The Crown of Professor Kozarin

by Kir Bulychev

It was already getting dark when I got off the train. It was one of those endless drizzling rains outside, as it was already the beginning of fall, although it was still a long way until the actual fall. Perhaps, I wished for the fall to come sooner and then I could forget about the night train, the platform and the path through the woods. Usually it all happens automatically. You sit in the first car of a subway, because it's closer to the exit of the station from there, you take the ticket in the last ticket window in order to save twenty steps to the train; you rush to the third car from the end because it stops next to the steps that lead to a path. You get off the path near the double pine, because if you go straight, across the birch grove, you gain another hundred and twenty steps—everything is measured hundred times during a month. The length of the road depends on how heavy your bag is today.

It was raining, and when the train left and it grew quiet, I could hear drops of rain knocking on the leaves. The place was deserted, as if the train took away the last people in the world, and I was here all alone. I went down the stairs to the paved road and walked around the puddle as I did thousands of times before. I heard my steps and thought that those steps are older than me. Maybe I got tired and my life was not going the way I wanted it to.

I was returning so late because I dropped by Valya's aunt for the blue light lamp for Kostik. Only in the fourth pharmacy that I visited was I finally able to get a bottle of hips syrup. Then I had to buy three bottles of lemonade for Raisa Pavlovna; all this is not including sausage, cheese and other products—200 grams here, 300 grams there—thus a bag of about 10 kg accumulated, and it felt like putting it under the pine tree and forgetting about it.

I got off the paved road and went straight along the path through the birch grove. The path was slippery, one had to guess its course in the darkness to avoid tripping over the roots.

I am ready to do the shopping and then, almost for an hour, be jolted in the train, providing there was a sense in all of that, but there was no sense, the same way as there was no sense in many things that I did. Sometimes I thought about time. We are married for one and a half years. And Kostik would soon be seven months, he already understands something. And so, on the one hand, these one and a half years started just yesterday, and I still remember everything that happened then, but on the other hand, they are also the longest one and a half years of my life. It was one life before, and now it is another. And this one is ending as well, because, apparently, a person dies more than once, and, in order to continue living and remain a person, one cannot procrastinate, cannot slack; one needs to decide once and for all. And start anew.

Finally I did slip, almost fell and could hardly catch the blue light lamp. I felt water in my right shoe, I was going to drop by shoe repair, but of course, didn't have time. When I entered the village, I could walk faster here under the street lights. Behind a fence, a white mongrel was running back and forth, barking and chocking with hatred. At least, there were some feelings here. There is nothing worse when all the feelings are gone and you are simply ignored. Well, not entirely: everything stays in the limits of normal, the appearance remains, they feed you, sew your buttons on, and even ask if you didn't forget to drop by shoe repair to have the right shoe fixed. Otherwise, it's too easy to catch a cold. That train of thought is clear: if I get sick, who is going to bring the purchases from Moscow.

Kozarin's dacha is second from the left, and you can see light on the terrace behind the bushes. There, Raisa is seating and sweating over an accounting book where she records all her expenses and proceeds. In my entire life I've never seen another person who regarded money more seriously. At first it amazed me that Valentina, who used to be carefree and cheerful, could get along with her. Maybe soon she will also get an accounting book and line it up by days and hours?

We rented this dacha because Valentina's aunt had found it. The dacha was old, squeaky and grayish from the outside. Previously, this dacha belonged to Professor Kozarin. However, when he died three years ago, his niece Raisa, who was his only relative, inherited it. All things that previously belonged to Professor, Raisa stuffed in the garage. As if she wanted to cross him out not only from life, but even from memory. I don't know if she ever had a husband, but she didn't have any children for sure. She didn't like Kostik and if not for their friendship with Valentina, me and Kostik would've had a hard time. The dacha wasn't big: two rooms and a terrace. That's without counting the kitchen and the garage. Raisa would've been happy to rent everything, but she had to keep a room for herself: she planted a garden and it needed care. As tenants we didn't suit Raisa well, but she had no choice: the dacha was too far from the station and from Moscow, and there were no stores or other kinds of civilization nearby, whereas the price Raisa asked for was as high as if it was a castle in Nice. As a result, being too choosy, Raisa was left with nothing. So, she had to be satisfied with us.

