Where the Sky Met the Hills

(A Novella)

Vladimir Makanin
Translated from Russian by

Jane H. Buckingham

©Jane H. Buckingham 2003 jhbuckingham@yahoo.ca

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Georgii Bashilov wanted to be home; he wanted peace and quiet and wanted very much to be in his own armchair-rocker in order to just rock and rock in the room called his office. However, they were guests; the surrounding tipsy people once again started singing a song, a normal, primitively crude song: come, if you are in the mood to shout and make noise, and Bashilov once again began to frown and wince, then buried his head in his arms: did he not plug up his ears, his inner ears so that his delicate hearing would not be hurt by the singing of these casual people? The musical theme had developed with the cantilenas in a diminishing role, which meant that logically the diverse forms of vocals would begin in the music. But just as the melody was on the brink between the singing and the recitative text — enough, enough mockery, he can hear it, this is really too much! Not really, no, the composer’s wife explained, Georgii Bashilov was not at all offended or hurt by their singing; on the contrary, he felt guilty. Yes, yes, just imagine, the composer felt guilty because in the village where he was born, in a certain far away village about a thousand kilometres from here, the people, his fellow villagers, did not sing at all. “It seems to him that he’s at fault.” his wife said, lowering her voice. “But why?” the guests asked in a whisper. Some continued to bellow out the song. “Please don’t pay any attention. I beg you…” And the people looked around at him: he was sitting at the common table, his head buried in his arms, having fallen into a lengthy silence. He was quite a bit over fifty. Yet half an hour ago he was laughing, making jokes, being sociable and not void of charm in his conversation. Someone clicked the half-empty bottle with his nail. The company partially assumed that the guest musician had a bit too much alcohol, these things happened. Indeed, if Bashilov was drinking, the torments intensified and his face was distorted by the minute while the common table had a good time and belted out merry songs. His wife immediately took him home once he started sobbing; he left exactly like that: supported by her and with his grey-haired head buried in his arms. As it turned out he did not block up his ears at all. When he was drinking, it seemed to him that his guilt towards the village was not only visible but huge and he was waiting for certain punishment for his guilt, that was the reason he would try to cover his head — from a blow. With him on one side and the singers on the other — they were partners in crime — the joint activity continued. “But I at least suffered,” Bashilov was repeating to himself, thinking how once at night in silence and darkness the pure high voice of a child would ring out. That village was quite small, easily accessible, and it was no trouble to walk around it especially in the summer. Built for not only the normal operation of processing oil but also the elimination of occasional fires, the village seemed to be small. First, second, and third — there were all of three houses arranged in a rectangle with one side missing, the missing side opened to the factory which could be seen on a hill. The three houses were like a trap in comparison and at the same time a sensitive open ear absorbing into itself the noises and sounds of factory malfunctions — the village was for emergency. Low hills were at the back of the three houses. Beyond the hills was an invisible little town twenty-five to thirty kilometres from the village as if it was not quite there and for a long time was a myth to the young Bashilov, somewhat existing and not existing not unlike the geographical south or, say, west. “A
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town? Where is that?” the young Bashilov would ask and they would answer, “There.” They would point in the direction of the low hills. The factory had been automated to a considerable extent but according to the old standard, thus fires happened and, what was more, were anticipated. The factory employed two dozens workers, technicians and engineers, and also one emergency technician and one emergency engineer, in view of the small number of people and the interchangeability, they were all experts in emergency in reality. The women also worked; counting children and old folks there were close to a hundred living in the village. “The hills didn’t beget, oh, the hills didn’t beget no-o-o-thing…” The village kept to itself and life was defined, as usual, by a thirst for old customs, for bygone days, and for mossy Ural songs reeking of diseases, mines, the keen if not persistent labours of seekers, and often straightforward robberies. The villagers drank and sang at long tables and, of course, childhood painted and made them heroes, huge people in the eyes of youngsters, although they were, one must imagine, badly dressed, usually in oil and soot, smoking non-stop, and spitting factory soot packing their lungs after the shift. Bashilov was little and they were huge. The hills and the homes were huge. The courtyard between the houses was always sunny and hot but maples provided shade and three long common tables with benches rooted to the ground were in the shade. Two teachers coming from the city for a month or two taught all subjects at once. “Boy, rewrite this…” and twice and thrice, “Boy, read this…” marking off the “from and to” so that Bashilov now remembered the nails of his teachers: the huge spade-like nail of the man and the slender graceful nail of the woman with milky illumination from within. They explained to the village children of different ages grade two lessons or suddenly grade five, grade three, and even grade seven lessons. However, the teaching was not the worst. Besides there was sufficient perseverance in children and Bashilov was an orphan, which added a special tinge to his persistence. Yes, his father and mother were burnt in an accident when he was eight years old, yes, eight years old, and he lived at an uncle’s where they fed and clothed him, yes, yes, the uncle’s family fed and clothed him and even paid for lessons in the music school in their little town. However, as soon as he broke through the tranquil ring of the Ural Mountains – it is quiet, soft at the throat and delicate in its own way – he had barely left for the capital and started studying on a scholarship though a tiny one, he had refused help from them. He did not want to. He would not take a kopeck from them. His uncle had also burnt by this time and every time in the few letters to the rest of the villagers who were interested in his fate, he answered simply and firmly that he had money since he was receiving a scholarship in Music College, he repeated the word with emphasis till it worked and proved his point. His peer Genka Koshelev also joined the team; Genka Koshelev was always a loafer with parents and nobody would compare him to Bashilov. The village’s song supply appeared to be huge but only these two became musicians. Did the village really want them to leave? These two were not just going away, they were more like escaping. Bashilov did not sense the absence of songs on the train. He perceived silence. The tap of the wheels became the rhythm. Similarly remaining in his memory was the sound of knives, the rhythmic grinding sound when the women were scraping the three common tables, when they were pouring water from the half-bucketful copper jugs, when streams were running down
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the table, and Bashilov was too little. He stretched but could not touch the tabletop nor see the width of these overflowing sagittate streams. He saw only the streams from below, how they fell running and dropping from the table onto the dust. “Shi-shist! Shishist!” Auntie Alina, placing the knife edgewise and pressing with both hands, scraped board after board until the table became clean and white for the funeral repast. There was no tablecloth. Bashilov-the-boy would also be sitting at these tables — they would summon him — he and Genka Koshelev were always the two required at wakes so that their childish voices would intertwine with the adult singing… Singing was business; perhaps it was from childish professionalism that he did not run away to the hills, hide there and conceal himself all day and night as children would: he knew that he must sing at the wake. The death of his father and mother was an event by itself and there was a fine line that separated it from any other wake as it was their wake, a wake for them. He did not hide the pure angelic voice. While there was a lot of drinking and eating, the huge villagers belted out his father’s favourite songs and he led and led them with his pure voice: he did not delay nor hasten more than normal, led evenly and even lingered over the high note difficult for an adult, waiting for the help of the second tenors to catch up. Suddenly he glanced back: did they forget? Now he knew they would give him the accordion and if he succeeded in playing well, they would weep. They were tearful at songs, something that was not considered surprising for the villagers with their tear glands weakened by smoke and chemicals. The wind picked up toward the evening that day, not too strong but gusty, and the lantern began to sway over the food that filled up the tables. The swinging light dashed against the benches where the Koshelevs and the Korols were sitting and behind them both the Grunins — Vasilisa-the-elder and Vasilisa-the-younger. Vodka stood in clear bottles. Beside them was a plate of salted tomatoes, huge red spheres. There were steaming mounts of potatoes, also mounts of boiled eggs spilling over. They reminisced about Father but argued especially loudly about Mother, about what could have been her last words. Father died instantly, burnt, but Mother, it turned out, was still breathing. When she was taken to the city, to the hospital, she suddenly came to and, rousing, started to speak very quickly. They only made out that she was asking for, sending for kin, then they rushed back to the village for her brother, but when young Bashilov’s uncle arrived, Mother had already died. “What? What do you want to say? Please talk, speak!” The doctor hurried her but Mother clinched her teeth, waiting for someone from her family, good or bad, still family, and she was not saying her words to the doctor nor to the surrounding people. “Now we can only guess! And we’re guessing here,” Sergei Fedorovich Korol sadly clinked glass with and kissed Grandma Daria. Now all of them noisily clinked glasses, then they stretched to kiss young Zhorka Bashilov but they smelled repulsive to him: the smell of the factory after a fire, everything reeked so, especially the burnt ones. Also, of course, he knew that was how his mother and father smelt although he was not allowed to get close to them. The factory was not high. It was flatly scattered about in the steppe that started here and in its flat immobility struck one as active and lifelike: sprouting a puff of smoke. The sun was shining, there was food on the tables under the maples, and they buried Mama and Papa — he must play on. Earlier in the morning they were singing and singing around him — he must play on. The youngster lowered his head over the accordion and
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people, burnt, tipsy, suddenly starting to speak all at once, explained to him that nobody ever played so remarkably as he. They explained that he was the worst judge of his own playing; they kissed him, squeezed him, and if one looked up, the lively red puff of smoke was floating over the flat factory. In bad weather or, say, a cold fall or even in winter, the villagers would gather at the Eremins’ who lived noisily, frugally, and in rooms without partitions — the reason they could simply and quickly put together tables there instead of on the street. If Bashilov together with the singing youngsters sat facing the window, the moving puff of smoke would be visible. Once at the wake he saw the whole yet unabated fire. The smoke was dark, drifting. The complicated transformation of folkloric elements began already then and time further snapped into action: persistent cross-genre intertwining defined the synthesis of expressive means of music contemporary to him… 2 In later years, his wife said, he became more like a person with whimsies, yes, yes, and age also did not help, yes, yes, especially when he turned fifty and the armchairrocker became his favourite place to compose music. If some drunks suddenly yelled out a song under the windows and if only one of them had a voice, Bashilov would throw himself at the window and opened it wide, listening to the idiotic song and getting all worked up. He changed as the weather suddenly changed. The drunks went on their merry way but the composer by this time was nervous all day and absolutely could not work, could neither compose nor even listen to music. “They aren’t singing… they aren’t even singing at wakes,” Bahilov repeatedly muttered to himself. If his family, say, his son, tried to address him, he would snarl, shout at them all of a sudden, wheeze, then lock himself in his room, the office. He would sit in the armchair-rocker but would not rock. He could sit like that for a very long time holding his head with his hands as if in terrible grief, as if in trouble. Sometimes — fortunately not so often — he would carry a bottle of vodka with him off to the room and drink there gloomily. Sometimes the family could hear him weep. His wife recounted that the whole day would go by this way and in the middle of the night Bashilov would approach her in bed without fail, his head would snuggle up to hers, and he would say, whisper, “You see, I’m guilty towards my village, I’m at fault. ” “I know, darling…” His wife would affectionately stroke his head. She soothed him, she reminded him of music. Well, the tears had dried up at the wake but remained in his cello sonatas. A mournful swing of the melodic line was always his strong point, not only did he give to music, music bestowed on him too. The villagers sang not only at wakes, they also sang at children birthdays, at rare weddings, at festivals, on Sundays, or sang simply from boredom in long evenings. It was true that as a rule the females sang in the evenings and from boredom, they did not really have such need for his angelic voice. When the young Bashilov was three years old and went on foot in the literal sense under the scraped tables, the villagers were singing and did not need him at all. They were singing when he was two and when he was one. They were singing before he was born. The village voices were exceptional; and the only one whom God noticeably had not visited was the fool Vasik — the antipode of young Georgii, whose voice was too good in
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comparison with the villagers’. A stray and without family here, Vasik lived at the Grunins’; there they pitied him, clothed and fed him, and he lived near the village like a celestial bird, not working, a protected and happy person. The only thing was that they forbad him to sing. And that was why at any gathering in the village when a voice, better or worse, would barely start the villagers singing, the unfortunate Vasik instantly experienced torment. Step by step closer he approached the singers. Little by little the song charmed him, his soul was bursting, and then he opened his mouth but closed it right away: he knew that he the voiceless should never sing out loud, it was forbidden. He was not so much tormented with the wish to sing but with the wish to be like everyone else and be united with everybody; and in the end Vasik would come very close, with his long drawn-out mumbling, with rough belly sounds he would suddenly run up to the tables under the maples, where the singers at first shook their fingers at him and then threatened with their fists, “Shut up! Hey, drive him away, can’t keep quiet even once!” They drove him off and the young Bashilov sang and sang, the voice gathering strength, his eyes wide open, clear; without interrupting the song he again saw the whole sequence of movements – in the beginning when Vasik approached with quiet steps, then paused at some distance, and then, sneaking up, attempted to sing mutely, soundlessly. He only opened his mouth. However, from inner strength of restrain and inhibition Vasik’s hands began to twitch, the palms slipped out, bent, then the tick spread higher to the face, on the face swept pass a whole range of trembling, small convulsions, grimaces. The mute soul having the ability to share did not have the means to communicate. The young Bashilov was singing, he sang like everyone in the village not thinking about the fool. When they sat at the Eremins’ in rain or cold, they banished the mumbling Vasik altogether from the very first time and did not even allow him in. The youngster’s voice sounded clear and unwavering, and it was of no significance if someone moved closer or away. The song poured out lightly and naturally as if the youngster was simply breathing. He could smile or even matter-of-factly scratch himself while singing, the face remaining clear and the voice ringing out purely. Later, going into contemporary music, he became complex and hid behind the maturity of his training but his childhood artlessness remained the most obvious if not the strongest characteristic of his musicality. If he was playing for a long time on the accordion, it was normal for people to come to eat and drink, leave, then come back, sit down nearby, and, having thawed out, weep; it was not just a matter of their weakened tear glands. They brought him to town and paid for music school and when the uncle burned, they collected money for his journey to Moscow to Music College and Akhtynskii, the lead strongman, Adonis with a beautiful deep voice, took the youngster to the capital. Akhtynskii always started singing quietly as if from afar: our night on the street is d-aark… — an acknowledged lead in singing, he choked on the high notes then made up for it by relaxing and being daring in the variations. He was from those invisible creators of songs, from the nameless. In physique a very strong person, he did not know everything, not everything had worked out for him, and that was the reason he was talking a lot on the trip teaching the teenage Georgii about life, he taught Georgii about life in Moscow of which he knew nothing. He brought with him some money that was collected by the village to give to Georgii for the future when he would need to rent a bed at the home of some senile old woman who had outlived her time. Akhtynskii did not know that the
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college had a dormitory for out-of-towners, a fact much to his unexpected and great happiness. He and the teenager travelled in a sleeper so as not to look around and just quietly talk about life, “In Moscow, Georgii, they ruin themselves basically on small things – soda water and ice cream. A person can’t refuse himself anything and here money flows and flows. Don’t permit yourself this weakness, watch yourself!” Akhtynskii did not get out of the carriage at the stops and was traditionally afraid that they would be drawn in and swindled somewhere on the way. He flatly refused with defiance a card game with quite innocent passengers who were not even playing for money. In Moscow Akhtynskii was amazed by the beer; he could not overcome his amazement of the taste and the special, mild drunkenness, nevertheless he also could not immediately afford more than one mug in the pub. Shrieking with rapture, he assured the teenager, “Georgii, you’ll grow up and understand! You’ll understand and appreciate beer, no need for a fortune-teller, you’ll appreciate for sure!” but Georgii did not back him up and was not a good judge of beer, youth! Georgii failed one entrance exam after another but his ear for music and his musicality came to his aid and the examiners had no objection in taking the person from this remote place of which they had not heard. He was struggling persistently and tenaciously with the exams for a long time and during this time Akhtynskii admired his grades as well as the beer which he was drinking at the pub nearby. The pub had music, one of the first jukeboxes playing waltzes which Akhtynskii also admired. Having learnt that the stay at the dormitory was not just during the exams but for the whole term of studies, Akhtynskii realized that his job was done and the load had been taken off his shoulders; after that he went on a drinking spree with the surplus money. He did not scramble out from the pub with music for three days straight and when he did, he was rendered voiceless. His face showed great surprise. He lifted his hands in dismay. He started to croak, to talk through his nose, and hoped very much that this would pass. After a year and a half in a faded letter, one of those from there, the events of the village trickled through time to reach Georgii and a piece of news about Akhtynskii also made its way through: it appeared that the strongman had forever lost his voice. It was a pure deep voice with enchanting cantilena bringing to the audience the thoughts of unchanging times, of shimmering gold utensils, and of elderly sober deacons. It was bitter to read that but Georgii was already living his own life far from them, a new life. He took the news close to heart only like a memory, like a childhood injection from which sprang not great pain. The pain held its ground. A couple of days later an aged solfeggio instructor asked him, “What made you sad, Georgii?” and the youth, coming out of reverie, recounted somewhat confusingly about the husky fellow villager. The old guy listened, nodded his small wise head, and remarked, “Sadly, one has to pay for everything.” “Yes,” Georgii agreed. “He brought you here, helped settle you, and in essence paid with his voice. That is sad.” The words did not sit well with the conceited youth. They astonished and offended him because, by agreeing, he was expecting only words of sympathy toward his own sadness. Georgii even began to laugh, then youthfully and quickly answered without

