Turning Back the Clocks

by J.B.Polk 

It was a cold February night of crackling snow and exploding bonfire sparks. Pines poked accusing fingers at the star-spangled sky and the wind carried the insane laughter of a lone wolf. The men standing around the fire rubbed their hands and stamped their feet, their breath trailing in gauzy clouds.

” On a night like this, all one could wish for is a warm cabin, a glass of vodka, and the soft body of a woman to hold onto,” one of them, a thickset man bundled in a sheepskin coat, said.

“On a night like this, one would like to turn back the clocks,” another man added.

“Well said, Vania. Turn back the clocks. But…how far back?” the thickset man asked.

“How far? Different for each one of us, I suppose. As for myself, I’d go back to my wedding day. Masha, bless her soul, was so pretty back then – plump and warm like an oven-baked apple. Yes, I’d give five, no, ten years of my life to see her again. Just as she was on that day: wearing a blue dress, a flowery scarf with tassels…Lost all her plumpness in the siege of Stalingrad, hardly more than a skeleton, starved to death, poor soul…” his voice trailed into silence.

An owl yawned a sleepy hoot in the darkness and the chortling of the wolf seemed to have come a little closer.

“And you, Alyosha, where’d you like to be? Where would your clock stop?” Vania enquired of the thickset man.

Alyosha breathed on his hands and huddled himself against the cold.

“1936. The best year ever. Harvest time. The sunshine was shearing down between the gold stalks of wheat as I took off my shirt and lay down on the stubble. A breeze licked the sweat off my skin. Mother brought me a pot of stew, with chunks of meat and barley. And bread – warm and sticky. Thick slices of rye that smelt of wood smoke. Nothing smells better than fresh bread. And there is no better feeling than the pressure of a sickle handle in one’s hand – smooth, tight, as if sculpted into the flesh. Yes…If I could, I’d go back to the fields and the harvest of that year.”

The roaring fire leapt and ate up the logs while snowflakes pirouetted in the air then fell into the flames with a hiss.

“And you, Doctor?” Vania addressed the third man. He was tall and stocky, with stooped shoulders and a face crinkled into crepe by the cold. His hands had the tendency to creep to the bridge of his nose as if to pull up non-existent spectacles.

“How far back would you go? Supposing there was a machine that could take you back, what time would you choose?”

Doctor gazed intently into the flames, two bonfires reflecting in his myopic pupils. He lifted his chin. A shiver ran across his features rendering his likeable face suddenly hard and unforgiving.

“Back in Georgia, we had a saying: if the roof’s rotten, change it and you’ll save the house. If the rot settles on the walls – change houses,” he said.

The two other men exchanged puzzled glances.

“You forget we’re peasants, Doctor,” Vania said and prodded at the fire with a stick.

“We think simple thoughts and speak simple words. So we cannot follow your fancy talk.”

Doctor smiled.

“I see you want a story, Vania. Very well. You´ll have a story.”

He shifted his feet, pulled up the collar of the coat and his hands went again to the bridge of the nose before dropping quietly to the sides like homing doves.

“As you know, I was born in Georgia. Beautiful and perfect Georgia – your mother, your father, your child. Your life. Goats’ cheese in Georgia is fresh and white, peaches are so ripe they burst under the slightest touch and a glass of Georgian wine goes straight to your head. What more can a man ask for?

“It happened more than fifty years ago in Gori. Summer had settled for good and my friends and I spent our days swimming in the river, eating apples and plums, and lazing in the sun. Life was good in Gori.

” When you are 12 years old, the world is free of suppositions and hypotheses. It is a real world with reals things and no place for uncertainty. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.

“There were three of us. Juri, the postmaster’s son, Joseph, or Black Joe as we called him, the son of the local cobbler and me. My father was a teacher, someone who, you could say, belonged to the pre-revolution elite because of his education.

“I can hardly remember Juri now, but I remember Black Joe well, just as he was at that time: a mop of dark hair and a smirk permanently glued to his lips. His irises were so black that the colour seemed to leak into the whites, melting and nearly doubling the size of the pupils and there was something akin to a menace in his stare.

“Black Joe was ambitious and always craved attention. At school and elsewhere, he always had the right flattering words. But I sensed he was not sincere. His handshake was limp and I felt he didn’t really like us all that much – we simply seemed to serve his purpose.

” Every day, the three of us would meet in front of the post office and, putting together a few kopecks, we´d buy raisins and nuts. I never knew how Joe managed to get the daily contribution because his father was poor. But contribute he did, and his sweaty palms yielded the shiny coin grudgingly as if parting with it produced a secret ache.

“Our route never varied. From the post office, we´d go to the square, past the onion-domed church, across a grassy hillock to the river. We´d stay on the bank chatting, swimming, throwing mud bombs at each other. That day was not different – just a hot lazy afternoon. Apart from our shouting, everything else was quiet. The sun was slowly creeping down towards the horizon and we only had enough time for one last dip to wash off the dry blades of grass and blobs of mud before it got completely dark.

