Her day was not going well. Her cap had fallen in the dirt, and there was a gaping hole in the sleeve of her T-shirt. She hadn’t even felt it snag on anything. And there was an angry bruise just above her elbow. Where had that come from? Not noticing a torn sleeve was one thing, but to have hurt her arm and not even feel it? It gave you pause for thought.
Maria sat in the grass and thought listlessly to herself. There was nothing else to do. Everyone had scattered in search of shade, leaving the square empty. It was quiet. There was no one yelling or looking over her shoulder. But soon it would be feeding time, which would bring this sweet inactivity to an end.
“Oh, no, not that,” Maria groaned in irritation. A bearded man who was passing by turned sharply and walked up to her. Maria didn’t know his name and had no desire to learn it. She referred to him as the Commandant, or sometimes as the son-of-a-bitch.
“What are you doing sitting, bitch,” he shouted from a distance. “You need a personal invitation? Soup’s on.”
“Don’t shout at me, asshole,” she said between clenched teeth. But the beard had already come close enough to hear her. He smiled grotesquely, but quieted down. He shook his fist at her, and then turned and walked away, his fat rear shaking in his torn jeans.
“You’re the bitch,” Maria said behind him, grinning. Not long ago she would have been too shy to even say the word out loud. But here on the square the rules were different, and she’d learned them all too quickly. That speed scared her, but it was better not to reflect on it too much.
“Don’t know why, but it’s painfully quiet today, don’t you think?”
She turned toward the voice.
“Masha! Hey, I didn’t see you there. Are you going to eat?”
Maria took her namesake by the shoulder. “Why is everyone wearing yellow warmups? I must be the only one in a T-shirt.”
“No one told you? They read out the Commandant’s orders yesterday evening.” Masha started laughing. “Today the other side are in T-shirts so we changed uniforms so we wouldn't get confused and could tell each other apart from a distance. Maybe you can check out the other side. You can see what they’re up to. There’s a rumor they’re feeding them better. Maybe even paying them more. You can go find out for sure.”
“Maybe I will. Do you know if we’re supposed to be going out onto the square? Did they say anything about it in the orders?”
“God knows. That's why he's the chief. Mainly so that no one can say what’ll pop into his head, and when. For some reason he hasn’t been showing up recently. Let’s see after lunch. But come on, let’s go now, or else there’ll be a crowd. Even though they haven’t done anything, they’ll all want to eat.”
They cut across the empty square to where a makeshift kitchen had been set up. There was already no room on the benches at the long tables. The women sat down on the grass under an oak and leaned against its trunk. They didn’t feel like talking, and sat quietly waiting their turn. Maria observed the Commandant out of the corner of her eye. How repulsive he was, thinking he was some kind of fucking revolutionary. She thought of how he shouted commands through his megaphone, spittle flying out of his mouth in every direction. She shuddered at the thought. She took her eyes off him. She found a pair of acorns among the leaves on the ground and began to roll them about in her palm. A late-in-the-season dandelion brushed against her leg.
“Wake up, wake up!” Someone shook Maria vigorously by the shoulders. She opened her eyes but didn’t initially remember that she was sitting under the oak. There was some kind of hubbub around her.
“What’s going on?” She jumped up and hit her head against someone’s arm, but still hadn’t looked at the person standing next to her. She looked around for Masha, but she was nowhere to be seen.
“Pick up the pace, come on, let’s go, let’s go, don’t drag your feet,” shouted some guy behind her. Suddenly, he hit her hard on her back. “What are you just standing for? Get a move on!”
“But I haven’t even eaten lunch yet.”
“And whose fault is that? You should have thought of that sooner. And what the hell are you doing in a T-shirt, you fool? Go over to that car and someone will give you a uniform.”
Maria headed over to the Zhigulis. There was no one in the car. She opened the door and spotted a pile of rags in the backseat. She pulled out a couple of pieces, which turned out to be yellow training jackets.
“What is with this sudden madness for yellow,” muttered Maria, pulling out a succession of identical jackets. “Why not green, light blue, or even orange for that matter?”
Behind her, someone laughed gruffly. Maria turned around and saw a big young guy in a yellow tracksuit. Now she, too, began to laugh—the tow-headed boy with his clear skin looked so much like a fledgling chick he seemed just about to flap his arms and open his mouth wide to be fed.
