The Normal Person's Tale

by Vitold Abankin

I never thought that an ordinary day of September 20 would become the day of a great mystical occurrence in my life. My next door neighbor — who worked at a furniture store — called me at work and told me that finally they had in the thing I had been been looking for. And I had been looking for a wardrobe. Not a wardrobe of some kind of fancy foreign design, but an ordinary wardrobe of Soviet make. So here I am, having taken the afternoon off work, running down the street, thinking where to get hold of a vehicle that would deliver my piece of furniture. 

 

While crossing the street I saw a truck at the crossroads waiting for the lights to change. And behind the wheel I saw my old school friend Vadim Berezin. This was exactly the case of the proverbial ball coming to the proverbial player. He saw me too and waived. I glanced around, and not seeing any traffic police, jumped into his cabin on the go. 

 

We gasped, exclaimed "Ah!" and I told him that this chance encounter came at a good hour. 

 

"I'll help you, buddy." He said, "But first I need to take these safety lockers in my truck to the lunatic asylum. And then we'll go get your wardrobe." 

 

I was overjoyed, and we continued chatting as he drove.

 

Passing along a tall brick white-washed fence, we stopped by an iron gate, which immediately opened and let us in with a gnashing sound. 

 

While men were unloading the locker boxes, I took a stroll along the perimeter of the three-story red-brick building. 

 

Suddenly something screeched above my head. I looked up and saw an opening vent window on the second floor. Then a pale, thin hand appeared, holding a green writing pad, rolled into a tube. "Help!" I heard a stifled cry, and the writing pad fell under my feet. The vent window closed. I looked around, picked up the writing pad, and stuffed it under my belt underneath my jumper. I tried to think what could have been in it. Perhaps confidential information? But I couldn't imagine of what kind and felt an urge to get home as quickly as possible, spurred on by curiosity.

 

We quickly arrived at the furniture store, loaded the wardrobe onto the truck and drove to my place. Apparently, I looked preoccupied and wasn't upholding my conversation with Vadim. 

 

Seeing the change in me, he asked, "What's up, old man? Did you get carsick?" 

 

I took out the writing pad and told him what just happened. 

 

"The kookballs are fiddling around," Vadim said confidently. "Making up stories. There are plenty of great writers in there — Pushkins, Napoleons, all kinds of geniuses. But if this proves to be entertaining, will you let me borrow it?" 

 

The wardrobe took some time and effort to be taken up to my apartment. It was a good job that I was able to find my neighbors sitting playing dominoes in the yard, and they agreed to help me lift it up to the second floor where I lived. 

 

I offered Vadim tea. But he said he needed to get back to work. We said goodbye and he left. 

 

I was now alone. Leaving the wardrobe in its box, I changed, sat down on the sofa, and opened the writing pad. 

 

On top of the page, in a jittery handwriting, it said the following: "Help! I am a normal person. What I describe here is what had really happened, although it led to my confident in a mental hospital. Everything I write here is true. The two policemen who came to my house to take me away are now locked up in the same asylum as me. They too are completely sane. But someone does not want the society to know the truth. Help! I have deciphered the mystery of that painting. Give me paint, brushes, a piece of canvas, and I will be able to reproduce that painting. Help!"

 

Once I finished reading the entire contents of the writing pad, my first instinct was to run to the prosecutor's office, to run to the newspapers, to run to the radio stations. But then I sat down to think and decided to make a copy of it and then secretly drop it off at the editor's office of Nauka i Zhizn science magazine. 

 

"Let the scientists decide what is fact and what is fiction," I thought. “Otherwise I myself may end up in a nuthouse.” 

 

So I am not telling you my full name. And here, below, is what the writing pad said.

 

 

The Happy People Island

 

As soon as I have received the telegram informing me about my father's death, I immediately called the airline and booked the next flight to Rostov. But I still couldn’t fly out that day because of a snow storm. The hail was heavy and raged for two days straight. 

 

Afterward the airport spent another day clearing the landing strips, bringing in the army and its heavy machinery. Airplanes needed digging out from under the snow too. Some of the snow piles were three meters high.

 

So I haven't made it to the funeral in time and arrived in Rostov only two days later. There was snow in Rostov too, but by daytime the temperature would climb above zero. At night a little frost was setting in and the dark clouds would drop occasional snowflakes. 

 

At the cemetery I put my bouquet on the grave, and stood there for a long time, bare-headed. After some time, feeling my legs and my entire body weakening, I went down on my knees and leaned against the grave mound. I had no tears in me, no strength to cry, and my entire being was enveloped in grief -- ready to let out a howl. I don't know how long I spent there. 

 

Then I get up and started walking, not knowing where I was going. It was getting dark. I cast my mind back to the time when my father and I were going fishing together, how he used to carry me -- a small boy -- on his shoulders, how he taught me to swim. Memories were racing through my head. 

 

When I came to, I was on a highway, heading into the unknown. Suddenly, in a distance, I saw a pair of headlights. It was a tip-truck. I signaled for it to stop. A young man opened the window. 

 

"Where are you heading?" he asked, lighting a cigarette. 

 

"I need to get to town, I am walking from the cemetery." 

 

"The cemetery?" He looked surprised. "There is no cemetery here." 

 

"The city cemetery," I said tiredly. 

 

"The city cemetery!" He now looked even more surprised. "The city cemetery is 10 kilometers away from here! You've made quite a journey! Did you get lost in thought?" 

 

He looked at my sympathetically, threw the cigarette out of the window, and told me to get in: "I am going in a different direction, but I'll give you a lift. It's quite late now and cars are few and far between, plus it's getting frosty." 

 

I told him my short story. 

 

He sighed, shook his head, and then suddenly said, "I need to visit my parents. I haven't seen them for about three months. I'll take time off work tomorrow and go visit them. My mother and father live in the village. I'll bring them nice food, and will bring my wife with me." 

 

He dropped me off at a bus stop on the edge of town, wished me luck, turned his truck around and was gone. I tired to hand him five roubles, but it almost offended him. 

 

I don't remember how I got home. I felt empty inside, had no thoughts, and everything seemed grey and dull to me. I felt lonely and abandoned. Only now was I realizing who my father was to me. 

 

I went into my parents' empty house and sat on a chair in the dark. I spent a long time sitting like this, my mind empty. I was simply sitting, that's all. 

 

Why am I writing all this? In order to reconstruct the events, I suppose. Although I myself am not quite sure how real they were. Everything is mixed up now, everything seems so bizarre. Anyone reading these notes will consider me insane. 

 

Suddenly, from above, from the attic, I heard a noise. It sounded like a gritting scratch, as if a chair was being pushed away by someone's foot. I immediately felt an urge to go up there and see if things looked the same as when I was still living in this house. Six years have passed since that time, after all. I got up without taking off my coat and my hat, and started climbing up the stairs. 

