Lyudmila Nikolaevna took an official envelope out of the letter-box.
She rushed into her room; holding the envelope up to the light, she tore off one corner of the coarse paper.
For a moment she thought that photographs of Tolya would come pouring out of the envelope - of Tolya when he was tiny, still unable to hold up his head, lying naked on a pillow, pouting his lips and waving his little legs in the air like a bear-cub.
In some incomprehensible manner, hardly reading the words, but somehow absorbing, almost breathing in, line after line of the red handwriting of some uneducated clerk, she understood: he's alive, he's alive!
She read that Tolya was seriously wounded in the chest and in his side, that he had lost a lot of blood and was too weak to write to her himself, that he had had a fever for four weaks . . . But her eyes were clouded by tears of happiness - so great was the despair she had felt a moment before.
She went out onto the staircase, read the first lines of the letter and, her mind at rest, walked down to the woodshed. There, in the cold twilight, she read the middle and end of the letter and thought that this was Tolya's final farewell to her.
She began filling a sack with firewood. And - although the doctor in Moscow, at the University Clinic in Gagarin Alley, had ordered her not to lift more than three kilograms and to make only slow, smooth movements - Lyudmila Nikolaevna, grunting like a peasant and without a moment's hesitation, hoisted a sack of wet logs onto her shoulders and climbed straight to the third floor. The plates on the table clattered as she threw down the sack.
Lyudmila put on her coat, threw a scarf over her head and walked downstairs to the street.
People passing by turned round to look at her. She crossed the street; there was the harsh sound of a bell and the tram-driver shook her fist.
If she turned right, there was an alley which would take her to the factory where her mother worked.
If Tolya were to die, no one would ever tell his father . . . How would they know what camp to look for him in? Maybe he was already dead . . .
Lyudmila set off to the Institute to see Viktor. As she passed by the Sokolovs', she walked into the yard and knocked at the window. The curtain remained drawn. Marya Ivanovna was out.
'Viktor Pavlovich has just gone to his office,' said a voice. Lyudmila said thank you without knowing who had just spoken to her - whether it was a man or a woman, whether it was someone she knew or someone she didn't know - and walked through the laboratory hall. As usual, hardly anyone was actually working. The men always seemed to be chatting or reading and smoking, while the women were always knitting, boiling tea in chemical retorts, or removing their nail-varnish.
She was aware of everything, all kinds of trivia, even the paper with which an assistant was rolling himself a cigarette.
In Viktor's office she was given a noisy welcome. Sokolov rushed up to her, waving a large white envelope, and said: 'There's a ray of hope. We may be re-evacuated to Moscow, together with our families and all our gear and apparatus. Not bad, eh? Admittedly, the dates haven't been fixed yet. But still!'
His animated face and eyes were quite hateful. Surely Marya Ivanovna wouldn't have come running up to her like that? No, no. Marya Ivanovna would have understood straight away - she would ahve been able to read Lyudmila's face.
If she'd known she'd see so many happy faces, she'd never have come to see Viktor. He too would be bubbling with joy, and in the evening he would share this joy of his with Nadya - yes, now at last they would be leaving this hateful Kazan!
Would all the people in the world be worth the young blood that was the price of this joy?
She looked reproachfully at her husband. And Viktor's eyes looked with anxiety and understanding into hers, which were full of gloom.
When they were finally alone, he'd realized at once that something terrible had happened. He read through the letter and said: 'What can we do? Dear God, what can we do?'
Then he put on his coat and they walked out towards the exit.
'I won't be back today,' he said to Sokolov.
Sokolov was standing next to Dubyoknkov, the recently appointed director of the personnel department, a tall round-headed man in a fashionable, broad-fitting jacket that was still too narrow for his wide shoulders.
Letting go of Lyudmila's hand for a moment, Viktor said to Dubyonkov in an undertone: 'We were going to start on the Moscow re-evacuation lists,but it will have to wait. I'll explain why afterwards.'
'Don't worry, Viktor Pavlovich,' said Dubyonkov in his bass voice. There's no hurry. They're just plans for the future. Anyway i can do all the basic work by myself.'
Sokolov waved and nodded his head. Viktor knew he had already guessed that another tragedy had befallen him.
There was a cold wind out on the street. It picked up the dust, whirled it about and suddenly scattered it, flinging it down like black chaff. There was an implacable severity in the frost, in the branches that tapped together the bones, in the icy blue of the tram-lines.
Viktor's wife turned her thin, cold face towards him. It had grown younger from suffering. She looked at him fixedly, entreatingly.
Once they had a young cat. As she was giving birth to her first litter, there had been one kitten she hadn't been able to get out. As she was dying she had cralwed up to Viktor and cried, staring at him with wide, bright eyes. But who was there in this vast empty sky, on this pitiless, dusty earth - who was there to beg or entreat?
'There's the hospital where I used to work,' said Lyudmila.
'Lyuda,' said Viktor suddenly, 'Why don't you go in? They'll be able to locate the field hospital for you. Why didn't I think of that before?'
He watched Lyudmila climb up the steps and explain herself to the janitor.
Viktor walked round the corner and then paced back to the main entrance. People were rushing along with their string bags; inside them were glass jars full of grye potatoes or bits of macaroni in a grey soup.
'Vitya,' his wife called out. He could tell from her voice that she had regained her self-posession.
'So,' she said, 'he's in Saratov. The assistant medical director happens to have been there not long ago. He's written down the address for me.'
At once there weas a mass of things to do and problems to sort out. She needed to know when the steamer left and how she could get a ticket; she'd need to pack some food and borrow some money; and somehow she'd have to get an official authorization . . .
Lyudmila Nikolaevna left with no food, none of her things, and almost no money; in the general confusion and bustle of embarkation she made her way onto the deck without a ticket.
