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Elegiac Couplets, In a Way

37 min

A chap's quest to leave his home village

Dear wanderer,

I'm pleased to share my new story with you. It is a novelette that will (again) immerse you in the world of Tulubaika. The narrator is its life-long resident who tells a story of him trying to leave the village, simultaneously recalling childhood memories, falling into fantasies, and veering off into philosophical musings. It's a good 30-45 min read with some footnotes provided to give some historical context. I'm sure you'll enjoy it!

If you prefer reading in ebook format, grab a digital copy of this story in my ebook store (for one quid or more) or in the patron library (free for my patrons). It's a great way to support my work with a coin, should you desire to do so. And, in case you end up liking this little piece of literature, don't forget to share it with the world. Much thanks and beams of appreciation!

"Outwardly charming, the birthplace. Seems motherly, yet cunning, bewitching."
—Sasha Sokolov, Between Dog and Wolf

Once upon a time, I packed me a bundle, a right big one, laced up me bast shoes, nice and tight, trimmed me beard, even as can be, mustered up me courage, both holy and heathen, just to be sure and just in case, hopped on me wooden steed and galloped out of Tulubaika. The first question that popped into me head was "which road should I take?" So there I stand, in the middle of the village, ponderinn, should I go right, or left, or straight ahead, or even back. I could go the betwixt directions an' all, but there's only four roads—it's a crossroads, not an open moor, mind thee. Not a livinn soul 'bout, no one to ask, except for two magpies, been gatherinn twigs for their nest 'round these parts for ages. They say: go right—tha'll lose thy horse, go left—tha'll lose thyself, go straight—tha'll find happiness. But what 'bout goinn back? What's back there? No one knows what's there, either nobody's ever traipsed over or they never pitched up back to tell what's in that backness. Well, methinks, right and left are cunninn bastards, move as tha moves. So come what may, I'll toss a coin. I reach into me pocket for a coin, realise I need two coins—there are four directions, mind thee. There I stand, countinn, workinn out me plan: two tails—I'll go north, straight ahead, two heads—south, one head, one tail—west, one tail, one head—east. I've grown weary of beinn fate's thrall, so weary that me jowls ache in the mornings when I look at meself in the mirror, so I decided I'd rather be a thrall of chance.

Thus, by the will of chance, will be more honest-like, and honesty's just what I've always been short of in life, well, not me meself, a decent chap, but me surroundings—all me days I've been beset by cheats, knaves, thieves, and murderers. Me grandfather's oak house was once "requisitioned" by bandits after our motherland got clobbered and turned arse over tit once more. Hand over thy oak house, they say, Uncle Ildar, look at that, they say, tha's grown love handles, now, they say, we'll dekulakize[1] thee, Uncle Ildar, and build a grand communism in our bonny Tulubaika or mayhap even a grand future with free market relationships and democratic falderal like everywhere else, or perchance, tha sees, even better, for here in Tulubaika, everything's better than elsewhere, which is the only point on which I'm in full agreement with those comrades.

Startinn with our river, also called Tulubaika, by the by, lookinn, God's own truth, like liquid crystal, though I've never clapped eyes on crystals, 'cept icy ones, we've got plenty of those danglinn from roofs in winter. An icicle once skewered me schoolmate's head clean through. Sad to recollect such things, 'course, but, as they say, what is, is. Any river and any body of water is also a liquid crystal threadinn the earth hither and thither, and ours is the purest an' all, springinn from wells somewhere deep in the forests where ferns bloom and toadstools grow knee-high. Tha stoops down, press thy lips to its smooth, cold surface, drink and feel summat click inside thee, as if someone's crankinn up the love for the motherland a notch, one click to the right, or mayhap two, if not three, for sometimes tha's so parched that for a swig of water tha'll love not only the motherland. The river's swift, a whoppinn brook that doesn't even freeze in winter and keeps hurtlinn full pelt to somewhere out there into nowhere along its path, laid, mind thee, of its own accord, not by the will of fate, nor by the will of chance, like me, a daft beggar, but by the will of its own river spirit, to pour into a bigger river or straight into a sea or ocean, for none of our folk have ever found out whither Tulubaika flows and where it ends, as if it doesn't end anywhere, makes a full loop 'round the earth and flows into itself.

The name of both the village and the river comes from either the Tatars or the Bashkirs, or, accordinn to some smartarses, from the Mongols 'emselves, one of whose tribes was called just that. They've long since vanished, some Russified, some blended into the lay of the land, and some nomaded off further beyond the skyline, dealinn along the way, as our late local historian San-Sanych told me, in beaver pelt trade and various haulage. Only I don't trust San-Sanych—although he was a sharp and learned chap, finishinn either three or four universities, or mayhap ten (it's like with bairns—after three tha stops counting), he didn't mind his tongue at all, neither what came out of his gob, nor what he poured into it, for, judge for yerselves, tha can find neither a single toothy, furry wee beaver nor proper roads, the sort where after a couple of versts[2] tha doesn't leave all thy wheels in the ruts, even should tha looks high and low.

Zinaida Semyonovna, the local wise woman, claimed that "tulubay" means "lame" or "crooked", just like our twisty river, whose bends and turns the whole village couldn't tally. Supposedly, first there was the Tulubaika River, then people came here, Russians, Tatars, Bashkirs, Mari, and cobbled together a village. I, and me father, and me grandfather, who, by the by, was a true Tatar by blood and name and, wherefore, understood summat in Tatar words, and the rest of the respected lads and lasses before and after him, always held a special position in the village and thus had our own, only right version of the name, for our surname, Tulubayev, explains everythinn, says a lot, and carries all the needful knowledge within itself. Grandfather used to tell me that "tulu" in Tatar means "full", and "bay" means "master", "rich man", a hale and respected person, and a lad was given this name, Tulubay, if as soon as he crawled out of his mother, it was plain that this was surely how he would grow up. Hence, me grandfather, to put it mildly, disliked the wise woman Zinka and her codswallop 'bout the lame and crooked and ofttimes secretly called her a daft witch at home, which she most likely was, judginn by her long history in the yellow house but more, of course, by the nonsense she spouted, whether tha laughs or cries.

