A Jar of Jam

A novelist and playwright, Valentin Kataev has a happy gift for writing about childhood and adolescence. His early novels, THE EMBEZZLERS, TIME, FORWARD!, and THE LONE WHITE SAIL, have been published in American editions, and his comedy of student life in Moscow, SQUARING THE CIRCLE, has been produced on the American stage and television. He is the editor and founder of YOUTH magazine, with a circulation of more than four hundred thousand readers.


PETYA had never prepared his own homework at the gymnasium as carefully as he prepared for the lesson with Gavrik. This was his first try at being a teacher, and he was determined not to fail. He tortured his father with endless questions on comparative linguistics. He copied important things out of the encyclopedic dictionary, Brockhaus and Efron. At school, his demands for detailed elucidation of several paragraphs of Latin syntax amazed the Latin teacher, who had not previously been too impressed with Petya’s diligence. Petya sharpened several pencils, got out pens and ink, and after wiping off the writing table with a rag, set down his brother Pavlik’s globe, his own microscope, and placed at random several fat volumes which were supposed to lend a stern academic tone to the place and inspire in Gavrik a respect for science.

After dinner Vasily Petrovich went to the cemetery. Auntie and Pavlik went to see the exhibition. Dunyasha asked permission to visit relatives. This was all fine with Petya. When he was alone he paced the floor like a real teacher, hand on hip, going over the introductory part of his first lesson. You couldn’t say that he was nervous, but he experienced that sharp sensation that a skater feels before going on the ice.

Gavrik didn’t make him wait. He appeared exactly at the appointed hour. It was interesting that he did not come, as he always had in childhood, to the back door and through the kitchen, after having given a warning whistle with four fingers from the courtyard. Instead, Gavrik talked on the house phone from the front entrance, greeted Petya formally, and after taking off his old overcoat in the vestibule, combed his hair in front of the mirror. Before going into the living room he straightened his satin peasant blouse with the tiny pearl buttons. He was holding a new fivekopeck notebook with a red blotter sticking out of it and a new pencil. Silently Petya showed his friend into the room and sat him down at the writing table, between the microscope and the globe. Gavrik gazed at them worriedly.

“Well, let’s begin,” said Petya sternly, but he suddenly became embarrassed.

He manfully controlled the fit of shyness and cheerfully began again. “Let’s begin. The Latin language is one of the richest and mightiest in the Indo-European family of languages. Originally like the Umbrian and the Oscan dialects, it belonged to the group of major dialects of the nonEtruscan population of central Italy, like the dialect of the inhabitants of the plains of Latium, out of which the Romans came. Do you understand?”

“No,” said Gavrik, shaking his head.

“What don’t you get?”

“Which were the major dialects of the nonEtruscan population?” Gavrik brought out carefully, looking sadly at Petya.

“Ah-ha. Good. You’ll understand. It’s just that you’re not used to it. For now, we’ll go on. So, at that time, since the languages of the other Italian peoples — well, the Etruscan, Japhetic, Ligurian, all obvious except for the Latin relatives, the Umbrians and the Sabellians — remained just dialects, locked, so to speak, in the limits of a more or less crowded area. . . .” Petya made a grandiose professorial gesture to show that, while the languages of the other people of Italy remained isolated dialects, Latin, thanks to the Romans, not only became the governing language of Italy but also gradually became even a literary language. Petya meaningfully raised his finger. “Do you understand?”

“No,” repeated the despondent Gavrik and again shook his head. “It would be better if you just showed me the alphabet, Petya.”

“Who’s the tutor here — me or you?”

“O.K. So it’s you.”

“In that case, let’s go on,” said Petya, pacing the room, enjoying his superiority over Gavrik and his power as a teacher. “So, in general, then, this literary and classical language, Latin, in about three hundred years lost its control and became, you know, instead of the national language, and so forth, and so on, became — in a word — not so important.” Gavrik nodded approvingly. “What was important, my friend, was that in the end it turned out that the Latin language had twenty letters at the beginning and then they added three more.”