 

I opened the door and stepped into the attic. The draperies of the one and only window were open. Rare snowflakes sparkled in the moonlight on the bare branches of the trees outside. The attic was lit fairly well.  

 

Off to the side, by the window, I saw a man sitting with his back to me, an easel propped up in front of him. The man was painting in quick brush strokes. I froze, not understanding what was happening, how this man got here, who he was, and why he was painting with the lights off. Suddenly he turned his head toward me. Without yet seeing his face, from the way he turned his head, I realized that this was my father.

 

My entire body got paralyzed. Not with fear, but with some kind of other force I did not recognize. I couldn't move, nor could I speak. 

 

“Here you are. I was waiting for you," I heard my father speak. 

 

I wasn't hearing the actual sound of his words but watched them appear inside my head. 

 

He continued: "Don't be afraid, don't stand like this. Sit down, and I will work for a while." 

 

He turned to the canvas and began to paint again. I couldn't even pinch myself to make sure what was happening was real. So I just stood there, thunderstruck. 

 

Father turned his head toward me again: ”You are still standing there. Sit down." 

 

He got up and walked up to me. Through his body I could dimly see the window and the easel. He moved the chair toward me, and again I heard the sound which I first heard while sitting in the hall downstairs. But I didn't sit down as usual. Instead I smoothly and fluently eased into the chair. My head was humming like a cauldron. Something inside it was faintly humming and crackling. I had no thoughts. I was enthralled by a force I had no name for and no explanation for. 

 

Finally I came to and was able to cast my mind back to the time when my father had just started painting. As if catching my train of my thought, he immediately turned his head toward me. 

 

”You haven't forgotten that I also drew very well, haven't you? Remember how I used to give you cards and gifts for the New Year parties. I, in fact, have been making those cards myself with color pencils. A year before my death I felt an urge to start painting in earnest -- with an easel, brushes, and paints. But I haven't painted many paintings. You'll see them on the walls around the house. This painting I was unable to finish, although it's my main work. Today I have come to finish what I have started." 

 

It seemed to me that I saw a bitter grin cross this face: ”You will understand later what it all means. Right now you won't be able to comprehend what is going on in a balanced way.”

 

Father (I feel strange writing this word) went back to his chair, sat down, and resumed his quick brushstrokes on the canvas. I could hardly see what was on it through his semitransparent body. So I got up to look at his work. I noticed that I was not as fearful any more. 

 

"Wait," I noticed his words inside my head. "I'll be done soon and then you'll take a look." 

 

I leaned back in my chair, began to look around me more confidently, and watched my father work. I noticed that in the moonlight I could barely see him. But in the darkness, at those moments when the clouds would obscure the Moon, his body radiated a matte bluish light. This was a transient kind of glow, and his body kept bending out of shape, distorted, like a reflection on an uneven mirrored surface. 

 

"Perhaps ghosts walk among us in daylight too," I thought, "But we don't see them." 

 

"That's right!" Father exclaimed. "In daylight there are many more people like me around." 

 

I tried to trace the process of his words appearing inside my head and realized that they first appeared in my frontal lobe, and immediately so, not word by word, but as an entire whole. I felt joy. 

 

"If one continues generating thoughts, it means one carries on living." 

 

Father looked at me reproachfully: "Do I not exist?" 

 

"He paints without his glasses on," I suddenly thought. 

 

His reply followed immediately: "What do I need the glasses for? In my state there is no farsightedness, no cancer, nothing. All of it I left behind in the material world. Although people like me too have material nature to a certain, very tiny degree." 

 

Father smiled and the glow around his body became brighter for a moment. I felt shudder of fear again. 

 

Having gathered up my courage, I asked him directly, by thinking the following question: "Papa, what is happening to me? Is this a dream?" 

 

Without turning his head to me, he said, "You will understand in the morning. In your present state you can't tell reality from a dream." 

 

He continued to paint nimbly. 

 

And then I decided to ask him the most important question of all. Having sensed it, he turned his head to me. 

 

"Papa, why you — such a flourishing man who never smoked, never drank, lived so healthily and never got sick — suddenly... died? Why? Was there a reason?”

 

Something akin to a bitter wry smile appeared on his face. Then his words began to sparkle inside my head. 

 

"I was murdered by evil, son. There is so much evil on this Earth. But there are certain people — and I, apparently, am one of them — who cannot withstand such onrush of evil. Good and evil are types of energy. And since it is energy, it has impact on people, it has impact on the nature, it affects everything that's alive. To be more precise, I was murdered by my powerlessness in the face of evil, by my inability to confront it, and by the same kind of strengthlessness that I saw all around me. I could not carry on living after stalinism. Or, to put it more precisely, I could not forget the horrors brought upon our country by communism and stalinism.” 

 

“I knew how much evil had been dispersed throughout the entire world. Stalin, Hitler, and other evil-doers taught people a lesson, and punished them for their blind faith and for their apathy, for their worship of idols. You cannot trust any chancer with your fate and you can't simply submit to a random adventurer. Many have forgotten what has been happening in our country. But I still remember. I knew exactly what has been going on from talking to my brother the Admiral, while most people chose to call facts rumors. But truth is more terrible than any rumor.”

 

“I told you before — and you may remember it — that once I tried to persuade my brother Pavel to kill Stalin. But Pavel was afraid. Many people were afraid. There were even those who used to interact with Stalin and — foreseeing their own arrest — chose to kill themselves. It’s a mystery what they were driven by. It would have been so much easier to kill that butcher instead. Stalin's killer would have become the new ruler, having shown more courage than anyone else. The elite lived like a wolf pack: might is right, the strongest man should be the leader.” 

 

“But Pavel was afraid. Then I began to beg him to take me to the Kremlin. I wanted to kill the bastard myself. But... Pavel had no courage. And this kind of powerlessness in the face of that butcher — the butcher who was the embodiment of evil in our country — was killing me.”

 

“Although Stalin is long gone and got killed by Beria (who was a butcher of the same kind as Stalin), I still feel guilt. Khrushchev did the right thing ending the terror. The massacre in Novocherkassk — I am convinced — was initiated by Khrushchev's ministers in order to discredit him. Because most of them were stalinists and were afraid they would end up going on trial for their crimes. This kind of trial was being contemplated at the time.” 

 

“As you see, evil was still getting away with it, rolling with the punches, growing stronger, celebrating its victory. I was seeing it. And I was wringing my hands in helpless pain, which was slowly killing me.” 

 

“When the protestors have been shot at in Novocherkassk, I saw it with my own very eyes, even though I was in Rostov at the time. It was a kind of vision — people falling to the ground, blood, screams. I saw young boys who were sitting on top of trees and who fell to the ground either dead or wounded after the first shrapnel burst. My heart was bursting from pain and from furious hatred I felt toward the slaughterers.” 