I bent over the fence, threw back the latch and went home following the slippery path and bending my head to avoid touching lilac bushes and getting cold shower for it. Raisa was sitting at the desk, only this time not with the accounting book, but with her favorite reading, a pharmaceutic manual. In response to my "hello" she only said:

"Having fun again?"

I would've liked to fling at her the three bottles of lemonade, the way one would throw grenades, but I only put them all in a row in front of her:

"Ah, yes, thank you," she said absent-mindedly.

I imagined that's the same way the English queen probably talked to her servant who brought her ice-cream. At that moment Valentina came in and put on a happy face as a reaction to my coming:

"I already started to worry!"

She could probably find some other greeting and everything would've ended peacefully but, unlike others, I knew that she was not worrying, but was blissfully knitting or taking a nap in a warm room, while I was dragging myself here thinking that summer would end soon and so will her prison on this dacha, and she would finally meet her prince. But maybe she wasn't even thinking about that. She lives in a tranquil, calm, growing state, and comes out of it only because of her hostility towards me.

"I was having fun", it was interesting to observe her reaction, "we drank with Semyonov, afterwards watched hockey."

Valentina smiled skeptically and glanced me over with a condescending contempt. She didn't put any makeup on her eyes, so her look remained cold. And I was standing and learning to hate those thin fingers, indifferently resting on the table, and the lock of hair behind her small ear. That school is a hard one—it's much easier to hate yourself.

"You are tired, my dear," said Valentina, "Spent a lot of time in lines?"

"I told you: I was drinking with Semyonov!"

How badly I wanted to exasperate her, so she would lose her control and out would come her true, evil and indifferent self.

"Strange," creaked Raisa, "a young man from a nice family. . . "

"What do you care for my family!"

And I immediately pictured to myself how they are giggling with Valentina, while my wife is telling her how my father forbade me to marry Valentina. He said: "You haven't earned a penny in your life and you now want me to support you and your wife? Afterwards, looking back at the past, I realized that Valentina counted on our apartment, on father's salary and on calm life. Because as soon as my father said that, she started to back out. Skillfully she disguised her thoughts with worry about my institute: "You have to study, your plans to quit institute, drop out of the second year, work and rent an apartment wouldn't stand the hardships. It will be very hard for us." She performed her part brilliantly. She had nothing to loose, maybe just a bed in a dorm. With her looks, she could choose a better apartment than ours. And there were other candidates, I know that.

The first three or four months it seemed there were no walls between us. Valentina worked, I worked, we found a room and I switched to evening classes without much trouble. But then she became pregnant with Kostik, left work, and when Kostik came into the world, hard times began indeed. For her as well. At some point she still counted on my reconciliation with my father, for my own sake, as she used to say, so that we don't have to pay for the room and don't need to wait until the landlady gets tired of night concerts that Kostik gave and asks us to leave. But I was stubborn. At that time I started to guess about her game, or rather, of her losing it, but I was still hoping for something.

"I don't care about your family," said Raisa pursing her lips. "I mean the other family."

Another words, she does care about my family -- this family. A good standard alliance between two hyenas against a rabbit.

"How is Kostik?" I asked, in order not to start a fight.

"He is asleep," said Valentina and pursed her lip, the same way Raisa did it. Valentina easily falls under someone else's influence.

Raisa stood up, gathered up the bottles and pressing them to her breast with a book, crawled to her room. In fact, she rented out her terrace to us, and she was getting money for it, but she preferred spending time there anyway.

I looked into Kostik's room. My son was sleeping and I straightened up his blanket. Kostik didn't look like anyone, therefore, those who wanted to do something pleasant for me assured me that he is my copy, whereas Valentina's aunts and friends liked to repeat: "Valya, what a likeness! Your nose, your mouth! Your ears!"

They say it's bad for a child to grow up without father. It would be nice, when we get a divorce, that Valentina leaves Kostik with me. I knew that my mother would agree to get me back with a son. She loves him. She is one of those, who consider Kostik to be my copy. Valentina doesn't need him—a sad evidence of life error. When she finally finds her happiness, she'll have other children. I, on the other hand, don't need anything more. I caught myself on the idea that I was thinking about the divorce as something determined.

"Your shoe got wet?"—asked Valentina jeerishly . "You didn't have time to stop by a shoe-maker, right?"

