Translator’s Note: Like much of Mikhail Shishkin’s writing, “Calligraphy Lesson” is highly allusive and attentive to the formal qualities of a story both inventively told and steeped in Russian atmospherics.
The reader will want to be aware of two issues in particular.
First, what the English reader may not realize—but the Russian will pick up instantly—is that the various women’s names refer to characters from Russian classics: Sofia Pavlovna from Griboedov’s play Woe from Wit; Tatiana Dmitrievna from Pushkin’s long poem Evgeny Onegin; Nastasia Filippovna from Dostoevsky’s Idiot; Anna Arkadievna from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; and Larochka (Lara) from Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.
Second, the passage describing the calligraphy of a specific Russian word—невтерпеж—posed what was for me an unprecedented dilemma arising from the fact that in it Shishkin describes each letter as an object, yet the word’s lexical meaning remains important.
The Russian word is colloquial, inappropriate for a court of law. Uttered by the defendant, this authentically felt word adds conviction and force to her statement. When the judge repeats it, he reinforces its power, but it’s almost as if he’s put quotes around it, so far is it from a judge’s usual level of discourse. The narrator embeds the intense emotion the word has acquired in this context into his painstaking description of how each letter is to be written, but for him the act of writing is simultaneously a kind of self-protection. By focusing on the physical act of writing he is able to distance himself from the extreme human misery he witnesses over and over.
How could I convey the section’s brilliant emotion but also truly translate it for the English reader? Should I or shouldn’t I rewrite the passage to reflect the English cursive of the word’s translation? It’s a legitimate choice: the French translator decided to recast the passage to describe the word’s French translation; I decided to do both. I translated and reproduced the Russian word. In the predigital era, when Cyrillic characters were technically difficult to reproduce and so were rarely included in translations, I might have been inclined (or forced) to go the other way. Thanks to modern technology and to the fact that Shishkin’s description was based on the letters’ visual characteristics, which English readers could see and appreciate for themselves, I did not have to forgo Shishkin’s tour de force (although I could not recreate his double-entendre: “г on a stick” is a euphemism for the Russian expression “shit on a stick,” that is, something or someone utterly repulsive, worthless, or despicable).
Translating Shishkin means maintaining his virtuosic tension between complex detail and deeply felt emotion.–Marian Schwartz
The capital letter, Sofia Pavlovna, is the beginning of all beginnings, so let us begin with that. It’s like a first breath, a newborn’s cry, you might say. Just a moment ago there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. A void. And for another hundred or thousand years there might still have been nothing, but suddenly this pen, submitting to an impossibly higher will, is tracing a capital letter, and now there’s no stopping it. Being the pen’s first movement toward the period as well, it is a sign of both the hope and the absurdity of what is. Simultaneously. The first letter, like an embryo, conceals all life to come, to the very end–its spirit, its rhythm, its force, and its image.
Don’t go to any trouble, Evgeny Alexandrovich. I’m just a little chick and this is just my scratching. Why don’t you tell me something amusing? Interesting things happen at your work every day, after all. All those crimes, murderers, prostitutes, and rapists.
Good God, what criminals? They’re ordinary people. One blind drunk, another out of his mind, commit God knows what atrocity and are now thoroughly horrified themselves. We have no idea, they say, not a clue. And anyway, how could you even think that I, fine, upstanding man that I am, might do something like that? So they write petitions and solicitations and then more petitions and solicitations, begging for mercy, but no one has the slightest notion of how to hold a pen. Allow me to demonstrate. Lay the left side of the middle finger, down by the nail, against the right side of the pen. Like this. Lay the thumb, also close to the nail, against the left side, and let the index finger rest but not press on top, as if it were stroking the pen’s back. The pen rests against the base of the index finger’s third joint. These three fingers are called the writing fingers. Neither the pinkie nor the ring finger should touch the paper. There should always be space, air, between the hand and the paper. If the hand is constrained and lies on the paper, if even the tip of the pinkie rests there, the wrist has no freedom of movement. The pen must touch the paper lightly, easily, without the least tension, as if it were simply playing. The pinkie and ring fingers, I assure you, are nothing but bestial atavisms, and one can both write and make the sign of the cross without them.
You see, I can never get anything right. For instance, a few days ago I decided to drown myself. Really, don’t laugh. I dashed off a note and taped it to the mirror. But first, for some unknown reason, I decided to stop in at the bathhouse. I have no idea why. Oddly enough, I remember this one sturdy woman washing her red hair across from me. She was sprinkled all over with freckles–on her breasts, her belly, her back, her legs. Her hair was thick and long and soaked up so much water that when she straightened up, the washtub was nearly empty and an entire waterfall came crashing down into it. When I finally got to the bridge, a barge was drifting by below. The men down there shouted something and laughed, as if to say, Come on, jump! I waited for it to pass, but right behind came another barge and another. They kept shouting and laughing from each one and there was no end to those barges in sight. All of a sudden it struck me as funny, too, so I went home, arriving before anyone else, thank God. I took down the note, grabbed a loaf of bread, and gobbled up the whole thing practically. Actually, this is all totally beside the point. Go on. Now where were we?
