Alexander Ivanovich woke at six, the hour when radio broadcasting would normally have begun, but the radio had been silent for a month now. He lay still for a long while, covered in blankets and furs. The room was dark and very cold. He thought that this was probably how things had been a thousand years ago, the period he specialized in as a philologist; that this was how people lived in medieval towns, without running water, sewers, electricity, newspapers or radio. Life in the age of devastating epidemics, famines, enemy invasions and endless sieges had been exactly as it was in Leningrad today. Alexander Ivanovich had often tried to picture the medieval town in a time of plague, siege or invasion. He had imagined streets where skulking dogs gnawed at human corpses, while untended fires smoked around them. Now these dreams had become a reality more prosaic than anything he had been able to conceive. Alexander Ivanovich tried to convince himself that he had been presented with a singular opportunity to observe life at its most strange and remote, but the thought gave him no satisfaction. He took some matches from under the pillow, lit the lamp, threw on his coat, pulled on his boots and began to kindle a fire in the small iron stove with wood from a bookcase sawn up the night before.
His sister woke; they had been living together in one room since her husband had left for the Front. Alexander Ivanovich placed a pot of water–the last of it–on the stove. He opened a drawer in the table and took out a morsel of bread. It was carefully wrapped in white paper. Alexander Ivanovich would have recognized this morsel in a thousand. For a rouble and ten kopecks a loaf, the bread was spongy but not crumbly; it sliced easily and stuck to the fingers. Alexander Ivanovich cut off the crust, crumbled a pulp into the pot with his fingers and liberally added salt. Then he sat down in front of the stove, opened its door and began reading a Greek grammar by the light of the flame.
‘The aorist,’ he read, ‘often denotes an action, of some duration, but referred to in its completion, without special expression of duration, as for example in Herodotus: “The town of Azot resisted [fact referred to in its completion] longer than all the other towns.” The aorist may also denote a general fact, if the given action is not referred to in its development, but only as a fact, capable of being repeated an infinite number of times, as for example in Theognis’: “The slow but cunning man will overtake the swift man.”’