Eight Miracles and a Saved Life – Sergey Gerasimov
- The First Miracle: Parasol Mushrooms
Albert’s father would have turned ninety in December, but it was clear now that he had no chances to celebrate his long awaited jubilee.
The old man’s congestive pneumonia had started six months before as shortness of breath. Later it had been mistaken for asthma symptoms, and only when his lungs got filled with fluid, he was taken to a hospital. Albert’s father was a professor of medicine. Never being seriously ill before, clever and stubborn, knowing everything about diseases, he had refused to see doctors until it was too late. Now he was dying in spite of maximum dosage of diuretics and three types of the most potent antibiotics doctors pumped him with.
He had known for weeks he was dying. He had already said goodbye to everyone, and had given his last instructions about the book he had been writing for longer than twenty years.
“Part of me has already died… I’m not whole… I’m not here,” he had said slowly, his words far apart, and it was the last time he had uttered sensible things.
He was already so skinny then that Albert could see all his ribs, and looking at them, he imagined his father’s soul that pleaded to be set free and stuck its fingers through them like through prison bars.
After those words, the part of him that was not here had been growing bigger and bigger, making his conscious part shrink. His lungs brim full of fluid had not been able to provide his brain with enough oxygen, making the brain shut off, circuit by circuit, function by function, part by part.
Nestled in the forest, the hospital where Albert’s father was spending his last days was an ancient two-story building, facing a small church of red brick and a row of backless benches set in the shadow of oak trees. People died here mostly at night. Having nothing better to do, Albert often walked in the forest in the morning hours.
That morning, he entered some unlittered, almost untrodden, part of the forest.
He noticed a large cluster of young parasol mushrooms, their hats half-open, and for a moment, he stood bewildered, hardly believing his eyes. It was the first week of June. Yes, it was warm and rained most of the days, but mushrooms? He knew that they started to appear in July, and to see them earlier was as unlikely as to see a UFO crash landing.
The bells on the church tolled, imbuing the air with their lilac chime.
“It’s impossible,” he said to himself, picked up a mushroom and smelled it. Then picked up a bigger one, a couple of steps away.
Miracles are not always big things, like speaking in tongues or walking on water. Sometimes a miracle is disguised as just another morning hour, already warm but still hazy in the shade of trees, as squelch of shoes on the wet grass, as a delicate smell of fresh mushrooms, or something else, equally small and ordinary, and you never know what nudged you to walk different path.
Ducking under branches and brushing away spider webs the morning fog had made crystalline, he walked downhill, away from the hospital. He was getting deeper in the forest, picking one mushroom after another.
The mist had cleared, and the first ray of sunlight, as sharp as broken glass, cut through the air, making the path warm and spotted like a fawn.
Then he saw a clearing up ahead.
He went out of the woods through lilac bushes, most of them still in bloom, and saw streetcar tracks dark with oil, glistening through crushed stone and bunches of burdock.
The pain of recognizing and not recognizing at the same time filled up his chest. He felt tears in his eyes. He knew somehow he had returned to wonderland, to a lost paradise.
For a long moment, he stood motionless, his mind balancing on the verge of recognizing, until the sharp edges of the feeling became blurred. He brushed his hand over the lilac branches. He knew he definitely had seen this place one day, so long before that it could as well have been in a previous life.
- The Second Miracle: Lilac in Bloom
The tracks formed a wide ring in front of the ramshackle streetcar station. Coming closer, he saw naked walls of weathered brick covered in the velvet of dirt, a rusty framework of a bench, the wall over it rubbed clean by people’s backs, and a window opaque with dust. A drying spill of beer decorated the cracked floor. Flies boiled in the air yellow from the sunlight. Surprisingly, there was no graffiti or other signs of vandalism, so the station looked just very old, drowned in time.
Next to the station, Albert saw a kiosk with bright inflatable toys, swimming vests, beach balls, and arm rings. Toothily smiling crocodiles hanging from the roof looked as peppy and cheerful as if they had too much coffee this morning.
The seller, an upsettingly beautiful girl in an acid yellow top and torn jeans shorts ate a banana, her eyes glued to the messages on her smartphone, her flirtatious smile as atavistic and pointless as a phantom pain in an amputated foot.
Albert recalled that he had wanted to buy a child’s swimming ring for his father, to put it under Dad’s back. It was supposed to help reduce bed sores.
The salesgirl, after a short spiel, mentioned a price twice as high as any decent swimming ring could cost.
Albert agreed. He didn’t care.
The girl noticed the clear bag full of mushrooms in his hand. Her eyes widened. “Oh wow! I didn’t know any mushrooms appear in June! Are they edible?”
