Pushkin

The wind swirling trash on Kirov Street, the main thoroughfare of the district of Perchersk–an extension of Kiev–rose unhindered from the Dnieper, the river masking the smell of war, a mixture of the exhaust fumes of trucks, tanks, mobile artillery pieces, horses, wet uniforms, field kitchens, dead bodies rotting under collapsed masonry, and the smell that shook him with fear: the odor of singed hair and burned bodies. Earlier, when he reported in at the field hospital to receive his second typhus shot–they were given at three-day intervals–the ambulances were bringing in burned tank crews.

He was looking in his guidebook for the location of the Pushkin statue. The guidebook, supplied by the Wermacht, was a testimony to German respect for things cultural. What other invading army would have provided its soldiers with tourist information?  It was also the pentimento that was supposed to render their barbarism opaque. Serving alongside the German Army with the 39th Hungarian Tank Regiment had made it easy for him to get hold of the guidebook. He was fluent in German, partly because his boyhood discipline–up to the age of thirteen–had been meted out by a beloved nanny, a Bavarian spinster, and partly because it was one of the required languages, besides Latin and Italian, in his gymnasium. He spoke Russian too, which he had learned at his mother’s insistence from a refugee who had been a lady-in-waiting in the last Tsar’s court. Madame Ivanovna was hired as his Russian tutor and his mother’s ‘companion’. His mother and Madame Ivanovna spoke French and  practiced English together. Other than his father, nobody at their settlement understood English. Madame Ivanovna was given a small house built of adobe brick like those of the sharecroppers, where she recreated Russia with her icons, samovar, candles, strange smells, a portrait of her dead husband in his general’s uniform, and vodka that she drank from a water glass. She played the balalaika, and when she was inebriated cried and called him “my son”. He had become a substitute for the child Madame Ivanovna  never had. She had told him  tales about her life at the Romanov Court, her wedding to the general witnessed by the tsar and the tsarina, moonlight sled rides, balls where she had danced with Tsar Nicholas. Though she was born at least two generations after Pushkin,  she spoke about his many duels as if she had been his contemporary, explaining that though the poet died defending the honor of his wife, most of his duels were fought  over trivia because he was touchy about his short stature and dark complexion, even if he was proud of his African heritage. Pushkin’s  maternal grandfather was a slave from Abyssinia who was adopted by Peter the Great and ended up a general in the Russian Army.  The stories of the duels made him feel close to Pushkin.

His own father also fought duels, one of which was with a music critic who had compared a family friend, the aging American coloratura Galli-Curci, to “a great, very great violinist playing on a wreck of a fiddle with constantly sagging strings.” His father had cut off the music critic’s left ear and as a consequence had to spend two weeks in the Marko Street jail. Civil law forbade dueling.

It was in Madame Ivanovna’s house where he was introduced to Pushkin’s poetry.  Her reading of the narrative poems with their sad tales made them both cry. He identified especially with Aleko, the betrayed hero in “The Gypsies” who kills his beloved and her lover.

“She is a child,/(the Old Man said.) And you should treat her moods more lightly./To you, love is a serious business,/But a girl’s heart treats it as a joke./ Look up: look at the distant moon;/She sheds an equal radiance/On everything she passes over.”

Six months before a caravan had halted next to the settlement to trade work–mending pots and pans–for a few older horses. There was a gypsy girl among them who had become his friend. His mother had called the girl ‘my son’s impossible love’. Then one day he saw the girl lift her skirts to a gypsy man.

At eighteen he entered the national military academy, where in a year-and-a-half instead of the usual four years, his class earned the gold star of lieutenancy and was sent to the Eastern Front.

