The Captive of the Caucasus

Makanin, Vladimir
"The Captive (literally: Captured) of the Caucasus

tr. Gitta Hammarberg from Novyj mir 4 (April 1995): 3-19

 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 one.
 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.

2.

 --I'll give you ten "kalashnikovs." I'll give you five boxes of cartridges. Do you hear me, Alibek, not three, but five boxes.
 --I hear you.
 --But by the first of the month the provisions must be . . .
 --I, Petrovich, will have a snooze after dinner. You too, I know. Did Anna Fedorovna forget our tea?
 --She didn't. Don't worry about the tea.
 --How not to worry! the guest laughs. Tea--there's not a war on, that the tea has to get cold!
 Gurov and Alibekov little by little get back to their unfinished conversation. But the lukewarm cast to it (as a certain laziness in their argument) is deceptive--Alibekov came to get weapons, and Gurov, his officers and soldiers badly need provisions, sustenance. The currency is of course weapons; sometimes gasoline.
 --Chow by the first of the month! And let it be without those silly mountain ambushes. Wine is not necessary. But just a bit of vodka.
 --There's no vodka.
 --Look for it, look, Alibek. I am after all, looking for cartridges for you!
The lieutenant-colonel calls his wife: how's the tea coming? Excellent strong tea would hit the spot right now! --Anya, what's keeping you? You shouted from the garden that you'd already made it!
 Waiting for tea both of them unhurriedly, with the after-dinner disposition to laziness, have a smoke. The smoke just as lazily wafts from the cool veranda to the vineyard and-- in waves--makes its way toward the garden.
 Making a sign to Rubakhin--I'll try to get us drinks, he says, (since we're stuck here anyway), the marksman takes a few steps to the wattle fence. (Vovka's signs and gestures are always cunning). Behind the fence is a young woman with a baby and Vovka-the-marksman winks at her right away. There, he's jumped over the fence and enters into a conversation with her. Good man! And Rubakhin, be it known, wheels the barrow with the sand. To each his own. Vovka belongs to those bold soldiers who can't stand lethargic work. (Or any other work, for that matter).
 And would you believe it: it worked! Surprisingly fast this young wife plays along--as if she was just waiting for a soldier who'd carry on a tender conversation with her. Vovka, by the way, is a nice guy, with a smile on the ready, and whenever he has a second to spare, he turns on his charm.
 Vovka is embracing her and she is slapping his hands. The usual stuff. They are in full view and Vovka understands that he has to lure her inside the hut. He is persuasive, tries to hold her hand by force. The young woman resists: "Nothing doing!"--and smiles. But little by little they both move towards the hut with its door ajar because of the heat. And there they are. And the little one just by the door, continues to play with the cat.

 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.
Alibekov smiles:
 --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!
 He smiles:
 --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.
 --Twelve.
 --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"]
 It's quiet.
 --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.
 --Let it.
 --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?