All she took with her was the memory of parting with her husband, her mother and Nadya on a dark autumn evening. Black waves lapped noisily against the sides of the boat. A fierce wind blew from downstream, howling and flinging up spray from the river.
During the night the sky over the Volga cleared. The hills floated slowly past beneath the stars, separated one from another by the pitch dark of the ravines.
Now and again a shooting-star flashed by and Lyudmila Nikolaevna silently prayed: 'Don't let Tolya die!'
That was her only wish: she asked Heaven for nothing else.
Once, when she was still a student in the Maths and Physics Faculty, she had been employed to do calculations at the Astronomical Institute. She had learned then that meteors came in showers, each meeting the earth in a different month. There were the Perseids, the Orionids, probably the Geminids, the Leonids. She no longer remembered which meteors reached the earth in October and November . . . But don't let Tolya die!
Viktor had reproached her for her unwillingness to help people and for her unkindnes to his relatives. He believed that if Lyudmila had wanted it, his mother would have come to live with them instead of remaining in the Ukraine.
When Viktor's cousin had been releasedd from camp and sent into exile, she hadn't wanted to let him stay the night, afraid that the house management committee would find out. She knew that her mother still remembered how Lyudmila had been staying at the seaside when her father died; instead of cutting short her holiday, she had arrived back in Moscow two days after the funeral.
Her mother sometimes talked to her about Dmitry, horrified at what had happened to him.
He was honest as a boy and he remained honest all his life. And when suddenly - "espionage, plotting to murder Kaganovich and Voroshilov" . . . A wild, terrible lie. What's the point of it? Why should anyone want to destroy people who are sincere and honourable?' Once Lyudmila had told her: 'You can't vouch for Mitya entirely. Innocent people don't get arrested.'
She could still remember the look her mother had given her.
Another time she had said to her mother about Dmitry's wife: 'I never could stand the woman and I'm not going to change my mind now.'
'But just imagine!' her mother had protested. 'Being given a ten-year sentence for not denouncing your husband!'
And once she had brought home a stray puppy she'd found on the street. Viktor hadn't wanted to take it in and she'd shouted: 'You're a cruel man!'
'Lyuda,' he had answered, 'I don't want you to be young and beautiful. I only want one thing. I want you to be kind-hearted - and not just towards cats and dogs.'
She sat there n the deck, for once disliking herself instead of blaming everyone else, remembering all the harsh things that had ever been said to her . . . Once, when he was on the telephone, she'd heard her husband laugh and say: 'Now that we've got a kitten, I sometimes hear my wife sounding affectionate.'
Then there was the time when her mother had said to her: 'Lyuda, how can you refuse beggards? Just think: you've got enough to eat while someone else is hungry and begging . . .'
It wasn't that she was miserly: she loved having guests, and her dinners were famous among her friends.
No one saw her crying there in the darkness. Yes, yes, she was callous; she had forgotten everything she had ever learnt; she was useless; no one would ever find her attractive again; she had grown fat; she had grey hair and high blood pressure; her husband no longer lvoed her and thought she was heartless. But if only Tolya were still alive! She was ready to admit everything, to confess to all the faults her family accused her of - if only he were still alive!
Why did she keep remembering her first husband? Where was he? How could she find him? Why hadn't she written to his sister Rostov? She couldn't write now because of the Germans. She would have told him about Tolya.
The sound of the engine, the vibrating deck, the splash of water, the twinkling of the stars, all merged into one; Lyudmila dozed off.
It was nearly dawn. A thick mist swayed over the Volga and everything living seemed to have drowned.
Suddenly the sun rose - like a burst of hope. The dark autumn water mirrored the sky; it began to breathe and the sun seemed to cry out in the waves. The steep banks had been salted by the night's frost and the red-brown trees looked very gay. The wind rose, the mist vanished and the world rew cool and glass-like, piercingly transparent. There was no warmth in the sun, nor in the blue sky and water.
The earth was vast: even the vast forest had both a beginning and an end, but the earth just stretched on for ever . . . And grief was something equally vast, equally eternal.
On the boat were a number of passengers going to Kuibyshev. In the first-class cabins were important officials from the People's Commissariats, wearing long khaki overcoats and colonel's grey Astrakhan hats. The second-class cabins housed important wives and important mothers-in-law, also wearing uniforms appropriate to their rank - as though there were one for wives and another for mothers and mothers-in-law. The wives wore ur coats and white fur stoles; the mothers and mothers-in-law work blue cloth coats with black Astrakhan collars and brown scarves. The children who were with them had bored, dissatisfied eyes.
Through the cabin-windows one could see their food-supplies. Lyudmila's experienced eye could easily distinguish the contents of the different bags: clarified butter and honey were saling down the Volga in string-bags, in soldered tins and in big dark bottles with sealed necks. Now and then she overheard snatches of conversation between the passengers on the deck; she gahered that their main concern was the train leaving Kuibyshev for Moscow.
It seemed to Lyudmila that these women looked quite indifferently at the sldiers and subalterns sitting in the corridors - as though they themselves had no sons or brothers at the front. Instead of standing by the loudspeaker to listen to the morning news bulletin with the soldiers and crew, these women just screwed up their sleepy eyes and carried on with their own affairs.
Lyudmila heard from the sailors that the whole steamer had originally been assigned to the families of the officials via Kuibyshev to Moscow. Then the military authorities in Kazan had ordered an additional embarkation of both soldiers and civilians. The legitimate passengers had made a scene, refusing to let the soldiers on board and making telephone calls to a representative of the State Defence Committee.
It was very strange indeed to see these soldiers - bound for Stalingrad - looking awkward and uncomfortable because they had crowded the legitimate passengers.
