The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin – Extract

The Light and the Dark

I open yesterday’s Evening News, and it’s all about you and me.

It’s going to be the word in the beginning again, they write. But meanwhile in the schools they rattle on in the same old way, saying first of all there was a big bang, and the whole of exis­tence went flying apart.

And what’s more, supposedly everything already existed even before the bang – all the galaxies we can see and the ones we can’t. In the same way that the future glass lives in the sand, and the grains of sand are the seeds of this window here, through which I’ve just seen a little boy run past outside with a football stuffed up the front of his T-shirt.

There was this bundle of intense warmth and light.

The scientists tell us it was the size of a football. Or a water­melon. And just like in the old riddle about the room full of people, with no doors or windows, we were tiny little seeds inside it. And when everything there inside was ripe and ready, it strained with all its might and burst out.

The primal watermelon hatched.

The seeds went flying off and sprouted.

One little seed put out a shoot and became our tree: there’s the shadow of one of its branches, creeping along the windowsill.

*****

Another became the memory of a girl who wanted to be a boy – once when she was still little they dressed her up as Puss in Boots for a fancy dress party, and everyone there kept trying to pull her tail, and in the end they tore it right off, and she had to walk around with her tail in her hand.

A third little seed sprouted many years ago and became a young man who liked me to scratch his back, and hated lies, especially when they started shouting from all the pulpits that there was no death, that words written down were a kind of tram that carried you off into immortality.

In the Druidic horoscope he was a Carrot.

Before he burned his diary and all his manuscripts, he wrote one final phrase, a terribly funny one: ‘The gift has abandoned me’ – I managed to read it before you tore that notebook out of my hands.

We stood by the bonfire and held our open hands up to our faces to block the heat, looking at the bones of our fingers showing through the transparent red flesh. Flakes of ash showered down on us – the warm, burnt-up pages.

Ah yes, I almost forgot, and afterwards the whole of existence will gather itself back into a single full stop.

Where are you now, Vovka the Carrot?

And now what’s going on? Silly little Julie tries so hard, sending him letters, but hard-hearted Saint-Preux fobs her off with face­tious little missives, sometimes in verse, rhyming Swedes and centipedes, ammunition and sublimation, shithouse and Mona Lisa (by the way, have you guessed what she’s smiling at? – I think I have), navel and God.

My love!

Why did you do that?

*****

The only thing still left to do was choose myself a war. But natu­rally, that was no great obstacle. If there’s one thing that’s meat and drink to this unbeaten homeland of ours, that’s it – you can’t even get the newspaper open properly before friendly kingdoms are spiking little infants on their bayonets and raping old women. Somehow you feel especially sorry for the innocent tsarevich murdered in his sailor suit. The women, old men and children just seem to slip in one ear and out the other, as usual, but that sailor suit . . .

A rousing tattoo on a tin drum, a murky pall hovering over the bell tower, your motherland is calling you!

At the conscription centre the prescription was: Everyone needs his own Austerlitz!

Oh, indeed he does.

At the medical board the army doctor – a huge cranium, bald and knobbly – looked into my eyes intently. He said:

‘You despise everybody. You know, I used to be like that too. I was the same age as you when I did my first hospital internship. And one day they brought in a street bum who’d been knocked down by a car. He was still alive, but he’d been maimed very badly. We didn’t really make much of an effort. It was obvious no one wanted the old man and no one was going to come for him. Stench, filth, lice, pus. Anyway, we put him on one side, where he wouldn’t pollute anything. He was a goner in any case. And when he was gone, I was supposed to tidy up, wash the body and dispatch it to the morgue. Everybody went away and left me on my own. I went out for a smoke and I thought: What do I want with this hassle?

What’s this old man to me? What’s he good for? While I was smoking, he passed on. So there I am, wiping off the blood and pus – working sloppily, doing just enough to shunt him off to the freezer as quickly as possible. And then suddenly I thought he could be somebody’s father. I brought a basin of hot water and started bathing him. An old body, neglected and pitiful. Nobody had caressed it in years. And there I am washing his feet, his grue­some gnarled toes, and there are almost no nails – they’ve all been eaten away by fungus. I sponge down all his wounds and scars, and I talk to him quietly: Well then, Dad, life turned out hard for you, did it? It’s not easy when no one loves you. And what were you thinking, at your age, living out on the street, like a stray dog? But it’s all over and done with now. You rest! Everything’s all right now. Nothing hurts, no one’s chasing after you. So I washed him and talked to him like that. I don’t know if it helped him in his death, but it certainly helped me a lot to live.’

