Translated from the Russian by Fainna Glagoleva
Copyright Translation into English Progress Publishers 1978
First Printing 1978
ÊÎÍÄÓÈÒ È ØÂÀÌÁÐÀÍÈß
Íà àíãëèéñêîì ÿçûêå
Lev Kassil. The black book and Schwambrania
A story of THE UNUSUAL ADVENTURES OF TWO KNIGHTS
In Search of Justice
THE GREAT SCHWAMBRANIAN NATION
On the Big Tooth Continent,
With a description
Of the amazing events
That took place
On the Wandering Islands,
And also many other things,
As told by
Who now goes by the name of
And including a great number
Of secret documents, sea charts,
The Coat of Arms and the flag
THE BLACK BOOK AND SCHWAMBRANIA
On the evening of October 11, 1492, the 68th day of his voyage,
Christopher Columbus noticed a moving light on the horizon. Columbus
followed the light and discovered America.
On the evening of February 8, 1914, my brother and I, having been
punished, were sitting in the corner. After twelve minutes of this he was
pardoned, as being the younger, but refused to leave me until my sentence
was up and so stayed put. For a while we were engrossed in picking our
noses. On the 4th minute, when we tired of this, we discovered Schwambrania.
A LAND OF VOLCANIC ORIGIN
The disappearance of the queen brought everything to a head. This
happened in broad daylight, and the light of day dimmed. It was Papa's
queen, and that was what made everything so terrible. Papa was a great chess
fan, and everyone knows what an important figure the queen is on the
The lost queen was part of a new set made to order especially for Papa,
who was very proud of it.
We were not to touch the figures for anything, yet it was impossible to
keep our hands off them.
The lovely lacquered pieces fired our imaginations, prompting us to
invent any number of exciting games for them. Thus, the pawns could either
be soldiers or tenpins. There were small circles of felt pasted on their
round soles, and so they slid around like floor polishers. The rooks were
good wine glasses, while the kings could either be samovars or generals. The
round knobs that crowned the bishops were like light bulbs. We could harness
a pair of black and a pair of white horses to cardboard cabs and line them
up to wait for fares, or else we could arrange them so that they formed a
merry-go-round. However, the queens were the best of all. One queen was a
blonde and the other was a brunette. Either one could be a Christmas tree, a
cabby, a Chinese pagoda, a flower pot on a stand or a priest. Indeed, it was
impossible to keep our hands off them.
On that memorable day the white cabby-queen's black horse was taking
the black priest-queen to see the black general-king. He received the
priest-queen most nobly. He set the white samovar-king on the table, told
the pawns to polish the chequered parquet floor and turned on the electric
light-bishops. Then the king and queen each had two rookfuls of tea.
When at last the samovar-king cooled off and we became tired of our
game, we decided to put the figures back in their case. Horrors! The black
queen was missing!
We bruised our knees crawling about, looking under the chairs, the
tables and the bookcases. All our efforts were in vain. The wretched queen
was gone. Vanished! We finally had to tell Mamma, who soon had everyone up
in arms. No matter how hard we all looked, we could not find it. A terrible
storm was about to break over our cropped heads. Then Papa came home.
This was no measly storm. A blizzard, a hurricane, a cyclone, a simoom,
a waterspout and a typhoon came crashing down upon us! Papa was furious. He
called us vandals and barbarians. He said that one could even teach a wild
bear to handle things carefully, and all we knew how to do was wreck
everything we touched, and he would not stand for such destructiveness and
"Into the corner, both of you! And stay there!" he shouted. "Vandals!"
We looked at each other and burst into tears.
"If I'd have known I was going to have such a Papa, I'd never get
borned!" Oska bawled.
Mamma blinked hard. She was about to shed a tear, but that did not
soften Papa's heart. We stumbled off to the "medicine chest". For some
reason or other that was the name given to the dim storeroom near the
bathroom and the kitchen. There were always dusty jars and bottles on the
small window-sill, which is probably how the room originally got its name.
There was a small low bench in one comer known as "the dock". Papa, who
was a doctor, felt it was wrong to have children stand in the corner when
they were punished and so had us sit in the corner instead.
There we were, banished to that shameful bench. The medicine chest was
as dim as a dungeon. Oska said:
"He meant the circus, didn't he? I mean, the part about bears being so
careful. Didn't he?"
"Are vandals part of the circus, too?"
"Vandals are robbers," I muttered.
"That's what I thought." He sounded pleased. "They have chains tied on
Annushka, our cook, stuck her head out of the kitchen and threw up her
"Goodness! The master's lost his toy and so the babies have to sit here
in the dark. My poor little sinners! Do you want me to bring you the cat to
"No!" I growled. The resentment which had gradually died down now
welled up in me again.
As the unhappy day drew to a close the dim room became darker still.
The Earth was turning its back on the Sun. The world, too, turned its back
on us. We looked out upon the unjust world from our place of shame. The
world was very large, as I had learned in geography, but there was no place
for children in it. Grown-ups were in charge of everything on all five
continents. They changed the course of history, rode horses, hunted, sailed
ships, smoked, made real things, went
off to war, fell in love, saved people, kidnapped people and played
chess. But their children were made to stand in corners. The grown-ups had
probably forgotten the games they had played as children and the books they
had found so interesting. Indeed, they had probably forgotten all about that
part of their lives. Otherwise they would have let us play with whomever we
wanted to, climb fences, wade through puddles and pretend that a chessman
called a king was a boiling samovar.
That was what we were thinking about as we sat in the corner.
"Let's run away! We'll gallop off!" Oska said.
"Go ahead, what's keeping you? But where'll you go? Everyplace you go
there'll be grown-ups, and you're just a little boy."
At that moment I had a brainstorm. It cut through the gloom like a bolt
of lightning, so that I was not at all surprised to hear the roll of thunder
that followed (actually, Annushka had dropped the roasting pan).
There was no need to run away, to search for a promised land. It was
here, somewhere very close at hand. We had only to invent it. I could
practically see it in the gloom. There, by the bathroom door, were its palm
trees, ships, palaces and mountains.
"There's land ahead, Oska!" I shouted excitedly. "Land! It's a new game
we can play all our lives!"
Oska's one thought was a good future ahead. "I'll blow the whistle, and
I'll be the engineer!" he said. "What'll we play?"
"It's going to be a game about a land, our own land. We'll live in it
every day, besides living here, and it'll belong to us. Left paddle ahead!"
"Aye, aye, Sir! Left paddle ahead! Whoooo!"
"Slow speed. Pay out the mooring line."
"Shhh," Oska hissed, letting off steam.
We disembarked from our bench onto a new shore.
"What's it called?"
At the time of the events described, our favourite book was Greek Myths
by Gustav Schwab, and so we decided to name our new land Schwabrania.
However, the word sounded too much like the cotton swabs Papa used in his
practice, so we added an "m", making our new land Schwambrania. We were now
Schwambranians. All of the above was to be kept a deep dark secret.
Mamma soon let us out of our dungeon. She had no way of knowing that
she was now dealing with two citizens of a great nation known as
A week later the black queen surfaced. The cat had rolled it into a
crack under the trunk. However, Papa had by then ordered a new queen,- and
so this queen was ours. We decided to make it the keeper of the secret of
Mamma had a beautiful little grotto made of seashells that she had put
away behind the mirror of her dressing table and had forgotten all about. A
pair of tiny filigree brass gates guarded the entrance to the cosy cave. The
cave was empty. We decided to hide our queen there.
We wrote "C.W.S." (Code Words of Schwambrania) on a slip of paper,
pulled away an edge of the felt circle on the bottom of the black queen and
stuck the paper into the space. Then we put the queen in the cave and sealed
the gates with sealing-wax. The queen was now doomed to eternal
imprisonment. I will tell you of what happened to it later.
Schwambrania was a land of volcanic origin.
Red-hot growing forces boiled and bubbled within us. They were held in
check by the stiff, rock-bound structure of our family and of the society in
which we lived.
There was so much we wanted to know and still more that we wanted to
learn how to do. But our teachers would only let us know as much as could be
found in our schoolbooks and in silly children's stories, and we did not
really know how to do anything, because we had never been taught to.
We wanted to be a part of the adult world, but we were told to go and
play with our tin soldiers if we didn't want to get into trouble with our
parents, teachers or the police.
There were many people in our town. They hurried up and down the
streets and often came into our yard, but we were only allowed to associate
with the people our elders approved of.
My brother and I played Schwambrania for several years. It became our
second country and was a mighty nation. The Revolution, that stern teacher
and excellent educator, helped us to overcome our old ties, and we finally
abandoned the tinfoil ruins of Schwambrania forever.
I have saved our "Schwambranian letters" and maps, the plans of our
military campaigns and sketches of the flag and coat-of-arms. I have
referred to them to freshen my recollections while writing this book. It is
the story of Schwambrania, with tales about the travels of many
Schwambranians and our own adventures there, as well as many other events.
"But the earth still turns-if you
don't believe me, sit on your
very own buttocks-and
Just like any other country, Schwambrania had a terrain, a climate,
flora, fauna and population all its own.
Oska made the first map of Schwambrania. He copied a large molar tooth
from a dentist's ad he had seen, and since it had three roots it at once
resembled a tulip, the crown of the Nibelungs and an upside-down "M", the
letter we had added to the middle of the name of our new country. It was
very tempting to see some special meaning in this and we did: we decided it
was a wisdom tooth, signifying the wisdom of the Schwambranians. Thus, the
new country's contours resembled a wisdom tooth. The surrounding ocean was
dotted with islands and blots, but I must say that the ink-spots were
truthfully marked as such: "Not an iland, an erer". The ocean was marked
"Oshen". Oska drew wavy lines and inscribed them "waves". Then he marked the
"see" and added two arrows, one pointing out the "curant" and the other
"this way is aposit". There was also a "beech", a straight-coursing river
named the Halma, the capital city of Schwambraena, the towns of Argonsk and
Drandzonsk, Foren Shore Bay, "that side", a "peer", mountains and, finally,
"the place where the Earth curves".
At the time Oska was very much concerned about the spherical nature of
the ground underfoot and did his best to prove the roundness of the Earth to
himself. Luckily, we knew nothing of Mayakovsky's poetry, for Oska's pants
certainly would have been worn thin in his efforts to see if he could slide
on it. However, he discovered another way of proving it. Before putting the
finishing touches to his map of Schwambrania, he led me out of our yard with
a very meaningful look on his face. Beyond the granaries and near the main
square the remains of a mound could be seen. Perhaps this had once been a
part of some earthen foundation for a chapel, or perhaps it had once been a
large flower bed. Time had all but levelled the little hump. Oska beamed as
he led me to it. He pointed grandly and said:
"Here's the place where the Earth curves."
I dared not contradict him. Perhaps the Earth did curve there. At any
rate, in order not to lose face, for he was my baby brother after all, I
said: "Ha! That's nothing! You should have seen that place in Saratov.
That's where the Earth re curves."
Schwambrania was a truly symmetrical land, one that could easily serve
an example for any ornament. To the West were mountains, a city and the sea.
To East were mountains, a city and the sea. There was a bay on the left and
a bay the right. This symmetry reflected the true justice which governed
Schwambrania and the rules of our game. Unlike ordinary books, where good
prevails and evil is vanquished on the very last page, ours was a land where
the heroes were rewarded and the villains defeated at the very start. Ours
was a country of complete well-being and exquisite perfection. There was not
even a jagged line in its contour.
Symmetry is a balance of lines, a linear system of justice.
Schwambrania was a land of true justice, where all the good things in life
and even the terrain were fairly distributed. There was a bay on the left
and a bay on the right, the city of Drandzonsk in the West and the city of
Argonsk in the East. Justice reigned.
Now, as was only proper for a real nation, Schwambrania had to have a
history all its own. Six months of our playing the game covered several
centuries of its existence.
As I learned from my reading, the past history of any self-respecting
country was crammed full of wars. That was why Schwambrania had to work hard
to catch up. However, there was no one it could fight. That was why we had
to draw two curved lines across the bottom of the Big Tooth Continent and
write "Fence" along one of them. We now had two enemy nations in the two
marked-off comers. One was "Caldonia", a combination of "cad" and
"Caledonia", and the other was "Balvonia", a combination of "bad" and
"Bolivia". The level ground situated between Caldonia and Balvonia was there
to serve as a battle-field. It was marked "War" on the map.
We were soon to see the same word in large block letters in the
We imagined that all real battles took place in a special hard-packed,
cleanly-swept square area like a parade ground. The Earth never curved here,
for the ground was level and smooth.
"The war place is paved like a sidewalk," I said knowingly to my
"Is there a Volga in a war?" he wanted to know. He thought that the
Volga meant any river.
To both sides of the "War" part on the map were the places for the
prisoners of war. The three areas were clearly marked "prizon".
All wars in Schwambrania began with the postman ringing the front
doorbell of the Emperor's palace. He would say:
"There's a special delivery for you, Your Majesty. Sign here."
"I wonder who it's from?" the Emperor would say, licking the tip of his
Oska was the postman. I was the Emperor.
"I think I know that handwriting," the postman would reply. "It looks
like it's from Balvonia. From their king."
"Any letters from Caldonia?" the Emperor would ask.
"They're still writing," the postman would answer, mimicking to
perfection the reply of our postman, Neboga, for that was what he would say
whenever we asked if there were any letters for us.
"Lend me a hairpin, Queen!" the Emperor would shout and would then slit
open the envelope with a hairpin. A letter might read:
"Dear Mr. King of Schwambrania,
"How are you? We are fine, thank God. Yesterday we had a bad earthquake
and three volcanoes erupted. Then there was a terrible fire in the palace
and a terrible flood. Last week we had a war against Caldonia. But we licked
them and captured all of them. Because the Balvonians are all very brave
heroes. And all the Schwambranians are fools, idiots, dunderheads and
vandals. And we want to fight you. God willing, we present you with a
manifesto in the newspapers. Come on out and fight a War. We'll lick you all
and capture you, too. If you don't fight a War, you're all scaredy-cats and
sissies. And we despise you. You're all a bunch of idiots.
"Regards to your missus the Queen and to the young man who's the heir.
"Wherewith is the print of mine own boot.
"The King of Balvonia"
Upon reading such a letter, the Emperor would become very angry. He
would take his sword down from the wall and summon his knife-grinders. He
would then send the Balvoniancad a telegram with a "paid reply". The message
According to my History of Russia textbook, either Prince Yaroslav or
Prince Svyatoslav of yore had sent his enemies a similar warning. The Prince
would telegraph this message to some warrior tribe of Pechenegs or Polovtsi
and would then ride off to settle their hash. However, it would never do to
address such an impertinent fellow as the King of Balvonia politely, and
that was why the Emperor of Schwambrania would angrily add "rat": "I March
on you, rat!" Then the Emperor would summon the supplier of medicine to His
Majesty's court, whose official title was Physician Extraordinary, and get
himself called up.
"And how are we today?" the Physician Extraordinary would inquire.
"How's our stomach? Uh ... how's our stool, I mean throne, today? Breathe
Then the Emperor would get into his coach and say: "Come on, fellow!
Don't spare the horses!"
And he would go off to war. Everyone would cheer and salute, while his
queen waved a clean hankie from her window.
Naturally, Schwambrania won all its wars. Balvonia was defeated and
annexed. But no sooner were the "war parade grounds" swept clean and the
"prizon" places aired than Caldonia would declare war on Schwambrania. It
would also be defeated. A hole was made in the fortress wall, and from then
on the Schwambranians could go to Caldonia without paying the fare, every
day except Sundays.
There was a special place on "that side" for "Foren Land". That was
where the nasty Piliguins lived. They roamed the icy wastes and were
something of a cross between pilgrims and penguins. The Schwambranians had
met the Piliguins head-on on the war grounds on several occasions and had
always defeated them. However, we did not annex their land, for then we
would have had no one to fight. Thus, Piliguinia was set aside for future
THE LOST QUEEN, OR THE MYSTERY OF THE SEASHELL GROTTO
When in Schwambrania, we lived on the main street of Drandzonsk, on the
1,001st floor of a diamond house. When in Russia we lived in the town of
Pokrovsk on the Volga River, opposite the city of Saratov. We lived on the
first floor of a house on Market Square.
The screeching voices of the women vendors burst in through the open
windows. The pungent dregs of the market were piled high on the square. The
unharnessed horses chomped loudly, and their feed-bags jerked and bobbed.
Wagons raised their shafts heavenwards, imploringly. There were eatables,
junk, groceries, greens, dry goods, embroideries and hot food rows.
Thin-rind watermelons were stacked in pyramids like cannon-balls in the
movie The Defence of Sevastopol.
This was the film then being shown at the Eldorado, the electric
cinematographic theatre around the corner. There were always goats outside.
Regular herds of goats crowded around to munch on the playbills which were
pasted to the billboards with flour-paste.
Breshka Street led from the Eldorado to our house. People used to
promenade here in the evenings. The street was only two blocks long, and so
the strollers would jostle each other as they walked back and forth for
hours on end, from one corner to another, like tiny waves in a bathtub
splashing first against one side and then another. The girls from the
outlying farms walked down the middle of the street. They seemed to be
sailing along unhurriedly, swaying slightly as they walked, like the
floating watermelon rinds hitting the Volga piers. The dry, staccato sound
of roasted sunflower seeds being cracked floated above the crowd. The
sidewalks were black from discarded sunflower shells. The roasted seeds were
known locally as "Pokrovsk conversation".
Standing on the sidelines were young fellows wearing rubber galoshes
over their boots. They would flick away a garland of empty seed shells stuck
to their lip with a magnificent movement of a pinky. A young man would
address a girl with true politesse: "Mind if I latch on? How's about telling
us your name? What is it? Marusya? Katya?"
"Go on! Doesn't he think he's something!" the girl would scoff. "Oh,
well, what the heck, you might as well walk along."
All evening long the babbling, sunflower seed-cracking crowd of country
boys and girls would stomp up and down in front of our windows.
We would sit on the windowsill in the dark parlour, looking out at the
darkening street. As busy Breshka Street floated by us, invisible palaces
and castles rose on the windowsill and palm fonds waved, and cannonade we
two alone could hear resounded all around us. The destructive shrapnel of
our imagination tore through the night. We were firing upon Breshka Street
from our windowsill, which was Schwambrania.
We could hear the whistles of the river boats on the Volga. They came
to us from the darkness of the night like streamers bridging the distance.
Some were very high and vibrated like the coiled wire in bulb, while others
were low and rumbling like a piano's bass string. A boat was attached to the
other end of each streamer, lost in the dampness of the great river. We knew
the entire ledger of these boat calls by heart, and could read the whistles
and blasts like the lines of a book. Here was a velvety, majestic,
high-rising and slowly descending "arrival" whistle of the Rus. A
hoarse-voiced tug pulling a heavy barge scolded a rowboat. Two short, polite
blasts followed. That was the Samolyot and the Kavkaz-Mercury approaching
each other. We even knew that the Samolyot was heading upstream to Nizhny
Novgorod, while the Kavkaz-Mercury was heading downstream to Astrakhan,
since the Mercury, obeying the rules of river etiquette, was the first to
JACK, THE SAILOR'S COMPANION
Our world was a bay jam-packed with boats. Life was an endless journey,
and each given day was a new voyage. It was quite natural, therefore, that
every Schwambranian was a sailor. Each and every one had a boat tied up in
his back yard. Jack, the Sailor's Companion, was far and away the most
highly respected of all Schwambranians.
This great statesman came into being because of a small handbook
entitled: The Sailor's Pocket Companion and Dictionary of Most-Used Phrases.
We bought this dog-eared treasure at the market second-hand for five kopeks
and endowed our new hero, Jack, the Sailor's Companion, with all the wisdom
between its covers.
Since the handbook contained a vocabulary as well as a short section of
sailing directions, Jack soon became a regular linguist, as he learned to
speak German, English, French and Italian.
Speaking for Jack, I would read the vocabulary aloud, line after line.
The result was most satisfying.
"Thunder, lightning, waterspout, typhoon!" Jack, the Sailor's Companion
would say. "Donner, blitz, wasserhose! How do you do, sir or madame, good
morning, bonjour. Do you speak any other language? Yes, I speak German and
French. Good morning, evening. Goodbye, guten Morgen, Abend, adieu. I have
come by boat, ship, on foot, on horseback; par mer, a pied, a cheval.... Man
overboard. Un uomo in mare. What is the charge for saving him? Wie viel ist
Sometimes Jack's imagination ran away with him, and I would blush for
shame at his whopping lies.
"The pilot grounded us," Jack, the Sailor's Companion would say angrily
on page 103, but would then confess in several languages (page 104): "I
purposely ran aground to save the cargo."
We began our day in Pokrovsk with an arrival whistle while still in our
beds. This meant we had returned from a night spent in Schwambrania.
Annushka would watch the morning ritual patiently.
"Slow speed! Cast down the mooring rope!" Oska commanded after he had
sounded his fog horn.
We cast off our blankets.
"Stop! Let down the gangplank!"
We swung our legs over the side of our beds.
"All off! We've arrived!"
Our house was just another big boat. It had dropped anchor in the quiet
harbour of Pokrovsk. Papa's consulting room was the bridge. No second class
passengers, meaning us, were allowed there. The parlour was the first class
deck house. The dining room was the mess. The terrace was the promenade
deck. Annushka's room and the kitchen were the third class deck, the hold
and the engine room. Second class passengers were not allowed in there,
either. That was really a shame, because if there was ever any smoke in the
house it came from there.
There smokestack was not a make-believe one, but a real one, and real
flames roared in the furnace. Annushka, the stoker and the engineer, used
real tools: a poker and scoop. The deck house bell rang insistently. The
samovar whistled, signalling our departure. As the water in it bubbled over
Annushka snatched it up and carried it off to the mess, holding it as far
away from her body as possible. That was how babies were carried off when
they had wet their diapers.
We were summoned up on deck and had to leave the engine room.
We always left the kitchen unwillingly, because this was the main
porthole of our house, a window to the outside world, so to speak. The kind
of people we had been told once and for all were not the kind we were to
associate with were forever coming and going here. The people we were not.
to associate with were: ragmen, knife-grinders, delivery boys, plumbers,
glaziers, postmen, firemen, organ-grinders, beggars, chimney-sweeps,
janitors, the neighbours' cooks, coal men, gypsy fortune-tellers, carters,
coopers, coachmen and wood-cutters. They were all third class passengers.
And they were probably the best, the most interesting people in the world.
But we were told that they were carriers of the most dreadful diseases and
that their bodies swarmed with germs.
One day Oska said to Levonty Abramkin, the master garbage man, "Are you
really swamping, I mean swaping, uh ... you know, full of measle bugs
crawling all over you?"
"What's that?" Levonty sounded hurt. "These here are natural lice.
There's no such animal as measle bugs. There's worms, but that's something
you get in the stomach."
"Oh! Do you have worms swarping inside your stomach?" Oska cried
This was the last straw. Levonty pulled on his cap and stalked out,
slamming the door behind him.
The kitchen was a seat of learning. In Schwambrania the King sat
enthroned in the kitchen and let anyone in who wanted to come. The
neighbourhood children would come carolling there on Christmas Eve.
On New Year's Day our precinct policeman would call to pay his
respects. He would click his heels and say:
He would be offered a glass of vodka brought out on a saucer, and a
silver rouble The policeman would take the rouble, offer his thanks and then
drink to our health Oska and I stared into his mouth. He would grunt and
then stop breathing for moment. He seemed to be listening to some inner
process in his body, listening to the progress of the vodka, as it were,
down into his policeman's stomach. Then he would click his heels again and
"What's he doing?" Oska whispered.
"He's offering us his respects."
"For a rouble?"
The policeman seemed embarrassed.
"What are you doing here, you rascals?" our father boomed.
"Papa! The policeman's giving us his respects for a rouble!" Oska
Papa was a very tall man with a great mass of curly blond hair. He had
tremendous drive and never seemed to tire. After a hard day he could drink a
samovar-full of tea. His movements were quick and his voice loud. Sometimes,
when Papa got angry at a local peasant who had come to him with an ailment,
he would begin to shout, and we feared the patient might die of fright, if
nothing else, for we certainly would have.
However, Papa was also a very cheerful person. Sometimes a man who had
come to complain of a pain in the chest would soon forget about it and roar
with laughter as he gripped his sides. When Papa's booming laugh sounded in
the house the cat would dash under the sideboard and waves would appear in
the fishbowl. He would often scandalize Annushka by carrying Mamma into the
dining-room and say, "The lady of the house has arrived for dinner," as he
sat her down.
Papa liked to have fun. As we sat at the table he would say, "Hey you,
Caldonians, Balvonians and highwaymen, don't look so glum." He would chuck
us under our chins and add, "Get your beards out of your soup."
The King of Schwambrania was aping Papa when he said, "Get some life
into those nags," to his driver.
When Papa demanded another cot for the free community hospital he would
speak at the town meetings, and all the rich farmers would grumble, "No need
for that." Our local paper, The Saratov News, would carry a report of the
meeting, describing the chairman calling our father to order, while "the
honourable doctor demanded that Mr. Gutnik's words be included in the
minutes of the meeting and, in reply, Mr. Gutnik said that...".
Papa knew everyone in town. Flower-decked wedding parties nearly always
felt it their duty to stop their sleighs outside our house, enveloping it in
a cloud of dazzling colour and song. Breshka Street was strewn with wrapped
candies that were tossed into the crowd by the handful from the sleighs.
Hundreds of bells jangled on the beribboned yokes. Musicians played in the
rug-draped lead sleighs. The red-faced, shrieking matchmakers would dance
right in the broad sleighs, waving bouquets of paper flowers tied up with
Papa was also remembered in connection with the following incident.
At one time a gang of thugs terrorized the town. The thugs were all
middle-aged family men, and the police were not providing any protection for
Then the people decided to take the law into their own hands. They drew
up a list of the most dangerous men and the crowd set out, going to each
house on the list in turn and murdering the men on the list.
All this took place in the dead of night.
One of the ringleaders found refuge in Papa's hospital. He really was
very sick. He begged Papa to save him from the mob, going down on his knees
to plead for his life.
"They're justified in settling the score," Papa said. "You can thank
your lucky stars you got sick when you did. Since you'll be my patient,
that's all I'm concerned about at present. I don't want to know anything
else. Get up and go lie down."
The angry crowd surrounded the hospital. Men shouted and cursed outside
the locked gates. Papa went outside the fence to face the crowd. "What do
you want? I won't let you in, so you might as well turn back! You'll bring
all sorts of germs into the surgical wards. And we'll have to disinfect the
"You just hand over Balbashenko, Doctor. We'll sign-a paper saying
we're responsible for him. We'll... take good care of him."
"Balbashenko has a very high fever," Papa replied in a steely voice. "I
cannot discharge him now, and that's final! And stop all the noise. You're
frightening the other patients."
The crowd advanced silently. Suddenly, an old stevedore stepped forward
and said, "The doctor's right, boys. That's according to their laws. Come
on, let's go. We'll take care of Balbashenko later. Sorry to have bothered
Balbashenko was "taken care of three months later.
Papa had a terrible temper. When he was really angry he was deafening.
We would be chastised and chastened, reproved and reprimanded, admonished,
upbraided and raked over the coals. That was when Mamma entered the scene.
She was our soft pedal during all of Papa's really excessive tirades.
He would always tone down in her presence.
Mamma was a pianist and music teacher. All day long the house resounded
with scales rippling up and down the keyboard and the drumming of finger
exercises. The dull voice of a pupil with a cold could be heard counting out
loud: "One an' two, an' three, one an' two, an' three...." Then Mamma would
sing, to the tune of Hanon's immortal piano exercises: "One and five, and
three, and one, and four, and don't raise your elbows, and five and one...."
It seemed this song was an accompaniment to all our childhood years. In
fact, all my memories can be sung to the tune of those finger exercises. All
save those associated with the sticky, fever-ridden days of diphtheria, the
measles, scarlet fever and the croup come back to me minus this musical
background, for then Mamma devoted herself entirely to restoring our health.
Mamma was nearsighted. She would bend low over the music, so that by
the day's end she would be seeing spots from all the black squiggles that
were called notes.
There was a bronze paper-holder on the desk in Papa's consulting room.
It was made in the shape of a woman's delicate, tapering hand and held a
sheaf of prescription blanks, postal receipts and bills. Mamma's hands were
just like that. As a pampered young damsel she had left her parents' home in
a large city to accompany her husband to his rural practice in the wilds of
Vyatka region. She was to spend many a sleepless night sitting by the dark,
frosted window, waiting up for Papa. There was a draught from the window.
The flame of the small night light flickered. Bitter frost, a blizzard and
darkness enveloped the house. Papa was somewhere out in the howling gale,
riding in a horse-drawn sleigh, on his way to patient in a village fifteen
miles away. Tiny lights would appear in the darkness, but these were not
lighted windows, they were the glittering eyes of wolves. The distant
churchbell, that beacon of all nights when blizzards raged, faded in the
distance. Papa would follow the sound. In time the dark houses of a village
would appear among the snowdrifts. There Papa would perform an emergency
operation by the glow of a rushlight in a stuffy log cabin, rank with the
smell of sheepskin coats. Then he would wash his hands and head back home.
FROM POKROVSK TO DRANDZONSK
In winter there were blizzards in Pokrovsk, too. The steppe would
attack the settlement with snowstorms and sharp winds. Then the churchbells
of Pokrovsk would toll on through the night, guiding stragglers back to the
Our family was all at home in our warm house. The blizzard spun on like
a spindle, spinning its fine, frosty thread, howling in the chimney. It was
our houseboat whistling from its safe berth in a sheltered harbour.
The guests that evening were our usual visitors: Terpanian, the tax
inspector, and the dentist, a tiny man named Pufler. Oska had just
embarrassed everyone by confusing his words and calling Pufler a denture
instead of a dentist.
Papa and the tax inspector were playing chess. Mamma was playing a
minuet by Paderewski, and Annushka was carrying in the samovar, which was
saying "puff", whistling and saying "wheeee...."
Terpanian, who was a jolly man, teased Annushka, as always, pretending
he was going to poke her in the ribs as he made a scarey noise.
Annushka got frightened, as she always did, and shrieked, making the
tax inspector laugh and say, "Yippee!"
Papa looked at the clock and said, "All right, you rascals, off to bed!
We won't detain you any longer."
We politely bid everyone goodnight and went off to sail away to
Schwambrania for the night.
The mooring ropes were cast off, which meant we had taken off our
shoes. Sailing whistles could be heard in the nursery. Then the last
commands were sounded: "Left paddle ahead! Shhhhh! Whooo!"
"Half speed ahead! Full steam ahead!"
We were Schwambranians again. We were sick and tired of safe harbors,
of being barred from the kitchen, of piano exercises and patients ringing
the front doorbell. We were sailing for our second homeland. The shores of
Big Tooth Continent could be seen beyond the place where the Earth curved.
The Black Queen, the keeper of the secret of Schwambrania, was imprisoned in
the seashell grotto. The palaces of Drandzonsk awaited us.
We finally arrived. I stood on the bridge and pulled the whistle lever.
There was a loud blast.
It was a loud approaching whistle. I opened my eyes. I was in Pokrovsk.
Back in our room. The whistle sounded again. An urgent blast hit the window.
The room was filled with the loud, oppressing sound of the whistle. It
passed through the house, dragging its feet.
It did not stop. Then bells began ringing all over the house. The front
doorbell pealed. The bell for Papa's consulting room rang in the kitchen.
The telephone was jangling. I could hear Papa shouting: "They should all be
hanged! Couldn't they have foreseen such a thing? Well, it's too late to
talk about it now. Do you have enough stretchers? I'm on my way. Have you
sent a horse for me? I'll be right over. The hospital's been alerted."
The whistle was warning us about some great calamity. Mamma came
rushing into our room. She said there had been a terrible accident at the
bone-meal factory, where the high wall of the drying shed had collapsed. The
manager had told the workers to load too many bones on it, and the wall was
very old. He had been warned that the wall might give way. Now it had
collapsed under great weight, falling on top of fifty men. Papa and the
other doctors had all rushed to the factory to try to save the victims.
So. That's what.... That's what. That's what could happen. But never in
THE WHISTLE AWAKENED SCHWAMBRANIA
The collapse of the wall in the bone-meal factory brought about the
collapse of our faith in the well-being of the all-powerful tribe of adults.
Some pretty awful things were going on in their world. That was when we
decided to take a very critical look at it. We found that:
1. Not all grown-ups are in charge of world affairs, but only those who
wear official uniforms, expensive fur-lined coats and starched white
collars. All the rest, and these form the majority, are called "undesirable
2. The owner of the bone-meal factory, who is responsible for the
deaths and injuries of fifty workers, all of whom are "undesirable
acquaintances" got off scot-free. The Schwambranians would never have let
him live among them.
3. Oska and I don't have to work at all (except at our lessons), while
Klavdia, Annushka's niece, scrubs floors and washes dishes for the
neighbours and can only have a piece of candy on Sundays. Besides, she's
landless, for she has no Schwambrania to go to.
We ended our list of the world's injustices by drawing a long line
along the margin and printing a stern and angry word along its entire
length. The word was: Injustices.
We later added our own upbringing to our list of injustices. I now
realize that I cannot really blame our parents, for they lived in different
times, and there were many who were much worse. The disgraceful way of life
of those times had a demoralizing effect on us, as it did on our parents. It
is strange to think that our parents believed they were quite progressive in
bringing up their children. For instance, we had to mop up the puddle we
made near the fishbowl ourselves and were forbidden to call Annushka to help
us. Papa spoke of this proudly and at length when he visited his friends. He
wished to bring us up in a democratic spirit and, to this end, would
sometimes take us for a buggy ride without a driver. He would hire a gig and
horse and we would ride off "to mix with the people". Papa, dressed in a
tussore shirt, would drive. He would shout "Whoa!" "Hey, there!" and
"Giddiyap!" with relish. However, there would always be some confusion if an
elegant lady appeared on foot on the narrow road ahead. Then Papa would
sound embarrassed as he said, "Go on and sing something, boys. But make it
good and loud, so she'll turn around. After all, I can't shout, 'Get out of
the way' can I? Especially since I think I know her."
And so we would sing. When this did not work and the lady kept on
walking slowly. Papa would send me on ahead. I would climb down from my
seat, catch up with the woman and say in my most polite voice:
"Uh, Miss.... Lady.... Papa wants you to move over, because we can't
pass. We don't want to run you over." Though the women would always step
aside, for some reason or other they were usually offended.
Our rides "to mix with the people" ended when Papa once sent us all
tumbling into a ditch.
In order to instil a love for the birds and the beasts in us and in
this way ennoble our souls, our parents would occasionally buy us a pet. We
had dogs, cats and fishes. The fishes lived in a fishbowl. One day our
parents noticed that the little goldfish were disappearing one by one. They
discovered that Oska had been fishing them out, putting them in matchboxes
and burying them in the sand. He had been very much impressed by a funeral
procession and had set up a regular fish cemetery in the yard.
Then there was the very unpleasant encounter between Oska and the cat,
which had scratched him badly when he had tried to brush its teeth with
The incident involving the kid was most unfortunate. The whole idea was
a mistake from the very beginning, though Papa had bought the kid especially
for us. It was black and small, and curly-haired with a hard, round
forehead. It looked as if it might be a live Persian lamb collar for Papa's
winter coat. Papa brought the kid into the parlour. Its spindly legs slid
out from under it on the slippery linoleum.
"He's all yours," Papa said. "And make sure you take good care of him!"
The kid said "baa-aa" and dropped some marbles on the rug. Then he nibbled
on the wallpaper in the study and wet an armchair. Luckily, Papa was having
his after-dinner nap and so had no idea of what was happening. We played
with the frisky kid for a while, then got tired of the game and went off,
forgetting all about our new curly-haired pet. The kid disappeared. An hour
later there was a loud thumping on the piano keys, though there was no one
in the parlour. It was the kid jumping on the keyboard. This woke Papa. He
was in a hurry to leave for his evening rounds at the hospital and dressed
without putting on the light. He soon came yawning into the dining room.
Oska and I were so astonished we plopped down on the same chair. Mamma threw
up her hands. Papa looked at his feet and gasped. One of his trouser legs
barely reached his knee. It hung in sticky, chewed strips. So that was what
the kid had been up to! That very evening it was taken back to its previous
Father and Mother worked hard from morning till evening, while we, to
tell the honest truth, were the world's greatest loafers. We had been
provided with a classical "perfect childhood". We had a gym of our own, toy
trains, automobiles and steamboats. We had tutors to teach us languages,
drawing and music. We knew Grimm's Fairy Tales by heart, as well as Greek
mythology and the Russian epic poems. However, all this paled as far as I
was concerned after I had read an indifferent-looking book called, I
believe, The World Around Us. It described in simple language how bread was
baked, how vinegar was obtained, how bricks were made, how steel was smelted
and how leather was tanned. The book introduced me to the fascinating world
of things and to the people who made them. The salt on our table had gone
through a grainer, and the cast iron pot through a blast furnace. I
discovered that shoes, saucers, scissors, windowsills, steam engines and tea
had all been invented, extracted, produced and made by the toil of many,
many people and were the result of their knowledge and skill. The story
about a sheepskin coat was no less interesting than the tale of the golden
fleece. I suddenly had a terrible urge to start making useful things myself.
However, my old books and my teachers never provided any information about
the people who made things, though they dwelled ecstatically on the many
royal heroes. We were being brought up as helpless, useless gentlemen, or as
an arrogant caste of people whose lives were devoted to "pure brainwork".
True, we had building blocks with which we were expected to produce
something imaginative. Our pent-up energy sought an outlet. We extracted the
couch springs in order to discover the true construction of things and were
severely punished for our efforts.
We even envied a fellow named Fektistka, the pock-marked tinsmith's
apprentice, who looked down on us for still being in short pants. Though he
was illiterate, he knew how to make real pails, dustpans, tin mugs, basins
and tubs. However, when we saw him at the river one day, Fektistka showed us
the very real black-and-blue marks and bruises on his bony body, the result
of the hard lessons his master's heavy hand taught him, for the tinsmith
beat Fektistka unmercifully. He made the boy work from dawn to dusk, fed him
scraps and pummelled his bony back to teach him the principles of the
We stopped envying Fektistka after that. Disturbing thoughts filled our
It seemed that people who were engaged in mental work were wholly at
the mercy of ordinary things, while the skilled workers who made them had
none of their own.
Whenever the toilet would not flush properly or a lock got stuck, or
the piano had to be moved, Annushka was sent downstairs to the basement
apartment where a railroadman and his family lived, to ask "someone" to come
up and help. As soon as "someone" came upstairs the things would obey him:
the piano would roll off to whenever it was supposed to go, the toilet would
cough and begin to work properly, and the lock would let go of the key.
Mamma would say, "He can fix everything," and would then be sure to count
the silver spoons in the sideboard.
If, on the other hand, the people in the basement apartment wanted to
write to a brother who lived in a distant village, they would come to "the
gentleman" upstairs. As the railroadman watched Papa's pen fly across the
sheet of paper, taking down his letter as he dictated it, he would say in
wonder: "Ah, that's book learning for you! How can you compare it to our
trade! That's pure ignorance."
In their heart of hearts the inhabitants of each floor despised the
inhabitants of the other.
"What's so special about that?" Papa said, for his pride was hurt. "So
he fixed the toilet. I'd like to see him perform an operation."
Meanwhile, the people downstairs were saying to themselves: "I'd like
to see you crawling around on all fours under a locomotive's belly. Whisking
a pen around isn't anything to brag about."
The relationship between our two floors could only be compared to the
relationship of the blind man and his leader, a legless man, in the
well-known story. The blind man carried the legless man, who looked ahead
from his perch on the other's shoulders. It was a doubtful alliance bound by
a grudging dependence upon each other.
Still and all, the "undesirable acquaintances" knew how to make things.
Perhaps they would have taught us something, if not for the fact that we
were being brought up as "gentlemen who worked only with their brains", so
that the closest we got to work was making paper boats and model factories.
We consoled ourselves with the thought that on the Big Tooth Continent every
last inhabitant not only knew a lot of fairy tales by heart, but could also
bind them into a book if necessary.
Oska was a great one for confusing things. He had learned to read when
he was much too young and from the time he was four he could remember
anything at all, from the names on shop signs to articles in the medical
encyclopaedia. He remembered everything he read, but this produced chaos in
his head, for he would always mix up the strange new words he had
discovered. He was forever making everyone laugh. He would confuse "pomade"
and "pyramid" and said "monoclers" instead of "chroniclers".
Once he wanted to ask Mamma for a sandwich and instead said, "Mamma,
may I have a Greenwich?"
"Good gracious!" Mamma exclaimed. "I'm sure he must be a child wonder!"
A day later Oska said, "There's a new wonder in the office, too, Mamma! They
bang on it and it types."
What he meant, of course, was the Underwood typewriter. However, there
were things he was very sure about. Mamma once read him a famous story with
a moral about a boy who was too lazy to pick up a horseshoe and then had to
pick up all the plums his father had purposely dropped on the road. "Did you
understand the meaning of the story?" she asked. "Yes. It's about you
shouldn't eat dirty plums off the ground." Oska felt that everyone without
exception was an old friend of his. He would strike up a conversation with
anyone at all on the street, overwhelming the person with the strangest
I once left him alone for a while in the public gardens. He was
bouncing his ball and it landed in a flower bed. He reached over to get it,
crushed some flowers, then saw the sign that said": "Keep off the grass" and
He then decided to seek outside help. A tall woman dressed in black and
wearing a straw hat was sitting on a bench some distance away. She had her
bad to Oska, but he could see her shoulder-length curls.
"My ball bounced into the 'keep off the flowers'," he said to the lady'
The lady turned, and Oska was terrified to see that she had a heavy
beard. H forgot all about his ball. "Why do you have a beard on, lady?"
"Do I look like a lady?" the lady said in a deep, kindly voice. "I'm a
priest, m son."
"A priest-mason?" Oska said doubtfully. "Then why do you have on a
skirt?' He knew a mason was a bricklayer and imagined it was awfully
inconvenient to slap cement on bricks while wearing a skirt that reached to
"This is not a skirt, it's a cassock, as is only proper for a man of
"Wait," Oska said, trying to recall something. "I know. You're the man
which makes cloth. And there's a lady, too. It's music that comes out of the
gramophone She spins cloth of gold."
"Aren't you a joker!" the priest laughed. "But aren't you a Christian?
Who' your father? Your papa? Ah, a doctor. I see. Do you know about God?"
"Yes. God's in the kitchen. Annushka hung him in the corner. His name's
Christ Has Risen."
"God is everywhere," the priest said sternly. "At home, in the fields,
in the gardens. He is everywhere. God can hear us talking here this very
minute. He is with us every minute of the day and night."
Oska looked around, but did not see God and so he decided that the
priest was playing some new kind of game with him. "Is God for real or
"I'll put it to you this way. How did all this come about?" The priest
pointed to the flowers.
"It wasn't me, honest! That's how they were," Oska said quickly,
thinking the man had noticed the crushed flowers.
"God created all this."
Oska was happy the man thought it was all God's doing.
"And God created you, too."
"No, he didn't! Mamma made me."
"And who made your mamma?"
"Her mamma. Grandma!"
"And what about the very first mamma?"
"She just happened. From out of a monkey," Oska said, for he and I had
already read My First Natural History Book.
"Ugh!" the perspiring priest exclaimed. "That's a godless, lawless
upbringing, a corruption of infants' minds!" And he stomped off, with the
skirt of his habit raising a cloud of dust.
Os ka recounted the conversation to me, word for word. "And he was so
funny looking! He had on a dress and a beard, too!"
Our family was not very religious. Papa said that God could hardly
exist, while Mamma said that God was nature, but, on the other hand, that He
could punish us. As far as we were concerned, God had originally appeared
from our nurse's bedtime stories. He later entered the house through the
kitchen door which was left slightly ajar. God, as we imagined Him,
consisted of votive light, church bells and the delicious smell of the
freshly-baked Easter cakes. At times He appeared as an angry, distant force,
thundering in the sky and keeping an eye on such things as whether it was a
sin to stick your tongue out at your mother or not. There was a picture in
My First Bible Stories of God sitting on a cloud of smoke, creating the
whole world on page 1. However, the very first book we read on natural
history dispersed the smoke. That did not leave God anything to sit on.
But it did leave something called the Kingdom of Heaven. Whenever
beggars stopped at our house and Annushka turned them away she would console
them and herself with the knowledge that all beggars, all poor people and,
apparently, all people who came under the heading of undesirable
acquaintances, would go straight to paradise after their proper funerals,
and there they would promenade in the heavenly glades.
One day Oska and I decided that we had already been transported there.
Marisha, the neighbours' maid, was getting married at Trinity Church, and
Annushka took us along.
It was as beautiful inside the church as in Schwambrania, and the
church smelled good. There were paintings all over the walls of angels and
quite a few of old men, all of whom were surrounded by puffy clouds. There
were many lighted candles, although it was bright daylight outside. As for
beggars, why, there were as many beggars there as in paradise, and all of
them were busy praying.
Then the main priest came out and pretended that he was God. As Oska
was to tell everyone later, he had on a big golden baby's vest, and then he
put on a long bib over his head, and it was all made of gold, too. Then he
stood before a stand, and a sheet was spread on the floor in front of it.
Marisha looked just like a princess, and she and her groom stood side by
side. Then they went into a huddle, like we did when we were choosing sides
for a game. They went over and stood right on the sheet. We couldn't hear
what they and the priest were talking about, but Oska swore that they had
thought of a charade and wanted the priest to guess whether it was "a
trunkful of money or a golden shore". And then the priest said, "Better or
worse?" And Marisha said, "You do?" Then the priest said to the groom:
"Your wetted wife?" and the groom said: "I, too." And Marisha looked as
if she was crying. "Wasn't that silly?" Oska said. "What was she bawling
for? It's all make-believe anyway."
After that he said they played "Who's got the ring?", and when they
were through with the game the priest told them to hold hands. Then they
played ring-around-a-rosie, and the priest led them around the stand. The
choir sang and sang, and they ended by singing: "Hal, yell Loolia! Hal, yell
Loolia!" Then Marisha chose her groom and they kissed.
After our visit to the church we decided that paradise was a sort of
Schwambrania that the grown-ups had invented for poor people.
In our own Schwambrania I decided to establish a clergy of our own (at
first Oska confused clergy with purging), to make things more pompous.
Patriarch Liverpill was the chief prelate of Schwambrania. Instead of
addressing him as "Your Grace", we used "Your Disgrace".
All fairy tales always had happy endings. Scullery maids became
princesses, sleeping beauties awoke, witches perished, and lost orphans
found their parents. There was always a wedding on the last page, with the
groom and bride living happily ever after.
In Schwambrania, a land that was half-real, a happy ending was the
glorious finishing touch of every adventure. Thus it was that we came to the
conclusion that people could certainly live much happier lives if they
followed our example and played make-believe.
Actually, we were to discover that fairy tales were the only place
where everyone lived happily ever after, for a real fairy tale which the
people around us tried to play at ended most unhappily.
Everyone knows the story about the poor maid whose name was Cinderella
and her mean old stepmother who made her work so hard. Everyone knows of the
doves that plucked all the grain from the ashes, and of the Good Fairy who
sent her to the ball, and of the glass slipper Cinderella lost in the
But I'm sure no one knows that the story of Cinderella is recorded in
the old Deportment Ledger, the dread Black Book of the Pokrovsk Boys High
The school supervisor, nicknamed Seize'em, recorded a new version of
the story on the pages of the ledger. But his entry was very brief and acid.
That is why I will have to tell you the story of Cinderella from Pokrovsk
myself. Her name was Marfusha. She was temporarily our parlour maid, and she
The stamps came from distant cities and lands. The envelopes they were
pasted on contained letters of greetings, news, requests, thanks, as well as
the latest remedies for alcoholism, anaemia and other illnesses. Foreign
drug firms sent Papa information about their patent medicines.
Marfusha would steam the stamps off the empty envelopes by holding them
over the samovar. There were hundreds of stamps in the brass-bound chest
under her bed, sorted into small cigarette boxes.
My brother and I delivered the envelopes to the kitchen. Philately
strengthened the bonds of friendship between Marfusha and us.
She shared all her secrets with us.
We knew that she was sweet on the driver who worked at Papa's hospital,
and that the clerk at the drugstore was a stuck-up good-for-nothing, because
he teased Marfusha and called her Marfusion.
We also discovered that if a person sneezed you had to say: "Achoo,
match in your nose, a pair of wheels and the axle end to make your nose
itch; wind take your sneeze, guts on gunny sacks, tendons on a wire, belly
on a yoke." Whew!
In the evenings Marfusha would unlock her chest and let us admire her
There were complete issues of Peter the Great and other monarchs. The
Alexanders were kept according to their numbers: Alexander I, II, and III.
The cancellation dates covered the emperors' noses. Cancelled eagles fluffed
their feathers on the red, green and blue squares of paper with saw-toothed
edges. Weird lions hid behind the inked bars.
We admired the collection, as Marfusha ran her hands through the tsars
and eagles fondly and day-dreamed aloud:
"I'll sell 'em soon's I get two thousand of 'em. An' I'll buy myself a
fine lady's dress. There'll be ruffles down the front, and a bow behind, and
a dotted veil to go all around. We'll see who'll dare call me Marfusion
then. We'll see...."
Mitya Lamberg had been expelled from the 2nd Saratov High School for
having spoken unfavourably of the Bible class. He was then enrolled in the
Pokrovsk Boys High and came to live with us. Mitya said he was a victim of
reaction and considered it his sacred duty to annoy the authorities.
He said: "I'm avenging, I mean, taking vengeance on the authorities in
every one of its states: liquid, hard and gaseous."
Mitya regarded his parents as the authorities of the liquid, drippy
state. He had to accept the school principal and teachers as hard-state
authorities. He regarded the government, the police and the local Zemstvo
inspector as the gaseous authorities that seeped into everything. The boys
had a special score to settle with the Zemstvo inspector. The senior boys
spoke of two schoolgirls named Zoya Shvydchenko and Emma Uger. When school
was out in the afternoons the inspector' sleigh was often seen on the corner
waiting for Zoya and Emma, and the gaseous figure of the fat inspector
always accompanied one or the other girl at the skating rink. The boys
seethed. They threw snowballs at him from behind a fence. The had drawn a
large black cat on the fence and written "Tomcat" under it.
Our cousin Victor, a young artist, came to spend Christmas with us. He
was long-nosed and full of fun and ideas.
"He's nice, but his nose is way out to here," Marfusha said of him.
There was always a Christmas Eve masked ball at the Merchants'
Assembly, I invitation only. Ladies we knew were busy having their costumes
made. My parents had also received an invitation. That was when Mitya
Lambert got the bright idea of getting even with the Zemstvo inspector
during the ball. Pa] was all for it. Victor offered his services as an
artist. We began to think of the costumes.
Everyone was deep in thought that day. From time to time Mitya would
bread the silence by rushing excitedly into the dining-room, shouting.
"I've got it! It's hilarious!"
"What?" we'd all ask.
"How about dressing as a suicide? And the message on the corpse, I me
on the costume can be: 'The Zemstvo inspector has driven me to my grave'
"With the orchestra playing a Chopin march," Mamma quipped. "Indeed,
it's too funny for words."
"I've never laughed so hard in my life," Papa said sadly.
Mitya was embarrassed. He did a handstand and said as his legs swayed
in the air: "I'll stand here like this till some good ideas flow into my
At last Papa had a brainstorm. It really was a wonderful idea for a
costume. Besides, his plan was magnificent in every other respect. Marfusha
was to go to the ball and flirt with the flirtatious inspector.
We trooped off to the kitchen.
"Fair Marfusha, we have come to inquire whether you'd like to go to the
ball at the Merchants' Assembly," Papa said solemnly.
"Goodness gracious! But it's by invitation only. How'111 get in?"
"You'll be the queen of the ball, Marfusha. There's only one drawback.
We'll need all of your stamps. Can you bear to part with them?"
"Just think, Marfusha!" Mitya pleaded. "You'll have the Zemstvo
inspector at your mercy. It's up to you. You'll be the queen of the ball."
"Ah, well," Marfusha said after a long pause. She sighed and bent down
to pull her chest out from under her bed.
CRITICISING THE WORLD AND OUR OWN LIVES
For the next two days everyone worked on Marfusha's costume. Piles of
cut-up cardboard and paper were scattered all over "the master's kitchen",
as Marfusha called Papa's study. There were streaks and smudges of paint and
gum-arabic on us all. Tubes of rubber cement spun out sticky thin threads.
Victor strutted about with his nose in the air, and there were drops of
perspiration and india-ink on his face. Papa tried to pull an Argentinian
stamp off his jacket. Mamma was giving Marfusha lessons in deportment and
teaching her a few French phrases. Oska and I had suddenly become Siamese
twins after accidentally sitting down on a long strip of ribbon that had
been covered with rubber cement. The ribbon stuck fast to our pants, glueing
The evening of the ball Marfusha was powdered and her hair was curled.
Then she was helped into her costume. It was a huge envelope, addressed and
ready to be posted. There were stamps a foot long on the corners of the
envelope. A good hundred of Marfusha's stamps had been used to make up each
of the costume stamps. Victor had worked hard to match the colours and
shapes. There were crazy postmarks going every which way. The address on the
envelope had been done in a fine round hand and read:
THE NORTH POLE
For: His Excellency
and Northern Grace
SIR ENSTVO, INSPECTOR-ZEMSTVO
THE POLAR ZEMSTVO OFFICE
Captain Hatteras Square
You'll know it when you are there.
From: London, the City
You'll find it if you're witty.
After Marfusha was sealed into the large envelope a small envelope was
set or her head for a hat. It, too, had stamps on each of its four corners.
There was a poem on the paper envelope-hat which read:
Never -will you guess my name,
All your guesses are in vain.
No one here can hint or tell,
None will be of any help.
Every Zoya, Emma, Mae
Will be deaf and dumb today.
Marfusha's slippers had also been covered with postage stamps. She
looked very attractive in her envelope-gown.
"You're so beautiful, Marfusha!" Oska said. "You're just as beautiful
as the lady on the shampoo picture, only beautifuller."
A white silk mask with silver edging hid most of Marfusha's face.
Victor was elected to be the honourary postman.
No one in town knew him. Besides, he had stuck on a large black
moustache And donned Mamma's black hat with the ostrich feather. This and
his own Ion nose made him look both sinister and romantic at one and the
same time. H might have been a Spanish grandee, or a Rumanian organ-grinder.
Victor and his precious letter drove up to the Assembly building in
style. Um-pa-pa, um-pa-pa went the bass drum in the brightly-lit ballroom.
Victor handed Marfusha down from the cab and then helped her off with her
coat. He bowed low with reverence.
"Guten tag, comment allez-vous? Bene, bene!" he said and twirled his
The porters regarded them respectfully. Bright lights, music and the
shrieks and laughter of a party in full swing enveloped them. Once upstairs,
Marfusha was immediately surrounded and everyone began reading the message
on the envelope. For a moment a burst of laughter drowned out the music.
Then, just as suddenly, it stopped. Through the slits in her mask Marfusha
glimpsed the baffled Zemstvo inspector's face.
He read the message and turned red. However, Marfusha's dainty feet in
their stamp-covered slippers caught his roving eye. "Harrumph," he said. "My
dear Anonymous, may I have this waltz?"
"Mais oui," Anonymous replied. "Parlez-vous francaise?"
The Zemstvo inspector was taken aback, for he did not parlez a word of
French. One of the merchants, Adolph Stark, came to his aid and between them
they tried to make her understand that the inspector wished to dance with
her. The music boomed. The musicians puffed out their cheeks. It seemed that
the very walls were expanding from the booming of the drum. The music wrung
everyone's heart out like a wet hankie. The inspector treated Marfusha to
ice cream. Adolph Stark melted away as quickly as it did. The Zemstvo
inspector kissed her hand. All the other ladies were dying of envy. Guesses
as to her identity and paper streamers filled the air. Confetti showered
down. Marfusha's little plate was soon piled high with ballots, for everyone
was voting hers the best costume.