“What’s with you, Grandma,” he said rudely. “Orange is for another country. The color for our revolution is yellow. Haven’t you seen the kids from the youth movement in the streets—they’ve been handing out lemons.”
“I haven’t,” said Maria, shrugging. “I haven't really walked around today.”
She pulled on a jacket, waved to the boy and went back to the square to resume working the square—what they referred to their work as amongst themselves.
There were noticeably fewer people in the square than the day before. “They’re melting away,” thought Maria, with a smirk. But everyone gathered was in yellow, which looked smart, even festive. The warm, cheerful color had a calming effect that seemed quite disconnected from the revolutionary slogans that the crowds had already begun to shout.
Maria suddenly realized that she wasn’t up to speed with the day’s slogans. She listened closely.
“Out with the president! Down with the president!”
Maria tried to recall what they had been shouting the day before. Hell, probably something like “Get out, Prime Minister.” She began to get nervous. Was it possible she was among complete strangers? Maria looked around, examining people’s faces. But she didn’t recognize anyone—the faces in the crowd all looked unfamiliar.
People were gradually beginning to gather on the other side of the square. They were wearing white T-shirts with a red patch on the chest—either an emblem of some sort or someone’s portrait. Maria couldn’t make out for sure. Maybe she had gotten mixed up and they needed her on the other side? She began to listen closely again. From the other side, it sounded like, she could make out calls of “Down with the Prime Minister!” And on the other side, running in front of the disorganized rows of people, there was a bearded guy who looked like the Commandant. That decided it—she was definitely not with the right group, Maria thought miserably. They’ll notice when they don’t give out any money in the evening.
But she was happily surprised when she saw the Commandant with his unkempt beard right next to her. “Ah, there you are, you son-of-a-bitch,” she said to herself. Then she looked again to the other end, where the other similarly bearded man was rushing about, waving his hands and shouting. “What, are they brothers?” thought Maria. “Everyone here looks the same.” She waved her hands. She needed the work, and so she started, softly at first, and then louder and louder, and then, with a thrill, to pour her voice into the disorganized chorus. “Down with the President!” she shouted, adding for her own part: “And all of you can go to hell!”
A brawl broke out as evening approached. They had been tramping around the square for a couple of hours, shouting and waving their hands about, channeling the people’s rage. The crowd on the other half of the square were doing the same. The rage today, though, seemed unconvincing, Maria thought to herself. Probably because no one felt particularly inclined to really set it ablaze—the game masters, as they called them, were noticeably absent.
“Where have all our shouters gone,” Maria heard someone next to her say. “Either they’re moving around here in packs, or they disappear all at once.”
“They’re probably sitting in some café, downing beers and going over their plan of attack,” someone joked in response. “Later they’ll be back here standing up for the people, bloody opportunists.”
Maria listened without interest, not looking at the people talking. She had had to listen to so much of this the last few days on the field that any conversation about revolution or the people’s aspirations felt like torture. She had figured out that the best way to get by under these circumstances was to just not react. But it was still something she’d had to learn. She’d had to learn how to look right through the person standing on the stage, heatedly declaiming his suffering; how to look a person in the face and not hear what he was saying in the name of the people and, of course, in his own name, too. Once I’ve got it down, thought Maria, maybe then I won’t give a crap anymore. Things will be easier then.
Something was happening—Maria could sense this from the journalists who’d appeared between them with their video cameras. They smelled blood. Nothing interesting had happened the last three days on the square and the journalists had all but given up. Maria didn't care, but her coworkers talked excitedly among themselves, speculating that they were in for some entertainment. It was like someone had cast a fly, and the journalists had swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.
They didn't have to wait long. Victorious shouts resounded from next to one of the tents on the edge of the square. A small scuffle ensued. A young man festooned with cameras broke away from the group of people shouting and waving their hands. He held a small video camera high above his head. He made his way haltingly to a car, on whose windshield shone a white placard with the word Press on it.
The excited crowd began to murmur around Maria. A few rushed to explain what had happened in the tent. The rest waited impatiently. Within minutes it became clear that someone from the opposition who had announced a hunger strike a week ago had caved in. A journalist had caught him in the tent at a table piled high with food and had taken his picture with every camera and photographic device he had on him.
