In a regional town, an old woman died. Her husband, a retired factory worker of seventy, walked to the telegraph office and sent six identical telegrams to remote places: “Mother died come home father.” He watched with reddened eyes as the aged telegraph worker counted the money, wrote out his receipts laboriously and stamped them with her trembling hand. Her heart, it seemed, had been crushed too. She worked slowly and dejectedly; even the simplest tasks require inner peace.
Back in the house, the father sat at the dinner table, before his wife’s cold feet. He smoked; whispered to himself; watched the lonely life of a little gray bird in its cage; cried from time to time, then grew calm again; wound up his pocket watch; observed the weather in the window that changed from wet, tired snow to rain, to chilly autumnal sun; and waited for his sons.
The next day, the eldest arrived by airplane; the five others took two more days to reach home.
The third son brought with him a daughter, a girl of six, who had never seen her grandfather before.
The old woman had been dead for three days, yet her neat body, emaciated by a long illness, didn’t smell of death. After giving her sons a bountiful, healthy life, she had retained for herself only a tiny frugal frame, which she had sustained—even in its most pitiful form—for as long as she could, in order to love her sons and be proud of them, until she died.
Six tall men, aged between twenty and forty, gathered silently around the coffin. The father, the seventh, and smaller and weaker than even his youngest son, held the girl, who kept her eyes shut from fear of the strange dead woman whose white eyes seemed to watch her from beneath closed lids.
The sons shed infrequent tears, and strained their faces to keep their grief quiet. The father didn’t cry; he’d had his cry earlier, and now watched his progeny with inappropriate joy. Two of the sons had joined the navy and now commanded their own ships. Another worked in a Moscow theater. His third son, who had brought the daughter, was a physicist and a Communist. The youngest was studying to be an agriculturist, and the eldest headed a division at an airplane plant and wore a medal for excellent work. All seven men stood around the dead mother mourning her silently; the sons were hiding their despair, their memories of childhood, of the extinguished happiness of love that had constantly and generously renewed itself in their mother’s heart and that had always, across a thousand miles, found them and made them stronger and bolder. And now she had turned into a corpse. She couldn’t love anyone anymore, but just lay there like an indifferent old stranger.
Each son felt at that moment scared and alone, as though somewhere in a dark meadow, in the window of an old house, a light used to burn, and it illuminated the surrounding night, the flying bugs, the dark blue grass, the clouds of gnats in the air—the entire universe of their childhood—and the doors of that house always remained open for those who had left it, even if none of them chose to return. And now that light was extinguished, and the world it illuminated turned instantly from reality into a memory.
On her deathbed, the old woman had requested a service with a priest, at home. But she had also asked to be buried without one, so that her atheist sons could walk behind her coffin without shame. Her request for the priest wasn’t about her faith so much as it was about her desire to enable her husband—whom she had loved her entire life—to grieve to the sound of praying, with candlelight over her dead face. She didn’t want to part with life without some ritual celebration.
After his children arrived, then, the father went to look for a priest. By dusk he found one: a little, middle-aged man in everyday clothing, with a complexion made rosy by the vegan food he consumed during fasts and eyes energized by petty and practical thoughts. The priest quickly set up slim candles around the coffin, lit the incense, and fell to mumbling from the book. The sons rose to their feet. They felt embarrassed, and stood stiffly in front of the coffin, staring at the floor. The priest mumbled and sang speedily, almost ironically. He kept glancing at the platoon of sons with small, understanding eyes. No one, not even the father, crossed himself, as they all stood silent guard over the service.
Afterward, the father slipped some money into the priest’s palm. The priest then scurried to the door, moving past the row of men who didn’t even look at him. He would have gladly stayed for the wake and chatted about wars and revolutions with these representatives of the new order, which he secretly admired but wasn’t allowed to join. The priest dreamed of performing some heroic action that would allow him to enter the socialist future, and once even wrote a letter to the local airfield requesting to be lifted to a maximum height and then dropped off the plane without an oxygen mask—but received no answer.
