They killed that boy. That was their second try. The first time his mother forgot to take her white knitted scarf and returned home. They had to leave. But they returned a few days later. He was crying of course, he was very loud. Neighbors heard him. He cried out those standard things, sort of: I'm too young, I don't want to die. But they did their job. They killed him and wrote on the wall, "Remember, you have a second son too." A message to his father, who was a public prosecutor. Sorry, I don't remember his name, though I had been teaching that boy physics for two years. He was much too ordinary. The next day, after he had been killed and we all already knew about it, the school where I worked received guests from the U.S. They came, relaxed and careless. White shirts, of course. Dark ties. They asked us if we liked pancakes. We spoke about pancakes. We even smiled.
I don't remember his name, but strangely, when I close my eyes I can see him as clearly as if he is printed on the inside of my eyelids. A little blurred photo, as if made by a cheap cell phone. He had freckles. I never noticed them when he was alive.
It's about midnight. I wake up because of a loud noise, as if a fast train that appeared from nowhere is galloping past my windows. I'm in a very dark village. The nearest streetlight is seven miles away. But now everything's illuminated by a powerful red, practically photo lab light. Okay, it's a nuclear explosion, I think. I don't panic, there's already no use. I remember Chernobyl. I go out into the street and see a fiery half-globe over the field. It moves, it lives. It looks like it rolls towards me. Then I feel something like rain patting my shoulders. The rain is hot. In the morning, I notice that the leaves of an old willow near the house are yellow and shrunken. The hot rain of molten earth burned them. But in the morning the fire is already extinguished. A high pressure gas pipeline went across a potato field. Now the potato tops are burned. A crackling glassy crust of molten ground covers the surface of this plant crematorium. I take a step, and my foot comes down through the crust, as if through unsteady ice. The potatoes under it are baked and tasty. Kids will dig them up for days.
This pipeline was too worn-out not to explode. I live in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in a world of life-expired things. There's a forty-year-old linear particle accelerator, once the world's largest, in my city. It still works when there's money to pay electricity bills. It can even create antimatter.
After the U.S.S.R. collapsed, and even the biggest naïve optimists understood that this stinking pile of freedom, equality, and happiness was no more revivable than a hard-boiled egg, we looked around and found ourselves in a bog of high-tech things. These things rot.
At first, our generals were happy like a fresh-diapered baby who got a new pacifier. They started drafting like mad. For decades, they lived oblivious to the cavities of their military teeth.
Today, I'm in the library. It's a great, blue-aired palace with pointed windows of the ancient height. The best minds of the city are at the desks around me. If someone could collect the total power of their brains, and make it coherent on the quantum level, the resulting intellectual beam would create a new portable universe. I'm proud to be in such company. A bird flies in through a window. It's a swift. It circles under the ceiling for many hours. The brains look up, think, and rack themselves. They can do nothing about it. In the morning of the next day, the swift is still here. It still draws its swishing circles. The brains want to save it, but the best they can propose is a big mop. Sorry, no mop can reach so high. The bird is under the very ceiling; it's higher than the windows, and it can't find the way out. Two days later, the bird drops dead.
There are simple things, about which even the best brains can do nothing.
In 2003, an SA-5 surface-to-air missile fired from a Ukrainian shore battery downed a Tu-154. The plane was shot down during military exercises.
"Oops!" our generals said. "We didn't want to kill those seventy-seven people flying from Israel to Siberia. But these things happen," the busy bees hummed on. "Something went awry. It was beyond our control. Isn't it awful?"
There's an old ammunition depot in the village of Novobogdanovka. In 2004 the munitions exploded. Flames shot up to three hundred meters. The next year the dump exploded again. The weather was too hot. Some dry grass caught fire, and we had it again: a few happy villages were destroyed. In the summer of 2006, the load of over-heated military rubbish exploded once more. Again that so-and-so dry grass. But we were already used to it. The trains were all delayed because of the explosions, so we sat at a dusty railroad station and spoke about pancakes.
Pancakes are tasty. I like them. The village of Novobogdanovka is thirty miles from one of Europe's biggest nuclear reactors.
I live in the city where an atom of lithium was split into two alpha particles, back in 1932, first in the former U.S.S.R., only a few months after J. D. Cockroft and E. T. S. Walton did it in the Cavendish Laboratory, first in the world. Nobel laureates in Medicine, Physics, and Economics studied and worked in my city. Its laboratories house weapons-grade uranium, enough for a few nuclear bombs. When I was a student, I happened to protect a building of an institute where a few pounds of it were kept. I remember endless echoing corridors, empty like interstellar space, and the basement with rows of steel doors. Everything was so silent that I could distinctly hear the rhythmic impotence flowing out of the guard's headphones five corridors away from me. One armed guard and two sleepy students. And the uranium behind the steel doors.
