That winter they hired a small bus—Mother had suggested that Father should be buried in the village. Where he was born.
Sasha hadn’t argued.
“What do you think, son?” asked Mother in a completely unfamiliar tone. Until then, there had always been a man’s voice that had the final word in the house. Now, that voice was dead.
“We’ll get there somehow,” Sasha answered, though he was almost certain that they would not be able to get there. Anyway they couldn’t bury Father in this decrepit town, a place that Sasha had always loathed.
And Sasha couldn’t imagine telling his grandparents in the village of his father’s death, knowing that not only would they be unable to travel to the funeral, they would be unable to visit their son’s grave until the spring came.
They didn’t properly explain anything to the driver—had he known where they were going, he would have said no right away. He was told, “Just head out of town…. We’ll show you the way….” He didn’t ask, “Out of town where exactly?” He was a modest type of guy and seemed, at first, even-tempered.
Father’s friends, a few professors, and some students came to say goodbye. Every single one of the well-wishers offering their condolences made Sasha want to hurl them down the stairs. To hell with your condolences. You don’t understand anything.Sasha avoided all of them, didn’t want to see a single one.
He happened to hear his mother ask: “Maybe someone would like to come to the funeral with us?”
The silence that followed was nauseating.
Somebody said apologetically, “Work….”
“I will,” one man said. It was Bezletov.
He came the following morning and stood hesitantly in the hallway in his fur coat and low-cut boots. He kept taking off and putting on his gloves.
Sasha didn’t say hello.
“Alexey,” Mother said in a faint voice, exhausted from crying. “You’ll freeze in those shoes.”
He made an odd grimace as if he was very displeased.
“It’s okay,” he said in a muffled tone and stepped outside.
He stood in the street. He didn’t smoke.
Sasha looked out the window, saw Bezletov, and thoughtlessly stared at his back.
Mother kept sitting down at the kitchen table, again and again, and crying.
“How will I bring him there?” she kept asking. “What will his mother and father say? Did you call, Sasha? Their neighbors?”
“What did they say?”
“They said they’d let them know.”
Mother started crying again.
The driver came in and quietly stood in the doorway.
“Let’s go,” said Sasha to his mother, sounding almost annoyed. “What are we waiting for?”
They took the coffin out—Bezletov, Sasha, the driver, and the neighbors.
They set the coffin down outside the building and opened it.
A group of kids climbed off the frozen swings and gathered around.
They stared, curious and quiet. Sasha wanted to shoo them away.
“Let’s start loading…,” he said with spite. “What are we…?”
“People need to say goodbye…,” Mother said.
“What people?” Sasha snapped.
A few neighbors whom they barely knew—almost strangers—stood around the kids, shaking their heads in sympathy.
“Get into the bus,” he said to Mother. “Let’s get to work,” he told the men, pointing to the coffin.
Sasha sat in front next to the driver. Bezletov in the back.
Sasha gave the driver an intermediary point on the route. “A little ways from there,” he muttered vaguely.
When he turned around, he saw Mother lifting the coffin lid to touch the icy-cold head of his dead father.
It was unbearable to watch.
Snow started to fall, gray and heavy. The windshield wipers worked nonstop.
On the way out of town they got stuck in a traffic jam.
Sasha leaned his head out the window and lit a cigarette.
Snow quickly accumulated on the roofs of cars.
The waiting was bearing down on him.
Why are you in such a hurry?Sasha stopped himself, disgusted. Hurrying to bury your father?And then what? Once he’s in the ground, where will you run off to next?
They waited for at least half an hour. Now and then the driver stopped the engine, and the temperature quickly dropped.
“Maybe it’s too cold for them in the back?” asked Sasha. His voice sounded coarse.
“The heater doesn’t work there. Might be for the better now, anyway,” the driver said cautiously, casting a sideways glance at Sasha.
Mother must be cold, thought Sasha.
He looked behind him and saw her rubbing her legs. He also saw Bezletov, hunched up and staring out the window at motionless cars.
Sasha closed his eyes and bit his lip.
He wanted to keep his eyes from opening once the bus started again, but he couldn’t help it.
He opened his eyes and saw the softly, nervously crawling cars. A bundled-up traffic cop crossed the road. The cars slowed down to let him pass.
