Anatoly Rybakov. Кортик
Foreign Languages PUBLISHING HOUSE, Moscow, 1954
Translated from the russian by David Skvirsky. Illustrated by O.Vereisky. Designed by A.Vlasova
THE DAMAGED INNER TUBE
Misha got up noiselessly from his bed, dressed, and slipped out to the
The broad, empty street was dozing in the warmth of the early morning
sun. Only the crowing of roosters broke the silence, and from the house came
an occasional cough and sleepy mumbling-the first sounds of animation in the
cool stillness of repose.
Misha screwed up his eyes and shivered. He felt like going back to his
warm bed, but the thought of the catapult red-headed Genka had been parading
yesterday made him shake off his sleepiness, and he picked his way carefully
across the squeaky floor-boards to the store-room.
A narrow ray of light coming from a tiny window near the ceiling fell
on a bicycle against the wall. It was an old machine that had been assembled
from spare parts; its tyres were flat, the spokes broken and rusty, and the
chain cracked. On the wall over the bicycle hung a torn inner tube with
patches of every hue and colour; Misha took it down, cut out two thin strips
with his penknife, and replaced it so that the cuts were hidden against the
He cautiously opened the door and was about to leave the storeroom,
when he suddenly caught sight of Polevoy in the passage, barefooted, in a
striped jersey and with his hair all rumpled. Misha softly pulled the door
back, leaving it slightly ajar, and watched through the narrow opening.
Polevoy went into the yard, stopped in front of a neglected kennel, and
looked about him attentively.
"Why isn't he asleep?" Misha wondered. "And he's behaving queerly,
Everyone called Polevoy "Comrade Commissar." He was a tall strongly
built man with fair hair and sly, laughing eyes. He had once been a sailor,
and he always wore wide black trousers and a jacket that smelled of tobacco,
and carried a revolver on a belt under the jacket. All the boys envied Misha
because Polevoy lived in his house.
"Why isn't he in bed?" Misha thought. "Now I'll never get out of here!"
Polevoy sat on a log near the kennel and looked round the yard again.
His searching gaze swept the opening Misha was peeping through and the
windows of the house.
Then he slipped his hand under the kennel, rummaged about a long time
evidently feeling for something, and finally straightened up, rose to his
feet, and went back to the house. The door of his room made a scraping
sound, the bed creaked under his heavy weight, and everything became still
Misha wanted to start making a catapult right away, but he also wanted
to know what Polevoy had looked for under the kennel. He moved up to it
stealthily, then stopped to think.
Should he look? What if someone saw him? Misha sat on the log and eyed
the windows. No, it was wrong to be so inquisitive ... he scooped out the
earth and thrust his hand under the kennel. Of course there was nothing
there, Misha told himself. He had simply imagined that Polevoy was looking
for something. He rummaged about under the kennel. Nothing, of course! Only
earth. He would not take it out and look at it even if something was hidden
there; all he wanted was to make sure. His fingers touched something soft
like a piece of cloth. So there was something there, after all. Should he
take it out? Misha looked at the house again, gave the cloth a tug, scraped
away the earth, and pulled out a package.
As he opened the package the steel blade of a dagger flashed in the
sunlight. A dirk! Naval officers carried dirks like that. It had three sharp
edges and no sheath. Coiled round the yellowed bone handle was a small
bronze serpent with open jaws and tongue curled upwards.
It was only an ordinary naval dirk. Why was Polevoy hiding it? Strange.
Very strange-Misha inspected the dirk again, then wrapped it in the cloth,
put it back under the kennel, covered it with earth, and returned to the
The gates of neighbouring yards were thrown open with a clatter and the
cows, their tails swishing, lumbered out importantly to join a passing herd.
They were followed by a boy who wore a long ragged coat that came down to
his bare heels and a sheepskin cap. He was shouting at the cows and deftly
cracking a whip that trailed after him in the dust like a snake.
Misha thought of the dirk as he sat on the porch making the catapult.
