Summer was over. Autumn had come, and study had come. The beginning of classes was marked by a tragic death: one of the younger students of our school was burned in a fire.

He played football with friends, and the ball flew through an open hole into the attic of a summer kitchen. There was a lot of hay and it was gloomy. It was hard to find the ball in the twilight, and the boy did not come up with anything better than to light the place up with matches. Dry hay lit like gunpowder and fire cut off his path to the exit. The boy hid in a corner and began to call for help. Friends ran after the adults, but when they arrived, the roof of the summer kitchen burned almost to ashes and the boy received fatal burns.

Even as an adult, I don’t understand why we were taken to say goodbye to him. The point is not that he studied in another class, lived in a different quarter, and we were not only friends, but we did not even know each other. The thing is the shock that my friends and I experienced when I saw this unfortunate man lying in a coffin, saw his burnt face, which turned red-brick in color, the same hands and eyes closed with five-kopek coins.

He stared at me for a long time; I was afraid of the dark and shied away from the flame, no matter how harmless it was. Whether the wise Anna Sergeyevna achieved the pedagogical effect that she was counting on with the help of this excursion, I do not know, but she dealt a concrete blow to the children’s psyche.

The fire victims were buried and classes at school went on as usual. Either Anna Vasilievna forgot about Mother’s order, or something really happened to me, but in the fourth grade, comments in the diary began to occur much less often. I began to walk more and, accordingly, meet my friends more often.

Foolish Men, a Foolish Woman, and Hunchbacks

There were two humpbacked people in our part of the district. One of them, who seemed mentally retarded and suffered from cerebral palsy, usually sat at home and rarely went out. He lived next door to my grandmother—the mother of my father—and when I was visiting her, I tried to talk to him. I never teased him, I didn’t tease either the mentally ill or the freaks; I somehow felt sorry for them all, probably because I myself was tall and suffered from ridicule from others. In addition to his ailments, my grandmother’s neighbor suffered from a severe form of stuttering; it was extremely difficult to talk with him. Not only did I have to wait a long time while he, throwing his head back, pulled out words from himself, but I also needed to understand what he had said. I had to ask again, and this led to new verbal piles and a loss of time. I was very sorry for him, but communication with him became uninteresting, and I left.

He caused even greater surprise in the future. He managed to get rid of the stuttering, graduate from school, and then enroll in and graduate from college. I came to the conclusion that his retardation in development was the result of the attitude of people towards him. His parents, ordinary workers, did not pay enough attention to the sick child, and how he was able to get out of this “hole” is a mystery for me with seven seals. But he subsequently worked with dignity, bought a Zaporozhets car, and rolled it out, talked to me with pleasure, and only his malleable speech only slightly reminded me of the terrible stuttering which he had once suffered from.

The second hunchback was a very normal person. He worked somewhere and often walked past our house. He was friendly, I greeted him, and he sometimes even greeted me first.

Everything changed after an ugly incident by my friend Alik Sirotenko. Alik’s father, who worked as a driver on a lorry, drove to his parents’ for lunch and parked a car in the yard between the fence of the garden and the sidewalk. The car caused me and my friend delight; we could climb on it as much as we liked, which we certainly did. First, we sat in the cab, taking turns trying to turn the steering wheel and step on the pedals, then Alik got into the back of the truck, and I jumped out of the cab and sat on a small bench near the fence. I didn’t want to get into the body; it was dirty, and my mother would scold me for soiled clothes.

The body was nothing special. Alik quickly got bored, looking for where to jump, and here, the hunchback appeared, to our common misfortune. He greeted us warmly, we answered him, but for some reason, he asked Alik what he was doing in the back of the car. I expected that my friend would explain to him that his father was working on this truck, and Dad came to have dinner with his parents. But Alik instead grabbed a small fragment of a brick and shouted, “Fuck you, get the hell out, you humpbacked fool!” then threw it at the hunchback.

I rarely had to see people quickly become brutal. But this time, everything happened almost instantly. The hunchback’s face filled with blood, took on a wildly fierce expression, and he rushed to the car. I feared getting “under the distribution,” just in case I went into Alka’s yard and began to watch what would happen next.

Unable to quickly jump into the body to get to Alka, the hunchback ran around the car. My friend, in turn, rushed about inside the body, trying to seize the moment to escape into the yard of his grandfather. The hunchback earnestly swore; Alka answered him with ridicule and made faces, inflaming the already mad state of the unfortunate.

The screams of the boy and the swearing of the hunchback attracted the attention of Alka’s grandfather and father. They went outside. Grandfather barked at the hunchback; his father demanded that Alka get out of the body and took his hand. Seeing that during the quarrel I was neutral, they asked me what happened. I told everything as it was. The hunchback confirmed. Grandfather waved him to leave. The father took off his belt and smacked his son on the ass a couple of times. Crying heartrendingly, my friend ran into the yard, and I went home. As it turned out later, Alka’s father forbade him to play in the car. After this incident, I did not want to approach the car. I also did not escape punishment. Learning about this incident, my mother smacked me a few times just in case and also forbade me to play near Alka’s father’s car.

The behavior of the hunchback also changed. Now he walked strictly from the other side of the street, not noticing us point blank, not saying hello, and not answering greetings. For some reason, I felt guilty in front of him.

We also had two foolish men. Actually, one of them was a full-fledged fool. A legend around the village said that during the occupation, the Germans put the child near the barn and imitated shooting him dead. The shock experienced by the teenager provoked a mental breakdown. The fool was quiet, blissful. The boys sometimes selflessly teased him, but he never took offense and, moreover, did not become angry. I remember his wandering smile.

The second mentally invalid was not quite so. He stopped in his development at the level of a ten-year-old child, although his age exceeded 30. He constantly played with children, and no one teased him.

Another was a fool woman. She fell into a rage from one shout, and often you could see how she chased after teasing kids. She was about 30 years old.

Then the outrage began. The fools discovered sex. It remains only to sympathize with the unfortunate woman how much violence she had to endure before she forgot about the pain received during defloration and began to enjoy the intercourse, accustomed to sex and a blissful fool. Meeting somewhere, they immediately threw themselves into each other’s arms and began to copulate. Such an extreme sight caused delight among passersby, and a hooting crowd instantly gathered. Onlookers watched the process with interest, waiting for its completion. The fool rose, hid his drooping organ in his pants, and they slowly walked away, waiting for the restoration of strength for the next act. Those wishing to see the continuation in a crowd trailed behind them.

In the late 60’s, the three fools disappeared. People said that they were sent to a house for the mentally ill.


For all installments from In the Shadow of the Belt, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Introduction
  2. Chapter 1: Early Childhood
  3. Chapter 2: School? This is Just the Beginning, Baby…
  4. Chapter 3: Cognizing Life
  5. Chapter 4: Football as it Is
  6. Chapter 5: My Friend Sasha Bichukov
  7. Chapter 6: Score
  8. Chapter 7: Again, the Transience of Being, Part 1
  9. Chapter 7: Again, the Transience of Being, Part 2
  10. Chapter 8: Old Colony, Part 1
  11. Chapter 8: Old Colony, Part 2
  12. Chapter 8: Old Colony, Part 3
  13. Chapter 8: Old Colony, Part 4