Lyudmila found the calm eyes of these women unbearable. Grandmothers beckoned their grandchildren to them and, without even breaking off their conversation, stuffed biscuits into their mouths with practised movements. A squat old woman in a Siberian polecat coat emerged from a cabin in the bows to take two boys for a walk on the deck; the women all greeted her hurriedly and smiled, while an anxious, ingratiating expression appeared on the faces of their husbands.
If the radio were to announce the opening of a second front or the breaking of the blockade of Leningrad, not one of them would bat an eyelid. But if someone were to say that the first-class coach had been taken off the Moscow train, the events of the war would pale before the terrible passins aroused by the allocation of seats for the 'soft' and 'hard' coaches.
How extraordinary it all was! And yet Lyudmila herself, in her own fur stole and grey Astrakhan coat, was wearing the same uniform as these first-and second-class passengers. And she too, not long before, had been furiously indignant that Viktor had not been given a ticket for a 'soft' coach.
She told an artillery lieutenant that her son, a gunner lieutenant himself, was in the hospital at Saratov with severe wounds. She talked to a sick old woman about Marusya and Vera, and about her mother-in-law who had died in occupied territory. Her grief was the same grief that breathed on this deck, a grief that had always known the way from the military hospitals and graves of the front back to the huts of peasants, huts without numbers standing on patches of waste ground without a name.
She hadn't brought a mug or even any bread; she had thought she wouldn't want to eat or drink during the journey. On the steamer, however, she had felt desperately hungry all day and had realized that things were going to be difficult. And then, on the second day, the soldiers came to an arrangement with the stokers and cooked some millet soup in the engine-room; they called Lyudmila and poured some into a mess-tin for her.
She sat on an empty box, eating burning-hot soup from somebody else's tin and with somebody else's spoon.
'It's fine soup!' said one of the cooks When Lyudmila didn't answer, he asked sharply: 'It is, isn't it? Isn't it good and rich? There was an openness and simplicity of heart in this demand for praise, addressed to someone the man had just fed.
She helped another soldier to repair a spring in a defective rifle- something not even a sergeant-major with the Order of the Red Starhad succeeded in doing.
Listening to an argument between some artillery lieutenants, Lyudmila took a pencil and helped them to work out a trigonometric formula. After that, a lieutenant who had previously addressed her as 'Citizen' suddenly asked her name and patronymic.
During the night Lyudmila walked up and down the deck. The river looked icy cold and there was a pitiless wind blowing from downstream out fo the darkness. Up above shone the stars; there was neither comfort nor peace in the cruel sky, the sky of ice and fire, that arched over her unhappy head.
Before the steamer reached Kuibyshev, the captain received orders to continue to Saratov and take on boeard wounded from the hospitals there.
The cabin passengers got ready to disembark, carrying out their suitcases and packages and piling them on the deck.
The silhouettes of factories began to appear, together with small huts and houses with corrugated iron roofs. The sound of the steamer's wash seemed different. Even the hammering of the engine sounded somehow more anxious.
The vast bulk of the suburb of Samara rose up, grey, brwn and black, with its gleaming panes of glass and wisps of smoke from the factories and locomotives.
The passengers disembarking at Kuibyshev were waiting on one side of the deck. They didn't say goodbye or even give a nod to the people still on board. No friendships had been struck up on the journey.
A black limousine, a Zis-101, was waiting to pick up the old woman in the Siberian polecat coat and her two grandsons. A man with a yellow face, wearing a long general's overcoat, saluted the old woman and shook hands with the boys.
In the course of only a few minutes the passengers had vanished, together with their children, suitcases and packages. Only soldiers' greatcoats and padded jackets were left on the steamer. The passengers might never have existed.
Lyudmila imagined that she would now be able to breathe more freely, more easily, among people bound together by the same grief and the same labour.
Saratov greeted Lyudmila rudely and cruelly.
Right on the landing-stage she encountered a drunk in a soldier's greatcoat. He stumbled into her and began cursing.
Lyudmila started to climb the steep, cobbled slope and then stopped, breathing heavily, to look round. Down below, between the grey warehouses on the quay, she could see the white steamer. As though reading her mind, it gave a soft hoot: 'Go on then, go on!' She went on.
At the tram-stop some young women quietly shoved past anyone who happened to be old or weak. A blind man in a Red Army hat, obviously only recently released from hospital and still unable to cope alone, moved anxiously from one fot to the other, tapping his stick rapidly in front of him With childish eagerness he grabbed at the sleeve of a middle-aged woman. She pulled her arm away from him and stepped aside, her hob-nailed boots ringing on the cobbles. Still clutching her sleeve, the blind man hurriedly explained: 'I'm just out of hospital. Will you help me on to the tram?'
The woman swore at him and pushed him away. He lost his balance and sat down on the pavement.
Lyudmila looked at the woman's face.
Where did this inhuman behaviour come from? What could have engendered it? The famine of 1921 that she had lived through as a child? The man-made famine of 1930? A life full to the brim with need?
The blind man froze for a moment and then jumped up, crying out in a bird-like voice. Probably he had just caught a glimpse of himself waving his stick senselessly in the air, his hat on one side. He beat the air with his stick, expressing through these circular movements his hatred for the merciless world of the sighted. People were jostling each other as they climbed into the tram-car - while he stood there, weeping and shouting. It was as though everyone Lyudmila had gathered together, with hope and love, into one great family of labour, need, grief and kindness, had conspired to behave inhumanly. It was as though they had made an agreement to refute the view that one can always be sure of finding kindness in the hearts of people with dirty clothes and grimy hands.
Something dark and agonizing touched Lyudmila, filing her with the cold and darkness of thousands of miles of desolate Russian steppe, with a feeling of helplessness amidst life's frozen wastes.
