by Yuri Olesha Edit

Translated from Russian by Oleg Bogdanov . Originally published in Niva 1935

YURI OLESHA is a prominent Soviet writer, author of many volumes of stories, sketches, and plays.

I went into the country on Sunday to see Natasha. There were three more guests besides myself: two girls and Boris Mikhailovich. Natasha's brother, Erastus, took the two girls for a sail on the river, while we others Natasha, Boris Mikhailovich and I went off into the woods. We sat down to rest in a sunlit clearing. Natasha raised her head and suddenly her face looked to me a shining porcelain saucer.

Natasha treated me as an equal, but with Boris Mikhailovich she behaved as if he was much older; she looked up to him in fact. She knew that I found this very disagreeable, and that I envied Boris Mikhailovich, so, from time to time, she would take me by the hand and, no matter what was said, ask me:

" That's true, Fedya, isn't it?"

As if she was asking my forgiveness in a roundabout way.

We started to talk about birds, because a funny bird note had rung out just then from the thicket. I remarked that I had never seen a thrush in my life and asked what it looked like.

At that moment a bird flew out across the clearing and perched on a branch over our heads. It did not so much sit as stand, swinging, on the bough. It blinked and I decided that birds' eyes were not in the least pretty, because they had no brows, but the lids were strongly marked,

"What's that?" I asked in a whisper. "Is it a thrush?"

There was no reply. I turned my back to them, so that my jealous glance removed, they might enjoy their tête-à-tête in peace. I watched the bird. Glancing round suddenly, I caught a glimpse of Boris Mikhailovich stroking Natasha's cheek. The hand seemed to say: let the poor slighted young fellow watch the birds, if he likes. But I no longer saw the bird. I was listening. I caught the .sound of a kiss as their lips parted. I did not look around, but they knew they had been caught for they saw me start.

"Is that a thrush?" I asked again.

The bird took flight up through the tree-tops. It was a difficult flight; the leaves rustled as she flew.

Natasha offered us cherries. Following a childish custom, I kept one cherry-stone in my mouth, rolling it about until I had sucked it clean. When I took it out it looked like wood.

I left the country cottage that day with the stone in my mouth.

I traveled through an invisible country.

I returned from the country to the town. The sun was setting. I went in an easterly direction. I was making a double journey but only one-half of it was visible. The passers-by could see a man crossing a deserted green common. But what was really happening to this person who walked along, to all appearances, so peacefully? He could see his shadow going before him, sprawling over the ground; the shadow had long, pale legs. I crossed the common and all of a sudden the shadow climbed a brick wall and lost its head. This the passer-by did not see, only I saw it. I entered as it were a corridor between two wings of a building. The corridor was infinitely lofty and shadowy. The ground here was rotten and gave like garden soil under foot. A wild, forlorn looking dog ran towards me, sidling against the wall. We passed each other. Then I glanced round. Far behind me the threshold was bright. For a moment the dog formed a dark protuberance in the brightness. Then it ran off across the common, and only then I saw that it was a rusty-colored animal.

All this happened in an invisible country. What happened in the country visible to the ordinary eye was that a man and a dog passed each other, at sunset, on a green common. . . .

The Invisible Country was the country of attention and imagination. Two sisters walked beside our traveler and led him by the hand. The names of the sisters were Attention and Imagination.

Well, then, what about it? It appeared that, in direct opposition to society and the established order, I was creating a world of my own, subject to no laws but the shadowy laws of my own sensations. But what did that mean? There were two known worlds: the old and the new. But what sort of a world was this? A third world ? There were two roads, but what sort of a road was this third one?

Natasha makes an appointment with me but does not keep it.

I am there half-an-hour before time. There is a train clock at the crossing that reminds me of a barrel. They are really like barrels, aren't they, those street clocks? Two faces. Two ends. Oh, empty barrel of time, I might exclaim.

Natasha made the appointment for half-past three.

I wait. Oh, she isn't coming, of course. Ten minutes past three. . . .

