Most likely, the soldiers did not know that beauty saves the world,
[Dostoevsky, Diary of a Writer.] but what beauty is, they both knew in
a general way. Amidst the mountains they felt beauty (beauty of setting) all
too well--it frightened them. From a mountain gorge a stream suddenly sprang
forth. They were both even more startled by an open clearing, colored by the
sun to a blinding yellowness. Rubakhin walked ahead as the more experienced
Where did the mountains suddenly disappear? The space, bathed in the sun, reminded Rubakhin of his happy childhood (which did not exist). Proud southern trees (he did not know what they were called) stood in solitary splendor above the grass. But most of all his plains-man's soul was agitated by this tall grass, breathing in the light breeze.
--Slow down, Vov. Don't rush,--Rubakhin quietly warns him.
To be in an unknown open space--is still just like being a target. And before leaving the dense shrubbery, Vovka-the-marksman raises his carbine to his shoulder and he moves it with special slowness from left to right, using the optical aim as binoculars. He holds his breath. He is viewing a space so very rich in sunlight. He notices a small transistor radio by a knoll.
--Aha!--Vova-the-marksman exclaims in a whisper. (The knoll is dry). The radio glimmered like glass in the sunlight.
With short leaps both soldiers in their dappled soldier's shirts approach the half dug out (and long abandoned) gas line trench toward the fall-colored reddish brown knoll. They turned the receiver around in their hands: they had already recognized it. Lance-corporal Boiarkov, when he had a drop too much to drink, loved to go off on his own and would lie somewhere embracing this old transistor. Moving aside the tall grass they look for the body. They find it nearby. Boiarkov's body is leaning against two rocks. Death found him. (They shot him point-blank--it seems he didn't even have time to wipe his drunken eyes. His cheeks are sallow. At the station they decided that he had been trying to escape). No documents. It had to be reported. But why did the guerillas not take the transistor? Because it was evidence. No. But because it was too old and beat-up. A no good thing. The irreversibility of the event (death is a prime example of irreversibility) presses on and involuntarily urges one on: it makes both soldiers get busy. Using the flat stones as spades, they energetically bury the dead man. The soldiers equally hastily make a mound over him (a noticeably piled up mound) and they're on their way.
And again--by the very exit from the gorge--there is tall grass. Not at all dried up. It quietly sways. And the birds call each other so joyously in the sky (above the trees, above the two soldiers). It is possble that in this sense beauty saves the world. You don't see it at all and suddenly it appears as a sign. Preventing man from straying from his path. (Moving not far from him. Looking out for him. Making him look out, beauty makes him remember).
But this time the sunny clearing seems familiar and safe. The mountains recede. Ahead is an even path, a bit further, a dusty fork in the road, well-travelled by cars, and there is the military station. The soldiers involuntarily speed up.
Lieutenant-colonel Gurov is not, however, at the station but at home. They have to go. Without a break the soldiers shuffle along to the house of the lieutenant-colonel, omnipotent in this place--as in all adjacent places (beautiful and so sunny) on earth. He lives with his wife in a good wooden house with a veranda for relaxing, decked with winding grapevines; there is some farming too by the house. It's is hot--it is midday. On the open veranda is lieutenant-colonel Gurov and his guest Alibekov; exhausted by dinner, they are dozing in light wicker chairs waiting for tea. Rubakhin makes himself known, hesitatingly and a bit shyly. Gurov looks at the two of them drowsily; they're so dusty (they've come to him unannounced and it also doesn't help that their faces are entirely unfamiliar to him); in a flash Gurov comes to; he raises his voice sharply, shouts, there's no help to be had at all, what sort of help, devil take it!--it is even amusing for him to hear that he'd ordered his soldiers somewhere to rescue some trucks which by their own stupidity got stuck in a gorge! . .
And furthermore: he doesn't let them go just like that. Angered he orders the two soldiers to tackle the sand--to do some honest work, help with the yard work. Turn arrou--m--aarch! And spread out that pile of sand by the entrance. And see that it gets spread out on all the paths! towards the house and the garden! There's dirt everywhere, damn it all, you can't get through! . . The lieutenant-colonel's wife, like all housewives in the world was happy about the free soldiers' hands. Anna Fedorovna, with dried-up hands, in dirty torn men's boots that very moment appears in the garden with happy shouts: please let them help her with the garden beds too! . .
The soldiers move sand around on a wheelbarrow. They spread it around, place it on the paths with spades. Heat. And the dry sand was apparently dug up by the river.