For a second time she asked the conductor where she should get off.
'I've already announced it,' the woman replied matter-of-factly. 'Have you gone deaf?'
The passengers standing in the aisle didn't respond when Lyudmila asked whether or not they were getting out. They just stood there as though turned to stone, relucatant to make any movement at all.
When she was a child, Lyudmila had gone to the preparatory, 'alphabet' class of the Saratov girls' high school. On winter mornings she had sat at table, her legs dangling, drinking her tea while her father spread some butter ona . piece of warm, white bread . . . The lamp had been mirrored in the samovar's fat cheek and she hadn't wanted to leave her father's warm hand, the warm bread, the warmth of the samovar.
It seemed as though there had been n November wind in this city then - no hunger, no suicides, no children dying in the hospital, only warmth, warmth, warmth.
Her elder sister Sonya, who had died of croup, was buried in the cemetary here. Alexandra Vladimirovna had named her Sonya in memory of Sofya Lvovna Pyerovskaya. She thought her grandfather was buried here too.
She walked up to a three-storey school-building. This was the hospital where Tolya was.
There was no sentry at the door, which seemed a good omen. She found herself in the stifling hospital atmosphere. It was so sticky and viscous that however chilled you were by the frost, you wanted to go back outside rather than stay and enjoy its warmth.
She went past the washrooms which still had notices saying 'Boys' and 'Girls'. She went down the corridtor, past the smell of the kitchens, and came to a steamed-up window through which she could see a stack of rectangular coffins in the inner yard. Once again, as in her own entrance-hall with the still unopened letter, she thought: 'Oh God, what if I drop dead this moment!' But she strode on, along a strip of grey carpet, past some bedside tables with familiar house-plants - asparagus and philodendrons - till she came to a door where a hand-written sign saying 'Registry' hung next to the board saying 'Fourth Form.'
Lyudmila pulled open the door just as thesun broke through the clouds and struck the window-panes. Everything in the room began to shine.
A few minutes later a talkative clerk was looking through a long drawer of filing cards caught in the sunlight.
'So, so, Shaposhnikov A. Ah . . . Anatoly V . . . So . . . You're lucky you didn't meet the commandant still in your outdoor coat. He really would have given you what for . . . ! Now then . . . Shaposhnikov . . . Yes, that's him, that's right, Lieutenant.
Lyudmila watched his fingers taking the card out of the long plywood drawer. It was as though she were standing before God; it was in his power to pronounce life or death, and he had paused for a moment to decide.
Lyudmila had arrived a week after Tolya had been operated on for the third time. The operation had been performed by Dr Mayzel, an army surgeon. It had been protracted and complicated: Tolya had been under general anaesthetic for more than five hours and had had two intravenous injections of hexonal. This operation had never been carried out before at Saratov, neither by the doctors at the hospital nor the surgeons at the University clinic. It was known only from the literature: the Americans had included a detailed account of it in a 1941 medical journal.
In view of the especial complexity of the operation Dr Mayzel had a long and frank discussion with the lieutenant after his routine X-ray examination. he explained the nature of the pathological processes that had been provoked by his grave wounds. At the same time he spoke very openly about the risks attendant upon the operation. The doctors he had consulted had not been unanimous in their decision: the old clinical physician Dr Rodionov had argued against it. Lieutenant Shaposhnikov asked Dr Mayzel two or three qeustions, thought about it for a moment and then gave his consent. Five days were then taken up with preparations for the operation.
The operation began at eleven o'clock in the morning and was not completed until nearly four in the afternoon. Dr Dimitruk, the director of the hospital, was present. According to the doctors who observed the operation, it was carried out brilliantly.
Without leaving the operating table, Mayzel solved several unexpected problems that were not envisaged in the published description.
The condition of the patient during the operation was satisfactory. His pulse was normal, with no prolapsus.
At about two o'clock, Dr Mayzel, who was overweight and far fro young, fell ill and was forced to break off for several minutes. The therapist, Dr Klestova, gave him validol, after which he took no more breaks. Soon after the completion of the operation, however, when Lieutenant Shaposhnikov had been taken to intensive care, Dr Mayzel had a serious heart attack. Several injections of camphor and a dose of liquid nitro-glycerine were needed to bring to an end the spasms in the coronary arteries. The attack was obviously the result of the nervous excitement that had placed an excessive burden on an already weak heart.
Sister Terentyevna, who was on duty at Shaposhnikov's bedside, watched over his condition as instructed. Dr Klestova came into the intensive care unit and took his pulse. He was only semi-concious, but his condition was satisfactory.
'Mayzel's given the lieutenant a new start in life and almost died himself,' said Dr Klestova to Sister Terentyevna, who answered: 'Oh, if only Lieutenant Tolya recovers!'
Shaposhnikov's breathing was almost inaudible. His face was still and his thin arms and neck were like those of a child. There was a barely perceptible shadow on his pale skin - a tan that still remained from exercises in the field and forced marches across the steppe. His condition was half-way between unconsciousness and sleep, a deep stupefaction caused by the remaining effects of the anaesthetic and his general exhaustion, both mental and physical.
The patient spoke occasionally, mumbling separate words and sometimes whole phrases. Once, Sister Terentyevna thought he said: 'It's a good thing you didn't see me like that.' After that he lay quite still, the corners of his mouth drooping. Unconscious as he was, it looked as though he was crying.
About eight o'clock in the evening the patient opened his eyes, and asked quite distinctly - Sister Terentyevna was astonished and delighted - for something to drink. She told him he was not allowed to drink and added that the operation had been a great success and that he would soon recover. She asked how he felt. He replied that his side and back hurt, but only a little.
She checked his pulse again and wiped his lips and forehead with a damp towel.
