In the spring lots of things happened. The snow, covered in a grey layer of ash from the cement factory, melted. The wooden planks that served as sidewalks dried out. From beneath the wet earth and gravel that had been strewn everywhere, the coltsfoot flowers crawled out and bloomed. The ditch along the road filled up with water and clumps of frog eggs. Grandma Olya started to dig in the rocky soil of the vegetable plot. The neighbourhood kids, myself included, played ball games in Zhanka and Oksanka’s side street. Around the Day of Coloured Eggs the families set off for the forest: there, on the bank of the river, the Papas drank portwine, the Mamas quarrelled with them, we rolled eggs down little hills and collected bouquets of snowdrops, on the endangered species list (I was fiercely opposed to this, but I was younger than everyone). In the spring we celebrated Papa’s birthday, Lenin’s birthday, my birthday, the May holidays, and The Anniversary of Aunt Tamara’s Birth. After it rained, the air smelled of wet poplar trees. The school year ended.
The number two event, after my birthday, was the purchase of the chicks. The chicks, like everything else that wasn’t books, newspapers, or portwine, were purchased by Mama. We took them to the country house, where they became hens and one bad-tempered rooster, laid eggs and gradually found themselves in broth. But before being taken to the country, the chicks spent a week or two in a box in the kitchen. They were yellow and fluffy, pecked at grains of wheat, crapped, and brought me to a state of ecstasy. In memory of this, in the place of this alien loan word “ecstasy”, I try to say “little chickens!” Unfortunately, not everyone understands right away.
One year the purchase of the chicks happened on the eve of the Day of Coloured Eggs.
You have to keep in mind, having started on the portwine, papas in general and Papa in particular weren’t always able to stop. Even those who didn’t know how to fetch groceries knew how to fetch portwine and booze and remain in a state for two, three, or more days on end. Quite likely, this state compared favourably with the reality available to papas. Even more likely is that my papa felt this difference particularly acutely. Before my birth he managed to endure 40 years and several medium-sized biographies’ worth of experiences, all of them more interesting than the current one.
When we returned from the forest, Papa decided he wanted to be alone with the portwine and put the hook in the eyehole. Hooks can only be extracted out of eyeholes from the inside. I, Mama, and reality remained outside.
All of this was probably quite emotional, I don’t really remember.
As usual, we went to stay with the neighbours. There I could play with the neighbours’ kids, look at different furniture, and not change clothes. If Papa’s solitude stretched out longer, there was a chance of going across town to Aunt Tamara’s and taking a bath in a real tub, diving and making bubbles. Basically, I don’t remember my childhood as difficult.
The difficult childhood belonged to the chicks, who remained in their box in our kitchen.
Generally, the chicks in our kitchen were of two types: normal and broilers. The first type were differentiated from the second by their smaller size, deeper yellowness, and greater capacity for survival. They hatched from eggs laid by real hens in a normal henhouse. They weren’t afraid of drafts and pecked everything within reach. As adult hens, they laid their eggs in places where country grandma Valya couldn’t find them. At the broth stage they turned into less meat, but it may have been tastier meat.
The broilers came into this world in an incubator. Some of them grew into big and stupid specimens which strutted among the rest of the chickens like elephants among ponies. But most of the broilers snuffed it soon after purchase, sometimes even on the way home. They, like drunken Papa, couldn’t stand reality.
I didn’t understand why we needed broilers when there were normal chicks, but Mama continued to buy them; I need to remember to ask her why. That particular spring she obtained both kinds, with a preponderance of normal ones. The lively little natural ones ran around the anaemic broilers and underscored their impending doom.
Even before the trip to the forest, most of the broilers had died from stress and drafts. When Papa locked the door, only one of the incubator’s offspring remained among the living. It’s difficult now to reconstruct the exact chain of events, but quite obviously, at some moment Papa glanced in the box.
While the rest of the chicks were easily able to cope with the absence of grain and the shutting off of the heater, the last broiler wasn’t feeling so great. He was sitting in the middle of the box, having painfully closed his eyes, and barely responded to stimuli.
I think that on an intellectual level Papa understood the broiler’s hours were numbered. However, history knows that cold judgement and common sense rarely manage to suppress the noble impulses of a man’s soul.
Papa extracted the chick from the communal box and transferred him to his winter hat, made of artificial fur, which he placed next to the electric heater. He turned it on – a classic steel saucer, which served as a radiotelescope when I travelled to outer space. Then Papa tracked down the family first aid kit and lined the hat with gauze. Feeling warm, the chick seemed to perk up a little. Encouraged, Papa sprinkled some grain onto the gauze, poured himself some more portwine, and placed his stool opposite the heater. He wanted to monitor the condition of the chick.
Close to midnight, after a few hours of observation, Papa felt that the chick could no longer remain nameless.
— I’ll call you Sergeant, said Papa.
Although Sergeant had picked only a few grains out of the gauze and now was just sitting there, occasionally raising his eyelids, Papa looked at him and saw a fighter – just like Papa himself, who had served in the army for five years. He saw this fighter engaged in a struggle with death. It seemed that there was no one dearer to him than Sergeant. And even if Sergeant was a future hen, no one could tell anyway.
Then the portwine ran out. Papa went into the other room, got undressed, laid down on the sofa, and fell asleep.
In the morning, when he woke up and made his way to the entryway to pee in the bucket under the washbasin, Sergeant was already dead.
At this moment we were eating breakfast at the neighbours’. According to Mama, it was a cloudy April morning. After breakfast she went on reconnaissance and found Papa sitting on the wooden planks between the house and the bus stop. Papa was in his underpants and slippers. He held his head in his hands, resting his arms on his knees. In front of him were our metal dustpan and a black spot of freshly dug earth.
— Rudya, what’s wrong with you? asked Mama, dumbfounded.
— Sergeant died, sobbed Papa, not looking at her. Sergeant died.
He sat on the planks for awhile longer – long enough for me to arrive, see him and carry in my memory the image of his blue underpants and bowed head my whole life, right up to the present moment.
Later, after we moved across town, they turned our old house into a shop. They took away the wooden planks. They covered Sergeant’s burial ground with gravel and sealed it with cement. They drained the ditch. After a few more years, when all the remaining participants in the forest excursions moved away, the shop went bankrupt.
And now completely different things happen in the spring.
Konstantin Zarubin, 2007
Translated from the Russian by Megan Case
Illustration: Natalia Yamshchikova, 2021