class-teacher, Comrade Professor Mikhail Mikhailov, says in Amerika they have
one hundred and seventy three flavours of ice cream and three hundred and
seventy six different models of motor car. While, here, in the Union of
Socialist Republics we have five types of motor car. All black. And ice-cream
is ice-cream flavoured, or chocolate.
All the same, in Kapitalist USA they
despise other peoples, especially the black man, and their movies are always
about being richer than your neighbours, kissing showgirls and killing
foreigners. Even the comedies. While here in the Motherland, we have
Comradeship, Justice-For-All, Freedom-in-One-Country, and the other fine thing.
The one that begins with an 's' and ends with an 'ism'. Besides the thingy that
ends with an 'ology'. Even for the Chechens and Azerbaijanis. And sometimes
Gypsies. For Jews too. So I know which is the place for money to prosper, and
which is the better place for people.
me Yuri. But I am also known as Yuri,
nine-fingers,Yuri, the Confessor,
or Yuri, The Deathless. Yet my full,
formal title is Yuri Romanovich Zipit.
am twelve-and-a-half years old and I live in the staff apartments, in The
Kapital Zoo, facing the sea-lion's pool, behind the bison's’ paddock, next to
the Elephant enclosure and I like to play the piano but I am no Sergei
Rachmaninoff because my right arm is crooked and stiff, so I mostly play
one-handed pieces, such as are written for the army of one-armed veterans, who
sacrificed a limb for the Motherland, fighting in the Great Patriotic War.
am in the Junior-Pioneers Under-Thirteen's Football Team, but I am no Lev
Yashin. Mostly, I play fourth reserve, because of my limping legs, which stop
me running, so I get to carry the water bottles. I am good at biology but I am
no Ivan Pavlov.
I am damaged. But only in my body.
And mind. Not in my spirit, which is strong and unbroken.
I was six-and-one-quarter years old I cross paths with worst luck. A milk-truck
smacks me from behind while I am crossing Yermilova Street. It sends me
tumbling somersaults through the air before bringing me down to earth, head
first on the cobbles. Then a tram comes along, and runs me over, behind my
Things like this leave a lasting
Papa always encourages me to make the most of my misfortunities. He says 'Every
wall has a door.' and 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.'
whenever you complain to him, about anything - like injustice, weevils in porridge,
getting punched on the nose at school, a broken leg, or losing 50 kopecks - he
says 'Well, count yourself lucky. There are worse things in life.'
as it turns out, he's three-quarters right. And, in time, all the bits of my
head joined back together. Open wounds healed. Bones set. My legs mended, most
parts. But there are some breaks in my brain, mostly in my thinking departments,
and without any clear memories of whatever came before.
have some holes in my memory still. Sometimes I choose the wrong words. Or I
can’t find the right one, and lay my hands on the real meanings. Facts fly out
of my windows. My feelings can curdle like sour milk. Sense gets knotted. Then
it's hard to untangle my knowledge. I don’t concentrate easily.
times I cry for no good reason. Except I am throbbing with sadness. Sometimes,
I go dizzy and fall over. Then there are flashes of brilliant light - orange,
gold and purple - and odd, nasty smells - like singed hair, pickled herring,
carbolic, armpits and rotting lemons. Then I lose consciousness. They tell me I
thrash about on the ground. And dribble frothy saliva. And ooze yellow snot
through my nose. This is when I am having a fit. Afterwards I can’t remember
any of it. But I have new bruises, which is a good thing, because it is my
body’s way to remember for me what my brain has forgotten. Maybe I need to
change my trousers, as a matter of urgency.
I am sometimes slow and forgetful. Except in recreations and games - like
battleships, hang-the-fascist, chess and draughts - where I excel, because then
everything I need to know lies seen, and open, there in front of me. So I can
just play the game, without having to remember what happened on Thursday
morning, how many sides on a dodecahedron, how to spell coccyx, or the Kapital of Uzbekistan.
overall, Papa tells me, the fool in me is finely balanced by my cleverness. And
he calls me a pochemuchka. A child
who asks too many questions. Without a brake on his mouth.
