The Stone Guest

Suhrob Surataliyev’s friends used to tease him by calling him Zurab Tsereteli. Suhrob was a sculptor by trade, but he was somewhat less of a household name than the popular Tsereteli, whose oversized monuments loomed over so many Moscow squares. Our sculptor Suhrob, instead, was a serious artist, and quite well-respected among the elite of Moscow’s art community. It had been forty or more years since Suhrob had come to Moscow, so he often imagined he was a child of this metropolis, forgetting that he had in fact been born on the banks of Andijan’s fetid Kutan canal in provincial Uzbekistan. He felt as if the clay of his own statue, so to speak, had been gathered from this land, not that one.

Virtually all fine art is premised on building and adding on, but the art of sculpture, as the great sculptor Michelangelo taught, consists of nothing but carving out and discarding. He once famously said that his David had always been there in the marble, and his job was solely to chip away everything unnecessary. Step by step, I think, that kind of habit works its way into you: this carving-out and discarding seems to seep into your very life, and you start to look at everything from this point of view, with a critical eye. What is empty or incidental or useless has no place in your heart, and you find yourself always striving to reach the essence of things, the stone at the center, the very core of things. Well, some people are just built that way, aren’t they?

Our Suhrob took that approach, and because of that, some of his acquaintances would have characterized him as an arrogant, crude man, while only those very few close to him knew that was only true superficially.

But come with me, please, and let’s take a closer look ourselves, remaining faithful to Michelangelo’s rule within this story of ours. We will shun the useless side roads and delve straight to the heart of the matter.

Recently, aside from all the other immigrants here, poverty-stricken Uzbeks and Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Azeris, have been leaving their hopelessly poor homelands and converging in hordes on Moscow. Back in Soviet times you would have found them only out at Kazan Station or the big exhibition grounds on the outskirts of the city. But one time back then, during intermission at the Kremlin ballet, Suhrob spotted a collective farm worker, a real hick-from-the-sticks, conspicuous among the crowd, and the sight of him cast Suhrob the sculptor, far into that night, deep into a state of shock. He was so overwhelmed by feeling that he was moved to create his masterpiece, the Gir’ya, his very own Uzbek Pietà. In that sculpture, over a Jesus just taken down from the cross, there hovered his mother the Virgin Mary and his beloved Mary Magdalene, weeping, and both of them were now the very image of Uzbek village women, crafted as if from the purest white bread dough; and there, just a bit removed from the mourning women, that same collective farm worker stood sentinel.

But now people straight from villages in the old country were crowding in everywhere in heaps, they squeezed into corners and swarmed like ants, they peeped out of every small house and apartment building in Moscow, and Suhrob the sculptor felt lost for a time. Perhaps an uncommon sort of jealousy stirred awake in his heart, but Suhrob, who once took pride in being one of those rare people who claimed both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane as their ancestors, now started to feel like a worthless, worn-out old penny. Now he was a little embarrassed to call himself an Uzbek or to put on his golden duppi to go to a party or a banquet.

What’s more, Suhrob’s enlightened and refined friends, as they complained of their daily troubles, naturally would turn to Suhrob when they whined about all these people flooding through the city’s open gates, as they put it, as if to say, “You’re one of us, after all,” expecting Suhrob to sympathize. That kind of thing tended to make Suhrob a bit hot under the collar. At home he used to take all his bitterness and anger out on his gentle Russian wife, his Mashenka.

“Look,” Suhrob would say, raging, “It’s not as if they came here for a laugh! If life was so great in their homeland they would never have thrown out their families and left their warm homes, tossed out the fruit and come to this freezing weather, to live like filthy dogs! The other day I read in the newspaper that the apartment-block basements are lined with cardboard boxes, it said they’re living there in the hundreds. In another place a Russian sold his house, and he sold along with it four hens, two geese, and all sorts of old household junk, plus an Uzbek servant. Can you imagine? It’s the twenty-first century, you know?!”

Poor Masha could only shake her head, but the truth was that when the sculptor was angry no blood flowed to his brain, only his fist; so into that fist he would take a chunk of plaster, or failing that a pulp of raw bread dough, and set to work passionately kneading it, putting out all kinds of shapes known only to himself and his wrath.