I stand by the train stop. All around me people are bustling about. I tower above the crowd. Those who have lost their way espy me from afar. Now it is beginning. . . . An unknown woman approaches me.

"Would you be so kind," pleads the unknown one, "as to tell me if Number 27 car will take me all the way to ?"

No one must know that I am keeping an appointment. Better to let them think: "That young man who is smiling broadly has come to this corner expressly for the con venience of other people. He'll tell you all you want to know, he'll direct you, he'll calm your fears. . . . Go to .him."

"Yes," I reply, brimming over with civility. "The 27 will take you to . . . ."

Then suddenly remembering the right number, I fling myself after the woman, calling out:

"No, no! You'll have to take a 16!"

Let us forget about the appointment. I am not a man in love at all. I am the good genius of the street. Come to me! This way, this way!

A . The hands of the clock unite and lie horizontal. Looking at them, I think:

"Like a fly twiddling its legs. The restless fly of time."

How silly! As if there was such a thing! She will not come. She will not come. A Red Army soldier comes up to me.

"Can you tell me where the is?" he asks me.

"I don't know. . . . Over there, I think . . . Wait a minute, though . . . Wait ... a ... min No, I'm afraid I don't know."

Next! Who's the next? Don't be shy. A taxi describes a curve and glides up to me. You ought to see how that driver despises me. Not out of strength of mind. No, I should think not. As if he would condescend so far as to waste strength of mind on me. No, no. He shows it by his glove . . . the contempt is conveyed by his glove. Comrade driver, believe me, I'm only an amateur, I really don't know which way to direct your car. . . .

I am not standing here for the purpose of directing people. I have my own business to attend to. ... My loitering here is enforced, and rather pathetic. ... I am not smiling out of sheer good nature. If you look closer you will see it is a forced, strained smile.

"Which way to ?" the taxi-driver flings over his shoulder to me.

I hasten to explain: "This way and then that way and then"

Oh, well, if it comes to that, why should I not stand in the middle of the road and take up in good earnest the work that is thrust upon me?

A blind man approaches.

He simply shouts at me. He pokes with his stick.

"Is that a Number 10 coming?" he demands. "Eh? Ten, is it?"

"No," I reply, almost stroking him. "It's not a 10. It's a two. But there's a 10 just coming behind."

Ten minutes over the appointed hour have passed. Why should I wait any longer? Perhaps she is hurrying to get here, though, flying as fast as she can?

"Oh, I'll be late oh, I'll be late . . ."

The woman who wanted to get to has caught the 16, the Red Army soldier is wandering through the cool galleries of the museum, the taxi-driver is trumpet ing in , the blind man is climbing in his touchy, egoistic fashion, with his stick held out before him, up the front steps of the Number 10.

Everyone is satisfied. Everyone is happy. Only I re main there with a vacant smile on my face.

More people approach me with enquiries: an old woman, a drunken man, a group of children with a flag. I begin to slash the air with my arms, I no longer merely indicate the desired direction by a jerk of my chin as a passer-by casually inquired of might. No, no. I stretch out my hands, the edge of the palm cutting the air. . . . Another moment and a baton will appear in my fist.

"Back!" I shall shout. "Stop! That way to . Turn. To the right, old lady. Stop!"

Oh, look! here is a whistle clinging to my lips. I whistle ... I have the right to whistle . . . Children, you may well envy me. Back! Oho . . . look here! I can stand between two trams going in opposite directions. I'm standing, you can see, at ease, with my arms crossed be hind my back and the red baton touching my shoulder blades.

Congratulate me, Natasha. I have turned into a militia man.

Suddenly I catch sight of Avel standing some way off, watching me. (Avel is my neighbor.)

Natasha is obviously not coming. I beckon to Avel.

I: "Did you see that, Avel?"

Avel: "Yes, I did. You must be crazy."

I: "Oh, so you saw me, Avel? I've turned into a militia man."

(A pause. I cast another glance at the clock. Ten to four.)

I: "Of course, you cannot understand. My transformation into a militiaman took place in an Invisible Country."

Avel: "Your Invisible Country is all a lot of idealistic nonsense."

