этот текст:

        Translated by Robert Daglish
     Lyrical and  humorous, deeply national  but  concerned  with  the human
condition  at  large, often  about  children but mainly  for adults,  Fazil'
Iskander's  writing  abounds,  like  his  native  Abkhazia,  in  colour  and
     It is merriment and toil that make the earth beautiful, Iskander writes
in  one of his  stories. These qualities are also typical of his characters,
most of them drawn from his fellow countrymen, ever  a mixture of  gallantry
and guile, humour and hard work.

     Let's  just  talk. Let's talk about things we don't have to talk about,
pleasant things. Let's talk about some of the amusing sides of human nature,
as  embodied  in  people  we  know.  There is  nothing  more  enjoyable than
discussing  certain  odd habits  of  our acquaintances.  Because,  you  see,
talking  about them makes us  aware of our own healthy normality. It implies
that we, too, could indulge in such idiosyncrasies if we liked, but we don't
like because we have no use for them. Or have we?
     One of  the  rather amusing features of human nature is that each of us
tries to live up to an image imposed upon him by other people.
     Now here is an example from my own experience.
     When I  was at school the whole  class was  one day  given  the task of
turning a patch of seaside  wasteland into  a  place  of  cultured  rest and
recreation. Strange though it may seem, we actually succeeded.
     We  planted out the  patch with eucalyptus seedlings, using the cluster
method, which was an advanced method for those times. Admittedly, when there
were not  many seedlings and too much wasteland  left, we began  to put only
one seedling  in each hole, thus giving the  new, progressive method and the
old method the chance to show their worth in free competition.
     In a few years a beautiful  grove of eucalyptus trees  grew  up on that
wasteland and it was quite impossible  to tell where the clusters  and where
the single seedlings had been.  Then it  was said that the single seedlings,
being in direct proximity to the clusters and envying them with a thoroughly
good sort of envy, had made an effort and caught up.
     Be  that  as it may,  when  I come  back  to  my  hometown nowadays,  I
sometimes take  it easy in the  shade  of those now  enormous trees and feel
like  a sentimental  patriarch. Eucalyptus  grows very  fast,  so anyone who
wants to feel like  a sentimental patriarch can plant  a eucalyptus tree and
live to  see its  crown towering high  above him, its leaves tinkling in the
breeze like the toys on a New Year tree.
     But that's not the point. The point is that on that far-off day when we
were reclaiming  the wasteland one of the  boys drew attention to the  way I
held the hand barrow we were using  for carrying soil.  The P. T. instructor
in charge of us also noticed the  way I held the stretcher. Everyone noticed
the way I held the stretcher. Some pretext for amusement had to be found and
found it was.  It  turned  out that I  was  holding  the  stretcher like  an
Inveterate Idler.
     This was the first  crystal to form and it started a  vigourous process
of crystallisation  which  I  did all I  could to  assist,  so as  to become
finally crystallised in the preordained direction.
     Now  everything contributed  to the  building  of  my image.  If  I sat
through a  mathematics  test not troubling anyone and calmly  waiting for my
neighbour to  solve the problem everyone attributed this not to my stupidity
but to sheer idleness. Naturally I made no attempt to disillusion them. When
for  Russian composition  I would  write  something straight  out of my head
without looking  anything  up in textbooks and cribs, this was taken as even
more convincing proof of my incorrigible idleness.
     In order to preserve  my  image I  deliberately neglected my duties  as
monitor. Everyone soon  became so used to this that when any other member of
the  form forgot  to  perform his monitorial duties,  the teacher, with  the
whole form  voicing its approval in the  background, would make  me wipe the
blackboard or carry the physics apparatus into the room.
     Further development of  my image compelled me to give up  homework. But
to  maintain the suspense  of the situation I had to show reasonable results
in my schoolwork. So every day, as  soon as  instruction in the humanitarian
subjects began, I would lean forward on my desk and pretend to be dozing. If
the teacher protested, I would say  I  was ill but did  not want to miss the
lesson, so as not to get left behind.  In this reclining  attitude  I  would
listen attentively to  what the teacher was saying without being diverted by
any of the usual pranks, and try to  remember everything he told us. After a
lesson  on  any new material, if there  was still some  time  left,  I would
volunteer to answer questions in advance for the next lesson.
     The teachers liked this because it flattered  their pedagogical vanity.
It meant that they  could explain  their subject so well and so clearly that
the  pupils  were  able  to  take it all  in without even referring  to  the
     The teacher would put down a good mark for me in the register, the bell
would ring and everyone would  be satisfied. And nobody  but I ever realised
that the information I had  just memorised was about to romp out of  my head
just as the bar romps out  of the  hands  of the weight lifter the moment he
hears the umpire's approving "Up!"
     To  be  perfectly  accurate,  I  had  better  add  that sometimes, when
reclining on my desk pretending to doze, I would actually fall into a  doze,
though I could  still  hear the voice  of  the  teacher.  Much  later  on  I
discovered that some people  use the same, or  almost the  same, method  for
learning languages. I believe it would not  appear too immodest if I were to
say  that  I  am the inventor  of  this  method.  I  make  no mention of the
occasions when I actually fell asleep because they were rare.
     After a while rumours concerning this Inveterate Idler reached the ears
of our headmaster and for some reason he decided that it was I who had taken
the telescope that had disappeared six months ago from the geography room. I
don't know why he drew  this  conclusion. Possibly he reasoned that the very
idea of  even a visual reduction of distance would appeal most  of all to  a
victim of sloth.  I  cannot think  of any other  explanation.  Luckily,  the
telescope was recovered soon afterwards, but from then on people kept an eye
on me, as if I might get up to some trick at any moment.
     It soon turned out, however, that I had  no such intentions,  and that,
on the contrary, I was a very  obedient and conscientious slacker. What  was
more, slacker though I was, I seemed to be getting quite decent results.
     Then they decided  to  apply to  me  a method of concentrated education
that was fashionable in those years. The essence of this method was that all
the teachers in the school  would suddenly concentrate on one backward pupil
and, taking  advantage of his confusion, turn him into a shining example  of
scholastic attainment.
     It  was  assumed  that  other  backward  pupils,  envying  him  with  a
thoroughly Good Envy, would make an effort to rise to his level.  Just  like
the singly planted eucalyptus seedlings.
     The effect of the method depended on the suddenness of the mass attack.
Otherwise  the pupil  might succeed in  slipping out  of range  or  actually
discredit the method itself.
     As  a  rule the experiment achieved its purpose. Before the hurly-burly
caused by the mass attack could disperse, the reformed pupil  would take his
place  with  the  best in  the  class, impudently  wearing  the smile  of  a
despoiled virgin.
     When this happened, the teachers, envying one another with perhaps  not
quite  such a  Good Envy,  would  zealously  follow his  progress  in  their
markbook,  and,  of  course,  each  teacher  would try  to  ensure  that the
victorious upward curve of scholastic attainment was not  broken within  the
limits of his subject.
     Well,  either  they piled  into me too enthusiastically,  or  else they
forgot what my own fairly respectable level had been before they started but
when  they  began to analyse the  results of their  experiment it turned out
that they had trained me up to the level of a potential medal-winner.
     "You  could  pull off  a silver,"  my class-mistress  announced  rather
     The  potential  medal-winners   were   a  small   ambitious  caste   of
untouchables. Even the teachers were  somewhat  afraid of  them. It would be
their duty to  defend the honour of the school, and to damage the reputation
of a potential medal-winner  was equivalent to threatening the honour of the
school. Every potential medal-winner  had  at some time by  his own  efforts
achieved distinction in one of the basic subjects and  had then been coached
to the necessary degree of perfection in all the rest.
     So, with my school diploma sewn into my jacket pocket  together with my
money I got  into a  train and  set off  for Moscow. At that  time the train
journey  from Abkhazia to Moscow took three days.  I  had  plenty of time to
think things over, and of all the possible variants for my future  education
I chose the philosophical faculty of the university. My choice may have been
decided by the following circumstance.
     About two years before this I had exchanged some books with a friend of
mine. I  had given  him Conan Doyle's 
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
, and
he  had given me  an odd  volume of Hegel's 
Lectures  on Aesthetics
.  I  had
already been told that  Hegel was simultaneously both a  philosopher  and  a
genius and that, in those far-off years, was a strong  enough recommendation
for me.
     Since I had not yet heard that Hegel was a difficult  author to read, I
understood nearly everything I read. If I came across a paragraph with long,
incomprehensible words, I simply skipped  it  because the meaning was  clear
enough  without it. Later on, when studying at the institute, I learned that
besides their  rational kernel the  works of Hegel  contained quite a lot of
idealistic husk. I guessed that just those paragraphs I had skipped were the
husk. My  way  of  reading  him had been to  open  the  book  at some  verse
quotation from Schiller or Goethe, and then read round it, trying to keep as
near to  the quotation as possible, like a  camel on the edge  of an  oasis.
Some of Hegel's thoughts surprised me by  their  high  probability of truth.
For  instance,  he  called  the  fable a servile genre,  which sounded  true
enough, and I made a point of remembering this so as  to avoid that genre in
the future.
     Eventually,  for some unknown  reason  I gave up  reading  that volume.
Perhaps I had used up all the quotations or perhaps it was something else. I
decided that  I had far too much time ahead  of me and that  one day I would
read all the volumes in  their proper order. But I still haven't  started on
     It may well be that this random reading of mine and also a certain lack
of clarity  in the actions  of mankind on  the road to a bright  future were
responsible for my choice of the philosophical faculty.
     In  Moscow,  after certain adventures that I shall not relate because I
need  them as plots  for  my stories,  I entered not the university  but the
Library Institute. When I had been studying there for three years, it dawned
on me  that it would be  more interesting and more profitable to write one's
own books  than  deal  with other  people's, and so I moved to  the Literary
Institute, where they teach you how to write.
     Since then I  have been  writing, although, as I now  realise, my  true
vocation is inventing. In recent years I have felt that people are beginning
to impose on me the  role of humourist and involuntarily somehow I am trying
to live up to this imposed image.
     No sooner do  I make a start on something serious than I see  before me
the disappointed face of  a reader  waiting  for  me  to  have done with the
official part, so to speak, and get on with something funny. This means that
I have to change  horses  in midstream and pretend that  I  only  started by
talking seriously to make it seem all the funnier later on.
     Every day, except for the days when I do something  else, I shut myself
up in my  room, put a sheet of paper into my voracious  little "Kolibri" and
write, or pretend to be writing.
     Usually my typewriter gives a few desultory taps and then lapses into a
long silence. My family  try to look as if they are creating  conditions for
my  work  and  I try to look as if I am working. As a matter of fact,  while
sitting over my typewriter I am actually inventing something and at the same
time listening for the telephone in the next room so that I can be the first
to run and answer it.
     The  reason for this is that  my daughter  is  also  listening  for the
telephone to ring and, if she gets there  first, she will cut off the caller
with a blow of her little fist.  She thinks this is a  kind of game, and she
is not altogether wrong.
     Of all  my  numerous  inventions  I  will  mention  here only  two.  An
instrument for stimulating spiritual activity (a kind of electromassage  for
the soul), and also the method of "Mother-in-Law  Isolation by Shock", based
entirely on Pavlov's doctrine of conditioned and unconditioned reflexes.
     The instrument  for stimulating spiritual activity outwardly  resembles
the  conventional electric  shaver.  The  difficulty of  using  it  lies  in
determining the exact location  of a  given  person's  soul. Apparently  the
whereabouts of  a man's  soul in  the organism depends on his character  and
inclinations. It may be located  in the stomach, in the gall bladder, in the
blind gut and, of  course,  in  the heel.  This last  fact was known to  the
ancient Greeks. Hence the expression "heel of Achilles". The  heel being the
part of the body furthest  removed  from the brain makes communication  very
difficult between these  two vital internal  organs of the human  body, that
is, between the soul and the brain, and this in the course of  time leads to
an intellectual disease known as Chronic Mental Flatfootedness.
     Regrettably, my  instrument  has not been  widely  adopted  because the
voltages of the systems in general use are not suitable for it.
     The method of "Mother-in Law Isolation by Shock" has, on  the contrary,
become perhaps a little too widespread thanks to its exceptional  simplicity
and practical effectiveness.
     To apply this method you must, of course, have a mother-in-law and also
a child.  If you have both, there can  be no doubt that  the  upbringing and
particularly  the feeding  of the  child  will  be  in  the  hands  of  your
mother-in-law. And since she will put all the overflowing energy of her love
into the process, your child will quickly develop a firm dislike of food.
     So, one morning when your mother-in-law seats herself formidably beside
your child and starts plying him (or her) with rice  pudding or something of
the kind, you  quietly sit down on  the other side of  the table  and watch.
From time to time, in an apparent fit of absent-mindedness  you  imitate the
actions of  your child, opening  your  mouth when he does  and swallowing in
such a way as to emphasise the futility of the whole operation.
     Your child will soon begin to notice this. Though unable to grasp their
full meaning, he will feel that your actions are directed against the common
tyrant. He  (or she) will  look now at you, now  at the tyrant.  And if your
mother-in-law keeps a stiff  upper lip and pretends not to notice  anything,
he will call her attention to your behaviour in no uncertain manner.
     Your mother-in-law then becomes nervous and starts  giving you looks in
which a  Freudian  hatred  is  as yet disguised under a  mask of pedagogical
reproach.  To this  you respond  with  a  sad  glance  and an expression  of
complete submission, and  also a shrug  of  the shoulders as if  to indicate
that you  are not asking for anything, you are just looking, that's all. The
atmosphere becomes tense.
     Eventually, after the  usual mythological  threats or  open  blackmail,
when the most hated spoonful of all is being thrust down the child's throat,
you will say in a very quiet, uncertain voice:
     "If she (or he) doesn't want it, can I finish it?"
     Petrified with indignation,  your mother-in-law glares  at you with the
expression of Tsar  Peter  looking at his traitor son in the famous painting
by N. N. Ghe. But there is still time for her  to stage a come-back, and you
must be ready to prevent this.
     "No, only if she doesn't want it," you say,  thus explaining that there
is no need for wrath. "She can eat it if she wants it."
     At this point your mother-in-law faints.  You pick her up  quickly, and
carefully--I   stress  the   carefully  because   some  people  are   rather
rough--carry her to  bed. Now you may calmly go about your own affairs until
dinner time.
     I  must admit that lately  I have begun to repent  of  discovering  and
popularising  this method. Starkly  before  me rises  the  problem of  moral
responsibility  for  letting  loose an immature  idea  among the masses. The
indiscriminate repudiation  of mothers-in-law can  be attributed  only to  a
non-historical approach to  the whole problem. For  do not mothers in-law in
the present period of history play a most progressive role in family life?
     As a matter of fact, our mother-in-law is our real wife.  It is she who
cooks  our meals, she  who looks  after the  house, she  who  brings up  our
children and simultaneously teaches us how to live our lives. And as if this
were  not enough, she gives us  her own daughter to provide us  with all the
honey-sweet pleasures of love. Who is  more noble  or  more self-sacrificing
than she? She is surely our  true wife or, at least,  the senior wife in our
small but close-knit harem.
     Of  my other minor discoveries  I feel I can  mention one.  It concerns
humour. I have a number of  valuable observations on this subject. I believe
that to possess a good sense of humour  one  must reach a  state  of extreme
pessimism, look down into those awful depths, convince oneself that there is
nothing there either, and make one's way  quietly back again. Real humour is
the trail we leave on the way back from the abyss.

     It was a summer evening and my uncle had  guests. When  they ran out of
wine, I was sent to the nearest shop for some more, which, as I now realise,
was not altogether the best thing for my upbringing. The errand, it is true,
had first been offered to my  brother but he had  stubbornly refused knowing
that no  one  in the  next  few  hours  would be likely  to punish  him  for
refusing, and that before tomorrow came he would surely get up to some trick
which he would have to answer for anyway.
     So off I  went, running barefoot down the warm,  unpaved street, bottle
in  one  hand,  money in the  other.  I  clearly remember  the quite unusual
feeling  of elation  that came  over me. It could not have been inspired  by
anticipation of my forthcoming purchase because  in  those days I showed  no
particular interest  in  such  matters.  Even now  my interest  is  moderate
     After all, what  is the beauty of wine? Only its power to take the edge
out of our personal worries when  we drink with friends, and fortify what we
already have in common. And even if the only thing we have in common is some
worry  or  trouble, then wine, like art, transforming  grief, soothes us and
gives  us the strength to go on living and  hoping. We experience a  renewed
joy  in  discovering  one  another, we feel  we  are  all  human  beings and
     To drink with  any  other aim  in view is  simply  illiterate. Solitary
boozing  I would compare with smuggling  or some kind of perversion.  He who
drinks alone clinks glasses with the devil.
     Well, as I was saying, on my way to  the shop I was seized by a strange
feeling of excitement. All the time, as I ran, I kept my eyes on the ground,
and now  and then I seemed to see a wad  of banknotes lying there. It  would
pop up in front of me and I would actually stop to  make sure whether it was
there or not. I realised I  was  imagining things but the vision was so real
that  I could not help stopping. Having made  sure there was no money on the
ground, I only became even more  elatedly convinced that I was just about to
find some, and on I flew.
     I bounded up  the  wooden steps  of the shop, which stood on a kind  of
platform, and thrust the money  and the bottle into the shopkeeper's  hands.
While he was fetching the wine, I  took  one  last  look  down,  and there I
actually did see a  wad of  paper money  wrapped in  a pre-war  thirty-ruble
     I picked it up, grabbed the  bottle and dashed off home, half-dead with
fear and joy.
     "I've found some money!"  I shouted, running  into the room. Our guests
jumped  nervously, some of them  even  resentfully, to their  feet. A hubbub
arose. There turned out to be more than a hundred rubles in the packet.
     "I'll go as well!" my brother cried, fired belatedly by my success.
     "Get going then!" Uncle  Yura, a  lorry-driver, shouted. "I was the one
who suggested a drink. I'm always lucky over picking things up."
     "Particularly your elbow," our imperturbable Auntie Sonya put in slyly.
     "Back in the old days, in  Labinsk..." Uncle Pasha began. He was always
telling us about his ulcer or about the  wonderful life they used to lead in
the Kuban country in  the old days. Either he would start off about life  on
the Kuban and finish with his ulcer, or the other  way round. But Uncle Yura
shouted him down.
     "It was  my suggestion! I ought  to get  a cut!"  he clamoured. Once he
started there was no stopping him.
     "If it was, I didn't hear it," Uncle Pasha retorted gruffly.
     "You said yourself a White Cossack slashed your ear with his sabre!"
     "That  was  my left  ear and  you're sitting  on my right," said  Uncle
Pasha,  delighted to have outwitted Uncle  Yura,  and with a  well-practised
movement of his huge, workman's hand folded his left ear forward. Just above
it  there was a cleft large enough to  hold  a walnut. Everyone respectfully
examined the scar left by the Cossack sabre.
     "Yes,  it seems  only yesterday. We was  stationed  at  Tikhoretsky..."
Uncle Pasha  resumed, trying to profit  by the general attention, but  Uncle
Yura again interrupted him.
     "If  you don't  believe  me, let the  boy say  it  himself."  Whereupon
everyone looked at me.
     In those days I  was fond of Uncle  Yura, and of everyone  else  at the
table. I wanted them all  to enjoy my  success,  to  feel they had all had a
part in it without any advantage for anyone.
     "It was everybody's suggestion," I proclaimed spiritedly.
     "I'm not saying it wasn't everybody's  suggestion, but who suggested it
first?" Uncle Yura  bawled,  but his voice was drowned in a  joyful burst of
clapping, by which everyone sought to show that Uncle Yura was much too fond
of stealing the limelight.
     "Oh, Allah," said Uncle Alikhan, who was the mildest and most peaceable
of men because  his job was selling honey-coated almonds, "the boy has found
money and they  make all  this  noise. Wouldn't it  be  better to  drink his
     This caused an even greater hubbub because  all the menfolk got  up and
wanted to drink my health at once.
     "I always knew he'd make a man...."
     "May this little glass...."
     "Our young people have an open road before them...."
     "Here's wishing him a happy childhood...."
     "And what a road it is! A first-class highway!"
     "For this life,"  Uncle Fima  was the last to proclaim, "we fought like
lions, and the lion's share of us was left lying on the battlefield."
     "He'll be a learned  man, like you,"  my  aunt interposed, to calm  him
     "Even more learned," Uncle Fima cried and, having  elevated me to  this
unprecedented height, he drained his glass. Uncle Fima was the most educated
man  in  our  street and  therefore always the first  to  feel the effect of
     I was jubilant. I wanted to show how fond I was of everyone I wanted to
give them my word of  honour  as a Young Pioneer that I would find for them,
one  and all, everything they  had ever lost in life. I may not have thought
in exactly those words, but that was the gist  of it. However, I had no time
to voice my  thoughts, because mother came in and, deliberately ignoring the
general  merriment,  plucked  me out  of  the  room like a radish out  of  a
vegetable bed.
     She  didn't like my attending these festive gatherings  at  the best of
times, added  to  which she was offended that I should have run past  my own
home with the money I had found.
     "You'll be like your father, always doing your best for  other people,"
she said as we went down the steps.
     "I'll do my best for everyone," I replied.
     "It doesn't work  out like that," she  said sadly, taken  up  with some
thought of her own.
     At that moment we met  my  brother returning  from his search. His face
showed that you can't draw the winning ticket twice over.
     "Did you let them see all the money?" he asked as he went by.
     "Yes," I replied proudly.
     "More fool you," he snapped, and ran away.
     None of these  minor  setbacks, however, could damp the  new flame that
burned within me. Already I had decided that nothing would ever go  wrong or
get lost  in our house any more. If  I could find so much money without even
trying,  what should I find when I was really on the look-out? The world was
full  of treasures,  above and below ground; all you had to do was keep your
eyes open and not be too lazy to pick them up.
     The next morning, with the money I had found my family bought me a fine
sailor's jacket with an anchor on the sleeve,  which I was to wear for  many
years to come, and before the  day was out the news  of my find  had  spread
round our yard and far beyond its borders. People dropped in to congratulate
us  and learn the details of this  joyful event.  The women eyed me  with  a
housewife's curiosity,  and their  glances  showed that they would not  have
minded adopting me as their own son or, at least, borrowing me for a while.
     I  told the story of  my discovery dozens of  times, not forgetting  to
mention the sense of anticipation that had preceded it.
     "I  felt it was going  to happen," I would  say. "I kept looking at the
ground and saw money lying there."
     "Do you feel that now?"
     "No, not now," I confessed honestly.
     It really was a minor miracle. Now my theory is that the money had been
dropped by some  profiteering  driver, one  of the kind who often stopped at
that  shop for a  quick drink. When he got on the  road  again, he must have
realised his loss, and his anxious signals had been correctly decoded  by my
excited brain.
     That very same day  a woman came round from next door and congratulated
my mother, then said she had lost one of her hens.
     "Well, what do you expect me to do?" my mother asked severely.
     "Ask your son to look for it," said the woman.
     "Oh, go along, for goodness sake," mother replied. "The  boy found some
money for once and now we shall never have any peace."
     They  were talking  in  the  corridor and I could hear them through the
door. Overcome by impatience, I opened it.
     "I'll find  your  hen,"  I  said,  peeping out cheerfully  from  behind
mother's back.  A  day  or  two  before  this  my ball  had rolled  into our
neighbour's cellar.  When I went to fetch  it I had noticed a hen there and,
since no one in our yard had complained of losing a hen, I now realised that
this must  be hers. "I feel it's in the cellar next  door,"  I said  after a
moment's thought.
     "There's no  hen down there," came the unexpected retort from the owner
of  the cellar. She had been listening to our conversation while hanging out
her washing in the yard.
     "It must be," I said.
     "No  need to go rummaging in there,  knocking down the firewood. You'll
only start a fire or something," she blustered.
     I  took a box  of matches and  dashed over to the  cellar. The door was
locked  but there  was a hole in the wall on the other side, through which I
     It was dark inside except for a faint glimmer  of light  from the hole,
and I had to bend down all the time.
     "What's he doing in there?" came a voice from outside.
     "Looking for treasure," Sonka, my  scatter-brained girlfriend  of those
days, replied. "He's found a million."
     Striking matches carefully and peering  round, I reached the spot where
I had seen the hen  before, and there she was again. She  had half risen and
was craning her neck, blinking dazedly in my direction. I realised  she must
be sitting  on some eggs.  Townbred fowls usually find a  hidden nook to lay
their eggs. It was not difficult to catch  her in the darkness. I groped  in
the nest she had made for herself with a few wisps of hay, and put  the warm
eggs into my pockets. Then I made my way back, not lighting any more matches
because I was now heading for the daylight.
     At the sight of the  hen, its mistress  started clucking with joy, just
like her bird.
     "That's not all," I said as I handed it over.
     "What else is there?" she asked.
     "Here you are,"  I  replied,  and  started  taking the  eggs out  of my
pockets. For some reason  the hen  got  annoyed at  the  sight of the  eggs,
though I had made  no  secret of  taking  them  from the cellar. Perhaps she
hadn't  noticed what I was doing in the dark. Her mistress put  the eggs  in
her apron and, tucking the hen under her arm, walked out of the yard.
     "Come and see us when the figs are ripe," she shouted from the gate.
     From  then on I was  always on the  look-out and often made some  quite
unexpected discoveries,  with the result that  I became known as  a kind  of
domestic bloodhound. I remember  a rather eccentric relative of ours who had
lost his goat and wanted to take me off to his village, so that I could make
a thorough search  for  it.  I was  sure of  finding the  goat,  but  mother
wouldn't let me  go  because  she was afraid  I  might get lost in the woods
     I found  many other things because I  was always  searching and because
everyone believed  in my powers of detection. At home I would find  chips of
wood baked  in with  the  bread, needles  left sticking in  cushions by  our
absent-minded womenfolk, old tax receipts and bonds of the new state loan.
     One of our neighbours often lost her spectacles and would call me in to
look for them.  I soon found them, if she had not had time to sweep them out
of the room  with the litter.  But even then  I would retrieve them from the
rubbish bin because they were the one thing the cats prowling round it never
touched. But soon she began to lose her spectacles too often  and in the end
I advised her to buy a spare pair so that,  having lost  one pair, she could
look  for it with the other.  She followed my advice and for a time all went
well,  but  then she started losing the spare  pair, too, so I  had twice as
much  work to  do and  was  compelled  to  keep  the  spare pair  hidden  in
     I  enjoyed presenting the people around me with things they had lost. I
worked out my  own system of search, based on the principle of first seeking
the lost object in the place where it had been, and then in places where  it
had not  been and never could  have been. Much later in life I learned  that
this is called the dialectical unity of opposites.
     If  the  people  around  me stopped losing  things I  sometimes had  to
contrive my discoveries artificially.
     In the evenings I would patrol the yard like a warden  and hide  things
that had been left lying about. Often it was  some washing hanging forgotten
on  the line.  I would toss it up into the  branches  of a tree and the next
day, when  appealed  to  for help,  after a  certain amount of  thinking and
asking questions about what had been hanging where, as though I were solving
an equation based on the speed and direction of the  wind, I would point out
the  lost  linen to the  astonished housewives and recover it  from the tree
myself. Of  course, I  was not so silly  as to repeat this trick too  often.
Besides, there were far more real losses requiring my attention.
     In all this time only one of  my finds  failed to  please its owner. It
happened like this.
     There was a girl living in our yard  who had  recently come of age. Her
name was Lyuba. Nearly all day long she would sit at the  window  and  smile
into the street, arranging her hair this way and that  with a  little gilded
hair-comb, which I at the time mistakenly took  for a gold one. At her elbow
stood a gramophone  with its  horn turned towards the street,  almost always
playing one and the same tune:
Lyuba, Lyuba, Lyuba, my love....
     The gramophone was  like the  looking-glass in Pushkin's fairy-tale; it
talked all  the  time of  its mistress. I was  sure of this anyway, and  so,
judging by Lyuba's smiling face, was she.
     One day that summer, in the rather overgrown little garden by our house
I found Lyuba's comb  lying in the grass. I was sure it was her comb because
I had  never seen  another like it. The same evening I paced about the yard,
waiting  for  sounds of  panic and for someone to come out  and  ask  me  to
conduct a search. But Lyuba  was  not to be  seen and  there  was no sign of
alarm. The next morning I was even more surprised to find no messenger at my
bedside. I  could only  conclude that someone else must have lost the golden
comb, but I had  to make sure that Lyuba's  was  still in its place. As luck
would have it, she stayed away from the window all day and  appeared only in
the evening. And now the gramophone was playing quite a different tune.
     I didn't know what song it was but I understood that the gramophone was
no longer talking about her. It was a sad song  and,  when  Lyuba turned her
back to the window, I  saw that there was no comb  in  her hair and realised
that she and the gramophone together were mourning its loss.
     Her  mother   and  father  were  standing  at  another  window  leaning
comfortably on the sill.
     "Lyuba," I asked, when the song was over, "you haven't  lost something,
have you?"
     "No," she said with a start of fright, and touched her hair in the very
place  where the  comb  had been before. And for some reason, she blushed so
violently that I could see she knew what I was talking about. The only thing
I didn't know was why she was concealing her loss.
     "Didn't you lose this?"  I said, and with the air of a conjurer who had
grown rather tired of being gaped at by everyone  I produced the golden comb
from my pocket.
     "Nasty little spy," she shouted quite unexpectedly  and, snatching  the
comb away from me, ran into  the room.  This  was  a  quite  meaningless and
foolish insult.
     "Silly fool!" I shouted through the window, trying  to  pursue her with
my voice. "You have to read books to know what a spy is."
     I turned to go  away but her father called me  over. Now he was  at the
window alone, Lyuba's mother having run after her daughter into the room.
     "What's this all about?" he asked, leaning out of the window.
     "She lost  her comb herself in  the garden,  and  now she's cross about
it," I said, and took myself off, still not realising what it was all about.
That evening Lyuba got into hot water.
     Later on  an air force  man  appeared in their house, and a new  record
called "Dear Hometown" began to play.
     A week later the air force man left and took Lyuba with him and now her
mother would sit sadly at the window with  the gramophone whimpering  like a
big faithful dog for its mistress, "Lyuba, Lyuba, my love...."
     I continued my  quest, venturing  further and  further into  unexplored
     It was  particularly rewarding to search the beach  after a  storm.  At
various times I found there a sailor's belt  with a buckle, a buckle without
a belt, live cartridges dating from the time of the civil war, sea shells of
all shapes and sizes, and even a dead dolphin. One day I discovered a bottle
tossed up by a storm, but for some reason  there was no message in it and  I
took it back to the shop.
     Quite  near town, on  the bank of the River  Kelasuri I found  a  whole
creek of gold-bearing  sand and spent all day standing knee-deep in the cold
paleblue  water, panning for gold. I would scoop up a double handful of sand
and water, then  tilt my cupped hands  and watch the  water run away. Little
golden sparks  flashed in my palms, the water tickled my toes, big blobs  of
sunlight quivered on the crystal clear bottom of  the creek, and I had never
been happier in my whole life.
     Later I  was told that this was not gold but mica, but the feel of that
cold mountain  water, the  hot sun, the clear bottom  of  the creek  and the
quiet  happiness of  the  prospector is  with me still.  One day  I made yet
another discovery that I want to describe in more detail.
     We used to play a game of seeing who could dive deepest. We would start
at a depth of about two meters and go deeper and deeper until our breath was
     On the day  I am speaking of another  boy  and I were competing in this
way on the Dogs' Beach. The beach still has this  name, either because it is
strictly forbidden to let a dog bathe there, or because that is exactly what
people do there with their dogs. Well, anyway, I made my last  dive, reached
the bottom, tried  to scoop a handful of sand and nearly bumped my nose on a
big square slab,  on which I  glimpsed  what looked like  a  picture of  two
     "Ancient stone with a picture on it!" I shouted wildly as I reached the
     "You're  kidding," the other boy said, swimming over to me and  looking
into my eyes.
     "Word  of  honour!"  I insisted. "It's  a  huge slab  with  prehistoric
figures on it."
     We began  diving in  turns  and  nearly  every time we  saw  in the dim
submarine light that  white slab with its two blurred figures. Then we dived
together and tried to move it, but it wouldn't budge an inch.
     Eventually the  cold drove us  out of the water, but  not before  I had
taken careful  note of the  place where  we  had been diving. It was exactly
halfway between a buoy and an old pile sticking up out of the sea.
     School began  a  few days  later  and I told our form-master  about  my
discovery. He used to take us for geography and history. He was a powerfully
built man with withered  legs. A  Hercules  on crutches.  His whole presence
breathed mental vigour and spiritual integrity. In anger he was terrible. We
loved him not  only  because he had such  an interesting  way  of telling us
about everything, but also  because  he  treated us  seriously, without that
casual air of condescension in which youth always detects indifference.
     "It  must  be  an  ancient  Greek  stella,"  he said,  after  listening
attentively to my story. "That's a splendid discovery."
     It was decided that we should go down to the beach after school and, if
possible, lift the stone out of the  water.  "A stella," I kept repeating to
myself with  delight, and the  rest of the day's  lessons passed  in  joyful
anticipation of the expedition.
     So off we went down to the sea. Our P.T. instructor was sent with us as
labour power. He hadn't wanted to go at first but the headmaster had managed
to talk him into it. There was no one in the school that the P.T. instructor
was afraid of because, as he often told us himself, he could take a job as a
boxing  coach  any  day.  We  believed that he  could knock  out  the  whole
pedagogical council at one blow. Perhaps this was why his face always wore a
somewhat contemptuous  expression,  which  seemed  to be aimed at everything
that was done at school, as though he lived in expectation  of the day  when
his one fatal blow would have to be delivered.
     If  anyone disobeyed him during a  P.T.  lesson, he could administer  a
mighty finger flick on the  forehead, equal  in impact to  a  jump  from the
sports ground wall on to the well-trodden school yard. This we all knew from
     We  undressed  and charged pell-mell into the sea. Only our form-master
was  left  on  the  beach. He stood there  leaning  on his crutches  in  his
immaculate white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and waited.
     There had been a storm the day  before and I was afraid the water would
be hazy but it was just as clear and still as before.
     Reaching the spot  first, I dived to the bottom  and saw  nothing. This
didn't worry me much because I might not have got my bearings quite right. I
plunged again,  and  again saw nothing. All round  me  the  whole  form  was
snorting, squealing and  splashing. Most of them were  simply playing about,
but some  must  have  been  diving  to the bottom because  they  brought  up
handfuls of sand  and threw them at each other. No one reported sighting any
stone. I swam over to the buoy to see whether it had come adrift, but it was
still firmly anchored in its place.
     Soon the P.T. instructor appeared on the scene.  He  had  been slightly
delayed by the need to put on bathing trunks.
     "Well, where's the  statue?" he asked, puffing as if the water  was too
hot for him.
     "It should be here," I said, pointing.
     He took a deep  breath  and, executing a powerful somersault, shot into
the depths like a torpedo. He could certainly swim and dive, you had to give
him  that.  He  stayed  under for a long  time and at  last  came up,  as if
propelled by an underwater explosion.
     "You've  made the  bottom  all  muddy,"  he  said, snorting  loudly and
shaking  his head. "Now then, you young skeletons, off you go from here!" he
bawled and,  striking the water with the flat of his  hand, sent a great jet
of water at the other boys.
     "You're  not  making this up,  are you?" he  asked me  severely,  still
puffing and blowing as if the water was too hot for him.
     "Do you think I'm crazy?" I said.
     "How should I know?" he  replied, surveying the surface of the water as
though seeking a suitable hole to dive  through. At last  he found one  and,
having taken a deep breath, plunged again.
     This time he reappeared with a chunk of rusty iron from the pile.
     "Is this it?" he asked, eyes bulging from the strain.
     "Do you think I'm  crazy?" I said. "I saw a stone slab  with  people on
     "How should I  know?"  he repeated and, tossing away the chunk of iron,
made yet another plunge.
     Left to myself, I began to think it was time to make for the beach, but
anticipation  of the  shame I should endure in front  of my  form-master was
stronger than fear. After  all, I had seen it here. It couldn't have floated
     This  time the P.T.  instructor came to  the  surface, spluttering with
     "What's happened?" I  asked, frightened myself,  thinking he  had  been
stung by a sea-horse or something.
     "What  happened!  I forgot  to  take a  deep  breath--that's  what," he
snorted, mimicking me wrathfully.
     "So you forgot and I'm to blame," I said, offended by his tone.
     The  P.T. instructor was  about to retort but before he could  do  so a
girl's voice said, "What are you looking for?"
     I glanced round. A strange girl was swimming cautiously towards us.
     "Yesterday," the P.T. instructor began crossly, but he soon melted when
he turned his head. "Well, an ancient Greek statue actually... Perhaps you'd
like to dive with us?"
     "I don't know how  to dive,"  she  said  with a silly smile, as  though
inviting him to teach her. Her hair  was  tied up in a red scarf.  The  P.T.
instructor gazed at this scarf in silent  admiration, as if trying to puzzle
out where she had got it.
     "And  where  are  you  from yourself?"  he asked  irrelevantly,  having
apparently established where the headscarf had come from.
     "From Moscow.  Why?" the girl replied,  and  glanced towards the shore,
striving to make up her mind whether it was dangerous to talk to strange men
at such a depth.
     "You're in luck,"  the P.T.  instructor  said.  "I'll  teach you how to
     This time she smiled more boldly. "No, I'd rather watch you."
     "Well, if I don't come up again you can consider yourself responsible,"
he said,  intercepting her smile with a smile of his own that he enlarged to
positively brazen dimensions.
     He  did a particularly  impressive somersault  and  plummeted into  the
depths. I realised that now he had started gallivanting he wouldn't have any
more time for my stone.
     "Did you really see a statue?" the girl asked and, lifting her hand out
of the water, tucked a straying lock of hair under the scarf with her little
finger, which in her foolishness she took to be less wet than the others.
     "Not a statue but a stella," I  corrected her, watching  her  shameless
attempts to pretty herself up for the P.T. instructor.
     "What is that?" she asked, calmly continuing her efforts.
     I decided to take action before the P.T. instructor came up again.
     "Don't  interfere,"  I said. "Isn't the sea  big enough for you? Go and
swim somewhere else."
     "Don't be rude, boy," she said haughtily, as though speaking to me from
an upstairs window of her own house.  How quick they were to sense which way
the wind  was blowing! She  knew the P.T. instructor would appear  sooner or
later and take her side.
     He surfaced noisily, like a  dancer bursting  into a ring of onlookers.
He  had been a very  long  time under water but  it had been a  wasted dive,
because he had done it not for us but for her.
     "Well, did you see it?" she asked him,  as though she had been with him
all along, and even swam a little closer to him.
     "They're  just a lot of day-dreamers!"  he said, when  he had  got  his
breath back. This was his pet name for anyone  he considered  a weakling  or
good-for-nothing. "Let's have a swim instead."
     "All right, but not too far," she consented, perhaps just to spite me.
     "What about the stone?" I said, mournfully reminding him of duty.
     "You'll get such a clump  in a minute you'll be lying under that  stone
of yours," he explained calmly,  and they swam away, his  dark head with its
broad sunburnt neck bobbing beside her red kerchief.
     I looked at the beach. Many of the other boys were already lying on the
sand, warming  themselves.  Our form-master was still there,  leaning on his
crutches, waiting  for me to find  the stone. Had I not seen my  friend only
the day before, I would have decided the whole thing had been just a dream.
     I dived another ten times  or  so, combing the bottom  all the way from
the pile to  the buoy.  But  the wretched stone had vanished. Meanwhile  our
form-master had called me several times  but  as I  could not hear  him very
well  I pretended not to have heard  him at  all. I felt too ashamed to come
out of the water. I didn't know what I should say to him.
     I was very tired,  cold  and  had swallowed  a lot of sea-water. It was
becoming harder and harder to dive and I no  longer went right to the bottom
but merely ducked  below the surface to  avoid being seen. Many of the other
boys had dressed by  now  and some had gone  home,  but my form-master still
stood there waiting.
     The P.T. instructor  and  the girl had gone ashore. He  had carried his
clothes  over  to  her place  and  they  were sitting together,  talking and
throwing pebbles into the sea.
     I  was  hoping they would all  go away soon and  let me get out  of the
water. But my form-master was still there, so I went on diving.
     The P.T. instructor had  now  tied the girl's scarf round his own head.
While I was wondering why he had done this, he suddenly did a hand-stand and
she started timing him with his watch. He stood on his hands for a long time
and actually talked  to her in this position,  which she,  of course,  found
very amusing.
     I admired him mournfully for  a moment,  and just  then my  form-master
shouted to  me very loudly and startled me into looking at him. Our eyes met
and now there was nothing I could do but swim ashore.
     "You must be frozen," he shouted, when I swam nearer.
     "You don't believe me, do  you?" I  said through chattering teeth,  and
crawled out of the water.
     "Why  shouldn't  I believe you?" he  said severely, leaning forward and
gripping his crutches tightly  with his  gladiator's hands. "But you've been
bathing far too long. Lie down at once!"
     "There was a boy with me," I said  in the whining voice of the failure.
"I'll point him out to you tomorrow."
     "Lie down!"  he commanded  and took a step  towards me. But I stood  my
ground because I felt it  would be  hard enough for  me to argue  with  them
standing, let alone lying down.
     "Perhaps that boy  has pulled  it out already?" one  of our lads asked.
That was a tempting suggestion. I looked at my form-master and realised from
his glance  that he was expecting only the truth, and that what I was  going
to  say  would be the truth, and so I just couldn't lie. I was too  proud of
the trust he had placed in me.
     "No," I  said,  regretting,  as  always in such cases,  that  I was not
lying, "I saw him yesterday and he would have told me."
     "Perhaps  a fish  found  it and carried it  away,"  the same lad added,
hopping about with his head on one side to get the water out of his ear.
     That  was  the first jibe and  I knew there  were more to come, but our
form-master put a stop to  all that with a glance,  and  said,  "If I didn't
believe you I should never have come  here in  the first  place."  He looked
thoughtfully at the sea and added, "It  must have been dragged down into the
sand or carried away by the storm."
     But fifteen years later  the  stella was found, not very  far from  the
spot where I had seen it. And the person who found it, incidentally, was  my
friend's brother. So I was in on that too.
     The experts say it is a rare and valuable work of art--a stella with  a
gentle and sorrowful bas-relief that had once marked a grave.
     I remember our form-master with  affection and pride,  his thick  curly
hair and fine  aquiline  features,  the face  of  a  Greek  god, a god  with
crippled legs.
     Our seas have no tides, but the  land of childhood is like a beach, wet
and  mysterious  after the tide  has  gone out, where one may find  the most
unexpected things.
     I  was always  out  there searching and  perhaps it  made me  a  little
absent-minded. Later on,  when  I grew up,  that is, when I had something to
lose, I realised that all  the lucky finds of childhood are the secret loans
granted to  us by fate, which  afterwards,  as  adults,  we must redeem. And
justly so.
     And another thing I came to understand was that everything that is lost
may  be found--even love, even youth. The one thing  that can never be found
again is a lost conscience.
     But even that is not so sad a thought as it may appear if one remembers
that it cannot be lost simply through absent-mindedness.

     As  a boy  I  was much disliked by all farmyard cocks. I don't remember
what  started it, but if a warlike cock appeared in the  neighbourhood there
was bound to be bloodshed.
     One summer  I  was  staying with  my  relatives in one  of the mountain
villages  of Abkhazia. The whole family--the mother, two grown-up daughters,
two  grown-up sons--  went off to work early in the morning to weed maize or
pick tobacco. I was left behind in the  house alone. My duties were pleasant
and easy  to perform. I  had to feed the goats (one good bundle of  rustling
hazelnut branches),  draw  fresh water from the stream for  the midday break
and in general keep an eye on the  house. There was nothing special  to keep
an  eye on, but  now and then I had to give a  shout to make the hawks  feel
there was a  man in the vicinity and refrain from attacking our chickens. In
return  for this  I, as a representative of  the feeble urban branch  of the
family, was allowed  to suck a pair of  fresh eggs  straight from the  nest,
which I did both gladly and conscientiously.
     Fixed along the outside wall of the kitchen there were  some baskets in
which the hens laid their eggs. How they knew they were supposed to lay them
there was always  a mystery to me. I would stand on tip-toe  and grope about
until I  found an egg.  Feeling simultaneously like a successful pearl diver
and  the thief of Baghdad, I would  break the top by tapping  it on the wall
and suck the egg  dry  at once.  Somewhere nearby the hens would be clucking
mournfully. Life seemed significant and full of wonder. The air was healthy,
the  food  was  healthy,  and I  swelled  with juice  like  a  pumpkin on  a
well-manured allotment.
     In  the house I found two books: Mayne Reid's 
The Headless Horseman
The Tragedies and Comedies of  William Shakespeare
. The  first book swept me
off my feet. The very names of the characters were music to my ears: Maurice
the Mustanger, Louise Pointdexter, Captain Cassius  Calhoun, El Coyote,  and
the magnificent Doña Isidora Covarubio de los Llanos.
