HIS PAPERS, beautiful job, read: Danil X ----------, company commander in the 1st Kuban Regiment, sent to the centre by division headquarters to procure maps of the field of operations. Signed, for Regimental Commander Shapochnikov; Adjutant Shutko. The misspelled words were there, too, they had a good laugh over them. They authenticated a document better than any seals… His real mission, typewritten in code on a piece of silk, without any spelling errors, was sewn, along with other messages, in the lining of his tunic collar. He was also carrying, at the bottom of an apparently untidy pocket among shreds of tobacco and bits of string, a precious little ball of crumpled paper.
As soon as he left the October Station, which everyone still called – thank God!- the Nicholas Station, Danil rediscovered the city, magnificent after so many devastated villages and provincial towns through which had passed endless hurricanes of cavalry, bombardments, epidemics, and the terrible chill of executions. The third-class waiting rooms spilled over into the corridors, and the station halls were like a nomads’ camp. The masses of people living there were so compressed that aisles formed of themselves between the piles of bodies sitting, lying, and squatting on shapeless bundles, which were less shapeless than the half sleeping forms of the people. Through the acrid brown air you could see mothers suckling their squalling children; mothers with flaccid breasts, cradling sallow children with inflamed red lids closed over their eyes and greenish scabs clinging to their tiny heads among the patches of gold or black hair; mothers singing lullabies to put to sleep these little bits of flesh who clung to life with such inexplicable power, singing lullabies whose rhythm was so sweet that their voices, embittered by anger and unfathomable sadness, rekindled some ember of charm amid all that squalor and animal stench. There were bearded peasants who had been waiting for weeks for God knew what train. Others seemed to be waiting for their neighbour, delirious with Typhoid fever, to die; but every time they got near him he would recover enough of a glimmer of consciousness to swear, with vile curses, that, Name-of-God-of-Holy-Name-of-God, dirty bastards 9and so on), they’d never take him to the station infirmary alive; he knew ll about those miserable hospitals, Name-of-a- Name-of-God, full of dirty sons of bitches who thought of nothing but stealing a poor man’s boots. Thus he was settling his account with that sacred thing called life – which so many great poets have sung – right here. His perspiration-soaked head was thrown back over his sack (flour and salt), his body curled up in the manner of sleeping animals or the young of humans sleeping on the maternal breast. He drooled and groaned in his last agony. His neighbours, a whole family from Kaluga with beautiful grimy children, poured boiled water into his mouth three times a day. “He’s got to drink, poor man!” said the wife. “Ah, how the Evil One torments him! Lord have pity on us!” The father carefully pushed away the hairy, louse-infested head which he sometimes found lolling against the thigh of his oldest daughter, thirteen-year-old Marusia, asleep with her rag doll clutched in her arms. – “What beautiful boots!” observed the sick man’s neighbours, promising themselves to remove them when he died, so as to keep the damned city folk from taking advantage.
The nauseating atmosphere in the darkness suggested a cave of primitive men. Sixteen dialects were spoken there: Polish, White Russian, Karelian, Mari, Mordvian, Bulgarian, Finnish, Chuvash, Tartar, Ukrainian, Georgian, Kazakh, Aissor, Gypsy, Yiddish, German. The Gypsies – those horse thieves!-were universally regarded with mistrust (but where were the horses?); they jealously guarded their corner over which reigned a beautiful dark-gold girl and a magnificent bearded man who must have been a bandit. They sent out their old witches and ragged little girls to tell fortunes in the marketplaces. People whispered that they robbed the crypts in cemeteries. – In that crowd you could buy salt, lard from Little Russia, salt butter marvellously preserved in indescribable rags, grain, rifles with sawed-off barrels and stocks for easy concealment under one’s clothing, identity papers. At night the men mated joylessly with their women: sounds of stirrings, and pantings – procreations of misfortune for the future. One out of a hundred survives, but who can know if he is not the one for whom millions of men are waiting? Never, since the mass migrations invading the old Slavic cities surrounded by palisades of pointed sticks, had such crowds been gathered in such misery – and within each heap of mortal beings, the eternal will to live!
Danil moved toward a door at the far end of the encampment. There, a tattered calico banner proclaimed: “HE WHO WORKS DOES NOT EAT,” for they had cut out the negation “DOES NOT” from “HE WHO DOES NOT WORK.” Danil smiled with satisfaction. AGITATION BUREAU. TRAVEL ORDERS. REGISTRATION.
“Where from?” a man in black leather barked at him.
