Annotation: Translation by Katerina Turevich
I didn't know what to expect now. Three years back, the last time I saw him, I had not expected the complete change in his attitude. Back then I came to his neat little city on the eve of the Miner's Day. The following day in the noise of the celebrations I saw that Kesha had outgrown this place. He changed outwardly, but inside him I could still recognize the same guy that I knew in Afghanistan. There was a big kind heart beating in his chest, but his soul, burned by the hot foreign son, had left him. I was sure that given time he would get back to his old self.
This time I came to the door, pressed the doorbell. Waiting I tried to imagine how we would greet each other, hug.... The door opened and I saw him standing there. The next moment he mundanely shook my hand and with a puzzled look into my eyes asked me: `What's with you? Are you from the Field of Fools or what?' I couldn't handle the feelings at that question. The bewilderment and offence spilled out at the same time. Getting ahead of my feelings, Kesha hugged me belatedly, and clapping me on the back, said: `ok, what's up with you? You are like a small boy. I am happy to see you, old man. I just don't want any snot on my clothes.' The grudge at this stingy show of happiness, the resentment at his condescending manner, all that disappeared, when I, keeping the shoes on my prosthesis's, stepped into his apartment. I saw a miniature model of AC-60 PB on the bookshelves, featured in the most visible spot in the room.On the side of this tiny car there was a number 345 painted with yellow paint. The eyes of my friend burned with an authentic pride for this small parade of his victories:
`I'll show you something else! I got a bush of Indian marihuana!'
I wasn't listening to him any more, I was mesmerized . But his words did get to me, and I understood that he really turned off his bunker, and the time will not cure him. He stayed there, with them....
The sun burned the back of the bold head. The cotton shirt turned crusty from the salt of sweat. A barely perceptible wind moved above ground like heated glass, transforming the contours of objects into something unknowable.
Bullet was lying in a trench dug out for a position `mad minute lying down', and looked into the swaying fog through the optical sight CVD. `The Field of Fools', on which he pretended to be a battle sniper, was a piece of desert, which started around the battalion toilet. It was a place that served as the ground for punishment for everybody who deserved it. The punishment itself was simple and therefore highly offensive. The belligerent had to dig out his own trench for shooting according to all the prerequisites of military arts. The way of guarding the trench was determined individually. But the punishment consisted not even in the fact of having to stay like that on guard. It was considered a shame if the brass came to check up on the making of the trench and one's vigilance. Trust and independence were the maintained, encouraged qualities. But the brass could come any moment, and to lazy off meant to loose that trust and be considered a `worm', that could only show a worm's sleaziness in life.
In the two years during which the battalion had received one draft after another of all the spoiled boys from all over the Great Country, the punishment became a ritual with stricter and stricter rules. Accordingly, the status of those who had served it became higher and higher. As a living memory of all Fools, this piece of burned land was covered with a multitude of scars - trenches. Bullet lay in the ground, and getting bored with the desert landscape, examined the battalion through the riffle sight, trying not to think about Hun, the technical lieutenant who gave him these moments of communion with a foreign land.
The first three months of service in this war divided the people into two categories: those who saw in it only profit and those who were attracted to the war as such. But there was also a third, in between, group. Lieutenant with the nickname Hun was its bright representative. He was a professional in trading with the local population, and even more of a professional in conducting ambushes against that same population. Bypassing inner compromises, Hun found an easy method of shedding of any guilt - he did both activities with the same sense of big responsibility. All his tricks showed a professional who tried to do his job as carefully, as circumstances allowed. It was generally believed that Hun would not start anything without making sure first that he had all the necessary gear `if he had to engage Allah'.
Not hiding his double higher education, Hun would elegantly explain his view of the surrounding reality: `A hole in a pocket leads to an emptiness in the head. Emptiness in the head leads to a hole in the same head. And there is no other choice in a radius of a hundred kilometers, sons. All our life here is condensed to a necessity of survival, and we are slowly becoming animals in this fucking war.'
