Samuil krasnansky looked out his window and saw Italian militia with their submachine guns lined up the length of the platform. He did not like being under foreign guard, but he preferred the Italian militia in their blue uniforms to the Austrians in their green. The Austrians offended his sensibilities. When last he had seen Austrians like these they had been marching in long, dejected columns under Soviet command. He had been a young officer then, a revolver on his hip, and the soles of his boots worn down by the rubble of Eastern and Central Europe. Men still chose their words carefully when addressing him. Fussy women with clipboards had not felt entitled to pry into his thoughts and personal business.
Once again the baggage had to be deposited onto the platform. The same method they had used to get the baggage into the train was now reversed. His daughters-in-law descended and stood waiting beneath the windows. His sons wrenched the bags and suitcases from the floor and the sleeping berths and lowered them to their wives. Samuil and his wife, Emma, were assigned the task of looking after the grandchildren. Emma held each boy by the hand. At first, still half-asleep, they were obedient. But that lasted only a short while, until a suitcase slipped out of Rosa’s grasp and crashed loudly and heavily to the cement. From the train, Karl cursed, and Rosa responded that he had handed her the suitcase improperly. She could not be expected to manage all that weight if he practically dropped it on her. She wasn’t going to risk her head for souvenirs and tchotchkes. She had the boys to think about. Did Karl want the children to grow up motherless orphans? If that’s what he wanted then he had nearly succeeded. At the sound of the word “orphans” the boys started to revolt. They didn’t want to be orphans. They didn’t want their father to cripple their mother with the suitcases. They thrashed in Emma’s grip and tried to free themselves to assist their mother.
—Stay, don’t move, Samuil instructed them, but they didn’t heed him.
—Boys, you can help your mother by behaving, Emma said.
Just then another bag fell from the window and somehow wedged itself between the train and the platform. This time it had been Alec who had released the bag. It was one of the duffel bags, extremely heavy and unwieldy, and Polina tried in vain to dislodge it.
—Why even have them down there if they can’t catch the bags? Samuil said.
—They’re doing their best, Emma said.
—I could do less damage with a hammer.
—With your heart don’t get any ideas.
—I can’t stand here and watch their bumbling.
When Emma spoke again in protest, Samuil glowered at her and said, “Not another word.” He stalked to the train. Awkwardly, grasping for decent handholds, he and Polina ultimately managed to free the bag.
—Now let’s have the rest, Samuil said, his face crimson with the exertion.
With three of them receiving the bags, the job progressed faster and they soon found themselves before another woman with a clipboard at the doors to the bus. Meanwhile, Italian porters appeared and heaved their belongings into its belly. A Russian interpreter accompanied the woman and called out the names of the émigrés. One after another they passed before him to be counted and checked off the list.
When the interpreter called out “Krasnansky,” Karl cleared a path to the front of the line. The others fell in behind him.
—You’re one family? the interpreter inquired.
—Three families. Same last name, Karl said.
Karl withheld his answer.
—No point playing games. It’s all in the files.
—Who’s playing games? Karl said.
—Don’t worry, there’s no penalty. You have three family heads. Go find your seats.
Samuil and Emma settled for a pair of seats near the back. Once they were on the road it became evident that the bus lacked proper ventilation. For relief Samuil slid his window open but encountered resistance from the woman behind him.
—I have a young child, sir, do you want her to catch pneumonia?
—We’re elderly people, you’d prefer we suffocate?
—Citizens, let’s be civilized, another voice chimed in.
—We could exchange seats, Emma suggested.
—And wake my child? the woman said.
—If your screeching hasn’t woken her, moving won’t either, Samuil said.
Samuil thought, as he had time and again, that the Soviets had wisely managed to rid themselves of the least desirable elements. In his long life he had never had the misfortune of being cast among such a lot of rude and unpleasant people.