Vovka hoisted the dead lance-corporal's transistor on a pile of sand and found rhythmical music to keep their spirits up. (But not loud. For their own good. So they wouldn't disturb Gurov and Alibekov, having a chat on the veranda. Alibekov, judging by his leisurely words that wafted by, is haggling over weapons--an important matter).
The transistor on the pile of sand once more reminds Rubakhin of what a beautiful spot Boiarkov chose for his death. A drunken fool, he was scared to fall asleep in the woods and went out in the clearing. And furthermore up to a knoll. When the guerillas attacked, Boiarkov shoved his radio aside (his true friend) so that it would fall off the knoll into the grass. Was afraid that they might take it from him and said to himself somehow--I won't give it up. So what else is new! Gimme a break! Fell asleeep drunk and the radio simply fell from his hands, slipped a bit and rolled down the slope.
They killed him point-blank. Young guys. The kind that want to kill the first one as soon as possible to get the taste of it. So let it be a guy who's asleep. The radio now stood on the pile of sand and Rubakhin saw that knoll basking in the sun with the two strong bushes on the northern slope. The beauty of the place was striking and Rubakhin does not let the knoll slip from his memory (and absorbs it deeper and deeper), the knoll where Boiarkov fell asleep, that knoll and that grass, the golden foliage of the bushes, and with them one more experience of survival, irreplaceable. Beauty is constant in its attempt to save. It brings man to his senses. It reminds him.
First they dispersed wheelbarrows of sand along the boggy earth, then they figured it out: they placed boards on the paths. Up front Vovka sharply wheels his barrow, behind him, with sand piled up in a high mound, Rubakhin pushes his huge barrow. He stripped down to his waist and is glimmering in the sun, his strong body wet with sweat.
Meanwhile, Rubakhin is busy with his wheelbarrow. Where it seems impossible to go, he, moving from one spot to another, again lines up the boards--he carefully pushes the wheel along them, balancing the heavy sand.
Lieutenant-colonel Gurov continues his unhurried bargaining with Alibek, his wife (she's washed her hands, put on a red blouse) served them tea, each got his own--two exquisite teapots in the eastern style.
--She makes good tea, she's got the knack for it!--Alibekov praises her. Gurov:
--And why are you so stubborn, Alibek! . . objectively speaking, after all, you are a prisoner. Don't then forget where you are. You're sitting in my house.
--And why is it I'm in your house?
--Let's say, because the valleys here are ours.
--The valleys are yours--the mountains ours.
--You're joking, Petrovich. what sort of a prisoner am I. . . It's you who are a prisoner here!-- Smiling he points at Rubakhin, who energetically pushes the barrow:--He's a prisoner. You're a prisoner. And in general, each one of your soldiers is a prisoner!
--But I, on the other hand, am no prisoner.
And again he stands his ground.
--Twelve "kalashes." And seven boxes of cartridges.
Now Gurov is smiling:
--Twelve, ha-ha! . . What kind of a number is that--twelve? Where do you get such numbers from? . . I understand--ten; a number is a number, you can remember ten. So it's ten barrels.
--Ten. . .
Alibekov heaves an inspired sigh:
--What an evening we'll have! Vow!
--It's still long til evening.
They sip their tea slowly. The leisurely conversation of two people who've known and respected each other for a long time. (Rubakhin wheels his n-th barrow. Tilts it. Spreads the sand. Distributes it with his spade, pats it even with the ground.)
--You know, Petrovich, what our old men are saying? We have wise old men in our villages and auls.
--What are they saying?
--They're saying that it's time to march on Europe. Time to head there again. --Come on, Alibek. Euu-rope! . .
--And what of it? Europe is Europe. The old men say, it's not that far. The old men are dissatisfied. The old men say, wherever the Russians go, we'll go too--and what are we shooting at each other for?
--Just you ask your kunaks--what for?!--angrily shouts Gurov
--Oh-oh-oo, he's offended. We're drinking tea--our souls are mellowing . . .
For some time they are silent. Alibekov again muses, unhurriedly pouring tea from the pot into his cup:
--. . . it's not really that far. From time to time one must go to Europe. The old men are saying that, we'll have peace any minute now. And life will get back to normal. --When d'you think that will happen. Just wait!
--Excellent tea. Ah, Anna Fedorovna, make us some more. Please!
Gurov heaves a sigh:
The evening really will be fantastic today. There you're right.
--I'm always right, Petrovich. OK, ten "kalashes," I agree. And cartridges--seven boxes. . .
