It was a cold February night of crackling snow and exploding bonfire sparks. Pines poked accusing fingers at the star-spangled sky and the moaning wind carried the insane laughter of a wolf. The men standing around the fire rubbed their hands and stamped their feet, their breath trailing in clouds.
“All one could wish for on a night like this is a warm cabin, a glass of vodka and the soft body of a woman to hold onto,” one of them, a thickset man bundled in a sheepskin coat said.
“On a night like this one wishes the clocks could be turned back,” another man added.
“Well said, Vania. Turn the clocks back. But how far back?” the thickset man asked.
“How far? Different for each of us, I suppose. As for myself, I’d go back to my wedding day. Masha, bless her soul, was so pretty - plump and warm as a red apple baked in the oven. Yes, I’d give five, no, ten years of my life to see her again. Just as she was on that day: in a blue dress, a flowery scarf…Lost all her plumpness in the siege of Stalingrad, hardly more than a skeleton, starved to death…” his voice trailed into silence.
In the darkness an owl yawned a sleepy hoot and the wolf chortled again in the distance.
“And you, Alyosha, where’d you like to be? Where would your clock stop?” Vania enquired of the thickset man.
Alyosha breathed on his hands and huddled himself against the cold.
“1936, the best year ever. Harvest time. I took off my shirt and lay down on the hard stubble waiting for my mother. I remember it was hot and a breeze licked the sweat off my skin. The sunshine was shearing down between the gold stalks of wheat. Mother brought me a pot of stew, with chunks of meat and barley. And bread - thick rye that smelt of wood smoke. It was warm and sticky. There’s no better smell than the smell of fresh bread. And no better feeling than the pressure of a sickle handle in one’s hand - smooth, tight, like sculpted into the flesh. If I could, I’d go back to the fields and the harvest that year.”
The roaring fire leapt and ate up the logs. Snowflakes pirouetted in the air then fell into the flames with a hiss.
“And you, Doctor?” Vania addressed the third man with stooped shoulders and a face crinkled into crepe by the cold. His hands had the tendency to creep to the bridge of his nose as if to pull up non-existent spectacles.
“How far back would you go if you could? Supposing there was a machine, a machine that could take you back, what time would you choose?”
Doctor gazed intently into the flames, two bonfires reflecting in his myopic pupils. He lifted his chin. A shiver ran across his features rendering his likeable face suddenly hard.
“Back in Georgia, we had a saying: if the roof’s rotten, change it and you’ll save the house. If the rot settles on the walls - change houses,” he said.
The two other men exchanged puzzled glances.
“You forget we’re peasants, Doctor,” Vania said and prodded at the fire with a stick. “We think simple thoughts and speak simple words. We can’t follow your fancy talk.”
“I see you want a story, Vania. Very well. You´ll have a story, then.”
He shifted his feet, pulled up the collar of his coat and his hands went again to the bridge of the nose before dropping quietly to the sides like homing doves.
“I was born in Georgia. Beautiful Georgia - your mother, your father, your child. Your life. In summer, it is perfect. Goats’ cheese in Georgia is fresh and white, peaches so ripe they burst under your touch and Georgian wine goes straight to your head. What more can a man ask for?
“It happened more than fifty years ago in Gori. Summer had settled for good and we, boys, spent the days swimming in the river, eating apples and plums and lazing in the sun. Life was good in Gori back then.
“When you are 12 years old the world is free of suppositions and hypotheses. It is a real world with reals things with no place for uncertainty. There were three of us. Juri, the postmaster’s son, Joseph, or Black Joe as we called him, the son of the local cobbler and me. My father was a teacher, someone who, you could say, belonged to the elite because of his education.
“I remember Black Joe well, just as he was at that time: a mop of dark hair and a smirk permanently glued to his lips. His irises were so black that the colour seemed to leak into the whites, melting and nearly doubling the size of the pupils and something like a menace in his stare.
“Black Joe was ambitious and always craved attention. At school and outside he always had the right flattering words. But he was somewhat strange, false I´d say and we could sense that he didn’t really like us all that much. That we simply served his purpose and his handshake was not sincere.
“The three of us would meet in front of the post office every day and put together a few kopecks to buy raisins and nuts. Black Joe’s father was poor, and I never knew how he managed to get the daily contribution. But contribute he did, and his sweaty palms yielded the shiny coin grudgingly, as if parting with it produced a secret ache.
“Our route never varied. From the post office we´d go to the square, past the onion-domed church, across a grassy hillock to the river. We would stay on the bank the whole afternoon chatting, swimming, throwing mud bombs at each other. That day was not different - a hot lazy afternoon and apart from our shouting everything else was silent. The sun was slowly creeping down towards the horizon and we only had enough time for one last dip to wash off the dry blades of grass and blobs of mud before it got completely dark.
