Sentenced to Life

For Ekaterina Kalyniuk

November 16, 1916—August 24, 2014

Где смерти больше нет


Смейся, смейся! Я сам смеюсь над собою! Думаю, и не могу вздумать, куда девался ум мой. Она меня не любит.

Laugh, laugh! I laugh at myself too! I cannot imagine how I could have lost my head like that. She doesn‘t even love me.

—Gogol, Christmas Eve

Efoshkin Christmas

He decided.

He made up his mind.

He would do it.

“But who’s this he you talk about?” you may ask. “Why it‘s Vakula Bezoksananiuk”  I‘d reply.

The great grandson of migrants from Kharkov. It‘s a story to tell itself how they found themselves new Australians.

They left during the Great Patriotic War to go to America. Arrived, lived there 3 weeks and wanted to go to Canada. Boat back then was cheapest, but somehow they boarded the wrong one. You can picture their faces when they overheard some Belarusians talking over tea together about the weather in Melbourne.

They loved the city they never meant to go to.

They learned English quite quickly in spite of the best efforts of government approved courses. Whose array of techniques included, as Anna Bezoksananiuk never in her life ever forgot or tired of telling, even during dementia, holding up pictures without in any way indicating what it was they were trying to teach them. An apple. “Well, what? Do you mean the fruit? The colour? What?”

Never mind…

The Bezoksananiuks have been here ever since. Well, kind of. Except when Vakula‘s great grandfather and grandfather had to change their namesChristian and lastto get work.

Never mind again…

Back to Vakula. What does he look like? Brown hair and eyes—white skin and teeth. Broad shoulders, awkward elbows—long fingers, nose and eyelashes. There he is.

But now what was that “it” he had decided and made up his mind that he would do?

Kill himself of course.

It would hurt at first, he guessed, but that would stop. He would be beyond them, above or below—but out of reach above all. They couldn‘t call or text—and he couldn‘t overhear. In a word: bliss enough.

This was his reasoning, and he was on the point—the point was on his wrist, and now the edge is. . .

But why?


Нет, не могу; нет сил больше…Но боже ты мой, отчего она так чертовски хороша? Ее взгляд, и речи, и все, ну вот так и жжет, так и жжет… Нет, невмочь уже пересилить себя! Пора положить конец всему: пропадай душа, пойду утоплюсь в пролубе, и поминай как звали!

No, that‘s the end; I can‘t bear it any longer…But my God, why does she have to be so devilishly pretty? The way she looks at me and speaks and everything, it sets me on fire…No I don‘t even have the strength to pull myself together! It‘s time to finish it all: let my soul go to Hell, I‘m going to drown myself in a hole in the ice, and that will put an end to it all!

Gogol again, Christmas Eve too

Nesterov Girl on the Hill

Girl on the Hill, by Mikhail Nesterov.

There is a girl.

Things had not ended very well.

I am of course mincing my words.

I mean I‘m really putting them through the meat-grinder. The sound of her name makes poor Vakula wish there was a witch who would turn him into a stone on a beach so someone would throw him in the sea!

You know, I love thunderstorms very much. I have the unusual habit of running a bath just when one comes. I lay down staring sideways at the sky through the window. I wait for the lightning—then close my eyes and won‘t open them until I hear the thunder-clap chasing that lightning-bolt.

One comes. Flash! It lights up everything—it must be close. You wait for the walls to shake around you. But all you hear is thunder somewhere far away mumbling something sad…

That is how it was. He chased lightning and she seemed so close. And when he went to throw his arms around her and never let her go—he found himself by himself, somewhere far away from her, mumbling something sad. . .

His heart even up to now is smashed to unswept pieces; as his grandfather‘s cut-throat razor glints above his sky blue veins.


Приведите Вия! ступайте за Вием!раздались слова мертвеца.

Bring Viy! Go and get Viy!— called the corpse.

Gogol, Mirgorod, Viy

Gogol Viy

There is also a creature that lives in the darkest places in the worst nightmares of writers and waitresses and aspiring actresses. Emerging out of that yawning lightlessness: the landlord.

The landlord, as James Joyce says they say, never dies.

He revels in debts and eviction threats. His coming had the same effect on the heart-rates of his tenants as an air-raid siren on the citizens of a city in a time of war.