--Again you're holding your ground. Where do you get such numbers from--there's no such number as seven!
The hostess is bringing (in two white pots) the left-overs from dinner to feed the newly arrived soldiers. Rubakhin eagerly responds--yes! yes! would a soldier refuse! . . "And where's the main course?" And at this point the stammering Rubakhin has to resort to some heavy lying: it seems to him, he says, that the marksman has an upset stomach. Thinking a bit, he adds a bit more convincingly: "The poor guy is suffering something terrible." --"Perhaps he ate too many green apples?"--the lieutenant-colonel's woman asks soft-heartedly.
The okhroshka (=cold kvass soup) with egg and bits of sausage tastes good; and so Rubakhin is bending over the first pot. Doing so he bangs the spoon loudly against the edges, makes a clanking sound. A sign.
Vovka-the-marksman hears (and, of course, understands) the sound of the banging spoon. But he's not up to food. The young woman in turn hears (and also understands) a hysterical miaouwing resounding from the yard, followed by the scream of the scratched-up baby: "Moo-om!" . . Apparently he teased the cat. But the woman is now fully occupied with her emotions: yearning for caresses, she happily and eagerly embraces the marksman, not wishing to pass up a happy occasion. As for the marksman, there's nothing to be said--once a soldier, always a soldier. And there, again, the child's capricious cry: "Mo--oom . . ."
The woman tears herself from the bed--sticking her head out the door, she hushes up the baby; and shuts the door closer. Hopping along barefoot, she returns to the soldier; and it's as if it all flames up anew. "Oh, you're a hot one! ugh, you're really going!"--Vovka says ecstatically, and she presses his mouth: "Shh-shh . . ."
Wispering, Vovka mouths her an artless soldier's order: he asks the young woman to go to the general store in the village and buy their wretched port wine, they don't sell it to a soldier in uniform, but for her it's just a trifle. . .
He also shares with her his main concern: what they need now is not just a bottle but a case of port.
--Why do you need it?
--As currency. They closed the road for us.
--Why then did you come to the lieutenant-colonel if it's port you need?
--Right, it was foolish of us to come.
The young woman suddenly bursts out crying--tells him that not long ago she lost her way and was raped. Vovka-the-marksman, surprised, lets out a whistle: so that's how it is! . . Feeling compassion, he asks (with curiosity) how many of them there were?--there were four of them, she sobs, wiping her eyes with a corner of the sheet. He wants to find out more. But she wants to keep silent. She nuzzles up to him, her mouth on his breast: she wants words of consolation; a simple feeling.
They keep talking: yes, a bottle of port she'll of course buy him, but only if the marksman goes along with her to the store. The purchased bottle she'll of course give him right away. She can't walk home with a bottle, after what happened to her,--people know, who knows what they'll think . . .
In the second pot there's also a lot of food: kasha [=cooked grain or oats] and a piece of meat of the canned kind,--Rubakhin stuffs it all down. He eats not fast, not greedily. He slakes his thirst with two glasses of cold water. The water makes him a bit nauseous, he puts on his shirt.
--We're having ourselves a bit of a break,--he says to himself and goes to the wattle fence. He lies down; dozes off. And from the neighboring hut, where Vovka went into hiding, through the window a quiet conversation is wafting.
Vovka:-- . . . I'll buy you a gift. A pretty scarf. Or I'll find you a shawl.
She:--But you're leaving. She burst our crying.
Vovka: --So, I'll send it, if I'm leaving. What's there to doubt! . . Vovka kept asking her to bend down. Not too tall, Vovka (and this he never concealed and willingly told the soldiers) loved to take a hefty woman from behind. Can't she really understand? It's so pleasant when a woman is big . . . She pushed him off, refused. During their long, hot whispering (the words already stopped making sense) Rubakhin fell asleep.
By the store, having barely got the port wine from her hands, Vovka stuffs the bottle in the deep handy pocket of his soldier's pants and--as fast as his legs would carry him--he went to Rubakhin, whom he had left behind. The young woman really rescued him, and is shouting, and somewhat cautiously straining her voice in the street, calls after him, reproaches him, but Vovka waves his hand--he no longer needs her--that's it, that's it, it's time! . . He runs along the narrow street. He runs between wattle fences, blazing a path to lieutenant-colonel Gurov's house. There's news (and what news!) -- the marksman had been standing, looking around, by their filthy, wretched store (waiting for the bottle) and heard about this from soldiers passing by.