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delay that it was not exactly the case and that Akhtynskii did not paid with his own voice for his settling in the capital but for beer — for Zhigulevskoe1 apparently. The aged solfeggio touched him on the shoulder, “Your teeth are showing, Georgii.” There and then young Bashilov was embarrassed — did his words really bite? The old guy continued to philosophize, “Maybe, maybe not. But if one is to generalize, this village paid for your education with his splendid voice. For you. They paid but didn’t know. Now that is sad. ” That was how the thought first came to Bashilov. It came somewhat far-fetched and quite by chance — the conversation was like any other but the words about a hidden connection with the village seemed to be only a philosophical, fantastic attack of the babbling old solfeggio instructor. The moment, however, was retained in his memory — at the end of class Bashilov stood with notes in hands partly confused by this thought but altogether easy, smiling, young, while the old guy kept going on and on; it was necessary to listen to the old guy but not obligatory to consider the words deeply. “Yes,” young Bashilov said. “Yes, yes. What an interesting observation.” Bashilov was fully twenty-two years old when he travelled to the village the first time; until then the young musician was studying and had no wish to visit to take a look — he certainly had a pang of nostalgia from time to time though not to the degree that he would go to the ticket office and buy a ticket for the train trip. Here it should be explained that he went, possibly with peace of mind after finishing conservatory. Poles flashed by. The rumble of the wheels was intoxicating. (The conservatory education did not come easy to him, for during the time of his studies, to his great joy, he quite easily transferred from the piano department to the composition department, there he found his calling. Since then the composer Georgii Bashilov never wavered from his single aim in life.) He was dressed quite modestly, nothing striking, nothing flashy. There was a suitcase. There was a grey well-knit suit and normal Moscow walking shoes for that year. He was without a hat or a cap, bareheaded, he squinted, — it was hot. With slight trepidation he approached the three houses; his heart pounding, Bashilov even stumbled when he passed the courtyard to the tables made of planks, exactly where old ladies were sitting under the maples drinking tea. Linden tea was brewing in the old ladies’ teapot; the scent was floating in the air. The first greeting came from the Eremins, noisily, merrily, and here people came over, recognized him, and Bashilov greeted and greeted and greeted, and they greeted by hitting him on the shoulder, good man, Georgii, you remembered, Georgii! The young composer smiled continuously. They pressed him with invitations to their homes, calling others to come out-of-doors for linden tea — it was noisier, heartier there and one could see many people at once. There were some complete strangers watching from the window of the second floor how some newcomer was sitting among the old ladies and how one after another people passing by paused near him with happy exclamations. It was then at the peak of his return, so to speak, at the high point of his youthful cheerfulness and general cordiality when something senseless and all the more memorable happened. Vasilisa-the-elder, having gone senile from old age, walked past with a washbasin of laundry, stopped a step from the people drinking linden tea, and
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Zhigulevskoe is a notable brand of Russian beer and was the only brand during Soviet times. ©Jane H. Buckingham 2003 jhbuckingham@yahoo.ca

