Compulsive Gambling, or a love story

Compulsive Gambling,

or a love story


I dedicate my crying to all                                                                                                              women, of all colors, in the                                                                                                              hope that at least one of its                                                                                                             sounds will reach the hidden                                                                                                                       home…


  I was never been interested in compulsive gambling. I saw the slot machines placed all around the city, and I saw bunches of lively people moving from one of them to another like spokes around a glittering line. I heard from time to time that someone lost money and was in the street, with no money and shelter, and someone committed suicide or died of a drug overdose. But all that didn’t touch my heart. It was similar to watching a horror movy before going to sleep and going to bedpeacefully in the cozy and secure world. It was also like thinking of death, we know that it exists, but it is somewhere else, somewhere far away…

I lived that way, everybody does. But then a disaster opened the doors of my house without knocking and without asking permission. And everything changed irrevocably…

  As if a baby brought into the house and making everyone subject to his or her life immediately, a catastrophe changes everything, including the thoughts, the feelings, the hopes, and the plans…

  Have you ever cried from helplessness to change anything in this darkness filling the house?

  Have you ever felt completely hopeless fighting with the Demon of gambling for your beloved or child? And is it not the same Demon that tortures those obsessed with drugs and alcohol, or any other overwhelming passion?

  And isn’t he clever, crafty and resourceful? Didn’t it, after the slot machines were destroyed, penetrate your home the way rain seeps into the soil?

  Didn’t it sedate the maternal instinct and push adults and children into this alien artificlal and meaningless computer world in which all the beautiful things are defiled and everything people are born for dies?

  With all the aggravated feelings of a mother whose son was dying son, did I feel that devastation, that irretrievably lost time, as if, late at night, an invisible boa thrust his transparent head into your house, and, slowly and elegantly, pulls his toll in through his nostrils, filling people with even more madness and obsession. And the whole world, cursed by heaven, shines with all the colors of the godless space, shines and raves…

 I saw many children wandering, withdrawn into themselves, as if having opened a secret door of their hearts leading into a game room, where they are met by green, red and blue lights of that deadly world in which dead monkey jump and show their teeth, buttons rattle, and coins jingle.

 I found this magic button, this inexhaustible subject, which enlives the playing dolls. It was a permanent desire to break one big jackpot when your golden rain pours and pours, when a mountain of gold coins grows in front of you, when the room is expanded and becomes borderless and the whole crowd sees and hears your triumph…

  I am a gamer’s mother who heard it that devilish gamblers’ rhyme and understood that the Demon knows no pity or no mercy.

  Do we, mothers and beloved women, choose this terrible life? In this bitter confession, I want to tell you my personal story, since each is worthy of attention at least because it is unique. I wanted to stay in my familiar world so much, but it was impossible to change one’s fate or escape from it: will be furiously biting and stinging you from all sides…

 And is not my fault that distant voice, like an echo, calling me day and night, and it was the voice of my son, the voice of trouble.

  And I came to this endless and terrible trail, where I was brought by Death herself. Suddenly, having grasped my hand, she dragged me into that wild dance to her own diabolical music, and it was the way of no return. Slashing the leaves and branches off the shrubs, she lured me further and further into the forest, her black dress swirling. She was jerking and swaying like clockwork, without a break. I could not get my eyes off her pale face, her eyes that were getting brighter and brighter. I kept bending and extending my arms and legs fevereshly and pointlessly like a prisoner of war shot into the head. I had no choice: my son, my only child, was transparent and almost lifeless behind her. His life depended on my truly animal tenacity and self-control, patience and perseverance. Every careless movement of mine made him lose his outlines, so that wet grass and numerous traces were seen more and more clearly through him…

Did I have the right to despair in that unequal and merciless fight?

 In that dancing with death, not at once, not suddenly, I started feeling quite certain: I had to oppose her with something much larger than my life…

Chapter 1. Looking for the manuscript

  It’s been a long time since I traveled by trains. It is the second day of my desperate journey. I didn’t sleep at night and, leaning against the glass, was staring into darkness. The glittering dark, shimmering with purple and dark blue spots, was pulling me into an even more desperate solitude, in an even greater despair. Bare trees were flashed, crouching, bushes were jumping, white stones wereleaping. Sometimes, I saw an absolutely fantastic scenery — tall shadows of people and fancy castles. But whenever I looked closely, everything disappeared. This was probably the consequence of the prolonged sleeplessness. The train was whining, moaning and groaning, as if its iron body was being cut alive. The sound was sometimes clear and sharp as if someone were cutting metal, and sometimes, it was dull and monotonous, taking me away into oblivion…

From time to time, I stole glances at the sleeping people, the woman and her adult son. Nothing disturbed their serene, sweet dream; not the harsh whistles, not the noise and thunder, not the heavy flicks, similar to shots, before stopping at numerous stations. In a strange, jealous stupor I was looking at her face, artless and open, her dark-brown hair scattered on the pillow, her lips, rosy due to the abundance of health. I breathed the stringy smell of cut grass as if coming from a distant meadow. Her sleep was simple and quiet like a smooth surface of a forest lake. She was looking younger when sleeping; in the random flashes of light, her rounded shoulders and cheeks shone like ripe apples from dark grass. Her son looked like mine, around 20 years old. He was so young, his adolescent cheeks and lips were slightly swoellen and barely touched with soft fuzz. He smacked his lips, mumbled something, and turned to the wall. They were simple and open like the homes of careless owners. Those happy people had been placed in the same compartment with me as if with a definite purpose. They were going to their relatives’ wedding party: my fellow traveler’s nephew was going to get married. In the morning, she didn’t stop taking joyfully; in anticipation of the upcoming holiday, she beamed and glistened with her milky skin, small, grey and blue eyes, fluffy hair in which drops of water shone. She was splashing in the washroom loudly and for a long time, like a duck in a tub. She came in noisily, pushing the tight door widely with her deft white hands, smelling of fresh soap and incredibly sweet perfume: she must have poured over the whole bottle.  I stared glumly at her low forehead, her lips untouched by lipstick, her fingers with short nails, never polished and never wearing expensive rings; well, she had looked much prettier at night. She wore a bright orange fur coat like a large round doll, husking sunflower seeds, drinking tea loudly and joyfully and eating crunchy waffles with a soft white layer. Her simple looks made me shiever as I was feeling a cruel, savage hatred which was lightening the emptiness in my soul. I was desperately jealous of her…

Maria (the name of my fellow traveler) kept praising on his son all the way, without stopping, and it was obvious that both of them were enjoying that. He is so hard-working and so intelligent as no one else, and he loves his mother so much, oh my God! I looked at the guy’s silly though friendly face, at his low-set, expressionless eyes and the thin strands of his hair, thinking with vengeance that, in another life scenario, he would probably have been a criminal. There was something elusive in his eyes, a vague, muted amber glow. And if the mother’s figure, despite being rather fat, had something girlish about it, the son was the exact opposite, he was like a mad desire rush into any dangerous adventure, the young sleeping beast smelled of smoke and freedom. Catching her eye sneakily, which was illuminating the space around her and keeping him out of all distress, I turned away to the window, unable to swallow the lump stuck in my throat. He needed her, the mother, who was looking at him admiringly…

Sitting in front of my fellow travelers, I kind of forked. While one part of me was shrinking into itself under their light look and things, ordinary for strangers, the other one was readily getting involved in that superficial and straightforward talk distracting me from the oppressive thoughts. Whenever Maria stopped talking and her eyes, bright like blackthorn berries, looked in the window watching, with the same delightful and genuine attention, the houses the train was passing by, I would sigh with relief and get filled with anxiety, like a deep trace in a marshy forest gets filled with green water.

The conductor came in carrying two cups of tea. I didn’t remember if I had asked her to bring me tea. No, it was my companions who had. It was with a joyous and delicious delight that they were sipping the tea noisily, enjoying the fragrant rolls, crispy waffles, and vanilla cookies. I could see the delight with which Mary was holding the iron holder, the enthusiasm with which she was putting sugar cubes in the boiling water and stirring it with a spoon… I was watching it just like the animals were watching our train pulling their heads out of the bushes. The woman was full of confidence and strength, she was confident of herself and her son. «Everything will be OK», I was reading in the thick hair piled high, in the small stubborn chin, even in the willful turn of the thick white neck. Her ringing laughter filled the small compartment. In the morning, she put on a crisp cherry dress with flounces and frills, which made her look even stouter. Her son echoed her in a husky voice like a skinny calf. Sitting on the berth, leaning on her son, Maria was putting brand new patent leather pumps on her wide feet. But her hands, especially the fingers, looked like those of another woman: they were short and rough, hardened by work, with an ugly scar on the palm of her hand caused by an old injury.

A distant, incomprehensible life filled with its sorrows and joys. So different, in all senses, they were a single piece, bright and clear like the dome of the sky, warm and nice like good thoughts. How much sweet and strong tea did they drink? How blissfully they were smiling, squinting in the well-fed food! Some of Maria’s hair got wet and stuck to her burning cheeks. Didn’t I want to live in such a world of joy? Ws it the reason why I had been watching her so long and intensely, like a hungry wolf looking at a reliably loocked shed from all the cracks in which incredibly sleek smells are coming? Did I want to find that sacred ring of keys to this simple happiness?

The sheet and the duvet cover were damp and smelled of bleach. I enjoyed stretching my legsed out; I felt sleepy. The lamp went out… But it was impossible to fool me — I knew how deceptive that state was. Twenty minutes later, I would feel quite sober and the dream would be gone. Turning from side to side, I would torture my berth so that, in the morning, the sheet and the blanket, crumpled and twisted in a bundle, would be everywhere, hung on the table or stretched out on the floor. I forgot to take a sleeping pill on the road, it was an unforgivable mistake. Artificial sleep is better than none at all. In the former case, the main thing is a couple of cups of good, strong coffee; it’s so hard to wake up after sleeping pills, the consciousness barely returns to you, and you come back to normal as if from under anesthesia. For some reason, on the train, you perceive better your fault, endless like a road in a field. In real life, everything is smoothed by vanity, unnecessary actions and talking. Loneliness is not visible, just like the stones on the bottom of the pond. Where was I going to? Is it possible to escape from oneself?

I want to become… I close my eyes as if diving to the bottom… I want to turn into one of these stones…

It is always easier in the morning, it is always lighter. No matter how tedious my dream was, it quenched my pain and loosened the grip of anguish. I had a purpose, a dream. Grabbing it like a strong branch, I was slowly getting out of the quagmire in which I had almost disappeared, almost melted. How did I dare to immerse in it, to bring myself to total insanity? Maybe I had taken it for a soft wing in which the bird hides its head at night? Is my search not going to succeed? I was calling my vitality, imploring them to fill me; that is how the rain lures one in the most severe drought. I was cheering myself and was gradually getting filled with confidence, just like the morning flares with the bird voices and the sunshine…

That’s what I thought and that’s what I did in that distant morning, at the beginning of my journey. I had not yet turned into an enchanted traveler, I had not yet started wandering along dusty roads and squares, and had not yet lost the hope of finding a salvation way out of my trouble…

Strange to say that, for some reason, just when I was completely fused with the crowd and was flying along the platform, confidently and cheerfully, I attracted the attention of the police. I was decently dressed in a formal black skirt and a white silk blouse. Quietly, with assertive fun, I asked for a newspaper in the station kiosk, when a young police lieutenant pulled my hand. He was thin and intelligent, wearing glasses, and had slightly protruding ears. The idea that it would be better not to be caught came to my mind too late. One arrest was more than enough for me. I would never repeat my mistake and learn to lie. In quite an unintelligible way, looking around and pulling my hair from time to time, I told him haltingly that I was looking for a priest whose name was Father Vladimir — that’s all I knew about him. I needed him greatly because, you see, the thing is that the book called «Compulsive gambling» doesn’t have some pages’ those pages were written by the priest, and I found the book in the temple.

I was listened to very attentively, almost without interruption. And in the end, I was asked a simple and clear question that sounded like a control shot to the heart,

‘Why do you need the ending of the «Compulsive gambling» book?’

‘My son is a gamer’, I whispered quietly. ‘And I definitely need to know what to do next…’

‘And does the book have some unusual advice? I mean spells or special prayers? How do you decide that having these guidelines you will find the author? And even if we assume the miracle itself and you’ll find him, are you sure that those few pages will save your child?

As if stripped naked, under bright flashes of lights, I was stammering something frantically, covering my eyes with my hands and trying to protect and save the last remnants of the faith.

The young guys in the uniform lost their interest in me. They were just laughing to each other; one of them, the one who had stopped me and asked me questions, was loudly repeating a word, after which a new burst of laughter was heard. Next to me, an old homeless woman was sitting on a broad wooden bench behind iron bars. Her incessant movements reminded me of a monkey: she was scraping her hands quickly and snapping her black nails, combing her hair, picking and shaking something off her dirty skirts, sputtering quietly and peacefully. It had taken me a lot of effort to break free. Unlike that old woman, I had money, because, preparing for a long trip, I took a three-month vacation. I worked as a primary school teacher, I had money, and I was looking for Father Vladimir. He could live anywhere, he could have disappeared a long time ago; maybe even the name didn’t exist and it was just a nickname. Then I would neve find him…

I found the book in the church when buying regular prayers for the children; it was a thin green book with gold lettering. And when I picked up the change, a I thought suddenly, just for a second, that I was going crazy: on top of the books, candles and paper icons, there was a manuscript, whose title, in large letters, said «Compulsive gambling.»

‘What is this?’ I cried with ardor and despair to the old woman, who was standing behind the counter, and waved my hands over the counter. She looked at me with undisguised surprise.

‘Well, a priest brought it, I think that his name was Father Vladimir. He wanted to have a book published at our print shop, but it is not our subject areas, and, besides, the print shop is temporarily not working, so if we want to print something, we get in touch with Moscow. I explained it all to him in some detail, just as I am telling you now. He wouldn’t even listen to me, just walked toward the exit unexpectedly.

«Wait!» I called after him, «You forgot the manuscript!» He waved his hand, not even turning around, as if saying, «Just take it, I don’t need it any more.» He looked so strange and agitated. And he has never come back since then.

‘Excuse me, can I see it?’ I asked quietly, swallowing saliva and looking ingratiatingly at the chatty woman. On closer look, I saw her mild face in a dark shawl, her grey eyebrows and strands of hair, her eyes, either grey or light blue, and her tightly closed and dry lips. Her small and thin figure looked like a child’s.

Selling the numerous church goods, she managed to rush along the long wooden counter, snatching the right thing with her deftly wrinkled little hands, explain patiently its purpose to the buyers, and, at the same time, with a part of her soul, hold me in that space.

‘Take away’, she waved her hand. ‘I wanted to hide it anyway, one never knows, Father Igor might notice it, he’s very strict, and he doesn’t allow any liberties. The name looks odd and unclear. Besides, everyboddy looks through it, so it’s quite worn out.

I took that little pile of sheets, hugged it, and almost ran to the door. Impatience was too strong for me. As soon as I come out of the church, I barely found the first available bench. I went with reverence over those precious pages computer printed in small type. I think I was looking like an incurable curmudgeon counting banknotes in his gloomy castle. This is how a voluptuous myopic old man touches young prostitutes: they are hot and dry like satin trunks of birch trees, wet and cool like blue streams, fragrant and delicious like pieces of light honey.

The manuscript was written by a true gambler, it was clear from the first line. I believed in it immediately and recklessly. I was swallowing the pages quickly, without chewing, like a hungry dog. It was written by a man who had overcome that fatal passion, he gave not only sensible but invaluable advice to other gamblers and their families.

I had made do many mistakes! Continuing to read, I bowed my head in my hands, cried out and, throwing the sheets down, jumped up from the bench. Then I would circle around it, trembling and fearfully whispering something incomprehensible, after which I would rush to read once again. People must have thought that I was crazy. Yes, it was true: with each line, I found all the futility and insignificance of my previous attempts…

First, when I realized the disaster, I was rushing like a blind bird over her wounded baby bird lying motionless in the grass. I was trying to lift him with my wing, shaking the bloody feathers on his head — but all in vain. The wound was too deep, I had lost time when blood had seeped into the ground. In impotent rage, full of despair, not sparing myself, I would go with the wind, then I would rush to the rain, then I would fall again to the ground, rejecting love in my bestial horror, biting his languid head that was wobbling from side to side like cotton. My baby bird was dying slowly, his heart rejecting life, everything not associated with gambling…

«I will improve everything», I would tell myself swallowing the tears, repeating those words over and over again like spells when I was slowly walking back home. I would wipe my wet face, while leaves whirled and fell at my feet — red, yellow, cherry. «I will improve everything…»

The manuscript was like a memo or manual. There were almost no elements of artistry, and artistry wasn’t something I wanted.

I reread it every day and tried to do things differently…

Chapter 2. Father Vladimir’s manuscript

Compulsive Ggambling


«Once, after a loss, I discussed the whole thing with a friend. I told him that, in some point, I had a good «Epigraph plus», feeling that I had to «get off», but continued to play. The machine looked absolutely blocked as it was «eating» like crazy. As a result, I lost quite a lot of money I needed badly. At that point, we were approached by a mutual friend, an older man in his fifties. Having clarified the situation, he blamed me. He said the complete loss was my fault only. He advised me in a businesslike manner that should have divided the money in two portions and put it in two pockets: one portion would be the money I wanted to gamble, while the other would be the money I would not gamble, and as soon as I lost the money I had in the gambling pocket, I would to go home. He smiled broadly and conceitedly, his grey hair beaming as if it were a good indicator of his experience. Then he pat me condescendingly on the shoulder and walked away.  

 I knew him, he wasn’t gambler, and gambling was quite alien to him. Rage overfilled me, I was about to catch up with him and knock him on the head a few times — that would teach him a lesson, the unwelcome upstart! I screamed after him, it was my silent painful scream as if abominable streams of water poured from hundreds of poisonous springs.

  «Have you ever come to the casino with three «pockets», one of which would have a little money for entertainment, another one would have the money you had put off to buy something very important, and in the third one, there would be rest, just to make it to payday?

  «Do you remember the faces of your friends, who once respected you but now looked at you with contempt despising you for pleading, whining like a puppy, begging and writhing like a snake, asking for some money to fight back after having lost everything, everything you had had in your pockets??

  «Do you remember coming back home, without a penny, hating and cursing yourself? Do you remember your wife’s eyes?

«Remember the way your loved ones shunned you, didn’t take your calls, and lied to you in response to your entreaties?

  «Remember selling your car for peanuts?

  «Rememeber that once you had been young, talented, promising and happy? Your woman’s eyes, in which love was dying day after? Your mother, still alive but looking dead.

   « Do you remember those who used to watch your mouth and catch your every word years ago? They are looking down upon you as if now you were nothing but shit or a rag to wipe their feet on. “I live, surrounded by beasts who forgot their wolves’ names; they are just dogs, our distant relatives; there was a time when we called them our prey…” — Vladimir Vysotsky.

  «Have you ever cried from helplessness? From the fact that you had lost your youth and success, your woman and property, and most importantly — that you can’t control yourself, that a demon crushed your will completely.

    «You don’t remember??

    «You don’t know how it feels??

    «I bet nothing like that has ever happened to you… Then why the hell are you giving your cheap advice? Why the hell are you here? Shut up and stop talking about those idiotic two pockets!

 «I was not interested in books on gambling, and, at that time, I didn’t want to save myself. But from time to time I did come across them; some of those books were instructive like encyclopedias, others were wrtten by ignorant people. Recognized authoritative writers just touched on that topic, and even they were wrong in their studies. None of them was really possessed by the demon of passion, no one ever passed through those abyss and darkness. This was quite obvious, that’s why the pages were lifeless and empty for me, as a gambler has a great vision. In exasperation, I would slam and throw them back…

  «Well, I was there, guys. I know how unbearable it is. I know how hopeless it is to fight against this demon. I will try to help you, although I have never written books before. I will reveal the secrets of the tough, uncompromising, guerilla warfare, and the rest will curl up to you…»

Purpose of the book

  The book is written for those who are suffering a certain degree of compulsive gambling. It does not matter who you are, how much you lose and what your stakes are: you may be a successful businessman, and can leave without regret a hundred thousand dollars in the casino, without any risk to your wallet, or you may be a young guy losing all his pocket money. What is important is how compulsive gambling poisons your life and prevents you from being human. I understand compulsive gambling as a «failure of will power to restrain the desire to bet in various gaming events, namely: slot machines, roulette and other casino games, sportsbook, horse racing, gambling at billiards, cards, all games of chance.

  I will make a bold assumption that my methods will be useful for people obsessed with drugs, alcohol, and other strong passions their willpower cannot handle. There are several degrees of compulsive gambling.

1. «Passionless». This category, in my opinion, includes people who are strangers to all kinds of gambling. There are several types of these people as well as the reasons why they are so cool to all manifestations of excitement. First of all, those are people of Soviet training. In those times, mentality was quite different. Casinos and gambling were considered evil, something dirty, which is home to the dregs of the society. I call such people «absolutely passionless.» There are many people who live their whole lives like that, without diving, or at least dipping, into one of the passions. For women, it is quite possible as their priority goal is educating the offspring, but the men who, one way or another, living colorless lives, make me wonder. I am truly sorry for them. We will call them «Grey.» «Others» this category includes people who are possessed of a passion, and it overshadows all their desires. Love for women, fanatical professional enthusiasm or equally religious or research fanaticism, as well as all kinds of addiction, sych as drug addiction and alcoholism. If you fall into this category, the book will be undoubtedly useful for you, in the sense that you will learn much better understanding of people who are obsessed with gaming passion. Gamers will feel at once that you understand them at least a little bit and that you are willing to support (not in terms of money of course), and your advice will not be useless, you will be able to find common ground and help those people.

 2. «A little bit is equal to nothing.» This is the most common category of people. It covers more than 60% of Russians. As they say, we are all at fault and nothing human is alien to us. «A little bit» person could invest all his savings into MMM and become bankrupt; go to the casino and lose all his pay; become a thimbleriggering victim; pay 5,000 rubles to a good-looking girl at a train station for a kettle made by an unknown company; pick up a bundle of money at Cherkizovo market and go to share it with everyone… This category includes many of those who want freebies, all those tired of the grey everyday life and looking for a holiday. Immediately and plenty. Such a person may lose all his money in slot machines or casino.

  But, unlike the others, the «a little bit» ones should only be bitten once to be shy much more than twice and escape all casinos of the worls till the end of their lives. «What an idiot I am, why did I go to the damn casino? My feet will not be here anymore.» Just one scandal thrown by their wife or mistress would be enough for those people to stop gambling; they have a kind of retractable armored train that stops after the first red light signal. Unfortunately, the «armored train» is likely to be genetically laid in the human being like the height and hair color. There are no spells to invoke it. But there is a very subtle nuance here: certain people in this category once burned, may no longer feel the gambling passion but continue gambling. Overall, this category of people is far from the risk zone and nothing but some incredible life circumstances may force them to cross the border.

(Here is an example. A guy was one of the first MMM investors and, as one of the first ones, made a lot of money. He was heartily sorry for MMM’s boss Mr. Mavrodi, «Ah-ah-ah, the corrupt government has cast the good magician in prison», and then participated in all the pyramid schemes and network marketing. Or he was the first to go to the casino, tored a big jackpot and believed in his good luck. As a university student, I used to play a lot with the slot machines and lost all of my small income. One day, on December 31, I got up early to have time to buy New Year’s gifts. I understood that I could not control myself, but I didn’t want to fall completely in the eyes of my loved ones. So I bought gifts and went to the game room with the small change I still had. All the machines were busy, so I was waiting for my turn and watching the game absent-mindedly. One machine was free, I was going to sit down at it, but someone called my name. I saw an old friend, of mine and spread a word with him, but when I turned, my machine was already taken. There were three guys around it, two of whom were typical «bad boys» who dreamed of turning their crumpled fifty ruble banknote into a couple hundred and go drink. The third one was obviously not like his friends, he produced the impression of quite a decent young man who didn’t fit into the gaming club atmosphere. Succumbing to the persistent persuasion of his friends, he regretfully pulled a fifty ruble bill out of his pocket. After playing seven times, five rubles each, he hit the «bet max» button accidentally and clicked on the scroll. And then one of his friends yelled, Royal!!! All those preset jumped up from their seats and surrounded the lucky one. The guy caught «Royal Flush» and got 12,000 rubles. It was his total triumph! An incredible victory! Many in the audience were surprised, someone tried to multiply something in his mind, many people were looking at him with envy. The guy could hardly hold back the tears of joy, he was stumbling. At that point, I thought without pity, «I’m sorry for you, boy.» A month later, I barely knew him: gripped by madness, his hands shaking, he tried to stuff a crumpled ten in a slot machine.

  If you or your loved one has won a large sum, don’t try to put it aside, lend it or put it into your bank account. It is the money of the Devil, who gave you a loan at a high interest rate, and the best thing you can do is to spend it immediately, donate it, cast it to the wind, the full amount without reserve, and pray for deliverance. If you win, have a few hours of self-hypnosis, convince yourself, remember by heart that this is a one-time gift and you should not take any chances. If your son or your friend wins, make them spend the money immediately. Talk to them and explain who gave them that money.

3. «Gamblers». This category includes those who are teetering on the brink. As a rule, those are sexy and talented people, whom God gave a very dangerous snake tempter as opposed to their abilities. They people can be pop stars, wealthy business people, known revelers; they can achieve success in their professional work, but they can end their lives very badly, unable to restrain their passion for the game. In contrast to the previous category, they have no armored train in the bosom and it’s not enough for them to hit their heads against the wall once, twice, ten times, a hundred times, their wife’s ultimatums are no good either. They will not keep their hundredth promise and will keep gambling to the last kopeck in the heat of excitement. But, in contrast to the more neglected ones, the «gamblers» can control their excitement to some extent, they are able of going forward and building their personal lives. They are «on the verge»: just one wrong step to find themselves deep in a rubbish pit where life throws losers and those «who have no luck». If your loved one becomes a «gambler» and gives you a lot of trouble, a couple of tips will do you good.

   Make sure that this person respects and appreciates your opinion.  Sometimes, it’s hard to determine and many parents and married couples overestimate their influence. Before tring to influence the person, try to get his or her respect and attention.

Determine the degree of your influence. The lower it is, the more subtle, unobtrusive and veiled your behavior must be. Otherwise, you risk losing everything abd you will be crossed out of that person’s life.

  If you still managed to create such a situation, that is your son or lover doesn’t accept you, you have made too many mistakes and aggravated things, there is still a way out. But this will be discussed at the end of the book…

 If your «gambler» loved one has lost in a casino or at a slot machine, it is extremely important to behave correctly. Do understand that this is probably not the last time, and that your curses, ultimatums and threats will not influence the «gambler». More than that, this behavior can lead to very undesirable consequences.

 Deep inside the «gamblers», there is often a «stubborn little man» who does everything «deliberately opposite». He doesn’t like other people’s will to be imposed on him. He will pretend to understand everything, promise to improve himself — but! — he will dake everything his own way. The little man is just waiting to make you despise, abuse and threatene him. This is what fuels him.

   It’s hard and unbearable when your husband or son loses a substantial portion of the family budget, and not the first time. It is impossible to stay calm, it is impossible to pretend that nothing has happened, but that’s what needs to be done. The «little stubborn man» doesn’t expect such a reaction and will lose most of his power. So the only thing you can show is losing some of the respect.

  Losing even a large amount of money, believe me, is not the worst thing. More than that, it’s really nothing! «It’s not why mother spanked her son…» as the old song goes. The man is in shock, he is frightened, confused, he is in the heat of passion. And most importantly, he is afraid of you, afraid of your cries, your contemptuous look, your threats, of being turned away from the house or that you may leave. He borrows a lot of money, writes IOUs, lays everything valuable in a pawnshop, he can even sell the car on the spot. If these steps are not available to him, he can commit a crime. Perhaps I’m repeating myself, but even that says a lot, most importantly that he is afraid of you, afraid of your cries, your contemptuous glance, his mind,vulnerable at the moment, may not bear it and you may lose your loved one. Stimulate all of his success and the smallest undertakings not related to gambling. Praise him as often as possible, encourage him to try new areas. This is the only way you can achieve the following: he will respect you and listen to you; if he loses, he will not do irreparable folly as you will be his friend, not an executioner; he will, over time, have new hobbies or a girlfriend who can oust gambling from his life.

  Remember that pouring your discontent and anger upon a person who has made a mistake is easy, while staying calm is extremely difficult, next to impossible…

  It’s only natural though.  You are trying to defeat the Devil, right?

4. «Hopeless». This category includes people who are seriously addicted to gambling, whose willpower loses, time and time again. These people lose their property, family, and themselves. The disease cannot be treated. Only a few are fully cured, the statistics are worse than those for drug addicts. Most likely, the passion of gambling will be with you forever, to your last breath, poisoning your life. Without using extraordinary measures, without the help of loved ones, great effort of will and a clear plan of action, it is almost impossible to «come off». If you have made up your mind to fight the Demon before he eats you up from inside, I can advise you the following: if you do not win, then it least fight with dignity.

   Here is what you should do if you loved one is “sick”. Try to evaluate his reserve of energy and willpower. Can he start a self-healing? Can he read these tips? You need an immediately and precise answer to this question. If you try to pass the book off to him and then start giving him smart tips citing the book, he will understand that you are «healing» him, and your access will be blocked. If the book is not good for independent reading, you have to play the role of a doctor. Up to the first major changes, the existence of the book will have to be kept secret.

5. «Goners». I am afraid I don’t know what to say. The «hopeless» ones at least have a small stock of moral and volitional qualities, they can snap sometimes, make an attempt to overcome their passion (even if those attempts will be just miserable.) Here, the situation is much worse, the colors of the world are getting more and more dim. Sex, eating, drinking, wife, children, expensive cars, women — all this is in dark colors for you, you care about nothing but gambling. You will not remorse, you have admitted openly that you are no longer able to resist; you are a hopeless gambler. You are semi-human and semi-animal. The problem is that there is nobody to save. The person no longer exists as a personality, a soul or a free will. For such gamblers, the only reality is moving to a higher category and start from there. This is not easy. Your task is to save at least a small amount of energy and will so that you could act an resist. Find what to hang on if there is at least the slightest clue, the reason why you should live and fight. Ask your family to help you get to a specialized center where gamblers are treated, you can try to be «coded» or see a psychologist. You can sell something or ask for a loan for medical treatment. After the course of a «shock therapy», you will get a little bit of energy and will. That’s enough to begin to studying this book …»

The memories raked up and reopened the wound as though vinegar were poured on it. Everywhere I drew my attention, it felt like grabbing and pushing the sharp, dark green leaves of the river sedge; swollen corpses were floating unbearably slowly on that dark water…

My son was not a «goner». Like a skillful tightrope walker, he teetered dangerously between «gamblers» and «hopeless». Maybe I was just trying to deceive myself? But he didn’t become like that immediately, right? He was sinking into that terrible world slowly, like lined vessels go ubder water. And I did my best to make him sink to the bottom as quickly as posible, which I was not supposed to do! Trying to frighten him, I would kick him out, threatening to leave and never come back, accusing him of destroying not only himself but also his father; I would scream the house down and label him as «limp», «useless», and «weak»! Alyosha would give me thousands of promises never to gamble again, he would weep and promise, then he would again become my chick, my darling child. After giving a firm promise, he would look askance at me, his eyes full of fear; his light, soft hair would smell a sparrow again; touching them, I would calm down, wishing life to get back to normal. I wanted to hide in an old safe little world, because it was just impossible! It could not have happened to me! Just a moment, just a moment, I will find the required word or an artful effect. I must pull myself together and stop feeling sleedy…

But everything was repeated again and again, in a terrible sequence and with unimaginable perseverance: in a day, three days later, in a month. Every day, I pulled myself together and said that tomorrow I would not act the way I did today. I would be firm and strong. But there came tomorrow, and my poor weak personality screamed and bled with fear. All my efforts to stop the ridiculous and terrible dream at once, broke against my son’s overwhelming resistance. He withdrew into himself increasingly, rejecting all my attempts to talk, explain and save him. Now Isaw empty and motionless eyes looking like pale pieces of glass. I felt between us not even thousands of miles but centuries; there was a dense impenetrable wall between me and my son Alyosha. I lost my emotional connection to him, and that was the worst of all. My child was in the realm of the Snow Queen, my tears could not unfreeze him; on the contrary, he laughed at me. He became incredibly callous, and if I had to die before his eyes, he would not get up, he would not come off the game for a minute.

And yet I didn’t believe that everything was that bad. Nobody does. We don’t believe it even when the doctor confirms the worst diagnosis. A couple of times, father beat Alesha with a belt, we didn’t give him the money. Things started to disappear from home; then our son was gone. He rented an apartment, stopped studying at the university, lived on nobody knows what, didn’t respond to calls, continued to play and broke off all our attempts to meet with him.

I remember one morning: I was standing high up on a hill and suddenly saw my son Alyosha from there. He was walking hesitantly along the riverbank, stumbling. In fact, he was not even walking but plodding wearily like an old man. Despite the fact that he was well dressed, for some reason he looked like a beggar, a homeless orphan, someone’s obedient servant. I looked at his thin, almost weightless body, at the cold, humanless light that was following him on the black ground like a snow tube. It was then that I thought for the first time what a huge abyss separated him from the world, while I could do nothing, just nothing to help him! I gave up, it was too hopeless, too neglected. Whatever happens, even if the sky crashes to the ground, Alyosha won’t leave his new life and new home, solid as a rock and black as darkness itself.

Any passion destroys people in the same way, no matter whether they are guilty or innocent. My son found himself in its clutches, and the reason why it happened didn’t matter. I had to tear him out, but how? Maybe it didn’t matter how… What did matter was rescuing him.

Chapter 3. THE DEMON IS STRONG (Father Vladimir’s manuscript)

I prefer the word «demon» to call the passion for gambling. Let us imagine the following situation. You are a good swimmer, that is you are so good at swimming that you are going to do it professionally. Two families go to the beach. Your friend’s fourteen-year-son suggests you a swim race and beats you. You ask him whether he has a category, and he says something like «No, I just swim well». What do you think? Yes, I am getting old. It’s a shame to be beaten by a kid, who has everything in front of him… It’s a pity…

  Or you decide to learn the game of billiards. Initially, you learn the basics, then you learn from your more experienced friends. Six months later, you are a good player. Feeling quite happy, you buy an expensive cue. A friend of yours wants to play with you, he is just a beginner. In less than two weeks, he began beating you using a regular crooked playroom cue. It felt awful. In a situation like that, one could come home and break one’s five hundred dollar cue against the wall. Whenever you lose to a weak, player or the one with a lower rating, or an impudent young guy when you are the clear favorite, it’s very upsetting and makes you give up.

  The same happens in your fight with your demon. You promise yourself not to gamble. You have a long internal dialog trying to convince yourself that you are starting a new life, free of compulsive gambling. You write it down on paper or start a diary. You believe that you are strong. You hold for a day, two, three days — and then you break down, lose all your pocket money, go home, take all  the money your family had put aside, and lose it, too. You have suffered another defeat, and most importantly, you are completely broken morally. You think that you are just a weak loser and a weakling. If I can’t control myself in such little things, how do I go on living? I can’t control myself. You give up and stop believing in yourself. When will you make another rush? When will you have the energy required to fight the demon? In a week? In a month? While you are thinking and figuring out, you are in his power, frustrated, humiliated, and powerless.

  The reason is not that you have lost and failed to control yourself. You were doomed. The powerful demon who has been defeating you over the years, who is clever and cunning and is now tenfold stronger than you seemed to you a boy of fourteen, who had no category, and you took your cheap emotional impulse to put an end to your addiction once and for all for a powerful and invincible weapon.  It was not he who defeated you but your own illusionyou’re your might. The demon will be dipping your head in the dirt hundreds of times, over and over again, and thousands of your attempts will be futile and hopeless. And your task is to rise again and again. The demon is strong.

Don’t create a problem for yourself

A small digression

  It may seem that I am greatly exaggerating while, in fact, it’s much simpler, that is people who are prone to gambling are just not disciplined enough and can be cured by a good thrashing and beating. There are no demons, there is just a bad habit which can be overcome. One shouldn’t tell oneself silly tales of the demons’ power and then deal with them all one’s life. I’m sure there are people who smugly say that they also had this kind of addictions, went to the casino to lose money, but their willpower helped them overcome the habit quickly and easily.

  Well, many of you are right …

 The «passionless» ones are not affected by the gambling passion at all, and if they bet by chance, they will immediately start looking for the slightest clue to convince themselves that casino and gambling are just sheer cheating and one should stay away from a place like that.

  For the «a little bit» ones the book is useless and even harful. What will really work in this case is a scene, a belt, or a threat to divorce him. No need to think of something or be cunning. These people go to the casino and gamble, but they are not influenced by the Devil. They have virtually no risk of being avid gamers, even if they play for a long time. They are just bored and nothing to do. They might go with their friends with whom they have a good time. I have come across such people. After losing a significant amount of money, they say to themselves, «Damn, I didn’t even notice what has happened. I think I am an avid player. I must stop this idiocy immediately!»

  After that, one will never gamble again. Sometimes he looks down on people of the «hopeless» category and can give them wise advice. He will be pleased and proud to tell them how his willpower helped him defeat the Demon. But in fact, these people have never been addicted. By their nature, they were very far away from the risk zone. Their boastful stories about the grandiose victory over themselves are not worthy of attention.

 The «Gamblers»: a good beating will be effective in many cases; after a serious quarrel, this category of people can seriously think their lives. Subconsciously, they will remember that if they continue to play, they are in for very bad consequences at home. But among the «gamblers» there are many passionate and energetic people who take great pleasure in breaking taboos. For them, the beating can turn into something similar to what a red rag is for a bull. They should be outwitted. Many of the «gamblers» live and enjoy living… until crossing the border and becoming «hopeless».

  This period can last long. Here are its major signs and wake-up calls:

  1. 1.      More frequent incidents of losing «important» money, which was supposed to be spent forimportant purchases.
  2. 2.      He wants to gamble more often.
  3. 3.      He borrows money to gamble.
  4. 4.      Sometimes, he come home from the casino, picks up more money and goes back to win back.
  5. 5.      He sells and deposits things to get money for gambling.

  The last three features are particularly alarming. In this case, you need to act quickly and decisively.

  In most cases, beating will not help the “Hopeless” and the “Goners”. If you punish him,the scenario is always the samethe «obsessed» one promises never to gamble again, but he can’t keep the promise. The gambling passion is much stronger than his will. Do not hold back the word, he loses his self-respect, and as a consequence, the moral standing. This makes him a much easier prey for the Demon. 

Don’t make the gambler promise you to “stop gambling forever”, and don’t promise that yourself. No matter how hard he might try, he won’t be able to keep his word. The consequence will be broken morale.

  Your main task is to realize that you are seriously ill. The treatment will be long and require great concentration and willpower. If you are trying to help a loved one, let him know that you are his best friend. Don’t blame him, and don’t scold him if he stumbles. Tell him that he has much to lose in his life if he doesn’t start the fight in which you can help. There is a danger saying, «The demon is strong», you can easily justify your inaction and lack of desire to compete with such a huge force. The fighting should consist of several stages: first, fighting the idea to go to the game room, then trying to convince yourself to leave before entering the room, and then persuade yourself to leave in the middle of in the game (by the way, I occasionally managed to win those small victories — not as often as I would like to, but they did play a role). When you make sure that everything is in vain, don’t worry, you’ve done your best. The Demon is just stronger than you, at the moment.

  Three golden rules:

1. Realize that you are sick, it’s not just a bad habit, it is a disease. Tune in to the fight. There will be many losses, but try not to lose your fighting spirit after losing; remember that the Demon is strong.

2. Don’t promise yourself not to gamble, and don’t make others promise that to you. This only weakens the will and kills the morale.

3. Don’t justify your cowardice and inaction by the unequal fight.

Remember these simple rules and you will no longer be an easy target».

Chapter 4. New attempts

  For several days I was on a lookout for my son. I followed him relentlessly and persistently, watching where he would go and when he would return. I kept spinning around his paths and repeating the mantra, «I will never criticize him. I will be his friend. I will praise and support him.»

But how can I do that? How do I catch him in this network made of just strands of fog? How do I keep him inside? I used to run around the house and come out casually to meet him. Seeing from a distance my silhouette, Alyosha would turn around sharply and run, fleeing from me! If it hadn’t been for this manuscript…

Again and again, I would resign to defeat patiently, swallowing my tears, and would come home, my eyes red and my soul angry. It was a grueling and difficult hunt. I used to chase my son, and he would speed away. Once I almost caught him, but, holding my arms out to him, I slipped and fell. I sat on my knees and cried; I had a headache as I had hit the rocks when falling, my hair was wet and sticky because of the mud. God, I felt as if I were cursed! Resentment was hitting into my temples, grabbing me by the throat, it was debilitating me and crushing me to the ground. My heart hurt awfully! I wanted to cry to make the clouds tremble and the birds fall down. Didn’t I give birth to this child? Didn’t I deny myself everything in the world to educate him? Dear God, where are you? I was howling like a wolf and covered my mouth with my hand to avoid uttering words I would regret till the end of my life…

How long did it last? There was a hole in my memory, but I remember distinctly the constant shivering, as though I lived in a house made ​​of ice, transparent and squeaky. I even saw my breath — frosty and bright white. It was impossible to get rid of that blinding obsession, I was all soaked with cold, during the whole night, tiny snowflakes didn’t stop sprinkling and drizzling, bewitching my eyes. I was staring at the chandelier in fascination: multiple crystal balls, swinging from a light draft, were softly ringing, colliding with each other…

Still, I was looking for salvation, losing strength. Yes, I persistently sought salvation. Madness, which would creep like a dog from time to time would yield to my weak and quiet faith. I had to get rid of self-pity, which was swollen and heavy like a corpse. Let it lie at a high chestnut, under a light cool wind. It feels good, and so do I. As to my son — I want him to become a stranger who needs help. Isn’t it crazy to want him to change immediately just because I want to get rid of the pain? Can my love for him justify this self-torture? Didn’t the priest warn, «there will be many defeats, but try not to lose your fighting spirit after them. Remember that the Demon is strong»?

  Who told me it would be easy?

  Those words made me feel better. The pain would retreat…

It happened on a full moon. I was awake, wandering alone around the room, turning the lights on and off, reading, lying, my eyes half closed. Minutes were going slowly… The walls, the ceiling, the chandelier, the book… When will the clock arm move?.. Silence… My breathing was not heard at all, like in a tomb. I wanted nothing but a handful of sleep, one small handful and nothing more. My husband was on a business trip, he was a truck driver, I was used to his absence. He would come home rarely, it was like a holiday, and his attitude to what was happening was kind of carefree. He saw nothing wrong in the fact that his son was a gambler, he thought it was a temporary fad, an unthreatening disease. «I did all kinds of things when I was his age», he would reassure me. «It’s the mother’s baby’s belated revolt. He will have his fling and come home, you’ll see.» His words would lull me, but not for long…

Two in the morning… The alarmed amber moon was melting, luring me like a living being. «But it is a stone», I thought in a daze, staring at it from under my lashes. The moon was reaching slowly for the window with its woven translucent green fingers. I felt like awakened from sleep, started, and began getting dressed hastily. I put my shoes and coat quickly, went outside, and then, in a serene confidence, walked resolutely through the city. I hurried to the place where the lights cracked and fussed, illuminating all the dark alleys and bushes, where there were lots of people and cigars. Before I could get closer to the ringing gemstone building, the door flew open, and my son Alyosha rushed out, agitated, desperate, his face bloodless. We almost collided. He recognized me and screamed in terror, as if he saw a ghost. I was surprisingly calm. I was looking at my son nicely and even smiling…

‘What are you doing here?’ Alyosha exclaimed. He looked at me with disbelief, shifting from foot to foot, there were confusion and anxiety in his eyes. «Lost», I guessed.

‘I am here to play’, I said quietly but distinctly, quite unexpectedly for myself. I have received a bonus at work, so why not try? Your father is away on business, I have nothing to do at home.’ Alyosha was looking at me with wide eyes.

‘Yes, yes’, I continued to lie with confidence, ‘the fact is that Mary (my friend the fortune teller) looked at my hand and suggested that I would be extremely lucky in the game. I have a special mark on my hand, a star. Let me see if you have one.’ I grabbed my son’s hand and turned it palm up. It was like a dream. ‘No, you have none’, I said disappointedly and showed him my hand: there was a smudged star at the base of the thumb. I myself didn’t know what it meant.

‘Please help me’, I went on, holding my son’s hand. ‘I don’t know much about all these machines, so I am afraid I will lose all my money at once without even enjoying the game. OK?’

That was a fatal moment. If my son doubted my sincerety for one moment… But I guess I chose a win-win strategy: Alyosha had lost a lot, and I am lucky if I had won the most appropriate moment that could possibly be imagined. We entered the room. There were a lot of people, despite the night time. It took us a long time to get to a free machine. I was approached by a tall boy in a blue uniform. He offered me politely to take off my coat. I sat on a high chair, my son stood beside me and started to explain me the rules. I followed his fingers and nodded carefully. From time to time, I would sigh imperceptibly, looking at my money disappearing in the slot. What is to be done? I trembled with fear before pressing the button. I was awfully sorry for the money! I was just a limp doll, whose hands were held by Alyosha. Instead of my hands, he could have picked up wooden chopsticks and use them to press the button.  It is true that we would change places throughout the night. What can I say? Do you want me to tell you about that crazy night? I was winning! Sometimes, in the midst of all the misery, there comes a time that it looks like a deep crack in the earth, and it takes you outside of what you take for human reason. Like all the relatives surround a dying rich man, all the golden coins which were in the room flocked to me. My winnings grew like dissolute joyful foam, and I could not believe my eyes. Alyosha, even more so, came to a frenzy. I knew that telling him «Let’s go home, I’m tired», would mean killing him. But what mad me stronger was not the winnings, but the fact that my son stood by my side, I could see and hear him, and I even secretly straightened his shirt for him; I missed him so much! He had grown up and lost a lot of weight, there was a look of hidden fear and anxiety in his eyes. His face… Such an icy and sad oval, such cold and bluish lips — I was afraid to touch them inadvertently…

When we went out, I divided the money honestly and gave him half. To say that he was happy is to say nothing. The complete triumph turned his head, the way he looked was impossible to describe…

‘Are you going to play tomorrow?’ he asked me, his eyes beaming. I nodded. I no longer was his mother. I was his accomplice. But not nothing.

We would enter the game rooms, I would take off my brown coat and black hat hurriedly to sit next to my son, and, squeezing my hands firmly, even painfully, almost breathless with excitement, would watch his every movement. The employees of the establishment would bring me coffee and water; I felt uncomfortable, I was ashamed as if I had visited a schoolchildren’s disco. My students could see me, or rather their parents, and that would be a complete disgrace. The room was lined with dark red wallpaper, the floor was covered with carpet. Along the walls were tall shiny boxes with jumping pictures. Behind them were men and women: some were concentrated and serious, others were knocking casually on the metal keys. I caught glimpses of the hands: dark and white, narrow like stems, and strong, twined with heavy bracelets, neat and scruffy, concentrated and insane. The room was full of sounds, rustlings and muted conversations, cigarettes would flash, drinks would twinkle and sparkle in the glasses. Someone would droop his eyelids and scribble his pen hastily on a piece of paper, then tear it, clench his head with his hands and write again — on a pack of cigarettes. There were no windows, the faces looked pale and chalky in the lifeless lighting, it seemed that the people had just got up from a grave and sat down among the tombs standing in a row; they seemed to be covered with  snow like wax ghosts. Some played passionlessly and quietly, as if going over the metal boxes with wooden fingers, others — like licking them with long scarlet tongues, tormented and shivering all over. There were different players. Some of them patted and pressed the buttons as if those were women’s nipples, pressed their cheeks excitedly to them as if feeling a new life beating and pushing inside, they begged the slot to open, screaming and lamenting, banging their fist on the soulless solid, sitting mournfully with colorless eyes, choking with grief and helplessness…

Sometimes, one game would make a player quite exhausted, as if he had lived a century or spent all his energy riding a horse in a hot desert. The hands would fall and hang motionlessly, the shadows would become longer, the eyes would close…

I could not look at them indifferently. The whole sick world was united by profound and devastating homelessness, only typical for homeless and prisoners. Occasionally, the there was an awful sound in the room, it was prodeced by a loser punching a chair with anger and violent rage. Disturbing altercation would breake out on trivial matters, when the loser would his friends for money shamelessly and brazenly or painfully belittlingly.

Lost in the dust, they strolled through the game room mindlessly and aimlessly, not knowing where to lay their heads. Their arms flapped oddly like the necks of dead birds, there was cruelty and suspicion shining in their eyes. The front door would open every now and then, more people would rush in, and the wooden door would shut with a bang… The tall trees surrounding the building threw handfuls of black leaves and dark water on it; I know that for sure, I saw it with my own eyes as I had spent so much time in wait…

What was surprising was that my son became lucky, he always won, we were looked at with envy. I pretended that I was happy and praised him humbly, trying to regain his lost confidence. Alyosha would nod graciously. Despite the recent triumph, I rarely played as I was afraid to lose the money that was so hard to get, but I would give it to my son. Those visits were our only connection, and it was only up to me to preserve and strengthen it. It still remains a mystery — how did I do it that night?..

My son would come home again, though carefully and gradually, like a little wild animal. Afraid to scare him, I did my best to be friendly and welcoming, not focusing on his rare forays home. I cooked delicious food making the house full of sweet scents, praised him and laughed. At night I would go to play in order to block his way out and revive the world undone. Let him throw this hard disease off, like a frog removes his skin, I’ll burn it in the oven and then only then have the right to ask him questions!

One day, he spent the night at our place, so my heart trembled with joy! But it was just a little step, a tiny victory, not more than the elimination of my past mistakes. I didn’t flatter myself, remembering Father Vladimir’s words, «The Demon is strong»…

Gradually, I was getting used to the game room. Well, people get used to everything. Tormented by grief, having depleted all my forces for the internal struggle, I missed the opportunity to accept and appreciate the new world. Not despise, not ridicule, but understand it. For a long time, I remained among the machines like in a hot and bitter dream. But time went on, my previous actions and feelings were changing, I began to be curious as I was in the middle of important and interesting events…

In the relaxed fascinating atmosphere, in the castle devoid of windows and clocks, time itself stopped. Nowhere to hurry; the concept of «must» or «forbidden crumbled to dust; the past dissolved, while the future was losing its significance. There were wonderful adults everywhere, who thrust banknotes into the slots fascinatedly and then kept pressing the buttons reverently, up to the bonus game. Long-forgotten children’s joy shone on their faces when a funny monkey got out in front of them and caught bananas or an emerald frog jumped and croaked. Any successful movement, clean stroke, or magical luck would certainly cause tiny ghosts of fantastic creatures; it is never spoken out aloud, it is a universal secret, an agreement without words. There are unexplained phenomena or things that can’t be explained consciously.

I myself, pushing with my elbows those who were running, knocking them to the ground, set off in pursuit of the childhood. I could not miss that great opportunity! You can’t acquire it even for ready money. It was the only the day, hour, or many priceless hours, but the main thing was not to miss it out, to come on time…

Let evil be evil, let them steal gold and drink wine, let the body end up in a loop — everything will be paid for tomorrow. I’ll tell you tomorrow, tomorrow, when I get back home…

But today — I will plunge my hands into the sparkling box, the marvelous paint looking like liquid glass will shine on my fingers, I will rub my thighs and breasts with it. I need so little, so very little — just to be recognized as real

But today — on luxury stretchers, on the throne of an earth goddess, in a cloud of snow-white velvet, accompanied by a brilliant retinue and shouts of praise, I am floating solemnly in the sky…

Now each player has become my secret son or half brother…

Once I saw a couple, they came in the evening, a man and a woman of about forty. They were husband and wife, or just lovers, I didn’t know. But I realized at once that they were not rookies. They had «their own» slot machine, the last one in the right corner, and they waited patiently for their turn. They played alternately, she was always the first to begin, the man standing behind her, and sometimes he would put his hands on her shoulders. The woman had short dark hair, her features were edgy and inexpressive. Her companion was thin, blue-eyed, his long mustache stood out, it was light and fluffy. They wore casual clothes, she didn’t even take off her cloak. They would get into the game slowly; for a long time, their features remained impassive and their figures, motionless. Gradually, like the sun rises in the morning, her face brightened, her cheeks glowed in bright crimson, and even her lips ackuired a raspberry color. She was all transformed, like Venus, born from the sea and going out of the water to the beach… She would turn back to her man, her long white neck wpuld arch, the light cape would slip from her shoulders, and one could see her sweet, young skin. Her eyes had a burning desire, a passionate appeal and awareness of her feminine power. It was the game that gave her the necessary passion, dark and opaque, which made up all the value of beauty. Winning was not important, the process itself gave her the opportunity to tremble, shine and sparkle in front of everybody. She was filled with color from inside, her light green eyes seemed to come out of a drowsy gloom, they were bright blue and shiny, sparkling like a rainbow, something between the cornflower and purple colors.

