Prose Header

Near Zero

by Natan Dubovitsky

translated by Bill Bowler

Near Zero: synopsis

Yegor Samokhodov was happy as a youth in the Russian heartland but now, in Moscow, in middle age, he is estranged from his wife and daughter, and his low-paying job as an assistant editor is going nowhere. Looking for a way out, he joins a criminal gang, the Brotherhood of the Black Book. The Brotherhood is involved in forgery, theft of intellectual property, black-marketeering, intimidation, extortion, bribery, murder, etc.

Yegor’s girlfriend, Crybaby, invites him to a private screening of her new film, although she cannot attend. Yegor goes, hoping she may show up, and is horrified to discover he is watching a snuff movie where Crybaby is slowly murdered. After the screening, Yegor finds that Crybaby has disappeared. He sets out to Kazakhstan, to find and kill her murderer, the film director Albert Mamaev.

The story is set against a panoramic backdrop of Russia during and after the collapse of the USSR. Yegor’s quest brings him into contact with a cast of characters from a broad spectrum of Russian life, culture, history, politics and government.

Near Zero header links
Translator’s Foreword Cast of Characters Table of Contents

Chapter 35: Tridtsat’ Pyat’

In the present, Yegor did not know why he had come, and so he lingered at the fork.

He thought at first to head towards the “dead” part of Lunino, to the churchyard, to Grandma’s grave. But he felt a stifling grief and pain, thick like the surrounding forest, and understood that in the churchyard among the crosses and graves he would immediately die, the way a person exhausted by a long, senseless and useless journey with potholes and transfers, falls asleep immediately at the sight of other completely worn-out travellers laid out in beds.

Yegor turned to the left, towards living Lunino. He expected that what had seemed vast and enduring in childhood would now, from adult height, seem small and transient, but to what extent, he could not suppose.

The stream where he had almost drowned several times, which had been deep enough for swimming and for catching fish in nets, for building dams, for journeys along mysterious shores, and for scary stories about drowned persons, this great little river — his Mississippi, which he pictured while reading Tom Sawyer — now he didn’t cross it on a bridge, didn’t even leap across, but simply stepped over it.

The flat roof of the village store, among whose treasures had been sweets and candy, and sometimes even fizzy lemonade, was level with his shoulder. The club where he had watched movies and gone to dances, with the first premonitions of love and knife fights, turned out to be even lower.

All the apple trees were half his height. The homes seemed like doll houses. The motorcycle with a sidecar parked by the medical clinic seemed like a toy. Yegor could not even sit on one like that, let alone drive it.

He made his way to his grandmother’s house, looked at it from above, into the black throat of the chimney. The surroundings appeared strange but not surprising to Yegor, who was not completely himself and observed all these absurdities without panic, as if in a dream. It was also, however, pure, beautiful, and fresh. To this day, Lunino appears like this only in memories. In life, even in the best of times, it was much shabbier.


Yegor was bending over and ready to open the door and push through into his childhood home, when someone tumbled out from the neighboring barn. He was thick-headed, with a watermelon-sized pot belly, somehow all rounded, smooth, and gradually inclined on all sides. He resembled an elderly bun, covered by a cap and padded jacket, waving his raven-colored moustache and furry ears at every word. He was an unusual personage and therefore not forgotten and immediately recognized.

“Uncle Kolya!,” shouted Yegor. “Greetings. Do you recognize me?”

“Greetings. Sure I recognize you,” answered Uncle Kolya, not very sincerely, it seemed.

“Well, how are you?”


“Hold on, Unc. How old are you now, if I’m past forty? Seventy? You don’t look it! You’re well preserved.”

“Why not? I lie around at home, don’t bother anybody. Nobody eats me or beats me. How could I not stay well preserved? I’ll lie around for another hundred years and still look like new.”

“Uncle Kol, hold on, I just remembered. They told me you had kicked the bucket. That’s definitely what they said.”

“Well maybe I did. Around here it’s the same thing every day. You could die and not notice. There’s no difference. Maybe I died. It’s easier to tell from outside.”

“Do you remember me?”

“I sort of remember, but I forgot your name.”

“I’m Yegor Samokhodov.”

“Well, Yegor it is. What brings you here?”

“I’m thirsty. I’ve come for a drink of water.”

In the course of this disjointed conversation, really, Yegor could not figure out if he was amazed by speaking with a person long dead according to reliable news or if it was simply that memory had led him into this state of mind. He wondered why Uncle Kolya, like everything else in the strange Lunino, was somehow small scale, reaching just to Yegor’s waist. All these little buildings and trees seemed as if they were taken from a playground. Horses the size of dogs stuck their muzzles through from behind a toy fence. In the midst of this conversation with Uncle Kolya, Yegor remembered why he had come.

It was not the desire to see his homeland, which turned out literally to be small, that had pulled him out of the moving truck. It was unendurable thirst.

When the driver Vasily had drunk his kvass, black like grease, Yegor had suddenly realized it was stuffy in the truck cabin. He felt like he was inside a greasy pot, where the long distance trucker had been steaming in his own sweat for days on end.

Yegor also wanted to drink, he was dying for a drink, and just at that moment — “Lunino” flashed by in the window and dragged him out from the pain, the thirst, out from under a pile of the remains of fate — and he saw a vision of his source, his little stream.

The water, frighteningly pure and ice cold, like moonlight, bubbled through the white sand amidst the Russian sedge, and covered a spacious clearing, the length of several paces, in the green twilight along the stream. This water was mixed with bits of flax. You had to drink carefully, blowing the golden sprinkles and specks of dust off the reflection of your own face, modestly kissing the water with numb lips. And you had to drink tenderly, almost not drinking, in order not to swallow sand from the bottom. It was more like admiring, touching the water as if it were a miraculous icon from which the stream lord gazed, smiling, resembling a sunburned boy.

This source that Yegor discovered had most likely bubbled up from underground not so long before. It was far from the village and remained his secret for some time.

As a boy, he would listen for hours on end as the smooth sand in the source danced with the water and the sunbeams, the silence made more beautiful by the rustling of the summer air.

And even when he shared his marvelous secret with Ryzhik and Olga, and the whole countryside learned of his source, no one showed up to widen or deepen it. Its distance from the village saved it and no one was interested. No one went there for the water. There were wells much closer.

So it was called Yegor’s Source and remained in his memory forever. Through the years, the memory was layered and polished using the most modern mnemonic technology, and looked now like a glossy picture. It had become an unreal but beautiful memory of the shimmer of sweet coolness. Near the surface, a dragonfly hovered. High above, near the sky: wind, the trail of an airplane, and a star.

“Can I bring you something to drink?” asked Uncle Kolya.

“Do you know Yegor’s Source? I’d like to go there. I remember, it was in that direction.” Yegor waved his bandages towards the sunset that was starting to turn red. “But I’ve forgotten exactly where.”

“I know it, but it’s far. You look a bit pale. Can you make it?”

“I have to, have to.” Yegor cleverly did not answer the question asked. He was not sure he could make it.

Proceed to Chapter 36...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Home Page