Viatcheslav Pjetsoukh
    Act I: 
    God and the Soldier   
    In the spring of 1943, Private Ivan Pevtsov was on his way back to his unit from the hospital on the front lines where he'd been recovering from a head wound. He wore a fur hat and an officer's fur coat, so shrunken and threadbare that it felt much more like a raincoat than an overcoat. He wore puttees and durable riveted brown American shoes on his feet; dangling from his shoulders was what they call a gunnysack, which resembled the stomach of a person starving to death.   

    Pevtsov was on foot, even though his unit was camped at the time outside of Kapustny Yar, a good fifty kilometers away. The days were quiet, overcast and so foggy that the road, which was lined with pyramid-shaped poplar trees, seemed to have been flooded in very diluted milk.  

    Just after passing a bombed-out brick factory, where a German army bus had been abandoned on the right shoulder of the road, Pevtsov came upon an unusual peasant. The latter sat perched on top of an ammunition box and gazed off nowhere in particular with that same dimly saddened look that our country geezers are noted for. Because of the fog, Pevtsov only caught sight of him at the last instant, and thus put up his guard unpleasantly. Actually, that wasn't it. He put up his guard mainly because this peasant looked somehow un-Soviet: he had a mustache, a beard, long hair, and he was clad in a bizarre tunic of some crude material almost like sackcloth.  

    Pevtsov halted and said sternly, "What are you doing here, citizen?"  

    "I'm no citizen!" the old man snapped.  

    "Who are you then?"  

    The passerby sighed and answered, "God..."  

    For some reason, Pevtsov believed him completely and beamed somehow feverishly as a result.  

    "Ah-hah!" he said ingratiatingly. "Your Holiness! So, you've decided to descend, you've deigned, so to speak, to turn your attention to this nuthouse of ours!  

    And waving his right hand at the road, the bombed-out factory, and the field, he screamed suddenly, "What are you doing this for, you old goat?"   

    God sighed heavily again.  

    "Five minutes ago," he said, "an old woman from Maloyaroslavets was praying to me. Do you know what she was asking me to do? To have her neighbor oversleep and be late for work, and get sent to jail for sabotage."   

    "So what?"  

    "A world war is raging, a Euphrates River of blood is flowing, a Pacific Ocean of grief is flooding the earth, and this old witch is asking me to have her neighbor hauled off for sabotage..."  

    "OK, fine." said Pevtsov. "And whose fault is that? Whose fault is it that there's a nasty old bat like that over in Maloyaroslavets?"  

    "I don't know," God answered honestly.  

    "What do you mean you don't know?" Pevtsov cried indignantly. "If you don't know, then who does?!"  

    With these words, Pevtsov squatted on a tire lying flat nearby on the road, and rolled himself a cigarette. He appeared a little out of sorts, seeing as he had just yelled at God, so he uttered the next phrase calmly,   

    "You're a crafty old character aren't you, a real odd sort, to be blunt about it. After all, you personally are to blame for everything, but here you are saying you don't know who is -"  

    "I'm not to blame for anything," God objected humbly. "I mean, I am at fault since after all, I am the beginning of all beginnings and the cause of all causes, but you see, here's the thing: I created people to be as all-mighty as I am myself, and now they just go off doing whatever they feel like."  

    "So crack down on these people, you old goat, just take 'em and straighten 'em out somehow."  

    "Believe it or not, I can't - I mean I can, but only through cause-and-effect relationships. Problem is, those kinds of relationships always end up making a mess of things somehow. Here's an example: in 1945, capitalism will triumph in Austria in a most unnatural way, and this will occur precisely because I came to love a man like no other creature under the stars."  

    'That's obvious," Pevtsov said, not without malice. "I haven't even been fighting a year yet, but I've already earned myself a concussion and two injuries, including a headwound-- "  

    "Will you hold on with your head! I'm telling you: in 1945, in Austria, capitalism will triumph solely because loving a man, I have endowed him with a desire to multiply the human race which no other creature under the moon can imagine."   

    "Sounds like you got things back asswards," said Pevtsov.  