“That’s done it. The idiot couldn’t wait till it was dark?” the crowd started to shout heatedly. “Then he could have stuffed his face as much as he liked. Good luck proving he was just sitting at the table and didn’t touch any of the food.”
“That journalist was smart—I wonder how he got wind of it.”
“Ha!—probably ratted out by one of his own. It’s always one of your own.”
“He probably wasn’t even the only one gorging himself, the others just managed to stay out of view,” one of them said, laughing.
Maria looked around and saw a towering man, his eyes crazed and his face contorted in excitement.
This new morsel tided them over for almost an hour. After that their chatter slowly died out. Many were already looking impatiently at their watches. But the Commandant, who usually dismissed everyone and handed out the day’s wages, had disappeared.
The soles of Maria’s feet were burning. She had wanted to sit down for a long time. She quietly slipped away from the crowd and returned to where she’d been sitting in the grass that morning. She didn’t see the young man following behind her, pulling a notebook and a pen out of his pocket.
“Hello. I saw you here a few days ago and just remembered you. Do you mind if I speak to you for a moment?” The young fellow looked at Maria inquiringly.
“You can try,” Maria said, smiling.
“What idea are you protesting for?”
“What? What am I doing?” She opened her eyes wide in surprise and then laughed loudly. “How old are you, kid? Have you been with the press long?”
“Yes, almost two months already. Have I said something funny?”
“No, no, not at all! It’s just that I need to think for a minute. Regarding the idea—” Maria, unable to hold back, started to laugh again. “No, it’s a good question!”
“Well, have you been here long, on this square, doing . . . well, organizing?”
“Eight or nine days, I’m not sure.”
“And who are you, exactly. I mean, what do you do for work?”
“I’m a hydrologist, but I’m not working now.”
“Because when grown-up kids are in charge of sorting things out, there’s no work for hydrologists.”
“Gooot it . . .” said the boy, but by the way he stretched out the word it was clear that he actually had not. “And who are you out for? Well, that is, who do you support?”
“Who am I out for? I once represented the youth division in track and field. But, you know, they really make you work.”
Maria wanted to add that now she was only acting for herself and her son, but the journalist had already pushed on.
“And how many . . .” he started a new question but was unexpectedly and rudely interrupted.
“Now, now, now, what are you ferreting about for here, then, you little bugger? Get the hell out of here you little pencil pusher.”
Maria jumped. She hadn’t noticed Masha standing behind her. The kid pushed his reddened face into his notebook and scratched something out with his pen. Maria got up and casually brushed off the bits of grass that had stuck to her jeans and calmly said:
“What did you do that for? Look at him—he’s just a kid. He’s just doing his job.”
“Oh, really? Well, get lost, kid. Come on, come on, and don’t look back!” Masha watched him angrily. “Well, so what did you blab to him about? Do you really not know that only the group leaders are allowed to talk to the press?”
“Masha, what are you talking about? And what’s with your tone? How is it anybody else’s problem—I can talk to whomever I choose!”
“But that’s just it, you can’t, damn it! Don’t you understand that you’re representing yourself and all of us? Do you really not understand that? Using what you’ve fed him, this kid could write a whole bunch of . . . what exactly did you tell him, you fool?”
“I’m a fool? You do realize I’m twice your age? Don’t try to act—”
Masha didn’t let her finish.
“I don’t need a lesson from you. There are more than enough lecturers here without you. The whole lot make me sick.”
Masha was shaken up. Maria looked at her perplexedly. She put her hand out and rubbed Masha’s shoulder.
“All right, calm down. I didn’t tell him anything like that. Don’t get mad, OK? I just didn’t think you’d take it so seriously.”
Masha didn’t answer. She pushed Maria’s hand off her shoulder and turned away. They stood together quietly for a long time. Maria looked at Masha’s close-shaved head, and wanted to smooth down the few stray hairs that still stuck out.
“You know,” said Maria, “you’re probably right—I am an idiot. I’ve been hearing that all day today. If you repeat something often enough to someone, they eventually end up believing it.”