My Sashenka!

*****

Volodenka!

I watch the sunset. And I think: What if right now, this very moment, you’re watching this sunset too? And that means we’re together.

It’s so quiet all around.

And what a sky!

That elder tree over there – even it senses the world around it.

At moments like this, the trees seem to understand everything, only they can’t say it – exactly like us.

And suddenly I feel very intensely that thoughts and words are really made out of the same essence as this glow, or this glow reflected in the puddle over there, or my hand with the bandaged thumb. How I long for you to see all of this!

Just imagine, I took the bread knife and somehow managed to slice my thumb right through to the nail. I bandaged it up sloppily, and then drew two eyes and a nose on the bandage. And I had a little Tom Thumb. So I’ve been talking to him about you all evening.

I reread your first postcard. Yes! Yes! Yes! That’s it exactly! Everything rhymes! Take a look around! It’s all rhymes! There’s the visible world, and there – if you close your eyes – is the invis­ible one. There’s the branch of a pine tree darning the sky, and there’s its rhyme – a conch that has become an ashtray in mundane reality. There’s the clock on the wall and there on the shelf is a clump of herbs from the pharmacy for relieving wind. This is my bandaged thumb – the scar will probably stay for ever now – and the rhyme to it is the same thumb, but before I was born and after I’ve gone, which is probably the same thing. Everything in the world is rhymed with everything in the world. These rhymes connect up the world, hold it together, like nails pounded in right up to the head, to stop it falling apart.

And the most amazing thing is that these rhymes already existed in the beginning – it’s not possible to invent them, just as it’s impossible to invent the very simplest mosquito or that long-distance cloud over there. You understand, no amount of imagination would be enough to invent the very simplest things!

Who was it that wrote about people greedy for happiness? How well put! That’s me – greedy for happiness.

And I’ve started noticing myself repeating your gestures, too. I speak in your words. I look with your eyes. I think like you. I write like you.

All the time I remember our summer.

Our morning studies in oil, painted with butter on toast.

Do you remember our table under the lilac, covered with the oilcloth with a brown triangle from a hot iron?

And here’s something you can’t remember, it’s mine alone: when you walked across the grass in the morning, you seemed to leave a glittering ski-track in the sun.

And the smells from the garden! So rich and dense, like fine particles saturating the air. You could pour those smells into a cup like strong tea.

And everything all around has only one thing on its mind – I simply walk through the field or the forest and absolutely everyone tries his very best to pollinate me or inseminate me. My socks are just covered in grass seeds.

And remember, we found a hare in the grass with its legs cut off by a mowing machine.

Brown-eyed cows.

Little goat nuts lying on the path.

Our pond – murky on the bottom with blooming slush, full of frogspawn. Silver carp butting at the sky. I climb out of the water and pluck the weed off myself.

I lay down to sunbathe and covered my face with my singlet, the wind rustles like starched linen. And suddenly there’s a tick­lish feeling in my navel, and it’s you pouring a thin stream of sand onto my stomach out of your fist.

We walk home and the wind tests the trees and us to see what kind of sails we would make.

We collect fallen apples – the first ones, sour, good for compote – and we throw these windfalls at each other. At sunset the forest is jagged.

And in the middle of the night a mousetrap jumps with a snap and wakes us up.

*****

Sashenka, my dearest!

Well then, I’ll number my letters to know which one has gone missing.

I’m sorry my scribblings turn out so short – I have absolutely no time for myself. And I’m terribly short of sleep, I feel like closing my eyes and falling asleep standing up. Descartes was killed by having to get up at five in the morning, when it was still dark, to give lectures on philosophy to Christina, Queen of Sweden. But I’m still holding on.

I was in the general staff office today and I suddenly saw my reflection in a mirror, in full dress uniform. It was strange, what was I doing in fancy dress? I was amazed at myself: how could I be a soldier?