He walked his halls with an absolutely black pen and an inexhaustible pocket of post-it-notes. With these he dealt out his merciless arithmetic.

The landlord knows the rent owed of all under his power by memory and can work out any additional sum accrued, however recently, on the spot. He even could list off items bought by you with money that didn‘t pay the rent. Bulgakov. Basilur tea. Alphamox 500.

How he knew, I don‘t and Vakula doesn‘t know.

I said all under his power.  That was not literary exaggeration. This is literally so. The landlord only took those who needed the tenancy he had to offer them to the point of no alternative.

You would be insulted. You would be abused. You would have your privacy invaded. And all of this would be accomplished by post-it-note.

You might find one anywhere, with an insult, several curse words, a long lyrical threat and finally a figure for what you needed to pay—since when and by when.

Anywhere. And if Miss Harmand in No. 19 asked how a post-it-note had opened her drawer and stuck itself to her favourite black g-string, to complain to him, to anyone about him—would see you sitting sad on a train speeding supersonically toward disappointed parents.

What does the landlord look like? A big ball with ears, on top of a bigger ball with arms and legs, which spits habitually.

He would find a pot-plant, an open window, some sink, the toilet or rubbish bin. If he was on your balcony he would put it right on some future footprint for you to forget—then remember.

“The rooms are nice though, yes?”‖No, gentle reader. They are not.

There is a bedroom, a bathroom, kitchen to each flat. They‘re all the same size: small. You have all the privacy of a public urinal.

The kitchen comes complete with several hundred cockroaches. The bottom of your cup of tea or mug of coffee is always wet no matter what you do with a mind to prevent it. You get a balcony.

And you should not think that all the hours of a day in the landlord‘s life are taken up by his professional duties. Like we all do, he has a talent.

He is the blackness between the stars for many an online opponent. When he put on his headphones you could see the kind of thing that only ever happened in Ovid‘s head. The landlord metamorphosed into the lord of lands.

All online at that hour, heavy with fate, dreaded the lightning attached to the palms of user testiculatory_archery49 which rained down commands on the keyboard.

Hoy! What an enemy to make. But the landlord hates Vakula so much that he enjoys it.

When he walked into a room Vakula felt like a scratching-post some over-fed cat digs their claws in and out of with obvious relish; sometimes stretching out, legs back, stomach touching the ground, pulling down with all its weight…How the landlord loves to get his paws on our poor Vakula!

The landlord even found out about the girl.

How he knew, I don‘t and Vakula doesn‘t know.

He said such ugly things. He even said that Vakula should introduce them so he could. . .

It has to be said that here Vakula very nearly punched the landlord until his face looked like smashed watermelon. But he breathed in and the memory of how she laughed when they were together calmed him and even made him smile a little to himself. He realized that if any strong emotion was to be assigned to such a person, it wasn‘t anger.

He looked into the landlord‘s eyes and told him: “It must be hard to be so unkind.”

I don‘t know if these words entered into the landlord‘s heart. Actually, the existence of such an organ in the landlord was heatedly debated in the apartment.

One part took up the position “He is human after all. Humans have hearts. Therefore he has a heart.”

The rival opinion took various avenues of argument. The most extreme was that of the girl from Lvov in No. 28. Her aunt taught her to tell the future with a deck of playing cards, told her not to trust trains and to beware because one day she‘d live with a demon.

She never in her life took the train and she is convinced the landlord is the demon. “He is a demon. Demons don‘t have hearts. Therefore the landlord has no heart.”

But enough philosophy…

Enough philosophy. But why not some magic?

I‘ve already mentioned Katya in No. 28 after all. I can‘t say if I believe in it or not, but there‘s something to the cards.

Vakula had her read them for him once. Jack of Diamonds—unexpected news. 10 of Spades—bad news. 6 of Diamonds—separation. Ace of Spades—a bad ending.

That evening she said she didn‘t want to see or speak to him ever again. He never saw it coming. And the cards told him in plain magic it would happen.

I‘ve said enough that you can see now why he didn‘t want to live in this world anymore. Here he is still. Still—not moving except to breathe. Press down and pull hard across, the razor will do the rest…

But eyes looked at him across the room. Eyes that pleaded. Eyes that had saved worse than him and consoled better. Eyes his ancestors had stared into and had fell before and rose because of.