An accident had clogged the traffic: two buses had collided. The bus passengers were lined up along the road. Shattered glass littered the pavement.
No ambulance, Sasha thought.
No one was dead or even injured, it seemed. Sasha was almost sorry that no one was dead.
Slowly and tediously they inched through the traffic.
They shifted gears, they gained speed, and this stupid feeling of relief— we are moving, moving after all—came over him.
The winter road was always more dreary than the summer road.
They passed a town that was only a couple of traffic lights long. Sasha said, “Keep going straight.” Seven minutes later the highway was flanked by open plain on both sides.
The sight of the white field stretching all the way to the horizon was depressing. The vacuous expanse—outlined by nothing but roadside telegraph poles—drew him in.
“A desert,” Sasha whispered. “Icy desert…. Snow and ice….”
Checking his watch from time to time, Sasha noticed that an hour had passed, but he had not registered a single thought—at least it seemed so—
in the space of an hour, not a single thought.
“Almost there, or what?” asked the driver good-naturedly.
“Almost there,” said Sasha after a moment.
The last village along the paved road—only nine houses—showed its gray and waterlogged wooden sides. Sasha had counted the houses a long time ago, probably when he was still a child.
Three of the houses had been abandoned in the past few years and were falling apart.
“Continue along the dirt road?” the driver said, surprised this time.
“We may get stuck,” he groused and shifted to second gear. The bus roared and lumbered down the potholed road.
Sasha glanced back at his mother; she was looking around fearfully.
“How far from here?” the driver asked again when they passed another village.
He could only manage to hit third gear and speed up a bit while passing through villages.
“One more village, and the next one is ours,” said Sasha honestly, but he didn’t mention that the next one, “ours,” was twenty kilometers away through thick forest.
“Thank God—the roads have been tamped down some by sleds,” the driver said. “They still ride in sleds. Must have horses, then. I haven’t seen a horse in thirty years…. And then they complain village life is hard!” The driver smiled a crooked smile.
Try living the sweet life here, bitch.Horse and all,thought Sasha.
They passed through the next village—here, for the first time in two hours, they saw a person, a little old man in a sheepskin coat. He stared at the bus, surprised. He even waved at them after the bus went by, as though saying, “Where are you going, fools? There’s nothing there.”
“Forest,” said the driver half an hour later, as if he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“Forest,” Sasha said.
“We’re going into the forest?” the driver asked, sounding truly annoyed for the first time.
“We’re following the road,” Sasha said.
The driver’s face went cockeyed, and he shook his head.
Sasha clamped his jaw.
The bus roared. Around them were heavy, snowy trees, snow falling now and then from shaken branches.
Someone had indeed ridden along this road in sleds. A tractor also might have passed through a couple of weeks back. Carrying groceries and monthly pensions to the village.
It was unlikely that the bus would make it through. And the road was getting worse and worse—they must have used the sleds to collect firewood and not taken them deep into the forest.
Four minutes or so later, the driver lost patience and started cursing.
Sasha sat indifferent, knowing he could easily kill this guy. He did not want to upset his mother.
“Who will haul us out of here? Did you think of that?” The driver yanked the levers, speeding up where it was possible, and where it seemed impossible, too. He knew how to drive—that was for sure.
“Did you go fucking mad with grief?”
“Enough. Shut up and steer,” Sasha said in a tired voice.
“Don’t tell me what to do. You got it? Or this is where you get off.” At that very moment, they jolted, the front wheels slumped into a pothole, and the bus conked out.
Ahead of them there was a solid bank of snow. The only thing that suggested the continuation of the road, hidden somewhere under the snow, was the narrow, blank strip winding among the fir trees and fallen branches.
The driver hopped out of the bus, leaving the door open. He took a few steps forward, sank almost up to his knees, cursed, and climbed back inside.
He started the engine and shifted into reverse. Something growled, wailed, and screeched under the wheels. The bus climbed out of the hole. The driver shifted to neutral, took out a cigarette, and said, “I won’t go any farther.”
“To hell with you,” said Sasha.
He got out and noticed that the snow had stopped falling. He stood for a second, staring senselessly into the woods. He turned abruptly and opened the side door.
“Get out, Mom. He won’t go any farther.”
“But how? Son,” Mother said, “where will we go? What about Father?”
“We’ll make it happen; it’s not far.”
“How do you mean, not far?”
