Принц Папа Жан


It was the evening when I could have robbed Vitya of this opportunity. For their part, he and Alek could have robbed me of the opportunity to walk about the Gallery of Memories. It was sheer accident that saved me, while Vitya was saved by what some call The Super Ego and others The Voice of God. But for simplicity sake we can call it nothing else but Conscience. So if one day, sitting on his Russian stove, Vitya repeats my words to the effect that he would like to skip that memory, we shall know that Conscience may be fruitful, as well.
I keep thinking that if you save someone’s life you thus make him a child of your own. For Vitya I harbored no paternal feeling but we were Friends. Here is yet another word that we can write with a capital letter.
Even before that evening Vitya and Alek had stood against me. Didn’t they warn me on the telephone never again to return to Russia and never to seek contact with them. I thought a lot about it all, analyzing the situation, and yet I did return to Russia. I was given a fitting welcome! They slashed the tyres of my car and chased away my driver. Me, they took to the flat which even legally was still my property.
They tied me up and opened the bottle of vodka. The bottle had also been bought by me for them but when they took it out of the sideboard they didn’t bother to ask.
I was even amused to await my fate at their hands. From time to time they cracked a joke at me, appropriate for a man with a sense of black humor.
I realized they were bluffing. Should they have know what exactly to do to me they wouldn’t have dithered. Their nerves, I thought, were thinner than mine. This takes experience and natural gifts. The alcohol went to their heads from the beginning and they started talking such absurdities that I felt ashamed for both of them. Then Vitya grew aggressive and apart from me, already tied to the armchair, Alek could also come to grief. It was just then that he thought of Russia roulette.
“Papa Jan, you always make yourself but to be more Russian than the Russians, but you ain’t seen nothing of Mother Russia if you ain’t played Russian roulette. This is wisdom, Papa Jan, wisdom. Look!” He took out the revolver, removed all cartridges from the cylinder and replaced just one. “Did you see it? This cartridge is called Vitya the Red-Haired and is in the cylinder. The cylinder is Russia, Papa Jan. The cylinder is Russia! What is the muzzle? The muzzle is the muzzle, ha-ha-ha-ha. It may fire, or it may not. It all depends on whether Vitya will be under the cock. Vitya is not a bad boy and generally there are no bad boys but there are boy-cartridges. This is their job: to be placed in the cylinder and to be fired when the cock falls upon them… Ha-ha-ha…”
“Vitya!” Alek cried, frightened. It was no playacting on their part. Alek was really scared. “Do put away that shooting iron!”.
“He has to learn some things, old boy! He must. Isn’t he a puffed up highbrow. He must learn some things about the properties of gunpowder. You just stick to your vodka and take it easy”.
“Oh, do stop making an exhibition of yourself!.
“Quiet, I said!” bawled Vitya.
Now it dawned upon me that perhaps they would not do me any harm but very much wished to frighten me.
Vitya set the cylinder rolling. He was very much sizzled; the bottle of vodka was not the only liquid in his stomach and brain.
“The cock which can fall upon Vitya after Russia is set rolling is activated by a mechanism — a very simple affair not only for a gunsmith but even for an amateur. It is activated by a trigger! The trigger is a trigger in an ordinary pistol but in Russian roulette it is called lever or handle. And all that is commanded by the brain. And who is the brain?. I am. I am no longer Vitya; Vitya is in the cylinder. I am a certain person. But just this certain person is very important now. Off it goes!”
He pulled the trigger. A click.
“You’re in luck; Vitya did not fire!”
“Vitya, you’re a great fool”, I told him as calmly as possible although I still don’t know where I found that calm.
Vitya smiled and put down the revolver.
“It’s not to your liking, is it, Papa Jan? You enjoy it better when you’re doing the trigger-pulling…”
I did not say anything. Had I not met him and hired him he would have gone to prison again because he was so desperate and hated everything. It seemed that prisoner was his true profession. With me he had money, freedom and time to train and compete once again.
But all competitions were now off.
He inserted another cartridge and named it Alek. This time he skipped the talking part and straightway putted the trigger. Alek jumped and grabbed him by the waist. Vitya attempted to hit him but Alek jerked the revolver out of his hand.
“Come to your senses!” he was shouting. “It’s no good getting into trouble over him! Tomorrow, if necessary, we’ll settle scores with him but now is too early… Very early!”.
“Tell me honestly, Alek”, I spoke up, “who is ordering you about so much that you are about to take the life of a man whom even if you no longer call a friend should at least be grateful to”.
Alek squatted in front of me, took me by the collar, and from point blank range said into my face:
“Nobody! Nobody in this life can claim my gratitude! Did ever anyone ask me was I born and why I must live such a rotten life for me to feel gratitude? And do not imagine that I stopped Vitya just now out of fear for your life. We are expecting a telephone call, so I left Vitya to fool around with you. For my part, I’ll shave your beard. I would like to see whether without a beard you will resemble that nobleman who you pretend to be…”
Vitya had put up the revolver and was drinking again.
“I want to go to the toilet”, I asked.
“You’ll pee in you pants”, Alek said. “You’ll be asking me to hold you like a nanny next”.