 

“I have never told you about my daydreams, my childhood visions But having grown up, I still go back to them. I wished I could wander around forests, meet, say, a bear, and pat his ears, give him something sweet to eat, and walk on, and meet a tiger, and fondle his fur, and take a picture. I would see myself swimming around with sharks, with dolphins, with whales. I see the Earth as my home. I don't want to be the master of this house, but simply be a cohabitant with equal rights as all other creatures, to be their friend, their brother, their protector.” 

 

“I did not want to see evil on earth, did not want there to be hatred or fear. I wanted all living things to live in harmony. You haven't noticed, perhaps, but I have stopped fishing a while ago. Because I pity the worm which needs to be impaled on a hook. I pity the fish. I don't want to make any living thing feel pain or suffer.” 

 

“Sometimes I see young guys and girls walk down the street. They would break a branch off a tree, walk with it a few steps and then throw it away. They don't care. They don't even realize that what they have just done is unkind. But I feel this violence, and it makes me ill. And it's just one example. Perhaps this is how living beings used to live in the garden of Eden, and I am somehow remembering that state. So those were my daydreams…" 

 

“Time was passing by. Then Brezhnev came to power and injustice became more prevalent, and it was painful to watch. I didn't see a glimpse of hope for this country. The bolsheviks have crippled the people, turned everything upside down. The Soviet Union has been on blood. Millions of people have paid with their lives for their refusal to submit to the bolsheviks. But things built on blood, things built on violence, and things built on lies do not endure. Justice and truth will take over sooner or later, regardless. Will people ever realize it? Truth and justice will take a long time to take root in our country."

 

“You know, with time I arrived at the conclusion that even if I did kill Stalin — or if anyone else did — the measure of evil would not reduce. First people need to change. They need to realize that they are part of planet Earth, part of the Universe, part of everything else that is alive — a thinking part of it that should take responsibility for everything that is happening. Only then will evil and suffering go away. When I first came here, I saw many people like me — those who have died under pressure of evil and I saw their inability to resist it. You wouldn't believe how many people there are who have been killed for absolutely nothing. Countless numbers. The Earth is aflame with sins perpetuated by man. The Earth itself — as one huge living being — suffers from evil too, from evil created by people.” 

"Papa, have you seen God, or ...?" I didn't finish. 

 

"No, I haven't. It's too early for me. But He exists and He spends time thinking about each of His creations who have forgotten Him, who sin, and who destroy goodness. It makes Him suffer greatly and it pains Him, because He is the Father of all that is. And He is waiting for His children to come back to their senses and become worthy of life which He gave them. And life is a miracle! Look around you and you will see nothing but miracles: how a small seed grows into a huge tree, how a tiny grain of roe develops into a fish. Everything on Earth is miraculous. But people don't notice these miracles in the humdrum of their daily lives. Although all you need is to open your eyes, to look closely, to look around, to have a quiet moment to think, and you — like everyone else — will gasp in amazement at the miraculous beauty of life.”

 

I got used to the darkness. The moonlight stopped shining through the window. The glow of Father's body by the easel ceased too. I really wanted to see what he was painting, but I suddenly felt my brain getting heavier and my thoughts getting slow and unwieldy. I wanted to ask Father what was happening, but...

 

I woke up feeling the rays of sunshine on my face. My entire body was numb. I realized that I fell asleep in the chair, still wearing my coat and hat. Icicles were melting outside, and sparrows were chirruping on the apricot tree branches. I got up slowly and straightened my back, hearing my joints make a cracking sound. At first I thought that it was all a dream. But, having rubbed my eyes, I saw the easel with the painting in front of me and the washed clean brushes resting on top of the palette. Instead of examining the painting — which I decided to do later — I went downstairs into the hall, took my coat and hat off, and began looking a round the rooms. There was a lot I needed to do around the house.

 

As I was going from one room to the next, I remembered my time growing up in this house. It was still in perfect order, I just needed to get rid of the dust and wash the floors. I went outside into the back yard and headed toward the shed. It was full of junk: old broken chairs, planks of wood, sticks, pieces of cardboard, weirdly shaped dry tree branches which Father, perhaps, had been planning to use one day. In the corner there were some wooden boxes. 

 

So I decided to free up some space and began to take all the junk outside, placing it by the gate, thinking to burn it all later. Then I got rid of the spiderwebs inside the barn, swept the gray tiled floor and went into the small back garden to see if there was any junk there. 

 

Two apricot trees, an apple tree, a cherry tree, and a pear tree slept peacefully, covered by snow. Between the outhouse and the shower stall there were more dried branches, so I began transferring them to my pile of junk. But all this while I kept thinking about the painting. While I was working like an automaton, I kept going back in my mind to that painting and the phenomenal strangeness of last night's events. Behind the house I found some old window frames — damp, useless, their casements bent out of shape. I added them to the pile of junk. 

 

I got thirsty and went into the kitchen. There I found a few cans of fish in the fridge and a packet of pasta on a shelf above the kitchen table. There were potatoes in a box by the kitchen sink and I peeled some, throwing a piece of butter onto a frying pan along with the chopped potatoes. I opened a can of gobies in tomato sauce and peeled and sliced an onion. 

 

My simple lunch reminded me of my student years when I used to get home, cook something quickly and sit down with my books. Father used to often help me. Having had a lot experience in military ship-building, he could answer any question, and not just answer it, but give me exhaustive information based on real-life examples. I finished eating and went into the yard. 

 

It was getting dark and I decided to make a bonfire. I took a stack of old newspapers, a heap of old bits of wallpaper, and grabbed a bunch of splinters which lay in a box under the workbench. The paper didn't light at first, as the evening breeze kept putting the fire away, so I bent over it, protecting the lit match from the wind with my body. The fire finally flared up, ran along the piece of paper, licked a splinter, and began to burn with full force, embracing wooden boxes and dry tree branches. And I went back into the house to finally look at the painting. 

 

It was approximately sixty by fifty inches in a simple, varnished wooden frame. And it made an odd impression. At first it looked to me like chaos. I kept examining it for a long time, then turned it upside down, but still couldn't figure out anything at all. I kept looking at it from many different angles, and finally was able to distinguish separate fragments which started to come to life. The longer I was looking at it, the more small details I was seeing. 

 

In the foreground I saw what looked like vast territory surrounded by a forest. There was something familiar about this space and I began to think. Finally I had it. This island — as I began to call this territory — looked like the Moscow Region, the way I saw it on maps at school in geography lessons. I remembered it well because once I got a fail grade for not doing my homework — having spent the previous evening tobogganing instead — and the teacher told me to learn it or else. The next day I was reciting back what I've memorized on the subject quite briskly to her. 

 

The entire territory, which looked like and island, was surrounded by a fence made of thick rods. It was a fence of a kind no one could ever climb over. From above this island was covered with a huge net held in place by incredibly tall metal masts which were sticking out of the ground everywhere. So this island looked more like an enormous cage. Up on a hill I saw a town fortress, which was a copy of the Kremlin, but the Spasskaya Tower, which looked somewhat pathetic, was missing its clock and its gate. Its brickwork looked dilapidated, its star wasn't there, and its broach spire was tilting in a way that made one think it could tumble down at any moment. 