3

 The disarmament operation (it was called "horseshoe" ever since Ermolov's times) amounted to surrounding the guerillas, but without entirely encircling them. One single exit was left open. Rushing along this path, the guerillas were stretched out into a broken chain so that from an ambush--be it from the right or the left--it was not the easiest thing in the world, but it was possible, to capture some of them, drag them into the bushes (or with a jump knock them off the path into a gully and there disarm them). Of course, during this whole time there was frequent shooting above their heads, which scared them and made them leave.
 Both of them wormed their way into the group heading for disarmament, however, they took one look at Vovka and turned him away right there: senior lieutenant Savkin trusted only his own. The senior lieutenant's gaze crawled along the strong figure of Rubakhin but did not fasten on him, didn't even stop, and the hoarse order "Two steps forward!" . . did not follow--most likely the senior lieutenant simply didn't notice. Rubakhin was standing in a group of the most powerful and strong soldiers and he blurred in with them.
 But as soon as the shooting started, Rubakhin hurried and was already in ambush; he had a smoke in the bushes with some lance-corporal Gesha. The soldiers were veterans, they reminisced about those who had been demobilized. No, they didn't envy them. Envy a crossed-out son-of-a-bitch? It's not clear where it is better. . .
 --They're good runners,--said Gesha without lifting his eyes to the shadows in the bushes.
 The guerillas first in pairs, threes, making noise and crackling sounds on the ancient path, overgrown with bushes. But one or two of the loners were already captured. A scream. A row. . . and silence. ("Did they get him?"--Gesha's look asked Rubakhin, who with a nod answered "They did"). And again the crackling sound in the bushes grew louder. They were approaching. They could still manage to shoot somehow (and kill also, of course), but to run through bushes with weapon in hand, with the cartridge belt around their necks, under fire to boot--that was of course difficult. Scared as they stumbled across the fire from the ambush, the guerillas themselves aimed for the path which seemed to narrow down and lead them to the mountains.
 --This one over there is mine, OK? said Rubakhin, rising to his feet and hurrying towards the a clearing.
 --Good luck!--Gesha rapidly finished his cigarette.
 It turned out that "this one" was not alone--two of them were running, but since he'd already jumped out of the bushes Rubakhin had no right to let them go. "Stoo-oop! Sto-op!. ." He hurled himself at them with a frightful scream. Rubakhin got an OK start. He couldn't get his ball of muscles up to speed right away, but by the time he caught up to them, neither a bent bush nor a scree under his feet mattered--he flew.
 He was already tearing along about six meters from the guerilla. And the first one (that is the one who ran up front) was faster than he and escaped. The second (he was already quite close) did not scare Rubakhin, he saw the automatic bobbing on his neck but his cartridges were used (or perhaps the guerilla found it awkward to shoot on the run?). The first one was more dangerous, he had no automatic, and that means, he had a pistol.  Rubakhin increased his pace. Behind him he heard the steps of someone running after him--aha, Geshka is covering! Two against two. . .
 When he caught up, he didn't bother to grab the guerilla nor to bring him down (while he'd be busy with the fallen one, the first one would surely escape). With a strong blow with his left hand he knocked him down into the gully, into the broken branches shouting to Gesha: "One's in the ditch! Take him!. ." and he tore after the first, the longhaired one.
 Rubakhin was already going at fast as he could, but the other guy too was a real runner. As soon as Rubakhin came close, he also speeded up. Now they were moving the same speed, they were eight-ten meters apart. Turning around the guy fleeing raised his pistol and fired--Rubakhin saw that he was quite young. He fired again. (And lost speed. Hadn't he fired, he'd have got away).
 He was shooting over his left shoulder, the bullets were way short so that Rubakhin didn't duck every time the guerilla raised his arm to fire. However, he wasn't going to fire all his bullets, the cunning guy. He began to get away. Rubakhin then understood. No longer tarrying Rubakhin threw his automatic--at the legs. That, of course would suffice.
 The runner screamed with pain, twitched and began to collapse, Rubakhin reached him with a leap, trampled him down, with his right arm he grabbed his ankle where he had his pistol. There was no pistol. Falling, he'd hurled it away--what a soldier!. . Rubakhin turned his arm, twisting the shoulder so that it hurt of course. The guy said ouch and softened. Rubakhin still on a hunch took a strap out of his pocket, tied his arms, set him down by a tree, shoving the weak body against the trunk--sit! . And only then did he finally get off the ground and walked along the path having a bit of a rest and looking in the grass--already with an attentive eye--for his own automatic and the pistol the guerilla had thrown away.
 Again there are steps--Rubakhin jumped aside from the path, toward the gnarled oak where his captive was sitting. "Quiet!"--Rubakhin commanded him. Immediately a few successful and light-footed guerillas leaped by past them. After them swearing soldiers came running. Rubakhin didn't get mixed up in that. He'd done his thing.
 He glanced at the captive: his face was surprising. First, by its youth, although such young boys, sixteen-seventeen years old, were not rare among the guerillas. Regular features, soft skin. Something else in the face of the Caucasian surprised him, but what?--he didn't have time to figure it out.
 --Let's go,--said Rubakhin, helping him (with arms tied behind his back) get up.  When they were on their way he warned him:
 --And no running. Don't even think of it. I won't shoot you, but I'll give you a good beating--understood?
 The young prisoner limped a bit. The automatic Rubakhin had thrown hurt his leg. Or is he pretending? . . A captive usually tries to arouse pity. He's limping. Or coughing badly.

