I’ve seen him alive, dead, and then alive again. A piece of mortar shell got into a helmet and, tearing it off his head, smashed the skull, stripping off the brain. He fell down. For a few more seconds his hands and feet were cramping, and then – he froze in his eternal rest. The clouds had stopped. The wind calmed down. The fog was bringing cold. It was only at the crack of dawn.
We were smoking again. We sat in the trench and looked at the tank that was moving along the other bank of the river.
It’s a usual thing to take away the deceased. To pick up their pieces, then bring them on the car to the base.
Hands are sticky with blood. Dirt and tobacco stick to fingers. Nicotine and smoke save you, but not for long. You can’t wait to wash this all away from yourself.
“He was a good boy. Was…” mumbles Gnome.
“Uh-huh,” I answer him.
We are sitting on the boxes with ammunition.
Gnome looks at blood stains on the grass. A few minutes ago Vedya was laying there. An hour ago, he was drinking instant coffee from a mug. He was laughing at death. “It constantly passes by”, he said. “It has already come”, I answer him mentally and add, “Dropped from above”.
Gnome is calm, as usual. He is a wise 40-year-old man who deliberately chose the path of war. Gnome smokes slowly. Tobacco crackles with every little cigarette puff. Sorrowfully, he’s looking at the green water surface near the black hole. Eyes give out neither fear nor fatigue. Sometimes it seems to me that he is indifferent to everything except this piece of land.
“Let him rest in peace!”, whispers Gnome while throwing a cigarette under his feet.
So it will be this way. Peace and earth. Peace and water.
The river bursts its banks. I’m diving. I want to get to the bottom. It’s not deep here. Three meters and there is ooze. I want to feel it with hand. My guts. My purity. Water. Here huge fishes swim and I would like to be one of them, but the lungs lack air and I have to hurry to the surface to get some oxygen, and then again – to the bottom. This time it will be for a longer period of time.
The heels were so fatigued that they were swollen. It seemed that a swarm of bees settled down there and they can’t escape out of there. When I made a step, the pain went up the feet, and as an impulse, it stroke under the knee, especially the left one. I’d never felt it before. Gnome said that it was overwork. How long did you sleep today? An hour or maybe two. And yesterday? I can’t remember. The eyes were dizzy. They were pulsating with sleep. I wish I could disappear in its darkness so that nobody could find me. To wrap myself in old father’s clothes up to the head and sleep, sleep, sleep like during that night in November when a huge poplar fell down on our house and actually put us on the street. Cold and snow are near. As well as warmth under the cloaks and jackets of father and mother. I want it to be like back then, at least for a minute, to be in the depths of that dream…
We’ve put Vedya on the stretcher and carried him to the car that came for body bags. That was an old UAZ. In its salon, there were two more. One without boots.
– doesn’t need them anymore.
? – Letters with spit are stuck in the throat. Everything is clear, without any words, with glances at the ground: the grass is green.
“Come on, faster,” the driver cried.
We got into the salon.
We laid Vedya in the middle.
“Bye, bros, good luck.”
The motor roared.
UAZ has gone.
We were standing by the road our eyes were bidding farewell to the car.
“Passengers, pay the fare”, the woman in uniform shouted. Heavy stride, curly red hair, lipstick on her lips. Skin ploughed with wrinkles. She was approaching me.
“What about you?”
I give her three hryvnias.
She tears off one ticket out of the pack and gives it to me.
She passes by.
Mechanically, as always, I look at digits.
987788 – F#ck, I’m wondering who is this lucky guy? Who is the lucky one in this goddamn Odesa trolleybus? Who will get this fortune, huh? I think the numbers match, the trolleybus number is 9 and on the next ticket, there will be 9. Why it’s not me who has 9 in the end? So close…
“Passengers, prepare to pay the fare!”, it was her voice again.
I looked at her back, the inscription: conductor.
The woman stopped.
He turned and gave her money.
Movements are slow:
– she counts the change from ten hryvnias bill
– tears off the ticket out of the pack
– gives it to him.
The heart drew the bolt back and shot right in the head: Vedya was standing in a hood. Pale as death. Pale as back then…
The fire was burning. The kettle was boiling. Vedya put a Nescafé stick to the mug.
“Chief, you want one?”, Vedya asked me.
“Is there some instant noodles?”
“Nope. There isn’t.”
“I want to eat.”
“Drink some coffee with crackers. I’m making?”
“What about Gnome?”
“Gnome sleeps. Let him sleep.”
I’m looking at the window.
Trolleybus number 9 doesn’t take its usual turn to the Kanatna Street, it passes by “Kulykove pole”. It stops a little bit further than the nightclub “Palladium”. The voice of the driver reports about the change of the route from sizzling speakers. People get out, pushing, asking each other about something. Barefoot Vedya stands among them; he’s lowering his head down and looking at his crippled legs. From time to time people are stomping on his fingers. And he?
He closes his eyes.
Me as well.
No matter for how long I will run from it, it always catches up and hits the head. Memory is breathing with me in unison, it’s breathing and following my every step. It is a curse, which you can’t rub or wash off yourself.
“You’re gone,” I whisper.
YOU ARE DEAD.
“Instead of a sugar I’ve put some condensed milk for you,” his voice is distant as if it is somewhere there, on the bottom. And I’m floating in the dark. I’m afraid to open my eyes. I lack air. Seconds run stubbornly and I’m about to get to the surface.
I’ve touched the bottom and felt a fish scales.
A mortar shell has frozen in the air.
Three last seconds of his life: Vedya stands and looks into the fog, the day is breaking, explosion. We…