Suhrob the sculptor simply got down to work. But I feel obliged to remind you, now, of this rule of Michelangelo’s. Please do not use your imagination to put the pieces together and deduce that Suhrob was some sort of patriot, thinking only of his homeland and the people in it. His Uzbekness, I must say, did not go much deeper than the way he wore his golden duppi on his head once each year, and the way he placed before each guest who visited his studio a ceramic dish of raisins atop a tablecloth of embroidered silk. If you need more proof than that, consider, please, a letter he once wrote me in what you might generously call Uzbek, an excerpt of which I humbly submit here.

“Salamalaykum my friend! Those things about Toir, the artistes that I know they have the same problem. Maybe to combine them with Rashidov regimen. Just now the words of the deceased Konchalovsky, they are hitting my memory: the artistes, they can not to take part in big lyings. Otherways, how great may they be?”

God knows I do not bring this up to mock him—I only want to show you what I mean. In any case, Suhrob’s Uzbekness had been shrinking and shrinking in his almost half a century of Moscow life, even to the point, as I mentioned before, that he had practically been renamed Zurab Tsereteli.

But now let’s extricate ourselves from this short preface, and get to the story itself.

One winter day, Suhrob was working at his studio on Kievskaya Naberezhnaya when the telephone rang. Fortune had it that it was his wife Masha.

“Is everything all right?” she asked. “Just now somebody called from your old village and asked for you. I told him you’d be back this evening, and he asked whether you had a cell phone, because he had something important to discuss with you,” she reported. “He’s going to call again in five minutes, so I’m calling to ask you what I should say.”

To tell the truth, Suhrob wasn’t actually working on anything very important at the time, but he still didn’t like being distracted at work, usually.

“Who was it who called? Did you ask his name?” he asked.

Masha replied with her usual kindness. “No, it didn’t occur to me. But he’s just about to call again, so I’ll ask then. Is everything all right there?” she asked her husband again.

“Well, if you really want to know, you’re the one who talked with him, not me, so would I know if everything was all right there, or would you?” demanded Suhrob.

“No, just asking, I’m worried,” Masha answered, to which Suhrob replied,

“If he calls, you can give him the number at the studio. But don’t tell him it’s the number at the studio. Say I’m out somewhere and give him the number,” he told her.

After that conversation, all the bits and pieces of things he had been working on seemed to have slipped from his fingers. Suhrob, lost in thought, took a few black raisins from the ceramic dish on the embroidered tablecloth. Who was he, the man who had called? Who was even left in that village? His mother had died when he was a child, and after his father was released from prison, he took a new wife, and they had two or three children together. Suhrob had grown up and served his time in the military, then left for good for Moscow to study and live there. He learned from his stepmother’s letters that his father was later arrested again and disappeared somewhere in the system. But at one point he stopped receiving news from his stepmother about herself or his younger stepbrother and stepsisters. Just like water dries up from the canals in the summertime, the letters also broke off, and Suhrob never did return to his old village, and nobody from there ever appeared to inquire about him.

But now there had been this phone call . . .

These shapeless thoughts had his heart beating full and heavy, and then the telephone rang, once, a local call.

“Hello!” Suhrob’s voice was a bit gruffer than usual.

“Get me Suhrob-aka!” There was nothing Russian in the pronunciation of the voice barking out the order.

Suhrob kept silent for a moment, and not because he was pretending somebody was calling him to the telephone; that unrefined voice had thrown him a bit off balance. But finally, he answered, “Yes, this is he,” and then forged ahead. “And who is this?” he asked, answering rudeness with rudeness.

The voice on the telephone instantly grew warmer. “Salamalaykum, Uncle! This is your nephew Sangin. Your sister Farrah’s youngest son.”

“Mine sister Farrah’s?” interrupted Suhrob, in his awkward Uzbek. “Who . . .”

“Well when you were kids you called her Faya. Her son.”

“Ah, yes, Faya . . . Yes, I know. Where you are?”

“OK, so we came to Moscow to work, right, and the FMS grabbed us, the cops are after us, saying we don’t have any papers. You gotta tell them, you have to prove, right, that I’m your nephew.”

“Where you are right now?”

“Hold on, this jerkoff here wants to talk to you.”

Suhrob was relieved to hear some sort of captain’s voice come on the line, in Russian.

After a bit of questioning he learned that this nephew of his, Sangin, along with another friend from back home, had been stopped by Federal Migration Service officers in an outdoor market without the proper identification documents. Since they had no money to pay the fine, they were being subjected to administrative detention and were then to be sent home. Sangin had apparently announced he had come to see a highly respectable relative, and offered up Suhrob’s name from a scrap of paper he had kept tucked safely away. The officer wanted to check, just in case.

