I wrote Exeunt sometime around 2005. It’s the only short story I’ve ever submitted for publication (Clarkesworld Magazine, back in 2007). The story itself was rejected, and lived on assorted hard drives since. For the sake of at least preserving historic writing, I give you: Exeunt.
Exeunt by Ilya Popov
Cormac McTavish sits at his desk, staring bleary-eyed at the monitor before him. The computer screen stares right back, with a Bring-It-Buddy ‘tude. He types away at his keyboard, his fingers racing on par with wild Clydesdales over assorted URLs, pounding electric hieroglyphs onto digital type. Beside him rests his nourishment of the day: empty cans of Pepsi performing a Tower of Pisa impression, doubly acting as glorified paper-weights for the papers that colonize the spaces between and around the mouse-pad and keyboard. Cormac has evolved beyond fashion statements to the state of practicality. Simply put, he’s using every inch of space available to him.
And right now, he is, to use a term that’s been proverbially barbarized by the collective popular culture of the North-American continent, surfing the web. Although perhaps a better term would be “typing” and “running programs.”
His face is a battered mirror reflection of the process occurring on the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT). He doesn’t even notice his eyes blinking. But then, who does? What’s happening right now is that an electron beam is moving back and forth across the back of the screen he’s looking at. It’s like looking at vaguely opaque glass – like reckless teenagers having a Friday night kegger that involves smearing weeks old radioactive yoghurt over your dashboard. Each time the beam passes over the screen, it lights up little phosphor dots on the inside of the glass tube in the back of the monitor, thusly illuminating portions of the screen. You do this quick enough, and draw the lines in the right way, and wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, let there be light.
A window pops up, a stale white canvas slowly melting to grey-scale as pixels begin teleporting onto hyperbolically skeletizing polygons, and the pixels hereafter flip like pancakes to brutalizing 256 colour. The sound of a bell whistles from the speakers which have been delightfully duct-taped onto the monitor – to get the best sound possible, naturally. The more level a sound-wave is with the ear-cavity, the clearer the polyphonics. That’s the rationalization Cormac applied, anyway. Download finished, all two-thousand files sit somewhere on the hard-drive, saved for later use, although probably not. The world is compleat, and in less time than it took God, and with a fatter pipe than anything Adam could get Eve with the shekels he oxygenated in his pockets.
A shower of colours drift across Cormac’s face as he reads the sign that says ‘Welcome to the Megaverse: Where Life Knows No Limits.’ He says nothing in the darkness of his room. McWorld Land here, there, he didn’t give a shit. But he still digs the Pepsi sign. He clicks on the right mouse button and slowly drifts forward, because replicating actual human movements, the awkwardness of every single dip, can have nauseating effects, and really, it’s unnecessary. As he begins moving forward, the client-server software begins making sweet love to the fibre-optic cable that ends in a black plastic would-be carcinogen on Cormac’s table (were he more bored and feeling perkily anarchistic). But modems are modems, regardless of their eyesore status.
He wanders through the gates of this Online Perdition; a digital McWorld. Because the program he’s using isn’t terribly advanced in all manners, he can’t really modify what he looks like. Not that he cares. See, the way Megaverse works is on a payment basis: You get what you pay for. It’s like ordering a Big-Mac. You want to get sketched out in the newest silks and robes? Drop the e-green and get your dreams. Otherwise, you’re just Clone # 248723697. Sipping his Pepsi (the irony is killing him) he wanders to the nearest E-Bank. The screen halts like a kamikaze pilot slamming at 4 G’s into a Titanium wall. But at least the demonic music of the Megaverse has stopped, only to be replaced, when it’s finished loading up the E-Bank, with its succubus cousin: the Product-Placement Jingle.
“What would you like to sell today?” asks the orange hallucinogenic on-screen text. It doesn’t really care what you want. Have the right name and pin-code? If you answered yes, then you can do whatever the hell you want. It’s amazing what numbers can do to you. They can help you measure the length of your car, make a bank transaction or build a hydro-nuclear bomb.