With amazing effrontery, she crossed her legs, her long slender legs in black lace stockings! The short skirt didn’t cover a marvelous elastic garter. Her husband didn’t hide his admiration; as to me, I was unable to get my eyes off. Sometimes, she looked naked, covered with nothing but jewelry, and sometimes, she seemed to be wrapped in a transparent lace. After a moment, she was transparent: her delicate crystal stones were shining, and so was even her fragranr scent. The man was absorbing her with his eyes, drinking her as if she were an exciting light turquoise wave. She was moving ceaselessly inside his body, giving it a new look, majestic and mysterious. What was that? How much were they playing? I just saw them going to the door fast, looking like a proud royal couple, his hands clasping her waist eagerly, slipping on her hips, urging and prodding, and slapping slightly on her buttocks. I imagined them going outside, rushing to the car or to the bushes, falling to the ground, tearing the clothes off violently and making love. They used to come once a week, sometimes I saw them three days in a row. One afternoon, I saw them in the street and hardly recognized them as they looked quite common and boring, just like the dull weather or blown away balloons, even her clothes looked differently — shabby and baggy…

The owner was gradually making the room more and more luxurious: he hung colored lanterns that flamed scarlet and black at night, lit all kinds of incense in silver lamps. He tried to make the room like like an ancient cave, colored with all kinds of precious stones that seemed to never end. This was achieved through an ingenious intertwining of light and mirrors, running water and wind. Like God, having created his own world, he seemed to be appealing, «Live here peacefully and happily!» A person who entered the place for the first time, was lost in astonishment, as if falling into a vast ocean. Was it possible to wake up from sleep? To ignite a greater passion for the game, the owner arranged secret feasts, where he heroed and honored the winners: the «lucky week» and «the best players». I had no idea what happened there and whether it was really so, but rumors did circulate, and they all were just delight and ecstasy!

Alyosha was fond of playing, and drove me away, away from himself. Still seized with the lively and wild fire of the game, burned with its colored sparks, I would wander around the room, looking into its most secret corners. In one of those corners, I saw a funny old man looking like a skinny dwarf; I already knew his story. He had no permanent place of living, no family and no home; he used to leave all his old age pension there, but he came there every day. What did he live on? The funny fool used to say that the sound produced by striking the keys let him learn about the upcoming events in the country. He guessed something a couple of times. They pitied the poor one and fed him. He looked very weak, with short, dark green pants barely concealing his knees. He had thin legs wrapped in big horrible yellow boots. Today, he was whispering harshly, looking at me with watery red eyes, that his playing protected the game room from the witches’ tricks and delusions, as well as from the giveaway of clothing and honey…

Then I saw three young guys, just teenagers, so young that they were not supposed to be allowed into the playroom. One of them, sharp-nosed and well-dressed, was putting dispassionately one bill after another in the slot machine. Another one was also playing, but in such a way that he seemed to b on the verge of death. Like a rock crumbling into sand, he was trembling from an irrepressible desire to win. In the glare of his emotions, he had loudly declared war on Heaven. What was going to happen to him? It was impossible to look at him.  The third boy, wearing cheap sneakers and an old jacket, turned away so no one could see him going   through the crumpled money, his fingers trembling. It was a pittance, but, probably, quite important for him. There was a struggle in his heart, he continued to look at his hand as if spellbound. What was he trying to estimate? Was it his family’s last money? His conscience and sense of excitement must have clashed. I heard crunching in the air and a light sound. The most beautiful things are also the most fragile ones. I knew who was going to win, who the immortal ruler of the place was, so I turned away quickly and hurried on, where there was a crowded of people…

An Armenian of around forty was at the machine. By the way, the guys from the Caucasus are all the most excited ones. Their eyes toss sparks, they rush savagely from machine to machine, burning with the desire to get even, the nature of their passion is furious and angry. When they play, they radiate frenzied waves of electric current…

People surrounding the player were silent, and that silence had a special kind of concealment. I stood on tiptoe and looked. The man was tall and had black curly hair; before doung something, he would make an impressive pause, close his eyes, raise his hand high and hit one of the five keys hard, as if giving someone a slap in the face. After one of those strikes, the people jumped and screamed,

‘Wow, he broke through!’

A man watching the game by my side whispered with a pity, “My nerves are too weak, I would fold.”

‘What did he break through?’ I whispered in his ear.

‘From eight thousand to sixteen!’ the replied, also quietly, though with obvious envy. His voice was shaking with resentment, or did it just seem to me? He was about thirty-five years old, he was wearing an expensive grey suit, a white shirt and light blue tie. I looked down to see a briefcase. There was none.

‘What does it mean?’ I asked. ‘Sixteen what?’

‘He guessed the card out of five. Just think of it: there was a king there, and he pulled out an ace.’

‘Great’, I said just to say something.’So can he get his sixteen thousand now?’

‘Yes, he can. But he won’t o that. He will keep risking. And he will get either thirty-two thousand or nothing.’

While we were talking,

‘He broke through again! It’s thirty-two now!’

Suddenly, I felt a movement behind myself. Pushing through the crowd of onlookers, two strong guys looking quite similar were making ​​their way the gambler. They had similar sports clothes on, similar haircuts, and similar biceps. «Bandits», I guessed.

One of them, who was a bit taller, tapped the Armenian on the sholder and said, smiling,

‘I hope, Ashot, you remember that you must return fifty thousand tomorrow. Otherwise the counter will be turned on, which would hardly make you happy. As far as I can see, we came just in time, you have thirty-two grand. Come on, take it. You will return the rest later on. The boss will give a reprieve.

‘Guys!’ Ashot begged. ‘I’ll return everything. I know, I have a feeling, the machine will give it to me, I swear by my mother.’ He was asking like a child who didn’t want to give an expensive toy away. His long fingers were cracking, he was clinching them like a bloodthirsty vampire, reaching for the buttons. The bandits looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, then one of them nodded.

‘He didn’t press the doubling button. No turning back. Either sixty-four or zero’, we whispered again, I and the unknown man with a burning face. His eyes radiated a nervous, angry and hissing light; I almost stepped back.

Ashot had a queen.

‘You see! Didn’t I tell you to take it!’ one of the guys yelled and gave him a good cuff. Ashot hurried, he was almost in a semi-conscious condition, nervously twitching his shoulders, grinding his teeth, and crying with her ​​eyes closed. Large drops of sweat or tears hung from his thick eyelashes. Was he in a state of clairvoyance or an intuitive insight? Maybe it was just a glimpse of the Demon? Whose invisible whip lashed his hand to let him have a king?

It was a not a cry, not even a roar, it was a storm of emotions! As if a lightning had strucj the playroom and didided it into two parts! Ringing and light splashed down — sixty-four thousand! My school salary was only four…

The walls had never shuddered like that before, people had never felt such confusion. The chandeliers swayed and rattled, streams of fragrant smoke danced and writhed… The bandits took Ashot under his arms, dragged him from the chair and called the dealer so that he would take the money. Ashot was rushing back, praying humbly and swearing that the machine was stuck and he would still breaks through.

‘I will do it, guys, I will do it’, he repested the same words in an awful excitement, addressing each of the bandits in turn. His face looked immaterial, his hair was wet and stuck to his cheeks, while his lips, on the contrary, protruded and looked absolutely dry and burning. He was ready to play with his mouth! What kind of a convincing chain of evidence he was making on the run, how he was adding words to each other, as if those words were pieces of burning coal! He was yelling as if crying about a woman he couldn’t live without and who was now more desirable than ever; passion struck him in the head and stuck inside…

‘Guys, I will do it! I’ll give five grand to each of you! I’ve flattered the gods, I’ve greased them so well, and they’ve taken it, it will be done. Until grease them, you’ll get nothing. I’ve feeling their love since morning. I’ve laid so much… Trust me, everyone will have his bit. Have I ever told you anything like that?

«You can drink the ocean to the last drop, and you can tear the Mount down to the base, and you can swallow fire. But, o Lord all-merciful! It is more difficult to get the power over your mind!» Panshadisi.

What won? The promise of money or general rejoicing? Perhaps the strange triumphant speech? Or the intoxicating confidence his whole being was radiating? Ashot was placed back, he prayed passionately and pressed double — a three came up. He rubbed his hands gleefully, straightened his shoulders, full of self-satisfaction, for the first time looked back proudly at the audience who were even afraid of breething too loudly  people, there was only one digit below three. Hit, click — and expected no one expected came up — a two…


The audience dispersed remarkably quickly. A moment, one more — and everybody was swarming around their working places, pulling their hands eagerly to their wet nurses in bright aprons, to their sweet breasts. Individual sounds and voices gradually became indistinguishable. The bandits were gone; walking out, one of them had slapped Ashot pointedly on the back. Suddenly, I felt an irresistible desire to sleep, my eyes were closing, my eyelashes were sticking together and I had to rub them with my fist. How many days had I spent without sleeping? I got used to that and just stopped noticing the fatigue; when had it turned into a huge and lasting plate? No break a piece off, no cutting into pieces…

Ashot was absent for a few days. Or maybe he was present? He was playing in the corner so quietly and humbly without attracting attention that it took me some time to recognize him. «No luck. The wrong bet», I thought. After looking closely, I saw both of his hands bandaged, each lacked a finger…

We returned home late at night talking about nothing but playing. Whenever I tried carefully to change the subject, my son simply ceased to be there. He would simply shut off from the world as if opening a secret door to the playroom full of green, red and blue lights of the deadly world shining for him, dead monkeys jumping and grinning, keys rattling and coins jingling…

And I, fumbling frantically in the unfamiliar terms, like a schoolgirl begging for re-taking the exam, talked to talk again and again about the game. In the unrestrained darkness, I was looking for the words that would revive and my son and bring him back to me…

I was afraid of losing him literally, physically. He feelt afwul about losing; in that state, he was usually completely out of control. At that point, the aggression directed at himself could develop into anything. It seemed that he was always ready to step off the roof. Once I saw him hitting his head against a brick wall, he didn’t even notice the blood streaming down his face. While I was sitting next to him in the playroom, he would win from time to time. He believed in me as a talisman! The way he transformed was incredible! I would look at him with wide eyes. There had only been one day when I he had looked like that…

Alyosha was six when I took him to the New Year party in the Palace of Culture. I was lucky as I got tickets for party and, besides, a friend brought a musketeer costume for Alyosha. It had been very hard for her to buy it, but her son had grown and the costume was too small for him. God, what a costume it was! Red velvet trimmed with satin ribbons, a hat with a feather, even real musketeer boots. Alyosha looked at it without breething, he was even afraid to touch it; this is how I would have felt if I had received a diamond necklace with pendants. He felt so happy and proud at the party, he neved stopped laughing as he was the most handsome of the boys! His costume was recognized as the best one, and he stood on the stage and clasped the gift to his chest, a huge red truck. I still have a photo of Alyosha in the musketeer costume. Like the spring tide floods the mountains and cliffs, so my son was filled with happiness, its gold and light…

Although we now had only one theme to discuss, we were talking! We talked about being «fatally unlucky», and bad luck was seen by all the gamblers as an insatiable vampire who, having stuck once, would be sipping your luck day and night until your final breath. Negligence, oversight, or a misused moment — and the shackles would lock up and the person, though alive, would feel useless as if felled by a crazy storm and labeled by ash. Most often, this happens to a recent triumphant. Once spoken aloud, the words «fatal failure» will get attached to that person firmly like a nickname, and there is no escape from it. How can the gambler get out to the stage and regain the title if, bolted with chains, he or she spent several days in the dark? And who can save him?

  All we can is watching silently the gambler dying…

Hearin these words, my son would start furiously to break and destroy the trees on the road. Then our conversation would assume its original form again and become an elastic ball after strong compression…

Alesha complained that some of the machines were tuned in favor of the owner, whose name was Vasily Sedov. Some time ago, through connections in the administration, he had privatized quite a lot of buildings, bought the licenses and slot machines, and built a casino. Everybody in the city is afraid of him, even the police, because he has huge income and shares it well with those at the top. The mayor is his brother, the attorney is his uncle. There are rumors that he is not above anything and receives jewelry, apartments, and valuables through nominees…

But, despite all the fears, hope returned to me. Alyosha regained the faculty of computer science after I had gently told him that he had a lot to lose. He loved to work with all kinds of gadgets, repaired computers and telephones for his friends. Time comes, he falls in love with a girl, and there will be two of us in this struggle! Two is a force indeed. And all this satanic party with its splendor, this wild pandemonium of his suffering and madness will end soon, like a bad dream, won’t it?

It took me some time to understand the way I was devastated by those casinos, by the infernal dance of days and nights, by the rotating kaleidoscope of crazy people overwhelmed by an thirst that all the rivers of the world cannot quench.

I wanted passionately to pull Alyosha out as soon as possible and at any price! Leave him to me, give him to me for a day, for a week, give him to me for a long time, you hear me, Demon? Have you ever kept him in your hot hands, kissed his pea-like fingers? This is my son, he is mine and nobody else’s!

Chapter 5. Heavenly shield or eternal struggle (the end of the manuscript)

«Whether you realize it or not, there is a constant fighting between the Demon and your internal resources. Fighting on all levels, conscious and subconscious. Each warrior has his purpose. This can be a seizure of territory, or the total destruction of the enemy. Similarly, the Demon has his purpose. The Demon is like the famous computer game «Civilization», which has the option of «victory conditions» (diplomatic, territorial, space race, etc.):

1. Destruction. At some point you will not be able to accept the consequences of your passion and… override your own life.

2. Suppression. You will reach the final stage of the degradation of your personality as well as of your moral and volitional qualities. All the colors of the world will fade, and you will have only one purpose — to go to the nearest playroom as soon as possible, your eyes wild and empty. You will never fulfill your mission on the earth given to you by God, you will just drag pity existence.

3. Captivity. This is the Demon’s most sophisticated victory. It’s terrible because many gamblers will not even feel defeated. Initially, the Demon wins landslide, entering the victim into a state similar to the «suppression.» Then he, like an experienced puppeteer, suspends the victim by strings and leaves   for a while. The victim feels no desire to gamble and sighs with relief, thinking that the disease is over. Zombie thinks that what happened to him is just a terrible dream. He gets a job, starts making a career, tries to create a family. And suddenly, the Demon comes back and starts pulling the strings. Within days, the person loses everything and goes down to the bottom of the garbage pit. The sinking person doesn’t comprehend what is going on, he laments, «How come I failed to resist? I was sure I had suppressed that passion. Why did I start playing again?»

Actually, tthe Demon was not defeated, he was just waiting for you to go raise in order to break you with all his might in one easy motion. He will be doing this many times throughout the gambler’s life. If you suddenly feel relief, don’t be too happy, the Demon will come back when you have something he can take.

You need to understand the Demon and then defeat him in order to live your life to the fullest.

Now you know what he wants. No matter how bad you may feel, how bleak everything may look, don’t let him come to those three endpoints. Weep, break the dishes, get drunk, just wait out this horrible day. Tomorrow, your body will recover and you will feel better.


Your husband goes to the game room — under different pretexts. He will never recognize that he can lose everything there. For the Demon, the most important thing is to make the man enter the room.

The most popular pretext is to play a couple of hundreds, to support a friend, but he would never play himself of course!

Your son goes to the casino out of curiosity or to see his friends — the outcome is the same. He will lose a hundred rubles, then two thousand from his top pocket, then three thousand from his bottom one, and then the last seven hundred rubles from the stash in his underpants. He will add his friend’s money if the guy hasn’t blown it to smithereens. It’s OK if this is not an underground casino controlled by bandits, which gives you a pre-credit — many thousands to people who came to play just a hundred.

And here he is back home …

He confesses to his wife, he is feeling guilt, depression, self-loathing — and makes empty promises.

 He is doing his best to to hide everything. Sometimes he brings chocolates and flowers. Shares with you sincerely what perspectives his new job (he is a lawyer) opens up to him. But he is having a very strong internal neurosis, he is watching feverishly his wife’s eyes to make sure that she won’t reveal his secret. If his wife asks him a simple question about money, he will burst into a fit of rage. The energy accumulated in him will have fiercely negative charge. He will remember thousands of his wife’s weaknesses, embellish them in bright colors, and pronounce them in a loud voice.

Most people want to tickle their nerves and experience strong emotions. They lose and win just because they long for childhood. They lack those passions and childish emotions cuased by the first love, mystery, kisses. People simply stopped dreaming, their thinking became dry and limited. That is why religion often saves one from compulsive gambling. All gamers would be the happiest people as they have more sexual energy, creativity and vitality. They and their families are unhappy simply because the money runs out. A 100% way to get rid of gambling addiction is to find a way to make more money than they can (a sad joke, right?)»

One day, standing behind my son, who, as usual, was playing enthusiastically (we were in another game room), I suddenly saw a group of guys that surrounded the neighboring machines. They were playing nervously, talking loudly, shouting at each other, radiating a kind of aggression. One of them, apparently the leader, a short-legged tight guy, unshaven and drunk, lost his money quickly. He looked around, saw Alyosha, who was sitting engrossed in the game and not noticing what was going on around him. The was a pile of chips. It was the city’s oldest game room, and there were chips there that could be exchanged for money. Suddenly, the guy stood up, reached out and grabbed one of Alyosha’s chip, then slapped him roughly on the shoulder and said,

‘I’ve taken it. Will square it up with you later…’

He sat down, and continued playing as if nothing had happened. It was clear that he would not return the chip. It was OK though. But I saw my son getting palec and his eyes darkening. Alyosha hated being humiliated, but who does? Rumors spread fast in a playroom like in a little village. The gamblers’ law is harsh: you can give food, clothing, cigarettes, but not money. Giving money means being “dipped”. And a chip is money.

A dipped player is never released, ruthless circumstances will finally destroy the unhappy lite. With animal curiosity, without feeling a drop of compassion, everyone will follow his miserable life, and no one will dare to lend him a hand. To get money for the master until you go blind and deaf on the mournful roads covered with slippery mud. I saw those people, they were sold from hand to hand like slaves. The secret slave market attracted many customers, and as a rule, most of them were beginners, inexperienced rookies. It was impossible to get off that ship to the ground, one could only jump into the water; thre were frequent cases of suicide…

My son’s hands clenched, the knuckles turned white, and he looked as if going to jump. Enveloped in great fear, I was looking around at a loss — what to do? «Lord, Lord, Lord», I was whispering. All of a sudden (it was like a miracle), I saw a chip on the floor, between the machines. It must have fallen down, rolled, and gotten stuck in the very shadow, hidden from inattentive eyes. Alyosha caught my eye quickly (we were charged with the same field), got up, bent over, picked it up quickly with his two fingers. Then he turned to the offender; all that was happening on a small segment, and we were looked by all others present.

Something happened there every day. Well, it would be very strange if it had been different in that incandescent space. The gamblers’ thoughs were quite different from those of an average person, they were repeatedly reinforced by the emotions, that soil resulted in incredible events looking like detective stories…

‘Look’, my son said in a nice voice, ‘this is your chip. You just dropped it. I take it, and we are even.’ And he squeezed it with his fingers. There was nothing to contradict. The incident was over, I could barely breath. There was a quiet sigh in the room, and the game went…

In the farthest corner of the room where the chip story happened, an elderly man used to play every day. He would come at seven p.m., welcome all those present (his nice voice was quiet and calm), take off his old grey coat, and, limping slightly, walk to his place. He was not tall, grey-haired and lean. He was playing surprisingly quietly and peacefully. No shouting or sighing was ever heard from there, and I was amazed the way people are always amazed seeing any exception to the rule.

Boris (it was the man’s name) was not a very good player.  He didn’t wim much and often, and he lost regularly, though not much. I liked him greatly, I saw clearly that he didn’t try to flatter anyone or look credible. Regardless of whether he won or lost, Boris always gave tips. And it turned out the one who would get most was the dealer named Yakov.

‘Well, Yakov’, Boris would say in such cases, ‘it’s one of those days.’ Just like Boris, Yakov was a lean old man; he wore a white shirt and a cherry-colored vest. He would then give him fifty rubles or even a hundred. Despite his old age, the boss didn’t fire him because Yakov was smart and cunning. He was able to tune himself like a musical instrument to communicate with every player, choose the right tone, and he would always keep up to resolve a conflict.

‘Well, Yakov, today is a special day, I have won, so please share my joy with me.’ In such cases, Yakov would get more, though I didn’t see how much as the crumpled bills would disappear immediately in the cunning guy’s pocket… Often both of them, so different, simple and grotesque, caused ​​my wrenching pity. Yakov would rush around the room on his crooked thin legs, crouching heavily, clinking with the key, fiddling with the machine, looking over the player’s shoulder, watching the game, bowing quickly and obsequiously, and drinking tea greedily in his corner. His hands would often tremble, he would shrink and cover his eyes wearily, but he would come to his senses quickly and hurry somewhere again waving his grey hair. It was rumored that he feared dismissal most of all as he lived alone with his drinking grandson. All Boris’s movements were only expressed in the perturbation of his thick and grey eyebrows that looked like elongated beads of a blooming willow. He was never really in a hurry, he would always take his time. I could not believe that someone was waiting for him and loved him.

The more unsual was a story that happened late on Sunday night …

That day Boris was extraordinarily lucky. To begin with, it was for the first time that he broke his schedule and came at nine o’clock in the evening. He was wearing a brand new suit, which, however, was too small for him and prevented him from moving normally, the jacket thronged his shoulders and waist. I thought Boris was drunk: his cheeks were pink, besides, he had never sat down in his chair with that kind of flourish, he almost fell into it. The game flew at a gallop, as if it had been slapped at the start and then buoyed from time to time. Boris was surrounded by the players who were attracted not so by the noise (he was playing quietly as usual) but by the implausible situation — the rate was rising fast. Even those players who stuck to their keys and were impossible to be detacched from the machines under any circumstances did get up. Boris won a hundred twelve thousand rubles and closed his eyes in exhaustion. For a moment, all the players were frozen with surprise.

‘That’s it. No more playing’, Boris said after a long silence and waved his hand asking for the win to be brought to him. Contrary to the general noise and recovery, I suddenly saw Yakov’s eyes — they were stressed and expressed concern. «Strange», I thought, «Boris will thank him well for sure.» No sooner had I thought that as Yakov turned sideways to me and looked somewhere cautiously. A bunch of guys were whispering aside quietly. In each playroom there were fags like that, their revived conversations didn’t bode well. After some discussion, they all moved toward the exit, and Yakov hurried after them. I almost physically felt fear and mortal danger; with a beating heart, I was watching Boris carelessly pouring money into an old package that had no zipper. The old man put another bag on top, covered everything with a handkerchief and was getting ready to go home. Suddenly, Yakov appeared next to him, he was clearly disturbed and was looking around now and then nervously.

‘Listen, Boris’, Yakov whispered hurriedly’, ‘you’ve never hurt me, so let me help out. They are waiting for you at the entrance. If you don’t hurry up now, then tomorrow you’ll be fond lying somewhere with a bullet hole in your. Listen carefully: don’t take any of the cars near the casino, and don’t call taxi from our phone. Don’t even think of walking home, though you live near, that’s out of the question. If you have friends, call them from our phone, but quietly. ‘Listen, Boris’, Yakov whispered hurriedly’, ‘you’ve never hurt me, so let me help out. They are waiting for you at the entrance. If you don’t hurry up now, then tomorrow you’ll be fond lying somewhere with a bullet hole in your. Listen carefully: don’t take any of the cars near the casino, and don’t call taxi from our phone. Don’t even think of walking home, though you live near, that’s out of the question. If you have friends, call them from our phone, but quietly. ‘

‘I am quite alone’, Boris said, embarrased. ‘I have no friends. Oh, my God, what do I do? Maybe I should refuse from the money?’

‘No, no. Call the cops. Promise fifty rubles to each, they will accompany you. There is no other way out. Go call, and be quiet. Don’t look at me.’

Boris paid him and went to make a phone call. Less than five minutes later, several cops broke in. They stood on the sides, and brought him to the car. Many, including me, went after them. Boris was put into a police car, and when it started, red and blue flashing lights were turned on. It was the first time during the night that I forgot about my son and didn’t even look back at him, so excited I was.

Boris soon appeared in the playroom, as if nothing had happened. Life returned to its former quiet regularity, nothing disturbed the flow of the small stream, no splashes, no strong wind. How did he spend his money? Did it please lonely heart? The slightly visible attachment of the two old men was so touching. After that incident, Boris seemed ashamed of it and would talk to Yakov in a deliberately rude way.

Life was kind of playing cat-and-mouse with me…

Once I got stronger, gathered myself on a thread wove myself into a tight piece of fabric, one deft blow tore it with crackle easily in half as if life had a goal of putting me down as low as possible and turn me to dust……

In that difficult period of time I made a mistake, just one little flaw. The fact is that I rushed recklessly to carry out the instructions of the book, without having studied it properly. Staring at the marble columns entwined with gold leaves, I didn’t bother to try and see the whole building.

«If you or someone in your family has won a large sum, do not try to put it off, lend it, or deposit it in the bank. It is the Devil’s money, he gave you a loan at high interest rates, so the best thing you can do is to spend it immediately, give it away, cast it to the wind, get rid of the entire amount. And keep praying for the best…»

Like a little girl, I started dancing that fabulous dance of sweet, sweet coins. I would throw them up and watch them pouring from the clouds like a molten cascade. I forgot who gave them to me! This eternal mystery of life: why is it the most important things are the first to forget?

Like a short-sighted soldier who went to war, I was still able to distinguish friend from foe at long range; but in close combat, bedazzled by sabers, I got confused and lost.

Blithely wondering and pondering how to spend the money, I turned into a babbling brook littered with earthly problems.

But there was one thing I didn’t doubt: Alyosha wanted a car. It was necessary to put off the money, a little more, a little more was lacking! But what’s wrong with that? My husband is also saving money to replace our old «Niva» with a foreign car, that’s why I don’t see much of him at home, his scent and breath are gone, everything has dissolved in the long journeys.

But everything comes to an end, and everyone who succumbs to the fire will definitely fail. I saw with fear the money disappearing from home as though the wind were carrying away weightless sawdust. The time of continuous defeats came all of a sudden. Full of despair, I put my hand in the place I wasn’t supposed even to look in, my husband’s treasury, which even Alyosha knew nothing about it. I wanted to get the holiday back, I didn’t believe that the obedient horses had run away like arrows, and a harsh canvas curtain had fallen on the stage. I was taking a little bit every time, quietly, I was sure I would put everything back…

My mistake was the usual arrogance: in a crucial period of life, I didn’t assess my capabilities and resources. I was not supposed to make haste in a battle like that. To win it, I should have even controlled the smallest things.

Drowned in the joy of my victories, deceived by their glitter and glow, by that cursed fire coming directly from hell, I didn’t notice my life force flowing out drop by drop as if little sparks go  out of a fire. Children’s gratitude, their response of love counterbalance all kinds of expenses, both spiritual and material. Receiving nothing in return for your huge efforts, not even crumbs of warmth, being afraid of losing the hard-established relationships, I made desperate attempts to hide my emotions, but they kept choking me like a dozen devils. I was suddenly overwhelmed by old grievances; strangling them, I began to feel a kind of aggression towards my son, although I was afraid to admit it. How nice it would be not take offence! But I could not help it. Hatred along with fear are strong arms. We, mothers, intentionally or not, kill our children, because there is no one we are bound so tightly with, and we don’t entangles anyone so securely.

I was crazy about seeing my son the way he had been before, a gentle child filling the house with a ringing laugh! His bright pink, chubby cheeks had made me feel such absolutely happy, and he had never sopped smiling joyfully! But now, everything was quite different…



Just as well one might expect gratitude from an unconscious wounded man. I could not realize that the strong, tall Alyosha, my blue-eyed boy with wavy brown hair was seriously ill. No one but a warrior can accept a long battle and realize that all the most hopeless and cruel things have to be accepted stoically…

My main support was my husband the bull, that how I called him for his powerful figure and bulging muscles. Although I recently moved all my attention to the son, the husband remained my fortress, my protection. I perceived him as my property, a solid cement foundation. Oh-oh-oh! How badly wrong I was! Men are like animals: when we lose our attractiveness, they find other females. They don’t forgive the fact that we no longer cause any desire. Neither the children nor pity can get them back…

My simple, uncomplicated Kolya, who used to grab me with his huge hands and tickle me with his beard smelling of gasoline — how did that happen?

I was never able to solve my husband’s main language of love — for him it was sex. Bright, free, diverse. For me, care and support were enough, but not for him. There are many families, many kinds of love, which we, like swallows, tie the nests with saliva. For many, those are gifts, money, hobbies…

With a terrible lag, when it was too late, I got my female lesson: men, in essence, are almost like animals. In hard times, we naively expect father’s selflessness from them. Growling and snarling, they will forgive us a lot of things: burnt soup, a stale shirt, dirty dishes. The only thing they won’t forgive is loosing attractiveness, captivating playfulness, the baskets full of feminine wiles and abundant in wisdom, from the bright coral nail polish on the toes to the shameless variety of caresses and underwear. If someone had advised me, I would have forgotten about everything, I would have fallen on my knees before my husband in the darkest hour, submissive and vicious, wearing nothing but silk lowered stockings and lacy garters! I would have lulled him with my deft hands, I would have swollen and burst with my hips and breasts, I would have smelled of spring foliage! Like a chickadee on a rowan branch, I would have showered him with scarlet and sweet words! Would I have appeared before him looking the way I felt at that time — stale bread covered with mold? Like stagnant clouds awaiting wind, my husband the bull was waiting for my transformation, my night debauchery as a reply to his wilderness.

So what did I do to prevent him from falling into the water and helping him walking up the ladder firmly to the family island?

Day and night, like an endless woolen thread, I was spinning in front of him the same sadness and anxiety, my arms stretched out patiently. Kolya would look at me without the usual interest, without the usual male vitality, but I would notice nothing, I would not even make an attempt to dilute our routine life with something sharp and playful. I kept devouring big pieces of candy, fresh and hearty, smelling of vanilla; isn’t that what makes one stronger after a sleepless night? I kept swelling like a fragrant bun in the oven, without thinking about the consequences of forgetting that the city was full of slender girls with fluffy hair, white, yellow, light like dandelions.

Once my husband gor tired and cut the thread.

I saw them together by chance and was stunned: Kolya was not hiding his feelings, they were walked down the street holding hands. He was looking with delight at her carefully and artfully arranged golden hair, at the sparkling belt emphasizing her small waist, while listening and listening to her joyous voice, which was ringing as if pearl were falling down on stones. Her fingers with long bright-crimson nails were correcting her silk frill dress and the twisted bracelets on her bare arms; now and then, laughing, she would gently touch his shoulder or his cheeks…

They passed by, noticing no one around; her skirt rustled, her voice and bracelets rang, he poured that familiar scent of perfume and cigarettes, so well-known and dear.

Everything in me was trembling when I was running back. I was anxious to escape the horror, and it didn’t back away from me when I came home. I lay on the bed, face down, as if propped with funeral wreaths and black ribbons. The new misfortune broke me, I lost my composure completely. I understood everything, but I was not able to think through to the end what I do next. Pretend that I had seen nothing? Make believe that I was happy? Be proud of playing in the casino together with our son?

That memory was like an eyesore causing an excruciating agony. But I kept trying to pretend that everything was OK…

It took Kolya some time to leave. He would come home and pity me with all his heart, but there was no love in that pity. He would listen to me attentively and quietly, his eyes down like a naughty dog. But everything in him, the shoes facing the door, the fingers touching the jacket button, the disguised yawn, everything told me that he was far away, in his new life, which had sprinkled him with the hyssop of sinful nights, embraced him with the fragrance of youth, created him anew like a joyful star.

“Kolya”, I would whisper looking at him walking away fast, skipping and waving his hands like a boy. “What do I do, Kolya?”

I should have hurried up, contrived and strained the way deft and wise women can do, twisted my sunken brestst so as to squeeze out crying or squealing, a barrage of sounds and roars to pierce my husband’s heart. I should have hit the ground and turned into a bird or a spicy cherry, poured a witch powder for him, pretended sick, pregnant, insane…

Because human happiness does exist, don’t you think so?! It closed tightly, curled up like time or a bud of an enchanted flower, so all you need to do is try and get ir by all means, by force, stealth or spells!

At that time, Kolya discovered that the money was gone. He was absolutely furious when he found out that I had taken it to gamble. He no longer felt guilty. Running around the room he was screaming and grunting as though he were in agony.

“You gambled?! While I was slaving at work without rest! I’ve had no vacation for four years, no days-off, no sleeping, turning the wheel round the clock!

Suddenly our son sided with his father.

“It’s your fault”, he said. “You should have held him. Now I have no father. He will have his own children, and he will forget about me. He promised to buy a car to me if I stopped gambling. And I wouldn’t go there if I had what a regular kid is supposed to have.”

After my husband went away, I became faceless, guilty and downtrodden, like a typical school-teacher as most of us are lonely. Why? We don’t notice how the work makes us impenetrable geeks; we, the teachers, have the most criminal children. How is it that I spent all the money!? After all, I took a little bit, and I saw that there was still a lot left!

Somewhere in the depths of my being, I cringed and effaced, like and ailing beast, though I foresaw the onset of further suffering. Maybe it was I who attracted them? I could not tell my life «Stop it! Give me a chance to gather my strength! The very possibility of this commandment, or rather request, in its weak sonorous whirlwind I had previously guessed lies, lack of confidence, and falseness. Defeats are fixed in our subconscious mind: after the first one, troubles started falling one after another like stones rolling down a montain slope. How could I resist that avalanche? This dark abyss emerging from the darkness of the night, which my pathetic mind was unable to light or unravel…

A few days of hard work slightly distracted me — another inspection was going on at school. The teachers were running with packs of notebooks, reports, and plans. It was very good, and it was the first time that I almost gladly accepted even the implacable and immortal Pavel Borisovich. He had headed the commission of the Education Department for many years. He was an old and heartless person who had never had a wife and children. It seemed that he only continued to exist because of the constant abuse and humiliation of the poor miserable teachers. I saw him for the first time twenty years ago. He was wearing a nice black suit and had a wooden cane in his hand. He was standing in the doorway of my class, and I trustingly invited him to come in, though it had been twenty minutes after the beginning of the lesson, and it was a complete violation of ethics. But he came in and sat down at the far desk. Five minutes later, he got up and started walking around, looking nervously in the first-graders’ notebooks. He repeatedly interrupted my explanation of the new topic tactlessly in a hoarse voice and unceremoniously pointed to the mistakes in the lesson. I was listening helplessly, standing, chalk in hand, near the blackboard. I was nineteen, and I had been entrusted with the class just three months earlier; I was studying at the teacher-training college in absentia. In those days, school principals were sometimes encouraged to grow local specialists…

When the bell rang, Pavel Borisovich demanded the plan in a sharp voice, looked through it, with a malicious smile, put it in his leather briefcase quickly, and left. At the end of the school year, at the teachers’ conference held in the spacious Palace of Culture, he subjected me to a fierce and merciless criticism from the rostrum. I felt trampled with his feet, broken and uprooted. Nothing but weak smell of grass was left from me. The charges were so monstrous and improbable that I thought at first that I had misheard. His eyes flashing angrily, grizzled and grey, he kept waving his hand and shouting that there were young teachers (he called my name) who were not only late for work, but come to school under the influence and behave in such an uncontrollable way that even the students refuse to go to their classes. It was such nonsense that even Valery Mikhaylovich, the principal, sitting next to me, turned and looked at me in horror. I was saved by the fact that the mad old man gave the name of another «bad» teacher who had been working abroad for two years. Besides, the speech was too messy and contradictory: just imagine first-graders not visiting the classes because of an «uncontrollable and drunk» teacher! What I had done, how had I displeased him?

I wrote a note of disagreement with the report and expressed the desire to make a refutation. The audience passed the note on quickly to the Presidency. The chairman looked through it attentively and rejected my request. Then I got up swallowing tears, and I made an awkward and vain attempt to squeeze to the podium. There was too little space between the rows though, besides, my belly was bothering me greatly — I was in the seventh month of pregnancy. I was short in breath and wanted to shout from the spot that is wasn’t true but failed to utter a word and sat down. It was the first time that I was unable to defend my reputation, got confused, and didn’t have the courage. The whole thing went unpunished, I closed it in my memory the way they close and board up the windows in sinister houses…

A momentary weakness sometimes turns into a solid life scenario…

After lessons, Lena, the secretary, came to my classroom and stretching the words slowly («Ve-ra Ni-ka-la-vna!») invited me to the principal’s office. She looked like a fox: the gentle protruding face, the bulging transparent ears, the slanted bright-green eyes. Her porcelain cheeks and nose were thickly dotted with freckles. She was charming in that orange haze of youth! Alyosha would definitely like her. I smiled. Not to foreboding the disaster, I collected the notebooks, took the log to the teachers, and went to Valery Mikhailovich.

He was sitting at the table and looking through the papers, wiping his face with a handkerchief from time to time. Judging by how long he was getting ready and by the vaguely felt intense concentration that was growing by the minute, I realized that something had happened. I was looking at him quietly With a mixture of fear and timidity. He was over fifty years old, but his hair kept waviness and thickness, and his face was still soft and round. His features were expressionless, his mouth was pale and dry, under his little brown eyes, the skin looked painful and yellowish. Finally, Valery Mikhailovich pushed the folders aside resolutely and said,

‘Dear Vera Nikolayevna, I’m sure you know that our school is being inspected. I am informed though that you visit gaming establishments. You have been seen there more than once. Frankly spealing, I didn’t believe that at once. You have been working here for many years, and nothing like that has ever happened. It’s no longer a secret that your son is addicted to gambling, this is a small town. You know very well that we constantly strive for discipline. And so what? Do you mean that any student’s parent can now ask us why we allow such people teach their children?

I desperately tried to defend. Quite confused, I explained that I had been there solely for my son. It will not ever happen again, I promise. What I had in addition to that work? I was willing to fight for it like for life itself. The tough decision was written on the boss’s face, I could see it in his whole attitude, look and speech. I was urging him, trying to evoke pity, crying. And suddenly I felt as if I had lost a purse with keys standing in front of a locked door. Everything I was murmuring in my defense was so miserable, so unconvincing. Everything looked uncertain: the way I was sitting on the brink of the chair, my thickly speech, my twitching fingers. I even made a strange and frustrating attempt to laugh. The director saw and understood that I was at war with myself and I could not help it. In the hard and crucial moment I was again unable to pull myself together, mobilize, take a punch. Suddenly, I felt completely at the mercy of my life, which was refined and powerful. Like an old beggar, I bent under the blows of its raging stick and retreated under its power. By the end of the conversation, I felt persecuted and frightened cornered animal.

   I wasn’t innocent, I had put coals under my boiling pot — wasn’t it true?

To Valery Mikhailovich’s credit, he didn’t aggravate the difficult conversation. His courteous and clear silence gave me the opportunity to get out of that tough situation. Feeling quite ashamed, I wrote a letter of resignation, and left the room quietly. For some reason I got back to the classroom, walked aimlessly through the ranks and went over to the window. The sun was shining, sending its rays through the windows, were bright spots jumping and splashing on the desks. Why overstraining myself like that?

The school was located in the worst neighborhood: on the one hand, a brewery, an alcohol producing factory across the road. There was a wide river close by, and dormitories for small families. The two factorieswere like two brothers, you won’t forget their stinking breath until you die. Near the factories, stinking was thick and similar to some stray shreds. The visibility was close to zero due to that damp darkness. When I first came there, I experienced confusion, just standing and watching, as though the black haze had turned me into a statue. Tightly crammed together, grey barracks where my future students lived huddled to the factories. I was to visit them before the school year. Very young, wearing a silk dress, with brown curls, I would enter those homes carefully, holding the squeaky peeling doors. My nose was hit by an unimaginable stench, I got deaf because of the children’ roaring, screaming, banging, and crashing. Trying not to touch the ropes with rags hanging in all the corridors, I would make my way to the door that I needed, almost crawling, stumbling over the dusty suitcases, bags, ringing bicycles, creaking carriages, falling bottles. At the end of the corridor, there was a long line to the only washroom. When, bending my head, I would come into the tiny room, I would become so weak that I only dreamed of running out. My arrival was unpleasant, the first movement was to hide something, like a hunchback who encounters a stranger wants to sit in the shade or throw a cloak with a hood over his shoulders. The room had one window and only had room for a large bed, a table, and two chairs. The housewife, wiping her hands, would invite me to the table sadly and desperately. Children were moving and squeaking under the table and under the blanket on the bed. How many children were there? A weak head was peeping from under the table, looking at me dumbly without blinking. The child’s mother would bang on it with a towel, and it would disappear. Those children were quite similar — stunted, underdeveloped mentally and physically. There drunken fathers would appear from somewhere, sullen and unshaven, wearing T-shirts and blue shorts. They would greet me loudly and try to keep the conversation going. All of them wanted to convey this truth to me, «You are the teacher, so go ahead. We are only responsible for making those kids, which we do well.» The father would snatch the child from the bed like a puppy and show him or her to me proudly. Brushing cards, newspapers and leftovers off the table and dirty rag from the chair, they would somehow clear the place for me. All the mothers looked old, though many of them were my age mates. They would watch me quietly and grimly, looking around in confusion. I would try to tell them that I was there to see the child’s workplace and make sure that it was well lit. But I would stop short quickly, bumping into the dull face. A workplace? Come on, I was unable to move my arms and legs…

They would enter the classroom in the same way, dull and sulky, and take their seats silently. The smell of cheap smokes and fume would fill the room: I was looked at by adults, harried by life. Feeling that dreary almost physically, stumbling over every word, I would try to reassure those wild people that everything would be all right. Sometimes a father would get up and try to ask a question, but it was impossible to make out what he wanted to say. I strained to hear and tried to help him, but he was drunk. The others were listening to me with dumb attention, their faces demonstrated clearly one overwhelming desire — to escape from the classroom as quickly as possible and hide in their usual slots.

I didn’t know many secrets prevailing in schools. My teacher’s experience had been shaping for a long time, like water dripping into a barrel.

Performance in my class was the lowest, and it was years later that I found out why it was like that. Experienced teachers were friends with the principal, would have distributed the neighborhoods in advance. There were happy families indeed, and the teachers would fight to death for the well-positioned parents, because in such cases, in particular, there were no problems with the renovation. Well, and the annual classroom renovation was our major responsibility.

Harnessed to the same team, suit horses, white, black, slim and busty, we, the teachers, rushed, as if in a drunken stupor, up hill and down dale. We were not be stopped, fed or changed at the stations. We had to fly on the back roads, pushing off the ground softly and resiliently, even without touching the ground, so as not to disturb the movement of the huge stroller loaded with children. There were lots of devices for our team: the teachers’ salary was too scanty, it put people in a desperate situation, provoking evil behavior. How could you miss another pay, such as extra hours, afterschool care, or early seniority? Are promptitude in obeying and accuracy enough to get them?

We were so much like those Italian donkeys who are forced to move faster by means of a bunch of hay attached to the stick on their head, right in front, and they hurry on to reach it.

The most difficult thing was the endless inspections of the plans, logs, lessons… And the regular inspestions arranged by the Education Department and other cultural institutions? They were like a Tatar raid and capture by surrounding the enemy. The first graders were taken out of the classrooms, lined up in the hallway, and called in the classroom one by one. An unknown lady would show them a book severely, record the time and raise her hand. The children were excited and hurried as they had a minute to read a certain number of words. I had the poorest results. At the teachers’ meetings, I was usually reprimanded, and the endless comments were as boring as toothache. I would intensify my activities and my struggle for performance. I would invent all kinds of incredibe things. To pull up the grades, I would spin like a loach, working with the children until late. When you are young, everything seems possible, and I hoped to bring the kids into the world from the underground. Gradually, they began to read and write, but what did it cost me?

I would strain all the forces of my soul, without allowing the slightest fault — because all that made up the points. The state’s grinder used to grind the young people, sharing everything justly, all the meat and red blood, all the ardor of youth were swept away in favor of a nameless crowd, and we were left with nothing but broken bones and tendons.

Despite the fact that coming home I would fall into bed like a mown tuft of grass, my class was in the last place — the weakest and lagging behind…

To make money, many of the teachers had extended day groups after the classes. Sometimes they did it simultaneously, and this was long the most amazing and incomprehensible for me…

Even an adult’s attention can’t be kept for more than 20 minutes; as to the little kids, they didn’t want to sit still during 45 minutes. They usually started to squirm and squeal, asked to eat or drink. I tried hundreds of techniques: cutting bunnies and bears, making performances at the blackboard. But why do the others have such impenetrable silence, while I don’t? Maybe I was too good and unfit for the job? Did I lacked rigor and natural severity? All the classrooms were wide open as if empty. The teachers would just let the kids alone and go to check the homework in the extended group. The mystery was explained to me by Valentina Grigorievna, the Honored Teacher of our school, a tall and stately snub-nosed woman with large breasts and bright full lips.

‘Big deal!’ she laughed out loud, revealing her beautiful straight teeth. ‘The secret of peace lives in a secluded place.’

She called a quiet boy, he approached fearfully. She turned him with her beautiful white hands and pointed to the soft fluff on his thin neck. She gathered those hairs in a pinch and jerked them down; the boy cried out but didn’t cry. ‘Good’, she slapped him gently and sent him to the classroom. ‘Crying is not allowed. No traces, and silence. Stop jumping at the lessons. Your choral tongue twisters give me a headache.’

That’s what happened to me and what I learned… What was next? I just couldn’t intimidate the kids and aggravate their misfortunes. I had another kind of misery …

How did it happen? I wanted to pull that day out of the memory, cut it off like a rotting piece of skin. I was all eyes looking at the bag on my desk, feeling confusion and a strange chill in the chest. It was a time of deficits and rationing for buckwheat and butter, the food my son was fond of. And that’s what I saw in the plastic bag brought by my student’s mother.

‘Take it’, she said, smiling. ‘I work at the cafeteria, it’s next to nothing for us.’

What a terrible price I had to pay for my weakness! The first bag was followed by another one, and it was much easier to take! What’s wrong about it? Is it a crime?

I was on a par, I was close by, I was no longer an inaccessible demigoddesses, which was looked at though grimly, but with awkward reverence and invisible tenderness. The parents were no longer silent, they didn’t recover their clothes when I went out to meet with them after classes…

School was my first big defeat. I was distributed in all directions like gingerbread from a holiday table. I was nothing — an empty table, a tired woman falling asleep in front of the TV, I even didn’t notice the moment when my son got addicted to gambling. I was glad that he didn’t pester me; his friends would come to our place, they would play chess for gum, Kinder Surprise, then for money. Did I do anyone good to by dissolving in other people’s children like breathing dissolves in the wind? And so the days passed one by one, pointless and exhausting…

Chapter 6. Elite school

The sun came out and glittered, white doves cooed again on my windowsill: my friend, the fortune teller, found a job for me at the elite school. To get to it was difficult, the salary was much higher. I was so happy, and kissed Maria dozens of times. She was also happy, smiled, and told me  about an unusual client who had helped her to find the job for me. He was a desperate though rich man. Resigned to his illness, he became weak and lost hope. Full of deathly horror, frail and gentle like a lamb, he lowered his head, completely covered with white, tight, short curls. The lonely Maria felt extraordinary, lively and sincere attraction to the man. He touched her rigid and arrogant heart, her nice nostrils pulled his sorrow easily and lulled him on her elastic autumn-time breast…

The school was downtown. A spacious and modern building, comfortably and luxuriously furnished — I entered like a church. I had to earn that place, advance, show myself, break out into the world. The previous month had brought me so much sorrow, my own home was empty, I was exhausted. Life seemed to be watching me severely and sullenly as if wishing to know what I was good for.

The classroom in which I was to work immersed in flowers, they were everywhere on the windowsills, in high supports. At the first meeting, I met with friendly, well-dressed parents, they talked extensively about their children. The former teacher had taken a maternity leave. The children were accustomed to her, but they forgot her quickly and got attached to me. They were curious and inquisitive, good at reading and made very few mistakes when writing. Were my misadventures over? I put a candle in the church, and leaned my lips to the hands of the Mother of God… Gone were the ice fogs, my joints came back to life, my blood started flowing along the blood vessels. I gave herself selflessly to the work, wrapped around it like ivy around a tree. The days rushed on…

Alyosha’s grandfather, my husband’s father, died. To everyone’s surprise, he had left his small house, located near the city, not to his only son Kolya, but to Alyosha, his grandson, whom he had loved very much. I had rarely seen my father-in-law, so I perceived his sudden death calmly. I wisely decided that we had to sell the house and buy a car for Alyosha. He was beside himself with joy.

The new director, Sergei Stepanovich, invited me to teach painting in high school, and I agreed. He was very young and quite blonde. When he smiled at me, there were dimples on his rosy cheeks. At a short meeting, the principal said that our children’s parents were serious and influential people, so bad marks, log entries, or faultfinding were out of the question. He repeated that, and even mentioned the names of those who sponsored school renovations as well as various parties and events. I heard a familiar name, «Vasily Sedov». Was he the owner of all casinos and slot machines?

It was my first lesson in the 8 «B» form. I stood before the mirror in the teachers and examined myself meticulously: I was wearing a grey suit with a large picture of white magnolias and bright patent leather shoes, my hair was stacked high and curled. I smelt sweet, like a black locust. Cheerful and joyous music was playing inside me. It must be a waltz, I thought as I went up the stairs. In my hand I had a thick folder of illustrations: I was supposed to tell the students about the work of the artist Ivan Aivazovsky. The shiny pin holding my curls was bouncing dangerously, as if ready to fly off my head. But it was too late as I walked into the classroom joyfully. The students stood up and saluted me unharmoniously. When making their acquainance, I read their names aloud in the log. Some would stand up reluctantly, some would raise their hands, three girls shouted loudly, «Here!» Pavel Sedov was a short curly teen who could be easily mistaken for a girl. Was his father the same Vasily Sedov Alyosha had told me about?

I felt shy, my heart was faint, and the fear inside me was like a quick shadow of a shallow fish. The first impression is the most important one as my relationship with the class will depend on it.

I diligently conducted the lesson according to the rules, pointing to the the sea being painted by an artist on a large piece of drawing paper attached to the blackboard with buttons. I dipped the brush into the paints I had prepared on the table and put it on the paper: blue, purple, and white. They got mixed and flew down because I dipped the brush in the wrong way. I was nervous and looked at the clock quietly. It had only been ten minutes, time never dragged so long.

‘Now you can paint your sea’, I said cheerfully and turned on a tape recording with the sound of waves superimposed on the music.

‘I don’t want to paint a sea’, suddenly said loudly someone sitting in the back row. ‘Me too’, a quiet and sarcastic voice joined in.

‘What do you mean?’I asked, durprised. This is a painting lesson, so you have to.’

‘I am not sipposed to paint what I don’t like’, the back row guy insisted. I could see him better now. He was wearing jeans and a yellow shirt. It seemed to me that I had seen his face before.

Trying to look casual, I smiled and shrugged. Many of the students opened their drawing-books, took the brushes, and started painting. I looked at my class surreptitiously: the guys in the back row were talking quietly, none of them even touched the drawing-book. It was 25 minutes till the end of the lesson. It suddenly went dark outside the window, the wind struck the glass once, twice, then water splashed hard. I turned to the blackboard and gently wiped the paint flow running stubbornly down the board to the floor. Aivazovsky had painted with oil, while used gouache. A button attaching the drawing paper came off, a corner of the sheet, heavy with paint, sagged dangerously. Someone quacked behind me, the students laughed.

‘What is it?’ I asked severely. After a few seconds of silence, when several pairs of eyes were carefully watching me with interest, I heard more sounds, now a few people were croaking and meowing. Frankly speaking, I was confused: the principal’s stern warning that the students should be treated tenderly knocked me up. I tried to hold on, not to show how I agitated I was. All my peacuful attempts to restore order were in vain. From time to time I kept glancing at my watch — maybe it left off? The lesson seemed to be endless. It would be easier to turn the guys away, write in the daybook, or even scream, but I was kind of numb. What could I do? I threatened two of the most avid bullies to make them stay behind them after the classes. Before I could finish my severe speech, I recognized in those who it was addressed to the two teenagers I had seen in the playroom. One was a passionless sharp-nosed kid who had had the money, the other guy was the one who, blinded, had declared war to Heaven. Did they remember me? I was kind of labeled with the game: an ominous seal of its curse glowed on my forehead. I hunched my shoulders, I’d rather shrivel and disappear. At that moment, the hairpin fell off my head and dropped on the floor with a thud. It was so silly and funny, I once again felt like a victim of evil fate, like a spider in the web. It placed its traps everywhere, they hung from the sky and trailed on the ground. I would never find a place where it wouldn’t reach its catchy thread.

