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Near Zero

by Natan Dubovitsky

translated by Bill Bowler

Near Zero: synopsis

Yegor Samokhodov was happy as a youth in the Russian heartland but now, in Moscow, in middle age, he is estranged from his wife and daughter, and his low-paying job as an assistant editor is going nowhere. Looking for a way out, he joins a criminal gang, the Brotherhood of the Black Book. The Brotherhood is involved in forgery, theft of intellectual property, black-marketeering, intimidation, extortion, bribery, murder, etc.

Yegor’s girlfriend, Crybaby, invites him to a private screening of her new film, although she cannot attend. Yegor goes, hoping she may show up, and is horrified to discover he is watching a snuff movie where Crybaby is slowly murdered. After the screening, Yegor finds that Crybaby has disappeared. He sets out to Kazakhstan, to find and kill her murderer, the film director Albert Mamaev.

The story is set against a panoramic backdrop of Russia during and after the collapse of the USSR. Yegor’s quest brings him into contact with a cast of characters from a broad spectrum of Russian life, culture, history, politics and government.

Near Zero header links
Translator’s Foreword Cast of Characters Table of Contents

Chapter 34: Tridtsat’ Chetire

The truck sped off towards Moscow. With a Twix and a gadget in his pocket, Yegor headed in the other direction. He had gone about 300 meters when he saw what had caught his eye earlier: a power stanchion towered out of the ground with a faded sign, pointing towards an area of dusty fields and bald gardens. The timid inscription on the sign read “Lunino.” This was the name of the country village where his grandmother had lived, a name from his childhood, another name for light.

When his mother had taken him on vacation, it was at this pillar that she had asked the bus driver to make a stop. Beside this pillar, when he was older, he himself had hitched rides to get back to the capital.

From this pillar, at an angle from the concrete highway, in the direction of Lunino, a distance of five kilometers, ran a dirt road that flowed like a winding stream now of dust, now of mud, along which it would have been easier to swim than drive.

Yegor headed down this road now as he had forty years ago. And like forty years ago, the monotonous infinity of the fields was reflected in the sky, where angels shimmered and swifts soared motionlessly.

Look there, by that hole — and indeed, forty years ago, the same hole had been there, or a similar one, with a dark puddle in the middle, round, like the moon — right there, an elk had come out towards him from the overripe grainfield. And to this day, that prehistoric elk, as big as two horses, was the largest animal Yegor had ever seen running free.

Yegor and his pal from the village, Ryzhik, had dropped their bicycles, run into the rye, and gotten lost in it. They had run out at the other end of the field, towards Zimarova, torn and frightened.

The only active church in half the district was in Zimarova . They flew into it at top speed, in desperate flight, straight under the cupola, directly into the blue of biblical skies painted on the vault before the Great War by local icon painters, art students on holiday.

Yegor hung suspended in this blueness among the flattened saints and multiple Christs tempted, healing, crucified, resurrected, transfigured. He soared, not knowing which way was was up or down and with difficulty read the archaic letters: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Yegor understood, and stopped crying.

Father Tikhon came in, not wearing his cassock, but in street clothes, and asked, “You are whose?”

Yegor had not had time to come back down to earth and gazed past the Father, but Ryzhik was not confused and fired back, “We’re from Lunino. We’re lost.” And he added, having guessed where he was and who stood before him, and remembering what grandma had taught him, “But we are of our faith, the people’s.”

“It’s good that you’re one of us.” The priest smiled and then drove the boys home in his cart. They picked up their bicycles along the way. They hadn’t disappeared.

Yegor recalled another memory. Beneath this steel arc, this gigantic tower of electric power lines that carry fatally dangerous, ominously humming high voltage as far as possible from the ground and its clinging inhabitants, he had kissed a woman for the first time.

More exactly, he had kissed a girl who was almost seventeen, a whole half-year older than he. And having kissed her, he could not stop himself and for the first time, right there, without a romantic interlude, pushed into her, his front part sticking out with high tension, overflowing with curiosity, with living heat, and spewing out semen. He swung it, like a flashlight beam penetrating the moist night, swung it like the Indian guide he had read about somewhere, swinging his machete in front of himself to make his way through the damp rainforest to the lake.

To this day, he remembered the final spasms. He poured out like water, his eyes glazed over, but they were not able to rest in the fragrant grass like the young lovers in bucolic films. Immediately, without a romantic pause, they felt the bloodthirsty evening mosquitoes biting them both greedily on all their naked places. For a whole week, Yegor kept scratching, remembering his less than victorious initiation. He remembered that Olya, as the girl was called, had come for the summer to stay with Ryzhik’s parents. She was Ryzhik’s cousin, from Tambov. This had been their last summer in Lunino.

Yegor had now dragged himself to a fork in the path. To the left, the village of Lunino. To the right, the Lunino churchyard, where, alongside people from Lunino, they also buried folks from Rzhev and Urusov, corpses from tiny villages offended by God, and by Tsar, and by Soviet power, and by New Democratic power. Instead of earth, the ground there was loam and brackish sand, and not enough of that to support the feeble gardens where there was not enough room to plant a handful of family potatoes, and nowhere to bury people.

More memories. Little Yegor and his grandma, Antonina Pavlovna, would go at dawn to the narrow pond in Urusov to catch little carp. And once, Yegor had stepped hard on a broken bottle hidden in the roadside brush and shredded his foot to a bloody mess.

Grandma had spun around, thrown down her fishing pole, and run with Yegor in her arms to the nearest of the nine little houses in Urusov. In answer to her cries, no one came out, not from the first little house, nor the second, nor the third, nor the fourth, nor the fifth. In the front yard of the sixth, a curly-haired peasant in officer’s dress pants, smeared with grime to an unusual degree as if during war, was chasing after a chicken.

No matter what Grandma said, he pursued the chicken for another twenty minutes, all the while hearing her entreaties and cries. He caught it, pulled an axe from thin air like a frightful magician, cut off the chicken’s head using the porch in place of a block, and only afterwards returned to the gate and asked, “What do you want?”

The headless chicken he had tossed by the porch suddenly jumped up and ran across the yard again, pouring blood on the pieces of trash left lying around on the ground. The chicken ran up to the peasant and sprayed him with blood. He smiled, kicked it with his foot, and the headless chicken flew back towards the porch and calmed down there. Yegor was frozen with horror and did not hear how Grandma, cursing now, had it out with the chicken executioner. Yegor made out only his last phrase. “You need the Sergeant. Head over to Lunino.”

Antonina Pavlovna spat in his direction and started off with her grandson, now white as a sheet, towards Lunino. The peasant caught up with them, stopped, pulled an unusually broad leaf from somewhere out of thin air, put it in Yegor’s hand: “Here, press this against your wound, it will help.” And he went back home, apparently not having finished all his business with the chicken.

As they were leaving Urusov, Yegor asked, “Bah! Why are they so cruel?”

Instead of answering, Grandma bent down, grabbed from the road a pinch of dust and pressed it to his lips. Yegor licked and held it on his tongue.


“It’s salty.”

“Well, yes it is.”

Proceed to Chapter 35...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 871...

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