Why don’t we move on to the line then? But first, sit up straight and relax your shoulders. You can’t write hunched over or at attention. You see, at the basis of everything is the line, the stroke. Take any two points in space, any two objects, and you can draw a line connecting them. There are these invisible strokes between all the things in the world. They make everything interconnected, unseverable. Distance is totally irrelevant. These lines can stretch like rubber bands, which only makes the connections between objects stronger. You see, there’s a line stretching between the inkwell and this ace that fluttered down to the parquet, between the piano pedal and the branches’ shadow on the windowsill, between you and me. It’s like a tendon that keeps the world from falling apart. The pen-drawn line is that connection materialized, so to speak. And letters are nothing but strokes, or lines, held together by knots and loops for stability. The pen ties the line to the form, the shape, and endows it with meaning and spirit–humanizing it, so to speak. Try to draw a straight line! All right, now admire this trembling curly hair. Mortals can’t draw a straight line. A straight line is nature’s unattainable ideal toward which myriad curves aspire. Just as letters cling pell-mell, so too do they all have an inherent harmony and beauty–in the symmetry of their curves, the impetuosity of their slant, the correctness of their proportions. The pen is merely the registrar that faultlessly imprints on paper every dream and fear, every virtue and vice, taking us by the arm each time we press down. Everything that happens in your life immediately ends up on the tip of your pen. Tell me about someone, and I’ll tell you exactly what kind of handwriting that person has.
So start on me.
You are magnificent. You are extraordinary. You have no idea how wonderful you are. And your handwriting, Tatiana Dmitrievna, is pure, fresh, childlike. The letters actually get bigger as they approach the end of the line.
You mustn’t go on like that, Evgeny Alexandrovich! You’re much too kind. Just look at a bit of my writing. Take this. No, better this. No, don’t. Never mind about my handwriting. You’re nothing but a sly widower, chasing after me, and now you’re spinning tales for this gullible, simplehearted woman. I can see right through you even without any handwriting. After all, you aren’t indifferent toward me, isn’t that so? Well then, declare your love right now, this instant. Not that any of this matters. Better not to say anything.
Just think, it’s been eight whole years since my Olya’s been gone. I’m not saying she died, of course. I haven’t told anyone about this since it happened, but I’ll tell you. She and I had been through so much, but for better or worse we’d survived it all together, and suddenly I found myself living with a complete stranger, someone I didn’t know at all. At one point Olya’s right eye started to dim and she started going blind. I took her to Moscow, found a specialist, and they operated. Thank God, she recovered. After that, every six months, and later even more often, she went back for checkups. Whenever I asked, she would say everything was fine, but it felt like she was leaving something out. I was afraid Olya was going blind and wasn’t telling me. She’d changed a lot. She was withdrawn, got annoyed over the least thing, and often cried at night. Before, she’d loved to read Kolya his little books in the evening; now she wouldn’t touch them. I was frightened. I wanted to help somehow, realized there was nothing I could do, and loved her all the more because of it. And then one day at dinner Olya was pouring tea and the china teapot broke right in her hands. We got splashed and jumped up, at which point Olya started screaming that she couldn’t go on like this, that she hated herself but she hated me even more, that she didn’t go to Moscow to see any specialist but to see a man who loved her and whom she loved. I was having a hard time understanding what she was saying. “What do you want?” I asked. “I want to not see you!” Olya started screaming again. “I’d rather hang myself, but I’m not going to go on living like this. I’m leaving you for him. I love him.” “And Kolya? What about Kolya?” She started to weep. “But this whole thing is impossible,” I said. “I can’t live without Kolya, nor Kolya without you. You want to abandon your son? Kolya can’t go through his whole life being ashamed of his mother and despising her. That’s not going to happen. It can’t.” “I know,” I heard in reply, “you wish I were dead! Fine! I’ll die!” She jumped up and ran out of the room. I tried to hold her back. “That’s crazy! Stop it!” She broke away and locked herself in her room. I got scared and started pounding on the door, but Olya suddenly opened it and in an almost calm voice said, “You don’t have to break the door down. Everything’s fine.” The next day at breakfast, in front of Kolya, she announced there was something wrong with her eyes again and she was going to the clinic in Moscow tomorrow. What could I say? Kolya and I went to see his mama off at the station. Olya was crying and kept kissing and hugging Kolya. The boy kept breaking away and asking her to bring him back a rifle. The next morning a telegram arrived from Ryazan. Olya had fallen ill en route. She’d been taken off the train and had died right there at the station. The telegram had arrived while I was out. When I ran in from work, everyone had gray, tear-stained faces, only they hadn’t said anything to Kolya. The boy had been badgering everyone. “What happened? Is something wrong with Mamochka?” “Oh no,” I told him. “Everything’s fine, everything’s fine.” That same night