The Brother’s Keeper

My brother ran away from me at Kursky. The depot then was an ordinary railroad station, not the modern monstrosity of cement and colored tile that it is today. It housed a crowd of people in its lobby and had all the warmth of a truly human space. Benches filled the middle, with people sitting shoulder to shoulder. That's where they slept, yawned, ate—and kept a hand on their suitcases and eyes on the Gypsies. The Gypsies themselves were actually headed somewhere by train, just like everybody else.

Ticket counters stretched out on both sides. My brother and I didn't know which window sold tickets to our hometown, whether we should step to the right or to the left, around all the benches of people sleeping.

The same moment we came to the same conclusion. "You go that way and I'll go the other," my brother said.

"If our window turns out to be on that side, don't wait for me. Get in line right away. Know what I mean?" I said.

"Gotcha," my brother said. "Will do."

We split up. Our window turned out to be on his side, but he himself didn't turn up. A no show. Just vanished. For a while I kept waiting, thinking he was making his way through the crowd. A few minutes ago I had given him twenty-five rubles.

The money was for his ticket and something to eat, for a twenty-four-hour trip. After he disappeared I tried to guess how many days he could hold out on such a small amount. I decided that if he really tried—three days. OK, five. Then he'd come back to my apartment. There was no place else.

At home my wife said I was an idiot.

"You shouldn't have left him for one minute." She added, "You needn't have put that money into his hands."

I kept quiet.

"You yourself had to buy him the ticket."

I thought it might happen that the very same day he would realize how wrong he had been. He would come back to us to sleep. But he didn't come.

Next, I went to the dorm at the university where he had taken entrance exams. The truth be told—where he tried but failed to pass the entrance exams. He had missed the cutoff by two points. Then he hooked up with a cute girl, who did get admitted. A real knockout, as he said. She got a passing total score. Even more points than she needed.

Her name was Vika. To me and others the name sounded affected. But, all in all, she was a girl like any other.

"So where's my brother?" I said as I walked into her room, without so much as a "hi."

"I don't know."

"You mean you know but you're not telling?"

"I don't know."

She had sky-blue eyes that looked deceitful through and through.

"So you don't know that he ran away from me at Kursky station?"

I took a look inside her closet. My brother wasn't there. Once, between two of the exam sessions when he should have been cramming like mad, I had found him in that same closet. There he had been, standing inside, straight as an arrow with his head slightly bent down.

"So you know, but you're not telling?"

"I don't know."

I didn't have anything against Vika herself and nothing against her blue eyes. It was something else, simple and ordinary.

It was just this. She got admitted and he didn't. Then, naturally, he had to leave Moscow and go back home. Where our mother lived. Where he was supposed to live. He had to leave and get a job there. Or do something. He couldn't just hang out a whole year till the next entrance exams.

But he didn't leave. He was living somewhere in the dorm. Twiddling his thumbs and saying he was in love.

I was his tutor in all the entrance exam subjects. I was his keeper. While he was taking the exams, he lived at my place. Now I had to do the next thing—send him home.

Essentially during this period I was expected to be both mother and father for my young brother. Even more. Mother and father and conscience and brains and whatever else you like. And guard and keeper.

He was even the first to pick up on this game. He could have said no to it. He could have, let's say, put up some resistance. But he agreed.

He agreed on the very day that he arrived—I saw that in his eyes. He got off the train already as someone protected. Then on the very spot and without choice, I became the keeper. Cool! One more pair of guys bound together and tossed out into the world.

That's the way it went. The porters on the platform were clamoring. He had arrived in Moscow to take the exams, and here he was: getting off the train, looking at me—the brother who had come to meet him—and with each of his little steps down from the train, I was being made more and more into his keeper. And I didn't want that at all. It's not my role.

At this point it's time to take stock. The kid didn't get accepted by the university: number one! He ran away from me: number two! Now he was hanging out in this huge city with his Vika. Or maybe alone. And I myself had put into his own hands the money that made it possible.

Deep down I felt rotten about all this. That's what you get for taking on a role that's not yours. That's what you've got coming. I walked back and forth in the apartment and tried to remember. How many people in my life had watched over me? Many and various ones came to mind—the good and the bad. The total came to about forty, if I started with kindergarten.

