Aphelion Issue 257, Volume 24
December 2020 / January 2021
 
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Closed, Please Come Tomorrow


by Yuliia Vereta




Dedicated to the regional centre of K.

and the thousands of places similar to it.

If you don't know where to start,

Start from where it all began.

Death is not the worst

that can happen to men.

Plato

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, 1988

The regional centre of K. seemed to be the slowest place in the world. It was extremely quiet and small. People never hurried anywhere, the life was just passing. As every regional centre, the regional centre of K. had several schools, two hospitals, a police station, some shops, where people seldom bought goods, two markets, a huge railway station and basically nothing else worth mentioning. It was so small that one could easily walk it through in three hours or even less. People living in K. were pretty happy though. The majority of their time they spent in the yard talking to neighbors and chewing sunflower seeds or taking care of their vegetables in the garden.

There was almost nothing new happening in K. From time to time some couples got married and gave the rest of the people a fine reason to celebrate and stay drunk for several days in a row. From time to time old people died, giving everybody exactly same reason. Summer time was amazing, hot and dry. Occasional cars were making the road dust go up in the air and people passing by swear. In autumn that dust was becoming sticky mud slightly peeking out of the deep puddles. They were turning the whole town into the flooded grey mess too soaked and too lonely to be loved.

Oleg Ivanovich Budiakov was taking his time, smoking his second cigarette and finishing his cup of tea, which was as black as the soil he stood on with his bare feet. That was the habit he had from the early childhood, when his family only had one pair of boots for him and his seven siblings. Oleg Ivanovich did not want autumn to come, but it was stupid to think much about something inevitable so he switched his attention to the swallow nest on his neighbor's house. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eye, put the glasses back on his old wrinkled nose, made several steps towards the nest and started watching the swallows precisely, sipping his tea and smoking.

It was not the shoes that he was worried about; he had many of them now; but the weather and those huge puddles that would prevent people from coming to him. In autumn and in winter his business didn't bring that much as during spring and summer. Moreover, he had much to do before the autumn comes. The wooden roof of his old house got rotten long ago. Budiakov was repairing it himself until it got really bad last year and he had to cover the whole floor with wash basins. The water from the ceiling was dripping from the early autumn to the late spring, leaving stains, moulds and dampness. Finally Oleg Ivanovich came to conclusion that it couldn't be mended by any means and had to be finally covered with fibre cement sheets. He also knew that the full roof cover was only done during dry weather and it only meant summer. So all the money he earned since the first wash basin touched his floor was stored in the tin box, waiting for Budiakov to have enough of it.

Above the small gate leading to Budiakov's yard and the house one could see a big dingy sign saying 'Polishing Service'. The old bicycle stopped right under that sign.

'Ivanovich, what are looking at in there?'

Budiakov's thoughts got interrupted by the voice, coming from the walkway. Without even turning his head, Budiakov replied, still watching the bird's nest:

'Good morning, Tamara Pavlovna. Did you bring the knives?'

'No. Maybe tomorrow. Wanted to tell you that there is a big parcel for you at the post office. It arrived yesterday in the evening. From Saint Petersburg. Pretty heavy.'

Budiakov's face got happier the same moment he heard it.

'You know what, Tamara Pavlovna. I read a very interesting article last week, or maybe two weeks ago'--he frowned--'well, it doesn't matter. So it said that in China people make soup from swallow's nests. It's their very ancient tradition, you know. And that soup is extremely expensive. That's what I read. You know I order 'Around the world' every month.'

Tamara Pavlovna burst out laughing:

'Do you think someone is that stupid to eat mud and birds' saliva or whatever else those swallows put together to make a nest? If so, we need them all to come and buy those nests from us. Maybe could make much money. That would be nice. Potato harvest was so bad this year. God damn those Colorado beetles. In his interview for 'The Gardener' newspaper one farmer said that he thinks that all-fired Chernobyl even made potato beetles more resilient. These pests are very tough creeps, dash them all.'

Budiakov's thoughts were somewhere very far from the potato beetles and Tamara Pavlovna's rage, even far enough from Chernobyl. He was the old school person; he was one of the people who believed in those things only that they saw with their own eyes.

Tamara Pavlovna got discouraged as she noticed that her presence didn't really concern Budiakov as well as everything she was saying. But she did not mind. Everybody knew he was a fine workman, but very desolate and unsociable, shut out in his small house, polishing the things people brought. After a long silence Tamara Pavlovna said:

'I will go now, Ivanovich. Come to take your parcel later today.'

'I will, Tamara Pavlovna, I will,' replied Budiakov, still watching the nest.

Tamara Pavlovna got on her bicycle and left.

Budiakov took the last sip of tea accompanied with a loud slurp and threw the cigarette butt into the can from the Latvian sardines, which now served as the ashtray resting on the tin window ledge of the wooden cabin. That cabin stood in the yard, right opposite his house. That was a kind of working studio where he polished the goods. It had the huge table, several cabinets and some shelves. Most of the table was occupied by polishing machines and tools. The long shelves were full of different boxes, cans, squares of cloth, bottles with industrial oil and dissolving agent and a lot of lumber stacked in between. Everything inside that cabin looked dull and faded. The bottles were greasy with a heavy layer of dust stuck to them and the liquids of unknown origin inside. The cans hosted different small metal details, thimbles, nails and other metal pieces. The air had a metallic smell and even metallic taste. The tiny corner shelf was a home for the tainted kerosene lamp that Budiakov used during those late evenings when he was finishing some big orders.

There were only two clean spots in that cabin. One of them was the free space on the table, right under the only window, where Budiakov was manually polishing things. The sunlight was reluctantly peeking into that choked up stuffy burrow sometime in the afternoon, revealing the subtle evanescent particles of dust dancing in the air over Budiakov's workspace. And another clean spot was the surface on the shelf, where he stored finished orders and those to be done. The whole place seemed to be some kind of abandoned hut left after the terrible nuclear winter, but those polished things shined like the knight's armor, like the sharpest blade, like the finest works. They shone every time when he opened the door to come in or go out. Scissors, ancient coins, binoculars, trays, cutlery, guns, jewelry, watches, cigarette cases, belt buckles, - they all looked too gorgeous, too redundant, too valuable for the cabin they were silently buried in, until demand.

Budiakov threw the cigarette butt into the can from the Latvian sardines and rubbed his neck. The day was becoming hotter, the morning dew almost dried up. Budiakov didn't want to take his seven-minute bicycle ride to the post office during the hottest hours so he decided to pick his parcel right in the morning. He went into the house and put his aluminum mug on the table in the hall. Having washed his face, he put his glasses back on and frowned at himself in the mirror. There he saw an almost bald old man with wrinkled skin and bushy eyebrows growing above bright eyes, hidden behind thick glasses. Budiakov gave a big loud yawn and went to take a fresh pair of socks from the shoebox and pull the pair of leather hollowed-out shoes from under his bed.

Five minutes later he got on his bicycle and rode to the post office. It was very close to where he lived. He rode past the loud market full of women giving it mouth, past those occasional street saleswomen selling nappy chicks chirping from cardboard boxes; pork and beef, large sirloins and ribs, resting on the table covered with variegated rubber cloth, attracting all the filthy flies from the neighborhood; ripe crimson cherries and ruddled apricots stored in blue plastic buckets covered with napkins and kerchiefs; eggs of different size locked in plastic containers accompanied with bottles filled with raw milk and boxes of cottage cheese and baked cakes made of raisins and beastings. The market of the regional centre of K. was a hot steaming mess, motley and mixed as the mishmash salad.