“We’ll get him there, I said.”
The driver came up to Sasha from behind and looked inside the bus over his shoulder.
“So, back to town, then? I won’t go any farther.”
“We will pay,” Mother said, looking at the driver in horror. “What shall we do with the coffin?”
“I’m telling you, let’s go back to town. I don’t need your money. You aren’t going to buy me a new bus. And I’m not spending the night in the woods with your dead man either. Is that clear? Back to town, then?”
“Why carry Father back and forth…?” Mother said.
“All right, then….”
The driver yanked the back doors of the bus—they opened with a clang, as if taunting,Go ahead, unload me.He went back to the driver’s seat. There he lit another cigarette and cursed.
Mother started crying.
“Why are you weeping?” Sasha said, almost weeping. “The most terrible thing has already happened! What’s the point in weeping? Afraid wolves will eat us? We’ll get him there. There’s no way around it.”
“You won’t be able to carry him, just the two of you!” she said, in tears.
“Trust me—we’ll get him there! We’ll drag the coffin. It’s not far.” Sasha said this mostly for Bezletov’s sake—he knew too well that they were still a good seventeen kilometers away from the village.
The coffin scraped against the floor of the bus as Sasha eked it toward the doors.
“We have the food here for the funeral meal,” Mother said miserably.
“Take what you can carry and leave the rest to the guy….” Sasha hopped to the ground. “Let’s get to work. I’ll take the feet,” he said with a maniacal urgency. “And then…we’ll figure it out.”
“A chair would be good,” Bezletov said. “To catch the top end. We won’t be able to hold on to it.”
“Come on—let’s do it. There is no chair.” Sasha wanted them to hurry.
He pulled the coffin toward him, and every second it grew heavier; he inched backwards in the snow and felt the unbearable heaviness and the burning pain in his arm muscles.
“Hurry up!” He could barely speak.
Bezletov jumped out, and Mother climbed down awkwardly, in a clumsy, matronly way.
They held on to the top end of the coffin, trying to pull it out of the bus, but Mother couldn’t bear it—she gasped and dropped her side. Sasha and Bezletov couldn’t hold on to it either, of course. The coffin landed on one side.
The lid of the coffin opened; Father, frozen already, almost fell out into the snow.
The coffin was snug—and it held on to the dead man. But in that fleeting second when the coffin was set on its side, the image was terrible: Father’s dead profile, the little icon fallen off his chest into the snow, his motionless white hands showing from under the blanket…. Sasha and Bezletov quickly set the coffin upright and closed the lid.
Mother stood there, looking thunderstruck.
“Mom, did it land on your foot?” said Sasha, trying to secure the lid.
Mother shook her head: No.
They stood for a moment.
“We need to get it off the road. To let him leave,” Sasha said.
They pushed the coffin to the roadside—it sank into the snow.
Mother collected her bag.
Sasha waited ten seconds and kicked the side of the bus.
“Get the fuck out of here!” he yelled.
The driver hit the gas pedal, and the bus backed up, shooting a shower of snow from under its rear wheels onto the coffin lid. Sasha squatted and wiped the lid with his sleeve.
“Will he go all the way like this…backwards?” Bezletov said, watching the bus leave.
They could see the driver turning his head all around, trying to use the rearview mirrors to avoid backing off the road.
The bus stopped, and the driver got out.
He wandered around the bus, looking around, then climbed inside, and a minute later he banged the door shut and appeared with a long rope rolled into a circle. He held it up from afar so the three of them standing around the coffin could see it—here’s something for you—and tossed the rope onto the road.
He got back into the bus and started it up again.
“That’s something at least,” said Sasha. “I couldn’t figure out what to drag him with.”
Sasha approached the rope lying in the snow. The bus, growling and coughing huskily, moved backwards, receding away from him.
They tied the rope around the coffin.
“That’s done.” Sasha sneaked a look at Bezletov’s shoes, which must have been wet through by now. Sasha himself was wearing warm, high boots.
“Sasha, maybe we should go back to the village? The one we just passed. Ask for a tractor? Or sleds?” Mother said.
“Just passed?” Sasha mimicked her. “It’d take us two hours to walk back there. And then they wouldn’t have a tractor anyway.”
“And what about sleds? No one’s going to help us. We’d just waste four hours…. Leave me alone, Mom….” Sasha ended the conversation. “Okay, let’s go. Help us out, Dad.”
