Leonid Panteleyev, 1941
I am really sorry I cannot tell you the name of this little person, nor where he lives nor who his mama and papa are. In the dark I did not even have the chance to see his face properly. I only remember that his nose was covered in freckles, and that his pants were short and held up not with a belt but with those straps that go over the shoulders and are buttoned down somewhere on the stomach.
One time in the summer I walked into a little park – I don’t know what it’s called, the one on the Vassilyevsky Island, near the white church. I brought an interesting book with me and stayed late, I lost track of time, reading, and did not notice it was already evening.
When the print before my eyes became blurry and difficult to read, I clapped the book shut, got up and walked toward the exit.
The park had emptied out, lights were flickering in the street, and somewhere beyond the trees trilled the bell of the custodian.
I was afraid that the park entrance would close, and so walked very fast. Suddenly I stopped. I thought I heard someone crying off to the side, behind the bushes.
I turned onto a side alley – a small stone building stood white in the dark, the kind they have in all city parks, a shed or a gatehouse. Next to its wall a small boy of about seven or eight was standing with his head hung low, crying loudly and inconsolably.
I came up and called him:
– Hey, what’s the matter, boy?
He stopped crying immediately, as if ordered to, raised his head, looked at me and said:
– What do you mean, nothing? Someone hurt you?
– No one.
– Why are you crying then?
It was still hard for him to talk, he hadn’t swallowed all of his tears yet, he was still sobbing, hiccuping and sniffling.
– Come on, let’s go! – I said. – Look, it’s late, they are closing up the park.
And I wanted to take the boy by his hand. But the boy hastily drew his hand away and said:
– I can’t.
– You can’t what?
– Can’t go.
– How come? Why? What’s up with you?
– Nothing, – said the boy.
– Are you unwell, or something?
– No, he said, – I am well.
– So why can’t you go?
– I am a guard, – said he.
– What guard? What do you mean, a guard?
– Don’t you understand? We are playing.
– And who are you playing with?
The boy was silent for a while, then sighed and said:
– I don’t know.
Then, I must admit, I thought that the boy must have been truly unwell and that something was wrong with his head.
– Listen, – I said to him, – What are you talking about? How can it be? You are playing and you don’t know with whom?
– No, – said the boy, – I don’t. I was sitting on the bench, and then some big boys come up to me and say: “Do you want to play war?” I say: ‘I do.” We started to play, they said: ‘You’re a sergeant.” One big boy…he was a marshal…he takes me here and he says: ‘This is our ammo stockpile, in this shed. You’ll be the guard…Stand here until I take you off.” I say: “Okay.” And he says: “Give me your honest word you won’t leave.”
– Well, so I said: ‘My honest word, I won’t leave.”
– And then what?
– And then this. I keep standing and standing here, and they are not coming.
– Right, – I smiled. – And did they put you here along ago?
– It was still light out.
– So where are they?
The boy sighed heavily again and said:
– I think they left.
– What do you mean, left?
– They forgot.
– Then why are you standing here?
– I gave my honest word.
I almost wanted to laugh, but then caught myself and thought that there was nothing funny about it, and that the boy was perfectly right. If you gave your honest word, you have to stand there, whatever may happen, even if it blows you apart. It can be a game or not a game, it’s all the same.
– This is some story! – said I to him. – What are you going to do?
– I don’t know, – said the boy and started crying again.
I very much wanted to find a way to help him. But what could I do? Go look for those silly boys who left him to stand guard, asked for his honest word and then ran home? Where would I find them at that hour, those boys?
They had probably already had supper and went to beds to sleep, now on their tenth dream.
And here is a person standing guard. In the dark. And likely hungry…
– You probably want to eat something? – I asked him.
– Yes, – he said, – I do.
– OK, listen here, – I said, after some thought. – You run along home and eat your supper, and meanwhile I’ll stand guard instead of you here.
– Well, – said the boy. – Is it really allowed?
– Why would it be forbidden?
– You are not an army man.