     "'My  pistol is at your head! I have one shot left--an apology,  or you
     "'It's the mirage!' the Captain exclaimed with the addition of  an oath
to give vent to his chagrin."
     I  read that  book  from beginning  to end, then from  the end  to  the
beginning, and skipped through it twice.
     Shakespeare's  tragedies  seemed  to me  muddled and pointless. On  the
other  hand,  the  comedies   fully   justified  the  author's  efforts   at
composition. I realised  that it  was not  the  jesters  who depended on the
royal courts but the royal courts that depended on the jesters.
     The house  we lived in  stood on a hill and the winds blew round it and
through it twenty-four hours a  day.  It was as dry and sturdy as a  veteran
     The eaves of the small veranda were tufted  with  swallows'  nests. The
swallows  dived swiftly  and accurately into  the  veranda  and hovered with
fluttering  wings  at  a nest, where their greedy,  vociferous  young waited
open-beaked,  almost  falling  out in  their  eagerness. Their  gluttony was
matched only by  the tireless energy of their  parents. Sometimes having fed
its young, the  father would hang for a  few  moments leaning back  from the
edge of the nest, its arrow-shaped body motionless and only the head turning
warily this  way and that. One more instant  and it would drop like a stone,
then deftly level out and soar away from the veranda.
     The  chickens foraged peacefully in the yard,  the sparrows and  chicks
twittered.  But  the  demons  of  rebellion  were not slumbering. Despite my
preventive shouts,  a hawk  came  over  nearly every  day.  In  a diving  or
low-level attack, it would snatch up a chicken and with mighty sweeps of its
burdened  wings  make  off  in  the  direction  of  the  forest.  It  was  a
breath-taking sight and  I would sometimes  let it get  away  on purpose and
shout later just to soothe my conscience.  The  captured  chicken hung in an
attitude of terror and foolish  submission. If I made enough noise in  time,
the hawk would  either  miss its prey or drop it in flight. In such cases we
would find  the chicken somewhere in the  bushes, glassy-eyed and  paralysed
with fright.
     "She's a goner," one of  my cousins would say,  cheerfully chopping off
its head and marching away to the kitchen with the carcass.
     The chief of this  barnyard kingdom was a huge red-feathered cock, rich
in plumage  and cunning as an  Oriental  despot. Within  a few  days  of  my
arrival it  became  obvious  that he hated  me  and was  only  looking for a
pretext to come openly to blows. Perhaps he  had noticed that I was eating a
lot of eggs  and this offended his male vanity?  Or was  he infuriated by my
half-heartedness  during  the  hawk attacks? I think  both  these things had
their  effect  on him but his chief grudge  was that someone was challenging
his power over the hens. Like any other despot, this he would not tolerate.
     I realised that dual power could not last  long and, in preparation for
the forthcoming battle, kept him under close observation.
     No one  could deny the  cock his share of personal  bravery. During the
hawk  attacks,  when  the  hens and  chickens  would  flutter  clucking  and
squawking in all directions, he alone would remain in the yard and, gobbling
fiercely, try to restore order in his timid harem. He  would even take a few
resolute steps in the  direction of the swooping foe, but since nothing that
runs can overtake that which flies, this made an impression of mere bravado.
     Usually he would forage in the  yard or the  kitchen garden accompanied
by  two  or  three of his favourite  hens  but without  losing  sight of the
others. Now and  then  he  would crane  his neck and look up at the  sky  in
search of danger.
     As soon as the shadow of a gliding hawk  passed over  the  yard  or the
cawing of a  crow was  heard, he would  throw up his head  belligerently and
signal his charges to  be on the alert.  The hens would  listen  in a scared
fashion and sometimes scuttle away  for cover. More often than  not it was a
false  alarm,  but by keeping his numerous mistresses in  a state of nervous
tension he crushed their will and achieved complete submission.
     As he scratched  the ground with  his  horny claws he  would  sometimes
discover  a delicate morsel and summon the  hens with  loud cries to join in
the feast.
     While  the  hen  that got  there  first was pecking his  find, he would
circle round her  a few times,  dragging his wing exuberantly and apparently
choking with delight. This operation usually  ended  in  rape. The hen would
shake herself bemusedly,  trying to  recover  her senses and grasp what  had
happened, while he looked round in victorious satisfaction.
     If the wrong hen ran up in  response to his call,  he  would  guard his
find or drive her away while continuing to summon his new beloved with  loud
grunting  noises.  His favourite was a neat white hen, as slim as  a pullet.
She would approach him cautiously,  stretch out  her neck, cleverly scoop up
the morsel  and run away as hard as she could, showing no signs of gratitude
     He would pound  after  her humiliatedly, trying to  keep up appearances
though  well aware  of  the indignity of  his position. Usually he failed to
catch her and would eventually come to a halt,  breathing heavily and trying
to look  at me as though nothing  had happened and his little trot  had been
entirely for his own pleasure.
     Actually  the  invitations to a feast were quite often sheer deception.
He had nothing worth eating and the hens knew it, but they were betrayed  by
their eternal feminine curiosity.
     As the days went by he grew more and more insolent. If I happened to be
crossing the yard he would run after me for a short distance just to test my
courage. Despite  the shivers going  down my spine I would nevertheless stop
and wait to see what  would follow. He  would stop, too, and wait.  But  the
storm was bound to break and break it did.
     One day, when  I was eating in the kitchen,  he marched in  and planted
himself in the doorway. I threw him a few pieces of hominy but to  no avail.
He  pecked up  my offering  but I could see  he had no  intention  of making
     There was nothing  for it. I  brandished a half-burnt log at him but he
merely gave a little jump, stuck out his neck like a gander and stared at me
with hate-filled eyes. Then  I threw the log. It fell beside him. He  jumped
even higher and flung himself at me, belching  a stream of barnyard abuse. A
flaming red ball of hate came flying towards me. I managed to  shield myself
with a  stool.  He flew straight into it  and collapsed on the  floor like a
slain dragon. While he was getting up, his wings beat on  the earthen floor,
raising spurts of dust and chilling my legs with the wind of battle.
     I  managed  to  change  my  position  and  retreat  towards  the  door,
protecting myself with the stool like a Roman legionary with his shield.
     As I was crossing  the yard he  charged several times. Whenever he came
at me I felt as if he was going to peck my eyes out.  I made good use of the
stool  and  he  bounced off it regularly  on  to  the ground.  My hands were
scratched and bleeding and the heavy stool was becoming ever harder to hold.
But it was my only means of protection.
     One more attack. With a mighty sweep of his wings the cock flew up and,
instead of colliding with my shield unexpectedly perched on top of it.
     I  threw the stool down and in  a few bounds reached  the veranda,  and
from there darted into the room slamming the door behind me.
     My chest was humming like a telegraph  pole and my hands were streaming
with blood. I stood and  listened.  I was sure  that  the  wretched cock was
lurking at the door. And so he was. After a while he moved away a little and
began to march  up  and down the veranda, his iron  claws clacking loudly on
the floor. He was calling me out to  do battle but I preferred to lie low in
my stronghold.  At  length  he  grew tired of waiting and,  perched  on  the
railing, gave vent to a victorious cock-a-doodle-doo.
     When my cousins learnt of my affray with the cock, they started holding
daily tournaments. Neither of  us  gained any decisive advantage  and we all
went about with scratches and bruises.
     The  fleshy, tomato-like comb of my opponent bore several  marks of the
stick and his glorious fountain of a tail showed signs of drying up, but far
from losing any of his self-assurance he had become all the more insolent.
     He had acquired an annoying habit of crowing  from  a perch on the rail
of the veranda, just  under  the window of the room where I slept. Evidently
he regarded the veranda as occupied territory.
     Our  battles were held in  all kinds of places,  in  the yard,  in  the
kitchen  garden, in the orchard. If I climbed a tree for figs or for apples,
he would stand and wait for me patiently beneath.
     To cure him of some of his arrogance I resorted  to various stratagems.
I started treating the hens to extra food.  He  would fly into a rage when I
called them but they treacherously deserted him all the same. Persuasion was
useless.  Here,  as  in any  other  field,  abstract  propaganda  was easily
deflated by the reality of profit. The handfuls of maize that  I  tossed out
of  the  window conquered the tribal loyalty  and  family  traditions of the
valourous egg-layers. In  the end the  pasha himself  would appear. He would
reproach them indignantly but they, merely pretending to be ashamed of their
weakness, went on pecking up the maize.
     One day, when my aunt and her  sons were working in the kitchen garden,
we had another encounter. By this time I was an experienced and cold-blooded
warrior. I found a  forked stick  and, using it like  a trident, after a few
unsuccessful attempts  pinned the  cock  to  the ground.  His powerful  body
writhed  frantically and its vibrations came  up the  stick like an electric
     I was inspired by the madness of the brave. Without  letting go of  the
stick or releasing its pressure, I bent down and, seizing my chance, pounced
on the cock  like a goal-keeper on a ball and  managed  to seize him  by the
throat. He writhed vigourously and dealt me such a blow on the head with his
wing that I went deaf in one ear. Fear reinforced my courage. I squeezed his
throat even tighter. Hard and sinewy, it jerked and twisted in my hand and I
felt  as if I  were holding a snake. With the other hand I grasped his legs.
His  long claws worked  desperately  to reach my body  and fasten on to some
part of it.
     But the trick was done. I straightened up and the  cock  hung suspended
by his feet, emitting stifled squawks.
     All  this time  my cousins  and aunt had been  roaring with laughter as
they watched us from behind the  fence.  So much the better!  Great waves of
joy flowed through  me. In  a  very  short  time,  however,  I  felt  rather
confused.  My  vanquished  opponent showed no  signs  of  giving in.  He was
throbbing with a furious  desire for revenge. If I let him go, he would come
at me again, and yet I couldn't go on holding him like this forever.
     "Throw him over the fence," my aunt advised.
     I went up to the fence and tossed him over with leaden arms.
     Curse it  all! He, of course, did not fly over the fence but perched on
it, spreading  his  massive  wings. The next moment he flung  himself at me.
This was too much. I made a wild dash for safety and from my breast rose the
ancient cry for help of all fleeing children:
     "Mummy! "
     One must be very foolish or very brave to turn one's  back on an enemy.
In my case it was certainly not bravery, and I paid the price for it.
     He  caught  me several times while I was running till at last I tripped
and fell.  He sprang  on top  of  me,  he rolled  on  me,  he  gurgled  with
bloodthirsty glee. He might quite  easily have pecked through my spine if my
cousin had  not run up and knocked  him off into the bushes with his hoe. We
decided that this  had killed him, but  in the evening the cock came out  of
the bushes, subdued and saddened.
     As she bathed my wounds, my aunt said, "It doesn't  look as if you  two
will ever get on together. We'll roast him tomorrow."
     The  next day my cousin and I  set  about catching the cock.  The  poor
fellow sensed  that  fate had turned against him. He fled  from us  with the
speed of an ostrich. He flew into the kitchen  garden, he hid in the bushes.
Finally  he flapped  into the cellar,  and there  we  caught him. He  looked
persecuted  and  his eyes were full of mournful reproach.  He seemed  to  be
saying to me, "Yes, we were foes, you and I.  But it was an  honourable war,
between men. I never expected such  treachery  from  you." I felt  strangely
upset and  turned away. A few minutes later my cousin lopped off  his  head.
The cock's  body jerked and writhed,  the wings flapped and folded as  if to
cover the gushing throat. Life  would be safer now but  all the fun had gone
out of it
     Still, he made us a fine dinner, and the spicy nut sauce that went with
it diluted the pangs of my unexpected sorrow.
     Now I realise that he was really a splendid fighting cock, but born too
late.  The days of  cock fighting have long since passed, and  fighting  the
human race is a lost cause from the start.

     Nearly all the mathematicians I have ever known have been untidy, slack
and rather  brilliant  individuals. So  the  saying about  the perfection of
Pythagoras's pants is probably not absolutely correct.
     Pythagoras's pants may have been perfect but his disciples seem to have
forgotten the fact and pay little attention to their own appearance.
     Yet,  there was  one teacher of mathematics at our school  who differed
from all others. He  was neither slack nor  untidy.  I don't know whether he
was brilliant or not, and that is now rather difficult to establish. I think
he probably was.
     His  name was  Kharlampy Diogenovich.  So,  like Pythagoras, he  was of
Greek origin. He appeared in our  form at the beginning of a school year. We
had  never  heard  of  him  before  and  had  never   suspected   that  such
mathematicians could exist.
     He immediately established the rule of  exemplary silence in our  form.
The silence was so terrifying that our headmaster would sometimes throw open
the form-room door in alarm because he was not  sure whether we were at  our
desks or had all run away to the sports ground.
     The  sports  ground  bordered  on the  school yard  and  at all  times,
particularly during important competitions,  interfered with the pedagogical
process.  Our headmaster  had actually  written a letter requesting  that it
should be  moved elsewhere. He  maintained that the  sports ground upset his
pupils.  In  fact,  we were  upset  not  by the  sports ground  but  by  the
groundsman, Uncle Vasya, who never failed to recognise us, even without  our
books, and chased  us out of his domain with a wrathful zeal  that showed no
sign of waning with the years.
     Luckily, no one listened to our headmaster and the sports ground stayed
where it  was, except that the wooden fence was replaced by a brick wall. So
even those who  used to watch events through the chinks in the fence now had
to climb the wall.
     Nevertheless,  our  headmaster had  no  reason  to  be  afraid  of  our
absenting  ourselves from a  mathematics  lesson. This was  unthinkable.  It
would  have been just as bad  as going up to the headmaster between  lessons
and silently snatching  off his hat,  although  everyone was utterly  fed up
with that hat.  He went about  in  it all  the year round, winter and summer
always the same soft felt  hat, evergreen like a magnolia. And he was always
afraid of something.
     To the uninitiated it might have appeared that what he  feared most was
the  commission  of the Urban Department  of Public  Education, but  in fact
there was  no one  he feared more than our director of studies, a demon of a
woman about whom I  shall  one day  write a  poem  in  Byronic  vein. At the
moment, however, I have a different story to tell.
     Of course, we could never have escaped from a mathematics lesson. If we
ever managed to miss a lesson, it was usually singing.
     As soon  as our Kharlampy Diogenovich entered the  room, the whole form
would  fall silent  and  remain so  till  the end  of  the lesson. True,  he
sometimes  made  us laugh,  but this  was  not  spontaneous laughter; it was
amusement  master-minded  from  above  by  the  teacher  himself.  Far  from
destroying discipline,  it  actually  ministered  to it, just as a  converse
proposition assists proof in geometry.
     This is how  it worked. Let  us  suppose  that  a pupil  was late for a
lesson and arrived, say, about half a second after  the bell had  rung, when
Kharlampy  Diogenovich would  be on the point of entering the  room himself.
The  wretched pupil  would  be wishing he could fall through  the floor, and
would have done so if the teachers' common room had not been underneath.
     Some teachers paid  no attention to such a minor  offence, others would
flare  up  and  give  you  a  reprimand  on  the  spot;  but  not  Kharlampy
Diogenovich. In such  cases he would halt in the doorway, shift his register
from one hand to the other and with a gesture full of respect  for his pupil
motion him towards the door.
     The pupil  would  hesitate  and  his embarrassed  face would express  a
fervent   desire  to  somehow  creep  in   behind  his   teacher.  Kharlampy
Diogenovich's  face, on the  other  hand, would effuse  a joyous hospitality
moderated only by politeness and an understanding of the peculiar demands of
the situation. He would make it  felt that the mere arrival of  such a pupil
was a  delightful occasion for the whole form and himself  personally,  that
none of us had been expecting him but now that he was here no one would dare
to reproach him for being a mere fraction of a second late, least of all he,
a humble schoolmaster, who would naturally enter the form-room behind such a
splendid pupil and himself close the door after him to show that we were not
going to let our dear guest out again in a hurry.
     The whole thing would last only a few seconds, at the end  of which the
pupil having edged awkwardly through  the door, would stumble on towards his
     Kharlampy Diogenovich would watch  his progress and  make some splendid
comment. For example, "The Prince of Wales."
     The form would roar with laughter. Though we had no idea who the Prince
of Wales was, we realised that he could not possibly appear in our form. For
one thing there  would be no point in it because princes were mainly engaged
in  chasing the deer. And if this particular prince had got tired of chasing
his deer and felt like visiting a  school, they would be sure to take him to
School No. 1, near the power station, because it was  a model school. At any
rate, if he had insisted on  coming to ours, we should have been warned long
beforehand and thoroughly briefed for his arrival.
     This was why we laughed, realising that our pupil could not possibly be
a prince, and certainly not any Prince of Wales.
     But  the moment Kharlampy Diogenovich  sat down at  his desk  the  form
would fall silent and the lesson would begin.
     A  shortish man with a large head, neatly dressed and carefully shaved,
he controlled his  form  with  calm authority. Besides the form  register he
kept a notebook in which  he  made  notes after testing a boy's knowledge. I
cannot remember his ever raising  his voice at anyone  or urging him to work
harder  or threatening  to send for  his parents.  He  had  no use  for such
     During a test he never stalked about between  the desks peering  inside
or looking round vigilantly at the slightest  rustle as other teachers  did.
Nothing  of the kind.  He  would  sit at  his own  desk, reading  calmly  or
fingering a string of yellow beads, which looked like cat's eyes.
     Cribbing during his lessons  was almost useless because he never failed
to  recognise  something that  had  been  copied  and would  hold  it up  to
ridicule.  So we cribbed only in cases of extreme emergency,  when there was
no other way out
     Sometimes  during a test he  would relinquish  his beads or book  for a
moment and say:
     "Sakharov, would you mind going and sitting next to Avdeyenko, please."
     Sakharov  would  stand   up  and  stare   questioningly  at   Kharlampy
Diogenovich, unable to understand  why he, one of the best boys in the form,
should be relegated to a place next to Avdeyenko, who was an absolute dud.
     "Take pity on Avdeyenko. I'm afraid he will break his neck."
     Avdeyenko  would gaze stolidly at  Kharlampy  Diogenovich as though--or
perhaps because--he  could  not understand why he was in danger of  breaking
his neck.
     "Avdeyenko thinks he is  a swan," Kharlampy  Diogenovich would explain.
"A black swan," he would add a moment later, alluding perhaps to Avdeyenko's
sullen sunburnt face. "Carry on, Sakharov."
     Sakharov would sit down again.
     "You may carry on too," Kharlampy Diogenovich would tell Avdeyenko, but
with a perceptible  change of  voice which  now carried a carefully measured
dose  of  sarcasm. "If you don't break  your neck of course, Black Swan!" he
would  conclude firmly, his final phrase somehow expressing the valiant hope
that Avdeyenko would acquire the ability to work on his own.
     Shurik   Avdeyenko  would   pore  furiously  over  his  exercise  book,
demonstrating a great effort of mind and will directed to this end.
     Kharlampy Diogenovich's chief  weapon was  his knack of  ridicule.  The
pupil  who  defied the school rules was not a  slacker,  not  a  dud,  not a
hooligan, he was simply funny. Or rather, not simply funny--many of us would
not have minded that at  all--but  ridiculous.  Ridiculous without realising
that he was ridiculous, or being the last to guess it.
     When a  teacher makes you appear ridiculous, you  immediately lose  the
traditional support of the rest of the form and they all laugh at you. It is
all against one. If one person laughs at you, you can usually deal  with the
situation  somehow. But you cannot turn  the laugh against the  whole  form.
Once in  this ridiculous  position,  you  will go  to any  length  to  prove
yourself a little less ridiculous than you inevitably appear.
     Kharlampy Diogenovich had no favourites. We  were all potential victims
of his wit and I, of course, was no exception.
     That day I had not solved the  problem we had been set for homework. It
had been about an artillery shell flying somewhere at a certain  speed for a
certain time. We had to  work out how many kilometres it would have flown if
it  had  been  travelling  at  a  different speed  and, perhaps,  even  in a
different direction.
     As if one and the same shell could possibly fly at different speeds. It
was a muddled, stupid kind  of problem and my answer just wouldn't come  out
right. Incidentally, the answers given at the back  of some of the textbooks
in  those years--it must have  been  sabotage--were  incorrect. This did not
happen very  often, of course, because by that time nearly all the saboteurs
had been caught. But apparently there were one or two still at large.
     However, I was still troubled with doubts. Saboteurs  may be saboteurs,
but it's no good  relying on them. So,  the next  day I arrived  at school a
whole hour before lessons started. We  were in the second shift. The keenest
footballers were in the yard already. I asked one of  them about the problem
and it turned out that he had not been able to get it right either. That set
my conscience completely at rest. We split up into two teams and played till
the bell rang for school.
     In we went. Almost before I had got my breath back, I asked our top boy
     "Well, how about that problem?"
     "Not so bad," he said. "I solved it."  He gave a brief, meaningful nod,
indicating that  there had  been certain difficulties  but he had surmounted
     "How could you? The answer in the back is wrong."
     "No, it isn't," he said, nodding again, this time with such an annoying
expression of  assurance  on his clever, conscientious face  that I at  once
began to hate him for his good  fortune. I was  about  to express a few more
doubts  but he  turned  away, thus depriving me  of  the  falling man's last
consolation--grabbing at air.
     Apparently, at that moment Kharlampy Diogenovich  had  appeared  in the
doorway but  I  had  failed to notice him and continued  my  gesticulations,
although he was only a few feet away from  me. At length I realised what had
happened closed my textbook in frightened haste and froze to my desk.
     Kharlampy Diogenovich took his place by the blackboard.
     I cursed myself  for at first agreeing  with  the footballer  that  the
solution in the book  was wrong,  and afterwards agreeing with the  top  boy
that  it was right. Now  Kharlampy  Diogenovich  would be sure to notice  my
anxiety and call me to the board first.
     Next to me sat a quiet and meek member of the form whose name was Adolf
Komarov. Nowadays he called himself Alik Komarov and even wrote Alik on  his
copybooks because the war had  started  and he did not  want to be nicknamed
Hitler.  It made  no  difference.  Everyone remembered his proper  name  and
reminded him of it whenever they had the chance.
     I liked talking  in class  and  he liked keeping quiet. We had been put
together  to  exert  a good  influence  on each other but  it hadn't worked.
Neither of us had changed.
     Now I noticed  that even he had solved the problem. He was sitting over
his open notebook, neat, thin and quiet, and his hands lying on the blotting
paper before him made him  seem even  quieter.  He  had this stupid habit of
keeping his hands on his blotter, of which I just could not break him.
,"  I whispered in his direction.  He made  no  reply,  of
course, but  at  least he took  his  hands off his blotter,  which  was some
     Meanwhile Kharlampy Diogenovich greeted  the form  and sat  down in his
chair. He flicked  back the sleeves of his jacket, slowly wiped his nose and
mouth with a handkerchief, which he examined for some  reason, then put away
in his pocket. After that he  removed his  watch  and began to thumb through
the pages of the register.  It  looked as if the executioner was speeding up
his preparations.
     At last, however, he finished marking those absent and looked round the
room, selecting his victim. I held my breath.
     "Who's the monitor?"  he  asked  unexpectedly. I  sighed  with  relief,
thanking him for the respite.
     There  turned  out  to  be  no  monitor  for  that  day  and  Kharlampy
Diogenovich told our form captain to wipe the board. While he  was doing so,
Kharlampy Diogenovich lectured him on  the  duties of  a form  captain  when
there was no monitor. I began to hope he would tell us some  story connected
with  the subject, or  one  of  Aesop's  fables, or  something  out of Greek
mythology. But he refrained from  any further illustration  of  his  lecture
because the scrape of the dry rag on the blackboard  was distracting  and he
was anxious for the form captain to finish his irritating task. At  last the
form captain returned to his place.
     We waited in  suspense. But at that moment the door  opened and a woman
doctor and a nurse appeared.
     "Excuse me, is this 5A?" the doctor asked.
     "No, it  is  not," Kharlampy Diogenovich replied with polite hostility,
seeing  that some  medical project was about to interfere  with  his lesson.
Although  our  form was  nearly 5A,  because it  was 5B, he had  answered as
firmly as  if we had absolutely nothing in  common. "Excuse me,"  the doctor
said again and, after lingering for a moment, withdrew and closed the door.
     I knew  they were going  to  inoculate us against typhus. Some  of  the
forms had been done already. Inoculations were never announced beforehand so
that no one could slip away or stay at home on the pretext of being ill.
     I was not  afraid of inoculations because  I  had  had plenty,  against
malaria, the nastiest of all.
     And now the white-coated hope  that  had suddenly illuminated our  form
had disappeared. I just could not let that happen.
     "May I show them where 5A is?" I said, growing quite brazen in my fear.
     There were two factors to justify the audacity of my proposal. My place
was near the door and I was often sent to the teachers' room  for  chalk and
other things of that kind. Besides, form 5A was situated in an annexe in the
school yard and the doctor might indeed get lost because she was permanently
attached to School No. 1 and rarely visited us.
     "Yes,  do,"  Kharlampy  Diogenovich  said,  and  raised   his  eyebrows
     Trying to conceal my joy, I shot out of the room.
     I caught up the  doctor and nurse while they were still in the corridor
on our floor.
     "I'll show you where 5A is," I said, falling into step beside them.
     The  doctor  smiled  as  if  she  was  handing out  sweets  instead  of
     "Aren't you going to do us?" I asked.
     "During the next lesson," the doctor said, still smiling.
     "But we are going  out  to  the  museum for the  next lesson,"  I said,
rather to my own surprise.
     There had, in fact, been some talk of our making  an organised visit to
the local  museum  to  see the  prehistoric  remains on show  there. But our
history  mistress kept putting it off because  the headmaster was  afraid we
might not get there in an organised fashion.
     Last  year a boy in our form had stolen a dagger that had once belonged
to an Abkhazian feudal prince, because  he wanted  to run away to  the front
with it. This had caused a  great rumpus and the headmaster had decided that
it had all come about because the form had wandered down to  the museum in a
crowd instead of marching there in double file.
     In fact,  that  lad  had  worked  everything  out  very carefully  long
beforehand. Instead of  taking  the dagger at once,  he had hidden it in the
thatch of  an exhibit labelled  Pre-revolutionary Poor Man's Hovel, and only
months later, when the fuss had died down, did he go there in a  coat with a
slit in the lining and complete his theft.
     "We won't let you," the doctor said cheerfully.
     "But we're all going to assemble in the yard," I said, getting worried,
"and go on an organised visit to the museum."
     "So it's an organised visit, is it?"
     "Yes,  it  is,"  I  said seriously, afraid  that  she,  too,  like  our
headmaster,  would doubt our  ability  to visit the museum in  an  organised
     "Well, Galochka, let's go  back to 5B, just in  case," the doctor said,
and stopped.  I  had always  liked these nice  clean women  doctors in their
little white caps and white coats.
     "But they told us to go  to 5A first," that  stubborn creature Galochka
protested, and looked  at me  severely. Anyone could see  she  was trying to
make herself out a grown-up.
     I  never gave  her so much  as a glance, just to show that nobody would
ever take her for one.
     "What  difference does it  make,"  the  doctor  said, and  clinched the
argument by turning round.
     "So you can't wait to show us how brave you are?" she added.
     "I'm a  malaria  sufferer,"  I  said,  dismissing  the  implication  of
self-interest. "I've had thousands of injections."
     "Well, lead on then, malaria sufferer," said the doctor, and we started
     Having made sure  they  were not going to change  their minds, I ran on
ahead so as to cut out any connection between myself and their arrival.
     When I entered the form-room,  Shurik  Avdeyenko was at the  blackboard
and, although the solution to the problem was written out in three stages on
the blackboard in his beautiful  handwriting,  he could not  explain it.  He
stood there with an  expression of sullen fury on his face, as though he had
known just how it went before but was now unable to recall the course of his
     Don't worry, Shurik, I thought. You may not know it but  I've saved you
already. Now I wanted to be kind and benevolent to everyone.
     "Good work, Alik," I said  as  I  took my place  beside Komarov. "Fancy
solving such a difficult problem."
     Alik was considered a good plodder. He was rarely  reprimanded and even
more rarely  praised. Now  the tips of his ears blushed  gratefully. He bent
over his exercise book once more and placed his hands neatly on the blotter.
Oh well, I suppose he just couldn't help it.
     A few moments later the  door  opened and the doctor and  that Galochka
kid entered the room. The doctor said the whole form had to be inoculated.
     "If  it must be  done  now," said Kharlampy Diogenovich, with  a  quick
glance  in  my  direction, "how  can  I  object?  Go  back  to  your  place,
Avdeyenko," he added with a nod at Shurik.
     Shurik put down the chalk and walked back to his desk, still pretending
to be engaged in a concentrated effort of recall.
     A stir of  excitement passed through the form but Kharlampy Diogenovich
raised his eyebrows and all was calm. He put his notepad away in his pocket,
closed the register, relinquished his place  to the  doctor and  himself sat
down at one of the desks, looking sad and rather hurt.
     The doctor and the  girl  opened their bags  and started setting out on
the table bottles, jars and wickedly gleaming instruments.
     "Well, who's the bravest  boy  in the form?" the  doctor  said, sucking
serum  greedily into the syringe and holding it point upwards to prevent any
dripping out.
     She spoke cheerfully but no one smiled. All eyes were on the needle.
     "We'll have to  call them out  in alphabetical order,"  said  Kharlampy
Diogenovich. "Everyone is a hero in this form."
     He opened the register.
     "Avdeyenko," he said, looking up.
     The form laughed  nervously, and  even the doctor smiled,  although she
had no idea what we were laughing at.
     Avdeyenko went to the table, a tall, ungainly figure whose face clearly
revealed that he had not yet made up his mind whether it was better to get a
bad mark or be the first for inoculation.
     He pulled up his shirt and  stood with  his back to the doctor, looking
even more  ungainly and still  uncertain  which was better. When  it was all
over and he had been inoculated,  he looked just as unhappy, although he was
now envied by the whole form.
     Alik Komarov  grew  more  and  more pale  as  his turn  approached and,
although  he kept  his hands on the  blotting paper in front of him, I could
see it was not helping at all.
     I tried to cheer him up but it was  no good. He  grew paler and sterner
every minute, his eyes fixed unwaveringly on the doctor's needle.
     "Turn your head away," I told him.
     "I can't," he replied in an agonised whisper.
     "It won't hurt  much at first," I  encouraged him. "The  time  it hurts
most is when the serum starts going in."
     "I'm so  thin," he  whispered back,  scarcely moving  his  white  lips.
"It'll hurt me terribly."
     "Don't worry," I said. "You'll be all right as long as it doesn't touch
the bone.",
     "I'm nothing  but bones," he whispered desperately. "It's sure to touch
     "Relax your muscles," I  said,  patting him on  the shoulder.  "Nothing
will touch the bone then."
     "I haven't got any muscles," he replied dully, "and I'm anaemic."
     "Thin   people  are  never  anaemic,"  I  retorted  strictly.  "Malaria
sufferers are anaemic because malaria sucks their blood."
     I suffered from chronic malaria and  the doctors could do nothing about
it however much they treated me. I was rather proud of my incurable malaria.
     By the time they called Alik's name, he was in a  real state. He hardly
knew where he was going or what for.
     He stood with his back to the doctor,  white-faced and glassy-eyed  and
when she made the injection he suddenly  went pale as death, although it had
seemed impossible  for him to get any paler. He turned so pale that his face
came  out in freckles. None of us had thought he was freckled  before and  I
decided to keep the fact of his concealed freckles in mind. It might come in
useful one day, although I had no idea what for.
     After  the injection he nearly collapsed but the doctor held him up and
helped him to a chair. His eyes rolled back alarmingly and we thought he was
going to die.
     "Ambulance!" I shouted. "I'll go and call the ambulance!"
     Kharlampy Diogenovich looked at me wrathfully and the doctor deftly put
a bottle of smelling salts under his  nose--not  Kharlampy Diogenovich's, of
course, but Alik's.
     At first he wouldn't open his eyes, then he suddenly jumped to his feet
and marched smartly back to his place, as though it certainly was  not  Alik
Komarov who had been just about to die.
     "Didn't feel  a thing,"  I  said, when I had my injection, though I had
felt it quite distinctly.
     "Well done, malaria sufferer," said the doctor.
     Her assistant  dabbed my back carelessly after  the injection. I  could
see she was still annoyed with me for not letting them go to 5A.
     "Rub harder," I said. "The serum must be made to circulate."
     She finished  rubbing my back  with an energy  born  of hatred. It  was
pleasant to  feel the  cool cotton wool soaked in surgical  spirit, and even
more pleasant to know that, even though she was angry with me, she still had
to rub my back.
     At last the whole thing was  over. The  doctor and  her Galochka packed
their bags and  went  on  their  way, leaving  a pleasant smell  of surgical
spirit and an unpleasant smell of serum in the room. The pupils sat at their
desks, fidgeting and cautiously feeling for  the  effects of  the  injection
with their shoulder blades and talking freely to each other as  a reward for
the suffering they had just endured.
     "Open the window,"  said Kharlampy Diogenovich, resuming his  seat.  He
wanted this spirit  of hospital freedom to  depart  along with the  smell of
     He  took out his yellow beads and flicked them thoughtfully to and fro.
There was not  much  of the  lesson left.  He usually filled in such gaps by
telling us something instructive connected with the ancient Greeks.
     "As  we  know  from Greek  mythology,  Hercules had  to perform  twelve
labours," he said, and stopped. 
--as two beads slid from right to
left. "But  a certain young man thought he would revise Greek mythology," he
added, and stopped again. 
     That fellow had too big an idea of himself,  I  thought, realising that
no  one  was allowed  to  revise Greek  mythology.  Some other  God-forsaken
mythology, perhaps,  might be knocked  into shape, but  not  Greek mythology
because  it  had all been revised from beginning  to  end already and  there
couldn't possibly be any mistakes in it.
     "He decided  to  perform the thirteenth  labour of Hercules," Kharlampy
Diogenovich went on. "And to some extent he succeeded."
     We  realised at once by  his voice what a false  and futile labour this
had  been,  because  if there had been any  need  for  Hercules  to  perform
thirteen labours he would  have  performed them  himself,  but since he  had
stopped at twelve it meant that twelve were enough and there was no need for
anyone to mess about making corrections.
     "Hercules  performed  his labours  like a  hero.  But  this  young  man
performed  his  labour  out  of  cowardice."  Kharlampy  Diogenovich  paused
thoughtfully, then added, "In  a moment we shall learn just what it was that
induced him to perform this labour."
     Click. This time only  one bead slid from right to  left, driven  by  a
very sharp flip  of  the  finger. It slid rather nastily  somehow. Two beads
sliding together, as they had done before, would have been better  than just
one, all by itself.
     I caught the scent of danger in the air. It was the sound not of a bead
sliding but of a small trap closing in Kharlampy Diogenovich's hands.
     "I have a feeling that I know already what it was," he said, and looked
at me.
     Something in his glance made my heart thud heavily against my spine.
     "Be so kind," he said, and beckoned me to the blackboard.
     "Who? Me?" I asked, feeling as if my voice was coming  from the  pit of
my stomach.
     "Yes, you, my fearless malaria sufferer," he said.
     I shambled towards the board.
     "Tell us  how  you  solved the  problem,"  he  said  calmly and--
--two more beads went sliding from right to left. I was in his hands.
     The form looked on and  waited. They were all  expecting me to come  to
grief, and they wanted me to do so as slowly and interestingly as possible.
     I squinted at the board from the corner of my eye, trying to trace  the
thread  of cause  and  effect between the stages  of  the problem that  were
written there, but  it  was no use. Then with a great  show  of impatience I
began rubbing it all out,  as though what Shurik had written was muddling me
and  preventing me  from  concentrating. I was still  hoping for the bell to
ring and  save  me from  execution. But the  bell did  not  ring and  it was
impossible to go on cleaning  the board forever. I put down the rag to avoid
looking ridiculous before I had to.
     "We are listening," Kharlampy Diogenovich said, without looking at me.
     "An  artillery shell..."  I  said  brightly  amid the  form's  jubilant
silence, and broke off.
     "Continue," Kharlampy Diogenovich said, after waiting politely for some
     "An artillery  shell..." I repeated stubbornly, hoping that the impetus
of these correct words would  carry  me on to more, similarly correct words.
But something held me  on a firm  tether that pulled  tight as soon  as  the
words were out of my mouth.
     I concentrated fiercely,  trying to imagine the course of the  problem,
and then plunged forward again to break the invisible tether.
     "An  artillery  shell..."   I  repeated,  quivering  with   horror  and
     A few restrained titters  came from the form. I sensed that the crucial
moment had arrived  and decided not to allow myself  to become ridiculous on
any account; I would rather just get a bad mark.
     "Have you swallowed this artillery shell?" Kharlampy Diogenovich  asked
with good-natured curiosity.
     He asked the question as naturally  as if he had been inquiring whether
I had swallowed a plum stone.
     "Yes," I said quickly, sensing a trap and  deciding to  foil his  plans
with an unexpected answer.
     "Then you'd better ask the military instructor  to come  and dispose of
it for you," said Kharlampy Diogenovich, but the form was already laughing.
     Sakharov was laughing, and  trying to go on looking like the top boy at
the same time. Even Shurik Avdeyenko, the gloomiest boy in our form,  whom I
had saved from certain disaster at the blackboard, was laughing. And Komarov
was laughing, Komarov who now called himself Alik but was really Adolf, just
as he had always been.
     As I  looked at  him it  occurred to me that if  we had not had  a real
gingerhead in our form he would have passed as one because his hair was fair
and the  freckles  that  he kept hidden,  like  his  first  name,  had given
themselves away during the injection. But we  did  have a real gingerhead in
the form and Komarov's gingerness had passed unnoticed. And it also occurred
to me  that  if we had  not pulled the number  of our form off the form-room
door a  few days ago, the doctor might never have called on us  in the first
place and nothing would have  happened.  I began to have vague presentiments
of the connection that exists between things and events.
     The  bell  droned funereally  through  the  form's laughter.  Kharlampy
Diogenovich put a mark against my  name in the register and also made a note
about me in his notebook.
     From  then on  I  took my homework  more seriously and never  asked the
footballers about problems I couldn't solve. Each man to his trade.
     Later in life I  noticed  that  nearly everyone is afraid of  appearing
ridiculous.  Particularly women  and  poets.  Perhaps  they sometimes appear
ridiculous because they  are too afraid of appearing so. On the other  hand,
no one can make someone else look ridiculous as skillfully as a good poet or
a good woman.
     Of  course,  it  is  not  very wise  to  be  too  afraid  of  appearing
ridiculous, but it is much less wise not to be afraid of ridicule at all.
     It seems  to me  that ancient Rome perished because its emperors in all
their marble magnificence  failed  to realise how ridiculous  they  were. If
they had got  themselves some jesters in time (you must hear the  truth,  if
only from  a fool),  they might have lasted  a little  longer. But they just
went on hoping that the geese would save Rome,  and then the Barbarians came
and destroyed Rome, its emperors and its geese.
     Not  that I  have any regrets  about that,  of course. But I do want to
express my admiration and gratitude for Kharlampy Diogenovich's method. With
the aid of laughter he tempered our sly young hearts and taught us to regard
ourselves with a strong enough sense of humour.

     In accordance with Moslem custom our family never ate pork. Our parents
ate  none and strictly forbade us to eat any. Although another of  Mahomet's
precepts--on the subject of  alcoholic  beverages--was  violated,  as  I now
realise,  quite unrestrainedly,  no liberalism  was  allowed where  pork was
     The ban engendered both  an ardent desire and a frigid pride. I dreamed
of tasting  pork. The smell of roast  pork  made me dizzy  to the  point  of
collapse.  I  would stand for  hours outside shop  windows, staring  at  the
glistening  sausages  with their wrinkled  sides  and  spotted ends  fancied
myself tearing off the skin and plunging my teeth into the succulent, tender
meat. I imagined the taste of sausage so clearly that, when I did eventually
try it, I was quite  surprised to discover how accurately fancy had informed
     Of course,  there  had been opportunities of  tasting  pork at  nursery
school or when visiting friends but I had never broken the accepted rule.
     I can still remember  picking the lumps of pork out of a nursery school
 and giving them away to my friends. The pangs of appetite were overcome
by the sweetness  of self-denial.  I felt a kind of  ideological superiority
over my  comrades. It was  satisfying  to  be something of  a mystery to the
world at large, as though I had knowledge that no one else possessed. And it
made my yearning for the sinful object of desire all the more intense.
     There was a nurse who lived in one of the houses in our yard. We called
her  Auntie  Sonya. In those  days for some reason  we thought  of  her as a
doctor. In general, as one grows up,  one  notices  a steady decline in  the
status of one's elders.
     Auntie Sonya was an elderly lady with her hair  cut short and a look of
permanent sorrow on her face. She always spoke in a very quiet voice. It was
as though she had long since realised that there was nothing in  life  worth
raising one's voice about.
     During  the communal  battles between  neighbours  that  were  frequent
enough  in our yard she  scarcely raised her  voice  at  all, which  created
additional  difficulties for  her opponents who, having  failed to hear what
she had said, would  lose the thread  of the  quarrel and  be put off  their
     Our families were on  good terms.  Mother told me that Auntie Sonya had
saved  me  from  certain death.  When  I had been struck down by some  grave
illness, she and mother had taken turns at my bedside for a whole month. For
some reason I experienced no feelings of gratitude towards  Auntie Sonya for
saving  me from  certain  death, but my sense of  decorum, when  they talked
about it, made me glad I was still alive.
     She would often come round to sit with us of an evening and tell us her
life story,  particularly  the  part about her  first husband, who had  been
killed in the civil war. I had heard this story many times before and  yet I
always froze with horror  at her  description  of  how she had  roamed about
among the dead, looking for the body of the man she loved. At this point she
would usually  begin  to cry, and my mother and elder sister would cry  with
her,  then begin comforting her, bring her a glass of water or  persuade her
to have some tea.
     It always astonished  me  how quickly  the  women would  recover  their
spirits and soon be able to  chatter merrily and even with renewed  interest
about all kinds of trivial matters. After this she would go home because her
husband would be back from work. He was called Uncle Shura.
     I was very fond of Uncle  Shura. I liked  the wild tangle of black hair
that hung down over his forehead, his muscular arms with their neatly rolled
up sleeves, and even his stoop. It was not the stoop of an office clerk, but
the sound, sturdy kind of stance that one finds in some old workmen although
he was neither old nor a workman.
     When he  came  home  in the evening  he would  always set about mending
something--table lamps,  electric  irons radios and even clocks.  All  these
things  were brought  to him by neighbours and he repaired them, as a matter
of course free of charge.
     Auntie Sonya  would sit on the other side of the table,  smoke and make
gentle fun of him for doing something that was not his business, wasting his
time, and so on.
     'We'll see  whether I'm wasting  my  time or not,"  Uncle  Shura  would
mutter indistinctly because he,  too, had  a cigarette between his teeth. He
would  turn  his  next mending job this way and that  in his deft, confident
hands blowing  off the dust as  he did so, and all of a sudden he would look
at it from quite a new, unexpected angle.
     "Wasting your time and making a fool  of  yourself," Auntie Sonya would
reply and, releasing a haughty stream of smoke  from her lips, gloomily wrap
her dressing-gown round her.
     In the end he  would  manage to get the clock going, or the radio would
start giving out crackles and snatches of music and  he would wink at me and
     "Well? Was I wasting my time or not?"
     I would  always rejoice in his success and smile to show that, although
it had nothing to do with me, I appreciated being included in his company.
     "All right, enough  of your  boasting," Auntie  Sonya would say. "Clear
the table and we'll have some tea."
     Even  in her gruff tone, however, I could detect a secret deeply hidden
note of  pride,  and I  felt glad for  Uncle Shura  and decided that  he was
probably just as good as that hero of the civil war whom  Auntie Sonya would
never forget.
     One  evening, when I was sitting with them  as usual, my sister dropped
in and was invited  to stay for tea.  Auntie Sonya laid the  table, cut some
pieces of tender  pink bacon fat, put some mustard  on the table, and poured
out the tea. They had  often eaten bacon fat before  this, and offered it to
me  as well, but I had  always  firmly refused, which for some reason rather
amused Uncle Shura.  They offered  me some now, not very  insistently. Uncle
Shura  placed a few cubes  of fat on a piece of  bread and held it out to my
sister. Aver a mincing  refusal,  she  accepted  this  shameful offering and
began  to eat it. In my indignation I felt the tea that I had begun to drink
freeze in my throat, and experienced some difficulty in swallowing it.
     "That's  the  way!" said Uncle Shura. "She's not  like you, you  little
     I felt  how much my  sister was enjoying what  she ate. I could see  it
from the way  she delicately  licked her lips  clean of the crumbs of  bread
defiled  by this  infidel  savoury, and  the  way  she swallowed each piece,
sitting foolishly still and pausing as if to listen to what was  going on in
her mouth and  throat.  She  had started the  slice  on  the  side where the
thinner  pieces of fat lay, and this was  a sure sign that she was relishing
every morsel, because all normal children, when eating  something they like,
leave the  best piece till  last.  Clearly  she  was  experiencing  enormous
     Now she was approaching the edge of the  slice with the thickest  piece
of  fat on it, systematically intensifying  her  delight. At the  same time,
with purely feminine guile she was relating how my brother had jumped out of
the window when his form mistress had come round to complain of his conduct.