* * * * * *

He had reached Kirov Street from the Dneprovsky Descent, walking around German military trucks, some filled with artillery shells, some with gasoline containers. There were also white ambulances with red crosses painted on them pulled halfway up on the sidewalks. A company of panzer grenadiers marched past him on their way toward their temporary barracks in the Mariinsky Palace. He had heard rumors of a beginning Russian counter-offensive around Kursk and Belgorod about 400 kilometers east of Kiev, but there were still too many German soldiers out on passes for the rumors to be true. This was the first time he had been to Russia, but his ancestors had been here. On his mother’s side a junior officer in Napoleon’s Grand Army had survived the 1812 retreat to settle later in Alsace-Lorraine. He knew from history books that his Cuman ancestors on his father’s side had sacked Kyiv, as it was called in 1202 AD, before they themselves were chased all the way to Hungary in 1242 by Batu Khan’s Golden Horde. The stories he had heard about Kuthan, the valiant Cuman Chief who led their tribe to Hungary, were told by his grandfather sitting on feed sacks in the barn. When he had asked his father if the stories were true, his father had said that they were legends handed down through many generations, and that they probably had a historical basis. It was then that his father showed him the dark, oiled dog-skin parchment of their land grant from 1305.

* * * * * *

             

Three months ago in July his regiment had entrained at the Kolomyva railhead–tanks on flat beds, the crews in nicely fixed-up boxcars with bunk-beds and even a foodstove for cooking and heat. For the first time in his life he was traveling without a nanny or a tutor. He liked to slide the loading door halfway back to look at the countryside and at the little stations slowly moving backward while the languorous clicking of the wheels counted down the passing versts transforming him into a Tolstoy character journeying in a troika.  He was here in the land of Chekhov, Dostoevski, Turgenev and most of all, Pushkin, whose poetry had consumed him even at the military academy where he was taught in his truncated courses only the use of weapons and tactics. The train traveling on its wide tracks moved slowly enough for the mosquitoes to land on his forehead but it also enabled him to see the people, mostly women, as they halted momentarily at their work to straighten up and  look back at him,  their faces  framed by babushkas of many colors. In the distance farm carts created a continuous dust curtain as a backdrop to set the stage for Pushkin.  “Summer, your beauty, I would be in love / With you, if it were not for the heat, dust, flies,/Mosquitoes.”

Then it happened as any sane person living in the reality of the Eastern Front of 1943 knew it would happen. While the train was slowing down passing Vinnytsa, a small pineapple landed at his feet with a dull thud. He knew pineapples only from pictures, never having held  one in his hands. The same applied to enemy hand grenades. When his brain finally gave the command, his right leg moved like a slow-motion  knee articulation  study, then the toe of his boot connected and the grenade flew out in an arc, slowly losing height before exploding above the ground.

* * * * * *

The park, crisscrossed by trenches dug at the order of the Red Army before they retreated from Kiev, made it difficult to pretend that he was here only to search for  Madame Ivanovna’s beloved friend. Then not far from the park he saw a marble column supporting a seated Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin. The gold paint of the Cyrillic letters carved into the marble shone in the late September sunshine. At nineteen degrees Celsius there was no hint of the horrors of the Russian winter that was to come.  He looked up at the seated figure, willing it to speak, remembering his French grandfather’s story about Michelangelo bringing down his hammer on the head of his just-finished statue of Moses, shouting: “Speak!” The granite figure didn’t  resemble Madame Ivanovna’s  little oval painting of Pushkin even though the  curly hair and beard that left his chin naked emphasizing his full lips, were  chiseled into the stone. In the painting his blue eyes looked at the world with bafflement, a sad stare that as a boy he thought he understood. The carving with its sightless eyes was a death mask. He didn’t know if it was hysteria or premonition that made him feel that he stood on a verge, the rim of a chasm, waiting for the push that would make him dive into oblivion. He looked up at Pushkin, only a head and shoulders above him and heard the familiar voice of Madame Ivanovna reciting:  “I say goodbye to each day,/Trying to guess/Which among them will be/ The anniversary of my death. And how and where shall I die?/Fighting, traveling, in the waves?/Or will the neighboring valley/Receive my cold dust?”