“I can‘t. Not this.”

That old Icon would be the life of him.

We call it Kazanskaya Icon of the Mother of God. It had belonged to his great-grandmother, his grandmother, his mother mother. And there it was.


Kazan Icon of the Mother of God

So, he decided to kill himself then concluded he couldn‘t. A not very usual predicament. But the human ability to resolve a contradiction cannot be over-stated. You just have to play with the words a little.

He couldn‘t kill himself. He wouldn‘t even be given an Orthodox burial. But if he got himself killed?

Doubtlessly there is a difference, and a very great one, he reasoned, between killing yourself and getting yourself killed. Everyone gets themselves killed in one way or another after all.

The cold caught walking home from work in the rain. The butter on your toast every morning causes the heart attack. Ectera. So he knew and would do it a little more knowingly. He would still be as guiltless as everyone who though thoughtlessly did the same thing.

Doubtlessly. There can be no doubt! He continued reasoning, increasingly vehemently to himself.

What if it was a nurse on the frontline like in that film Admiral? And the only way to spur our boys back into battle was the criminal sight of a woman, a nurse, being hit crying “Hurrrah!”

So she runs out, struggling to not fall over her dress, fully intending to be killed—but not, he stressed to himself, to kill herself.

No. No more doubts. The thread of his thought has been sewn into a seamless convincing conclusion.

But how?

A very good question.

So good a question he called in sick to answer it. He spent the day sitting and pacing, pen and paper, drawing up ways he might tease mortality into touching him. He had over 20. The proud look on his face! So much fun he had thinking them up! He could almost continue to live just to keep making up ways to die. Write a book. There‘d be a market…

Tomorrow is Saturday. Saturday is today. He‘s settled on poison, on his own original variation on that theme. Poison administered by a second party—someone who would take no convincing, could never be tried, ever feel regret or remorse. Can‘t do much really other than spin webs, murder flies and procreate.

He goes out to his balcony. Here he thinks about the hard questions.

Like, how can one of a pair of shoes hurt his foot while the other does not? The same shoes, the same size. Was there a minor error in manufacture? Or is his right foot in some way significantly different from his left? Doesn‘t seem so. Mystery.

Or, how can deodorant cause contact dermatitis only in one armpit? Same skin, same stuff applied to both sides—different effects. So much for science!

Between two legs of one chair there lives a spider. It isn‘t always at home, but it is this morning. Latrodectus mactans—murderous biting robber. Its name if you live in the Middle Ages, or work professionally with arachnids at a university or institute. For the rest of us—a redback spider.

He takes his sock off, holds his foot out—the damn defective right one—and lifts the deadly creature onto it. He stands there waiting for the fatality tipped fangs to sink with a sting into his sun-starved foot with the forever hurting heel.

Some seconds disappear noticeably.

He turns the foot side to side, but the pretty drop of poison on eight legs would not bite. It not only does not bite and kindly kill him, it even seems somehow to sympathize. He could almost drink a cold glass of vodka and tell the spider everything. It in its turn would tell him about the perils of walking up a waterspout, how things had gone to Hell since ants moved into the yard and how a relation of theirs had even been robbed and eaten to death.

Vakula wondered seriously whether they could empathize. Did redbacks have one mate for life? He takes out his I-Phone, the old one—the kind that doesn‘t bend in your pocket, and asks Google.

Black widows. . .eat their male mates after their spider-sex is finished.

He still felt this was really relevant. She seemed to cock her many eyes sideways up at him, as if to say “You poor thing! Hard women, the human kind. She could‘ve at least bitten your head off!”

Now that he‘s standing there he checks his Facebook and Gmail. After that the time. 10. It‘s only early. There is all day to die.


Dante Seventh Circle

Dante’s Seventh Circle, reserved those who defiled their souls with violence: for murderers, suicides, and tyrants.

The next he set his heart on to try was to turn himself into a highly original firework show.

He winces as he puts his right shoe on and walks much too quickly onto the landing. So quickly he drops his keys. He stood there feeling vaguely disappointed that they didn‘t make more noise when they hit the floor. Then his ears urged his eyes to look away, at which his hands had the presence of mind to pick up the keys before he could be distracted to the point of forgetting them there.

