A Gloom Is Cast Upon the Ancient Steps
Chapter 2. Claimants to the Inheritance
He didn’t recognize his aunt Tatyana Leonidovna in the old woman who met him on the platform. “The years had left an indelible imprint on her face,” Anton thought.
Of his grandfather’s five daughters, Tatyana was always considered the prettiest. She was the first of them to be married—to a railway engineer named Tatayev, an honest-minded and impulsive man. In the middle of the war he slugged the director of railway traffic. Aunt Tanya never told us why he did it; she would only say, “That man was a bastard.”
Tatayev was expelled from the reserves and sent to the front. He wound up on a searchlight team. One night he illuminated a friendly aircraft by mistake. Vigilant SMERSH agents arrested him on the spot. He spent the night in a dug-out for detainees, charged with premeditated subversive activities against the Red Army, and was shot the next morning. When he first heard this story as a fifth-grader, Anton could not understand where they came up with such an absurd charge—as if anyone would be stupid enough to try something like that while completely surrounded by Russian troops who would seize you in seconds! But two World War II veterans who heard the story with him found nothing strange about it at all. Of course, their own comments—“Finishing out their job sheet?”, “Trouble making quota?”—were even more puzzling, but Anton never asked questions, and even though no one warned him not to, he never repeated anything he’d heard in household conversations. That may have been why everyone spoke so freely around him. Or maybe they thought he was too young to understand. They had only the one room in any case.
Soon after Tatayev was executed, his wife and three children—Vovka, age six; Kolka, four and Katka, two and a half—were sent to a transit prison in the Kazakh city of Akmolinsk. After awaiting her sentence for four months, she was ordered to the Smorodinovka sovkhoz in Akmolinsk Province. The four of them made their way there by hitching rides in trucks, cars or on oxcarts and on foot, splashing through the April puddles in their felt boots, since they had no other shoes (they’d been arrested in winter).
In the village of Smorodinovka Aunt Tanya got a job as a dairymaid—and that was a stroke of luck, since she was able to smuggle home a hot-water bottle of milk for the kids strapped to her stomach every day. As a CHSIR (“family member of a traitor to the motherland”), she was not entitled to ration cards. They were given lodging in a calf shed, but they were promised a dugout. Its current tenant, an exile like Aunt Tanya, was expected to die any minute now. Every day the family sent Vovka to look in on her. The door had no lock; he would step inside and say, “Hey, lady, did you die yet?” “Not yet,” she would answer. “Come again tomorrow.” When she finally died, they were allowed to move in to the dugout on condition that Aunt Tanya bury the dead woman. So she and two neighbor women loaded the body onto a wheelbarrow and carted it off to the cemetery. The new tenant took up the handle shafts in both hands, one neighbor helped push along the barrow, which tended to get stuck in the rich black earth of the steppe, while the other neighbor tried to steady the body, which was wrapped in burlap. But the wheelbarrow was too small for its load and kept rolling over into the mud. The burlap was soon black and sticky. This bier was trailed by a slender funeral procession consisting of Vovka, Kolka and falling behind them, Katka.
But the family’s luck was short-lived. Aunt Tanya did not respond to the advances of the kolkhoz director and was evicted from the dugout and moved back into a calf shed. The new shed, which was for newborn calves, was admittedly more livable than the first one. It was spacious and warm; sometimes two or even three days would go by without a calving, and every seventh of November brought a special holiday treat: no calvings for five days in a row, which meant the family had the shed all to itself for that entire time. They lived in the calf shed for two years, until the new milkmaid, a Chechen girl, jabbed the amorous kolkhoz director with a three-tined pitchfork near a manure pile. Her victim, hoping to avoid a scandal, never went to the hospital, but manure had clung to the tines, and a week later he died of general sepsis. Penicillin was unavailable in those parts until the mid-1950s.
Throughout the war and the following ten years Aunt Tanya worked on the farm, without days off, without a single vacation. It was frightening to look at her hands, while she herself grew so thin she was almost transparent.
In the famine year of 1946, Grandma sent her oldest boy, Vovka, to live with us in Chebachinsk. He talked little, and never complained. One time when he’d cut his finger badly, he clambered under the table and sat there, gathering the dripping blood in the cup of his other hand, and when it was full, he carefully poured the blood into a crack in the floor. He was two years my senior, but was only entering the first grade. I, on the other hand, had skipped first grade entirely and was already in third grade—and for that reason I was terribly condescending to Vovka. My grandfather had taught me to read so early that I couldn’t remember ever being illiterate. And so I made fun of my cousin, who still read by sounding out each syllable. But not for long: his reading improved very quickly, and by the end of that first year he could add and multiply in his head better than I could. “Just like his father,” Grandma would say with a sigh. “That man did all his figuring without a slide rule.”
