Dvanov opened the wicket gate into his yard and was glad to see the old tree growing beside the entrance-room. The tree was covered in cuts and wounds, an axe had repeatedly been put to rest in it while chopping firewood, but it was still alive, still keeping the green passion of foliage on its sick branches.
‘You back, Sasha?’ asked Zakhar Pavlovich. ‘It’s good you’ve come back – I’ve been here on my own. With you gone, I didn’t feel like sleeping. I just lay there listening and listening: could that be you I heard? I didn’t even lock the door because of you – so you could come straight in.’
During his first days at home, Aleksandr shivered and tried to get warm on the stove, while Zakhar Pavlovich sat down below and dozed as he sat.
‘Sash, maybe there’s something you want?’ Zakhar Pavlovich would ask from time to time
‘No, I don’t want anything.’
‘I was thinking that perhaps you should eat something.’
Soon Dvanov could no longer hear Zakhar Pavlovich’s questions or see him weeping at night and hiding his face in the recess in the stove where Aleksandr’s socks were drying. Dvanov had caught typhoid, which kept coming back, not leaving the patient’s body for eight months and then developing into pneumonia. Aleksandr lay in forgetfulness of his life and only occasionally in the winter nights did he hear locomotive whistles and remember them; sometimes the rumble of distant artillery reached the indifferent mind of the patient, and then it felt hot and noisy again in the cramped space of his body. During moments of consciousness Dvanov lay empty and dried up. All he could sense was his skin and he pressed himself down against his bedding; it seemed to him he might fly off, just as the dry light little corpses of spiders fly away.
Before Easter Zakhar Pavlovich made a coffin for his adoptive son; it was sturdy and splendid, with bolts and flanges – the last gift that a master-craftsman father could give to his son. Zakhar Pavlovich wanted a coffin like this to preserve Aleksandr – if not alive, then at least intact for memory and love; every ten years Zakhar Pavlovich was going to dig up his son from the grave, so as to see him and sense himself together with him.
Dvanov first left the house when the time was new; the air felt heavy like water, the sun seemed noisy from the burning of fire, and the entire world seemed fresh, pungent and intoxicating to his weakness. Life once again shone before Dvanov – his body had springiness, and his thoughts were leavened with fantasy.
A girl he knew, Sonya Mandrova, was looking across the fence at Aleksandr. She couldn’t understand how come, if there’d been a coffin, Sasha hadn’t died.
‘You haven’t died?’ she asked.
‘No,’ said Aleksandr. ‘And you’re alive too?’
‘’I’m alive too. Together we’re going to live. Do you feel well now?’
‘Yes, I do. And you?’
‘I feel well too. But why are you so thin? Is it that death was inside you and you didn’t let it in?’
‘Did you want me to die?’ asked Dvanov.
‘I don’t know,’ answered Sonya. ‘I’ve seen that there are a lot of people. They’re dying, and then they stay.’
Dvanov asked her to come round. Sonya climbed over the fence in her bare feet and gently touched Aleksandr, having forgotten him during the winter. Dvanov told her what he had seen in his dreams and how dreary it had been in the darkness of sleep. There hadn’t been any people anywhere, and he knew now how few of them there were in the world: it had been the same when he was walking through steppeland not far from the war – he hadn’t come across many homes there either.
‘I wasn’t thinking when I said I don’t know,’ said Sonya. ‘If you’d died, I’d have begun crying for a long time. I’d rather you’d gone a long way away – then I’d have thought you’re alive in one piece.’
Aleksandr looked at her with surprise. Sonya had grown during this year, although she had eaten little; her hair had darkened, her body had acquired carefulness and being near her felt shameful.
‘Sash, you don’t yet know. I’m studying now, I’m going to courses.’
‘What do they teach there?’
‘Everything we don’t know. One teacher says we’re stinking dough and he’ll make us into a sweet pie. He can say what he likes – after all, we’re going to learn politics from him, aren’t we?’
‘You - stinking dough?’
‘Uh-uh. But soon I won’t be, and nor will others, because I’ll become a teacher of children and they’ll start getting clever from when they’re little. And no one will call them stinking dough.’
Dvanov touched one of her hands, so as to get used to her again – and Sonya gave him her second hand too.
‘You’ll get well better like this,’ she said. ‘You’re cold, I’m hot. Can you feel?’
‘Sonya, come round to us in the evening,’ said Aleksandr. ‘I’m fed up with being on my own.’
Sonya came round in the evening, and Sasha did some drawing for her and she showed him how to draw better. Zakhar Pavlovich quietly carried out the coffin and chopped it up into firewood. ‘What we need now is a cradle,’ he thought. ‘Where can I find iron that’s supple enough to make springs? We haven’t got any at work – the only iron we’ve got is for locomotives. Maybe Sonya and Sasha will have children and I’ll be the one who looks after them. Sonya will be old enough soon – and yes, it’s good she exists; she’s an orphan too.