Sasha and Bezletov grabbed the rope by its ends and tugged.
At first it was hard going, but they were powered by frenzy and had the energy to pull. Sinking in the snow, cursing and growling, they did not manage for long. They were already sweating.
Mother walked behind them. Sasha did not turn around.
“Fuck!” he said after a moment, and stopped.
“Sasha, please don’t curse. Why are you cursing all the time?” Mother asked in a tired voice. “It’s heavy, huh?”
“Skis would come in handy now,” Sasha said to Bezletov.
“Or a kiddie sled,” Bezletov added, staring with spite at his partner.
Why didn’t you grab a kiddie sled, Bezletov? Sasha thought to himself. Don’t you like the snow…in the countryside…? You could’ve shown up this morning with a kiddie sled and said, “I’ll crash the hills once or twice while I’m there…. Do they have a hill there?” Your kiddie sled would have come in so handy right now….
“Let’s try again,” Bezletov said. “Uphill is rough. See, over there the road goes downhill. It will get better.”
“It will get better,” Sasha repeated thoughtlessly.
They pulled again.
They kept stumbling across potholes, kept stopping, kept lifting the coffin, and kept crawling on.
They also stumbled over broken branches. With a grinding sound, they tore them from under the coffin and threw them into the bushes.
Going downhill was indeed a little easier. For a few seconds the coffin slid down on its own. But then it suddenly shifted sideways—Sasha cursed and rushed after it, fell into the snow, clutched the side of the coffin, and managed to finally bring it to a stop. He lay there hugging the fabric-covered wood.
Mother suddenly burst into tears.
“What are we doing? Oh dear Lord…,” she wailed.
“Come on, let’s move slowly…,” Bezletov said quietly, paying no attention to the crying.
They righted the coffin. Then they pushed it down the hill while Sasha guided it from the back.
“Maybe it’d be easier with the narrow end first?” suggested Bezletov.
“I don’t know…,” said Sasha. “We’d have to re-tie the rope. Want to?”
“Yeah, well, forget about it.”
Sasha took off his hat and shoved it into his pocket. It soon fell out.
“Sasha, dear,” Mother almost begged. “Put on the hat. You’ll catch a cold, Sasha!”
Sasha did not react. To make it worse, he unbuttoned his coat.
It started getting dark.
From time to time, Mother offered her help—she wanted to take a turn for one of the men. They ignored her.
They walked slowly and breathed heavily. Their pace was becoming slower and slower, their breath heavier and heavier. They spat long, arching spits.
Sometimes they traded places when the weight-bearing shoulders tired.
They ended up turning the narrow end of the coffin forward, but this way it hung in the snow easier. They had to re-tie the rope all over again.
More snow fell, silent and soft. Prenocturnal frost scorched their cheeks and foreheads. Their icy ears went numb.
Long branches stretching above the road, visible from afar, swung giddily in the wind.
How good it would feel to snap at them with his teeth.
Sasha felt something nauseating and frozen inside, as if somebody’s cold and rusty mouth was breathing on his internal organs.
“Mom, toss me the hat!” Sasha said.
She was dragging behind them quietly. Startled, she tossed the hat.
The trees darkened.
We must look pretty good here, in the middle of the woods…with a coffin, Sasha thought.
“A true Russian funeral,” Bezletov said, echoing the thought that had just wandered into Sasha’s mind. “A true Russian funeral procession…,” Bezletov corrected himself, breathing heavily.
They kept silent most of the way; Sasha even forgot sometimes that this man was next to him. In any case, they didn’t have the energy to speak.
While the sky was still light, Sasha tried to identify the places he’d known since he was a child. In the winter it was hard to recognize the grassy forest clearings and glades, but he still did sometimes. No big deal, just—there it was, it seemed, that spot where they’d stopped once when riding with Uncle Kolya in his car, and Mom, young, with an excellent smile and very happy eyes, went into the woods and returned immediately with mushrooms—she used to find them easily but was terrified of garter snakes.… The men smoked.
“Attagirl, Galya,” said Uncle Kolya. “What a good wife!” He took all of her in with that special glance.
Only now did Sasha realize that Uncle had been in love with Mom. More memories came back: some scene on the beach… he couldn’t remember. Sasha had been six years old at the time.
