Sleeper at Harvest Time

About the author
Leonid Latynin was born in 1938 in a small town on the Volga. After a series of jobs and army service he graduated from Moscow University and worked in various publishing houses while writing poetry and studying pre-Christian Russian culture. He published six collections of his verse, but only managed to publish his novels after perestroika: The Face-Maker and the Muse in 1988; Sleeper at Harvest Time in 1993, and Stavr and Sara in 1994.

Emelya had a blood-type of which there was not a single gram in any one of those approaching; he was all alone against a monolithic "them." He was separate and quite different, securely different, and in addition to the torch in one hand and the flower in the other, each one of them carried a concealed stone, a sacred stone kept for years for an occasion like this, and from time to time touched this stone with the hand of a three-hundred-million-fold unity to check which would be the best way to grip it and the surest way to throw it. For each one who scored a direct hit would be honoured with a marksman's badge and would thus acquire the right to experience supreme unity with the whole of existence.

The people also sang because each of them strove to recognize in the voice walking beside or close at hand the familiar tones heard occasionally over the years on the polluted seats of the carriages in the metro, on the sickly grass on the banks of the Neglinka and the Khinka and the Serebrianka, in the caverns under the Patriarchs' Ponds, among heaps of human bones and skulls, on the rubble of squares that had collapsed into Underground Moscow. Voices which had lived in whispers could be recognized in song, and everyone sang, so that those listening might hear, and everyone was listening for other singers.

Sleeper at Harvest Time appears courtesy of Glas. Edited by Natasha Perova and Joanne Turnbull, Glas is a Moscow-based literary journal featuring contemporary Russian writing in English translation.

More Glas stories on openDemocracy:

Ksenia Klimova, "A Marriage of Convenience"

Ludmila Petrushevskaya, "The Princess with the Lily-white Feet"

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, "Yellow Coal"

Alexander Selin, "Alpatovka",

Elena Glinka, "Kolyma Streetcar"

Boris Yampolsky, "A Crowded Place"

Alexander Pokrovsky, "Saint among saints"

And people did find each other and forget all about their concealed stones. There in the centre of Moscow, on the Site of the Fire, beside the Execution Site, they wept in fright, happiness or disappointment looking at the faces they had known for so long but never seen before.

The clock on the Savior or Spasskaya Tower struck midnight. The square shuddered and became still. Silence hung over it; the only noise was the single hoarse, huge crackling of all the torches. People stopped looking for each other, all reached inside their clothes, and when the note of the final stroke of the bell on the tower finally died away, the Percentage Officer-General, who was regarded ex officio as the most pure of the pure-blooded, came out to the centre of a circle marked on the ground. Supposedly the four fundamental bloods flowed through his veins, but there was more northern blood than the others. His snub nose was pink with excitement and the glow of the torches, his eyes were moist, his hands were trembling: he was a typical snub-nosed, round-faced Sino-Buryato-Duleb, resembling his original ancestor: equally tall and fine-boned, with the same narrow, piggy eyes; equally fervent, wearing a star bequeathed to him on his chest. Snub-nose raised his hand. The torches instantly stopped crackling, the wind stopped blowing, people stopped breathing, the clouds stopped scudding across the sky, the square stopped humming and the Spasskaya Tower clock stopped playing the "Preobrazhenky March." How easy it was for him to accomplish his destined task. The ritual of the Turning Point of History had freed him of all doubts and thoughts of his own. The Officer-General's predestined role was to carry out the will of history, whatever it might be. Today there was no Officer-General: events flowed through him into the world.

He began speaking, speaking internally in a voice that was zealous, firm, harsh and sharp, and speaking externally in an inspiring bass. He spoke about the man who was stoned to death on this spot, beside the Execution Site, about what a mistake it had been, and how Muscovites remembered this mistake and would never repeat it, and the pledge of their memory was the flowers they had brought. And without interrupting his speech, he went over to the heap of stones, beside which lay a mound of bright, fresh flowers–from pansies and daisies to huge white-and-pink gladioli and bright claret-coloured dahlias like Medusa's heads.

He added his modest scarlet roses to the collection of flowers.

And he walked back, talking all the while.

The Officer-General said that when this man called Peter appeared and was discovered to have a blood-type that no one living in Moscow had, his forebears were the only ones to oppose the others and ask them to wait for a more precise analysis; but they were ignored. And his forebears were not in the least surprised when, after more sensitive machines were constructed, this blood was discovered in everyone alive both then and now, and today it was the common blood which allowed them to gather together and each cast a stone at a man whose blood was alien to everyone here.

"The Common Alien" was a festival granted to them by the times, and although everyone knew that his forebear had in fact been the first to cast a stone at Peter, whose monument now towered up above the heap of stones, they all nodded in agreement.