“If you accept full responsibility for these kids, we are prepared to let them go. But you will have to come to the station to fetch them,” the officer finished up. And whether obeying this order or out of some other sort of enthusiasm, ten seconds later Suhrob was rushing to the Kievskaya metro station, to ride out to Altufyevo on the very outskirts of the city, to pluck from jail a nephew he had never met.

Ordinarily Suhrob avoided taking the Metro to the Moscow city limits. The subway system was none too safe, lately, for Uzbeks. No, with his gray hair, Suhrob had never had any serious problems with the riff-raff and skinheads, but he was sometimes taken for a Georgian or a Chechen, and people would casually swear at him, or the younger ones would call him Bin Laden.

This time, maybe due to the bitter Moscow cold that night, he rode the train all the way to Altufyevo without incident. The handful of young drunks fooling around didn’t even give him a glance. Up he went and came out at ground level, where snow was falling softly down and down, as if the very greatest sculptor of all had been heedlessly flinging white plaster dust over all the bits and pieces of creation.

Suhrob asked the way from a snow-covered old woman walking by, and when he entered the FMS room at the police station, he saw two skinny young men sitting there, wearing cotton knit tracksuits here in the depths of winter, squeezed into a corner in front of a police officer. In a single glance with his discerning eyes, Suhrob recognized the form and figure of his own father in the one on the left. The boy’s face suddenly brightened, and up he leapt into Suhrob’s embrace.

“Uncle, Uncle, look what this asshole tried to do! You’ve rescued us, Uncle!!”

One hour later, after all the bits and pieces had been entered into the computer and a statement had been signed, those two young men, Suhrob’s kin and countrymen, were in his own home. His Mashenka was flummoxed by the sight of them wearing only their tracksuits against the harsh winter cold. She was a mother, after all, so she gave them warm coats and bustled about making tea; but as the cold started to melt off their bodies, unwashed for months, a putrid smell began to spread, and poor Masha’s sensitive sentiments were overwhelmed. Suhrob quickly felt the same. What I mean is that Suhrob shared Masha’s kind feelings, but he also could not ignore the terrible stink of the young men’s horselike sweat.

Perhaps the sculptor’s heart had been hardened by too much stonework, or perhaps it simply had no room for silly sentimentalities, and so finally Suhrob spoke up, in his clumsy Uzbek again.

“Your tea, are you all done? Here, put on these coats, we will go,” he told the boys, hoping to hurry them along. “I take you somewhere for the night. We discuss everything in the morning.”

That same evening, Suhrob took his nephew and his friend to his studio, and put two benches together for a bed, and a wool rug from off the ground over them for a quilt, and then he took the very last metro home at one o’clock in the morning. Masha wasn’t asleep yet, having waited up for his arrival.

Another time I might have told you in great detail about the bitter conversation that took place between them, and how Suhrob’s troublesome thoughts kept him tossing to and fro all night long, but there is this law hanging around my neck like a noose: the sculptor’s method demands that I not let the small bits and pieces distract me on my bumpy-thumpy road.

The next morning, groggy from lack of sleep, Suhrob finally woke up in the wintry weather, and once he made his way to his studio he entered it with a clear mind. He entered, and that clarity vanished completely: those two good-for-nothings had turned the whole place upside down! Maybe they had been looking for another quilt last night or for a samovar for this morning’s tea—but no matter. Books had been tossed into the outstretched arms of some statues, and other statues’ heads were crammed onto bookshelves, and as if that weren’t enough, the ceramic dish lay on the embroidered tablecloth broken in four pieces, mixed with a scattering of black raisins. And this is only what I can see through Suhrob’s eyes, leaving aside the hellish smell, and the sound of their shameless snoring.

And then an insult that was left over from his adolescence sprang to Suhrob’s mind and tongue, and he had a strange, irrepressible urge to say something like “Motherfuckers!” But when he stormed over to the corner where those two soundly sleeping small bodies lay he mixed up his Uzbek insults, and instead of “motherfuckers” he ended up with, “Hey, you whoresluts, get up!”

It came out quite pitifully. His voice was hoarse and tight with excitement, and he was screaming like some sort of madman. “You still lie there in your shits!?” he shouted, another mixed-up echo from his childhood.

