The Third Son by Andrei Platonov

The Third Son

A Short Story by Andrei Platonov
from the book
In the Beautiful and Violent World

An old woman living in a small town had died, and her husband, a seventy-year-old pensioner, was at the telegraph office sending out to six different addresses in various republics six identical telegrams: "Mother passed away come home father."

The elderly clerk took her time counting the money, getting confused over the change, her hands shaking as she wrote out the receipts. Then she stamped them. The old man gazed meekly at her through the wooden hatch, vague thoughts flitting through his head as he tried to distract himself from his sorrow. He felt that she, too, had a sad and troubled heart - perhaps she was a widow or by some evil fate a wife deserted by her husband.

And here she was, slow at her work, mixing up the money, her attention wandering. Even for such a simple job, thought the old man, one needed happiness within oneself.

Back home again he sat down on the stool by the table on which his dead wife lay. He sat by her cold feet, smoked, murmured sorrowfully to himself and watched the solitary grey bird hopping from perch to perch in its cage. Every now and then he would weep quietly, then pull himself together. He wound his pocket watch and looked through the window at the fitful weather. One minute the leaves were falling with flakes of wet, languid snow; then it started raining, and suddenly the late sun, cheerless as a star, broke through the clouds. The old man was awaiting his sons.

The eldest son flew in the next day. The other five assembled during the next two days. One of them, the third son, brought his daughter, a six-year-old girl who had never seen her grandfather.

The dead mother had been lying in the room for four days, but about her body hung no odour of death, so wasted it was by illness and plain exhaustion. To her six sons she had given abundant life, keeping for herself nothing but a meagre, frail body - trying to preserve it, however pitiful it might be, so that she might love and take pride in her children to her last breath.

The six large men, ranging from twenty to forty years of age, stood silently round the coffin. The seventh was their father, smaller and weaker than his youngest son. In his arms was his granddaughter, her eyes screwed up in fear of this strange, dead grandmother whose eyes seemed to stare at her, white and unwinking, from beneath half-closed eyelids.

The sons wept soundlessly, their faces distorted by the effort to restrain their tears and endure their grief in silence. Their father had ceased to weep, having cried himself out in solitude. Now he eyed those six strapping fellows with secret excitement and incongruous joy. Two of them were seamen, both captains; one was a singer who lived in Moscow; the third son - the one with the daughter - was a physicist and a member of the Communist Party; the youngest was studying to be an agronomist; the eldest son was a shop chief in an aircraft works and wore an order on his chest for outstanding work.

All six, with their father, stood round the dead woman and mourned her silently. The sons tried not to show their desperate grief, not to show that they were remembering their childhood and the love so freely given by their mother - a love they had instinctively felt thousands of miles away, a love that had lent them strength and encouragement in their life's endeavours. And now she was a corpse, bereft of the power to love them, a stranger, an old woman indifferent to all their concerns.

The sons felt suddenly lonely and frightened, as though somewhere in a dark wilderness a light had once stood on the windowsill of an old house, had lit up the night with its flying insects, blue grass, and swarms of midges - the whole world of childhood associated with that old house deserted by those who had been born in it, a house where there were no locked doors so that those who had left it could always return ... but none came back. Now it was just as though that light had gone out, reality had slipped irrevocably into the realm of memory.

As she lay dying the old woman had enjoined her husband to get a priest to read the burial service over her body while it was still in the house. Then she could go to her grave without the priest, so that her sons would not be embarrassed and could follow her coffin. She was not really a staunch believer, but she felt her husband, whom she had loved all her life, would feel his loss more poignantly if prayers were chanted and yellow candle light illumined her face. She did not want to depart this life without ceremony, without leaving a suitable last memory.

After his sons arrived the old man searched high and low for a priest, and at last found one towards evening. He was an old man like himself, dressed in ordinary clothes, with the pink cheeks of one who sticks to a vegetarian diet and lively eyes filled with some petty and purposeful thoughts. He had a military officer's bag hanging from his shoulder containing his priestly paraphernalia - incense, thin candles, a book, and a small censer on a chain. Setting up the candles around the coffin quickly he lit them, blew on the incense in the censer, and suddenly, without warning, began to mumble, reading from the book.