"Stop the music!" the Zemstvo inspector shouted.
The orchestra, which was blaring away, stopped playing as suddenly as a
gramophone that had run down.
"Ladies and Gentlemen!" the inspector announced. "The 'Letter' has
received the most votes and First Prize. A gold watch! Three cheers for the
lovely Anonymous! And now let us open the envelope!"
There was a babble of voices. Confetti bombs burst overhead. Someone
whispered in Marfusha's ear: "Good for you, fair Marfusha. Good for you!
Keep it up!"
Mitya was standing around with a group of his classmates. They were
laughing. Then he went over to the Zemstvo inspector and said:
"You know, I think I recognize Anonymous. It's the well-known.... Oh, I
shouldn't have said that! I promised not to tell!"
"I beg you to," the Zemstvo inspector whispered. "To hell with your
promise. Tell me who she is! Would you care for some ice cream?"
"No, don't even ask," Mitya said as he polished off a dish of ice
"Let's open the letter, everybody!" the Zemstvo inspector shouted.
At that very moment a long-nosed stranger with a huge moustache
appeared in the ballroom.
Spouting angry gibberish "Carramba peppermint oleonapht, sept accord
dominant!" he took Marfusha's arm and steered her quickly towards the
The Zemstvo inspector rushed after them, with all the colourful
harlequins, dominoes, hussars, flower baskets, Chinese dolls, butterflies,
Gypsies and princesses in tow. However, Victor's impressive nose and
moustache kept them all at bay.
Mitya and his classmates cut the crowd off as if by accident while
Marfusha buttoned up her coat and the sleigh pulled away.
Victor jumped into the moving sleigh, which then carried them swiftly
along the sleeping streets. Marfusha's eyelids drooped. The street lamps,
like some great jellyfish, slowly moved their golden beams. Cinderella
returned to the kitchen.
That night a new gold watch ticked away softly near the empty chest.
Marfusha was sound asleep. She had had a wonderful time and was very
tired. The torn envelope, that shell of the magic evening, lay empty by the
bed. Four pairs of shoes stood guard outside her door.
They would have to be shined the next morning.
The Pokrovsk society column of the Saratov News carried the following
"There was a masquerade at the Merchants' Assembly last Wednesday.
Among the many striking costumes the most popular by far was one called 'The
"The costume was ingeniously made in the shape of an envelope with real
cancelled postage stamps on it and a witty address. It was quite justly
awarded the First Prize, a gold watch which was bestowed by Mr. Razudanov,
the Zemstvo inspector.
"Despite the insistence of the other guests, the mysterious damsel
refused to reveal her identity and was carried off by a person unknown to
the gathering. Rumour has it that she is a well-known actress."
Two days later, when the town was still alive with gossip as to her
identity, Papa was called in to see the Zemstvo inspector's wife, who had a
migraine headache. After he had attended to his patient. Papa had a glass of
tea with the inspector.
"My dear doctor, you should have come to the masquerade. You don't know
what you missed. There was a young lady there who, ah, I can't even begin to
describe her. It was a barb in my direction, I must admit, but you should
have seen those dainty feet! And those lovely hands! You can always tell a
lady by her hands and feet, I'm sure she is a foreigner. You know, I can't
get her out of my mind."
"Indeed? I really don't think she's that extraordinary. It was only our
"Wha-a-at?" The inspector sat bolt upright. His face turned livid, his
jaw sagged and his eyes bulged.
Papa could contain his laughter no longer and roared so, the
inspector's wife had another migrain attack.
Here ends the story of the last Cinderella. A young page from the
palace did not open the kitchen door and hand Marfusha a glass slipper.
However, a trace of Cinderella's famous slipper appeared on a page of
the school's Deportment Ledger, for the doves that had plucked the gold dust
from the pot of ashes for Marfusha were made to pay for what they had done.
Several days later a rubber galosh of tremendous proportions was found
nailed to the Zemstvo inspector's front porch. That very same morning the
following notices were pasted on various fences:
"I hereby order the entire female population of Pokrovsk to appear
before the Zemstvo inspector in order to try on a slipper, lost by a
mysterious lady who attended the masquerade at the Merchants' Assembly. The
lady whose foot it fits will be immediately appointed Zemstvo inspectoress.
The Zemstvo inspector pledges to be forever under this slipper's heel.
(Signed) Razudanov Zemstvo Inspector"
They said that the next morning, while the galosh was still on the
porch, a peasant woman who had heard of the order tried her luck, but her
foot was too big.
"It's just a bit tight," she said sadly and spat into the galosh.
Mitya and three of his classmates were reprimanded "for unbecoming
conduct in a public place and unbridled mischief, detrimental to the school
and the school system". Their marks for behaviour for the term were lowered.
Such is the epilogue. It is quite unlike the end of the old fairy tale.
I took my school entrance examination that spring. Dmitry Alexeyevich,
my tutor, came to the house early on the fateful morning and made me go over
some rules of grammar. Before leaving for the hospital Papa put his large
hand on my head, tilted my head back and said:
"Well, how's the old bean?"
Mamma accompanied me to school. She was very nervous, and as we walked
along she glanced at me again and again with the greatest concern and kept
saying, "The one thing I want you to remember is not to be nervous! Speak
loudly and clearly, and don't rush. Think carefully before you answer a
Dmitry Alexeyevich walked along on the other side. He was drilling me
in the multiplication table. We reached "9 times 9" and the school yard
The day was full of grammar. At the noisy market adjectives,
interjections and numerals filled the air. An inanimate locomotive on the
spur line near the granary tried to confuse me by tooting and moving like an
animate object. When we reached the school door Dmitry Alexeyevich became
very solemn, although by looking through his pince-nez I could see his kind
and gentle eyes.
"All right. This is it," he said and then quickly added: "What part of
speech is a school?"
"An inanimate common noun!" "And a schoolboy?" "An animate...."
At that very moment a big, tall boy wearing the school uniform opened
the door. He glanced at my sailor suit with contempt and said glumly:
"You're wrong, sonny. A schoolboy's an inanimate object."
I was stunned and baffled both by the size and by the muttered words of
this great scholar.
A chill of nervous tension scooted along the school corridor. There was
a roll-call. The examiners' table was covered with a heavy green cloth. The
first part of the entrance examination was a dictation.
I thought that everyone in the classroom could hear my heart pounding.
Anxious mothers peeped through the door, searching out the bowed heads
of their sons, hoping they would get the tricky words right.
I did. But I was so nervous I left off the last letter of my own name.
Next came a written test in arithmetic and our oral examinations.
I named all the parts of speech in a test sentence in Russian grammar.
Then the priest came over to me and handed me a book written in church
Slavonic. At this the Russian teacher, a blond, curly-haired, fair-bearded
man spoke up rather hesitantly:
"I don't believe he needs to know that, Father. I mean, being of
another faith and all...." He seemed very embarrassed, as if he had said
something impolite. I, too, blushed.
"All the more reason why he should," the priest replied sternly. "Here,
read from here."
I read and translated the page he had opened. Several days later my
parents were informed that I had been accepted.
We spent the summer in the country. I felt that I had taken along my
new and very impressive title of a schoolboy to the pine and linden forests
of Khvalyn, where I proudly carried it to the top of the famed chalk hills,
the ravines of Teremshan and the maze of wild raspberry patches we
frequented on the sly.
At that time Russia, Europe and the world were just launching a war.
We returned home by boat. New recruits were being transported by the
same boat. Newsboys at the various landings shouted the headlines: "Read the
latest dispatches! Three thousand prisoners of war! Read all about our
Weeping, dishevelled women of all ages crowded near the boat at the
landings They were seeing off their conscripted husbands, fathers, sons and
brothers. The parting whistle drowned out their wailing, the ragged
cheerings of the men, the floundering band. The stem traced a large, foaming
arc in the water, and the whistle sounded again. The sound of it hung
suspended in the air. All was still for a moment, and then there was another
long, anxious blast.
The crystal pendants of the chandelier in the first-class saloon
tinkled in time to the engine's strokes. A piano crashed. The air was heavy
with the smells of the Volga, chowder and perfume. Ladies laughed.
Looking through the saloon window, I could see the steep bank drifting
away. A string of farm wagons lumbered forlornly up the road from the pier.
They had seen their men off.
My new leather school satchel introduced a manly, army smell to our
stateroom. The new term was to begin in two days, and my school uniform
awaited me at home. My school days were beginning. Farewell, my
neighbourhood friends! I practically felt as if I had been conscripted. When
we got home m head was shaved, as was the custom for new boys. Papa said I
looked like scarecrow.
"Just like a soldier-boy," Wirkel, the tailor, said as he adjusted my
That was a magnificent time. My grandeur and my first long pants were
Boys in the street shouted "squab!" at me, for the colour of the school
uniform was dove-grey, and pupils of the Boys School were called squabs. I
was proud to have joined the chosen.
The sun shone on my belly and was reflected in the brass buckle of my
leather belt, stamped with the black letters of the school. The raised,
shiny metal buttons of my dove-grey shirt were like silver lady bugs. On
that very solemn and frightening August day I climbed the steps of the
school in my new shoes (the left was a bit tight).
I was immediately engulfed by the subdued murmur of the corridor. Out
there in the August day, beyond the school doors, were the cottage in the
country, the chalk hills, the summer and freedom.
A little old man wearing a tunic with a medal pinned on his chest was
coming towards me. He appeared grave and angry, as everyone did to me that
day. Recalling my mother's instructions, I clicked my heels and bowed low,
having first removed my cap.
"Well, hello, hello," the old man said. "Hang your cap over there. I'll
bet you're in the first grade, aren't you? Over there, third to the left."
Once again I bowed low and respectfully.
"Go on, that's enough bowing!" he said and chuckled. Then he got a
floor brush from a corner and went off to sweep the corridor.
The boys in my class were all huge and as hairless as I, who must have
been the smallest. Some giants in worn or faded school uniforms were walking
up and down. These were boys who had been left back. One of them crooked his
finger at me.
"C'mon over and sit by me. The seat's empty. Whacher name? Mine's
Say it!" I couldn't.
"Never mind. You'll learn. D'you chew oilcake? No? Got anything to
smoke? No? D'you know how the farmer sold his eggs at the market?"
I had never heard that story. The big fellow said I was a ninny. Just
then a lively, big-eared, dishevelled boy who had also been left back came
over to our double desk. First he sized me up. Then he sat down on the desk
"Are you the doctor's son? You are, aren't you? Doctor's riding on a
swine, with his sonny on behind! Whose button is this?" He had got hold of
one of the shiny buttons on my cuff.
"Mine. Can't you see?"
"Well, if it's yours, you can have it!" he cried, tore it off and
handed it t "And whose button is this?" he said, getting hold of the next
I had learned my lesson and said I did not know.
"You don't know?" he shouted. "That means it's not yours, is it?" At
which he tore off the second button and threw it down. The class burst into
laughter. I would have certainly lost all my buttons if the school inspector
had not entered a moment. Everyone rose as one man. I liked this form of
greeting. The inspector's sly and lively eyes scrutinized us. His bushy
beard, combed and parted down the middle like a swallow's tail, brushed the
various decorations on his tunic. He spoke in a kind and friendly voice.
"Well now, you shiny, brand-new boys! Had your fill of running wild?
Watch your step now, you rascals. 'Tention! Stepan Gavrya! Pull in your
belly! Get it back into your satchel! You're repeating the year, but you
haven't even learn stand straight, you oaf! Want to be put down in the
Deportment Ledger? Look at the mane you've grown! Get a haircut!"
Then the inspector took out a list and called the roll. At this he
intentionally confused the names of the big boys who had been left back.
"Shoefeld!" he called instead of Kufeld. "Varekukhonko!" instead of
It was finally my turn.
"Here!" I shouted at the top of my voice.
The inspector raised an eyebrow. "Look how small he is, but what a
voice! I can see now why they named you Leo. How old are you?"
I wanted to get in. right with the big boys and so quipped,
He replied evenly: "You know, Leo, king of the beasts, you scoundrel,
that I'll make you stay after school, and that will teach you to be witty.
Wait a minute cried, as if I were about to leave. "Wait! Why are there
buttons on your cuff? That's against regulations. There's no need to have
buttons where they're not supposed to be." He came up to me and took my
sleeve, pulled a pair of funny-looking pincers from his pocket and nipped
off the offending buttons.
Now I was dressed strictly according to regulations.
DAYS GLUED TOGETHER WITH RUBBER CEMENT
My name was soon entered in the Black Book.
I was lacking several textbooks, and so Mamma, my brother and I set out
for them to the neighboring city of Saratov.
School had started. The first page of my school ledger had been filled
in, the first pages of the textbook read, and a mass of new and important
information gleaned. I felt very learned. The Cleopatra, a small steamer
that was taking us across to Saratov, was passing the familiar shoreline of
Osokorye Island, but I no longer regarded it merely as an island. It was now
"a tract of land completely surrounded by water".
We bought the books I needed in Saratov and then stopped by a
photographer's studio to have our pictures taken. The photographer
immortalized the stiff school cap and cockade and my new shoes. Then we
walked down German Street. My cap crowned my head like a saint's halo. My
shoes creaked like an organ.
We dropped in at Jean's Cafe and Confectionary. Mamma ordered coffee
and pastries called napoleons. It was cool and dim inside, but I could see
myself in my new shoes and uniform in the large mirror. At the table
opposite was a thin, stiff-backed man. He was talking to a woman at his side
and looking over at our table. His eyes were as dead and dull as a fish's on
the kitchen table. I stared hard at him. The napoleon got stuck in my
throat, just as Napoleon had in the snows of Russia. It was our principal,
I jumped up. My lips were sticky from the pastry and from fear. I
bowed. I sat down. I got up again. The principal nodded and turned away.
Soon we rose to leave. At the door I bowed again. The day was ruined.
The napoleon rumbled uneasily in my stomach.
Our class supervisor entered the classroom during the long recess the
following day. He asked for my ledger. This is what he wrote on the page
devoted to "Conduct and Deportment":
Pupils of secondary schools are forbidden to patronize cafes, even when
accompanied by their parents.
Kuzmenko, another boy who had been left back, read the entry and said:
"Good for you! You've started out right. Congratulations! Keep up the good
To tell the truth, I had been terrified, but his words cheered me up. I
shrugged and said: "I stuck my neck out that time. What the hell!"
From then on we called confectionaries conductionaries.
The Pokrovsk Boys High School was just like every other boys school. It
had cold tile floors that were kept clean by being swept with damp sawdust.
There was a long corridor and class-rooms leading off it. The corridor was
filled by the short incoming tides of recess and drained again by the
outgoing tides of the lessons.
There was a school bell. Its pealing had a double meaning. One, at the
end of a lesson, was exciting and carefree. It pealed: "Ring! Fun and
The other sounded when recess was over. It announced the beginning of
another lesson. It was a mean old grouch: "Br-rats! I'll wr-ring your
Lessons, lessons and lessons. There was the class ledger. The
Deportment Ledger. "Leave the classroom!" "Go stand in the corner!"
There were prayers and chapel. Royal days. Tunics. The gold-stitched
silence of the services. Standing at attention. Boys fainting from the
closeness and from the strain of standing still for two hours in a row.
The dove-grey overcoats. The dove-grey boredom. I counted the days by
the pages of my ledger. It had a column for the schedule. A column for
assignments. A column for marks. Each week ended with the signature of our
class supervisor. Sunday alone, the shortest day in the week, did not have a
space of its own in my ledger. Every other day was strictly regimented. 18.
Pupils of secondary schools are forbidden to go outdoors after 7 p.m. from
November 1st to March 1st. 20. Pupils are not allowed to attend the theatre,
cinematograph or other places of amusement without special permission from
the school inspector in each given instance. Pupils are strictly forbidden
to frequent confectionaries, cafes, restaurants, public gardens, etc.
Note: The above places of amusement in Pokrovsk include the Public
Gardens Market Square and the railroad stations.
These rules were printed on our school cards, and every breach of
conduct that flaunted the sacred rules meant a demerit. They say all roads
lead to Rome. At the Boys School all roads led to the Deportment Ledger.
Every boy's name was entered in it at one time or another. There were simple
demerits: boys were left without lunch; there were reprimands and
expulsions. It was a terrible book! A secret book. A Dove Book.
There is a legend about a Dove Book which fell from the skies many
centuries ago and which supposedly contained all the secrets of Creation. It
was a wonderful book, something like a ledger for the planets. None of the
wise men could read it all and understand it, for its secret meanings were
too deep for them. We boy regarded the Deportment Ledger as just such a Dove
Book, for the authorities kept careful watch over its secrets. None of us
ever dreamed of reading the entries in it.
Unfledged doves are called squabs. We were called squabs, because of
our dove grey school uniforms. Our school's Deportment Ledger, its Dove Book
had the lives of three hundred squabs recorded in it. Three hundred
unfledged doves trapped in a cage.
The town of Pokrovsk was once a settlement. It was a rich settlement, a
grain-selling centre of Russia. Huge, five-storey granaries with
turret-roofs lined the bank of the Volga here. Tens of millions of bushels
of wheat were stored in this granary row. Clouds of pigeons blotted out the
sun. The grain was loaded on barges. Small tugboats guided the barges out of
the bay, just as a boy-guide leads a blind man.
Ukrainian tillers lived in Pokrovsk, as well as rich farmers, German
colonists, boatmen, stevedores, workers of the lumber mills, the bone-meal
factory and a small number of Russian peasants. In summer they became
bronzed by the steppe sun, they drove camels, gathered on the water meadow
on holidays which usually ended in endless fights along the river bank. They
raced their boats against Saratov boats. In winter they drank heavily, had
weddings and danced on Breshka Street. They ate sunflower seeds. The rich
farmers met in council. Then, if ever the question of a new school, a paved
road or some similar undertaking was raised, they would shout it down with
their usual "resolution" of: "No need for it!"
Slush and mud were ankle-deep on the streets. Such was the state of
affairs in Pokrovsk, just seven kilometres from the city of Saratov.
And then the overgrown sons of the wild and carefree steppes, these
huge, bold savages from the farms, were forcibly driven into the classrooms
of Pokrovsk Boys School, had their hair cropped close, their names entered
in the Ledger and their bodies stuffed into the school uniform.
It is difficult, it is all but impossible to describe the things that
went on in that school. There were constant fights. Boys fought singly, and
one class fought another. Bottoms of long school coats were ripped off.
Knuckles were cracked against enemy jaws. Among the weapons used were ice
skates, school satchels, lead weights. Skulls were cracked. The seniors (Oh,
those ruling classes!) would take two small boys by the legs and batter each
other with our swinging heads. True, there were some first-year boys so big
they drove the fear of God into the meanest seniors.
I was rarely hit, since I was so little they were afraid they might
kill me. Still and all, I was accidentally knocked unconscious two or three
They had their own special game of soccer that was played on empty lots
with old telegraph poles or stone posts that were lying on the ground. The
object of the game was to roll a pole across the lot into the other team's
field, using their feet alone. As often as not, a pole would roll over some
fallen players, mangling and crushing them.
During classes they cribbed and prompted each other outrageously and
with great imagination, inventing the most complex and outlandish devices.
Desks, floorboards, blackboards and lecterns were all rigged. There was a
special delivery service and a telegraph. During written tests they even
managed to get the answers from the senior classes.
Some boys, to spite the teachers, would hunch over and thus be sent to
stand in a corner "to straighten up", where they persisted to cause
themselves great discomfort by standing hunchbacked, although at home these
were strong boys with excellent postures.
The boys chewed oilcakes in class, played cards, fenced with knives,
traded lea weights, and read the adventures of Nat Pinkerton. There were
some lessons during which half of the pupils were being punished and were
lined up along the walls, while another quarter was out smoking in the
washroom or else banished from the classroom. But a few heads bobbed above
The boys ignited phosphorus in order to produce a mighty stench. That
meant the room had to be aired, which left no time for the lesson.
A squeegee would be tacked under the teacher's lectern, and when the
string was jerked the toy would squeak. The teacher would rush up and down,
but still squeaked. He would search the desks, and still it squeaked.
"Stand up, all of you! And stay there!"
Every boy would be on his feet, but still, the toy Went on squeaking.
The inspector would be summoned. Still, it went on squeaking. The
pupils would be made to sit at their desks for two hours and would miss
Still, it went on squeaking-
The boys stole things at the market, they fought the town boys on every
corner they beat up policemen. They poured every sort of mess into the
inkwells of those teachers whom they disliked. During lessons they would
slowly vibrate a split penpoint that had been stuck into a desk, and the
screeching sound it produce would set your teeth on edge.
Juvenal Stomolitsky, the principal, was tall, thin, unbending and
careful! pressed. His eyes were round, heavy-lidded and leaden. That was why
he had bee nicknamed Fish-Eye.
Fish-Eye was a protege of Kasso, the Minister of Education who was
loathed by all. Fish-Eye valued drilling, absolute quiet and discipline
above all else. As classes ended each day he would take up his station
outside the cloakroom. We were to pass by him in review after we had put on
our caps and coats. We had to stop as w approached, remove our caps by the
visor (and only by the visor!) and bow low.
Once, when I was in a hurry to get home, I grasped the hatband instead
of the visor when I doffed my cap.
"Stop!" the principal commanded. "Go back and return again. You must
learn to greet me properly."
He never shouted. His voice was as dull and colourless as an empty tin
can. When angry he would say: "Abominable boy!" This was his most terrible
reprimand and always meant a poor mark for deportment and other
unpleasantneses in the future.
No matter whether he appeared in a classroom or in the Teacher's Room,
conversation would immediately die down. Everyone would rise. A tense
silence followed. The atmosphere would become so stifling you felt you
wanted to open a window and shout.
Fish-Eye liked to enter a classroom unexpectedly. The pupils would jump
to their feet with a great rattling of desk tops. The teacher would become
red in the face, stumble in the middle of a word and look just like a
schoolboy who was caught smoking.
The principal would sit down by the lectern, making sure that each boy
called on would bow to him first and then to the teacher. Once the district
inspector, a little grey-haired old man with a large star on his chest,
visited the school. The principal escorted him to one of the classrooms and
motioned with his eyes to a boy who was being called upon to recite to bow
first to the district inspector, then to him and, finally, to the teacher.
The following notations, thanks to old Fish-Eye, were to be found in
the Black Book:
Andrei Glukhin was seen by the principal wearing his coat thrown over
his shoulders. He is to be left after school for four hours. Stepan Gavrya
... was seen in town by the principal wearing a shirt with an embroidered
collar. Six hours after school. Nikolai Avdotenko was absent from school
without permission on October 13th and 14th. To be left in class for twelve
hours (on two successive holidays).
(Nikolai Avdotenko's aunt died on October 13th. He had been living with
The district inspector was pleased with the way the principal ran the
school. "I'm very pleathed, thir," he lisped. "Thith ith an exthemplary
THE TEACHERS' ROOM
The Teachers' Room was at the end of the corridor, to the right of the
principal's office. Continents and oceans were rolled up and stuck away
behind a bookcase in a corner. The huge round eyeglasses of the earth's
hemisphere gazed down from a wall. The glass door of the bookcase reflected
His Majesty, by the Grace of God, a blue ribbon, a carefully-groomed beard,
an arrow-straight part and rows of decorations, the Tsar of all Russia. (The
actual portrait of the tsar hung opposite).' The Black Book was kept in the
bookcase. On top of the bookcase a lop-sided squirrel offered its shedding
tail as a moustache for a goddess. The goddess was old and made of plaster
of Paris. Her name was Venus. Whenever the bookcase door was opened the
goddess swayed gently and seemed about to sneeze. And the bookcase was
opened whenever someone reached for the Deportment Ledger. Caesar Karpovich,
the school supervisor, was the keeper of the key to the bookcase. We had
nicknamed him Seize'em and he was the butt of all our pranks. He had a glass
eye, something he tried very hard to conceal. However, the moment he turned
it on us, we made faces at him and thumbed our noses.
New boys who had not yet discovered he had a glass eye admired the
courage of the pranksters. Seize'em was the author of at least half of all
the entries in the Deportment Ledger, for he was responsible for the boys'
behaviour, both in school and out.
He would ambush us on Breshka Street, which was strictly off-limits.
Seize'em stalked the streets after seven p.m. in search of boys still
outdoors. He would come calling to see if an absent boy was really sick. He
would lie in wait for boys outside the Dawn Cinema. He spent his days and
nights busily tracking down culprits to provide fuel for the Ledger. Still
and all, the boys managed to trick him brazenly. Once, for instance, he
waylaid a group of sixth-grade boys inside the Dawn Cinema. They locked
themselves in one of the boxes. Seize'em went for a policeman, and together
they tried to force the door of the box. As the film flickered on the screen
the boys tore down the drapes of their box, knotted them and slide down the
drape-rope into the orchestra. First to appear on the screen were a pair of
dangling legs. Then the boys fell into the laps of the audience. There was a
general commotion, during which they escaped through an emergency exit.
Wisps of cigarette smoke drifted about in the Teachers' Room, snaking
around the globes and stuffed birds. There was a table beside the bookcase
where the class ledgers were kept, witnesses of the good, bad or indifferent
progress of every boy in the school. The school inspector usually leafed
through them during recess.
The boys almost liked Inspector Nikolai Romashov. He was a well-built,
handsome man who wore his hair in a short brush cut. His dark eyes were
often narrowed, and he had a sharp tongue that was often rude.
He, too, followed his own educational methods. If, for instance, a
given class had committed some collective crime or did not wish to hand over
an offender, Romashov would appear after lessons, entering the classroom
slowly and facing the boys, all of whom would stand stiffly at attention.
Then, raising his head high, he would survey them. It seemed that his beard
swept over the tops of our heads.
"Where's the monitor?" he would say in a chillingly calm voice. "Go
over and shut the door. So."
The monitor would shut the door tightly. The boys, hungry and tired
after five hours of study, would stand at attention. Romashov would continue
his inspection of the class through his beard. He would then take a book
from his pocket, sit down at the lectern and become engrossed in it. The
boys stood at attention. For ten minutes. For half an hour.
After about an hour's reading, the inspector would suddenly put his
book aside and begin his harangue in a soft but resounding baritone,
speaking calmly throughout:
"Well? What have you to say for yourselves, muttonheads? Addlepated
hooligans. Dimwitted pigeon fanciers! What a brainless collection of dolts!
Morons! I'll have you publicly castigated in front of the whole school, you
numskulls! Pigheaded charlatans! Nitwits! Whose stupid head is that? Ah, is
that you, Gavrya? I mean you, too, by the way. Why are you turning your mug
away? You're the top-ranking dunce here! Well? I'll bet you feel ashamed of
yourselves, you louts. Scoundrels! Idiots! I'll see you get what's coming to
you, you blackguards. Here you are, left after school. And there's dinner
waiting at home. Hot soup. Roast beef. I can smell the savoury sauce." At
this the inspector would sniff loudly and smack his lips. "Ha! Hungry,
aren't you? I'll bet you are. And you're sure to get your backsides tanned
when you get home. Your fathers will see to that. I'll send a note along,
telling your dads to let down your pants and give you a good whacking in the
rear deportment ledger. There's nothing to laugh at, you lummoxes!
Rattlebrained whelps! Left after school! For shame!"
After carrying on in this vein for about an hour, he would finally
dismiss the class, but one at a time, with long intervals in between. We all
felt faint by then.
Romashov had divided all the boys into two groups: the lambs and the
hilly goats. That, too, was how he introduced the pupils of a class to a new
"Be seated, idlers! Here, you see, are the lambs, the crammers, the 'A'
students, the goody-goodies. And here are the 'F' and 'D' students, the
left-backs, the dinner-missers, the blabbermouths, loafers and
back-benchers. Aleferenko! Shove your belly into your satchel! Look at it
hanging over your belt!"
The inspector was in charge of seating the class. Thus, he had the
wildest, laziest and worst pupils in the front rows. The farther back and
closer to the windows, the better the marks a boy had. However, a very warm
relationship based on prompting and cribbing existed all along the diagonal
line between the far left "A" comer of the class and the front right "D"
NAPOLEONS AND THE DEPORTMENT LEDGER
The Black Book contained eight incomprehensible entries. These eight
mysteriously similar notations all bore the same date. The following
paragraph was repeated eight times:
"(Name) of the ... grade has been severely reprimanded for the last and
final time for outrageous hooliganism. His deportment mark for the term is
"C" ("C-"). He is to be punished by twenty hours of compulsory schoolwork on
successive holidays. His parents have been notified. (Signed)... Class
supervisor. (Signed) Inspector...."
These eight entries refer to a scandalous and tragic event which in its
time had the entire town up in arms. However, no one knew the end of the
story or the names of the real participants in the events. There is not a
word in the Black Book about Bloodhound Kozodav, the Afon Recruit or the
Tavern, that third-rate joint run by Madame Kolenkorovna. Mokeich, the
now-departed school janitor, divulged the sector of the Black Book to me.
Here it is.
There were no electric bells in the city about eighteen years ago.
Instead, there were wire handles on the porches, somewhat like the
pull-chains of old-fashioned toilets. And you pulled the handle when you
rang. Then a new doctor arrived in Pokrovsk. They said he was very much a
man for modern technology and scientific development. Indeed, the doctor
subscribed to Niva, a literary magazine, and had battery-run electric bells
installed in his apartment. A little white bell-button appeared on the
outside door beneath the doctor's card. The patients would press the button,
at which a loud-voiced bell would suddenly come to life in the foyer.
Everybody agreed this was wonderful. The doctor soon had a flourishing
practice, and it became the height of fashion in Pokrovsk to have an
electric bell on one's front porch. Five years later there was hardly a
house with a porch that did not have a bell-button. The bells had
variously-pitched voices. Some buzzed, others tinkled, still others rasped,
and there were those that simply rang. Some bells had instruction notices
tacked up beside the buttons, such as: "Please don't bang on the door. Put
your finger on the pip for to ring the bell."
The people of Pokrovsk were proud of their cultured ringing. They spoke
of their doorbells with love and interest. When meeting in the street, they
would inquire after the health of a doorbell.
"Hello, Pyotr! How are you? And how's the new arrival? Did the man
install it yet?"
"Yes, thanks. What a beauty! Come on over and hear it ring. It's got a
voice like a canary."
When matchmakers praised a girl's dowry they would say: "She'll have
her own wing of a house with a 'lectric bell on the porch."
Mlynar, the richest man in town, had seven different bells installed,
one for each day of the week. The bell with the liveliest sound was for
Sundays. The gloomiest-ever bells jangled on fast-days.
The Afon Recruit would be sent for whenever a bell went out of order.
The Recruit doctored old bells, installed new ones and was reputed to be the
best "bell man" in town. His fame was widespread, and his place in the
annals of Pokrovsk was as honourable as that of Lake Sapsayevo, still the
best swamp in the area, or Lazar, the best of the cabbies, who is still hale
and hearty, or the granary fire, surely the best of all fires.
The Afon Recruit lived at the market place, by the meat rows that
smelled of fresh blood. He lived in the Tavern, as its inhabitants called
their filthy, comfortless hovel. A large pit near the Tavern was forever
filled with foul-smelling puddles, and stray dogs would scrounge around
there, dragging out long ropes of intestines or messes of entrails, all of
which swarmed with blue-bottle flies. The market's hardware section,
resounding with hammering and clanging, was a short way off.
The Afon Recruit lived in the Tavern. No one knew where he was from,
how he had got his nickname or of what nationality he was. But everyone knew
him. He was strong, as swarthy as a roasted nut, thin, wiry, and as agile as
a pennant in the wind. He had a huge round earring in his left ear, and a
long black moustache sprang from under his hooked nose. The left tip of his
moustache pointed skyward, while the right pointed down, which fact made it
resemble a washbasin faucet. His pearly teeth were forever flashing in a
smile. His hands were forever busy, doing some piece of work or other. And
his hands were of a kind called "golden hands" in Russian. He could do
anything. He was a mechanic, a barber, a magician, a watchmaker-you simply
had to name it.
He was the most respected man in the Tavern. Everyone followed his lead
and liked him. No one could remember ever having seen him angry. Even when a
heated argument led to ugly knives, the Afon Recruit's smile flashed more
brightly than the blades. He would materialize between the fighters as if
from thin air to shove them apart. Then, flying onto one of the bunks like a
dervish, he would shout:
"Attenshun, pu-leeze! Presenting the ver-ry latest hocus-pocus magic:
black, white, striped and polka-dotted! Ladies, gents and esquires! Entendez
a sec! Voulez vous have a look! Stupendous! A-mazing! Alley-oop!"
Tiny boxes and balls would come pouring out of his pocket to be juggled
over his head. His hat spun on a cane which he balanced on the tip of his
nose as he lit cigarettes inside his coat sleeves. A woman's voice issured
from his innards, and it was singing. Meanwhile, his torn sole gaped and
said "Merci". The quarrel was forgotten instantly.
Dunka Kolenkorovna, a half-wit, was the mistress of the Tavern. Kostya
Gonchar, the town fool, was her favorite lodger. He was absolutely harmless,
for his great joy in life was adorning his person with anything bright or
shiny. He went about town in his rags hung with pictures cut out of Niva,
the tops of tea tins, ads for various brands of cigarettes, empty lozenge
tins, beads, paper flowers, playing cards, bits of harness and broken
teaspoons. The townsfolk were indulgent and gave him whatever bright and
useless odds and ends they had. To this very day whenever anyone in Pokrovsk
is dressed too gaudily someone will say:
"Look at him! He's dolled up like Kostya Gonchar!"
Bloodhound Kozodav, the policeman whose beat was the market place,
liked to drop in at the Tavern. Kozodav possessed everything an exemplary
policeman needed: a pair of fierce moustaches, a badge, a whistle, a sword,
a deep, gruff voice, a blue-red lump of a nose, a medal, and braided red
shoulder straps, the envy of Kostya Gonchar. Bloodhound Kozodav would drop
in at the Tavern to have a drink on the house, play a game of cards, and
have a heart-to-heart talk with Joseph Pikus, the sage travelling salesman.
The other inhabitants of the Tavern were Levonti Abramkin, a nightman,
Hersta, a German organ-grinder, his parrot that had been trained to pick out
"lucky" fortune cards, Chi Sun-cha, a tubercular Chinaman, and Shebarsha and
Krivopatrya, two bosom friends and petty thieves.
In the evenings boys from our school would sneak into the Tavern. Here
they could enjoy oilcakes, relax in pleasant company, forget for an hour or
two the strictly regulated life of the school and play cards without
worrying about Seize'em pouncing on them. Here no one ever asked you what
your term mark for Russian grammar was or whether you had done your
homework. We were always welcome. The inhabitants of the Tavern joined us in
berating the school rules and regulations, and many were quite prepared to
beat up the Latin teacher for giving a boy an undeserved "F". Chi Sun-cha,
who was always so reserved, would get all worked up.
"Why so bad Latin teacher?" he would say as he cut out coloured paper
festoons. "Boy good. Why he get 'F'?"
We would bring the men books we thought were good, the latest news, our
school lunches and junk for Kostya Gonchar. In exchange we received
invaluable information in such varied fields as the art of jimmying locks,
forging signatures, and the Odessa version of ju-jitsu.
The Afon Recruit was a great one for discussing a book he had read and
always drew us into these discussions. In the beginning, the other men made
fun of him, saying that the devil had taken on a bunch of babes, but soon
nearly every other inhabitant of the Tavern was taking part in our heated
debates. To top it all, Vasya Gorbyl, one of the "babes", gave Shebarsha
such a beating that we were all treated with special respect from that day
on. At first, our reading was limited to adventure stories. Thus, we sailed
80,000 Leagues Under the Sea, found Captain Grant's Children and nearly lost
our own heads over the Headless Horseman. Then Stepan Gavrya, alias
Atlantis, brought some banned political books to the Tavern. The Tavern
inhabitants listened to the story of the Paris Commune with bated breath.
We schoolboys were pledged to secrecy about these visits to the Tavern.
Many of our fellow classmates had no idea where the so-called Hefty
Gang hung out after school. Whenever Bloodhound Kozodav put in an unexpected
appearance at the Tavern the banned books were whisked out of sight and
Bloodhound was offered a drink. He would soon be in a benevolent mood and
would whisper confidentially:
"Lissen, boys, don't poke your noses out for 'nother half-hour. That
Seize'em's sniffing around Breshka Street. I'll give you a sign soon's all's
'TWAS IN THE GARDEN....
In September the leaves began to fall and the grass turned yellow in
the Public Gardens, which somehow resembled the worn fur collar of an old
In September the boys of our school picked a fight with the town boys.
Vanya Makhas, a fifth-grade boy, was out walking with a girl from the
Girls School. Some boys from Berezhnaya Street who were sitting on one of
the park benches began baiting him.
"Hey, sonny! Don't you pick your girls from our street."
Makhas escorted the girl to the fountain and said: "Pardon me. I'll
only be a minute. I'll be back in a sec." Then he returned to the bench,
went up to the fellow and struck him, knocking him against the wire fence.
The next moment the fight had turned into a free-for-all. The boys fought in
silence, for there were teachers sitting on the benches of the next walk.
The town boys knew this, too, and felt it unfair to shout and thus put their
enemies at a disadvantage.
Some park watchmen who were passing broke up the fight, and the
appearance of Seize'em on the scene put a stop to the slaughter.
That was when the town fathers asked the principal to include the
Public Gardens in the list of off-limits places for schoolboys. The
principal was only too pleased to comply. Thus, the boys of our school were
deprived of their last recreation spot. They tried to protest, but the
Parents' Committee upheld the principal's ruling.
WE'RE CHALLENGING YOU
That very day a secret emergency meeting was held at the Tavern. Hefty
and Atlantis were the only two boys present.
Atlantis was boiling mad. "It's against the law! There's no place we
can go anyway, and now this! I don't give a damn for this whole town any
"You know what I'd suggest?" Joseph said. "Why don't you send the
district supervisor a telegram with a paid reply? You shouldn't be silent.
Why, it's a regular ghetto for schoolboys. You can't go here, you can't go
there. So where can you go?"
"Alley-oop! To hell with the telegram!" the Recruit interrupted. "No.
This calls for some hard thinking. La!"
"Bash their heads in and be done with it!" Krivopatrya shouted
cheerfully from his upper bunk. He was lying with his head and shoulders
over the side, spitting intently, trying to send the spittle through a ring
he had made of his fingers.
"That's no good. We've got to make them all suffer. Tar and feather
them. They're all to blame. The Town Council and the Parents' Committee. A
bunch of rotten pigs. And we have to be sure we don't get caught. Otherwise
they'll expel us. It'll take a lot of brains to think of something,"
"The boys'll all stick together. Once we get started they won't know
what hit them," Hefty added.
A silence fell. The plotters were lost in thought. Water dripped from
Suddenly Joseph jumped to his feet, smacked himself on the forehead and
exclaimed: "Eureka! Eureka, which, in Greek, means 'I have the answer'! This
head has come up with an amazing idea. What?"
"For God's sake! What is it?"
"What's all this noise and commotion? Where do you think you are, at
school or in a respectable tavern?"
"Are you going to tell us or not? What're you waiting for?"
"Shh! Quiet, please! My idea is a fix of an idea. It has nothing but
good sides for all of us, and not a single bad side. Now listen, everybody.
What is the exception of my conception? I mean, what is the conception of my
exceptional idea? Now, this is what you do...." At this Joseph began cutting
the air, using his thin fingers like a pair of scissors. He went on cutting
the air for several minutes, then looked around at each of us in turn. His
eyes shone as he spoke in a momentous whisper:
Hefty chose eight fine boys from different grades for the bell-cutting
campaign. First, the following manifesto was drawn up:
"Boys! The Public Gardens are now off-limits. (Be sure nobody's
watching you read this!) Our enemies are Fish-Eye, the Town Council and the
Parents. Which means the whole town's against us. And that means we've got
to get even, and make sure they never forget it. This town will never forget
what we're going to do to them. In this place everybody's proud as peacocks
of their doorbells. Fellows! We of the Committee of War and Vengeance have
decided to cut off all the doorbells in Pokrovsk. Each of us, on The Day,
will cut off the doorbell outside his house. Our parents are on Fish-Eye's
"The Committee of War and Vengeance will appoint local boys to do the
job in the houses where there aren't any Boys School fellows. It'll be
another St. Bartholomew's Night for doorbells! Boys! Don't spare a single
bell! We've been driven to this. We've been deprived of our last
"The Committee of War and Vengeance has appointed the following boys to
be in charge of their class. Obey their orders! In view of the danger of
expulsion, we're using their nicknames.
"6th grade-Satrap (The Ghost of Hamlet's Father)
"7th grade-Fishnet (I inhabit)
"8th grade-King of the Jews
"The man in charge-Hefty
"The doorbells will be handed over to the monitors. They will pass them
on to the Committee that will hand them over of a cripple, who will trade
them for gunpowder, bullets, pop-guns, etc. The day of St. Bartholomew's
Night will be announced by the monitors. The signal to begin is a white
triangle, pasted to the windowpane.
"Don't break the big bell in the Teachers' Room or they might guess who
did it. If anybody rats, he'll get a bell stuffed down his throat! Down with
"One for all!
"All for one!
"Long live War and Vengeance!
"Sign this and pass it on, but not to Lizarsky or Dimwit.
"Cmte. for W. & V. 1915"
Copies of the manifesto began circulating throughout the school, read
to the whispering of prompting during classes, amidst the jostling commotion
of recess and the stale cigarette smoke of the washrooms. There were two
hundred and sixty-eight coats hanging on pegs in the cloakroom. Two hundred
and sixty-six signatures appeared under the manifestoes. The two boys who
were kept out of it were Lizarsky, the police officer's son, and his best
War had been declared.
Five days later the ringleaders met at the Tavern. Although it was late
in the afternoon, each one came carrying his heavily-packed school satchel.
However, instead of the usual dull grammar books and figure-laden math
books, they now contained severed bell-buttons. The white, black, grey,
mother-of-pearl, enamel, yellow, stiff and worn buttons (the latter would
stay depressed and keep on ringing the bell) stared out of their wooden or
metal circles, squares, ovals and rosettes that were lacquered, or-rusty, of
fumed or stained oak, or walnut. The wires protruded like torn ligaments.
Every family was now waiting for the Afon Recruit to call. He spent the
next two weeks installing new bells, bringing the stilled voices back to
life, as he was wont to say. Then, when the last button had been screwed
into place, he said to Hefty: "Your turn! You start a week from today."
The following Saturday was a muddy day. More than one rubber drowned in
the puddles, more than one galosh sank on the main street of Pokrovsk that
day. However, when the townspeople finally trudged home from church that
evening, losing their rubbers, their way and their strength, they fumbled
about outside their front doors in the darkness in vain and struck matches,
cupping their hands to shield the flames from the wind. There were no
bell-buttons in sight. That night everyone discovered that the new bells had
been cut off.
"What's going on?" was the worried refrain the following day at Mass,
on the street corners, at the front gates and on the benches outside the
houses. "Good Lord! In bright daylight, too! It's highway robbery. Maybe
they've got a whole gang at it."
"Imagine! I mixed the dough and set it out to rise. Then I went outside
for a breath of air and to have a chat with my neighbour. Grinya was doing
his homework. Well, we talked for a bit, and I went back. I wanted to close
the front door and, gracious! There was no doorbell. And not a soul in
sight, mind you."
The poor woman could never imagine that her dear son Grinya, a
snub-nosed fifth-grade boy, had cut off the button.
THE TALE OF THE AFON RECRUIT
The town was in the dumps. No one attempted to have a new button
installed. The schoolboys were jubilant. Outside every front door a bright
circle or square with holes where the nails had been gaped forlornly.
The Zemstvo inspector was the only one to summon the Afon Recruit. "Go
on, put in a new one!" he said. "Go on, you scoundrel. And make sure it's
screwed on tight this time! I know your kind." And he shook his finger.
The Recruit cast a guarded look at him.
"Don't play the innocent. I know you. You barely stick it to the wall,
so's the brats can pry it off quicker. I know you bums. They get them off,
and a black thief like you shovels in the profits. But you won't get away
with it this time! I'll post policeman here. I'll have a man on duty round
The Recruit installed a new button and hurried back to the Tavern,
where the boys were waiting for him.
"I just put in a new pip for the Zemstvo Inspector. Don't touch it.
He'll have bloodhound there day and night."
"To hell with all coppers!" Venya Razudanov, alias Satrap, and the
Zemstvo inspector's own son, shouted belligerently. He was stocky and
stubborn, a true copy of his father, and that was how he had got his other
nickname, the Ghost of Hamlet's Father.
"Wait a minute, my militant boy," Joseph Pukis said. "What kind of an
aplombic tone of voice is that? Stop and think. You may have to part with
your school cap instead of another doorbell. Why spit in the wind? Caution
"That's right, Satrap. You got to be careful. If you get caught, I'll
take care of you good." At this Hefty held his monstrous, mallet-like fist
up to Satrap's face.
As always, his fist was admired and discussed at length. Everyone
tested it an exclaimed:
"Boy, that's some fist! Look at the size of it!"
"In these days a good-sized fist is better than a so-so head," Joseph
"Big, good fist," Chi Sun-cha exclaimed. "Boswain fist like so. Ah! Lot
of h teeth."
"I'll cut off the button anyway!" the Zemstvo Inspector's son muttered.
THE ZEMSTVO INSPECTOR AND SON
TOP AND HEADS BELOW, MIGHT SHOUT: "WATCH THE FRAME!"
It was as black as pitch.
Then, as our eyes became accustomed to the dark, we made out a door
with plaque on it. It read: "G. V. Razudanov, Zemstvo Inspector." Beside it
was new bell-button. We were on the second floor landing and could see a
stretch of staircase. Down below under the stairs was a head with a lumpy
nose and long moustaches, topped by a cap with a cockade. It was Bloodhound
Kozodav. I-was cold. He shivered. He raised his collar. He kept blinking.
His eyelids dropped. Kozodav was dying to sleep.
The clock in the dining-room of the Zemstvo Inspector's house struck
two. On the table were a sandwich on a plate and a glass of milk, left out
There were steps on the stairs. It was the sound of muddy rubbers. One
foot stumbled on a tread. "Dammit! It's as dark as hell."
A match flared. A hand in a kid glove held the match to the
bell-button. Another match was struck and went out, and then another.
"The Recruit really did his damnedest!"
Kozodav's head was somewheres down below. Above it were a pair of feet
shod in shoes and rubbers.
Kozodav, who had dozed off for a minute, came to his senses and clumped
up the stairs hurriedly. "Got you this time!" he bellowed. He was heaving
mightily, and his moustache bristled as he raised a whistle to his lips. He
grabbed the intruder by the collar with his free hand and whistled. "Help!
Murder! I got'im!"
The intruder turned calmly and brushed the policeman's hand from his
collar with a regal gesture. It was Venya Razudanov, the Zemstvo Inspector's
son. He was more than indignant. "What's the matter with you, you fool?
Can't you see who I am?"
"I'm s-s-sorry! I d-didn't recognize you in the dark. I'm awfully
sorry. I thought it was someone creeping up here after the bell."
The door opened. The Zemstvo Inspector, wearing his wife's dressing
gown and carrying a double-barrelled shotgun, emerged onto the landing. The
sleepy-eyed, frightened faces of his wife, sister-in-law and maid peeped out
from behind him.
"What's going on here?"
Kozodav snapped to attention, his hand frozen in a salute. Venya was
the one to explain.
"This idiot was sound asleep on his feet and decided I was a burglar,
Papa. And he missed whoever it was that got the bell."
All eyes were now on the door jamb. There were torn wires and nail
holes where the bell button had so recently been. Then everyone turned to
Kozodav. He went up to the door, unable to believe his eyes. He ran his hand
over the spot and shrugged. The Zemstvo inspector shook him by the collar
and yelled: "Get out, you idiot! You let him get away!"
Venya, meanwhile, was playing the part of a hurt, insulted boy. "I'm so
tired, Mamma. I spent half the night studying. And this is what I came home
The next scene concerned the family alone. There was a kiss for the
poor boy. Fade-out. In other words, the end of the chapter.
The brightly-polished bell button made a bulge in the pocket of Venya's
A CHAPTER USING FILM TECHNIQUE, IN WHICH THE READER, GLIMPSING FEET ON
"I want those bell-snatchers caught! Hear me?" the police officer said
to Kozodav. "You've become the laughing-stock of this whole town! If you
catch them, you'll get a fifty-rouble bonus. If you don't, I'll make things
so hot for you, you'll cook to a frizzle!"
Bloodhound threw himself into the job.
He was walking through the market. No, he was not walking, he was
sailing. The red braiding of the shoulder straps which adorned his powerful
shoulders rose and fell like oars in the human stream of the market. There
Kozodav came upon Kostya Gonchar, the Tavern simpleton. He was wandering
about the market, looking as festive as a Christmas tree. Two new
acquisitions gleamed on his belly: a shiny ad for Triangle Galoshes and ...
a large red rosette with a bell-button in the centre. At the sight of the
bell-button Kozodav made a beeline for Kostya. He promised to give him his
fine red shoulder straps, gold tassels and anything else he wanted if Kostya
would tell him where he had gotten the bell. And Kostya beaming brightly,
told him all he knew.... He said he had stolen the bell from under the
"The Recruit hid it, but I felt around and found it. There's lots more
there! One an' twenty times more, an'...."
At which Kozodav promised him a thousand other glittering treasures.
Kostya brought him a torn copy of the Manifesto issued by the War and
Vengeance Committee. The ringleaders were as good as caught. In order to get
all the other Bloodhound decided to tempt Joseph, too. He dropped in at the
Tavern, sat down on Joseph's bunk, and cleared his throat politely.
"Ah, sir honourable policeman," Pukis said. "So you want to see me?
What a I do for you?"
Bloodhound moved closer, looked around and nudged Joseph. "You sure are
tricky one, Joseph! Why don't you just tell me how you and the Recruit cut
off t] bell? I won't tell a soul. I just want to hear how you did it. Come
on, quit pretending."
"I don't understand you one bit." Joseph's face, which had been placid,
took' a surprised look. "Though I'm Joseph and you're a policeman, I don't
know h< you dreamed this up."
Kozodav pulled out his wallet and rustled the crisp notes inside.
Joseph cor nued unperturbed:
"And besides, and I hope you won't take offence, I think, sir
honourable policeman, that you're a great honourable scoundrel!"
Kozodav shook his fist at him, slammed the door and was off. He soon
came to a halt and took the Manifesto from his pocket. The top and the
bottom had been torn off, but the list of monitors was intact. He pondered
over it a while, then tore Satrap's name out of it and said to himself: "The
Zemstvo Inspector'11 give me a fiver for this scrap of paper, or his
sonny-boy'll be expelled, too." He set his cap on straight and headed
towards the precinct and from there to the Boys School, to see the
The monotonous wind cooled the puddles like tea poured into a saucer.
The telephone wires hummed. At ten a.m. the switchboard operator connected
the precinct station with the green-papered office beyond the Teachers' Room
by way of these windblown, humming wires. The principal, as sallow-faced as
the green wallpaper of his office, and as slow-moving and joyless as
dictation, cranked his telephone, sat back in his armchair, removed the
receiver and raised it to his ear.
"Hello," he said.
Lessons were in progress. Half an hour later every classroom heard two
men walking down the corridor. Their steps were loud and alien. The one
whose gait was slow and heavy wore boots that squeaked. The other tinkled
and jungled at every step. The boys listened intently. They raised their
heads from their notebooks, ponies, cracks in their desks, banned books and
trump cards. Anxious eyes were fixed on the doors.
The third grade was having a math test. Once again all became still in
the corridor outside. Pens scratched. Hefty had made a mistake in a problem
and couldn't get the answer right. The steps in the corridor had made him
nervous. Stepan Atlantis, whose heart had also skipped a beat, saw that his
chum was having trouble and sent him the following note: "Relax. Fish-Eye
isn't a man-eater."
But he was, as far as they were concerned. The classroom door opened.
There was a rattle of desk tops as the boys rose. Seize'em entered, beaming
foully and twirling his key chain. The key on it was the key to the bookcase
where the Black Book was kept.
"Stepan Gavrya! Go to the principal's office!" he commanded.
Atlantis towered over his desk. He looked dazed.
"Hurry up!" Seize'em said. "And take your books."
An anxious hum filled the classroom. He was to take his books! That
meant was leaving for good. He wouldn't be coming back.
Hefty waited. He had lowered his head, as if to ward off a blow, but
Seized said nothing to him. Bloodhound Kozodav, being vary of Hefty's fists,
had torn his name off the list, too.
Atlantis' hands shook as he got his books together, put them in his
satchel a then headed towards the door. On the way out he slipped Hefty a
rolled-up scrap of paper. Atlantis stopped in the doorway. He was about to
say something, but Seize'em shoved him out. The boys waited in tense
silence. The math teacher wiped the foggy lenses of his spectacles
Hefty unrolled the scrap of paper. It contained the solution to the
problem, done step-by-step. Even in this last moment Stepan had come to his
friend's aid. Hi sat there motionlessly for a minute with his head lowered
and his eyes on his desk. Then he rose quickly, swayed, filled his broad
barrel chest with air, glowered said in a voice that was a statement, not a
"May I leave the room."
"There's only ten minutes left till the end of the lesson," the teacher
"May I leave the room?" Hefty exhaled stubbornly and stepped into
"Well, if you really can't wait."
The stunned boys watched Hefty stuff his books into his satchel and
lumber towards the door, satchel in hand. A terrible silence settled over
the third grade.
Hefty did not look back. He went straight out, into the empty corridor,
and once there he suddenly felt very small and doomed. And he heard, coming
from be! the closed door, a shriek of laughter rise up over the desks, the
inkwells and lectern amidst the shocked silence of the boys he had left.
Then it changed into gurgling scream. It was little Petya Yachmenny in the
first row who had become hysterical from the tension. Hefty threw back his
shoulders and stalked towards the principal's office.
Kozodav was breathing heavily. He was breathing heavily and poking his
:finger at the boys lined up in front of him. "Yes, sir! This one's
Honeycomb, and this one's Atlantis. That's their nicknames."
The other man was rocking back and forth in a tilted chair. His spurs
jungled and he twirled his small black moustache. "Well, well.... Such
conspirators! Well, well, boys."
The seven of them stood stiffly before the desk. There were only seven,
since the Zemstvo Inspector's son was missing. The soot of misery and
despair was settling on their faces.
"So. Indeed," the principal said curtly, and his voice sounded as if a
twig had snapped. "I thank you. Well, you wretches, what have you to say for
yourselves? For shame! For shame! It's disgraceful! Who else was in on this
with you? Oh, so you won't tell? Miserable creatures. You're no more than a
bunch of thugs. You'll all be expelled. You're a disgrace to the school
emblem. Nothing you can say will change matters. I want to see your parents.
I'm very sorry for them. Having sons like you is enough to break a parent's
heart. You scoundrels."
The seven raised their eyes and heaved a collective sigh. Indeed, there
were their parents. They could expect their mothers' tears. And scolding.
And their fathers' chairs being pushed back in anger. Perhaps even a cuff.
Their dinners would be getting cold on the table. "You'll end up being a
stevedore!" And the empty days stretching on ahead.
Then the King of the Jews said rudely, "Let's not bring our parents
into this. It's bad enough as it is."
"Silence! Do you want to be blacklisted for good?"
Just then Hefty entered. He leaned a hand on the edge of the desk, and
the desk creaked. Moving his jaw slowly, he seemed to be chewing his words
as he said, "I'm in on it, too. I'm the ringleader."
"Well. You can consider yourself dismissed. You're also expelled."