And right around here…they were walking someplace…. Why were we walking? I can’t remember.Sasha was tired, and Father carried him on his shoulders. Father had set Sasha on his shoulders and carried him. Sasha loved being so high up. Although he still couldn’t touch the tree branches, because Father walked in the middle of the road.
Why were we walking? And how long did it take us? Can’t remember a thing….
Sasha plodded on, thoughts draining from his head, trying, from time to time, to warm his hands with his breath—they felt burning and freezing at the same time. It didn’t help.
It got dark, and there was nothing to see any longer to feed memories.
Sometimes Bezletov burst into a brusque and almost shrill cough.
“Boys, would you like a bite to eat?” Mother asked.
This cough scared away her dark thoughts…, Sasha figured.
“There’s no need,” he answered.
“Yes, there is,” Bezletov said weakly. “I can’t go on.” He exhaled.
Mother fussed awkwardly with the bag, unsure where to set it.
“Put it on the coffin. It’s fine,” Sasha said. “Father won’t mind.”
Sasha sat next to the coffin and drooled.
I’m going to throw up…,he thought, as if he was thinking a thought of someone else. He stood up.
His hands quivered. The tears in his eyes were turning into ice.
Sasha lit a cigarette and noticed in the flash of light how pale Bezletov’s face was.
What if he has a weak heart?
Mother also noticed.
“Alexey Konstantinovich! Do you need a pill for your heart?”
Bezletov weakly shook his head.
Mother gave him a sandwich; he chewed without enthusiasm.
“Tea must be cold.” Mother took out a thermos. She tasted and confirmed. “Yes, it’s cold.”
“Would you like some?” she asked Bezletov.
“Do you have anything to warm us up?” asked Sasha, inhaling tobacco smoke with disgust.
“It’s cold, I told you.” Mother didn’t get it at first. “Oh, yes, I think so. Yes, vodka. Would you like some vodka?”
“We would, we would…,” Sasha said grimly and took the bottle. “Give me a knife.”
He clanged the open bottle against the coffin. Took a swig. Poured some for Bezletov. Bezletov swallowed half the cup and went into a coughing fit. He tossed out the rest.
Now they felt even more nauseated and cold.
They held onto the frozen rope like two corpses.
“God, this is so hard,” Sasha suddenly said and almost cried.
They crawled in a haze for another seven minutes or so and then stopped again.
“I’m wiped out,” Sasha said. He looked around and saw that they had come thirty meters at the most from the spot where they had just drunk vodka.
“We’ll freeze here,” said Bezletov quietly. “We’ve got to get to the village. Or we’ll freeze to death.” He breathed hoarsely.
“We should make a bonfire,” Sasha whispered. He shivered badly from time to time. He sat down, filled his hand with snow, carried it to his lips, but couldn’t bring himself to put the crispy white matter into his mouth.
Mother trembled. She hung her head and sat on the coffin.
“Mom, is it your heart?” Sasha asked.
She stopped him with her hand. Waited a minute.
“Sasha, give me….” She didn’t finish.
She opened her mouth and panted.
“Mom?” repeated Sasha cautiously.
She was quiet for another minute. Her son was standing next to her. He hated himself, the snow, the dark blue night.
But by his mother’s breath Sasha could tell that she was feeling a tiny bit better.
“You’ll bury me here together with Father,” she said in a slightly more animated voice.
She stirred in her bag with her weak hands, extracted a pill, tossed it into her mouth, picked up some snow, chased the pill with it, and swallowed forcefully.
No one could speak anymore.
They sat back-to-back on the coffin. Mother was motionless. Sasha shook his head. Bezletov shuddered.
A few stars, very tiny ones, appeared in the sky.
Sasha suddenly understood the expression “pinpoints of light.” This understanding appeared in his head from somewhere, but he didn’t have the power or the will to really process it and explain it to himself.
Whatever energy he had left was concentrated on resisting cold. Sasha felt sleepy…he felt like curling up on the coffin….Bezletov crept off the coffin and got down on all fours. He threw up. Then he spat for a while. Mother began to wail.
“Great—let’s all keel over here,” Sasha said.
For a while, Bezletov managed to hold himself on all fours; then he fell right into the snow.
Sasha lit a lighter and looked at his watch. It was two a.m. They had walked for more than ten hours. Who would have thought…?