Here's a droll case, for one—yonder in time, in summer, once, or mayhap twice, before everyone 'round was kindly asked to heave the country up from its knees and shove it into a bright future, or mayhap it was after—now tha can't even tell—when I was a wee green nipper, I met Zinaida Semyonovna amblinn along the river in a fur coat (for the sake of the story I wanna say beaver, but more like everyone else's—sheep), with a shaved noggin and her own pet drake named Valentin on a lead, whose purpose was fully unclear, for he neither laid eggs nor had any meat on him, just ate, shat, and quacked. So Zinka's zoominn along, crackinn sunflower seeds, scatterinn the husks, and the drake can't keep up with pickinn 'em up; I'm legginn it towards 'em with an aspen net to catch tiddlers, which used to be plentiful in Tulubaika in the summer—tha just had to scoop up some water with the tool to get a full net of fish, and either fry 'em for thyself on a campfire or give 'em to the moggie at home. Zinaida Semyonovna stops, looks at me, silent, purses her lips like a duck, not movinn her face, and of a sudden asks:

—Where is tha off to?

—Nowhere,—I tell her,—fishinn.

—What is that tha fishing?—she asks.

—Wee fishies,—I reply.

—Don't tha dare catch frogs,—she says.

And I'm like:

—Why would I need frogs, Granny Zina?

—Our river will snuff it without frogs, dry up, a brook will flow, and even that will go underground and drag us along with it straight into the fiery inferno,—she says and crosses herself, in the Old Believer way, with two fingers[3].

Ooh, methinks, Zinaida Semyonovna, what biblical horrors tha have in thy head, and tha manages to impart such things into a wee nipper's mind, but she's not 'bout to button it, she says, so she does:

—It's written in thy fate, Tulubayev, to live and pop thy clogs in Tulubaika, God is me witness, I'm not fibbinn. As long as tha is here, Tulubaika is here, and as soon as tha is gone, Tulubaika's gone. Wherefore, if tha wish to leave thy homeland, nowt will come of it, Tulubaika will protect itself, won't let itself perish.

And I tell her:

—What is tha makinn up, Zinaida Semyonovna? When I grow up, I'll scarper from here wherever I want. If I want, to Vyatka, if I want, to Khlynov, if I want, to Kirov[4], if I want, even to St. Petersburg or Leningrad itself, with Saint or without, Granny Zina. It makes no odds to me what its name is now—the main thinn is to get as far away as possible.

She looks at me, silent, thinkinn, and the drake quacks nearby.

—I feel sorry for thee, fatherless bairn. Tha does understand nowt,—she says, shakes her head, and toddles further along the river.

I felt sad right away and didn't feel like fishinn any more, but not for of her words, which clung to me memory, though not immediately, but 'cause I remembered me dad. He loved life, but it had to be noisier, jollier, and more varied, and he had one thing on his mind: to scarper out of the village as soon as possible, as far away as possible. Without askinn anyone, neither his parents nor me mother, nor me, he would roll off to one city or another and vanish for a month or two, then return with returnables. Now he'd brinn a new kartuz[5], now boots, now a sack of flour, now a radio-controlled car toy[6], now a portrait of an important state figure, a sovereign, a president, or a supreme secretary, whatever one calls 'em.

And so once, but not just once, while Dad was moonlightinn in Vyatka, our beloved Tsar Gorokh[7] decided it was time for war. Come on, he said, all as one, for faith, for the motherland, for the fatherland, to the sounds of the trumpets, to the shouts of "Huzzah!", let's bray the mugs of the fiends; otherwise it's curtains for our motherland, complete and hopeless slavish darkness. From such a proposal, me dad's patriotism immediately surged in his blood.

—The war suits me just fine,—he says—I really wanna fight, I'm already fed up with this katorgan[8] life. At least I'll get out into the light, see the world, see people, and learn more 'bout meself. To hell with thee Tulubaika!

So he left, and we stayed. Mam wept herself dry with tears, Grandfather swore himself blue with profanities, and I stood like an idol in the nook under the sovereign's portrait. I looked at him—ya has no conscience, Comrade Sovereign, no shame, no common sense. Why do ya need me dad? He has a thick tache, a prickly beard, kind eyes—ya needn't those, what will ya do with him there? He should only be put in front of a camera and broadcast all over the country on telly. And not a word from him, not a letter, no useful or useless information, and where would it come from, since illiteracy had not yet been eliminated and at that time no one in the village could read or write, only priests and scribes? Me grandfather could, of course, but only in Tatar. Although, mayhap everyone could, me and Mam and Grandfather, in Russian and Tatar and Bashkir and Mari and in everythinn at once, even in runes on birchbark[9], but they refused to write, for it's scary to give events form and give 'em power over time, over thineself, as if at that moment they are transferred from the rank of an event to the rank of history, and history, excuse me, is a treacherous cunt, with one of her pale hands she strokes thy head, in the other she holds a knife. It's better to just say it out loud, to the empty altar of a wee church surrounded by sad icons, or to a forest full of life, lookinn at thy droopinn mug in a puddle to the drillinn cries of waxwings, than to say it silently, lookinn at a sheet of paper, to scribble 'bout what happened, God forbid someone reads thy scrawl, takes a balalaika off a nail or takes a saw, composes a symphony or some heart-rendinn ditty, and the whole village will roar, grieve, ponder—well, people used to live, laugh and cry, there were calm, difficult times, but with soul, and what now? We sit and pine, remember the past, languish in nostalgic paralysis. And would Dad have had time to read our letters? War is a busy business: here tha shoots, there tha bandages, and there tha digs a hole, where a trench, where a grave, as luck would have it.

—Perchance,—says Mam,—at least the prayers will reach him. God will send 'em to him.

—How will God send 'em?

—Through the air, directly, silly, for God in heaven sees all there. He will find thy dad among a host of such poor souls and will deliver our thoughts and prayers to him straight from heart to heart like leccy through a wire. So let's go and pray, son.

