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Summer/Fall 2019

MILLSTONES

 

by Lazar Trubman

 

Months passed since I returned home after spending four long years in the Soviet labor camp in Northern Russia. Behind me were dozens of blood transfusions, dental tortures, and scary talks with a bunch of cardiologists.  I had obtained my so-so bill of health and was waiting patiently for the slow-moving Immigration Office to approve my visa. Once, during this waiting time, as I was sipping coffee at a small table outside the downtown restaurant in Chisinau, where I was attending a conference, someone’s light hand touched my shoulder.

“What are you up to these days, Lazarus? What are you up to?”

I turned around to see the man.

I really didn’t recognize Professor Oliescu when he suddenly stood there in front of me. It wasn’t his voice, but his face; it wasn’t pale – it was utterly different! All I knew was that I knew this face. Some of it could never be changed. His laugh sounded familiar, but it could easily belong to a different man.

He noticed my confusion and asked with the same short laugh: “Don’t you remember me? Yes, yes! I’ve been through their millstones! They can do this to you - them and their newly invented millstones! But you know that, too, don’t you, Lazarus?”

I kept looking at his face, in silence. In reality, it was no longer a face, but two cheek-bones covered in thin skin sticking out like miniature mountain peaks, and muscles that formed an expression, one that reminded me of Professor Oliescu, but the muscles were so weak that they couldn’t hold his laugh for long. That’s why his laugh was short and much too large; it distorted his face; it seemed huge in relation to his eyes, which were set far back into his skull.

“Professor!” I exclaimed and had to stop short not to add: I was told that you were dead! Instead: “Well, well, how the hell are you?”

“I’m great, Lazarus, I’m great!” He put up another short laugh. “It’s spring in Chisinau – what could be better, right?”

I tried to make out why he kept on laughing. I knew him as a serious man, a Professor at the Chisinau State University, but every time he opened his mouth it looked as though he were laughing. To ask seemed impossible.

“I’m better now,” he said. “Those millstones roughed me up quite a bit, but I got lucky.”

He paused, and I had a chance to take another close look at him. Actually, he wasn’t laughing at all, any more than two cheek-bones with thin skin over them is laughing; it just looked like it, and now, at least five minutes later than I should’ve, I apologized for not recognizing him at first.

“You’re not alone, Lazarus, but I’ve gotten used to that.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I feel embarrassed.” I had to leave, and I wanted to tell him that I was supposed to speak at a conference, the real reason for my trip to Chisinau, but he began coughing, suddenly, and couldn’t stop. When he finally did, I saw two bloody spots percolating through his handkerchief.

“Scary, isn’t it?” he said. “But not as scary as a couple of other things I’m hiding under my clothes.”

“We all have our scars to show, I guess,” I said. “Some deeper than others.”

“Don’t we, Lazarus? Scars of the century, aren’t they?”

His skin was like leather or clay, which could crack at any moment, and he had a belly that looked like a small party balloon held up by his thin ribs. His eyes were the only thing unchanged since I last saw him, lovely, but sunken.

I glanced at my wristwatch.

“Why are you suddenly in such a hurry, Lazarus?” he asked with his short deceiving laugh. “How about a drink for the occasion? I’m buying.”

He was a colleague of mine back in the old days at the university, I looked up to him and respected him more than any other professor in the country, but I really had no time for a drink.

“My dear professor,” I said because he was holding me by the arm, “I do have to go: my conference starts in less than an hour.”

“Then some other time, right?” he said, and I knew for sure that this man was really already dead.

“Yes, I should like that,” I said paying for my coffee.

“You know where to find me, don’t you?” he asked. “They gave me back my apartment, those imbeciles, so I can die under a roof – instead of a starry sky.”

Maybe it was a laugh, I thought while checking the street for a taxi, maybe he kept laughing all the time because he was still alive, standing in front of me in downtown Chisinau, despite the rumors that he had cancer of the stomach and had died in the camp.

As luck would have it, a taxi stopped next to us, and a young couple paid and got out. I occupied the back seat, lowered the window and said: “It was nice to see you alive and laughing, professor...”

“We shall meet again, Lazarus,” he interrupted. “I have a lot to tell you, enough for a thick book, and I hope you’re still a good listener.”