 

The Mausoleum was tilting too and looked decrepit, its stairs broken. On top of it I saw huge granite statues of Hitler and Stalin. A winding dirt road was leading up to it — all pits and bumps — and a boom gate marked the beginning of it, decorated with human skulls dangling off pieces of barbed wire. An emaciated man, wearing nothing but his underpants, was chained to the boom gate, and sat by it in a shabby gilded armchair, reading Pravda. On his chest tattoos depicting Lenin and Stalin were discolored to blue. 

 

All around the island I saw human bones and skills scattered on the ground, children playing with them. They would pour sand into holes in the skulls and it would glide, shimmering, out the eye sockets. It evidently amused them. Some kids banged skills with thigh-bones, and the sound delighted both children and adults, making passersby laugh. The island was divided into sections by rusty rows of barbed wire which hung off rickety poles. Many of those poles were capped with crowns, church candle holders, human skulls, and on top of one pole I saw a priest's headdress. 

 

As I was strolling across the island, I kept asking myself what was going on. There were ugly statues all around. One I recognized to be Genghiz Khan, the other one — which had its arms missing — looked like Ivan the Terrible. Another one, which stood by the boom gate, looked to me like Pol Pot. He was depicted holding a dagger with a human head impaled on it. On the edge of the island a huge statue was towering, tilted forward. It was a miracle how it hasn't fallen already. It was Brezhnev wearing a tsar's crown, and instead of a tie a red star was hanging off his neck on a chain. 

 

A column of people was marching toward the Mausoleum, carrying portraits of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, Brezhnev, Khrushchev, Bokassa, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and some others. I wasn’t recognizing them all, because the portraits weren't that big. The column now approached the boom gate. The man in the underpants got up, saluted them, shouted "Glory!" three times and raised the boom gate bar. Children — young pioneers wearing red scarves — where also among the marching people. They were beating their drums, blowing their trumpets, and singing praises to the regime. But what kind of regime it was, I didn't know. Of all their words I could only make out "Glory to the great and wise one!” The ones in front were proudly carrying a huge placard which said in golden lettering: "Peace deserves peace!" I looked closely and noticed that many children carried machine guns and grenade launchers over their shoulders. Some had grenades and guns hanging off their belts. 

I was standing to the side, looking at this absurdity and trying to figure out if this was all a dream or not. Meanwhile the column approached the entrance to the Mausoleum and stopped. A thin man in a t-shirt of some indefinite color came out of the Mausoleum. On the front of his t-shirt there was a red star and a black skull with bones. He was wearing red harem trousers and slippers on his bare feet. After shaking hands with the leader of the column he went back inside the Mausoleum. Soon he re-emerged, pushing a rusty wheelchair and then... I wave of fear, disgust, and confusion came over me as I saw that the passenger of the wheelchair was a half-decomposed corpse of Lenin, tied to the wheelchair by a rope. Immediately drums and trumpets began to sound, and the people began to chant: "Glory! Glory! Glory!" Then everything went quiet. 

 

An old man emerged from the column ranks, wearing a suit and tie. He smoothed the hair on his head  — which looked like a clothes iron — coughed, bowed to the corpse, opened some sort of journal and began — in all seriousness — to read a presentation about achievements and successes of the Island of Happy People, as he called this piece of land surrounded by the forest and the fences. Everyone else was listening attentively.

Suddenly from the far end of the island I heard booming shots being fired. I looked into the distance and saw cannons on top of a hill, shooting in the direction of the forest. Beside me three young pioneers were having a quiet conversation. I asked them about the cannons in a whisper.

One of them answered patronizingly that "enemies are everywhere" and that the cannons were meant to deter them. 

"The enemy must know that we are always in the state of alert," the pioneer continued proudly. 

 

I raised an eyebrow and remarked that I couldn't see any enemies. 

 

"It just seems quiet," replied the pioneer. "The enemies are all around us; the great and wise one tells us that the enemies wait in the woods and their long-term aim is to conquer us and turn us into slaves." 

 

I replied, ”You are wrong — you are surrounded by developed countries. These countries have millions of people who work, study, invent things, bear children out of love, and live their lives to the full, not the way you live here. They don't even know that you exist. And even if they did, they wouldn't conquer you because they have no need to do so — they respect human rights." 

 

The pioneer got angry: "I don't need to hear your fairy tales. Are you telling me that the great and wise one is telling lies? And that these enemy tanks and enemy cannons are an illusion? Where are you from? You need to be arrested..." 

 

But then the trumpets began to play their music again and everyone started to praise the great and wise one. The pioneer got distracted, and I went my way. 

Scorched tanks and cannons were scattered everywhere across this mysterious island. Here and there tails of crashed airplanes were sticking from the ground. I asked a disheveled passerby where these tanks and cannons had come from. He replied that many years ago the Island of Happy People was attacked by an enemy. The enemy claimed he wanted to set the islanders free from its "dictator" — the word the enemy used to describe the great and wise one. 

 

"But our great and wise ruler got to the bottom of the enemy's plan and explained to us that the enemy wanted to conquer us and turn us all into slaves, so we all — as one — rose to protect the great and wise one. He gave us weapons and we won. So this enemy equipment which we destroyed stays here to remind our descendants of how cunning our enemy was and how glorious the deeds of our ancestors are, who triumphed over the enemy." 

 

I had nothing to say to this poor man. 

 

As I continued my walk across the island, I got puzzled by heaps and puddles of excrements I kept seeing almost everywhere. Perhaps people were so busy expressing their love and for the authorities that they kept forgetting to clean up after themselves. By the edge of the island I saw a dozen people digging the sand with sticks, looking for something. From time to time a person would bend over, pick up a rock and put it in their belt bag. 

 

I approached them and asked what they were doing. An old man who looked exhausted looked me straight in the eye with a tired gaze and replied apathetically: "We are collecting painite; every time we gather 100 kilograms, a helicopter lands here and takes it away." 

 

I asked what painite was and what uses it had. 

 

The old man began to think and poked around the sand with the thumb of his right foot. 

 

"They say it's used in making some sort of weapon. Painite is very expensive. Rich countries buy it. Back in their won countries they have to mine it deep underground and it's very difficult and expensive. While here you can pick it straight out of sand. It seems like it comes to the surface from the depth of the earth, so we are lucky.” He sighed. 

 

I said, "I see that you are not really working, but..." 

 

The old man interrupted me: "This is our work. We take turns looking for painite." 

 

He started to think again. Then he pointed toward some crumbling buildings with his stick: "Those used to be factory workshops before. There was production going on there and business was being done there. Now all of it is abandoned and we are collecting for painite." 

 

I asked, "What will you do if you run out of painite?" 

 

He replied, "The great and wise one will think of something. We don't have to worry about tomorrow." 

