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THE BEST IN CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN FICTION
IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION


Genrikh Sapgir

VERY SHORT STORIES

Translated by Andrew Bromfield

(from Glas 14)

Three Couples

Once there were three couples who married, and they all came to the Supreme Being, because they were not quite ordinary couples, and each couple had its own problems. A young Muhammadan had married his own reflection in a mirror.
A little mouse had married the burrow that he lived in.
Life had married Death.
Before entering them in the book of marriages that are made in heaven, the Supreme Being asked the youth:
"Why are you taking your own reflection as your wife?"
"Because I see perfection, and I wish to live with it always," the youth replied modestly, with eyes downcast. "But by the law of the Shariat I must have another two wives, and I would not wish to see any outsider in my home."
"Set three mirrors there and you will have the three wives you want," the Supreme Being advised him.
"And you, little mouse, why are you marrying your own burrow?" the Supreme Being asked the mouse.
"I would like to spend my whole life running into the burrow and back, into the burrow and back!" the mouse exclaimed passionately.
"Mischievous creature," said the Supreme Being, admonishing him with his finger.
"We shall be fruitful and multiply, fruitful and multiply... But what will our children be like?" the mouse asked in concern.
"Like fur gloves," the Supreme Being instantly decided with his Supreme Reason. "With each finger a burrow and an inside-out mouse at the same time, just as nature has provided."
"And why are you marrying?" the Supreme Being asked the third couple. "You are so very different, one might say you are total opposites. And what kind of life will you have? While one is out making merry, the other will be lying down. While one is flourishing, the other will be decomposing. And how is it possible to kiss one's own skull with such tender rose-pink lips?"
"I am marrying out of prudent calculation," Life confessed. "There is no life for me without Death. Who will admire me and appreciate my fleeting moments? Without death I am not worth a farthing. In the end I can even bore myself to death. But there will be no death."
"And you, Death?"
"I have loved Life for a long time," sighed Death, "but sometimes I like to hurt her."
"Then I cry out like mad," laughed Life. "But what is Life without pain?"
"You are a true couple," laughed the Supreme Being. "Perfect sweethearts. Sadist and masochist."
"But I am afraid that our union will be barren," Life said gloomily. "What can be born of our marriage?"
"Thought," said the Supreme Being.

 