In several minutes Budiakov turned to the Red Army street, where the post office was located. Despite being one of the two central streets in K. it was quiet and empty; all the life in the morning seemed to focus in and around the market. He passed the bus stop, the small shop and several private houses. The air was becoming hot, there was no more sign of morning freshness. Along the Red Army street one could see the raw of poplar trees scratching the light blue sky. The fluff of the poplar tree fleeced everything around. Small white blobs resembling cotton were flying around in swirls, tickling Budiakov's nostrils. Once or twice on his way he sneezed. Having arrived to the post office, he leaned his bicycle on the metal fence surrounding the building and spat out some fluff that succeeded in penetrating into his mouth and sticking to lips.

In the main room of the post office he saw Tamara Pavlovna arguing with someone on the phone in very rude words. After she saw him coming she hung it up and came closer to the counter.

'Couldn't wait to get it, ha?' she said, smiling and passing him the book of records, covered with writing.

'I just like doing important things in the morning,' - Budiakov replied, stretching his hand to take a plastic pen, tied with a string to somewhere behind the counter. He signed his name in the line with his address and number of the parcel.

Tamara Pavlovna walked away and hid among the tall standing shelves filled with stacks of letters, postcards, newspapers and boxes. In a minute she brought a heavy-looking box with many bright stickers on it. Several orange stickers with black frames stated '

Containing chromium oxide, toxic in the form of dust' and ' It is obligatory to use protective gloves and mask when dealing with substances contained in this box'
. On the sides of the box one could see the name of the substance typed in big bold letters 'Paste of the State Optical Institute'. The box was tied around with plastic brown rope, formed into a handle on the top for more convenient shipment.

Oleg Ivanovich took the box, said good bye and left. Having placed the box into his bicycle basket he rode home. In less than ten minutes the box found its place in his working studio. He opened it and took a precise look at the content. The box was paper lined from the inside and contained several hard green bricks covered with half-transparent paper, stacked one onto another as well as many small tins of the same size. Both bricks and tins had stickers with numbers from one to four. After a closer look, one could see that the paste of a different number was of a different shade of green.

Budiakov let the box stay under the table in the cabin and went back to the house. In the kitchen he started making his usual breakfast, the same thing that his was eating during the last decade. It was a bowl of chicken broth hidden under two handfuls of chopped green bunch onion, and a sandwich of the thick slice of rye bread, spread with rendered pork fat. Having boiled the broth, he carefully took the metal bowl from the burner and placed it beside the sandwich on the small table covered with last year's newspaper. For the next ten minutes the only sounds in the room were the slurping he made and the ticking of the clock.

At nine sharp Oleg Ivanovich turned over the sign, now saying 'Open' and took his honored seat in the cabin. He had a lot of stuff to do, the matters that brooked no delay. So he took out four wheel webs and two sets of dinner silverware and started polishing them.

The time was passing. Every now and then people came to pick up their things or to bring new ones. Budiakov was diligently and thoroughly doing his job, from time to time humming some old army song, calling to be devoted to the motherland and that great and prosperous future it was leading its people to. Occasionally he was smoking or drinking tea; from one to two o'clock he ate his lunch that exactly copied his breakfast, and took a nap. At six Oleg Ivanovich turned over the sign, now saying 'Closed, please come tomorrow', put the money he earned during the day into the old rubbed tin box with almost faded letters ' The Council of National Economy of the Black Sea Region' gifted to him by his brother, smoked a cigarette, thinking of the fact that probably he will not be able to earn enough for covering the roof before the autumn comes.

After his working hours, Budiakov was doing exactly the same thing every day. He was washing his face and his hands, changing his clothes and going behind the house to the small vegetable garden to take care of the crops and pick some of them for dinner.

Oleg Ivanovich was in the middle of his usual evening routine, washing his hands, when he noticed green dirt stuck under his fingernails. He tried to wash it out with water, but didn't really succeed. So he took the old toothbrush and some laundry soap to try harder, but after several minutes of vain attempts he left this idea and proceeded with his usual things. Having found a decent eggplant and a zucchini, Budiakov went to make his fried veggies. In a while he was eating his dish washed down with dried fruit water. The radio was making rustling sounds interrupting the patriotic song. Oleg Ivanovich was singing it along, murmuring '… Loving heart of your son I will bring to your feet …', when he got rudely interrupted with a nervous loud knock on his door, the door that was never knocked before.

Budiakov opened up with great astonishment and saw puffed and breathless Tamara Pavlovna. She put a great effort in trying to recover her breath and pronounce:

'A call. For you. A long-distance call. They said they will … will call back in half an hour. Said it's important.'

In about ten minutes Oleg Ivanovich and Tamara Pavlovna were in the post office, which was open for long-distance calls twenty-four/seven. Tamara Pavlovna was digging through tons of papers she didn't process during the day. Budiakov was calmly sitting and waiting for the call that had to be a mistake as there was no one he knew outside the regional centre of K. But it wasn't as there was someone who heard of him.

When a loud sound pierced the air, Tamara Pavlovna picked up:

'The post office of the regional centre of K…Yes, it is. That's right, Budiakov Oleg Ivanovich. He is here. Sure. Please wait,'--she covered the receiver with her hand and said to Budiakov: 'Booth number four.'

He stepped into the booth number four and closed the door, picked up the phone and almost jumped up from the squeaky young voice he heard:

'Good evening. Budiakov Oleg Ivanovich?'

'Good evening. Yes, it would be me.'

'I was informed that you are providing the polishing service in the regional centre of K, polishing metal and glass objects, is that correct?'

'Yes, it is. What's the matter? I don't really …'

Interrupting confused Budiakov, the voice started chattering:

'My name is Nataliia Veniaminovna Pavlova. I am the representative of the local office of the State Bureau of the Museum Exhibits. Currently we are working on the case of the Mering Palace located in the village of Stara Pryluka, which is very close to the regional centre of K. This Palace used to belong to Mister Mering, who was the famous entrepreneur as well as the minister of trade and industry. Long time ago our Bureau brought many valuable exhibits from this palace to several capital museums. After everything was safely transported to the Bureau, in 1958 it was finally decided to use the building for housing a boarding school for children.

'Earlier this year, the government financed the full reconstruction of the building, that due to unknown reasons was never done before. During this reconstruction they found a hidden place in a wall, with a portrait of Mering, expensive Persian carpets and gold Imperial coins; all of them were transferred to the Museum last month. We thought that we have found everything hidden in there, before today.

'Today they reported that some pieces of ceiling plaster and debris that they removed during repair works have dumped and revealed more Imperial coins hidden in them. Next Monday they should be presented in Kyiv. But before that, in the next few days they should be cleaned and properly renovated. You are one of the few people in the region who provide this kind of service.

'Do you think you would be able to perform such an urgent and sophisticated work--for a proper payment, of course?' - the voice got silent.

Budiakov was trying to digest the whole mass of information that had just fallen onto his head. The thoughts were confused and his mind was racing around everything he just heard.

'Mr. Budiakov? Are you there?,'- the voice seemed nervous.

Budiakov gulped down a lump in his throat and to his great surprise replied with a very calm and firm voice:

'Yes. I agree. I aa … I will be very honored to be given such an important task. And I can assure you that I will do my best when dealing with it.'

Budiakov's life just seemed to approach the most exciting experience he had ever had, the one he could not even dream about. He got the chance to take part in something much more significant that everything he was doing during his whole life counted together.

