The sun rose higher and in the lilac garden everything was painfully familiar. Arslan had only to close his eyes and he felt like he was far away, at home in Ashgabat. Back when he had been a schoolboy there, he had loved to wander amongst the lilac bushes in early spring. He had always adored their powerful scent and would sit at times for hours on some secluded bench until his head spun from the intoxicating smell and he would leave the garden, staggering. Even now, he should have left long ago but he lingered, eyes closed, lost in distant dreams. He simply didn’t have the strength to get up and walk home to the hostel. Just the thought of all the books waiting there to be read was enough to make him crazy. Summer exams were just around the corner and he just sat there, daydreaming about some far-off place as if waiting for some secret adventure to start.
It was spring, after all. Arslan sat contentedly, casually glancing at the occasional passersby, and listening to the birds’ chirping as they fluttered around. A flourish of fragrant lilac swayed above his head. Here and there a few, light wisps of white clouds floated across the lofty sky. It was so clear overhead that the dome of the sky seemed totally transparent, illusionary and infinite. The rich trill of a nightingale drifted from a thicket of leafy trees. It would soon be summer. In Ashgabat, the lilacs must have already blossomed but there was no way he would get to wander down his street there this year and luxuriate in their scent.
The edge of the lilac garden was next to his home by an old, brick building where — until recently — a girl about his age named Leila had lived. Further on, the garden gently tumbled beyond a low wooden fence and disappeared into the depths of the yard. How badly he wanted to meet Leila this spring in the lilac garden, although she might still think of him as the annoying kid who had never missed the chance to pull her pigtails. Wasn’t that why she had thought he was a bully and had kept her distance when they’d run into each other? Until she’d moved to the other end of the town, that is. Maybe he was the reason Leila’s parents had decided to move away from that street, which was a shame because he had liked her a lot. He just hadn’t known for a long time how to act around her, so he’d done all kinds of stupid stuff.
It was sad. Arslan closed his eyes.
When he opened them, he saw that a girl he didn’t recognize had appeared at the other end of the bench, as if by magic. This beautiful, fair-skinned girl sat quietly, reading. She looked about two years older than him. Arslan decided she was a student. Why else would she waste a marvellous spring day reading, especially now, when everything around them sang with poetry?
Arslan gave a little cough to try to attract her attention, but nothing happened. She was quite absorbed in her reading. He tried to guess who she was. She looked much like all the other students, but there was something peculiar about her. I wonder what she’s reading about, thought Arslan. Perhaps about love?
He continued to watch this stranger, following the expressions on her face and her movements, and came to the conclusion from her demeanour that she was holding either a book of poetry or a novel about love. After all, can you really read about anything else while sitting amongst blossoming lilacs in a Moscow garden in May?
The girl was completely absorbed in her book and Arslan decided she hadn’t even noticed him when she’d sat down on the bench. What a girl, he marvelled, and what hair! He closed his eyes again, not wanting his attention to unnerve the girl in case, God forbid, she should suddenly fly away. He didn’t want her to disappear. On the contrary, he wanted her to stay there a bit longer — out of reach, perhaps, but near.
More time passed and Arslan became lost in daydreams again. But soon his thoughts drifted back to the stranger. If we knew each other, he thought, we could go together right now to the look-out point on top of Sparrow Hills or down to the Moskva River and get lost there by the water, in the Singing Forest, and in the evening we could go out to the cinema together. But it’s not bad in the lilac garden, either, especially as evening draws in.
He imagined them walking there among the tall, fragrant lilac bushes, embracing like real lovers. They would even kiss, maybe, as the light fades and the red disk of the sun grows large, then disappears over the Western horizon, leaving behind the scent of datura in the evening air. That same potent datura which makes the girls’ heads spin. He had heard just the other day how a student for no apparent reason had lost consciousness here in the garden. A crowd had quickly gathered around her and somebody had called an ambulance. But when it arrived the medics had to search all of the benches for the patient and when they had found her, they didn’t know how to react — whether to be livid or to laugh. She was already passionately kissing a guy, just like all the other couples in the area. The doctor and the nurse discreetly gathered some sprigs of lilac, made their own intoxicating posy and went on their way, laughing good-naturedly about the emergency call for a patient diagnosed as “love-struck”.
This summer, Arslan felt like a grown-up. He dreamt of girls more and more, and, curiously, they slipped into his dreams as they would into the sea, completely naked. He couldn’t wait to experience real, grown-up love. But it was unlikely to happen now, before exams, with so little time. Yet the aroma of the lilac garden lingered in the air, beckoning with ever more force, rousing ever more deeply, his pure, youthful desires.
The sun was fiery hot but Arslan didn’t want to move to the shade, and didn’t want to open his eyes. He was scared that the enchanting stranger might no longer be beside him. So he stayed there until the heat became unbearable, and only then did he open his eyes. He was surprised to see the stranger hadn’t vanished. Rather, she had made herself more comfortable by taking off her shoes and tucking up her feet, exactly like the women in his distant homeland. And what legs she had, visible under her skirt. What dainty ankles. Arslan could hear his heart beating. He could no longer act indifferently. He wanted to talk to the girl.
