Read The Light and the Dark Online

Authors: Mikhail Shishkin

The Light and the Dark

Mikhail
SHISHKIN

Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield

First published in Great Britain in 2013 by

Quercus
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
London
W1U 8EW

Copyright © 2010 by Mikhail Shishkin

2010

English translation copyright © 2013 by Andrew Bromfield

The moral right of Mikhail Shishkin to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 978 1 78087 105 9 (HB)
ISBN 978 1 78087 106 6 (TPB)
ISBN 978 1 78087 107 3 (EBOOK)

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

You can find this and many other great books at:
www.quercusbooks.co.uk

I open yesterday’s
Evening News
, and it’s all about you and me.

It’s going to be the word in the beginning again, they write. But meanwhile in the schools they rattle on in the same old way, saying first of all there was a big bang, and the whole of existence went flying apart.

And what’s more, supposedly everything already existed even before the bang – all the galaxies we can see and the ones we can’t. In the same way that the future glass lives in the sand, and the grains of sand are the seeds of this window here, through which I’ve just seen a little boy run past outside with a football stuffed up the front of his T-shirt.

There was this bundle of intense warmth and light.

The scientists tell us it was the size of a football. Or a watermelon. And just like in the old riddle about the room full of people, with no doors or windows, we were tiny little seeds inside it. And when everything there inside was ripe and ready, it strained with all its might and burst out.

The primal watermelon hatched.

The seeds went flying off and sprouted.

One little seed put out a shoot and became our tree: there’s the shadow of one of its branches, creeping along the windowsill.

Another became the memory of a girl who wanted to be a boy – once when she was still little they dressed her up as Puss in Boots for a fancy dress party, and everyone there kept trying to pull her tail, and in the end they tore it right off, and she had to walk around with her tail in her hand.

A third little seed sprouted many years ago and became a young man who liked me to scratch his back, and hated lies, especially when they started shouting from all the pulpits that there was no death, that words written down were a kind of tram that carried you off into immortality.

In the Druidic horoscope he was a Carrot.

Before he burned his diary and all his manuscripts, he wrote one final phrase, a terribly funny one: ‘The gift has abandoned me’ – I managed to read it before you tore that notebook out of my hands.

We stood by the bonfire and held our open hands up to our faces to block the heat, looking at the bones of our fingers showing through the transparent red flesh. Flakes of ash showered down on us – the warm, burnt-up pages.

Ah yes, I almost forgot, and afterwards the whole of existence will gather itself back into a single full stop.

Where are you now, Vovka the Carrot?

And now what’s going on? Silly little Julie tries so hard, sending him letters, but hard-hearted Saint-Preux fobs her off with facetious little missives, sometimes in verse, rhyming Swedes and centipedes, ammunition and sublimation, shithouse and Mona Lisa (by the way, have you guessed what she’s smiling at? – I think I have), navel and God.

My love!

Why did you do that?

The only thing still left to do was choose myself a war. But naturally, that was no great obstacle. If there’s one thing that’s meat and drink to this unbeaten homeland of ours, that’s it – you can’t even get the newspaper open properly before friendly kingdoms are spiking little infants on their bayonets and raping old women. Somehow you feel especially sorry for the innocent tsarevich murdered in his sailor suit. The women, old men and children just seem to slip in one ear and out the other, as usual, but that sailor suit …

A rousing tattoo on a tin drum, a murky pall hovering over the bell tower, your motherland is calling you!

At the conscription centre the prescription was: Everyone needs his own Austerlitz!

Oh, indeed he does.

At the medical board the army doctor – a huge cranium, bald and knobbly – looked into my eyes intently. He said:

‘You despise everybody. You know, I used to be like that too. I was the same age as you when I did my first hospital internship. And one day they brought in a street bum who’d been knocked down by a car. He was still alive, but he’d been maimed very badly. We didn’t really make much of an effort. It was obvious no one wanted the old man and no one was going to come for him. Stench, filth, lice, pus. Anyway, we put him on one side, where he wouldn’t pollute anything. He was a goner in any case. And when he was gone, I was supposed to tidy up, wash the body and dispatch it to the morgue. Everybody went away and left me on my own. I went out for a smoke and I thought: What do I want with this hassle?
What’s this old man to me? What’s he good for? While I was smoking, he passed on. So there I am, wiping off the blood and pus – working sloppily, doing just enough to shunt him off to the freezer as quickly as possible. And then suddenly I thought he could be somebody’s father. I brought a basin of hot water and started bathing him. An old body, neglected and pitiful. Nobody had caressed it in years. And there I am washing his feet, his gruesome gnarled toes, and there are almost no nails – they’ve all been eaten away by fungus. I sponge down all his wounds and scars, and I talk to him quietly: Well then, Dad, life turned out hard for you, did it? It’s not easy when no one loves you. And what were you thinking, at your age, living out on the street, like a stray dog? But it’s all over and done with now. You rest! Everything’s all right now. Nothing hurts, no one’s chasing after you. So I washed him and talked to him like that. I don’t know if it helped him in his death, but it certainly helped me a lot to live.’

My Sashenka!

Volodenka!

I watch the sunset. And I think: What if right now, this very moment, you’re watching this sunset too? And that means we’re together.

It’s so quiet all around.

And what a sky!

That elder tree over there – even it senses the world around it.

At moments like this, the trees seem to understand everything, only they can’t say it – exactly like us.

And suddenly I feel very intensely that thoughts and words are really made out of the same essence as this glow, or this glow reflected in the puddle over there, or my hand with the bandaged thumb. How I long for you to see all of this!

Just imagine, I took the bread knife and somehow managed to slice my thumb right through to the nail. I bandaged it up sloppily, and then drew two eyes and a nose on the bandage. And I had a little Tom Thumb. So I’ve been talking to him about you all evening.

I reread your first postcard. Yes! Yes! Yes! That’s it exactly! Everything rhymes! Take a look around! It’s all rhymes! There’s the visible world, and there – if you close your eyes – is the invisible one. There’s the branch of a pine tree darning the sky, and there’s its rhyme – a conch that has become an ashtray in mundane reality. There’s the clock on the wall and there on the shelf is a clump of herbs from the pharmacy for relieving wind. This is my bandaged thumb – the scar will probably stay for ever now – and the rhyme to it is the same thumb, but before I was born and after I’ve gone, which is probably the same thing. Everything in the world is rhymed with everything in the world. These rhymes connect up the world, hold it together, like nails pounded in right up to the head, to stop it falling apart.

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