A Story by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
The author of A DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH, CANCER WARD,and THE FIRST CIRCLE gives in this new short story yet another glimpse of the Russia that has molded him. “ The Right Hand,”like the rest of Sohhenilsyn’s writing, is banned in the Soviet Union, but copies circulate in typescript. This text has just reached the West and is here published for the first time in the United Stales.
I WAS practically dead when I came to Tashkent that winter. Thai’s what I had tome for, in tan - to die. And they returned me to the living for a while.
It was a case of a month, another month, and vet another month. Unconcerned, the pristine Tashkent spring tame and went outside our windows and turned into summer, and everywhere was thick with green already, and it was quite warm when I started going out for walks on my unsteady legs.
I didn’t dare admit to imsell that I was getting better; even in my wildest dreams I measured the span of life allotted to me not in years but months, and I slowly paced the gravel and asphalt paths of the park spread out between the wards of the medical institute. I often had to sit for a while, and sometimes an overwhelming nausea forced me to lie with my head hanging down.
I was the same and yet not the same as the other patients around me: I had fewer rights than they and was of necessity more silent. People came to visit them, relatives wept for them, and they had only one worry in life, one aimto get well, but for me there was virtually nothing to get well for: at thirty-five years of age I hadn’t a single relation in the whole world. I didn’t even have a passport, and if I now recovered, I would have to leave this greenery, this fertile land, and go back to my desert, to which I had been exiled in perpetuity, under public surveillance, fenced to register once a fortnight, and from which the police chief’s office had hmg not seen fit to release me for treatment, even when I was dying. None of this could I tell to the tree patients around me. And even if I had, they wouldn’t have understood. On the other hand, with ten seats of leisurely telleciiou under mv belt, I was already aware of the truth that the genuine flavor of life is comprehended not in big tilings but in small. As in this uncertain motion ol my still misleads legs; in breathing cautiously so as not to provoke a pain in ms chest; in fishing a single, unitosthitlcn spud out of my soup.
Thus that spring was the most agonizing and wonderful of ms life. For me everything was forgotten or never seen, everything was interesting; even an ice cream c.m, even a road sweeper with water jets, even a street seller with bunches of elongated radishes, not to mention a young foal that had wandered onto the fresh grass through a break in the wall.
From das to das I plucked up even more courage to leave my clinic and go lurther into the park, which must have been laid out at the end of the last century at the same time as these excellent brick buildings, with then pointed and unlaced walls. From the rising of the triumphant sun, all through the Southern day and far into the yellow electric evening, the park was filled with animated movement the healthy shuttling quickly back and forth, the sick pacing tin hurriedly up and down.
At the point where several avenues converged to form a single one running out to the main gate their stood a large white alabaster Stalin with a stony smirk in his mustache. Further out toward the gate were other busts, spaced at regular intervals, somewhat smaller. Then came a stationers kiosk selling little plastic pencils and tempting little notebook. But not onh was my money rigorously accounted for; I had already had occasion to possess notebooks in my life. and thev had ended up in the wrong place, so I judged that it was better to do without them.
Photograph courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.
Situated at the gate itsell were a fruit stall and a chaihana or teahouse. We patients in out striped pajamas were not allowed into the chaihana, but the fence was an open one and we could look through it. Never in my life had I seen a real cluiihana beforethose individual teapots with green or black tea tor each person.
The chaihana had a European section, with little tables, and an Uzbek one, consisting of a large dais. The people at the little tables ate and drank quickly, leaving the small change for payment in their emptied handleless cups and going away again. On the dais, however, on plaited mats and beneath a reed awning, they sat and redined for hours, even days, emptying teapot alter teapot, placing dice, just as though the long day called them to no obligations. The fruit stall was open to patients as well, hut mv exile’s kopeks cringed at the prices. I gazed with interest at the heaps of dried apricots, raisins, and fresh cherries and walked awav. Beyond this there was a high wall: they did not let the patients past the gate either. Two or three limes a day the sound of bands playing funeral marches would come over this wall into the: medical colonv, fen the town was a million strong and the cemetery was right next door. For ten minutes or so they could he heard until the slow procession had passed the colony. The drum strokes beat out a fatalistic rhythm. The crowd was unaffected In this rhythm: its jet kings were more rapid. The healthy people merely glanced around for a second before hurrying on to where they were going (and they knew exactly where they were going). But the patients would come to a halt at the sound of those marc lies and stand there listening, err poke their heads out ol the ward windows.
THE more obviously I was being freed of my illness and the surer it became that I would remain alive, the more despondently I looked about me: I was already feeling sorry to leave all this.