“It’s you who needs a nanny, it seems”.
He struck me. It didn’t hurt much but just enough to make me mad. And I had to count to a thousand, to two thousand in order to forget my anger. They kept on guzzling vodka and maliciously teasing me. I paid no attention to them. I was awaiting the telephone ring. Maybe I was losing the Papa Jan gallery for ever, and also losing that which linked me to the world. I was moved not so much by fear than by the horror of losing so much…
So much! Apart from my life…
I had already an encounter with the KGB but these were also up to scratch.
Russian schooling, that’s all. After the Russian roulette, what?
Nothing. For the time being nothing.
Time was passing slowly.
At midnight the birds Philip, Caesar and Nero broke the silence. I loved them very much… But why in the dead of night? The Red-Haired One began shouting at Caesar and became red in the face.
“Oh, you back him, too!… Traitor!”
He reached into the cage, took out Caesar and before my eyes wrung its head. Then he wrung out the necks of the other two canaries. His hands were bloody, his eyes had become bloodshot long ago. It became him to shriek:
“I’ll wring your neck, too, Papa Jan! You, Bulgarian mother-fucker!”.
Maybe then I got sick. When I came to I saw two empty bottles on the floor near them. Plus the stuff they’d had before; plus the heads of my canaries.
Now’s the time for it, now! I said to myself.
The cads had fallen asleep… My hands had become swollen and ached. So these were the men I had been entertaining in Bulgaria so lavishly. I had taken them to the best ski resort, introduced them to Stefan Popov who gave them photographs from the plays he had directed… Autographed! For a keepsake! The knots prevented me from pulling out my wrists; the ropes were strong.
One thing was left: the armchair itself! Yes!… It alone could save me…
The armchair was not of the heaviest and when we assembled it its two arms to which they had tied me could be dismantled together with the legs. If I could manage to take them apart from the seat, I would also succeed in pulling my hands out. We had not put the bolts in place: they had been faulty manufactured.
That fault saved me!
I summoned up all my strength; as it was a matter of life or death strength was not lacking. The whole armchair creaked as if it was going to pieces. This is exactly what I wanted provided it did not wake them up. No, they were so drunk that even if the biggest cannon had fired they would have kept on snoring.
The arms together with the legs flew off sideways and I came bump on the floor with the seat. Vitya reared its head, gave me a look, murmured something and again relaxed in slumber. If only I could free myself, I’ll kill him, I told myself, if only I could free myself. Under the bed was a small axe. If only I could free myself…
And I did.
I even raised the small axe over his head. I don’t know what stopped me at that moment but I halted. Was I going to kill a man?
I couldn’t take a men’s life. I couldn’t become a butcher. And I remembered the words of my teacher in literature: “Jan, look for the human in a beast even… If you try, you’ll find it…”. I lowered the axed. I put it next to his head so he would realize what could have happened. Then I ripped off a small portion of the parquetry where I had hidden some money (green bucks for black days). They would be enough to get me out of Russia… I cast a farewell glance at Vitya sleeping beside the axe, growled out through clenched teeth that we would meet again… and here I am!
“For the time being you will meet only in memories”, Death said.
“I’ll get out of them, too!” I said. “I can even say that the moment when that will happen is not very far away”.
Death smiled sadly and with a movement of her head pointed towards the next painting.
It was a reproduction of Bugai’s painting “The Tower”. It showed a flock of sheep led by a black sheep with a mark. They were moving along a sandy sea-shore. A tower or hill rose in the distance like a mirage and the sky was a summer sky, gray, with a few clouds only hinting at rain. The black sheep was Gorbachev and the rest, the Politburo… They were grazing and ruminating on the sandy shore…
If only I could skip the next picture…
Tanya was a twenty-five-years-old blue-eyed beauty with milky white skin and raven black hair. She was very sweet although life had dealt harshly with her. Some thought her a nut. Maybe because she did not use hundred-dollar words to express herself and did not shine with polished manners.
But she had a beautiful and generous heart!
Despite the fact that she had lost her father while still young, lost him to alcoholism. Before quitting this life, however, he had succeeded in so harassing her mother that she developed diabetes. The weakening eyesight of the mother dissipated any illusion and replaced it by hallucinations. So the mother became a burden to her daughter.
Not love but persistent badgering received Tatya at the hands of her boyfriend. He wanted her to sleep with his friends. When she refused, they raped her with the blessing of the boyfriend.
Her mother was buried a few days after Tanya’s miscarriage in which her own life hung in the balance. She survived! Only to be dogged by tittle-tattle.
Now Tanya indeed started to change her boyfriends frequently. She sought protection and sometimes fell really in love — didn’t she write poetry?
I met her at a poetry reading. Tanya was biting her nails and dared not stand up and recite… Friends of mine had brought me to the poetry reading. They also introduced me to her. I first liked the poetess and than the poems.
Her poems were simple and moving. In them there was no philosophizing, none of the almost indispensable feminine sentimentality nor obtrusive avant-gardism which so often masks ineptitude and impotence… Her words revealed a soul in torment and a desire to overcome pain.
