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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Big Green Tent

A Novel

Ludmila Ulitskaya; Translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon




It’s fascinating to trace the trajectories of people destined to meet. Sometimes such encounters happen without any special help from fate, without elaborate convolutions of plot, following the natural course of events—say, people live in adjacent buildings, or go to the same school.

The three boys all went to the same school. Ilya and Sanya had known each other since the first grade. Mikha joined them later. In the hierarchy that takes shape willy-nilly in every herd, all three of them occupied the lowest rung—due to their complete disinclination to fight or be cruel. Ilya was long and lanky, his hands and feet stuck out from his short sleeves and trouser legs. Moreover, there wasn’t a single nail or sharp piece of metal he hadn’t snagged his clothes on. His mother, the doleful, single Maria Fedorovna, wore herself out attaching unsightly patches to his clothes with her graceless fingers. Sewing was not her forte. Ilya was always dressed more poorly than the other students, who were themselves poorly dressed. He liked to cut up and play the clown, making a spectacle of his poverty and thereby overcoming it.

Sanya had it even worse. His classmates were filled with envy and disgust at his zippered jacket, his girlish eyelashes, the irksome sweetness of his face, and the cloth napkin his homemade lunch came wrapped in every day. Added to that, he took piano lessons. Many of the kids had seen him walking down Chernyshevsky Street, the former and future Pokrovka, to the Igumnov Music School, one of his hands clutching his grandmother’s hand, the other clutching a folder with sheet music. Sometimes they saw him even on days when he was sick with one of his frequent minor, but protracted, illnesses. His grandmother was all profile. She would place one slender leg in front of the other like a circus horse, her head swaying rhythmically in time. Sanya walked by her side, but slightly behind, as befits a groom.

Contrary to his regular school, at music school everyone sang the praises of Sanya. In his second year there, he played Grieg at his recital with a skill that few fifth-year students could muster. The small stature of the performer was also touching. At eight years old he was mistaken for a preschooler, and at twelve he looked like he was eight. For this reason, they dubbed him Gnome at his regular school. And the nickname was not an affectionate one; they made fun of him mercilessly. Sanya consciously avoided Ilya, not so much because of his teasing—which was not directed at Sanya, but which sometimes grazed him nonetheless—but because of their humiliating difference in size.

Mikha was the one who brought Sanya and Ilya together when he appeared in their midst in the fifth grade. His arrival was greeted with delight. A classic redhead, he was the ideal target for gibes.

His head was shaved bare, except for a crooked, reddish-gold tuft in front. He had translucent magenta-colored ears that stuck out from the sides of his head like sails; but they were in the wrong place, too close to his cheeks, somehow. He had milky white skin and freckles, and his eyes even had an orangey hue. As if all that weren’t enough, he was bespectacled, and a Jew, to boot.

The first time Mikha got beaten up was on the first day of school. The beating, which took place in the bathroom during recess, was a mild one—just a formality, to give him something to think about. It wasn’t even Murygin and Mutyukin who did it—they had better things to do—but their sidekicks and underlings. Mikha stoically took what was coming to him, then opened his book bag to take out a handkerchief and wipe away his snot. At that moment, a kitten squirmed out of the bag. The other boys grabbed the kitten and started tossing it back and forth. Just then, Ilya, the tallest boy in the class, walked in. He managed to intercept the kitten in midair, over the heads of the makeshift volleyball team, when the bell sounded, putting an end to the game.

When they returned to the classroom, Ilya thrust the kitten at Sanya, who had materialized right beside him, and who then stuffed the kitten into his book bag.

During the final break, those archenemies of the human race, Murygin and Mutyukin, whose names will serve as the basis for a future philological conceit and so deserve mention, looked around for the kitten, but soon forgot about it. That day, school was dismissed after only four classes, and the boys tore out of the school building, whooping and hollering. These three were left to their own devices in the empty classroom bedecked with brightly colored asters—first-day-of-school offerings for the teacher. Sanya extracted the half-smothered kitten from the satchel and handed it to Ilya. Ilya gave it to Mikha. Sanya smiled at Ilya, Ilya at Mikha, Mikha at Sanya.

“I wrote a poem. About him,” Mikha said shyly. “Here it is.”

He was the handsomest of cats,

And just about to meet his death,

When Ilya jumped into the fray.

And now the kitten’s here today.

“Not bad. Though it’s no Pushkin,” Ilya said.

“‘Now the kitten’s here today’ is too pompous,” said Sanya. Mikha agreed humbly.

“How about ‘And now the kitten’s here to stay.’ That sounds better.”

Mikha then told them in great detail how in the morning, on his way to school, he had snatched the unfortunate creature out of the jaws of a canine predator. He couldn’t take the kitten home, however, because he didn’t know how his aunt would react. He had been living with her only since the previous Monday.

Sanya stroked the kitten’s back and sighed. “I can’t take him home with me. We’ve already got a cat. He wouldn’t like it.”

“Fine, I’ll take him.” Ilya casually scooped up the kitten.

“They won’t mind, at home?” Sanya said.

Ilya grinned. “I’m in charge at home. My mom and I get along great. She listens to me.”

He’s so grown up, I’ll never be like him. I could never say “My mom and I get along great.” It’s true—I’m just a mama’s boy. Though Mama does listen to me. And Grandmother listens, too. Oh, does she ever! But in a different way, Sanya mused.

Sanya looked at Ilya’s bony hands, covered all over in bluish-yellow bruises and scars. His fingers were so long they could reach two octaves. Mikha was trying to balance the kitten on his head, above the reddish gold tuft left there yesterday “for growing back” by the magnanimous barber at the Pokrovsky Gates. The kitten kept slithering off, and Mikha kept planting him on his head again.

Together, the three of them left the school building. They fed the kitten melted ice cream. Sanya had some money, just enough for four portions. As it turned out later, Sanya almost always had money. This was the first time Sanya had ever bought ice cream on the street and eaten it straight from the wrapper. When Grandmother bought ice cream, they took it home with them, placed the sagging mound in a special glass dish, and topped it with a dollop of cherry jam. That was the only way they ever ate it.