There were no composition books; the teacher told us to buy Vovka a published book printed on the whitest paper we could find. Grandma bought The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks)—Short Course. The store that sold kerosene, locally produced glass pitchers and glasses and locally produced wooden rakes and stools also had a whole shelf full of this book. The paper in it was the best available; Vovka drew his little hooks and “letter elements” right on top of the printed text. Before the contents disappeared forever beneath the blight of his violet ink marks, we read the book carefully and then quizzed each other:
“Who had an English uniform?”
“What kind of tobacco did he smoke?”
“Who ran for cover?”
Vovka titled the second part of his composition book Rithmatik and used it for his math problems. It began on chapter four, the famous philosophic chapter of the Short Course. But the teacher said he would have to keep a separate notebook for arithmetic; and so Father gave Vovka a pamphlet, Critique of the Gotha Program. That one was boring, though, except for the foreword by some academician, which began nicely, with poetry (only the lines weren’t printed in a column): A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism.
Vovka spent only one year at our school. I wrote letters to him afterwards in Smorodinovka. There must have been something offensive and haughty in those letters, because Vovka soon sent me a reply in the form of an acrostic that spelled the message Antosha is a British braggart. The word British was formed from these lines:
and so on.
I was stunned. Vovka, who was still reading syllable by syllable only the year before, was now writing verses, and not just verses, but acrostics, something I’d never even heard of before then. Long afterwards, Vovka’s teacher told me that in thirty years of teaching she’d never met any student as capable as he was. In Smorodinovka Vovka completed seventh grade, then a vo-tech school for tractor and combine operators. When I came back to Chebachinsk, summoned by Grandfather’s letter, I found him still living in the same place, with his wife, who worked as a dairymaid, and their four children.
Aunt Tanya and the rest of the children moved to Chebachinsk; Father moved them out of Smorodinovka in a truck, taking a cow with them—a genuine Simmental that they were loath to leave behind. She mooed and banged her horns against the sides of the truck bed all the way to Chebachinsk. Then he wangled a place for the middle child, Kolka, in a cinema operators’ school, which was no mean feat: complications from mistreated childhood otitis had left him hard of hearing, but a former student of Father’s was on the admissions committee. Once he started work as a projectionist, Kolka proved incredibly enterprising. He would sell some sort of forged tickets that he got printed up for him clandestinely at the local print shop. For film showings in tuberculosis sanatoriums he used to make the patients pay him personally. He wound up a first-rate chiseler. All he ever cared about was money. He found himself a rich fiancée, the daughter of a shady merchant woman known locally as Manya Delyets. Kolka’s new bride complained to Aunt Tanya, “He gets under the covers and just turns toward the wall. I try pressing my breasts up against him, and everything else. I swing my leg over him, and then I turn over, too, and face the other wall. So we just lie there, butt cheek to butt cheek.” After the wedding he bought himself a motorcycle. His mother-in-law wouldn’t give him money for a car.
For the first year, Katka lived with us, but after that we had to turn her out: she stole from us from the very first days. We had no way of hiding money from her in any case, and she found it without fail—in the sewing kit, in books, under the radio. She would only take part of it, but it quickly added up. Before long Mama took to bringing both her own and Father’s salaries to school with her in her briefcase, where it lay untouched in the faculty room all day. Deprived of these funds, Katka began stealing silver teaspoons and stockings; one time she made off with a three-quart jar of sunflower oil for which Tamara, another of Grandfather’s daughters, had spent half a day standing in line. Mama got her a spot in nursing school—which was another miracle, since Katka was a terrible student. (Once again, having a former student in the right place did the trick.) Once she became a nurse, she proved to be just as slick an operator as her brother. She would perform various injections off the books, pilfer medicines from the hospital and issue false medical certificates. The two of them were greedy and also inveterate liars about matters great or trivial. Grandfather used to say, “They’re only half to blame. Honest poor folk are poor only to a certain degree. These two grew up in destitution, terrible destitution. You don’t find really dirt-poor people who are ethical.” Anton believed Grandfather, but he never liked Katka and Kolka. When Grandfather died, his younger brother in Lithuania, in Siauliai, where their father once owned an estate, mailed the family a large amount of cash to cover the funeral. The mail lady delivered the envelope to Kolka, who said nothing about it to anyone. When the next letter came from Father Vladimir, the secret was out, but Kolka claimed that he’d laid the money on the windowsill. Aunt Tanya was living with him now, in a public-housing apartment attached to the movie theater. Kolka undoubtedly had designs on the house.
