Otar Dovzhenko was born in 1981 in Zaporizhia, grew up in Dnipropetrovsk, and currenlty lives in Lviv. A journalist by education, he was deputy editor-in-chief of Telekritika magazine. An author of a book of short prose Kvitoslava , the title story of which was published in English in Fabula magazine distributed among libraries and colleges of North America.
This is the first publication of his story "Maksym Popov".
by Otar Dovzhenko
The worst of Maksym Popov’s incarnations were the kids. They were so innocent that I could neither hate them, nor wish them evil. What they did was something kids always do; I also used to bully the weak when I was a boy— Although, I bullied younger ones, and they were lucky to have got a helpless older guy, besides, not handicapped or something, which made them feel really proud of themselves. One of them was a stout and round-headed boy, the leader, a kind of Eric Cartman of Lviv, whose eyes were permanently glowing with cruel boldness; he was the one I craved for hitting badly, though I realized how lame an act it would be. I once saw a slender four-eyed high school teen, a nerd, a model student, the winner of all possible academic contests, enter a classroom during a recess, with a face looking really miserable, and hit a fat bully (like this one) two or three years younger than him in the mug. Then, he bleated in a trembling voice: “I’ve taken my revenge.” I don’t know what the thin one was feeling that moment, but I, personally, felt transcendental shame fill my body and soul as it sometimes is when you watch an utterly embarrassing scene in a movie, only much more intense. I still feel ashamed when I recollect that.
So I never hit any one of them, never even tried. I only wished sincerely they were ensnared by a pedophile. In a dark basement with soundproof walls. A strong man with a big tool would teach the boys to be good. As for me, I never ever said a single word to them.
Once, a friend of mine stuck up for me. He went out to the balcony, shut the door behind himself, and said something to them, softly but persuasively. My friend knew how those street arabs should be talked to (they were not a real street gang but, as it normally is, they were aping the characters of Brigade1 and the notorious Leopolitan Garik Krichevski2). As for me, I felt humiliated as a male being, but endlessly grateful at the same time, because after that conversation the kids calmed down for a few months.
However, Maksym Popov will never retreat completely; he will only allow you a brief period of repose.
When I was coming back home, the kids were sitting on the stairs at the front door and calling me names behind my back, though not too insulting, but somewhat lacking respect. One summer, after I had grown a mop of hair, they finally lost fear and discretion, having re-christened me ‘shaggy’. And the other day, the round-headed one augmented that nickname with a timid ‘dork’. “Dork! Dork!” others joined in and I hastened to lock the door. Thank you, dear readers, but I don’t need your advice concerning the way I should have reacted.
For six months running I never came back home before 11 p.m. Sometimes I would stay in a street car, making circle after circle, or wander about half-empty cafés, or simply sit on a bench, to kill time. On the occasion of school holidays, parents would not make those bastards go home early, so they stayed on the stairs by my door until late night. I learned to observe them through a small window, but a few times I failed and had to walk them by. After all, I could not just turn back and make off. That would have been too much even for the vilest of Maksym Popov’s incarnations.
My mania was aggravating, and something was growing in the kids at the same time. That was some kind of grim resoluteness like the one that drives a pack of wolves through a ring of fire. So they were, wolf cubs with itchy milk teeth. The fate of the hornless ram had been certain for them.
I think that me and them, we had different Gods; as the one that had created me and was drawing my life roadmap should never have thought of planning the X-day is such disharmonious manner. This is how I imagined the endgame should have been. They should have struck me on the head with something heavy; it would have been wise to drag a plastic bag or a jacket over my head and tie my hands up; then they should have started kicking me, giggling and gasping with childish delight. I would not have uttered a single sound, only protected myself. And then, perhaps, an old woman next door would have crawled out, disturbed by their hyena-like screams, and they would have had to scatter like a flock of little birds of prey. I can see it all clearly. After that I would have had to call the police and all of them would have certainly gotten away with it. But it wasn’t like that, at all.
Being 22 years old that time, I contracted chicken pox, a grave children’s disease that would rather suit them, not me. I stayed at home, and all my stamina was spent on trying to keep from scratching myself, as the one who has chicken pox must not scratch oneself in any case. That was my modus vivendi on the first days; it was five degrees Fahrenheit outside and I had to wear winter clothes at home, regardless of the autonomous heating. I put on my sheepskin and rolled on the floor, trying to placate the inhuman desire to scratch myself at least a little. I did a lot of things not to go crazy and to keep from thinking about the five per cent adult patients whose organism, as statistics has it, did not survive the struggle with the children’s infection.
