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Vyacheslav Rybakov. Artist

Vyacheslav Rybakov. Artist

Вячеслав Рыбаков. Художник

Translated by Ilya Avroutine (ilia.avroutine[]gmail.com)

Copyright © Vyacheslav Rybakov

Copyright © Translation Ilia Avroutine. 1997

--------------------------------------------------------------- Художник () ---------------------------------------------------------------


The forest was endless. The dense layer of murk tightly yet transparently wrapped itself around his body. Somebody's eyes, like mulberry flashes. A beast? Or a spirit? He would freeze and hold his breath. Twice the Artist walked through clearings in the forest. The stars were glimmering high in the peaceful dark-blue sky, high above the dangers of the forest. But then again he had to dive under the low network of branches, into the slightly sweet mass. The forest screamed and growled, it breathed out its foul breath. From time to time -- creeping steps. A beast? Or a spirit?... The Artist hoped to hear the voice of a Ku-wu bird, the bird of his ancestors. This would mean he was on the right track. But the forest screamed with other voices. The Artist was exhausted, his crippled leg bothered him more and more. He was licking his lips, glued together by dryness, but his tongue was just as dry. In the middle of the next clearing he stopped and threw back his bruised head. Above him, framed by the dark shadows of tree branches, shimmered a cloud of stars, rolling across the dizzyingly high dark blue vault. The stars always helped the Artist. Just one look at them and even the most complicated pictures turned out well. Why don't other people like looking at the stars? Then he sank to the moist ground with a muffled moan and called out to the Ku-wu. Help! Just a sign. He did not need anything else, just a sign. Leave the rest to him. He will be tireless like the wind, he will walk forever not feeling any pain. If he was on the right track, the misery was not in vain. But there was no sign...


He was finished with the picture of a Bear and was ready to puncture it with thin sticks of spears in all the usual places, in preparation for the ritual. The tribe was growing and had needed a bigger cave. But the only cave they had managed to find was occupied by a huge Bear. They had to kill it but did not know how. The tribe had not had to face such a problem for a long time. Only the very oldest men in the tribe knew how to kill the Bear, but every one of them had a different story. A shadow fell on the wall and the Artist heard a familiar breathing behind him. He turned around. The Chief looked at the drawing for a while and then said: "Good." Then he waited and added, "That's enough." "What's enough?" The Artist was surprised. "You've drawn enough." "I still have to do the spears." "No, you don't have to do the spears." "I don't?" "No. We 're not going to dance around the drawing." The Artist lowered his hands that were covered in paint. "We're not going to attack the Bear?" The Chief looked elsewhere. "We'll attack the Bear," he said. "But from now on, we won't dance around the drawing. You won't draw any spears. You won't draw anything!" The Artist rose slowly and his Assistant, who had been busily stirring the clay, also rose. "How can we not draw the spears?" asked the Artist, apparently lost. "And how can we not draw anything?" "We decided that you go hunting just like everybody else now," said the Chief, and his voice suddenly grew very firm. "And your Assistant, too. No need to draw. You two men are wasting your time on something that any old woman could do. It's stupid." He was silent for a while. "No need to draw. We'll erase all that," and he broadly swept his hand over the entire wall where the Artist had been drawing. The Artist looked at the Chief, and then turned to his drawings. Every kind of animal that people have ever seen was there, and people too. There was a small piece of eternal sky in every one of them, and the stars sparkled in every line. The Artist could not live without drawing. "I will not let you," he said in a hoarse voice and turned to the Chief again. "Let it stay!" To give his words more weight he bared his teeth and hissed, adopting an aggressive pose. Although he knew perfectly well, if they decided to erase it, they would. But why? "We've decided," said the Chief and looked right into the Artist's eyes. "They're not needed and only make it worse." "Make what worse, for whom?" asked the Artist. The Chief suddenly clenched his fists, each was the size of the Artist's head. The Artist tried not to look at them. "What do they make worse?" he desperately asked again, as his Assistant also clenched his fists. The Chief angrily glanced at the Assistant and slowly lowered himself on the ground and criss-crossed his powerful legs which were bulging with scars. "You Who Draw People and Beasts, sit down," he said and pounded the ground. "You want to talk, so we'll talk. And You Who Stir the Clay, sit down too. Only not here, but over there. I don't want you to hear anything." "Why can't he hear what you're saying?" asked the Artist. "He stirs the clay for me. I order him to stay here." "You can't order him to stay here," countered the Chief. " I want to speak so he won't hear." "I want him to hear everything that I hear!" the Artist stubbornly said, but the Chief clanked his teeth and loudly hit himself on his hairy chest. The Assistant moved away and the Chief turned to the Artist. "You draw the spears," he said. "Everybody dances and the elders ask the spirit for luck. And then the real spears miss." "So we need to draw more spears," the Artist bursted out, but the Chief interrupted him. "You are drawing, and we are hunting. You sit in a cave and eat what we bring, while we get wounded and die. And your Assistant sits with you and stirs the clay for you. I'm not saying it's your fault. I'm not saying we need to kill you. But the tribe is loosing faith. Before they used to think: 'Let's draw the victory and we'll have it.' But now we see, drawing doesn't help! Drawing only makes it worse, because you don't hunt with us. People are uneasy about that." The Artist was dumbfounded. After a long while he said "I'll draw". "You will not draw," said the Chief with a sigh. "You'll hunt." "I draw well," said the Artist, nervously interlocking his thin fingers. "The elders don't ask hard enough." The Chief stood up, and the Assistant seeing this, stood up too, although he did not hear what the Chief had said. "People think that too," said the Chief. "They think: 'He draws well and everybody can see that. Nobody can tell how hard the elders ask, so they must not be asking hard enough.' This is the worst kind of idea people can possibly have." "I'll go hunting, and then I'll draw. Don't tell them to erase," asked the Artist and got up. The Chief sighed again and wrinkled his forehead, meditating. After a while, he said, "Fine, I will let you draw the Bear and the spears. Draw the spears as well as you can. The elders will not ask. And we will not attack the Bear. You and your Assistant will draw well. And then you'll go and kill it well! And if you don't kill it, then you drew poorly, so there will be no sense in drawing anymore." "Just the two of us?" "Yes," confirmed the Chief. "So draw well."


