“Ivan” – Rex Brooke

There is a way to figure this out, he thought, boldly.

Ivan Ivanovich sets down his morning glass of vodka and sharpens his pencil with a kitchen knife. He looks out his window to the wide and wrinkled Volta. A brisk Spring wind is crawling across the oil slicked water. Rivulets of water trickle across the meadow. To the east, the sun glints off the snow capped Ural Mountains. He licks the tip of the pencil and lowers it against the crisp white sheet of paper.

He needed the proper symbols. Once he had them, the problem could be attacked with a more precise vocabulary which would reveal the solution.

The only thing Ivan loved better than vodka was mathematics, for he loved mathematics with a passion which would only befit a genius. Unfortunately, Ivan was no genius, and so his love dispelled itself, like pissing in the Volta, as they say.

As a youth he had spent many a happy summer day fishing in the Volta. He had known every eddy and sandbar for 15 miles. The Nikita days. Sturgeon the size of dogs. But that was much further south. Where people with a civilized culture lived. Here, at Lysva, you were lucky if you could pull dead wood from the river.

In the seven years he had lived there, Ivan had pulled a lot of dead wood from the river. It was one of the few things which weren’t taxed. He would lay it out on the banks like corpses to dry for the winter. Unfortunately, by the time it had reached Ivan’s shore, the river had leached the wood of most of its life giving fire.   But he had found early on that if the flame gets hot enough, even dead wood will burn.

Damn Petrovich. Damn the arrogance of these young people. Damn his fences. And damn his bull. She might die down there. And then what would be left?

He begins to write, and you can hear the pencil scratching across the paper.

There are two ways of solving problem, he begins, in a hierarchical manner, moving down from the general to the precise until the problem is pinned, much like a hunter spearing a salmon from a school. This is the spear method.

The alternative is the net method–starting with a lot of possible answers and tossing back the chum. It’s not unlike sculpture, where you carve away everything which is not necessary.

Now if we look at answers as being fish in the sea of the universe, we have the obvious advantages and disadvantages of both methods. Is there a one to one correspondence between answers and problems? Of course not. This is the disadvantage of the spear method. The advantage is that you have only one fish to deal with.

Ivan stops. He is hungry. Pickled herring, a chunk of hard bread, and an onion for lunch. And another glass of vodka. His problem is this:

Early last October he had led his cow down the stairs into the basement for the winter. He had purchased the cow with the last of his savings, naming her Mynka, for reasons of his own past. Now it is Spring, the grass is thickening in the meadows, but she has grown so large that he can not get her back up the stairs. He hadn’t known she was pregnant until it was too late. She was too young to be bred. One of Constantine Petrovich’s bulls must have broken through the fence and settled her. And when confronted, that bastard Petrovich claimed that Mynka had enticed his bull, and added that it takes two to make a fence, and finally, not to worry, that he wouldn’t charge a stud fee.

So there she was, as wide as she was long. Ivan could wait for her to give birth, but she wasn’t due until June, and by then most of the Spring pasture will have been eaten by the damn sheep from Constantine Petrovitch’s farm.

“This is what they call free enterprise,” Ivan mumbles. “The right to loot.”

If he couldn’t get her out, he’d have to purchase extra hay and grain. He couldn’t purchase shoelaces on his pension, let alone a season of food for a cow and calf. How he had dreamed of living in the country, free to earn his own living, free from the choking bureaucracy of his government job as a cartographer, redrawing boundaries every time the Kremlin decided to annex some poorly defended territory. Waiting thirty years for this. How foolish he had been. His whole life coming to this.

Ivan finishes his lunch and follows with a brace of vodka. He leans back in his chair and concludes: In the end, all we have left is the illusion of truth.” he writes. “All we have are models of reality. Never the thing itself.”

He tries a different approach. A different analogy. Assume that the cow is a light which requires energy in order to function. The greatest impediment to the energy flow is the stairs; now a resistance of much greater capacity than his available current. It is true that in the world of quantum probability, some current would actually tunnel through any impassable resistance, and reappear, miraculously, on the other side, like frogs after a rain, but certainly not enough current to light a stairwell. Besides, even if it tunneled through improbability, he never trusted something which couldn’t be comprehended with common sense. But obviously, the resistance had to be eliminated.

Ivan studies the door frame. He takes measurements. He makes a few scale drawings. They are very good drawings. He looks from the drawing to the basement door. His dakka was built in a time when houses were constructed to last for generations. A single beam, running to a corner post, which also supported his roof, marks the top of the door frame. The beam is a full 8 meters long and a good 1/2 meter thick. It was hewn from a single tree and probably weighs close to 1000 kilograms. To move either side of the door frame would mean the collapse of his house. Ivan puts his pencil down and rubs his eyes. He tugs at his white beard, combing through the tangles with his arthritic fingers. He climbs to his feet, opens the door to his cellar, and looks down at his cow. She looks back at him, shifting her weight from side to side to ease the weight of her unborn calf. She bellows softly, and shits, plop, plop, plop—a sound like sparrows hitting the windshield of a 12 row combine.

Ivan returns to his drawings, and with his knuckle sized pencil, figures the geometry.  A brace here, at this angle, another here to take the lateral thrust of that load. His design is fragmented by, of course, the limited amount of bracing material–the last of dead wood he had been using to heat his home. But surely a good Spring flood up river would bring more. A block and tackle, attached here, would give him the necessary mechanical advantage for the hoist. The vertical load transferred to this floor member, which seemed sound enough. Seems. It should hold the load. Ivan gets back up, and jumps up and down on the floor boards. Breathing hard, he sits back down. There is no give, but there are always risks.

He knows he does not have a block and tackle, but how hard can that be to make? Two rotational cylinders in a pair of bore holes. Maybe he could get a few of those spools from the abandoned nuclear plant. And a lot of thick rope.

He taps his pencil on the table. It is not a bad table, sitting squarely under the one window. It bears the inscription, “The meek will inherit the Earth.”  He had made it the first summer they had moved to Lyvsa, before that first terrible winter, and the death of his beloved wife, when he was still guided by the impracticality of hope.

As honorable as his intentions might have been, the table bears witness to his having never used a saw in his life. He was a map maker. Not a carpenter. But God will be his witness that he has always done his best. Most of the time. Even though he doesn’t believe in God. Or at least not in a God that pays attention.

He carefully tapes the corners of the drawings to the table, and stands back. He stretches, and does a partial deep knee bend, and sits back down.

It is just past dusk when he wakes in his chair. Above him, in the dark, shards of quick silver flash and for a split second, fish are schooling in the corners. He turns on the overhead light and they are gone. He examines his drawings. A thumb-sized moth attacks the light bulb. Its shadow flits across the table.

His plan is a good one, only lacking in a few necessary materials. If he can make that block and tackle, and if the floor boards can support the load, he should be able to free Mynka with only a small reliance on luck.   He checks his plan by following the flow of gravity across the switches, where it is redirected, split, and finally recombined as it arrives at the source of the force itself. The Earth. He goes to the basement door again, pulls it open, and looks down the steps at Mynka, who is chewing on the straw, her one bad eye facing him, the color of dirty snow.

“And if there are no fish,” he tells her, “We will eat meat.”

“Moo,” she replies.

© 2016 Rex Brooke

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