Just then an orderly, Medvedev, came into the ward and told Sister Terentyevna that the chief surgeon, Dr Platonov, wanted her on the telephone. She went to the room of the ward sister, picked up the receiver and informed Dr Platonov that the patient had woken up and that his condition was normal for someone who had undergone a serious operation.
Sister Terentyenva asked to be relieved: she had to go to the City War Commissariat to sort out a muddle that had arisen over the forwarding of an allowance made out ot her by her husband. Dr Platonov promised to let her go, but told her to watch over Shaposhnikov until he himself came to examine him.
Sister Terentyevna went back to the ward. The patient was lying in the same position as when she had left, but his face no longer wore such a harsh expression of suffering. The corners of his mouth no longer hung down and his face seemed calm and smiling. Suffering had evidently made him appear older. No wthat he was smiling, his face startled Sister Terentyevna; his thin cheeks, his pale, swollen lips, his high unwrinkled forehead seemed not those of an adult, or even an adolescent, but those of a child. Sister Terentyevna asked the patient how he was feeling. He didn't answer; he must have fallen asleep.
The expression on his face made Sister Terentyevna a little wary. She took Lieutenant Shaposhnikov by the hand. There was no pulse and his hand was barely warm. Its warmth was the lifeless, almost imperceptible warmth of a stove that had been lit on the previous day and had long since gone out.
Although Sister Terentyevna had lived all her life in the city, she fell to her knees and quietly, so as not to disturb the living, began to keen like a peasant.
'Our loved one, our flower, where have you gone to, where have you gone now you have left us?'
News of the arrival of Lieutenant shaposhnikov's mother spread throughout the hospital. The hospital commissar, Battalion Commissar Shimansky, arranged to receive Lyudmila.
Shimansky, a handsome man with an accent that bore witness to his Polish origins, fronwed and licked his mustache as he waited. He felt sad about the dead lieutenant and sorry for his mother; for that very reason, he felt angry with both of them. What would happen to his nerves if he had to give interviews to every dead lieutenant's mama?
Shimansky sat Lyudmila down and placed a carafe of water in front of her.
'No thank you,' she said. 'Not now.'
Lyudmila then listened to Shimansky's account of the consultation prior to the operation - the commissar didn't think it necessary to mention the one doctor who had spoken against it - of the difficulties of the operation itself, and its successful outcome. Shimansky added that the surgeons now considered this operation generally appropriate in cases of severe wounds such as those received by Lieutenant Shaposhnikov. He told her that Shaposhnikov's death had occurred as a result of cardiac arrest and that - as stated in the report of the anatomical pathologist, Junior Medical Officer Boldyrev - it had been beyond the power of the doctors to foresee or guard against such an event.
Shimansky went on to say that many hundreds of casualties passed through the hospital, but seldom had the staff taken anyone so much to their hearts as Lieutenant Shaposhnikov - an intelligent, well-educated and unassuming patient who had always scrupulously avoided making unnecessary demands on them. Lstly he said that a mother should be proud to have brought up a son who had selflessly and honourably laid down his life for the Motherland. He then asked if Lyudmila had any requests.
Lyudmila apologized for taking up his time, took a sheet of paper from her handbag and began to read out her requests.
She asked to be shown her son's grave. Shimansky gave a silent nod of the head and made a note on his pad.
She asked if she could have a word with Dr Mayzel. Shimansky informed her that, on hearing of her arrival, Dr Mayzel had himself expressed a wish to speak with her.
She asked if she cold meet Sister Terentyevna. Shimansky nodded and made a note.
She asked to be given her son's belongings. Shimansky made another note on his pad.
Finally she put two tins of sprats and a packet of sweets on the table and asked him to give the other patients the presents she had brought for her son.
Her large, light blue eyes suddenly met his own. He blinked involuntarily at their brilliance. Then he said that all her requests would be granted and asked her to return to the hospital at half-past nine the next morning.
Shimansky watched the door close behind her, looked at the presents she had left for the wounded, tried to find his pulse, gave up, and began to drink the water he had offered Lyudmila at the beginning of the interview.
Lyudmila seemed not to have a spare moment. That night she walked up and down the streets, sat on a park-bench, went to the station to get warm, and then walked up and down the deserted streets again with a quick, businesslike stride.
Shimansky carried out Lyudmila's requests to the letter.
At half-past-night in the morning she saw Sister Terentyevna; she asked her to tell her everything she knew about Tolya. She then put on a white smock. Together with TErentyevna she went up to the first floor, walked down the corridor that led to the operating-theatre, stood by the door of the intensive care unit and looked at the solitary, now empty, bed. Sister Terentyevna stood beside her, dapping her nose with her handkerchief. They went back down and Terentyevna said goodbye. Soon after that a stoud man with grey hair came into the waiting-room. There were huge dark circles beneath his dark eyes. His starched, blindingly white smock seemed whiter still by comparison with his swarthy face and ark, staring eyes.
Dr Mayzel explained why Dr Rodionov had been against the operation. He seemed already to know everything Lyudmila wanted to ask him. He told her about his conversations with Lieutenant Tolya before the operation. Understanding Lyudmila's state of mind, he described the operation with brutal frankness.
Then he said that he had felt a fatherly tenderness towards Lieutenant Tolya. As he spoke, a high, plaintive note slipped into his bass voice. Lyudmila looked for the first time at his hands. They were peculiar; they seemed to live a quite separte life from the man with mournful eyes. Hi shands were severe and ponderous, the dark-skinned fingers large and strong.
Mayzel took his hands off the table. As though he had read Lyudmila's thoughts, he said: 'I did all I could. But, instead of saving from death, my hands only brought his death closer.' He rested his huge hands on the table again.
Lyudmila could tell that every word he had said was true.
