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A Hero's Daughter Part 8

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At the Military Committee the officer on duty asked her to fill in a form, then went off in search of orders on the far side of a padded door, covered in glittering studs. On his return he opened the safe, took out the Hero's certificate, and handed it to Olya.

"Now we're all square with you. As for the funeral, you'll have to apply to the Veterans' Council. It's not our responsibility."

Olya took out the photo of her father on the certificate and examined it with astonishment. It was a young lad with a round, shaven head, almost an adolescent, looking out at her. "He wasn't yet twenty," she thought in sheer amazement. The courtyard at the Military Committee was empty and silent. There was just one lanky soldier sweeping an asphalt path. The dust arose in a light cloud and settled back in the same place.

At the Veterans' Council there was no one. A sheet of cardboard bearing faded red lettering dangled on the notice board: "Veterans' Day Parade to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Victory will take place on May 9 at 10:00 a.m. a.s.semble in Lenin Square. The partic.i.p.ation of all members of the Council is strictly compulsory."

"It's the summer," said the caretaker dreamily. "In summer it's only by chance that anyone shows up around here."



The Party's District Committee also seemed to be deserted.

"He's gone off at the head of a commission inspecting the region," said the female secretary. "He won't be back tomorrow, either. In any case it's nothing to do with the District Committee. You need to apply to his former place of work."

The next day Olya went around the circuit again. She demanded, implored, tried to telephone Moscow. That evening she dreaded going home. It was already the fourth day of her ordeal with the red coffin. Coming into the room where it had been set down, she was afraid to breathe, afraid of detecting a smell and losing her sanity At night the coffin appeared to her in a dream, not long and red, as it was, but small, luxurious, varnished, and painted like a lacquered box from Palekh. She kept trying to put it into a bag storage locker. But sometimes she forgot to dial the code, sometimes she was prevented by pa.s.sersby. In the end, unable to bear it any longer, she decided to retrieve the contents and throw it away. She tried to open it, to separate its two halves, as one pries apart the two halves of a sh.e.l.lfish. And indeed the coffin suddenly resembled a finely modeled black sh.e.l.l, covered in mucous varnish. When she finally managed to open this bivalve, breaking her nails in the process, what she found inside was the celluloid doll she had had as a child, staring at her with strangely alive and moist eyes, like those of a human being.

The following morning Olya went to the cemetery There, in a tiny shack, behind the dilapidated church invaded by wild plants, sat three men, with dried fish and bread laid out on a sheet of newspaper. They were drinking.

They listened to her request and shook their heads in unison: "No, no, not a chance! Coming here out of the blue like this. Tomorrow's Sat.u.r.day. We finish an hour early today. So, what do you think we are? Slaves? You might as well come on Sunday while you're at it. No, no! It's not possible!"

Olya did not go away. She understood that they were going through this routine so as to be paid more. The men went back to talking among themselves, casting oblique glances in her direction from time to time, and extracting fish bones stuck between their teeth. Finally one of them, as if taking pity, said to her: "Ah right, my beauty. You give us a hundred rubles now and fifty rubles after and we'll do you a first-cla.s.s burial."

"How much?" asked Olya, dumbfounded, thinking she must have misheard.

"A hundred and fifty," the man repeated. "So what did you think? We're not going to do the job for the sake of your pretty blue eyes. Least of all on a Sat.u.r.day! There are three of us. And we have to give something to the boss. And the driver. Suit yourself! But I'm making this offer out of the kindness of my heart."

And with a sharp crunch he bit into a huge onion.

Olya had only ten rubles left. The men sat there taking their ease, interrupting one another, swapping remarks about the funeral of a local notable. The whole shed was cluttered up with frayed old wreaths, tombstones, and iron bars for railings. Olya had an impulse to say to these men in a low voice: "For heaven's sake have pity on me, you b.a.s.t.a.r.ds!"

"If I bring the money tomorrow morning," she asked, "Is that all right for you?"

The men nodded their approval. "Sure, that'll be fine. We'll start digging in the morning, before it gets hot."

When she got to Moscow Olya began telephoning all the people she knew but reaching someone in summer and especially on a Friday evening was very difficult. The only one who responded to her call was a vague acquaintance, a dealer Ninka had introduced her to.

"Olya," he exclaimed into the receiver almost joyfully, "I've been completely cleaned out. Yes, the cops caught me near the Beriozka with hot currency. And they emptied the apartment as well. I'm broke.

Otherwise, you know, I'd be very happy to help you but I haven't got a cent. Hang on. I'll give you the address of a buddy of mine. He can change your currency. What? You haven't got any? Well then, odds and ends of gold. Write this down. He's called Alik. Yes he's from Azerbaijan, a regular guy. A bit unpredictable, that's all..."

She arrived at Alik's place late in the evening. When she showed him the emerald bracelet and two rings he began to laugh.

"And you waste my time for that? No, young lady, I work seriously. Do you think I'd risk ending up cutting wood in the north for five grams?"