And, of course, without giving it much thought, he asked her the first question that came into his head.
“Aren’t you hot, Miss? Are you sure you’re not going to get sunburnt by mistake?”
The girl looked up and smiled at him, and answered cheerfully, “By mistake, no, but maybe on po-o-rpose.”
Arslan also gave an unwitting smile, but more at her pronunciation than her words. That’s interesting, thought the curious boy. Which republic is she from? Maybe one of the Baltics? Must be one of the Baltics. Where else would she get an accent like that?
“Where are you from, Miss?” he asked. And then started to try to guess: Riga? No. Tallinn? No. Lithuania?
“I’m from Sveeden.”
Arslan was confused by her answer. “Ho-ow?” he asked, warily. “Just like that? Straight from Sweden?”
The girl gave him that sweet smile which, later, over the following days and weeks, would appear so often in his dreams at night.
“Yes, and so vat? I’m from Stockholm”
“But how did you get there … to Stockholm? You’ve, what, lived there all your life?” The words unwittingly escaped from Arslan’s mouth.
“I’m Sveedish,” she answered, with a giggle.
Arslan was at a bit of a loss. He had no idea how to act now, what to say to her. Should he carry on the conversation, or should he excuse himself and slip away? He was even ready to close his eyes again but curiosity got the better of him. He couldn’t keep from looking at his enchanting neighbour. He started to speak again, but his words came out all muddled:
“But you, it’s the very, truly, are you, I mean Swedish? Right from there?” he mumbled, glancing around with a confused look. “It’s the first time in my whole life I’ve seen a real-life Swedish girl. How did you end up here? I mean, are you a student, or have you come to visit, to see Moscow?”
“I came for an internshe-e-p for a co-o-ple of months. I speak Russian wery badly.”
“No, what are you talking about?” Arslan hurried to encourage her. “You speak very well, amazingly even! You’re not Russian, after all. Sure, it’s a little funny but also sweet. I like it.”
“Do-o you?” the Swedish girl smiled sincerely. “Probably, you’re yust light-headed from the smell of the lilac.”
“Yes,” Arslan confessed dreamily, glancing at the lilac bushes. “It’s insanely beautiful and fragrant here. But, I’m probably more flustered because it’s the first time I’ve had a conversation with such a beautiful girl.” And then, having slowed down a little, added, “with a Swedish girl.”
“Vat, so every Svedish girl you have met so var has been ugly?”
“No, no, I didn’t mean that!” Arslan hurried to reassure her. “They all were very beautiful, very sweet. What’s more, I haven’t seen them yet, that is, I’ve seen them, but not like you, right next to me, but at the cinema, on the television and, you know, in various pretty magazines.”
He turned a deep red, both from his secret thoughts and from the sudden, fleeting memory of those pictures he had seen in the glossy magazines. They were passed around now and then, spending no more than one night with each person, as if they weren’t pictures, but real-life girls in gilded cages.
“I understaa-and,” drawled his companion, as if she’d guessed the reason for his embarrassment, and started to laugh. “So you lo-o-ve Svedish girls in magazines!”
“Yes, very much,” confessed Arslan, a bit unsure of himself. “Life abroad is so interesting: the weather, nature, how people dress and, all in all, what things are like. I’ve not been, of course, and I know that I don’t know anything about you.”
“Vat’s your name?” asked the Swedish girl.
“Arslan. And yours?”
“Bibi,” she answered. When he heard that, Arslan almost fell off the bench.
“Ho-ow’s that? Bibi? So, they call you Bibi? Well we’ve got that name, too. It’s even really popular. You could say there are Bibis on every street. I had a classmate called Bibi!”
“That’s nice. Ve call Bridgettes, Bibi. It’s easier, and quicker too. But Arslan — that’s a Russian name?”
“No, in Russian it would be Leo,” and just to be on the safe side he started to growl. “Rrrrr. You get it. Leo, kind of big and hairy, and strong, too!”
“You’re frightening me.” She closed the book, getting up from the bench.
She’s not kidding, Arslan thought, alarmed. She’s leaving. He made a desperate suggestion:
“Don’t you want to take a walk? It’s so lovely here. It’s not going to last long. The lilacs in Moscow pass quickly. By this time last year, they was already gone. Spring’s come a bit later this time. You could say you’ve been fabulously lucky.”
“I’m re-e-lly glad. Let’s go, then. But if ve go for a valk together, you’re not allowed to eat me like a leo, okay?”
Arslan was at a loss and, unable to come up with a response straightaway. He glanced at his companion carefully, trying to understand if she was joking or serious. Flustered, he again muttered something silly, completely off the mark, which as soon as he said it seemed funny even to him.
“No, don’t get me wrong, I don’t each? much meat, I prefer fish. They just call me Arslan, but I’m practically vegetarian. What’s more … how to put it … I’m soon going to be a bit busy, I need to wash my trousers, shirt, otherwise I’ll have nothing to wear to school.”
