The Killer by Mikhail Bulgakov

Doctor Yashvin snorted and asked with a strangely twisted smile: 

  • May I tear a page off the calendar? It`s exactly 12 o`clock, so today must be the 2nd.
  • Be my guest, I said.

With slender white fingers Yashvin took hold of a corner of the top sheet and carefully detached it. Underneath was a page of cheap paper with the number “2” on it and the word “Tuesday”. Something about the greyish paper fascinated Yashvin. He narrowed his eyes and stared at it, then looked up and off somewhere into the distance. It was clear he was looking at something only he could see: a mysterious scene somewhere beyond the wall of my room and perhaps far beyond Moscow, swirled in gloomy mist that frozen February night.

“What`s he looking at” I thought, squinting up at the doctor. He always fascinated me, because his looks were strangely at odds with his profession. People who did not know him always took him for an actor. He had dark hair and skin so fair it was extremely attractive and set him apart from ordinary people. He shaved immaculately, dressed fastidiously, adored going to the theatre, and if he ever spoke about acting did so knowledgeably and with taste. He was different from all our other registrars and here in my office the difference showed in his shoes. There were five of us in the room and four of us were wearing cheap calf-leather boots with clumsy round toes. Dr Yashvin had on pointed patent leather shoes and yellow gaiters. I must say though that his smooth looks were never off-putting. He was, to be fair, a very good doctor. He was incisive, had good instincts, and, most importantly, he was able to keep up with the literature despite his continual outings to the “Walkyrie”, and the “Barber of Seville”.

Of course it was not his footwear that interested me, but something else. I was intrigued by an unusual aspect of his character: although he was a silent and secretive man, he could in some situations become a remarkable storyteller. He would speak very calmly and “thoughtfully” about interesting things, with no rhetorical flourishes and no long winded padding. The reserved suave doctor would start to burn. With his right hand he would make the occasional small gesture in the air, as though placing a little marker in the story. He never smiled when he was describing something funny and sometimes his similes were so accurate and telling that as I heard them I would think:”You are not at all bad as a doctor, but you have missed your calling. You should have been a writer…” Right now the same thought occurred to me, although Yashvin was silent and looking into the distance beyond the “2”, through narrowed eyes.

“What is he looking at? The picture maybe”. I looked back over my shoulder and saw that the picture was quite ordinary; of a horse with a powerfully muscled chest standing next to an engine and the slogan: “Comparative power: horse(1) engine (2).”

  • “It is all rubbish, comrades” I said, carrying on our conversation, “all ignorant nonsense. The swine have got it in for doctors and for us surgeons especially. Think about it: someone does 100 appendectomies and during the 101st the patient dies on the operating table. So what? Does that mean the doctor killed him?”
  • “That`s what they will say. Definitely” one doctor said.
  • “And if the patient was somebody`s wife, her husband will come round to the clinic and throw a chair at you” Doctor Plonsky added firmly, even managing a smile. We all smiled, although in fact there is nothing to laugh at when someone hurls chairs around a clinic.
  • “I cannot stand phoney confessions” I continued: “I`m a murderer! I killed him!” No one kills anybody and if a patient dies in a doctor`s care, it is bad luck. It`s ridiculous! Murder is alien to people in our profession. Dammit! I call it murder when you kill someone with deliberate intent, or at least, when you want to see them dead. A surgeon with a gun in his hands – that I can understand. But I have never met one in my whole life and I am not likely to.”

Doctor Yashvin suddenly turned his head towards me, his eyes visibly darkening, and said:

  • “At your service.”

As he spoke he adjusted his tie with one finger and gave another twisted smile, but this time with the corner of his mouth not his eyes.

We looked at him in astonishment.

  • “Meaning what?” I asked.
  • “Meaning that I murdered someone” Yashvin explained.
  • “When?” I asked stupidly.