    "No, it's just that you're slow on the uptake," said God. "Look here: by virtue of the fact that I endowed a man with four times the optimal amount of desire to multiply necessary for survival, Pyotr Nikiforovich Kryuchkov, technical inspection controller at a bomb factory, will hit on the stamp operator Ivanova. Naturally, this will not be pleasing to Pyotr Nikiforovich's wife, so one day she'll give him a brutal tongue-lashing. As a result of this, Pyotr Nikiforovich will pick up a bottle of vodka at the market and will be barely alive at work the next morning. Due to the fact that Pyotr Nikiforovich will be barely alive at work the next morning, he will accidentally let a batch of substandard explosives go by. As a result, the Soviet planes will do a poor job of bombing the enemy's forces at Vienna, and the Allies will move much further than the interests of God's Kingdom on Earth require. And that is why capitalism will triumph in Austria.  

    " Rumbling that sounded like thunder approaching was heard somewhere nearby. A solitary tank emerged from the fog and rolled further down the road. A soldier was sitting on the tank's turret, playing a harmonica.  

    "That is, of course, a regrettable fact," Pevtsov said and exhaled sickly- sweet cheap tobacco smoke from his nostrils, "only I can't figure out, why are you telling me all this?"  

    "So you'll see that although everything was laid out perfectly, it turns out a complete mess in practice."  

    'Then you screwed up in your calculations," Pevtsov said.  

    "So it would seem," God agreed. "When I created an all-powerful human, I figured that strength would govern the world. Have you ever noticed that strong people are usually kind and obliging?"  

    "I have."  

    "Well that's what I was counting on. But somehow it worked out that weakness governs the world, not strength. Basically, everything turned out completely backwards. The great and magnanimous ideas get taken by all kinds of swindlers, and grief and deprivation give rise to fairy-tale worlds."  

    "Your own fault," Pevtsov observed. "As they say, don't blame the mirror if your face is crooked."  

    "Now, now! You watch that kind of talk -"  

    "Sorry, your Reverence," Pevtsov said, not without spite.  

    God said, "Uh-huh."   

    For some time both of them were silent, gazing this way and that through the fog: God looked at the road, Pevtsov surveyed the field.   

    "Ugh, ugh, ugh!" God finally uttered. "It's a mess everywhere you look!"  

    "That's for sure," Pevtsov agreed. "At best, it all turns out backwards. Take me - I'm a quiet and harmless kind of guy, cultured, one might say, but look at what's happened. I did time for a jug of kolkhoz milk, my wife left me, I was run over by a car back in thirty-nine, and at the present time all my accomplishments consist of a concussion and two injuries, including a head wound. Of course I profusely apologize, but I'm getting the sense that you're the only one who has it OK: people are awash in blood while you sit warm and sheltered in the heavens ..."  

    "Not in the least," God objected humbly. "In every time of crisis, I spend my time incognito, so to speak, amongst the people. My conscience won't allow me to sit it out in the heavens. If you must know, I was among you during World War I, during the Civil War too, and as you see, I'm here with all of you now during this war, and will be for another two whole years."  

    "Wait!" Pevtsov said frightfully. "That means two more years of blood still to be spilled."  

    "And?" God answered.  

    "In that case, let's drink according to the Russian custom, in other words, to grief!"  

    With these words, Pevtsov pulled out a battered green flask from his sack and shook it by his ear. Alcohol gurgled pathetically in the flask.  

    "I traded a new uniform for it," Pevtsov announced, unscrewing the cap. "A beauty of a uniform, too, a real gem. Well, herc's to our acquaintance -"  

    Pevtsov took a swig, smacked his lips like a fish, and handed the flask to God. God took a swig and instead of wincing, started to cry.  

    "Hey, your Reverence," Pevtsov called to him. "What are you all whimpering for like some bride before the wedding?"  

    God waved his hand, sniffled, and turned away.  

    "You may be surprised," he said after a moving pause, "but I have been crying nonstop for two thousand years."   

    "Why are you crying, would you please tell me? After all, life's not all that bad for the most part, except for the war and all ..."  

    "You're all so painfully smart, that's why I'm crying. That is, you all turned out to be such prize idiots that one has to have nerves of steel and a heart of stone to even put up with all of you! I mean really, I don't know where you all get it from."  

    "No, your Reverence, don't you try and forsake us!" Pevtsov said, heartfelt. "At least by these - cause-and-effect relationships, at least because of all that, this is still your own mess. As our squad commander says, apples don't grow on orange bees. You made the bed, now lie in it."  

    "You know what?" God asked angrily.  


    "I'll tell you what: why don't you all just leave me the hell alone!"   

