Today I remembered Yevtushenko’s poetry. It was a grey, wintry day. Still with cold and empty. Like death. The thought of death brought me to Yevtushenko who once wrote: ‘In any man who dies there dies with him, his first snow and kiss and fight. Not people die but worlds die in them.’
It was those words my long-lost friend and I shared when we first read Yevtushenko …that was so long ago that it seems like a different life, life that never was mine. But it was mine. When I touch my face now – it is the same face he used to touch. That much I know.
We were so young that all our snows were first. We grew up together, went to University together … we read poetry and held feverish discussions until down. We wrote for the same papers. He was a brilliant young man … eyes of a dreamer and a mind of an inquisitor. We were each other’s best friend.
We never get to grow old and become quarrelsome and bored with each other. We never get to have fights over such ordinary things as being late for dinner, or seeing somebody else.
He put his hand up and went to war. Voluntarily. For a cause. He wrote me a letter. To explain few things as he put it. They found it in the breast pocket of his uniform … and they handed it to me before they covered his coffin with the new national flag. One coffin in a raw of many.
I took it with me across the world. It is all I have of him. And one photo taken while we were still at school.
I now know that, despite Yevtushenko, worlds did not die in my friend … his world was not even build in him yet … but my world died with him … and our first snow, and kiss and fight.
The short story below has been written and edited in memory of us. It is based on a true event.
The Poetry Class
Winter came early that year. Gravel was crisp beneath my steps and small white clouds formed in my breath. I slung the school-bag over my shoulder and closed the entrance gate carefully behind me. It squealed on its rusty hinges.
A few doors down the empty street there was a small ray of light flickering behind the lace curtain. The house was simple; two dreamy front windows, a rough entrance door made from the second grade timber, and a water pump with its long iron handle looking sleepily over some rose bushes planted close to the front gate. There was a small orchard behind the house and an overgrown vegetable patch next to it. The pale yellow house looked tired in the gray light of the early morning. My best friend Marko lived here.
Marko and I were best friends ever since that first summer when he walked across the street and asked me what I was doing lying on my stomach in the wet grass next to my grandparents’ water pump. ‘Looking for snails’ I said. He asked if he could look for snails with me. I said yes. He lay on his stomach next to me and fixed his gaze on the grass. We were six. We did not find any snails that afternoon but we kept looking through many lazy summer afternoons. Later when summers stretched only as far as school holidays, we would run together through our neighbours’ corn fields, across to the gypsies’ land to roast corn combs over the open fire until they blackened and milky juice squirted out. Sometimes we would sit under the big apple tree his father planted behind the tool shed and talk. Marko’s father was a truck driver with large hands and pointy moustaches that would curl upwards when he smiled. His smiles were as broad as the smell of the cheap plum-brandy in them. In the early dusk all our dreams glittered like jewels. I remember him leaning against the apple tree and telling me about the big open stages where he would play guitar one day until his fingers are numb and his heart is full. He wished for his mother to see him then. His mother dressed in a factory issued uniform, and hiding the fresh bruises under her large, still eyes. He promised to take me with him. With my face buried under his arm, I was certain we were already there.
Like my grandparents and others on our street, Marko’s parents left their village and came to the city lulled by the promise of a better life. After the war, Tito’s partisans exchanged the arms for shovels to build cities of steel, fierce and determine. Strong hands were needed, and many traded open fields for the dreams made of steel. They came in droves nestling in distant outskirts of the old city. They built makeshift dwellings and went to work in factories that made guns or cars or furniture. Women planted gardens and hung out white linen sheets on dry sunny mornings. In late summer the street would shimmer with multicoloured rugs, the smell of ripe quinces, and the sound of long, slow songs.
Marko’s and my primary school class was bursting with sounds of quick, rapid speech from northern villages or standing still anchored by deep, slow drawl from the mountains. It was a new school built for the children whose voices still carried sounds of the open fields, and named after the war hero. The local party official cut the red ribbon and gave a speech about the revolutionary progress. The new village surrounded the old city. We rarely ventured into the old city. Until high school.