He jumps over the fence, finds the sleeping Rubakhin and he gives him a push:
--Rubakha, hey, listen! . . It's a sure thing: the senior lieut is coming right now to the forest for disarmament.
--Hah?--Rubakhin looks at him sleepily.
Vovka spews out the words. He's hurrying:
--They're going for disarmament. We better join them--wouldn't that be great! You yourself were saying . . .
Rubakhin is now wide awake. Yes, I get it. Yes. That's how it's going to be. Ye-es most likely we'll luck out--we must go. The soldiers oh-so quietly get out from the lieutenant-colonel's estate. Carefully they take their kitbags, their weapons, standing by the well. They crawl over the fence and exit through someone else's gate so that the two on the veranda wouldn't see them and call them back.
They were not seen; and they were not called back. The two keep sitting. It's hot, It's quiet. And Alibekov is quietly humming, he has a clear voice:
All here's dying doo-own til the mooorn' [lyrics from the famous "Moscow nights"]
--People don't change, Alibek.
--Don't change--d'you think so?
--They only grow old.
--Hah. Like the two of us . . . --Alibekov pours himself a fine strem of tea into his cup. He no longer feels like bargaining. It is sad. Moreover he's already said it all, and now the right words by themselves (by the leisurely logic of their own) will reach his old friend Gurov. No need to speak them aloud.
--Good tea seems to have disappeared entirely.
--Tea is getting more expensive. Food is getting more expensive. And times do not cha-a-ange--Alibekov stretches the words.
The hostess just then is bringing in two new teapots to replace the old ones. Tea,--that's true. Gets more expensive. "But changing times or not, you, brother, keep bringing us chow"--Gurov is thinking and also does not say the words out loud.
Gurov knows that Alibekov is wiser and more cunning than he. But for all that, he, Gurov, has some firm thoughts that during long years have been thought through to such utter clarity that they are no longer thoughts, but parts of his own body, like arms and legs.
In the old days as part of his quartermaster's battles or simply when there were delays with the soldiers' grub Gurov would immediately don his parade uniform. He'd fasten his military order and medals on his breast. In the army compound GAZ-69 (what dust there was, what wind!) he'd wander along the winding mountain roads to the regional center until he'd finally reach the famous building with the columns, which he'd enter without slowing down his gait in the least (and without looking at the visitors and petitioners suffering in their long wait), straight into the office. And if not to the regional committee, then to the executive committee. Gurov knew how to get his way. Occasionally he himself would taxi into the base, give bribes, and sometimes he'd even greased the palm of whoever it was he needed with the beautiful engraved (with his name) pistol (for it was entirely proper: the East--this is the East! . . And he didn't give a second thought to the fact that these words would some day come true). And now a pistol is nothing, damn it. Now ten barrels is too little--give me twelve. He, Gurov has to feed the soldiers. With age, changes become harder and harder to take, but on the other hand, you become more tolerant of human weaknesses. The one outweighs the other. He had to feed himself too. Life goes on, and lieutenant-colonel Gurov helps it along--there's the whole answer. Bartering with weapons, he does not even think of the consequences. What's he here for? . . Life itself was changing into all possible exchanges (exchange whatever you want for whatever you want) -- and Gurov also made exchanges. Life itself was changing towards war (and what a nasty war --neither war nor peace!) --and Gurov, it goes without saying, was fighting. Fighting without shooting. (And only from time to time he'd do disarming according to order. Or finally, would shoot according to a different order; from above.) He's coping and by now he is responsible. But . . . But, of course, he's yearning. Yearning for those times of yore that he could understand, the times when he'd roll in in his "gazik" jeep and then would enter that office and could scream, swear at the powers-that-be, and only then, would condescend to peace, lounge in the leather chair and have a smoke with the head of the regional committee, as with a friend-buddy. And let the petitioners wait outside the office door. Once he didn't find the head of the regional committee in his office nor in his home: he'd left. But instead he found his wife. (Having gone to his house). And there were no refusals then. To the barely greying, youthful major Gurov she gave everything, that a young bored woman could possibly give, a woman left alone in summer for an entire week. All, that she could. All, and even more, he thought (having in mind the keys to the huge refrigerator number two, of their regional meatplant, where they stored freshly smoked meat).
--Alibek. I've just remembered. Could you get us some smoked meat by any chance?
It was easier for Rubakhin to keep a conversation going while moving on.
--. . . really now, what sort of enemies are we--we're practically related. After all, we were friends! Weren't we?--Rubakhin said bitterly and sort of insistently, hiding the feeling that was bothering him under the familiar (and Soviet) words. And his legs walked by themselves.
