And again, I did not have the heart to refuse. The liquid went in clumsily. The endeavor to check vomiting burned the tongue and sini.
I frantically reached for the flimsy plastic bottle of cheap lemonade. Sticky sweet water ran along the burnt throat as if on a fresh wound.
That was one year after Yanov hanged himself. We found the grave surprisingly quickly at the large Old Cemetery in Astrakhan, where we arrived in the morning after two days and one night in train.
A year ago, nothing boded ill. It was a usual day in the student house of the Moscow University.
It makes part of a common quarter of five-storey buildings without balconies, a characteristic feature of a dorm.
The smell of rank butter, washing powder and carpenter’s glue reigned there. It was the period of freewheeling student fellowship, when we thought that time would never tell on anything and even after hundred years we would be united under studentship banner, would still be as thick as thieves, busy with important young problems and daring adventures.
Three monitors stood next to each other with around them a chaotic realm of printed circuits, wires and system units. It was not clear whether there were three computers or ten, or one Firedrake with three heads.
We were playing “worms”, supporters crowded around the players.
Someone was slurping bear from a bottle. Another one was giving incomprehensible helpful hints having crammed bologna sandwich into mouth.
Yanov entered the room and seeing the play going asked:”Oh let me play!”
“Wait a bit, later!” – Vlad waved off clicking like mad.
Yanov was following the play for a while then softly left the room.
He hanged himself that same evening. Just went to the deserted small space at the fire-escape staircase and threw a stray piece of rope over a pipe running under the ceiling.
Due to convulsions caused by asphyxia the gut contents was squeezed to the floor.
And that was the way a group of lads found him, when they came for a smoke.
We were busy with the “worms” and knew about what happened after quite a while. By that time the police and doctors arrived, the staircase was cordoned off and the lookie-loos were held in check.
The corpse was taken off, put in the sack and unobtrusively carried away.
There was no criminal lead. Suicide was confirmed. Then they sent the body to his parents in Astrakhan.
We did not see Yanov dead and now we came to his grave.
On the photo, he was as we remembered him: a youngster having meager, long, odd-eyed and a bit shapeless face. Moustache, small beard and untamable ear locks.
The photo had a strange feature. At any angle there was an impression Yanov looks you right in the eye. And he follows you, when you pass from side to side.
The idea of Yanov to be dead did not gain ground in our heads during that year. It still looked like a grotesque dream, and it seemed he would at any moment drop in our room, say hello and we would greet him in response, as if nothing happened: “Hi, stranger!”
But Yanov did not drop in. Was not seen in a corridor or in lecture room. Did not phone. Did not plug away in the library preparing for term exams.
His bed was occupied by Shamil, a Russian guy with blue eyes, whose parents spent their entire life in the Caucasus and chose the name for their son according to their own particular motivation.
Shamil was a sociable and agreeable person, but by some strange reason, I had no such friendship with him as with a difficult, inconsequent, visionary Yanov. We were on good terms, not more.
Shamil had removed the posters above the bed, and only a casserole left by Yanov in the kitchen reminded of him. And even that got leaky and disappeared.
Why? What was the reason?
Of course, these two questions gnawed at us.
Was it because we did not let him play “worms”? That would be stupid.
Had he unspoken-of problems? But there was nothing unusual in his behavior.
Of course, he was sometimes sulky, but not more.
He did well in studies. The money sent from home was enough. Sometimes he picked up a side job.
His appetite was good. He did not suffer from insomnia: snored like mad and even had to be dug in the ribs at night.
He had no girl friend, but there was an impression he liked computers more and spent his whole time with them.
He had no serious reason for suicide. Nevertheless, on that October evening he did go to that accursed staircase and did stick his neck out.
Why did he choose the staircase by the way? The place was visited to a degree and he could be interrupted in the process. It was more by chance that he did accomplish it.
Where did he get the rope? Nobody saw it before that.
And then again, if he planned to kill himself, why did he leave the exercise book with the unfinished homework on the bedside table?
A string of blasted riddles.