'Such an attitude is exactly what we need. There is not much time given. So if it's ok with you, I will bring the coins to the regional centre of K. tomorrow, early in the morning. The train arrives at 8:35. There is no reason for me to stay in there. I will come back to pick them up on Friday, so you will have three days to deal with it. Will you be able to meet me?'

'Yes. Sure. 8:35. I will meet you.'

'Great. See you tomorrow morning then. Good bye.'

'Good … bye,' - Budiakov heard the lady hang up before he had a chance to finish the word.

But it didn't really matter for him. Now his thoughts were full of the priceless coins he will have the chance of his life to hold and restore, as well as the money he will be paid. Budiakov was dreaming about a new roof so hard, and it seemed like its time was to come very soon. Beaming with happiness, Oleg Ivanovich went home. Having set the alarm clock with blackened fingers, that he never noticed because of excitement, he went to sleep. He predicted that the next day was going to be a good day, profitable and intriguing.

For a minute of two Budiakov was nervously tumbling in bed, but after, he started snoring like a chain saw. Pieces of eggplant and zucchini were getting spoilt in a lake of greasy oil. A dead fly drowned in a glass of dried fruit water. The newly arrived paste resting in the cabin was faintly radiating the green light, coming out through the slits in the box. Budiakov's finger nails were becoming darker and softer.

***

Next morning Budiakov woke up long before the alarm clock gave out the rough mechanical sound. He could not tell if the reason was the excitement, or the plaintive crow of the roosters living almost in every neighborhood. And the reason didn't even matter, there was nothing in the world that could matter to Budiakov at this point.

He got up and stepped onto the floor with his bare feet. He was doing something he didn't do for a long time now, he was smiling. In a joyful mood, he threw away his yesterday's dinner in a large aluminum bucket lined with newspapers, hidden under the sink, and having turned the valve on the gas cylinder put some water on the stove to boil. Then he pulled out several buckets of water from the well and let them stay on the grass to get warm. First thing in the morning Budiakov watered his vegetables in the yard and in summertime ate an apple he picked from the tree. Budiakov's old-fashioned mind preferred to think that eating a ripe sound apple was actually a healthier option for his teeth than tooth powder or paste. But for special occasions he did use them. A great day like that was that very special occasion.

While dealing with his teeth, Budiakov's attention got dragged to his fingers, which to his great surprise looked different than yesterday, and actually different than normal human fingers. His fingernails on both hands got totally black; the skin on the distal phalanges became greenish and shriveled. Budiakov started massaging his finger pads, which still had their usual sensibility, and after his short examination came to the usual conclusion that was wandering between old people in the regional centre of K. They always thought that any minor disease will disappear by itself and major disease can be so serious that doctors will not know how to cure it. Anyway, Oleg Ivanovich decided to wait.

Thinking of the glowing ancient past of his country that he was going to hold in his hands sometime soon, Budiakov was drinking his usual tea and smoking, from time to time spitting out the tiny pieces of the tea leaves coming into his mouth, watching the nest. The swallows were chirping and bustling in their nest. Every time when one of them wanted to ease the nature, it put the tail out of the nest and did the doings. As a result the soil under the nest was all covered with white droppings.

'What a smart bird. It probably has a very clean nest,' thought Oleg Ivanovich, looking at the poked out swallow's tail.

At half past seven Oleg Ivanovich Budiakov suited and booted in everything best he had, combed those three rows of hair he had, locked the door, pushed it a couple of times to reassure himself that it was properly locked, and went out of his yard heading to the railway station of the regional centre of K, which was a very famous and remarkable sight, an attraction for everybody passing it in the train and staring at it from its windows.

The railway station was the most recognizable spot of the regional centre of K., known far beyond the region and even far beyond the modern territory of the country. It was built in 1888-1889 under the project of the famous architect of that time. It was considered one of the best railway stations in the Russian Empire. The building of the railway station was performed in the form of a white steamship located on the island, which was 'washed' by rail tracks from both sides. The interior design was also sophisticated, it had majestic crystal chandeliers, frames of bronze leaves, and the walls made of redwood. It was so magnificent that even the Tsar Nicholas II came to see it himself. The word about the ancient railway station built in the epoch of the Russian Empire was spread for a long time after the Empire fell.

Oleg Ivanovich Budiakov passed several streets before he reached the pedestrian bridge leading to the station, going above the numerous rails leading to different directions. When walking on the bridge he saw dozens of freight trains filled with wood and ore, but mainly with black coal. Behind the fence that separated the territory of the railway station from the rest of the town, Budiakov saw the old water tower made of stone, several small houses, and a big hospital. For a moment he was thinking about his blackened fingernails, but then rapidly switched his attention to the monument he saw.

Right at the bottom of the stairs leading down from the bridge stood a pedestal holding the historical steam train. Budiakov didn't see it before, but could bet that is was mentioned in some newspaper recently. Probably in one of those that he used to line the trash bucket with. He came closer. The train looked gorgeous and immense. On the pedestal on which it rested Budiakov saw an attached plate with an inscription saying '

This historical steam train L-2309 was put for an eternal parking as the monument in memory of the military and labor traditions of the railwaymen of the regional centre of K. (August 1987)'

It was established there almost a year ago, but for Budiakov, who only left his house and workshop on exceptional occasions, it was the hot news. The train looked heavy and beautiful, although one could see it was pretty old. On the forepart of the locomotive Oleg Ivanovich saw a red star with bas-relief carving of images of his two most favorite people in the world, the main leaders of the USSR-Lenin and Stalin. His face widened in the ingenuous smile. For a minute or so he was standing there, in front of the train, caught by the spirit of the epoch he was living through, overfilled with the pride of the country he lived in, especially during its golden years that have passed long ago though. The years he remembered and the years he still lived in.

At eight sharp Oleg Ivanovich was standing on the platform, right under the railway clock, attacked with all the kinds of sounds filling the station. The railwayman was ringing a large metal bell every time when the train was about to arrive and leave. The obese women wandering around and selling sunflowers seeds, homemade buns and drinks, were trying to attract buyers by advertising their products as loud as possible.

The train that Budiakov was waiting for arrived at 8:35. He noticed a lady he needed to meet as soon as she got off the train car. She looked not older than twenty-five or twenty-eight as a maximum, wearing a simple white print dress, and chaotically looking around. She was holding a heavy-looking leather attaché case clenched in her left hand. Budiakov approached her taking firm sure steps.

'Misses Pavlova?' he started.

'Miss, actually.' She gave a stiff, feigned smile. 'You are the polishing expert, right? Nice to meet you', she reached her hand for a shake.

'I will take this same train now. I need to report about the findings. There are 53 gold coins and 36 silver ones. Of course, it goes without saying that they need to be handled with a great diligence and attention. I will pay for your work when picking it up on Friday. The committee dealing with this case has estimated your work, if well performed, in 250 rubles. Are you sure everything will be done by Friday morning?' She got quiet waiting for his reply.

But Oleg Ivanovich lost his tongue. At his point of his life, Budiakov's thoughts were rushing around his head faster than the train the lady came with, after he heard her saying '250 rubles'. Images and numbers started flashing in his mind so rapidly that it seemed that his brain could get boiled and the hot steam could start coming out from his ears. His whole life just dashed before his eyes. He thought of the several items he bought last time when shopping: a loaf of bread - 20 kopeks,a kilogram of buckwheat - 20 kopeks,a pack of "Prima" cigarettes - 17 kopeks,a kerosene household lamp - 1 ruble 50 kopeks, the "Pravda" newspaper - 2 kopeks, a box of matches - 1 kopek . Then Oleg Ivanovich thought of all of those cooks, bakers and people of other similar professions earning 100 rubles a month. After that he started counting how many suits, fur hats and leather shoes he could buy for 250 rubles, let alone the caviar and finest sausage. One could even buy the most advanced fridge or motorbike. And what a great and lasting roof he could make with this money. His forehead got lined with sweat. With his eyes wide-open Budiakov was staring at the lady. He was trying to stay conscious and look casual.