    Pevtsov looked carefully into God's eyes, stood up from his tire, shook off his overcoat, adjusted the gunnysack with his shoulders and said, "Yes, sir!"  

    "Go on, go on," God repeated.  

    "I'm going."  

    "Well then, go."  

    Pevtsov turned around and slowly began walking along the right side of the road. God waited until the fog had swallowed up the soldier, and set out across the field. The wind slightly fluttered his tunic and this made him look like a large bird that was having difficulty getting up speed before taking off.  

    That same day Pevtsov caught up with his unit and during supper, told his friends about his recent meeting with God. Naturally, no one believed him, and the Squad Commander even presumed, "No, Pevtsov, you just didn't recover fully."  

    "Maybe I didn't," Pevtsov said peacefully. Afterwards, that was precisely what he thought, that his whole meeting with God could be explained by the fact that he just hadn't yet fully recovered. But his later life always put this theory in doubt, since everything he did was as God had said, that is, backwards. In 1944, he went AWOL from his unit because of a Polish woman, and accidentally helped to put a new regime in place in Lodz, for which he received an award from headquarters; later he was taken prisoner because instead of fleeing with the rest he stayed and fired until his last cartridge was spent, and after being freed, a government tribunal sentenced him to eight years of hard labor; finally, in the sixties, he was made director of a state farm in northern Kazakhstan, but he spent all the state farm money to build homes for the workers and was nearly imprisoned again.  

    And he died somehow inhumanly, too. In 1974, he won a tape recorder in the lottery, drank four bottles of wine to celebrate and died. 

Act II:
    Two From the Ninth-Kilometer Sentry Box

    At the hour when, in cities of European Russia both big and little, the working people start to sneak glances at the minute hand and quietly pack up their tools, the hour when, in Moscow, on Skatertnoy Lane, a charlatan who poses as a tenor gets up and begins to puff his nostrils rapaciously and rehearse variations of melancholic expressions, when the streetlights turn on, when a foul mood takes you over and you don't feel like thinking about anything and you just want to stretch and yawn, in a twisted hut, known as the Ninth Kilometer Sentry Box of the Krasnogorsk Railroad, the lights go out and its inhabitants head in for the night. The express train has just passed through the station and no further official concerns are anticipated until 4:30 A.M. local time. At 4:30, when outside is a transparent haze and there's still, as they say, ages and ages until the morning really comes, postal train number 17 rolls through the station and in the hut there is the sound of a pail in which water has frozen overnight rattling, and grumbling, coughing, and the distasteful shuffle of felt boots.   

    The Ninth Kilometer Sentry Box, surrounded by a low fence that is constantly being repaired or rebuilt, stands halfway between the stations Deya and Polunochny Aktai, at the spot where a road crosses the traintracks for one small village. The area is sparsely populated and rather lifeless in general. In summer all of life seems to consists of a single voiceless bird circling high in the sky, what exactly it is circling for, God only knows. Besides the bird, a dog with the cat's name of Murzik, who at one time had a friend here, another dog named Dozor, shows up in these parts from time to time. There's a story behind that dog, but that at the proper place and time.  

    In winter, it's incredibly silent and even somehow dead. During blizzards the wind whips the snow, like spilled semolina, along the railroad ties - besides that there doesn't seem to be much else of anything. Here the crunch of footsteps can be heard a few kilometers away.  

    Two railway linemen, the brothers Vasili and Seraphim, live in the sentry box. The younger, Vasili, is just about forty; the older, Seraphim, is past forty. In appearance the two brothers are dissimilar to the point of strangeness, and only on those rare occasions when they happen to smile, both faces similarly crease into an accordion, and change so much that it is near impossible to recognize them as human. Their faces, however, are pleasant, with a certain absent-minded inquiring expression.   

    And so they live. At 4:30 A.M., local time, Seraphim wakes up and after drinking a glass of water, goes to meet the cursed mail train which has kept him from getting a good night's sleep for nineteen years running. Then he goes back to bed, but can't sleep and just turns restlessly from side to side, and by morning he is so disgusted with himself that he begins to groan and spit. When Seraphim is in particularly bad spirits, he contrives to somehow annoy his younger brother, who at this time is sleeping like the proverbial log. Usually, he pours yesterday's tea from mug to mug over Vasili's ear, and Vasili commits a shameful blunder in bed.  