Maria sat down on the grass again and stretched out her tired legs. She looked over at a tuft of green stems that had pushed through the grass, like Masha’s spiky hair.
The workday was going to end soon. But Maria was in no rush. She was fine sitting here by herself. Masha, still miffed, had left a long time ago, to go lose herself on the square. There were still a lot of people, but now they were all mixed together— yellow tracksuits mingled with white T-shirts, a sure sign that the game masters had run off home; soon they’d let the others go, too.
“Oh, no, not that,” Maria groaned in irritation. The Commandant, who was running past, turned sharply and made his way toward her. “Now he’s going to start shouting at me,” thought Maria. “I’ve had just about enough of this jerk today.”
“What are you doing sitting, bitch?” the beard asked with obvious relish. “Seems like all you’ve done today is sit in the grass.” He suddenly waved his hand, looking off somewhere to the side, and shouted “Hey, you! Yes, you—come here. Right now!”
Maria saw Masha jump out from the crowd and run toward them.
“Now, listen, girls,” said the beard, laying his thick paws on their shoulders. “Do you want to make a little more money? Tomorrow, early morning, we’re forming a women’s brigade. You’ll go from house to house explaining to all the yuppies who they should support. It’ll go better if it’s you and the old ladies. You got it? We’ll give out new uniforms. You'll be going around in jackets. And don't come alone. Bring some newbies—about ten—got it? You’ll get double for that. And you’ll be the ones in charge.”
The Commandant poked Masha with his finger. She pulled away. Maria looked in her eyes and was horrified to see a flicker of pleasure there. He slapped them on the shoulder in his typical way and walked back to the square. Probably to round up more recruits.
“Well, so are you going to join my brigade?” asked Masha, emphasizing the word my. “Did you hear? They’ll pay more. And I’m tired of just hanging about in the square, following someone else’s directions. Now we’ll be the commanders . . .”
“No, I’m not going,” said Maria.
“What, not even with me?”
“Not with anybody. I’d have to learn all those rules again. I’m better off here . . . and this yellow has kind of grown on me.”
“Well, to hell with you, then. There’s more than enough here who’ll want to, even if you don’t.” Masha pursed her lips contemptuously and walked away.
Maria sat back down in the grass. Truth be told, the Commandant was right—she hadn’t shown any enthusiasm for her work today. She remembered the first day on the square; she’d ended up there almost by chance, together with the crowd that had simply pushed there from the bus stop, dragging her in tow. That was the beginning of the extended protest organized by the opposition. People shouted from the stage in the square. It had seemed to Maria that everyone was shouting the same thing, and they were probably all right. She didn’t understand—and didn’t even try to—what they hoped to achieve, arguing over their microphones. She had already given up on similar endeavors. She just needed work, and then everything else would fall into place on its own.
She had looked in the faces of the people standing next to her, and it seemed like they all just wanted the same thing. And then someone had pulled at her sleeve, and she had seen the bearded guy for the first time, the one she’d christened the Commandant. He had smiled ingratiatingly and said something. Maria had nodded in response, and only later understood what she’d agreed to. From the first day, Maria had promised herself that she wouldn’t buy into the rules of the game; that she would only try to abide by them. Even if it was a game for fools.
Yet another working day drew to a close. Maria looked at the square but no longer saw either yellow or white. Now there was simply a live, shifting, varicolored mass, surrounded like a force field by a thick wall of sound. Maria turned around, suddenly scared; it seemed to her that the people in the mass had no faces, like they had been rubbed out by a giant eraser. She tried feverishly to recall familiar faces from the crowd, but only one form obstinately appeared before her—the bearded face of the Commandant with his grotesque smirk. The faceless crowd was terrible, but the bearded face was even worse.
Maria realized that she needed to leave right away. To run. To go home, to get home right away. She jumped up. She took one last look at the square and walked quickly down the path that led to the park.
When she got to the park she couldn’t help herself and stole one last look back. There was almost no one left in the square. A few lone figures in yellow or white wandered about, picking up discarded placards and other trash.
Maria raised her eyes above the square and stood still. Pressed down by clouds the yellow-orange sun stretched out over the roofs of the distant houses.
© Alla Pyatibratova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Rohan Kamicheril. All rights reserved.