Ilya told them excitedly about the camera he was going to buy with the first money he earned. He also laid out his precise plan for making that money.

Out of the blue, Sanya blurted out his own secret—he had small, “unpianistic” hands, and that was a handicap for a performer like him.

Mikha, who had moved in with his third set of relatives in seven years, told these boys, nearly complete strangers, that he was running out of relatives, and that if his aunt refused to keep him he’d have to go back to the orphanage.

The new aunt, Genya, had a weak constitution and suffered from some undefined illness. “I’m sick from head to toe,” she would say with mournful significance. She complained constantly of pains in her legs, in her back, her chest, and her kidneys. She also had a daughter who was disabled, which put a further strain on her health. Any kind of work was beyond her strength, so her relatives finally decided that her orphaned nephew should move in with her, and that they would all contribute money for his upkeep. Mikha was, after all, the son of their brother, who had perished in the war.

* * *

The boys wandered aimlessly, chattering nonstop, until they found themselves on the banks of the Yauza, where they fell silent. They were struck with the same feeling in unison—about how fine it all was: trust, friendship, togetherness. There was no thought of who might be the leader. Rather, they took a mutual interest in one another. They still knew nothing of Sasha and Nick* or of the oath they took on the Sparrow Hills. Even the precocious Sanya hadn’t discovered Herzen yet. And the run-down districts the boys had been wending their way through—Khitrovka, Gonchary, Kotelniki—had long been considered the dregs of the city, no setting for romantic oaths. But something important had transpired, and this sudden magnetic linkage between people can happen only in youth. The hook pierces the very heart, and the lines connecting us in childhood friendship can never be severed.

Some time later, after heated debate, this triumvirate of hearts, rejecting both “Trinity” and “Trio,” decided to choose the august moniker “Trianon.” They knew nothing about the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; they just liked the sound of it.

Twenty years later, Trianon would crop up in a conversation between Ilya and an official from the Department of State Security, a man of high but indeterminate rank, with the not altogether plausible name of Anatoly Alexandrovich Chibikov. Even the most zealous of the dissident-hunting KGB thugs of that era would have shied away from calling Trianon an anti-Soviet youth organization.

Ilya deserves most of the credit for preserving the group’s memory for posterity. As soon as he laid his hands on his first camera, he began assembling a comprehensive photo archive that has remained intact to this day. True, the first file from their school years bears the mysterious label “The LORLs,” rather than Trianon.

Thus, the original catalyst for a union that would, in time, be amply documented, was not the noble ideal of freedom, worthy of the ultimate sacrifice of one’s own life, or, far more tedious, the dedication of one’s life, year after year, to an ungrateful public, as Sasha and Nick had done just over a century before. Instead, it was a mangy little kitten, who was not destined to survive the upheaval of September 1, 1951. The poor little thing died two days later in Ilya’s arms, and was secretly but solemnly buried under a bench in the yard of 22 Pokrovka Street (called Chernyshevsky Street in those days, after someone else who squandered his life on lofty ideals). The building had once borne the nickname “The Vanity Chest,” but few of its current residents would have remembered this.

The kitten rested for eternity under the very park bench on which the young Pushkin had allegedly sat with his cousins, amusing them with his mellifluous little rhymes. Sanya’s grandmother never tired of reminding him that the building they lived in had once been grand.

It was astonishing how everything at school changed in a matter of weeks. Mikha, of course, didn’t feel the change as keenly—how could he, he was a newcomer. But Sanya and Ilya noticed it. In their class they still occupied the lowest rung in the hierarchy, but now they did not occupy it singly. They were there together. They became a recognized minority, set apart by some indefinite sign or mark that prevented them from blending into the status quo of this small world. The two leaders, Mutyukin and Murygin, kept a tight grip on all the others; but when they argued between themselves, the whole class split into two hostile factions, which the outcasts never tried to join—and they would not have been accepted anyway. At those times, gleeful, malicious, angry skirmishes erupted—with bloody noses and without—and the outcasts were left alone. When Mutyukin and Murygin made peace, their attention again turned to these odd, unsociable misfits. They were too easy to beat up. It was more fun to keep them in suspense and fear, and to keep reminding them who was boss here: not the Jewish four-eyes, the musician, and the class clown, but the “normal kids,” like Mutyukin and Murygin.

Fifth grade was the first year when there were different teachers for different subjects (math, Russian, botany, history, German, and geography), instead of just one teacher for reading, writing, and arithmetic—the sweet-tempered Natalya Ivanovna, who had even taught Mutyukin and Murygin the alphabet, and who still called them, affectionately, Tolya and Slavochka.

All the teachers were crazy about their own subjects, and assigned a lot of homework, which the “normal kids” clearly couldn’t keep up with. Ilya, who had not excelled in grade school, was given a boost by his new friends, and by the end of the second quarter, just before the New Year, it became obvious that the rejects, the four-eyed weaklings and misfits, were thriving, and that Mutyukin and Murygin were lagging behind. The conflict, which grown-up people would have called a social one, grew more intense and more tangible, at least to the oppressed “minority.” It was then that Ilya introduced a term that would come in handy for many years to come—mutyuks and murygs. The term was basically synonymous with sovok (“a typical Soviet”), a term of later currency. The beauty of theirs lay in its apt self-evidence. It was there for the taking.

No one got under the skin of the mutyuks and murygs like Mikha, but with all of his orphanage experience, he easily weathered the schoolyard brawls. He never complained, but shook himself off, snatched up his hat, and took to his heels while the hoots and catcalls of his enemies rained down on him. Ilya played the clown with aplomb, and was often able to confuse his enemies with wisecracks or with sudden comic moves. Sanya proved to be the most sensitive and vulnerable among them. Still, it was his excessive sensitivity that served as his defense in the end.