I replied "And do you know, the most surprising thing about it, Avel, is that I should figure as a militiaman in that en chanted country. . . . By right, I should be marching through it calmly and majestically, as its owner, with the flowering staff of the sage in my hand. . . . And instead of that, look here, this is the militiaman's baton I'm holding. What a curious mixture of two worlds, the every day and the imaginary."

Avel: (says nothing).

I: "And what is still stranger is that the initial cause of my transformation into a militiaman, is unrequited love."

Avel: "I can't understand a single thing. It's some sort of Bergsonism, I suppose."

I resolved to plant my cherry-stone in the ground.

I chose a suitable spot and planted it. "Upon this spot," I said to myself, "a cherry tree will grow up, planted by me in memory of my love for Natasha. Perhaps, some day say five years hence Natasha will meet me under this new tree in the springtime. We shall stand one on each side of it. Cherry trees never grow very tall; you can touch the topmost leaf if you raise yourself on your tip toes. There will be bright sunshine and the spring will be a little bare still, for it will be just the time when the run ning gutters tempt children out to play and the tree is bursting into blossom."

I shall say: "Natasha, the day is bright and joyous, the breeze blows and fans the light to a brighter radiance. The breeze sways my tree and makes its shining boughs creak. Each of its blossoms will lift and then droop, showing pink and then white. That is a kaleidoscope of spring, Natasha. Five years ago you gave me some cherries, do you remember? Unrequited love has made the memory humble and very clear. I remember even to this day how the palm of your hand was purple from cherry juice and how you made a funnel of it as you poured the cherries into my palm. I took away a cherry stone in my mouth, and I planted it in memory of my unrequited love. It is blossoming now. So you see: I was slighted then. Boris Mikhailovich was more manly than I was and he won you. I was dreamy and puerile. I sought for a thrush, while you two kissed. I was romantic. But you see a fine, firm, mature tree has grown up from the romantic seed. You know that the Japanese think, a cherry blossom is the soul of man. See, this is a short, sturdy Japanese tree. Believe me, Natasha, romance can be manly, too, you should not laugh at it.

. . . The whole point is how to approach it. If Boris Mikhailovich caught me squatting on the common plant ing a puerile little cherry stone, he would feel his triumph once more over me, the triumph of the man over the dreamer. And it was just about that time I planted the kernel. It has burst and sprouted into a tree of dazzling beauty. I buried a seed in the soil. This tree is our child, Natasha. Bring me the son that Boris Mikhailovich gave you. Let me see whether he is as healthy, pure and aloof as the tree produced by an infantile person like myself."

As I returned home from the country, Avel appeared from the other side of the wall. He works in a Trade Union. He is small. He wears a Tolstoi blouse made of a cotton imitation of covert coating, sandals, and blue socks. He is clean-shaven but his cheeks look swarthy. He gives the impression of being overgrown with hair. One might almost think that he had not two skins but only one, a black one. He has a hooked nose and a black cheek.

Avel: "What's the matter with you lately? As I was passing in one of the suburban trains today, I caught sight of you squatting on your heels somewhere on the perma nent way, scraping up the earth with your hands. What was up?"

I: (I make no reply).

Avel: (pacing up and down the room). "A man sits on his heels and digs the earth with his hands. What can he be doing? There's no knowing. Is he making an experiment? Or has he got the colic? There's absolutely no knowing. Are you subject to attacks of colic?"

I: (after a pause). "Do you know what I was thinking, Avel? I was thinking that a dreamer should never have children. What does the new world want with a dreamer's children? Better for the dreamers to produce trees for the new world."

Avel: "It's not in the Plan."

The world of attention begins at the head of your bed, with the chair which you draw up to it as you are undressing. To awake early in the morning, while the house is still. The room is flooded with sunshine. Silence reigns. You lie without stirring, for fear of disturbing the im mobile light. A pair of socks lies on the chair. They are brown. But in the steady brilliance you suddenly detect among the brown threads tiny wisps of variegated hair crimson, blue, and orange, stirred by the air.