She cocked her head, waiting for his answer, and after a moment’s silence she turned away and took two rings from the rack.
“What color would you like? Pink or blue?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Albert said stiffly, trying to cut the conversation short, and looked at his watch.
He had to return to the hospital ward by lunchtime to feed his father who ate less every day, woke up harder and coughed more, letting out high pitched, hopeless, bird-like sounds. In the late afternoon, he fed Dad again and helped him take his numerous pills. Then a sleepless night followed.
“No, you have to pick,” the girl insisted. “The color matters a lot! Is it for a boy or a girl?”
“For a boy,” he said quickly, calling his aged father ‘a boy.’ He certainly could not call Dad ‘a girl,’ but some things are too personal, too disturbing for words. He felt ashamed. And guilty, as if he had betrayed someone.
Now, after purchasing the ring, he felt that he did not know what to do. The place looked frighteningly familiar, although now he was sure he had never been to this station before. His memory had never played tricks on him like that. Is it a déjà vu or presque vu? he asked himself.
“I thought the streetcar line here was closed down long ago,” he said to the girl, still feeling embarrassed.
“I don’t know, I’m not local,” she mumbled in a sleepwalker’s voice, fingering images on the screen. “It’s my first day on the job… It’s nice here… So much lilac… Must be really beautiful in spring.”
As if waking from a dream, Albert understood that lilac never blooms in June. Never at all. It’s a May-blooming flower.
For some time he stood unbelieving, scared, unable to accept the miracle. But a miracle doesn’t need to be accepted or treasured, on the contrary, it often prefers to fly past unnoticed, just slightly touching our heart with its tentacles, psychic energy fields, or whatever else it has, deflecting our mental compass from the logical north.
- The Third Miracle: The Streetcar
An old streetcar crawled along the reversing loop, lilac flowers reflecting in its windows as quivering splashes of color. Lilac branches that brushed against the windows rattled like rain on a roof. The windows caught the branches that came in, breaking the longest of them, accurately trimming the overgrown bushes. The loop, perfectly circular, looked like a clock dial, and the streetcar moved counterclockwise, as if turning time back. There was something in this picture that made Albert’s heart sing and ache at the same time. Then another branch rustled against the window, switching his memory on.
Oh my God, he thought.
Yes, he had been here once, a lifetime before, probably as a boy of three. He had been here with his father. Dad, a young professor of medical college then, took Albert with him, got on a streetcar, and travelled around the city, apparently utilizing a long break between lectures. The only part of that trip Albert remembered was the loop, the very loop where he was standing now. It was a magical ring then, sixty-three years ago, and the most magical were the thick bushes of lilac growing on the edge of the ring, their solid, continuous greenery under the soft cloud of flowers, the branches touching the windows, the squeaking wheels, the swaying floor, the rotating lilac-green world under the dancing lace of sunlight, so close to him that he could reach out his hand to touch it, to become a part of it. That long-gone day, Albert broke off a blooming branch that came in the streetcar window. He could still remember the shape and the color of it, the fairy softness of its flowers against his palm.
In fact, that was not the memory of a streetcar or of the branch of lilac. It was his first clear memory about Dad. And now, sixty-three years later, their life-long friendship would probably come to an end. But what force had brought him to this exact place today? Why did the beginning and the end of the journey coincide with each other with an error of less than a few steps? And the most important question, why? Does the mute destiny want to say something to him in the sign language he is unable to understand? Is God doing this just for beauty’s sake?
So many times he had been trying to find this place again. That fragile childhood memory had been so bright. It had always been part of his soul, something engraved in his heart. That is why being a schoolboy, then a university student, he used to board a streetcar heading away from downtown and ride to the last stop. But there were too many streetcars in the city then, and to try them all was an impracticable task. A task for a madman, for someone obsessed with a single idea, not for an intellectually developed, normal in all respects young man.
What sense did it make that now he was here again, after most of his life had passed?
The streetcar, swaying and clanging, pulled up to the stop. It was almost empty except for a small boy pressing his nose to the glass of the window and someone older in a far seat. The boy was wearing a white polka-dot shirt and a blue cap. Albert clearly remembered the shirt, the cap and this face from the only one black and white photo that survived from the time when each minute still had a texture and density, when time was not unreeling lifelessly like a roll of clear stretch wrap, when days had not flown like a cloud of locusts, and every morning bloomed bright and separate like a dandelion. The cap in that photo was gray. Now Albert knew exactly that it was blue, because he was seeing it with his own eyes.
The streetcar stopped. It was old, decrepit with dry flaky mud pasted all over its low part. With a jagged crack running down the window and rusty walls rotten through. With sparking pantograph and squeaky wheels.