Once, when Sanya was washing his hands in the school bathroom—a cross between a parliament and a den of thieves—Mutyukin was overcome with loathing for Sanya’s unassuming pastime and suggested that he wash his mug, while he was at it. Sanya, partly from a desire to keep the peace, but also partly out of cowardice, did as he was told. Then Mutyukin grabbed a filthy rag for cleaning the floor and wiped it across Sanya’s dripping face. By this time, they were surrounded by onlookers who were in the mood for some excitement. But they were disappointed. Sanya went pale, began to shake, then fainted, collapsing onto the tiled floor. The paltry enemy was, of course, vanquished, but the victory felt hollow. He lay on the floor in a contorted pose, his head lolling back. Murygin jabbed his side with the toe of his boot, just to make sure that he was really out cold. He called out to him with no malice whatsoever,

“Hey, Sanya, what’re you doing down there?”

Mutyukin stared wild-eyed at the lifeless Sanya. Sanya didn’t open his eyes, despite the insistent pokes and jabs. Just then, Mikha came in. He glanced at the mute scene, then rushed off to fetch the school nurse. A pinch of smelling salts revived Sanya, and the gym teacher carried him to the infirmary. The nurse measured his blood pressure.

“How are you feeling?” she asked.

He answered that he felt fine, though he couldn’t quite recall what had happened to him. When he did remember the dirty rag rubbing against his face, he almost retched. He asked for some soap and washed his face thoroughly. The nurse wanted to call his parents. It took some effort for Sanya to persuade her not to. Mama was at work, anyway, and he wanted to guard his grandmother from the unpleasantness. Ilya was enlisted to accompany his shell-shocked friend home, and the nurse wrote a note for both of them, dismissing them from class.

From that day on, counterintuitive though it might seem, Sanya rose in stature. True, they did start calling him Epileptic Gnome, but they stopped tormenting him: What if he had another fainting fit?

On December 31 school let out for the winter break. Eleven days of bliss. Mikha always remembered these days, each of them a revelation, and each different from all the others. On New Year’s he received a wonderful present. After secret negotiations with her son, who solemnly promised her that his direct descendants would never claim their rights to that particular family heirloom, and he himself didn’t mind in the least, Aunt Genya gave Mikha a pair of ice skates.

They were an American make, long outmoded, a hybrid between the standard Snegurkas and Hagues, with double blades and serrated front tips. The blades had been affixed to a pair of beat-up boots that had once been red, with huge star-shaped rivets. On the metal plate connecting the blade to the shoe, the word Einstein could be made out, followed by a series of incomprehensible numbers and letters. The boots had been thoroughly battered and broken in by their previous owner, but the blades gleamed like new.

Aunt Genya treated the skates like the family jewels, the way other families cherish their grandmother’s diamonds.

And diamonds did figure into the story of these skates in a tangential way. In the year 1919, Lenin himself had dispatched Genya’s older brother Samuel to the United States on a mission to organize the American Communist Party. For the rest of his life, Samuel had prided himself on his mission and regaled his relatives and close friends, of whom there were hundreds, with the details of the journey—until he was arrested in 1937. He was sentenced to “ten years of imprisonment without the right of correspondence,” and disappeared forever; but his remarkable story became the stuff of family legend.

In July 1919, Samuel traveled from Moscow through northern Europe by a roundabout route, finally arriving in New York Harbor on a Dutch trading vessel in the guise of a seaman. He clattered down the gangplank in boots that had been fashioned by the Kremlin cobbler, with an exceedingly costly diamond secreted in the heel. He carried out his mission: at the behest of the Comintern, he organized the first underground congress of the Communist Party. Upon completion of his task several months later, Samuel returned and reported directly to Comrade Lenin.

The whole of his modest travel allowance was spent on presents, minus twelve dollars spent on food. For his wife he brought home a red woolen dress with berries embroidered on the collar and shoulders, and red shoes three sizes too small. The skates were the third, and most expensive, American present in his luggage. He had bought them too big (with growing room) for his son, who died soon after.

He should have bought them for himself. As a boy, Samuel dreamed of gliding out into the middle of the skating rink with his body bent over the slick ice, racing past all those who turned up their noses at him—past the fine ladies in their muffs, the gymnasium students, the highborn young boys and girls, Marusya Galperin most likely among them. The skates had been buried in a chest for safekeeping, awaiting a new heir. But Samuel didn’t have any more children, and the skates, which had lain for ten years untouched, were passed down to the son of his younger sister Genya.

Now, twenty years later, they changed hands—or rather feet—again, inherited by another relative of the heroic Samuel.

Thus, the first day of Mikha’s vacation culminated in this unexpected gift, and far surpassed any happiness he could ever have imagined. And there was nothing that even hinted of the misfortune to follow.

* * *

On New Year’s Eve, Aunt Genya’s large family gathered around the table. The neighbors who shared their communal apartment had consented to having the festive dinner set up in the common kitchen, rather than in the 150-square-foot room that Genya occupied, together with her unmarried and endocrinologically challenged daughter, Minna, and, for some time already, Mikha. Aunt Genya prepared a sumptuous feast: both chicken and fish. That night, after the memorable repast, Mikha wrote a poem expressing his abiding impressions of the day.

The skates are the finest thing

That ever I have seen in life,

Finer than sun and water,

Finer than fire.

Fine is the man

who is on those skates.

On the table, bedecked as at a ball,

Countless were the dishes,

And one can only wish

One’s kin great victories in years to come.

At first he had “victuals” instead of “dishes,” but thought better of it—it sounded a bit crude.

All week Mikha got up when it was still dark outside and went down to the courtyard, to the improvised skating rink. He skated by himself until the first kids appeared, after sleeping their fill, since they were on school break. He still wasn’t very sure on his feet when he was wearing the skates, and he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to fend off the other kids if they tried to jump him.

The skates were, of course, the most important event of that vacation. The second most important was Anna Alexandrovna, Sanya’s grandmother. She took the boys to museums.