Everything he said, passionately though she had desired to hear it, had tortured and burnt her. But there was something else that had made the conversation difficult and painful: she sensed that the doctor had wanted this meeting not for her sake, but for his own. This made her feel a certain antagonism towards him.
As she said goodbye, she said she was certain he had done everything possible to save her son. He gave a deep sigh. She coudl see that her words had comforted him - and realized that it was because he felt he had a right to hear these words that he had wanted the meeting.
'And on top of everything else, they even expect me to comfort them!' she thought.
After the surgeon had left, Lyudmila spoke to the commandant, a man in a Caucasian style fur-cap. He saluted and announced in a hoarse voice that the commissar had given orders that she was to be taken by car to the cemetary, but that the car would be ten minutes late since they were delivering a list of civilian employees to the central office. The lieutenant's personal belongings had already been packed; it would be easiest if she picked them up on her return from the cemetary.
All Lyudmila's requests were met with military precision and correctness. But she could feel that the commissar, the nurse and the commandant also wanted something from her, that they too wanted some word of consolation and forgiveness.
The commissar felt guilty because men were dying in his hospital. Until Lyudmila's visit this had never disturbed him: it was what was to be expected in a military hospital. The quality of the medical treatment had never been criticized by the authorities. What he had been reprimanded for was failing to organize enough political work or to provide adequate information about the morale o the wounded.
He hadn't fought hard enough against defeatism and against the hostility of those socially backward patients opposed to collectivization. There had even been cases of military secrets being divulged. All this had led to a summons from the political division of the military district medical administration; he had been told that he would be sent to the front of the Special Section ever again informed them of ideological errors in the hospital.
Now, however, in front of the mother of the dead lieutenant, the commissar felt himself to blame for the fact that three patients had died the day before - while he himself had taken a shower, ordered his favourite dish of stewed sauerkraut from the cook and drunk a bottle of beer from the store in Saratov. And Sister Terentyevna felt guilty because her husband, a military engineer, served on the army staff and had never been to the front; while her son, who was a year older than Shaposhnikov, worked in the design office of an aviation factory. As for the commandant, a regular soldier, he was serving in a hospital back in the rear, sending home felt boots and good quality gabardine - while the uniform had been passed on to the dead lieutenant's mother was made of the very cheapest material.
Even the thick-lipped sergeant-major with the fleshy ears, the man responsible for the burial of dead patients, felt guilty before the woman he was driving to the cemetary: the coffins were knocked together out of thin, poor-quality boards; the dead were laid out in their underclothes and buried in communal graves - extremely close together unless they were officers; the inscriptions over the graves were in an ugly script, on unpolished board and in paint that would not last. Of course, men who died in a field first-aid post were just heaped together in pits without individual coffins, and the inscriptions there were written in indelible pencil that owuld only last until it next rained. And men who died in combat, in forests, bogs, gullies and fields, often found no one at all to bury them - only wind, sand and snowstorms . . .
Nevertheless, the sergeant-major felt guilty about his poor-quality timber as the lieutenant's mother questioned him about the conduct of burials, asking how they dressed the corpses, whether they buried them together and whether a last word was spoken over the grave.
Anther reason he felt awkward was that before the journey he had been to see a friend in the store; he had drunk a glass of diluted medical spirit and eaten some bread and onion. He was ashamed that his breath mad the car stink of onions and alcohol - but he could hardly stop breathing.
He looked gloomily into the rectangular mirror in front of the driver: in it he could see the reflection of the man's bright, mocking eyes. 'Well, the sergeant-major's certainly had a good time,' they said mercilessly.
Everyone feels guilty before a mother who has lost her son in a war; throughout human history men have tried in vain to justify themselves.
The soldiers of a labour battalion, conscripts who were too old for active service, were unloading coffins from a truck. You could tell from their silence and lack of haste that they were used to this work. One man stood in the back of the truck and pushed a coffin to the rear; another man put his shoulder beneath it and took a few paces forward; a third walked silently up and took the other end of the coffin on his shoulder. Their boots squeaked on the frozen earth as they carried the coffins to the wide communal grave, laid them down beside it and returned to the truck. When the empty truck set off for the city, the soldiers sat down on the coffins and roleld cigarettes, using lots of paper and a very small amount of tobacco.
'There's not such a rush today,' said one of them, striking a light from a very good-quality steel: a thin cord of tinder running through a copper-casing where a flint had been set. The soldier pulled at a tinder and a puff of smoke rose into the air.
'The sergeant-major said there'd only be one lorry today,' said another soldier as he lit his cigarette, letting out clouds of smoke.
'in that case can we finish the grave?'
'That's right. It's best to do it straight away. Then he can come and check it against the list,' said a third soldier. He wasn't smoking; instead he took a piece of bread from his pocket, shook it, blew over it and began eating.
'Tell the sergeant-major to bring us a pickaxe. The earth's frozen solid almost quarter of the way down. Tomorrow we've got to do a new grave. We'll never be able to dig it just with spades.'
The soldier who had been striking a light clapped his hands, knocked the end of his cigarette out of a wooden holder and gently tapped the holder against the lid of the coffin.
All three fell silent, as though listening for something.
'Is it true we're being put on dry rations?' said the soldier eating the piece of bread. He spoke in a hushed voice so as not to disturb the men in the coffins with a conversation that didn't concern them.
The second of the two smokers blew his cigarette-end out of a long, smoke-blackened reed holder, held it up to the light and shook his head. Everything was quiet again . . .
'It's quite a good day, just a bit windy.'
'Listen. There's the truck. We'll be finished by lunchtime.'
'No. That's not our truck. It's a car.'
The sergeant-major got out of the car, followed by a woman in a shawl. They walked together towards the iron railings, to what had been the burial ground until they had run out of space the previous week.