It is Ahmed from flat 7 and Jimmy from flat 10. A sale is being negotiated.

Dressed as modern as you like but the situation is from a time when people paid in kind. From an Arabian Night where nothing was bought at the price for which it was supposed to be sold. Today it was an I-Pad.

Ahmed is desperately trying to bring Jimmy down $50.

He had tried criticizing the thin piece of over-priced plastic usefulness.

“It‘s been dropped man. Look at this corner!”

Then he acted as though he had somewhere else to go that would give it to him at the wished-for price.

“I‘m asking you because I like you man…”

Ahmed ended by trying to make him feel bad by telling him the sad story about how he has had a hard life since being born a boy in Afghanistan and how, in conclusion, he should sell him the I-Pad for $250.

Jimmy stood as cold and unmoved as marble.

And Jimmy was not his name, by the way. It‘s very strange but true, male migrants from Eastern Europe have a mania for this name.

I knew a Dmitri from Cyprus—he‘s Jimmy now in Australia. Vladimir from Rostov is Jimmy too. Even Yuri from Finland is Jimmy! I knew a Serb with a sense of humour: James. But you can of course call him Jimmy.

The Jimmy proprietor of the third floor was of the Macedonian variety. When Vakula understood what was happening he thought to himself a little, intervened and took Jimmy aside to the entrance of his flat. Jimmy announced turning back that “You‘re not getting $50 off. Not even Vakula‘s face is that pretty.”

The door is closed and Vakula tells him his solution in whispers. He would give him the $50 note out of his own wallet—it‘s tucked behind the prayer-card of Blessed Matronushka he bought in Moscow—to make up the difference. Jimmy would go out and pretend to relent.


As he descended the stairs he reassured himself he could afford that $50. Ahmed was studying engineering, he really did need something like an I-Pad. It would only have bought a book, potatoes and vodka. Vakula had enough of all of these until he was paid next if he used them carefully. Anyway, he would be dead in a few hours.

Who would his money and temporal possessions go to? Doesn‘t matter. Even after selling the books the sum would make a tiny total. Not enough for someone truly in need, not much to anyone who wasn‘t.

Out of his rear-view he saw Jimmy hurrying himself to buy rakia or ajvar or whatever it is Jimmys of the Macedonian variety hurry off to buy when they come into money. Vakula left the apartment car-park and drove in no direction for no reason until he needed petrol.

Pulling into a service station he never once knew to be busy, he waited until it was definitely just him and then quickly and meticulously broke all the rules and warnings as to what not to do while refuelling.

He lit a cigarette.

He doesn‘t smoke. He bought them and the lighter yesterday evening in case the spider wasn‘t there. Menthols, Longbeach. He considered Camels, thought hard over the choice, realized he didn‘t know the difference and that it didn‘t make a difference which. He likes beaches better than camels and so he bought menthols.

He relived the whooping cough he‘d caught last winter in Moscow, but didn‘t get exploded to pieces as he‘d hoped.

So he would use his mobile. Was Wi-Fi enough to cause fiery death at a petrol station? Text someone.

“Hey! Vovka without ice. How are you? You going to Odarka‘s housewarming Sat?”

Still no fire, noise and pieces of him.

A call? Call someone? Top of the contacts list. Alla. Who? Who cares?! O my God she‘s answered!

“Alla, hey…how are you?”

Some girl he sat next to on a bus once. A pretty girl, nice too.

“Yeah, been over-worked…”

Damn it why won‘t he just explode already!

“Tonight? No, sorry. But there is this housewarming Saturday, maybe I could meet you at. . .”

A truth with a lie makes the lie look true.


Знаете ли вы украинскую ночь? О, вы не знаете украинской ночи!

Do you know the Ukrainian night? No, you do not know the Ukrainian night!

Gogol, A Night in May or The Drowned Girl

Ukrainian Steppe at Night Denis Krivoy

Ukraine’s steppe at night, by Denis Krivoy.

“Ridiculous. Pointless. Meaningless. To warn people of no danger. Scare tactics. Anti-smoking bullsh…”

Such were his thoughts as he walked, not far, to the train station after having put his car back.

Do you know the Melbourne public transport? No. You don‘t know the Melbourne public transport!