    Vasili is a grudge-bearing and treacherous person, and it has yet to happen for him not to somehow pay his brother back in kind. For example, before dinner, when both of their stomachs are grumbling most distinctly, Vasili will break a raw egg, saved especially for this occasion, into his cup of piping-hot cabbage soup.  

    Seraphim cannot stand eggs. The year after the war, when the brothers were still living in a village outside of Tambov, Seraphim had gotten into the habit of raiding birds' nests out of hunger. The eggs he came up with were small and tasteless, though he hated them not for this reason, but rather that once he bit into an unhatched baby bird. Seraphim threw up, and from then on he hated eggs with the hatred that most reserve for only the most detestable of people.  

    Two or three times a week, Vasili takes the knapsack and goes to Deya for vodka and provisions. He takes his time in getting ready: he inspects the knapsack, recounts the money, mends the rips on his coat and examines himself in the mirror for fifteen minutes before leaving. He comes back late that night or the next morning. Seraphim meets him at the gate and says, "Well, now we should be OK for a while."  

    On the days when Vasili doesn't go to Deya, the brothers take a nap after dinner. Seraphim dreams of never-ending freight trains, which scare him to death with their endlessness, or of a track inspectors meeting where he catches hell, or some kind of sheds, sheds and more sheds, and every now and then he dreams of Inspector Kovaleva.  

    Vasili dreams about nothing but dogs. He sighs and occasionally calls out to Seraphim's deceased dog. There's a story to this dog ...   

    One time in fall, when the area around the Ninth Kilometer Sentry Box was so remarkably silent that the gravel strewn along the slopes made sounds resembling a whisper, Seraphim happened upon an annoying store of eggs which Vasili had made into a haystack when they had mowed the grass to pass the time. Of course, Seraphim crushed the eggs. The first thing Vasili did when he found out about this was to get so drunk that when he went outside to urinate, he couldn't find the Big Dipper when he looked for it. Then he walked around the house for a long time, pondering how to really get his brother back for this one. Seeing Seraphim's dog peacefully sleeping on the porch, he took some pipe fitting, strangled the dog with it, and then cut the dog up and cooked it, seasoning this wild dish with an unthinkable amount of bay leaves and red peppers. In the morning he lied to his brother, saying that he had bought four kilograms of venison in Deya, and Dozor was eaten up.   

    By evening, Seraphim noticed that Dozor was missing. He called him until he grew hoarse, then started to look around for him, but crawling under the porch for the collar, he found Dozor's head and tom hide. Seraphim froze in shock, sat on a step and stared into space blankly. Vasili, seeing that his trick had been discovered, ran off along the railroad roadbed. Seraphim gave a start and took off after him. They both ran on in silence.   

    They ran for about three kilometers, and at the fourth, Vasili grew short of breath, and he turned off into the forest where it would be easy to lose track of him. However, he soon weakened, stopped, grabbed hold of a birch tree, and wincing, waited for his payback. Seraphim ran up, took aim and swung, but Vasili instinctively moved his head, and the blow struck the birch tree trunk; a hollow, wooden sound resounded through the forest, and last year's yellow leaves began to fall from the birch tree, drifting quietly.  

    'Then they stood for a long time, locked in combat, and breathed heavily in each others' face.  

    The incident with the dog was not soon forgotten. For two weeks, Vasili did everything he could to make up with his brother. Once he even brought a whole knapsack of Antonovka apples, coughed and said, "Here you go. Antonovkas, grade A. Can't take your eyes off 'em."   

    Seraphim had a real thing for apples.  

    Following their after-dinner nap, the brothers go about their various household chores, fixing the fence or causing trouble in their own little way: Vasili spells out with bricks words that will offend the train passengers, while Seraphim dials random numbers and says, "I'd like to speak with Inspector Kovaleva, please."   

    In the evening, Seraphim meets two freight cars, and on towards nighttime, the Moscow-Peking express. By this time, the brothers are extremely tipsy. Exhaling a puff of bluish smoke, Vasili follows Seraphim to meet the express train. They stand there, hand in hand, frozen. Vasili is rocking back and forth, staring at the ground, while Seraphim sticks the lantern way out and looks at the flashing windows. In the windows he sees merry faces, marvelous clothes, and he even begins to imagine that snatches of meaningful phrases reach out to him.  

    The red lights of the caboose have already faded into the night, the clatter of the wheels has waned into the freezing air, but they still stand there, gazing in the direction where the express train has just whisked away the lucky passengers, to the far, far-off place where the streets are full of merry lights, where music plays and beautiful people are out walking.   

