HOW DREAMS DON’T COME TRUE
Fire! Smoke cutting my eyes. The APC is burning. I am burning! Cartridge boxes bursting. Must get out, jump now! I can’t! My legs! My legs are caught! I am burning!!! The pain!!! No!!! Harley! Harley, you fucker!!! Pull me out!!! Can’t stand anymore!!!
I sit bolt upright on the bed. At home. The sheet is wet, I am wet too. I’m drenched in sweat, damn it.
“You’re keeping me awake again. You’re shouting in your sleep.”
It’s my brother. We share a room. He hasn’t had a quiet night since my discharge. Unless you count the nights when I don’t come home. But that isn’t often.
“It’s OK… “
I go to the bathroom, put my head under the tap. I don’t want to sleep any more. I wouldn’t sleep at all if I had the choice. Mum asks why I drink so much. ‘Cause I don’t dream when I collapse drunk, that’s why.
It is cool in the kitchen; the top window is always open. I stand by the window, light a cigarette and look out at the night.
“Good luck, Mucks!”
“Good luck, Den!”
“Hope it all works out for you!”
“Good luck, Den!”
“Good luck… “
Mucks, they called me in the regiment. First it was Mucker, and then they shortened it to Mucks. I was respected in the regiment. For what? Dunno. Maybe because I tried to be… well, to be fair, I suppose… to be reliable… to be… It didn’t always work, but at least I tried. To be human. Not a Rottweiler. Many in our brigade turned into Rotts, real beasts, who didn’t care what they savaged – a wolf, another person, their own puppy. Rotts were respected too – respected because feared. I saw how the faces of the young conscripts changed when they heard Mamai’s voice. Though Mamai isn’t really a bad lad. He has just lost it. He was shell-shocked three times, not badly, but still three damn times. The slightest touch sets him off, like a good motorbike. There was some bullying in our regiment but nothing like what I found when I first joined the brigade. I had done four months by then. And I waltzed my way to the brigade, like a dork. There weren’t many Rotts in our regiment; most of them were in the SpecOps: the Special Operations Group. Their commander was a real Rott.
I got the send off… They gave me a good send off. I remember vaguely how they opened the gates, put a clean towel under my feet. To wipe my feet clean. A daft tradition, really. They took me all together to the bus station, put me on the bus. I remember getting off for a slash in Budennovsk. I was nearly sober by Pyatigorsk. My head was thumping, so I went to the station buffet and had some more vodka. I wasn’t going straight home at the moment. I was going to relatives in Cherkessk first. When I was ready to go home, striking miners in Rostov blocked the railway, knocking their helmets on the rails in protest. So I figured that if I took the train I’d maybe only get home in three months. I wish I could go by train – just like to travel that way. But that would be much too long, so I went and got a ticket for the plane. A silver bird with silver wings.
At the airport in Minvodi I went out in the porch for a smoke. There was a captain there, He said:
“Hello there, rekky.”
“Hello,” I said.
We got chatting. He turned out to be the chief military officer at the airport.
“A quick hundred grams?” he said.
I had four hours till the plane. And after fist hundred grams there was more and more. And much more. So they just had to load me on board, like special cargo. I slept the whole flight. Got out of the plane, walked to the terminal. And as I came out of the terminal, walking to the bus stop, I heard them call me. My father and brother. Holy shot! My brother had grown up so much in two years… I didn’t even recognize him at first.
We went home. Home! Where we all wanted to go, where all our dreams were. Home sweet home. “The wind’ll whistle it behind the barracks; the carrier clanks its tracks: ‘Home! Time to go home!’” What a lovely song. Home…
I wandered around the flat like a lost soul, remembering how I had lived there two years ago. In a past life.
My mother. She smelt the tobacco smoke. I forgot to shut the kitchen door.
“Yeah, mum, can’t sleep.”
“Another bad dream?”
“No, mum, I am fine. Just don’t feel like sleeping. Everything is OK, mum. Go to bed.”
“You’ve been in the army?”
“Yes, here’s my service card.”
“That’s good; we need people with army experience. Where were you?”
I had come about a job. To a private security company. A job as a security guard. I saw the advertisement. The first month I drank non-stop. Then the money ran out. I was ashamed to take money from my parents, but I took it anyway. Not for booze – for cigarettes and other little things. I got about four calls in the month from various police branches – the beat, home and office security. I told them all the same thing – sorry, I have given the Interior Ministry two years and that is enough, I’ll look for something else.
“In the internal troops.”
I didn’t want to go back to college, but mum persuaded me. Objectively, I’m no longer fit to be a student. But she persuaded me, so I re-registered. On an accounting course, for fuck’s sake. I finished two years of the economics faculty and went back to fourth-year accounting. I don’t envy the firm that takes me as accountant.
“A-a-a… Reconnaissance? Special training, hand-to-hand?”
