Copyright is held by the author.
I WAS the only diner in this tiny restaurant on the eastside of town, and the only thing that irritated me was the mirror in a gilt frame behind the bottles. Every time I looked up, I saw myself looking like a portrait of one of my own ancestors: Lazarus Trubman, deep in thought, in a gilt frame. I had circles under my eyes and a few scars on my face, that was all; apart from that I actually looked quite alright for a man who survived four years in the labor camp in Northern Russia.
“What would you like?” the barman, interrupted my thinking.
“A cognac,” I said. “How’s your fish today?”
“Was caught this morning,”
“I’d like it deep-fried with some new potatoes.”
“It comes with an artichoke salad.”
“I’d like that too.”
The barman conveyed my order to the cook in the back, uncorked a bottle of “Yubileyny”, a cognac created in 1967 for the 50th anniversary of the October revolution, and said splashing some of it in my glass: “I haven’t seen you in a very long time, professor.”
“Almost five years,” I said. “And I really shouldn’t be here.”
As he rinsed the glasses, he said: “We went through some horrors too, my son in particular, but it wasn’t as bad as being in the Soviet labour camp though . . .”
I nodded in silence, sipped my cognac and listened to his story.
Outside it was raining.
“Sorry to hear what happened to your son,” I said as soon as he fell silent.
“He’s alive, thank God, but will probably use a cane for the rest of his life.”
“Alive is what counts.”
“Here’s to those who are not,” said the barman, pouring a shot of cognac for himself.
He was a man of 40, tall and a bit round-shouldered, with a pair of sunken sad eyes. A tattoo of an anchor on his left arm told me that he was in the Navy. My recollection of him as a younger man was somewhat blurry, but I had no doubt that he was the same person who served me drinks five years ago. His son tried to set fire to the military barracks, was caught, tortured, but let go.
“Yes,” he said again, “that’s how it was when you were away.”
My glass was empty.
“Another one, professor?” he asked.
“I’ll wait for my fish,” I said.
“Then a cigarette,” he said, pulled one out of the packet and clicked his lighter.
While I smoked, he dried the glasses. I was about to leave my country. Behind were dozens of blood transfusions, dental tortures, and some scary talks with a bunch of cardiologists. Finally, I was given a so-so bill of health and was waiting for the slow-moving Immigration Office to approve my visa. It had been postponed twice already. This restaurant had been chosen as a meeting place by an old friend of mine, who agreed to keep my personal library, 300 toms of Russian and European classics, until I save enough money in America to pay for the shipment, and that friend was late.
Now my fish arrived.
“Here’s to you and your friends, professor,” he proposed. “You paid for our freedom.”
We touched glasses, and he left me alone to eat in silence.
The fish was excellent, but I didn’t enjoy it: my mind was elsewhere.
My barman noticed that, said: “This is the best deep-fried fish in town . . .”
“It’s not the fish, Kostake,” I interrupted, “it’s me.” His name appeared in my memory suddenly, and I was really glad it did.
“You remember!” he exclaimed, and a wide smile lit up his face.
“But of course, my friend: sooner or later everything comes back.”
“Would you like some coffee?” asked Kostake. “I’m about to start a fresh pot.”
“I’ll have it on the patio: I’m waiting for someone,” I said pulled my wallet out of the chest pocket, but he stopped me at once:
“It’s on me, teacher, the food and the drinks: it seems that we both needed some hard liquor this afternoon.”
I shook his hand, went outside and occupied a small table next to the lilac bushes. The rain had stopped meanwhile, small puddles everywhere, a light breeze from the south, magic of chlorophyll. I checked the time: three o’clock on the dot. I smiled to myself: three in the afternoon always seemed to me as a terrible hour, an hour without slope, flat and with no outlook. I remembered suddenly my childhood, when I was ill in bed and it was three o’clock in the afternoon, picture books, stewed apple, eternity.
“Your coffee, professor!”
“Thank you, Kostake,” I said checking the street for a taxi. “Why don’t you join me: it’s quite beautiful after the rain.”
“I’d love to, but I’ve got some regulars,” said Kostake pointing at the approaching couple.
I watched him holding the front door open for his customers, tried my coffee and thought about my friend, who was now almost an hour late, which he had never done in the past. A few minutes later, as luck would have it, a taxi stopped next to the restaurant, and a young couple paid and got out.
“Where to?” asked the driver as soon as I occupied the seat in the back of the car.
“Gagarin Street, 50,” I said.
“It’s quite a ride.”
“Can you make it in 30 minutes?”
“I can certainly try.”