"Hmm," I answered to avoid being drawn into conversation. I was all heated inside, my nerves were melting. Now she will find a way to reproach me painfully with my poverty. She did:

"You know, Kolya," she said hypocritically, "I guess I can do without a raincoat. My old raincoat is still good. And boots for you are more important."

I intercepted her look. Her eyes were cold and mocking. Words rushed in my throat and got stuck there in a lump. I began coughing and rushed to the door. Valentina didn't run after me, and I clearly envisioned how she stands there touching her sharp chin with a finger and smiling enigmatically. The blow was struck below the waist, a forbidden blow.

It was 11 PM and even though tomorrow was Saturday when you can enjoy staying in bed till late, I decided to go to sleep early. I was tired. I can go to sleep on the terrace, as always. Anyway Valentina is in the room with Kostik in case she needs to change him when he wakes up. But I had to go to the room for linen and pillow. And I didn't want to do that. I could lose my temper. So I took out "Metal Corrosion", an exciting reading in that mood, and started reading it. Soon Valentina looked through the opening in the door and whispered (Kostik was moving a little in his sleep) whether I would like some tea. I hissed at her and she hid. I understood: Valentina had something on her mind, otherwise she would've been on the terrace long time ago and would've purred a few times in order to get me into mild mood. So far, until autumn she needs me. To carry the purchases and do household things.

Soon it will be midnight. Raisa's bed began to creak in the far away room. The hostess was going to bed, she has to get up early—to feed the chickens. I could hardly keep my eyes open. I didn't remember a single line from "Metal Corrosion." There was corrosion in my heart, I understood that. I understood as well that when you are twenty-one years old, you can start your life anew. Valentina didn't go to sleep either. She was planning new humiliations for me, was waiting until I give in and come for the pillow. No way, don't even wait for it. I looked at my palm, it was covered with blood. Which means, I killed a mosquito and didn't even notice it. Raindrops were knocking on the roof, it was echoed by the noise of a water stream pouring down from drain to a barrel near the terrace. I didn't even have anything to cover myself with—my jacket, not dry yet, was hanging somewhere in the kitchen, above the stove. Why not take a tablecloth from the table? Don't I have the right to give pleasure to Raisa, when she sticks her nose on the terrace and to let her see how I used the piece of art with four fierce tiger faces on the corners. I put my plate and other dishes on the floor and grabbed a corner of the tablecloth, when Valentina approached the door; even at night I could hear her every step. I quickly managed to open the book.

"Kolya", she said quietly, "are you asleep?"

"I'm studying", I said abruptly, "go to sleep."

I must have dozed off at the table because I was suddenly awakened by the silence: the rain stopped. It was very quiet, only Valentina's steps were rustling behind the door.

"How she hates me!" I thought almost calmly. A big moth was banging on the window in the terrace. Noiselessly I approached the couch and without turning off the light, immediately fell asleep.

I woke up quite early, although Raisa was already talking to her precious chickens right outside of the terrace. It was a sunny and windy morning, pine trunks were creaking and the bees were buzzing in the corner of the terrace. At first, I didn't understand why I was sleeping as if I was at the airport. For a few seconds I was in a great mood, but then, bit by bit, the thoughts and words of the last evening came back to me, and I sat up on the couch: I didn't want anyone to see me. The room was quiet as I looked in there. My family was sleeping. Only Kostik was doing it peacefully and Valentina was rolled up in a ball holding her head under the blanket—even in sleep she was avoiding my look.

I took a towel and a toothbrush and went down to the garden to a washstand fixed on a pine-tree. While I was washing myself, Raisa silently sneaked up behind my back and rustled:

"Continue sleeping sweetly and you'll be left without milk."

She is not saying hello, I am not going to either. But in her spiteful phrase there was a common sense. Two houses from ours lived old Ksenia, from whom we got milk. Without saying a word I picked up a milk-can from the terrace and went to the gate. I was wondering at myself while walking—I was calm, and couldn't immediately understand reasons for my own calmness. And only when I was returning, I understood what had happened, turned out that I made up my mind while sleeping. As if I had solved a problem in my sleep that I wasn't able to solve for a few days in a row. Today I will talk to Valentina. And will tell her everything. Otherwise, it's possible to put off the conversation for a year, two, three and then it will be too late.