He rolls his tongue over the front-row aisle of his jaw, and enters a series of seemingly meaningless numbers, that don’t follow any specific order, which to the uninitiated, is like slamming God in the face with a 2×4. This is followed by a brief Tab and then – voila! – entrance of one D underscore Castor. The window has a hot-flash in the dark and a list of menus and options Tetris their way onto the screen. It’s so instantaneous that it would give freak flash-fires the hizzies. And he’s using SSL now, so all the data should be tighter than a virgin.
Between the brain-stem and the receptors and sensors in his eyes, chemicals are having an anti-globalist rave, and Cormac’s mouse-fingers have become their U-2 rockets of love. Tonight, D_Castor dies. And on the internet, no one can hear you scream. Except perhaps your portfolio and accountant.
A few minutes and a chair-swivel later, fingers and text are making the music of the spheres as dalnet performs a server ident, ip check and password req. And Cormac, now hieroglyphically decked out as Nunchuku_Pizza, joins channel ‘2901,’ and carts into a electron seizing queue: someone claims to have obtained the Godhead of Godheads, Linus’ Great Pumpkin: The Coca-Cola formula, which has just been smuggled onto the internet.
Cormac estimates that if this is the Real Deal, that shortly thereafter – based on, let’s say, the EST Time Zone, that in the time it would take him to brush his teeth and masturbate, Georgia would riot, and that an army of soldiers armed with ties, briefcases and business-cards set-to-kill, would unleash the digital equivalent of a twenty megaton bomb on the internet.
“What’s the use of living in North America if you can’t have some good wholesome fun?” asks an online hieroglyphic identity named KroKl0wn.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
D_Castor, here known as the username David A. Castor, is asleep on a reclined futon that earlier in the evening had doubled as a park bench for a collexion of two-fours. He doesn’t wake up till his army of watches begin storming synchronously at 0900; digital rooks pecking at his skull – it’s mediaeval torture reinvigorated for the modern age. Mendelssohn touches down and one two three, Overture for Midsummer Night’s Dream smashes into his room like an ice-storm, emanating from the Holy Bose tabernacle.
One shower and time-wasting shave later (“It always grows back, so why bother?” he tends to think), D_Castor endeavours to enjoy the combo-plate breakfast before him. There’s a fine art to eating French toast, Rice Krispies, tea, orange juice, yoghurt, and a banana. Never mind that it’s such a healthy and balanced breakfast that most infomercials would have infomatic seizures just trying to strip him of all self-individuality and incorporate his very being into the Corporate Whole. But the timing has to be just right – it’s a race against sogginess with breakfasts, and it’s a delicate matter for Dave.
Yoghurt comes out first, the breakfast aperitif. Then the banana: the cock-tease prelude. Out comes the Krispies, because the toast is still hissing and crackling on the element like Medusa being given the ultimate ancient Greek head-job by Apollo. Then the tea and toast slide down the water-park of his oesophagus, coalescing like a wet-kiss along the insides of his Jejunum. And then finally, the OJ rockets down his throat to settle everything in a collective United Nations peace treaty within his stomach. And then David is packed, and off to work. Exit door: Front.
He drives to the train station, monthly pass in tow, and boards the locomotive, which will deliver him to his final destination at a speed of roughly 33 – 60 mi/h (55 to 95 km/h). He never actually knows where he’s boarding, because the way trains are designed these days, they’re equipped with a control-cab, which is located on either end of the train, meaning that there’s no need to uncouple, run around, and then recouple the train. It has lost all sense of front and back. David boards and parks in a not-so-uncomfortable plastic chair a shade away from testicular puke. Fourty minutes – and one screaming group of uni students he’d like to pile-drive with God’s Almighty bulldozer later – he’s weaving his way to Skyscrapera generica to the ¾ rhythm of the Stone Roses.