--Long live the inviolable friendship of peoples. . .
Rubakhin of course caught the joke. But he said guardedly:
--Vov. But I'm not talking to you.
--Vovka shut up, just in case. But the boy too was silent.
--I'm just like you. And you're just like me. Why do we have to fight?--he continued to mouth words familiar to everyone, but they misfired; it turned out that he mouthed the worn-out phrases to himself and the bushes around. And to the path too, which after they left the stream, headed straight into the mountains. Rubakhin wanted the boy to respond with something. He wanted to hear his voice. Let him say something. (Rubakhin felt more and more agitated).
Vovka-the-marksman moved his hand and the radio in his kitbag came to life, began to chirp. Vovka moved his hand again--found a marching song. And Rubakhin continued to talk. Finally he tired and was silent.
To walk with arms tied-up (and a bad leg) isn't simple if the ascent is steep. The captive guerilla stumbled; he walked with difficulty. On one of the uphill slopes he suddenly fell down. Somehow he got up, didn't complain; but Rubakhin noticed his tears.
Rubakhin somewhat rashly said:
--If you won't run away, I'll untie your arms. Give me your word.
Vovka-the-marksman heard (through the music from the radio) and exclaimed: --Rubakha, you're out of your mind! . .
Vovka was walking ahead. He swore--what stupidity. And the radio meanwhile was playing loudly.
--Vov. Cut it out . . I have to be able to hear.
The music stopped.
Rubakhin untied the arms of the prisoner--where would he go to with such a leg, away from Rubakhin.
They walked quite fast. Ahead is the prisoner. Next to him, Vovka, half asleep. And just behind him, the quiet Rubakhin, all instincts.
To free someone, be it only a couple of arms and be it only for the duration of the journey, was pleasant. Rubakhin swallowed with a sweet taste. A rare minute. But sweet as the taste was, Rubakhin's gaze didn't slacken. The path got steeper. They passsed the hillock where the drunkard Boiarkov was buried. The wondrous place, bathed in the evening sun.
During the night stop, Rubakhin gave him his wool socks. He himself remained barefoot in his boots. Everybody sleep! (And just a small camp fire! . .) Rubakhin took the transistor from Vovka (not a sound at night). The automatic, as always, on his knees. He sat with his shoulder against the prisoner and his back against a tree in his beloved hunter's pose (alert, but allowing a slight snooze). It was night. He sort of slept. And while he slept, he heard the prisoner sleeping next to him--he heard him and felt him so that he'd react the moment the prisoner would move even a tad out of the ordinary. But the prisoner didn't even think about escaping. He was yearning. (Rubakhin penetrated the alien soul). There, both of them were dozing off (trustingly), and there, Rubakhin already felt how the boy was overcome by yearning. In the day-time the prisoner tried to be haughty, but now he was clearly suffering from heartache. What, exactly, was he pining for? Rubakhin had already during the day distinctly hinted that they weren't taking him to the army prison, and that they had no other dark aims than precisely to hand him over to his own people--in exchange for the right to pass. That was it--hand him over to his own people. Sitting next to Rubakhin, he needn't worry. Even if he knew nothing about the cars and the road block there, he should know that he is out of danger. And moreover, he no doubt senses that he is attractive to him, Rubakhin . . . Rubakhin again felt embarrassed. He squinted. The prisoner was yearning. In the darkness that had already set in, the face of the prisoner was, as before, beautiful and so sad. "Well, well!"--Rubakhin said in a friendly way, trying to cheer up.
And he slowly extended his hand. Afraid of startling this half-turned face and the extraordinary beauty of the immobile gaze, Rubakhin barely touched his fine cheekbone with his fingers as if to straighten out the lock, the long strand of hair that hung down along his chin. The boy didn't turn away his face. He was silent. And, so it seemed--and this could just be his imagination--barely perceptibly, with his chin he responded to Rubakhin's fingers.
It was worth it to close his eyes, Vovka-the-marksman again relived the fleeting sweet moments, so relentlessly ticking in that wooden hut. Just an instant--a split-second, and the oh-so-brief joy of female intimacy. He slept sitting up, he slept standing up, he slept on the move. It was not surprising that at night he slept so soundly (though it was his watch) and didn't notice that an animal ran past them, perhaps a boar. It roused everybody. And the rustle in the bushes didn't abate for a long time. "Do you want us too to be shot sleeping?!"--Rubakhin lightly pulled the soldier's ear. He got up. Listened. It was quiet.