Painfully conscious of his age, Albert was standing right in front of himself, looking into his own eyes. He had no doubts. You cannot be mistaken when looking at yourself, seeing yourself much more real and detailed than any reflection in a mirror.
“Is it all real?” Albert asked himself silently.
“Of course it is,” said the girl, speaking on her phone, and laughed.
The door of the streetcar opened, probably inviting him to get on. With a sinking feeling, he took a step forward. Was he going to meet himself, talk to himself, hold his own tiny hand?
“No, no, no, don’t even think about it!” the girl said into her phone.
“But why?” Albert silently asked in his thoughts.
“What about your current life?” the girl went on.
Yes, what about his current life?
When you are old, your life is as a good thing as it has always been. Even diluted with the yellow vinegar of time, it is still good. What about his friends, his three sets of tennis every Saturday? What about the money on his bank account?
Yes, I can easily leave my life behind, he thought.
He was sure some kind of miracle would happen if he boarded the streetcar. Something enormous, life-changing, like an alien abduction or an astral journey or an NDE. Something scary and enlightening at the same time. What can be easier than to take a small step forward and cross the gap?
If only he could cheat the years, going back in time! How many things could be undone, how many mistakes could be erased, wrong things fixed! But what about Dad?
No, he thought with a heavy finality. Dad needs me. I have to be with him now.
- The Fourth Miracle: The Boy in a Blue Cap.
The door closed. The boy in the blue cap climbed down from the seat, dropped the streetcar ticket he had been holding in his hand, and ran to the back seats to look again at the dense bushes the streetcar had just been cutting like green, flower-crested waves. The car was new from the inside, as new as it could be. The wooden seats smelled of varnish and, for some reason, of soap. The windows — the border between the two parallel currents of time — seemed more transparent than the air, sparkingly bright and clear, dappled by small coins of sunlight.
The boy was three and a half, and his father, a young professor of a medical college, was giving him a ride on the streetcar. The boy did not know whether his daddy was tall or short, thin or stout, dark or blond-haired. He hardly ever looked at his daddy. For him, daddy was just a presence, and at the same time his safety, his wisdom, his better self, his compass, the only thing in the world that would never fail him. He knew his daddy would live forever.
Then the boy noticed an old man staring tensely at the streetcar windows.
There was neither a kiosk with inflated toys nor girl chatting on her phone if to look from inside. The boy lived in 1951, and neither Chinese inflatable junk nor glassy roses of new iPhones blossomed in his dimension of time. He lived in the best country in the world, in the best time, and the world was festive, endless, and full of immortal things. The time was an enchanted merry-go-round that hurried, staying where it was, not making him grow big or old.
The boy waved to the old man standing on the platform, climbed up a back seat, stuck his hand out of the window and tried to break off a flowering branch from the bush. The branch bent but it did not break. The boy’s fingers slipped on the smooth, greenish bark.
“Don’t give up, son,” his daddy said.
The branch broke off at last. Later, at home, the boy would put it in water, place it on the window sill and forget about it. He had so many more important things going on in his life: another quarrel with the boy living next door, a slippery eel, spotted like a leopard, swimming in circles in the basin, scary stories that older boys told in the evenings, while their fathers were slapping domino tiles on the table.
He would never guess that he had seen a miracle on that sunny day and himself was a miracle for someone.
- The Fifth Miracle: a Flowering Branch
Albert saw the man in a black suit jacket and an old-fashioned hat come to the boy and felt a sharp pang of recognition. He was struck by how young and naïve Dad looked. Surprisingly, Dad was never tall, and now, at the age of twenty-seven, he already had a paunch.
Dad did not look like a fighter, who, in fact, he had always been. When Albert had taken up smoking cigarettes in the fifth grade, Dad quit smoking in one day, setting his son an example. In 1970, a week before Dad had to speak at an international conference, he had a car accident. He still spoke at the conference, leaning on the crutches, though nobody could demand that from him. Nobody knew how much pain it caused him. In 1983, Dad left the University, which had been his second home for thirty years, because he did not agree to compromise his scientific views. Dad’s book on healthy nutrition was refused by forty-six editors, mostly because too big money was invested in consumption of unhealthy food worldwide, but Dad still improved the text daily. Yes, he was a fighter. And ironically, now Dad was dying just because he had thought he could fight the disease alone.
His father, the man in an old-fashioned hat, disappeared from sight. “And now what?” Albert silently asked his reflection in the streetcar window. “Is it all over? What should I do now?”
“I’m not your mother to make decisions for you,” the girl chirped into her phone, “Do what your heart is asking you to do.”