To make matters worse, the rat that had gnawed through the plastic drain pipe under the kitchen sink started a ghastly din expanding the infrastructure of tunnels in the cabinet below. I honestly wished I would live in peace with the rat and I even thought, almost with sympathy, that if I joined the hapless five per cent, his loneliness would be adjourned by my flesh. Just like he had been brightening my life with his noises so far.
In addition to the rat, the kids’ voices were heard behind the wall. They were hanging out on the balcony, to which my apartment's door led. I thought the rat was at one with them.
The voices got closer. The kids were standing by my window. From scraps of conversation I managed to make out that they were talking about me. I was keeping still but the rat would not!
“He’s there!” said a wheezy pubescent voice, the fatso’s, perhaps. “He’s in for sure! He’s at home!” others confirmed. There was a moment’s silence and then something slammed into my door with incredible vigor.
“They’re trying to smash the door”, thought I. “What for?” The rat did not get scared; on the contrary, he started gnawing his way to my room from his sewer side even more enthusiastically. There was another blow at my door and then another one. They were throwing something heavy against it; a brick or a block of wood. After each attempt, they retired to the stairwell. Were they trying to drive me out by that?
I thought I should wait for the moment when one of the gang members would be sneaking up with a rock in his hand. That would hardly have been the round-headed one, as the rank-and-file members of the gang should have been put through the rite of passage as well. Then I’d open the door and grab the rotten bastard— Well, who’s rotten here? At this thought I felt the itching again. Grab him and drag into the apartment. Then what? Make him cry and apologize, while others would go and tell their parents that the moron from Apt 13 had captured Vitalik or Orest, perhaps, when the boy was peacefully playing games on the balcony? The parents would run up, and this obscure fellow with no registration record in his passport issued somewhere in Central Ukraine would try to convince them that he had dragged the kid into his home for self-defense. By the way, the suspect was contagiously sick and potentially hazardous for others, especially the tender and vulnerable children’s organisms. So, that was no way to go.
Something broke inside of me. If not the kids, I’d make the rat calm down, at least. I took a hammer from a drawer, went to the kitchen and started smashing the cabinet, quite new but badly damaged by water from the sink. With every blow, a large piece of soaked particleboard fell off. The rat bolted into the pipe after the very first stroke, but I intended to make access to the hole and stop it somehow, even if I would have to break all kitchen furniture for that.
The blows at the door ceased too. The kids crept up closer, hushed by the rumble in the kitchen (also being the antechamber with the sink straight opposite the entrance door). “Look out, he’s in the kitchen!” a voice shrieked. Another smashing blow at the door. The cabinet fell into uneven pieces and the plastic drain pipe with walls half-inch thick, all eaten by the rat, came into light. The animal had worked on it hard; on the floor below, there was a pretty big heap of feces, chips of plastic, and remnants of food stolen from me. The pungent stench of the rat’s workshop hit my nose, and at the same moment, kids stroke the door again. Startled, I accidentally pushed a mug, in which I mixed my medication, off the table. It crashed into a dozen sharp splinters. Perfect! I gathered the hard pieces, quietly crawled under the sink, and poked them into the pipe. Let’s see, dear rat, how your teeth will manage that. Take this! Eat this!
Having packed the drain pipe with shards of crockery I bound it tightly with duct tape and barricaded the defiled space with pieces of the broken cabinet. The kids were waiting at the door, talking in soft conspiratorial voices. For a moment I wondered what they would have done if I had opened the door. Who would have been the first to dare to enter? The fatso? Or his chief competitor? What kind of havoc would they have played inside? Yet, it was nothing but reasoning as no force in the whole world could have made me turn the key that moment. That door, a thin plank between me and the outer space, was the most precious gift from God as finally there was a barrier between me and Maksym Popov.
Or I could just go out to the balcony and start hitting him with a hammer, violently.
Oh no. You cannot kill Maksym Popov like that. He is like Duncan-freaking-MacLeod, only worse. I never even thought about confronting Maksym Popov for real. Perhaps, it just was not fair? If, for example, a man whose wife you have seduced (or whom you have insulted in some other way) comes to kick your ass and throws himself at you, full of righteous ire, ought you to resist and give him a bloody nose or something, if you are fit for that, of course? Hardly so. In fact, I was many a time visited and even haunted by the idea of killing or somehow avenging certain incarnations of Maksym Popov. But the truth is (I said this before, didn’t I?) that every single Maksym Popov’s incarnation acts quite logically within its human nature. Especially the kids.
