Sasha [or Aleksandr] Dvanov is a young man whose father commited suicide as a child.
Zakhar Pavlovich is his adoptive father.
Dvanov opened the wicket gate into his yard and was glad to see the old tree growing beside the entrance-room. The tree was covered in cuts and wounds, an axe had repeatedly been put to rest in it while chopping firewood, but it was still alive, still keeping the green passion of foliage on its sick branches.
‘You back, Sasha?’ asked Zakhar Pavlovich. ‘It’s good you’ve come back – I’ve been here on my own. With you gone, I didn’t feel like sleeping. I just lay there listening and listening: could that be you I heard? I didn’t even lock the door because of you – so you could come straight in.’
During his first days at home, Aleksandr shivered and tried to get warm on the stove, while Zakhar Pavlovich sat down below and dozed as he sat.
‘Sash, maybe there’s something you want?’ Zakhar Pavlovich would ask from time to time
‘No, I don’t want anything.’
‘I was thinking that perhaps you should eat something.’
Soon Dvanov could no longer hear Zakhar Pavlovich’s questions or see him weeping at night and hiding his face in the recess in the stove where Aleksandr’s socks were drying. Dvanov had caught typhoid, which kept coming back, not leaving the patient’s body for eight months and then developing into pneumonia. Aleksandr lay in forgetfulness of his life and only occasionally in the winter nights did he hear locomotive whistles and remember them; sometimes the rumble of distant artillery reached the indifferent mind of the patient, and then it felt hot and noisy again in the cramped space of his body. During moments of consciousness Dvanov lay empty and dried up. All he could sense was his skin and he pressed himself down against his bedding; it seemed to him he might fly off, just as the dry light little corpses of spiders fly away.
Before Easter Zakhar Pavlovich made a coffin for his adoptive son; it was sturdy and splendid, with bolts and flanges – the last gift that a master-craftsman father could give to his son. Zakhar Pavlovich wanted a coffin like this to preserve Aleksandr – if not alive, then at least intact for memory and love; every ten years Zakhar Pavlovich was going to dig up his son from the grave, so as to see him and sense himself together with him.
Dvanov first left the house when the time was new; the air felt heavy like water, the sun seemed noisy from the burning of fire, and the entire world seemed fresh, pungent and intoxicating to his weakness. Life once again shone before Dvanov – his body had springiness, and his thoughts were leavened with fantasy.
A girl he knew, Sonya Mandrova, was looking across the fence at Aleksandr. She couldn’t understand how come, if there’d been a coffin, Sasha hadn’t died.
‘You haven’t died?’ she asked.
‘No,’ said Aleksandr. ‘And you’re alive too?’
‘’I’m alive too. Together we’re going to live. Do you feel well now?’
‘Yes, I do. And you?’
‘I feel well too. But why are you so thin? Is it that death was inside you and you didn’t let it in?’
‘Did you want me to die?’ asked Dvanov.
‘I don’t know,’ answered Sonya. ‘I’ve seen that there are a lot of people. They’re dying, and then they stay.’
Dvanov asked her to come round. Sonya climbed over the fence in her bare feet and gently touched Aleksandr, having forgotten him during the winter. Dvanov told her what he had seen in his dreams and how dreary it had been in the darkness of sleep. There hadn’t been any people anywhere, and he knew now how few of them there were in the world: it had been the same when he was walking through steppeland not far from the war – he hadn’t come across many homes there either.
‘I wasn’t thinking when I said I don’t know,’ said Sonya. ‘If you’d died, I’d have begun crying for a long time. I’d rather you’d gone a long way away – then I’d have thought you’re alive in one piece.’
Aleksandr looked at her with surprise. Sonya had grown during this year, although she had eaten little; her hair had darkened, her body had acquired carefulness and being near her felt shameful.
‘Sash, you don’t yet know. I’m studying now, I’m going to courses.’
‘What do they teach there?’
‘Everything we don’t know. One teacher says we’re stinking dough and he’ll make us into a sweet pie. He can say what he likes – after all, we’re going to learn politics from him, aren’t we?’
‘You - stinking dough?’
‘Uh-uh. But soon I won’t be, and nor will others, because I’ll become a teacher of children and they’ll start getting clever from when they’re little. And no one will call them stinking dough.’
Dvanov touched one of her hands, so as to get used to her again – and Sonya gave him her second hand too.
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