|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
It was good to be home again, good to sit at the table with the family and drink tea from a humming and shining samovar. In the evenings we had chamber music, with Mother knitting and listening, and nodding approval at all her favorite spots.
Conservatory started, and autumn turned almost abruptly into winter. One morning, on a day off from conservatory, I looked through the frosted window. The brances were heavy with snow, and I hurried with breakfast to wax my skis for a run in Sokolniki Forest. Maybe Father would want me to practice the cello first, but it would not really matter. For me practicing was not a chore.
I asked Leonid if he would go skiing with me. He called me aside and, making sure no one listened, in a fast whispering voice tried to tell me something about Nadja. The usually quiet brother spole in broken sentences and so unclearly as to make me wonder what had come over him.
"You talk like a lunatic," I said loudly, just as Father came toward us. Father said he knew what Leonid was telling me. He looked gloomy, but spoke with no trace of it.
"You are the only one who doesn't know yet. Your sister is engaged to be married. Surprised?" He patted me on the shoulder. "Love is sacred, must be allowed to take its course. We're a lucky family. Some children fly away like birds when they grow up, but Nadja will move just a few steps downstairs into the apartment of Dmitri and his parents."
I knew Dmitri and his quarreling parents, and I could see his stupid smirk clearly as if he stood in front of me in his uniform with brass buttons.
"It's not a few steps down," I said.
"What are you saying?"
"It's not a few steps down. It's miles deep into a cesspool."
"How dare you!" he shouted.
I ignored Father's reaction and continued to speak calmly with an air of peculiar detachment. "Nadja is only sixteen, beautiful and naive. And if you don't stop her from marrying, she will soon be watching Dmitri's consumption progress and she will nurse his bruised face each time he is caught cheating at cards. She will be maltreated by his drunken partnes while Dmitri is working at the telegraph office, and by him when he is home. Her life will be crippled.She will not thank you, Father, She will hate you. I will."
Father's eyes went through me like fire. He struck me. "She will marry Dmitri. Get out, and don't ever come back!"
Someone was shaking me. I opened my eyes. There were people around me. "Heavenly Tzaritza! Mercy! The kid is frozen stiff! Let's bring him inside. What about your place, Shutkin?"
"Sure, I'll take him, but you'd better run for the doctor. We'll be waiting for him in my store."
"Let me carry him," I heard another voice, "and you, Shutkin, take his big guitar." I was carried into a well-heated room. "Quick-blankets-pillow," someone ordered. I was placed on a table, where I fell asleep.
I awoke with sharp pains all over my body. "Don't cry." An old man looked at me. "My name is Shutkin; it''s my store. We found you asleep in the snow. The doctor put those bandages on you." He stroked my head. "All will be fine. I know the pain is just starting."
It was a strange place, small and crowded with hardware, secondhand clocks and books, metal pipes, stoves, samovars, old garden utensils, and an accordion. The wood crackled in the fireplace. I recognized the man with the fur hat who had carried me. He was rolling tobacco into a cigarette paper, wetting it with his tongue. He spoke to Shutkin in a sonorous voice.
"The young fellow will thaw out in no time...da,da...well, I'd better get going before that boss of mine kicks me out. Why doesn't the cholera or something drag his filthy nature to hell?" He lit a cigarette, spat in the fire, and after inhaling a few times said with a grimace, "You know, Shutkin, this cigarette tastes just like dry cow shit," He lifted his hat politely and left.
A week passed. I still had bandages on my feet and hands, but I felt markedly better. The table on which I slept stood near the shopwindow and I was in full view of the passers-by until Shutkin improvised curtains. He wanted to exchange places with me, but the table was too high for him to climb and he slept on a couch.
There were very few customers in the store and the people coming in were mostly acquaintances seeking advice or just visiting the old man. They were quiet and did not stay long. Shutkin had a furrowed face, but his eyes glowed with friendliness and made him appear deceptively young. His voice was also warm and young, though asthma prevented his speech from flowing smoothly. He was very old, but how swiftly he moved-boiling the water, putting the covers on me, taking his shoes off; then again, adding a log to the fire, arranging a pillow under my head. I marveled. I trusted him and spoke freely of my home, my sister and father, and of my quick temper and stubbornness. " I will never return. Can I stay here with you?" I knew I could.
One everning he spoke of himself and of all he had missed in his lifetime, but there was no bitterness in him. "A boy like you could be my great-grandson," he said. "It's a long time since I have spoken of myself," he apologized. "It's hard to talk to people. The very young don't understand, nor have they the patience to listen. The middle-aged prefer to do their own talking, or to listen when one speaks of them. And the old do not hear-or are too preoccupied with their ailments." I asked him how old he was. "Not old enough to think of death. All people know their time will come, but they don't know exactly when, and that makes the trick, a fine joke of nature, which makes everyone feel immortal." He smiled. "I couldn't watch my own birth, but I hope to witness the last scene of my life. It may be interesting...."
He stopped abruptly and said, "Don't be angry at your father. It is he who is hurt. You are not ready to go home yet, but you will be," and with a wink of the eye, "Let's write them so they know you are safe, eh? No? Well, never mind."