||[This is a draft translation. Click here to read the original]
Vast wasteland stretches from edge to edge. Cruel Sun is at the zenith. I do not see it from behind the weather-stained sphere, but the world drowns in light and it is impossible to hide anywhere. Even through closed eyelids, light pushes through the scarlet interlacement of blood vessels as bright spots and flashes.
Desert...Victoria or Sahara, Namibia or Atacama - I do not know. For two days, my basket was flung among the black clouds by a storm. It was embraced by lightning and threatened by tornados. It was miracle that my held-together-by-paper-glue balloon remained unharmed, but now it sails through the immense wasteland. It floats slower and slower. I have no illusions. Will a wind blow again before my water ration runs out? Will I die?
I lay down on the bottom of the basket, made from a table and telephone wire. Through a slot, I saw the firmament quieting. Perhaps I fell asleep. Suddenly, sounds squeeze through my hopeless peace.
I opened eyes wide.
- ... ee oasis?
I jumped to my feet so quickly that the basket began to creak. The balloon hung motionlessly, ten meters above the ground.
- Hey you, in the basket! Can you see an oasis?- a girl shouted to me.
I looked around.
- Please, look carefully. There must be an oasis to the West.
But there was nothing to the West, except for the red circle of the setting sun, and, for some reason, I became ashamed of this fact.
- Just desert…
- You probably have bad vision, - said stranger with vexation.
- Yes, my vision is not good. - I agreed easily.
- Can I climb into your basket and see for myself?
- Sorry, I do not have a ladder. You’ll have to wait until air in the balloon cools.
- All right, - agreed the girl and sat down on the ground.
The balloon slowly descended. Now I could better examine the stranger. I looked at her. She looked at me. There was nothing shameful or indecent in this examination of one another.
- I am so tired, - her large black eyes told me.
- I lost my faith, - answered my own.
- My feet ache.
- My heart aches from hope...
Suddenly I pricked my ears. A motion occurred in the outskirts of our silence. Grayish- brown spots were closing their circle. I rushed to the box with the tools. My hands shook; my fingers refused to obey me and could not keep up with my wishes. My heart unwound a thousand years before it was possible to find the revolver. I rose and pulled the trigger. The shot sounded muffled. One of the moving spots yelped and rose into air. I jumped over edge of the basket without thinking and I suddenly felt like feather pulled out from a wing. For the brief moment of the fall, I had time to look at the balloon with regret, as it jerked easily upwards. My feet touched solid soil, hardened by the winds and the sun, and my entire body collapsed onto them with its clumsy weight. I shot without looking, yelled and collapsed, paralyzed with pain. I can only guess at how much passed time before I discovered myself lying next to a bonfire. My soles ached dully. It was very cold. I attempted to rise and fell with pain.
- I do not think you broke anything, but your heels must be hurt badly.
- Seems so.
- Oh boy, your jump was spectacular.
- Certainly, I jumped just to make an impression.
The girl began to laugh.
- Well. The wolves were impressed. They ran, frightened by your howl, tails between their legs. Poor animals. You are so cruel...But.... but.... but you have remarkable balloon
- You are also....- I stutter, but, after a confed moment, finished, - remarkable...
The girl looked to me, smiling.
- From where do you fly? - she asked.
- From myself...
- To where?
- To myself.
- You are strange, - concluded girl after a hushed silence, - and your wonderful balloon is strange also...
- I made it myself. It is the essence of my life. Look.... - I crawled up to the shell of sphere and poked into one of the rags.- here is the restaurant bill, here is the credit agreement for the purchase of the car, the tax forms for the last three years, and here is the insurance...There are useless option stocks, presented to me by my employer, the lease agreement for the apartment, the bank records... checks... and... if you try hard, it is possible to find my social security card. Thousand and thousands of sheets of paper, issues of “The State Times”, ads for shrimps, turkey, bacon, kilbasy polisky.- 3.20 for two…
- But why?