'Sir? Are you sure everything will be done by Friday morning?' the lady got cautious as if trying to figure out if there was any problem.

Budiakov gulped down a lump in his throat, dried his sweaty hands on the back of his pants and with a great effort said:

'Definitely. I will surely finish restoration by Friday and bring them here Friday morning'

'That's great. Then …Same time Friday, same train'. She passed him the case that turned out to be even heavier that he expected.

'Same time Friday,' he said.

Then the girl disappeared in the doors of the train car. The train pulled out in several minutes. For a while Budiakov stood on the platform rooted to the ground. When he came back to rational thinking and was able again to process the information, he came to conclusion that it was not the good idea to stand in the crowded railway station holding a case full of priceless gold. Trying not to lose his mind from happiness, Budiakov went home heading for the bright future waiting for him around the corner. People hurrying to the railway station were curiously and apprehensively twisting their heads looking after the weird-looking old man, who was swiftly walking somewhere holding a case in his arms and from time to time slightly patting it with blackened hands. He was breathing heavily and nervously and seemed to be late for something important. The man was wearing a time-worn brown suit and a hуsteric smile. His wrinkles hid the tiny greenish spots coming out of the skin. His temporal arteries turned green and pulsed faster than ever before.

When Budiakov finally got home he put the precious case on the table in his workshop. Having changed the suit and drunk some fruit water to wet his whistle, he started washing his hands to start working. To his astonishment he saw that his hands became totally different, too different to be further ignored. He took a precise look at his fingers. Each one of them was blackened at least in half; his nails looked oily and dirty. He started washing them with soap. There was no way he could smear those coins. Being rubbed with finger pads his index finger nail was left in between the fingers.

Oleg Ivanovich opened his mouth, heavily breathing; the skin on his back got crawled with trepidation. The fallen-off nail set his teeth on edge, gave him the creeps and almost a heart attack. There was no pain, though. Budiakov firmly decided to go and see the doctor and let the doctor see him as soon as possible. He took a look at himself in the mirror. His old creepy skin looked sick and thin, in several places on his arms he could see the green veins covered with a half-transparent white glaze. They were itching. Budiakov passed his hands over his face and forearms.

The tap water was loudly dripping in the cup filled with water, resting in the sink since morning. The horribly familiar sound cast Budiakov's mind back to those days when the raindrops were dripping from the ceiling into one of those huge metal wash bowls standing on the floor, taking a long way from the very top to the water surface below. He remembered them falling, like in a slow motion; remembered the water on the wet ceiling forming a large drop, struggling to surrender to gravity; the drop becoming too fat to resist, turning round for a fraction of a second and becoming longer and thinner on its way to the water in a bowl. Budiakov shuddered with those memories.

He shifted his look to the door of the workshop. There, behind that plain wooden door lay the dream bundle. The bundle full of work leading to the reward that could make anything possible; give something that Budiakov would never be able to have if letting this opportunity go. It seemed to him that the gold was whispering his name, calling him, tempting him. Oleg Ivanovich firmly decided to go to the doctor as soon as possible. The soonest possible time he could think of was Friday, after he got the money. Budiakov promised to himself that he would go to the hospital second thing in the morning on Friday, on his way back from the railway station.

He harnessed his willpower and went to the workshop. The case swollen with grandeur was lying now right in front of him. Budiakov opened the clasp and took out the thing wound up in velvet fabric. The gold and silver beans shone like the stars, like the sun, like the eternal power. For a moment Budiakov froze over the table, looking at them, with bright twinkles in his eyes. He looked like the crooked goblin or leprechaun bent over the pot filled with treasure. With an unsure move, Oleg Ivanovich stretched his hand and touched the coins, took them in hands and gave them a closer look.

For the first half day, Oleg Ivanovich was just inspecting the priceless things he held in his workshop, viewing them under the magnifying glass. Some of them were more captivating than others.

Almost all of them had the picture of the small coat of arms of the Russian Empire-the double-headed eagle. Both heads of the eagle carried crowns, and the third larger crown was between them. All three crowns were connected by a ribbon. On the chest of the eagle one could see the coat of arms of Moscow-a shield with St. George the Victorious riding a horse and striking a snake with a long spear.

Some pictured Imperial regalia: crossed scepter and sword above the crown of the Russian Empire. Around the regalia one could see a laurel wreath and oak branches.

Several had five shields with coats of arms in the form of a cross. The central shield was an image of the Emblem of the Russian Empire-a two-headed eagle. The upper shield was the Moscow coat of arms, and four others presented the coats of arms of four Kingdoms of the Russian Empire. The upper shield was adorned with the Imperial crown; the other three shields were crowned with Royal crowns. Between the coats of arms there were four small roses.

Budiakov turned the coins over in his hands in all kinds of ways, having totally forgotten about his disease as well as the work to be done. About the midday he got disturbed by the new customer who brought some brass clock to be restored. Having promised to have if finished on Monday, Oleg Ivanovich finally started dealing with the first task in his to-do-list.

The coins were magnificent, although in some parts they had tiny parts of plaster stuck to them and the white dust that made them look dingy. Having placed the green paste and tools in front of him Budiakov started polishing the beans as carefully as he possibly could, paying his attention to smallest details. Huge, Budiakov's eye staring at the slightest curves from behind the magnifier did not feel any pain or discomfort. In the meanwhile his eyeballs turned greenish and got strewn with crimson blood vessels.

The outstanding veins that now could be easily seen through the translucent skin got even more swollen. Budiakov was heavily scratching them leaving on his forearms long red marks. That did not work well as his nails were not sharp enough, and since recent times-- not hard enough. Chaotically scratching his head, arms and face as well as rubbing his eyes, he was continuing his work that was taking much more time than he expected. And he wanted to perform it in a perfect way to get the amount that was mentioned to him without any deduction. Probably the coin was amazingly done after polishing it for an hour or so, but for Budiakov it constantly looked like there was still a way to improve it and to make it look even shinier.

Sometime in the afternoon Oleg Ivanovich got hungry, but decided that he was too busy to eat, so he went out of the work studio for a smoke. Sitting on the thick trunk of the tree serving like a bench right under his windows, Budiakov was breathing out heavy milky puffs of smoke scaring away the mosquitoes. Two loud swallows were flying in circles over his workshop, their young were chirping from the nest. After a short break Oleg Ivanovich came back to his dimly lit studio and went on cleaning and polishing.

In the evening Budiakov turned over the sign that now showed 'Closed, please come tomorrow', took several bites of the apple picked from the apple tree in his yard and continued working in the sweat of his brow. A couple of mosquitoes sat on Budiakov's neck and arms. After getting swollen from his blood they fell down into the darkness plaguing the floor of the studio. Budiakov's vision was gradually getting obnubilated by fatigue and the opaque light of the kerosene lamp producing the fetid smell occupying the whole room.

Around three in the morning, Oleg Ivanovich could not resist the fatigue and the kerosene smell anymore, so having left the coins in the work studio and opened the window to air it, on his last legs he went to bed half-dead. From the moment his head touched the pillow to the moment when the alarm clock went off next morning, Budiakov was drowned in sleep, not being able to hear anything around.

