The Soldier

bench-winter-park2

At the crack of dawn, when the park was slowly waking up after a long frosty night, Pavel was already sitting in his usual place under a large chestnut tree, on the third bench to the left from the main entrance colonnade. Right above his head, two magpies were chirping, in front of him, a busy rook was examining an island of dirty snow, chilly air smelled of melted water, and in it, busy tits were scurrying to and fro in search of a breakfast bite. Pavel shivered, glanced at his watch, and buried his freezing chin into the camo jacket collar. His eyes fell on the unfinished bottle of beer, he picked it up from the bench with numb, sluggish fingers, and remembered that he was hungry. He sighed, took a sip of bitter liquid, grimaced in disgust, then ruffled up like a sparrow, and prepared to wait on, when at a distance, behind the bars of the park’s forged fence, yellow and blue spots of the familiar tracksuit loomed joyfully against gloomy grayness of the murky morning. Pavel stretched out his neck. A moment later, she turned up between the columns of the main entrance and immediately, joyful spots of yellow and blue livened up the colonnade, colored the semicircle of a bare flowerbed, invigorated the whole park, mocking the black, rimy spring for its lack of colors.

jogging-winter

Pavel had known her route like the back of his hand. At first, she was going to run straight at him: she would skirt around the flowerbed, pass the island of snow, and head into the alley toward his bench. For only a few seconds would he watch how she approached, rhythmically and gently pushing her sneakers into the rough asphalt. As always, she would be looking under her feet quite intently, trying to avoid the insidious ice crust under her feet, her eyelashes would be lowered, so Pavel, as usual, would frown to a thought that after a month of watching her, he was still unable to say what was the color of her eyes.

There. She approached him – serious, focused, austere. Her lips, trembling slightly with each silent breath, released tiny clouds of steam that dissolved right behind her in the crisp bluish air.

Wow, she is awesome,” he whispered, and forced himself not to stare.

She had no hat on that morning, so Pavel could finally see her hair; it was long and surprisingly fair for her tanned complexion, it fell on her shoulders and dashed to the sides at each step – playfully, tirelessly, somehow childishly…

Enchanted by beauty, Pavel sank into blissful oblivion, so it was not until she had run past him that he realized what had happened – that morning, for the very first time, she had given him a glance! Two incredibly bright chestnut eyes had studied him head to toe, looked at Pavel’s pink, sluggish fingers, glanced at his bottle of beer, met his eyes, and returned to the road, to focus on running again.

Oh, that was an event! He was happy: she’d noticed him, she’d acknowledged his aimless existence, she’d been thinking about him for a second or so, albeit not very flattering, yet she had! Finally, for the very first time in a month he was able to touch her life, too!

Bit by bit, timid sun rays spread down and covered the alley. Bluish shadows of branches, chased by the wind, danced on the ground. Ignoring the chill, Pavel finished his beer and squared his shoulders. Hunger gripped Pavel’s stomach, but his mind fenced it off. Lack of money, abjection, bitter cold, wind and hunger were of no importance, neither the general hopelessness of his grim situation. Nothing mattered that morning, compared to his major, exciting, insatiable desire to see her again and again.

He knew almost nothing about the girl: just the fact that she was incredibly pretty. She must be a model, he thought, or an actress, or maybe a television announcer…one of those who pin their fortune since cradle: rich, beautiful, lucky, and smart…Just look at those clothes, that skin, that thick shining hair…no doubt she’s been feeding on someone’s continuous care.

man-on-bench-alone

Pavel glanced at his own hands and pants and frowned.Look at you, dirty beggar,” he said out loud, “got to clean up and shave by tomorrow.” He studied his short, skinny legs in shabby, tucked up camouflage pants, and his heart turned over inside, spilling anguish and making him scowl.

Shave!” he mimicked himself. “What for? Why would you, dirty idiot, need to clean up? You don’t go to work, you don’t go anywhere! You can’t walk like the others, you have no feet!”