Well, what do I do? I go, I don't wanna upset Mam, tha can see it's not easy for her, and here I am with me "I don't wanna pray to thy Christ Jesusovich, Mam, me grandfather is a Tatar, tha knows, so I haven't decided yet who I wanna pray to." Every morninn we get up before the cockerels, an hour's walk to the local parish. If I refuse to go, grumble at her, say me feet are frozen, numb, won't go at all, she sits me on a sledge and pulls me. On the hill, a large one-storey stone church of red brick with two green domes, with bonny crosses and an iron fence, looms large, birch trees are planted 'round it, still young, spindly, their branches droopinn. When the bells ring, the chime is heard all 'round, all the way to Tulubaika itself, and the window panes and souls tremble. We go in—a hall, an altar, a choir loft, ample space, gloomy, but bonny, frescoes on the walls, mardy icons with round haloes.

—Why,—I ask,—are they round, Mam?

—What else should they be?

—If I were a saint, I would have a square halo.

She smacked reverend me on the lips then but, mind thee, although they hurt for a long time, I wasn't mad at Mam—round means round, I don't argue with me elders.

There's no one in the church except the sleepinn watchman and two stiffs in the side room—mayhap they were brought in the eveninn. It smells of wax, frankincense, oldness, death.

—Pray,—she says.

—How?—I ask.

—Repeat after me. Bow down.

—God, have mercy on me, a sinner. God, cleanse me sins and have mercy on me. Thou who hast created me, Lord, have mercy on me, Lord have mercy, Lord bless,—Mam whispers loudly, bowinn, then falls to her knees, dragginn me after her so me knees are black and blue all over. The floor is hard and cold. Candles flicker 'round, playinn with shadows. I see her prayinn with fervency, intent, her face brightens, smooths out, and I don't understand nowt and repeat after her like a lunatic.

As soon as dawn peeks through the small windows, we're out of the church, off to home. The road there is uphill, back is downhill, easy. In winter, whoosh down the icy snowdrift, snow gets into thy sleeves, down thy collar, but tha is happy, tha has lost thy cap somewhere on the way down, tha gets up, brushes thyself off, thy cheeks are red, burninn with fire, tha brushes thyself off, looks up, and there's Mam quietly cominn down with thy cap. Tha runs to meet her, grabs thy cap and flies down again. We go home, I'm happy, but Mam looks 'round. As one of the schismatics, she didn't wanna be seen by everyone else in the parish—tha never knows, people can be different. Most have goodness inside, but sometimes it sits so deep that tha can't even see it under a magnifyinn glass. It made no odds to Mam which church to go to, and the priest didn't mind either.

—Pray,—says Father Pyotr,—Marya, as much as thy soul desires. It's a good deed.

—And if someone says summat, Father?

—God is one for all,—says he.

—He may be one for all, but me grandfather has another one,—I said to him once,—and someone, I heard, has several altogether.

—An observant wee lad,—said Father Pyotr to me.—Love them too.

The village's folk constantly whispered that they Father Pyotr him once crossinn himself with two fingers when he was alone. Whether it was true or not, no one knows, but that's where their claim ended, for if they needed summat, advice or a blessinn, the loudest gossipmongers went to Father Pyotr first. He had a large old black piano at home, on which he held concerts on holidays. I was there a couple of times, listened breathlessly, watched the faces of the audience melt from the pleasantly flowinn music, although I didn't know the names of the tunes, but people said that the composers were good, homegrown, both pre-revolutionary and post-, although there were more of the former, of course. Father Pyotr was just like me Dad, a kind, affable chap with a generous beard, his face wise, thang, as they say "without a hitch, without a glitch", but then, of a sudden, fast he aged, turned grey his beard, dimmed his eyes. Rumours began to creep 'round the village that seven clergymen had allegedly been put against the wall in the district next-door, and in a nearby township three had been sent to katorga. Ours, not wantinn either of those, began to fear everythinn. He sat at home, peerinn out the window with a dishevelled face and waitinn for 'em to come for him. Everyone pitied him, carried water and grub; the local barber trimmed his barnet once, and then, when the cold came, people began to let him into the banyas[10] to sleep and warm up, and so he went from one to the other.

The church was eventually closed and re-equipped for collective needs for the production of public goods. The crosses were removed, and the flags were put, but, what's interestinn, magpies that nested under the dome began to tear 'em off. They would hang a new one—they would tear it off, hang it—tear it off, and so on. The local chairmen and powerlovers weren't fond of that at all and decided to close the church for good, and to the roar of the thath, the bawlinn of the old and the angry singinn of the magpies, they threw down the bells, burned the icons, removed the domes and melted 'em either for horseshoes or for shell casings, then blew up the buildinn itself for bricks to later build a bright and beautiful future out of 'em. Honest truth, the chaps who participated in that later all as one snuffed it at the front, so they did; and Father Pyotr, havinn learned 'bout what happened, went into the forest where no one could find him to get advice or a blessinn, so we lived without 'em. The property from his house was confiscated. His piano was given to the new school, but there it stood silent: no one knew how to play it.

Now, once upon a time, Mam dragged me to that church in secret from Grandfather and baptised me. They dipped me in the water three times, read a prayer, and I popped back home with a wooden crucifix hanginn on me neck. Grandfather saw it, only shook his head and waved his hand. He always wanted me, his grandson, to be the same true Tulubayev—a Muslim. He had an old battered book in a leather bindinn, the Quran written in Arabic script, which he wrapped in several layers of gauze and kept in a chest under his bed, not lettinn anyone even look at it, let alone hold it, no one but me.

—Comes right time, the boy will decide for himself whom to be,—he used to say.

But the right time was always, I couldn't decide, so me mam decided for me.

—Do you know,—he babbles,—grandson, which came first, Tulubayev or Tulubaika?

I hold his bony blue hand. The smell in the room is musty, it smells of a human, a human in bother and of bother itself too (it has, tha knows, a particularly heavy aroma). It's cold in the wee room, gloomy. Light brazenly crawls through the thick curtains. The window is closed, there's no air. If tha opens it, draughts will burst in and do in the sick man. Tears well up in me eyes, they wanna in his too, but they can't—don't have the strength to well up. His cheeks and eyes are sunken, grey hairs stuck to his skull, lips swollen, cracked.

