Editor’s Note: “How could you live and have no story to tell?” wrote Dostoevsky in his short story, “White Nights.” Life is about the stories we live and tell, and the three interrelated stories in this intriguing novella by Albanian writer Burbuqe Raufi, are no exception. We present these three stories of “Life” – Sergey Volgov, Angela Miller and Samuel Blanc – beginning tonight and concluding next week.
“Life” Part I
Sergey Volgov—the man who fought poverty. Freckled and ashy pale, Sergey Volgov, a very old man, sat in the wheelchair by the window, watching the mesmerizing motion of the late autumn leaves falling from the trees and landing on the muddy ground, waiting to experience his last breath, but his beaten body resisted freeing his moaning soul. A harsh torture, as was his thin face covered with wrinkles and scars, a map of anguish describing all the things he had done and thought. The old man’s marred body was the manifestation of his feral life.
He heard someone entering his room and pushed the wheelchair toward the visitor. An unfamiliar young man wearing black clothes, a hood covering half his face, stood in front of him.
The old man sighed. “How did you enter my mansion?”
“The door was open.”
“That is impossible. I have guards, a butler. Where are they?”
“No one was there, sir,” replied the young man, rubbing his hands.
“Impossible.” His hands shaking, Sergey took the silver bell and rang it, but no one responded.
“What do you want? Who are you? How did you enter?” Sergey asked with a frightened voice.
“The gate was wide open, and the front door was too. I called, but no one answered, and then I found your room.”
“Spectacular entrance, young boy. I can smell your lies. Are you a hitman?”
“Of course not. If I were a hitman, you wouldn’t be breathing right now, sir,” said the young man.
“Maybe you want to torture me. But let me tell you, there’s no torture that could compare to being tied to this wheelchair. Please, young boy, just set me free.” Sergey exhaled sharply.
“You’re wrong, sir. That’s not my intention,” the young man said, breathing heavily. “May I sit down? I have walked about three hours, and I’m kind of tired.”
“Yes, sure, boy. Take a seat.” Sergey didn’t feel afraid of the boy anymore. It was as if the air had been smudged with sage. “So, what’s your name, son?”
“Thead White, sir.”
Sergey burst out laughing, so hard he coughed phlegm on his hands.
“What’s funny about my name?” The young man tried not to look at the old man’s hands full of sticky liquid conjoining his fingers.
“I didn’t laugh about your name. I just miss laughing. Damn, I have always been so serious, just as you are right now. Laugh, young boy. Life is a joke.” As Sergey spoke, he took a napkin from his jacket pocket and dried his hands.
They both burst out laughing, and every time they made eye contact, they laughed again.
“I would love to have a whiskey on the rocks with you, son,” said Sergey, “but you said all my employees have disappeared. Maybe they left, or I fired them and I don’t remember, or they resigned. Just like everything else, they’ve cast off.”
Sergey stared at the ceiling for a quite long time, completely motionless. One would think he was dead.
Thead gazed at the old man in silence, unable to utter a word.
In agony, Sergey whispered, “I wish you were a hitman.”
“No, sir.” Thead approached him and touched his shoulder. “I’ll pour some drinks for us.”
“That would be great, son,” said Sergey.
Sergey turned to him and said, “I drink to your health. Cheers! This is the best whiskey.”
“So, tell me the reason for your visit,” Sergey said.
Thead sniffed. ”Sir, recently I found out that you had bought a plot at the Brookmoor Valley—and there were other names as well, and—I thought, maybe it would be nice knowing you better, before—I mean, maybe asking you some questions, like an interview—or, I don’t know—I’m just curious to know you—it’s just—I don’t know you. That’s it.”
“You want to know me?” He drew his lower lip between his teeth. “But I don’t know myself. Who am I?” He frowned. “But I can settle on answering your questions, just to kill your curiosity. That’s what I do best: I kill.”
“Do you have any regrets, sir?” asked Thead.
“I don’t know. Life is a war,” Sergey said. “If you don’t fight, you’ll be beaten.” He drank a sip of whiskey. “And you want to know more?”
