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Yuri Yakovlev: The Boy Who Yawned

Yuri Yakovlev

Real name - Khovkin, born June 26, 1922, Petrograd,
died December 29, 1995, Moscow.

Writer and screenwriter, author of books for teenagers and young people, the father of the Israeli religious writer Ezra Khovkin.

«The Boy Who Yawned» was written in 1972. In Soviet Russia story was printed with title «Ledum».
He would yawn infuriatingly during lessons. He would screw up his eyes, wrinkle his nose and open great gaping jaws. After that he would shake his head vigorously to drive away sleep, and gaze intently at the blackboard. In a few minutes he would yawn again.

"Why do you keep yawning?" Zhenechka asked, convinced it was from boredom. There was no point in continuing her questioning, for he was one of those silent souls.

One day he brought a bunch of slender twigs into the classroom and put them in a jar of water. Everyone laughed at his twigs and somebody even tried to sweep the floor with them as if they were a birch broom.

He took them away and put them back in water. Every day he changes it.

Zhenechka laughed at him, too.

But one day the birch broorr flowered. The twigs were covered with little mauve flowers like violets Bright green spoon-shaped leave; burst from the swelling buds. Yet outside the last crystals of the slowly melting snow were still glistening.

They all crowded by the window-sill to have a look. They tried to catch the delicate sweetish fragrance They sniffed noisily, and kept asking what this flower was, and why was it blossoming now?

"It's called marsh tea," he murmured, and turned away.

People tend to be suspicious oi their untalkative fellows. Nobody knows what is going on in their heads - whether they are thinking good things or bad. The tendency is to assume that it must be bad. Teachers do not like these quiet types either, for although they sit quietly in class, when they are at the blackboard every word has to be laboriously dragged out of them.

To her face they called Zhenech-ka, who was their teacher, Yevgenia Ivanovna, the respectful form of her name. She was a thin little thing, with a slight cast in her eye. She wore her hair in a pony tail, her collar put one in mind of a horse's yoke, and her shoes had horseshoe tips on the heels. She would dash across the road, horseshoes tapping and pony-tail flying in the breeze. Whoa, horse! But she would go on running... The clack of her horseshoes would gradually die away.

Zhenechka noticed that every time the bell went at the end of the last lesson the quiet boy rushed from his seat and tore out of the classroom. He would clatter down the staircase, grab his coat and disappear through the door, fumbling for his sleeves as he ran. Where was he off to?

He had been seen in the street with a fiery-red dog, which had long silky hair waving like tongues of flame. But after a while someone met him with a quite different dog, the muscles of a pugilist rippling beneath its short tawny coat.

Another time he had a black firebrand on a lead, a dog with short, bandy legs. The firebrand was not charred black all over - there were brown scorch marks around his eyes and on his chest.

The children said all kinds of things about the boy Kostya.

"He's got an Irish setter," some said emphatically. "He goes duck shooting."

"Idiot! He's got a real genuine boxer. They go hunting wild bulls with those. Got a deadly grip!" others asserted.

Still others snorted contemptuously: "Huh, you can't tell a dachshund from a boxer!"

But there were others who said they were all wrong. "He's got three dogs!"

In fact he had no dogs at all.

What about the setter? And the boxer? And the dachshund?

Not even Kostya's parents knew about the dogs or what they had to do with Kostya. They had no dog at home. When his parents came back from work they would find him sitting at the desk, writing, or reciting verbs. He would sit like that till late in the evening. How could he have anything to do with setters, boxers or dachshunds?

Kostya used to get home a quarter of an hour before his mother and father, and barely had time to brush the dogs' hair from his trousers.

Apart from those three dogs, there was a fourth. A huge dog with a great head, of the kind that goes to the aid of people trapped on mountainsides by avalanches. Bony shoulderblades protruded from beneath his long shaggy fur, great sunken eyes looked out mournfully upon the world, and his heavy leonine paws, which could have felled any other dog with a blow, moved slowly, wearily.

Nobody had ever seen Kostya with that dog.

The bell at the end of the last lesson was like a signal rocket, summoning Kostya to that mysterious life which was a closed book to all the others. However carefully Zhenechka watched, as soon as she took her eyes off the boy for a moment Kostya disappeared, vanishing into thin air.

One day she could contain her curiosity no longer, and set off in pursuit. She flew from the classroom, horseshoe tips clacking on the stairs, and she caught sight of him just as he was dashing towards the door. She leapt after him out into the street.