Valentina was up already. She was busy with dishes in the kitchen and when she heard that I was climbing up on the terrace, she shouted from there:

"Good that you remembered about milk!"

It was easy to interpret her words. It meant that Raisa already reported to her that without her reminder I would've left the child without milk.

At first, I wanted to talk about the divorce right then, during breakfast, and even thought up the opening words but then I got scared that Valentina would take my words with complete indifference—she knows how to do that—and would only say: "Whatever you want." Whereas I wanted her to feel what I was feeling, at least five percent of it. I was trying to behave normally during breakfast, and when Valentina told me how yesterday Kostik took off doll's head, I smiled obediently.

"Not hungry any more?" asked Valentina finishing her coffee.

"Of course," I answered and reached for "Metal corrosion." She was hinting that I was eating more than I earn. Besides, any moment now she might ask whether I had a good night. "Metal corrosion" served me as a cover. I had to think about how to start the conversation.

"Kolya," asked Valentina, "I have an important issue to discuss with you. Only, don't get offended."

My heart sank! I could never assume that Valentina would get ahead of me. Is it possible that she found a new prince for herself? Perhaps, with the help of Raisa, an obliging older friend? Why didn't I start the conversation myself before breakfast?!

"Yes," I answered indifferently. It seemed to me that my hair was moving—that's how my thoughts were rushing about in my head.

"I promised to Raisa to do something," said Valentina, "We owe a lot to her... generally speaking, you understand..."

I didn't understand anything. I shrank like a dog before a blow, but what does Raisa have to do with all this?

"You know that it's hard for her to bend, and she wants to rent the garage. If it had a window, it would make a decent room.

"Then let her rent it." I answered automatically. It was some kind of a conspiracy, but before I get to the core of it, it's better not to resist. Soon, she will lend the garage. And empty doghouse.

"Raisa asked to take out from the garage the professors' old magazines and then there are also two chests and some other junk. She was showing it to me."

I could've said that I had to study. I could even say that I am entitled to rest at least one day a week. But I lost my head. After all, I was preparing for a different kind of conversation.

"Whatever you want." I said.

"Excellent then."

There was a stink of cat's droppings in the garage. A ray of light was forcing its way through a small window just below the ceiling with specks of dust floating lazily in it. Papers were bound together in stacks, magazines piled up high in the corners and on the boxes.

Raisa emerged from the back of the room and said without being asked:

"Everything valuable I gave to the institute. They came from the institute. I gave it to them free of charge."

She liked the last words and repeated them:

"Free of charge."

"For some books they would've paid you decently in a second-hand bookshop," I said.

She didn't catch the irony and agreed immediately as if regretting it herself:

"There were tons of books here, and some of them were old, valuable. The professor had a marvelous library."

Valentina put on a plastic apron and a headscarf. She entered garage first and a ray of sun lighted up her hair. How come nothing worked out with us? Why should somebody else admire her hair?

"Put the papers and magazines next to the kitchen," reminded Raisa.

Valentina didn't answer. Apparently she was informed of it beforehand.

"I already made arrangements with a junk dealer. He'll come for all recycling paper with a truck," informed us Raisa.

They didn't doubt that I would spend Saturday slaving. My agreement was a mere formality. Valentina bent down and handed me the first pile of magazines. I carried them to the garden and put them down on the ground. Magazines were German; I think "Biophysics collection", 10 years old. I thought about how quickly a person disappears from this life. How quickly everything is forgotten. These magazines stood on the shelves next to books and the person named Kozarin, whom I've never seen in my life, not even on the photo, went to these shelves and the contents of these magazines were imprinted in his mind. I opened one of the magazines at random and saw exclamation marks on the margins and some of the lines were underlined. There was a steady reverse connection between the life of Kozarin and lives of these articles. And perhaps, these magazines and also high stacks of papers covered with writings by Kozarin himself, lost connection with people as soon the professor himself ceased to exist. Now a junk dealer will come and take them away to be crushed; and the clean paper will be used for printing new magazines, every one of which will stick to a person, will grow one with him, and most likely, will die with him. Three years ago a secluded life existed on this dacha, build by Kozarin during many years. And now we with Valentina cleaned out the last remaining, so that the new faceless and tiny world of Raisa could take over. And I thought that when I'll be in Leninskaya library, I'll need to look into catalog: what did he write, what did Kozarin himself invent, is there a thread that we are cutting off here and which for sure must extend to other places, to another time?..