Bitter anger rolled up to his throat, hurting it, squeezing it so that he wanted to scream. Never, never again will he spring to his feet to chase a girl across a meadow, never again will he catch her or hold in his arms, never again will he carry her to a hayloft and…

Stop it! Enough! Shut up. Idiot!” To calm himself down, Pavel closed his eyes and started daydreaming. “Suppose, we will finally talk one day,” he resumed the monolog with himself. “Sure, why not? She just looked at me, didn’t she? Which means, I have hope. I would compliment her, I would tell her how much I enjoy watching her run every day. Of course, I could easily catch her when I had legs, but… All right, what will I tell her then? I mean nothing to her: just a crook from a park, a desperate, bold, silly lad, a perfect material for the war, a classical cannon fodder, so masterfully used by politicians, wasted, and thrown out of life… Aww, I’d better died on that mine! There would’ve been no anguish, no looking at her lovely legs, no bench, o park, no her… nothing!

Pavel sat for a while, studying his empty beer bottle and throwing slow glances at the turn in the end of the alley, where she had disappeared from sight a few minutes before. Why do I keep coming here every morning? I know I am not going to get her. She is a fine, elegant breed, so graceful, so perfect, so flawless, and I-

Come on, brother, admit it,” he addressed himself in full voice, “you enjoy torturing yourself by watching how she runs past you every morning, tapping on asphalt with the ease of a tennis ball, teasing you with her healthy body, killing you by the rhythm of her steps… Of course! Sitting here and pitying yourself is so easy! So much easier than pulling yourself together and making your way in the world.”

Obsessed with his monolog, he nearly missed her on her way back. When she caught up with him, he fell silent abruptly, and she suddenly slowed her pace, looked him over from head to toe, shook her head, frowned a little, and ran on without saying a word. Again, a pair of dazzling brown eyes pierced Pavel’s heart like an arrow, blocking his breath, stinging him right in the chest, making something inside him break and spill like a bottle of beer.

Pavel sighed. When the bright yellow spots of her tracksuit disappeared behind the park fence, Pavel pulled himself forward, slid off to his homemade cart, and pushed himself forward, away from the park. His ugly handmade cart, converted from an old rusty stroller, creaked and rattled at each revolution of its wry plastic wheels. Unshaven and thin, in unwashed army uniform, sweaty like hell from continuous effort, Pavel rolled down the street. He could sense how people disdained him. Guys would glance at his uniform jacket and lower their eyes as they passed, mothers held their kids, children tried to avoid running up to his cart. Alas! In the times of wars people grow self-centered. If you managed to lose your legs, this is nobody’s business, but yours! Do your best to survive, Pal. Who cares?

The cart rattled down the pavement, shaking and jumping on each asphalt crack. At the end of the block, as always, Pavel stopped to buy a new bottle of beer from a red-faced tobacco kiosk vendor. He liked this simple daily ritual, it brought trivial round into Pavel’s life. Human life is a trivial round, he was thinking as he pushed himself forward along grainy asphalt. A rich man begins his day with massage, delicious foods and ablutions, while this fat kiosk vendor is occupied with his own little chores, doing maths, summing up daily earnings, counting boxes with goods and the goods in the boxes, estimatin his monthly sales, doing tax calculations…just daily routine, repetition of actions. Everyone’s life is an endless chain of repeated actions.

What is she doing right now?” Pavel mumbled, pushing himself around a car parked on the sidewalk, “I wonder, does she have daily baths or just takes a quick shower after her run? Aww, stop it, shouldn’t think about this now.”

Breathing with effort, he entered a rough spot of gravel near the kiosk. The cart started bouncing like a young unbacked stallion. This made Pavel remember two years before, on the day he turned eighteen, when he came to the kiosk for his first legal bottle of beer. The unpaved gravel spot had already been there, he’d been wearing slippers, and his feet could clearly feel every sharp gravel edge.

Hmm, that’s funny. No feet anymore, but I still remember how it felt.”