The Assistant was dead, the Ku-wu bird was silent, and the Artist could not walk anymore. And the Bear was not hurt. And they will erase the drawings. This idea shook the Artist. He started shifting around in the dirt, trying to get up. If only somebody would give him a hand... But nobody did. Grabbing the air, the Artist was trying to get up, clenching his teeth so as not to cry out. He could not cry, the forest always listens out for the cry. That is where the easy prey is. The cry for help is always answered by the killer. He had to stand up. He had to reach his kind. They will help him, they are also humans... humans... if the Chief permits it... if elders permit it... then they will... He stood up and trudged on.


He was lying on the ground, his breath short and raspy, his head thrown back. An old woman squatted next to him and was washing his wounds with herb water. She was murmuring something completely unintelligible and touching his wounds with her keen fingertips. The skin was slashed open and slippery meat came out through the cuts. The Chief towered over them like a rock and his face was grim. "We didn't kill the Bear," sighed the Artist. "There should've been more of us." "In the old days one man could kill a Bear." "He knew the way." "But you knew how to draw!" yelled the Chief, pretending to be surprised. "Why would you need to know how to kill?" The Artist did not answer. The Chief waited and then said: "You're only good for gathering roots now." This was a humiliation. It was not his fault that they had sent him. It was not his fault that he had become a cripple. It was not his fault that for the rest of his life he would be doing woman's work and looking at empty walls! "I can't gather roots because I can't walk," he said, barely able to open his swollen lips. "I'll draw." The Chief bared his teeth. "There's plenty of work inside the cave! You'll cut roots and prepare animal skins. Somebody has to do the dirty work. You are used to dirt, working with your paint and clay, so it shouldn't be that hard for you!" "I'll do the dirty work and then I'll draw," the Artist argued quietly. The Chief's muscles swelled, he loudly hissed and started hitting his chest with both hands. He frightened the old woman. She jumped to one side and tripped over the Artist's wound with her hard, dry knee. The pain tore through him as if he was hit by the great fire from the sky. The Artist cried out as he jerkily shifted his position on the stinking animal skin. The Chief grew calm again. He sighed and then bent over and sympathetically smoothed out the skin under the Artist. "It's important to erase," said the Chief. The Artist closed his eyes.


