In a Grove
Short Story by: Oleg Roschin
Boris Arkadyevich Horoshansky (1955 – 1982) was, undoubtedly, one of the most tragic figures in the Soviet literary circle. In his first major works, such as An Ode to Lenin (1973) and Atheism: Path of Reason (1974), he revealed himself as a staunch believer in the bright communist future, ready to use his pen in the uncompromising battle between our socialist line of thinking and the inhumane ideologies of capitalism and religious bondage. However, his literary output gradually became increasingly decadent, as the author was falling prey to the rotten Western influence.
His novel Toils of Love (1978) displays clear symptoms of bourgeois approach to family and its place in the construction of a communist state. It has failed to capture the spirit of marital collaboration and solidarity for the benefit of the society, instead unhealthily focusing on morbid deviations in emotional and physical life that had been long purged from the lifestyle and lexicon of the Soviet citizen. References to mysticism and retrograde religious symbolism have insinuated themselves into the book as well. The novel was chastised by the progressive element of our literary world. Furthermore, the young writer has tarnished his reputation by alleged involvement in Zionist activities, masquerading as interest in his ethnic Jewish heritage. The Association of Writers has unanimously voted to remove Horoshansky from its ranks.
The short story In a Grove, which we now offer to the readers of Literaturnaya Gazeta, was written by Horoshansky just before his voluntary commitment in the Leningrad Psychiatric Hospital nr.7 in September 1980, where he passed away two years later in the state of clinical insanity. We understand that the decision was, at least in part, triggered by a traumatic event he had experienced a few weeks earlier. It goes without saying that the Soviet reader will never be able to accept the preposterously fantastical description of said event as depicted by the author in the short story below, justly seeing it as the product of a delirious brain already in the state of severe decomposition. It is also an unfortunate fact that the writer, possessed by his fervently irrational anti-Soviet sentiments, is unable to properly evaluate the prudent and patriotic behavior of his brother.
We have decided to publish this excerpt of prose by the talented, yet sadly deranged author as a reminder to our aspiring writers to stay within the frames of socialist realism, reflecting reality in a healthy manner, and never succumbing to the dangerous tenets of capitalist art.
We would also like, on this occasion, to condemn the war crimes perpetrated by the Zionist leadership of the State of Israel against the brotherly Arab nation, as well as congratulate the Leningrad soccer team Zenit for winning their first Soviet League championship. A proletarian salute to our athletes from the city on the Neva river!
IN A GROVE
by Boris Horoshansky
It was the end of August – that blessed time when the Leningrad summer, bleak and short-lived, melancholically announces its upcoming transformation into the cold, damp Northern autumn. It is time for warmer clothing and reluctant preparations for the school year. It is time for sad thoughts to begin invading our minds, compelling us to ponder upon the meaning of our existence. It is also time for the sacred ritual of mushroom hunting.
Only those who have experienced it know the thrill of wandering through a pine grove and spotting, with inexplicable gut instinct, that magically different knoll in the distance. It is covered by thick, dark green moss, which you greedily cut away with your pocketknife; and there – behold! – grows the coveted brown-capped boletus edulis, the crowning achievement of your hunt...
My twin brother Anatoly and I agreed to meet on the platform of the suburban railway station Bronka at precisely 7am. I was coming from my apartment in Dachnoye, a dreary new district of Leningrad, escaping the stifling terror of identical grey nine-story houses dominating the landscape; he was arriving from the opposite direction, the nuclear power plant of Sosnovy Bor, where he worked at the time. Overcome by sudden nostalgic longing, we decided to revive the old tradition of mushroom hunting in the same forest we’d used to visit as kids when staying in the village with our grandmother for the summer vacation.
The red-and-green, snake-like body of the suburban train slid smoothly along the side of the platform. The automatic doors opened noisily, and I saw Anatoly, dressed in khaki pants and a long sleeve shirt, step out of the train on the far side. I rushed to embrace him, and for a while we were standing there, hugging each other’s shoulders and looking at each other, as the train screeched and brattled away from the station.