“You, vat, still go to school? But you are old!”
Her remark struck Arslan to the core. He laughed out loud. But at the same time, he became a touch ashamed of his words, of his anxiety, perhaps, in front of this enchanting foreign girl.
“No, I mean, when we’re talking amongst ourselves, we call our university ‘school’. You don’t do that?”
And from that moment, one thing led to another, and they were quickly drawn into a conversation of “in your country, in our country” and didn’t even notice they had been walking around the garden almost arm in arm.
Bibi asked him. “Vat’s dat scar on your cheek?”
He joked, “I had this scrap with a real tiger.”
“Va-at? With a real one?” she said, scared. “And you’re still alive? But, where does the tiger live now? He’s alive?”
“I think he’s alive although I’m not sure. I was lucky that I’m a leo, otherwise that could have ended in tears.” Arslan pulled a mournful expression, but then, laughing, added, “Then again, it’s possible that without crying, you won’t get anywhere in any case, since I was a rather young boy then, just a child in nappies, when this predator, tiger of a sandfly attacked me.”
But then, seeing Bibi’s blank look, he said, “It’s a pendinka, a mark from the bite of a sandfly, which you get in our part of the world.”
“Pendin? Sandfly? Vat’s that?” Bibi couldn’t understand.
So Arslan set about explaining the meaning of these words. From that moment, he adopted the role of teacher with delight. The walk in the lilac garden was a revelation for Arslan. He had never thought, never guessed, that you could have such an interesting conversation with a foreign girl on a first meeting. By the end of the walk, mind you, he had already forgotten that Bibi was Swedish and started to consider her accent normal. When they parted, they agreed to meet again the next day after lectures, in the same place in the garden. It’s worth hurrying to enjoy a lilac fairy tale. It doesn’t last long, after all.
As he fell asleep in his little room in the hostel, Arslan smiled at the thought of Bibi, her slim waist, her white wrists, the tender radiance of her heavenly eyes. And the way she looked at him. Trustingly, as if they had known each other forever and as if he were older than her, and not the other way around. It was the first time he had felt this. He’d been confident, sitting alone with a girl. That feeling of self-satisfaction boosted his ego. For a long time he couldn’t fall asleep, and he trembled gently as if waves were rolling over him. In his mind, memories stirred of the fleeting touches of Bibi’s delicate fingers, and the smell of the lilac bushes lulled him to sleep.
He met her every day after lectures and on Sundays they simply never left each other’s sides. Arslan’s head was spinning. Bibi exuded the sweetness of May. Everything to do with the enchanting Swedish girl was bathed in a tender, lilac haze. In the evenings, Arslan brought lush bouquets from the university garden to her room in secret. They gave off a perfume of both the night air of Moscow at the onset of summer, and of the beguiling datura, for he gathered the bouquets for Bibi while the love trills of the nightingales drifted from the deep-scented bushes.
Bibi really liked to walk with him in the evenings to the look-out point to admire the bird’s-eye view of golden-domed Moscow. Arslan was proud of “this beauty,” as he would call Moscow, the capital of his vast homeland. He would talk with enthusiasm about this maddening city, but he preferred to go with her to the cinema, and on the way back explain the definitions of Russian words, just like he had the first day they had met. He liked to sit up late in some cosy little café and go back home on the crowded night bus, forced to stand, pressed up close to each other. Arslan was glad of the compulsory intimacy. Their happy faces were reflected in the bus windows, and it seemed as if their feelings were printed there, frozen symbols of their love that floated onwards, leaving behind the sleepy, nocturnal streets of the city.
The route from the bus stand to the hostel always ran through the university garden and they would stall there until midnight. Short, tender kisses gave way to passionate, lingering ones. Arslan already remembered their first kiss as if it had happened in the distant past, even though it had been just a few days earlier. He felt like he had grown up. And the world, too, seemed to him more grown-up, unspeakably beautiful, marked by motherly devotion and feminine gentleness. Day and night, his young soul was filled with love and unexpressed tender feelings. He worshipped Bibi so much that when she told him he kissed passionately and with skill, he felt drunk from this female praise.
He became at once smiley and serious, careful and forgetful, sociable and reserved. It was impossible not to see. And, of course, it was his classmates who first noticed these dramatic changes.
“You’re getting all grown-up!” said Olga with a friendly smile, looking at him intently. Mind you, she always looking at him in a special way, Arslan knew. And now she looked deeply into his sparkling eyes.
“Why’s that? Probably spring is taking its toll? In Ashgabat, it’s time for you to get married,” she joked. “But you’re spending all your time wandering in the lilac garden, oblivious to everybody around you.”
“I’ll find myself a bride here. There’s no need to go to Ashgabat!” he answered, unexpectedly assertively. But then he frowned a little. How did she know about his meetings with Bibi in the lilac garden? Had she been spying on him?