Do what your heart is asking you to do. If your mind is hard and crumbly like a dried crust, dip it in miracle like you used to do when you were little.
Albert plopped the bag of wet, fragrant mushrooms down on the concrete, walked over to the line of bushes and broke off a short flowering branch. It was still wet, kissed all over by the night rain.
A minute later, the streetcar rumbled away. The miracle was over.
Or probably it wasn’t.
- The Sixth Miracle: An ECG
Back in the hospital ward, Albert put the lilac branch into a jar with water, and set it on the window sill, right above his father’s bed.
The next minute, a fat man of eighty-five (there was no one younger than eighty in the ward) sat up on his bed and stared at the branch.
He had a walrus mustache and veiny, copper-colored cheeks. He’d been suffering from continuous nose bleeding for months. But now he took off his nose bandage and pulled impressive sized wads of gauze soaked in blood out of his nostrils.
“I want to smell the lilac,” he slurred and pulled out another couple of wads.
“No! It’ll start bleeding again!” shouted his grandson, a sleazy, badly built man who visited him every Tuesday.
“No, it won’t,” said the fat man.
His grandson laughed unkindly. “How do you know?”
“I just feel it,” the fat man said, and he was right. The bleeding did not start again.
But the biggest miracle happened to a small, emaciated man of eighty-eight who had had a serious chest pain that morning. At noon, the doctor had performed a standard ECG with a portable electrocardiograph unit, read it, and immediately called the cardiac emergency team. An hour had passed, but the team had not come. The team had the most advanced equipment, which they used in different hospitals around the city, but that day they had hurried so much that their car had crashed into a parked truck. When Albert returned with the lilac, the old man lay, breathing heavily, his mouth gaping wide, saliva dripping onto the pillow. He stared at the ceiling with a look of utmost fear on his face, as if watching an approaching tornado or a river of lava flow, and there were equal amounts of unvoiced tension around him and inside him, as if he and the world around were two communicating vessels.
It took the team two more hours to appear. All of them wore black squeaky-clean uniforms and looked incredibly efficient. They stormed into the ward, shouted at the nurses, visitors, and patients, made the doctor sign some formidably looking papers, then quickly like the formula one pit crew, they grabbed their tools and got to work, attaching electrical leeches to the old man’s convulsively heaving chest.
“No, I can’t see anything serious here,” a minute later said the biggest of them, a burly man with a fresh scar on his face. “Nothing’s wrong with your patient. Nothing at all.”
The doctor showed him that morning’s ECG, and the man shrugged his shoulders, looking puzzled. “It’s impossible. He’d be dead by now.”
The doctor gave him his professional, sterilized smile. “Do you believe in miracles?”
The man shot his glance to the heap of modern equipment his team had brought with them. He looked scandalized and angry. “No, but I believe in technical glitches and medical errors,” he said.
The team left, but the old man did not move. Now he lay with his eyes and mouth closed, his face white. An hour passed but still, he did not move. Then his Adam’s apple went up and down, his eyelids trembled, and he opened his watery, astonished eyes, still not believing he was alive.
“Have the Nazis left yet?” he whispered, asking about the cardiac team.
To tell the truth, all of them had lived too long in this world. According to the papers, they were dying of this or that disease, but actually they were just worn out, beyond repair, and time was killing them. Time, the only thing we can’t deceive or outwit. The only disease we cannot cure. But who said that old age makes life less valuable or treasured?
- The Seventh Miracle: The Healing
That afternoon Dad’s condition worsened. His temperature got up to 101.2. At nine in the evening, the nurse gave him an intramuscular injection, but it did not help. The temperature was still going up. The nurse shook her head and said that it was probably his time to go. There was not sadness or regret or even a simple human fatigue in her voice. Time is just time, it is not kind or evil, but it’s an implacable judge and executioner for everyone. An antiseptic or perfect cleansing solution. A scavenger, picking up debris.
Then night came. Dad lay so quietly that Albert had to lean closer and listen if he was breathing. Two old men on the left row of beds had finished watching a police series on their laptop. An old man on the bed at the second window was swearing through his dream, his voice angry but indistinct. The branch of lilac sat on the windowsill, ebony black against the glow of the streetlight outside, which illuminated the window frame and cast ripples of light onto the ceiling. The high ceiling, the hush, the rows of beds made the ward look like a schoolroom or a tiny church, especially at night. A moth danced nervously, banging against the window panes.
It occurred to him that his mind was racing, running in circles, considering impossible possibilities: of turning the clock back, or inventing an anti-dying pill, or his father being an alien in disguise who cannot die, or everything being a nightmare. I’m going mad, Albert thought. There’s no doubt, what I’ve seen today was a hallucination. But what about the lilac on the sill then?
