Translated by Vera Rich ©1996 Pulp Faction.
He departs for the zone as soon as the first snow is off the fields and the roads have dried up. Having spent the night in a local guest-house, he sets out at dawn. The roads to the zone are monitored, but it is possible to go ten kilometres or so before the start of the working day. No birds are singing. Frozen scrub grass cloaks the abandoned houses like wire. Clear and distinct as if carved from crystal, an immense empty space hovers over the entire area. No smoke from the chimneys, no movement of human or animal, no trace of a child. There is an evil and encompassing peace. The black, waterlogged fields, the white patches of snow in the gullies, the sandy road damp from the night, all this seems unreal, like a dream, when you want to shout and run, but you cannot move... For a long time, Arsien stands on the hilltop. Then he descends into the valley, to his own home with its long broken lock and smashed windows, and the blackened, tattered cloth draping the house shrine, and the skeleton of some animal by the threshold. Later, leaving for the cemetery rucksack on shoulder and trowel in hand, it comes into his head: perhaps it was the dog, Sharyk, who had wandered around uncared for after they left and had returned home to die? Arsien finds the hard, compacted mound with its leaning cross immediately, as if someone is leading him by the hand. And the whole time that, bent double, he tends the grave with its thin metal label imprinted with the letters of his mother's name, the feeling of some presence never leaves him. On the level, yellow surface of the grave he spreads a cloth embroidered by his sister and sets out on it bread, onion, smoked pork fat and some red eggs that have been blessed in church. It is then that the man appears, from behind an old oak on the edge of the cemetery.
Older than Arsien, in a tattered greasy tunic and a cap with earflaps, he does not appear to be local; swarthy and hooknosed, he has a cautious, timid gait like a lynx. He holds a jug in both hands. Arsien, who is feverishly groping in his rucksack for his knife, relaxes, for the stranger makes an attempt to smile, and speaks in Russian, the words fractured with a Caucasian accent:
"Local, da? Who you come remember? Momma, da?"
Arsien nods briefly. The stranger places the jug on the bench beside the adjacent grave, in which Arsien's grandma is buried, and asks warily:
"Cigarette you got?"
Arsien takes out an opened packet. The Caucasian lights up and inhales, his hands trembling slightly.
"And vodka you got, da? I got juice, your local stuff. We drink, da?"
Arsien cautiously takes out the bottle. What are you to do, that's the way of things. Memorial rites without spirits just aren't memorial rites. Mother never used to drink, but he has brought a shot-glass, to be filled and left on the grave. Taking out both glasses, he says shortly:
"You'll drink from mine."
"But I got glass," the man takes a small enamelled metal cup from a pocket, and extends his other hand: "I Mutalib. I from Chechenia. You know Chechenia? War, da? But me... I want live... I want to West, da?"
Arsien hardly feels the spirits go down. But when he chases it with birch sap, his heart burns. He remembers the black day when they evacuated the village. The lamenting of women, the howling of children, the dust covered buses. He and his father and sister, stunned with something even more terrible; Mother had died in the very night before the evacuation, as if wanting to stay here forever, among her forebears. There was no time for a proper wake, Auntie just handed out spirits and sausage to everyone on the bus, and he, a tenth-grader, drank and drank birch sap straight from the bottle, his teeth chattering feverishly against the glass...
Arsien has never drunk birch sap since that day. But Mutalib's gift takes him by surprise and the cool piercingly familiar drink seems to tear something inside him: he weeps, and tells the wanderer about his family and the evacuation, about how his mother used to sing and dance and undo the evil eye and hiw she knew every herb in the meadows. The stranger interrupts to tell of his attempt to flee to Germany by paying a "guide" five thousand American dollars - almost all he'd brought with him when he fled the war. How the "guide" abandoned him, and the customs men who caught him took the rest, gutted him and left him on the Polish-Belarusian frontier. For three months now he has been living in this terrible peopleless, deserted, strange village, not even daring to go to the Admincentre store...
Afterwards, as suddenly as if hit by lightning or a stroke, Arsien falls asleep, his back resting against a young birch. When he opens his eyes, the Caucasian is gone and Mother's shot-glass stands empty on the grave before him.
There is no one around. The earth, slightly warmed now, gives out a strong fragrance. Needles of young grass pierce the soil here and there. Dry leaves whisper in the light breeze, and from close by comes the ringing sound of drops falling. Arsien gets up heavily; he looks for the jug, but it is upside down, empty and dry. He picks it up and walks over to a slender birch with gleaming bark at the edge of the cemetery. Yes, the Caucasian collected his birch sap here. Maybe the birches in the valley have no sap left, or maybe he simply prefers it here at the top...
The murky, flashing droplets run swiftly down the bark, chiming on a root sticking up out of the earth, and breaking up into little splashes. The jug is quickly half full, and Arsien once again drinks and drinks the birch sap, not wanting to remember that everything grown in this earth holds danger, like poisoned apples in the fairytale his Mother used to tell... And the drops go on falling and breaking up in splashes on his boots.
"It should be bound up. The birch will die." The thought flashes into his mind, but he turns away to collect his rucksack. Nothing in this place makes any sense.
He has left the cemetery, when he suddenly turns back, and hurries to the birch tree. Taking out some sticking plaster, he carefully places it over the gashes. Let it go on living here, let it rustle under the boundless sky.
Now he can return to the city.