Mikha had a dual nature: he had a thirst for knowledge, a natural curiosity and excitement that was both scientific and unscientific; but he was also possessed of an inchoate creative fire. He was captivated by Anna Alexandrovna. He was not the only one to fall under her spell, however. The museum outings made a strong impression even on Ilya, who seemed to have more of a technological bent than an artistic one. Sanya, the proud owner of this remarkable grandmother, sauntered casually from room to room, occasionally sharing his thoughts—not with his friends, but with his grandmother. It was clear that in museums, no less than in music school, he was in his element.

Mikha fell in love with Anna Alexandrovna. He would never stop loving her until the day she died. She saw in him a budding man of that stamp she had always preferred. The youth was a redhead, a poet, and during that particular week he even limped a bit, having overtaxed himself on his new skates—exactly like the nearly great poet whom Anna Alexandrovna had secretly loved as a thirteen-year-old girl. This paragon of a man, already full-grown in that distant era, who had the aura of a freedom fighter and would-be martyr, and enjoyed adulation at the beginning of the twentieth century, didn’t deign to notice the lovestruck young lady, but left a lasting impression on some Freudian underside of her psyche. All her life she would love these intense, emotional redheads.

She smiled when she looked at Mikha—a boy of the same breed, but separated by time … and it was pleasant for her to catch his rapturous gaze.

Thus, without being aware of it himself, Mikha’s love was requited. That winter he became a frequent guest at the Steklovs’ home. Countless books, even books in foreign languages, nestled in every nook and cranny of the living room, with its three windows and another half window bisected by a partition wall, under lofty ceilings with ornate plaster moldings, also bisected. An upright piano, ever battle-ready, guarded its music in its depths. From time to time, unusual but intoxicating smells wafted through the room—real coffee, floor polish, perfume.

This must have been what it was like in my parents’ home, Mikha thought. He didn’t remember his parents. His mother had perished during the bombardment of the last train headed east from Kiev on September 18, 1941, when the Germans were already approaching the Podol district. His father died at the front, never knowing that his wife was dead and his son had survived.

In reality, the home of Mikha’s parents hadn’t been anything like Sanya Steklov’s. He was already twenty years old when he saw photographs of his parents for the first time. By some miracle, the photographs had been preserved after the war. He was very disappointed to see that his parents were poor, unattractive people—his mother, with a forced smile on her small dark lips and an extravagant, brazen bust; and his father, squat and corpulent, with an air of exaggerated self-importance. The photographs afforded glimpses of dull, everyday life, a setting that was not at all like the diminutive portion of the smaller reception hall of the former Apraksin-Trubetskoy mansion occupied by Sanya’s family.

On January 9, as the winter break was drawing to a close, they celebrated Sanya’s birthday. Before that it was Christmas, but only grown-ups had been invited to that event. It would be several years before the younger generation would be allowed to take part in the January 7* festivities. Still, there were always sweets left over from Christmas on Sanya’s birthday—candied apples, cherries, even orange rinds that Anna Alexandrovna prepared like no one else in the world. But that wasn’t all: they would fold up the room divider, move the dining table closer to the door, and, between the two large windows, set up a towering Christmas tree decorated with ornaments from a box that had been stashed away all year in a storage loft.

Sanya’s birthday party was always a thrilling event. Even girls came. This time there were two of Sanya’s friends from music school, Liza and Sonya. There was also Tamara, the granddaughter of his grandmother’s friend, with her friend Olga; but they were still small, little first-graders, and they didn’t inspire any interest in the boys. His grandmother’s friend was somewhat lackluster, too. Liza’s grandfather, Vasily Innokentievich, though, was marvelous, with his military uniform and mustache. An enigmatic cloud of odors clung to him: cologne water, medicine, and war. Half-joking, he addressed his granddaughter with the formal “you,” while casually calling Anna Alexandrovna “Nuta” and addressing her with “thou.” Vasily Innokentievich was Anna Alexandrovna’s cousin, and Liza was thus some sort of distant cousin to Sanya. They even used those pre-Revolutionary terms, the French cousin and cousine, which also seemed to have been pulled out of the box in the storage loft.

Anna Alexandrovna called the girls “young ladies” and the boys “young men,” and Mikha, discomfited by all these high-society forms of address, was completely at a loss until Ilya winked at him, as if to say, Take it easy, they won’t bite!

Anna Alexandrovna had planned an extraordinary evening. First there was a puppet show, on a real puppet stage, starring Petrushka, Vanka, and fat Rosa. They tussled and fought and exchanged insults, all in a foreign language.

Then they played word games. The little girls, Tamara and Olga, refusing to be outdone by the grown-ups, showed a quickness of mind beyond their years. Anna Alexandrovna invited the children to take pride of place at the large oval table, while the grown-ups retreated to a corner to drink tea. Vasily Innokentievich sat in an armchair and smoked shag tobacco cigarettes. After the puppet show, Anna Alexandrovna picked out a fat hand-rolled cigarette from the silver case on the side table in front of Vasily Innokentievich and tried to smoke it, but immediately broke into a fit of coughing.

“Vasily, these are awfully strong!”

“That’s why I don’t offer them to anyone, Nuta.”

“Ugh!” Anna Alexandrovna expelled the reeking smoke. “Where do you get them?”

“I buy the tobacco, and Liza rolls them for me.”

But that wasn’t the end of the evening. After the puppet show an array of desserts was spread out for them, a presentation Mikha would remember to the end of his days—everything from the homemade punch to the pale yellow napkin rings, carved from bone, cinching the folds of starched linen.

Ilya and Mikha exchanged glances. This was a moment when Sanya appeared aloof and inaccessible to them. The two of them felt set apart, like lowly interlopers. A three-way friendship, like all triangles, is a complex matter. Obstacles and temptations arise—jealousy, envy, sometimes even treachery, albeit trivial or pardonable. Can treachery be justified by unendurable, boundless love? The three of them would be granted an epoch quintessentially suited to posing this question, and a whole lifetime—shorter for one, longer for the others—in which to find out.

