Sisters of the Cross

Alexei Remizov, Trans. by Roger Keys and Brian Murphy

December 22, 2017 
The following is from Alexei Remizov’s novel, Sisters of the Cross. When Piotr Alekseevich Marakulin loses his job his change of status brings him into contact with a number of women—the titular “sisters of the cross”—whose sufferings will lead him to question the ultimate meaning of the universe. Alexei Remizov was a Russian novelist and short-story writer known for his unique style, which blends a popular Russian idiom with the language of old Russian folklore

It was not because their duties brought them close together that Marakulin and Glotov were friends. Neither of them could manage without the other: Piotr Alekseevich gave out the payment slips, Aleksandr Ivanovich was the cashier. The order in which they worked was as follows: Marakulin would write only in ink and Glotov would count out only in gold. And they were both so different and unlike each other—the one being narrow chested and with a thin line of moustache, the other broad shouldered and with whiskers like a cat, one looking out from the depths of his being, while the other was always ready to break into a smile. All the same they were friends who ate at the same table.

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They both had a distinguishing mark—part of their nature and so deep there could be no hiding it. It would shine out from under the eyelids of a person even when asleep, and anyway it didn’t matter in the slightest whether it was buried in the pupil of the eye or ran from the pupil around the eyeball. It was like an insect’s proboscis or a feeler that both had in common, and it’s not as though this feeler clung to life, but somehow sucked into itself everything that was living around it, down to the merest blade of grass that breathed, to the tiniest stone that grew, and sucking them in with a kind of voracious joy—with a joy, indeed, that you might find infectious. That’s what it was.

Who needed to, could see it; who couldn’t see, could feel it; and who couldn’t feel, could guess it.

They were young—both were thirty or thirtysomething; they were successful—they somehow managed to make a go of everything; they were physically strong—they were never ill, never complained about their teeth, and they had no obligations either in wedlock or out of wedlock; each was alone in the steppe, as it were, and the steppe stretched out far and wide in all its might around them, free, unbridled and unconfined—one’s very own.

It must be three years now since Glotov threw his espoused wife out onto the roadway from the second floor and the poor woman’s skull cracked in half, but it can’t be three years, no, it must be four— however, it doesn’t really matter. What we are talking about has nothing to do with Glotov, but with Marakulin. It’s Piotr Alekseevich Marakulin we are concerned with.

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Those who worked with Marakulin were always infected by his blithe cheerfulness. He confessed once that, though he was really thirty years old, somehow he unconsciously felt himself to be about twelve, let’s say, and he gave examples: when he happened to meet someone or to get in conversation with someone, then it seemed that all those senior to him were very old, while he being junior was very small, something like twelve years old. And Marakulin also confessed that he wasn’t in the slightest like a person, at least not like those real people whom we are always seeing on the stage, at meetings or clubs, as they come in or out, talk or fall silent, grow angry or are content—well, he simply wasn’t like them in the slightest and that with him, from his nose to his little finger, everything must be wrong, or so he thought. And another thing Marakulin used to confess was that he never thought about anything, never felt that he was thinking, and if he walked about the streets—well, he walked simply by moving his feet, and when he was introduced to someone—then he wouldn’t notice anything special, or any distinguishing features, either in the face or in the movements of his new acquaintance, and just dimly felt that some people attracted him, that others repelled him, one was closer, another was more distant, while with others it didn’t matter at all, but most often his strongest feeling was of being close to that person and of being certain of his or her kindly beneficence. And Marakulin also admitted that once he started reading books and coming across people, he wasn’t at all frightened by the most contradictory opinions and that he was ready to agree with them, since he thought that everyone was right after his own fashion, and as far as arguing was concerned, he really didn’t argue—whereas if he couldn’t contain himself and started to argue, then that was for quite indisputable reasons—and by the way, he was perfectly aware of this every time it happened, only he didn’t show it openly—there were so many indisputable reasons in life, after all! Marakulin also confessed that he had never wept once from the time he was born, except one time when his old nurse was passing away. On that very last day he climbed up into the storeroom and choked with weeping, the first and last tears of his life. And he had one extraordinary wayward feature that other people usually mocked: some sort of mad nonsense would get into his head and he would cling to it with such persistence, as though it was the essence of his own life and of everyone else’s life as well, and yet the whole business was really the result of some ridiculous nonsense that he had invented himself.