Kostya ran home - he lived in a green-painted, dilapidated house. After five minutes or so he reappeared.

Zhenechka waited behind a bit of projecting wall. He tore past; she hurried after him. Not a single passer-by would have imagined that this slightly squinting girl rushing through the puddles was Yevgenia Ivanovna, schoolteacher.

Kostya dived into a winding back turning and disappeared into someone's front entrance. She heard him ring the bell. Immediately there was a strange subdued howling, and some energetic scratching against the door. Then the howling gave way to impatient barking, and the scratching to an insistent drumming.

"Quiet, Artyusha, wait a minute!" Kostya called out.

The door opened, and a fiery-red dog leapt out at Kostya. He planted his front paws on the boy's shoulders and started licking him on the eyes, nose and chin with a long pink tongue.

"Stop it, Artyusha!"

Not on your life! Zhenechka heard more barking and a clatter on the steps, and both boy and dog shot down with incredible speed. They almost knocked Zhenechka off her feet, but she managed to press herself flat against the railings in the nick of time.

Neither paid the slightest attention to her. Artyusha dashed around the courtyard in circles, frisking about and kicking his hind legs in the air like a kid. And all the while he kept barking and trying to jump up to lick Kostya on the cheek or nose. They chased each other for quite a time, and then reluctantly returned to the house.

They were met by a thin man with a crutch, and the dog rubbed against his one leg.

"There, we've had our walk. See you tomorrow," Kostya said.

"Thank you."

Artyusha vanished, and it was as though someone had put out a fire on the steps.

Now they had to hurry along the street to the third turning. They arrived at a two-storey block of flats in the depths of a courtyard. A boxer stood on a balcony, his front paws on the railings. He had prominent cheekbones and a short, flattened nose. His eyes were fixed on the entrance to the courtyard. When he saw Kostya they lit up with joy.

"Atilla!" Kostya shouted, running in the direction of the balcony. "Atilla!"

The boxer let out a yelp. From sheer happiness.

Kostya ran to a shed, got out a ladder and dragged it to a spot below the balcony. It was a heavy ladder, and it was all the boy could do to lift it, so that Zhenechka found it hard not to rush to his aid. When Kostya had it in position against the balcony railings the boxer came down it, and she noticed that one paw was lame.

Kostya got out some provisions from a newspaper package. The dog was famished. He ate greedily, looking at Kostya from time to time as though he were about to speak.

"When Atifla had finished his dinner, Kostya patted him on the back and put him on a lead. The drooping corners of the dog's great blacklipped mouth trembled at each springy step, and every now and again the animal would hold his injured paw off the ground.

Zhenechka heard the caretaker exclaiming to herself as the boy and the dog left the courtyard, "They leave the dog on the balcony and go off somewhere. He could have starved to death. Some people!"

When Kostya left, Atilla looked after him with devoted eyes. The dog's face was marked by dark wrinkles and a deep fold ran across his forehead. His stumpy tail twitched silently.

Zhenechka felt she would like to stay with that dog. But Kostya was hurrying on.

In the next block a sick youngster lived on the ground floor. He had a dachshund - the walking firebrand. Zhenechka stood beneath the window listening to Kostya and the sick boy talking.

"He's waiting for you," the dog's owner said.

"You're ill, don't worry about him," Kostya replied.

"I'm ill ... I won't worry about him," the boy agreed. "Perhaps I'll give you my bicycle if I can't ride it?"

"I don't want your bike."

"My mother wants to give my dog away. There's nobody to take him out in the morning."

"I'll come in the mornings," Kostya said after a moment or so of thought. "Only it'll be very early, before school."

"Won't you get into trouble at home?"

"No. I'll get by, I'll manage to scrape through. It's just that I'm so sleepy, I do my homework so late."

"If I ever get up again, we'll go out for walks together."

"You'll get up all right."

"Do you smoke?" asked the sick boy.

"I'm a non-smoker," Kostya replied.

"So am I."

"Well, we're off. You just relax. Come on, Lapot!"

Kostya came out with Lapot, the dachshund, under his arm. Before long they were both walking along the street.

Zhenechka followed. She wanted to speak to Kostya, to ask him about the dogs he fed and took for walks, whose faith in man he was doing his best to preserve. But she walked on in silence after the schoolboy who yawned so revoltingly in class and had a reputation for being uncommunicative. Now he had undergone a change in her eyes, like the bare twigs he had brought into the classroom.

