Arm Wrestling in Chebachinsk

Grandfather was very strong. When he was working in the kitchen garden or whittling spade handles (for relaxation, he would always whittle handles-there were enough of them piled in a corner of the barn to last us for decades), dressed in his faded shirt with the sleeves rolled up high, Anton would say to himself something like "The rounded bulges of his muscles rolled up and down his arm under the skin" (Anton was fond of expressing things in bookish style). But even now, when Grandfather was over ninety, when it was a strain for him to reach for the glass on his bedside table, the familiar ball of his bicep still glided up under the rolled sleeve of his undershirt, and Anton had to grin.

"Think that's funny?" said Grandfather. "Think I've gone all weak? He's old now, but he used to be young, is that it? Why don't you just ask me 'So we're dying now, are we?' like a character from that vagabond writer of yours?1 And I could say, 'Yes, I'm dying!'"

But now Anton was seeing his grandfather's arm as it was in the past, when he used to bend nails or roofing iron with his bare hands. He could see it even more clearly poised on the edge of a table covered with a holiday tablecloth, with the dishes pushed aside-could it really have been over thirty years ago?

Yes: that had been at the wedding of Pereplyotkin's son, who was just back from the war. On one side of the table sat Kuzma Pereplyotkin himself, the blacksmith; opposite him, smiling, looking embarrassed but not surprised, rose the slaughterhouse titan Bondaryenko, whose arm the blacksmith had just pinned to the tablecloth in a contest that is today known as arm wrestling, but in those days had no name at all. There was nothing to be surprised about: in the town of Chebachinsk there wasn't a single man whose arm Pereplyotkin couldn't pin to the table. The same could apparently be said of Pereplyotkin's younger brother, who used to work at his shop as a hammerer before he was arrested and died in the camps.

Grandfather carefully hung his black Boston tweed jacket on the back of the chair (it was the last remnant of a three-piece suit made before World War I, turned twice but still presentable) and rolled up the sleeve of his cambric shirt, the last of the two dozen he'd taken out of Vilnius in 1915. Planting his elbow firmly on the table, he joined his palm to his opponent's, in which it was instantly lost as the blacksmith closed his enormously broad hand around Grandfather's.

One man's hand was black, deeply grimed with ash and roped with veins more oxlike than human ("The veins bulging on his hands looked like cables," Anton thought to himself). The other's was half as large and white, and if blueish veins were faintly visible deep beneath the skin, that was something Anton alone knew, since he remembered those hands better than he did his own mother's. Anton alone knew also the steely strength of those hands and those fingers, which could loosen the nuts on a cartwheel without a wrench. Only one other person he knew had fingers that strong-Grandfather's second daughter, Aunt Tanya. During the war, when she was deported as a ChSIR ("family member of a traitor to the motherland") to a remote village with her three young children, she'd worked as a dairymaid. Back then no one had ever heard of electric milkers, and during certain months she would milk twenty cows dry a day-in two goes at each cow. A Moscow friend of Anton's, who was in the meat and dairy industry, used to say that was all just talk, that it was impossible, but it was true. Aunt Tanya's fingers were gnarled now, but they could still grip like a vise. One time a neighbor, in greeting her, teasingly gave her hand an extra-hard squeeze. She squeezed his back with such crushing force that it swelled up and ached for a week.

The guests had already drunk the first case of moonshine; the place was getting loud.

"Look at this—the proletariat's taking on the intelligentsia!"

"So who's our proletarian—Pereplyotkin?" Anton knew that Pereplyotkin came from a family of deported kulaks.2

"And Lvovich here is supposed to be the Soviet intelligentsia?"

"It's Grandma in their family who comes from nobility. His people are all priests."

A volunteer referee checked to make sure both men's elbows were properly aligned, and the match began.