And then something happened that I didn’t expect. This happens as a sudden clouding of reason: tears gushed from my eyes as uncontrollable flows of warm salt water. Every tear blared like a button of a slot machine and shook the classroom with formidable underground rumbling. There was a welcome silence. But I didn’t need it anymore. I had never been able to achieve peace in none of the schools. Clenching my fists, I sat helplessly by the window. A strange, unthinkable situation — the mascara was dripping from my eyelashes flooding my eyes, the salty stinging was unbearable. I had no handkerchief though. I remembered the way I had built up my eyelashes, which I had painted carefully, and imagined the way my face looked now. Of course I would be kicked out of the school, and most likely, it would happen today or tomorrow. I had nothing to lose. I snatched the dazzling white and expensive blind, and carefully wiped my face, then I blew my nose gently but thoroughly. Wiping with the heavy silk was not very convenient as it absorbed moisture badly. But I wiped my hands, which were stained with blue paint. I made ​​a lot of actions, and all of them were all insanely diligent. I wasn’t looking at the students either directly or surreptitiously. I was just sitting, wrapped in the curtain, sobbing and wiping myself with it, choosing the spots that hadn’t touched my eyes and cheeks yet. The best decision, just getting out of the classroom, for some reason didn’t come to my mind. It would be even worse to be seen by the colleagues blubbered like than staying in the classroom, under the silk tent, together with the silent children. I already knew that the bell would never ring, and to say that I felt lost would be saying too little. My thoughts, like wild horses, crowded on a steep bank, looking in the deep water and wondering – what next?

Suddenly, someone got up and walked quickly to the board; no, I think it was me. My eyes stung, besides, they were swollen and turned into two slits, just try to make out who was going.

‘Vera Nikolayevna’, I heard a small voice, ‘take it, please.’ I pushed the curtain folds hesitantly. Pavel Sedov was in front of me, holding out a brown and white handkerchief. He was doing that with a kind of unsophisticated childlike simplicity. I picked it up. It was a beautiful handkerchief, quite new, starched and fresh. I understood nothing and asked quietly, «Why?» Pavel glanced at the curtain involuntarily, and then dropped his eyes: it was a dirty, with black stains. Suddenly there was a loud ring of the bell, as if a saw touched iron. It howled and gnashed, bringing no joy. My eardrums rattled painfully and I felt an awful pain the head.

‘Vera Nikolayevna’, Pavel said, and the corners of his lips twitched, ‘this will never happen again. Do you believe me?’

I nodded and looked away. What could I tell him? And besides, it was dangerous as any word that I would have tried to say could have triggered a new bout of tears. Standing very close, so I was out of site from the hallway, Pavel Sedov seemed older and more severe, his lean figure stiffened as if he was trying to overcome something in himself. He was only fourteen or fifteen though! He kept standing there patiently while I was sitting sadly, and the strange thing was that the silence didn’t depress me.

The classroom was empty. Pavel Sedov was gone, gust as the two guys whom I had told to stay behind. Let them go…

I was alone, afraid to come out with a swollen face. The school corridor was quiet and deserted, there was moist air inside, as if had been watered by a watering machine…

On the next day, the principal summoned me. Full of foreboding, I entered the room. My last visit to the former principal was really the last one. Sergei Stepanovich’s look boded nothing good: he was not smiling, his eyes were ice cold, his clean face shone.

‘Vera Nikolayevna, please tell me what happened at the last lesson in the eight «B» form.

It is necessary to think, to use my brain like never before. How do I start? By telling him about breaking into tears? Or do I tell him about the lesson disrupted by the arogant teenagers whom I was not entitled to put in their place or frighten?

But the boss didn’t wait and handed me a sheet of paper. I looked at Sergei Stepanovich inquiringly. To say that he was furious would be to say nothing.

‘Vera Nikolayevna’, he said quietly and ominously, his voice trembling with anger, and his cheeks shaking, ‘last week, you were present at the meeting where I set out the conditions of our work quite clearly. So… are you crazy? Molesting the students, the teenagers? Wel, that is something… The whole city will… What are you doing? It’s matter for the courts, it is not so easy to get away with it! Working for such a short period of time and bring scandal upon our school — it’s unheard of!’

I could not believe my ears. What did I do to decry the school? Burst into tears? I took the sheet of paper and ran through it quickly. While I was reading, my eyes were widening and my mouth opening. The principal was waiting silently until I got to the end. He was looking around anxiously, stood up, dropped the curtain on the window, took off his jacket, loosened his necktie, and wiped the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief…

It was the end of everything: two students of the eighth «B» (their distinct signature were at the bottom of the letter) claimed that Vera Nikolayevna, the painting teacher, left them behind after school, locked the door and «sexually harassed them»!

I uttered a rude word involuntarily. That was absolutely crazy! As if on purpose, teachers kept looking annoyingly into the room without knocking.

‘Sergei Stepanovich, I understand that everything is in your power, but it’s just a misunderstanding, a complete nonsense. Don’t you see that the shameles stupid boys have decided to make fun of me? I did leave them after school, it is true, but they went home just as the rest of the students. Everyone can confirm this, trust me!

I told him all the details like a simpleton. The boss was listening to me, raising his eyebrows. I defended desperately, and it seemed to me that it had been hours after I red that dirty denunciation. I had to relax, pull myself together and be strong — but was I going to need my strength again?

Pavel Sedov came to my rescue. He was the only student to cancel all the charges and prove thoroughly that I was right. No matter how many times he was invited the principal’s office, he would say clearly and repeatedly that Nikita Petrov and Dmitry Sviridov had disrupted the painting lesson, and, besides, betted five hundred rubles to lie away the teacher’s reputation. Finally, his father intervened, unhappy that his son was being used as a witness. He rushed in Sergei Stepanovich’s office without knocking and thus taking him by surprise, and yelled so loudly that the rattling windows rattled on the second floor, and the doors of the classrooms swung open. His frenzied speech was quite clear: if the principal didn’t sort out with the «arrogant students», he would replace the school authorities immediately. Students and teachers crowded in the hallway, no one dared to start a lesson, even the bell didn’t ring…

‘What’s your name, man?!’ Vasily Sedov would shout occasionally, interrupting Sergei Stepanovich’s barely audible excuses and tapping impatiently with his hand on the lacquered table. Short, fat, and bald, he moved deftly and freely  around the office, managing to keep in touch with the director and making the latter scared. His short chubby fingers were stirring with disgust and flicking through the papers on the table. The fashionable denim shirt burst open on his pink chest. He took a golden cigarette case out of the pocket of his wide corduroy pants, took an expensive cigar and lit it slowly, giving orders to the principal.

The office door was open, so all those crowding in the hallway could see and hear what was going on inside. I don’t know whether Sergei Stepanovich withstood that unfortunate test, but his sense of power, of course, suffered heavy damage. The expression of self-confidence and even carelessness disappeared from his face for a long time. The whole story was hushed quickly, as if nothing had happened…

The fate strangely pushed me to this all-powerful man, the owner of slot machines. He practically saved me, defended my honor and dignity. I felt as if a tight loop had been removed from my neck, and I now could breeth easily. It was only then that I realized what danger was over me…

I was sure I would lose the additional time at the senior classes, but I wasn’t crazy about having it. But I didn’t lose it, which was a substantial result of the protection. Without admitting it to myself, I almost felt happy. But I could not feel quite happy because of the painful tension I still wasn’t able to get rid of. It was quiet at the lessons  — Pavel Sedov kept his word. My recent offenders were sitting buried in their drawing-books, squeaking with the  pencils quietly. Pavel sometimes accompanied me to the bus stop. Lightly swinging his briefcase, he would chat incessantly and looked unsophisticated and reckless. But I already knew that he was the mastermind. He would often tell me proudly about his father, but he looked strange, as though every word was making him an orphan. The school year was coming to an end…

During all those troubles, my own son chose a car and made a preliminary agreement at the dealership. On the day before the purchase I was inundated with late lessons; besides, a meeting was scheduled after school. In the morning, Alyosha took the money and left. We agreed that he would come to pick me up on a new car. I didn’t even know what kind of car it would be, it was a surprise.

But he never came. He wasn’t at home either. They told me at the dealership that he hadn’t turned up. My heart beat loudly, and I rushed to the game room. The employees said that Alyosha had lost a large sum of money and left. I was rushing around the city, inspecting  the dark and light areas, unaware of the roads and cars, knocking the people down. Somewhere around me brakes were squealing, I would rush away from the sound, the cars barely had time to escape, one of them was spun hard, the white-faced driver ran out, I grabbed his hands and started begging him loudly…

Belated passers-by, looking wildly, would run away from me. If only he was alive! I ran on around construction sites, jumped into pits, climbed on the bricks, rushed from basement to basement, crawled from attic to attic. I was afraid to look at the roofs of the houses, fancying my son’s bloodied body sprawled on the pavement. I was in a hurry and fell, bumping into boxes and trees. Attracted by the noise, disheveled grey heads would rise out of rags and old newspapers; they would yawn and fall back limply. Again, I stood in the empty apartment witout understanding anything. Where is Alyosha? What do I do? How do I tell my son that I won’t blame him? What slit is he in? How long will he stay there?

I was abou to go out again, but suddenly stopped and grabbed a red lipstick from the shelf under the mirror, ran to the window and wrote on it frantically, in large letters, «Alyosha, come home. Everything is OK.»

Alyosha came back an hour later. He came in quietly, looked at me, and I hardly recognized the dear face. I was still standing by the window. It seemed to me that I had just finished writing …

Spring was coming, and I uncontrollably wanted to forget everything. Fear recaptured me again. I was afraid of loneliness, loosing my job and, certainly, my son. It was an awful torture! The fear was digging my mind day and night, a terrible insomnia started. At night, I would go out of the house, buy a bottle of vodka and drink it quickly. Then I  would wander through the deserted streets, sit on the empty benches, tear the lonely leaves mindlessly, ride in empty buses, stare into the empty dark windows. I felt better when the city was empty. I felt the same kind of emtiness and loneliness inside my soul. The strange thing was that when, early in the morning, the buses got filled with people, the longing for the lost life and for my family became especially intolerable, and tears kept running down my face.

I remember one of the nights, though rather vaguely: a woman was walking in front of me. She looked strangely familiar, and it was for the first time that wanted to complain to someone, pour my misfortune out. Although she was walking slowly, it took me a long time to catch up with her, and when I, out of breath, caught up and touched her shoulder gingerly, she spun around… you won’t believe me… it was me. I stepped back in horror and ran away from that indifferent face covered with lilac-purple skin, from the empty eye sockets in red semicircles. What was I thinking about? I remember nothing. Just nothing…

Once I came back early, it was midnight. I walked into the room sideways, moving unevenly, and went to the kitchen. There, leaning back in his chair, my son was sitting. He looked at me, thought for a moment, and then said, «If I were you, I would hang myself…»

What cruelty and anger sounded in his voice! What complete indifference emanated from his fixed figure! The harsh words led me into complete confusion, I became blind and deaf.

Everything I gave my soul by pieces, was killing me…

Attachments enslave us, and we drown in them like sick animals. My son needed something else — another mother, fearless, having strong claws, making him feel wild admiration or fear. But losing one thing after another, I got overfilled with fear, it started breaking my heart and killing my soul. Apathetic days gave way to weary nights… I would easily, without any apparent reason take offence, pester Alyosha with numerous questions, watch his every step anxiously. He would get angry and run away from me like before. My character changed: I became petty and penny-wisee. I started a notebook in which I recorded meticulously all my expenses, up to the penny. I would draw tables and write figures carefully, with a ruler, my tongue stuck out, making a lot of strong pressure on the pencil. That gave me a strange, evil joy.

The mirror reflected my gloomy, exhausted face. It had faded; the wrinkles reminded about all the sad losses and horrific nights. I was all breaking down like an old tree hit by lightning. I was weak, tired and irritable…

I had exhausted my strengths and didn’t rely on or believe in them any longer. As suddenly as they began, our joint overnight trips stopped as now I was no more a talisman for my son. It was pointless to continue the fight, it was doomed. I didn’t expect support from anywhere…

Maria kept inviting me over, but all of her fortune-telling, all the promises of quick happiness just irritated me. She mastered cards, started wrapping up in warm goat fluff shawls, bought a vintage chair with armrests made ​​of black wood.

As much as I deceived myself, my authority in the new school was hopelessly flawed. A dirty rumor was hanging over me, a heavy trace was following me. Like thirsty animals and birds move to the river, I attracted excited rumors. The principal would speak to me in a hard and severe way, he never forgave me the humiliation; the teachers shunned me, just in case. A tiny little mistake was enough to be fired, harassed, booed and laughed at…

My son was sealed again, the Demon chose the most dangerous weapon for him and used the most relentless law, «Captivity.» I thought I was helping and saving my son; in fact, helping my son to gain in strength which he would meekly put in front of the paws with huge claws, I myself served the Demon. By getting involved in the fight, I only made the things worse. I just added to that tribute my vital resources, lost my husband and my job. I lost my feet to reach the goal, I lost my wings to fly up and see the road.

  For the Demon, you and I are next to nothing, just a mosquito squeak.

This is a century-old inviolability, an immortal fun, and it has an unprecedented power. People have been playing and will be playing; playing is everywhere you roll the eyes. No one thinks where it came from. It is older than everyone thinks it is, it was not created by primitive people. Demons themselves threw the dice blindly upon the desert land, and now all the roads are lined with the dice looking like bones, they are just slightly sprinkled with sand.

This black hole, this insatiable abyss sucking in human waste and time… Your turn will come, so don’t get off the hook, just close your eyes. Like a caring nanny, it will put the socks and shoes on for you and wrap you in cloaks and scarves. You will be miserable or great, it will be your finest hour, or the end of everything. You will have everything you want, the servants will fall to their knees and stretch tasty meals to you, and there will be nothing but bright and burning eruptions of passion. Only one thing will be missing, a rampant slave revolt! You will not go out to the arena like Spartacus, you will not crush this eternal trap, even if the outside world is crumbling, the cities and temples are at the bottom…

My thoughts had never been so gloomy, my despair had never been so bottomless. I didn’t understand the events of my life, I was too strongly connected with the present, too imbued with the bitterness of defeat. Who had purposed my way, who had brought him to the execution? «God throws people out of heaven, like a farmer throughs the seeds, and forgets about them. His flesh has no pain about them, and His soul does not suffer about them. Whom he would destroy, would not be built, who would be imprisoned, would not be liberated»- that or something like that seems to be written in the Bible.



If I had understood the fate seen its meaning in the impenetrable darkness, I would have withstood that suffering, it would not have seemed so painful and pointless to me. What do I do? Stay close by, fall and get up, gritting my teeth, climb again and again? The outcome is the same. Catch and lure my son again, walk with him to the casino, lose the last penny? A blind person helps another blind one! Yes, if this was the right way, then why did the gods block it, leaving me with so much hardship? And then what? What’s next? Drinking and sinking to the bottom? Human will is too weak, it cannot change the world.

In my weakness, I was only able to torture madly myself or the entire world — the school, the people, and the state. Blind resentment overwhelmed and triumphed, playing with the stupefied people. It would either make a running start or fly up and circle above the rooftops… Nothing, just nothing could be discerned in the snowy darkness of the wild, untamed nature…

I saw that my son felt the hopelessness of the struggle, the futility of any attempt to break free…

 What can I do for you? What can you do?

  We can do nothing but see ourselves dying

I had an irresistible desire to go away. I was overcome by anxiety, an unexplained sadness — I wanted to find Father Vladimir. He was able to break free! «He was a priest, so he had escaped», I whispered silently to myself. «I will find Father Vladimir. After all, he wrote, «If you are in such a trouble and you loved one does not accept you, it means that you have made too many mistakes. But the way out is still there. You will find the answer at the end of this book.»

«When the parents have no influence… when the trouble is an old one…» Sometimes, I repeated those words very quickly, without a break. But more often, I would whisper them to myself, walk through the rooms silently, sit idly at the table, or lie awake, staring at the ceiling.

The book sheets are definitely lost. The woman in the church said that the manuscript had been «battered». I did not win, but there had been times when I had punched the Demon’s skin, isn’t this true? Of course, if one wears the same suit for two years, it will be worn out. And here, we have a human being. If not for the new troubles, I would have overcome. I definitely would…

And suddenly I realized. It was like an insight, like a flash of lightning in the naked clouds: I must accept my fate. It wanted something from me, calling me somewhere persistently. I could not lose a minute, my hair was already smelling of the wind…

‘What?’ Alyosha asked me coldly, looking at me while I was putting my things in a suitcase quickly and quite hopelessly. At that moment, I felt that I had become much older. What could I tell him? Jeer that I finally decided to act the way he had advised me that night? I would have not enjoyed uttering the cruel words. Why should I reply so rudely? Our mutual life was evidently cheerless and hopeless. He did not make me stay, did not try to find out where I was goin late at night. Maybe, having convinced myself to leave, I was fooling myself. I knew that Alyosha would leave me. I felt that I would soon lose my job. And the expectation of loneliness the trouble was already unbearable. Indeed, in any trouble, the worst thing is waiting and doing nothing, when nothing depends on you. My grief was so obvious, so palpable that the air in the apartment was choking me. I feared that some time later, my son and I will become strangers to each other…

When I went outside, it was quite dark. It is not true that starting a new life is fun. Did I have anything besides the manuscript? My path was not lit by the stars. It was not sweet and precious like honey, no, I was devastated. Where to go? I could not treat life as a game that would end in the long run. To hear the ancient saints’ whispering?.. Their lips had become parched. Like as a pregnant woman with a dead fetus at heart, I was going down the stairs heavily…

The spring wind was cold, the trees were rustling. A dog lay close to the road, his head resting on his paws. Seeing me, he raised his face to the sky and howled in vile way. That kind of howling can kill children’s souls. In the dark, the dog’s eyes were flickering. The dog was madness itself. As much as I drove him away, he howled and howled — a black dog with white eyes…


Chapter 7. Pilgrim

I only knew one name — Father Vladimir. Not the name of the church or of the monastery — nothing. You might as well have gone looking for any person named Vladimir. I wanted to go as far away from the city as possible and start searching from there…

  You will remain my son, and I will remain a rejected mother… If I walk a thousand miles away, it will not change anything…

I did not immediately become a pilgrim. It was hard to realize. I saw cities and villages I had never seen before, I stood near someone else’s gardens and houses. My preveious life was still before my eyes, and I could not just forget her and efface its memory…

I try to remember everything that had happened, but a woman’s memory is like a kaleidoscope. In whatever direction would I rotated it, colorful pieces of glass, the days, would flash rustling and turning over at the end of the tube: green, blue, red… Green — walking in a forest, red — looking at the sunset or the sunrise, blue — swimming in a river or a lake. Those days had no time inside. I definitely felt something else in that journey, some kind of light or dark unreality, a sacred allusion, which I was desperately trying to solve. It was the first few days only that lined up in the order — when I took the train at night, saw Maria and her son, got off in Moscow in the morning and was arrested by the police at the train station.

There, in Moscow, it was the first time that I woke up, not for long though. Staying in the police department and the interrogation sobered me, and I tried to think clearly. First, the suitcase. It was big and bulky, I had shoved almost all of belongings in it. I had no car, and it was summer, so I would have required nothing more than a small bag. And why did I come to Moscow?

Sometimes, you feel like running away, and it doesn’t matter where. This desire, like a worsening fever, overpowers everything else. But if I set a goal to find Father, Vladimir, I had yet to think about it. If he had lived in Moscow or another major city, he would have never come here to publish his book, it was obvious. So, he lives in a small town or in the countryside, far from our city. Otherwise, how did he get there? Just passed by?

It meant that I had to go back, and start your search from there. I had to go through all the villages and towns located around our city, one by one, extending the borders of my search, but not indefinitely. Now, after calm reflection, I believed for the first time that I would find him. The priest image became clearer…

I carried my suitcase for a long time, not being coutages enough to part with it. It was like not being able to part with my old life. An accident helped me say goodbye it forever. Wandering down the road, I heard an elusive rustle behind me. I turned back quickly and saw a wolf creeping after me. She was so thin that she looked terrible. She had horrible dark, drooping breasts touching the ground, and desperately gleaming eyes. The wolf had a broken foot, the wound was still fresh and caused her pain. Tormented, she was almost crawling. Her snarling muzzle was cut against stones and bleeding. I felt the hole with her cubs close by. They were starving, so their mother was crawling after me. The forces were so uneven that I didn’t even had time to get scared. But I was fascinated and attractedp by her look full of tremendous determination. She had no choice. I was standing there, my entire skin cold, while she was crawling to me — a wounded wolf, a nursing mother. I waved my suitcase at her, but she didn’t even flinch. I threw it and hit her in the head. She dropped it on the ground without uttering a sound. I ran, terror-struck, looking back at times. From that on, the image of the wolf didn’t come out of my head. Lying down to rest, I would listen intently to every rustle. I had no sleep, no rest: dropping to the ground, jumping on three legs, the beast was chasing me. Or was it just a dream? What if I weaken, get injured, or fall into unconsciousness? The wolf will overtake me and bite my throat…

What happened? Why did I turn back to face her? I should have killed her in order to keep going…

I didn’t walk long. My intuation, increased in the forest, made ​​me stop as I heard the click of a shutter and low voices. The twigs crunched, then there was angry growling, shots, the smell of gunpowder, and fading howl. She jumped at the people crowding around her den with the cubs. She jumped, although she was quite exhausted. But she remained a wolf, and I saw all that with my eyes closed, as if standing beside. I would have given a lot for the opportunity to take some of that power, which had been killed in me long ago…

Anguish was bringing me back to the city. I was coming very close and stared. I was born in it, full of hope about love, but it had crushed and humiliated me, and then had expelled me contemptuously from its gates. It looked liked a handful of Christmas lights between the two high hills. When I was coming crept closer, the lights grew until they turned into pale lifeless  spots. The night city was moaning, tossing and turning mournfully, pulling out of its depths, in a dispassionate unconsciousness, painful and sharp sobs of human misery and trouble. Reddish smoke enveloped the sky. But in that depressing and piercing chorus, I never heard his name. No one called me, no one need me. Every time I heard the word «mother» uttered by someone else’s child, my heart would leap. But I did not hear Alyosha’s voice addressing me. A mother will hear it wherever she might be… Is he alive?

And even if he wants to escape from his Demon, he will not look at me for support.

Can I really help my child?

I am like an empty ruined church, where the wind howls.

Can I call my son to come come in it? Can I shout, “Come in”?

I had given myself away. I had flown away like calendar sheets. I had ended like the last line in the book…

What do I do?

Rain started dripped, the drops were fresh and icy. Then the roof caved in water. I got out of my hiding place, the beasts’ gap between the stones — subdued, almost unconscious. My bloodshot eyes found the road. The fate was again pressing me to the ground, and I could not get out from under its feet… The water was flowing down in thin silvery threads, as if the Virgin was combing my hair for me, looking after me with cold attention.

From time to time, I caught up with other travelers — there were a lot of people. Sometimes, I listened to their words. They sounded quietly, everyone had a personal story or a trouble, and many did not know where to go. Does anybody know one’s inner self? Can one express what one looking for, or what one would like to find? Tirelessly, day after day, everyone was gathering the scattered glimpses of one’s torn god. Everywhere I saw my own shadows — in many faces. No matter how eagerly I was catching them, trying to find what had been lost, I was never able to find my integrity, to feel a unified and clear creature…

Like a lost soul, I was wandering down the trails, either quickening or easing my pace. Sometimes, in the dark, I saw in front of me, my son’s hand sticking out of the ground, trying to reach me, but the voice was not heard as he was deep in the ground. Sometimes, his hands stretched towards me from the fiery flaming. I was running frantically, scraping my feet on the rocks, but the distance remained the same — was it a dream? Sometimes, I escaped from my memory, but there was always something that shook my yearning for my son: a horse with her foal running past me, a mother leading her child by the hand, children’s voices — far, far away, voices and laughter, sonorous, carefree children’s laughter filling my soul with bitterness.

Crying bitterly, I would fall to the ground. I was surrounded by ghosts, jingling skeletons, creaking mourning iron. It was quite natural in that state of mind. There was a deep scar going through my head.

‘Where are you going to?’ whispered one of them, as if hitting a cup with a weight. ‘You’re crazy, you are doing everything in the wrong way, just everything. There is no excuse for leaving your child alone to die. Not a single animal in the forest would do that. You…’

‘No!’ I would exclaim, trembling with fear and helplessness, bowing my scorched head with my hands, howling like an animal, and sprinkling my head with soil. My crying would tear the leaves from the trees and throw them upon me as if trying to hide the terrible sin…

A plagued voice boomed,

‘You have created a little devil himself. It’s your fault that this monster came into the world. Your son has the power of destruction, he fills the world with smoke and ash. You cannot save him.’

I was moving hesitant along the Earth, which was turned upside down. Stones were crumbling from the black sky. Flimsy clouds were making my feet cold. Voices that belonged to invisible and indistinguishable creatures were gnawing my soul and chewing it with their teeth, crushing it with the burden of shame. Once a painfully familiar voice called me, and I turned around.

My heart trembled with joy: it was my mother waiting for me at the end of the trail. Tears were running down her cheeks, she was looking at me avidly and reproachfully.

‘Vera, Vera’, she was whispering, ‘Come to me, I will help you…’

I rushed to her, but my legs weakened suddenly. The gravity of love was bending me to the ground and making me absolutely weak.

‘But you died long ago’, I remembered and started back. ‘How can you help me? Get away. Leave me alone…’

I rushed back, fleeing from fear, guilt and anxiety, which that washed over me from all sides. Making my way through the thorny acacia bushes, I ran out into the road…

Lifeless mothers were walking down the road, their heads down. They had cried all the tears out and lost their memories. The blessed sick wemen were wandering, and there was fear in their eyes.

All were hoping for a miracle. That of a charm, special prayers and healing relics, holy water or monastic candles and icons. For some reason, most of the gamblers’ mothers were young, while those of the murderers and maniacs were quite old.

Out of hiding bags would they take heavy albums and open in front of me the terrible herbaria: dried in the open sky, maple and birch, firmly impaled on the needles, safely killed with the glue, a string of children looked deadly greay. I closed my eyes in fear. My first impulse was to run up hill and down dale. It was impossible, even with the most sensitive human hands, to carefully remove or strip off the needle those weightless eyeless little bodies labeled with darkness. That required a special power, which dated back to the eternity itself, and I myself followed it…

  In the lifetime midnight, each dropped her baby — and the wates behind her closed and turned into stone. You’re gone for good, he’s frozen forever…

There were a lot of rumors and legends. There was a common practice in Russian maternity hospitals in the eightie: at night, in order to avoid disturbing the doctors, the childbirth was suspended, while in the afternoon, it was stimulated. Mothers were injected with a substance having psychoactive effects that subsequently distorted the baby’s development and formed drug addiction in the child.

The way they practice giving birth in Russian hospitals is something unthought of for any other place in the world. I was taken to the hospital late at night. It was raining cats and dogs outside, and it was next to impossible to wake the doctor up. When he finally came out,  sleepy and angry, he just looked at me, while I was writhing in pain, and nodded to the nurse, «Morphine with diphenhydramine. And let her sleep.» Frankly, being very young and naive, I felt happy when, after the injection, there was complete bliss: the pain that had been tearing my stomach subsided, the bout stopped, and I fell into a long sleep…

It was so long ago, and how could anything be corrected?

Shaking our memories off, like dust, we walked, avoiding low mountains, stretching in a long column or pushing each other in a stupid bunch. The road was sticky with tears, pitted with thousands of feet… The sleepy faces would either become a single entity mounted on a firm stand or flushing and run away in different directions. I would rub my eyes, take my kerchief off for some reason and stroke my hair.

There was a woman in a black headscarf ahead, young, with sprung ribs. She was telling something haltingly and unclearly, as if drinking something bitter on the move, slowly though in big gulps. Feeling a strange excitement, I caught up with her ​​and walked around…

‘They always went out of town, Sasha said they played soccer there. I believed him and was happy. The child always came back so tired and fell asleep at once. He was found in the same place, near the river, beaten to death, with twisted arms and legs covered with purple stains. They had been playing cards, since a long time ago…

I had him buried, my dear little sonny, they threw soil on him, and I returned home. There was so quiet in there. A lot of time passed before I noticed how many things were gone. I don’t know why I recorded everything carefully in the notebook, here it is…’

‘I noticed right away’, someone echoed from behind, ‘but it was useless. I didn’t believe my eyes, yelled, threatened him. Once I came home, the door was open, and he was hanging in a loop. His dear feet were still warm. I rubbed them, put wool socks on them, but they felt frozen through the socks. His feet were small, just childish, the toes were jusy like mine, and his eyes were wide open and fixed. Unseeing, as if wishing to say something…

‘What is it, Kolya, my dear?’ I asked him, but he didn’t reply. So I now visit all the churches. People say that there are places where one can talk to the children, so he would tell me what had happened. When I light a candle at his photo at home, he says nothing…’

‘Mine is alive. He looks at me but doesn’t recognize me. Keeps saying that he will he will get even, he will, by all means, and return all the money. Who can say what happened to him? Four guys brought him home, he was unconscious. They say he owed money. I took his hands, and they fell down. Then I saw that there were no fingers on his hands… None at all… How can it be that there are none? He was not able to give the money back… I now walk around asking what money it is. Maybe I can return it? Maybe, if the money is returned, everything will be OK with my memory, if the money is returned?.. The main thing is to return the money, to give the money back…’

‘My husband and I sold everything to return the money: the garage, the car, then apartment. We hoped that he would come to his senses, see his parents begging in the street, and become the way he used to be. No way. Anger made us blind, and it was so natural to be angry: we had been slaving at work, and now everything we had was gone… The relatives became a burden, and it’s understandable. Now I wander along the roads and cry… All I want is just to breathe his live warmth, at least once. Can anyone tell him this? Can he hear these words?..’

An old woman was listening and nodding to everybody, laughing and covering her toothless mouth with her grey shawl. Sometimes, she would close her festering eyes blissfully and start singing nasally as if whining, straining her skinny chest and walking blindly, bumping at everyone.

All those voices, the long restrained sobs would suddenly and uncontrollably turn into a wild deathly howling. The piercing funeral sounds would hit my ears, pierce my skull, swarm in my brain like hot worms, finding no rest, dive into my veins, slip in my tissues.

There was no salvation and comfort from that bitter weeping, which grew to the skies. The skies were swinging, stretching to the limit, thunder was echoing. Spurred by flashes of lightning, I got off the road, but my God! — Hiding in the bushes, gasping for air, I would inevitably get to the same path. An invisible hand of vengeance would place me back into the middle of the avalanche of grimly wandering women, pale with tears. And it was impossible to stand aside. All I could do was frantically and deserately moving forward, feling nothing but unspeakable horror. How can I describe that horrible streaming, what can I compare it with? With animals doomed to slaughter and crying? With a frenzied crowd being shot at close range?

Why had I never heard that great cry that was everywhere — in the dizzying air and in the whirling clouds? Turning into black dust, it was racing down. Its dense layers were going into the realm of the earth, into the most remote and perilous places. Or did I have to experience the same despair to hear it?

The longer I went, the more the suffocating mountain of mutilated, torn, strangled bodies piled in front of me. Every mother, opening the black crevice of her mouth, seemed to extort a fresh corpse and throw it into the stinking pile of ghosts. Numerous gloomy stories, like blood-sucking mosquitoes, were hanging over the endless road, glittering like death itself.  They were wailing plaintively and softly, re-burying their children, recalling the still water at the bottom of the graves, the sound of nails on the coffins, the black and sticky clumps of soil, hiding ther children forever…

It’s never going to end, never. Stamping of the feet was shaking the road. Yellowish-greenish soil with a bad smell was flowing from under the feet… I lost heart completely…

Once I looked back — there was no one behind… Was there anyone?

Did I break away and become just another a pilgrim?

It always remained a mystery to me…

There were many monasteries and churches. One could change one’s clothes: there often was a  bench at the church entrance with a pile of clothes and shoes. All kinds of shawls — white and colored, cotton and wool, with bright flower prints. Digging in the shabby stuff, I used to look for airy and light fabric, with drawstrings at the waist. The shoes were old and worn off, but there was no choice. Frankly, the clothes were for women who came to the church with their heads uncovered, in short skirts or trousers. They were stopped at the door and asked to change for visiting the church…

The pilgrims were often given food — porridge and pea soup, and there was a lot of fresh bread. Sitting at a long wooden bench, banging spoons, we would quickly empty the steaming bowls full of hot food, and ask for more. Feeling quite full, would fall asleep right there, with there heads on one side. Flies were buzzing, dogs were barking far away, hens were cackling. The hands on the table, mine or someone else’s, were tanned black, dry, with calloused fingers. The lips were chapped, the eyes were immersed inside…

I kept visiting the churches tirelessly one by one. I would cross my forehead and enter the church, my heart beating. Then I would the first woman I saw there about the priest’s name, and go out quickly. No, not Father, Vladimir… Again, not Father Vladimir… And again…

Monotonous and continuous walking, flashing of bright green, the voices of birds, gurgling of water — the almighty fear shook its head and retreated. Smoky-grey pigeons in the azure sky. I would stumble looking at them, my head thrown back, almost falling into the puddles. My fingers would feel for the money in my pocket, and I would sigh contentedly. I used to buy biscuits with raisins in the rural shops; along the Don river, there were many springs of cold, clear water as well as strawberry ravines.

The summer was hot, the earth didn’t even cool down at night. The villages didn’t have enough teachers, the youth wanted to live in the city. In one place, a tired, chubby head of the village, a man of about sixty, dressed in a dusty sweater and high boots, urged me for a long time. He offered me a job at the village school and housing a solid stone house for two occupants. The idea of ​​living in the countryside didn’t scare me. On the contrary, I saw it as a secluded tranquility, blissful haven in which I could hide away safely. I would often go to the crossroads (it always happened at night) and, slowly stepping down, bewildered, and look at the roads running in different directions…

Shall I go back? Until it was September, the beginning of the school year? Or shall I stay in the village? Shall I dissolve in the universal emptiness of fields turn into a blissful, heavenly pilgrim, a diligent rural teacher? Shall I continue the search of the priest, walking with a rotten staff?

No matter how temptingly the new life was shining, no matter how attractive its paths were, I would crouch down to the ground and here in the very depths of it a vague and incomprehensible song, a secret call of destiny. It promised something different — new wounds, pain, and even death, but it was impossible to do otherwise than to follow it…

Wandering in remote places, I would often come to a small overgrown lake. I would sit down on the bank, put my feet in the fresh water, and feel faint with pleasure. Silence… I would enjoy plunging into the cool luxury of water, into the treasures of the muddy bottom. Shiny circles would run in all directions. Dull blue and pale green, they would quickly get to the bank, lick the thick and juicy grass, and never come back. Swinging my feet, I would hook soft, round leaves having a gentle touch of emerald velvet, numerous white stars of flowers with slightly brown edges of the sharp blades. Sprays would sob loudly and flying away… I hadn’t relaxed for such a long, long time!.. I hadn’t relaxed for years. The sky would shower me with clusters of water — transparent and greenish, thick and clean like juice. I would raise my face and listen quietly to the grateful response in my blood to the warm scent of the rain. The days were immovable like pines, and, lying in the grass, I would dissolve in them gradually like in the eternity… The numb days had a good influence on me, comforting and healing my sorrow. The summer was sleeping together with me, shaking the branches lazily and gently, scattering covering me with silver poplar leaves, the wind would kiss my cheeks good night. Late in the evenings, I would calm down and closw my eyes, and open myself up in the morning like the dawn. The sky was cloudy and fragrant like jasmine frozen in crystal.

Acute loneliness made ​​me seek for communication with someone I had lost site of long ago. Timid hope seeped uncertainly into me by tiny droplets. I had been away from that for such a long time. I was separated from the real world with the same terrible abyss as my son. In his image, I hated what was inside me! Now I admitted that, and I acknowledged the unreality of my previous life. I had dropped out of everyday conversations, like a bump from a furtree, and lay silent, covered in grass. All was forgotten — the friends, the students, as if they had never existed. How wonderful it is to be silent! Once I was not able to get rid of my thoughts, and now I wanted to think — but I could not… I was deeply sorry that I had lost so much time.

What was I in for?

Night in the forest were quite special and indescribable, I fancied flickering figures, glass bells crying. Full moon would shower its alarming rays upon the ground, stirring the piles of woven roots and lightening someone’s white face and pale hands with black talons. No, there were no people, nobody wandered at night along the forest trails, but then… Who did?

Once I saw a young girl. She walked slowly, pushing the branches with virgin beauty of her hands. Her beautiful ashen hair was loose on her shoulders, her subtle body barely covered with lightweight fabric, her lips were burning like as bitten pomegranate. Her incredibly white body oozed wonderful scent of night violets. Caught unawares, I closed my eyes and wondered immediately at the unbearable lightness of her step — there was not a crunch, not a rustle. She glided past gracefully and walked carelessly into the forest, when a naked ghost caught up with her on the fly. It was a green-bellied satyr or a devil. He came out of nowhere, as if attracted by the pouring blue scent. His thoroughbred nostrils widened, he was breathing huskily, his eyes, like in cut glass, crazy lights were dancing and sparkling with sensual anticipation. The girl turned around, screamed like a cat, and waved her hands as if trying to defend. Obeying a dark call, I was creeping quietly, crawling over the leaves and awakened shadows, looking through the thick trees. He knocked her back and started playing viciously with her screaming mouth. He was tearing it with his hard lips, ruffling and turning his sharp fangs like a fragile bud. It was fading and crumbling, her bare legs were trembling like greenish stems, her moaning eyes were looking nowhere, their brilliance turned black and blinded. Was it reality? Fascinated, my teeth in the rough bark, half delirious, my eyes narrowed, I was watched the violent and rhythmic movement of the tight buttocks, shivering of the naked pulled up tail. The rotten black leaves were jumping as if they were alive, and rushing away. The devil would lean on the powerful and slimy layer of leaves for a short time, relax blissfully, moaning and rubbing his quivering body, and everything would repeat tens and hundreds of times, with no end. There was an accute smell of wool…

At one moment, he turned lazily, pulled the air with his nostrils, and, without looking up from her prostrate body, waved his paw to me shamelessly, calling me. Terrified, I ducked and darted away…

For a long time I suffered the wild charm and sweetness of that scene. Quite unthinkable and shameful, it took all my imagination and my dreams… All kinds of emotions burst out of me, and there were among them such forbidden desires that I had never even dreamed of… And it was me. I was not firmly established yet, I had a lifeless heart, a lost soul, but I was full of bold sensuality, I smelled of drunken and bitter herbs, wet pine needles, and hot ground. I listened to the terrible roar of my underground water, its crazy red streams, and was horrified to think: is it possible to love me? No, no, it was impossible to love me…

As if not myself, I again tried to join the living. Why did no one but me hear those early visions, why didn’t anyone’s whole being shudder seeing them? No, we are not supposed to ask. There should be a hidden part of life, which is better to remain silent…

My sleep was brief and superficial, but I had never before felt such vigor in my body. Can it be that sleeping was invented by people? I was sleeping like an animal, keenly listening to the ground, as if growing into it. My legs got stronger, I lost weight and tanned, my dreams became vivid and rich, and I saw myself flying. I got my sandals out of the bag when entering to the village. I wished winter would never come…

When I would give myself to the warmth flow of light and the sweet smell of flowers, the mighty and terrible call would fling the foliage, the imperious imperative would raise me from the ground. In the distance, barely visible, was a terrifying woman with dark burning eyes, glowing like pomegranate wine. A necklace of skulls was rattling and pounding on her strong neck. There was a mad force and power inside her. Black dry butterflies were fluttering around her. Quick as lightning, shaggy as fire, she would appear at dusk and drive me to the deserted, fragile path with sharp and burning lashes. Quickly and excitedly, choking of smoke and heat, I followed her as if drunk. Sometimes, I could see her so clearly that I could distinguish the belt of severed hands, the purple-red tongue she licked her lips with. Those black lips were parched with blood, and the woman had a lot of thin dark blue hands, which she could reach anywhere — what was it? I felt the smell of firy ashes and inflamed dust. I saw the spread blue hands fumbling in the inky darkness like rays. Maybe it was Death that came for me? She was splitting easily the stones dried-on to the ground. Her eyes, like two axes, made the green spruces boil and the water calm and lifeless…

    I could not avoid or hide. Out of all proportion, there was a craving — to follow he.

  I had no choice, she covered him. Transparent and almost lifeless, my son, my only child was almost breathless. His life depended on me, on my really animal-like determination and self-control, patience and perseverance. Any careless movement of mine would distort his outlines, wet grass would become more and more visible through him, as well as the imprints of multiple traces…

Once she took me to a huge meadow, in the midst of which there was a deep opening or crack. She ordered me severely to go down… I was making my way deeper into the dense ground, breathing in its raw frost and dark heaviness. My single word or subtle resistance would have been enough to let me find myself under the sun again. But for some reason I found that descent very necessary and vital.

  Some kind of lethal force was pulling me along, it had all the intimacy and the key to my mystery. Every loss that was dear to my heart and gave meaning to my life deepened the descent. The soil was crumbling. The darkness was screaming beneath me, and I recognized every step pitted with crying. Moving down was making me torturing me. I crawled down on my knees, dirty of tears.

I was slipping on a fragile cave, twisiting and floating down the underground river, flying in a hazy dream.  Sparks of light were going down behind my back, soil was crumbling and ringing. There was no way back though. There was nothing left but the otherworldly barrier. The exit was ahead, unclear and unidentified, equally impenetrable and deadly. Would I have enough power? I was all alone. Every cell of my being, every gene of my memory kept whispering, «Don’t look back. The past is irrecoverable…»

  I knew, I remembered: it was my young soul that was getting free. Its incessant blinking was able to tear any kind of darkness. Even the distant glow of its breath was reviving my old dignity and royal faith in all the most beautiful things people are born for…

But was I mad?  Searching for special and hidden meaning everywhere — was the demon making fun of me and fooling me? After one has exhausted all one’s power and wasted all ones inner reserves, those space-time disturbances and bizarre hallucinations arise…

My impatience became inevitable …

I turned around…

Many events are inexpressible, they make the lines shake and blur. Gentle and clear, she was going away silently, while I just watching her leaving. Everything was the way it was supposed to be… It was the second time that I got a funeral message that I had once mourned bitterly.

The forest was crying. The leaves and branches were sobbing, streams of precious moisture were pouring from the sky. «A time for everything, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…» 2

My time will come, and I will be surprised that I hadn’t known things that were so clear…

Chapter 8. Meeting with Father Vladimir

  It happened early in the morning. The church was new and fresh — white, with dark green domes. The town was small, as if a concave inward. It stretched along the wide valley where, probably in the old days, a river must have raged, or even an ocean. That was the only explanations of the high steep banks, between which houses clung looking like toys. I was descending cautiously, holding on the bushes.  Pebbles and uprooted parched grass was flying down with a low whistle. Because of the long journey, my hands had become much stronger, they were just full of strength. Everywhere I threw a glance to, there were high cliffs. From a distance, they looked like layer cakes, with thin layers of yellow stone interspersed with white and light grey. Definitely, there was a different, much better descent to the town, there was a road on which cars drove, I was pretty sure of that. I had come there from the wrong place, I had to take a round about way, but looking down, I wanted to go down intolerably.

At the bottom, I took a breath and looked around. I had just come down there from the sky. The church was flickering near by. A little closer, and I heard a service that was going on inside. I went up the stairs, opened the high wooden door and entered.

The church was immersed in the unique cool of its own. Shimmering in the dark, candle lights were swaying, it smelled of fresh paint and something special, spiritually old. Near the end of the room, on the dais in front of the iconostasis, there was a tall man with his back to me. He was wearing a long black robe. He would turn occasionally and wave the censer towards the parishioners. The incense smoke was shining. Coming closer imperceptibly, I peered closely at his face. The dim glare made it look young and sometimes old. His voice was high and clear. With zealous care, heads down, the women were crossing diligently and frequently, watching the chanting and repeating certain words. The chorus sounded from behind the columns, so I didn’t see the chanters’ faces. For some unexplainable reason, I thought that coming to a church didn’t necessarily mean to be a churchwoman. It was so inappropriate and out of place… I was overcome with anxiety. I hurriedly turned to the bench, where a little old lady was selling candles, bought a few quietly, and went to the icon of Our Lady of Sorrows. Seeing her always made me cry, I was unable to contain my tears. This time, I turned… and my eyes inevitably met with the priest’s. I heard people whispering «Father Vladimir». My heart skipped a beat and began to beat faster. I had a wonderful feeling. Was this the one?

The priest came out from the altar. The old women began putting out the candles…

So I found him. It had my most intimate dream! The end… The long journey was over. I felt a little sad and even hurt. Strange and contradictory feelings oppressed me when, feeling deep embarrassment, I walking with him in the old park surrounding the church on all sides. I saw that Father Vladimir was also experiencing slight confusion and surprise.

‘It is strange that you have found me. I never expected a visit from this side. But seeing you, I realized at once that some part of my being had been waiting for you.’

‘Why didn’t you finish the book?’

‘Everybody has one’s own path. What I could recommend? To get away from the world? I didn’t know to continue. Instinctively, like an animal, I also wanted to escape, and I looked for a way out. At that time, the solution was to write the book. I left it in the church… I didn’t even want to have it published… Well, it only had a few sheets. I dreamed that there was at least one person who would take over and complete it…’

‘To escape? Escape what?’

‘I have a similar story. But it was me who was the son. And oddly enough, my mother was a primary school teacher. A quiet, modest woman. It’s amazing, and I still can’t explain why it is the teachers that, according to the statistics, have the largest number of evil children. Sorry, I digress…’

We were walking through the trees. The dry flooring of acacia flowers was rustling and crunching under his feet. The air smelled of bonfires and tar: branches and cones were being burned somewhere. The sky was also unusual, it was covered entirely with bright blue and white plumage of clouds. Father Vladimir was silent. He seemed to be left to himself, and his whole figure exuded excitement. It seemed to me that he wanted to continue but didn’t dare to. And I didn’t dare to look at him, though, against my will, I kept glancing at him stealthily. The skin of his face was pale yellow, sometimes soft transparent and white, there was a barely visible pattern of thin veins at the temples. All that reminded of the beauty of alabaster stone.

I was excitedworried, as uneven beating my heart! Is it not a dream? Everything seemed marvelous to me, everything looked unusually bright and voluminous: the bark the trees, the tangled strands of branched hanging down to the ground, the wax stains on the edge of the waving black cloth. The small transparent pond made me feel absolutely fascinated. I would look back and see that even our shadows were different: mine was regular, while Father Vladimir’s looked like sprinkled with dark silver beads. Could it really be like that? No, it ws a kind of obsession… Magnificent transformation…

The priest walked without paying any attention to me. It was completely absorbed in the past, something in it tormented him and made it hard for him to speeak. And for a split second, his stern and sad face would be softened by a vague and longtime childish look. A weightless wave of time would cover that cold, rational and strong figure, changing the dry and rigid shape of the lips making them more prominent and subtly sensual. His hair was thick and wavy, long and dark, almost black… The priest turned sharply to the right. We passed by two huge stones and came to a small clearing. There was a bench under a spreading acacia tree.

‘I like sitting here. It’s so quiet.’

We sat down.

‘I had no father, my mother gave birth to me late, when she already had no hope to get married. She made a secret agreement with a married man, a visitor, after which he disappeared quietly, as if he had never existed. For me, a child, my mother was a beautiful, even magical woman, but now I realize that she was too shy and insecure to hold a man. She didn’t look nice in her glasses; she was short-sighted and had large teeth. All that, if desired, could have been removed easily, but my mother was a stubborn and uncooperative person in her own way. When I was born, all other things lost their significance to her, there was nothing and no one but me. On the one hand, she became incredibly beautiful, but it was not the kind of beauty that makes men turn back. From now on, her eyes were excited and fiery, but all the fire was directed in one direction, just like the light from a lantern creates a hot circle on the ground. My childhood was happy and joyful, all my whims were fulfilled, secret gifts were bought, all the stories of the world were read to me. I never felt small and pathetic. Oh, on the contrary, that love, in which my Mom wrapped me tightly, made ​​me powerful deity. I sat on a royal throne for a long time, longer than I was supposed to. But there is an inexorable law of nature: having drunk your mother’s love, one needs to go further. Life itself offers us new pleasures and new needs.

I kind of woke up suddenly, and, finding myself in a trap, I felt an inexplicable, burning desire to escape. Her ongoing attention was choking on me. Faced with mother enormous resistance, I was very surprised. She was on the verge of insanity, and trying to keep me close by, she clung to me so desperately that it seemed to me that she was using unlawful methods crying, begging, pretending to be sick. At times, I felt terrible remorse. That would bring us together again. We would read books together in the evenings, she would do her knitting, telling me something briskly, baking scrumptious cakes with poppy seeds and cherry. But I was a teenager, my friends used to laugh at me when they saw me and my mother coming back home from the theater. Their contemptuous laughter would break into pieces and split apart my love for her, I suffered and felt awful despair, and the distance between us kept growing. I was turned in an incredibly callous and cruel guy. I paid no attention to my mother’s plaintive cries, I was completely free of any restrictions, and gradually merged into a wild and unhealthy gang. We had fun playing cards for money, then it was backgammon, then the game machines. They dragged me in quickly and deftly like a mermaid pulls one in the swamp water. Before I had time to look around, I become a real gambler. I used to steal things from home arrogantly and recklessly, just everything that I came across. Once I found out that I was going to give the addicts my Mom’s glasses, without which she could not take a step. My icy heart didn’t even flinch. At the time I thought that my mother poisoned my life terribly, I despised her unhealthy attachment to me and was ashamed of her humble, almost poor clothes. I felt like a big brave hero. My head was full of devilry confusion. Now I don’t quite comprehend that once I was that kind of person.

Soon I made friends with a girl. She had long purple hair and unprecedented freedom in everything. That caused my admiration. She used to walk around the apartment quite naked, even when my friends would come to see me. Not embarrassed at all, she would sit on the couch, her legs crossed, smoking a long cigar. Her shapely legs in black fishnet stockings turned me on greatly. I used to grow cold at the thought of her, I used to tremble with jealousy. She  was seizing all my being quickly and confidently. She stretched before me like a wood or a jungle, and I had to make my way through them along slippery trails, drowning in the luxurious thicket of her hair; I kept discovering more and more inhuman pleasures; I was dizzy and crazy about her. It was a snowy forest. And, unlike a live one, filled with bird voices, it had its own charms, its attraction. Well aware of her power over me, she easily made me addicted of drugs and gambling. It was an incredibly beautiful though incredibly hard life. For Olga, I was kind of wooden toy or a button blank. She used to choose a particular pattern of relationship according to her taste and fleeting mood. It could be just anything — a light fabric that could be torn easily, or a close, expensive texture with gold pressing. I was ready to be anything in order to be with her — a button, a puppy, or a reel. We used to stay in bed for hours and laugh. After that, she would take me to the night clubs and discos. Well, life was fun. We men are like that. We know nothing of the fears of tomorrow, we plunge into the present moment. I could not get rid of myher mother, she stuck around, always pestering me with her tears. Sometimes, she would spend the whole night under the window. But how could I show her to Olga? She would have laughed at me. I declared something like a boycott to her, it was my special fighting tool: I stopped talking to her or taking her calls. Occasionally, when going out, I saw her spying on me from the bushes, the fence, or the car. She stopped crying and imploring me, she would just look at me. Her eyes were full of concealed pain and fear, but I, as though petrified because of my stubbornness and self-will, would pretended not to notice her…

Then my mother suddenly disappeared, and I was happy to think that she finally calmed down and left me alone. The days flashed like the spokes of a bicycle. I didn’t remember how much time passed — a year or two, or maybe more. Our gang used to steal mobile phones and unlock cars. Many were caught and got lost in prisons, but there was a kind of star shining over me: I was agile and nimble and would always lam on time. My star’s name was Olga, her love of money and luxury went beyond all limits, but I was touched and delighted by her. I loved her absurd greed, and even our humiliating agreement. From now on, she would give me her affection in portions according to the number of banknotes. What began as a game, as daring eccentricities, that sacrifice of mine quietly became a duty. I was always terribly afraid lest she should reduce her love. So our relationship soon really reached a limit beyond which I could clearly see a break. Catching my fear, sensing it with her wild and adamant nature, she became increasingly estranged from me. Sluggishly, without removing her boots and dress, she would give herself to me on the couch, swinging her hat in her hands absently. Being so close, she would drive me crazy. Exhausted by the terrible jealousy, I could barely hold back my tears. Those were pathetic crumbs of love stuck to the soles of her lovely baby-like feet. A single involuntary movement of her womanly hips, an incredible, vicious look, promising, naive and helpless, would obeys me like a dog. No one, no one was in power to take her away from me! She only belonged to me, nobody else but me. But she was always such a remote island that I could see nothing but its woolly outlines…’

At those words Father Vladimir seemed to wake up. He was not himself, pallor covered his face, I saw him breathing heavily, trying to have as much air as possible and hold it for a long time in his lungs. His sadness penetrated me. I clenched my lips involuntarily, my forehead closed. He looked at me quickly and attentively, and looked away.

