Day of the Oprichnik
…..his River Pirate, jumping around western Siberia like a flea, has been caught between the nails twice: first the local Secret Department squashed it; then we did. They got away from the department guys, and they hopped away from us using Chinese aquariums. While negotiations over the ransom were going on, our guys managed to put three newscasters on the rack and dislocate their arms, and like a huge bear Sivolai knocked up the female announcer. But the backbone of the radio station remained whole; it bought a new, horse-drawn studio, and those shackle-fetters began broadcasting once again. Fortunately, His Majesty doesn't pay much attention to them.
“Miss, would you deign to share this modest meal with me?” an old voice with a strange accent sounded next to her.
Olga lowered her eyes and saw an old man sitting alone at a table. All of the tables here were for two, but most of them were pushed together to form national groups. Virtually no loners remained. She hadn’t noticed this old man earlier.
“Believe me, I wouldn’t dare to insist. if you have other preferences, do not hesitate to follow them. But I would be extraordinarily touched even by your brief presence at this miserable little table.”
He spoke perfect, terribly old-fashioned English. But the accent indicated that the old man wasn’t English. Olga placed her tray on his table and sat down across from him.
“Marvelous. I thank you.” The old man stood, his shaking hands raising his napkin to his narrow, colorless lips and wiping them. “Let me introduce myself — Ernst Wolf.”
“Olga Drobot,” she said, reaching over the food to shake his hand.
The old man touched his lips to her hand. His bald head trembled slightly.
“You betrayed us with the Jerries.” The Russian table laughed caustically.
“Are you German?” Olga asked.
“Why don’t you sit at the German table? There are so many of you here.”
“There are two reasons, my dear Miss Drobot. First, in the course of fifty-eight years of imprisonment, I have come to understand that solitude is a gift from on high. Second, I simply have nothing to talk about with my current compatriots. We have no common themes.”
“And you think that they will emerge with me?” Olga broke off a piece of her roll.
“You reminded me of a certain lady who was very dear to me. A very long time ago.”
“And it was only for this that you . . .” Olga lifted her fork to put a piece of fish in her mouth but suddenly realized exactly what he had told her. “What? Fifty-eight years? You’ve been here fifty-eight years?”
“Well, not exactly here.” He smiled, baring his old dentures. “But with them. With the Brothers of the Light.”
The fork slipped out of Olga’s hand. “Fifty-eight?”
“Fifty-eight, my dear Miss Drobot.” She stared at him. The old man’s face was calm and otherworldly.
His pale-blue eyes were attentive. The whites around them were extremely yellow. Judging by the even features of his wrinkled face, now unhealthily yellow and liver-spotted, in his youth he had been a handsome man.
“When did it happen?”
“In 1946, October 21. At the villa of my father, Sebastian Wolf.”
“They hammered you?”
“Yes. And decided that I was ein taube Nuss. An empty nut.”
“And then what?”
“And then i successfully became a slave of the Brotherhood. Although, in fact, I had been one before the hammering as well.”
“They used you before as well? In what way?”
“The most direct. It is quite easy to use children, honorable Miss Drobot.”
“I don’t understand.”
“My father, Sebastian Wolf, was one of the better-known members of the Brotherhood. And we lived with him. One fine day he decided to hammer me. And my sister as well. She perished, and I survived. Before this he had used us as obligatory decorations. And Mama as well. But she died earlier.”
“But . . . how old were you when you were hammered?”
“Seventeen.” Olga stared at the piece of fish on her fork. She picked it up and lifted it to her mouth. and once again dropped it on her tray. “I don’t feel like eating.”
The old man nodded his yellow head with understanding. “Nor do I. After the final bell everyone has a poor appetite. But then in the morning everyone’s hungry as a horse! The reasons are entirely objective!”
There was a childlike helplessness in his laughter.
“Solitude — is a gift from on high . . .” Olga recalled.