The sons rose to their feet, feeling uncomfortable. They stood by the coffin motionless, their eyes lowered. The old priest read in hurried, almost ironic tones, his small, understanding eyes on the dead woman's sons. He partly feared, partly respected them, and evidently would not have minded getting into conversation with them and even expressing enthusiasm for socialism. But the younger men were silent. Not one of them, even the old father, crossed himself. The family had mounted a guard of honour for the dead; they were not attending divine service.

When the rites were over the priest collected his things, extinguished the candles, and put everything back into his bag. The old father placed some money in his hand, and the priest lost no time in passing through the ranks of the six unseeing men and timidly slipping out of the house. To tell the truth, he would have liked to stay for the funeral meal, to talk about the prospects of wars and revolutions, to be able to savour the thought that he had met representatives of the new world he secretly admired but somehow could not enter. He cherished dreams of performing some heroic deed all by himself so that he could break through into the splendid future, into the world of the new generations. He had in fact once applied to the local airfield asking to be taken to the highest altitude from which he could make a parachute jump without an oxygen mask. He had received no answer.

That evening the father made up six beds in the living room, and put his granddaughter to sleep in his own bed, next to himself, in the place where his wife had slept for forty years. The bed was in the large room where the coffin was. The father stood by the connecting door until his sons had undressed and gone to bed. Then he closed the door quietly, put out the lights, and went into the other room. The child was already asleep, alone on the big bed, her head hidden beneath the blanket.

The old man stood over her for a while in the gloom which was relieved by the reflection of the sky's diffused light from the snow on the ground outside. He went to the open coffin, kissed the hands, forehead, and the lips of his wife and said, "Rest now". Then he lay down, taking care not to wake his granddaughter, and closed his eyes in an attempt to forget the heaviness that weighed on his heart. He dozed a little and suddenly woke up. Beneath the door to the next room there was a chink of light, and he could hear his sons laughing and talking noisily.

The little girl began to twist and turn, perhaps awakened by the noise; or possibly she had not been asleep at all, but had simply been too scared of the darkness and the body lying nearby to peep out from under the bedclothes.

The eldest son was speaking with great enthusiasm and conviction about hollow metal propellers. The two seamen described their adventures in foreign ports and then laughed about their blankets, which were the ones they had had as children. White strips of cloth were sewn to the two ends of the blanket, and on the strips were embroidered the words "head" and "feet", so that they would know which end was which.

One of the seamen started wrestling with the singer and the two rolled on the floor as they had in their childhood days, with the youngest son urging them on and offering to take them both on with his left arm only. There was obviously great affection between the brothers, who were happy to be together again. It was years since they had seen one another, and they might not meet again until their father's funeral. In their antics the two wrestlers knocked over a chair and were silent for a moment. Then evidently deciding that their mother could no longer hear them, they started again.

The eldest son pressed the singer for a quiet song, insisting that he must know some new ones from Moscow. The artist said he couldn't just start singing out of the blue. "Well, cover me with something then," he said.

They put something over his face, and he began to sing like that, for he was embarrassed before his own brothers. As he did so the youngest son got up to some mischief, with the result that another brother fell from his bed on to a third brother, who was lying on the floor. Everybody laughed and urged the youngest to lift his fallen kinsman and put him back to bed - but using his left arm only. The youngest one whispered something and again they all laughed.

In the next room the girl pushed her head out from under the blanket and called in the dark: "Grandfather, are you asleep?"

"No, I'm not asleep. I'm all right." The old man coughed quietly. The girl began to cry.

"Why are you crying?" the old man whispered, stroking her wet face.

"I am sorry for grandmother," she said. "Everybody is alive and laughing, and only she is dead."

The old man said nothing, but sniffed and coughed in turn. Frightened, the girl sat up and looked at her grandfather. "And why are you crying? I've stopped."

The old man stroked her head and said softly, "Well . .. I'm not crying, I'm sweating."