After Sonya had left, Dvanov felt frightened and immediately lay down to sleep until morning, so as to see a new day and have no memory of the night. But he lay there and saw night with open eyes; after growing stronger and being stirred up, life didn’t want to go and forget about itself in him. Dvanov pictured to himself the dark over the tundra; people who had been exiled from the warm places of the earth had gone there to live. These people had made a little railway line, in order to carry logs for the construction of dwellings to replace their lost summer climate. Dvanov imagined he was an engine driver on this logging line that took timber to build new cities, and he did all the driver’s work in his mind – crossing sections of unpeopled wilderness, taking on water at stations, whistling in the middle of a blizzard, braking, talking to his assistant – before finally falling asleep at the final station, on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. In his sleep he saw large trees, growing out of poor soil; around them was airy, faintly oscillating space, and an empty track was patiently going away into the distance. Dvanov envied all this; he would have liked to take the trees, the air and the track and put them somewhere inside himself, so there would be no time to die under their protection. And there was something else that Dvanov wanted to remember, but the effort was heavier than the memory and his thought disappeared round a bend of consciousness in sleep, like a bird from a wheel beginning to turn.
Sonya Mandrova travelled by cart to the village of Voloshino and began living in the school as a teacher. She was also called upon to deliver babies, to sit with the young people in the evenings and to treat wounds, and she did all this as best she could and without causing offence to anyone. Everyone needed her in this small village on the edge of a gully, and consoling the grief and illnesses of the inhabitants made Sonya feel important and happy. But at night she would remain waiting for a letter from Dvanov. She had given her address to Zakhar Pavlovich and everyone she knew, so they wouldn’t forget to tell Sasha where she was living. Zakhar Pavlovich had promised to do this and had given her a photograph of Dvanov.
‘In any case,’ he said, ‘you’ll be bringing the photograph back again when you become his wife and start living with me.’
‘Yes,’ said Sonya.
She looked out of the school window at the sky and saw stars above the silence of night. There was such quiet that it seemed there was nothing in the steppe except emptiness and that there was not enough air to breathe; this was why stars fell down. Sonya kept thinking about the letter: could it be brought safely across open country? The letter had become the nourishing idea of her life; whatever she was doing, Sonya believed that somewhere the letter was making its way towards her. In a hidden guise it preserved for her alone the necessity of further existence and glad hope – and so Sonya laboured with still greater carefulness and zeal to lessen the unhappiness of people in the village. She knew that the letter would make reparation for all this.
But at this time letters were read by all and everyone. Dvanov’s letter to Shumilin had been read back in Petropavlovka. The first to read it had been the postman, and he had been followed by everyone he knew with an interest in reading: the teacher, the deacon, the shopkeeper’s widow, the sexton’s son, and one or two others. Libraries were not functioning, books were not being sold – and people were unhappy and their souls in need of consolation. And so the postman’s hut became a library. Especially interesting letters made no progress at all towards their addressees but were kept back for rereading and constant pleasure.
Official letters were sent on immediately – everyone already knew what they said. The letters people learned most from were those that were transiting through Pavlovka: unknown people wrote sadly and interestingly.
Letters that had been read were glued back down with syrup and sent further on their way.
Sonya did not yet know any of this – otherwise she would have gone on foot round every village post office. Above the sounds of the stove in the corner she could hear the snoring sleep of the watchman, who worked in the school not for wages, but to safeguard the lasting eternity of property. He would have preferred children not to enter the school at all – they scratched desks and smeared walls. The watchman foresaw that the schoolmistress would die unless he looked after her, while the school itself was ripped apart to meet the peasnts’ domestic needs. Sonya slept easier when she could hear someone living not far away, and it was with quiet care that she wiped her feet on the mat and lay herself down on bedclothes white with cold. Somewhere, muzzles turned to the darkness of the steppe, faithful dogs were barking.
Sonya curled up, in order to sense her body and warm herself with it, and began to fall asleep. Her dark hair was spread mysteriously over the pillow, while her mouth had opened out of attention to a dream. She saw dark wounds appearing on her body; on waking up, she quickly and without memory checked her body with her hand.
A stick was knocking roughly at the school door. The caretaker had left his place of sleep and was already in the entrance room, busy with the lock and bolt. He was cursing the restless man on the other side, ‘Stop bashing the door like that! There’s a woman resting in here, you blockhead! What’s got into you?’
‘What is this place?’ asked a calm voice from outside.
‘This is a school,’ answered the caretaker. ‘What do you think it is – an inn?’
‘So it’s the schoolmistress who lives here, is it?’
‘Where else would the schoolmistress live?’ the caretaker said in surprise. ‘And what do you want her for? Why should I let a cocky bastard like you in to see her?’
‘Show her to us…’
‘If the schoolmistress wishes, you can have a look.’
‘Let him in – who is it?’ Sonya shouted, and ran out into the entrance-room.
Two men dismounted – Mrachinsky and Dvanov.
Sonya took a step back from them. Before her stood Sasha – unkempt, dirty and sad.