before the war, Stepan and Vera had been childless, but now they had a baby right away, but only one, because enough is enough.
The little boy was strange, but only to a stranger’s eye. He was very quiet. Even as an infant he almost never cried but instead behaved as if he knew everything already and was only looking for confirmation. Vera sent him to daycare, and there everyone listened to him even though the boy never spoke.
“Seryozha will be big boss someday,” Miss Nadya said confidently; she’d seen shitloads of children during her tenure and had never been wrong in her predictions.
Before the war, Stepan worked at a factory, but during the war the factory had been bombed, and ball bearings were no longer produced, because when there is too much to bear, there are no bearings left. As a veteran, he received a decent pension, even though he decided not to apply for disability—what would he need disability benefits for? His hearing wasn’t great, that was true, but what did he need his hearing for if he already knew everything about himself from the inside? There was nothing new the outside world could tell him. The inside world was a different matter. Vera had no clue about Stepan’s inner world, and even when they were doing that thing Stepan seemed to be completely closed off. Vera’s intuition told her that there, inside Stepan, everything was still going on, and, truth be told, he never really came back. He didn’t lie to the children when he said he didn’t remember anything—it’s just that all this was still inside.
Because to remember is to get rid of the past somehow, leave the past behind, and in Stepan’s case, it went on inside him, and the fields still burned, and in those fields, iron smoked and smoldered.
In the fields, an iron tank would ride over the wheat, and then—boom!—the crew would burn inside the tank, and the wheat would go up in flames. The first layer of soil kept exploding, baring a multitude of the dead, and more dead lay under them, and soon it became clear that all of them were alive because nothing was over. The dead would rise and defend their land alongside the living, because it was truly their land, they lived in it. Some lay back down, and some did not quite make it, just like in the children’s game of Freeze, and then they would be assigned rations, but reluctantly because it felt wrong.
Occasionally, Stepan tried to explain to Vera how he managed to return from the war. Sometimes he’d say he had missed her very much, plus he was never buried properly anyway because everyone was too busy to deal with the dead—they had to think of the living. So he lay still for a bit and then came back. Sometimes he said that he came back because he missed little Seryozha, but Vera didn’t believe him: back then Seryozha didn’t even exist yet, he was born later. Stepan was confused, and understandably so, he had a lot to deal with. Little Seryozha loved Stepan very much; he said his father made him feel restful and at peace.
Sometimes Stepan said the land did not accept him because it had over-gorged itself—he was just about buried, but the land belched him right out, or perhaps there was another explosion. Either way, he came to in the field and went to join the others, but all the crews were fully staffed, and he got his leave, and that was that. Vera didn’t entirely get any of this. She was just happy he came back. The others never returned, and now things went south for those who waited. No one ate anything, no one shouted.
Stepan shouted only occasionally, and always at the most unpredictable moment. Sometimes he screamed in his sleep, and sometimes during a funny movie, instead of laughing. He never laughed—thank goodness for that, Vera said—but where the others would laugh, he’d cry out, a loud, piercing sound, and then he’d squint at the guests, his eyes moist and questioning: well, what do you think? The guests soon got used to it, and it wasn’t like they came over frequently anyway—once for the winter parade, once for the spring one. It was customary to hold a one-minute silence before the meal. Once it was over, no one knew what to say for quite a while. No one needed to speak, because you never know, and writing isn’t necessary either. I only do it by inertia when there are no household chores left.
Vera waited awhile before she spoke to her husband about the important stuff. It was a year later when his war buddy came for a visit. She knew his war buddy was one of those, too, because of his confident walk. He’d never visited them before, but he knew exactly where their house was even though it was set far back into the street, building five of the 17th micro-district, and even the postman had trouble locating it. It was as if Stepan’s war buddy sensed where it was.
The dead did everything slowly but confidently. Vera’s husband and his buddy spent a long time in the kitchen, at first silently, then singing songs Vera had never heard before. The lyrics made her think of babies just starting to talk and struggling to express their special feelings with ordinary words. “Ubyr,” “akdoğan,” something like that, Vera thought it may have been Turkic. Vera sensed something lurking in the Turks, as if they could slink into death or sniff out something about it. They weren’t so far removed from death themselves. But Vera knew a few things, too, and that’s probably why she managed to lure her husband back.
She wasn’t homogenous, but rather neither here nor there: Vera, meaning Faith, but Fomina, meaning the daughter of Thomas. Otherwise, her husband would not have come back—there is no point in returning to someone who doesn’t get it.
Otherwise, he was the same as before; even before the war, he gravitated toward the dead, but back then he was obsessed with fixing stuff. He fixed everything, and if nothing was broken, he’d disassemble and put things back together. People like him were called handymen, and they truly could do anything with their hands. Now Vera couldn’t get him to mend the fence or repair the plumbing. “Why,” he’d ask, smiling helplessly. “It’s good enough as is.”
Soon Vera realized that it was, indeed, good enough as it was, at least for Stepan. The broken fence was closer to its ideal, perfect state, and there was no need for plumbing. No one would need to send water through the pipes—water would be everywhere. Vera learned to live with it and resigned to do a few things herself. By the way, Stepan’s war buddy stayed on the foldout bed in the kitchen for a while. One day Vera asked him, “Tell me something about the war.” “Everyone’s always eating,” he said. “They eat all the time. Sometimes I’d sit there, looking around, and even the most normal ones are gnawing on something all the time.” Vera felt uneasy, but then she thought—what else would one do between battles?