He sees flashing blue lights as he pops the corner of an avenue: a phalanx of police copulate before his geographical destination. He passes into the entrance and engages Samantha, a petit Level 1 uni grad who’s been learning the finer arts of economics and yoga. Right now, she’s tight-roping the line between conundrum and high-voltage confusion.
“Morning Sam,” says David. She smiles weakly and reciprocates his greeting.
“Why the blue and white decoration outside?” he asks.
“Apparently, the company was attacked last night – mostly just networks. We’re still trying to figure out the W’s and H of it all. But Mr. Mayhew thought it a good idea to ring the police regardless.”
David arches his eyebrow, nods to Sam, and heads for the lift. A button and lift ride later, he’s sitting down to his desk. The keyboard tray roller-coasts outward to a smooth and compleat halt. He clicks on the mouse, and the CRT opens its eyes, revealing a smooth rectangular box that contains two empty chambers, one for the UserID, and one for the password.
The screen blinks and proverbially punches David in the face. INVALID USER ID OR PASSWORD. Please try again.
He re-enters all the information slowly, and the results: The Same. He heads to the IT department, and is told by one of an army of system-admins, this one looking like he spends his Friday nights coking out at a club whose membership requires body-piercings of the most detrimental kind, that they’re working on the problem.
“Any idea of how to trace the attack?”
“That entirely depends,” says the Masochist IT.
“On who or what the in the hell Zu is.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
In Megaverse, Cormac is chatting with another Virtua Doll; another Clone like himself – someone too lazy to give Megaverse even a cent. They’re standing outside a theatre, alongside a Greek statue that’s spouting water from its mouth, which eventually spreads all around itself in a spiral arc and is then piped to return to itself; a kind of Vicious Greek Circle.
It’s been fifteen hours since the American government and Coca-Cola, in coalition with the NSA, began tapping out the entire country, milking every digital cable connexion, every wireless network, every analogue phone system, waiting, with extreme irritation, for something to give. Their response time has been nigh-legendary, a rampaging wolf with a heroin-withdrawal seizure, and armed to absurdity with hydro-nuclear lawyers. It’s been a whirlwind day, with the quickest court-approved country-wide tap ever seen. Coca-Cola has been robbed – the world is now officially at risk. In Georgia, the populace have managed to demolish their own phone-lines – everyone’s calling everyone else within the border. And it’s pissing the US government off. Roderick Pearce, of Calhoun, NC, has just spent the last hour tying up his family’s phone line, talking long distance with Rhode Island. Newnan to Metter, Tifton to Commerce, the entire state stands in some kind of weird sociopathic standstill. The proverbial gates of Heaven have been stormed by an army wielding digital RPGs, they’re blowing shit up like its pyro-night at the local Boy Scout’s Club, and St. Peter’s entrails are barbecue decorations.
Cormac sips his Pepsi slowly; since last night, there hasn’t been a damn thing on the net that hasn’t acted like it wasn’t tied to a four-tonne Acme anvil. Lag persists even in the Megaverse, where conversation looks like tidal-waves moving at 5 frames per second. IRC looks mostly unfazed, mainly because it’s just text. Right now, barring the occasional local server reboot that causes an ocean of disconnect messages, text is taking that much longer to jump from client to host, which is making every open channel look like the world’s slowest digital printing press. Cormac can barely load CNN – the gifs and jpegs that normally clutter the site are replaced by empty boxes with size 12 sub-headers written in a perky Times New Roman font. But the obvious is evident – the power of Coca-Cola is staggering: Shipment rates by Pepsi have soared, phone-lines are crashing, and the internet has come to a virtual standstill.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
David Castor is sitting in a controlled temperature environment, sprawled over assorted cables, excavating network settings, trying to figure out how a crack-team of anarchistic troglodytes managed to evade the jaws of death that the kingdom of social-norm defying network admins have spent their entire post-trauma high years building as an alternative to boring general education 101 courses in Robber Baron-versities.