It was an ordinary one, except for the small bronze serpent. But what was
Polevoy hiding it for?
He finished the catapult. It was better than Genka's, he was sure, and,
to try it, he picked up a stone and let it fly at some sparrows hopping in
the street. The stone missed the target. The sparrows flew off and alighted
on the neighbouring fence. Misha wanted to try another shot but was stopped
by the sound of steps in the house, the grating of the damper, and the
splashing of water in the tub. He hid the catapult under his shirt and went
into the kitchen.
Grandmother was moving large baskets of cherries that stood on a bench.
She was wearing a greasy dressing-gown, the pockets weighed down with keys.
Her plump face was careworn and furrowed with wrinkles, and near-sightedness
made her blink her small, slightly squinting eyes.
"Take your hands off!" she exclaimed when Misha put his hand into a
basket. "The idea... with dirty paws!"
"Stingy!" Misha grumbled.
"You can have some later. Go and wash yourself first."
Misha went to the sink; he wetted his palms under the tap, touched the
tip of his nose, slid his hands across the towel, and went to the
Grandfather was already there, sitting in his customary seat "at the
head of the long table covered with a brown oilcloth with a flowered
pattern. He was a grey-haired old man with a thin beard and a reddish
moustache, and when Misha came in he was using his thumb to carry a pinch of
tobacco to his nostrils and sneezing into a yellow handkerchief. There was
laughter in his lively eyes, set in kindly beaming wrinkles, and from his
jacket came a mild, pleasant smell, that was exclusively his own.
Breakfast had not yet been served, and to while away the time Misha
pushed his plate into the middle of a rose in the pattern of the oilcloth
and with his fork traced a ring round it.
A deep scratch appeared on the oilcloth.
"My respects to Mikhail Grigoryevich!" Polevoy's merry voice boomed
Polevoy came out of his room with a towel tied round his waist.
"Good morning, Sergei Ivanovich," Misha replied with a sly look at
Polevoy: he would never guess that Misha knew about the dirk!
Misha covered the scratch with his elbows when Grandmother carried the
samovar into the room.
"Where's Senya?" Grandfather asked.
"In the store-room," Grandmother replied. "Took it into his head to
repair his bicycle at this unearthly hour!"
Misha started at these words and took his elbows off the table,
forgetting all about the scratch. Went to repair the bike?! Just his luck!
Uncle Senya had not gone near the bicycle all summer and of all days he had
to do the repairing to-day. He was bound to see the tube now and make a
Uncle Senya certainly was a nuisance! If Misha got into a scrape with
Grandmother she would simply give him a scolding and let it go at that. But
not Uncle Senya. Not him! His style was to curl his lips and begin a long
lecture. Whenever that happened he would look past Misha, fidget with his
pince-nez, endlessly putting it on and taking it off, pull at the gilt
buttons on his student uniform. Misha could not see why he still wore that
uniform: he had been expelled from the university a long time ago for
"stirring up disturbances." It would be interesting to know what
disturbances such a well-mannered person as Uncle Senya could stir up. His
face was pale and grave, and he wore a short moustache. At dinner he usually
squinted over a book and ate his food absent-mindedly.
The clatter of the bicycle in the store-room made Misha start again.
And when Uncle Senya appeared in the doorway with the slashed tube in
his hand Misha sprang out of his chair, overturning it as he dashed out of
THE BOYS OF OGORODNAYA AND ALEKSEYEVSKAYA STREETS
He dashed across the garden, scrambled over the fence and landed in the
neighbouring street-Ogorodnaya. Only a hundred yards separated this street
from his own-the Alekseyevskaya; but the Ogorodnaya boys, sworn enemies of
the boys from the Alekseyevskaya, noticed Misha and charged upon him from
all sides, gleefully whooping and whistling at the prospect of beating up a
boy from the Alekseyevskaya, and a Moscovite to boot.
Misha quickly climbed back on to the fence and straddled his legs over
"What, caught me?" he shouted at them. "You miserable Ogorodnaya
(Ogorodnaya-from the Russian ogorod, meaning vegetable garden. -Tr).