I think my country holds an absolute record in the number of criminal prime ministers. We had four of them in ten years. Is it possible anywhere else in the world? The first one stole as much money and as many documents as he could steal, and ran away. He was caught when crossing the border into Switzerland with a forged passport. Later he was convicted in the United States on charges of billions of dollars of money laundering, corruption, and fraud.
Our second prime minister was arrested on charges of forging customs documents and smuggling gas. The third one, when he was young, twice was convicted and imprisoned for (I like this detail, it's absolutely fabulous) robbery and bodily injury. He sat in the prime minister's chair twice and did better than his predecessors. These people are the elect of the land. They're the best. The others are much worse.
Hog-nuzzled intellectual minimi with the morals of pit bulls ride in sleek expensive cars along the heavily potholed streets of Kharkiv.
I taught another boy who shot his own father with a sporting machine carbine. I had seen that black metal thing a day before the murder. The carbine was heavy, cold, and beautiful. The boy showed me how to load it, how to take aim. I tutored the boy at home because he was too rich to go to school. He was about sixteen, but he didn't know many simple things. He had never learned; he just did not want to. And he had this tommy gun.
A few hours after I left, his father came home drunk. There was a quarrel, and the boy shot him. This boy was talented and inconsistent. Before the murder, he wrote about three thousand aphorisms. I still have them somewhere in my computer. I even remember some of them. How about these:
"Poverty is the mother of crime; wealth is its father."
"Like in a horror movie: while we live, speechless, deep, and not completely alive creatures ramble around us. Sometimes you touch them by accident and think, It was just wind. Sometimes they touch you and think, It was just a human."
"Life looks and looks at what a person's doing and says without rhyme or reason, 'Let's cut him short here.'"
I've mentioned Chernobyl. Yeah, Chernobyl is in my country too. When the disaster happened, I didn't believe in it at first.
"You know, a nuclear reactor blew up yesterday," my mother said.
"No, it's impossible," I answered. "Nuclear reactors never blow up."
It was beyond my comprehension. It was beyond anyone's comprehension. After a while, I happened to see an old propaganda poster. I read in it that Chernobyl power plant would be built ahead of schedule, timed to some CPSU congress or conference. Then I believed that the disaster had really happened.
"There's a mystical but powerful connection between the flower's name and flower's scent," one of our poets said almost a hundred years ago. (Excuse my liberal translation.) I believe in it. An example?
The surface of a black hole is determined by its Schwarzschild radius. Karl Schwarzschild calculated that radius in 1916, a few months before his death at the German-Russian front. If we translate his name, Schwarzschild, into English, it'll sound like "Black Shield." But the surface of a black hole is exactly a black shield, separating the inside of the hole from the outer Universe.
It's a coincidence, you can say. Okay, another example.
The name of the Ukrainian power plant, Chernobyl, appears in the 8th Chapter of the book of Revelation:
"And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood."
Chernobyl is in Ukraine, and in Ukrainian, "Chernobyl" means "Wormwood." You probably heard about it. But there's another coincidence.
"Cherno" means "black." "Byl" means "true story." Black but true story. Magic of names.
You know, the new energy strategy of Ukraine foresees the construction of twenty-two new nuclear power plants by 2030. Do we live in the aftermath of Chernobyl, or in the before-math of something bigger?
One day I asked children in the sixth grade to take a sheet of paper and write anything they were thinking about at the moment. One of the kids, a skinny, cheeky boy, wrote a long list:
To strangle all the teachers.
To thump my sister.
To hung cats.
To trample the chalk.
To break a computer in school.
To crush Chika's kidney.
In all, thirty-five items.
Four years later, this boy killed his pal by stabbing him with a knife six or seven times. I still have the yellowed paper with this boy's confessions. I can't understand it, as I couldn't understand Chernobyl.
I'm at the seashore. It's a small, pebbly beach. The sun is setting behind my back, painting the stones in bright orange and grass-green. A small crab scrambles onto a stone in front of me, so near that I can touch it. It sits motionless, staring at the sun and perhaps at me. It is so old; it was so old even in the time of dinosaurs. We live side by side on the same planet, but in fact, it's more alien to us than any alien. There's no way to communicate with it. Its eyes are two small black holes, not calculated by any Schwarzschilds yet.
"Hey," I say, and wave my hand.
At that moment, it waves its claw. It may be a threatening gesture, but it looks as if it answers.
"Which of us will become extinct first?" I ask. It pauses for a moment, then waves its claw again and disappears. I think it was a farewell gesture: goodbye . . . to a human.