It is a Rest Day morning. Once more I am taking the familiar route to Natasha's. I ought to write Travels in an Invisible Country. Here is a specimen chapter; it might be entitled:

"The Man Who Was in a Hurry to Throw a Stone."

Some shrubs grew under a brick wall. I passed them as I went along the path. I caught sight of a niche in the wall, and wanted to throw some pebbles at it. I stooped. A stone lay at my feet. . . . Then I saw an ant-hill.

The last time I saw an ant-hill was twenty years ago. Oh, of course, I had stepped over ant-hills many a time during those twenty years. And I suppose I had seen them, but had merely thought, "I am walking over ant-hills," and the word "ant-hills" was all that stood out clearly in my consciousness. All the living image was pushed into insignificance by the word that leapt so readily to my service.

Oh, I remembered now: ant-heaps can only be discov ered by a casual glance. One . . . Then . . . here's an other. Then look here there's another. That was how it happened now. Three ant-hills appeared one after the other.

My height hindered me from seeing the ants properly; all my eye could catch was a certain restlessness in a form that might easily have been taken for immobile. The eye was willing to be deceived. As I looked I was quite ready to think that it was not a multitude of ants swarming round their ant-hills but the ant-hills themselves that were crumbling away like sand dunes.

I stood about four paces from the wall with the stone in my hand. The stone was intended to lodge in the niche. I flung it. The stone flew out and struck the bricks. A spiral of dust arose. I had missed the mark. The stone fell into the bushes at the foot of the wall. Only then did the exclamation uttered by the stone before I opened my palm reach my ears.

"Wait," cried the stone. "Look at me!"

I had been in too much of a hurry. I should have examined the stone first. There was no doubt about it, the stone was a remarkable thing. And now it had disappeared into the shrubs. And I, who had held the thing in my hand, could not even say what color it had been. Maybe it had been of a purplish tint. Possibly it had not been monolithic but made up of several different bodies. Maybe it had contained the fossilized skeleton of a flying beetle or a cherry stone; maybe it had not been a stone at all, but a bit of mouldy bone.

I encountered an excursion on the way. Twenty persons were walking across the common where I had planted my cherry stone. They were led by Avel. I stepped aside. Avel did not see me, or rather, did not understand. He saw me without perceiving me; he gulped me down, so to speak, like any fanatic, without waiting for either my agreement or resistance.

Avel detached himself from his flock and turned to face it. His back was towards me. Flinging out an arm with a powerful gesture, he cried:

"Nowhere! Here you are! Here!"

A pause. Silence.

"Comrades from !" bawled Avel, "I hope you have some imagination. Imagine as much as you like, don't be afraid."

So Avel was trying to invade the Country of the Imagination? Would he even go as far as to show the excursionists the cherry tree planted in memory of unrequited love? Avel was seeking a way to the Invisible Country.

He strode along. Then he halted and shook his leg. Then he shook it again; he was evidently trying to free himself from some twining shrub which had wound itself around his foot as he was walking. He stamped his foot and the plant crackled and scattered in little balls of yellow. (How many plants and trees and shrubs there are in this story!)

"The huge concrete works I was telling you about will be setup here."

"Dear Natasha, I forgot the principal thing: the Plan. I acted without consulting the Plan. In five years' time a huge concrete works will have risen on this deserted spot where now you can see nothing but useless walls and ditches. My sister Imagination is an imprudent crea ture. They will begin to lay the foundations in the spring time and then what will become of my poor silly little cherry stone? Yes for a tree planted in your honor will blossom there in the Invisible Country some day. . . .

"And excursionists will come to see the concrete giant.

"They will not see your tree. Surely the Invisible Country could be rendered visible. ... ? "

This letter is an imaginary one. I never wrote it. But I might have written it if Avel had not said what he did.

"The building will be laid out in a semi-circle," said Avel. "And the inner side of the semi-circle will be de voted to a garden. Have you any imagination?"

"Yes," I said, "I have. I can see it, Avel. I can see it all quite clearly. There will be a garden just here. And on the very spot where you are standing now, a cherry tree will grow up." 

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