Rubakhin added some twigs to the fire, circled around, returned. He sat down next to the prisoner. He'd survived the scare and sat somewhat tensely. He hunched his shoulders, stooped--his beautiful face entirely drowned in the night. "Well, what? How're you doing?"--he asked lightly. In these situations a question is, above all, a way to check the prisoner: could his dozing be deceptive; had he perhaps found his knife, or did he perhaps plan to go into the night while they were sleeping? (foolishly--for Rubakhin would catch him right away).
--OK--he answered briefly.
Both of them were silent for some time.
So it turned out that Rubakhin posing the question remained sitting next to him (after all, one doesn't change places every minute by a camp fire).
Rubakhin slapped his shoulder:
--Don't be shy. I did say that after we get you there, we'll hand you over to your people--did you understand?
He nodded: yes, he'd understood. At that Rubakhin guffawed:
--You're a real beauty.
The silence continued.
--How's your leg?
--OK, sleep. There's isn't a lot of time. We'll have to catch a few more zzz's, and, there, it's already morning . . .
And right then and there, as if agreeing that they had to snooze, the captive boy slowly leaned his head to the right, on Rubakhin's shoulder. Nothing special: just so do soldiers stretch their brief sleep, leaning up against one another. But, the body heat, and with it a current of sensuality (also in separate waves) started to flow through, crossing--wave by wave--from the boy's leaning shoulder to Rubakhin's shoulder. But no. The kid is sleeping. The kid is simply sleeping, Thought Rubakhin, chasing away the delusion. And right then he tensed up and totally stiffened, such a strong current of warmth and unexpected tenderness at that very minute reached his shoulder; his quieted soul. Rubakhin froze. And the boy--having felt or sensed his tension--also sharply froze. Another minute and their touching lost its sensuality. They were simply sitting next to one another.
--Yeah, let's have a snooze, Rubakhin said to noone in particular. Said without taking his eyes off the small red tongues of the camp fire.
The prisoner moved, placing his head a bit more comfortably on his shoulder. And almost right away the stream of pliant and inviting heat again made itself felt. Rubakhin now felt the quiet shiver of the boy, just like . . what is this?--he wondered, aroused. And again he concealed his feelings, drew back (and already worrying, that his return shiver would give him away). But a shiver--it's only a shiver--one can live with it. More than anything Rubakhin was afraid that right then the boy's head was quietly turning to him (all his movements were quiet, and obviously stealthy, and moreover, it seemed they meant nothing--a person barely stirred in his sleep--so what?. .)-- was turning to him, his very face, almost touching, whereupon he inevitably feels the young breathing and the closeness of his lips. Time stood still. Rubakhin also felt a moment of weakness. His stomach was the first of his organs unable to take such an unfamiliar sensual overabundance--he felt a spasm, and right away the pressure made the adult soldier hard as a washboard. And then he caught his breath. Rubakhin at once started coughing, and the boy, as if frightened removed his head from Rubakhin's shoulder.
Vovka-the marksman-woke up:
You're thundering like a cannon,--lost your mind? . . . one can hear you half a kilometer away!
The carefree Vovka went back to sleep. And he himself--as if to get even--began to snore. And with such a loud whistle to boot.
Rubakhin smiled--there's my comrade in arms. Constantly asleep. Sleeps duing the day, sleeps at night!
The prisoner said slowly and with a smile:
--I think he had a woman. Yesterday.
Rubakhin was surprised: so that's it? and remembering himself, agreed with that:
--It looks like it.
--I think it was yesterday during the day.
--Right, right on! . .
They both had a laugh, as happens in such situations among men.
But then (and very carefully) the captive boy asked:
--And you--is it long since you had a woman?
Rubakhin shrugged his shoulders:
--Yes it's been long. A year, more or less.
--Was she really ugly? An old bag? . . I think she was ugly. Soldiers never have beautiful women.
Such a long awkward pause ensued Rubakhin felt as if he'd been hit by a rock on his forehead (and it's crushing him, crushing him . . .).
Early in the morning the fire had quite gone out. The frozen Vovka also moved closer to them and buried his face, his shoulder against Rubakhin's back. And from the side the prisoner nuzzled up to Rubakhin, all night long alluring the soldier with the sweet spot of warmth. Thus, as a threesome, warming each other, they held out until morning.
They put a pot of water on the fire.
--We'll feast on some tea,--said Rubakhin, somewhat guilty over his unusual nightly experiences.