At our very first meeting I decided we would be friends. And we became lovers, too; not very slowly but surely.
The night evoked this time by the picture of memory had been truly gorgeous. On the morning after, I woke alone. Though it did not happen to me for the first time an alarming foreboding now suggested to me something else…
I found, her, already blue, in the kitchen. Her eyes had almost gone out of their sockets and were still registering horror. One breast had slipped out of her dressing gown and was deeply scarred. She must have resisted. And must have died in great pain. There were wounds on her neck, too. The mafiosi had indeed found a way of hurting me deeply. I had no problems with the police. The murderer had acted clumsily, leaving his fingerprints all over the place — not only upon Tanya’s body but in the kitchen as well. Several days later he was found dead with a Berette in hand. It was decided that he had committed suicide and the crime which took Tanya away from me was put down to psychopathy which had previously helped him avoid prosecution.
“One day I’ll paint her”, I said. “I’ll paint her as a sunflower as though torn from a Van Gogh painting. Like a bee upon the sunflower. A bee and a girl at the same time. There will be sun but it, too, will grow from the earth and there’ll be a stalk in her.”
“But would that bring her back to life?”
“I don’t wish to bring her back to life. She had a raw deal in life. I am powerless before those who sent a madman to kill hem. Let’s hope she’s happier in heaven…”
Then I told her one legend. Or a legend-parable.
Later, as a corsair of Prince Morpheus, I had an interesting adventure. A fortress-island, not very populous, was shaken by groans every evening. According to tradition, the pain came from the Cursed Hill where nobody ventured to tread. I did dare to go there and found an enormous semi-spider semi-man. He lived here and wove his web thin as human nerves. The web was astrally connected with the nerves of the inhabitants of the fortress-island. A girl expelled long ago by the inhabitants as a witch’s daughter and subsequently found and saved by an eagle then living on the Hill, every evening played a superb melody using this same spider’s web as strings. And was unaware of the pain caused by her fine invisible fingers. But the melody lulled the spider into beautiful dreams: he had adopted her after the death of the eagle. I had no choice but to take the lonely girl to her brethren and so relieve them of the pain. I did not know how she would be received by them, knowing that it was their fanaticism which had driven her away once.
But tales and legends have a happy end. Dreams, too.
Prince Morpheus and I had made one heart to sing instead of writhe… But Tanya I can only paint… A bee-girl upon the sunflower…
“You’re peculiar, Papa Jan”, Death told me. “You have a gentle hand… And firm, when necessary. A well-balanced romantic. And those clothes? The eternal black. The eternal black beret! Why do you dress like that?”.
“This protects the body from negative energy”, I gave her a tired smile. “The white color reflects the rays while the black repels them for the normal things in life. With negative energy it’s just the opposite: it is reflected by the black color and the while color absorbs it”.
“It doesn’t seem a reliable enough shield to me…”
“Even a metal shield would fall under an enemy sword if held by an infirm hand”, I said. “I wear my beret even on a sunny day… It’s not the sun’s rays I fear”.
“The shield is as strong as the warrior!” Death was being very generous.
I liked what she said very much.
Her voice regained its authority as she said:
“We’re moving onto next adventure!”
It was not long after Tanya’s death. I was going back to the apartment I had rented. I was waiting for some friends to call. I had filled a bag with beer bottles as I was expecting visitors. I was trying not to think of Tanya and with some success though she often came into nightmares. That is way I sought company: not very noisy, yet lively enough. This evening would have been one of many others like it if what I am about to tell you had not happened.
I realized trouble was in store as soon as I set my eyes on the coming bevy of youths with ranger-style hair cuts, leather jackets and tight-fitting trousers, identical like uniforms. Most of them seriously considered themselves nationalists. Were they consistent in their views in no way should they have picked a quarrel with fellow Slavs but their teenage passions compelled them to often stray from the strait jacket of principles. These people have no one but themselves to blame, neither Hitler, nor Khazbulatov, nor Rutskoi, nor even Zhirinovski. The main factor for their behavior is the urge to which they yield, though in a way which is not always appropriate.
They approached me and asked me for a cigarette. I know that would be the beginning. I avoided speaking because of my foreign accent: I did not know their stance vis-a-vis the brother Bulgarians. They asked me what I was carrying after pulling out almost all the cigarettes from the packet. Beer, I said. They asked for one only. I gave them the bottle. I had left the heavy bag on the ground and, believing I was free to go, bent down to pick it up. Then they struck me on the head with the bottle. If the bottle had not broken I would certainly have fallen. I was not aware I had such a strong head. This was the second such thing to happen to me and without losing consciousness at that. It was becoming a habit. The one who had dealt the blow must have thought that there was no way for me to react. I kicked him in the groin and when he bent down from the blow I kicked him once again in the face. I did not wait for the second to attack me but with a circular movement of my leg I struck him, too. Someone attempted to hit me from behind but I managed to parry the blow and grasp the hand, wearing boxing rings, into a lock. I had no time to take the boxing ring off his hand because I was attacked by a very fat giant who must have been two meters tall and three times in excess of the weight corresponding to his height. He seemed like a sumo wrestler but only seemed because he could not prevent me from hitting him two or three times on the nose with my forehead while he was trying to break my backbone in his grip. He gave out a shriek like that of a mammoth kicked in the testes which reminded me it would be good idea to do just that to him. The group froze in amazement. I availed myself of this opportunity and ran for home. I got away with only a swelling.