The two boneheads turned over unwillingly, slowly. “The fuck you yelling for, asshole? What?” said one, and rolled over to go back to sleep.

At that Suhrob grabbed the coats covering the two of them with both hands and pulled them away. “Get up, motherfuckers!” he finally yelled.

Shuddering from the cold, the two tried to wipe the sleep from their eyes. “Damn, what’s with you, old man, talking like that?” they asked, standing up.

“Here is two thousand for you. Go to Kazan Station and go home!”

The two of them seemed to relax at the sight of the money. “OK, old man. Hey, got any clothes?”

“Go! Get out!”

And so Suhrob, having offered them not a drop of tea, and after finding two good Scottish sweaters to thrust upon them on top of the money in their hands, and seeing them straight to the door, and shutting the door behind them, found himself alone. And right away he got to thinking. Had he done the right thing? Who knows? What was done was done. Maybe he should have kept in touch with his friends back home, or sent them presents once in a while . . .

The day was already ruined. And what remained of it did not look too promising. Suhrob busied himself cleaning up the mess they had left behind, trying to put his studio back in order, filing the books neatly back on their shelves, wiping up plaster dust, and gluing the four ceramic pieces back together—and as a result ending up with five where once there had been four. But wasn’t his heart broken in teeny-tiny pieces, too?

He was secretly blaming his own meanness; it was eating him up inside. The telephone rang. He picked it up, and it was his nephew Sangin.

“You’re gonna be pissed, Uncle,” he said, “But there’s no fucking train tickets. These guys here say there’s a plane. They say they can set us up, OK? But we need some more cash. So now what, Uncle?”

A sculptor’s hands and wits are always sharp and decisive, as we know. Suhrob spoke with no hesitation. “You know clock tower at Kiev Station? I bring you the money.”

The money could come or go, but he wanted his peace of mind. From the one thousand dollars he had saved up here and there, and stowed away from his wife for emergencies, Suhrob took four hundred, and set out into the snow once again.

He waited under the clock tower at Kiev Station for half an hour, then gave the two young men the four hundred dollars (“three hundred for tickets, one hundred to buy something for village,” he said), and then he went back to his studio. Interestingly enough, everyone he met on the street looked like an Uzbek to him. Or maybe they were all actually Uzbeks.

Back at his studio, Suhrob kept thinking of that awkward watch he had kept under the clock, and those two innocent boys kept appearing before his eyes. Suhrob suddenly bit his lip. Though his nephew had been wearing the Scottish sweater he had given him that morning, his buddy had been wearing some sort of worn-out old suit and the same flimsy old tracksuit.

To distract himself from them, Suhrob kneaded some clay, wanting to salvage just one thing from the day’s misfortunes. But no matter the circumstances, a hand cannot shape a form on its own—so the clay only dried in his hands, and he could only let it crumble back into teeny-tiny pieces.

When you peel an onion, and you try to dig too deep into the core, past the first layer, and tears come to your eyes—that was the kind of mood Suhrob was in. Had he done the right thing? Or should he have found the boys some little job to do, like all the others, instead of sending them back to where they had come from? He had friends, after all, and he might have found the right kind of place for them, even if it was just as night watchmen or doing this-or-that at the Center for the Arts. There were plenty of Uzbek night watchmen in Moscow. Surely there was room for one or two more.

I wonder if sculptors, as a class, generally maintain a greater distance from their doubts and regrets. When you chip a piece off a rock, it can never go back into place. There’s no use wishing that shape back together again. But why, at his age, was he now, contrary to custom, still tottering back and forth like this? After all, he hadn’t sent his nephew to his death or damnation—he had sent him back to his own motherland, his fatherland! But still Suhrob’s heart felt forged in clay, still his heart, just like that ceramic dish, would not be glued back together . . .

“Well, now I’m a poet!” he muttered, having a chuckle at what had happened, and in that instant he realized what he should fashion out of the chunk-and-hunk of clay he had been kneading.

The early winter darkness had already started to descend. He was just setting out to add a fresh piece of clay onto the old one when the telephone rang once again.

“Salamalaykum, Uncle, I’m at the airport. This asshole here says that for this kinda money we can’t get a fucking ticket for two more days. He says if we wanna go today he needs another two hundred, and then he can get us tickets, OK? So what do you wanna do, Uncle? Should I send this guy to the clock tower? You gotta help me out, OK?”