The same thought has been bouncing around in his head like a tennis ball moving at mach 20 – “What the hell is Zu?” He pulls out a company laptop, loads up Mozilla, and begins looking for this shapeless entity that has slapped down networks across the continent like the fires of Olympus. He hits up Google, and lets the internet sweep him away down the data-streams, one link log at a time.
D_Castor sifts through endless logs of Counter-Strike matches, of Mordecai, Zu_Yu and BobSaget and PrisonMartha shanking one another with MP5’s and flash grenades, and records of assorted forums, where bored high-schoolers battle out with one another on the nature of cleavage and flammable and explosive chemicals. After an hour of searching, he decides against tempting the headache that’s slowly canvassing outwards inside his frontal lobe.
He returns home that night, his brain chilling out to the party-mix of Coca-Cola and Rum. “What kind of calling card is Zu?” he thinks to himself. The alcohol coalesces with his brain-fluids, dulling the receptacles of his brain with a peanut-butter thick coating of inebriety. He wakes up hours later, his clocks leaving a sonic calling card in the halls of his inner ear-cavity; his head feeling like a hockey puck that was physically violated by the Boston Bruins.
On his way to the loo, he passes by his ancient, dust-bunny propagating shelf of books from uni. He has a thought and his hand whip-lashes out towards the Ancient Mythology book that he’d utilized for a General Humanities course during his less productive years in uni. “Computer Geeks love making mythological references,” he thinks. He sits himself down on the throne and begins excavating the text like an archaeologist with a hard-on. At the Mesopotamian section, he uncovers a reference to some kind of ancient tablet held by Marduk. The stone tablets were later stolen and eventually recovered, but it was the perpetrator that caught his attention: A demonic half-man, half-bird bird named Zu.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Hour 53, Twenty-Five Minutes, and a Pocket Change of Seconds since Coca-Cola was violated by a Mesopotamian Hacker Cult. The pan-anarchy had propagated to new proportions: All files pertaining to wiretapped citizens within the halls of the NSA were no longer to be found; their hard-drives were wiped so thoroughly so as to compete with the nigh-invincible powers of Mister Clean. Around the country, banks were finding credit-card histories ripped out of their systems. Hospitals discovered that digital birth-certificates were vanishing, physical copies evaporating. The identities of citizens were slowly being wiped out. Every transaction record, mortgage document, car-payment, university diploma – it was all vanishing with the speed of an antediluvian flood. The digital quintessence of the American citizen was blinking out of verifiable existence.
D_Castor, the citizen once known as David A. Castor walks into the skyscraper he calls “Work,” unleashes a determined smile at Samantha, and makes his way up to his office. A small universe of seconds later, the lift dings itself to his floor and immediately he’s on his way towards Masochistic Network Admin Central. The floor is riddled with a slowly fertilizing colony of Snickers candy bars and Pepsi cans, the solitary comfort to geeks in their hungry time of need. He looks around for anyone lucid or sober enough to talk to him in a semi-coherent manner, and finds Punk Category 41: ‘I’m a Guitarist Who Sleeps Around and Spends His Weekends In a State of Compleat Inebriation’ plunged face first in a book on mythology.
“His name is Zu,” David says determinedly. “The Robin Hood to the Mesopotamia Sheriff of Nottingham – the God Enki.”
Punk Category 41 looks up from his book. He doesn’t ask how David knows. An intelligent comment or inquiry never elicits such a question from Authoritatus Geekus. They’re better than that.
Geekus Punkus grins. “And he thinks he’s stolen the tablets.”
David shoots back a smile, because he knows they’re reading the same page and suddenly their minds are doing a percolating dance of synchronicity.
He smiles and puts his hand out. “Richard Spark.”
David returns the smile and handshake. “Very apropos. Breakfast?” Punk Category 41, username Richard Spark, smiles at D_Castor.
The café is abuzz with a nervous tension that rides the current of human emotion like a free-loading parasite.
“It’s not one person,” says Richard. “Zu was only one in a series of bothers to the Mesopotamian Gods.”