Two hours afterwards I managed to greet my friends who carried their own drinks with them this time and we could do without the beers I had bought.
We had a few drinks each and forgot everything. On the morning after I recalled it. Next to my block of flats there a kindergarten. The woman who cleaned the cindergarten and was the earliest visitor there screamed frightfully: on one of the swings she had seen the swaying corpse of a hanged youth. By the hammers, sickles and swastikas daubed on his body we know it was their work. Of my acquaintances, that is!
I know the murdered boy. He was an instructor at a course for eastern martial arts and was in enviable from… But not even that had saved him. I myself was not saved by my fighting skills, either, but sheer luck above all…
“On the following day I left the apartment I had rented”, I closed my story and looked at Death.
“You are perhaps afraid that they were not simply nationalist but people who had been sent there by the mafia”.
I knodded.
In the next picture I was leafing through the catalogue of works by Victor Bugai.
The catalogue had just come out of print and I was drinking to my achievement while Victor was smiling quietly. An abstemious fellow who I would not say was a friend of alcohol. On a spread of the first two pages was reproduced the first triptych with my portraits. Here was “Papa Jan, the Cosmic Director”. In its original form the picture measured 41×51 cm. I was portrayed with my hands tied but gazing with my third eye into life. The mystery female angel next to me was in fact the zodiacal sign Virgo, a muse and a destiny simultaneously.
There followed: “Papa Jan, the Benefactor, in Russia” and “The Generous Possessor Papa Jan”. On the left-hand side of yours truly “The Benefactor…” was my dog Assura which translates as Demon. Myself and the beautiful African hound were guarded by two virgins…
Of all my portrays painted by Bugai my favorite was “The Sly Gymnast Papa Jan” The Cyclops’s third eye of the “gymnast” looked point blank into the observer of the painting and into the world. On the shoulders of the sly gymnast was the woman who gave life and took it away and surrounding her like a garland or a halo was a chain of hundreds of strangely gazing eyes…
“Never forget the gigantic inflation in the Shop for Airy Towers!” Death interrupted my reverie.
“Many things can’t be touched by inflation simply because they aren’t airy towers…”
“Let’s hope your next memory shakes you out of that self confidence of yours!” she said.
It did not shake me but made me think about my sporting enthusiasms.
On that July morning I had quite a lot of pocket money and when I saw the small-time crook playing shashki I simply itched to give him his due. I was not familiar with the game but hoped to quickly learn the rules and demonstrate to that small-time wretch that people existed whom he cannot cheat. I lost in the beginning but had evidently shown by my behavior that I intended to play to the end, to my last kopek if need be. I played for more than two hours and finally left not only without all my pocket money but also without my wrist watch which I had bought only two days before Now Papa Jan, “The Overlord…” etc., the Bulgarian who did not get frightened either by the Russian bath, or the Russian roulette was defrauded at a gams of shashki. And left without a coin for the city transport…
During my taxi ride to my apartment I kept thinking about those comic failures. They must be necessary, I suppose. Because one cannot divide battles into big and small. There are only different games. The stakes for the big games are enormous which makes them seem complicated. Small stakes create an illusion of simplicity. The degree of complexity in both cases is the same! The game of shashki is simply not my forte. My game had to do with something more than the making and spending of money. It was the love of slavery which I myself had chosen. In that I resembled Lyudmil Ivanov and Nikolai Geshev by being more of a martyr than a shashki player…
“But the inflation in the Shop for Airy Towers is truly astronomical! Are you sure it would not touch you and your values?” Death asked, evidently having read my thoughts.
“Let me tell you again: the things which I do are valued elsewhere, too; there the price does not go up and down, there are not fires, nor thieves…”
“In heaven, do you mean?” she asked slyly.
“There… Where the light comes from!”
Where pyromaniacs do not place explosive devices in cars I would have said, should I have know which the next picture or my memories would be.
My Mercedes (which they blew up) was brand new but the engineers of the “Special Effects” department of the Russian mafia had seen to it to make their spectacle more theatrical than exact. This was proven at the judicial investigation. They had miscalculated the distance by a matter of ten kilometers or so and the car blew up several minutes after we had reached the airport.
On the airplane I wore a belt costing 400,000 US dollars. Therefore I was uneasy but the Scar had been aching me not for the money. It must have perceived the danger which I so luckily had escaped. And the Line of life on my palm had not broken; it was only the scar which ached.
This time the customs officials were flabbergast, seeing me declare a sum of 400,000 US dollars. I believing the evident at last, and realizing how I was to carry the money, they were seized with hysterics. One shouted they should provide an official car and transport me as fast as possible. The other screamed he was not going to have anything to do with the whole affair. The third was only giggling at this “crisis point” brought about by some nut who had seen fit to transfer a cool 400,000 US dollars in close proximity to his male organ. His reaction was the most intelligent of the three. All Russians in uniform had seen so much action films as to lose the capacity to smile.