That day it seemed to him that both the class Komsorg and the Partorg were watching him out of the corners of their eyes. The latter more than once gave him a stern, openly disapproving look, without saying a word. Although he felt he really wanted to, or had to, say something. It was then that Arslan remembered for the first time in recent days one of the unwritten rules of the Moscow State University, which he had recalled at the very start of his acquaintance with Bibi but had later somehow forgotten. He had known earlier that to get tangled up with foreigners was “not recommended” and that there were no exceptions. How on earth could he have forgotten? This was bad. What was he supposed to do? Now he knew what the Komsorg and Partorg‘s side-long glances signified, and also those stern looks from the warden, who sat outside the entrance to Bibi’s halls where, for the most part, the foreigners lived. He had read whatever he wanted into those glances, but never reproach.
He suddenly felt worried and uneasy. He knew he’d accidentally crossed an invisible line and felt depressed. He wasn’t himself for the rest of the lesson but when the lecture ended he hurried to meet Bibi, as if his worries had never existed. That’s how everything continued, as normal: during the day, he was tormented by suspicious glances but, later, he forgot them. Just consider that, with all those Komsorgs, and Proforgs, and Partorgs. He was in love. His heart was full of lilac love.
No sooner had he stepped outside the walls of the old university building, which sat snugly on Karl Marx Avenue in the heart of Moscow, than Arslan hurried as if nothing had happened to meet his captivating Scandinavian sweetheart. The glances of “all those guys” became sterner each day, more meaningful and eloquent. Arslan chased away any sinister thoughts with sheer will-power. He desperately wanted to distance himself from their hostility and so, as soon as he left the faculty, he deliberately forgot about his silent stalkers. But his ill-wishers wouldn’t leave him in peace. The course Partorg, who paraded around in a long, leather coat in both winter and summer, “accidentally” bumped into him at the door of the Lenin Auditorium, and said in an angry voice, “Lad, stop with this silliness, because I really don’t feel like hearing all kinds of unflattering nonsense about you.”
“What silliness?” asked Arslan, not immediately grasping the sharply spoken words.
“You know, what!” In three words, the Partorg sliced though the young man’s hardness of hearing and, pointedly turning his back without saying another word, he walked away.
That same evening, the warden in the part of the hostel where Bibi lived, apparently having forgotten about the bell, began to beat angrily with her gnarled knuckles on the door and, when the young boy stuck his nose out of the room, gave him a piece of her mind about the systematic violation of the internal code of conduct. Trying to spot a violation over his shoulder, she crabbily ordered Arslan to leave the foreign girl’s room right that minute and get back to his own. The route between zones (she enthusiastically called the areas of the hostel “zones”) was blocked at exactly twenty-three hundred hours, she pointed out, and he risked getting locked out. And what’s more, she said, because of him, she might get a talking to.
“Young man, it’th jutht not fair at the end of the day!” lisped and mumbled the old Ukrainian woman through her metal row of front teeth. “I don’t want to be booted out of my job at my age. Have a heart.”
The next day, though, it finally happened just as it should. Bibi and he became closer — a lot closer — than before. When that happened the well-brought-up, principled boy, began to think about a swift marriage. He lay for a long time with his eyes closed, his mind travelling through a montage of the future, which was full of colourful episodes. He imagined how, arm in arm with Bibi, he would appear at home in Ashgabat to introduce her to his parents.
“We have to get up … the babushka is coming. She’ll get angry, you know,” Bibi said almost wordlessly, with just one movement of her lips.
They went out to the garden but it was difficult to part so they took a little stroll, intoxicated by their new, nocturnal happiness. It seemed that the lilac gave off an even stronger, sweeter aroma than before.
“How warm and cosy! Now it’s not even cold at night,” exclaimed Arslan, but then a sudden sadness welled up from nowhere. “It’s June. The lilacs are almost over. We haven’t long left to enjoy them.”
Their lips melted furtively into a long and passionate kiss, which seemed to contain within it a tremor of concern for their future but they hadn’t yet guessed that the lilac garden would never greet them, as a couple, again. The kiss became bitter, or did it just seem bitter to Arslan?
He was picked up by the KGB with a sickening lack of ceremony.
When they came for him, he hadn’t had time to wake up properly after the late night.
The bell had just rung, the professor had just walked into the auditorium, and started to spread out his papers on his lecture table, sleepily mumbling the usual ritual phrases. The students had just settled down at their desks, and at that very minute the door quietly opened to the Lenin Auditorium, where about two hundred future journalists were either snatching clandestine bites of their morning sandwiches or sitting wide-eyed and lost in daydreams. Many thought it was one of the latecomers rushing in after the professor so that, having darted in unnoticed, they could quickly sit down somewhere in the first row — with the most industrious of the industrious students.
But they were wrong. It wasn’t a latecomer. Arslan was called out of the room.
He went out and, right outside the door, saw an unfamiliar, young man in a foppish, checked suit. The visitor, who kept straightening his tie, made sure to look closely at Arslan, as if memorizing his appearance.
