The Black Coat
fiction story by Ludmila Petrushevskaya; borrowed from here
There once lived a girl who found herself in an unknown place, on a cold winter night. She was dressed in a strange black overcoat. Underneath the coat she was wearing a tracksuit, and on her feet some sneakers.
The girl didn't remember her name or who she was.
It was winter, and she began to feel very cold, standing there by the side of the road. There was forest all around; it was growing dark. She'd better start walking, it occurred to her - it didn't matter where - for it was getting really cold, and the black coat didn't keep her warm at all.
She began to walk down the road. Suddenly a small truck appeared. The girl signaled, and the truck pulled over. The driver opened the door. There was another passenger in the cabin.
"Which way are you headed?" - asked the driver.
The girl blurted out, "And which way are you headed?"
"The train station," - the driver answered with a laugh.
"Me, too," - said the girl. (She remembered that people should look for a train station when they're lost in the woods.) "Then let's get going," - the driver said, still laughing.
"But there's no room for me in the cab!" said the girl.
"Of course there is. My companion is nothing but bones."
The girl climbed in, and the truck began to move. The second man made some room for her, grudgingly. His face was concealed under a hood.
They drove quickly past snowdrifts down the darkening road. The driver didn't speak but continued to grin, and the girl didn't speak either, in case they'd notice she'd lost her memory.
They drove up to a train station. As soon as the girl got out, the door slammed behind her, and the truck darted on ahead. The girl walked up to the platform, where a local train was getting ready to depart. She remembered that one needs to buy a ticket. She checked her pockets for money, but all she could find was some matches, a scrap of paper, and a key. She was too shy to ask where the train was headed. Anyway, there wasn't a single passenger on it; her compartment was empty and also poorly lit.
Finally the train stopped, and she had to get off. It was, apparently, quite a big station, but at this hour it was completely deserted, and the lights were turned off. Around the station there were traces of what seemed to be a construction site: the ground was covered with ugly black pits. There was nothing for the girl to do but walk into the tunnel under the platform. It was dark, but the tiled walls emitted a strange light, and the sloping floor was uneven. The girl raced down the tunnel, her feet barely touching the floor, like in a dream, past more black pits and some shovels and carts (probably another construction site).
The tunnel finally ended, and the girl found herself on the street, trying to catch her breath. The empty street was in ruins. The buildings were dark, some missing windows and roofs, and the street was blocked by roadwork signs and covered with potholes. The girl stood on the curb, freezing in her thin black overcoat.
Suddenly the same truck pulled over. The driver opened the door and told the girl to hop in. Sitting by the driver was the same passenger in a black hooded overcoat. He seemed to have gained some weight and now almost filled the seat.
"There's no room in here," - the girl said as she climbed in. Actually, she was glad to run into the only people she knew in this unfamiliar place.
"Sure there's room," - the driver laughed back, turning to face her.
And there was plenty of room, she discovered: there was even space left between her and the gloomy passenger, who turned out to be very skinny: it was his coat that took up the most room.
The girl decided she would go ahead and tell them she didn't know anything.
The driver, too, was very thin; otherwise they couldn't have made themselves so comfortable in that tiny cabin. The driver's nose was very stubby, and he was pretty ugly; he was completely bald and yet seemed very merry - he was constantly laughing, baring all his teeth. In fact, he never stopped grinning but somehow never made a sound. The other passenger kept his face hidden under his hood and was silent. The girl was silent, too: she had forgotten everything. They were passing empty streets, riddled with holes. The residents of that neighborhood must have been fast asleep in their homes.
"Where to?" - asked the merry driver, showing all his teeth.
"I need to get home," - replied the girl.
"And where would that be?" - the driver asked, laughing noiselessly.
"Well, we should take a right at the end of this street," - the girl said hesitantly.
"And after that?" - the driver asked, chuckling.
"And then we'll just keep going straight."
The girl was afraid they'd ask for the exact address.
The truck was going very fast, but making no sound, even though the road was all holes.
"Where now?" - asked the merry driver.
"Right here is good, thanks," - said the girl, and she began to open her door.
"And who's going to pay?" - the driver widened his cavern of a mouth. The girl once again searched her pockets and again found matches, a scrap of paper, and a key.
"I don't have money on me," - she confessed.
"Don't accept rides if you can't pay," - cackled the driver. "We didn't charge you the first time, and so you decided to make it a habit. Bring us money or we'll eat you. We're skinny and starved, isn't that right? Isn't that right, you dummy?" - he addressed the other passenger with a laugh. "We feed on the likes of you! Just kidding."
They all got out of the truck together. They were in some empty lot now, sparsely strewn with new apartment buildings that appeared deserted (at least, there were no lights). Some lonely streetlamps cast light on the lifeless windows.