You know, there’s something to this life after all, always covering off in line with the cheekbone of the fourth man.

I’ll tell you a story about a forage cap. A short one. It was filched from me – the forage cap, that is. And falling in without a forage cap is a breach of regulations, in short, it’s a crime.

Our chief of chiefs and commander of commanders stamped his feet and promised me I’d be washing out the shithouse from now until doomsday.

‘You’ll lick it out, you scumbag!’

That’s what he said.

Well now, there is something inspiring about military speech.

I read somewhere that Stendhal learned to write simply and clearly by studying Napoleon’s field orders.

But the latrine here, my dear, distant Sashenka, requires some explanation. Picture to yourself holes in a floor covered with filth. No, better not picture it! And everyone tries his very best to dump his heap on the edge of a hole, not in it. And everything’s awash. Actually, the way the stomachs of yours truly and his fellows func­tion is a separate subject in its own right. In these remote parts, for some reason we always have a bellyache. I don’t understand how you can dedicate yourself to Generalissimo Suvorov’s science of victory if you’re always squatting over a yawning abyss with your insides draining out of you.

Anyway, I say to him:

‘Where will I get you a forage cap?’

And he says:

‘They filched yours, you go and filch one!’

So off I went to filch a forage cap. And that’s not easy. In fact, it’s very hard, because everyone’s at it.

There I was, wandering hither and thither.

Suddenly I thought: Who am I? Where am I?

And I went to wash the latrine. And the whole world suddenly seemed lighter somehow.

I had to end up here to learn to understand simple things.

You know, there’s nothing dirty about shit.

*****

Now look, I’m writing to you at night. I nibbled a crust of bread in bed just now, and the crumbs won’t let me sleep, they’ve scam­pered all over the sheet and they bite.

The window above my head is as starry as starry.

And the Milky Way divides the sky on a slant. You know, it’s like some gigantic fraction. The numerator is one half of the universe, and the denominator is the other half. I always hated those fractions, squared numbers, cubed numbers and all those roots. It’s all so disembodied, impossible to visualise, there’s absolutely nothing to catch hold of. A root is a root – on a tree. It’s strong, it creeps and grabs, it gobbles the soil, it’s clinging, sucking, irrepressible, greedy, alive. But this is twaddle written with a little squiggle, and they call it a root too!

And what sense does a minus sign make? Minus a window – what’s that? It’s not going to go anywhere. And neither is what’s outside the window.

Or minus me?

Things like that don’t happen.

In general, I’m the kind of person who has to touch  everything.

And sniff.

Yes, even more – sniff everything. Like in the book Daddy used to read to me at bedtime when I was little. There are different kinds of people. There are people who spend all their time fighting with cranes. There are people with one leg, they dash around on it at high speed, and their foot is so big that they shelter in its vast shadow from the sweltering heat of the sun and rest there, as if they were inside a house. And there’s another kind of people too, who live on nothing but the smells of fruits. When they have to set out on a long journey, they take these fruits with them, and if they catch a whiff of a bad smell, they die. That’s just like me.

You know, in order to exist, everything alive has to have a smell. At least some kind of smell. And all those fractions and all the other stuff we were taught – it has no smell.

There’s some kind of night prowler outside the window now, kicking an empty bottle about. The clink of glass on the asphalt of a deserted street.

Now it’s broken.

At moments like this at night I feel so lonely and I want so much to be the reason for at least something.

And I long unbearably to be with you! To hug you and snuggle up against you.

Do you know what you’ll get if you divide that starry numer­ator by the denominator? Divide one half of the Universe by the other? You’ll get me. And you with me.

Today I saw a little girl fall off her bike – she skinned her knee and sat there crying bitterly, and her long white sock was splat­tered with blood. It was on the embankment, where the lions are – mouths stuffed full of litter, paper wrappers and sticks from ice cream. Then afterwards I was walking home and suddenly the idea came to me that all the great books and pictures aren’t about love at all. They only pretend to be about love, so they’ll be inter­esting to read. But in actual fact, they’re about death. In books, love is a kind of shield or, rather, a blindfold. So you don’t see. So it’s not so frightening.

I don’t know what the connection was with that little girl who fell off her bike.