White figures at the doctors’ sports ground were sending tennis halls back and forth. All my life 1 find wanted to play tennis and had nevet had the chance. The muddy-yellow, turbulent .Salar foamed at the foot of steep banks. The park was inhabited by spreading oaks that threw their shade over
tender Japanese acacias. And an octagonal fountain hvuled jets of fresh silver droplets at their tops. (And what grass there was on the lawns! In the camps it was ordered to be grubbed out like an cuomv; in mv place of exile none grew.) Simply to He hue down on it, peacefully to inhale the smelt of grass and sun-warmed vapors, was bliss indeed.
And I wasn’t alone lying on the grass. Here and there were girls from the medical institute, studying charmingly out ol bulging textbooks. Or, bubbling over with anecdotes, on their wav back from their practricals. Or lissome, swinging their sports hags, on then way to the stadium. Indistinguishable in the evenings, and therefore three times as attractive, the gills in rumpled and mirumpled dresses walked around the fountain, rustling the gravel of the paths. I fell pierced with pitv lot someone: perhaps lot my contemporaries, frozen to death at Demvansk, burnt to a cinder at Auschwitz, hounded at Dzheskazghan, pegging out m Siberia that these girls would nevet he ours. Or perhaps for these girls that I would never he able to tell them, and that they would never know,
And the whole day the gravel and asphalt paths streamed with women, women! Young doctors, nurses, laboratorv assistants, registrars, matrons, female relations visiting patients. They passed me by in tendetly severe dressing gowns and in bright Southern dresses, freqmutly semi-transparent, the better-off ones twirling fashionable Chinese: parasols overhead on bamboo handles sunny ones, blue ones, pink ones.
Each one of them, Hashing by in a second, madeup a whole story: the life she had led before me and the possibility (ot impossibility) of het becoming acquainted with me. I was pitiful. My emaciated face bore the marks of my pastthe frown of surliness enforced by the camps, the deathly pallor of my horny skin, slow infection bv the poisons of my illness and the poisons of the medicines, as a result of which my cheeks were also tinged with green. Out of the defensive reflex of always giving in and hiding, my back was bent. My idiotic striped jacket barely came down to my stomach, my striped trousers ended above my ankles, the corners of my socks, stained brown with age, hung out ol my squat-toed, felt camp boots. Not even the last woman among them could bring herself to walk by my side! But I could not see myself. And my eyes, no less tiansparent than theirs, admitted to my imici self . . . the world. And so one day toward e ve ning I was standing by the main gate and watching. The usual torrent was rushing past: paiasols swayed here and there:, silk dresses flashed before my eyes, brightly belted shantung trousers, embroidered shuts and skullcaps. Voices merged, fruit was being sold, behind the fence thcv were drinking tea and throwing dice; and by the fence, leaning on it, Mood an ungainly short man, like a sort of beggar, now and again gasping out. “Comrades . . . Comrades . . . ?" The colorful, busy crowd was not listening. I went up to him. “What’s up. friend?”
The man had an inordinate stomach, larger than that of a pregnant woman, which sagged like a sack and was bursting his dirty khaki trousers. His resoled boots were heavy and dusty. His shoulders were borne down by an unseasonably heavy, unbuttoned overcoat with a greasy collar and filthy cuffs. On his head was an ancient, tattered cap worthy of a scarecrow. His dropsical eyes were cloudy. With difficulty he raised one hand, the knuckle of which was clenched into a fist, and I drew from it a sweaty, crumpled piece of paper. It was an application by Citizen Bobrov, written in angular letters with a pen that had snagged on the paper, in which he requested to be sent to a hospital, and it was franked twice diagonally, in blue and red ink. The blue ink belonged to the city health authority and expressed a rationally argued refusal. The red ink, however, ordered the clinic of the Medical Institute to admit the patient to a permanent ward. The blue ink was yesterday’s, the red ink today’s.
“Well, all right,” I shouted at him loudly, as though he were deal. “You must go to the reception room tn ward one. You go up here, look, straight past these . . . monuments...
But at this point 1 noticed that at the very goal his strength had left him, that not only was he incapable of asking the way anymore, or moving his feet over the smooth asphalt, but lie could hardly hold on to the threadbare three-pound bag that was in his hand. And I said, “OK, old chap, I II take you, come on. And give me your bag.”
He could hear all riglu. With relief luhanded me his bag, leaned on my proffered arm, and hardly lifting his legs and scuffling his boots on the asphalt, started to move. I led him by the elbow through his overcoat, which was reddish-brown with dust. His swollen stomach was almost toppling him forward I fe frequently uttered deep sighs.
And so we walked, two tramps, along that very avenue where in my thoughts I had walked arm in arm with the prettiest girls in Tashkent. We were slow crawling past the alabaster busts. At last we turned off. On our way was a ench with a back. My companion begged to sit down. I also was beginning to feel sitk; I had been standing a mite too long. We sat down. Trout here that fountain was visible, too.