Right then I decided that from that time on I wouldn't stand guard over my brother.

"Not even go look for him?" my wife asked. "After all he's roaming around alone. It's a big city. Anything can happen."

I hesitated but said firmly, "I won't go look for him."

"And what are you going to do?"

"Nothing. Count the days."

I actually did count days. I was perfectly convinced that he wouldn't survive on that money for more than five days. Five days. Even if Vika's parents were to send her some money.

My wife got anxious. "How can you sleep, eat, walk around? You sleep while your very own brother is in trouble!"

"Where do you get that he's in trouble?" I answered, trying not to prolong a quarrel.

"You really think everything's fine?"

"Maybe so, maybe fine. After all it's his honeymoon."

"Lout!"

I was immovable, but she was still worried. Me, I had sworn not to play the guard. Now I swore to eat, sleep and live. Not—come what may—to sound the alarm.

My cousin and her husband came over. Just dropped by. They were family, elderly, and, therefore, possibly wise people. Of course my wife let everything slip. Of course we spent the whole evening talking only about my missing brother.

The relatives' opinions were divided.

My cousin said that I should run around and look for him and at the very least, one more time take a look inside Vika's closet. Well, if not in the closet, then under the bed. My cousin, as I knew, was a good woman.

Her husband smiled with a broad and open grin. He said, in the way only blockbuster movie heroes do, "What's the point of chasing after him? Let the boy experience some freedom." Then he added: "See, you gotta live. He came to Moscow and started spinning in a whirlwind. If he's strong, it won't destroy his life."

He stressed that youth belongs to youth. He himself was close to fifty. To keep him from being sent to the front in '42, his relatives got him a deferment. Actually they got him transferred to a factory where such deferments were possible. Relatives are relatives. For them, even at age twenty, he had been and still remained a boy. In advance they saw the moist clay of a freshly dug grave crumbling over him, over his soon-to-be close-cropped soldier's head.

Here he was—he had survived. Near fifty and he had become a children's author. Even a good one. That's no paradox, it's a fact, simply so.

Since he understood the psychology of children and adolescents well, he advised me. "Let him be. Let him have a good time. Let him taste some freedom. Youth…is like young wine."

What's more, he said, I shouldn't do anything to interfere in his behavior. But be observant emotionally, try to look at things from his point of view, think about him and if anything happens, then immediately and unconditionally stretch out a hand to him. This was very close to the truth. The bitter taste in my mouth even told me that. But mainly, I wanted to be just such a keeper—invisible to anyone.

Then they left, my cousin and her writer husband. Late that night my cousin called. "Do you think maybe he'll be thrifty . . .?" she asked in a whisper.

"What do you mean by thrifty?"

"He's only eighteen years old, you know."

But I sketched out for her how twenty-five rubles would vanish in two days. And after that? Then hunger will set in. One day of hunger. Two days of hunger. On the third, or at the very most on the fifth day, he'll ring my doorbell.

"Oh, I don't know," said my cousin.

She started crying. Tears were her only recourse. Her husband, the expert on child psychology, wouldn't give it a second thought, but she couldn't possibly fail to worry.

My brother came on the fourteenth day. That was a long time, heroically long.

He was barely able to stand.

"Sit down."

He glanced around.

"Sit down."

My wife was still asleep. I gave him some bread and sausage. A roll of soft cheese also turned up in the fridge. I don't remember another time when I saw somebody eat so fast. While he ate, we both stayed silent.

Then he just sat nodding off.

"Wanna sleep?"

"Uh-huh," he said. It didn't even occur to him to tell me something about these two weeks.

I put him to bed. While fixing the covers, I asked, "Well, now at last you'll go home?"

"I'll go."

"And where's your suitcase?"

"At the baggage check."

"It's been there all this time?"

"Yep."

"You didn't lose the check number?"

"No, what do you think!"

I tried to start a conversation. I said it this way: "Well…or just stay a while longer. Don't rush. Moscow's an interesting place."

But he didn't answer, missed the irony—he was already asleep.

I told my wife that, well, it was all over. The finale. He came back.

"Was that him in the kitchen? Oh, geez! I was wondering what that noise was."

"He had an appetite."