“I’m always up for a good story, professor,” I said, “always up for a good story!”

I tried to distinguish the color of his eyes and couldn’t.

“In the meantime, call me,” he said stepping back from the taxi. “It is allowed now.”

I promised and gave the driver a sign to go.

Spring in Chisinau, always surprising, always beautiful…     

We’re damaged goods, I thought cranking up the window, but he was right, we survived, and it’s rubbish that we are dying; we’re just getting awfully tired and more often than not need bypasses, transplants, dentures, and blood transfusions. When none of that helps, when we run out of the last ounce of strength, we move aside. In silence.

“You may take a nap,” the driver interrupted my thinking. “It’s quite a ride.”

“Can you make it in thirty minutes?”

“I promise twenty-five even.”

“You’ll be rewarded,” I said, closed my eyes and went back to the very beginning.

My wife always thought that someday I’d be a big success. I taught literature and linguistics at Alecu Russo State University of Belti, a mid-size city located in the northern part of Moldova, within the historical region of Bessarabia with which the city's own history is closely intertwined, and held seminars on weekends to make some extra money. Then came the Seventies, Brezhnev’s time, deadly like a marsh, when everybody had to make a choice, and mine wasn’t the wisest one.

Despite my reputation as a recluse, I still held regular gatherings in my apartment to entertain close friends and colleagues. The guests enjoyed the wine and the food and didn’t notice that I, who was usually in the center of every discussion, was not talking much. They still had a good time. Only my wife seemed unhappy.

“You used to be witty and cheerful, my love,” she said once. “Now you don’t say a word, as though you’re afraid of your plain language.”

I didn’t deny it. Of course, I could make an effort to be smart and funny, but I had the feeling that I had said it all before, and the things I really wanted to discuss were dangerous and forbidden. Later, when everyone was gone, usually after midnight, I stood at the open window, hands in my pockets, silent. When I at last turned around, my wife was already in bed. 

I was in my late twenties then, healthy and still ambitious.

As months and years went on, we became a couple that no longer had anything to say to one another. We made love occasionally, still with some passion, but with our eyes closed, relieved to be done. I still kissed her in the morning, looking at the same time at the front page of the newspaper, and again in the evening, but in passing, as though forced by necessity.

Time kept going, and I kept teaching Soviet literature in the spirit of socialistic realism. Every day I met plenty of people, killers, and those who ordered the killings: you can’t tell just by looking at them! All sorts of things happened around me, colleagues taken away in the middle of a lecture, neighbors disappearing, close friends who stopped answering their phones or coming to a soccer game, but as soon as I stepped onto the porch of my apartment, I didn’t feel like talking about it.

More than once I thanked God for television.

Little by little, I began changing my opinions about the System, people’s rights, freedom – things I could talk about only in the privacy of my own apartment, to a few very close friends.

In August of 1980, I flew to Moscow and met with my colleagues from the state university. The meeting took place in a dacha some twenty miles from Russia’s capital. We talked about dead friends and the ones who would die in the nearest future; about the need for a printing shop somewhere in Moldavia or Ukraine; preferably in Moldavia. That meeting was dangerous, and it could’ve cost me more than a job or advancement opportunities, but as nothing happened, it looked like everything was fine.

When a month later I was invited by the local KGB office for a chat, it was a shock: KGB? I didn’t know what to think, but this wasn’t an institution I could ignore. In the lobby, I was met by a young lieutenant, who escorted me to a Spartan room – two chairs and a desk – and left, wishing me a nice chat. The wait wasn’t long. A man who soon walked in, greeted me with a smile and occupied the chair across the desk. At least six feet tall, nicely built, he introduced himself as Major Anatoly Orlov. His smile disarmed me. He turned out to be a well-spoken, educated man in his early thirties, polite and a good listener. By the end of our meeting, it became obvious that he knew quite a bit about my work, personal life, hobbies, but talked about it casually. Everything seemed normal, somewhat uneventful.

Checking something in a tiny notepad, which I missed at first, Anatoly assured me that I’d done nothing wrong, and the reason for the invitation was rather prosaic: his department had been informed, recently, that some students from the university I worked for were distributing printouts of BBC’s radio transmissions. All they were missing were the names of those students.