—I don't know, Grandfather,—I say to him quietly.—I don't know.

And he squeezes me hand, opens his eyes wider, is 'bout to say summat.

—I don't know either, grandson.

And so he died. And who knows then? There on his bed I sit, pushinn the tears back, but they keep cominn out and out, out and out. Sleep, methinks, Grandfather, tha must be tired, I won't disturb tha no more. I take me wooden steed, which, by the by, he himself whittled for me (from a single piece of wood, mind thee) and I scarper.

And so only one Tulubayev remained in Tulubaika, as if some significance had now crept into me, an unknown force, which, not havinn reached me dad, took the shackles off me grandfather and put 'em on me. To hell with it, methinks, there's nowt more for me to do here, and off I gallop wherever me eyes look—straight ahead, for that's where, they say, one finds happiness. I gallop raisinn dust, I gallop for an hour, five minutes, ten—I don't remember. The road ends, the forest begins. Underfoot branches crunch, slippery are the leaves, it smells of damp, mulch; 'round me are birches, flickerinn in me eyes white walls in a black stripe, blurrinn me vision, lurinn me into their swirl.

Here in the spring, me nameless, faceless friend and I gather birch sap into bottles. Tha takes a knife, cuts the bark, find a chip or a branch, carve a trough out of it, insert it into the birch's wound, put a bottle, leave, come back in the morninn, and it's full. Here hares roam, various wolves and stray dogs in packs, snappinn their jaws, growlinn at thee and the faceless friend, tails tucked, fur bristlinn—demons, in a word. Hearts beatinn, begginn to break free, like a sparrow from thy hands, the cuckoo cooinn non-stop, thy feet lead thee, carry thee at a hare's speed, over leaves, over grass, over mud, over fallen trees, and tha silently sits in thy head, not stickinn out, huddled in a nook with fear, surrenderinn to the will of instinct and chance. Here's a ravine—and tha tumbles down, through a raspberry thicket, juniper bushes, and plop—into Tulubaika, into a backwater where swim wee fishies, frogs and fry. Water striders cut the surface of the river, waves run away from 'em, dissolvinn in the slow current, which in winter is covered with a light crust of ice that crunches at the touch like a piece of candy made of burnt sugar. Turninn 'round, tha looks—no one, no birches, no dogs, no faceless friends. And tha walks along the river on the road home, all wet, all mucky and scratched, hands bleedinn, elbows torn, shirt left without a sleeve. So tha starts a story, and tha doesn't know what thickets it will lead thee into, what whirlpools tha will fall into, what tha will remember, what tha will forget, what tha will make up, and the story, the blighter creature, is indifferent to thee, it lives by itself, like a river flowinn into itself, returns thee to Tulubaika, to the beginninn. They say that blood, just like a river, flows not only in the veins of people, but also in the veins of time. In spring, it warms up, collects molten snow from the all 'round, overflows, takes fields and bushes, so tha can even get into a boat and sail. In summer, it dries up, in the heat it's just like a beck; tha walks 'cross the stones without boots, gets stuck in the silt, gets lost in the reeds, collect shells, wait for pearl.

Then wanders tha along the river together with thy lovely lass. A smile on her face, a wreath of daisies and dandelions on her head, a whirlpool in her eyes, warmth inside, tenderness, heart poundinn, and echoes spreadinn from it, reachinn and capturinn thee. Tha hugs her, kisses her, carries her 'cross the river in thine arms. She laughs, breaks free and plops right into the water, grabs thee and pulls thee along with her, to splash 'round, to frolic. Ya shall find no pearls in no shells, it isn't meant to be—there's no such thing in Tulubaika.

The first time I saw her, I decided to climb the Maslenitsa pole[11]. Drunk chaps used to fall from there, break their necks and spines, but now no one dares to climb it, neither drunk nor for a damsel, but I did, mind thee, rushed up so fast that I didn't even notice. I came down with gifts, a jar of honey, an embroidered shawl, a Dymkovo bird[12], and pagan boons. We ate blini with sour cream and honey together and went for a walk 'round the village, kneadinn the muck with our boots, smilinn, talkinn 'bout birds, arguinn 'bout what colour a bullfinch's belly is, red or raspberry, whether a sparrow is the husband of a tit, why rooks are late that year, and what the chirpinn of a starling is more like. Its vibrations, we thought, were akin to the sounds of a saw when Mitka Mizintsev plays it singinn the aria of a sleepinn cuckoo. "Oh, cuckoo, Cuckoo, don't tha dare sleep. Sinn, Cuckoo-thang lass, let us weep." They said that he once drunk too much Petrograd beer, played saw too much and cut off his wee finger too much, which, however, made him sing even better, a spark appeared in his head, a special depth in his voice, and a special name[13] in his character. So there we were, standinn hand in hand, watchinn the straw Maslenitsa effigy[14] burn, the tongues of flame ticklinn our cheeks from afar, Mitka's tongue producinn music, his saw moaninn like a leper, but everyone havinn fun, everyone watchinn winter die and spring come.

A month goes by or two, and we're still walkinn 'round the village, arguinn 'bout birds, like why roosters sing at dawn, hens don't fly, and magpies love all things shiny so much, flyinn 'round in magpie patrols, collectinn coppers, carryinn 'em to their nest to live well, richly. We hope that other magpies don't dekulakize 'em, seeinn such riches. We laugh, hug, kiss, sit together on me wooden steed and traverse the expanse 'round Tulubaika. The wind caresses me face, her warm breath caresses the back of me neck. From foot to horizon, oats are peacefully earinn, rustlinn, swayinn in ocean waves. Rumours and legends quethe that somewhere beyond the skyline, after so many versts, Tulubaika ends. If there were a tree, I would climb it to see what's so interestinn in that place whither everyone is in such a hurry to get.

—Let's go,—says me missus,—away, to the city, we'll live beautifully, see the world, show ourselves, travel the lands of our great country. And mountains, and sea, and steppe—there's everythinn.