Gradually, the bus approached the suburbs. Up front the Russian interpreter assumed the role of tour guide. The road they were on was called Via Flaminia, built by the ancient Romans. Those familiar with the famous saying “All roads lead to Rome” might be curious to know that they were now on such a road. It was interesting to consider, the interpreter continued, the traffic that the road had conveyed over the centuries. Roman legions used it when returning from their campaigns against the Gauls. Merchants from across Europe travelled its length from antiquity through the Middle Ages. Barefoot pilgrims walked it for hundreds of kilometres on their way to the Via Conciliazione, at which point they crawled on their knees to St. Peter’s Square. The carriages of kings and aristocrats had passed here, as had convoys transporting Italian troops to the Alps during the First World War. And during the Great Patriotic War, German Panzers had descended this way from the north to occupy Rome after the Italian king sued for peace with the Allies. It would not be an exaggeration, the interpreter said, to propose that the history of Western civilization could be plotted along this road.
—Their history: imperialist aggression, dogmatic theocracy, totalitarian monarchy, and fascism, Samuil muttered to Emma.
When they penetrated the ring road that circumscribed the city, the interpreter announced that they had officially entered Rome.
—Rome: the word tolls like a bell, the interpreter said.
There had been a point—once it became obvious that his sons would leave Riga, that no manner of threats or appeals would deter them, and that his family and his reputation would be destroyed—when Samuil had, for the first time in his life, contemplated suicide. The idea plagued him for weeks. He sought a reason to keep living, to justify his waking and breathing participation in the future. Almost certainly he would be expelled from the Party. And then what kind of life would he have in Riga? At best, the phone would ring occasionally when a former colleague’s wife would take pity and invite him for dinner. But could he even see himself accepting such invitations? What could he possibly say to people and what could people possibly say to him? And as for the other alternative—emigration—it was, in its own way, equally bad. But after a lifetime spent eluding death, the habit of survival was deeply ingrained. He could not separate the image of putting a revolver to his head or jumping into the Daugava from the image of the thugs who murdered his father—themselves doubtless long cold in their graves—dancing, singing, and drinking in celebration. He was not prepared to give them the satisfaction.
In Ladispoli, the little seaside town where they had been compelled to settle, thoughts of suicide returned. There was nothing here for a man like him. The young men, like Karl, packed their bags of trinkets and laid them out on blankets near the beach. When the police came, they scattered. When the police left, they returned.
Men his age he saw tending to their grandchildren, pushing prams, shaking rattles. Emma encouraged him to take the boys. Somehow, it had not occurred to her that this would offend a man’s sensibilities. More than offend. To be a useless old man was bad enough; to transform himself into an old woman was worse.
To break the monotony, Samuil walked. Most mornings he would start by going to the Club Kadima where he could listen to the radio or read the weekly émigré newspaper, Jews in Transit. Then he would walk to the beach and skirt the Piazza Marescotti. There, among the other peddlers, he would see veterans with medals pinned to their blazers and shirts. There were only several who were more decorated than he, although Samuil would have been hard pressed to prove this claim given that his medals had been confiscated at Chop by a smug, acne-faced customs clerk.
—Not permitted, the clerk had said offhandedly.
—I shed my blood for those, Samuil had declared.
—So you say.
—Here are the papers, Samuil had said and presented the old typed documents.
—This is of no interest to me. I am not an expert in forgery. The directives are plain: the medals belong to the Soviet Union.
—Look me in the face when you speak, Samuil had commanded.
—What for? You think I don’t see enough traitor Jew faces every day?
The customs agent swept them like scraps from the table into a bin containing other items designated as contraband: silverware, medical instruments, brooches, rings, and bracelets. His medals landed with a clatter, and he saw, burning like embers at the top of the heap, his Order of the Red Star and his Order of the Patriotic War—the so-called Officer’s Set. Because of this, Samuil paid close attention to the decorations he saw other men wearing. He saw one man with an Order of the Red Banner, extremely rare for a Jew if it was authentic. He saw another man with a chestful of campaign ribbons, attesting to a prolonged, near-miraculous front line tenure. Most, however, possessed the standard commendations that accrued to anyone who survived the war: combatant medal, bravery medal, victory over Germany medal, and the commemorative decorations issued to mark the jubilees of triumph: one decade, two decades, a quarter century. Samuil’s eyes were always primed. He saw a small, one-legged man with two Orders of the Red Star. This same man seemed to be everywhere. He saw him mixing with the others at the Piazza Marescotti, and he saw him also wearing his Red Stars and playing the violin for spare change in front of a café at the beach. He felt too as if he had also seen him at the Club Kadima, reading the newspaper. This was confirmed when he saw him at the Club Kadima a second time, sitting, his crutch propped against his chair, at the table beside Samuil’s. The man was laughing at something he was reading, in a way that denoted a prelude to conversation. Peripherally, Samuil saw the man look up from his paper, and turn his face this way and that in search of an interlocutor. As there was nobody else nearby, Samuil did not doubt that he would be singled out.