"As the most pure-blooded among you..." said the Percentage Officer-General, raising his snub nose toward the heavens, so that it appeared longer in the light of the torches and looked like the arm-rest of a crutch, and everyone nodded in agreement, knowing perfectly well that his blood contained so many different types that only the menials and the suburbanites had more. This was all unimportant in comparison with an occasion which allowed them to see on the surface people they had known below.

To cast a sacred stone and so, for the time being, free their bosoms of its burden.

The carousel went slowly round the square, and a pile of living flowers built up over Peter, concealing the monument. The old flowers and the monument were moistened with sincere tears, which made the stone gleam, and the flowers opened their black-white-red-yellow petals and gave off a scent which mingled with the smell of tears and tenderness.

When the huge, four-sailed windmill had returned to its initial position, the Percentage Officer-General began speaking again. Now his voice was like molten metal pouring into a ladle, his eyes glittered like the ruby spheres on the Kremlin towers, which were filled with the pure blood of the major nations inhabiting Moscow.

From his speech Emelya learned that in his blood there had been detected a blood-type which was not, supposedly, present in any of the people standing here. And which was a challenge to their perfected, harmonious, true and uniquely correct system. The very fact of Emelya's existence was an immense stumbling block, a precipice, an obstruction, a boulder on the uniquely correct and true path, which they had followed for centuries past and would follow for centuries to come. And if today they did not all do what they must do – if they considered themselves true children of their fatherland – and what was right, by fulfilling the behest of their ancestors, then future generations would not understand, future generations would not forgive them, future generations would curse them.

A sigh of despair ran through the square like a hurricane through a village, uprooting trees and tearing off roofs. It was such a unanimous impulse, at this moment, enchanted by the speech and the sensation of their own perfection. They understood their system really was the best in the world and the slightest blot on this system would destroy it, like rust on an electronic watch. And their children, whom they had never seen, and if they did, whom they would not recognize, would curse their interesting life, filled with danger, alarm, anticipation, excitement, fear, destruction – and also movement and genuine constant renewal and conflict.

The sound of sobbing hung in the night air, the torches trembled, the rustling of hands thrust inside clothing was like an earthquake rising from the sea-bed. But everything froze motionless when they offered Emelya the final word.

Carried away by the general mood and in part by the speech of the Officer-General, Emelya himself was ready to rend his clothes asunder and sprinkle ashes on his head and cast the first stone at himself, although he was the only one who had no stone concealed in his clothes.

Emelya sympathized and agreed with them, recalling aloud the bear's blood that flowed in his veins, in his heart and soul and, of course, in his thoughts. A sigh of jubilation swept over the square and the waves rippled out and away to the four sides of the world. They had the right to throw the first stone; they were justified in their own eyes, in the eyes of the centuries, and in the eyes of the law. Emelya himself was content. He honoured 'the word of God: true happiness lies in making others happy. The Officer-General, with tears in his eyes, listened, watched and realized that this was the most important moment of his spiritual life – the general moment.

The wings of inspiration began to beat within him.

There was no need to say anything else. He went over to Zhdana, who was standing below Emelya and facing him, and held out his own stone to her. The general carousel of inspiration swept up Zhdana, and her memory, and her brain. She was a part of this square, a part of Moscow, a part of the world, her blood throbbed with the enthusiasm of millions, mingling with, not contradicting, her even greater love for Emelya. And with all her elastic energy, all of her young strength, charged with the passion of love and unity and general rapture, she "cast a stone from the trunk of her palm" – the stone placed in her outstretched palm by the damp, sticky hand of the Percentage Officer-General.

Emelya swayed, the blow was precise and resounding. A shroud of pain enveloped Emelya's brain. And the acorn, set in Emelya's hand by his mother Leta, fell from his fingers and rolled into a hole left by a stone that had been wrenched out of the earth today and concealed in someone's clothing.

The sounds and the smells, and also the right and power of the people casting the stones, their great numbers and their unity, relieved him of pain, unconsciousness, will and strength. A hail of stones showered down on Emelya as though at a signal, the way hailstones rain down on cherry blossoms and scatter them, breaking his head, his chest, his legs, his arms, his shoulders, his knees but leaving his soul untouched.

The stones flew from the North, the South, the East and the West. They flew over his head, they fell short, and his consciousness, which only recently was clouded and blind, became clear. And he watched as the people, having become a single elemental force, night-blind from the blazing torches and driven by great revolutionary enthusiasm, took out the stones from their clothes and threw them in all directions; stones flew this way and that, and now Emelya suffered no more blows than everyone else standing around.

Those standing in the West stoned those standing in the East. Stones from the North broke the bones and skulls of those who came from the South. The air was filled with screams of joy from those who scored direct hits and screams of pain from those who were hit, and this continued until the cocks crowed.