Before Hun put an eye on Bullet, Bullet was a simple newbie `just off the plane'. He even still had a name. His mama called him Kesha, but his mama never told him about the war or the Soviet Army,
Kesha grew up in a uranium miners' town, far away and lost in the steppes. Kesha didn't even suspect about the existence of another young man, future lieutenant, who at that time was teasing his girlfriend somewhere in Ukraine. The war joined them together, filtering their worlds through a riffle sight, terribly simplifying life, making it unbearably concrete.
When we, lightly drunk and having smoked the whole stash of marihuana, moved over tot the balcony, giving Kesha's family a chance to get some sleep, the warm summer night filled the tiny apartment with coolness. We talked about the past. I tried to change the subject onto the present. But he, ignoring my questions, successively dragged me into the war. Looking through the glass door into the one room apartment, where covered with white sheets his wife and daughter were sleeping on the only couch, he suddenly said: `Look, its like we are in a morgue!'
The allegory shook me up. Yes, there in the moonlit room were mattresses waiting for us on the floor, they were too, covered with white starched sheets. The rest of the sleeping people in the room only added to this picture of night silence. But what did one think about, how did one look at this world from the eye-sockets-gun-ports of his round, impregnable scull, to equal this white silence filled with the peace of careless sleep, to equal it with the silence of the morgue. `Do you understand Kesha, what you are saying?' I asked him. `What I say? - he was sincerely surprised, `It's what you say! You think it's all over? It's just beginning. Look around yourself. You forgot how they'd only get you down to the street level in the wheelchair in a lift only after you gave a buck to the elevator boy. They are not gone! They have children, grown up by them with all their habits. They are all around. They are all dead. And we are again alone. Alone, like back then in an ambush. This is my war, and I won't loose it...', he ended, looking straight at me.
` Kesha, I am with you.'
`You remember what Hun taught us?', he went on....
`You have to understand that it's a stranger, somebody you don't know. Otherwise you won't be able to do it. You have to understand that it's a target, a goal. This is somebody else's life, not yours. If you don't kill him, he will not loose that chance. If you give him that chance, he will give you a chance to go home. Only your mama will get you back packed in a jar. And then she will start writing letters to the battalion commander with questions why the lieutenant did not return her son back alive to her...
...Do you need all that shit?', Hun stood over Bullet who swung his legs aside demonstrating how to shoot lying down.
Bullet had a target in front of him. Hun personally carried it to the Field. It was a old big clay carafe filled with the leftovers of jelly from an PX(CH)D. The top half of the carafe was covered with a condom, which was smeared with dirt and pieces of felt and some other gruesome hairy stuff. All that stood at a distance of five hundred meters from Bullet.
`Here, son, here is your target. Imagine that your killing the target determines my mood and therefore your future. If one shot gets a result, we all go take a break. No result - I go for a break, you go to work. After killing the target you may go and look at what your head's gonna look like after you get a hole in it. This carafe with a condom on it is the exact copy of your head. If you don't hit it now, it would be easier for me to kill you now, then to take you with us, and then to have to drag you out from under fire. The rules are simple, therefore remember, I won't repeat it.
First: one's got a good advantage in shooting from a "Li Enfild", that gives a distance of about eight hundred kilometers. If the spook is stoned and irritated, then his first shot is about seven seconds of his brainwork. Considering that to get the target the first time around is heroic for a normal man, then just to readjust for a second shot, a spook would need at least ten seconds. You got it? The time of preparation for the spook's second shot gives a moving target an advantage of thirty meters, that is if the pants are down. You may not have such a pause. Your bride is the automatic, it saves about five seconds for you, and that is around fifteen meters that your target does not get to run. First shot straight into a target is a dream! It does not harm to dream, it does harm not to dream. Now in the best case after a bad shot the target will get on his knees. Dependent on his life's and psychiatric experience that momentary freeze that you impose on him with your first bad shot lasts about 5-6 seconds. That's you star moment. You have that moment thanks to an automatic riffle, value it.
