Translated by Andrew Wachtel
Soon it will be September. By the door of the kiosk on the corner, a mangy dog lies sleeping at all hours. A couple of local guys are drinking beer and a dark-haired woman, no longer young, likely the cashier, is smoking a cigarette and laughing uproariously while leaning drunkenly on one of them. I live humbly and slowly, like a dozing insect in the light of the fading sun. The weeks go by as if seen through the window of an express train. The weeks fall away but the landscape never changes. I lie in bed and try to read. My thoughts are always far away and they don’t mesh with the text. What am I reading? I can’t recall. That’s because any interlocutor, be it a person or a book, demands a piece of yourself. And I can’t give up what other people part with so insouciantly. I don’t have anything left for others. My nighttime room smells of wilted grass, heated up during the day.
One more day.
A pigeon feather has fallen on my tanned wrist. I’m having a late breakfast under the awning in the garden, squinting in the bright sunlight, and that feather which has come sliding out of the sky seems to be an amazing, happy omen. A sign that everything won’t be, you hear, won’t be the way I feared during the previous nights.
Vegetable sellers are driving down the roads, calling out loudly.
“We’ve got potatoes, lady.”
“No thanks,” I say.
They keep ringing at my gate. Lots of different ones, but they all look the same. I don’t want to answer, but at the last minute I pick it up.
On the intercom screen I see a policeman’s cap.
All I can think about is what I might recently have done wrong. In a country where freedom is held hostage by criminals, any careless word can become your executioner.
My memory dredges up a not-fully-accurate quote from Dostoevsky: the first prisoners to fall apart are the most sensitive ones. From the aristocracy. Noble blood flows in my veins. For just an instant I look away from the screen and glance up at the cold sky.
I wouldn’t survive a Russian prison.
The policeman gives his name. Inspector so-and-so.
He “requests” that I become a witness.
The blood drains from my face. I want to politely tell him to go to hell. No one can be forced to be a witness against her will, but where there’s no rule of law, you don’t have a lot of choice.
“What happened?” I ask.
“Soon everything’ll be clear,” the policeman answers.
I look around at my house, and suddenly I understand clearly that I am going to have to leave it. To betray it. The garden, where the plants are all tangled and overgrown, the bedroom where no one loved me and I was never able to love anyone, and the bright kitchen. There’s a mark of happiness on the ceiling—a depression made by a flying champagne cork. I thought about it when, in happier times, we couldn’t get a bottle uncorked. I thought that, in the future, any category of happiness can turn into a category of unhappiness. And I thought that someday, looking up at the ceiling, I would find confirmation of these words. And now, practically nothing of ours remains.
Why am I living such a stupid life?
On the other side of the street I see a car with a blinking blue light. In the wooden house with a porch more or less covered in siding live a son and his mother. The son’s name is Stan. He’s about thirty years old. I’ve never even met his mother.
A woman doctor from the local hospital and some other older woman are pacing by the fence.
“No one answers around here. It’s the morning,” says the policeman.
Sweating profusely, he takes off his cap. His greasy bangs fall miserably over his forehead.
“Where’s the second witness?” I ask.
“Over there,” says the policeman, pointing at the old lady.
I hardly know my neighbors.
The policeman rings the bell. On the other side, someone comes up cautiously to the dilapidated door and looks at us through the keyhole. Then the door moves, held in place by a chain.
“What is it?” asks Stan.
“Open up,” says the policeman. “No one’s seen your mother leave the house for a long time.” Stan looks up, distracted. There’s a crow sitting on the top of a pine tree, fluffing his feathers.
“It would be great to kill him,” he says.
“Kill whom?” says the policeman.
The doctor and the old lady exchange glances.
Stan says nothing. Apparently the conversation has become unpleasant and he grunts: “You’ll wake mama.”
He steps backward, trying to slam the door. But the policeman has stuck his toe into the opening.
“Listen . . .” I say to the policeman.
“You agreed,” he says and turns away.
Getting inside turns out to be quite difficult. The house is filled with old stuff. In the dark, the doctor bangs into a baby carriage stuffed with garbage.
“What the hell?” she says, shaking stuff off her coat.
Somewhere in the corner we can hear scuffling—a tiny rooster is sitting on a thin perch cleaning his wing. The rooster crows loudly. Angling its comb forward, it stares at us out of a golden eye. A plaster lion, a flattened bronze teapot, a bunch of wire, and a pile of newspapers tied up in twine. Up by the ceiling, above the breakfront, there’s a photograph of a man in a military uniform. Part of it is ripped. We go down a narrow hall. There are rooms coming off the hall on both sides. A door covered with strips of peeling brown paint leans against a wall. At the end of the hall, there’s one more room, hidden by a lace curtain. Easy to overlook. Unexpectedly Stan holds his arms out to the side and blocks the way. One of the women tries to convince him to let us in, but Stan has jammed his arms into the doorframe. He threatens to shoot us.
Then he gets upset, begins to sob, asks us to leave him in peace. He shakes his head—either in agreement or in doubt—and runs into the room.
“What if he’s going to get a gun?” The old lady lifts her hand to her mouth.
He returns with some keys clasped in his fist.
It was easy to open the lace curtain.
We instinctively draw back. Only now do I understand the feeling that had been oppressing me the whole time. I didn’t know what to do with my body. From the second we entered the house, the smell: the sweet and nausea-inducing smell of a corpse. In the darkness of the room, a woman lies on her left side with her face turned to the wall. She’s covered in a blanket. At first glance it looks like she’s sleeping, but there’s something unnatural, repulsive in her pose. Flies are banging against the dirty window.
What happens next, no one could have expected. Stan falls to the floor and begins to writhe spasmodically, foaming at the mouth. On the bedside table there is a pyramid of plates with food on them. The son had been bringing his mother breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Twisting and writhing, he bangs into the center of the pyramid and the plates fall to the floor, spilling their disgusting- smelling contents.
They try to lift him up, calm him down and sit him in a chair, but Stan is simultaneously bony and rubbery. The doctor calls the policeman over and both of them bend over the bed, looking at the body, taking notes. Then the doctor says in a serious tone:
“Your mother has a high fever. She needs to be taken to a doctor right away. Where is your telephone?”
Half an hour later an ambulance comes. Two men in uniform, beating their booted feet dully against the wooden floor, lift up the corpse and throw it on a stretcher like a sack of potatoes.
“Sign here,” says the inspector, handing us some papers.
Stan watches as the car turns the corner, its brake lights lit up like a hot gas stove. The policeman turns on his siren and drives off. The doctor decides to go on foot and heads off toward the train station.
“Where do you live?” I ask the second witness.
“Two houses away from you.”
“Strange that we’ve never even said hello to each other.”
I watch as she takes a couple of steps, then stops and makes the sign of the cross: “The work of the devil.”
All I want is a drink.
Stan has by now come to and is looking up at the sky, trying to figure out where the wind is blowing from. He spits on his finger and holds it aloft. He stands still for a bit, repeats the license plate number of the car out loud a few times, and goes into the house.
Before his mother returns he still has to kill that crow.