She's smilinn, almost plaintively, without blinking. I'm afraid to even to think 'bout uprootinn me roots, raisinn the anchor, unfasteninn the shackles, spreadinn me wings. It's a pity birds don't sing in the middle of the field, for I feel blue a wee bit, I'd like to hear some chirpinn now.

—Aye, but I'm the only one here like that, a combine harvester, a mechanic,—I say.

—It's all right, they'll teach someone else. Vasya over there, he's not daft at all. He'll do for a mechanic, he's gotten straight hand, he has. Let's go, eh? This katorgan life is sickeninn, sittinn in me liver.

Summat has clicked deep inside. Me heart aches, it starts beatinn either faster or slower, the devil knows, but it does so differently, with a new rhythm, like the tambourine of a Siberian shaman.

—I can't,—I say,—Tulubaika won't let me go.

—And we won't ask her.

Barefoot, we flit along the dusty road through fields of oats. Pebbles cut our feet, the sun cuts the back of our necks. Me hand in her hand, her hand in mine. Don't fall behind, I say to meself, or tha will be left here alone. We apper sprint, me legs get heavy, as if tha is runninn knee-deep in water, then waist-deep, then the water reaches thy very chin, and tha can't run any more. The lovers' hands unclasped, I lag behind, I can't walk, and the lass of me heart distances onwards, disappears beyond the skyline, falls off its edge all the way to Moscow itself, studies to be an engineer, gets hitched, has bairns, lives more happily than not, grows old, saves brass for a coffin from her pension, goes to the local authorities to ask for a spot in the cemetery, dies in peace not reckoninn 'bout that old lad from Tulubaika.

Probably. How would I know? She wrote letters at first, replied to mine, and then stopped, and now her yellowed writings are lyinn somewhere in a chest under me bed. I tried to chuck 'em away several times, but I failed, felt sorry. It's still a memory, mind thee, and if I chuck 'em away, burn 'em, the words won't go nowhere, they will live and grieve without a specific place of residence, knockinn on doors at night, not lettinn me kip, gratinn in me noggin. Such a fancy name too—Ariadne. How can one forget a name like that?

Her father, an exiled historian, was an interestinn chap, with a broad outlook, probably, since he knew such a name, and a sharp mind, since there was summat to exile him for. Whether he was a White, or a Decembrist, or an anti-Soviet dissident[15], or some other chap of "extremist" beginnings—history modestly keeps mum, eyes on the floor, hands behind the back, cheeks blush, but it doesn't matter—the main thing, as they say, is that they didn't do him in, and that's good, and livinn a year or a hundred in Tulubaika is not so bad, and there is someone here to teach history to, for only bandits are left, and ignoramuses, and me, also far from an academic. Besides, there's the forest, the river, fresh air, tranquillity, and boredom too, but such a kind, measured boredom that doesn't harm the brain, which withers from the city exhausts, while here thoughts can play, run, circle, tha can wake up and chancily scribble a book, add a philosophical reflection to it, stick it in the right folder for the censor while he's kippinn, and someone might read summat favourable, be surprised at how unusually the words've laid and wanna come here, to Tulubaika. Well, why not? Forest, river, fresh air, tranquillity, and oat fields, lots of fields—right grand, in a word, innit?

I don't remember when we started sowinn oats, but they planted such quantities that there was no one to reap 'em. Here ya go, they say, a collective farm directive: we need, that is, volumes of oats, the more voluminous the better. Why? What for? It's necessary, they say, it's necessary, don't ask extra questions, comrades, there are people up there, people of science, agronomists, who can think without ya and yer provincial thoughts, so pickle 'em and put 'em in the cellar, deeper, to the rest of the same thoughts, let 'em wait their hour in salt, garlic, and dill in sterilised jars. It's cool in the cellar, they'll keep well there. Well, ta, respected comrades, at least it's oats and not corn—it wouldn't have survived here in our harsh backwoods conditions, we needn't this overseas marvel-shmarvel at all, we've had enough Colorado beetles. They brought 'em here, thee knows, from America. They crawl on 'em potato tops, eat 'em, and tha can't get rid of 'em with nowt. Tha poisons 'em and poison 'em, and they crawl and crawl, wee bastards. Here's a machine for ya, kind chaps, called a combine harvester, a most powerful thing, works on solar energy, named after His Majesty the Leader, a great gadget for turninn yer labours into straw and grub. Here's the manual, sixty-eight pages, read to yer heart's content, sit down, steer, reap. Well, no hands were up, the kind chaps all vanished somewhere, some scarpered, some snuffed it, some drank it, and I, one of the few responsible fellas, an avid tractor driver, mind thee, looked at the damned machine, scratched the back of me head, and thought, "well, to hell with thee". I sit down, I steer, I reap. It seems to be goinn well, and the work is right cushy—tha sits, steers, reaps all by thineself, hums a melody, ponders the Truth. In spring, tha ploughs, sows, in summer tha shepherds, mows, in autumn tha is on the combine, in winter—all sorts of wee things, choppinn wood for some, slaughterinn a pig for others. Tha rises in the morrow, drinks a glass of water, has some bread, and off to the field, grafts until eveninn, and then it's time for bed, and so tha spins like a room Sisyphus in a wheel.

I'm drivinn along on the combine once, reapinn oats. The noise of the engine in me lugholes, the noise of thoughts in me head, I'm angry at the surroundinn reality, I don't accept such a sloppy, immoral, indifferent attitude towards meself, damn it. Who am I? A tremblinn creature? A thrall of fate?

—You, Tulubayev, calm down,—Bogdan, an old gypsy, forgotten in our village by his camp after the war, a big chap with a black beard and long black-grey hair, says to me.

We sit with him in our one and only snifter shop, sippinn cognac in shots—a bonus for our labours and services to the motherland, three stars, not some hoo-ha. A disgustinn thing, I must say, though better than rotgut. And it doesn't help to calm down at all, even though it's made accordinn to the genre canons and GOST[16] and plays beautifully in the glass, refractinn light like liquefied amber. Tha drinks and feels thy brain liquefyinn too, but only the positively woven convolutions, so to speak, and the negative ones remain, occupyinn the vacated hut.