He could neither hear the filthy rats crawling on the attic, nibbling dried corn and beans stored there, nor the ethereal swallow stealthily bangling in the air around the cabin and accidentally finding the way to the workshop through the open window. He could not hear her flying inside in the complete darkness, trying to find the way out, bumping in every wall and object on her way, hitting them with her beak, bleeding after dozens of attempts. He could not hear her trembling body falling down onto the table covered with tools and tins, being too tired to keep struggling. He could not hear her young chirping because of their terrible loss, the loss of the closest creature that they will never see again.

***

Next morning Budiakov woke up suffering from a horrible headache; the buzzing sound of the alarm clock echoed in his head. He felt like having the most terrible hangover in his life, with that small difference that it was not a hangover. He felt even worse than that time when he was drinking hard as hell after becoming discharged from the army. His mother's whitish home brew, strong as devil's distillery, was the best moonshine in the whole village. But even after it, Oleg Ivanovich felt better.

He didn't know if the reason of his current condition was his late work session or the disease that seemed to pervade every inch of his body and not going to remain complacent. And maybe both of them, accompanied with his age, Budiakov thought. He rubbed his sleep-clogged eyes, gave out a deep yawn and hung his legs down from the bed. His feet touched the cold floor covered with a thin sheet of water. Oleg Ivanovich shuddered with disgust and surprise. Having come outside, he proved his guess. It was drizzling the whole night. The soil in his yard was wet, sticky and tenacious. Budiakov took several old ragged towels and threw them around the room, over the biggest puddles. The most extensive won over the space under his bed.

Oleg Ivanovich was struggling with the rain puddles covering all the kinds of surfaces in his home for so long that he had even forgotten the times without them. Without even looking at himself in the mirror he went straight to the workshop, missing the chance to see his face covered with webs of blood vessels and pulsing abscesses.

The way to the wooden cabin was laid with massive white bricks half dug into the ground. Having entered the workshop Budiakov opened the case and started arranging his tools and tins. It took him some time to notice the swallow lying on her back on the table. Her dead body was tiny and lifeless, like frozen. Her feet were stretched up. Her beak and face were covered with dried blood sticking her feathers together. Budiakov looked at her with his eyes full of grief. That was that same bird he was watching several mornings in a row bringing food to her young. Oleg Ivanovich frowned, took the swallow with a piece of cloth and went out. Having looked around carefully enough he could not find a better idea for burying her that putting in the box and unearthing under the apple tree in his garden.

He made a search of the proper box thoroughly around the house, but couldn't find anything matching his need. The only hard box he had was the tin box of 'The Council of National Economy of the Black Sea Region' where his money rested. Having thought about it for a moment, Budiakov came to a conclusion that the amount of money he was going to get very soon wasn't hay and he could buy himself some nice sophisticated casket, actually scores of them. Oleg Ivanovich shook out the contents of the box into a plastic cup designed for holding water when brushing teeth. His whole fortune equaled 28 rubles, a couple of crumpled bills and several jingly coins.

He carefully put her breathless body covered with cloth into the tin. With his bare hands he dug the small hole under the apple tree, right between the large roots and left it there, slightly covered with black soil. Oleg Ivanovich felt bad about the little bird. In fact, he loved animals and birds more than people. Since early childhood he remembered his father's words: 'if you call someone a dog, you make a huge compliment to that person and a huge insult to a dog'.

Having left the swallow under the tree for her eternal way and peace, Budiakov came back to the workshop. With the best productivity he could only find in himself the force for he was working on the rest of the coins left. By the noon of that day he managed to finish the restoration of almost one third of them. From time to time Oleg Ivanovich was yawning, scratching the itchy skin, massaging the stiff joints and sleeping hands. Black fingers covered with infected diseased tissues resembling charred firewood could barely flex. Budiakov got deadly tired. He decided that for all his hard attempts he deserved a break. So he went inside the house to find something for lunch. For his lunch he found several potatoes and having hastily cut them into large pieces he threw them unpeeled onto the frying pan oiled with rendered pork fat.

The kitchen immediately got infested with the strong smell of fried fat, and later, potatoes. Budiakov threw it onto the plate, letting the left-over oil drop on the food. Sitting on the low stool in tghe company of the salt cellar, Oleg Ivanovich allowed himself to stop thinking about work and concentrate on potatoes for a while. Potatoes were his favorite food; mashed or fried, baked or boiled -they were the best food in the whole world. Chewing his amazing lunch and savoring the flavor of each mouthful, Oleg Ivanovich felt pain and discomfort when swallowing. He started thoughtfully palpating it although he didn't find anything unusual. If there was something, he probably would never be able to feel it with the pads of numb fingers. He saw his hands being black to the middle of the palm. He clenched hands in fists and decided to see one more doctor on Friday. Last year, one of his neighbors died of thyroid gland cancer. Although Budiakov knew nothing about cancer and could not even remember what a thyroid gland was, there for he surely knew two things: his neighbor died of something strangling the throat, and people died of cancer a lot, especially after those events in Chernobyl. That's what everybody was saying. There was no word about it in the newspapers though.

Inspecting his neck and throat Oleg Ivanovich almost forgot about the potatoes. Now there were just them in the room, Budiakov and his fears. And a quiet rustle, coming from the attic. Budiakov's pupils moved to the very corners of his eyes. That rustling sound was one of a kind, one of those sounds that Budiakov would like to forget forever and never hear again. That was the sound that he hated even more than the sound of the rainwater dripping from the ceiling. And there were not so many things in the world Budiakov hated so much.

He took the sweeping broom, mounted the stepladder, and in a minute was in the attic. There he had a strong wooden knee-high chest full of his mother's old clothes that became permeated with the smell of shoe polish stored in the cardboard box next to it, and several sacks of dry corn and beans, which got wet every time when it was raining. It was one of the worst places for those to be stored, but there was no more space for those sacks.

The attic was filled with stiff foul air, which became choking because of the smell of decayed faulty wood and rotten purlins. There, under one of the purlins, behind the chest, in a distant secluded spot, was the rats' haven. They were sitting there frozen, with nibbled corn in tiny hands, staring at the puffed up nostrils of swearing Budiakov, who impudently broke into the place of their tenancy. Budiakov in his turn was shell-shocked by the insolent behavior of the rats, paralyzed with fear, being only able to blink shifty eyes. All of a sudden, Oleg Ivanovich got filled with hatred to everything that was irritating him for so long, his eyes got almost insane and he started spasmodically bashing at the poor creatures. Standing too far to get hurt with a short broom, the terrified rats turned their tails and hid in the furthest corners of the attic, making absolutely no sound. Budiakov made a wry face and went down the ladder, satisfied with at least temporary silence.

Chewing several pieces of potatoes on his way, Budiakov went to the workshop to keep working. Having wiped his mouth with a sleeve he sat down bending over the gold and silver piles and went on. Fighting with his fatigue, Oleg Ivanovich was restoring the beans until the late night, when he was no more able to proceed. Then he left everything unfinished in the studio and went to sleep. Good and sound sleep was the only thing he wished for that night. Hidden under the patchwork quilt, with his mouth slightly open, Budiakov dropped into sleep. Into one of the most real and most terrifying dreams he ever had.