Second: a normal spook is up to 50 centimeters wide. Everything that makes him alive and fidgety is located about 15-20 cm. deep inside his body. His chest has a radius of ten cm. - that's much more than than the leeway your riffle gives you at a distance of 400 meters. The bullet of your riffle weighs a bit more than 9 grams. It is dressed in a steel shirt with a copper tip on top. At impact with the spook's body it turns 90 degrees, and then a fraction of a second later it turns again 180 degrees and goes buttocks forward, slightly damaging tissue. But, at the depth of say 15-20 cm. the bullet looses its momentum, passing it on to the body of the already dead of fright spook. Given that the bullet damages soft tissue, going through solid organs, like lungs or lever, it destroys them completely. You got it? Your goal is to get into the target. The rest is not your business. But the trick is something else.
At impact a bullet makes a body pulsate, like a water-filled balloon. Now, can you imagine, two or three of your bullets getting into a spook with an interval of two seconds? They will rumble his insides to a point of blowing up. Therefore, remember, son, first: the sighting board of your optics is normally measured on the target, but oscillations should diminish towards the end of sighting, just a couple of moments right before shooting.
Third: a balanced positioning of the riffle, the possibility of moving it easily around, and the comfortability of the sighting itself will provide for good shooting. There is only one problem - the return reverb. Just hold it. Due to good positioning and therefore diminished oscillations you can make the chance of getting the target 6 times bigger in this position, than if you were in a position of lying down reading a book on a beech or sitting on a toilet, leaning on your elbows.
These are the reasons it pays to devote some attention to all this - you have an advantage in firing speed, you have pretty good optics for releasing at least three rounds into a radius of 10 cm. at 400 hundred meters, all that will give you a guarantee of success even if you got diarrhea at the time.
You got all the chances to go home like a hero! But now you got a chance to surprise me. First you shoot into a target, then you make, as precise as possible, two-three shots in a row, and then we will go look at `his' brains in the carafe.'
The first bullet went right through the neck of the carafe, cut it through and left a dusty trace on the ground far behind. The two following came with an interval of three seconds and got into the center of the carafe, breaking it into large pieces and tearing the condom at entry and exit points. Mousse spilled through the holes in the condom which was still holding together the broken pieces of clay.
Hun picked up the carafe and demonstratively looking it over spilled the rest of the mousse out. `there ain't nothing left even for a multiplication table', he commented on the remains. Bullet stood aside and tried to look away.
`You got to get used to it, son. You got to understand that if you don't hit him in the first ten seconds, you can fall in love with him. And that means that you won't want to shoot. I got to trust you. They are waiting for us back home.' Hun clapped Bullet on the shoulder to cheer him up.
Kesha sat erect, stretching his thin working arms out onto his knees. `When I flopped the mathematics at the Gorniy Institute, at the physics department, I went back to Kazachstan. Got myself a job at the mine. Slowly the uranium's coming off. And there are enough hoboes here for me. They all know me. It's easier for me to live with them according to their standards, than with all these...
...One time I went to a party meeting of the mine. But I went to the tramps first to take some dope from them. And they say: `Kesha, we know you. You going to smoke some on the way, sit there till it hits you, and then come back here and start schmoozing. It's better if you smoke some here, now, and then you can go rattle your head off there.'
.... So, I smoked some good stuff they had, and went to the meeting of the communist fathers. Sitting there, listening how they play their games. And then I got it. So I started talking. They gave me word, let the young have a say, so to speak. But you know, right before end of duty I applied and when I came home I was already a member of their party. You know, half-year of active military and you don't have to do any probation time. So, I came out onto the stage, mind you, a week before that I read exactly four pages of Gorbachev's New Thinking Policy. So I splashed it all out on them. Everything I had read and some more, how I would have liked to see it. And then I look, sort of silence. All around silence. All the two hours that I was talking, they were listening. Then after me there was someone else talking with approval, and they wrapped up their meeting after that. And at the exit with everybody shaking my hand, all of them in unison: master, supervisor, shift manager. All because the Party Organizer came to me and like so sincerely said:' Well done! Good that you gave a speech, but you should have prepared some more...'. Can you imagine it? He took it all for real. And you say I talk bullshit. It's they talk bullshit and don't even know that.'.
It all happened in a split second on the 9th of May 1982. Despite the holiday, the battalion had to provide support for the passage of transport. Two companies had to go out without a break right after two ambush operations. Groups of nine jumped out of armored cars on course, blocking areas of possible enemy fire, getting ahead of enemy ambushes in places where the green got dangerously close to the concrete. It was the one who got there first that won in the end.
