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Evgeny Nosov: What a single shell destroys


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Russian writers on war


Evgeny Nosov
From The Red Wine of Victory
Translated by Leonard Stoklitsky

I stared numbly at the plumped-up pillow, at its useless, indifferent whiteness, and all of a sudden I realized with a piercing clarity that the pillow was now no one’s because the man who had lain on it no longer existed. Not simply carried out of the ward but non-existent altogether. He was nothing. Of course, you could have caught up with the stretcher or found Kopeshkin somewhere downstairs, in the dimly-lit stone shed in the yard. But that would no longer be him but the inconceivable nothingness called “remains.” And is that all? I asked myself, breaking into a cold sweat. Nothing else for him, ever? In that case, why had he been? Why had he waited so long for his turn to be born into the world? The possibility of his appearance had been guarded through many thousands of years; his forebears had carried it throughout the whole of history, from primitive caves to modern skyscrapers. The time had come, the mysterious ciphers had clicked into place, and he had finally been born. But he had been cut down by shell splinters and had disappeared again into non-existence. Tomorrow they would remove the no longer necessary plaster shell, free the body, open it up, establish the cause of death and draw up a report.

“Just look!” exclaimed Auntie Zina as she picked up the drawing of Kopeshkin’s house from the floor and set it against the untouched glass of wine.

The picture was a figment of my imagination but now it had become the only reality that remained of Kopeshkin. Now I myself believed that a grey log house with three windows along the front, with a tree and a bird-house in front of the wicket-gate, stood in a village somewhere in the Penza country. At this very hour of dusk, when the orderlies were laying out Kopeshkin in the hospital morgue, the oil lamp had already been lit, and by its flickering light you could see the heads of children seated around the table for the evening meal. Kopeshkin’s wife (What was she like? What was her name?) was bustling about the table, setting something down, pouring something out. By now she, too, knew that it was V-Day, and everybody in the house was looking forward in silence to the return of the head of the family, who had not been killed but only wounded, and with God’s help everything would straighten itself out.

It was strange and sad to imagine people whom you had never seen and probably never would, who did not exist for you, as you did not exist for them.

The silence was broken by Sayenko. He rose, hopped over to the night table I had shared with Kopeshkin, and picked up the glass.

“Anyway, it’s a shame the soldier didn’t drink a drop before he went,” he said thoughtfully, holding the glass up to a twilit window. “Well, let’s drink to his memory. Tough luck for the lad. What was his first name, anyway?”

“Ivan,” said Sasha.

“Well, goodbye, brother Ivan.” Sayenko sprinkled a little wine from the glass on the head of Kopeshkin’s bed. The wine made a dark stain on the starched white pillowcase. “Eternal memory to you.”

He brought the glass in turn to each man on his bed, and we each took a swallow of the wine left in it. Now it seemed really sacramental, like blood.

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