The Gates of Osiris

*

I had been living for three years in the city of N. when a strange thing happened to me. After a slightly troubling event (a trifle, really) I was afraid to leave home for three days. It seemed to me that something terrifying was waiting for me in the street, something that I could neither give a name to, nor imagine, nor could I even fully believe in the reality of such danger. Yet, for three days, I could not overcome my paralyzing fear and leave the apartment.

When–finally–the paroxysm of horror had passed and I was able to get out and buy some milk, I decided that my problem lay in having too much free time. If I could just fill all my idle hours after work with such density that imaginary fears could not seep in, I would never again have to stay at home for such a ridiculous reason. I set two goals for myself: to find a man and to start volunteering on the weekends, maybe in a soup kitchen for the homeless or in a social club for people with disabilities.

Both desires were fulfilled in one day, coinciding and leaving behind intricate traces, as if providence had joined them on purpose. But I know that the coincidence was truly coincidental; and the fact that both activities lasted for only one day simply testifies to my inability to do something solid or respectable in some way.

 

I do not believe that space aliens built the pyramids of Egypt. Mark, however, believed it. He asked whether I had seen the A&E special about pyramids and space aliens while I was trying to decide from the fifteen flavors of ice cream in his ice cream parlor. Get the strawberry, Mark suggested. I dislike berries in all forms but went along with him. Mark said that my ice cream was on him and handed me a card with his phone number when I was leaving. Our conversation about space aliens was a good pretext to call him the next day and offer to lend him a book written by an archaeologist who argued that the Egyptians built the pyramids with the help of ropes and wooden carts similar to sleds. Mark was delighted. He had the day off, he said. He suggested we go to the sea.

I liked Mark because he was built like a bull, with his big head, a thick neck, and broad shoulders. But had I known that I would have to wait for him forty minutes in the stuffy eatery where we had agreed to meet, and that my calls to his cell would keep being answered with “coming!”, “leaving in 2″, “there in ten min”–and, in the end, asking me to meet him “at the water’s edge, opposite the third bench to the right of the pier”–I would have stayed home. But I was already there (I’d taken a bus to Old Town, then waited twenty minutes to catch another bus to the beach); and so, after suffocating for almost an hour in the cafe, I was relieved to leave and to run to the beach where Mark was waiting on a bright blue towel.

When I came over and took off my clothes he rolled onto his stomach so that I wouldn’t notice his erection. I was wearing my favorite bikini, the one I never got wet. He wore a red speedo. I offered to put some sunblock on his back. I’ve got to get out of here by five, I said, because after five I have to go visit someone who’s about to die.

 

Two weeks before, I had joined a group of hospice volunteers. The volunteers were recruited to spend time with the dying, to talk to them or to hold their hand, in case they had no family or if their relatives were overwhelmed. Before we could gain access to the dying, we had to take a two-day course. The course began at half past seven in the morning. I was still half-asleep as I walked to the hospice along a ravine whose edges were overgrown with dry bushes. A path lined with colored tiles led past a flowerbed to a glass door that opened into a hallway. The hallway absorbed the sound of footsteps into its thick, soft carpet and led to an assembly hall. In the hall there were desks, chairs and and a table with coffee and biscuits prepared for us.

A balding, melancholy hospice employee told us about the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) and how best to listen to people: it is good to nod and repeat their words, he said, but it is bad to yawn and roll your eyes. Since we were only beginners (he said), none of us would be allowed to stay with the patient at the very moment of death (this was disappointing). Additionally, we would visit them not in the hospice building itself but at home, because most of the patients were registered for home care.

A few days after completing the course I got a call from the hospice offering me an assignment with a home care patient in my neighborhood. I agreed: but I had not known then that the day of my first volunteer assignment would coincide with my date with Mark on the beach.

My arms around his bull’s neck on the hot sand, I thought about calling the hospice and excusing myself from the home visit. I would pretend to be sick. But then I decided not to do it: I’d been waiting to meet the dying for more than a week and at this rate I might not have such a opportunity again soon. Mark walked me to the bus and asked if I’d like to go out for a drink after my assignment. He promised that I was going to love his favorite bar. Nobody but happy people there, he said.

 

I remember talking about death with my father three times when I was a child; each time I was left with a feeling of shame for my own stupidity. Once we were talking about suicide. I said that one would have to be a fool to commit suicide. My father said that sometimes death was preferable to life, and if my mind was not mature enough to understand such complex matters, I’d better shut up and stop calling people fools. On another occasion, after reading the story of Christ’s resurrection, I proclaimed that no one in his right mind would prefer atheism to religion, because any belief in an afterlife was certainly better than the absence of all hope. My father said that it was still possible to live a life without any faith in the afterlife: to live one’s life as if attending a tragic spectacle. Maybe he even said “high tragedy.” In his eyes, life without faith was more beautiful and precious than the hopeful life of the faithful. And the third time we spoke? There was no third time. My father’s last statement was his death. His dead face was so unrecognizable that I felt somebody else was being buried. And for many years I kept dreaming that he was still alive and resentful of the fact that I, mistakenly thinking him dead, hadn’t called him (once again, in my dream, I was ashamed of how stupid I was).