I went to get her. I had to ride all night. My traveling companion complained of insomnia and suggested we play chess. We moved our men around until morning. From time to time I’d forget, but when I remembered what had happened and where I was going, I’d start wailing. My neighbor would shudder and give me a frightened look. The train car shook, the chessboard shuddered, and the men kept slipping off their squares. Then I would stop wailing and right them. Olya–a beautiful stranger wearing a dress I’d never seen–met me at the station early in the morning. When she saw me she waved and burst into sobs. My first impulse was to slap her across the face. I could barely restrain myself. “What’s going on?” She only shook her head, unable to utter a word. Her whole body was quaking. I sat her down on a bench. “Listen, Kolya doesn’t know anything. Let’s go home and explain that it was a misunderstanding!” At last Olya got a hold of herself. “Don’t interrupt me,” she said. “I’ve made my decision no matter what you all think of me. The space in the baggage car is paid for. There are some minor details left: the lining and the ribbons. The train is at seven this evening. We’ll make it.” It was all crazy and impossible, and I followed her around in a daze. At the store she took a long time and kept finding fault with the fabric and ribbons. Nothing pleased her. Either the color didn’t go or the material was crummy. She dragged me to another store, and then we went back to the first. We went to one office and then another and another. By six a coffin lined in blue ruches and bows was in a separate room at the station. She’d even thought of that. We stopped in at the refreshment stand. She looked starkly at her plate and swallowed in silence. I couldn’t help it; I started shouting. “But what about Kolya?” “I’m going to have another child,” she said calmly. I recoiled for fear I might kill her. On the way back, to avoid questions, I rode in the mail car. The sleepy worker sorting the mail mumbled, “I’ve shipped lots of these dead folks in my life. Like some tea?” I declined. He slurped away at it for a long time, then lay down and started to snore. The car rocked, and everything rumbled and shook. In the light from the night lamps you could see the cockroaches crawling in from everywhere. Next to me, behind a wooden partition, was the empty coffin. I was in shock. I couldn’t imagine that morning would come and there would be a funeral. The whole time, I kept seeing Kolya asking his mama to bring him back a rifle. It felt like the end of the world, like there would be no coming day or life thereafter. There couldn’t. But then morning came and a hearse met me at the station. There were many tears, laments, and sighs and even more fuss and commotion. They wanted to take the coffin back to the house, but I insisted it be sent directly to the church. I instructed that under no circumstance should the lid be opened. Seeing Kolya was what scared me the most. When I entered his room, he threw himself into my arms. He sobbed and I walked him around the room, kissing his soft, dear, sweet-smelling nape. “Our Mamochka is gone forever now,” I whispered. The funeral was the next day. People shook my hand and said things. Many were just pretending to be sorry, I could tell, and out of the corner of my ear I heard something bad said about Olya. Her mother arrived, a woman trying to look younger than her age, wearing perfume and dressed in black, but elegantly. I thought with horror that she too might be party to this cruel joke, but when she saw the coffin, she started crying and demanding it be opened. “Show me my little girl! I don’t care what happened to her. I want to see her one last time!” I barely managed to talk her out of it. At the funeral banquet everyone kept trying to get me to drink. “Drink up, Evgeny Alexandrovich! Believe me, you’ll feel better!” But I didn’t so much as touch my glass. The evening after the funeral, I could barely get Kolya to bed, he was crying so. I was going to read him a little something, but he suddenly looked at me with angry, hate-filled eyes. “Stop it, Papa. How could you!” I went on leave and took Kolya to Yalta to let the child regain his senses and clear his head. At first the boy seemed to be walking in his sleep, oblivious to everything and refusing to eat. Then a woman moved into the dacha next door with her three sons, who were a little older than Kolya, and the company of boys quickly distracted him. They raced around from morning to night, flew into rages, and fought. Imperceptibly, Kolya grew tanner, taller, and stronger and got to be a good swimmer. One time at the beach, when he and I were there together, he suddenly dove under and for the longest time did not appear above the water. I jumped to my feet, started running, and was about to dive in myself when he popped up in a completely different spot and started beating the water with his fists: “Scared ya!” he shrieked joyously through the splashing. “Scared ya!” Kolya ran around barefoot all the time so his feet toughened up and every evening I greased his hardened, callused heels, to keep them from cracking. At first, that woman from Syzryan came on strong with stories about her creep of a husband, but before long she backed off and started hanging around with some well-built Greek. A year later I received a letter from Olya, from Kiev for some reason. The handwriting was uneven, but it was hers, even though the signature said Sorokina. Olya wrote that she’d given birth to a marvelous little girl, she and her husband adored each other, and she couldn’t be happier.
But quite a few years have passed and you’re still alone, Evgeny Alexandrovich.