When the other car met me at the airport, I did not find anything to laugh at. The people who met me had already learnt what had happened to the Mercedes that had driven me to the airport. And I felt an urge to paint… Many flames and the Death I had escaped. Then I thought, after all, I had better get drunk. Which I did.
I turned my eye towards Death. Now she was almost likeable. She resembled one of the girls at “The Beach”. Of the heavy metal persuasion. Perhaps because Death had made it plain she had a yen for rock-’n’-roll. Or maybe because now she looked more feminine…
“You say that you while were on that plane the scar on your line of life started aching. Do please tell me about it”.
It was then I saw the face of the first gallery manageress peer at me in the guise of Death. That was incredible. Weren’t they completely contrary to each other?
“Why should I be telling that to you when you know all about me?”
“Speak, please!”
“Speak, please!” — that oft-repeated appeal of Gregoriash’s naked girl.
“I was only seventeen but already had a long acquaintanceship with the opposite sex. On the face of it I had seen a lot and had suffered many disappointments, yet I kept on falling in love: to the bottom of my heart and forever! That’s how I met Her. We invariably write them with capital letters and invariably realize we have made a mistake not merely grammatical. Sometimes I was aware of that and wished to distance myself from her. Then she tightened the knot. On the whole, a nuts love. And one night she was at it again: I didn’t love her flesh enough, that I was not sincere enough to say so; if everything was over, I did not love her, etc., etc., Till the end of the world, or the end of the night at any rate. And so, in her desire for consuming passion on my part and in a demonstration of hers she produced a knife from somewhere and pointed it at herself. Then she said: “If you love that flesh, you should not permit it to be injured…”. She wanted to see whom I loved the more: her or myself. And I had to grasp the tip of the knife to prevent it from wounding her preast. I could have knocked the knife out of her hand but that proved nothing, it would have been contrary to the rules of the game and I was already playing her game. The line of life on my palm just happened to meet the tip of the knife. She was pulling towards herself, I in the opposite direction. It was quite serious. Blood gushed from the line of life, a lot of blood. Then she let go of the knife and pressed her lips to my wounded hand. She was weeping and drinking blood. Like a vampire!
Or like a deranged woman; did I not say that the it was a crazy story. The scar remained almost invisible and I often forgot about it. But it has saved me so often, with a warning pain when something alarming is about to happen, It’s useful to have such a scar. I’m not ashamed of it. And I have paid its price”.
“Passion!” Death said.
“Passion!” I echoed. “Yet Stephan was not right”.
“Now I don’t understand anything”, she said.
“And you’re going to ask me to speak?” I asked.
“Do speak, please!”
I also like this kind of entreaty. I like hearing it from women, though they often fail to heed the thing they ask to be told.
“It’s a long story. It began at “The Beach”. Stephan and all girls and boys had just donned the costumes of the knights of rock’n’roll. That’s when we met each other. When in song he lamented the death of a friend at the Fortress I thought he was mentally disturbed. I tried hard to help him and he began gradually to rid himself of the deadening forces he had been captive of. Pavlina told me a strange story about her friend who had immolated himself after seeing in a dream a beautiful girl, living far away, perhaps in America, painting pictures and setting fire to them. One of these pictures featured a girl in a fairy-tale wood with three horses tearing up her dress. The girl was frightened and confused, virgin and innocent but her face showed voluptuous delight. Pavlina was also positive that among the visions of her dead boyfriend there was a certain Stephan who was a friend of the girl who burnt her splendid paintings and one of them was the picture with the horses. When I came to know Stephan and struck up a friendship with him one of the first things he asked me upon learning I was an artist was to paint a picture after an idea of his. Then he told me about his odd hallucination. It happened when he was still working at the Museum of Paleontology. He frequently went to work without a good night’s sleep and almost hungry after a hangover from his regular alcoholic exploits. The Museum was still being restored and inside the plaster had come off the walls at many places. Once he thought he was in a picture gallery with the peeled patches on the walls seeming like paintings to him. One of them showed how three horses tear up with their big teeth the clothes of a girl… So many coincidences! Could they be accidental? There was something that could not be explained.
I immediately decided to paint this picture. And I finished it when we were already writing this book. I changed something in it, naturally. No, not in it but in Stephan’s splendid hallucination. My girl (in the picture) was not in a forest but was sitting on a meadow. The horses were stylized to emphasize their spirituality but the girl was quite of this world: perverted and even aggressive. Her dress is not yet torn but she is in a state of orgasm. The white horse, symbolizing air and water, and white and innocent like a young boy was now cast as a seducer. The brown one was the earth: a staid mature men, yet now with a lover’s fire burning in him, had torn the garment over her breast. The black one bent down over her head was the fire still smoldering in his ashen skin. A sexual demon! You simply have to see that picture.
“Isn’t it alarming to have thought of Stephan just now?”
Death waited for an answer. When I made no reply she asked something else:
“And why did you say Stephan was not right?”