That evening, not only the rather inhibited Mikha, but also the expansive Ilya, felt somewhat abashed by the grandeur of the surroundings. Sanya, preoccupied by Liza, with her long, narrow face, and her hair set free from its blue ribbon, nevertheless sensed this. He called Mikha over and the two of them whispered together for a long time, then summoned Anna Alexandrovna. A little later, it was announced that there would be a game of charades. Then Sanya turned an ungainly little chair upside down, and it suddenly became a stepladder. He climbed up to the top step so that he was even taller than Mikha, who stood one step lower, and together they raucously declaimed the following lines, all the while pushing and shoving each other, tugging at each other’s ears, snorting and mooing and making a general racket.

Two names that start the same—

A talk between two lords of the meadow.

The second part of one’s like foul disgust: “Yuck!”

The other’s like the vulgar sound

Released after a meal of slops: “Ugh!”

The two names end the same—

A German preposition.

Add them together, you have two creatures

Misnamed, perhaps, Homo sapiens.

The guests laughed heartily, but no one could guess the answer. There was only one person among them who was capable of solving this linguistic riddle: Ilya. And he didn’t let them down. Waiting until the guests admitted defeat, he answered, not without pride, “I know! The beasts are called Mutyukin and Murygin!”

In all honesty they should have chosen another charade, because no one had ever heard of any Murygin or Mutyukin; but no one took them to task for it. Everyone had had a good time, and that was what mattered.

But something in the boys’ relationship to one another had shifted: Mikha, who had taken part in the charade, was raised to Sanya’s level, and Ilya surpassed them both—he was, after all, the one to solve the riddle, and thus support the integrity of the game. It would have fallen through if no one at all had known the answer. Good show, Ilya!

The boys slung their arms around each other’s shoulders in triumph, and Vasily Innokentievich photographed the three of them together. This was their first group portrait.

Vasily Innokentievich’s camera was a war trophy—a fine one, Ilya noticed. He also noticed that his epaulets were those of a colonel, and decorated with serpents. He had been an army doctor.

On January 10, Anna Alexandrovna took the boys to a piano concert at Tchaikovsky Hall, to listen to Mozart. Ilya was fairly bored, and even took a little snooze, but Mikha felt a sense of elation. The music was so thrilling, and he was so deeply moved, that he wasn’t even able to write a poem about it afterward. Sanya was upset, and nearly broke down in tears. Anna Alexandrovna knew why: Sanya wanted to be able to play Mozart that way, too.

On the eleventh they went back to school. That very first day, the three of them, along with another boy, Igor Chetverikov, got into a school-yard brawl with the other boys. It all began with an innocent snowball fight, and it ended in a rout: Mikha had been punched in the face and his glasses were broken; Ilya had a busted lip. It was humiliating that the fight had been two against four. Sanya, as usual, had hung back—not so much out of cowardice as from fastidiousness and tact. Murygin and Mutyukin aroused as much disgust in him as the infamous rag they had wiped his face with. This time, the bullies ignored Sanya completely. Red-haired Mikha, who had aimed a rock-hard snowball at the bull’s eye of Murygin’s nose and was right on the mark, was far more interesting to them. Ilya was over by the fence, spitting blood, Chetverikov was wondering whether it was time to hightail it, and Mikha was leaning with his back against a wall, fists at the ready. Mikha’s fists were massive, almost like a grown-up’s.

Then Mutyukin took out a jackknife resembling a penknife, only for very large pens, by the looks of it. The long, thin blade flipped open, and Mutyukin charged, aiming for Mikha’s blunt fists. Suddenly, Sanya let out a shriek, leapt up, and in two short bounds was grabbing the blade with his bare hand. Blood spurted everywhere. Sanya waved his hand around and the red stream sprayed Mutyukin’s face. Mutyukin bellowed like he was the one who had been slashed, and took off running, Murygin at his heels. But no one considered this a victory. Mikha couldn’t see what was happening very well without his glasses. Chetverikov ran after Murygin, but there was no point in chasing him. It was too late. Ilya wrapped a scarf around Sanya’s hand, but the blood continued to gush out like water from a faucet.

“Run and get Anna Alexandrovna, quick!” Ilya screamed to Mikha. “And you, go get the school nurse!”

Sanya had passed out, either from shock or from the loss of blood. Twenty-five minutes later he was at the Sklifosovsky Emergency Clinic, where they quickly stopped the bleeding and stitched up the wound. A week later, it was clear that his fourth and fifth fingers would no longer straighten out. A professor of medicine came in, took off the bandages from Sanya’s little hand, and said he was very happy with how the patient’s wound was healing. Then he told them that the cut was deep, going through the transverse metacarpal ligament, and he was amazed that only two of his fingers now seemed permanently curled toward the palm, rather than all four.

“Are there any exercises he can do? Massage? Electrophoresis? Some experimental procedure?” Anna Alexandrovna implored the professor, who treated her with respect.

“Of course. After he heals completely, we can partially restore mobility. But tendons aren’t muscles, you understand.”

“What about playing a musical instrument?”

The professor smiled at her sympathetically. “It’s unlikely, I’m afraid.”

He didn’t know he had just signed a death warrant. Anna Alexandrovna said nothing to Sanya, and for six months after he was released from the hospital she continued taking him to physical therapy.

Larisa Stepanovna, the school principal, rushed to the hospital to see Sanya after his operation. Rumors about the knife had reached her, and she was alarmed. Sanya was firm and tight-lipped during the interrogation with the principal. Five times he told her that he had found the knife in the school yard, pressed a button, and the blade shot out, slicing his hand. Who had the knife belonged to? No idea. The evidence was found the next day. Just like in a movie, the knife lay on a mound of bloody snow. It was handed over to the principal, who locked it in the top drawer of her desk.

Aunt Genya bemoaned Mikha’s broken glasses, Ilya’s mother scolded him a bit for his scrappy belligerence, and Igor Chetverikov managed to hide his involvement in the event from his parents altogether.

From that day on, although Igor was never a full-fledged member of Trianon, he was acknowledged as a sympathizer. Subsequent events, stretching over a quarter of a century, would prove that nothing in the world happened without rhyme or reason. It wasn’t just by chance that the two preternaturally farsighted little hooligans locked horns with this future dissident.