“What happened to your father?” she asked, looking at the old man’s trembling hands.
“The last time I saw my father was when he crushed my ribs. My sister, I admit, had tired him out. And he wasn’t very precise with me: the rib broke in and hit my liver. But I survived. Although since that time my face is yellow, like the Chinese. Believe me, Miss Drobot, in the first days after my arrival here they took me for one of them! I’m friends with the Chinese.”
He pinched off a piece of chicken and put it in his mouth. His dentures clacked softly. He chewed as though performing hard labor. His thin white hair shook on his yellow head.
“Tell me, why didn’t they just kill you . . . us? It would have been so simple. keeping you and hiding you for fifty-eight years! What for? And us as well . . .”
Wolf finished chewing and wiped his lips with the napkin.
“You see, Miss Drobot, when a person is killed and then burned, something of him still remains. The ashes, for example. And not only that. Something more essential than ashes. When he leaves this world against his will, a man forms a kind of hole in it. Because he is torn from this place forcibly, like a tooth. This is the law of life’s metaphysics. And a hole is a noticeable thing, my esteemed Miss Drobot. It’s visible. It takes a long time to heal. And other people feel it. If the man continues to live, he leaves no holes. Thus, to hide a person is much simpler and more advantageous. From the metaphysical point of view, that is.”
Olga grew thoughtful. And understood.
“They killed ‘empties,’ as they call us, only in Russia. Under Stalin, when the Great Terror was on, and later, when the ‘small terror’ took place. The Brotherhood wasn’t worried about metaphysical holes created after the death of individual beings.”
“Because Russia itself was one large metaphysical hole.”
“Really? When I lived there I didn’t notice it.”
“If you had noticed it, Miss Drobot, you would have an entirely different expression on your face. And believe me, I wouldn’t have invited you to sit at my table.”
Olga looked at him attentively. She laughed and clapped her hands. The old man giggled in satisfaction.
“Eat, eat, Miss Drobot. There’s a long night ahead.”
Olga set about eating. The old man took his portion of jell-o and put it on Olga’s tray.
“And don’t argue with me!”
His hand and the jell-o trembled in time.
“Danke, Herr Wolf,” said Olga.
“Pazhaluusta,” the old man said in Russian and laughed, his dentures clacking. Olga slowly ate half of her dinner. She wiped her lips with a paper napkin and dropped it in her soup.
“I will take the liberty of asking, Miss drobot, what is your profession?”
Manager. And you? Oh, that’s right . . . forgive me.”
“Your question is utterly appropriate. During my prison affair with the Brotherhood, I have done time in seven places. Four of them had rather good libraries. Thanks to them i managed to master three professions: translator from the English (I translated three of Dickens’s novels for myself), cartography, and — you’ll find it difficult to believe, Miss Drobot — an ocean navigator, that is, a pilot.”
“Cool! I love that American word.”
The old man also finished his meal.
“Tell me, is there any way they might let us out of here? Sometime?” Olga asked.
“What for?” The old man’s colorless eyebrows arched, and yellow wrinkles ran across his large forehead.
“They won’t . . . let us out?”
“Miss Drobot, you are too young. That’s why you’re asking such questions.”
Dejected, Olga fell silent.
“Stay calm. And stop comforting yourself with illusions. Our life is now divided into two parts: the first and the second. And we can’t get away from that. Therefore we have to try to make the second part more interesting than the first. It is difficult. But it is quite possible. I, to give one example, have managed to do this. And you have to agree that the Brotherhood provides a great deal of help in this regard. Local conditions are incomparable to those in normal prisons. Despite all their ruthlessness, the Brothers of the Light have been extremely humanistic toward us empty shells. They know our weaknesses quite well, and the needs of the meat machines.”
“Meat machines? Who’s that?”
“It’s you and me,” said the old man, rising and picking up his tray. “So keep your chin up, Miss Drobot.”
Translated by Jamey Campbell