“I left the painting at his house to charge him with energy. He was having one of his dark periods. He again fell to drinking too much, went through spells of severe dejection and sometimes demonstrated unwarranted aggression. The night before I gave him the picture he had broken a mirror with his fist and severely cut his hand. We took up the perennial subject of why live and the meaning of everything we were doing. Stephan said that aggression was the true salvation for everyone and that in eroticism there’s more aggression than love. No, no, he was not right…”
In the next picture I saw my dying father?
“It was life that killed him. With goodness in his soul, he was a caring father. From him I remember the saying which has helped me a lot: a true man never gives up! But now for the second time I was a man of thirty-one, looking at him dying. And he told me, before died, a few lines of verse. From him I had inherited my passion for he reciting. He spoke a few lines which I did not remember… But maybe they were not verses but death’s cruel words…”
Death shrugged her shoulders.
“I remember nothing. I have heard so many deathbed words an poems. Most of them are discovered later on by the Poetic Demon who turns them into verse…”
In front of the next picture my scar was giving me an awful burning sensation. It was burning me like it had done only once before in my life. The pain was sharp and it drove me mad. I kept on ignoring it, although I know that the traffic red light was on.
I did not pay attention to it even then!
I had been seized with a passion for flying my own plane. Then a friend or merely an acquaintance mentioned, among other this that he could arrange for me to buy one cheaply.
The craving for a plane of my own exploded within myself as did the plane itself afterwards. But I wanted, very much wanted that plane. At last I was given assurances that all the formalities surrounding its purchase will be OK.
A twelve-seat plane! A veritable treasure!
And I went to take possession of it but the boss was away. When I called a second time I was told that Andreevski (the boss) had not come to work yet. I got suspicious about the whole affair while the purchase, though a bargain, was not a trifle so I had on me a very large sum of money. That is why I took Alek and Vitya with me on my third visit. The scar was giving me a burning sensation but I thoroughly ignored it, while Alek behind the wheel of the car whistled so much out of tune that could drive mad a Zulu even. I was on my way to get my plane so I paid no attention.
Meanwhile, Andreevski’s son had obtained a promise from his father and the pilot of the plane that he take part in the test flight. The company had decided out of deference to the customer to stage a test flight although they were pretty certain the plane was quite all right and in a very good condition.
Had we started ten minutes earlier, I, too, would have been on the test flight. I know at least myself.
By the time we got out of the car, the plane had already taken off.
“Boys, in a while we will be in it. Such a great patron of the arts flies in the clouds anyway so a plane would not be a superfluous acquisition to him…” My excitement turned my dreams into a volley of words. Witty, on the face of it, yet so unnecessary.
The airplane soared in the sky like an eagle but all of a sudden the head of the eagle dropped downwards and it took a straight dive towards the earth.
I broke out in sweat. Seconds later the horror was in every fibre of my body. The plane crashed into the runway. It was only a crash, not an explosion. The airplane was still intact although beginning to be enveloped in flames. I jumped into the car, Vitya and Alek got into the moving venicle. I hoped that at least the people on board the plane were alive. There was still a chance to save them, save them unhurt even. We were still in the car when we felt the hollow explosions and saw clearly the plain bulge, black smoke wafting through the holes in the fuselage. Maybe they died already in the explosion yet it was not the big one which could come at any moment.
We left the car some twenty meters away and dashed towards the fiery monster which was about to explode. A little later I had a chance to see Andreevski’s son: he was totally disfigured and his entrails scattered around him. The pilot, however, was alive and fully conscious. He was trying to get out through the broken front window. There was a smell of petrol, the fire had “sniffed” it and any moment we could all be engulfed by the explosion. The pilot continued his efforts to get out. He could not lift himself from his seat. Something had gone wrong with his seatbelt which fastened him into his position. I was filled with an incredible wave of energy. So I grabbed the pilot by his collar, pulling him outwards. In one effort I pulled him along with his seat and together with it we flew outwards. At precisely the moment we fell on the ground the plane exploded. For several second or minutes above me there was no sky but only fire. And it smelled of fuel and charred human flesh.
Our lungs, too, were full of fire instead of air. The fiery storm seemed never to subside and looked like bent on annihilating the whole world around us. Probably that’s how a nuclear war would look like.
Then it all subsided suddenly and what remained was the horrible stench of burnt flesh and material and petrol. And the groaning and shrieking of the father who had lost his son in the flames could drive you mad. I was still holding in my arms a halfburnt, half-alive body conscious enough to groan. It went on groaning in the car where I fetched it. I myself did not know how I had preserved consciousness after the stress I went through. But I stepped down on the gas of the car. And was already blessing my luck. I had wrenched the pilot fastened to his seat a moment before the plane exploded. A mere second or even a smaller fraction of time saved me from certain death.
The groans of the agonizing pilot changed into delirium. Life was oozing out of him, I felt it, but I could not stop the car. We had to arrive at the nearest hospital.
I was driving at a speed of 112 miles per hour which was a challenge to the police car which bore down on us, its siren’s wail rending the air.