    Now only the night remains, the night which has paraded from East to West for ages, from one end of this gigantic state to the other, sowing soothing and carefree dreams. The time will come and she will spread her serene wings over us, but for now, we really do have music, and lights, and crowds of beautiful people wondering how to while away the evening.   

    "Let's hit the hay, then, I guess, " Seraphim says finally, and Vasili looks at him with uncomprehending eyes.   

    "I said let's go to sleep, you weirdo!"   

    "You're the weirdo," Vasili says.   

Act III: 
How I Died
    More than anything else in the world, I fear death. I mean, everyone fears death, but nature has happily put most people together in such a way that they avoid thinking about it instinctively. They basically act like a special category to which eternal life is assured. But me, I'm tormented day and night by thoughts of the end that awaits me, even though I'm as strong as an ox, even though I'm no longer thirty-seven or even forty-two years old, even though the life line on my left hand runs all the way to my wrist. As soon as I start to think that someday the time to die will come, I freeze in terror and start to choke in deathlike horror, as if I were drowning in water. I'm not sure how I got to be this way, but this isn't even the most idiotic thing about me. The most idiotic thing is that even though I'm as afraid of death as the devil is of frankincense, I'm perfectly aware that there's nothing at all horrible about it. I can assert this with all confidence because I've died once already. This happened last year, springtime, just when the Moscow City Council was in session. I'm actually not affiliated with the Moscow City Council, it's true, except for the fact that I work as a lighting man and also as a floor polisher at the Unions Building.  

    To make things clear, I should add that I spent only four days as a corpse, and on the fifth day I was resurrected for some reason. Or more precisely, I was absolutely, unconditionally dead for only a few minutes and the other four days I hovered in some rather vast space between life and death, so that to be perfectly honest about it, I wasn't exactly dead but I wasn't really alive either. However, this is nothing by comparison to what was the most curious thing, I would even say, the most frightfully curious thing, lies in the fact that in the course of those four days significant events happened to me, but strange as it may seem, not a single living soul took any notice of them. Either those four days were somehow compressed into one blinding instant, which is entirely possible because for dead people time probably passes differently than it does for the living, or my relatives' and friends' memory of those days vanished without a trace, but, for example, no one remembers my wake. To be honest, at first I was a little doubtful myself: did what happen really happen, was my funeral an illusion, was my wake a dream, but, first of all, I did have one piece of material evidence, and second, even before it turned up, some sort of arithmetical sense, one which can unfailingly determine what is a dream and what is reality, told me: it did happen. As for the material evidence, it was provided by an ordinary broken watch that had stopped at the very moment of my death, and no matter how long my watchmaker friends racked their brains and fiddled with it afterwards, it still refuses to work to this day. Nonetheless, neither my wife, nor my only friend Ivan, nor my relatives, nor my in-laws, nor my acquaintances, remember how I died, how I was buried at Nikolskoye Cemetery, or even what a good time they had at my wake afterwards, which in the best Slavic tradition turned into a rowdy drinkingfest.  

    The moment I was resurrected, my first thought was that my resurrection would cause widespread panic, terror, or at the very least, confusion. However, all those present at my resurrection, namely two recuperating peasants and the senior nurse of the reanimation ward, Auntie Klava, took it as nothing at all extraordinary had happened. Auntie Klava even frivolously congratulated me on my return, as if I hadn't come back from the dead but from a quick business trip. After that I began to await my wife's arrival with trepidation, anticipating how it would be for her to meet a ghost, but my wife, who only three days ago had shed crocodile tears over my body, brought along some Moroccan oranges in a string bag, and went on for a whole half hour about how much the price of coffee had gone up. In a week she took me home.   

    At home I did nothing but rack my brain for days on end thinking about how in the world this all happened, that I died, was buried, and lastly, eulogized by my shameless relatives and acquaintances, while not one living soul can remember any of it? This kind of forgetfulness seemed suspicious to the highest degree and from a scientific point of view, fundamentally inexplicable, even though from a scientific point of view, many natural phenomena are fundamentally unexplicable, for example, no matter how hard the scientists try, they can't explain why it is you can tell a good man by his face. Finally, I decided to go to work and to have a talk with my friend Vanya who, first of all, is extremely smart, second of all, goes to night school at the Library Institute, third of all, is my true friend, and fourth of all, knows how to keep his mouth shut and because of this, he should presumably have been able to understand me like no one else.   