Budiakov dreamt how sweet and sound was his sleep before he got woken up by the sound of the rustling leaves coming from the outside. He got up and pushed the front door open. Somehow there was no cabin in his yard, no fence, no walk roads, just the huge garden with the trees much bigger than those that he actually had, piercing the ground with their mighty roots and forming a net covering the sky with their enormous branches. The night was dark, the clouds covered the moon. Budiakov walked towards the rustling sound, stepping on the fresh grass. He could barely see where he went. The trees were making strange creaking noises all the time, dragging his attention and scared looks.

After several attempts to closely observe, Budiakov noticed that one of the trees, immense in its size, had a burrow under its roots, bulged and kinked above the ground. There in the burrow sat the whole family of huge rats, big as cats. They had red eyes and long teeth similar to those saber-tooth cats had. Oleg Ivanovich had shivers running up and down his spine; he was trying to understand what the hell was going on, but could not. The rats started crawling out of the burrow approaching him. Budiakov slowly started going backwards. He could see the rats' saliva stretched in between their teeth and the hissing sound drifting out of their gullets. Budiakov brought his heart into his mouth. Making another step back, he snagged on one of the branches on the ground and fell down. With his hands smeared with dirt pushing himself back, he was trying to crawl away from the rats. His face wrung with terrifying thoughts on what the rats of that size can probably do to a person. Budiakov already prepared himself to the worst, trying to remember at least several words from any prayer, when he suddenly heard a loud banging sound coming from under another tree. He immediately turned his head, but to his great astonishment didn't see anything there. The rats vanished. The sound still there; it resembled the sound of something hard banging on the thin metal surface.

Oleg Ivanovich came closer to its source. He assumed it was coming from under the ground. He started digging the wet soil in that spot. He did not want to; he wanted to run away as far as he could. But somehow Budiakov was just doing it. Some force made him dig, controlled him and made him to be interested in what was there despite having his heart in his boots. There under the black sticky soil Oleg Ivanovich found the familiar green tin serving as a coffin for a swallow he buried a while ago. With shaking hands he opened the box, but the swallow was not there. Budiakov got confused and bent his brows. The dead bird could not disappear from the box. Then he remembered that it was actually not the same box, not that tree he buried her under, and not even his yard. It was his dream, a very strange one. It was the dream that was manipulating him, running him, possessing him, and ruling his mind.

Budiakov was staring at the empty tin that was banging a minute ago thinking of how everything happening was even possible. Suddenly the tin he was holding banged again. This time it was something that fell inside. Budiakov took a precise look, the wet white spot was on the bottom of the box. It was the bird's dropping. He crinkled his nose, threw his head back, looked up, but didn't see any bird on the tree above him. Instead of the bird, he saw a dropping, like in a slow motion, falling down straight onto his forehead. After it landed Budiakov wiped it off. He could clearly and distinctly see the white on his black hands, even kneeling in the middle of the dark garden. All of a sudden he heard and then saw much more droppings falling down onto him and around, rapidly gaining in pace. Hard white drops, resembling hail, were drumming over the tin window sills, covering the ground.

Budiakov looked around, after a short time everything was smeared with a thick layer of poultry litter. Oleg Ivanovich felt dizzy and nauseous, he could sense the vomit coming up from his innards. The tree branches and white bullets merged into the insane embroilment spinning above his head. The ground crumbled away. For a short moment Budiakov passed out. When he recovered consciousness it was cold and bright, the garden was whelmed with snow, hurting his eyes. Tree branches bent under a heavy strain. It was freezing. The cold pierced the air and pinched Budiakov's skin. His breath was misting. He woke up.

***

The patchwork quilt lay on the floor. It was chilly in the room and raining outside. The raindrops were drumming over the tin window sills. Budiakov heavily sighed. He very seldom had dreams and never before were the dreams so real. It was an early morning, even before the alarm clock went off. Budiakov turned it off and slid from the bed. The floor was under the thin layer of water; his feet were smeared with dirt.

He rapidly washed them and tried to focus on his task more than the surroundings. Very soon it would not matter. He put on his rubber boots and ran to the cabin to go on. It was the fifth hour of work when Budiakov heard a ringing sound. When he looked up, through the spattered window glass he saw a boy, sitting on the bike in front of Budiakov's fence door. He was waving.

'Good morning, Oleg Ivanovich', the boy said.

'Good morning', Budiakov replied.

'Daddy asked me to ask you if you have a lunch break. And, if yes, what time. He wanted to bring you something. I don't know what.'

'I am busy now and will take new orders after Monday.'

The boy's face turned serious and puzzled. He frowned, shrugged his shoulders and left.

The market that day was not very crowded. The worse the weather was, the less people it gathered. The boy rode towards a lady selling household supplies, maneuvering between the puddles. When he finally reached his dad, he was asked about the working hours. But he had nothing to say.

'I did not understand a word of what he said, Dad,' he replied.

Then the boy, his dad and his bicycle altogether started their way to the wooden cabin discernible behind the sign saying 'Polishing Service'. They stopped in front of the workshop. Standing in the middle of the yard, a man loudly said:

'Hey, Ivanovich, how is life?'

Budiakov looked at him and briefly replied. But the only thing the man heard was slurred indistinct speech, a set of sounds coming together in a protracting manner. Oleg Ivanovich was thick of speech. The man knew that Budiakov didn't drink and never saw him drunk in his life. He came closer and took a precise look. He saw Oleg Ivanovich sitting in his work studio wearing a dirty old sleeveless undershirt, stooping over a desk. His lackluster eyes with burst blood capillary vessels were hiding behind the thick glasses. When Budiakov pushed them higher the man saw his hands fully covered with some black disease that he could not recognize. All the skin on Budiakov's head, neck and arms was covered with sores, blisters and pus abscesses.

The man nervously swallowed and muttered 'I will come over next time.' Then he pushed his son's bicycle outside the yard and, nervously glancing back, hurried away, leaving Budiakov alone with his thoughts. And the thoughts he had were marvelous with endurable roof and sound wooden floor, piles of new suits and bowlfuls of tasty food. Bearing in his mind the anticipation of rapidly coming improvement, Budiakov took his attention off the coins, stood up, limbered up, crack the joints of his fingers and went to the kitchen squelching through the water in his rubber boots.

Having found several stale dry cookies with a distinct smell of sunflower oil in the sideboard, Budiakov started snacking, being too tired to cook anything. Slowly moving his jaws, he was smashing them in a pasty clump, which stopped somewhere in the middle of his throat when he was trying to swallow it. Budiakov started coughing, trying to clear it and spit the cookie out. He felt like he had a dozen knots in his throat, preventing him from eating, and strangling him, constraining the throat.

After the unsuccessful attempt of having a bite, Oleg Ivanovich came back to the cabin to take care of the work left. There was not much left, the majority of it was finished. Shiny clean coins majestically shone resting on the velvet fabric in the workshop. By the end of the day, when Budiakov was too tired to even sit, he finished all the silver coins and fifty gold ones with only three remained to be restored. He decided to finish them the next day, before bringing them to the railway station for the further conveyance. His perturbed inflamed brain was producing the pictures of the young lady giving him the envelope with sacramental longed-for money, or maybe even asking his help in some future projects.

Having left three gold coins smeared with plaster and dust beside the finished ones, Budiakov went to sleep, not paying any more attention to anything around: to the rustling sound coming from the attic, to the frequent raindrops sluggishly sinking down damp walls, to the quacking sound his rubber boots made every time when stepping on the wet floor.

Having fallen into a deep sleep, Budiakov's mind went far beyond the walls and routines. He was clueless about everything happening after his head touched the pillow, not being able to make neither head nor tail of the plot. He never had a chance of understanding what it was all about--if he tumbled through the looking glass, melted into the ground, perished from the earth or just lost his mind. He never knew.