I have another problem. It's the unfortunate look of my face.
keep staring at it. My face. And then start seeing things. That just aren't
gaze at me. They stare like an animal caught in headlights. Then they break
into a smile. Then I smile back. Before you know it we're talking. And, by
then, we're lost. It's too late.
says folk can't help it. They see sympathy in my features. They find kindness
in my eyes. They read friendliness in the split of my smiling mouth.
what? They think I care about them. Even though they're total, absolute,
hundred-percent strangers. They think they know me. From somewhere. But they
can't remember where.
says my appearance is a fraud and a bare-faced liar. He says that - although I
am a good child in many ways, and kind enough - I am not half as good as my
says my face is one of quirks of inheritance by which two ordinary parents can mix to
produce something extreme and striking. You see it too, with moths, orchids and
He says my face is my very best, prize-winning
quality. He says my smile is easy and wide. My features are neat and regular.
My gaze is direct but gentle. It lends me a sweet and tender face. The very
kindest face you'd hope to find. A face that seems to love whoever it looks upon.
says it is a face that could have been painted by the Italian artist Sandro
Botticelli, to show an angel on his best behaviour, sucking up to God.
gives me grief, my sympathetic, wide-open, smiling face. Papa says I have a true
genius for needless and reckless involvement in the private affairs of other
he observes I am foolhardy.
that I talk without first thinking.
he always says. 'Idiot child.'
says that when my head hit the cobbles of Yermilova Street, every fragment of
fear got shaken out. Now my Frontal Lobes are empty, he says. My common sense went
next. Closely followed by my tact, and then my inhibitions.
course, there's a name for my condition. I suffer from impulsivity brought on by
cerebral trauma. Which is a way of saying I talk a lot, and move a lot, and
ask a lot of questions, and make up my mind quickly, and do things on the spur
of the moment, and find new solutions to things, and say rude things without
thinking, and interrupt people to tell them when they've got things wrong, and
blurt things out, and change my mind, and make strange animal noises, and show
lots of feelings, and get impatient, and act unexpectedly. All of which makes
me like other people. But more so.
I make friends easily. With people and with animals. I enjoy talking. To
anyone, more or less. And to meeting new animals. Especially new species who I
have never had the fortune to converse with before.
like to help. Even strangers. After all, we are all chums and Comrades, put in
this life to help each other, and rub along together.
In particular, I provoke whatever
you call it when people-tell-you-too-much-about-themselves,
even-though-it-is-secret-and-shameful, concerning-things-that-you-never wanted-or-expected-to-hear,
and-are-probably-best-kept-secret, unspoken, for-all-concerned.
a confidence, but even worse.
magnet attracts iron-filings. I attract confessions. Strongly. From all
only have to show my face in public and total strangers form an orderly line,
like a kvass queue, to spill their secrets into my ears.
Soon, their honesties turn ugly.
am a useless drunk.’ One says.
‘I cheat on my wife, on Thursday afternoons, with Ludmilla, with the squint,
from the paint depot, whose breasts smell of turpentine. As it is happens,
she's my brother's wife...'
‘I killed Igor Villodin. I hacked off his head with a spade...’
‘It was me who stole the postage stamps from the safe in the bicycle-factory
Often they flush with shame.
Sometimes they start sobbing. They pull terrible gurning faces or gesture
wildly with their hands.
I have to say, ‘I am sorry... but you are confusing me with my face. It's much kinder
than me, but it's not to be trusted... Of course, I like you... But I cannot take
on everyone's problems. Not all the time. I have a young life of my own to
I say, 'Don't worry. Things are never so bad as you imagine. Everything
considered... What is done is done. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Every wall has a door. Make the most of your misfortunities. They make you what
you are in life, and different from all other people. This is the only life you
get. You must pick yourself up and move on.’
Aunt Anya says everyone wants to
confess in life, like Raskolnikov
in Crime and Punishment, because they
need to be understood and find forgiveness somewhere.
And since Lenin did away with God, Praise the Lord, may he rest
in peace, they must look elsewhere, and closer to home.
they pick on me.