She cried a bit, and now perhaps she’s forgotten about it ages ago, but in a book her skinned knee would have stayed there until she died and even afterwards.

So probably all books aren’t really about death, but about eter­nity, only their eternity isn’t genuine, it’s a kind of fragment, an instant, like a teensy-weensy fly in amber. It just sat down for a moment to rub its back legs together, and it turned out to be for ever. Of course, they choose all sorts of fine moments, but isn’t it a terrifying thought – to stay like that, forever porcelain – like the shepherd boy always reaching out to kiss the shepherd girl!

But I don’t want anything porcelain. I want everything alive, here and now. You, your warmth, your voice, your body, your smell.

You’re so far away now that I’m not at all afraid to tell you something. You know, back then at the dacha, I used to go into your room while you weren’t there. And I sniffed everything. Your soap. Your eau de cologne. Your shaving brush. I sniffed the inside of your shoes. I opened your cupboard and sniffed your sweater. The sleeve of your shirt. And the collar. I kissed a button. I leaned down over your bed and put my nose to the pillow. I was so happy! But that wasn’t enough! To be happy, you need witnesses. You can only really feel happy when you get some kind of confirmation, if not from a glance or a touch, or a presence, then at least from an absence. From a pillow, a sleeve, a button. Once you almost caught me – I only just managed to run out onto the porch. And you saw me and started throwing prickly burrs in my hair. I was so angry with you then, but what wouldn’t I give now for that – to have you throw burrs in my hair!

I remember you, and the world is divided into before the first time and after.

Meeting for a date at the monument.

I peeled an orange and my palm stuck to yours.

You came straight from the clinic, with a fresh filling in your tooth and the smell of the dentist’s surgery coming out of your mouth. You let me touch the filling with my finger.

And here we are at the dacha, whitewashing the ceiling, after we’ve covered the furniture and the floor with old newspapers. We walked around barefoot, with the newspapers sticking to our feet, and got whitewash smeared all over us. We scrape the white out of each other’s hair. And our tongues and teeth are all black from bird cherries.

Then when we were hanging the net curtains, we ended up on different sides, and I wanted so much for you to kiss me through the netting!

And then there you sit, drinking tea, scalding your tongue on it and blowing to get it to cool down, taking little sips and slurping so loudly, not at all worried about it being impolite, as they impressed on me when I was little. And I start slurping too. Because I’m not little any longer. And everything’s allowed.

Then there was the lake.

We walk down the steep slope towards the waterlogged bank, feeling the damp, spongy path under our bare feet.

We waded out into open water, free of duckweed. The water’s murky and full of sunlight. And cold, from the springs that feed it from below.

And then, in the water, our bodies touched for the first time. On the shore I was afraid to touch you, but here I pounced on you and wrapped my legs round your thighs, trying to pull you under. When I was little I used to play like that with Daddy at the seaside. You try to break free, you try to pull my hands apart, but I won’t give in. I kept trying to duck your head right under the water. Your eyelashes stick together, you swallow lots of water, you laugh and splutter and bellow and snort.

Afterwards we sit in the sun.

Your nose is peeling, the skin is flaking off the sunburn.

We watch the bell tower on the opposite shore rinsing its ragged image in the water.

I sit there in front of you almost naked, but somehow I only feel shy about my feet and my toes – I buried them in the sand.

I singed an ant with my cigarette, and you came to its defence.

We walk home the short way, straight across the field. Grasshoppers jumping about in the tall grass molest my skirt.

On the veranda you sat me in a wicker chair and started brushing the sand off my feet. Like Daddy. When we came back from the beach, he used to wipe my feet down just like that, so there wouldn’t be any sand left between my toes.

And everything was suddenly so clear. So simple. So inevitable. So welcome.

I stand there facing you – in my wet swimsuit, with my arms lowered. I look into your eyes. You took hold of the straps and pulled the swimsuit off.

I’d been ready for this for a long time, I was waiting, but I was afraid, and you were even more afraid, and everything would have happened much sooner, but that time, back in spring, remember, I took your hand and pulled it down there, but you jerked it away. You were quite different now.

Do you know what I was afraid of? Pain? No. There wasn’t any pain. And there wasn’t any blood either. I thought, what if you thought you weren’t my first?