4

 There were many disarmed men, twenty two persons, and therefore perhaps, Rubakhin held on to his prisoner without any trouble. "This one is mine!"--he kept repeating, with his hand on his shoulder. Rubakhin in the general noise and din--in that last-minute bustle when they are trying to put the prisoners in formation to bring them to the station. The tension didn't abate at all. The prisoners crowded together, fearing that they'd be parted from each other. They held on to each other, shouted to each other in their own language. Some didn't even have their hands tied. "Why yours? See how many we have--they're all ours!" But Rubakhin shook his head: those are ours he said, but this one is mine. Vovka-the-marksman appeared as always at the right time, in the nick of time. Far better than Rubakhin, he knew how to put things right, and drive people crazy. "He is essential to us! We have a note from Gurov . . . We need a prisoner for an exchange!"--he lied with inspiration. "But you, report it to the senior lieutenant." "It's already done. All's agreed!"--Vovka continued swallowing, the lieutenant-colonel right now is drinking tea at his house (which was true)--the two of them, he said, came straight from there (which was also true)--and Gurov, he said, in his own hand wrote them a note. Yes, the note is over there, at KP . . .
 Vovka looked noticably harried. Rubakhin looked his way bewildered: somehow he, Rubakhin, was the one who'd been running through the bushes after the longhaired guy--he was the one who'd caught him, he was the one sweating, and Vovka was the one who looked harried.
 The prisoners (finally in formation) were taken to the cars. They carried the weapons separately and someone kept count orally: seventeen "kalashnikovs," seven pistols, a dozen or so granates. Two killed during the clash, two wounded, one of ours too is wounded and Korotkov killed . . . Tarpaulin covered trucks moved in a column, accompanied by two BTRs (one at the head and one in the rear), with a roar they kept speeding up, moving to the station. The soldiers in the car carried on a heated discussion, bawled. All wanted to eat.
 Upon arrival, barely out of the cars, Rubakhin and Vovka-the-marksman together with their prisoner kept to the side. No one messed with them. In general, there was nothing to be done with the prisoners: young ones were let go, grown-ups were kept two-three months in the guardhouse, as well as in the prison, but then, should they escape, they were shot not without pleasure. . . there's a war on! These same guerillas, after all, perhaps shot Boiarkov sleeping (or barely having opened his eyes from sleep). Not a single scratch on his face. And ants were crawling. At first Rubakhin and Vovka tried to keep the ants away. When they turned him over, a hole was visible in Boaiarkov's back. They shot him point-blank; but the bullets didn't penetrate and hit the breast closely lumped together: after hitting the ribs, the bullets pushed out all his innards--on the ground (into the ground) a hash of ribs was lying, on top of them, his liver, kidneys, swirls of intestines, all in a large pool of coagulated blood. A few bullets had landed on the intestines, still steaming. Boiarkov was lying turned over with a huge hole in his back. And his innards, together with the bullets were lying on the ground.
 Vovka turned to the dining hall.
 --. . . we took him for exchange purposes. The lieutenant-colonel gave us permission,--Vovka hurried to add, anticipating the interrrogations of the soldiers from the platoon that met them.
 The soldiers, full after dinner, shouted to him: say hello from us. They asked: who is captured? for whom are we going to exchange him?!
 --For exchange purposes,--Vovka-the-marksman repeated.
 Vanya Bravchenko burst out laughing:
 --Currency!
Sergeant Khozhdaev shouted:
 Good show, a good thing you captured him! They love such people! . . Their boss,--he nodded towards the mountains--just loves such people.
 In order to further explain, Khozhdaev laughed, showing his strong soldier's teeth.
 --You can exchange two, three, five persons for one!--he shouted. They love such persons, just like girls, they just love them!-- and coming up alongside Rubakhin, he winked.
 Rubakhin hemmed in annoyance. Suddenly he figured out what had struck him about the captured guerilla: the boy was very beautiful.
 The prisoner didn't speak Russian too well, but, of course, he understood everything. Spitefully, with guttural yelping sounds he shouted something to Khozhdaev in response. His cheekbones and face blushed and it was even more evident that he was beautiful--the shoulder-length dark hair almost formed an oval. The puckering lips. The nose, narrow as a string. The brown eyes especially attracted attention--large, set far apart and a bit slanted.
 Vovka rapidly came to an agreement with the cook. They had to eat well before the road. Around the long plank table it was noisy and closed; hot. They sat at the edge--and right then and there Vovka took the half-full bottle of port wine out of his kitbag; and stealthily passed it under the table to Rubakhin, so that he holding the bottle properly between his knees, would polish it off, unnoticed by the others. "I left exactly half for you. You better appreciate my goodness Rubakha!. . ."
 He put a plate before the prisoner too: --I not want any,--he sharply retorted. He turned away, shaking his dark locks.
 Vovka moved the plate closer to him--At least chuck down some meat. We've got a long way to go.
 The prisoner was silent. Vovka got worried that he might now shove the plate with his elbow and the extra portion of kasha and meat that he had procured from the cook with great trouble, would end up on the floor.
 Speedily he threw the third portion onto his own and Rubakhin's plates. It was time to go.