And I encourage confidences, she says, because
I am a friendly, and my face tells them I possess a gentle kindness that can
forgive them anything.
then that she tells me that she despises Uncle Ivan, because he is a pervert,
of the sickest sort, always trying to kiss her, and putting his hand up her
skirt, to touch her thingammy, demanding rumpty-tumpty, day and night, any room
in the house, and so she wishes he were dead.
But if you ask me to choose my
favourite meal, I would say Polish pork sausage with buttered cabbage and
potatoes fried in goose fat. I admit it. Topped with braised onions on the
side. I should be so lucky. With wild mushrooms in sour cream dressing. And for
desert I would have blueberries with ice-cream. In my dreams.
By choice, I would drink birch juice
or cherry nectar each and every mealtime. My favourite colour is scarlet.
Because it is the colour of excitement, Saturday, revolution, our flag, and
Dynamo Kapital football shirts. My favourite player is The Black Spider,
goalkeeper, Lev Ivanovich Yashin. My name day is November 18th. My special
hobby is studying wild animals. I am a member of the Young Biologist Club of
The Kapital Zoo. My favourite zoo animal is the Brown Bear (Ursus Arctos) and
my favourite rodent is Severtzov's Birch Mouse (Sicista Severtzovi).
Papa is Doctor Roman Alexandrovich Zipit – Professor of Veterinary Science -
who specialises in Cordate Neurology
which is the study of whatever goes wrong inside the brains of animals, so long
as they have a backbone, especially in The Kapital Zoo.
You’ve maybe heard of him or seen
his photograph in The Progressive Journal
of Socialist Neurology. He is well-regarded around The Kapital , in the
mental community and sick-animal-circles. His writings are well known to almost
everyone who closely attends the brains of elephants.
because he is a world famous, respected veterinarian he gets to treat world
famous animals including Count Igor,
The Juggling Tiger in the State Circus, Golden
Glinka the racehorse and Comrade Composer Shostakovich’s fox-terrier Anya.
But I never brag about being the son
of a famous man, because bragging comes before a fall. And Papa’s nothing
special. Not to look at. Not from the outside. Not so you'd notice. So you
would have to unscrew his head and shine a torch into the depths of his
fantastic, huge brain to see what is peculiar about him. And if you met him on
the street you wouldn’t think twice, except to admire his overcoat with the
astrakhan collar. Besides he’s bald with a limp and a stoop, and carries a
musty scent along with a tarry taint of pipe tobacco.
things I am going to tell you are all true. Absolutely, completely, totally true.
for the small things I change. Because I have to. But only events, times, names
these are very complicated and most confidential affairs, and shady events,
leading to dark happenings.
are secrets hiding away in history.
I am trusting to your silence. Also,
I have to protect you.
you own safety.
would harm you to speak of any of this. Because you shouldn't know it. Not any
of it. So best keep quiet as a mouse. And blind as a mole.
Even now, I don’t understand
everything. To grasp it all you would need to speak Georgian like a native,
tell dirty jokes like a Mingrelian secret-policeman, have a reindeer-horn
pocket knife, with one of those special can-opener attachments, be able to
drink two bottles of pepper vodka and still stay sober, be a consultant in
Neurology, and a senior member of the Politburo, with a doctorate in
Things are hidden within other
things, like a nest of wooden dolls. There’s murder, medicine, theatre,
cookery, juggling, skulduggery, impersonation, elephants, fate, within a
whodunit, inside a mystery, wrapped in a tissue of lies, stuffed in a cardboard
box, locked up in the under-stairs cupboard.
events I write about began in 1953, one year ago, in Karasovo, near The
Kapital, when Papa and I get dragged off in the middle of the night to visit
some very important people.
More than important, I'd say.
Scarface Joe, Felix the Juggler, Alexsei the Actor, Lev, Georgy, Nikita,
Nicolai, Matryona the Maid, and shit-face-Erik
don't be fooled too easily. These are not their actual, factual names. It is
dangerous to speak their full, real names. Ditto, real places. And other stuff.
are several titles and personages I cannot even mention – like The Gardener of
Human Happiness, Engineer of Human Souls, First Secretary, Deputy Prime
Minister, Duty Officer, Marshal of the Slavic Union, Pavel the Gatekeeper, and
But spending time with the
un-nameable, top-rank people you quickly get sucked deep into shit, in the
sewer of politics. Forgive my Bulgarian. Before you know it, you are sunk up to
your neck in trouble. Then you are over your head in history.