Eight overcoats were missing from the cloakroom now.
Eight boys trudged across the muddy square, their feet dragging in the
ooze. They were bent under the weight of their school satchels and
misfortune. They looked back at the school a last time and one of them, it
was Hefty, the boys in the classroom saw it was he, shook his fist angrily
at the building. Everyone in the school who had seen them wanted to shout,
pound their fists on their desks, turn over the lecterns and catch up with
the eight boys outside. But the boys in classrooms were pupils, and pupils
were not allowed to make any noise or express comradely feelings until they
were permitted to do so by the bell, which measured out their portions of
Penpoints scratched across paper and left many a blot.
While the fifth lesson of the day was in progress, Joseph Pukis, his
face very grave, entered the deserted corridor. The janitor was busy washing
the floor Joseph greeted him politely. He spoke beseechingly.
"Mr. Janitor! I really have to see the principal. It's a matter of life
and the contrary."
The principal saw Joseph in the Teachers' Room. He was in a hurry.
"Yes? What can I do for you? Um.... I don't have very much time."
"Mister Principal, Sir, I'm an old wandering Jew, and I can see the
happiness of a family man in your face. I'll bet anything that your children
will never go ban foot or wanton."
"Get to the point! I have no children. And I have no time to waste,
"Just one little minute, Sir. You expelled eight boys today. And I ask
you, what did you expel them? But do I have a right to ask you? No! A
thousand times no. But I have a kind heart. And when you have a kind heart,
you have to speak up. I'm very sorry for those boys. And I'm still sorrier
for their parents, who nursed and upbrang them. Sir Principal, you don't
have any children. May God give y children. You don't know how oi-oi-oi
terrible it is when your boy comes home and...."
"That's enough!" The principal rose. "This conversation is senseless.
The exit is over there."
"Just one little minute more!" Joseph cried, grabbing the principal's
sleeve. "But do you know that all those bells, the devil take them, were cut
off by all your pupils? How many boys are there in the school?"
"There were two hundred and seventy-two until today," the principal
replied despite himself.
"Well, at least two hundred and sixty of them did the cutting. How do
you that? And what if I tell you that your best pupil, the son of the
honourable Zemstvo Inspector, may he live to be a hundred, also did the
cutting, and even a lot better than many of the others? The police only
showed you a piece of it." Joseph took out the complete Manifesto and handed
it to the principal. The principal paled. There on the sheet of paper were
the signatures of the boys of all eight grades. He pointed to a chair
contemptuously and said, "Sit down ... please."
Then Joseph told him of his terms. The eight boys were to be
reinstated. The police would search the Tavern and would find the bells. The
Afon Recruit would lie low for a while. He had agreed to this. The
townspeople would think that s bums from the Tavern had cut off the bells,
and in this way the boys would be exonerated. That would put an end to the
scandal. If, on the other hand, the principal did not reinstate the boys,
the very next day the entire town, the entire region and the entire school
district would discover what was going on under the roof of the Pokrovsk
Boys School and what the sons of some Zemstvo inspectors were up to.
"All right. They'll be reinstated, but their names will be entered in
the Ledger." He pulled out his wallet. "How much do I owe you for this ...
for this, and to ensure your silence?"
Joseph jumped to his feet. Joseph leaned across the desk. Joseph said,
"Sir! You don't have to pay me, Sir. But I swear by the memory of my mother,
may she rest in peace and quiet, that the time will come when you'll be
repaid by me and by us, and by those eight boys who went off like whipped
dogs, and you'll be repaid with good interest!"
Thus ends the saga of the Afon Recruit.
"FS" AND "D'S"
After the doorbell scandal life at school seemed to have resumed its
natural course. There were fewer bloody brawls, fewer rows and less
thieving. However, the rules became still stricter.
Seize'em was forever shaking the plaster foundations of Antiquity when
he unlocked the bookcase to get the Deportment Ledger and disturbed the aged
Pupils were absolutely forbidden to be seen on or near the railroad
platform and the Public Gardens. Paralysing, grey boredom oozed over from
one day to the next, from one page of our books to the next. The Deportment
Ledger was a sword that hung over our heads. Rows of boys being punished
would be lined up along the walls during classes. The pages of the class
journals filled up with broken fences of "F's" and big fat "D's".
BLOODHOUND SUMMONS JOSEPH
Veniamin Pustynin, the Latin teacher, who was nicknamed Roach Whiskers
for his long, bristling moustache (or, Roachius, to give it a Latin ending)
sowed "F's" and "D's" with a vengeance. He had another nickname as well, one
our class usually used, and that was Crookneck.
Roachius was thin and had a long nose, and really did look like a
crook. Above his stiffly starched winged collar he had an extremely long
neck that swayed from side to side just like a big question mark. And so,
wherever he went, Roachius would find a big question mark. It would be
staring at him from the blackboard, the lectern, the seat of his chair, the
back of his coat, the door to his house. The question marks would be erased
but would reappear the following day. Roachius would turn pale, lose weight
and fill our notebooks and report cards with "F's".
He had a passion for little notebooks in which we were supposed to
write down Latin words. Whenever he called on a pupil he demanded that the
boy come up to the blackboard with his little Latin notebook.
"So," he would say. "I see you've learned the lesson. Now let's have a
look at your notebook. I want to see what new words you've put down. What?
You left it at home? And you dared to come up to the blackboard without it?
Go back to your seat." And he would give the boy an "F".
No amount of pleading helped. It was an "F", and that was all there was
There were two boys in my class whose last names were similar:
Alekseyenko and Aleferenko. One day Alekseyenko left his hateful notebook at
home. Roachius entered the classroom, sat down at the lectern, put on his
pince-nez and said softly:
"Ale ... ferenko!"
Aleferenko, whose seat was behind Alekseyenko, rose and went to the
front of the class, while Alekseyenko, who in his terror had decided that
his name had been called, jumped to his feet and mumbled in a rolling bass,
"I forgot my notebook...." He stopped short, for he had suddenly noticed
Aleferenko approaching the lectern, and cursed himself for being such a
fool. Roachius calmly dipped his pen into the inkwell. "Actually, I called
on Aleferenko, but since you've confessed your guilt, you'll get what you
deserve." And he gave him an "F".
The bell rang, bringing recess to an end. The noise in the classroom
He was coming!
The boys rose in a body.
The history teacher was coming. He had fine blond hair parted down the
middle, a very young, pale, thin face and huge blue eyes. His head was
tilted slightly in a kindly manner. His collar was snow-white. Kirill Ukhov
burst into the classroom and tossed the class journal onto the lectern.
The boys stood at attention.
Ukhov looked them over, rushed over to the lectern, then into one of
the aisles and crouched down. Suddenly his blue eyes flashed. His
high-pitched voice rose to a shout: "Who! Dared! To sit! Down! I haven't
said ... 'Be seated'. Get up and stay up! And you! And you, too! And you!
Wretches! All the others, be seated. Hands on your desks. Both of them.
Where's your other hand? Stand up and stay up! And you, over to the wall!
Right there! Well? Silence! Whose desk creaked? Shalferov, was it yours? Get
Fourteen boys stood all through the lesson. The history teacher
expounded on ancient kings and famous steeds. He kept fixing his tie, his
hair, his cuffs. A gold bracelet glinted under his left cuff. It was the
gift of some legendary noblewoman.
Fourteen boys were standing. The lesson dragged on and on. Their legs
became numb. Finally, Ukhov glanced at his watch. The gold lid clicked shut.
Some of the boys by the wall cleared their throats tentatively.
"Caught cold?" Ukhov inquired with concern. "Monitor, close the window,
there's a draught."
The monitor closed the window. The lesson continued. The punished boys
continued to stand by the wall, shifting their weight from one foot to
another. Then, after having glanced at his watch several times, Ukhov would
suddenly say: "All right, team, be seated."
The bell always rang exactly a minute later.
ROACHIUS, THE QUESTION MARK
Our French teacher's name was Matryona Martynovna Badeikina, but she
insisted we refer to her as Mathilde Martynovna. We never argued the point.
She called the first-to-third grade boys "polliwogs", the
third-to-sixth grade boys "dearies" and the senior boys "gentlemen". She was
definitely afraid of the polliwogs. Some of them had moustaches as wild as
the weeds on an empty lot, and their voices were so deep and fearful they
frightened the camels on the street. Besides, whenever a polliwog came up to
the lectern to recite a lesson, the smell of home-grown tobacco was so
strong on his breath it nearly made poor Mathilde sick.
"Don't come any closer!" she would wail. "The smell, pardon, is
"It was the tomato pie I had," the polliwog would explain politely.
"The smell's because I'm burping."
"Ah, mon dieu! What has the pie to do with it? You're absolutely
drenched in nicotine."
"Oh, no, Matryona ... I mean, Mathilde Martynovna! I don't smoke. And,
uh ... please, pooeejekiteh la class?" (This should have been "Pui-je quitte
This would melt Matryona's heart. One had only to ask for permission to
leave the room in French for her to beam happily. Actually, we thought she
was too sensitive. If anyone wrote some obscenity in French on the
blackboard, or tacked a dead rat to the lectern, or did anything else in
jest, she would always get offended. She would enter it in the class
journal, get all huffy, cover her face with her ham and just sit there
saying nothing. And we would be silent, too. Then, at a sign from Hefty, the
desks would begin to close in on the lectern slowly. We were great at
coasting around in our desks, with our knees raising them and our feet
moving along the floor. When all the boys grouped around her in a
semicircle, we would chant softly:
"Je vous aime, je vous aime, je vous aime."
Matryona Martynovna would take her hands from her face and see the des]
all around her. Then Hefty would rise and say in a deep, touching,
"Pardon, Mathilde Martynovna! Don't be too hard on your polliwogs....
Haw Scratch out what you wrote in the journal or we won't let you out."
Matryona would beam and scratch it out.
The boys would then beat a solemn tattoo on their desk tops. The back n
would play taps. The desks would retreat.
However, we soon tired of declaring our love to the mam'-selle and so,
instead of "je vous aime" we began saying "Novouzensk", which sounded just
like it. In fact, when we chanted it, you couldn't tell the difference. And
so poor Mathilde went on imagining that the boys all loved her, while we
were chanting the name a nearby town.
However, it all ended sadly. Other objects besides our desks soon fell
prey to < wanderlust. Thus, a large bookcase once set out down the corridor,
and Seize'em's galoshes glided out of the Teachers' Room. However, when a
lectern, with He and a friend under it to provide motor power, reared up
just before a lesson a galloped around, the principal's spirit took a hand
in the table-tilting and the t culprits had their names put down in the
Black Book, while the rest of the class was made to stay after school for
two hours and miss their dinners.
HIS ROYAL MAJESTY'S BIRTHDAY
Looking through the classroom windows that morning we could see the
fluttering red, blue and white slices of the flag.
It was a red-letter day on the calendar, marked by the notation: "His
Royal Majesty's Birthday."
The cracked bell of Pokrovsk's Peter and Paul Church rang out:
"An-ton! An-ton! An-ton!
And a lit-the ring and bong-bong,
And a lit-the ring and bong-bong."
There was a special service at the school at eleven o'clock.
The boys were lined up in pairs. The stiff, silver-stitched edges of
our high collars cut into our necks.
All was still. There was a smell of incense in the air. It was very
close. The priest, the very same one who hit the boys over the head with the
Bible during Bible classes as he admonished them, saying "Stand up straight,
you dolt!" was now solemnly reading the service in a nasal voice. He was
dressed in glittering robes for the occasion. The choir sang. The small,
hairy precentor scurried up and down.
We were to stand stiffly at attention for two long hours. We could not
so much as move a muscle. My nose itched, but I dared not scratch it. Our
arms had to be in line with the seams of our trousers. All was still. It was
hot and stuffy.
"Long life to the Tsar! Glo-ory to him!"
"Bozhenov's going to be sick, Nikolai Ilyich."
"Shhh! Not a word! He would't dare!"
"Glo-oo-ry to him!"
"Honest, Nikolai Ilyich. He can't hold it in any more. He's going
All was still. And suffocating. My nose itched. This was discipline.
Hands and arms in line with your seams. The second hour was drawing to a
"Go-oo-d save the Tsar!"
The principal took a step forward, and it seemed that he had fired a
child's popgun when he cried: "Hooray!"
The walls shook. The principal again cried:
And once more. Heave-ho, all together now!
"Nukolai Ilyich! Bozhenov's throwing up all over the floor!"
"God save the Tsar...."
Bozhenov was carried out. He had fainted. The service was over. Now I
could at last scratch my nose and unbutton the top button of my stiff
AMONG THE WANDERING DESKS
We had always known, from Annushka having told us, that "science knows
many mitacs". This was the secret formula for guessing a card trick, and it
always helped you to pick the right pair. Which meant that science was
indeed all-powerful and did know many ... uh... mitacs. But no one knew what
a "mitac" was. We looked for the word in the encyclopaedia, but although we
found "Mitau" (with a notation: "see Jelgova"), we couldn't find a trace of
I next learned of the significance of science in school. However, the
overwhelming of science was not proved as conclusively to us there as it was
in Annushka's card trick. Science, as dry and undigestible as sawdust,
rained upon us from the lectern, powdering our heads generously in the
process. None of the teachers could tell us anything definite about the
mitacs. The second-year pupils suggested I ask the Latin teacher.
"Where did you hear that word?" he asked, playing for time, for
Roachius was a very conceited man.
The big boys fell silent, waiting to see what would come next.
"Our cook said..." I began amidst the general uproar.
"Go stand in the corner till the bell rings," he snapped, turning
beet-red. "Thank God the curriculum does not call for the study of pots and
pans. Stop up your spout, you moron!"
And I stopped up my spout. I realized that the school curriculum was
not intended to satisfy, as they then said, our spiritual requirements.
In search of the truth I once again fled to the wide open spaces of
Schwambrania. The main character of our arithmetic book, modestly known as
"A man". the very same one who had bought 25 3/4 yards of cloth at 3 roubles
a yard and had then resold it at 5 roubles a yard, was losing a lot of
money, because of Schwambrania. And two travellers, one setting out from
point A and the other from point B, could never meet, because they were
wandering about in Schwambrania. However, the population of Schwambrania,
represented by Oska, greeted my return with joy.
Having returned to the Big Tooth Continent, I immediately set out to
carry out some reforms. Firstly, Schwambrania had to be given a definite
place on the map We found a good spot for it in the Southern Hemisphere, in
the middle of the ocean. Thus, whenever it was winter in Pokrovsk, it was
summer in Schwambrania, or the only kind of game that is any fun is one that
takes you far away to another clime.
Now Schwambrania was firmly set on the map. The Big Tooth Continent was
situated in the Pacific Ocean to the east of Australia, having absorbed some
of the islands of Oceania. Its northern borders, reaching as far as the
equator, had a flourishing tropical flora, while its southern borders were
frozen wastelands, lying in close proximity to the Antarctic.
I then shook the contents of all the books I had ever read onto the
soil of Schwambrania. Oska, who was determined to keep abreast, was busy
learning new words and confusing them terribly. No sooner would I come home
from school than he would draw me aside and whisper:
"I've got news for you! Jack went to Camera, to hunt chocolates, and a
hundred wild Balkans attacked him, and started killing him! And just then
Miss Terracota started smoking. It's a good thing his faithful dog Sarah
Bemhardt saved him just in time."
And it was up to me to figure out that Oska meant the Cameroons, not
camera, cannibals, not the Balkans, and cachalots, not chocolates. It was
easy to guess that he had confused Sarah Bemhardt and a St. Bernard dog. And
the reason he called the volcano a Miss was because I had told him about
emissions of rocks.
We were growing older. The letters of my script had firmly taken hands,
and my lines were now as even as rows of soldiers. Now that we were a bit
older we became convinced that there was very little symmetry in the world,
and that there were no absolutely straight lines, completely round circles
or flat surfaces. Nature, we discovered, was contradictory, imperfect and
zig-zagged. This state of affairs had come about as a result of the constant
battles being waged by the forces of nature. The jagged contours of the
continents were a reflection of this struggle. The sea battered into the
mainland, while the continents thrust their fingers into the blue locks of
The time had come for us to review the borders of Schwambrania. Thus, a
new map was drawn up.
That was when we noticed that all struggle was not confined to the
realm of geography. All of life was ruled by some sort of struggle, which
hummed in the hold of history and propelled it. Even our own Schwambrania
became dull and lifeless without it. Our game became as uneventful as a
stagnant pond of water. At that time we did not yet know what sort of a
struggle powered history. Living in our cosy apartment, we had no chance to
discover anything about the great, all-consuming struggle for survival, and
so decided that every war, every overthrown government, etc., was no more
than a struggle between good and evil. It was as simple as that. That was
why we had to put several scoundrels in Schwambrania to liven things up.
Bloodthirsty Count Chatelains Urodenal became the chief scoundrel of
At the time all the magazines carried ads for Chatelain's Urodenal, a
popular patent remedy for kidney and liver stones. The ads carried a picture
of a man racked by pain, with the pain depicted as pincers gripping the
unfortunate's body; or else, there was a picture of a man using a clothes
brush to brush a huge human kidney. We decided that these would be
considered the crimes committed by the bloodthirsty count.
Although the rooftops belonged to the real world, they were high above
the dull earth and were not subject to its laws. The roofs were occupied by
Schwambranians. Up and down the steep sides, over the attics and eaves, I
set off on my dizzying journeys. I could travel the length of a block by
going from roof to roof and never once touch the ground. It was wonderful to
watch the sky at twilight as I lay on the cooling iron roof, between the
chimney and the birdhouse pole. The sky was so close as it drifted by
overhead, and the roof drifted off into the clouds. The starling on duty was
whistling on the mast. The day, like a great ship, was sailing into evening,
raising the red oars of sunset and casting shadows as pointed as the tips of
an anchor into the yard.
However, no one was allowed to be out on the roofs. The janitor and his
broom guarded the heavenly approaches. He was vigilant and unbending.
People who lived in other houses and saw me thundering across their
roofs would shout: "Shame on you! A doctor's son gallivanting over the
rooftops!" Actually, I could not understand why a doctor's son was doomed to
crawl on the ground. But the confounded label of "doctor's son" was a
killjoy, a ball-and-chain that forced us to be goody-goodies.
One day the janitor tracked me down. He came crashing over the iron
roof after me. I wanted to jump into the next yard, but someone had
unleashed a vicious-looking mutt there. In another yard the owner was
standing outside in his long Johns and a vest. He said he would guarantee
"an earboxing and scolderation". Just then I noticed a ladder leaning
against an adjoining roof. I stuck my tongue out at the janitor and escaped
across the third yard.
SCIENCE KNOWS MANY MITACS
The little yard I found myself in was full of lilac bushes in full
bloom, which made it seem as though everything in sight was covered with
I heard someone approaching lightly from behind. A smiling girl with a
long golden braid came running out of the garden. She was carrying a
jump-rope. She stopped and stared at me. I backed away towards the gate.
"What made you run like that?"
The girl had dancing dark eyes that looked like the black India rubber
balls we used for playing stickball. I felt that I had to bat a long one,
but I couldn't run. The rules of the game said that you'd surely be blocked
if another player stood opposite.
"Are you afraid of janitors?"
"I don't want to waste my time on them!" I said in a deep bass voice.
"Actually, I spit on them, through my teeth and over my shoulder." And I
stuck my hands into my pockets.
The girl looked at me with awe. "What do you mean by over your
I showed her how it was done. We were silent for a while. Then the girl
said, "What grade are you in?"
"So am I." She beamed.
We were silent again.
"One of the girls in my class can wiggle her ears. We all envy her,"
"That's nothing! There's a fellow in my class who can spit and hit the
ceiling. He's this big! He can lay you flat with his right hand tied behind
his back. And if he hits a desk top with his fist he can crack it. Only they
won't let him do it. Otherwise, he sure as anything would."
We were silent again. An organ-grinder began playing a mournful song. I
looked around the yard in search of a topic for conversation. The house was
sailing through the sky. A large kite with a rag tail shot over the roof,
dipped, straightened and tugged away as it soared higher still.
"My buckle will never get yellow," I said to my own surprise, "because
it's nickel-plated. If you want to, you can touch it." I unbuckled my belt
and held it out to her. The girl touched the buckle politely. I became
bolder, took off my school cap and showed her where my first and last names
had been written in indelible ink inside the hatband to make sure it would
not get lost. The girl read my name.
"My name's Taya. My full name is Taisia Opilova. What do they call you
"No, Lelya. Glad to know you."
"Lelya? That's a girl's name!"
"It is not. Lola is."
We thus became acquainted.
PLAYING STICKBALL IN THE LILACS
From then on T, a free son of Schwambrania, climbed down the roof into
lilac valley each day. Taya Opilova was" fated to become the Eve of
Schwabrania. Oska was dead set against it. He said he wouldn't take a girl
into the game for all the pastries in the world. True enough, there had not
been a single girl Schwambrania until then. I tried to make him understand
that in any s respecting book fair maidens were always kidnapped and
rescued, and that r they could be kidnapped and rescued in Schwambrania,
too. Besides, I ha wonderful name for the first Schwambranian girl: Countess
Cascara Sagrada, daughter of Count Cascara Barbe. I had borrowed the name
from a back cove Niva and recalled that it had been described as "mild and
gentle". Oska fin had to agree, and so, little by little, I began
introducing Cascara, meaning Taya the customs and ways of Schwambrania. At
first she couldn't understand what was all about, but then gradually came to
know the history and geography of Big Tooth Continent. She was sworn to
I finally conquered her heart when I put on my cardboard epaulettes and
said I was going off to war with Piliguinia and would bring her back a
I returned from my Piliguinian campaign the following day and galloped
along the roof, carrying my trophies: two cream-filled pastries. One for her
and one me. Oska had had a bite of mine.
I jumped off the wall and froze in my tracks. A strange boy dressed in
uniform of the Cadet School was walking up and down in the garden with Taya.
He was much older and taller than I. He had real shoulder straps, a real
bayonet in a holster, and was terribly stuck-up.
"Ah!" he said at the sight of me. "Is this your Schwambroman?"
Taya had told him all about it.
"Look here, you civilian boy," the cadet said in a very superior tone
"How could you have given a young lady such a disgusting name? You know
what Cascara Sagrada is? It's, pardon the expression, constipation pills.
You filthy civvy! Anybody can tell you're a doctor's sonny-boy."
This was the last straw.
"Once a cadet always a cad!" I shouted and scrambled up the roof. I
threw half of the pastry at the cadet and then ate the other pastry and a
I stretched out on the roof. I was very upset by what had happened. The
starling on duty was whistling overhead. I sailed away to Schwambrania,
proud and lonely, and the day, like a great ship, sailed into evening. The
sunset raised its red oars, and shadows as pointed as the tips of an anchor
fell upon the yard.
"To hell with everything!" I said.
But this did not apply to Schwambrania.
THE FIRST SCHWAMBRANIAN GIRL
A battle was raging in the house. Brother was set against brother. The
disposition of warring forces was as follows: Schwambrania was in Papa's
consulting office and Piliguinia was in the dining-room. The parlour was the
battle-field. The stockade for prisoners of war was in the dark foyer.
Naturally, as the elder brother, I was a Schwambranian. I was
advancing, protected by the armchair and a clump of potted rubber plants and
rhododendrons. My brother Oska had dug in behind the Piliguinian threshold
of the dining-room. He was shouting:
"Bang! Zing! Zing! I shot you dead twice, but you keep on crawling. I
"No, not fins! It's called a truce! And anyway, you didn't shoot me
dead, you just grazed me through."
Klavdia, a girl from next door, was pining away in the foyer, that is
the stockade. She had been invited over especially to be a prisoner-of-war
and was, in turn, a Schwambranian or a Piliguinian Army nurse.
"Will you let me out of prisoner-of-war soon?" she said timidly, for
she had become very bored sitting around in the dark doing nothing.
"Not yet!" I shouted. "Our glorious forces have completed an orderly
retreat to pre-established positions under the overwhelming pressure of
enemy forces." I had borrowed the sentence from the newspapers. The daily
frontline dispatches were full of fine-sounding, vague expressions which
were used to conceal various military setbacks, losses, defeats and routs,
and all together they went under the grand heading of news from the "theatre
of military operations".
The glossy pictures in Niva portrayed fine, well groomed troops
ceremoniously carrying on a picturesque war. The generals' impressive
shoulders bore gilded clusters of epaulettes. Their tunics heaved with
galaxies of glittering medals. The brave Cossack hero Kuzma Kriuchkov was
shown accomplishing his great feat over and over again on pictures in
calendars, on cigarette boxes, post cards and candy boxes. He was shown
defeating a troop, a squadron, a whole regiment of Germans, and always with
a lock of hair curling out from under his rakishly tilted cap. Each school
service ended with a special prayer for the truly Christian troops. We
schoolboys wore patriotic tricoloured scarfs as we sold little Allied flags
in the streets, putting the coppers in collection boxes and proudly saluting
the trim officers.
The war eclipsed everything. "Louder the victory march! We are
victorious, and the enemy is on the run!" There were notices and manifestoes
everywhere. "The original has been signed by His Imperial Majesty." The war,
that great, beautiful, magnificent war, had captured our minds, our
conversation, our dreams, our games.
The only game we played was war.
The truce had ended. My troops were battling at the approaches to the
foyer. Annushka, who was a neutral, suddenly appeared on the battle-field,
demanding that Klavdia be released immediately, because her mother was
waiting for her in the kitchen.
We all said "fins", which meant a truce, and ran to the kitchen.
Klavdia mother, who was our neighbour's cook, always had a puffy, swollen
face. She was seated at the kitchen table. A grey envelope was lying in
front of her. She greeted us and picked it up gingerly, saying, "It's a
letter from your brother, Klavdia." He voice sounded strangely anxious. "Ask
the young man to read it to us. Dear Lon I hope he's all right."
I saw the sacred postmark: "From the Army in the Field". I accepted the
envelope solemnly. My fingertips filled with awe and excitement. It was a
letter from over there! A letter from the front lines! "March along, my
friends, to war, hussar bold and daring!"
I began reading in a bright, excited voice: "Dear Mother, I'm not going
to send this letter myself, because I was badly wounded, and my right arm
was amputate above the elbow...."
I was thunderstruck, I could not continue. Klavdia's mother screamed. H
dishevelled head fell upon the table top and she sobbed loudly. I wanted
very much to console her somehow, and myself, too, for I felt that the
reputation of t war had been badly damaged by this close scrape with gore,
and so I said hesitantly:
"He'll probably be decorated for this. Maybe he'll get a silver medal.
May he'll even get a St. George Cross."
Somehow, I felt I had not said the right thing.
THE THEATRE OF MILITARY OPERATIONS
A dull algebra lesson was in progress. Our math teacher was sick, and
his classes had been taken over temporarily by the dullest of all possible
excise tax clerks w was dodging the draft. His name was Gennady Alexeyevich
Samlykov, and soon nicknamed him Old Nag.
Soldiers of the 214th Regiment were drilling on the square outside the
school. Their marching songs and the shouted commands of their officers
drifted through the open windows, confusing the algebraic formulas. "Hey,
Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, Madrid and Oporto!" they sang. "Line up! Count off!"
"Curly, curly, curly ringlets, little Curlylocks, you're mine!"
"Hup-two-three-four! Left! Keep your line straight!" "Come when the bugle
calls, brave men to battle!" "Watch your feet! Where the hell d'you think
you are? Stand up straight!"
This loud, rending "hooray" burst forth from their gaping mouths and
straining throats in a hoarse, salivery roar. Their bayonets sunk into the
dummy. Twisted strands of straw burst from the torn sack of a belly.
"Who's that looking out the window? Repeat what I just said,
Huge Martynenko, alias Hefty, tore his eyes from the window and
lumbered to his feet.
"Well, what did I just say?" Old Nag persisted. "So you don't know?
Well, what is the squared sum of two cathetuses?"
"It's ... uh...." Hefty mumbled and suddenly winked at us and said:
"It's right face ... count off ... plus doubled ranks."
We all burst out laughing.
"You get an T for that! Go stand by the wall!"
"Yes, Sir!" Hefty snapped and did a military turn at the wall. We all
grinned. Our penpoints screeched.
"Leave the room immediately, Martynenko!"
"Parade step ... eyes on the lectern ... down the hall... march!" Hefty
"This is abominable!" Old Nag shouted as he jumped to his feet. "I'll
put your name down in the Ledger! You'll be left after school!"
"Curly locks, curly locks...." a snatch of song drifted in through the
window. "What the hell do you think you're doing? You're to stand at
attention with a full pack for three hours.... Curly locks, curly locks...."
Cr-rack! went something inside the wood-burning stove behind the
blackboard. Cr-rack! Bang-bang! One of the boys, knowing Old Nag's fear of
guns and shooting, had put some cartridges inside the tiled stove. The
teacher blanched as acrid fumes seeped into the room. He ran behind the
blackboard, stepping on what seemed to be a crumpled piece of paper. The
boys held their breath. Bang! The paper exploded, making Old Nag jump a yard
off the floor. No sooner had the sole of his other shoe come down again than
it caused another explosion. The boys, convulsed with silent laughter, began
sliding off their seats to disappear under their desks. The enraged teacher
turned to face the class and saw no one. Not a soul. We shook from the
laughter under our desks.
"Scoundrels!" Old Nag screamed. "I'll put you all down!" He tiptoed
cautiously towards the lectern. The soles of his shoes were smoking. He
picked up his snuff box, a true friend in hard times, but since he had
unwisely left it on the windowsill in the corridor for a moment before the
lesson had begun, we had long since added a pinch of gun-powder and pepper
Old Nag's quivering nostrils drew in the fiendish mixture. For a moment
he just stood there. His mouth was wide open and his eyes seemed to be
popping out of his head. Then a terrible, earth-shattering sneeze shook his
Once again the classroom became inhabited. Our laughter made our desks
shake. Then Hefty raised his hand and said, "Second gun! Fire!"
"Ah-ah-choo!" the unfortunate Old Nag compiled.
The door opened unexpectedly. We rose, as the principal entered. He had
been attracted by the sound of the shooting, our ribald laughter and the
teacher's hysterical sneezing.
"What's going on here?" His voice was steely as he took in Old Nag's
crimson face and the angelic countenances of the rows of boys.
"They.... Oh! Ah!" Old Nag attempted to speak. "Pshoo! Ah!"
At this point the monitor decided to intercede. "He just keeps on
"I haven't asked you for an explanation!" The truth of the matter began
to dawn on him. "Insufferable wretches! Come to my office, Gennady
Old Nag stumbled along after the principal, sneezing all the way.
He did not return to the classroom.
We had got rid of Old Nag for good.
A VIEW OF THE WAR FROM THE WINDOW
"There's a smell of gunpowder in the air!" the grown-ups were saying
and shaking their heads.
The smell of gunpowder snaked through the classrooms, making them
inflammable. Every desk became a powder magazine, an arsenal and storeroom.
Each and every day there were new entries in the Deportment Ledger.
"The school inspector has taken from Vitaly Talianov, a fourth-grade
pupil who attempted to run off to war and was apprehended at the pier, a
Smith and Wesson revolver and bullets, and a tea kettle he stole from the
ragman, who has identified it. His parents have been notified.
Nikolai Shcherbinin, a second-grade pupil, was found to have concealed
in his desk: one officer's shoulder strap, a sword knot, a package of
gunpowder and a hollow metal tube of unknown purpose. His satchel contained:
a piece of a bayonet, a toy revolver, one spur, a soldier's tobacco pouch, a
cockade, a beanshooter and a hand grenade (discharged). He has been left
after school twice for three hours each time.
"Terenti Marshutin, a fifth-grade pupil, fired off a home-made gun
during the lesson, breaking a window and fouling the air. He insists it was
an accident. He has been expelled for a week."
The boys rattled when they walked, for the pockets of each were full of
cartridge shells. We collected them on the firing range beyond the cemetery.
The wind played tick-tack-toe among the graves. The rabbit-ears of the
windmills protruded from behind the hill. An Army camp languished on the
small plain. The 214th Infantry Regiment was displaced in wooden barracks
there. The wind carried the smell of cabbage soup, cheap tobacco, boots, and
other glorious aromas of the army's rear guard.
The pupils of the Pokrovsk Boys School and the privates of the 214th
Infantry Regiment had established firm business ties and were carrying on a
brisk trade. We passed our sandwiches, cucumbers, apples and various other
civilian dainties through the barbed-wire fence of the camp, and in return
received such coveted items of army life as empty magazines, buckles,
cockades and torn shoulder straps. Officer's shoulder straps were especially
prized. Sidor Dolbanov, an N.C.O., traded me a tar-specked lieutenant's
shoulder strap for two ham sandwiches, a piece of chocolate and five of my
father's Triumph cigarettes.
"I'm giving you this real cheap," he said during the transaction. "I'm
only doing it because you're a friend of mine. The way I see it, you
schoolboys are doing your hitch just like us. They make you wear uniforms
and drill, too. Right?"
Sidor Dolbanov was a great one for discoursing on education. "Except
that military science takes a lot of brains, so's you can't compare it to
your schooling," he philosophised as he wolfed down our sandwiches. "Yes,
sir, this isn't 'rithmetic or algebra, or any such like. You tell me this if
you're so smart: how many men are there in a regiment?"
"We didn't study that yet," I said, feeling very embarrassed and not
knowing the answer.
"That's what I mean. What about your class commander, boys? Is he a
mean old bitch?"
"He's very strict. He'll make you stand by the wall, put your name down
in the Black Book or keep you hours after school for nothing at all."
"What a louse! Which makes him just like our company commander."
"Do you have a company supervisor, too?"
"No, he's no supervisor, he's a bitch of a commander. He's hell on
wheels, that's him, Lieutenant Gennady Alexeyevich Samlykov."" "Old Nag!" I
The older boys of. our school were strolling down Breshka Street with
some junior lieutenants. Although it was against school rules, an exception
had been made for our glorious Army officers. Soldiers saluted them. The
older schoolgirls who helped roll bandages made eyes at them. We were green
One day the school inspector entered our classroom during a lesson. His
beard looked kindly and reverential,
"The first contingent of wounded from the front lines has just arrived.
We are going to welcome them. You there, in the back rows! I'm talking to
you! Tutin! I'll leave you after school for an hour, you dummox! Now, as I
was saying, the entire school will go out to welcome our glorious soldiers
who ... ah ... have suffered so, defending the tsar and the Christian faith.
In a word, line up in pairs! And I want you to behave properly outside, you
cutthroats, savages, jailbirds! Anyone who doesn't will be sorry he was ever
The streets were crowded and ablaze with tricoloured flags. The wounded
were being transported, one man to a vehicle, in the decked-out carriages
belonging to the town's wealthy citizens, with an aristocratic lady from the
local philanthropic society dressed as an Army nurse supporting him. The
procession resembled a wedding train. Policemen saluted it.
The wounded were put up in a new dispensary housed in a former primary
school. The flustered ladies were in charge there. A gala concert was to be
held in one of the large wards. The wounded men, freshly-shaven, washed,
perfumed, surrounded by pillows and boxes of candy, sat in embarrassed
silence, listening to the bombastic speeches of the town fathers. Some of
the men were holding crutches that had been adorned with bows.
Shvetsov, a fourth-grade boy, recited a poem entitled "Belgian
children". Six second-grade boys were lined up behind him to accompany his
recital with various tableaux. The Zemstvo inspector's daughter played "The
Skylark" by Glinka on the piano. The wounded fidgeted and seemed
uncomfortable. The last to perform was the town druggist, an amateur poet
and tenor. Then a tall young blond soldier rose from one of the cots and
cleared his throat shyly.
"Speech! Speech!" everyone shouted, applauding loudly.
When the noise finally died down, the soldier said, "I'd like to
say.... Doctor, Sir, and ladies and gentlemen, and nurses, and everybody
else. Uh, we're very grateful to you for all this, for everything, but we'd
rather, I mean, we've been travelling for three days and three nights, and
we haven't had any sleep, and that's what we really need."
Soldiers were being flogged in the barracks. One officer called another
an Armenian mug at the Officer's Club, and the insulted man shot the
offender point-blank, killing him on the spot. By now the wounded were being
brought in any which way and dumped wherever there was available space.
Then our forces took Peremyshl. A crowd of shopkeepers, shady
characters from the suburbs and a few officials walked through the streets
with a portrait of the tsar like an icon at the head of the column. They
infected the air with howling tricoloured flutterings and the sour stench of
raw liquor. It was quite as if some celebration were being warmed up over a
Once again the school inspector went from classroom to classroom
carrying his solemn, parted, victorious beard as majestically as if it were
We poured out onto the porch of the school building to greet the
demonstrators and, at a signal from the principal, we cheered. There was
something disgusting about the bellowing crowd of demonstrators. It seemed
that they needed but a little push to start rioting and killing. We felt as
if a mindless, suffocating, insurmountable force was engulfing us. It was
like being on the bottom of a pile during a free-for-all, squashed under a
great, crushing, suffocating weight, unable to expand your lungs to cry out.
However, it all ended without incident, not counting a call that night
to my father, to save the life of a "patriot" who had got drunk on wood
The demonstration made an indelible impression on Oska, that great
confuser of things, imitator and day-dreamer, who always managed to find a
new meaning for each object, seeing in each its second soul. His great
passion at the time was an old toilet seat. First, he stuck a samovar pipe
through the hole and made believe it was a Maxim machine-gun. Then he put
the toilet seat on his hobby horse, and it served as a yoke. Though this was
not exactly in the best of taste, still, it was permissible. However, the
day after the demonstration Oska organized a Schwambranian demonstration in
the yard, and this one was truly blasphemous. Klavdia had attached someone's
long drawers with ties at the ankles to a floor brush to serve as a
gonfalon. Oska carried the ill-fated toilet seat, which now served as a
frame for the portrait of the tsar, Nicholas II, Ruler of all Russia, which
he had cut out of a magazine.
The indignant janitor handed the demonstrators over to Papa and
threatened to inform the police, but was quickly pacified by a tip.
"Children are very sensitive to the spirit of the times," the grown-ups
The spirit of the times, an offensive spirit, seeped into everything.
THE CLASS COMMANDER AND THE COMPANY SUPERVISOR
That winter the boys of our school and the girls of the Girls School
were all taken to the Army camp to be shown a mock battle. It was a cold,
A colonel explained the battle to the ladies of the philanthropic
society. The ladies warmed their hands in their muffs and oh-ed and ah-ed,
and whenever a shot was fired they clapped their hands to their ears.
However, the battle was very unimpressive and certainly did not resemble the
battle scenes pictured in Niva. Black shapes were crawling across the field.
Fires dotted the scene, blending to produce a smokescreen. Then other fires
were lit. We were told these were signal fires.
From a distance the cross-firing, as it advanced along the lines,
sounded like a pennant flapping in the wind. The stench of the trenches was
"They're attacking," the colonel said.
The dark shapes were running and shouting "Hooray!" very
"The battle is over," the colonel said.
"Which side won?" the spectators inquired, having understood nothing.
The colonel was silent for a moment and then said: "That side." Then he
looked up and warned everyone: "The bomb-thrower is about to go into
Indeed, it did and very loudly at that. The ladies became frightened,
the cabbies' horses bolted, and the cabbies cursed in the direction of the
The battle was over.
The company that had taken part in the action passed in formation, led
by a sly-looking junior lieutenant. When they came abreast of us the
soldiers burst into a dirty song with a practiced air, some of them
whistling shrilly and straining their cold throats.
The girls exchanged glances. The boys roared. One of the teachers
cleared his throat. The fat headmistress of the Girls School became
"Lieutenant!" the colonel shouted. "What's going on? Stop the singing."
Bringing up the rear, stumbling in boots that were much too large and
becoming entangled in the long flaps of his great-coat was a small, puny
soldier. He tried to keep in step, hopping and skipping to keep up, but
still fell behind. The boys recognized him. He was the father of one of the
"Hey, look at that dopey soldier! His son's in the third grade. There
Everyone laughed. The little man picked up the flaps of his greatcoat
and set off at a trot as he tried to catch up with his company. His head
bobbed at the end of his long neck. His son stood on the sidelines, staring
at the ground. His face was covered with red blotches.
Oska was waiting for me impatiently when I got home, for he wanted to
hear all about the battle.
"Was there a lot of shooting?"
"I never knew war wasn't one bit nice at all," I replied.
The year was drawing to a close. It was vacation time. On December 31,
1916, our parents went to a New Year's party. Before leaving. Mamma
explained to us at length that "New Year's is not a children's party at all,
and you must go to bed at the usual time".
Oska tooted a sailing signal and sailed off to Schwambrania for the
night. Meanwhile, my friend and classmate Grisha Fedorov came to visit me.
We cracked nuts and played lotto for a while. Then, having nothing else to
do, we went fishing in Papa's fishbowl. Finally, we got bored of this, too,
turned off the light, sat down by the window and, after warming the pane
with our breath, made little holes on the frozen glass and looked out into
The moon was shining, and dull blue shadows lay across the snow. The
air was full of powdery, brilliant glitter. The street seemed magnificent.
"Let's go for a walk," Grisha said.
However, it was against school rules to be seen out on the street after
seven o'clock in December. Our supervisor Seize'em would go out hunting
schoolboys each night, stomping up and down the streets to find them.
I immediately imagined Seize'em pouncing on us from behind some corner,
his gold eagle-crested buttons glittering as he shouted:
"Silence! What's your name? Stand up straight!"
Such an encounter was nothing to look forward to. It meant a poor mark
for deportment and being left behind in an empty classroom for four hours
after school. Perhaps there would even be something else in store as a New
Year's surprise. Seize'em was a great one for such things.
"Don't worry, he's probably at some New Year's party himself," Grisha
"He's probably stuffing himself someplace."
It didn't take much coaxing for me to give in. We put on our overcoats
and dashed out.
The town's small hotel and the Vesuvius Restaurant were both located
not far from our house. That evening the Vesuvius seemed to be erupting.
Streams of light poured forth from the windows, while the earth trembled
from the dancing within.
At the hitching post outside the hotel we saw an elegant high sleigh
with a velvet seat and a fox-lined lap rug. The runners were of figured
iron. A large dappled grey horse was harnessed to the curved lacquered
shafts. It was Gambit, the famous pacer and the best trotter in town. We had
no trouble recognizing both the horse and the carriage, for they belonged to
Karl Zwanzig, a very wealthy man.
At that moment I had a wild idea.
"You know what, Grisha?" I said, turning cold at my own boldness.
"Let's go for a ride. Zwanzig won't be ready to leave for a long time. We'll
just ride as far as there and around the church, and back again. I know how
I didn't have to say it twice, A minute later we had unhitched Gambit,
climbed up onto the high velvet seat and wrapped the furry rug around our
I picked up the firm, heavy reins, clicked my tongue as cabbies did,
cleared my throat and said in a deep voice: "Giddiyap! Go on, boy!"
Gambit turned, rolled a large eye at me and looked away. I even
imagined he had shrugged contemptuously, if horses did such things.
"I bet he only understands German," Grisha said. Then he shouted: "Hey!
This made no impression on Gambit, either. Finally, I smacked him hard
with the twisted reins. The very same second I was thrown back. If not for
Grisha, who caught me by the belt, I would have sailed right out of the
sleigh. Gambit surged forward and was off. He hadn't bolted. He was trotting
swiftly as he always did, with me grasping the reins tightly as we sped
along the deserted street. What a shame that none of our friends were there
to see us!
"Let's call for Atlantis. He lives right around that corner. We still
have plenty of time," I said and tugged at the left rein. Gambit turned the
corner obediently. There was Atlantis' house.
"Hey, there! Whoa!"
But Gambit did not stop. No matter how hard I pulled at the reins, the
pacer paid no attention to me. He kept on trotting swiftly. Atlantis' house
was soon left far behind.
"Let's not call for him, Grisha. He's not much fun. Let's call for
Labanda instead. He lives over there." I had wound the reins around my hand
in advance and now braced my feet against the front board.
But Gambit did not stop outside Labanda's house either. I was beginning
"Listen, Grisha, do you know what to do to make him stop?"
"Whoa! Stop!" he shouted as loudly as he could. We pulled on the reins
However, the powerful pacer paid no attention to our shouts or to the
pull of the reins. He kept trotting faster and faster, racing us along the
"He doesn't understand Russian!" Grisha said in a scared voice. "And we
don't know what 'whoa' is in German. Nobody ever taught us that. You know,
he'll just keep on going. We can't stop him."
"We don't want to ride any more! Stop!" we both shouted.
But Gambit kept on stubbornly.
I tried to recall everything I knew about talking to horses and
everything I had ever read about it.
"Whoa! Stop, boy! Come on, dove!"
But, as ill luck would have it, I kept thinking of expressions the
likes of which could only be found in some saga, things such as: "0, you
wolf's repast, 0, you sack of grass" or, worse still, expressions to make a
horse go faster: "Git up!... Let's see some life in you!... Here we go!"
Having used up my vocabulary of horse words, I tried some camel words.
"Tratrr, tratrr... chok, chok!" I shouted, imitating the camel drivers.
But Gambit did not understand camel talk.
"Tsob-tsobeh, tsob-tsobeh!" I croaked, recalling the Ukrainian ox-cart
That didn't help either.
The bell on Trinity Church began to strike One, two, three times.... It
struck twelve times.
That meant we had ridden into the New Year. Were we just going to go on
driving down the streets like that for the rest of our natural lives? When
would the confounded horse stop?
The moon shone down on us mysteriously. The stillness of the empty
streets, where one year had just ended and another had just begun, seeked
menacing. Were we doomed to riding in this sleigh forever?
I had become panic-stricken.
Suddenly, two rows of highly-polished brass buttons glinted in the
moonlight, appearing from around a corner. It was Seize'em. Gambit was
racing straight at him.
I dropped the reins in terror.
"Silence! What's all the noise about? What's your name? Stand still,
stupid!" Seize'em shrilled.
Then a miracle happened.
Gambit froze in his tracks.
We tumbled out of the sleigh, raced around the horse and, drawing
abreast of the supervisor, tipped our caps politely, grasping the patent
leather visors with our fingertips to bare our unruly heads as we bowed low
to Seize'em, saying: "Good evening, Seize ... Caesar Karpovich!" in unison.
"Happy New Year, Caesar Karpovich!"
Seize'em drew his pince-nez slowly from a case which he took out of his
pocket and settled the lenses on the bridge of his nose.
"Aha!" he beamed. "Two friends. I recognize you! Lovely, just lovely!
Excellent! Magnificent! Now we'll just write both your names down." At this
he took his famous notebook from the inner pocket of his overcoat. "We'll
write down both names. First one, then the other, and they'll both be left
after school as soon as vacation ends. Four hours each, and no dinner. Four
hours for one, and four hours for the other. Happy New Year, children!"
Then Seize'em stared at the sleigh. "One moment, boys. Have you Herr
Zwanzig's permission to take his sleigh? Hm?"
We interrupted each other in our haste to assure him that Herr Zwanzig
had actually asked us to take Gambit for a run to warm him up a bit.
"Excellent," he murmured. "We'll all go back together now and see
whether you are telling the truth or not. Come."
The very notion of finding ourselves in the fiendish sleigh again was
so terrible that we suggested he ride alone, promising to walk along beside
The unsuspecting supervisor clambered up onto the high seat. He tucked
the luxurious fur rug around his legs, picked up the reins, yanked them and
clicked his tongue. When this had no effect, he let the reins fall lightly
on Gambit's bad that very moment we were tossed aside. Clumps of snow flew
into our faces. When we had brushed the snow from our eyes and shaken the
snow off our clothes the careening sleigh was just disappearing around a
bend, with our unfortunate supervisor hanging on for dear life and bellowing
Meanwhile, Herr Karl Zwanzig, Gambit's owner, came pounding arc another
corner. His coat was unbuttoned and his tie was askew. He was roaring the
top of his voice: "Help! Morder! Poleez! Shtop dem!"
We could hear a police whistle in the distance.
We never tried to find out how it all ended. Seize'em never said a word
of the night's adventure when we returned to school after our vacation.
Thus did the New Year begin. It was now 1917.
WE RECEIVE MILITARY TRAINING
Mamma and Papa had just gone visiting. The front door slammed. The
draught made the doors fly open all through the house. We heard Annushka
turn the light off in the parlour. Then she went back to the kitchen. There
was an eeriness in the quiet that settled on the house. The clock in the
dining room ticked loudly. The wind rattled the windows. I sat down at the
table and pretended to be doing homework. Oska was drawing steamships. There
were very many of them, each had smoke pouring from its stacks. I took his
red-and-blue pencil and be colouring the pronouns in my Latin book, making
all the vowels red and all consonants blue. Suddenly Oska said,
"How do people know that the Earth is round?"
I knew the answer to that question, because it was on the first page of
geography book, and I went into a long explanation about a ship sailing far.
away until it disappeared completely beyond the horizon. Since you couldn't
sit any longer, it meant the Earth was round.
My explanation did not satisfy him.
"Maybe the ship sank? Huh? Maybe it just sank."
"Don't bother me. Can't you see I'm doing my homework?" I continued
colouring the pronouns.
All was silence again.
"I know how people know the Earth's round."
"I'm glad you do."
"Well, I do! It's because the globe is round. There!"
"You're a round-headed ninny, that's what."
Oska pouted. Trouble was brewing. Just then the telephone rang in our
fat consulting room. We raced to be the first to get there. The office was
dark, deserted and scary. I turned on the light. The room immediately
changed its appear;
like a developed negative. The windows had been light, but now they
became dark. The panes had been black, and now they were white. Most
important, however, office no longer frightened us. I picked up the receiver
and spoke in Papa's sc voice:
It was our favourite Uncle Lyosha, phoning from Saratov. He had not
been us in ages. Mamma had told us that he had gone very far away, but Oska
had eavesdropped and learned that, strangely, he had been put in prison for
against the tsar and the war. Now he had apparently been released. That was
"When are you coming to see us?" we shouted into the phone.
"I will soon," he replied, and I could hear him chuckle. "I want you
Mamma and Papa that I phoned and said there's been a revolution in R There's
a Provisional Government now. The tsar's abdicated. Repeat what I he said to
me, and he sounded excited.
"How did it happen?" I shouted.
"You're too little to understand."
"No, I'm not! Not if you tell me. I'm in the third grade."
And so our uncle, speaking from Saratov on the other side of the Volga,
went on hurriedly to explain the meaning of the war, the revolution,
equality and fraternity to me.
"Are you all through speaking?" a voice interrupted. "Your time is up."
Click! We were disconnected. I stood there, feeling as if I had
suddenly become about three years older, feeling that I was about to burst
I glanced at Oska. He seemed terribly embarrassed. "Shame on you!
What's the use of you knowing the Earth's round?"
"I held in all the time you were talking. It was an accident."
I ran to the kitchen. Annushka had a visitor. He was a wounded soldier
she knew, a man who always looked sullen. There was a small silver St.
George Cross on his chest. I shouted excitedly:
"Annushka! First of all, there's been a revolution, and freedom, and no
more tsar! And, secondly, Oska wet his pants. Find him another pair." I
related everything my uncle had just told me. Then Annushka's soldier-friend
stood up. His left arm was in a sling. He embraced me with his right arm. I
was stunned. He squeezed me hard as he said:
"That's the best piece of news you could have brought us! I can't even
believe it." Then he shook his big fist at someone outside the window and
added, "You'll get what's coming to you now! Our time's come!"
I looked at the window, but saw no one. Meanwhile, the soldier was
"Pardon me, young man, but this is the best news I've ever heard.
Why.... Good Lord.... Thanks a million!" He sounded as if there was a lump
in his throat.
I went to the dining-room, got up on a chair and knocked on the brass
cover of the stove's air duct. It served as a direct line to Anna and Vera
Zhivilsky who lived upstairs and whose stove was directly above ours. If I
knocked on the cover of our duct they could hear me. I could hear Anna's
voice in the duct.
"Hello, Anna! I have some great news! There's been a revolution, and
there's a soldier here right now."
"You don't know what I have! Guess."
"Has there been another revolution someplace?"
"No! My godmother gave me a set of doll dishes, and it even has a
I slammed down the receiver... that is, I slammed the brass lid shut.
No, they would never understand. I put on my fur hat and coat quickly and
ran to my friend next door. My Latin homework would have to be done some
SEIZE'EM CHASES THE MOON, OR WHAT THE LEDGER SAID OF THIS
There was a smell of spring in the air. The sky was studded with stars
that glittered like the buttons on the school inspector's tunic. I dashed
down the deserted street. The moon ran along beside me like a dog, stopping
at each and every telegraph pole. The houses all had their shutters closed
tight. How could people be sleeping at a time like this? After there had
been a revolution! I felt like shouting a the top of my voice.
Two rows of gleaming brass buttons were floating towards us. It was
Seize'em The faithful moon and I turned and fled. The moon hid behind the
poles and fences, while I tried to keep well within the shadows they cast.
Alas! He had spotted me.
"Stop! Stop, you scoundrel! Police!" he shrilled. But he had not called
my name, and that meant he had not recognized me. I kept on running. The
moon and Seize'em followed close behind. He was my enemy, but the moon was
It darted behind a roof, the better to conceal me.
I was mistaken. Seize'em had recognized me. The next day the following
entry was made on my page in the Deportment Ledger:
"Seen by the inspector out on the street after 7 p.m. Did not stop
running despite having been ordered to."
The moon was not mentioned.
ALL ABOUT THE ROUND GLOBE, IMPORTANT NEWS AND A SMALL SEA
Oska and I escorted Annushka and her soldier-friend into the parlour an
marched up and down, with Annushka's red kerchief tied to Papa's walking
stick The soldier shouldered Oska's toy rifle and brandished it as we all
Up and down the mountains
Did a schoolboy go,
Shouting, "Down with that old tsar!"
His red flag waving so.
There was a wonderful smell of polished army boots in the parlour. My
brother and I and the soldier had become the best of friends. He let each of
us lick the paper of his home-rolled cigarette.
Oska fidgeted as he sat on the soldier's lap. Finally, he said: "Who's
strongest, a whale or an elephant? What if they have a fight? Which one'll
"I don't know. Tell me."
"I don't know, either. And Papa doesn't know, and Uncle doesn't know.
We discussed the whale and elephant problem for a while. The soldier
and I said the elephant would win, and just to be spiteful, Annushka said
the whale would. Then the soldier went over to the piano, sat down on the
stool and tried to sing The Marseillaise, accompanying himself by hitting
one single note.
Annushka finally realized it was way past our bedtime.
"At ease!" the soldier said and we tramped off to bed.
Moonbeams had marked the floor of our room off into hopscotch squares.
We might actually have played in them. But we were lying in our beds,
talking about the revolution. I told Oska whatever I had learned from our
uncle and also what I had read in the newspapers about the war, the workers,
the tsar and the pogroms.
Suddenly Oska said, "What's a Jew, Lelya?"
"It's a kind of people. There are all kinds. Like Russians, Americans
and Chinese. And Germans, and Frenchmen. And there are Jews, too."
"Are we Jews? For real, or for make-believe? Give me your word of
honour that we're Jews."
"My word of honour we are."
Oska was stunned by this discovery. He tossed about for quite some
time. I was half-asleep when he whispered, trying not to wake me, "Lelya!"
"Is Mamma a Jew, too?"
"Yes. Go to sleep."
As I drifted off to sleep I imagined myself speaking to the Latin
teacher the next day and saying: "We've had enough of the old regime and
being made to line up along the walls. You have no right to do that any
Papa and Mamma returned late that night. I woke up. As is often the
case when people return late from visiting friends or the theatre, they were
tired and irritable.
"That was an excellent cake," Papa was saying. "We never have anything
like it. I wonder where all the money goes?"