What started as spare green carpet turned into a vineyard a bit further away from the road. There groups split up into sighting groups of three, forming teeth in the comb. The vineyard was not only encircled in its whole by a wall, but it was also divided into large squares by this wall, locally called duwal. Three sighting groups per vineyard provided for so much movement that the shot sounded solitary and almost imperceptible, lost in the growth. The bullet, sent by an experienced hand stopped Khalimov. Coming into his body a bit to the right of his right nipple, it came out through the left shoulder blade, crushing bone and coloring the back red. Khalimov whitened in the face and fell down from the edge of the walkway through a duwal. The sniper made a couple of more shots to prevent any other tries to cross the duwal, demonstrating the ownership of a beautiful rapid fire `Bur' automatic.
Duwal cut the sighting group in half. One of the three was already dead. The other two were immobilized on different sides of the clay wall. Mad fire following the first sniper shots made them both squeeze tight to the wall. Kesha sat for the first minute leaning over the dead body of a fellow soldier. Khalimov died in his arms. As Kesha turned him face upwards, he whispered `mama, it hurts' and his lips got white. Instinctually, wishing to get rid of someone else's blood, Kesha dipped his hands in the dust. Guiltily wiping the wet dust off his fingers he tried to look around and determine the trajectory of the bullet they all missed. When a set of fire erupted again giving cover to three people including Hun jumping over the duwal, Kesha was already on the move. Keeping low, he was senselessly crawling in the labyrinth of the vineyard.
Understanding that he is loosing time, Kesha moved over to the edge of the vineyard, trying to find a comfortable position. Approximating the line of a shot, he figured that the sniper will try to escape the reach of their group, and that the best place for him to do it was the walkway in the opposite side of the wall, on a diagonal line from Kesha, within 80 meters. Trying to calm his breathing, spreading his legs wide behind him, he carefully separated a vine with the barrel of his Kalashnikov machine gun. He led his sight slowly along the duwal waiting for the sniper to appear. He was sure he could find him.
Despite the density of fire, Hun together with two other soldiers managed to haul the dead body over the walkway where he was received by the rest of the group remaining on the outside. Realizing there had been a third member of the group, now on the inside of the vineyard, Hun stayed to look around. The density of fire decreased just as suddenly as it began. Now the spooks were shooting only for prophylactics, trying to keep distance. The sound of a long throaty machine gun fire meant that the `young one' was still alive and, thank god, still kicking.
The spook appeared in the walkway very suddenly. Kesha almost missed him. Afraid to loose the spook from his sight, Kesha pressed the release hook of his machine gun and kept on firing till the dust, raised by his bullets hid from him both the hole in the duwal and the dead body sliding down to its base. The Kalashnikov obediently followed Kesha's instructions with the only justification for it being a desire to punish, kill, prove to himself that he could do it.
That day they did everything they could. Kesha had traced and wiped the spook out, Hun had dragged the spook's body with all its equipment from under ferocious fire out to where they could examine it. That evening the technical lieutenant, slightly drunk and not ashamed to show it, had caught the audacious young.
`Like to war, son?' Hun looked attentively at the young soldier who was called on his request to come to the smoking shed.
`No, I like to shoot bullets', Kesha tried to look unconcerned. Hun examined the clumsy figure in a wrinkled panama hat, but already sporting a dashing forehead and dusty dirty boots with wire instead of laces.
`So, you like to shoot bullets?' Hun confirmed. `And I thought it was the spooks moving in, when you let your machine gun go. You got it real quick.'
`With bullets', Kesha put up a self-satisfied smile. Hun went on examining this fool, who slowly filled with a sense of self-importance, not even suspecting the true situation.
`There are moments in the war, son, when one has to act cruelly and violently - these are moments of conscious enlightenment, when one knows exactly what one has to do and do it quickly and precisely, directly and naturally. At such a moment one belongs to one's body, full with instincts. And the quicker you understand it, the better off you are. If in the future you will also think with bullets, your papa may be proud of you. But for now,' Hun looked into the eyes of the young soldier, figuring out how far Kesha will go with his valiance, `loose the attitude, fix the fold on your panama, the wire you may change for real laces and try not to walk like a turkey any more. Loose your Paraguayan habits - all your daily problems are related to the difficulties of war. Tomorrow with the same courage and machine gun on the Field of Fools. We are going to make an Indian out of you.'