The War of the and the Spheres

The photo on the newspaper page was blurred and indistinct, skyscrapers and white spheres on flat roofs - some modern town or other. I'm afraid I stared so long and unthinkingly at this landscape that it gradually lost all human meaning and I began to see nothing but cubes and spheres.
In the grey formless space they move perceptibly, the cubes drawn towards their own team and the spheres forming their own pyramid. And there's something else there that looks like a pod of peas.
It moves closer out of the depths. I see it's not a pod at all, but a funny, skinny man in a cocked hat and a green sleeveless jacket. His long hooked nose and drooping moustache somehow seems remarkably familiar.
"Good day to you, sir."
"I am afraid I do not know you... And yet we have definitely met somewhere..."
"In the library!" It had suddenly dawned on me. "On the bookshelf, Baron."
"Yes, yes, of course... Well, and how are things there now without me?"
"Terrible, Baron."
"Really, how so?"
"Your marvels are now far too refined for us. They tell us tall stories every day on the television. And they do not roast ducks on the spits, alas, but people."
At this point the baron leapt to one side with unexpected agility. A black sphere came whizzing out of the grey depths and hurtled past my ear. I glanced round. There was a smoking hole in the wall.
"Those cursed cubes and spheres! You have to keep dodging all the time..."
"Does it not appear to you, Baron," I eventually asked him, "that we have just been shot at?"
"Oh, pay no attention! Just duck, that's all."
"But what's going on?"
"The war of the cubes and the spheres."
"The war of the cubes and the spheres?"
"The cubes wish, in fact they wish very much, that the spheres would grow corners. And the spheres, naturally, wish for the opposite. They want to smooth the corners off."
"And how do you manage there?"
"It's not really very dangerous for a traveller. For them people are merely extraneous objects. They take us for details of the city's landscape."
"But a man is made entirely of cubes and spheres!" I exclaimed.
"That's precisely where the problem lies," the baron answered mysteriously.
At this point I caught sight, a little further back, of four grey cubes floating in space, moving towards each other, evidently in an attempt to surround one rather large sphere. The sphere was glowing a wrathful crimson, and I could see it had no intention of surrendering. The cubes prudently withdrew.
Suddenly, as though by command, all four of them rushed upon their enemy with indescribable speed and crashed together with a dry crunching sound. There was a liquid flash of crimson flame. And then there was one large cube, made up of the other four, swaying gently high up in the air, gradually turning pinker and pinker.
"They crushed it! How terrible!"
"No more terrible than the traffic in the street," the baron objected. "The carriages in the big cities are constantly crashing into each other, the traces are torn, the axles are broken, the wheels knock down people walking by, the coachmen are sent flying from their boxes into the gutter, and the dresses and tender faces of the lovely lady passengers are spattered with liquid mud. But we accept all of that as the commonplace inconvenience of our journey."
While I listened to the baron, from time to time I surveyed the field of battle, so to speak. Several spheres had surrounded a cube and were grinding off his corners with a pitiful screeching sound. The cube was a deathly white. Further away bright flashes flared up here and there as cubes attempted to stretch spheres into shape and the spheres burst. There was a smell like scorched bristles.
"Of course, just like yourself, at first I was agitated and alarmed by all of these skirmishes and duels," the baron continued. "I thought that perhaps some reconciliation was possible. For a start I decided to make my way into the Main Fortress of the cubes. Imagine a high wall, ten metres cubed on each side, and in the very centre a gigantic cubotron. There was absolutely no way to get inside. But, as everybody knows, I am famed for my inventiveness. What's more, the spheres maintained a continuous siege and bombardment of the fortress. An old, well-tested method: I leapt on to a shot and landed on the very roof of the cubotron. I looked around everywhere, without even bothering to hide much, the cubes paid absolutely no attention to me. One gilded cube even moved me over a bit closer to the table, like a standard lamp. So that he could see better. And indeed - what point is there in false modesty - my brilliant thoughts are quite capable of illuminating rather spacious chambers. So I shone on the low square table surrounded by their generals."
"And what was it like in the headquarters of the spheres?" I inquired.
"What headquarters, it was nothing but an ordinary bowling-alley. No, this war will never come to an end, because each side is playing its own game," the baron observed with a sigh. He darted to one side again to allow a sphere to hurtle past.
"Perhaps they just need to have it explained to them?" I suggested enthusiastically.
"Where are you going? You're three-dimensional! You can't come in here!" the baron shouted, holding out his slim rapier in front of him.
But I was already there beside him. It was as though I leapt from a cinema-hall on to the screen, and then drifted on, out of balance, it felt as though the wind picked me up and carried me along.
"I'm already here. I always suspected that my real self was up on the screen."
"Farewell, you blockhead. I shall take my leave. I've done enough here, I shall fly off to the Turks," the baron said in vexation. Then leaping sportively aboard a black sphere that was flying past (remember the shot!), he hurtled off, his large nose and cocked hat presenting a clear silhouette, evidently in the direction of the Black Sea. But then, who knows what direction the sea lay in from there?
I didn't try to catch up with him. A cube the size of a refrigerator was advancing on me, dead-white and absolutely obtuse. A strange idea came to me, and I put forward my own forehead, also a kind of cube. We clashed together with a clanging sound, like the buffer-plates of two goods wagons.
This was a contest worthy of the revered baron himself. The smooth, ice-cold cube pressed against me with all of its weight, and my forehead cracked and creaked. Of course, I held my ground, but my thoughts began to fuse into a frozen mass. "I can't hold out like this for long," I thought, with some difficulty. My vital energy and warmth were draining away.
Then what was this? Behind me I felt a distinct warmth, and then it got really hot. I realised that a sphere had come up on me from behind and was pouring heat on to me below the waist.
Imagine it, I was being roasted form one side and transformed into an ice-cube for cocktails from the other!
The situation was truly worthy of the baron. Naturally I invested my last ounce of energy in a prayer to his name and his inventiveness, and he sent me salvation - I recalled the story of the lion and the crocodile.
With lightning speed I leapt out of the picture and flopped down into my armchair. The cube and the sphere clashed together and instantly annihilated each other. Then the picture dimmed. It was a murky landscape of some modern city, possibly New York or Brasilia.