—Are you a chess player? the man asked.
—I wouldn’t call myself one, Samuil lowered his newspaper and said.
—Do you follow the game at all?
—No more than anyone else.
—But you’re aware of the championships in the Philippines?
—Do you side with Karpov or Korchnoi?
—Korchnoi is a defector.
—Perhaps I misunderstood you, but you sound as if you disapprove.
—You didn’t misunderstand me.
—Ah, I see, the man said. But I like this Korchnoi. Even if he did beat Tal.
—Are you from Latvia?
—I thought since you mentioned Tal.
—Only as an admirer. Besides, he’s one of ours. Though so too is Korchnoi, on his mother’s side.
—I happen to know Tal. After he became world champion in 1960 I helped organize his heroic return to Riga.
—Wonderful man, Tal. A true genius. Although he is in Karpov’s entourage in the Philippines. What can I say, it’s hard to be consistent with one’s allegiances.
—For some, yes.
—It’s certainly been true of me. If I settle on an allegiance it is guaranteed that new and compromising information will emerge. I revere Lenin, I learn he’s a German agent. I venerate Stalin, Khrushchev tells me he killed Mandelstam and a few million others. I tell you, if I worshipped the sun, we’d all end up in the dark.
—During a turbulent revolution some mistakes are inevitable. But Stalin was a great leader.
—Believe me, I understand how you feel. It’s not my intention to start a debate. It remains a delicate subject for people. My tongue, once it starts walking, sometimes wanders where it shouldn’t.
—Criticism is easy. The young generation is quick to criticize. It is easy to criticize if you never experienced life before Communism.
—Of course, anything is better than a pogrom.
—That is your commentary on Communism?
—I consider it no small compliment. In 1920, the Poles came through our shtetl and behaved like animals. You don’t think my father greeted the Red Army like liberators, even if they took our last crust of bread?
—You said you were from Kiev?
—I lived there since after the war. Before that I was from Olebsk. Not far from Zhitomir. Not that far from Kiev either. In Volhynia.
—I know it. I was born in Rogozna. Though my mother moved me and my brother to Riga when I was still a boy.
—Yes, I know Rogozna as well. I said goodbye to my leg in western Poltava. I imagine it is still there.
—I have seen you wearing your Red Stars.
—Yes? The second one they gave me in exchange for my leg.
—Who did you serve with?
—First Ukrainian Front. I was a sapper with the Twenty-Third Rifle Corps. As you can see, I am a small man. When they needed someone to crawl ahead I volunteered. I didn’t want them to say that a Jew was a coward. There are mines to be cleared. Who will do it? Corporal Roidman requests the honour, comrade Sergeant!
—You’re called Roidman?
—Is the name familiar to you?
—I don’t believe so.
—I’m actually a relation of a famous person. Only by the time she became famous she had already changed her name.
—Whom do you mean?
—Do you recognize the name Fanny Kaplan?
—Fanny Kaplan? The one who shot at Lenin?
—History remembers her as Fanny Kaplan, but she was born Feiga Roidman. We’re mishpucheh. My father was her cousin.
—I don’t suppose this was the sort of thing you publicized in Kiev.
—You’re right, of course. But I am a musician. I play the violin. I am an amateur, no formal training mind you, but I have been told that I have a certain knack. For some time now, in secret, I have been composing the opera of Fanny Kaplan. Her story is a modern tragedy. Do you follow music?
