The doctor placed a stethoscope on the patient’s naked chest and began to listen: the large, excessively overgrown heart was beating faintly and unevenly against the ribs; it sobbed, as if it was weeping, and creaked. This was such a complete and sinister picture of approaching death that the doctor thought: “Well, I’ll be damned!” but what he said out loud was:
“You must avoid stress. Most likely you are doing some exhausting work?”
“I’m a writer,” answered the patient and smiled. “Say, is that dangerous?”
The doctor shrugged his shoulders and spread out his hands.
“Dangerous, like any illness… You’ve got maybe ten or twenty more years. Is that enough for you?” he joked and, being respectful to literature, helped the patient put on his shirt. When the shirt was on, the face of the writer became slightly blueish, and one could not tell whether he was still young or exceedingly old. His lips continued to smile, politely and suspiciously.
“Thank you for the kind words,” he said.
Guiltily moving his eyes away from the doctor, he spent a while looking for a spot to place the payment for his visit, and, at last, he found it: on the writing desk, between the ink bottle and the pen tub there was a cozy, modest little spot. And that was where he placed a green three-ruble note, an old, faded, frayed little note.
“They don’t make them new anymore, I don’t think,” thought the doctor about the little green note and shook his head wistfully for some reason.
Five minutes later the doctor was sitting with the next patient, and the writer, walking along the street and squinting from the autumn sun, was thinking: why do all the red-haired people walk along the shaded side in the autumn, and in the summer, when it is hot, along the sunny side? The doctor also has red hair. If only he told me five years or ten… but twenty? It means that I will die soon. A little frightening. Very frightening actually, but…
He looked into his heart and smiled with joy. How the sun shines! It is as if it is young, and it wants to laugh and come down to the earth.
The manuscript was thick; it had many pages; small, cramped lines ran across every page, and every one of them was a fragment of the writer’s soul. He turned the pages reverently with his bony hand and the light, reflected off the white pages, fell on his face, setting it aglow. His wife, who was standing next to him on her knees, silently kissed his other thin, bony hand, and wept.
“Dear, don’t cry,” he pleaded with her, “you don’t need to cry, there’s nothing to cry about.”
“Your heart… And I’ll be left alone in the whole world. Alone, oh God!”
The writer gently stroked the head leaning towards his legs with his hand and said:
Her tears made it difficult for her to look, and in her eyes the dense lines of the script moved liked waves, breaking and dispersing.
“Look!” he repeated. “Here is my heart. And it will remain with you forever.”
It was so pitiful to see a dying man thinking of living through his book that it only served to increase the flow of his wife’s tears. She needed a living heart, not a dead book that everyone could read: strangers, uncaring and unloving.
The book went into print. It was called “In Support of the Needy.”
The typesetters ripped up the manuscript into shreds, each setting the shred he was given, which oftentimes began with only half a word and made no sense. Thus, from the word “love,” one would get “lo,” another would get “ve,” but this did not make any difference because they never read what it was they were typesetting.
“Plague on this scribbler! What chicken scratch!” said one, and, frowning from anger and impatience, covered his eyes with his hand. The fingers of his hand were blackened by lead dust, his young face was covered in dark shadows of lead, and when the worker coughed and spit, his saliva was of that same dark, dead color.
Another worker, also young—there was nobody old here—was fishing out the necessary letters with the dexterity and speed of a monkey, softly singing:
“Ah, my fate, are you so black?
An iron burden on my back…”
He did not know the rest of the song’s words and the tune was his own: monotonous and candidly sad, like leaves rustling in the autumn wind.
The others remained silent, coughing and spitting out dark saliva. An electric lamp was lit above each of them, and in the distance, behind a wall of wire mesh, one could trace dark silhouettes of machines at rest. Patiently they held out their black knotty arms, pressing down onto the asphalt floor with their heavy mass. There were many of them, and timidly pressing onto them was the silent darkness, full of hidden energy, secret speech, and power.
The books were arranged on the shelves in colorful rows, and one could not see the walls behind them; tall piles of books lay in stacks across the floor; and at the back of the shop, in two dark rooms, there were even more and more books. And it seemed that man’s thought, fettered within them, was trembling in silence and trying to tear itself out, and that in this kingdom of books there was never any real silence or real peace.
A white-bearded gentleman with a kindly facial expression spoke in a respectful tone with someone over the phone, cursed under his breath: “idiots,” and shouted:
And, when the boy entered, his face turned unkindly and, threatening with his finger, he said:
“How many times do I have to call for you? Scoundrel!”
The boy’s eyes blinked in fear and the white-bearded gentleman calmed down. Using both his arms and his legs he pushed forward a bundle of books; he tried lifting it with one arm but, failing to do so, he threw it back onto the floor.
“Here, take this to Egor Ivanovich.”
The boy grabbed the bundle with both of his arms and could not lift it.
“Come on!” cried the gentleman.
The boy lifted it up and carried it away.
On the sidewalk Mishka kept bumping into pedestrians and was chased out into the middle of the street, where the snow was brown and pasty, like sand. The heavy stack dug into his back, making him stagger; coachmen shouted at him, and, when he remembered how far he still had to go, he became afraid and thought he was going to die. He took the bundle off his shoulders and, looking at it, began to cry.
“Why are you crying?” asked a passerby.
Mishka kept crying. Soon a crowd gathered, and then came a grumpy policeman with a saber and a pistol, grabbed Mishka and the books, and brought them all on a cab back to the station.
“What’s this?” asked the supervising officer on duty, looking up from a paper he was working on.
“A backbreaking burden, Sir,” answered the grumpy policeman and prodded Mishka forward.
The officer lifted up one hand, cracked his joints, and then did the same with the other; he then stretched out his legs, one at a time, in his polished boots. Looking down sideways at the boy he threw out a series of questions:
“Who are you? Where are you from? What is your rank? What business are you on?”
And Mishka gave a series of answers:
“Mishka. Peasant. Twelve years old. My master sent me.”
The officer walked towards the bundle, still stretching as he walked, shifted his legs back and stuck out his chest. He took a deep breath and gently picked up the books.
“Whoa!” he said with enjoyment.
The wrapping paper was ripped at the side and the officer pushed it aside to reveal the title of a book: “In Support of the Needy.”
“Hey now, you,” he pointed towards Miskha. “Read this.”
Mishka blinked his eyes and answered:
The officer laughed:
Then the unshaven passport clerk came over, exhaling the smell of vodka and onions at Mishka, and also laughed:
And then they put together a report, and at the bottom of it Mishka put his little cross.