Chasing after death…
Because when we arrived at the hospital the pilot was already dead. It was then that I recalled that door which barred my way into the OTHER MEDIUM. And the notebook which had recorded it all:
8887. Papa Jan and a signature,
8888. Papa Jan — my signature,
8889. Papa Jan — with my signature.
But I remembered the terror in the eyes. Was it not this terror that had riveted him to his seat? Wasn’t the force of this terror I had been struggling to overcome? A split second before the blast shook everything around… The roots of terror had paralyzed the body. Now, only now had Death pulled off these roots from him.
“A sad end”, Death said.
“For a couple of days I felt horrible and just when the clouds in my soul began to disperse I again saw you in my car…”
“It was two days after, wasn’t it?”
“Exactly two days after”, I said. “But they seemed to me many more. You know what a depression is, don’t you?”
“Your perception of time is different! That’s all…”
Yes, perhaps… The two days after the catastrophe seemed to me horribly long. Everything was like a bad dream. On the third day I recovered somewhat and was even entertaining guests. We took our time over drinks and meals so I got up to see them off in my car. On my way back I was stopped by a group of youths who were desperately waving hands at me. I was somewhat impatient at them for barring the road but afterwards I realized I simply had to stop. A boy and a girl were lugging another boy who seemed quite lifeless in their hands. We pulled him into the car and I understood from their halting explanation that they had had one glass of liquor too many but their friend got sick. No, no it was not simply that they had drunk too much. It was plain to me that it wasn’t a hangover. Those two had sobered up completely. I was no less horrified than they. Two days before a man had died in this car on the way to hospital. Now I was again pressing down on the accelerator, ignoring the needle of the speedometer.
The boy was groaning. “I wantair, I haven’t got air…”. And shortly afterwards: “Give me air, a gulp of air…”. The other boy who was checking the pulse of his friend bent down his head. The girl broke into sobs. There were tears in my eyes too. They were quite young. Almost children. I was cruelly pursued by… But what’s the matter with you? Why are you so changed all of a sudden?”
“Changed?” Death was surprised.
“Yes, very much so… You begin to look like a woman. A beautiful woman!”
“But I still stink, don’t I?”
I said nothing. She stank indeed. But the change was more than strange. A smile lit up her face beaming like the way women’s faces blossom up. And her eyes were bright with life.
“You’ve become too cosy with me!” said Death
“This means I’m not afraid of you, doesn’t it?”
“But nor did you come to love me”, her smile corrugated like the scab upon a wound.
“I simply did not choose slavery with you…”
“Like the former gallery manageress chose you?”
“Like I chose art!”
“And like I chose people!” Death hissed. Now her face was different.
“People?” I asked in amazement. “But you punish them!”
“I am merely a symbol… Born of Yuzhakov’s hand, a symbol scaring people off… Till they become friendly with me and find me beautiful at a certain moment…”
“And are you not afraid of them desiring you?”
“Then I really am such a beauty, seemingly unapproachable, and they embrace me…”
We fell silent.
“You were cruel in the car…”
“What was in the car wasn’t me but my truth!”
“Your truth did you say? And who are you then?”
“I’m the legend… We are of the same nature and one cannot know the truth without the legend, reaching the truth only through the legend… In the you perceived me as cruel because you attained to my very nature”.
“And what about the airplane?”
I asked the question and I felt as though I was again in front of the cockpit window which could explode any minute… I had grabbed hold of the pilot’s clothes and was trying to wrench him out of his seat. And I sign myself in that notebook under number eight thousand eight hundred and eight seven. I am desperately trying to wrench him out of the seat but in reality I pull him out and together with it we fall to the ground. It is not aflame yet.
“Then I was seductive and arrogant… Like philosophy”
I saw her again in the next picture. Now she was in the guise of ruin. Again born of tempestuous fire and the elements.
I was working in Komi at that time. In charge of organizing cultural events for young people, of everything that included the recreation of the young. I was responsible for audio and video recording equipment, electronic games, fruit machines at discotheques and youth community centers in the region.
It was about midnight when the telephone rang. There was a fire at the discotheque at kilometer a hundred and two. I jumped into the van and in the speediest manner possible I found myself on the scene of the fire. It was raging furiously — there was no hope of salvaging anything. The disco at kilometer a hundred and two had been furnished with great effort, sweat and tears. Everything in it was of value beyond the price of the furniture and machine, provided with so much labor and devotion. Yes, yes, we must add devotion to our labour if we wish to produce something worthwhile. I had so much devoted myself to them…
I rushed towards the fire. A colleague of mine, taking heart from my crazy determination, followed. Fortunately the fire fighting equipment was in order but the lids were… frozen. This could only be described as a grotesque. We were surrounded by dancing flames, my colleague was choking with the smoke, at any moment we two could be ablaze, we felt terribly hot in the infernal cold of Russia that surrounded us.