—No more than I follow chess. My brother played in a military band, but I never took it up.
—Ah yes, chess, Roidman said. Which is where we started. Now I am back to what I wanted to tell you originally about the curious incident at the chess match. The game was played to another draw, you see, but Korchnoi lodged a formal protest because, during the match, Karpov’s supporters brought Karpov a cup of blueberry yoghurt. Korchnoi claims that this could have been a signal agreed upon by Karpov’s team. A secret tactic. They bring a cup of blueberry yoghurt and it means: accept the draw. Or they bring strawberry and it means: knight to rook four. It’s wonderful. There is no limit to human intrigue, is there?
Samuil had not sought a friend or confidante in Josef Roidman, but Roidman was an irresistible force. Samuil discovered that when he approached the Club Kadima to read his newspaper he wondered if Roidman would be there. In fact, he came to look forward to seeing him. He was a man to whom one could speak in a forthright way. Between Samuil and his family there was no longer a subject that remained unbarbed. Roidman may have suffered from an excess of Jewish irony, and he entertained some misconceptions about the Soviet Union, but at heart he was not a subversive or a reactionary. And even his operatic tribute to the terrorist Fanny Kaplan—portions of which Roidman periodically foisted upon Samuil—could be excused as little more than dilettantism and sentimentality.
Roidman had a son in Winnipeg. The son, with a wife and two children, had emigrated from Kiev two years earlier. Roidman had remained behind with his late wife. His wife was at the time gravely ill with a female condition. The surgeons had cut out all there was to cut out. It was all very dismal. His son didn’t want to abandon her at such a time, but there was the danger that his visa would expire. It was only when Roidman’s wife commanded him that he consented to go. The living should not arrange their lives around the dying, she had said.
—I do not need to describe for you the parting scene, Roidman said. How to put it into words? I watched my son kiss his mother goodbye. It was like he buried her. Then, four months later, I buried her again. Like with all things, the second time was easier.
After his wife died, Roidman applied for a visa. He travelled alone, carrying only his violin case and one other bag. He had already been in Italy for three months and there was still no telling when Canada might accept him. Letters were being sent; well-intentioned Jewish ladies were placing phone calls to Canadian ministers. As for how effective all this was, Roidman had his doubts. But, if you listened to his son, you were liable to believe that Pierre Trudeau’s greatest concerns were what to do about Quebec and what to do about Roidman.
—By the way, Roidman said, did you know that the Soviet Union was financing the Quebec separatists?
—That’s nonsense, Samuil said.
—During the Montreal Olympics they held secret meetings. Members of the Soviet contingent arrived with briefcases packed with money. They also revealed classified information, of an intimate nature, about various Canadian politicians.
—Where did you hear this? Samuil asked.
—Here. From a man from Moscow. He said he had it on good authority. To be honest, I feel as if I have learned more about the Soviet Union during my three months in Italy than in my sixty-three years in the Ukraine.
—What you’re learning is capitalist slander, Samuil said.
—Also a possibility. Still, one can see how it could make sense. Strategically speaking. This Quebec could become the “Cuba of the North.”
Waiting in Italy, on the seashore, in the summer, was not exactly a tragedy. Roidman was prepared to wait a while longer, a few more months—but if nothing transpired he would apply to the United States. In New York, they accepted everybody. One leg, no legs, three arms: they took you anyway. His son could come to New York in his car and then simply drive him across the border. Once he was in the country Roidman doubted the Canadians would notice that they’d gained another elderly invalid.
He recommended that Samuil also prepare a contingency plan.
—Contingency plan, Samuil said. What is my contingency plan?
—America, Roidman said.
—America, Samuil snorted.
—Well, where else?
—Where else? The other place.
—What other place? Israel?
—I understand your perspective, Samuil Leyzerovich, Roidman said. But please remember that I speak to you as a friend. It is not too soon to start making preparations. Half an hour. An hour. You fill out some forms, saying you weren’t a member of the Party, and that’s it.
—My youngest secured himself a job with HIAS. I’m acquainted with these forms.
—My hand would turn to stone before I wrote such a thing.