I could hear Mamma's surprise at finding the butt of a home-rolled
cigarette in the candle-holder on the piano. Papa went off to gargle. I
heard the tinkle of the glass stopper hitting the water pitcher. Suddenly my
father called my mother in a voice that was unusually loud for such a late
hour. Mamma asked him something. He sounded happy and excited. They had
found my note, telling them the great news. I had written it before going to
bed and had stuck it in the mouth of the pitcher.
They tiptoed into the nursery. Father sat down on the edge of my bed
and put his arm around me. "You spell 'revolution' with an 'o', not an 'a'.
Revolution. Ahh!" he said and tweaked my nose.
Just then Oska woke up. He had apparently been thinking of his great
discovery all the time, even in his sleep.
"It's late. Go back to sleep."
"Mamma," he repeated, sitting up in bed, "is our cat a Jew, too?"
" 'GOD SAVE THE TSAR...' PASS THIS ON"
The next morning Annushka woke Oska and me up by singing: "Arise, ye
workingmen, arise! Time for school!"
The workingmen (Oska and I) jumped out of bed. During breakfast I
remembered the Latin pronouns I should have learned by heart: hie, haec,
Oska and I left the house together. It was warm. It was thawing. The
cabbies' horses shook their feedbags. Oska, as usual, thought they were
nodding to him. He was a very polite boy, and so he stopped beside each and
every horse, nodded to it and said,
"Good morning, horsie!"
The horses said nothing. The cabbies, who knew Oska by now, said good
morning for them. One horse was drinking from a bucket.
"Do you give him cocoa, too?" Oska wanted to know.
I dashed off to school. Nobody knew a thing yet. I would be the first
to tell them. I whipped off my coat, burst into the classroom and shouted as
I swung my satchel: "Fellows! The tsar's been overthrowed!"
There was a moment of stunned silence.
Seize'em whom I had not noticed, had a fit of coughing and turned red
in the face. He began shouting: "Are you crazy? I'll see to you later!
Hurry! Time for chapel! Line up in pairs."
But the boys surrounded me. They jostled each other and snowed me under
The corridor rang from the sound of marching feet. The boys were being
lined up for morning prayers.
The principal, as dried-up, stiff and solemn as ever, strode along the
corridor, his well-pressed legs flashing. The brass buckles jangled.
The priest, as black in his cassock as an ink-blot in a penmanship
notebook, put on his chasuble. The service began.
We stood there whispering. The long grey lines were restless. Everyone
seemed to be whispering.
"There's been a revolution in Petrograd."
"Is that up on top of the map, where the Baltic Sea is?"
"Yes. It's a big circle. You'd even find it on a blank map."
"The history teacher said there's a statue of Peter the Great there.
And the houses are bigger than churches."
"I wonder what a revolution's like?"
"It's like the one in 1905 when we were at war with Japan. People
demonstrated in the streets, and they had red flags, and the Cossacks and
the police used their whips on them. And they shot them, too."
"Golly, we're going to have a written test today. I'll probably get
another 'D'. Ah, who cares!"
"Our Father who art in Heaven...."
"That takes care of the tsar. They sure got rid of him. It serves him
right! Why'd he get us into the war?"
"Shut up! D'you think there'll be less homework now?"
"...For ever and ever. Amen."
"What grade's the heir in? I'll bet he never gets anything but 'A's'.
He has nothing to worry about. No teacher'll ever give him a hard time."
"Don't worry. Things'11 change now. He'll get his fair share of 'D's',
too. It's about time he finds out what it's all about!"
"Wait! What's the genitive plural? Never mind, I'll copy it off
A note was being passed along the rows. It had been written by Stepan
Atlantis. (Later the note and Atlantis' name were both entered in the
Ledger.) It read:
"Don't sing 'God save the tsar'. Pass this on."
"Today's chapter is from the Gospel according to Saint Luke."
A shy, freckle-faced third year boy read the parable in a faltering
voice. The inspector prompted him, reading over his shoulder.
The concluding prayer followed: "...for the solace of our parents and
the glory of our Church and Fatherland."
Now, in just another moment! We all tensed. The "ruling classes"
cleared their throats. Harrumph!
The small, long-haired precentor of Trinity Church honked loudly as he
blew his nose. At this a purple vein that resembled a big fat worm bulged in
his scrawny neck. We always expected it to burst. The precentor stuffed his
coloured handkerchief back into his back pocket through the slit in his
worn, shiny frock coat. The tuning fork in his right hand seemed to fly up.
A high metallic "ping" floated above the stuffy corridor. He fixed his
greasy starched collar, extracted his skinny, plucked-looking neck from it,
drew his little eyebrows together and sounded the key in a languorous voice:
We waited. The precentor rose up on tiptoe. His arms swooped up,
raising us in song. He began to sing in a high-pitched, screechy voice that
sounded like a finger being run down a window-pane: "God save the tsar...."
The boys were silent. Two or three hesitant voices joined in. Hefty,
who was standing behind the singers, said, as if he were making a mental
note of it: "Well, well...."
The voices wilted.
Meanwhile, the precentor faced the silent choir and waved his arms
wildly. His sugary voice squawked: "Mighty ... and powerful, reign...."
We could contain our laughter no longer. It rose as a great squall. The
teachers tried hard not to join us. The long corridor resounded with rolling
peals of laughter.
The inspector chuckled. Seize'em's stomach jiggled. The first-year boys
shrieked and giggled. The towering overgrown boys bellowed. The janitor
snickered. "Ha-ha ... ho-ho ... ho-ho-ho ... he-he-he ... ah-ha-ha...."
The one exception was the principal. He was as straight and stiff as
ever, though paler than usual. "Silence!" he said and stamped his foot.
Everything seemed squashed into silence beneath his gleaming boot.
At this point Mitya Lamberg, a senior and leader among the older boys,
shouted: "Quiet! I don't have a very strong voice." And he started singing
I was standing on my desk, making a speech. Two boys appeared from
behind the brick stove at the far end of the room. It was the shopkeeper's
son Baldin and the police officer's son Lizarsky. They always stuck
together, reminding us of a boat and barge. Lizarsky, who was short and
stocky and always swung his arms when he walked, would lead the way, towing
lanky, dark-haired Baldin behind. Lizarsky came over to my desk and grabbed
me by the collar.
"What are you yelling about?" He swung at me.
Stepan Gavrya, alias Atlantis, shouldered Lizarsky away. "What's it to
you, you monarchist?"
"Who asked you? Sock'im, Baldy!
Baldin was eating sunflower seeds indifferently. Someone standing in
back of him sang a ditty:
See the boat that tows a barge,
On the barge are seeds so large,
Baldin shoved his shoulder into Stepan's chest. The usual muttered
"Who do you think you are?"
"That's none of your business."
"Take it easy."
"Who asked you?"
The fight that followed probably burst into flame from the sparks
Baldin saw. A couple of other "monarchists" came to his aid. A second later
it was a free-for-all. Not until the monitor shouted, "Ma'msele's coming!"
did the two sides retreat to their desks. A truce was declared until the
It was a glorious day. It was thawing. Boys were playing mumbly-peg on
the drying walks. A huge spotted pig was scratching its side on a post in
the sun opposite school. Its black spots were like inkblots on a white piece
of blotting paper. We poured out into the yard. There was a sea of sunlight
and not a single policeman in sight.
"Everybody who's against the tsar, over here!" Stepan Gavrya shouted.
"Hey, you monarchists! How many of you are there to a pound when you're
"Whoever's for the tsar, over here! Kill the bums!" Lizarsky screeched.
A moment later the air was full of snowballs flying back and forth. The
battle raged. I was soon hit in the eye with such a hard-packed snowball it
made me dizzy. I saw green and purple stars, but our side was winning. The
"monarchists" had been forced back to the gate.
"Surrender!" we shouted.
They managed to get out of the yard. As we raced after them we fell
into a trap.
A junior high school was located nearby. We had always been at war with
the Juniors. They called us squabs and never missed a chance to pick a fight
with us (nor did we). Our "monarchists", those traitors, had gone over to
the Juniors, who did not know what the fight was all about, but fell on us
"Kill the squabs! Get the pigeons!" the horde whistled and shouted as
"Wait!" Atlantis shouted. "Wait!"
Everyone stopped. He climbed onto a snowdrift, fell through it, climbed
up again and took off his cap. "Listen, fellows, quit fighting. That's
enough. From now on there's going to be, uh, what's the word, Lenny?
Eternity? No. Fraternity! For everyone. And there won't be any more wars.
What a life! We'll all be on the same side from now on."
He was silent for a moment, not knowing what else to say. Then he
jumped down and went over to one of the Juniors. "Give me five," he said and
shook the boy's hand.
"Hooray!" I shouted, surprising myself.
The boys began to cheer and laugh. Soon we were one happy crowd.
Then the schoolbell pealed angrily.
THE SOLDIER SAID: "AT EASE!"
"Roachius is steaming in!" the monitor shouted and rushed back to his
The door opened. We stood up noisily. The Latin teacher entered,
bringing in the quiet of the deserted corridor. He went to the lectern and
twirled his stringy, roach-like moustache until the tips bristled.
His gold pince-nez spurred the bridge of his nose and galloped down the
rows until his eye came to rest on my swollen cheek. "What's that supposed
to be?" His slim finger was pointing at me.
I rose, and in a dull, hopeless voice replied, "I hurt myself. I
slipped and fell."
"So you fell, did you? I see.... Poor child. Well, Mister
Revolutionary, march up to the front of the class. So! It's a real beauty.
Have a look, gentlemen! So. What was the homework for today?"
I stood at attention in front of the lectern and said nothing. Roachius
drummed his fingers on the top of a desk. My silence was anguished. It was
full of despair.
"So. So you don't know. I gather you've had no time to look in to it.
You were too busy making a revolution. Sit down. You've just earned yourself
An indignant murmur filled the classroom. His pen pecked at the ink in
the inkwell, soared over the lectern like a hawk, peered down from above to
find my name in the class journal and....
When the next semester
Does stumble to an end,
The teacher will present me
With another "F', my friend.
The "monarchists" in the last row behind the stove snickered. This was
more than I could bear. I breathed heavily. The boys shuffled their feet.
The teacher's knuckles rapped on the top of the lectern.
"Silence! What's going on here? Do you want to get reported again? We
haven't been strict enough with you!"
When the noise died down I said stubbornly, speaking through my tears,
"But the tsar's been overthrowed anyway."
THE LATIN ENDING OF REVOLUTION
Our last lesson that day was nature study.
This subject was taught by our favourite teacher, Nikita Pavlovich
Kamyshov, a jolly man with a long moustache. His classes were always
interesting and full of fun. He entered the room with a springy step, waved
us down to our seats and said with a smile: "Well, my doves, what a
situation, hm? There's been a revolution. That's really something."
This encouraged us, and we all began shouting at once.
"Tell us about it! Tell us about the tsar!"
"Shush, my doves!" he said, raising a finger. "Shush! Even though
there's been a revolution, there must be silence above all. Fine. Secondly,
though we are now on to the study of the solid-hoofed species, it is still
too early to speak about the tsar."
Stepan Atlantis raised his hand. All eyes were on him. We expected him
to oblige with a practical joke.
"What is it, Gavrya?"
"Someone's smoking in class."
"I've never known you to be a tattletale. All right, who has dared to
smoke in class?"
"The tsar," Stepan said impudently.
"What? Who did you say?"
"The tsar's smoking. Nicholas II."
Indeed! There was a portrait of the tsar on the wall, and someone,
apparently Stepan, had poked a hole in the comer of the tsar's mouth and
stuck a lighted cigarette in the hole.
The tsar was smoking. We all burst out laughing. The teacher joined us.
Suddenly, he became very serious and raised his hand. The laughter died
"Nicholas Romanoff, leave the room!" he said solemnly. And so the tsar
was banished from the classroom.
NICHOLAS ROMANOFF, LEAVE THE CLASSROOM!
There was a high fence between the yard of the Girls School and our
school. There were cracks in the fence. During recess the boys would pass
notes to girls through the cracks. The girls' teachers were always on the
lookout to make sure that we did not come near the fence, but it didn't help
anyway. Close ties existed between the two yards, and they were kept up
through the years.
Once, when the senior boys were having a grand old time, they got hold
of me during recess, swung me and tossed me over the fence into the girls'
yard. The girls flocked around. I was so embarrassed I was ready to cry.
Three minutes later their headmistress got me out of their clutches. She led
me solemnly into our Teachers' Room. My appearance was rather bizarre,
somewhat like that of Kostya Gonchar, the town fool who would deck himself
out in anything gaudy that came to hand. There were flowers in my pocket,
chocolate on my lips, a bright candy wrapper stuck in my belt, a pigeon's
feather in my cockade, a paper devil on a string around my neck, and one
trouser leg was saucily tied with a pink ribbon and bow. All of the boys,
and even the teachers, nearly collapsed at the sight of me. I never went
near the fence again from that day on. That was why, when the boys now
picked me to be a delegate and go over to the girls' side, I remembered the
candy wrapper, the headmistress and the pink bow, and flatly refused.
"Go on!" Stepan Atlantis said. "Why don't you want to? You're the best
man for the job, being as you're so polite. Well, never mind, I'll go
myself, it's easy. After all, somebody has to explain things to them."
And so Stepan climbed over the fence.
We all pressed close to the cracks.
The girls were running around, playing tag, shrieking and laughing
loudly. Stepan jumped down into their yard. "Oh!" they cried, stood still
for a moment and then rushed to the fence like chicks coming to a hen's
clucking. They surrounded him. He saluted and introduced himself as follows:
"Stepan Atlantis." Then he took his hand from his visor for a moment to wipe
his nose. "You can call me Gavrya, but Stepan is better."
"Who does he think he is, climbing over the fence like that? Hooligan!"
a small girl named Foxy said, puckering her lips.
"I'm not a hooligan. I'm a delegate. I'll bet you're all still for the
tsar, aren't you? Ha! What a bunch of ninnies!"
Then Stepan took a deep breath and made a long speech, carefully
choosing his words, for he wanted to sound polite.
"Listen, girls! There was a revolution yesterday, and the tsar was
booted out. I mean, kicked out. None of us sang 'God save the tsar' at
prayers this morning, and we're all for the revolution. I mean, for freedom.
We want to overthrow the principal, too. Are you for freedom or not?"
"What's it like?" Foxy asked.
"That means there won't be a tsar or a principal. They won't make us
stand along the walls any more, and we'll elect whoever we want to be in
charge and tell us what to do. It'll really be great! And we can hang out on
Breshka Street. I mean, walk around there, whenever we want to."
"I guess I'm for freedom," Foxy drawled after some thought. "What about
The girls were now all for freedom.
Stepan Atlantis came to see me late that evening. He came up the back
stairs and called me out the kitchen. He looked very mysterious. Annushka
was wiping the wet glassware. The glasses squeaked loudly. Stepan glanced at
her, as if taking her into his confidence, and said,
"You know, the teachers want to get rid of Fish-Eye. Honest. I heard
them talking about it. I was walking behind the history teacher and
Roachius, and they were saying they'd report him to the committee. 'Pon my
honour. You know what";
Tomorrow, when we go to that whad-diya-call-it, manifestation, when I
raise my hand, we're all going to shout: 'Down with the principal!' Mind you
don't forget I can't stay. I have to see the other fellows, and I'm dead
beat. Well, reservoir!"* He turned at the door and said threateningly: "And
if Lizarsky opens up his trap again, I'll settle his hash. See if I don't."
There was no school the next day. Both the Boys and the Girls schools
had joined the demonstration in town. The principal phoned in to say he
would not be in due to a bad cold ... cough-cough!
Everything was so unusual, so new and so fascinating. We gathered for
the demonstration. The teachers shook the older pupils' hands. They joked
and talked with them as equals. The Clerks' Club band was blaring. The cream
of our local society, portly officials of the Escise Tax Bureau, the tax
inspector, the railroad officials, the thin-legged telegraph operators and
postal clerks were all marching along in broken lines, vainly trying to keep
in step. There were caps, cockades piping, tabs and silver buttons
everywhere. Everyone was carrying a slip of paper with the words of The
Marseillaise printed on it which had been handed out somewhere along the
line. The officials, having donned their spectacles, peered a their slips as
intently as if this was some piece of business correspondence and sang in
The mayor, who had already been deposed, appeared on the porch o the
district council office. He was wearing a pair of rubbers over red-and white
felt boots. The ex-mayor took off his hat and said in a hoarse and solemn
"Ladies and gentlemen! There's been a revolution in Petrograd and all
over Russia. His Imperial Majesty ... that bloody despot... has abdicated.
All power ha gone over to the Provisional Government. Long may it live! I,
for one, say. hooray!"
The crowd cheered.
Atlantis shouted, "And down with the principal!"
But nothing came of this. The principal had not appeared, and Stepan's
A group of teachers and the school inspector were arguing heatedly on
the corner of Breshka Street. Stepan listened to what they were saying. The
inspector was saying ponderously:
"The Committee of the Duma will review our petition this evening, and I
believe the result will be favourable. Then we will show Mister Stomolitsky
the door. The time of callous officialdom is over. Yes, indeed."
Stepan dashed back to where we were. The day suddenly seemed brighter,
and the inspector suddenly seemed such a good fellow you'd think he had
never put Stepan's name down in the Ledger.
More and more people were joining the ranks of the demonstrators.
Workers of the lumber yards, the printshop, the bone-meal factory, mechanics
from the railroad depot, plump bakers, broad-shouldered stevedores, boatmen
and bearded peasants all dressed up in their Sunday best were marching along
The echo of the bass drum pounded against the walls of the granaries.
The cheering rolled along the streets in a great, sweeping wave. The
schoolgirls smiled warmly. The soft breeze fingered the telegraph wires,
strumming The Marseillaise. It was so good, so wonderful and exhilarating to
breathe, to march along in an overcoat that was unbuttoned and flapping,
against all the sacred school rules.
THE PRINCIPAL'S RUBBERS
The clock in the vestibule had long since struck nine, but still,
lessons had not begun. The classrooms were churning and boiling. Amidst the
general buzzing voices would bubble up and burst like soap bubbles. Seize'em
was patrolling the corridor, chasing the boys back into the classrooms.
There was a light square on the wall in the Teachers' Room where the tsar's
portrait had hung. The teachers were walking up and down in tense silence,
enveloped by clouds of cigarette smoke.
At last Atlantis, who was always in on everything, decided to find out
what was up and went off to the Teachers' Room, supposedly to get a wall
map. He was back in no time, and bursting with news. He did two somersaults,
jumped onto the lectern, did a handstand there and, with his feet waving to
and fro in. the air, he astounded us with a joyous howl:
"Fellows! The Committee kicked the principal out!" Oh, joy! There was a
wild slamming of desk tops, cheers and yelps. The commotion was
Hefty, who was dizzy from joy, kept pounding the boy next to him over
the head with his geometry book and shouting: "They've kicked him out!
Kicked him out! Kicked him out! Hear that? They've kicked him out!"
Just then the heavy door opened at the end of the corridor into which
glee waves of joy were pouring from every classroom, and a pair of
highly-polish boots on a pair of unbending legs squeaked softly into the
Teachers' Room. The teachers rose as the principal entered, although their
usual greeting did not folio Stomolitsky took instant notice of this. "Eh,
what seems to be the matter, gentlemen?"
"The matter, Sir, lies in the fact that you ... but perhaps you had
better read yourself," the inspector said and his beard rose and fell gently
as he spoke. He handed the principal a sheet of paper as carefully as if he
wished Stomolitsky sign something important.
The principal took the proffered sheet. One word stood out among all
the rest and this was "Dismissal". However, he refused to accept defeat.
"Eh ... the District Board appointed me, and I am responsible to it
alone," said in an icy voice. "And, furthermore, I shall report this
unlawful action to Board immediately. And now," at this he clicked open the
top of his gold pocket watch, "I suggest you all go to your classes."
"What?" Kirill Ukhov, the history teacher, exclaimed and yanked at his
angrily. "You.... You've been dismissed! It's something we all insisted on,
and not a point that's up for discussion. Gentlemen! Say something! What the
hell is this anyway!"
Boys were clustering in the doorway. Though they were dying of
curiosity, they said nothing. Those in the back rows pressed forward,
propelling those in the front through the door. As they stumbled into the
Teachers' Room they straighter their jackets, fixed their belts and looked
rather embarrassed. Stepan Gavrya elbowed his way through, looked at Ukhov
with burning eyes and suddenly cried.
"That's right, Kirill Mikhailovich!" Then he lunged towards Stomolitsky
"Down with the principal!"
A dead silence followed. Suddenly it was as if an avalanche had come
crash down upon the Teachers' Room, crushing and submerging all in its wake.
"Down with him! Get out! Down with the principal! Hooray!"
The corridor echoed from the noise. Windows rattled. The entire build
seemed to be shaking from the wild pounding of feet, the roaring and
For the first time in his life the principal seemed shaken and bent.
Creases seemed to have suddenly appeared in his well-pressed trousers.
The inspector feigned concern. He cocked his eyes at the door politely
"I think you'd better leave, Sir. I'm afraid we cannot guarantee your
"You haven't heard the end of this yet!" the principal muttered and
The bottom of his jacket caught on the door knob.
He hurried to his office, clapped on his cockaded cap and put on his
overcoat on the run, so that his arms missed the armholes. He dashed
outside. The janitor hobbled out onto the porch after him.
"Sir! You've forgotten your rubbers! Your rubbers. Sir!"
The principal did not turn back, his skinny legs took him across the
muddy puddles, his shiny boots sinking into the snow. The janitor stood on
the porch, holding the principal's rubbers and clucking his tongue:
"Tut-tut-tut! My-my! Good Lord! That's the revolution for you! Look at
the principal go, and without his rubbers!" Then he chuckled. "See him
skittering! A real gee-raffe he is. My-my! A body can't help laughing! Shake
a leg! Looks just like one of them ostriches, he does."
The boys poured out onto the porch. They were laughing and shouting.
"Hey, watch him leg it! Bally-ho! Goodbye, Fish-Eye!"
A snowball hit his back.
"Whee! Keep on going! Jailer! Warden!"
It was enough to take your breath away. There was the principal, just
think of it: the principal!-whom the boys but yesterday had to greet by
standing stiffly at attention, before whom they had quaked and tipped their
caps (always holding them by the visor!), whose office they had passed on
tiptoe only-there was the principal, running away so shamefully, so
helplessly and, to top it all, having left his rubbers behind!
They could see the teachers' pleased faces in the windows. The janitor
"Quit the ruckus! Shame on you! And you being educated boys!"
Atlantis crept up behind him, snatched one of the principal's rubbers
from him and sent it sailing after Stomolitsky. The boys roared. Then he
stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled shrilly, with a trill at the
end. Only true pigeon fanciers knew how to whistle like that, and Stepan's
tumbler pigeons were famous in town.
When we trooped noisily back to the classrooms, our faces flushed from
excitement, the teachers scolded us half-heartedly, saying:
"That wasn't nice at all, gentlemen. Your behaviour was abominable.
Don't you realize that?"
But we could see they were only saying that because they had to.
STEPAN, THE LIAISON OFFICER
We called an emergency meeting on a pile of logs in the yard after
school that day, and pupils of all the eight grades came to the popular
assembly. We were going to elect delegates to the joint meeting of the
Teachers' Council and the Parents Committee. The one item on the agenda was:
"Relieving the principal his duties."
Mitya Lamberg chaired the meeting. He presided grandly on the logs and
"And now, gentlemen, present your candidates."
"Where are we supposed to present them?"
"Ha-ha-ha!" "Gentlemen! Nominate your candidates!"
"Hey, Martynenko! You nominate him one! Ho-ho!"
"Gentlemen! Let's have some order! After all, you're not a bunch of
prim school boys. And let's have some quiet at a time like this!"
"Quit it, fellows!"
The noise finally died down. The election was set into motion. Mitya
Lamb Stepan Atlantis and Shura Gvozdilo, a fourth-grade boy, were elected.
"Any more questions?"
"Yes!" Atlantis scrambled up to the top of the pile. "Listen, fellows.
It serious matter, and no fooling. We've got to make it stick and present
Fish-Eye with all our complaints. And there's something else. There should
be delegates from both sides, and no monkey-business about it!"
"That's right, Stepan! Delegates from both sides!"
"Three cheers for the delegates!"
As the boys tossed Stepan into the air a varied, assortment of things
dropped of his pockets. They included some popgun corks, cartridges, an
oilcake, a slug of lead and a pocket edition of The Adventures of Nat
Pinkerton. Mitya pounded an old pot which had served as the chairman's bell
and was now a drum. The boys carried the delegates out through the gate on
their shoulders. Everyone cheered.
The sun, tired from its steep climb during the day, had stopped to rest
on school roof which was wet from the melted snow, shiny and slippery. The
slipped, burned the windows opposite, plopped into a large puddle and winked
at the merry crowd of boys in a rainbow of colours.
THE POPULAR ASSEMBLY ON THE LOGS
The indignant principal had one last resort: he went to the Parents
Committee for help.
This was not an easy thing for him to do, since he considered the boys'
parents enemies of the state and had always forbidden the teachers to become
friendly them. As far as he was concerned, parents existed only as people to
whom he addressed reminders of non-payment of tuition fees or notices which
were intended to draw their attention to the poor behaviour of their sons.
He regarded any interference in school affairs on their part as a violation
of its sanctity. If it were up to him, he would have thrown out the phrase
"for the solace of our parents" from the morning prayer.
However, this was no time for settling scores. The principal trudged
over to see the veterinary, Shalferov, Chairman of the Parents Committee,
who was known in town as the horse doctor.
The principal arrived during Shalferov's office hours. The horse doctor
was so surprised to see him that he forgot to offer Stomolitsky a chair. He
hastily wiped his hand on a greenish smock that was covered with unsightly
spots and then offered it to the principal who was a dandy and a stickler
for cleanliness. The vet's hand smelled of fresh milk, stables and something
nauseatingly acrid. The principal felt his stomach jump, but he shook the
proffered hand readily.
They conversed as they stood in the cold foyer. It was cluttered with
milk cans, large bottles, wilted rubber plants and geranium pots. A cat was
digging a hole in a box of sand in the corner. Never realizing that it was
witnessing an historical event involving the fall of the principal, the cat
raised its tail and held it out stiffly.
The horse doctor listened to the ashen-faced principal's story and
promised his support. The principal thanked him humbly. The horse doctor was
hard-pressed for time, for a cow was bellowing out in the yard, and he had
to give it an enema. Shalferov suggested that the principal speak to the
Secretary of the Parents Committee.
My father was Secretary of the Parents Committee. The principal felt
very awkward about asking him for favours, since but a short while before my
father had applied for the position of school doctor when there had been a
vacancy, and the principal had written the following on my father's
"We would prefer a doctor who is not of the Jewish faith."
Father had just returned from the hospital where he had been operating.
He was washing up and gargling. The water bubbled in his throat, so that it
seemed that Papa had come to a boil.
The principal awaited him in the parlour.
Goldfish were swimming in the fishbowl, dragging their long, filmy
tails along the bottom. One fish whose head looked like an aviator's helmet
(for it had big bulging eyes), swam right up to the glass. The fish's
insolent orb stared at the principal. Recalling the unpleasant nickname
given to him by the boys, he turned away in annoyance.
Just then the parlour door opened and Oska entered, pulling along a
large and mournful hobby horse. The horse had long since lost its youth and
its tail. It got stuck in the doorway and very nearly fell apart.
Then Oska noticed the principal. He paused to look at him, then came
closer and said, "Are you a patient?"
"No. I've come on business."
"Oh, I know! You're the horse doctor. You smell like a horse doctor.
Don't you? You cure cows and cats, and dogs, and colties, and all the rest.
I know. Can you cure my horse? He has a train engine in his stomach. It got
in, but it can't get out."
"You're mistaken, child," Stomolitsky said huffily. I'm not a
veterinary, I'm the principal of the Boys School."
"Oh." Oska gasped respectfully. He stared hard at the principal. "Are
you really the principal? You scared me. Lelya says you're very strict, even
the teachers are scared of you. What's your name? Snail?... No. Crab?... I
"My name is Stomolitsky," the principal said sourly. "And what is .your
"Oska. But why does everybody call you Shark-Eye?"
"Don't ask stupid questions. Why don't you tell me ... ahem ... whether
you know how to read. You do? Well, then tell me ... mm ... ah.... Can you
tell me where the Volga flows. Do you know the answer?"
"Sure. The Volga flows into Saratov. Now see if you know this: if an
elephant and a whale have a fight, who'll win?"
The principal was forced to admit that he did not know.
Oska consoled him by saying, "Nobody knows. Papa doesn't know, and the
soldier doesn't know. But why do they call you Shark-Eye? Was that your name
when you were little?"
"That is quite enough! Why don't you tell me your horse's name?"
"Horse. Everybody knows that. Horses don't have last names."
"You're wrong. For instance, Alexander the Great had a horse that was
"And you're Fish-Eye, aren't you? Not Shark-Eye. I got mixed up. But I
said i1 right now, didn't I?"
"What a bright boy you have!" the principal said smiling angelically as
"FOR THE SOLACE OF OUR PARENTS"
The ventilator in the Teachers' Room sounded like a huge fly on a
windowpane. It was suffocating in the heated room. Now and then a board of a
desk in one of the dark, deserted classrooms would creak. The clock in the
downstairs hall ticked loudly.
"I will now call to order the joint meeting of the Parents Committee
and the Teachers' Council."
The Parents Committee was seated at a large table. Facing them in a row
were the teachers. Mitya Lamberg and Shura Gvozdilo huddled together at the
far end of the table. Shura seemed lost. Lamberg, who was older and bigger,
was trying not to look too awed. The inspector had barred Stepan Atlantis
from the meeting, saying, "You can expect anything from that rascal. I
wouldn't trust him for a minute."
"I'll be very quiet," Stepan had promised.
"Show him out!" the inspector had said to the janitor.
"Out you go, my boy." The janitor had pushed the protesting Stepan
lightly. "Some delegate! Troublemaker!"
Stepan had been deeply hurt. "Well, don't blame me if nothing comes of
this. Reservoir. Adieu."
At the very outset of the meeting the lights went out. It was a usual
power failure. The Teachers' Room was plunged into darkness, Mitya stuck his
hand into his pocket to get his matches, but suddenly realized that a
non-smoking schoolboy was not supposed to have matches in his pocket. The
janitor brought in a kerosene lamp with a round green shade that resembled a
parachute. The lamp was hung over the table. It swayed slightly, casting
flickering shadows that made the noses of the people around the table now
grow very long, now become very short.
The inspector was the first speaker. He spoke smoothly and wittily, and
his forked beard, so like a snake's forked tongue, bobbed up and down
The fathers of the boys who lived on farmsteads were breathing heavily.
Their eyes drooped as Romashov droned on. The long-haired priest put a
strand of hair behind his ear, the better to hear him. The tax collector
wiped his glasses intently, as if he were going to examine each and every
one of the inspector's words through his spectacles. The shopkeeper bent one
plump finger after another meaningfully, in time to the inspector's words.
Gutnik, the fat miller and a member of the Duma, spoke up for the
principal. "How can you teachers take things into your own hands like this?
Let me tell you, it's not right. You should have asked the District Board
first. Stomolitsky was always a man for law and order. We knew that when he
was in charge, everything was as it should be. That's why he should stay on.
And I have a feeling that that's just how things will be. Besides, these are
troubled times. It's like everything was on fire all over. And the boys'll
start acting up. Aren't I right?"
The parents began to nod in agreement. The men were afraid to let their
sons have too much freedom. If you let the reins go just a little, you'd
never again be able to manage that crowd of pigeon-fanciers, dare-devils and
THE PRINCIPAL'S LEDGER
Nikita Pavlovich Kamyshov, the geography and science teacher, jumped to
his feet excitedly. Mitya and Shura looked at their favourite teacher with
hope. He was very intent and spoke heatedly. Every sentence he uttered was a
line in Fish-Eye's unwritten Ledger.
"Gentlemen! What's the matter? The tsar's been dethroned, but we ... we
can't even get rid of the principal! You're the parents! Your children, your
sons came here to this hateful place, to get an education. But what sort of
an education could they get? What, I ask you, could they get here, these
children, when we teachers, we grown-up people, were suffocating? There was
no air to breathe. It was disgraceful! We had a regular barracks-room
atmosphere! Why, if a boy was seen wearing a soft collar he was made to stay
after school for eight hours! My God! Now, when the air has become cleaner
all over Russia, we here, in our house, are afraid to open a window and air
the premises!" He yanked at his long, drooping moustache and dashed
breathlessly out of the room.
It became very still.
The principal, who had been sitting unobtrusively in a corner, broke
the quiet with his flat voice. He had turned green from the light of the
lampshade and from bile. He tried to explain away Kamyshov's accusations by
saying: "He's trying to get even. There's the law ... and discipline ... my
duty ... the Board."
He was interrupted by Robiiko, a huge, dark-haired man, as tall as the
freight trains he drove were long. The trainman crashed his fist down on the
table and said: "What's the use of all this talk? If there's been a
revolution, that means these are revolutionary times! We go straight on
through without any stops. As for the principal, we haven't yet seen
anything good except bad from him. And I say we ought to ask the boys. Let
their delegates have the floor. Otherwise, what was the use of electing
Mitya rattled off the speech he had learned by heart.
"And what do you say?" the chairman said, turning to Shura Gvozdilo.
Shura jumped up. His arms were plastered to his sides, as if he were
reciting a lesson.
The principal's fishy eyes stared at him with loathing.
Shura cocked a wary eye at Stomolitsky. Who could tell? Perhaps he
would remain at his post and get even later. Shura swallowed the lump in his
throat. His heart sank, all the way down to his heels, but just then Mitya
squeezed his foot so hard between his own heels that Shura's heart bounded
back into place again. Shura tossed his head, swallowed hard again and
suddenly felt better.
"We're all for down with the principal!" he shouted.
Someone had jarred the lamp. It was swaying. Once again the shadows
began to move. They were shalfing their heads reproachfully. Noses began
growing longer and getting shorter again, and the principal's dejected nose
seemed the longest of all.
The meeting dragged on far into the night. At last, the following
resolution was drawn up:
"Juvenal Bogdanovich Stomolitsky is to be relieved of his post as
principal of the Boys School. Nikolai Ilyich Romashov, the school inspector,
is to be temporarily appointed principal until the District Board confirms
The former principal left the meeting in silence without saying goodbye
to anyone. Romashov fluffed his beard with a victorious air. The new
principal's pleased beard no longer looked like a snake's forked tongue but,
rather, like a chunk of bread with a dent in the middle.
Shura had become much bolder. He mentioned setting up a student
council. The flame in the lamp leaped from the sudden burst of laughter that
followed. Someone even slapped his back.
"Ah, it's good to be young! Such spit and fire!"
"Delegates of those snot-nosed babies! Ha-ha-ha!"
Shura was embarrassed. He sniffled and rubbed his belt buckle.
The discussion passed on to another matter. The parents began to yawn,
covering their mouths with their hands. Shura could barely keep his eyes
open. The green parachute-lamp floated above the table. The flame hissed
faintly, casting ragged shadows. Waves of heat rose from the lamp glasses.
He was dying to sleep. To top it all, the ventilator whirred on and on
The principal had been kicked out. Shura felt he had accomplished his
mission, but the teachers, parents and the new principal were still
debating, and he felt it was impossible to simply get up and leave. That was
when he construed a very adult sentence about his presence no longer being
required and, therefore, it being possible for him to leave the meeting.
Shura rose. He opened his mouth to say all this when he realized he had
forgotten the first word of the sentence. As he searched for it he forgot
all the others. The words seemed happy to have escaped from his drowsy mind
and pranced about in front of his sleepy eyes. "Presence", a very adult
word, had just donned a tunic with gold buttons and climbed into the lamp
glass insolently. The flame stuck its tongue out at him, and "possible"
started tossing the dot over the "i" at him. It was attached to a long
rubber band and bounced off his head just like the paper balls that Chi
Sun-cha sold at the market.
"What is it you wish to say?" the chairman inquired.
All eyes were on Shura.
He tugged at the bottom of his jacket in despair and said: "May I leave
SEIZE'EM ENDS THE DAY
Shura went outside. The sky was as black as a blackboard. A cloud-rag
had wiped it clean of all the star designs. A dense black silence had
engulfed the town. For the first few moments after leaving the Teachers'
Room he stumbled about in the dark like a fly in an inkblot. At last, he
made out the shape of a human figure.
"Is that you, Shura? I'm frozen stiff."
"Well? What happened?"
Shura dragged on each word to make an impression. "Nothing special,
really. Naturally, we got what we wanted. Fish-Eye got the sack. The
inspector's taking his place for the time being."
"Wait a minute! What about the student council?"
"Ha! Anything else you'd like? They laughed their heads off when I
"What? Then what did you get? That's no revolution! They kicked out the
principal and put the inspector in his place. Ah!" Stepan disappeared in the
dark. Shura Gvozdilo shrugged and headed home. The night watchman's clapper,
that wooden cuckoo of all provincial nights, sounded in the stillness. Soon
the parents and teachers trudged home across the dark square.
Seize'em was the last to leave. He had stayed on in order to enter
Lamberg and Gvozdilo's names in the Black Book-just in case. And so that
memorable day came to a close with the Ledger and Seize'em's spindly
FATHERS, DADS, AND OLD MEN
A new portrait was hung in the Teachers' Room. It was a portrait of
Alexander Kerensky. His hair was cut in a short brush, and the tabs of his
wing collar stood out stiffly.
The teachers pledged allegiance to the Provisional Government at a
special service. The general morning prayers were discontinued. Instead, a
short prayer was read in each classroom before lessons began each morning.
Finally, the liberal-minded new principal took a bold step and did away with
the old system of grading our work.
"All these 'F's', 'D's' and 'A-minuses' are unpedagogical," Romashov
said, addressing the Parents Committee.
From that day on the teachers no longer gave us "F's" and "A's". They
now wrote "Poor" instead of "F", "Unsatisfactory" instead of "D",
"Satisfactory" instead of "C", "Good" instead of "B" and "Excellent" instead
of "A". Then, in order to keep up the idea of pluses and minuses, they began
writing "Very good", "Not quite satisfactory", "Nearly excellent", etc.
Roachius was very dissatisfied with the new system of grading and once wrote
"Very poor, with two minuses" on Hefty's test paper. This was also the mark
he gave him for the term.
"If 'Poor' is an 'F'," Hefty mused, "then the grade he gave me for
Latin this term is someplace way down the line. Probably a 'Z'. What if it's
even worse than that?"
THE DARLING OF THE LADIES' COMMITTEE
The plot our house was on belonged to a large grain company. A winnower
was forever whirring under an overhang. Golden dunes of wheat rose on canvas
spread out on the ground, and the broad-shouldered scales would jerk their
iron shoulders like a person who was trying to scratch his back
unobtrusively. All day long women were busy patching canvas sacks in the
yard, sewing with long needles as they sang mournful songs of love and
One of the sack-menders was taken on as a cook for the family of a
company employee. The cook had a son named Arkasha, who attended primary
school. Arkasha was small for his age and so full of freckles his face
looked like a piece of canvas covered with spilled grains of wheat. He was a
very bright boy and wanted very much to go on to high school.
There was a Ladies' Charity Committee in our town, and the lady
Arkasha's mother worked for belonged to it. At her urging the Committee
decided to sponsor the gifted boy. That was how Arkasha Portyanko came to be
a scholarship pupil in my grade, having passed the entrance examination with
He was a very serious and kind-hearted boy, and he and I became the
best of friends. He was not a quiet boy, but his mild pranks and jokes were
quite unlike the rough play of his classmates. He was an honour pupil, and
as each term ended he would take his excellent report card home to his
mother in the kitchen. There was a line marked "Parent's signature" at the
bottom, and his mother would sign it laboriously and with great pride,
placing a dot at the end of her name as reverently as if she were lighting a
votive candle in church.
All the boys in my class knew that Arkasha was in love. The blaring
formula of his love appeared regularly on the blackboard: "Arkasha + Lucy =
!!" Lucy was the daughter of the wealthy chairwoman of the Ladies'
Committee. When Arkasha's mother discovered whom her son had a crush on she
shook her head. "Good Lord! What a girl you've chosen! Have a look at
yourself! You'll be the death of me yet!"
However, Lucy liked Arkasha very much. He would meet her in the arbour
and they would read together. The sun shining through the leaves showered
warm bits of its confetti on them. One day Arkasha brought Lucy a bouquet of
At Christmas Lucy's mother had a party for her. Lucy invited Arkasha
without having asked her mother's permission to do so. Arkasha set out for
the party in his well-brushed, well-pressed school uniform. He entered the
brightly-lit hall and was imagining the delights that awaited him when
Lucy's mother suddenly blocked his way. She was a tall woman with rustling
skirts and seemed very much disturbed to have discovered a cook's son about
to attend her daughter's party.
"Come back some other time, child," she said in a sugary voice, "and
use the back stairs. Lucy's busy. She can't see you now. Here are some
sweets for you and your mother."
Arkasha did not see Lucy again after that. He missed her very much. He
looked wan and began slipping in his studies.
In February of 1917, soon after the revolution, a portly gentleman in a
fine, fur-lined coat was speaking animatedly to a crowd of people on
Troitskaya Square, saying that now there were no more masters and no more
slaves, that from now on everyone was equal. Arkasha believed every word of
what he said, for it seemed to him that since a wealthy man was saying there
would be no more masters, it must be so. That was when he decided to write
Lucy a letter. I found it in the Ledger several years later together with a
single dried lily-of-the-valley.
"My dearest sweetheart Lucy,
"Since there has now been an overthrow of the tsarist regime, it means
everybody is equal and free. There are no more masters, and nobody has a
right to insult me and send me packing from a Christmas party like then. I
miss you so much. My mother says I even lost weight. I don't go to the
skating rink any more, but not because I'm jealous, as Lizarsky says,
watching him and you skating together. How do you like that, he says. To
hell (scratched out) To blazes with him. I'm not one bit jealous. He got
what was coming to him, because he's a monarchist (that means he's for the
tsar), and that's why he's so mad. And now, dear Lucy, you and I can be like
a brother and a sister, that is, if you want to. That's because there was a
revolution and we're equals now. Actually, though, you're a hundred times
better than I am. I can't tell you how much I miss you. My word of honour. I
keep thinking about you when I do my homework, and even when I sleep I see
you in my dreams. Just as clear as day. We had the word 'lucid' in spelling,
and I wrote 'Lucy'. You spend all your time with Petya Lizarsky. He's the
one who cribs his math from me and then says he solved the problem himself.
And he holds your arm. I'm not one bit jealous, though. It's strange,
though, because you're so smart, and pretty, and good, and intelligent,
Lucy, and there you are, walking out, arm-in-arm with a monarchist. There's
liberty, fraternity and equality now, so that no one will be angry at you if
you go out with me. I won't ever say anything about you going out with
Petya, because that was during the tsar's reign and three hundred years of
"My mother and I have never been very happy. My greatest joy was the
revolution and you, dear Lucy. And I never cried like I did that day of your
"I finally decided to write to you, though it means I have no pride. If
you haven't forgotten me and want to be friends again, write me a note.
It'll be the happiest day of my life. . "This flower is from that bouquet.
"Arkasha Portyanko, 3rd grade.
"P.S. Please excuse the blots. And please tear up this letter."
The algebra teacher had a very strange last name: Monokhordov. He had
fiery red hair and huge round jowls, which earned him his nickname, Red
He was forever giggling, and this constant merriment was weird and
impossible to understand.
"He-he-he!" he would giggle shrilly. "He-he-he! You don't know a thing.
Here, he-he-he ... you should have written a plus sign, not a minus ...
he-he-he.... That's why I've ... he-he-he ... given you ... he-he-he ... an
Arkasha had taken out the letter he had written and was reading it
under his desk. He was so engrossed that he did not see Monokhordov creep up
on him. Arkasha jumped, but it was too late. The teacher's thick fingers,
covered generously with red hairs, closed on the letter.
"Ha-ha-ha! A letter! He-he, it's not sealed. This should be very, very
interesting... he-he ... I'd like to know what you've been doing ... he-he
... during my class!"
"Please give it back!" Arkasha shouted, shaking visibly.
"Oh, no ... he-he-he. I'm sorry, but... he-he ... this is my trophy."
A reddish giggling filled the classroom. Monokhordov went back to the
lectern and pored over the letter. A boy he had called on and had forgotten
all about stood by the blackboard unhappily. His fingers were full of chalk
dust. The teacher was busy reading.
"He-he-he ... very amusing...," he said as he came to the end. "Rather
interesting. A letter ... he-he ... to his lady-love. I will read it aloud
... he-he-he ... as a lesson to you all."
"Read it! Read it!" everyone shouted excitedly, drowning out Arkasha's
Monokhordov kept stopping every now and then to get the giggles out as
he read the letter addressed to Lucy aloud from beginning to end. The boys
yowled. Arkasha was as white as a sheet. He had never been so humiliated in
"You're starting young, Portyanko ... he-he ... very young." Arkasha
knew that he could never send Lucy the defiled letter. All the lofty words
he had used and which had caused such ribald laughter now seemed stupid to
him, too. However, the terrible hurt he felt made him say in a very quiet
and menacing voice:
"Please give me my letter."
The boys stopped laughing instantly.
"Oh, no," Monokhordov chuckled. "This'll go into the Ledger ...
Then Arkasha exploded. "Don't you dare! You've no right to!" he
screamed and stamped his feet. "Reading somebody else's letter's the same as
"Get out! This minute!" Monokhordov bellowed and his fat jowls shook.
'Don't you ever forget that you're a charity boy. You'll fly out of here ...
he-he ... ike a balloon."
The dried lily-of-the-valley cracked faintly as the hard covers of the
class journal snapped shut over it. Later, the new principal gave Arkasha a
"You scoundrel," he said softly. "How dare you talk to your elders like
that? I'll expel you, you brat. You'll end your days at hard labour, you
ingrate. Just who do you think you are? Hm?"
Arkasha was again reminded that he was a charity boy, that he was only
there because of the kindness of others, and that the revolution had nothing
to do with anything. There had to be order, above all, and he, Arkasha,
would be expelled in no time if this order were disturbed. Arkasha's name
was entered in the Ledger. He was left after school for two hours. In the
end, what he gathered was that the world was still the same old place and
that it was still divided into the rich and the poor.
REFORMING THE OLD SCHOOL MARKS
THE SCHWAMBRANIAN REVOLUTION
The Schwambranian Fleet set out on a great voyage around the continent
in order to chart the exact boundaries of Schwambrania. The ships set sail
in the middle of 1916 and did not dock until November 1917. The significance
of this voyage in the history of Schwambrania was great, indeed, as can be
seer from the documents which have come down to us. My Schwambranian archive
contain a detailed map of Schwambrania and the log of the flagship Brenabor
There is no sense quoting it in full here, as it is very long and rather
dull. Today's readers will find many of its pages hard to understand. That
is why the account o the voyage is given in a revised and abridged form and
some things are explained in parenthesis. I have tried to retain the
Schwambranian style of writing wherever possible.
I would also like to explain the following:
At the time in question, Brenabor Case IV was the Emperor of
Schwambrania We borrowed the name complete from a well-known ad of the day.
That was when two automobiles were added to the coat of arms of
Schwambrania, although it already boasted the Schwambranian wisdom tooth,
the Black Queen, Keeper of the Secret, and the ship of Jack, the Sailor's
King Brenabor No. 4 was a rather easy-going fellow. Still and all, he
was a monarch, and none of us wanted to be him. Then again, we didn't want
to be plain commoners, either. That was when Brenabor adopted us. We decided
he had picked us up at sea when we were very little. The vicious old
Chatelains Urodena had put us, new-born, into an empty sauerkraut barrel and
had tossed us into the sea. King Brenabor was out rowing when he got a whiff
of stale cabbage and rescued us.
At that time nearly every children's story had an orphan in it. A tale
about an adopted child was both fashionable and touching. As for the smell
of stale cabbage, that did not in any way make us less attractive, for many
parents insisted that all children, and not only adopted ones, were found in
The squadron was made up of the following ships: the flagship Brenabor,
Beef Stroganoff, the Jules Verne, the Liquid Metal, the Prince Courant, the
Cascara Sagrada, the Gratis, the Valiant, the Gambit, and the Donnerwetter.
Despite his youth, Admiral and Captain Ardelar Case, meaning me, was ii
command of the squadron. Oska was the Vice-Admiral and Chief Able-Bodied
Seaman. His name was Satanrex. The name was of operatic origin. The local
druggist often sang at our home musicales. He had a deep basso and sang
Mephistopheles' aria, which included the words "Satan wreaks his vengeance
there". Hi ran his words together when he sang, and so the first two words
sounded like "Satanrex". Oska kept asking everyone who Satanrex was.
Jack, the Sailor's Companion, was our faithful guardian at sea.
Page 1 of Admiral Ardelar Case's diary began as follows: "The sun rose
in the morning and shone above the horizon. The view of the sea was very
beautiful. A hundred thousand soldiers and a million people were there to
see us off. A brass band was blasting away, and it was a regular
manifestation. New Schlyamburg was all illustrated (This is an error. The
admiral wanted to say "illuminated".). I had on a pair of white bell-bottom
flannel trousers, white shoes and spurs, a starched collar, a light-blue bow
tie, a long-waisted purple Circassian coat with gold cartridge slots and
epaulets, a short crimson cape lined with a tiger-skin and a captain's cap
with a plume. I led the way. I was tall and lithe."
The ships were moored at the pier. The second whistle had sounded. The
stevedores were busy loading pastries and thousands of tubes of strawberry
The Navy-passenger dreadnought Brenabor was so huge that street cars
and hacks coursed back and forth along the deck, charging twenty kopecks to
take you from the stern to the bow, although oats were very cheap in
Schwambrania. The Brenabor's six stacks smoked like six huge fires. It had a
ten thousand camel-power whistle, and its masts were so high they were
always capped with snow.
"Attention in the engine room!" I said.
"Stand by!" Jack, the Sailor's Companion, said. "Steh fertig bei der
The tsar was there to see us off. He climbed up on a barrel and said
the following manifesto:
"Yo-ho-ho, ye Schwambranian knights in shining armour! We, by the Grace
of God, Emperor of Schwambrania, Tsar of Caldonia, Balvonia et cetera, et
cetera, command you to have a bon voyage both ways. If you happen to see a
war anyplace, get right into the fight and slash away! Give the enemy their
comeuppance. Men! All the centuries, as many as there were and will be, are
looking down on you from the tops of these masts! Forward march, my friends,
on your voyage! Bugles, blare a song of victory! And be sure to go below
deck if you get caught in a squall or a storm so's you won't catch cold.
Forward, fearless knights! Off to the rolling seas, heading southwest. God
bless us and Godspeed!"
At this, everyone burst into the Schwambranian anthem, composed by the
Vice-Admiral, and having all the stresses on the first syllable:
"Hoo-ray, hoo-ray!" they all shouted,
"Hoo-ray, hoo-ray!" they were clouted!
But not one of them was murdered,
All of them survived.
And they blasted all the others.
Lo! They're strong and live!
The Brenabor sounded its ten thousand camel-power whistle for the third
time. Riders tumbled, and their horses galloped off. Anyone standing was now
sitting. Anyone sitting was now lying. As for those that had been lying,
there wasn't much else they could do. The ships cast off. The voyage had
"Don't forget to write!" the tsar shouted.
The squadron was going full steam ahead. The pennants fluttered in the
breeze. The tall, sleek Brenabor led the caravan, going a hundred knots an
hour. The wind was blowing up. The waves churned. The sun went down in the
The voyage was progressing well, with the sun coming up in the morning
and going down in the evening. If we are to believe the Admiral's log, the
wind was becoming stronger with each passing day. The squadron did not drop
anchor a Port Manteau and passed Cape Gialmar, coming round the tip of
Cacophonia and Cape Rugby as it headed for Drandzonsk. A small,
single-breasted ship was sent out to meet us (Another error. Suits are
single-breasted, not ships.), and the people of Drandzonsk offered us
Triumph cigarettes. We stopped for a smoke and continued on our way. Two
days later we dropped anchor in Medusa Harbour.
Vast, masculine forests stretched off into the distance beyond Medusa
(Naturally, there are no such forests. One sometimes speaks of a virgin
forest, but the admiral was a woman-hater.). There, in the masculine
forests, we hunted wild run toddies. The rum toddies were animals we had
discovered in an ad of the well known Shustov Distilleries. Rum toddies were
not to be found in any other country except Schwambrania. They had the head
of a buffalo and the body of a horse, s' that they both kicked and butted.
They were ferocious.
Then Satanrex and I explored the Cor-i-Dor Desert. Everything was
deserted in the desert. Meanwhile, the squadron under Jack, the Sailor's
Companion rounded Cape Pudding and steamed into Balvonsk. We boarded our
ship again and continued on our way. The Piliguinian Fleet was sighted off
Cape Charade, with the vile cad, Count Chatelains Urodenal, in command.
"Ah, main royal yard!" Jack, Sailor's Companion, cursed. "Fore royal
standin backstay! Unter lissel left and right, too! Plombiren Sie die
Schiffsraume! Seal the holds!" And he began to flash his eyes. Chatelains
Urodenal picked up his megaphone and declared war on us. A battle at sea
followed. Our ships and their ships attacked each other and tried to send
over boarding parties. What followed was a regular Trafalgar, which ended as
our Waterloo. The Liquid Metal, Donnerwetter and the Boef a la Stroganoff
were all sunk, and the others were towed off by the Piliguinians. They took
them off to their prison, which was on Garlandia, a desert island in the
Arsenic Ocean. Our valiant Brenabor was the only ship that did not surrender
to the enemy and managed to break through the fiery circle. The lone vessel,
its sails billowing, sped across the ocean blue. There was an island in that
ocean. It was a bleak granite island without a sign of life. It was named
Punishment Isle and was a part of the Liverpill Archipelago. Cape Comer was
on that island and there, in a seashell grotto, the Black Queen lived. We
dropped anchor. The Queen did not look bad, although she was a bit mouldy.
Then we passed the dangerous islands of Quinine, Biomalt, Cocoa and
Codlive-roil. As we drew alongside Cape Colt, we sighted the tops of the
Overthere Mts. and the inaccessible Peak Puzzle, so we turned westwards and
entered Seven Scholars Bay.
We were approaching Elfin Island.
THE VOYAGE OF THE BRENABOR
The Prince and the Pauper, Max and Moritz, Bobus and Bubus, Tom Sawyer
and Huck Finn, Oliver Twist, the Little Women and the Little Men, and when
they were grown, Captain Grant's Children, Little Lord Fauntleroy, the
Twelve Huntsmen, the Three Spinners, the Seven Wise Scholars, the
Thirty-three Knights, who were the nephews of Uncle Chernomor, the Last Day
of Pompeii, and the One Thousand and One Nights all came out to welcome us.
"Long live Your Royal Brilliance!" they shouted.
There was a green oak on the island. And a gold chain on the oak. A
puss-in-boots walked round and round it, looking very wise. When he went to
the right, he would read a book out loud, and when he went to the left, he
would turn on a gramophone. Just like Durov's famous circus animals. A
sphinx sat on the top of a cliff, making up riddles and charades.
Familiar characters from many books lived here, for Elfin Island was a
forest preserve for all the famous characters we had ever read about. They
lived here out of time and place.
A large company was riding towards us, led by the Mysterious Knight
with his visor down. Next came the Headless Horseman. Don Quixote whipped
his old nag on, with his faithful sword-bearer Sancho Panza trotting along
on a donkey. Sancho was carrying some windmill slats that Don Quixote had
hacked off some place or other. Then came Ivan the Fool on the Humpbacked
Horse. He stuck out his tongue as he rode by. Then came the Three Knights,
Ilya Muromets, Alyosha Popovich and Dobrynya Nikitich on their three mighty
steeds. The horses were harnessed to the Tsar-Cannon. Nat Pinkerton, the
well-known detective, crept along in their wake. He was looking for the
Mysterious Knight and was being shadowed by the famous detective, Sherlock
A man with long hair and a long beard and clothed in animal skins
appeared from behind some bushes. A wise old parrot was perched on his
shoulder. The parrot was plucking fortune cards from his master's pocket.