‘I’m so sorry. We also sometimes need a confession. But I did n’t expect that such long reminiscences would break through so violently, in such an odd hour. Forgive me, for God’s sake…’

‘No, no’, I assured him warmly and even grabbed by his sleeve with my both hands. ‘Please go on. This story, your personal secret, is extremely important for me. Sorry, it is not mere curiosity, not at all. I was very close to… I’m so grateful to you, but this is not mere curiosity…’

We got up and walked quickly along the path. Father Vladimir went on, though not immediately. His voice was now calm and focused.

‘Only when she received gifts or money from me, her bright eyes flashed as before, her thin hands clasped my neck, she would rise on her toes to kiss me. Actually, she was still a kid who wanted to live brightly and happily, giving nothing in return. There was something in her that I can’t express… It was a greedy, shameless need for admiration. That little blond animal wanted more than my love. I was in constant fear of being left with no money, that of losing her. And the only source of money was gambling. Somehow, gradually, I became addicted to her and ceased to notice that those two passions, the game and Olga, were throwing me like two green snakes rattling with their scales, licking me with their slippery tongues, and oozing seduction. When everything was OK, the game emphasized and reinforced my happiness, increasing the degree of my intoxication with life. Because both of us I wanted more and more of what youth could give us — bread and entertainment, wicked nights and days painted with all kinds of fireworks. When we quarreled, the game helped me forget the troubles, and it was like jumping from an airplane into the ocean. I such cases, I would experience an incredible drive of flying, and it made it easier to bear my girlfriend’s changeable nature… What star protected me so long?

It happened on the New Year. Olga and I went with to the marketplace to buy food. Everything around us was buzzing and pushed, just as it always happens before the holiday. But in one place, between the rows of meat, it was particularly busy, there were screams and laughter there.

‘Come on, let’s see, for fun’, Olga said. I followed her. An old woman was dancing in the middle of the circle. She was insane, it was evident judging by her long unkempt hair, ragged colorful skirts through which one could see her ​​thin body, blue with cold and covered with bruises. Besides, she was almost barefooted: her ugly, twisted, scabby toes peeped through the dirty rags wound up on her feet. Her bare ankles were entwined with brown laces and ropes, her knees had a strange, frightening appearance. I thought I could see the whole incredible figure clearly and, as if through a magnifying glass, all its fragments. People approached, drunken shouts grew. The old woman probably though she was a great dancer. She was turning her skirts, wobbling her thighs, and even tried to do belly dancing. She was constantly grabbed and pinched by her naked belly, which was wrinkled like raw chitterlings, and all that grabbing and pinching made her squeal happily like a dog. What was there in her headе? She definitely wanted to be liked, that was the reason why she was performing that ridiculous dance. That’s why she perceived the clapping and spanking her bottom, which was strong and probably painful, as the highest praise. She was bowing low, doing that as diligently as an ugly old doll with detached hands. Her face was hideous due to her broken nose and a fresh scar on her cheek.

“Just look at that hack”! Olga said joyfully pointing at the old woman. My girlfriend was husking sunflower seeds taking them out of a small bag made of a newspaper and spitting to the ground, right under the dancing woman’s feet. Suddenly a dirty beggar ran up, kicked the old woman in the stomach with his foot, and rebounded quickly. Olga laughed loudly and clapped her hands. She was quite happy as if she were at a circus… The crazy woman was also doing great: she staggered abruptly and fell on the stone counter, and hit her chest… But when she turned to the audience, her toothless mouth was smiling, and her faded eyes were shining with a wild joy.

The only one who felt badly was me. That woman was my mother.

It was the first time that I felt pain. I froze and lost the ability to speak and think. My whole life, which included jealousy, despair, gambling or fear of losing Olga, everything turned out to be not more than a tiny little toy, and it was decreasing every second. I can hardly find the right words to describe that. Silent, shocked to the core, I pulled my mother’s sleeve, she turned around for a few moments, displeased, and started making ​​faces in front of to the spectators again, barely flexing her aching legs. She did not recognize me. I was no one for her, or, rather, one of the many people who belonged to the crowd…

“Mom!” I cried out in horror, but it only seemed to me. This is what happens when you have a nightmare, crying but not hearing your voice, wishing to wake up but not being able to. There are such moments, even seconds, in which the whole life changes. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s like a sudden jump, or a shifter: here I am, here I am gone. I saw the brutal crowd laughing at my poor mother who had lost her memory. No one, just no one cared about her. I was alone. I was so lonely as though standing on the path leading to hell. For a moment, I hesitated, and I will be ashamed of that moment for the rest of my life. I walked back in prostration, together with Olga. She was laughing, her laughter being deafening and thunderous. She kept remembering more and more details, for the next burst of laughter. I was hurrying, quickening steps as if trying to run away from her. Not to be outdone, she grabbed my arm. Her heels were knocking in my temples, the sound of her voice was burniung me to the ground…

The rest of the evening was like scattered mosaics: the kitchen, the bath, ice water, a glass, the ceiling, darkness. Olga was sleeping, as always, her little feasts under her cheek, but she was now so distant and alien that I was feeling awfully cold, asking myself, «How come? Just that morning, a few hours ago, the smell of her skin drove me crazy, just as her armpits, hair, all parts of her body that I loved madly… I was looking at her as if she were a dead child. And suddenly sobbing broke out and shook my whole body from head to toe.

That was the first day of my new life.

The next morning I found my Mom. She was there in the marketplace, and I tried to rescue her, take her home, or at least cover her with some clothes. But all was in vain. She did not recognize me, and when I tried to take her hand, she became incredible furious, screaming in an evil and hostile voice, pushing me with her stained bony hands, and calling for help loudly. I felt almost crazy myself, trying to establish a relationship with her, if those words can somehow fit that situation. I watched carefully to see where she lived. Together with the homeless and drunks, she huddled in an abandoned kindergarten, with broken windows and a half-destroyed roof. Stink and stench, filth in every corner — I never thought that one could sink into such a bestial state. Mom’s place was in the corner of a room, she slept on a pile of old newspapers thrown on the concrete floor. She slept surprisingly soundly, but her face constantly trembled in a dream, and her mouth would curve in a childish way. And, for some reason, she was clinging a small stone to herself. She always had a new one, which she would have picked up on the road. Why didn’t she let it go? The skin on her hands was so thin, almost transparent, that I could see every vein. Only when she was asleep, I could smooth her ​​hair; it was impossible to comb it without waking her up. What could I do, sitting on my knees, not taking my eyes off her? Never had I felt so miserable, insignificant, and weak…

Day and night people there would walk and stumble, scream and die. And I would sit silently next to my mother and watching her sleeping. Her features softened at times and she looked as before. I thought that she was going to wake up, see me, and ask about her glasses. What would I say? The apartment in which I grew up, where my mother lived, had long been sold through many hands. Why did it all happen? I was afraid to ask that question as I knew the answer. And if I had found out that my mother had died long ago, it would not have been such a blow to me. But to see her living like that, being made ​​fun of, risking to be beaten to death at any moment, was unbearable. We had changed roles: I wanted to be with her, desperately, even madly, while she was running away from me as the devil on the cross. I watched her sucking bread, mumbling with her toothless mouth, scratching her head with her frostbitten fingers and laughing. I tried to see in her my infinitely beloved bright mother, who was already died. Love I had never known about was awakening inside me, causing unbearable pain. Despite everything, I believed that she would recognize me. Trying to return the lost childishness to my voice, I kept reading to her the rhymes I had recited at the daycare morning concerts. She had helped me memorize those rhymes, doing that with infinite patience and gentleness. Again and again, I told her those old stories that were only dear to the two of us. Sometimes, it really seemed to me, and was almost clear, that light comes on in her empty eyes. Yes, that light did exist, I saw it raising from the insane depth. Holding my breath, I used to watch the pale opalescent glow as if coming from dark cold stones. How wrong I was! It was the light of death itself. There was a barrier between us that exists between the living and the dead. How had she gotten into that inaccessible space where the great instinct for survival, the maternal instinct never existed any longer?

At times I thought: Has anyone seen their mother’s empty eye sockets? And what did they feel? Maybe it happened when the mother reached old age, and the child was had grey hair and was protected with layers of fatigue against excessive emotion. My mother was fifty years old, I was twenty-two. In another scenario, she could have been a blossoming woman, wife, lover. Believe me, sometimes I wished she were dead as it was so painful to see her. But it was even worse not to see her at all. I tried to leave, sometimes I endured several days, but terror drove me back. In my nightmares, I saw my mother crippled, beaten and bloodied, lying in the snow. Winter and spring passed, summer came, and on one of the warm days, I didn’t find her. She was nowhere. I searched the kindergarten, the marketplace and the whole neighborhood. I asked each and every slum dweller, but no one knew where she was. They said she had gone somewhere with her constant companions. Indeed, two shabby guys, whom I had often seen with her, were also gone. I was looking for a long time, and it would have been a blessing to find her grave and know that her soul had finally calmed down. But God sends everyone what one requires. I never saw it. Sometimes, lying awake at night, I am terrified to thing that she may still be alive.

I recovered instantly, and it was almost a miracle. I looked in disgust at all my old world: Olga, gambling, friends, and money. All those pseudo-values dimmed ​​suddenly, got covered with ashes, while no real ones appeared instead of them. That was the hardest period. The shock was too great, it broke even my love for Olga. I was ready to take care of her, but no more than that. She became a stranger to me. First she didn’t understand it, didn’t take it seriously, kept trying to seduce me and get me back. But, in the end, she got angry and left me alone. From now on, I had nothing I was attached to. Even the city became alien to me. I wandered around exhausted, my clothes were covered with dust, I ate what God sent…

I would probably have died so unbearable and bleak my days were, but suddenly, the road brought me to a church. I walked in by chance, not for long — and stayed forever. I still keep in mind the first day, when, looking around, I awkwardly tried to put a candle in front of the icon of the Savior. It popped and smoked, then slipped out of my hands and fell. A man dressed in beautiful vestments was coming to me. Expecting of an immediate expulsion, I started moving back to the door. But it was quite different. He suddenly took a large part in my life, and, with his help, I became a priest. Heaven brought ne here along a terrible path. Could I, an unbeliever, have ever dreamed of this? Life seemed to have outlined a circle with red flags: the walls with icons, the candles, the prayers, the congregation… That was the only space where I was able to breathe. When I crossed the threshold outside, the sunshine would hit my eyes and chest, I would stagger like a drunk who lost his footing. Rebirth is painful itself, there is no light in it. Then I saw human faces in front of me, and I experienced another second shock in my life: I saw the suffering of others. I had never thought that there were so many suffering people around me. Dissolving in their troubles and tribulations, unraveling all murky knots of other people’s lives, I temporarily forget my own troubles and find momentary peace.

I faced a choice: to survive, I had to build a new myself. One cannot look back as the past kills. Nothing can be corrected. The past is the kingdom of Hades, it is a grey infinite space where the air is filled with an oppressive guilt… For a while it seemed to me that was not living but rushing between the two worlds, and believe me, the world of death has more charisma, because it belongs to eternity and we stay in it much longer than in the world of life.

I still don’t know why it happened to me….

No, I’m not looking for this meaning in the ordinary human sense. Clearly, mother’ madness pulled me out of gambling, I bought the freedom at a terrible price. But, after serving several years in the church, I learned to look at this life… well, it can seem quite confusing. I look at all this life as a sacred concept, where everything has been tailored by all of our senses carefully and perfectly — the color, the shape, the action, like the petals of flowers, or a rainbow. I was supposed to become a priest, I understood that clearly. No other way would have brought me here over the shortest path than mine. But there is something more…’

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘Something I cannot grasp. It is a kind of intuition, it is more of a thin sphere, which I can’t describe or expree with words.’

‘But what if?..’ I bit my tongue, but he knew instantly by half-question as well as why I could not say it.

‘You mean what if all that is just an illusion? What if I’m just confused and trapped in a simple mind? All this is possible, but I have a reference point, a sign, so to speak.’

‘And what is it?’ Holding my breath, I stared at Father, Vladimir as if he were a superior being. The classical, haughty and tender beauty of his face resembled ancient statues. Sometimes, his words would strike me with slight madness, but even that madness has its true dignity and depth. He was not trying to find any explanations or excuses.

‘The sign is simple. I believe that if fate gets from me what it looks for, it will send me a message, the only one that I’ll be waiting until the last day of my life, until my last breath. That will be news, bitter or terrible, about my mother.’

‘But you wrote – let me show this to you’. I took out the crumpled sheets of the manuscript, which I always had with me, and found the right lines, which had inspired me to take the long journey. And even though I knew them by heart, every word of it, I, for some reason, read out carefully, «But if you have rolled into such a state of things that your loved one won’t accept you, you have made too many mistakes and neglected the situation too long, the way out is still there. You will read about it at the end of this book.»

‘You can’t help your son’, Father Vladimir said quickly. ‘The only person you can help is yourself. The stronger the Demon in your soul, the stronger is God. Look for that power in your soul. Try to discover it iside yourself. That’s the only way to help your son.’

Suddenly I understood that the priest saw I suddenly realized that the priest saw in me a glimpse of his mother, which is why he paid so much attention to me. But I was hurt: how come I reminded him of his mother? After all, I was quite different. Besides, Father Vladimir was older than I. When I looked at myself attentively, I understood how miserable I looked.

I was sad and silent. What could I say? Did I have to confess that I had next to no money? That I had no place to live? Would my city, my usual world destroy me if I got back? And what would I do here, in this unfamiliar town? Who would give a job to someone in such beggarly garb?

Being in constant motion, rushing along the roads of countless villages, I had been voluntarily taken prisoner by some blind intent or intoxicating wine. In continuation of those disastrous days, I had been wandering like in a dream, along on a thin film of the first ice. The priest’s simple words fell hard and awakened me. I looked at myself and was horrified. My dirty dress had lost its color long ago and looked rusty grey; my sandals were shabby and tied to my feet with bits of rope. My arms were dark and bruised, as if I had been wading through thorny bushes. As to my legs… Oh my God! The skin was covered with non-healing dark red spots from my ankles up. I had bought those sandals after a reckless night in the woods. I had felt exhausted after a long journey and fallen into a low shrub, with a spicy, narcotic odor. On the next morning, the purple and rimson flowers had turned out to be poisonous. The skin of my feet and legs was itching, then the oozing spots appeared. My hair was even worse: I sadly passed my fingers through it and frowned: for the first time since long ago, I heard soft crying of the humiliated pride in the depths of my soul. What was I to do? My feet in those ridiculous sandals turned on the road unintentionally and quietly. I wanted to get away as soon as possible. What an unbearable and agonizing day it was! The air was dry and heavy, and full of light… As if on purpose, a horse whinnied plaintively not far away, behind the dense thickets of willows, then there was a patter of hooves, and again, from a distance, unpleasant, annoying screams…

  And I realized at last that I found MY priest.

I secretly hoped that a single glance at him would let me get stability and support. I wanted the transformationto happen immediately, even suddenly, rather than drop by drop. Immediately! I wanted to jump on the solid shore, on the ground, from the ice carrying me down the roaring maelstrom.

The support was absolutely not what I expected. A huge burial cross, rotten at the bottom of its body and hidden in the ground, collapsed suddenly in front of me, raising a cloud of sand and dust. But what else could I expect, except that trash heap? That the priest would offer me an ancient sacred mantra, a drink of holy water, or an unprecedented holy exorcism, robust and reliable like a key and a lock?

What did those recommendations about Bright God mean to me?

Their meaning did not penetrate me, just like the sunshine does not reach the rare crevices of the abyss. While I was listening to Father Vladimir and nodding my head in time with his words, I was feeling something dim…

I was mistaken… When one has no money to give to a beggar, one usually says, «God will».

It seemed to me that even my heart refused to work. Life eluded me. It required more subtlety and a special ability to adapt to the new things and events. I thought that the priest himself, seeing no deliverance, closed his book like winter closes the river mouth. He hid away in a monastery, but was it a good solution for me? What could I do? Continue to live in the body of broken bones and ruptured intestines, fighting for every breath? I wished he had given me a bottle of tincture of earthworms, convinced me that it was a strong remedy and that there was no stronger and safer cure…

The priest pulled me by the arm. I freed it and, although I didn’t want it, walked away without looking back, like an offended child, barely holding back my tears, afraid to look weak and intrusive. But what did I expect? His face bent to me, full of love and compassion? Could I really expect such luxury? But not admitting to myself, deep in my heart, I was still desperately waiting for him to stop me, just like children seek to embrace their parents by all means in a moment of danger.

And it really happened. Feeling again the touch of his hand, a strong desire to help, I turned started crying openly on his chest, and it was the best and the only important thing that I need at that moment…

Stay for a few days in the monastery. Where will you go? In the meantime, I will find you a job. I can even say that I know where you are going to work.

He walked quickly, bypassing the light brown and red branches, and I, sobbing quietly, was obediently running after him like a stray sheep follows the shepherd. A church, a monastery, a new job… I was in quite a special, new world, in which all my senses sharpened at once and became responsive to any movement. There was a great variety of brilliant chestnuts under my feet. Stepping on them with the holey soles of my sandals, I felt pain. How had I walked on the rocks before?

Heading towards us was an old pious woman in a long black dress. Father Vladimir talked to her quietly, and we moved on, to the red-brick buildings surrounded by beautiful flower beds of roses. In all that surrounded me, I felt a kind of special order, a quiet truth, and it calmed me even better than the priest’s words.

Subsequent events and conversations flashed somehow quickly and indistinctly, and here I was in the highly anticipated hot water! Its streams sparkled and glittered. I splashed and spinned inside, billions of drops flying in all directions. And I didn’t have to bend down and start from every sound! I lather myself with inexpressibly fragrant soap. For some reason, my hands shook, my whole bode was feverish. I kept snorting like a horse, now and then trying to comb and thin out my matted hair with my fingers. Washing my breasts and thighs, the water trickled down my legs and feet. The water was washing away and carried off my wandering and bad dreams. Murmuring and rustling, whipping me with vapor, it seemed to entice me secretly and incite, «You are not going to stay here long. There is so little time. Do hurry up!..»

The refectory was large and bright, made of fresh and fragrant wood, perhaps pine. Soft evening light was streaming from all the round windows…

I was late for dinner. Sitting at the table were meek ​​women in the same long dresses. The young and old novices were eating quietly, moving the cups and taking bread from the large deep plates. I sat where I was gestured by, apparently, the oldest and most important one. Her whole small and plump body, white hands, straight neck on the soft and feminine shoulders, and nice grey eyes looked incredibly cordial. Some of those who finished the perilous meal lingered and looked at me surreptitiously and curiously. What brought them there: sincere piety or something else?

The grey-eyed woman took me to the monastic quarters, opened the cell — a small room with two windows on the ground level, and not pestering me with questions, withdrew. I was left alone. Despite the quite protected room, the looming night frightened me. The immense moody night in a strange city… I sat down on the wooden bed, hugged my knees sadly, and began waving my weary head, up, down, up, down… Thoughts, against my will, kept rising to the surface, like worms from the mushrooms dropped in salt water…

The priest’s crazy mother was dancing before my eyes. Lashing leaves and branches off the bushes, she was going further and further away into the forest, swirling her black funeral dress, twitching like clockwork, without a break. I suddenly remembered where I had seen her: in the police station, where I had been taken from the train station. It was the old woman sitting next to me. Could it be she? An unprecedented coincidence… Do I tell him?

I got out of bed and started pacing the room. How much time did it take me to get ready to talk to Father Vladimir? Sitting in the game room, wandering down the road, lying in the grass, I never stopped scrolling in my head all the possible variants of the confession. But it turned out every time that I would tell him of all my troubles, vividly and in detail. And what happened in reality?

The mere sight of him made my tongue stick to the larynx, and I was only able to squeeze out a few insignificant words that did not express a hundredth part of what I had experienced and was currently experiencing. Did he understand the central importance of our meeting to me? Maybe I was unable to express everything in words? Maybe he had the impression that I had accidentally met him, casually walking through the villages?

The elusive severity and otherworldly detachment on his face scared me. Or was it the exquisite refinement of his hands and body? As to him, it looked as if it was him waiting for me, not me waiting for him. He had told me about his life easily and extremely colorfully, with no qualms. I had tried to please him and stopped respectfully, waiting impatiently for him to take his breath and continue. Why had it happened? His troubles, the attack of melancholy were alive in my head. Some words had made ​​their way into my heart to stay, so I even experienced slight envy. I would never ever be able to really open up…

I came back to the state of instability and uncertainty. But could I tell anyone about it? I believed Father Vladimir and did not believe him. I wanted to stay in that town and, equally strongly, wanted to get away. I was all swaying and heaving waves, like an ocean. Millions of tons of water that could distroy the whole town… And like the ocean, which gets quiet after a storm, its smooth surface reflecting the clouds, I followed the priest quietly and blindly, bending to his will…

The next morning he offered me to work as a tutor of a ten year old boy whose parents were often away. The boy had a rare disease of legs, which had begun as recently as two years ago. He barely walked and missed a lot of lessons. I was responsible for filling the missing gaps in his knowledge and pursue further studies.

‘That’s a job for you’, Father Vladimir smiled. ‘You will not have to break yourself and do something absolutely new. The family is great, I know them well. Tomorrow we’ll go to meet them, and if they like you, and I’m fully confident in this, you will start working immediately.

‘Immediately?’ I was astonished though didn’t really understand what scared me. Was it just the fact that I was not entirely confident in my appearance? Or was I afraid of leaving the convent, where I could see Father Vladimir?

‘You look all right’, the priest laughed joyfully. ‘You really look nice, although a bit scared, trust me. Today, the hairdresser and then Maria Sergeyevna will pick up clothes for you. And we will often see, of course.’

Well, there was no way to hide from him, he saw and felt everything quite clearly. I smiled back. Of course, I didn’t consider myself «nice» as he put it. Rafter after bathing, I looked at myself attentively in the mirror. I had lost a lot of weight and was probably as thin as never before. My collarbones stuck out from under the neckline of the dress. Maria Sergeyevna, the woman who had brought me to the cell, gave me a dress with a collar reaching my throat. But my eyes looked brighter and bigger on my tanned face, they were bright green, with brown dots. My lips had been weathered in the sunshine and become rather dark like those of Indian women. My hair, on the contrary, was now as light as feathergrass. Everything made my face look younger, or maybe it was because of my new haircut? All my life, I had had my hair long, twisting it on my head in plain tufts, or frizzling it in small curls like a highschool student.

At the moment, because of the special condition of my hair, the unhappy hairdresser, looking like a hooked-nosed gypsy dyed in red, turned my head diligently in different directions and then lopped me according, I guessed, to nothing but her childhood fantasies. That haircut made me look like a studious boy: the fluffy fringe bristled over my bleached eyebrows in a funny way. The light golden bristles that stood dutifully all over my head tickled my palm. I felt like a bald and, for some reason, naked. A beautiful woman sat in the next chair, looking at me in astonishment. She was groomed so lovingly from head to toe. Her pale and bright hair was lovely, the strands shone and sparkled, but, in spite of their natural wealth, another hairdresser, a slim dark-haired woman, kept working over those shiny bushes, gently massaging and splashing something incredibly sweet and pink like strawberry juice. I was struck by the red wool dress, tight-fitting her nice round breasts and small waist. Her features were like those of a little doll, her plump and whimsical lips were light crimson. The woman’s large eyes were well shaded with purple-blue arrows, her eyelashes were dyed thick and neat, hair to hair. She was graceful like a crystal vessel. Looking at herself in the mirror with admiration, she was arranging her curls and pearl necklace that adorned her white neck. That was a secret, fabulous life, the door of which was closed tightly for me…

At first, the unusual emptiness in my head frightened me. I felt a light shock touching it. Any dress hanged out on me, my body just loomed vaguely under the fabric, like long algae in dark water…

Chapter 9. Palace

  I carried herself to that rich house like a crisp manuscript with red marks in the margin: «fix», «grow», «make». I feared that I was not good enough and they would not take me. It would be awful to find myself useless and unsuitable, just as I had been before, in all areas of my life. The mansion, the boy’s rich parents — all reminded me of the elite school. My whole brain was on fire, even the thoughts inside it. I would run forward hurriedly and pour numerous questions upon Father Vladimir, who slowly walking side by side,

‘And what about the boy? Who sat with him before? Why are you sure that they will hire me? Who else lives in the house? Why did he fall ill? Why such an amazing house, like a castle? Who lived there before?

The house was really huge and could be seen from a distance away, with all its tall pointed towers and rich ornamental decoration of statues and stained glass windows. As we walked to it, Father Vladimir told me slowly and thoroughly everything he knew about the house and its inhabitants.

‘The boy’s name is Arthur. He is a very clever and nice, but the sudden illness of the legs, of course, affected his character badly.

‘His parents are rich people with a lot of hobbies. Being rather well-off, they can live the way they want. They are fond of traveling. When Arthur was healthy, they used to travel together. Now they can’t leave their hobby even for the sake of therir son. Arthur’s father, Vladimir Sergeyevich, has written a lot of books about the lost civilization, the ancient Atlantis. He tries to find its tracks everywhere around the world. I admire such passionate people. There is a huge library in the house, and I am grateful to the family that they have kindly given me the opportunity to read many rare books.

‘Eleanora, his wife, has shaky nerves, that’s why they had to move to a quiet place like this five years ago. They bought this castle at rather a low price. Before the revolution, it belonged to the owner of the richest estates. The beautiful garden and the pond were well preserved.

‘There are several more people living in the house. They are massage therapist Kostya, gardener Mihail Leonidovich, the laundrywoman, and the cook with her niece. There are also sleep-out servants. Vladimir Sergeyevich is quite a generous person, so you will have a good salary. Arthur’s old nurse died recently, just a few days ago. The boy had been attached to her very much. Despite her age, she used to keep the house in order. Did I miss anything?’

‘How come you know everything so well?’I asked him, surprised.

‘A priest is supposed to know everything.’

‘So why do you think they will hire me?’

But Father Vladimir had no time to answer as the gate opened and we stepped on the green lawn. A red dog ran out, wagging his tail, and sniffed me with zeal. I looked around, quite surprised. I didn’t know what to look at first and what to admire. Actually, I wanted to inhale the air even more than admire what I saw around. The thick and fresh scent I liked most of all was coming from the pale roses that lined the path on which we walked. Behind them, were tall wine-red and purple rose bushes with shiny bluish-waxy leaves. There was such an abundance of flowers that their tassels were just hanging down, and even the tall wooden things were unable to hold them. I could not see the grass from under the sea of red petals…

‘Good morning, Mikhail Leonidovich!’ Father Vladimir said, and I saw the gardener, a tall and lean old man standing under a pear tree. The man bowed politely and with dignity.

We climbed the stairs and were entering the door opened wide in front of us by a stout man of forty-five or fifty, with lively and inquisitive eyes. He looked like a little bear standing on his hind legs. Maybe it was because of his thick brown hair that stuck out in abundance in all directions, or due to the special movement of his feet…

We went into the living room. It was something formed by mixing dissimilar things. It was not only about elderly parents having a young child. The first oddity, to which the eyes became accustomed somewhat later, was the white antique furniture with gold painting — in the form of half-erased amorettos and flowers. The twisted legs of chairs, tables and sofas making a semicircle along the room with a high ceiling, looked like a young girl’s narrow ankles doing her best to push off from the floor. The huge empty room seemed to be full of jolly movement and elusive rustling. The wooden bookshelves were high, close to the ceiling, and seemed quite out of place. There were lots of books. On someone’s a whim, they were placed not according to their size, color and quality of the bindings as it would be more appropriate in such an open space. Instead, they were piled up and crammed carelessly into the shelves. On the shining white marble table there was a large pompous vase inlaid with bright stones — turquoise, lapis lazuli, and blue opal. That was the only blue thing in the room. There were several lurid oil paintings on the walls, most of them had scarlet poppies.

Heavy dark cherry curtains lined with gold lace had large folds and closed all the windows. There were probably ten windows, so large and high the lounge looked.

‘Earlier, this was a fancy-ball place’, Father Vladimir told me quietly. He watched me turning my head from side to side looking at the room. Once again he amazed me with his observancy.

The hostess was a little lady of forty-five, so thin that even I straightened my shoulders proudly. Her thinness was not the result of a special diet, it was due to her hysterical character. That was immediately clear by the sharp staccato movements of all the bulging parts of her body — her shoulders, arms, and legs. Even her knees looked rather ugly under the heavy silk, when all of us, after greeting each other and introductions, were seated in the white armchairs. Her thin grey-ash hair was lifted high above her ears. It was supported by a comb decorated with rhinestones. Her bony fingers were completely twined with colored rings, reflected on her dark skirt. I could not help looking at the hostess because she stared at me immediately with her jealous and distrustful eyes looking like inflamed nodules. Assuming that she, as mother, would say the final word in selecting the teacher, and guessing about her irresistible tendency to jealousy, I tried quietly to please her, at least by paying absolutely no attention to her husband. He was a handsome, cheerful and rosy-cheeked man. From time to time, he would put sly jokes into the conversation, which, however, sounded funny to nobody else but himself. Both of them were only talking with the priest, touching joint themes. True, Vladimir Sergeyevich cast a quick glance at me a couple of times and nodded his head in admiration…

There was no way to escape from Eleanora’s tense and unblinking gaze. It was kind of splitting me into the thinnest burning fibers. Feeling awfuly uncomfortable, I wanted to hit the hostess’s head with a big the cast-iron frying pan, and I could imagine her face after that. God forbid, we would be left alone — I sensed a few minutes of complete silence. Finally, I sighed with relief when her husband went out and came back into the room pushing a wheelchair with a haughty black-haired boy sitting in it. The boy said hello barely looking at us and looked at the ceiling, as if it was for the first time that he saw the gold-painted flowers on the edges. Then his eyes wandered and stared at the crystal chandelier. His face was sickly pale, a pout contorted his expressive mouth. I was surprised to see a spider’s web carefully cut on one side of his head that looked like a tattoo. His legs were covered with a light blanket. All of a sudden he mad an effort and, helping himself with his hands, pulled his legs out and threw the blanket on the floor. The slender legs seemed dead and numb.

I looked away…

‘Arthur’, his father said softly, touching the boys head, ‘Meet your teacher Vera Nikolayevna.’

Actually, the head of the family had hired me already, which immediately showed who the boss was. I sighed quietly, locked eyes with the priest, and smiled not hiding my smile. After finishing his tea, Vladimir Sergeyevich announced I was supposed to start working tomorrow at eight o’clock, without being late. After those words, he took me upstairs and showed me the room where I was going to live. It was light and comfortable. There were a large bed, neatly covered with a cream cloth, an old floor lamp standing at the window, a wooden table and two chairs in the middle. There were two picture frames on the wide shelves nailed to the wall, without pictures though. Close by, there was a roll of white wool. Maybe the former nanny had lived there? The room smelled of forest cologne.

I had next to no stuff. But I had to get accustomed to that hasty motion of fate…

That new job fell into my hands like a ripe though unfamiliar fruit. Despite the fact that I was a primary school teacher, I had to live together with that boy, staying with him day and night, because, in a few days, his parents were going to leave the homestead for a long time.

My salary was going to be three times higher than at the elite school, and the food was free. I would be able to save money and possibly buy an apartment. If my relationship with the boy was be OK…

But I shouldn’t have thought that Vladimir Sergeyevich was the boss and it was he who gave me the job. Father Vladimir, seeing me that night to the monastery, broke my next illusion easily, thus reiterating the fact that women are not always insightful. I had missed the child’s elusive movement, the slight nod of his head, which had played the decisive role. He had already rejected many teachers before, almost all of them, so the old nanny was the only one teaching him the way she could, using school textbooks. I never received a response to my question — why the priest was so sure that Arthur would like me. Well, it was not so important though…

The first person I saw on the next day was Kostya, the massage therapist. He stood in front of the house, relaxed, in a warm white suit. Squinting against the sunshine, he was shamelessly watching me approaching. His swarthy bull neck, broad chest and curly black hair caught my attention for a moment. Saying hello, he was told me quite unceremoniously,

‘I can offer you a massage. Free, of course. Which do you prefer: manic, masochistic, or sadistic?’

Maybe it was a joke, because he laughed immediately and uncontrollably, showing a range of solid and white teeth. But it jarred me, and I failed to find an immediate reply. There was nothing I liked in the guy: the unshaven face, the broad nose, the hairy arms and chest, the big bright lips, the mocking eyes… He appeared to be about thirty-five. Why did they hire him? Father Vladimir had told me that Kostya was a very good specialist, who had cured many helpless patients, so the boy’s parents believed in him. Besides, it was a kind of savings — the child had to be bathed, dressed, and he needed all kinds of medical procedures such patients do. Besides Kostya, Arthur didn’t let anyone approach him, and apparently that was the reason why Kostya thought that had some special rights in the house. I never liked handsome men, I always feared them…

The boy had bad feet, so he was confined to a wheelchair. All day long he he did nothing but sitting at the computer and playing games. He preferred horror ganes, and it was impossible to-make him stop playing them. Arthur was out of control, stubborn, and willful. Any small fault on the part of the servants was perceived by him as a drama, and he would immediately start throwing what he could reach on the table or on the shelf. Sometimes he exhausted everybody’s patients completely, the thin little man looking like a little villain! There were days when he was annoyed to distraction by everything: the massage oil would make his feet itch, a pie would make him sickh, the sunshine would make his eyes hurt. He wouldn’t let anyone cut his hair for him, his eyes were full of hatred, and that would bring everyone to complete exhaustion. Kostya was the only one to treat his tantrums with humor; it seemed to me that the guy was moving through life easily. He would sit calmly with a newspaper in the far corner and seem to have disappeared. Many teachers had come and gone during all that time, and all of them had been turned away by Arthur himself. Psychotherapists were absolutely out of the question. Only occasionally did the boy allow the general doctors see his legs.

I definitely had bad luck. Arthur treated me the way I treated him. He was wary and detached as if I were an unsual animal. I didn’t insist and showed no emotion when he refused to study. Tomorrow is OK, let it be tomorrow…

There were many rooms in the house: Vladimir Sergeyevich’s office, his and his wife’s separate bedrooms, a dining room, a game room, and Arthur’s school room. My room was on the second floor. There was a long corridor there, then a door upholstered with black leathe. I never looked inside.

The cook was a buxom black-haired woman of about sixty-five. Her name was Ariadne. Her large face with unhealthy brown skin was spoiled by her half-closed eye and twisted mouth. It seemed that she once had had a stroke. Her small head was covered with short and shiny hair. Despite her large and loose body, she walked quickly and deftly, her left leg limping slightly. She evoked odd feelings in me. I liked everything about her, even he disfigured face, and at the same time, there was something frightening and even repulsive. She greeted me warmly, and she usually called me «sweetheart» or «dear». She was a fantastic cook, and even the fastidious Arthur rarely refused her various salads and cakes. The first time, I used to come to her place rather often. It was a small extension to the mansion. Half of the room was a real well-bleached Russian oven. There was an excellent order there: the pots shone, the glasses sparkled, the iron pots were scraped carefully. Fragrant bunches of herbs hung neatly on a rope; numerous bottles were packed tightly with colorful seeds and grains, so the scent was just incredible. Her thick and fleshy hands covered with red moles were in permanent motion, pounding the roots, milling, crumbling, and slicing​​, and then pour that in the new jars.

She slept behind the wall, in a small room, together with hers niece, a morbidly obese girl with sleepy eyes, listless, sullen and silent. As I understood, her parents were dead, so she had no relatives except her aunt. She lived with her, as if helping her around the house, but, in fact, being of no help at all. Ariadne would slap her on the behind with a ladle, or call her roughly «cow sitting on my neck,» but when the cook quietly watched her walking, her eyes would warm.

I was attached to Ariadne as I, too, had no friends or relatives in the house, except her. But there was certain strangeness, ridiculous and not quite clear to me. When the hosts would leave, she would become incredibly whimsical and greedy, and it was me who would fall in that area of greediness. Posing as the hostess, she would straighten her shoulders, raise her breast funnily, and lift her nose and shaggy eyebrows majestically. The only person she feared was Arthur. She would give me little food at the table. For example, she would give me a third of a bowl of soup and a spoonful of mashed potatoes. At first, I attributed that to her forgetfulness.  Then I noticed in her behavior a kind of insidious persistence bordering on hatred. How could I otherwise explain the fact that she reduced my portions sharply? At such moments, she would always put her hands violently on hips and ask me coyly if I wanted something else. I would say sheepishly no, thanks.

I stopped visiting her. Of course, nobody noticed our secret animosity, just as the fact that I was constantly hungry. Did I need too much? Some bread and a glass of jelly, which I didn’t even dare asking. As to Kostya and Ariadne’s niece, they really ate a lot. They would gooble the crunchy rosy cakes, chewing the sausage, swallow the juicy chops. That would nearly drive me crazy. The gardener, who was also a watchman, used to eat in his garden, in a tiny wooden house. The laundress was rarely at the table, but I saw her sometimes. Something made her look like a shark. Naybe it was her big mouth, located lower than that of ordinary people and thicker in the middle. Or maybe it was her body, covered with loose grey skin. She would whine in a low voice, which seemed to be hanging down, creeping and crawling like dodder, asking for another meal, swallowing huge chunks without chewing them. Well, all that did make her look like a real shark.

Left without the cover of Nature, without its powerful healing protection, I once again became a pathetic and helpless creature. Again, I was afraid of life and didn’t believe in its power…

I was sick and tired of that room with muslin curtains and bedspread, which I would be happy to tear. I could npt read in a candle or lie in the soft feather bed. I wish I swept the dusty roads with my skirt and sucked dry bread instead of walking in and out, in and out, an infinite number of times in and out of that room! I could hear occasional sounds above the ceiling like a small flock of sheep clattering on the roof; the bleating sound would get quiet, then intensify again. Maybe it was the wind howling in the night?

Nothing was harder than being patient! Sitting at the table, eagerly looking at the full and steaming plates, your lips clenched honorably, breaking little pieces off like a tiny little bird — when I wanted to gobble a fat and juicy piece of meat!

Oh, those lovely features of the welcoming and sly old age, impregnated with nothing but indifference! That sugary-tart, mocking voice that makes one’s mouth almost dumb! «Would you mind anything else, sweetheart? Maybe a peice of cheese or sausage?»

“No, no, thank you, that’s more than enough.”

Once, in the dead of night, I will get in her cellar, eat all stocks of food, drink wine from the barrel, and finally hit a stick on the disfigured, sleeping face! Then I will spread my wings and fly away from this monstrous castle from the crippled child, obscene massage therapist, and the greedy cook…

Where vipers breathe, opening their huge mouths, hissing and crackling…

My room was roaring with helpless rage. In my wanderings, I had never felt that kind of hunger. If I had experienced anything like that, I would have returned long ago. I developed an inhuman, ravenous appetite. Even the air in the room had a hungry, sucking shade. I would go down into the garden at night to gnaw the apples until I would have a tooth ache. Winter was coming, I would get the salary… How bad the life is, my poor Vera! Come let’s drink some water at least…

I tried unsuccessfully to survive on the shaking deck of a sinking ship. Was it me who was wrong and lost my way, or was it Father Vladimir, who had sent me there? Well, it didn’t matter now.

When the parents would come, Arthur would become unbearable, and even stopped sleeping. A depressed mood would reign in the house like in a hospital. The boy’s intolerable behavior seemed to exhaust his parents so much that after spending a few anxious weeks with their child, they would hurry away, coming up with new and new goals.

They traveled around the world in search of the traces of the ancient Atlanteans, hoping to find the remains of their graves — five-meter figures with elongated skulls. I saw those pictures — huge skeleton lying the sand, and a man standing next to him, not larger than his finger. Vladimir Sergeyevich believed that after the deluge, the Atlanteans settled around the world to give people the knowledge. The boundless plains, lands, and mountains kept their secrets. If they were lucky to find at least a scrap of papyrus, a new book would appear…

When Vladimir Sergeyevich spoke, his face would shine in an unusual way. He would come to life and rise from the dead, as if he would find somewhere marvelous supplies of paints. He would get up from the chair and start circling around the room excitedly, infecting me with an unknown passion. Indifferent to the forefathers, I would listen to him, fascinated. Eleanor would feel concern, stare at me with her moist eyes, and frown with displeasure…

When they left, everyone would sigh with relief…

Gradually, I became accustomed to the boy. He studied reluctantly, but his natural intelligence and ingenuity helped him. What a child of his age needed weeks and months to learn, Arthur would master in a few hours. Sometimes, his questions confused me. He, like Pavel Sedov, liked a lot of things. They would be great friends indeed! He was moody, could suddenly bristle and fall into a tantrum, but he would equally suddenly calm down and say sincerely that he was sorry. Sometimes he was gentle like a kitten, or incredibly suspicious and saw enemies everywhere, assuming that everyone was laughing at him. Sometimes he would tell me something easily and readily, looking like a normal, healthy child. But just as suddenly, he would fall silent, his face would turn to stone, he would stop answering questions and react to what was going on around him. His eyes would wander aimlessly through the windows without cessation, looking wild and sad like those of an old man. At the moment he reminded me of my son! What was going on in his head? Why was he like that? I didn’t know, and I could do nothing to help him.

The unshed tears turned into a nightmare, full of death cry. We both slept badly, I and Arthur. I rushed things, I was eager to speed up the running time, I imagined that the awakening of my personal power was associated with a lot of activity, and I looked for it everywhere, but found none. I tried to scoop up a handful of water from a roaring mountain stream that threatened to upset me like a chicken’s feather — and bounced away, frightened. During the night, I bit my nails, I had a fever, my feet ached, but nothing, nothing happened. I had to do something unil it was too late. But these words led me fatally into a state of stupor.


I am reading everything without understanding a single line…

Chapter 10. Conversations with the priest

The only nice thing left in this life was to see Father Vladimir. I would wait for him on the weekend after the evening service, and how long I used to wait for those weekends! Sometimes I was in the church, listening to his voice, which was so dear to me. Outside, I would walk humbly around the lilac bushes, because het was always surrounded by suffering people. But even talking enthusiastically to the parish, he would look at me from time to time with some special and secret sadness. Or did it just seem to me? I would forget about everything, and enjoyed looking at him, smiling. Did he ever tell anyone about his mother, and did anyone but me know his previous life, his whole story?

We used to walk, just like on the first day when we had met, along the leafless acacia, towards his favorite bench. Sometimes we wouldn’t sit on it and, instead, would take long walks along the fields.

‘Once, a woman came here. She was like you in a way. She had come a long way, I petitioned that she would live in the monastery. She used to pray for days as her son was a gambler. I tried to help her, explained something to her. But once, when passing by, I heard what her asking heaven to return the time when her son lived with her, so that everything would be the way it had been before. I could not resist turning to her and saying quietly, «That’s impossible. Your child has grown up. You need to accept it.»

‘She looked at me strangely, adjusted the head scarf, and went to the door silently. Something made me move with her. She opened the door, turnedg to the church, crossed herself three times, bowed her head, and went down the stairs. She made another couple of steps and fell — her legs were paralyzed. She lived in a monastery just a little, not more than a week, and died. I was desperate. There was no one, just no one I could help. In fact, it was me who killed that woman.’

‘Have you often seen people suffering compulsive gambling?’ I quickly asked to distract him from the heavy thoughts.’

‘Often. Not the gamblers or drug addicts themselves though. Usually, it’s their mothers or intimate friends who come here. But even the most terrible suffering never saved anyone of them.

‘Looking at them, I often wonder how they pray. I used to worry about it the way any doctor would worry about the pills his patients swallow. No, no, that’s not moralizing or preaching, not at all.

‘My mother failed. She used to go to church and pray for me. Did she ask God to help me get cured — at any price? Or did she ask the Devil to take her soul instead of mine?

I look at these mothers, horrified, and see the mark of Cain on their foreheads, a brand, a doom, or a curse. Prayers are a dangerous realm. In what state of mind you pray, that world you will end up in. There are worlds of deep and utter despair, from which no prayer can be heard. If you are depressed and at the same time cry out to God, the clever Demon will intercept your prayer.  Words are the energy that attracts what is similar to it.

  But no one will fall into the abyss without one’s consent.

‘Could you have saved your son from his fate? How could you have done that? Threats, prayers, sham, tricks, persuasion? My mother was a believer, but could she have saved me from the lessons prepared for me by the fate?’

‘Have you ever seen the Demon?’ I asked.

‘Not the Demon, unfortunately. But during the prayers of thanks, I have often seen that dark spots, like black pears, would fall off the people, and run away to the sides.’

The priest was for me the only real and reliable person in that strange place. I believed that he was able to prevent or foreseey the destructive or rescuing effect of my fate’s turns.

Maybe I was disliked in the mansion because I tried to stay independent when typhoons were raging inside me. Even when I was a model of courtesy and attentiveness, I most probably looked arrogant and dumb like a floating ice mountain, a breakaway from the coastal ice. The fear of ridicule made me keep silent almost all the time. No one knew how helpless and scared I felt. I tried to feel nothing and not to think ofanything , but it was all in vain. I was a stranger and an infinitely lonely outcast.

The whole world had shrunk for me to nothing but the necessary trips supporting me alive. Back and forth, back and forth…

When I saw his attentive deep eyes look at me with quiet sadness, their highest light, the dark thoughts that assailed me would disappear immediately like smoke. My last hope, vague and hot…

I did not always understand Father Vladimir, but I could listen hours on end to his a soft, velvet-tangible voice. I tried to ask him questions, but I was afraid to get out of place. Barely keeping up with him, blissfully looking at the pale face, I would nod obediently. It often seemed to me that he was talking to himself…

‘To find the light inside yourself, and the stronger and more powerful it is, the faster it will burn all your son’s demons, all his gloom. Hasn’t time has come for your expectation of the Light God to finally show its fruit?

  ‘There is a special beauty in any contest, in any confrontation. And the beauty of this is that the best always wins…

‘Every day, I see hundreds of people, and do you know what the worst thing is? Is there a sadness that would make one stop smiling? Carrying things and worries, people bend over their lives like over a cloudy bottom.

‘Where is the place for at least the smallest dream? Just look: your emotions and thoughts go in and out of your homes like hosts, without asking permission. Guilt, fear, and despair — those feelings only increase your son’s destructive power. ‘You are not helping him out. In fact, you are preventing him, because your emotions are increasing tenfold this black vortex. And why, for what reason do you think that you are almost equal to God?’

‘I don’t understand what you mean’, I said in a small voice.

‘Only that you are mortal. I want to tell you a simple truth again: do not ascribe to yourself the attributes of God, who alone is perfect. After all, I suppose, by executing yourself, you think that you are someone very significant and ineligible to make mistakes.

 ‘No one will ever have a trouble without a deep divine plan.

‘I believe that we are surrounded by signs sent o us from above.

‘Heaven places emphasis on the events so that one would understand their subtle meanings and role in one’s life. An attentive one can read those signs, which allows one to make fewer needless efforts.

‘Sometimes someone else sees other people’s signs sent by the angels-informants, and can help them. I see vaguely something coming through the dense white fog. But what is that? You and me are somehow bound together. I have to do something very important, maybe something not designed for me. It’s like a chain, which will be broken without a single link. But the proof that I did it right there will be nothing else but finding my mother — living or dead, sick or insane, finding her grave…

‘And the same goes for you: after discovering your inner power, you will have the reward: on that day your son will get rid of his gambling addiction.’

‘What signs do you mean? Do you think that I need to understand anything in that family?’

‘I don’t know. But the day when you came here, just before your arrival, that family asked me to find a teacher. I was surprised as I knew no teachers at all. And suddenly, you came.’

I don’t understand, Father Vladimir, I don’t understand in what way I need to change. I really don’t know. I don’t know where I can find the Light God… I don’t understand what it means, even intuitively. Even the word “God” causes repulsion and incomprehension in my soul, while the wotd “Light” just irritates me.’

‘He manifests Himself everywhere. At every moment, He reveals Himself to anyone — with equal and constant force, if one is set to meet with Him.’

‘But why does He not manifest Himself to me? Why do I see nothing?’

‘It’s because you don’t have enough personal power. You need to be strong to see Him. You are still weak.’

‘What do I do to gain it?’

‘You need to catch the feeling of happiness. Not where you expect it, not at all. To catch it quickly and quietly, like a cat catches a flying bird.

‘Stop building relationships so as to constantly feel hurt and offended. Oh, she has been ruined by the perfidious shark and treacherous misers living in the mansion! To seek salvation in endless suffering? To think that life is nothing but infinite evil? That’s an inescapable labyrinth, and if you wander in it, you will never see the light…

  ‘Because, loving your son and trying to save him, you are trying to find your own soul …

‘What is behind your obsessive thoughts about the fate of your son? What are you hiding from yourself? This is your personal Demon.

Remove from yourself the responsibility for the fate of your son. In this way, you will give him his freedom. Take responsibility for your own life. Trust yourself — that’s the only way to let feelings and wonders into your life, without which any woman’s life loses its meaning. Open up like a fan, fill them the space around yourself with power and beauty…

‘Don’t do what everybody does. Do what the world denies. And choose the most difficult path; it is usually the best one.

‘Become a lover or a witch, Light or Darkness. Now it is not important though.’

‘Not important for whom?’

‘For your personal power. It’s an incredible mystery. From time to time, life places us in situations in which we can easily reveal ourselves as a particular color. Which one – doesn’t matter for your personal power. Become attentive to everything that can be picked up as good luck, rejoice every victory, look around, sniff as if you were in a forest, and fight your way. But don’t notice what you don’t need.

‘And have a strong belief in yourself. ‘You’ve already sent out into the universe the most powerful prayer, the most powerful cry for help. Now relax and turn into emptiness. With emptiness comes God. With activeness comes the Demon… ‘

Become a lover… I failed to become one in this life, but it didn’t bother me too much, because I didn’t know what it was. Wasn’t that too bold advice to be given by a priest? Why does he talk to me that way? And he stopped using my patronymic, just the given name…

  Become a lover… I failed to become one in this life, but it didn’t bother me too much, because I didn’t know what it was. Wasn’t that too bold advice to be given by a priest? Why does he talk to me that way? And he stopped using my patronymic, just the given name…

‘Vera, you refuse to accept two equally important elements of the universe, Light and Darkness, to study their power.

‘The boundary between them is elusive, the Supreme Being overcome it easily. People in their world ares a rarity. For many centuries, the gods rarely descend into the human world. But the Demon is not hard to see, he always tries to penetrate humans and control their actions.

‘Don’t be afraid to meet him face to face. But know: if that happens, never look into his eyes. Pretend that you just don’t see him.’


‘You have no chance in an open fight. This figure is, so to speak, archetypal, and it draws in itself all the negative energy created by human thought. In an open fight, your son’s Demon will sense the danger and get support from his own world. ‘

‘And I can die?’

‘Die or get broken. You will have a life scenario that will wrap you up and choke you like a python so that you won’t be able to escape.’

‘But you said that the human power is incredibly big and that one person can pass through himself or herself the negative energy of the whole planet.’

‘You don’t believe in this, that’s why this information means nothing to you. And judge for yourself: what kind of fight is all about? You should first restore your integrity…

‘You have entered a period of testing. You are just forced to think about saving your son. But for some reason you don’t see or don’t understand it. I am also powerless to help he. You’re stuck somewhere, or sleeping. But having received the tip, no matter how incomprehensible, you’ll have to pay it off you debt with your own life… ‘

I was extremely upset listening to those words. They confirmed what I had felt on the first day: I just reminded him of his mother, and it moved him deeply and captivated his heart. He  stuffed his hole with me, atoned his fading sin. That’s why he was so often condescending, gentle and patient with me. I listened to him, strict and all-powerful, hardly trying to contradict him, making low sounds and making next to no comments.

But everything comes to an end, I didn’t meet his expectations. He didn’t want to be just a pillow for my tears. I had to cheat — to skip some meetings and show moral firmness.