    At work, I was greeted calmly, as though that was to be expected. I found Ivan tinkering with fluorescent lamps in the conference hall, greeted him and said, "Listen, Vanya, please remind me what happened on the seventeenth."   

    "What day was the seventeenth?" Ivan asked back.  

    "Who the hell knows, Monday, seems like."  

    "Hold on, let me think about that ... Oh yeah, I know: the seventeenth we had a meeting. The stage workers got drunk with the money for the velvet curtain, and we were discussing them at the meeting. What, you don't remember, or are you trying to yank my chain?"  

    I shook my head no.   

    "You're definitely yanking my chain," Ivan said spitefully.   

    I shook my head again.   

    'The scavengers, they drank away the velvet curtain. Anyway, what are you taking me for a ride for, when we were both there at the meeting discussing them?"   

    "I'm not talking about that," I said angrily, "I'm talking about what happened afterwards."  

    "Afterwards, I went to class at the Institute, and in the evening you started feeling sick and they took you to the hospital. You're a little strange today, antisocial -"   

    "And what happened next?"   

    "Not a damned thing!" Ivan got angry. "What's got into you? Nothing happened afterwards."   

    "Oh, Vanya, something did happen! Something did happen, my dear old friend!"   

    I sat on the Presidium table, and dangling my legs, told him everything that had happened. When I finished, Ivan paused significantly, then rubbed his eyes and said, "Of course, this is all idealism. But, as the experience of the last few decades has shown, in this country, anything is possible."   

    "Does it ever!" I agreed. "I have long since had a suspicion that death is not at all what people think it is. But to be truthful about it, I had no opinion about resurrection because I thought death was irreversible."   

    "Propertius said, 'Letum non omnia finit.' "  

    "What does that mean?"  

    " 'All ends in death.' "   

    "Well, that's all well and good, but why don't you tell me this: how come nobody remembers any of it? Do you remember what a good time you had at my wake?"   

    "I don't remember," Ivan said with that same look with which crafty people admit that they're wrong.   

    Our conversation went on for quite a while, and finally concluded with me having totally and completely calmed down. I decided for myself that it all had in fact happened, that I had died, spent some time at Nikolskoye Cemetery and was later resurrected, none of which, to be sure, can be remembered by a single living soul, but the sum total of all these baffling circumstances must be accepted as fact. For example, take whales that every now and then collectively commit suicide, who knows why, but the world continues to exist all the same. Admittedly, for a long time I just couldn't grasp why this had actually happened, but then it finally occurred to me that just like that I had lived through a small part of my future which was not fated to come true. Of course, you can't get past this without a certain element of fantasy, but since this was a much more earth- bound fantasy compared to my adventures in the world of the dead, almost like a true story, I thought that this was just how it had actually happened. In any case, I retold the entire story to myself to make sure that there was nothing in it that would mark me as someone who had just lost their marbles. No, I didn't find anything like that. The strange little twists and turns of my story marked me as just about anyone else you can think of, but surely not a madman. I sat down on the stepladder in the conference hall, looked at Ivan, who was untangling wires, and recollected how on the evening of the seventeenth, I came home from work, changed into my house togs, and lay down on the couch with the papers till dinner was ready. Then I had dinner, gossiped a bit with my wife, watched the news on TV and went to sleep. This was where it had all started: I had gone to sleep and didn't wake up. Somehow I had always had a premonition that I would die this way, that I would just sort of lie down to sleep and never get up again. And sure enough, I went to sleep and didn't wake up. Actually, it was a little different: my family thought that I hadn't woken up, but in fact I did wake up at the very moment of my death. I woke up and thought. why did I wake up? This struck me as very odd, because I never wake up in the middle of the night, and as a result, some small frightened worm began to stir in my stomach. What is this, I thought... And then I felt something coming over my heart - not even coming over, rather, something final and definitive sneaking up on me, some sort of concluding faintness. It was sneaking up, sneaking up, and suddenly it rose to full height in the middle of my heart, stretching its walls to the tension of an instrument string. I sat bolt upright in bed. Apparently, I was no longer breathing since tears were flowing in streams from my goggling eyes, and my mouth, which was gasping to get even the slightest bit of frozen air, opened so wide that it was probably indescribably awful to look at from the side. I understood that this was it and was seized by horror. At the last instant, I tried to call out to my wife, who in light of my departure should have woken up by herself, but she, the good-for-nothing louse, was sleeping away like the proverbial rock. Suddenly an earthshaking explosion went off inside me, a velvet-black veil fell in front my eyes and suddenly, without warning or explanation, everything became so much better, so much freer, like what happens when pain goes away for no apparent reason. I lay back down and stretched out.   