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stared attentively. The fragrance of linden was whirling around one’s head. Not taking her eyes off Bashilov, she slowly and distinctly uttered, “You, leech… sucked dry our juices!” “What juices, Grandma?” Bashilov asked with a smile. He asked calmly, “What juices?” already excusing Vasilisa in advance because it was obviously senility talking now and anything bad was supposed to be forgiven. Smiling and relaxing even more, Bashilov waited for the old woman to relent and perhaps somehow amend her words. But Grandma began to yell at the top of her scratchy voice, “Sucked dry the juices! Sucked dry our souls!” Instantly the other old ladies rushed to calm her down, they talked to her and led her away. The people winked at young Bashilov so that he would not pay any attention, “you know, it has to do with old age!” they smiled just as the visitor smiled and again winked, “gone off the rocker, you know, our old lady has lived too long, may God not give her many more years…” Already led away from the first of the three houses, Vasilisa-the-elder, somewhere there in the resonant entrance, yelled, “Sucked dry the juices! Parasite! He has the evil eye!” There voices spread, buzzed, became quieter, and then subsided; finally the old lady, calmed down at last, was again brought back into the open. They led her to the guest, sat her down very near on the bench, and the young composer lovingly said to her, “It’s me, please don’t curse me, Grandma.” She was silent. Bashilov touched her brown dry hands with his fingers. In front of the ancient old lady the ancient plank table was rooted to the ground, it was so comfortably to rest the elbows or even to lean all his weight on it, but the maples were standing straight, the table was straight, and the old lady, not leaning, was also sitting straight. They explained all over again to the old lady, “This is our Georgii. You really didn’t recognize him?” “Zhorka?” She saw but did not see. She looked closely with trembling eyes, shaking her head slightly, sat up straight again, and her son, the son of Vasilisa-the-elder, already himself a grey old man, talked to her, prompted, helped, “Come, come, say some nice words to the young man. Oh, how scared you were!” Touching the brown hands, the musician smiled and forgave her, understanding the old hag’s meaningless words which he did not deserve. Only after dinner during which they fed him well and he drank well, in the middle of the general conversational bustle, a fleeting thought suddenly flashed quickly for a moment — were her words that meaningless? That brought him to within a step from the gist of things — were they not well deserved? Bashilov was growing year after year; and really, does not a growing ear of barley exhaust the soil? — something to think about, and that beautiful comparison with an ear touched and got hold of the young mind which, as one knows, is excessively vulnerable and sometimes excessively conscientious. Of course, he thought of Akhtynskii. As soon as some sense emerged from the old lady’s words, they were at least not completely worthless, the purpose became obvious and their meaning acquired clarity. For now it did not cause pain. It was noisy at the feast and little by little the young man was distracted; he was all the more disturbed by the presence of Galka Sizova, this Galka remembered as a young girl was now a strong young woman with shining eyes and drinking vodka. She smiled a lot and he was at the right age when young people snatched at all the feelings greedily, happily, eagerly. He had only just discovered that he loved women, all, any, and in particular he valued love on the road, at
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chance shelter for the night, even only for a short time. Bashilov did not notice the old ladies displacing one another at the table. A thought came, a thought went. He clinked glass only with Galka, she clinked glass with him, they smiled, but then Galka suddenly bustled home. She walked away sufficiently significantly and again with a smile wished goodnight… He remained with the old ladies. The Chukreevs put him up for the night; and when Bashilov extinguish the light — he walked in, lit and put it out again — the four walls and the village’s dense quiet evoked his childhood bedroom which became a little tight in time. He did not rush to fall asleep, he lay down and smiled. He remembered that he was a composer. (Having become a pianist, he would always feel that not enough years were devoted to the instrument, he started later than others.) He smiled… The whole eventful day visiting the hometown rushed past in front of him like a film-strip, once more bringing everything before his eyes and the old lady with her shaking head and evil shout flashed by again at the very end. It was quiet and there were the walls. Muttering blindly as it happens before falling asleep, Bashilov turned to the other side and softly answered. He was answering maybe the old lady or maybe not, or even a third person on the side, someone who could judge his words, “I didn’t suck out the juices…” Falling asleep, he heard through the open window a few summer night noises and even cicadas which he remembered from childhood. Beyond the window there was a lantern which he remembered from when he was little, the lantern had not changed, it was shining. 3 Genka Koshelev was quite weak as a singer, earning additional money here and there, but his life had not turned out, besides, he was getting on his high horse, as it happens sometimes with those who are quite inept; he sucked the juices from the village in the sense that he demanded and demanded money from his parents the Koshelevs. He extracted money from them when he was studying and demanded just as before after he had finished, still urging them in letters. He drank, which greatly increased his needs. Later he understood that drinking was harmful though he still drank, and all the time attempted with diminishing hope to struggle in the vocal profession, searching for success and fortune on the stages of the city Pskov where fate hurled him. Only in the past year that he, dropping the stage and now traipsing through restaurants, made money performing and finally did not beg his parents for assistance. They lived to see this, thank God. Going off her rocker, Vasilisa-the-elder was bogged down by her obliterated memory and got confused; it was all the same to her whom she was yelling at. “Come, come, everything is clear! I didn’t attach any meaning to it! Not a bit!” Georgii even smiled openly and widely, showing that he would not start keeping score with old grandma. He again drank linden tea with them. He smiled. It was here and not somewhere else that he ran off to the hills, and here and not somewhere else that he nearly got killed by lightning… But the harder Bashilov brushed them away and the more diligently he put them aside, the more her words tenaciously held on in his memory; she was confused after all, nevertheless she yelled not only about money.
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“Sucked out our juices! Sucked out the songs!” Here you see what the old lady was yelling at Genka Koshelev, here you see what she was yelling at him, Bashilov, be that even a mix-up, be that chance. She was off her rocker, delivering nonsense, did not just yell but howled about “evil dark eye,” but really it was not all that simple, besides nonsense and superstitious allusions she shouted, croaked that these two, having left the village, carried further and further away their songs and their music — sucking them dry. The more music these two took away, the less remained here, that was really what the old witch screamed about, again remembering the ear of barley and bread exhausting the soil. So it was by chance that Bashilov was suddenly ashamed and feeling ashamed, tried to conceal it, that was why the words of comfort of his fellow villagers did not lighten but weighed him down like a rock. “Now it’s all clear. I didn’t attach any meaning to it! Not a bit! And I’m not mad at her!” Bashilov even smiled, talking with them, smiling widely, openly. In the middle of the hot day he and Galka Sizova set out to the little lake three kilometres away. They arrived quickly. They remembered the path. They remembered the slope. However, if Galka seemed grown-up to the young composer each minute, the lake seemed small, shallow. “And the hills have become smaller…” he told Galka his observation and Galka, agreed in respect of this seemingly general penury though quite indifferent to it, “Now they sing less.” “Why?” “Don’t know… Akhtynskii had lost his voices ages ago and Uncle Petr died. The women still sing though.” Galka said that Vasilisa-the-elder did not surprise anyone at all and she indeed wailed quite frequently! Grandma had gone completely crazy from the day Bashilov and Genka Koshelev left. She walked onto the road, sat on the curb, and suddenly had a fit on a moon-lit night. She wailed and wailed, addressing the guys that had left, wrung her hands, sometimes ordered to catch up with them, and cursed them with such dirty words that the shift workers coming from the factory turned and stared at her sitting there and shouted with laughter, “Some performance, Grandma!” Galka, teasing, smiled, “You’re both no good!” Smiling still, “Beware, Grandma has the evil eye!” She said, “They started to sing less; and when you played the accordion, you played so well that they did not want to sing.” (“You really didn’t notice?” “What?” “You played so well that nobody wanted to sing…”) Bashilov moved up to her, changing the conversation; he embraced her but Galka moved away. He and she both smiled. She was well formed, strong, on the alert the whole time if she was embraced. It was after lunch when they returned, quieter; Galka left; Bashilov roamed aimlessly between the houses. Alone he stumbled upon memories here and there. The hills (their lines) aroused vague anxieties but the disquiet only intensified when he took his eyes off the hills. On hearing children voices, he squeezed himself into the little red corner, the same hybrid of school and kindergarten where he got his education and where now for the summer there sat only two- and three-year-olds throwing blocks. Quiet. The roughly knocked together school desks stood empty. Bashilov sat behind one of them, behind the one where he had been solving a problem for point A and point B when shouts erupted. At that time he buried his head in the exercise book but the shouts continued. He remembered how he dashed to the exit with school accessories shoved
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into the canvas bag and how when he got there, leaping out with the bag, they had already begun to shout, “Why is he here? Why is he… Take him away!” They started to lead the youngster away, pulling him, seizing his shoulders so roughly that the canvas bag shot up. Bashilov-the-youngster dropped the textbooks and exercise books, pencils strewed out, he was crawling picking things up but they caught him by the shoulders. They led him away, yet squeezing his face and covering his eyes, though instinctively heeding trouble and taking fright he did not look in any direction but only at the ground, at the ground where his hands were gathering his lost things, gathering and shoving them into the bag. They carried them past in ten steps. Father was scorched very badly, Mother less; but they did not even show Mother to him. In the evening the shift that finished work arrived. It was an ordinary evening, they were already not giants in overalls and he was not a child; as an adult, the author of a piano sonata which would very soon be respectfully named The First, Bashilov stood in a simple dull grey coat and watched as they drew near, as they passed. They went in threes, in twos, but only after half an hour when they had washed and sat at these tables that he had a closer look at them. Washed and in different shirts, the villagers settled under the maples where places were yielded to them and the women immediately bustled; a bottle was handed to them before the food; they lit up and smoked. Bashilov was a guest among them. “This is Georgii. This is the one who has already graduated… Already a musician,” they said to each other approvingly. He answered with readiness but this was like a repetition because they talked with him about the same things as the old ladies. “Well, how is life in Moscow, Georgii?” they asked. They asked about films, about the subway, and about members of the government. The conversation of the time. He smiled. He answered. Those who grew up during his absence were sitting at the scraped table unwillingly and not for long: the younger generation. They only shook his hand, cast a cursory glance at “the musician,” and left. The old acquaintances, however, old relatives and uncles, though greatly depleted, some burnt, some died, sitting at the board tables exactly as before, and sluggish, were talking about Serezhka Korol – foolish, capricious, naughty, but was really quite a guy – and now gone, but to Georgii he was, of course, Sergei Viktorovich, strong yet a clod – you really do not remember? So they were talking and asking. It was generally believed that Sergei Viktorovich Korol, having been hurt badly, would survive, however, he began to languish considerably while in the hospital in the city. It was possible that something happened to his brain from the injuries; in the hospital he screamed during the day making a nuisance of himself and, feeling depressed, decided to run away at night and climbed out the window. He was bandaged up, wrapped up in bandages and could not see well. But did Sergei Viktorovich Korol fall from the third or the fourth floor? The city hospital had four floors, no, no, the hospital had three floors, Chukreev objected, and then they, sluggish and thoughtful, argued a little: from the fourth floor, that is clear, I say, can a person hurt himself badly from the third? They were seldom in the city; they did not remember what the hospital looked like. As it turned out, Sergei Viktorovich Korol did not die immediately after falling. They fixed up his broken bones, operated, sutured, packed him in a cast, took the cast off, again operated, and he finally managed to die only a month later, having given them a lot of work, he used to be a strong guy! They were continuing the discussion when the hoarse Akhtynskii brought over the accordion. Aged and emaciated, with his
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handsomeness dwindled into an astonishingly long nose, Akhtynskii brought from home – whose? — that same accordion, also time-worn, and held it on his knees. Akhtynskii had not sung for a long time already. He patiently waited for the guest to play; he did not pester but, having detached himself from the general conversation about Korol leaping out, bid his time with the females. The females were asking, pestering him and he was telling them quietly and hoarsely that now Georgii would play, when he and I were travelling by train together, there were such crowds in Moscow but we fought our way through, and what beer! The husky mutter reached the ears of the young composer. The villagers still kept talking about the fire. The villagers sang Two on the Road, Chickens Filled the Air with Dust, Ready Cash, then the long and never ending Life is Over – on that they fizzled out, tired. Then they drank, ate, and sang again, everything got mixed up, wine glasses, shot glasses, and half glasses of vodka, and not too soon Georgii Bashilov, as if recollecting suddenly, noticed that they were not singing the songs that were his most successful performances on the accordion during childhood days, say, Your Horse and Autumn, Autumn. At that moment, he was seated leaning forward and eating slices of fried sausage but noticed in passing that somebody, maybe it was him, asking them to sing Horse: someone started but could not continue. It was surprising but the old villagers were not singing; they were not singing, did not remember as if the song was blotted out and trampled down in their memory like the grass at the entrance to a house was obliterated and trampled down. “Start singing!” the females yelled at the men and someone tried but broke off again. In the silence it became audible how Akhtynskii started to make hoarse sounds, trying his best. Laughter was heard and then Akhtynskii held forth the accordion, “Go, musician, go!” The accordion was passed from hand to hand delivered over the table to Georgii and he took it. How light it was. And how popular it was! He smiled; he had not held it in his hands for a long time. It had been a long time since he tried. He started with the forgotten Horse but they could not pick it up even with the accompaniment, and again the females yelled, “Start singing!” but again in vain; this was the song that was already not sung. The music, however, was now begging with such strength as if it was undertaking to explain quickly everything to people, though it could not. Changing key, Bashilov intertwined the melody with a fairly unrelated musical theme. He crossed over suddenly to a couplet formation which gave birth to an arresting hit motif; the motif sprang up quickly, appeared for a moment and died, but Bashilov once again returned in a variation and slid on it, as if teasing. “Great! Great…” they shouted, responsive, but he again turned and left for depths barely recognizable to them. Keeping to the principles of a sonata, he played up the melody of Horse without rushing but giving it conflict and a development, an elaboration that bestowed some amazing splashes. He was smiling. The maples were still. Some steps away on the left listening to the accordion were Galka Sizova and her sickly mama; Galka winked, when I shake off Mama, I will come, do play on. He was playing; and from over the top of the accordion he watched the pale yellow torch of the factory where exhaust gases burnt down listlessly. It was as before; and as before, the song slowed down majestically when the fool Vasik began to hum from behind and they immediately yelled at him. Yet he had already dropped out of the field of vision and Bashilov succeeded in seeing the face of someone his own age – the immature childish face of a feebleminded. Just as before, Vasik was suffering, afraid to be driven off, and that was why he froze coming to a stop five steps
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away and mutely moved his lips – he was singing. When they again attacked the food, he was not driven away and he finally sat down at the table. They moved the boiled potatoes up to him. Bashilov patted Vasik on the head, bringing on a broad smile, and the motion of plates on the table, the tap of knives was audible around them. “You really didn’t notice?” “What?” Then he did not hold back at the feast; the trampling of the song was staggering but it was not sacrilege to a drunk as it was not forbidden, no one checked to make quite sure. When he started to play again after an abundant bout of drinking, intoxication targeted his performance much more keenly. There was no intentional or, say, demonstrative experiment, all the effects of being tipsy was known to him and the fingers of the musician knew what he was playing at that moment, though it was on a dusty, wretched old accordion. He was playing Blowing Since Noon, also known as Winds Were Blowing, a song known and already sung today at the feast; he played it concealing his talents, presenting only the entire simple tune as if he was ready to put aside the accordion now and empty a glass and then another, and you, catching up, sing, sing! However, while lazily strumming the theme, Bashilov did not relinquish it – this was like the opening bars of a piano concerto when the cello or, say, the viola was silent and the pianist was breaking away some distance in front. Having shown the form, he already added sudden vigour and life to the old song with his second variation, literally dissolving the melody in a stream of triplets. He jingled, he frolicked, he saw that they were still listening with wonderment; therefore he again added resonant voices, this time like basses deliberately and slightly ironically tapping their heels at a lark’s tuneful joke. He accompanied the third departure with brilliance and little crisp figurations a la piano, some luxury would not hurt. Only in the fourth, in a minor variation that he let the listeners give themselves up to spontaneous feeling – on reviving an uneasy note hidden in the theme of the song, he, without delay, instantly and offhandedly set the melody free, letting it weep and letting them cry. No, there were no shouts of ecstasy. He was not waiting for applause. The people were still. Hushed, they continued to eat tomatoes, eggs, bread, moving their arms slowly like the infirm, the melody with its sobbing was already stuck inside them and two females were weeping soundlessly. Of course, none of them would be able to pick up or even simply join in the song now. They did not dare. Tipsy Bashilov was still strolling by the melody, stamping on it, and then, clearly and broadly notifying them the killing of the song, concluded with a bright brief coda. They nevertheless had a chance between the first and the second variation when a tiny ray of hope sprang up and flashed like a straw they could have grasped. At that particular moment of isolation something amazing showed itself as the result of all this music, in case it did not consider itself music, a light motif appeared, a little motif which the intoxicated Bashilov started suddenly to strum with two fingers, the reason their eyes brightened up. They cheered up. They certainly wanted to start singing but he would not let them. Presumably, as it so happened in childhood, he snatched a remote folk melody taken from a group since melodies do not live alone, took, thrust out, and extracted its inside for all to view, and then reduced it to such brilliance that they could not cope, could not manage, they opened their mouths just to close them again. Their voices died away one after another. They fell silent. Time after time they changed over to some song he had not yet played. Of course, sometimes they resigned themselves reluctantly and tried, resisting, singing with him in parallel. Bashilov was apparently
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eight years old. However, the youngster was already then goal oriented. With instinct, with fingers, with the tender skin of his cheeks, he probably already felt danger, felt that yielding to them signified giving in personally, and because to clash with the female voices was not unlike being cunning, as children were crafty, the youngster moved over and flirted with the second voice. The men waited in silence. The females went astray. Bashilov-the-youngster was fooling around the whole time on his melodious accordion and as time dragged on, prolonged indulgence produced help to the melody, his then childish variations though timid and child-like already began to sparkle, to scintillate, holding tightly and not giving an inch to the female voices, not a bit of musical space on which the song could get firmly established and live once again. He in childhood already blocked up their singing. “You really did not notice?” Galka asked then at the lake and he repeated the question, “What?” It appeared that the village released easily and it was plainly simple to quietly leave here, you only have to go beyond the houses and really no further to meet no one. They walked in that direction where the hills were, the hills were not high, from the valley came the smell of wet grass. He concealed that he had a wife and when Galka asked, he answered her, “No.” “Like they said, married…” For some unknown reason he persistently hid it in the first year, the second, and only in the third that he finally dared, started to confess to strangers that he was married. Possibly, this was an unconscious fear towards the village, the fear to confess to personal matters. Whether he had a wife or not was not so important to Galka, she was not making plans and he knew that. Sitting on the feather grass, they were both laughing at the fact that an emergency worker’s hands were not any weaker than a musician’s, though he had sufficiently strong hands. One could smell the steppe. It seemed living was as simple as grass growing, as feather grass leaping over the grass and rippling. The twilight was light. They returned tired, walking slowly, amazed at how far they had wandered. The village possessed a peculiarity, though few would leave it, it appeared that those who did went far away. “I’ll be leaving,” Galka announced. “It’s getting boring here…” He asked, “Where to?” “We’ll see.” The same pleasant room was waiting for him at the Chukreevs’. The bedding was clean and his place was by an open window; being very late, he climbed in through the window. He felt in the cleanliness like a feather in air. The Chukreevs had no children; their son Andreika, the same age as Georgii, was killed by lightning at six years from birth when he was walking together with the young Bashilov into the valley filled with tulips. At that time he did not see the lightning and it seemed that he did not even hear it but Andreika simply stumbled, fell, his face turned grey. The Chukreevs did not have any more children and their love was transferred to the one who was beside their son at the time the soundless lightning struck… Tomorrow Bashilov was leaving, he was lying on the clean bed by the window, tired legs buzzing, he was lying and smiling — hometown. “Of course you’re staying with us. Not a word!” Chukreev said on the very first day and the very first hour when Bashilov-the-musician arrived. And Chukreev’s wife also said, “Well, it’s all clear then.”
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4 He was afraid of the explosion from below and the blow from above, and the repetition of this set phrase was not idle because these words described a scene, an everyday scene, almost a fact. To some extent this had already happened once, he explained. There was an explosion in that same factory when he was walking to the village and after the explosion as he was walking past, a board that flew up suddenly fell with a roar a step away; the next board would fall exactly the same way, that is, it could fall and hit his temple, and so, there it was, a blow from above, from which he the musician would perish immediately. Children, youngsters, or even newborns red with wide-open tiny mouths would instantly start shouting as a substitute for him. They would be shouting and his imagination, of course, would complete the picture. This would already not be just squeaks and shouts but a choir singing, yes, all young, yes, in diapers, yes, newborns with red tiny wide-open mouths, they would be singing and it would turn out that he, a chamber musician, would have atoned. It would turn out that he was not afraid but wanted this blow from above, a blow by a board like the soundless lightning so that he would fall, stumble, and bury his grey face in the earth… Bashilov’s son, a young engineer, rather handsome, naturally called in on his parents before New Year in order to extend holiday wishes to them and to beg for cash, said that his father’s imagination did not limit itself to singing youngsters and, incidentally, might there be singing angels sneaking into his subconscious? He said that though it was quiet, totally quiet near the house on the street, it seemed to the starting-to-age composer that there was singing just now on the street. Aging imagination, alas, leapt as it wished. “They were there just now singing songs, yes, yes, I heard, there were people passing, quite simple people, house painters it seems, and singing!” Standing his ground, the composer Bashilov was nervous. Fidgeting here and there in the apartment, he finally walked to the window in his study. He carefully opened the window and stuck his head out. He stood and listened. His son by that time was also nervous; the son who came to beg delicately for money and was waiting for the right moment to make his request was now getting infuriated, he excitedly darted out to the hallway and banged on the door of the neighbours who loved to have a grand old time on all national holidays. “Hey, you?! Did you have someone shouting again?” “Nobody was shouting.” “What?” Again nobody was shouting from outside, it was quiet, I swear to you, deathly quiet! True, calm… quiet… and you can hear the watch ticking. Then his son, the young and rather handsome engineer returned, drank some cold water, and discovered his starting-to-age father in the office by the partly opened window. Father stuck his mostly grey head out the window, listening. His son walked closer and asked, “What’s with you, father?” “Nothing…” His son touched the wall with his palm; the study was upholstered with sound absorbing sponge. The composer wanted quiet, understandably. Bashilov’s office was small, it was difficult to make room for the upright, but luckily there were two deep bays, one held an expensive record player and the other a collection of classical music records. The rather small armchair was a rocker, it rocked softly but
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would still wear down the carpet, for which the wife had reprimanded him more than once, though he loved rocking just on the soft carpet and not on the hard parquet floor which creaked unpleasantly sometimes in revenge. Bashilov loved to compose in the armchair, with a pile of paper on his knees and a pen for writing in his hand. He composed this way, painting note after note and rocking noiselessly. He only improvised on the upright when it was late in the day and he was tired. As the recognition of Bashilov-the-composer came gradually and not very easily, Bashilov-the-pianist performed a lot. Written music must be played. It was understandable that the sonatas for violins and also both sonatas for the cello including the one of particular value, The Second, were performed first of all by the same Bashilov paired up with somebody; he persuaded the violinist and the cellists to play, persuaded persistently for a long time, as the sonatas could not speak for themselves. However, the sonatas did come into being and he performed them. Not considered a well-known pianist, Bashilov undoubtedly possessed certain performing style nevertheless. He was no more than thirty-five years old when he was performing in Pskov one time, some guy walked or more precisely came galloping up towards him during the first intermission. “Hello,” the guy squeaked joyfully; short, with harsh early wrinkles, he was one of those who repeated everything, “hello,” and again “hello,” while peering into the eyes of the artist beside him. He seemed moved, and Bashilov noticed that the guy’s hands were trembling. “Remember me?” the guy asked but Bashilov of course did not remember until it was said that this was Gennadii Koshelev, the singer with little luck, a parable in the village. Of course Koshelev also recognized the pianist not by face but by the last name, by the poster. “Such is our fate. You’re already a big musician but I’m nobody, an absolute nobody,” Koshelev hastened to say, running up, came galloping up during intermission, and Bashilov waited for him to ask for money now, this very minute. He did not ask for money. He requested conversation and Bashilov thought there and then that he was precisely going to ask during conversation, Bashilov even brought some when he proceeded to have supper; but again Bashilov was mistaken. Koshelev asked about other things during the conversation — he wanted to sing in an average restaurant, a modest restaurant, and this was no fancy, not a whim of the moment but the result of reflection, and knowing this result, he had found his path, a little ship needs shallow water. He would be happy to sing in a smallish restaurant, yes, yes, happy, he would be close to music and nothing in life was more necessary to him, he found his own path exactly. There was, however, a hitch; life was complicated and by the time he had found his path, he had already quarrelled with everybody here in small Pskov. For that reason he wanted to exchange Pskov life for Moscow suburbs, no, no, he knows that to move to Moscow is difficult, expensive, complicated! He would not begin to ask! He would be quite happy in a smallish restaurant in the suburbs of Moscow. He begged the composer and pianist Bashilov to drop in at the Moscow Region Odintsov District Committee and put in a word so that they would not be too strict and would help an ordinary fellow by the name of Koshelev with the exchange of apartments and the registration. It was necessary to give a little nudge there in Odintsov. Better yet to grab half an hour with, say, some official, some influential bigwig from the Composers’ Union who would introduce Bashilov in the best possible terms and in connection with him could put in a word for Koshelev…

