D C Hubbard
Sergei Nikolayevich Rossov picked up the tin can from the sidewalk in front of him and sorted through the kopecks with his freezing fingers. The total was just enough for a borscht with sausage and bread from the fast-food stand across the street. Or for a small bottle of cheap vodka from the liquor store. Both would keep him warm in the coming icy night. But only the second one would help him remember. His choice was made.
By the time Sergei Nikolayevich left the shop, the winter night had long since conquered the city. Moscow’s rush hour traffic crept past him, hissing through the slush on the four-lane boulevard before him. He shivered from the cold and pulled his fur-lined cap down tighter over his ears. From experience he knew that the homeless shelter would be hopelessly overcrowded by this time and wouldn’t take him in. With the bottle he had purchased tucked in his pocket, he turned right toward Gorky Park to find lodging for the night.
The corner of the park where he and other homeless men usually gathered was empty that January night. They were expecting minus twenty degrees, which was, in itself, sufficient motivation to get a spot in the shelter in good time. He shrugged, moaned softly, and continued alone, further into the park. This suited him fine.
The park became all darkness as Sergei Nikolayevich left the main drag with its monuments and other crowd-pleasing attractions. He headed deeper into a wooded area and straight to a stand of dense, leafless shrubs that he crawled under for cover. There was a space in the middle where the snow was packed hard. He wasn’t the first to bunk there. He took a large plastic sheet out of his well-worn backpack and spread it out on the snow. Then he lay down on it and put his backpack under his head as a pillow. He wrapped the rest of the plastic sheet around his body and took the bottle of vodka out of his pocket. With his eyes closed, he heard music start up in his head, as it always did when he was resting. The sound of flutes playing in a minor key. A Mozart requiem. Lacrimosa.
Gradually, the distant din of homeward-bound people quieted until the park was still, and the emptiness of night fell upon Sergei Nikolayevich mercilessly, like the Last Judgement. Or like Soviet justice. For the two were one and the same: threatening and arbitrary.
The first swig of cheap vodka burned hellishly in his throat and he grimaced. The second one was already painless. When the liquid reached his empty stomach, the growling stopped and heat spread through his internal organs. The alcohol initially sharpened his thoughts. Memories flooded in. Pictures from back then.
The music in Sergei Nikolayevich’s head became louder and childlike. He saw Olga with Alyosha, their son. All blond hair and bright blue eyes; he was the image of his mother. Olga was teaching him to play the recorder, because, second only to her love for her family, came her love for music. She wanted her son to love it too. Her maternal patience was endless. Alyosha was only seven years old. Olga would smile, ruffle his hair and correct his wrong notes. They laughed about it together, then he played the traditional children’s song again, from the beginning.
The picture faded, then focused again. Sergei Nikolayevich recalled the day when the death notice arrived. Olga collapsed on the floor. The light in her eyes went out forever. Her flute went silent. Wasn’t it an honor to die in Afghanistan for Mother Russia?
It took all the will that Olga possessed to get up off the floor and return to work at the textile factory. She had meals ready for Sergei Nikolayevich when he came home after his shift at the gasworks. Exactly as she had done before, but now the music was gone. And she, herself, barely touched her dinner.
On his way home early last spring, Sergei Nikolayevich spied the first crocuses poking above ground at dusk. The yellow and purple flowers caused a faint glimmer of hope to rise in his chest. When he opened the door of their apartment, he smelled bean stew. Olga had cooked his dinner; the pot was waiting on the stove. The rest of the dishes were washed and drying next to the sink. He found her in the bathtub lying in warm, blood-red water.
After Sergei Nikolayevich had buried her, he returned to the apartment to get his backpack. The backpack that now served as a pillow. He never crossed the threshold again.
In the meantime, Sergei Nikolayevich had become too warm. He threw off the plastic covers, pulled off his fur-lined hat, loosened his scarf, unbuttoned his anorak. His eyes closed again and he immediately saw and heard Olga and Alyosha playing their flutes. Alyosha, at eighteen, a picture of health and young manhood. He and Olga were playing a cheerful duet, the flute passage from a Mozart concerto. While they played, he looked at his mother with the eyes of love. She returned that look. Then both of them turned their eyes to Sergei, and they shared their love with him.
Sergei Nikolayevich’s breath became shallow, and with a smile playing around his mouth, he gently disappeared into the depths.
* * *
D C Hubbard is an American ex-pat who has lived in Germany for most of her adult life. Deborah started writing late and self-published her debut novel, The Peace Bridge, in 2012. Since then, she has written many short stories in German and has been published in various anthologies in her adopted homeland. She is a student of history, enjoys playing with language(s), and loves telling a good story—especially ones that offer insight into the human condition. http://www.dchubbard-writes.com