The Men
On Wheels

A dry burning wind invaded Saranza. At the corners of the streets baked hard by the sun there arose little tornadoes of dust. And their appearance was followed by an explosion of sound--a military band struck up on the central square, and the hot gusts carried snatches of their valiant uproar all the way to Charlotte's house. It was the first day of maneuvers that were taking place several kilometers away from Saranze.

We walked for a long time. First of all crossing the town, then out over the steppe. Charlotte spoke with the same calm and detached voice as the previous evening on the balcony. Her story mingled with the merry tumult of the band, then suddenly the wind dropped, and her words resounded with a strange clarity in the emptiness of sun and silence.

She told of her brief stay in Moscow two years after the war. One fine afternoon in May as she was walking along the network of lanes in the Presnya district, which led down toward the Moskva River, she felt she was convalescing, recovering from the war, from fear, and even, without daring to admit it to herself, from Fyodor's death, or rather from her obsession with his absence. On the corner of a street, she heard a snatch of a remark as two women passed close by her in conversation, "Samovars..." said one of them.

"The good tea in the old days," thought Charlotte, echoing them. Then as she emerged onto the square in front of the market, with its wooden booths, its kiosks, and its fencing of thick planks, she realized that she had been mistaken. A man without legs, installed in a kind of box on wheels, advanced toward her, his one arm outstretched.

"Now then, my lovely, spare a little ruble for the invalid."

Instinctively Charlotte turned away from him, so much did this stranger resemble a man rising from the earth. It was then she perceived that the outskirts of the market were swarming with disabled soldiers --- with these "samovars." Trundling along in their boxes, some equipped with little wheels with rubber tires, some with simple ball bearings, they confronted people at the exit, asking them for money or tobacco. Some people gave, some hurried past, yet others let fly with a curse, adding in reproving tones, "The state supports you already...shame on you!" The samovars were almost all young, several of them visibly drunk. All had piercing, slightly mad eyes. Three or four boxes came hurtling toward Charlotte. The soldiers thrust their sticks down against the trampled soil of the square, writhing as they propelled themselves along with violent convulsions of their whole bodies. Despite their pain, it almost looked like a game.

Charlotte stopped, hastily withdrew a bill from her bag, and gave it to the first one to reach her. He could not take hold of it --- his only hand, his left hand, had lost its fingers. He thrust the bill into the bottom of his box, then suddenly pitched over on his seat and, reaching out with his stump toward Charlotte, brushed against her ankle. And looked up at her with a demented and bitter gaze.

She did not have time to grasp what occurred next. She saw another disabled man, but this time with two good arms, suddenly appear beside the first one and brutally snatch the crumpled bill from the one-armed man's box. Charlotte uttered a cry, and opened her bag again. But the soldier who had just caressed her foot seemed resigned. Turning his back on his aggressor, he was already making his way up a steeply sloping little alley, the top of which was open to the sky. Charlotte remained undecided for a moment --- should she go after him? Give him more money? She saw several more samovars steering their boxes in her direction. She felt a terrible unease. Fear, shame as well. An abrupt raucous cry cut through the dull hubbub that hung over the square.

Charlotte turned rapidly; it was a vision swifter than a lightning flash. The one-armed man in his box on wheels came hurtling down the sloping alley with a thunderous grinding of ball bearings. His stump pushed repeatedly against the ground, steering his crazy descent. And in his mouth, which was twisted into a horrible grimace, there quivered a knife, clenched between his teeth. The cripple who had stolen his money had just enough time to grasp his stick. The one-armed man's box crashed into his own. Blood gushed. Charlotte saw two other samovars racing toward the one-armed man, who turned his head from side to side as he lacerated the body of his enemy. Other knives appeared, flashing between teeth. The yelling spread all around. Boxes collided with one another. Passersby, petrified by what was now becoming a general battle, did not dare to intervene. Another soldier rolled down the slope of the street at full tilt, his blade between his teeth, and plunged into the terrifying confusion of mutilated bodies.

Charlotte tried to get closer, but the fighting was taking place almost at ground level --- you would have had to go on all fours to come between them. Already the militiamen were running up, emitting shrill whistle blasts. The bystanders came to themselves. Some hurried away. Others withdrew to the shade of the poplar trees to watch the end of the fighting. Charlotte saw one woman bend over and pick up a samovar from the pile of bodies, repeating in a tearful voice, "Lyosha! You promised me not to come here anymore. You promised!"

We were walking in a straight line farther and farther from Saranza. The uproar of the military band had been absorbed into the silence of the steppe. All we heard now was the rustling of plants in the wind. And it was in that great space of light and heat that Charlotte's voice broke the silence once more.

"No, they weren't fighting over that stolen money. Not at all. Everybody understood that. They were fighting be revenged on life. Its cruelty, its stupidity. And on that May sky above their heads...They were fighting as if they wanted to defy someone. The one who had combined within a single life the spring sky and their crippled bodies..."

"Stalin? God?" I was on the point of asking, but the air of the steppe made the words rough, hard to articulate. We had never walked this far before. Saranza had long since sunk into the flickering haze of the horizon. This excursion with no end in view was vital to us. At my back I could feel, almost physically, the shade of a little square in Moscow.... Suddenly, through the willow thickets there came a glint of water. We exchanged smiles and exclaimed with a single voice, "Sumra!"

It was a remote tributary of the Volga, one of those modest streams, lost in the immensity of the steppe, whose existence is known only because they flow into the great river. We remained in the shade of the willows until evening. It was on the road home that Charlotte finished her story.

"The authorities finally grew tired of all those cripples on the square, their shouting and their brawling. But above all, they were giving the great victory a bad image. You see, people prefer a soldier either to be gallant and smiling or else...dead on the field of honor. But these men.... In short, one day several lorries drove up, and the militiamen began to snatch the samovars out of their boxes and throw them into the trucks. The way you throw logs onto a cart. A Muscovite told me they took them to an island, in the northern lakes. They had fixed up a former leper hospital for it....In autumn I tried to find out about this place. I thought I might be able to go and work there. But when I went to that region in the spring they told me that there wasn't a single cripple left on the island and that the leper hospital was closed for good....It was a very beautiful spot. Pine trees as far as the eye could see, great lakes, and above all, very pure air..."

After we had been walking for an hour Charlotte gave me a little wry smile.

"Wait, I'm going to sit down for a moment..."

She sat down on the dry grass and stretched out her legs. I walked on automatically for a few paces and turned round. My grandmother...I saw her with that inexplicable detachment that the previous evening I had taken for a kind of optical illusion. There she was under the violet sky; she seemed totally alone on this planet, there on the mauve grass, under the first stars. And her France and her youth were more remote from her than the pale moon --- left behind in another galaxy, under another sky....

She raised her face. Her eyes seemed larger than usual to me. She spoke in French. The resonance of this language gave off vibrations like a last message from that distant galaxy.

"You know, Alyosha, sometimes it seems to me that I understand nothing about the life of this country. Yes. That I am still a foreigner. After living here for almost half a century. Those 'samovars'....I don't understand. There were people laughing as they watched them fight!"

Charlotte's voice added in a tone of justification, "Yet sometimes I tell myself that I understand this country better than the Russians themselves. For I have carried that soldier's face with me over so many years....I have felt his solitude beside the lake..."

--- From Dreams of My Russian Summers
Andrei Makine
La Testament Francais
Translated by Geoffrey Strachan
©1998, Simon and Schuster

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