The girl, still hoping for something to happen, walked as far as the last building and stopped. Her companions also stopped.
"Well, is it here?" - the grinning driver asked her.
"Maybe," - the girl said, as if she might be joking, but she felt very awkward: in a moment they'd discover she'd forgotten everything.
They entered the building and began to walk up the dark stairs. Luckily, one could see the steps. The stairwell was very quiet. The girl chose a random floor and stopped at the first apartment, took out a key, and easily unlocked the door. The foyer was empty, and they walked through the apartment. The first room was empty too, but in the second room they discovered a tall pile of rags in the far corner.
"You see, there's no money, but you can take these things," - said the girl to her guests.
She noticed, as she spoke, that the driver's mouth was still open in a grin, while the other man kept looking away, hiding his face.
"And what is all this stuff?" - asked the driver.
"These are my things. Take them - I won't need them."
"You mean it?" - the driver asked.
"Well, then," - the driver said, bending over the pile. Together with the passenger he examined the pile, and they began putting some of the things into their mouths.
The girl stepped back noiselessly and tiptoed into the corridor.
"I'll be right back," - she called out, seeing the two heads turn in her direction.
In the corridor she tiptoed to the door and then out onto the stairs. Her heart was pounding, and she couldn't catch her breath. "Thank God the very first door opened with my key. No one noticed that I don't remember anything," - she thought.
She walked down one flight and heard loud steps behind her.
Immediately she thought of trying the key again and, to her surprise, it opened another door. She sneaked inside and locked the door behind her.
The apartment was empty and dark.
No one was pursuing the poor girl; no one was knocking at the door. Who knows, maybe the two strangers finally gave up on her and walked away with their pile of rags.
Now she could consider her situation. The apartment wasn't very cold - that was good. She'd found a shelter, finally, albeit a temporary one, and she could lie down somewhere in the corner. Her neck and spine ached with fatigue. The girl walked quietly through the apartment. The windows let in light from the street, and the rooms were completely empty. When she entered the last room, her heart began to beat faster - she noticed a pile of rags in the corner, the same corner as in the apartment upstairs.
The girl waited for something else to happen, but nothing happened, so she walked to the pile and lay down on the rags.
"Are you crazy?" - She heard someone's choking voice and felt the rags moving beneath her like snakes. Immediately two heads and four arms poked through them: her two companions were vigorously making their way through the pile until, finally, they were free.
Her knees weak, the girl fled to the stairwell. Directly behind her, someone was slithering into the corridor. Then suddenly she saw a streak of light underneath the nearest door. Again, the girl used her key to unlock that apartment.
A woman stood on the doorstep, holding a burning match.
"Please," - whispered the girl, "please save me."
Behind her, her two companions slithered down the stairs.
"Get in," - said the woman, lifting the match.
The girl tumbled inside and shut the door.
The stairs were quiet; they must have stopped to think.
"What do you think you're doing, bursting into other people's apartments at this hour?" - the woman asked her roughly.
"Please, let's get away from this door. Let's go somewhere we can talk," - pleaded the girl.
"I can't, the match will die if I walk," - the woman said hoarsely. - "We only get ten matches each."
"I've got some right here - please, take them."
She found the matchbox in her pocket and offered it to the woman.
"Light one yourself," - the woman said.
The girl lit a match, and in its flickering light they walked down the corridor.
"How many do you have?" - asked the woman, glancing at the matchbox.
The girl shook the box.
"Not many," - said the woman. - "Now you probably have only nine left."
"Do you know how to escape?" - whispered the girl.
"You can wake up, but not always. I won't wake up anymore. My matches are all gone - bye-bye," - and she began to laugh, baring her large teeth. She was laughing quite noiselessly, as if she simply wanted to stretch her mouth.
"I want to wake up," - said the girl. "I want to end this horrible nightmare."
"As long as your match is burning, you can escape. I've just used my last match to help you. Now I don't care what happens. In fact, I'd rather you stay. You know, it's all very simple - you don't have to breathe. You can fly wherever you want. You will need neither light nor food. The black coat will protect you from all your problems. I will soon fly over to check on my children. They were little brats - they never listened to me. The younger one spat at me when I told them their father wasn't coming back. He cried, and then he spat. I can't love them anymore. I dream of how I'll fly to look at my husband and his new girlfriend. I don't care about them, either. I've understood everything, finally. What a fool I was!"
And she laughed again. "With the last match my memory came back. I've remembered my entire life and know I was wrong. Now all I can do is laugh at myself."
Indeed, she was grinning widely and soundlessly.
"Where are we?" - asked the girl.
"I can't tell you, but soon you'll find out. There will be a smell."
"Who am I?"
"You'll find that out, too."
"When the last match is gone."
The girl's match had almost burned down.
"While it's burning you can still wake up. I don't know how. I couldn't."
"What's your name?"
"Soon they will write my name with black paint on a small metal plaque that they will stick into a pile of dirt. When I read it, I'll find out. A can of paint has been opened; the plaque is ready, too. Others don't know yet - neither my husband, nor his new girl, nor the children. It's so empty here! Soon I'll fly away. I'll see myself from above."
"Please don't go," - pleaded the girl. - "Do you want some of my matches?"
The woman thought and said, - "I suppose I could take one. I think my children may still love me. They're going to cry. No one wants them-their father with his new wife doesn't want them."
The girl stuck her free hand into her pocket and pulled out not the matchbox but a scrap of paper.
"Listen to what it says! 'Please don't blame anyone. Mother, forgive me.' A moment ago it was blank!"
"Aha, so that's what you wrote on yours. Mine said, 'Can't go on like this. Children, I love you.' Just now the words appeared."
And the woman pulled out her note from the black coat's pocket. She began to read it and suddenly exclaimed, - "Look, the letters are disappearing! Somebody must be reading it. Someone has already found it… The 'c,' the 'a' are gone, the 'n' is disappearing, too!"
The girl asked her, - "Do you know why we're here?"
"I do, but I won't tell you - you will find out yourself. You still have a few matches left."
The girl took the matchbox and offered it to the woman, - "Take them! Take them all! But please tell me."
The woman divided the matches and asked, - "Do you remember who the note was for?"
"Then light another match - this one is out. With each match I remembered more."
So the girl took out her remaining matches and lit all four of them.
Everything became illuminated: she could see herself standing on a chair; on the desk she could see the note that said "please don't blame anyone"; outside the window lay the dark city, and her lover, her betrothed, wouldn't pick up the phone after she'd told him about her pregnancy; instead his mother would answer, "Who is it and what do you want?" - knowing perfectly well who it was and what she wanted.
The last match was burning down, but the girl wanted to know who was sleeping in the next room, who was moaning and breathing heavily as she stood on that chair, tying her thin scarf to the pipe under the ceiling. Who was that person sleeping in the next room, and the other one, who was lying awake, staring into space, crying?
Who were they?
The match was almost out.
A little longer-and the girl knew everything.
And then, in that empty, dark apartment, she reached for her scrap of paper and lit it with the dying match.
And she saw that on the other side, in the other life, in the next room her ailing grandfather was asleep, and her mother was on a cot by his side because he was dangerously ill and constantly needed water.
And someone else, someone who loved her and whose presence she could sense was there too - but the note was burning so quickly-that someone was standing in front of her, offering her consolation, but she could neither see nor hear him, her heart was too full of pain. She loved only her betrothed, him and only him; she no longer loved her mother or her grandfather, or him, who was offering her consolation that night.
Then, at the very last moment, when the little flame was licking her fingers, she felt the desire to speak to him. But the poor little scrap of paper was burning out, as were the last fragments of her life in that room with a chair. And then the girl pulled off the black coat and touched its dry fabric with the last flame of her note.
Something snapped. She smelled burning flesh, and two voices outside shrieked in pain.
"Take off your coat now!" - she cried to the woman, who was smiling peacefully, her mouth stretched wide open, the last match dying in her hand. And the girl, who was still here, in the dark corridor with the smoking overcoat, but also in her room perched on a chair, gazing into those loving eyes - she touched the woman's coat with her burning sleeve, and immediately a new double howl was heard from the stairs. A revolting smoke came from the woman's coat, and the woman threw off the coat and immediately vanished.
The room around her vanished, too.
That same moment the girl stood on a chair with a scarf tied around her neck and, choking with saliva, was looking at the note on the desk, fiery circles dancing before her eyes.
In the next room someone groaned, and she heard her mother asking sleepily, "Father, want some water?"
As quickly as she could, the girl untied the scarf and took a breath; with shaking fingers she loosened the knot on the pipe, jumped off the chair, crumpled the note, and flopped on her bed, pulling the covers over her.
Just in time.
Her mother, blinking from the light, peeked into the room. "Dear God, what a terrible dream I've just had: a pile of earth in the corner, and from it some roots were growing… and your hand," - she said tearfully. - "And it was stretching toward me, as if asking for help… Why are you sleeping with your scarf on? Is your throat sore? Let me cover you up, my little one. I was crying in my dream…"
"Mom," - the girl replied in her usual voice, - "you and your dreams. Can't you leave me alone? It's three in the morning, for your information!"
On the other side of the city a woman vomited up a handful of pills and washed her mouth thoroughly.
Then she went to the nursery where her fairly large children, ten and twelve years old, were sleeping, and rearranged their blankets.
Then she got down on her knees and prayed to be forgiven.
~ Mark Twain
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