Suhrob put down the receiver without answering. His hands were dirty. He’d have to wash them. And it wasn’t just his hands. He had smeared clay onto the phone, too, and the telephone was still beeping nervously. He picked up the receiver again, and now he slammed it down angrily, clay shooting out in all directions, and the receiver, cracked down the middle, finally quieted down.

Suhrob gave his hands a rub and a scrub, then went back to his store of money, took out two hundred dollars, quickly added two hundred more, threw his coat in on top, and again went out into the snow. Curiously enough, this time there was no waiting—an Uzbek man stood lurking under the clock. Suhrob didn’t like the looks of this one too much, either. When he came closer, he caught a whiff of cheap beer coming off of him, winter weather aside. And under the man’s leather jacket, Suhrob thought he could see one of that morning’s Scottish sweaters.

“Who you are?” Suhrob demanded, skipping all the formalities.

“Salamalaykum, Uncle, your nephew sent me. Said you’d give me the cash.”

But Suhrob wasn’t listening. “Hey, kid! Where you get that?”

He poked at the sweater hidden under the man’s jacket, and when the young man slipped away, Suhrob’s thumbs caught on his leather jacket.

“Whoa, fuck off, old man! This is real leather! You trying to wreck it? The fuck you doing? This cost some serious money!”

In an instant Suhrob, just like peeling away a rind, was doing his best to rip off the jacket, as if, following the habits of his craft, he meant to peel away layer upon layer to reach the true core of this young man. But just at that moment a police officer appeared out of nowhere, and his thunderous voice joined in the fray. “Starting trouble here, motherfuckers? I’ve had it up to here with you blackasses!” he roared in Russian.

Never in Suhrob’s life had he had a personal run-in with the police, and for that reason, he set about defeating himself. “I’m just here, Comrade Sergeant, Sir, to pass on some money to my relatives,” he said.

“Comrade Senior Sergeant!” the policeman corrected him. “Money, huh? What money?”

“Right here. My friend is flying to Tashkent, so I wanted to—” started Suhrob, taking out his four hundred dollars.

“So you’re planning a little smuggling, too, motherfucker? Paying for your hashish?” asked the officer, his voice full of menace, and Suhrob finally appreciated the state of affairs. Now this worthless Uzbek here would probably have some grass in his pocket, and the thought made Suhrob sick to his stomach.

“Uncle. Don’t be an idiot. Give him a hundred,” hinted the foul-smelling man, switching back to Uzbek.

Never in his life had Suhrob bribed anyone, but it only took him a single instant, in a fog of fear, to take a hundred dollars from the pile of money and offer it to the policeman.

“What’s this now, motherfucker? Trying to bribe a law enforcement official? In the course of his official duties? You know what that’ll get you?” raged the senior sergeant, until the other Uzbek man took the money that was in Suhrob’s hand, and took the policeman by the elbow.

“All right, boss, let’s have a friendly conversation, just between us,” he said, and led him off to one side.

The police officer grumbled and growled, but he slipped back behind the wall from which he had emerged.

This left Suhrob in an interesting position. Some part of him was begging him to go, but he was too ashamed to try to escape. Would that take care of the money situation? If so, the whole filthy mess would be finished. But what if that Uzbek was working with the police, too? Then disappearing would be a good option. At that thought, Suhrob started to move away from the clock. Slowly but surely he began to take heart. The streetlamps had not yet been lit. Twenty or thirty steps more and he would disappear into the crowd. At the thought, his pace quickened—and then all of a sudden there came a shout in Uzbek.

“Whoa, old man, where you off to?”

Suhrob stopped in his tracks, thinking he would now have to face not just the police, but all the myriad Uzbeks huddling around Kiev Station. But no, it was only that same half-drunk young man approaching him again.

“Uncle, hold up, you need to tell them I gave that jerk-off bastard two hundred. You tell your nephew so he doesn’t blame me.”

Suhrob just nodded, and with no farewell, set off into the blue-black snow, into the snow falling on snow.

 

Once he returned to his studio, his hands and his heart trembled for quite some time, and he took a half-empty bottle of vodka out of the refrigerator, and a tin cup, and drank it down in two gulps, no chaser. The fire started inside him. At that moment, another ring rang out, and Suhrob jumped, startled. It wasn’t the telephone. It was worse: the doorbell. At first Suhrob feared it must be the police, but he quickly realized that the police don’t usually ring the bell—they pound on the door. Then he wondered if they’d come back for more money. But there was a second ring, not so much demanding as apologetic. “What will be, will be!” he said, and gripping his tin cup and half bottle of vodka, he headed for the door.