Yashvin pointed at the “2” and said:

  • “Imagine the coincidence. As soon as you began talking about murder I looked at the calendar and saw it was the 2nd. That happens every year, by the way. Exactly seven years ago to the day, or perhaps even…” Yashvin pulled out his black watch and glanced at it. “…Yes, almost to the hour on the night of 1st and 2nd February I murdered someone.”
  • “A patient?” Gins asked.
  • “Yes.”
  • “But not intentionally?” I asked.
  • “Yes, Intentionally” Yashvin said.
  • “Well, I can imagine” Plonsky conceded, unconvinced, “that he had cancer and was probably dying an agonising death and you slipped him ten times the dose of morphine…”
  • “No. Morphine had absolutely nothing to do with it” Yashvin said. “And he did not have cancer either. It was freezing cold. I remember clearly, the temperature was about fifteen degrees below zero and the stars were out…Oh what stars we have in Ukraine. I have lived nearly seven years in Moscow but I still long for home. I pine so badly that sometimes I would love to jump on the first train for Ukraine and see its gullies crammed with snow and the river Dnieper… There no city on earth more beautiful than Kiev.”

Yashvin put the slip of calendar paper into his wallet, sat down in the arm chair and continued:

  • “It was a frightening city, in frightening times… and I had see terrifying things that you here in Moscow have not seen. It was 1919: 1 February precisely, at about six o`clock in the evening when it was already growing dark.

The darkness finds me doing something very strange. A lamp burns on the table in my surgery, the room is cosy and warm, and I am crouching on the floor over a small suitcase forcing something into it and whispering one word: “Run.Run.” I keep stuffing a shirt into the case and pulling it out. The damned thing won`t fit. The suitcase is for hand luggage and rather small, and my underwear takes up a lot of space, along with hundreds of cigarettes and a stethoscope. All of it is sticking out of the case. I throw out the shirt, then listen carefully. The frames of the window are sealed for the winter and muffle every sound but you can still hear it… Far faraway, the distant pounding of heavy artillery – boooom, boooom…When dawn comes it will fall silent. I look out of the window. I live in Kiev Heights, at the top of Alekseyev Rise, and have a view over the whole valley district of Podol. Night rises from the Dnieper river and curls round the house. Lights gradually thread on one by one. Every time I hear an explosion across the Dnieper I whisper: “Go on, go on, keep at it.”

You see by this time the whole city knew that Petlyura, the nationalist commander fighting the Communists, was on the point of getting out, if not tonight then tomorrow. On the other side of the Dnieper, massed forces of Bolsheviks were rumoured to be advancing, and the whole city looked forward to their arrival, not just with impatience, I would say, but with anticipation. Because what Petlyura and his men had been doing in Kiev during their last month there beggared belief. Pogroms would flare up in a minute. Every day someone would be murdered – Jews first of course. Something would get requisitioned and cars would careen around the town filled with people with red ribbons fluttering on their sheepskin hats.

Recently, the sound of distant cannon fire never  abated for an hour. Day or night. People were exhausted. Everyone`s eyes were alert and frightened. As recently as yesterday two dead bodies had lain the whole afternoon in the snow under my window. One was in a grey coat, the other in a black shirt, and both were barefoot. People either sidestepped them, or huddled round to stare. Some old women ran out of an alley, not stopping to pin up their hair, and shook their fists at the sky, shouting: “Just you wait. They`re coming. The Bolsheviks are coming.” My blood ran cold at the pitiful sight of these two men, murdered for no reason.

I too start looking forward to the arrival of the Bolsheviks and they are getting closer and closer. The horizon lights up and from the bowels of the earth distant cannons boom. And so….

And so: the lamp burns with a cosy, unsteady glow. I am all alone, my books are strewn around me – because in the midst of this chaos I had the wild idea of doing a doctorate – and I am crouching over my suitcase. Then, believe it or not, events flew straight into the flat, grabbed me by the hair and dragged me away, as though I was living some hellish dream.