“Black Joe dove in first and Juri and I splashed in with laughter. I was a good swimmer - my father said I had to develop my body apart from developing my mind. One never knows, he said, what might come in handy. Time proved him right.
“Juri swam back to the bank and Black Joe had just reached the middle of the river. I could hear his tired breathing and his movements were getting slower. And all at once, he began flailing his arms, gasped for air, shrieked, flailed some more and then sank.
“On the bank, Juri was screaming. I knew I had to get to Joe, or he’d drown. I reached the spot where he’d disappeared in a few strokes. The surface of the water was unruffled. No sign of a struggle. No sign of Joe. I remembered what my father had said about rescuing a drowning man – “don’t panic, don’t lose your head.” So I concentrated. I was in charge.
“Joining the tips of my fingers and went right to the bottom. The river was greyish-green with slimy plants grabbing at me. On the shaly bed, I spotted a shape, like a felled tree trunk. It was Joe. Kicking my feet once more, I got down. I put my arms around his waist and pulled him to the surface.
“He was not moving, the curly mop of hair was plastered over his eyes. Just behind me I could hear the water splash - Juri was swimming towards us. Together we struggled to the shore. Joe was not breathing and a dead weight in our arms. His face and lips were blue - the colour of the blueberry jam I used to have for breakfast.
“I took a deep breath and blew it into Joe’s mouth. Juri massaged his heart but there was no sign of life. We kept working on him, but I had to fight back revulsion. It was as if I were kissing a corpse - unfeeling and cold.
“He’s dead,” Juri said.
For a fleeting moment I wanted to give up, to leave the thing in front of us that didn’t seem to be Joe anymore. I lifted my face and as I saw that the sun weas nearly gone. A searing flash of shame shot through me and I realised that couldn’t stop now, I had to try harder.
“I smashed my fist on Joe’s heart. He convulsed. A jet water spurted out of his mouth and his eyelids fluttered. Juri and I resumed - pumping air into his lungs, rubbing his limbs, pressing on his stomach. Black Joe opened his eyes - the dark pools unfocused like a cheap camera. Juri slapped his face hard and Joe sat up, retching. More water gushed out. He gulped air.
“I have never been one to believe in premonitions - my father believed in science and had taught me to rely on facts. But looking at Joe as he was then, at his shaking shoulders and blue lips, I felt a stab of fear. Fear and regret. It was silly, I regretted having saved his life. Juri was shouting excitedly and patting Joe’s back. I said nothing. The diminishing spark of the sun got smaller and smaller until it finally went off like a wick in a candle.
“It was the last summer we spent together. My father sent me to Sochi to study. Soon, I became a doctor, got a job in a hospital, got married, had kids. Then the Great War came. I have never seen my friends again. But the strange apprehension, the weird feeling of regret has never left me. The image of Black Joe, just as I had seen him in the river, the eyes dilated with terror, arms flailing, resurfaced in my mind now and then.”
The crunching of the snow announced someone’s approach.
“Kirigasvili, the commandant wants you,” the newcomer ordered. “Now.”
Doctor turned and shuffled heavily in the deep snow behind the springy step of the soldier. Some barracks emerged from the thick milk of the blizzard like black slashes on a white canvas. The soldier motioned him in with the rifle butt.
Inside, it was stifling hot. The air stunk of cigar smoke and sweat-soaked valonki- the army-issue boots. The man sitting behind a desk beckoned him closer. He looked like an amateur boxer with a stubby, squashed nose and a small razor nick on the right cheek. Despite the heat, he wore an astrakhan hat. A sheaf of papers lay in front of him on the desk and he scanned them briefly.
“Well, Kirigasvili. I have bad news for you,” preliminaries were not something he cared for.
“Your appeal to the Supreme Court has been rejected. Comrade Joseph Stalin has not granted you his pardon. It seems you are needed here, in the camp. Flattering, isn’t it? We can’t do without your education and experience. What more can a man ask for?”
Doctor’s heart slammed against the ribs and a choking feeling, no, a big featureless block of feelings, distend his chest. He was like a rabbit reacting to a shotgun report - but unlike the rabbit, he took the final verdict calmly.
“You can go back. There’s nothing more,” the man ordered.
Doctor looked at him, at the green uniform, the golden stars on the epaulettes. He kept his unblinking stare fixed on the man, showing neither fear nor sadness.
“I should have let him drown,” he said. “I should have let him drown.”
“What? What did you say?” the officer enquired.
“Black Joe. He should not have lived. My fault. All my fault.”
Without another word he marched out of the barracks, the unhurried walk gradually changing to a fast stride then to a run, until he reached the fire.
Author Notes: Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) was the dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1929 to 1953. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union was transformed from a peasant society into an industrial and military superpower. However, he ruled by terror, and millions of his own citizens died during his brutal reign.