“You’ll be rewarded,” I said, cranked up the window and closed my eyes – and just like that, my memory brought back an event from the past, a meeting, which took place many years ago up in the Orhey Forest, a huge mass of trees not far from a small town of Orhey, Moldova. A story of a murder I didn’t commit.
It was 1977, a Sunday in the end of February or in the beginning of March, I was in the Army reserve and we were stationed in the vicinity of Orhey, a cloudless day. I had a weekend leave, but I didn’t take a bus to Chisinau to see my girlfriend, I wanted to be away from people and went up into the Orhey Forest. Actually, reservists were strictly forbidden to do that because of the danger – locals were not very pleased with us being stationed there — but I went nonetheless. I spent the night in an abandoned hay barn; clear, starry night. I wanted to avoid open country roads, because there were probably military patrols there to whom I, a simple gunner, would have had to report my destination, which was just what I didn’t want to do. What I wanted was a real leave, a leave from any compulsion to report. Since it was really cold outside the barn, I slept longer than usual and was up and about way after the sunrise. I walked very quickly, deep into the forest, where there was still a lot of snow, and it was still crisp and hard.
I rested right before the path became quite steep, not a soul in sight. I breakfasted. I had a knife with me — that was also why I didn’t want to be seen by anyone in the valley, a lone soldier with a knife. I was glad to have this useful military knife, which could’ve been very handy against a wolf or a lynx. I had taken off my army sheepskin coat and hung it from the belt; every now and then I stopped and peered around to see if anyone was coming, a patrol with an officer perhaps. Once I was deep inside the forest, they couldn’t stop me anymore, I thought, at most they might ask if I didn’t know the regulation and then say no more about it, moved by the friendship between fellow soldiers. But I saw no one and I heard nothing either. I seemed to be as much alone as on the moon. Soft noise of the snow falling from the branches because of the light wind, nothing else.
Later, when the path reached the highest point in this part of the forest, I felt tired, happy and tired. It was getting warmer, and after I put up a shelter made out of lose stones and branches, behind which I was out of the wind, I actually took off my sweaty shirt and rolled my soldier’s blouse into a pillow. Then I slept, I was really tired, I don’t know how long.
The man, who had suddenly spoken to me, a civilian, obviously Russian, didn’t want to disturb me, as he said, when he saw my amusement; but naturally I immediately sat up, at first without saying a word. He had evidently been here for some time; he had put down his rucksack not far away. I said good morning, as I rose to my feet so that we were now standing side by side. He wanted to know, a pair of field-glasses to his face, how far the Orhey Forest reaches east and west.
“You’re a soldier, you might know,” he said with a certain smile, and as I showed him what he wanted to know I soon noticed how well he knew the district. He was carrying a pretty detailed map, although, as we were told, maps were not allowed to be carried by civilians during military training in the area or war games. A lot of soldiers here, yes. He was trying hard, I could see, to take my military uniform seriously. He offered me his field-glasses as he happened to have another pair, and in return I offered him my military water-bottle filled with grape juice. I saw through his field-glasses that he used my tracks. No one else came. I thanked him for the glasses. He stayed for about an hour, and we chatted above all about the life of an army reservist, the conditions of the barracks and the quality of the food, and also about the flora, of which he spoke in a tone of great appreciation. Not knowing why actually, I had an inhibition against looking him in the face, as though prepared for some tactless remark that embarrassed me in advance. I don’t know what he thought of me, he was very surprised indeed when it turned out that I knew a lot, and kept asking questions, casually somewhat, not really insisting on immediate answers. And this is what got stuck in my memory better than anything else: the more fluently the conversation now went, the more urgently I waited for the moment when he would pick up his rucksack. I left it to the wind to answer his question as to whether we were trained in surviving in extreme environments. That he would make it back to town before 4:00 p.m., he left me in no doubt.
Now he picked up his rucksack, not without offering me an apple. I felt somewhat ashamed. An apple this deep in the forest was something. No conversation for a while. Finally, he disappeared between the trees with a cordial wave and wishing me a good time for another month or so in the army.
For some reason, I felt angry. I didn’t see him again until he reached the small treeless spot some two hundred yards below me, so that all I could see using the gifted field-glasses was his green hat. He slipped, but managed to steady himself; then he walked more carefully. I shouted to him, to make him raise his face again, but he heard nothing. Then I whistled through my fingers; he probably took it for the whistle of a marmot and looked around. I stood still until he disappeared behind the trees, a little man in the forest. Suddenly I resolved to go back to town and catch up with him, but what for? I remained still, imagining him having a drink at the hotel bar. Back behind my shelter, I thought for a while about his sudden appearance and precise questions regarding the area around Orhey. Then I fell asleep again, now for good.