Her story  served the  dual  purpose of  distracting attention from what she
herself was doing, while subtly flattering me, because everyone knew that my
teacher had never been round to  complain  about  me and I certainly  had no
reason to flee from her through the window.
     In the course of  her  story my sister glanced at me from time to time,
trying  to discover  whether I  was still watching her or whether  I was  so
carried away by her tale that  I had forgotten  what she was  doing.  But my
glance stated  quite clearly  that I  was  still keeping her  under the most
vigilant  observation.  In  reply  she opened  her  eyes  very  wide  as  if
expressing surprise that I could pay so  much attention to a  mere trifle. I
leered back, alluding vaguely to the retribution that awaited her.
     At one moment I thought the time of retribution had already arrived. My
sister  choked, then  cautiously  began to clear  her throat. I watched with
interest to  see what would happen next. Uncle Shura patted her on the back.
She  blushed and then stopped coughing, indicating that the cure had worked;
her embarrassment appeared to  be equally short-lived.  But I felt that  the
piece that  had  stuck  in her throat  was still there.  Pretending to  have
recovered, she took another bite of bread and bacon fat.
     Chew away, I thought to  myself.  We'll  see  how you manage to  get it
     But  apparently  the gods had decided to  postpone their vengeance.  My
sister swallowed this piece  safely. In fact,  it must also have pushed down
the previous  piece,  because  she  breathed  with relief  and  became quite
cheerful again. Now she ate with redoubled concentration and after each bite
licked her lips for so long that it looked almost as if she were showing her
tongue at me.
     At last  she reached the edge of the  slice with the thickest piece  of
fat on it and,  before putting it  in her mouth, she  nibbled away the bread
round it, thus building up the pleasure to be gained from the last piece.
     Eventually  she  swallowed this,  too, and licked  her  lips as  though
reliving the  pleasure she had received, and also to show that all  evidence
of her fall from grace had been destroyed.
     The whole thing  occupied  less time  than it takes to  tell and  could
scarcely have been noticed  by a casual  onlooker. Anyway I  am sure neither
Uncle Shura nor Auntie Sonya noticed anything.
     Having  finished  her  slice,  my  sister started  on  her  tea,  still
pretending that nothing out of the ordinary had happened. As soon as she put
the  cup to her lips I drank my own down very quickly,  so that there should
be nothing in common between us. Before this I had refused a biscuit because
I  was  determined to  make my  martyrdom complete  and  deny  myself  every
possible joy  while in her  presence.  Besides I was slightly  offended with
Uncle Shura for pressing his food on me less persistently than on my sister.
I should not have accepted it, of course, but for her  it would  have been a
good lesson in principle.
     In short, my  mood was  utterly  spoiled and, as soon as  I ad drunk my
tea, I got up to go. They asked me to stay but I was inexorable.
     "I  must do my homework," I  said  with the  air  of  the  lonely saint
granting everyone else complete freedom to indulge in sin.
     My sister begged me to stay. She was sure I would denounce her  as soon
as I  got home and  she was also  afraid  of  crossing the yard at  night by
     At home I quickly undressed and got into bed. I was absorbed in envious
and gloating contemplation  of my sister's apostasy. Strange  visions passed
through my brain.  Now I was a Red partisan captured by the Whites and  they
were trying to make me eat  pork. They tortured me but  still I refused. The
officers  shook their heads in amazement. What a boy! I was amazed at myself
but not a morsel passed my lips. They could kill me  if they liked, but they
wouldn't make me eat.
     The door creaked and my sister came in. She at once asked about me.
     "He's gone to bed," my mother said. "He seemed rather glum when he came
home. Did something happen to him?"
     "Oh no,  nothing," my  sister replied, and came over  to my bed. I  was
afraid she would  start arguing  and pleading  with me and all  that kind of
thing.  Forgiveness  was out of the question but  I didn't even  want her to
whittle down the condition I was in. So I pretended to be asleep. She  stood
over me for a while, then stroked my head gently. But I turned over on to my
other  side,  showing that  even  while  asleep I could  tell  the hand of a
traitor. She stood there  a  little longer, then  withdrew.  It seemed to me
that she felt some repentance but knew no way of expiating her guilt.
     I  pitied  her a little, but  apparently this was a mistake, for only a
minute later she began telling mother something in a low voice and they both
burst into little  fits of laughter, carefully restrained to make it  appear
that they were afraid of disturbing me. Gradually they calmed down and began
to prepare for bed.
     Clearly  she had  enjoyed her evening. She  had guzzled bacon fat and I
hadn't said anything and,  to crown it all, she had made mother laugh. Never
mind, I thought, my hour will strike.
     Next  day the  whole family was seated at table, waiting  for father to
come home for  dinner.  He arrived late and got angry with mother for making
us wait for him.  He had been having trouble  at  work lately and was  often
gloomy and preoccupied.
     It had been my  intention to describe  my sister's  misdeed  during the
meal, but  now I realised this was the  wrong time to speak.  Nevertheless I
glanced at my sister now and then, giving the impression that I was about to
launch into  an account of her crime.  I would actually open my mouth,  then
say  something quite different. As soon as my lips parted she would drop her
eyes and  lower her head  in  anticipation of  the blow.  It was  even  more
enjoyable to keep her on the brink of exposure than actually expose her.
     One moment her face was pale, the next she would be blushing furiously.
Sometimes she would toss her head haughtily,  then immediately her imploring
eyes would beg forgiveness  for this rebellious gesture. She had no appetite
and  pushed away the  plate of  soup almost untouched. Mother  urged  her to
finish it.
     "Of course, she doesn't want it," I said. "She ate so much yesterday at
Uncle Shura's."
     "So much what?" my brother asked, missing everything as usual.
     Mother looked at me anxiously and shook her head without letting father
see. My sister took the plate back and began eating her soup in silence. Now
I was really enjoying myself. I transferred a  boiled onion from my plate to
hers. Boiled onion was the bugbear of our childhood. We all hated it. Mother
gave me a severe glance of inquiry.
     "She likes onions," I said. "You do,  don't you?" I added  fondly to my
     Her only response was to bow her head even lower over the plate.
     "If  you  like them, you  can  have  mine as  well,"  said my  brother,
scooping one up in his spoon. He was just about to put it on  her plate, but
my father  gave him such a look that the spoon  stopped in midair and beat a
cowardly retreat.
     Between the first and second  courses I  devised  a fresh  amusement. I
dressed a  slice of bread  with little rings  of cucumber from the salad and
began nibbling delicately at my vegetarian sandwich, pretending now and then
to dissolve  with  pleasure.  This,  I  thought,  was a very  clever way  of
reconstructing the scene  of my sister's shameful fall. She stared at me  in
astonishment,  as though the pantomime meant  nothing to her  or,  at least,
nothing shameful. Further than this, however, her protest did not go.
     In  other words, dinner was  a  tremendous  success. Virtue blackmailed
ruthlessly and wickedness hung its  head. After dinner we  drank tea. Father
became noticeably more cheerful, and so, accordingly, did we. My sister  was
particularly gay. The colour flooded  into her cheeks and her eyes sparkled.
She  started relating some incident that had occurred  at school, constantly
appealing to  me as a witness, as though nothing had happened  between us. I
felt slightly disgusted by this familiarity. It struck me that a person with
her past could have behaved  with  a little more modesty  instead of jumping
into the  limelight.  She could have waited  until other, more worthy people
thought fit to relate that story.  I was about to administer a moderate dose
of punishment, but father unwrapped a newspaper and took out a packet of new
exercise books.
     In  those  pre-war years exercise books  were as  hard  to come  by  as
textiles and certain  foods. These were the best, glossy kind, with margins,
clearly marked in red, and heavy, cool pages of a bluish white colour,  like
     There were nine of these  exercise  books altogether and father gave us
three   each.  I  at  once  felt  my  high  spirits  begin   to  wane.  Such
egalitarianism seemed to me the limit of injustice.
     I was doing well at school, and sometimes came  top in  one subject  or
another. In fact, our  relatives and  friends  were told  that I was getting
excellent  marks in all subjects, perhaps in order to balance the impression
created by my brother's unfortunate notoriety.
     He was considered a very energetic  slacker. As his teacher put it, his
ability  to  judge his own  actions  lagged far behind  his  temperament.  I
imagined that temperament of  his in the  shape of a mischievous  little imp
that was always running on ahead of my brother and that he could never catch
up with. Perhaps, it was to help him in this chase  that ever  since the age
of eleven he had dreamed  of becoming a driver. On  every available scrap of
paper he would scribble an application he had read somewhere:
To the Director of Transport
     I request you to employ  me in  the organisation  of which  you are  in
charge because I am a qualified driver, 3rd grade.
     Later he succeeded in realising this fervent ambition. The organisation
of which  a certain director was in charge entrusted him with a vehicle, but
it turned  out that catching up with his  temperament entailed exceeding the
speed limit, and in the end he had to change his profession.
     And here was I, almost an outstanding pupil, being reduced to the  same
level as  my brother, who, starting from the back page as usual, would  fill
up these beautiful exercise books with his idiotic applications.
     And  to the  same level as my sister, who only the  day before had been
guzzling bacon  fat and was today receiving  a  present  which  she had done
nothing whatever to deserve.
     I  pushed aside  the exercise books  and  sat scowling  at  the  table,
painfully aware of  the  humiliating  tears of resentment welling  up  in my
throat.  My father tried to talk me round and promised to take me fishing in
the mountains, but it was no use. The more they tried to console me the more
strongly I felt that I had been unjustly passed over.
     "Look! I've got two blotters!"  my sister sang out  all of a sudden, as
she opened one of the exercise books. This  was the  last straw. Perhaps, if
fate had not granted her that extra sheet of blotting paper, what did happen
might never have happened.
     I stood up and in a trembling voice said to my father:
     "Yesterday she was eating bacon fat...."
     An indecent silence  descended on  the  room.  With  a sense of fear  I
realised  that I had done something wrong. Either I had not expressed myself
quite clearly  or else there was  too  close a  connection between Mahomet's
great laws and  the sneaking desire  to lay hands on someone else's exercise
     Father  stared  at  me  gravely from  under his slightly  swollen lids.
Slowly his eyes filled with  fury. I realised that his gaze held nothing for
me  to look forward  to. I  made  one  more pitiful  attempt to correct  the
situation and channel his fury in the right direction.
     "She ate  bacon fat yesterday at  Uncle Shura's,"  I said  desperately,
feeling that my whole case was collapsing.
     The next  moment father seized me by the  ears, shook my  head  and, as
though realising it would  not  come off,  lifted me up and  threw me to the
floor. In the brief seconds before  I landed I felt a stab of pain and heard
the creak of my ears stretching.
     "Son of a bitch!" he  cried. "On top of everything else am  I  to  have
traitors in my own house!"
     He  grabbed  his leather jacket  and swung out  of the room, giving the
door such a slam that plaster fell off  the  walls. I remember being  shaken
not so much by the pain or  by what he said, but  by the expression of utter
repugnance with  which  he  had  seized  my ears. It was the  expression  of
someone about to kill a snake.
     Stunned by what  had happened, I remained lying on the floor for a long
time. My mother tried to lift  me  up while my brother, in a  state  of wild
excitement,  ran  round  me  in  circles,  pointing at  my ears and  roaring
     "Our top boy!"
     I was  very fond  of  my  father  and this was the  first time  he  had
punished me.
     Many years have passed since  then.  For a long  time  now I  have been
eating the pork that is available to all, though I don't think I am  any the
happier for it. But  the lesson was not wasted. It taught me for the rest of
my life that no lofty principle can justify meanness and treachery, and that
all treachery  is the hairy caterpillar  that  grows from a small  envy,  no
matter under what high principles it may be concealed.

     It was  1942. I was  living  at  my uncle's  house  in  the  village of
Napskal, in  the mountains. Fear of the bombing  and, above all, the wartime
food shortage had  driven us away from town to  this peaceful and relatively
well-provided corner of Abkhazia.
     Our little town had, in fact, been bombed only twice, and the bombs the
Germans  had  dropped  there  had  probably been intended  for  other,  more
important targets, which they had been prevented from reaching. My theory is
that those pilots raided us out  of fear of the punishment that awaited them
if  they returned to base with a full load  of bombs. I have two reasons for
thinking so. First, their aircraft approached the town not from behind their
lines but  from behind  ours  and, secondly, there  had  never been anything
military in our town except the militia.
     After  the first air-raid the town became deserted. The  table  orators
and amateur strategists of the  seaside coffee shops wisely  adjourned their
unending  discussions  on  current  affairs  and  quietly  withdrew  to  the
surrounding villages  to eat  Abkhazian hominy,  whose prestige  accordingly
mounted by leaps and bounds.
     Only the most essential  people  and those  who had nowhere else to  go
remained  in town. We were not essential and we had somewhere to  go.  So we
went. Our  country relatives consulted  each other  and shared  us out among
themselves,  taking  into account  our respective potentialities.  My  elder
brother,  as one  already polluted  by  urban  civilisation, remained in the
village nearest town  and was afterwards recruited into the army. My  sister
was sent off to live with a distant  relative, who, being  rich, seemed much
closer related than he really was. I, as the  youngest and most useless, was
given to my  uncle  in  the  mountains.  Mother remained  somewhere near the
middle, in the house of her elder sister, whence she tried to stretch out to
us her warm and ageing wings.
     My  uncle turned out to be quite  a big  cattle-breeder; he had  twenty
goats and three sheep. While I  was  trying to make up  my mind where family
assistance ended and exploitation began, he quietly and painlessly put me in
charge of them. I  soon took a liking to the job and learned how to exert my
will over this small but rebellious herd.
     We were bound together by two ancient magical calls: 
     They had many meanings and shades of meaning depending on how they were
spoken. The goats understood these meanings perfectly but sometimes, when it
suited them, pretended to miss certain subtleties.
     The various  meanings were  numerous enough. For  instance, if I let my
voice ring out freely: "
Kheit!  Kheit!
" it meant, "Graze on  calmly,  you've
nothing to worry about."  If I called out in a tone of pedagogical reproach,
the meaning would be, "I  can see you! I know where you're off to." And if I
let  out  a  very  sharp  and  rapid, "
Iiyo!  Iiyo!
" they  were  supposed to
understand it as "Danger! Come back!"
     Skillful mingling of both calls yielded a great number of variations of
an educative nature-orders, advice, warnings, reproach and so on.
     At the sound of my voice  the goats would usually raise their heads, as
if trying to make  out what  exactly was  required of them this  time.  They
always grazed with a certain air of  fastidiousness,  tearing leaves off the
bushes  and reaching  up  for  the  freshest and  furthest  away. There  was
something  indecent  about  them  standing  on their hind legs, and later on
when, as a young man, I saw the goat-legged human figures in  a reproduction
of El Greco I was reminded of that impression.
     The  goats liked to  graze  on  steep,  craggy slopes  near  a mountain
stream. I  think the  sound of the  water awakened  their appetite, like the
sizzling of  spitted meat before  dinner.  Their beards shook and they bared
their small, even teeth as they nibbled. It irritated me to see them abandon
one branch and with careless greed start on another before they had finished
the first.
     At  dinner we had to  save every crumb,  and  they  could  afford to be
fussy. It was unjust.
     The sheep usually followed  in the wake of the  goats recognising their
precedence but maintaining a modest dignity.
     They kept their  heads  low to the ground,  as though smelling out  the
grass. For  choice  they  preferred open  level patches. But  if  they  were
frightened by something and bolted, there was no stopping them. Their  tails
would whack  their hindquarters as they ran  and each whack increased  their
terror, making them rocket ahead in a kind of multi-stage panic.
     As a resting place the goats would choose the highest and rockiest crag
they could find.  They liked a clean spot to  lie on. The oldest goat  would
usually occupy the summit. He had terrifying horns  and tufts of matted hair
that was yellow with age hung from his sides.  You could  feel he understood
his  role  in  life.  He  moved slowly,  with a  dignified  swaying  of  his
snow-white, wise old astrologer's beard. If a young goat was so unmindful as
to occupy his  place he  would  walk up  calmly  and  knock  him down with a
sideways thrust of his horns, not even looking in his direction.
     One day a goat  disappeared from the herd.  I wore myself out,  running
from bush to  bush, tearing my  clothes to shreds and  shouting  till I  was
hoarse. But still I couldn't find her. On my  way back I happened to look up
and  there she was, perched on  a thick branch of a wild persimmon tree. She
had climbed up the  twisted trunk.  Our  eyes  met.  She surveyed  me with a
jaundiced  glance of  haughty non-recognition and obviously had no intention
of climbing down. Only when I let fly with a stone did she spring lightly to
the ground and run to rejoin the herd.
     I think goats are the craftiest of all quadrupeds. I had only to let my
mind wander for a minute and they would melt away into the white rocks,  the
hazel thickets and the ferns.
     It was a hot, worrying  job to look for them, running up  and  down the
narrow, heat-cracked paths  with lizards darting to and  fro like flashes of
green lightning. Sometimes a snake  would  wriggle away  from just  under my
feet and I would jump sky-high, the sole of the foot that had nearly trodden
on it tingling from its resilient chill, and go  on running and running with
a sense of the insuperable, almost joyful lightness of fear.
     And how strange it was to stop and listen to the rustle of  the bushes,
wondering whether your quarry was there and  listening to the swish  of  the
grasshoppers,  to the distant song of the larks in the majestic blue  above,
or perhaps to a human voice from the road, on to the steady thudding of your
own heart, and  to breathe  in the fleshy smell of the sun-drenched foliage,
all the sweet languor of the summer stillness.
     But the worst thing of all was when the goats were trying to get into a
field of maize. No hedge could stop them.
     I  would race towards the field, shouting  from a distance and throwing
anything that came to hand but, far from taking flight  at the sight  of me,
they  would continue  to gobble down the long maize leaves as fast  as their
jaws would go.
     In good weather I would usually lie on the grass in the shadow of a big
alder  bush, listening to  the spluttering roar of our U-2 planes patrolling
on the  other  side of the  pass. Fighting was going on over there and every
day the thunder  of war reached us as regularly as  the  sounds of labour in
the busy season.
     One day a "hedgehopper",  as we used to call  those  old biplanes, came
shooting over the mountains with a kind of panic-stricken rattle and dropped
like a stone into the lap of the Kodor Valley, then flew on almost at ground
level all the way to the sea.  With every  fibre in my body I felt the sheer
human terror of the pilot  who had skimmed over  the ridge, evidently to get
away from a German fighter. The plane's  shadow swept across the field quite
near to  me at unearthly speed, darkened  the  tobacco plantation, and a few
moments later was streaking low over the Kodor delta.
     Once in a  while  a German plane would fly over at a great  height.  We
could tell it by the irregular throb of its engines, rather like the hum  of
a malarial mosquito. Usually  the anti-aircraft guns would  open up  when it
got  near  the town  and we would see  the shell  bursts  all round it, like
dandelion tops, but it would cruise  along among  them  as though enchanted.
All through the war I never saw one of them shot down.
     One day a villager came back  from town, where  he had gone to sell his
pigs,  with the story that  my brother was wounded, had been put in hospital
in Baku and was pining for mother to come and see him.  The news startled us
all. Mother had to be told as soon as possible and it  turned out that there
was no one else to send but me. I was only too willing.
     They gave me a good feed of cheese and hominy grand dad  lent me one of
his  walking sticks and I set out on my Journey, although  the  day was near
its close and  the sun only a tree's  height above the horizon. I had only a
vague idea of  the way there, or  rather the  whereabouts of the house where
mother was living, but I showed no interest in any explanations in case they
changed their minds about sending me.
     I should have to go up  through  the forest and along a mountain ridge,
then make my way down to the road that was used for carting logs, and follow
it all the way to the village.
     As  soon  as I  entered  the  big forest  of  beeches, mingled  with  a
sprinkling of chestnuts and hornbeam, everything was cool, as  though  I had
dived into cold water and the summer day was far away behind me.
     I breathed the  clean, dank  coolness  of  the forest,  listened to the
exciting rustle  of  the green crowns overhead and made good speed along the
path. The deeper I went into the forest the more persistently and cheerfully
my stick tapped on the springy, rootwoven earth.
     I knew that bears sometimes came up here at this time of the year. They
liked the bilberries that grew on the slopes and along the path.
     At any other time I should have been frightened, but now I was  spurred
on  by heroic dreams and a vague anxiety about my brother. My feet seemed to
have wings and I mounted the slopes with ease, thrilling with the importance
of my mission and, above all, the realisation that I was needed. Although my
thoughts were occupied with these  exalted  feelings, I  still  had time  to
admire  the  beauty of the  mighty dark-silver trunks  of  the  beeches, the
unexpectedly appealing glades with their bright feathery  grass the inviting
roots of the big trees  covered with the scaly leaves  of last year. I would
have  liked to lie down  in those  leaves  with my head resting on the great
mossy roots. Sometimes through a gap in the trees I saw a misty green valley
with the sea poised at the end of it between earth and  sky,  like a mirage.
It was evening.
     All of a sudden two girls appeared round a bend, looking frightened and
joyful at  the same time. I knew them. They were from  our village,  but now
there was  something strange about  them.  They were not quite  their  usual
selves.  They  spoke  very  quietly,  in almost guilty  tones,  their  heads
lowered.  There  was something  of the woods, something shy and subtle about
them. One had her shoes  in a bag and  now  she stood with one long bare leg
awkwardly scratching the other. I guessed she was trying to conceal at least
one of her legs.
     Gradually  their embarrassment communicated itself to me. I didn't know
what  to say and was glad to bid them good-bye. They said good-bye, too, and
went on quietly, almost furtive in their attitude to the forest.
     Presently  I saw among  the dark trees ahead a reddish-yellow road that
from  a distance looked  like a mountain  torrent. Glad  at the  thought  of
having  a smooth  road to  walk  on, I set off at a run down the steep path,
braking  with my stick to stop myself plunging  into the gloomy rhododendron
     I  almost rolled out on  to  the road.  I was sweating and my legs were
trembling  from  the  strain,  but  the  smell  of  petrol  fumes  and warm,
day-wearied  roadside dust only increased my excitement. This was the  smell
of the city that I had known since childhood. I must have been  missing town
and my own  home badly  and, although it was even  further  from here to our
house in town  than from the little  village in the mountains, this woodland
road seemed to lead there.
     I walked along it, trying to make out tyre-tracks  in the dusk, and was
overjoyed when I spotted any  particularly heavy marks.  As I went  on,  the
road gradually grew lighter because a huge reddish moon was rising above the
jagged line of the forest.
     At night in the mountains we used to spend a lot of time  gazing at the
moon. I had been told you could see a goat-herd and a herd of white goats on
it, but I had never been able to spot  them. Evidently you had to have  seen
that goat-herd in  early childhood. Whenever  I watched the  cold orb of the
moon I saw the outlines  of rocky  mountains  and was  overcome by a kind of
sweet sadness,  perhaps because they were so  terribly far  away and yet  so
much like our own mountains.
     Now the moon  looked like a big round of smoked mountain  cheese. How I
would have relished  a bite of that pungent smoky cheese,  and some steaming
hominy to go with it!
     I quickened my pace. The road was bordered on both sides with low alder
thickets, broken here and there by a maize field or a tobacco plantation. It
was very  quiet-  only  the  tapping of  my  stick enlivened  the stillness.
Peasant houses with clean little yards and the bright light of fires showing
cosily through half-open kitchen doors began to appear.
     I listened eagerly to the faint sounds of voices, which suddenly became
quite distinct.
     "Let the dog out," came a man's voice, and a kitchen door flew open and
a dog ran out  barking in my direction. I hurried on and,  looking back over
my shoulder, noticed in the red rectangle  of the  open door the dark figure
of a girl standing very still and staring into the darkness.
     Frightened  by the  dogs,  I now tried to pass the houses as quietly as
     At length  I found myself on a broad green  with a large walnut tree in
the middle and benches nailed round its trunk.
     With its collective farm management office, village shop and barn  this
must have been a noisy, busy place in the daytime, but now everything looked
desolate and deserted and by the light of the moon, rather eerie.
     The house  I was  making  for  was  situated  not  far  from  the  farm
management office. I knew  that after the green I had to take a path  to the
left of the  road, but there was more  than one path leading off to the left
and I couldn't remember which would take me to my destination.
     I  halted  doubtfully  at  a  path  that ran  off into  some  hazel-nut
thickets. Was this the one? I could not remember any thickets like these. Or
perhaps  there  had been  some?  One minute  I  thought I saw many  familiar
signs--a  bend in the path, the ditch dividing it  from  the road,  even the
hazel-nut thickets; but  then  I looked again and they all seemed different,
the wrong ones, and the path itself looked strange and hostile.
     I stood shifting from one foot to another, listening to  the buzzing of
the cicadas, staring at  the  enchantedly  still bushes and at the moon, now
high in the sky and dazzling as a mirror.
     All of a sudden something black and glossy bounced on  to the path  and
ran towards  me. Before I could move,  a  large dog was greedily sniffing me
all over, pushing its moist, snuffling nose against my legs.
     A few seconds later a man appeared with a small axe over  his shoulder.
He  called the dog off and I  realised  why  it had  been in such a hurry to
smell me; knowing its master, it had been afraid it would not have time. The
dog bounded  away,  circled round  us, whining with the desire to please its
master, then  froze by one of the bushes, sniffing at a  trace left by  some
other animal.
     The man had  a bridle round his waist and was evidently looking for his
horse. He came up to me and peered at me in surprise.
     "Who do you  belong to?  What  are  you doing here?" he  asked  crossly
because he could not recognise me.
     I said I was looking for Uncle Meksut's house.
     "What do you want him for?" he asked, now exulting in his surprise.
     I realised that healthy  peasant curiosity was invincible, and told the
whole story.
     While doing so, I kept  a wary eye on  the dog.  Its  master shook  his
head, clicked his tongue and surveyed me sadly, as though regretting  that I
should be mixed up in adult affairs at such a tender age.
     "Meksut lives  quite near here," he said,  pointing with his  axe along
the path I had been thinking of taking.
     He  started  telling me the way, interrupting  himself  now and then to
marvel yet again at how close this Meksut fellow lived and how simple it was
to get there. All I gathered in the end  was that I had to go down the path.
I was so thankful to have met  him  and  to hear that  Uncle Meksut lived so
close,  that I  didn't ask any further questions. The man called his dog.  I
heard its panting in the darkness, then the sleek powerful body shot out  of
the bushes.  The dog ran up to its master, remembered me in passing and gave
me another quick sniff all over--the way they check  a passport when they're
sure  it's  all  in  order--and squatted down, with its tail beating  on the
     "You're  very  close  here,  it's almost within  shouting distance," he
said.  And he went on his way, still apparently thinking aloud and rejoicing
in my good luck.  The dog bounded on ahead, the man's footsteps died in  the
stillness and I was left alone.
     I  set off  along  the path  with  its dense thickets of  hazel-nut and
blackberry. In places  the  bushes joined over the  path and  I  had to duck
under  them, holding  them  up with  my  stick.  Even  so, the  wet branches
sometimes caught  me from behind and  the chilly dew made  me start. After a
time the bushes parted  and it grew much  lighter. I came out into  the open
and found myself in a cemetery, gleaming pallidly in the  white light of the
     Cold  with fear, I  remembered passing  this cemetery once  before, but
that had been in the daytime and it had made no impression on me whatever. I
recalled an apple tree I had stripped  of a few  apples. It was still  there
and, although it now seemed quite different, I tried to recover the carefree
attitude  of the day when I had been knocking down apples. But even this did
not  help.  The tree stood  motionless  in  the  light of the moon with  its
dark-blue leaves  and pale-blue apples  and  I crept past it as quietly as I
     The cemetery was like a  dwarf city with its iron railings,  the little
green  gardens of the graves, toy-like palaces small benches, and wooden and
iron  roofs.  It was  as though  death  had only made  the people  here much
smaller and much more vicious and dangerous, and they were still living here
in their quiet, sinister way.
     Beside some of the graves there were stools with wine and food on them.
On  one  there was even a lighted candle shielded by  a glass  jar with  the
bottom  knocked out. I knew it was the  custom to  place food and drink by a
grave, but this only made me all the more frightened.
     The  crickets  were  chirping. The moonlight whitened the already white
gravestones and this made  the black  shadows even blacker, and they  lay on
the ground like heavy motionless boulders.
     I tried  to pass the graves as quietly as possible but  my stick tapped
thunderously on the hard  soil. I tucked it under my arm  but then there was
no sound at all, and this was even more  frightening.  All at once I noticed
the  lid of a coffin leaning against the cemetery fence and, just beside it,
a freshly dug grave that had not yet been enclosed.
     I felt an  icy chill creep up my spine, reach  the back  of my head and
clutch  painfully  at  my scalp, making my hair  stand  on end. I walked on,
keeping  my eyes fixed on the coffin lid which was gleaming reddishly in the
light of the moon.
     I was sure that the  dead man had climbed out of his grave propped  the
coffin lid  against the fence and was  now  walking round somewhere close by
or, perhaps, was hiding behind the coffin lid, waiting for me to turn or run
     I therefore walked on without quickening my pace, feeling that the main
thing was not to  take my eyes  off the coffin lid. Grass  rustled  round my
feet.  I realised that I had left the path but I kept walking, still with my
eyes fixed on the coffin lid. Eventually I might have wrung my own neck if I
had not suddenly felt myself falling into a deep hole.
     Now it's started, I thought, as the moon streaked across the  sky and I
landed on  something white and furry that  wriggled out from under me. I lay
on the  ground with  my eyes closed and awaited my  doom. I  sensed that the
thing was near and that I was completely at its mercy. Scenes from the tales
of  hunters  and shepherds about  mysterious  encounters  in  the forest  or
strange occurrences in cemeteries went flashing through my head.
     The thing, however, was in no hurry. My fear became unbearable and with
all the strength I could muster I forced open my eyes.
     It was as if I had  suddenly switched on a light. At  first I could see
nothing, then  I made out  in the darkness  something white and unsteady.  I
felt  that it was watching me closely.  The most frightening  thing about it
was the way it swayed.  Icy  shivers kept racing up my  spine, bristling the
hair on the back of my head and ricochetting into the tips of my ears.
     I don't  know how much time passed. Gradually I  began to recognise the
smell  of freshly dug earth, still warm from the day's sunshine, and another
very familiar,  encouraging, almost  homely smell. The white thing was still
swaying  in the corner,  but  terror  that  goes on  endlessly ceases  to be
     I became aware of a pain in my leg.  I had twisted it badly when I fell
and now I wanted to stretch it.
     I stared hard at  the thing in the corner. Gradually  the blurred white
shape began to acquire familiar  outlines and eventually I realised that the
ghost had turned into a goat. I could make out in the darkness its beard and
horns. But since I had long  been  aware that the  devil sometimes  took the
form  of  a  goat,  I  was  somewhat  comforted;  clearly this was what  had
happened. What I hadn't known was that he could also smell of goat.
     I cautiously stretched out my  leg and noticed  that the thing was also
showing  signs  of caution.  At  least it  had stopped chewing and was  only
     I kept  very still and it began chewing again. I raised my head and saw
the  edge of the  hole into which I had  fallen rimmed with moonlight, and a
transparent  strip of  sky with a small star  in the middle. A tree  rustled
overhead and it was strange to think of the breeze that must be  stirring up
there. I looked up at  the star and that, too, seemed to sway in the breeze.
There was a light thud; an apple had fallen off the tree. I gave a start and
realised that it was getting cold.
     A boyish instinct told me that inaction could not be a sign of strength
and since the  thing,  whatever it  was,  merely went on chewing and staring
through me, I decided to make an attempt at escape.
     I rose cautiously to my feet and realised that even with a jump I could
not reach the edge of the hole. My stick was still up there and it might not
have been much help anyway.
     The hole was rather narrow and I tried to climb out by pushing my hands
and feet against opposite walls. Grunting with  exertion, I managed to raise
myself a  little but the leg  I had twisted gave way  and  I flopped to  the
bottom again.
     When I  fell,  the  thing scrambled up and jumped aside in terror. That
was  an  unwise move  on its  part.  I  grew bolder and went  over to it. It
cowered silently in its corner. I cautiously put out my hand to its face. It
brushed my hand with its lips, breathing warmly over it, smelled it and with
a shake of its head gave out a real goatish snort.
     This  finally  convinced me that  it was no  devil but  simply  another
creature in trouble like myself. In my time as  a herd-boy I had often known
goats to climb into places from which they could not find a way out.
     I  sat down on the ground beside the goat, put  my  arms round its neck
and tried to get warm by pressing against its warm belly. I tried to make it
sit  down  but it stubbornly insisted on standing.  Eventually,  however, it
began to lick my hand, at first cautiously, then with increasing confidence,
and  its firm,  springy tongue scraped roughly at my  wrist, licking off the
salt. The rough, ticklish sensation was pleasant and I did  not draw my hand
away. My goat began to enjoy itself and soon started plucking at the cuff of
my shirt with its sharp teeth, but I rolled up my sleeve and gave it a fresh
place to graze.
     It took a long time, licking the salt off my arm, and I huddled against
its warm body and felt that even if the blue, moonlit face of a  corpse were
to appear  over the edge of  the pit I would merely cuddle  up closer  to my
goat and  not feel too frightened.  For the  first time  in my life I really
appreciated what it meant to have another living creature for company.
     In the end the goat grew tired of  licking  my arm and unexpectedly sat
down beside me and resumed its chewing.
     It was still as quiet  as ever but the moonlight had  become  even more
transparent and the star had  moved to the edge of the  strip of sky. It was
even cooler now.
     Suddenly  I heard the sound of hoofbeats approaching and my heart began
to race madly.
     The hoofbeats grew more and more  distinct and sometimes  I caught  the
clink of a metal shoe on a stone. I was afraid the horseman would turn aside
but  the  noise  grew  steadily louder and I  could soon hear  the  laboured
breathing of  the  horse and the creak of the  saddle. Suspense rooted me to
the spot but, when the hoofbeats were almost overhead, I jumped up and began
to shout:
     "Hi! Hi! I'm here!"
     The horse stopped and in the stillness I could detect the bony click of
its teeth as it champed at the bit. Then a man's voice called hesitantly:
     "Who's there?"
     I strained upward and shouted, "It's me! A boy!"
     The man was silent for a time, then I heard, "What boy?"
     The man's voice was firm and suspicious. He was afraid of a trap.
     "I'm a boy from the town," I said, trying to speak in a living and  not
a  corpse-like  voice  with  the result that  my  voice sounded  repulsively
     "How did you  get down there?" the man  asked  harshly, still fearing a
     "I fell in. I was  on my way to Uncle Meksut's," I said hastily, afraid
that he would go on without listening to any more.
     "To Meksut? Why didn't you say so before?"
     I heard  him dismount and throw  the reins over the fence. The sound of
his footsteps  came  nearer  but  before he  got to the  edge of the hole he
     "Grab hold  of  this!" I heard, and a rope swished through the air  and
dangled in front of me.
     I took hold  of it,  then remembered  the goat. It  was standing all by
itself in the  corner. Without a second thought I wound the rope  round  its
neck, quickly tied a double knot and shouted, "Pull!"
     As the rope  grew taut, the goat shook its head and  reared on its hind
legs. I grabbed its  hindquarters and heaved for all I was worth because the
rope was  cutting into its neck. But  as soon as its horned head,  bathed in
moonlight, appeared  over the edge  of  the hole, the man  cried out in what
seemed to me a  goat-like  voice, dropped the rope and ran. The goat crashed
down beside me, bleating plaintively and I let out a yell of pain because in
falling it had trodden on my foot  with its  hoof. What with  the  pain, the
disappointment and weariness I burst into tears. Tears had been close enough
already,  almost  on  a  level with  my  eyes.  Now they streamed  forth  so
abundantly that in the end  I  was frightened  by them and stopped crying. I
raged  at  myself  for  not  telling  the  man about the  goat,  but then  I
remembered his horse  and decided that  he was bound  to come  back  for  it
sooner or later.
     After about ten  minutes I  heard  his  stealthy  footsteps.  I knew he
wanted to unhitch his horse and make off.
     "That was a goat," I said loudly and calmly.
     "That was a goat," I repeated, trying not to change my tone.
     I felt he had stopped and was listening.
     "Whose goat?" he asked suspiciously.
     "I don't know. It fell  in before  me," I  replied, realising that this
did not sound very convincing.
     "You  don't  seem to  know  anything," he  said.  Then he  asked, "What
relation are you to Meksut?"
     Somewhat incoherently I began  to explain our relationship (everyone is
related in Abkhazia). I felt that he was beginning to trust me and tried not
to reawaken his suspicions. Shouting up to him from below, I explained why I
was visiting Uncle Meksut.
     It made me realise just  how difficult it is  to offer excuses for your
behaviour when you have both feet in a freshly dug grave.
     In the end he came up to the grave and peered cautiously over the edge.
His unshaven face wore  an expression of disgust,  strangely intensified  by
the moonlight. It was obvious that he disliked  both the place  where he was
and the place where he was looking.  I had the impression  he was  trying to
hold his breath.
     I tossed him the rope, which was still attached to the goat. He gripped
it and heaved. I tried to help from below. The goat resisted  foolishly, but
as soon as we had lifted it a little the man seized its horn and, expressing
violent  disgust in every movement,  dragged the  animal  out of the  grave.
Obviously he was still finding the whole incident very unpleasant.
     "You Godforsaken creature," he said, and I heard him  put his boot into
the goat.  The goat  gulped  and probably tried to run  away because the man
grabbed the rope and tugged.
     Then he  leaned right  into the grave,  keeping one  hand on  the edge,
seized my wrist with the  other and heaved me crossly to the surface.  As he
heaved I tried  to make myself lighter because I was afraid  of getting some
of the same medicine as the goat. He planted me on the ground beside him. He
was a big, heavily built man, and my wrist felt sore from his grip.
     For  a moment he surveyed  me  in silence, then his face  broke into  a
sudden smile and his big hand came out and ruffled my hair.
     "You gave me  a proper scare with that goat of yours. I  thought I  was
pulling out a human being, and then that horned devil appears!"
     My spirits  rose at once.  We went over  to  the horse, which was still
standing patiently by the fence.
     The goat followed us on the end of the rope. When we reached the horse,
it stamped nervously and squinted at the goat.
     A tasty  smell  of horse  sweat,  saddle leather and  maize  struck  my
nostrils. He must  have been taking his  maize to  the  mill, I thought, and
remembered that the rope  had also smelled of maize. He helped  me or rather
hoisted me into the saddle. I remembered my stick but dared  not go back for
it. Besides, the moment I tried to get into the saddle the horse  turned its
head and snapped at my leg. I just managed to draw it away in time.
     Its  master led it  away  from the  fence,  gathered up the reins  and,
without letting go of the rope attached to the goat, heaved his massive body
into  the saddle. I  felt  the horse's  back sag under him and he crushed me
against  the  saddle bow as he settled himself in the saddle and flicked the
     The thought of the goat behind us made me rather  ashamed. In the grave
we had been on equal terms, but now I was in a privileged position.
     The  horse trotted  along  at  a  lively pace, trying  to break into  a
canter, stamping its  feet  with  pent-up energy and irritation  at having a
goat trailing behind it.
     Lulled by the muffled clip-clop  of hoofs and the gentle rocking of the
saddle, I  fell into a doze, awakening  only when the path led down a  slope
and the weight of the rider  behind crushed  me  against the  saddle bow, so
that I had to push for all I was  worth to  protect my stomach. When we were
climbing, however, I would nestle  back comfortably  on his  chest, drowsily
aware of the horse's  quivering  forelock,  sensitive ears  and monotonously
swaying neck.
     The horse halted and I became  fully awake again. We were standing by a
fence beyond which I glimpsed a broad, tidy yard and a large house, built on
high wooden  piles. There were lights  in the windows. It was Uncle Meksut's
     "Hi  there, where's the master?" the owner of the horse shouted and lit
a cigarette. He looped  the goat's tether round a stake in the fence without
knotting it.
     In answer to his shout  a door opened and we heard a voice call, "Who's
     The voice was firm and  sharp.  People in  our parts usually  answer an
unfamiliar  shout  at  night  like that, to show  they  are  ready  for  any
     Uncle  Meksut--I  recognised  his  stocky,  broadshouldered  figure  at
once--came down the steps  and walked  in our  direction,  shoving away  the
dogs, and peering at us keenly from a distance.
     I remember his surprise and fright when he recognised me.
     "Wait till  you hear it all," said  my rescuer, plucking me out of  the
saddle and trying to pass me straight across the fence to Uncle Meksut.
     But I resisted and, clutching a stake in the fence, slid  down into the
yard by myself. He unwound the goat's tether.
     "Where's  the  goat  from?"  Uncle  Meksut  asked,  looking  even  more
     "Quite a miracle, eh!" said  the horseman  cheerfully and mysteriously,
and glanced at me as if we were equals.
     "Get off your  horse  and  come inside!" Uncle Meksut urged, taking his
     "Thanks, Meksut, but I just can't manage it," the horseman replied with
an air of haste, though up to now he had shown no sign of being in a hurry.
     In  accordance  with Abkhazian custom  Uncle  Meksut urged him at great
length to partake of his hospitality, now showing offence, now pleading, now
making fun of the allegedly  urgent business that was  preventing  him  from
staying. All the time he kept glancing now  at me, now at the  goat, sensing
that there was some connection between my arrival and the goat but unable to
grasp what.
     At length the  horseman rode  away with  the  goat behind him and Uncle
Meksut  took  me into  the house,  clicking his  tongue in astonishment  and
shouting at the dogs.
     In a room lighted not  so much by the  lamp as by the brightly  blazing
fire, there were both men and  women seated  round a table laid  with snacks
and  fruit. I spotted my mother  at once  and saw  her face turn slowly pale
despite  the crimson  reflection of the flames.  The guests jumped  to their
feet with gasps and exclamations of alarm.
     One of my aunts from town, on hearing of the purpose of my visit, began
to fall slowly backwards as if in a faint. But since no  one in the  country
understood  such  things and no one showed any intention of saving  her, she
checked herself  halfway and  pretended she had  a crick in the back.  Uncle
Meksut did all he could to  reassure the women, proposed a toast to victory,
to their sons, and  to everyone's safe return home. He was  a  man  of great
hospitality and his house was always full of guests. Down here in the valley
they had already brought in the grape harvest  and the season of long toasts
was just beginning.
     Mother sat in silence, without touching  any of  the food  or  drink. I
felt sorry for her  and wanted to comfort her, but the role I had chosen for
myself would allow no such display of weakness.
     I was given a plate of steaming hominy and chicken, and a glass of wine
was poured for me. Mother shook her head reproachfully but Uncle Meksut said
that the  wine was too young  to be  real  wine yet and I  wasn't a baby any
     I related my adventures and, as I sucked the last of the chicken bones,
felt a delicious drowsiness  creeping over me, sweet and golden as the young
wine itself. I fell asleep at the table.
     The  next day I  learned that it was the Moslem  custom to bury  a  man
without any lid  on his  coffin,  presumably to facilitate his resurrection.
The stray goat turned  out  to  be one of the collective farm's. The freshly
dug grave into which we had fallen had been dug by mistake.
     Mother  returned from Baku about ten  days later. My brother, it turned
out, had not been wounded  at all.  He had just  been feeling  homesick  and
wanted to  see  one of the family before being sent  to  the front.  And, of
course, he got what he wanted. Always up to some trick was my brother.

     He used to  sit  in front of me  in  class, so during  lessons  I would
admire  the manly shape of the back of his  head and  his broad shoulders. I
think it was that indomitable back of his head that  I liked first, before I
liked him.
     When he turned to  dip his pen in our  inkwell, I was able to study his
profile with its high-bridged nose, thick, close-knit eyebrows and cold grey
     He  always  turned slowly, as a warrior in  the saddle turns to observe
any  lagging   members  of  his  troop.  Sometimes  he  would  grant  me  an
understanding  smile,  as though he had felt my  gaze and wanted me to  know
that he appreciated my devotion and yet would prefer me to exercise a little
moderation,  a   little  restraint   in  admiring  the  back  of  his  head,
particularly as he had other merits besides his massive cranium.
     In his movements in general  I  felt a  solidity  not usually found  in
thirteen- or fourteen-year-olds. But it was  not the fake  solidity affected
by  the  swots  and the beginners of the  bootlicking tribe. It was the real
thing that was to be found only in grown-up people.
     True  solidity,  I  would  say, is  the feeling  of distinction  a  man
acquires from being aware  of a certain  overabundance of physical weight in
his every movement.
