Bluebells: A Russian Short Story, Here for the First Time in English
“If you put them in a jar will they wilt overnight?” Junior Lieutenant Volodya asked.
As a translator, I was drawn to Grachev for his voice (he writes beautifully from the perspective of young people, for example) and timeless, unfussy realism. The very powers of sensitive observation and insight that threatened Soviet censors half a century ago make Grachev’s stories captivating today.
It was the last day of training camp. We were taking the targets down after shooting practice.
The targets stood in the wet, tufted meadow—white squares with black silhouettes in the middle.
The sun was setting and leaden ink streams flooded the sky. Was this what drying blood looked like? It was hard for us to know.
The rotting earth squelched under our feet. It sprang and shifted. Did dead bodies buried by an explosion spring like that under your boots? We’d never walked on dead bodies. They could be hard as steel—we didn’t know.
The targets stood upright, propped on stakes. Only one stooped down. Its painted soldier was frozen mid-fall. He’d caught a bullet and gone down. Shot dead. Two bullets in the heart and another that flew off somewhere, ricocheted, and hit his forehead. Killed three times, he was frozen mid-fall. To show what an assault casualty looked like going down.
“It was me that shot him!” Junior Lieutenant Volodya said. He went over to the target and covered the soldier’s wounds with his fingers.
The painted soldier rocked and fell softly on his back.
“Shot him dead!” Junior Lieutenant Volodya said. We said nothing. We picked the target up by its corners and brought it over to our pile with the rest. Tried not to swing it, held it steady though the earth was springy underfoot. Felt for tufts and hollows and carefully avoided them. As medics must carry and pile dead bodies after battle.
Though maybe the dead were dragged by their feet. With heads bouncing on the tufts and thudding in the hollows.
We lay the targets down. They smelled of rotten wood and flour paste. Their paper edges were coming unglued and fluttered weakly in the breeze.
Junior Lieutenant Volodya kneeled by his target and pulled a crushed bullet out of one of the holes.
“My handiwork!” he said, tossing the bullet up and catching it, then putting it in his shirt pocket.
“A souvenir,” he said.
We took the last targets down and the meadow was as it had been one hundred years before.
A meadow where cows grazed.
A meadow above which larks sang each morning.
A meadow beneath which moles burrowed.
We wanted to believe this about the meadow, but all knew it wasn’t so.
Because grassy, overgrown ditches traversed it. There’d been a field there once, with barley growing and water running in the ditches. Then grass grew over the ditches and pits formed in the field.
Maybe the first explosion lit up the barley. And when people ran across the field the grain spikes blazed beneath their feet. They went down on hot earth.
Then, after the last shell had exploded, they started shooting rifles and machine guns. Smoke crept across the earth and the air smelled of burning straw. People went down and didn’t get up again.
One of them caught a bullet in the chest. He was running and couldn’t stop. Another stride and a second bullet hit. Pierced his left shirt pocket. But the soldier kept running, couldn’t stop. One more stride and a third bullet hit. Flew from the side and pierced his helmet. Hit his forehead and he went down.
Then it was quiet, quiet like the evening of the last day of training camp.
We walked back to camp. The short grass chirred under our feet and the wet earth squelched.
But back then charred grain spikes chirred underfoot and water gurgled in drainage ditches. The guy who’d killed the soldier went out onto the field. Stopped by the dead man and looked at his wounds: two in the chest and one in the forehead.
“My handiwork!” he said.
Medics came and dragged the corpses to the ditch by their feet.
Maybe the soldier who was killed three times was still lying in the ditch and his bones bent and cracked under our boots as we walked back from shooting.
Or maybe no one was killed three times in that battle. Maybe one bullet for each dead man was enough. But there was a battle on the field. Cannons were fired, then rifles and machine guns. People were killed.
“Got him good!” Junior Lieutenant Volodya said.
He had reason to be proud. He’d never shot so well as on that last day of training camp.
The whole place was dark blue now. The sky was dark blue and the meadow was dark blue. Up ahead, dark blue woods and behind, dark blue pines above a dark blue lake. Dark blue tents above the pines.
But the blue in front of us was brighter than the sky’s blue, thicker than the meadow’s blue, and colder than the lake’s.
Junior Lieutenant Volodya ran over to the blue-blue spot. We ran after him, stumbling on the tufts and sinking in the hollows.
There at the cannon’s wheel, concealed by painted fascists, a bluebell bush grew. With unusual flowers, large for their bluebell order: five closely knit petals, four white filaments, and a fat little tongue in the middle.
They’d blossomed that last day of training camp. We’d never seen them before.
We picked bunches of the blue flowers and carried them, unsure what to do with this beauty, fallen to us by chance. If we’d run into some girls, we’d have given them to them.
“If you put them in a jar will they wilt overnight?” Junior Lieutenant Volodya asked suddenly.
He wanted to take the flowers home with him, apparently. Had someone to give flowers to in town, apparently. We who had no one said:
“Of course not!”
We’d stopped at a well and were drinking ice-cold water from the bucket when the bugler’s last call came from camp.
We chucked the bluebells in the meadow by the well, and only Junior Lieutenant Volodya picked one up and tucked it under the star on his cap.
The blue flower swayed above his head, a blue asterisk fluttering in space. We watched it as we walked.
We arrived at camp and Junior Lieutenant Volodya took his cap off to pull it out but changed his mind.
Drifting off, we heard him catch hell from the company commander, who was scowling and tired and had long since grown up.