- Why? I cannot answer with two words... But in three words… Listen…At nine A.M. the relay of the alarm clock clicked and turned the radio on. I woke up and walked to my table and turned the toggle switch of the calculating machine. There was large window covering the entire wall to the left. There were pots with flowers behind the window, the grid of a balcony, brushwood of a plant that was in blossom forever, a stone wall, eucalyptuses, the road which carried rare cars, the green slope of the hill, houses. At two A.M., I turned off the calculating machine, walked out from behind the table, lay down on the bed and fell asleep. But at nine A.M. the relay of alarm clock clicked and turned the radio on... Once, I looked into the window and said to myself: “Look, there are pots with the flowers behind the window, the grid of a balcony, brushwood of a plant that is in blossom forever, a stone wall, eucalyptuses, the road which carries rare cars, the green slope of the hill, houses, but....but there are mountains somewhere behind the houses, there is forest and desert behind the mountains, there is ocean behind desert, and there is the island in the middle of the ocean. On the island there is no electricity, alarm clocks and radio receivers.” So, at eight in the evening I did not lower the louver, but I went into office and brought ten boxes of paper glue. The balloon was glued at nine A.M. I made the balloon basket from the office table and the telephone wires. There was a strong eastern wind when I lit up the sprayers of the gas stove and filled the sphere with hot air. And I flew... Hey! Hey! Go! Go! - I yelled, filled with joy. Police cars drove up to the house. I gaily waved to the officer, who screamed into the megaphone that I am suspected of stealing paper glue and am obligated to go back to appear before the court of law... Pots with flowers swam away, the grid of the balcony swam away, the brushwood of the plant that was in blossom forever, the stone wall, the eucalyptuses, the road which carried rare cars, the green slope of the hill, the houses.... In ten hours my balloon was above the mountains...
- Awesome! Awesome! - a girl clapped her hands. I shuddered. I looked at the fire, which dances in her large black eyes.
- And then, there was a storm, a thunderstorm, a tornado... they flung my sphere through the black clouds and they erased all my thoughts... all, except one...
- What your thought was about?? About death?
- Almost. I thought about where paper glue was made....In China or...But...But suddenly, silence fell. The storm was like wall behind me, and I was in front of a great desert. And my heart was filled with joy. Indeed, there had to be an ocean after the desert, and there is the island in the ocean, where there is no electricity, alarm clocks or radio receivers...Then, the wind calmed down... and someone's voice asked me about the oasis.
- It is a pity, that you did not see the oasis
- It is a pity, - I agreed .
- You know, - the girl told me, - let me tell you story about myself. You will be pleased by my story. I live on the island. My house stands at the foot of hill. Imagine. Mountains to the right, sea to the left, in the center steppe, at the edge, is my house with the red-tiled roof. There are old, tall pine trees along the slope of hill. They shiver with the wind, saying something, but no one wants to listen to them. Sometimes, the ocean is such a dark-blue in the clear weather, that it ripples in the eyes. I look at it frequently and think. I cannot say what I think about, because my thoughts are like birds, they fly high and disappear before I manage see them.
- Do you have radio on the island?.- I asked with hope.
- And alarm clocks?
- Alarm clocks are forbidden under the fear of the death penalty.
- I knew it! I knew! - I yelled jumping to my feet, and I immediately started yelling still louder from the unbearable pain in my heels.
- Sometimes I feel so wonderful, that flowers bloom all over me. I pick flowers from myself and give them to people, but... - the girl shut her eyes and sighed heavily, then crossed her hands over her face, - but the flowers immediately wither in the people’s hands.
- No, - I breathed.
- Yes. They wither. A wise person said that the flowers wither because my thoughts are not with them. It was so unfair, that I decided to find a place where thought flies away. I crossed the island, swam across the ocean on a canoe and found myself in this desert. “Where, where do they fly?” – I asked myself and I suddenly understood that they approach an oasis. Indeed, the desert is like the ocean and the oasis is the island of the desert, and the thoughts, born on an island, only to an island can fly. But yesterday, I saw your balloon and lost the track of my invisible birds.
- What a sad history...! Ugh... what a sad story, - somebody sobbed behind us. I can’t… I can’t take it…
- Who is there? Come out! - I yelled attempting to grab the revolver.
- I will come out... only do not shoot...What a sad beautiful history!
The elongated wolf snout appeared into the circle of light.
- Wolf...? - I said surprised. It sounded so foolish.
- I am not a regular wolf, but a steppe wolf, - said animal cautiously sitting down next to fire,-if a steppe wolf placed into captivity, then it becomes tame and staunch as a dog. Many years ago, when I was man, I was placed into captivity by a woman, and I became absolutely tame. She fed me from her hand, ironed my shirts and fastened my ties five different ways. We had a three-bedroom cozy house, a two-car garage and a joint account in the bank..
- Amazing! – girl exclaimed, and my jealousy started to grow.
- Well…it’s not so great, - said the wolf, embarrassed, and scratched his ear just like a dog, - my history is of a humdrum life... But yours, my darling, your history... Such.... Such... - the wolf again has sobbed.
- Please, continue, - girl asked.