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Bashilov promised; he not only promised but did everything, what he could not do was to forget the insignificant singer and his words which were said quietly, pleadingly, “Just that both of us are from the village. Who can help me if not you, Zhora…” “Georgii,” Bashilov mechanically corrected Koshelev though Bashilov did not shun his earlier name. “Yes, yes, of course, Georgii. I saw on the poster Georgii Basilov,” Koshelev hastened to correct himself. Within a year Koshelev, having moved to the Moscow suburbs, as a token of gratitude invited Bashilov to the restaurant where he was now singing, the aim as usual was to get the composer drunk, satiated, pampered, and Bashilov had declined the invitations for a long time, claiming busyness. However, now the aching memory of the village overcame him and Bashilov accepted the invitation, made time and visited this far-away outside-the-city restaurant called The Cockerel. Contrary to his expectation, the composer was pleased with the place. With a wife and a school age son Bashilov lived in everyday hardship, monotonously and, frankly, somewhat boringly, insipidly; but here he sat relaxed at the nicely set-up table, ate tasty food, and also drank. The thundering third-rate band and the singing Gennadii with a bow tie were also pleasing to him in general, though things were done with a smack of banality especially in these pseudo-gypsy announcements fashionable with the restaurant people, “For our dear guest, the well-known composer Georgii Bashilov, the song Went to the Fair…” they screamed out from the small stage, that was why the saliva in the guest’s mouth became slightly sour and foul. However, the band jangled, Gennadii sang, everything was new, and new people were coming to the dance floor, the crowd went into ecstasy; it was loud. Overcoming his sour mood, Bashilov looked closely at these people; some were joining in the singing and having a good time, others were dancing, quiet in their embraces, happy in the music and the moment. He was under no delusion. He also saw those who were completely sloshed, gesticulating, mumbling, and could not even identify themselves, were unable to, and they suddenly reminded Bashilov keenly of the voiceless and suffering fool Vasika. One of them was making a complete nuisance of himself; in the end he slipped from the chair down under the table and was sobbing there under the table. They forgot about him. Around him were only men’s and women’s legs. These were bitter tears, at the table or even under the table, though they were, it stands to reason, second rate, but you know they were also real tears, human tears. What was more, whatever minimal music there was in the thundering song, what worthlessly little, a little grain of music, was all hidden, flattened out to please the text, crucified, ramblingly repeating the refrain and driven away here and there, but the music was still living all the time and it was not only in the naked rhythm of the accompaniment, it was not some continuous disgusting trick. Bashilov sat smoking at the table. He was already limiting his habit, this was the third for the evening. Bashilov was thinking, “Music, this is music, and am I really a connoisseur or a snob?” As if he was giving himself a reinforcing kick, do I really not want to write songs or music for lyrical films? Do I really not want to be gracious to the simple guy who gets tired after work, stands in line for things, and is too busy to search for and find the pretentious novelties in my sonatas and trio? The composer was thinking this way or close to this way then.

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The songs were written in the duration of half a year. Bashilov did not turn into an opportunist in the folkloric sense and it goes without saying that he did not become a songwriter but he wrote quite a few and there were successes among them. Of course, true musicians gossiped that year about why Georgii Bashilov, breaking with tradition (what was still in fashion yesterday), took the soprano saxophone out of his new quintet and substituted it with a more traditional piano. Yes, musicians gossiped, argued, praised, but a much larger crowd, immeasurably larger, even nonmusicians, had enthusiastically accepted the new song The Poplars Remember Me As A Boy which came out that year. Variety performers immediately picked it up. The early singing of Poplars was without a break and students were already singing it with guitars in the subway. Feeling ashamed, Bashilov nevertheless took a pseudonym in advance just in case. As a sign of hometown attachment and love, he gave Gennadii Koshelev two of the songs as a gift for first performance. When they both produced an impression and Gennadii was invited for the first time in his life to go on the radio to perform them, he sang them there, was recorded, and on one occasion even percolated to the blue screen in a special broadcast about new up-and-coming singers. This was happiness, unexpected happiness! Koshelev was not invited anywhere else but he was already really shocked. Now he knew that his life had not passed in vain. He solidly knew that no matter how low he would get, he would now have that till the end of his days as answer to friends and acquaintances poking a finger in his direction. For a long time he could not come to his senses. Having lost his head in those days, he would incessantly phone (“No,” Bashilov said to him, “I can’t, I can’t at all…”), pressing the composer with invitations to the restaurant where they would treat him every day and sing the songs for him; and if pop music was repulsive, here he fully understood Georgii Bashilov, he invited Georgii Bashilov to come on Monday or, say, Wednesday when the band was not working and the restaurant was totally quiet, it would be possible to simply sit and eat. The invitations became irksome to Bashilov, he did not want to hear about The Cockerel. It was sprinkling rain outside the windows. After eleven in the empty and half-dark hall of the restaurant near the only dimly lit chandelier, he was toasted by Gennadii and two members of his band with guitars and saxophones, they were slightly tipsy and very happy with their guest. Young waitresses bustling around would sit at their table trying to sing along huskily, sometimes suddenly very nice. Some young couple without an umbrella peeped in the window from the street, even making a clatter, entreating so that they might step inside. Empty tables and the roomy half-dark restaurant created a mood, time stood still, and Gennadii sitting at the table was singing quite softly. Being tactful, he did not pester, did not push the Bahilov songs, those songs, only among other ones that he sang one of them and sang with enthusiasm. Bashilov was drunk; he asked, does Gennadii know how this song came into existence? Relaxed, he repeated, “Do you know where it came from?” “Of course,” Gennadii answered willingly. He pulled out the guitar from the hands of a band mate, strumming and then accompanying, in a voice pure and without wheezing sang the march-like prelude of the Second cello sonata. He brought out quite well the correlation of the tonalities and indeed they had character. And then — this was much more amazing! — he sang a remote version of that introduction, a village melody which Bashilov had already partially forgotten.
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“Great job!” Bashilov praised. The words simplified things. If Bashilov said that “he used a melody of the village,” it did not mean that he indeed interspersed a certain melody in the fabric of music. He was not talking about consulting the collection of songs from the village or even his memory. It was about sufficiently complex folkloric allusions, when intensified by representation, there suddenly appeared Bashilov’s bewitching, entreating music; it was not without ostentation when they wrote that his music possessed that deep meditation which was poignant first of all no matter what century a man lived in. “Great job!” Beaming from the praise and quick as lightning knocking back a shot of vodka, Gennadii now sang the village voice leads of the same theme preserved in his memory, he sang and evidently revelled in the sneaking off, disappearing polyphony. Bashilov, smoking, was thinking about his keen musicality, that the voice was unpretentious but not strong, a pity. Bashilov relaxed, again drank up, it seemed that he drank a lot, and again he told in detail the story of visiting the village, in detail about the screaming Vasilisa-the-elder, in whose opinion both musicians were sucking the juices from their hometown. “The witch shouted this about me. About me,” Gennadii smiled but Bashilov shook his head slightly, “Indeed not only about you.” Reminiscing some more, Bashilov said, “Do you know, Gena, that they had stopped singing exactly those songs which I played well… Strange?” Gennadii amazed him again: he answered that this was that strange not all, that here and now, for example, he just sang the original basis of Bashilov’s songs — and well? — alongside Bashilov’s it somehow lost its lustre, suffered, and certainly nobody would want to sing it like a separate song now. Bashilov asked, already trusting Gennadii’s musical talent more, “Why, Gena?” “If you were a singer, you would instantly feel it.” “I sang as a youngster…” “Writing songs, you gathered the cream from the milk. Clods and crones starting to sing would just sing, but yours is more comfortable for singing, artisan, it lifts them across the bay, brings them down, turns in its own channel…” “So?” “They either shut up or sing yours…” The conversation was interrupted, Gennadii was called away to try the shish kebabs, yes, this was already the second time in the evening shish kebabs were specially prepared for the guest. The guest (they reminded him!) suddenly became dispirited, Bashilov was in essence upset that Gennadii understood so easily and, what was more, reacted so lightly and simply to what hurt him; when you take the guitar from intoxicated hands, sing but do not lecture. Empty tables stood in the semi-darkness surrounding Bashilov. Quiet… Music does not get better if one plays too long with forms, for the life would go out of it. Gennadii’s meaning was clear and not without depth, but he dealt with Bashilov’s old pain like dealing with shish kebabs or girls. Bashilov did not show any resentment but the words of the little singer became this grain that grated and grated. He heard their voices, “Yes, charcoal, yes, coming! What are the eyes for? So the meat wouldn’t burn, sprinkle water!”