The oldest daughter, Tamara, a kind and defenseless creature who had lived her whole life with old people and never married, was not even aware that she might have a claim to any sort of inheritance. She’d spent the years firing the stove, cooking, laundering, washing the floor, and leading our cow to the herd. In the evenings the herdsman would bring the cows back only as far as the village gate, where the women would sort them out, and then the smarter cows would go the rest of the way home on their own. Our cow, Zorka, was smart, but once in a while something used to come over her and she would dash across the river and head for Kamenukha or further still, into the ravines. We would have to find her before it got dark. Sometimes Uncle Lyonya would go hunt for her, or Grandfather would, or even Mama. I tried myself three different times. None of us ever found her. Tamara always did. Her knack for finding that cow seemed supernatural to me. Father explained it this way: “Tamara knows that she has to find the cow. So she does.” I never really understood that. Tamara would work day in, day out, but on Sundays Grandma would let her go to church, and sometimes late in the evening she would get out a notebook into which she would copy out various texts in her clumsy handwriting. It would be children’s stories by Tolstoy, or paragraphs from a schoolbook that happened to be lying on the table, or something from her prayerbook—usually it was one evening devotion in particular: And suffer me, O Lord! to abide this night in peaceful slumber… The kids would call her Shosha to tease her. I have no idea how they came up with that. It would hurt her feelings. I didn’t tease her myself. I supplied her with notebooks, then I used to bring her blouses from Moscow. But after Kolka got her evicted from her apartment and packed her off to an old folks’ home in far-off Pavlodar, I would only send her an occasional package. I kept meaning to visit her—Pavlodar is only a three-hour flight from Moscow—, but I never did. Today there isn’t a single trace of her left: neither her notebooks, nor her icons. Only a single photograph: turning toward the camera, she’s wringing out some linen. For fifteen years she never saw a single relative, not one of us, the ones she loved the most, to whom she would always begin her letters “All my dearest ones!”
The third claimant was Uncle Lyonya, the youngest of Grandfather’s children. Anton got to know him only after his other uncles and aunts: in 1938 he was called up for army service, and then the Finnish War began (he ended up at the front in that war because he alone of a whole battalion of Siberians admitted to being a good skier). Then came World War II, then the war with Japan. Then he was redeployed from the Far East to the extreme western end of the country to fight the army of Stepan Bendera. He returned from this last military expedition with two Ukrainian slogans to share with us: Khai zhive pan Bendera ta ego zhinka Paraska! (Long live Pan Bendera and his wife Paraska!) and Khai zhive dvadtsat’ vos’ma rokovina zhovtnevoi revoliutsii! (Long live the Twenty-Eighth Anniversary of the October Revolution!). It was 1947 before he finally returned. People said that Lyonya was lucky. He’d been a combat wireman, but had never even been wounded, apart from two concussions. Aunt Larissa thought those concussions had cost him some of his intellectual faculties. She was thinking of the way he used to play at sea battles and card games with his very young nieces and nephews in great earnest, getting genuinely upset if he lost, which is why he often cheated, hiding cards in the tops of his tarpaulin boots.
Near the end of the war, Uncle Lyonya met a Polish girl named Zosya near Belaya Tserkov and took to sending her packages from Germany. Aunt Larissa would ask him why he never sent anything to the old folks at home, or as long as he was sending everything he had to his precious Zosya, what kept him from going to visit her. He avoided answering, but when she pressed him on it, he said, “She wrote me. Said not to come.”
“And she didn’t say why?”
“She did. She said ‘why bother?’”
He was a Party member when he came back from the war, but the family only learned about this when one of his coworkers at the railroad told Grandma that Leonid Leonidovich had recently been expelled from the Party for never paying his membership dues. His chest had been covered in war medals, including three “For Bravery.” Of the many others, the one Anton liked best was the medal “For the Taking of Kö-nigs-berg.” For some reason, the few war stories he told were all about the Finnish War. Like the one about some infantry units that reached the front wearing rubber boots—even though the temperature was under minus 30 degrees Celsius. Anton read in Pioneer magazine that the greatest danger our side faced was the “cuckoos,” Finnish snipers.
