“You have to understand, I simply must keep going!” Platon Ilich exclaimed angrily. “There are people waiting for me! They are sick. There’s an epidemic! Don’t you understand?!”
The stationmaster clenched his fists against his badger-fur vest, and leaned forward:
“Well now, whaddya mean, we don’t understand? ’Course we do. You don’t wanna stop, ’course I understand. But I don’t got horses and ain’t gonna get none till tomorrow!”
“What do you mean you don’t have horses?!” Platon Ilich cried out in a livid voice. “What is your station for, then?”
“That’s what for, but all of ’em are out, and there ain’t a one to be found nowheres!” the stationmaster shouted, as though speaking to a deaf man. “Not ’less some miracle brings the mail horses in tonight. But who knows when they’ll get here?”
Platon Ilich removed his pince-nez and stared at the stationmaster as though seeing him for the first time:
“My good fellow, do you comprehend that people are dying?”
The stationmaster unclenched his fists and stretched his hands toward the doctor like a beggar.
“Who don’t understand dying? A’course we does. Good Russian Orthodox people dying, it’s a terrible business. But look out the window!”
Platon Ilich put his pince-nez back on and automatically turned his puffy eyes toward the frost-covered windows through which nothing could be seen. Outside, the winter day was still overcast.
The doctor glanced at the clock, which was shaped like Baba Yaga’s hut on chicken legs; it ticked loudly and showed a quarter past two.
“It’s already past two!” He indignantly shook his strong, close-cropped head, tinged with gray at the temples. “Past two o’clock! And it will get dark, don’t you get it?”
“A’course, why wouldn’t I be getting it—” the stationmaster began, but the doctor interrupted:
“I’ll tell you what, old man! You get me some horses if you have to dig them up out of the ground! If I don’t make it there today, I’ll take you to court. For sabotage.”
That familiar government word had a soporific effect on the stationmaster. He seemed to fall asleep, all his muttering and explaining coming to an abrupt halt. He wore a short vest, velour pants, and high white felt boots with yellow leather soles sewn on. His body was slightly bent at the waist; he seemed to freeze, remaining immobile in the dim light of the spacious, overheated chamber. On the other hand, his wife, who until now had been sitting quietly and knitting behind a calico curtain in the far corner, turned and peered out, showing her broad, expressionless face, which the doctor had already grown sick of over these last two hours of waiting, drinking tea with raspberry and plum jam and leafing through year-old copies of the magazine Niva:
“Mikhailych, what about asking Crouper?”
The stationmaster perked up immediately.
“Hmmm, we could try Crouper,” he said, scratching his left arm, and half turning to his wife. “But they want official horses.”
“I don’t care what kind they are!” the doctor exclaimed. “Horses! Horses! I just want hor-r-r-r-ses!”
The stationmaster shuffled over to the high counter:
“If he ain’t at his uncle’s in Khoprov, we c’n try…”
He lifted the telephone receiver, turned the handle a couple of times, stood up straight, put his left hand on the small of his back, and raised his balding head high as if trying to grow taller:
“Mikholai Lukich, it’s Mikhailych here. Tell me, our bread man passed your way this morning? No? All right then. A’course not! Not going nowhere now, not a chance … you’re right. Well now, I’ll be thanking you.”
He replaced the receiver carefully. Signs of animation appeared on his carelessly shaven, ageless face, and he shuffled over to the doctor:
“Crouper didn’t go to Khoprov for bread today. So he’s here, prob’ly lying about next to the stove, ’cause when he goes to fetch bread, he always drops by his uncle’s. They have a cup of tea and chat up a storm. He don’t bring our bread till suppertime.”
“He has horses?”
“He’s got a sledmobile.”
“A sledmobile?” The doctor frowned, taking out his cigarette case.
“If you beg him and explain, he’ll take you to Dolgoye on his snow sled.”
“And my horses?” Platon Ilich’s forehead puckered, as he remembered his sleigh, driver, and pair of work-issued official horses.
“They can stay put for the time bein’. You can go back on ’em!”
The doctor lit up and exhaled smoke:
“And where is this bread man of yours?”
“Not too far aways from here.” The stationmaster gestured behind him. “Vasya over there’ll take you. Vasya!”
No one answered his call.
“He’s like to be in the new cottage,” the stationmaster’s wife called out from somewhere behind the curtain.
She stood, her skirts swished across the floor, and she left the room. The doctor retrieved his heavy floor-length beaver coat from the coatrack, put it on, set a wide fox-fur hat with earflaps on his head, threw a long white scarf around his neck, pulled on his gloves, grabbed both of his traveling bags, and stepped firmly over the threshold of the door that the stationmaster had opened for him into the dark mudroom.
Platon Ilich Garin, the district doctor, was a tall, sturdy forty-two-year-old man with a long, narrow face and a large nose; he was closely shaven and always wore a look of concentrated dissatisfaction. His purposeful face, with its large, stubborn nose and puffy eyes, seemed to say: “You are all preventing me from achieving the very important thing I was destined by fate to accomplish, the thing I know how to do better than all of you, and to which I’ve already devoted most of my conscious life.” In the mudroom he ran into the stationmaster’s wife and Vasyatka, who immediately took his two traveling cases.