He opened it—and there stood two unfamiliar people. One man, one woman.

“Mr. Soo-rab?” asked the man, in English, and Suhrob’s addled memory recalled that at that very hour an honored guest was supposed to be arriving from the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

He remembered, and with that tin cup and half bottle of vodka in his hand, Suhrob had no idea how to welcome this respectable pair of people, and he could neither offer a hello nor extend his hand in greeting. He was completely at a loss. But those two were Americans, and they each laughed loudly with a grimace, then patted him on the shoulder and said something in English about how he was taking his inspiration Russian-style. And they entered his studio without any excess formalities.

But here I’ve digressed again on another literary tangent. Didn’t I tell you that, like a good sculptor, we will not be distracted by the skin and shell of events, but will go straight to the core? So I won’t go through the pageantry of Suhrob’s long discussion with this esteemed pair, whom he had been expecting for quite some time, except to mention that Suhrob’s studio smelled so strongly of vodka and those two filthy migrants that there was nothing he could do to cover it up. The more he tried, the more sympathetic the Americans acted, but they must have thought that Russian habits had infected even him, and with their Western arrogance they were keen to excuse him for that. Instead let’s go straight to the point when, at eleven o’clock that night, Suhrob showed them out and went home, wanting nothing more than to return to his faithful Mashenka.

Masha had not heard a thing about the day’s events since that morning. “Did you send off your nephew?” was all she asked.

“I sent him off,” he replied, and he gave a fuller report about his American visitors. They talked over the pageantry of their long discussion, and suddenly Suhrob felt that to those Americans he was just like them: some sort of migrant laborer, a beggar. Hadn’t he tried to ingratiate himself to them, in order to sell his work to them at a higher price? When they said there was no money for art nowadays, didn’t he offer up his uniqueness? With his secret beggary, how was he any better from all those other Uzbeks? Did it make it any better that his customers were Americans instead of Russians??

Thinking those thoughts, Suhrob again could not fall asleep until late at night, and he lay tossing and turning under his blankets. But there’s an element of literature here, too.

The next day . . . The next day, nothing happened. The telephone did not ring, and the police did not come looking for him. The Americans also chose to stay away. The day after that, too, passed uneventfully. When the third day came, the studio had been tidied up, the broken ceramic pieces and empty vodka bottles had been thrown in the garbage, and a handful of black raisins nestled inside the golden duppi, which sat upside down to serve as a bowl atop the embroidered silk tablecloth. Suhrob took the last two hundred dollars that remained in his stash, meaning to present it to his Mashenka that very evening. And just now, as he paused to listen to his own heart, finally calm, a new sculpture project was taking shape in his imagination. Maybe he’d call it the Guestworker. Something like that.

That evening, returning home, Suhrob gave Masha the two hundred dollars, and the two of them relaxed with an expensive bottle of French wine while they sat watching television. The news showed a story about sixty-eight illegal immigrants from Central Asia being forced by the police out of an old building, scheduled to be torn down, that they had turned into a campsite and guest house. No—and Suhrob looked very closely—his nephew Sangin was not among them, but the sight of those sixty-eight human beings living like dogs set Suhrob’s heart pounding again.

That night, once again, Suhrob could not sleep. He blamed his insomnia on the wine he had drunk, the news he had watched, and also the duplicity with which he had treated his Mashenka; his thoughts raced in all directions and gave him no rest.

Once upon a time in his youth, when he had just come to Moscow, Suhrob too had been forced to spend the night in places unfit for a dog. And he remembered diving into his studies during the day, first human anatomy, then the study of form, then the arts of stone cutting and clay working. He knew that all that suffering had been for the sake of the respected position he enjoyed today. Yet could that position save him, now, from burning in fire and flames like a stone statue? Not a bit! In all his indecision, the fire and flames were consuming him! Was Suhrob, who had measured his life since a very young age in terms of work upon great work, now falling victim to the petty bits and pieces of meaningless, everyday life? Or was he simply consoling himself with those bits and pieces?

You can talk and talk, but isn’t the point to avoid breaking other people’s hearts, fragile as glass? Suhrob thought first of his angelic Mashenka. And Suhrob thought of his sister Farrah, whom he never knew, and her scoundrel of a son, Sangin. What could he do to make them all happy?