He leaned over his father again. The old man was still breathing, almost imperceptibly. Lying motionless, he was struggling for his life; he continued the most violent combat on earth.
“Don’t give up, Dad,” Albert whispered.
But Dad’s temperature still went up. Albert found the night nurse at the white-tiled, echoing nurses’ station.
“103,” he said. “He needs another injection.”
“Yes,” she said. “I’ll do it. But I doubt it will help… I wonder, where did you get lilac in June? It smells nice.”
“Picked it, at the streetcar line.”
“Are you sure? There are no streetcar lines here. I haven’t seen any tracks or overhead wires.”
At two in the morning, Albert checked Dad’s temperature again. The injection had not helped.
Later, sitting on a high stool at the table at the foot of Dad’s bed, propping his head on his hand, he felt he was sinking like an one-eyed bathysphere into a deep-water ocean trench of the dreamless sleep. He was not in panic or despair anymore. Instead, he was full of a special type of calmness and wonderment that we feel, when seeing great, majestic events no one can prevent or change: a storming ocean or a total eclipse.
When he woke up, the young sun was shining through the lilac flowers, sending piercing needles of white light. Immediately, he saw that Dad was alive. Black-rimmed eyes, a skeletal face, a half-opened mouth and a tongue too heavy to move, but alive. Dad’s formerly fair hair was thinner that cigarette smoke now. I sometimes think I can pass my hand through it without actually feeling it, he thought.
He stretched his arms and legs, rubbed his eyes, picked up a book and started reading, feeling absurdly warm and content, miraculously sure that everything would be fine. He just knew it.
When the morning nurse came in to check on Dad and give him an IV, she poked a few times to get into the vein, but the needle slipped out and the blood started leaking into the surrounding tissues.
“I can’t do it,” she said. “His veins are too brittle. They don’t heal anymore.”
She picked up Dad’s hand and tried to poke a needle into a thin vein on the back side of it. With a little wince of pain Dad opened his eyes and said, “No.”
It was his first word in days.
Three days later he started to get up, walk and talk, mostly incoherent things at first, but Albert could already see that his mind, along with memory and sense of humor, was buried somewhere under the heavy mud of the disease, undamaged. Soon he was discharged from the hospital.
Five years later he was still alive, and only God knows how long he would walk through the rooms, bent over a stick, trying to look busy or helpful, doze in his favorite armchair, say some insightful, perfectly obsolete things no one else could’ve thought of, or tell simple stories from the thirties or even twenties no one on earth remembered. Even if the disease had nibbled holes in his mind, it never showed.
- The Eighth Miracle: The Reversing Loop
On the last day in the hospital, Albert asked an old doctor about the reversing loop in the forest. The doctor remembered that streetcars number seven, sixteen and thirty three used to run like clockwork in the late 1970s. He said that the loop had been gone for decades, that the streetcar tracks were asphalted over some thirty years ago, and the ancient terminus at the end of the line fell into disrepair and was destroyed. The clearing where the loop used to be was overgrown with bushes and trees.
“I don’t even think anybody can find that place now,” the doctor said.
The jar with lilac branch sat on the windowsill until August. The lilac stayed fresh, as if picked a few hours ago. The old patients whispered to each other, trying to explain such a miraculous phenomenon. They concluded at last that someone had dropped some potent pills into the jar. Probably antibiotics, mixed with hormones and even Viagra. Yes, Viagra, you can pretty much bet on it.
No one died in the ward till August, but later the ward was evacuated because it needed a renovation, and its walls had to be painted a useful medical color, the color of the inside of a cucumber.
When the ward got empty, the flowering branch wilted, shrunk, and crumbled into ashes. The jar cracked in half, then in hundreds of small, sharp shards, then into molecules of silica, which disintegrated into separate atoms, then into quarks, gluons, then into quantum space-time foam, then into the stuff our night dreams are made of.
Since that summer, Albert had stopped fearing death and the infinite void behind it, knowing that time only seemed merciless. In fact, time moves in wide loops, coming back again and again, perhaps dressed differently or wearing an unfamiliar appearance, but losing nothing or no one. Or maybe, time glides spiraling, and you just have to keep your eyes open so as not to lose the moment when its turns come close to each other. Anyway, it is good if you know that the world is built perfectly: it is festive and endless and full of immortal things.
Sergey Gerasimov is a Ukraine-based writer. His stories and poems have appeared in Adbusters, Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, J Journal, Triggerfish Critical Review, and everywhere. His last book is “Oasis” published by Gypsy Shadow.