When the priest left, the father arranged the beds for his sons in the back room. His granddaughter went to lie on the marital bed, where the dead mother had slept for forty years, alongside the coffin in the front room. He waited until they had settled down in the back, then closed their door, extinguished the lights everywhere, and returned to the bed where his granddaughter already lay sleeping, hidden under the covers.
The old man observed her in the meager light coming from the snow outside, then approached the open coffin, kissed the hands, the forehead, and the lips of his dead wife, and whispered, “You rest now.” He lay down gingerly by the girl’s side and closed his eyes, wanting his aching heart to forget itself. He dozed off; then woke up again. Light was coming from his sons’ room; he could hear laughter and loud conversation. From all the noise the girl began to toss and turn, or maybe she wasn’t asleep but simply afraid to peek from under the blanket, scared by the night and the presence of a dead woman.
The eldest son was expounding on hollow metal propellers in a powerful voice, from which one could sense his properly fixed teeth and deep red throat. The two sailors were telling anecdotes about their stopovers in foreign ports, then bursting into laughter because the father had covered them with the blankets they had used as children. Then the sailor began to wrestle with the actor, as they had done as children, while the youngest egged them on. They overturned a chair and grew quiet momentarily, then remembered that their mother was dead, then that she couldn’t hear the noise, and they became loud again. The brothers all loved one another and enjoyed their reunion. When would all of them meet again—at their father’s funeral? The eldest brother asked the Muscovite to sing some of the good new songs. After the singing, the youngest said something quietly that made everyone else laugh so hard that in the front room the little girl lifted her head from under the blanket and called out in the dark: “Grandpa, Grandpa, are you sleeping?”
“No, I’m just lying here,” the old man coughed out, timidly.
The girl sniffled. The old man stroked her wet face.
“Why are you crying?” he whispered.
“I feel bad for Grandmother. Everyone’s living, laughing, and she’s dead.”
The old man said nothing, just sniffled and coughed. The girl suddenly felt scared. She took a closer look at her grandfather and asked, “And you, why are you crying? I’ve already stopped.”
The old man stroked her little head and whispered, “I’m not. I’m sweating, that’s all.”
The girl sat up next to his pillow. “Are you crying for Grandmother? Don’t: you are old, you’ll die soon, you won’t be crying then.”
“I’ll stop,” the old man promised meekly.
In the back room, the noise suddenly stopped. One of the sons had spoken quietly, and everyone had stopped talking. The same voice spoke again. The old man recognized the voice of the third son, the girl’s father. Until then he had remained silent; he hadn’t laughed or talked. Then he entered, fully dressed. He approached the coffin and lowered himself over the vague outline of his mother’s face that no longer contained any feeling.
It was very late. No one walked or drove in the street. The five brothers didn’t stir in their room. The old man and his granddaughter held their breath and watched their son and father from the bed.
The third son stood up abruptly, grabbed the edge of the coffin for support and suddenly fell to the floor. His head bounced on the floorboards like a detached, strange object. He made no sound, while his daughter screamed.
His brothers rushed into the room and carried him away, to revive him.
Later, when the third son had recovered, his brothers came out of the back room one by one, dressed in their formal suits and uniforms despite the late hour, and began to roam the yard, the dark environs where they had spent their childhood, and there they cried and whispered their laments, as if their dead mother were standing near them and could grieve with them that she had died and caused her children to yearn for her. She would have lived forever so that her children didn’t torment themselves now, missing her, and didn’t expend on her the strength of their hearts and bodies, which she had borne. But she couldn’t bear to stay alive any longer.
In the morning, the six sons lifted the coffin and carried it to be buried. The old man walked behind them, carrying the girl. He had grown used to missing his wife and now felt pride that he, too, would be buried by these powerful men and that it would be no worse than now.
Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers.