Translated from the Russian by Baruch Pletner
Blame me all you want, esteemed reader, for using a literary clich;, but there is simply no other way of putting it; Pavel Afanasyevich Berendiay was radiant with joy. Not exactly radiant, even, but radioactive, glowing with an otherworldly light. Barely having set foot in the apartment, he tossed his briefcase at the hallway corner and joyfully addressed his spouse just as she was rushing to greet him:
-This is it, Masha, I am a minister. My dream has finally come true. Our dream, I should say!
-Praise the Lord, Masha crossed herself and flew into her husband’s arms, - congratulations, darling!
Masha’s eyes, tearing up, glistened in the hallway’s bright lights.
-I told you I’d make it one day, didn’t I? – he said pulling her closer and caressing her back, - but you still wouldn’t believe.
-I believed, Pavel, I believed, but I was afraid of jinxing it. You know how my father used to say, may he rest in peace, almost made it to this day, did he not, “don’t count your chickens” and all that…
Pavel extracted himself from Masha’s arms and, raising his eyebrows a bit, asked, with a bemused look on his face: - what’s with all the waterworks? Isn’t this a happy occasion? We should be celebrating, not sniveling!
-It’s all from joy, darling! And what a joy, -Masha exclaimed.
-I think it’s time to count our chickens, Pavel joked. – This is the start of a new life for us, my little one.
-One, two, three, - Masha was moving her index finger as if counting some imaginary hens. – Minister of what, though? What department?
- A new one, - Pavel smiled, - a shiny brand new one!
-A new one? Masha was taken aback – and what is it called?
-The Ministry of Dreams, - Pavel announced, not without pride.
-You must be joking, right? – Masha said with disbelief and proceeded to beg in a passable imitation of a toddler in a toy store, - Tell me, hubby, I am dying to know!
-No joke, Masha. The President has already signed the order to create the new ministry and Mikhail Mikhailych has already recommended me for the position, so this as good as done.
-But what kind of ministry is this, - Masha’s voice dropped to a whisper, - what will it be responsible for, producing sweet dreams TV shows for toddlers?
Pavel smiled, but then, with a stern expression on his face, said:
-Your sarcasm is rather out of place here, dear. This is not a laughing matter and things aren’t as simple as you’d like to believe. This question… meaning the decision to create this department had been discussed at the highest levels of the National Security Council and the decision to go ahead with it was a unanimous one.
-Well, this is the one thing we have never had any shortage of, - Masha waived her arm dismissively. Tell me something I don’t know. Say what you like, but unanimous decisions are something we have never had any problems with. But tell me, what will your ministry actually do… and what kind of paychecks are we talking about here?
-Pavel let out a longsuffering sigh and, taking off his coat, made his way into the kitchen.
-Pay is just fine, but that’s not what’s important here…
-What do you mean, not important, - Masha didn’t let him finish. Salary is always one of the most important considerations in every decision…
-Don’t interrupt, -Pavel said furrowing his brow. In this case, salary is the last thing we should be worried about. This is the kind of job that one takes on even without a salary.
-What do you mean, without? Are you doing work on a charitable basis now?
-Of course not, darling, it was just a figure of speech, but you cannot even imagine the kind of budgets that they are giving me to play with. Billions upon billions.
-But still, what will you guys be doing with all that money?
-Deciphering people’s dreams! – Pavel fired at her rather defiantly. – Can you even imagine? We will know exactly what each and every citizen of our country is dreaming about, is dreaming of, if you like! The equipment is already being produced and a year from now this equipment will be installed in every home in the nation. Nobody will be able to hide their dreams from us and measures will be taken.
-But who needs this? Why should anyone be digging in other people’s dreams, - Masha asked appalled.
-What do you mean, who? The State, that’s who! Dreams contain priceless information, you see. Don’t they say that dreams are the pathway to our subconscious? Let’s take you for example. What did you dream about last night?