“Is that all it became — twenty-three letters?” Gavrik asked quickly and joyfully.

“Exactly twenty-three letters in all.”


“Don’t go putting the cart before the horse,” said Petya, using the traditional saying of the Latin teacher at school, whom he always unconsciously imitated. “The letters of the Latin alphabet are the following — now write — A, B, C. . . .”

Rousing himself and taking his pencil, Gavrik began to write in his notebook with beautiful handwriting.

“Wait a minute, crazy, what are you doing? You can’t write a Russian B. You’ve got to write a Latin B,”

“How do you write the Latin B?

“Like the Russian V. See?

“What’s so hard about that?”

“So erase and write it right.”

Gavrik got from the pocket of his wide woolen pants a hunk of carefully wrapped half-used eraser in the form of an elephant and erased the Russian B with the remaining end of the elephant and wrote a Latin B in its place.

“I guess,” said Petya, who had already become pretty much bored with teaching, “you can copy the Latin alphabet right out of the book while I rest a little.”

GAVRIK began to copy, and Petya began to stretch his legs. He strolled around the apartment and found himself in front of the cupboard in the dining room. As everyone knows, cupboards are particularly attractive to young boys. It’s a rare boy who can pass a cupboard and not look to see what’s in it. Petya was no exception, especially since Auntie had unwisely said as she went out, “And, please, don’t get into the cupboard.”

Petya knew perfectly well what Auntie had in mind: the large jar of strawberry jam which Grandmother from Ekaterinoslav had sent for Christmas. They hadn’t opened the jam yet, although it was sent for the holidays and the holidays were already over, which annoyed Petya a little. In general it was hard to understand Auntie. On the whole she was good and generous, but she was completely miserly on the subject of jam. With her around, it was terrible even to mention jam. Her eyes would get big and frightened, and she would say quickly and nervously, “Oh, no, not on your life. Don’t even go near it. When the time comes, I’ll give you some jam.”

But when the time would come, no one knew, because she didn’t say and only waved her hands frighteninglyAnd it was stupid, too, because jam was made to be eaten, after all!

Stretching, Petya opened the cupboard, climbed up on a chair, and peeped onto the very top shelf, where the full jar of Ekaterinoslav jam stood, heavy as a bombshell. After feasting his eyes on the jam, Petya shut the cupboard and went to see how his pupil was getting along. Gavrik had been diligently working on his Latin letters and had already got up to N, but did not know how to write it. Petya showed him how to make the N, complimented him on his accuracy, and casually commented, “By the way, Grandmother sent us a jar of strawberry jam for Christmas. A six-pound jar.”

“There aren’t any jars that big.”

“There aren’t?” Petya smiled ironically.

“No, there aren’t.”

“A lot you know about jars,” Petya muttered. He went into the dining room and came back and put the heavy jar on the table between the globe and the microscope. “Well? What do you say? Are there six-pound jars?”

“O.K., you win.” Gavrik turned back to his notebook and wrote three more Latin letters: O, which is written exactly as in Russian; P, which is written like the Russian R; and the strange letter Q, whose tail is so hard to make.

“Good boy!” said Petya, and, hesitating a little, added, “By the way, do you want to try some jam?”

“Sure,” Gavrik agreed. “Your aunt won’t mind?”

“We’ll just have a spoonful apiece and she won’t even notice.” Petya went to get a teaspoon and then patiently unscrewed the tight lid, carefully removed the top piece of paper, which looked like a hat, and even more carefully took off the layer of

wax. Under the layer of wax, sealed in rum to preserve the jam as long as possible, was the jam itself, bright and shiny, right up to the brim of the jar. With the greatest care, Petya and Gavrik each ate a spoonful.

Grandmother from Ekaterinoslav was renowned as a master of any kind of jam, and strawberry jam was her specialty, but this jam was truly remarkable. Neither Gavrik nor even Petya had ever tasted anything like it. It was fragrant, thick, and somehow light as air, full of whole tender choice berries with delicious sunflower seeds scattered in it. It was incredibly easy to eat.