The last moronic plan of that evening was to get dressed, go out, walk around the apartments of our house (some of the kids naturally lived in our house; that was why they made my stairs their headquarters), find their parents, and call them to overdue fulfillment of their parental duties. So far as my mug looked like an illustration to a book on dermatovenerology, I prepared a speech that was supposed to open with the phrase “Good evening, I’ve got chicken pox”. That was the most pathetic attempt to fight Maksym Popov in all my life (there were more, and I’ll tell about them later). I did not remember the faces of the kids – they were just kids and I had no time to stare at them. I would not be able to tell the guilty from the innocent and I could probably slander some angel or cause a heart attack in one of the neighbors by my ghastly look. So I stayed at home to heal my sores. After the X-day, as after any crisis, a lull came; the kids did not bother me for about a week and the rat retired too, having broken his teeth on the shards of the mug.
However, it found another chink before long.
I moved out of that apartment, the best and the most comfortable home one can imagine, after a few weeks of spring exacerbation. I had gotten to the point of being afraid to walk in the streets, and to make matters worse, I was running into the blooming brats even in the morning. I had no other plan than to flee. Oh, what a home that was! These days, you cannot find anything like that, unless it costs a fantastic sum. Many of those who happened to be there, both men and women, but mostly women, will never forget it. One of them earnestly intended to buy the bed from that apartment and another one said he was in love with the wardrobe. People often felt really happy in that gloomy and sultry single-windowed bachelor home, and I felt like a manager of their happiness. I loved that apartment and often said emphatically that I lived on the edge of the world. There was a chocolate factory nearby and the air was always filled with the stupefying aroma. It brought excitement and even corporal desire, perhaps. Never and nowhere else I had so much success in bed. And not only me, it seems. To cut it short, it was a special kind of place that should not be abandoned just so. But I packed all my odds and ends into 29 bundles and moved out. That’s the end of the story
I can hardly remember my life at twelve. The period after thirteen, when teenage crushes began, first hopeless, then more or less successful, is easy to recollect grasping at faces and names of lovers. They got imprinted in my memory much more distinctly than friends, teachers, books, classes, and joy trips. Being twelve years old is an obscure low season, not childhood already, but not adolescence, yet. The school chronology was not helpful either. In early 1990s, when the Soviets demised, the ten-year schooling was somehow converted into eleven-year one; some students skipped from the third grade straight to the fifth and some did not. I could never understand that system. I do not even remember whether I belonged to the former or to the latter; it’s Maksym Popov who helps me set the timing. I know that he died when we were eight, and when the whole case began I used to say: “Maksym Popov died four years ago”. 8+4=12.
When I was twelve I fell out with my classmate Maksym Popov. We sat at the same desk and were friends, from the child’s point of view. Our friendship was officially confirmed when he came to my birthday party and presented me a popular science book about cosmonauts, a book that nobody needed; perhaps, that was why he gave it to me. I cannot remember what we fell out about, I am just certain that that was something worthless. I had already forgotten the cause of the quarrel when the matter just started. It had always been easy for me to break friendly terms, often on a ridiculous pretext; I was sort of testing the strength of a friendship. Thus, I moved to a different desk and remained sitting alone for six moths or so. But that was not enough.
Once I was asked: “What’s the matter between you and Maksym?”
The concept was shaped in a blink of an eye. “You mean Maksym Popov?” I retorted with surprise. “But Maksym Popov died four years ago! This is not him!” The inquirer naturally wondered who that was. Here, I created a piece of impromptu fantasy fiction about an evil spirit, so ghastly and repulsive that the only suitable name for it was ‘Shit’. Four years ago, when Maksym Popov had had meningitis (and he really had had it), his soul had abandoned his body and the evil spirit had replaced it. How come I knew that? I just felt it! Obviously, it would not have been revealed to anyone else, as we had been really close with the mock Maksym.
My classmates had never been surprised at my oddities. As for myself, having brought that story to life, I could not disclaim it. I had to be consistent, so next time when Shit approached me, I took to my heels in feigned panic. However, feigning did not last long; soon I started feeling genuine fear.
For a boy of twelve, Maksym had an ugly swarthy face and a set of rotten teeth in his mouth, so it was not hard to imagine him as a monster. Now, analyzing the legend I created and accepted myself, I cannot help laughing at my childish narcissism. I was the only person in the world who could see the true otherworldly force lurking inside the body of Maksym who had died four years before. Those were the early 1990s, when ‘prophets’ were in fashion, the Great White Brotherhood3 was still active, and the date of another inevitable End of the World was announced every week. Perhaps, I subconsciously copied the successful behavior model. And the true success of any undertaking requires personal belief.
(After all, Maksym Popov was really likely to have died of such lethal disease as meningitis, wasn’t he? And if so, why wouldn’t some evil force (I’m still sure that there’s a plenty of it wandering around the world) have gotten into him?)