    I realized right away that I had died, but strangely enough, this did not frighten or worry me; it just took me by surprise. I lay there quietly, happily waiting for dawn, painting myself some pleasant landscapes in my mind, some sweet faces, which ones exactly I don't remember, and listening to the clock ticking in the other room; as I said earlier, my watch in the bedroom had stopped, and no matter how long my watchmaker acquaintances struggled with it afterwards, it still refused to work. And again, as strange as it may seem, I didn't even consider what an awful commotion there would be when the news got out the next morning that I was dead, though in life this moment of fatal transformation generally did not scare me as a moment of aesthetic order: I was appalled by the sight of my own corpse. Or to put it another way, I was appalled at how appalled others would be. But in reality it turned out that the deceased couldn't care less about this.   

    I won't even begin to describe what went on after it was discovered that I was dead. I won't describe it only because the hullabaloo all around doesn't arouse anything in the dead person except a feeling of slight annoyance. You see, you feel like you're flying at a high altitude and what is down below is a bunch of nonsense: people, cows, electric trains, and cars that flit about and so they're annoying. But in general, the condition was so pleasurable that I didn't even notice when the funeral day rolled around.   

    I won't say anything about my funeral either, I'll simply mention that Slavic funerals are nuts, nuts, nuts. I'm amazed they haven't even banned this barbaric procedure yet. They outlawed human sacrifices, they outlawed the Inquisition, they even outlawed capital punishment in some places, but this gut- wrenching custom, all the more ridiculous since no one knew what exactly had happened, still hasn't been done away with for some reason...   

    Well all right, they buried me and left for the wake. I'm lying there, lying there, lying there, quietly, again having good thoughts, categorical ones: if yes, then yes, if no, then no. But it's a curious business: with one ventricle of the heart, one hemisphere of the brain, or one foot, well, I don't know with what, I'm lying here happily in my grave, but with the other half of me I'm over there with my friends and relatives. For example, I very distinctly saw my wake, People were all but having fun, and only Ivan drank himself into an abnormal state and sobbed bitterly, telling everyone what a respectful person I was. I listened to him and thought, "There's a fool for you! There's a fool!"  

    But, as I have already said, my other half was in the grave. I was lying there observing astonishing scenes through these categorical thoughts: some kind of huge meeting where everyone there got a real dressing-down, then something that looked like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Suddenly I hear rustling noises, muffled sighs, and whispering all around me. What's all this, I thought, or is it just my imagination? No, it wasn't my imagination: not a minute had gone by, when someone to the left of me knocked on wood, the way you knock on a door, and I heard a voice, "How's it going, comrade?"   

    I pricked up my ears, then I coughed imposingly and said, "Not so's going. What, you all talk down here too?"   

    "That depends on your mood," the voice answers. "If you feel like talking, we can talk, if not, then we won't."   

    "Don't believe a word of it," a voice to my right says. "If you're in the mood, or if you're not in the mood, they still won't give you a moment's peace. I've been lying here three years already and I still can't get my thoughts together. Three years I can't get my thoughts together, you motherfuckers! All the time, blah blah blah, blah blah blah!"   

    I heard the neighbor to my left sigh deeply and fall silent. But almost no time at all went by before he sighed deeply and, lowering his voice, said, "In general, it's quiet here... it's a new cemetery, everyone buried here is the same age, for the most part, so there isn't any major friction. I can just imagine what must go on at Vagankovskoye -"   

    "Yeah, all hell breaks loose at Vagankovskoye!" came a voice from somewhere far-off. "Over there, Sergei Alexandrovich makes plenty of trouble all by himself! I'll bet he gives people hell!"   

    "Probably does," said my neighbor to the left. "Especially since his critics are buried there, the same ones that accused him of sympathizing with kulaks."  

    "If it had been up to me," said the far-off voice, "I wouldn't have let those critics die a natural death."  

    "That's interesting!" said the voice to the right. "You think they should have played patty-cake with those high-minded kulak stooges? They were right to put 'em down, they just didn't get to enough of 'em!"   