Okay, not ten. They’d spent the past hour and a half in this hundred-meter stretch, muddling in the snow….
“Who will go to the village?” asked Sasha.
“You go, Sasha,” Mother said. “We’ll try to start a fire. Or both of you go. And I’ll watch the coffin.”
“Or someone will steal it…,” Sasha whispered.
He couldn’t leave Mother. He couldn’t not leave. He couldn’t send Bezletov on his own, either.
“God, this is so stupid!” he wanted to scream. “I got it all wrong. All wrong. But what? What was my mistake?”
“Mom? I’ll go now.”
Bezletov lifted himself up and stood swaying and peering into the dark.
A minute later they all heard the discordant, jittery clatter, the sound of sled runners, and the choppy, brash profanities bellowed out by a robust, healthy villager urging on a horse.
“It’s Yoke…,” Sasha said, identifying the voice of his grandparents’ neighbor, who lived one house down the road from them.
“Hey, over here!” Sasha yelled, surprising himself.
“Whoa!” The horse came to a halt a few meters away from them.
Yoke climbed off the sled and came closer.
“Sasha, is that you?” he asked with a stiff mix of unaffected severity and near cheerfulness. But behind the severity and the cheerfulness was a hardly discernible but rigid thread of mortal anguish. This thread was so rigid and taut that you could strangle someone—or strangle yourself—
“Galya, you’re here too, sweetheart.” Yoke recognized her, then shook Bezletov’s hand.
“How are you, Vaskya? Your back must be cold?” Yoke lowered himself down to the coffin and tapped the lid. “We’ll go home now.”
He didn’t ask any questions, didn’t make a fuss, just pulled the sleds up closer and, skillfully directing the horse, turned around. The horse shifted from one foot to another, sniffed the snow, threw sideways glances at the coffin and shook his head. Yoke told the muzhiks (that’s how he addressed them, frozen half to death—muzhiks, which boosted Sasha’s energy somehow) to hold on to the narrow part of the coffin, huffed, maneuvered the heavier side himself, and the coffin settled onto the hay.
“Whoa,” Yoke said. “Hang on to it,” he told Bezletov, pointing to the coffin. “Or else we’ll lose someone.”
Only now did he ask Sasha, “How long have you been out here in the cold?”
“A while. The driver went back to town. Refused to go any farther.”
“No wonder…,” Yoke said and, after a little pause, continued. “I woke up and thought:I got to go to the woods.Your grandma told me the other day that you’d be coming. And then, tonight, she stops by and says gravely, ‘They must have changed their minds. Galya must have wanted to keep him close to her,’ she said. ‘And let the orphaned parents die here all alone.’ I thought at once that something wasn’t right. And then tonight it was like someone shook me awake. I threw on my coat, harnessed the horse, and I was about to go. The missus woke up, pitched a fit—she’s a loudmouth—tried to undress me, unharness the horse, and I told her, ‘Vaskya is freezing there. I got to go.’ Gave her a smack. She says, ‘You’re going to see a woman!’ As if I couldn’t find a better time to see a woman…. Now, now, Vaskya, almost there.”
Sasha lay on his side in the sled like he’d done as a child, and they raced forward, gently and effortlessly, as the horse sensed the closeness of the village and hurried home.
Sasha noticed that Yoke had indeed thrown the coat over his bare torso—it had come undone when they loaded the coffin and now showed Yoke’s bare chest. Wind gusts, fierce and clingy, rushed out of the woods to attack the sleds but soon dissolved into the forest empty-handed. Yoke couldn’t care less about the wind. He was driving the horse, kneeling, easily and sternly.
Sasha’s grandparents’ windows were lit. Grandma waited at the doorstep. She opened the door and asked Yoke, “Vaskya called for you, didn’t he? He always called you for drunken debauchery. Now, for once, he called you to do the right thing. My son….”
Mother burst into sobs. Grandma’s wail was high, piercing, and bitter, a voice like the black earth.
Grandfather, tall, in a shirt with unbuttoned sleeves, stepped outside.
“You’re here, Sankya? Well now, come in.”
Translated by Mariya Gusev and Jeff Parker with Alina Ryabovolova.
Zakhar Prilepin was born in 1975 and is one of Russia’s most acclaimed and widely translated contemporary authors.