So we were running; through the classroom, maneuvering between desks, pushing smaller kids out of our way, and knocking staid lady teachers off their feet; through the hallways and the lobby where he would nearly get me, and on to the courtyard and beyond. He cried something in his rasping voice. Finally, when I felt his hand on my shoulder I quickly searched for a place to comfortably fall down, and I fell. The Shit Spirit stood above me staggering like a monster from a videogame, both victorious and puzzled. He liked and disliked the new entertainment at the same time. There was something wrong for him in it.
Two of our classmates standing aloof were looking with curiosity at the weird game of ‘it’ and an unconscious guy.
“What a dork,” said one of them.
“Which one?” asked the other.
“Both of them.”
Thus, new life began for me and Maksym Popov.
The ‘Maksym Popov’ act became the favorite amusement of our class for some time. They were delighted by everything in it, not only the race and the falling! They liked the way I, as they saw it, put Maksym down – there was no other explanation for the story of the ghastly spirit – and how I got away with it. Why got away? Because by running and falling I took myself out of the society; that was my own particular state that they could provoke (which they regularly did through setting the obedient Maksym Popov at me), but could not stop. Their influence on my behavior was limited. All they could do was kicking and pinching me, pouring water on my unconscious body, speaking offensive things into my ears, or stuffing my pockets with trash; but they could never make me react. I was senseless.
They asked Maksym to stay next to my body for as long as he could, in hope that I would get tired of pretending. Ridiculous. Or they would come up and say that I could get up as he had been gone. But I was alert. I could only regain my senses when the dark energy had moved at a safe distance away from me. Once, having set Maksym off before themselves they drove me into a huge puddle that covered almost a quarter of the school yard. It was November; I was standing knee deep in muddy water and they were hooting and jumping around on the brim like monkeys. “Look”, they yelled, “here he is, Maksym, that is Shit. You’re scared, aren’t you? You got nowhere to run from this puddle, eh”?
I was giving them a blank and somewhat compassionate look. I remember the unpleasant feeling of my shoes getting soaked with mud. First-grade kids were ceasing their incessant circling around the school yard and stared at the bigger boy in the puddle. “Come oooout! Join us!” the crowd on the shore was calling. Maksym Popov showed his brownish yellow teeth and tried roaring like a beast.
They thought they were rising above by way of humiliating me. In fact they were always losing. Losing in their own consistency; bullying me today they sought for my goodwill tomorrow. Losing in their endurance and insistence; they always were first to give up, distracted by other things to do. I always broke even and they came off worst.
They also were the first truce envoys. For some reason, they saw the whole affair as a war, a campaign I was waging against them with some unintelligible goal. A couple of times, having been left face to face with me, they tried inquiring me carefully: why are you doing all that? What do you want from Maksym Popov?
“Maksym Popov died four years ago”, I replied.
Okay, it's all clear, but still— Let’s put it all away, they said, all this stuff of yours, and talk like normal people. You see, all this makes Maksym nervous and sick. He doesn’t find it funny any longer.
“Maksym Popov died four years ago”, I iterated.
Okay, okay, he’s dead, but you just listen. You made it all up cool and smart, that Shit Spirit thing. But Maksym Popov is a normal guy and he doesn’t like it, you see? Doesn’t like to be called names like that, doesn’t like it when someone runs away from him, falls and pretends to be unconscious.
“Maksym Popov died four years ago”, I admonished.
Well, you just don’t want to talk like normal people do. Now think for yourself. You can’t run away from him all your life. And it must be scary for you to fall to the ground like a dork every time and wallow around while others wipe their feet on you. This is stupid, funny but stupid! You’re a smart kid and so is Maksym and you used to be friends, remember?
“Maksym Popov died four years ago”, I objected.
We’re fed up with you, pighead! Get a life! We’ll work it all out for you, right tomorrow morning, if only you give up these pranks, okay? Talk to Maksym and be friends with him again.
“Maksym Popov died four years ago.” And they walked away.
Followed adults. My demeanor was the subject of heated arguments at PTA meetings; of course, I was never told any details as that was not something a kid should be told. Part of the parents led by Madame Popov insisted on my parents’ immediate intervention and cessation of that outrage by any repressive means they would choose; the other part, informally supported by the teacher, asserted the children’s right to build up their own relationships without parents’ meddling. To unambiguously classify my behavior they lacked initial information. As, you know, trying to get at least some explanation from me concerning my terms with Maksym they would hear nothing but “Maksym Popov died four years ago”.
My parents did not say anything to me. I don’t know what they were put through at PTA meetings and how they kept resisting. If there ever were any attempts to start a talk about Maksym Popov, my reply – you already know what it was – satisfied them.