 

And the old man walked off, continuing to poke the sand with his stick. And I continued on my journey across the island. 

In the middle of it, in a small ravine, stood a couple of dozen of old one-story barracks. Some were put together from planks of unvarnished wood. Others were brick.

 

Both types looked shabby and sordid. Window frames were out of shape and many had window glass missing. Thin grass grew on roofs.

 

Laundry was drying in the back yards, hung on ropes stretched between rusty pipes dug into the ground. By the barracks children were playing with skulls and bones. 

 

A disheveled woman came out of one barrack and I asked her whose houses those were. 

 

She looked at me with surprise, glanced around uneasily, and replied, "We live here. Everyone lives like this." Then she thought for a while and whispered, "The great and wise one entrapped us, so we have nothing now but his empty promises..." 

She didn't finish, as a thin man came out of the barrack, saying, "Tatiana, don't talk to strangers. Or do you want to find yourself behind the barbed wire?" 

I asked the man why I could see human bones everywhere, why children were allowed to play with them, and why human remains remained unburied.  

 

"Those are bones of the executed enemies of the great and wise one, and he ordered the children to play with them for educational purposes. So everyone is used to it now."

 

"Do you enjoy this kind of life?" I asked. 

 

"What can you do?” He replied quietly, looking around cautiously. "You can't escape this place because an impassable forest surrounds it, plus it is mine-studded." The man sighed. "Everyone knows how things are here, but people are afraid to be put behind barbed wire or to be executed. So they pretend to be loyal and idea-driven. People don't trust each other. Denunciations are endemic. If you report your neighbor to the authorities and you are implicated too, you will only get a reprimand."

 

"But you are telling me all this, which means you are not afraid," I answered in a low voice. 

 

“I am afraid," he replied calmly. "But I am telling you all this because my execution has been postponed and for now I live at home. But the issue is not the postponement, but the fact that I am the only one who is able to grade the quality of painite. This is why I still live here."

 

"Tell me," I said, "where does this painite stuff come from? You people have been collecting it for so many years and still haven't exhausted it..."

 

"I don't know." The man paused to think. "Perhaps the earth produces it, kind of squeezes it out, gets rid of it. But when I examine the same patches day after day, I simply come across it, as if someone plants it here stealthily. It's strange. It surprises me every time." He went silent for a while and then added, "Go in that direction and there you will see thоse who have been sentenced to death. They will tell you about our life here. Their fate is their own fault. They once believed in the promises of the great and wise one — as he calls himself — without realizing that, in fact, he is simply an adventurer. So now they find themselves in a cage. Once our country was enormous. We didn't have it all, but our life was a hundred times better than it is now. But then the great and wise one seized power, promising us all a better life, promising to end denunciations, to end corruption, and bring down crime. However, only his henchmen prosper now. The country is falling to pieces. To stay in power he began to sell land. Now you can see how much we have left. And were are you from? I haven't see you here before."

 

"I am here by accident. I am from another world. Our world is not perfect, but better than yours. In the past our country too had been under the heel of butchers, thieves, and adventurers. But we got rid of them. The consequences, however, still show. There will be some time before we start living like other normal countries."

 

The man looked over his shoulder and said in a voice full of regret, "I don't think we'll ever see normal life." He sighed and added, "If you ever get out of here, tell people outside what is happening here, and tell them that we are asking for help..."

 

"The outside world can help you, but you yourselves need to act so that the world could see your striving for a normal life. If all of you are seen supporting this nightmare, who will help you? I have just been speaking to some young pioneers and they told me they were happy..."

 

"Pioneers?" He laughed. "Pioneers are children and it's easy to deceive them. They don't know what a normal life is. Their parents are forbidden under penalty of death to tell them how life used to be before. Plus children are allowed to see their parents only once a month. And if parents start telling their children about the old days, the children run to their teachers and... You can see bones of some of those parents under your feet." 

 

He went quiet for a moment, then looked cautiously around and continued in a whisper, "Old people — who are now long dead — used to tell me that the forest which surrounds us is not simply a forest. That in fact the great and wise one planted an impenetrable thicket there with a mine under each tree, so that no one could approach us and so that we couldn't escape. Plus there is barbed wire everywhere, making it impossible for us to see beyond it. And making it impossible for others to see us. All he needs is painite. And we are his slaves. Old people used to say that he once hired a bunch of villains to attack and frighten us. He gave our local fools weapons and told them to resist the thugs. None of the thugs have lost their lives, while many of our people got killed. Later the great and wise one ordered to have these scorched tanks, airplanes and cannons scattered all over the place. And then he began telling young people that this machinery had been abandoned by the enemy in a battle. Even some old folks believe this, although they saw with their own eyes how this rusty equipment was being brought in by helicopters. The great and wise one then congratulated everyone on their victory and made that day an annual holiday and a day when everyone gets lots of food and vodka. Then he introduced his own laws. He has a great life because painite is expensive. He and his henchmen grow richer, and we suffer." 

 

The man sighed and added, "Well, it's time for me to get to work. That painite needs sorting. A new batch will soon be ready." He walked off and soon his hunched back and sunken shoulders disappeared behind the barracks.         

 

And I continued on my journey across the island, pondering what I have just heard. After having walked for about 300 feet in the direction pointed to me by the man, at the far end of the island, behind barbed wire, I saw a group of people. They were sitting and lying on the ground. Some were strolling to and fro. I approached them and asked why they were behind the barbed wire. 

 

A bearded, well-beseen, elderly man told me that he used to be a priest, but did not praise the great and wise one highly enough to his congregation, so he ended up getting arrested. A thin young man told me that he was a poet and had been arrested for his poems which seldom mentioned the great and wise one. 

 

Then an old man came up to me and said that he had been arrested for sympathizing with the enemy. 

 

I asked him who the enemy was and if anyone could see him. 

 

"The enemies are all around us, they make it impossible for us to live the way the great and wise one wants us to live," replied an old woman leaning on her wonky walking stick. 

 

I told them that their island was isolated, so there could be no enemies around. 

 

"You can't see them but they exist, and they can attack us," replied the old woman angrily, bugging out her eyes. "But we will drive them back, together with the great and wise one, just like we did many years ago."

 

 

These people were examining me with curiosity and fear. I asked them another question, this time why there were statues of Stalin, Hitler, and other murderers all over the place. 

 

They all replied in unison that those weren't murderers, and that they had the people's best interest at hart, but enemies belied them and consequently got punished. 

 

I asked them who and when was going to put them on trial. 

 

The priest replied calmly that there would be no trial, and that the mere fact of their arrest proved their guilt. They were soon going to be executed, he said, and called it a just decision: "One must be accountable to the people and to the great and wise one for one's mistakes and crimes."

 

Among these poor people there was a woman about 30 years of age wearing a swimming suit. She had a beautiful figure and a nice face. She said she had been arrested for not caressing the great and wise one with enough love. Then she added that the accusation was fair, as at the time she had been in a foul frame of mind. 