—Yes, I understand, Roidman said, it’s a problem. But the Americans regard Communists the way the Canadians regard invalids.
—Stone, Samuil said.
—Samuil Leyzerovich, these are not your memoirs. In one’s memoirs—which are, so to speak, between one’s self and one’s soul—one must be truthful, but not, I would suspect, on an immigration form, which is only between one’s self and the American immigration service.
—It is not a question of where one writes it, Samuil said. Apostasy is apostasy. It is always between one’s self and one’s soul.
Samuil felt that this statement possessed finality. It was as solid and imposing as a fortress. He identified himself with this fortress. His argument was himself. He felt as if aglow with moral satisfaction.
He left the Club Kadima still aglow. However, before he reached home, the glow began to fade. He thought more about what Roidman had said about the “Party Story” document. It disturbed Samuil to think of the dozens, the hundreds, if not thousands of “Party Stories” being written by traitors and prevaricators to please the Americans. Samuil envisioned the dossier the American diplomats were compiling, full of false testimonies. In the end, it would lead to a gross distortion of the historical record. Samuil recalled life before the Communists and life after the Communists. He remembered the excesses of the bourgeoisie and the abject existence of the proletariat. He remembered hunger, cold, filth, penury, and, worst of all, the smothered hopes of gifted, honest proletarian youth. No one who had not experienced these things could legitimately judge the Communist state. Of course, he acknowledged that, at times, mistakes had been made, that opportunistic and corrupt elements had wormed their way into positions of power, but the system could not be judged on the basis of rogues and imposters. Rogues and imposters could not be allowed to qualify the essential Communist picture. In order to see this picture, a person would need to take up residence inside Samuil’s head, where the real events of proletarian struggle and triumph were housed like a breathing archive.
In the weak light, Samuil saw the smudged faces of his brother and of the other bookbinders, bent over the lathes in the chill of Baruch Levitan’s miserly home workshop.
He saw himself and Reuven stepping briskly through the dark streets of the Moskovsky District, risking beatings and arrests, to collect copies of Der emes and Der apikoyres, which Hirsh Kogan had smuggled in from Russia and dropped in a barrel behind Ozolinsh’s blacksmith shop.
He saw the burning and undernourished faces of the girls on the education committee, folding pamphlets into the night after twelve hours at their sewing machines. Their pale, quick hands, their frayed coat sleeves, their serious expressions: Chaverte Rivka Shapira, Chaverte Shulamis Garber, Chaverte Malka Averbukh, and the great beauty, Bluma Fabrikant. All dead.
Where were they in the record of history? None would be found in the revisionist volumes of the émigrés’ “Party Stories.” In their place would be complaints over congestion in communal apartments, shortages of chocolate and of denim pants, repression of Zionist nationalist organizations, and holy outrage over an anti-Semitic taunt shouted by some drunken bus driver.
When he was not taking his walks or reading the newspapers at the Club Kadima, Samuil busied himself with writing the true account of his life and times. He began with the private intention of having Alec translate and submit his biographical statement to HIAS and the American embassy. As he wrote, he clung to the guiding principle that his work would have corrective and instructive value, and in this way he granted himself licence to dwell upon his personal history. For hours each day he settled conspicuously at a card table in the sitting room and demanded not to be disturbed. Nevertheless, his grandsons scampered through the room with impunity, and his wife and daughter-in-law often interrupted him with their comings and goings between the bedroom and the kitchen.
To his wife’s inquiry about what he was doing, he said, I’m doing what I’m doing.
While he wrote, he could almost fool himself into believing that he was again in the company of the beloved dead. For those hours, he strongly felt their essence. The feeling evoked in him the deepest regret. It wasn’t that he wanted to join them in the grave or return to the past so much as he wished that they were still living. Had they lived, Samuil thought, things would have been different. But the best and the bravest never lasted long. This was a natural law, like gravity or the seasons, and he had seen it confirmed thousands of times at the front. As the frontoviks liked to say, Our lives are like a child’s shirt: short and covered in shit.