And the teachers— Well, now I see how creepy they felt. “Young man”, said they, “I do not know what kind of story there is between you and Maksym Popov but this must be stopped outright.” “Maksym Popov died four years ago”, I announced. “You have gone too far! This is a bad game; you cannot joke with such things as death!” (Not to joke with death! Was it really worth getting a pedagogical education and teaching experience to show such ‘deep understanding’ of a 12-year-old kid’s psychology? What else should one joke with, if not death, eh?) “Other children are looking at this and copying you and something should be done about it.” “Okay, do something”, I agreed.
But they could not do anything about that; they were powerless.
While all that was happening, I ceased to grow. Even my body’s physiological development stopped. In the year 1993, not a single new notch appeared on the wall where my height was solemnly marked every six months.
The P.E. teacher’s direction took me unawares. That shallow man, unpopular both with students and colleagues, was given a severe reprimand by the headmistress concerning the lack of discipline and so he started putting things right. He directed that a medical certificate will henceforth deliver a student from physical exercise but not from staying in the gym during the lesson. Before that, the delivered ones (and I had always been the most delivered) had spent time in the park or cafeteria or some quiet place, reading or finishing homework. Now we all were obliged to change for sportswear, draw up, and sit on a bench in the gym watching others work out. Headmistress promised that she would strictly control attendance and punish violators with no mercy. Then, I got the kind of presentiment that always comes true.
On the first occasion I managed to swiftly reach the changing room, get changed with lightning speed, tuck my things under a bench in a corner, and run into the gym before everyone else did. As for changing back into the uniform, I was the last to do it, getting late for the next lesson. But for the second time I did not succeed.
The teacher of English had kept us in the classroom for extra five minutes and so I went to the changing room along with others. There, having shrunk into a corner, I started getting undressed quickly and unpacking my sportswear at the same time. The room was getting filled with my classmates’ hubbub, but I was not paying attention to them, trying to break all the records of fast changing. The only thing left was to drag up the pants, when a couple of the strongest boys (having definitely arranged it beforehand) grabbed me by the shoulders and pressed me against the wall.
I swore and tried breaking loose, but they were holding me firmly. Their motive was clearly understood. One of the ‘dorks’ was sent on the lookout by the door. By and by other guys drew up and then the familiar swarthy face emerged from behind one of their backs. They were going to torture me with Maksym Popov.
A dozen pairs of bold and cheerful eyes were fixed on me. Just a short while ago some of those boys had called me their friend and had copied my homework, but now that was of no importance for either of the parties. They intended to let Shit approach me but not permit me to fall down. Squeezed between the radiator and a bench I had no room to fall into, even if they did not hold me.
“We got Maksym Popov here”, said one of them. “He’s gonna come up to you. Want him to?”
“Maksym Popov died four years ago”, thought I.
“I’m coming, my love!” the voice shrieked behind their backs. The boys, certain that I would not play the fainting trick, stepped aside making some more room for me.
“Good old sweet Maksym. He’s gonna kiss you!”
I looked into their eyes once again and realized that I was lost. I shook my head meaning to say no, please don’t.
They giggled. Then, one of them, far from being bold in everyday life, pitched an idea:
“Show your wiener!”
Oh, crap— I was standing there with nothing but my briefs on. The thing they asked me to show shrank with fear and nervousness, having dragged itself inside almost fully.
“Come on, show it!” the boys yelled. “Ye-e-es!” Maksym Popov confirmed.
I put my hand into my briefs and pulled my penis out. The audience broke into an ovation. “He's shown his wiener! He did it!” they repeated, passing the news over to the back rows. “Let me see! Let me see!”
“Well now”, the most impudent one who was holding me by the shoulder, continued. “Now wank it.”
“Lay off”, I retorted with my glance.
The guys stepped apart on the spot and the dark brownish grinning face showed up in the gap between them. With his arms outstretched, like a bear, Maksym Popov was approaching me slowly. I closed my eyes.
“Now?” the tormentor asked me sternly, standing between me and the monster. My lower lip began to quiver treacherously. “Wank it!” he repeated.
“Just a li-i-i-ttle bit”, drawled Maksym Popov.
“Okay, guys, let’s leave him alone”, someone’s scared voice came. “I think he’s gonna cry.”
“He may go and snitch on us”, someone else agreed.
“He won’t snitch”, the leader asserted. “He’ll funk it.”
And he was right, though not about the motive.
I took my poor tiny tool with my fingertips. My future male pride was stiff and did not feel the touch. Looking above the heads that were sizzling with delight, I was moving my fingers up and down.
When I recollect the scene now I want to believe that I did not only look over those heads but also soared somewhere above them all, above their childish and bestial joy. Greenish light was flowing through the pane of the only window, stained with paint. It was January.
And in May, Maksym Popov’s parents decided to transfer him to some other school.