—I don't wanna calm down, Bogdan,—I say.—Me life is worthless, tha wouldn't wish such a life on an enemy. I've buried me relatives, me friends have scarpered, gone to jail, become drunks, me missus has walked into the sunset, and I'm still here, in me motherland, or she's on me, ridinn on me hump, whisperinn in me lugholes, "go, dear, go."

—One doesn't choose your mother…—says Bogdan, hiccuping—land…

—I adore it with all me itchinn, sorrowinn heart. It's written in me fate in large letters. Zinaida Semyonovna assured me, and her drake only agreed. "Quack," he said, "quack, fella, don't squirm, fate is what it is, there is no other and there can be no other."

—See? The duck agrees with me. Accept your lot, and don't be stroppy. Rejoice that you have a motherland, I, a gypsy, don't have one. When the whole world is your home, you have nowhere to run.

—Thanks,—I say,—Bogdan, me fabulous friend, for thy deep thoughts, a lifesaver.

—You are welcome, Tulubayev, mate, come to me if you need to unravel any secrets of the universe—I'm always at your service, just bring cognac.

—Aye, of course. Better tell me, why has thy wee universe grown such an evil cunt?

—It's because you are angry, Tulubayev. Don't be angry, and she won't be.

—Noted-understood, as they say, tha should go straight to the academia with this insight.

Overwhelmed by a dark emotion, I am. Well, to hell with thee, Tulubaika, to the devil, I'm leavinn right now, right now, I'm gettinn on me combine, and I'm rollinn and rattlinn off to the skyline, I'm ramminn it with me machine, mayhap I'll break through the blockade. Get ready, universe, I'm on me way.

I grip the steerinn wheel tighter, frown, grind me teeth and set off. Buzzes the combine, whistles the breeze, rustle the oats, chirps the grasshopper. It smells of diesel fuel, exhaust fumes, me cognac-soaked sleeve. I'm drivinn, massaginn the vast expanse of me small motherland, and I see a sign with big letters in the open field, far away, blurry—the modest moon gives wee light. The headlights on, I drive towards it. It declares "Tulubaika" crossed out with a thick red line. Well, methinks, here I am, close to the denouement, to the red line. No crossroads, no ravine, no thicket here, nowt, just an open field. Should I go straight, I shall find happiness.

Give it gas, I do, but this bastard goes and conks out. I start the machine up—it won't start. I get out, scratch the back of me head, check everythinn, swear, spit under me feet, read the manual in the beam of the headlights, swear again ("Bloody 'ell!"), read again. Well, methinks, come what may, God help me, ay up. I take off the protective cover, climb inside, poke summat there. Sweat runs down me face, me heart beats like a piston, I feel sick, me fingers shake, and then summat clicks, the engine starts, splashes of oil fly in me face, sparks, other hot unpleasant matters. Left no chance to shout, I cover me face with me hand and fall down on the ground, unconscious.

Comes the moment next, I'm lyinn on a cot in a square room that smells like a medicine box. Everythinn's floatinn, hardly visible, green walls 'round. Thank God, tha knows, they're not yellow and that there are any walls at all.

—Ooh, love, tha's made a reet mess.

I hear the voice of Galina Grigoryevna, our doctor, a woman of broad soul and stature, soft looks and soft hands. I realise that only one of me eyes can see now, the other one is pitch dark. Me left hand is burninn with fire, all in brilliant green, me fingers don't bend. She sighs, tautly smiles, adjusts her white cap.

—Lucky thee,—says she.

—What kinda luck is that,—Galina Grigoryevna, with one eye missinn?

—Tha should be thankful that at least one is left, and that tha is alive at all. The lads somehow found thee in the field, dragged thee here, I almost fainted from the sight of thee face. Where else in our village would one sees such a horror?

—Ta,—I say,—Galina Grigoryevna. For thy revelations and support.

—Aye, welcome,—she says,—lie down, get better, get treatment, recover. For where would our Tulubaika be without thee?

—Nowhere, Galina Grigoryevna, apparently, nowhere.

I lay, stared at the ceilinn, for a week, or two, or a month—all like one day: an empty room, an empty head, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner overcooked porridge without butter, a glass of pitch-black tea with sugar, no visitors, not even Bogdan, only Galina Grigoryevna bustlinn 'round, changinn bandages, dousinn me with brilliant green and iodine.

—Swear to Hippocrates that tha will cure me, I wanna admire the bonny expanses of our village with two eyes again.

—I'll swear, Tulubayev, but there's a problem—Hippocrates snuffed it long ago, he's unlikely to help us.

—What do I do now, a man like this?

—Where there's a will, there's a way, as they say. There's a place for anyone here. But they definitely won't take thee to war now.

—What war?—I ask.

—Our foes've attacked us! So all the chaps were loaded into a lorry and off to the front.

—Tha's pulling me leg! To the front?

—Just like that,—she shrugs.

—I wanna go, too.


—To the front. To see the dead foes.

—What will tha see there, Tulubayev? With one eye.

—Well, just a peek,—I say.—I'm sick of layinn here, I can't look at all this any more, even with half me sight. There's nowt more for me to do here.

—Tha,—says Galina Grigoryevna,—will now be a home front worker.