 

"So you have seen the great and wise one?" I asked. "What is he like?"

 

She hesitated, cast down her eyes, and whispered, "He would always invite me to the same darkened room, so I never saw him."

 

"Well, maybe he's a cripple, or not even human at all!" I exclaimed.

 

"Are you mad?! How dare you speak this way?!" The old woman yelled. "He is the most beautiful and intelligent human!"

 

"But you haven't seen him. How do you know?"

 

"So what?” Said the old woman — arms akimbo and looking at me angrily. "He loves us all!"

 

The younger woman continued, "He is covered in muscles all over. He used to tell me that he had been practicing some kind of Japanese martial art." She smiled. "He is short. Once he opened up and told me that he had killed his wife after she started criticizing him and his henchmen. He himself is a former security officer. Security is an organization which used to spy on everyone and catch enemies.” 

 

"Such organizations exist in every country," I said. "But they are accountable to the legislature, to the prosecutors, to the government, and to presidents. They have no right to spy on a person without their permission."

 

A long-haired young man told me he had been arrested for the fact that his music did not contain enough patriotic notes. 

 

"But how can you determine the degree of patriotism in music?" I exclaimed.

 

"The great and wise man can do everything," the composer replied.

 

My indignation made it difficult for me to find the right words. I began telling them about human rights and tried to make them see the point of fight for one’s rights. I told them that it was absurd to execute people without trial and without investigation. I told them that death penalty had been abolished in all democratic countries. 

 

A gray-haired comely old woman stepped forward and spoke confidently, "The great and wise one cannot be wrong. He knows everything. And if he says we have done something wrong, it means we have done something wrong."

 

"But where is this great and wise one right now? Where is he?" I asked. 

 

An elderly man replied, "We haven't ever seen him, but is it that important? He feeds us, he takes care of us, he loves us. Every week a helicopter lands here carrying food and clothing for us. And it takes away the painite we have gathered."

 

I asked them whose body lay in the Mausoleum. The woman in a swimming suit replied that the Mausoleum was being occupied by the mentor of the great and wise one. 

 

I was looking at these people who seemed utterly insane to me, and seeing their determined assuredness, started to wonder whether what they were saying was actually true because their authenticity — although it seemed like madness — animated their spirit. The way they reasoned overwhelmed me. 

 

"Aren't you afraid of facing death without your guilt proven and without having had a trial?" I asked them. 

 

"We are prepared to die at any time for the great and wise one!" Shouted the woman in a swimming suit, adjusting her top.

 

"But do you see yourselves as guilty? Do you agree with this injustice?"

 

"There is no injustice," replied a bespectacled young man. "The great and wise one is the most just person on earth. Every five years we vote for him."

 

"But how can you call this election if he is the only candidate?" I said indignantly. 

 

"We don't need any other candidates," replied the young man with amazing confidence. "We love the great and wise one. He's been ruling our country for 30 years and we are happy. Before he ruled without any elections, but then he told us that it was undemocratic to continue this way, and so he introduced elections. See how just he is. He takes care of the people..." 

 

"What makes you so delighted? Don't you know that beyond that forest — as you call it — there are many countries where people lead normal lives in their apartments and in their houses. They study, fall in love, get married, have children, earn income, own cars. They travel when they get time off work. And if someone there commits a crime, that crime is investigated, and an investigation is followed by a trial, and if a person is found guilty, he or she is kept under humane conditions. Death penalty there has long been abolished. But look around you. You live among total desolation. You have shit lying around everywhere. You have no roads. Your houses are falling apart. Everything is in a state of collapse. You have a giant scrap heap all around you, which looks almost like a cemetery. You have human bones scattered around everywhere. You are deprived of your rights. Slaves used to have it better than you. You... you..." I began to gasp for air. "You will end up getting murdered without trial and without being found guilty. Wake up…"

 

"Security! Security!" A handsome man in a tie began to shout. "We have an enemy here, seize him!"

 

A middle-aged man came running up to me, and I noticed how strangely he was dressed. A large jacket which was obviously passed down to him by someone else was hanging off his shoulders, decorated with Tzarist and Soviet military medals which were attached to its front and its back. His trousers were green, with red seam stripes. A pair of handcuffs hung off his neck, with a pair of binoculars attached to them. A rusty sheathless simitar sword hung off his belt. On his head he wore a pointed cloth helmet with a red star at the front. 

I had no chance to say or do anything as he grabbed me with both of his hands and threw me across the barbed wire fence. I fell in the dust and hurt my hip as it hit the ground. 

 

"Another enemy has been neutralized!" The man shouted and the crowd behind the barbed wire fence began to applaud joyfully. 

 

He took a tattered notebook from his inside breast pocket and addressed all the arrested: "What is his crime?" He jabbed his dirty knotty finger in my direction. 

 

"This stranger urged us to fight for our rights!" The young woman in a swimming suit yelled. 

 

The security guard took an ink pencil out of his pocket, licked it, and began to write.   

 

Tense anxiety shook my body. Then all my strength left me, I went limp, tumbled on my back, and lost all sense of myself. 

 

I regained my consciousness stretched on the floor in my room, next to an overturned chair. The painting lay on the floor by the window. I couldn't lift up my head for a long while and wasn't able to discern what was real and what was still a vision brought on by the painting. But perhaps it wasn't a vision, but simply a dream. I didn't feel quite myself and my side was aching. Having stayed on the floor for a while, I finally came to, got up and went down the stairs with a heavy head, squirming from the pain in my side. 

 

It grew dark outside and my bonfire was now burning high. There was no wind, but the fire was darting and fluttering from side to side, spurts of flame flying into the darkness. I stood for a long time staring at the fire. It made invisible everything else that was in front of me — the gate, the fence, and my neighbors' houses across the street. It started to seem to me that the fire was consuming everything that was alive and that I was standing in the middle of a fiery whirlwind. 

 

I stood there for a long time when the fire suddenly blazed up into my face and I began to smell burnt hair. I touched my face and realized that the fire had burned off my eyelashes and parts of my eyebrows. I opened the gate and went into the street. In the distance full Moon was rising behind the high-rise buildings. It was huge and bright yellow. An unpleasant premonition began to worry me. I felt something dreary and lonesome creeping up. Behind me, through the open gate, I could see the dancing fire and my own gigantic shadow jumping from building to building on the other side of the street. It looked like some kind of colossus was trying to destroy those houses. 

 

To the left and to the right from me, in both directions, a deserted street was stretching, and it started to seem that those weren't houses lining up on the street, but merely their shadows. I got back to my yard, to the blazing fire, added a couple of broken chairs to it, some large dry tree branches, two empty boxes, a stack of old newspapers and a heap of old wallpaper shreds. The fire abated, as if gathering up its strength. I spent a few moments standing next to it, and then went back to the house, slowly climbing up the stairs, and thinking over the recent events. 