After I left school, I never approached it even once and I still have no desire to see any of my classmates. If I bump into them in the street or in the transport I quickly take my leave and run on even if I am not in a hurry. If any of them calls me on the phone, there is always an interruption on the line at the very first minute of a conversation. I was supposed to go a long way and they knew it. I was the best of all the boys and I graduated with a silver medal. The teachers were secretly discussing the possibility of my entering Kyiv-Mohyla Academy or some other place like that. Starting with 9th form, I was the class president and owned the key to our classroom, from which I stole books shamelessly, not always returning them to where they belonged. They thought I was trusted like that because I snitched on others and I was never delivered from that suspicion completely. All the time since early puberty, when dudes were running after chicks groping their breasts with ugly squealing, I bore in my soul pure love for older girls at which they even feared to look. In my headphones, there was beautiful music they had no idea of. I read the books that I wanted to read, not was obliged to; out of love, without heavy thought of the forthcoming essay on Ukrainian, Russian, or world literature. I dodged P.E. classes insolently for all 11 years. I had my mum and dad who lived together and did not divorce. I had a permanent girlfriend and every day I could get what they were lucky to experience only having gotten drunk after grand parties. Our love was mutual and we had a serious intention to get married someday. My provocations, unlike their pranks, remained the matter of serious talks at master’s meetings; some printouts of lecherous stories, global conflicts with teachers and quarrels with PTA. My friends were older and smarter than them; they came to our parties and won their girls with ease. I was never seriously beaten up. I was more or less lucky not to have pimples on my face. I lived in my own apartment since I was 14 and I could do anything I wanted there; my parents were democratic and always busy at work. Drinking parties, orgies and romantic evenings in my apartment went quite nice without my classmates. Coming to school I brought sounds and scents of a life more interesting, more grown-up and more full-blooded than theirs, so what could they set against it? I had my own computer and received a dozen letters every day. I drank as much as they did but I never knew what hangover was. I could tell even more and more. But apart from all that, when I am with them I always feel a small boy, cornered in the changing room and ready for any kind of humiliation as long as they did not let Maksym Popov near me.
So what? Are you happy now? You’ve got what you wanted? You won? And then I realized that they were looking at me with more respect, as at a winner, a person who had attained his goal though not in a normal dude's way, but in his own weird, perhaps contemptible, but efficient way. Girls scratch one another with their fingernails and tear off one another’s hair. Why can’t dorks use their special dorkish martial techniques? You really are cruel and evil; you’ve been playing that game for six months and what now? We used to have Maksym Popov and now we don’t.
“Maksym Popov died four— no, five years ago”, I replied.
As for that original Maksym Popov, I did not see him ever since. I just was not interested in his fate. His parents transferred him to a school of sports, so he was supposed to become a sportsman. And me, I never even attended P.E. classes. That is why I always run away and away and he is catching up and up with me. And then I have to fall down for what else can I do? But as a child, I knew that I always had a way out. I could turn my face to him and say: “Okay, Max, enough of this game. I’ve been a dork and it’s gone a bit too far. Of course, you’re no Shit Spirit, you’re my former friend and I will never run away from you again.” That means surrender. I think he would have held his hand out to me and, perhaps, we would have come back to normal relationships. But in his further incarnations Maksym Popov would not be satisfied with this. Now I got nothing to say to him. In fact, I don’t even know what he wants from me. I just still use the method proven in my childhood: if I fall down and feign unconsciousness, Maksym Popov will stay by me for a while and then go away — until next time.
He did not disappear. As a matter of fact, there is even more of him around. Some time later I realized that part of my aggressive environment was arranged by the laws I knew way too well. Maksym Popov began infiltrating my life through eyes and gestures and words of other people. It was quite easy to detect him; it seems I was mistaken only once in all that time, having named someone innocent a Maksym Popov. Everything was as easy as that: each and every of his new apparitions left me helpless and paralyzed and wishing nothing but to run away. However, there was no connection between those apparitions.
Examples? Okay; once there was a girl who pestered me at a bus stop and would not leave me alone at any rate. She had evil adult eyes and coarse smoker’s voice. Some kind of a little bum, though she did not want money. I offered her the contents of my wallet but she refused. She wanted something different; my answers to her questions, dark, slimy, and bawdy. She threatened me with something, perhaps, promised to set her grown-up friends at me if I did not answer. Having missed a few buses (she gripped me by the sleeve with a “Where do you think you’re going?!”), I started making up some answers as I did not have any real ones. I decided not to tell a single word of truth. When she let me go, finally, I was feeling emaciated. Then, there was a big man whom I met while fishing in a secluded place. He took all my things, including the most valuable fishing tackles. It was not the first robbery in my life, so I accepted the situation and wanted to go away, but he made me sit by his side and started to inquire me whether I recognized “their rules”. I was answering: “no, I don’t know what "your rules" are; you’ve taken all I have, now let me go”. “Guess a riddle and I'll let you go”, he said. And here’s what the riddle was. “You’re in jug. On your left there’s a wall of knives and on your right a wall of dicks. What will you do? Come on, answer now! Against which wall will you go?” (Death or dishonor? Death or dishonor? Which answer is the right one? Perhaps, death, as it must be better than dishonor, but, on the other hand, isn’t there a trap in it? This answer is too obvious—). So I repeated: “I dunno, I dunno, I dunno. I cannot decide.” Then he gave me a light but painful punch. “Do decide now! Knives or dicks?”