My meetings with him became unbearable and painful. Looking at his slim figure, filled some unspeakable truth, I was kind of getting stupid. Since some time, I was awfully afraid of the upcoming conversations, my steps becamet, and my voice was hopelessly quiet. Following him, I was often silent. Squinting in the sunshine, I would stoop ans pull the ends of my ridiculous scarf.

I was wrong about the boy though, we didn’t become closer, and he kept rejecting me. Kostya’s jokes didn’t make me laugh. On the contrary, they hurt me. It was like a long-time patient trying to avoid healthy and cheerful people.

I was kind of stuck in dead center, in a cold border zone. There was no way either back or forward, although Father Vladimir gave me a compass and showed me all the benchmarks. I was supposed to move on, but I didn’t want to.

That’s how we are built: the more we want to hit the targe, the more indignant we are and the more we complain of our fate, making a lot of fuss. The more hesitant we are, the faster we freeze. There is always something lulling or compassionate that invariably freezes us.

It’s great to enjoy a crackling fire, being filled with its heat; it’s easy to hit the road, flying along with the fiery sparks skyward. But when the coals are barely smoldering, where can one get the momentum? At such moments, one doesn’t even feel like moving one’s hands.

‘Why did you come here?’ the grey shadow whispered to me, dancing outside the window. ‘You have simply replaced some harrowing pictures with others. Those ones were thy flesh and blood, but here everything is strange: the child, the priest, the estate, and no one wants you here… ‘

I could not argue. A lone wolf kept howling and whining in my soul… In the evenings, when Arthur went to sleep (he usually went to sleep early), I felt absolutely helpless and desperate. Awful pictures crowded into my mind, all of them related to my son. Again, I imagined all the problems he had experienced in my absence, and those thoughts would break my heart.

I only called home once. Nobody took the call, I heard nothing but long beeps…

“Alyosha”, I was whispering into the receiver, wiping my tears, “the stronger the Demon, the stronger the Light God. Do you hear me, Alyosha?..”

When the anxiety was gone, apathy would occurr, similar to constant fatigue…

I forgot absolutely everything. Everything I was attached to had been taken away. Now my teacher’s eyes were strangely dark and shied away from my increasing need to see him. His voice was harsh and even rude, and I heard impatient tone in it more and more often.

‘Everything was OK when mother and I lived together. But there comes a moment of rupture, when the grown child begins his or her own life. It is generally poorly tolerated by single women. It’s just a painful affection, which comes not from the love for the child, but from the lack of it. I often meet with mothers of gamblers and drug addicts. They tearfully pray to God asking Him to send their children back so that everything would be just as before. It is impossible, and I feel desperate seeing that I can’t help them. Their only salvation would be overcoming the pain and filling their lives with love, meaning, and fullness.

‘Increased affection is like a ship in the deep sea. A young child is dependent and kind, giving you a lot of positive emotions. One gets used to this energy, and it is hard to lose it. It is terrible to say, but are not many mothers who truly love their children. This requires a great strength and continuity with the incomprehensible…

What do you all want? Why do you want God to help you fill in your own eptiness you’re your child and your affection?

‘You find it easier to die than discover the Light in yourselves. Your children run away from you anywhere: they roam around the country and join bad companies, they are willing to steal and kill, just not to see your annoying, sticky, aggressive, demanding, torturing, unhappy, lost eyes. They are ready to run away to the back of beyond…

‘If one tells this anyone you, she will be incredibly surprised by the truth. Doesn’t she love her child? Yes, but she doesn’t love herself. Her love is like a miserable charity given to a beggar — a piece of bread, a few cents. That’s an openwork kind of love, all in through holes. True love has no fear. Like a diamond, it is superior to all things in brilliance and hardness.

‘But your shell is too impenetrable. Holding fast to the deceit, you deny the truth — and get all the horrors in exhange.

‘You want to rot together, and you want to vegetate together, too…

‘Until life itself opens its shutters strongly and forcefully and puts you apart. As it often happens, your adult children do not have the opportunity to fulfill their destinies before you die. As long as you are alive, your selfishness tries to hold and freeze the adulthood. Keeping your grown children close by is the only sense of your living and source of energy. Why don’t you let your child go? Mother of God is an example of a great motherly feat, because during Her Son’s hard life incomprehensible to many mortals, She never intervened in His fate.

  ‘The only thing your children dream about is that you disappear and leave them alone

Shocked, I was looking at him fearfully. I tried to say something, to explain my feelings — but I could not. I stood like a statue, something was wheezing and bubbling in my throat, I was coughing painfully as if choking.

‘You are afraid of asking’, the priest said as if nothing had happened, and looking away unusually detached, ‘because, deep in your heart, you understand the ignorance of your questions. They, like fear, are stuck in your throat. None of your questions are like a flying swan.’

‘Why not?’

‘You do not change. You stubbornly hold up your old world. You sit like a child hiding in a chest, waiting to be pulled out and comforted. Throw your pathetic efforts away, they are not for you. No, in this battle you are not a fighter. You are the white flag of a mother’s and woman’s surrender. I would suggest that you take it to the Demon, and, crouching belittlingly, put it at his feet. But even in this simple and safe situation, avoid meeting his gaze in order to get his favorable nod. He despises weakness even more than the most unequal and desperate fight. The Demon can inadvertently crush you his belly like a little frog. Go back home, do your old job again. Seing you distressed, pathetic and crying, your friends and even colleagues will comfort you and wipe your endless snot for you…

‘The consequence always follows the cause. Like a calf in a huge herd will always find its mother, and your son is not able to break out of the sanctuary of your miserable soul. You are reason why he is etched firmly in the casino, because, in the material world, it reflects your essence very closely.’

‘What? What?’ I was unable to utter a single word. my speech was slurred and faileth. He was looking at me with deadpan sadness as if I were a marvelous absurdity. ‘Didn’t you say that everyone has one’s own destiny?..’

‘I did. But that’s only part of the truth. Could I say anything like that when you first came to me? You were suffering your guilt, but it was of no use. You are a bit stronger now, that’s it.

‘You have warped instincts, poisoned mind, your soul is broken. This constant obsequiousness — to be anything for anyoney — what will you do about it?

  Your thoughts are your son’s thoughts. One can easily see them if one looks in your dull eyes.

‘So now what? Is there no truth? Am I the only one who can save my son? Why do you say that I am like a casino?’

‘A stone. A stone trap. Actually, those are mere words. Even the sun is able to melt you, even if it is nigh at hand.

‘It’s OK though’, the priest continued firmly, looking in my eyes with complete indifference. ‘I’ve seen thousands of mothers and heard the sound of their dead hearts. It freezes the churchess and extinguishes candles and souls. The time is gone when I was terrified and tried to help. All my efforts were in vain. It’s easier to make butter out of the ocean water. Grief or intense fear shake people up briefly, after which they freeze again in their dark world. Peace is what they seek. «This is just a diabolical intention», Leo Tolstoy wrote to his aunt, «while peace of mind is a mental meanness.»

‘My hope for you has collapsed; you are like others. You hit the ground and started howling and lamenting about your fate. Your despair even misled me. But you made ​​three tiny steps and started running immediately back to your old world to make many more attempts to excel in your prison. No, you can’t crush the ten-head demon. You afraid of a single crumb of the unknown, you are afraid of what is missing in your stone castle of prudence.

  ‘You are a skave.

  ‘I wish you fell in love and made use of your frozen womanly potential.

‘There is one thing that makes me happy, and now nothing will shake me: I do not believe in people and in their ability to accomplish something. Human will is too weak. Try to save at least one fool — and you will drown in his sea of ​​sorrow… If the blind lead the blind, they will fall into the ditch…

‘Go away. Let a couple of old women accompany you, they don’t care where to wander. They love to sing aloud, though sometimes these sounds resemble unbearable howl — but do you care?

‘Having slightly rinsed yourself the way people rinse their hands before eating, you somehow imagined that you were incredibly tired and had done enough to shine and light up all the space around. It’s a great deception that one can change one’s life gradually and cautiously.

  ‘All genuine and great changes are always unexpected, they are like lightning.

I made three attempts to say something, my breath was hoarse and broken. I was confounded and ashamed. Father Vladimir’s insults burned my heart, I shivered. I was under the dust covering the ground. My cheeks blazed with fire, the fire of hell, and my hair stood on end. I felt like falling into the ocean of death, and there was nothing to grab onto. I choked. Those simple, clear and damning words were like poisonous wave for me. Yes, I was really wasting my life, and I saw no way to get rid of the suffering that plagued me in the past years…

I came across something that defied my mind…

The priest was driving me away like a mad dog. What I was so desperately afraid of happened: he no longer believed in me. Crying, I would spend hours at the church. The humiliation of the situation, the mocking looks of the people — nothing scared me any longer, nothing could embarrass me more than what I got. But everything was too little for me. It seemed to me that I wanted to be fully impregnated with the poison of complete humiliation. Deep down, without admitting it to myself, I began to feel something like disgusting lust…

‘You’re standing in front of the Demon like a sliced ​​watermelon. One can clearly see all your habits, emotional reactions, patterns of thinking. You’re predictable, fixed, and tightly closed to many possibilities inherent in our lives.’

I was being torn apart by shame, anger and hatred. How I hated him! A sudden attack of breathlessness, which often happened when I met him, prevented me from shout after him, «And you? Aren’t you hiding behind the stone wall of the church from life itself? What makes you different from me? That found a safe haven, while I didn’t?»

I would go back ashamed. I was so mistaken hoping that he felt for me something more than just pity! By advising me to fall in love, he showed that I was nothing but a woman. More than that, I was no one for him, just guinea material. He wanted me to be rehabilitated, crush his personal guilt. His attempts failed as it’s impossible to squeeze milk from a stone. He was a stone, a cold fish!

Seeing me hiding in the shadows, Father Vladimir moved sharply toward me. I shuddered and drew back: he used to he avoided me.

‘Go away from me! All your words are empty! I’m disappointed in you. You reminded me of my mother.

‘You are incarnated on this earth only to serve others. You all remind me of her. You are a huge, immense crowd of wailing mothers. Cut off your hair and throw it, and lift it — cry to the mountains! Sprinkle ashes on your heads and roll in the dust! I hate myself in you! You broke my life! I’m choking on hating all of you!

‘Go away!!!’ the priest was shouting. He was truly scary at this moment — wroth, helpless and furious, he was breaking the air and ground with his words, savagely cutting down heavy branches, destroying all the conventional norms of priesthood behavior. The colorless and poisonous words with foul smelling, similar to explosive gas, were strengthened by the ominous rumble bells that seemed to have collapsed from somewhere in the sky. The whole area around the church looked extinct. There was nothing but the stunning ringing, which reached its climax. It poured into the frantic scream of the terrible man in a long black robe with a gold cross on his chest. He was high, his long hair was tossed by the wind, the dark strands were like the veil of death. My fear, my readiness to fall on my knees, my handes clasped in prayer, just increased his frenzied hatred. In great fear, I ran away from that madman. As if infected by my behavior, several women screamed hysterically and rushed after me. Their faces were painfully familiar. It seemed like they had been running for a long time. The smell of the torn clothes, the hysterical breath, the anxious eyes — everything was drilling and tormenting me, freezing my back. When we were panting up the hill, I struggled but was the leader. But when we all rushed down, they seemed to have turned into red-hot iron balls; making a hissing popping noise, they clashed and sparkled. One more minute — and they would run into me. Panting, I flew to the gate, but didn’t have time to open it. I remember clearly that it opened, and I literally fell into the arms of the astonished Kostya…

Chapter 11. Passion

  ‘Where are you running from? What’s happened?’ he kept asking me, holding me in his big and strong arms.

‘Let me go’, I hissed angrily, trying desperately to get free and reach the gate. ‘I need to see Father Vladimir. I must tell him…’

I wanted to see him immediately and at any cost!

I had heard a lot of more ruthless words from my son and husband. So why was my whole being shaken by that man’s hard words? His priesthood did not cause me feel any kind of awe; hatred made me dizzy. He struck me with evil… And if I had been cursed by thousands of people and pelted with rotten eggs and spitting, I would not have felt so badly as I did at the moment!

I wanted to make him furious, hit a backhand, whip him with all my strength, pound the stone chest and iron heart. I wanted to do that at all costs. All I needed was to get to him!

‘Damn intellectuals!’ Kostya shouted, aroused by despair and the trembling of my whole body. He grabbed me by his arms and, pushing me, was almost carrying me into the house. Then he kicked and threw away to the grass the ridiculous dark blue scarf that slipped off my head.

‘Not you, not you!’ He continued, looking at my indignant face and dry lips. ‘I mean the priest of course. He teaches everyone, preaches, like an indefatigable apostle. His moralizing maxims have almost ruined you. But who is he? He is trying to glorify and exalt himself like a crowned hero. Your fear of him and your strange awe amaze me. Did you happen to make a laurel wreath for him? He is a dog in the manger, that’s the guy’s pretty accurate description. They are surprised that the intellectuals were killed right after the revolution. Come on, those nicey-nice creatures were not even able to protect their own lives! Their damn morals didn’t let them shoot people like themselves. I hate them all! They would better sit in their holes and keep silent instead of moralizing and teaching others how to live. Life is as simple as nature itself; go wherever you want…’

I obeyed his voice and his influence, and, bewitched, followed him in small and quick steps. Everything he was saying excitedly said sounded absolutely convincing and compelling. His words were like unctuous honey for my heart, and I was walking humbly and gently. Kostya knew everything better than I did. He seemed to read my thoughts. My conscience was clean…

  To be ignited with one’s anger, to give up to one’s emotions — how can the one who serves God do that? Run away, run away from him to the edge of the earth until he has poisoned me with his words! Why I haven’t I done this before?

I sat on the sunburnt knees, the big hands stroked and soothed me, the lips were like organ music. My face, raised and shifted slightly in his direction were sprinkled with kisses… He  picked me up easily like a sheet and put me on the bed. It was all so easy, natural and simple. And at the same time — incredibly amazing… and inevitable…

I was lying in my bedroom, and there was an indescribable bliss in my whole body. I was floating in the sky like a bright cloud, filled with complete forgiveness, generosity, and strange tenderness…

I indulged in recent thoughts; some phrases, flowing into each other, drove the letters out. The result was chaos, «Do you care? Even if you are in love, you’re afraid of everything…» But that no longer hurt me; like a sweet river, I was flowing in myself, gurgling and laughing. Then I remembered how Kostya caught me and lured me back. The dominant male has won, that’s how nature is arranged. I felt like laughing. Dominant male! Hard, brute force — I had always feared and avoided men like Kostya! It wasn’t true that he was only guided by wicked competition and competitive instincts. But what if it is true?

I jumped up, feeling dizzy, put on a robe, and was about to open the door, but it opened itself, and Kostya, intoxicated with the victory, broke in. He looked happy and triumphant. We almost collided.

‘You know, when I left you for a minute, I started missing you terribly’, he whispered in my ear in a rough, hoarse voice, softening tenderness. We missed the bed and we fell to the floor. I hit my head on the hard floor, a distinct snap was heard, but the amazing thing was that I didn’t feel any pain. When falling, Kostya touched the large silk lampshade and the table full of books; something blurted out loudly and scattered noisily; windo glas rang…

Those fantastically godless eyes, those savingly desired hands…

Everything changed drastically! A huge love fire, and little flowers of fear in the middle. If I give it a good shake, all the fear will fall out. Am I right, Father Vladimir? Because you… There was an important word that I still didn’t remember …

  I was still under anesthesia and mumbled something unintelligible… No one would be able to make out the words.

‘Kostya is in love with you. He lost his head’, Arthur said seriously a few days later, in a comradely way. We were doing the math, and hand with a pencil just froze.

‘Why?’ I tried to keep calm, while my cheeks, ears, and even neck were already burning. ‘Why do you think so?’

‘Vera Nikolayevna, he now forgets to wipe me after the massage, and he even leaves ointment jars on my legs and goes. And recently, he simply missed the massage.’

I was ashamed and speechless. I didn’t know what to say. Children have an amazing intuation. I was quite confused. Wasn’t forgetting the sick child too much? And I certainly was not behaving properly either. If the parents knew, they would drive us away! And it was my third job!

I was terrified and kept silent.

‘But you have become so pretty!’ Arthur sighed. ‘I would marry you, Vera, if I were grown-up.’ Quite unexpectedly, he spoke impolitely, without using my patronymic. Without thinking, I slapped him on the forehead.

‘What are you doing, Vera Nikolayevna?’ he asked, and his eyes rounded. ‘No one has every beaten me. I will tell my…’

‘Go ahead’ I said, laughing. ‘Your parents would fire me, and you would be missing me. But I’ll be the first to tell them about your intention to marry me!’

What happened to me? I suddenly felt that I was sck and tired of being scared! Being scared was quite useless. What you are afraid of will happen anyway, fear or no fear. So why should I be afraid of losing my son, my husband, my job? Why should I fear Father Vladimir?..

All earthly things, which I would have held on, all my beliefs — everything fell apart, everything was taken away…

I looked up to Arthur’s eyes. I was staring at him, as if trying to see something. Well, was he really disabled? His illness had begun recently, and something deep in my heart told me that… everything was possible. He had an awful character, of course, God forbid.

‘Well, that’s right’, Arthur said unexpectedly  and started laughing, too. Maybe he had heard my thoughts? ‘I won’t tell them anything, no matter what you would do…’

‘’Why such a favor?’ I asked, surprised. ‘As far as I know, you don’t like your teachers. My suitcase is always ready.’

‘Your suitcase? Come on!’ the boy shot back quickly without giving me time to recover. ‘I know that your luggage was pretty light. I’m sure you only had a handkerchief in it.’

‘So firing me is not interesting’ I said. ‘I will not be rattling down the stairs with a trolley stuffed with suitcases top to bottom, right? And I won’t stumble under the weight of the bags, and won’t hit my nose myself against the steps. And I won’t give unspeakable joy to the naughty boy looked out the window, right?’

Arthur burst into laughter. I had never seen him like that. He threw his head back and kept laughing like crazy. What amused him so much?

‘What about going down to the forest?’ I suggested.

Arthur stopped laughing immediately and looked at me with fear.

‘To the forest? I never go out of the house. There is nothing special outside.

‘Come on!’ I said and waved my hand. ‘Do you mean that sitting inside is fun? Why should everything be forbidden? Are you going to live that way the rest of your life? I also did what was allowed.’

‘And what do you feel now?’ the asked me, interested.

‘I am so tired of being scared! What am I feeling? I want to do something I have never done and have a kind of disobedience holiday. Understand?’

‘No. I don’t understand how adults can be afraid of something. When I grow up, all my fear will end.’

‘You are mistaken, Arthur. Only adults experience real fear.’

‘Really?’ he whispered, looking at me attentively. ‘Really?’

‘Let’s go, man! It’s great in the forest, trust me! Besides, you must get uo at last. Why the hell should I ask you like a little girl?’

What motivated me to make daily trips in the woods with Arthur? Feeling guilty before him? I didn’t know. My conscience was, of course, not clear. Maybe I wanted to shake off the sweet madness that I was feeling for the first time in my life.

I always feared that the men like Kostya would quickly lose interest in the woman they have seduced. But it was not so. Kostya did his best to be liked by me. Sometimes he looked like an excited peacock with a sparkling tail committing a mating dance. «Wait, wait, it’s all going to end soon,» I assured myself, but it didn’t end. More than that, it was heating up with every hour…

He would firmly squeeze my leg under the table at every opportunity, lift me in his arms, and kissed me in every stuffy corner, narrow passage, behind the marble column, on the steps, under the long branches of the green spruce. I would struggle out of his arms and hide under the heavy curtains. For a whole day, I always felt his hot touch, teasing breath, it was impossible to tame that rabid animal passion that was tearing out.

‘Kostya’, I confessed at last, ‘I am hungry!’ It took him some time to understand me. ‘I am always hungry in this house’, I said firmly and swallowed salina. ‘Do you understand me now?’

Saying that Kostya was like throwing a match into a powder keg. He was ready to strangle a lion with his own hands, tear him into pieces, and throw him under the feet of his hungering female. My room was filled with glorious scents: pungent garlic, spicy, fresh, ripe… Wines of all colors, flavors of all islands. Apricot and mint liqueur, absinthe infused with wormwood — that’s what I had!

One should have seen my insatiable appetite when I would pounce greedily on the juicy cherry pies! Oh-oh, how amazing it was to stick my fingers in them, filling my mouth with that beauty. If God Almighty was near by, He would enjoy looking at me! I ate delicious sweets and drank strong wine. Kostya, in an unbuttoned white shirt, slim and young, would pour the wine elegantly; every icy sip would bask sweetly under my tongue. I was tipsy and happy, and probably quite drunk! What a miracle it was those hours filled with honey scents of saffron and cinnamon, clove and musk — burning, humid, and hot! I sat between Kostya’s legs, exhausted from languor, look in his eyes seductive, and all the exposed parts of his body touch with amazement and delight. The thick and dark hair with sable shine — everything attracted me irresistibly, I obeyed dutifully to all his masculine whims. Obeying not the principal clad with authority, not to the collective duty and conscience was something unknown, and it was the only perfect thing. I rejected even from my own thoughts and feelings, because they had often lied and betrayed me. In every moment of the dissolution in my lover, I would get infected with his natural ease and carefree force, and become solid and clear, able to admire and bring joy.

The days were getting more and more desirable, to say nothing of the nights.Petal by petal, I was opening the buds of the black orchid, out rendezvous flower; like a jolly bee, honey oozing from the abdomen, would fly to the next flower…

It was easier and easier for me to express my thoughts and feelings. While my conversations with Father Vladimir were hard and exhausting, I felt free and natural with Kostya. Like animals, we understood all the shades of groaning and sighing. Kostya, with his healthy naturalness, would easily pull any flavor and color out of me: I was able to captivate him with the simplicity of fresh and green grass. By turning me inside out, he would turn me into a luxurious basket of raspberries, or a rare kind of emerald liquor, or glaucous field air, or a virgin in iron handcuffs chained to the bed, a female slave raped by the owner, or a woman exhausted by hunger paying with her body for a stale piece of bread…

‘Kostya’, I confessed one day humbly. ‘Vladimir Sergeyevich has given me advance payment, pretty good money. I would have not starved, Kostya. But you can hardly imagine how hard it’s been for me to touch that money. Why was so? Some time ago, when lived in my city, I became incredibly stingy, and it’s still like that.’

I opened the wooden drawer carefully and showed him helplessly the money hidden in a handkerchief and placed in a shiny box, which I had picked up in the grass.

‘There’s nothing wrong with it’, Kostya replied confidently. He seated me on his lap, put his strong arms around me, and lulling me the way a mother lulls her child. ‘Greed comes from solitude and deep trouble. You, for sure, think that you have nothing except a little money. Perhaps you really had nothing else. But that was before. Now you’ve got me. And you can feel it at any time…’

Yes, Kostya was incredibly real. Sometimes, he was also scary, with his intoxicating and hairy beauty body, terrible, poignant and welcome, with its intimate fold. Feeling reverent renunciation, I would make love to him, caress him with my lively hands, avoiding rather than alarming his firm flesh, hot like fire. Kostya…

I would almost go crazy inhaling his harsh and spicy, fatally male smell. My wild mind only cared about one thing: I wanted him to penetrate me as quickly as possible. My passion, just like his, did not decrease, we felt as if we were in its fiery furnace. In a hot haze, in a buzzing flame spewing black sparks…

  Let the jealous though merciful God forgive me. After all my trials and tribulations, I really went crazy. I was playing the harlot, and I didn’t feel it was enough. But I was gradually turning into a live radiant woman from the pale ghost tormented by memories, which I had been before…

Everything that was associated with Father, Vladimir moved far away, beyond the high mountains; it became unrealistic and completely pointless. Strange to say, I did feel like telling Kostya about my old life, and he, thank God, was not inquisitive. In fact, he was right, I had nothing and nobody. My old life had collapsed like a cliff, and all I was attached to was gone with it. In my heart, I had even refused from the apartment in which I had lived; It was a small aparment, so what could I change it fo? For two rooms in the dorm? The procedure of changinf the apartment with my son frightened me with as the material embodiment of the ruthless and irrevocable life…

Kostya insisted that he would never leave me. Part of my being did not believe in it, and, well, how could I believe the petted young man? But the fact that he was constantly talking about it was fantastic. It was as if I had borrowed time all your ideas about love and was not returning the debt. What did I need to believe in it? A stamp in the passport? Ridiculous. I could not even imagine that my marriage to Kolya, bonded by the childm the years of attachment, and other, as it turned out, rubbish, would have collapsed in a second.

   I had been deprived of everything I was afraid of losing. But stage was over.

Why should I be scared? The first time I was incredibly cautious so that nobody in the house would know about my and Kostya’s relationship. I did it not only because of the slave’s fear of being fired. All kinds of wmotions either raged or squeaked slightly inside me: shame, conscience, and incomprehensible guilt. Why wasn’t Kostya afraid of anything? Was sure that Arthur needed him?

‘It’s real fun to watch you!’ Kostya said joyfully, shaking from my face the seriousness and correctness left from my previous life. ‘Come on, girl, the whole neighborhood knows about our relationship!’

My heart was began to pound, I even stopped breathing. So Father Vladimir knows? Some kind of brutal, vicious joy swept over me, and it seemed to me that I started living at last. I fancied myself sitting in a square full of people, taking greasy and soft pieces of drunken love with my hands from a huge pan, then close my eyes and swallow them noisily, moistening them with saliva, in front of everyone. Oh, those amazing movements by my tongue and lips, my teeth thrusted into the flesh! But that heavenly blue not a reliable roof, it was just a vapor refracted in the sunshine. In fact, I was sitting on the globe, surrounded with the endless impenetrable space where planets and stars rush to and fro!

Fear, like a Black Man, took off his hat and stepped aside reverently, so Kostya and I lost caution completely…

Sometimes we would start cleaning up the bookcases; on our knees, we would snatch the books, throw them frantically on the floor, and then remember vaguely why were there… The same would happen to the trees: sitting on the thick branches at night and eating the delicious pears, we would to the grass, filled with bottomless impatience. It was like from now on every day: fresh audacity of dying in a secret shade of dark…

Nobody had ever demanded so aggressively that I had such a selfless shiver, and that pressure kept growing. Oh-oh-oh! How strong the hidden power of the male smell was! Losing my head, I was fearlessly, painfully, getting subordinate to the ardent male possessing untold muscles. The main thing was to act as quietly as possible… Oh dear, what nonsense! It didn’t matter any more!

Can one slide down part by part?

When will winter come? Maybe never. The summer was scorching and hot, the warm autumn didn’t want to say goodbye to summer. They probably bred horses in the village: in the mornings, one could hear snoring horses, loud neighing of stallions, horse hooves, ringing of copper bell. Lifting the silk window curtains, the air ignited with their heavy breathing would burst in…

Things got hectic and uncontrollable, and, to my horror, everything was too little for me. That morning I was sitting on the table in my room, unbridled and naked, full of passionate joy and unhealthy fantasies. They somehow broke out suddenly and terribly like a crimson wave of invisible beings, who went up, gently hit the ceiling, and darted into the purple depth of the garden… God, I was languishing and writhing painfully, covered with ice sweat, shivering and getting completely blind, turning into firy, purple, multi-colored bitter holes — a woman seduced by a man.

  Tears were running from my eyes, water was dripping from my eyelashes …

  I was thrilled, feeling like a cow producing streams of hot, intoxicating milk…

What secret triumph shone in his eyesin in the mornings! They were unbearably dark and frighteningly bare. His hands would glide silently in my sleepy body, sinking lower and lower. My breasts would flash under the sheet like two protruding bulbs. His incredible whisper would make my belly hotter and hotter… «You won’t escape me, you won’t!» his groping hands would repeat, immersing into the boiling algae, into the bubbling cache…

Every hair on my body would shimmer and stand on end; everything would fly and drop, while our tightly coupled bodies would perform the spooky and springy dance… Crazy because of the piercing joy and gratitude, we would swim out of the fiery depths and get back to the safe everyday life, listening to the ringing pulse calming down slowly… The room would keep rocking, the shelves and desks stood on one side, the magazines would fall loudly…

I would sit at the breakfast table in terrible embarrassment, my cheeks burning, the moisture between my legs quivering and cooling down sweetly…

I was unable to raise my hands and reach a cup of tea: like jellyfish on dry sand, they were hanging out along my exhausted and sluggish body. Kostya sat opposite, staring at me, his eyes narrowed leeringly. He stuck his tongue out slowly and licked his red mouth as if trying to tear it. At that moment hatered pierced me — I feared it myself…

He had sprinled madness in me and was now mocking …

Ariadne was looking at me with bitter reproach. The laundress’s face expressed desperate grief when she looked at me, frowning, wrapped up to the eyebrows in a long dark scarf. Here I am in front of you! Shameless, completely forgetting to say thank you, thank you… Let heaven collapse!

Kostya molded a bread crumb and threw it in at nose. We burst into laughter — I, Kostya, and even Arthur, who started slapping his knees. Well, I would definitely get fired…

I stood up, went outside, and stood, breathing the sharp and blue air, as pure as wine. From time to time, I would raise my head, open my mouth, but the icy freshness would not extinguish my desire. I felt like hiding away, shrinking into a ball, staying in a secret place till the end of the world.

Sometimes I went out to the garden at night. It was usually cold, the noisy wind would howl. The flying cold droplets would tickle my cheeks. It would be hard to wander in such weather. Shivering and twitching my shoulders, I would walk slowly down the immense garden, remembering my previous long journey. Sometimes I would think I saw shadowy figures glimpsing in the darkness, or shrill and screeching sounds. But I would see no one. Then again — crackling of branches overhead, a fast narrow shadow, leaves flying down. I would be frightened, shiver, and hurry back. Once I met the gardener and shared my visions with him.

‘You can call me Mikhail’, he said. ‘No patronymic is required.’ He looked like a stork — a long, straight nose, high and thin legs, a combination of white and black woolen clothes.

‘Ah, that…’ He was not surprised hearing my concerns about the strange sounds. ‘Children are usually very emotional, their thoughts easily materialize. That’s why they run around the garden. I am accustomed to that.’

‘Are those Arthur’s dreams?’ I asked, surprised. ‘Can you see them?’

‘Why not? Of course I do, it’s so simple! I often walk here at night when I can’t fall asleep. And I can see that all right. After Arthur fell in love with the computer, the dreams are mostly awful, and they all walk around. But the permanent one is fond of climbing the trees and the walls.’

‘Oh, that’s the spderman’, I guessed.

‘That’s right. It’s his favorite movie. He wants his hair to be cut in such a way that he would look like a spider. Remember the tattoo?’

‘Yes, I saw it the first day when I came here. But how do explain women’s dreams, Mikhail? Women are not less emotional, right?’

‘They are, for sure. But they are not believers. And, fortunately, nothing will happen without it.’

‘Why “fortunately”?’

‘Can you imagine what the world turns into if the women’s thoughts materialize? No, computer horrors are more than enough. Soon there won’t be a single horror-free place.’

‘Do you mean that the thoughts of the kids playing computer games are going to fill the cities and it will be terrible to walk along the streets?’

‘It will happen soon. I won’t live that long, but will have the opportunity to see it happen.’

‘People will hopefully invent something by that time’, I said.

‘Ghost eaters?’ Mikhail said. ‘Like huge vacuum cleaners? Highly probable. Yes, that’s an interesting idea …

Chapter 12. Arthur

   Arthur became accustomed to walks in the woods. Winter was not coming yet, the autumn lasted so long. There were occasional warm days. When Arthur and I moved easily through the forest in all its blind trails, we used to wander in the depths of the thicket, I would get the boy out of the chair and put him right in the dry, yellow grass. Then I would take off his shoes for him so that he could feel the coolness of the ground and tingling touch of the leaves and the pine needles.

‘Why aren’t you afraod of the forest?’ Arthur asked me. ‘Has it always been like this?’

‘No’, I confessed. ‘I used to be afraid of everything, including the forest. But I had to become a pilgrim.’

‘A pilgrim? You mean you were a pilgrim? But why didn’t you tell us that before?’

‘There was nobody I could tell that. I disliked Kostya, and as to you, well, you were a bad, naughty boy.’

Arthur pourded hundreds of questions upon me, asking me to tell him about wandering in the woods and what I had seen there. Actually, it was quite simple, but whatever I tried to tell him, related to my old life. So I had to tell him the whole story about my son playing the slot machines, Father Vladimir’s manuscript, and working at school. I decribed everything in great detail, and kept wondering why it was Arthur I told that. I made several attempts to stop, but he begged me to go on; maybe it was just an awful fairy tale for him. The most interesting part of the story was about the game rooms. The boy’s eyes shined, and he wantd to tell him more and more about our visits there.

‘Well, there is actually nothing to add. Now you know about the little old man, Ashot, and the teenagers. What else can I tell you?’ But Arthur wanted to know the slightest details. To encourage me, he promised to do his lessons well in advance. He kept his word, so I told him about the token that fell under the slot machine, and about Yakov who saved Boris…

‘What if they had never found the token?’ Arthur asked.

‘It would have been just terrible’, I said frankly. ‘It was about human dignity, which should never be lost. Never. In such criminal places, really dramas happen…’

‘Wow!’ Arthur exclaimed. ‘Do you know many such stroies?’

I didn’t even imagine that it would be of interest at least for one person. Oh, Arthur, if you knew how magic those rooms were! The timid beginner’s empty hands feel the brand new, crisp packets, so real, so fresh that promise and give you so much joy and pleasure. We want to get those bills. Yes, WE! The main thing is to keep going, and once the machine will splash the long-awaited cash out…

‘Tomorrow’, I would say firmly. Arthur had changed a lot and listened to me almost without question. He became serious. There was a deep wrinkle between his eyebrows, as if he were thinking of something deeply. But what was it? This was a kind of mystery…

‘Today we have palm wine, which is even mentioned in the Bible!’ Kostya announced in the evening, when we stayed together in my little room. He would arrange our dates in the bright artistic way, turning the room into a fairytale place.

He raised a bright green crystal bottle, turned it around in his hands, and uncorked it. Banana smell filled the room. ‘It is very ancient, they used it to soak corpses to prevent them from rotting. If I embalm you with it, you will never grow old and will always be pleasing me.’ After saying that, he winked mischievously, and started watering me with the thick and odorous liquid with genuine zeal, straight from the bottle. Sitting on a chair, I tried to fight back, but it was too late. My thin chemise clung to my body, I was all slimy and yellow. The trembling wizard was not satisfied even when he threw me backward on the bed and made ​​me drink the remains of the wine. After that, he licked my body everywhere he noticed the smelly streams. Maybe because the wine was so strong, maybe because Kostya’s tongue was so hot, maybe because my nipples were extremely sensitive, but I felt drunk, physically and morally…

On the next morning, Kostya, like an innocent dove, called me humbly, lurking at the door. His lips clung to the keyhole, he was cooing gently and clicking his tongue. The healing sounds were filling the room and tickling my nose. I opened my eyes and smiled slyly. There came a new day, beaming with sapphires and emeralds, like a queen’s necklace! Hooray!

My husband came back from the army when Alyosha was already two. Our son was a bright, cheerful kid. Maybe too tender and effeminate, as Kolya said. From the first day, something like a war broke between them. I could not even imagine that such a thing could happen. I was proud of the early growth of our son, and I was sure that Kolya would share that feeling with me. But it was the opposite. The child stood between us, he divided us. The boy resisted stubbornly his father’s influence as Kolya demanded severely that he would behave as a man and ridiculed his tears. I rushed between them, like the hen forced to sit on a duck’s egg. The hen fought for her fledgling, as far as the best, but unable to bear the reproaches of the chicken yard, kicked the ugly duckling off. In real life, though, everything is not that simple, things are hidden deeply in the most secret places. In the very depths of my soul, I thought irritably: why is Alyosha so unyielding and stubborn? It wass so easy to cheat, be nice to his father and behave the way he wanted.

   My son did not belong to the harmonious column of conventional morality, to the cohort of exemplary children. He was too shy and timid. At times, he lived as if asleep, in the fantasies of his dreams. I was annoyed by his lack of everyday acumen and tenacity. Looking at my son like in a mirror, I hated my reflection — that of a bad girl…

  We betray our children the way we were betrayed. We try to make them be good and behave correctly — for the sake of whom? My mother always always mentioned Svetlana as a role model for me; the girl was said to be a quiet and diligent student, translucent, with blue eyes. I hated her with all my soul, but for some reason, I did my very best to be like her, which was absolutely hopeless.

When Alyosha was in the fifth grade, he once came home crying. I was preparing myself to the open lesson at school to be visited by several teachers who were coming from Moscow. I was supposed to defend the honor of the school. I was sitting on the floor, in the middle of numerous of books and pictures, making a plan of an unprecedented drawing lesson. Alyosha was sat beside me and started telling me something excitedly, complaining about someone and asking for something. I could hardly understand a word though as my head was dulled by fatigue. I automatically stroked my son’s head, saying something comforting out of place, like everything will be OK, boys are fond of fighting, and so on. A few days later, I guessed vaguely (but quickly forgot it) that something quite important was happening in my son’s life. It was the decisive battle for his dignity, whose outcome would have painful results in the future. That was like a so soldier going to the war and making sure that the horse and the weapons are reliable enough. But we adults think that those are just trifles and a storm in a teacup…

  «…and you have all the horrors for that».

  I remembered Father Vladimir: I fled in terror away from him. Now I could distinguish the vague images of the people who ran after me. They appeared as though surfacing from the murky water: mother, grandmother, Eleanora, the priest’s, my students’ parents…

I had no right to judge Eleanora. I imagined her, a prominent, well-known man’s age mate; she had fake eyelashes, a fake wig, ineptly applied tanner, in constant tension, always afraid of being abandoned. Didn’t she pity her boy? Didn’t she wish him to be happy?

There are times of full unity — it is a thousand times better than tears or pity. It binds people stronger than blood and oath, and it does not end with death. In our world, it happens very seldom… But it did happen with me with Arthur. My heart ached — why not with my son?

But I already caught that elusive flow and knew its price…

‘You know, Arthur, I said bluntly, ‘It’s high time you stoop up! I’m tired of dragging you in this wheelchair! Now it’s clear why your legs got numb. It was because you didn’t want to go to school! But now that this issue has been resolved and you will never go to that school again, it would be stupid to pretend disabled! What do you think?’

‘I know, I know!’ Arthur shouted. I was surprised to look at him. His eyes were sparkling, even his face oval and his voice were different. Under his breath, he sighed deeply, with relief. The armor he had been hiding under so long cracked and crumbled…

But that miraculous transformation didn’t last long. The lost soul looked out briefly like a sticky leaf from a branch, got frightened, and hid away quickly. But I saw clearly that it was there.

I saw the bunch of hidden gold glittering keys I had been was looking for everywhere. I had tried to figure them out in my traveling companion Maria; I had also been looking for them in the woods, on the roads, in other mothers’ faces. Maria was the only woman of the true nature.

  She understood her son completely, although he belonged to a different world. He was a planted egg, while she was a naive duck taking care of her son, a future predator — a hawk or maybe a wolf. It didn’t matter who exactly he was going to be. What did matter was that he was her son. That’s why she accepted him completely and raised her wings of love over him. Those two forces, love and acceptance, were the world’s most powerful talisman. And always, in the flight among friends or enemies, in a wild or pious flock, this eternal power will fill him. When he is exhausted, it will brighten his path; when he is rejected by all, it will grant him integrity and clarity.

I listened to the apprehensions, to any rustling or whistling. But it was a long way to go until thr enlightenment…

There was a secret door I would never enter. Only after my death…

Kostya told me suddenly that Arthur’s feet «were coming alive». He repeated the words twice, but he could not express what exactly was going on.

‘This is something at the level of sensation’, he said. ‘But nothing like that has ever happened before. As if the blood flinched under my hands. Or a cube of adrenaline had been poured into his veins. I really don’t understand what’s happened.’

I had to tell Kostya about Arthur, there was no alternative. I could not cope with all that alone. I froze in anticipation of a miracle — I believed in it. But the miracle I was expecting didn’t happen. The cure was so close, just at hand, but something was clearly not enough. Just a tiny little thing was missing… There are so many inexplicable things around us. We had to do something — but I had no idea what exactly we were supposed to do. Maybe find Sasha, the boy who beat Arthur? As if overhearing my mind, Kostya found the guy in the village. It was a frightened boy with whitish hair and pale eyebrows, eyelashes, and eyes. His brothers, also albinos, lived together with an alcoholic father, who beat them mercilessly. Their mother had died three years before.

‘That’s unbelievable’, Kostya said, ‘It’s hard to surprise me, but when I entered their house, I got speechless. Complete poverty, a stinking clay yard, where I slipped and almost fell, and the hideous father of the family. The whole day I was tormented by the memory, and I felt powerless for the first time in my life. What was I suppoded to do: tie them, beat them, drag them here, and throw them down at Arthur’s feet? Make them apologize?

And so what? Even if Arthur stands up, he will never go back to that school.’

Suddenly I remembered Oavel Sedoy. He was interested in various civilizations and often mentioned Atlantis. But if Vladimir Sergeyevich argued so convincingly that he was a descendant of the ancient Atlanteans, what did that mean? That the blood of the ancient also flows in his son’s veins! I already had some trust in my instincts, so I called Pavel. He had a very simple phone number, quite easy to remember. Pavel answered the call and was very happy to hear my voice,

‘Vera Nikolayevna! Where are you? What happened?’

Pavel talked and talked, just choked with words, hurrying to tell me something, but the connection was bad, and I interrupted him loudly,

‘Pavel, I need your help. I am far away. There is a sick boy here. His parents think that they are Atlanteans, and they travel around the world. So their son is also an Atlantean. This may be complete nonsense of course. But I remember that you used to be interested in that kind of stuff. Do you remember once telling me about the way they used to cure people in Atlantis?’

‘The cure was miracles, Vera Nikolayevna! Yes, miracles! There were such caves there, all sparkling with precious stones. Those who stayed there for a certain period of time were cured from any kind of disease…’

‘Well, but you see, Pavel’, I interrupted him again. ‘There are no such caves today. So what do we do?’

‘Well, a miracle is… a dream. What the boy dreams about be made real. As a surprise, understand? But you must know about his dream for sure, because sometimes…’

‘Thank you, thank you, Pavel!’ I yelled. ‘I will call you back by all means.’

I now had new ideas.What was Arthur’s dream?

But there was a strange, bad aftertaste after the conversation. Pavel definitely wanted to say something else… He really did…

Kostya and I had no idea what to do to surprise the boy. In our naive stupidity, we discussed everything he was fond of. Naïve, because it was all too obvious. The tattoo in his hair, and the ghost in the garden. His favorite movie.

‘Spider-Man!’ I cried one morning. Why is it in the morning that one has the right thoughts?

‘And then what?’ Kostya asked languidly. The «Spider-Man» movie is OK. But do we organize the shootings in our village? Will Arthur appear in the lead role and astonish the other kids? Don’t forget that Arthur can’t walk.’

‘That’s right’, I sighed. ‘So what do we do?’

We began thinking and figuring. At last we agreed that all we needed was just surprising Arthur by the emergence of Spider-Man. First, we needed a costume. Kostya would put it on…

‘I will jump down upon you when you walk in the forest’, Kostya exclaimed. I like the idea, but it seemed too complicated because of the mud as there was still no snow. So we decided to do the whole thing in the garden. It would be easier for Kostya to get down from the tower on the ropes, the more so that there were many projections there.

Kostya went to Moscow to ger a costume. He called me in the evening and souted, “Vera, you are a genious! There are such costumes in a sex-shop! I’ve bought one, and I am going to buy another one, for a woman. It has two locks, in a special place and on the chest.”

‘You are a fool!’ I screamed. ‘Get back immediately!’

When Kostya was back, it turned out that he had brought two unbridled sexy spider costumes. The little shiny locks were where in the right places, easy to open if one pulled the little silver tongue. The scarlet scented latex had a black mesh. «Loose», Kostya said doubtfully, feeling the luxurious rubber and locks. Of course, we had to try the locks. There were two ways to put the costumes on: either to rub the bodies with perfumed talc or cream. We had to try everything. The slots on the head were only for the eyes and nostrils. Kostya pulled his lock silently…

I came quite close to him. I had long noticed, though I could not understand why, my steps got a great ease, and my voice was soft like fluff. Begging Kostya for something, I had a habit of rubbing agains his nose slightly. He would go crazy instantly, alhough, to tell the truth, he had long been crazy, rubbing or no rubbing. He had incredible eyes. At night, they were definitely like those of a folfs: golden-toxic, burning of the abundance of fresh strength, fever and delirium. In the daytime, they were foggy and mysterious, like black pearls. Do I know you quite well, Kostya? Have you always walked like a smarmy and impassive beast?

Frankly speaking, those costumes and the way we tried them on filled me with unprecedented wildness, too …



Once I pulled over the bright latex, all parts of my body would increase easily, I would stretch easily and lurk far away. Another smooth body would throw me from the mountains into the canyon, lash my thin skin, pull the iron tongue of the lock, and get sucted by the copperhead hawk filled with power. Unfamiliar feelings made me feel dizzy…

It took a few idiotic days, during which Kostya and I would crush and smash everything to pieces beyond all reasonable limits. Every day we were going to do something important, but when I saw him, covered in red rubber, I would cling fiercely to my unlicked little bull, which barely fit in me… When will this torture end? Why didn’t I understand that before? Why didn’t I know that everything goes on faster under the flowing water? It’s a primitive spasm and madly-sweet wild pleasure… The last earthly pleasure.

I stopped recognizing myself on the mirror. My bbright green eyes seemed to have lost their color and flashed like a snake’s. Feeling blissful shame, I was shaking all over and eagerly catching air — and looked like a dead bird, smelling sweetly with Kostya’s warm and bloody hands…

But I slept long, soundly, and blissfully. That’s how young puppies suck milk.

One of these days I met Father Vladimir again.

«Is it he?» I asked myself as it required some effort to recognize the man. Without looking up, I quickly, I said hello in a horrible and unnatural voice, and wanted to sneak past.

‘Vera? He said quietly. ‘Are you OK?’

‘I’m OK, I’m fine’, I muttered, hiding my hands behind my back as if they were bleeding. My voice suddenly became hoarse, and I averted my eyes so as not to scorch the man with the fire of the radiant abyss from which there was no return. I hurried away, muttering to myself, mimicking his words, «I am ​​doing what you told me — are wasting my feminine potential»…

Those days I, unfortunately, came across Father Vladimir rather often: in the store, on the street, even outside our gate. It had been so many times that I had tried to catch him, but he had always driven me away and vanished into thin air. And now, when I didn’t need him, he was everywhere. He would look at me in surprise without trying to stop me. In the depths of his eyes there was a kind of dark sad surprise, which pleased me greatly. «I am needed, I am wanted, I can be loved», I thought. «And my life is not as empty as you think. But now I don’t have anything to do to you.»

At the same time, I understood more and more clearly that something was burning behind his anger and hatred. There was an unsolved mystery about it. And the fact that I wanted to hide my heart from him, my body gave out desperately…

The event Kostya and I called «Surprise» was on its way to the end. There were many surprises as Kostya, dressed like a spider, rubber ropes around his waist, made use of me for practicing.

He would fall from a huge oak, grab me by the arms, and we would fly up, or rather, were supposed to do so. That was our plan. But I was terribly afraid of height and could barely restrain screaming when we both fell down a couple of times. However, nothing happened, the costumes were not damaged, although I had a little pain in my side. Our passion became unmanageable…

What had been my vague desire, became flesh; what had been searing sorrow, became memory. Scarlet paint splashed my lips, my blood was whipping up and making my body young. But looking in the mirror, I liked what I saw there. Once Kostya dragged me into the bedroom and pulled a pile of colored underwear out of Eleanora’s cabinets. Passion failed to eclipse my eyes; trying on the red and purple silk, I appreciated its intoxicating power! I didn’t recognize myself in the white lace foam and in the transparent dresses made of a single thin thread and pearl nodules. I was pale azure, crimson, pale cream, and there was no end to that magical vision…

How did I exist before? Every crystal bead and every precious necklace of rubies and corals gave me more grace and charm. The expensive clothes made me shone like a tree in the sunshine. Each color changed me a bit, but the most becoming one was the white, thin layer dress made ​​of light chiffon fabrics, held together with a little silver chain. I would swing my arms open gracefully, rise on my toes, oh, how sweet! Those panties made ​​of swan scraps, the lace garters, the polar fox fur coats smelling of mothballs!

I danced a wild dance, dedicated to the sun god. Females used to lure the prey with such enticing, aggressive and shameless movements, when one’s palms feel awfully itchy and red fire blazes in one’s eyes…

Kostya was lying on the master bed, watching me and looking pleased though lazy. But when I was too careless to flutter by, his strong finger tore my thin elastic panties and the white lace. My thighs clenched and trembled because of his audacious invasion; sliding with my mermaid scales, I rolled over on my back and covered my bare breasts. Kostya sensed my incredible desires and perverse fantasies instinctively, and helped them become true. I felt the dark call of the old ghost, whose eyes were invocatory and shameless…

And what about the half-open door?

Finally, the preparations were complete, everything was rehearsed carefully. The situation was full of danger; actually, it was sheer madness. A careless movement could throw the child down to the flag-stone pavement and thus cripple or kill him. But it was too late to change anything; we had to go forward…

At night I thought for the first time about my son’s dreams. He wanted to star in a movie, though I didn’t remember what exactly it was. I had to admit I knew nothing about my child. There was something unfathomably similar about my son, Pavel Sedov, and Arthur. So I assumed that the genes of the Atlanteans work in contemporary people, too. Why not? Why are they so similar? I had to think of it later…

Early in the morning, I lured Arthur into the garden. I pushed the wheelchair past the trees, saying all kinds of nonsense and afraid to look up. Kostya was late. He was supposed to jump off when I was approaching the marble arch and had made just two steps forward. I made all those steps back and forth several times, but nothing happened. I did my best to distract Arthur’s attention. He asked me if I had seen Demons and if there were Demons in computer games? Usually, I was not very willing to support conversation like that, but this time I had to satisfy the boy’s curiosity. As I had never seen a demon, I dared to tell him my personal secrets for the first time — about the blue woman who had whipped me. I had to use all my imagination and raise my voice as something creaked and jingled upstairs. A strange thing! Fascinated by the story, Arthur didn’t hear or see anything, while I was afraid to raise my head and see what was going on.

Finally, when I lost my patience and wanted to go back toward the house, Kostya, dressed as a spider, jumped down, snatched Arthur out of the wheelchair, and flew up with him, so the boy only managed to squeak. I sceamed as I was really scared. The terrible excitement filled my eyes were filled with moisture. Looking up, I saw Arthur’s legs jerking, then they went up, and then down again. When it was over, and Arthur was safely put back into my arms, I thought that it had only taken a few seconds. But Kostya afterwards assured me passionately that the flight had lasted very long. I sat Arthur in his wheelchair. He was breathing heavily and seemed insane.

‘My God!’ I said, feeling really nervous. ‘What has it been, Arthur?’

‘The Spiderman!’ he said, looking at me like crazy. ‘He’s come to me!’

He was still a little child! How could he, such a sensitive and attentive person, not to notice that it was a fake?

Yes, he did believe that his hero was there to help and support him.

‘He always knows who needs his help’, Arthur said proudly. ‘I’ve been waithing for him for such a long time!’

Yes, Kostya and I could not even imagine that anything like would happen! Our goal was to make sure that Arthur would have been stunned.

I kept scolding Kostya at night saying that he was supposed to entertain the child as long as possible as such things didn’t happen twice.

But I could not be really mad with him.

I went on to study with Kostya the «science of tender passion», as Pushkin had put it, and came to the crushing conclusion that it was not human at all, to say nothing of being «tender».

  No open door leading to a garden of red roses

Crackling of the fabric, the impatient nudity, the grinning mouths, sweat rolling down like hail, the sunken eye sockets covered with black prespiration, wild spasms of the fire running through the veins… That deathly pandemonium looking could scare anyone who would dare to look into the door opening. My whole body was being rebuilt and updated. The boiling blood made the veins crack and get tear; curled into a ball, my throat wheezed, my skin smoked, my cells, filled with bright sweetness, rose higher and higher, eerily capturing frightiningly everything, even my thoughts. Something was rattling and banging in my head; thoughts swelled and burst, though not like black boiling tar bubbles but like bright emerald spring buds. New matter was being created: the awakened dead tossed underground. I felt dead sometimes…

I had tried to compensate the Lack of that stunning, incomprehensible joy by reading books. My God, how much unnecessary intricacies I had swallowed! The insatiable desire to help and save everyone, the eternal of the flight obsequious swallow, the futility of all my aspirations, the prose of every minute of life…

And if fate had not slapped me cruelly by making me sacrifice my son, I would have remained forever in my frozen world…

  In children, all our failures become stronger, that’s why the fate hurries to mutilate and destroy them first…

Kostya was bringing me back to reality by his fingertips; they were strong, experienced, and gentle. Oh-oh-oh! Spraying warm oil on me, he would massage me stealthily, and I would relax and close my eyes. If, before my death, God asks me about my last wish, I will answer without hesitation: Kostya’s massage!