While still on the way the old man had told me seveial things, and now, having rested a bit, he added that he should be going to the Urals and that the visa in his passport was for the Urals—that was the whole trouble. For the sickness had taken him somewhere near TaklmaTash (where, as I remembered, they were starting to build a canal). At Ugrench they kept him in hospital a month, extracted water from his stomach and legs, made it worse, and discharged him.
He had got off the train in Chardzheu and Ursavtyevskaya, hut nowhere would they take him in for treatment. Instead they directed him to the Urals, where his visa was for. He hadn’t enough strength, however, to travel in the train, and no money left for a ticket. And now here in Tashkent he had managed in two days to get them ttake him. What he was doing in the Sou111. what had brought him here, I didn’t bother to ask. According to the medical certificate, his illness was complex, and judging by the actual look ol him this was his last illness. Having had occasion to watch many sick people. I could see clearly that he no longer had the will to live. His lips were flabby, his words were almost inaudible, and there was a lackluster look about his eyes.
Even the cap bothered him. Raising his arm with difficulty, he put the tap down onto his knees. I ilting Ins aim again, he wiped the sweat horn his brow with his soiled sleeve, The dome of his head was balding, though a ling ol uncombed, dust-caked hair, still blond, smvivetl on the crown, It was not age that had brought him here, but sickness. On his pitilully wasted neck, c hie kenlike, the skin hung in folds, while his triangular Adam’s apple stuck out in front and moved independently. What was there to hold up his head? Hardly had we sat down than it slumped onto his chest. And so he froze in that, position, with the tap on his knees and his eyes closed. He had forgotten, it seemed, that we had merely sat down to rest lor a moment and that he had to get to the reception room.
A short way in front of us the almost noiseless jet of the fountain soared in a silver thread. On the far side two girls were walking abreast. I found them very attractive. My neighbor sighed audibly, rolled his head across his chest, and raising In’s yellow and gray eyelids, looked across and up at me. “You don’t happen to have a smoke on you, comrade?”
“Perish the thought, old fellow!” I shouted at him. I,ven without smoking, you and J are going to have trouble; dragging our plates over the ground. I ake a look at yourself in the mirror. Smoke! I myself gave it up last month, and hard it was too.”
He wheezed and then looked at me again from nndei his yellow lids, sort of doglike. “Well, give me a few rubles then, comrade!”
I hesitated, wondering whether to give it to him or not. No matter what, I was still a political prisoner, while he was willy-nilly a free man. How many years had I worked out there—and they had paid me nothing. And then when they did start to pay, there were deductions for our escort, lot lighting the compound, for the bloodhounds, the administration, our gruel.
From the small breast pocket of my idiotic jacket I extracted an oilcloth purse and inspected the notes it contained. Sighing, I handed the old man a three-ruble note.
“ Thanks,”he spluttered. Experiencing difficulty in keeping his hand raised, he took the note and stowed it away in his pocket, after which the disencumbered hand flopped abruptly down onto his knee, Then his head again slumped down with Ids chin digging into his chest. We sat in silence.
During this time a woman passed us, and then two girls. All three I found very attractive. For years you go without hearing their voice or the click of high heels.
“It’s lucks at least that they gave you a recommendation. Without it you’d be kicking vour heels here for a week. It goes without saying. There are plenty like you.”
He heaved his chin oil his c hest and turned to look at me. Understanding tame into his eyes, his voice shook, and his words betaine clearer: “Sonny boy! They’re admitting me because I’ve earned it. I’m a veteran of the Revolution. Comrade Kirov himsell shook my hand personally at Tsaritsyn. They ought to be paying me my own personal pension.”
A faint motion of the cheeks and lips—the shadow of a proud smile—gave expression to his unshaven face. I took in Ids rags and him as well once more. “So why aren’t they paying you?”
“That’s just the way things turned out,”he sighed. “Now they won’t recognize me. Some of the archives got burnt, others were lost. The witnesses can’t be rounded up. They killed Kirov . . . It’s my own fault, I didn’t collect references . . . The only one I’ve got . . .”
His right hand—the finger joints were puffy and swollen, and the fingers got in each other’s waymoved to his pocket and began to thrust its way in, but at this point his momentary animation ceased, he again dropped his arm and his head and froze as he was.
THE sun was already setting behind the wards, and we had to hurry to get to the reception room (it was still a hundred paces away) —in my experience it was always difficult to find a place in clinics.
I took the old man by the shoulder. “Wake up, old chap! Look, see that door there? Do you see it? I’ll go ahead and say the word. Meanwhile, if you can, follow on after me; if you can’t, wait for me here. I’ll take your bag with me.”
He nodded as though he understood.
The reception room—a segment of a large shabby hall divided by crude partitions (somewhere behind it there was also a bathroom, a dressing room, a barber’s shop) —was always crowded during the day with patients measuring the long hours till they were received. But now, surprisingly, there wasn’t a soul. I knocked on the closed plywood shutter.