“So can I go now?” begged the faculty administrator, Valentina Yermolaevna, in an unusually timid voice, her tone alerting Arslan that the young man in the somewhat frivolous suit was no ordinary visitor and that he, Arslan, was in a tough spot. Possibly a very bad one indeed. That was also clear from the woman’s deep sigh.
“Yes, of course!” answered the young man, in an especially polite tone. “We will now just… deal with this on our own, isn’t that right, Arslan?”
Arslan was perplexed and stayed silent, but Valentina Yermolaevna, demonstrating complete obedience and also, it seemed, that she had no part in what was happening, quickly retreated, leaving the fate of her student wholly in the hands of the guest.
It was the first time Arslan had seen the faculty administrator so bewildered, almost helpless, and the first time that she had looked at him with such deep fear in her faintly reddish, slightly bulging eyes, and his heart immediately sank. When he heard the solemn order, “Follow me and bring your things with you,” he went back to the auditorium and under the crossfire of his coursemates’ eyes, clumsily gathered up his textbooks and notepads and then, head hanging, dejected, silently plodded out to the street, noticing only the soles of the pretty shoes on the warden’s feet.
A car stood on the edge of a narrow side-street, which by an ironic twist of fate, was named after one of the most freedom-loving rebel writers of national literature, Herzen.
“Right, young man, let’s go to our office. It’s not far from here,” said his companion, sitting in the car and appearing disinterested, but keeping a close eye on Arslan’s movements.
It felt like the car hadn’t even had time to pull away, they arrived so quickly. An enormous grey building seemed to swallow them for breakfast, cutting off any way out. They walked for a long time through a labyrinth of corridors, down stairs, and back up, and then back down again, between the floors. Those who they passed briskly greeted Arslan’s companion. If he hadn’t known about the KGB, hadn’t known where they’d taken him, then he could have preserved a normal, merry mood. But now it was way beyond that. Inside the grey building everybody looked unusually busy. Markedly polite people noiselessly floated down the corridors, nipping from office to office, all with identical folders either tucked under their arms or clutched to their chests. The whole time, they never met a person with empty hands. Arslan thought: they really love their documents.
Finally, his companion slowed down, stopped opposite one of the offices and rapped on the enormous door.
“Yes?” a curt voice said from inside the room. “Come in!”
“Comrade colonel, from Zhurfak …”
“You can enter!” came the muffled answer from the owner of the office, a man around fifty years old, who was sitting and intently writing something. And, as Arslan later remembered with distress, he only glanced at him for a fraction of a second. What’s more, Arslan wasn’t even sure that he noticed him. Maybe, he didn’t see him at all? His gaze just skipped over Arslan, like when people accidentally bump into each other at the door of a public toilet. His escort quickly retreated, after indicating with a finger where to sit, and the colonel once again became busy with his papers, which were brightly lit by a splash of light from a dark table lamp, the strange shape of which surprised Arslan. Something from the Middle Ages, the student couldn’t help but think.
In the office, there was complete silence. Arslan, expecting questions, at first just sat there, breathing in and out, in and out. The silence didn’t get to him at first. For a while, he was still thinking maybe they’d brought him to the colonel at a very lucky time. After all, it was clear he was way too busy to deal with him. But, with time, the silence became more conspicuous and then even more oppressive. The colonel was clearly writing something, maybe even some kind of report, because Arslan had to wait a lot longer than he had expected.
For the first few minutes, he was glad that he hadn’t been leapt on straightaway; it gave him time to catch his breath from the journey. Although, he didn’t understand why he should be leapt at, since he didn’t feel guilty at all. Maybe that was why he began to brace himself for something unknown, like for an exam, getting ready to respond to any question in a clear and concise manner and, of course, with dignity, just as Tuchborskaya, their professor for foreign literature had taught them. He didn’t understand why they had brought him to this gloomy place, why they had dragged him from his lecture right before the start of the summer exams. That the reason could have been his love for Bibi, he didn’t even want to consider.
He realized he had a bit of time to think about it all, and he frantically began to wonder what had happened, why he was there. Sure, he had committed a few small sins: scrapped with a friend back home, called him a cheapskate; argued in a shop with the saleswoman when she short-changed him. But he hadn’t even argued with her that rudely, he hadn’t used a single swear word — and not because he didn’t know such words, but simply because he believed it would be unbecoming for a future journalist to use improper phrases. After he found nothing in the recent past, he plunged further back, sifting through his youth, then his distant childhood. There was plenty of time. The colonel continued to scribble; he evidently hadn’t got to him yet. He was writing, stooped over the desk. That is a bad habit, thought Arslan. It will quickly make you a hunchback, or maybe it already has. He couldn’t tell for sure, as the writer still hadn’t got up from his desk. If he becomes a hunchback, thought Arslan, then his wife won’t love him any more …
And then it dawned on him. Could they have brought him here because of love? He didn’t want to believe it, it would be too absurd. So, after a moment, he began to rummage about in his memory in search of more plausible reasons for being brought to the grey building, which was by no means a popular place amongst future journalists. And for that matter probably also amongst physicists and chemists, linguists and biologists, and students from other faculties.