     Now, if such a person enters a room and, let  us say, sits down at your
festive table  and,  having  seated himself, casually motions  the  suddenly
agitated  guests  to  be  seated  as  well,  what,  dear  comrades,  is  the
characteristic feature of this situation?
     Its  characteristic  feature  is that  this  superabundance of physical
weight imparts to his gesture  such gravity that he restores your guests  to
their places almost without looking at  them at all,  from which it  follows
that they were  quite  right  to have become  agitated  in  the first place.
Because how  could  they  have  failed to become agitated  on  realising how
morally lightweight and insecure they were in face of this extra weighty but
indubitably pacifying gesture.
     So,  during the movement of  this hand which, though not  too sweeping,
is, happily,  sufficiently prolonged, those at table  who  for one reason or
another were not  alerted in time manage to rouse themselves and  now with a
certain  belated jubilance (like everything  belated, exaggerated)  jump  to
their feet and join in the general agitation so that they  can subside  with
everyone else in obedience to the movement of  the hand, which seems to say,
"It's  quite  all  right,  comrades,   I'll   just  squeeze  into  a  corner
     "What a man!"  the assembled guests  intimate  with  a delighted murmur
and, having murmured, relax into a state of exhausted happiness.
     That is what true solidity is!
     And he, my idol,  possessed  such true solidity, that is to say, he was
constantly   aware   of  this  extra  physical  weight  in  every  movement.
Admittedly, this  weight was  the direct result of a  muscle development far
beyond his years and not  an expression of the burdens of  authority,  as in
     Yes,  my idol was stronger than anyone not  only in our  class,  but in
what for us at that age  was the  whole conceivable world.  And yet at first
glance  there  was nothing special about him--just a stocky lad, by no means
tall even for our class.
     "That's for smoking, I don't grow because I smoke," he would say in the
break, pulling at the  home-made  cigarette  concealed  in  his fist, and it
sounded rather as  if this was  divine punishment  for his  self-indulgence,
although since the punishment  atoned for the sin he was still able to speak
of it calmly and go on smoking.
     We lived in the  same street. His name  was  Yura Stavrakidi and he was
the youngest  son  in the  large family  of a house painter. He  was  always
helping his father, particularly in summer. The  painter's eldest son was by
that  time in the process of becoming an intellectual. Already  a full-grown
lad,  he was in his  last year at  an  industrial technical  school, wore  a
neck-tie and could talk for hours about international politics. Yura and his
father,  one might  say,  were helping  him to hold  on to  his intellectual
laurels.  But even he would  now and  then discard the  neck-tie, change his
clothes, take a paint brush and go off to work with his father and brother.
     When they returned from work in the evening he would  spend a long time
washing in the yard.  Yura  would pour the water for him and, as I  would be
waiting for Yura, I had to put up with this lengthy procedure, which was not
so easy.
     It was  the usual thing at this time for all those who liked discussing
international events to gather in a corner of the yard.
     Yura's brother, instead of getting on with washing himself, having  his
supper  and going out to sit with them--if he couldn't do without this thing
of  his--would start  bandying all kinds  of  ideas  back  and  forth  while
washing,  which  endlessly  prolonged the  business and made  me  wild  with
impatience. Apparently in the course of the day's  work he had  grown hungry
for this kind of talk because it certainly  did not go down with his father,
whose constant contact with bare walls during his long life as a painter had
almost deprived him of the ability to converse.
     All his life he  had been  busy  silently daubing  paint  on  walls and
presumably  had  produced his children  in the same silent  fashion. And the
more children he produced, the more walls he had to paint, so there had been
no time left  for talking;  he had  to  get  on with mixing his  paints  and
obtaining enough whitewash. What was there to talk about anyhow! I  think if
he could have had his way he would have taken all those ranting  and  raving
politicians  and puttied up their mouths, ears and  eyes, painted  them from
head to foot and left them standing deaf, dumb and blind, like those plaster
statues  we have  in our  parks.  Or  he  might  even  have walled  them  up
somewhere, and he would certainly have painted that wall so well that if you
scraped it for a lifetime you would never discover the place where they were
hidden. Because no matter how many children you brought into the world there
would never be  enough for their filthy meat-grinder, and no matter how many
walls you painted  your work would all be wasted because  one air-raid would
knock down  so many,  paint and  all, that thousands of builders working all
the year round still would not be able to restore them.
     All this was written on his toil-worn, gloomy face,  the face of an old
workman,  and it had  taken a  tremendous  war  with all  its disasters  and
hardships  for this thought to emerge  so that it could  be seen by  all, to
make it show through his gloominess, just as a great fresco shows through on
a neglected monastery wall.
     Unfortunately, neither we children,  nor Yura's brother, nor any of the
other devotees of international affairs had any notion of this at  the time.
Yura's brother  would go without bread as long as you  let him hold forth on
the subject of  collective  security, the  machinations of  the  Vatican  or
something of that kind.
     It always seemed to  me unfair that he should start holding forth about
all this even before he had finished washing and changing.
     Besides, while  he was  slapping water on  his face he would  sometimes
fail to hear what other people were saying and, having got everything wrong,
have to ask them all over again. Or else he would scoop up some water in his
hands and, instead of splashing it on his face,  suddenly  stop half way and
listen while the water trickled through his fingers without his noticing it,
and then he would slap his cheeks with empty  hands and look suspiciously at
Yura as though Yura was to blame for what had happened and for gathering all
these talkers round him.
     Sometimes, with his  face all soapy, he  would open his eyes, and  then
get into a temper because he thought he was being  misunderstood whereas, in
fact,  as I could see perfectly well, it  was  simply  the soap stinging his
eyes. Or perhaps he would be asked a question just when he had given himself
a silent slap on the back  of the head indicating the spot where Yura was to
pour next  and  while  Yura was pouring, the  others  would stand round like
stuffed dummies,  waiting  for the brother to raise  his dripping  head  and
regale them with his answer.
     He went on talking while towelling himself, and even while  pulling  on
his shirt he never stopped asking questions and giving answers.
     Sometimes it was  simply ridiculous. Before he got his head out  of the
shirt he would start muttering away inside it, as though we could understand
what he was muttering about. And sometimes he couldn't get his  head out  at
all because he had forgotten to unbutton  the  collar. But would he unbutton
it himself? Oh no, this darling of the family would  wait  like a baby to be
unbuttoned  by  Yura  and  meanwhile   go  on  jabbering   in  this  strange
head-in-a-tent attitude.
     He  was just  like the mad photographer who came to take pictures of us
at school.  Having pulled his  black hood over  his  head,  he  would  start
muttering remarks that  we couldn't understand, or at  least we pretended we
couldn't because we felt we had  a right  not to. Who likes  being talked at
from  under a hood anyway? In the end he would flap out from under its folds
and, having recovered his breath, issue all  kinds of instructions about who
should sit where,  then take  another  gulp  of air and dive under  the hood
     Similarly Yura's brother would in  the end--admittedly only with Yura's
help--get his  head through the shirt and go off to his friends, tucking his
shirt-tails in as he went. That, thank goodness, he did himself.
     But then Yura's mother would appear on the porch  and call out in Greek
that supper was ready and  he would ignore her and  so persistently that she
would begin to  scold  him and shout  at  him  to finish his  "jabber-jabber
     Who knows, perhaps this expression  was coined by her, but  to this day
that is what the people of our town call any  long spell  of talking. At one
time this expression  used  to irritate  me. It struck me as inaccurate  and
incomplete. Its meaning seemed to flop about in a much too large envelope of
sound. But  later I realised that  this flopping about is indeed the highest
form of accuracy,  because even in the actual phenomena of life  the concept
an expression implies  flops about  just as uselessly. Luckily, as time went
on,  Yura's  brother  returned  less and  less frequently  to  his  father's
profession and I seldom had to suffer  their  joint washing operation  while
waiting for Yura.
     I can still see the  long shrivelled figure of Yura's father, his  face
overgrown  with whitewash-like stubble, and Yura beside him, stripped to the
waist and spattered with whitewash, a long brush over his shoulder.  In  the
light  of  the  setting sun he looked  as  magnificent as  a young  Hercules
walking home from work beside his old father.
     When he had washed  and  eaten his supper, he  would come  out into the
street, still stripped to the waist as before, and we would all sit together
on the sun-warmed steps of the porch and Yura would tell us about the people
he and his  father  had been working for that day. His hands would be  lying
limply on  his knees, his face would be a  little  pale from fatigue,  and I
would relish the pleasure  he himself and his every  muscle felt  from being
     If he and his father had  been working for a generous employer who knew
how to feed his men well,  Yura would go on about what dishes  they had been
given and how much  he  personally had eaten, and how he and his  father had
tried to do as good a job as possible just to please their employer.
     In summer Yura often visited his Greek relatives in the country. On his
return he would tell us what the life was like there, what they ate  and how
     "I  carried  a hundredweight sack  all  the  way  from Tsebelda  in six
hours," would be his next bit of information. That was his sports news.
     "All the  way from Tsebelda on  foot?" a surprised voice  would say. In
such cases there would always be one voice expressing the general surprise.
     "Of course," Yura would reply, and then add, "I did eat a loaf of bread
and a kilo of butter on the road."
     "How could  you  eat  a  kilo of butter,  Yura?" the  expresser of  the
general surprise would ask.
     "It's  country  butter, Greek butter," Yura would explain. "You can eat
it without bread if you like."
     But besides his  physical strength,  what  I  would now call  his games
sense was amazingly well developed too, and showed itself in most unexpected
     There is no need to relate here the well-known case  when  he  got on a
bicycle for the first time and after  a  push from someone  and  a couple of
wobbles with the handle bars rode away quite calmly.
     The  same kind of thing once  happened at  sea.  For some  reason  Yura
hardly ever swam. Despite his incredible daring I  believe he  never trusted
the water. He knew  how to stay afloat and would swim  out  a little  way in
country style, but  then turn  back, find the bottom  with his feet and walk
ashore. Either it was because he had  grown up in a mountain village and not
on the coast, or  because, like his ancient compatriot, he could  do nothing
without a good foothold, but it was very hard to tempt him out of his depth;
he would swim out a mere five or six metres and then turn back to the shore.
     As a person already much  inclined  to indulge in the  simple forms  of
pleasure,  I could  stay  in the water  for hours  and  I  was,  of  course,
disappointed by his  restrained attitude towards the sea. One day after much
persuasion I got him to  go with me  to the  swimming pool. We undressed and
went  up  on to the  board  over the  fifty-meter lanes.  Among the foppish,
though almost naked, denizens of the pool he looked  decidedly out  of place
in a pair of shorts that came down to his knees.
     He tried to climb down into  the water, but I persuaded him to dive. We
decided to swim along together  so that I could study his movements, get him
used to swimming out of his depth and in  the end teach him something like a
proper modern style.
     Yura jumped into the water--feet first, of course. I shall never forget
the expression  of confusion  combined with a readiness to resist  that  was
written on his face when he  came up. It was the kind of expression a hunted
man might have  when leaping  out of  bed  in the middle  of  the night  and
grabbing his gun.
     However, having convinced  himself that no one  was going  to  pull him
under, he swam off  to  the opposite end.  He swam his  usual  stern overarm
stroke, turning his head after every thrust, as though guarding his rear.
     After waiting a few seconds I dived in after him. I had to tell him not
to turn his head like that.
     I had decided to go straight into the crawl  after my dive and overtake
him all in one breath, so to speak, without coming up for air.
     When I did  raise my head out of the water I looked at the lane  beside
me, but Yura was not there.  He was still in  front. The distance between us
had scarcely lessened. He was  still  turning  his head  at every stroke and
making good progress.
     Working hard with my legs, I switched to the  breast stroke but, try as
I would, the gap between us remained  the same. I was baffled. His head went
on turning at every sweep of his arm and his eyes gave a grim stare now over
the right shoulder, now over the left.
     When I finally reached  him he was already resting,  or rather  waiting
for me, holding on to the bars at the other end of the pool.
     "Well, how did I swim?" he asked.
     I looked into his grey eyes but found no mockery there.
     "Pretty good, but don't keep turning your head," I replied,  trying not
to show my heavy breathing, and also clutched the bars for support.
     In answer to this he rubbed his neck a little and silently swam away to
the other  end. I watched him. The funny way he  had of  turning his head to
right and left and throwing his arm out too straight diverted attention from
the powerful underwater work of his arms and legs.
     He swam like a powerful animal in a strange but manageable environment.
That straight neck  and indomitable  head jutted proudly out of the water. I
realised that I should never catch up with him on land or sea.
     I  think my liking  for  the simple  forms  of pleasure  helped  me  to
overcome a  mean-spirited envy. Anyway, I  decided his  victory  at sea only
proved once again how right I was in my choice of an object of worship.
     Not far from our  street there was a large  and ancient park. In recent
times  some sports facilities  had  been  set  up  there,  including a  huge
cross-beam  on posts  to  which  was  fixed  a  whole  system  of  gymnastic
equipment:  a pole, rings ropes and a set  of  wall-bars. Naturally Yura was
way ahead of us all on every piece of this equipment.
     But he, my idol, was not only strong and agile, he was also the boldest
of us all, and this caused me a vague feeling of anxiety.
     He  would  climb  up the wall-bars  on  to  the cross-beam itself,  sit
astride it for a while, then  let  go with his hands and carefully stand up.
And then came the miracle of daring.
     As  we  watched with  bated  breath  he  would sway  gently  until  the
cross-beam was swaying with him. The posts that held it had been weakened by
the  constant  pull of  the  rope, which was used as  a  swing, so the whole
structure was soon in motion.
     When he had  got it moving like this, he would suddenly with well timed
steps run  quickly along the  beam from one end  to the  other. In  the  few
seconds it took him to reach the other end the  beam would sway so violently
that it looked  as if he would lose his balance and  fall right off.  But he
made it every time.
     The top of the cross-beam was no wider than a man's hand and there were
bolts sticking out  it,  so in  addition to  everything  else  he  had to be
careful not to trip over them as he ran.
     We all  breathed with  relief when he finally  lowered his hands to the
beam and  climbed down by way  of  the wall-bars. This  star turn by my idol
never failed  to astound  the spectators  and  he  always performed it  with
maximum  risk--always  swaying  the beam  first and  always  running,  never
     I don't know why, but I conceived  a desperate desire to try myself out
at this high-altitude trick.  I chose a time when none of our crowd were  in
the park  and climbed the wall-bars. While I still had  a foothold  on them,
the beam did not seem  so terribly  high. But as soon as my feet were on the
beam itself, I felt very high-up and unprotected.
     I squatted on my haunches, gripping the beam with both hands, and tried
to gauge the quiet oscillation of the whole system. It was like being on the
back of a  sleeping  animal. I could feel  its breathing and  was afraid  of
waking it.
     At last I let  go and  straightened up. Trying not to look down, I took
one step and  without lifting my other foot from  the  beam dragged it up to
the  first. The whole  structure  was  swaying gently under  me. Ahead lay a
narrow  green path studded with protruding  bolts  that I should have  to be
careful of as well.
     I took another  step forward and cautiously drew up the other foot, but
not quite cautiously enough apparently, because the  structure came  to life
and  heaved under  me. Trying to keep my balance, I  froze  to the  spot and
looked down.
     The ground,  red with  fallen pine needles and reinforced  with exposed
roots, swam beneath me.
     "Go  back before it's too late," I  told myself and  gingerly turned my
head. The end of the beam I had just left was quite close, but I realised at
once that I should not be able to turn round. Turning round on such a narrow
ledge would be worse than going forward.
     I felt trapped. Either I must sit down astride the beam and ease myself
backwards, or I must continue on my way. Frightened though I was, some inner
force prevented me  from  making  so  shameful a  retreat. I  went  forward.
Sometimes, as I began to lose my balance, I thought I had better jump rather
than fall off  but somehow I  managed to  steady myself and go  on. I walked
right to the other end  and, now afraid that sheer joy might topple me, bent
down  and put my arms right round the beam, hugging  it and appreciating its
no longer dangerous swaying. It goes without saying that I did not  keep  my
little  exploit  a secret from the others. Yura  himself looked hard  at me,
then  offered his  congratulations.  I  repeated  the  trick  several  times
afterwards, but my  fear grew hardly any less, it was simply that I got used
to the idea of mastering a fear of a certain intensity and mastered it.
     It seems  to  me that in any  kind  of action  the  initial fear  is so
powerful because it comes as  a sensation of stepping into a yawning  abyss,
into endless horror. When  we overcome this fear, we do not remove the sense
of danger, but find a measure for that which  we used to regard as infinite.
The man who finds a measure for  non-being will provide us all with the best
antidote for the fear of death.
     Some of the others also learned  to walk the  swaying  beam but neither
they nor I ever tried to run along it. We  sensed that this was only for the
chosen few, and only in our secret dreams did we ever repeat his exploit.
     ...In the  vision of Christ walking across the water there is something
of the charlatanism of the Grand  Inquisitor.  What  we see is people  being
lured into religion by means of a miracle. But the operation would have been
equally successful if Christ had turned the pebbles  on the  shore into gold
coins before the eyes of those fishermen.
     There was  nothing spiritual  in his walking the waters because  he had
nothing to overcome. He could  walk on water because he  was incorporeal  or
because he was  held up with  an invisible thread by the Chief  Designer. So
all he had  to do was walk  the  waters in  a  Worthy Way, with the  kind of
modest dignity  with which those elected to the presidium mount the platform
at meetings.
     Our  Yura  was  quite  a  different  case.  There  he  stands  on  that
cross-beam. He is  preparing  himself for an heroic exploit, for  a man-made
miracle. His whole figure, the aggressive thrust of his body,  the  bunching
of his  limbs as if for a spring, the concentration in his face, all express
the  fierce contest  between  courage and fear. He  takes off  and for a few
seconds of Olympian victory spirit conquers flesh!
     Before our eyes he drove his body from one end of the beam to the other
like  an  audacious rider  forcing  his  unwilling steed  across  a  foaming
mountain torrent. It was  beautiful and we all felt it,  although none of us
could have explained why, at the time.
     One day Yura suggested  to me  that we should rob the school cafeteria,
and although we  had never done anything of the kind before I agreed without
a second thought. Neither of us felt any  pangs of conscience  because  this
was not  our  school and because it  was also very  convenient for burglary,
being  next door to our house. The temptation arose  from the sausages that,
according to reliable rumours, had been brought to the cafeteria that day.
     The plan was simple. We were  to break  in, eat all the  sausages, take
all the  change out of the cash-desk and make our getaway. We were not going
to steel any paper money because we knew that it was never left in the till.
Curiously enough, we never considered taking any of the sausages with us; we
simply  couldn't imagine that  there might be too many. This was not because
in  an operation  run by my idol with  his Tsebelda experience  there was no
need to worry on that score, but because our general experience told us that
no one anywhere ever left  sausages uneaten. Neither of us had ever heard of
such a thing.
     In the afternoon  we strolled into the cafeteria to spy out  the lie of
the land.
     A large bowl festooned with sausages was standing on the windowsill. It
was bathed in a pink radiance from the slanting rays of the evening sun.
     Yura stared at this apparition  with such sentimental candour  that  in
the end I had to steer  him away because his curiosity was beginning to look
indecent and dangerous.
     "It's too much for me,"  he said, taking  a deep breath when we stopped
in the corridor by the window.
     "What's too much?" I asked quietly.
     "When they're  burst  like  that," he  replied  drawing  breath with  a
whistling sound, as if he had taken a sausage that was too hot for him.
     I felt my mouth watering too.
     "Wait till this evening," I whispered, appealing for fortitude.
     We left the building.
     The  best  way  of  entering  the  school  at  night  was  through  the
permanently locked back-door. The door had glass panels, but one of them was
broken and the opening was wide enough to climb through.
     There was a store-keeper who  lived on the premises  and in addition to
his other duties performed that of watchman. We had been at war with him for
many years because we liked to use the school yard for football and he tried
to keep us out.
     He was, unfortunately, a hale and hearty old man.
     As soon  as it grew properly dark we climbed  into the  school yard and
crept over to the locked door.  It  showed up  faintly in the dim light from
the street and the black hole left by the missing pane looked menacing. From
the street came  the  voices  of our lads. They sounded remote, like distant
echoes of a  peaceful life that we had  left irrevocably  behind us. A large
puddle glistened  oilily  just  in  front  of the door. I stepped  round  it
carefully and looked in through the hole.
     "In you go," said Yura, and I climbed in.
     With one hand I found a hold on the wall and with the other gripped the
door  handle, pulled my legs  up and pushed them through the hole, trying to
feel the floor inside with my feet. In this position of moral  and  physical
suspense I dangled for a time, wiggling my toes and slipping gradually until
I felt the floor and was able to pull the upper part of my body inside.
     Overhanging the corridor was the  first flight of the stairs leading to
the attic. We had to go along the corridor, then turn down  another corridor
at the end of which was the cafeteria.
     Yura climbed in  quickly after  me and we advanced  along the corridor,
stopping every now and then and listening to the eerie silence of the locked
classrooms and the dark deserted school.
     My heart beat so  hard  that with every step  I  had  to  overcome  its
recoil. When we passed a  window my friend's stern profile  would  appear in
the darkness and I would  feel less frightened. I have forgotten to say that
for some reason I was  wearing a white shirt. More suitable for a ghost than
a  burglar, it loomed a  ghastly white in the  darkness,  as  though I  were
dressed in my own fear. I tried not to look at it to keep my anxiety at bay.
     We  reached the door  of the cafeteria.  A  faint ray  of  light  shone
through  the crack. Yura pressed on  the door; the  crack widened and he put
his eye to it.
     He kept his eye  to that crack for a long time, as though trying to get
a glimpse of the night life of the sausages or the other inhabitants  of the
cafeteria. Finally he turned  a more cheerful face towards me  and signalled
me to look through the crack  as well, as if offering  me  a portion of good
cheer before engaging in the most dangerous part of our enterprise. I peeped
in and again saw our sausages. They were still in the same place,  but  now,
covered with a piece of cheesecloth, they looked even more tempting.
     Yura  took a pair of pincers that we had obtained beforehand and set to
work on the pad lock. It was a  matter of pulling out one of  the  rings  to
which the lock was attached. But this was not so easy.
     Excited by the sight of the sausages, he began to hurry and the pincers
slipped off the ring several times with a rather loud clank.
     And suddenly I heard quite  distinctly  the  sound of footsteps  on the
floor above us. Whoever  it  was  walked on  for a few more steps, and  then
stopped, as if listening.
     "Let's run for it!" I whispered in panic. but at once  felt his fingers
gripping my forearm.
     We stood stiff and silent in the long stillness of the corridor.
     "You imagined it," Yura whispered at last.
     I shook my head. We stiffened again.
     I don't know how long  we stood like this.  In the end Yura turned back
to  the door, as though comparing  the degree of  risk  with  the  degree of
temptation. He  listened again peeped  through the crack, listened, and then
set about the lock in real earnest.
     And  suddenly  those  footsteps came  again!  Once  more  Yura's  hand,
forestalling my reflex of desertion, gripped my arm.
     But the footsteps did not stop. Now  they were clearly approaching down
the stairs.  They hesitated  for a moment and  suddenly  a  beam  of  light,
reaching us sooner than the click of the switch  descended, from  the  upper
floor like the blast of an explosion and the footsteps started again.
     Yura's hand relaxed  its grip on my arm. The wild and unerring horse of
fear carried me off and threw me out of the school building. I  didn't  stop
for a second  at the hole in the door. I shot straight through it and opened
my eyes  when  I  landed  in  the puddle. Only when I had scrambled over the
fence did I notice that Yura was not  with me. I did not know what to think.
Surely  the  watchman hadn't caught him? If  he  had,  why  hadn't  I  heard
     I  observed  the  school through the fence,  waiting for a flashing  of
lights and buzzing of angry little alarm bells, and then for  the militia to
arrive... But time  passed and all was quiet and I began to notice how dirty
my white shirt was. I should be in trouble for that at  home and  would have
to slip in quietly, throw the shirt  in  with  the  dirty  linen and put  on
something else.
     Lost in  these depressing thoughts,  I noticed Yura only when  he swung
himself over the fence and landed beside me.
     What had  happened? Apparently,  when we  were  running away  from  the
watchman, he  had  sensed that  we should not  be  able to get  out  of  the
building  together  and had  had the presence of  mind  to run up  the attic
staircase and wait there for the danger to pass. And he had thought of  that
in the few seconds while we were running away!
     I could  never have  thought of such a thing  so quickly. I had  darted
like an animal  back  through  the hole I had come in by,  but Yura... Well,
that was what he was like, my old friend Yura Stavrakidi.
     Reading over  what I have written I  recall that  according to the best
literary  formulas one should  also say  a few  words about shortcomings  of
one's hero. They were, of course insignificant and did nothing to darken his
shining aspect, they merely  shaded  it in a  little. The existence  of such
defects--only small ones, I must repeat--should bring him nearer to us, make
him more human  and even, perhaps, evoke an understanding smile.  People are
only human, after all.
     I  must  admit that Yura  liked a  fight. In  those  days  we all liked
fighting, but Yura for quite natural  reasons was particularly fond  of this
     He would fight to defend his own honour, or  Greek  honour,  or  simply
that of the weak and defenceless, or the honour of painters, quite often the
honour of our street and, less often, that  of our class.  And sometimes  he
would fight for no particular  reason, when  the two sides  merely wanted to
measure their strength so that they could afterwards jump to a higher branch
of the genealogical tree of chivalry, or yield their own branch, as the case
might be.
     "I want  to fight him,"  Yura would  say to me quietly, nodding at some
boy or other. Usually this was a  newcomer who had only just appeared at our
school or in the neighbourhood of our  street.  Or sometimes this was one of
our old acquaintances  who  had  suddenly grown much  bigger or  filled  out
during the summer and now  required--though he might not wish  it himself--a
reassessment of his potential.
     So Yura would nod in his direction and there was such ardour and secret
happiness in his  face that I could not help admiring him.  Such probably is
the admiration of the gardener who finds a prematurely ripened fruit  in his
orchard and carefully bends  the branch to examine it,  or perhaps  of a Don
Juan viewing from afar a new beloved with a similar significant tenderness.
     Usually the  boy would  sooner or  later become aware  of Yura's secret
passion  and a  shy  embarrassment would appear in his movements that  would
eventually break out into arrogance.
     "He feels it too," Yura would say, nodding joyfully  in  his  direction
and his eyes would glow with the goat-like cunning of a little satyr.
     One  day Yura and I were standing at  the entrance  to what was  at the
time  I  am  writing  of our best cinema, the Apsny. There was some fabulous
film on and  the street around us was  surging  with  youngsters. Many  were
looking for tickets and would peer into our eyes, trying to spot someone who
had bought a ticket for the purpose of reselling it.
     How pleasant it was to be able to  stand in the  crowd before  the show
began  and  feel  the  ticket  in  your pocket, knowing  there  were so many
yearning to get  one but  you had yours so you had nothing to fear. And when
the  doors  opened  you  would also  be  able to  stroll  round  the  foyer,
inspecting for the  hundredth time the delightful daubs of a local artist on
themes from Pushkin's fairy-tales, relishing the knowledge that these little
pleasures were all for free and the main pleasure was yet to come. And after
that, when  they let you  into the hall, which would be  positively steaming
from the previous show  and  redolent  of the  pleasure that  had just  been
experienced by  others and was still in store for  you, there  would  be the
newsreel, a  feeble one perhaps but  also in the nature  of a free gift with
the real pleasure yet to come, and perhaps the sweetest thing in life was to
keep putting it  off and putting it off since happiness,  once begun,  could
not be stretched for ever, because it might break, like the film itself.
     And this was the state  of blissful suspense  in  which I was  standing
when a boy came up to Yura.
     "Got a ticket?"
     Yura looked at the lad, such a puny, such a ticket-less little  fellow,
and paused as  if to  let  him feel the full depth  of his  nothingness, and
said, "Yes, I have, but I'm going myself."
     "I  see  you're  trying  to  be  funny,"  the  boy  retorted  cheekily,
emboldened by disappointment.
     "Yes, I was," Yura agreed. He seemed unable to believe his ears, unable
to  comprehend that  from this  depth of nothingness  anyone could  possibly
answer him  back, and was  now  testing his own senses to see if he had  not
perhaps imagined this impudent voice.
     "But it didn't come off, did it?" the  boy said and with a vengeful nod
turned to go away.
     "Wait a minute," Yura started forward.
     The boy halted fearlessly.
     "So I'm a  speculator, am  I?" Yura asked unexpectedly and, seizing him
by the  lapels  of  his  jacket,  shook  him. "I'm  a speculator, am  I?" he
     I felt a sour taste in my mouth. This was my body's as yet  unconscious
reaction to what was dishonourable and unfair.
     I  sensed that Yura wanted  to fight the boy, but that would have  been
beyond  all  borings.  The boy  obviously did  not  want  to fight,  he  was
obviously the weaker of the two, he had not said that Yura was a speculator,
and he wasn't even a ginger-head.
     "So I'm a speculator, am I?" Yura repeated, and tried to shake him into
fighting form.
     "I didn't  say that," the boy's  voice began to quaver, and  he  looked
round in search of friends or protectors.
     "Yes, you did!" Yura  shook him again, striving to elicit some  further
insult, so that he could let fly. But the boy would not be provoked and this
annoyed Yura even more because he might have to take the final step himself.
And it looked as if he was going to.
     But at that moment half a  dozen Greek boys  appeared from nowhere  and
surrounded  us,  chanting in  one voice, "Aren't  you  ashamed,  Greek?  ...
..." came the familiar words out of the din.
     Apparently they knew both Yura and the other boy well and Yura for some
reason  had  to  reckon with  them. And  this  boy, so  obviously Russian in
appearance, suddenly, as if from sheer fright, also began to babble in Greek
so fluently that even  Yura was confused. Apparently the  boy lived  in  the
same yard as these lads.
     They  went on  like this for  some  time, raising  and  lowering  their
voices,  going over  from  Russian  to  Greek  and  back  to  Russian.  Yura
maintained that although the boy had  not actually called him a  speculator,
he  had asked how much  he would sell his ticket  for, which obviously meant
... and so on.
     "I didn't say that. It's not true," the  boy argued, boldly now that he
was surrounded by his Greek friends.
     "Aren't you  ashamed,  Greek?"  again  the Greeks  appealed  to  Yura's
conscience in their own language.
     "Ask him, if you don't believe me," Yura said, and turned towards me.
     I  had been expecting this. I hated him  at  that moment.  I would have
liked to tread on his handsome, lying face, but he was my friend and by some
ancient  law of comradeship, fellow-countrymanship, kinship or  whatever,  I
was  bound  to defend  him,  while another,  stronger  but  for some  reason
illegitimate feeling prompted me to take the side of the other boy.
     Everyone looked at me, confident that I would take Yura's side, if only
because he  had appealed to me.  But for the first second I hesitated and by
so doing at once roused intense curiosity, because if  I was his friend  and
had not leapt to his defence I  must be  going to say  something unusual  or
perhaps even tell the whole truth.
     They all stared at  me  in  hushed expectation  and I  felt that  every
moment of  my  silence was lifting  me  to intrepid  heights  in their eyes.
Indeed, I myself felt  how high I was  rising in my silence, how fruitful it
was in itself,  and yet at  the same time, knowing in advance  that I should
fail  them as soon as I opened my  mouth,  I waited  for the  moment when it
would  be simply too dangerous to  go  any higher  in view of the inevitable
subsequent fall.
     "I didn't hear," I said, and acid spurted  into  my  mouth as if I  had
bitten into the crabbiest of all crab apples.
     Both  sides  instantly lost  interest  in  me  and  returned  to  their
argument, now relying only on their own forces. The bell rang.
     We sat together  watching the film. Sometimes from the corner of my eye
I caught a glimpse of my friend's stern face that was becoming more and more
     On the way home I tried to explain something, but he was unresponsive.
     "Let's not start a jabber-jabber conference," he said as we reached his
house and he turned into the courtyard.
     That  was  the  beginning  of the  end of our  friendship.  We  did not
quarrel. We simply lost  our common aim.  Gradually we left the childhood we
had shared and entered a youth that we could not share because youth was the
beginning of  specialisation  of the  soul. And  in  purely physical  terms,
through circumstances beyond our control we lost touch with each other.
     It was only many years later that we met again in our town on the upper
floor of the off-shore restaurant Amra I had dropped in for a cup of coffee.
He was sitting with a group of  local  lads. We recognised each other from a
distance and he rose, smiling broadly, from his table.
     I sat down with him and, as custom required, we recalled our schooldays
and old friends.
     Yura  was now a  naval officer, serving somewhere up north. He was on a
long leave.  He had  come here for  a  holiday and a  good time and was then
going to spend the rest of his leave in  Kazakhstan, where his  parents were
now living.
     I reminded  him  of his running along  the beam and confessed that this
feat of his had remained for me a great and never-to-be-fulfilled ambition.
     "I could never have walked it," Yura said, with a shrug.
     "Couldn't you?"
     "I was far too scared to take  it slowly,"  he said, and a ghost of the
old fearlessness appeared in his eye for a moment.
     "You don't mean it!" I exclaimed, feeling that  his  confession imposed
some sort of obligation on me, though I did not know yet what it was.
     "Do you know why I used to make it sway?" he asked and, without waiting
for  my answer, replied, "I thought a  steady  rolling would be  better than
sudden plunges... Like at sea," he added, consoling me with a more universal
application of his discovery.
     No, I had no regrets about my  adolescent  enthusiasm  for his feat.  I
merely  felt that  courage,  like cowardice,  too, probably, was  of a  more
complex nature than I had previously suspected, and much  of what I had once
believed to  be  clearly  solved after all  had probably not been solved  so
     It made  me  sad. Scraps  of  half-formed  thoughts  prevented  me from
enjoying myself, as exams still waiting to be taken had done  when I  was  a
     I wanted  to go  home at once and form a final opinion  at least  about
something. But I had to stay because the waitress arrived with what had been
ordered.  She  had brought  a bottle  of brandy and a  skillfully cut  water
melon, which as soon as the plate was on the table opened out trickling with
juice, like a huge lotus with blood-stained petals.
     Yura's hand went out to the bottle. No, of course, I couldn't leave.

     I have told the story of  how in my  childhood, when finding my  way at
night to the house  of  a relative of ours, I fell into a freshly dug grave,
where I spent several hours in  the company of a stray goat, until I and the
goat were rescued by a passing peasant. That was during the war.
     Some time  after this  nocturnal  adventure, we,  that is,  my  mother,
sister and I, went to live  in that very village. At first we stayed with my
mother's sister, then we found a room in another house and moved.
     The house had been occupied before the war by three brothers. They were
all in the army. One of them had married before enlisting and now his young,
blooming and  not  too grief-stricken  wife  was  all alone  in  the  house.
Remembering her now, I  am  drawn to  the  conclusion that  a grass widow is
called a grass widow because she catches fire as easily as dry grass.
     While we were living there, one of the brothers came home. Yes, the one
that was married. He came home  a little too quietly somehow. We noticed him
in the kitchen one morning. He was  sitting in front of the  fire roasting a
corncob on  a  spit, as though  to  remind himself of his pre-war childhood.
There was something about him that made  one think he ought not to have come
home just yet. Or  perhaps,  he ought  not  to have married  quite  so soon;
because I think it  was missing his  wife so badly that brought him home too
     He pottered about in the garden  with a kind of desperate eagerness for
a week or so, then he was arrested; and shortly afterwards we heard that  he
was a deserter. He was arrested just as quietly as he had arrived.
     We gradually settled down in  the new place. My sister obtained work at
the  local collective  farm as  a  time-keeper;  we were allotted a patch of
land,  on which we  grew melons and  maize. We also grew pumpkins on it, and
cucumbers and tomatoes, too. In those days we used to grow everything.
     Well, it so happened that not far from  our house there  lived the very
man whose grave I had fallen into. Incidentally, people  in the village used
to say that everyone had fallen into that grave  except the man it was meant
for. The story turned out to be  long and complex. The grave's future owner,
if one may so describe  him, old Shchaaban Larba, nicknamed Crooked Arm, had
been in hospital with either appendicitis or  rupture. (In Russian, it would
probably  be  more  correct to  call  him  Withered  Arm,  but  Crooked  Arm
corresponds  more closely  to  the  spirit  and,  hence, the  meaning of the
nickname.) Well, as I was saying,  Crooked Arm had had an operation,  and he
was still in hospital, calmly recovering his health, when someone telephoned
from the hospital to our village Soviet to say that the patient had died and
would have to  be collected and taken home  immediately because he had  been
lying dead for more than a day already.
     None  of the sick  man's relatives had been visiting  the hospital just
then because he had been about to be discharged.
     True,  a  fellow  villager,  Mustafa, had been in town  at the time  on
business of  his  own  and had,  incidentally, been  asked  to  call  at the
hospital and  find out  why Crooked Arm  was still there, and whether he had
not  perhaps decided  to  have his  crooked  arm  put right  as well as  the
appendicitis or rupture. And then, all of a sudden, such unexpected news.
     The dead man's relatives, as our customs demand, sent out messengers of
woe to the neighbouring villages, a large army cape was stretched across the
yard of his house to make a shelter where the  funeral  feast would be held,
and a grave was dug in the cemetery.
     The collective farm sent its one and only lorry to bring the  dead  man
home because private transport was hard to come by in wartime. In short, the
whole  thing was  arranged  in  proper style,  just as  it  should be.  Yes,
everything was as it  should  be,  except  the dead man  himself,  Shchaaban
Larba, who, so  it was said,  had never given anyone  any peace while he was
alive, and after death became quite unmanageable.
     The day after the sorrowful  news the lorry arrived back in the village
with the body of the dead man, who turned out to be alive.
     Crooked  Arm,  they say, walked  into  the yard  of  his  house  gently
supported by Mustafa and swearing loudly. His indignation was due not to the
news of his death and the  preparations for his funeral but  to something he
noticed at  once  on  glancing at the shelter  made  with the army cape, for
which two  apple trees had been stripped of their branches.  Still swearing,
Crooked  Arm demonstrated  on the  spot how the  cape could have  been  hung
without touching the trees.
     After that, they say, he  made  the  round of  his guests shaking hands
with each and staring keenly into their eyes to discover what impression had
been caused by the news  of his death  and simultaneous,  quite  unexpected,
     Having  done this, they say, he raised that arm  of  his which had been
withering for twenty years but still had not withered away, and, shading his
eyes with  his hand, peered rudely at the women  who had  been hired to weep
for him as though he didn't know what they were there for.
     "What do you want?" he rasped.
     They looked embarrassed. "Oh, nothing special. We just came to weep for
     "Well, get on with it then," Crooked  Arm is said to have replied,  and
put his hand  to his ear to listen to the weeping. But at this point someone
intervened and led the weepers away.
     When he saw  the gifts  that  his  relatives had brought,  Crooked  Arm
pondered for a moment. It is the custom among  my people to hold any kind of
funeral feast on such a grand scale that, were it all done at the expense of
the dead man's family, its surviving members would have  no alternative  but
to lie down and die as well.
     So,  all the relatives and  neighbours help out. Some bring  wine, some
bring roast chickens, some  bring  khachapuri, and someone  may even bring a
calf. And it so happened this time that one of the  relatives from  the next
village had brought  along a  well fattened calf, which  Crooked Arm took an
immediate liking  to. Incidentally, they say that it was  from this relative
that the  measurements  had been taken for digging the grave, because he was
just about the  same height as Crooked Arm. They say that  when  one of  the
lads who had  been told to dig the grave  came  up  to him  with a measuring
string, this relative expressed some displeasure and argued that  there were
other people more suitable for the purpose,  that  he  was probably a little
taller than Crooked Arm and Crooked Arm was more stocky.
     So saying, he tried to get away from  the measuring string, but the lad
would not  let him  get away. Like all grave-diggers, this  lad was given to
joking.  He said that Crooked Arm's stockiness made no  difference  now, and
that if the worst came  to the worst and Crooked Arm was not the right size,
they would have his relative in mind.
     The  relative, they say, sniggered half-heartedly  at  these jokes, but
evidently took offence, because  he withdrew to  the company  of the  people
from  his  own  village  and stood  with them, glancing sulkily at his calf,
which was tethered to the fence.
     At the sight of all these gifts Crooked  Arm announced that it  was too
early yet to rejoice,  that he still felt  very ill,  and that he  had  been
discharged only so that  he should not die in hospital because  doctors were
fined for  that, just as collective farmers were  fined for spoiled produce.
He  then went straight to bed and gave instructions that the grave should on
no account be filled in,  but kept open in readiness. The  relatives,  it is
said, dispersed somewhat unwillingly, the one who had brought the calf being
particularly displeased. But Crooked  Arm calmed him with assurances that he
would not have long to wait, so the calf would not waste away even if it was
not let out of the yard.
     Crooked  Arm stayed in bed for about a week. After a couple  of days he
began  to be  pestered  by  the curious, because by that time the rumour had
spread that Crooked  Arm, having died in  the  hospital, had come to life on
the way home and arrived there for his own funeral. Another  rumour  had  it
that he had not died at all  but had fallen into a deep sleep from which the
doctors had been unable to awake him, but the journey back had been so bumpy
that he had woken up of his own accord.
     At  first  Crooked Arm  received the visitors,  particularly while they
continued to bring him all  kinds of delicacies designed to tempt the palate
of a man who had recently been dead and was still not quite alive again. But
eventually he grew tired  of this, and  in any case the chairman of the farm
said there  was work to be done. So, when he heard the  gate creak, he would
run  out on the veranda and bellow in  his loud voice, "Back! Keep back, you
parasites! I'll set the dog on you!"
     However,  the rumours of his resurrection  grew and multiplied. It must
have been  quite  a  year  later  when  I heard in one  of the  neighbouring
villages that Crooked  Arm  had  come  to  life  not  on  the way home  from
hospital, but actually in his grave, several days after burial. The noise he
had been making was heard by  a boy  who had been  looking for  his goat one
evening in the  cemetery. So the  villagers had to go and dig him out. If he
had not possessed such a powerful voice, they  said, he  would  have died of
hunger, or  even of  thirst, because the site that had been  chosen  for his
grave was a good one--well drained.
     So it came about that Crooked Arm survived or,  at least, prevented his
own funeral, while retaining for himself a grave in complete readiness.
     When they first saw Crooked Arm on his return from hospital, the people
of the village  decided that it was the  secretary of the village Soviet who
had played a joke on them, because he was the man who had said he had talked
with  the hospital or someone who had pretended to be the hospital.  But the
secretary declared that he would never dream of playing such  a joke  with a
war on.
     Everyone believed him,  because to joke like that in wartime would have
been  just a bit too stupid. Eventually, it  was agreed that there  had been
some sort of mix-up at the hospital, that another old man had  died, perhaps
even one of Crooked Arm's namesakes, for in Abkhazia  we have any  number of
people of the very same name.
     I heard Crooked Arm's voice the  first day we started living  with  our
grass widow, even before I had met him face to face. At exactly midday, when
he was coming home for dinner from work on the farm, he would  at a distance
of  some  three  hundred meters from his house  start shouting to his  wife,
scolding her and inquiring furiously if the hominy was ready.
     The old woman would respond with equally frantic yells and their voices
with no loss of power  or clarity would  gradually come together,  overreach
each other and at last fall silent. After a time the old woman's voice would
shoot  up triumphantly from the silence but Crooked Arm's would not respond.
Later on, when I began  visiting  their house, I realised  that  the old man
kept quiet at this stage for the simple reason  that  his mouth was occupied
with  eating;  he ate as frantically as he cursed, so he could  not possibly
eat and curse at the same time.
     Coming home from work in the evening, he would inquire in the same tone
of voice about his horse or  his grandson  Yashka and again about the hominy
for supper.
     Later on, I made friends with this Yashka, who was just  as loud-voiced
as his  grandfather but,  unlike  him, a good-natured lounger.  Crooked  Arm
usually took him to school on the back of his horse, and would curse all the
way there over having to waste his precious time on this  dunderhead. Yashka
would sit  in silence behind  his grandfather, holding  on  to his belt  and
gazing around with a sheepish grin on his face.
     If  his grandfather was  away, he  would  be taken  to  school  by  his
grandmother  on the same horse, and he would sit behind her in the same way,
except that he did not let her ride right up to the school in case  the boys
made fun of him.
     He  and  I  attended school in  different  shifts. On  my way home from
school I would meet them about halfway and Yashka would screw his head round
and stare wistfully after me, thereby touching off a fresh explosion of fury
from his grandfather. Yashka had to be taken to  school because it was three
kilometres from his  home  and Yashka was so absentminded that  he sometimes
forgot where he was going and took the wrong road.
     In the early days, on meeting me in the street, Crooked  Arm would look
at me shading his eyes with his hand, and ask:
     "Who do you belong to?"
     "I am the son of so-and-so," I would  answer politely and give the name
of my mother, whom he had known for many years.
     "Who's she?" he  would thunder, and scrutinise me  even more thoroughly
from under his crooked palm.
     "She  is  Uncle  Meksut's wife's  sister," I would  explain,  though  I
realised he was pretending.