Masha blushed, her face becoming redder than an August tomato.
-Who cares? - she blurted.
-I care, -Pavel declared. -After all, I am now the Minister of Dreams, and I need to know what my wife is dreaming about.
-So, are you going to spy on me too, - Masha’s tone was rather indignant.
-Why “spy”? All citizens will have to submit a weekly account of their dreams and if they are caught lying, measures will be taken.
-What kind of measures? – fear was now creeping into Masha’s voice.
-First, a friendly chat, next an administrative arrest for fifteen days, and finally, if there is no improvement, a criminal complaint will be filed.
-Have you lost your ever-loving minds? – Masha exclaimed,gentlem – You’re going to jail people for dreaming?
-Not for dreaming, Masha. For lying! – Pavel looked rather intensely into his wife’s eyes. Even now, I am asking you what you have dreamt about, and yet I can get no straight answer.
Masha shook her head,
-Whose business is it what people are dreaming about? I don’t wish to discuss this. It is my private personal matter. These are my private personal dreams. And whatever they may be about is nobody’s damn business. What kind of nonsense is this anyway? Are you playing a prank on me?
-No prank, -Pavel announced with a deadly serious expression. -You see, our scientists have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that dreams are a highly accurate predictor of deviant behaviors: soon to be committed crimes, terrorist attacks, and the like. But seriously now, what were you dreaming about last night?
-None of your damn business, - Masha retorted.
-Not quite, - Masha let out a sigh, but…
-Tell me, tell me, -Pavel said encouragingly, - there is nothing to be ashamed of.
-It was an erotic dream, - Masha confessed, turning into a tomato again.
-No kidding! -Pavel clapped his hands in excitement. – This is interesting, very interesting. Come on now, spill the beans, don’t be shy.
-But I am shy, - Masha said, keeping her eyes low.
-Shy? Of me? – Pavel struck his chest with his fist for extra emphasis, - Since when are you shy of me? We will soon be celebrating our silver wedding anniversary and she is shy!
-Leave me alone, please, -Masha put the palm of her right hand forward, making the universal stop sign. – I don’t want to talk about this.
-You have secrets from me now, do you? I don’t like this one bit.
Masha, sensing that this would not end well, decided to change tactics. -Don’t worry darling, -she said, lovingly draping her arms around Pavel’s shoulders. – I will tell you all about it at in bed at night. It would be more appropriate, anyway. For now, go get changed and we will have us a little dinner and perhaps a drink or two to celebrate. After all, it’s not every day that they make you a minister.
Pavel wasted no time in taking his wife advice and proceeded to act accordingly.
A year went by. The Ministry of Dreams grew to monstrous proportions. The successes achieved by the new ministry were correspondingly astounding. Five provincial governors found themselves behind bars - they routinely had separatist dreams. Ten mayors or so soon joined them – apparently, in their dreams they were planning on raiding the city coffers. Executive officers, schoolmasters, university provosts, and hospital directors were similarly not spared. Police officers at the highest levels, intelligence operatives, prosecutors, and judges all followed suit.
Dream-interpreting instruments were working around the clock. Signal flows from various regions merged into mighty rivers of information. A newly formed special ministerial committee was tirelessly working around the clock. Each of its sessions began with taking the deposition of this or that highly placed personage, followed by their dismissal and a private consultation. A decision soon followed. First, the committee investigated whether the gentlemen and ladies in question were telling the truth or shamelessly lying. Then experts were brought in to interpret the meaning of their dreams from instrument readings. Finally, after a debate by the committee members, a decision was rendered on what was to be done.
As to lying, it was nearly universal. Some added colorful details. Others omitted key nuances. A third group simply made things up from whole cloth. A certain judge made up a dream which managed to befuddle even the most seasoned committee members. He recounted how, in his dream, he had been invited by the President to a barbeque, after which they went skiing. While they were having fun in the snow, the President was attacked by a bloodthirsty polar bear, an attack which was bravely repelled by the intrepid judge, who gave the bear such a beating with his ski pole, that it had to tuck its tail between its legs and run away. A committee member then asked:
-And the President?