“Well, son, I turned 85 this year, and that is a whole lot of years—a lot. I don’t remember most of it, but I do remember some—the most significant parts.”
“Who is Ana Pavlova?” the young man asked with hesitation.
Sadness clouded Sergey’s features. “Listen, son. You said you don’t know me. How do you know Ana? No one dares mentioning her name. If I weren’t tied to this chair, I would have killed you instantly.” His mouth twisted.
“I don’t know her, sir. I just read your statement at Brookmoor Valley. You had specified that you wanted your space near Ana Pavlova, which is why I asked.”
“You convinced me. Did you meet her? Did you pay her a surprise visit?”
“No, not yet.”
“If you ever do, just tell her ‘thank you’ from Sergey.”
“I will, sir.”
“The glimpses I can remember seem to me like an old movie like it wasn’t my life.” His pupils flared. “I was born in a small village called Tzurdev in the south of Russia, born in a very poor family, extremely poor. There were times we starved for days; my tummy hurt like it was cut with a sword. I don’t remember my skinny mom ever smiling.” Sergey fought back tears and continued.
“My father tried very hard to work and feed us, going to the city every day and asking wealthy families to give him a job doing whatever. They ignored him. Once, he took me with him. I remember that day as clear as a summer sky. We walked barefoot to the city; my feet hurt from the pebbles cutting into them, and from the cold.” His expression hardened. “I remember, when we arrived at the city after hours of walking, he asked anyone for a job, but they all ignored him. They avoided my father like malaria. At the end of the day, drained, we reached a wealthy family’s house. My father knocked at the door and kindly asked whether they needed any help.
“‘Get lost’, the man said. ‘We don’t need any help from a dog.’
“‘But my family is starving, sir, have mercy on them. I will do whatever you need. I can clean your chimney, I can carry wood—whatever you need, sir.’
“‘That is not my business. Get lost from my property and take that little dog with you!’ He kicked me with his heavy boot. I fell to the ground as he went back inside his home and slammed the door.
“My father stood there as if someone had poured icy water on him and said, ‘Son, I’m sorry. We have to try again tomorrow.’”
Sergey clutched his chest, and his shoulders sagged. It seemed as if the pain brought on by his childhood memories were suffocating him. His lower lip quivering, he found the strength to continue.
“I was so weak I could hardly walk, so most of the way back he carried me on his shoulders, singing an Old Russian song of hope. I could hear his heavy breathing. While he was singing, I promised myself: When I get older and strong enough, I will do anything that has to be done to get the revenge we deserve.”
Thead was listening very carefully. With his eyes wide, he observed Sergey’s every emotion as he continued telling the story.
“Those wealthy families had the power to help us ease the painful illness of hunger, but they chose not to in the most bizarre ways. So, I promised myself that my revenge would be the most bizarre that humanity has known.”
“Did you get your revenge?” Thead interrupted.
Sergey pretended he hadn’t heard the question. He was lost in the story of his life. It felt therapeutic, expelling the evil living in his chest. “My parents couldn’t survive. They both passed away, one after the other. My mom died from hunger, and my dad died from tuberculosis just a few weeks after her. I was left with my three younger brothers, all alone.” Sergey thrust his fists in the air as if he wanted to punch his past and free himself from it. He felt the loss of his loved ones as if it were happening again right in front of him.
“What happened next?” asked Thead.
After a long silence, Sergey finally got the strength to continue. His eyes swam with tears.
“A neighbor sent us to a foster home in the city. It was hard, but at least we weren’t hungry anymore. In the foster home, we learned reading and writing, which was the only education we ever got, but in the meantime, my brothers and I created a gang. We called ourselves Претенденты, meaning Revengers. Yes, son, revenge was our priority. We would hold each other’s hands and promise that we would become the most powerful gang in the country.”
“Did you?” Thead asked impatiently.
“Sure, we did. Our first mission was that same wealthy family. The one I mentioned earlier. How could I forget them? We entered their home while they were sleeping. I recognized the old man immediately—and gave the sign to my brothers.
“I am proud of what I did.
“My brothers tied him to a chair with a rope, as well as his old lady and their daughters—they had to see it. On the way to their house, I had collected dog shit. My brothers kept laughing and asking why I needed it, but I had a plan.