 

Euratio

Euratio liked to clamber up the flagpole at some embassy or other and flutter away in the breeze.
"What country's flag is that?" people would ask each other.
"How colourful it is, I don't recognize it," someone would say thoughtfully.
"It's Euratio," the expert could have said, but he didn't say anything, because there wasn't any such country yet.
"I am an entire continent," Euratio thought in astonishment at himself. He spoke in so many languages that I can't possibly recall them all, so I'd better just convey his speech in Russian: it's not so very distant from Sanskrit.
Euratio had lived a long life. He was young and old, depending on how you looked at it. Hordes of wild and bellicose tribes had traversed him from his heels to the crown of his head. The Mongols had merely made him scratch his ears. The Huns galloped like fleas. Once he let them wander about in his boot, and they sacked Rome.
An itch here, a festering wound there. Wars and insurgencies. Euratio was fed up. He went off into the steppe, where the grass is tall and there he made friends with a tramp. He was a remarkable man, almost as big as Euratio, Velemir Khlebnikov the poet. When they walked across the steppe together, Euratio and Velemir, they were a sight worth seeing. But it was the steppe who read the eulogy at Velemir's funeral.
He respected Gumilyov, Leo that is. Leo was so very Eurasian. Out felling timber behind the barbed wire during the day-time, and roaming freely over the hills round about in the night-time, frightening the camp dogs with his roaming.
He sympathized with Sakharov the nuclear scientist. He saw Euratio fully grown, not like all the others. But Sakharov died and there were new times with new people. The new ones were just like the old ones, joining things together, then sharing them out, like a cow's carcass. Nothing but mail-art. Shizzo Shamamozo.
He gave up on it all and went off to the Crimea to do some sunbathing. He went to bathe in the sea, and he was discovered all over again by tourists from Kiev. They covered him with garbage, bottles, tins, bits of plastic. The bastards put out their cigarettes in his navel. After the shouting, they drove off on a motor-boat. Euratio got annoyed, he turned over on his belly and farted and sent a big wave after the young idiots that threw the motor-boat up on the rocks.
"Ha, some Eurasians all of you are, all you people! I'm not going to let anyone else discover me. I'm going to climb up the Eiffel Tower and flutter in the wind like the flag of some country that might not exist. Let the Parisians admire me."

 