It was flung back by an extremely young nurse with a snub nose and with lips colored not red but with a deep-violet shade of lipstick. “What do you want?” She was sitting at a desk and reading what seemed to be a spy comic. She had darting little eyes, too.
I handed her the certificate with the two recommendations and said, “He can hardly walk. I’ll bring him over in a moment.”
“Don’t you dare bring anyone here!” she exclaimed sharply, without even glancing at the document. “Don’t you know the system? We only take patients after 9 A.M.!”
It was she who didn’t know the “system.” I thrust my head through the aperture together with, as far as it would go, my hand, so that she couldn’t slam the shutter on me. Then, sticking my lower lip out crookedly amt screwing up im face to look like a gorilla’s. I hissed in a gutter voice: “Listen, miss. I’m not one of your labor gang!”
She was taken aback, moved her chair further awav into her room, and added in a different tone: “Reception’s not open, citizen! 9 A.M.”
“You read this piece of paper!" I urged hei in a low. malevolent voice.
She read it. “Well, what of it? I he system’s the same for everybody. Kven tomorrow there might not be any room. There wasn’t am this morning.”There was a sort of satisfaction in the way she brought that out about there being no room today, as if to sting me with it.
“but the man was just traveling through, don’t you see? He’s got nowhere to go.
As I backed out of the opening and ceased talking in labor-camp stele, her face assumed its former harsh expression: “All our people come from outside! Where are we to put them? Let him take a room in town!”
“Well, you come outside and see the condition he’s in.”
“Whatever next! Me go and round up patients? I’m not an orderly, you know! And her snub nose quivered proudly. She was so sharp and cpiick with her answers that it was as if she had been wound up on a spring for that purpose.
“So what are you sitting here for?" I hanged nn hand on the plywood counter, kicking up a liny pud of whitewash dust. “You might as well shut up shop!”
“Nobody asked you, big mouth!" she exploded, jumping up, she ran around and reappeared out of a passageway. “Who are von? Don’t tell me what to do! The ambulance brings them in to us!”
If it hadn’t been for those vulgar, violet lips and the same violet fingernails, she would have been quite pretty. That little nose was an adornment. And her eyebrows were very expressive. I let white coat was pulled wide open on her chest because of the heat, and a kerc hief peeped out, pink and marvelous, and a Komsomol badge.
“What? If he hadn’t come here himself but had been picked up in the street by an ambulance, you would have taken him? Is that the rule?”
She inspected my ridiculous figure haughtily while I inspected her. I had quite forgotten that my soc ks were sticking out of my bools. She snorted, but assumed a distant expression and concluded: “Yes, patient, that’s the rule.”And went back behind her partition.
I heard a rustle behind me. I looked around. My companion was already here. He had heard and understood. Holding on to the wall and struggling to make his way across to a large garden bench placed there for visitors, he was just managing to wave his right hand in which he held a shabby wallet. “Here . . he muttered exhaustedly, “here. show her this . . . let her . . . here . . .”
I managed to get there in lime to support him and lowet him onto the bench. With helpless fingers he tried to extract from the wallet his sole reference, but was absolutely incapable of it.
I took the tattered sheet of paper from him, which was glued across the fold to prevent it hum falling apart, and opened it. A typewriter had written in violet letters:
PROLETARIANS OF THE WORLD, UNITE! REFERENCE This his been given to Conuade Bobrov, N.K., to certify that in 1921 he only served in the glorious Special Services Detachment “World Revolution" of X province and with his own hand hacked down dozens of the bastards that were left. Commissar ..(Signature).
Stroking my chest with im hand I asked quietly, “What’s this then ‘Special Services’? What soil?”
“Aha,”he replied, hatc h keeping his lids Irotn closing, “Show her.”
I saw his hand, Ihs right handso small, with prominent blown veins, with puffed and swollen finger joints, hardly able to get tile reference out of the wallet. And I remembered how horsemen used to slash a man on foot with a backhand swing. Down and across.
Strange . . . In full swing the hand would twist the sabet so that it carried oil the head, the neck, and part of the shoulder that right hand. And now it couldn’t even hold ... a wallet . . .
Doing up to the plywood shutter, 1 pushed it again.
The clerk never raised her head and kept on reading hei comic book. Lpside down on the page I could see a noble soldiei jumping onto a windowsill with a resolver.
I quietly laid the tattered reference on top of hei book and turned, nauseated, rubbing my (best the whole time as I went toward the exit. I had to lie down as soon as possible, with my head hanging down.
“What do you think you’re doing handing out pieces ol paper? Like it away, patient!" shot the girl after me through the window.
The veteran had slumped tight down onto the bench. His splayed lingers dangled helplessly, His unbuttoned overcoat hung down on either side.
His round swollen stomach lay in an improbable are on his hips,
His head and even his shoulders had somehow subsided into his trunk.