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Bashilov’s fame in the musical world had grown noticeably by this time, author's concerts2 were given, and indeed chamber ensembles kept an eye ceaselessly on the composer and already rushed to give life to his sonata and trio within a year of their being written. The beginning of the misappropriation of his music by songwriters was also a distinctive recognition. Indeed, his music reached people one way or another. Popularity was not at all contemptible and even indispensable, and for Bashilov, the son of a flaying little two-storey house, it had been fully realized. So it was, so it will be: composers-songwriters draw mostly from the classics, but if a contemporary is worth something, why not take from him. He recalled that after tea on a journey to Kiev, he had just finished tea then and the radio was playing a song he knew and loved. By some complex artistic execution Bashilov created a quintet scherzo based on a melody from the village, and from this work in turn an enterprising and talented songwriter created his own little masterpiece. The song indeed was not bad, and it must be assumed that the unwieldy, underlying original mother of the song would not be sung in the village anymore, instead they would start to sing namely these couplets of the songwriter; the circle was closed. Bashilov had not played on the accordion for a long time and he had not composed any more songs, but his music all the same beat and beat at the village. “I’m going, it’s time.” “Gennadii is coming now…” The guest, however, with a firmness surprising for the middle of the night repeated that it was late, that it was time for him to go, and left without waiting for the second round of shish kebabs. When some years later Bashilov resolved to visit the village, he foresaw that primogenital songs could already not be heard and said to his wife, “I’m going to the song ruins,” and she, “Won’t it be boring?” He did not immediately answer, was thinking just about the music fluttering out from his quintet indirectly through performers and radio and undoubtedly had already reached the village. The tender and stirring pop tune had already begun to ring, to sound in the little two-storey houses placed on the three sides of a rectangle, sounded, stuck in their memory, and remained in their ears for a long time, otherwise what is a pop song. The writer of songs — this was the millionth circulation — to which live singing could not measure up. Having the technology, they were not singing, instead they brought out a record, cranked up the volume, after which the alien and sweet voice of the singer filled the space between the houses. “Won’t it be boring?” and then Bashilov pressed his wife to come with him, perhaps exactly because he was going to song ruins. He was past forty, in his prime, and going to show her the tracks of the past. They set off in a car and to make their journey even better from the very beginning they acted like tourists. They took a lot of pictures on the way, looked around, at the same time sent postcards to their friends from each place where they happened to spend the night, from the capital till the Urals in their own wheels! If mountain spurs appeared, Bahsilov would recounted to his wife how strange these hills were in the winter or in the rain; the Ural Mountains were ground off, softened at the top. The weather promised to be stable. Beyond the tail of the car stretched the hot white dust. (Of course, there would not be a song.) His wife examined how the mountains closer to the south were flat and towered completely without crests, hill after hill. “Tulips of course in the valleys in the spring! And the air is the most
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A concert in which the composer performs his own compositions. ©Jane H. Buckingham 2003 jhbuckingham@yahoo.ca

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healing!” Bashilov expressed admiration, trying not to experience but to communicate to her his involuntary delight. He was holding the steering wheel with his left hand and pointing with his right. Keeping away from the story for the sake of his kinship with the place, he was in essence a guide, no, no, it would not be boring… In the three houses life went on as before, people were going around, greeting each other, and looking out the window. Under the maples was an empty spot — one scrape plank table had entirely disappeared, another was knocked over on its side, having lost half of the boards, and only the third, the last, was barely standing, old and dilapidated. “They sang here,” Bashilov told his wife, unexpectedly for him continuing to hold the tourist tone which indeed made it easier and quicker to reconcile with the departure of the past. Bashilov acted as if he had known everything in advance: knew that the tables were decrepit, that the benches were crumbling, and that the songs were not sung here anymore, but as if the decay and absence of village songs were not important now and this was the plain and simple age-old truth that all things must pass and depart. Wisdom but not bitterness. Bashilov was evidently in a hurry to show his wife and it was understandable why he hastened, not grieving but as if recollecting suddenly that these crumbling tables and benches were not everlasting, that rickety and decomposing, they were nevertheless still good, somehow kept their balance and were standing. Bashilov touched the table with his hand — well, the table is standing and, I kid you not, it is something to touch, but very soon perhaps, some other person will come, dusty, dragging himself, and there will be nothing to show him nor for him to touch. From time to time Bashilov invited his wife to touch the table. “They returned from shifts and washed up, here they would sit… Noisy people, they ate, they drank tea, cup after cup, leisurely and for a long time…” “You said that they sang at wakes, also here?” “Here! All here!” and Bashilov gestured broadly with his arms, inviting his wife to imagine for herself, picture sitting at the tables, at these long tables here with people here and there. He even seated them now. He explained that the youngster with the accordion was usually sitting here, and there were the men and there were the women with high voices. “The deceased?” he was asked. By this time the deceased was clearly in the cemetery. You are thinking that the wake is when the deceased is on the table. No, no, my dear, the repast is immediately after the funeral. He had been singing at wakes since childhood and could not somehow get confused, pardon me. No, no, a torchbearer is from the movies, we do not have torchbearers; we simply have lots of drinking, lots of eating, well, and also singing. The maples had also aged; their stunted shade did not protect the holy place in such heat. However, Bashilov and Mrs. Bashilov did not leave, his wife was wearing a widebrimmed hat and he held a newspaper over his head to shield from the sun’s full blaze, he waved the other hand, clarifying his words, his feelings. They were not separated. As it happens in nice families, individuality is lost; these tables, these benches, and the old maples with their stunted shadows had transformed in his wife Liuba’s eyes. An old lady appeared from the house on the left and walked toward them. Bahilov’s sharp eyes recognized Auntie Chukreev and would be more than happy to say “Grandma Chukreev” since she had grown so much older, but it was still her. “Who might you be?” “Grandma Alina, you don’t recognize me? It’s me, Georgii.”
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“Oh, dear!” She threw up her hands. Having recognized him, Grandma Chukreev started to talk very rapidly, inviting them to stay at her house. “Oh, you even have a wife! Oh, and a real beauty!” she keened and again invited them to stay at hers, but the Bashilovs declined. They made it clear to the old lady that they were hardened travellers and that they came by car, as though this answered at once the question of being guests and lodging for the night. They said that they were not staying long, just passing through. The old lady did not understand, but nodded. “Shall we have tea?” she asked and called. She once again called out in a high voice like a bird, after which a second old lady with a teapot in hand dragged herself from the house into the full sun and walked to the maples. The sun burnt equally the old ladies, the wilted maples, and the mountains in a distance. “But the tea here still sings!” Bashilov winked to his wife. He noticed everything, being so observant. When Grandma Chukreev brought glasses for everybody, Bashilov noticed the obvious lack of scope and the decline and instantly exclaimed, “Four glasses, how scanty?!” at which the old ladies nodded, yes, yes, tea-drinking just like everything else is dying, life is ending, tea also. The two of them, old, were still indulging in tea drinking. Both sighed. Both said that the old men had burnt and died and all the young ones were different in their own way. “The tables have toppled over,” Bashilov grieved. “This one here still hasn’t, we sit down carefully, from the edge…” All four of them settled on the edge, Bashilov’s wife first dusted the rickety old bench before sitting down. They drank tea slowly. The tea was drunk unsweetened with a piece of sugar in the mouth. Inhabitants cutting through the courtyard occasionally passed by at some distance on their way home, lodgers, greatly renewed by time, unacquainted; or the really young; some glanced at the travelers. And Grandma Chukreev, Grandma Alina, was recounting everything: the two of us drink tea together, another time also sing together, they listen to the old woman songs but nobody would join in. Two together for tea, two together for songs… The old ladies engaged in reminiscing about people in the past and Bashilov, getting all the more excited, threw more and more names at them, “Korol? Akhtynskii, what a strongman, what a man he was!” “Dead,” the old ladies nodded, neither of them knew why he recalled after so many years but knew that it must be. Remembering, they now mutually urged one another with forgotten names, and Bashilov’s Liuba was listening to their exclamation with a wandering absent-minded smile. Turning to his wife, touching her behind the elbow, Bashilov sighed loudly, “Ye-s, the past can’t be found… you’re not in luck.” The old ladies nodded with understanding, yes really, the past cannot be found, time goes on and on. Quite few old men left, they informed him, and Galka Sizova got married and left for somewhere; “She also,” Bahsilov thought. He drank tea. It suddenly struck him that everything here without exception and omission had already been seen — so many, yet so few! He was even rather embarrassed. He thought that his wife was probably already very bored for some time: the low hills, the courtyard, the wilted maples, and the two old
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ladies for tea — what was still here to see? His wife Liuba just took a glance at Bashilov, no, no, being tactful, she never on any occasion hastened herself or him, she did not get up from the table. She only took a glance — help, it says, and suggest how and what is supposed to be done next if everything have been seen? Bashilov himself was no less amazed; he had considered that there was so much here. He did not understanding how the sights could be packed up in an hour and a half. “Hey!” Grandma Chukreev called. Old man Chukreev walked out from the left of the house into the full sun, on Bashilov’s last arrival nearly twenty years ago he laid out a bed and arranged for him to sleep like kin. Bashilov roused himself, got up at once and was already looking forward to the meeting, but Grandma Alina was on the spot, and besides, was determined to put him on his guard — do not go and leave him alone. “Why?” “Don’t.” Bashilov was given yet another cup of tea. “He has become very nervous,” Grandma Alina warned, “and these days downright snappy, mean, if you don’t leave him alone…” They made the bed, put milk on the table, arranged to sleep by the open window, it was all done for show for the old man, and on, and on… Bashilov was standing and touching the maple trunk, pondering if they should be leaving, setting out on the return trip right away before it became dreary. He poured tea down his throat. His wife Liuba was conversing with the old ladies. She was conversing animatedly and with some interest but, of course, the minute Bashilov gave the sign, she would immediately be ready to excuse herself. Having just discovered something, Bashilov stepped to the fallen trunk a little distant away and squatted on his old boards: here he sat as a youngster and sang. Bashilov held his head a little higher and leaned slightly to one side as all kids do in childhood. The sky was blue without a single wrinkle of cloud. He was watching the small hill, watching the steppe grass; something in the soul freed itself, but dimly, mutely. In his thoughts, wherever his gaze fell on, music should spring to mind; space should be ready and respond by itself. Becoming a child, he not only tilted his head to one side but also screwed up his eyes so that they would be smaller, younger than those hills and grass; now the male choir should step in here, the female following, and then soaring above all of them the youngster’s voice. Bashilov took a good look as if he was clinging to the roughness of space, he appealed but muted hills spread in front of him. He only heard how his blood was hammering in his temples. “Georgii. What are you doing there,” his wife called. She was sitting about ten steps away at the decrepit table, the only one there. Now it was obvious that she was bored by the old ladies. “Now…” He looked over to where the sky met the hills. This wavy line etched in his memory lived in Bashilov independently. In big and small cities, in Bukhara or in Kiev, he only had to close his eyes and the line of the hills would give birth to melodies even before he succeeded in thinking about anything. However, it seemed that this wavy line bore fruit precisely in reminiscences and only in reminiscences. He brought it out. Here in his waking hours, this locality had not yet given birth to anything. It was a drink like a drink
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of water, a little bit of water which was not much. The spiritual pollen was still flying around then and as if it migrated, turned into the boy Zhora, wherever it lived, showing up in music and with music, but the hills themselves, the picture of the horizon, the road, and the dark compartments of rosehips, none of them gave birth to music anymore. “All sucked out…” Bashilov thought; he felt sorry but not for this muted scenery. “Georgii,” his wife called. Bashilov got up from the boards. He shook himself, yes, yes, he is ready to go. When he rose, the senile boards creaked. They were both ready to go but lingered still because a fire had suddenly started on the factory ground, not the biggest fire but a true fire all the same, reminding him sharply of childhood. Fire and water again became meaningful, time jumped backwards for Bashilov, and his wife Liuba could see what she heard about time and again. They were not separated here. They watched till the end, Liuba was uneasy, got very excited, but it was already late, dark. Pushing the seats down flat, they spent the night in the car. They drove off in the early morning. 5 What did he manage there, what did he suck out, drink up in two-three mouthfuls? But then the hit songs are pumps, they pump out a hundred cube and destroy, mutilate, prosper, keep the head high, replace the essence with one’s own and involuntarily assume oneself to be the focus… We at least suffer from our share of guilt… …Knowing eyes turned by themselves to look over at where the vertical lines of the chimneys shaded the long building, one storey, sprawling, with metallic silvery roof: the fire started there. It happened that once a year near the compressors an air jet with its pressure smashed small pebbles against each other, striking a spark. “Look!” Bashilov said to his wife. She did not understand. “Look! Look!” He jabbed with his finger: small delicate jets of steam were getting out of one of the windows of this long one-storey building; that was the beginning. The little jets first hissed, then rose slowly, not unlike some innocent little spirits ascending to the sky. Fizz-fizz, fizz-fizz-fizz. “Where am I looking?” Liuba only saw two men in helmets and quilted jackets supporting the white hoses. It looked like they were not on the spot, it looked like they were making no headway with the hoses and did not notice these nervous jets of white smoke like steam. The little jets thickened in time, started to swirl, and one window in the building suddenly broke with a muffled sound, after which there shot up coal-black puffs of smoke and a whole swarm of sparks instead of white steam. “Oh!” his wife shrieked, now she knew where to look. Again a window began to ring but the sound was entirely different because the glass of the window was knocked out from within. From there a head showed itself, bellowed, “Axe!” and again yelled, and almost instantly a female in an overall rushed at the shout and handed over an axe. Females in overalls were noticed only then. They were sitting on small benches side by side all ready for the blasting of the sprawling silvery building. They were sitting facing the fire with the back of their heads to Bashilov and his wife.
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There were six of them. They were sitting as if waiting for their moment — to serve, to help. The flame shot up and a characteristic rumbling sound, overlapping the sounds of glass breaking, rang out, the flame disappeared then flared up again. It was loud, it pranced. His wife did not know but Bashilov knew that pools of oil by-products would pour out from the cracking chimneys and the fire would reach them. Oho, it is blazing! It is to the left! It is burning here! And here! But who can prevent it when the wind is dry! Oho, how it went! How it blazed! Take a look, already the factory is not visible! The factory was visible, but in Bashilov’s head screamed the cries of previous years compressed into one — excited youngsters’ exclamations and also the sobbing of nonparticipating feeble old ladies standing here on this same knoll — voices of previous fires. When the height of the flame was comparable with that of the chimneys, it looked like the whole factory was indeed taking wings now, though that was partly an optical illusion: the flame was in front and enclosing itself completely. Bashilov looked around: both old ladies and he with his wife — they were the only ones watching. “Look! Look!” Now Bashilov’s wife pulled his sleeve, she had begun to understand those two fussing with the hoses behind the building. Stamping their boots, the men hurled themselves and the hoses fiercely to the side of the fire line, they aimed the glittering copper nozzles and thrust at once two stream of water mixed with special foam, and the flame almost screaming with pain gave out magnificent white puffs. Both men yelled. Through the terrifying drone of the flames could be heard their aweinspiring foul words which did not astonish anyone by now, the words were exactly appropriate. The females got up. Now it was clear that the women were not quite sitting on small benches, they dragged sitting, stretching, passing the hoses which were sticking together. Now they dragged standing. The women were swaying and with a jerk they crashed all at once. A crash was heard: overheating, the small reservoir exploded, fortunately, it was detached and sheltered from the other reservoirs. It blew up and the boards of its bridges somersaulted, also took off under the sky; it was always spectacular, once Bashilov saw a common tabby took off together with the boards. The cat somersaulted, and then tumbled no more, but simply soared, sprawled, paws stretched out and fighting in the air like a siren.3 “You don’t believe me,” Bashilov said to his wife. “He flew up right over there!” When Bashilov touched her shoulders, she gave a start. Crimson puffs were now continually escaping from the window where the fire started, the fact was that the one storey silvery building itself was not burning, the scattering was only spilling out of its back windows to the ground. It was burning from within. The men were fighting their way through there in the fire but not managing to extinguish it, though they were able to reach the gates and unlock them. The emergency gates were sufficiently wide. The women, seizing axes, not lingering, rushed through them. With their heads wrapped in rags and from a distance resembling dolls of domestic manufacture, the women began to chop the partitions, and from there, where smoke was taken in with every breath, feverishly working the axes, they were advancing to meet with the men. The men were gasping but forced their way through in the end. One of them jumped out from the gates — black, smoking, he yelled to the women wood
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Siren is the mythological part-woman, part-bird sea nymphs. ©Jane H. Buckingham 2003 jhbuckingham@yahoo.ca