"Rrrr-robinson Crr-rusoe!" the parrot squawked.
We recognized the great hermit. Following Robinson was a savage
carrying several parcels. He was completely naked. He didn't have on any
pants at all. All he had on was a calendar leaf for a loincloth. The word
written on the page was:
"Friday". At the sight of us Robinson begged our pardon and asked Don
Quixote to lend him his shaving basin, which Don Quixote did. Robinson went
off to shave, while Friday, having stopped to gossip with Sancho Panza and
ask his advice about something, ran off to put on some clothes in a house
with a sign outside that read:
Ladies and Men's
Valiant Little Tailor
Sews seven cloaks at a stroke
"They mean us," the Seven Wise Scholars said.
That evening our visit was marked by a gala fete and fireworks in the
Mysterious Garden. Bluebirds and Blue Herons were there. Golden Cockerels
crowed, and geese laid golden eggs, while squirrels whistled popular tunes.
We were there, too, and drank mead with the rest, but since we had no
moustaches, it did not flow down our chests.
The days of the festivities coincided with the first days of the
revolution Russia. Reality was wonderful. It turned everything about us
topsy-turvy. The following telegram was received from Schwambrania:
The people of Schwambrania are worried. Indignant over the Battle of
Charade. Brenabor partially abdicated. Chatelains Urodenal temporary ruler.
Half an hour later the Brenabor, having sealed the holds and raised the
red flag, sailed at full steam off to the Brightasday Sea. We passed
Lilliputia, Shellacputia, Port Folio and Getamoveonio. We rechristened our
ship. It was now the Carshandar and Jupiter. The crew was all for the
republic and had renounced the traitor of a tsar. After all, Brenabor No. 4
had temporarily installed the villian Chatelains Urodenal in order to
preserve his crown. Urodenal's troops were guarding the Hopscotch Plateau,
having dug in along the Nitty, Plotzky and Socko-Pocko canyons. We had no
choice but to press on towards the Candelabra Mountains. There, in the
northern foothills, the republican conspirators were hiding out in the
environs of Port Rait. We took them on board. Then, rounding Cape Clock and
bypassing Knuckle duster, we sailed for the free shores of Carshandar,
dropping anchor in Port Yippee. The Carshandarians welcomed us with open
arms. Carshandar was enveloped in a revolutionary uprising. Urodenal's
landing party was only able to take Condora. We set siege to Condora from
the Lilac Sea. Condora fell. We absconded with great riches. Then, passing
Cape Rick-Rack and Cape Billbock, we stopped off at Port Ico, and finally
dropped anchor on the Carshandar Riviera. I changed my last name and became
Ardelar de Carshandar.
In order to prepare a coup on the entire continent, I stowed away in
the sealed hold of one of the ships and made my way to New Shiyamburg. I
lived in the capital, disguised as an Indian. However, on the very eve of
the uprising, Brenabor recognized me by the scar in my left eyebrow.
Urodenal had me arrested and brought me before a court martial.
The trial of Admiral de Carshandar lasted a whole day (Sunday). This is
how the Admiral described it in his diary:
"The courtroom was full of people who were staring at me with open
curiosity. I was in the dock, so handsome and lithe. Four guards had their
rifles trained on me, to make sure I didn't escape. The former Brenabor was
the chief justice. He really hated my guts. Count Chatelains Urodenal,
black-haired and a cad, was prosecuting me personally.
"There was no brass band at all. Satanrex was my lawyer. They had sworn
they wouldn't arrest him or throw him into jail. The prosecutor lied,
telling everyone to their face that I was a crook, but my lawyer got even
and said that Urodenal was a crook if there ever was one. Then Brenabor
said: 'Mr. Prisoner at the Bar! You have five minutes to give them a peace
of mind.' Then I rose, so tall and lithe, and the courtroom died down.
'Honourable Judges!' I shouted. 'You are under arrest in the name of the
Free Continent of Big Tooth!' In a flashing eye Jack, the Sailor's
Companion, dashed into the courtroom with some revolutionaries and they
overthrew the tyrants. Everyone cheered, and there was a general ovation."
The admiral did not mention the sunset that day. Apparently, due to the
coup, there was a continuous sunrise over Schwambrania.
THE FAMOUS PERSONS FOREST RESERVE
THE END OF THE BLACK BOOK
All sorts of meetings were being held everywhere, for the grown-ups
were quite carried away by politics. My own mother had been elected to the
Council of Deputies by the Ladies' Circle. Papa was Vice-Chairman of the new
Duma. Since the Duma and the Council were at odds. Papa and Mamma were, too.
I was burning with a desire to enter politics, since T, too, wanted to
attend meetings, make speeches and elect candidates. That was when I
received a letter from my friend Vitya Expromptov in Saratov. He described
his Boy Scout troop in such glorious terms that I decided to organize a
branch in my school.
I read whatever I could about scouting. Then one day after classes were
over and the boys were buckling their satchels, I climbed onto the lectern
and made a long speech.
"Gentlemen, we've had enough of fighting during recesses, playing cards
and being disunited. We should band together, that is, like a club.... And
we won't lie, smoke or curse. We'll drill, have our own clubroom and hold
club meetings. We'll elect a leader, and we'll be young scouts. I mean Boy
Scouts. What do you say? Who wants to be a Boy Scout?"
Practically every boy there wanted to be one. The commotion that
followed was unimaginable. Nikolai Ilyich looked in to see what was going
on. He said that if we didn't stop yelling, he'd have all our names put down
in the Ledger before we ever drew up a list of future Boy Scouts.
The following Sunday the first scout meeting was held in school. To my
surprise, there were a great many boys from other grades and even several
We conducted our meeting just like adults: we stood up and made
speeches, and someone kept the minutes.
Two troops were formed. I was elected scout leader. Shalferov, the
horse doctor's son, was elected Treasurer, for he was considered to be the
most honest of us all.
Our Rules were based on the scout law: we would not smoke, drink, lie
or use bad language, but would be courteous, cheerful, do a good deed every
day, always smile, and salute our superiors on the street by raising three
fingers to our caps. The three fingers stood for the three commandments of
the scout oath: "...to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the
scout law." Actually, the Handbook said: "...and my monarch", but we used
the alternative "country". There was a hitch as far as God was concerned,
for Stepan Atlantis suddenly announced that he was an atheist. We had to
convince him that God was actually like your conscience and, anyway. He had
only been included to make things sound right. We finally convinced him, and
Stepan solemnly raised three fingers and repeated the scout oath. He then
promised to stop smoking within a week.
We signed up quite a few parents as sponsors. They donated money which
we used to buy a tricoloured flag and an old automobile horn that was
missing its rubber bulb. This home-made bugle called for a great amount of
wind. It would then produce a loud and horrible sound. Hefty was the only
one who had the necessary lung power, and so he was elected bugler. He was
flattered and tried his best, blowing so hard it made trucks veer and
steamships green with envy.
We were given a room in the local children's library to serve as our
clubhouse. By then so many other boys had signed up, we had formed two more
troops. I was now a troop leader. Boys saluted me on the street. I felt very
I WANT TO ATTEND MEETINGS
All the preparatory work was finally completed. The clubroom was
furnished, the flag displayed, the scout promise made, the patrol and troop
leaders elected, the scout law learned by heart. Every one of us knew who
Lord Baden-Powell was and what St. George had to do with scouting.
However, nobody knew what to do after all of the above had been
accomplished. We decided to stage a mock battle between the two troops on
granary row, but the watchmen chased us away.
We tried doing good deeds, deciding we would patrol the town and fix
street benches and fences, and help old ladies carry their shopping bags.
However, schoolboys had a bad reputation in Pokrovsk, and the very first old
lady whom Atlantis tried to help began screaming wildly the moment he took
hold of her heavy bag. A crowd gathered on the spot. Stepan barely managed
I then discovered that my fellow-scouts were doing their good deeds in
the following manner: they would sneak up to a stout fence in the dark and
pry off some boards. The following morning they would appear on the scene as
benefactors and mend it with goody-goody expressions. They received ten
points at the Good Deed Contest for this.
We soon became very bored with scouting.
There was no use expecting any help from St. George, our heavenly
patron. Lord Baden-Powell, wearing a broad-brimmed Boer campaign hat, smiled
down at us from the wall portrait. He couldn't suggest anything of interest,
Once again the boys began smelling strongly of tobacco.
SIR ROBERT, ST. GEORGE AND GOOD DEEDS
The autumn of 1917 was the first autumn during which Russia was not
ruled by a tsar.
This autumn was just like any other, a time of melons, shoals and
second exams for the boys who had not been promoted. At this time a barge
carrying bearers of the St. George Cross for Valour docked at Saratov. There
was a Museum of War Trophies on the barge, and so the entire school was
taken to see this floating embodiment of patriotism.
A slogan painted on the side of the barge read: "War to a Victorious
End!" You could still make out the lettering underneath that had not been
completely erased. It read: "For our country, our tsar...." Every single
member of the crew had been awarded the St. George Cross. Nearly all were
missing an arm or a leg, and some were missing both. Artificial legs and
crutches creaked and tapped along the deck. However, every man had a little
St. George Cross dangling on his chest.
We roamed the barge for three hours, sticking our heads into the wide
barrels of the Austrian howitzers and fingering the silk of the Turkish
banners that had been captured in battle. We saw a tremendous German shell
called a "trunk". You could pack the death of an entire company into one of
them. Finally, the amiable curator showed us the museum's main exhibit. It
was a German helmet, taken off a dead officer. It's outstanding features
were the hair of the killed man that was stuck to the inside of the helmet
and real, dried German blood. The curator spoke of this with relish.
The curator was an officer. He stood on his own, natural legs and
gesticulated with his own undamaged, well-cared for hands.
Stepan did not say a word all the way back, but that very evening he
came over to the scout clubroom and quarrelled with the rest of us.
"Did you notice the smell there, fellows? Just like the butcher stalls
at the market. That's the smell of blood. It hits you right in the nose. But
what the hell's it all about? After all, they're all human beings."
"We have to fight to a glorious, victorious end," one of the boys
"You're a damn fool! Just aping what somebody else said. What's there
in it for us? To hell with you and your precious St. George. Go play
soldiers, and maybe you'll get a St. George Cross, too. As for the Boy
Scouts, what the hell good are you if you're all for the war? Cross me off
your damn list. Understand? I've had enough of fooling around." He pulled
out a pack of forbidden cigarettes and lit one up insolently.
We stood around in silence, feeling somehow embarrassed. Then Hefty
grunted, slowly pulled out his own pack of cigarettes, went over to Atlantis
and said, "Give me a light. The game's over. Let's go."
Sir Robert Baden-Powell was smiling down at us from the wall. There was
nothing funny about it at all, but according to the scout law, a scout was
always supposed to be cheerful. Sir Robert grinned, just like Monokhordov.
Once, during a geography lesson in the first grade, Stepan Gavrya, who
had been left back, raised his hand from where he sat in the last row and
said, "Is it true what it says in books about Atlantis? I mean, that there
really is a place like that?"
"Perhaps. Why?" Kamyshov, our geography teacher, asked with a smile.
"Because I'm going to find it, that's what. I'll look around in the ocean,
and I know I'll find it. I'm a darn good diver, you know."
That was when Stepan got his nickname. From that day on he became known
as Atlantis. Stepan, that devoted pigeon fancier and dare-devil, really did
dream of finding the lost Atlantis.
Sitting in a hayloft, sneezing from the fragrant dust, he described his
future to his friends. "I'll pump all the water out of there and fix all the
doors in the palaces, and you've never seen the kind of life we're going to
have. It'll really be a lark! There won't be any principals there, and no
Latin, that's for sure."
He left stifled within the stone walls of the school. Stepan was
hot-headed. His head was as hot as a watermelon in a melon patch on a
blazing July day. Learning came very hard to him. He was from a very small
farm outside the town, and all of the vast, endless steppe was his back
yard. He was used to shouting at camels, and his foghorn voice shook the
official stillness of the school every time he opened his mouth.
"Gavrya," a teacher would say, calling on him. "Yah?" Stepan would
bellow in reply and then be reprimanded. He had run away to join the army,
but had been returned home from the very first railroad station. Then he had
run away again and had been caught again. He did not like to talk about it.
Stepan had strange, funny ideas about life. First, before really
getting the hang of a thing, he would see it upside-down, as it were. They
said he had even learned to read upside-down in the beginning. This is how
it had all come about. Stepan's elder brother was being prepared for school
by a teacher who came to the house to teach him to read. Stepan was still
very small and was not supposed to participate in these lessons. The teacher
would open the primer, and Stepan's brother, who sat by her side, would read
aloud. Stepan would sit across the table from them, leaning over as he
listened to every word. However, when he looked at the book he would see all
the words upside-down, and that was how he remembered them. That was how he
learned to read: from right to left and upside-down. He later had a very
hard time learning to read the correct way.
Stepan suddenly became very grown-up after the boys' visit to the barge
to see the wounded soldiers. He was forever going off someplace and reading
books we knew nothing about. He would often drop by at my house, but would
spend his time in the kitchen talking to Annushka's soldier. Another
frequent visitor there was a Czech named Kardac, a prisoner-of-war who had
been in the Austrian Army. The three of them would argue heatedly. After one
such argument Stepan said to me in a puzzled voice "What do you know? It
looks like I have everything upside-down again. Can you beat that! I was a
damn fool talking about Atlantis the way I did. We can have a pretty good
life here, too, you know. That's something I never thought about."
Hungry women standing in line for bread at the market fell upon the
mayor. Dogs howled at night, and the wooden clappers sounded feebly in the
awkward hands of the volunteer home guardsmen. The city council was in
session every single day. A cold, damp wind was blowing from the Volga,
tossing scraps of foam onto the bank. Torn shreds of proclamations:
"Citizens!... The Constituent Assembly..." waltzed along the dusty streets.
Something very heavy was dropped in Saratov beyond the Volga at four
o'clock in the afternoon. This was followed by a great gust of wind. The
windows rattled. Boom!
And then again, twice in a row:
It seemed as though someone was swinging a tremendous rug beater,
beating out a fantastic rug that was miles long. People would stop on the
street and look up at the sky. Crows winged back and forth. Crowds of idlers
dotted the rooftops, as they usually did when there was a fire someplace.
Those standing on the pavement shouted:
"Sure. As clear as day. That was some explosion."
"Who knows? Probably the Cadets!"
From the top of the school building we could see tiny white puffs of
smoke rising over Saratov. They quickly expanded to become dark, ragged
clouds. Half a minute later a heavy blow would come crashing down on the
roof, deafening us slightly. By night time there was a red glow of fire over
Saratov. Nobody turned on their lights in Pokrovsk that night. The sky was a
At nine o'clock the following morning boys in long great-coats hurried
across the square as always. Their pencil boxes rattled in their satchels.
A dull grey morning crept into the classrooms. The lectern creaked as
the sleepy-eyed history teacher leaned on it. The monitor, crossing himself
automatically, rattled off the morning prayer. Then he handed the teacher
the class journal and reported on the absent pupils:
"Stepan Gavrya is absent."
The teacher had not had enough sleep. He yawned and scratched his chin.
"And so the Emperor Justinian the Great and ... aag-ah-haa ... Theodora ...
(he was overcome by yawning). And The-agh-aah-do-oh-ra...."
It was terribly dull to have to listen to an account of ancient,
long-dead emperors at a time when real, live people were making history
right there, across the Volga. There was a loud murmuring in the classroom.
Finally, Aleferenko got up and said:
"Would you please explain all about what's going on in Russia right
"Gentlemen!" The teacher was indignant. "In the first place, I'm not a
newspaper. Secondly, you are too young to discuss politics. Now, where were
"You sure are old," someone in the back row muttered.
"Old regime, that's what you are!"
"What? Get up and stand by the wall!"
"Don't listen to him, Kolya!" the boys shouted. "Who does he think he
is, Justinian the Great?"
But just then a deep, mighty, all-consuming sound burst in from the
sires. carried in on the wings of the wind. It was the bone-meal factory
whistle. It was immediately caught up by the piping whistle of the railroad
depot. The lumber yards on the hill joined in various trebles. The flour
mill whistled. The cannery buzzed like some distant bumblebee. A river boat
on the Volga piped frantically, wildly.
The morning was full of their songs.
The inspector dashed into the classroom. Confusion was entangled in his
beard like a fly. No one rose to greet him.
A BARGE OF CRIPPLED HEROES
Annushka's soldier friend, Kharkusha, was making a speech on the river
ban He was standing on the pier, gesticulating with his good hand. From afar
he seemed to be conducting the orchestra of whistles. We elbowed our way
through the crowd.
A boat was rapidly approaching the pier. It was the Tamara. Its wheels
turning smartly, slapping the water, and two ridges of white foam rose on
either side of the prow. A red flag looked as if it was about to fly off the
mast. The boat was now close enough for us to see the men and machine-guns
on its deck. The men looking weary but determined, and as set as if they had
been bolted to the deck.
This was the revolution docking at Pokrovsk. The captain on the bridge
was wearing a red armband. Standing next to him with a rifle slung over his
should and his cap tilted back was Atlantis. I recognized the man standing
next to him. They were workers from the lumber yards.
"Hey! Look! It's Stepan!" my classmates yelled. "Atlantis! How'd you
Petya Yachmenny, a very proper boy, shook his head and said, "Why'd you
play hookey? You'll get in trouble now."
"Oh, no, I won't!" Stepan said and laughed. He leaped over the railing
and on the pier as the boat was docking. "Not on your life I won't! The
Black Book's good as dead and buried now. For good!"
The tie ropes had been secured, and now the boat was hissing as it
bumped against the pier The captain was issuing commands through a
megaphone. Men with red armbands were lining up on the deck.
"These're our men," Atlantis said proudly.
"They're Bolsheviks," people murmured in the crowd.
"Ready!" the captain said.
A DAY THAT WAS NOT ENTERED IN THE LEDGER
At the end of the spring term we burned the school diaries that
contained our day-to-day marks. Such was the old school custom. This time,
however, it seemed to have acquired a new significance, one that we were all
A huge bonfire blazed in the school yard. We pranced about it in a wild
Indian dance as the flames consumed our "D's" as our reprimands
disintegrated and the days we had attended school went up in smoke.
"Hooray!" we shouted, three hundred strong. "Hoor-rray! We're burning!
the last! diaries! of the old regime! They'll never return! An end to all
diaries! An end to no dinners! Death to the ledgers! Hooray! The last school
ledgers in the world are burning! No more cramming or demerits! There go the
ledgers of the old regime!"
Hefty and Stepan made their way to the deserted Teachers' Room.
The bookcase containing the Black Book was locked. The squirrel's tail
was tickling dusty Venus' nose. A huge papier-mache model of a human eye
stared at the boys in amazement. Then Hefty kicked in the door panel.
The Black Book was removed from the bookcase.
"Into the fire with it!" Atlantis yelled as he appeared on the porch,
carrying the thick Ledger. "We'll roast Seize'em's tattling!"
But every single boy wanted to touch the Dove Book, to read what it
said about him, to discover its secrets. All the ledgers of previous years
were then tossed into the flames. The last was read aloud by the bonfire,
and we had a grand old time listening to its loathsome pages. We decided to
preserve it for posterity, and Stepan was elected to be the Keeper of the
Ledger, since at least a quarter of all the mischief reported in it
concerned the boy who had once decided to set out in search of Atlantis.
The old ledgers were going up in flames. Their hard covers writhed in
the fire. Then Forsunov, one of the seniors, came out on the porch. He was a
member of the local Council of Deputies.
"Let's have a minute of quiet, comrades," he said. "The Council of
Deputies has decided to fire all the old regime teachers. This means that
Romashov, Roachius, Ukhov and Monokhordov will all go. We'll have new
teachers. We'll elect our own representatives to the Teachers' Council.
Everything'll be different now. This is the end of the Black Book."
Three hundred boys in grey school uniforms marched around the fire that
was now dying down. They hooted and howled, and shouted gleefully as they
carried the unmasked and helpless Black Book at the head of this unheard-of
Meanwhile, a mound of charred, brittle pages was curling up amidst the
We spent the summer of 1918 on the Carshandar Riviera in Northern
Schwambrania and in the village of Kvasnikovka, which was twelve kilometres
We battled all through the summer, stamping out large settlements of
toadstools and cutting down every nettle in sight with bloodthirsty glee.
Naturally, quite a few innocent mushrooms and harmless dandelions lost their
lives in the fray. It was rainy summer, and weeds and grass sprouted in
great profusion. Then one day w captured the worst villain of all,
Death-Cap-Poison-Emir. It was an amazing mushroom with a stem as large as a
tenpin and a dark-red cap dotted with white bumps that looked like a huge
chunk of sausage. There could be no doubt about it: this was the chieftain
of all toadstools.
We carried Death-Cap-Emir home with great pomp, walking along in the
shade of its umbrella-cap. Suddenly, two men appeared on the road. They had
con from the ravine and were walking towards us.
"That's some umbrella! Whaddya know!" one of them said. He had big ea
that wiggled when he spoke. The man was wearing a ragged khaki field jacket
and puttees. There was a visible stubble on his chin. In fact, there was
something definitely nettle-like about him that made me feel itchy when he
looked at us.
"He made me all itchy inside," Oska said to me afterwards.
Just then the other man came up. His grin revealed two rows of rotten
teeth. T second man was pale and puny. He had on a linen shirt with a
standing collar and a large mushroom-like hat. He reminded me of a rotten
"Won't you treat us to that dainty titbit, young men?" the
"Don't be stingy, brother," the nettle-man said. "We're damn hungry.
And everything's common property now, even mushrooms, by the way. Am I
"How'd you know we're brothers?" Oska asked.
"I know everything."
"Everybody's brothers now," the toadstool-man added. Then he went on in
very solemn voice: "Young men, judging by the look of your swords, I can see
1 you are a pair of fine, upstanding knights. Help your suffering fellow-men
in t of trial, brothers, or I'll be forced by the pangs of hunger to eat
this mushroom the poison-mushroom variety, and I will die at your feet in
"That's for sure. We're more dead than alive anyway," the nettle-man
We were horror-stricken when he bit off a small piece of the death-cap
began to writhe. The toadstool-man would have pulled his hair in despair had
he had any, but he was bald. We stood there in stunned silence and then hi
something knocking inside the dead man.
"His heart's still ticking," Oska said uncertainly.
"That's my spirit entering and leaving my body in turns, Brother," the
dead said sorrowfully. "Here I am, dying of hunger, poor soul, and all
because of the revolution. What did I shed my blood for? Call your dear
mamma, boys. Maybe she can save this orphan. Tell her a man is dying and is
willing to trade a watch or a clock for some bacon."
The nettle-man then began pulling pocket watches, locket-watches,
stopwatches, alarm clocks and chronometers from his pockets. We stared
spellbound in awe at this great treasure. The environs of Kvasnikovka
resounded with a mighty ticking.
THE END OF THE BLACK BOOK
Half an hour later the summer people and the local village women
crowded around the two men. The nettle-man was pulling wall clocks and
cuckoo clocks from his bag and winding them up, while the toadstool-man,
like some circus magician, was pulling a length of silk material from his
stomach and growing thinner by the second. He then came up with the
following from his knapsack:
two desk sets, a pair of bedroom slippers, a small fish bowl (no fish),
an icon, a pair of curling irons, several gramophone records, a dog collar,
a starched dickey, an enamel bedpan and a mouse-trap. His floppy hat turned
out to be a lampshade.
"Do you have a sewing machine?" one of the village woman asked.
"I did have one, but I traded it in Tambov."
As the trading was proceeding at a lively pace, the nettle-man made a
speech, just as if he were at a meeting.
"Now, my dear ladies, women and everybody else, you can see what we've
come to, and all on account of those Bolsheviks. And, mind, we shed our
working-class blood for them, down to the very last drop, my dear ladies and
women. We're both from Petrograd."
"Look! The Commissar's coming!" a boy shouted.
The nimble men quickly stuffed their wares back into their sacks.
"Let's see your papers," Commissar Chubarkov said when he had got out
of the gig. "And stop agitating!"
"How can you say such a thing? You're supposed to be one of us," the
nettle-man replied calmly.
"I'm not one of you, and don't you ever forget it," Chubarkov said
angrily and put his hand in his pocket. "Let's see your papers, you damn
The toadstool-man's hands shook as he pulled out a scrap of paper. This
was what was written on it: "The bearer is an assistant bookkeeper ... and
The nettle-man had no identification papers at all. He himself seemed
dismayed about it.
"Pack up your junk and get going, both of you, before I pull you in.
There's too many of you toadstools popping up all over!" Chubarkov said.
"You're mistaken! We're just travellers on our way. In fact, we don't
even have many personal property. You can search us if you want to," the
"I've no time to waste on you. You're lucky I'm in a hurry, I'll bet it
o'clock by now."
"Cu-ckoo, cu-ckoo, cu-ckoo!" went the cuckoo clock in the nettle-mans
THE COMMISSAR CHECKED THE TIME
Pokrovsk had changed during our absence. The market was gone, and some
former rich men were sweeping the market square. The owner of the bone-meal
factory was one of them. We crossed off the second item on our list of
injustices. A speakers' platform had been erected in the place where the
Earth curved, and a machine-gun now protruded from the window of the big
house on Breshka Street where an overweight fox-terrier used to bark at
passers-by. A red flag hung out over the window.
We saw the nettle-man again in Pokrovsk. He was leading a gang of k mob
of deserters had gathered outside a wine shop early that morning, de that
they be given wine. The big plate-glass windows silently reflected the
crowd. Then the nettle-man picked up a metal rod and whacked the window. The
shattered glass said "zing".
An hour later Breshka Street was reeling drunk. Women carried off pails
of Port wine on yokes. There were puddles of wine on the road, and wine
flowed gutters. Men lay down on the ground and drank straight from them. Sc
had their arms around the deserters. Oranges that had been allocate orphans'
home were rolling down Breshka Street. Pigs slobbered over the oranges. A
huge fat sow was splashing in a puddle of Madeira. A spotted hog was
miserable on the corner, throwing up champagne.
Commissar Chubarkov came galloping up in his gig. He jumped down before
it had drawn to a stop.
"In the name of revolutionary order, I have to ask you all to
please..." the commissar was saying.
"Where were you before?" the schoolboys demanded.
Chubarkov coaxed them, pleaded with them, demanded and warned them.
"Everything belongs to everybody!" the drunken mob shouted, aping the
nettle-man's words. "We shed our blood, down to the very last drop...."
That was when the machine-gun in the window of the big house began to
chatter, sending a first round over the drunken heads. The cowardly mob
vanished into thin air.
Oska and I recalled playing Schwambrania on the windowsill and
making-believe we were shooting down Breshka Street, but at that time it was
Half an hour later some Red Army men dragged a drowned man from the
cellar of the shop. He had probably fallen down and drowned in wine.
Chubarkov went over to the body, had a look and shook his head when he
recognized it. "Cuckoo," the Commissar said.
PUTTING THE LID ON BRESHKA STREET
Stepan Atlantis sent me the following note while we were away in
Kvasnikovka for the summer: "Be at school on the 1st. The CWS will be
opened. That sure will be something! S. Gavrya."
It took me some time to figure out what "the CWS" stood for. Suddenly,
it dawned on me. It meant "The Code Words of Schwambrania". Someone had
discovered the secret of the seashell grotto, had let out our Black Queen
and found the note. Stepan knew all about Schwambrania now, and he was going
to tell everyone else about it, too. Oska and I were stunned. Harsh reality
had come crashing into our cosy little world.
However, when we returned home after the summer we saw that the seal on
the gate to the grotto had not been touched. The Black Queen, the keeper of
the secret, was still serving her sentence inside, deep within the cobweb
gloom. But how had Stepan learned about Schwambrania? I decided to have it
out with him. He was a great one for imagining and make-believe himself and
had even earned his nickname because of his dream of discovering Atlantis. I
decided that Schwambrania and Atlantis might become friendly nations after
Stepan was very happy to see me. He had grown taller over the summer
and somehow seemed older.
"Still alive and kicking?" he said.
"As you see. How'd you find out about the CWS?" I asked hesitantly.
"What's so strange about that? All the fellows know about it."
"Thanks for blabbering it to everybody. I thought you were my friend.
That's the most important thing in my life." I wanted to explain why this
was so and told Stepan all about the volcanic land, saying I thought the
Schwambranians and the people of Atlantis should be allies.
Stepan listened intently. Then he sighed and put out the sparks that
had appeared in his eyes. "I don't think about Atlantis any more. I've no
use for that kind of make-believe now. I've no time for it. There's the
revolution. All those secrets were all right for tsarist times. But now
there's too much to be done. Still, I like what you made up about
Schwambrania. But the CWS has nothing to do with it. That's what we'll have
instead of the Boys School now. A Common Work School."
A red flag waved over the school building on the 1st of August. We were
all gathered in the yard outside. It was a bright, sunny day. Kamyshov, our
new principal, came out on the porch to greet us.
"Hello, doves! Congratulations on your new status. You are now pupils
of the Soviet Common Work School. Congratulations."
We thanked him and congratulated him, too.
"Now, since I've been appointed Commissar of Health, I want to
introduce your new, temporary principal, Comrade Chubarkov. He's also the
Military Commissar. I hope you'll get on."
Chubarkov was not greeted with applause. He said, "Comrades! You're all
educated boys. Now you take me, for instance. I was an uneducated stevedore.
You've all got book-learning, but I went to the school of hard knocks. I
want to say a few words about your new school, and what the name stands for.
First of all, it's school that all children can go to. That's for sure. And
why is it called a work school? Because it's for the children of all working
people, and you'll learn to work well here, both mentally and physically.
That's for sure. And it's a common school, because there won't be any
special schools for the rich and the nobility any more. All children are
equal now, and they'll all get an equal chance to study. And so's this will
all be for the good of the revolution, I ask you, in the name of
revolutionary order, to attend school regularly and to take care of things
here, and then everything will be just dandy."
"Where were you before?" Hefty and a couple of the older boys shouted.
"Down with the Commissar! We want Kamyshov!"
"In the name of revolutionary order, I'll have to ask you to accept the
Council's decision. Kamyshov has just been transferred to another job. And
that's that. Before, only rich people had the money to take care of their
health. Now everybody's going to be healthy. It's a very important job, and
all the more so since there's a lot of typhus going around now. And that's
Comrade Chubarkov, Bertelyov, one of our teachers, Forsunov, a member
of the City Council, Stepan Atlantis and two senior boys were appointed to
the School Council. Some of the seniors hissed. Then Chubarkov said that
since women were now the complete equals of men, we would have girls in our
classes. And that was that!
The Boys and Girls schools were to merge. But then the classrooms would
be too small. That was why the grades were divided into "A" and "B". We set
up a special committee to choose the girls we wanted to have in our class. I
was the chairman and Stepan was my assistant. We spent a good half-hour
grooming ourselves in front of the cloakroom mirror. Every pleat was in
place. Hefty, the class strong-man, had pulled our belts as tight as
possible, making our chests protrude mightily, though we were barely able to
breathe as a result. However, we bore the discomfort stoically. Stepan asked
someone to spit on his cowlick. There were a great many volunteers, but he
only let me do it.
"Not too thick! And don't hawk."
I did my best. Stepan smoothed down the cowlick.
"You sure look like you could take anyone on!" Hefty said as he looked
us over with fatherly concern. "Real chic! They'll all fall in love with
you. Be sure you pick the prettiest ones."
We set off for the Girls School, escorted by an honour guard of five
boys. School was in session there. The corridor was a haven of peace and
quiet. Muted rivers and lakes, petals and stems, conjugations and
declensions seeped out from under the classroom doors. Old desks were piled
up in a far corner next to a brand-new piano, which had probably been
requisitioned from some wealthy home.
"Let's take the music back, too," Stepan said.
We had already found out that the fourth grade had been left to its own
resources, since the Russian teacher was ill. In order to occupy the girls
their school marm had told them to read aloud in turn. She was seated at the
lectern, embroidering a handkerchief. A plump girl was declaiming:
"Who rides there, who gallops, engulfed by the gloom?"
"We do," came a voice from the corridor.
The classroom doors burst open and a weird procession rolled in,
accompanied by a victorious rumbling. This was better than the wildest
Leading the way like tanks were two desks moving in single file. Each
had a flag stuck in the inkwell hole. Stepan and I had arrived on the desks.
The piano followed grandly in our wake with five boys pushing it.
The wheels screeched like stuck pigs. A list of the boys of our class
was balanced on the music stand, our caps were hung on the candlesticks, and
the soft pedal had on a straw slipper someone had found in the yard.
"Here we are!" Stepan said. "You're not having a lesson now anyway, are
A stunned silence greeted us.
"What is this!" the school marm shrieked. The sound was so loud it made
a sensitive string inside the piano vibrate for some time.
"It's a peaceful deputation," I said and then played a popular waltz as
I stood at the keyboard.
The school marm stormed out of the room. The girls finally awoke from
"Most equal girls!" I said, launching into my speech. "Most very equal
girls!" I repeated and proceeded still more heatedly: "I want to tell you
about what I want to tell you."
By now all the girls were smiling. This encouraged me. I went on
briskly to say that now we would all be going to the same school, girls and
boys together, like brothers and sisters, like bread and butter, like bacon
and eggs, like Napoleon and Bonaparte, like Rimsky and Korsakov.
"How'11 we sit, boys separately, or a boy and a girl at each desk?" a
tall, serious-looking girl asked. "I don't want to sit next to a boy."
"The boys'll pull our braids," a fat girl said in a deep voice. "They
might even try to kiss us."
Our deputation exhibited great indignation. I played "Storm on the
Volga", banging away at the keys, and Stepan spat in disgust and said,
"Kiss? Ugh! I'd rather eat a toad!"
"Can we play staring games?" the smallest girls asked all together.
They had huge bows on the tops of their heads.
"Hm." I pondered over this for a minute. "What do you say, Stepan?"
"I'd say they can," he replied condescendingly.
After several other equally important details had been discussed and
the official, polite part was over, we began, most impolitely, to pick the
girls who we wanted as classmates.
The girls, meanwhile, were busy prettying up.
The first girl whose name I put down on my list was Taya Opilova, She
had a long golden braid.
"I look terrible today. I hab a code (have a cold)," she said.
As we compiled our list, we gave each girl a nickname, entering it
beside her real name. Thus, we wrote "Bamboo" next to a tall girl's name,
"Squirts", beside two small girls' names, and "Madame Hippo" beside a fat
girl's name. There were also Sonya-Personya, Fifi, Beanpole, Lilly-Pill,
Monkey-face and Grind.
The girls we hadn't picked said we were idiots.
Once outside, Stepan said, "We'll have to cut out the swearing now
until they get used to it."
A few moments later we came upon a deputation from our brother "B"
class. There was a heated exchange on the subject of our having got there
first, after which our appearance and mood were lightly marred.
The pigeons were dying out in granary row. The wind rustled in the
empty granaries, whispering the terrible word "ruin". "No need for a spoon
in time of ruin," the janitor said sadly as he observed the way things were
going in school.
And the way they were was enough to make horses shy. All day long
someone or other was playing "Chopsticks" on the piano with one finger.
Dum-de-dum-de.... The piano was rolled down the corridor, from one classroom
to another, depending on which teacher had not come to school. The given
room would then turn into a dance floor. Pupils would leave without
permission. Someone sang a ditty: "Karapet, my dear friend, why do you look
so bad? I look bad, my dear friend, 'cause I always feel sad."
As soon as the bell for classes rang, the teachers tried to coax the
pupils back to their rooms.
"You used to be such a good student," Alexander Karlovich, our kind
math teacher, said in despair as he caught me by the sleeve. "Come along and
I'll tell you about a most interesting thing concerning the trigonometrical
functions of an angle. You'll be surprised at how interesting it is. It's
like reading a good book."
I was too polite to refuse. We entered the empty classroom. Someone was
playing "Chopsticks" in the adjoining room. Alexander Karlovich sat down at
the lectern. I took a seat in the first row. Everything was fine, if not for
the fact that there were no other pupils present. I was the whole class.
"Go to the board, please," the teacher said.
As I went over to the blackboard I saw the schedule for the next day
tacked upon the wall. Oho! The next day was going to be a hard one. There
would be five lessons. The first was music appreciation, the second was
drawing, the third was a mid-morning snack, the fourth was shop and the
fifth was gym.
"Well, let us begin," the teacher said, addressing the empty classroom.
Someone was still playing "Chopsticks".
We had all grown and now protruded from our school great-coats like
trees above a picket fence. The buttons on our chests had retreated to the
very edge of the seams under pressure of our expanding masculinity. The belt
in back had crept all the way up from our waist to our shoulder blades, but
we staunchly continued wearing our old uniforms. There was a bluish spot
that resembled a butterfly on our faded caps, left by the cockades we had
One day Comrade Chubarkov brought seven new boys to my class. They were
variously clad, but none was wearing a school uniform, though they all had
on the same broad belts with the letters "JHS" on the buckle. They clustered
behind Chubarkov's broad back.
"Quiet, everybody!" Chubarkov said. "Now, hello! Onto the next
question. Since the school is now a common school, it means everybody is
going to study together. I want to introduce these boys. They're from the
junior high. I want you all to be friends."
"Down with the Juniors!" the boys in the back rows shouted. "We don't
want them here! They don't know half of what we do!"
Chubarkov, who had reached the door, turned back. "Anybody who doesn't
want to study with the rest can study at home with a tutor. And that's
that!" He stalked out.
The Juniors clustered by the lectern uncertainly.
"Hello, privileged classes," said Kostya Rudenko, an olive-skinned
Junior whose nickname was Beetle. We knew him from our street fights.
"Hello, boys and girls," Kostya Beetle said politely.
"Wa yo fa puh?" Hefty said.
("Want your face pushed in?" some of our boys interpreted.)
"We dyo be me?" Kostya Beetle replied calmly.
("When did you ever beat me?" the Junior explained.)
Our boys were taking off their watches to make sure they would not be
broken during the fight. The girls were entrusted with their safekeeping.
"You're just a bunch of uniformless Juniors," Hefty muttered as he
advanced on Kostya. "Look at you, shoving your way into our high school from
your lousy junior high. You don't even have silver buttons, you don't even
have school uniforms. But you're all shoving your way up, aren't you?"
"We know more than you do. What do you know about logarithms?" Kostya
Hefty had never heard of them. "I don't give a damn for that! I'll push
your face in, and that'll teach you."
Still and all, he was put out. I could see some of my classmates
leafing through their geometry books. Since I knew the answer, I raised my
hand to save the honour of my class.
Stepan Atlantis slapped down my palm. "They'll manage without you," he
said softly. "It serves him right. Good for Kostya. He made Hefty eat humble
pie. Come on, sit down, boys. There are a lot of empty vacancies."
The Juniors began taking seats timidly amidst the chilling silence.
Kostya found a seat beside the Squirts, two little girls who were
"Don't sit next to us," they said, tossed their bows and moved away in
Having girls in the classroom brought about many changes, the most
important of which was a new staring game. The game caught on like wildfire,
with everyone playing it. The players would sit opposite each other and
stare into each other's eyes. If one of the players' eyes began to tear from
the strain and he blinked, he would be eliminated. We had popeyed champions
among the girls and the boys. We even held a staring match. Now the hours in
school slipped happily away.
A contest organized to determine the champion "crazy-gazer" lasted for
the whole of two lessons and part of the long recess. Liza-Scandalizer was
competing against Volodya Labanda. They did not take their unseeing eyes
from each other for two and a half hours. During the physics lesson that day
the teacher was amazed at the unusual quiet in the classroom. Not knowing
what to make of it he explained the principles of a water level to the class
and then tiptoed out.
Towards the end of the long recess Volodya put his hand over his
smarting eyes. He threw in the towel. Liza, however, kept on staring at him
motionlessly from under her brows. The girls were jubilant. They squealed
and shrieked, and carried on. We stuck our fingers in our ears.
However, Liza-Scandalizer kept on staring at the same spot. Her head
was tilted strangely. The Squirts bent down to look at her and bounced away
in terror. Then we all saw that Liza's eyes had rolled way up, so that only
the whites were visible. She was in a dead faint.
The boys tried hard to be polite when the girls were present. The
really outrageous inscriptions were scraped off the desk tops and the walls.
When the boys wanted to wipe their noses with their hands they went behind
the blackboard. Polite notes and messages in tiny envelopes were passed
during classes. Thus:
"Good morning, Valya. May I see you to your corner on a matter of great
secrecy? If you show this to Serge, I'll brain him, and it'll be piggish of
you besides. Kolya. P.S. Excuse the messy writing."
Each day there was "dancing till dawn". We made sure during these
evening parties that none of the boys from the "B" class danced with our
girls. Anyone found guilty of this crime was dragged off to one of the dark
and empty classrooms. After a brief and prejudiced questioning, the culprit
was beaten. Naturally, his friends panted for revenge. Soon these daily
massacres in the deserted classrooms took on such a scope that the seniors
had to post armed monitors at the doors. Their rifles were a leftover from
the home guards. Sometimes, the monitors would fire into the darkness, just
in case. The dancing couples soon got used to the sound of shooting.
Hefty, who had taken part in the looting of the wine shop, had set up a
small wine cellar in the classroom stove. Madame Hippo was never one to
refuse a drink. She was a plump, overgrown young lady who intimidated both
the boys and the girls. She whipped a boy who had insulted her with his own
belt, right there on the lectern in front of everybody. As for me, she once
knocked me down on to the tile floor so hard it took at least five minutes
for me to feel I was still alive, although not quite at that.
Stepan Atlantis looked glum. Whenever he met any of the other boys'
parents they would say: "Well? Are you satisfied now? Are you having the
time of your life at school? It's a disgrace, that's what it is. How can you
even call it a school?"
Stepan tried to call the wild farm boys to order. He was supported by
the Juniors and some of his friends, but no one listened to us.
"When are we going to start studying again?" we said unhappily.
"There's no time for studying now. This isn't the old regime. We've had
enough!" Hefty replied.
"You're stupid. Now at last we can really learn something," Kostya
"It's fellows like you Junior Bolsheviks that need some book-learning.
We old boys'll manage as it is. We know all we need to know."
That day Count Chatelains Urodenal and Jack, the Sailor's Companion
also got into a learned argument. War was declared.
We were given lump sugar and hot tea during the long recess. We had
never known such luxuries in the old school.
Now each of us received a large mug of carrot-tea and two lumps of
sugar. There was no sugar in the stores in Pokrovsk at the time, so that I
would have my tea in school without sugar and take the two precious lumps
home. My faithful Oska would be waiting for me. He always greeted me in the
"I've got news for you!" he'd say and go on to inform me of the day's
events in Schwambrania.
I would give him the sugar, and we would admire the snow-white, porous
cubes. We put them away in a little box that contained the sugar stores of
Schwambrania. It was not to be touched. It was intended for some future gala
events. On Sundays we each had a lump at the dinner given by the President
of Schwambrania. Our sugar stores kept growing. We made great plans as we
discussed the thickness of the future layers of sugar. The sweet geometry of
those daydreams brought about a wonderful flow of saliva.
Once, however, our sugar was the cause of bloodshed.
I was chosen to be in charge of handing out the sugar in my class. This
was not only a sweet job, but an honorary one. No one ever doubted my
"Huh, you're the commissar of food," the boys said. "Don't you think
you're a big cheese."
Hefty, who was a brash and enterprising fellow, once suggested a tricky
deal. It had to do with the left-over sugar intended for pupils who happened
to be absent. Hefty suggested that I hold back the extra portions instead of
returning them to the school office and then share them with him. Naturally,
this tempting deal held promise of a great windfall of sugar for
Schwambrania. If this had happened in our old school, I would never have
hesitated and would have considered it my sacred duty to outsmart the
authorities. Now, however, boys we had elected were on the Council. They
trusted me. They had chosen me for the job of distributing the sugar. I
couldn't betray them.
And so I refused, and my staunchness and honesty took my breath away.
Hefty got even with me that very day. As I was handing out the sugar, I
dropped several lumps. I bent under the desk to retrieve them. At that very
moment Hefty grabbed my collar and shoved my head down. I cracked my
forehead against the edge of the bench and was soon sporting a huge bump.
Besides, the cut was bleeding. Two of the lumps of sugar turned pink. The
girls stared at my forehead with pity and told me to put a wet compress on
it, but I went on handing out the sugar, trying not to get any blood on the
other lumps. I took the two pink ones for myself. Taya Opilova gave me her
handkerchief. Then, feeling bloody and exhilarated, I went down the hall to
the room next to the Teachers' Room. There was a bit of red bunting tacked
to the door. The room was full of smoke, noise and rifles.
"Comrades!" I said, addressing the smoke and the noise. "See? I'm
bleeding because of our sugar rations, and anyway, fellows, I've long since
accepted your platform. Please put me down as a sympathizer."
The noise lessened and the smoke increased. Someone said: "Your papa
will put you in the corner for sympathizing, and he'll make you take castor
oil to be sure you stop sympathizing. He's a doctor and he knows what to
The smoke hid my disappointment.
Nevertheless, I showed off the bump on my forehead proudly all week
long, just as if it were a decoration.
And the children in schools
wept for him.
"One Thousand and One
The 35th night
That morning I left for school earlier than I usually did, for I had to
stop by at the Education Department and pick up the sugar for my class.
There was a large silent crowd on Breshka Street where the morning
newspapers were posted on a wall outside a shop. I could not see the middle
of the sheet over the heads of the others. All I could make out were the
margins and the pale, greenish newsprint with the name of the newspaper:
I read the headline: "Battles Rage on All Fronts." At closer range I
read part of a usual dispatch: "...Our troops are still advancing in the
Urals and have taken several towns. Our forces have retreated to Yelabuga
Pier on the Kama. American troops have landed in Archangelsk. The workers of
Archangelsk refuse to support the rule of the Conciliators. The insurgents
continue their struggle in the Ukraine."
On the bottom of the page, below someone's elbow, I made out the small
type of yesterday's paper:
"The food section of the Moscow Council of Workers' and Soldiers'
Deputies brings the following to the attention of all inhabitants of Moscow.
Tomorrow, August 30, no bread ration cards of the general type will be
honoured. One-quarter of a pound of bread will be issued to holders of the
stub of the additional bread ration card and of children's cards for ages 2
to 12, coupon No. 13...."
The crowd was strangely silent. I could not understand what was wrong.
Then the Czech, Kardac, the Austrian prisoner-of-war, and two Red Guards
made their way through the crowd to the newspaper. Kardac was very pale. One
of his puttees had got loose and was trailing along the ground.
"Read it out loud," he said.
Someone read the following:
August 30, 1918. 10:40 p.m.
Several hours ago there was a heinous attempt to assassinate Comrade
Lenin.... We call for calm and organization. All should remain at their
posts. Close your ranks!
(Signed) Y. Sverdlov,
Chairman, All-Russia Central Executive Committee.
Kardac was stunned. He stared unbelievingly into the mouth of the man
who was reading. Then he struck his fist against his cheek and moaned.
"One bullet entering under the left shoulder blade..." the voice went
on reading and stumbled.
"So," Hefty said calmly and tore off a corner of the paper to roll
himself a cigarette. Kardac rushed at him, grabbed him by the shoulders and
began shaking him. "I'll roll you up so tight you'll shrivel!" he shouted.
The Red Guards shouldered their way over. Hefty broke free. He walked away
without once looking back.
I dashed off to school.
Lenin was wounded! Lenin! The most important man. The man who had
undertaken to destroy all the lists of world-wide injustice had been
The school building buzzed like a beehive.
The Juniors and some of our boys were lying on the floor in our
classroom. They had borrowed an anatomical chart from the Teachers' Room and
spread it out. Stabbing at it with our pencils, we tried to decide whether
the wounds were dangerous or not. Kostya Beetle was sitting on his desk with
his chin propped on o hand and his penknife in the other. "What if he ...
dies?" Kostya said in a d voice. Then he carved the name "LENIN" on the top
of his desk. Mokeich, c janitor and the keeper of all school property, came
in just then. He looked Kostya severely and opened his mouth to scold him
for spoiling the desk, which now belonged to the people, but then sighed,
stood there silently for a while a finally left.
Heavy steps sounded on the stairs. The Seniors stopped outside the door
with 1 red bunting to stack their rifles. Forsunov and Stepan Atlantis, two
members oft Council, entered our classroom during the long recess. Stepan
was just back from Saratov with the latest news.
"Comrade Lenin's condition..." Forsunov read the dispatch aloud,
"condition ... according to the evening bulletins has improved considerably.
I temperature is 37.6, pulse-88, respiration-34."
"Listen," Atlantis said to me, "we want to ask you for a favour. Your
old ma a doctor. Call him up and ask him what he thinks about Comrade Lent
Several minutes later I was pressing the receiver to my ear. It was
still warm from someone having used the telephone before me. I was
surrounded by respectful crowd.
"Is this the hospital? May I speak to the doctor, please.... Papa? This
is me. The boys here and the Council asked me to ask you ... about Comrade
Lenin. His respiration's thirty-four. Is that dangerous?"
Papa replied in his usual doctor's voice, "It's too early to say
anything definitive yet, but it's very serious. However, there is still no
reason to fear a fatal o come."
"Thank him for us," Stepan whispered.
That day we learned a new song in our singing class. It had a
fine-sounding 1 difficult name: "The Internationale".
Back home Oska greeted me as always, "I've got news for you!"
"I know," I said, interrupting. "Everybody knows. Papa said he may
That was the first evening we did not play Schwambrania.
THE CODE WORDS OF SCHWAMBRANIA
I learned my ABCs
Wading through pages
of tin and iron.
Oska was enrolled in school. Oska was now a full-fledged schoolboy.
Kocherygin, a house painter and artist who was temporarily put in
charge of the primary grades, wrote the following on Oska's application:
"He's lacking in age, but he's accepted, on account of being bright. He can
read fine print."
When Mamma came home she sounded truly surprised as she called Oska and
said, "They've accepted you! What a shame that the boys don't wear uniforms
any more." Mamma was very proud of him.
"Just think how much sugar we'll have now!" Oska said dreamily. "I'll
be getting sugar, too."
I lectured to him in brief on "The New Boy, His Rights and Duties, or
How not to Get Beaten".
Oska wore my old school cap on his first day. The cap revolved freely
on his head.
"Why'd you put that on?" the temporary principal asked, peering down to
get a look at him under the visor.
"That's my uniform."
"I still think you're much too little to be starting in school."
"I guess you think you're big, don't you?" Oska said, having confused
the main points of my lecture as to what to say to whom.
However, he shut up just in time.
"That's no way to talk. After all, you're a doctor's son. Is that the
way they bring up their children?"
"I'm sorry. I got mixed up. I wanted to say good things come in small
"Can you really read small print?" Kocherygin inquired. There was
undisguised respect in his voice.
"Yes. And I can read big print from across the street, and all the
street signs, and I know a lot of them by heart."
"The street signs, you say?" The former sign-painter warmed to him
"You really mean it? By heart? All right, tell me what's on the signs
on the corner of Khorolsky and Breshka streets."
Oska was silent for a moment. Then he rattled off the following:
"Ararat fruit shop fruits wines P. Batrayev stovemaker chimneys swept no
"I did the signs," the temporary principal said modestly.
"You have a very good handwriting." Oska was a very polite boy.
"What's the new sign on the Stock Exchange?"
"The 'Stock Exchange' part is crossed out and it doesn't count. It says
'Freedom House' now."
"Right. Run along, sonny. You've been enrolled."
"A new boy, a new boy!" the children chanted when Oska entered the
"Better than an old boy!" Oska replied hurriedly, recalling my
The children were astounded.
He was spared a beating.
Richard Sinyagin, a wrestler known as the Steel Mask and a former
stevedore was our gym teacher. At the time an International wrestling match
was being held in the Saratov Circus. Richard Sinyagin went to Saratov to
participate in the match. The referee, one Benedetto, presented him to the
audience as "The Mystery wrestler. The Steel Mask". Soon after playbills
informed the public that there would be "a decisive bout to the end, with no
time limit, no break between rounds". The contestants were the Steel Mask
and the Mask of Death. Naturally, all this was pure hocus-pocus. The
wrestlers puffed and grunted conscientiously K the forty minutes they had
previously agreed upon, after which the Steel Mask threw himself expertly to
the mut. When the audience's palms had begun to stir from clapping and the
noise finally died down, the referee wrung his hands gingerly and announced:
"Alas! The Mask of Death has won in forty-five minutes in fair combat.
Richard Sinyagin, Champion of the World and of Pokrovsk, is the Steel Mask."
In school the next day Sinyagin tried his best to convince us that he
had be< thrown unfairly. The boys did not hide their disapproval. Then, in
order to pro his strength, Sinyagin let about eight boys climb all over him
like monkeys on tree. Then he lifted a desk, with Madame Hippo and two of
her friends seated on the attached bench. He raised the desk and its
inhabitants and set it on another desk. "There," he said.
At this, the lesson ended.
THE RIGHTS AND DUTIES OF A NEW BOY
We boys always respected strong men. Now we worshipped them. The
staring game was completely forgotten, and wrestling became king. It
squashed us in "decisive, no time limit" bouts, contorted us and threw us in
standing backheels and armlocks, battering us from wall to wall in the
classrooms and down the long corridors, bruising our backs on the tile
floors, with Hefty Martynenko the one exception, for his back never touched
the floor. Hefty was the champion of champions, the unchallenged champion of
the school and the vicinity.
Naturally, all this had a definite influence on the affairs of state in
Schwambrania. We had always imagined the world to be divided in two. At
first, there were "desirable and undesirable acquaintances". Then there were
seafarers and landlubbers, the good and the bad. After my fateful
conversation with Stepan Atlantis, I came to realize that "good" and "bad"
were no longer sufficient for judging things. We now discovered a new
division among people, and this was to be yet another of our errors. The
world and the Schwambranians were now divided into strong men and weaklings.
From that day on the lives of the Schwambranians were spent in endless
championship matches and contests. One Pafnuti Synecdoche became Champion of
Schwambrania, his might eclipsing even that of Jack, the Sailor's Companion,
the man who threw Chatelains Urodenal.
Oska became obsessed with wrestling. He was the smallest child in his
class. Any boy could throw him, even with one arm tied behind his back, as
the saying goes. However, once he got home he made up for his wounded pride
by wrestling the chairs and pillows. He had table-tournaments between his
two hands, with each one squeezing and wringing the other until the right
hand finally threw the left, knocking it silly. Oska's most constant and
serious opponent was the sofa bolster. Quite often Oska would be found on
the floor of the nursery with his arms flung out and the bolster on top of
him, supposedly having thrown him.
"That's against the rules!" Oska would shout. "He tripped me and then
got me in a nelson!"
The bolster won the return match as well, but was punished by being
taken out in the yard and beaten with a rug beater.
Then Oska arranged a bout between Kolya Anfisov of the primary school
and Grisha Fyodorov, the second strongest boy in my class. The bout was held
in our yard on a Sunday, with all the preparations having been made the
previous day. The mat was drawn on the ground with a piece of chalk, and the
inside of the circle was swept and sprinkled with sand. When the fans
crowded round the next day, Oska took out a toy whistle and I said:
"We will now see, I mean witness, a wrestling match between two strong
Presenting Anfisov (Primary School) and Fyodorov (Secondary School).
This is going to be a bout without breaks, an honest fight, with no time
limit or monkey-business, to the bitter end. Let's have a fanfare. Maestro!
Whistle again, Oska! We all know a foul when we see one. Jury, I mean
judges, take your seats by the barrel."
Oska, Hefty and Filipich, the janitor, went over to the bench by the
barrel. I called the first round.