He could not have picked on a deadlier insult. A hail of stones
showered down on him. Misha slid off the fence, feeling a lump swelling on
his forehead, but the stones continued to fly, landing near the house from
which Grandmother made a sudden appearance. She peered near-sightedly and,
turning to the house, called to someone. Uncle Senya, most likely. Misha
pressed himself against the fence.
"Hey, fellows," he called out, "wait a sec! I want to tell you
"What?" demanded a voice from the other side of the fence.
"First stop throwing!" Misha climbed back to the fence, cautiously
watching the boys' hands, and said: "Why did you all team up against one
fellow? Play fair-one against one."
"Come on then!" cried Petka Petukh ( Petukh-from the Russian meaning
cock.-Tr.), a sturdy boy of about fifteen throwing off his torn jacket and
pugnaciously rolling up his sleeves.
"Let's agree that while we're fighting you fellows won't interfere,"
"All right, all right, come down!"
Uncle Senya was already standing beside Grandmother on the porch. Misha
jumped off the fence and Petukh immediately stepped up to him. He was almost
twice Misha's size.
"Hey, what's that?" Misha said, poking at the steel buckle on Petka's
The rules forbade any metal objects on the clothes of the opponents.
Petukh took off the belt, and his trousers almost dropped. He caught them
with one hand and while he was tying them up with a bit of string someone
had given him, Misha pushed the boys to make a wider ring.
"Give us more room!" he was saying; then, seeing a chance of getting
away, he shoved one of the boys aside and took to his heels.
The Ogorodnaya boys started off in pursuit, shouting and whistling;
Petukh brought up the rear, holding on to his trousers and almost crying
Misha ran as fast as his legs could carry him, his bare heels flashing
in the sun. Behind him he heard the patter of his pursuers' feet, their
heavy breathing and cries. He made a sharp turn, dashed down a short alley,
and reached his own street. The Alekseyevskaya boys came running to his
rescue, but the others turned back without going into battle.
"Where've you come from?" red-haired Genka asked.
Misha drew a sharp breath and looked round at his friends.
"Ogorodnaya Street," he said nonchalantly. "Fought fair and square with
Petukh, and when I was getting the better of it, they all jumped on me."
"You fought Petukh?" Genka asked dubiously.
"Who else? You? A tough chap he is; look at the bump he gave me!" Misha
said, touching his forehead.
His friends gazed on this blue mark of his valour with great respect.
"I gave him something to remember me by, too," Misha continued. "And I
took away his catapult."
He pulled a catapult with long red rubber bands out of his shirt.
"Better'n yours by a long shot!"
He hid the catapult and gave a contemptuous look at the girls making
"Well, and what are you doing?" he jeered at Genka. "Playing
hide-and-seek, catchers? 'Who's afraid of the big bad wolf, big bad wolf,
big bad wolf-"
"What d'you take me for!" Genka exclaimed with a shake of his red
forelock, but for some reason he flushed and said quickly "Let's play
"For five hot ones with grease."
They sat on the wooden pavement and began throwing a penknife into the
ground in turns: a plain throw, from the palm, a long throw, over the
shoulder, a straight throw....
Misha finished the ten throws first and Genka stretched his hand out to
him. Then Misha made a fierce face and raised two spit-wetted fingers. The
few seconds that these preliminaries took seemed eternal to Genka, but Misha
did not hit him.
"The grease's dried up," he said, lowering his hand.
He started wetting his fingers all over again. This was repeated before
every blow, until Misha finally paid off all the five hot ones. Genka tried
to hold back the tears welling up in his eyes as he blew on his smarting
hand; it had turned blue.
The sun was rising higher and higher in the sky; the shortening shadows
pressed closer to the fences; the street lay hushed, hardly breathing in the
torpid heat; and the air was stifling. The boys decided to go swimming and
trooped off to the River Desna.