And so Kesha became Bullet. Many others who came with him on the same plane were still `myths', `devils', `Paraguayans', `bellies', `skulls', `spirits', or `worms'. Many of them already lost their names, while they still hadn't acquired new ones.
Hun died of our own smoke mine. The group got into an ass-ambush in a green area. The spooks started enveloping our guys. Hun managed to take the group through an aryik to those encircled. The fire coming from both sides was mad, and getting the wounded out could only be done in the intervals between the volleysthe mortar company let fall at the bottom of the aryik, trying to keep the spooks away. The spooks were coming like flies at pile of shit. Hun had already led three groups forth and back, when a young soldier from the mortar company, accidentally pulling the trigger, fired a volley down the aryik at the wrong time. At the time when Hun was down there, leading another group out.
They were all then covered with smoke. Three in front were badly injured by shell pieces. The two following directly after Hun got burned by the smoke mine, which got straight at the base of the lieutenant's skull, burning his body and tearing his head off. Hun was carried out, in a minute somebody brought that which just three minutes before sat on his shoulders. The young soldier from the mortar company was miraculously saved from lynching. That day the life of so many from our brigade got divided in two parts: before and after.
On the inside of Hun's beret, which was kept in a box previously containing hand-grenades, together with all the rest of his private things, there was a sentence crocheted with gold letters: `I REX ....and not a pot full of hydroxide.'
Often remembering Hun, later I thought a lot about what I saw in that senseless war, and about what I had experienced, while my sides were getting tired in the hospital bed, or even later while getting blisters from the narrow prosthesis, drinking liters of vodka with shell-shocked brothers, listening to the condolences of those who had stayed behind.
Hun got us all in a crowd, making specialists out of that crowd, and one of us became a real ace in that war. Hun taught us a lot, and the rest we perceived by ourselves. He deprived us of a belief in immortality, and spared us from an illusion of impunity of evil. We understood that a simple pencil can become a weapon too, one can get a vulgar peritonitis from its impact, but only the efficiency of the local first aid will be a guarantee of a successful recovery.
Already there, every one of us understood that weapons give one the right of strength over the local villages, which could be wiped off with one volley. In particular one can easily encounter a situation, in which one has absolute power to punish or let the caught spook go. And nobody would be surprised if once or twice one goes beyond the borderline, perhaps only to prove to oneself that one can do it. If it happens, if one succeeds in that, then successively one will try to widen the limits of one's power, till one meets an invisible wall, a border set by one's fortune which is the only obstacle that can stop one.
Fortune is like a sniper's riffle. As soon as you get into the sight you don't belong to yourself wholly. As a warning one gets small troubles. Later, not understanding these small warnings, one comes against a thick wall, which gives only one choice: one may live within its boundaries, or get over the wall and die free. The main thing is to understand that one has reached one's wall, has gotten to the limit of allowable, to the limit of one's power.
Eighty of one hundred arrived to make up our brigade had reached this line and couldn't overtake it, or a couple of times having been over it and having come back, couldn't deal with the fear of their own courage. The rest step over this edge a few times a day, getting drunk on the sense of freedom, impunity and a constant danger of punishment for the daring. The very fact of their existence, their ability to guard themselves and remain human, is that measure of luck determining the mastership of a sniper, who deals out our reward and penalty for daring to try and bite more out of life than we can eat.
Hun told us: `Life is beautiful, but not expensive. The main point is we have to put the price on it ourselves. It's important not to sell your courage too cheap.
Having been there once, behind that wall, those twenty out of a hundred stay on in that world, where anybody is ready to pay any price for anything, because there things are straight, simple and graspable...
`Does your roof blow off often?' I ask Kesha, trying to assess if he understands that other people do not understand him.
`Last time my roof blew off, I got divorced. Now it seems ok. Nobody complaints. But that time, then I did everything for real. They think I had gone mad, but I wasn't.'