The City of the Great Leaders

Foggy old St. Petersburg and the bogs around it are still haunted by the malevolent wandering phantom of the Great Leader.
As you make your way home along the endlessly straight streets on a muddy-wet autumn night after staying out late visiting friends and you haven't got a clue which way you're going - the last tram went ages ago - the cars shower you with cold spray as they go shrieking past, and you start to think you must be going the wrong way altogether and you'll never get to where you need to be, and maybe there's no point in wandering on with your shoes full of water, and you should just clamber up the steps into any doorway, make your way up the dark staircase to the attic and curl up on the warm, dry felt and fine crumbs of cement until the morning comes (let him knock, let him rumble, let him clang his rusty old sheet of iron, he can't get to you) and when you finally turn a corner without the slightest idea of which way you're turning, except that you know it's the wrong way, suddenly in a small square or simply standing in a small public garden, high above the damp yellow shrubs, you glimpse the silhouette of the Great Leader.
Clutching his bronze cap in his hand, the Great Leader confidently points out the path you should follow, now in a different direction, and cursing to yourself like Pushkin's poor Yevgeny (well, after all, you had some vodka too at your friends' house) you set off in that direction. Perhaps he is right after all, as always, and he is pointing out the right way to go, if only to the taxi-rank, but your long wandering journey under the slanting rain along the yellow walls of the very, very long buildings (all the way from the beginning of the last century) only leads you to another one of his doubles, whose outstretched finger points off in an entirely different direction again, along a path which leads you into a dead-end, where a smaller, silver-painted Great Leader, lounging comfortably against the wall, points unambiguously back to where you came from.
And so they go on leading you round and round the deserted night-time city, and it seems as though there is no-one alive left, the city is inhabited by no-one but statues, and they move along ahead of you as you walk, alien and barely tolerated. The city spins like an immense stage; now here's a big one, and a small one, and a bust, and a torso (either they haven't put the head on yet or it's been broken off), one with a cap in his hand, one with a different cap on his head, here's a little child dressed like a girl, then one with the typical exaggerated forehead, until, in utter confusion, you sit down on the damp slats of a bench, and suddenly find yourself face-to-face with Mayakovsky.
At first you simply can't believe that this black basalt head is not his. It's bald as a billiard-ball, like all the others, but no, this is Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, and if it's Mayakovsky, that means Nekrasov Street is somewhere close by, and the place I live in next to the back door of the theatre and upstairs to the hostel for actors on the fifth floor.
... I'm already on my feet, ready to go, when I see a black heap at the foot of the monument. The heap rises and beneath it I glimpse the small pale face of a girl or an old crone. An arm as thin as a match is thrust out from under the heap, a bottle glints in the light of the street-lamp, and the girl-crone takes a few gulps. The gulps are as long as the buildings from the beginning of the nineteenth century that took so long to walk past. She gazes at me with dark serious eyes, and I see that she is absolutely drunk.
"Wanna drink?" she asks, and then continues without any transition. "Vool, shizzovrenic, vind-bag (here she named a well-known writer), I gevvim the push, he can push ovv... he can shuvuvovv to his Komarovo... No trains vere, he says... Very vine, very vine" - is she doing this deliberately, or is it a speech defect, I can't tell! As her gurgling ramblings went on they turned back the clock and I saw myself in front of the door of the Writers' Club, following the strange couple inside - herself and the "vool".
The marble steps, the cubby-holes of the cloakrooms, the fussy female attendants in their blue overall coats, everything dusty and half-forgotten like the props for some old play that are still dragged out, alas, to serve their purpose. And the monstrous, heavy-drinking patrons, God only knows what goes on inside their heads, their vanity is yet another antique from grandmother's trunk, a piece of material hidden away for ages and yellowed along the folds, and if it is unfolded, then only in order to be folded away again in the green trunk bound with criss-cross strips of gilded tin.
Standing in the crowded entrance-hall - how long had he been there? - was Mayakovsky, particularly large and awkward, made of plaster. Why he stood there no-one really knew, but none of the writers bothered to ask themselves that question. Outside there was Soviet power, and so Mayakovsky stood in the hall, that was all there was to it. In this house they should really have thoroughly disliked him, but he had got his own way a long time ago, and everyone had become absolutely indifferent. They simply didn't notice he was there. I'm afraid that if you asked anyone, "How's your Mayakovsky in the Writers' Club doing?" they would stare at you in amazement: "What Mayakovsky?"
I knew he'd turned into him ages ago. He stood there, just as he stood in the numerous squares and gardens outside. He stood there in the corner, at the foot of the winding staircase, legs set apart in his accustomed manner, his hands thrust coarsely into his pockets or clutching his plaster cap. And the fact that at first he was Mayakovsky didn't embarrass him in the least; from the very beginning he'd always been just as high-handed in his dark dealings, never hearing anything anyone else might say (a very distinctive trait that!). Here he was where he belonged, just as he belonged everywhere else. From his elevated height (he wasn't all that tall in life) he could follow all the bald-spots and the thick manes scurrying by, all the slippery literary small-fry.
"How I'd like to deafen the lot of you with a three-fingered whistle!" said the Great Leader.
They didn't hear him, because they were listening very hard, but only to themselves, and they ran past him in the murky hall of the former palace that now smelled of food and plastic, lusting on their way to the drink.
Talking of drink, the girl-crone and I finished off her bottle and made patchy conversation - also without listening to each other - under the smooth black head - I couldn't say now whether it was Mayakovsky or not, because I can't be sure - I wouldn't have given way to temptation at all, but my throat was dry from all that endless rain...
They tell tales of how girls gathering cranberries have seen the phantom of the Great Leader out on the bogs (radioactive cranberries do still grow in some places, so they say), and they've seen the phantom of his leafy den as well. Last autumn, so I've heard, the Great Leader led two girl-friends off into a swamp and drowned them. The poor girls dashed to and fro from one aspen tree to another, and he kept setting the phantom of his leafy shelter in front of them, as if to say the true path leads to my den; only that den is a hellish mirage, and the path too; as soon as you step on it you sink into bottomless blackness, with no-one to hear you scream or call out, and it will suck you in, draw you in voluptuously. That's what he was like in life, turning heads with his lisping, enticing speech, able to prove to a young boy that there's something he has to die for, that he wants to die, that it's right to die, and all the time his arm is pointing: that way, that's the way to go, they're sure to...
Fie, fie, you spirit of evil!