Thus war never reached us, it always happened somewhere outside, beyond Tulubaika, and only manifested itself in ink in newspapers, screeched with menacinn voices on the wireless, glowed grimly from telly, lived in people's minds and on their lips, glared like the northern lights from far away, until it took every single chap, leavinn only women, bairns, decrepit old folk, and me. To the front, everyone to the front, and tha, Tulubayev, sit here, tha isn't goinn nowhere, we'll put thee in a barn, tie thee to a post, and tha'll sit there, bitinn the rope with thy teeth, sniffinn hay and muck, lookinn through the cracks how the sun rises and sets, listeninn to the plaintive mooinn of cows and bleatinn of lambs, which from starvation give neither milk nor meat, and whose skins are bitten by clegs, wolves, and ringworm. It's alright, Tulubayev, don't fret, feed the widowed, orphaned, aged, with spuds and oats, if God doesn't send a drought, and doesn't brinn fires, if there's no plague, hungry deserters and brutalised and maddened war-crippled veterans, if there's strength in thy soul and body, tha'll break through, Tulubayev, tha'll definitely break through. A healthy all-round good bloke has gone extinct in our parts—he's now like an unknown wee beastie. Now is women's time. Cherish women, take care of 'em, Tulubayev, mothers and grandmothers are holy, our land stands on 'em. Together ya'll plough, sow, mow, prepare firewood, stoke stoves, bake bread, raise agriculture on thy wee boundless patch of land, chew resin, cheeks, bite thy lips, nails, elbows, doubt the Truth, as if there has ever been summat to doubt. Together ya'll gather mushrooms, berries, oats, wheat, spuds, brew acorn coffee, drink linden tea, and do all other useful things for bodily and mental peace, for survival. Together ya'll will grieve, sort death notices, together bury the old, forget faces, dress bairns in hand-me-downs, teach the thang everythinn ya know, village things, simple things, be it handlinn a horse, sharpeninn an axe, choppinn wood, the insides and outsides of a tractor, and how to tell where north is by the stars. They wander, scrawny, skin and bones, through villages, between Bultyshka, Bekarikha, Orekhovshchina, and others, ragged, hungry, the thanger ones sit at home with a host of wee brothers and sisters, the older ones roam from village to village, from village to village, begginn for alms, askinn for a piece of bread, a couple of eggs, or summat else to eat. We'll weave thee a basket, mister, or chop some wood, we're so hungry, and we have wee brothers and sisters sittinn at home. All we have left from daddy is a tunic with medals, they're very bonny, wanna trade? It's too big for us, look, mister, it just hangs, the sleeves drag on the ground, we have to roll 'em up, inconvenient, in a word, but it should fit thee, tha is a home front worker, tha doesn't have and never had thine own tunic, no epaulettes, no medals, no orders, nowt to trade or sell, but in the city, they say, they take 'em well, especially those for valour. Where are tha going? Wait, mister, don't scarper. We're not scary at all, and we're not sick. Knock-knock. Sorry, we promise not to knock on windows and doors any more, we won't scare thee, we just need a place to stay overnight. We're not askinn for the stove, we can just lie in a nook, far from the door or window, 'cause it's terribly drafty. We promise we won't nick owt, and does mister even have owt to nick? Our daddy is shell-shocked, he talks all sorts of nerts and crapola, he's boarded up the windows with sacks, we feel sorry for him, 'course, but he's no help whatsoever. No, we don't wanna go to school, we'd rather herd cows, we need to earn grub, even if it's milk and meat—it's better that way. As soon as September hits, the rowans will flare up with berry ruby fire, and then they'll brinn a lot, a lot of grain on tractor sledges, and then everyone will have a hunk of bread, we needn't owt else but that, bread is the most important thinn, as they say, tha doesn't need a fortune-teller to know that.

—Shan't you cross my palm with silver?—asks a gypsy lass, black-haired, black-eyed, in a red frock, either old or thang—tha can't tell right away, and I'm just a wee nipper, I can't tell ages, for me, there's no difference between old and thang. There are people taller than me, and there are people shorter. Those who are taller would be older—they should be respected. But I'm afraid to respect the gypsy lass. See, I'm afraid of gypsies. Mam joked that she would sell me to the gypsies if I misbehaved, which made me scared, I shut up, sat down on a chair, kept mum, walked the line, behaved decently, but if I had known then that if I had gotten into a gypsy camp, and they had taken me away from Tulubaika, I would have definitely done the most mischievous mischief, but no, me head was daft, and the ups and downs of life were unknown, not like now—I'm filled up, I'm beginninn to understand what goes where and why, how things are arranged in this life, where its carburettor is, where the battery is, where to pour the diesel, and where from the exhaust laughs. And the stench, 'course, even if tha plugs thy nose and just sits there until tha gets cramps in thy lungs.

—I see deep roots, I see high branches,— whispers the gypsy lass, strokinn me palm, runninn her fingers over the lines.—I see a river that flows into itself, I see a bird that knows no nest. I see a wheel that rolls but doesn't budge. I see a rider on a rocking horse.

I look into her eyes, and they are black, passionate, burninn and round like coins of the highest denomination.

—Why is tha tellinn me riddles, lady? I'm a tractor driver, not an academic. I'd like it on a silver plate, if possible. With honey. I like honey. Linden one.

She takes me palm and presses her long nail right into the centre. Hurt, I pull me hand away, and she smiles, so menacingly, so deviously, like Baba Yaga.

—You will run from fate, but it will catch up with you.

Well, methinks, that, mademoiselle, I already know. So I sit in silence, quietly suppressinn a smile.

—Does it have long legs?—I ask.

—Long, long legs. Like a giraffe's. Have you seen any?

—Sure. In our Tulubaika, there's nowt we don't have.

The gypsy camp is quartered in a glade by a post mill surrounded by willows. Inside the crumblinn buildinn only birds live, and the millers among 'em are, as known, so-so. The wind whistles, the horses neigh, the mill wings creak, plaintively, as if they wanna fly away but can't, for they're old now, they have no strength. A fire burns, logs crackle, a guitar twangs, adults dance, sparkle in bright get-ups, sing summat 'bout love, bairns scurry 'round, play tig, laugh. Stars sparkle in the sky, a million carats each. They say one can read his fate from 'em, like from the palm of his hand, only such magi aren't 'round here no more, so all that's left is to lie in the meadow with thy one and only beloved, thy soul and heart, look at these distant lights and make up stories 'bout what this or that star is called and how our fates are intertwined, wound into a clew. I like watchinn kittens play with a clew—what a hoot! Hop-skip, the ball rolls, the thread stretches, under the table, 'round the legs of the stool, to the open door, outside, step-by-step down the porch, along the road and into the woods, into the thickets, to fall from the skyline and—poof—it's gone.

