/18 Family

Andrej Krementschouk

No Direction Home

My House

My house. I’m five years old. We’re on the path through the forest that leads to our village, grandfather, grandmother and I. First we would take the train to Kalikino, then the ten-kilometre walk through the woods, across fields, along the peat-hued river Linda. It’s hot. In a clearing on the banks of the river, grandmother spreads out a newspaper: boiled eggs, black bread, pickled gherkins and dragonflies in the hot air. Another half-kilometre and we’ll reach our village, in the middle of a field bulging with wheat. Low grey houses with woodcut eaves and window frames, the roof covered with tar paper. The smell of steam baths and gardens. Remembering, I fight back tears. How to explain all this differently? I can’t. What else is there worth living for? As a child, I was terrified of death. The sound of a funereal brass band in the courtyard, the fir branches laid out on the tarmac, the sky-blue coffins outside the apartments, those wild, bittersweet apples at the wakes. All this filled me with panic, a fear of life itself that would last for weeks. Life, perhaps. Yes life! How we dread losing it. In vain. Then there’s freedom. I’m eleven and bad grades at school is all I have to show for myself. It would be easier to die. I remember my mother once told me, as though sharing a secret, that God exists. At five thirty every day the noise of the lift in our stairwell would grow deafeningly louder: It would come up to the fifth floor and then down again. Third, fourth, fifth, ours. No, up to the seventh after all. Thank God! If You exist, then thank You! The lift comes up and – doesn’t stop at our floor. Anything but the sixth. Thank God! Fear. And then there’s love. Very popular. Sceptics dismiss it as no more than a product of our imagination, a fantasy. Others say that in the name of love many would leave their home, give up their freedom, no longer fear parting with life. I have one or two stories to tell about love, but that was a long time ago. I’ve forgotten everything. Faith. Does it have anything to do with God, or is it simply there to act as a balance against our fears, illnesses, losses and complexes on the other side of the scales? To counter our ambition always to be right and good, the lack of understanding. Of ourselves. I had a friend once who was very religious. His parents were very rich, yet I remember that he even wanted to become a monk. But then there’s sex and wily girls. He was off into the army in a month’s time, to Chechnya. We’re 19, he and his future wife and me, and they’re getting married before his goodbye party. I’m a witness, and in accordance with tradition before the ceremony I must have confession. For the first time in my life. In our church there are no confession boxes. Everyone can hear the priest’s questions and the replies. If you so wish. The priest is young, with a ginger beard. His wife used to teach us painting. It’s my turn. He covers my head with a sleeve of his robes. Reads me the prayer before Communion. His questions – my answers. And then, like a dagger to my heart: »Do you play with yourself, my son?« It seemed to me as though not only all our classmates and my family, who were standing behind me, but half the world had overheard the question. »What?« I ask, startled. »Masturbation. It’s a great sin,« he explains sternly. »Do you indulge in masturbation, my son?« »No,« is my dumbstruck response as I think of those standing behind me, »Of course not.« I lied before God. Why do some things remain in our memory, while others disappear as though they had never been? What broth brews in the cauldron of our memories, what do we hide in there? What herbs and spices does it taste of? What is truth: That which occurs or what we remember and preserve in our memory? I know nothing.