     "So you're one of those parasites from town?"  he  would say with a nod
in the direction of our house.
     "Yes," I would reply, confirming  that we lived there and  at  the same
time reluctantly acknowledging our role as parasites.
     He would stand before me, peering at me in astonishment with his gimlet
eyes, a  rather  short,  stocky  man with a  massive neck as red as a cock's
comb.  And  while he stood there,  peering at me in  surprise, as  though to
achieve a  complete mental  picture  of  me,  he  would  at the same time be
listening to something else, to something that was taking place on the other
side of the fence, in the maize on his allotment, as though he could tell by
whispers, by scuffling, by sounds audible to his ears alone exactly what was
happening on his allotment, in his yard  and perhaps even  inside  the house
     "So  it  was  you  who  fell  into  my  grave?" he would  ask suddenly,
listening  as usual  to what  was  happening  on his  allotment  and already
sensing something amiss that made him snort with dissatisfaction.
     "Yes,"  I would reply, observing him  with secret misgiving,  because I
felt he was packed with some kind of explosive force.
     "And what did you think of it down there?" he would  ask still with one
ear to the fence, as it were, and becoming more and  more agitated over what
was happening on  the  other side  of it, and  even  beginning to mutter  to
himself, "Is  that old woman dead, or what? Curse her eyes... She'll ruin me
one of these days, the old fool..."
     "Very nice,"  I would  reply, trying to  display  my  gratitude for the
hospitality. After all, it was his grave.
     "It's  a  good,  dry  spot,"  he  would  agree,  almost   whining  with
indignation at what was happening on his allotment;  and all of  a sudden he
would let fly and shout to  his old woman, leaping straight to his top note:
"Hey!  There's   something  grunting  in  the  kitchen  garden!  Blast  your
ears--it's the pigs, the pigs!"
     "May  I bury  them with  you  in  that  grave of  yours!  You see  pigs
everywhere!" the old woman would retort at once.
     "But I  can hear  them--they're munching  and  grunting,  munching  and
grunting!" he would  shout,  forgetting  all about me,  and, as usual, their
voices  overlapped and  he seemed to snatch the end  of  her shout  and haul
himself along by it towards the house, tossing  her his  own raging voice as
he went. By and by we  grew accustomed to his voice and stopped paying  much
attention  to it, and when he was  away for a few days and all was quiet and
still, it seemed  strange, as though something was missing and our ears were
full of an empty roar.
     His wife,  a tall old  woman, taller  than he,  and  unbelievably thin,
would sometimes,  when he was  not at  home, come  round for a  chat with my
mother. She would occasionally bring a cheese or a bowl of maize flour  or a
fragrant lump of meat that had been smoked over an outdoor  fire. With a shy
little laugh she would ask  us to hide away  what  she had  brought and, for
goodness sake,  never say thank you, because that  bawling husband  of  hers
must not know anything about it.
     She and my  mother would talk for  hours  and Crooked  Arm's wife would
smoke  all  the  time,  making herself  cigarette  after cigarette. Suddenly
Crooked Arm's  voice would be heard. He would shout  something to her in the
direction of their house and she would prick up her ears at the sound of his
voice  and  shake with silent  laughter, as though  she were afraid he would
hear her laughing at him for shouting in the wrong direction.
     "What do you want now--I'm over here!" she would shout in the end.
     "Aha, idling again! Birds of  a  feather! You're nothing  but a gang of
chatterboxes!" he would bawl, after a  brief pause during which he must have
been struck dumb with indignation at her treachery.
     One day he rode up to our gate and shouted to me to bring  out  a sack.
Grumbling loudly about parasites who  had to have everything chewed and  put
in  their mouths for them to swallow, he filled my sack  half  full of flour
and, still fuming because he was  giving away his own maize that  he had had
to take to the mill on  his own horse, he tied his sack to the  saddle again
and rode  away, bawling over his shoulder that I must be careful not to tell
that woman anything about the flour  because he never had any peace from her
shrieking as it was.
     Time went by and  Old Crooked Arm showed no signs of dying. The  longer
he delayed his  death, the more the calf flourished and  grew fat; the  more
the calf flourished and grew fat, the sadder its former owner became. In the
end he  sent a man to Crooked Arm to drop  a hint about the  calf. Thank the
Lord Crooked  Arm was still alive, the message ran, but now it would be only
right to return the  calf,  because he had not made Crooked Arm a present of
it; he had only brought it to the funeral as a good kinsman should.
     "Brought an egg and wants to go home  with a chicken,"  Crooked  Arm is
said  to have  responded. After this, they say he  thought for  a moment and
added: "Tell  him that  if I die soon he can come to the funeral without any
offering at all and if he dies  I'll come to his  house like  a good kinsman
and bring a calf from his calf."
     Crooked Arm's relative, on  learning of  these terms,  is  said to have
taken offence  and told the messenger to tell  Crooked Arm without any hints
this time that he  did not  want any  calf from  his calf, and certainly not
when he himself was dead; he wanted his own calf, while  he was still alive,
the calf which  he had  brought  to the  funeral  as an  offering as a  good
kinsman should. Since Crooked Arm  still had  not died it was time to return
the calf to its proper owner.  Moreover,  he gave his  word that in spite of
the  fact  that while  he  was  at Crooked Arm's  house he had  suffered the
humiliation of  being measured with a  bit of string, he would nevertheless,
if Crooked Arm really did die, bring the calf back again.
     "This man will drive me to the grave with  that calf of  his," is  what
Crooked Arm is  supposed to have said on hearing these  explanations.  "Tell
him," he  added,  "that  he has not  long  to wait  now,  so  it's not worth
tormenting the wretched animal."
     A few days  after this  conversation Crooked  Arm transplanted from his
allotment to his grave two young peach trees. Possibly he did this to revive
the idea of  his imminent doom. Yashka and I helped him. But apparently  the
two  young peach trees were not  enough for him. Some days later he  went to
the  farm plantation at night,  dug  up  a small tung  tree and  planted  it
between  the two  peach trees. Everyone  soon  got to know  about  this. The
members  of the farm  chuckled among  themselves and  said that  Crooked Arm
wanted  to  poison  the dead  with  the  tung  fruit.  No one attached  much
importance to  the  transplanting  because no one  before or since had  ever
stolen a tung tree for  the simple reason that no peasant farmer had any use
for one,  the fruit  of  the tung  being  deadly  poisonous and consequently
rather dangerous.
     The  former  owner of  the  calf  also  fell silent. Either  he  became
convinced that Crooked Arm  was doomed after having  planted  a tung tree on
his grave, or else, fearing the old man's tongue, which was no less venomous
than the tung fruit, he had decided to leave him in peace.
     Incidentally,  legend has it  that  it was Crooked Arm's tongue in  his
young  days that gave  him his  crooked  arm. It  happened in the  following
     They say  that after some  feast or other, the local prince was sitting
surrounded by numerous guests in his host's courtyard. The prince was eating
peaches, which he  peeled with a small  penknife attached to a silver chain.
This penknife on its silver chain, by the way,  has  nothing to do with  the
subsequent events, but  all  narrators  of  this  tale have  mentioned  this
penknife, never failing to  add that it  was attached  to a silver chain. In
retelling the incident once again I should have liked to avoid that penknife
on its silver chain, but for some reason I feel that I must mention it, that
it   contains  some  element  of  truth  without  which  something  will  be
lost--though I don't know what.
     Anyway, the  prince  was  eating  peaches  and  complacently  recalling
amorous joys. In  the end, so they say, he surveyed the host's courtyard and
remarked with a sigh, "If I were to  assemble all the women I have had in my
time, this yard wouldn't hold them."
     But Crooked Arm, they say, even in those days, despite his youth, never
allowed anyone to be complacent for  long. He  popped  up from somewhere and
said, "I wonder how many she-asses there would be braying in this yard?"
     This  somewhat  elderly  prince  was a  great  connoisseur of  feminine
beauty,  added to which, they  say, he was modestly proud  of his ability to
strip  a fruit  of its  skin  without once breaking the ribbon of peel. This
skill never  deserted him, not even after a night's hard drinking. No matter
how closely he was  watched, or how  hard people tried to  distract him,  he
never made a slip. Sometimes they would try to catch him out with a fruit of
extremely odd and ugly shape, but he would examine it from all  angles, take
out his little  penknife  on its  silver chain and unerringly set it to work
along the only correct path.
     Having thus produced a spiral wreath of peel, he would usually hold  it
up before  the assembled company.  And if there was a pretty girl among them
he would call her over and hang the ring of peel over her ear.
     It  seems to  me  that Crooked Arm  must  have  been irritated  by  the
Prince's skill. I  think he must have been observing him for a long time and
was sure  that  sooner  or later the  ribbon  of  peel  would  break. He may
actually have placed great hopes  in one particular peach,  but  the  prince
had, as usual,  dealt with it quite  successfully and  even started boasting
about his women.  You  must  agree there  was  enough  to  make Crooked  Arm
explode, particularly as a young man.
     They say that  after Crooked Arm's unexpected remark the  prince turned
purple and stared  speechlessly  at him  with his  eyes popping  out,  still
holding in  his right hand the peeled and oozing peach, and in his left, the
penknife on its silver chain.
     Everyone was struck dumb with horror, but the prince continued to stare
unblinkingly at Crooked Arm while the hand that was holding the  peach moved
restlessly in the  air as  though  sensing how inappropriate  it  was to  be
holding a peach at  that moment, not to mention the difficulty of  drawing a
pistol while holding a peach in one's hand, particularly  a peeled one. They
say his hand even lowered to the ground to  get rid of the peach, but at the
last moment somehow could not bring itself to do such a thing. After all the
peach had been  skinned  and a well brought-up princely  hand must have felt
that a skinned peach simply could not be placed  on the  ground.  And so  it
rose again, this hand, and for an agonising second groped  in the air for an
invisible plate,  feeling  that  there must be someone  who would  think  of
providing a plate,  but everyone was  paralysed with fear and no one had the
presence of  mind to  help the prince discard this, by now indecently  naked
peach. And at this point, they say, Crooked Arm himself came to the prince's
     "Pop it in your mouth!" he suggested.
     The guests had no  time to recover  from this fresh impertinence before
they  found  themselves witnessing the inexplicable  self-abasement  of  the
prince,  who is said  to  have  begun in shameful haste  to push  the juicy,
dripping peach into his mouth, while continuing to stare at Crooked Arm with
hate-filled eyes.  At last, having  somehow coped with the peach, he reached
for his  pistol. Still gazing at Crooked Arm with those bulging, hate-filled
eyes,  he fumbled speechlessly in the region  of  his belt but, owing to his
extreme  agitation, or,  as others  infer more correctly, because his  hands
were sticky with peach juice, he just could not unbutton his holster.
     Perhaps someone  would yet have  come  to his  senses, perhaps  someone
might have managed to seize  the prince's  arm  or, at least, hustle Crooked
Arm aside, making  it  impossible  to shoot  and perhaps dangerous for other
people, but then, they say, Shchaaban's voice rang out  in  the  silence for
the last time.  I don't mean  in the sense  that after this his  voice never
rang out any more. Rather on the contrary, it became  even  louder  and more
scornful.  But  in  the sense that  after this phrase  he ceased to be  just
Shchaaban and became Shchaaban Crooked Arm.
     "I bet he doesn't  take so long over  the other  thing,"  he is said to
have remarked, "judging by the way our Chegem she-asses..."
     They say he did not finish his remark about  the  she-asses because the
old  prince,  at last,  coped with his holster--a shot rang  out, the  women
shrieked and, when the smoke cleared, Crooked Arm was what fate had destined
him  to be, that is, crooked-armed. Afterwards, when he was asked why  after
the first insult he had gone on teasing the prince he would simply reply, "I
just couldn't stop."
     Later on, however, when  the prince went  off  with the Mensheviks  and
Soviet power was  finally and  irrevocably  established  in  our part of the
country, Crooked Arm began to assert that  he had had an old score to settle
with the prince, perhaps  even something  to  do  with the days of  partisan
warfare,  and  that  this  exchange  had  been  merely  a  pretext  for,  or
consequence of, other more important things.
     In short,  despite the  prince's bullet, Crooked Arm went on taking the
rise  out of anyone and everyone and his jokes seemed to  lose none of their
sting as the years went by.
     When I was  roaming round the  village  I  would  often  see him on the
tobacco or tea plantation or weeding the maize. If he was in a  good mood he
would simply play the fool and have everyone doubled up with laughter.
     He had a knack of imitating the voices of people he knew and of animals
as well; and he was particularly good at crowing like a cock.
     Sometimes he would  jab his hoe into the ground,  straighten  his back,
look around and let  out a mighty crow. The cocks in the  neighbouring yards
would answer almost at once. Everyone would  burst  out laughing,  and while
the nearest cock went  on calling him he would resume his hoeing and mutter,
"A fat lot you know, you fool."
     Down our  way,  like everywhere  else probably, people believe that the
crowing  of a cock has a special meaning,  that it is almost an omen  of the
owner's fate. Crooked Arm was debunking these  rural clairvoyants. In  spite
of  his half-withered arm he certainly worked like  the devil. Although when
sometimes there was a rumour that a new national loan was being floated,  to
which contributions  would be  required,  or when  the remaining men in  the
village were  being  mobilised for  tree-felling, he would slip his left arm
into a clean red sling and go about like that for  as long as he  considered
necessary. I don't think this  red  sling was much help to him; it certainly
couldn't get him  out of signing up for the loan. Nonetheless, it apparently
provided him with some additional pretext for argument.
     I  believe  he  acquired  this red sling  to give  his arm a soldierly,
partisan appearance.  Whenever  he was summoned by  the management  board he
would put his arm  in its sling before  leaving. Mounted on horseback with a
black sheepskin cloak draped over his shoulders and his arm  in a red sling,
he certainly did have the rather dashing air of the partisan fighter.
     All  was well in the village, when suddenly  it became  known that  the
chairman  of  the  village Soviet had  received an  anonymous letter against
Crooked Arm. The letter declared that the planting of a tung tree on a grave
was an insult to  this new industrial crop, a hint that the  plant was of no
use  to living collective  farmers, and  that  its proper place was  in  the
village cemetery.
     The  chairman of the village Soviet showed this letter to the  chairman
of the collective farm, who, they  say,  was properly scared by it,  because
someone might think that he had given Crooked Arm the  idea of transplanting
the tung tree to his own grave.
     In those  days I just couldn't understand why things had taken  such  a
threatening  turn--after all,  everyone had known before the letter was sent
that Crooked  Arm had planted the tung tree  on his  grave. In those days  I
didn't  realise  that a  letter  was a  document, and a document  had  to be
presented on demand, had to be answered for.
     To  be sure, some people  say that  the chairman of the village  Soviet
need not have passed  it on, but  that  he had a grudge against Crooked Arm,
and that was why he showed it to the chairman of the farm.
     In short,  the letter was set in motion  and one day a man arrived from
the district centre  to find out the truth  of the matter. Crooked Arm tried
to laugh it  off, but,  so  they say, he had clearly lost his nerve  because
afterwards he had a shave, put his arm  in the red  sling and went about the
village staring at it as  if it was just about to blow up and the only thing
he and everyone else around could do would be to dodge the splinters.
     "Now you've done  it," said  Mustafa,  an old horseman, the friend  and
eternal rival of  Crooked Arm. "Now you'd better guzzle your tung apples and
jump into your grave, otherwise they'll pack you off to Siberia."
     "I'm not afraid of Siberia.  I'm afraid you'll step into my grave while
I'm away," Crooked Arm replied.
     "In Siberia, they say,  they ride on dogs," Mustafa  suggested  meanly.
"You'd  better take  a bridle  with  you  and  try breaking  in  a  dog  for
     The long-standing  rivalry  between Crooked  Arm  and Mustafa was  over
horses and horsemanship. They both had their feats and failures behind them.
Crooked  Arm  had  covered  himself with undying glory by stealing a  famous
stallion at  a certain  race meeting in full view of thousands of spectators
(personally, I  doubt whether there  were  thousands). They say that Crooked
Arm had been mounted on such a wretched, broken-winded nag and had looked so
pathetic that when he asked the owner  of the stallion permission to put his
famous race-horse through its paces, the  latter had  granted the permission
as a joke,  because he was sure the stallion would  throw Crooked Arm  right
away and thus add still further to its renown.
     Crooked Arm, they say, slithered awkwardly off his doleful jade and, as
he passed the reins to the owner of the stallion, said, "Let's count it that
we've swopped."
     "Done," the owner replied, taking the reins from him.
     "Whatever you  do, don't  let  this one throw  you first time, or he'll
trample you  to  death,"  Crooked  Arm  warned him,  and  went  over to  the
     "I'll be careful," the owner is  said  to have replied and, as  soon as
Crooked  Arm mounted the  stallion, gave  a  sign to a lad  standing  in the
background, and the lad gave the stallion a tremendous whack with his whip.
     The stallion  reared  and galloped  off towards  the  River  Kodor, and
Crooked Arm, they say, hung on at first like a drunken mullah on a galloping
     Everyone was expecting him to fall off,  but he went on  and on and the
owner's jaw began to drop as Crooked Arm  reached the end  of the field and,
instead of following the bend of the race-course, went  careering on towards
the river. For another  few minutes they hesitated,  thinking the  horse had
taken the bit between its teeth and he could not make it turn, but then they
realised  that  this  was a robbery  of quite unprecedented  daring. Fifteen
minutes later a  dozen horsemen  were galloping in pursuit, but  it was  too
     Crooked Arm had leapt headlong down the cliff  to the river and  by the
time his pursuers reached the edge he was climbing  out on the far bank; for
an instant, the stallion's wet crupper gleamed in the  alders at the water's
edge. The bullets  flew wide  and no  one  dared take a flying leap down the
cliff. Since then the spot has been known as Crooked Arm Cliff. Crooked  Arm
himself never told this story in my presence, but he allowed others to  tell
it, listening with pleasure and making a  few corrections. He  would  always
wink at Mustafa if  he was  present, and Mustafa  would  pretend  not  to be
listening, until in the end he could  not refrain from trying to belittle or
ridicule the exploit.
     Mustafa would say that a  man  with one  arm  shot through was disabled
anyway, so he had  not risked all that much for the sake of his exploit. And
if he had jumped down the cliff he had done it, first, because he was scared
and, secondly, because  there was nothing else he  could do, since he  would
have been shot dead in any case if he had been caught by his pursuers.
     In short, there was a deep  and long-standing rivalry  between them. In
their young days they used to thresh it out at  the races;  now, in old age,
though they still kept horses, they solved  their disputes theoretically, in
the  course  of   which  they  would   become  involved  in   a   jungle  of
ominous-sounding riddles.
     "If a man shoots  at you from  over there and you, say, are riding down
that path, where would you turn your horse at the  sound  of  the shot--and,
mind you, there's not a single tree around?"
     "Suppose  you're galloping down  a hill with someone chasing you. Ahead
on  the right there's some scrub, and on the left there's a ravine. Where do
you turn your horse then?"
     Such were the disputes  these two men would hold  as  they trudged home
with hoes or axes on their shoulders, after a long day's work.
     These disputes had been going on for many years, although it was a long
time since anyone had done any shooting round  our way, and certainly not at
these  old  men for  people had  learned  how to avenge  an insult  by safer
methods. And to  one of  these methods, namely, the anonymous letter, it  is
now time for us to return.
     The representative  from the district centre tried to make  the old man
say what  his real purpose had been in moving the tung tree, and, above all,
to reveal who  had instigated him to do so. Crooked Arm  replied that no one
had instigated  him, that he himself had suddenly wanted to have a tung tree
growing at his  head when he lay dead and  buried, because he had long since
taken a fancy to this plant that till recently had been quite unknown in our
district. The man from the centre did not believe him.
     Then  Crooked  Arm confessed  he had  been  relying  on  the  poisonous
properties not only of the fruit  but  of the roots of the tree; he had been
hoping that  its  roots would kill all  the grave worms and he would lie  in
peace  and cleanliness because he had had  enough trouble from the fleas  in
this world.
     But at this  point,  they say, the man  from the centre asked  what  he
meant by  fleas. Crooked  Arm replied  that by  fleas he  means dog's fleas,
which should not be confused with poultry lice,  which did  not worry him in
the least, any more  than buffalo ticks did. But if there was one thing that
he couldn't stand it  was the horse flies, and if  he did throw a  couple of
handfuls of superphosphate under a horse's tail during the heat  of the day,
it was no  great  loss to the collective farm and the horse  had a rest from
the flies.  The man  from the centre  realised that he couldn't  draw  blood
there either, so he went back to the subject of the tung.
     In short, no  matter what excuses Crooked Arm produced, things began to
look black for him. The next day he was not even summoned before the comrade
from the district centre. Ready  for  anything,  he sat in  the yard  of the
management  office in  the shade of a mulberry tree and, keeping  his arm in
the red sling all the time, smoked and waited  for  his fate to be  decided.
Then it was, they say, that Mustafa turned  up  and walked straight into the
management office,  where the chairman of the collective farm,  the chairman
of the village Soviet and the man from  the district  centre were conferring
together. As he  walked past Crooked Arm, he looked  at him and  said, "I've
thought of something. If  it doesn't help, you'd better lie down quietly  in
your grave,  just as  you are, with your sling on, and  I'll shake some tung
fruit down on you."
     Crooked Arm made  no reply to these  words. He merely  glanced sadly at
his arm  as much as to  say that  he was ready to put up with any  amount of
suffering but why should his arm, which had already suffered enough from the
Menshevik's bullet, suffer again?
     Mustafa had a great reputation with the local authorities for being the
shrewdest man  on  the  farm. His house was the biggest  and  finest  in the
village, so if any top people came to visit us they were promptly dispatched
to Mustafa's hospitable house.
     What Mustafa had thought  of was  splendidly simple. The  man from  the
centre  was an Abkhazian, and if a man is  an Abkhazian, even if he has come
from Ethiopia, he is bound to have relatives in Abkhazia.
     That night,  apparently, Mustafa had secretly assembled all the old men
of the village at his house, dined them and wined them, and with their  help
thoroughly investigated  the family origins of the comrade from the district
centre.  Careful  and all-round analysis had shown  quite  clearly  that the
comrade  from  the district centre was through his  great aunt, once a  town
girl and now living in the village of Merkheul, related by blood to my Uncle
Meksut. Mustafa was quite satisfied with the results of this analysis.
     With this trump card in his pocket he marched past Crooked Arm into the
management office.  They say that when Mustafa informed the comrade from the
district centre of  this  fact, the latter turned pale and began to deny his
being related  to  the great aunt from Merkheul village and  particularly to
Uncle Meksut. But the trap had worked. Mustafa merely laughed at his denials
and said, "If he's not a relative of yours, why are you so pale?"
     He said no more and left the office.
     "What shall I do?" Crooked Arm asked when he saw Mustafa.
     "Wait till evening," Mustafa replied.
     "Make up your mind soon," Crooked Arm said, "or my arm will wither away
altogether in this sling."
     "Till evening," Mustafa repeated, and walked off.
     The fact of the  matter was that in denying his relationship with Uncle
Meksut the  comrade from the district centre had mortally insulted my uncle.
But Uncle Meksut kept his temper. Without  saying a word to anyone he merely
saddled his horse and rode away to the village of Merkheul.
     By  evening  he returned  on  his sweating  mount,  reined  up  at  the
management office, and handed the  bridle to Old Crooked  Arm, who was still
waiting there in suspense. The chairman was standing on the veranda, smoking
and surveying Crooked Arm and the surrounding scenery.
     "Come in," the chairman said at the sight of Uncle Meksut.
     "Just a minute," Uncle Meksut replied and, before mounting  the  steps,
ripped the red sling off the old man's arm and tucked it without a word into
his pocket.
     They say the old man just stood there with his arm suspended in midair,
as though unable to comprehend this symbolic gesture.
     Uncle Meksut placed in  front of  the comrade from the district  centre
the  yellowed, crumbling birth certificate of  his  great aunt  of Merkheul,
issued by the notary public's office of the Sukhumi Uyezd in the days before
the  revolution. At the sight of this birth certificate the comrade from the
district centre, they say, again turned pale, but  could no longer offer any
     "Or shall  I bring you your great aunt here over my saddle bow?"  Uncle
Meksut asked him.
     "You needn't  do that," the comrade  from  the district centre answered
very quietly.
     "Will you take  your brief-case with you or put it in the safe?"  Uncle
Meksut asked.
     "I'll take it with me," the comrade replied.
     "Come along then," Uncle Meksut said and they left the office.
     That evening there was  a  party at  Uncle Meksut's house and the whole
case was  considered.  The  next  morning after a long  discussion in  Uncle
Meksut's house a statement was drawn up in Russian-Caucasian officialese and
dictated to me personally.
     "At last  this  parasite has come in useful," Crooked  Arm said, when I
moved the inkstand towards me and sat poised to take the dictation.
     The leaders  of the  collective farm  discussed the statement  with the
comrade from the district centre. Crooked Arm listened attentively and asked
for every  phrase to be translated into the Abkhazian language. Moreover, he
made  several amendments  to  the  wording which,  as  I realise  now,  were
designed to enhance his social and practical merits.
     The passage  dealing with  his crooked  arm gave rise  to  particularly
furious disputes.  Crooked Arm demanded that it should be stated that he had
suffered from  the bullet of a Menshevik hireling in  view of the  fact that
the prince who had wounded him had afterwards gone  off with the Mensheviks.
The comrade from the district centre clutched his temples and begged them to
stick to the  facts  because he  also had  to answer  to his superiors, even
though he did respect his relatives. In the end they  arrived  at  a version
that satisfied everyone.
     The statement took so long to draft that while I was writing it down in
my wavering hand I actually learned it off by heart. Its authors asked me to
read it out loud, which I did with great feeling. After this it was given to
the secretary of the village Soviet to be copied. This is what it said:
     "The old  man  Shchaaban  Larba,  otherwise  known  as  Crooked Arm,  a
nickname  he  acquired  some time  before  the  revolution  together  with a
prince's bullet, which later turned  out  to he a Menshevik bullet, has ever
since the organisation of the collective farm worked actively on the farm in
spite of the handicap of his partly withered arm (left).
     "The old man Shchaaban Larba, otherwise known as Crooked Arm, has a son
who  at the present time  is fighting at  the front in the Patriotic War and
has  won  government  decorations  (field  post-office number  indicated  in
     "The old man Shchaaban Larba, otherwise known as Crooked  Arm,  despite
his advanced age, is in these difficult times working without respite in the
collectivised  fields, giving his above-mentioned arm no rest. Every year he
does the equivalent of not less than four hundred work-day units.
     "The  collective farm  management  together  with the chairman  of  the
village  Soviet affirms  that, being a pre-revolutionary  and uneducated old
man, he transplanted the said  tung tree to the site of his fictitious grave
by mistake, for  which he will be fined  in accordance with  collective farm
regulations.  The  management  of  the  collective  farm  affirms  that  the
transplantation  of  tung trees  from  collective  farm  plantations to  the
communal  cemetery  and  particularly  to  home allotments  has  never  been
practised on  a mass scale and is in  the  nature of  an individual lapse of
     "The collective farm management affirms that  old  man Shchaaban Larba,
otherwise known as Crooked  Arm, has never poured  scorn  on collective farm
affairs but  in  accordance  with  his gay and peppery character  (Abkhazian
pepper)  has poured scorn on  certain individuals, which include quite a few
parasites of  the collective  farm fields, who are heroes in quotation marks
and advanced workers, without quotation marks, on their own home allotments.
But  we  have  been eradicating such heroes and advanced  workers and  shall
continue to do so  in accordance with  the collective farm regulations up to
and including expulsion from  the collective farm and  confiscation of  home
     "The old man Shchaaban Larba, thanks to his  inborn folk talent, mimics
the local  cocks, in the course of which  he exposes the most harmful Moslem
customs of olden times and also entertains  the  collective  farmers without
interrupting work in the fields."
     The statement was signed and sealed  by the chairman  of the collective
farm and the chairman of the village Soviet.
     When the  work was done, the  guests went  out on to the veranda, where
farewell glasses of 
 were drunk and the  comrade  from  the district
centre passed a hint through one of the members of the management board that
he  would  not be averse  to listening to  Crooked  Arm mimicking the cocks.
Crooked Arm  did  not have to be asked twice. He raised his immortal hand to
his mouth  and gave  such  a  cock-a-doodle-doo  that  all  the cocks in the
vicinity broke loose  like dogs from the chain. Only the host's cock, before
whose very eyes the whole  deception  took place,  was at first  struck dumb
with  indignation, and then burst into such  a fit of crowing that it had to
be chased out of the yard on to the vegetable patch because  it offended the
ear  of the comrade  from the district centre and  prevented him from making
himself heard.
     "Does it work on all cocks or only on the local ones?" the comrade from
the district  centre asked, having waited for the cock to be  chased out  of
     "On all of them," Crooked Arm replied readily. "Try it out anywhere you
     "A  real folk artist,"  said the comrade from the  district centre, and
everyone started saying goodbye to Uncle Meksut, who accompanied them to the
gate and a little further.
     The chairman of the collective farm carried out to the letter what  had
been promised in the statement. He fined Crooked Arm twenty work-day  units.
In addition, he ordered him to move the tung tree back to the plantation and
to fill  in the grave forever  as a precaution against accidents to  cattle.
Crooked Arm  dug up  the tree  and  moved  it  to the  plantation,  but  its
sufferings had been too great and it declined into a half-withered state.
     "Like my arm," said Crooked Arm. But he managed  to defend his grave by
surrounding it with a rather handsome stake fence with a gate and a latch.
     After the business of the anonymous letter had  died down Crooked Arm's
relative  once again, through an intermediary, cautiously reminded him about
the calf.
     Crooked Arm replied that he couldn't be bothered with the calf just now
because  he had  been disgraced and slandered, and  was  busy  day and night
looking for the slanderer and even took his  gun with him  to work. He would
know no peace until he had driven the slanderer into his grave and would not
even grudge  him his own grave  if  he was  not  too big for it. Finally, he
wanted  his relative to keep  his ear  to the ground and his eyes peeled  so
that at  the  slightest suspicion he could give Crooked  Arm  the signal and
Crooked Arm would know what to do. Only when he had fulfilled his Manly Duty
would he be able  to  settle  the business  of  the  calf  and  other  minor
misunderstandings that were quite natural between relatives.
     After that,  they say, the relative  fell silent altogether  and  never
mentioned the calf  again and tried  to keep out  of Crooked Arm's way. None
the less they did run into one another at a celebration of some kind. It was
late at night and Crooked Arm had plenty of drink inside him, and during the
performance of a  drinking  song  that  allowed of  some  improvisation,  he
started repeating the same couplet over and over again:
O, raida, siua raida, ei,
        Who sold his kinsman for a calf...
     He went on singing  without looking in the direction of  his  relative,
with  the result that  the latter  gradually became  sober and  in the  end,
unable to bear it any longer, asked Crooked Arm across the table:
     "What are you trying to say?"
     "Nothing," Crooked Arm replied, and  looked at him as though taking his
measurements, "just singing."
     "Yes, but it's a funny kind of song," said the relative.
     "In our  village,"  Crooked Arm  explained  to him, "everyone sings  it
except one man."
     "What man?" the relative asked.
     "Guess," Crooked Arm suggested.
     "I wouldn't even try," the relative said hastily.
     "Then I'll tell you," Crooked Arm threatened.
     "Go on, then!" the relative challenged recklessly.
     "The chairman of the village Soviet," declared Crooked Arm.
     "Why doesn't he sing it?" the relative asked pointblank.
     "He's not allowed to drop hints," Crooked Arm explained.
     "Can you prove anything?" the relative asked.
     "No, I can't, so for the time being I'm just singing," said Crooked Arm
and once again surveyed the relative, as though taking his measurements.
     By this  time they had  attracted  the anxious attention of their host,
who did  not want them  to  spoil the feast he  was giving  to celebrate the
decoration of his son with the Order of the Red Banner.
     Again  someone struck up the song  and everyone sang, and  Crooked  Arm
sang with the others without any  particular variations because he felt  the
host's eye upon  him.  But when the host relaxed,  Crooked  Arm  seized  his
chance, and invented another line:
O, raida, siua raida, ei,
        With a fence the dear one is protected...
     But the  host did hear  him nevertheless  and came over to  the two men
with a horn full of wine.
     "Crooked  Arm!"  he cried. "Swear by our  sons who are  shedding  their
blood in the country's defence that  you will be  forever reconciled at this
     "I've forgotten about the calf," the relative said.
     "And high time you did," Crooked Arm corrected him, then turned to  the
host: "For the sake of our children I'd eat dirt--be it as you wish, Amen!"
     And he threw back his  head and  drank a litre horn of wine in a single
draught, leaning further  and further back to the accompaniment of a general
chorus helping him to drink: "Uro, uro, uro, u-r-o-o..."
     Then the  whole  table again burst into song  and the relative, so they
say,  waited anxiously to see how he would sing  the  passage that  could be
improvised. And when Crooked Arm sang:
O, raida, siua raida, ei,
     O heroes, advancing under fire...
     the relative listened intently for a few seconds, considering the words
from  all  points  of  view, and finally,  having decided  that  he bore  no
resemblance  whatever to a hero advancing under fire, felt entirely relieved
and joined in the singing.
     In  the  autumn  we  gathered  a rich harvest from  our  allotment  and
returned to town with  maize,  pumpkins, nuts  and an  enormous quantity  of
dried fruit. In addition, we had laid in a store of about  twenty bottles of
, fruit honey, in this case, made of apples.
     We had struck a bargain with one  of  the workteam leaders on the  farm
that we would  pick the apples in an old orchard, giving half the harvest to
the farm and keeping the other half for ourselves.
     Because of the shortage of  labour at  the farm there was simply no one
to pick  the apples; everyone was busy with the main crops--tea, tobacco and
     Having  obtained  permission  to pick the  apples,  mother in  her turn
struck  a bargain with three soldiers in a pioneer battalion stationed close
by  that they would help us  to pick, crush and  boil the  
 out of the
apples and in exchange receive half of our half of the harvest.
     In a week the operation was brilliantly  completed. We  acquired twenty
bottles  of  thick  golden 
 (clear  profit), which provided us with  a
substitute for sugar for the whole of the next winter.
     Thus, having given everyone a splendid lesson in commercial enterprise,
we left  the collective farm and Crooked  Arm's  voice faded  away  into the
     Many years  later, during a  hunting trip I again found myself  in that
     While waiting for a  passing lorry to give me a  lift,  I stood outside
the management office in the shade of the  same old mulberry tree. It was  a
hot August day. I looked at the deserted school building, at the school yard
covered with  succulent grass,  grass of oblivion for  me, at the eucalyptus
trees that we had  once planted,  at the old gymnastics bar which we used to
make a dash for every break between lessons, and with a traditional sense of
sorrow I breathed the fragrance of years gone by.
     Occasional passers-by greeted me  as everyone does in  the country, but
none  of them recognised  me,  nor  I  them. A girl  came out of  the office
carrying two  water bottles, lazily let the bucket down the well and  filled
it. Slowly she wound the bucket up again and started filling both bottles at
once, splashing  water  over them as though taking  a  delight in the sudden
abundance of cool. Then she tipped out the rest of  the  water on the  grass
and walked lazily back to the office, carrying the wet bottles.
     When  she mounted the  steps and went in through  the door I heard  the
wave of voices rise to meet  her, and suddenly subside as the door closed. A
feeling came over me that this had all happened before.
     A lad wearing a jacket and with one leg of his trousers rolled up, rode
past  me on  a rustily squeaking  bicycle, then turned  round, his  thoughts
still riveted on something else, and rode up to me to ask for a light.
     He had two large loaves of  bread  tied  to his carrier. I  gave him  a
light and asked him if he knew Yashka, the grandson of Crooked Arm.
     "Of course, I  do," he  replied. "Yashka the  postman.  Just wait here.
He'll soon be coming along on his motorbike."
     I started watching the road and quite soon I did hear the chugging of a
motor-cycle. I recognised  Yashka  only because I was expecting him.  On his
lightweight mount he looked like Gulliver on a children's bicycle.
     "Yashka!" I shouted. He looked in my direction and the motor-cycle came
to a startled halt,  then he seemed to press it down into the earth and  the
engine gave up altogether.
     Yashka  wheeled the bike out from under  him. We walked  away from  the
road and in about fifteen minutes were lying in dense fern thickets.
     A big, burly fellow, with  a  lazy smile on his face, he lay beside me,
still very much  like the Yashka who  used to  sit behind his grandfather on
horseback and gaze  absent-mindedly  around him. Until a  short  while  ago,
apparently, he had been one of the farm's team-leaders but he had slipped up
somewhere and had now  been given  the job of postman.  He told me this with
the same lazy smile.  Even at school it  had been obvious  that ambition was
not one of his weaknesses.
     His grandfather,  it  seems,  had  expended the  whole supply of family
frenzy himself,  so that there  just  was nothing  left  for Yashka to  work
himself into a  frenzy  with. What difference did it make  whether  he was a
team-leader or a postman, a postman or  a team-leader?  His  voice, however,
seemed as deep and powerful as his grandfather's, but  without those choking
high notes. I asked him, of course, about his grandfather.
     "You mean to say you never heard?" Yashka asked in surprise, and stared
at me with his big round eyes.
     "Heard what?" I asked.
     "But everyone knows about that affair. Where have you been?"
     "In Moscow," I said.
     "Ah,  so  it  hasn't got  to  Moscow,"  Yashka  drawled, expressing his
respect  for the distance between Abkhazia and Moscow; if a story like  that
had not reached Moscow yet, it really must be a very long way.
     Yashka raked in some  more  fern and packed  it under him, settled  his
head  more  comfortably  on  his  postman's  bag   and  told  me  about  his
indefatigable grandfather's  last adventure. I  heard  the  story later from
several other people, but the first person to tell me was Yashka.
     I was still marvelling at this, the final mighty  splash of Old Crooked
Arm's imagination, when all of a sudden...
     "Zhuzhuna! Zhuzhuna!"  Yashka  called  out without  so much  as a pause
after his story, and not even raising his head from the ground.
     "What's the matter?" a girl's voice responded from somewhere.  I raised
myself  on my elbow  and looked round. Beyond the  fern thickets there was a
small beech  grove. Through the trees I made out a fence and, beyond that, a
field of maize. The voice had come from there.
     "There's a letter for you, Zhuzhuna!  A  letter!" Yashka called  again,
and winked at me.
     "Are you making it up?" I whispered.
     Yashka nodded joyfully and listened. The hushed grasshoppers cautiously
began buzzing to each other again.
     "Humbug!" the girl's voice rang out  at last,  and  I sensed  that  the
postman's ruse had flushed the hind.
     "Hurry  up,  Zhuzhuna,  hurry,   or   I'll  be  gone!"   Yashka  called
delightedly, intoxicated either with  the  sound of his own voice or  by the
sound of the girl's name.
     I realised  it was time for  me  to go and began to say  goodbye. Still
listening for a reply, Yashka urged me to stay the night but I refused; both
because I was  in  a hurry and because, if I  did so,  I would offend my own
folk,  whom  I had not been to see.  I knew that if I stayed the night there
would be no hunting  trip for me, because  it would take me another two days
to recover.
     As  I made  my  way  up the path to the  road I again heard  the girl's
voice; now it sounded more distinct.
     "Tell me who it's from--then I'll come!" she was calling invitingly.
     "Come, and then I'll tell you, Zhuzhuna, Zhuzhuna!" floated back on the
hot August air  for the last time, and with a vague sense  of melancholy or,
to  put it more  plainly,  envy,  I  stepped  out into the  deserted village
     Well, anyway,  I  thought, Old  Crooked Arm's traditions  are not dying
out. Half an hour  later I left the village  and have not been there  since;
but  I still hope to go and pay our folk a visit, if only to find out  where
Yashka's shouts got him with his Zhuzhuna.
     I will tell Crooked Arm's last adventure as I now have it in my head.
     Crooked Arm had  lived to see the  end of the war and the return of his
son and had gone on living splendidly until quite recently. But a year or so
ago, the time had come for him to die, and this time it was the real thing.
     That day  he  was,  as  usual,  lying  on the  veranda of his house and
watching  his  horse  grazing  in the yard  when  Mustafa rode  up.  Mustafa
dismounted and walked up the steps on to the  veranda. A chair  was  brought
out  for  him  and he  sat down beside Crooked Arm. As usual,  they recalled
times gone by. Crooked  Arm would lapse for an instant into forgetfulness or
doze, but as  soon as he  awoke he would always resume from exactly where he
had left off.
     "So you're  really leaving us?" Mustafa  asked, with a  sharp glance at
his friend and rival.
     "Yes, I am," Crooked Arm replied.  "I'll  soon  be  bathing  the  other
world's horses in the other world's rivers."
     "We'll  all be there one day," Mustafa  sighed politely.  "But I didn't
think you'd be the first."
     "There were other  times when  you didn't think I'd be  first,  at  the
races,"  Crooked  Arm said so  clearly that  the relatives  waiting  at  his
bedside all heard  him and even had a little  laugh, although they concealed
it with their hands, because it  was  not quite appropriate to  laugh in the
presence of a dying man, even if that man happened to be Crooked Arm.
     Mustafa felt slighted,  but it  would  have  been  impolite  to  argue,
because  the man was dying. And yet, it was somehow particularly humiliating
for a man who was alive and well to be laughed at by a dying man, because if
a dying man laughed at you, it meant you must be  in an even more disastrous
or pitiful state than he--and how much worse could that be!
     It  would, of  course, have been impolite  to  argue, but at least  one
could tell a story. So he told one.
     "As  you're  going  away  on  this  journey,  I  had  better  tell  you
something," Mustafa said, bending over Crooked Arm.
     "Tell  me then,  if you must,"  Crooked  Arm replied, not looking round
because  he was watching the yard, where his horse was grazing. In the  time
left to him his greatest interest was in watching his horse.
     "Don't be angry, Crooked  Arm, but it  was I  who rang  up the farm and
told   them   you  had  died,"  Mustafa  said,  as  though   sorrowing  that
circumstances  did not permit him now, as then, to launch that false  rumour
again, and wishing it to  be understood  that  he regretted  this as  a true
friend should.
     "How could you, when they spoke Russian?" Crooked Arm asked in surprise
and looked at him.
     Mustafa knew  no Russian and, in spite of his great managerial talents,
was so illiterate that he had been obliged to invent his own alphabet or, at
least, introduce for his own use certain quaint hieroglyphs with the help of
which he kept a note of all the people  who were in  debt to him, and also a
set  of  accounts  based  on  complex,  multi-stage  barter  operations. So,
naturally,  Crooked Arm  was  surprised  to hear  of  his  speaking  on  the
telephone, particularly in Russian.
     "Through my  nephew  in  town.  I  was  standing  beside him,"  Mustafa
explained. "As  they had cured you I decided to have a joke, and besides who
would  have  sent  a lorry for  you but for that," he added,  recalling  the
difficulties of those far-off days.
     They say Crooked Arm  closed his eyes and for a  long  time was silent.
Then he slowly opened them again and said without looking at Mustafa:
     "Now I see you are a better horseman than I am."
     "It looks  like it,"  Mustafa admitted  modestly and  glanced round  at
those who were attending the dying man.
     But at this  point the close relatives gave way to tears because it was
the first  time in his  life that Crooked Arm had ever  acknowledged himself
beaten, and this was more like death than death itself that was so near.
     Crooked Arm silenced them and nodded in the direction of the horses.
     "Give them some water. They're thirsty."
     One  of the girls took two pails and went for water. She came back with
the  pails full of clear spring water and placed them  in the  middle of the
yard. Crooked Arm's horse went up to one of  the  pails and began to  drink,
and  Mustafa's horse  turned its  head and  pulled at  the  halter. The girl
untethered the horse and, holding the bridle,  stood by  while it drank. The
horses reached down with their long necks, drinking quietly, and Crooked Arm
watched  them  with pleasure, and  his  Adam's apple, they say, moved up and
down as though he himself were drinking.
     "Mustafa," he said at length, turning to  his friend, "now I admit that
you knew more about horses  than I did, but you know that I loved horses and
had some understanding of them."
     "But,  of course! Who doesn't know that!" Mustafa exclaimed generously,
and again turned round to look at everyone who was on the veranda.
     "In a few days  I shall die," Crooked Arm continued.  "My  coffin  will
stand  where those empty pails are standing now. When the weeping is over, I
want you to do something for me."
     "What is it?"  Mustafa  asked, and with  a  hiss at the members  of the
family, because they had again tried to sob, bent over his friend. It looked
as if Crooked Arm was expressing his last will.
     "I want you to take your horse  and jump three times  over  my  coffin.
Before they  put the lid  down I want to feel the smell of a horse  over me.
Will you do that?"
     "I will, if our customs see in this no sin, " Mustafa promised.
     "I  don't think they  do," Crooked  Arm said  a little more slowly  and
closed his eyes--either he had fallen asleep  or was  just  musing.  Mustafa
rose and walked quietly down from the veranda. He rode away, considering the
last will of the dying man.