And he was already hustling her toward the exit along the dark corridor. Suddenly, as if remembering something, she opened her bag and took out the Gold Star.

"And that?"

"Have you got the certificate?"

Olya held it out to him.

"With the certificate I'll give you a hundred rubles."

"I need a hundred and fifty," said Olya in a weary voice.

"Well, come back another day," Alik said flatly, opening the door.

Outside Olya went into a telephone booth. There was an immediate reply.

"Alyosha," she whispered, almost without believing it.

"What a surprise!" a soft voice at the end of the line replied with quiet astonishment. "Where have you been hiding? Well, you're right, it's my fault. I'm living between Moscow and Paris now. Our diplomatic wagging tongues have spread the word that you've been having some problems. Well, I'm sure it'll all sort itself out in the end. Do forgive me, I can't give you much time. I've got a meeting here with people responsible for the festival. Yes, the French are here as well. It's a shame you can't come over. You'd be a charming flower at our all-male gathering. It'll all sort itself out in the end. Forgive me, I must get back to my guests now. Don't forget me. Give me a ring some time. And bonne nuit! "

Olya hung up. "Diplomat!" she thought. Then took her lipstick and powder compact out of her bag.

When he opened the door Alik remarked to her carelessly: "Ah! You've had second thoughts. And you were right to do so. A hundred rubles is a fair price. I'll have that Star on my hands for several months. There are not many collectors up for such a risk."

"I need a hundred and fifty," repeated Olya.

And she looked him in the eye for a long time. Alik took her by the elbow and in utterly changed tones observed: "Didn't anyone ever tell you you've got the eyes of a mountain deer?"

"Where must I go?" she asked in a weary voice.

The burial took place very quickly. The men worked swiftly and neatly. As they filled in the grave, Olya noticed that dazzling dandelion flowers, cut by the spades, were falling into it along with the earth, and this caused her a stab of pain.

By the afternoon she was sitting in the kitchen of her parents' apartment. She stared at the walls which, before leaving for Moscow, her father had started to paint pale blue. On the gas stove the great old kettle that was familiar to her from childhood was hissing in a soothing manner. It seemed to her that everything was still possible; you just had to learn to stop thinking, to stop remembering.

At that moment a strident woman's voice rang out beneath the windows. "Petrovna, they say there's b.u.t.ter at the Gastronom! Let's go there! We might get some."

"So, how many packs does everyone get?" shouted Petrovna from her window.

But their voices were drowned by a man's ba.s.s voice: "Don't be in a hurry, my little ladies. I've just been there. It's not b.u.t.ter. It's only good-quality margarine. And there's none left anyway."

Olya closed her eyes and for the first time in all these days she wept. She left for Moscow the same evening.

She spent much longer in the hospital than she had expected. After the abortion there were complications, then septicemia developed. What saved her was a huge silvery poplar tree outside the window. Its leaves made a great rus.h.i.+ng sound and filled the whole ward with their s.h.i.+mmering light, redolent of the sunny south.

The new client Olya was due to work with arrived at the beginning of October. Vincent Desnoyers, twenty-seven, deputy commercial director of an aeronautics firm. When he landed in Moscow a gray and rainy fall was already beginning. The end of September, on the other hand, had been mild and serene, with morning frosts and warm, sunny afternoons.

During her first days out of the hospital Olya took greedy breaths, unable to get her fill of the airy blue of the streets and the slightly bitter scent of the leaves. Close to the walls of buildings warmed in the sun, the air was mellow and light, rippling densely in the purple shadows of the cool evenings.

The Center continued with its customary busy life. The bronze rooster was still regularly leaping about on its perch. The black wrought-iron figure of the naked Mercury on his pedestal was still running somewhere in the direction of the Moskva, brandis.h.i.+ng his gilded wand. It seemed that all the trials and tribulations of the spring were left behind in the past. Few people at the Center had noticed her absence. "Did you have a good rest? Where were you? In the Crimea? In the Caucasus?" some people asked.

One day one of Olya's acquaintances caught up with her on the staircase, Salifou, a Guinean businessman. He had come to Moscow six years before and had concluded a contract to supply parrots to Soviet circuses and zoos. Since then, as it happened, he had long been handling major business deals but when they greeted him people never failed to remind him of this first contract.

"*ll* there, Salifou! Are your parrots still selling well?"

"Hopelessly! You're ruining me with the compet.i.tion. Soviet parrots are the best in the world..." Salifou showed Olya a photo. "Here, I must show you my latest little one."

She saw a young woman in flowery clothes, a baby in her arms, staring at the lens with an a.s.siduous but at the same time half-sleepy air. To her left could be seen the shapes of a tree with dense foliage and a strip of blue-gray sky.

Olya studied the photograph and could not take her eyes off the young woman's face. In the calm, distracted gaze of her dark eyes, in the curve of the arm supporting the child, she sensed something that was intimately close and familiar to her. Olya understood that she should say a few words, offer an appropriate compliment. But she continued to stare, fascinated. Finally, without thinking, without detaching her gaze, she said: "It must be very hot there, in your country."