And he would do that to me everyday!

He massaged my neck and shoulders gently and sensitively; as to my feet, he did it in an aggressive and tough way. Energy streamed down from them fiercely, flowing into my thighs, breasts, and buttocks. My skin became elastic and silky, my breasts swelled like two bells and shone like gold. When I passed my hand on it, it would sway like ripe juicy fruit in the wind. And the raging, frothy odor, which my nostrils sensed, that crazy smell of the skin!.. I had never experienced anything like that before!

But something in my heart continued to doze…

Our efforts began to bear fruit. One day, Arthur sat up in his chair, then he stood up. With our help, he made his first steps, but it was all so fragile and unreliable; his legs could become quite weak at any moment and he could fall to the floor. Despite the joy that we all experienced, the troubles increased many times as Arthur could not be left alone like before. He did his best to surprise their parents…

Chapter 13. Goddess Kali. Jealousy

  Arthur was interested in the strange woman with blue hands who was following me. He wanted me to describe her in detail.

‘You see, Arthur, I am not sure she really exists. There are mental situations, close to insanity. I think that image is the result of my disordered imagination and light effects. I saw a lot of things in the woods, but can one trust everything one can see?

This conversation took place during a walk. Suddenly Arthur hurried home. He literally jumped up and down in his wheelchair, if that would increase the speed. We raced down dale. At home, he demanded that I immediately drove him up to one of his cabinet, and then pointed to a thick book, which he could not reach of course. I pulled it out of the pile and handed it to him.

‘No, no!’ the boy screamed frantically and stamped his feet. I was scared. What a fad? Did our walk provoke the attack? What did I do wrong?

I took the book in hand, looked at the cover — and my poor mind was on the verge of collapse. On the cover was a picture of my companion, the hairy woman with four arms, a blue body, a necklace of human skulls, with a belt of severed arms. The title was in large letters and said, «Goddess Kali.» I sat down on the carpet, exhausted. The book was reproduced with incredible accuracy the image of the woman I thought nonexistent.

‘You see!’ Arthur shouted. ‘You are not a liar at all. She does exist! And you are so brave! Everything is true, just everything, even that you went underground after your soul!’

‘You didn’t believe me, you didn’t believe me,’ he muttered happily, looking me going madly through the brightly illustrated book.

‘You don’t believe m either when I tell you that nobody laughs at you in this house’, I replied quickly. ‘You don’t believe that your parents love you. You don’t believe obvious things. You are as stupid as I am.

I glanced at him surreptitiously. Arthur was smiling. A deep scratch ran across the cheek of his contented face — probably when we had been racing through the forest, a branch had lashed him.

«This is an enemy scratch», I sighed in a deliberately frightened way, and I went to my room to read about Kali. I wanted to stay alone…

 «Great Goddess Kali, Black Mother, Furious Agni. The dark side of the feminine essence, the ancient instincts, the divine passion and power, black anger and murder, love and fear.

  She will raise and hurt those whose consciousness is seized with madness and who lost there souls. But the soul thrown into the darkness will never betray its master; it is true to him or her and looks for the way back. It cries, loves, forgives, and calls out — from the underground…

  Kali’s quick feet and hands are ready to kill and protect — because she is Mother. Her love is just as strong as her rage; her kindness is deep and passionate.

  Her anger is painful for the weak, her rage is frightening for the treacherous, her revenge is awful for the deceitful and cunning. Her only blow will knock them down. When the human mind is dead, she looks terrible. But those whose spirit is great do understand that her blows stimulate one’s courage and strength, filling one with the powerful passion for achievement. What she can accomplish in one day lasts for centuries; the great deeds are happening now, at this moment.

 Even Yama, the god of death, is afraid of her, and he never takes to his kingdom those she loves. She blesses and frees those seeking the Light God. Those are the only ones she is fully faithful to. She dissolves in them all her affections and dependences, giving them the greatest knowledge. That’s because she is a master of all those arts, especially the art of any game.

 She uses her sharp claws that pierce like cutters to pull the Demon’s head out, and she does it with the same ease with which one can crush a wasp with one’s fingers. But the difference is that she is as quick as lightning, and leaves no traces of her work.

  For killing the Demon, she demands a ransom, which is the creation she will present to the Almighty. It should have all the qualities of immortality; it is impossible to deceive her as the goddess does not accept the slightest negligence in the works. One is supposed to pass one’s creation into Kali’s hands barely breathing so as not to damage the space, its subtle and unfathomable beauty.

  If one fearlessly meets her, she will give one great strength and ultimate liberation and fulfill one’s every wish.

   Her dark blue color represents the cosmic time and death.»

Oh my God! So it’s she who is the Demon Slayer! And for that, she demands a ransom! To redeem my son, I should join with her in the deal. As to the ransom, I imagined it for some reason as stolen the gold stuffed into bags transported by caravans of camels…

For me, the Light God was Kali. And she wants a ransom, a sacrifice — a creation of unattainable beauty that can bring joy to God.

A ransom… What can I create?

‘What are going to do? What can you do?’ Arthur asks me. The little devil is omnipresent, there is no way hiding from him.

I’m confused and do not hide it.

‘I can do a lot of things. Well, I can embroider and paint, but it can’t offer that to Kali. She wants something else. She will only be satisfied with something immortal. What shall I do, Arthur?’

‘Maybe my recovery?’ he offered hesitantly.

‘If you would be able to run… But what is immortal about you?’

‘That’s simple’, the boy said. ‘Kali is the goddess of the immortal world. You saw her, which means that there is a dim passage from our worls to that one. I believe in the reality of communicating between the world of the dead and the living world, and so do you. Vera Nikolayevna, you can take me there.’

‘Well, that’s some logic!’ I laughed half-angrily. ‘So, you suggest that I sell you as a live product? Maybe you just want to slip into the beyond? Am I right?’

‘No, this is just one of the options, Vera Nikolayevna. I pledge to stand up in a week… OK, don’t look at me like that, let it be a month. But it is necessary, of course, to have a safety cushion. For me, immortal creation is also music, novels, the greatest paintings. We can go by process of elimination.’

‘I’m not a music expert’, I confessed. ‘I don’t know music. I used to paint, but in watercolor only, which is quite fleeting. One needs to paint with oil. I have never written novels. Well, I composed verses when I was young, and two stories, too.’

‘So it should be a novel or a painting… Vera Nikolayevna, what about Father Vladimir’s manuscript? How come you forgot about it?’

‘What does the manuscript have to do with it? What do you mean?’

‘Yes, tha manuscript! You told me that the priest wanted his “Compulsive Gambling” to be continued, that’s why he had left the manuscript in the church. And it was you who had picked it up.’

‘That doesn’t mean anything. I just took it.’

‘Vera Nikolayevna, how do you teach your students to be honest? You did underatnd me, and you have noeverything, and you have no counterarguments. I saw clearlty that you wrote something in it.’

He was right, I had no counterarguments.

‘Arthur, I just could not resist and wrote Father Vladimir’s story. It looked so colorful that I wanted to keep it as a souvenir like a writing souvenir, you understand? But I can’t create anything immortal’, I said firmly. ‘It’s impossible.’

‘It’s not harder than for me to stand up. You should not thing of immortality, just start writing.’

‘I have never written books.  Besides, what do I write about? About crying at the lessons? No, that’s out of the question…’

‘Vera Nikolayevna’, Arthur lowered his voice and whispered in my ear,  ‘Did you notice that Kali knows the art of playing? Do you understand what that means?’ The boy’s eyes were sparkling with raging fire; I had often seen that in the games room. But I can swear on the Bible that, when I had read those lines, my heart had trembled, too, and lost its rhythm a few seconds. Yes, the priest was right: the human race is weak…’

‘And so what, you trickster? Do you want to cross the immeasurable space and beg the goddess to teach you how to beat the whole world’s casinos, which is the dream all infamous boys, right? It’s getting late, let’s sleep, you, little visionary. I’m too tired to understand all this…’

The night was terrible. I saw a bad dream, different creatures scurrying and fighting about me, trying to scratch each other’s face. One of the creaturesm, an ugly, cunning and ingenious one, was yelling that he was tired of rotting being locked up inside, when there is a brilliant entrance to the good life. Another monster, wearing a prosecutor’s mantle, was accusing me of a crime I had never committed but was ready to confess. I woke up and sat up in bed. My head was like a quickly unwounding ball of yarn. I was scared and put it in my hands…

The next morning, before breakfast, when I stood before the mirror, staring at my face, which looked grey after the sleepless night, Ariadna approached silently. I startled when I saw her ingratiating face in the mirror. She leaned to my ear and whispered confidentially that the hostess had been Kostya’s mistress.

‘Can’t you see that you look quite alike’, she said, her eyes shining loyally. ‘You are both fragile, your height is the same, and so is the color of the eyes. You’re as enthusiastic and passionate, I hear you sneak around the garden at night. Missing the hostess, Kostya is just having fun, making love with you. I would advise you not to place too much importance…’

I didn’t want to hear what else she was going to tell me, buzzing and circling rouns me like a huge fly. My cheeks were burning, I was enraged. Without thinking, I ran to look for Kostya. Why would I choose to ask for explaitions? After all, our relationship was just a game for me…

Kostya assured me reasonably and calmly,

‘Judge for yourself, Vera: Vladimir Sergeyevich is a serious and very influential guy. I really value my paying job. He never leaves his wife, either alone or with the boy. Was it worth taking chances? It would have only been explained if I had been madly in love, but you know Eleanora. I don’t even know what I else I can say.

Ah, lest I should forget. I’ve never told you that I had always been expected to marry her. But I don’t even want to waste our time talking abou that…’

The anger drowned in kisses. I thawed quickly and shone like a cherry, wet from rain. My lips were approached by a promising wave of pleasures, and I could hardly breath, suffocating under it. Come on, stop it, for God’s sake, Kostya, it’s daytime…

‘If you want to know’, stretching blissfully all over and collecting his scattered clothes, Kostya said, ‘I only loved one woman here in the town, and it was long ago.’

‘Who was she?’ I asked, hissing and staring funnily. ‘Do tell me who she was, my ravenous Georgian!’

‘I am Georgian’, Kostya replied in an offended tone, buttoning his blue shirt. For some reason he didn’t like being called like that, though he looked quite Georgian. ‘The priest’s wife. A beautiful woman.’

‘What?’ I asked him. ‘What’s that?’

‘I only loved the priet’s wife Olga’, Kostya said peacefully, standing in front of me and trying to kiss me once more.

‘What priest?’ I asked, astonished.

‘Father Vladimir. Don’t you know that he is married? They have a grownup son…’

I turned my cheek automatically to be kissed. Kostya balked and started undressing playfully; in the morning, he was always affectionate and playful like a kitten. This time, I had great difficulty make him go. The cold coming from the windowI made me weak and defenseless, my fingertips freezed quickly. As soon as the door closed behind him, I fell on the bed, absolutely exhausted, and closed my eyes.

«Olga, the priest’s wife. The priest, Father Vladimir. I only lovedd Olga, the priest’s wife…»

My God, what is it? It was like swallowing and choking in black blood. It was ridiculous, absurd, and unexpected. Both the news of his wife, and my reaction to that news…

That proved to be more than a nuisance, or pain…

«Olga, Olga, Olga,» my heart felt as if slashed with dozens of knives into pieces torn out and thown away. I had to touch my chest and crumple the collar of my dresses to make sure that my heart kept beating. The hostile name blinded me like a bright ring. I was shocked, watching it circling the tower and then flying away hopelessly into the sky…

What a bad day! Why would not he be married? The thought of it had never crossed my mind. That was common greed. We always dream that our idols are alone. Why? Producers of the stars hide from the public the truth about the holy bonds of people’s favorites, and rightly so. It’s so hard and painfully unpleasant. For everyone, just for everyone…

Is she the Olga, or another one? Well, does it really matter? If she is the one… Then what about his story, which sounded like a confession? Did he lie to me? Why did he do that?

I wanted everything to remain the way it had been before. Let it be a lie, Kostya’s lie. Kostya…

Why does life change so abruptly? Why does it make things look so reckless and shameless? Why does it turn the amber flowing from our lips into saliva? Once again I shed my artfully embellished skin, and was unable to understand who lived under it.

I could not sit in the chair or lie in bed. I had no idea what I wanted, but I did know for sure what I didn’t: to be in the house. Finally, I figured out why I had to get to the village; it was buying a new hair dye. I suddenly wanted to have a red mane, soft and bright, like marigold petals. I rushed to the road, and saw a woman’s silhouette.

She walked toward me, tall and blond, smelling of fragrant strawberries. Of course, it was she, the willful Olga, lured by my thoughts, the same person who sat next to me in the barbershop. And perhaps thinking that she and I were friends, she paused, greeted me warmly, and asked me with great sympathy,

‘Do you live alone in this mansion? How do you manage that? I can’t live a single day without Vladimir!’

I stood there, slain on the spot, and looked after her. She walked slowly and softly, swaying her steep hips lazily. Her ankles were dry and thin, the naked flesh of the calves was dark and elegant.

«Go ahead and don’t look back», my instinct whispered me, «or shout something bad after her, splash some poisonous water.» But I stood and stared, rubbing some fleshy spines and smelly flowers in the hands… I looked at my green hands — it was Datura! When had I picked it up? Like in a bad delirium, holding on to the fence, I went back into the house to hide where no one could find me. I felt a qualm, and nearly lost consciousness. I hoped it would pass like all other things…

The room was stuffy. Something was steaming outside the window, but I could see nothing. A golden fly was beating against the window, and buzzing.

  I didn’t know what to tell that woman. First I was confused, and then it was too late. I should have told her that I…

There was commotion at home after Arthur’s parents called and said they were coming back. Kostya confided that they would always arrive all of a sudden. This, according to Vladimir Sergeyevich, was a great key to stability in the house.

Arthur was beside himself with joy; His parents didn’t know yet about the surprise awaiting them at home. Kostya scolded the boy as his legs were still weak, but the boy tried hard to move independently, on crutches. I just stared at the excitement indifferently. I didn’t care,  it didn’t pull me in the whirlpool. My head was full of late responses, one better than another. But they were now good for nothing.

It was with sobriety that I was looking at the sleeping  Kostya at night. He slept soundly and peacefully, his arms swept. His face was round and rosy, his hair was curly like that of a young merchant or salesman. Strange comparison… I wanted to wake him up, push him with my hands, tear him like a bag. But what would I tell him? What tormented my soul?

I felt an unbearable desire to get back home, to my son. It was good that Arthur’s parents were coming over. It was great. Fate always chooses the best of all probabilities. There was someone’s shadow shaking on the floor, on the moon’s path, a dear antique profile…

Kali demanded ransom for the Demon’s head. It was supposed to be any creation, but a real, not artificial one, which she would bring to the feet of God. Those were the conditions, and we the mortals were not supposed to discuss the Unknowable…

Maybe I was in that house to learn that?

I was getting ready to leave. Arthur wanted to be near, but he would get overexcited quickly, and would often go to bed. The first time, when hefound out that I was leaving, he would begin to whine and accuse me of leaving him now that he needed me greatly.

But I stopped all his attempts to manipulate me.

‘Arthur, I’m leaving on time. You have stood up, and we have found out that you are a strong person. If you didn’t want it, nothing would have happened. And don’t be so selfish, I am missing my son. I’ve heard him calling me and should be back…’

He was silent for a minute.

‘Will you be back?’ he kept asking me that question many times a day, sometimes quitter, as if by chance, sometimes more persistently, trying to see my face. What could I tell him?

   I clearly understood that I could not just leave that family without hurting my heart…

I had to say goodbye to Father Vladimir. As much as I pretended that I did not care, I could not deny the obvious: the man had done a lot for me. But the day would come, and, for some reason, I would put off my departure and farewell, trying to convince myself that it would be better do it later, in the evening, or tomorrow, or the day after.

I’ll go to see him just for a minute, I thought. There is nothing unusual about it. It will look strange if I don’t… I went through dozens of versions of our farewell conversation, imagining that it would be very restrained, dry and short, or maybe ironic and even sarcastic. I wished he would be furious and drove me away again. Then I would shout the words I had composed long before our last rendezvous, «It is strange that you can still be so cruel. I got the impression that you’re weak, spineless and malleable. And besides, you’re a liar.»

At this thought, I gestured sharply, as if fighting with someone, and suddenly there was a light crack of the fabric. I examined myself from all sides, and oh my God! How awfully I was dressed! I was wearing that thin-layer chiffon dress made of flying cloths connected to each other with only a silver chain. It was Eleanora’s outfit. Was unconscious when getting dressed? There were lots of mirrors in the house, thery were almost at every turn. The fabric that flowed at my knee was quite transparent, so my breasts stuck out in full view. I ran my hand through my hair; its curly wave they clung to my burning cheeks, and its fragrant freshness was hurting my eyes, because I’d poured a bottle of the most expensive Eleanora’s perfume on my head. What was it? I wanted to cry and pray…

The priest was not in the church. I didn’t stay there long, the more so that I didn’t have my shawl with me. It was a strange day. Spring, the warm luster of the first leaves. The speckled rain came and went, and gave way to a glittering downpour — and here’s a rainbow! It was thick, red-blue, ringing clearly… The slim and fresh scent of beauty…

My heart was either pounding or lurking anxiously, I was swayed from side to side, my whole body was so weak… I stood in the bushes, then aimlessly, my high heels knocking, wandered around the church, covering my breasts with my hands. After that, I stepped into the street, passed several houses, stopped, looking at his house. I had never been there. I stood near the spreading furtrees, breathed their resinous flavor, and resolutely went back. I remember one thing: I was moving constantly, speeding up and slowing down. It seemed to me though that I was standing still. Minutes and hours passed… Feeling shy and timid, I understood that I would never make up my mind. Come what may, because I am going away, and probably forever.

I didn’t see or hear anything but the sound of my own heart. The main thing was to open the gate, the door would open by itself. I walked slowly through the house, feeling walking barefoot on crushed glass. My recent determination was gone. And then something happened: the world I was accustomed to, started extending boldly, the air crumbled, then broke down. My doubts vanished. An unfathomable force drew me to the place where the air was warm due to his breath… The door was ajar…

Father Vladimir sat at his desk, looking out the window. He was deep in thought about something. He had a pen in his hand, perhaps he was writing. His glasses were on the table. Behind the desk was a narrow bed covered with a brown blanket. There was a small bookcase near it.

With relentless clarity I felt bleak loneliness. It was the first time that I saw him in plain clothes — a white sweater and jeans. It was as if someone’s hand had pulled an old and transparent veil off him, thus revealing a bright, clear image… He was not the way I had seen him for the first time, and not the way I used to seeing him after… He was different: no one could be placed by his side, he was the only one, and he was totally in my body, soul, and mind. I didn’t know when this tenderness was born and who had nurtured it…

He turned and saw me. I met his eyes. My own soul was staring at me, its amazed eyes wide open.

  I suddenly saw that his hands were handcuffed to the concrete wall and there was nothing, just nothing he could do. But I could as I was free. I was close, very close, and I ran to him fearlessly, to the purity of his warm breath, to the scent of his eyelashes. His lips were hot and dry, parched from the fierce thirst. He pulled out of his way, and I helped him. He freed his hands, together with fragments of the plaster. It was a total oblivion, the most precious and dizzying moment that was longer than a human life and reaching far beyond its limits. I can hardly able to describe it. Prayers sound incredibly when sung by white snow flakes or cornflower streams…

Chapter 14. Getting back

  I was riding on the bus clutching a book about Kali (Arthur had given it to me), and sometimes flipped through the pictures, enjoys reading. Sometimes, I would look out the window misted by my breathing, and would see nothing. I was feeling so strange…

After the long farewell to Father Vladimir, I waited for Arthur’s parents to come over. When they entered the house, the boy was standing on his feet and smiling. Their elation in healing their son bothered me. I was sorry I hadn’t left earlier. Vladimir Sergeyevich burst into tears. I had never imagined that he would behave like that. Even now, thinking about it, I myself cann’t hold back my tears as a warm wave is moving through my heart… I believed that Arthur would forgive his parents. I had never told him about it, and I feared that my voice was too edifying, because we, the teachers, can hardly get rid of that learned superiority, which sobers one better than sandpaper. I hoped that my story about suffering painfully from my mistakes would reconcile him with his mother.

Kostya was eager to go with me, and even begged Vladimir Sergeyevich to let him go. Of course, Kostya wasn’t allowed to go away, not even for ready money as they say. It would have been too much to leave the boy, who was still not quite healthy, without the people he was attached to. I would have done that, too, if I were them. Kostya’s parents did me a great service: they phoned to their friends living in my town, who had small children. From now on, I had plenty of choice of work as Arthur’s miraculous healing raised my price. But Vladimir Sergeyevich and his wife Eleanora wanted ne back. Arthur, crying and kissing me, hung on me like a feeble little bird. I held him with my hands, unable to tear him away…

But when I found myself on a bus, I suddenly felt relieved. I had a folding secret, a cherished treasure, which I could not unfold and take a look. It was beyond my strength. I could only open up the white magic a little. There was a face looking toward the window, and long fingers grasping a pen. I got dark eyes, and my breathing stood still. «This is impossiblr. This is impossible», I kept telling myself. This is just impossible.»

The train station flashed outside the window, the blue sky was shaking…

Barely breathing, I touched my lips that had been kissed. Wait a minute, am I really leaving? But there was nothing I wanted more than seeing him again! I was ready to break the window, jump out on the run, and fly back, screaming. But even at the thought that I could see him, an overdose of feelings began…

So what had I had with Kostya? Oh no, I would think of that later. I felt helpless, forgiving and naked, all in the golden dust of youth…

  It was scary to imagine what would have happened if I had not found him…

The bus jerked and stopped. I was back to my city…

Everything looked strange, as though I had fallen into a strange place: the houses, the buses, the people. I didn’t even understand the conversations of people sitting on the bus, as if it was an unknown language. Well, I had only been absent a few months… It was amazing!

I could not reveal the incomprehensible in myself, and I could not invent something to buy my son out. But I already had some personal power, which I had to use properly. Lord, what awful crap got into my head! Was I created for these words — «use properly?» Where do those miserable, sensible ideas jump from? From an old and dusty bag?

I brought myself like an uprooted, fragile, blossoming apple tree, its roots wrapped in a damp cloth, its branches sagging under the heavy tears. A blossoming tree rarely stands transplantation. It’s almost impossible to grow such it…

My heart was pounding when I approached my house, went up the stairs, and stood at the door. What was I in for?

My son opened the door to me. Alyosha? Oh my God! I dropped the bags and embraced him. He was alive! It was impossible to describe my joy.

Alyosha was quite all right. He recovered and grew up, and he was definitely happy to see me back. We shuffled aimlessly in the hallway, the son took off my coat and scarf for me; something fell from the rack, we laughed, picked it up, and hanged it back. I was home…

The room was warm. In the corner, on a black shiny pedestal, there was a brand new TV. The sofa had been repositioned to another wall, and it was also new — deep red, with gold pressing. The curtains and the lamps let me feel a woman’s hand. But where did my son get the money?

We sat in the kitchen. Alyosha made ​​tea, pulled out of the closet an Indian iron dish full of candy. I was looking at him without getting my eyes off my son. Alyosha, you’ve grown so big! We walked, interrupting each other, asking each other hundreds of questions. It was nothing but happy yelping. It was impossible to understand anything, until Alyosha took the initiative and told me in detail about living without me. The light from the lamp fell on his face, and his eyes looked bright and shiny…

‘I waited for you for so long. From the way you had packed your things carefully, I thought you had gone to rest in a sanatorium. But time passed, and you didn’t come back. I was worried and started to look for you everywhere. I could not eat and sleep because of the words that I had rashly said one night that it would be better for you to hang yourself. I’m so sorry, Mom, I didn’t mean it. You see, I had lost a lot and didn’t even know what I was saying. It was a kind of blindness. I wanted you to share with me that terrible pain.

After a time you called, I calmed down briefly, but I could not forget your strange words and your crying voice. I even suggested that you were caught by criminals and kept in a basement. Then again, I started looking for you unsuccessfully in basements, attics, but most of all, for some reason, I used to look for you in the marketplace. I thought that you were old, grey-haired and crazy, with flying hair. It was such a horror that I even stopped going to the casino…

I asked dozens of homeless people, and the strange thing was that all of them confirmed that vision — some had seen a crazy old woman dancing in the marketplace.

Just prior to your departure, I saw that you were hiding some sheets from me, and out of curiosity I secretly read them. The manuscript said, «Compulsive gambling.» It was the first time that I suggested being sick.

After you left I had a difficult life. There was no money even for living, to say nothing of playing. I had to get a job: I was repairing computers.

The country’s policy changed, they started removing the slot machines and shutting down the casinos. Vasily Sedov, thanks to his family connections, launched an underground business. Somewhere in the basements, people continued to play, and I used to go there from time to time. Then I was lucky as I started to play poker. It saved me. Poker gives you a lot of emotions, plus you can win money. We have teamed up. All of us were former chess players, because the chess club practically ceased to exist, the state didn’t finance it any longer. My math skills came in handy. Now I’m not a gamer, Mom. Poker is a sports game, they even wanted to include it in the Olympic Games. And I make money…

Listening to his son, I wondered at the power of his mind. The scene from Father Vladimir’s story that had struck my fancy was so firmly imprinted in my mind that there was a so-called fusion or replacement of images. As if the priest’s mother walked in all the visible and invisible worlds, visiting people who had a similar life scenario.

My son confessed that he had been pulled out of the abyss by my words, «the stronger the Demon, the stronger God.» He had turned on the answering machine on the phone and heard me saying that. Although he understood nothing, he kind of awakened from a long sleep.

Alyosha also confessed that he had watched over me when we used to go to play together. His words surprised me. I thought that no one, and even more so my son, noticed my feelings. I had hoped that I had put them away safely, that everyonme had been too absorbed with the game — but I was wrong. Even in the greediest time of playing together, in the crushing heat of passion, Alyosha would look at me. And, as it turned out later, not only he…

‘I would look at you, sometimes briefly, sometimes carefully, and was tormented by curiosity. On the one hand, you brought me luck, on the other, no one played together with one’s parents, especially with one’s mother. I was hoping that no one paid attention to us. But somehow a moment came, and I didn’t understand how it happened, that I suddenly saw evrything through your eyes. I think you stood behind me, watching the game as if through me, and your excitement was so palpable that it became part of me and penetrated me like a knife goes through butter. I felt your shame, horror and all your effort to seem cheerful. I heard the whisper of your prayers, and the room seemed to me like a huge bunch of useless people. Then everything slid down quietly and fell like damp wallpaper from the wall. And I tried not to think more…’

My son had caught my thoughts and images — but was it a surprise? In the very beginning, when I was coming back from Moscow by train, and, as usual, wasn’t able to fall asleep, the images of Boris, Ashot, Yakov were swirling in my head. Coins were jingling juicily in the air, the butonns were crunching and crackling, being pressed on their own, as though by an invisible hand. One passenger, an elderly man, was fast asleep on the opposite berth, his fat hand under his cheek, like a child. Suddenly, he began to worry, groaned, work his other hand free from under the blanket, tried desperately to drive someone away from himself, and shouted, waking and frightening the whole car,

‘No! Oh my God! I’ve lost! Give my money back!’

He jumped up and stood on the iron floor. He was barefoot, wearing a white undershirt and striped shorts. He was looking around with fear. I thought that he was also a gambler, but now I understand that my thoughts had leaked into his dream.

Alyosha had looked for me everywhere. Walking through the city, started thinking about his future and the possibility of escape…

If my son had recovered from gambling, then no hansom was needed? No need to strain myself and suffer… I stared thoughtfully out the window. I was sorry about something, but at the same time I felt a huge relief. Well, could I really be a writer? I had neither natural abilities, nor a clear desire…

Now I was free …

Life was lulling me sweetly. My son was there, he played poker at home, on his computer. His mode of the day had changed, he played (or worked) at night, because it was daytime in America at that time. During the day he slept, played computer games, or went out with his girlfriend, Zhenya. I only saw her once. She avoided me, though not because of shyness, she was a modern, well-groomed girl, with straight blond hair and cold grey eyes. Something about her reminded me vaguely of Olga: a brash squint in her eyes, full freedom in everything, including the way she moved, her clothing and detached manner to communicate. I clearly saw in her the desire to take and take, without giving anything in return. It seemed to me that my son was on the hook, but I was a different person now. What previously would have caused my violent protest and indignation, gave way to philosophical wisdom: life knows better, and the end woll come in due time.

But what is poker? I only knew two things about it: it brought money and emotions with it. Was it true though?

Waking at night, I sometimes dropped in on my son and saw him bent over the computer. His face expressed the full range of feelings familiar to me: rage, anger, sudden joy, delight. I tried to convince myself that everything was OK.

First of all, he plays at home, and he doesn’t visit those horrible places where anything can happen. He also doesn’t borrow money, and he doesn’t sell what he can find in our home. He has a certain amount in his account, and he uses it to play. When it increases, he withdraws the money with his bank card. He has a girlfriend, he is concentrated, and it is clear that his new job brings him a good income. The fragmentary information that I had learned from the movies, made one thing obvious: no one but people with mathematical ability can master playing poker. Alyosha was a chess master, very close to a grandmaster. Even when he was five, he was able to calculate quickly how much money he could get for all the milk bottles that piled up on the balcony, and what he could buy…

‘Imagine, mother’ he told me excitedly, ‘soon we, the poker players, will travel around the world. After all, we have nothing to fear as our job is work is in the computer, which we won’t forget to take with us. For example, we’ll go to India, to Goa, rent, rent a house, swim in the sea, and eat mangos. I’ll be sure to buy you an all-inclusive package, and you’ll never have to work again!’

I believed and didn’t believe him, just like Father Vladimir. I was too afraid of sweet stories, but so far I could not blame my son of insincerity or deception. It was nice that Alyosha showed concern about me, though, I was quite all right. Soon I had to get to work in a rich house, where I had been recommended by Vladimir Sergeyevich. They were his friends he used to travel with. They had a healthy child who was going to the first grade that fall. It was not clear where I would live, at my place or in the mansion. But the boy was very cheerful, the salary was high, so what more could I ask for? I was looking for a new apartment…

Oh, that guy, Vladimir Sergeyevich! He not only had painted the bright colors of my teaching career, but had hinted clearly at some amazing abilities, innate gift or a unique power that had literally resurrected their son. Needless to say that Sasha’s parents of  (Sasha was the name of my new student) treated me with some reverence, lest their «precious teacher» would sooner or later be lured by someone else.

Arthur called often. Like a lark, he would fill the room with such sonorous and colorful twittering that even Alyosha would smile while was I walking to the boy. I felt a whole life ahead, which is only possible when one is quite young.

The deeper I sunk into myself, the fewer links with my old world remained. Enticed by false hope, I was going back to the old world, to my friends. It was a pitiful sight as the meetings only sped up the break. Nothing, just nothing could be brought back from the past. I didn’t want to glue the lives of others and spend the valuable time in the gloomy whirlpool that would pull me in forever. I had never felt before that staying in the living space of the unfortunate would willy nilly infect me with their misfortunes like infected air.

For some reason, my former husband Kolya once dropped in and was stunned to see me. Looking at him, I first thought, «Oh my God! After surpassing the threshold of the apartment, I never thought of the man I had lived with for so many years! The man who was my son’s father, the one I had sorrowed for! Kolya stared at me, hovered in the hallway, then went to the kitchen, poured water from the tap, and drank it slowly. I looked at his hands with thick fingers, and his rosy face with a big mouth, feeling nothing but a strong desire to get rid of him as quickly as possible.

‘Go along!’ I said. My words had such a sincere desire to stay alone, which, as I saw clearly, was unpleasant for him. He understood that we were complete strangers and I didn’t need him. I only wished it didn’t occur to him to resume the relationship!

But, as I supposed, under the guise of caring about his son, he would often show up at our house. One of his visits made me have a hard conversation with him, in which I expressed my feelings clearly and unceremoniously. He listened attentively, but I saw nodules playing on his pale face.

‘Vera, I’m sorry. I understand that I’ve caused you a lot of pain and betrayed you. I remember how much you suffered. But I’ll try to do my best…’

Oh my God! I was listening to him and could not understand what he was talking about? What suffering? Had I ever suffered?..

‘Mom, you’re so beautiful now’, Alyosha told me once.  He had never told me anything like that. His confidence in me grew. Seeing that I didn’t try to interfere with his life and didn’t condemn his poker passion, he calmed down. I was totally fascinated by own life and my own interests, and nothing else…

One day, late in the evening, when I came home after a walk, my son met me at the entrance. He had apparently been waiting for me for a long time as he looked cold and had to jump in place to keep warm.

‘Alyosha?’ I said, astonished. ‘What’s happened?’

‘Mom, there is a woman there. She’s been waiting for you for hours’, Alyosha said quietly though with some concern.

‘A woman? But why are you not inside?’

‘I wanted to meet you here. Mom, you know that I worry about you.’

Strange… My son had never looked like that. And who would have waited for me so long? I walked into the entrance silently, Alyosha following me. I unlocked the door and entered. In the hall, Olga was sitting, her legs crossed. She was absolutely spectacular in a black lace suit and patent leather high heels. She was smoking a long cigar, and the smoke was twisting into rings. I sat opposite her. Alyosha stood in the doorway, looking anxiously at us.

‘Polite people usually take their shoes off in the hallway’, I said with a hidden threat.

‘Feel free to call me impolite’, Olga replied quickly.

‘What or who has brought the impolite lady to our house?’ I said, my voice trembling with anger, my nostrils flaring.

‘It’s who. My husband, of course. You imagined that you can take Volodya away from me. Looking at you, the idea sounds really strange.’

I’m much prettier and smarter than you’, I said angrily, looking straight at her smoothly combed, neatly coiffed hair. Her shiny pearl suit, her cornflower color shoes matched her blue eyes. ‘Don’t you see that Volodya doesn’t love you? Is this a revelation to you?’

‘You dared to break into our house, thinking that you could do whatever you wanted. I’ve read your letters. But Volodya is a priest. I hope you remember it?’

‘I remember he is not a cook. But your visit here is the best evidence that you know perfectly well that he doesn’t love you.’

‘You won’t succeed. I won’t give permission for divorce. Volodya values his job too much to sacrifice everything for you. That’s what he’s asked me to tell you.’

‘I feel really sorry for you because you’ve made up your mind to lie like that. But sometimes you have to admit your defeat, right?’ I laughed in her face.

‘You won’t do it. I won’t give him to you’, she hissed.

‘He’s mine. He only belongs to me. Get out!!!’ I yelled wildly.

I stood up and moved at her; hatred was squeezing my chest — not breathe, nor gasp. On the way to my opponent, I took a ceramic vase off the table. Olga got scared and backed to the door. She had not expected such a reaction; her eyes widened in horror, her mouth opened in a silent scream.

‘I’ll kill you’, I whispered, moving closer to her threateningly, vase in hand. ‘I’ll kill you. I’ll cut your throat.’ My body arched like that of a wild cat ready to jump.

Olga looked terrified as she rushed into the corridor, Alyosha barely jumped aside. She slipped out to the stairs and flew down quickly, her heels knocking. As soon as she ran out to the street, she gave a deafening shriek, like a police whistle.

‘Mom’, my son said, dumbfounded. ‘Mom…’

‘Yes. That’s it. This is the only way. Just look at her: she’s here to get her husband back. Did you see that? She’ll remember me to the end of her life’, I kept saying, walking angrily around the room. Something pounded and crunched underfoot. My hands ached a little. I looked at them and was terrified: I had squeezed the thin neck of the vase so hard it had turned into a bloody hash. Yellow shards were scattered about the room. Alyosha was looking at me with undisguised admiration and pride. Were those the qualities he had thought I lacked?

“Oh, I wish she had stayed! I would have stuck my teeth into her throat. I will not give him to anyone. And the fact that Olga has come, confirms once again that he is mine…”

I kept thinking whether to write Vladimir about the visit. I wanted to be noble and generous, or proud and strong, but malice and cunning won up.

«Your wife Olga was here. She tried to theaten me and told me to leave you alone. This will only happen, Volodya, after I die …» I wrote.

I didn’t want to be either proud or right, or noble. I just wanted to be myself. «Volodya», I added at the end of the letter, «I cried all night…»

Pleased with myself, I drank several cups of lemonade, ate a huge piece of cake, finished the cheese. Then I sat there for a long time, breaking and eating walnuts.

Almost without blushing, I turned over the pages of the time I had spent with Kostya. That time had been light, vicious, childish, crazy, and funny…

I, or we, had drunk the juice of the past days. When spring comes, a careless tourist kills and drains young birches with a sharp and deep notch — that’s how we had behaved. The ring with a stone reminded me of him…

Kostya had restored my damaged instincts, while Volodya had helped me get my soul back…

But why did I cry at night, holding my pillow in my hands? That feeling could not be compared to anything, it only happens once in a million years, one caannot put it into the earthly form of the word «kiss». I knew I would cherish that memory for the rest of my life. There was a sturdy though fragile door to a secret space in front of me, which I could not open without being choked with tears. I could only touch it carefully and get filled with a light of pride.

  «You ca hardly imagine, Vera», he wrote to me, «how much I am missing you. With every day I become more and more convinced that everything around me is just smoke without you. Before we met, I had never dreamed of falling in love like this…»

Volodya wrote frequently to me. He told me in his letters about his marriage with Olga, and about being jealous of me to Kostya.

  «When I was yelling at you there, on the hill, I knew I was in love with you. It was my love that was screaming, tearing my heart and my soul. I was not prepared to it, and I felt embarrassed like a little boy.

   «When I gave you desperate advice to fall in love, I didn’t even think that anything like that would happen? Oh, Vera, if you had looked into my soul at that moment, you would have forgiven me …

  «When I saw your eyes burning with love to another man, I felt I was going crazy… Do you remember how it was there, in the woods? When you and Arthur passed by me, I felt as it was the end of the world. Everything was drowned in continuous darkness. How had I lived without you before?

  «You avoided me, and that was afwul punishment for me. There was nothing but a hectic whirlwind of days, and desperate dreams of being able to see you. Oh, my God! I envied Kostya and hated him! It was the most searing jealousy, and I knew all its agony… When it became obvious, I mean your indifferent face, your cruelly scattered look, it was an ordeal for me… When we met, so rarely, it always rained for some reason, and the smell of rain still makes me feel anxiety…»

  «Vera, you want to know how you can feel the Light God approaching you.

  You, more than ever, will hear your inner voice whispering that everything that you do is just nonsense, and the voice will be persistent and strong enough.»

  «I would often come back to the city where I had once lived. I was hoping that my mother would return there. I wandered through the squares, looked for her in the marketplace, asked people — but no one had seen her. One day I saw Olga. She walked down the street, holding the hand of a little boy. Something hit me in the heart, and I went to her. She was unrecognizable — painfully thin, even her facial expression had changed dramatically as it had become angry and unkind. She complained to me endlessly that she could not get a job, the child was sick, there is next to no food for him. The boy really made the impression of total abandonment: his thin hair was dim and not shorn, his little hands had black nails, and he was wearing old sandals. Olga saw me staring at the boy, and confirmed confidently: «Yours». What could I do? Experiencing nothing but pity, I asked her to come with me, and she agreed immediately. I didn’t realize at once that letting her and the child live in my home, I kind of adopted her as my wife. I was a clergyman and had to be a role model for others. But I didn’t love her, my heart was dry. At first, Olga didn’t realize it, her mind refused to accept the new situation — I didn’t love her. After living for a few days and getting used to the new way of life, she went on the attack resolutely. She came into my bedroom (I placed them in a separate room), doing her best to regain the passion — at first timidly and cautiously, then more and more aggressively. She was still good-looking, that’s why she was confident of victory. But nothing attracted my cold heart. Neither her bare breasts, nor her beautiful shoulders, nor her tears and playful voice. I gave her money, shelter, and food, but that only made her angrier and angrier. In such moments, she looked really terrible: she was pale, her eyes were burning with rage, she was biting her lips. Even the fact that I became attached to the child made her angry. With an angry hiss, letting the air out of her nostrils, she would snatch the screaming child out of my arms and take him to her room. She seemed to be possessed by a demon. One day, I saw that my room was turned upside down, all the things were broken and scattered all around the place. But my wild heart didn’t even have a drop of love; I was only feeling indifference and disgust. She ran away from me, not even leaving the child; she did it when I was at work.

  «Wandering through the ruined house, I ran across dozens of children’s toys, picked them up absently, then went out into the street, entered the empty church, knelt down and said, “Lord, I have lost faith in You. Please give me strength and patience.”

  «They returned two months later. Oga was subdued and miserable, she was trembling, there were fear and pain in her eyes. She requested food humbly. I perfectly understood the hopelessness of our common life; even the son didn’t unite us. But she belonged to a certain breed; she didn’t want and was unable to work, she would get tired quickly, she was cold and indifferent toh everything she contacted. Her life seemed grim and savage to me, she would have easily stepped on the criminal way of corrupt women. My son’s fate terrified me. Once again, I left them in the house, saying severely that I would drive them away should her wild attack persist. But from now, our common life became somewhat ordered. The frightened Olga, having overcome her pride, settled down and became mousy quiet. I guess that after her escape from my house, she had faced something awful, and that had changed her for the better. She longer did anything extremal: she didn’t whine and didn’t try to hit me. Though married and living in the same house, we barely contacted, each of us having one’s own life. I spent more time with Sasha. Although the boy looked like his mother, he was internally like me, so I had no problems with him. Olga made a lot of friends and probably enjoyed living, although she often always lamented that in such a wilderness, surrounded by eyes and ears, her life was very sad.»                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

  I stopped hoping and was only thinking of the impending old age. The son grew up, he finished school, went to Moscow, and was enrolled in a medical school. Olga often goes to see him and stays there for a long time. I have long been accustomed to being alone…»

I was neither a goddess nor a ghost, but an earthly woman. «He’ll be back, he’ll come back for sure», I whispered, looking at the empty sky. «God will not take away what one can’t live without?» I brushed aside the words «divorce» and «marriage», but they kept getting into into my head. But it was impossible to come up with at least more or less acceptable solution. Volodya was a priest, so divorce was impossible. And living «in sin» was unacceptable. My pillow was wet with tears. Burying my face in it, I prayed every night: if we were not meant to be together here on earth, then let there, in heaven, when God called me, there would be no one by my side except Vladimir. No one else…

I received love letters, as if I lived in the nineteenth century. I would re-read them several times, touch them with my cheeks and lips, and fold them in a pile. At night, I would get up, take them from under the pillow, and read again. I decided to wait for him all my life.

I never stopped drawing the window and the unforgettable profile: the high purebred forehead, the fine antique nose, the lips, the velvety brown hair combed back… I was longing for no one but him, and I didn’t want to get free from that love… He had entangled me with thousands of ropes, and I rested in them like a star in the Universe…

It was my only shelter for the rest of my life.

I received a single letter from Kostya,

  «Vera, I understand everything. But how do I describe all these incredible things I had never expected to happen. I always knew and firmly believed that the most fantastic sexual contact would not create love, and that it was an old human illusion, even delusion. I tried to compensate in your absence. If you only knew what I did because of the desperation!..

  «At first I was soo silly that I tried to get rid of you as of an obsession; well, why do I need that pain?! I didn’t realize that, though, I confess, and I don’t understand that until now. But you were and still are everywhere. You fill the space with yourself in such a way that I feel like crying! The physical obsession is fighting its emotional twin. Sometimes I feel like tearing your skin off you to silence, at least temporarily, my longing for you.

  «I was angry with you, with myself, with the whole world. I rushed around, never finding a place for myself, and roared like a beast; that’s how I need you — unbearably and painfully, to complete insanity…

  «How could I imagine, when you fell into my arms, that everything would be like that? Vera, is this exactly what I used to laugh at? Can it be that I will never get rid of this, never till the end of my days?

  «Vera, there is only one thing I ask you about — don’t leave me. I don’t mean it in the earthly sens. There is no way back, I get it. You love him… But do not leave me. I won’t come to you, I won’t be bothering you, and I hope that this letter will be the only one, though I am not sure. If you ever need me, though I can’t even dream about it, or if you just need help, please let me be the world’s best friend, Vera.»

I read and re-read Kostya’s letter, touched the paper, and felt astonished. A young man asking a woman not to leave him …

Long ago, in my youth, I dreamed of receiving a love letter, at least one. Now I got them — from two men at the same time. I never learned to use the Internet. Perhaps it’s fine and surprising, but to open an envelope, take a sheet of paper out of it, see the writing made by a live hand, smell it, see the lines and go through their sweet poignancy, rejoice and weep from the unprecedented gift given to me by the gods — to love…

Chapter 15. Ransom

  I missed Kali. I longed for her terrible burning eyes. She would spare no effort to whip me mercilessly and cut my skin; she would shake me and force me to take a pen or a pencil — because something was bothering my soul…

But she wasn’t there. “Kali”, I kept whispering. “I miss you badly. I am quite all right, but my soul aches, I don’t know why. Do you know why?”

At night I dreamed of a beautiful woman. She offered me to fly, but I refused politely. First of all, I had to jump off a high cliff, and secondly, I was too busy, I had so much to do…

I sat in a huge mountain of wiggling deeds; they were sweet, slippery, and sticky, and it was impossible to get out.

Only once I accidentally noticed that she had a blue body, face and hands. I looked carefully and exclaimed, «Kali»!

Was it she?!

‘It’s me’, she said quietly. But why was her voice so sad? Why was it so strangely quiet and peaceful? Why did she look like that?

‘It’s for you’, she said. ‘This is my reverse side. But it’s strange that you can see and here me. It’s really strange. Did you call me? In this act of the life drama, nobody calls me…’

‘What do you mean by the act?’ I asked. ‘Is this a theater? Why did you disappear from my life, Kali? What’s wrong?’

‘That’s really strange. It’s a paradox that you need me! Who allowed you to see and sense me? It only happens once in a millennium that a human being sutprises me.

‘You have asked me about the acts of human life. But isn’t your life a play that consists of several acts?

The first one, and the only one for many, is sleep. This is a never-interrupted, all-consuming, sweet dream that began when you first saw the light of the day. Neither suffering nor troubles will disturb the peace of the water surface, as many are accustomed and even love to fall asleep surrounded by horrors. You adapt to everything better than animals and insects do. Humankind has long been frozen, and when I look at you, I see a snowy valley and rare gusts raising snow dust over it briefly. I don’t like this contemplation — my nostrils get covered with frost, I even stop hearing sounds and smells temporarily.

‘Kali…’ I wanted to say something.

‘No!’ She waved her hand abruptly, and I heard the Kali I knew so well. ‘No’, she repeated much softer.

‘You ended the first act by hitting the road. But make no mistake and don’t consider yourself courageous. You are an ordinary person, who has done nothing special. Many people hit the road, millions of people leave their homes and take the path of struggle; everyone is attracted and tormented by something. Your natural emotionality and excessive anxiety helped you, that’s it.

‘But very few go the long way to meet with me. Those few people are the ones I help go one, by all means.

‘My act is the third one. In that act, I am the mistress. I am allowed to do many things; I can penetrate the material world and do whatever I want inside it. I have my own set of tricks to arouse pain and fear in you. Believe me, if someone crawls to me, I will not miss the chance.

‘But there comes a time for me to get off the stage, as was the case with you. Everything must obey the universal harmony, everything without exception. And is a lovely and light sadness in it…

‘You should not think that I miss you. You are an ordinary person. You knocked at the door, and it was opened. You reached your goal and discovered your secret. But for most, it is dangerous and even fatal. Therefore, it is appropriate to say goodbye to each other — here, in this dream, at the crossroads of two worlds…

‘Kali!’ I cried, bursting into tears, ‘What are you talking about? I’m fine, but if you mean the redemption, I… well, it’s been just a temporary rest. Tomorrow or soon I’ll pull myself together.    But do you mean to tell me about the purpose? Well, I have no desire… Of course, I will try if you want. But is this what happens? I mean the inability to find a pen and write at least a line…’

Kali was looking at me sadly. That’s how they look at those who are going to day. But I was not dying, even more than that…

She went on as if not hearing me,

‘As long as you didn’t know, much was forgiven, and the Creator turned a blind eye to many things. But now things have changed, you know your purpose. Now you cannot hide as you understand the concept, the whole ingenious pattern of your misery unwinds easily…’

‘What?’ I asked, astonished. Does it mean that all my life and losses, my son’s misfortune –all that was all predetermined? Was it known long ago and conceived with only one purpose of bringing me to writing this book? That’s impossible!’

‘There is too little time’, Kali went on, without paying attention to my words. She seemed to be nervous and was constantly looking around. Why should a great immortal goddess behave like that?

‘The fact that I managed to break into your dream was a kind of miracleIn this act, the time belongs to the Demon. He will not let anyone penetrate to your world, he will close all the valves and channels. Everybody dies here…

‘Why are you saying all this, Kali? Why are you lying to me? Do you want to scare me?’

‘The Demon has the right to break into the human world. He will destroy all your ambitions and dry out your faith… You are now open to him. He can see you clearly as if you were placed on his palm. He will cober what you believe in with a thick layer of dust; he will convince you – well, he has done it already, that your unique creation will be useless and foolish. You don’t notice that he has already begun to rule over you, and the first alarming sign is that you believe that you are not good enough for doing creative work.

‘The purpose is not an alluring table cluttered with viands. Only few people, the elect, are aware of it. They are sent to the Earth with a special safety net for their missions. In early childhood, they know well why they were born. But it’s not about them. It is about ordinary people like yourself, those for whom discovering their path means suffering.

‘Don’t you understand? The Incomprehensible suffered together with you as it is you it is trying to express its anguish through… To become the Creator’s vessel, a perfectly fine conductor of His will, your only require complete transparency, high purity, and the willingness to feel the finest child, at least in part, and, barely breathing, without damaging the immortal beauty, take that child in your arms for passing on to me.

‘Your creation did not embody the exchange between the elements. Everything is against it: the water and the wind blow out the fire; it’s airy — the color has not thickened, the scent has not pour out its golden rays…

‘The great mystery is not accessible to you, and neither your mind nor your special abilities have anything to do with it.

  ‘This is the stumbling block for many.

‘Becoming invisible and imperceptible to absorb the space itself is only possible on the verge of death, when time stops flowing…’

‘And you, Kali? Are you going to leave me?’

‘Judge for yourself: nature does not waste its power in vain. I cannot pass the test for you, and I cannot make you transparent and liquid like hot glass. It is up to you to withstand. Then everything will be with you — all the power of fire, and all the power of life…

‘Every family has its own Demon. It hits the most painful spots, and most often it’s the children. Any problem is rooted in the unknown, the unknowable. What is known is not much good.

‘Kindness, generosity, magnanimity — nothing will save one. Heaven does not protect people evading from their mission. The Demon has the power given to him from above to accompany one on part of one’s way, and, in exceptional cases, to destroy.

‘I will be punished for today’s meeting, my time will be shifted. To remember a dream, one has to wake up sharply. You’re alone in the apartment . But even if you can remember, it won’t be even be three seconds befire the Demon shuts the valve…

‘You’ll never rememember me. Never.’

‘Kali, please don’t leave me!!”

A sharp tone woke me up. I grabbed the phone and listened, being simultaneously in two states — trying to remember something very important, and heard the familiar joyful voice. It was Arthur’s father,

‘Vera Nikolayevna, I’m sorry for calling so late, but I just got a call from the United States, and its daytime there now. Arthur said that your son wanted to play in a Quentin Tarantino’s movie. We have a huge debt to pay you: our son can walk, and he even tried to run yesterday. We got in touch with many friends of ours, and found his good friend. Tarantino grasped the general idea of your novel (as I understand it’s compulsive gambling). But he expressed his particular wish (you know what an unusual person he is), and he wants a lot of brutal scenes and blood.’

‘Blood?!’ I exclaimed. ‘I’ll pour tons of blood on the pages of my book if he agrees to take my son!!’ I kept yelling, but the connection suddenly cut short, so I probably screamed in vain.

My son wanted to play in a Tarantino movie? It was strange that I forgot about it so quickly.  Arthur remembered though, and his parents were trying to help. I certainly needed to do my best and finish the novel. I had saved someone else’s child, trying to work a miracle for him and let him get to his feet. And here, there was my son. Won’t I finish the book for him?