-The President? Nothing. When it was all done, he pulled out a medal from his parka pocket and bestowed it upon me for my bravery.
-Would you agree, sir, that you might be shamelessly lying, - asked a committee member.
-Why would I? – the judge asked defiantly. – It’s the God’s own truth.
-This is impossible! – chimed in an elderly female. – The President doesn’t go around with medals in his pockets. What kind of nonsense are you talking about here? Have you no sense of shame whatsoever?
The judge laughed.
-Wait a second ladies and gentlemen, this is but a dream. I don’t make them to order. They come to me, and I simply tell them to you. You yourselves told me that you wanted me to tell you my dreams truthfully.
The committee members nodded at each other and signaled the judge to carry on.
-Having received my medal, I invited the President to dinner. After all, such an event calls for a certain amount of libations.
-And? Has the president accepted? – inquired a rather fidgety lady from the committee dais.
-Of course! Who would say no to a good cognac?
-Our president does not imbibe, - she objected.
-Respectfully, - the judge retorted, - allow me to repeat myself: this was but a dream. And in dreams anything can happen.
The judge’s tale went on until finally he was interrupted, rather rudely mid-sentence, and the committee retired to its deliberations.
An hour or so later, armed men appeared in the anteroom where the judge had been fighting off boredom. These were the notorious special forces of the Ministry of Dreams. They were soon followed by the committee members. The verdict was read by the Chairman.
-Judge Balalaikin, it is the conclusion of this committee that your dream presents a clear and present danger to the security of the State. You are hereby sentenced to three years at a dream reformation resort facility subject to an enhanced compliance regime.
-How dare you? – yelled the convicted man. – This is an outrage! For what? What are you sending me to prison for?
-No need to fret, my dear fellow, - said the Chairman. – This is not a prison. It is a very pleasant sanatorium. A prophylactic dream reformatory. Can you not see? You are in urgent need of an enhanced healing regime. Normal people do not have dreams like yours; they are revolting!
-But how am I to blame? – the judge could not reconcile himself to his fate… - I, I…
-There IS no blame, - was the calm retort from the restless lady member. -But dreams like this are illegal under our jurisprudence.
-I have been a judge for fifteen years, and I have never heard of any such jurisprudence! – Exclaimed the judge.
-Exactly! – responded the Chairman. – This particular set of laws has been developed specifically for our committee. Regular courts do not hear cases such as this.
The Chairman gave the order to escort the convicted man out. The judge tried to resist, but the special forces contingent made quick work out of him.
Next up was a school headmistress, a rather plump lady with rouged cheeks and greying hair piled on high.
-We are at your disposal, madam, - said the Chairman, - I am hopeful that there is no need to admonish you against any kind of mendacity.
-Yes, I am rather not in the habit of fibbing, but… - the woman came up short.
-What’s the matter? – inquired the Chairman, not without interest.
-Well, you see, sir, I am not sure that my dream will be a pleasant one for you to hear.
-Fear not, - commanded a female committee member, - we are used to it here. Proceed!
The headmistress cleared her throat, wiped her glasses, and began.
-You see, distinguished committee members, I have been having the same exact dream for the last one month. In this dream, I took on a sow as a pet, and she lives with me in my apartment. And every single day, I wake up exclusively to her squeals. Sometimes she squeals so loudly that I cannot imagine how she doesn’t wake up my neighbors as well.
-And how do you know that she doesn’t, -asked the lady member, - have you asked them?
-No, I haven’t asked them, so I don’t really know. But more than this, every time I wake up, my flat reeks like a pigsty. And the stench lingers on while I make ready to go to work. I’ve gone through three bottles of French perfume just in this last month. My secretary has complained that she can smell me from a mile away.