"Kolya," called Valentina and returned me to earth, where from me probably not a thread will remain, "Where did you disappear?"

Raisa was busy in the kitchen, I think so she could keep an eye on me to see if along the way I steal a kilogram or two of the recycling paper. I asked her when I was passing by:

"This Kozarin, what was his profession?"

"Professor," she answered naively.

"There are all sorts of professors: chemists, physicists, historians."

"Physicist then," answered Raisa and I didn't believe her. It was simply that the word "physicist" sounded more respectful in her eyes.

Valentina already took a few stacks out of the garage and I only had to carry them through the kitchen. I was stealing glances at Raisa, and it seemed her lips were moving, figuring out the numbers of stacks so she can later put the useless number in her accounting book.

We worked this way for about an hour. Once I had to stop and run to Kostik, but otherwise he behaved nobly that morning, as if sensing the coming of an important moment and was trying to rise to the occasion.

Valentina swept out the dust, and we got to the chests. Obviously, Raisa already worked through them thoroughly, and afterwards kept dumping there everything that didn't have commercial or practical value to her. The chests contained piles of old worn boots, broken cups, rags, books with no starting or ending pages, but most important—a mass of pieces of wires, screws, nuts, little boxes with diodes, pieces of printed boards and, what's very strange, two elaborately made models of human brain, scribbled all over and even pierced in places with pins.

"The professor had a hobby," I said, "Which one? No one knows."

Raisa, who heard everything immediately answered from the kitchen:

"You cannot imagine in what state I found everything... The dacha was absolutely not fit for living. Bottles, wires... Also there were many instruments, but those were taken by people from the institute. A whole truck".

Back then you were scared, wasn't sure about your rights. How else, a whole dacha for inheritance. Now you wouldn't give it away for nothing. But I didn't voice my opinion out loud.

We took out all junk on the street until the chests became sufficiently light, and then dragged them through the kitchen. Outside, a pile of recycling paper was stacked up high and it was a pitiful sight—it was not so evident while it was in the garage. I then dragged last sacks and boxes out of garage, Valentina took a wet cloth to dust, and I lingered in the garden because I suddenly felt like reflecting on the frailty of human existance. However, nothing came out of it, I couldn't force myself to reflect. Instead, I remembered that the decisive moment is approaching and I almost forgot about it, because I didn't want to remember it, and during this hour or two, while we were cleaning a neglected garage, Valentina managed not to remind me even once about the sad reality.

I took out of a junk pile, a thick hoop with projections like teeth of a crown, and I thought that before, having found such a thing, I would surely think up something funny and crown Valentina, like tzarina Tamara. Nowadays, she doesn't understand these kinds of jokes. Well, I can crown myself—tzar of fools and duffers.

I returned to the terrace where I had to start the conversation. And probably using the same words as Valya did a while ago: "I have an important issue to discuss with you." I hate these kinds of conversations. They don't end up well. But I didn't hope for anything good. Valentina should enter any minute now.

I got scared that she would come and immediately had a saving thought: I need to wash. I threw the hoop on a couch and rinsed myself for a long time under a green washstand attached to a pine. Then I saw Valentina rushing to the washstand with a towel in her hand and returned to the terrace.

"OK," I said to myself, "it's time." It all happened exactly because you were a wimp for too long. Enough of that.

I heard stairs creaking under Valentina's feet. I didn't know what to do with my hands. I took the hoop. Valentina approached and I moved away a step.

"What do you have there?" she asked.

"And what if Raisa overhears?" I thought, "It's impossible to talk in the presence of Raisa." That was an excellent excuse to delay the conversation, but unfortunately, Raisa passed by the terrace heading towards the gate. I bet, she was in a hurry to hasten the junk-man. There was no way back now.

"What is that?" repeated Valentina.

"The crown of tzarina Tamara," I said, "Or, of tzar Solomon. It's all the same."

And I put the hoop on myself while my tongue already started to say the words, prepared and carefully rehearsed during that morning:

"Valya, I have an important issue to discuss with you..."