Something equally important escaped from my head… The necessity of need magic, or a burning effect, or maybe poor banefulness of something… I tried to grasp the strange sense of the words, but they turned to grey wisps of wind, tickled my cheeks, amused me, but no more.

And why now think about all those little things? I picked up a pen and paper and sat down at the table. I still have unbearable burning in my chest. Oh, it would be so nice and calm, but the devil possessed me to search for Tarantino, you restless traveler!

  Words, like sugary cookies, crumbled in my unwary fingers. I was looking at the table strewn with useless transparent grains. What do I do with them? Just take a rag again and wipe the table dry. I’ll be wiping the table again and again. When will the words become scattered jewelry capable of captivating the soul? That’s it. Enough for today…

  It is like that every day. They either crumble or, like yellow honey, stick to my hands. It is easier to make plasticine letters. Sometimes the pages of my novel appeared in my dreams like walls of snow, covered with intricate moldings of werewolves and strange-looking angels. Everything was shaky: the sense of time and space was collapsing, steaming, and blackening from one fleeting glance or direct breathing.

  In another blue-black dream, I was kneeling on the marble floor, begging a stubborn and indifferent old man, a master of making molds for casting and stamping words. He succumbed to my exhortations, wiping his copper hands on his apron, and severely assured me that the order for a million words was truly wonderful and woould be executed immediately… But the words melted into air quietly, and the old body betrayed him — his head was rocking from side to side — no, no, no…

  That theme, «Compulsive Gambling», was mine for some reason, so no one but me could cope with it better. It was my burden, my ransom. But it was disastrous for me, too…

I humbly crawled through an infinite space with a relief pattern of phrases, trying to reach, grope, and understand their meanings. But they were so huge that I was only able to crawl to the middle of a single word, feeling completely knocked out of the way. I would slip off a huge letter, dripped with sweat, keep one hand on the bar, swing over the abyss — but didn’t dare to let it go…

  How did in such a remote place?

  Sometimes I was unusually lucky: the words, like little brown bear cubs, rushed headlong from a high mountain, and I wasn’t quick enough to catch and put them in secluded places. They were real — alive, warm, and sleepy. Their abundance led me to the confusion — I had not even imagined how difficult the climb to the simplicity would be…

  The lightest splashes of the pen were extracted from the complete darkness, wide open to all the smells and sounds.

  I visited the realm of words made of non-ferrous metals and alloys: copper-red, bronze,  silver, and tin — many of them only became flesh on a slow burning fire… And it was only obvious from a distance.

  At worst, I could dig in a cemetery; sometimes, a tiny flame of a match snatched a genuine treasure from the darkness. It was brilliantly-mourning, but what exactly it was, I was not sure yet… It had to be put at the end of the book…

I didn’t stop my attempts to quit, cut short at once, kill that hopeless quest for the unknowable, which made me absolutely exhausted. The tortures of the damned. «Oh, the writer’s craft! It’s not hust, it’s a spiritual hell», that’s what Nikolay Saltykov-Shchedrin wrote in the XIX century.

It seemed to me that, having entirely withdrawn into myself, I reached the extreme limits of my capabilities, but it was all useless. Musicians would drink intoxicating honey and sprawl on green hay; tambourine would rattle, trumpets would buzz, balalaikas would ring out. And the drums would go out of the way! It was even quiter in ever forgotten places, in deep dungeons where spells cried. Clutching my head with my hands, I almost crushed it…

    Within a few days, I went into a complete rabid. I wanted to tear the blush off from the dawn and from all the girls, and use it to decorate my grim words with it. The idea poisoned me in such a way that my claws began to grow and get filled with fierce rage. I forgot about myself completely! My hair dimmed like piles of ashes, there was all-pervading severity in my eyes.

No, no, no one needs that — the roar of suffering lifting the leaves on the long paths, the crashing of love and passion. Mother’s drama… Can I catch immortality and put it in a jar? I was too fond of the beauty and grace of illusion. Its airy miracles took me into a wilderness, and I said firmly, «No!»

It was at night… But the next morning, my novel smiled to me like a newborn baby. It was fragrant, smelling of sweet milk. He smacked his lips, pulled his hands to me, and it was a special, all-consuming happiness…

No one ever wrote or spoke about it… Our world was completely closed, like a walnut, and any wish came true in it.

The air was quiet and still. This is what happens before a strong thunderstorm. But it was no big deal — right? I was no longer a leaf abandoned to the will of the wind…

  Efforts required for transforming myself into nothingness or power, were approximately the same.

Everything was different. The secrets sleeping under an impenetrable veil, which had to be solved, were somehow taking on flesh and blood. The stupid mother, whose grief was in her son, turned insane. She smelled of wine and lilies of the valley, breathed the new moon delight, and saw the light and heat of the abyss.

And I would have gone blind, and my legs would have been paralyzed if I had not gone out of the house that night…

But something else was hidden from me…

Like hungry puppies clinging to their mother, the feeling of impending gloom was bugging me. Twice, when I was sleeping, I was trying to grab something heavy and sorrowful, and woke up shivering and in a cold sweat…

Chapter 16. A murder at school

  ‘Mom, two kids have been killed in your elite school’, Alyosha told me in the morning. ‘I think they weres your students, you has taught drawing there.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked, stunned. ‘Who was it?’

‘I don’t know. Everybody is talking about it. They have been killed at the construction site.

Oh my God! Pavel? He was the first one I thought about. I immediately remembered our conversation, when Pavel wanted to tell me something, but did not…

What could I do? I could go to the school and make inquiries. I would have to do that sooner or later as I had acted badly when I had left without explaining anything. But I had no idea I would not be back before the beginning of the new school year …

I dialed Pavel’s number. He answered immediately, in a very irritated voice.

‘What’s happened, Pavel? Sorry for not calling you as soon as I came back. I have just learned…’

‘Vera Nikolayevna’, Pavel interrupted me, ‘Let’s meet right now if it’s OK with you.’

‘Yes, yes, of course’, I said. ‘Just let me know where.’

‘In the park, behind the school building. Near the fountain.’

‘OK, I am going.’

Getting dressed on the run, I was rushing, jumping over the steps. Oh, my God. Something terrible has happened, and Pavel knew all about it…

I saw him from a distance. When he turned to me, his face was unrecognizable.

‘Pavel’, I said in a small voice, coming closer. ‘Pavel…’

— ‘Vera Nikolayevna, I have nobody to share this with’, he was speaking quickly, stammering.  His facial muscles were twitching because of nerve spasms. It was evident that he was quite sick, and his eyes were round and red, like those of a little rabit; a death cry was trembling in them.

‘You know my father’, Pavel said and looked around in confusion, as if looking for support from the few passers-by.

‘Oh, Vera Nikolayevna, it’s so awful!’ He sobbed convulsively and almost ran away from me. I could hardly cutch up with him, while Pavel struggled frantically to find a dark place. We quietly rushed to the edge of the park and went ahead; there was nothing but construction sites there.

‘It’s happened here’, he whispered without stopping. ‘It’s happenred right here. Come closer! Be careful, there’s a lot of blood and bricks here.’

‘Blood?’ I asked. ‘Why blood, Pavel?’

He kept sobbing and turning his head like crazy.

‘I squeezed his neck and didn’t let him go, but it seemed to me it didn’t last long. When he went limp and almost fell on me, I caught him under the arms, dragged him along the concrete crossbeam, hit his head against the brick wall… and then dropped him in the same way down on the stone ledges.’

Pavel stopped. My mouth went dry. I pulled myself together and asked him as calmly as I could,

‘In the same way? And what was before that?’

‘A common fight, just three days before, and I didn’t even think about anything like that. I didn’t want to kill. But who would believe me? What will happen now, Vera Nikolayevna? What shall I do?’

‘I trust you, Pavel. What was next?’

‘Nikita started to threaten me; he realized that the machine had been adjusted. After all, he owed ​​me a large sum of money. And then he said he would give me nothing, because it was not fair. And we met here on the site. He yelled that I just «crap», and attacked me. It all happened so fast; he was taller and bigger than me, and I just pushed him away. It was high. You can see for yourself, it’s next to the crane. He fell down and was motionless. We looked down, confused and embarassed.’

‘Who was with you?’ I asked quietly.

‘Dmitry Petrov. We got together as we were friends: Dmitry and Nikita Sviridov. You know them, they had run off that denunciation against you. But that’s quite a different story.

‘Dmitry and I went down. Nikita was unconscious; his head was turned in a strange way… Dmitry said let’s run away, and so we did.’

‘And what was then?’ I asked carefully as Pavel made a long pause. I hardly understood anything; blood was thumping in my head, my fingers were trembling. Come, come on, Vera! Pull yourself together. You have to be strong now…

‘Then Dmitry betrayed me. It was dishonest. We promised to be silent, but three days later, he started to blackmail me, talking nonsense, being rude, promising to give me away. For some reason we went up to the same place and stood there, looking down. He said that if it were not for my Dad, everybody would take me for who I really was — for a miserable chicken. I seized him by the neck in a rage and started choking him. The sight was like a bloody shroud. I beat and beat him against the wall until my anger disappeared at last…’

I gradually saw the whole terrible picture of what had happened. Pavel struggled to maintain a leadership position in the class, which, of course, he had due to his father’s name, while his relations with him were far from rosy. His father considered him to be a limp «wimp», he didn’t understand why his son liked books and music, and why he was interested in ancient civilizations. «Girl,» «wimp» — even at the table when they had dinner as a family, Vasily Sedov would never look for the right words in dealing with his son. He didn’t consider him a successor of his business. He had another family, and another son, who looked like him — large, stocky, strong, and tough. His father placed all his hopes on the boy, he openly admired him, without hiding that from his wife, Pavel’s mother. Pavel’s anger grew, and he tried to make up for it in any way possible. And the way was one, the slot machines. With the transfer of the gaming business to the underground, Pavel even found it easier, because his father didn’t give him money, while now he had some hope. Pavel managed to turn his classmates, Nikita and Dmitry, gamblers, since teenagers were not allowed to the underground casino. He would lend money to Nikita, and Yakov, the old one, helped him get in at night. The machine had been adjusted beforehand as Yakov knew well how to do that, and didn’t dare to contradict the owner’s son. Nikita lost and became his debtor. Trying to pay it off, he was just making the debt larger. Enraged, he attempted to break out, because it was beyond his power to tell his parents the truth. Pavel Sedov was relentless, and killed him accidentally in a fight, after which he called Dmitry as an unnecessary witness.

Oh my God! That’s awful!.. Two murders… I winced inwardly, as if I had touched a bare wire…

‘Pavel, you need to tell your father the whole truth’, I said a few times. ‘He must help you as he can do anything.’

‘No, no, Vera Nikolayevna. That’s impossible. He hates me. Don’t even tell me that.’

‘But you will be found anyway, Pavel. Please undtand this. You were friends, and played the slot machines together, so the evidence will lead the police to you. You will be interrogated. You won’t stand the questioning, and betray ourself, even imperceptibly. He’s your father, and whatever you think, he loves you and will do anything to save you.’

‘No, no, no’, the boy shook his head. ‘No.’

‘Pavel, this is the only solution. Your father has a lot of friends. How can I help you? Hide you at my place? Please understand: there is no other way out. Do I wish you evil?’

‘Yes, yes, yes’, Pavel repeated dully. It seemed that he felt a strong desire to get away. He didn’t find a fulcrum in me, and he no longer wanted to speak with me about what had happened. My fear passed to him, and he seemed exhausted, his forehead was covered with sweat, he kept shaking his head and looking a side. This is how ridden horses or dying elderly people breeth. Seeing his distress, I had no idea how to escape from it…

‘Pavel!’ I cried after the hunched little figure. ‘Remember I called you? Your advice saved a child!’

He didn’t even turn around. He went ahead, down dale, like a toy soldier — hands at his sides, his legs up and down…

Agitated with the incident, I hurried home, a thousand thoughts spinning in my head. What would happen to Pavel? What would his father do? Frankly, I had no doubt that everything would be taken care of: I believed in Vasily Sedov’s omnipotence, I had seen him. But I worried about the child who had killed two people…

The night was restless. Tossing and turning from side to side, I could not fall asleep. There was a strange whistling in the apartment. I got worried and went to the kitchen; there was no one there. I looked into her son’s room. The door was half open. Alyosha was sitting at the computer, his whole figure was strained to the limit, he was completely immersed in the game. I didn’t want to bother him as he was playing poker. I wanted to go back, but my ears caught a rustling movement again, as if someone very close by was pulling on a string, slipping stealthily. I looked at my son in sorrowful meditation. My eyelids grew heavy. The room was barely lit by the cold light coming from the computer. I looked around the room…

I saw two frozen eyes in the shadow of the far corner; they looked like two wounds. Unbelievable… The icy breath made my mouth numb at once. Someone was looking at me ominously. Closer, closer, closer… His entire body floating, he was moving his grey face to me… Don’t look, Vera, don’t look!.. But it was too late. Like fascinated, I was drawn into the red mercury of the pupils. The flowing droplets of mucus, the devastating touch… My eyelids were burned by the suffocating poison; my hands dried up and rolled into a tube. What if someone saw me! I was sinking to the floor in complete silence and oblivion…

‘Mom!’ My son’s anxious face bent over me. ‘What’s happened?’

I looked around; there was no one but Alyosha and me. He helped me up, took me to bed, and brought me hot tea. Lying in bed, I drank the tea smelling of mint, and came to life slowly. I felt as if I had escaped from a severe drought. Bllod was not oozing from the small wound on the eyelid…

Yesterday I met with Pavel, my student, who had killed two children. My heart was crying with blood. I could do nothing to help him, just nothing. I had simply imagined something in my son’s room. It was just my disordered imagination.

I didn’t tell my son about Pavel. I just said I was too tired. It was no wonder as I kept writing for nine hours a day. I need a good sleep, Alyosha, and everything will be OK… And I must finish writing the book as soon as possible, I absolutely must finish it. Well, I could postpone it, but a kind of alarm was hitting into my head, while I felt a foreboding: I must, must, we must…

Poker remained a white spot. Alyosha helped me, but somehow slowly. He concealed something. I had to see what it was.

Chapter 17. Secrets of poker

  Poker as a cure for gambling addiction? Was it a gangway to freedom? Would it free my son from the trouble, or would it make him drown?

Maybe Alyosha knew the truth, but maybe he didn’t.

I had a friend, the best person in the whole world. I called him and told him everything.

‘Vera, I know nothing about gambling’, Kostya said. He was so happy to hear me that I had to repeat my question several times before he began breathing normally and he was able to understand me.

‘I’ve never gambled’, he said regretfully. ‘But I’ll try to find the experts.’

‘Where do you find them?’ I asked. ‘There are no casino or slot machines in your town. It will take you ages, and I need it right away. My son knows everything, but he won’t say. Or maybe he doesn’t…’

‘Then tell him you’ve played him away, and he will tell you everything’, Kostya said.

‘Are you crazy? What do you mean by that?!’

Yes, Kostya was an incorrigible adventurer. He would have to write detective stories.

‘Vera, no one knows what you were doing while you were away. One can assume just anything. You could have joined a gang. By the way, it’s people like you who usually do that. You could have had a drink and play your son away by mere accident. It’s not the truth that people believe, but the most improbable stories. To redeem your son, you have to pay a large sum of money… for example, the publisher have promised to pay you for the novel «Compulsive gambling.» There is no other source of money, otherwise your son will be killed, okay?’

‘Vera I’ll help you!’ the crazy guy yelled. ‘I’ll organize spying on you! Your son will see that you are being followed by creepy types who want money, and believe you. He’ll tell you everything under the pain of death.’

‘Thank you, Kostya’, I replied dryly. ‘Don’t write to me, please, that you’re the best friend in the world’, and I hung up. The calls were long and hard. I was angry and didn’t come to the phone.

After a couple of hours, Kostya thoughts, oddly enough, made ​​me curious. Playing my son away? It was something! A nice title for my future novel! But the words about redemption pervaded my mind, reminding me of something almost forgotten.

I forgot everything and didn’t want to remember. All I wanted was to put all the incomprehensible things aside and finish the book so that Alyosha’s dream would come true.

In the evening, everything got the best way possible. A terrible storm broke out, which only happens before the end of the world. I was tossing around the room in awe, knocking the chairs over. Alyosha understood nothing and was trying to calm me down. I looked at him angrily and shouted suddenly,

‘I’ve played you out! When I drank and wandered, I was dragged into playing cards! What do you want? You played in the casino, and I played cards! We are both free! I don’t remember when I put you at stake! They must have injected me something! There is just one month left, just one month! I don’t have enough time to finish writing the book for which the publisher has promised me an amount equal to that debt. The subject of gambling addiction is very topical, and as soon as I let them read Father Vladimir’s manuscript, they signed a contract with me!’

Alyosha opened his mouth. He was so stunned that he could not speak for a long time. Kostya was right — the wildest improbability played in my favor, my son believed me!

Life, which he had not appreciated up to that point, acquired a new meaning. He stopped playing poker, and started to help me frantically. What was strange, his will was so paralyzed by the fear that he never blamed me. The looming danger brought us closer incredibly.

   My son wanted passionately that the novel to be brilliant.

We rushed to all the gambling places. We were allowed everywhere — to all the hot spots, deaf basements, and abandoned houses in the suburbs. The game was everywhere, it seemed that the ban had only spurred it and added some pungency to it. This is how love gets hotter when it encounters an obstacle. Kostya, a good boy, organized surveillance — yum! Some stinkers went behind us almost openly, so even I, knowing of the fraud, felt real fear of death. How did Kostya do everything so quickly?

«They are here, they are here», I whispered excitedly to my son, hiding joy. «Just turn around and look.» Arthur would be delighted if he saw that with his own eyes!

Covering the candles with our hands, we would go somewhere deep down, to the hot spots. Everything would repeat: screaming and gesticulation; the room would tremble and totter like the rags of fear; the crows, overcome with terror, would fly away or stick to the ground in defenseless piles. The music became suavely scratching, the players were helpless birds, backed into the corner. Like in an adventure movie, for going inside it was necessary to tell the password.

I learned many people, and many of them called my name. Some time ago, I had grown together with those people, and I heard their hearts beating. I saw the old dwarf man in one corner, he was almost blind, and recognized me when I leaned over to him.

‘You need to fly away urgently’, he whispered to me, ‘and it would be better today.’

‘It’s OK, it’s OK’, I caressed his childish hand sympathetically. He was old, and had stopped playing long ago. His watery eyes were looking at me with love and care.

‘The poison has already been poured into your river, it’s been a few buckets’, he muttered. ‘You can see nothing at all…’

Yakov was also old and faded. They said that his grandson had been killed by a car. He sat alone, picking in an old, worn slot machine, apparently trying to repair it. But it was rusty and creaking, as if saying, «It’s time to retire». Boris was not there, and I didn’t want to ask Yakov about im for some reason…

Ashot had beeen last summer in the countryside with his throat cut…

Every detail of the familiar face was ruthlessly dead, as never before. The teenagers were nowhere to be seen… My God, they were no longer alive. I could not bear looking at the machines where they used to play. I thought of Pavel immediately. I tried to reach him, but no one answered the phone. Maybe his father had hidden him away?

I had lost the habit of touching the buttons. I could see them clearly devouring the fingers, their shiny mouths mumbling; I also saw them sucking the player’s hand up to the elbow, then up to the shoulder…

The mysterious poker, which turned out to be a wonderful deliverance, was revealing its secrets. My son’s story was for me like the continuation of Father Vladimir’s manuscript.

Compulsive Gambling (my son’s story)

   Slot machines are no longer at each stop; all game rooms are now outlawed. Not everyone has access to the restricted and illegal casinos or gaming clubs, as well as not everyone has the right to travel to foreign countries in order to play in a casino live. But even if one makes up one’s mind…

  In the casino, all the games, from the machines to the roulette, initially have a great advantage over the players, so the latter are doomed to lose over and over again, except rare wins.

  Many gamblers are constantly deceiving themselves that they lose to a heartless piece of iron, and therefore they come up with various strategies and tricks: they wear the same socks, or don’t cut their hair before the game, or buy talismans.

  Whoever comes to the casino, he loses.

Under the short-term win, the players remember how they were dressed, who they had met with before the game, but the idea is the same — there are no talismans for a game.

  Deep down, every person playing against the casino, understands his or her doom, and sometimes even admits it.

  An exception to the general rule is the only game, Blackjack, in which the player, under certain conditions, can beat the casino.

  It is believed that the casino deliberately let the game exist, constantly making certain amendments to it so that the player could have some advantages over the casino.

  This game is very demanding on the players, whose and math skills should be at the level of genius. Understanding that it’s possible to beat the casino, attracts a lot of players, who come though don’t play Blackjack.

  But even if they decide to play it, the knowledge drawn from the brochures will not help avoid a resounding defeat.

  Mathematical geniuses use perfectly calculated gaming strategies, but all European casinos are equipped with cameras, so such people are quickly identified and politely (for the first time) shown the door. The casino blacklists two groups of players: professional «Blackjacks», and fraudsters — those who enter into an agreement with the dealer.

  Sometimes, a genius blackjack player has to arrange a complete masquerade and master the image of a respectable family man standing next to his troubled wife, or a lucky drunkard, or an arrogant millionaire…

  I have heard Russian stars boasting that they had been driven out of the major world casinos and blacklisted. I am sure that this is just pure fiction, because the casino only kicks out those players who already are on the black list.

  No matter how mamy other games the player wins, if he is not suspected of fraud, he will be allowed to try his luck…

  So what is left to the Russian players?

   The bookmakers. The main difference from the casino is that one has to wait for the result for a few hours or days. Well, the gamblers need to get their dose of adrenaline «here» and «now.» Still, this is real gambling, but more like a fair bet with an element of sportiness.

All on-line projects can be divided into three groups.

1. The game not in its pure form, which can pump a lot of money from gamblers and non-gamblers. Those «Online Games» are created by the type of conventional computer games, but unlike them, you have to play with other players. Those games are shareware; strongly exaggerating, you are given wooden sword and shield, which you can use to fight fairly. All players are given a unique opportunity to get the armor of the scales of a golden dragon, a titanium shield, or a sword decorated with diamonds. The price (to get the most powerful armor and weapons) IS AS HIGH AS TENS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS, so a rich businessman and a weall-to-do man find these prices quite reasonable. No one is surprised by the news that some weirdo has invested more than a million rubles in a computer character.

2. Online analogs of conventional casinos. It’s the same game with the normal rules — the player plays against the casino. I remember the slot machines at the train stations, which were adjusted shamelessly. The Russian prefer immediate ripping. Only a crazy person can spend more than a minute in a Russian «online casino».

3. The online poker casino, which has just become popular. In that game, the players play against people. The casino gets a percentage of the winning pot. All the best poker casinos are owned by foreign companies. Casino charges the winner in such a way that, in the long run, a strong player could beat the weak ones and get more than the casino tax. That created poker professionals, who can make big money. But all is not so easy as it seems…

  Of all those who wanted to become a poker pro and make money by playing, about 5% have succeded. And out of the 5%, mostt have reached a level of stable earnings, which can nowadays be reached through the activities not related to business ($500 to $3,000 per month). Only a few were able to get really big earnings — above $10,000 a month.

  If we consider the 95% of those who failed, half of them lacked mathematical skills.

  The rest had psychological and organizational problems.

  How did those fail who had claimed to be pros?

  By rubles and kopecks, working really hard, they managed to accumulate huge amounts of money on their poker accounts. Like crazy, they would amass and hoard money for larger and larger bets. They lived in rented apartments, and had next to no food. But their accounts had sums of money for which it was possible to buy and apartment and a good car. One day they went up to the bet that was not to their teeth, and lost all the money. They had no strength, or enthusiasm, or desire to start all over again, beginning from small bets.

  Others always tried to withdraw their winning money and make parties in their own honor. They left minimum amounts of money in the accounts that was easily blown away by the wind of a failure. That moment always came very quickly. Once again at zero, they, unlike the above group, didn’t give up so easily. They were sure that they would rise quickly, but soon began to notice that the way to the top was too long and tedious, while earning 10-20 dollars a day was not enough to pay the bills.

  Having realized the sad truth of any business that money makes money, they went to look for another job. It would seem that the first and the second types are just fools, but oddly enough, 80% of the players are of this type. Only a small part finds a happy medium.

  Psychological reasons.

  This is the main problem why poker players can’t make money. Since the distributions in poker occur very quickly, there are strips of successes and failures. In poker, unlike other games, they can be just huge, such that the human mind is unable to cope with them. There are no players in the world who would be in complete control of their emotions.

  The difference between the great and the ordinary poker players is only in the fact that the former are able to pull themselves together and take the appropriate action. Regular players, losing a large sum of money, flow into the hard «tilt», which is a state of wild excitement darkening one’s mind. They often raise the bets feverishly, play passionately, aggressively, and recklessly. It almost always aggravates their initial loss — for many it is the last point in their poker careers.

  I have experienced many unpleasant moments, when it seemed all the gods and the universe were against me. But I was able to organize myself, and made my own system for withstanding a losing streak. I make an effort and stop playing at the first sign of «tilt». Sometimes it is very difficult to do — when you lose to weak and arrogant players who are on the crest of success. But often I do manage to do that. When I have a lingering streak, I take a break and spend time with my friends…

‘Alyosha’, I asked quietly, ‘are you sure that poker helps you get rid of compulsive gambling?’

‘Yes’, my son said firmly.

I didn’t help calling Kostya,

‘Bravo, Kostya! That’s amazing! Even I feel scared. Where did you get those tramps?’

‘What do you mean, Vera?’ Kostya asked me, surprised.

‘I mean the surveillance you’ve organized, Kostya! It’s quite professional. I’ve experienced real horror, not to mention my son. Oh, how cleverly they set the traps so that the victims would not notice anything! I think they have even managed to sneak into our apartment: I clearly caught a strange smell in my bedroom, and my things were scattered a little. They are not demanding the money so far, but…’

‘Vera!’ I clearly heard horror in Kostya’s voice. ‘What are you talking about? Are you kidding me? I haven’t organized any surveillance, because you never said «yes». All that is just your fantasy… I can barely hear you, it’s just noise… I mean are you kidding me?’

The line went dead. The phone didn’t work well those days, it was impossible to talk, there was some noise, groans, and creaks, as if trolley wheels were knocking on a cobblestone street, on sucking mud.

Odd… Kostya said he never organized any surveillance… Then who was watching us?

I was anxious and started thinking, analyzing, anticipating. But nothing betrayed the fact that, in a few days, my breathing would stop…

Chapter 18. In the cell

  In the morning, on the way to the shop, a car stopped next to me, two guys got out of it, and asked me politely to follow them. Perhaps I had to raise the noise and ask them for documents or permission to detain. But my legs trembled treacherously, bent at the knees, and, supported on both sides, I dutifully sat in the car. I was taken to the police station and taken to the second floor.

The iron door slammed shut…

I didn’t understand what was happening. The investigator, who said his name was Sergey Leonidovich, smiling in a charming and somewhat concerned way, explained that, according to the law, I was so far detained for just two days. Why «so far»? I tried to pull myself together. Nikita and Dmitry? Does it have anything to do with Pavel? What happened? What did he tell his father? Why don’t they let me make a phone call and have an attorney? What the hell is going on?

‘Show me the arrest warrant’, I remembered a phrase from some movie.

‘You see, now you are almost free — before we clarify some details. We will check some facts to remove all suspicion from you. There is certain small evidence against you, and if we will work together for the next two days to understand everything, I assure you (at these words, he grinned and spread his arms complacently) that you’ll get back home as if nothing had happened. If you really are not guilty, this conversation — is just a couple of trivia. Well, stuff happens. Please understand that the murder of two children at a time is a great event for our town, so it’s not only you we are questioning but a lot of other people, too. There are numerous interviews under way in all the offices in this building, the facts are being compared, evidence is being gathered. You’re certainly one of those people who don’t want children to keep dying, right?

I quickly nodded.

‘See how we agree on this issue. So everything will be fine. As much as you would think at home about the incident, you won’t notice thousands of small details, extremely important to the investigation. Here in the office, talking with you can be very useful. In fact, you were those children’s teacher, and you might have also seen them out the school. That’s possible, isn’t it?..’

‘But they had a lot of teachers’, I contracted feebly. ‘Besides, I never see them outside the school. You see, I worked there for a very shord time.’

‘All of the teachers are being thoroughly interrogated, as well as the dead children’s neighbors and friends. I hope I have calmed you and we will continue the conversation in a more relaxed and friendly way than it was in the beginning.’

I really calmed down. If they attracted almost everyone who knew the boys, there was nothing terrible. Some of the phrases also had a calming effect, such as: «be very useful», «everything will be fine», «quite simple», etc.

But the night spent in a strange place, was worse than expected. Oh, how bad it felt!

So what about Pavel? I could not call his name. What to do? If he had told his father, the latter would hurry up of course. But what if he hadn’t? Knowing the whole story, would I look like an accomplice? It’s concealment of a crime. But who knows that Pavel had told me everything?

I had to help the investigation so far as it was in my power. I was not even a witness. But the strange thing was that the longer I was in that building, the more I felt something elusive and vague gathering over my head. It was a vague sign of trouble. The investigator looked a different person while his empathy and compassion was replaced by an undercurrent of curiosity, an unkind tension, and even suspicion. Everything looked so bad!.. I was consumed by a vague fear. At first it had been elusive, but, later, it started increasing my concern.

Staring at me as if I had just stolen a bottle of vodka in a store, the guy asked me questions relating to gaming machines, doing that quietly and deftly. As if the fact that I always saw my students the casino was obvious and didn’t require any special acknowledgment on my part. Seeing my confusion and shame, Sergey Leonidovich would sit back in his chair with pleasure, without hiding his malice. From the beginning, I took the path of continuous self-justification, which was wrong and leading me astray.

The investigator looked like a respectable bloodhound seeking in me some manifestations of imbalance and nervousness. Sometimes he skilfully provoked my outbreaks of indignation, doing that so brilliantly, methodically, and consistently that I, every morning, getting ready for his visits and  telling myself that I had to be vigilant, conscious, and cautious), would every time get into the cleverly laid web of his words. Maybe his manner of speaking rapidly bothered me. He asked his questions in a sharp voice, as if slapping me in the face. All his will seemed to be aimed at ensuring that, without giving me a chance to recover, expose me as soon as possible. I was stretched to the limit.

Why had I missed the critical metamorphosis? When had I stopped being a witness and turned into the main culprit? All that was accompanied by a tacit threat, the confidence that I was just a flattened butterfly caught in solid fingers.

Deftly and shifty, my opponent would escape the questions answering which was so important to me. At times, he would make some strange metallic sounds and twist a bunch of keys in his hands. It would tinkle, rattle, and bang on the table, and that persistently high sound was so unbearable that I had to clutch my head.

When will Father Vladimir arrive, or at least Kostya? I eagerly believed that help was round the corner. Maybe Alyosha was also arrested… After all, I would go out sooner or later, right?

The second painful link was where I had been all that time. Where was I when the murders were committed? I had no idea, though, when they were committed. Pavel didn’t tell me that. Perhaps, at that time I was not yet in the city.

The investigator assured me that all that was being investigated in the most thorough way. But alas (he would spread his arms again), no one could confirm where I had been. The priest suddenly disappeared — no one knew where. His wife, who was at home, said that her husband had left long ago, while she had never known «Mrs Gurova» or seen her in the village. The mansion where I had worked was locked, the windows were nailed up, while the neighbors said the family had left on a long-time trip. They also said they had no idea if I had ever lived there as the mansion had a tall fence and it was impossible to see what was going on behind it.

Every day would bring bad news. Sometimes, wearying me, shaking his head in disappointment, Sergey Leonidovich would read long documents brought to him during the interrogations. He would make some notes, without paying any attention to me. Losing patience, I would raise my voice doing my best to find out what else was revealed.

It turned out that my home phone had been listened to for a long time.

‘How do you explain these strange words’, «I will fill the entire space with blood»? You shouted these words so loudly, even, I would say, with a kind of sinister joy.

Sergey Leonidovich several times turned that recording on, enjoying hearing it, while looking at me in amazement, as if seeing me for the first time. That phone call woke me up so suddenly, I was dreaming of a nightmare, I was half asleep… and a little overexcited. But why was my phone on wiretapping?

I noticed the sudden change in the investigator’s behavior. He seemed tired of playing a good-natured friend, and became what he really was — a brusque worker executing someone else’s strong will.

‘I see you’re trying to soften me’, he said quietly, with an ill-disguised pleasure. ‘But it’s in vain. The combination of all the facts, inferences, my personal observations, and the overall impression of your entire image, has already given me enough evidence of your involvement in these killings.

‘You have created your own universe, but it only exists in your imagination, not in reality, I assure you. In your own universe, you have given physical characteristics to the characters, and, as far as I can see, they play an important role in your life.

‘And this book of yours, «Compulsive Gambling», proves my words. You know, I love science fiction, adventure, and even the mystique. But… your novel belongs to another world, the world of madness. I, as a man who, above all, appreciates the truth, and nothing but the truth, have done something I was not obliged to do: I have shown your manuscript to the experts. They are respectable people, professors of psychology…

‘So, even a cursory examination of the winding course of your thoughts, your reasoning and the conclusions, the whole structure of the book… reveal the typical pattern of apparent insanity…

‘There is a saying — «the left hand doesn’t know what the right one does». I would apply it to you, though somewhat changed it your right hand was controlled by the Demon himself, or the destruction itself. And if he had driven your hand all the time, perhaps you would have created a great visual aid for students of psychiatry. But desperate boredom and discouragement result in undershooting. Everuthing is good for nothing, nothing but confusion. It’s how young children usually beat the piano keys with their fingers, if they have never seen the piano before.

‘No normal person of sound mind and memory, and I mean none, would ever write such a shameful story showing the author’s mental injury… ‘

His voice filled the room with flashing staccato sounds. His unblinking eyes stared straight at me, paralyzing my will. I tried to turn my mind off and plunge into the void of salvation, but it was all in vain. The authoritative voice, all that magnificent speech, unable to calm down, was more and more tense, and brilliantly curled, subdivided into separate crackling filaments, which burned through microscopic holes in my body, penetrating into my very being, and already dominated it and parasitized there.

‘Since your fault is non-negotiable, admit it, dear Vera Nikolayevna, admit it not as a defendant, but as my sister or bride: how could you, a mother, let it happen? How could all that happen? Maybe I’m too young, or old, or don’t understand the subtleties of female psychology, but by revelation and the possibility of further frank communication can let us find a way out of this impasse, right? ‘

‘I’ve read in fairy tales or legends that there is a ritual, a rite: in order to regain youth, older women drink their children’s blood. I have read in your novel about your longing to be young. Maybe you fell in love with one of the knights wandering with you… Did you? After all, in the mythical city in which you supposedly lived for a year, as far as I know, no one has confirmed the fact of your presence. So, a stranger or a knight?

‘A woman whose life has been broken completely, as a rule, goes to an illusion, to a whimsical dreamland. I am sure you will agree with me that you are a complete loser. There is a very unflattering opinion of you in the school, and besides you were fired. When we questioned your ex-husband, he made ​​this face as if he had a slice of lemon in his mouth. And he was not interested in your life at all. He was only concerned about his reputation as our town is small. ‘He is married and happy, and has a good job. When I left, he was very nervous, so I was surprised and asked him whether it was about you. That’s the trouble for him! I admit, for a few seconds, he seemed to me a holy man, yes, he did. There is such an expression as «return of property», which people in our profession know very well. In that case, there was «return to reality» — your husband was very concerned about just that. Here is what worried him, quoting verbatim, «People are cruel, and at the first opportunity they will crush my good name. I will no longer be called Nikolai, but only «murderer’s ex-husband». Over time, the story will acquire such details that I will easily turn into a «killer’s husband» from an «ex-husband.»

‘Isn’t this a sad fate for an innocent man?

‘The teachers of that elite school, headed by the principal, say that you were like a violent crazy person when you left the school, and a quiet insane one when you came out of nowhere. You barely hold the job thanks to the help from a famous person who supports the school financially. You harassesd the dead children, Dmitry and Nikita, that they were forced to seek help from the principal.

‘Those guys described in detail they way you had molested them. Isn’t it a great reason for revenge?

‘Your friends, Olga and Maria, confirm unanimously that you have changed, and not for the better… You are now quite self-contained, you have personal secrets you wouldn’t share with them. ‘

My friends… Lying awake in the barrack bed, I was sadly discovering the truth: people I used to cosider my closest friends, seemed to have been forgotten by me easily. Well, they betrayed me with the same ease in a difficult moment, too… But now, looking at the grey walls, I was thinking of them in order to somehow escape from the heavy thoughts…

Olga worked as a masseuse on call. Her small stature and incredible thinness made her look like a teenage boy. She used to pluck her eyebrows with a thread, and she used to fluff and carefully tease her sparse hair looking like grey sparrow feathers. She wore faded jeans and T-shirts, and I had an incredible work to persuade her to buy a dress. But no matter what kind of dress it was, with frills and ruches, short or long, too low at the waist, with a flared bottom, or collected in a full skirt, it would hang on her like a crumpled bag, dangled like a limp wisp, or, worst of all, bristled in all places. She could be described as plain: there was nothing feminine about her arms and shoulders, while her pointed chin protruded forward and looked like a bone. But the extraordinary vigor smoothed out everything, she was never boring. In addition to the basic job of a masseuse, which brought her and her son a good income, she still had a whole bunch of duties. She continually participated in workshops and business games, which were very popular in our city. Whenever we met, I received a new book that I had to study carefully, otherwise there was no escape from Olga.

The room where she and Denis lived looked somewhat weird and abandoned. There were books sticking and falling down from under all the items, but at the right time, she would always pick up deftly the one she enjoyed talking about. Every book, published by a mysterious organization, was kind of invaluable, and the seminars were just holy places. She would come home from there, intoxicated by life.

‘Here I am! I’m back!’ She would exclaim, going into her dark and dreary home, with a bunch of books and news, looking around like an owl sitting on the top of shaggy spruce.

I would rush to those glossy sheets of paper that promised miracles and deliverance from anxiety, loneliness, and poverty. I would tirelessly write down, forty times in a row,the instructions of how to be happy, wealthy, and healthy, and I would whisper, asking the gods help my son get rid of the gambling addiction. Then I would burn the scribbled scraps and throw the ashes into the grey water, which I would drink frantically at seven p.m. in front of a mirror. Then I would throw the remains around on the street corners in the full moon…

But there was another magic word, which made Olga die down like a hunting dog and stand still. The word was «Oleg». Coming back from a long distance travel, where there had certainly been meetings in restaurants and dinners with interesting guys, she would round her eyes when  asked for the details, and say in a low voice, raising her thin eyebrows, «What guys? I have Oleg…»

Dispelling that non-existent phenomenon would have been similar to hitting a child in the face, or throwing the most beautiful fairy tales into fire, or trying to grab a thousand of lightnings…

Oleg, 45, an energetic man, a widower, had a house, a car, a small car service business, and was quite happy with his bachelor’s life, in which he found a lot of fun and entertainment. His weakness was expensive clothes. He was always clean and perfumed, wore crispy white shirts and new crunchy leather. His bald head looked great on top of his tall, slender figure without spoiling the external effect: his bright eyes looked ironical, and his thin lips smiled.

Olga met him, as usual, at work, or rather, at his place. It was like, a sun ray told her in whisper about the mature beauty of the coming hours: she raked all her best and fragrant creams. Then she stretched out like an arc and massaged carefully back, tired by many years of hard work, reviving and resurrecting the unknown client for life. Out of a sense of gratitude, Oleg recklessly caressed her with his eyes, bought her delicious and hearty food and red wine, and caressed her in his bachelor bed. At the same time, he froze all the further meetings, his ideas being fundamentally at odds with Olga’s. She fell in love like a teenager, that is recklessly and for good. From now until the last breath, he became her obsession and the meaning of her life. Nothing mattered, and nothing could cool her ardor, including his desperate attempts to fight back, explain, or defend himself. He could as well write the words on the sand in a hard rain: she would not see or understand them. She thought, said and did everything with surprising regularity, picking up quite plausible explanations, the most important of which was this: his former turned him into a bachelor.

«He will die without me», she would say confidently, her eyes glittering feverishly. «He carries a terrible spell of death.» I would pretend being interested in the way she would cast a spell on hard boiled eggs, bury them countless times in the ground, whispering that when the eggs rottened, the spolage would go away, and Oleg would become fresh, delicious and ready-to-eat. The rotten eggs would penetrate the ground, but there was no enlightenmen. On the contrary, he became more alert and cautious. He would creep home, wincing at every shout, turning around dozens of times. And that was the man who used to be upright and even proud! But he was caught several times anyway.

One time it happened on his birthday. Olga rented a sauna for two hours, made all the necessary agreements with the staff, hanged flowers on the walls, scattered rose petals on the stairs, and set a magnificent table. How did she lure Oleg in there, having previously caught him near the store? She wasn’t willing to discuss that. Hwe woman’s intuition, aggravated during the period of sexual activity, enabled her to find his Achilles heel: he could not refuse anyone. And if he was caught, he would get stuck. Recovering himself, he would jump down quickly from the sticky leash, stop taking the phone calls, and only appear a few months later, in response to Olga’s desperate request to fix her car. Fixing a car was a win-win move. Giving her a few desperate though valid reasons why he could not turn up, Oleg would give up hopelessly and go. Olga would gasp excitedly, fluff her hair, fly up above the floor, rush down the hallway, and disappear in the doorway to the sound of the dishes rattling in the old closet… From now on, she would break and destroy her car from time to time, but in such a way that Oleg’s hands still had something to touch. The material she used to recreate her happiness was not easy to process: there were more wealth in the crow’s nest. What to do? It was love — a young berry bush, full of juicy and lush dreams.

Even its small handful was more than enough for her. She built magical plans, working hard at the training sessions and calling me a lazy, lost animal. I would have been happy to joing Olga and go to remote cities, but, like a bag full of rice, I was packed with my work at the school.

There are rare species of plants, mainly of the lily family, which give a small single fetus at the end of their short stem. Similarly, Olga had Dmitry. He was incredibly similar to her. He used to laugh just as passionately with his tiny little mouth, and he had touching bushy hair. He was more quiet and unobtrusive though. Everything in her house was subordinated to the fear of the invisible instruction, «Don’t be late», as if there was an invisible little and nimble man with a long whip. Olga herself was in a hurry to live, and kept butting Dmitry’s thin back. She used to take him along to all long trips, and I wondered if the teenager wanted that. But his mother praised and encouraged him and, at that time, didn’t consider him a «bum» and a «parasite.» And the strange thing was that when Dmitry would seriously begin to get involved in something (he was fond of computers), Olga would take up her arms and pursue him as long as the whole thing was forgotten. That cycle of movement, when the mother and son were necessarily late, everything was eventually OK: her girlfriend would come as the last minute help, and there was money and tickets for a long journey… Her eyes shone blissfully, her bushy hair stuck out defiantly, and a heavy shiny brooch was strumming softly on her chest.

In the most difficult times, when Oleg hid away in the woods, eating the short and peaceful joy of a bachelor, I played the role of a secret intelligence agent. I would call him as a customer and ask him to repair my car. I would turn the speakerphone on, delay the discussion, which let my hopelessly infatuated girlfriend get all the necessary information. She would stand in the middle of the room, listening keenly, absorbing his voice with all her being like a multifaceted miracle. How she wanted to get him into her little nest! The yellow sun would obliquely come from the window. Olga was beautiful and elongated in the expectations and dreams. Her bright eyes would catch the sunshine, so Olga would flash and radiate, and was unrecognizable…

‘He is sick. He has lowered immunity, and he desperately needs help’, she summed up and rushed to buy expensive vitamins for him.

No, I didn’t understand that love; it worried and even scared me… Once I broke down and made up my mind to do something incredibly stupid: I decided to save her.

‘Olga’, I said sulkily. ‘You say you have Oleg, right?’

‘What do you mean?’ she asked.

‘OK, let’s call a spade a spade. Just answer my questions without inventing any unnecessary stories. Just answer my questions, and you will see what I mean, OK?’

She nodded.

‘How many times you and Oleg had sex this year? Has he ever given you flowers? Has he ever phoned you? I mean, at least once.’

Her face was scared, pale and miserable. She nodded quickly, vowing to stop the persecution, and even wrote a farewell letter in anger. It was a rough night: a dragon was choking me, a transparent and slippery creature helping him. I would wake up in a cold sweat, go into the kitchen, drink ice cold water, my teeth chattering, water, and fall again into that bad dream, into the darkness of black and heavy monsters.

The next morning I ran to Olga and rushed to her feet, «Please forgive me! Keep loving your Oleg, I was simply green with envy. Love him, just don’t die…»

She was quiet and bright like the morning doves by the water.

‘I understood that myself and forgave you immediately. I can’t leave him. You know that he would die without me…’



Her other friend, Maria, was a fortune-teller, and she used to tell fortunes on coffee. Unlike Olga, Maria was rather large. Her hair was lush, tall, strong and thick, of a dark copper color. Feeling quite at ease, her head thrown away, she would sit almost lying in her armchair, which she seemed never leaving. Her voice was pleasant and ingratiating, magnificent and terrible, just because she was a fortune teller. She lived freely, without limiting herself, together with his mother and eighteen-year-old son. God knows when and how she discovered that gift of hers. I was only a witness to her present life and glory. People used to come to meet with her, sometimes there were lots of them, just like bees stuck to a pear that was full of sweet juice. Sometimes there were periods of calm, during which Maria would enter into a stupor and looked asleep; in such periods of time, her voice became muffled and quiet. Maria and Olga were old friends. They supplied customers to each other.

Maria gave people the last hope. I loved to watch her telling fortunes.

‘The karma is too tight’, she would say thoughtfully, looking at the bottom of a cup with coffee remains. Then she would say lowly and quietly, as if to herself, ‘He has not redeemed it in this life yet, which hampers the love story.’

‘But when, when?’

‘At the end of the summer, maybe in early September, everything will go faster… The first yellow leaf will fall on your palm, and Oleg will stand at the threshold of your apartment with a suitcase.’

That’s what she would say to Olga. The daily divination would saturate Olga’s love with numerous details, such as what he is eating, what he is thinking, what he is wearing.

Olga would grab at the phone and yell mysteriously it,

‘Oleg, I know you are now lying in bed, tired and dressed, and you have no strength to even take off your shirt!’

‘No’ Oleg would reply, surprised. ‘I am really lying, but I am wearing my bathrobe.’

‘Well, it’s not my fault’, Maria would spread her arms widely as if feeling hurt. ‘I just say what I see.’

Sometimes she would poke in the coffee grounds and give Olga a strong and unequivocal command, «Go to Oleg’s place immediately! Today, he is ours.»

Olga would rush to her beloved and knock violently at the door. She would be so distinctly serious and assertive that Oleg would let her in and even perform the corresponding intercourse with her.

Fueled by the fear of death, people crowded around her, like a flock of sheep, trembling fearfully and listening eagerly to every sound of her voice. Conversations with the customers didn’t exhaust her. On the contrary, it is their absence that would enter her into a state of boredom and apathy, she would languish and turn yellow. In such cases, Olga and I would rush to her place, with a bottle of sweet liqueur, and after a few shots, Maria would feel much better.  She would shake her luxurious hair and tell our fortunes on coffee, always promising us close happiness. Her timid mother occasionally slipped past us without raising her grey head, the skirt of her black dress rustling quietly. Her son wasn’t heard either. The boy grew up quietly, like fine grass. He would sit quietly in his room, and then his mother would breathe in the air with her wide nostrils and shout, «Bobby, well, what’s the matter? Have you done anything wrong?»

Bobby, but rather Boris, was my son’s bosom friend, they loved to play chess. Later, Denis and Boris addicted to slot machines. My friends accused my son and stopped seeing me…

The door creaked open. I came to myself, and sat down on the bed. Someone came in and was approaching me stealthily. I huddled in the far corner of the bed. Where have I seen that man? Vasily Sedov! It was he of course! But what was he doing there?

‘Don’t you even try to utter my son’s name’, he said tough and bent over to me. ‘Otherwise, I will destroy your own son, and you won’t even know where I buried him. Do you understand?’

He disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared. I was not able to sleep all night, and kept walking around the cell the whole night. The dawn weakened my rage, as if it cut the rope of a person convicted to death, and I collapsed to the floor in exhaustion like a lifeless body. A few sleepless nights totally exhausted me and clouded my mind. There was some kind of food beside me, brought in the morning, but it got stuck in my throat.

So Pavel had told his father everything. The man had asked him who else knew the story, and Pavel answered that no one but Vera Nikolayevna.

So what’s going on? Does the investigator know who killed the children? But if he does, why does he continue to detain interrogate me? Without asking for permission, they have grabbed my arms and spun me in a monstrous masquerade.

Or maybe it only seemed to me, and he knows nothing? Then how did he explain Vasily Sedov’s visit? Does he think that the man just dropped in to support his son’s teacher once again?

I understood nothing, and felt kind of dizzy. I remembered how he had saved my dignity when I really needed it.

The one who breathes life into us will once take it away… A ponderous machine was moving towards me, threatening to crush me. I was in need of urgent assistance, I needed a counselor, a lawyer, but all my requests were rejected for some reason. I had a son, father Vladimir, Kostya, Arthur’s parents. Sooner or later, the news of my arrest will reach them. In a day or two, maybe in a week, help will come.

Rules of the game were now clear: I could not, in any way possible, absolve myself of the charges, without mentioning Pavel. And that was against me?

‘Everything is against you’, the investigator said. ‘The evidence points at you. So you need to desrcibe in great detail where you were on the day of the murder.’

And the last but not the least. There was a familiar ring on the table.

‘Is it yours?’ he asked.

‘Of course it’s mine’. I wanted to take it but was almost thrown aside. Kostya’s ring at the crime scene? How did it get there? Did I lose it when I and Pavel were there? It’s unlikely. Although it was really a bit too large. Recently, I could not find it anywhere.

Everything converged strangely, I myself was marveling at the magical whimsy of all that was happening to me. Strange was the last thing they didn’t know — how I lost my son playing cards. Tears choked me. Maybe I had to to say about it myself? I wanted to howl, beg for forgiveness, or on the contrary — punch everyone around me, beat, and bite…

Scaring me, the investigator wanted me to confess and thereby ease my plight. He insisted that Alyosha had told him everything…

‘Your son is a desperate gamer. One day he will end his life somewhere on the outskirts of the city, in the garbage dumps, where stumps of dead bodies are disposed of. He lives in a flock of vultures, where some of the vultures kill others every day. That’s their world. They are not afraid of the laws. And do you know why? ‘

He brought his face very close to mine. It was a magical look of a person confident in his strength. Then he said slowly, trying to make his words render some special, powerful meaning, ‘We never interfere in their fights. Why should we? It’s just great that their quantity is reduced. They’re planning to go out of town to play in a long-abandoned village. We know exactly when, where, and how many. We surround them, unnoticed, and turn everything to dust and ashes. We shoot them carefully so that no one could be identified in that mess of flesh and bones. And we write in the report, «criminal dispute».  It is a pity they sometimes take their children with them. Once was an underage sister, then somebody’s son…’

Suddenly someone’s clothes appeared on the table right in front of me. Those were dark pants and a denim jacket, just like my son’s. Peering closely, I saw that all of it was covered with horny spots of blood. The last thing I saw before I lost consciousness was a sharp Adam’s apple on a thick, red neck…

I came to myself thanks to spanking on my cheeks and icy water pouring into my mouth. After I recovered, I didn’t quite understand what had happened.

‘These are the dead children’s clothes. As far as I can see, you are impressed, aren’t you? It’s something you wouldn’t like to see, right? When you were killing the children, did you  think for a moment at least what their mothers would feel?’

«So it’s not my son’s clothes. It’s not my son!» I was enveloped by an age-old weariness, as if by an oversight of the Most High, I had lived for a thousand years. I saw the grey hair and grey eyes hiding impatience covered by an ice flame. My consciousness bifurcated with a screech,. I had experienced that before, I was capable of that! One part of my being was getting wild and going further and further into the woods, into an unrestrained dance, while the other one remained a broken creature, absolutely obsessed with its fear. Sergey Leonidovich beating and beating, precisely and methodically, his iron words into my chest, and those heavy and sharp words, like a garden stake with a poisoned tip, were penetrating me with a thud, tearing my wound. It was like an abscess on the heart, and it kept growing…

All my valiant attempts to defend myself and erect a column of evidence to prove that I was innocent, went broken with a crunch like thin dry twigs. They were kind of falling into the Demon’s wet mouth. The investigator interpreted whatever I said, strictly and impartially in his own way, making all my attempts to talk about the resurrection of the soul look stupid and even dirty. He was sneering at me. Disposing of all the most important and sacred things I was telling him, analyzing all of my long way, he smiled coldly and thinned it beyond recognition. In his interpretation, all my inmost fabric was so thoroughly tarnished, so vulgarized that, collapsing under the weight of shame, I was getting numb all over. In the long run, my weary head fell to my chest.