His street had not changed very much since then. Thankfully, real war had not reached the city; it was now about a hundred miles to the east, where Pavel had seen real hell, learned about pain, loss and fear, and where his feet dressed in black army boots had remained lying in the thick grass forever. Everything had been different there, at the front line. Smells were heavy, the air was viscous and kind of dusty, full of fine metal suspension, like a different planet’s atmosphere. Now, when that hell was over for Pavel, it seemed no more than a hideous dream. The worst there was the absence of trivial round, everyone had attested for that. People tried to create the trivial round for themselves; they would find a shelter in a broken-down house, at least for a short time, they would make the place livable, find a nail in a wall, hang a towel on it: they intended to use it routinely the next morning by splashing cold water on a wind-bitten face, reaching out for the towel, like at home, putting the face into it, feeling the soft, tender cloth, and inhaling the air through the towel…If they found a bedroom, they would fall on the bed right at once, to relive awesome moments of pleasure, when your ass gently touches the featherbed, sinks into it and bounces up, thickly enveloped with its softness.

But alas! There was anything but routine at war. Once you got used to keeping your towel on that damned rusty nail, a shelling would start, so you’d run like a rabbit, saving your ass, screaming obscenities, praying for life, while something got cracked and fell right behind you, something burned, stank and smoked, flashed and pushed you to hell; something soared with blast waves and scattered in hail of ruinous fragments, something collapsed and shifted, blowing up your trivial round…and the wall, where your towel had been, would transform into jumble of stones. Then again, in a new place, in the moments of calm people found a wall with a nail, and a towel, and a bed, and restored their trivial round…at least for an hour or so.

Hu-huh, our life is a trivial round, Pavel sighed. Breaking trivial round leads only to death.

At last, Pavel’s cart reached the kiosk’s back door. He rolled up to the vendor, who was smoking right outside of his small, cluttered store. The guy’s fleshy face was morose. Pavel coughed to attract his attention, but the latter glanced up rather coldly.

Kinda windy today,” Pavel said, meaning, “Hey, be a friend, just respond for the sake of routine.”

I just lost weekly income because of this wind,” said the guy through his teeth and spat.

Why? What’s up?” Pavel asked with sincere curiosity.

See that branch? It fell down on my roof, smashed it up. Bitch.”

Really? Wow.”

Deep in his mind Pavel was happy: the dialogue worked, the vendor talked to him! A simple human talk, the thing that can overwhelm you when you have normal legs, but that is so deficient when you are a cripple.

Happen to know anybody to repair it for me?” asked the vendor.

Pavel’s eyes caught the face of his watch. Eight fifteen. She is probably having her breakfast right now, in a beautiful dining room with fantastic china and magnificent food…she also could be dressing in front of a mirror…or combing her hair…

What? Ah, wait! I can do it!” he cried, waking up. “I can fix it! You just help me to get on the roof and I’ll fix it. I did roofs in my village before the war.”

You?” The vendor glanced at him as one looks at an insect. “Come on! You’ll fall down from there. No way.”

Pavel moved himself forward. “Listen, I can do it for minimal price. Look at me, I have arms and my head is all right.” He chuckled. “Legs are of no use on the roof, anyway.”

He really needed money, but more importantly, he needed the job! It was something to make him feel useful, something to help him return to life!

Leave me alone.” The vendor waved him away. “Lame duck.”

Pavel was stunned. Come on, you think I am good for nothing? You think if I lost my feet, I can’t work with my hands?”

Listen,” the vendor’s voice became heavy. “Go away! Cripple.” He bent over some boxes with merchandise, preparing to resume his calculations.

Dumbfounded, Pavel pulled the lever, the cart dashed forward.

Cripple? You, bastard! I’ll kill you! I lost my legs protecting your fat ass there, and you–”

Pavel did not finish his sentence. Blinded by rage, he lurched forward. A beer bottle appeared in his hand, he crashed it against the door jamb, and it turned into a terrible weapon. The quick-witted vendor immediately leaped into the shelter of the kiosk, but it was too late to slam the door: Pavel had already blocked it with his cart. The cart hit the threshold, Pavel lost balance, his weapon slipped out, made a wide semicircle in the air and fell on the floor.