From the very morning he felt this vague, but no longer hidden guilt: Rubakhin suddenly began to take care of the boy. (He got worried. No way had he expected this of himself). He was saddled with, like an ailment, a certain new impatience. Twice he fixed him a glass of tea. He put in sugar cubes, stirred loudly with a spoon, and served it. He left him forever his socks--wear them, don't take them off, you'll walk further in them--this is the kind of solicitude he began to show.
And Rubakhin somehow began to fuss about and he kept poking the fire so that the prisoner would be warmer.
The prisoner drank his tea. He sat on his hunches and followed the movement of Rubakhin's hands.
--Warm socks. Good ones, he kept praising turning his gaze to his feet.
--Mom knitted them.
--Don't take them off! . . . I told you: you can wear them. And I'll wrap something around my own feet.
The boy, took a comb from his pocket and did his hair: for a long time he combed it out. From time to time he proudly shook his head.
And again with experienced shakes he smoothed the hair to his very shoulders. It was as natural for him to feel his own beauty as breathing the air.
In the warm strong wool socks the boy walked noticebly more confidently. And in general he behaved bolder. There was no yearning in his eyes. Without doubt he already knew that Rubakhin was embarrassed about the relationship that was developing between them. Possibly he was pleased about it. He looked askance at Rubakhin, at his hands, at the automatic and fleetingly smiled to himself, sort of like a player who had been victorious over this huge strong and so shy big fellow.
By a stream he didn't take off the socks. He was standing waiting for Rubakhin to grab him. The boy's arm did not cling to him like before, he only grabbed him by the collar; without shyness he held his soft hand right around the neck of Rubakhin stepping across a stream, from time to time in midstream he'd move the palm of Rubakhin's hand under his shirt--since that was more comfortable.
Rubakhin again took the transistor away from Vovka-the marksman. And gave him a sign to be quiet; he was leading; on the widening well-trodden path Rubakhin trusted no one (not even the very pebbles). The rock, by the familiar fork in the road was already in view. A dangerous place. But actually also protected because two narrow paths came together just there (or divided up--depending on one's point of view!).
The rock (in soldierly simplicity) was called the nose. The white huge triangular stone ledge moved towards them, like the bow of a ship,--and the whole thing hung over them.
They were already clambering by the foot, under the very rock, in the leafy brush. This can't be!--went through the soldier's subconscious when there, right above, he heard danger moving (both to the right and to the left). From both sides of the rock people were coming down. An alien step, so solid, chaotically-close. Bitches! Such a thing just can't happen--that two enemy detachments would come together this way at the very same time, on both the paths! The rock was a salvation in the sense that it allowed one to hear and in good time to avoid passing each other.
Now, of course, they didn't have time to move neither here nor there. Nor even to turn back from under the rock into the woods across the open space. There were three of them, one a prisoner; they'd be noticed right away; they'd be shot down immediately; or simply chased into the thicket, surrounded. This just can't be--his thought plaintively squeaked on already for a third time, as if giving up. (And it went away, disappeared, left him). Now it all boils down to instincts. He felt a cold draft in his nostrils. Not only their steps. In an almost absolute stillness, Rubakhin could hear the slow bending of the grass they walked on.
He pressed a finger to his lips. Vovka understood. And nodded toward the prisoner: how about him?
Rubakhin looked the prisoner in the face: the boy also instantly understood (understood that his own people were coming), his forehead and chin slowly blushed--a sign of unpredictable behavior.
"Well, Come what may!"--Rubakhin told himself, speedily preparing his automatic for battle. He felt the extra cartridges. But the thought of battle (like every thought at the moment of danger) also left him, not prepared for an answer. Instinct ordered him to listen closely. And wait. He kept feeling cold in his nostrils. And the grass rustled so meaningfully. The steps came closer. No. There are many of them. Too many of them . . Rubakhin looked once more, reading the prisoner's face and guessing--how is he? what is he? perhaps he is keeping quiet and hiding behind the fear of being killed (that would be good) or perhaps he'll right away throw himself towards them with joy, with a foolish glint in his half-crazed huge eyes and (the main thing) do so with a shout?
Not taking his eyes off those coming along the left path (this detachment was quite near and would pass them first), Rubakhin moved his arm back and carefully touched the prisoner's body. The prisoner suddenly gave a shiver, just like a woman shivers before an intimate embrace. Rubakhin touched his neck, and without seeing groped his way to his face, softly touching it, placed his fingers and the palm of his hand on the beautiful lips and the mouth (which had to be quiet); the lips trembled.