As if blindfolded, I was moving on a thin rope above an abyss, to a remote shore. All the amulets and precious icons had been dropped down, and I already knew of the terrible irreversibility…

The interrogations often took place several times a day. The damp and cold air of the room brought me to a complete frenzy. The onslaught was growing, and so was the unbearable pain in the upper part of my head.

Extreme interest and careful attention froze on Sergei Leonidovich’s face.

Sometimes, a flickering image of Father Vladimir’s dancing mother would appear. She would threateningly beckon me with her finger, her eyes being clear and meaningful. She would offer me to dance with her.

‘This is delightful!’ she would shout passionately in a familiar voice, waving recklessly her long black skirts with her blue hands. ‘It’s great to dance together! Get up! Wake up!’

The forest roared in an extreme excitement. I mingled with it, hiding and harboring in its salvific darkness. And there was another creature, in addition to the dancing witch. Standing behind the investigator, it was closely following me, making secret signs to me as well as warning whistles when the dance reached such a pitch that I could fall off the chair…

Father Vladimir, Kostya, Arthur… None of them came to me for help. They were no longer memories but vague shadows of the past. I was no more trying to harmonize my stay on Earth with the idea of ​​justice and faith. I was plunging into darkness – as if a sinking mountain going into the sea.

Maybe I had dreamed of the priest with his grim story, the old house with a gabled roof, and all the adventures in it? Maybe those are just the jokes of God bored in heaven?..

My illusory support, which I found far away from home, my holy staff, which bloomed too early and could not stand the frost. Nothing will block those horrible sounds coming from everywhere, calling me crazy and dangerous, instilling unprecedented guilt, frightening me with retribution.

   My God, if my hot tears reach your feet, will you hear the crying of your daughter torn to pieces by demons?

Wasn’t I hopelessly exhausted by my life? Was Father Vladimir, a dream or a sweet reality, too good for me? He was married to Olga, a beautiful woman and had a son.

Kostya was too young. Everything is forgotten sooner or later. We both wrote letters saying that we that our love would never end… Everything ends except the dust on the fingers.

But did they really exist? Doubt procked me for the first time …

Suddenly, I heard a sybtle whisper, quiet as the voice of the Earth itself, «Attention!»

Someone standing behind Sergey Leonidovich raised his hand and made me listen.

Very respectable people sat right up at the table. Tthe most distinguished and well-dressed man in a long black robe was at the head. It was a trial, or not yet? Public renunciation of the church, and all kinds of nonsense came to my mind…

The authorities asked me carefully and gradually to understand and listen, to understand and sort out, to focus and concentrate since it was my life which was at stake. Sometimes fussily, sometimes slowly, the whole mountain of human hands, clean-shaven cheeks, fingers, colorful ties, and wide-open folders bustled, moved, rustled, and rattled like an army preparing to attack…

A quick man slipped out of the whole massp. All his parts were elongated: the chin, the nose, the hands, and the feet. He asked loudly to pay attention to the huge difference between an ordinary crime and a pre-prepared, carefully thought out one, made with particular cruelty and coldness. He flitted like a dragonfly, rustling with his greenish strands of hair spilled over his shoulders. The sharp tails of his coat waved when he turned around at the window, sliding, in order to fly back. When he reached the middle of the room, he looked at me doubtfully, analyzing something deep in his mind, his intelligent eyes glistening ruthlessly. For a while, it became very quiet.

Then they started screaming again. Everyone was talking in a rapturous ecstasy, applauding to the prosecutor’s skills. I saw different kinds of mouths moving: dry and brittle, like a pair of straws; sluggish and pale, like wet clay; bright and bustling like dancers’ feet…

There were very many people. When did the room become that large? I was looked at with horror and pity, with frank disgust and burning curiosity.

All of the hard facts of my involvement in the crimes were presented with new excruciating details, with endearing calmness and firm belief in the truth.

I had a great motive — revenge for the insult and accusations. I was a decayed, immoral person. I practiced vagrancy and was associated with the underworld. I even lost my son in the cards (at thosee words, the shocked audience gasped). All that was enough to throw me into a pit of snakes, but the prosecutor read on.

I wrote a crazy novel. My ring was found at the crime scene. All of my friends — my ex-husband, my friends and colleagues, just all of them confirmed that the defendant was able to commit a crime…

Unable to object (well, it was not required), I was sitting with my eyes closed — all my stamina had dried up…

I caught glimpses of familiar faces, all of them beinge dangerous witnesses. Their brilliant and firm strength broke the painful screen of my whole being, and squeezed out all my insides to the sleek and dirty floor. And everyone in the city considered it his or her duty to come up and spit into my heart…

  You will never come around. Nothing matterst as you are not here. And if you shout the way you did standing in the hill, I won’t hear. Nothing really matters since you’re not here …

‘Do you plead guilty?’

If my conscience was clean, would I get here? I’d lost my mind and come back to my ridiculous city to take revenge on it. Oh yeah, I remember sneaking up on it, when it was full of multi-colored lights, and cursing it for my exile…

However, my public execution was not enough for someone.

I had to sign papers confirming my madness to preserve and extend the most precious thing in the world — my life. After all, it was wiser and safer, given my my damaged psyche, to live in a hospital that would correspond to the nature of my disease, instead of driving the tough iron prison space into myself, which would flatten and turn into trash any living being.

I was invited to make the choice consciously, not under the influence of sudden impulses, not at all. But quickly.

The transparent creature was gesticulating frantically, begging me, but heard nothing. The dancing old woman, covering her ears and mouth with her bony hands, went deep into the forest along the trail strewn with rotting needles, squealing and dancing recklessly.

I didn’t understand the signs sent to me, and I didn’t try to make my actions and words correspond to reality or to simple common sense. As if If grazed with a knife, the reality flew in different directions…

I was given a glass of water. I eagerly jumped at him, gasping and sweating, greedily sucking the intoxicating water with a strange taste and elusive sediment at the bottom…

‘And… I’m sorry, we have been thinking whether it would be too cruel to tell you that, but this is our job. We were told that tomorrow, far from the city, poker players will be get together for three days. The players’ environment, as I have said, is Godless and therefore strongly connected with the crime. The three day match coincides with the showdowns of big criminal bosses — another division of the territory. Do you realize that this will take place there, in one place? Do you know that your son will be there?’

Water, vodka — ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! God, how ridiculous it all is! The rapid rotation of the flattened grey walls and floors, and the chairs, their legs aiming at the ceiling! The table caught in a vortex motion to help the chairs break through the top, carrying upward all the figures — dead and alive, with their passionate desire to hide me away — anywhere — even in hell; the huge letters on the paper, my hasty trembling signature, the wild and exuberant shout — ha-ha-ha!!!

Chapter 19. Mental hospital

  I woke up on a bed in a small room with subdued light. It was hard to turn my head to look around and see where I was. My neck was like a marble pillar, cold and motionless. However, it was not my hands that I felt the cold with (my hands were tied carefully) but with all my being. In the cell, I thought there could be no worse situation. Now I saw was wrong. I was in a mental hospital. It was even difficult for celebrities to get out of a place loke that, as far as I knew from numerous books and movies.

It was a place not a single prayer would be heard from. What does it mean — to realize? In my position? And how is it possible to describe this in a human language? I was insensible and frozen. I looked at myself as if from above — frozen in the ice.

Its translucent bluish thickness, I saw my sprawled body — a white shirt with long sleeves, with a paralyzed mouth and dull, wide open eyes…

Thinking existed, but separate from me. My thoughts swam to me across the toxic river Styx eerily slowly, as if from the other side. The river was safe for the dead, and destructive for the living. They crawled out of the water, climbed to my shore. They were withered and lifeless algae, whitish and hollow like dry and empty boxes of poppy seeds. They oppressed and deprived of sense all that had been dear and sacred to me…

I was no more scared of anything. Nothing was dear to me. Nothing…

  Let the light die. Let the darkness reign…

Time stood still. It was soft like felt and consisted of similar silently moving figures in white robes, white caps, with the same white odor. They were strange and looked like ghosts, replacing each other, moving back and forth, back and forth, from me and back to me.

A slim and obedient, faceless and voiceless column of figures of the same age, height, and even foot size. Sometimes I watched them, with difficulty, turning my head to one side as if someone else’s; that’s how old women look out of the windows at the children running down the street.

But even my frozen world had its own liberties, its own wild fun. I made all kinds of effort to bare my mouth, I bit my tongue to draw blood — as if it was a matter of life for me when someone else’s hands tried to wash my face and comb my hair. In the end, ​​an exception was made for my head and nobody else’s. I won a miserable, villus of self-will — but I won it. With this victory, there was an amazing thing — I began to distinguish sounds. The first word I heard was «Hairy». Straining, I remembered that it was a parasitic water worm looking like a hair. Reading in other people’s eyes disgust and even loathing, I, voluntarily or involuntarily, made my miserable existence easier. But in what way? Life was terrible and ruthless, God was merciless. I was a wanderer again, covered with dust, with unkempt hair, wild again. Life crunched beneath my feet, shattered like porcelain.  I was no more scared of anything. Nothing was dear to me. Nothing…

I was grass, waving in the wind. I was a root, silently grown together with the earth. I was, I was not. I was, I was not…


   Reader, please throw aside all shame and prejudice, as well as all of your assumptions about some strange parts of my story. They were written by reality itself, which is much more surprising than the most incredible imagination.

  While staying in the hospital, unable to write, I memorized the pattern of my thoughts, feelings and actions, thhe way that pattern was — bizarre, as if carved in a hurry, without a prior sketch…


  ‘Mother!’ I heard a faint and voice from somewhere fa away. ‘Mother!’

Tears were streaming down my cheeks. They were melting the ice in which my body was frozen, but the ice was too thick…  “How can you call me if you don’t exist”, I was whispering, my eyes closed.

‘Mother!’ my son was calling me. ‘Get up, mother! Help me!’

I made a superhuman exertion to free my head, and my hair remained under the ice. The silvery icy water crunched and crumbled, but I kept freeing myself from its power as my son was calling me, alive or dead.

I made many attempts to break out. During the time spent in the hospital, the numerous mind-numbing drugs had frozen me too deep. But my child was calling me…

‘Don’t hold me, water, please! Let me go’, I was whispering, imploring, insisting. ‘Please help me, dear ancient water!..’

‘Your son is dead’, the enslaving voice of the darkness was whispering. ‘It’s been a long time since he was shot far from the city. He lies under the rain streams, his arms outstretched. No one was buried. Close your eyes, and you will see him…’

‘No, no, just a minute! I have a strong and healthy body, it’s just a little limp. My son is alive, it is a live voice! Can’t I discern the call of my blood? Even centuries cannot weaken this connection!

Just a minute! Let me take a breath. My hands have let me down. They are tied so hard. They have gone white, and all my fingers feel numb.’

‘How can I pull you out, sonny, if I have no hands?’ I said, crying and looking at my lifeless, withered hands, entwined with faint veins in which not long ago crimson blood was flowing.

As if fulfilling the last wish, I was breathing hard on my dead hands, rubbing them against my cheeks and poured bitter tears over them. I had a lot of tears after having stayed in the water for such a long time, even more than there is in all the clouds!

‘My legs won’t let me down, sonny. I have strong legs. I need to caress my heart a bit as someone has stuck something sharp and gard into it. It OK though. The blade has made it even stronger. What is stronger than my heart, son? Hasn’t the unexpressible longing for Love made it wake up?’

‘What are you going to do?’ the Demon asked and bent over me, his ice-rich purple sparks shining. ‘You have nothing else. You’re broken physically and mentally, your breathing has stopped. What do you have?’

‘I have my child! He’s blessed by the eternity.’

‘He didn’t have time to gain strength, and your mind is clouded. Not a single spark of light reaches here. He won’t be able to go high as his wings are still weak.

  He won’t be able to fly up — I’ll catch him by the feet. I will catch his soft wings with one my claw so that Kali won’t even have time to intercept him. Your heart is not beating any more, your mouth is open and frozen, your voice is already in a different world. You’re dead.

  I have driven you inside, I have chopped off all the exits, I have bound your mind with iron chains, and sealed your mouth with hot wax. You’ll never get out of here — it’s time to believe it…’

‘He is getting stronger by hours, not even days. Poetized in the canvas of my memory, it has been blessed by Heaven. He is my soul and faith.’

Goddess Kali! That’s unbelievable! How come I’ve forgotten about her? She’s far in the sky as she is the air and my breath! Kali always says there is nothing to worry about, and there won’t be until my breath merges with hers…

 Your mouth is open and frozen, your voice is already in a different world. You’re dead.Dead…

The roaring and hissing sound, like a restless stream of water, was trying to cover my head and immerse me in the destructive fear.

‘Even if my breathing has stopped, the God of Death will not open the gates for me. He doesn’t let in those who love Kali — he is afraid of her. She will bite through your head like a man crush a wasp in his fingers.

‘There are no gods. Silence and impersonal energy are your gods. Your painted pictures, humanizing them are just ridiculous. But we, your demons, are real.’

His breath scorched my skin, and it caught fire. But in joyful intoxication, raising his tight rings impatiently, the Demon didn’t notice that the fire helped my mind, in which the liberation was alive…

What resurrected me? Maybe the Demon’s careless word that reminded me of Kali? I didn’t know.

‘Are you crying? My dear creature, my unfinished redemption, please fly to goddess Kali! Please fly with my blessing!

My hands let me down. What did they do to my hands? They smell so bad of rot and iodine, and they are so ugly. Well, I will lick them with my rough tongue the way animals lick their wounds. Look, I’m doing a good job! But no one took has ever taken my imagination away, right, son? The main thing is to restore the sight of the fire, with its bloody-yellow tongues, and let everything be ablaze. I will rise up out of it to my full height to be able to scream,

“Father Vladimir! Kali! Look, It has fluttered from my lips, and is already flying! I adjure it by the truth of love!’

“Do you hear that scream, sonny? No rush to the sky remains unanswered! You should bot think that it is similar to a mosquito squeak. It has an unimaginable force tht makes the earth swap with the moaning sky, stones fall on the the clouds, and the stones scream! You should not think that if the nurses and doctors don’t come running to see who’s screaming then there is no scream at all. The simple reason is that it is not addressed to them. It smoothly, on my order, wraps around the tables and the people in the hallways. Its purpose is the windows, the light, and the air! There, he will get stronger and pierce people like burning stars! This is my cry! Just imagine, son: it has already reached Father Vladimir, who always catches the secret message, because he worked so much time in the church. Oh, you don’t know how strong Father Vladimir is! You don’t know about his strength and beauty! His candle is burning so bright!

It is necessary to be patient just a little bit… My left hand has moved slightly. Well, I still cannot hear the noise of boiling blood, as if my hand were coming to life again. I can stretch it to you into the well, my son. My hand is strong, it can even carry a few kids.”

  I knew what it meabt to wade through the woods. But it was an endless and convulsive pain to wade from the world full of unprecedented peace, the really existing though eluding the live and hot strength of our sun. Not this door, I promised myself that I would only open it after I die. But am I not dead?

I did my best to keep rowing. I choked in the glowing water, but the wave brought me here, only here. Death memory, and no prayer to protect you from it. The last door…

“Is there anything more awful than what exists in the present?”

“Only what was in the past”.

But why was I so much afraid of this? It’s dry and warm here, and it smells of mothballs and yellow lace, cherry curtains and jelly, books, fairy tales, and horror… A room with a boarded up balcony, tightly closed curtains, and artificial lighting. There is a child’s diary on the floor, among the thousands of gloomy drawings. Vera, you really don’t want to know this, because this has never happened before — never, right? Didn’t you die a long time ago? After all, the only thing what you are afraid of is to open your death certificate.

There is nothing more to be afraid of. Opent and read it.

«Today is March. I’m guilty: I was ten minutes after school. Mother punished me again, so it will be long before I go to school again. Doctors have found a serious disease in my heart, and whenever Mother asks them, they allow me to stay at home. Aunt Shura, Mother’s friend, is head of the health center. I sit at home all day.

Mother doesn’t allow me to turn on the light. She is in the kitchen, and I am lying on a bed, covered with a blanket. It’s only seven o’clock in the evening. If I move, I will be beaten. But that’s OK. It would be worse if Mother would not talk to me. I would go crazy.»

«The wall in the pantry is very thin. I can hear everything that goes on in the neighbors’ apartment. The TV is showing a fairy tale, and I can almost distinguish the words. I only need a little patience. For some reason, Mother stopped all the clocks in the house. Why did she do it? She says that I’m guilty, but no matter what I do, I’ll still be guilty.»

«I’ve learned how go into dreams. Mother doesn’t love me for not trying hard. Every day, the same thing repeats: quite a harmless conversation begins, such as what I was doing in her absence, but it ends in a terrible cry, beating, tears, and tantrums. And what is quite trange: Mother comes after school completely exhausted, and after beating me, she cheers up, and even pities me. I have plenty of books and sweet rolls. There is always a three-liter jar of jelly on the table.

I just can’t go out. But I’ve learned to go into dreams…»

«Simply have patience, Vera. It will end some day. It can’t last forever. You will grow up, become an adult, and break away from here. And never come back. You will never come back here…

I lay all night on the floor in the hallway. I pretended to be unconscious. Mother was always scared when I was very sick. When I was sick, she was scared and she loved me. How I wanted her to run her hand through my hair! What would I give for it? I’d give my life!

But she went to the bathroom at night and calmly stepped over me, while I was lying on the floor. Then she kicked me a few times. Mother, mother, I cried with my eyes closed. I had no way out».

«Today, Mother forgot to lock the door when she was hurrying to the store. I opened the door and peered out cautiously to the stairs. Oh, I will be punished! Carefully, I went out, went a few steps down, and peeped out. The sun was shining. My eyes hurt because they were were unaccustomed to the sunshine. In the courtyard, girls were playing Clip. If I came out to them, what would I do with my hands? I mean they had to be busy with something… How would the girls look at me?

I will never go out into the yard. If Mother finds out that I looked out, she will not talk to me for days again. And she will turn off the lights once again».

«I confuse dreams and non-dreams. I don’t want to wake up into this life. In the dream, I began to have girlfriends, and I even grew up and got married. Now I’m glad when it’s dark. My body has adapted to sleep for long hours. I sleep even during the day, but the dreams can’t compensate for the emptiness I feel after Mother’s tantrums.

I’ve lost hope for her love. The only thing that can give me my mother back is my disease. But I have weakened so much that I’m almost all the time in bed. I began to choke. Someday, this coughing will break my lungs. My mother is kinder now, but I don’t care anymore. For some reason, she always tries to wrap my head up in a black woolen scarf, which makes my hair sweaty. I’ll never be able to break away from here. This is a strange heart disease that Mother discovered after Father’s death. But my heart has never hurt. This is not true».

Dreams don’t save me anymore. I see the same dream now: I forgot to lock the door, and someone pushed it carefully. I have no time to run up and slide the latch… But it’s Mother who comes in. I exclaim something joyfully and rush to her… But her features get distorted and blurred, and I can see the worst face in the world. Save me!»

«She hit me on the back thirty times. I just counted, because it always makes the pain not so strong. I noticed that when you count the blows, there is almost no pain. A wound festered on my hand, when Mother jabbed a fork into it in exasperation. If I’m going to scream, the most terrible thing will happen. It is such an inexpressible horror, it is alive and black, and it choles me at night. Mommy, dear, I’m ready to kneel and not to look you in your eyes if you don’t like it. I know what to do to please you: I should only speak in a whisper, not open the curtains, not turn on the lights and the radio, not rustle with the pages, not squeak with a pencil, not make noise, and never cry. And most importantly — I should never call for help when you’re beating me… I promise you to become invisible and noiseless, just like my doll Tanya, as you always ask me.

But please, Mummy dear, don’t be silent, speak to me! Please speak to me! Please speak to me!..»

«My class teacher, Nina Alexandrovna, came over. She brought a cake and asked sympathetically how I was feeling. Mother stood behind her, without taking her eyes off me. Her brows were knitted, and it didn’t bode well. But in the conversation, Mother was unrecognizable. She was affectionate, and assured the teacher that I was doing my homework diligently, and everything was under control, because she was also a teacher. When Nina Alexandrovna was going to leave, I grabbed her hand, and she looked at me with surprise. At that time Mother was looking at us again, so I looked down. I had been hoping and waiting for that visit so much as it for a miracle. I was sure that Nina Alexandrovna would and come to the rescue.

I can no longer endure your silence, Mother. Better kill me. Or die yourself».

When my mother died, I was seventeen years old. Here is my last letter to her,

«Dear Mother, You keep visting me in my dreams, and that scares me. Don’t do that, please. I don’t need you jn my dreams. You used to scare me when you were alive, and you keep scaring me after you died. Please leave me alone. Don’t use my energy. Go to heaven, far away from me, where the souls are supposed to go after purification.

You started frightening me when I was a child, and you kept scarring me during your whole life in order to make me obedient and comfortable like a toy. I forgive you.

You mad me feel guilty. You were unable to love me because you were unable to love yourself, but I forgive you.

You lived on my energy. I wish you had broken me completely instead of letting me live with this huge inferiority complex and permanent feeling of danger. I will never be happy, but I will always pretend that I am.

I wanted you to die, and I will never be able to escape from this. I wanted to get rid of destruction, fear and hatred that you evoked in me. I am sorry. I cannot love you, but I can forgive you.I don’t want to meet with you in heaven and in the other life. Let ages pass before I call you agan, “Mother!”

Now I understand that Mother was sick. She lived in an imaginable world, sharing all her awful fears and fantasies with me. Who was I for her?

At times her mind brightened, and she saw a helpless little girl before her, who had nobody but her mother. She showered me with kisses passionately, read stories aloud to me, and even smiled. But it didn’t last long and was followed by a period of severe, prolonged depression, where I was an enemy, an obstacle, a creepy creature, whom she both feared and tried to destroy. Her tightly closed lips and furrowed eyebrows evoked a constant feeling of guilt in me.

The strange thing was that it never occurred to the neighbors, school teachers, inspectors for the protection of children, whose organization was near our house, why the girl stayed at home for months, never even going out go for a walk. I was like in a maniac’s captivity, but no one was looking for me, nobody cared…

I closed the door gently. That’s all. The energy pulsating behind it calmed down, devoid of soul. I came face-to-face with my past, which made me wake up scared and devastated…

Generosity is stronger than death. Who knows it will never die. Mother, I love you, and I will always love you.

But now my son is waiting for me. He and I have broken up in teo halves of a fragile shell. While I’m talking about, he’s alive…


Arthur’s parents promised that the book will be filmed. Remember, Alyosha, you always dreamt of acting in a movie? It was Tarantino who promised this, and he always keeps his promises. We’ll fly by plane, it will be a great journey. I’ll buy you a white shirt. You know, there’s such an expensive crisp linen, we will definitely buy it.

My other hand rises, although you didn’t believe it. We need only a little patience. There are times, which are quite unknown to us, when we have to lie low and wait it out.

Even in this position, I resurrect with such power and brightness which I never had before, in my regular previous life. This goddess Kali, you know, son, and even though this is a small part of the truth — she has raised me to fight, and she has ignited me and put me on fire. Such a display of feelings, such a revival of courage one can only dream of. They promise a lot of undiscovered adventures and pleasures.

Her whisper is terrible, her words are lethal. She inhures, and she makes incurable wounds. But the purpose of her attack is to give life. Sometimes, one has to die to soar with new vigor. We are always just a pathetic copy of our parents’ lives. We rot alive in this dead swamp of our habits. The swamp is soft and spicy, and even death is not capable of pulling us out of it.

There is a time of resurrection, and it looks like a resounding cry in the night clouds…

Even God will never weaken the Demon as the latter returns the primordial delight and admiration of life, or, blowing into the sky gleefully, heralds a new death.

One doesn’t dream of such friends when one is young. One doesn’t expect to have such friends in adulthood either, to say nothing of the old age! And even in heaven, before life, countless souls are not quite sure if they are going to have such an ally on the Earth.

Now that some covers are dropped , all the secrets are half open, the master keys are ringing and turning in the locks, now that there is no need to turn out and torment the soul, the door is about to swing open. Do you hear someone walking?

For the last spurt from the eternity, I needed a special power, the power of another world… I lost so much of it when I was breaking the last link with the past that all the rays of the black sun just disappeared. The main thing is not stop recognizing faces…

And as soon as I remembered the thin-legged satire, he just barely arose in my mind, his flesh trembling with impatience. It was the same godless satire who, writhing voluptuously, beckoned me out of the bushes, thrust forward his naked belly belligerently. And here he is! His nostrils and his short, shiny beaver-like wool are quivering, and his hooves are rapping impatiently. Let him embrace my body impulsively, and let this wild untamed power bubble and burst in me! Earth and rotten leaves have adhered to his tight hooves, his wool exudes the smell of sublunary dampness. Oh-oh-oh, what a prickly beard this fantastic animal has! My God, what wild honey have made my breasts bulk up! What shimmering heat has filled my stomach and thighs!

A large amount of empty space is not so easy to fill… I’m ready to build a queue of all the immoral imps. Let them twitch their lusty little bodies invitingly, let their pink skin burst like over-ripe plums and and a tart juice splash. Father Vladimir will pray for my salvation. He promised to discourage them for ever from the temptation to visit me at the full moon…

But now, for my lacerated soul and flesh, for my son dying from harmful addiction, for my creation emerging as a bright light, it is a bundle of straw thrown in an extinct fire.

But enough of that! I am a luxurious blooming bouquet, a rich gold placer, a plentiful harvest of wheat. I have pulled this mischievous creature out like a cork from a bottle, and thrown it far away, into the thick jungle. Juicy fruit and big drops have showered from the wild pear-trees like wet giblets.

Father Vladimir, you told to me, «In a difficult moment, don’t shy away the satyrs clinging like thorns. They cross the borders of the worlds easily and silently, their power excites and even raises the dead. It differs from the curse, and there are special prayers and ancient charms against it.

Do we know beforehand all the subsequent events? Do I have the right to demand, from even the most righteous priest, that he performs his oath or promise?

Let happen whatever happens. I will tear on myself the white shirt on a full moon, and rush barefoot on the dew to the farway grass!

I accept myself — good for nothing, weak and sinful, sometimes even cowardly! Can one save anyone if one doesn’t love oneself?

It was the last thought in that abode of evil smelling of iodine. Just when I got up from the bed, an invisible remote control turned on, and my son and Father Vladimir rushed in through the open door noisily.

Chapter 20. Freedom

  Freedom! Exclamations, screams, all my dreams come true! My son is alive, and Volodya is here. Kostya, Arthur, Vladimir Sergeyevich with Eleanor, and even Ariadna were waiting for me outside the hospital building. Ariadna was wiping her tears with a handkerchief, and sobbing. Arthur was jumping, knocking me off my feet. Now I, just like he some time ago, had weak legs and was almost lying in Volodya’s arms.

Alyosha was pale, his cheeks sunken, he had only recently been released from the prison. I kept touching him to make sure he was still alive. Nobody was too excited to stand still, everybody was pushing each other excitedly, talking and laughing. Kostya stood aside, looking at me very seriously.

It was an incredibly magical scene, darkened only by the presence of numerous journalists who had gathered from around the world. What happened? Why are there so many people on the street? How did I manage to escape?

‘Vera, Vera’, not paying any attention to anyone, Volodya whispered to me, kissing me wherever he wanted — my hair, face and hands. ‘Please stop crying…’ But he kept crying, carrying me in his arms, hugging me tightly. I buried myself in his chest, breathing in the dear smell, touching the rough fabric — it was all real, quite real. It was not a dream.

But I fell in a dream anyway. It was a result of staying in the hospital and all kinds of medications that had been poured into me. I woke up at home in my own bed. Volodya was sleeping next to me, on the couch, someone was fussing in the kitchen, water was murmuring, the pots were banging. I was looking at the dear face eagerly. My God, how precious it was to me!

‘What?’ my beloved said after he woke up. ‘What did you say?’

‘I said, I said…’ I muttered, melting away blissfully and holding my hands to him. He was the only curative medication able to revive me. My dear, my dear, my infinitely desired man…

Alyosha came out of the kitchen, solemnly carrying a steaming, fragrant dish — lamb with vegetables.

‘No appointments for toy’, Father Vladimir said strictly, and I recognized in him as something I had seen long ago, the thunderous glow of the man standing on the mountain. ‘All of them are trying to get in. No guests! Alexey, please go out and explain. Tomorrow, in a pinch, the day after tomorrow. But I feel that Arthur is ready to slip through the wall…’

How come all of them had been absent? That’s impossible…

But what had happened could have never been expected: Volodya had found his mother and stayed with her ​​for a few days until her death; Arthur’s family and Kostya had been on the other side of the globe; Alyosha, like me, had been kept in a cell all that time…

But space and time are sometimes powerless, and it is a truly amazing strength — when there is a relationship between people…

Oh-oh-oh! What unspent tenderness I guessed in my man’s every involuntary movement. I was like among thousands of white doves cooing! His words weresoft and fluffy, they enveloped me warmly. I buried my head in that warmth, squeezing out the last tentacles of fear.

‘Mom, your essay about the cards and having lost me in the cards, was incredible!’ Alyosha said, amazed. ‘Just unbelievable! How did you come up with it?’

‘But did you believe that?’ I asked cheerfully. ‘Did you?’

So it was that lie that saved my child. The investigators had no idea what to do with him. On the one hand, I was the only person who knew about Pavel Sedov. His father did everything he could to save him. I was sent to a mental hospital, but what to do with my son? Was there a firm guarantee that I didn’t tell him about the real killer?

If Alyosha had acted more resolutely in the investigation and had taken a firm stand, it would have cost him his life. We all know how it happens — suicide in the pre-trial detention, or heart failure. In this case, in view of his young age, the former would have happened. But the fact that I had lost him in the cards had embarrassed my son greatly. He was, if I can put it so, under the protection of the law engorcement authorities. They demanded evidence against me, showed him my ring and the bloody clothes, try to convince him that I had confessed. My son’s kife was hanging by a thread…

‘I have dreamed of a strangely looking woman. She asked me to pretend to the investigator that I believed in your madness. But she prohibited strictly to sign anything associated with me personally’, Alyosha said.

They had put forward all kinds of charges against him related to the casino. The spider seemed to be looking for the way to hold him tight. It had tied him firmly by the network, and pulled him laboriosly to himself…

‘It was sort of a miracle’, Vladimir said, not ceasing to embrace me. At the confessions, I once heard about a crazy old woman dancing on the squares. First I didn’t believe it as it had been ages; if my mother didn’t lie in the grave, she certainly could not dance. But I did go to the city that had been mentioned to find out the truth…’

They hurried and spoke both at the same time, interrupting each other. I was looking at them, and I could not see enough of them; I was breathing them, and I could not get enough of that… I was ready to listen to them day and night — Volodya and my son.

‘I spent three days in that city, sending letters to you and having no idea that something bad was happening. You didn’t take my calls. Anticipating a close encounter with my mother with all my heart, her possibly imminent death, I was in a hurry, and I could not imagine that you would be in trouble in my absence! Then two old ladies came and said that yes, indeed, an insane old woman used to dance in the marketplace in their town a few years ago. Then she disappeared, but someone had recently confirmed that he had seen her in a nursing home. It was somewhere nearby, but no one knew where exactly. Prior to that, she had often been seen in a church, where she used to remove the extinct candles, clean the floors, and pray…’

Father Vladimir, I identified that town as a starting point and began to methodically examine all the towns around, just as I had done.

‘Every day I thought of you in that journey. You became as dear to me as never before’, he said. ‘Although having lost my mother in my youth, I had also left the city, it had been so long ago, and quite different. I became a wanderer, a stranger covered with dust. But I sent you letters from every place I visited, telling you about my every step.

‘I found her, just as yuo had found me…

‘I remember walking, no, flying, running, stumbling along the corridor of the hospital, hurrying to put a white robe on the run. The doctor was following me, also running. He was shouting something, trying to dissuade or warn me, but I didn’t understand a single word. When I reached the ward, I stopped as if abashed. I stood there like a kid. I felt I was a boy waiting for my Mom near the closed door of the school, where she worked as teacher. I was sweating, my heart was pounding, there wass a strange mixture of feelings in my mind: fear, joy, confusion. I pulled the door gently and entered…

‘My mother was quite different, I didn’t recognize her first. She looked much older, her face was stern and aloof, as if she no longer belonged to this world. She was very pale, but it was not the usual paleness. It was a touch of death, which I saw clearly. She had short hair, and she looked like a grey-haired child. My heart sank. Would she alienate me as before? There was  a kind of frozen solitude in her eyes. Standing at the door, I was eagerly looking at her, and I could not move as if my feet were frozen. Her face was turned to the window, but she was looking inward. She didn’t see the door open.

‘I walked up to her slowly, sat down on a chair, and took her hand gently. It was almost weightless and lifeless, as if made of wax. The fingers were cold like ice, and I covered them with my hand. She was unconscious…

‘The doctors said that she was dying. Well, that was obvious. She was breathing heavily and unevenly, and every breath could be the last one.

‘My nerves were strained to the limit. Oh, how I madly wanted to say goodbye to her, in the way that only living beings can… I suddenly remembered her threadbare coat, which she was wearing when she was trying persistently to talk to me… My tears fell directly on my mother’s hands…

‘Suddenly she opened her eyes, barely turned her head and looked at me. For a long time her eyes remained fixed, shimmering like indescribably hot lights.

“Volodya…” suddenly she said quietly, as if waking up from a long night of darkness.

‘I could not speak. Pressing her hands to my face, hiding in them, I cried like a little boy.

«You have… grown up.» It was hard for her to speak. She stayed silent for a long time and was just looking at me. I looked at her through my wet fingers. If there is love in the form of light, it was that light her eyes and wrinkles were irradiating. «I’ve had such bad dreams about you…»

«It’s just dreams, mother. All is well. You’re a little sick, but you’re recovering. Please go to sleep. You need to gain strength», I murmured, stroking her hair and kissing her eyes.

“Let’s go to the circus, OK? I will buy… ice cream to you. But a bit later… Your teacher is calling you… You need to leave soon…”

‘I nodded; tears choked and twisted my throat. What did my mother see? It didn’t matter though. She recognized me!

‘I saw her eyes glaze over, as if that memory flash had taken away the last days or hours allotted to it on the Earth. She soon fell into oblivion, and started mumbling something incoherent. It lasted long, and then her breathing stopped…

‘I buried her in a local cemetery, cleaned the grave lovingly, and sat on the bench for a long time. And then I felt kind of a hit from inside: I remembered my mother’ last words, and I suddenly understood their meaning. Vera was the teacherand she was in danger, calling me! I jumped up and ran to the road like crazy…

‘Remember I told you about a powerful man who had taken a warm interest in my life? He had treated me like a son. One phone call was enough to attract attention of Russian and international media to your name. The world’s attention is something truly great as it opens any doors.

The most terrible evil turns at times into something very good. The incredible hype around my name resulted in a dizzying success of my book, because it was mentioned at the awful court proceedings, written about in the newspapers, and announced in the TV news, as «an outstanding manuscript». Compulsive gambling is a very important topic. Russian and foreign publishers offered me cooperation on any terms. Many insisted on a different title, such as «Confessions of a Russian Sinner», «Murderer», or «Mysterious Manuscript».

That’s how I, an unknown woman, became in the blink of an eye the most discussed person not only in our city, but also far abroad. I was even offered a role in a film based on my book.

The newspaper headlines hit the eye: «Vera, a murderer of young children?», «Angel and Demon», «The Poor Little Orphan Meets her Prince», «Casino Queen».

“What was your most difficult test? Hysterically and excitedly journalists were asking me. Was it the prison or the mental hospital?”

I didn’t consider it to be something hard any longer. In prosperous times, I was choosing one of the two options: going out, or writing the book. Perhaps, the latter one was the most difficult test, which I didn’t even guess at that time…

Stepping over the threshold was the most overwhelming thing, while creating the redmption for Kali was the hardest. The process itself made me feel awful anguish and seemed to be sheer violence. It was like offering up a sacrifice. More than that, it was a kind of renunciation of myself, though temporary, in the name of creating a world of people and events, thoughts and feelings, which only existed deep in my heart.

Creation of the world is a similar eternal victim of the Universe.

Rumors leaked to the press that my beloved, Father Vladimir, began divorce proceedings, which was unheard of for a priest. Olga hired a private detective who gathered compromising materials for the court against her husband. She was absolute furious, and it seemed that nothing would stop her. She was ready to kill herself, her son, and the whole world, but she failed to get any evidence of her husband’s infidelity. The detective was dishonest, and sold all the details of a famous magazine.

Vladimir was very upset by all these events, which threatened by the deprivation of the ecclesiastical dignity. It was a real persecution. All those hating his former patron, who at that point was no longer alive, attacked him. Bell ringing was all over Russia, the whole country mourned the death of the greatest man…

We were sure that Volodya would be deprived of all that was so dear to him. But it didn’t happen. Why? Every day had a lot of stress for us — what was going to happen? His heart could not stand it and stopped beating. I was nearby and reacted quickly. We were lucky, the ambulance was driving by, and the doctors, started his heart again in a few minutes. Volodya spent three months in the hospital. The doctors didn’t hide the fact that there was no chance as his heart had exploded like apricot slices, and there was no chance to survive in a situation like that. I spent all the nights there, not leaving him alone for a minute.

He was my life and my love. I will make you part of my breath and blood, and there will be no space for death. We had a long, long way to go before we could be together at last …

In spite of the medical forecasts and the gossip that it was retribution for the sins, my beloved’s heart recovered. The doctors were shocked, and just shrugged.

  Will God take away something without which it is impossible to live?

When Volodya was released from the hospital, it was winter and snowing. Gaunt and pale, he was leaning on me heavily. His huge eyes looked bright and stubborn, and there were dark half-circles around them. His skin glowed was whiter and brighter than the snow. I clung to his beloved beard sprinkled with snowflakes. He soaked up the fresh, frosty air eagerly, staring at the sky.

‘Everything will be good’, I was whispering, touching him and wondering, ‘How exhausted you are! How beautiful you are!..’

Olga suddenly changed her tactics and gave permission for divorce. I was surprised to know that it was thanks to Vladimir Sergeyevich, Arthur’s father, who he gave her his mansion with a park and garden. They had long lived in Moscow as a family.

That redemption was really important. Olga agreed quickly, until he changed his mind, and even allowed to meet with the son. We were free!

The media covered easch and every detail of the divorce.

The city changed the mayor. The new mayor wanted to show what an awfully criminal city he took under his wing, and made ​​a show trial, with the involvement of all media. More bureaucratic heads were cut off, a lot of people were cast to prison, and the investigation lasted for about two years.

The angry people crowded up again. The horrified and triumphant crowd swayed and hooted. The idea of ​​retribution pushed everybody out of their warm houses, uniting people as in the days of a holy war.

I remembered that they had rallied against me, wishing with all their hearts to see a more sinful and despicable person in order to spit in her eye. And they had rejoiced, feeling more significant…

Vasily Sedov — humiliated, angry and grown grey, sat on the wooden bench behind bars. I got goose bumps when he and I looked at each otherin the court room. But his desperate fight for Pavel, his son nobody loved, the «weakling» constantly made ​​fun of, was worthy of the highest respect.

Pavel and his mother had fled from the city during my arest and melted on the roads of the huge country. Vasily Sedov, who knew all about the murders in great detail, tried to take the blame. This was unheard of and unexplainable as he was deliberately drowning himself and driving himself into a hole. But he could not mislead the experts who arrived from Moscow. They were real dogs, who felt the game even through the ground. Pavel’s blood mixed up with the blood of the victims, and nothing could be done with that. Sedov went to prison for the aggregate of all crimes: underground gambling, tax evasion, illegal confiscation of apartments, and more. He had a premonition that he would not be able to help his son. Pavel was put on in the all-Russian wanted list, and no one had any doubt that he would soon be caught. The prosecutor who had covered his vicious activities was also imprisoned.

I had bizarre feelings me when I testified against Sergey Leonidovich. His fate was entirely in my hands, so what stopped me? One cannot know the inside of a man’s mind. You won’t open all the doors even if you have lived a whole life.

On the one hand, I was kind of grateful to him for my novel, as he had read it and showed it to specialists which was not his direct job. And although he had done it to smear my name, what difference did it make if my novel did become known?

Squinting unkindly, I was trying to blanch my enemy, making almost a hero out of him, while he was looking at me with undisguised fear and hatred. Frankly, I enjoyed those confrontations. I don’t think I would have had the same fun if I had seen the investigator behind bars.

Still, he was expelled from the police. He got laid off and had to retire. He currently works at the zoo, selling tickets. For some time (my God — just a small period of time), I fell in love with that part of our city, and found in it some kind of consolation, and more — succulent shoots of peace. Meeting my former «friend», I would smile graciously and ask him about his health,

‘How are you, Sergey Leonidovich? No bad dreams? Nothing scary?’

Oh, human soul…’

My ex-torturer’s shoulders would tremble, his face would become grey, he would choke, and he would seem to be dying. I would sigh cheerfully, turn my head, slam him on the shoulder and say, «See you soon! See you, my friend!» After that, I would go away quickly. God forbid Volodya would know…

Strange thing — disasters broke in our city. There were deepening cracks in the earth. On a full moon, hairy satyrs used to crawl out of them, as well as exhausted female wanderers, voluptuous young men, and animated slot machines. All that terrible horde would spread through the city and hide in dark crevices. Their pale mouths would tchick, frightening lonely passers-by. They would jump onto the roadway and block the traffic. Old people told me that they sometimes saw old women wandering around the town and dancing on the go; many of them had eerie blue hands and necklaces of skulls…

  Maybe my black hole, consecrated by creative thought, let out its demons?

As nothing like that has ever happened in our city, I was surprised and thought: can it be that most of the people have most of consciousness? Maybe that’s good, otherwise the Earth would not stand the monsters set free by every human being?

Volodya and I settled down in a small village near Zadonsk. It was an absolutely quiet place, surrounded by a pine forest. Our wedding was almost a secret, even our children didn’t know about it. We were afraid of more noise.

Before the wedding, something amazing happened, but just for me. A local woman, vigorous, with rosy cheeks, told me about the existence of a secret lake.

‘It is located almost at the end of the forest’, she said enthusiastically, her slanted eyes playing. ‘There are ruins of an ancient church there. The lake was blessed by St. Tikhon, in his earthly life. It is feminine and has a lunar nature. If you plunge into it, you wash all the memories of your ex-boyfriends off your body and soul. Tikhon himself called it the Venus lake, because it was she, Venus, who had the divine ability to regain virginity after every night with a man.

Tikhon had a wife, Evdokia, whom he loved very much. She cheated on him and regretted greatly, but was not forgiven. So she went to the monastery and died early. As the years passed, there were a lot of people coming to the priest. He had spent days and nights in prayer and was able to heal. That’s why he was called Tikhon the Healer. No one knows how the lake appeared, but it bore the memory of Evdokia. Tikhon died on the bank of the lake. Before his death, he said that the roads of love were unknown. «I never loved her. I appreciated her not more than a tree leaf on a tree. Now she is not alive, and I am ready to sacrifice the whole world for a momentary meeting».

‘You will see yourself that the water is unusually clean, as if it had just been blessed. They say it is better to go to the lake in the full moon, along the grass strewn with dew. If you have only one beloved man’, the woman added.

I was listening, fascinated. The unintentionally dropped words, like blissful sounds of dark-skinned sirens, were offering freedom… After that, I was contemplatong in a sweet slumber, looking at the sky, and, in the long run, made up my mind to go. But suddenly, I woke up and decided not to go. Why should I? Let everything that had happened to me remain as it was.

I said nothing to Volodya …

Frankly speaking, I often called him Father Vladimir to myself. Why? Maybe because I had never uttered those words before — I had no father.

I even asked for the moon not to look in our windows in our wedding night. The gods are jealous and vindictive when they see a human feeling that glitters more brightly than a star.

Oh, how our fingers intertwined in the morning when we poured tea for each other. Everything inspired sensuality, including the convex windows, the walls, and even the lamp. I dreamed of a cluster of cranberries. It is neither scarlet nor red, and not bitter either. It is inconceivably transparent, luminous and sad…

It was like a strange inspiration — to see my husband off by rising on tiptoe, be kissed hundreds of times, counting the minutes in the evening to wait for his coming back. Every day was a saturated silence, in a single sensation of the world. The past was redeemed by the even and soft light of love.

In the evening we used to go to the woods. I loved him, my Volodya, too much to be able to look around. I would listen to his footsteps, the gentle light and the rustling of cloth around his feet, the sound of his voice.

There was a feeling that Gods were coming down in the sacred silence from the precious blue sky, dissolving in the young cones, the birches, the resin, and colors. Otherwise, why did the smells, the touches, the whole iridescence triple wonderfully and increase tenfold? Without the intervention of eternity, that would have been impossible. All I saw in my dreams was real — the earth floating away under your feet, and the incredibly ringing and singing air.

You won’t regret, my dear, that I am here by your side.

It was dusk under the tops of the huge pine trees; a polychord choir sounded and shook. It was the ringing of the rain, the noise of the falling cones, the chirping crickets, the swaying branches, brushing their pine needles. It was just crazy — to throw my head back and be kissed near each tree.

My dear husband — I had never said that before. I was so terribly, madly happy!

When I was alone at home, I would take his shirts from the closet, the white and the black ones, wash and iron them, and hang back in the closet. Then I would come up again and open the cabinet door, embrace the cloth reverently, and laugh before closing the cabinet. I would try to wipe off the dust from his table, and would die down with a cloth in confusion: the dust seemed smoky violet, hyacinth, untouchable, and smelling of him…

«Volodya, Volodya» — the rooms were strewn with these dry crunching sounds, blossoming underfoot… Well, if I don’t start doing something right away, I will be torn by the sweet warmth, your name, and all the radiance!

All in sprays of love, I plunged into the books. I wanted to write fairy tales, novels, whatever; the main thing was distraction. In the woods that surrounded our house were plenty of topics. It was enough to see a large blue flower and look under it to start writing and keep doing it for as long as I could.

The purpose to which Kali had forced me to come to was mine. Falling asleep, I thought about how lucky I was to see Volodya and a white sheet of paper. In my dream, a new fairytale world would grow. The secret of youth is our endless redeptions. They make our lives many years longer, because Kali is the goddess of Time.

I used to wake up early, and I always saw my husband’s happy eyes as he was waiting for my awakening.

We were often visited by Sasha, Volodya’s son, and Arthur with his parents. Vladimir Sergeyevich’s dream came true: in the distant sands, almost on the edge of the earth, on the ruins of a stone, he had found what he had been looking for — the ancient writings of Atlantis. Thanks to that text, he published several books and put forward two revolutionary theories. He was invited to the TV to host a show about the disappeared civilizations. He didn’t joke as often as he used to, but it was perfectly offset by the sense of peace that his imposing figure was radiating. Eleanora acquired peace of mind, as though she had also found «her own writings». She even put on weight and learned to smile. Her son dealt with her image as they were now public persons.     Arthur didn’t change, he was just taller, even taller than I was. We used to go to the woods together, as before, but I didn’t have to carry him in a wheelchair: he would run ahead, jumping like a baby deer. Needless to say how eagerly he would ask me about my staying in prison, what I had seen, why Kali had been absent for so long, and where she was now. Although he never told me, I saw that he worried about Kali’s ability to play any kind of game. I gasped inwardly as it seemed to me for the first time that my stories had awakened his interest in gambling. Were we going to be always pursued by that infernal music? But Arthur assured me fervently that I was deeply mistaken. He had stopped playing computer games long ago, and was trying to write stories.

‘Please don’t think about me like that, Vera Nikolayevna’, he said. ‘Your memories aroused so many interesting thoughts in my mind. I think that the overseas Demon of gambling is more cunning and devious than the Russian one. His deft hook is hidden on the bottom of rivers so cleverly that any fish would take it for genuine grass. Because the godlessness with which our slot machines used to be adjusted resulted in divine help. There are so how many people disappointed in Russian casinos, both online and offline ones, that made them waste their money over and over again!

‘And remember, you told me about the mothers’ weeping? To make it fit, another parallel universe or earth formed, and I painted it. There is white night stretching to the horizon, and transparent tears ripen in the black flowers. Mom liked it…

‘I realized that in all things, even the most brutal ones, there is a secret order. Sometimes it’s impossibl to cope with some things, it is beyond human power. But in a difficult moment, higher powers always wake up, dormant within us, and come to the rescue. That’s the magic and mystery of our lives. Do you agree, Vera Nikolayevna?

And if one chooses life, one must do one’s best to make it perfect.’

Arthur was proud of me, and I saw it.

Alesha was fascinated with a new activity — he became my literary agent. It was with a joyful ease that he broke up with poker! No one expected it — neither I, nor even my son. It looked as if he kept trying to close up his inner wound and its terrifying effect with a kind of potion,  silence and hide it under a firm plaster bandage, but when it healed, and the bones healed correctly, the need for the supports disappeared. Or maybe it was poker that helped him free himself, because the real losing streak in poker was much longer than the last hope…

Alyosha would make contracts for the publication of my books abroad, signe the screenplays based on my novels. Then he began to take part in their preparation, and he he starred once or tweice. Arthur’s father didn’t disappoint, and the world-famous director came up with a great screenplay based on the book «Compulsive Gambling», and engaged my son in it as promised. Did Alyosha bring Zhenya? Was he with her? I didn’t know. It was his life, his destiny…

Then Alyosha suddenly called me and said that acting was great fun though very exhausting.

эI’ve outgrown my dream. To understand this, a couple of movies have been quite enough. But you don’t need to worry, Mom. I’ve realized what I really want — to become a therapist, a psychologist, to help people who suffer an addiction.

‘And you know what I understand? Everything in my life was sacred and perfect, because I was always and everywhere surrounded by no one but angels.’

Those were the best words in the world!

I helped Alyosha open a clinic in Moscow. It was a great place for the application of his energy. He finished a course in psychology, and plunged into the new activity. Of course, the fact that he had been a gambler and had been able to overcome the addiction, as well as my sensational novel, made the clinic fairly well known. There were many patients.

Today, I was suddenly surprised to find out that I had not seen my son for a long time and rarely thought about him, but it was necessary, it was lovely and bright for both of us. I let him go away like a grown bird from the nest. We don’t neeed to hold our adult children when we ourselves are miserable. I knew he would be OK, but not because the ransom was true. I believed in myself and in the simultaneity of what was going on.

Kali, I have never told you, blessed be thy name! You will never come or call me. But I have sent you a sign — I have painted you the way no one but me sees you. You will certainly see this picture…

Life is mysterious and unfathomable. And did I understand what kind of love I was writing about? What kind of love I had been looking for? Who was it I wanted to love? My son, Father, Vladimir, or maybe myself?

I used to rush through the blind labyrinth of my soul, breaking all the secret cobwebed doors boarded  with iron nails, gathering even subtle hints at my son;s freedom…

In everything that surrounded me and was passing by, I had seen a glow of love. The toothless mother dragging her missing son by the hand, a sneaking thief or a crying demon, in every burning, incurable wound in the heart filled with bitterness, in every temptation or sin that caould not be corrected, in all the passions and deceptions, fall and death, there had been nothing but love…

  Everything was so simple and so clear. I had needed love badly.

  Once we missed each other in the big city, but you found me among millions of people, when I stuck to the bus window. You had to run so long to avoid losing me! I remember your eyes and face. Everything, just everything belonged to no one but me.

People do their best and more, cringing and falling to any meanness. But the world would have long collapsed and died, all the springs of life fresh water would have dried up if all the incessant human attempts were not lit by love.

It can be different a strange and terrible, wild and absurd, timid like a dewdrop sliding down from a leaf. It is quiet and non-marking, or deafening and burning to the ground. It gives rise to several lives, and, without changing the smell, it comes closer and closer. Can’t you hear it? In clear, empty sky, it rips the air itself, and pours onto the ground with blue flowers and large white pearls.

  No one can deny love.

A few months later, Alyosha called and reported enthusiastically that the clinic was working, there were eight patients, five of them had fled in the first week, one was unreliable, the other two were holding.

‘We need specialists’, he said and sighed.

‘Geat!’ I said cheerfully, and suddenly clutched at my heart. I felt distinctly a tiny heartbeat. It was Volodya’s and my baby! I heard the bells the service ended. Hurriedly, with trembling hands, I put on my jacket and shoes, and ran out — to meet my husband…

1 Panshadisi

2 Ecclesiastes


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