“Black Joe dove in first. Juri and I splashed in with laughter right after. I was a good swimmer – my father said I had to work on my body as well as on my mind. One never knows, he said, what might come in handy. Time proved him right.

“Juri swam back to the bank while Black Joe had just reached the middle of the river. I could hear his heavy breathing. His movements were getting slower. And all at once, he began flailing his arms, gasped for air, shrieked, flailed some more, then sank.

“On the bank, Juri was screaming. I knew I had to get to Joe, or he’d drown. In a few strokes, I reached the spot where he’d disappeared. The surface was unruffled. No sign of a struggle. No sign of Joe. I remembered what my father had said about rescuing a drowning man – “don’t panic, don’t lose your head.” I concentrated. I was in charge.

“Joining the tips of my fingers in a prayer-like gesture, I went right to the bottom. The river was greyish green with slimy plants grabbing at me from below. I spotted a shape, like a felled tree trunk lying on the shaly bed. It was Joe. Kicking my feet once more, I reached him, put my arms around his waist, and pulled him to the surface.

“He was not moving, the curly op of hair plastered over his eyes. Just behind me, I could hear the water splash – Juri was swimming towards us. Together, we struggled to the shore. Joe was not breathing and a dead weight in our arms. His face and lips were blue – the colour of the blueberry jam I used to have for breakfast.

“I took a deep breath and blew it into Joe’s mouth. Juri massaged his heart but there was no sign of life. Although we kept working on him, I had to fight back revulsion. It was as if I were kissing a corpse – unfeeling and cold.

“He’s dead,” Juri mumbled.

For a fleeting moment, I wanted to give up, leave the thing that didn’t seem to be Joe anymore. I lifted my eyes and I saw that the sun was nearly gone. A searing flash of shame shot through me and I realized that I couldn’t stop no. I had to try harder.

“I counted to three and with all my might smashed my fist on Joe´s chest, on his heart. He convulsed. Jets of water spurted out of his mouth, the eyelids fluttered. Juri and I resumed – pumping air into his lungs, rubbing his limbs, pressing on his stomach. Joe opened his eyes – the dark pools unfocused like a cheap camera. Juri slapped his face hard, and Joe sat up retching. More water gushed out. He gulped air.

“I have never been one to believe in premonitions – my father believed in science and taught me to rely on facts only. But looking at Joe, at his quivering shoulders and blue lips, I felt a stab of fear. Fear and regret. It was silly, why would I regret having saved his life? Juri was shouting excitedly and patting Joe’s back. I said nothing. The diminishing spark of the sun got smaller and smaller until it finally went off like a wet candlewick.

“It was the last summer we spent together. My father sent me to Sochi to study. I became a doctor, got a job in a hospital, married, my kids were born. Then the Great War came. I have never seen my friends again. But the strange apprehension, the weird feeling of regret has never left me. The image of Black Joe, just as I had seen him in the river, the eyes dilated with terror, arms flailing, resurfaced in my mind time and time again.”

The crunching of the snow announced someone’s approach.

“Kirigasvili, the commandant wants you,” the newcomer ordered.

“Right now.”

Doctor turned and shuffled heavily in the deep snow following the soldier´s springy step. Like black slashes on a white canvas, barracks emerged from the thick milky blizzard. The soldier motioned him in with a thrust of the rifle butt.

Inside, it was stifling hot. The air stunk of cigar smoke and sweat-soaked valonki – the Red army-issue boots. The man sitting behind a desk beckoned for him to come closer. He looked like an amateur boxer with a stubby, squashed nose and a small razor nick on the right cheek. Despite the heat, he wore an astrakhan hat. A sheaf of papers lay in front of him, and he scanned them briefly.

“Well, Kirigasvili. What can I say? I have bad news for you,” preliminaries were not something he cared for.

“Your appeal to the Supreme Court has been rejected. Comrade Joseph Stalin has not granted his pardon. It seems we need you here, in the camp. You are an excellent doctor, and it looks like we can’t do without your education and experience. Flattering, isn’t it?”

Doctor’s heart slammed against the ribs and a choking feeling, no, a big featureless block of feelings, exploded in his chest. He felt as he were falling, falling ten floors down from the very top of a building to the cement below where he would smash into pieces. But despite all of that, he accepted the verdict with an eery calm.

“You can go back. There’s nothing else,” the soldier ordered.

Doctor kept his unblinking stare on  the green uniform, the golden stars on the epaulettes, showing neither fear nor sadness.

“I should have let him drown,” he whispered  in a flat tone. “I should have let him drown.”

“What? What did you say?” the officer inquired.

“Black Joe. He should not have lived. My fault. All my fault.”

Without another word, he marched out of the barrack, the unhurried walk gradually changing to a fast stride then to a canter, until he reached the warm embrace of the fire.

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One Response to “Turning Back the Clocks”

  1. Kate Says:

    Amazing short story with an exquisite ending. Well done!

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