She imagined war to be something like a military map where everything was the color of khaki. Camouflage nets stretched between the trees, trenches dug in the grass, people inside the trenches, eating. Then—boom! Boom!—and no one remembers anything.
Regarding the acts of bravery: she knew that there were no acts of bravery, that the word ‘act’ itself (by then she understood a little bit about roots of words growing underground) was related to acting, doing, when explosions made the ground move and the dead began to act. Vera knew that in the heat of the battle, the dead and the living sometimes switch places, and then the living are buried, and a red cross is placed above them. Vera understood that Red Cross services were really about funerals.
No one dared to say it out loud; instead, people said that war was sacred, but Vera’s husband let her know (even though he rarely said anything out loud) that war was all about exchanging the living for the dead, and this circle of life. Earth had a limited amount of people, it could not feed more than that, and these people would go underground, then come back up and mingle. That also explained the similarities among people. Genetics, this pseudoscience, had nothing to do with this. These people did not just look like some other people, they were the same people. At holidays, Vera’s husband and his buddy exchanged cards, and the cards were the same, with pictures of bunnies. They sent these cards back and forth, creating another instance of circulation at the post office.
Years went by, Seryozha did become a big boss; a television set was acquired, then another, and a few other appliances whose function no one really understood, but they made life significantly easier. Meanwhile, Vera could not die—she barely aged. Forty years passed, and still she wouldn’t die. She was starting to get tired, but then she realized that Stepan had already died for her. That’s what they kept saying on television. He died for her, or instead of her, and now she couldn’t die, she had to carry on with all this.
The dead were now the majority. That’s how it was from the get-go, but before they hadn’t been seen as much. The dead were called the silent majority because they did not speak much, and more than anything they wanted to keep things as they were.
No one bothered to mend fences anymore and plumbing only worked three days a week. The dead did not want to make any changes. Sometimes all they wanted was to go back to war, because this was their only chance to rest a bit underground during yet another act of bravery; someone from the living would take their place. Vera’s husband loved his little Seryozha so much that he no longer went to war. He still ate a lot, basked in the sunshine, took walks in the moonlight, but he and Vera no longer did that thing because enough was enough. On Sundays Stepan went to the cemetery and visited their neighbors who had no families. He made sure their gravesites looked tidy. One neighbor was Platonov the carpenter; the other, Mamleyev the woodworker. Stepan said they used to be good people: they understood something, but it frightened them. Stepan said there was nothing to fear, it was the same as always. He made his usual gesture, leaning his entire body over to one side, but couldn’t explain any further, and Vera wasn’t all that interested.
The town was overgrowing with weeds, but it was nothing.
Nothing was thick, smooth, green, just like that battlefield on the khaki-colored map, just the way Vera had imagined it.
Every now and then mushrooms sprouted in the yards. Here and there they broke through the concrete, and in some places the concrete had all but disappeared. Stepan had a special affinity for mushrooms and found them quickly, as if he could smell them. He said affectionately that a mushroom is just like a dead person, just look how it pushes up from the ground. One day he found and kept a few pages from the Science and Life magazine, with an article about the benefits of mushrooms as sentient beings capable of retaining memories. Mushrooms remembered the time when nothing existed, only mushrooms. Vera canned them, marinated them, but they never ran out. In the winter, her husband picked winter mushrooms. They were the same as in the spring but mostly white, the King Bolete. The white King Bolete was the tsar of the mushroom kingdom and must have remembered more than the others. Sometimes she didn’t know whether she should laugh and cry. But that had been unclear for some time.
Eventually Vera stopped sleeping at night, and now she and her husband go on walks together.
They are frequently seen on the streets of the cities in the countries that are frequently at war: a sturdy, unhurried old man and a forever middle-aged woman, one of those who can weed a garden, help with homework, or make a salad, and they do it equally well.
Everything is done for their sake, because almost no one is left now, and there is really nothing scary about it. Why should we be scared? We’ve been scared before. Now it’s time to learn happiness.
Poet, satirist, literary critic, novelist, and media personality Dmitry Bykov is one of Russia’s best-known public intellectuals. He has authored more than 70 books, including novels, poetry, biographies, and literary criticism.
Bykov is Ithaca City of Asylum‘s eighth artist in residence. He is supported by a fellowship from the Open Society University Network and is hosted at the Institute for European Studies in the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell.
Known for his wit, he is a popular lecturer and public speaker and has served as the host of numerous television and radio programs.
He is also an outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin. In April 2019, he fell ill while on an airplane flight and spent five days in a coma. An investigation by the news organization Bellingcat found that the symptoms were very similar to those suffered by opposition politician Alexei Navalny and that the same government agents who poisoned Navalny had also been following him.
He remained in Russia after the incident, but he has been banned from teaching at universities there or appearing on state radio or television.
Bykov says he would rather be known for his writing and teaching than for his poisoning or politics. He is a four-time winner of the International Award in the Field of Fantastic Literature, a three-time winner of the Fiction International Assembly Award, and a three-time winner of the Bolshaya Kniga (Big Book) award, one of Russia’s most prestigious literary prizes. He has held teaching positions at Princeton and UCLA as well as at universities in Russia. [Courtesy Ithica City of Asylum.]
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