5

 They had a drink by a stream, taking turns to scoop up water with a plastic cup. The prisoner, clearly suffered from the heat; he was stepping steadfastly and then sort of collapsed, fell to his knees, rustling the pebbles. He didn't wait for his hands to be untied or to be offered water from the cup,--crouching on his knees, bending his face down to the fast-flowing water, he was drinking for a long time. His arms, bruised from being tied up, were pulled upwards; it looked like he was praying in some unusual way.
 Then he was sitting on the sand. His face was wet. Pressing his chin to his shoulder, he was trying to wipe drops of water from his face, arms hanging any which way. Rubakhin went up to him:
 --We would have let you drink. And we'd have untied your arms . . . Where're you rushing off to?
 He didn't answer. Rubakhin watched him and with the palm of his hand he wiped the water off his chin. His skin was so soft that Rubakhin's hand trembled. He didn't expect it. Like a girl's, he tought.
 Their eyes met, and Rubakhin turned his gaze away, embarrassed by his sudden and not too nice thoughts.
 For a moment the wind, rustling in the brush put Rubakhin on his guard. Could it be footsteps? . . His embarrassment abated. (Bot it only went into hiding. Didn't go away entirely). Rubakhin was a simple soldier--he was not protected against human beauty as such. And, there, again, a new and unfamiliar feeling involuntarily suggested itself. And, of course, he remembered quite well how he had shouted and how sergeant Khozhdaev had winked. Now he had to be there right face to face. The prisoner couldn't cross the stream by himself. The pebbles were large and the current fast, and he was barefoot, and his leg had swollen at the ankle so badly that already at the beginning of the treck he had to take off his beautiful sneakers (for a while they were lying in Rubakhin's kitbag). If crossing the stream he'd suddenly fall he could become totally useless. The current of the stream begins to pull. There's no choice. And it goes without saying that Rubakhin, who else?, had to carry him across the water: wasn't it he who hurt his leg when he threw the automatic at him when he captured him?
 The feeling of compassion helped Rubakhin; compassion came to his aid very conveniently and from somewhere on high, as from the heavens (but from the same direction, his embarrassment again made itself felt, together with a new understanding of this dangerous beauty). Rubakhin was confused for a bare minute. He grabbed the boy by the arm and carried him across the stream. The captive jerked, but Rubakhin's arms were powerful and strong.
 --We-ell. Don't kick--he said, using roughly the same coarse words he would have used with a woman in a similar situation.
 He carried him, felt the breath of the boy. The boy turned his face away on purpose and still his arms (untied for the duration of the crossing), clinging to Rubakhin, were strong--after all, he didn't want to fall into the water, onto the rocks. Like anyone who is carrying a person in his arms, Rubakhin saw nothing below by his feet and stepped carefully. Squinting, he saw nothing but the running stream water in the distance and against the background of the rushing water, the boy's profile, delicate, pure, with an unusually full lower lip, capriciously protruding, like that of a young woman.
 By this same stream they made their first stop. For safety's sake, they stepped off the path downstreams. They sat in the bushes. Rubakhin held his automatic on his knees with the safety catch off. They didn't yet feel like eating, but they had a few drinks of water. Vovka, lying on his side, was fiddling with the radio which barely audibly was making whistling, gurgling, miaowing noises, then burst into an alien tongue. Vovka, as always, was relying on Rubakhin's experience, he could hear a stone under an alien foot a kilometer away.
 --Rubakha, I'll take a nap. Listen. I'm sleeping,--he honestly forewarned, as he was trailing off into an instant soldier's doze.
 When the sharp-sighted senior lieutenant excluded him from the group that went on the disarmament campaign, Vovka had nothing better to do than return to the hut where the young woman lived. (The hut next to the lieutenant-colonel's house. But Vovka was careful). She, understandably chewed him out, reproached the soldier for abandoning her so soon by the store. But in a minute they again stood face to face and in another minute, they were in bed. So now Vovka was pleasantly exhausted. He managed to stay awake on the road, but at the stops sleep overtook him right away.