I had come back that evening from a workers` clinic in the outskirts of the city where I was registrar in the women`s surgery unit, and found a disturbingly official-looking package stuck in the crack of the door. I opened it there on the landing, read what was on the page and sat down on the stairs. I dark blue type the paper said in Ukrainian:

  • “On receipt of this, you are requested to appear at the health department within two hours to await further instructions…”

So. Here was this brilliant army strewing corpses behind it all over the streets, papa Petlyura and the pogroms – and I was to be a part of them, with a red cross on my sleeve…

I gave it no more than a moment`s thought there on the landing. I sprang up, went into my flat, and this is where the suitcase materialised. My plan quickly took shape. I`d quit the flat with just a change of underwear and go to  medical assistant I knew in the outskirts, a gloomy looking man who was a Bolshevik sympathiser. I would stay with him until Petlyura was forced to leave.

But what if he was never forced to leave? What if these long-awaited Bolsheviks were a myth? Cannons, where are you? Silence. No – I hear them boom again.

I angrily pulled out the shirt and snapped shut the lock of the suitcase. I put my Browning and a spare cartridge clip in my pocket, threw on my coat with the red cross armband, cast a despairing look round me, dimmed the lamp and felt my way out into the hall through the evening shadows. I switched on the light, picked up a balaclava and opened the door onto the landing. Right then two figures with snub cavalry rifles on their shoulders stepped  into the hallway, coughing, one in spurs, the other not. Both had sheepskin hats with jaunty blue ribbons dangling on their cheek.

My heart pumped.

  • “Are you Doc Yashvin” the first cavalry man asked.
  • “Yes, that`s me” I answered dully.
  • “You`re coming with us” the first man said.
  • “What do you mean?” I asked, straightening a little.
  • “Sabotage, that`s what I mean” the first one said, clinking his spurs and giving me a bright cunning look. “Docs who don`t want to be mobilised answer before the law.” The hall light went put, the door creaked open, we went down the stairs and out onto the street…
  • “Where are you taking me?” I asked, fingering the cool grip of the gun in my trouser pocket.-
  • “To the first cavalry regiment” the spurs answered.
  • “Why?”
  • “What do you mean why?” the second one asked. “You are going to be our Doctor.”
  • Who is the commander?”
  • “Colonel Leshchenko” the first one said rather proudly, his spurs jangling rhythmically at my left side.

“You stupid bastard, agonising over a suitcase all because of your underwear” I thought to myself. “Why didn`t you get out five minutes earlier?”

There was frost in the black sky that arched over the city and stars were coming out by the time we reached the large house where the regiment was billeted. Electric lights blazed through ice patterns on the windowpanes. Spurs ringing, the men led me into a bare dusty room lit by one bulb, dazzlingly bright under its broken opal light shade. The barrel of a rifle stood in the corner and my eyes were drawn to the brown and red stains next to it, where an expensive tapestry was hanging in shreds. “That`s blood” I thought, and my heart contracted unpleasantly.

  • “Colonel, sir” the man with the spurs said quietly. “We have brought the Doc.”
  • “Is he a yid?” a voice suddenly shouted somewhere, hoarse and dry. The door

Padded with tapestry shepherds swung open silently and a man ran in, dressed in a magnificent great coat and boots with spurs, girt tightly with a Caucasian belt encrusted with silver ornaments and a Caucasian sabre, that gleamed in the electric light like fire at his hip. On his head he wore a red hat lined with fleece and criss-crossed with gold ribbon. Eyes like darting black beads slanted out of his face with a strangely evil feverish expression and the clipped black moustache on his pockmarked face quivered with tension.

  • “No, he`s not” the cavalryman said. Then the man leapt up close to me and looked in my eyes.
  • “You are not a yid” he began, with a heavy accent, in broken Ukrainian and Russian. “But you are no better than one, and as soon as the fighting is over I`ll see you court martialed. You`ll be shot for desertion.”
  • “Don`t let him out of your sight!” he ordered the cavalryman.
  • “And get him a horse.”

I stood there saying nothing and imagine I looked pale Then everything again lost focus like a dream. Somebody in the corner pleaded: “Take pity, Colonel, sir…” I vaguely glimpsed a beard quivering above a soldier`s torn great coat and cavalrymen`s faces pressing around it. “On a deserter?” the familiar rusty voice sang. “Some chance, you scum. You scab.”