"You brought him to it. Your own brother chomping food down like a wolf. Aren't you ashamed?"

She still hadn't forgiven me for not running around and searching, for not sounding the alarm, not making a fuss.

I remember one summer especially well. A summer when my brother was still a little boy and I was a student. I came home on holidays, and he was at a Pioneer camp, where I went to visit him. When I arrived I saw a big Ping-Pong match underway. A little girl was playing against a boy, and a crowd was standing around. Everybody was rooting for one or the other and cheering wildly. Only occasionally, during quiet moments when the crowd was catching its breath, the little celluloid bounces resounded. Pong. Pong. Pong. Pong.

I tapped some boys on the shoulder and asked where my brother was. They all looked at me like I was crazy. How could someone just then ask a question like that? The crowd roared. At that moment you could ask only what the score was and who was leading. An old cook told me where my brother was. She was carrying some bones out to the dogs.

"He ran into the woods. In that direction."

I found him at the edge of the forest, where the trees ended and a meadow began.

The field was knee high in grass. My brother also saw me from a distance and froze. It was sunset and the grass was streaked by its rays. My brother stood relaxed, one knee slightly bent, in a white shirt and a red tie with a metal clasp—as if frozen for all time in that moment of his boyhood.

Cutting across the meadow toward him, I smiled from a distance—brother to brother. Who would have pictured him in a few years, when he would shoot up like a pine sapling? And that I would once find him in the closet of a woman's dormitory room.

Squinting against the sun, I walked over and asked him what he was doing there, in the meadow. He answered, "I'm catching bumblebees."

If at eighteen he hadn't run away from me in Kursky station but instead had become a genius, say, somebody like Galileo, I would have forever remembered that moment with the bumblebees. I would have told everyone about it, that such a genius can be foreseen. That already in childhood he was searching for his own path. He had his own view of things. He was far removed from the noisy crowd. And on and on.

At the moment when I left the dorm my brother naturally didn't climb out of the closet—he hadn't been there, that much I verified. But suppose . . . he crawled out from under the bed, wiped the sweat off his face and went over to Vika.

"You're alive?" she grinned.

"Whew!"

Standing side by side they looked out the window. Below, I was slowly, slowly making my way across the square, with the regal stride of a jackass. I walked toward my bus under their gaze. Several times I imagined that to myself.

I imagined how right then he kisses her (from joy that he had made me look like such a fool), and she—him. He—her, etcetera. But I remembered about the money and somehow stopped the scene. First, my brother would want to buy some wine before the store closed, and only later would come the "etcetera." He said to her: "I'll run buy it." And she: "But what about the money? Let the shit go." "It'll be OK." "Maybe you don't need it." "I need it. I'll make it quick." And he dashed off, spent his last rubles, and very soon they were in bed together, and he was telling her how he had run away from me at Kursky station.

He told her about the Gypsies and how people watched them out of the corners of their eyes. Those people had suitcases, but the Gypsies had just bundles. He got around to the other side, because even as I watched for him, I got distracted by the Gypsies and by all those who sat with one eye on their suitcases and the other on the Gypsies' movements.

Then he took off and became his own free man in Moscow. He brought it off, didn't get lost.

If, probing deeper into the situation, Vika would ask, "Aren't you scared?" he answered, "What of?" And laughed. "If something happens, I have a brother here. My keeper."

Maybe he told her how sensibly and discreetly I watched over him. Lightly. Quietly. He took off but I didn't start a fuss, just once dropped in, just to ask.

I don't run around making a stir, don't stand guard, don't peek into windows. But that way he feels even stronger that he's not alone and that I'm somewhere close by. Not far away, here in the city. His brother.

Their money problem especially nagged me. Two possibilities existed. My brother and Vika are living on one little budget, trying to make it last as long as possible. That would be tolerable. That's reasonable. Man and wife, essentially . . . . But they would be too green for that, for them money was a romantic question. For them, in fact, the question wouldn't even arise. Each will be on his own. My brother's knees and hands will shake from never having enough to eat. So he will spend as long with Vika as he can make it.

When on the fourteenth day he came, I fully expected his account of it all. How it really went. And what he thought about me, his keeper. But he didn't initiate the conversation, not a word. He didn't even make up some story.