Thou shalt not desire thy neighbour's fate, as they say, but here I am, stand shyly to the side, watchinn, lookinn at gypsies with envy. Here they come and go, whenever they want, wherever they want. Their fate, the place they were born, grow up and die, aren't in the sixty-eight- page manual book written before they are out of the womb. They are free, they flow here and there like a river, of their own accord. The chance and fate are their thralls, not the other way 'round. Lucky is one who believes in luck. Thus, quite by a lucky accident, a curly lassie with pink cheeks legs it up to me and hands me a couple of coloured ribbons.

—This is for you, boy, for good luck, when you grow up, tie them to a horse and off you go wherever. You won't get lost,—says the lassie, giggles, and jumps off, and I don't even have time to squeeze out a proper thanks.

Well, methinks, if I'm to be a thrall to chance, then all the way. I pack me a bundle, a right big 'un, lace up me bast shoes, nice and tight, trim me beard, even as can be, muster up me courage, both holy and heathen, just to be sure, and just in case, tie the ribbons to me wooden Bucephalus behind his lugholes, jump on the handsome's back and gallop off. I'm ridinn, chewinn a straw, glancinn from side to side. Tulubaika, me love, has become quite shabby, peelinn, both in soul and body. Year after year, everyone's gone: thang folk with their bairns—to the cities, old folk—to the cemetery, those who stayed—into old folks and then also to the cemetery. One by one, the houses emptied, the streets lulled shut. All quiet now, even the wind is afraid to fool 'round, chases no newspapers, whistles through no chimneys. The wee old huts have become ramshackle, grey-haired, lopsided, overgrown with moss. Inside, under the collapsed roofs, behind the broken windows, blackness has settled and sits there tight, day and night, maliciously gapes, silently groans, guards the halted cuckoo clock. The carved platbands fell off windows. Porches, yards, veg patches, orchards, and fields are ridden with weeds and stinginn nettles. No cat meows, no dog barks, no cockerel yells. Along the road, not a rut, not a trace, not a car, only a rusty tractor stands, rooted to the ground. A bucketless chain is down the well where blooms the algae. Shout or cry, even the echo won't peep back. Without me, no one will even remember that there is still such a village in our hinterland, or was, or mayhap there never has been one, and I made it up—no one will check. I'm the last one here, but it's time for me to go, too, whither say the coins: two tails—north, two heads—south, mixed—east or west. To hell with it, do what tha must, be what will be, I say to meself, take a lungful of our balmy air, and toss the coins up. They fly and fly, then fall and while they fall—whoosh, caw-caw—a magpie bastard grabs one of 'em and bolts off! Ah, methinks, sod it, we'll have a bash another day.

  1. Dekulakization: Soviet persecution of prosperous peasants, was often executed with violent measures.
  2. Verst (or versta): An old Russian unit of distance, roughly equivalent to (1.1 kilometers).
  3. The Old Believers are a Christian branch in Russia who split from the main church in the 17th century due to disagreements over reforms. One difference is in the sign of the cross. While most Christians use three fingers (thumb, index, and middle), Old Believers use two (thumb and index).
  4. Kirov, Vyatka and Khlynov are the names of the same city at different historical periods.
  5. Kartuz (Russian: картуз) is a type of cap with a round crown and a visor. It is typically made of leather or fabric, and can be worn in a variety of styles. It was popular in the early 20th century.
  6. Radio-controlled car toy: is a miniature vehicle operated by a handheld transmitter that sends signals to a receiver in the car. The receiver translates the signals into motor commands, allowing the user to steer, accelerate, and brake the car. RC cars come in a wide variety of styles and scales, from simple buggies to elaborate replicas of real-world vehicles.
  7. Tsar Gorokh (Tsar' Gorokh): Literally translates to "Tsar Pea." A figure from Russian folklore, Tsar Gorokh is a fictional ruler used to denote a bygone era, similar to "once upon a time" or "in the days of yore."
  8. Katorga (Russian: ка́торга, IPA: [ˈkatərɡə]; from medieval and modern Greek: katergon, κάτεργον, "galley") was a system of penal labour in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.
  9. Birchbark was a common writing surface before the widespread use of paper. The inner layer of birchbark, smooth and light, could be easily inscribed with sharp tools. Many historical documents, particularly in Russia, have been found written on birch bark.
  10. Banya: A traditional Russian bathhouse, typically a small wooden structure with a chamber heated by a wood-fired stove. Villagers used the banya for bathing, relaxation, and social gatherings. Bathing rituals often involved whipping oneself with birch branches (veniks) to stimulate circulation and cleansing.
  11. Maslenitsa pole: (pronounced Mah-slə-ni-tsa) A tall, greased pole erected for a traditional Maslenitsa celebration in Eastern Europe, a festive week with pagan roots prior to Lent. Climbing the pole is a popular competition testing strength and agility. Contestants attempt to climb the pole to retrieve prizes attached at the top.
  12. A Dymkovo bird is a brightly colored clay figurine, traditionally made in the village of Dymkovo (now part of the city of Kirov) in Russia. These figurines are a well-known example of Dymkovo toys, a folk art tradition with a history stretching back centuries.
  13. "Misinets" in Russian means "little finger".
  14. Maslenitsa straw effigy: During the Maslenitsa celebration, a large straw effigy, often representing winter or Marzanna (a Slavic pagan goddess associated with winter and death), is constructed. The effigy is decorated with clothes and ribbons, then paraded through the streets before being burned in a bonfire. This ritual symbolizes the departure of winter and the welcoming of spring.
  15. White, Decembrist, Anti-Soviet dissident: These terms all refer to individuals who opposed the ruling power in Russia at different points in history. Whites were supporters of the Tsar during the Russian Civil War (1917-1922), while Decembrists were officers who staged a failed uprising against the Tsar in 1825. Anti-Soviet dissidents spoke out against the communist government of the Soviet Union (1922-1991).
  16. GOST (ГОСТ): An abbreviation for Gosudarstvennyy standart (Государственный стандарт), meaning "State Standard" in Russian. These were a set of technical standards originally developed by the Soviet Union to ensure quality and consistency across various products. After the fall of the USSR, the system was adopted by some former Soviet republics with modifications. Today, it's maintained by the Euro-Asian Council for Standardization



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