Extract from “To murder a Forest”
By Jochan Devletyan from his short story collection “Man and a half” published by Janet 45 2015, translated by Christopher Buxton
(Context: the narrator is on a fishing holiday. His guide is Naiden a former forestry director and war veteran who hates trees)
Close by, women were walking, women who’d passed their prime and who pretended that they didn’t notice us, making a show of turning their heads away. They were dressed like retired Primary School teachers or ex-secretaries who’d once had some responsibility. As for me I couldn’t understand their behaviour. In this place everyone greeted each other, but they…
“Slipper-slappers,” that’s how Naiden identified them.
“Uh?” was my full-blooded response.
“You’re not that young – you know them from that time. The neighbourhood activists…Agitprop notice boards, ceremonies, comradely meetings… When they were staging some event, they would creep around folk, with soft steps, slightly bowed forward so as to look more official…Hard hearted and unthinking wheedling women, driven by their “ideological concerns”. They slapped around the Block entrances in their slippers and their slapping echoed from afar…Animals sense danger from smell, but we sensed that lot from the slapping of their slippers.”
“So worked up about such insignificant…”
“They’re only insignificant, when they’re not poking into your wounds like vultures… Because in their empty-headedness they don’t care a fig how much it hurts – what they’re trying to drag out of you…Kindness is foreign to them. If there’s any flicker of goodness to be seen, it means that the sample doesn’t belong to the breed of slipper-slappers. Just as they slap the entrance hallways, so they slap through your soul, ready to slap on your grave.”
I was amazed by this tirade. A few elderly women, in absurd colourful dresses, have provoked this almost 100 year old monolith.
“I’m sitting in front of the block,” he continued. “The wind’s brushing cigarette ash into my eyes and I begin to blink. So that the kids who are playing around appear to me like separate clips of a badly edited film…I don’t like their war game, but they’re boys…The important thing is, that I’m alone on the bench, and the old farts who are constantly boring down into politics, football and the price of winter preserves, are keeping to their flats. If they’re not here, the weather really isn’t good.
“From the stairs the slipper slappers are seeping out. I look for an escape but too late –I’ve been spotted. A real life ambush – once again they’ve thought up something for me. Always me…Especially this time of year, around May.
“Hello there, Comrade Minev!” they squawk in unison.
“Good morning,” I wait to hear what they’ve thought up.
“All on your own again?” the diversion begins. “Why not come upstairs – the men are just getting stuck into the notice board, you’ll help them.”
“What notice board?” I ask clearly prickly.
“For the victory!” their eyes open wide in complete astonishment.
“Ey don’t you joke with these matters, man!”
“A-a-ah for that one…” I try to pretend that they’re not here, but their presence cannot be ignored. I mumble, “Don’t understand this stuff.”
“Ey, it doesn’t need goodness knows what.”
“I don’t understand this stuff.” A grating note is introduced, the kind that accompanies sucked in cheeks and tooth ache.
They are shocked, but unbeaten. As a short distraction from the obvious tension, they turn their attention to the kids playing.
“We get no peace from these hooligans. They’re shooting, shouting falling down and jumping up…We’ll have to call a meeting…We’ll warn their parents – cut down on the noise. They’re disturbing people…
“It’s not THEM as disturbs me” again the grating note. Won’t they go away…
They’ve sensed it but they still don’t give up. They strike from open ground.
“Comrade Minev, we’re inviting you on a trip…
“Impossible,” I parry straight off.
“We’re thinking of hiring a bus, for the whole neighbourhood organization and…
“…to go to the mountains. There you’ll tell us your memories…”
“I hate the mountains and the forest!”
Naiden’s cry was not strong but very abrupt and categorical, as though the slipper slappers were standing in front of him. I was tempted to interrupt him.
“And you expect folk to understand and like you?”
“I don’t want them to understand me or to like me. I want them to leave me in peace….And I’ve got what I wanted,” he ruthlessly shut me up.