“I put all the dog shit into his mouth. He couldn’t breathe, and his soul was forced to leave his body. I saw it all. I enjoyed every second of it.
“That was the first day of my life that I felt happiness in my chest.
“His women were screaming for help, but my brothers held them tight.
“‘This is what happens when you disrespect dogs. You will die from their shit,’ I said and laughed as hard as I could.
“It was real happiness.
“His wife begged me for mercy. I told her, ’You could have saved us, but you didn’t. I can save you now, but I won’t.’
“‘I will give you everything you want,’ his wife pleaded, ‘just don’t hurt my daughters.’
“‘We are not asking you to give us anything. We did that a long time ago,’” one of my brothers replied.
“We tied all three of them together and sprinkled them with gas. My brothers took everything from them—paintings, jewelry, and money. We became rich instantly. Then we burnt the house and the women in it.
“I believed they didn’t even deserve a grave. Those creatures had to vanish from the surface of this earth.”
Thead seemed shocked. He couldn’t utter a word. He swayed on his feet, and he stiffened.
“We took the power and the legacy into our hands, son. We never stayed in one city—burnt, killed, took the wealth and left. In the meantime, I wanted them to suffer, and I wanted to see them suffering. Those who were very wealthy were my favorites. I would shove those golden spoons down their throats and say, ‘Eat now, you bastard.’ So, this lasted for years. We took our revenge and became the wealthiest of gangs.
“And one day I said, ‘Enough! This doesn’t make me happy anymore.’ We sailed and came to America.
“Did you continue?” asked Thead with a trembling voice.
“Of course not, not the same way. We started our own business—The Four Brothers, a textile company—and we doubled and tripled our wealth.”
“Do you regret it?” he dared to ask.
“Not at all. If I had to do it again, I would.”
“Where are your brothers now?”
“At the Brookmoor Valley. They were luckier than me. I still have to bear the truth that there is no one left for revenge.”
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll go to hell after all those murders?” Thead said.
“Are you kidding me?” Sergey rubbed his forehead “I did the right thing. I am proud of it. I don’t believe in the term ‘justice.’ The laws are made to protect the wealthy because they can buy their justice. I did that all my time here in America. Anyone who believes in human laws is a fool. He is fooling himself. I find it funny—these funny people also invented God, to scare us. That is funny too.” Sergey gave Thead a sharp look.
“But there, of course, were innocent people you killed, like the daughters.”
Sergey shook his head. “No, they weren’t innocent. They heard their father calling my father and me dogs. And they didn’t care. They cared about their hairstyles and their fancy dresses. I served them justice.”
“Even deep down in your soul, you don’t feel regret?”
“Are you a priest?” He threaded a hand through his medium-length hair. “Or what the hell are you? I told you, it was my satisfaction. Every time I closed my eyes, I could see only one thing: my mother’s bones. I even see them now. I want to believe there is another life, beyond this one, where my mother is sitting at a never-ending dining table.”
Sergey closed his eyes and leaned his head on the chair as a smile conquered his face.
“She used to tell us, every night before sleep, ‘My dearest ones, I know you are hungry, but I know a magic trick: close your eyes and imagine a long, very long, table full of different kinds of food, from exotic fruits to the most wonderful desserts, and even if you can’t find your favorite food, you just have to think of it and it will appear on your plate.’ You know, Mr. White, that is my favorite memory. We would fall asleep smiling while imagining all those kinds of delicious foods. It felt real until my mom had no place to keep her soul. If anyone calls this justice, then I can grow limbs in my ass, mister.”
“But, Mr. Volgov, you became one of them.”
“You mean I became one of those wealthy assholes?”
“Yes, indeed. Money gives you power, and power gives you everything. I was that asshole targeting other assholes. The revenges got bigger and bigger as my brothers and I did all the filthy work. We made businessmen go broke, lose their companies—sometimes by buying their shares, sometimes by killing them. I had no mercy.” Sergey scratched his head. “I think there is wealth, I mean enough resources for food and shelter, for everyone in this planet, but these assholes had interfered with the natural order of things by eating with shitty golden spoons and building houses with twenty bedrooms when all they needed was only one bed to sleep in. I didn’t want to be a Robin Hood, I just wanted to destroy them. I wanted the world to know the wealthy are not safe.” Sergey faked a smile and let out a harsh breath.