 

My mind was reeling and my thoughts darted around like spurts of flame. I have decided to take another look at the painting. I wanted to get to the bottom of what my father had intended to depict and to understand how he had managed to animate the inanimate. And I had no doubt that the painting was animated. After all, just a few minutes ago I was wandering across its landscape and was talking to the inhabitants of the Happy Island. But was it really the paining I have managed to enter and explore? Was this sort of thing at all possible? My thoughts were in disarray and I was unable to come up with an explanation. I was unable to comprehend the message of this painting my father was trying to convey.       

 

I picked up the painting from the floor and laid it on the desk. Then I picked up the overturned chair and put it up straight. To be able to see the painting properly, I took two stacks of books off a shelf and propped the painting up between them. I sat down on the chair and began to scrutinize the already familiar details of this mysterious image. Again I had to strain my eyes in order to decipher all the details. 

 

I came back, finding myself lying in the sand on my side. The condemned people gathered around me. My side was aching. 

 

"He came to," the woman in a swimming suit laughed. "You got what you deserved. It's none of your business teaching us how we should live. Don't assume you know everything." She stood over me, arms akimbo, and continued, "We didn't ask for you to come here and to..."

 

The priest interrupted her: "Yes. We are no less intelligent than you. Even death can't force us to stop loving the great and wise one. People are always grumbling about this and that, no matter how much good you do for them. We know this. The great and wise one takes care of our ancestors who have perished battling the enemy. And he takes care of us. We know how to value his attention and how to be grateful for his love..."

 

"We are patriots," another man continued, the one who had been sentenced to death for sympathizing with the enemy. And he said it with such panache, thrusting out his chest and throwing back his head, that I stopped doubting the sincerity of these condemned people.

 

So the best thing I could do was to remain silent. I now knew that these people indeed believed what they were saying. Otherwise what would have been the point of pretending to be loyal to the great and wise one, if you were to be executed at any minute. Still, my indignation hasn’t left me. And somewhere inside my very being I was fearing for my life. So I began to think how I could climb over the barbed wire and escape. The last thing I wanted was to die together with these nutballs. Especially knowing that I was a foreigner and an outsider in this place. 

 

I got up and stepped aside. Everyone was looking at me, waiting for me to say something. 

 

"You don't value your own lives, because what you have here can't be called a life," I blurted out. "This is why you are so unperturbed by the prospect of death. Death to you is a way out of your servile existence. Your self-preservation instinct is extinguished. A swindler and a villain tricked you. He is simply taunting you and gets pleasure out of it. And you..." But I couldn't finish as the condemned hurled themselves at me, punching and kicking me.  

 

"Stop it! Stop!" A man wearing the white jacket shouted. 

 

He yanked his sword out of the rope loop which hung off his belt and waived it. Everyone went quiet. 

 

"See how virtuous the great and wise one is," the young poet said to me. "His assistant prevented us  just now from killing you for the slanderous lies you were telling about him and about us. Now it should be clear to you that your judgements were wrong. Or, to be clearer, that your slander insulted our patriotic feelings toward the great and wise one. And insulted the great and wise one too."

 

Everyone clapped in approval and began to shout slogans praising the great and the wise one. 

 

At that moment a man wearing red harem trousers and a t-shirt with skull and bones came up to us. He was the Mausoleum attendant. He took a roll of paper out of his inner breast pocket, unrolled it, and began to read: "The great and wise one announces today's date and the following two days a holiday marking the occasion of the birth of his second daughter. All free citizens will receive unexpired food and vodka. All those condemned to capital punishment will be executed immediately in order to put an end to their suffering produced by anticipation of their execution. Long live the great and wise one! Praise the father of our people! Our Happy Island is synonymous to the great and wise one. The great and wise one is synonymous to the Happy Island. The great and wise one shields us from misery and from our enemies who would otherwise conquer us and turn us into slaves!" 

 

He put his piece of paper away and pulled on a piece of dirty rope which hung from somewhere above. This released a rope ladder attached to the mesh overhead, which came down tumbling, unrolling.              

             

The guard in a white jacket grabbed it and shouted: "Climb up! Quickly! Don't make me wait! The longer I'm here with you, the less time I'll have left to party..."

 

And he started climbing the rope ladder, like a seaman. His sword was dangling off his belt, sparkling in the rays of the setting sun. The priest crossed himself and followed him, followed by the poet and the woman in a swimming suit. 

 

When everyone climbed up and stood on wooden shields knocked together from narrow planks of wood, the guard yelled to me angrily to climb up. 

 

"I am not climbing anywhere," I replied fearfully, my voice shaking. "I am here by accident. I am a stranger here. I am not a slave and I am not a madman... I... I haven't done anything."

 

But suddenly someone grabbed me from behind and wound a rope around my body. The end of that rope was somewhere above my head. The guard, helped by the poet and the woman in a swimming suit, started pulling me up — yo-heave-ho. The rest were clapping and praising the great and wise one loudly for his kindness. I was straining for air — completely frightened — and began to shout and kick. But... Here I am standing next to them up on the duckboard, fidgeting, happy to be alive. And underneath, rubbing his hands, I can see the Mausoleum attendant.  

 

"Now come here," said the guard and led us along the grill bars. "Be careful not to fall in and become more trouble than you already are."

 

"You lie here," he addressed the woman in a swimming suit. 

 

"And you come here," he said to the priest who was crossing himself all the time.

 

Soon everyone was lying on top of the grill mesh. 

 

He came up to me: "What are you standing here for? Hoping to escape? No one is looking for you there," and he waved his hand toward the forest. "A man is a wolf to another man over there. Only the great and wise one cares about people and thinks about each and every one of us. Lie down."

 

As if hypnotized, I lay down on the ribbed reinforcement bars and shook. The guard lifted up the rope ladder, coiled it and tied it to the grill with a sailor's knot. Then carefully he walked toward the other side of the grill mesh — nearest to where the Mausoleum was — and climbed down using another rope ladder. We all lay quietly where he left us.  

Underneath the bells the Saint Basil's Cathedral began to ring. From above I could see a stream of people beginning to surround the Cathedral. Then the grill mesh shook and I saw the hellish midget with Mongol-like features walking on top of it in his huge iron-shod boots, leather trousers, his torso bare, spreading his muscles. In his right hand he carried a huge axe, its head down.  

 

He came up to the woman in a swimming suit who lay face down on the grill mesh and swung his axe. Her head, now separate from her body, following his massive blow, was falling down slowly in front of my eyes. It was spinning in the air, blood gushing out of it, eyes swirling, and mouth opening in a silent convulsive scream. Her body — right where a second ago her head has been — was spurting blood, tendons and shreds of skin hanging off it. The head landed in a pool of feces, among the dirty rags, broken bottles, empty food cans, used toilet paper and other filth. The midget continued walking, grinning viciously, and kept hitting people with his axe. Human heads were falling down into pools of waste. The crowd gathered by the Saint Basil's Cathedral roared in rapture and ululated. He approached me and was now raising his axe. I saw its blade covered in blood and the vicious gaze of the butcher, who hissed, like a snake, "I am the great and wise one, and you dared to defy me..." 