He helped to cut roots, gut fish, clean animal skins. They laughed at him. Sometimes he would emerge from the cave and sit quietly in the opening. He would inhale the fresh air and look at the vast forest. He had trouble walking, but as he sat there, the sun licked his crooked frame clean with its hot tongue. The Artist would look through his half-closed eyes and dream. In the rare moments when he was left in the cave with the children and half-blind old women, he would walk up to his wall. The drawings were long erased, but the Artist touched the wall with the palms of his hands, on which dry earth was permanently implanted. He caressed the cold stone with his rough fingers, creating imaginary drawings. Suddenly, just like in the old days, he would see that he drew this line just right and the other one, too. If they had been visible to all, a deer's surprised moist eye would be looking at him from the wall... Meanwhile, the elders tried to remember how to get rid of the Bear. Every one of them tried to have their say and they would all claim the others were too young to really remember, and so the Chief did not dare to risk another attack. Once the Artist was able to get out of the cave with the help of a strong stick, he walked to the place where his Assistant used to get clay. It took him a while to get there. He transported as much as he could carry and trudged back, taking frequent breaks. He would sit down, stretch his crippled leg, and rest his chin on a knotted crutch. He saw a rock not far from the cave and sat near it. He started stirring the clay, clumsily but with as much love and care as he could gather. He felt it gradually turning into paint. Then he lay down, exhausted, as he nestled the back of his head in soft grass. The sky was clear. The Artist was thinking about the fact that he had not seen stars for so long. With effort he sat down again and started drawing. And again he saw that enormous gray hulk silently falling from above. The One Who Stirred the Clay cried out and only then the Bear growled, sensing blood. The thin legs sticking out from under the beast's mass jerked as they were dragged around. The Bear's nose turned crimson. The Artist stepped back, clumsily sticking his spear in front of him. Then he screamed with horror. Everything happened so suddenly and quickly. The One Who Stirred had just spoken with him and was trying to calm him down. He moved the Artist away with his strong elbow and advanced... The Bear lifted up its head and growled again. The Artist stepped further back and tripped, falling flat onto the ground, while trying to hold on to his spear. Then the Bear attacked. The Artist threw the spear and hit the Bear, but the beast only growled louder. The Artist sprang off the ground, the Bear leaped, the Artist jumped, too, and rolled down the slope, as the huge avalanche of stones and rubble followed him with boom and thunder, raising clouds of dust... He was drawing. He was telling the story, crying, begging, 'Do not laugh! There's nothing funny about what happened!' He finished one drawing, then another one, then a third, a fourth, trying to copy it all from memory just as he had seen it. He did not spare the paint. He was trembling. He wished, just for a moment, that everybody would feel as much pain and grief as he was feeling, so they would understand. People stopped laughing at him. He drew himself, crippled, crooked like a dry blade of grass, lying flat on the animal skin, and the empty wall next to him.