“I don’t get it. You became richer and richer by stealing from the wealthy. What did you do with your wealth? Now, as far I can see, you are living alone with an imaginary guard and butler, in this small cabin, tied to a wheelchair. No one to take care of you, no one to love or be loved by—or am I mistaken?”
“You are a smart boy, Mr. White. I knew this was coming—I mean at the end—so a few years ago I sold everything I possessed. Went on a world tour and gave it all away, whenever I would see a poor family. I was aware that it was temporary help, but at least they had a day living at the never-ending dining table—not just imaginary, as it was for my mom and us.” Sergey rubbed his hands on his dead thighs, and awe transformed his face.
Thead said, “You seem so sad now, even though you were such a great philanthropist. Why does this make you sad? And why are you happy when you talk about all the killings?”
“My mom makes me sad. I couldn’t make her happy, even though I had the world in my hands. I couldn’t turn back time.”
“You must have loved your mother very much,” said Thead. He paced around the room, feeling tense.
“The only love I can feel in my chest is for her and my little brothers—but at least I fed them while they were alive.” Blazing with hatred, Sergey’s eyes followed Thead as he walked around. “And, mister, once I thought I was in love.” Sergey hesitated. “But it was just a mistake.”
“Do you mean Ana?”
“Mr. White, this is your last time mentioning her name. I won’t tolerate you.”
He smiled. “What are you going to do to me?”
“I am going to fill your mouth with dog shit.”
They both laughed, knowing it was impossible. Sergey had been paralyzed for three years and had been enslaved ever since by his wheelchair.
“Pretty amazing life, Mr. Volgov. I guess you’ve lived it all—experienced it all. If you had the chance, would you live the same life again?”
“No, I wouldn’t. I would like to be a woman. I would like to experience what fragility feels like.”
They both smiled.
“I would love another glass of whiskey, Son, if you don’t mind,” Sergey said.
“Sure, sir. I’ll pour some for myself as well.” Thead filled their glasses with the last remaining whiskey.
“You never told me who you are, son. You just came in, and I opened up. I am fascinated.”
“I’m nobody. Just a curious young boy.”
“You can’t fool me. I know who you are. Since you mentioned Brookmoor Valley, I have wanted to ask you—”
“Ask me what, sir?”
“About Ana.” Sergey’s eyes widened.
“Yes, she’s already there, waiting for you.”
“That is bullshit, son. I don’t believe in that humbug. I only believe in the power of wealth. You can even buy love.”
“That’s not true, sir. You can’t buy love.”
“I did, son. I think I did. Let me tell you one last story, and that will be enough. Why do I have this urge to tell you everything?” Sergey asked, then continued without waiting for Thead’s response.
“Once, I was invited to a Christmas party in New York that all the politicians, wealthy families, and influencers were attending. I wanted to go because there was someone there who I had targeted, and it was hard to get in. But I got an invitation and went, wearing a rented suit. I never spent a dime on worthless clothes.
“And, son, the most unexpected thing happened to me. It made me forget the mission I came there for. I totally forgot about that creepy banker.” Sergey blushed.
“She was there.” He went silent, and it looked like he was enjoying the memory. “She was standing in the entrance, wearing a long golden dress with long black gloves. Her ocean-blue eyes sparkled and lighted every twine of my being. Unforgettable, that’s what she was.
“I knew in a moment that she had to belong only to me. But she was married, happily married. You may assume, son, that wasn’t an obstacle for me. My gang planned an accident and killed her beloved husband.”
“You really did that, sir?” Thead looked surprised.
“Why not? She was in love with him. Why would she love me?”
“That’s not good, sir.”
“I know, son.”
“So, that means you regret it?”
“What is this regretting thing you keep asking about? I never regret anything I did. I had my reasons. I had my way of doing things.”
“And what happened to her?”