When all the talk about the brawl had been quashed for good through the principal’s efforts, and everyone had left Mutyukin and Murygin alone, the two started to quarrel and fight with one another. The class split into two camps, and life grew interesting again. The world was full of enemy spies, deserters, negotiations, and skirmishes. The majority was gripped by the warrior spirit, allowing the minority to relax and grow soft.

* * *

Sanya returned to school three weeks later with a bandaged hand, made it through several days, then came down with tonsilitis, and disappeared until the fourth quarter. Ilya and Mikha visited him almost every day to give him his homework. Anna Alexandrovna served them tea with an apple pastry she called “pie.” This was the first word in English that Mikha learned. Sanya had studied English and French since he was little. In school they had to study that repulsive language, German, starting in fifth grade. But Anna Alexandrovna turned out to be a stickler when it came to studying German, and began giving Sanya extra lessons, inviting his friends to join in as well. Though Ilya begged off, Mikha attended the lessons as if they were a party.

At the same time, Anna Alexandrovna gave Mikha an old English primer as a present.

“Study it, Mikha. With your abilities you’ll easily teach yourself. I’ll give you a few lessons to help you with the pronunciation.”

And so, the rich fare from the master’s table was shared and shared alike with Mikha.

Sanya was in a curious frame of mind. His two injured fingers didn’t get in the way, and weren’t even noticeable to others, since we all hold our fingers slightly tucked in, only rarely stretching them out completely. But the injury meant a complete transformation of his life, a total change of plans. He would listen to music all day and enjoy it as never before. It no longer disturbed him that he couldn’t play like the great musicians; he was no longer plagued with uncertainty about his talent. The only one who understood was Liza.

“You’re freer now than someone who tries to become a musician. I even envy you a little.”

“And I envy you,” Sanya said.

They would go to the Conservatory together, Anna Alexandrovna with Sanya, and Liza with her grandfather. One of Alexandra Alexandrovna’s friends would sometimes join them, someone or other’s niece or relative. Occasionally, when his workload permitted, Liza’s father, Alexei Vasilievich, also a surgeon, like Vasily Innokentievich, would come along. They all shared a strong family resemblance: an elongated face, a high forehead, and a delicate aquiline nose. In those days it seemed that everyone who visited the Conservatory was related; they were certainly all acquainted. They were a particular subset of the huge metropolitan populace, like a religious order or a hidden caste, perhaps even a secret society.

The beginning of the year was an eventful time. Ilya’s father, Isay Semenovich, came down from Leningrad. He usually visited once or twice a year, always loaded down with presents. The year before he had also brought a valuable gift—a set of German drawing instruments—but, apart from their beauty as objects, they were of no use to Ilya. This time he came with a FED-S camera, an exact replica of the German Leica. It was a prewar model manufactured by the boys at the Dzerzhinsky labor commune. His father prized the old camera. As a war correspondent, he had carried it with him wherever he went for three years. Now he was giving it to his only son, born of a romance with the homely and no-longer-young woman by the name of Masha (as Isay Semenovich called Maria Fedorovna). Masha had no expectations, made no demands, and quietly loved her son, Ilya. She rejoiced that Isay hadn’t abandoned him, and would even give them money on occasion—at times it would be a lot, and then, for long stretches, nothing at all. Masha refused her former lover’s advances, which was her strategy for keeping him interested. She would smile at him, offer him cake, make up his bed with starched linen sheets, and then go to bed herself on the sofa, sleeping head-to-toe with her son. Isay’s fascination with her only grew, and he thought about her more and more.

Although Isay was sorry to give his trusty, beloved camera away, the guilt he felt toward his neglected son outweighed his attachment to it. He had other, better cameras. He also had another, official, family, and two beloved daughters who had no interest whatsoever in photography. The boy trembled with excitement at the present, and his father felt annoyed with his life, which hadn’t turned out as it should have. Instead of the gentle Masha, whose plainness gave way to flashes of prettiness, he ended up with the shrewish Sima. He no longer even remembered why or how he had become her henpecked husband.

He explained to his son what a camera obscura was, that a dark box with a small aperture and a plate covered in photosensitive chemicals was sufficient to capture an image, to stop a moment in time. Masha sat there with them, resting her cheek on her palm, smiling at her small measure of joy. She only needed a tiny crumb, like a chickadee. Isay saw this, and noticed, as well, how skilled and adept Ilya was, how nimble his hands were—like father, like son!

He went away with the firm intention of changing his life so that he could see his son more often. And Masha was more attractive to him now than she had been that summer of 1938, when he had taken her more out of a sense that he owed it to her as an able-bodied young man than out of a real affinity. It was too late to change his life completely, but he could make some minor adjustments, like finally coming clean to Sima about having a son, his prewar offspring. It might be nice to invite Ilya to stay with them and introduce him to his younger sisters. But this was to be the last time he would see his son: two months later, Isay Semenovich, having lost his job at the Leningrad Film Studios, died of a heart attack.

Ilya’s father had stayed with them for two days on that final visit. After he left, Ilya’s mother, as usual, wept quietly, and then stopped. His life now had been clearly divided into two parts: before the FED, and after. This clever little apparatus gradually awakened a hidden talent in him. He had always collected things right and left—almost anything that grabbed his attention or entered his field of vision. Back in second grade he’d had a feather collection; next it was matchbox labels and stamps. But those were passing phases. Now, once he’d mastered the technical process, from loading the film and choosing exposures to rolling the photo paper onto glass, he began collecting moments of existence. The true passion of a collector was ignited in him, never again to burn out.

By the time he finished school he had assembled a true photographic archive, and a rather sophisticated one at that. On the back of each photograph, in pencil, he noted the time, location, and subjects; all the negatives were arranged in envelopes. The camera changed his life in other ways as well. It turned out that besides the camera itself, he needed accessories, all of which cost a lot of money. Ilya applied himself to the problem and discovered another latent talent: he had a gift for enterprise. He never asked his mother for money; he learned to acquire it himself. The first initiative that spring was rasshibalochka*winner take all. Ilya was the best player in school, and he branched out to other games, too. This started bringing in money.