A green stamp crashed down on his orders. Good.
“The situation out there?”
“Could be a lot better.”
“Same old story, eh?”
The man yawned.
“Four dead from typhus in the main waiting room since yesterday. One hooligansmothered under his blankets by his pals, near the lavatory.”
From a poster on the wall above, a soldier in a scarlet tunic and a sort of pointed cloth helmet (whom the artist had drawn to look like the Chief of the Army) pointed an imperious hand and face toward every newcomer. “HAVE YOU ENLISTED IN THE WORKERS’ AND PEASANTS’ ARMY?”
“Are they enlisting?”
“They enlist. Especially the young ones. The army eats, you see. And then they keep the boots and the rifle and go over the wall.”
The vast circular plaza was nearly deserted. At the far end, near the low domes of a little white church, it opened out into the central prospect, empty of vehicles, extending in a straight line into the distant haze… Vagabonds in dirty rags wandered about in front of the station dragging little sleds behind them. The dirty fog blurred the outlines of objects. A sledge stood waiting hitched to a black horse with protruding ribs. Danil saw a well-dressed sailor emerge from the station, disdainful of the impoverished throng, carrying a red leather briefcase with a silver monogram; a woman was on his arm, dressed in a cloth coat with a wide mink collar, but wearing light-coloured high suede boots and a woollen shawl around her head like a peasant. This couple pushed its way brutally through the throng. Emaciated women, worn to the very soul, turned on them with envious looks. “Go ahead and act haughty, sailor’s girl, we know what you are!”
“Ira, Iris, Odaliska!” cried a shivering urchin wrapped in an old soldier’s coat.
His dark fingers proffered two packs of cigarettes and a little box of candy to the passerby. Next to him, a stiff, skeletal old lady in an old braided hat, both her hands stuffed inside a hairless muff, offered three cubes of sugar, in a saucer attached to the muff.
“How much, madam?” Danil asked her.
As she answered she looked only at the passerby’s hands, for customers would sometimes try to swipe a third of her merchandise in one quick movement.
As Danil moved on, he heard the urchin say to the old lady:
“Open your old peepers there, Grandma, and take a gander. You didn’t see many like that in the salons of your booge-wazee. That’s Yegor you know. The man who escaped.”
Danil turned around quickly. The sledge was already sliding off, carrying away the sailor and his companion. She looked toward him for a brief instant, and Danil saw that she had long, well-shaped, slanted eyes whose warm caressing brown glance was like a ray of sunlight filtering through closed shutters. In the middle of the plaza, on a huge rectangular granite pedestal, sat a square-shouldered, square-bearded emperor, massive from boots to neck, cap screwed down heavily over his bovine brow, fist on one hip; he slouched heavily in the saddle, astride a monstrous beast with a lowered brow, and seemed to contemplate, while digesting his dinner, a world forever limited, while his horse, untroubled, stared into the abyss below. The weight of their power implied an unlimited impotence.
The train from Moscow had been about six hours late. The afternoon was fading. Danil walked up Nevsky Prospect, on which he hadn’t set foot in a year – of course, since the day after his arrest. Czar Peter’s city, he thought, a window opened on Europe. What grandeur is yours, and what misery, what misery…
Nobility and grandeur still showed through the rags and tatters. Laundry hanging from dirty windows right on the main boulevard. Windows broken to allow for the passage of chimney pipes of little iron stoves, spitting out their puffs of dirty black smoke against the facades of buildings. Mud-spattered shop fronts, crumbling facades, shop windows full of bullet holes and held together with tape, splintered shutters; watchmaker’s shop windows displaying three watches, an old alarm clock, and one fancy pendulum clock; unspeakable grocery stores; herb teas packaged to look like real tea, as if there were still fools so stupid as to be taken in by these labels, tubes of saccharine, dubious vinegar, tooth powder – brush your teeth carefully, citizens, since you have nothing to use them on! – A nasty joyful feeling awakened within Danil.
Ah, what they’ve done to you, Czar Peter’s city, and in such a short time!
Here had stood Café Italien, the Salzetti quartet; to the right of the entrance, on the mirrored corner, the prettiest prostitutes had sat smiling out with painted eyes from under their gorgeous hats; some of them spoke French with a funny accent and played the Parisienne even in bed… Half the metal shutters were lowered, the pretty white door smudged with black under the press of dirty hands. HEADQUARTERS, IIND SPECIAL BATTALION, TRANSFERRED TO KARL LIEBKNECHT STREET. CONSUMERS’ COOPERATIVE, 4TH CHILDREN’S DINING HALL.