Me and my brother went to the train station in the morning. We bought him his ticket. That's when again I pulled out twenty-five rubles, handed the money over to him, and he took it.

He didn't smile, didn't make any remark about this second occasion. He wanted to sleep, that was all.

His train wasn't due to leave for four more hours. There was no sense in going back to the apartment just to sit for an hour. No choice but to hang out there near the station. We would have to hover somewhere in midair for four hours.

"Wanna go to a movie?"

"No."

"What then?"

"Better to grab something in the cafeteria."

He wanted to eat again. And we had just had a big breakfast.

He picked at his food in the cafeteria. He wanted to sleep.

"Did you get enough?"

"Seems like I'm full."

Then we sat for a while on a garden bench in front of a building. It was the usual tiny Moscow resting spot with four benches, one on each side, forming a square. We sat on one of the benches. In the middle stood a kind of cement cup, inside it something resembling a fountain. Out of order, of course.

My brother kept yawning. I asked him some questions. I wanted badly to find out something, so I asked him, but as if I didn't much care.

"So how's it going with you two?"

"Say what?"

"I mean about Vika."

"Uh . . . ."

"What did you decide?"

"Nothing much . . . ."

I nodded, of course. Yeah, I understand, yeah, fine.

If I had been a dumb and pedantic keeper, like thousands, he, like it or not, would have said that with Vika it was like this . . . she had finished a technical school and now was in the university. Her parents are such-and-such people. And they agreed, like, to write letters to each other. Or, say, to meet on school breaks . . . But I didn't want to be one of those thousands. And I didn't find out a thing. Zero.

The sun was beating down. The little rest spot was getting sultry. Suddenly I too needed a nap. I shut my eyes slightly.

When I woke up my brother wasn't beside me any more. But I saw him nearby.

Three girls were sitting on the opposite bench, all three eating ice cream and laughing. They wore the uniforms of cashiers from a large store in the neighborhood.

My brother was telling them something and they were laughing. Not a trace of his fatigue was left. Something inside me flipped over: what if he should run off with one of them? It was an absurd thought but enough to wake me up for sure.

The girls just then stood up—they were leaving because their lunch break was over. My brother was leaving with them.

I didn't call out to him. I restrained myself and went on sitting there the while, my eyes closed as if sleeping. As they left the bench area my brother put his arms around the shoulders of two of the girls. They laughed again. At the very exit of the resting spot, a short post stuck up, probably the remainder of a turnstile, and my brother, still clinging to the girls, didn't know which way to go around, to the right or to the left? In the end he banged straight into the post. All three of them got stuck. Passersby, mainly grannies pushing baby buggies, raised a ruckus. They couldn't get through to the park benches. My brother and the girls went on laughing.

"You took a little nap?" he asked when he came back.

"Yeah, a catnap."

"Still an hour to go before the train. I got the girls' addresses."

"From those same girls?"

"Yep."

"You'll write them?"

"Not for sure. Maybe even I will."

He gave a grin, as if confidentially. "One of them is not very pretty. So-so. But I got her address too."

We were silent.

Later he put his arm around my shoulder and said that it was only an hour till the train. It was about time to say good-bye.

"You're still a kid," I said to him. "You're only eighteen. How come you weren't timid? These past days."

"What's there to be timid about?"

"Lots of stuff. Your first time in Moscow, alone in the big city."

Then he said something more or less like this. In this huge city he had had a keeper. Someone who didn't intrude, didn't meddle or tell him what to do, but at the same time remained a keeper.

"OK, man. That'll do," I said.

"Honest," he said, in a surge of feeling. "Honest, that's the way it was!"

I felt warm all over. I even had the impression that I was blushing. Quickly I changed the subject. Only some five years later, in quite a different conversation with him, it came out—plain and simple—that then, talking to me on that day in Moscow, he had had in mind blue-eyed Vika. Not me.

But at the moment I sat beside my brother as a person who had honorably fulfilled his duty. As an older brother. As a keeper, in the best and most humane sense of the word. A whole forty minutes were left till the train. I just sat there relaxed and happy.

Translation of "Strazh." Copyright Vladimir Makanin. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Byron Lindsey. All rights reserved.