“This is like a mountain off my shoulders, Comrade Major,” I said. “Really.”

“So, you don’t know anyone?”

“None of my own students is capable of such a thing,” I assured. “They’re just not brave enough!”

“That’s all I needed to know,” he said and glanced at his watch. “Look at that: almost noon!”

Then he suggested lunch at the nearby café, and I told myself that to break bread with a KGB Major in a public eatery doesn’t look like a wise idea, as I’d be immediately seen as an informant, but I couldn’t refuse. After all, lunch is lunch, a harmless thing. I ordered a beef-stroganoff, and for the next forty minutes we had a casual chat about nothing. Then we shook hands.

It was a bright sunny day, everyone around me wearing light clothing. My hope, as soon as we parted, was that I would never hear from Major Orlov ever again.

Anatoly called again a month later to request another meeting, this time outside of his chatting room.

“A park perhaps?” I suggested. “There is one right next to the university…”

“I have a better idea,” he interrupted. “The residential complex on Garden Street, right behind the bookstore, apartment 603, at ten o’clock next Tuesday.”

“Next Tuesday?” I asked. “I need to check my schedule…”

“I’ve taken the liberty: your first class doesn’t start until 11:45 a.m.”

“This is not about the BBC transmissions and a bunch of careless students, I gather?”

“Not anymore, my friend: it’ll be much more productive, actually.”

We chatted for another few minutes; then the line went dead. I stood in the hallway, with a silent receiver in my hand, unsure, suddenly, of how to live my life, how to go back into the living-room and for the next two hours entertain my wife and my daughters as if nothing had happened.

The meeting place was a nine-story apartment complex about halfway between the City Court and the KGB building; it had two elevators, but I took the stairs as though afraid of meeting a familiar face. My hands were sweaty; I wiped them with a handkerchief. The building smelled of garlic and fried potatoes, which, for some strange reason, made me feel less tense.

I reached the sixth floor and stopped at the door with a number 603 in the middle. I remembered, suddenly, a quick exchange I had with Anatoly right before he disconnected the line.

“The mill-stones of history never stop,” he said. “That’s why it is very important not to get between them.”

“So, don’t push me.”

“In your case, it’s a bit too late, my friend: your hands were already caught when I got you.”

I realized that it didn’t matter what I did or said. According to Orlov, my hand was already caught. That’s all they needed, a hand, even a finger. Then it was only a matter of time to get my body and mind squeezed between the mill-stones to grind me into a flat, blind, obedient human being. Just one fucking finger! Well, I thought, what’s meant to happen – can’t be escaped.

I pushed the red button.

The door was unlocked by a tall woman of satanic calm and indistinguishable age.

“Lazarus, isn’t it?” she asked, holding the door open.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “Is this…?”

“Please, come in, Lazarus, you’re not lost,” she assured softly, as she accompanied me into the living-room. She walked away without uttering another word.

Anatoly stood next to a wall-to-wall bookshelf with an open book in one hand and an unlit cigar in the other.

“Her name is Iraida Borisovna Borodina,” he said, as though he’d read my mind.. “She’s a retired schoolteacher, likes music and literature, which she understands more than I do. She’s also a great hostess and a widow. She lives by herself…”

“A widow?” I dared to interrupt.

“Please sit down,” said Anatoly, ignoring my question.

And I understood: casual chat time was over.

We were about the same age, Anatoly just a couple of months older, with a typical – milky-buttery – Russian face. A graduate from Leningrad State University, where he studied literature and Russian language, he was recruited by the KGB as soon as he completed his first two years of education. He possessed a practical mind, a good memory, and loved to talk about modern poetry and prose as long as the conversation didn’t veer toward forbidden themes.

“A cigar?” he offered and adroitly cut off the end of the one he had in his hand.