The champions shook hands and danced away from each other. Anfisov was
tall and bony. Fyodorov was small and stocky, and resembled a Shetland pony.
They stalked each other for several seconds, then suddenly Anfisov grabbed
Fyodorov, pinning his arms to his body.
The audience froze. Even the wind in the yard died down.
"Leggo o'his arms!" Filipich yelled.
"Let go!" the older boys shouted.
"That's fair!" the younger boys cried.
I whistled. Oska tooted. The jury squabbled, and during all this
commotion Anfisov threw Fyodorov.
"Hooray! It's all fair and square!" the younger boys shouted.
"You can get a hand through! It doesn't count!" the big boys yelled,
but no matter how I tried, I couldn't squeeze my hand under Fyodorov's
shoulder-blades, for they were pressed hard to the ground. Shame burned us
as a brand. Fyodorov rose sheepishly and shook the dust off his clothes.
"Why don't you lie down again? Take a rest," Hefty jeered.
The future stretched ahead like a graveyard.
The runts were jubilant. Hefty finally lunged at them, slamming their
champion down first. He then proceeded to slaughter the innocents, driving
the small boys into a far corner of the yard and then stacking them like
That was when Stepan Atlantis entered the yard. "Pardon me as a matter
of procedure, but what's the fight on the agenda today?"
I told him what had happened. Hefty shifted the pile of small boys into
a floundering pyramid and came over to us.
"A bunch of big louts like you playing at wrestling. Fooling around in
decisive times like these!"
"You're all wrong, Stepan. This does wonders for you. Here, feel my
muscle. See what 1 mean? If a fellow's strong, he don't give a damn for
anyone. You know why you and Lelya stick to the Juniors? Because you're both
yellow. You think if you can't fend for yourselves, your gang'll come
running. Ha! Well, I can do without your gang. I can stick up for myself.
See my fist?"
"All brawn and no brain," Stepan said. "What do you think you can do
all by yourself? Where'11 it get you? If our gang, as you say, or, actually,
society goes after you, you'll never know what hit you. That's how strong we
"Sure, if it's everybody against one. But that's not fair."
"Was it fair when everybody had to work for one boss? How many hired
hands did your fat old man drive like slaves?"
"What's the matter? Did you forget your family has a farm, too?"
"Don't you compare us. Our plot was the size of a hankie. You had an
orchard and a garden, and land stretching off in all directions."
"But those damn comrades of yours set up a commune there and chased us
"1 know all about it. You tried to bury your grain in the cellar when
people were starving, but I made my old man give up whatever we could spare.
And don't think my mother wasn't after me! I had to stay over at Kostya
Beetle's place. And then he had to hide out at my place. We're all for one
and one for all. And we're against people like you."
"You mean you'd go against your own friends?" Hefty said very softly.
"Former friends." Stepan's voice was barely audible.
Silence slipped across the yard like a shadow. Then Hefty sighed loudly
and headed towards the gate. He was slumped over. His shoulder blades, which
had never known defeat, looked as if they had at last touched the mat.
THE WORLD IS A CHAMPIONSHIP MATCH
The next day my class decided to spend the algebra lesson analysing the
scrap between Hefty and Atlantis. Hefty sullenly refused to participate. We
were expecting Alexander Karlovich, our math teacher, but instead a strange
little old man in a clean and well-pressed tunic entered the classroom. He
was puny, nearsighted and bald, with a brush of mousy hair growing up around
his bald pate, so that it resembled a lagoon in an atoll.
"Who's the bald dome?" Hefty inquired.
The class roared.
"Eh-mew-eh.... This?" the old man said, poking a finger at his lowered
"Un ... nothing special," Hefty replied. He had not expected such a
"Perhaps baldness has now been ... eh-mew-eh ... outlawed?" the old man
Everyone gazed at him respectfully.
"Not at all. Any way you like." Hefty did not know how to get out of
"That's very kind of you. Let's get acquainted.... Eh-mew-eh.... I'm
your new history teacher. My name is Semyon Ignatyevich Kirikov. Eh ...
mew-eh.... Good morning, troglodytes!"
This was a word we had never heard before and so we were at a loss, not
knowing whether he had meant it as praise or whether it was an insult.
Stepan Atlantis rose.
"I've a question to ask. What rock did you crawl out from under? That's
in the first place. And what did you call us? That's in the second."
The troglodytes stamped their feet and rattled their desk tops.
"Sit down, you creature. Troglodytes were ... eh ... mew-eh ... were
cavemen, cave dwellers, primitive people. Our ... eh-mew-eh ...
great-great-great-progenitors, our forefathers, while you ... eh-mew-eh ...
you are young troglodytes."
"Does that mean I'm a troglodytess?" Madame Hippo demanded.
"Not at all! You are positively a mammoths or a brontosauruses."
"He's all right!" we whispered excitedly.
The old man turned out to be a cunning conqueror. By the time the first
lesson was over he had captivated us completely. Stepan, who was never
lavish with praise, conceded that "the old man's all right". We had no
trouble giving our new teacher a nickname. We named him E-muet, the French
mute "e", and pronounced it in French, eh-mew-eh. Kirikov did not enunciate
his words. He seemed to chew on them, mumbling in between and peppering each
phrase with his constant eh-mew-ehs. E-muet did not take offence. He was
cheerful and kindly. The girls wrote notes to him.
E-muet called each of us a creature.
"Creature Aleferenko! Rise!"
And Aleferenko would rise.
"Now then, creature. Let's go back ... eh-mew-eh ... you cave dweller,
to what we spoke of at our last lesson."
"We spoke of hand picks and the Stone Age. It was all awfully boring
and prehistoric. No wars. No nothing."
"Be seated, creature. Today's lesson will be duller still."
And he would drone on dishing out the next portion of prehistoric
information. Having rattled it off, he would immediately cheer up, post a
sentry at the door and spend the other half of the lesson reading aloud to
us from a 1912 copy of Satirikon, a humorous magazine, or else he would tell
us hunting yarns. An attentive silence was one of the honours bestown upon
Kirikov. His triumphant bald pate gradually acquired an aura of glory. He
became a living legend. Despite his near-sightedness, E-muet had discovered
that the class was divided into various parties, and so he, too, divided us
into troglodytes (the old school boys) and anthropoids (the Juniors). This
completely won over the old school boys.
However, it somehow seemed to me that every now and then something so
vague you couldn't put your finger on it, but something evil and familiar
poked its ugly head out of this kindly old man. It would rise up at the end
of some of his jokes, apparent but as unpronounceable as e-muet, the mute
"e" in French.
At his fourth lesson E-muet addressed a long speech to us. He even
mumbled and hemmed and hawed less than usual that day. However, there was a
strong smell of liquor on his breath.
"Troglodytes and anthropoids! I want to light the sacred fire of truth
in your caves. I will tell you why they make me tell you about troglodytes,
but forbid me to tell you about emperors. Listen, my primitive brothers,
mammoths and brontosauruses ... eh-mew-eh.... History has ended...."
"No, it hasn't! The bell for recess didn't ring yet!" someone shouted.
"Which protozoan amoeba said that? I'm not speaking of our history
lesson. I'm speaking ... eh-mew-eh ... of the history of mankind ... of its
magnificent, martial history, so full of pomp and circumstance. History has
come full circle. The Bolsheviks have turned Russia back ... eh-mew-eh ...
to the primitive state, to the primordial darkness. There is chaos
everywhere, and ruin.... There is no kerosene.... We shall lose our fire....
We shall be naked ... for there is no cloth.... A return to bestial
primitiveness awaits us, my dear troglodytes.... The iron tracks for our
trains will become evergrown! Eh-mew-eh ... the last match will go out, and
the primordial night will be upon us."
"How can it, when there'll be electricity everywhere?" Stepan cried.
"Shut up! He's right!" Hefty said. "The commune wrecked everything on
"Who cares about primitive times? Tell us about when there were
knights!" someone shouted.
Everyone began stamping. The troglodytes jumped over their desks.
"So let's get down on all fours, my dear troglodytes," E-muet said
cheerfully, "and let's raise a hoary cry in praise of the eternal night into
which we shall descend. Raghhhh! Ow-ww!"
"Ow-ww!" everyone hawled gleefully.
Some, throwing themselves into the act, scrambled down the aisles on
all fours, making the rest of the class double over. Then someone began to
Ah, when the night's dark,
Oh, I'm so scared then,
My own Marusya!
Stop your chatter,
See me home first.
At the lectern Kirikov was chanting like a witch doctor. Once again
something very familiar flitted across his contorted face, but I couldn't
seem to grasp that elusive "something". I, too, was caught up in macabre
merriment of my classmates. I felt that I, too, wanted to crawl and howl a
bit. The lack of a tail was disappointing, but did not really spoil the
general impression. I could practically feel the soil of Schwambrania
shuddering under the heavy tread of the advancing mammoths.
"Hey, fellows, stop it!" Kostya Beetle shouted, coming to his senses.
"Tell them he's pulling the wool over their eyes, Stepan. Hey, Stepan!"
But Stepan had disappeared. I hated to think that he had run off. The
mammoths raised their trunks like question marks and stopped at the
Schwambranian border, not knowing what to do.
Forsunov, President of the Student Council, and then Stepan came
running in. The troglodytes were instantly swept forward into the 20th
century. The mammoths galloped off the Big Tooth Continent. Kirikov's bald
pate lost its shine.
"You can get into a lot of trouble for filling their heads with such
nonsense," Forsunov said softly.
"You lousy bourgeois. You saboteur!" Stepan added, sticking his head
over Forsunov's shoulder.
"Eh-mew-eh, I was simply presenting the basic ideas of, eh-mew-eh,
anarchism Naked man on the naked earth, and no personal property."
"Toadstool!" I shouted joyously, taking myself by surprise.
"Toadstool," I repeated with conviction, for I had recreated the nettle-man
in my mind's eye, our summer of Kvasnikovka, the many clocks and watches,
Death-Cap-Poison-Emi and the personal property of the bald man with the
sack. And now E-muet, a mut and silent "e", had become an open "e".
Kirikov was exposed and relieved of his teaching post. The anthropoids
welcomed his removal, but the troglodytes, led by Hefty, resented it. They
began plotting their revenge, choosing the following day as the date for the
massacre of the Juniors and calling it a "universal ruckus".
"We're going to have a St. Bartholomew's Night tomorrow morning," I
whispered to Oska that night.
Oska, who was always one to confuse -words when he was wide awake, now
mumbled sleepily, "Are they going to kill the Hottentots?"
"The Huguenots, not the Hottentots, and, anyway, not the Huguenots at
all, but the Juniors, and they're not going to kill them dead, they'll just
beat them up."
"Did tryglodytors fight in the arena in Ancient Rome, too?" he suddenly
"No, gladiators. Troglodytes are...."
There were still a few lost mammoths roaming about in Schwambrania. I
told Oska they were hiding out among the huge prehistoric ferns.
"Fammoths graze in the merns," he mumbled sleepily.
E-MUET AND THE TROGLODYTES
The universal ruckus was invented ages ago. It was the greatest and
most terrible kind of schoolboy revolt. A universal ruckus was only resorted
to in extreme cases, when all other means of resisting the authorities
failed. I had never yet witnessed such an event, though school legends still
recalled the last one. It had taken place in 1912, after the three
ringleaders of an attack on the principal's doorman had been expelled. The
doorman had informed on the boys and had been pelted with rotten eggs.
And so, the troglodytes decided to declare a Great General Universal
Ruckus, with Hefty in command. He looked somewhat preoccupied when he came
to school the next morning, but he was calm. There was an ugly semblance of
calm in the air. No one played "Chopsticks". No one wrestled. No one played
the staring game. The corridor, always a churning stream, emptied the moment
the bell rang. The stunned teachers walked along this strangely deserted
river bed. They were greeted by a dead silence when they entered their
Our first lesson was Russian grammar. The teacher, a curly-haired,
blond-bearded man named Melkovsky, peeped in the door cautiously. The moment
he appeared the troglodytes, displaying their former training, jumped to
their feet like so many jack-in-the-boxes and stood at attention by their
desks. The anthropoids and Stepan were a few moments behind the others. The
general upward sweep lifted me, too. We stood there respectfully at
"Now, now! Be seated everyone," Melkovsky said and waved his hand, for
he had become unaccustomed to such reverence.
The pupils were settling back slowly. Melkovsky tested the lectern with
the tip of his shoe. It did not explode. Then he mounted it cautiously.
"The morning prayer, Monitor!" Hefty snapped.
"Are you crazy?" Stepan said.
An oppressive silence descended upon us.
"0, Gracious Saviour, bless us this day and..." Volodya Labanda, the
monitor that day, intoned.
Some of the boys were crossing themselves from force of habit. "Perhaps
I'd better leave," Melkovsky mumbled. He was thoroughly confused.
Just then the monitor popped up beside him, carrying the class journal,
and the puzzled teacher heard the monitor's patter, as in the "good old"
Boys School days:
"Absent today are Stepan Gavrya, Konstantin Rudenko, Nikolai
Makukhin..." and he went on to read the list of all the Juniors.
"Wait! Stop!" supposedly absent boys shouted and jumped to their feet.
"You're lying! We're here!"
"You'll soon be absent," Hefty said. There was a smirk on his face.
"The Ruckus is on, troglodytes!" He stuck two fingers in his mouth and
whistled so shrilly it hurt our ears.
The "B" class in the adjoining room whistled back. Then eight other
whistles were carried down the corridor, and a rumble echoed through the
school. Classes were disrupted. The Juniors were dragged out by the feet,
thrown out the doors and windows. Textbooks fluttered down, flapping their
pages like huge butterflies. The girls took care of the shrieking and
screaming part of it. Ink was shed in our classroom. A blackboard was being
carried down the hall like an icon. "Attention, everybody! Down with the
anthropoid Juniors! Long live S. I. Kirikov! Demand his reinstatement," the
message on the blackboard read.
Five minutes later there was not a single anthropoid left in the
building. Troglodyte patrols were guarding the exits. The desks had all been
The Great Universal Ruckus had begun.
A GREAT, UNIVERSAL RUCKUS
The Commissar tethered his horse to the door. Then he pulled up his
boots and stalked down the corridor. It was deserted. Everyone was at an
emergency meeting in a large classroom turned into an auditorium. Hefty sat
at a table on the rostrum, looking well in the role of chairman and victor.
He was flanked by Forsunov and a senior named Rothmeller, the son of a
wealthy sausage merchant. Rothmeller had just finished speaking. Forsunov
was gazing at the table.
A troglodyte patrol was guarding the entrance. The Juniors, rather the
worse for wear and hardly anthropoids any longer, were laying siege to the
door. The troglodytes moved aside to let the commissar through. Stepan
Atlantis slipped in under cover of his broad back, but the troglodytes
dragged him back into the corridor.
"The next speaker is Commissar Chubarkov," Hefty said.
"And that's that!" the boys shouted in unison.
"What's the ruckus?"
"It's universal!" came a chorus.
"Wait a minute, boys!"
"We're not minute-boys!"
"Comrades!" the Commissar said.
"We're no comrades of yours!"
"Then who are you?" Chubarkov was getting really angry.
"Tro-glo-dytes!" they chanted.
"What? Trouble-tykes? All right. That's enough! I say it's time to stop
the nonsense. And that's that."
"Where were you before?" they jeered.
"Meaning what?" Chubarkov thundered. "It's a stupid question. You
didn't dare open your mouths when Stomolitsky was the principal. And that's
for sure! I can just see him getting into a debate with you! He'd put your
names down in the Black Book in no time, or have you expelled."
"And that's that!" someone yelled from the back rows where the worst of
the die-hard troglodytes clustered. "And that's all there is to it! We want
The troglodytes were out of control. However, it was no easy job to
outshout the booming voice of the former Volga stevedore accustomed to
speaking at mass meetings.
"I really am surprised," he was saying slowly and forcefully, and the
noise began to die down. "Can't you understand what's happening? You're
getting a modern education. What's so fascinating about all those tsars?
Here in the Common Work School you'll get to know about your people, about
where they came from, how they got to be what they are, and about their
development. As for Kirikov, who turned out to be a black-marketeer on the
side, all he did was stuff your heads full of nonsense. What sort of
darkness was he talking about when education brings light? Enlightenment.
And don't you forget that under the old regime they kept this light from the
workers and the peasants. They wanted to keep them ignorant and backward.
Can you imagine all the people that are going to get an education now? Take
me, for instance." He suddenly became shy. "As soon as things quiet down,
I'll be going off to Petrograd to study, too. Now why, comrades, do you and
those uh, trouble-tykes, let every no-good, low-down snake-in-the-grass turn
your young eyes away from the truth and keep the other fellows from getting
out of that old primitive darkness and into the light? Why do you think
they're worse than you? You think their daddies aren't as rich as yours?"
What followed was to become legend. A deafening clatter was heard in
the corridor, followed by Mokeich shouting: "Stop! Where d'you think you're
The troglodyte guard at the door suddenly parted, and Stepan Atlantis
galloped into the auditorium astride the Commissar's horse. The Juniors
burst in after him, sweeping away whatever remained of the guards.
"Whoa! He got loose! I barely managed to catch him, Comrade Commissar."
Indeed, Stepan was a wily fellow.
The horse whinnied softly.
"Excuse me," the Commissar said. He was apparently addressing his
horse. "I'll be through here in a minute, that's for sure. This is what I
think, boys. You've had your row, and now it's time to settle down. We'll
put it to a vote to make it legal, and that's that!"
Hefty and Rothmeller were whispering uneasily. Stepan, still astride
the Commissar's horse, looked the troglodytes over. The horse shifted its
weight delicately, as if fearful of stepping on someone's toes. Hefty rose.
His former swagger was gone. Once again Stepan had won the day.
"They've ridden roughshod over you," Hefty said.
No one replied. Our math teacher, Alexander Karlovich Bertelyov, went
over to the table on the rostrum. He was serious, as always.
"My friends!" he said and dropped his pince-nez nervously. Then, for
the next few minutes, he slapped his hand around on the table nearsightedly,
as if he were trying to catch a grasshopper. He finally located his
pince-nez and brought the world back into focus again. He continued: "My
friends, I am not interested in politics and am not used to your mass
meetings. I have only asked for the floor from a purely scientific point of
view. It so happened that, due to an oversight on our part, Kirikov, and no
offence meant, tried to teach you something that was pure, unadulterated
hogwash. A lot of obscurantist nonsense that could never stand up to
criticism, and certainly not from a purely scientific point of view. In the
end, the revolution leads to progress. It brings great new layers of the
population into contact with education. And you, my friends, want to stand
in their way. But you have no right to! How could you? Why, it's a crime
from a scientific point of view! Many comrades ... Juniors, as you call them
... are very gifted in mathematics. Take Rudenko, for instance. He's a very
fast learner. But you, my friends, have been poisoned by the die-hard spirit
of the old school and are used to thinking that attending classes is a
shameful way of spending your time. For shame! In conclusion, I would like
to tell you a historical anecdote. The Roman emperor Caligula once brought
his horse into the senate and ordered the senators to bow to it. I would
never have bowed to that arrogant creature, my friends. However, if today
the presence of Comrade Chubarkov's horse at this meeting will further the
establishment of friendly relations and order in the school, then today, on
behalf of science, I bow my head to our four-legged guest."
At this Alexander Karlovich bowed to the horse.
The horse backed away nervously at the sound of the deafening applause
that followed. The matter was then taken to a vote, which brought defeat to
Hefty and his troglodytes. Everyone pledged to start studying in earnest,
beginning the very next day. Then Stepan made a short speech from the
"E-muet in French is a letter you write but don't ever pronounce. So I
have a suggestion. It'll make things easier for us and do them a good turn
while they're at it. Let's write a letter to the French workers, or to their
children, and tell them to do away with that e-muet."
The proposal to write such a letter to the children of France was
unanimously adopted. As we were about to disperse, a group of Red Army men
suddenly entered the auditorium.
"There! See? He wanted to shut us up by force!" Hefty shouted.
Everyone was startled.
"Quiet, everybody!" one of the men said. "Let's be a little more
disciplined here. Comrades! The close proximity of the front lines has put
the town under martial law. The 4th Army will need this building for its
headquarters. Please see that the building is cleared tomorrow, Comrade
No one spoke. Then, in the stillness, the commissar's horse breathed in
loudly and whinnied.
The horses of the 4th Army that were tethered outside whinnied in
The town became a large army camp. Countless wagon trains lumbered up
and down the streets, tying themselves into knots at the intersections.
Unshaven men in greatcoats untangled the knots. They were in charge of the
town. Orderlies rode their horses up onto the pavements, handing in and
accepting envelopes at the windows of the various offices. The camels in the
wagon trains threw their heads back and bellowed loudly. Their sticky saliva
fell upon Breshka Street. The camel drivers shouted hoarsely: "Tratr! Tratr!
Chok! Chok!" Fountains of spray rose on the river where shells hit the water
and then fell helplessly back again seconds later. Finally, a slow-motion
boom would come crashing down upon the town. Soldiers practised throwing
hand grenades on the river bank.
An elephantine-like armoured car raised its cannon-trunk on the square.
The live camels were followed by hopping iron ostriches, those dock-tailed
gigs with tall stacks, the army field kitchens. It seemed then to Oska and
me that the vehicles on the square were playing our favourite game of animal
lotto called "The Cameroons Races", where each card had a picture of a
running elephant, camel or ostrich. Near the storehouses some men were
moving a pile of barrels with black numbers painted on the bottoms. A fat
man would call out a number, another man would consult some papers and then
stamp them, as if the rubber stamp were a large lotto disc. Every now and
then a rider on a lathered horse would appear.
"What about accommodations?" they'd be asked.
"Everything's full up!"
And the players had to crawl under the trucks to sleep.
A strange sign had been put up on the school building. It read:
"Travtochok". Translated into everyday language, it was supposed to stand
for something like:
"Vehicles of the special column's automotive unit". Actually, though,
no one knew exactly what the mysterious "Travtochok" stood for.
Not more than two or three automobiles were usually parked outside of
"Travtochok", but the former school yard was always jam-packed with camels.
The people of Pokrovsk lost no time in renaming the unpronounceable
"Travtochok" into Tratrchok, which, when translated from camel-language,
meant "whoa" and "giddiyap".
Our school began moving from one place to another. In the beginning, we
were transferred to the former seminary building. A day later we were moved
to a small house with a fire-tower. Naturally, the tower drew us like a
magnet. It seemed to beg us to use it for some prank, if only to spit on the
heads of passers-by or shout "Fire!". However, we did not feel up to pranks.
There was a restlessness in the crowded classrooms, and boys talked in
whispers in the back rows. The day after the general ruckus Volodya Labanda
stopped Alexander Karlovich in the street.
Volodya stared at the ground and scuffed the dirt with the tip of his
shoe like a horse as he said: "You talked about Kostya Rudenko being so
gifted. I used to do math problems pretty good, too, didn't I? You said I
was good in math, too."
"Of course I remember. You definitely have a good head for mathematics,
but you're lazy."
"No, I'm not. We just felt like horsing around since freedom was
declared. I don't think it was fair of you to talk about the Juniors like
that and not say anything good about anybody else. They'll think they're
better than everybody now."
"Aha! So my arrow struck home!" Alexander Karlovich exclaimed. He
sounded quite pleased. "Well, why don't you try to catch up with them? I
must warn you, though, that it won't be easy. They're doing quadratic
"We'll manage. You'll see!"
"FIGHTING CONTINUES ON ALL FRONTS"
That very same day we agreed that the Juniors had become stuck-up and
that we could not tolerate such a state of affairs any longer. Which meant
we would have to catch up with them. The girls promised to keep up with us.
We retrieved our dusty schoolbooks and amazed our parents by poring over
them. We discovered that we had dropped very far behind and had to stay
after school and study till late at night at home in order to catch up.
Alexander Karlovich, who had lost weight on a teacher's skimpy food rations,
would selflessly stay on after classes. We stole bread for him from the
storeroom and placed it on the lectern. He would proudly refuse it, but
then, being carried away by a problem, would begin pinching off pieces
unthinkingly, until he had accidentally eaten it all.
"That's some freedom you've got! You used to be swell fellows, but now
you're all bookworms. Why don't you go ahead and ask them to give you marks?
Ah!" Hefty would say and spit in disgust.
He was especially hard on Stepan, who said he couldn't care less and
went on studying furiously, for he told us that revolutionaries had to climb
right onto the barricades of learning, too.
We felt we had covered so much ground in algebra in two and a half
weeks that we asked Alexander Karlovich to test one of us. He called on
Labanda. The Juniors were amazed. Never before had the pupils been so
intent. The only sound in the classroom was that of the chalk hitting
against the blackboard as it produced heavy white figures. Labanda was doing
a problem that involved a reservoir and two pipes. Everything was proceeding
nicely. Water kept pouring in through one pipe and out through the other. It
soon became clear that if both pipes were open the reservoir would fill in
six hours. But then suddenly something happened and it began draining as we
watched. Labanda had hit a shoal. He chewed on his nail.
"Think," Alexander Karlovich said.
"I'm thinking," Labanda said unhappily. "If we subtract two pipes from
Go back to the beginning and do all your figuring out loud."
We had spotted the mistake. Labanda had written a minus sign instead of
a plus sign at the very start. Now the minus had surfaced and stoppered up
one of the pipes. We were dying to prompt him. However, we did not want to
expose his lack of knowledge, not with the Juniors looking on. Just then we
heard someone whispering. Someone was prompting. It was Kostya
Rudenko-Beetle. And then the rest of the class, which had once been known
for its imaginative prompting and shameless cribbing, the class that had
always considered it a terrible crime to refuse to offer illegal help, this
very same class now began stamping loudly to drown out the whispering voice.
The boys shouted:
"Quit it, Rudenko! Let him do it himself!"
This bucked Labanda up. He concentrated, found the error and solved the
problem. Then, in order to inform Pokrovsk of this, we raised a flag on the
fire-tower. We had painted the following message on it: "X= 18 pails".
THE "B" GRADE'S PROGRESS
Our joy did not last long.
Two days later Labanda rushed into the room and said that the parallel
"B" grade, which we had more or less forgotten about, since it was now
located in another building, was up to equations of the highest order with
several unknown quantities. It didn't seem possible.
"You're lying!" someone shouted.
"Tell us another!" Stepan said.
"I'll drop dead if I am!" Labanda even crossed himself.
We were crushed.
At this point Kostya Beetle said he knew how to solve them and would
show the "B's" how to do it. Stepan was dead set against it. He said it
didn't count if only one person could do them, it would just be singling out
the best pupil, like before, but that what counted was if everybody could do
them. Once again we all rushed to our textbooks. We would come back to
school in the evenings and Kostya would help us. Hefty never came to these
after-school sessions. He would say that a hungry stomach was not fit for
learning, that this was no time for studying and that, anyway, he could
solve any problem we could and better. When all the unknown quantities were
brought out into the open, we challenged the "B's" to an algebra match. They
accepted the challenge. We decided it would be a joint written test in
algebra, with teams made up of the best mathematicians in each grade. Stepan
Gavrya, Volodya Labanda, Kostya Beetle, Zoya 'Beanpole, and I were on the
"A" team. Hefty joined us the day before the test. We were very reluctant
about having him on the team, but he swore he wouldn't let us down.
ALGEBRA ON THE FIRE-TOWER
The evening before the test our team met at school for a last practice
session. Alexander Karlovich, looking very weary, made us review the whole
book. Then he gave us several tricky problems which we finally solved. He
was very pleased from a "purely scientific point of view", .but he gasped
when he looked at the clock, for it was midnight, and since we were under
martial law, there was an eleven o'clock curfew.
"Well, comrades, tnat means we spend the night in the kennel. That's
"Come on. If they stop us we'll say we're going to the drugstore for
medicine," Labanda said.
Stepan and I walked along together. A searchlight swept the low, heavy
sky. Someone was singing: "Ah, when the night's dark". A military patrol
stopped us at the corner.
"We're going to the drugstore. He's the doctor's son. We've got to get
there," Stepan said.
"You don't say? And what are you going for? Castor oil?" the Red Army
"How'd you guess? That's just what we need. You see...."
"Wait a bit and you'll get a big dose of it. Lapanin!" the soldier
called. "Take these two fellows in."
We were escorted to headquarters, where we met some other midnight
seekers of castor oil. A short while later Alexander Karlovich was brought
in. He was indignant from every possible point of view.
"Good evening, Alexander Karlovich!" Stepan said cheerfully.
"I'd say it was good night," the teacher muttered. "Nice to see you all
Next the soldiers brought in a glum-looking black-marketeer. He was
carrying a big sack. "Who came in last?" he said matter-of-factly.
"I did. Why?" Alexander Karlovich replied.
"I'll be next after you tomorrow morning and don't forget!" The man
then stretched out on the floor. He was snoring a moment later.
Heavy clouds of cheap tobacco smoke curled up under the electric bulb.
Our guard was examining one of his boots intently, tapping the welt with his
rifle butt. This night before the test was passing sleeplessly, stupidly.
Two hours later Chubarkov phoned. We were finally released. Alexander
Karlovich stopped at the threshold, having recalled something, and turned
back. He had a hard time waking the man on the floor. "Pardon me. I'm
leaving now. So you'll have to be next after someone else."
We bumped into another military patrol on Breshka Street. They were
taking the "B" team to headquarters. They, too, had been brushing up before
"I'll bet you were going for castor oil," Stepan said.
"No. For iodine."
THE NIGHT BEFORE THE TEST
"All contestants will now take their seats," Forsunov, the chief
referee, said solemnly.
The sleepy-eyed mathematicians sat down. To make sure there would be no
cribbing each contestant shared a desk with a member of the opposite team.
Alexander Karlovich and the "B's" math teacher were both nervous. They
resembled managers whose boxers were in the ring for their first bout.
Alexander Karlovich went over to each of our boys and whispered: "Think
first. And don't rush. Be sure you don't mix up your signs. If there are any
problems on proportions they'll be stuck because that's their weak point. I
know it for a fact. But the main thing is to think."
Forsunov asked the teachers to take their places. Alexander Karlovich
and his colleague sat at the large table. Mokeich was already seated there
beside an empty chair left for the commissar.
Beanpole Zoya, our class champion, looked more stern than usual. The
girls who were not taking part in the match kept glancing at us anxiously.
They filled the inkwells to the top, tried out the pens, sharpened the
pencils and wished everyone good luck. Then they went out into the corridor
where the audience crowded in a doorway, promising to be very quiet.
Mokeich took out his large conductor's pocket watch. Forsunov placed
the watch on the table to mark the time each contestant spent on the
problem. If both teams solved it, the one whose separate members solved it
sooner would be the winner and get the prize, which was a double portion of
sugar. Besides, the pupil who solved it first would become the school's best
"I'm counting on everybody's honesty," Forsunov said. "I was the best
cribber under the old principal, and that's why I'm warning you: as long as
I'm here and watching, nobody'll ever crib anything and get away with it.
"Huh! What d'you think we're going to do? Cheat on our own side?"
We were cut to the quick. Indeed! This wasn't tsarist times.
"On your mark! Get ready!" Forsunov said.
THIS IS NOT THE OLD REGIME
"Two travellers going in the same direction set out from two different
cities, with one traveller following the other. After some days, the number
of which equals the sum of miles covered in a day, the second traveller
caught up with the first one. The second traveller had by then covered 525
miles. The distance between the two cities was 175 miles. How many miles a
day did each one cover?"
The starting time had been marked. The travellers were on the road, and
everyone was engrossed in the problem. A stillness settled on the backs of
our heads, pressing them closer to the desks. The test was under way.
However, we did not experience the familiar sense of fear and
uncertainty which had confused both thoughts and numbers during the old
school exams, when one's only desire was to grasp at the minutes that were
slipping away so feverishly, so hopelessly, and hold them back at all costs.
Ahead of us then lay the finish line and the pillory in the shape of an "F".
But now a written test was in process and we were not scared! Alexander
Karlovich winked at us encouragingly. We recalled what he had said. Indeed!
We all thought hard. Everything seemed simple enough. There were two
travellers, A and B. A was gradually catching up with B. And we had to catch
up with the "B's", too.
Chubarkov entered the classroom. His heavy tread and jingling spurs
made Alexander Karlovich hiss angrily and stare pointedly first at his boots
and then at us. The Commissar unbuckled his spurs and tiptoed to his seat.
"Who's getting the upper hand?" he whispered to Forsunov.
"They've just started."
The Commissar gazed at us fondly. Fifteen minutes passed in complete
silence. I was coming along nicely, with no accidents on the road. Beanpole
had filled two pages. Stepan's notepaper was still blank. Kostya Beetle had
half-risen from his seat to re-check what he had written. He had solved the
problem. He was the first!
Suddenly Hefty raced down the aisle. He loomed over the judges' table
and held his paper on high. He was triumphant. Forsunov accepted it
doubtfully. Hefty had the answer right.
"Well?" the Commissar asked.
"That's that!" Hefty replied. The boys waiting outside in the corridor
Once again Hefty had come out on top.
After the bell had rung the judges checked our papers and announced the
winners. Eight members of the "A" team had solved the problem, but only
seven ot the "B" team had. Our side had won. We had not only caught up with
the "B's", we had overtaken them. Besides, our classmate Hefty was now the
school's math champion. Though he was very heavy, the boys threw him up into
the air as a sign of homage to a victor. In the process something fell out
of his pocket.
Beanpole bent down to pick it up and shouted, "Look!"
"Damn fool," Hefty muttered. He tried to snatch whatever it was from
her. "Give it back! I was only doing it for your sake anyway. If that's the
way you want it, to hell with you! Go on and lose. See if I care."
Beanpole was holding a small booklet. The title page read: "Key to all
problems in Algebra II by Shaposhnikov and Valtsev."
"Traitor!" Labanda shouted and rammed his fist into Hefty's face.
The return blow sent Labanda flying.
It took Chubarkov and Mokeich to hold Hefty back. Forsunov then said
that the "A's" had not overtaken the "B's", but had caught up with them. We
shared both glory and sugar.
Our school had become a true nomad, forever moving from one building to
We were forever dragging desks, bookcases, globes and blackboards
through the streets of town. The traffic coming our way was made up largely
of stretchers and hearses. The terrible camels of Tratrchok, the mobile unit
of the 4th Army, pulled the hearses. The streets smelled of carbolic acid,
for an epidemic of typhus had swept the region.
Commissar Chubarkov was on the go day and night. His unshaven cheeks
had become so hollow it seemed he must certainly bite them when he spoke. He
was in charge of moving the hospitals and doubling up the various offices.
He also helped us drag our school property from place to place. Chubarkov
was here, there and everywhere.
"And that's that!" his voice would boom on Atkarskaya Street, on
Kobzarevsky Street and on Breshka Street. "Hang on a while! It won't be long
now! And then, boys, the trees and the mountains will dance. Like the saying
goes: It's not much fun to see the ram butting Sam, but it'll soon be the
other way around, and Sam'll be butting the ram. That's a fact!"
Late one afternoon he came to another new school address. He was
hoarse, his eyes were sunken and red-rimmed, and yellow specks of crude
tobacco stuck to his lips. He smelled strongly of carbolic acid.
"Comrades! I've come to ask you to donate some of your time." He spoke
with difficulty. "They sounded me out about it at Headquarters, and I said
that my boys would surely do it, 'cause even algebra was like snapping their
fingers to them. I told them you knew how to figure out all the unknown
quantities, so's make them known. So, boys, who wants to help the
"I do!" we shouted.
"That depends on what it is," Hefty said and looked at his watch.
Chubarkov then said that we would have to put up big posters in the
barracks and on Breshka Street, warning everyone about typhus, and that it
was a rush job. The new shipment of posters had not arrived from Saratov,
and all the ones on hand at HQ had been put up. That meant we would have to
make the posters ourselves. There would have to be a big figure of a louse
and a caption written in large block letters.
He had brought along a roll of grey wrapping paper and water colours.
It was deathly cold in the classroom, for the school was not heated,
and it was five o'clock, time for us to have gone home long ago.
"I'd have done it myself, but I'm no good at drawing, that's for sure.
And you can't even draw .a louse if you've no talent for it. Zoya, here, and
Stepan and Lelya have. I saw them draw a picture of me on the blackboard
once. Oh, yes, I did. And it was a real good likeness, too. No mistake about
who it was."
"Let's do some drawing from life," Stepan suggested craftily. "If any
of you don't remember what they look like, Hefty here will lend us a few.
His are nice and fat."
"That'll do, Gavrya!" Alexander Karlovich snapped. "I suggest you start
working instead of wasting time."
"This is a special emergency drawing lesson, fellows!" Stepan shouted.
"It's too cold in here."
"It's time to go home." This voice came from Hefty's corner. "It'll be
like it used to be, being left after school with no dinner."
"You don't say?" I jumped onto my desk. "Listen, fellows! Who wants to
stay after school today as Red volunteer dinner-missers, to draw the fight
typhus posters? If anybody thinks he's back in the Boys School, and left
after school, he can get out! Well? What do you say?"
It was awfully cold. And we were awfully hungry. It was going on six
o'clock. Hefty scooped up his books and left. He was followed by some of the
others, who tried not to meet our eyes as they filed out. There were not
many of them. The best boys and girls stayed on, and Labanda, Kostya Beetle
and Beanpole Zoya were among them.
We lit the oil wick lamps. The Commissar got a fire going in the
bow-legged iron stove and took out the paints. We spread the paper out on
the floor and set to work on the project. There were no paint brushes, so we
made do with bits of paper rolled up tight and painted the fine parts with
our fingers. Most of the letters were shaky. Thus, "typhus" looked as if its
knees were buckling. The insects were much more impressive, although Stepan
and Kostya Beetle had an argument as to the exact number of legs and feelers
"Ha! Your name's Beetle, but you don't even know how many legs it has!"
We put it to a vote and decided not to be stingy about the legs. Soon
we had fuzzy centipedes slithering all over our posters. We crawled about on
the cold floor. The commissar, who was dead tired after a long day, helped
us in every possible way: he laid out the paints, cut the paper and thought
up slogans for the posters. He had a terrible headache. We could hear him
moaning softly every now and then.
"Why don't you go home, Comrade Chubarkov?" we said. "Look how tired
you are. We can manage without you."
But he would not, no matter how we coaxed him. He even managed to keep
up our spirits by telling us what a wonderful job we were doing.
Stepan and I had gone off into a corner to compose a caption in verse.
We had a hard time with the unruly words, but then all of a sudden the
pieces seemed to fall into place and the caption was ready. We thought it
was excellent and felt that the Commissar would like it, too. We carried it
over to him proudly. It read:
When all is neat and clean,
No louse is ever seen.
Lice lay you flat.
And that's that!
The Commissar stared at it blindly. He mumbled something and swayed
strangely at the desk.
"Why can't they meet?" he whispered. "They should. That's for sure."
"Them. A and B. The travel... lers."
Alexander Karlovich bent over him anxiously. The Commissar was burning
up with the dread fever called typhus.
Chubarkov was dying. We could speak of nothing else in class.
When I came home Oska was waiting for me in the hall. "They've sent the
Commissar away to camp for three days so he'll get well quick. I heard Papa
calling headquarters. And he said camp for three days."
"What are you talking about? You've got everything mixed up again. And
you know, it's not funny any more."
"Honest! I heard him."
Papa returned from the hospital just then. His eyes were so serious
that Oska, who would usually begin to climb all over him, hung back. Papa
took off his coat. The hall was immediately filled with the smells of the
Then Papa went off to wash up, with us trailing behind. He scrubbed his
large doctor's hands thoroughly with soap as he always did and brushed his
short nails with a nail brush. Then he gargled his throat, throwing back his
head so that the water seemed to be boiling in his throat.
We stood there watching the procedure that was so familiar to us both.
Neither of us said a word. Finally, I spoke.
"Why did Oska say you sent the commissar away to camp, Papa?"
"Which camp? Don't talk nonsense."
"But that's what you said. I heard you," Oska insisted. "You said:
'Camp for three days'."
Papa chuckled ruefully. "Silly! He's getting camphor injections.
Understand? Every six hours. Because his heart is so weak," Papa explained,
turning to speak to me as he wiped his hands. "We can't get his temperature
down, and he's terribly undernourished. The man had been killing himself at
his job. And goodness knows what he's been eating. That's what we're up
"It's very bad, isn't it?"
"It's worse than bad." Papa spoke brusquely and tossed the towel over
the headboard. "Our one hope is his natural strength. We'll do our best."
"Will he be sick long?"
"It's typhus. Who knows? We're expecting the crisis soon."
The moment I entered the classroom on the following day I was
surrounded by my friends and some of the older pupils. They had all been
waiting for me.
"When's the crisis? What did your old man say?"
But the crisis had not begun, and the Commissar's fever kept rising
every day, while his strength ebbed with each passing hour.
Would it really be "that's that", as the Commissar himself would have
said in such a case?
Stepan and Kostya would rush off to the hospital after school each day
to ask about Chubarkov's condition. But what could the nurse on duty say? He
had a raging fever. He was unconscious and delirious.
Things looked bad.
I heard the phone ring in my sleep that night. I was completely
awakened by a loud pounding on the front door. Then I heard Stepan's voice
"Honest to God, Doctor. I was just there. They chased me out. His
heart's nearly stopping. He's having that, what-d'you-call-it? The nurse
"Shh! Not so loud, you'll wake everyone up! They've just called me. I'm
on my way there now. I don't want any panic. A crisis means a sharp drop in
temperature. What is it, Lelya?"
I stood there wrapped in my blanket, but my teeth were chattering from
"I'm going with you, Papa."
"Are you crazy?"
"Why can Stepan go?"
"If Stepan thinks he's going anywhere, I'll tell the nurses to throw
him out. I don't believe anyone asked you to take part in a consultation."
Papa dressed quickly and left, banging the front door behind him.
Stepan, feeling completely disheartened, stayed.
The long, cold hours of the night dragged on endlessly, Oska woke up.
When he saw Stepan sitting on my bed he sat up on his own, but at the sight
of two fists, mine and Stepan's, being shaken at him, he darted under the
blankets again. However, I could see his curious eye flash and knew he was
not sleeping, but listening to our every word.
"Do you think he'll pull through?" Stepan whispered.
We spoke of our Commissar at length. He really was a wonderful man. And
most of the fellows and girls at school were on his side now, because he was
fair and always stood up for justice. He took care of our troglodytes good
that time, and there was a reason why Alexander Karlovich respected him so.
"I know he wants to go off to fight. He volunteered, but they wouldn't
accept his application. They told him they needed good men to work for the
revolution on the home front, too," Stepan said.
"If he ever does go off, things'll be awful again."
"That's for sure. He's on our side, but he's a mean one for discipline.
And if he goes off...."
We suddenly fell silent, crushed by one and the same idea: how could we
be discussing whether he'd go off to fight or not when now, at this very
moment, our Commissar was fighting for his life. Perhaps.... The pendulum of
the old wall clock in the dining-room swished back and forth loudly and
menacingly: "Yes-no ... he will-he won't...." It was as if it were telling
his fortune, ticking off one second after another, as one did the petals of
"Yes-no ...he will-he won't."
Just then a key turned in the lock. I could hear Papa taking off his
rubbers. Stepan and I dashed into the hall.
We were afraid to ask, and it was so dark there that we could not see
the expression on my father's face.
"Why aren't you asleep, night owls?" Papa grumbled in the darkness, but
he did not sound angry. On the contrary, he sounded triumphant. "All right,
all right. I know what you're going to say. Well, I think he'll make it.
Your Commissar's sleeping like a baby. Something I hope you'll both be doing
in another minute. Off to bed with you! I'll be going on my rounds in
another two hours."
" 'Hoo-ray, hoo-ray,' they all shouted, the Schwambranians." Indeed,
this one time they had every reason in the world to.
The Commissar was getting better! But he was still very weak. The day
before he had finally been discharged from the hospital and moved to a room
in a house that had once belonged to a rich merchant. Stepan had been to see
him. Now we all crowded around Stepan to hear his report.
"He said that when he was delirious he kept thinking about those
travellers. You know, about A and B. The ones in the algebra problem.
Remember? He said he annoyed everyone to death there, asking them why those
men couldn't meet. They kept on travelling and travelling, and when they
finally did meet he started getting better right away."
"That's because he was probably thinking about us all the time, and
what with the high fever and all..." Beanpole Zoya said, sounding very
"Sure. They only let me visit him for ten minutes. There's a hospital
nurse on duty there. All he kept saying was: how are things in school? And
are we behaving well? And how's Alexander Karlovich making out all by
himself? And is Hefty doing any better in algebra?"
Everyone turned to look at Hefty. His face became crimson. He shrugged
his big shoulders and was about to say something nasty, but his eyes met
Stepan's and he turned away.
"So what I say is let's take things easy for a while and not fool
around too much," Stepan said. "If he starts getting upset I know it'll be
the end of him. Ask Lelya if you don't believe me. That's what the doctor
said. Didn't he? So let's not pull any pranks for a while. 'Cause anybody
who does might get a good crack on the head. I'm warning you. Am I right.
"You bet. After all, we're human beings. And you'd have to be a pretty
low-down louse to make him sick again. I mean you, too, Hefty."
"You just worry about yourself." Hefty sounded hurt. "Aren't you all
such little darlings!" He shoved Labanda out of the way and left the
"The Commissar asked me to bring him something to read," Stepan said.
"I went over to your house, but your brother wouldn't lend me anything. He
said wait till you get home. Will you give me a book? I'll take it over."
"I can take it over myself."
I wondered what kind of book the Commissar would like. While I browsed
through the shelves, Oska said, "Stepan asked for ... uh ... I forgot the
"Wait. Let me think."
He knitted his brows and puckered his lips. "Oh, I know! He didn't say
Kristomonto, he said Sacramento. That's it!"
"There's no such book. The Mennonites who come here from out-of-town
sometimes curse like that. You know: 'Donnerwetter, sacramento!' It's like
saying, 'For God's sake!' Well, what was the book Stepan wanted?"
"He said it was about a count, and there's a gun like it," Oska
Ah! Now I knew. It wasn't Kristomonto, and it wasn't Sacramento, It was
Monte Cristo! The Count of Monte Cristo. But I didn't have that book. Then,
true to my Schwambranian taste in books, I chose a volume of Greek mythology
and Robinson Crusoe.
I wrapped the two books carefully in a sheet of old newspaper and went
off to visit the Commissar.
The Commissar's room was very poor. A newspaper was spread out on the
table instead of a cloth, and the spout of a tin kettle protruded from under
a quilted jacket that had been thrown over it to keep it warm. A soldier's
mess tin was cooling forlornly on the woodstove that had gone out. There was
a small stack of books on a bamboo bookstand. The title of the one on top
was: "Political Literacy". The only item of luxury in the room was the bed.
It was so wide you could lie across it, the headboard and footboard were
scalloped and upholstered in bright carpeting. Why, this was no bed, it was
a two-horse sleigh! It had probably belonged to the merchant. Portraits of
Karl Marx and Lenin were tacked to the peeling walls. A large poster printed
in heavy type hung on the wall over the bed. It depicted a Red Army man in a
cloth helmet with a five-pointed red star on it. No matter from which angle
I looked at the poster, the soldier seemed to be staring straight at me, and
his finger seemed to be pointing straight at me as he asked in the stern,
demanding words of the caption: "Have you volunteered for the Red Army?"
I didn't feel too sure of myself to begin with. No one had met me at
the door. The hospital nurse was apparently gone, and I had to knock several
times before I heard a very faint voice that was apparently the Commissar's
say: "Come in."
The Commissar's hair was cut very short. He had lost so much weight you
could see his bony shoulder through the outsized collar of his cotton shirt.
He smiled at me weakly and somewhat shyly.
"Hello. Well... now that the doctors are through with me, I see the
doctors' sons are taking over. That means I should be getting better. That's
for sure. Well, how are you crocodiles coming along?"
He asked me all about life at school. Then I read aloud to him from the
Labours of Hercules, trying to put the right feeling into my voice, but as I
read of the nine-headed Hydra of Lernea whose heads Hercules chopped off,
one after another, I got carried away by the story. I had chosen this second
labour of Hercules, because I had often heard speakers at mass meetings
refer to the rabid, many-headed hydra of the counter-revolutionary forces.
And so I read on of the hero who defeated the fierce monster and let out'
its poisonous black blood.
The commissar was asleep. He had probably fallen asleep in the middle
of the story. His broad but bony chest rose and fell evenly. I sat there,
not knowing what to do. Should I leave? It somehow seemed impolite to do so.
Should I go on sitting there? That was silly. And then, who could tell how
long I would have to wait?
It was very still in the room, the only sounds being those of the
Commissar's breathing and a feeble crack now and then from the cooling tin
kettle on the table. The Red Army man on the poster had not for a moment
taken his burning gaze from me, and his finger pointed directly at me. But
now I, too, could not take my eyes from him. It was pretty much like our
staring game in school. However, his hard eyes bored through me so
relentlessly I felt I was going to blink and lose.
"Water," the Commissar whispered, though his pale eyelids did not even
flicker in his dark, sunken sockets.
I rushed to pour some water into a mug. The tea was still warm. I held
the mug as he drank. He opened his eyes a bit and looked at me gratefully.
"Pour yourself some tea. It's only carrot-tea, though. And there's no
sugar. They won't let me have saccharine. They say it's no good for your
kidneys, not after typhus."
I didn't want to offend him and so poured myself some of the cloudy
brew. It had a burnt taste, it was not sweet, it was tepid and tasteless. A
plan was forming in my mind. I would carry it out the very next day.
I raised my eyes over the rim of the mug as I sipped and glanced
cautiously at the wall opposite. The Red Army man was still staring at me,
but he couldn't make me feel uneasy any longer. I knew what I had to do.
I went to visit the Commissar the next day. There were four lumps of
sugar in my pocket, my school ration for that and the following day. The
Commissar looked slightly better. His eyes were brighter, and when he
smiled, the old sharp glint was back again, even though it came and went.
When it did his eyes became dull again. That meant he was still very weak.
"I hope you won't be angry about yesterday and me popping off to sleep
when you were reading. I'm not my old self yet, and my head feels fuzzy.
Besides, that was a pretty tall tale. I had a look at this other book you
brought me, the one about Robinson. I like it better, though it's not what
I'd care to read about now. I feel bad enough lying here all by myself. I
want to get back out among people again. In times like these, every man
counts, and here I am, like Robinson, wasting my time on a desert island.
It's enough to make you sick! Well, that's that. It's time for me to be
getting up and about. I put my feet down off the bed yesterday. Come on,
doctor's son, give me a hand. I'll see how things go today."
"I don't think you should yet. Papa said you have to stay in bed till
"Never mind what Papa said. All those doctors and their medicines are
meant for different, more delicate people. You know our kind. We're tough!
Come on, let's not waste time talking."
He got his thin legs over the side of the bed by raising and moving
each one by the knee with both hands. Then he stuck each foot into a felt
boot that was standing by the bed.
"Now you give me some support on this side, and I'll hold on to the bed
on the other. All right, here we go. You know the old stevedore's cry:
heave-ho, heave-ho ... there she goes!"
He rose with great difficulty. I stuck my shoulder under his armpit.
The Commissar took a step and fell over heavily on me. I barely managed to
steady him and get him back into bed. He lay there panting, looking
miserable and strangely pitiful.
"That's it, fellow. Taps. That's for sure. Go on home. What are you
staring at? I said, go on home! Well? What is it? Think the Commissar's done
for? You're mistaken, my boy! I'll show you some real walking yet."
A large tear made its way slowly through the stubble of his yellow
cheek. I was really frightened. Our Commissar, our cheerful Commissar
Chubarkov, so loud-voiced and hearty, a man who could out-holler any crowd,
was sobbing softly in his bed, as the Red Army man on the poster pointed his
finger at me accusingly and his eyes bored into me. But it wasn't my fault.
I rushed over to the table, poured some of the yellow brew from the
kettle under the quilted jacket and slipped my two days' sugar ration into
the mug. The Commissar held it in his trembling hands. He had calmed down a
bit and took a slow sip. Then he licked his lips.
"I've never had anything so sweet! Seems like pure honey. How come?" He
looked at me suspiciously. Then he peered into the mug. The four lumps had
probably not dissolved completely. "So you decided to pamper me? I'll bet
you put your whole week's rations in here. You should've left yourself a
lump. Now you'll have to drink yours plain again."
I hastily poured myself a full mug of brew from the kettle, took a sip
and was dazed. A molasses-thick, sickeningly-sweet syrup stuck to my lips.
It took me a few moments to realize what had happened.
"Was anyone here to see you today?" I asked.
"Indeed! I'll bet your whole class was here. Kostya, Labanda, Zoya and
Stepan, of course. They were all here. They lit the stove and boiled the
kettle. But they didn't feel like having any tea. What's the matter? Why
aren't you drinking yours? See, I said it wouldn't be any good without
sugar. Well, if you're not going to have it, we might as well try walking
again. Give me a hand. I think I feel stronger after your brew. Come on,
give us a hand here!"
The Commissar leaned on me and tried learning to walk again.
A PROBLEM CONCERNING TRAVELLERS
Our wandering school moved from one place to another, and Schwambrania
wandered along with it. The turbulent events in the life of Pokrovsk and our
school naturally affected the internal affairs and geographical location of
the Big Tooth Continent. There were constant disorders in Schwambrania,
because it was forever changing the order of things in the country.
Lice had come out from hiding in Pokrovsk and had become official.
Typhus had put red crosses on everything. Oska insisted we have a death toll
in Schwambrania, too, and I had to agree. The statistics of real-life
situations called for a death toll in Schwambrania. That was why a cemetery
appeared there. We then went over the list of Schwambranian kings, heroes,
champions, villains and seafarers, and spent a long time deciding whom we
would bury. I tried to limit the death toll to such insignificant
Schwambranians as the former Royal Water-Carrier, or the Master of Foreign
Affairs. But my bloodthirsty brother would have nothing of the kind. He
demanded great losses, as was only true in real life.
"What kind of a game is it if nobody dies? They just go on living and
living! Let somebody die who we'll feel sorry for."
After long deliberations Jack, the Sailor's Companion died in
Schwambrania. The cruel Count Chatelains Urodenal had filled his kidneys
with stones. As he lay dying. Jack, the Sailor's Companion, exclaimed,
leafing through the last page of the conversation manual: "Je vais a.... Ich
gehe nach.... Ferma la machinal Finished with engine!"
He then departed, and though he wanted to wish everyone well, there
were no such words in the manual. A brass band played at his funeral. There
were life buoys instead of wreaths, and a gold anchor and visiting card
adorned his grave.
Despite the terrible loss, the constant changes in climate and
politics, the Big Tooth Continent extended across our every thought and
The Black Queen, Keeper of the Secret, pined away in cobweby loneliness
behind the brass gate of the seashell grotto. Schwambrania lived on.
One day Oska came hurrying home from school. He was terribly excited,
for a soldier had come up to him on the street in broad daylight and asked
for directions to Schwambrania. Oska had become so confused he had run away.
We set right out to find the mysterious stranger, but there was no trace of
him. Oska said that maybe he was a real live lost Schwambranian. Naturally,
I made fun of him, reminding him that we had invented Schwambrania and all,
its inhabitants. Still and all, I noticed that Oska had begun to sort of
believe in its actual existence.
THE WANDERING SCHWAMBRANIANS, OR THE MYSTERIOUS SOLDIER
Schwambrania soon became known to Oska's classmates. From the very
start he had made a name for himself in school. One of the boys had asked
the teacher where sugar came from.
"I know," Oska had replied. "Sugar comes from school."
That was the day Kocherygin, the temporary principal, was keeping the
children in check, since the botany teacher was absent. "That's where it
comes from," he said. Then Oska said that sugar came from kerosene which
spurted up from the ground.
