Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Evgeny Zamyatin: The Lion



It all began with a completely fantastic event. To be exact, the great king of the jungle, the lion, was dead drunk. He stumbled around on all four paws and toppled over on his side. This was a complete catastrophe.

The lion was a student at Leningrad University, and also served as an extra at the ballet theatre. In today's performance, dressed in a lion skin, he was supposed to stand on a cliff and wait until he is cut down by a spear thrown by the heroine of the ballet. Then the murdered lion falls off the cliff and onto a mattress off stage. At rehearsals, everything went perfectly. And suddenly today, on the day of the premier, an hour and a half before the curtain was to go up, the lion pulled such a swinish trick! There were no extra extras. They couldn't cancel the performance--a commissar from Moscow was coming. An emergency meeting was held in the office of the "red director".

There was a knock on the door, and the theatre's fireman, Petya Zherebyakin entered. The "red director" (he was in fact, at the moment red--from anger), shouted at him, "What do you want? I don't have time! Go to hell!".

"Comrade Director...I'm here about the lion," the fireman said.

"Well, what about the lion?"

"Well, I mean, our lion's drunk. So I want, Comrade Director, to play the lion."

I don't know if bears have freckles and blue eyes. If they do, then the large Zherebyakin, in boots like cast iron, more resembled a bear than a lion. But could he, by some miracle, play the part of a lion? He swore that he could, that he's watched all the rehearsals from the wings, and that when he was in the army he played in "Emperor Maximilian". And in defiance of the crookedly smiling stage manager, the director ordered Zherebyakin to get dressed and give it a try.

In a few minutes, the musicians on stage were already softly playing the "march of the lion". The Lion Petya Zherebyakin performed in the lion skin as if he were born not in a Ryazan village, but in the Libyan desert. But at the last moment, when he was to fall from the cliff, he looked down and hesitated.

"Fall, damn it, fall," hissed the stage manager at him with a furious whisper.

The lion obediently came crashing down. He fell hard on his back and lay there, unable to get up. Don't tell me that he can't get up! Don't tell me that again, at the last moment, it's a catastrophe!

They picked him up. He crawled out of his skin and stood there, pale, holding his back and smiling sheepishly. However, he was missing an upper tooth and his smile seemed somewhat sorrowful and childish. (On the other hand, there's always something childish about bears, isn't there?")

Fortunately, he wasn't seriously hurt. He asked for some water. The director ordered that they bring him a cup of tea from his office. When he finished the tea, the director started to hurry him up. "Well, comrade, you made yourself a lion. Put on the skin. Put it on, put it on. We're starting soon."

Someone obligingly ran up with the skin, but the lion didn't want to put it on. He firmly declared that he absolutely had to leave the theatre. What his special need was he refused to say; he only smiled sheepishly. The director boiled over with rage. He tried to order, he tried to remind Zherebyakin that he was a candidate-member of the Party, a shock-worker. But the lion-shock-worker firmly stood his ground. In the end, the director had to give in. And, beaming with his gap-tooth smile, Petya Zherebyakin hurried off somewhere outside the theatre.

"Where has the devil taken him?" asked the director, again red with rage. "What kind of secrets does he have?"

No one could give an answer to the red director. The secret was known only to Petya Zherebyakin--and, of course, to the author of this story. And while Petya Zherebyakin is running somewhere through the autumn Petersburg rain, we can go back in time to that July night when his secret was born.

There was no night that night. It was day, lightly dozing off for a second, like a marching soldier dozes off, not stopping his march and getting mixed up between reality and dreaming. Slumbering in the pink glass of the canals were overturned trees, windows, columns, Petersburg. And suddenly, with a light breeze, Petersburg disappears. To replace it appears Leningrad, the red flag over the Winter Palace awakening in the wind, and by the grill work of the Aleksandr Garden, a police officer with a rifle.

A cluster of night tram workers gathered closely around the police officer. From behind all the shoulders, all Petya Zherebyakin could see was the police officer's face--round like a Ryazan apple. Something strange is going on. They are grabbing the police officer by the arms, the shoulders; and finally, one of the workers, puckering up his lips, gently kisses the officer on the cheek. The police officer turns red and furiously blows a whistle. The workers disperse. Petya Zherebyakin remains alone, face to face with the police officer. And the police officer disappears just as suddenly as did the mirrored Petersburg, frightened by the wind. In front of Zherebyakin was a girl in a police officer's hat and tunic, the first policewoman placed on the Nesky Prospect by the Revolution. Her black brows came together over the bridge of her nose. From her eyes, sparks.

