Iím afraid I donít know the precise Hour in which they conceived me, although They conceived me at night, and in vice. Not in virtue - that much I do know. I was not born in pain or in gloom. Nine months is not nine years, I daresay. And I did my first term in the womb, Not in gaol, but itís all much the same. How can I thank you, angels dear. You chanted out the magic word - My parents had the bright idea To up and bring me in this world, In those unblest times long ago - Now something out of folklore tales - When endless columns used to go To serve their endless terms in gaols, Some nabbed right on conception night, And others, earlier even, Yet here we are, we are all right. Me and my gang, thank heaven! Get away, gloomy thoughts, do not tease me! My best verse my best words will set free. For the first time in life, they released me In 1938, by decree1. If I knew who kept me in the cooler, I would pay back the scoundrel, the fiend, Still, I lived, I lived really and truly - In an old Moscow street, at the end. Here, in the next room, there would be A super row - you couldnít snooze. The neighbours there, both he and she, Enjoyed their daily doze of booze. Here, everyone lived modestly, In comfort somewhat dubious: There was just one amenity - One loo to forty cubicles. On walls in winter grew hoar-frost. The kids would be too cold to bawl, And here I learnt how much it cost To make two loose ends meet at all. Air alerts didnít worry the neighbour, Ma made out like she was unafraid, I, a brave healthy three-year-old shaver, Didnít give a good damn for those raids. Not all things from the sky are divine - Folks kept fighting incendiary bombs, So I offered toy buckets of mine To the soldiers of that Front-at-Home. Through shattered roofing shone the sun, The rays kept cutely peering in At Gisya, an old Jewish crone, And Russian peasant Yevdokim. She asks about his sons, "Whatís new?" "Both missing, theyíre telling me. But you - you carry your cross, too. Ah Gisya, weíre one family. Yes, weíre one family - perhaps You feel it all, like Russians feel; Your sons are, guiltless, in the camps, My sons have fallen in the field." I was long out of rompers and diapers, I donít think I was then too much bother. People teased me, and called whipper-snapper. Though I was a kid like any other. Black-out curtains Iíd try to tear down: Germans beaten! Now all fears were gone. Dads and brothers were now back in town, Coming home - sometimes not to their own. A nylon blouse with snakes - nor bad! - Our Auntie Zina these days wore. That was because Volodkaís Dad Returned home with the spoils of war. The spoils of war from Germany, The spoils of war from far Japan - Hail from the Land of Lemony, The fairy Suitcase Land! When I met Father, I said, - "Please, Give me those shoulder straps to wear." And all around, evacuees Were streaming back home in a tear. They looked round and then settled back slowly, Sobered up after vodka and beers. Those who waited in vain, stopped their howling, Those who didnít, just ran out of tears. Vitkaís Dad built the new Underground; When we asked him what for, he replied: "All our staircases somehow lead down, And some tunnels can lead towards light." But Vitka did not care a straw For his wise Dadís prophetic words. So he went down our corridor And ended up as a jailbird. But he was just that kind of lad, Bound for a bad end - one could tell. Like his Dad said, our staircase led Him straight into a prison cell. Well, fathers have their fine ideas. But we were learning to think, too: Of life, and of lifeís mysteries, We took an independent view. Everywhere, kids were arguing, screaming, Fights broke out amid bloodthirsty yells. In their basements, teenagers were dreaming - Blowing up German tanks, and themselves2. Not a bullet for them - they had missed it What a life, doing time at trade schools; Neither courage nor risk - but they risked it. They made knives out of steel files, the fools. And later someone would get killed - A knife would slide into a lung, All nicotined, up to the hilt - And yet another would die young. The times were hard, all things were tight. The snotty jailbirds did a trade: The Krauts on construction sites Exchanged their hand-made knives for bread. At first they played at petty theft And fooled at cards, them silly mugs, And then the young romantics left Their native gutter to play thugs. An old woman, our Auntie Maria, Never feared either God or her neighbours. When she died, this small-time profiteer, Sheíd gained millions through her shameless labours. Neighbours went without food all about, And she drank in her room on the sly, But one day she dropped dead, just fagged out - Such a lousy and sad way to die. It looked like money was her dope - She got an overdose. Alone with millions, she would mope. And then she croaked, the louse. The people came, and peered, and found An ordinary room, no more. Our worker from the Underground, He felt particularly sore. He pulled the house down, and he swore: "Youíre greenhorns, now, but you take me - What did I fight for, in the war?" Plus words banned in mixed company. There were times when we all lived like herrings, There were times when the prices were lowered, Dams were built, and the builders were buried, Rivers flowed where they ought to have flowed3. Sergeantsí children, the children of majors Ended up in Siberian camps - All because in our house the staircases All led down - there were none leading up.
1 The Decree in question dealt with maternity leaves. Ever in these days, "decree" is often used as a euphemism for pregnancy.
2 A recurrent episode in World War II on the Russian front: in the absence of other defences against tanks, soldiers would tie several hand grenades round their body and throw themselves under a tank. The episode figured in several wartime films.
3 These are all signs of the times - the late 1940s and early 1950s: prices were lowered (after first being raised, but no one seems to remember that), great canals were built (by prison labour), and grandiose plans were made for the "transformation of nature", heller known as "ecological disaster" at present.
© Sergei Roy. Translation, 1990