     That evening Mustafa gathered the elders of the village, gave  them all
plenty to eat and drink and told them of  Crooked  Arm's request. The elders
discussed the matter and reached a decision.
     "You'd better jump,  if that's his dying wish, because you're  the best
horseman now."
     "He admitted that himself," Mustafa interpolated.
     "There's no  sin in it because a horse doesn't  eat meat and its breath
is clean," they concluded.
     Crooked Arm  heard  of the elders' decision the same  night and so they
say, was well pleased. Two days later he died.
     Once  again,  as during the war, the messengers of woe were sent out to
the  neighbouring  villages.  Some  received  the  news  of  his  death with
suspicion, and the relative who had brought the calf in those days said that
it would do no harm to jab him with the sharp end of a crook to make sure he
really was dead and not just shamming.
     "There's  no need to jab him," the  messenger of woe replied patiently,
"because  horseman Mustafa is  going to jump  over  him.  That was his dying
     "Then I'll go,"  the relative said with relief.  "Crooked Arm  wouldn't
let anyone jump over him while he was still alive."
     They say  there  were  even  more people at the funeral this  time than
before, when no one had any doubt  that Crooked  Arm was dead. Many of them,
of  course,  were  attracted  by  the   promised  spectacle  of   a  funeral
steeplechase. They all knew  of the  great rivalry  between the two friends,
and  it was said  that even though Crooked Arm was dead he  wouldn't let the
matter rest there.
     Afterwards some people claimed to have seen Mustafa practising  in  his
yard with  a trough  propped  on chairs. But  Mustafa denied  with  a frenzy
worthy of Crooked Arm himself that he had been jumping over any such trough.
He said  his horse could easily leap a  gate  if necessary  and  Crooked Arm
wouldn't be able to reach him even if he tried to do so with his famous arm.
     And so, on the fourth day after the old man's death, when  everyone had
finished taking final leave  of their relative and fellow  villager, Mustafa
stationed himself by the coffin awaiting  his finest hour, sorrowful and  at
the same time impatient.
     When  the  time  came he delivered a  short  speech, full  of a  solemn
dignity. He recounted the heroic life of Shchaaban Larba, otherwise known as
Crooked Arm, from one horse to the next,  right up to his  dying  wish. As a
brief  reminder  to the young, Mustafa  mentioned  the  feat of  the  stolen
stallion and  how Crooked Arm had not been afraid  to  leap  down the cliff,
giving it  to be understood  in passing that if he had  yielded to  fear  it
would  have been a great  deal worse for him. He said  that he recalled  the
incident not in order to detract from Crooked Arm's exploit but to offer the
young folk yet another proof of the advantage of bold decisions.
     And then, in  accordance with the dead man's wish, and his own wish, he
addressed the assembled elders in a thunderous voice and again asked them if
it were not wicked to jump over a coffin.
     "There is no sin  in that," the  elders replied. "A horse eats no meat,
so its breath is clean."
     After that Mustafa  walked  to  the  tethering post, untied  his horse,
leapt  into the saddle, flourished  his whip and charged  along the corridor
formed by the crowd towards the coffin.
     While he had been walking  to  the tethering post the space beyond  the
coffin had been cleared  and the people moved back so that the horse  should
not ride  anyone down. Someone  had suggested covering the dead man with the
tent cape to protect  him  from  any earth  that might be scattered from the
horse's hooves. But one of the elders had said there would be no sin in that
either because he was going to lie in the earth anyway.
     Well,  Mustafa's horse charged  up  to the coffin and  suddenly stopped
dead. Mustafa shouted and lashed it on both flanks with his  whip. The horse
twisted its head round and bared its teeth, but stubbornly refused to jump.
     Mustafa swung  it  round,  galloped back,  dismounted, for  some reason
tested the saddle girths, and once again  swooped on the coffin like a hawk.
But again the horse balked and, no matter how Mustafa whipped it, refused to
jump, although it did rear.
     There was about  a  minute of tense silence  in which only the crack of
the whip and Mustafa's laboured breathing could be heard.
     And then one of the elders said:
     "It strikes me the horse won't jump over a dead man."
     "That's right," recalled one of the others. "A  good dog won't bite his
master's hand and a good horse won't jump over a dead man."
     "Down you get,  Mustafa," somebody shouted. "Crooked  Arm has proved to
you that he knew more about horses than you."
     Mustafa turned his horse and, parting the crowd as he went, rode out of
the  yard.  And  then  a tremendous  burst  of  laughter went  up  among the
mourners, such as one would be unlikely to hear even at a wedding, let alone
a funeral.
     The laughter was so loud and long that when the chairman of the village
Soviet heard it in his office he dropped his rubber stamp and exclaimed:
     "Upon my word, I believe Crooked Arm has jumped out of his grave at the
last moment!"
     It was a merry funeral. The  next day Crooked Arm's posthumous joke was
being  told and  retold in  nearly every corner of Abkhazia. In the  evening
Mustafa  was somehow  persuaded to attend the  funeral supper, for though it
was no sin to jump over a dead man it was considered a sin to bear  a grudge
against the dead.
     When an old  man  dies  in our  country the funeral  feast is  a lively
affair. Men drink wine and  tell each  other funny stories.  Custom  forbids
only drinking to excess and the singing of songs.  Someone may inadvertently
strike  up a drinking song,  but  he  is  soon  stopped  and  falls into  an
embarrassed silence.
     It  seems  to  me  that when  an  old  man  dies  there  is  place  for
merry-making and ritual  splendour at his funeral feast. A man has completed
life's journey and, if he  dies in old age,  having lived his span, it means
there is cause for the living to celebrate his victory over fate.
     And ritual splendour, if it is not taken to the absurd,  did not spring
from nowhere.  It says to  us: something  tremendous has happened--a man has
died.  And  if he was a good  man, there will be many who  wish  to mark and
remember the event. And who deserves to be remembered of men, if not Crooked
Arm,  who all his  life enriched the earth with labour and merriment, and in
his last ten years, it might be said, actually tended his own grave and made
it bear fruit and gathered from it quite a good crop of peaches.
     You must agree that not everyone manages to pick a crop of peaches from
his own grave; many may  try but they  lack the  imagination and daring that
Old Crooked Arm possessed.
     And may the earth be  soft as  swan's down for him, as indeed it should
be,  considering that it was a good  dry spot they chose for  him, a fact he
was very fond of mentioning while he lived.

     The man who wants to touch you for a loan sends no telegram in advance.
Everything happens suddenly.
     He  begins  by  discussing certain  cultural  matters of  wide  general
interest, possibly  even outer space, listens to all you have to  say on the
subject with the greatest attention  and, when a warm human relationship has
developed between you in  this abstract sphere, he  takes advantage  of  the
first pause  in  the conversation  to  splash  down  gently  from the cosmic
heights, and say:
     "Incidentally, you couldn't lend me a  tenner  for  a fortnight,  could
     Such  a  swift change of subject cripples the  imagination  and  always
leaves me at a loss. What I really cannot  understand is why this  should be
incidental. But that is the way of borrowers. They  can turn any incident to
their advantage.
     For the first few precious  seconds I am confused. And confusion spells
disaster.  The mere  fact of not  answering promptly  indicates that  I have
money, and once that is established, it is the hardest thing in the world to
prove that  you  need  that money yourself. The only thing to do is  to fork
     Of course, there are some odd characters who pay back what they borrow.
Actually they do a  lot  of harm. If  they didn't  exist, the whole tribe of
chronic defaulters  would have  died out long ago. But, as  things  are,  it
continues to prosper, profiting by the moral credit of these eccentrics.
     I did once refuse an obvious cadger. But I soon repented.
     We met in a  cafe. I might never have noticed  him  but for a revolting
male  habit I have  of observing other people's tables. Our eyes happened to
meet and I had  to say hullo. It had seemed to me that he was firmly  enough
established at his  own  table. But he  relinquished it with unexpected ease
and, smiling joyfully, headed in my direction.
     "Hullo, chum! How's the old country?" he bellowed from a distance.
     I put on a stern expression but it was too  late. There are some people
you need only  ask for  a light and they'll be addressing you  as "chum" and
talking about "the old country" for the rest of your life.
     I decided to  allow no familiarity whatever  and certainly none of  his
hail-fellow-well-met stuff. He fairly soon exhausted his wretched assortment
of  softening-up  devices  and  in an  offhand  manner  popped  the  fateful
     "I'm  out of  cash," I said  with a sigh,  and  made  a  rather  feeble
pretence of slapping my  pockets, actually tapping my purse in doing so. The
would-be borrower looked  de pressed.  I rejoiced  at having  shown firmness
and, in a sudden desire  to palliate  my refusal,  found myself  saying, "Of
course, if you are very badly in need, I could borrow some from a friend."
     "That's fine,"  he  perked  up  immediately. "Why don't you give him  a
ring? I don't mind waiting."
     He sat  down at  my  table. Events were  moving  in direction I had not
     "He lives a  long way from here," I said, trying to damp his unexpected
enthusiasm and restore the original state of depression.
     "That's all right," he replied airily, refusing to have his  enthusiasm
damped or  to succumb to  his former dispiritedness. "I'll  have  a  cup  of
coffee while  I'm  waiting." And he  took a cigarette from  the packet I had
left lying on the table, as though surrendering himself entirely to my care.
     "But I've  just  ordered  a meal," I  said, unconsciously switching  to
     "You'll be there and back before they serve you. And if the worst comes
to the worst, I can eat it and you'll order another one."
     In short, the battle was  lost. It's no use trying to fight  nature. If
you haven't the gift for impromptu Eying, it's better not to try.
     I had to leave that warm cafe and go out into the  slushy street. There
wasn't really anyone to ring up but I went round the corner and slipped into
a telephone booth.
     I spent about fifteen minutes in that booth. First  I took the required
sum of money  out of my purse and put it  in one pocket, then I took out the
cost of the meal and put that in another  pocket. When  I restored the purse
to its usual place, it was nearly empty.
     After  this  I  returned slowly  to  the  cafe,  trying  to  read  some
newspapers  that were  on display in the street. But nothing I read made any
sense because I was afraid  of mixing up my pockets and bringing  down on my
own head  this whole edifice of lies, whose stability always proves to be an
illusion in the long run.
     By the time  I  got back to the cafe he  had finished off my dinner and
was about to start on my coffee. I gave him the  money and he put it  in his
pocket without counting it. I realised at once that its return journey to my
pocket would be hard and long. It was.
     "I've  ordered  you  some  coffee,"  he  said  considerately.  "They're
bringing it now."
     There was nothing for me to do but drink the coffee because my appetite
had quite disappeared. The waitress brought the coffee and the bill with it.
When I had paid for my  dinner,  which he had eaten,  he gave her a generous
tip, as if to make  up  for my churlishness  while  he himself  presented an
image of bored but noble opulence.
     Yes,  all borrowers are like that. They usher you into a taxi, allowing
you to enter first and exit last, so as not to get in your way while you are
     Shakespeare  said  that loan  oft  loses  both  itself  and  friend. My
experience was  the  opposite, or rather,  I certainly lost my money  but  I
gained a dubious kind of friend.
     One day I told him that everyone is in Great Debt to society. He agreed
with me. Then I added cautiously that  the concept of Great  Debt is in fact
made up of a multitude  of small debts, which we are obliged to honour, even
if at  times they may appear onerous. But with this he  would not  agree. He
observed that  the concept  of  Great Debt is not a multitude of small debts
but, on  the contrary, a Great Debt  with capital letters, which  one cannot
fritter away  without running the risk  of  becoming a vulgariser.  What was
more,  he detected in  my  understanding of Great Debt certain traces of the
theory of  small deeds, which  had  long since been condemned by progressive
Russian critics. I decided that the  cost  of  reducing  this fortress would
exceed any tribute  I might exact when  it was conquered,  and  left  him in
     But now here is a remarkable fact. It is easier to refuse a loan to the
scrupulously honest than to people with what I would call a mini-conscience.
When  we refuse the former we comfort ourselves  with  the  thought that our
refusal is not motivated by the fear of losing money.
     Life  is much more difficult  with  habitual spongers. When  we lend to
them we know  that we risk losing our  money, and they know that we know the
risk  we are taking.  This gives rise to a  delicate situation.  Our refusal
appears to undermine the man's reputation. We insult him  by treating him as
a potential extortioner.
     About one man who borrowed off me I have a  longer tale to tell. I will
not conceal the fact that besides the purely abstract aim of research I want
to use this story to make  good some  of my philanthropic losses and also to
scare some other borrowers with the  possibility of exposure in print. There
are  not really so many of them. Out  of a  population of over  two  hundred
million,  only about seven or eight altogether.  Only  a tiny percentage, in
fact. And  yet  how  pleasant  to  know  that  you  have  awakened someone's
conscience while at  the same  time recovering your long-lost money.  If you
ask me, there's  nothing  more timely than  an unexpectedly repaid debt, and
nothing more unexpected than a debt repaid  on time. That's not such  a  bad
phrase, is it? On the  whole,  I find that when we  start talking  about our
losses, our voices acquire a note of genuine inspiration.
     It all began  when I received at  a certain place quite a large  sum of
money.  I  won't say what place it was because you wouldn't be able  to  get
anything there in any case.
     Succumbing to the general craze,  I  decided to acquire my own means of
transport. I rejected the idea of a car at once. For one thing,  you have to
have a  licence. Well, of course, some  people buy  licences.  But  that,  I
think, is just silly. First you buy a car, then a licence,  and one day  you
have an accident and lose both the car and the licence, if you have the luck
to get off so lightly. Besides, I had only about a fifth of the money needed
to buy a car.
     For all of these reasons I gave up  the idea of owning a car. From  the
four-wheeled vehicle of my imagination I  removed one wheel and  the  result
was a comfortable three-wheeled motor-cycle and sidecar.
     After mature reflection,  however,  I  decided that  a  motor-cycle and
sidecar would not suit me either, because of its incurable lack of symmetry.
I knew that this lopsidedness would irritate me and that in the end I should
have to dispose of the sidecar with the aid of a roadside post.
     Eventually I plumped for a bicycle and bought  one. I found it had  all
kinds of advantages.  A bicycle  is the lightest, the quietest  and the most
reliable means  of transport.  What  was more, I  would  be saving on petrol
because  its  motive power  would be  supplied by my own energy. I  would be
entirely self-supporting, so to speak.
     For about a month I rode about on my bicycle and  was pleased  as Punch
with it. But one day when I was cycling along at full speed,  a bus suddenly
came out of a turning ahead of me. Half-dead with fear, I swerved from under
its fire-breathing radiator, rode up on to the pavement and from there, with
no reduction of speed, crashed into a watchmaker's shop.
     "What's happened?!" shouted one of the watchmakers, jumping to his feet
and dropping a Yerevan alarm clock, which rolled about  the floor emitting a
noise like an oriental tambourine.
     "I shall claim repairs under the guarantee," I said in a calm voice, as
I came to a sudden stop against the cash desk.
     "He's a nut," the girl at  the desk was the  first to offer a solution,
and slammed the pay window shut in a hurry.
     I  came  to  my senses  and,  so  as  not  to  dispel  this  favourable
impression, silently wheeled my bicycle out of  the shop.  Out of the corner
of my eye I noticed that one of the watchmakers had let the magnifying glass
drop out of his eye. For some reason it occurred to me that the watchmaker's
magnifying glass and  the aristocrat's monocle have a strange similarity  of
purpose. A watchmaker  uses his glass  to  magnify tiny mechanisms while the
man who wears  a  monocle probably  thinks he  is  doing the same thing with
     On the way home I was struck  by  the thought that while  walking along
beside a bicycle it is easier and safer to surrender oneself to one's dreams
than while mounted on the saddle, and so I decided not to use my bicycle any
more. After all, for a cyclist to compete with a bus is like a featherweight
going into the ring with a heavyweight champion.
     When I got  home, I put my bicycle into the shed  and forgot  all about
     About a month later  a distant relative  of  mine paid  us a  visit and
reminded me of it. In general, if a distant  relative you haven't seen for a
long time pays you a visit, you may expect no good to  come of it. You  have
probably  spent years of  hard work  establishing yourself while he has been
gallivanting about God knows where. And then, when you have made your way in
life and even acquired a  bicycle of your own,  he  turns up bold  as brass,
grins at  you with a whole mouthful of teeth and wants  to  start up a great
family fellowship.
     Imagine  a stocky, thick-set man, in a fireproof leather jacket, with a
rough powerful handshake. He  has a job  in town at a filling station and he
lives in a village ten kilometres out of town. He is still a peasant and yet
already a worker. He embodies in one person both the victorious classes.
     And here in front of me stands this Vanechka Mamba, and such a store of
vital energy bursts from every fold in his leather jacket, radiates from his
lustrous eyes, from his firm, strong teeth, close-set as  the bullet pouches
down the front  of  a  Circassian coat, that  it seems he could quite easily
drink  a  beer mug full of  petrol and smoke a cigarette afterwards  without
doing himself any harm at all.
     "Hullo there," he says, and grips my hand. The real rugged handshake of
a man of great will power.
     "Hullo," I say, "if  it isn't Vanechka!  Where have you  been  all this
     "I hear you want to sell a bike. I want to buy it."
     I don't know  what gave  him the  idea I  wanted to sell my bicycle.  I
never suspected he knew of its existence. But Vanechka Mamba is one of those
people who  know more about you than you know about yourself. Still, why not
sell it? I thought. It's a very good chance.
     "Yes, it's up for sale," I said.
     "How much?"
     "Have a look at it first."
     "I've had a look," he said, and grinned. "I noticed the shed was open."
     The bike had cost about eight hundred in old money. I dropped a hundred
for wear and tear.
     "Seven hundred."
     "No go."
     "How much then?"
     "Three hundred."
     Now we're going to strike a bargain, I thought. One of us  will move up
and the other will move down. At some point our interests must coincide.
     "All right," I said, "six hundred."
     "You're talking  through  your  hat," he said. "Three  hundred  roubles
don't grow on trees."
     "But a bicycle does, of course?"
     "Who rides a bicycle nowadays? Only the village postman."
     "Why are you buying it then?"
     "I have  a long  way to go to  work. I just want it temporarily, till I
buy a car."
     "Going to buy a car and you haggle over the price of a bicycle."
     "That's one reason why I'll be able to buy the car."
     What  was the use of arguing? That was Vanechka Mamba all over, quite a
well-known character in our town, particularly among drivers.
     "How much will you give me for it then?" I asked.
     "What I said. You won't take it to market, will you?"
     "No, I won't."
     "And no second-hand shop would accept it either."
     "All right, then," I said, "you can have it for four hundred, since you
seem to know all about it."
     "All right,"  said Vanechka, "I'll take it for three fifty, to make  it
fair all round. After all, we're related."
     "To  hell with you," I said. "Take it  for three fifty. But how did you
know I was selling my bicycle?"
     "I saw the way you were riding it. That one won't be riding for long, I
said to myself. Either he'll smash himself up or he'll sell it."
     Vanechka cast a thrifty eye round the room and gave  another smile with
those bullet teeth of his.
     "Got anything else to sell?"
     "No," I said. "You've done well enough as it is."
     We went out on to the porch. I stood on the steps and he went down into
the yard and wheeled the bicycle out of the shed.
     "Where's the pump?"
     "Some kids pinched it."
     "And you had  the nerve  to  bargain!" Vanechka got on the bicycle  and
rode round  the yard, lecturing me.  "You'd better have  a lock  put on that
shed. I'll bring you a good padlock."
     "Never mind the lock," I said. "You give me the money."
     "Next Sunday I'll  sell my  pears  and  bring  it  over." And  he  rode
straight out of the yard without even getting off the bicycle.
     I didn't like the look of that. But what could you do? After all he was
my relative,  though a very distant one. I've said it before and I'll say it
again: one close friend is better than a  dozen distant relatives. But  this
is not widely understood, particularly in our part of the world.
     I met him in the street a week later.
     "Well, have you sold your pears?"
     "Yes,  but you know how it is. The  harvest  was so  good this  year it
would have been better to keep them for feeding the pigs."
     "Didn't you make anything on them?"
     "About enough to dress my  womenfolk. You know yourself  I've  got five
daughters. And my wife's pregnant again. They're ruining me, the bitches."
     "Why torture your wife like this?" I said. "Give it a rest."
     "I  need a  boy," he said. "As for the money, I won't let you down. The
grapes will be ripe soon, then the persimmon, and after that the tangerines.
I'll make ends meet somehow."
     "Well, get on with it," I said.
     And  so we parted. You have to be considerate with  people who owe  you
money. You have to pamper them. Sometimes you even have  to  spread a rumour
about how honest and reliable they are.
     The grape season  came and went, then the persimmon and after that  the
tangerines, but Vanechka still did not appear.
     Quite  by chance I heard  that his wife had again given birth to a girl
and I decided to remind him  of my existence  by  means  of a congratulatory
letter.  You  know the sort of  thing. Congratulations on your new daughter.
Come and see me some time.  I'm  still living  in the same place. We'll  sit
together over a bottle of wine and have a chat.
     The reply  came a week later.  What  terrible handwriting you have,  it
said.  My  eldest  daughter  could  hardly  make  it  out.  Thanks  for  the
congratulations. My wife has given me  another daughter. I'm  properly mixed
up now with  the names.  Now they have gone and installed electricity in our
village.  That means another thing to be paid for. But I have not  forgotten
my debt. Don't worry, Vanechka Mamba will get out of it somehow. And at  the
end of the letter  he wanted to know whether  I had bought a padlock yet for
the shed. If I hadn't he would bring me one.
     Well, I  thought, that's goodbye  to my money. I did  not see him again
till the following summer. By that time I had almost forgotten the debt.
     I happened to be walking round the market  one day  when someone called
out to  me. I looked round and there was  Vanechka Mamba,  standing behind a
mountain  of watermelons. He had  one  great  chunk  in  his mouth  and  was
crunching it with his gleaming teeth.
     "Mamba water-melons!" he  was shouting. "Come and get 'em  before I eat
the lot myself!"
     A woman asked me what kind of water-melon this was--the Mamba.
     "Don't  you know  Mamba water-melons?"  Vanechka exclaimed with a laugh
and, spearing a succulent slice with  his knife, pushed it under the woman's
     "I don't  want  to try it. I  was  just  asking," the  woman protested,
turning away in embarrassment.
     "I don't want you to buy it. All I'm asking is for you to taste a Mamba
water-melon!" Vanechka almost sobbed.
     In the end the woman had a taste and, once having had a taste, felt she
had better buy  one. Every water-melon had a letter "M" carved on it, like a
trade mark.
     "What are these tagged atoms?" I said.
     "An old chap and me, we brought these water-melons in from  the village
together. So I marked mine to make sure they didn't get mixed up."
     He burst  out laughing and,  before  I  could  remind him of  his debt,
pushed into my  hands  a weighty water-melon.  I  tried  to refuse,  but  he
admonished me sternly:
     "We're relatives, aren't we? They're  straight from our allotment. Home
grown! Not from a shop!"
     I  had to take it. It's rather awkward to remind someone of a debt when
you are  holding  a water-melon he has just given you, so I  let it pass. To
hell with it,  I thought, at least  I've got a water-melon in exchange for a
     Later  I heard that  he had swindled that old man properly.  While they
were riding to town  perched on their water melons in the back of the lorry,
the old chap had dozed off and Vanechka with his pirate's knife  had  marked
about twenty of the old man's melons with his  own initial. So that's what a
Mamba water-melon is!
     Six months later I happened to call at a filling station with  a friend
of mine. My friend  wanted  some petrol for his  car. And there was Vanechka
busy  hosing  down a large  Volga car,  his face creased in an expression of
sullen solicitude.
     "Hullo, Vanechka," I said. "What are you now--a car washer?"
     "Ah, hullo there," he said. He turned off his hose and came over to me.
"Do you mean to say you haven't heard?"
     "What should I have heard?"
     "I've bought a Volga. This is my Volga."
     "Good for you," I said. "You're a man of your word."
     "And he  calls  himself a  relative," Vanechka complained to my friend.
"When he bought a bicycle I got to know about it at once. And yet when I buy
a Volga he doesn't know a thing. It isn't fair, is it?"
     "You'd better not mention that bicycle," I said.
     "Why not?" he said. "I'll pay you for it, though it  was  a  rotten old
bike, with  its pump  missing  too. But  just  at  the  moment I've  started
building  a house and I'm up  to my neck in  debt.  As soon as I've finished
building I'll pay up all round."
     "I suppose you use it to carry fruit?" I said.
     "I  should say  I do. And it's ruining  me! The  traffic inspectors are
crazy these days. Either they won't take a bribe at all or else they want so
much it's not worth the journey."
     When  we had driven  away, my friend said, "That Vanechka  of yours  is
working a fiddle on petrol. He'll get caught."
     "Let him," I said, although I was sure he would not be caught.
     Some time later I met a mutual acquaintance.
     "Have you heard? Vanechka Mamba's been  taken to hospital in a very bad
     "What happened?" I said. "Did the filling station blow up?"
     "No," he said.  "He fell into a lime pit.  You knew he  was building  a
house, didn't you?"
     "Never mind," I said. "Vanechka will get out of it somehow."
     "No, he won't. He's a goner."
     Vanechka was in hospital for  about a month. I was going to  visit  him
but felt awkward about it  somehow. He might think I had come for my  money.
Then I heard he was up and about again. He had  wriggled out of  yet another
tight  corner. I had been quite sure he would.  He had far too many dealings
to occupy him in this world,  and some  of them  were the kind  you couldn't
delegate to anyone else. No one else could have coped.
     A  year  passed.  One  day  I received an invitation  to  the  country.
Vanechka had a double occasion to celebrate--his house-warming and the birth
of a son.
     I've seen enough of these  celebrations. There are usually two or three
hundred guests and they  don't sit down to table till  about  midnight. What
with all the preparations and waiting for the bosses to arrive. But the main
thing  is the presents. They have a village spokesman standing in the middle
of the yard and a girl sitting at a table beside him, licking her pencil and
writing  down in an  exercise book  exactly  who  brings  what. Some of  the
presents are in cash, but most of them are in kind.
     "A vase, lovely as the  moon," bawls  the spokesman,  holding  it  high
above  his head and  displaying it to all  the guests. "As pure and clear as
the conscience of our dear guest," he adds inventively.
     "A Russian  eiderdown,"  he  shouts, displaying the  eiderdown  with  a
flourish. "Big enough to cover a regiment," he comments brazenly, though the
eiderdown is of quite ordinary size.
     The people from  the River Bzyb  are  outstanding in this respect. They
can't open their mouths without exaggerating. While the master of ceremonies
holds forth,  the guest stands in front of him, his  head  bowed in  comical
modesty. Actually he is keeping an eye on the girl, to make sure  she writes
down his first and  second names correctly.  He then joins the onlookers and
the master of ceremonies starts singing the praises of the next gift.
     "A tablecloth fit for royalty," shouts this glib-tongued individual and
whirls the tablecloth  into  the air, as some rustic  demon  might whirl his
cloak. In a word, it has to be  seen  to be believed. Of course, if you come
without a present you won't be turned away, but a certain climate of opinion
is created. I  didn't go. But I did send him a letter of congratulation, not
hinting at anything.
     One day I  was standing in  the station  square  of one of  our smaller
towns  and  wondering how best to  get home. Should  I take the train or try
     I  heard  someone call my name, and there was Vanechka, poking his head
out of his Volga.
     "How did you get here?"
     "Business. What about you?"
     "Been on a trip to Sochi. Get in and I'll give you a lift."
     I got in beside him  and we started off. The air in  the car was  heavy
with the persistent subtropical scent of illegally transported  fruit. I had
not  seen  Vanechka  since his spell in hospital. He had scarcely changed at
all, except that his face had lost a little of its colour, as though someone
had dried it out with blotting paper. But he was  still as cheerful as ever,
with those gleaming teeth of his.
     "I got your letter,"  he said. "We had a  grand binge.  Pity you didn't
     "How did you manage to fall into that lime pit?"
     "Oh, that? I'd rather not think about it. Nearly took off for the other
world then. You can  consider I've  been there already. Still, it was thanks
to that pit I got me a son.
     "How so?"
     "I reckon I didn't have enough lime in my body for a boy."
     "You had plenty of lime all right."
     "No,  I mean  it.  Maybe  I've made a scientific  discovery.  Write  an
article about it in one of your magazines and we'll go halves on the  money.
But they wouldn't print your stuff."
     "Why not?" I asked guardedly.
     "Your handwriting's no good. They wouldn't be able to read it."
     "Why don't you stop ribbing me and tell me how you're getting on."
     "Well,  how shall  I put it," he drawled, and with one hand  flicked on
the  dashboard radio,  picked up  some jazz,  tuned  in and left it  playing
     "There's no  proper  order  anywhere,"  he  declared  suddenly. "That's
what's wrong."
     "What makes you so worried about order all of a sudden?"
     "I've just been taking some tangerines to Sochi. Four inspectors in two
hundred kilometres! Do you  call that order? And don't interrupt," he added,
though I had  no intention  of interrupting.  "Three of them accept and  the
fourth  refuses. Call that  order? Can't they come to some agreement between
them!  Either they accept or they don't, all of them. I can't  tell him I've
settled up with the other three, can I? That's dishonest, isn't it?"
     "Of course, it is," I said, and I thought to myself  what a funny thing
this  honesty  is. Everyone  cuts it down to  suit  his own  needs, but  the
amazing thing is that no one can do without it.
     "Now  look  here, Vanechka," I said. "You've got a  car,  you've got  a
house, you've got a son. Now give up this racket. What more do you want?"
     "Hives," he said. "I want some hives."
     "What kind of hives?"
     "Bee-hives. My  orchard's being sucked dry  by other people's bees. I'd
rather have some of my own. I want to give it a try."
     "Try it by all means. You seem to have tried everything."
     "Do you know of a good bee-keeper?"
     "No, I don't."
     We were silent for a  while. But Vanechka is not the man to keep quiet,
unless there's some hush money going.
     "What's this campaign they've started about houses?"
     "Why? Are they getting at you?"
     "You  know what a lot of envy there is about.  People keep complaining.
How did  he get this house,  this car.... The chairman  has had me up on the
mat already."
     "When a  commission or a delegation comes round, I told him,  you bring
them to my place, don't you? Here's a  well-to-do peasant, you  say. And now
you want to sell me down the river?"
     "What did he say to that?"
     "He said he had his own responsibilities to face...."
     We  never  finished  our   conversation.   Something  quite  unexpected
     We  had been travelling fast but, despite  the  bends  in  our mountain
roads, I felt I had nothing to worry about. Vanechka had done five years  as
a driver in the army and he had excellent road sense.  We were just entering
the town but he did  not reduce  speed. Suddenly a woman  ran out of  a  bus
queue opposite the station and bolted like a mad sheep  across the road. Too
late,  I thought and even as the thought crossed my mind  I heard the scream
of  brakes, the hiss of abraded rubber, the shouts of the crowd. The car hit
the woman, knocked her to one side and stopped.
     Some  people ran up to the woman,  picked her up and helped her off the
road. Her face was pale and wooden. But  all of a sudden she began to  shake
her fists and angrily push her helpers away.
     A lad ran  up to  the car,  glanced  inside and  bawled, "What  are you
waiting for, Vanechka? Step on it!"
     Vanechka backed  the car, drove round the  station square, swung out on
to  the  main road and  put  on  such  a  turn of speed  that  the  oncoming
headlights  flashed past us like meteors. We  kept  up this  dizzy speed for
about  ten minutes  and I was expecting at any  moment that we should depart
for a spot that Vanechka might perhaps wriggle out of but not I.
     "Are you crazy," I shouted. "Slow down!"
     I glanced round. A traffic inspector was chasing us on his motor-cycle.
Vanechka swung into a side street and we went bouncing along a cobbled road.
The  motor-cycle disappeared for  a  moment only to  reappear a  few seconds
later at the end  of the block.  Vanechka turned into a  dark little  alley,
drove along it and jammed on his brakes so suddenly that I bumped my head on
the door I had been clinging to. Two steps from the car yawned a freshly dug
hole with a  concrete pipe lying beside  it.  Vanechka tried to back out but
went into  a skid. The  roar  of the motor-cycle swelled  menacingly  in our
ears, like fate itself.
     A few seconds  later the inspector pulled up beside us. He switched off
his engine and came over with the springy tread of a lion-tamer.
     "Why were you exceeding the speed limit? Why didn't you stop at once?"
     "I didn't  hear your signal, old man." It transpired that the inspector
knew nothing of  what had happened  at the station. Nevertheless he was bent
on  getting  something  down  in  his  notebook  and  kept  asking  Vanechka
questions. Vanechka got out of the car. It was the first time I had seen him
in  such  an  abject  state. He begged and pleaded,  he  swore  by  all  his
ancestors,  he  named  mutual  acquaintances.  He  argued  that  he and  the
inspector were  really  both  part of  the same  system. Then I  noticed him
nodding significantly in my direction, obviously exaggerating the importance
of my person. He made it look almost as though he were driving me on special
instructions from the local government. I  noticed  myself assuming a rather
dignified air.
     In the end Vanechka talked the inspector  round. He escorted him to his
motor-cycle just as the local folk escort a  man  to his horse. I believe he
would have held his stirrup if there had been one on the motor-cycle.
     "Why, that  fellow's just a beggar!" Vanechka declared unexpectedly, as
soon  as the  traffic inspector  had ridder  away.  It  must have been a new
inspector, one he had not yet got to know.
     He  climbed into the  car and lit a cigarette. I decided that I had had
enough adventures for one day and got out.
     "Thanks," I said. "I haven't far to go now."
     "Please yourself," he said and started the engine. "But what I told you
about order was right."
     "What kind of order?" I asked, baffled.
     "They dug up this street, didn't they? Did they put up a sign? Did they
show where the diversion was? Do you call that order?"
     I spread my arms helplessly.
     I could not leave before he had driven clear, so I waited. Vanechka put
the car into reverse  and, while it backed slowly, with skidding tyres along
the street, I  watched his resolute face with its harsh conquistador fold in
the cheek clearly illuminated by the state electricity of a street lamp.
     Yes,   that  was  Vanechka--grasping,  insolent,   always  boisterously
cheerful. He was no fool, of course, but I would never advise anyone to take
their water-melons to market with him.
     After being in the car it was particularly  pleasant to walk.  I have a
horror of road accidents,  especially when pedestrians are  involved.  Thank
goodness no blood was shed. The woman must have been frightened rather  than
     One day many years ago I was walking through Moscow  feeling in  rather
low spirits. I  was just graduating from the institute and the faculty would
not accept my diploma thesis. There was something about it they didn't like.
It had  frightened  them somehow. Actually it was rather  a silly  piece  of
work, but the heads of the faculty, and I myself for that matter,  were slow
to realise this.  Later  on,  when I had  to defend it,  its foolishness was
safely exposed and  I got a good mark for it.  But that day in the  street I
was depressed.  It was  cold and  slippery and  there was  wet  ice  on  the
pavements.  Suddenly  I noticed  a  lorry  backing out of  a  narrow passage
between two buildings. There were two little boys on the pavement, one about
eight, the  other  nearer  four. At the sight of the  approaching  lorry the
elder boy abandoned  the little  one and ran to safety. I shouted at the top
of my voice. The  little fellow heard nothing.  He was watching the  pigeons
and had lapsed into that state of  profound meditation that is known only to
philosophers  and children. He  was so small  that the end of  the lorry had
already passed unhindered over  his head. I  managed to  run up and drag him
away in  time.  Luckily  the  lorry had been moving very slowly,  the driver
being particularly careful because of the ice.
     The little boy  never realised what had happened. He was warmly wrapped
up and only his fresh little face was visible under a fur hat with earflaps.
Neither mothers nor drivers are proof against all eventualities, and this is
where the pedestrians  come in. And even they derive some benefit from  such
incidents. At  that moment  I  made  up  my mind once and for all  that  the
meaning of life did not lie in diploma work, nor even in the opinion  of the
faculty, but in something else.
     Perhaps, in being a decent kind  of  pedestrian? At  bottom, all  these
cars,  aeroplanes,  locomotives   are  really  nothing  but  the  children's
perambulators that we pedestrians either pull or push.
     After sitting  for so  long in someone  else's car it  was  a  pleasant
relief to be walking on firm ground. The earth is always ours, no matter who
or  what makes it spin.  The main thing is the sense of freedom and peace it
gives us.  You are not  being moved  by some  external force, you are moving
yourself. And what's more, you  cannot run anybody  over. Of course, someone
may run you over,  but then you  could also be hit on  the head by a falling
brick. The main thing is not to throw bricks about.
     I  walked home  congratulating myself on never having bought a car, and
on having sold my bicycle.
     I think our best thoughts occur to us when  we are moving at a speed of
not more than five kilometres per hour.

     One  hot  summer day  I was  sitting  near the  pier  eating  ice-cream
sprinkled with  broken nuts.  That's the  kind of  ice-cream they sell here.
First they put firm little dollops in a metal  dish, then  sprinkle  nuts on
top. I suppose I could have refused the nuts (peanuts, to be  exact), but no
one else did, so I didn't either.
     The girl at the ice-cream counter  in her crisp white  overall, looking
cool  and therefore  pleasant, was working  silently,  in  a  smooth, steady
rhythm.  No one wanted to break this established  rhythm. It was too hot and
we were all too lazy.
     The  flowering  oleanders  cast light  shadows  on  the tables  of  the
open-air  cafe.  A salutary  breeze  from  the  sea  drifted  through  their
straggling branches carrying a sweetish smell  of decay from the tired  pink
flowers. Through the oleanders I could see the pier and the sea.
     Now and then anglers' boats would pass slowly, each with  its home-made
trawl consisting of a basket on an iron hoop.
     It was Saturday and they  were catching shrimps in  preparation for the
morrow's fishing.  Sometimes a boat would heave to and the  men in the stern
would haul in the basket with its  heavy load of sand and silt and bend over
it searching for the shrimps and slopping  handfuls  of  silt over the side.
Having emptied the basket, they would rinse it out,  then throw  it over the
stern again and row  as  far away from it as possible  so as not to frighten
the shrimps with  their boat.  They were  keeping  very  close  to the shore
because in this kind of weather shrimps come right up to the water's edge.
     On the upper deck  of  the  pier  holiday-makers were  queueing for the
launch. From the water came  the sound of boys' voices vying with each other
in asking, or rather, demanding that  the people in the queue  should  throw
them  coins.  Responding  reluctantly  to   these  urgings,   someone  would
occasionally toss  a coin into the water.  Judging by the  faces that peered
over the rail, this occupation  afforded no one any great amusement.  One of
the  lads stayed  at some distance from the  pier and kept demanding  throws
into the deep water.  Sometimes a sparkling coin would fly in his direction.
It was harder for him to catch it out there,  of  course, but  on  the other
hand he had no rivals to contend with and could work in peace.
     Some of the lads  were diving straight off the pier. The sound of their
bodies splashing  into the water  and  of their young voices was refreshing.
When a launch  arrived and  took  on its passengers,  the lads who had  been
lucky enough to retrieve a  few coins ran up the steps and bought ice-cream.
Wet and shivering, they would devour their portions with a noisy  clattering
of spoons, then run back to the pier.
     "Is this seat free?" I heard a man's voice above my head.
     Beside me  stood  a  man  holding  a dish  of  ice-cream and  a  folded
     "Yes," I said.
     He nodded, drew back a chair and sat down. I had  been so taken up with
the sea that I had failed  to notice his approach.  His accent  and a slight
drawl told me that  he was  a German. He was  in  his mid-fifties, sunburnt,
with  a vigourous crop of short fair hair,  a slightly asymmetrical face and
bright, clear eyes.
     The newspaper was one of our Black Sea publications. He scanned it  for
a while, laid it aside  with a little smirk and set about his ice-cream. The
smirk emphasised the lopsidedness of his face and I wondered if the habit of
smirking in this fashion had perhaps pulled the lower part of  his otherwise
regular features to one side.
     Curious to know what it was he had laughed at, I tried to peep into his
     "Want to read  it?" he  asked promptly,  noticing my not very  skillful
attempt, and held it out to me.
     "No," I  said  and, sensing in  his tone  a  desire  for communication,
added, "You speak very good Russian."
     "Yes, I  do," he assented, and his  bright  eyes flashed even brighter.
"And I'm proud  of  it. Still, I've been studying the language since I was a
     "Have you really?" I said.
     "Yes," he repeated  vigourously, and added with an unexpected  touch of
slyness, "Can you guess why?"
     "I  don't know,"  I said, trying not to look quite so sociable  if that
was what  my face had expressed in  the first  place. "To be  able  to  read
Dostoyevsky in the original?"
     "Exactly," he nodded,  and  pushed aside the  empty ice-cream dish. All
this time  he had been  hard at work on its  contents without  for  a moment
letting  me out of range of his intensely bright eyes. To perform both these
tasks at once he had been forced to lower at me most of the time.
     "How do you find it here?" I asked.
     "Good," he nodded again. "I came with my wife and daughter, though it's
very expensive here."
     "Where are they?" I asked.
     "I'm waiting for them to come back from the beach," he said, and looked
at his watch. "I decided to go for a walk in town by myself today."
     "Look here," I  said  suddenly,  trying not to appear too enthusiastic.
"Suppose we drink a bottle of champagne together?"
     "I'm with you," he said good-naturedly, and spread his arms.
     I rose and went to the bar. All blue plastic  and glass,  with dazzling
streamlined curves, the bar looked more like a flying machine than part of a
catering establishment.
     Surrounded by this synthetic splendour sat the bar-tender eating hominy
and cheese in an attitude  of  bucolic bliss. His wife was standing over him
and at his knee, with  one hand rummaging  thoughtfully in a large drawerful
of sweets, was a child.
     "Champagne and a kilo of apples," I said, having inspected the counter.
     The one and only waitress was standing next to me, her back against the
bar, eating  ice-cream.  The barman wiped his hands with a rag and, clicking
his tongue, reached into the ice-barrel. The waitress did not stir.
     "He's a foreigner," I said with a nod in the direction of my table.
     The  barman  responded  with a comprehending motion  of his  head and I
sensed his hand going deeper among the tinkling  icicles  in the barrel. The
waitress went on calmly eating her ice-cream.
     "Tell the kids to keep quiet," I heard the barman's voice behind me.
     The young coin-divers had taken  over a free table  next to ours. Their
elbows were beating a tattoo on the table. One of them kept shaking his head
to  get the water out of his ear,  and this  sent the others  into  fits  of
irrestrainable laughter.  Their wet,  sunburnt skin  was speckled with goose
pimples. They all looked the picture of health, and it was pleasant to watch
     The waitress brought a dish of apples and a bottle of champagne. Having
put the dish  on the table,  she started taking the foil off the bottle. The
lads at the next table froze  in  expectation of the pop, but then I noticed
that  the waitress had  forgotten the glasses and  stopped her. Not  in  the
least offended by  my  interference,  nor in any  way embarrassed by her own
mistake, she went for the glasses. She appeared to have a very keen sense of
her  own  independence,  and also  to  take  a secretly  ironic  view of her
customers. It  was particularly noticeable  as she walked  away swinging her
broad hips,  but not  too  much, just  for her  own pleasure, not for anyone
else's benefit.
     A minute later she reappeared with two tall narrow glasses. She removed
the cork skillfully, letting out the air little by little, so that the boys,
who  had  again frozen  in  expectation  of  a  big  bang, were  once  again
disappointed. We drank to having made each other's acquaintance.
     "Magnificent  stuff," said the  German,  and replaced his  empty  glass
firmly  on the  table. Tiny beads  of  perspiration had  broken out  on  his
forehead. The champagne really was good.
     "Were you living in Germany during the time of the Nazis?" I asked when
the conversation turned to  Mikhail  Romm's  film 
Ordinary Fascism
, which he
praised highly. Apparently he had seen it at home in West Germany.
     "Yes," he said. "From start to finish."
     "Well, it's  all  over now," I said.  "What do you think?  Was Hitler a
clever or gifted man in his way?"
     "He was never  a  clever man," the German shook his head,  twisting his
lip  a little to one side. "But he did possess some sort of hypnotic gift, I
     "In what sense?"
     "His  speeches  roused  the  mob,  worked  them  up  into  a  kind   of
politico-sexual psychosis."
     "What about 
Mein Kampf
?" I said. "What would you call that?"
     "In form it's a  typical stream of  consciousness.  But in contrast  to
Joyce, it's a stream of a very foolish consciousness."
     "Never mind the form,"  I said. "The thing  that interests me is how he
set about proving, let us say, the necessity for exterminating the Slavs."
Mein  Kampf
 that was all wrapped up in  very vague phrases. It  was
only brought  out into the open  after they  had got power. 
Mein  Kampf
written  in  1924. On the whole, it's  a  wretched,  semi-literate  piece of
work,"  he added contemptuously, and  I felt that the  subject had  begun to
bore him.
     "Is that what you think now or have you always thought so?" I asked.