“Cuckoos! What bunk! What fool’s gonna… climb a tree… when it’s that cold? What for?”
Uncle Lyonya never said a word about his second war, and when we tried to get him to tell us about it, all he would say was “What’s to tell? I laid field wire.” And he showed no feelings about it at all. Anton saw him get emotional only once. Uncle Lyonya’s older brother, Nikolai Leonidovich, who was at the Elba river at the end of the war, came from Saratov for the old folks’ golden wedding anniversary, and said that the American soldiers he’d met were using wireless radio sets instead of laying field wire from spools. Uncle Lyonya, who usually kept his eyes on the ground, looked up at that and seemed about to say something. Then he lowered his head again, his eyes filling with tears. Aunt Larissa was startled and asked, “What’s the matter, Lyonya?”
“I feel sorry for our boys,” Uncle Lyonya said, then got up and left.
At the front he kept a notebook in which he copied out songs. But after the song about the little blue handkerchief he’d written down the “Prayer of Metropolitan Sergy, Lockham Tennis”: Succor us, O Lord, our Savior. Rise to our aid and grant victory to our warriors in Thy name. But if it be Thy will that they lay down their souls on the field of battle, forgive them their sins, and in the day of Thy just retribution, bestow on them crowns of incorruption.
All of that was very fine: bestow, crowns of incorruption… The only puzzling part was Lockham Tennis. When Anton asked his grandfather what tennis had to do with any of this, Grandfather laughed till tears came, then called over a bearded old former deacon to share the joke (Grandma had just served him wheat mush in the kitchen). Eventually, though, Grandfather explained what locum tenens meant, and added that Sergy was no longer the Patriarchal Locum Tenens, but rather the Patriarch himself. After that he and the bearded old man had a long debate about whether the Patriarchate should have been restored.
Uncle Lyonya had reached Berlin. “Did you leave your name on the Reichstag?”
“The boys did.”
“But what about you?”
“The bottoms of the walls… They were already covered. So they tell me, ‘You’re strong enough.’ Then this one guy… He climbs up on my shoulders. Another guy climbs on top of him. The top guy signed his name.”
Before long he got married. His bride was a widow, with two children. But Grandma was actually pleased about that: “What are they supposed to do now, the poor things?” What she objected to was something else: Uncle Lyonya’s new wife smoked and drank. In all the years he’d been in the army, he himself had never taken up smoking and never touched alcohol. (At his job he was taken for a Baptist: he not only never drank, he never swore, either.) “That’s understandable,” Aunt Larissa would say. “He fought in wars for ten years straight. How much can a body take?” After a few years, his wife left to do a stint of higher-paying work up North, leaving him with the kids—for good, as it turned out. He remarried; his second wife was also a smoker, and a downright alcoholic. Once when she was drunk she got terribly frostbitten and died. She, too, left Uncle Lyonya a child. He married once again, but his third wife also drank. Not that that stopped her from having another baby every year.
Because of all these matrimonial problems, my uncle was always living in some hovel or another. For a while he and his whole brood were actually living in a dugout that he himself had carved out of the earth in textbook style (embellishing this story somewhat, Anton told his friend Vaska Gagin that his uncle had used his old combat shovel) and then roofed over with discarded cross ties he’d picked up at his railroad job. He carried those ties on his shoulders all the way from the railroad sites where they’d been replaced on foot, a distance of over three miles. (“All these logs to build this hut of mine / By himself he hauled them, all of pine.”) He was strong, just like Grandfather. “You could have asked them to lend you a truck,” Grandma complained. “Gurka brought home a load of firewood from that same railroad site in a government truck.”
“I asked. They wouldn’t let me,” said Uncle Lyonya in his halting manner. “Ties aren’t heavy. Cannons, you know… When we hauled ’em out of the mud… Lots heavier.”
Uncle Kolya, who had served as an artillery captain in the war, happened to be visiting us at the time; after looking over the dugout, he asked Uncle Lyonya why he’d built the walls and roof in two layers.
“Expecting an artillery attack?”
“That’s how many ties they gave me. They said I had to take all of ’em.”
Of all the claimants, he was undoubtedly the one who needed Grandfather’s house the most.