When he opened his eyes he found himself lying on the cold tiled floor in the huge room filled with chairs and sofas, staring at the majestic cut-glass chandelier hanging over his face. With no doubt it was the biggest chandelier he'd ever seen and the most exquisite artistic molding surrounding it. He stood up and looked around. The room was empty--nothing but tables, chairs, sofas and lamps. He went out of the room and found himself in the hall of the familiar railway station. The sign on the door leading to the room he just left said 'The first class waiting room'.

Budiakov turned around several times and having seen no one shouted 'Hello? Anybody here?' but nobody answered, because probably nobody heard. Budiakov went to the counter saying 'Information and directory services', but there was nobody there, either. Then he walked along the corridor to the door outside. Passing the full length mirror embosomed with painted wooden frame he saw himself wearing a suit and shiny boots that he didn't notice in all the confusion. He went outside to the small yard, but found there nobody but two silent statues of humble peasants--a woman with an apronful of apples, and a man holding a sheaf of wheat. Oleg Ivanovich came back in and decided to find another door, the one leading to the platform, so that he could go straight to the bridge and home.

After another long corridor he found it. The clock on the platform showed half past two. The air was chill, but Budiakov did not feel cold. There were no freight trains on the rails, though they were always there on the sixth or the seventh track waiting to be loaded or discharged. Budiakov scratched his head and set out. The night was dark. He could not see a single star in the sky. The platform was lined with plain round street lamps glowing mild yellow.

On the rails Oleg Ivanovich saw a spark or a gleam and took a closer look. There in between the concrete cross-ties lay a glittering gold coin, bearing a strong resemblance of those ones Budiakov left in his cabin. Could the lady lose one of those? Could it be someone else's coin looking like hers? Could it be one of those left in his work studio as he somehow appeared in the railway station in the middle of the night?

Budiakov's thoughts were in a whirl, his head was spinning, his mind boggled. But there was one thing he was totally sure about. It could not just stay there forgotten and abandoned. Budiakov's hands got tempted to take it. Everything was absolutely silent, there was no one watching. Budiakov rapidly looked around, did not see any sign of people, rushed to the edge of the platform, jumped off it and grabbed the coin. It was exactly the same coin he was recently polishing. It had a picture of the coat of arms of the Russian Empire with the eagle and crowns. Budiakov thought on how it could possibly get in there, but did not find any adequate answer.

Suddenly he saw a bright light shining from behind, hightailing towards him. Budiakov promptly turned around and his eyes rounded in awe.

***

Oleg Ivanovich opened his eyes. He was lying in his bed that was wet for some unknown reason. The rooster was still crowing when he started out of his dream. The alarm clock went off some time ago and was still loudly ringing, producing irritating mechanical sound. Budiakov had to get up, finish the work and go to the railway station and then to the hospital. But to his astonishment, he could not. He could not move his legs or arms, could not turn his head, could not even open his jaws.

He moved the eyes and looked around the empty room. He did not have a phone in the house. And even if he had, there was no one who could call him and get worried if one day he did not pick up. He did not any family left. His last relative, his brother, died two years ago. They did not speak for ten years before he passed away. Budiakov did not agree with his mother's last will to leave everything she had to another son. It did not seem to matter that much anymore. A slow clean tear rolled down his face and landed on the pillow having passed the pulsing temple. Pure and clear as the morning dew that should have appeared on the grass in his yard this morning. Crystal clean drop on the swollen half rotten face covered with nets of inflamed blood vessels and pus abscesses.

Budiakov slowly blinked. His pupils moved around searching something, but even he did not know what exactly. The reality seemed to melt. He could not feel his feet and hands. Minutes were passing. After some time the alarm clock sound stopped after an unusual cling. He felt dizzy. He was trying to remember something good, anything, just to stop thinking of the fact that he was a prisoner in his own body, an echo, a shadow in the empty room, the dark side of the moon. Life will go on. People will live the same way they did, the same way there were living that same moment he could not make a sound, lying motionless.

For the first time in his life Budiakov thought that maybe he had to marry that girl from school. Maybe she would be a great wife and a good person to spend his life with, maybe her three kids could have his face and his eyes. Maybe the things could be different. Maybe he should have called her, maybe he could make up after a fight with his brother, maybe he could make some friends. Probably there are some people in the world that are similar to other people if they somehow live together and even talk. Maybe there was someone he met who could have same ideas or thoughts as he had. Maybe it was that girl, maybe she was the right fit.

Maybe he had to go further than the railway station. Maybe he could take a train and see something except for the regional centre of K., something bigger. Maybe he had to leave that coin alone and let it stay on the rail, if there was a coin and if there was any rail.

He remembered his home with plenty of siblings, and his parents. His father was a strict man of principles, raising his kids with a firm hand. He could not work much, as he lost his right leg at war in penal battalion but was firm to his very last day. Using two packs a day he was producing smoke like a locomotive and when he was drunk-like a locomotive on fire. Budiakov's mother was a humble woman, who found happiness in raising kids and harvesting vegetables. She was a nice person, when she did not hit her kids' hands for stealing goose eggs and making them boiled in hot sand for lunch. Usually they were getting a saucepan of soup for a day, for a whole family.

Oleg Ivanovich often came back to those days in his memory, when everything he had was a pair of shoes he could wear one day a week and a radio program they all gathered to listen on Sunday in his neighbor's house. Those were the good days. The days when he did not have much, but somehow it was enough. He remembered how he ran away from the village when got older, to live and work in the regional centre of K. At that time people born in the village did not have passports, surely on purpose, and could barely find any job better than planting crops, which was exactly the same thing he could do in where he was born.

Budiakov remembered the job he had before opening his polishing work studio. It was the small turnery, - the first job he found after coming to the regional centre of K. He stayed there for almost twenty years and really enjoyed his time. They were manufacturing and selling jewelry boxes, stools, cutting boards, corner tables, ladders, bird feeders and even chess boards. There he earned money to buy a house he still lived in. There he understood that manual work was the best fit for him. After trhe man running it died, Budiakov decided to open something different as the rapid development of machinery and factories did not leave much for manual workers.

Oleg Ivanovich lay on his bed thinking that maybe he should have opened a turnery, or a shoe making shop, or maybe the polishing business was a great idea after all. The minutes slowly passed. He could hear the rats rustling in the attic; they were probably gnawing his corn. He did not mind any more, he did not think he would ever need it again.

Budiakov got very thirsty, he felt like he had a frog in his throat. His lips parted. The sun was rising, making the room less chilly. Oleg Ivanovich was waiting was the mercy to come, from anywhere. He thought that maybe he should have visited the church; it could at least make people like him more. But he was not sure. Ideas and thoughts were flowing from one to another, getting transformed.

In the afternoon Budiakov saw the sun crawling from the window behind him to the centre of the room. After some time it turned pink, then red, a then started fading away. In the evening it was getting darker and finally the night was come again. Despite the time, Oleg Ivanovich did not want to sleep. He heard the rats pottering around louder than ever before. Probably they emboldened after not seeing anyone scaring them away the whole day.

Budiakov was peering at darkness, straining his eyes. He could barely distinguish the silhouette of the plain wardrobe standing by the wall. It seemed to him that by this time he had thought of everything that ever happened to him and even everything that could possibly happen, and came to conclusion that he lived a totally unimposing insignificant life, probably as plain as the wardrobe he was staring at. Drowned in his thoughts about the coins he will never be able to finish polishing, Oleg Ivanovich fell asleep.