Sanya Steklov didn’t approve of Ilya’s pursuit of lucre, but Ilya just shrugged it off.

“Do you know how much large-format photo paper costs? And developer? Where am I supposed to get it?”

And Sanya would fall silent. His money came from Mama and Grandmother, and he suspected that this wasn’t the most honorable way to come by it.

The old camera turned Ilya into a photographer. Soon he realized that he needed his own darkroom. Amateur photographers usually set up their darkrooms in the bathroom, where there was running water for rinsing film and photo paper. But their communal apartment had no bathroom—just a sort of pantry or broom closet, where three families kept their washtubs of various sizes as well as necessities. The closet shared a wall with the WC, which did have running water, so Ilya started devising a plan to rig some pipes to feed water into the closet and then drain it out again. He didn’t consider the neighbors, who had equal rights to the closet.

In their apartment, along with Ilya and his mother, lived a harmless old lady named Olga Matveevna, and a widow by the name of Granya Loshkareva, who had three children. Ilya’s mother often took the younger two to the preschool where she worked, and she helped Granya in other ways, too.

In short, when Maria Federovna talked the matter over with her neighbors, they didn’t object. They dragged their unwieldy washtubs out of the closet—and the rest was up to Ilya. He was just in time to write a letter to his father requesting his help in setting up shop. His father was deeply touched, and wired him 150 rubles. A two-line message accompanied the telegram: “I’ll come down for the May holidays, and we’ll do everything together.” That was his last letter—he didn’t live till May.

Although he couldn’t hook up the water to the closet for another year and a half, Ilya now had his own private nook where he spent a great deal of time. He salvaged a bookcase he found in the trash and used it for storing all his equipment.

Fifth grade seemed endless. It was the thirteenth year of their lives. The boys had slowly filled up with testosterone. The early bloomers had grown hair in secluded places and pimples on their faces. They itched and ached all over, more fights and arguments broke out, and they yearned to touch themselves to relieve the vague longings of the flesh.

Mikha exhausted himself skating. As a result of his secret early-morning training sessions, he became a good skater. He also became a passionate reader. Even before that he would read anything he could get his hands on, but now Anna Alexandrovna was supplying him with wonderful books: Dickens, Jack London, and many others.

At ten o’clock sharp, Aunt Genya would emit a single, high-decibel snort, after which she snored gently and steadily till morning. Minna turned in still earlier, and fell asleep quickly, after a bit of restless stirring about. Then Mikha slipped down to the kitchen to read to his heart’s content by the light of the communal lamp. He never got caught. He would sit there scratching at his pimples, reading a young-adult book that had nothing whatever to do with the aggravations of his body.

Sanya lagged behind his friends, not just in height, but in other ways, too: smooth face, clean collar—he was a gentle fellow. But he was also in the process of maturing. He announced to his mother and grandmother that he no longer intended to continue his physical therapy. It was obvious that his hand wasn’t going to heal and that he would never become a pianist. His mother and grandmother were both musicians of the homespun variety. In their youth they had dreamed of becoming professionals, only to be forced to abandon their musical training because of the entirely unmusical times, when blaring horns, thundering timpani, and marches and battle hymns were disguised as street songs.

The two solitary women had pinned all their hopes on Sanya. He had promise as a pianist, and everything was going beautifully—he had an excellent teacher, his future was shaping up. After the accident with the knife, however, Sanya had dropped out of music school. Anna Alexandrovna and Sanya’s mother, Nadezhda Borisovna, prepared themselves for a serious talk about his future. Anna Alexandrovna said that with his musical talent, it would be a waste to cut all his ties to music completely. Of course, he would never be a professional performer, but what could prevent him from playing at home? There was a certain charm in being an amateur. Sanya stubbornly resisted at first, then gave in after two weeks. He began taking private lessons with his grandmother’s friend Evgenia Danilovna.

Sanya played on their beloved Karelian-birch upright piano with his futureless, maimed hands. He would go weak at the knees for Chopin’s waltzes the way his peers did when girls from the neighborhood would brush against them in the mad chaos of a street game. He read, played, and sometimes did what normal boys his age did only as a form of punishment: he took long walks with his grandmother.

Evgenia Danilovna continued to give him lessons for about two years, but then the lessons faltered. This was partly due to Liza: her progress was so great, and his so minor, that he began shirking.

Anna Alexandrovna was a teacher of Russian, but with special qualifications—she taught Russian to foreigners.

And what foreigners they were! Her students were young men from Communist China who had come to study at the military academy. This was Anna Alexandrovna’s eighth or ninth job since finishing high school, and everything about it suited her. She liked how she was treated by the administrators. The short hours, her salary, and the various bonuses and benefits, including the excellent military sanatorium where she was allowed to stay for free once a year, were all very much to her liking.

Nadezhda Borisovna was an X-ray technician. It was an unusual profession, harmful to her health, but she got short hours and free milk to boost her strength.

Even though the small family was relatively well-off, their life was not without problems. There was too much secret dissatisfaction pent up in both mother and daughter. They were single, having both lost bona fide husbands, and husbands-to-be. No one raised the tactless question of where their men were. Those who needed to know, knew, and everyone else left them alone.

Mikha spent a lot of time at the Steklovs’. During his visits he watched Sanya fingering the keys, and saw how they responded to his touch. He imagined mysterious negotiations transpiring between the boy and the instrument, and tried to intuit their secret meaning, but was unable to get to the bottom of it.

He sat in the corner, leafing through the pages of his book, awaiting Anna Alexandrovna’s return. She would place a plain cookie and a cup of milky tea in front of him, then sit down beside him—with a self-rolled cigarette that she didn’t so much smoke as hold poised between her beautiful, arched fingers. Sometimes Sanya would get up from the piano and sit down with them on the edge of the chair, but his presence ruffled them. Mikha was fast outgrowing Dickens, and Anna Alexandrovna, without a second thought, urged Pushkin on him.