He delved into his memory, remembering everything that had happened over the last few days, then the last few months, and then the last few years. But it seemed there was nothing more serious than his love for a foreign girl. There were, of course, scuffles in the yard, and his father’s cigarettes — borrowed, naturally, without asking — and a few episodes from his teenage years, even a few quite turbulent ones, but young lads’ stuff all the same. Nobody could seriously be interested in any of that, especially not the staff at an institution like this.
He even cheered up a bit, finally convinced that, for all intents and purposes, he had nothing to fear from this close-lipped colonel. During the first two or three hours, Arslan tried to maintain this sense of confidence. After all, that was the only protection he had. And with the glimmer of that possibility, he could distance himself a bit from his completely understandable, human concerns. But he couldn’t shake that torturous feeling that there was something he didn’t know and, as time passed, his initial fighting spirit began to wane.
The colonel remained silent, as if secretly laughing at how he’d left the student to torment himself, without any help, ever more mercilessly, more severely. Arslan again and again dug through his past, which at first glance had turned out to be not that special or eventful, and searched for some awkward moments, and the longer he dwelt on them, the more clearly he saw that they were no help at all.
So he began to make them up in his imagination and soon began to believe something had happened that he had forgotten but the colonel knew about. He was vaguely aware he was inventing complete nonsense but it was difficult to stop: he sank deeper into the wilds of his own conscience, where he became frightened. Finally, he came to the conclusion that the most dangerous of these suddenly “resurgent” memories was how he had compared his own battered cap to the cap of Lenin himself.
It happened during a class trip to a collective farm to pick potatoes when, after a long journey, all the students were hungry. Dinner was late as usual so Arslan dared joke that “even Lenin in the tsar’s prison was better fed than us lot here, in the collective farm fields. After all, the chief used to write love letters every day to Nadezhda Konstantinovna in milk! And he had ink-pots made from black bread. And if you consider the fact that, by his own admission, he had to eat up a certain number of milky ink-pots every day as a precaution, and that, as everyone knows, is in addition to the prison grub, then there’s no way you can compare these collective farm rations with Comrade Lenin’s square meals!” Everybody had found his rambling joke funny, but then again Arslan had been among friends. But now …
He wondered, what if the KGB colonel guessed what anti-Soviet jokes he had running through his head. So many! He could get a serious punishment for that. So he prayed to God for a rather long time to ask that the KGB guy couldn’t pry into his thoughts and his memories of those kolkhoz wisecracks. He tried desperately to squeeze this sedition — which he, in essence, had brought up in the first place — back deeper into himself, to stop it spilling out.
But then he started to feel painfully hungry and gradually thoughts of food forced out all others. A few hours later, this hunger somehow dulled and was instead replaced with thirst. He felt like he was in the hot, waterless Karakum Desert. Alone. Without a drop of water anywhere. He was about to fall off his chair from thirst. His lips became dry and he tried in vain to force out just a drop of saliva to moisten his lips, which had been numb since morning.
He struggled with his scratchy tongue and throat for quite a long time, before another infliction took their place — he really needed to go to the bathroom. The hours since morning had crept by like a long serpent, longer than the corridor they had walked down to get to this room which Arslan had already grown to despise, to this office of absolute silence. From this moment, he no longer had any desires left, except those which come completely naturally. And during all of that unthinkably long stretch of time, the KGB colonel didn’t even glance at him. He’d undoubtedly forgotten about Arslan.
For several hours, the colonel didn’t react once to the fact that there was another living soul in the office besides himself. He just carried on writing and writing, sometimes pausing for a few phone calls, before settling down again to his business, scribbling line after line. From time to time, some papers were brought into the office and he signed them or, if he refused, he would softly, very softly, explain why he wouldn’t do that and send them back for revision. Arslan was surprised at how he managed to speak so quietly yet so clearly, so that all his colleagues could do was nod their heads in agreement and then take back with them whatever they had brought. Only once did Arslan catch his exact words. It was when one of his subordinates, to support an argument he was making, used the already fashionable word perestroika. The colonel flew into a quiet rage, answering rather sharply, “We’ve all lived through a lot in our lifetime. We’ll live through this, too. If worse comes to worst, the name will change, but it won’t go further than that. We won’t let it.”
And right then, Arslan felt a growing fear, an unfamiliar fear of this sullen colonel and his silent power over others. He had heard from older generations that in this building they never bothered to stand on ceremony with their victims. During Stalin’s times, people used to throw themselves out of the window of this gloomy building, unable to bear the cruel torture and suffering. Such memories obviously did nothing to revive his spirits.
It had been at least five hours since Arslan had been brought in, but the colonel continued as he always had, not deigning to give him even a glance. This contemptuous indifference had already become a form of torture. The young man sometimes felt the colonel’s stony eyes on him but, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t catch that moment. A quiet fear, as quiet as the voice of the colonel, grew out of this uncertainty. It gradually took hold of his soul and body. His heart also felt trapped, as it beat in his cage-like chest, painfully, aggrieved: what awaited him here, at the end of the day? What was this tireless colonel writing, sitting behind his enormous dark-brown table in this quiet, dimly lit office? There were no answers to any of these conceivable or inconceivable questions. And the colonel just carried on working.