I jumped out of my chair, shaking, grabbed the painting and tumbled down the stairs, skipping steps and tripping up. All I wanted was to get rid of the terrible painting. The bonfire was burning in full force, throwing flames in all directions, as if wanting to ignite everything around it. With joy and relief I threw the painting in. For a second the flames went quiet. Then they began to lick the frame, the canvas, as if getting the first taste of it. Soon the painting was burning. 

 

The flames shot upwards, reaching 30 feet high, as if this wasn't a paining but a pool of fuel. And suddenly an inhuman roar emanated from amidst the fire, and I saw the midget thrashing around in the middle of it, swinging his axe madly. He tried to escape the heat, but the fire, as if it was a living being, encircled him and kept him captive. His trousers were now burning, as well as his skin. The handle of his axe was aflame, and he let go of it. He was now bending over, bellowing something incomprehensible. He tried to bolt several times out of the fire, but it held him unyieldingly and he fell to his knees. The fire was eating him alive and for several more seconds he roared like an animal, thrashing convulsively in his death throes. 

 

Then I saw the Mausoleum burning. Lenin's corpse in its rusty wheelchair rolled out of it. The ropes which held it in place were now ablaze. The corpse came to life. It began to growl, viciously boring its eyes into the space in front of it. It tried to get rid of the burning ropes and jump out of the fire, but to no avail. It was as if the fire knew that here was one thing it couldn't let go of, couldn't leave alive. So it swallowed him. I could only hear the gnashing of the burning monster's teeth. 

 

The Saint Basil's Cathedral was burning vigorously. I saw the stampeding crowd of people who just a moment ago were joyously celebrating the execution of the condemned. Their screams were blood-curling. Statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other butchers were burning and coming to life. They too were trying to jump out of the fire, but to no avail. The flames was simply eating them alive. Pol Pot tossed the severed head from his dagger and tried to escape the heat, waving it around and hacking at the thrashing, burning people. But the fire held him tightly. He fell to the ground, jerked, and howled like a pack of wolves. In a few seconds I saw how he waived his dagger for the last time and the fire drew the curtain over him forever. 

 

Two half-rotten wooden boxes lay nearby and I threw them into the fire. At that moment the wind blew in my direction, a thousand sparks flashed, and the fire liked my hand. I didn't feel any pain and it surprised me. Very carefully I stretched out my other hand toward the fire and it began to run up and down my arm, as if playing with me. Then I immersed my entire arm in it, and it didn't burn. It didn't see me as an enemy or as a scoundrel, or as a butcher, or as a beast. It was alive, like everything else on Earth, and I realized that just like the Earth itself it wanted to rid the world of evil. I spoke to the fire: "Thank you for saving the world from evil." 

 

Neighbors were now out in the street, screaming. Windows of the high-rise buildings on the other side of the road lit up and people who lived there stood on their balconies, shouting, demanding to know what was going on. 

 

Then I heard the sound of a siren. A police car was approaching. Two policemen came into my yard. By this time the fire began to subdue, coming down to human height, and wasn't looking so dangerous and frightening anymore. The awful screams emanating from it stopped.

 

"What is going on here?" A policeman wearing lieutenant shoulder straps asked in a shaken voice. "We got a phone call telling us you were burning someone alive here. Those screams were terrifying. We received so many calls."

 

"I am not burning anyone. I am simply getting rid of garbage." I tried to speak calmly. "I haven't heard any screams."

 

“That is strange," the officer said slowly. "We got about a dozen calls from frightened people, your neighbors."

 

He came up to the bonfire and started to look into the flame. Half-dressed and anxious-looking people from the neighboring houses began to gather in front of my yard. Many were dressed in random pieces of clothing — the first things they could find. Two men had nothing on but their underpants and slippers. Women were wearing bathrobes. They were all talking to each other, trying to get a look of what was going on in my back yard. 

 

The fire began to die down. The sun was rising. It was nearly morning. The night was over before I knew it. 

 

The officer took my weed raker which stood by the gate, and which I used to gather up trash to be burned, and began to rake fading coals. A huge axe suddenly showed with its almost entirely burned-down handle, and then the charred bones and skull of the midget. 

 

"What is it?!" The officer exclaimed. "Can't you see? Those are human bones and skull. You have killed a man and are now getting rid of evidence."

 

He continued raking red fading coals, revealing more bones and skulls. He threw the weed raker aside. 

 

"Sasha, take him," he shouted to his partner. 

 

They grabbed me and put me in handcuffs. 

 

"Wait, wait," I tried to stop them. "I haven't killed anyone. I am not a criminal. I threw a painting in the bonfire. But things in that painting came to life, including this midget with his axe. Look! Would I be able to overpower him? A human can't lift up this axe, even a very powerful human. Try it. This is some kind of sorcery. None of it is my fault."

 

The officer tried to drag the axe out of the bonfire with the weed raker, but couldn't do it. The weed raker's teeth just got bent out of shape. 

 

"Since you refuse to explain anything, we are now calling in the detectives and letting them establish what went on here."

 

Then he addressed his partner: "It's a weird case, Sasha. We should let the bosses decide what to do."

 

He then went into the street and asked the people to go back to their homes. 

 

An hour later my back yard was full of policemen and people in plain clothes who ordered everyone to get back into the street. They took me inside the house and questioned me, recording everything I said on a portable recording machine and filming my testimony on camera. Then I and the two policemen who initially attended were told to sign non-disclosure agreements. 

 

A police van drove up to the house and took me to the mental hospital. As I was being led outside, I saw a truck being loaded with charred bones and skulls. The enormous axe was being taken too. Two people were loading it onto the truck, barely able to lift it.

 

We have been staying in the mental hospital for almost a year. They told us we were going to get treatment. But treatment for what? We are healthy people and we don't have any aches or pains. We are being fed well and are able to go out for strolls in the inner yard. But we can't communicate with other patients. They are keeping us apart from them. We have books and newspapers. The hospital's personnel are not allowed to talk to us. A few days ago I read in Pravda that the president has decided to lease a huge territory in the Far East of our country to the Chinese.

 

I also feel that I have finally understood my father's idea behind that painting. It depicts evil which used to exist on planet Earth and which still exists on it. He wanted to subsequently burn that painting in order to get rid of that evil. Although I may be wrong. Alongside with that evil all the people who lived surrounded by it perished too. Perhaps that's the way it should be. After all, they weren't resisting that evil but instead were adapting themselves to it, kept praising it, and many felt happy living surrounded by evil while knowing that it was wrong. Does this mean that those people constituted part of that evil?

          

Rostov-on-Don, 2017 

Translated by Alissa Ordabai.

All paintings by Vitold Abankin.