“But I’ve already read him,” Mikha said, resisting.

“This is like the Gospels—you read it your whole life.”

“Then give me the Gospels, Anna Alexandrovna, I’ve never read them.”

Anna Alexandrovna laughed, shaking her head. “Your relatives will kill me. But, to be honest, you can’t understand European literature without them. Not to mention Russian literature. Sanya, dear, bring us the Gospels. In Russian.”

“Nuta,” he said, baiting his grandmother, “I think you’re just a corrupter of youth.”

But he brought over the book in its black binding.

They decided that Mikha could read the Gospels, but he was not to remove the book from their house or breathe a word about it to anyone. Mikha had never known such abundance—he had a home with his own folding cot, Aunt Genya with her soup, the buxom, feeble-minded Minna constantly nudging him, now with her ample hips, now her ample bosom, his friends Sanya and Ilya, Anna Alexandrovna, skates, books …

In the middle of March the thaw set in. The ice in the skating rink melted, and Mikha coated his skates with machine oil to protect them, as his uncle Marlen had taught him to do. He did it too soon, though; another frost hit, and the little skating rink again froze over. Mikha could go skating again, even though winter was clearly on the wane. Now he even ventured down to the courtyard in broad daylight, after lunch. That was how everyone got a good look at his prized possession. No one else had skates like his; everyone else just strapped any old junk onto their felt boots. Only Mikha had the real kind, affixed to leather boots. His skates became the talk of the neighborhood. Two days or so later, Murygin showed up to check them out. He stood there awhile, took a good long look at them, then left. The next day, as Mikha was returning home from the rink, he found himself pressed up against the wall of his entryway by Murygin and Mutyukin.

It was no secret why they were there—the skates had taken their fancy.

“Come on, take them off!” Mutyukin said.

Murygin twisted Mikha’s arms behind his back, Mutyukin kicked him behind his knees, and Mikha collapsed. In a flash they ripped the skates from his feet and sped off. Mikha, wearing only his woolen socks, dashed after them. He caught up with them at the entrance to the courtyard and grabbed Murygin, who tossed the skates to Mutyukin. Mutyukin hightailed it down Pokrovka with Mikha in hot pursuit, shouting, in the direction of the Pokrovsky Gates. They were obviously running toward Milyutin Park, where there was another skating rink.

A streetcar was just crawling out from around the corner of Chistoprudny Boulevard. Mikha had almost caught up with Mutyukin, who flung the skates back to Murygin, but Murygin failed to intercept them, and the skates landed somewhere between the streetcar tracks. All three threw themselves at the skates. The streetcar let out an unearthly shriek, followed by a long, loud screech. Then it swallowed up the sound and ground heavily to a halt. Mikha faltered and fell.

When he opened his eyes, the skates were lying right by his nose. He couldn’t see Mutyukin. On the tracks in front of the streetcar lay a messy heap. Rags, blood, a twisted leg—this was all that remained of Murygin. A frantic crowd had rushed over and gathered around him. More streetcars rattled and clanged in the background. Mikha stood up, took the skates—no, just one skate. Shoulders hunched, he trudged home. He walked barefoot over the frozen ground—his socks had vanished, somehow—but he didn’t feel the cold. Near the entrance to his building, teeth chattering, he chucked the remaining skate in the direction of the ice rink, then slipped into the entryway he had emerged from just five minutes before.

He picked up his boots, stuck his bare feet into them, and ran straight to the Steklovs’. Anna Alexandrovna listened to the whole story without saying a word, then poured him a bowl of mushroom soup.

When Mikha had finished his soup, Anna Alexandrovna took the dirty bowl to the kitchen.

“I didn’t want it to happen, I swear!” Mikha said to Sanya.

“Who would want a thing like that?” Sanya said, shaking his head.

The tram shrieked out in awful pain,

The world is not what it was before.

All that was, and is, remains,

Except Murygin, who is no more.

This was the poem Mikha wrote on the day of Murygin’s funeral. The whole school had come, mourning Slava Murygin as though he were a national hero. The vice-principal and two upperclassmen laid a beribboned wreath, bought with money donated by the student body, on the grave. The ribbon bore an inscription in gold letters on a red background.

Mikha, the witness, and, as he believed, guilty party in this death, kept reliving that tragic instant: the skates flashing through the air, the metallic shriek of the streetcar, and an untidy raggedy heap under the wheels instead of the pathetic, mean boy who had been grimacing and racing through the streets a moment before. Pity of enormous proportions filled Mikha’s mind, his heart, his entire body. It filled him to overflowing, it overwhelmed him, and it was a pity for all people, both bad and good, simply because they were all so defenseless and fragile, so soft, and because the mere touch of senseless steel was enough to shatter their bones, to break their heads open, to make their blood flow out, so that all that was left was an unsightly heap. Poor, poor Murygin!

No one but Ilya managed to hold on to the 1952 class picture. It was one of just two photographs in his entire archive not taken by himself; the rest were all his own. One was the photograph taken by Vasily Innokentievich on Sanya’s birthday. The other one, the class picture, had been taken by a studio photographer. The picture displayed a motley group of underfed, postwar kids arranged in four neat rows. The first rows are sitting, and the upper rows stand on chairs borrowed from the assembly room. The boys are surrounded by thick sheaves of wheat, draped banners, stippled emblems, the decorative frame that formed the base, while the superstructure was the bug-eyed schoolteacher amid a mass of closely shaven heads. Murygin and Mutyukin are standing side by side in the top row on the left. Murygin is looking sideways; he’s a small boy, bald shaven, paltry, and harmless. Sanya isn’t in the picture. He was sick the day it was taken. Mikha is in the bottom corner. In the center stands the class adviser, their Russian teacher. Everyone forgot her name, because she went on maternity leave when they were in fifth grade and never came back. Mutyukin had to repeat fifth grade, but soon went on to other things. His career continued in a vocational school and, later, a prison camp.

Murygin, of course, was no more.

Copyright © 2010 by Ludmila Ulitskaya

Translation copyright © 2015 by Bela Shayevich