He worked for so long that Arslan lost his urge to eat, was no longer tormented by thirst, and had just one desire left, which he just couldn’t get rid of. He wanted to ask to go to the toilet but didn’t dare. His fear of the colonel had grown many times over since he’d arrived. He started to understand that he was sitting there for a reason. It appeared his fate was being decided, if not in this office then somewhere deep within this building. So he forced himself to tolerate a hundred times more than a simple mortal could. At first his legs went numb, then his hands, and that numbness rose ever higher and higher, creeping towards his heart.
The colonel just carried on writing and writing, and there weren’t any signs that his scribbling would stop in the foreseeable future. And Arslan tolerated it all, hoping that the colonel had to finish writing and, finally, begin to talk to him. When that happened, he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to ask about his “need”. But for the time being, he tolerated it, believing that he had no other way out. He was scared that if he asked, they could send him somewhere far away, forever. Maybe they provoke people just so they can then punish them in the most brutal way? They wouldn’t catch him out that way! He’d die, but wouldn’t give them the opportunity to deal with him so easily. They shouldn’t try to break me, they’ve got no right! He still naively hoped that fate would somehow ease his suffering. It makes me wonder, Arslan thought. What’s he really like? He’s also human after all? How can he keep going? Why can’t I tolerate this, while he willingly tolerates it?
Time passed but Arslan was already outside time. Then something unimaginable started to happen to the boy. His tongue gradually went numb. His ears popped. Not a single sound could reach Arslan. The colonel continued to work just as intensely as if it were early morning, but Arslan, it seemed, could no longer take any interest in time, which he could physically feel trickling through his body like water through sand while the other time, the time that existed for everybody and acted somewhere beyond the walls of this building, did not seem to concern him at all. He tried to imagine what his coursemates were doing right now but he couldn’t, the grey mass of human faces drowned in the impenetrable silence which made him feel sick inside.
A feeling of nausea swelled inside him, the desire to retch crept up his throat, but he painfully suppressed it. In an instant, his fright gave way to hatred, and a thought flashed through his head: they wanted to kill him, wanted him to die of a ruptured bladder. He looked entreatingly one last time at the colonel, who didn’t think to pay him any attention and continued to sit and calmly write, taking no notice of Arslan, a living boy whom he obviously didn’t want to see. The colonel was there and at the same time he wasn’t. It was then that Arslan settled on a desperate plan.
At first, he didn’t manage to do anything. He couldn’t squeeze out a single drop, his own body had ceased to obey him, it was totally numb. He used his last bit of strength to fight himself, having altogether blocked out the tormentor-colonel and the office of torture. The fight with his own body lasted some time. He didn’t know how long but, finally, a hot stream began to flow down his thigh, it seemed to come from right under his heart, drenching the chair. It flowed for a long time, but he couldn’t and didn’t want to stop. Arslan was overjoyed, he’d done it! He’d dared! Even if he hadn’t managed to do anything else, at least he’d done that. Let them kill him now, but at least he hadn’t let them kill him in that inhumane way.
He soundlessly breathed out and glanced at the colonel but met with a bent silhouette. After some more time passed, he started to hear a few sounds — the rustling of papers reached him, then a few more, and he felt his yellow veil, his dimmed eyes, begin to lighten. Arslan pointed the tip of his tongue out into the air, convinced that his tongue had begun to come back to life. He couldn’t get enough of it, although he wasn’t certain that his tongue would be of use to him any time soon. He continued to just sit there, until his trousers had at least partially dried on him. He wondered whether what he’d done had been childish, but what was done was done.
There was no clock on the wall, and none ticking anywhere nearby. It was tough without a clock. And on top of that, the office door hadn’t opened for a long time. Arslan vaguely guessed that the work day had ended two, or maybe even five, hours earlier. Now, it must already be night time? But how could he find out when the only window in the colonel’s office was covered by thick curtains. Finally, he had the gall to stand up and, as if in a dream, unsteadily moved towards the window. Lifting the edge of the heavy curtains, he looked out and saw darkness. It seemed strange. He wondered, with horror, if he’d gone blind. He wanted to see something other than a shadowy gloom. The darkness slowly started to retreat, but he couldn’t work out which direction the window was facing. What he could see didn’t resemble a familiar town. Everything was different and cold. He stood on his tiptoes, straining all of his exhausted body and opened his tired eyes wide, in order to find some familiar features in the slither of life through the window.
And suddenly, right at the same moment as he had drawn himself up to his full height like a thin string, the colonel’s icy voice struck at his back like a blade.
“Can you see Magadan from the window?”
“N-oo,” Arslan stammered with fear, startled, and drawing in a short gulp of air.
“Well you’ll definitely see it, if you ever set eyes on your foreign girl again! Now get out of here.”