It must have been forty degrees Centigrade below zero and everything was frozen. Everything! The fire and the ice had chased each other in the building. So, our bodies were alternately frozen by one and immediately after heated by the other. We battled the blaze for two hours. We were winning. We didn’t let go of the fire hoses after pulling them out with such difficulty just a moment before the blaze would have enveloped us, too. We doused the flames. The water jets died down with a hiss to turn in a suffocating smoke which choked us. It was getting colder and colder. Our hands on the fire-fighter hoses had become frozen long before. We had to kill even the last little flame. At some minutes to three the fire had been extinguished. My forehead was singed and my hands frozen. I feared they wold have to be amputated in the morning. The only thing we managed to salvage was a fruit machine. But I felt content with that: I had, after all, saved something.
“Such is life” Death said.
I was depressed about all the things we lost and yet I felt a certain lightness: I had managed to salvage something. I had rebelled against fire and did not allow it to get the better of me.
Death reached out her bony hand and took mine in it. It was clammy and sticky, yet there was life in them. A small particle of Yuzhakov’s life… There is a small particle of human life and human heroism even in legends, and in the image of Death?
In my next picture I was my grandmother. She was sitting outside the Old House. Her eyes were fixed on me. I know that look. She was the most sterling pure person I knew. A pure person with a pure look: so easily seen through that you could always guess who it is directed at. Now she was looking at little boy Vanko. I was little boy Vanko to her and no Papa Jan, whom artists painted as the strongest in the world.
“She was the purest person”, I said. The painter’s brush of memory had rendered the purity well. “She was from the Rhodopa region. It’s a Rhodope song that is flying encapsulated on a satellite in outer space to glorify the exploits of the Bulgarians. My Granny’s songs are alive for me. About the water, the posies and the peaks of the Rhodope. She has given me the gift of love. The surest measure in this world.
“Your Granny Irina has given you the gift of your soft hand”, Death said.
“My soft hand? Perhaps you mean the one with which Victor Bugai has shown me in one of his paintings…”
“Yes, the opposite of the hard one with which you, fortunately, held the axe over Vitya’s head. Many would have liked you to have dropped it… Do you remember your recollection at the time”.
“Yes, I do. The words of my teacher Ginka Zlateva…”
“They are a part of the simple rules you have remembered in order to attain to your Janoism. That’s what you call it, don’t you? The philosophy of a life which scrutinized all values…”
“When I was holding the axe over Vitya’s head I remembered the saying that we must seek out what’s human even in beasts. And my hand became soft…”
“Your Granny’s songs surfaced in your memory, too…”
“Yes, Victor Bugai used to say that strength lies not only in tensing up but also in relaxing… This Ginka Zlateva was my teacher at the vocational high school in Chepelare. She used to teach literature, a subject I was at home with. At the graduation ball she presented me with her visiting card, on the back of which she wrote: ‘To my favourite pupil. Seek out what’s human even in beasts’. She believed I would remember these words. Words, too, temper the human hand, don’t they?”
“The soft hand”, the gallery attendant added.
“The relaxing!” I said. “It’s impossible to scale the height with tightly clenched teeth all time: if you do, you’re bound to trample upon many tender shoots which have brought forth new life…”
The two of us were silent and I was again little Vanko who expected from his Granny tales and songs.
“The soft hand!” I said quietly.
“It gives life!” Death said. “The hard hand belongs to the fighter and is necessary but the hard hand yields no fruit, it only conquers new territories for the soft one…”
“The ones who’re born with a soft hand are only the people with generous hearts… It gives you the right of innocence. And of shaking hands with it. With Wooden Zheko… With Granny Irina… With Ginka Zlateva…”
“And what are your recollections of the hard hand?” she asked me.
“It belongs to fighters…” I smiled. “I was very young when I became a millionaire. The film ‘Don Feramonte’ was so long on the screens some people hastily gave me that name. On the face of it as respectful as Papa Jan but the sound was different: sharp and abrasive as a knife wound… Don Feramonte did not catch on but Papa Jan did. Maybe because of the soft hand…”
“The hard hand however went on bulging the bicepses, tricepses and deltoids till bursting point, in a clenched fist”. Was Death prompting me my lines? Or perhaps she wanted to reminds me of everything.
“I was with it that I shook hands with Alek, Vitya and Tsukan even when we were friends. They liked it and for my part, I, too, realized it had to be so. Had to! With it I established my gallery. And with the soft hand I opened its doors to the public… And stretched it out to the public…”
Death paused and looked me over. She had changed thoroughly and no longer resembled Death in any way. A girl stood next to me, a beautiful girl, although her features retained their stern expression. This is what made me uneasy. I began to like her quite a lot. Was I to become her betrothed? Or was I trying to be too cute with myself even, in my search for an exit from that infernal Gallery of Memories in that damned Shop for Airy Towers?
“Don’t be afraid”, she whispered. But her voice lacked the voluptuousness of feminine murmur. I was mystified and uneasy with a certain foreboding. I heard a murmur embroidered by the wind over the deserted ruins of an old castle, the voice of a ghost and the faraway screech of nocturnal birds of prey. “Take me by the hard hand… As long as you hold it, I’ll be inapproachable.”
I was fearful but took her hand.
Then as if someone had hung it, a picture appeared on the blank wall in front of us. The gray mist dispersed and in the picture I saw Lucy.
“Lucy!” I cried out. “Where are you, Lucy?”

Comments are closed.