“Yep. Special training and hand-to-hand.”
“Well well well… you were on combat missions as part of a unit…?” He read my service card further. “Meaning… You fought?”
“Sorry, we can’t take you.”
My jaw hit the floor.
“Well… You all come back from there funny in the head, and we handle firearms. Who knows what crazy stuff you might do with a real pistol?”
I looked at this jerk in specs without saying anything. He started to fidget, seemed to feel awkward. I suppose he thought that he was about to get a dose of behavioural inadequacy “from there.” I burst out laughing. I remembered the crazy stuff I did with machine guns. A REAL pistol… as if those machine guns were toys. I slept with my rifle and went to the toilet with it for fucking two years. And he talks about a real pistol, by God! I was bent double, crying with laughter. The jerk must have thought I was having hysterics. What if he tries slapping my face, I thought. The thought bent me even further. I took out a handkerchief and wiped my eyes. The twat offered me a glass of water, meaning ‘drink this you’ll feel better’. I got up, thanked him for our interesting and rewarding conversation, emptied the glass over his neatly combed head, took my documents and left.
“I want to go home! Mucks, do you know how good it is at home? Do you know how they miss me there?”
“I know, Harley, I know it all right. They miss me too.”
Total bullshit. No one missed me. Except family. Civilian life, which I had been dying to get back to for two years, which I thought and dreamt of, turned out real shitty. You haven’t got any money? You haven’t got what it takes. You were in the army? You couldn’t get out of it, you thickhead. You were in the war? You total loser.
There were friends, who were glad to see me back, but we don’t understand each other anymore.
“Tell us, what is war like?”
“Is it frightening?”
“Did you kill anyone?”
“What is that like?”
“Tell us… “
I told them. When I was drinking, when I was half-numb. During one session I told them why it is better to strangle a guard than to cut his throat, and after that the girl I liked stopped seeing me. She just put the phone down and didn’t answer the door. I suppose she didn’t like the physiological details.
Once we were drinking in a student hostel on the edge of town. We went to the neighbouring room for some reason, and the neighbours turned out to be Chechens. I was sitting bare to the waist, drinking vodka, not saying anything. One of the Chechens poured wine in my glass and I threw the glass out of the window. I don’t remember why I didn’t leave. Probably because my friends were there. I suppose that’s why. So I just sat and took it. One of the Chechens pointed to my dog tags – ‘death tickets’, we called them – and said: ‘Next time you come, take it off at the door’. I snapped. They had to drag me out. Good job they did, or I’d have killed him and gone down. For a Chechen.
I switch on the kettle, light another cigarette; remember to close the door this time.
When I got to Cherkessk I went for a walk around the town. I used to go there every summer, until 1994. It is a quiet, green place. It has its charm. You walk down the street lined with apricot trees, plum trees, and mulberry. You can climb up a tree and eat as much as you like.
I was waiting at the stop for a trolleybus. Bang, bang! The diesel backfiring on a lorry. I reacted like one of Pavlov’s dogs – jumped into the bushes straightaway, feeling for my rifle. I was ten seconds feeling for it before I realized how stupid I looked. There were several people at the stop, all staring at me. I can imagine how it must have looked – a lad is standing there, suddenly he jumps in the bushes, like he is having a fit, and peeps out at them. I got up, dusted my trousers, put on an indifferent look, as if I had done it on purpose. I didn’t get on the trolleybus, I walked instead. My ears must have been glowing red.
Later, in my hometown I was walking in the park with a girl. The one who didn’t like hearing about knobbling guards, as I learnt later. She didn’t understand why I suddenly stopped, said to her ‘Freeze!’ – stood like that a few seconds, then laughed and walked on. I didn’t explain: I had taken a rusty bit of metal with wires coming out for a booby trap.
At least dogs like me. And I like them. The more I get to know about people, the more I like dogs. I don’t like people, at all. People in general. With very few exceptions. I can’t like people who say to me: “You couldn’t get out of the army? You must be poor, and if you are poor you are dumb.” I can’t like people who say to me: “You are still young and wet behind the years. When you been around as long as me… “I can’t like people who eat in expensive restaurants every day. Even if it is only me being envious, even if I am told that they earn their money honestly. All the same I can’t like them. I can’t like people who can hit a dog. I can’t like people with empty eyes.
I won’t die young, I know that. Because it’s too late for me to die young. I am not young any more. “We’re twenty seven, and you can’t wash our souls clean with vodka or water” as Crematorium sing. I haven’t even got to twenty five, when my passport photo had to be replaced. But I am not young any more. I don’t say that to anyone ‘cause they would laugh. I don’t like people who laugh at me. And I don’t like people who feel sorry for me.
I don’t like myself either.
But, please, no pity. Leave yourself a chance.
©Copyright by Denis Boutov
Translated by Ben Hooson