“The seventh house down thataways,” explained the stationmaster, running ahead and opening the door to the porch. “Vasyatka, show the doctor gentleman the way.”
Platon Ilich went outside, squinting. The day was frosty and overcast; a faint breeze had been blowing for the last three hours and a fine snow was still falling.
“He won’t ask fer too much,” the stationmaster mumbled, shivering in the wind. “He ain’t much interested in profits. Just as long as he can drive.”
Vasyatka put the traveling bags on the porch bench, disappeared back inside, and soon returned in a short fur coat, felt boots, and a hat; he grabbed the traveling bags and stomped the snow that had been swept off the porch.
“Let’s go, doctor, sir.”
The doctor followed, puffing on his cigarette. They walked along an empty, snow-covered village street. A good deal of snow had accumulated: it reached halfway up the doctor’s fur-lined knee-high boots.
“It’s coming down hard,” thought Platon Ilich, hurrying to finish his cigarette, which was burning quickly in the wind. “What the devil made me take a shortcut through this blasted station? It’s a godforsaken place, there are never any horses here in winter. I swore I wouldn’t, but, no! I had to go this way, Dummkopf. If I’d taken the high road, I’d have changed horses in Zaprudny and driven on, and so what if it’s seven versts farther, I’d be in Dolgoye by now. And the station there is well kept, and the road is wide. Dummkopf! Now you’re out somewhere on a wild goose chase!
Vasyatka energetically tramped through the snow ahead, swinging the identical travel bags like a woman carrying buckets on a yoke. Though the station was called the village of Dolbeshino, it was really just a settlement with ten farmyards scattered a fair distance apart. By the time they’d hiked down the powdery main road and reached the bread man’s house, Platon Ilich had begun to sweat a bit in his long coat. Snowdrifts had blown up against the old, sunken loghouse, and it looked like no one lived there. The only signs of human habitation were wisps of white smoke that the wind tore from the chimney.
The travelers passed through a front garden that was fenced off after a fashion, and stepped up onto the sagging, cracked porch, which was almost entirely buried in snow. Vasyatka gave the door a push with his shoulder and it turned out to be unlocked. They stepped into a dark entryway. Vasyatka bumped into something and said:
“Goodness … Ouch!” In the darkness, Platon Ilich could just make out two large barrels, a wheelbarrow, and a pile of junk. For some reason the bread man’s mudroom smelled like an apiary: beehives, caked pollen, and wax. The lovely summer aroma was totally at odds with the February blizzard. Vasyatka made his way with difficulty to the burlap-insulated door, opened it, and, grabbing one of the traveling cases under his arm, stepped over the high threshold:
“Hello in there!”
The doctor followed him in, ducking to miss the lintel overhead.
The izba was slightly warmer, lighter, and less cluttered than the mudroom: logs burned in a large Russian ceramic stove, a wood salt cellar stood by itself on the table, a round loaf of bread lay under a towel, a lone icon occupied a dark corner, and a pendulum clock hung on the wall like an orphan, stopped at half past six. The only pieces of furniture the doctor noticed were a chest and an iron bed frame.
“Uncle Kozma!” Vasyatka called out, carefully setting the traveling cases on the floor.
No one replied.
“Maybe he’s out in the courtyard?” Vasyatka turned his wide freckled face with its ridiculous, peeling red nose toward the doctor.
“What is it?” came a voice from the top of the stove, and a head with tangled red hair, a shaggy beard, and sleepy slits for eyes appeared.
“Hello, Uncle Kozma!” Vasyatka cried out joyfully. “There’s a doctor here’s in a hurry to get to Dolgoye, but there ain’t no horses at the station.”
“So?” He scratched his head.
“Well, you could take him there on the sledmobile.”
Platon Ilich walked over to the stove:
“There’s an epidemic in Dolgoye, and I must be there today, without fail. Without fail!”
“Epidemic?” The bread man rubbed his eyes with big, calloused fingers that had dirty nails. “I heard about it. They was talkin’ about it at the post office in Khoprov just yesterday.”
“There are sick people waiting for me there. I’m bringing the vaccine.”
The head on the stove disappeared, then the stairs creaked and squeaked. Kozma descended, in a fit of coughing, and came out from behind the stove. He was a short and stunted, skinny, narrow-shouldered man about thirty years old, with crooked legs and the kind of oversized hands tailors often have. His nose was sharp. His face, puffy with sleep, was kind and tried to smile. He stood barefoot in his underclothes in front of the doctor, scratching his tousled red hair.
“A vax-seen?” he said respectfully and cautiously, as though he was afraid to drop the word on his worn, cracked floorboards.
“A vaccine,” the doctor repeated, and took off his fox-fur hat, which had made him feel overheated right away.
“But there’s a blizzard, doctor, sir.” Crouper glanced at the dimmed window.
“I know there’s a blizzard! And there are sick people waiting for me!” the doctor raised his voice.
Scratching his head, Crouper went to look out the window, which was insulated with hemp chinking stuffed in around the sides.
Copyright © 2010 by Vladimir Sorokin
Translation copyright © 2015 by Jamey Gambrell