You crazy?” yelled the vendor, but the cart was already inside the kiosk, it hit carton boxes and pushed Pavel forward on them. Someone’s shadow soared over his head, two big hands gripped his elbows and clenched them from behind. Myriads of black dots flashed in front of Pavel’s eyes, something fell on his head, and time started creeping slowly like honey that leaks from a pot. The kiosk turned over, showing Pavel its ceiling with a big hole in it. The second blow hit Pavel’s neck, something cracked in his ears, everything became quiet, Pavel sagged, and immediately calmed down. The last thing he could hear before he fainted was the vendor’s muffled voice, “Idiot! You want to go to prison?”

* * *

The morning was gloomy. Early spring advanced on the city gradually, like a field kitchen, producing each day just a tiny portion of sunlight, yet generously giving out loads of mud, fogs, and freezing rains. The bench was wet. Pavel shivered in violent wind gusts, his fingers became swollen and red, but no force could drive him away from his observation post, because that morning, another incredible thing had happened: she’d smiled and winked at Pavel that morning!

jogger

No, she did not stop to talk to him, she ran by like she had always done, but this time she intentionally greeted him like a friend. Oh, Pavel was jubilant! He looked after her, smiling sheepishly, thinking that she was flawless, as always. Pavel’s old friend – the blue and yellow tracksuit – was gracefully twining her slender body, as if it had been tailored specifically to fondle her. With each step, smooth fabric resiliently tightened up on the one breast, then on the other, then bounced lightly together with them, and instantly flowed down and backwards to tighten again on her thighs – one, two, one, two…Oh, what a terrible effort it was not to stare at her as she ran! Pavel wished he could turn into fabric himself, to absorb the warmth of her breasts, stroke her thighs, let them go for a while and gather in folds on her waist…

When her slim, chiseled figure disappeared behind a turn, Pavel leaned back, closed his eyes, and froze in blissful oblivion, smiling to his secret thoughts, hoping to see her again on her way back in about half of an hour. This time he had nothing to do, no beer or cigarettes anymore. So he sat for a while, massaging a bump on the back of his head – a memory of the disgusting incident in the kiosk. His thoughts streamed on randomly, first reproaching him of stupidity, then accusing him of stubbornness, suggesting late answers to trivial questions, bringing up scenes from childhood, scattered visions of war, and on top of all those was her gaze: quiet, confident, even bold. It imprinted in Pavel’s memory and kept testing his mind. It bore no compassion, yet it had no reproach. He could sense no pity, no rue in her gaze, and for that – just only for that – he was grateful almost to tears. She was one of the few, who treated him as a normal man. She wasn’t the one to clatter her tongue saying, “Oh, poor boy! So young and already a cripple!” No, her gaze had the energy which Pavel lacked – the power sufficient to knock Pavel’s spleen, kick his butt, inspire him with healthy anger, and get him engaged into something worthy at last!

Just look at it plainly,” he pondered. “They chopped off one fifth of your mass. So what? You still have your head on, haven’t lost a gram of your brains. Look at your healthy hands, at your chest, at the thing in your pants – you are strong like a bull! You can’t fight anymore, that’s a fact, but you can do an abyss of jobs! You can draw, you can sell, you can learn something new. Only try!”

Pavel glanced at the end of the alley, it was time for her to run back.

Yes, I’ll do it,” he whispered, “I’ll show her! I am going to get a new life. She will see: I am strong. Yes. I can.”

He sat thinking it over for another ten minutes, and amazing new life started looking quite real. As he waited, a cold, clammy rain started drizzling, people hurried away from the park. Pavel shivered, but stayed. He leaned forward, pressed down to the bench and kept waiting, waiting stubbornly, like a lover on a small station platform, waiting faithfully, like a hungry, abandoned dog, but alas! She did not turn up on the alley that day.