The atmosphere at the grave was foolish, as if it was not a mourning visit at all. Yanov was a full-fledged participant of the booze-party organized at his last resting place, solely he did not speak, but he was always close-tonged anyway.
We, the four students, who came to his tomb, reached for bread and sausages, chatted as though Yanov was among us, alive and palpable.
We left a full cup for him before we went away. And a cigarette, though he did not smoke.
On the way back I had a persisting feeling there was something amiss. Something abnormal. Something cryptic: frightful and alarming.
And though you do not yet see this frightful and alarming matter, it does not mean it does not exist. And it will not get at us. Something that has taken away Yanov, might take away us: myself, Vlad and the rest.
I had to outstrip it somehow. His death was not unavailing. He wanted to warn us, but had no time. Or just could not. Or thought that his death would be more illuminating than any explanation.
We spent the night at his parents.
Nikolai Vasilyevich was a stoutish, baldish and do-good pushover, in thick glasses, which magnified his eyes to a grotesque look. Natalya Viktorovna, a brunette, who dyed her hair to camouflage grayness, ostensibly well mannered and regular, but with an inherent tinge of hypocrisy.
There was a sympathy meal. The first five minutes were bitter, but then all became disgusting, because of ceremonial, concatenated razzmatazz with no end and I suddenly realized they were not talking of Yanov. They meant quite another person, probably invented by them.
But that invented man was not their son. Their son was different and thus, they don’t seem to have known him.
My companions supported those lies and were catering to the parents.
They were helping us to fried liver. It was fat-laden and had a nasty waft.
I told several times I had had enough, but the host did not seem to notice: continued to empty the pan into my plate together with bacon crisps.
Bread stuck in my throat like a piece of cotton wool.
Then they drew out vodka. And again, I could not say no.
I almost puked; don’t know how I managed to keep it down.
We returned to Moscow. The usual life was going on in the dorm. Only without Yanov. Нe was remembered less and less.
Nevertheless, after two years we came to visit the grave again on the day of death. But not all of us.
In three years, I was alone to come.
The studies were winding down. Friends started their jobs, families and acquired first positional goods.
There were times, when you entered somebody’s room and a merry crowd gathered about you. Now this ease has gone.
I remember one of the last boozy sessions. It so happened that everybody had ready cash and there was no need to borrow peanuts to tide one over until scholarship payday. There was plenty of bub and grub.
But something from previous life was lacking. Drive and dash there were no more.
A new category seemed to appear, the category of prospects, category of future – and it immediately took something off. Something strange, intangible, imperceptible but very, very important. Something that would not come back. Something that could be buried but not reborn.
Adolescent illusions had vanished and it suddenly became clear that they were the most valuable.
Vodka was poured out and I drank it. I almost learned to do it without shiver.
Another portion was offered – wrong timing kills the pleasure – and I swallowed that as well.
General hubbub was heard around. Someone was boasting of new mobile phone. Someone was discussing hardware.
Glasses were filled for the third time and I suddenly realized that I did not have to drink this funky yuck. I may refuse. And I did.
The pourer, hitherto unknown to me, an unpleasant flaxen-haired fellow with hot ears and sickly-red cheeks, suddenly started an aggressive braggadocio.
I did not discern the exact words. Something like “not a mucho guy” and “no respect for old buddies”.
I stood up, took the cup and looked at the whity chap.
The tight bag of years-long wrath within me burst open. I lost my hearing. And speech. The world was going dark before my eyes.
I had only one way out of that terrible cocoon.
I only saw somebody’s hand strike immediately shrunk fellow in the face. The strike was grotesque, slow and clumsy, as if in a dream. As if in an old mute film.
The fellow falls down. Falls awkwardly, gracelessly, jerking his arms and legs as a clown in the circus show.
Still deafened, I work my way from behind the table, knocking vodka over. It flows between the salads along the PVC table cloth.
Still deafened, I go along the corridors. Still deafened I step out into the cold December evening.
There is nobody around. It is gently snowing. I follow the lane, on either side of which the diligent janitors dumped barricades of snow.
I go along and suddenly the lane starts blurring in my eyes and yellow street lamps smear and tremble.