Lapot finished his walk and was taken back home. Kostya tore on still further, and Zhenechka continued to dodge behind the backs of passers-by. The buildings were not so tall now, and the passers-by not nearly so frequent as they had been.

They came to the end of the town, to where the sand dunes began. Zhenechka's high heels made it difficult to walk on the shifting sand, over gnarled pine roots, and in the end one of her heels came off.

Now they were right by the sea.

It was smooth and calm. The waves did not hurl themselves upon the low shore, but quietly and unhurriedly crawled over the sand and just as slowly and noiselessly withdrew, leaving a white edging of foam behind. The sea had a lazy, sleepy look.

Kostya walked along the beach, head bent forward against the wind. Zhenechka took off her shoes - it was easier to go barefoot, although the cold, damp sand stung the soles of her feet. Fishermen's nets with round bottle-glass floats were hanging on stakes to dry along the shore, and here and there were upturned boats.

A surprisingly long way off, at the very edge of the water, she could make out a dog. He stood motionless, in a strangely rigid pose. He had a great head, protruding shoulder-blades and a dejected tail. His eyes were fixed on the sea. He was waiting for someone.

Kostya went up to the dog, who did not even turn his head. It was as if he did not hear Kostya approaching. The boy ran his hand through the shaggy fur, and the dog's tail moved almost imperceptibly.

Kostya squatted down and took from his newspaper parcel some bread and the remains of his own lunch, placing them before the dog. There was no response, and Kostya began stroking him and talking in cajoling tones: "Come on, now, eat it up ... come on, boy, just a little."

The dog looked at him from his huge sunken eyes and then resumed his vigil.

Zhenechka hid behind some nets, although she would have liked to stroke the dog, too, and to have had a go at persuading it to eat.

Kostya picked up a piece of bread and held it to the dog's mouth. The dog sighed - gustily, like a human being - and began to chew it slowly. He ate without interest, as though he was full or used to better things than bread, cold porridge and a piece of gristly meat out of the soup. He just ate to keep alive. He had to stay alive - he was waiting for someone to come from the sea.

When everything was eaten, Kostya said, "Come along. Let's have a walk."

The dog looked at the boy again and obediently walked by his side. He had heavy paws and a deliberate, dignified, almost leonine gait. His paw-marks filled with water.

The boy and the dog walked leisurely along the shore, and Zhenech-ka the sleuth heard Kostya tell the dog, "You're a good dog. You're faithful to your master. But you come with me. He'll never come back. He's dead. Word of honour."

The dog was silent. He still did not take his eyes off the sea. Kostya could not convince him. He was waiting.

"What am I going to do with you?" the boy asked. "You can't live by yourself on the seashore. You've got to go somewhere."

They came to the end of the fishermen's nets. Kostya turned round and saw his teacher. She stood barefoot on the sand, her shoes tucked under her arm. The sea breeze ruffled her pony tail.

"What are you going to do with the dog," she asked, worried.

"He won't go away," the boy replied. He did not seem in the least surprised to see her. "He'll never believe that his master's dead."

Zhenechka went over to the dog. The dog growled softly, but he did not bark or go for her.

"I've made him a house out of an old boat. I bring him food. He's so scraggy. To begin with, he bit me."

"He bit you?"

"On the hand. Now it's quite better. I put iodine on it."

After they had gone a few yards, he said, "Dogs always wait. Even for the dead... You have to help them."

The surface of the sea grew dull and seemed to contract a little. The darkened sky pressed down on the sleepy waves. Kostya and Zhenechka saw the dog back to his post, where a boat lay upside down right by the sea, propped up on a block of wood to give the dog room to get underneath. The dog sat down on the sand and froze into his eternal attitude of expectation.

* * *


At the end of the last lesson next day, Kostya dozed off. He yawned and yawned, his head fell on to his arms and he went right off to sleep. At first nobody noticed. Then someone giggled. Zhenechka saw what had happened.

"Be quiet," she said. "Absolutely quiet."

When she set her mind to it, she could make them do just what she wanted. They could be as quiet as mice.

"You know why he's fallen asleep?" she asked in a whisper. "I'll tell you."

The bell rang to signal the end of the last lesson. It rang loud and long. But Kostya did not hear. He was fast asleep.

Yevgenia Ivanovna - Zhenechka - leant over the sleeping boy, put her hand on his shoulder and shook him gently. He started, and opened his eyes.

"The bell's gone," Zhenechka said. "Time for you to go."

Kostya jumped. He grabbed his satchel. And the next minute he was streaking through the door.

Article's Tags: literature prose russia writer

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