The friends took turns in licking the spoon clean and were overjoyed to find that the jam in the jar stayed the same: the jar was full to the brim, as before. Of course, some sort of law was at work here, of large and small quantities — the large volume of the jar and the small volume of the teaspoon — but since Petya and Gavrik did not know this law, it seemed to them practically miraculous that the jam wasn’t disappearing.

“It’s the same as before,” said Gavrik.

“I told you she wouldn’t notice.”

With these words, Petya covered the jam with the layer of wax, then the little paper hat, tightly screwed on the lid just as it had been before, and put the jar back in the cupboard in its proper place.

Meanwhile, Gavrik managed to write two more Latin letters: R, which made him smile because it was just like a Russian letter reversed, and the double-faced Latin S.

“Very good!” complimented Petya. “By the

way, I think we could both easily take another spoonful.”

“Of what?”


“And your aunt?”

“Stupid, you yourself saw that the amount of jam stayed the same. That means that if we try one more spoonful, there will still be the same. Right?”

Gavrik thought and agreed. You can’t argue with what your eyes tell you.

Petya brought the jar, patiently unscrewed the lid, carefully took off the paper, removed the layer of wax, feasted his eyes on the jam, which glistened, as before, right up to the brim. Then the friends each took a spoonful, licked it clean, and Petya fixed the jar as it had been.

But this time, while the jam tasted even better, the taste lasted a shorter time.

“Look, see — again, it’s just the same!” Petya said with satisfaction, lifting the heavy jar.

“No, it isn’t,” said Gavrik. “There’s just the tiniest bit missing now. I looked on purpose.”

Petya raised the jar and looked at it. “What do you mean? Nothing’s wrong. The jam is the same. Absolutely the same.”

“Not absolutely,” said Gavrik. “Because the jam doesn’t cover the edge of the paper any more. Look and see for yourself.”

Petya lifted the feathered edge of the paper and held the jar up to the light. The jar was almost as full as it had been. Almost, but not quite. A gap no wider than a hair had appeared, but it was a gap. This was too bad, though you couldn’t tell whether or not Auntie would notice. Petya took the jar into the dining room and put it back on the shelf.

“Well, let’s see what you have been scribbling there,” he said cheerfully.

Instead of answering, Gavrik scratched his neck and sighed.

“You tired?” asked Petya.

“No, but I think your aunt will notice, even though just a little bit is missing.”

“She won’t notice.”

“I bet she will, and then you’ll get it.”

Petya burst out, “So what if she does! Let her! Grandmother sent the jam for everyone, and I’m within my rights. When a fellow comes to my house to work, can’t I treat him to some strawberry jam? I’m going to bring the jam here, and we’re going to have some more. I’m sure Auntie won’t say anything. She’ll be glad that we were open about it, and not sneaky.”

“Maybe it’s not worth it?” Gavrik asked timidly.

“Of course it’s worth it!” Petya exclaimed.

He brought the jar, and feeling that he was doing a pure and a noble thing, he scooped out two soupspoonfuls of jam,

“That’s enough,” he said finally, and screwed up the lid and took the jar back to the cupboard.

But it wasn’t enough. Having had a full soupspoon apiece, the friends had really dug into the wonderful jam and felt such a great, uncontrollable urge to eat just one more spoonful that Petya, with a serious face, brought the jar and, not looking at Gavrik, took one more soupspoonful. Petya couldn’t imagine how a soupspoon could take away so much. Looking at the jar in the light, he saw that at least one third of the jam was gone.

The boys each ate another portion and licked the spoons.

“Wonderful!” said Gavrik, and wrote out the Latin letters T, U, V, and X, still feeling the greatest urge to have just a bit more of that remarkable jam.

“O.K.,” said Petya with finality. “Let’s eat half the jar, and that’s all.”

At the halfway point, Petya screwed on the lid for the last time and took the jar to the cupboard with the firm intention not to touch it again. He tried not to think of Auntie.

