Death in the Wastelandby Nikolai Bokov
I am one of those solitary, melancholy messengers
To Whom cherished gifts are not given.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
“Now I no longer remember when I moved into this house.
Last winter I was here, and the winter before last, that must be two years now, and before that I lived here another whole winter, and before that winter, another year. It’s been so long that I’ve lived in the little house—in the shed really; I live very well. This summer has turned out cold, and I light the stove every evening, sit in front of its open door, and gaze into the fire. Afterwards, I climb onto the bench. It’s made of boards, fixed to the wooden wall of the house on one side, and supported at the two remaining corners by wooden posts rooted in the floor. Directly above this bed, there is a wide shelf on which I keep drink and cigarettes; I need only to stretch out a hand to find, unerringly, the little cut-glass tumblers or a box of matches. I lie there and smoke, crimson reflections dance on the ceiling, the logs shift in the stove. Sometimes I light an oil lamp, and read something or other, and no one disturbs me. It’s been ages now, since anything disturbed me. The last time, when Irina came and then went away forever, was really bad. But in fact, the stars smiled down on me that night, I grew strong and calm. Occasionally, to be honest, I am bored even now; I look in the mirror and speak to the hairy man.
I say to him:
- Remember. You need only that which is yours, the others, Irina included, have their own life, you have yours, why bother each other. Forget it all, forget everything.
And the down-and-out mirror nods his head understandingly.
- There is one thing that you still remember—her face; you can’t forget that, and it’s more than enough.
The man with the beard disappears when I turn away, but I am once again serene, and free of care.
My dwelling is well appointed: some five years ago, I covered the earth floor with sand and the house is always warm and dry.
I need nothing else. The sun show this morning, the house was filled with light, and I painted another portrait of her. I have quite a store of them now; in fact, it’s even a little cramped in the house. I like their company—they stay silent and cannot talk rubbish. People usually talk rubbish, almost always they talk rubbish. The written word is far more agreeable. You can at any given moment slam shut the book, and forget that, according to that famous theory, man is descended from the apes. And most wonderful of all on earth are canvasses, on which there is not one letter of the alphabet, and—yes—where that which is depicted is not at all clear.
In those days Irina often came to see me. I waited for her on the highway from morning, waited with impatience. Cars raced by. I remember one time I thought a car was slowing down. I ran out to meet it. From inside someone peered out at me, malevolently. I apologized, saying:
- I thought that Irina had come with you.
The man at the wheel took fright.
Now I wait for no one, and it amuses me to think how naïve I was in those days.
Finally a car did stop. Irina jumped out onto the asphalt. I ran to her, and she stood and watched me run to her.
- At last!
- I missed the train, I rushed but I still missed it. I had to go to the shop, buy some food, you need more vitamins – you’ve lost weight since last week. You work too hard!
- Are you tired?
- No, today worked out very well. Off the train and straight onto a passing car.
- I’ll draw you, shall I?
Next to the little house in those far off days, stood an outdoor cooking stove. Irina lit it, and brewed some coffee, whilst I settled myself at an improvised easel. Then we drank coffee. Bees circled above the sugar. I gazed at Irina and felt that she held inside her some secret unknown even to herself. She spoke of life in town, then again bent over the stove, and I painted like one possessed. And felt disappointment: this was not it!
We dropped what we were doing, and went into the woods. No one saw us, and none could follow us.
In the evening we lit the stove together and sat in front of its blaze.
I was content.
I knew that no one would disturb us.
Some two months ago, I found a corpse in the woods, searched it and guessed that the corpse was that of an agitator. He had about him forms printed with the motto “Everyone to the Polls” and my and Irina’s surnames. It would seem that he had lost his way in the woods, and frozen to death, snow drifted up over him. They know everything, of course, even sent the agitator, only he froze, and they forgot about him. I buried the corpse. I nailed boards criss-cross on the door of the house, and now, if you shut yourself inside, the house appears to be boarded up. Under the eaves I’ve hidden the end of the piece of string which I attached to the hook on the door in case Irina should arrive unexpectedly. And now I am quite safe.
When night came I could not go to sleep for a long time. Irina slept beside me. I went outdoors and looked up at the stars. And then I understood the meaning of happiness and was horrified by the realization that I could lose it all. And I did not know what to do. I was ready to rush into the house, wrap Irina in a blanket like a sleeping child, and run away with her—stop her going to that dreadful town.
I laughed. Tomorrow evening she would leave in some passing car to the station, tomorrow she would go, and if I were to ask her to stay, she would only smile.
She is right.
She went during the day.
And I worked feverishly. I applied the paint with such savagery, as if throwing knives at a living target. And each knife cut away chunks of flesh, coming nearer and nearer to my heart.
In the morning, I came to my senses. The door was open, and squeaked on its hinges in the wind. I ran outside and the first thing I saw was Irina. She was standing on the edge of a cold, lifeless, completely flat, orange-colored desert. Black hair flowed down to her shoulders. Her face was a little strange, pale and gray. Her hands cupped her elbows.
She was looking up at me.
The artist in me exulted. Something showed at her feet. I bent down and discovered a badly planted shrub.
(It seemed to him that she had arrived. He ran to the highway, she had come, of course, she was on her way here. The highway was deserted. He stood waiting. Not a dot on the horizon. A cuckoo called hysterically in the wood. His heart was pierced by a momentary panic.
Home. He must go home immediately. Irina. Little girl with peaches. Little girl holding weights.
On his return, he quickly took the bottle, poured some spirits into a glass. In his hurry he choked, drops fell onto his beard, his shirt.
Irina is sitting by the stove feeding it firewood.)
(She says nothing. Turns her face towards him.)
‘I go to her—to take her away, save her. I take her hand, kiss her, and my lips plunge down, down, into an abyss. I am drunk.’
( … Young lady, may I keep you company? Irina? Delighted … You draw a little? I too. I’ll walk back with you excuse me could you just write down your telephone number yes, I live out of town and come here twice a year.
I’ll ring you tomorrow.
Or in six months?
Good heavens, what a time to wake up. Twelve o’clock. I stretch out a hand and take the matches. A cigarette. Nice.
To my right the wall is plastered with newspapers, I’ve drawn all over them.
Nikolai Bokov is a former samizdat writer.