And when the Chimes, which began to peal when they were struck by a stone, broke down and stopped, whirling their inner gearwheels uselessly, and the "Preobrazhensky March" fell silent, no more than a quarter of the city's population was still alive, and for those who were left, this changed matters. They thought everything would be the same as before, that newly empty places would be waiting to welcome them with open gates and doors. Everyone who was in the centre of the square was killed first, but those who were further out survived, and people who lived outside the Garden Ring were preparing to move into Kitai-Gorod, and people who lived beyond the outer ring road were preparing to move in closer to the Garden Ring, but to dream of such things their minds must have been clouded. For when awareness began to return to their minds, which blazed with separateness and hatred for each other, and they began slowly rising to their feet, smearing the blood on their faces with the hems of their shirts and opening their eyes, they saw a single all-consuming conflagration covering not only the square but the whole of Moscow. As it burned, dark sooty clouds of evil-smelling smoke billowed into the air. The Great Day of Sacrifice, the Day of Veles or Elijah.

The whole of Moscow burned, with the whole of history. People burned, and streams and rivers, stone, glass and concrete, trees and meadows and copses, clay and sand, the sun burned, and the clouds and the stars. People staggered toward these conflagrations and watched with their own eyes the fruit of their own total unity and inspiration; the North and the South and the West and the East, all the squares, all the streets, all the lanes and houses where they had hated and killed each other with such inspired conviction and professional zeal. They were all reduced to ashes, smoke, and dust and there was no place for them to lay down their heads. The factories ascended to the sky in evil-smelling fumes, and so did the laboratories that knew how much Russian, Mongolian, English, Duleb, Jewish, Armenian, Greek, Gypsy, Syrian and Arabic blood there is in our poor single and indivisible human body, and the smoke was thick, and people's faces were black, and blood flowed down their soot-smeared cheeks, and tears flowed over the blood and soot, and everything was beginning anew, everything was returning to its origins!

And the hatred after the last unity was so great that no one wished to look on anyone else, and each wished to be alone.

Emelya's living consciousness hovered above the city, and beside him the soul of the Percentage Officer-General fluttered its wings like a beheaded cock and screamed hoarsely, snorting out its triumphant cock-a-doodle-do in spurts of blood, although it was midnight, and no one could tell what meaning his crowing had for the burning city, and anyway this cock-call was of no interest to the former city's former inhabitants, as they wandered through the smoke and rubble. But by the Patriarchs' Ponds, in front of former house number 21 on Malaya Bronnaya Street, Zhdana stood with her back pressed against the warm, rusty, fused metal of the gates, suffering torments of shame for her inspiration and the accurate blow she had struck with a swing as supple as a cat's stride at the chest of the man she loved and adored, Medvedko or Emelya.

The fire in Moscow lasted four days, and when the fifth morning arrived on the twenty-fifth day of July, the day of the Assumption of St. Anne, the Mother of the Blessed Virgin, all around was desert. The first blades of grass were beginning their movement toward the rays of the morning, hastening to come together and continue the eternal union of the grass that is like the rays of the sun, as the rays are like the blades of grass. The grass pierced the stones of the Zemlyanoy or Earthen Town, whose boundaries Emelya had often crossed on his way to his Zhdana, and even the asphalt of Medvedkovo, where a thousand years ago Emelya had saved his half-brother from the bees with the same smoke that now spread over the grass.

And the people, unable to find their coats or their houses, withdrew into the familiar, dark surroundings of their Underground Moscow, where it was damp and they felt afraid, but it was not cold when winter came, and there were no percentage operatives, for in the darkness they became invisible and indistinguishable, and who could tell what colour their shirts were? And there was no ladder on which every inhabitant of the city had a place under the Percentage Officer-General. And on the surface the earth smoked and the willow-herb blossomed, and God's grass rose toward the light from out of Underground

The acorn swelled up. Its shoot broke through the skin and began growing at a pace detectable only to an intelligent machine or God, who gazed down in helpless compassion at the deeds of humankind and the ordinary life of the Earth...

Moscow. And there was no one but Zhdana wandering through the ashes of the conflagration and searching for what remained of Emelya. But the wind scattered the ashes and swept away the ruins of the Kremlin, Chudov Monastery, the Temple of Kupala Under the Elm, the empty Mausoleum and the Church of St. Nicholas the Latter-day Martyr that stood by the Kremlin wall, and only the flame on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier went on burning cleanly day and night without smoking, but there was no one to see the flame. And the acorn from the Sacred Oak on the Execution Site, that fell from Emelya's fingers when Zhdana's stone struck him in the chest and he lost consciousness for a moment, had already swollen and put out a little shoot, which in time would grow into an Oak on that same Execution Site, and the Altar of Veles would be here, and Volos and Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great and the Josef the Bloody would each, according to their custom and ability, bring him their bloody sacrifice...

Translated by Andrew Bromfield


Krasikov Street, 1977, Eric Bulatov
Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey New Brunswick, The Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art From the Soviet Union
© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Photo: Jack Abraham