“I actually quit,” I said hurriedly, “about a year ago…”

“I’ll take it as a no, but don’t ever lie to me again!” he interrupted in a slightly raised tone of voice. He pulled a tape recorder out of his breast pocket, and for the next half an hour I listened to my own secret seminars and the discussions I had with my colleagues at that dacha near Moscow. He turned the recorder off and said as if nothing happened: “The purpose of today’s meeting is to offer you a job, to point out the advantages and explain the privileges…”

At that moment, Iraida Borisovna came into the living room with two cups of steaming tea and some sponge cake on a silver tray, placed everything on the table and walked away. In silence.

“Please, help yourself,” said Anatoly. “It’s an herbal green tea from China – very healthy. Does wonders to a man’s sex drive, I’ve been told.”

I tried a piece of cake, took a sip of tea, and asked: “Simply say: you’re offering me to betray my own people?”

“Have another piece of cake, Lazarus,” he offered, ignoring my question, “and some more of this wonderful tea – I’m sure you have never had anything like it in your life. Now, let’s talk seriously: you’re not betraying anybody, not necessarily; at least for now, you’re a Soviet citizen, aren’t you? To defend the interests of your country has never been considered a betrayal. I’m not asking you to kill people…”

“Don’t see any difference!”

“…to poison them, to knock out their teeth. Your name will never appear in any documents or ever be pronounced in the interrogation room. If it makes you feel better, you will never know what happened to them, how they were punished, or if they were punished at all. As far as I see it, you’ll be a ghost, Lazarus, an invisible man. Our organization is interested in men and women of certain qualities, and you possess those qualities. We’re also very interested in a circle of people with whom you have established a lasting relationship. The information about their plans, thoughts, future moves, and the contents of letters that might be channeled to them from around the world, especially from the United States and Israel, are just a few examples of what can be used…”

“So, it’s a risk-free job, isn’t it?”

“Nothing is completely risk-free, professor, even this tasteful herbal tea, but let’s talk about the compensation, yes, yes, the despicable money! Our system is not perfect, and the fact that a college professor doesn’t make enough money to provide a decent life for his wife and kids only proves…”

“I’m actually a college lecturer…”

“Not for long… Any interest in advantages and privileges?”

“Not today, no.”

“Finish your tea, Lazarus!”

“Do I have a choice?”

“To avoid punishment? Not even a slim one, but that would be something to talk about in detail at our next meeting on Monday. Take your time, please. For now, I just want to remind you that everything I’ve said is strictly confidential and not for public discussion.”

“My family?”

“It’s for your own good, my friend, believe me.”

It still seemed like a game, sounded like one. I sat on the other side of the table and looked straight into Anatoly’s eyes, trying to understand why a young man of his abilities would dedicate his one and only life to a system hated by every civilized country? Was it the money, or was it the power to manipulate people’s lives? Was it both?

“I’m a soldier under orders, and I’ve chosen this life,” he answered, reading my mind. “I can do a few things for you if you decide to consider our offer. If not…well, let’s just say that your life and the lives of your close ones will change forever…and not for the better.”

I kept silent.

“Until next Monday then?” he said shaking my hand. “Is it Monday or Tuesday?”

“It’s Monday.”

“Very good.”

I took the elevator this time; didn’t know why, but wanted to meet somebody, an old classmate, maybe, a colleague…Out of the building, I went to the nearby park and played a couple of timed chess games before my first class of the week.

Next Monday I awoke early and took a long shower. I heard my wife talking to my daughters, their usual morning wrangle. To go or not to go? A door slammed, then another: everyone was gone, so it was 7:45 a.m. I had a little over two hours to make a decision, hopefully, the right one. I brushed my teeth. At 8:45 a.m. I was ready. I stood in front of a mirror trying to find any doubts in my tired blue eyes and couldn’t. It was my opportunity, I told myself, to make something out of my miserable life. In a few years, no one would remember. Anatoly was right; time, like a miracle doctor, will erase from people’s memories the good deeds and the bad ones. Anatoly was right: if it’s not I – then it’s someone else, younger, more decisive, more ambitious and braver. Survival is the name of the game.

I finally left the apartment.

The cloudy sky, as usual, freshness in the air, the magic of chlorophyll. I looked around: morning people everywhere, their eyes always down, their grayish faces never smiling – for fear of their reality? I went on foot and soon was at the bookstore. Once inside, I asked for a telephone.           

“Please be quick,” warned the young freckled clerk.