It was then that he saw the girl. She came from behind the column to where he stood. She was below his eye level; the top of her head would barely reach his chin. Incongruously, his first thought was that if he were standing in the turret of his Panzer Kampfwagen IV she could sneak in below the level at which the tank’s machine guns could be depressed to fire.

“It doesn’t look like Pushkin,” he said.

“You speak Russian!” She had long blond hair tied back with a pale yellow scarf.

“So do you.”

She burst out laughing. “But I am Russian. I’m not German.”

“I am not either.”

“But you are wearing a German uniform.”

“It’s not German. I am a lieutenant in the Hungarian Army.”

“It is good that you are interested in our Eternal Poet.”

“Only God is eternal. Pushkin is dead. Chances are I’ll soon be dead too.”

That was the beginning. He told her all about Madame Ivanovna and their reading together The Gypsies, The Bronze Horseman, Mozart and Salieri, Rusalka and the shorter poems. They were walking side by side on Kirov Street away from Pushkin, passing a church then turning onto another street back toward the park. From time to time the girl’s face was turned up toward him like a sunflower. Reaching out for her hand made him conscious of the soldiers, civilians, men, women and even children who walked around them as if the two had become a single obstacle in their path.  From the comments he overheard from the Germans and from the looks directed toward them by the civilians, their walking together was judged offensive.  He still remembered his mother’s remark about the gypsy girl, that it was childish for him to think that a fourteen- year-old gypsy girl could become the friend of a twelve-year-old Hungarian boy.  Perhaps it was equally childish for him to think that he loved this girl he had met only a half-an-hour ago. But Romeo and Juliet had only seen each other across a dance floor and had fallen in love in spite of their feuding families.  Life expectancy for tank crews was three weeks. He would soon be covered in darkness the way the City was plunged into total darkness two days ago when the power plant was blown up by the partisans.

They had stopped. “Can you tell me your name?”

“Lybed Osipnova Lihoded.”

“It’s a lovely name.”

“Lybed was the name of the girl who founded Kiev with her three brothers.”

 

* * * * * *

There was only one bench left in the park. Its back had been sawed off to turn it into a weapons’ platform. Straddling it they sat down facing each other. He was peering at her face as if looking at a distant star through a telescope. Her nose looked as if at the time of its fashioning the clay had been pinched just the slightest bit to keep it out of true alignment. Her nostrils didn’t quite match either.  For some unfathomable reason this made him love her even more.

A Hungarian cavalry sergeant passing by gave him an elaborate salute and an unmilitary wink. They knew each other. The sergeant was in the 1st Cavalry Squadron of the 2nd Army that was part of the III Corps as was his own 30th Tank Regiment. He often went to visit the 1st Cavalry’s remounts, having ridden them at home at the settlement before they were sold to the Army.

“Are you allowed to tell me your name?” she asked.

“Of course. Pierre-Terrail. Pierre-Terrail  Kuthan.”

“Pierre-Terrail sounds French.”

“My mother is French. I was named after one of her ancestors–a military hero. Not like me.” He touched her hands. They were beautiful, narrow hands. His mother had  told him that it was important to look at a girl’s hands. It was always the wife who set the tone in the household. “Can I see you again Lybed? On Friday they’ll give me a pass to the hospital for my third typhus shot. I could be away the whole day.”

“I don’t know.”

“Why?” Three tanks rolled past the park making a frightful clatter. One was a 60-ton Skoda belonging to a Todenkopf SS unit.

“At a special Komsomol meeting we were told not to fraternize with the invading army because they are all rapists.”

“I’m not a rapist.”

“I know that.”

“Why then?”

“I have to write a paper for school. Pushkin’s influence on Turgenev, Dostoevski, Gogol, and on contemporary Soviet writers. It’s due on Monday.”

“That’s why you came to look at Pushkin? For inspiration?”

“No.” She was giggling. “You’ll think me strange if I tell you why.”

“I think you strange already, but in the nicest possible way.”

“I visited Pushkin for atonement.”