Spark nods and downs his coffee with the intensity of someone who’d just realized that God’s Holy Sandal was trying to squash him. “They’re trying to take the codes away from Enki – reverse hack society into a previous age. Move backwards, almost.”
“Anti-Globalist?” asks Richard between bites of his pancake.
David nods. “It seems a likely answer. What better way to kill a super-structure than to kill all its supports. If you’re going to kill God, you supuku the hell out of His Saints and supporters. Make sure he can’t come back and Smite Thee Out-of-Existence.”
“What suggestion do you have for putting a stop to it? Other than leaving back-door surprises?”
David scratches his five-o’clock shadow. “I want to suggest new encryption codes and tighter systems for every major network on the planet, but that’s a massive endeavour on par with shipping out a thousand war-ships armed to the proverbial teeth with enough firepower to turn the world into a glowing nuclear cockroach in one day’s time. And not even God has that kind of power.”
“Or,” says Spark, “We could try finding the coked out chimps who’re trying to bring about the world’s biggest blue screen of death, and steal their stone tablet away from them. But where do you look?”
“Think about it – in the mythology book, where did it say the tablets were kept?” says David. “The Ziggurat.”
“Ok, let’s say that’s true. Where do you find a Ziggurat? We’re talking about a group of people with a decentralized network – they’re likely scattered all over the country, if not the entire planet.”
“Think about it though, we’re dealing with myths here, and with users who think in declarative terms, rather than in procedural terms. There’s going to be an associative nature to their behaviour.”
“So the Ziggurat we’re looking for doesn’t actually exist in the physical plane,” says Spark. The electrons in his head were doing loop-de-loops through rings of fire.
“It’s going to be somewhere on the ‘net. They’ve got to have some kind of meeting-place somewhere. It’s just a question of who and where. And where’s the likeliest place you’d find people with secrets? Who would have something to gain by letting techno-anarchists run amok?”
Minutes later, they’re surfing the internet with the speed of a death-wish biker on the Autobahn, looking for the yearly revenues of every major cola company in the world, and every sponsor Big 8, Pepsi Cola, and a hundred other companies ever signed under their banner, from theatre chains to internet sites. After a few minutes of recursive thinking, Spark and Castor both find themselves looking almost exclusively at forums, text-based groups, and online worlds. The likeliness of socially awkward techno-philes getting together at a local sports bar during a Red Sox game to discuss new and fascinating means in which to bring about the compleat and utter decimation of modern society was a stretch. But a digital world where everyone could mask their identity behind a face that was no different from anyone else? The perfect disguise.
Castor and Spark ready themselves for a rousing match of Battleship: Internetica, as they load up the Megaverse. The OC5 connexion they’re hooked up to doesn’t even blink as it begins download all the necessary files needed to wander a digital polygon-based world stripped of all humanity but outfitted with an outlandish sense of physics that would send Descartes and Newton into raging fits. In the Megaverse, most anything you want, if you know how to program it properly, and have the right amount of e-cash, can be yours to design.
They don’t even notice the Elevator Music from Hell. Instead, they download maps displaying the most recently charted regions of the Megaverse. The problem with a place like this is that it’s always changing, like a construction project – a nightmare Bostonian Big Dig – spiralling wildly out of control. You see, the Megaverse is laid out in an X/Y axis coordinate design, with each location, as it’s built, destroyed, rebuilt, or moved, designated its own particular coordinate.
And right now, the centre of Megaverse, the Downtown, if you will, looks rather like a star in premature stages of hyper-obesity. Ever since people realized they could pretty much do and create whatever they wanted to be in the Megaverse for a paltry cost, it experienced a kind of sensational urban boom relegated only to the wealthiest of cities. Spark stares at the most recently charted map of the Megaverse, and tries to determine just where they’d find digital anarchists hanging out in large groups. And asking local netizens seems like just the worst policy right now. They log in, and choose names for themselves.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Cormac stares out at his monitor, at the festival of text that pollutes the bottom of his screen. “It’s really quite amazing,” he thinks, reclining in his chair. Around him, a small hoplite force of clone-faced pan-anarchistic soldiers shuffle around the flat-roofed ziggurat, which currently sported a statue of Hermes Trismegistus, his arms wrapped around a large grey tablet. And right now, two new names were shuffling up the steps, names that Cormac had not before seen: Enlil and Vicious_Sid.