I saw the colonel`s mouth twist as he drew an elegant black pistol from his holster and smashed the face of the scruffy man with its handle. The man staggered sideways gulping blood and fell to his knees. Tears began to stream from his eyes…

And then the frost-white city was behind us. A tree-lined road wound its way along the bank of the frozen, black, mysterious Dnieper and along the road in a long crocodile stretched the first cavalry regiment. At the end of the procession carts filled with equipment creaked now and then, black bayonets swayed and the peaks of frozen balaclavas forested the air. I rode along in my cold saddle, stirring the toes in my boots from time to time in agony, and breathing through the icy gap of my balaclava, feeling the pressure of the suitcase fixed to the pommel of my saddle against my left thigh. My escort silently shadowed me. Everything inside me was as frozen as my feet. From time to time I would turn my head to the sky, look up at the large stars, and the howl of that deserter would sound in my ears as though it had dried inside them and would fade only with time. Colonel Leshchenko had ordered the soldiers to flog him with the cleaning rods of their rifles and they had done so in the house.

The distant darkness was now silent and to my utter dismay it seemed that the Bolsheviks had been driven back. My situation was desperate. We were heading for the shanty town where we would take up position guarding the bridge over the Dnieper. If things were quiet and I was not immediately needed, Colonel Leshchenko would court martial me. The thought of this was petrifying and I gazed up at the stars, anguished and sad. It was not hard to imagine the outcome of a trial for desertion at a time like this. A bizarre fate for a qualified doctor…

It is about two hours later and everything has again shifted like a kaleidoscope. Now the dark road has disappeared. I am in a white stuccoed room. On a wooden table stands a storm light, a hunk of bread and an open medical bag. I have lost all feeling in my feet and am warming them up at the little purple flame dancing in a black iron stove. Cavalrymen come to see me every so often and I am treating them. Most have frost bite. They take off their boots, unwind their foot cloths and contort themselves in front of the fire. There is the sour smell of sweat, cheap tobacco and iodine in the room.

At other times I am on my own. My escort has gone. “Run” I think, and by the light of a guttering tallow candle I open the door a crack and look out from time to time at the stairway, faces and bayonets. The whole place bristles with people. It would be hard to run away. I am in the centre of Petlyura`s headquarters.  I come back from the door to the table, slump down exhausted, put my head in my hands and listen. For hours now I have noticed a howl coming from under the floor every five minutes. I already know what it is: someone is being flogged with rifle rods. The howl sometimes diminishes from a lions wild roar into what sounds through the floorboards like gentle pleading or reproaches, like someone`s intimate conversation with a friend. Sometimes it stops abruptly as though severed by a knife.

  • “What`s all that about?” I ask one of Petlyura`s men who is stretching out his hand to the fire, shivering. His bare foot is on the stool and I am daubing white ointment on the abscess in his blackened big toe.
  • “The opposition has got into the shanty town. Communists and yids. The Colonel is interrogating them.”

I say nothing. When he leaves the room I wrap a balaclava round my head to block out the sound and spend quarter of an hour like that, until I roused from a state of oblivion in which a pock-marked face with gold ribbons continually floats before my closed eyes by my escort`s voice:

  • “The Colonel wants you”

I get up, unwind the balaclava under the escort`s baffled gaze and follow him out. We go down to the floor below and I step into a white room. Here by the light of a storm lamp I see Colonel Leshchenko, stripped to the waist and curled over on a stool, pressing a piece of bloodstained gauze to his chest. A young lad stands next to him, at a loss what to do and shifting his feet with a clank of his spurs.

  • “The bastard” the Colonel said, then turned to me. – “Well, doctor, bandage me up.” “Get out” – he said to the young lad, who started making his way to the door.

The whole building was silent, then suddenly the window frame shuddered. The Colonel squinted over to the black window and so did I. “Artillery” I thought and sighed convulsively before asking:

  • “What did this?”
  • “A pen knife” the Colonel answered angrily.
  • “Who did it?”
  • “None of your business2 he said coldly, full of contempt for me, and added “Oh, doctor, things look bad for you.”

