‘Yakov Ivanovitch,’ Zina said, pouring herself another glassful of wine which she at once drank down, ‘do you believe in romantic love? I ask because I think you guard yourself against it.’ ‘Whether I do or don’t it doesn’t come easily to me.’ ‘I heartily agree that it oughtn’t to come too easily,’ Zina said, ‘but it seems to me that those who are serious about life – perhaps too serious – are slow to respond to certain changes in the climate of feeling. What I mean to say, Yakov Ivanovitch, is that it’s possible to let love fly by like a cloud in a windy sky if one is too timid, or perhaps unable to believe he is untitled to good fortune.’
Nobody can burn an idea even if they burn the man.
‘Little brother,’ he said to Yakov, making the sign of the cross over him, ‘don’t lose hope. The stones of the bridge may crumble but the truth will come out.’ ‘And till then,’ sighed the fixer, ‘what of my wasted youth?’
He tried desperately to put together a comprehensible sequence of events that had led inevitably from his departure from the shtetl to a prison cell in Kiev; but to think of all these strange and unexpected experiences as meaningfully caused by related events confused him.
Who were they punishing if his life was punishment?
There's something cursed, it seems to me, about a country where men have owned men as property. The stink of that corruption never escapes the soul, and it is the stink of future evil. (Bibikov)
If only his innocence were written on a sheet of paper, he could pull it out and say, ‘Read, it’s all here,’ but since it was hidden in himself they would know it only if they sought it, and they were not seeking.
But after the visit to the cave he had stopped thinking of relevancy, truth, or even proof. There was no ‘reason,’ there was only their plot against a Jew, any Jew; he was the accidental choice for the sacrifice. He would be tried because the accusation had been made, there didn’t have to be another reason. Being born a Jew meant being vulnerable to history, including its worst errors.
‘Who will help me?’ he cried out in his sleep, but the other prisoners had their own anguish, their own bad dreams.
I respect man for what he has to go through in life, and sometimes for how he does it, but he has changed little since he began to pretend he was civilized, and the same thing may be said about our society. That is how I feel, but having made that confession let me say, as you may have guessed, that I am somewhat of a meliorist. That is to say, I act as an optimist because I find I cannot act at all, as a pessimist. One often feels helpless in the face of the confusion of these times, such a mass of apparently uncontrollable events and experiences to live through, attempt to understand, and if at all possible, give order to; but one must not withdraw from the task if he has some small thing to offer – he does so at the risk of diminishing his humanity. (Bibikov to Yakov)
Yakov wrung his hands. ‘If so what am I to do, your honour? Will I be abandoned to die in this prison?’ ‘Who has abandoned you?’ the Investigating Magistrate asked, looking at him gently.
Yakov Shepsovitch, what more can I tell you? Take heart in the truth and endure your trials. Sustain yourself in your innocence. (Bibikov)
‘No one says it’s easy. Still, you are not alone.’ (Bibikov) ‘In my cell I’m alone. In my thoughts I’m alone. I don’t want to sound bitter to you because I’m thankful for your help – ’ (Yakov)
A prisoner, an anguished and desperate man, was locked in the next cell. The minute in, he began to pound with his shoe, or both shoes, against the wall. The noise came through distantly and Yakov pounded back with his shoe. But when the man shouted he could somehow be heard, though not his words. They shouted to each other at various times of the day and night as loudly as they could – it sounded to the fixer as though someone was trying to tell him a heart-breaking tale, and he wanted with all his heart to hear and then tell his own; but the man’s shouts, cries, questions, were muffled, indistinguishable. So were his, the fixer knew.
You wait. You wait a minute of hope and days of hopelessness. Sometimes you just wait, there’s no greater insult. You sink into your thoughts and try to blot out the prison cell. If you’re lucky it dissolves and you spend a half hour out in the open, beyond the doors and walls and the hatred of yourself. If you’re not lucky your thoughts can poison you.
Yakov counted. He counted time though he tried not to. Counting presupposed an end to counting, at least for a man who used only small numbers. How many times had he counted up to a hundred in his life? Who could count forever? – it piled time on. The fixer had torn some splinters off sticks of firewood. The long splinters were months, the short, days. A day was a bad enough burden of time but within the day even minutes could do damage as they piled up. When one had nothing to do the worst thing to have was an endless supply of minutes. It was like pouring nothing into a million little bottles.
He could not foresee any future in the future.
He waited for an unknown time, a time different from all the time on his head. It was unending waiting for something that might never happen. In the winter, time fell like hissing snow through the crack in the barred window, and never stopped snowing. He stood in it as it piled up around him and there was no end to drowning. ‘You can deny it all you want, we know the truth,’ Gorbeshov shouted. ‘The Jews dominate the world and we feel ourselves under their yoke. I personally consider myself under the power of the Jews; under the power of Jewish thought, under the power of the Jewish press.’
His fate nauseated him. Escaping from the Pale he had at once been entrapped in prison. From birth a black horse had followed him, a Jewish nightmare. What was being a Jew but an everlasting curse? He was sick of their history, destiny, blood guilt.
Jesus cried out help to God but God gave no help. There was a man crying out in anguish in the dark, but God was on the other side of his mountain. He heard but he had heard everything. What was there to hear that he hadn’t heard before?
He beats his chains against the wall, his neck cords thick. He is in a rage to be free, has at times glimmerings of hope, as though imagining creates it, thinks of it as close by, about to happen if he breathes right, or thinks the one right thought. Maybe a wall will collapse, or sunrise burn through it and make an opening as large as a man’s body. Or he will remember where he has hidden a book that will tell him how to walk with ease through a locked-and-twelve-times-bolted door. ‘I’ll live,’ he shouts in his cell, ‘I’ll wait, I’ll come to my trial.’ Berezhinsky opens the spy hole, inserts his rifle, and sights along the barrel at the fixer’s genitals.
After he had finished reading the document the fixer, in exhaustion, thought, there’s no getting rid of the blood any more. It’s stained every word of the indictment and can’t be washed out. When they try me it will be for the crucifixion.
[N]o was Jew innocent in a corrupt state, the most visible sign of its corruption its fear and hatred of those it persecuted. Ostrovsky had reminded him that there was much more wrong with Russia than its anti-Semitism. Those who persecute the innocent were themselves never free. Instead of satisfying him this thought filled him with rage.
He had learned, it wasn’t easy; the experience was his; it was worse than that, it was he. He was the experience. It also meant that now he was somebody else than he had been, who would have thought it? So I learned a little, he thought, I learned this but what good will it do me? Will it open the prison doors? Will it allow me to go out and take up my poor life again? Will it free me a little once I am free? Or have I only learned to know what my condition is – that the ocean is salty as you are drowning, and though you knew it you are drowned? Still, it was better than not knowing. A man had to learn, it was his nature.