Danil pushed open the door, but all he could see through the herring fumes and the darkness were some broken mirrors. Farther along was the street of women’s hat shops: MARIE-LOUISE, ELAINE, MADAME SYLVIA, SELYSETTE, aristocratic names taken from novels or the noms de guerre of courtesans. It had been a charming street, inhabited morning and evening by pretty errand girls and elegant ladies. Now sinister, piled high with snowbanks.
Here’s Leger’s, the goldsmith. Why in the Devil’s name have they stuck their bearded Marx in here? (A piss-coloured plaster bust, ghostly behind the half-frozen window.) CLUB OF THE POOR PEOPLE’S COMMITTEE OF THE 1ST DISTRICT.
Not a single car. And yet what a beautiful city it still is! The Alexandra theatre showed its noble colonnades. Anyhow, they didn’t topple the tall silhouette of Empress Catherine in court dress holding the sceptre; but some idiot had scaled the bronze figures and attached a red rag on the sceptre – a red rag which was now blackened to the colour of old blood, the true colour of their red.
The tattered elegance of a slim brunette appealed to Danil. She had the eyes of a sad gazelle; her voice was more common than her appearance. Danil took her arm. They walked up the dilapidated street of hat shops.
“What’s your name?”
In her cramped little room on the sixth floor of a big white house there were worn lace doilies on the furniture. Pictures of young officers were leaning against empty cologne bottles. For months this man had not embraced a pretty, willing woman with clean underwear, lying on a bed with proper sheets. The narrow iron bed with its gilded balls reminded him of another such bed; but one which had been covered only by a pink, badly stained mattress with holes in it, in that pillaged villa on the outskirts of Krasnodar, where a stale odour of rot oozed up from the cellars which nonetheless had been carefully boarded shut. Dunya, a little Cossack girl with warm dry skin, used to come there to meet him, barefoot, naked underneath an old red sarafan with blue flowers. The window was wide open to the soft nights with thin showers of shooting stars. The cool marble hall: vague anxiety of doors ripped from their frames. The voices of buddies, drinking nearby at the Georgian’s tavern, burst in with snatches of the dirty songs which the drunken squadrons sometimes sang at the top of their lungs as they trotted into conquered towns whose silence resembled that of cemeteries.
Where, where, where do we get the clap?
From Seraphita, Se-ra-phi-ta!
“All my white eagles are blennorrheal!” said a jovial colonel. Linked to this memory was a taste of fresh watermelon in the mouth.
“You won’t mind if I don’t take off my boots?” asked Lyda. “See how long they would take to unlace.”
Absently, he shook his head, no. Other images rose up into his consciousness, emerging from depths thick with slime heavier than stones. Even the frenzy of the next moments failed to drive them away. Lyda saw a terrible, absent young face, closed off in an inner convulsion, driving into her, and she was afraid. At last the big male body, with its animal armpit odour, sank down next to her, emptied; but no peace returned to that face. “Where do you come from?” she asked to break the silence.
“From the south.”
He talked in snatches, little by little, into the air. Us. Them. Who? The Reds? The Whites? In war they’re all the same: brutes. Listen to this. What an awful memory: they captured this man in a secret room hidden between walls. A member of the Committee, understand? They tied him to a stake, in the square. The crowd was watching, calm, like him, thinking he was going to be shot. A thick rope was passed around his head; then, from behind, it was slowly tightened like a vice, with the help of an axe handle. Then only, the man understood; in a desperate effort, he nearly broke his bonds; his neck strained and turned blue with the struggle. The rope tightened heavily around his forehead. “Slower,” cried fat Shutko, steady in his saddle, albeit drunk. A curious fellow, Shutko: he could sit his horse perfectly even when unable to stand… The skull broke open like a nut, the rope was red, the body collapsed into its bonds, like a limp sack. An uproar broke out in the square. Everyone ran, the long piercing screams of the women scared the horses… “My horse…”
“You were there?”
Lyda was reminded that she was naked, naked in front of a man who had seen these things, and that the traces of this man’s arms and lips, the seed of his flesh, were on her, in her: it was as if she suddenly felt soiled with blood, brains, body fluids – a dizzying physical revulsion. She reached for her coat and covered herself with it, shuddering, her eyes wide open, no longer brown but black.