 

Mind Power

In the first place, we live here on this earth, don't we? And in the second place, we're a force to be reckoned with, and we always know what's right. Who's we? We come from the neighbouring street, the nearest factory, we're from the laboratory at the research institute, we're from the local municipal housing office, we're from the bar and the beer-hall, we're from the gym in the basement. That's who we are. And we're absolutely in.
There was this young guy who fell in love with someone who wasn't there. He sat on a bench with his arm up along the back as though he was holding someone. But there wasn't anyone there. Gap-toothed Zhenka said,
"It's an invisible woman. I'll go and sit on her."
So he sat on her. And he got it in the neck, of course. We didn't interfere, it was his girl and even if she was invisible it's a lousy insult for Zhenka to plonk his fat backside down on her.
And so it went on. At the cinema he bought her a ticket, sat in one place himself and the other was empty: she was sitting there. If anyone came up he said, "Seat's taken". Well, if he's paid for the seat then it's "taken" alright. It was a laugh all the same to wonder whether she was there or not.
"I know what it is, guys. He just makes her up to suit himself," said Zhenka. "I read about something like that in Youth," (don't get that wrong: not in his youth, but in the Youth magazine. I don't reckon he ever read anything in his youth).
"You're lying," we said.
"Buggered if I am! There was this famous sculptor in Greece. He carved this girl so life-like the clever little sweetheart came to life. And she fell in love with him. Pig Million, his name was."
"Now that is a lie," we said to him. "Nobody could have a name like that."
So we nicknamed the guy who was in love Pig Million.
"Lend us a fiver, Pig Million."
"Come on, Pig Million, let's go for a swim."
He answered to this name, no problem. We all have nicknames too, the lucky ones have names that are decent enough, but there's some you choke on when you just try to say them. Who's this we, you're thinking? It's just us. We always know what to make of things and our lives are just fine.
After work we cuddle up with the girls from the hostel, in summer in the park, and in winter we wait for the room-mate to go out. That's putting it mildly, cuddle up. What of it? We're people like everyone else, and we do everything the way people should. Out in the bushes, of course, the girls squeal like piglets, even like pigs, you might say, so Pig Million is really more like us than him.
He strolls along the main avenue in the park, under the white street-lamps, with his arm around nothing like he's in a film. Well, he has a right to. We'd have scared him off soon enough if he wasn't from our yard. His father worked in the trade police. That was another reason why we didn't beat him up. (Zhenka urged us to thump him good and proper, but we never did.) We began to see her there beside him, and every time she was different.
"Fine-looking brunette," said gap-toothed Zhenka, licking his lips. "Yesterday when his parents went out he brought her back to his place. I saw her on the staircase: she looks okay."
"There was this plump peroxide blonde standing on his balcony," said Peter, the one with the nickname I'll-Work-You-Overtime. "Twice as old as Pig."
"Skinny and green," said Sashka, a lab-assistant.
"No, guys," I said. "I've seen her as clear as I see you now: four tits, two backsides and a plait of hair as thick as your fist. I wouldn't lie about it, though I'm surprised myself."
"Maybe he has a new one every time?" suggested Vic the Snot-Faced Drooler.
"He's a quiet one. That's not like him," Peter I'll-Work-You-Overtime objected.
We asked Pig Million. First he gazed at us like we were crazy. Then he laughed.
"I haven't got anyone..." He sighed. "And I probably never will."
"Who did we see then? We all saw someone, and they were all different. Beautiful."
"I wouldn't mind one like that," said Vadim Wipe-Your-Arse-With-It thoughtfully.
"You've hypnotized us," decided gap-toothed Zhenka. "So now we're going to work you over."
"Maybe, guys, you all saw your own: you saw the one you'd been dreaming about?"
"Yeah... Maybe he's right." We looked at each other.
Who's we? Anyone can tell you who we are: we're from the billiard-hall, from the beer-hall, from the basement gym. We see things like they are.
"Then who do you see?" we asked. "You're always walking around, making things up, squeezing her, probably screwing her, and we have no idea what she's like."
"Ah, you wouldn't understand what she's like," he said.
"Draw her for us. What's to stop you?"
So he did draw her, in detail, from her stylish shoes to her black fringe.
We took a look at the drawing... I put my Sharp twin cassette player on the table, pressed the key to switch on the Beatles, and told him,
"Dance."
"What for?" Pig Million asked, astonished.
"You idiot, Pig Million, your dream lives in the new house next door. Her name's Valentina. She just moved in recently."
"It's not possible!" He'd gone white as a sheet.
"In other words, I can introduce you. You owe me one, Pig," I said, not knowing why I felt so pleased myself.
We introduced them. After all, we're a force to be reckoned with. We're from the yard, we're from the factory, we're from the gym... To cut it short, they got married, and now they have kids running around the place.
There's only one thing I don't understand. Is he a materialist or an idealist? If he's a materialist, then everything's clear. He saw her somewhere, completely forgot about her, and he thought he'd made her up, complete with the fringe. But if he's an idealist, then he invented her himself and moved her into the house next-door. In other words, a miracle pure and simple.
I told a certain writer about what happened when I was drunk, out in the yard, this fat, respectable guy. He goes walking with his cocker spaniel. That's this breed with a turned-up nose, shaggy-haired, doesn't bite. So anyway, this writer said to me,
"Maybe he did invent the girl. Things like that happen. Let me give you (he meant me) an example. In Gothenberg - this was a long time ago - two German professors got into an argument. `I assert categorically, Herr Professor,' said one, `that the power of my own mind is capable of giving birth to a camel; which, by the way, I have never actually seen'.
"`Assert categorically', laughed the other one. `How can you give birth to a camel, if you haven't even managed to produce a son? I'm sorry, my most respected Herr, but everyone in Gothenberg knows you have only two charming daughters.'
"The first professor stood his ground as firm as an oak tree in a German forest, said everyone knew he hadn't produced his daughters by the power of his mind, but the philosophical experiment had to be tried.
"So they tried the experiment. In the evening the Herr Professor locked himself in his study and the other Herr Professor sealed the door with wax. The next day they unsealed the door of the study, and everyone saw that using nothing but the power of his mind the Herr Professor had given birth to a dromedary with shaggy hair, like a cocker spaniel with a fringe."