The narrow road, grooved by hardened ruts, wound across the fields that
spread out in all directions in greenish-yellow squares. These seemed to
sink into hollows and clamber the hills, gradually becoming round and moving
off into the distance in a broad arc that supported the woods, the isolated
barns, and the pensive clouds.
The wheat stood tall and still. The boys tore off the ears and chewed
the grain, energetically spitting out the husks that stuck to their palates.
There was a rustling in the wheat and frightened birds flew up into the air
almost from under their feet.
At the river's edge the boys chose a sandy spot, undressed, and jumped
into the water, splashing it up in huge fountains. They swam, dived,
wrestled, jumped from a rickety bridge, and finally climbed back to the bank
and dug themselves into the hot sand.
"Misha, is there a river in Moscow?" Genka asked.
"Yes. The Moscow River. I've already told you that a thousand times."
"You mean it flows through the city?"
"Then how can you swim in it?"
"In trunks. They won't let you near a mile of it without trunks. The
mounted militia watches."
Genka smirked in disbelief.
"What are you smirking for?" Misha said getting angry. "You haven't
seen anything except your Revsk, and you think you're smart!"
He fell silent, watching a drove of horses approach the river. "Now you
tell me: what's the smallest horse?" he asked. "A foal," Genka replied
"There, you don't know! The pony's the smallest horse. There are
Shetland ponies, they're the size of dogs; while Japanese ponies are like
"Who, me? If you'd been to a circus just once you wouldn't argue. You
haven't been to a circus, have you? Own up: you haven't?... There you are.
And you're arguing!"
Genka stopped to think for a moment.
"A horse like that's no good," he said, "can't use it in the cavalry,
or anywhere else."
"What's the cavalry got to do with it? D'you think people fight only on
horseback? If you want to know, one sailor's worth three cavalrymen."
"I'm not saying anything about sailors," Genka said, "but you can't do
without cavalry. Nikitsky's gang is all mounted."
"Well, what about it!" Misha said with a contemptuous curl of his lip.
"Polevoy'll catch that Nikitsky soon anyway."
"That's not so simple," Genka contended, "they've been trying to get
him a whole year now, and they can't."
"They will," Misha said confidently.
"Easy to say," Genka looked up, "but he's wrecking trains every day.
Father's already afraid of driving his engine."
"Never mind, they'll catch him."
Misha yawned, dug deeper into the sand and shut his eyes. Genka was
also dozing. They did not feel like arguing any longer in the heat. The
silent steppe was lazily withdrawing into the horizon as though to escape
the scorching sun.
AFFAIRS AND DREAMS
Genka went home to dinner, but Misha went to the crowded, noisy
He wandered about the market for a long time, looking at the carts
piled high with green cucumbers, red tomatoes, and wicker-baskets of
berries; the pink, shrilly squealing sucking-pigs; the white geese flapping
their great wings; the sluggish oxen endlessly chewing the cud, their sticky
saliva dribbling to the ground.
As he walked through the market Misha remembered the Moscow bread and
the watery milk bartered for potato peel. He longed for Moscow, its
tram-cars, and evening lights.
He stopped before an invalid rolling three beads on a bench. Each was
of a different colour-red, white, and black. The man covered one of them
with a thimble and offered a prize to anyone guessing its colour. But the
right colour was elusive.
"Friends!" the invalid said, appealing to the losers. "If I start
losing to everyone I'll have to sell my last leg. You've got to under stand
While Misha was examining the beads, someone suddenly put a hand on his
shoulder. Turning round he saw Grandmother standing behind him.
"Where on earth have you been the whole day?" she asked sternly,
clinging tenaciously to Misha's shoulder.
"Swimming," Misha mumbled.
"Swimming!" Grandmother repeated. "How do you like that? He was
swimming-well, we'll speak about it at home."
She gave him her basket of purchases and marched him off.
Grandmother walked in silence. She smelled of onions, garlic and of
something fried, something boiled, like all the smells in the kitchen.
"What'll they do to me?" Misha thought as he walked beside Grandmother.