"You should be ashamed, comrade!" is all she said to Petya Zherebyakin, but, oh, how she said it! He got confused and started mumbling guiltily.

"I swear to God, it wasn't me! I was just walking home...."

"Eh, you....And a worker!" The policewoman looked at him, but, oh, how she looked!

If here on the pavement there had been a trap door, like they have on the theatre stage, Zherebyakin would have sunk down through it, and that would have been his salvation. But he had to slowly walk away, feeling the burning look piercing his back.

The next day, it was again a white night and again comrade Zherebyakin was walking home from his work at the theatre, and again by the grill work of the Aleksandr Garden was the policewoman. Zherebyakin wanted to sneak past her, but he noticed her looking at him. Confused, guiltily, he bowed. She nodded. The dawn was reflected on the mirrored-black steel of her rifle. The steel seemed pink. And before this pink rifle, Zherebyakin grew more timid than he did before all the rifles that were shooting at him for five years on various fronts.

He dared to speak with the policewoman only after a week. It turned out that she, too, like Zherebyakin, was from the Ryazan province and she still remembers their Ryazan apples. Sweet and a little bitter. You can't find apples like that around here.

Every time, coming home from work, Zherebyakin stopped by the Aleksandr Garden. The white nights went crazy--the green and pink and copper-colored sky didn't grow dark even for a second. Couples embracing in the park, like in the daytime, sought out shadows so they might be unseen.

On such a night, clumsy like a bear, Zherebyakin asked the policewoman:

"And so, for example, can you, policewomen, during the performance of your duties, get married? That is, not during your duties, but in general, with your job being like the military."

"And why married?", asked Katya the policewoman, leaning on her rifle. "Nowadays we're like men; we want, we love."

Her rifle was pink. The policewoman raised her face to the aflame-with-fever sky, then she looked somewhere past Zherebyakin and said:

"For example, if such a man who wrote poetry.... Or an actor who stepped out and the whole theatre began to applaud...."

The Ryazan apple is sweet and bitter. Petya Zherebyakin understood that it is better for him to leave and return here no more. His affair is finished.

However, that's all behind us. Now, through the autumn rain, he was rushing along Glinka Street. It's fortunate that this street is near the theatre, and it's fortunate that he found the policewoman Katya at home. Now it wasn't a policewoman; it was simply Katya. With her sleeves rolled up, she was washing a white blouse in a basin. On her nose and forehead appeared beads of perspiration, and she never appeared more dear than now, being domestic.

When Zherebyakin placed a theatre pass in front of her and said that today he was performing in the show, she didn't believe it. Then, she got interested. And then, for some reason, she got confused and pulled down her rolled-up sleeves. Then she looked at him (oh, how she looked!) and said that she'll definitely come.

The bells in the theatre were already ringing in the smoking room, in the corridors, in the foyer. The bald commissar in his box, squinted through his pince-nez. On the stage, still hidden behind the curtain, ballerinas straightened their skirts with the same motion that swans, dipping in the water, clean their wings. And behind the cliff, next to the lion Zherebyakin, the stage manager and the director were worrying.

"Remember, you're a shock worker! Look, don't mess this up!" the director whispered into the lion's ear.

The curtain rose, and beyond a bright row of footlights, the dark hall opened up before the lion, filled to the top with the white spots of faces. Long ago, when he was still Zherebyakin, he climbed out of a trench. In front of him, shells exploded. He shuddered, crossed himself as is the village custom, and nonetheless rushed forward. Now it seemed to him that he would not be able to make a single step. But the stage director shoved him from behind, and he, moving his legs and arms, which had suddenly become someone else's, slowly crawled onto the cliff.

At the top of the cliff, the lion raised his head, and he saw, very close, in a box on the second tier, leaning over the railing, policewoman Katya. She was looking right at him. The lion's heart beat loudly, one two...and stopped! He was shaking all over. Now his fate would be decided; already the spear was flying toward him. Boom! It hit him in the side. Now he must fall. And if again he should fall the wrong way, all would be ruined. He became more terrified than ever before in his life. It was far more terrifying than when he climbing out of the trench.

In the hall, people had already noticed that something strange what happening on stage. The fatally wounded lion stood motionless on the top of the cliff and was looking upward. In the first rows they heard as the stage-manager, in a terrible whisper, yelled, "Fall, damn it, fall!" And then, everyone saw something completely fantastic. The lion raised his right paw, quickly crossed himself, and fell like a rock off the cliff.

A second of general stunned silence; and then, in the hall, like a death-dealing shell, laughter exploded. Policewoman Katya laughed so hard she was crying. The murdered lion, sticking his snout in his paws, cried.

Translated from the Russian by Eric Konkol

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