– Go ahead, get the lowest marks and you will be working in the mine, nowhere else! – instructed Uncle Victor gesticulating away. His face reddened a bottle of vodka was finished off. – "That was my case, mind you."
Sandie liked Uncle Victor, when the latter was stewed, and could not understand why Aunt Nadia, his wife, scolded him in that condition, because in vinosity he was milder and more cheerful.
However, if he went on a spree he could knock down a month’s pay, but then again, what do they need money for? What could they buy?
Potatoes they grow by themselves, hens feed and lay eggs, as for lemo it could be easily bought from Aunt Nadia’s pay of a typewriter.
Besides, what‘s the alternative to a mine? Worst marks or best marks, the jobs are not thousand and one in the town.
A small town, a handful of five-storey buildings with typical Soviet tessellated images of dove of peace on the gable façade and inner suburbs with winding lanes: all lived to provide service to the mine number 5/6. All arrays of life swirled and tied together in one point.
Philosophers cognize the meaning of existence and search for predestination. But is there anything to cognize? In the beginning was the mine and methane spirit was floating above the ground. Then light separated from darkness.
And God built a mine, where the entrance in the nether world lies, where up to this day darkness reigns and it is separated from light only by minutes of cage travel.
And God saw that it was not good. But where is good after all? What’s the use of getting this for that?
And there’s no point in cognizing the meaning of existence: you are born to render services to the mine. Whereas the mine offers service to you: gives you wages – advance and balance. And this is Love. Amen.
The mine was always present in life: both in halcyon childhood and in long-gone youth.
For example, your granny invites you to the table, offers you a bowl of borsch, cuts a piece of bread, whereas you gaze out of the window and see spoil tips and derricks.
You go to school, a moulding two-storey building, and walk by the mine yard, over the rails and carts.
Unnecessary adolescence ensues, your voice breaks, you drag a girl next door in the bushes and roughly press her head down holding her back of the neck and setting the pace, whereas phallic pile drivers tower above the filthy existence and the wheels roll.
The mine always sees you, be it in the bushes or in bed. It is always the third essence under the blankets. Or even the first, because who are we, silly creatures, before God and humans?
You cannot run away from the mine. You may dream of going to America seen in the movies or at least to Donetsk, but these desires soon die down. Where would you run? Here is our mine, our fate, our fathers and grandfathers, as well as coal soot.
Childhood goes away, together with the children’s magazine “Mourzilka”, which goes in exile first to the attic in a moldering suitcase, then as kindling material for a stove.
A collection of “Turbo” and “Bombibom” is thrown into the writing desk drawer. Only the poster of a girl remains: bathing suit with glitter and hair permed to whiteness. The black-and-white photo of Bruce Lee with nunchaku bought in a news stall. The superhero’s cheek bears scratches from a dragon’s paw.
Grandma Lyola, my grandfather’s sister, once asked what year it was and after being answered, raised the eyebrows: “As late as that? And it seems 1945 was not long ago.”
What is more, she had a funny death. Got up early, as usual; her husband, old Maksimych, was a no-walker by that time. Set about daily chores. Gave food to hens and swine.
Then sat on a bench in the kitchen to peel carrots… and died. With a carrot and knife in her hands.
High and vocational school years had passed, and something went pitapat inside, when Sandie first appeared at his work: the sawmill at the mine. Uncle Victor took trouble to get it.
They were sawing wooden struts supporting the mine galleries. And sold some wood clandestinely on the side.
Mikhalych, in horn-rims and blue overalls, puffed away at roll-up cigarette and filled us in: “Our sawmill is fucking techy, so keep your fingers off” – and he waved his right hand before Sandie’s face with missing third and little fingers.
When Sandie got down to work, he understood what Mikhalych was talking about. The sawmill was really techy: an unliftable cradle of postwar production.
It was evidently welded from available material without sufficient craft, and thus the wheel of the table saw was mounted awkwardly, therefore when you put a plank in position and push it towards Mikhalych you have to steer it with your right hand. The table is long, and to make it possible for Mikhalych to grasp the plank on the opposite side and pull it, already half-split in two, you have to push it with sufficient force and in straight direction.
And when you steer it, the fingers of the right hand may get under the teeth at any moment.
