Our School No. 75 in Alma-Ata enjoyed a reputation of being criminal. The terrain itself was conducive to all kinds of shady activities. Nearby was the Sputnik movie theater, its back bordering on a stadium and a small park that served as the central venue for our school brawls. The dilapidated, tiled embankment of mismanaged and desolate Sayran Lake was a stone’s throw away. My incurably troubled classmates used to hang out there whenever they had time. The boatman resided in a wooden booth with flies, vodka, and Russian criminal music. The catamarans were strewn across the shore. He had drunk away all the boats except the rescue one. The school building was smothered in trees, and the courtyard covered with semi-erased hopscotch patterns appeared serene on the surface, though it was here that Valera got shot in the ass from a handmade gun for his gambling debts. The headmaster had to resign after the incident, and the bloodstains were washed off the asphalt, along with the chalk lines. It changed nothing. The school was rumored to have something to do with convicts. They actually tried to set the clock ticking for me, though that happened after graduation. By some unwritten laws, schoolchildren were untouchable, even people like me and Seryoga, who had been my friend since the first grade. The history teacher once called me “Little Lenin,” and then somebody pushed me against the model of *Lenin in Razliv* on the second floor. Falling down, I was careful not to damage the model of Lenin's shelter of straw and leaves. The new headmaster didn’t say anything at the time. She knew it was no big deal. Seryoga and I were above suspicion; we looked like we didn’t have a shred of aggression in us, the aggression that made the school famous around the city, all the way to the “Fortress.”
    Is the existence of such outcasts even credible? I don’t know. I wouldn’t believe it myself. However, we weren’t friends with anyone else until we graduated. Some people are like that, standing out from the rest with the stigma of solitude from the day they are born.

    Back then, Seryoga lived in the private sector like everyone else, except that his vegetable garden was bigger, with a gate leading into the back yard, which had a pair of cherries and an apple tree, beautifully separated from the asphalt by cobblestone. His father was a workman, so everything was solidly built: a tub for watering in the garden, a warm wooden toilet, a bathhouse, and all that—right in the city, not too far from the center. Somewhere along Furmanov Street with the houses of government officials, the crowned Hotel Kazakhstan, and mountains—false witnesses of history.
    We started around the fifth grade. With black ants. If you imagined any indigenous religion in the anthills of Seryoga’s backyard, the time of summer vacation would be dubbed in its holy books as the Devil’s hour. The darkest hour, despite the scorching southern sun. We procured ourselves powerful magnifying glasses, I don’t remember where, and got to business at noon. We squatted on rocks under a tree and blazed ahead. Sometimes each of us took charge of an anthill, or we swooped on one together. A black ant would squirm on a rock in the conical beam, unaware, then a little smoke and a short agony. We would finish an hour later when Sergei’s elderly grandmother called us for lunch. She seemed to have a vague idea of what we were doing, as she would shout from the threshold from time to time in an unusual voice, “Seryozha, put something on your head right away!”
    Either because of black ants’ unspectacular behavior or due to the capitulation of the anthill under the right cherry tree, after a couple of weeks it became clear to us that red ants were smarter. They clearly understood where death was coming from, which provoked and excited us. Dying in a concentrated beam, the red ant lifts its head and looks up to see your huge, vehement eye while its brothers are biting at your legs and arms. Although the magnifying glass was a perfect and ruthless weapon, our arsenal evolved. We pushed match heads into the passages of the anthill and lit fuses. Then, if the charge was powerful enough, smoke would emerge from several neighboring vents and some confused ants would run out. They were large enough to not start agonizing as soon as the beam hit them. Some managed to escape alive, although crippled and burned.
    At school, Sergei and I were hugely interested in history (this is one of the reasons for my nickname). The history textbook was perused within the first month, or even the first week. Then we would go to the library and take out the next year’s textbook, then we would buy the manual for history teachers in a store near the school, and after finishing it too we would start reading everything within our reach. For example, a children’s encyclopedia, volume VIII, the era of great geographical discoveries. Ferdinand Cortez, Livingstone, Captain Grant, and Dick Sand were our heroes, and Sergei’s backyard was swarming with red-skinned savages. In August, we got bored by the magnifying glasses and took up little cobbler hammers. Both black and red ants hardly distorted the tapping sound of a hammer hitting the rock. The remaining spots were easily removed with a broom.
    In the fall, we became fascinated with space. The sails of Columbus and Cortez shriveled up like the chrysanthemum petals on my teacher Galina Mikhailovna’s desk. The exhilarating space race overshadowed everything that was going on in the school. Tamaz fell down the flight of stairs from the second floor and was badly hurt. He came back two months later, though, and went back to swimming and wrestling. Oksana and the two Olyas grew some boobs. The newbies started smoking. The “R” villain was sent off to juvie. The Challenger exploded. The trail of smoke in the sky over Cape Canaveral split into three parts. Two smaller plumes continued towards space, while the largest with the cockpit, as it was later explained, first leveled off in an arc and then sank in the ocean, letting off red rings of smoke. We realized there was drama in space, too.
    Late September in Alma-Ata is still summer. But it’s usually much nicer than actual summer, when the asphalt melts and the car sprays some stinky poison over the weeds growing at the gates and along irrigation ditches called aryks. Neighbors went fishing and swimming and brought Seryoga’s father a bucket of crayfish. A Radiola on wooden legs under the canopy was broadcasting *Kraftwerk*. But we were already in the vegetable garden, bent over the garden tub brimful with water. There, in the depths of cloudy rain water, one could discern structures made of shampoo bottles connected by hermetically sealed ballpoint pen tubes. The orbital station “Cosmos-3” populated by red ants was conducting experiments. Occasionally, ships tried to dock at the station. Some burst, and the ants rose to the surface with air bubbles. Some ants, having lost their footing, began to sink, moving their legs, and if the rescue boat did not come in time they were forever lost in the thin layer of mud at the bottom. There is always room for heroic acts. Even in the life of an ant. One day we were told to go home, so we left the station unattended until the next morning. The ants suffocated. We never discussed it, we just threw the whole structure away. Nobody wanted that.
    November brought slush, rain and even snow. Second shift at school. Homework late into the night. Damn math. Winter.