He added, ill-temperedly: “Take your stool out in the corridor!” The colonel lifted his hefty chin in the direction of the chair on which Arslan had sat the whole day and whole evening. “Leave it there, in the corridor, I’ve still got work to do here. Get out of here… Romeo …”
Arslan left the building devastated. He couldn’t remember the route he had taken that morning, its corridors, steps and turns. The building itself just spat him out to “freedom,” having carefully chewed him up in preparation and sucked out his zest for life.
The town deafened Arslan with the boom and clamour of its usual, frantic rhythm, as if trying to draw him back to normal life. It blinded the young man with countless billboards, emblazoned with enticing names — look, it’s life! Come back, breathe, live!
But it wasn’t easy to return to normal life. Arslan felt like it was all far away from him now. He felt detached from everything around him. Everything he saw every day and which had made him so happy was beyond him, behind him, not with him.
And the people hurrying by, and the cars rushing along the evening avenues, looked unreal, like playthings. Or was it he, Arslan, who had become a plaything?
He got onto the metro and, avoiding the few passengers onboard, tucked himself into the corner of an almost empty carriage and shut his eyes. He got off the metro far from the centre of town, at Universitetskaya Station, a stone’s throw from the hostel. He stood undecided, still not quite believing he was free, and heaved a deep sigh. He couldn’t avoid the path through the lilac garden. In the light of the evening street lamps, the withering lilac bushes appeared dejected, and their colour had become somehow unnatural, sickly. The familiar bench on which he had met Bibi, three weeks earlier, lay abandoned, hidden in the undergrowth. She wasn’t in the garden. Perhaps she hadn’t come, or perhaps she hadn’t wanted to wait for him and had gone. He didn’t want to consider the possibility that her study program had ended earlier than his term, or that Bibi had already left town.
He dropped onto the bench that had once been his favourite, secretly hoping for some kind of miracle that would show him that everything he’d been through that day had been only a silly dream, nothing more, and that all he had to do was wake up, and everything would be back in place, everything would be like before. After all, all it would take to return to life would be for Bibi to appear, here, now. But at the same time, he was hopelessly aware deep down that it was already impossible.
So he slowly got up and, reeling from tiredness, went back to his room, to the hostel.
And the night wind, and the scent of the last, wilting lilac bushes chased after him in vain, trying to stop him, to rouse his memory, to get him to turn back. It was the same caressing, summer wind, but with each step he took it was overpowered, again and again, by the sharp scent of urine, which chased away any memories of those recent days.
But against whom, or against what, was his soul rebelling if, after all, it wasn’t able to protect the thing that he most cherished, that he held dearest? There was no answer. He walked, trying to find himself again, to retrieve those most normal of human feelings, which that same morning had seemed to him so steadfast, so natural and vital. Where did they all go? How could he let them be trampled all over and taken away? How could he let himself be so cruelly humiliated?
The late-in-coming wind from the garden guiltily pushed at his back, sweeping ahead of him and enveloping him in the lilac aroma, summoning longing for his aggrieved love, and reminding him that, with this bitter feeling of loss, he would have to live on.
Translated by Lois Kapila
 The Komsorg, Partorg and Proforg (see lower) were all unpaid grassroots-level functionaries who worked in universities and institutes during the Soviet Union. The terms stand for Komsomol leader, party organiser and trade union leader, respectively.
 Faculty of Journalism
 Hundreds of thousands of political prisoners or “enemies of the people” were sent to Magadan in Stalinist times. In isolated north-east Russia, the port-town served as a major transit centre from which people were sent to brutal forced-labour camps in the area.
Ak Welsapar (b. 1956 in the former Soviet Union) is a Swedish-Turkmen writer, translator, and journalist. He has been a member of the Swedish Writers’ Association since 1996 and an honorary member of the International PEN Club since 1993. He is the author of more than 20 books, including the novels Kobra (2011), The Legend of Aypi (2015), This Darkness Is Brighter (2019). He has also translated Selma Lagerlöf, Astrid Lindgren, and Erik Axel Karlfeldt.
Ak Welsapar was awarded a prize in a national literary competition for his novel The Melon Head in 1984. After being persecuted in his homeland for fighting for freedom of speech, in 1993, the writer was adopted as an honorary member of the International PEN Club, and in 1994 he was awarded Human Rights Watch’s award for his literature work. Ak Welsapar was awarded a prize from the Moscow Organisation of the Russian Writers’ Union “Golden Autumn” named after Sergey Yesenin for his book of poetry entitled The Pain of Eternal Uncertainties (2012). He was also awarded the Ukrainian literary prize “Triumf” named after Nikolay Gogol for his novel The Emerald Shore (2014) and some other work in Ukrainian. He was also rewarded for his book The Legend of Aypi with Swedish Culture Prize in 2016.
Ak Welsapar received his Master’s degree in Journalism from Lomonosov Moscow State University (1979), in Literary Theory from the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute (1989) and his third Master’s degree from Uppsala University (2019).