    "And you, colonel, just shut up!" said some really distant voice. "Your time has passed."  

    "Listen, guys!" I said then. "Is this what death is? If this is death, then what the hell do I need this for?"   

    "Hm! What did you expect?" I heard the voice to the left.  

    "I didn't expect anything," I said. "I died suddenly, I lay down to sleep, and that was it. But in any case, I didn't think that you had entire afterlife conferences here."   

    "Our comrade here probably assumed his good production figures would guarantee him the Vines of Paradise," the voice to the right said maliciously.  

    "Paradise or no Paradise," I said, "I've at least earned some simple peace and quiet."  

    'That is Paradise," the distant voice said. "Just the other day, we came to the conclusion that that is Paradise. But we're all in Hell, you don't need a fortune teller to let you in on that one..."   

    "If that's the case, then I don't understand what I'm in Hell for," said the voice to the right.   

    "He's still asking..." came the really distant voice.   

    "No, there really is something unclear about that," said the voice to the left, "What's unclear, mainly, is why the vast majority ends up in the so-called Hell of our deceased brother. After all, in the whole cemetery there's only one of us who doesn't say anything. Ever since they buried him, back in seventy-nine, he hasn't said a word."  

    "Who was he?" I asked.  

    "No one knows," the distant voice answered my question. "He never says anything -"  

    "We talked it over and decided among ourselves that this was simply an outstanding individual," the voice to the left said. "In other words, a person who really knew how to live."  

    "What does it mean to 'know how to live?' " the distant voice asked maliciously.  

    "May as well kill the lights!" the voice to the right said. "They're starting up with the philosophy..."  

    "If I knew that, I wouldn't be talking with you now," the neighbor to my left explained. "But by all appearances there exists some formula for knowing how to live. It's even possible that this formula is right under our very feet, it's possible that learning its secret is much simpler than finding a Cymberlite trumpet or building the Panama Canal. And if one approaches this question from a position of Leibniz monodology...  

    "Phooey!" my neighbor to the right spit angrily.  

    'Though," the voice to my left continued undaunted, "knowing how to live may lie in continually acknowledging that you are not just anything, but alive. And immediately some sort of intense, meticulous existence will surface, a continuous celebration of self-knowledge. It was not for nothing the ancients said, 'Cogito ergo sum'."  

    "Listen, friend," the voice to my right said, "are you Russian?"  

    "Well, yes, I am Russian," answered the neighbor to my left.  

    'Then why can't you come up with anything but foreign words? Where's all this cosmopolitanism coming from?"   

    "Put a lid on it, colonel, you're making me sick just listening to you!" came the really distant voice.  

    "And who might you be?!" said the voice to my right. "And why do you keep calling me 'colonel?' "   

    At this point I could no longer contain myself and I said, "You know what, guys, this isn't death, this is a nuthouse! I refuse to lie here in these conditions!"  

    And this is what's bizarre: as soon as I uttered these words, it became brighter and brighter in my head, and soon I came back to life. I opened my eyes and saw the ridiculous physiognomies of the two recuperating peasants, then the senior nurse of the reanimation ward, Auntie Klava, who congratulated me on my return, as though I wasn't returning from another world, but from a short business trip. Well, this is the whole story, which in my opinion reveals the main character to be just about anyone you like, but certainly not someone who has lost his marbles. I came to this conclusion irrevocably, at which point I climbed down from the stepladder and began to help Ivan untangle the wires. We kept untangling and untangling them, and then I said,  

    "Listen, Vanya, let's live intensely, meticulously, so that this very act flows into a continuous celebration of self-knowledge."   

    "All right,"said Ivan, "only how do we do that?"  

    I shrugged my shoulders.   

    "Maybe it should be something like this," I said after a short pause. "Let's say you and I decide to go get a mug of beer at lunch. At Kuznetsky Bridge, beer costs forty-six kopecks, but over at Bogdan Khmelnitzky, they have it for twenty-six. But it's farther to Bogdan Khmelnitzky, so we toss in another five kopecks to get there and it works out to be thirty-one kopecks total. It turns out that even though it's farther away, it's still cheaper. So maybe if we think and think about everything, find fault with everything, would that then be a meticulous life?"  

    "Anything can happen," Ivan answered. "As experience has shown, here in our country, anything is possible..."   

    Translated from Russian by Arkady Yanushevsky

Write to Vyatcheslav Pietsukh