Speaking In Tongues
Scribbling In Voices

Yury Stroykov

Boys (Nefedov and Ermolaev)

Translated by Jennifer Tanner

«Yowww!» Serega howled, when his mother started painting the scratches on his legs.
«Ouch!» Kostya burst out in unison. He couldn't stand iodine either.

* * *

Kostya's dad stood the brand-new bicycle up on end and spun the front wheel, smiling. The spokes started to sparkle and spun into one glittering disc.
Kostya Nefedov was smiling, too -- the proud new owner. The whole yard seemed to share his joy. But no, not the whole yard. It was pretty hard to make Serega Ermolaev happy. He stands there in the same corner in the shadows for the time being, hands in his pockets, throwing contemptuous glances at Kostya, and his dad, and the bike, and the whole world as well. At least that's what the expression on his face says.
Dad leaves -- errands to run. Kostya hops onto the bike -- ready for take-off! Then again, maybe not... this is the moment Serega's been waiting for.
«Hey, Cat, let me try it out,» he commands.
«I haven't even been around the yard yet,» Kostya tries to protest. But his eyes and voice betray the hopelessness.
«C'mon, give it here,» Ermolaev's bearing down on him already. He snatches the handlebars with strong hands. «C'mon, get off.»
Good, Mom's just getting home. She grasps the situation immediately, drops her bags and bears down on the boys. Even a hardened criminal wouldn't stand a chance now. She means business.
«And just how long is this going to go on? You've bled our poor boy dry! You, Ermolaev! You're enough to make murderers weep,» an infuriated Morn yells in the general direction of a Serega now retreating across the playground in leaps and bounds.
Kostya is both relieved that it's over, and ashamed. He stands staring at the ground.
«Well, maybe not murderers, but robbers, at least,» Mom softens a bit and collects her bags again.
The shiny, brand-new bicycle lies in the dust. Kostya stands beside it and pokes at one of the tires with the toe of his sneaker. What a mess.

* * *

That night there was a tremendous spanking at Serezhka Ermolaev's. In the opposite building, at the Nefedov's, it could be clearly heard.
«Serves him right, the bully, he's too old to be in the same grade with these kids,» Mom comments. «That'll teach him to bully our poor Kostya.»
For some reason these words don't make Kostya feel any better. And even Dad is silent.

* * *

The playground where the children live is right by the ocean itself. It's right there -- splashing at your feet. A small cove. The remains of an old boat are lying on the sand. Kostya quickly strips off his sticky clothing and carefully (the rocks are sharp) slips into the water. He doesn't swim a lot, but how can you resist on a day like this?
A familiar voice called out to him from behind. It was Pavlik, another kid from his class.
«Hey, why don't you come to the beach with the rest of us? There's stones here, and the bottom drops off in a lot of places.»
«It's more fun that way,» Kostya answers lamely. What else could he say?
«Suit yourself, then, but I'm going to the beach. See ya,» says Pavlik. Swinging his shirt through the air, he goes on his way, to the beach.
The whole gang's already there, sunbathing. Oleg, Misha, and of course Serega.
«Hey,» Pavlik calls to them. And he immediately adds, «Kos'ka, the idiot, he says he's going to swim by the black boat. What an idiot.»
«By the black...?» Serega questions, slowly grasping the situation.
They all hurl themselves into the water. But Ermolaev doesn't hurry. He puts on his sandals. In ten minutes he's at the black boat.
Kostya's about five meters from the shore. He paddles like a dog, sputtering and laughing out loud. Then he turns over on his back -- and sees Serega, standing stock-still on the shore. He has a bored, even sort of absentminded look on his face. And all around them there's only the cove, not another living soul.
Kostya winces spasmodically and takes a couple of clumsy strokes. One-two... he heads out, away from the shore, towards where the cove opens into the ocean. Serega smirks. He knows perfectly well Kostya can't swim worth a damn.
«Swim back here,» he laughs. «Cry for your mommy.»
No, forward, Kostya tells himself. Only forward. In spite of himself, of the ocean; in spite of Ermolaev.
By now he's already thirty meters from the shore. In all his life he's never come out this far before. He's scared. But he's more scared of the shore.
«Hey, where are you going?» Ermolaev starts to get scared. «Swim back.»
But Kostya's already tired out. It's pretty deep. He can't touch the bottom. But to swim back -- never. I won't cry for help. The water's already up to his clenched mouth.
In the meantime, Serega's lost his sense of humor. He can see that someone's about to drown, right before his eyes.
«Hey, why don't you scream, Nefedov?» Serega breaks into a scream himself.
But the other boy doesn't answer, he just keeps beating the water with his arms. Myself. Alone. Myself...
Ermolaev tears into the water, sandals and all. One minute, two minutes. He catches up to Nefedov. Only the top of his head is still sticking out of the water...
Somehow or another they make it back to the shore. They're both exhausted. They collapse on the stones.
«Why didn't you scream?» Serega asks him again, once he gets his breath back.
Kostya doesn't answer. He can't -- or won't -- talk right now.
After a little while they stand up and go. Each his own way. Both look somewhat rumpled, with wet hair. With cuts on their legs, from the sharp sea rocks.