“Like ‘in propitiation for my sins’?”

“Not my sins exactly, though I have many to be pardoned for.” She crossed herself in the strange Russian way, then for a moment her hands touched palm to palm in a sign of prayer.

“Lybed,” he said. He felt tears in his throat that made him remember reading as an eight-year-old the story of the one-legged lead soldier in love with a paper ballerina–that part where the ballerina is blown into the fireplace and the boy searching for his toy soldier next morning finds only a lead heart buried in the ashes. He thought then that  loving somebody  made life painful. Nothing had changed.

“I’ve been paying visits to Pushkin with my grandmother since I was six years old,” Lybed said. They brought flowers to atone for her family’s part in Pushkin’s death, she told him. Her  great-great-grandfather Konstantin had been  Pushkin’s classmate at the Imperial  Lyceum. When years later Pushkin decided to fight a duel for the honor of his wife, nobody would volunteer to be his attendant because the Tsar had outlawed dueling. Only his old classmate Konstantin, by then a lieutenant-colonel in the Imperial Army, would agree to be his second. Konstantin’s dropped hat signaled the start of the duel that killed Pushkin.

“Since then,” Lybed said, “it’s been the duty of the women of our family to remember Pushkin.  First we went to the statue in Moscow, then when the family moved to Kiev we started visiting him here. Now that Grandmamma is old it is my duty. I am almost seventeen.”

He wanted to say that on Friday he would be twenty-one, but instead he said, “Thank God.”

“What are you thanking God for?”

“You and Pushkin and Madame Ivanovna. I would have never known that you existed if it wasn’t for Pushkin.”

“And the war,” she said. “Don’t forget the war.”

“How could anyone forget the war?” He searched her face like a myopic who had lost his spectacles but was determined to read the message because his life depended on it. “You are beautiful.”

“Only Grandmamma ever said that I was beautiful. But that’s because she loved me.”

He wanted to say he loved her too but instead he said: “Pushkin loved you too. ‘I loved you; and perhaps I love you still,/The flame, perhaps, is not extinguished ;yet/ It burns so quietly within my soul,/No longer should you feel distressed by it,/Silently and hopelessly I loved you,/At times too jealous and at times too shy . . . ‘  I am sorry. I forget the rest.” He was blushing.

“‘God grant you find another who will love you/As tenderly and truthfully as I’   . . . I had to memorize it last year but I don’t want to be someone’s lost love.”

They were looking at each other. He was thinking that he had glimpsed her soul. He wanted the whole world to know that he loved her. He took her hand and kissed it.

“Don’t do that. People are looking at us,” but she didn’t take her hand away.

A platoon of German infantry marched by singing ‘Erika’. They were passed by a very loud, drab motorcycle with a light machinegun on the deck of its sidecar.

“I have to go home now,” Lybed said. “I don’t want Grandmamma to start worrying about me.”

“Can we meet again on Friday?”

“I don’t know. Where? When?”

“At the intersection of Vladimiriskaya and Kalinin Streets at thirteen hundred hours?”

“What time is that?”

“One o’clock. After I get my typhus shot. Can you be there?”

“That’s two days from now. In two days you won’t remember me.”

“That isn’t something you should joke about.”

” All right. On Friday I’ll be at the intersection of Vladimiriskaya and Kalinin Streets at thirteen hundred hours. I’ll take you to meet my grandmother.”

They stood up. She seemed even smaller, more vulnerable surrounded by the merry-go-round of war that endlessly circled the park: tractors pulling 150mm Bofors howitzers and 80mm Anti-Aircraft guns, tanks of all sizes with their long-and short-barrel canons, large gray open trucks packed with steel helmeted soldiers,  pulling a mixture of Czech 37mm, Belgian 47mm and German 50mm Anti-tank guns behind them.

“They are all going in the same direction,” he said.

“That’s the way to Kursk. I was there to visit my other grandmother before the war started.  We need to get across the street. Let’s run for it.” She took his hand.