It was evening before I remembered I’d forgotten to hang my swimsuit up to dry. It was lying there abandoned, clumped up, wet and cold. It smelled of pond scum.

I snuggled against you and kissed your peeling nose. There was no one in the house, but we whispered anyway. And for the first time I could look right into your eyes, without being afraid or embarrassed about anything – brown, with hazel and green flecks on the iris.

Absolutely everything suddenly changed – I could touch every­thing that only a moment ago was untouchable, not mine. A moment ago it was someone else’s, but now it was mine, as if my body had expanded and melded with yours. And now I couldn’t feel myself except through you. My skin only existed where you touched it.

That night you slept, but I couldn’t. I wanted so much to cry, but I was afraid I’d wake you. I got up and went to the bathroom, and cried to my heart’s content.

And in the morning, at the washbasin – a sudden surge of foolish happiness at the sight of our two toothbrushes in the same glass. Standing there with their little legs crossed, looking at each other.

The very simplest things can make me die of happiness. Remember, back in town already – you locked yourself in the toilet, and I was walking by to the kitchen and I couldn’t resist it, I squatted down by the door and started whispering into the keyhole:

‘I love you!’

I whispered it really quietly. Then louder. And you didn’t realise what I was whispering to you, and you muttered back:

‘Just a moment, just a moment.’

As if I needed the bathroom.

It’s you I need, you!

And then there you are, sitting in front of the oven with a spoon in one hand and an open cookery book in the other. Something suddenly came over you – you said you’d cook everything your­self and I mustn’t interfere. And I kept coming into the kitchen on purpose, as if I needed something, but really only to look at you. Remember? You were kneading minced meat, and I couldn’t help myself, I stuck my hands in the saucepan too – it was so wonderful to knead that fragrant, beefy pulp together, and the mince oozed out between our fingers!

You didn’t really get along too well with ladles, oven mitts and frying pans – everything came to life in your hands and tried its very best to wriggle free or pop up in the air or slither away.

I remember every single little thing.

We lay there clasped together and couldn’t let go – and that semicircle my teeth left on your shoulder.

Our legs intertwine, our feet nestle against each other, sweet-talking, and our cream-slippery toes slither into each other.

In the tram people turn to look at us: your left fist is up beside my nose, and I’m kissing the first knuckle on the forefinger – the one that’s July.

On the way up to your place, the lift seems to creep along so unbearably slowly.

Your shoes under a chair, with the socks stuffed into them.

That was when you kissed me there for the first time, and I just couldn’t relax. When you’re growing up you know you mustn’t touch that place. It’s only little boys who think little girls have a secret between their legs, but that place is full of slimy discharges, noxious vapours and bacteria.

In the morning I couldn’t find my knickers, they’d disappeared. I searched through everything and couldn’t find them. I still think you pinched them and hid them somewhere. I left without them. I’m walking along the street, the wind’s creeping up under my skirt, and I have the incredible feeling that it’s you all around me.

I know I exist, but I need proofs all the time, I need to be touched. Without you I’m an empty pair of pyjamas, thrown across a chair.

My own arms and legs, my own body, have only become dear to me because of you – because you have kissed it, because you love it.

I look in the mirror and catch myself thinking: that’s the one he loves, isn’t it? And I like myself. But I never used to like myself before.

I close my eyes and imagine that you’re here.

I can touch you and hug you.

I kiss your eyes, and suddenly my lips can see.

And I want so much, like I did then, to run the end of my tongue from one end to the other of the little seam you have down there, as if you were a bare-naked little plastic boy who’d been stuck together out of two separate halves.

I read somewhere that the smelliest parts of the body are closest to the soul.

Now I’ve turned the light out so I can finally curl up into a tight little ball and fall asleep, and while I was writing to you, clouds have covered over the sky. As if someone has wiped every­thing off the school blackboard with a dirty rag and there’s nothing left but white streaks.

I have a feeling everything’s going to be all right. Destiny is just trying to frighten us, but it will preserve and protect us against genuine misfortune.


Excerpted from The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin. Copyright © 2010 by Mikhail Shishkin. English translation copyright © 2013 by Andrew Bromfield.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block
London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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