At that moment I fell silent. I didn't hear what Valentina answered because I disappeared. It was an eerie instantaneous feeling of disappearance. I still had sensations, images and thoughts still belonged to me; but all this had no connection with me whatsoever. It's impossible to describe it, and I can swear no one ever experienced anything like that. Maybe with the exception of Kozarin.

I was analyzing these unusual feelings afterwards. In human brain there are billions of nervous cells, each one having its own purpose and destination. And probably there are those among them that don't do anything, but wait for their moment, when the brain has to collide with such unusual sensations that the usual working cells cannot handle them. And, as detectives, they rush to the rescue, grabbing and discarding different possibilities, going through different versions until they find the one right solution that they can tell to the rest of the cells. If that's not so, then how come, after the first moment of panic my brain found out what has happened to me?

I saw, found out, learned—call it whatever you wish—what was happening in Valentina's brain. If you think that I read her mind, that wouldn't be right. I didn't read her mind. I simply found myself inside of Valya, and that which takes quite a few lines to describe, became clear to me immediately.

There was fear, because Nikolai, who was nervous and restless since last evening finally made up his mind to do something terrible, something that's impossible to fix later. And his words about important conversation and the way his hands are trembling, when he puts that stupid hoop on himself... He will say, for sure he will, that it's impossible to continue living that way, that he would leave. And, of course, he is right, in his own way, because it was clear from the start that he would be unhappy. You see, he, like a child, cannot look into the future. And couldn't do before, or rather, didn't want to. When they had that conversation with his father and it was clear that his parents didn't approve, that was the time to go, to leave, join a remote work team somewhere. And there wouldn't be hardships, such big hardships for Kolya. How did he manage to pull through all these months! And that, while he was still studying, grew thin and overwrought. How dare she put such a burden on her loved one, herself and Kostik. Oh dear, if only he could wait a little bit, they would've found a nursery school for Kostik and she would go to work. But it's too late. Because Kolya's love has died, and died not even now, but back in spring or winter. Here are the hands, ordinary hands, not even very strong, but you could look at them for hours, know every wrinkle on the palm and dream about bending down and putting your head on them. But she can't do that, because she already feels so guilty: she didn't have enough strength to renounce happiness. And the entire life back then consisted of small and big miracles. It was a miracle to go to cinema with him and know that in the buffet he would buy her a toffee "" and would give it to her piece by piece; and every time his hand would linger in her palm. It was a miracle to run into another room of the dorm, and for promises of big favors in the future beg Svetka for a black dress, because Kolya had bought tickets for a French singer concert; and then sit in line in a hair salon and keep looking at the watch and there was almost no time left and she could be late, although Kolya wouldn't say anything. And there was the main miracle, which she couldn't tell anyone in the dorm, or it would melt. How come she couldn't save Kolya in time from herself? After all, he's proud, he wouldn't go back on his words. And she is a woman. And a woman is always more mature than a man, if neither man nor woman turn twenty yet. His parents didn't like her. If she could only be different—a student from Moscow, maybe things would've been different. And he does need a different one. How stupid it is to remember now how she tried to please his father and washed windows when they didn't ask her and everything was out of place, and she only made things worse! And she could see that she irritated others, but she couldn't do anything with herself... And then everything disappeared in Kolya. Dried up like a stream during a drought. The debt remained. Kolya is conscientious; he should've left long time ago. He will help Kostik, he is kind. How tired she grew during this summer! Not only physically, that's not important. Tired of constantly keeping herself in control, from losing her temper, from asking for love he couldn't give. How upset he was yesterday when she said that he should've bought boots and the raincoat can wait! She should not have said it that way, but it slipped out. She really doesn't need a coat when she still has her old one. Kolya should be dressed well. After all, he visits people, friends, drops by his parents. And no one should know that he is hard pressed for money, that dacha has swallowed everything for two months ahead. It's good that at least she managed to persuade the aunt not to tell Kolya how much it really cost. And hundred rubles still left to pay managed to scrape together somehow. Kolya didn't notice yet that she sold her shoes and a green knitted blouse. It's nothing. She has no one to show off to. Also, she is always apprehensive that Kolya may think that she reproaches him for his small salary. He may think that because of his pride. So, what if he doesn't have the profession yet? She is going to work soon, and then he'll finish institute and all this is such a nonsense, although it's too late to think about it. He spends so much time working and studying. Of course, she knows that he doesn't drink with anyone and has lost most of his friends. And yesterday he was studying until midnight. And her tooth hurt so much, she was ready to die, whereas aspirin was on the terrace. She would've gone there, but was afraid to disturb him. He was irritated, tired, it was better to wait. Before she would probably not think like that, what a nonsense—come in and take a pill, but for a long time now it's as if she is hanging above an abyss, and her hands are getting weaker, and underneath there is a river. The tooth was aching, she was walking around the room on tiptoes and was looking at Kostik, at little Kolya and all the time she was wishing for the big Kolya to walk in and put his hands on her shoulders. Although she knew he wouldn't walk in. She tried to knit. She hated that knitting, but she had to earn money one way or the other, to help Kolya. Raisa sold the dress to her acquaintance. Raisa is so greedy, she surely kept five out of twenty rubles for herself for the mediation. But with her it's easy. She is a bad person, but doesn't pretend to be a good one. With her you can be straight. When Raisa was asking to clean the garage she had to tell her openly that they wouldn't do it for nothing. They agreed that she could use strawberries and other berries from her garden for free. For Kostik, of course. And it felt so bad to go to Kolya. She got up early in the morning, kissed him on the cheek, and he frowned in his sleep. He set himself against her, his whole body rebels. She tried to think less about that, because, until the last moment when Kolya mentioned the important conversation, she was hoping to last till autumn, as if it was a saving boundary, a shore that she had to swim to. Although she understood that she was deceiving herself. No matter how you put pieces together, you don't get a whole cup. But when he was sweating in the garage, it seemed to her that the hostility he felt towards her disappeared for a while. And she even felt like singing. And again deceived herself. Maybe she should take Kostik and leave and afterwards send a letter: "It is you, my dear, that I will always love, but I don't want to be a burden to you." She should be fine. But now it's too late. He will now throw her out himself. And he's right. My poor Kolya, my stubborn boy. What is with him?..

