He sighed, ever so gently. I noticed his gray-green eyes light up with a happy nostalgia.
“When I was a little boy in Koziatyn, my friends and I had a very funny birthday tradition. Ivan had received a translation of Tom Sawyer for his seventh birthday, a glorious gift, as books were so, so rare then. Only he hated to read, so he didn’t want it. Igor’s birthday was coming up, and none of us knew what to get him, so Ivan took his copy of Tom Sawyer, opened it to the first page, which was blank, and wrote in his scrawled handwriting, ‘Happy birthday, Igor!’ and we all signed it, a practical joke. We had a great time giving it to him, we really got a kick out of his reaction.”
He stopped for a moment to take his glasses off, and he flashed a toothy grin. It was full and hearty, especially for someone his age.
“Dmitri’s birthday was the next one, and again, we were at a loss—what to get him? The night before, Igor got us all together—except Dmitri—and told us he had an idea for a gift. We sat on the floor of his room, and he got on his hands and knees and reached under his bed. He spent a few moments looking for something, wagging his hand this way and that. Then he pulled out Tom Sawyer. How we howled with laughter, if only you could have heard us. Like hyenas. ‘But it’s got your name on it!’ said Ivan. ‘Not to worry,’ cackled Igor. He took the page we’d written on and ripped it out, only to find another blank page. ‘Happy birthday, Dmitri!’ Igor scribbled onto the page. We just couldn’t help ourselves, we were hysterical. I remember how the tears streamed down our faces, how we grabbed our stomachs. The next day we gave it to Dmitri and how we laughed at his stunned expression. I was next, and of course, I received Tom Saywer with ‘Happy birthday, David!’ written, slightly neater this time (it was probably Boris who wrote it—he always wrote so neatly), on the title page. Right above the title itself. Boris was next, and then Sergei, and then again to Ivan. We kept this up for many, many years. With each year came a longer salutation, more words of kindness and friendship. Often the book was just an attachment, thrown in with whatever other gifts just for the sake of tradition. It was our tradition.”
He paused again, as if to recollect his thoughts, or perhaps to refrain from tears, I was unsure. He gave a shaky sigh.
“They did not know, but I collected all of the torn out pages. When one of us carelessly ripped and tossed a page aside, I kept my eyes on it, never once forgetting to pick it up as we got ready to go home. ‘Just in case,’ I told myself.”
He stopped again. I took his withered hand in mine.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Take your time.”
He sat still. Very still. I could see the memories overwhelming him. He kept his eyes closed for a long time. I thought he might be asleep—he had started to
drift off more often lately—but he soon stirred. His dreamy gaze warmed me. I squeezed his hand, which I had been holding the whole time.
“Only Ivan and I survived the war, but Ivan was a changed man. He drank almost incessantly. He beat his wife and his little child. I went to see him. Daily, at first. Then, once a week. The last time I visited, he told me he had to show me something. We went into his room, and he got down, slowly, on his hands and knees. I think it was almost as if he knew it would be my last visit. He reached under his bed. He wagged his arm familiarly. It saddened me to think of our long-forgotten youth. He pulled something out; it was Tom Sawyer. He couldn’t talk, he was crying too hard. I will never forget how he cried. I told him about how I’d saved the pages. ‘It is too late,’ he responded, shaking his head. Tears flew off his face and hit me with a force greater than anything I’d ever felt, even on the battlefields. Ivan got up from the floor, slowly. He walked to the fireplace. ‘No,’ I begged him. ‘You cannot save what we had,’ he responded so coldly, ‘who we were.’ Ivan threw the book into the fire. I yelled and grabbed the fire iron, anything to save the book, our youth.”
“Did you?” I asked. His eyes lit up as he half-smiled at me.
“Wait here,” he said, and he slowly, painfully got out of the chair and went to his room. I heard him moving things around. I imagined him slowly getting on his hands and knees, wagging his arm under his bed. I heard something fall, accompanied with a familiar curse. He came back, a few moments later,
with a small, black box. He sat down and slowly opened it. Inside was a badly burned old book. I could hardly make out the letters and illustration on the cover. He opened it, revealing many scraps of papers, all with the left edge torn imperfectly. Torn, like the boys’ childhoods. Imperfect, like their lives.
My eyes grew wide, and my throat grew tight. I read the scribbled birthday notes, each one more legible than the one before, each greeting more thoughtful and eloquent than the previous one had been.
“Ivan died a week later…”
“I’m sorry—” I began. But I was interrupted.
“I saved the book. I’ve never shown it to anyone.”
I smiled at him and took both of his hands in mine. The book lay resting on his lap. “Thank you,” I said, giving his frail hands a light squeeze.
“Moyo solnze,” he said, as he carefully brought my hands upwards and kissed them. “Moya zhizn.”