So let me share the advice Papa gives me -
Don’t slouch. Don't
smile at strangers. People misunderstand. These are grave times. Be warned.
Blow your nose, you're dribbling. Pay close attention. Stop gibbering like a
demented gibbon. Mind your manners. Stay on your guard. Try not to scuff your
shoes when you walk. Brush your teeth, morning and evening. Get an early night
when you can. Keep your head down. Change your underpants. Don’t confide in
strangers. Shut the door, for Pity's sake. Keep your lips sealed. If people ask
you awkward questions, act simple-minded. Go to the lavatory when you can. You
don’t know when the chance will come again. Don’t prattle on like a total
idiot. Above all, don’t mention politics, or voice opinions off the top of your
says the song of our time is silence, and the moral is 'Shhh.'
best not even to state the obvious, or hint at what everyone knows.
are living in an age that hugs silence and befriends the mute.
national anthem has become a breathless hush.
says, if you have to open your mouth, you should make sure that whatever you
say is as bald and plain as a boiled noodle, and has been first approved by a
Central Committee, published in The Daily
Truth, or incorporated into a Five Year Plan. All praise to Comrade
Iron-Man, Man of Steel, Kind Uncle, and Father of Our Nation.
all, you mustn’t make jokes.
not this one –
Question: What has a
thousand legs and eat potatoes?
Answer: A Kapital
that was the very remark that gets Andrei Maximov sent to the work-camps for
eleven years. So it’s not worth telling it. Not in the long run. Just to pass
the time with a stranger on a tram, who then smirks, then arrests you. Because
you never know who you’re talking to. It may be a plain-clothes Colonel in the People's Commissariat for Internal
Affairs. And even walls have ears. Besides hunger is never funny. And it is
malicious to laugh at other people’s misfortunes and you-know-what's.
happened was very dialectical which is not a foreigner's
way of talking but actually a meeting of opposing forces, like two stags
butting heads for one doe. So something has to give. And things can never be
the same again. Papa says that is how history works, particularly Slav history,
where things can just go from bad to worse, and from worse to awful, in the
blink of an eye, and it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep, and enough to eat,
and snow-proof felt boots, although the excitement, cold feet and hunger can
provoke great Socialist music and heroic literature, and Social Realist
painting, by way of compensations. All praise to the Party. All homage to
happens, I love finding new words like
dialectical, epicentral, duodenum, catawampus, egregious, skulduggery,
infinitesimal, and then working them like crazy, maybe for a whole week or
so, until they’ve lost all their shine and gone all lackadaisical and lacklustre.
But, trust me, everything that
follows is as true, inedible and indelible as the scarlet birth-mark on my
right buttock, which Papa says looks the spit of a young Comrade Lenin in
profile, facing leftwards.
When I finally slither out mewling, I've already given Mama hard labor, because she's been cussing and screaming seventeen hours. Then there's a calm until she sees me. Then she starts howling worse. And even though I come by the customary channel, and she feels me struggling out for sure, and we're tied by an umbilical, still she swears I'm not her child and she's not my mother, and what in God's name is going to become of us? On account of my crazy, scary looks, because I just don't present to the eye like a black baby should.
Word spreads round the homestead. Folks gather in huddles, whispering about the strange deliverance. Some say fetch the doctor, and some say the veterinarian's cheaper, but in the end my uncle Nat rouses the Reverend Eugene Spinks for some theology because this baby ain't so much a medical issue as a rude package of life delivered in error to the wrong address, an ugly curse or strange blessing-a secret code written in skin. Besides, doctor is white and charges travel and labor, while the reverend is black and free and always comes willing and wordy whether he's needed or not, with Christ's answer for anything. After he inspects me all round, top and tail, and lets me suck on his finger, Reverend Spinks confers with my mama. He keeps his questions brisk, blunt, and worldly. He leaves no mattress unturned, he asks plenty personal, and he doesn't spare her modesty. Then he hears enough and he turns on his heels.