“Borya,” my brother said, shaking his head. “So many summers, so many winters... Forgive me, I’ve been terribly busy with my work at the plant. I should have called more often.”
“It’s my fault, Tolik,” I said gently, squeezing his shoulder. “I was busy as well. So many new experiences… new ideas. There is so much I want to share with you.”
“Is that so?” Tolik asked nonchalantly. We walked off the platform, passing a decrepit wooden hut that served as a ticket booth. Just a minute ago the sun had been blazing; yet presently, owing to the precarious weather of our dear Ingria, a thick grey cloud crept over the sun, disconnecting us from the source of the pleasant warmth. We continued to move along the dirt road toward the forest.
“Brother,” I spoke warmly. “I’ve changed in those years… I want to tell you all about that. I'm so glad that we can finally meet… I’ve been craving for understanding and support, especially since my novel was lambasted by those ignorant critics.”
“Hmm,” Tolik said, smiling. “I don’t know, Borya. To be perfectly frank with you, I liked your early work more.”
“My early work?” I stared at him, amazed. “We both know it was just naïve patriotic dithyrambs to the glory of the party.”
Tolik was silent. We kept walking, our boots rapidly picking up the dust from the road, until it ended and we began trudging through a thorny thicket that lead us straight towards a narrow muddy path. We were inside the forest now. Squirrels were scampering up and down the burly trees, scattering pine cones in all directions. A jay cried menacingly, alarming the inhabitants of the woods of our presence.
Tolik stopped and sniffed the air.
“Ahh,” he exclaimed, “I love the smell of a Russian forest! I feel how the mushrooms are springing out of the ground, my dear brother. It rained yesterday, so I think we may look forward to a satisfying hunt.”
“It looks like it might rain any time now,” I mumbled, looking at the sky. I had the unpleasant sensation that my brother was avoiding a conversation that mattered so much to me.
We explored the nearby grove, and Tolik found a troop of chanterelles almost right away. He carefully put the mushrooms into his basket and announced with somewhat forced enthusiasm:
“Those are great with sour cream sauce! Have you tried?”
I touched his sleeve.
“Tolik,” I said imploringly. “We need to talk.”
Meanwhile, more dark clouds gathered above our heads. The sky was the color of lead, and I felt that it was swollen, ready to burst into a vicious rain any time now.
“Oh yeah?” he asked absent-mindedly. “What about?.. Oh, look! Isn’t that a red cap boletus?.. It is, I swear! Do you remember how proud you were when you found your first one?”
“I’ve found something much greater now,” I uttered, only to realize how stupid my phrase sounded.
“I see,” Tolik rejoined, squinting at the clouds. “And what would that be? The meaning of life?”
“You are mocking me…” I said reproachfully, as we were passing a growth of fly agarics. “I met this incredible person, brother. His name is Alexander Men. He is a priest of the Orthodox Church. A Jew by birth, just like us. He opened new horizons for me… Faith, spirituality… Things I had no idea about.”
Tolik looked at me sharply:
“A priest? Who is mocking whom now, Borya? You’ve been fraternizing with a priest? So it is true, what they are saying – that you’ve been brainwashed by religious propaganda? You haven’t repented the absurdities you wrote in your last novel?”
“Repented?” I cried, looking him in the eye. “Tolik, wake up! Or, at the very least, stop pretending! I know you are interested in nuclear physics, and I respect that. I know that your work at that plant is hugely important to you. I don’t intend to mar your reputation, sever your ties with the powers-that-be… or whatever that’s called. But please, talk to me like a brother for once – like a human being! You know we’ve been living a lie, don’t you? We’ve been force-fed this horrible atheist, materialist crap. We grew up with the notion that we were nothing but the dung with which they fertilize the bright communist future. Individuality, uniqueness of each human being is completely ignored; there is no trustworthy source of morality, and no metaphysical explanation whatsoever concerning the origin of our lives...”