There were more of occurrences like those and there was no apparent logic in them— until I recognized Maksym Popov.
By the way, I felt better after that. 'Tis the wind and nothing more! Later, I learned to divide all life’s troubles into ‘real ones’ and ‘Maksym Popov’. But that was much later. If those things had happened often, I might have developed immunity to them. But gaps between them were just long enough for me to lose vigilance.
I had a lot of ideas. To kill him, for instance. I could never ever take anybody’s life, but I gladly would take Maksym Popov’s. I imagined laying a nest made of fridge crate between two garages in front of his tower block at night and myself in it with a sniper rifle aimed at his door. (Contras: I didn’t have a rifle, I never shot firearms in my life, I could miss him totally or give him a non-fatal wound, local bums or yard-keepers could expose me; after all, I never reached such degree of rage and fixation on that problem). Or, I could pick up some money and hire a hitman. To meet a gloomy young man in some desolate place, to hand him a pack of dollars and to never, never ever again— (Contras: criminal liability and a risk to get hooked by some gangsters; but if one could simply drop a coin into a murder machine, I would not hesitate a bit). Then, the most ridiculous piece of my fancy: to vanish from the world for a year or two and to come back reborn, physically and spiritually strong (some oriental teachings, yoga, athletics, combat hopak, the Miracle of Fasting, prayers, or whatnot) to be ready not only to encounter Maxym Popov face to face, but even to knock him down with a flick of a finger and to look into his astonished eyes standing above his stretched body.
But I did not do anything. Firstly, there was the proven and easier method of running away, and secondly, Maksym Popov cannot be killed at all.
New incarnations often emerged, like the canonical Maksym Popov, among my former friends. And once, my beloved got possessed. (I’ve always liked calling the girls I went out with my “beloved ones”? It sounds nice). Suddenly I felt that what was happening that very moment was more than a simple lovers’ fight. And then I looked deep into her eyes and saw the familiar glance. Hello, Maksym— There was nothing to do but run away, as usual. Get locked in my inner self, avoid her for as long as I could afford it; I remember lying on a pile of sand in the basement of an unfinished structure at the campus, hoping she, that is he, shall never find me there. And as she was my beloved, the only nearest and dearest person in this world, I made a great mistake of trying to explain to her what was really happening. Funny, eh? Honey, there’s a monster inside of you! Well, in fact, it’s not a monster, but some evil thing that possesses people to play mean tricks on me. Will you try and fight it if you can— Of course, I did not say those very words. I tried to put it in hints, like this: you see, you are not yourself now, not completely, there’s something in you that’s not supposed to be there. And naturally, her reaction was nothing but scoffing laughter.
That time passed away, but Maksym Popov liked it and began possessing my beloved ones again and again. For love's sake, I had to learn to look into his eyes calmly but I failed. Every time after it was over, they could not explain what had been happening to them. They cried and apologized and kissed me, assuring me that they could not understand how they managed to have done anything like that at all. However, I did understand.
So I said to my other beloved, at the very beginning, when we only fell in love: “You know, sweetheart— If you ever feel that there is something happening to you, something possessing you and you suddenly want to make me suffer, do something bad to me, hurt me for no particular reason, be aware that you will cease to be my beloved on the spot, notwithstanding anything that will keep us together, including children, lifestyle, memories, photographs, and so on.”
I tried to rationalize Maksym Popov and even had a lot of success in that. He is much like Castaneda’s pinches tiranitos, petty tyrants. If you did not read those books or forgot them, then, in a few words, the petty tyrant is the one who torments and humiliates a man, over which it holds absolute power. Those tiranitos allegedly help the “man of knowledge” get rid of his self-importance, which is the greatest obstacle on the Warrior’s Path. Although I never intended to follow any kind of Warrior’s Path in my life, I really felt that with every new Maksym Popov my distended sense of self-importance was shrinking a bit and the vacant space inside was getting filled with the pure pristine joy of ‘I am alive!’— Still, the more I pondered, the more certain I got that the search for the meaning of Maksym Popov was nothing but deceiving myself with the thought that I needed him. You know all that masochistic stuff of “what-doesn't-kill-me-makes-me stronger.” Of course, for thirteen years running Maksym Popov was not killing me, but steadily making me stronger. Can’t you see how strong I am?!