I scratched the back of my head and said:
– Right. That won’t work. I can’t even take you off guard duty. Only a military man, only an officer can do that…
Suddenly I had a lucky thought. I thought that if only an army man can release the boy from his honest promise and take him off guard duty, then why stall? I had to go look for an army man.
I told the boy nothing, just said: “Wait a minute!” and ran, wasting no time, to the exit…
The gate was not yet closed and the custodian was still out walking in the farthest reaches of the park, finishing up ringing his bell there.
I stood by the gate and waited for a long time for some lieutenant or even a Red Army private to walk by. But, as if to spite me, not one military man was to be seen in the street. There was a glimpse of black overcoats across the street, I cheered up, thinking they were Navy, and ran across the street to see they were not sailors but kids from the tech school. A tall railroad worker went by wearing a very handsome overcoat with green insignia. However, I had no use for the tall railroad man with his fabulous overcoat at that moment.
I was about to go back to the park, empty-handed, when suddenly I saw around the corner at the tram stop a khaki officer’s cap with a blue Cavalry band. It seemed I had never in my life felt such joy as I felt at that moment. I ran for the tram stop headlong. Then, when I was not even there yet, I saw that the tram had arrived at the stop and the officer, a young Cavalry Major, was about to squeeze into the tram together with the rest of the people.
Out of breath, I ran up to him, grabbed him by the arm and shouted:
– Comrade Major! A minute! Wait up! Comrade Major!
He turned around, looked at me with bewilderment and said:
– What’s the matter?
– You see, here is the problem, – said I. – Here in this park, next to the stone shed, there is a boy standing guard…he can’t leave, he gave his honest word..He is very small…He is crying…
The officer blinked a few times and looked at me in fright. He, too, must have thought that I was unwell and something was wrong with my head.
– What does it have to do with me? – said he.
His tram had left and he was looking at me very angrily.
But when I explained everything to him in more detail, he did not think about it long and immediately said:
– Let’s go, let’s go. Of course. Why didn’t you say so in the first place?
When we came up to the park, the custodian was just putting the lock on the gates. I asked him to wait for a few minutes, I said that I had left a boy in the park, and Major and I rushed into the depth of the park.
With difficulty, we found the white shed in the dark. The boy stood in the same place where I had left him and was again, this time very quietly, weeping. I called him. He cheered up, even exclaimed with joy, and I said:
– Well, here. I brought a superior.
Seeing the officer the boy straightened up, somehow extended his entire body and became several centimeters taller.
– Comrade Guard, – said the officer. – What is your rank?
– I am a sergeant, – said the boy.
– Comrade Sergeant, I order you to leave your post of duty.
The boy was silent for a while, sniffling, and then said:
– What is your rank? I can’t see how many stars you have…
– I am a Major, – said the officer.
And then the boy raised his hand to the wide bill of his gray cap and said:
– Yes Sir Comrade Major. My orders are to leave the post.
And he said it so clearly and smartly that both of us couldn’t stand it and started laughing.
And the boy laughed too, happily and with relief.
Barely had we three come out of the park as the gates behind us swung shut and the custodian turned the key in the lock several times.
The Major offered his hand to the boy.
– Well done, Comrade Sergeant, – said he. – You will grow up to be a real warrior. Good bye.
The boy mumbled something and said: “Good bye.”
The Major saluted us both and, seeing that his tram was coming again, ran to the stop.
I also said goodbye to the boy and shook his hand.
– Perhaps, I should walk you home? – I asked him.
– No, I live close by. I am not afraid, – said the boy.
I looked at his small freckled nose and thought that he, indeed, had nothing to be afraid of. A boy with a will that strong and a word that firm would not be afraid of the dark, would not be afraid of bullies, and would not be afraid of more frightening things either.
And when he grows up…It is yet uncertain what he will become when he grows up, but whatever he becomes, I can vouch that he will be a real man.
I thought that and I felt very good about having met this boy.
And I shook his hand once again, firmly and with pleasure.