 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.
 Vovka-the-marksman snorted:
 --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.
 --Right'way.
 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?
 --Good.
 --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.
 --O-oh.
 --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.
 --Sh-hh.
 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! . .

6

 Nothing's changed: two trucks (Rubakhin sees them in the distance) are standing in that same spot.
 Straight on the road is narrowing into a passage between some rocks, but the guerillas are guarding at the narrow spot. The trucks have already been fired at, but not straight on. (And should they still manage to move ahead even a bit, they'd be simply riddled with holes). The trucks have been standing for four days already; waiting. The guerillas want arms--then they'll let them through.
 --. . . we don't carry automatics! we are unarmed! they are shouting from the trucks. In response a shot from the cliffs. Or an entire volley of shots, long range. And laughter into the bargain--ha-ha-ha-ha!. . --such a joyous laughter, so energetic and so childishly exalted, resounds from the heights.
 The soldiers from the convoy and the chauffeurs (altogether six persons) had spread out by the bushes on the road side, hiding behind the block of trucks. Their nomadic life is not too smart: they're fixing food on the fire or sleeping.
 When Rubakhin and Vovka-the-marksman come up closer on the rock by the ambush, Rubakhin notices the fire, a pale day-light fire--the guerillas are also fixing dinner. A flabby war. Why not have a bite to eat, as substantial a meal as possible, have a cup of tea?
 Rubakhin and Vovka approaching closer and closer, are of course also seen from the rock. The guerillas are sharp-sighted. And although they can see that the two had both left and returned (they didn't bring anything visible with them), they were shooting from the rock, just in case. A salvo. And another salvo.
 Rubakhin and Vovka-the marksman had already reached their own people.
 The sergeant-major pushes out his stomach. Asks Rubakhin:
 --Well? . . Will there be any help?
 --Hell no!
 Rubakhin wasn't going to explain.
 --And you didn't manage to seize a prisoner?
 --Nope.
 Rubakhin asked for some water, and drank for a long time from the bucket, pouring it right on his shirt, on his breast, then blindly stepped aside without choosing a place, and slumped down into the bushes to sleep. The grass still hadn't straightened up; he was lying on the same spot as he did two days ago when he was shunted aside and sent to get help (together with Vovka thrown into the bargain). He threw himself headlong into the matted grass without listening to what the sergeant-major had to say. He felt like spitting on it all. He was tired.
 Vovka sat down by a tree in the shade, his legs stretched out and his cap pulled over his eyes. Scoffing, he asked the chauffeurs: and what about yourselves? So you didn't find a way around? . . . how can that be?! "There is no way around," they answered him. The chauffeurs were lying in the tall grass. One of these blockheads was skilfully rolling a cigarette from a scrap of newspaper.
 The sergeant-major Beregovoi, depressed over the unsuccessful expedition, is again trying to enter into negotiations.
 --Hey!--he shouted. --Listen up!. . Hey!--he shouted in a confident (so he thought) voice.--I swear, there's nothing of the sort in the trucks--neither weapons, nor produce. We're empty! . . You can send someone to check--we'll show you everything, we won't shoot him. Hey! Listen!
 In response there was shooting and merry laughter.
 --Damn it all!--the sergeant-major swore.
 They were shooting from the rock in no particular order. They were shooting so long and so senselessly that the sergeant-major once more swore at them and shouted: --Vov. Would you get over here.
 Both chauffeurs lying in the grass came to life: Vov! Vov!@ Come here. show those abreks how to shoot properly!
 Vovka-the marksman yawned; lazily he moved his back away from the tree. (Leaning against it he was sitting so nicely).