'Thousands of people are being buried and no one attends the funerals,' said one of the soldiers. 'In peacetime it's the other way round: one coffin and a hundred people carrying flowers.'
'People mourn for them all the same,' said the soldier, tapping gently on the board with a thick oval fingernail, 'even if we don't see the tears . . . Look, the sergeant-major's coming back on his own.'
This time all three of them lit up. The sergeant-major walked up and said good-naturedly: 'So you're having another smoke, are you? How do you think we're going to get the work finished?'
They quietly let out three clouds of smoke. Then one of them, the owner of the steel, said: 'You only have to stop for a smoke and the truck arrives. Listen, I can tell by the sound of the engine.'
Lyudmilla walked up to the small mount of earth. On a plywood board she read her son's name and rank.
She felt her hair stirring beneath her shawl. Someone was running their cold fingers through it.
On either side, stretching right up to the railings, were rows and rows of the same small grey mounds. There were no flowers on them, not even grass, ust a single wooden stem shooting straight up from the grave. At the top fo each stem was a plywood board with a man's name on it. There were hundreds of these boards. Their density and uniformity made them seem like a field of grain . . .
Now she had found Tolya at last. She had tried so many times to imagine where he was, what he was thinking about and what he was doing: leaning against the side of a trench and dozing; walking down a path; sipping tea, holding his mug in one hand and a piece of sugar in the other; or perhaps running across a field under fire . . . She had wanted to be there beside him. After all, he needed her: she would top up his mug of tea; she would say, 'Have another slice of bread'; she would take off his shoes and wash his chafed feet; she would wrap a scarf round his neck . . . But he had always eluded her. And now she had found him, he no longer needed her.
Further away she could see graves from before the Revoution with corsses made out of granite. The gravestones stood there like a crowd of unloved, unwanted old men. Some of them were lying on their sides, others leant helplessly against tree-trunks.
The sky seemed somehow airless - as though all the air had been pumped out and there was nothing but dry dust over her head. And the pump was continuing its work: together with the air, faith and hope had now disappeared; nothing was left but a small mound of grey, frozen earth.
Everything living - her mother, Nady, Viktor's eyes, the bulletins about the course of the war - had ceased to exist.
Everything had become inanimate. In the whole wide world only Tolya was still alive. but what silence there was all around him. Did he realize that she had come . . . ?
Ludmila knelt down and, very gently, so as not to disturb her son, straightened the board with his name on it. He had always got angry with her when she straightened the collar of his jacket on their way to school.
'There. I'm here now. You must have thought Mama was never going to come.' She spoke in a half-whisper, afraid of being overheard.
Some trucks went past. The dust whirled about in the wind. Milkwomen with churns and people carrying sacks tramped by wearing soldiers' boots. Schoolchildren ran past in soldiers' winter caps.
But the day and all its movement seemed to Lyudmila just a misty vision.
What silence there was everywhere.
She was talking to her son, remembering every detail of his life; and these memories, which survived only in her consciousness, filled the world with the voice of a child, with his tears, with the rustle of the paes of a picture-book, the clinking of a teaspoon against the edge of a white plate, the humming of home-made radio sets, the squeak of skis, the creaking of rowlocks on the ponds ear the dacha, the rustling of sweet papers, with fleeting glimpses of a boy's face, shoulders and chest.
Animated by her despair, his tears, his moments of distress, his every act - good or bad - took on a distinct and palpable existence.
She seemed to be caught up, not by memories of the past, but by the anxieties of everyday life.
What did he think he was doing - reading all night long in such awful light? Did he want to have to wear spectacles at his age?
And now he was lying there in a coarse calico shirt, bare-footed. Why hadn't they given him any blankets? The earth was frozen solid and there was a sharp frost at night.
Blood began to pour from Lyudmila's nose Her handkerchief was soon sodden and heavy. Her eyes blurred and she felt giddy; for a moment she thought she might faint. She screwed up her eyes. When she opened them again, the world brought to life by her suffering had vanished. There was nothing but grey dust whirling over the graves; one after another, they began to smoke.
The water of life, the water that had gushed over the ice and brought Tolya back from the darkness, had disappeared; the world created by the mother's despair, the world that for a moment had broken its etters and become reality, was no more.
Her despair had raised the lieutenant from the grave, filling the void with new stars. For a few minutes he had been the only living person int he world; it was to him that everything else had owed its existence. But even the mother's tremendous strength was not enoughto prevent the multitudes of people, the roads and cities, the seas, the earth itself, from swamping her dead Tolya.
Lyudmila dabbed at her eyes. They were quite dry, but the handkerchief was sodden. She realized that her face was smeared with sticky blood and sat there, hunched up, resigned, taking her first involuntary steps towards the realization that Tolya no longer existed.
The people in the hospital had been struck by her calm and the number of questions she had asked. They hadn't appreciated her inability to understand something quite obvious, that Tolya was no longer among the living. Her love was so strong that Tolya's death was unable to affect it: to her, he was still alive.
She was mad, but no one had noticed. Now, at last, she had found Tolya. Her joy was like that of a mother-cat when she finds her dead kitten and licks it all over.
A soul can live in torment for years and years, even decades as it slowly, stone by stone, builds a mound over a grave; as it moves towards the apprehension of eternal loss and bows down before reality.
The soldiers finished their work and left; the sun had nearly gone down; the shadows of the plywood boards over the graves lengthened. Lyudmila was alone.
She ought to tell Tolya's relatives about his death. Above all, she must tell his father in the camp. His father. And what had Tolya been thinking about before the operation? Had they fed him with aspoon? Had been able to sleep a little on his side? Or on his back? He liked water with lemon and sugar. How was he lying right now? Was he shaven or unshaven?