I paused for a second. A pale lightning suddenly glimmered from beyond the clouds. I continued:
“And what are the results of that ghastly doctrine? The greatest crimes our century has known; nay, the greatest crimes in our history! Only the German fascism, that evil, murderous cult, could compare to communism in that aspect. The one rejects God outright; the other slanders and falsifies him.”
I don’t know what caused me to produce that awkward, poorly conceived speech. I guess I was just spouting whatever came to my mind. My brother’s reaction was not entirely unpredictable.
“God?!” Tolik suddenly started laughing. “So you admit you believe in God now? You, the everlasting skeptic, the shrewd chronicler of world’s superstitions! Are you telling me now that you think there is a God?”
At that moment, a dreadful thunderclap shook the leaden sky. A gust of cold wind swept the grove. First sporadic raindrops, like tiny aliens infiltrating our airspace, began dropping with treacherous persistence.
“Oh my,” Tolik smirked. “Here comes my punishment for blasphemy. Elijah the prophet is now driving his carriage angrily along the main avenue of Heaven City, disregarding other vehicles and street signs.”
“Shut up!” I said quietly. “There must be an old abandoned hunting cabin nearby. Remember how we used to play there as kids? Let’s go.”
We crossed the grove and ran towards the cabin, which was still standing there after all those years, more dilapidated than ever, nearly hidden from sight by the wild growth around it. The light, skin-tickling drizzle had already morphed into violent downpour. I quickly pushed the half-rotten door consisting of several planks crudely nailed to each other. It almost fell off its hinges as we entered the cabin.
The tiny room was almost empty. Piles of old straw strewn over the wooden floor; two large wooden chairs; a few rusty tools dumped into the far right corner.
At first I hadn’t noticed the orb.
It was sitting next to one of the chairs – a round piece of what looked like marble, about the size of a tennis ball. Its turquoise surface was shimmering softly, as if it were illuminated from inside by a dim light bulb. I thought it was a children’s toy, yet it looked unpleasantly inappropriate in that cabin. It was too bright, and too new.
Tolik crouched, picked up the orb, and looked at it with puzzling intensity. Outside, the storm was raging, and thunder kept rumbling with unbridled force.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. My voice was suddenly hoarse.
“Borya…” Tolik spoke very quietly, slowly standing up. “Take a look at this.”
Alarmed by my brother’s tone, I took the orb and lifted it to my eyes.
Something incredible happened right then.
The outlines of the room I was in began to blur. Instead, I saw what appeared to be a newsreel – a kaleidoscope of short video clips following each other in an apparently chaotic manner. An explosion inside what I perceived to be a power plant; a baldish man with a curiously shaped giant crimson birthmark on his forehead addressing a party assembly; a wall dividing a city into two parts torn down by a large crowd; an airplane flying straight into twin skyscrapers; angry fighters clad in black robes beheading helpless people; a nuclear reactor visited by an extravagantly dressed man who looked like the legendary caliph Harun ar-Rashid; and many other scenes that seemed unrelated and inexplicable, yet strangely familiar at once.
Suddenly I realized where I’d seen that wall before. It was the Berlin wall, separating the capitalist Western section of the city from the communist East.
I felt sick in my stomach.
“Tolik,” I whispered, turning to my brother. “Tolik… This orb… It shows the future.”
My brother pursed his lips and said nothing.
“Tolik,” I continued, my voice trembling with excitement. “You’ve seen it. You know it’s true. Take another look. It shows the future of the world. That man with the strange birthmark – he was holding a speech in front of the Politburo… No, he will hold that speech. I’ve seen that guy before on TV; he is just an ordinary member, but he’ll be the General Secretary. The Berlin wall shall fall. And Tolik… the Soviet Union will cease to exist.”