And someday Maksym Popov will send me another ambassador. Perhaps, some inorganic being or whoever could be an envoy for a spirit. The being will enter, sit down on a couch, put his inorganic feet on the tabletop, stay silent for a while and then say:
“Look what your mistake is. I mean you are making a lot of mistakes in your life, but it’s high time you understood the greatest of them. You have thought up a huge heap of inadequate things that hamper you to estimate the situation correctly. For instance… ”
“Oh, what do you, inorganic freak, know about my thoughts”, I shall say to myself with irony.
“ … you think that whatever you call ‘Maksym Popov’ is an organized force that consistently tries to make you stop running away and start fighting back. Then, to your mind, there must be some kind of a duel with an outcome unfavorable for you, a sort of atonement, which you will have to survive, willy-nilly, and then everything will be over.”
(To tell you the truth, I really do think so.)
“If only you could imagine what the atonement will be when you face the so-called ‘Maksym Popov’ with his visor raised! But you do not know what that encounter may mean to you, so you run away incessantly and you shall not let this happen as long as you can afford it. Shall not let this force you have imagined attain the goal made up by you as well: to coerce you to fight. Ha-ha, just think of someone wishing to coerce you to fight!”
“Perhaps, someone really does wish to”, I shall think stubbornly.
“If you but tried some superficial analysis of the situation you would see that this imaginary force or ‘spirit’ is in fact good and constructive as it follows you with a very positive goal: to make you stronger, to reshape you, a pathetic coward, and to teach you to struggle. You resist it only because of your pathological stubbornness, though you do understand that being able to struggle and fight evil is good, isn’t it? Don’t be silent, say something!”
“Something”, I shall say moodily.
“Ah, fine. This ‘Maksym Popov’ of yours appears almost an embodiment of God or, at least, a guardian angel that for a long time has been craving to take care of you, to give you strength and to help you step over your greatest fears. What do you think he needs it for? You don’t know, do you? What makes this outwardly evil but naturally good force chase you in various shapes for more than a dozen years, but allow you keeping at a distance and brushing it all aside: “go away, get lost and take your strength with you!” Have you ever thought about it? Or did you fear to?”
(I would feel like asking him “What do you want from me?” but I will not speak, on principle)
“People like things that are square-shaped, systematized, explainable, and illuminated. They put their candles and bulbs everywhere not to feel so scared. So did you, you put a bulb on ‘Maksym Popov’ to have him illuminated. But this won’t help you. I’ll tell you the secret; fancy that, I’ll make it all clear to you as you want it to be! So: the encounter you are afraid of will not change anything. There are no simple schemes you have thought up for yourself, there are no good intentions camouflaged as evil deeds, and there are no intentions whatsoever. There are only actions. But there must be a goal as well! Where’s the goal? Where is it?! you are thinking and your brain shrinks and gets dried like an old nut in its shell if it does not get enough water. But the truth is there’s no goal. Everything just works the way it works. And there is no ulterior sense, and none of your retaliatory actions, nor your escapes, will change anything.”
(“And then?”, I shall ask silently.)
“Even now you are certain that, having told you all this, I’ll wind it up with some formal proposal. Something like ‘Repent!’ or ‘Acknowledge that Maksym Popov is not dead’ or ‘Look into his eyes’. But there will be no proposal.
“Why the hell did you come to me?” I shall ask having lost my patience.
“Just so”, the creature will answer and stay silent in my room for a long time, much longer than my bleakest forecasts would be. I shall pretend that it is not there and it will put on the air meaning that it does not want anything from me. And then I shall get used to it, forget about it, and it will melt away.
Likewise, Maksym Popov has melted away temporarily, lulled by the therapeutic effect of this writing. However, I often see him in my dreams. There, he appears in his original shape of the boy who tells stupid stories, runs after me across the school yard, and brings his face near mine so I can smell his bad breath. I hate it when people's breath smells badly. But there’s nothing odd about Maksym Popov’s offensive odor as he has been dead for so many years.
© 2009 Translated by Gennady Shpak
1 Brigade (Бригада), Russian crime TV series aired in 2002.
2 Garik Krichevski, Lviv-born singer, popular in the whole former Soviet Union, performer of the so-called Russian chanson.
3The Great White Brotherhood, a religious sect led by Marina Tsvigun (then known as Maria Devi Christos) that, on November 10, 1993, attempted to seize St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv and arrange a group suicide there as a prelude to Judgement Day. This led to the leaders’ arrest and dismissal of the sect.