He knows that the old man will be seated in the largest armchair in the living room, his feet on the footstool. Probably reading some nationalist propaganda publication. He believed all of that "service to the nation" nonsense. He congratulated himself on sending Leiojan to the Military Academy, where they would "make a man of him and beat all that sentimental crap out of him!" It was the perfect punishment, not punishment, vengeance for holding different ideals.
If the old man is ever sober enough to think of his stepson, does he look at the small portrait on the narrow bookshelf and feel a little pity for Leiojan's soul? Does he reflect on the injury Leiojan's innermost being must have suffered when fed into the mindless grinding between two nations, the senseless machine that produces irretrievable loss, long lists of the dead, short lists of survivors, temporary survivors at best?
The old man doesn't know that Leiojan, that "overly sensitive boy," doesn't exist anymore, that all that remains is "the soldier," created by the state, created by his own ignorance and arrogance. He doesn't know that the soldier is near, only a few meters away. He doesn't know that he has returned on a terrible mission.
The soldier doesn't want to find him awake. He silently vaults the iron fence and positions himself in the shadows under the windows. Raising his eyes just enough to peer into the interior, he sees his stepfather lounging in the chair with his back turned to the night. He sees the figure through undulating wraiths of pipe smoke. His head is propped on one shoulder, he is either asleep or soon will nod off.
The soldier readies the shotgun and with silent tread makes for the back door of the house. It opens with a slight nudge, just as it used to when he was a child and didn't wish to give away his presence. The house envelops him with memories. He breathes the same air, damp and cloying, he breathed as a child. He notes the unchanged position of each piece of furniture, the familiar distempered walls, the oil lamp the old man read his political tracts by.
The soldier approaches the living room. He pauses, unwilling to confront one detail of that disorderly room. He cannot bear to think that his own portrait still surveys the room from the bookshelf. It is as if a splinter of himself, of Leiojan, has remained. Indeed, he sees it on the shelf and is relieved to find that it does not shake his resolve. That if anything it concentrates that resolve into a white-hot passion. Whatever was left of Leiojan merges with the soldier as he faces his stepfather. He observes him carefully, notes his numerous wrinkles, his filthy beard, his dictatorial face. He draws close, close enough so that his stepfather's intoxicated breath floats upward to him, seeping through the gauze bandages that cover most of his face except his right eye. He allows himself a grim and terrible smile.
Positioned in the middle of the living room, he aims the double-barreled shotgun squarely at his stepfather's forehead and discharges one of the barrels with a flash and roar. The detonation causes the old man to wake with a start. His pipe drops down his tangled beard and hits the floor.
It is beyond comprehension that the old man yet lives. Stunned but not stupefied into inaction, the soldier raises the shotgun, fingers the second trigger and discharges the second barrel full in his stepfather's face.
Shaken, the old man sits up with difficulty and stares into the shadows in the corners of the room. There is no one, and yet he senses a presence! His roaming eyes stop, transfixed on Leiojan's portrait staring at him from its accustomed place. At this curious moment of recognition he hears steps. Steps above him. Steps on the roof.
The roof served his timid stepson as a refuge. A refuge from the bullying of other boys and a refuge from the beatings he himself administered. Terrible beatings made worse from the anger caused by the frustration of producing no change in the boy. Leiojan would stay on the roof for hours, sobbing in silence until the pain diminished.
The old man rushes up the stairs to the roof. His face is burning with a rage he can barely understand and cannot control. It is as if the years have dropped away. The roof will no longer be a sanctuary for a sniveling boy. He plunges into the darkness, a darkness that seems not of this surface world. It is the darkness of caves, the darkness of a well. Blindly he stumbles. Disoriented, with his hand extended, he gropes for something familiar. His trembling fingers close on something that should not be there . . . something infused with the terrible, something that should not be at all in the world. It is a human arm severed at the shoulder. A thin but firm-fleshed young man's arm. An arm torn brutally from the body! He hears, or does he feel, or does he dream a young man's howl of anguish and rage. But he hears no more, the nocturnal silence has returned, and surely it was never broken, never cleft by that dreadful cry.
The old man cries out, "Leiojan!"
The startled maid dresses hastily. She knows that cry is from her master, Vladimir. She enters the living room and surveys the pipe, the tobacco, and a glass of vodka scattered on the floor, and, crossing herself three times, takes the oil lamp from the table and makes her way to the roof. The flickering flame frees the silhouette of a man from the darkness. It is Vladimir, on his feet once more, with his arms crossed over his paunch, one fist under his chin. When he speaks he releases a thick gust of alcohol-tainted breath.
"That damned whelp got away again. A curse be on his head, may he never return!"
The maid approaches him timidly and in a low, soothing voice she repeats what she says every night. "Mr. Miusov, don't you remember? Leiojan is dead. He lost his life in the war. He was horribly wounded. They amputated one arm but he gave up his last breath for the motherland. Remember, that is what the military told you! Try to understand, Leiojan is dead! Try to remember once and for all and for the love of God, get down from this roof and go to bed, the air is strangely cold here, the night is drawing on . . ." and though she doesn't say it aloud, she crosses herself three times in the darkness and whispers, "and ghosts move in the shadows of the night."
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