The clatter is terrible, the mill screeches, when the saw runs into a knot, and on top of that, the disgusting smell of scorch spreads over the shop.
Thus, you draw a plank out of the pile, drop it flatways on the table. Grasp it with your left hand under the edge, and push it to the saw steering with your right hand.
The evil deity with sharp tongue sucks the plank spitting the chip around.
You’re scared to thrust your hand into the chaps, but Mikhalych shouts to you: “Sandie, son of a bitch, push the plank smoothly!” He pronounced “plank” with a special local worker’s accent. As a matter of fact, there was no shortage of modes of speech in the area, some of them very picturesque: with Southern intonation, Ukrainian bizarrerie or Russian roughness.
Curses were thick as fog, Sandy gradually got accustomed. The hand went ever closer to the teeth and bad language slightly abated.
Mikhalych worked as if in a trance, became a robot, who rhythmically and tirelessly pulls the planks.
Once Sandie plunged into reverie and immediately an attention-grabbing stunt ensued: the saw ripped several threads off the glove at one centimeter from the fingers.
Mikhalych vomited abuse: “Quit goofing off, you asshole! Just try to be away here and you’ll lose your fucking flipper in a wink!”
Time disappeared. The world turned into rhythmic tides and ebbs: plank, cradle, screech of the saw, chip, Mikhalych. Plank, cradle, screech, chip, Mikhalych. Plank, cradle, screech, chip, Mikhalych.
When the lunch bell suddenly burst into the hellish meditation, its unexpectedness was like Archangel Gabriel’s trumpet, only signaling the reverse motion: from the judgement to liberty, from Golgotha to the light.
The clatter grew lower, a sunny day outside the shop struck with its silence and grace. Early spring came to the southern lands; snow remained only as blackish lumps, birds chirped, sparse trees had first paly foliage.
Spoon scratched against the bowl. Monotonous work arouse ravenous appetite.
His hot food container was quickly empty, Mikhalych luckily had grub enough and to spare and shared with me.
Sandie was expecting scolding but Mikhalych unexpectedly praised him grudgingly; “It’s OK, you’ll get used”.
Sandie was silent for a while, and then opened his mouth for a question, but Mikhalych was already answering: “I know the mill is lousy. The bastard, who made it, should be put on this table himself, shit!” – and he waded in a long series of incoherent curses, spitting and shoving a gage in his mouth.
“Suppose you change it or whatever?”
“Fuck no! D’ye think we did not complain? Wrote a fucking bunch of letters thick as “War and Peace”. They don’t give a flying fuck, those screwballs, just promise jam tomorrow!” – and again a string of thick four letter words ensued.
They stayed sitting for a while. Had a smoke and spat on the ground. A bird dropped a generous piece of shit nearby.
“Stop shooting the breeze”– said Mikhalych brushing the dust from his bottom. – “Let’s go, as the songs run: march ahead, hear the clarion call, eaglets learn to fly, to make a fairy tale come true, ugh-ugh-ugh!...” – and he fancifully coughed with long-lasting, broken rale.
The saw screeched again and planks moved into the chasm of the sharp-tonged monster. The monster was insatiable until evening, when the daylight was failing.
The tedious shifts followed each other afresh. Five days a week.
Weekends consisted in angling, outdoor smoking at the house and sour beer.
He got married. Brought his wife into the small room he lived in, where a mine lamp was looking at the marital bed through a little window.
In daytime, he diligently fed the screeching monster. In the evening, he was diligently fed.
Acquired certain manners of his dad: raise voice and crack a quarter-liter bottle of vodka on holiday.
Natasha also followed her mother… in width.
Sometimes strange fantasies, thoughts and visions haunted his dreams.
One dream was especially frequent: cryptic and catatonic.
He closes his eyes again and again and sees himself going across the yard, to the backside of summer kitchen to where there is an orchard and a cabinet with bottles of cooking gas. And there is another passage at the cabinet, with another door.
He opens this second door and discovers a manhole, which leads somewhere in the basement, and the air that comes from there is warm, even hot, damp and salty, like that on the Azov Sea, in Urzuf, where he had once been in his childhood with his dad.
And mild light shimmers from there. Sandie penetrates there, nips in and gets stuck. Tries to wriggle way further, squeeze inside, where light opalizes from tourmaline to emerald, but he cannot do it.
