Up above, along the green and bald slope, we all lay uncomfortably wherever we fell; girls, parents, guys. Down below, ringed with planks, a diving board and paths, lay the pond. A chain link fence that wasn't quite parallel to the water bordered it. The fence's links were broken in several places so that, by stepping across the asphalt path fringing the pond's perimeter, people could climb through the holes and dive into the brown water. Many trees lay scattered up above, beyond the fence. That's why the water looked brown -- the higher ground over the pond was always in shadow.
Details always impressed me as a kid; I remember how hundreds and thousands of little fish and tadpoles swam and poked about. The water teemed with minute fish, and dragonflies, bugs, mosquitos and all sorts of reeds lay on top of the water.
Soldiers in those days -- and now, as well -- weren't in shape, my father included. I remember how my father swam, grunting through the water in a black bathing suit and pattern baldness. My mother shyly flailed in her suit; our neighbors entered the water with shrieks. It's as if slides of these moments are projected on the wall of my cell.
It should be explained that the pond was built near a mineral-water spring. There was a pipe sticking out of a cliff and caravans of baptized people would head to it in the summer evenings with cans and canteens. It was built in this bit of country where nothing much ever happened. They burrowed and excavated with bulldozers. Then the place suddenly bottomed out all by itself. The path collapsed over an old Jewish cemetery, down to the level of Tyurenka's first houses, and then fell again even lower. People from Tyurenka radiated pride over their Swiss lake, right in the middle of the steppe-like landscape. And they guarded it against any outsiders. They wanted to control their Riviera, their paupers' Switzerland. On the next block, just past the diving board, lived the ruler of Tyurenka in that era (1955-1960), a thick-bearded guy called Tuz or Tuzik.
Gypsies also lived in Tyurenka. If you were a newcomer, they'd call you out -- or you'd call them -- just about every day. Every time a challenge. This gypsy named Kolya was always fucking with me. One time he put on my blue t-shirt and wouldn't give it back. He left with a crowd of people, still wearing my shirt. I didn't catch up with him till next summer. He was short and stocky, thick arms and legs. But I was already smarter than he was. I was 13; I grabbed him and told him that he'd worn my shirt last summer, and this summer I wanted it back. Or I'd tear off the ragged shirt he was wearing. This shirt was not Soviet and had been dyed by hand; Kolya the gypsy had almost definitely stolen it, probably at the city beach.
"What the hell?" he began doubtfully. He braced his legs, knitted his brow and flexed his chest. Kids grow up quickly. But I was smarter than him.
"Sanya," I called, "Come over here, alright? Something's up. There's been a little disagreement."
Red Sanya -- 19-years-old, 90 kilograms, thick-veined, with a turban made out of a towel and a skull ring on his middle finger -- came over. Over the winter I'd gotten close to him. I had even gone over to his place; Sanya's, Auntie Elza and Svetka's. I was like Sanya's younger brother, his aide-de-camp, his accomplice (we had somehow been brought in for this one caper -- not worth a dime -- and released). Sanya came over. He had another ring, made of fused metal. I admired the way those rings reflected the sun. He butted the gypsy with his confident, gangster's belly. The gypsy, clearly frightened, took off his shirt and handed it to me. After that, the Tyurenka gypsies always greeted me. They went back to ignoring me when Sanya was sentenced to three years.
I clearly remember the first vision, my first apparition of a pond. I remember all the ants, dragonflies, bees, wasps, bugs, mosquitos, tiny fish, a horde of insects stinging us on the steep slopes of the hill leading to the pond. They stung me in the 50's; other insects stung me in other reservoirs in the 60's. I didn't learn to swim in a pond, though. An electrician, dyadya Sasha Chepiga -- dust to dust -- taught me to swim in the tiny Old Saltov River, which was only about ten meters wide. Cows and goats grazed along its banks, which were even more thickly littered with cow pies and black goat turds than that pond's modest, bald shore had been.