Aside from writing his biography, taking his walks, and reading the newspaper at the Club Kadima, there was nothing else Samuil cared to do. Every day, Emma took the boys to learn Hebrew songs. At the Club Kadima, a young American with a guitar led a children’s choir. Emma also went with Rosa to hear lectures, mostly by representatives of Sachnut, the Israeli agency. Rosa returned from these lectures spinning Zionist fairy tales.
From time to time, Emma would still try to interest him in some activity or event.
—I am worried about you, she said. Always by your lonesome.
—Do you hear me complaining?
—It’s not healthy.
In the end, he had surprised her by announcing that he would like to attend the screening of the American movie based on Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye der milkhiker. He had seen the postings up at the Club Kadima as he was in the early stages of his biographical statement, very much at the point in his life when he would have gone with his mother and brother to see the Tevye play performed by Rogozna’s amateur Yiddish Theater troupe. This was in 1919 or 1920, when he was six or seven years old. But he remembered the experience very clearly. Once a month, as a treat, his mother would take him and Reuven to the theatre. The old synagogue, converted by the Jewish Section of the Communist Party into a social club and theatre, was always filled to capacity. It was the only place where he could see his mother smile and hear her laugh. During the performances he watched her as much as he did the stage.
At the end of the evening, Rogozna’s principal actor, Zachar Kahn, the former ritual slaughterer, would make a point of coming up to his mother and asking her opinion of the show. He always referred to her respectfully as “the widow Eisner.”
He struck a memorable figure, Zachar Kahn, a tall man, almost two metres, with a black eye patch, a slashing scar down his right cheek, and the sleeve pinned where his right arm used to be.
Before the Civil War, Zachar Kahn’s slaughterhouse had been located a few doors away from their house. Because the light in the slaughterhouse was not always adequate, he would sometimes use the Eisners’ kitchen to inspect the lungs of a cow or a sheep he had butchered. The sight of Zachar Kahn on their snowy doorstep, a giant man holding a steaming wax paper bundle, was one of Samuil’s earliest memories. He and Reuven had both been fascinated by Zachar Kahn, and scurried around him as he unwrapped and scrutinized the glossy, brownish organs. He would let the boys draw near so that they could peer at the grotesque and otherworldly things which made life possible and which everyone—from a mouse to a man—had pumping and sloshing around in the dark hollows under their skin. Grotesque to the untrained eye, the organs were in actuality perfect in aspect and form, Zachar would explain. They were the handiwork of God Himself. If flawed, the flaw too was part of His design. Though if they were flawed, then the animal’s flesh could not be eaten. Lifting the lungs to his mouth, Zachar Kahn would blow to see if they would inflate.
The American movie of Tevye der milkhiker, though set in a Russian shtetl, didn’t have a single word of Russian and hardly a word of Yiddish. Americans with Semitic features had been dressed in caftans and shawls while, on stiff wooden chairs, sweating and fanning themselves in the Italian heat, a roomful of Russian Jews goggled at the screen.
At the front of the auditorium, to the left of the screen, a paunchy, hirsute mountain Jew held a microphone, and provided a simultaneous translation.
A fiddler! On the roof! Strange? Sure. But here in our little village of Anatevka every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to play a song without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. No, it isn’t easy. So you may ask why do we stay if it’s so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home.
—They could only get a mountain Jew for an interpreter? an elderly man near Samuil complained. That accent. You’d think there was no one available from Moscow or Leningrad.
And how do we keep from falling and breaking our necks? That I can tell you in one word: our traditions!
On the screen Samuil watched a lurid, fetishistic montage of Jewish symbols: a Star of David, a menorah, Hebrew letters, the worn burgundy velvet cloth covering the bimah. He looked around and saw that his wife, his daughter-in-law, and many others were entranced by it. Somewhere in America, Sholem Aleichem was spinning in his grave. The filmmakers had taken his “goodbye” and turned it into “hello.” What Sholem Aleichem had meant as an acceptance of a new reality and a critique of the outmoded ways, here had been transformed into sentimental Jewish burlesque. The movie encouraged a wistfulness and a mourning for the past, but what past? The filmmakers had no idea, but Sholem Aleichem could have told them. The old man had seen enough, even if he’d left for America and died there before the worst of the horrors.