     "Always," he  replied,  rather  haughtily  it  seemed to me,  and added
suddenly, "and I nearly paid the price for it."
     He paused  as  if to recall something or, perhaps, wondering whether to
     "Are you tired of my questions?" I asked, pouring champagne.
     "Not a bit," he replied promptly, and having sipped at his glass again,
set it down firmly  on the table.  Apparently  he had some  doubts about the
stability of the glass.
     "It was just a boys' prank," he said with a  smile. "Two of my  friends
and I got into our university one  night and scattered pamphlets around.  We
quoted a few illiterate passages from  
Mein Kampf
 and argued that a  man who
didn't know the German language properly could not claim to be leader of the
German people."
     "And what happened?" I asked, trying not to appear too curious.
     "We were saved by the primitive mentality of the  police,"  he said and
rose, emptying his glass, at the sound of the launch's siren.
     "I'll  be  back in a moment," he said with a nod,  and set  off briskly
towards  the pier, moving  fast  on his muscular legs. I noticed that he was
wearing shorts.
     The  boys'  table was now occupied  by  a local pensioner,  a  smallish
chubby old man in a  clean tussore tunic.  On the table  before him stood  a
bottle of  Borzhomi mineral  water and a small tumbler,  from which he would
occasionally take two or  three sips, then munch his  lips and,  fingering a
string of prayer beads, go on watching the passers-by with idle curiosity.
     Everything about  him seemed to say: here am I, I've worked hard all my
life and now I'm enjoying a well-earned rest. I drink Borzhomi if I want to,
I count my beads if I want to, and, if I want to, I can just sit and look at
you. And there's nothing to stop you doing a good job  of work  in  life  so
that afterwards, when your time comes, you too  can enjoy a well-earned rest
as I am doing now.
     At first he  was  alone, then he was joined by a big carelessly made-up
woman wearing a  necklace of  wooden beads, who sat down at his table with a
dish of ice-cream. They  talked animatedly and  all the time the  old  man's
voice seemed  to  emanate  a  chilly  intellectual  superiority,  which  his
companion sought ineffectually to melt, with  the  result that her own voice
began to betray a  certain secret resentment and even reproach. But this the
old man ignored, persisting obstinately in the tone he had  adopted from the
start. I listened.
     "Japan is now considered a great country," the pensioner remarked. "And
as a matter of fact they do have some very beautiful women."
     "But the  men are  all  ugly,"  his companion  retorted  joyfully.  "In
'forty-five I saw lots of Japanese POWs in Irkutsk and there wasn't a single
good-looking man among them."
     "Prisoners  of  war are never good-looking,"  the pensioner interrupted
superciliously, as though revealing some profound psychological truth behind
her ethnographical observation and thus disposing of the modest value of the
observation itself.
     "I don't see why..."  the woman began, but the old man in  tussore silk
raised his finger and she fell silent.
     "However, Japan  is  at  the  same time  a  major  source  of potential
aggression," he said, "because  she  is tied up with America through banking
     "If you ask  me, they're all a lot of scoundrels in America, except for
about ten per cent," the woman responded and, noticing the old  man touching
his beads, herself began to finger her necklace.
     "A country of enormous wealth," the pensioner proclaimed  thoughtfully,
and propped  his  elbows  on  the table,  two  sharp, uncompromising  elbows
outlined through the wide sleeves of his tussore tunic.
     "Dupont's daughter," he began, but the thought of the educational level
of his audience made him pause. "Do you know who Dupont is?"
     The woman looked confused. "Oh yes, that one..."
     "Dupont is  a multi-millionaire,"  the old  man declared harshly.  "And
compared  with  a  multi-millionaire  a  millionaire  is considered  a  mere
     "Good heavens," the woman sighed.
     "Well," the pensioner continued, "Dupont's daughter came to a reception
wearing diamonds worth ten million dollars. Now I suppose you'll ask why  no
one robbed her?"
     The old man leaned  back, as though  offering  time  and space for  the
widest conjecture.
     "Why?"   the  woman  asked,  still  overawed   by  the  wealth  of  the
     "Because she was guarded by fifty detectives disguised as distinguished
foreign  guests, "  the  pensioner concluded triumphantly, and sipped at his
Borzhomi from the small tumbler.
     "Now they've  published  Admiral  Nelson's private correspondence," the
woman remarked. "A man can write all sorts of things to a woman..."
     "I know," the old man interrupted sternly. "But that's the English."
     "It's a shame anyhow," said the woman.
     "Vivian Leigh," the  pensioner continued, "tried  to save the admiral's
honour but she failed."
     "I know," said the woman, "she's dead, isn't she?"
     "Yes,"  the old man affirmed. "She died  of  tuberculosis  because  she
wasn't allowed to  have  any sex  life.  When  a person has tuberculosis  or
cancer," holding the  beads  in one  hand  he bent  down two fingers on  the
other, "all sex life is categorically forbidden!"
     This  sounded like  some  kind of mild warning.  The  old  man  glanced
sideways at the woman, trying to sense her attitude to the matter.
     "I know," the woman said, not allowing him to sense anything.
     "Vissarion Belinsky also died  of  tuberculosis," the  old man recalled
     "Tolstoy is my favourite writer."
     "It  depends  which Tolstoy," he corrected  her. "There  were three  of
     "Leo Tolstoy, of course," she replied.
Anna  Karenina
,"  he remarked, "is  the greatest  family  novel of all
times and all nations."
     "But  why was she  so jealous in  her  love  of  Vronsky?!"  the  woman
exclaimed, as if she had  been sorrowing over this for years. "That's such a
terrible thing. Quite unendurable."
     A crowd of holiday-makers had left the beach and was drifting lazily up
the street. The foreign women  among them in their short  beach robes seemed
particularly long-legged. A few  years ago they had not been allowed to walk
into  town  in  such  attire;  now  apparently  is  was  tolerated.  My  new
acquaintance reappeared.
     "They seem to be very late," he said without any special regret.
     I poured out some more champagne.
     "That's German punctuality for you," I said.
     "German punctuality is very much exaggerated," he replied. We drank. He
took an apple from the dish and bit into it vigourously.
     "So it  was  the  primitive mentality of the  police that saved you?" I
reminded him when he had swallowed his bite of apple.
     "Yes,"  he  nodded,  and   went  on,  "the  Gestapo  turned  the  whole
philosophical faculty upside  down but  for some reason  they left us alone.
They  decided  it must have been the  work of students whose  line of  study
would  enable them to compare Hegel's  style with Hitler's. One day all  the
students of the  philosophical faculty had  their lecture notes confiscated,
although we had printed our pamphlets in block capitals. Two of the students
refused to surrender their notes and were taken straight from the university
to the Gestapo."
     "What did they do to them?" I asked.
     "Nothing,"  he replied, allowing his asymmetrical face to  break into a
sardonic smile. "Released them the next  day  with profound apologies. These
brave fellows  had influence in  high places.  One of  them had an uncle who
worked in Goebbels' office, or pretty near  it.  Admittedly, while they were
finding this out,  they gave  him a nice..." He  paused and made an eloquent
gesture with his fist.
     "A black-eye," I suggested.
     "Yes, a black-eye," he repeated the expression that had evaded him with
some pleasure. "And he went about for a whole week with that black-eye, very
proud of it. Actually that was one  of the typical things about the Reich--a
return to primitive tribal relationships."
     "Was this deliberate or part of the logic of the regime?"
     "Both, I think," he replied  after a pause. "The Reich  bosses tried to
pick their  men  on  a  local as well  as a family basis. Sharing  the  same
accent,  the  same  memories of  a  certain part  of  the country  and so on
provided them with a  substitute  for  what educated  people  call spiritual
affinity.  And  then, of  course,  there was  the system  of  the  invisible
hostage.  Our family,  for  instance,  lived  in constant  fear  because  of
mother's  brother. He had been a Social-Democrat,  arrested  in thirty-four.
For several  years we  were able  to  correspond with  him, then out letters
started coming hack stamped 'adressat  unbekannt',  meaning that the  person
they were addressed to was no longer there. We told mother he must have been
moved to another camp where correspondence  was not  allowed, but my  father
and I suspected that he had been killed. And after the war  we  learned that
he had been."
     "Tell me,"  I said. "wasn't this  a  handicap for you while you were at
college or at work?"
     "Not  directly," he said  slowly,  speaking  between pauses,  "but  one
always had a feeling of uncertainty  or even guilt. It's a difficult kind of
feeling to express in words. You have to experience it in reality. It seemed
to get stronger, then tail off, then come on again. But it never disappeared
altogether. A kind  of inferiority complex  towards the  state--that's how I
could define that particular condition."
     "You put  it  very  clearly,"  I  said  and poured out the  rest of the
champagne. Whether it was the  drink or the precision of his definition I am
not sure, but I did envisage very clearly the condition he had described.
     "To give you an even  better idea,  I'll tell you about something  that
happened to myself," he said and, smacking  his lips, placed his empty glass
on the table. He was certainly enjoying the champagne.
     "What about another bottle?" I suggested.
     "Fine," he said, "but you must let me pay for it."
     "That would be  contrary to our custom." I said, swelling with pride in
my own generosity.
     I held up the  empty bottle for the waitress to see. She was watching a
workman crouched  beside  the barrel where the  ice-cream was  kept. He  was
breaking  up a large lump of  ice  wrapped  in  wet sackcloth. The  waitress
nodded  and turned  unwillingly  to  the  bar.  My  companion  offered me  a
cigarette and lit one himself.
     The pensioner was still talking to  the woman at his  table. I listened
     "Churchill,"  he  declared  sententiously,  "recognised  no other drink
except Armenian brandy and Georgian Borzhomi."
     "Wasn't he afraid they'd  take their revenge on him?"  said  the woman,
nodding at the bottle of Borzhomi.
     "No," the pensioner  replied blandly. "Stalin had promised him. And you
know how Stalin kept his word?"
     "Of course," said the woman.
     "I wonder," the German remarked, "what is the popular local wine here?"
     "I have read the Stalin-Churchill  correspondence," the pensioner said.
"It's an extremely rare book."
     "At  the  moment," I said,  still listening to  the conversation at the
next table, "
 is the favourite."
     "You couldn't lend it to me to read, could you?" the woman asked.
     "Never heard of it," said my companion after some reflection.
     "No, I cannot, my dear," the pensioner replied  more gently, to  soften
the refusal.  "But I  can  let you have  some  other  rare book.  I've  been
collecting rare books ever since I retired."
     "It's  a local peasant wine."  I said. "It happens  to be in fashion at
the moment."
     The German nodded.
     "Have you got 
Woman in White
     "Of course," the pensioner nodded. "I have all the rare books. "
     "Lend it to me. I read fast," she said.
     "I can't lend you 
Woman in White
, but you can have any of my other rare
     "But why can't you lend me 
Woman in White
?" she asked bitterly.
     "Not because I don't  trust  you  but  because someone else has  it  at
present," said the old man.
     "Fashion  is  a remarkable  thing,"  my  companion  observed  suddenly,
stubbing  out  his cigarette on the side of the  ash-tray. "In the 'twenties
there used to  be a  popular film actor  who made himself up to look exactly
like Hitler."
     "How do you mean?"
     "He either sensed or foresaw the kind of looks that would appeal to the
lower middle  classes  as a whole.  And a few  years later the image he  had
created turned up in the real person of Adolph Hitler."
     "That's very interesting," I said.
     The waitress  came up with a  fresh bottle  of  champagne.  Instead  of
allowing  her to  uncork it, I took  the cool wet bottle myself. She cleared
away the empty ice-cream dishes.
     I removed the foil from the neck of  the  bottle and,  holding down the
white  polythene cork  with one hand unfastened the wire with the other. The
cork pressed  up against my hand  with  all  the  force of a  strong, living
creature. I released  the air gradually, then poured out the champagne. As I
tipped the bottle a wisp of vapour rose from the neck.
     We each drank a  full glass. The new bottle was even cooler  and tasted
better still.
     "After I  had graduated," he  said,  still replacing his  glass  on the
table in  the same firm, deliberate manner, "I was accepted by the institute
of the famous Professor Hartz. In those days  I was  considered  a young and
promising  physicist  and  they put me in  a group  engaged  in  theoretical
studies. The scientists at our institute led a rather secluded existence and
tried to  cut themselves off as much as possible  from the life around them.
But this  was becoming more and  more difficult,  if  only because one might
easily be killed  any day by the American bombing. In 1943 several districts
in our town  were bombed so badly that even the  medieval enthusiasts  could
not pass them  off as  picturesque ruins. More  and more cripples  from  the
Eastern Front kept  appearing  in  the  town,  and more  and  more tormented
women's and children's faces,  but Goebbels'  propaganda went on proclaiming
victory, in which  by  this  time  no  one, in our circle at least,  had any
belief whatever.
     "One Sunday afternoon, when I was sitting in my room reading a novel of
pre-Nazi days, I heard the voices of my wife and someone else, a man, coming
from the next room. My wife's voice sounded worried. She opened the door and
looked anxiously into my room.
     " 'There's someone to see  you,' she said,  and  stood aside to admit a
person who was a complete stranger to me.
     "  'You're  wanted  at the institute,'  he said after a brief greeting.
'It's for an urgent conference.'
     " 'Why didn't they  ring me up?' I asked, watching him closely. He must
be some new man from the administrative side, I decided.
     " 'You can probably guess,' he said significantly.
     " 'But why on Sunday?' my wife protested.
     "  'We don't  discuss  orders  from our superiors,' he  retorted with a
     "By  that time we  were used  to  the  police  making a  great show  of
vigilance around our institute. There was nothing we  could do about it. You
had only to ring from one room to another to speak to a colleague about some
problem  connected  with  our work  and the line  would  go  dead.  This was
regarded  as a means  of protecting us against  any leakage of  information.
Now, apparently, they had decided to inform  us of top-secret conferences by
their own official messengers.
     " 'I'll be ready in a minute,' I said, and began changing.
     " 'Perhaps you would like a cup of coffee?' my wife  suggested. I could
still feel the alarm in her voice.
     " 'Very well,' I replied, and nodded to reassure her.
     " 'Thank you,' the man said, and sat  down in an armchair, glancing out
of the corner of his eye at the bookshelves. My wife left the room.
     " 'I  am from the Gestapo,' the man  informed me  when he had heard the
door close behind my wife in the next room. He said this in a toneless voice
as if trying to  contain  the  explosive force  of  his  statement as far as
     "I felt my fingers instantly go numb and  fumbled  helplessly to button
my shirt. By a great effort of will I managed to overcome their rigidity and
guide the buttons  into  place, and then adjust  my neck-tie.  To this day I
remember those  few  seconds of suffocating silence, the deafening rustle of
my starched shirt, the sudden  irritation with my wife for always using just
that  little  bit too much starch in the  washing  and--most  surprising  of
all!--the sense of  embarrassment at having to do something so disrespectful
as change  my  clothes in this stranger's presence,  while all the time  the
underlying thought behind these sensations  was that I must not  hurry, must
not show any sign of alarm.
     " 'Well, what can I do for you?' I asked him at last.
     "  'I  am sure  it's  something quite trivial,'  he  said  without  the
slightest expression in his voice, apparently still listening for any sounds
in the other  room. The sound of  a  door  opening told us that my  wife was
bringing the coffee.
     "We looked at each other and he understood my silent inquiry at once.
     " 'No  need to  cause  anxiety,'  he  said,  and gave me a  significant
glance. I  nodded as cheerfully as I could. I had to show that I had nothing
to be afraid of and was confident of getting home soon.  I slipped a  marker
into the novel  I had been reading closed  it briskly and dropped it on  the
table.  If he had been watching my behaviour, this  gesture should have told
him that I expected to return to my book that evening.
     " 'We have  decided we  had better go right away,' he said rising, when
my wife appeared in the doorway with a steaming tray.
     " 'It can't be as urgent as all that.' I protested.
     "I took a cup of coffee and drank it  standing, in a few searing gulps.
He also sipped  a little coffee. My wife was still  disturbed.  She realised
that  while she had been out  of  the room I must have  elicited  some  more
definite information  from  my  visitor  and she looked inquiringly  into my
eyes. I gave no answer to her glance. She looked at him but he remained even
more inscrutable. There was something indefinably odd about him.  Perhaps it
was the oddness of  the insurance agent. His dark-blue mackintosh gave him a
rather sombre elegance.
     " 'But you'll be back  for dinner?'  she asked, when I had returned the
cup to the tray. It was still four hours till dinner time.
     " 'Of course,' I said, and  looked at him. He nodded, either to confirm
what I had said or in approval of my taking up his game.
     "When we had left  and the house was some distance behind us, he halted
and said, 'I'll go on ahead and you'll follow.'
     " 'At what distance?' I asked,  marvelling at my  own readiness to live
according to their instructions.
     " 'About twenty paces,' he said. 'I'll wait for you at the entrance. '
     " 'All right,' I said, and  he walked on ahead of  me. There  were  two
weak  spots in my  biography--the  fate  of my  uncle and  the  pamphlets. I
realised they must know all about my uncle. But how much did they know about
the pamphlets? Six years had passed since then.  But for  them there  was no
statute of limitations and  they never forgave anything. Surely  none of the
others  had  let  it  out?  I  had  told  only  one  other  person,  an  old
school-friend  of mine. I  trusted  him  as much  as  I  trusted myself. But
perhaps one of the  others had, like myself,  confided in a friend and  that
friend had betrayed him? But if they knew something, why did they not arrest
me straightaway? Turning all this over in my mind, I  walked on  in the wake
of  my escort.  He seemed to be in no hurry. In his slouch hat and dark-blue
mackintosh he now looked more like a street lounger.
     "The Gestapo  office was situated in an  old mansion surrounded by tall
plane  trees. On one side it looked over a field, where some schoolboys were
playing football. Several bicycles lay gleaming in the grass. It was strange
to see these  lads and  hear their  excited  voices so  near  this  sinister
building  whose purpose was common knowledge  in the town. The  pavement  on
this side of the street was almost deserted. People preferred to keep to the
other side. I followed  my escort  down a dimly  lit  corridor. There was no
guard  on the door. My escort stopped  and  waited for  me at  a pass-office
window. When he saw  me approaching,  he caught the duty  officer's eye  and
nodded  in  my  direction.  The duty officer was  speaking  on the phone. He
glanced at me and put down the receiver.
     "There  was  a cup of tea  on  his desk with a crushed  slice  of lemon
floating in it. He stirred it with a spoon and sipped. We walked on down the
corridor, at the end of  which I could  make out the iron cage of a lift. We
entered the  lift. He slammed the iron door  and pressed  a button. The lift
stopped on the third floor.
     "We  came out of the  lift  and walked down a long corridor lit  by dim
electric bulbs, then  turned down a  side corridor  and into  another and at
last, when  I  thought the corridors would  never end, we  halted at a  door
padded  with black leather, or some kind  of material that looked like black
     "My escort nodded to me to wait, took off his hat and opened the door a
little. But even before he opened it, he and his dark-blue mackintosh seemed
to melt into the black  background  of the door. This  corridor like all the
others was poorly lighted.
     "Five minutes later the door opened again and I saw the pale blob of my
escort's face in the blackness  of the door. The blob nodded  and  I entered
the room.
     "It was a large, well lighted room  with  windows looking out  over the
field where the boys were still playing football. I had not expected to find
myself on this side of the building.  It may have been  pure coincidence but
at the time I was sure they had deliberately confused my sense of direction.
The  large desk was  bare save for an inkstand, an open folder and a pile of
clean  notepaper.  Behind  it  sat a man  of about  thirty  with  a  narrow,
carefully shaven face. We greeted each other  and he extended his hand to me
over the desk.
     " 'Won't you sit down,' he said, and nodded to an armchair. I sat down.
He spent a minute or so rather  casually leafing through the contents of the
file  that lay in  front of  him.  The  desk was very wide and  it was quite
impossible to read what he was looking at. But  I was certain  that the file
was about me.
     " 'Have you been at the institute long?' he asked,  still thumbing  the
pages casually. I replied briefly, quite sure that he knew far more about me
than his question indicated. He turned a few more pages.
     " 'In what department?' he asked.  I named my department and he nodded,
still examining  the file as though seeking  confirmation of what I had told
     " 'How do they feel at the institute about the  war against Russia?' he
asked, and this time he raised his head.
     " 'Like the whole German people,' I said.
     "A  faint  expression of boredom  appeared  in  his dark, almond-shaped
     " 'Could you be more specific?'
     " 'Scientists are not very interested in politics, you know,' I said.
     " 'Unfortunately,' he nodded pompously and, putting on a more dignified
air, added suddenly, 'Do you know that the Führer himself finds time to take
an interest in the work of your institute?'
     "A glassy look came into his eyes and for a second his whole appearance
bore a distant resemblance to Hitler.
     " 'Yes, I do,' I said.
     "The institute authorities had  often told us confidentially about this
and made it clear that in response to this  exceptional interest on the part
of the Führer we should display exceptional zeal in our work.
     " 'But  the Führer is not the  only  person who  is interested  in your
work,'  he  continued after a generous pause, in which I was granted time to
enjoy the pleasant side  of the matter. 'The enemies of  the Reich  are also
     "The  glassy look  reappeared in  his eyes and  he again resembled  the
Führer, this time in expressing ruthlessness towards the Reich's enemies.
     "I shrugged. This  was a relief. Apparently  he did not know  about  my
escapade at the university.  He  went back  to the file, leafed through  it,
then stopped  suddenly and  began to read a page  with raised eyebrows.  The
tension grew inside me again. He did know, after all.
     " 'Your  uncle seems  to have  been a Social-Democrat?' he  queried, as
though he had quite by chance discovered a slight blemish in my intellectual
background.  Even the  way he said  'your uncle'  seemed to express contempt
for, rather than hatred of, the Social-Democrats.
     " 'Yes, he is,' I said.
     " 'Where is he now?' he asked, making no attempt to conceal the falsity
in his voice.  I  told  him  the whole story, which  he knew perfectly  well
     "  'There you are, you see,' he nodded, and his tone seemed to indicate
that this was the inevitable outcome of such hopelessly obsolete patriarchal
convictions. But I was wrong. His tone indicated something quite different.
     " 'There  you  are,'  he  repeated. 'We  trust you,  but  what  is your
     " 'I trust you too,' I said, as firmly as I could.
     "He nodded. 'Yes, I know you are a patriot, even though your uncle  was
a Social-Democrat.'
     "  'Was?' I could not help repeating, and felt a sudden stab of pain in
the  chest.  We had kept hope alive in spite of  everything.  Apparently the
Gestapo man had said more than he  intended. Or  was he merely pretending to
have done so?
     " 'Was and  still is,' he corrected himself, but this sounded even more
hopeless. 'I know you are a patriot,' he repeated,  'but  the time  has come
for you to show your patriotism in practice.'
     "  'What have you in mind?' I asked. The hand leafing through the  file
stopped for a moment and appeared  to  stroke  an unopened  page.  He seemed
scarcely able to  resist the pleasure of  turning  it.  Once again  I  had a
suspicion that he knew something about those pamphlets.
     " 'Help us in our work,' he said simply, and looked into my eyes.
     "I  had never expected this.  My face must have expressed either fright
or revulsion.
     "  'You won't have to come here,'  he added quickly. 'One of our people
will meet you about once a month and you will tell him...'
     " 'Tell him what?' I interrupted.
     "  'The  attitude of  scientists,  instances  of hostile  or subversive
statements,'   he  said   evenly.   'We  need   relevant   information,  not
surveillance. You know how much importance is attached to your institute.'
     "He sounded like a  doctor persuading a  patient to take the prescribed
     "His  dark,  almond-shaped eyes were watching me steadily. The skin  on
his clean-shaven, bluish face was so  taut that it looked as if any grimace,
any  private  expression  would  cause  him  pain  by  pinching the  already
overstrained skin. He therefore tried to maintain only one expression on his
face that was in line with the general direction of his service.
     "   'If   it  were  a  matter  of  any  hostile  statements,'  I  said,
involuntarily  bringing  my own voice and  face in  line  with this  general
direction, 'I would consider it my duty to  bring them to your notice in any
     "As soon as I began to say this  the faint expression of boredom  again
appeared in his eyes and I suddenly realised that all this was to him merely
a long familiar form of refusal.
     " 'Bearing in mind the fact that we  are  at war,' I added, to  make it
sound more convincing. This  had eased  the situation.  It was not the first
time they had heard a refusal.
     " 'Yes, of course,' he said  expressionlessly,  and reached out for the
telephone as it began to ring.
     "  'Yes,' he  said,  and a  voice  grated  in the receiver.  'Yes,'  he
repeated from  time  to time as the voice  went on. His monosyllabic replies
sounded impressive and I sensed that he was playing the high official for my
     "  'He's bluffing,' he said suddenly into the receiver, and  I gave  an
involuntary start. 'Here, in my room,' he added. 'Come over.'
     "All this time he must have been talking about me over the phone.  This
fisher of my  soul now rose  to his feet,  took a bundle of keys out of  his
pocket and walked over to a safe and, as he did so, another man  entered the
room. I felt instinctively that this  must be  the person  who had just been
speaking on the phone. He glanced at me with a kind of casual curiosity, and
I decided that they had not been talking about me.
     "The first Gestapo man opened his safe and bent forward to look inside.
I caught a glimpse of several rows of mousy-coloured files  standing tightly
packed on  the shelves. He hooked two fingers into one of them  and pried it
out. The  file actually  seemed  to resist and  at  the last  moment, as  it
reluctantly gave  in, emitted  a kind of squeal, like  the cry of a captured
     "The files were so tightly packed that the row closed again at once, as
though nothing had been removed.  The other man  took the file and  silently
left the room.
     " 'So you  don't want to  co-operate  with us?' said  my  interrogator,
resuming his seat. His hand  again glided  to the unopened  page and stroked
     " 'Hardly that,' I said, feeling my eyes drawn irresistibly to the page
that was quivering under his hand.
     " 'Or is it your uncle's principles that  forbid it?' he  asked. I felt
the spring of annoyance within him begin to tighten.  And all  of a sudden I
realised that the  main  thing now was not to  show  him that  it was normal
human decency that prevented me from having any connection with him.
     " 'Principles  have nothing to  do with it,' I said.  'It's simply that
every job demands a sense of vocation.'
     " 'You should try. Perhaps you have the right one,' he said. The spring
had slackened a little.
     " 'No,' I said, after a little reflection.  'I am no good at hiding  my
thoughts. I am far too talkative.'
     " 'Is that a hereditary defect?'
     " 'No,' I said, 'just part of my character.'
     "  'By the way, what  was  this incident at  the  university?' he asked
suddenly, raising his head. I had not noticed him turn the page.
     " 'What incident?' I asked, feeling a dryness in my throat.
     " 'Shall I remind you?' he asked, pointing to the page.
     " 'I don't remember any incident,' I said, and braced myself.
     "We eyed each other for several long seconds. If he knows, I thought, I
have  nothing to lose. And  if he doesn't know this is still the only way to
     " 'Very well,' he said suddenly, drawing a clean sheet from the pile of
paper and placing it before me. 'Put it all down on paper.'
     " 'Put what down?'
     " 'That you refuse to help the Reich,' he said.
     "So he doesn't know, I thought, feeling renewed strength. He knows that
there was some such incident while I was studying but nothing  more. And now
I took a quiet pleasure in estimating the extent of his knowledge.
     " 'I'm not refusing,' I said, pushing the sheet gently aside.
     " 'So you agree, then?'
     " 'I  am quite  prepared to carry out my duty to my country but without
these   formalities,'   I  said,  trying  to  choose  the  mildest  possible
expressions. The pamphlet danger seemed to  have passed, but I was afraid he
might bring it up again. At the  moment when he had asked me straight out, I
had been almost certain that  he had no precise knowledge,  but now that the
danger seemed to have  passed I was  even more afraid to return to this dark
spot. Instinctively I was trying to get as far  away from it as possible and
I  sensed  that this could only be done at the price of some concession.  He
can only  be diverted by  the  chance  of  a  breakthrough somewhere else, I
     " 'No,' he  said,  and a rather sentimental note crept into  his voice,
'you'd  better put  it down honestly  in black and white that  you refuse to
perform your patriotic duty.'
     " 'I'll think it over,' I said.
     " 'Yes, of course you  must,' he said amicably and,  opening a  drawer,
took out a cigarette and lighted it. 'Have a smoke?' he suggested.
     " 'Yes,' I said.
     "He produced an open packet  from  his drawer and offered  it to me.  I
took a cigarette, and then noticed that his own cigarette  was from another,
more expensive  packet.  I almost  laughed in his face  as  he  offered me a
light. Even in this, apparently, he had to feel his superiority.
     "I was silent and so was he. I was supposed to be thinking things over.
Silence was to my advantage.
     "  'You should bear in mind,' he recalled suddenly, 'that  our  service
has not done away with material incentives.'
     " 'In what sense?' I asked. This was subject worth developing. I had to
impress upon him that I was moving in his direction.
     " 'We don't pay too badly,' he said.
     " 'How much?' I asked with deliberate arrogance. I had to show him that
he  had   succeeded  in  overcoming  what  they  would  call  my  weak-kneed
intellectual  scruples.  A flicker of resentment  appeared in his eyes--this
was an insult to the firm. Perhaps I had gone too far.
     " 'That would depend  on the fruitfulness  of your work,' he said. Yes,
fruitfulness--that was the word he used.
     "I shook  my head regretfully, as if I had been considering my  budget.
'No,' I said. 'They don't pay me too badly at the institute.'
     " 'But in time we shall be able to  provide you with a  good  flat,' he
said in some alarm. Now we were bargaining.
     " 'I have a good flat already,' I said.
     "  'We'll give you  a flat in a district  that has  the  best  air-raid
shelter  in the  city,' he promised,  and looked  out  of  the  window. 'The
American  gangsters  of the  air have no mercy  even on women and  children.
Under these conditions we have to look after our personnel.'
     "That was a typical sample  of national-socialist logic.  The Americans
were bombing women and  children,  so there had to be special protection for
Gestapo  men. Altogether this dangerous  game  lasted for about three hours.
The essence of it was that I had to display a readiness  to join them but at
the last  moment I must  appear  to  be held  back by a  purely self-centred
attitude  of  caution or some other consideration far  removed from ordinary
standards  of human decency. At one point  he nearly cornered me by pointing
out  with  a   fair  degree  of  logic  that  I  was  actually  working  for
national-socialism as  it was, and my attempt to avoid any direct commitment
was merely a refusal to  face the  facts.  However, I managed  to  evade the
issue. This tragic  problem  had  been discussed often  enough  in  our  own
circle,  which was naturally a  very  narrow  and  trusted  one. History had
granted our generation no right of choice and to demand any more  of us than
ordinary decency would have been unrealistic."
     My  companion broke off and lapsed into deep thought. I poured out more
champagne and we again emptied our glasses.
     "Do you rule out the idea of heroism?" I asked involuntarily.
     "No," he replied  quickly. "Heroism is something  I would compare  with
genius, moral genius."
     "And what is the conclusion from that?" I asked.
     "I  believe  that  heroism  always  implies a  supreme act  of  reason,
practical  action, but a scientist who refused to work for Hitler would  not
make his protest heard further than the nearest Gestapo office."
     "But one doesn't have to give a direct refusal," I said.
     "An indirect refusal would be pointless. Nobody would understand such a
gesture  and there  would always be someone else to fill  the  gap when  the
person in question was eventually removed, if there was a gap to fill."
     "All right,"  I said.  "But even if no one notices his removal, he  can
still refuse for the sake of his own conscience, can he not?"
     "I don't know," he said,  and gave me a  rather  strange look.  "I have
never  heard  of  such a  case.  That's far  too  abstract, too  maximalist.
Something out  of 
The  Karamazov Brothers
... But I know that in your country
you take a different view of heroism too."
     "We believe that heroism can be inculcated," I replied with some relief
at getting back to a  less complex subject. I had begun to think that he was
misunderstanding me.
     "I  don't  think  so,"  he  shook  his head. "Under our conditions, the
conditions of  fascism,  it would have been quite wrong and even harmful  to
ask a person, particularly a scientist,  to  offer heroic resistance  to the
regime. If you  put the issue that way--either  heroic resistance to fascism
or  complete involvement in it--what you are doing, as a friend of mine once
remarked, is to completely disarm people morally. There were some scientists
who at first  condemned  our conciliatory  tactics,  then gave up  the whole
thing and concentrated on making  a  career. Say what  you like,  but common
decency is a great thing."
     "But common decency could not defeat the regime?"
     "Of course, not."
     "Then where's the solution?"
     "In this case the solution was provided by  the Red Army," he said, and
his asymmetrical face broke into a smile.
     "But if Hitler had been more careful and not attacked us?"
     "He could  have chosen a different time, but that's  not the point. The
point is that the very victories he achieved in such feverish haste were the
result  of  the corruption of a regime which even without the Red Army could
not have lasted more than two or  three generations. But that  was just  the
situation  in which  what I call  decency would  have acquired even  greater
significance as a means of preserving the nation's moral fibre for a more or
less opportune historical moment."
     "We are getting away from the subject," I said.  "What  happened to you
after that?"
     "Well, to put it briefly," he resumed, lighting another cigarette, "the
hunt for my  soul  lasted about three  hours, in the course of which he left
the room and  returned several times. In the  end we both  got tired  and he
suddenly marched me off  to someone I took to be his boss. We entered a huge
waiting room with a middle-aged woman, a rather plump brunette, sitting at a
desk loaded with telephones. Three other people were waiting in the room and
I recognised one of them as the man  who had come in for the file. The woman
was speaking on  the  telephone. She was talking to her daughter. Apparently
the girl  had just  come home  from a picnic and was  pouring out an excited
story. I could feel that even at some distance from the phone. It was rather
strange to  hear such things in a place like this. Then a bell  rang on  the
     " 'All right, that's enough for now,' I heard the  woman say as she put
down the receiver. She stood up and walked quickly into the office. The four
Gestapo  men  drew  themselves   up  respectfully.  Two  minutes  later  she
     "  'Go inside,' she said and,  as she went back  to her desk, gave me a
look that set  my nerves on  edge.  Only a woman can give  you  that kind of
look. Such  a vicious look, I  mean.  No,  there  was none of  the hatred or
contempt that  I could expect at any moment from those other four. That look
of hers consisted  of a  feline curiosity in  my guts  on  the one hand, and
complete confidence in her master, on the other. It may have been the effect
of fatigue, but I actually felt as if my guts might at  any moment rise into
my throat.
     "We went into the office. It was an even more luxurious chamber with an
even bigger desk loaded with telephones of various colours, and an  inkstand
shaped  like the ruins of an old castle.  A big man, who  looked rather like
the  manager of a flourishing  restaurant, was  sitting at the  desk. He was
darkhaired and wore a fawn suit with a flamboyant necktie.
     "He offered no one  a seat and we  remained standing by  the door.  The
three men from the waiting room, closer to the desk, and I with my  escort a
little further away.
     "  'So  he can't  make up  his  mind?'  the chief  boomed thunderously,
staring at me with  astonished eyes.  'A  promising  young  scientist and he
won't co-operate with  us?  I  just can't  believe  it!'  he  exclaimed, and
suddenly rose to his full, impressive height.
     "His astonished eyes  seemed to  implore me  to  deny  this  false  and
perhaps  even  maliciously  invented  information that  his  assistants  had
supplied. As soon as  he spoke, I realised he  was aping Goering. This was a
fashion  among functionaries of  the Reich in those days. Each of them chose
for himself the mask of one of the leaders.
     " 'And this at a  time when hordes of Asians are  hurling themselves at
the sacred soil of  Germany, at a time when gangsters of the air are bombing
innocent children to death!' He motioned towards the window and to the field
beyond where the  children were  still playing football. They must have been
different children by this time, but it seemed to me that both the field and
the children had been  cultivated specially by  the Gestapo  for purposes of
     " 'I am not refusing,' I began, but he interrupted me.
     " 'Do you hear that? Didn't I tell you?'  he exclaimed. He seemed about
to jump on the desk in his enthusiasm. But his tone changed soon enough when
he addressed his assistants. 'So you failed to explain to him where his duty
lies. You couldn't find the key that exists for every German heart.'
     "He  looked at me with his  bovine  eyes  and  I  could see that he was
asking  for my consent not so much for me to work for them but as a boost to
his pedagogical prestige. Let us both put these incompetent devils to shame,
he seemed to be suggesting--the murderous clown.
     " 'You see, it's like this...' I  began, sensing that  this pedagogical
process was  going  to cost me  dear.  But just at  that moment, to  my good
fortune, the door opened.  He glared at the door like an infuriated bull. It
was the secretary.
     " 'Berlin,' she said softly, and nodded towards one of the telephones.
     "He seized the receiver, and it was immediately obvious that we had all
vanished from the face  of the earth and even he, as he bent over the phone,
had correspondingly diminished in stature.
     "We  withdrew silently to the waiting room, and from  the  waiting room
into the corridor. The secretary ignored us completely.
     "I returned with the fisher of  my soul  to his office.  I felt that he
was utterly fed up  with me.  I also  sensed that both he and his colleagues
were at heart  glad that their chief  had failed in his pedagogical efforts.
My man made no further attempt to argue with me.
     "He signed my  permission to leave, wrote a telephone dawn on a slip of
paper, and said, 'If you make up your mind, ring this number.'
     " 'All right,' I said, and left the room.  I don't remember how I found
my way home. As I walked through the streets I felt the kind of weakness and
pleasure that one experiences on first getting up after a long illness. When
I was sure that  no one was following me, I tore  up the  slip of  paper and
threw it into a refuse bin, though for some reason I still tried to remember
the number.
     "The next day I did not telephone,  of course. But every day after that
I  lived in a state of constant suspense. One evening when  I came home from
work my wife said that the phone had  rung  but, when she  had answered  it,
someone had put  the receiver down at the  other  end. A few  days  later  I
myself answered the phone  and again  there was no reply, or  rather I heard
someone carefully replace the receiver. Or perhaps it was my imagination.
     "I didn't know what  to think. In  the street and  in buses I  began to
have the impression that there was a detective's eye upon me.
     "At the entrance to the institute I would feel  nervous if the guard on
duty took more than usual interest in my pass.
     "Two or three months went by. One day an old school friend of mine rang
up. He was now a well-known criminal lawyer and lived in Berlin. As usual we
agreed to meet for a walk in town and then go  back  to my house for dinner.
My wife was  delighted. His company always had a good effect on me and now I
particularly needed something to liven me up.
     "He was a  witty talker, rather frivolous,  but always a  good  friend.
Whenever  he  visited  us from  Berlin  he  would  bring  with him  a  whole
collection of anecdotes that  gave us a better idea of  what was going on in
the Reich than any other type of information.
     "On this occasion  he rang off  with his  usual 'Heil Hitler, thank you
for your attention',  referring  to the fact that all hotel telephones  were
monitored. For the first  time in all  these weeks  I found  myself  smiling
broadly. I, too, was convinced that my telephone was being tapped.
     "My friend and I had similar  views on everything that was happening in
Germany. Incidentally, he was  the only person  I  had told about my student
     " 'I  don't believe the  Reich is going  to last a thousand  years  but
it'll  last quite long  enough  for our  generation,' he would  say  when we
talked about it. Like everyone with a  gift  for humour  he was a pessimist.
During the past year the information from the Eastern Front had made it look
as if  he  had overrated  the Reich's  potential.  When I had told him  this
during his previous visit, he had disagreed.
     "  'On the  contrary,' he had exclaimed.  'I  underrated  the extent of
Hitler's madness.'
     "We met  in the lounge of  his hotel.  As  soon as  we were out  in the
street  and at a safe distance, I said, 'Well, start  away. Hitler goes into
an air-raid shelter and there...'
     " 'My God!' he  exclaimed. 'Only night watchmen tell that kind of story
nowadays. The latest thing is the carpet-eater series. '
     " 'What's that?' I asked.
     "  'Listen,' he said, and  started  on  one story after another.  Their
general theme was that Hitler, on  hearing the news of  fresh defeats on the
Eastern  Front, would throw  himself on the floor of  his study and bite the
carpet. We passed several blocks and he was still relating stories from what
seemed a quite  inexhaustible series. The last  one he told,  which  was far
from the best, has engraved itself on my memory.
     "Hitler goes into a shop to buy  a new carpet. 'Shall I wrap it  up for
you, or do you wish to gnaw it on the premises?' asks the salesman.
     "He had  just told  this story, when my Gestapo man appeared round  the
corner coming towards  me. In  my  confusion  I  could  not make  up my mind
whether to greet him or  not. At the last moment I realised that  this would
he  the wrong  thing to  do,  but then I noticed that  my friend and he  had
nodded to each other.
     "We walked  on. My mind was  in a whirl. He went on talking but I could
not understand a  word.  His voice seemed  to come  from far  away. Feverish
thoughts raced  through my head.  He was working  for the Gestapo. They  had
called him as a witness. I should be shot.
     "And yet  I still clung to  the hope that the Gestapo man  was merely a
chance acquaintance of  his. Perhaps they had met in connection with  one of
his cases. He had often told me that the Gestapo interfered in political and
criminal trials alike.
     "But  how could I find out?  The realisation  came to me in a flash. It
was quite simple. I must  ask him straight out. If they had met by chance he
would say  who  he  was, but if they had a secret connection  he  would,  of
course, invent something.
     "  'By  the way, who was that you  nodded to?'  I  asked a few  minutes
later. Oh  God, how much depended on his answer. How I would have hugged him
if only he had told me the whole truth!
     "  'Oh,  just  someone  I  happen to  know,'  he  replied  with studied
indifference.  I felt his momentary  hesitation and all  the  rest seemed to
take place in a mist.  There was an air-raid warning. We ran for cover. Near
a gutted building  we  spotted  an old air-raid shelter that had caved in on
one side.
     "He pushed  me  inside and slithered down the  concrete steps after me.
Anti-aircraft  guns  barked overhead. A bomb burst some distance away  and I
felt the earth  give a  frightening heave. Gradually  the anti-aircraft fire
moved away to another part  of the town and the sound of bursting bombs grew
     "It's bad enough  to  die in an air-raid, I thought, but how much worse
to be murdered by the Gestapo. Not so much because of the torture. There was
something mystical about it, like being strangled by a ghost.
     "Perhaps this was because  you were isolated  from  everyone  else  and
punished in the name of the whole country.
     "But what had I done? I  had merely written what every  educated person
in  the  country knew  already.  Had  I invented new  rules  for  the German
language? And why is it that something which everyone of us  sees separately
cannot be seen  by all  of us together? But what really worried  me was this
sense of guilt. Why should I feel that? There must have been some point when
I had tacitly, unknowingly agreed to play this game? Otherwise  why should I
feel guilty?
     "We  were still sitting on the  cold concrete floor, which  was  strewn
with brick rubble. In the semidarkness the broken bricks looked like  stains
of blood on the floor.
     "  'Oh, hell!' he said, and began to brush himself down. 'This seems to
be something one never really gets used to.' He rummaged in his overcoat and
took out a packet of cigarettes.
     " 'Have a smoke?'
     " 'No,' I said.  He flicked his  lighter several times before  he got a
flame,  then  his  round head  stood  out  plainly against  the  glow of the
cigarette. Just like  target, I  thought  suddenly,  as it melted  into  the
darkness. The decision formed  spontaneously in my mind. His head  will show
up like that another three times, I decided, and I'll do it.  And  yet after
the third time I felt I must ask him once again.
     " 'Listen, Emil,' I said. 'Who was that you nodded to in the street?'
     "He must have noticed something in my voice.  I  sensed it in the damp,
menacing stillness of the shelter. Soil  trickled down  between the beams of
the roof. I heard the tiny grains pattering on the floor.
     " 'Well, he was a Gestapo man, if you must know. What  of it?' he said.
Everything seemed to go limp inside me.
     " 'How did you come to know him?' I asked.
     " 'We were at college together. He was offered the job in his last year
and he thought fit to ask my advice about it.'
     " 'Did you give him any?'
     " 'Are you  mad?'  he shouted  suddenly. 'If a man  asks your advice on
whether to join  the Gestapo, it means he has already  decided  to  join. It
would be crazy to advise him against it. Still, what is all this about?'
     " 'Give me  a  cigarette,'  I  said.  He  held  out  the packet  in the
darkness. Only  then  did  I notice that my right hand had  been clutching a
heavy lump of brick.  I released  my grip  on its cold, slimy surface.  Emil
appeared not to notice. I told him everything.
     " 'And you could think that of me?' he said offendedly.
     " 'Why didn't you tell me the truth straightaway?' I countered.
     "I felt him staring at me intently in the darkness.
     " 'It  was rather unpleasant  to have to tell you I knew someone in the
Gestapo,' he said, after a pause. I felt a slight chill had come between us.
He must have felt the same.
     "Soil was still sprinkling off the ceiling.
     " 'It  seems to have  quietened down,' he said, standing up. 'Let's get
out of here before the whole place collapses on top of us.'