The wolf has sighed and looked away:
- Almost nothing to tell.... Everything would be excellent, if not the Moon and not the psychoanalyst. Yes... The Moon is guilty. You know…I wanted to shout, howl, jump, wallow on the grass naked when I come into our yard at night, and the Moon suddenly appeared over me. During the full moon, this desire was so strong, that I tore my tie off and guzzled Courvoisier glass by glass. Of course the desire has turned to passion. This feeling ate at me, I have grown thin and even began to refuse to take food from hands. Finally I decided to visit a psychoanalyst. This bastard... - the wolf hesitated for a moment, - might be not a bastard... Anyway he advised me to undress and jump naked on the lawn… Oh, what was night! Remarkable, silent, gentle... The full Moon hung above trees. I dumped my clothes and stepped on the grass. I felt like a fish thrown back into water on its last breath. I jumped and started wallow in the grass!!! But then my wife’s voice shouted. My wife stood in the doorway and shouted to me that I have to stop this madness and came back into the house, otherwise she would call police. I refused. I raised my head to the Moon and began to sing that I will never come back to the house, I will never take food from hands and never wear a tie. I sang that I will leave to the steppe, and my woman can follow me if she wants... I sang about the pleasure of being what you are, instead of what others see in you... When I finished the song and lowered my head away from the Moon, I saw my naked wife cautiously step on grass. Then her lovely snout touched mine, and we ran to the South, following the Moon.
- Splendid! - the girl whispered.
Suddenly long lingering howl came from the West. I shuddered and started to search for the revolver again.
- Well, it is time to go, - the wolf told us, - my wife calls me. We have big household and I have a lot to do tonight. We have a three-bedroom cave with two entrances, and a shared area for squirrel hunting.
- Wait, do you know of an oasis nearby? - girl asked with hope.
- No, I don’t. But it does not mean that there isn’t one around. I am sure that you will certainly find it. It might be further west. The main thing – you should go with faith and never lose a trace. Great hunting to you! – the steppe wolf answered and slipped into the dawn haze.
The girl turned to me. She raised her hand and touched my unshaven face.
- The island is in the East and you will undoubtedly reach it, - she told me and immediately the east wind reached its tendrils through her hair towards the shinning dawn.
With unclear feeling, I looked into the girl’s black eyes, but they already looked past me, at the still-dark West. I got up, overcame the pain and tiptoed to the balloon. I started to prepare it for flight, but the only thing that occupied me and masked the pain, was my effort not to look to the West. In twenty-five minutes and fifteen seconds, I lit the stove sprayers and hot air began to fill the sphere. The East wind became stronger. I was in the basket, looking at the East without blinking and waiting for the moment when the wind would drag the sphere after itself. But suddenly my eyes rested against such a familiar and unfamiliar face.
- Wait, - girl whispered. - I absolutely forgot. She has put her hand to her heart, then sharply, with an almost inaudible groan, stretched it to me. A small white flower lay on her narrow palm.
- This is for you.
- What for? It will wither in any case.
- Yes, it will wither in one minute but if you put it between pages of a book it will dry up and remain almost intact. Then many years will pass, you will become old and weak. You will not have anything else to do, except to move books pages around, because radio and alarm clocks are forbidden on the island. One day, you will take the book, and between its pages, you will find this flower. You will remember the balloon and me in your mind, and while you will think of me, time will flow as the wind and it will be afraid to break the course of your thoughts.
I took the flower from the shivering, cold hand. The distance between us grew. First slowly, then faster - the wind carried me away to the East. The girl still stood, having stretched a hand to me, and suddenly cried... She shouted something about an oasis and about birds.... that now they fly to the East. I lowered heavy, burning eyes, and my gaze fell on the flower. Buds stretched out from under green leaves. They opened slowly, unveiling bright, fine colors, surrounding a sparkling white flower with a shining crown... And then I understood everything, and everything become clear to me, but the wind carried me away. Irreparably and irrevocably. And I want, that everything... everything appeared to be dream... And wind sang a long jazz tune.
I opened my eyes. It is morning; nine o’clock. Thirty two seconds ago, the relay of the alarm clock clicked and turned on the radio, tuned to the jazz channel. What a remarkable dream I had! I closed my eyes, trying to recall the dream, but with each second, I lost more than I found. Only the smell of a flower, seemingly, became stronger. I raised my hand to my face. The fine white flower sparkled in my hand among shining bright inflorescences. I slowly got up and went to the table. There was large window covering the entire wall on the left… There were pots with the flowers behind the window, the grid of the balcony, brushwood of the plant that was in blossom forever, the stone wall, the eucalyptuses, the road which carried rare cars, the green slope of the hill, the houses at the top of it. There were mountains behind houses, forests and great desert behind mountains, ocean behind desert, and there was the island in the middle of ocean. The house with a red tile roof stands on the island. There are old, tall pine trees around the house. They shiver with the wind, saying something, but nobody wants to listen to them. Nobody except the girl. She listens trees and thinks. Her thoughts are like birds, flying high and disappearing. They are tired and dusty when I meet them. I clean their feathers and I feed them with fairy tales. What these thoughts are about, I will not tell you. What this story is about, you know for yourself. But I’ll tell you what I’m thinking: Listen… Where can I get ten boxes of paper glue?
[illustrations] [in russian]