He thought and thought, and an idea came to him. He imagined a contraption like a cannon, sitting on the seashore. His younger sister had been placed inside it, and then as if shot from a slingshot she flew off, far over the ocean. She soared in free flight out to sea, and she emerged from the sea foam as a perfect statue, the goddess Aphrodite. Maybe he could sell that contraption to the Americans! It would make him piles of money . . .

In the morning, when he awoke in the undispersed semi-darkness of winter, he realized that the idea of the catapult machine still haunted him from out of the grogginess of night. Perhaps it had been a dream, but a strong desire to build the thing still lingered. Suhrob didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when dawn came. By the time he reached his studio, the gloom of that dream still had not dissipated, and he felt unable to apply hand or mind to any sort of work. Again Suhrob was plagued by thoughts about himself and his life. Yet we will not be distracted. We will not go back on our promise: we have agreed to be loyal to the art of sculpture, and we will proceed according to its rules.

It was around noon when the phone rang. An unfamiliar, official-sounding Russian voice asked his name.

“This is Suhrob Surataliyev,” answered Suhrob.

“Are you responsible for the individual known as Sangin Surataliyev?” the voice asked.

“Sorry, I’m just . . . could you repeat that?” Suhrob was playing for time, out of craftiness or denial. The voice at the other end sounded as if it were buried in paperwork.

Suhrob instantly thought to put down the receiver. That good-for-nothing was subjecting him to one more disaster! But he was unable to keep silent.

“Excuse me, is everything all right?” he asked.

“No, that’s the problem. Nothing is all right!” the voice snapped at him, and then went on aggressively. “What’s all this about? Didn’t you promise my colleagues you’d look after him? Didn’t you tell them you’d watch him and take care of him?”

“Excuse me, but what exactly happened?” interrupted Suhrob impatiently.

“Did you give him money to spend at the casino at the airport? He lost it all, started a fight, and in the middle of the ruckus he named you—"

“What? What money?”

“Are you asking the questions now? I, Sir, am supposed to be interrogating you!”

At that, Suhrob’s spirits began to sink. His knees shook. Feeling weak, he took a seat on the alabaster lap of a statue, and the statue cracked under him. There was no point hiding now.

“I apologize, Comrade—what did you say your name was? Yes, it’s true, I gave Sangin some money to send him back home. He . . . he’s a scoundrel, a fool . . .” And all the pain and animosity of Suhrob’s last few days came pouring out. This unfamiliar voice had penetrated right to his boiling-roiling heart. He told him about his visit to Altufyevo, about his studio being turned upside down, about how the expensive Scottish sweaters he had given them were gone, along with every last bit of money he had kept from his wife—and they weren’t even really related at all! Suhrob bundled all of this up and released his anger into the phone.

“I have no such relative. Do whatever you like with him!” he declared, concluding his angry lament.

Funny, usually officials demonstrate less patience, but this one maintained complete silence until Suhrob was done speaking. Once Suhrob’s bitter complaining was done, the man held to this respectful silence for a time, and then he continued.

“I apologize, but we have nothing left to do with him,” he said. “A skinhead went mad and stabbed him in his jail cell. I was calling to tell you that you may come and collect his body.”

That December night was a snowless one, so far, as if the great sculptor in the sky was just about to tear a statue apart by hand and plaster dust would soon be settling everywhere. Suhrob and Masha were on the road to Domodedovo Airport, and I, too, am ready to depart now from what I agreed to on a whim. That’s enough, I think. Literature is my art. That other profession is a merciless one, hacking at stone, peeling layer upon layer of wood away from the core; and whether he ever reached the heart, the pit, or not, I don’t want to watch Suhrob Surataliyev the sculptor, on a harsh Moscow winter’s night, carrying the corpse of his frozen rascal of a nephew, like a stone statue, from the jail to a waiting hearse. Was this his life’s work, his most heartrendingly perfect statue? Was this the very elemental core of all his searching and striving? The naked, sharp truth is what it was, I say. I want to be done with this type of art, so foreign to me, in which I’ve been nothing but migrant laborer myself. Much better to wrap up in a warm, soft layer of conjecture and invention, don’t you think?

Come, let us start down our own path again. Suhrob Surataliyev’s friends used to tease him by calling him Zurab Tsereteli . . .

© Hamid Ismailov. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. All rights reserved.