“I waited for her to get over her grief. I set a team to watch over her; if anyone would try to get close to her, they would be killed immediately. I had to be the first to approach. So I did my moves. I acted like a gentleman. I became a business partner in her late husband’s firm. I made her the president. She felt more important and worthier. Meanwhile, I sent her flowers, dresses, jewelry. She was fond of them. That was the only thing I didn’t like about her: she loved things. But I loved her. And I spent a lot of time imagining how it would be when she would become mine. I proposed and she said yes, while I was hoping she would say no.”
“Why would you want that?”
“Because she loved her husband. I believed that you can fall in love only once in your lifetime, but she proved me wrong. She didn’t love him. Not me either. As I said, she only wanted things.”
So at our wedding night, when she finally was mine, the magic was gone. I didn’t feel anything magnificent, she was just a human, like everyone else—there was no divinity like my mother had. I got her pregnant and I left her.
“What! Why in hell did you do that?”
“The fascination was gone. The magic exists only in one’s mind.”
“Was the child born?”
“Yes, she was. I made sure she wouldn’t starve to death. But I also made sure she won’t ever experience luxury.”
“You are a sick man.”
“Maybe being reasonable classifies as a sickness. I don’t care.”
“I never wanted her to know I was her father, my little Ana. I want her to know me when we all will become One.”
“Why did you want me to say ‘thank you?’ to her?”
“If it wasn’t her, I wouldn’t experience—how can I say it—it is difficult to translate this feeling into words, the feeling that someone belongs to you, is you. I don’t know how to say it.”
“But you could have been happy with her.”
“I wanted to feel pain. Love’s pain.”
“Unbelievable. You had really made a lot of stupid choices sir.”
“I made the right choices, son. You know. Being around women made me feel uncomfortable. They are so delicate, they can be easily broken, like a china vase, all you need is a blow. My nature was harsh. I couldn’t deal with the sensitivity, and they were safer without me. If Ana was a boy, I could hold her—him— beside me, make him part of my gang—anyway, she was better off without me.”
“Did you miss her?”
“No. I am sure now that you don’t know me at all. The only person I miss is my mother. She was the unfairly broken vase.”
“I see your point, mister.”
“I could use your help. I want to get outside. I need some fresh air. Would you mind pushing my wheels of damnation?”
“Of course, sir.”
The young boy pushed him through the woods of raining leaves and sunbeams penetrating the tree branches to reach and warm the old, cold body of Sergey Volgov.
“I know who you are, son.”
Thead didn’t say anything; he continued pushing his wheelchair.
“And I know exactly why you are here.”
“I know,” Mr. White replied with confidence.
“And I am not afraid—not at all. All my life I thought you were my enemy, but now I know you are the best thing that could happen to me.”
“I know that too, sir.”
“You know, when you get old, very old like myself, you get to know everything. It is not about what you learn during the lifetime, it is something that gets revealed. Poof!”
“Like what, sir?”
“Like the awareness that I have about this body. It feels like I rented this body 85 years ago and I was able to complete all my missions. Now my body wants to return to where it belongs, to become what it is, what it was. Soil.”
“That is true, sir.”
“And one more thing, son, I know the last breath is going to be glorious. It is going to be the ticket home. And finally, I will meet my mother again.”
The wheelchair got stuck. The young boy tried to clean the leaves and the mud burdening it, tried to push it again and again, but the wheelchair had gotten stuck. There was silence, an absolute silence.
He was gone.
End of Part I. To be continued.
Burbuqe Raufi is an award-winning Albanian author and an avid reader. Her first published book, Dr. Mind (Balboa Press), a self-help book based on her real-life experiences, gathered good and impeccable reviews from Amazon readers. Dr. Mind was published in Albanian as Fuqia e mendimeve and became a bestseller and won an award as the best book of 2016. Her most recent book is The Tavern: a Novella, a psychological and philosophical drama. Bubuqe has also published short stories in literary magazines, including “The Old, the Young, and Me” (Literary Yard), and “Me vs Me: A Healing Journey through the Power of Thoughts (Positively Positive). She lives in the Republic of North Macedonia.