                                                                             

* * * * * *

The 30th Tank Regiment’s post included a large schoolhouse and outbuildings, housing shops with carpentry tools and automotive equipment. There was also a huge parade ground that before the war must have been several soccer fields. Now it was filled with tanks. He had arrived in the middle of an unscheduled church service. The tall, ascetic priest stood on the parade ground surrounded by the men of the regiment.

He was preaching on the possibilities and problems of human life that in their own situation came down to the simple essentials of survival.

“Yet even so we are not allowed to forget that the divine intention for us was the realization that we exist for higher ends even amidst fighting and enduring this war,” he said. “Jesus sees us. This ‘seeing’ means much more than the way we see each other, or the way we search for our enemies to kill them before they kill us. Jesus sees us as he saw the man who had been blind since birth and could not see Him. This story is about God’s transforming grace. Because Jesus sees us we are able to see Him. Saint John wrote:  ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.'”

It was getting darker. Standing at the edge of the throng he shivered. The temperature had dropped several degrees. On Friday the twenty-sixth, the day after tomorrow he’d be twenty-one provided an aerial bombardment didn’t kill him in the meantime or if somebody’s automatic weapon didn’t turn him into a many-holed Trappist cheese while he was on his way to the military hospital at the intersection of Vladimiriskaya and Kalinin Streets. Perhaps he shouldn’t have asked Lybed to meet him there. It might be too dangerous. That was where Shanie Szentvari was shot by the partisans the other day.  They had graduated  from the National Military Academy together. Shanie had served with the 101st Towed Artillery Battalion stationed thirty kilometers from Kiev.

“We are praying in the midst of war in a place many of us never knew existed. Death is our close companion making the crucifixion the reality of  a triumphant conquest over evil in order that man might recognize the heart of God, and that God might get through to the heart of man. This is our only Redemption.” The priest halted for a moment then raised his arm.

“May the almighty and merciful Lord grant us pardon, absolution and remission of our sins this night and ever more. Amen.”

                                                             

* * * * * *

 

On Thursday September the twenty-fifth at 0400 hours a general alarm sounded for the 30th Tank Regiment. HQ gave them two hours to move out. The situation in Kursk had deteriorated.

He woke up not able to think straight as if with a hangover. He had slept in his father’s brown, white-dotted dressing-gown for good luck and because it gave him a sense of sophistication. It was not till he was fully dressed with his carbine in his hands  listening to the tank engines being revved up  that he remembered Lybed.  He didn’t know the name of her  street, or her address, there was no way he could contact her.  He only knew how to pronounce her name correctly: Lybed Osipnova Lihoded. Lybed Osipnova Lihoded. Disappearing now like a migrating bird sensing the onslaught of  snow would negate even the few hours that they had spent together. She would wait for him tomorrow afternoon but by the evening he would have become a brief, sad memory of a time when the Nazis and some of their allies occupied Kiev. Her grandmother would remind her that she had already predicted this outcome but  would comfort her never-the-less.

What comfort for you? Long forgotten/ Amidst the storms of new emotions,/It will not offer to your soul/Pure and tender memories.

“Lieutenant,” a red-faced angry major was yelling at him. “Wake up and get on with it.”

Standing in the turret of the Panzer Kampfwagen IV he inhaled the familiar, homey smells of his tank and felt the reassuring throb of the engine. This was reality. The future that did not exist couldn’t hurt him. Nobody had promised him a twenty-first birthday party.

By the time they reached the park to become a part of the merry-go-round there was enough light for him to see the bench with the sawed-off back where yesterday, a lifetime ago they had sat facing each other.

But on a silent day of sorrow,/Speak my name in your grief. Just say: /There is a memory of me, there is /In the world a heart in which I live.

  

Translations by D. M. Thomas

Lawrence Dorr teaches creative writing at Santa Fe Community College in Gainsville, Florida. His most recent book is A Bearer of Divine Revleation: New and Selected Stories (Eerdmans, 2003)