     "And all at once I was overcome by laughter. Either it was hysterics or
simply a kind  of relief. I had remembered the safe shelter the  Gestapo man
had offered me.  Somehow I had recalled everything they had promised Germany
and what  they were  still  promising  her, and the whole history of Germany
over the past decade struck me as monstrously absurd.
     "  'I  don't know what you find to laugh at,' Emil  said, when we  were
above ground again. 'Look what they have done to us.
     " 'I can  see,' I said, not realising at the time the full significance
of  his words.  And the significance of them was apart  from anything  else,
that our  friendship was over.  He had been ashamed to tell  me that  he was
acquainted with a Gestapo man, and because of that I had not been ashamed to
think  that  he  might  betray  me. Perhaps that  was  too  little  to end a
friendship? Actually it was more than enough. Friendship does not like being
tested. Testing  degrades it and destroys its value.  If friendship  demands
testing, some  kind of  substantial guarantee, it means that  it is  nothing
more than an exchange of certain intellectual commodities.
     "Friendship is not merely trust that  can be bought  by testing,  but a
trustfulness that exists before any  testing  takes place, and at  the  same
time it is a happiness, a delight in the very fullness of giving spiritually
to a person who is near to one.
     "If I say I am a friend of this  man it means that  I trust him utterly
and completely because  my  feeling  implies  a  realisation  of  the  great
fraternal predestination  of man.  And as  for tests--should fate send them,
they will be  only  a  confirmation of that  surmise, and  not a signed  and
sealed recommendation  of a partner's good  faith. But I  think I  have been
talking too much..."
     "Let's drink to that never  happening  again," I said, taking advantage
of his unexpected pause. I felt that his  reminiscences had  overexcited him
and we were beginning to attract attention.
     "Yes,  let's drink to that," he agreed, apparently somewhat embarrassed
at having told such a long story.  We drank. The champagne was  tepid by now
and  my  toast did  not  strike me as very convincing.  My acquaintance  had
obviously tired himself with his recollections and seemed a little  bemused.
To revive  him I said that the previous autumn I  had visited West  Germany,
where  the  thing  that had  struck me  most  had  been the friendliness  of
ordinary Germans towards our delegation. He nodded, and seemed to be pleased
at  this  information. And then he  was brilliant  once more, if what he had
been relating up to then could be called brilliant.
     "We, Germans," he said, barely restraining a smile  that now seemed not
half  so asymmetrical, if asymmetrical at  all,  "are very  slow to lose our
respect for the big stick."
     This set us both laughing. And perhaps we should have gone on  laughing
for eternity had I  not noticed  that people were coming up towards  us from
the pier. Apparently the launch had arrived.
     "Ooo-hoo!" he exclaimed with a  kind  of plaintive dignity and  hurried
off to the pier.
     From this strange sound that  had  risen so suddenly from the depths of
his  German soul I concluded that  he had had  quite  enough of  the Russian
language and decided to call it a day. Some of the holiday-makers were still
walking along the pier  when he reached it. I heard them greeting each other
loudly from a distance and scraps of their noisy conversation. We, Russians,
had  also  greeted  one  another  in this noisy  fashion while travelling in
Germany.  Once you  get  accustomed  to  the idea  that  no  one around  you
understands  the  language you  are speaking, you even forget that they  can
hear it.
     The  pensioner was still  sitting at  the  table with  his  faded  lady
friend. I felt his gaze upon me.
     "So he's a German?" he asked in surprise.
     "Yes," I said. "What of it?"
     "Well,  I  thought he  was  Estonian,"  he observed  with  a  touch  of
annoyance, as though, if he had only been informed beforehand, he might have
been able to do something about it.
     "Democratic or  Federal?"  he asked  a  moment later  in  a  tone  that
dismissed the possibility of taking any action  but showed a desire to  know
the extent of the error he had committed.
     "Federal," I said.
     "What  does he  say  about Kiesinger?" he  asked  unexpectedly, leaning
towards me with a kind of communal curiosity.
     "Nothing," I said.
     "Aha! Humph," the pensioner pronounced with sly pomposity and shook his
pink head.
     I laughed. The old  man was really rather  amusing.  He also broke into
silent triumphant laughter.
     "What  could  he tell  us anyway?"  he said, addressing  his  companion
between chuckles. "We know all about it from the newspapers as it is."
     The German came smilingly to the table with his wife  and  daughter. He
introduced us and purely  for  the sake of rhetoric proposed another bottle.
His wife shook  her  head  and,  lifting a  brown young arm, pointed  to her
watch. Like all of them,  she was wearing a very low-cut  dress  and  looked
youthful and  athletic. It was rather strange to see a woman  who  had lived
through a whole epoch in the history of her people and looked none the worse
for it. As for  the girl, I had the impression that she would have been only
too glad of some champagne if her parents had agreed. Her father and I shook
hands firmly and they went off in the direction of a hotel.
     "We  won the  war  and they  go  about enjoying themselves,"  said  the
pensioner, and laughed good-naturedly as he watched them go.
     I made no reply.
     "If  you like," he said, addressing his companion much more sternly, "I
can bring you a  book tomorrow by the French Academician André  Maurois, 
Life and Adventures of Georges Sand
     "Yes, I should like that," she replied.
     "That's a  rare book too," the  pensioner  said. "It describes all  her
lovers, to wit--Frederic Chopin, Prosper Merimé, Alfred de Musset..."
     He paused, trying to remember the rest of Georges Sand's lovers.
     "Maupassant," the woman suggested doubtfully.
     "In  the  first  place, you  should  say  not  Maupassant  but  Guy  de
Maupassant,"  he corrected her sternly. "And secondly, he  is not  included,
although a number of other great European figures are there."
     "I  shall be extremely  grateful," the  woman responded, gently evading
any further discussion.
     "You  should indeed,  it's a  rare book,"  the pensioner  observed  and
dropped his beads into his tunic pocket. "Wait for me here  at the same time
     "I'll make a point of it," the woman said respectfully.
     "Expect me,"  the  pensioner repeated  and, inclining  his  pink  pate,
stalked away across the  boulevard. The woman watched him go, and then asked
me rather anxiously, "Do you think he'll come?"
     "Of course, he will," I said. "What else can he do with himself?"
     "There are  all sorts, you know," the woman sighed. She sat stolidly at
her table and now seemed very  big and lonely.  I paid the bill and went off
to a coffee-house. The sun had sunk rather low over the sea. The launch that
had brought the  wife and daughter of the German physicist left almost empty
for the beach. When I reached the coffee-house I  found the pensioner there,
already  surrounded  by  a  gang of  other  old  men.  Among their  withered
coffee-coloured   faces   his   pink   countenance   displayed   a  rubicund

     I  awoke early and remembered that the evening before I had made up  my
mind to go fishing  for  trout.  Probably it was this that had  woken  me. I
raised my head and looked round. The lads were all sleeping in the strangest
attitudes as though  sleep had caught them by  surprise,  certain  movements
half-completed. A lilac dawn  showed through  the window. It was still  very
early. The bare log walls glowed faintly golden and smelled of fresh resin.
     All the  week  we had been trekking in  the mountains,  visiting places
where there had been fighting in defence of the Caucasus. The expedition had
been planned long ago by students of our Geography Faculty and was led by my
friend Avtandil Tsikridze, a physical training instructor. It was he who had
suggested I should join them. I had gladly agreed.
     On our last day, spurred on by lack of food--somebody had miscalculated
student appetites--we had done our longest hike and by evening reached  this
     Fortunately,  we did not have to  pitch  our  tents  because  the local
militia chief had hospitably provided us with accommodation for the night in
what was either  a former  store-shed or a future  club-house. He  appeared,
fishing rod in hand, when  we,  having dumped our  rucksacks,  were  lolling
blissfully on the grass over a bend in the river.
     After climbing down the steep slope, he set about making his casts in a
businesslike fashion, evidently  into pools  with  which  he was  thoroughly
familiar. He would make a cast, wiggle his rod a bit, and  pull out a trout.
Then he would walk  on  a few paces, make  another cast, jerk and wiggle his
rod again--and out came  another trout.  From a distance it looked as  if he
was simply pricking  out  the fish with the  long thin needle of his fishing
line. Having  caught  a dozen  fine trout in the space  of half  an hour, he
quite suddenly, for no apparent reason, as though he had collected his day's
quota, reeled in his line and came up to us.
     That  evening, despite  our  weariness one of  the students and  I  cut
ourselves  rods  from a hazel  bush  and fitted them  out  with  lines.  The
student's name  was  Lusik.  In some  Abkhazian  villages  they  give  their
children  Russian names or  simply call them by some Russian word, usually a
resounding one often  repeated on the radio. For instance,  I used to know a
lad whose  name was Voina (war). Possibly a little worried by  his own name,
he always behaved in a markedly peaceful manner.
     Lusik was the same. As  though  bewitched by  his feminine name, he was
shy and stood  out among the other lads by a scrupulous  respectfulness that
never degenerated into servility. He was sturdy as  a little donkey, and his
amazing stamina  had put  to shame the  toughest members of  our expedition,
which included two trained athletes.
     ...I took a big clasp-knife out of my rucksack and two match-boxes, one
with  some  caviar in it, and  the  other with  spare hooks, and pushed  the
rucksack back against the wall.
     The match-box of caviar had been given to me by a man  who had come  up
to our fire when we were camped at the foot of Marukh.
     He had arrived in a helicopter belonging to a  party  of geologists who
had set up  camp here before us and were working in this locality.  He was a
fair-haired man of about thirty,  already running to fat. He was wearing new
shorts and heavy, also new, climbing boots, and carried an ice-axe. For some
two hours he sat with us by the fire, taking an  unobtrusive  interest in us
and our expedition. He did mention his name, but  I immediately  forgot  it.
One of the lads, choosing the right moment, asked him where he worked.
     "In  a certain high-level  department," he said smiling amiably, as  if
hinting  at the relative  nature  of  departmental heights compared with the
height we were  now at. The pun received no further explanation, but then we
were not particularly interested in where he worked anyway.
     The  next  morning,  when we were packing up to go, he brought me  this
match-box full of caviar. The  evening before  he  had  heard me complaining
that the local  trout were not attracted by grasshoppers and for some reason
worms were hard to come by.
     "I suppose the  earth, like  any other  product, gets worm-eaten in the
warmer places," I had remarked to my own surprise.
     He  nodded understandingly, although I myself was not  too  clear about
the implications of my schizophrenic image. And the next morning  he brought
me the caviar.
     I was touched by his thoughtfulness and regretted that I  had forgotten
his name, but  it would  have  been  awkward to ask  again at this juncture.
Anyway  I  made an effort to show that I believed  in his  work in a certain
high-level  department, although he may not have noticed it. That is, he may
not have noticed my effort.
     When  we went off in single file  with  our rucksacks on our  backs, he
stood by the helicopter in his new shorts with his ice-axe in one hand and a
Svan hat,  also  new, in the other  and  waved  good-bye with  the hat and I
finally forgave him for his  innocent Alpine  masquerade. Especially  as all
this put together, he and  the helicopter on  the green meadow surrounded by
the  stern  mountains,  looked  superb  and  could  have  been  used  as  an
advertisement for air tourism.
     ...I  buttoned up  the  pockets  of my  rucksack, ran my hands over  my
clothing, trying to remember anything I might have forgotten,  and stood up.
I decided not to  wake Lusik. He'll  come if he wakes up, I thought. Perhaps
he has changed his mind, and anyhow it's better to fish on one's own.
     On  the table  lay several loaves of  white bread with  glowing  russet
crusts. The militia chief had gone to the village shopkeeper  in the evening
and  he  had opened  his shop to  provide  us with bread, butter,  sugar and
macaroni. Bread in such quantity was a pleasant sight.
     I went up to  the table, took out my knife and cut off a big crust. The
bread resisted resiliently and  with a little squeak as I cut it. One of the
lads, without waking, smacked his lips and  it  seemed to me  as if this was
his response to the sound of bread being cut. There was also a small cask of
butter. I spread butter thickly over  the crust, took a bite out  of it  and
involuntarily glanced at the lad who had  smacked his lips. This time he had
felt nothing.
     I went out on to the veranda and knocked the knife on the rail to close
it. For some reason it would not close any other way.
     Only  then did  I notice that  Lusik was  standing by the  porch steps,
where the fishing rods were leaning against the wall.
     "Been up long?" I asked, chewing.
     "No," he answered hastily,  looking up at me with his big  phoenix-like
eyes. I could see he was afraid that  I might  feel embarrassed  to find him
here waiting for me.
     "Go and cut yourself a slice," I said, and offered him the knife.
     "I don't want any," Lusik said, shaking his head.
     "Go on," I repeated, biting into my crust again.
     "I swear  by my mother that  I don't like eating so early," Lusik said,
wrinkling his nose and raising his eyebrows almost to his schoolboy fringe.
     "Let's go and dig for worms then," I said, and walked down the steps.
     Lusik picked up both rods and followed me.
     We  walked along  the  village  street.  On  our  left were  the public
buildings, the collective  farm management  office, the restaurant, and  the
barn with its amber, freshly planed log walls. They all stood on the edge of
a cliff. From below came the roar of the invisible river. On the right was a
maize  field. The maize was  ripening and the shucks  were sticking out from
the well-formed cobs. The street was deserted except for  three pigs of  the
local breed, black and long like artillery shells, that were slowly crossing
     The sky was a pale-green,  exquisitely tender. Ahead of us to the south
shone a  huge bedraggled  star. There were  no other stars and this solitary
one looked as if it had somehow got left behind. As I walked down the road I
kept admiring this big wet star that seemed to be ashamed of its bigness.
     The mountains, as yet untouched by the sun, were  a sombre blue. Only a
small golden spot on the jagged peak of the highest was ablaze.
     Beyond  the maize field  on the right there was a school yard  in which
there  stood  a small,  very homely village school. The  door of  one of the
classrooms  was open. All the classrooms opened on to a long veranda with  a
porch. At one end of the veranda there was a pile of desks standing one atop
the other.
     A track ran past the school yard in the direction of the street. It was
scattered with pebbles and large stones carried down by heavy rains.
     Here we decided to  make our first search.  While I was still finishing
my buttered crust, Lusik  propped the  rods against the  fence  and  started
heaving the stones.
     "Anything there?" I  asked  when he had lifted the  first stone and was
peering under it. He was still holding it  half  raised  as though, if there
turned out to be  no worms under it he was going to put  it  back in exactly
the same position.
     "Yes, there are," Lusik said, and heaved the stone away.
     I  swallowed  my  last  mouthful and  felt  in  need  of a  smoke  but,
remembering that  I had only three  cigarettes in  the  breast  pocket of my
shirt, I decided to  try and last  out.  I took out the matchbox that was in
the  same  pocket, tipped the matches out of it and kept the empty box ready
for the worms. Lusik was already collecting his in a tin.
     Turning up the boulders in  this fashion we  gradually made our way  up
the track. There were not many worms  to be had and under some of the stones
there  were  none  at all.  Little Lusik  sometimes shifted  really  massive
boulders. You could see his arms were used to hard work. In fact, everything
about  his sturdy  stubborn little  figure  suggested that  he was  used  to
overcoming the resistance of gravity.
     As we moved gradually  up the track we drew level with the school. When
I  raised my head for a moment I noticed  a woman on  the  veranda.  She was
squeezing a wet rag out into a pail. I  was surprised that I had not noticed
her before,  and  even  more  surprised to see  that she  was a  fair-haired
Russian woman. That was unusual here.
     "Good morning," I said, when she turned her head.
     "Good morning," she replied amiably, but without any sign of curiosity.
     A girl  in her teens  came out of the open classroom carrying a  besom.
She dipped it in the pail, shook it and having whacked the  steps with it  a
few times, gave us a  silent look and went back into  the classroom. She was
beautiful and  walked  away  with her back perfectly  straight, conscious of
being  looked  at.  The  charm  of  her  face  lay, probably,  in  the  rare
combination  it  achieved  of Oriental  brilliance  and a  Slav softness  of
     I  looked  at  Lusik.  He  was  staring open-mouthed with his  innocent
phoenix-like eyes.
     "Where did she spring from?" he asked me in Abkhazian.
     "Come back in about three years' time," I said.
     Lusik sighed and set  about lifting the  next stone. I  bent down  with
     I could hear the  woman  scrubbing the veranda  floor  with her rag and
sluicing it with water. It  must have been the postwar  shortages that drove
her up here into this remote mountain village,  I thought. Then she had this
girl by some Svan and stayed on here, I decided, surprising myself by my own
     "How do we get down to the river from here?" I asked.
     She straightened up and eased her head back to relax her neck muscles.
     "Over there."  She  held  out  a bare arm that  was  wet to  the elbow.
"You'll find the way down as soon as you get to that house. "
     "I know it," Lusik said.
     The girl with the besom appeared again.
     "Is that your daughter?" I asked.
     "My eldest," the woman affirmed with a quiet pride.
     "Why, have you any others?"
     "Six altogether," she smiled.
     That was a real surprise. She looked far too young for a  woman who had
borne six children.
     "Oh! Does your husband work at the school?"
     "He's the chairman of the collective farm," she corrected me and added,
with another nod towards the house across the road, "That's our house."
     It was barely visible  through the fruit-trees but I could see that  it
was the  kind of  roomy  well-built  place  that  might  belong to  the farm
     "My regular job's at the weather station," she explained. "This is just
something I do on the side."
     The girl,  who had been listening to the  conversation, knocked out her
besom  against  the porch  steps  and  with a  severe glance at  her  mother
returned to the classroom, still keeping her back very stiff and straight.
     "Pretty  hard for  you, isn't  it?" I  asked,  trying to  include in my
question household  matters,  the children and,  above all, living  among  a
strange people.
     "Not so bad," she said, "my daughter helps..."
     We did not talk  about  anything else. Having  collected enough  worms,
Lusik and I picked up our rods and set off. I glanced round to say good-bye,
but now they were carrying the desks into the classroom and had  no time for
     As I walked past  the  house opposite the  school I saw four youngsters
with  fair hair  and  dark eyes. They  were clinging  to  the new  fence and
staring out into the street.
     "What is your father?" I asked the eldest, a boy of about six.
     "Chairman,"  he gurgled,  and  I  noticed his fingers tighten round the
stakes of the fence.
     We turned off the track and  made our way down a very  steep path. Tiny
pebbles went bouncing away from under our feet and sometimes I had to use my
rod as a brake. Thickets of hazel, elder and blackberry overhung the path on
both sides. One spur  of blackberry was so  heavily  loaded with dark  dusty
fruit that I could not resist.
     I planted my rod on  the path  and, holding  it with my chin to stop it
slipping  away, carefully bent the branch and gathered a handful of berries.
Having puffed the dust off  them, I  poured  the  cool sweet berries into my
mouth. There were plenty more on the branch but I decided  not to let myself
be diverted and took to the  path. The sound of the river was becoming  more
audible and I was eager to reach the bank.
     Lusik was waiting  for me below. As  soon as I came out  on the bank  I
felt a rush of cool  air on  my face. It was the  air stream  carried by the
whirling waters.
     The nearness  of  the  water  spurred us  on  and we crunched over  the
pebbles of the dried-up channels towards it. About ten meters from the water
I signed to Lusik not  to talk, and trying not to  make so much noise on the
pebbles, we  crept to the water's edge. An  experienced angler had taught me
this. I had been amused at the sight of him crawling down to the water as if
he were stalking game, but when he fished out  a score of trout and I caught
no more than a couple of miserable troutlets in a whole day I had to believe
in the advantage of experience.
     Lusik was making signs and pointing. I looked downstream and saw a  lad
with  a fishing rod about fifty meters away. I recognised him at once as one
of our party.
     It was unpleasant that  he  had  forestalled us. We  had not even known
that he intended  to go fishing.  As if sensing our gaze, he looked round. I
made  an inquiring gesture: how goes it? He replied with a limp  wave of the
arm: nothing doing. I  thought I glimpsed a  frown of  disappointment on his
face. He turned away and applied himself to his rod.
     If that's how it is, I thought, we can consider that he arrived with us
and we began fishing at the same time. After all, the fish don't know he was
here first... I signed to Lusik  to go  on  downstream and keep his distance
from me. He did so.
     I took the  matchbox out of my waterproof  jacket, selected  a fat worm
and fixed it on the hook, leaving its tail wiggling.
     At this spot the river split  in two,  forming a long island  overgrown
with grass and stunted alders. The main channel was  on the  other side. The
near channel began with  a shallow rapid, below which I noticed a small deep
pool. I  crept over to it and, holding the line by the sinker with one hand,
drew the  rod back  with the  other  to  judge  the length of  my  cast more
exactly.  Then I  swung the rod gently and  let go  of the line. The  sinker
plummeted neatly into the pool.
     Now the main thing is not  to get snagged, I thought, trying to take in
the  slack so that  the  hook was not  carried round an  underwater rock  or
branch. Something plucked at the line and my  hand gave an involuntary jerk.
The  hook came up  with  nothing on  it. After  a few more  false  alarms  I
realised that  this  was due  not  to a  fish biting, but to the  tugging of
underwater  currents;  but  my wrist  still  jerked each time  as if from an
electric shock. My mind was always a fraction of a second behind the reflex.
     Tap! I felt the faint tug and forced my hand to keep still.
     Still crouching on  my heels and  very excited,  I waited  for  another
bite, impressing on myself that I should not jerk my hand when I felt it.
     He'll try again in a minute,  I told  myself, but be  patient. The fish
did nibble the bait again and my hand scarcely moved. This time the fish was
more careful. That's  good, I  thought,  keep that up a few  times until you
feel that it's taken the bait.
     The  fish attacked again, I made  my  strike and the next moment a wet,
gleaming trout was fluttering in  the air.  I swung the rod towards the bank
and  the line  with  the heavy fish dancing  on the end of it came before my
eyes. In my excitement I did not seize it at once.  Eventually I reached out
and got a firm grip on that cold  living body,  laid  my rod down carefully,
and  holding the fish even more tightly, with my other  hand freed  the hook
from its soundlessly hiccupping mouth.
     I  had  never caught  such  a  big  one  before.  It was the  size of a
full-grown  corn cob. Its back was  speckled  with  red  spots. I  carefully
unbuttoned  the  flap of my jacket pocket,  dropped  it in  and buttoned the
pocket again. In  the pocket it writhed with fresh strength. I  had a  knife
there and decided that it  might bruise itself on the haft.  So I opened the
pocket again  and with the coldness of the fish on  the back of my hand took
the knife  out, transferred it to another pocket and again buttoned the flap
over the fish.
     I  straightened up,  feeling a need for distraction  after such a large
and  almost sickening dose  of happiness. I  took a  deep breath and  looked
round.  The  water was noticeably  lighter and the airstream  above  it  had
warmed a little.  The mountains on the other side of the river lay in sombre
blue shadow but the peaks of those behind me were a blaze of gold.
     Lusik was not  far  away downstream. I realised  that  he  had not seen
anything,  otherwise he would  still be  looking in my direction.  Lusik had
never done any fishing before, except for a couple of  attempts  at trout up
here  with me in the mountains. But there had  been no  catch, so he had not
yet experienced the real thrill.
     You seldom find an angler among the Abkhazians. This is a strange thing
for a people who  have lived by the sea  for centuries. I  think it  was not
always so. The unfortunate migration to Turkey in  the last century probably
took with it most of the inhabitants of the  coast and the river valleys and
with their departure the Abkhazian fishing industry came to a sudden end.
     If such blank spots, such oblivion can occur in  a people's  memory, of
such a visible thing as fishing, I thought, how carefully  must we guard the
more fragile values against the danger of disappearance, evaporation...
     The student who had arrived before us had changed his ground.
     He had told me once that he and his father had  a motor  boat and often
went  fishing at sea. I had asked him  if he ever  sold fish because with  a
motor  boat you can nearly always find a shoal and there are plenty of  fish
to be caught when trolling in a good shoal.
     He looked straight into my eyes and said that he  and  his father 
sold fish. I felt that he was offended. But there had been no offense meant.
     I baited  my hook again  and made a cast. Now I  fished standing  up. I
felt that the expedition was going to be a good one. I don't know why, but I
was sure of it.
     In a  little while I again felt  a nibbling,  and tried to keep my hand
still.  There  were a  few  more  stirrings, then stillness, but  I went  on
waiting,  determined to outwit the fish. When I pulled in the line, however,
the bait was gone. The fish must have quietly nibbled it away and I had been
waiting for it to snap at a bare hook.
     I baited the hook again and  made  a  careful cast.  The  line  circled
smoothly in the eddying waters of the pool and I kept it  there with a light
flick of the rod whenever it floated  away. When  there was still no bite, I
decided to let the bait go downstream  a little, then  drew it  back against
the current to tempt some of the bolder fish.
     The trout that I had caught was slapping me on the belly and every slap
helped me to  be patient. ***  At last I caught a medium-sized trout and put
it in my pocket.  The  first one, which had been still for a while, began to
flap about  with  the second.  It must be  glad of  the  company, I thought,
perhaps it has given it fresh hope. But then I decided that the second trout
had  brought  the first to  life with its wet  oxygenated gills.  I squatted
down, opened my pocket and poured in a few handfuls of water.
     Now the two trout flapped  about  in  the  water and from  time to time
nudged me almost gratefully in the stomach, giving me a strange sensation of
rather foolish joy.
     There seemed to be nothing more going for me on this spot, so I decided
to move on. I  drew in my line, wound it round the rod and  planted the hook
in the soft fresh wood.
     I  might  have tried  upstream,  but the  cliffs  on either  side  fell
straight into the  water  and there was no way  round them.  Further up  the
river the bank was  much more accessible,  but it could  not be reached from
here, I moved downstream.
     By now  the sun was shining brightly and gave a pleasant warmth. A mist
was creeping up from behind one of the mountains. In the  shallows the water
was clear and every pebble shone joyfully, casting a quivering shadow on the
sandy bottom. Now and then for no apparent reason little underwater tornados
whipped up the sand.
     I came up to Lusik. Waist deep  in the  water,  he was leaning over and
groping in it with an  alert expression in his  big,  phoenix-like eyes. His
clothes were lying neatly folded on the bank.
     "Snagged up?" I asked as I approached.
     "I can't reach it," he said in an unexpectedly old-mannish  voice.  The
poor fellow was hoarse from  the cold. "Come out," I said  and picked up his
     "I'll lose the hook," Lusik  croaked, just like a thrifty  old man, and
climbed reluctantly out of the water.
     He was almost black with cold.
     I  pulled the line till it broke, selected  a  new hook and tied it on.
Holding  the hook in  one hand,  I put the other end  of the tie between  my
teeth, tugged it tight and actually bit off the end, which I was not usually
able to do.
     "There we are," I said, spitting out the end.
     "Have you caught anything?" Lusik asked with his teeth chattering.
     "Two," I  said, and opened  my jacket pocket. Lusik put his hand in and
pulled out the big one. It was still alive.
     "What a whopper, " he croaked, shivering.  "  I can feel them nibbling,
but they don't bite."
     "Don't  hurry over your strike," I said,  and  when he had replaced the
trout in my pocket went  down to the edge and poured in  a few more handfuls
of fresh water.
     "Aren't we going yet?" Lusik asked.
     "No fear," I said, and walked on down the bank.
     "I'll stay a bit longer, then go back. The lads will be waiting," Lusik
shouted after me. His voice was coming through clearer now.
     I  nodded  without looking  round and walked on. Far ahead I  caught  a
glimpse of the other student.  He had again shifted his position. He kept on
shifting it--a sure sign of failure.
     I wanted to be left quite alone and decided not to try any more until I
had passed the student. I was sure he had disturbed all the fish around here
and it would be no use trying, although there were some very good pools.
     At one of them I did stop make a  cast. I got a bite straight away, but
after that  came a lull. Grudging the time I  was wasting and yet determined
to turn it to some use, I went on waiting stubbornly.
     Snap!  Snap! It was  double bite.  I  made  my strike and pulled out  a
trout.  Good  for you, I told  myself, you had the patience  and here's your
     But as soon as I tried to get  my hand to it the fish wriggled off  the
hook and fell on the bank. I dropped my rod and tried to grab it, but with a
desperate agility it slipped away into the water. In its terror it seemed to
have grown feet on its belly.
     Cursing  myself for the delay, I reeled in my line somehow  and set off
downstream almost at a run.
     The student was fishing knee-deep in the shallows. Here the  river  was
racing noisily over a  series  of  small  rapids,  and he did  not  hear  me
approach. His whole posture suggested that he had no faith in the enterprise
and was merely amusing himself for want of something better to do.
     "How's it going?" I shouted.
     He turned and shook his head.
     "How about you?" he asked.
     The  river  drowned the  sound  of his  voice and I  indicated  with my
fingers that I  had caught two fish,  then pulled the big  trout out  of  my
pocket to show him.
     I went on further and decided not to stop until I found the finest spot
of all.
     This was a huge pinkish-lilac boulder. It was separated  from the  bank
by a narrow strip  of water. On one side  I could  see  a deep  pool  and  I
guessed that there must be another deep, quiet backwater on the other side.
     My excitement returned and I  crept over to the boulder, trying  not to
make a  noise  on the  pebbles.  Having silently reached the water's edge  I
propped the rod against the boulder and sprang on to it.
     The boulder was  cold and slippery.  On this side  the dew had  not yet
dried. I pulled my rod up and climbed cautiously to the top. Here it was dry
and on both sides there were deep green pools of quiet water.
     Let the bait be  worthy of the place, I decided and, trying not to give
my presence  away,  took the matchbox of caviar  out of my pocket. I  had to
press hard to open it.  The caviar was of an unusual kind. I had  never seen
anything like  it  even on  the  Kommandorskiye Islands, where people go  to
collect caviar with pails and baskets, as if they  were picking berries. The
grains lay in a compact amber-coloured bunch, each as big as a currant.
     That  comrade really  must  be working in some high-level department, I
thought. I wonder what the fish is  that spawns such caviar. I  wish I could
ask him.
     The sun  shone  pleasantly warm on  my back. The  rivet  was  murmuring
quietly. The  green water offered its tempting depths. The  grains of caviar
gleamed with a noble  transparency in the sunlight. I fixed two on the hook,
squeezed them a little to make them stick together and still  trying not  to
show myself, made a cast.
     For a few seconds the  red blob of caviar glimmered in  the green mass,
then vanished. I felt  the sinker hit the bottom, flicked it up a little and
waited motionless. After a while I raised the rod a  little and drew it back
and  forth  a few times then let the  sinker touch the  bottom again. I  was
trying  to give the  impression  of an alluring Queen Caviar dallying  under
     Snap! I felt the tug on the moving bait and paused  in expectation of a
second attack. There was a pause. It was as if the fish couldn't believe how
lucky  it  was to  find  such a tasty morsel. I gave the rod a flick and the
trout touched the  bait again. I  decided to get  my line  moving, but  on a
wider  track and without stopping at the first bite, so  that the temptation
would not  merely be moving but going away and  thus  call for more resolute
     Snap, snap, snap,  snap! I made my strike. The fish tugged back hard in
the depths, but I hauled on my rod and a trout was soon flapping in the air.
In its own element, when first struggling  in the depths  and as it came out
of the  water, it  had seemed huge,  but it  was not actually so big as  the
first. Still it was pretty big.
     As soon as I put it in my pocket, all three fish livened up and flapped
about  in what was left of  the  water. It was like  a new prisoner bringing
life to the exhausted inmates of a goal.
     I looked down  at the other side of the  boulder. This side was in  the
sun and the water was lighter, but even so the bottom was not  visible.  The
pool was very deep. I decided to try this side and then fish steadily now on
one side, now on the other.
     I  put  two  more grains of  caviar on the  hook, sat  down  in a  more
comfortable position, so as not to press on my pocketful of fish, and made a
cast. The  boulder,  now  pleasantly warmed by the sun, gave off a wholesome
flinty smell of healthy old age. I took  a cigarette out  of my shirt pocket
and lighted it.
     I enjoyed my cigarette hugely  but was a  little surprised that nothing
rose  to  the bait. A  little further  downstream the  river divided  again,
forming a  low  sandy  island  with a few  tufts  of  grass  and  a solitary
chestnut-tree  twisted in  the direction  of  the current. A good place  for
sunbathing, I thought. If  it got too hot you could always rest in the shade
of that tree. Evidently the  island was flooded not only in spring but after
every heavy rain.
     I threw my  butt away and waited a little longer,  wondering  why there
was no sign  of a bite. Perhaps the line showed up in  this sunlit water and
the fish were frightened?
     I crossed to the other  side of the boulder and almost at once caught a
huge trout, or so  it seemed  to  me after the long  run of bad  luck on the
other  side. It was certainly a big one, bigger than its predecessor, though
not, of course, as big as the first. Perhaps that one had been a salmon. And
anyway where was the dividing line between a big trout and a small salmon?
     I cast my bait and suddenly heard a kind of clicking. "What the devil?"
I wondered, and looked round.
     About a dozen  little children had  gathered on  the edge  of  the high
cliff above me. Some of them were carrying  school cases. When they realised
I had noticed them, they burst into  a  twitter of joy  and the ones without
cases swung  their arms  all together. The next moment several fierce little
stones clicked and clattered round my boulder.
     I shook my fist,  which at once put the little  band  into a frenzy  of
joy. They jumped and babbled merrily, and those who were still holding their
cases dropped them,  and  a moment later  another dozen pebbles  came flying
down. Not one of them landed  on the boulder, but some of  them bounced  off
the  pebbles  on the bank and  in the  silliest and most  unexpected fashion
ricocheted against the  boulder  and dropped back  into  the  water.  I  got
terribly  angry  and stood up, this  time shaking  both fists, which judging
from the unanimous howl afforded them utmost delight. Another hail of stones
     Then I decided to  pretend  not to  notice  them. They  shouted several
times  but  I  feigned total attention up to  my rod and line, although what
fishing could I do now!  I  sat  with  one  eye  on  the  bank,  where their
malicious pebbles were landing regularly to remind me of their presence.
     I decided that  I had better move. I would cross  both streams and come
out on the other bank. Most  of this hank  was  visible from  the road and I
felt that they would not leave me in peace.
     As soon  as I  climbed down  from the boulder  and walked downstream, a
move that was correctly interpreted by those little villains as quitting the
field of battle, I heard catcalls and victorious yippeeing behind me.
     I  found  a  shallow place, stepped into the stingingly cold water  and
crossed the first stream. In places the water came up to my waist and pulled
me hard. I tried not to stumble, but wet  sports boots became very slippery.
The fish  in my pocket, sensing  the nearness of their own element, raised a
     As I  made my way up the bank of the island I heard the far-off ringing
of the school bell.  I glanced round and saw the diminutive figures of those
little bandits running along  the road.  Well, damn it all, I  thought,  and
suddenly burst out laughing. The water  had cooled my fury. But now I had no
desire to turn back. I went  on, crossed the second stream  and came  out on
the narrow green  bank. It was hemmed by a forest of beech and cedar. Higher
up  the  stream a huge beech-tree was leaning almost  horizontally  over the
water. Its green branches hung comfortingly over the swirling currents.
     As there seemed to be no good spot close by I decided to try fishing in
the main  stream. There was  nothing  to  worry  about now because I was wet
through already. I baited the hook, chose the deepest  spot  by eye and went
as near to it as I could.
     Nothing rose. I was about to  climb out on to the bank when I felt that
the  line had caught on  something.  I  decided  to sacrifice  the  hook and
pulled. The line tautened, broke and came to the surface. It was the sinker,
not the hook that had caught.
     I emerged from the water with my feet so numb I could scarcely walk. As
I had  no spare sinker, I searched and found a long-shaped pebble, narrow in
the  middle, and tied  it to  the  line. Of  course, it  was not  much of  a
substitute,  but  it was  better than  nothing.  I decided  to  try from the
overhanging beech-tree and headed upstream. It was pleasant to walk on grass
after the slippery stones  of  the riverbed. The water squelched in my boots
and sometimes spurted out through the eyelets. The circulation soon returned
to my legs and  made them warm  but my  body felt chilly and  shivers chased
each other up my spine.
     I climbed on to the thick, moss-patched  trunk of the  tree  and walked
out  along it  to  the very  middle of  the  stream.  The  deep green water,
splashing gently  on the  dangling branches, flowed swiftly  beneath me. The
branches didn't seem to mind being in the water at all.
     The deep green flood  streamed past  below,  murmuring softly.  Shadows
swayed  on  its surface.  A bird, oblivious of my presence, alighted  on the
branch quite close to me. It was  probably a wagtail. At  any rate  it  kept
wagging its long  tail  as it looked around.  Having noticed me,  or  rather
realising that  I  was a living creature,  it shot  away through  the  beech
     I lighted  a cigarette. Still nothing rose  to my bait. I felt  that it
was much  too nice here to expect  good fishing as  well. Perhaps I had even
lost interest in trout. I felt that I had had enough of fishing. I lifted my
rod,  pulled off  the stone,  wound the  line  round the  rod and lodged  it
between two branches.
     It seemed a pity to leave. I  pushed my heavy pocket of  fish aside and
lay  face down on  the sun-warmed tree-trunk. It was  swaying slightly under
the pressure of the water pulling at its submerged branches. The nearness of
the deep swiftly flowing water increased the sense of  peace and immobility.
A winy smell rose from the sun-warmed trunk. The sun's  rays  felt  steamily
hot through my wet trousers. The moss tickled my cheek, the trunk swayed and
I fell into a sweet doze. An ant crawled slowly across my neck.
     Through  my drowsiness I reflected that  it was a long time since I had
known such peace. Perhaps this was something I had never known. Even with  a
woman  you loved  it would not  be so  peaceful.  Perhaps  because there was
always the  danger that she would start  talking  and spoil  everything. But
even  if she didn't, there would  always be a  fringe of awareness that  she
might, and  there  was  no telling  how  it  might  end. So you  could never
experience such complete bliss as you had here. But here you had  it because
a tree could not possibly begin to talk; that was for sure.
     Through  drowsiness I heard a  distant whistle from the other bank.  It
seemed  to  come from another  life. Still dozing, I  wondered  how it could
possibly  have carried  such a  distance.  The  whistle was repeated several
times and each time I wondered drowsily how I had managed to hear it.
     Then I  heard a chanting voice but could  not make out the  words. Then
came more whistling and the chanting voice again. I realised that they  both
came  from  one persistent  source,  and  slowly  I  became  aware that  the
whistling and chanting were produced by several people together...
     "Lorry-is-here!"  I  felt the words rather  than  heard them. A stab of
alarm  passed through me. I realised that the lorry  that was  to pick us up
had arrived and the whole group was waiting for me. I grabbed my rod and ran
down from the trunk.
     The sun was quite high by now. It was probably about eleven o'clock.  I
had quite  forgotten the time and now felt embarrassed to have  kept so many
people waiting. Besides, I was afraid they would  leave without me. I had no
money to pay for the journey back. And when would I pick up a lift anyway?
     Without looking for  a  ford I  charged into  the water and crossed the
first stream almost at a run. After running across the island I plunged into
the water  again.  Here  the river was broad and shallow. I ran as fast as I
could, trying not to  stumble and bruise  my  legs.  I did  stumble  several
times, but always managed to save myself with the rod.
     When quite near the bank, I felt the water growing much deeper. I could
hardly keep on my feet. "What the devil!" I muttered and halted.
     The water  was only just above my waist, but the current was so  strong
that only the rod kept me from being  swept away. I regretted that I had not
gone  back downstream where I had quite  easily forded the river before.  At
the same time it was hard to believe that I should not be able to manage the
last  five meters  to the bank. I took a step forward, putting all my weight
on the rod. The main thing was not to  trust your foot  until it had found a
firm new foothold. Some of the  stones rolled over and  moved away with  the
current  as soon  as I trodded on  them.  The water rose in  a hostile flood
around me. And  suddenly I realised I could not take  a  single step because
all my strength was needed to hold on where I was.
     I  felt fear surging  up and sweeping away consciousness at  terrifying
speed. And more afraid of this fear than anything else, I tried to forestall
it  by  action,  by leaning into  the current  and stepping off quickly. The
flood snatched me  at  once and dragged me down.  My body sank  into the icy
murk and I swallowed water.
     At  last I managed to regain  the surface and feel the  bottom, but the
current  carried me away  again  while  out  of  sheer obstinacy I  went  on
clutching the rod.  I  swallowed more water, but this time let go of the rod
as soon as I surfaced,  and struck out with all my  strength.  I  was  still
being carried along at terrifying speed and could feel my strength  failing.
Nevertheless I managed to approach the bank and grab a boulder, though I was
sure I hadn't the strength to pull myself out.
     But at least I could rest and get my breath back.
     At this moment  I saw a hand reaching out from above. I clutched it and
the two of us together hauled my body out on to the bank.
     It was Lusik. I felt dizzy and sick,  but sitting on the pebbly beach I
slowly recovered.
     "I shouted to you," Lusik said, "didn't you hear?"
     "No," I said.  Perhaps he  hadn't  seen the whole thing. Perhaps he had
just come down to the bank to give me a hand. I didn't want him to know what
predicament I had been in.
     "We had  breakfast long  ago,  the lorry's waiting,"  Lusik reminded me
     "All right, just a minute," I said, and stood up with an effort.
     I still felt sick from exhaustion. I  opened the pocket  of  my jacket,
pulled out the trout  and tossed  them on  the sand. They were  still alive.
When the current  had swept  me away they  had  become  gloatingly still. Or
perhaps I was imagining it all.
     It had been a strange feeling when I was  carried away. What a devilish
force, I  thought, recalling  the vicious persistence of  the  water  as  it
dragged me down.
     I was longing for a smoke. I put my hand in my pocket but the cigarette
was sodden.  I pulled everything out of the pockets, undressed, squeezed out
my pants and vest, then dressed again.
     Lusik had threaded  the trout on to a twig and was waiting patiently. I
was quite indifferent to them now.
     We set off. Lusik took the lead. The heavy bunch of fresh trout dangled
from his hand. The red spots on their backs  were still  bright. By the time
we started  climbing I wanted  to carry them myself, but I could hardly keep
up with Lusik.
     "Hand over," I said when he stopped to wait for me at a bend.
     "It's all right, I'll carry them," Lusik replied.
     But I took the bunch all the same. I felt that it would be more  proper
for me to appear  carrying my own catch, although  there  would have been no
doubt as to where they were.
     When we reached the street, everyone  was seated in the lorry. Cheerful
pandemonium broke out as soon as they saw us and hands reached down from the
back  to help us in. The student who had been  out fishing before  us looked
disdainfully at the  bunch of trout just to  show that no one could surprise
him with fish.
     "I lost one," I announced, holding out the catch to somebody.
     The  bunch  was handed round. Everyone was impressed, but  when it came
back to me someone said that we had four hours' journey ahead of us and they
would go bad by the time we reached town.
     "They'd have made a nice soup for lunch," he added.
     "Better fried," someone else suggested.
     "Not enough to go round if  they were fried," said the  other, "but you
could make a good fish soup."
     I,  too, realised that the journey would  be too long, specially in the
heat.  Not that they would really go bad, but it would be  a  pity  to bring
this fine bunch of trout to town in a miserable state.
     As  though  sensing my hesitation,  a long black pig came up  to me. It
stood there waiting with feigned patience to see what I was going to do with
my catch.
     "Give it to the restaurant," someone suggested.
     I glanced  round. The door  of the restaurant was open and  loud voices
could be heard. I shoved the pig out of my way and walked to the restaurant.
It was deserted except for  three  Svans  who  were drinking white wine with
tomatoes and 
 cheese. They seemed to have drunk quite a lot already.
The bartender was engaged in a quarrel with one of them.
     I offered  him the  bunch  of  trout. Without noticing me,  he  took my
catch, carried it off into the kitchen and came back,  still berating one of
the  drinkers.  He  just didn't  notice  me  at  all.  I  walked out  of the
restaurant and climbed into the lorry.
     We moved off. The wet  clothes made me shiver, so I stripped down to my
shorts.  Someone gave me my rucksack, a big chunk of bread and a mess-tin of
stew. I  made myself comfortable on the rucksack and ate my  breakfast.  The
tin was still hot because  they had wrapped it in  a  sleeping bag. I  would
take a bite of bread  then, holding the mess-tin in both hands, sip from it,
trying to  time every  sip with the jolting of the lorry so as  not to  burn
myself or spill the tasty stew of macaroni and beans. When I had emptied the
tin  I  felt  warmer. Someone gave  me a  cigarette  and I  lighted up.  Now
everyone had plenty of cigarettes.
     The lads decided to sing, but  their songs all tailed off  because they
didn't know  the  words.  They had grown tired  of  the songs  they did know
during the expedition. But it still sounded jolly.
     The lorry rushed down the  winding  road,  hooting  and braking  at the
bends. The mountains  slowly  unfolded  and  on our  left  the river  showed
glittering below a  steep drop. It kept  narrowing and spreading out  again,
dividing and flowing together. In the end I grew tired of it.
     Suddenly the lorry plunged into the warm, humid air of Kolkhida.
     We continued  our  descent and all the  time  I  was  conscious  of the
nearness of the sea, although it  was a  long time before it actually became