"Healthy, normal boy," he booms, bounding down the sprung porch steps beaming. "Eight pounds odd. Sound specimen. Praise the Lord."
"How about his looks?" folks ask.
"Happens. As we sow, so shall we reap"-the Reverend smiles-"and Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse. This child comes to answer some purpose. Almighty always got his reasons."
"What's this child come to show us?"
"Can't speak for the Lord exactly," concedes the Reverend Spinks. "But never forget He's got himself an Almighty sense of humor."
Eureka, Mississippi, where I got raised, is God's Own Place to grow cotton and stubborn, hardy trees. Clement Creek cradles the tallest cedars in the state. The nearby town of Briar prides itself as the pine capital of the South.
The folk are knotty and resinous too. They sink deep roots. They can handle heat, dust, and drought. Needles fare better than leaves.
Nowadays there's a Eureka community website. The History page says Eureka has no available history. The Community Information page announces The community has no information to share. The Links page has no links. The Contact Us page gives a box number in Hannibal, Missouri. The Welcome link leads nowhere.
That's Eureka folk. They keep things buttoned up, close to their chests. They can handle progress if it doesn't change things. They welcome any strangers who belong. If you come asking questions, they'll tell as much as they need you to know.
Highway 28 crosses the tracks. To the north are Clement Street and Front Street. They started to build Franklin Boulevard, but it ran out of tarmac and self-belief after thirty yards. To the south is South Clement Street and Back Street. They got most things most people need-a grocery store, three churches (black Baptist, white Baptist, and never-mind-your-color-pass-the-snakes), two diners, a gas station, a sheriff. And if you find yourself in need of a newspaper, tractor tire, haircut, high school, or hospital, you can drive to nearby Briar in less than twenty minutes.
You can see the heat shimmer off the tarmac, hear the rattle of teal, the whining blades at the sawmill, and a bad-transmission Studebaker pickup. You can smell pine resin, sawdust, and hog pens. But the blue sky and cotton horizon look hazy-clear.
Of course they got plenty history-far more than they care to remember or use. Most of it centers round cattle, cotton, and cars. We had some levitations too. Maybe we lie on some fault line of gravity, because we got problems keeping things tidy on the horizon, splitting the ground from the sky. Things sometimes fall upward, and things come down that got no business being up to start. You'll likely think it sounds fanciful. Take it or leave it. You got to experience it firsthand.
But it's the small personal events that stick in the mind. Like the time Lou Carey shoots his Chevy Apache 427 CU automatic outside the Magnolia Diner, once through each headlight, twice through the radiator, and three times through the windshield, and then leaves the corpse to rust and rot by the curbside as a public warning to bad-attitude trucks, which sounds a mean and cranky thing to do, but Eureka folk always got sound reasons, and that's the trouble with history, serving it up cold and stale on the plate, when it needs to be savored fresh and hot.
One month in '57, farmers found their cows gutted or headless in the morning. There'd been buzzing sounds and neon flashes in the night sky. They were awful dazzling lights, of color folks never seen before. Some blamed aliens and some blamed the military. And it was God's own task to recover the loss from the Yankee insurers, who sent down an Italian investigator with an attaché case, homburg hat, horn-rimmed glasses, and a stammer to try get to the bottom of it. But something spooked him into leaving early, after only seven twitchy hours.
There was Elliot Holly, a black kid out of Detroit, who came to stay with kin in Eureka in the summer of '59, but got his neck broke for making repeated personal suggestions to a white girl serving in the grocery store, not knowing the difference between city and small-town manners, black and white.
And it's hard to look at any of the telephone poles down Highway 28 without wondering who's dangled there, besides that boozed-up kid out of Vicksburg who got tossed out of his V-8 Mustang convertible (cherry red, auto, discs, and power hood with pony trim) onto the telephone wires when he drove himself straight into the post of the EUREKA WELCOMES CAREFUL DRIVERS sign at eighty miles an hour.
They got themselves famous sons too-Red McKee, who played tight end for the Dolphins, season '61 through to '63, and Larry Whitters, who played session music in Nashville, backing Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and sundry other immortals from the Hall of Fame.
And they never forget their famous daughter, Angelina Clement, who just happened to be a close, personal childhood friend of mine.