I tucked my hands deeper into my pockets and quickened my step. There was only one bus every half an hour to take us to the city. The high school was in an old building next to the national theatre. It was once a museum and a catholic boarding school before that. There were many narrow corridors and open staircases. The fresh coat of colour covered the paintings of baby Jesus on the ceilings in some classes.
The bus arrived and the warmth of early commuters enclosed me. I could feel my toes again. It was crowded and there was no place to sit. It is a cattle bus Marko would say, for the likes of us; we are nothing but the ammunition for the target, hands for the factories. He reminded me of my grandfather when he spoke like that. And I did not wish to be reminded of my grandfather in the early morning on my bus to the future. I clutched my books and set my jaw with determination to go to this future where rooms are light and warm, and where all you need to know can be learned from books. In that future I saw through the dirty glass of a suburban bus, elegantly dressed people spoke to me kindly. Nobody knew or cared about my absent parents or a grandfather who has not been sober since he lost his war and was forced off his land. All I have to do is just study harder. I was sure of it. I thought every detail out so many times that I could almost feel the warmth of those elegant rooms and hear sounds of eloquent discussions.
This is how it was that morning. I took the earliest bus on purpose. So Marko cannot whisper in my ears and spoil my trip to the future. The first class was poetry. The poetry teacher was a young woman with willowy figure and large moist eyes. She wore soft pastel colours and subtle make up. Her voice was soft and her sentences well formed. I thought her elegant and eloquent. Marko said that she looks through us, as all people from the old city do. They call us newcomers who invaded their city. Kids from city schools imitated our speech and laughed at recess.
I loved poetry. My primary school teacher thought my poems were great and often made me read them to the class. I loved Yesenin and fashioned my poems on his. One such poem was carefully written on the first page of my new poetry notebook. I could not wait to read it. I knew she will ask who wished to volunteer their work. I was ready. But I could not start without Marko and he was late. He must be here to witness my victory, the triumph of knowledge and skill against all odds. Like a revolution.
I was so engrossed in the vision of the teacher complementing my work that I almost missed the moment. She did ask for volunteers. Marko was still not here. I could not wait any longer. My hand went up. The teacher smiled at me and motioned for me to stand up. I did.
My hands were trembling and my whole body was tense. Small beads of perspiration formed just above my upper lip. The poem was titled ‘The Wedding’ and it was full of colours and sounds of the recent wedding celebrated in our street. Street musicians and barefoot gypsy dancers smiled from my poem. I only read the title when the door opened and Marko’s face burst in. He started with the apology, but the teacher placed her long, elegant finger over her mouth and motioned him to sit down. He passed by me standing with my notebook open and I could feel warning me from his eyes. The teacher smiled her small smile again and I continued. The class was frozen in silence.
After the first few lines I sensed motions. I looked up from my notebook. The teacher was resting in her chair, her elegant long legs crossed over and small hands clasped together in her lap. The smile on her face was somewhat larger. A few kids from the first row also smiled. The boy with freckled face turned his head towards me and grinned. Something heavy moved in my stomach.
I continued reading. There was laugh, first subdued, then lauder. I looked up again. The freckled boy’s shoulders were shaking. I looked at the teacher. She had her small hand over her mouth and her eyes were glittering with tears of laughter. The shot of pain went through my body burning in my chest. I could hear the sound of the violin and see the bride’s long black curls cascading over her honey coloured skin. I gasped for breath and clenched my fingers tighter over the page. My voice rose above the laughter and I continued reading. There was a silence again. I read the last verse. The laughter erupted stronger than before. The teacher was no longer hiding her laugh. I was standing with my notebook open as the class was laughing.
Marko took the notebook from my hands and placed it in my bag. He then took my hand and squeezed it tightly in his, leading me out of the class down the narrow staircase and out of the school.