The ball of Grandfather's bicep withdrew at first deep into his rolled sleeve, then glided back just into view and stopped. The cable-like veins on the blacksmith's arm bulged beneath his skin. Grandfather's bicep lengthened very slightly and came to resemble an enormous egg ("an ostrich egg," thought Anton, educated boy that he was). The blacksmith's veins stood out even more; you could see how knotty they were. Grandfather's arm began slowly declining toward the table. Those who, like Anton, were standing to Pereplyotkin's right could no longer see any part of Grandfather's arm; it was completely obscured by Pereplyotkin's.

"Kuzma! Kuzma!" shouted those same guests.

"I'd wait to cheer if I were you . . ." Anton recognized the rasping voice of Professor Riesenkampff.

Grandfather's arm stopped declining. Pereplyotkin stared in surprise. He must have poured it on then, because a new vein began bulging, this time on his forehead.

Grandfather's palm began slowly climbing—higher, higher—and then both forearms were again standing vertically, as if the match hadn't even started, as if no vein had yet bulged on the blacksmith's forehead, and no sweat had broken out on Grandfather's.

The two arms began vibrating almost imperceptibly, like a double-shafted lever attached to some powerful engine. The lever tilted this way and that, now this way again, now back slightly the other way. And again it was perfectly still, but for that barely perceptible vibration.

Suddenly the lever came alive again, and began declining. But this time Grandfather's arm was on top! Yet when it was hovering barely above the tabletop, the lever suddenly reversed direction and climbed back to vertical, where it remained for a long while.

"A tie! A tie!" the guests shouted, first from one side of the table, then from the other. "Call it a tie!"

"Grandfather," Anton said, handing him his water glass, "that time at the wedding, after the war, you could have pinned Pereplyotkin, you know . . ."

"Probably."

"So why didn't you?"

"What for? For him, it was a matter of professional pride. Why embarrass the man?"

A few days earlier, as Grandfather was lying in his hospital bed, just before the doctor and his retinue of med students came to examine him, he'd taken off his cross pendant and hidden it in his bedside table. He'd crossed himself twice, and after a glance at Anton, smiled feebly. Grandfather's brother, Father Pavel, used to say that as a young man, Grandfather liked to show off his strength. If the men were unloading rye, he'd elbow one of them aside, heave a five-pood3 sack of rye onto one shoulder, heave another onto his other shoulder, and walk off, ramrod-straight, to the granary. But it was utterly impossible to picture Grandfather showing off like that.

He despised any form of exercise, which he regarded as useless both for himself and for the homestead: better to chop a few logs in the morning and spread some manure. Father agreed with him, but also claimed a scientific rationale—no sort of exercise provides a workout as comprehensive as chopping wood, which involves every muscle group in the body. After poring over a good number of pamphlets, Anton declared that physical labor does not, in fact, involve every muscle, and any such labor should be followed by additional exercises. At that, Grandfather and Father burst out laughing: "I'd like to see those physiologists spend one morning digging a ditch or stacking hay! Just ask Vasily Illarionovich—he spent twenty years at mining sites, living next to workers' barracks; everyone there sees everything. Just ask him if he ever once saw a miner come back from his shift and do exercises." Vasily Illarionovich never saw any such thing.

"Grandfather, Pereplyotkin was a blacksmith. Fine. But you—how did you ever get to be so strong?"

"Well, you see . . . I come from a family of priests; we've been priests going back for generations, all the way to Peter the Great, if not further."

"So?"

"So—as your Darwin would say—artificial selection . . ."

There had been an unwritten rule about accepting boys for seminary—the weak and stunted were rejected. The boys would all be brought in by their fathers, so their fathers were inspected, too. The men who would carry the Word of the Lord to the people were supposed to be handsome, tall, and strong. Such physical types were also more likely to possess bass or baritone voices, which also mattered. And so these were the sort who was chosen. That's how it was done for a thousand years, since the days of Saint Vladimir.