-And why, may I ask, do you abuse perfume in this manner, - asked the Chairman.
-Well, as I have just explained, my flat reeks like a pigsty. How can I go to work like that?
-The stench is in your dream, but the perfume is real, is it not? Does this seem logical to you?
-This is exactly what I cannot understand. Swine and more swine every day. I am so exhausted from all of this.
The committee carefully considered the headmistress’s deposition and reached a unanimous conclusion: immediate dismissal from her current position and reassignment to a dairy farm as a milkmaid’s assistant, second class.
-But why dismissal, - demanded the hapless lady, - After all, I haven’t broken any rules.
-Perhaps, -said the Chairman, - but with your head filled with pork, working with kids is out of the question. Come back in a year’s time, we shall review.
In the third year of the Ministry, Pavel Afanasyevich was informed that his wife had been arrested and condemned to three years at the dream reformatory with enhanced regime.
-What for? – exclaimed the Minister. – Have you lost your minds? Who dared arrest the minister’s wife?
-This was the committee’s decision, - explained the aid.
-What goddamned committee? – roared Pavel Afanasyevich. – Hop to it and bring me their chairman. Ring him up right now, while I wait.
-Half an hour later, the aid reappeared in the minister’s cabinet with his report.
-Pavel Afanasyevich, the chairman cannot appear before you, he…
-What do you mean “cannot”? Have you explained to him that he is being summoned by his superior?
-Yes, sir! - the aid adopted a military manner, - and I related to him the urgency of the summons.
-He replied that today was all booked, back-to-back meetings, and…
- To hell with his meetings, - the minister was now screaming at the top of his voice. – Tell him this isn’t a request, it’s an order!
-Indeed, sir, this is what I have told him. But he… -the aid shuffled his feet uncomfortably, - he explained to me that he reports directly to the President now and that no one else can give him any orders.
-Nuts. Ok. I will get to the bottom of this. Dismissed.
The chairman of the committee which had sent the minister’s wife to the reformatory, appeared before him at the end of the third day. Not wasting any time on greetings or pleasantries, the minister addressed his guest directly:
-Have you all gone completely mad down there?
-How do you mean, your excellency, - the Chairman inquired not making any attempt to hide a contemptuous smirk.
-Not “how”, “who”, -retorted Pavel Afanasyevich with a furrowed brow. -Why have you arrested my spouse?
-Our instruments have determined that her dreams were oriented… how shall I put it… against the natural order of things.
-And you dare to say this to me, - the minister bellowed. -Who do you take me for? What kind of goddamned dreams?
-The kind of dreams…
-Shut up! – Pavel Afanasyevich stood up and got in the chairman’s face. -What kind?
The chairman took a step back, suspecting that he might be punched in the face at any given moment.
-Don’t you know that this whole dream reading business is total crap? You put whatever interpretation you want into them. And if someone claims to never dream, you label them as dissidents. Don’t you?
-You see, your excellency, in addition to myself, the committee has eleven other members, and I cannot always sway their opinion. We are a democracy, after all.
-I don’t give a flying fig about your so-called democracy, - yelled the minister. -Set my wife free immediately! Do it and report back!
-This I cannot do, your excellency, - the chairman shrugged his shoulders. – Arrests, that we can do. But letting them go is outside of our jurisdiction. Before their time is up, that is. An early discharge is only by the President’s direct order. I’d like to help you out… but…
-Get lost, - the minister nodded in the direction of the office door.
* * *
Maria Petrovna served her full term and was only released after three years. No matter how much her husband pleaded on her behalf, it was all to no avail. His requests for an audience with the President had gone unanswered, and there was no one else who could offer any help. The years at the reformatory had cost his wife her mind. After her release, a beatific smile never left her face. She now spent her days on the couch watching the same movie on an endless loop – “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears”. Then one night she quietly passed away, leaving after her only a note to her husband. “Farewell my love,” it said, “I hope you see me in your dreams.”