 

The gentleman who let me into the dying man’s apartment circled the room on his slender dancer’s legs and shouted: Dad, the girl is here! Then he got embarrassed because he forgot my name (people often forget my name). He was about sixty: that evening he’d wanted to go ballroom dancing and asked the hospice for a volunteer to babysit his centenarian parent. The old man himself appeared in an electric wheelchair with a broad smile on his face. The son went on: Dad’s eyesight is bad and he’s hard of hearing, so I have to scream. You know how to scream, don’t you? But his mind is sharper than that of any young whippersnapper, right, Dad? The old man nodded, still smiling.

With his son gone, the old man told me that he had served in the army, had visited a number of countries, had been in love twice: once with his late wife, another time three years ago (alas, without reciprocity) with a neighbor. He said that he was writing a philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and asked if I wanted to hear it. Of course, I encouraged him. He wheeled himself into another room and returned with a stack of paper. The sheets had been written on a typewriter, not a computer, and I thought that he might be the last person in this city to still use a typewriter. The old man smiled at me again (there was something cunning in his eyes), cleared his throat and began to read. He held the paper very close to the thick lenses of his glasses and read that, “tortured by the sense of his cosmic loneliness,” a man frantically begins to search for meaning in the universe. And then, the more he understands it, the more he loves it. To love is to understand, to understand is to love. I asked if I could write down these words to memorize them. He agreed. He was delighted, actually. We drank tea, I told him (lies) about myself, he nodded.

Then he apologized and said he wanted to take a nap in the next room. He left a trail in the carpet as he wheeled himself out. Left alone, I reread the words that I had liked so much half an hour ago, and I thought that in the logical chain there was a link missing: namely, why does understanding necessarily lead to love? Why to love and not, say, to indifference?

 

The promised bar was more like a sink of iniquity (men with tattoos, women with gold teeth, raucous laughter, eyes down every shirt). Mark asked how my meeting with the dying man had gone. I said he’d turned out not to be dying, but quite a cheerful old man, though he was in a wheelchair. I admire your big heart, Mark said. It’s not my big heart, it’s just curiosity, I said. Will you go again, he asked. If they want me to, yes. But in fact I did not want to sit with the dying anymore; I wanted to ride with Mark in a white car through the night city, to hang out in bars, to kiss.

I beat him at pool. He bought me a gin-and-tonic, and I told him about the day when I realized that I would never be happy again (I was sitting in the park under the oldest tree in the city, with a whodunit in one hand and a sandwich in the other, there was a wild pigeon calling in the branches as tourists took photos of each other in front of the tree; and, putting down the book and the sandwich, I realized that my life would never get better; and that if I was not happy then–I was, in fact, absolutely miserable–I would never become any happier). Mark said it was probably just a transient fit of the blues, and that life would still bring a lot of happy moments. I repeated his words: yes, life will still bring a lot of happy moments.

He drove me back to my house at three in the morning. I said: look, dawn is breaking. No, silly, that’s not the dawn, it’s just a lot of lights in the city center, so it looks like the sun is rising there, explained Mark as he sneaked a peek at his phone. I felt that he was a bit impatient for me to get out of his car; that he was in a hurry to get to some place where I wasn’t invited. But I may have just imagined it.

 

Eventually the hospice went bankrupt and closed (the insurance company asked it to pay back the money spent on those who were supposedly dying, yet kept on living and living, for decades). There was some talk about forged documents, although it wasn’t clear who could have possibly profited.

A few years later I passed the building where I had attended the volunteer course.

The windows were nailed shut, but the blue and yellow flowers on the neat flowerbed still bloomed, the ceramic tiles on the path shone, and the heavy lock on the fence gate looked new: there was no rust on it.

 

That night after Mark had left and I had gone up to my apartment, I thought that I was falling in love with him (with his bull’s neck, his broad shoulders, his thick fingers pressing the steering wheel, his drawl, his ridiculous speedo, his sweater, his favorite bar and the ice-cream parlor, the achievement of his enterprising mind). Then the next morning I woke up sober from that love as if waking up with a hangover. Mark was an average guy, a bit ludicrous. We went out a few more times; he seemed average, and I was average in his eyes: soon we forgot each other.

But I remember playing pool with him, and drinking gin-and-tonic, and how that morning on the beach I did not want to leave him in order to go to the dying man, and how that night I kept thinking about Mark and loving every cell of his body, every word that fell from his lips. What was that? A sudden insight into the essence of things, an understanding that had led to love, if one can believe the old man and his typewritten pages? Or could it have been just the fear of death that forces our thoughts to cling to anything that hasn’t yet disappeared: to the pattern on the carpet, to a ceramic tile, to the white scar on a man’s chest, to the dawn of the electric light on the horizon?

Bios

Maria Rybakova

Maria Rybakova is a Russian writer. Her most recent novel, Chernovik cheloveka (A Draft of a Human Being), inspired by the life of the Soviet child prodigy Nika Turbina, is longlisted for this year’s Russian Booker Prize. Elena Dimov’s English translation of Rybakova’s novel-in-verse Gnedich, excerpts of which were published in InTranslation in August 2012, was published in 2015 by Glagoslav Publications (UK). Maria Rybakova is currently teaching in San Diego, California.

Maria Rybakova

InTranslation is pleased to feature Maria Rybakova's translation of her own story, The Gates of Osiris.

Copyright (c) Maria Rybakova, 2015. English translation copyright (c) Maria Rybakova, 2015.