How can I explain it, Nastasya Filippovna? One day I had to stay late at work. I was writing up a report. I think it was about some young man who’d killed the mother of his buddy, who was in the army at the time. They tracked the youth down the same day, and he didn’t deny it but kept insisting she’d gotten him drunk and lured him on. A photograph was attached to the case materials–a naked body on the floor, fat and misshapen. There are pictures like that in nearly every file. It’s nothing unusual. By the time I left, it was dark outside, a cold autumn evening, and I started home. Where else could I go? When Kolya still lived at home, I’d always tried to get back as early as I could to feed him, check his homework, play a game. We would cut out little paper men, draw faces on them, and invent all kinds of stories. Kolya had an amazing imagination. He would come up with great yarns and he was always rescuing everyone. Kolya would talk about himself nonstop: about the other kids, his teachers, his grades, all his friendships and arguments. But now I had to force myself to go home to an empty house. So that day, knowing I faced another endless, pointless evening, I took the longest possible route home, then made another detour, and walked like that for an hour, maybe two–aimlessly, I thought–and suddenly found myself outside your house. There was no one outside and the streetlights were dark. I opened the gate and walked in. It was dark in the garden. The only light came from the windows. I got very close. The undrawn curtain revealed nearly half the room. No one was there. Suddenly you walked in and looked out the window, straight at me. That scared me and made me want to hide behind a tree, but I froze, transfixed. You were standing so close you couldn’t have not seen me, but you didn’t even flinch. You turned to one side, then the other, ran your palms over your hips, looking at your reflection, fixed your hair, turned away, and walked through the room and around the table. You were talking to yourself. I couldn’t hear through the double window. I could just see your lips moving. Suddenly your husband loomed up. He’d been lying on the sofa the whole time, and now he stood up, in his robe, disheveled, with mussed hair and a tired, sleepy face. He must have taken a nap right after work. He put his arms around you, lay his head on your shoulder, and shut his eyes. Then the children were brought in, to say goodnight probably, because they were wearing their nightshirts and were all pink under the lampshade. You made a cross over your daughter and son and kissed them on the forehead. The little girl kept holding out a book to you, probably trying to talk you into reading to her before bed. First you shook your head and your face was stern, but your little girl begged you so, so you smiled and sat down next to her in the armchair. Your child wiggled for a long time getting comfortable and then fell still with her little mouth open, on a flight of fancy to a land of trolls, or naughty ducks, or enchanted frogs, places you and I can never be. Meanwhile your spouse started a game of blind man’s buff with your son, put a coin in his eye to look like a monocle, and paddling with his arms, chased the little boy around the room. The child was in such ecstasy that his cries, shrieks, and laughter splashed out the window and scattered over the stiff, chilly garden. You tried to calm them both down a few times and spoke sternly, probably about how the children shouldn’t get so worked up before bedtime, or words to that effect, but even you couldn’t help laughing and gave first one and then the other a playful smack with your little book. The coin popped out and your husband got down on his hands and knees to reach under the chair for it, whereupon the boy jumped on his neck and the girl on her papa’s back. You were all laughing hard. Finally, the children were taken off to bed. Your spouse lit up and sat down with the newspaper under a lamp in a corner of the sofa. You settled in beside him with a fat book. Then you got up, brought a pillow over, plumped it up at the other end of the sofa, and lay down, wrapping your legs in a big warm throw. You read like that for a long time, with your legs draped across his knees. Once you looked into the corner together–up. It was the clock chiming. Occasionally he would read you something out loud, some funny item. He would laugh and shake his head while he read, but you would just smile faintly, not even looking up, you were so engrossed in your book. Then he folded the paper, yawned, said something to you, you just nodded, and he went out. You kept reading, first sitting with your legs curled underneath you, then lying on your back. From time to time you would take a pin out of your hair and scratch your head. I didn’t notice how cold it was, that I was chilled through, but I just couldn’t leave. I kept standing there watching you. At one point you stood up and took a box of candy from the sideboard, balanced it on your knees, and ate piece after piece, wadding each wrapper up in a ball and flicking it away. Suddenly, from upstairs, came a child’s cry. You jumped up, dropped your book on the table, and rushed out of the room looking frightened. No one was there for a long time. Then your husband appeared for a moment and the light went out. But I kept standing there. I was afraid to leave.
Oh, you naughty boy! Have you no shame? Gray hair, and you behave like a little boy. It’s true, my husband is always reading things out loud from the newspapers. For instance, recently there was one story about three men convicted of raping a girl, a teenager. Not only that, but imagine, they were all reputable men and had families and children. In short, you never would have thought something like that about them. Understandably, they were angry and indignant, and they hired the best lawyers. They brought charges against someone, saying it was all a frame-up. The girl was the daughter of their mutual acquaintances, though, and her parents believed everything she said and were furious at the base and vile things their good friends had done. During the inquiry and trial the girl told stories of such degenerate acts committed against her that no one ever doubted the veracity of her testimony. Such horrors simply could not have entered a child’s mind. In short, they were convicted, but their lawyers kept active, another inquiry was scheduled, and the upshot was that the three were