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The Second Annual Fiction Issue

A Mother's Farewell

A young man named Oleg was left an orphan when his mother died. All he had left was his older sister, for though his father was still alive, he turned out not to be Oleg's real father. Oleg's real father, as he learned when he started going through his...

Illustration by Stephen Sprott TRANSLATED FROM THE RUSSIAN BY KEITH GESSEN AND ANNA SUMMERS A young man named Oleg was left an orphan when his mother died. All he had left was his older sister, for though his father was still alive, he turned out not to be Oleg’s real father. Oleg’s real father, as he learned when he started going through his mother’s papers after her funeral so he could feel that he knew her better, was some man she met when she was already married. In the papers he found a letter from this man saying that he had a family already and no right to abandon his two children for the sake of some future child he wasn’t even sure was his. The letter had a date on it. Shortly before Oleg was born, in other words, his mother tried to leave his father and marry this other man, meaning that things really were as Oleg’s sister had once hinted, cruelly and vengefully, in the middle of an argument. Oleg kept automatically going through the papers after that and soon found a black folder filled with photographs of his mother in different stages of undress, including total undress. They were staged photos, as if his mother was performing, and even when nude she wore a long scarf. All this came as a great blow to Oleg. He’d heard from his relatives that as a young woman his mother had been known for her beauty, but the photographs showed a woman already in her mid-thirties, in good shape but not very pretty, merely well preserved. After this Oleg, who was sixteen, dropped out of school, dropped out of everything, and for two years, until the day he went off to the army, did nothing, listened to no one, ate what was in the refrigerator, left whenever his father and sister came home, and returned when they were already asleep. He exhausted himself in this way, and his father managed with some difficulty to set up an appointment with a medical commission that would declare the boy a schizophrenic and put him on government subsidies and, most important, keep him out of the army. But just before Oleg was supposed to appear before the commission his father died one night in bed and everything fell apart. Oleg’s sister quickly traded her share of the apartment for a separate apartment of her own, and left Oleg in his room by himself. Soon he was drafted. In the army, Oleg was involved in an incident. He had been placed as a lookout over a mountain path that an escaped prisoner was supposed to be using. This man had been on the loose for a month and had already managed to kill five people, including a girl, and was now about to cross over the only part of the mountain that led away from the prison camps and into the European part of Russia. He wasn’t supposed to pass this way for some time, but the ambush was set up well in advance, three days in advance, because who knew what kind of transport the prisoner might get his hands on, and maybe he’d get there faster? The ambush consisted of Oleg, a sergeant, and three other soldiers; they sat on a large rock, their machine guns beside them, and took turns at the watch. It was during Oleg’s watch that a man appeared on the trail; he looked like the man whose photograph they’d been shown. Oleg shot him, and then it turned out to be the wrong man. He had also been a prisoner once but had served his time and was now returning to Russia—although, it’s true, he didn’t have the proper papers. As for the wanted man, he was soon caught on a nearby trail. Oleg was treated well by the army, they declared him temporarily insane, placed him in a hospital, then discharged him altogether as unfit to serve—and this turned out to be a good deal, since the wife of the man he’d shot kept trying to find the crazy soldier who’d killed her husband when all he’d done was barely step outside their village, the poor man. Oleg returned home. He was almost completely bald now, his teeth had fallen out one after the other, he had nothing to eat, nothing to do, and no education to speak of. But then out of nowhere his older sister appeared, took everything upon herself, got Oleg into a vocational program, cleaned up his room, brought some groceries and some money, even though she wasn’t his full sister and had never shown any love for him before. One night as she was getting ready to go she said offhandedly to Oleg: “You shouldn’t believe what I said that time about our mother, you know. Our father was a very suspicious man, that was all, he was a very difficult person and could have driven anyone insane.” Then she left. As soon as she was gone Oleg took out the suitcase with his mother’s papers. This time all he found was an envelope with photos of her funeral. The folder where the nude photos had been now contained just a sheet of old and crumply black paper, which dissolved into dust as soon as he tried to take it in his hand. Oleg began rifling through the papers. Everywhere he looked were letters from his mother to his father, the father he’d grown up with, speaking of love, of faithfulness, of Oleg’s resemblance to his dad. Oleg cried all night, and the next morning he got up to wait for his sister to tell her about how he’d gone insane when he was sixteen, and seen things that weren’t there, and even killed a man because of it—for the man he’d shot didn’t look at all like the photograph they’d been shown. But his sister never came. She must have forgotten about him, and that was all right because he soon forgot about her, too, he was busy with his own life. He finished the vocational program, then went to college, got married, had kids. And what was funny was that he had dark eyes and hair and his wife also had dark eyes and hair, but both their sons were blue-eyed and blond-haired, just like their grandmother, his mother who’d died. One time his wife suddenly suggested they should visit his mother’s grave. It took a long time to find it: The cemetery was old and the gravestones crowded together, and his mother’s headstone also had a smaller headstone next to it. “That must be my father,” said Oleg, who had not attended his father’s funeral. “No, look,” said his wife, “it’s your sister.” Oleg was horrified—how could he have neglected his sister like this?—and he bent down to read the inscription. It really was his sister. “Except the dates are wrong,” he said. “My sister came to visit me much later than that, after I came home from the army. Remember I told you how she got me back on my feet? She saved my life. I was young, and little things were driving me insane.” “That can’t be,” his wife said. “They never get the dates wrong. When did you come back from the army?” And they began to argue, standing there at the foot of his mother’s unkempt and overgrown grave. The wild grass, which had risen considerably over the summer months, reached to their knees until, at long last, they bent down and started clearing it. THREE STORIES | 1 | = 1199) { echo "2 | "; } if ($limit >= 1200) { echo "3 | "; } ?>