It suddenly dawned on me that someone who was unable to take the tormenting had flown at him and stabbed him. That could be the only explanation…

  • “Stop! Stop! Where the hell do you think…” The door flung open and in burst a dishevelled woman with a dry face and a look of elation, or so it seemed to me. It was only much later I learned what strange forms extreme rage can take. A grey hand tried to grab her by the head scarf but pulled it off. “Go away, boy, go away” the Colonel ordered and the hand disappeared.

The woman let her gaze rest on the half-naked Colonel and asked in a dry emotionless voice: “Why did you kill my husband?”

  • “Why? Because. That`s why” the Colonel answered and frowned in pain. 

The pad of gauze grew redder and redder under his fingers. She gave such a scream of laughter that without stopping what I was doing, I looked up at her eyes. I had never seen such an expression. Suddenly she turned on me and said: “And you, a doctor!” She poked the red cross on my sleeve, shook her head and carried on, eyes blazing: “You bastard. Ohh, you go to university, then you side with this riffraff. You even bandage them up. This man pelts people in the face, until they lose their minds… And you are bandaging him up?”

Everything blurred before my eyes and I feared I would vomit. I sensed that the most terrible, astonishing events of my miserable life as a doctor were just about to start. “Are you talking to me?” I asked and felt I was trembling. “Me?..I…”

But she didn`t want to listen, and turning back to the Colonel, spat  straight in his face. He jumped to his feet, shouting for his “Boys!” and when they ran in, angrily ordered them to give her 25 strokes with a rifle rod. She said nothing and was dragged out of the room by the armpits. The Colonel closed the door, slipped the lock, sat down on the stool and flung down the gauze pad. Blood was seeping out of a small cut. He wiped the gob of spit from the right side of his moustache.

  • “Twenty five for a woman?” I asked in a voice completely unlike my own. Anger flared in his eyes.
  • “Uh ha.” He looked at me ominously. “Now I see what a wimp they gave me for a doctor…”

******

One bullet I evidently fired into his mouth because I remember him swaying with blood pouring out of it, then pools quickly forming on his chest and stomach, and his black eyes turning dim and milky as he slumped from the stool to the floor. As I took aim I remember I was afraid of miscounting and firing the seventh and last bullet. “That one`s for me” I thought, savouring the smell of sulphur on the Browning.

As soon as someone tried the door handle, I flew to the window, kicked out the grass and jumped. Fate was kind to me. I landed in a closed yard and ran out past piles of firewood into the black street. They would have caught me for sure if I had not darted into a narrow gap between two walls and spent several hours holed up in a brick funnel, like a cave. Horsemen galloped past.  I could hear them. The street led down to the Dnieper and for a long time they trotted up and down the riverbank looking for me. Through the crack I could see one star, which for some reason, I think was Mars. I thought it exploded. When the first shell fell, the star went out.

All night long things crashed and erupted in the shanty town, while I stood silently in my brick hideaway, thinking about my postgraduate degree and wondering if the woman had survived the flogging with the rifle rod. At first light everything fell silent. I could stand the pain no longer and came out of my funnel with frostbitten feet. The shanty town had died. There was not a sound. The stars were turning pale. When I reached the bridge it was as though there had never been a Colonel Leshchenko or a first cavalry regiment…Only horse dung on a trampled track….

I walked all the way back to Kiev alone, reaching the city when day had broken. An unfamiliar patrol met me wearing headgear with earflaps. They stopped me and asked for my papers. I said:

  • “I am Dr Yashvin. I am on the run from Petlyura`s men. Where are they?”
  • “They left in the night. There`s a Revolutionary Committee in Kiev now.” I could see one of the patrol looking at my face, then he said with rather a sympathetic wave of his hand: “Go home, doctor.” So I did.

*******

After a silence I asked Yashvin:

  • “Did he die? Did you kill him, or just wound him?”

Yashvin answered, smiling his strange little smile:

“Oh, don`t worry, I killed him. You can rely on my experience as a surgeon.”

Translated by Marjorie Farquharson, published in `The Body in the Library: A Literary History of Modern Medicine, ed. Iain Bamforth, Verso Books, 2003.