innocent, that the girl was sick, that she had an erotically based psychological deviance and had dreamed this all up and believed her own fantasies. The convicted men were released, of course. One can only imagine the joy in their unfortunate families. And they placed the girl in a special clinic to teach this horrible girl not to defame honest people. After all was said and done, though, they found details in her initial statements that simply could not have been invented: an unusual birthmark in a most intimate place and something else like that. Other testimony and evidence were found as well. Finally, one of them confessed and all three were imprisoned again, this time for good. But meanwhile, what was most interesting was they didn’t release the girl, because she really was abnormal and attacked everyone, men and women alike. In short, a fine lot all. But you just don’t know my husband really. He’s a marvelous man and I love him very much. This is a man worthy of every respect. He loves me and our children very much. He’s always coming up with surprises, For instance, he writes either me or himself letters and mails them, and then we open them together and he watches me–after all, he only does it to bring me pleasure–and I go into ecstasies over his silly scribbles, to make him feel good. I rushed headlong into marriage. This very young fool fell head over heels in love with a grown man just because he visited our house occasionally and never said a word. Now I realize my primitive curiosity fed my fantasy–so that I couldn’t go on living without this clam. Later, after the wedding, I had an epiphany. It was like I’d regained my senses. I was horrified at what I’d done, but our son showed up so I resigned myself. This man is a marvelous husband, and I understand intellectually that I should be grateful to him, but it’s unbearable. The strange, crazy ways he has of eating disgust me. He always has his second course first and then his soup. He likes to crumble bread into his milk because his mama made him a mush like that when he was little, and he shovels that mess, that awful, swelling swill, into both cheeks. I’m always finding his socks in the most incredible places, and when he loses something, it’s my fault. He can go weeks without a bath and his dirty hair smells awful, but before leaving for work he spends fifteen minutes putting on cologne, to mask the smell. When he thrusts himself on me, especially at night, I try to imagine it’s someone else instead of him. Don’t get the wrong idea. I have no thought of cheating on him; I would despise myself afterward. If I fell in love with someone else, I would fight the feeling in any case. Self-respect is more important than pleasure. I have children and a home and I can’t imagine a different life for myself, although in my mind I’m cheating on him constantly–disgusting, horrible, filthy thoughts, and I try to drive them out, but I can’t. And that’s even worse than cheating on him for real. Sometimes I scare myself. And that goes not just for my husband but for the thoughts that overwhelm me in general. It’s become impossible. When I was nursing our first child, I was so tired, I was in a state of such nervous agitation over his endless illnesses and my chronic lack of sleep, I was so tormented by his screaming and crying, that one day I had a nervous breakdown, a moment of insanity. In the middle of the night the boy started screaming again and I jumped up, exhausted, and suddenly such hatred bubbled up inside me, such rage, such fury, that I was ready to kill him. I actually snatched the child from his crib–I remember I was suddenly struck by the idea of throwing him off the balcony. This horrified me so that things suddenly felt crazy–after all, I was a second away from the irrevocable. After that night, my milk dried up. Listen to me, because it would never occur to a mother to kill her own child!
What are you talking about! At work I deal with stories you could never even imagine, but you know I’ve gotten used to it and I do my job. One man, for instance, quarreled with his wife and slaughtered her and their two children with the bread knife. The older was four and the younger was an infant. Then he came to his senses and started to slit his own veins, and while he was bleeding, he set fire to the apartment and jumped out the window. Another forced his daughter to sleep with him, and that very night she killed him with an ax. A third beat his brother to death with a log because they couldn’t figure out how to divide up the house they’d inherited. A fourth tortured twins, neighbor children, raped them, poked out their eyes, and left them to die in an abandoned cellar–and then went through the worry with their parents, acted outraged, and took part in the searches, until they happened to expose him. You wake up, have breakfast, get ready for work, and you already know what’s going to happen. One man choked his own mother with a stocking and carried the body to the outhouse piece by piece, and I said to him: “Please sign here!” And so it goes, day after day, year after year. If it’s not Peter, it’s Nikolai; if it’s not the doting father, it’s the loving son. Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, a hundred years from now. The words, even those are the same: I didn’t see it. I wasn’t there. It wasn’t me. Nor is the charge ever very original: “consumed by an unquenchable thirst for gain,” “blinded by envy, tormented by his awareness of being a nobody,” “the scum, having lost all humanity, to satisfy a moment’s fancy,” “after foully taking advantage of the helplessness of his father, who was crippled by paralysis,” “who for twenty years cleverly and perfidiously concealed his criminal essence under a mask of decency.” And the defense babbles on the same way: “made desperate by the hopelessness and pointlessness of his pitiful existence”; “having no other way to defend his profaned honor”; “being a victim of a prison education–since if you’re born in prison all you’ve seen around you since childhood is rapists and murderers”; “Yes, blood was spilled, and the instrument of murder is before you, but look at the remorse this unfortunate man has shown! Instead of convicting him, share the grief of a man who murdered his own son!”; “My God, even you must have been thoroughly oiled and felt a wild, half-bestial, half-childish desire to take revenge on someone for your good-for-nothing, betrayed life, for all the agonies and