Salifou laughed. "Of course! Like a Russian bath... Come and see us. You'll tan as brown as me, I promise you.

And, slipping the photo back into his wallet, he went on down the stairs.

Olya put the Frenchman's briefcase into the big black envelope, slipped his address book into an inside pocket and placed the envelope near the door.

In the room a comfortable, somewhat sugary warmth prevailed. The Frenchman slept, the covers thrown aside, his arms wide outstretched. The paler skin around his loins made a striking contrast with the dark color of his tan.

During dinner he had talked a good deal. And all his remarks were well judged; they all produced the smile, the look, the reply he had expected from his companion. He was in that agreeable state of mind where you feel that everything about you is sparkling, when you have the impulse to say to yourself: "This young man, in his expensive, highly fas.h.i.+onable, jacket, his dark pants with cuffs, and his luxurious golden brown leather shoes: this is me." His well-groomed hair falls over his brow in a black fan. Nonchalantly, but fine-tuned almost to the millimeter, the knot in his tie is loosened. Even his cigarette smoke coils elegantly.

He talked a good deal and felt he was pleasing this woman. He experienced this joie de vivre almost physically. The suave flavor of it was something he relished tasting. As he drank the c.o.c.ktail he began talking about Gorbachev. Before leaving France he had read an article in Liberation about the reforms in the USSR. It was all very well explained: why Gorbachev would never succeed in democratizing the regime, restructuring the economy, catching up with the West in the field of electronics.

"All the same," he argued nonchalantly as he sipped his c.o.c.ktail. " Russia is the land of paradoxes. Who was it began all these shenanigans with perestroika? A disciple of Andropov. In France they even call Gorbachev the 'young Andropovian.' The KGB as the initiator of democratization and transparency? It's science fiction!"

"I wonder where he is now," thought Olya. "That German with his collection of little lighthouses."

As he was falling asleep, his thoughts racing, Vincent was considering what he could do to stay in Moscow for one more day, or, more precisely, one more night. Call his boss and tell him he had not had time to sort out all the details of the prices? No, the old fox would catch on right away. You couldn't pull the wool over his eyes. Maybe a problem with the plane? There were no seats left? Complications at customs? Yes, that's true, but then there would be the hotel. He would have to fork over for that himself. And then maybe he would have to pay her, this girl, or give her a present. How does that work? Anyway, it's not a problem. Some trinkets from the Beriozka should do the trick...

Sleep swept in abruptly. All at once everything that was on his mind began to be swiftly resolved, all on its own. He saw his boss talking to him amicably, walking with him along endless streets, half Muscovite, half Parisian. He extracted wads of notes from the ATM machine that was actually located in the hotel bedroom... And once again, already dreaming, savored in his mouth the sweet taste of happiness...

Olya put the briefcase back in its place, carefully slipped the address book, the right way around, into the inside pocket of the jacket. The silence in the room seemed to her strangely profound, unaccustomed. "Perhaps it's because we're at the Rossia Hotel instead of the Intourist," she thought. "There's less traffic." She went over to the window, drew back the curtain and suppressed an "Oh" of surprise.

The first snow was falling. The trees covered in snow, the cars all white alongside the sidewalks. Olya could not resist and half opened the narrow, lateral fanlight. The first gust was difficult to breathe in so sharp was this first vertiginous scent of winter. "It's good that the snow's falling," thought Olya. "When it freezes I'll go to Borissov, to the cemetery." And she pictured herself- feeling no longer grief, but a calm bitterness, lodged somewhere beneath her heart a gray winter's day; the frozen earth crunching underfoot on the pathway between each set of railings, the trees bare, and the two graves, covered in snow and the last of the leaves, no longer frightening to her, maintaining their unimaginable, watchful silence beneath the pale winter sky.

Only the Moskva River was black. And above it, on all sides, swirling up into the sky or hanging motionless in the air, fluttered a white veil. All at once the muted sound of bells trembled within these snowy and icy depths. It was not the Kremlin clock but a thin and distant chime. It rang out from the belfry of a little church lost in all this silent snow, somewhere near Taganka Square. "We each have our cross..." Olya remembered. And she smiled. "And each our first snow..."

She shut the window, drew close to the bed and looked at the Frenchman as he slept. "Without his clothes he looks like a boy," she told herself. "I must have chilled him opening that window." Cautiously she drew the covers over him and slipped in beside him. Slowly, a little stiffly she stretched out on her back.

Abruptly everything began to spin before her eyes s.n.a.t.c.hes of conversation, the sensation on her lips of all the smiling done that day, the people, the faces... the faces... Just before she drifted off, in the manner of a half-whispered childish prayer, a thought brushed against her: "It would be good if he paid me in hard currency... I could buy back my father's Star..."

end.

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