If, on the third landing of this stairway, behind a door like any other, the leather trench coats appeared – “Your papers!” “Hands up,” whatever they say – it would be all over, irremediably. All. Every step thereafter would be a step toward… toward what? Better face it, or you’re no good for anything. Toward a revolver held in a monstrous fist in the grim light of a cellar where you enter naked, shivering a last shudder. It took them to think up that one: undressing you. They are shameless. They don’t hesitate to commit any disgrace. – Clothing is precious, of course. And are our sabre executions in front of two-foot-deep trenches dug by tottering prisoners any less abominable? Less. Our bullets are precious. The sabres glittering in the sun recall the massacres of antiquity…. And what if there is no sun, phrasemaker? Danil was still arguing with himself in front of the door which was about to open onto his fate: the end of an adventure or the end of everything.
The rites unfolded simply. Ask for Comrade Valerian: American-style moustache, fleshy nose, close-cropped hair. Say “Prokhor sent me.” Once inside, add: “Allow me to light a cigarette,” and, getting out the cigarettes, drop a wad of crumbled newspaper. Wait.
Valerian carelessly flicked the wad into an ashtray, which a moment later he carried into the next room. Then he reappeared smiling, having matched up the two fragments of a newspaper headline on the open pages of a book.
“Is it true that Kazan has fallen?”
It seemed likely. On the black stock market the value of shares had been rising since the fall of Perm and the defeat of the workers’ councils of Bavaria. The rumour of Lenin’s assassination, followed by a denial, had recently enriched some smart operators for a few days. Shares in societies anonymes, although fallen into the triple anonymity of illegality, emigration, and anonymous death in prisons, still persisted in representing the value of nationalised factories, long-pillaged inventories, and phantom capital. Gamblers with less to lose than those who commit suicide outside casinos still placed bets at each new rumour, on the sticky guards of the Civil War.
An idea cut through Danil’s brain like a knife. We are spilling blood and these people are speculating on every battle, on the firing squads and the hangings, on… And, since he had to answer himself at that very moment, he finished out his thought – but they don’t even know how to speculate they pillage.
He made his report to the Three: Valerian, the Professor, Nikita. The samovar was humming on the table, which was spread as for a feast. – “How many trains did you say?” The Professor was repeating his question; he was a little deaf; gold-rimmed pince-nez, the heavy features of an aging billy goat. Could this asthmatic bureaucrat be one of the leaders of the liberation movement here? - “How many airplanes did you say?” Wasn’t he just asking these questions to give the impression that he understood? They might be the sign of infantile incomprehension. What importance did he attach to these uncertain figures? Just a moment before, the Professor had mentioned “the Yids” in a voice thick with scorn.
Nikita, close-shaven, with a high smooth forehead and porcelain eyes, was smoking as he took notes. The Three spoke little, but Danil learned a great deal. An Esthonian regiment had gone over to the Whites. The fleet on lake Peipus as well. Other great blows would soon be struck: a fortress - another fortress – a regiment – a heavy cruiser… Valerian was examining old railroad maps, on which rivers, as blue as fresh ink, and the straight lines of tracks stood out against the white background.
Then, by the Professor’s way of inclining his wooden face with its prematurely detached chin and sharp nostrils over Russia, Danil discovered in him an ancient hidden power which must make him precious to the others. He understood that the figures fell necessarily into place in his mind the way crystals form around a first crystal. No doubt, no hesitation, no error was possible for this man. No sophism could influence him. No truth other than his own. Danil thought: If I were to cry out to him: “Look at what they are doing, look at what we ourselves are doing. Here’s what I saw. I saw a man’s head split open under the cord. That form of execution has been extinct since 1650! Are we really any better than they are?” – he would merely reply in an absolutely neutral voice: “Second Lieutenant, I believe your tunic is missing a button. Be more careful of your appearance.” And this would be more crushing than any vehement reply.
“We have them at bay,” the Professor concluded.
“No bread. No metal. No combustibles. No cloth. No medicine. In the north, the Americans, the English, the Serbs, the Italians. Here the Finns, the Esthonians, the Whites. To the east, the Supreme Commander. To the west, the Poles. To the south, the Whites. Us – everywhere: in the army, in the fleet, in the economic councils, in the cooperatives. Behind us, the powers. With us, the people, all who are not the dregs of the ignorant masses. Us, the only hope.
“They nationalised the notions business. You stand in line for seventeen hours in four different places to get your seventh and final piece of paper: a ticket good for four spools of thread. And when you get to the store there is no more thread because the last of the stock has been stolen during the night, ha, ha, ha!- Do you know why they made the mails free? Because it cost too much to print up stamps!