Kocherygin seemed stumped. The next day he told the children that he
had looked into the matter and learned that saccharine came from the ground,
but from coal, not kerosene. However, he regarded Oska with new respect.
Oska immediately took advantage of this and drew the outline of
Schwambrania on the large wall map in the classroom. Since the geography and
botany teacher was still absent, Kocherygin took over once again. His finger
suddenly got lost in the mountains of the Big Tooth Continent.
"What country's this?" he said, pointing to the strange land. "Hm?
"It's Schwambrania," Oska teased.
"Schwambrania!" Oska became serious.
"Never heard of it."
"I did. A soldier I know even left for there yesterday."
"How come it's not in the book?" his classmates demanded.
"It's not on the map yet, because it's a very new country."
"Go on, tell us about it," Kocherygin said.
And so Oska went over to the big map and spent the rest of the lesson
talking about Schwambrania. He spoke in detail of the flora and fauna of the
Big Tooth Continent, and his classmates listened with bated breath to his
story of the wild 1 rum-toddies who inhabited the canyons of the Northern
Candelabras. He told them of the wars against Piliguinia, of the overthrow
of Brenabor, of the adventures of the deceased Jack, the Sailor's Companion,
of the evil deeds of Chatelains Urodenal. Kocherygin was quite pleased with
the Schwambranian geography lesson.
Oska returned home in the best of spirits. He was beaming. "We're
studying about Schwambrania in school now," he said proudly.
I nearly collapsed.
However, the very next day Kocherygin brought a very embarrassed Oska
home. He was holding Oska's hand, trying to talk him out of his
Schwambranian fantasy. A group of his classmates followed, shouting
"Schwamp! Bramp!" The new principal told our parents of Oska's strange idea
of geography and asked them to somehow influence the stubborn Schwambranian.
Oska sniffled and spoke of the mysterious soldier who had asked for
directions to Schwambrania.
A few days later Oska and I were out for a walk. Two poorly-dressed
young peasants came up to us on the square. They were carrying knapsacks. We
were overcome by a terrible premonition.
"Listen, boys, can you tell us how to get to Red Army Headquarters?
We're looking for Captain Schambardin."
So that was who the mysterious soldier had been looking for!
Typhus rolled along the streets in step with the even tread of the
stretcher-bearers and pallbearers. Typhus raged in the delirious cries of
the stricken and was a murmur in the funeral corteges. The Tratrchok camels
pulled the hearses.
Our school was moving again.
Schwambrania dashed about in search of a stable policy, changing
rulers, climates and latitudes. Our house alone stood steadfastly at its
moorings at the same old latitude and longitude. It had rusted and sunk into
the riverbed and was no longer a boat but heavy, stranded barge that had
turned into an island. Storms had not yet invaded it, since Mamma was afraid
of draughts and kept the windows closed.
Still, some changes had taken place. Papa now wore an army field jacket
instead of a morning coat. The red cross on his breast pocket signified that
he was an army doctor. He was attached to the casualty-clearing station.
Then, the people who we had once been told were undesirable acquaintances
and had only come up the back stairs were now all coming to the front door.
Even the water-carrier, who, it would seem, would save time and effort by
coming straight into the kitchen, now rang the front doorbell insistently.
He trudged through the apartment, leaving puddles and wet tracks, and his
pails were full of dignity.
Oska and I welcomed this degradation of the front hall. A draught of
disrespect had now been established between it and the kitchen. We could now
strike out the first point on our list of the world's injustices (concerning
The plumber and the carpenter were the first to ring the front doorbell
after the revolution. Annushka opened the door and asked them to wait while
she went to tell Papa that "two men wanted to see Comrade Doctor".
"Who are they?" Mamma wanted to know.
"Well, sort of men," Annushka said. (She divided all of Papa's patients
into gentlemen, men and peasants.)
Papa went out into the front hall. "There's something we'd like to
discuss," one of them said.
"What seems to be bothering you?" Papa asked, for he thought he was a
"They've no sense of duty," the plumber said. "The town council closed
down the hospital under Kerensky, and that means the working people won't
get any care when they need it. We've been appointed commissars."
Papa could never forgive Kerensky, because during his short reign in
Russia the rich, tight-fisted town fathers had closed down the municipal
hospital, saying, as they usually did, "No need for it."
And now two Bolshevik commissars had come to see him and tell him that
the Soviets had decreed that the hospital was to be opened immediately and
that Papa was to be in charge of it.
Papa asked the commissars to have tea with him. After they had gone, he
paced up and down humming happily, "Marusya took some poison, to the
hospital she'll go."
"This is a real government! It's showing good cultural sense. How can
you even compare your Constituent Assembly to it? It was just like our
district meeting. 'No need for it' on a nation-wide scale."
"Your Constituent Assembly" was said especially to spite my aunts. At
the time, starving aunts seemed to have descended upon us from all over
Russia. One had come from Vitebsk the other had escaped from Samara. The
Samara and Vitebsk aunts were sisters. Both wore pince-nez on black silk
cords and looked very much alike. Papa had nicknamed them the Constituent
Assembly. Oska and I nicknamed them Aunt Neces and Aunt Sary.
They were both terribly educated and spent hours discussing literature
and arguing over politics, and if some of their information jarred with the
encyclopaedia, they would say it was a printing error.
Then a third aunt arrived from Petrograd. She said she was as good as a
"Will you be better'n a Bolshevik soon?" Oska asked.
However, months passed, but our aunt still did not become a Bolshevik.
She was now saying that to all intents and purposes she was nearly a
The Petrograd aunt found a job at Tratrchok, while Aunt Neces and Aunt
Sary both went to work for the District Food Committee. In their free time
they told us "true life stories", had heated discussions and meddled in our
upbringing. Our aunts insisted that we be tutored at home, for they were
firmly convinced that the Soviet school system was detrimental to upbringing
of a child from an intellectual family and to his sensitive personality (I
believe that is the way they put it).
They took it upon themselves to tutor us, as they considered themselves
authorities in the field of child psychology. Their constant admonitions
exhausted us. They wanted to take part in everything we did, to play all our
games. They were overjoyed when they discovered the existence of
Schwambrania and said it was so-oo exciting and simply divine. They begged
to be let in on the secrets of our world of make-believe and promised to be
of help. Schwambrania was in danger of being overrun by aunts.
That was when the Schwambranian commanders played a trick on them. They
led the aunts off into the heart of Schwambrania and there, during an
initiation ceremony, painted them with water colours, made them crawl under
beds, locked them in a cave with wild beasts, which meant locking them in a
storeroom with wild rats, and made them sing the Schwambranian anthem ten
times in a row.
"'Hoo-ray, hoo-ray!' they all shouted, the Schwambranians," our tired,
painted aunts sang in the darkness. " 'Hoo-ray!' Eeek! Something's crawling
up my skirt! 'Hoo-ray, hoo-ray!' They were clouted! Do-re-mi-nians!"
However, when we then explained the rules and holds of wrestling and
told them to wrestle without breaks or a time limit to a final victory, our
poor aunts became indignant. They said Schwambrania was a crude game and a
stupid country, unworthy of well brought up boys. This was why the famous
Schwambranian poet (obviously inspired by Lermontov) wrote the following
stanza in his Aunt Neces' autograph book.
Three lively aunts all live in our apartment,
Thank God there are no more in this department!
PRIMARY SCHOOL SCHWAMBRANIA
"Your father's an intellectual, but he's all right," Stepan Atlantis
said. "You can see he's on our side. And you're an all-out sympathizer. One
of your aunts has an idea of what's going on, but those other two are
awfully backward." He was leaving our house after a two-hour long discussion
on the individual and society.
The Constituent Assembly aunts used such long words that I caught my
Petrograd aunt sneaking off to the dictionary every now and then to look up
unfamiliar "isms" and "substances". According to my first two aunts, the
free intelligent self was the core, and everything else revolved around it.
And whatever the self believed, was so. Whatever it wished things to be was
the way they were, and to hell with everything else! Stepan, however, argued
that, like the saying went, you didn't call off a wedding if one guest was
missing. He said that the group, with everyone pulling together, was the
main thing. As for the self, if it got too stuck-up you could always catch
it by the collar and give it a good shake. My aunts replied that Stepan and
I were crude realists, believing only in that which everyone could see and
feel. Realists were also called materialists. They believed that the world
undoubtedly existed and governed all ideas and individuals. But my aunts did
not agree with this. They got terribly excited and even shouted. They said
the world had no right to order free ideas and the individual around,
because, they said, perhaps the world would never have existed without
ideas. Yes, undoubtedly, only the reasoning individual existed. Perhaps
everything else existed only as it appeared to it, only as in a dream.
"Are we individual?" Oska wanted to know.
"As far as you yourselves are concerned, undoubtedly," Aunt Sary said.
We thought this was a great idea and decided it would all come in very
handy in Schwambrania.
Indeed, what if we were really Schwambranians and Pokrovsk, our school,
home and the revolution were all a part of some dream? We were stunned by
the very thought of it.
Our aunts sat down on the couch and Aunt Neces began reading aloud from
a Russian history book: "The Vikings, Rurik, Truvor and Sinehus came to rule
Oska and I decided to have a look at Schwambranian history, meanwhile,
and began singing, throwing chairs around and making as much of a racket as
possible. Our aunts asked us to be a little more considerate. They said it
was a lack of respect for the individual.
"Our individual is dreaming that you're not here at all," Oska said.
"Maybe we just imagined you?" I added.
Our aunts spoke about our behaviour to Mamma. She came in to have a
look but we were doubtful of her existence as well. Mamma burst into tears
and spoke about our behaviour to Papa.
"What sort of nursery solipsism is this?" Papa demanded. "I'm going to
suddenly imagine that the two of you have been sent to stand in a corner at
this advanced age."
We were given no dinner. Papa said that, after all, the soup was only a
dream, and Oska and I were such free-thinking individuals, it wouldn't take
any effort on our part to imagine that we were full, while he said that he
recalled dreaming that we had had our dinner and had even said "thank you".
In a word, we had to accept the fact that our soup was not an idea but
reality, and that there were millions of other individuals except ourselves,
and that we could not exist without them.
The self had been tossed out of the centre of the universe as far as we
were concerned. We were caught up in the great whirl of events in school and
on the street. However, the centrifugal forces could do nothing about the
state of affairs at home. Our home staunchly remained the reliable core of
our existence. We felt that everything else was whirling around it like some
great and dangerous merry-go-round. Such was the case until the day on which
a stocky man appeared in the front hall during Papa's office hours. He had
on a pair of black boots protected by galoshes and a holster, and carried a
briefcase. Annushka said it was one of the commissars.
"Sorry to inconvenience you, but I'm going in next. I'm here on
business," he said to the patients in the waiting room. "We're all here on
business!" "Who does he think he is?"
"He thinks he's a gentleman," a fat farm woman said. A sack on her lap
moved, and a live duck-offering quacked inside it.
Water splashed in the washstand in the office. Then the door opened and
a man came out, buttoning his shirt collar. The Commissar went right in.
"Good day. I'm sorry to bother you, coming in out of turn, but it's
revolutionary duty, Comrade Doctor. You see, I'm here as the Commandant of
"Sit down, Comrade Usyshko," Papa said, recognizing the shoemaker who
had formerly made all our shoes and had often borrowed books from Papa's
library. "What's the good news these days?"
"You'll have to move to another apartment, Comrade Doctor. Tratrchok is
expanding. They don't have enough space any more. I'm sorry to bother you,
but you'll have to move in two days."
"Well. They've finally got to me," Papa said to himself. Aloud he said,
adjusting his breast-pocket flap with the red cross on it. "I'm going to
protest. Comrade Usyshko. I won't let anyone throw me out so high-handedly
in two days' time, as if I were some bourgeois. I believe that the working
intelligentsia has the right to expect a more considerate approach on the
part of the government with whom it is working in complete contact."
"All right. I'll give you an extra day, but no more. I won't argue
about that contact part. And I've personally found you a fine place on
Kobzar Street. It's in Pustodumov's former house. A fine apartment. And
we'll take care of the moving."
"You understand that I'll have to see it first."
"As you like. We don't charge any for looking. So I'll send the wagons
over on the sixth. I'll be going now." As he turned, his eyes fell on Papa's
shoes. "You still wearing them?"
"Yes!" Papa said angrily.
"How's the left one? Not too tight? Remember, I said it'd only be tight
at first and that it'd stretch?"
"To be frank. Comrade Usyshko, I think you were better at that job,
"That depends which way you look at it. Comrade Doctor." The Commandant
chuckled. "You used to order your shoes, but now some things, if you'll
pardon my saying so, aren't done to your measurements any more. Maybe some
things don't fit very well."
The news of the coming move stunned Oska and me. We saw that centre of
the world had shifted, and history was not made according to the wishes of
Copernicus' contemporaries had most probably found themselves in the
same predicament. They had always believed that Man was the centre of the
Universe and that the Earth was the centre of Creation. Then they were told
that the Earth was only a speck among thousands of similar planets, and that
it travelled around the Sun, governed by forces that were not of its
A most unusual caravan was moving along Breshka Street. Ten camels of
the Tratrchok were carrying our possessions.
The drapes and curtains were rolled up like campaign banners. The
dismantled beds, adorned by shiny brass knobs, clattered and jangled like a
collection of maces belonging to a Cossack chief. The armoured coats of the
samovars gleamed. The large pier glass spread out like a lake, with Breshka
Street splashing in it upside-down. The innerspring jelly of the mattresses
jiggled. A set of hobbled bentwood chairs jostled and trotted atop another
wagon like a little herd of colts.
The piano in its white cloth cover rode along in an upright position.
Seen from the side, it resembled a surgeon in a white smock, but from the
front it was a steed wearing a horse-cloth. The merry driver had one hand on
the reins and the other stuck through the slit in the cloth. He was poking
at the keys, trying to pick out a simple tune as the wagon rolled along.
Our belongings looked indecent. The washstand and sideboard, which had
always been upright, lay on their backs with the doors gazing at the sky.
Passers-by stared at us. Our personal, private life was bared to all eyes.
We felt uneasy and wished we could renounce it all. Papa walked along the
sidewalk, as if none of this had anything to do with him, but Mamma walked
bravely on at the head of the procession, right behind the first wagon, as
wan and unhappy as a widow following the pallbearers. She was holding a list
of our belongings, quite like a list of the dead for a church service.
Oska walked ahead of us, carrying the cat. Annushka sat on a high pile
of things on the first wagon like a maharaja atop an elephant, and the front
of a potted palm served as a fan. She was holding a stuffed owl. I came
next, carrying the precious grotto and its chess-piece prisoner.
Schwambrania was moving to a new geographical location.
A line of aunts brought up the rear.
The new apartment greeted us with a hollow chill. A taunting echo
The drivers were busy moving our heavy bookcases. Papa poured some pure
alcohol into a measuring glass, added water and treated the drivers to it. I
could hear the' men talking.
"It goes right through you!"
"It's the best medicine! Castor oil for your brains. Cleans them out in
"Get over on the other side. Look at all them books! What do they want
with so many?"
"You think it's easy poking about in somebody's insides? It takes a lot
of reading, maybe a thousand books, and then you can make a mistake and sew
up the wrong thing."
Our aunts tracked along behind the drivers to see that they didn't
pinch anything, for, as our aunts said, nowadays people were very free and
easy with other people's possessions. There was an elegant chandelier with a
fringe of glass beads in one of the rooms. It had been left behind by
Pustodumov. My aunts stood admiring it.
"Well? I see you've put up a chandelier," the commandant said, for he
had just arrived on the scene. "That's some fine light! I'll bet it came all
the way from Petrograd."
My aunts seemed embarrassed. As I opened my mouth to tell him whose it
was, my Aunt Neces stepped in front of me, blocking me like a screen. "Yes,
you're right. It was made in Petrograd," she said quickly.
After he had gone my aunts explained rather sheepishly that what they
had done was right, since Pustodumov would never get it back anyway, and the
country would manage without it.
The rooms were no longer as hollow-sounding, for our furniture muffled
the echoes. We found a cosy corner for the Queen's grotto that we could turn
into a circus, railroad station or prison.
Schwambrania was re-established.
Papa climbed the stepladder and stood there, hammer in hand, to hang up
a portrait of Doctor Pirogov and a portrait of Lev Tolstoy by the
Academician Pasternak. Papa was making a speech. The ladder was his rostrum.
"Today I had occasion once again to see that we are all the miserable
slaves of our possessions. This tremendous pile of junk has us in its power.
It has bound us hand and foot. I would have gladly left half of all this
behind! Children! (Take that nail out of your mouth this minute, Lelya!
Haven't you ever heard about hygiene?) As I said, children, learn to despise
Then Oska and I went off to the dining-room to hang up a hand-painted
plate in bas-relief. Sticking up from the surface of the plate was a castle
and knights on prancing steeds. The nail came loose, sending the plate
crashing to the floor. The knights perished. The castle was in ruins.
Papa came running at the sound of china breaking. He shouted at us. He
called us vandals and barbarians. He said that even bears could be taught to
handle things carefully. He went on to enumerate a long and woeful list of
things which we had annihilated: the black queen, his cane, fountain pen,
We sighed. Then I reminded Papa that he had just told us to despise
possessions. At this he hit the ceiling. He said that one should first learn
to take care of things, then to earn the money to buy them, and then only
could one begin to despise them.
That evening Mamma wandered about desolately. She had made a list of
all the small things, so as not to misplace them and then waste time looking
for them. She had been searching for the list for over an hour.
THE WORLD AND THE INDIVIDUAL
The sand went slowly to the bottom in the stirred water of the
fishbowl. Fish darted through the emerald-green water plants like
brightly-plumed hummingbirds, swishing close to the green-glowing glass and
feeling quite at home.
The walls of our new apartment had lost their chilling strangeness. The
rooms were becoming lived in. The cosiness of our former home was
transported to our new one. Gazing up at the chandelier during supper. Papa
said, "The revolution ... (eat your carrots, Oska, they're full of
vitamins!) The revolution is full of cruel justice. Indeed. Whom should this
apartment belong to? A moneybags merchant or a doctor? Actually, I believe
that the proletariat and the intelligentsia can find a common language."
"Goodness! Aren't we all Communists at heart!" my aunts exclaimed.
The following day our piano was rolled away.
A gala event was being planned by the Tratrchok offices. An army choir
was rehearsing a Red Cross Cantata. The choir needed the use of a piano for
a week, and so they requisitioned ours.
Mamma had gone out. In her purse was the license, issued to her by the
District Department of Education. It stated that she was a music teacher and
verified her ownership of the piano. Papa made a small speech to the
abductors on the subject of the intelligentsia and the proletariat, and also
mentioned the need for mutual contact. However, this made no impression on
them. Then Papa said that it wasn't a matter of the piano, it was the
principle of the thing that counted, and that he would not sit idly by, but
would go as high as Lenin if need be. Then Papa sat down to write a letter
to the editors of Izvestia, a newspaper published in the capital.
They carried the piano out like a body at a funeral, with Annushka
bewailing its fate and my aunts dropping copious tears.
When Mamma returned and learned of what had happened she sank down on a
chair and blinked rapidly. Then she spoke very quickly, saying: "Did you
take out the package?"
At this Papa, too, plopped into a chair. My aunts seemed petrified. We
then learned that Mamma had tied a little bundle to the inside of the piano
top. It contained four pieces of expensive toilet soap and a sheaf of
now-worthless, pre-revolutionary paper money. It was Oska's and my turn to
become terror-stricken now, for a week before we had seen Mamma tying up the
little bundle and had decided that she would hide it in a very safe place.
Since we, too, had quite a few things that were to be kept in secret, we had
stuck a sheaf of official Schwambranian papers into the bundle when Mamma
had gone out of the room. Our sheaf contained maps, secret campaign plans,
Brenabor's manifestoes, coats-of-arms, letters of famous men, metaphorical
posters and other secret manuscripts from the Schwambranian chancellery. Now
all this had been carted off to Tratrchok. Schwambrania was in danger. The
piano tuner might discover our cache.
Mamma rose, wiped her eyes and set out for Tratrchok. I said I would
accompany her. She was very touched and did not suspect that we were on our
way to salvage Schwambrania's valuables.
When we got to Tratrchok Mamma told a commander who had a drooping
moustache that she had to remove a package of personal letters from inside
the piano. He winked at her meaningfully, said "Aha! Love letters!" and told
her to go right ahead.
The piano was in a large hall. It seemed to be crouching fearfully in a
far corner. Red Army soldiers sat around on the benches, chewing on
sunflower seeds. Two men were sitting on crates by the piano. They were
trying to play "Chopsticks". They stopped when they saw us. Mamma went over
to the piano and caressed the keys with a delicate, rippling scale. The
piano whinnied like a horse that has recognized its master. The soldiers
stared at us. The commander untied the package, winked at Mamma again and
again said, "Love letters".
" 'Hooray! Hooray!' they all shouted," I hummed as we left the
As we were crossing the square, someone behind us shouted: "Hey,
Madame! Come on back!"
It was the commander. He was out of breath from running when he reached
us. Mamma trembled as she pressed the package to her breast. At that moment
an earthquake shook Schwambrania.
"Come on back, lady. The boys are awfully mad. They say you spoiled the
piano on purpose, so it won't be of any use to us. They say you took
something out of it and now it's ruined."
"You're talking nonsense! That's probably because none of you know how
"You're wrong there. It was all right until you took that package out.
So you'll have to come back and tie it inside again."
We trudged back to Tratrchok.
The soldiers greeted us with an angry rumble. They crowded around the
piano. They were shoving and shouting, saying that Mamma had spoiled
national property on purpose, that this was sabotage, and that people got
themselves shot for being saboteurs.
"Take it easy, boys," their commander said, but we could see he was
Mamma strode over to the piano. The soldiers stopped talking. She
played a chord, but the piano did not respond with its usual fine sound. The
sound it made was dull and barely audible. It rose and died away like some
Mamma looked at me. She was aghast. Then she brought her hands down on
keys as hard as she could, but the chord was a whisper again. The soldiers,
"You spoiled it! She did it on purpose!"
"It's the soft pedal!" I cried, guessing what the matter was.
When the commander had pulled the package out he had tripped the soft
stop, lowering the strip of felt onto the strings. Mamma yanked at it and
the piano responded with such a loud chord it was as if cotton wads had been
removed from our ears.
The soldiers beamed. They asked us to tie the package back inside the
piano again, just to make sure. We did, but the piano did not sound any
louder. We were then told we could have our package back. The shamefaced
young soldiers asked Mamma to play something lively.
"I don't play polkas, comrades," Mamma said acidly. "You had better ask
They did and I clambered up onto a crate. I was surrounded by beaming
faces. As I could not reach the pedals from my high perch, one of the
soldiers volunteered to help. He depressed it carefully and kept his foot on
it all through my performance. I played every single march, polka and ditty
I knew, and all of them as loudly as possible. Some of the men were soon
tapping in time, and then, suddenly, a young soldier dashed to the middle of
the room, spread his arms wide, as if he were going to embrace someone, and
tapped his foot gingerly, as though to test the floor. Then he began to
dance inside the wide circle that formed in an instant. He tossed his head
and stamped as he danced. Then he began to sing a ditty in a clear voice:
It's a pity, it's a shame,
It's an awful darn disgrace!
See the bourgeois and their dames
Crawling out from every place!
The commander cut him short. Then he turned to Mamma and said in a very
polite and respectful manner: "Madame, I mean, as we now say. Citizen, would
you please play us something yourself? Something more inspiring. The boys
and I would all appreciate it very much. Say, some overture from an opera."
Mamma sat down on the crate. She wiped the keys with her handkerchief.
My pedal specialist offered his help and foot again, but Mamma said she'd
Mamma played the Overture from "Prince Igor" for them. She was very
serious and played exceptionally well.
The soldiers stood around the piano in silence. They followed her
fingers with rapt attention, leaning over each other's shoulders. Finally,
Mamma removed her hands slowly and gently from the keyboard. The last chord
drifted up in their wake like a wisp of cobweb and then died away.
The men all moved back as she raised her hands, but were silent for
several seconds after. It seemed they were listening to the last, fading
notes. Then only did they begin clapping wildly. Their arms were extended as
they clapped, and they held their hands close to Mamma's face, for they
wanted her to see that they were clapping, not merely to hear them.
"A great talent. No doubt about it," the commander said and sighed.
We had once again reached the middle of the square, but the applause
coming from the porch of Tratrchok continued. Mamma listened to it modestly.
"You can't imagine the ennobling effect music has on people!" she said
later to my aunts.
"You can't ennoble such people. If they'd been ennobled, they'd have
returned the piano," Aunt Sary said.
A month later, after the piano had long since been returned, the
following lines appeared in the "Replies to Our Readers" column of Izvestia:
To a Doctor from Pokrovsk
You piano has been illegally requisitioned as it is a means of
Papa was jubilant. He carried the clipping around in his wallet and
showed it to all his friends.
When Stepan Atlantis found out about it, he said, "Was that your piano
they wrote about in the paper? Hm! You sure spread it all over the country!
That's what private ownership does to you!"
THE FOLLOWING OFFICIAL PAPERS HAVE BEEN LOST
The secret package was now tucked away into a drawer of Mamma's desk,
and the desk was now a part of the furnishings belonging to one of our
neighbours, for we now shared our apartment with others, having had three of
our rooms borrowed in succession. Chubarkov, who was recuperating, was given
one room, something that pleased us both immensely.
"Now we can be like Robinson Crusoe and Friday," he said, unbuckling
his belt and holster and laying them on the table. "Will you lend me the
"Sure!" I examined the gun. "Is it loaded?"
"Sure. Don't touch it."
My aunts peeped in, examined the Commissar's broad shoulders and
uptilted nose critically and departed with an indignant sniff. "No manners
at all! He's a regular martinet!"
The Commissar winked in their direction and said, "They don't look too
"They never are," I said.
"But we are," Oska said.
"That's that then. If boys like you are, I'll make out." Chubarkov
smiled fondly. Then he lifted Oska up and sat him on his knee. The blue
cloth of his narrow breeches was stretched tight. "Anybody here play
checkers?" His question was unexpected.
"That's no fun. Chess is much better. Do you play chess?"
"No. Never had a chance to learn."
"Lelya'11 teach you quick. He knows all the movings. The white ones,
and the black ones, and the back and front ones, too. All I know is how the
horse moves." Oska jumped down and began hopping in the squares of the
linoleum. He stopped suddenly, stood on one foot and said, "We put a queen
in jail. We put her away in a kennel long ago, when there wasn't any war,
but there was a tsar. That's how long ago!"
I glared at him, and he said no more.
In order to cut short this unnecessary and risky conversation, I
suggested that the Commissar and I have a game of checkers. He took a
printed checkerboard from his knapsack and dumped the checkers out of a
little pouch. Then he set them up, and we bent over the cardboard field,
forehead to forehead.
"Your move," he said.
In no time I saw I was up against a serious opponent. The Commissar
would send his pieces into the most unexpected squares with a light flick of
his middle finger. He set up traps and made two-for-one shots, scooping my
checkers up lightly and saying as he did, "Haven't had time to learn chess
yet, but I know a bit about checkers. What are you doing? Look here! You'd
better jump or I'll huff, that's for sure. Ah, that's better. Now here's
where we plaster back your ears. And reach the king row. My king. And that's
Five minutes later I found myself with one blocked piece on the board.
It was a disgraceful defeat.
I immediately set up the pieces again and suggested we have another
game. Ten minutes later my last two pieces were blocked in a corner. The
Commissar had rolled himself a cigarette and was cheerfully blowing thick
clouds of smoke at that unhappy corner.
Oska was crushed by my defeat. He decided to try his own hand against
the invincible Commissar.
"Do you know how to play cat-and-mouse?"
"Cat-and-mouse?" The Commissar sounded genuinely puzzled.
"I'll show you," Oska said and got up on the Commissar's lap again.
"You put your hand out like this, and I'll try to slap it. But you have to
yank it away, so's I don't. If I miss, it's your turn to slap me. We all
play it in school."
"Let's give it a try." Chubarkov laid his huge hand, the hand of a
stevedore, on the card table.
Oska took aim. He raised his left hand but quickly brought down his
right. Slap! The Commissar did not have a chance to yank his hand away.
"What'd you know! You tricked me that time! Let's do it again. I think
I've got the hang of it. Go on, try again!"
Oska repeated the manoeuvre, but his palm came down hard on the table,
since Chubarkov had yanked his hand away at the very last moment. "Aha!" he
said and seemed very pleased with himself. "Now you put down your paw."
A short while later someone knocked and Papa entered. We quickly
removed our puffed hands from the table and hid them behind our backs, for
they were as red as a goose's feet and itched badly from the Commissar's
slaps. However, Papa must have heard something of what was going on from the
"What's wrong with your hands, boys?"
"Oh, Papa! Come on in! We're playing cat-and-mouse. The Commissar's
real good at it, too. Even better than Vitya Ponomarenko."
"He's a real sharp fellow, your Oska is," the Commissar said and he
sounded a bit embarrassed. "You have to keep your eye on him all the time.
But he cheats. He hits you in mid-air, and that's against the rules."
"No, I don't! I don't cheat! You're real sharp yourself!"
"This is abominable! Look at your hands! It's unhygienic. Pardon me for
saying so. Comrade Commissar, but my children are used to more intelligent
games. This is no way for them to be spending their time."
"They're getting hardened," Chubarkov said, trying to stick up for us.
"It's good training! You have to have a good eye and be quick."
"Nonsense! What a thing to be proud of! You don't need any brains for
this kind of a game."
The Commissar looked at him slyly. "I wouldn't say so. Doctor. It seems
easy when you're on the sidelines, but it takes some brains. Why don't you
"If you don't mind, I'd rather not."
"That's a pity."
"Come on, Papa!"
"He's scared! Papa's scared!" Oska shouted.
Papa shrugged. "I don't see what there is to be afraid of. And I don't
see that you need any brains for it, either. But if you insist. Well...."
"That's that," the Commissar said and put his huge paw on the table.
"Your turn, Doctor."
Papa raised his white, antiseptic, surgeon's hand high into the air. He
shrugged disdainfully again and smacked the empty table top in the place
where the Commissar's hand had just been lying, but had been suddenly
We were ecstatic.
"Well, Doc? You still say there's nothing to it?"
"One minute. That didn't count. One minute, please. I think I'm
beginning to see what it's all about. Very well. You put your hand here, and
I hit from here. Excellent. All right, let's try it again."
The Commissar, keeping a wary eye on Papa, placed his hand on the
table. He was ready to jerk it away in a flash. Papa made several false
moves, and each time Chubarkov's hand jerked slightly. Then Papa pinned down
the Commissar's hand with a sudden loud slap.
"Oho! You sure have a surgical sledge-hammer," Chubarkov said and
rubbed his swelling hand. "You'll make a good player. But you won't catch me
napping again, that's for sure."
"Come on, put your hand down. I have another turn. Wait a minute!" Papa
took off his jacket and pulled up a chair. "We'll see who's the smart fellow
When our aunts peeped into the room several minutes later they were
flabbergasted. The Commissar and Papa were sitting at the table, one with
his shirt out over his breeches and no belt on and the other in his
shirtsleeves. They were taking turns slapping each other's hands soundly,
missing and slapping the table top.
"Got you!" said the Commissar.
"Aha!" Papa boomed.
Oska and I were hopping around excitedly, egging them on, though they
were quite carried away with the game as it were. The little table creaked
and swayed under their blows.
The sacred rules of propriety hammered into us by our aunts were
creaking and rocking as well.
THE COMMISSAR AND THE KINGS
An elegant army man who wore laced boots moved into the second room. He
carried in his suitcase, examined the room, cleaned his nails, beat a tattoo
on the table with his finger-tips and said, "So".
"You can always tell a gentleman," my aunts, who had been watching him
stealthily, decided and entered to greet the newcomer.
The gentleman jumped up, kissed their hands in turn and gave each of
the three one of his gilt-edged visiting cards. The name on the card was
Edmond Flegontovich La Bazri de Bazan. The fine type in the lower left-hand
corner read: "Marxist".
Despite his fine-sounding name, Edmond Flegontovich La Bazri de Bazan
turned out to be completely non-Schwambranian in character. He actually did
exist, though, and was well known in Pokrovsk. La Bazri de Bazan first
appeared in town shortly after the revolution and became the editor of the
Volga Stormy Petrel, a small newspaper published in Pokrovsk. He became
famous after he printed a banner headline on Christmas, greeting all the
readers on behalf of "the 1918th anniversary of the birth of the Socialist,
J. Christ". The following day the paper had a new editor. At the time in
question, La Bazri de Bazan was on the Tratrchok staff. He held the rank of
aide-de-camp for special missions, but since he was chiefly responsible for
arranging lectures, shows and debates, he soon found his rank unofficially
referred to as "aide-de-camp for special intermissions". The soldiers
nicknamed him Bags-and-Sacks.
The Committee to Combat Desertion set up its headquarters in the third
room, and penitent deserters trooped in and out all day long. They trekked
in guiltily to the committee, but since they usually took the wrong turn in
the apartment, they would as often as not lay their guilty heads on our
tables and windowsills. They wandered through the rooms and held meetings in
the kitchen. In the mornings they would tramp into the parlour without
knocking and wake Oska and me and our aunts, who slept on the other side of
the wardrobes that divided the room. Our aunts would appeal to their
consciences, but the deserters would assure them that they were no strangers
and would not hurt anyone, after which the men would curl up by the door and
go to sleep. Whenever a little girl came for a piano lesson, they would
crowd around the piano and follow her rippling fingers up and down the
keyboard admiringly. "Just look at that!. No bigger'n a baby, but watch
those fingers go!" they would say.
Strangers kept drifting in and out of every door, but they all seemed
to be desirable acquaintances. Mamma soon got used to the draughts. The
draughts drew the red flags in through the windows. The house became a
thoroughfare, with the corridor serving as an extension of the street. For
some reason or other, no one noticed the gate, and so they passed through
our apartment to reach the back yard from the street. Day and night
typewriters clattered overhead in the army office on the second floor. One
night they clattered louder and faster than usual, and in the morning we
discovered that the people upstairs had been testing a new machine-gun. Tin
pails clanged in the yard near the tethering post. Hardened deserters who
were under arrest sat around on the porch railing. Sentries walked up and
down with measured steps. Oska hopped and skipped along behind them, trying
to keep in step and looking very intent as he shouldered his toy gun. He
would peep into Bags-and-Sacks' windows as he paraded back and forth, since
our manuscripts were locked up in the desk there. Oska was guarding
ACQUAINTANCES, DESERTERS AND DRAUGHTS
The Commissar was reading his way through the third volume of the
encyclopaedia before going to bed. He had already read the first two volumes
and intended to go through the entire set. My aunts despised him in their
hearts and cautioned me against being too friendly with, as they referred to
him, a martinet. However, Oska and I tagged along after him whenever we
could. We accompanied him to the stables to groom the army horses and shared
his dream of big ships.
Bags-and-Sacks' room reeked of perfume. Cuff links, little bottles,
boxes, wine glasses, cigarette holders and nail files were scattered all
over the windowsills. There was a photograph of Vera Kholodnaya, a popular
silent screen star, on the wall. Bags-and-Sacks was polite. He always
stepped aside to let someone pass in the cramped corridor and often clicked
his heels. My Petrograd aunt said he was certainly more like a marquis than
a Marxist. The marquis entertained every evening. His visitors were ladies
in uniform and men in civilian clothes, the ex-town fathers and ex-volunteer
nurse's aides. Bags-and-Sacks' guests were very noisy. A guitar twanged
mournfully far into the night, while he sang in a grating voice of the King
of France playing chess on the parquet floor with his jester. Aunt Neces
would wake up and sigh.
"He's a very fine gentleman," she said. "It's certainly no fault of his
that he has neither a voice for singing nor an ear for music. I simply can't
understand why he insists on singing."
One day La Bazri de Bazan got the Commissar drunk. Chubarkov kept
refusing, but the marquis kept coaxing him to drink. "Go on, drink up. The
proletariat has nothing to lose but its chains."
After a while the Commissar came into our room in his stocking feet
with the straps of his breeches dangling. "I'm nearly through with the third
volume, Doctor, but what's the use? I guess hauling sacks is my limit.
That's for sure." And he kneeled over. When someone tried to help him to his
feet he jumped up and dashed out into yard. Five minutes later he entered
from the street. He was tightly belted and every button of his tunic was
buttoned. He was very official-looking. His spurs jangled. His face was
strained and intent.
"Where's that Army guy who just made a fool of himself?" he rasped.
"Lolling around drunk, disgracing our Soviet system. Where is he? He's under
arrest! And that's that." He searched the room. Papa stood in front of the
mirror, so the Commissar would not find himself. Before leaving, Chubarkov
turned in the doorway and shook an unbending finger at everyone. "See it
doesn't happen again! And that's that!"
A terrible discovery was made one evening. La Bazri de Bazan had gone
off somewheres and Mamma wanted to see if the package was still in the desk
drawer. It was not. The precious package containing the worthless money and
our manuscripts was gone, as were four bars of fine toilet soap that she had
also kept there. They were all gone. The Schwambranian secrets had been
Papa and Mamma went back to the dining-room. We were gathered around
the table for a meeting of the family council.
"So that's what your marquis is like," Papa said.
"Impossible!" all three aunts protested. "You can tell he's from a good
family. The Commissar probably picked the lock and requisitioned everything,
as they say."
"Such audacity!" Mamma moaned. "And there was the soap, too. I couldn't
care less for the money. It was just a pile of paper that should have been
thrown out long ago."
"Why'd you hide it then?" I asked.
"Well, you never can tell...."
We sat around in silence for some time, staring at the oilcloth. It
seemed that misfortune was spread out on the table like a dead fish.
Papa rose and said he would notify the authorities.
My aunts were aghast.
"You must be out of your mind! How can you complain to robbers about
the doings of robbers? Why, they'll arrest you and shoot you!"
But Papa brought his fist down on the table and the Constituent
Assembly said no more. Then Papa cranked the telephone.
"The Special Section, please," he said in a special voice. "It's busy?
Then the Cheka."
"Shhh!" Aunt Neces said in a frightened voice. She was used to uttering
these words in a fierce stage whisper.
Two men came to the house shortly afterwards. They were both tall and
olive-skinned and both had small black moustaches. They were dressed in
leather jackets and looked like drivers. Papa had informed Chubarkov that
they were coming, and the Commissar joined them when they entered
Bags-and-Sacks' room. The marquis was at home. He seemed taken aback for a
moment, but then greeted the unexpected visitors with his usual familiarity.
"Come on in. Prenez vos places, as they say. May I offer a little
They searched the room. The lost soap fell out of an overturned
"It's ours," Papa said.
"I must disagree. It's mine," the marquis said.
The worthless paper money was mixed up with some other papers and
charts. Oska and I exchanged glances.
One of the men leafed through the papers, reading aloud: " 'Letter to
the tsar', 'Battle map', 'Guide to the city of P.' 'Secret Instructions',
'List of conspirators'. What's all this?"
"I don't know," the marquis replied. He had turned pale when he
realized that this was beginning to smell worse than merely soap.
"How did you come by all this?"
"I don't know. My word of honour. None of this belongs to me. Nor the
soap. I don't know a thing about it."
Chubarkov went right up to him and cursed through his teeth. It was
very much as if he had spat in his face.
Suddenly Oska made his way through to the front. I waved him back. I
rolled my eyes like a jack-in-the-box, but he paid no attention.
"That's ours! Tell him to give it back, 'cause it doesn't belong to
The two men were examining the charts. They exchanged glances.
"Mm?" one said quizzically.
"Uh-huh," the other agreed.
"Comrades!" I said. "My brother and I were playing, and we hid all this
next to the soap. That's all there is to it," I said.
"We'll straighten it all out at headquarters," was the reply.
Then one of the men put through a call. "That you? This is Schorge.
I've got him here. Yes, we found it. Yes, he confessed he stole it. But we
found something funny here. Yes. The boys say it's theirs. Yes. I doubt it.
What? Both of them? All right!" and the receiver clicked like a pair of
heels. He then went over to Chubarkov and spoke to him. Chubarkov looked at
"I'll tell you what, boys," the Commissar said. "Let's all go for a
ride in an automobile. The chief has specially invited you over. He wants
you both to tell him all about those papers of yours. And that's that. I'm
going along for the ride. All right? Then that's that."
My aunts fainted like so many tenpins rolling over. I, too, felt a
little queasy. ' A large automobile took us to the Cheka. The night rushed
at us. Like true Schwambranians, we were anxious to reach the scene of
THE MARQUIS AND THE MARTINET
The office was still. Two men were bent over our papers. The light of
the table lamp was reflected on the shiny bald head of the fat man in
eyeglasses. The other was a Lett. His blond eyelashes fluttered.
"Well, boys, sit down and tell us all about it," the fat man said. He
seated Oska on his desk. There was a Browning gun on it.
"Is it loaded?" Oska asked matter-of-factly and then went back to his
usual tone of voice. "Who are you? The chief chief? Are you? Then tell him
to give us our papers. You know how long it took us to draw everything?"
"We'll do just that, but first I want you to tell us all about it from
the very beginning. All right?"
The Lett's eyelashes fluttered again as he read our Schwambranian
letters. I felt very ill-at-ease.
"This is just a lot of nonsense!" he said in an angry voice and handed
the papers to the fat man, who looked them over carefully.
"Where's the city of P.?" the fat man asked.
"That's Port Folio. The port in Folio."
"And where would that be?"
"In Schwambrania," Oska piped up. "It's a make-believe country. My
brother discovered it all by himself. We've been playing it all our lives."
"Your brother's a real Columbus, isn't he? Well, if it's only a game,
why'd you hide all this?"
"So's it would be real secret. It's more interesting when everything's
The chief was intrigued. He asked us to tell him all about
Schwambrania. We began our story rather reluctantly, but were gradually
carried away by our old game. We interrupted each other as we spoke of life
on the Big Tooth Continent. We told them what the coat-of-arms stood for and
all about the map. We enumerated all the members of the Brenabor Dynasty,
described the wars, journeys, revolutions and tournaments, while Oska even
recalled the name of the last Minister of External Affairs. We stood to sing
the Schwambranian anthem and were about to argue over the last cemetery
The chief was laughing. He was roaring, choking and wiping his tearing
eyes. He slapped his bald pate and shook his head, but could not stop
The angry-looking Lett was laughing, too. His body shook, though his
pale lips did not open and his eyes were shut tight. Something squeaked in
Oska and I looked at them reproachfully. Then we smiled. Soon we were
"Oh! You're better than a circus!" the chief panted. "I thought I'd
die. Ah.... What did you call him? Brenabor? How'd you ever think of it? You
had it all figured out! I haven't heard of anything so good in a long time."
Then he suddenly became serious and said, "Do you find it very difficult to
govern the country?"
"It's not too bad. We manage. But sometimes things get mixed up."
"Why'd you have to invent all that?"
It was a serious question. I took a deep breath and said, "We wanted
everything to be beautiful. And everything really is in Schwambrania. All
the streets are paved, and all the boys have big muscles. And parents don't
interfere. And you can have as much sugar as you like. There are hardly any
funerals, and you can go to the movies every single day. As for the weather,
it's always sunny and it's cool in the shade. All the poor people are rich.
And everybody's happy. And there aren't any lice at all."
"You're wonderful boys!" the chief said warmly. "We've got to make all
these dreams come true. And we'll have paved streets everywhere, and big
muscles, and movies every day. And we'll call off the funerals and outlaw
the lice. Just wait! It's easier said than done, so we'll call off the
dreaming and get down to work. I have no time to lecture you, not this late
at night. Look at the younger Schwambranian yawning. He's opening his mouth
so wide he might swallow the whole continent. And I'm sure your mother's
worried. I'll phone her."
The chief took us home in his car. He let Oska toot the horn before we
said goodbye. He laughed and said he was very happy to have met some members
of the Schwambranian tribe. He said we should establish Soviet power in
Schwambrania soon and then stop dreaming and help lay real pavements.
"What happened to Bags-and-Sacks?" I said, feeling that we were well
enough acquainted by now for me to ask him.
"We'll send him off to ... uh ... what's its name ... Pi-li-guinika.
You know, he invented himself, too. But he's a sleazy character and he was
playing for money. Well, goodnights, boys! Happy Schwambranian dreams and
good real times ahead!"
We were soon asked to move again. This time we were given an apartment
on Atkarskaya Street. It was very far from the centre of town. The
centrifugal forces were at work.
The actual moving was not too much of a strain, for we had by then
become used to all sorts of changes. The greatness of the Home (with a
capital "H") had long since been debunked. Our belongings crawled
shamefacedly into the crowded corners of our new place of habitation. Since
there was not enough room for everything, a wardrobe and a table wandered
off to our friends' house on the way.
Our moving coincided with new great changes in Schwambrania. Once again
this island roaming in search of a single, common universal truth had
undergone considerable displacement. After our visit to the Cheka we
approached the goal of all our wanderings in the great wide world.
However, a new, an entirely new passion gripped Schwambrania. Three
days later we decided that this passion was at last the truth.
It was the theatre.
The Lunacharsky Municipal Theatre was opened in Pokrovsk in the defunct
Dawn Cinema. The troupe was made up of actors from Petrograd and Moscow who
had chosen to forego future fame in the capital for satisfactory food
rations in the provinces.
We were immediately captivated by the actors' names, which had a true
Schwambranian ring. There was Enriton, Polonych and Vokar, for example.
True, we later discovered that some of the names had simply been reversed,
so that a very ordinary Rakov had become Vokar.
Kholmsky was head and shoulders above all the other actors of the
troupe. He was a man of many talents whom I met in Moscow several years
later, when he was the manager of the popular Theatre of Satire. Kholmsky
played either villains or Napoleons. Besides, he was the playwright and
designer. The City Council commissioned him to do the murals for the new
theatre. Soon the walls were covered with centaurs, troubadours, muses,
prophets and such like. Kholmsky was a man who was easily carried away and
was liable to run to extremes. He bundled some of his painted characters
into suits of mail, but had not a scrap of covering left for the others. He
coloured their bodies purple, which was wholly in keeping with the freezing
temperatures inside the unheated building. Kholmsky drew Venus de Milo at
the entrance. He added a pair of arms at the suggestion of the council
members. The inscription on the pedestal was: "Sow ye all kindness and
wisdom eternal! Sow ye! The people will thank you sincerely."
The people of Pokrovsk did not like his work.
"He's supposed to be a Party man, but he's gone and drawn a bunch of
naked people. You'd think the theatre was a bathhouse!" the audience
Our Petrograd aunt turned out to be a great theatre-goer, and she took
us to every single premiere. In no time we were able to recognize the
members of the troupe, both coming and going. We were mesmerized by the
theatre. We liked everything about it: the gong, the intermissions, the line
at the box office.
At the time, the theatre resembled a railroad station, and the curtain
was often delayed, as were the trains. The floor was littered with butts and
sunflower seed shells. The audience sat bundled in winter coats with raised
collars. The applause was wild, no matter that gloves and mittens muffled
the sound. All through the performance the inclined floor of the hall shook
lightly and emitted a rumbling sound. This was the people in the audience
tapping their feet softly to keep their toes warm.
"The heat is excruciating! There's not a breath of air!" the queen on
stage fumed as she fanned herself, though steam escaped from her mouth in
the cold air and she had on a heavy quilted jacket under her flimsy robes.
The prompter's whispering steamed upwards from his booth.
The audience reeked of disinfectant. We were doused with the
foul-smelling liquid before going to the theatre and were inspected by
candle light in the front hall upon returning.
TWO SCHWAMBRANIANS AT THE CHEKA
The Constituent Assembly sometimes went to a play and then spent the
rest of the week criticizing it. Aunt Sary was nearly run out of the theatre
once. The curtain had just gone up, and there was a strong draught from
backstage. My aunt's voice complained from the front row: "There's a
draught! Shut whatever it is!" She said this loudly as if the curtain, that
magic veil that separated the two worlds, was no more than a window.
The audience was truly offended.
We were dying to go backstage. Grisha Fyodorov, an influential, kind
soul and the son of the troupe's hairdresser, took us to that workshop of
wonders. We were stunned at the sight of the unbelievable, crude props, the
toy fruit and sackcloth scenery. But we gazed in awe at the grown people who
played at other people's lives every single day. This was better than
There was a painted inscription in the hall over the stage that read:
ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE, AND ALL THE MEN AND WOMEN MERELY PLAYERS
This quotation became the new motto of Schwambrania.
The Schwambranians took to the stage. The world was now divided into
actors and audience. Daytime in Pokrovsk was like a drawn-out intermission.
"Art takes one's mind off one's dull, uninteresting life," my aunts
said. "It transports one into a world of beauty."
They argued heatedly and nearly quarrelled when they discussed the
actions of the various characters in the previous evening's play. They
accused these invented personages, defended them, loved or hated them,
exactly as Oska and I did when we played Schwambrania. That was when we
decided that the theatre was Schwambrania for grown-ups. They were very
serious when they played their game.
Once, during a performance of Sunset, the lights went out. The play
continued by the light of kerosene lamps which sent sooty streaks across the
painted sky. The action was drawing to a close. The father had decided to
kill his daughter and had picked up his revolver.
At that very moment I noticed that the lamp closest to the wings had
begun to smoke badly. The flame appeared as a tiny fountain over the rim of
the lamp glass. The father walked towards his daughter. The flame reached
the edge of the sackcloth pavilion. The father raised his gun. The scenery
was about to catch fire. The daughter wrung her hands. I am positive that
many other people besides myself were aware of the fact that the faulty lamp
might at any moment set fire to the scenery. However, the daughter fell to
her knees and no one said a word. They were afraid to spoil the murder.
Schwambrania reigned in the theatre. The father cocked his gun.
The scenery began to smoke.
"Die, wretched woman!" the father exclaimed.
"The lamp's smoking!" I shouted, breaking the spell.
The nimble actor was up to par. He turned the wick down with one hand
and killed the ingenue with the other.
The theatre was saved. However, no sooner had the curtain come down
than the people sitting next to me began scolding, saying that the theatre
was no place for boys, that I might have waited before I shrieked, and that
now, instead of a murder, they had seen a stupid comedy, and they were sorry
they had wasted their money on tickets. In my heart of hearts I had to
confess that for the first time in my life I had betrayed Schwambrania.
There were two things that had been bothering me for several years.
These were an old locomotive that had sunk into the ground on Skuchnaya
Street and the mysterious charm-word "mitac" which had been a part of
Annushka's card trick.
Now, at last, I discovered the meaning of "mitac". A simple street sign
held the answer. It proved more knowledgeable than the teachers in my old
school or the encyclopaedia. I couldn't believe my eyes when I read the word
"MITAC" on one of the houses on Breshka Street, now renamed Communard
Square. I ran over and read the following: "Municipal Institute of the
Theatre and Cinema".
Pokrovsk was captivated by the theatre. Everybody and his brother was
now an amateur actor. Tratrchok, the Department of Education, the Food
Committee and Volga Shipping all had their own troupes. Theatrical studios
mushroomed. Finally, all the small studios joined forces to become MITAC,
which then established a children's studio. Since our school was closed
down, Oska and I enrolled. Stepan Atlantis and Taya Opilova soon followed
We were rehearsing a play called Prince Fork de Forkos. The prince was
in love with a princess, but the queen, her mother, was very proud and a bad
lot in general, and so the prince was shown the door. Then he broke the
spell that had been cast over a mushroom, and a fairy came out of it and
gave the prince an apricot. The queen ate it, and her nose began getting
bigger and bigger. Meanwhile, back on Rodos Island, where the prince
lived.... In a word, the plot was very involved.
Taya Opilova was the princess. Both Stepan and I wanted to be the
prince. We nearly quarrelled over the part, because the prince was supposed
to declare his love for the princess, and the princess, we felt, would guess
that these were not simply lines from the text. Kramskoi, the director, said
Stepan would be the prince, since he was older than I and taller, and his
voice was deeper. As if I couldn't talk in a deep voice if I wanted to!
We coaxed Forsunov into being the great magician. Grisha Fyodorov was
our makeup man, as he was the son of a real hairdresser in a real theatre.
Our first performance was at the MITAC. I was the court jester and Oska
was a gnome. His was a non-speaking part. We were both jittery. Grisha had
made us up for our parts. The audience was buzzing impatiently out in the
hall, and the sound seemed dangerous, mocking and mysterious. It was time to
begin, but both Stepan and Forsunov were missing. The director paced up and
"Curtain time!" the audience shouted and stamped.
The boys finally showed up. They were sober-faced and in a hurry.
"So long, Leva!" Stepan said. "All the Communists have been mobilized.
We're being sent to the front lines. I'm a volunteer. I had a hard time
making them take me. They said I was too young. But they finally did. Our
train's leaving soon. Goodbye!"
Our hands met in a firm handshake. Stepan was silent for a moment, then
cleared his throat and said softly, "I'll bet you'll be seeing Taya home
alone now. Well, I don't mind if it's you. But don't let anyone else near
The audience was in an uproar. Forsunov went out in front of the
curtain. He had on his knapsack. The audience calmed down. Forsunov adjusted
a strap and said, "The performance has been postponed."
"Till when?" the people shouted.
"Till we wipe out the Whiteguards!"
A day later Papa left for the Urals Front. Papa was heading into the
thick of the typhus epidemic, for the dread lice had infested the trenches.
Mamma and my aunts had packed three full suitcases for him. Papa took one.
He joked unhappily, saying that he didn't need a thing, since they wouldn't
put a burial mound over him and he didn't believe in the hereafter. Then,
according to the old Russian custom, we all sat down for a moment of silence
before the journey.
"All right," Papa said as he rose. He kissed each of us in turn.
"You're the man of the house now," he said to me.
As he was leaving, he collided with a patient who was just entering.
The man moaned and bowed to him.
"There are no more office hours. I'm leaving."
"Please, Doctor! It'll only take a minute! I can't stand the pain any
more. And who knows how long I'll have to wait till you get back. You might
even get yourself killed out there."
Papa looked at the wall clock, then at the man, and then at us. He set
down his suitcase. "Take off your things," he said in an angry voice,
ushering the man into the office. "Don't forget, seven drops after meals,"
he said to him ten minutes later as he got into the sleigh.
After the sleigh had borne Papa off, my aunts walked away from the
windows and all three began to wail.
"No more of that, hear me? Dry up," I said rudely.
My frightened aunts stopped weeping. However, the stillness that had
descended upon our suddenly empty house was still worse. I clenched my fists
and left the room, my gait very much that of the man of the house.
SCHWAMBRANIA FOR GROWN-UPS
I don't recall how long it was after that, perhaps a year, but maybe
only a month. There were no calendars in the stores, and so it was difficult
to follow the passing of time, which had somehow lost its familiar quality.
When my old Boys School uniform was traded for a slab of bacon, for
instance, the days were swallowed up, as it were. Other, less filling days,
dragged on like weeks. Endless, hungry weeks. Our daily schedule was quite
unlike what it had once been. Before, dinner time had been the centre of the
day's activities, the traditional hour when the family gathered, a solemn
repast, a sacrament, the ceremony of partaking of food, the main meal, and
the hours were counted off in terms of: "before dinner" and "after dinner".
Now we often skipped dinner altogether. We ate whenever there was anything
to eat. At such times Mamma would say, "Let's have a bite."
And we ate on the run, standing up, like people at a railroad station,
since it was impossible to come in physical contact with the icy chairs. The
apartment was freezing, and each of us grudged sharing the warmth he had
hoarded up in his body with an inanimate thing like a chair.
We moved about, trying to avoid all cold objects, for they could snatch
away some of our body's warmth. We took turns being the fire-tender. The one
on duty would crawl out from under a pile of blankets and drapes in the
morning, when the thermometer pointed to 5°. The day's fire-tender, his
teeth chattering, would stick his feet into a pair of icy felt boots and
start a fire in the pot-bellied stove. It would become red-hot and as the
temperature rose, the inhabitants of our apartment would rise, too. The bare
and empty sideboard greeted us with open arms. Our breakfast consisted of
bland pumpkin mush, watermelon tea and saccharine.