Afterwards, I understood that all this lasted a moment, maybe two or three seconds at the most, because Valya noticed that I was unsteady, that I fainted and rushed to me as I fell and the hoop rolled off on the couch.

I returned to my senses right away, and saw Valentina's eyes very close. She was so frightened that she couldn't say anything. Her lips were shacking. That is a literary expression, and before I have never seen people's lips shake in real life. My head was spinning, but I did manage to sit up on the floor, and then got up leaning on her hand. She had a thin and strong hand. And I was holding her by the fingers and thought that her fingers were rough from constant laundry scrubbing.

"Nothing to worry about," I said, "It's over now. Really."

"You are overworked, sit for a while, please."

Frightened for me, she lost her ability to control herself, she was ready to burst into tears and snug close to me. And even though I no longer knew her thoughts and never in my life will put again that hoop (I'll take it to the institute the first thing tomorrow morning), I continued reading them. And I got scared that she would cry, that she would break just like that, right then and I couldn't allow that—for the next fifty years I had a clear-cut goal: never to let this silly child start crying. Let others cry. And then I had a tricky thought, which happens to me whenever I feel good and have an excellent mood. I said without releasing her fingers:

"So, I was saying that I have an important conversation."

The fingers that were delicately touching my palm with rough ends immediately weakened, became lifeless.

"Yes," she said in child voice.

"You aunt is coming Thursday?"

I was looking at Valentina as if we only met yesterday. She didn't dare lift her eyes.

"That's what she promised."

"Let's talk her into staying overnight. And I will take tickets for a concert. Or, to the movie theater. We haven't been anywhere for ages."

"Movie is better," she answered before she realized what I said.

Suddenly she rushed to me, desperately seized me by the sleeve of my shirt, and pressing her nose to my chest, as if wishing to hide in me, started to cry.

I was stroking her shoulders, her hair while muttering somewhat incoherently:

"Don't, stop, please... Raisa will come now... Don't..."

Send us your comments, proposals, opinions.
© Kir Bulychev
© Russian Science Fiction & Fantasy. Editor-in-Chief Dmitriy Vatolin
© 2001 English translation by Anna Ranish
    Proofreading by Katerina Pugacheva
No part of this publication may be used without the authors' and/or the publishers' permission.