    Mother went to Leningrad on a business trip. She brought back an album and one set of stamps to get us started. Seryoga and I became collectors. Paintings, soccer, fishes. Magnifying glasses were put to good use. We used them to make out the inscriptions “Poczta Polska” and “Монгол шуудан” or, say, Danai’s breasts.
    In the spring, Seryoga was made to look at the garden from a completely different perspective. He was given a shovel, and I received one as well. I had to help dig up the beds. Under a rotten log we found a whole hibernaculum with fat white larvae of some beetles swarming silently, like swaddled babies, while red ants were escaping with soft white little eggs, like people from a burning house during the revolution. They dragged their possessions, looking for entrances to underground holes. We stood with our shovels over this inadvertently disturbed world, watching, like two half-brother gods. Seryoga brought a two-liter glass jar, rinsed it in the tub, wiped it dry, and we put some soft soil with bits of straw into it. Then, we carefully laid a dozen ant eggs on the surface inside the jar, and began to collect the ants. They immediately rushed to move the pieces of debris in search of a shelter. We covered the jar with a greenish lid that had  small holes made with a knife. But the ants did not try to escape. They started digging their passages. Seryoga’s mother would not allow him to take the jar home. She was afraid, or didn’t get it. So, I took it home with me. We met in my room a few times and stood by the window watching the ants, who had built a whole city in the jar, dragging bits of leaves and bread into the holes to stock up on food. At times white bits of crumbs would show through the glass walls, as they were lowered along the passages to the very bottom. Two weeks later, Seryoga got bored and stopped coming to me, so I observed this life alone without interfering. One day I threw a dead wasp into the jar. It didn’t fit through any of the holes and made a nuisance of itself on the surface. Then the first earthquake happened. A major one. The ants spent three days restoring the passages, searching for and rescuing the eggs. The corpse of the wasp disappeared from the surface. The jar was a sight to watch once again. The next earthquake proved to be a routine. The ants invariably tried to rebuild everything that had been damaged. There were fewer and fewer of them. The newcomers caught in my small front garden were given a hostile reception; they huddled together like kids cornered in the courtyard of someone else’s school, surrounded by hoodlums. A fight ensued, and there was nothing I could do about it. Three of my ants were attacked by a dozen jar ants. I had to fish mine out and let them go. The jar ants turned out to be real bastards. They behaved like fascists from the book about Valya Kotik. I brought a bucket of water from the hand-washing basin. The water quickly soaked into the ground riddled with ant passages. I saw the water rise, the glistening ring almost reaching the surface. No more than five ants got out and were running back and forth in panic. It was really creepy. I felt uncomfortable. I opened the window and pushed the bottle down by the lilac. It shattered deafeningly against a rock in the dead of the night. The next day, when I collected the pieces, all I noticed was the darkened corpse of a wasp.

    We graduated from school in the nineties. In August, Seryoga and I opened a nightclub with two classmates, in the former janitor’s room in the school building. Well, we never got around to actually opening it. One evening, after we finished building the bar and were about to leave, a promising girl I knew ran in and called me outside for a minute. I want to tell you more about her. I was stomped by four people in the dark schoolyard. They kicked me in the stomach and busted my lip, but my teeth remained whole. I was told to pay up, monthly. My father was a hydrogeologist in the colonies and so there were artfully chiseled, garish rolling pins hanging in our kitchen. He reached out to cons from some other town, and my assailants were found. Two men reeking of basement danger and trouble, men I had never seen before, lined up the suspects before me. I don’t know what their punishment was, but they never approached me again, and the school wouldn’t let us open the club. The headmaster resigned.
    I suddenly realized how dangerous life could be! A year later, I entered the university, but not the history department. It was something else.

    ***Translated by Anton Platonov***

    *Anton Platonov graduated from the translation department of Saint Petersburg State University of Culture and Art, student of translator and writer Vera Reznik. Participant of poetry workshops of the Open Literary School Almaty season 2015–2016. Translates modern prose from English, Spanish, and German, researches and translates poetry, specializing in beatnik poetry. Translations and essays were published in the electronic edition Literratura, Esquire,, and others. One of the founders of “Illustrated guide to the meanings Almaty” ( Founder and editor at—a Kazakhstani media about contemporary art. One of the founders and leaders of the Laboratory of Literary translation (supported by the US Mission in Kazakhstan). Lives and works in Almaty.*

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