 

The Hole

If you walk away from and not as far as, in the foundation pit among the low heaps of earth scorched black by the fierce heat, there is a hole. No fire, no smoke, no ash, and never anybody at all.
But no, here comes someone wandering towards me: sun-bleached tattered rags, red forehead, crazy white eyes:
"Where am I?"
I explain.
"Where are you from?"
"It's really terrible there. No, don't get me wrong, it's the same there as it is here... But one day everyone just woke up to this constant stamping sound in their heads, enough to make you smash your brains out. Lots of people have smashed them out, they've jumped out of windows, or run off in their underpants or pyjamas... That's how they discovered that if you stamp yourself, it gradually dies down. Soon everybody was stamping their feet to the roar of rock-music in earphones: stamp-stamp in the middle of a conversation, stamp-stamp under the table during meals, jumping up in the middle of the night, stamp-stamp out of habit... Not me! Not me! I can't stand the stamp-stamp (he jumped up in the air). That repulsive stamp-stamp (he jumped up again). Why aren't you stamping? Where am I?"
I explain.
"And my wife goes stamp-stamp! And my boss goes stamp-stamp all over me! Everybody stamps as though they were crazy and now I've gone crazy. I had to run away... Where am I?"
I explain.
"Why doesn't your sky stamp? Clouds... but it doesn't stamp... Maybe you don't know how? You do it like this."
He stamped twice in the dust with his battered running shoes.
"Stamp, you fool! You don't know what's good for you!"
Suddenly he turned away and set off at a run, stamping his feet as he went skipping through the bushes of worm-wood and capers. Dry prickles tumbled to the ground as the soles of his feet stamped at it. He turned back:
"You are a doomed world! And no-one will ever learn about you..."
His figure dissolved in the fierce shimmering heat. It seemed to disappear into the hole - stamp-stamp.
Now I could hear the gophers whistling.
I went closer. A hole and another hole off to the side... I suddenly stamped my foot twice, and the stones and sand went tumbling down.

 

Uncle Yuri

Yuri Vladimirovich dyes his sparse hair with henna and combs the red strands at a slant across his bald spot. He has false teeth and false thoughts.
He had his thoughts made and fitted in the thirties, and in the forties he went to war as a volunteer. He was a regimental adjutant and he never got involved in thinking at all.
But after the war he thought up how he'd marched all the way from Moscow to Berlin fighting for Stalin. Uncle Yuri is stout. He has grey, clumpy little moustaches.
Who's that there in the old photograph, no moustaches, frightened-looking eyes, a skinny neck? His son? A relative? Some other person?
Uncle Yuri loves to reminisce about the war. The war is his personal property. And on Victory Day (usually it's sunny) a golden armour-plating of medals covers his chest and his belly.
Uncle Yuri likes it when women look round at him. His eyes even light up. But the passers-by look at him as though he was a fossil.
In one of his former lives Uncle Yuri might have been a tyrannosaurus, running about on his hind legs and roaring through gaping jaws as wide as the gates in our yard. And there was a war between the mare's tails and the ferns. But the mammals won.