"Are you thinking of grandmother?" she asked. "Don't cry. You're old and you'll die soon, and then you won't cry any more."

"I won't cry," the old man answered softly.

There was a sudden hush in the other room. One of the sons had just finished saying something. The old man recognized the voice as that of the third son, the physicist, and the father of the girl. Until then there hadn't been a sound from him - he had not spoken or laughed.

Soon the door opened. The third son, dressed, entered the room and went to the coffin. He bent over the dimly visible face of his mother, who no longer had any feeling for anyone.

It was late at night, and no one passed by in the street outside. The five brothers in the other room did not stir. The old man and the girl scarcely breathed as they watched the man who was the son of one and father of the other.

The third son suddenly straightened up, stretched out his arm in the dark and seized the edge of the coffin. But he lost his balance and shifted the coffin a little on the table. Then he fell, his head hitting the wooden floor boards. He made no sound, and his daughter uttered a cry.

The five brothers rushed in, carried their brother to their room and brought him round. By the time he had recovered, the rest were already dressed, though it was only a little after one. The sons went separately about the house and yard, the home of their childhood, and wept, whispering words of sorrow and complaint, as if their mother were standing nearby, listening to them and saying that she was sorry she had died, causing her dear ones to mourn and suffer. She would live forever if she could, so that she might bring no sorrow to the hearts of those to whom she had given birth. But they must understand that their mother could sustain herself no longer.

In the morning the six sons lifted the coffin on to their shoulders and carried it to the cemetery. The old man walked behind them, holding his granddaughter in his arms. He felt reconciled to the death of his wife, and was happy and proud to think that some day he, too, would be buried by these six strong men.

Story From The Honours List

by Lev Borovoy
from the book
The Language of the Writer

In the United States, a number of collections of best short stories of the year are published. Of these the most widely known is Best Short Stories edited by Edward J. O'Brien (and after his death by Martha Foley).

In the 1937 collection O'Brien included a story called The Third Son by a Soviet writer, Andrei Platonov. Later when O'Brien drew up another Honours List, he again included Platonov's story.

The works of Andrei Platonov (1896-1947) are becoming increasingly popular among contemporary readers. He writes about working people, people seeking truth, gifted artisans and peasants.

Keen insight, accuracy of description, ability to grasp the essence of characters and situations, and a fresh style well suited to the author's purpose - these are the main features of Platonov's writings.

Here is what Maria Platonov, the widow of the author, has written about his life (in the magazine Smena):

Andrei Platonov
"Platonov grew up on the outskirts of the town of Voronezh in Central Russia. He loved the countryside. At twelve he began writing poems. When he was a little older he became fascinated by locomotives and machines, the whistles of trains, and hard physical work.

"When he was still a boy Platonov understood that between the burdocks, the fields, the electric lights, and the trains there was a connection, a certain link. And his own dream was to become a man whose work would reach out to the world and move the minds of people, creating a link between himself and the world.

"Platonov's dream was realized slowly and gradually.

"At fourteen he began working at a military plant, studying in his spare time. And he continued to write poems. During the Civil War twenty-year-old Platonov worked as fireman on an armoured train driven by his father. Later he fought in the railway contingent of the army which took Voronezh Province from the White Guards. In 1919 he was working for the newspaper Izvestia Yuzhnogo Fronta, which published his poems and articles. After the Civil War Platonov entered a polytechnical institute.

"After finishing the institute Platonov worked as an engineer specializing in land reclamation. For many years, until he became a fully fledged writer, Platonov did much work on the drainage of swampy areas and directed the building of three power stations.

"To the very end of his life Platonov was full of ideas for inventions. He had several patents to his name; he designed a powerful floating excavator, which was built by a Leningrad plant. In 1927 he was transferred to Moscow, soon after which he decided to become a writer first and foremost, and devoted himself heart and soul to what had been dear to his heart since childhood.

"And thus Platonov's persistent dream was realized: To become a man whose mind and hands would create works that would stir the whole world, in the interests of all people and of myself. And I know every one of the people; my heart is linked to every one of them."

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