injustices, for everything you’ve suffered at the hands of people near and far, God, and your own self. Haven’t you?” They do things even they can’t imagine, and I tell them, Write, now, to keep from losing your mind, write a final word not in some lapidary cursive but, say, an elegant, bubbly Rondo, in blurred letters that repeat, but the verdict is in a littera fractura with flourishes, or Gothic logjams, or Batard, or Coulé, or whatever strikes your fancy, one page like this, another like that. Even if you only write one word, to say nothing of a page, make it harmony itself, so that its regularity and beauty offset that whole crazy world, that whole caveman mindset. Why just today they convicted someone who had poisoned her husband, a drunkard and a brawler, someone the long-suffering household members may have needed to be freed from long ago because their children are cretins, monsters. She tried to hang herself in her cell, but they cut her down and at the hearing she said, “Do whatever you want. You’re nobody to me because I’m still going to kill myself. I’m not going to live, and the Highest Court will vindicate me, because I’m fed up with living.” That’s what she said. But our presiding judge said, “But you see, dear, that’s us. We are the Highest Court, and whether you are or aren’t fed up is not for you to decide!” But she kept up her muttering: “I’m fed up with this life of yours.” That’s what I wrote: fed up. Невтерпëж! What that one word costs! Just try it! The primitive Н may not merit special mention. Its crossbar is written on a slant in a single stroke. You place the tip of your pen at the beginning, then bend your fingers right away, and the pen itself pulls you down, but the main thing here is the pressure. God forbid you press too hard or lift too much because the line isn’t supposed to breathe! The flamelike shape–because it does resemble a tongue of flame–bends first to the left, then the right. It gets fatter in the middle and dwindles to nil at the ends. On the third beat the stick has a curve at the bottom. The first five sections of the line are drawn straight, but on the sixth the pressure eases up and the line, rounding, drifts off to the right, ending at the invisible line that confines each letter to its allotted space, its cell, you might say. Below, where the stick curves, between the imagined field of the cell and the tip of the line it contains, you get an empty corner. After the curve the fine line goes up–not straight up but in an arc–bending slightly to the right so as not to lose contact with the page and break through to the ë, a cunning ninny, unprepossessing to look at, but demanding caution and deft treatment in order to achieve the desired end. After the clumsy, snub-nosed Н, the е requires a light, graceful line that begins with an eyelash stroke and a bend to the right, cuts across the middle evenly on an incline, flies back after the bend, nearly grazing the ceiling of its chamber, and as it falls back in its noose rushes into the half-oval with pressure on the left side; moreover the bend of the capillary outline is hidden in the half-oval but is not left behind. After a break the pen heads all the way to the upper corner of the next cell. The merest tremble or thickening could instantly destroy the illusion of this free soaring, which takes a drastic gain in altitude to become a в. The secret essence of this spindleleg lies by no means in the spaces that run through it from top to bottom but in the concluding, unremarkable, but danger-laden sign-off loop beyond which the т is already twitching impatiently. Here it’s important not to be too hasty in imprinting the tightening loop but to wait for the loop to turn almost into a period. Then you can rush headlong into three holes in a row, returning happily once again to the е, р, and п, which is hardly a letter, just a г on a stick. But onward, onward, to the very end and the ж, that amazing, anthropod peahen, the only one that falls into a full five beats! There’s something of the two-headed eagle to it and at the same time its soft half-ovals sit firmly on the line, like on a perch. It seems to clamp an unraveling world together–heaven and earth, east and west. It’s elegant, perfect, and sufficient unto itself. And now, if the hand was true, if the pen didn’t shake once, if everything came together, then, you won’t believe it, a miracle takes place at my desk! A sheet of ordinary paper breaks free and rises above events! Its perfection immediately yields an alienation, a hostility even, toward all that exists, toward nature itself, as if another, higher world, a world of harmony, had wrested this space from that kingdom of worms! They may hate and kill each other, betray and hang themselves there, but it’s all just raw material for my penmanship, fodder for beauty. And during those astounding minutes, when you feel like writing nonstop, you experience a strange, inexpressible feeling. Truly, this is happiness!
Evgeny Alexandrovich, you’re insane!
You don’t understand, Anna Arkadievna. Going mad is the privilege of God’s fools, a reward for the elect, but we are all being punished for something. The main thing is that there’s no one to ask what for. Judge for yourself. Take my Kolya. When he went to Moscow to study, I was happy for him, my son, who had suddenly, imperceptibly, turned into a young man, a university student with a sparse, impatient little beard. Less than two months later I received a document, a notification, saying my son was under investigation, charged with murder. I dropped everything and rushed to Moscow. The investigator in charge of the case told me that my Kolya and his friend had attacked and killed some young woman. Kolya was caught, but the second youth slipped away. “Are you in your right mind?” I shouted. “Yes. The scoundrel has confessed to everything.” I didn’t believe a word of it. I knew there had been some mistake, some horrible misunderstanding. Finally they allowed us a visit. Kolya hadn’t changed at all. He was even wearing the same jacket. He’d just let his beard grow out. “Kolya, why did you confess?” I began. “After all, it wasn’t you!” I thought he would throw his arms around me, cry, and tell me everything that had happened, but he started talking about which petitions I needed to write and to whom, asked me to remember everything exactly and not get mixed up, and got angry when I couldn’t seem to. That’s what he said to me: “Father, wake up and remember