“Silence!” Tolik barked suddenly, his face distorted by a menacing grimace. “Shut your trap, Borya! This thing could be anything… It could be an American device designed to control us, for all I know. You’ve said and done enough. Throw it out, and let’s go. I think the rain has stopped.”
He stretched out his hand. I gripped the orb convulsively, until my knuckles turned white.
“Brother,” I spoke loudly. “We have to take this orb with us. We have to show it to everyone. Soviet Union will fall. We must make sure that there are as few victims as possible when this happens. We now possess an immense power, the knowledge of the future. Let us use this power to help people!”
I have never seen anything quite as ugly as the face of my twin brother at that moment. Blue veins bulged on his forehead; his soft brown eyes, now narrowed down to slits, shone with hideous hatred.
“Drop it!” he said sharply, taking a step in my direction.
I instinctively stepped back.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Listen to me, Tolik…”
“No, you listen to me!” he shouted. “Your book has nearly cost me my career. It’s a miracle that I’ve kept my job at the power plant – if I wasn’t friends with the mighty Stepan Zhdanov I’d be blacklisted in an instant. I protected you from the worst; you were only expelled from the Association. And this is how you repay me now? By threatening to destroy everything? By ruining my country, and me together with it? I knew I should’ve denounced you right away!”
“Tolik!” I exclaimed, overcome by pity and revulsion at once. “Stop this madness. No country in the world is worth our brotherly love, and least of all this evil empire, which will soon perish anyway…”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!!” Tolik cried hysterically. “I don’t want to know anything about that! I’m a law-abiding citizen, a patriot of my country! I want to keep my job, do you hear me?! Drop the damn orb! Drop everything! Just disappear… disappear from my life!!..”
I saw a murderous expression in his eyes. My hands began to shake. I turned around and started running. He tackled me just outside of the hunting cabin. We both fell onto the drenched ground, soaking under the incessant, heavy rain. He punched me hard on my face, then kicked me savagely in the kidneys. He proceeded to hit me many times, until blood started pouring out of my nose and mouth.
“I’ll kill you!” he roared wildly, his eyes bloodshot with fury and fear.
He grabbed the pocketknife that had fallen out of his mushroom basket and pointed the tip of its blade at me.
Then I passed out.
… … …
I don’t know what happened afterwards. When I regained consciousness my brother was gone, and so was the orb.
The rain had stopped. It was already getting dark.
I staggered to my feet and tottered along the mud path, out of the grove, and towards the railway station.
I must find the orb now. I must warn everyone. I must find the orb. I must…
(Reprinted from an unpublished draft of the November 28th, 1984 issue of the Soviet weekly cultural newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta).
By Prof. Tal Horshan (1955 – 2033)
Department of Astrophysics at the University of Haifa, Israel
I’m an old man now, and I’m dying of an incurable disease. I want people to know me. I am Tal Horshan, the most celebrated scientist of our time. I am the inventor of the revolutionary formula of constant acceleration involving beam-powered propulsion with magnetic sails – a technology that, theoretically, makes manned interstellar travel possible.
I am also a monster.
My birth name is Anatoly Horoshansky. I hebraized it to Tal Horshan when I immigrated to Israel from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1990. Horshan means, roughly, “the one who dwells in a grove” in Hebrew. The grove with the mushrooms. The grove where I nearly killed my own twin brother.
I could not go through with it. I was unable to plunge the knife into my brother’s heart. I took the orb and ran away, leaving the unconscious Boris there. I’m not a murderer, but I’m a criminal, a traitor, and a coward. And maybe I’m worse than a murderer.
Boris was determined to find the orb. He tried to contact me. He started telling everyone he knew about the orb, but, naturally, no one believed him. I pulled a few strings and had him locked up in an asylum.
He was not crazy. He was an honest, passionate, loyal man, and he was my twin brother. I put him into a madhouse, and he died two years later.
It is said that the Biblical Cain was marked for killing his brother. Is there a special mark for people like me?