It must be the unbearable pain in her soul that was making everything darker and darker.
She suddenly felt that her grief would last for ever; Viktor would die, her daughter's grandchildren would die - and she would still be grieving.
When her anguish grew unbearable, the boundary between her inner world and the real world again dissolved; eternity retreated before her love.
Why should she give the news of Tolya's death to his father, to Viktor, to her other relatives? After all, she didn't yet know for sure. Perhaps it would be better to wait; things might turn out differently.
'Don't tell anyone,' she whispered. 'No one knows yet. It will be all right.'
Lyudmila covered Tolya's feet with the hem of her coat. She took off her shawl and laid it over her son's shoulders.
'Heavens! What are you doing? Why haven't they given you any blankets? You really must have something over your feet.'
She fell into delirium, talking to her son, scolding him for writing such short letters. Sometimes she woke up and adjusted the shawl; it had been blown aside by the wind.
How good that they were alone together, that there was no one to disturb them. No one had ever loved him. People had always said he was ugly: that he had swollen lips; that he was very strange; that he was ridiculously touchy and quick-tempered. No one had ever loved her either; the people close to her saw only her failings . . . My poor boy, my poor, timid, clumsy little son . . . He was the only person who loved her - and now he was alone with her in the cemetary at night; he would never leave her; he would still love her when she was a useless old woman who got in everyone's way . . . How ill adapted he was to life. He never asked for anything; he was always absurdly shy. The schoolmistress said he was the laughing-stock of the school; the boys all teased him till he was quite beside himself and began t cry like a little child. Tolya, Tolya, don't leave me alone.
Day dawned. An icy red glow flared up over the steppes east of the Volga. A truck rumbled down the road.
Her madness had passed. She was sitting beside her son's grave. His body was covered with earth. He was dead.
She could see her dirty fingers and a shawl of hers lying on the ground; her legs had grown numb: she could feel that her face was smeared with dirt. Her throat tickled.
But none of this mattered. And if someone had told her that the war was over or that her daughter had just died, if a glass of hot milk or a piece of warm bread had suddenly appeared beside her, she wouldn't have stirred; she wouldn't have stretched out her hands or made any movement. She was sitting there without thought, without anxiety. Nothing matteredto her; there was nothing she needed. All that existed was some agonizing force that was crushing her heart and pressing against her temples. A doctor in a white smock and some other people from the hospital were talking about Tolya; she could see their mouths open, but she couldn't hear what thye said. A letter was lying on the ground. It had fallen out of her coat-pocket. It was the letter she had received from the hospital, but she didn't want to pick it up or shake the dust off it. She was no longer thinking about how, when he was two, Tolya had waddled clumsily after a grasshopper as it jumped from spot to spot; it didn't matter that she'd forgotten to ask whether had had lain on his side or on his back on the last day of his lfie. She could see the light of day; she was unable not to see it.
Suddenly she remembered Tolya's third birthday: in the evening they had tea and pastries and Tolya had asked: 'Mummy, why's it dark when today's my birthday?'
She could see some trees, the polished gravestones shining in the sun and the board with her son's name. 'SHAPOSHN' was written in big letters, while 'IKOV' was written very small, each letter clinging to the one before. She had no thoughts and no will. She had nothing.
She got up, picked up the letter, flicked a lump of earth off her coat with numb fingers, wiped her shoes and shook her coat until it was white again. She put on her shawl, using the hem to wipe the dust off her eyebrow and clean the blood from her lips and chin. With even steps and without looking round, she began to walk towards the gates.
After her return to Kazan, Lyudmila began to lose weight; soon she bean to look like photographs of herself as a student. She went to the store to collect the family's rations; she prepared meals; she stoked the stove; she cleaned the floors and did the washing. The autumn days seemed very long; she could find nothing to fill their emptiness.
On the day she got back she told her family all about her journey and her feelings of guilt towards everyone close to her. She described her visit to the hospital and unwrapped the parcel containing the bloodstained shreds of her son's uniform. Nadya cried; Alexandra Vladimirovna breathed heavily; Viktor's hands trembled so much he couldn't even pick up a glass of tea. Marya Ivanovna had rushed to visit Lyudmila; she turned pale, her mouth fell open and a martyred expression appeared in her eyes. Lyudmila was the only person able to speak calmly, looking around her with her bright, wide-open, light blue eyes.
She had always been very argumentative, but now she no longer argued with anyone; in the past one had only had to direct someone to the station for Lyudmila to fly into a temper and excitedly start to prove that they should take a different street and quite another trolley-bus.
One day Viktor asked her: 'Lyudmila, who is it you talk to at night?'
'I don't know,' she answered. 'Perhaps I'm just dreaming.'
He didn't question her furtherb ut he told Alexandra Vladimirovna that almost every night Lyudmila opened some suitcases, spread a blanket over the sofa in the corner and began talking in a quiet, anxious voice.
'I get the feeling that during the daytime she's with you and me and Nadya in a dream, while at night her voice comes alive again like it was before the war,' he said. 'I think she's ill. She's become someone else.'
'I don't know,' said Alexandra Vladimirovna. 'We're all of us suffering, each in our own way.'
Their conversation was cut short by a knock at the front door. Viktor got up to answer it, but Lyudmila called, 'I'll go,' from the kitchen.
No one could understand why, but they had all noticed that since her return from Saratov, Lyudmila had been checking the letter-box several times a day. And whenever there was a knock at the door, she rushed to answer it.
Viktor and Alexandra Vladimirovna looked at each other as they listened to Lyudmila's hurried steps - she was almost running.
Then they heard her say in an exasperated tone of voice: 'No we haven't got anything today. And don't come so often. I gave you half a kilo of bread only the day before yesterday.'
Vasily Grossman - Life and Fate
41 minutes ago