this!” And he was beside himself that I hadn’t brought any money. All I had with me were a few small bills. “Papa,” he said, “if you have money, you can live anywhere, even in prison.” And still I didn’t believe the investigator or Kolya. I still don’t. My boy could not have done that. He slandered himself. Out of fear. Someone had put the fear of God in him. But Kolya might have been trying to protect or save someone, too. At trial he was so nervous, he tried so hard to fight his fear, that instead he was brash, slouched in his chair, and answered questions with a smirk. When the witness, a janitor, got his testimony mixed up, Kolya actually started laughing. And he shrugged at his terrible sentence–fifteen years–as if to say, Imagine. He’s just a little boy, a silly little boy, a child. As they were leading him away, he shouted, “Papa, don’t cry. I love you!” The parents of the murdered girl were sitting right there in the courtroom. During the hearing the mother would start sobbing from time to time, and then the father would take her out of the room, but after a while they would return and take their seats again. The first day of the trial I went over to them and wanted to say something, I didn’t know what–beg their forgiveness, plead for mercy–but they wouldn’t let me say a word. “Get away!” the father shouted. I collected Kolya’s things, wrote endless, pointless requests and petitions, and sat in reception rooms for hours just to clarify where they were sending him. I’d already made plans to visit him in the summer. Maybe they’d let me if I asked my boss for a special meeting. But that summer I got sick and took to my bed, and I never did take my trip to the distant and terrible Ivdel. Kolya’s letters were brief: what to send in the package, where to write the next pointless mercy letter, as he put it. A year passed that way. At work they didn’t know anything about Kolya, or maybe they were pretending they didn’t, because before that they would occasionally ask, “How’s that son of yours?” and now it was all about cases, as if I’d never had Kolya. And then one day I was asked to stop in to see our Viktor Valentinovich. I went into his office and stood there, waiting, but he was clearly uneasy and started pacing around the room, asked me to have a seat, and for a long time didn’t say anything. Then he mumbled, “Really, I don’t even know how to begin this conversation. You see, the problem is that your son–” I interrupted him. “Yes, my Kolya was convicted, but he’s not guilty of anything, it’s a mistake, he slandered himself!” “Please, wait!” he put a document in front of me. “Your son has escaped.” For a long time after that I couldn’t think clearly. Viktor Valentinovich brought me some water, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Get a grip,” and something else. Then he started saying Kolya would quite likely come home sooner or later, but regardless, he was a dangerous criminal and I as a decent man whose honesty no one doubted would let them know as soon as he showed up. “Yes yes, of course.” It felt like I was dreaming. I nodded and went to continue my writing. A long time has passed since that day, but still no Kolya. Sometimes I look out the window in the evening and it feels like he’s somewhere nearby, in the darkness, behind the trees. He’s hiding, afraid to come out. I open a small window and call out softly, so only he can hear, “Kolya! Kolya!”
Pay no attention to me, Evgeny Alexandrovich, I just remembered something that happened yesterday. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. You know Zhdanov? Well, you’ve seen him at our house–a second cousin twice removed and a dreadful self-centered fool. I happened to be home alone. My husband had gone on an inspection tour, little Sasha was with his grandmother, and Vova’s been in college for two months. Out of the blue, Zhdanov showed up. “Larochka,” he said with a leer, “I came to have my way with you!” “What’s this, Zhdanov? Has passion got the better of you? You know I never thought of myself as a femme fatale!” “Passion? Hardly. It’s just that you talk so much about morality that this will be my last argument in our debate. I came merely to tempt you and lead you into sin, that’s all.” “But you’re repulsive, Zhdanov!” I told him. “Believe me, that doesn’t matter!” and he reached under my skirt. I wanted to laugh, slap him, pour water over his bald head, but I was overtaken by apathy, passivity. I can’t explain. It all just happened, moreover I felt nothing, absolutely nothing. Zhdanov grunted and wheezed and growled. Then he stretched out across the bed, flopping his belly to one side, and lit up. I said, “What a smart aleck you are, Mishenka! I just might go and fall in love with you!” And he said, “What do you mean? I love my wife and children.” He finished smoking and reached for me again. Suddenly there was a noise in the front hall. Before I could figure out who it might be, my husband was standing in the doorway. Dead silence. Finally Zhdanov said, “Well, time for me to go!” and started pulling on a sock. My husband hemmed and hawed in a strange, old womanish voice. “Didn’t you see the telegram? I left it by the mirror. Vova’s coming home today. They gave him leave.” “And here he comes!” Zhdanov said, pointing out the window. Indeed, Vova was opening the gate, wearing his uniform–smart, grown-up, handsome. We rushed to get dressed. Zhdanov couldn’t seem to find his other sock, so he put his boot on his bare foot. My husband made the bed. I didn’t even have time to put my dress on properly, let alone comb my hair! Vova fell on my neck immediately and then started hugging his father and then hugged Zhdanov. “Uncle Misha! Lord, how glad I am you’re here! I love you all so much!” He grabbed a plate of pirozhki and started cramming them into his mouth, one after another, poor kid. I broke down in tears, kept kissing his prickly nape, his coarsened hands, his pimply cheeks, his sweat-soaked tunic. Zhdanov wanted to leave, but Vova wouldn’t let him. “Oh no, Uncle Misha, you’re staying for dinner!” Vova told stories nonstop about the barracks, his idiot commanders, how you have to eat everything with a spoon and you practically have to fight to get an apple for dessert. The three of us behaved as if nothing special had just happened. And maybe nothing so terrible had. Before Vova could finish his cup he jumped up from the table, plopped down on the sofa, shut his eyes, and sighed. “God, this is great!”