Mamma was now a Music School teacher, but since the school had no
facilities for practising, the lessons were conducted in our house. The
little girls stepped on the piano pedals in their heavy felt boots and
roused the chilly innards of the piano with their icy fingers. Mamma,
dressed in her fur coat and gloves, would nimbly lift the stuck keys from
under their fingers.
I, too, was a tutor. A buxom girl named Anna Kolomiitseva, who was
older than I, came to the house to learn the three R's. The payment for
these lessons was pound of meat a month. It was hard-earned meat. That's
when 1 learned the real meaning of work. My pupil stubbornly refused to
trust the letters of the alphabet, relying mostly on her own intuition. For
instance, there was her own name, Anna.
"Aaa-nnn-nnaaa," she drawled. "Oh! It says Annie!"
One day we were tackling the word "parasol".
"Paa-raa-ss-sool," she stumbled along.
"Well? Read it all together," I said.
There-beyond sorrow's seas,
After my pupil had gone, Oska and I went out to look for straw to heat
the stove a bit. We made use of its quick-heating qualities to set out the
dough for bread and took turns kneading the sticky mass with our ice-cold,
swollen hands. The job called for frenzied effort, and we imagined that we
were pummelling the hated guts of the enemies of revolutionary mankind, from
Chatelains Urodenal to Admiral Kolchak.
In the evening we all gathered at the table. There was no electricity.
The single nightlight was only put on on Sundays, which then truly became a
special day. The weekdays were illuminated by an oil wick lamp with a
twisted length of cotton for a wick. It was immersed in a cup of sunflower
or linseed oil. A tiny flickering flame burned at the tip of the wick,
filling the room with writhing black shadows.
My aunts moved the lamp closer. They sat in a row, stony- faced and
somewhat unreal. The lamp cast a faint light on them. The Constituent
Assembly resembled madonnas in pince-nez. My aunts read aloud in turn. Then
they spoke of the wonderful past and our ruined lives.
"My God! What a beautiful life it was! Remember the Sobinov recitals
and the literary magazines, and sugar was fifteen kopecks a pound. And now?"
"Aunts!" I said in a voice belonging to the man of the house. I sat in
a dark corner that was now Schwambrania. "Listen to me! I'm asking you once
and for all to keep your counter-revolutionary ideas to yourselves. It's no
skin off my nose, but it's wrong to be a bad influence on small children." I
would come closer to the table and glance meaningfully in Oska's direction.
For some time now I was aware that I was maturing at a tremendous speed.
This feeling of being responsible for the household, far from oppressing me,
actually inspired me. I felt that I had become more logical in my thinking,
that the necessary words came to me more easily, that I was more sure of
myself in many ways. I looked reality in the face now without fear or
reproach. Our straw patrol, frozen fingers and pumpkin mush did not dampen
my spirits. The absence of a calendar, eating standing up and wearing our
overcoats indoors made our way of life seem like something temporary and
transient, like something that was happening at a railroad station. However,
this was not but another stage of the Schwambranians' wandering. Life was
moving in a definite direction, though the road was an unusually difficult
"Don't worry, Mamma," I would say on the days when there were no lentil
beans, no kerosene and no letters from Papa. "Keep your chin up. Imagine
that we're on a very long journey, travelling through deserts and over all
kinds of high mountains. We're on our way to a new land. A wonderful land."
"Where to? Your Schwambrania again?" she would reply in a hopeless
"No, not Schwambrania. A real land. Who cares about oil wick lamps and
carrying straw, and frozen hands? Honestly, Mamma. Remember our undesirable
acquaintances, Klavdia and Fektistka? Their whole lives were a hundred times
worse than what ours are now for just this little while. It'd really be
unfair if we'd go straight from one good life to another. We're just like
passengers as it is, not helping in any way. And my aunts didn't even bother
to buy tickets. They should be put off the boat. Papa's the only one, and
even though I miss him, I'm glad he's doing his duty at the front lines."
My aunts were horrified. "Goodness! Just imagine. They've had
everything! Even governesses! And look at them now! They're growing up to be
1 dreamed of the day Stepan returned. I would go out to meet him in my
patched felt boots, carrying an armload of rotten straw.
"Hello, Stepan," I would say. "Give me five (but don't squeeze hard, my
hands are swollen). See? I'm the man of the house now, and I've forbidden my
aunts to talk like counter-revolutionaries. I'm rather hungry, but that
doesn't matter. I'll gladly eat pumpkin mush till victory day."
"Good for you," Stepan would say. "Your thinking is all right. Hold
out. Mush is as good as bread."
"But I don't want to be a passenger. I want to be a member of the
"Well, that's just what you'll be, a sailor of the revolution."
My daydreams broke off here, like a broken reel in the movies, for I
did not know how to become a sailor of the revolution. And Mamma would never
have let me be one, anyway.
SOME LESSONS TO US AND TO OTHERS
Still and all, Schwambrania lived on. It did not become any smaller
territorially, though it now took up much less of our time than before. One
day Schwambrania suffered a terrible blow. While we were out Mamma traded
the seashell grotto and its prisoner, the Black Queen, Keeper of
Schwambrania's Secret, for three litres of kerosene at the railroad station.
Thus did we lose her forever. For half an hour we were frantic. The sun of
Schwambrania was about to set for good. But that evening we turned on the
Playing Schwambrania at that time was mostly having imaginary feasts.
Schwambrania was busy eating. It had dinners and suppers. It stuffed itself.
We savoured the fine-sounding long menus we found in the cook book. We
satisfied our raging appetites somewhat at these Schwambranian feasts.
However, Schwambrania's sugar stores were only disturbed on holidays.
Georges Borman was Head Chef of Schwambrania. We discovered him on an old ad
for cocoa and chocolate. Georges Borman was the last of the Schwambranian
personages, though he was a personage of gastric origin. He, certainly,
could not cause any new errors.
In general, Schwambrania was on the decline. However, unexpected
circumstances brought about a new flourishing of the Big Tooth Continent.
These circumstances lived in a large deserted house on our street.
The house had been built by a slightly mad rich German named Uger.
Uger's Mansion was one of the landmarks of Pokrovsk. People from out of town
were shown it. They marvelled at it. It was indeed a most fantastic
structure. The owner had been possessed by vanity and a consuming desire for
luxury. He had decided to beautify Pokrovsk by putting up a unique building.
He craved for fame. However, he did not trust the architect and so drew up
the blueprints himself. Construction proceeded under his watchful eye. The
house was three stories high and had a basement. The people of Pokrovsk, all
of whom lived in one-story houses, threw back their heads and counted the
floors on their fingers.
Uger's Mansion was a cross between a prince's towered manse, a
fairgrounds pavilion and the Hanging Gardens of Semiramis. The windows of
one floor were unlike those of the others. There were tall, round, square
and narrow windows. There were galleries with stained glass panels. Seen
from the side, the house resembled a patchwork quilt. The entire pediment
was covered with murals. Mermaids frolicked below, ships sailed along at the
second story level, while generals of all sizes and shapes adorned the
third. Under the eaves hunters in Tyrol hats were depicted shooting tigers
The house would jingle and buzz at the slightest breeze, for twenty-two
weather-vanes and fifteen tin whirligigs spun and whirred on the turrets,
while eight huge fans clanged as they turned in the windows. This clanging
and jingling so puzzled the pigeons that they avoided the house, to say
nothing of prospective tenants.
In the beginning, the Junior High School was located there, but the
weathervanes and fans distracted the Juniors. A few heedless tenants tried
to live there for a while, but the Hanging Gardens of Semiramis would sway
whenever it was windy, the floors were springy, and the window frames
creaked. The mansion began falling apart like a house of cards. Uger died of
a broken heart. He was delirious at the end and said he wanted a weathervane
and a fan for a tombstone.
Meanwhile, the house kept on falling apart bit by bit. The door jambs,
banisters and sometimes whole galleries crumbled and disintegrated. The
nearby houses all sported panes of stained glass. Weathervanes that had
abandoned Uger's Mansion now spun on rooftops up and down the street.
When a blizzard hastened the process of destruction the neighbours
would converge, pulling sleds. They would take up their positions all around
the house and wait, sitting there like a pack of hyenas beside a dying lion.
They dragged the fallen pieces of the house off to their own houses on their
sleds, but did not have the courage to openly attack and loot this building
that was of no use to anyone any longer.
A PERSONAGE OF GASTRIC ORIGIN
We knew that the huge dead house could be a new, convenient and
mysterious place for our game. Soon Schwambrania moved into all the
remaining rooms. Once again the game became fun. We were not at all dismayed
by the fact that everything was wrecked inside. Schwambranians brought new
life to the ruins, and the dead house put off the fall of Schwambrania for a
A rustling, creaking and echoing filled the remains of the mansion,
firing our imaginations. The wind swished up and down the rickety stairs.
Fear haunted the dim, musty hallways, and terror crept along the walls at
This certainly was the best possible place for our Schwambranian
adventures. We quickly surveyed the house, giving each room a beautiful name
of a Schwambranian city. The country was being restored to life. However,
there was one place we had not yet explored. This was a dark, suspicious
passage that led to a basement filled with debris. We set out on an
expedition to this uncharted land. Our equipment consisted of long sticks
and a hanging votive light instead of a lantern. Then, following the best
advice of our various camping books, we tied a rope around our waists,
attaching ourselves thus to each other. We now looked like spelunkers.
We climbed down into the cave. The treads had long since fallen out of
the staircase. We skidded along slanted boards and scrambled over loose
bricks. I led the way. The light that was tied to the tip of my stick swayed
in front of me. Oska plodded along behind. He was very staunch and brave,
and, to prove it, he kept saying that he wasn't one bit scared, and that he
actually felt quite cosy. Just as he was saying how cosy he was feeling for
the sixth time, he fell through the floor. A rotten board had given way
under him, and Oska fell into the basement. Since we were tied together, 1
was dragged to the very edge of the hole and pulled flat against the
floorboards. The rope was very taut. It kept squeezing my waist tighter and
tighter, cutting painfully into my middle.
"Did you fall down?" I shouted into the black hole.
"Not yet. I'm flying and flying, but I can't fall down to the bottom."
I lit the votive light, which had gone out during the accident, and
lowered into the pit. There I saw Oska. He was suspended by the rope around
his middle and was revolving slowly. He kicked and squirmed as he tried to
touch the floor.
"Get me out of here, Lelya. It's awfully uncozy here. And the rope's so
I started pulling my brother up, straining as hard as I could.
Suddenly, there was a very unpleasant crack. The boards I had been lying on
crumbled. I fell into the blackness and landed on top of him.
"See? I fell down to the bottom. And the rope's not tight any more." He
The little light was smashed. Darkness billowed up around us in the
cave. A dense, sour-smelling darkness filled the basement. Wisps of grey
light filtered down through the hole we had made. When our eyes had become
accustomed to the dark we noticed quite a few strange objects that had been
concealed by the gloom. There was a crate on legs, some glass and metal
vessels, and strangely twisted and spiralling tubes. We stumbled over some
sacks filled to the top with something or other.
"It's hidden treasure," Oska said.
"A secret one," I whispered.
"This is big news!"
"It sure is! Real hidden treasure for Schwambrania! We'll set up a
A sudden beam of light hit the floor between us. We tried to scatter,
but something grabbed us from behind and sent us sprawling. It was the
accursed rope that had caught us by the waists and tripped us up. A hand
pulled the rope towards a lantern. We saw a terrible mug above the lantern:
a glittering upper lip, flaming nostrils and white lids. The other features
of the mysterious face were lost in the darkness.
Then we heard a rough voice saying, "What the hell are you doing here?
The upper lip glistened and "Why the hell are you here? I'll kill you,
you brats! If I see you trying to give me the slip, I'll plaster you like a
pair of puppies." Some terrible cursing followed.
"What are you yapping about?" I said, trying to keep my teeth from
"You're not supposed to curse in the presence of children," Oska said.
"Otherwise I will, too, and you'll be sorry."
The rope jerked, pulling us up to a huge fist that was illuminated on
one side by the lantern. It then revolved expressively, displaying, as some
menacing moon, all of its phases.
"Let go of the rope! Who said you could hold it like that? Who do you
think you are?" I shouted.
"He thinks this is tsarist times," Oska added. "We'll tell the Cheka
chief on you. He's a very good friend of ours. We'll tell him to arrest
"Don't you threaten me, you!" At this the huge fist was raised over
"Stop! Remove your hand, madman!" a voice piped up behind us. It
sounded strangely familiar. "And take the chains off the prisoners," it
continued in the same pompous vein. "Sit down, young wanderers. Greetings
from an old scholarly hermit. What brings you to my cave, troglodytes?"
The fist disappeared. Now a bald pate gleamed like a lagoon in the
light of the lantern. It belonged to E-muet, to the toadstool teacher
"Sit down. I recognized you. You're a member of the wild tribe. You're
both sons of the great and noble land of Schwabria," Kirikov said.
"Schwambrania," Oska corrected him. "How'd you know?"
"I know everything. I live in the hallowed depths of your country, but
in my free time, when I'm not occupied with scholarly research, I surface,
0, Schwambrania, and the day before, and last week, I heard you playing
among these pitiful ruins. What I mean is, when you became inhabitants of
"Schwambrania," Oska said. He sounded annoyed. "What are you doing
"And what's all this stuff?" I asked.
There was a long silence.
"0, Schwambranians, you have carelessly touched upon the one secret of
my miserable life, a secret that gives me no peace of mind," Kirikov said in
an echoing voice.
"Do you only have a piece of mind?" Oska inquired. "Do you live in the
"My soul is pure, and my mind is clear, but I have been unjustly passed
over by my fellow-men and the authorities. I am insulted and humiliated. But
I am suffering for the good of mankind. If you swear you won't breathe a
word of my secret to anyone, I will preserve your secret, the secret of
"Schwambrania," Oska muttered.
We swore we would not. Kirikov held the lantern up to our faces, and we
solemnly pledged that we would preserve his secret to the grave.
"Listen, then, Schwambranian brothers! I am the last alchemist on
earth. I am science's Don Quixote, and this is my faithful sword-bearer. I
have discovered the elixir of universal joy. It makes the sick well and the
sorrowing happy. It turns foes into friends and strangers into bosom
"Is that your game?" Oska asked.
Kirikov snapped that his elixir was not a game, but a serious
scientific discovery. We then found out that the cave was actually a
laboratory where the elixir was made. The alchemist said that in a year's
time, when the last experiments were completed, he would publish his
findings. He would then completely renovate the house, have electricity put
in, and would give us the entire top floor for Schwambrania. In the
meantime, however, we had to keep quiet, no matter what. "I'm going to name
my elixir of universal joy in your honour, my young friends. It will be
known as the Elixir of Schwambardia.
"It's Schwamhrania. Schwambrania!" Oska shouted. "You can't even say it
right. What kind of an alphysics are you?"
"I'm an alchemist, not an alphysics!" Kirikov sounded just as cross.
We visited the alchemist several more times. By the light of day
Kirikov and his assistant Filenkin turned out to be very hospitable men.
They told us of their progress and listened to the latest Schwambranian news
with interest. The alchemist went so far as to help us govern the country.
They worked at night. Their secret smoke wafted up into the yard
through a camouflaged pipe and was blown away. Sometimes we even chopped
wood for their stove. However, they never once showed us the elixir, saying
that it wasn't ready yet. One day we came to see them and found them in a
very merry mood. They were singing softly and clapping warily. A fat woman
in bright felt boots and a bright shawl was part of the party.
"See how happy she is? She just had the first drops of the elixir of
world joy," the alchemist said. "This is Agrafena, I mean Agrippina, Queen
of Schwambrania. We'll crown her, and lead her to the throne. Hooray!"
"We don't have any queen-ladies," Oska said glumly.
"He's right. We'd love to have her, but Schwambrania's a republic,
after all. If she wants to, she can be the president's wife," I explained.
"All right then. She'll be the president's wife. Agrafe ... eh- mew-eh
... Agrip-pina, would you like to be the wife of the President of
"You bet!" said Agrippina.
ADVENTURES IN THE DEAD HOUSE
A young girl who was our cousin came to stay with us. She was from
Moscow and her name was Donna Dina, or Dindonna. Her real name was just
Dina. Her black hair and flashing black eyes, which were as shiny as the
piano top, and her teeth, which were as white and even as the ivory keys,
had earned her the name of Donna.
Our aunts made sure that we understood we were to call her Cousin Dina.
However, Dina turned out to be a regular pal and when she first heard us
say, "Good morning, Cousin Dina," she burst out laughing. When she laughed
everything about her laughed: her eyes, her teeth and her hair.
"Well, then, good morning, kinsmen!" she replied. "How do you spend
your time, if I may ask?"
"In Schwambrania," Oska replied, for he felt drawn to her immediately.
"And carrying straw. And we go out for walks. Will you go out with us?"
"With pleasure. I'm sure to lose my way here alone."
Even Oska had to agree that Dina was a beauty. She wore a real sailor's
middy-blouse, given to her by a revolutionary sailor from Kronstadt. We
thought that was wonderful. We escorted her around town. We showed her the
ruins of Uger's Mansion, but did not say a word about the alchemist or his
elixir. Dina wanted to know all about Schwambrania. She was a little puzzled
by the fact that in such interesting times as these we felt a need for
make-believe. She said it was a shame and high time we got down to real
work. Our friendship blossomed during our long walks.
Young men would step aside politely to let Donna Dina pass. They nudged
each other and looked after her. We could hear them saying what a good
looker she was and beamed proudly.
Dina had only been with us for three days when, to our joy, she stepped
on our aunts' toes, that is, hems. She criticized them for bringing us up in
such an old-fashioned way, saying it was a crime to put a damper on the
social feelings that churned and boiled within us.
"She's right! You can't imagine how my feelings churn! Especially after
pumpkin mush," Oska said.
Dina hugged him and said he hadn't really understood, but no matter.
The argument continued. Our aunts said that they had long since given up, as
far as we were concerned, that we had come completely under the influence of
the street and Bolshevism which, to their minds, was one and the same thing.
They went on to say such awful things it made Dina stand up and slap her
hand loudly on the table. Her face became flushed.
"I think I forgot to mention the fact that I've joined the Party," she
"Are you as good as a Communist now?" Oska inquired.
"I hope so," she replied cheerfully.
My aunts were flabbergasted. They gaped. Then their mouths shut slowly.
FEKTISTKA'S OTHER NAME
"My dear kinsmen," Dina said soon after. "Great vistas have opened up
before you. They are a challenge to your boundless energy and imagination.
But you must be social beings, dear kinsmen. It's high time you were!" She
had just been appointed Commissar Chubarkov's assistant, in charge of the
children's library and reading-room.
My aunts' definition of a children's library was: an officially
operated hotbed of infectious diseases which were to be found lurking in
profusion in the old books, as worn and torn as a ragman's clothes.
Dina's idea of a children's library was as follows: "It's not merely a
counter, kinsmen. It's not merely a place where books are handed out. A
children's library should be the main centre for educating and bringing up
children outside the school. It'll be the children's favourite clubhouse,
where each can do as he likes. We'll teach children to respect good books.
Oh, kinsmen, we'll have such a wonderful place! Your Schwambrania won't even
hold a candle to it! Everyone will want to belong to it. Just wait and see."
However, in order to become such a wonderful place, the library had to
have more space. There were some very rich people living in the adjoining
apartment. They had been asked to move some time before, and now Dina
decided to take matters into her own hands. She asked me to come along and
back her up.
This would be the beginning of my volunteer work for the library.
Dina was busy checking the catalogue and library cards when I came in.
She was surrounded by raggedy children. I recognized many of my former
neighbourhood enemies. There were also some skinny children who lived near
the railroad tracks, some stocky boys and girls from the fishermen's
settlement, and some boys who worked at the cannery and the bone-meal
factory. Some were filling in the cards, others were pasting torn pages,
while still others were on the step ladders, placing the books on the
shelves. Everyone was busy and you could see they were enjoying the job.
This was the first children's book brigade. They obviously liked Dina and
kept pestering her with questions.
"Donna Dina! Donna Dina! Who's Uncle Tom's cabin?" a little girl
wrapped in a huge shawl that was crossed on her chest and tied in back
"Donna Dinovna!" came a voice from the top of a ladder. "Is Tolstoy a
place or a someone?"
"Here's another helper, children," Dina said, pointing to me. "Put his
name down on the list, Ukhorskov."
I was very offended. I had no intention of playing second fiddle here.
I had been positive Dina had intended me to be in charge of everything.
However, I decided to say nothing for the time being.
"I know you. You're the doctor's son. Won't you get in trouble for
coming here with us?" somebody said.
"Why should I get in trouble? Everybody's equal now."
Ukhorskov, a tall boy with high cheekbones, came over to me. "Are you
going to be a doctor, too?" he said.
"No. I'm going to be a sailor of the revolution." "That's not bad. I
want to be an aviator."
Commissar Chubarkov came in just then. We hadn't seen each other for a
long time. "Oho! The younger generation's shooting up! What does your papa
write home about life in the trenches?"
Then we all trooped next door to help with the eviction. To my horror
and embarrassment the people were close relatives of Taya Opilova. She was
sitting on a trunk in the front hall when we entered. For a moment I did not
know what to say. Taya's eyes were full of contempt, indignation, reproach
and God knows what else. My one desire was to sneak off.
"I thought you were the doctor's son!" she said.
"I'd rather be a doctor's son than an exploiter's daughter!" I snapped.
"That's that!" the commissar shouted. "You've had your say and that's that."
Ukhorskov came over to me. He spoke in a whisper. "We're putting out a
newspaper. Come on over this evening. You can be the editor. You've changed
a lot. You've got a real fighting spirit now." "How come you know me?"
"You don't recognize me, do you? Remember the time I fixed your basin
and pail? I'm Fektistka. I live in the children's home now. I requisitioned
my boss' tools and I make nifty cigarette lighters. Want me to make you one
that'll look just like a pistol? And it'll be a good lighter, too?"
"I don't smoke."
"You can use it to scare thugs."
As I looked at this tall, confident boy I could hardly recognize the
tinsmith's timid apprentice. Could this be the same Fektistka whose skinny
back had first brought home to us the difference between those who made
things and those who owned them? Indeed, he had even acquired a last name!
The Commissar was waiting for me outside the library. He took my arm.
"Uh, is Comrade Dina ... uh, a relative of yours?" He was trying to sound
indifferent. "Is she your sister?"
"Yes. We're related." I was very possessive. Then I turned into the
wind so the Commissar wouldn't hear me and added, "She's my cousin."
"She's really educated." For some reason or other he sounded sad.
"She sure is! She nearly practically graduated from the University."
No! I was not elected editor of the children's newspaper. Horrible old
Dina told them I wasn't ready to take on such a job yet, since I liked to
daydream and wasn't sufficiently politically conscious, or some such
nonsense. I had never expected anything like that from her. And so Klavdia
was elected editor. Yes, the very same Klavdia who had always been our
prisoner when Oska and I played war in Schwambrania.
"I know what Comrade Dina means," Klavdia said slyly. "He's still
making-believe he's in a place called Schwambrania. It's a game. They used
to take me prisoner. But it's no fun to play that any more."
The kids all looked at me and smiled. Strangely, they were friendly
smiles. Never before had I been so ashamed of Schwambrania.
"I guess you've changed places now, Klavdia. You're in charge from now
on, and you've been freed for good. But Lelya 's still a prisoner of
Schwambrania. My poor kinsman." Dina smiled.
Naturally, I should have got up and walked out on those smart alecks,
but at that moment I doubted Schwambrania's right to existence more than
ever before. I felt there was nothing I could say in its defence. The game
was obviously becoming outdated. It was like an obsession, something to be
ashamed of, like a habit you want to break. Klavdia, the new editor, came
over to me and said,
"Don't be mad. Say 'fins' and come out of prison."
She was a thin and lively girl, and it was as clear as day that she had
no use for a game like Schwambrania. That was when I mentally crossed out
Item 3, the last on our list of the world's injustices, the one entitled
"Landless children". I wanted to belong to the same country she did, and so
I stayed on.
I was completely engrossed in the busy, noisy affairs of the library,
spending all my free time there. My hands and clothes were full of paint,
paste and ink. I was piled high with folders and obligations. Oska tagged
along and was soon everyone's pet. He was put in charge of the chess table.
"And chairs" he added, after he had been elected.
Ukhorskov, Klavdia and I organized a literary club. A month later the
first issue of our magazine appeared. It was called Bold Thinking. I signed
my name as the editor-in-chief. We hardly visited the alchemist any more,
for we were too busy at the library. In the evenings everyone gathered in
the reading room, and the day's newspapers were read aloud. This was really
"news", real dispatches from the front lines. Stepan Atlantis and perhaps my
father were somewheres out there, and thus were also part of these
We had lectures, literary debates and evening and morning social
events, at which both actors and audience were equally thrilled. The
library's fame spread throughout Pokrovsk. Every day new boys and girls
would come in from the outskirts.
We wore out our shoes and the thresholds of the various organizations
in an effort to supply the library with kerosene and firewood. Dina and her
aide, Zorka, a shy and gentle girl, made terrible scenes at the city
council, arguing over every stick of firewood. Once, when there was not
enough wood to last out the month, we all donated whatever we could. Small
frozen children brought a board, a panel of a chest or an armful of sticks,
despite the fact that there was no firewood at home. Still, they brought the
wood to the library. Once again hot flames made the stove doors rattle. In
the evening the young readers would take their eyes from their books to
listen to their wood crackling triumphantly in the stove, to see the
victorious array of bright sparks. Each would look around possessively at
the bookcases, the tables and his neighbours, for each felt himself the
master here. The merry crackling of the stove drowned out the churning of
their empty stomachs.
Chubarkov would stop by for new books practically every day. He was an
avid reader and attended all of our plays, debates and literary evenings.
His loud applause inspired us. He, however, was mostly inspired by Dina's
presence. Dina, as he put it, had a great cultural influence on him.
Irresponsible people said he was simply in love. But that didn't concern us.
In the midst of all our work we decided to set an evening aside for a
gala performance. The children invited their parents. We had a general
housecleaning in the library, got rid of the cobwebs and hung new posters on
the walls. For some reason or other, only mothers came to the party. They
were given the best seats. They fixed their combs and hid their work-weary
hands under the fronts of their shawls. Dina and Zorka offered them tea
without sugar, but there was apple butter.
A very new feeling of being a part of things and wanting to prepare a
very special welcome, to be especially hospitable to the guests, prompted
Oska and me to make a real sacrifice.
I put on my coat and was about to dash back home.
"Going for the Schwambranian sugar?" he said, guessing my intentions.
Dina was really touched. I imagined what Stepan Atlantis would have
said, had he been there.
"See, Stepan, I'm donating all our sweet private property for the good
of everybody," I would say.
"Good for you! That's exactly how a sailor of the revolution should
act," he would reply.
Our hearts nearly burst from pride as we watched the mothers drinking
their tea with Schwambrania's sugar.
The performance was Act Two of Nikolai Gogol's play The Marriage.
"Just look at my boy," one of our mothers was saying. "Why, you'd think
he was a real dandy!"
"Goodness! Is that Annie? I swear it is. You'd never recognize her in
"There's Nina! Look at her. I never knew she could be so high and
"Who's the skinny boy? The doctor's son? I might have guessed. He
speaks so politely."
"My Serge learned his part so good he's saying it faster'n anybody.
What a rascal! The boy in the booth there can hardly keep up to tell him
"Where's your boy, Stepanida?"
"You can't see him. He's holding the curtain."
The play was a smashing success. The actors were smothered in the
motherly embraces of the audience. Next on the program was Oska, reciting a
piece from The Sorochinskaya Fair.
The audience sat back expectantly.
"Do you know what the Ukrainian night is like?" Oska began with great
"No! No, we don't! Tell us!" came several voices from the audience.
"No, you do not know what it is like," he continued, obviously startled
by the response.
"Of course we don't," the mothers replied. "How could we? We never had
time for book-learning."
Afterwards the children took their mothers on a tour of inspection,
showing them their drawings, posters, magazines and the bulletin board with
"They've got themselves a whole kingdom of their own here!" one of the
Then there were games and dancing. At first, the women stood along the
walls shyly, but Dina and Zorka pulled them into the middle of the room. I
played a lively folk dance, four-handed, counting Oska's two, and the room
began to spin like a huge top. We had had many children's parties and
birthday parties at home, but none had ever been as much fun as this.
"Thank you, Donna Dinovna," the beaming mothers said. "And you, Zorka
dear. And you, boys and girls. Our youth's gone and past, with no good times
to remember. But at least we've lived to see our children happy. Thank you."
"You should thank yourselves. You made all this possible," Dina
Saucy Klavdia dragged me off to the "Surprise Room". One corner of the
room was hidden by some very nice drapes. The sign above them read:
"Panorama. View of a Moonlit Winter's Night".
"Want a look?" she said. "Pay a forfeit."
I paid a forfeit.
Klavdia turned down the lamp. "Look!" She pulled the drapes apart.
I saw a gold frame. Within it was a beautifully made scene of a
winter's night. The moon's milky-blue beams illuminated it. The granaries of
Pokrovsk had been copied very well. The tall water-tower was set in the
middle of the deserted square. Red lights glowed in the windows of the tiny
"Doesn't it look real?"
"Yes," I breathed. "I think it's even prettier than if it was real. Who
"Dina. And she said to be sure I showed it to you." Klavdia was
laughing. "Now look!"
Suddenly, I saw a little horse and wagon moving across the panorama. At
that instant the toy night dissolved, the perspective became deeper, the
granaries took on their usual size, and I realized that there was no
panorama. The gilt frame had been set in a large window that faced on the
square. I had been looking out at an ordinary night in the real town of
Pokrovsk. I never would have dreamed that this beautiful night scene and our
wonderful party could have taken place on our ordinary earth. A mist of
cheap tinfoil shrouded Schwambrania. The earth of Schwambrania was slipping
away from under me. At that very moment I heard mocking laughter. I looked
around. Dina was standing there, surrounded by a crowd of boys and girls.
"Well? Do you realize now that you need a gold frame to turn Pokrovsk
They laughed. Oska came over to me and took my hand. We stood thus,
surrounded by the laughing children. Fektistka Ukhorskov was laughing.
Klavdia was laughing. Just as Oska and I were about to join in the general
merriment at the expense of the Big Tooth Continent, the hot blood of true
Schwambranians rushed to our heads. How dared they mock us!
"Did you guess what the trick is?" Dina asked. We said nothing. "Then
I'll tell you. It's all a matter of the old saying being true: the grass is
always greener on the other side of the fence. But a well-known Communist
writer once said: the proletariat doesn't have to build castles in the air,
because it can and is building its kingdom on earth. That's why we had a
proletarian revolution. To make the grass greener on our side."
In the applause that followed I heard the echoes of disenchanted
Oska and I, still holding hands, stalked out of the rollicking room.
"Where are you going?"
"Are your Schwambranian feelings hurt?"
"Never mind, they'll come back," Dina said. "Hey, kinsmen, wait a
minute! Never mind, they'll come back. They'll come back to work and not to
play at make-believe."
Revolutionary humanity, according to rumour, had another very dangerous
enemy besides Chatelains Urodenal, my aunts and the real, live Admiral
Kolchak. This was the Yo-ho-ho Gang. They came from Atkarskaya, Petrovskaya
and Saratovskaya streets. Red-headed Vaska Kandrash (Kandrashov) was the
gang leader, but Hefty Martynenko, my overgrown former classmate, provided
the real leadership.
"Yo-ho-ho! Yo-ho-ho! Nobody can scare us, ho!" was their war-cry as
they made the rounds of their domain.
The children's library did not escape attack. They came on a Sunday, a
week before Oska and I walked out. There were about fifteen of them and they
advanced in a close and wary bunch. Vaska Kandrash was in the lead. He
walked over to Donna Dina's desk and said,
"Find me a nice snappy book. I want a real interesting one. You got one
by Louis Boussenard? No? How about Nat Pinkerton? Not him neither? Some
Soviet library you got here!"
"We don't have silly books like that. But we do have books that are a
lot more interesting. I can see you boys have a real fighting spirit. The
way things are run here, every reader is in charge of the library. Would you
like to be our fighting squad and keep order in the reading room and guard
our book exhibit? There are a lot of ruffians who tear the books and mess
the place up. I know I'll be able to rely on you."
This was most unexpected. The Yo-ho-hos were taken aback. The gang
members exchanged glances.
"I'll bet you're the commander," Dina continued, addressing Kandrash.
"Yes. I am." He was flattered. "How'd you guess?" "That's common
knowledge. Well, what do you say? Can I rely on you to keep order here?"
Once again the Yo-ho-hos looked uneasy.
"Sure you can. Who tramped all that snow in?" Kandrash bellowed at the
members of his gang. "What's the matter? You so sick you can't bend over and
brush it off your boots? Look at the mess!"
The Yo-ho-hos jostled each other as they tumbled out into the hall and
wiped their feet. Then they hung their hats on the pegs.
Hefty could not forgive the gang for this betrayal. He caught up with
me one day as I was passing the library. He was furious, for he felt I was
chiefly responsible for the Yo-ho-hos changing sides. He grabbed my coat and
lifted me off the ground. The conversation was more than brief.
When I was finally able to open my eyes again a fight was raging.
Ukhorskov and the Yo-ho-hos were closing in on Hefty. I dashed into the
fray. They accepted me as one of them.
"All of you to one?" Hefty roared.
"No! All of us for one!" the boys replied and went on socking him.
Never before had Hefty been so badly beaten. I knew why he was being
hit. He was a real and vicious enemy, no matter that he may have been a
rip-roaring fellow. He was getting what was coming to him. The line that
divided the world into two camps had become very clear to me. Hefty was on
the other side. I was here, with the boys whom I had come back to from
Schwambrania. I was let in on the fight and hit Hefty with real pleasure. I
pummelled him on my own behalf and on behalf of Stepan Atlantis. I socked
him like a runaway Schwambranian and pounded him like a sailor of the
revolution. And we did him up fine.
I was jubilant as I returned from the battlefield. My head was
spinning, a result of our victory and the hard wallop delivered by Hefty.
Oska met me in the front hall. " 'Hoo-ray, hoo-ray!' they all shouted, the
Schwambranians," I sang.
"There's great news," Oska said in a stupid voice.
The family was gathered at the table. Misfortune lay on the table, as
long as a pike.
"Papa has typhus," Mamma said in a hospital whisper. "Uralsk has been
cut off. It took the telegram nine days to reach us. Maybe he's already...."
"'Hoo-ray, hooray!' They were clouted!"
I was given some water. I got up from the floor unaided.
We had no word of Papa in the two weeks that followed. For two weeks we
did not know whether we should speak of him as someone who was alive, or as
someone who had died. For two weeks we were afraid to mention him, for we
did not know whether to use the present or the past tense.
It was during those difficult days that we learned Stepan had been
killed. Stepan Gavrya, the boy who had wanted to find the lost Atlantis, had
died a hero's death. There were various versions of what had happened.
Volodya Labanda said a Red Army man had told him that the whiteguards had
taken Stepan prisoner. As he faced a firing squad he had been told,
"Stand against the wall!"
And Stepan supposedly had said, "I'm used to that. I used to stand
against the wall every day in school."
Maybe Labanda invented all this. I really don't know. But I do know
that Stepan Gavrya, alias Atlantis, was killed. He would never see me become
a sailor of the revolution. I would not come out to welcome him in my
patched felt boots, carrying rotten straw in my swollen hands. There is
nothing more to write about him.
What a terrible loss.
The town became muffled under the snow like an ear that is stuffed with
cotton. Snowdrifts billowed along the swollen streets. The yards brimmed
over with snow like flour bins. It was cold. The grey sky drifted overhead,
catching on the chimneys, where it stuck like water weeds on piles. It was
cold. The drifts had laid siege to the town. Hospital trains snowbound out
there in the icy, and perhaps Papa....
One train had ploughed through the drifts the previous day. I hurried
to the station. The train chugged in and stopped. No one came out. It was a
train of dead men. The wounded and sick had all frozen to death on the way.
The bodies were stacked on the platform.
But Papa was not one of them.
It was cold. And dreary. I wanted so badly to go over to the library,
to do some work with the children there, to go through the books and discuss
the latest news dispatches. But I felt awkward about showing up after
Schwambrania's fall. What was Schwambrania, after all? A stuffed lion. And
the stuffing was dust. A party favour with no surprise inside it. Even Oska
had become bored with the game.
Thus overcome by boredom, we went to see the alchemist, trudging
through the snow as we made our way to the house and then down to the
basement. We came upon a disgusting scene. They had apparently all had too
much of the elixir. Filcnkin was on the floor, out like a light. Agrippina.
the wife of Schwamhrania's president, was being sick in a corner. The
alchemist was barely able to keep his balance on a stool.
"Want ... some elixir? It'll m-make you's happy as me." He offered me a
I accepted it from his unsteady hand. A nauseating smell hit me in the
face. Why.... The terrible truth dawned on me: it was homebrew!
"He-he.... Yes. Natur'ly. It's homebrew. The purest kind. Eh-mew-eh....
Distilled it m'self. My ... eh ... Elixir of Schwambrania. Your
Schwambrania. too ... eh-mew-eh.... It's somewhat like homebrew.... Your own
invenshun, this. A dream of your own brewing...."
We ran out. Why were we so unlucky? Had we been the unwitting helpers
of a moonshiner? Our own invention! Our own brewing! We were so crushed we
went to bed early that night, without boat whistles or dreams. Sleep, as
chilly and loose as a snowdrift. enveloped us.
There was a loud knocking on the door in the middle of the night. Oska
slept on. I jumped out of bed. I heard my father's weak voice. He was alive!
He was led up the stairs. His steps were halting. His skin was yellow. He
looked like a corpse. A beard as huge as a dickey covered his chest. He took
off his fur hat. Mammy rushed to him, but he shouted:
"No! Don't anyone come near me! I'm full of lice ... I have to
bathe.... And eat.... Potatoes if you have any...."
His voice shook, as did his head. We started a fire in the pot-bellied
stove, fried potatoes and heated coffee. We put the holiday lamp on the
table. It was a real feast.
The water for his bath was ready. We went into the other room and from
there could hear the cake of soap knocking against his bones. Fifteen
minutes later we were called back into the room. Papa had on a clean shirt,
his face was clean, and he did not look as frightening as before. He was
speaking about the situation at the front. As long as he spoke of himself,
his voice was calm, though his unfamiliar beard seemed to be weighing down
his words. But then suddenly he became very excited and tears rolled down
his cheeks. "There were the wounded ... the dying ... lying on the floor in
the corridors.... On frozen urine ... three inches high.... I'm a doctor ...
Mamma tried to calm him. After a while he regained his composure. He
had a cup of coffee. He was home again. Papa looked at me and said, "You've
grown a mile." Then he tweaked my nose, as he always did.
"He's become unmanageable," my aunts hurried to say. "He's carried off
all the books in the house for the proletarians."
"It's about time you stopped judging things the way you used to," Papa
said irritably. "I can't understand how you can be so petty in times like
this. If you had only seen the faces of our boys when they routed those....
If you had...."
We went off to bed an hour later. At last I had handed over my duties
as the man of the house. I felt as though the invisible belt that had been
holding me in all this time had been let out, and I could suddenly breathe
I fell headlong onto my bed and sobbed deliciously into my pillow. I
was bewailing Papa's typhus, my own state of nervous tension, the Red Army
men of the Urals Front, poor Stepan, the injustice of the homebrew incident
and much, much more. But not one of these tears would fall upon the soil of
Schwambrania. I decided to return to the library the next morning.
The armoured train burst upon the city. From the railroad station it
had been shunted onto a spur line that ran within the city limits, past all
the old granaries, and was known as the Granary Line.
Thus, the armoured train clanged along the Granary Line, thrusting its
guns impolitely and warningly into the faces of Breshka Street and the flour
dealers' warehouses. The mottled, camouflaged sides of the armoured cars
were battle-scarred. The locomotive was the most badly battered, for its
whole front section had been mangled. Clad in its dirty-green coat of mail,
it resembled a huge and angry lobster with a missing claw. After it had
towed the armoured cars to the spur line, it backed away to the railroad
station to undergo repairs.
Meanwhile, we were again busy drawing posters in the library, an
assignment given to us by the Commissar. The slogan was:
Help combat typhus!
Once again we spared neither paint no effort and adorned our pictures
of the terrible lice with a staggering number of legs and feelers. Once
again strange centipedes crawled across our frightening posters. Underneath
we strung the lines of a poem of our own that had by now become implanted in
When all is neat and clean
No louse is ever seen.
The project was completed a few days later. We wanted to give the
posters to the Commissar, but I was told he was at a meeting in the armoured
train. I decided to take them there. The train was like a silent ironclad,
moored in a dead end.
"Where do you think you're going?" a sentry called out.
"To see Commissar Chubarkov. I have some posters for him." I did not
feel in the least bit shy.
"Let's see them." I unrolled the posters and the sentry examined them
closely. "They look fine. True to life. All right, go on in."
I entered the car softly. No one noticed me. The air was full of
cigarette smoke. The head of the Cheka was there, and the Commissar, and a
lot of other people. It was as dim and as close as a vault. The atmosphere
was tense. The heavy armour that covered the car pressed upon everyone. A
very thin man dressed in leather pants and a short sheepskin coat was
"As the commander of the train, I want to say that the men, the guns
and the ammunition are in readiness. We're being delayed, because the
locomotive is being repaired. The railroad men are holding us up."
"Then there's nothing more to say. We'll wait till we hear from them.
Robilko's due any minute. He'll tell us how things are. The only thing I
want is some sleep. I haven't had any sleep for four nights," the Cheka
"What if it's not the locomotive?" the Commissar said and puffed hard
on his cigarette, flicking the ash on the table angrily.
"Listen, friend," the commander of the armoured train said, "let's keep
this place clean. Don't drop ashes all over. See how neat everything is? We
even got an ashtray to keep it this way. The boys traded it someplace. It's
a funny-looking thing. So put your ashes in it." And he pushed something
strange over to the commissar. Chubarkov jabbed his butt at the opening.
"Their attack is scheduled for tomorrow," the Commissar said. "If your
train doesn't shield us, they'll hit our rear. It's all a matter of
repairing the engine. And what if it's not?" he repeated.
"If it isn't, I'll go over and see what it is," the Chairman said.
"I'll talk to the fellows. I can vouch for the workers. They won't let us
down. They're on our side. As for the foremen and mechanics.... Well, if
it's sabotage, they'll be in for trouble." He rose and strode along the
passage. He was a stern, determined man, so unlike what he had been when he
had laughed so heartily over our Schwambranian papers. And the Commissar was
different, too. This was not the man I knew. He spoke more simply, and did
not keep repeating "that's that". He spoke well. Here he was among his own
people, men he could rely on completely. He was doing his job, and the great
responsibility that lay upon him gripped his heart and made him clench his
teeth. This was my very first encounter with the revolution in its everyday
life. This was the very first time I was seeing it at close range and not
from the heights of Schwambrania, not by peeking out of our doorway. This
was when I realized that the job these people, whom I now saw in a new
light, were doing was a difficult and dangerous one, but the only real and
worthwhile job there was.
Then Robiiko rushed in. I knew him. He was a railroad engineer who had
helped us get rid of the principal of the Boys School in February 1917. He
now rushed into the car. Everyone jumped up.
"Well?" they all demanded.
"The railroadmen told me to give back your appeal. They said they don't
need it. They said they know what the revolution means to them by heart.
They pledged to do their proletarian duty. Which means they'll repair the
engine by tomorrow morning, even though it means working all through the
The armoured train left the next day. The railroad workers' brass band
played. The Commissar made a speech. The engine clanged and then steamed out
of the station.
At that very moment a hand was thrust out of the loophole of the middle
car. It was holding the strange ashtray I had seen the evening before and
was emptying it.
The armoured train was moving. The loophole was passing me. I
recognized our seashell grotto, the grotto of the Black Queen, the former
hiding place of Schwambrania's secret. Butts and ashes were pouring out of
it. Butts and ashes.
A special meeting of all readers had been called in the library. We had
no firewood for the coming month. The city council had said there was none
to spare, and so the library would have to be closed. The commissar paced up
and down glumly. We were desperate. A sudden brainstorm hit me with such
force it practically blinded me and made me squint. Everyone looked at me
"Comrades! Let's use Schwambrania for firewood!"
"Schwambrania's firewood is only good for heating castles in the air.
Forget it," Dina said.
"No! That's not what I meant. D'you know Uger's Mansion? It's full of
old planks and logs, and what not. That was our secret place. Oska and I
used to play there. So I know. Let's all get together and fill the woodpile.
To hell with Schwambrania. It's for a good cause."
At first there was silence. My suggestion had been like a bombshell.
Then someone clapped. A moment later everyone was shouting, jumping,
clapping. The Commissar lifted me off the floor. The ceiling seemed to be
coming down on us three times in a row as we were thrown up into the air,
making our hearts skip a beat. Oska and I were the heroes of the day.
"But you'll have to chase the two alphysics out first," Oska said when
he had been set down again.
"Which alphysics?" Dina asked.
"Alchemists," I explained.
"That's what I meant. They're getting drunk on homebrew there."
The Commissar wrote something in his notebook and left quickly without
saying a word.
Schwambrania was collapsing. Our firewood project was nearly over. A
heavily-laden sleigh was pulling away. I stood in a chain of boys and girls,
handing planks I received from the boy on my right to the boy on my left.
The planks seemed to undergo a change in my hands, for I was given pieces of
Schwambrania, but I handed over ordinary firewood for our library. We were
working well. My scratched hands and arms ached. The frost hurt my skin
through the holes in my mittens, but it was good to feel that the boy on my
left was as closely linked to me as I was to the boy on my right, while he,
in turn, was to the one of his right, and so on down the line. I was a step
in a live ladder. The make-believe land of Schwambrania was being passed
along the chain to be burned for a good cause.
A group of boys, the Commissar, Zorka, Dina and Ukhorsky were pulling
down the rickety wall of the high gallery. Suddenly, someone screamed:
We all looked up. There, on the very top of the swaying gallery, we
spotted Oska. He had just got there and seemed quite unconcerned. "It's so
beautiful up here," he called down. "I can see way far off."
"Down! Get down this minute!" the Commissar croaked. "No! Wait! Don't
move! I'll get you down myself." He swung up as nimbly as a cat, climbing
through the gaping holes of the floors. The gallery creaked threateningly.
Then he appeared in the top window.
"Be careful!" we called.
By now he had climbed out onto the ledge. He was gripping the crumbling
edge of the window frame with one hand and running his other over the wall,
seeking something to hold on to. He inched along the ledge until he had
nearly reached Oska.
"Shh! Stand still. Don't move," he kept saying.
"Look, isn't it nice to look down from here?" Oska spoke calmly as he
waited for the Commissar.
"Give me your hand, and that's that!" Chubarkov growled as he stretched
his hand towards Oska. He grabbed him and pulled him in through the window.
A moment later the gallery collapsed, coming down with a great roar like an
avalanche and raising clouds of snow.
"You sure would have spoiled everything," the Commissar said as he set
The ruins of Schwambrania lay all about us.
"The Schwambranians perished like goggle and mangle," Oska said
"I think you mean like Gog and Magog," Donna Dina said and smiled.
I stood among the phantom bodies, among the remains of the unborn
citizens. I stood there as a general stands on a battlefield.
"Listen, comrades. I've just made up the last Schwambranian poem," I
said and recited:
I stand upon the battlefield,
Schwambrania's fate has now been sealed.
Perished all, and many more:
Jack, Pafnuti, Brenabor,
Satanrex, the admiral.
That's that! They're through!
A glorious list of rare old names.
Farewell, Schwambrania, land of fame!
Down to work now, everyone,
Till the job is really done.
Tales are dust, tales are naught,
What is real is better wrought!
Life holds joy for me and you....
That's that! Adieu!
DONNA DINA AND THE KINSMEN
The story's over. This is the end of the book.
But wait a minute! I'll pick up the globe. It's round and true, and I
want to take my bearing. The coloured sphere spins on its base as if it were
a bubble blown out of the black stem. But it lacks the brilliant shimmering
and the readiness to burst at a moment's notice that is a part of every soap
bubble. The globe is solid, steady and ponderable.
It can be picked up like a lamp or a cup.
Oska and I were both bookworms. Our respect for the globe was
excessive. We never grabbed it by the stand, but always picked it up
carefully. It rested in our hands, nestling in the reverence bred by our
elders who spoke about "all is vanity" and "there is greatness in small
things". It looked bold, significant and even terrible, like Yorick's skull
held by Hamlet's probing fingers.
"I know how people guessed the Earth was round," Oska said after he had
become convinced that his version of the place where the Earth curved was
unscientific. "It's because the globe is ... spherical. That's why, isn't
We would probably have grown up to increase the number of the
well-known type of human being, the person who learns the Earth is round by
looking at a school globe, who fishes in a fishbowl, who watches life go by
through his window and learns the meaning of hunger when his doctor puts him
on a diet.
Our thanks to the epoch! The way of life of callous hardened rear ends
was blasted. It was a crushing blow. And we had to learn the hard way that
the Earth was round.
As for the globe, we have long since learned its true use and purpose:
it is not a revelation, it is simply a visual aid. The sphere turns. Oceans
and continents pass in review. There is no Schwambrania. Nor can one find
Pokrovsk now. The city has been renamed Engels.
I visited the city recently. I went there to congratulate Oska on the
occasion of the birth of his daughter. When I received the telegram in
Moscow I must confess I was overcome by an attack of former Schwambranian
pride. I went as far as to prepare a grandiloquent speech (0, daughter of
the Land that Never Was! 0, daughter of a doughty Schwambranian!) I even
thought of a number of fine-sounding names for her: Schwambraena, Brenabora,
Delyara.... But then I received a letter from Oska which read, in part:
"Enough is enough! We created more than enough imaginary idiots. My daughter
is real, and I don't want to hear a word about Schwambranians or
Caldonians.'I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I've named her Natalia. All the
best to you,
Your brother Oska."
Once again I was home in Pokrovsk. We were in the very same room from
which, twelve years before, I had exited, my stride that of a man of the
house. The stand-in for our famous Black Queen was now tucked away in the
chess table. I looked for and found the scratches on the piano lid that had
been made in the Tratrchok. Six-months-old Nata stared at me in round-eyed
I gave her a rattle with a long handle that was made to resemble a
Our grey-haired father returned from inspecting an outlying district.
Mamma had just finished conducting a lesson for a group of illiterate women.
They were learning to read and write. A warm family reunion awaited us. Oska
arrived from Saratov late that evening. He was curly-haired, hoarse and
"Lelya! I barely managed to get away. I lectured to shipbuilders in the
morning and at a technical school in the afternoon. From there I went to the
district committee. I'm just back from a meeting of rivermen. I spoke on the
revolution in Spain. How do you like Nata?"
At this I made my emotional cradle speech of welcome: "0, you," I said,
"you who," I said.
"That's enough," Oska said. "That's enough of your hamadryads."
"It's about time you knew the difference between a hamadryad and a
madrigal!" I cried.
"Ah! It's that old childish habit of mine of getting words mixed up. By
the way, can you tell me the difference between a dragoman and a
I then read the family this book. It was not the usual kind of
author-reads-his-book evening, for the characters of story kept interrupting
me. They would become offended over something, or feel proud. They added
things, protested about others, argued with the author and forgave him.
Meanwhile, Nata was busy chewing on the globe-rattle. The descendant of
Schwambranians rattled her small mace.
"I'll tell you what I think of the book," Oska said in a very formal
tone of voice. "It rightly presents us as insignificant and silly fools. The
author has successfully exposed the silliness of such daydreaming.
Unfortunately, however, he has not been able to avoid a petty-bourgeois
vagueness in some of the characterizations. However, while exposing the
insignificance and silliness of those Schwambranian daydreams, you've gone a
bit too far. You want to deprive the present of the right to dream. That's
wrong! I think this should be changed. Wait...." He dumped the contents of
his briefcase onto the table, and books and notepads, squirmed out of it
like fish out of a creel. Among them I saw a small book entitled "A
Communist's Companion" and recalled the deceased Jack, the Sailor's
"Here it is," he said, opening a pad. "Here's a quotation from Lenin I
" 'And if they say: what is it to us? After all, we don't need any
illusions or tricks to sustain our enthusiasm.... This is our great joy. But
does this mean that we ... don't need to dream? A class that is in power, a
class that is truly changing the world in a workaday way is always given to
realism, but it is also given to romanticism.'
"Here, you see, one should understand this romanticism to mean what
Lenin meant when he spoke of a dream. And this is no longer an imaginary
star that can never be reached. It's not something to console your
imagination. It's our own very real Five-Year Plan, and all the ones that'll
follow. It's our determination to move on despite all obstacles. It is that
'practical idealism' which Engels said the materialists had so much of when
the narrow materialists accused him of 'narrowness and excessive soberness
of mind'. You should have said something about that in the book," my learned
"I know there's a lot that can be improved," I said humbly. "I feel it,
but don't know how to do it yet. And don't rush me. A person has to digest
all this first. I'm not happy about being Jack, the Communists' Companion. I
don't want to be just a companion. I want to be a sailor of the revolution,
and I will be one, I promise you, my brother and communist, as I would have
said to Stepan Atlantis."
Oska and I stayed up talking late into the night. Everyone had gone to
bed. Speaking in whispers made our throats itch, as did our recollections.
We lined the characters of the book up for a last review. We held a roll
call of my old class at school.
"Vyacheslav Alipchenko!" I said.
"Died of typhus," Oska replied.
"Sergei Aleferenko?" I asked.
"Party Secretary of the wharves."
"Stepan Gavrya, alias Atlantis!"
"Killed in action on the Urals Front."
"Konstantin Rudenko, alias Beetle!"
"Lecturer in analytical mechanics."
" Vladimir Labanda!"
"Martynenko, alias Hefty!"
"Exiled for counter-revolutionary activities."
"Director of a machine and tractor station."
"First mate on the Gromoboi."
"Botanist and scholar."
"Red Army commander."
"Killed by counter-revolutionaries."
The next morning Father took me to the suburbs to see the new hospital.
I couldn't recognize the city. At the place where the Earth curved there was
a wonderful recreation park. Homes for workers of the meat-packing plant
were going up on the side of our destroyed Schwambranian mansion that had
once belonged to Uger. A bus passed. Students of the city's three colleges
were hurrying to their classes. Large new houses lined Breshka Street.
Airplanes roared over the city, but I didn't see anyone look up. A new
theatre, clinic and library were under construction. A magnificent sports
stadium crowned the top of the hill. I recalled the two Schwambranians'
visits to the Cheka and the Chairman's words:
"And we'll have paved streets everywhere, and big muscles, and movies
While the story was in the telling, the deed was done. The clear
windows, spotless floors and shiny instruments of the new hospital dazzled
"Well? Was there anything remotely like this in Schwambrania?" Papa
said, enjoying my admiring glances.
"No. Nothing of the kind."
The day before we were to leave for Moscow Mamma went to the closet
that housed our family treasures and pulled out a large shield with the
coat-of-arms of Schwambrania on it. It now adorns the wall of my study and
is a taunting and devilish reminder of our errors and our Schwambranian
imprisonment. Thus, according to legend, did Prince Oleg of yore hang his
shield upon the gates of Constantinople as a constant reminder to the
But the globe has spun full circle. There is no Schwambrania. The
story, too, has come full circle. It is not a revelation, but simply a
A CHAPTER CONCERNING THE GLOBE
Ïîïóëÿðíîñòü: 48, Last-modified: Sat, 19 Oct 2002 17:30:02 GMT