He had to hand in an account of his work to the director, and this had to be done before the holiday. A report like that was normally typed out—the most run-of-the-mill kind of statement—but here he was now, wanting to write it out himself and in his own hand. This, even though it would be faster to type it and easier and simpler, and even though there were special forms for typing it on. He was not abashed by anything like that, God forbid! So for days and nights he stubbornly traces out one character after another, writing evenly as if threading beads, and he writes it out many times until he achieves such perfection that you could display his work in an exhibition, as good as that—Marakulin was famous for his handwriting. Tomorrow, however, they’ll be tucking that report away among the other papers. No one will pay particular attention to it; no one specially needs it, so much time and work will have been spent on it and to no good purpose. A wayward man, stubborn even in his waywardness! And besides all that, it was even stranger to hear Marakulin tell of some feeling of inexplicable joy that he felt, and he would experience it completely unexpectedly; he would sometimes run to work in the morning and suddenly for no particular reason his heart seemed to flutter up and fill his chest to overflowing with an extraordinary rejoicing. And this happiness was so great, so all-embracing, and there was so much of it that he could have taken it burning hot from his chest, he thought, and distributed it to each and every one—and there would have been enough of it for all; he could have taken it like a bird in his cupped hands and, breathing on it with his mouth to prevent it getting cold so that it would not fly away, he would have carried it along the Nevsky Prospekt, this bird of paradise: let people see it and breathe in its warmth and feel its light—the peaceful light and warmth which the heart breathes and radiates from joy.

Of course, you are not going to sit in judgment on your own actions; confessions don’t solve anything; whether something happened or did not happen—who can say what’s true?—but love of life and a feeling for life, joy in his heart, that was something he certainly brought with him!

When you listened to Marakulin and saw how he approached people, and smiled and looked at them, you might have thought at times that a man like him would dare to enter the cage of a wild beast at any hour and, without blinking or taking thought, would risk stretching out his hand to stroke the bristling fur of the animal—and the beast would not bite him.

And how grieved Marakulin was when suddenly he saw quite unexpectedly that people might hate him just as they hated anybody else, that he also had people who were not well-disposed toward him, that for some people—God knows why: he would be a regular beam in their eye. But when all’s said and done, you could do anything with Marakulin. And if he had contrived so far to live to the age of thirty quite successfully, then this itself was an unlikely thing, nothing short of miraculous. Most probably people liked Piotr Alekseevich, not with any special fervor, but just because, after all, there was no reason not to like him—he was cheerful and laughed, but not with simple laughter; his laugh had a sort of drunken feeling about it that was specially “Marakulian,” and why should you hate him for that? But all the same, everything finished without much love, and things turned out badly for Piotr Alekseevich.

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This is how it was. By Easter, Marakulin was expecting to be promoted and to receive a reward—in big commercial offices they generally dish out bonus payments at holiday times—but instead of promotion and a bonus they suddenly gave him the sack. 

It happened like this: Piotr Alekseevich had been working five years in that office, for five years he had been in charge of issuing payment slips, and everything had been in good order and exactly as it should be (they jokingly called Marakulin “the German” because he kept everything so neat and precise)—but the managers ventured to check the books just before the holiday, and when they began to calculate and check the figures, there came a real hitch: it seemed as though something did not quite match up, there was something missing, maybe trifling amounts, but the fact of finding them at all meant that there was a big problem, these trifles and the confusion might mess up the entire business. So they took the books away from him, and he was fired.

At first Marakulin simply would not believe it, refused to believe it, thought they were playing a joke on him or something, people sounding off on their trumpets just for a joke, for greater merriment, that’s what it was, just before the holidays, he himself was laughing. So off he went to find out what was happening, in a joking mood himself. “Allow me,” he says, “grand thief, bandit and highwayman, to talk about the robbery . . .”

“What’s that you’re saying?”

“Ha ha,” he was the first to laugh.

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And in the letter of explanation to a very important and influential person, the director, he signed himself not simply Piotr Marakulin, but as the thief and embezzler Piotr Marakulin.

“The thief and embezzler, Piotr Marakulin.” “What’s that you’re saying?”

“Ha ha,” he was the first to laugh.

But evidently his joke did not work, nothing funny came of it— or if it did, then they did not notice it and, as for laughter, no one was laughing—rather the opposite. And the funniest thing turned out to be the reply of one young accountant—this accountant was a quiet little chap who wouldn’t harm a fly, so he didn’t have any official title.

Averianov said: “Until the misunderstanding involving you has been sorted out, I would like to reserve my final reply.”

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At this point Piotr Alekseevich engaged quite seriously with what was being said: “What is this confusion you are talking about? There simply cannot be any mistake.”

“What’s that you’re saying?”

“I’m talking about this supposed mistake . . . I do my work without a single mistake. I’m as methodical as any German. Where is the mistake?”

And at this point he realized that they were serious.

Would you believe it? A wild beast is evidently no simple proposition and doesn’t give in very easily. When its fur is bristling with rage, it’s no simple thing to stroke it—keep your hands off it, the beast will bite off your finger! Isn’t that how it is? Or has the beast got nothing to do with it, and isn’t the whole curse not that man is cruel to man, but that he is like a wooden beam and quite indifferent to the fate of another human being? No matter how much you pray to him, he will not hear you; no matter how much you call out, he will make no reply. You can batter your own forehead on the ground before him, and he will not move a muscle; he will carry on standing there as placed, until he crashes down, or you do. Isn’t that how it is?

So it was that thoughts of this kind flashed into Marakulin’s mind, and for the first time the thought came to him quite clearly and expressed itself sharply: a man is as indifferent as a beam to the fate of another.


From Sisters of the Cross. Used with permission of Columbia University Press. Copyright © 2017 by Alexei Remizov.

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