His story didn't surprise me.
`...I was thrown out of the Institute. Came back to the mine. The management didn't give me an apartment, put me on the waiting list, so I started waiting. I decided not to live with my parents, so I moved out. Rented a room from an old Kazakh-woman, in the ground-house neighborhood, which earlier housed the builders of the mine: prisoners and those released from the prison who had to stay in the vicinity by law.
The Kazakh-woman was of the old stamina, smoked non-chain, had a tattoo on her arm, and sometimes cursed in Russian. The only condition she put was not to eat pig meat in her house, respecting her as a Muslim woman. That's how we made the deal.
Everything went normally. I got friendly with the old woman. The Ukrainian woman with whom I had previously gotten married didn't do everything the way I wanted it. But that didn't worry me. I didn't know myself yet exactly what it was I wanted, I was coming home almost unconscious from the mine.
Then one time I came home. The Kazakh-woman was sitting on the street, lighting one cigarette from another. I saw she was grudging something. I went to my room and to my surprise my not so little Ukrainian was frying bacon, smell all over the house! I told her: `What are you doing? Why do you offend the old woman?'. And she said `like ok, the old woman can bear it, it was not for nothing that my husband fought in Afghanistan so that he has to obey her Muslim laws here'. That's where my curtains fell down. I didn't kill her immediately.
I went out into the street. Went to the oldie and said: `What do I have to do to atone for the misdeed my wife committed?'
` `And what do I do? How do I clean my house? You are not going to kill her for that'.
`Why not?', I say. `It's a serious business, and we have to solve it in a serious way.'
I dragged my better side by the hair out onto the street, pulled a rope with laundry on it down. Then I put a sheet over her head, a lasso over her throat, the rope on the pole and a chair under her feet. The oldie didn't say anything, but didn't interfere either. My wife stood with a sheet over her head, a lasso on her throat and whined like a dog a little bit, low like that. I saw people beginning to come around. Those are totally different types of people living in ground houses there, some of them are born with tattoos.
Then the oldie started howling that she was ready to forgive, so that I wouldn't sin against Allah, Allah is all powerful, and to hang someone is a big sin amongst Muslims. As if I didn't know. But I answered her then: `And what do we do about the house despoiled by the pig meat, what do we do about the unbeliever?' Everybody around was screaming by that time. So I decided, if they offered to kill her for the despoiling of the house, let them do it. Only then I would kill one of them, because who would forgive me a silent participation in the death of my wife? So I offered it to them: I kill my wife, they kill one of their own. And so that they didn't take long about their decision, I started to push the chair from under the feet of my little Ukrainian.
Later, when everything ended with a whole neighborhood getting drunk, everybody wondered how I could do something like that. And how could they do something like that? Who offered me such a solution, for which nobody wanted to take responsibility?
I said it, I did it. And they? No offence, guys, I decided, and began to tell it to them: If you can't do as I do, then your number is 320, go stand in the back, and do what I say.
But the old Kazakh-woman turned out to be a worthy woman, after all. She put all her medals on and went to the municipality. As a result I got this apartment. Only my little Ukrainian wife disappeared from the house, and I never saw her again.'
I was listening to stories out of Kesha's life and thinking how alike we all were. We all walk as if in the same magic circle, opening all the same doors, looking for and not finding those wise, flexible decisions we need in daily problems. Turning each simple situation into our own small war, hoping for luck, not looking at the price or looses, stepping over ourselves is what gives us a distinctive connection with each other.
The government which had sent us there and which was not prepared for our comeback, encountering an even stronger opposition from our numbers, assumes now its normal role - to control the exercise of public rules and private agreements, to defend citizens from each other and itself from us, slowly shedding any obligations it has ever committed itself to towards us.
Hun died. In the summer of `82 the commander of our company died in the vicinity of Kalat. 22 of April at Senzheraj the company got caught in an ambush, and many, too many stayed there. Bullet got shell-shocked, did he luck out?
Life has thrown us around. We had all been there behind that wall, and everybody made his choice. Every one of us knows what he wants. Every one of us knows what he can. We all know what's waiting for us out there.
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