***

Next morning Budiakov woke up because of the loud shouting outside. The voice seemed too close to be located somewhere in the street. Oleg Ivanovich opened his eyes trying to figure out what he heard and discovered two tiny eyes looking at him with a particular interest. With her front legs on Budiakov's chin a huge rat sat on his throat, blinking and watching him, looking right in his eyes. Budiakov looked down as hard as he could, but could only see the top of her head. The rat was not moving, just staring. She was looking at the rotten face covered with sore swellings, tubercles, raised rash and blisters, and to her great surprise, two moving eyes that just opened and tried to examine her.

The angry voice outside got louder and Budiakov recognized it. It was the lady he had to meet at the railway station the day before. She was talking to someone, but another voice was too quiet and he could not sort it out.

'… justifies the behavior like this. It was totally stupid to trust someone with things that are so precious. He is probably already in a different city trying to sell them if not yet sold. God, I am going to lose my job if very lucky. But what if they press charges about negligence or whatever …' the young lady was saying, and got interrupted by another voice.

Budiakov could not distinguish words. He was heavily breathing. The rat seemed to smell his face. Suddenly someone tried to pull the door of his house, but it was locked and they left it alone. Budiakov's last hope just fainted. Then he heard a male voice, also too quiet to understand. Then he heard the tinkling sound of metal objects, the creaking door and the young lady again.

'Oh, Lord has mercy. Thank God they are here.'

Oleg Ivanovich came to conclusion that someone just opened the lock on his cabin door. After a quick fuss the young voice came back again.

'Thank you so much. It's a very important job, you know. That would be really great if you could take me back to the railway station, I am already very late with this issue.'

Then after a set of miscellaneous sounds everybody went away, leaving Budiakov alone with a tedious loneliness, in the lasting agonizing solitude. The long hours dragged slowly by. The sorrow and grief came in waves, and then it was succeeded by the waves of desperation and anger. At some point Budiakov understood that there was nothing he dreamt about for him anymore, no beautiful house, no expensive suits, no nice food. Everything passed and slipped through his fingers like water, like sand, like air. Recalling his life, he came to conclusion that everything he was doing, every attempt he made (when he was still making those) was just carrying water in a sieve and roasting snow in a furnace.

He was under the impression of those strange dreams he had or was part of. He was picturing in his mind those images of the shiny blanket of white silver covering his yard and the empty halls of the railway station filled with echoes and memories of the past years. He was looking back on his country that used to be so great during the Imperial years and became even better during the Soviet age. He thought about how happy people should be living there, and how happy people should be living …

***

Next morning, Budiakov's fence door creaked open letting Tamara Pavlovna and her husband, who was a locksmith, enter the tiny yard leading to the wooden cabin they helped open the day before, and the unkempt ramshackle house. Everywhere around them they saw neglected odd-shaped bushes surrounded with tall weeds. Firewood stored outside under the tarpaulin canopy waiting for the cold winter got damp and moist, several bearer logs were covered with moss and kells.

They were done with the lock in several minutes, and apprehensive Tamara Pavlovna entered the dimly lit kennel that served for Oleg Ivanovich as a home for more than a decade. Having entered the house, they passed a once-white sink full of clumps of hair and green spots of unknown origin looking like dried up things one would really regret seeing. They passed the fraying skewed table holding a pan of mouldy food chapped in a consolidated lake of greasy fat.

When they finally noticed Budiakov with his body covered with a mangy blanket and his face crowded with filthy rats chewing his cheeks and eating out his eyes, Tamara Pavlovna writhed with disgust and took a step back, within in inch of a plaintive cry. Her husband grabbed a broom that was gathering dust and God knows what else in the corner, and started browbeating the bestial scavengers that were gorging on recently-breathing fresh carrion.

In the regional centre of K. people seldom died like that. In the majority of cases they were proudly resting on the very high pillows as soft as floccus clouds and as white as snow. They were leaving in their bed, wearing their best dress, listening to the quiet murmuring whisper of the priest, who was granting remission of their sins and promising the bliss of the after-life and the heaven of heavens. They were usually dying surrounded by their grateful loving children sobbing their hearts out under the roof of the huge beautiful house they built with their blood, tears and sweat. People would come to their funeral, remember them in good words while listening to the orchestra music, eating pea porridge or beetroot soup, and will tell their neighbors how great the ceremony was and how expensive the coffin looked.

Oleg Ivanovich died in the most unusual way possible in the regional centre of K., the death found him in one of the worst days of his life, sick and swollen, when it seemed there was no other mercy for him than letting him pass away.

Frightened Tamara Pavlovna stood there motionless, covering her mouth with her palm after a gasp. When all the rats were gone, Budiakov looked even worse. Her weak imagination was picturing the things less cruel than they actually were. Having found in herself the strength to move she went out of the house and sat on the log in the yard. She dragged her kerchief from the head, bent her head and covered her eyes. Her husband came out and for a long time sat beside her speechless.

A huge green bottle fly was sitting on the window glass right behind the bed, staring at what used to be Budiakov's face. It was rubbing its front legs together. Its body, shot with vibrant green, was glowing in the rays of the morning sun.

***

In the regional centre of K., life was passing the way it was, slowly and softly. People were born and died, had weddings and funerals, went to the market and church, and there was no way to change the usual flow of things. And surely Oleg Ivanovich Budiakov was not the person of that importance to be granted the right to change something with his death, as he did not even change anything with his life. The unwritten rules of the regional centre of K. were sacred and always followed. There were several of them, like the market did not work after three in the afternoon; the hairdressers did not provide their service to people who did not wash their hair before coming; the chicken was not considered to be meat; and the funerals did not take place on the weekends and official holidays.

Unfortunately Budiakov did not die on the right day to be buried fast, but to his great luck he was found by Tamara Pavlovna. And that fact was significantly making his chances of being buried higher than if he was found by someone else or was not found at all. The moral values of the woman who did not miss any Sunday divine service in the church in her life could not let her leave Budiakov get rotten in the burrow where he lived his whole life. She was more for making him get rotten underground, as is right and proper, heartening daffodils or tulips, or in Budiakov's case, artificial flowers.

Prior to the day of the funeral, Tamara Pavlovna, who had vast experience in burying people, carefully examined Budiakov's house and by the sink she found the plastic cup with 28 rubles. The money was enough for a plain coffin made of pinewood upholstered in fabric and a small funeral wreath, which said 'from friends and customers' though there were no costumers coming to the funeral but Tamara Pavlovna, and no friends at all.

In a year or so after the burying, Tamara Pavlovna bought him a cheap grey gravestone with carved letters colored with gold, giving the name to his tomb.

The abandoned house opposite the market was gathering the legends and dust standing as a dark cave facing the wooden cabin with an old sun-bleached table saying 'Closed, please come tomorrow'.

THE END


Copyright 2020, Yuliia Vereta

Bio: I am a writer from Ukraine, traveling the world and getting inspiration from other cultures to write short stories, poetry, creative non-fiction and whatever else that can comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted.

My other works were published in print and online in 2019 in Litro Magazine (UK), Genre: urban arts (USA), Penultimate Peanut Magazine (USA), the Voices Project and the Book Smuggler's Den. I have received the 2018 City of Rockingham Short Story Award for Short Fiction (Australia) and became the finalist in 2019 Poetry Matters Project (USA) as well as 2019 Hessler Poetry Contest (USA).

E-mail: Yuliia Vereta

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