He was in a bit of a jam, he could see that. Against him there were
Grandmother and Uncle Senya. For him-Grandfather and Polevoy. But what if
Polevoy was not at home? That would leave only Grandfather. And what if
Grandfather was sleeping? That would leave no one to stand up for him, and
give Grand mother and Uncle Senya a free hand. They would take it in turn
lecture him. Uncle Senya would lecture and Grandmother would rest, and then
Grandmother would take over and Uncle Senya would rest.
There was hardly anything they would leave unsaid! They would call him
bad-mannered, say he would never amount to anything; that he was a disgrace
to the family; that he was a trial to his mother and that if he had not yet
driven her to her grave he would do so in the next few days (he felt sure
they would say that, even though Mother was living in Moscow and he had not
seen her for two months); that it was amazing how the earth held him at
all-and many other things like that....
When they came home Misha put the basket in the kitchen and went to the
dining-room. Grandfather was sitting near the window listening to Uncle
Senya discussing the political situation, as he reclined on the sofa and
smoked a cigarette. They did not even so much as glance at Misha when he
entered. That was on purpose! To make Misha feel small, to show that looking
at him was a waste of time. That was Uncle Senya's way of torturing people.
As far as Misha was concerned he could do as he liked, it was even better
that way, because by the time Uncle Senya was ready to deliver his lecture
Polevoy would come home. Misha sat on a chair and listened to their
A few words were enough to tell him that Uncle Senya was raising a
panic again. Bandit Makhno had occupied a number of towns, he said, and
Antonov, another bandit, had approached the outskirts of Tambov. Fancy
getting panicky over that! Last year, when the White Poles had occupied Kiev
and Wrangel had broken through into the Donbas, Uncle Senya had also started
to panic. Well, what had happened then? The Red Army had crushed the lot.
Before that there had been Denikin, Kolchak, Yudenich ( Whiteguard generals
who led the counter-revolution in the U.S.S.R. during the Civil War.-Ed.),
and other Whiteguard generals. The Red Army had smashed them all. And it
would lick these, too. .
From Makhno and Antonov, Uncle Senya turned to Nikitsky.
"You can't call him a bandit," Uncle Senya said, unbuttoning the collar
of his student jacket. "Moreover, they say he's a man of culture, a former
What? Nikitsky not a bandit? Misha almost choked with indignation. Why,
Nikitsky was burning down villages and killing Communists, member of the
Komsomol, (All-Union Lenin Young Communist League.-Tr.) and workers! What
was bandit then? It was disgusting to listen to Uncle Senya's prattle.
Polevoy finally came. Misha sighed with relief. Now his punishment
would be put off till to-morrow, at the earliest.
Polevoy took off his jacket and washed. Then everyone sat down to
supper. His laughter filled the room. He called Grandfather-father and
Grandmother-mother; he winked playfully at Misha and addressed him as
Mikhail Grigoryevich. After supper they went out of the house and sat on the
The evening brought a fresh coolness into the garden; some girls were
singing in the distance and snatches of their songs reached the porch; the
dogs barked incessantly in the vegetable gardens.
Polevoy pulled at a pipe of home-grown tobacco and spoke if voyages to
distant lands, of mutinies on the high seas, of cruisers and submarines, of
Ivan Poddubny and other famous wrestlers in black red, and green masks, of
strong men lifting three horses together with the carts, each cart
containing ten persons.
Misha gaped in wonder. Orange lights blinked timidly from the dark rows
of little wooden houses huddling close on the silent street Polevoy also
spoke of the Empress Maria on which he had served during the world war.
The Empress Maria was a huge ship, the most powerful battleship in the
Black Sea Fleet. She was launched in June 1915 and blew up near Sevastopol
in October 1916, half a mile off the coast.
"A black business that was," Polevoy said. "She was not struck by a
mine or a torpedo, but blew up on her own. The magazine of the first turret,
that had about forty-eight tons of powder in it, was the first to explode.
That set everything off. In an hour the ship was already under water; the
survivors, less than half the crew, were all either badly burned or