* * *

She did not turn up the next morning either, and the next, and the next. Days dragged on one after another. The spring grew mature, the trees and the grass became painfully green, busy bugs started running on heated asphalt, college girls started showing their pink juicy legs, as they hurried across the park to their school, but Pavel, pathetic and lonely, kept sitting and waiting for God knows what on his bench. After two empty weeks, hope died out: he no longer believed he was going to see her again. She could’ve moved to a different place, could’ve left the city entirely. She could’ve changed her routine and be running in different places, and some other guy was probably secretly watching her as she did. Still, Pavel kept coming back to the park every morning, by habit. His days were empty and dull. No job had come up, no friends, no plans, no routine, no hope, no life.

Abandoned!” he mumbled, biting his lips. “Like a sick, scabby dog. Just a worthless, pathetic, wretched piece of– nothing. Just trash.”

Well, the end was quite close, he knew it. His money was running out, disability payments were scanty, and getting a veterans pension required lots of standing in lines, which – how funny! – required having legs. Pavel grinned as he pondered on that. Well, suppose I will get the veterans pension, then I’ll stand in a line to prove that I need and deserve a new cart – a wheelchair instead of this shameful rattle on wheels, then a new set of lines to get disability benefits as a war vet, and then…ah, to hell with that crap! It was easier simply to die. He remembered the words, “Death solves all problems – no man, no problem.” I wonder, who said that? Never mind, but boy, he was right! If I die, society will sigh with relief.

park_alley

The sun warmed his back, and he felt a bit sleepy. His stomach growled for a while, but soon stuck to the backbone and pacified, enjoying the calories of the sun. Knowing that hunger would not return until he moved, Pavel hunched, shut his eyes, and dozed off.

How old are you?”

It came from behind Pavel’s ear. He wanted to turn around and look, but didn’t. An ember of hope loomed and faded at once in his mind, replaced with sarcastic, “Calm down, you, fool! Miracles never happen!”

Still, he responded without turning around, “Twenty. Turned twenty last Monday.”

Why would he need to know who was asking? What good could come out of that conversation? Hope had misled him hundreds of times! No, I’ve had enough, he thought to himself, no more pain of false hope! People never do good to each other. If you’re crippled and still alive, it’s your problem. Count on yourself, stay alone till you die.

The question was very unusual, though. Who would care to know my age? Pavel thought, guessing whose voice it could be. It was young, very sharp, female voice. A teacher? Ah, sure, a teacher! He had seen how a group of fifth graders proceeded toward the playground. She must have returned to torture him with questions. Now, she will ask me about the war, shake her head, then call up all her class and say, “Children, look! This man is a veteran, injured at war.” Then she’ll take them away to tell them the rest of my story, because hungry, crooked, squalid soldiers can’t tell little kids about war with sufficient patriotism…

You have no right!” Pavel heard from behind.

Wow! This bitch is about to teach me here!

A fire of rage started glowing in peeved empty stomach. Pavel turned to look up.

* * *

It was her. She was standing behind his shoulder. Two bright chestnut eyes were staring directly at Pavel’s, her ravishing lips elastic and tense; they also looked angry like hell. He saw a dazzling red dress, shapely and graceful, gentle and tender, so tender that Pavel felt dizzy at once. Her perfect long legs in black shoes were graceful like hell, and her hands were covered with gloves – very thin summer gloves of a cloth, the name to which Pavel had never known.

She walked around the bench to face him…and changed all at once. She did not look tall anymore; the velvety chestnut eyes were only a little higher than Pavel’s.

Gutta-percha baby, flashed through his mind. Not an aristocrat, not at all! Looks like a gymnast, or maybe a dancer.

You have no right,” she repeated, “to sit here all days, killing your time.”

Wow, what a statement! No, not an aristocrat, I was mistaken. Rather, a teacher or…well, I don’t know, but boy, she is bossy!

