DOS & DON'TS
Diese Geschichte basiert auf einer Reihe von Besäufnissen, an denen ich dankenswerterweise teilhaben durfte. Das war vor ein paar Jahren, als ich bei einer Autorenwerkstatt in Sankt Petersburg zu Gast war. Ich werde die Wirkung des Absinths nie vergessen und hoffe, dass ich so schnell wie nur möglich das Vergnügen haben werde, dieses göttliche Getränk wieder verkosten zu können.
The largest cannon in the world frightens off Germans with its lion-face. A red star upon a tapering greenish pedestal shines ready to detonate invaders.
Below the fourteen escalators of the Congress of Nationalities, snow howls through vast, shining squares, but stills when golden domes like helmets of soldiers begin to nod and clang. (In Russia they add gold and silver to their bronze for finer sound.)
Onion-domes bristle with crosses, and within each gilded church, haloed saints stand ready to leap off the golden walls and fight. Napoleon once burned the Yellow Arsenal, but saints rushed forth from their metal-topped tombs; and afterward the arsenal’s white arched windows grew back. Then the girls decorated everything with green and yellow tiles; and electric-colored light striped the Moskva River, which is lined with regular snow-walls and tapering towers.
On the subject of girls, I would like to report the following. Within Russia’s gray days dwell two kinds: the stern ones and the ones with curved and sleepy smiles. They come and go from yellow cities, refashioning gray buildings, gray sky and snow into the gilded silver frames of icons. Their blood is red velvet. They tend crowds of sarcophagi, offering themselves to a stern, faraway bearded face.
The ones who smile are forbidden the inner labyrinth of cobbled streets, where the stern ones tend the great Russian bell, brushing snow from its black, anguished figures, crowding around each saint like the details of illuminated manuscripts. The ones who smile hide themselves in winter; perhaps they drowse underground amidst the frozen onions. But spring assaults the ice-heaps and snow-heaps; water trickles down old bells while the greatcoated sentries chat; and Russia’s fingerswalls and fences, towers and stone staircasesopen under the sun. Soon the first summer day will come, oppressing minuscule human beings with its gilded dome. The sentries watch against it, just in case Napoleon will come back. As long as they succeed, I marry one stern girl after another. When I am lucky, they dress up as Cossacks and beat me with birch twigs; while in exchange for seven ice-coins, a sentry will guard us from the other sentries. Then our sentry goes home to his stern wife; and I cool my hot hands on my stern wife’s buttocks. How I love her! Whenever I drink with off-duty sentries, we clink our glasses in prayer that winter will last forever.
But spring insinuates her black and rainy morning: My stern wife must go to work. Idle always, lonely in my uselessness, I pass between buildings which remind me of frozen fog. I am one of the dark figures who trudge, illuminated by the occasional rain-gleam on the pavement. Men in fur caps shovel slush; a woman in a fur cloak blows her nose; and I remember the single frozen tear on the cheek of the stern lady now divorced from me; that was what I licked up for breakfast. Between winter ice on monuments and summer proclamations on a few glowing billboards, people stand in the snow, waiting for their buses; and I, afraid to be found out in my improvidence, wander from queue to queue, searching for the winter woman who will take me home and save me. Icicles lengthen on my chin; I have become an old man, so I need an old woman, a chubby little white-haired sweetheart who will make me tea while I am sneaking around trying to steal us both vodka. If I could steal a saint’s halo I would; the gold is so pure that it would both light and warm us. My poor old wife is shivering! What wouldn’t I do for her? She falls asleep with her head on my chest, snoring in barrages while I worry about today’s bad news: The largest cannon in the world is melting, the barrel getting soft! Thank the saints I’ve nearly lost my desire!
And thenhow could I ever explain this?even loyalties melt away. Perhaps there never was any loyalty in this world. The red star dims down its shine, then shines a new red that no one’s ever seen before. Now, when summer refuses to come soon enough, Russia sends out stern girls to construct it. In wet dirty snow, beneath trees and lights, construction cranes lit blue and green begin to grapple with icicles, and the stern girls strike out with shovels until they’ve chiseled winter down into the white bust of some hero alone in the snow.
What about the ones with sleepy smiles? A newly unemployed sentry insists that they’re last century’s hard-currency girls, waiting out the cold in hotel lobbies, wearing black leather miniskirts. But how would he know, and how would I? My wife died of old age during the spring thaw; she passed away without a struggle; and then the grandmother next door took in her cat. The police tell me I have to go: Now that my wife’s dead, I am staying in her room under false pretenses. They allow me to take one lump of yellow sugar to remember her by. On the street I lick away a trifle of it. Then I take the rest to the Yellow Arsenal, dedicating it to the saints.
At once, I hear a crash. The stern girls have pried up all the ice and hurled it into the river.
Copyright © William T. Vollmann
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