He desperately twitches, sometimes even childishly sobs and at that moment usually wakes up: the alarm clock goes off or Natasha gives him a poke in the ribs: “Hey, zinger, calm down, you’re too peppy! Go back to sleep!”
But the dream became a frequent visitor. Haunts him without mercy.
And, strangely enough, it became the only genuine thing in life, the dearest and most valuable. Actually a silly dream, but heart-pounding for some reason.
Once he dreamed to have almost entirely shimmied down. And felt light and tender hands to stroke him and pull on, to caress and lull, and it was as sweet and happily as it was bitter after waking up.
It was still dark morning, when he came to the cabinet in the summer kitchen, where “propane-butane” was stenciled in red paint and where a red pipe went through the window to the stove.
He got down to his knees and groped about the wall in faltering hope: what if it’s not a dream? What if it’s true?
But it was quite common wall with the scaled off ochre paint.
Very often, a sort of silent reflection seized him, withdrawal, thick and irksome, so much so that hails did not come home to him.
But if in his house he could sink into this silent reverie, spotting an opportunity, at work Mikhalych’s angry bark was immediately heard: “Hey, think fast, you fucker!”
And again, the plank was thrown into insatiable monster’s chasm. Plank, cradle, screech, chip, Mikhalych. Plank, cradle, screech, chip, Mikhalych.
And one more thing Sandie had noted: as soon he starts daydreaming, plunge into distraction, at times even before Mikhalych shouts at him, the saw grasps his glove again, fear and real terror hangs upon him, because the hand is jerked towards the teeth in a split second, until you snatch it away.
A couple of times threads were plucked out of the glove and that helped to discard the sleepy obsession. The planks flew into the chasm with more fury. When will it have enough, idol?!
The idol, horrible front of Baal, without face but with a chasm, could never have enough. This work filled with despair, then with apathetic indifference.
It was getting along with apathetic indifference: he got used to the mill, knew where he had to stand, the way he had to feed the plank and thrust it into the teeth, jerking back the hand at a hazardous moment.
A year passed in this manner. Something happened during this period, but it seemed that nothing happened.
Only the monotonous, strange recurring dream was a secret escape. Everything lost its meaning, he only hoped the night to come and the dream come again, if he was lucky. It was the anguish of sweet rendezvous.
Each time he crossed the yard to the strange door. Flung it wide open, wedged himself in the narrow space. Squirmed centimeter after centimeter, slackening the brick-hard muscles, and each time he seemed to move further.
When the dream came again, he used to start from the previously achieved point: the tunnel into the unknown. He had a sparkling expectancy that someday he would definitely squeeze in somebody’s warm, tight and tender embrace.
Another spring came. April had drenched away.
That evening especially stuck in memory: a yellow lamp was lit on the veranda and a TV set was talking.
Dinnerware clanked in the china closet, when someone walked past on the insecure painted floorboards.
Warm and good smell of pasties came from the oven.
He was going to bed with a strange, ethereal, almost New Year’s magic feeling: in anticipation of miracles. Those to live up to.
An enchanting dream was expected. But it did not come.
He dreamt of stepping over the threshold into the yard. It was night, the first insects skitted and danced in the air, and stuck to the face, whereas higher in the sky something was droningly rustling as if birds flew bating their huge wings.
But no birds were seen in the darkness; whereas rustling was generated by some vaguely felt irregular cables, which streamed in the sky as a continuous wave.
Sandy lifted the torch closely to one of the cables and found out it was not a cable at all. It was a long, thick and fleshy serpent.
Its head was cut off and there was a red circle in its place, as a cross section of blood sausage.
Its tail was also cut off with a bloody cross section instead.
And these concatenated headless serpent carcasses flew across the sky. They flew and flew. Rustled and rustled. Only red cut off circles glimpsed in the failing light.
Blistering cold flogged him from within. He dashed to the gas cabinet: there was no door.
There was a common cabinet. Scarlet, painted, “propane-butane”.
He wanted to wake up but could not. Pinched himself and felt pain.
And suddenly he understood it was not a dream. He sat on his hunkers at the cabinet in the night as dark as pitch with trousers and shirt scrambled into.