Meanwhile the throat produces sickening, bubbling sounds, as if I am a bird with a cobweb in its throat. As if I have a poignant lump inside and am unable to hawk it up.
I stroke my fist over the face to brush away the water running down my cheeks.
Then I notice that the back of my hand and the knuckles dimly seen in the failing December light, are all red. Improbably red, almost scarlet, just as fake blood in Bollywood movies.
And only at that moment I guess who’s was the hand, which knocked down the whity pourer.
I stand on the lane and know for sure that I am cold, but do not feel the frost.
I look at the windows of the neighboring dorm, where I got to, and see the yellow light, cheap electroliers forming the light spots on the yellow ceilings, the edges of bookshelves.
Someone has aloe on the windowsill. Others had hung fairy lights.
And quite unexpectedly, I realize what killed Yanov. Why he went to the staircase. And what really happened.
And understand that nobody could save him then. And he couldn’t be able to explain what calls him there, in the yellow circle, into nothingness and in the tangle. What exactly was taking his soul.
In the same way, I am unable to explain it now.
The yellow light in one of the windows becomes a symbol of everything most frightful, most sinister, immemorial and horrible. Primal unconquerable evil.
Yes, unconquerable. But, maybe at least postponed.
A bottle left on the curb meets my eye. I swing my arm and throw the bottle at the window. The glass allegedly on the third floor breaks with a dry crack and drops on the lower windowsills with a clink.
A terrified cry follows. A head with tousled hair appears in the broken window and yells: “Hey! What’er doing, you fucking idiot!”
Looks like my sensibility comes back. I hear. And I see again, only the smeared blood contracts the cheeks.
And I seem to tremble all over from cold.
The battered knuckles on the right hand ache. I press a lump of snow to them and wobble away.
Next thing I puked. First I harfed the stomach contents until I had nothing to throw out. Only bile was being extorted, but the diaphragm still contracted like a spring.
After a long while, I happened to be in Astrakhan again and went to the Old Cemetery. But did not find Yanov’s grave.
This municipal cemetery overgrew with reed tall as two or three men.
It was a treeless, monotonous space with graves, disappearing over the horizon and intersected by gas pipes.
The reed had got hold of the graves, lanes and garbage left around.
Several times I thought I recognized certain leads but each time they were false.
Yanov, whose secret I now knew, was against our meeting.
I sat on a bench within the fence of a random grave on my way.
“Paramoshkin Ghennady Semyonovich” was buried there. The photo showed a nondescript face. Brush of moustache. Bleary eyes.
Nobody passed there for many years.
The grave was surrounded by reed, which covers the low parts of the Volga downstream valley and is the real king of the area. And sooner or later harbors everything.
I had merged with the bench, where a sat. And ceased to be. I resigned to the rustle of reed listening to its chirring voice.
Ghennady Semyonovich Paramoshkin became the closest one for me at that moment. I hardly remembered the former existence of a certain Sergey Yanov, who brought me here.
Now, wait a minute: what Sergey? He was not Sergey at all. And who, then? Igor? No. Victor? No.
And who the deuce?
I did not manage to remember.
After a while, I stood up to go and split in two. One part of me remained on the bench. The other was looking at it from above.
Our entire life is a chain of deaths. Every day everything we touch dies. The world dies every day. And I die every day.
I die and morph into earth, water and air.
I slough in ash, and my ash is sucked by reed together with water. That is why it reigns in the cemetery: it has stuff to feed on.
I stood up and marched back to the Old Cemetery through the reeds.
The stack of electric station were regularly spitting puffs of smoke. The smoke was floating for a while in the blue sky, and then disappeared. Forever.
As I marched, a part of me remained on that bench. And is sitting there up to now, but you can’t struggle your way to the spot: the reeds have devoured the path.
I had made it to the more civilized part of the cemetery.
In several minutes, I was riding in a violently groaning share taxi.
“Would you mind to pass may fare to the driver?” – asked a pretty, slim Kazakh girl holding out a handful of coins.
I did as I was told and tossed my head discharging the obsession.
The reeds were whispering on both sides of the dusty road.
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