He returned to the cave late at night when everybody was asleep. He was exhausted and his eyelids were very heavy. Sweet fatigue pacified and relaxed him. He fell asleep immediately. That night he did not see his nightmares about the Chief and the Bear. The Chief came to see him shortly past noon. His nostrils were swollen with anger and his upper lip was twitching, baring his teeth. "Did you draw?" he asked abruptly. The Artist put away the fish he was gutting. "Yes, I did," he answered. "I Who Draw People and Beasts." "Why did you draw? I told you not to." "I like to draw. I decided to draw on my own even though you told me not to, because I like to do it." The Chief was trying to restrain himself. "And you drew it like this?" he asked, hiding his hands behind his back. "What you drew was the most dangerous thing!" "I drew what I saw. I drew what I thought." "You drew how the Bear was eating you." "Yes." "Some people have already seen it and more will see it still. We'll erase it, but even more people will see it before we erase. They will never dare to attack the Bear. It's frightening!" "Yes," said the Artist. "It's frightening." "That's why you drew it?" "No." "Why, then?" "I just could not help drawing." The Chief thought for a while, his forehead wrinkled. "You've terrified the whole tribe," he said. "I didn't think about that." "What did you think about, then?" The Artist was slow to respond. "I thought about myself. When I draw, I always think about myself and about the things I want. Things I like. I thought about the pain I had. I thought about the One Who Stirred the Clay, too." The Chief quickly glanced around, checked if anyone was listening, and then asked abruptly: "Then why does the Bear look so much like me?" The Artist did not answer. He did not know. "I know," said the Chief. "You wanted to do me wrong." "No," said the Artist hopelessly, "I don't like to do wrong to people. I like to do good things to people." "Then you'll go and erase," said the Chief. "And then you'll draw it all differently, because the way you drew, it's too frightening. Your Bear is frightening." "It's not "You will draw a different one then. You will draw a really tiny Bear and the biggest hunters with the biggest spears. Nobody will be afraid. I'll take my hunters myself to see your pictures. And then I'll send them to kill the Bear." "No," said the Artist. "The Bear wasn't like that. I can't draw a different Bear, only the one that was there." "Then you'll be banished," said the Chief, "And you'll die alone in the forest." The Artist suddenly felt pain in his barely healed wounds. He did not say anything. "When everybody will become brave from seeing the small Bear they'll go and kill it and we'll have a big cave." "When they see the real big Bear, they'll be frightened even more because they thought it was a small Bear!" "So what?" answered the Chief calmly. "When the Bear attacks they'll have to fight because it will pounce right on them." "It'll kill many!" "Yes, but we'll have a bigger cave." "When many die, why a bigger cave?" The Chief thought that over. "A bigger cave's always good," he said. "We have to kill the Bear because we already said we'd kill it. We can't say now that we don't have to." The Artist had nothing to say to that. He lowered his head. "I'll let you draw on the wall of the new cave and I'll give you another Assistant," said the Chief softly. "Go." The Artist got up and headed for the outside. The Chief went with him, supporting the Artist with his powerful arms. His support was so secure that for a moment the Artist thought he was strong again as if he had never been wounded. It was so easy to walk as long as the Chief supported him. But the Chief let go just before they got out and the Artist had to walk the rest of the way on his own.


Two young hunters stood near his rock. They were leaning on their spears and were quietly talking. The Artist stopped in the bushes behind their broad, brown backs and rested on his crutch. "Hey, look," one of the hunters was saying to the other one. "That's where the Bear actually hid." "Yes," the second hunter answered. "Look how it leapt. His front legs were spread out but his belly was vulnerable. If you jump at him and aims the spear up, as it leaps at you, you can sink your spear in its belly." "But those guys didn't know that. And look over there. You need to outflank the Bear, attack from both sides!" "Yes, remember our trick? We could definitely use it here." "Too bad they didn't know our trick." "Too bad they didn't know how the Bear leaps." "Too bad they didn't know where it hides." An uneasy silence followed as they looked at the rock. "But we know now, don't we?" said one. The other one sighed with relief and rolled his spear from his left hand into his right. "Yes," he said, "We know now." They spoke no more. Tightly holding their spears they looked into each other's eyes one more time and left, like shadows, slipping through the brush in complete silence. The Artist sank to the ground. He felt so weak. He was so sorry he could not go with those two. And if he could not go, there was no point in moving at all. He only had to wait. Fine mist hung in the air, teasing his nostrils and making the spicy smells of the forest even stronger. The sky fogged up and a quiet rain rustled through the leaves. As it started to rain, the picture began to shrink and smear, until a few moments later not even a trace of it remained on the dark, rough side of the rock. But the Artist did not even notice, as he looked in the direction where these two had gone. Those who would not cry and who are strong, unlike him. The ones who just went. "I'll draw them," the Artist thought. "I'll draw them for sure, I just hope they come back."

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