They did not go to the privy at night: it was too far, and they eased nature in a pail at the veranda.
However, it is cold at the veranda and they had to fling something on anyway, thus he found himself dressed in that way, and did his doings as well, as he came to remember, but a lisp outside attracted his attention. He ventured out to have a look.
He felt his legs faltering and squinted into the dark – there were no serpents. And no lisp, except the usual sounds. The lamp on the mine was rhythmically flickering.
He turned back to bed on rubbery legs and gave a push to Natasha. He was lying with torpid head listening to his parents’ wheezing snore.
Morning found him fallen in drowsiness soon followed by the alarm clock sound.
He got up, had breakfast and fixed his lunch pack. He went to work marching through old Shalenchikha’s veg patch, through apple trees with staking.
The day started as usual. Plank, cradle, screech, chip, Mikhalych.
The body trained for the job was turning as if on hinges, plopping planks on the flat table and fiddling with them with learned manipulations.
They paused for lunch. He thrust flaccid sandwiches in his mouth, opened a jar with halušky.
The shift continued as usual. Plank, cradle, screech, chip, Mikhalych.
Distraction came on again and again. And the thoughts were so deep as ocean waves, so that the objective material reality given us in our sensations was late to come: something crackled, as if you grasped a bunch of dry autumn leaves, and something hot burned.
A hard knot did not splinter from one push of the plank and the hand automatically thrust the plank with more force and right into the teeth.
The glove crumpled and a splash of deep-read gean color landed on the aromatic resinous plank.
Dexterous Mikhalych was already stopping the machine.
The glove stuck in the kerf. The hand went out with three fingers; two remained inside. Third and little fingers.
He had to feel pain but he did not. That is, it was certainly unpleasant, but not too much. For some reason a thought was going round in my head: “They will fix it back”. Science makes tremendous progress nowadays; TV showed there are already robots in Japan.
They led him somewhere. They passed workshops, and yards, and finally arrived in small room with a tired doctor and the smell of carbolic acid.
And at that particular moment, he felt such pain as though he was scalded! Jesus, how it hurts! How devilish it is!
God had mercy on him: he was knocked out. Then regained consciousness in a while. Then lost it again.
Something was happening after that, but by strange reason, his mind retained nothing. He was not sure of anything, he probably travelled somewhere in a minibus. Or maybe he was not.
Tight bandage was applied. Someone was saying something, but in a language, which seemed a foreign gibberish. Like a movie without translation.
Days merged into a black spot.
The time waxed on. He certainly had a compensatory leave with pay.
He stayed at home for a while. In the family, someone called him cack-handed, certain women took pity, but generally, it soon ceased to be a novelty.
The sawmill was a talk of the town, many men left their fingers there. Now Sandi was just the member of the club and there was no use to discuss it again.
Some fresh paperwork was done with requests to change the machine, but things remained as they had been.
At first, he burned with rage, then morbid weakness ensued, when you could just relax and have some additional sleep: because who would frown at a cripple?
There were no dreams. The head was just laid on a pillow and drowsiness followed.
Only once a feverish thought pierced the brain like a needle: what happened to my fingers? To those left in the glove stuck in the kerf.
The thought was so unexpected and scalding that he jumped from the bed, dressed himself and went along the empty Sunday street to Mikhalych, who lived four houses away.
Mikhalych stepped out in knee-deep boxers all sleepy. He answered the question laconically and tartly: “What do we do with your fucking fingers? Just chucked them out”.
“Chucked them out?”
“Sure as shit. And what, gotta feast eyes on them?” – he smacked his three-fingered hand down on his hip.
Sandie went home. And again, something went pitapat inside as on his first working day, but quickly died away. A cold, somnific and nipping jelly had spread across the body with anesthetic effect.
The body became cold and empty as a pail. Unnecessary, insipid spring was marching along the street.
The page had been turned. Something was lost forever.
Someone died but it was impossible to remember who was it?
The dream with a door did not come anymore. The hand had healed.
The disability leave was coming to an end. The fingers ceased to be a high-interest topic.
One evening they were at the table drinking tea with raspberry jam. His dad felt like telling dirty jokes. Mom scolded him, Natasha was laughing loudly. He joined her a couple of times.
They did not linger too long. Had to go to bed and be up early to head to work.