True enough: Father Pavel, the archpriest of the cathedral in Gorky, and another of Grandfather's brothers, a priest who served in Vilnius, and one other brother as well, a priest in Zvenigorod—all of them were tall, sturdy men. Father Pavel served ten years in the camps of Mordovia felling trees, and even now, at ninety, he was still hale and hearty. "Priestly stock!" Father Anton would say, sitting down to a cigarette as Grandfather continued—slowly, steadily and somehow even silently—to split birch logs with his ax. Yes, Grandfather was stronger than Father, and Father was no weakling: sinewy, hardy, from a family of peasant smallholders (in which there still lived a trace of aristocratic blood and pluck), he'd been raised on rye bread from Tver, and was as good at haymaking and logging as anyone you could meet. At half Grandfather's age (at that time, just after the war, Grandfather was past seventy) his brown hair was still dark and thick, with just a slight streak of gray. Aunt Tamara's hair stayed black as a crow's wing to the day she died at ninety.

Grandfather had never been sick in his life. But two years before, when his youngest daughter, Anton's mother, moved away to Moscow, the toes of his right foot suddenly began turning black. Grandma and the older daughters tried to talk him into going to the polyclinic. But for the last few years the only one Grandfather would listen to was his youngest girl, and she was gone now. So he never saw a doctor—"No point going to doctors when you're ninety-three!"—and stopped showing his foot to anyone, claiming the problem had cleared up on its own.

But nothing had cleared up. And when Grandfather was finally forced to show the family his foot, everyone gasped: the blackness had reached the middle of his shin. If it had been caught in time, he might have lost only his toes. Now there was no choice but to amputate at the knee.

Grandfather never learned to use crutches, and took to his bed. Once deprived of the rhythm of physical work in the vegetable garden and yard that he'd maintained for fifty years, he grew depressed, weakened, and irritable. He'd get angry when Grandma brought him breakfast in bed; he preferred to hobble to the table, supporting himself on chairs. Being forgetful, Grandma would sometimes bring him both his valenki4 to put on, and if she did, Grandfather would shout at her. That was how Anton learned that his grandfather could actually raise his voice at someone. Grandma would anxiously kick the second valenok under the bed, but then at lunch and dinner the whole thing would start over. For some reason it took the family a long time to think of getting rid of the second valenok altogether.

During the last month Grandfather had weakened dramatically. He had the family write to all his children and grandchildren telling them to come to Chebachinsk to say good-bye—"and also to resolve certain inheritance issues." Ira, his granddaughter, to whom he dictated the letters, said that he used this same phrase in every one of them.

"It's just like in that novel Borrowed Time, by that famous Siberian writer . . ."5 she said. Ira worked as a librarian at the district library and kept up with contemporary literature, but she had a hard time remembering the authors' names. "There's too many of them," she would complain.

Anton had been surprised by the mention of "inheritance issues" in Grandfather's letter to him. What inheritance? A bookcase with fifty books? A hundred-year-old love seat from Vilnius, the one Grandma called their causeuse? True, there was the house. But it was old and dilapidated. Who would even want it?

But Anton was wrong. Among the residents of Chebachinsk, Grandfather's inheritance was being sought by three different claimants.

1Maksim Gorky (pseudonym of Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov, 1868-1936). 2Kulak, literally "fist," was the derogatory name given by the Soviet government to comparatively wealthy peasants who were subject, especially after 1929/30, to a brutal policy of "dekulakization," i.e., liquidation as a class, which entailed both executions and deportation. 3 A pood weighs 16.38 kg, or 36.11 lbs. 4Valenki (singular, valenok) are the traditional Russian felt boots. 5A 1970 novel about a dying elderly peasant woman, Poslednii srok, by Valentin Rasputin (b. 1937), translated into English by Kevin Windle and Margaret Wettlin as Borrowed Time in Money for Maria and Borrowed Time (London: Quartet, 1981).

From Lozhitsia mgla na starye stupeni [A Gloom Is Cast upon the Ancient Steps (2000)]. Published by arrangement with the author.