When I woke up, probably because I was cold, I was dismayed by the thought: I could have stabbed him in the back with my military knife. I knew I didn’t do it. I hadn’t dreamed it either; I merely woke with the waking thought: a stab in the back as he bent down for his rucksack would have killed him instantly.
Then I ate his apple.
Of course, I am glad I didn’t do it. It would have been murder. I have never talked to anyone about it, not even to my close friends, although I didn’t do it. I saw no one far and wide. No eyewitnesses. Not even an animal. Light wind and no listening ear. Next evening in the garrison during the roll-call I would have stepped into the back row, head to the right, hand on the seam, at attention, good and straight, afterwards I’d play some chess with my neighbor. No one would ever have noticed from looking at me, I don’t think.
Since then I have talked to a lot of murderers, at the university, during concerts and soccer games; you can’t tell by looking at them! When I had eaten his apple, I would’ve turned him on his back to look at his face, to make sure that he was dead.
I glanced at my wristwatch: time to go down. I picked up my belt, put on the sheepskin coat. The snow felt now much softer; the wind stopped. By the time I got out of the Orhey Forest I had actually forgotten the man already. I had thoroughly real worries which were more sensible to think about, begging with the beast of a sergeant-major, who would try to put me on guard duty again, but above all the profession that had been left home, my profession wasn’t soldiering.
I refused to think which hungry animal would’ve gotten to him first, and I didn’t know why I was worried about what hadn’t happened anyway. It was getting warmer, and not for the first time I cursed our army’s uniform. As I walked, I noticed: the sky overhead looked violet, the snow more like milk; the little rocks at the end of the forest like amber. Everything motionless.
Although I slowly became convinced that the man in the Orhey Forest was no harmless tourist, I said nothing about it. I was put on guard duty later in the evening, had hellish sunburn, fever. The guard duty was usually four hours long, so I had nothing to do but look and see whether a green hat suddenly comes into my view. Naturally my belletristic hope was not fulfilled. I walked: 50 steps this way, 50 steps that.
Why was I suddenly remembering all this?
Because at that time, 1977, there really weren’t any fucking tourists!
In the following years, as everyone knew, a lot of things happened. Real things. I never thought of it again, it was certainly no time, God knows, for imaginary murders, when, as I soon knew, there were enough of the other sort every day. So, I thought no more about it and never told anyone about that Sunday in the Orhey Forest; it was too ridiculous. And, after all, I didn’t do it. The hand of the law will not descend upon my shoulder.
Not till much later, while reading a newspaper, did I suddenly think of it again. I read there, among other things, that Moldavian government, with a nod from the Soviets, had planned to build a labor camp in the Orhey Forest, a one-hour hike from the town of Orhey. The plans were ready, and it safe to assume that such plans were not prepared without a thorough study of the terrain. Who reconnoitered the terrain around Orhey? Perhaps it was the man who, on Sunday in 1977, also made an excursion to the Orhey Forest, and whom I didn’t stab in the back.
I don’t know. I shall never find out who he was.
We just chatted the way people do in the middle of a huge forest, like comrades so to speak, two men who are the only ones for a few kilometers around. Without formalities, naturally, a handshake without introductions. Both of them have reached this point; both have the same wide panorama. Handshake or no handshake, I don’t even remember that for sure now; perhaps I kept my hands in my pockets. Later I ate his apple and used his field-glasses to see him in the trees. I know for sure what I didn’t do. Perhaps he was a good fellow; perhaps I actually met him again, without knowing it, many years later, dressed differently and so that with the best will in the world we couldn’t recognize each other again.
Only sometimes I’m so uncertain. Suddenly. And yet it’s 40 years ago! I know it’s ridiculous. Not to be able to forget an act one never performed is ridiculous. And I never tell anyone about it. And sometimes I completely forget him again.
Only his voice remains in my ear.
Only a lot of deaths.
Your style and description actually transported me to where you were talking about. Very evocative prose!
I love the irony–what didn’t happen is as important or more important than what did.
For me, the two halves of this story did not connect, and the second half, the main story, dragged and did not go anywhere. If short fiction does not reach flying speed in the first scene, something is not working.
Thank you, Dave.
I will not re-write the story based on your comment of course. As far as the flying speed: I’m not a spring bird anymore:), and the story wasn’t supposed to move at a flying speed. Some do, I agree, but not when two men meet after surviving camps and tortures.