 But taking his weapon, he aimed without any laziness. He positioned himself more comfortably in the grass, extended his carbine, spotted through his optical sight first one, then another of the figures bustling about on the rock, hanging above the road to the left. They were all clearly visible. Of course, he would have hit them even without the optical sight.
 And right then the mountaineer standing at the edge of the rock, teasingly wooped it up.
 --Vov. Do you feel like hitting him?--asked the chauffeur.
 --What the fuck's he to me--snorted Vovka.
 After a bit's silence he added:
 --I like to take aim and squeeze the trigger. Even without a bullet I know what I hit.  The impossibility of it all was tacitly understood--were he to shoot a guerilla, there was no way the trucks would ever get past on the road.
 --That one, roaring over there, I think I blew him to smithereens.--Vovka let go of the trigger of the unloaded carbine. He was fooling around. He took aim--and again cocked the trigger in jest. And that one, over there, look, blown away! . . And that one--I could tear half his ass off--take that!
 From time to time, spotting something glittering in the sun by one of the mountaineers--a bottle of vodka (it was mid-morning!), a fantastic Chinese thermos, Vovka carefully aimed and with a shot he blew the noticed object to smithereens. But now there was nothing attractive about the situation.
 Meanwhile Rubakhin had a troubled sleep. One and the same bad, troubling dream kept coming back (or, perhaps Rubakhin, having burrowed in the grass called it to himself): the beautiful face of the captive boy.
 Vovk. Gimme a smoke! (And what sort of pleasure was there in hitting the target?)  Right away!--Vovka, let it be known, aimed and aimed, already in the heat of the game,--he moved the cross in his sight along a silhouette on the rock: along the edge of the cliff. . . along the mountain bushes . . along a tree trunk. Aha! He noticed a gaunt guerilla; standing by a tree, he was carelessly cutting his locks with scissors. A haircut--that's an intimate matter! His mirror glimmered, gave the sign,--and Vovka instantly loaded and hit it. He pressed the trigger and the silvery pool, fastened to the trunk of the elm, shattered. In response they could hear swearing and, as always, a disorderly shooting. (And like cranes they started shouting behind the rock, hanging over the road: guljal-kiljal-ljal-kiljal-sniper . . . ) The little figures on the rock came running--shouting, roaring, whooping. And then (apparently on command) they grew silent. For some time they didn't show themselves (and in general, they behaved more modestly). And, of course, they thought they were out of sight. Vovka-the-marksman saw not only their hidden heads, the Adam's apples on their throats, their stomachs--he even saw their shirt buttons, and, playing about, aimed at one after another. . .
 --Vovka! Cut it out!--the sergeant-major called him to order.
 --Done! . .--the marksman shouted in response, grabbing his carbine with his hand and heading for the tall grass (with that artless soldier's thought--to sleep).
 And Rubakhin kept losing it: the face of the boy by now was not long before his eyes--it disappeared after barely appearing. It faded away, got lost and left behind only a hazy and uninteresting beauty. Someone's face. Forgotten. The image was fading. As if in farewell (saying goodbye and perhaps forgiving him) the boy again acquired more or less clear features (it seemed like it flared up!). A face. But not only the face--the boy himself was standing there. Now it seemed he would say something. He jumped even closer and purposefully grabbed Rubakhin's neck with his hands (like Rubakhin did by that rock), but his fine hands turned out to be too soft, like a young woman's--impetuous, but tender, and Rubakhin (he was on the alert) had time to figure out that now in his sleep a male weakness might occur. He gritted his teeth, forcing the vision to disappear, and then he woke up, feeling a gnawing heaviness in his groin.
 --Oh for a smoke!--he spoke up with a sleepy hoarseness. And he heard shooting.

.  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?

June-September 1994 1 1