Am I bothering someone here?” he asked, smiling stubbornly in her face.

Yes, you are. You are bothering me, other people, your friends, and yourself.”

Here it comes: The one who I quietly dreamed of, who I loved like the world’s biggest treasure, is standing in front of me – beautiful, perfect – and trying to tell me what I should do! Not an aristocrat, Pavel thought, not at all. There is no shadow of arrogance in her look, even more, she is trying to hide her grace, it embarrasses her…And she’s young, not older than me. A student? Yeah, maybe.

You – must be a teacher, right?” Pavel asked, to gain a few seconds of time. He was still very stressed.

No,” she said, “doesn’t matter. What matters is what will happen to you if you don’t stop sipping your beer and pitying yourself all days long.”

Her eyes continued to drill him like hell.

I haven’t had beer in weeks,” Pavel said with offense and immediately bit his lip, growing ashamed of having to justify himself.

Were you drafted into the army right after the high school?”

Pavel nodded. He was completely lost now. He could not understand why she was asking those questions, and even more – why the hell was he answering her?

Listen, what do you want?” he asked.

Have you been to the front line?” she demanded without a break.

He nodded again and sagged, feeling totally ruined; his magnificent dream, which he’d nurtured for months and for which he’d been sitting on this hateful bench, broke in no time, like a crystal cup thrown to the floor by her restive, ungrateful hand.

You were wounded, right?” she enquired, as if trying to check his answers with some information she had.

Pavel nodded again. “I stepped on a mine.”

She sat down next to him on the edge of the bench. So, what are you going to do?”

He grimaced. Here it comes again! Stupid sermons!

Nothing,” he said and fell silent. He wanted to leave.

She sat studying him for a while. Then she reached for her case and flopped it, quite awkwardly, on Pavel’s lap.I brought this for you, my old laptop. You will need it to prepare for the entrance exams. But remember, you only have time till the middle of June, so you’d better try hard. Hey, do you know how to use computer?”

Her words left Pavel stunned again.I know how to use computer, but…what makes you think you have the right to tell me what I should do?”

This is your chance. Maybe, the last one. Do you understand?”

Pavel experienced a desire to burst out and yell, but his throat got dry, he could not utter a word.

So she spoke first again.Our university has started a program for people like you and me. We’ve got to apply before May 15. I have already applied.”

Pavel grinned. For people like you and me, repeated his mind. You and me! Are you joking? What can we have in common? This bench? He turned to her sharply. “Listen, who are you? What do you want from me?”

She stood up. He sensed that he’d offended her. Her lips became thin as she said, “It seems you have difficulty understanding things today. Still, think about my offer, stir your brains. Maybe, you’ll finally grow smarter.”

Now, Pavel felt ashamed. He was nearly sick. For God’s sake, who are you?” he hissed in a threatening whisper.

The tiny black shoes shuffled over the asphalt. I recognized you at once, the very first day,” she said. “Argh, I was so enraged by your glassy eyes and your nasty beer!”

Do we know each other?”

They brought you to our hospital right after the injury, you were unconscious. I treated your wound. I’m a nurse. The next morning the hospital got shelled, and I got my portion, too.”

Pavel was still processing her words, when she moved to leave.

Okay, you may sit here and think,” she said. “You have lots of free time, but I need to work. Take a look at the laptop when you are at home. If you have any questions, give me a call, my number is there.” She nodded at the suitcase. “But please, do not sit here anymore, okay? I hate when you stare at me like a…” She paused. “Give me my umbrella.”

Not daring to disobey, Pavel handed her the umbrella, but she turned a bit awkwardly sideways and took it with her other hand. Pavel saw that her right hand was oddly motionless.

Okay, bye,” she said simply and the tiny black shoes pattered toward the colonnade. There, she turned to the right, moved her arm, the glove on her right hand slid down, and for one single moment Pavel could see the unnatural glitter of the motionless, daunting, prosthetic arm.

soldier_girl

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