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here! — at which they obediently dropped their axes and with hooks, long hooks, twothree people holding on to a hook, crying out from the strain, dragged the wooden partitions outside. The women dragged the long burning bars onto the grass where they dropped them at some distance away, then again rushed to the gates and grabbed from the fire the blackened men clinging to the hooks. Out of the flame, the bars died out little by little on the soggy grass. They changed into unsightly, wretched charred stumps. The less vigorous but more dangerous part of the fire was where the flame was spraying from the building’s window in the back and where the fire using the wood boxes to instantly jump over to the overflowing pool of oil and waste products. Those two in helmets and with hoses, fighting to the bitter end, were already very close to the gas tank but did not manage to pass nor sneak up on the fire, which trudged and trudged, burning on its way a pool of oil and shooting up from pool to pool. This signified a crisis. To the sound was added a rhythmic scream — the pump was working, foam was swelling, covering the flame and dressing it in a white shirt. Devoid of wood, the fire within the building extinguished. In the same part on the right, however, the fire for the moment pulled itself together before dying out; puffs of steam and smoke combined and the right part of the roof suddenly took off, opened, flew up, then a whole cloud of sparks and flames darted to the sky signifying the flight of the fire, but instantly it ended. With these same vigorous last flare the fire stopped at once. There was a clear prolonged silence, in which the gutted building was standing by itself, the windows watching like empty eye-sockets. Quiet and weak smoke stretched out from there. There were no victims. A freight train standing there in readiness left for the city empty. Twilight had fallen. Low walls enclosed the factory, a hole was in the fence and a white cloudy brook was hurrying along vigorously from the hole. This was the water running, extinguishing the flame. Bashilov pointed out to his wife that water would still be running for a long time all night. After running dry, the water would leave a damp, white washed track on which the grass would not grow. After his author’s concert in Vienna Bashilov left for the home of composer S. — he was staying with S. for three days. Lost in the power of the musical imagination, the Viennese nonetheless remained one of the music connoisseurs that fully regarded S. as talented and a somewhat melancholic successor of the Mahler tradition. When after lunch the females went to see Vienna and do some shopping, Bashilov and S. started to smoke then made some music. Bashilov at that time was seized by the idea of a little experiment, a distinct test of a new work; it was a finished quartet and he wanted to test the music on the keen foreigner. The first, second, and fourth parts of the quartet were sufficiently powerful, but the third was not up to the strength of the others, and to enhance it, Bashilov brought into it the village’s old themes mutually calling to each other. It was not about the melody but rather of the original essence which Bashilov succeed in isolating, pushing it down in the primitive direction sensed by him. Then came into being something like a ritual beginning common to all the parts, the power of his captivating melos, beyond the individual, indisputable, standing above humanity; the quartet was ready. Partly as a joke and partly in earnest Bashilov wanted S. to choose which was better according to his own taste. More precisely, the question

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was which part was weak and what could be sacrificed in the quartet because the quartet would now undoubtedly grow and be somewhat unstable? The piano certainly could not reproduce the tonality of strings but the question was clear, and Bashilov sat at the beautiful grand piano in the huge studio with windows looking onto the quiet square. Bashilov was playing somewhat listlessly. The effect was unexpected. Having only just heard it, the Viennese quickly pointed to the third, the “village” part, though not on how weak but on how much better that was. The Viennese was excited, even cried out with delight. On an impulse, he said that they indeed have time while the wives are not there, he would now phone his friends and they would play the quartet if there were enough copies. “Made copies yesterday,” Bashilov confessed, “But I can’t manage the second violin.” “One minute,” said the Viennese. His friends arrived quickly, the quartet was played, and the Viennese musicians, having played the music first, were noisily drinking wine and talking about the incomparable third part. “This is music, sinking deep into the soul! Sinks deep! Really deep!” the fat cellist repeated. Bashilov was flattered. Someone, however, again said in praise, “…inside!” or he said, “…deep!” and a bit of old poison made itself known without delay. Bahsilov drooped. Yes, just chance, yes, a little test run, but in essence, a joyful little thing, but they, the chance, the little test run, the trifle, once again confirmed that in actual fact there is no special music in Bashilov himself, there is none and there never was any, and that he was only a sensory drunk copying the village’s melos. He is a bush, all the more lush and green as the ground becomes barren. A bush that dries up the soil voluntarily or involuntarily. Is that so? Bashilov flushed, his face fell. Possibly his head was hit hard by the unfamiliar Danube wine, Bashilov warmed to his topic; he suddenly recounted from where the musical themes of the third part originated and how they evolved. He described that this musical theme had a definite and, in its own way, tragic connection with the village and, alas, it was no longer there because it was here. As if he was confessing, he lowered his head. However, they did not understand anything. Agitated, Bashilov then went into detail, related his childhood in the village, the plank tables, and even the shouts of the senile Vasilisa-the-elder intuitively beginning to see clearly that Bashilov’s creative musical growth was sucking out the music of the village reducing it to nothing. The Viennese listened to the story with rapt attention. Their eyes were shinning; they became animated. They absolutely did not understand anything. “What a poetic legend!” they exclaimed. “You are a poet, Georgii!” S. announced with a goblet in hand. Confused and embarrassed by the misunderstanding, Bashilov started to explain that he was not talking about a legend at all, after all he was from there by origin and saw the depletion of songs, saw consistently from trip to trip and, trust me, it would be better not to see, not to know. He talked precisely about the torment of this knowledge for any artist, about the yoke, the burden, his voice trembled, and the Viennese musicians saw his passion, feeling but not understanding. They were silent. Someone quietly pronounced, “Metaphysics…”