Slowly Rubakhin pulled the boy closer to himself (but didn't take his eyes off the left hand path, from the moving chain of the detachment). Vovka was following the detachment on the right: there too steps could already be heard, small pebbles were rolling down, and one of the guerillas with an automatic on his shoulder, kept chattering to them about the automatic following him in the rear.
The boy didn't resist Rubakhin. Holding him by the shoulder, Rubakhin turned him towards himself--the boy (he was shorter) already of his own drew himself to Rubakhin, snuggled up closely, jabbing his teeth below his unshaven chin, into the carotid artery. The boy shivered, not understanding. "N-n . . ." he sighed weakly, just as a woman saying her "no" not as a rejection--but as timidity, just as Rubakhin was keeping an eye on him and waited (for the shout of the guard). And how his eyes widened, trying in his fright to avoid Rubakhin's eyes and--through the air and sky--to see his own people! He opened his mouth, but didn't scream. Perhaps he simply wanted to catch a deep breath. But Rubakhin's other hand, letting the automatic fall to the ground, pressed him and the half-open mouth with the beautiful lips, and the nose, barely trembling. "N-ny . . . "--the captive boy wanted to express something, but didn't have time to do it. His body was breaking, his legs tensed up, however, there was no longer any support under his feet. Rubakhin pulled him up off the ground. Held him in his embrace, not letting the legs touch the sharp twigs or the stones which would have made a noise rolling down With the hand that embraced the boy, Rubakhin blocking, took a hold around his neck. He strangled him; beauty didn't manage to save him. A few convulsions . . . and that was it.
Below the rock, where the paths came together, friendly guttural exclamations soon rang out . The detachments had found each other. Greetings could be heard, questions--how? what?! . . where're you headed?! (The most likely question). They were slapping each other on the shoulders. They were laughing. One of the guerillas, taking advantage of the stop, decided to take a pee. He ran up to the rock where it was more convenient. He didn't know that he was already a target. He was standing only a few steps from the bushes behind which two live persons and a dead one were lying (they had lied down to hide). He peed, gave a hiccup, pulling up his pants, he was hurrying.
When the detachments had passed and their steps had receded below and their voices entirely quieted down, the two soldiers with their automatics carried the dead body out of the bushes. They carried him to a thin forest, not far from the path, to the left, where as Rubakhin remembered, there was a clearing--a dry bare patch with sandy soft soil. They dug a hole, scooping up the dirt with flat stones. Vovka-the-marksman asked whether Rubakhin would take back his socks and Rubakhin shook his head. And not a word about the person they'd already more or less grown used to. They sat silently for half a minute by the grave. What's there to sit about--a war is on! . .
Perhaps it was precisely from the shooting he woke up. A fine stream of automatic charges--tic-tic-tic-tic-tic--they hit pebbles and there were small fountains of dust on the road next to the idle trucks. The trucks were standing. (This didn't particularly worry Rubakhin. Sometime, after all, they'd let him pass).
Vovka-the-marksman with his carbine was sleeping all huddled up nearby in the grass. Vovka has strong cigaretttes now (he bought them in the village general store together with the port),--the cigarettes were visible, they were lying about in his breast pocket. Rubakhin picked one of them. Vovka was quietly snuffling.
Rubakhin was smoking, taking slow drags. He was lying on his back--watching the sky, and from the left and the right (taxing his side vision) those same mountains crowded in on him, the mountains that kept surrounding him here and would not let him go. Rubakhin was doing his duty. Every time he'd decided to let it all go to hell (and leave for home forever, to the steppe beyond the Don), he soon would take his beat-up suitcase and . . and he stayed. "What's so special here anyway? The mountains?. ." he said aloud without bitterness toward anyone in particular, but himself. What's so interesting about stale soldier's barracks--and for that matter what's so interesting about those very mountains?--he thought with glee. He wanted to add: a whole year has after all passed! But instead he said: "What century is it anyway!" --he sort of let it all hang out; the words jumped out into the shadow, and the surprised soldier now kept mulling over this quiet thought which had been stored deep down in his consciousness. Grey mossy gorges. The poor and dirty huts of the mountaineers, hanging up there like birds' nests. But still--the mountains?!. Here and there their peaks yellowish from the sun. Mountains. Mountains. Mountains. For years now his heart had quickened by their magnificence, their silent solemnity--but what was it, properly speaking, that this beauty wanted to tell him? Why was it beckoning him?
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