When Boris died, I felt, at first, tremendous relief, as if his death had absolved me of my crime, while in reality it was caused by it. Only one thing continued to bother me – recurring nightmares. I’d see my brother’s innocent face, his sweet, serious brown eyes. He’d hold and comfort me, and then his body would disintegrate right in front of my eyes, and I’d be hugging empty space. Never in my life had I experienced anything more terrifying than that.
Haunted by those visions, tortured by nagging, relentless guilt, waking up every morning in cold perspiration, I began to realize, to my utmost horror, that my brother had been right all along. By the moral standards of our Soviet society, my betrayal was an honorable act of duty. As a schoolboy, I was instructed to venerate Pavlik Morozov, a kid who had denounced his own father to the authorities, causing his imprisonment and death. My conduct towards Boris was, in fact, milder and more “humane”. I acted according to the ethics I had imbibed with my mother’s milk. Just like Apostle Paul, I was “faultless in my righteousness to the law”. Then where did the guilt come from? If moral norms were determined by society, or an ideology associated with it, my conscience had to be clear. Then why wasn’t it?
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
I no longer needed any proof of God’s existence. The proof was right there, inside me. It was in my agonizing heart, in the pangs of my harrowed conscience, in every fiber of my body. While my mind was still resisting stubbornly, desperately clinging to the convenient and simple doctrines of my homeland, my actual essence – call it “soul” or anything else, I don’t care – was overcome by the sweeping current of the Truth.
The first thing I did after that epiphany was contact my old acquaintance Stepan Zhdanov, the chief editor of Literaturnaya Gazeta, the country’s most prestigious literary newspaper, and blackmail him into publishing In a Grove (I was aware of his machinations against his superiors). It was sheer madness, of course – to print a story with such content, no matter the convoluted mainstream Soviet interpretation Zhdanov offered in his preface. Naturally, the censors didn't let it through. We were both done with, and we knew that.
I got immediately fired from my job at the nuclear power plant, but I didn’t care anymore. I lost my interest in nuclear physics after I’d found that an atomic explosion would obliterate the majority of the Earth’s population in the year 2121. Yes, I was looking into the orb – after Boris’ death, the least I could do for him was carry out his plan, and use my knowledge of the future for the greater good.
It wasn’t that simple, however. Warning everybody of the impending events, as my naïve brother had assumed, would have been absolutely futile. No prophet is accepted in his own country. I could go out and scream the truth and only make things much worse. I did what I thought I could. I met Alexander Men, that priest who was so dear to my brother’s heart, and told him he’d be murdered in 1990, because that’s what the orb had shown me when I accidentally thought of him while looking into it. He said he would take precautions, but I think he did not believe me.
I thought of myself and of my descendants. I wanted to know everything about the future. And I discovered wondrous things.
My own great-grandson would travel to a distant planet and found the civilization of sentient dogs.
His son would learn mind-reading from a benevolent alien race dwelling on another planet.
Incidentally, Alexander Men’s descendants would also play important roles in the drama of human history – sow the seeds of knowledge and faith among strange inhabitants of a nearby star system, as well as do great deeds rising from underground vaults on the deserted, radioactive Earth.
I did not know whether I could actually affect the future I’d seen in the orb. I still do not know that. But I had to try. I had to make sure that interstellar travel would be available by the year 2121, so that these people – and, hopefully, many more – could leave the devastated planet and spread out to other worlds.
With my degree in astrophysics and my knowledge of future technology, rekindling my passion and talent for everything connected to spaceflights, I began my work.
It is now completed. Thanks to my inventions, within a few decades, when the Western world is united into a single state, opposing the constant political expansion of the Caliphate and the economic growth of China, first experiments of interstellar spaceflight will be held.
When the bombs fall in March 2121, several spaceships will have escaped safely.
Have I atoned for my sins?
I don’t know.
Borya, forgive me. Forgive me.
© Copyright 2017 Oleg Roschin. All rights reserved.