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The wives walked in and Liuba, seeing how flushed he was and understanding the speech, instantly forgot about the shopping and wedged herself into the difficult conversation, “Yes, yes, you’re right, Georgii is a poet! As far as the village is concerned, Georgii is a great, great poet…” It was a pity that Liuba was speaking German for the second time in her life, but Bashilov’s spirits were already so low that he did not correct her speech. Bashilov was silent. Liuba, losing her way in words, now pressed on that the musician Bahilov as a child already saw fires, such blazing and fierce fires. She talked in poor German about the people of the village, the burst reservoirs, people being burnt, and very soon, the Viennese decided that the composer was born and also spent his childhood years at the front line near the vanguard. Their expression became doleful. When Liuba finished, the fat cellist said that war is misfortune, a great tragedy. Destiny overall certainly does not attempt to blame Bashilov’s torment nor even a measure of his guilt on the singers, who unknowingly are hundredfold more destructive. Perhaps, it is not fate itself but the consequence of fate that music broke down into the Bashilov songs and those of the singers. Something to think about! Liuba was already sound asleep at night on the return journey, but Bashilov walked out to smoke in the entrance of the carriage where he had for some time found to be a good place to think during the many trips. The tapping of the fast wheels, the pulling of the switches, the stops that were more than half washed out in the darkness of the night, the stops with their austere ordinariness and the odour of the sleepers, all became for Bashilov a certain substitution for the village. He stood by the window. It was not sophistication but a thread connecting to his past. A stock of his thoughts accompanied insomnia on the train and a little bit of unexplained night uneasiness; this time not half an hour in solitude had gone by when a remarkable thought presented itself. Yes, he would completely discard the fourth part of the quartet, strengthen and extend the third, the village portion, some more, grief is grief, but music is music. Let the quartet be three parts, why not! The third part would grow in strength and it was clear that the quartet must end on it, on a high note. Once while performing his own violin sonata with Gushchin, Bashilov distinctively became aware of the hall: it seemed as if someone from the village was present at the concert. It was almost inconceivable: a chamber concert in Leningrad, besides being contemporary and sufficiently complex, but despite all improbability Bashilov was unusually agitated. Let it be accidental, let the ticket be given to them as payment, no matter how small a chance, but they are here, here, they are so musical — this began to pound in Bashilov’s excited mind. The hall listened with bated breath. The violin led the party and Bashilov echoed it with mounting chords and, getting ready to cross over to solo passage, was thinking all the time — there in the middle of the rows, he or she is there for sure. The last thing was also his own piano sonata, Bashilov calmed down somewhat and was playing, musing that perhaps the person was not from the village but someone from his childhood, grown, travelled or even moved to Leningrad to live, and came to the concert today. They are so musical — that thought urged him on and allegedly Bashilov’s peaceful soul suddenly gave out a sensory splash, which not only gave new colours to the melody but also added some instability, a perilous and almost virtuosic flight. The musician’s hands started to work with a maximum load. In order to save the work and
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himself, Bashilov did something not forewarned: in order to counterbalance, he brought in a new theme and, highlighting it, harmonized the development on the run, after which the sonata acquired yet another small andante, and Bashilov the glory of a unique performer. “You, brother, improvise like a jazz player!” said Kesha Gushchin, who knew the sonata and at some point set up its finale for the violin. “An accident,” smiled Bashilov. “I shall be afraid to play with you,” the violinist shook his head. “Honest to God, a jazz player!” The more the aging Bashilov fancied a blow from above, the board flying and somersaulting in the air falling, falling, falling and finally hitting him in the head, in the temple, the more his feeling of guilt was confirmed; he blamed and blamed himself, but this did not mean that he blamed only himself. The composer’s wife described that he would not get up from the armchair-rocker but suddenly started to keep the window in the office open on Saturday and Sunday. Only repetitions for them, he said annoyed. He said that they wanted the simple and the primitive, always and everywhere. The figure in the church and the dancer on the street, well, always, even in church they wanted persistent repetition, barely tearing themselves away from the foremother of music. For centuries the couplets in the theatre, marches at funerals, dances in parks, and the present day universal hit couplets as the dazzling white summit of saturation development, they must have repetition, repetition, repetition… The window was open nevertheless. “Again! Every Sunday I catch cold, close the window,” his wife Liuba said, “even if they sing something, it’ll be some drunk horror and such banality that will outrage you first…” “If it’s banality, I’ll close it.” “Oh, goodness!” his wife said. Dusk was gathering, the window remained open, and Bashilov wrapped himself up well when he lay down to sleep. The walls began to disappear in the dark then vanished completely. The world became a void. Liuba did not argue with her husband; perhaps, falling asleep, he was yet waiting for them to sing under the windows, and perhaps, close by the dark open window, it seemed to him that the whole surrounding world was his village. It got much colder in the night. His wife Liuba woke up; shivering and trembling from the chill, she went past him in the office and closed the window. 6 Bashilov was indisposed and the feeling of guilt touched him anew. He got food poisoning with crabs in a restaurant, suffered terribly, but though vomiting and nausea remained, that was finally behind him, Bashilov was still feeling poorly and stayed in bed with temperature suddenly rising. Residual intoxication tortured him with fits: he heard nightly steps then suddenly the bark of a dog. Fever attacked toward the night and life appeared to have little hope, hanging by a hair. Bashilov again decided that he was guilty towards the village, that he was only playing hide and seek with his conscience but
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he did not hide. The coincidence of the experience did not console him, neither was the burden lightened by the risky thought that composers of the past also drew from and exhausted the soul. The counting continued, the counting was stifling, and how to repay if the singers would not take a note from the properly composed first and second parts of Bashilov’s new quartet — the sly ones, what wit! On the other hand, lively cheerful songs one by one, not less than seven, were made by different people, unknown to Bashilov, from the energetic fatalistic theme in the third part. The songs were creative, pleasing, and all this cheerfulness sounded year after year on stage, on the radio, and conversely stifled and dealt a final blow to the village’s element of music. A surreal image moved over on the sly. The singers were now one, a many-headed being, their heads swaying, they were singing scales, and the night stretched on as if never-ending. Bashilov was tormented. The fever would not let go. He did not understand where he was, he thought that he was on a train and was going there to the village; sick, he rose from the bed and attempted to get to the window in the darkness. He staggered. The fever compressed the noise in his head into a quiet tapping and rumble of wheels, the darkness beyond the window merged with this darkness beyond the carriage’s windows when late in the night the white curtains were pull apart as the train was going full speed. In the middle of the night, alternating with the thoughts of death was the suspicion that he was indebted to the people of the village; he took everything, took and therefore must give back. But how? Possibly, in the most diverse restitution of artists, including Tolstoy’s leading a simple life and return to the earth, there was also a leisurely note of obligations, there was a debt behind which the pain was concealed. He nearly choked with the revelation. Such a thought was not supposed to come to him. Music is too autonomous, and every insightful idea occurs yet together and at one with another, counterbalancing, toning down the first. So he the musician was taken completely by surprise, he was sick, he was burning. It suddenly dawned on Bashilov that he would be doing exactly the right thing if he would go to the village and search there for young boys and girls with a musical ear that could be developed. His consciousness came alive; he would go to the children a few times each year in order to work with them and in his absence from the village, though it would be gradual, they would be busy with Grandma Alina, Grandma Chukreeva, she has such an ear! The hills would be standing and the grass would be climbing up the hills. Bashilov roused himself, even sat up in bed. Indeed the grandmas have the ears, the songs, and the background of the ancient polyphony, here is the missing link that will tie his speculative conscientious idea with reality, Grandma Alina! Must persuade her, convince her, beseech her, in the end must bring gifts to her. Bashilov was lying in a fever, sweating, excitedly talking, and enriching the plan with more and more details. “I would like them,” he explained to his wife Liuba, “to live their normal lives there plus being busy with the old polyphony. Let them sing from childhood. Even a small children’s choir will be sufficient. The village is small, a microclimate will emerge… Liuba! They would grow up and sing as they’ve been singing for centuries.” “Of course,” his wife Liuba said. “And the adult would live side by side with the singing children.” “Of course.” “I must repay the debt to the village, do you hear me?” “Of course,” his wife Liuba said close by his bed at night.
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She understood that he was sick, that he had a fever, and that his thoughts would correct themselves as soon as he recovered. Was it worth contradicting him now? Let him visit the village eventually. Bashilov returned after such a trip unhappy, distressed, even perplexed, but once every ten years he obviously needed this trip, this distress, and this perplexity. Liuba was a smart woman. Liuba was a smart wife. She understood that if her husband wanted to go somewhere, let him go, the important thing was that he would not catch cold there. Healthy, Bashilov barely waited for summer — the most favourable time for trips. He wanted to get there faster and drove for an intolerably long time, twice stayed in motels for the night and occasionally read fictions before bedtime, the kind he habitually read on trips. However, the reading went badly. By the time he crossed the Volga at Syzran and, going kilometre after kilometre in a straight line, started to get near the Ural Mountains, he began to feel quite nervous. The road became poor, Bashilov already did not search for motels and spent the nights in the car, and the discontent piling up suddenly turned against him anew. He kept on repeating that it was too late to go there. When he was sick, everything appeared easy. Now behind the wheel, it seemed to Bashilov that he was driving for nothing. He very likely should have come as a simple mortal by train in order to reach the village on foot, a simple tired person and not a tourist so that his back would be tired, his legs would be tired, a person wanting tea, then the dust on him would be ordinary and not tourist dust. He was nervous. There was already a sign on the way; a premonition of failure occasionally pricked Bashilov sharply: the words that were so true, so honest, and so conscientiously prepared suddenly vanished. There was a sickening moment when he already foresaw how he would pass those three houses, how he would go to the garage and after all start a conversation with Chukreevs’ great-nephew who absolutely would not understand him and would even scream, “Children in a choir? What next!” Bashilov would repeat the question “Is it really bad for children to study music?” “Why?” the great-nephew would ask again in turn and so easily, so quickly everything would end and the words would disintegrate. It would be confirmed that Bashilov was indisposed that evening, had a fever, and was planning castles in the air not in keeping with his age. He even foresaw how Chukreevs’ great-nephew, to complete the insult, would suddenly screw up his eyes and look at Bashilov like at some swindler from the capital who for sure, though unclear how, wanted to fix a deal and line his own thin musical pocket. However, the road was the road and when he was on it just sneaking up to the Urals, there was another sign, a remarkable moment. Holding the wheel, he was rolling not on asphalt but on white dust, the same one on which once primitive half-ton trucks and carts even earlier trailed along and perhaps great-great-grandfather Bashilov was flirting with great-great-grandma, calling to one another from the high carts slowly crawling along with the dust swirling underneath. Echo of the past inspired. Bashilov plunged into ideas, the usual ones when a person is over fifty and when, having passed his prime, the proper “I” little by little dissolves into general human destiny and the bitterness of inevitable death disappears. Reducing speed, he screwed up his eyes and it was a wonderful moment: he managed to picture those high carts at the bend of the road, the women in white headscarves, and even protruding pitchforks with polished bright handles. He saw the very hot midday, bumblebees droning over the carts, and

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great-great-grandma leisurely nibbling sunflower seeds. The composer enjoyed the moment with pleasure, holding the wheel tenderly and steering on the dusty road. There were no tables; in their place sticking out of the ground were the remains of the supporting posts, crumbling, not reaching to Bashilov’s knees. Little was left of the benches also: out of six there was only one whole one, besides, it was half fallen with one end lying on the ground. There were tall weeds. The maples were utterly old, Bashilov stood nearby and smoked. When two women unknown to him crossed the courtyard to hang the washing and one of them walked quite close by Bashilov, he did not delay, greeted her and asked if Grandma Alina, Grandma Chukreeva, was presently at home. “Who’s that?” the woman did not know. After asking again and thinking some more, she remembered that Grandma Alina had already been dead for five years; she lingered and remembered more — Grandma had died but Grandpa was still alive, still going to the factory to help out. He was on shift at this very moment… Only then did the woman become interested with whom she was talking. “I grew up here…” and Bashilov briefly told her about himself but the woman came to the village only all of twenty years ago, had been living here since but not from the old stock: she did not know Bashilov, did not remember. So she listened somewhat. She lifted the basin with washing. She did not invite Bashilov to tea, did not invite him just to visit. She only repeated that old man Chukreev would soon come with the shift. “Thanks,” Bashilov said. The tall weeds rose up here but a simple path led in the direction of the courtyard and he recognized the old man Chukreev from a distance only because he was waiting; Grandpa had grown a white beard. The shift went pass; Chukreev was walking amidst those who came last, Bashilov hailed, “Semen Ivanovich…” Bashilov gave his name and quite unexpectedly Grandpa Chukreev, mobile and very lively, instantly said “yes, yes, Georgii, wonderful that you came, of course I remember, you see what kind of memory the old guy has!” Then added “now, as they say, I’ll slightly wash off the factory dirt and come down, we’ll talk!” Somehow, strangely and much too easily and quickly he recognized Bashilov, perhaps he did not recognize? He called Bashilov by name with this ease as if he just left yesterday or the day before. Bashillov sat and waited with some perplexity; he did not have to wait long, the old man appeared again in three-four minutes. Grandpa squatted down and the traveller composer sat on the same fragment of the single bench; when Bahilov offered him a cigarette, old Chukreev answered easily that he smoked his own, no-no, always his own, and true to his words he took out his cigarettes. They started smoking. “Perhaps you need to stay the night?” Chukreev asked almost instantly. “Indeed! My wife had died, lots of room.” “I’ll sleep in the car, I’m used to it…” Part of Bashilov already began to waver, did he want to sleep in the car (he smiled — remembering the white room where he slept as a child). “As you wish,” the old man Chukreev continued. “But if you do, please, I take what’s fair: fifty kopecks.” “Fifty kopecks?” Bashilov raised his eyes.
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“Yes. In the city they charge a rouble for a bed,” he was looking at the composer openly and unflinchingly. Bashilov even burst out laughing, chuckled “do you recognize me properly, Grandpa, why, I’m Bashilov, Zhora Bashilov.” “That’s right,” Grandpa Chukreev agreed briskly, “I thought perhaps Georgii wants to spend the night.” Bashilov slowly as if musingly declared, “I lived here once. Formerly I grew up here.” Grandpa Chukreev shook his head, “That doesn’t matter.” and repeated, “fifty kopecks for the night, that’s fair…” Having finished smoking, Grandpa threw out the butt and left. It was amazing, he left so fast, so smartly, smiling, such a practical old man. Bashilov was not upset; he was also smiling now, a wondering, forgiving smile. He continued to sit on the fragment of the bench; Grandpa finished smoking much faster. It was possible that Grandpa Chukreev nevertheless considered that he had exchanged words and parted too coldly with Zhora Bashilov, whom he once flogged with nettle, he leaned out from the window and yelled, “If you need anything, go around to my grandkid! He’s over there at the sheds!” He yelled and disappeared. Zhora Bashilov, over fifty and quite grey, sat and smoked. It was warm. A few light clouds did not mar the high sky. The grandkid was the great-nephew, the nephew’s son. Bashilov attempted to remember the face or even just to sort out who this could be but his memory did not come up with anything. Having finished smoking, Bashilov set off to the sheds, which had been converted in some big way into garages, and people were there. There seemed to be three cars and motorcycles with sidecars standing there outlining the parking lot. This was all distinctly visible under the sun. “Someone here has made a pile!” Bashilov thought not without local pride. He came to a halt. An unfortunate moment could turn all projects into failures. There was a twinge of misgiving, but indeed there are meetings which have fully developed well in advance and cannot be avoided, moreover, which are possible to understand only if you go about them till the end. The man was about thirty or a little over and understandably did not know Bahilov. Strong, well formed, he was busy with a motorcycle: corrected the limp tire and then suddenly leaned over the motor pouring harsh sounds and pungent whitish exhaust dust all around. Bashilov delicately stood on the side in the beginning. Then he sat on a log. The young man was just beginning to smoke and Bashilov, having calmed his nerves, took a seat closer to him. Bashilov lit a cigarette, leisurely and even pensively started to recount how he used to live and run around here as a young boy, but that he was a musician now, thought about the native village, and came here. “Go-od,” said the great-nephew deferentially. “Visiting hometown is good.” He glanced at his own motorcycle: whether to continue work or not. He said yes, nodded assent, but for all the agreeable tone, his voice was somewhat guarded and his look was by no means melancholy: I know it is all well and pleasant to visit the hometown but what in reality is the truth behind your coming here? “Well, I’m a musician…” “Uh-huh,” the great-nephew acknowledged.