“They instituted a free food program for children, but small coffins are at a premium on the market and there’s a line at the cemetery! – and how they ape us! In their trenches the soldiers no longer salute their officers with “Your Honour,” but they cry out in the same voice by God, “In the service of the Revolution!” Jolly service! Every night groups of men desert by fleeing forward toward the enemy, who has bread.”
The conversation had become animated. The Professor was explaining to Nikita that when order was re-established there would be a ticklish problem facing jurists. Which laws to apply to the ringleaders? Common-law crimes, sacrileges, they have plenty to answer for; but in their case the exercise of power has created a new juridical situation. Usurpation.
Valerian began to laugh:
“Martial law, by God! The fewest possible formalities.”
The Professor raised his wooden face, the two sides of which were multiplied into geometrical reflections in the lenses of his lorgnon, and shook his head slowly from side to side.
“The state is based on the notion of right. Regicides, parricides, and the sacrilegious have a right to the safeguard of the laws. According to Roman law…”
Nikita thought about forests. Last year he had walked for five weeks through the forests of the Dvina, sometimes following the trails of great hungry bears in the fresh snow, listening to the wolves howling at sundown, resting under the pines in the awful cold, building himself a fire a rare treat (a dangerous treat, for fire could attract man), learning how to devour the raw flesh of wolves and crows. The silence of the forest was so immense that it seemed to cover the whole earth, to blot out all memory; the pines under first snows seemed in turn white, dappled, blue, dark, darker than night, depending on the hour and the light. The sounds of flapping wings and indistinct animal cries, of broken branches falling, of faint breathing, lingered momentarily and vanished, leaving a sharp, delicate imprint on the man’s soul like the snowy footprints of an emaciated old wolf who passed by a while ago with his tongue hanging out between sharp fangs, making his own mysterious way through the woods, through the cold, through hunger toward his prey or toward death. The man stooping attentively over his trail knew trigonometry and recited Andre Chenier’s poems by heart in the clearings. On the seventeenth day, in the middle of a mortally cold frost, with only seven cartridges left, Nikita saw lines of smoke rising straight up over grey huts squatting like moles on the Russian earth. He turned back with hurried steps, skis sinking into the soft deep snow. Better to stretch out alone beneath one of those ancient pyramidal pines sparkling with diamonds under the rays of the moon and die in peace, of slow exhaustion – better this end than encountering man. And yet he did encounter a man, being unable to avoid him, and the encounter was a fortunate one: they came upon each other, inexplicably, face-to-face in the middle of the forest, two rifles, two wary instincts overcome by surprise, sniffing each other out at a distance of twenty yards like two beasts of the forest. The other man was a forgotten old woodsman who knew nothing about the war, nothing about the Revolution, nothing of the death of the Czar, nothing about anything. Every summer he travelled one hundred versts to the northwest, to a Komi village, to get powder, brandy and matches. Arriving home, alone as always with the silent female who slept at the back of his hut, he would drink for days on end. During these times he would talk out loud, volubly and disconnectedly, dreaming, attempting to sing but remembering only the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer – “Our Father who art in heaven” – and snatches of a sad prison ballad – “Open up the prison door for me…”
The female, too, her spirits warmed by the alcohol, would begin singing languorous lullabies in her Komi language. Then they would fall asleep huddled next to each other on the beaten earth. The door of the hut was open to the green vastness. Birds hopped in and out. Red squirrels plumed with magnificent tails came to stare with their bright little eyes at the strange disarmed sleep of the two human beings. The man had been living this way – nameless, ageless- for years. He barely knew to talk anymore. He didn’t know what a newspaper was. The sight of a lighter impressed him so much that for an instant Nikita feared that he might kill him from behind as they slid along single file on their skis, just to possess this marvellous object which could give birth to fire at the flip of a fingernail. But this solitary figure had lived away from men too long to think anymore of striking his own kind. He tamed squirrels. He derived great joy from spending warm afternoons frolicking with these intelligent little animals. “So intelligent,” he declared, that thanks to them he still retained the idea of intelligence. From him Nikita learned that he had come the wrong way. Snenkursk, the British outpost, was still distant by twenty days’ march that way, toward those constellations, then following the course of the river: watch out for bears… In these forests you needed to get your bearings by sextant, as on the high seas. Nikita went back the way he had come. Now he no longer knew whether it had been a nightmare or a rare burst of sunlight in his life.