Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed. Ever since the moment it happened, I cannot remember one day passing when I haven’t regretted it. No punishment for it ever threatened me, because it occurred in the most exceptional of circumstances and it was clear that I couldn’t have acted otherwise. Moreover, no one other than I knew about it. It was one of those countless episodes of the Civil War; in the general course of contemporary events it could be looked upon as an insignificant detail, all the more so as during those few minutes and seconds prior to the incident its outcome concerned only the two of us—myself and another man, unknown to me. Then I was alone. No one else had any part in this.
I couldn’t faithfully describe what led up to the event because everything was such a blur, a mark of almost all fighting in any war, the participants of which least of all conceive of what’s happening in reality. It was summer, in southern Russia, and we were on our fourth day of continuous, disorderly troop manoeuvres, to an accompaniment of gunfire and sporadic fighting. I’d completely lost all concept of time; I couldn’t even say where I was exactly. I remember only the sensations, which could just as easily have been elicited in other circumstances—the feeling of hunger, thirst, terrible fatigue; I hadn’t slept these past two and a half nights. There was a torrid heat, and the air hung with the faint smell of smoke; an hour previously we’d made our way out of a forest, which was ablaze on one side, and there, where the sunlight couldn’t penetrate, a great straw-coloured shadow slowly pressed forward. I was so desperate for sleep; I remember thinking at the time that it would have been utter bliss to stop, lie down on the scorched grass and drop off, forgetting about everything. However, this was the one thing that I couldn’t do, and so I continued through the hot, drowsy haze, swallowing my saliva and periodically rubbing my eyes, which were irritated by the heat and a lack of sleep.
I recall that when we were passing through a small grove, I leant against a tree and, standing for what I thought to be only a second, I drifted off with the long-familiar sound of gunfire in the background. When I opened my eyes there was no one around. I cut across the grove and set out on the road, in the direction I thought my comrades to have taken. Almost immediately I was outstripped by a Cossack astride a swift bay horse; he waved to me and shouted something I couldn’t make out. After some time, I had the good fortune to come across a scraggy black mare whose rider obviously had been killed. She was bridled and had a Cossack saddle on her back, and she was nibbling at the grass, constantly swishing her long, wiry tail. As soon as I mounted her, she set off at a gallop.
I rode along a deserted winding road; every now and then the occasional little grove would obscure a bend in the track. The sun stood high in the sky, and the air almost hummed from the heat. Although I was riding quickly, I still have a false impression of everything happening in slow motion. I was still desperate for sleep; this longing filled my body and my consciousness, and because of it everything seemed lingering and drawn out, although in fact, of course, it couldn’t have been so. The fighting had ceased; all was quiet. I saw no one either behind or ahead of me. Suddenly, at one of the turns veering off almost at a right angle, my horse fell hard, at full tilt. I went tumbling down with her, landing on a soft, dark—because I closed my eyes—patch, but managed to free my leg from the stirrup and escaped almost unharmed by the fall. The bullet had hit her right ear and passed straight through her head. Getting to my feet, I turned around and saw, not very far off, coming towards me at what seemed a slow, heavy gallop, a rider astride a great white horse. I recall that my rifle had been missing for quite some time; I’d most probably left it in the grove where I fell asleep. I still had a revolver, though, and with some difficulty managed to pull it out of its tight, new holster. I stood for a few seconds, holding the revolver in my hand; it was so quiet that I could distinctly make out the dry sobbing of hooves against the cracked earth, the horse’s heavy breathing, and another sound, similar to the rapid jingling of a little bunch of metallic rings. I saw the rider let go of the reins and shoulder his rifle, which, until that point, he had been carrying atilt. It was then that I fired. He jerked up in his saddle, slumped down and fell slowly to the ground. I stood motionless next to the body of my horse for two or three minutes. Still I wanted to sleep, and that same agonizing weariness persisted. I managed, however, to consider the fact that I had no idea what lay ahead of me or whether I would even be alive for much longer, but the irrepressible urge to see just whom I’d killed compelled me to stir from my spot and approach him. No other distance, anywhere and at any time, has been as difficult for me to traverse as those fifty or sixty metres that separated me from the fallen rider; nevertheless, I walked towards him, dragging my feet over the hot cracked earth. Finally I reached him. He was a man of around twenty-two or twenty-three; his cap had blown off to one side, and his head, fair-haired, lay at an awkward angle on the dusty road. He was rather handsome. I leant over him and saw that he was dying; bubbles of pink foam frothed up and burst on his lips. He opened his dull eyes, said nothing, and closed them again. I stood over him and looked into his face, still clutching the now superfluous revolver with my numbing fingers. Suddenly, a light gust of warm air carried to me the scarcely audible clatter of horses’ hooves, and then I remembered the danger I could yet face. The dying man’s white horse, pricking up its ears in alarm, stood only a few paces away from him. It was a great stallion, very well groomed and clean, its back a little dark with sweat. Of particular note were the horse’s exceptional speed and endurance; I sold it a few days before I fled Russia, to a German settler who supplied me with an enormous quantity of provisions and paid me a vast sum of worthless money. The revolver I used to take the shot—it was a wonderful Parabellum—I cast into the sea, and from all this I was left with nothing more than a painful memory that haunted me everywhere Fate took me. However, the memory grew dimmer by and by, and with time it almost shed that initial feeling of constant, burning regret. But I was never able to forget it entirely. Many a time, whether it be summer or winter, by the sea or deep within the continent of Europe, I, mind empty, would close my eyes, and suddenly from the depths of memory that sultry day in southern Russia would draw once more into focus, and then those same feelings would re-emerge with all their former intensity. I saw again the enormous rose-grey shadow of the forest fire and its gradual progression amidst the crackle of burning twigs and branches; I felt that unforgettable, agonizing weariness and the almost overwhelming desire to sleep, the merciless brilliance of the sun, the ringing heat, and finally the mute recollection of the revolver’s weight in my grasp, its rough grip as if for ever imprinted on my skin, the slight swaying of the black foresight in front of my right eye—and then the fair-haired head on the grey, dusty road, and the face, transformed by the approach of death, that very death that I, only a second ago, had summoned out of the untold future.
Excerpted from The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov. Copyright © 2014 by Gaito Gazdanov. Excerpted by permission of Pushkin Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.