“So, are you full?” he asked Gavrik with a pale smile.

“A little too full,” answered Gavrik, tasting the sweetness in his mouth which was already turning sour.

Petya also began to feel sick. Ecstasy had already, bit by bit, begun to change into its opposite number. He didn’t want to think about the jam, but — and this was scary — he couldn’t not think about it. The jam avenged itself by arousing a slightly sickish feeling at the same time that it aroused the crazy, unnatural desire for one more spoonful. You couldn’t fight the desire. Petya, like a madman, went into the dining room, and the two friends began to eat the nauseating sweetstuff by the spoonful straight out of the jar, losing all comprehension of what they were doing. It was hatred become adoration and adoration become hatred. Their mouths were puckered by the sweet-sour taste. Sweat broke out on their foreheads. The jam could barely get past their convulsively constricted throats. But they ate and ate as if it were cereal. They weren’t really eating the jam. They were destroying it like an enemy. They came to again when there was only one drop left at the bottom of the jar, which they couldn’t reach with their spoons.

Only then did Petya understand the horror of what had happened. Like criminals who try to hide all traces of their crime as quickly as possible, the boys ran to the kitchen and began feverishly to rinse the sticky jar under the faucet, not forgetting to drink from the jar the dark, sweet water.

When the jar was clean and dry, Petya put it back very accurately, for some reason, in its old place in the cupboard, as if this would fix everything. Petya tried to console himself with the silly hope that Auntie had forgotten about Grandmother’s jam or that when she saw the clean jar she would think they had eaten it long ago. But he knew that this was stupid, to say the least.

Trying not to look at each other, Petya and Gavrik returned to the writing table and resumed the lesson.

“So,” said Petya, cramped with nausea and speaking with difficulty, “out of the twenty-three letters of the Latin alphabet we have written twenty. Afterward, historically, two more letters were introduced.”

“In all, twenty-five,” said Gavrik, swallowing his saliva with disgust.

“Exactly. Now write.”

Just then Vasily Petrovich came home. In the melancholy, peace-loving mood which always came on him after being at the cemetery, he looked around the room and at the diligently working boys, and noting on their faces a badly hidden and strangely disgusted expression, said, “Well, gentlemen, working on Sunday? Is it hard? Never mind. The roots of learning are bitter, but the fruits are sweet.” With these words he tiptoed, so as not to disturb the boys, to the icon. From his pocket he drew a small bottle of oil that he had bought at the church store near Afonsky Gate and set to work cleaning the lamp carefully, just as he did every Sunday.

Auntie came home soon, and then Dunyasha; only Pavlik was still out. The samovar began to roar in the kitchen. The light clatter of tea dishes began to come from the dining room.

“Well, I’m going,” said Gavrik, collecting his belongings hurriedly. “I’ll get the rest of the letters myself at home somehow. Good luck. See you next Sunday!” And off" he went, with anxious, uncertain step through the dining room, past the cupboard, to the vestibule.

“Where are you going?” Auntie asked. “Stay and have tea.”

“Thank you, Tatyana Ivanovna, they’re waiting for me at home. I have to do my chores.”

“Maybe you’ll just have one small cup of tea? With strawberry jam?”

“Ah, no! Please!” exclaimed Gavrik, frightened, and whispering “I owe you fifty kopecks’ to Petya in the vestibule, he ran quickly down the stairs and was gone.

“What’s that wry face all about?” asked Auntie, looking at Petya. “It looks as if you ate some bad sausage. Maybe you’re sick. Let’s see your tongue.”

Despondently raising his head, the boy showed his remarkably rosy tongue.

“Ah-ha. I understand,” said Auntie. “Latin did this to you. You see, my friend, how difficult it is to be a tutor. Never mind. Now, in honor of your first lesson, we’ll open Grandmother’s jam, and everything will be all right.”

With these words Auntie went to the cupboard, and Petya lay down on his bed and covered his head with a pillow in order not to see or hear anything more.

Translated by Gabriella Azrael.