“I will,” I assured her and dialed the number. After a few rings, Iraida Borisovna picked up the receiver. Her flat voice discouraged me: I wasn’t ready to talk to the wife of a war hero. “Anatoly please,” I asked, my mouth suddenly dry.

Whispers on the other end; then: “I’m listening.”

“It’s me,” I said. “I’m not coming.”

“You shouldn’t be calling from a bookstore.”

“I know, sorry.”

“It’s very understandable.”

The clerk began showing obvious signs of impatience.

“Hopefully, we’ll have another lunch someday,” I said: I really didn’t know how to end this conversation.

“I doubt it,” said Anatoly and disconnected the line.

I thanked the clerk and left the bookstore. A huge cloud above the nearby park finally gave birth to light cool rain. I inhaled deeply and began walking down the boulevard, an unknown creature in a gray raincoat whose life had just changed forever.

In a small restaurant, I occupied the stool at the counter and asked for some coffee.

“In a minute,” said the barman.

I closed my eyes and imagined Anatoly’s face, hands, rare anger.

“Your coffee, teacher,” the barman said.

“Thank you, Konstantin.”

“Is your family alright?

“Everybody’s fine, thank you for asking.”

“Well, that’s good. Family is, without doubt, the most important thing in life,” said Konstantin, now rinsing the glasses. “When my Stella died, I thought my life was over, but then again…”

I nodded and sipped my coffee. Surprisingly enough, I felt pretty calm, as if my sudden decision not to see Anatoly again was the only one I could live with. Consequences? Of course! It would be naïve to assume that Anatoly, having all this power, could simply forget about my trip to Moscow, the recordings, and the sudden rejection of his offer.

“Is it too early for a shot of cognac, Konstantin?” I asked.

“Well, it depends…”

“I’ll have one then,” I said.

“Here you go, teacher.”

“I am very sorry about your wife, Konstantin,” I said. “Do you have any kids?”

“All grown up and gone,” said the barman and splashed more cognac in both glasses.

“That’s to my Stella – let the ground be soft to her.”

The drink burned my throat.

“Some fresh coffee, teacher?” asked Konstantin.

“Unfortunately, I have to go,” I said, feeling a little headache suddenly and pulled my wallet out of the chest pocket.

“Please,” Konstantin forestalled my attempt to pay, “it seems that we both needed some hard liquor this morning.”

The rain had stopped while I was inside the restaurant, but it would probably start again in an hour or so. Puddles in the same places. I walked fast, feeling younger, lighter – no longer a robot. The sun fought its way through the clouds, brighter than ever. Ten minutes later I stood on the steps in front of the university, looking around: people here and there, cars, dirty buses; more people than before the rain: freshness pushed them out of their disgusting apartments. Well, I thought, what was done was done, and thank God I never discussed it with my family.

A month passed. On Monday, as soon as we finished watching the late-night movie, my wife was ready to go to bed, and I promised to join her after a quick cigarette.

“Are you alright, honey?” she asked.

“As alright as I can be.”

“I can change that for the better in a heartbeat,” she said touching my hand.

“I’ve no doubts, my love,” I said. “How about a rain-check?”

I really needed to be alone.

“A rain-check it is.” She began walking away, then said without turning around. “Don’t take too many though.”

On the balcony, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of young Feteasca Neagra in the other, I tried to understand why I felt restless all of a sudden. It wasn’t the movie and it wasn’t the food. What, then?

I glanced at my wristwatch: almost midnight.

A black “Volga” attracted my attention because it appeared suddenly and stopped under a streetlight. Three tall men in shiny leather raincoats got out and walked briskly to the entrance of my apartment building.

I finished my wine and put out the cigarette. A few minutes later I heard the impatient ringing of the doorbell, followed by loud knocks.

They came for me.

It’s all in the past now, but not forgotten: an arrest, interrogations, four years in the labor camp. Survival. On December 4th, 1990 I and my family, my wife and our two daughters, boarded the shiny Boeing-747 bound for La Guardia, New York.

And today, 28 years later, I am surrounded by my three grown children and a bunch of grandchildren. I’m breathing the healing air of freedom.

My torturers? I forgave them. God won’t.

 

 

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