Yes, you’re quite right. Nothing so terrible! There was a silly embezzlement case that crossed my desk. This cashier, you see, a respectable type, a decent-looking man, had embezzled a lot of money. He denied all the charges and said he’d been put up to it by his thief of a boss. All in all he behaved like any honest man insulted by suspicions would. The whole case was proceeding toward acquittal. The defense presented spotless references and letters of praise for his many years of honest service. The man also won people’s sympathy because his wife and three identically dressed sons were sitting in the courtroom in the front row. From time to time the father would buck them up, say something loudly across the entire courtroom–that they shouldn’t cry, that he would certainly be acquitted because there was justice in this world, it could not fail. In essence, the entire case boiled down to a single note of a few lines submitted by the investigation. It had allegedly been written by the defendant and was proof of his guilt. Burinsky himself, the famous expert, was called in specially from Moscow to testify. Everything hinged on his opinion. So on the third day, I think, the case got to the point of his expert testimony. Burinsky rose–a large, stern, majestic man two heads taller than everyone else. Robinson himself would have envied that head of hair and beard. Everyone held their breath, gazing at the celebrity. He paused and then growled resoundingly, “This is the note.” Burinsky shook the sheet of paper over his head. “And this is a handwriting sample.” He shook another sheet. “And here is my conclusion. This man is innocent!” Pandemonium! The courtroom burst into applause and people were practically hugging each other. Burinsky sat back down and began raking his beard with an indifferent look on his face. A few formalities remained. The note, the letter, the handwriting taken for a sample, and the expert analysis lay on my secretarial desk. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Both were written by the same person. “Wait a minute!” I exclaimed. “What do you mean? This is the same hand!” I felt the eyes of the entire courtroom on me. “Just look. Here and here!” Burinsky tossed back his gray curls and asked in amazement. “What are you actually implying?” “Look here. Can’t you see?” I began explaining. “Just take the sweep of the pen. In handwriting the most important thing, after all, is the connection between letters. You can’t forge or alter that. Just look at the т, п, and н. They’re all drawn with their bottoms downward, like the и. And believe me, this is a sure graphological sign of goodness, openness, and emotional gentleness. These letters, on the contrary, were written with arches and betray secrecy and mendacity. Notice,” I continued, “both in the note and in the letter, the pressure is not firm. No sooner does the pen touch the page than it encounters the paper’s resistance, and an inevitable struggle ensues. A pen pressed into the paper reflects urge, will, obstinacy, contrariness, and belligerence. Here, rather, the hand is yielding, a sure sign of susceptibility, impressionability, sensitivity, delicacy, and tact. In both the letters are small, which indicates a sense of duty, self-restraint, and love for hearth and home. Note also how fat the letters are and how open they are at the top of the vowels. Altogether this is proof of credulity, peaceableness, a highly developed capacity for sympathy and deep attachment. Moreover, I dare say that this person possesses both taste and a sense of beauty. Just look at the elegant but perfectly unadorned capitals, at the wide, almost verse-like left margin, at the indent, which starts nearly halfway across the page. The letters are almost not connected to each other, indicating a contemplative, lofty nature, detachment from the mundane, and a rich mental life. A signature without any flourishes indicates intellect. Oh, you have before you an exceptional person. Just look at the incredibly unique shape of the letters. Do they not, all else aside, betray a single patrimony for the neat letter and the messy note? The purely outward, superficial dissimilarity can be explained simply: the note was written in the dark, hence the interlacing of the uneven lines and the blind muddle of suddenly looming letters and words. You see, even a moment’s inspection of these letters is enough to be convinced of their kinship. You have before you brothers and sisters in ink, twins from a single pen! This hook over the йalone is priceless, taking a running start and sliding into the question mark! And how could you ever confuse the adjacent к pinned to it? Or this б, which keeps trying to latch onto its neighbor? And the ц-you must take a close look at this little Jewess which Cyril abducted from Solomon’s alphabet–all the grace in the steep line of her flaunted hip!” Everyone was silent, dumbstruck, but I kept talking and talking, powerless to stop myself. “Without a doubt, the person who wrote this is extraordinary, or rather, artistic. Hence the unevenness, the anxiety, the total lack of rhythm (which indicates emotional contentment), death poured outward for the time being. A tremendous, unconscious life force drives the ends of the line sharply upward. The diacriticals and the marks between the lines stretch and break off. They try to tear the word to shreds, annoyed over what has been left undone, unrealized, overlooked!” At this Burinsky rose from his seat. He walked toward the door, donning his hat as he went, and when he pulled even with me hissed through his teeth, “Fool!” Regardless, the court scheduled a second expert opinion, and of course they declared that the cashier had written the note. He was convicted, and after the hearing, while everyone was retrieving their coats in the checkroom, the judge came up to me and said, “God will punish you. Wait and see!” But it’s all right. I’m alive. Alive, breathing, eating, and using up a stack of paper every day. My pen still scratches, punishes, and pardons. What’s so important about that? I’m perfectly willing to admit that right now, this very minute, he may be whimpering from hunger, or freezing, or has had his teeth knocked out and is being raped by his cellmates, or that he’s not even alive but lying in some morgue with a toe tag, or has simply faded away with time, written in cheap ink. Not that there’s anything so awful about that. My God, what makes him any better than me or even you, that we should have regrets? Because there has yet to be a case, even the longest and most convoluted, at the end of which, when all was said and done, a pen did not place a period.