In Sydney (I disdain to speak of Newcastle as being beneath me) the time-table, so said a bus-driver to me myself once, is a suggested time of arrival and departure. In Melbourne the buses come on time.

The drivers are helpful. There is even an electronic sign that tells you which stop is next for those people just exploring our pretty city. I mean it! Most cities look like some giant‘s kitsch Christmas lights at night. Not our Melbourne!

The trains are so fast they are not to be compared with anything else but rather are such that one should compare the speed of notably fast things with them.

“First place ran like a Melbourne train!”  Like that.

And the stations are lined with ANZ ATMs just begging to give you your money if you have the happy fortune to be an ANZ customer. They live in your world.

Our Vakula is two stops away from where he is going. The sun sleepily nods out of the sky and stars come out to stare, like children giggling at their grandfather falling asleep sitting up.

He gets off. Taps off and stops still to turn around.

On one side of the barrier is an attractive dirty blonde girl with chestnut eyes standing looking like a broken doll. On the other, the same side as him, stands a strangely dressed boy with a thin beard and plastic glasses. His face had I DON‘T KNOW written on it in all capitals.

It is clear what‘s happened. They meant to meet up there but she can‘t get across to him because her Myki has no more credit on it.

Vakula thought about it. Looked at her, looked at plastic glasses, and nearly walked away.

But before he did that he looked back at her again, opened his wallet, looked at Blessed Matronushka—and took out Hiski.

“Here, use mine.”

“Thank you! That‘s so nice of you! You‘re so sweet. Isn‘t that sweet of him?” she chirruped.


Efoshkin Chapel

Painting by Sergei Efoshkin.

As he walked to the bridge above the freeway he thought about where he would haunt.

He reasoned that for what he was about to do he wouldn’t be sent to Hell. But how could he be admitted into Heaven? No. Obviously he‘d be made a ghost.

He wouldn‘t haunt where he died. A freeway is very loud. But scaring and upsetting people by haunting a house is just horrible.

He decided he‘d quietly haunt the Soul Café, would sit where he sat across from her that last night.

It might seem strange that he‘d pick a place that would make him think of her. But he loves her the poor boy. He‘s really hopelessly and helplessly in love with her. He wouldn‘t ever want to forget her, hurt however much it had to.

He lately had the talent of being able to look down, stare straight ahead, walk and make the whole world disappear. He‘s doing it now. So he didn‘t notice the other person standing looking down over the rail until he had reached the point where it would be bizarre not to say something. But what?

Never mind. He spoke to Vakula first.

“How far down is the fall do you think?”

“O my God! He‘s going to too! That‘s so cool. Is he Orthodox? We can exchange Crosses! Then we‘ll be brothers. And we can jump at the same time! Everything is better together; better than being by yourself…”

These were his thoughts at just that moment. What he said was: “I don‘t know. Why do you ask?”

“I know a girl whose sister jumped from here—and lived.”

Vakula, it must sadly be said, considered for a moment asking for more detail. Maybe there was something wrong in her technique that she didn‘t die?

He could almost throw himself off for having thought it.

If you knew the Melbourne public transport, you know the Melbourne weather. Four seasons in a day some times.

When he‘d woken that morning it was like the whole world was holding its breath—nothing moved, not a leaf, not a little girl‘s fringe, except the road apparently when you looked at it stretch out ahead of you.

As he stood there a cool wind moaned and cold raindrops fell. Vakula shivered.

He stood and stared at the cars, don‘t their headlights look just like stars? But he didn‘t stare for very long. . .


Не хилися, явороньку,

Ще ти зелененький;

Не журися, козаченьку,

Ще ти молоденький!

Do not bend, sycamore,

You are still green;

Do not cry, Cossack,

You are still young!

Gogol quoting a Little Russian song, Sorochintsy Fair

Cossack by the Cross

Painting by Dmitri Shmarin.

He‘s back on the third floor now.

He opens his door, deliberately doesn‘t read the post-it-note and lights a match.

He pours the olive-oil he bought on the way back (God knows what he‘ll eat with next week…) into the lamp until the eyes light up in the Icon as good as alive and the gold-gilded background sparkles and a kind glow warms him.

Vakula crosses himself and prays with the words his great grandma taught him when he was a little boy.

And that is where I left him last.