Samuil had no appetite for the movie, but he stayed out of curiosity. He wanted to see, for the sake of comparison, the actors who played Tevye, Motl, Perchik, and Hodl. These characters had captured Samuil’s childhood imagination. Months after the performance, he and Reuven were still reenacting what they’d seen, with Reuven assigning the parts. For himself he took that of Perchik and pretended accordingly that Eudis Fefer, a local beauty who had played the role of Hodl, was his wife. Samuil became Motl, the tailor, and Reuven allowed him to take Rochl Lieberman—a second cousin who hadn’t actually been in the play—for his imaginary wife. In their games, Reuven would typically set off to attack the bourgeoisie and launch the revolution. At the door he would have an impassioned exchange with Hodl/Eudis. She would declare her love and plead with him to stay, but he would resist heroically and fly out the door. Samuil would hear the piff-paff of rifles and he would rush out in pursuit. Lying in the street or on a patch of grass beside their house, he would find Reuven mortally wounded. He would drag him back inside and lay him on their bed, whereupon Reuven would clutch a feather pillow to his chest and rasp his dying words to Hodl/Eudis. With his final breath, Reuven would exhort from Samuil a promise that he would take care of Hodl/Eudis and carry on the struggle for revolution. Then Reuven would expire and Samuil would run outside to exact revenge and tumble to his death in a hail of tsarist bullets. Sometimes, for variety, Samuil would get shot as he went looking for Reuven, and he would fall down beside him so that they could die together.
When they had been children, Reuven had taken the lead in all their doings. One day he returned from Pioneers with a small oak-handled penknife and taught Samuil how to play “knives,” instructing him how to throw the blade between his feet so that it stuck in the ground. Another time he taught him the words to a dirty Russian song.
Hey, hey! Fuck your mother!
You’re a colonel, I’m a soldier,
Fuck your mother,
Hey, hey, I’m a soldier!
He remembered the conversation he had with Reuven after his kindergarten class was taught about the class distinctions.
—Have you talked about this with anyone else? Reuven asked.
—No, Samuil said.
—I won’t, Samuil said. Only with you.
—The Whites are burzhoois, Reuven said. They are the class enemy. The Whites killed Papa. In war you do not kill your own, you kill your adversary. So, since the Whites killed Papa, it means he was against the tsar and in favour of the revolution.
Samuil always found it hard to connect the word “White” with the men who had murdered their father and grandfather. When he thought of the men who had done the killing, the colours that sprang to mind were the pale yellow and the cornflower blue of the rugs they wore across their shoulders. He had never seen anyone dressed this way before and, in spite of his fear, he had been impressed by how brash and adventurous it made them appear.
Before the soldiers came, their mother had hurriedly set the table with bread, sour cream, smoked fish, fruits, and vegetables. It was summer, and they had fruits and vegetables growing in a plot not far from their house. Their mother bustled about, gathering items from the cupboards and putting them out on the table. Meanwhile their father and grandfather frantically collected their dearest valuables: a leather pouch with gold coins, a fold of banknotes, and several pieces of jewellery that had belonged to their grandmother. They wrapped everything in a rag and concealed it behind a loose brick in the stove. From the street came fiendish, terrifying shrieks. When the soldiers burst through the door, a pot had been set to boil.
Samuil remembered their caps and their drooping moustaches. He remembered their drawn sabres. He remembered how the one wearing the yellow rug brought his sabre down across his grandfather’s chest in a blur of violent force and the surprisingly feeble noise his grandfather made in response. He remembered quaking and then wetting himself as his mother shielded him and Reuven from the soldiers. He remembered his father’s groans and wheezes during the torture. And he remembered his father’s face, and how he kept opening his eyes to gaze at them.
This appeared in the April 2011 issue.
David Bezmozgis received a Governor General’s Award nomination for Natasha and Other Stories (2004). His debut novel, The Free World, was published in 2011.
Brian Cronin, a contributor to The New Yorker and the New York Times, was featured in a 2008 retrospective in Lisbon.