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“I’m a musician,” Bashilov repeated and, already aiming at the essence, began to talk about music, about songs sang here when he was a young boy. Indeed how they sang and you know he also sang with them, a little young boy. Emotions gushing, he began to speak quickly, he spoke of the long board tables, of the old singers. If you look from here, the houses were as before! It was possible that he was too carried away. The great-nephew lent an ear infrequently in the beginning but agreed and nodded with attention. Then he started to get bored, drooped, and, squinting his eye, watched the red regular bus, which came up quite close and braked fifty steps from them beside the enclosed stop. People with shopping got off the bus: they were carrying boxes with footwear, packages, string-bags with oranges showing through, something unheard of earlier in the village — why, it was not the regular bus. Bashilov did not hasten to judge the relative affluence: it would be too simple. The bus turned around and left. People walked by and Chukreev’s great-nephew exchanged lazy greetings with a few of them. Bashilov continued after waiting for his attention, “The music in the village is now poor, quite poor. Why, they aren’t singing…” “What aren’t they singing?” “They aren’t singing.” Bashilov explained that he did not reproach them entirely. What was more, he was ready to talk about his guilt, precisely his own, which was understood to mean the guilt of absence, the guilt of non-participation — he swallowed a lump in his throat. He overcame the awkward pause and, approaching from a different direction, finishing off, finally started to say that children were growing up in the village, that children were keen on music, and that a children choir would start the redemption of his debt. “If you like, the atonement of guilt, unintentional guilt, for if an artist sucks the juices out of the soil, this is a wide and common occurrence and shouldn’t be blamed on one single individual,” Bashilov was speaking incoherently from excitement. He repeated about the choir. Perhaps right then, getting tired of the convoluted and half incomprehensible bizarre wordings, the great-nephew exclaimed, “Children? In a choir?” and began to laugh. In the meantime, the unusual conversation was heard little by little by the other villagers near them; these people were repairing someone’s motorcycle, someone’s car, or simply hanging out in the garage. They moved closer. It was the common smoke break. All began to laugh amicably when the great-nephew winked, then remarked wittily that the visitor was a smart fellow and that was why he wanted to lure not only children but also the village’s old women and chase them into the choir. They laughed; and Bashilov recollected how he saw dog rose bushes when driving up here and decided to get back to basics, hide the car and his being a tourist in the prickly bushes so that he would come to them on foot and ordinary. They were laughing and it was unimportant to them whether he got there walking or driving. They did not understand what he was talking about. The blue sky was still, not a single cloud. The smoke break over, they again went into the shed-garage. “Give me the pump.” “Be patient. I need it now!” The voices fell silent and only metal hitting on metal was heard in the blue air. The greatnephew worked with a wrench, adroitly tightening the gearbox firmly on the motorcycle. He was working. He was whistling. Bashilov was still sitting on the log two steps away from him. The plan’s failure was obvious but Bashilov could not stop from broaching the conversation again: words left him but evidently not all and these words from the heart,
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prepared for a long time, now weighed on him. Bashilov said already not without persistence that if someone would like his son or daughter to achieve in music, he would always be of service even if it were tomorrow — he was prepared to be busy. The great-nephew stopped whistling. “I would come often,” Bashilov insisted, “I would gladly begin working with them and, of course, without pay.” The great-nephew looked the visitor over again with increasing suspicion. “Some nonsense you’re saying, uncle! Why should I send my young boy to music? Perhaps he isn’t musical, no ear, no voice…” “But they so love to teach children music in the provinces.” “Not really!” Bashilov persisted, “And children love to learn.” The great-nephew grinned and, as if it now dawned on him, exclaimed, “Music, music, uncle, you kept harping on the same thing!” Then confidently with a sure hand he turned on the transistor radio, here is music for you. It was like in the movies, in a bad amateur film when two people in full accordance with the setting cleared up their relationship, two philosophers in the usual unpretentious jackets. The one making noise with the wrench said, “Music, music, kept harping on the same thing!” said and stretched his arm out to switch on the radio under the clear sky, found it and it turned out to be very convenient: near the shed. However, it was this way: the radio was inside the motorcycle which the great-nephew repaired and so, as clarification of the relationship in an unpolished movie at the cinema, the greatnephew stretched out his calloused hand and switched it on. He hit it. The velvety sound of a cello flowed out as if ordered, not weather or football but the cello in a sonataarpeggio, a sonata for a friend with his imaginary instrument, to compose and to die afterwards. The hills turned into the steppe here. Schubert sounded more beautiful among the white whisks of feather grass and the plaintive sting of the melody that pierced the ear’s membrane was more painful, sweeter. However, the coincidence became quite perfect. The great-nephew again began to click the switch like popping one’s key into a lock, opening and revealing the riches. He clicked and Bashilov’s quartet in G resounded in the fourth programme, in the contemporary music section. The composer was somewhat muted listening to his own text. Now the answer established itself. “Here’s music! As much music as you want!” He clicked the switch with this nuance exactly — we indeed have everything here, everything is available — and added, “And in half an hour on Mayak4 there will be songs!” Having answered the visiting guest with a higher reckoning, so to speak, the greatnephew crossed over to the region of psychology. His face darkened unexpectedly and, suddenly getting angry, directed his steps to Bashilov, the composer did not expect anything like this. No, coming up close to the creator of chamber music, he did not grab the composer by the shirtfront, as a village member would do in a bad movie in the cinema, no, he only expressed his personal opinion. He only approached and said roughly, “What do you want?”
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Raido Mayak is a radio broadcasting company in Russia, established in 1964 as an All-Union Radio station. ©Jane H. Buckingham 2003 jhbuckingham@yahoo.ca

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Bashilov was silent; do not thrust yourself on us, busy yourself with your own music — that was in the darkened face and the eyes of Chukreev’s great-nephew. The great-nephew approached still and added, “Get lost!” Bashilov walked, exactly walked away from here. He was so unexpectedly offended, stricken, outraged, indignant, he was muted. He got up but getting up, one must go somewhere, and here he walked, walked, walked, in the beginning straight on and then to the hillock beyond which it was already not a mountain but only flat feather grass. He walked firmly but the ground was rocky. A lark was singing. It was not that Bashilov was over fifty and comparatively puny being a composer, whereas the thirty-year-old viewed himself as a young bull, young, strong and with fists, the problem was the resentment. The great-nephew shouted and Bahilov walked. His steps rustled dryly. He was so offended that he forgot that his childhood was here, his hometown was here, and his mother and father were here. (He also had the right to say, “Get lost!” These and all the other correct words would come to him after the fact. Now the graceful structure Bahilov continued to crumble, the roof caved in, the walls fell to the ground, the columns swayed and fell.) He walked around the steppe and again asked in his sad voice, especially sad when the voice replayed what was already in his memory, “Is it really bad for children to learn music?” “Why?” He repeated the questions in turn and again smiled, smiling so openly, and the whole scene continued again for some time, since Bahilov by inertia of all the pleading did not leave instantly but continued with Grandma Chukreeva, Grandma Alina, pity that she was not alive. He somehow wanted to drag on a little the already flat conversation but the great-nephew not without malice yelled, “Here this sick crazy dolt came from Moscow, wants to make a choir out of our old women!” Everyone began to laugh but it was already a sneer, the great-nephew was distorting the facts. The scene lasted in his mind and the more painful it was the longer it lasted near the sheds, the sheds that were converted into a garage where everybody had already left off repairing their own motorcycles with sidecars, had broken off work and came out into the sun. Ruddy-faced from tanning, they were smoking and chuckling; they were watching the person, a complete stranger to them, dragging himself around in the heat and not understanding why but certainly not from great intellect. He walked for a long time; walking soothed the pain. Bashilov probably did not notice as he turned. Having rounded the feather grass area and turned a little, he was already going back; just then he realized that he was walking along the factory’s low fence when suddenly he heard a slight sound getting louder the whole time. A sound he instantly recognized. A little explosion rang out, after that the explosion was stronger. Fizz-fizz-fizz-fizz-fizz. The sound grew; a hot and familiar wave from childhood enveloped the neighbourhood, but Bashilov did not run, although the fear of the moment before the fire or the flight away from the factory walls was nothing to be ashamed of. He distinctly heard the crackle of fire. Sand beat down from above, after that a piece of plywood, large, square, flying up on a wave of hot air, dropped down. Blazing at the corners, gliding down, the piece fell within three steps from Bashilov just as the board fell with a crash a step away then. Suddenly a thought heated up that here and now the village would kill his song stolen from the village. What a finale! How can one be angry at this sequence of explosions from below, how can one be upset at the fury of the robbed? Is it not that conciseness here, the composition of the persistently repeated melodic phrase when the singers blended together with delivered opportunities of rhythmic ostinato?
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Bashilov did not want despair. If he the musician was killed right now by a torn fragment of pipe or a flying board hitting his temple, he would be kicking on the ground, the grass, the dust, jerking about, and in this very second, at that exact same moment the village would gradually find its own music again. Thus was born this thought concerning the young. Renewed and revived, the newborns only just from the womb were cheeping and shouting unusually shrilly, noisily, and already carrying music in them, they were cheeping, crying, howling, shouting, changing, and conforming from year to year in a choir. A new and performing children’s choir would burst forth this very second if he perished. He walked quite slowly. He was scared but he was thinking — let him be killed if this would help them. He was thinking — let there not be me. His eyes became damp. He walked slowly, quite slowly along the factory’s low walls expecting the regular shaking of air and retribution. He lowered his head. However, the main explosion which usually followed the little ones and for which Bashilov and the surrounding hills were waiting tensely did not follow. There was already no fire when Bashilov looked around. It dawned on him that the exploding hearth was blocked and there would be no fire. This was behind the factory wall. Bashilov slowly walked toward the maples. Bashilov made his way through the courtyard to his car, sat down, and taxied beyond the limits of the village. After an hour he cooled down and drove slower, the road was not asphalt and it was worthwhile to take care of the car. Experience started speaking to him, experience from more than fifty years, in light of which the fire was only an ordinary fire and the meeting, deprived of depth, with Chukreev’s great-nephew was a domestic clash, a skirmish, nothing more. Everything became simpler. It was so foolish to leave offended! Bashilov was ashamed of himself, he rubbed shoulders with the hometown and had not said goodbye. He turned the car around. It was wise to return. Not confused by the darkness, Bashilov taxied into the courtyard and parked the car in its usual former spot. He needed no one. In the twilight and with a calm heart he would smoke a cigarette on the last half-fallen bench and go. This was better. Already looking forward to how he would smoke there, Bashilov remembered about food. He reduced speed to the lowest and, steering with one hand, the other got into the paper-bag and took out a package with sandwiches, boiled eggs, and tomatoes. He ate, did not rush. The sunset faded. The sky went from blue to black. Bashilov also reached for the thermos, still steering with one hand. He sipped the coffee which was made at the restaurant for him on his request that morning while still in Mednogorsk. The coffee was hot; it was prepared over two hundred kilometres from here. In the end, he sat on the half-fallen bench, on its end that was still haphazardly propped up by a post. The village was sleeping. The night drew near thickly and densely so that Bashilov searched for the bench almost by touch. Now he tuned everything out, farewell sprang to mind as well as that soft inner peace for which nothing more was needed, only to sit without stirring and not scare away the moment. He was sitting like that. He would not come here again, this was farewell and absolution.

©Jane H. Buckingham 2003 jhbuckingham@yahoo.ca

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Bashilov heard how his heart was thumping in the approaching darkness; the emerging moon added an elevated richness to the night. The moon was on the wane, bright. Bashilov already had a smoke and feeling weak, sat without any movement; it could be that he was humming under his breath, quite softly drawing out songs from childhood, when suddenly in the silence he heard careful and timid sounds joining in a song with Bashilov. If Bashilov was a man turned grey, then Vasik had aged completely with a thinning white beard, he looked like an old man in the moon’s whitish light. Bashilov recognized the halfwit who instantly fell silent and recognized Bashilov too. In truth, he recognized the visiting musician earlier and hearing the humming, walked up, sneaked up quietly with the thought that he would listen for a bit if Bashilov would not drive him away. Both were silent. Then Vasik very timidly asked the visitor, “You ding, ding.” (You sing, sing.) Bashilov gently touched him on the shoulder and Vasik began to hum, contented; and when the visitor, as in childhood, stroked him on the head, Vasik sat straight on the ground near the half fallen bench; he smiled; he started to complain, “Young oneth hit. B’for nefe hit me.” (The young ones hit me. Before they never hit me.) Bashilov again stroked him on the head, “You poor thing.” “And no ding donth. Nefe... Ony me.” (And they don’t sing songs. Never… Only me.) “Now we sing. Only silently, Vasik...” They sang softly and Vasik hummed very quietly, trying not to sing out of tune. They sang Two on the Road, then Blowing Since Noon, then Ready Cash, and then the long and never-ending Life is Over. This song they managed till the end only because Vasik remembered it and, nervously humming, directed Bashilov to the words; he started and Bashilov caught up. The sounds were horrible but the little fool knew well that he must sing quietly, it was probably the only experience he acquired from his long miserable life. When Bashilov got tired, Vasik continued to sing alone but grew even quieter. The night relaxed. The clear moon hung in the sky. The little fool noisily blew his nose and, observing closely, Bashilov saw that he was crying. In his slow murmuring he both asked and as if insisted — the last singer, bad and with a terrible voice, but he was singing — and Bashilov, giving way to delayed enthusiasm, thought that not all was lost. Vasik moved closer, sat on the ground clutching his knees and within a step from the musician. Bashilov was sitting straight on the half-fallen bench. They sang once more Ready Cash and then Blowing Since Noon. When the high pure voice of a child suddenly pierced the darkness and the calm, the moment drew near to them soundlessly by itself.

©Jane H. Buckingham 2003 jhbuckingham@yahoo.ca

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