The router Enlil and Vicious_Sid are sharing is hooked up to a tracer program, which, the way they have it set up, is currently sending packets of data outwards at every single virtual doll around within a 30 foot radius. Back on their end, they’re logging every single ip that bounces back – which can ultimately be traced back to a home user. Even users on regular modems – 56 k or weaker – who have dynamic ips which are different every time a user logs on, can be reverse-traced to an approximate location.
And right now, Cormac McTavish and about thirty other dolls are being pinged by an OC5 set to stun.
A third computer, nicknamed The Archive, is hooked up to the router, and acts as a kind of tributary for their River Nile, sending all relevant data directly to the Pentagon.
As Enlil and Sid approach, a small band of Virtua-Dolls encircle them, the digital Children of the Corn, with all the threatening power of a pack of snapping turtles going up against kamikaze troops armed with a ridiculous level of explosives. In the Megaverse, Virtual-Dolls begin freezing up – a reciprocal effect of their client software losing temporary connexion to the server-side program. Minutes later they simply vanished; ethereal statues with a limited lifespan. All the while, Castor and Spark amass a Great Big Hit List for governments and companies around the world. Cormac’s eyes widen in horror as he realizes what’s happening, and thrusts towards his modem like a man on fire as the lights indicating net-usage begin spiking like a napalm fireworks show.
As Castor and Spark unleash a tidal-wave of assault-ready data packets, the NSA let loose a mighty wave of warrant-armed soldiers across the US. And one by one, the country-wide servers that comprise the Megaverse begin to emulate heavy chain-smokers and shut down. And quadrant by quadrant, users are kicked out of the Megaverse, as it experiences the biggest digital earthquake in recorded history.
But ultimately, it was too late. The actions of a small group of geographically displaced – and frequently bored – computer geeks had taken root, and the effects were far-reaching. And no amount of force, government or corporate, could curtail the snowball effect that unravelled across the world. Within months, the Capitalist Curtain was falling, and no one knew exactly what to replace it with. At least it wasn’t Coca-Cola. For now, the internet was free again, due to mass deregulation by governments world-wide. Even puppet regimes saw the advantage of not raising the ire of armed internet miscreants with an almost unfathomable amount of creativity. And in the Megaverse, a lonely Greek statue stood in a pool of water, holding the secrets of Coca-Cola.
I wrote this short story back around 2005. I primarily wrote it for myself and for my thesis adviser, to give her something entertaining to read between all the papers she regularly had to grade. I’ve left the text as is, in its original form.
Irina Vasilievna Satorvona stands on the steps of her house, her face a summer blossom of worry, staring out at a field of emerald corn, frightened by the clouds entering from the horizon, scared of having them veil the sun beyond sight. She never liked the way the clouds would travel in unpredictable patterns. Sometimes they travelled in grey and black packs. Sometimes they were like soldiers thinned out from war, meandering like lost leaves across the sky. Spring storms were normal in Voldusha. It was part of the regularity of life.
A hand clasps her on the shoulder. “Irinichka, what’s taken your attention?”
She turns around, and faces a man, her husband, a face of leather and golden hair, grown out from days of inattentiveness.
“Nothing particular, Dim,” she says. “Just the Voldusha skyline.”
“What of it?”
“I…don’t know. I think I was trying to write a poem in my mind. But I couldn’t hold onto the words. The clouds stole them away from me.”
He kisses her on the forehead, and then his arm is around her shoulders. She places her arm around his waist, her hand gripping a loop in his belt.
“Vanya invited us to join him tonight at Arkady’s. His sons might be performing tonight.” Sarcasm wraps itself around the sincerity of his tone as she says this.
She raises her eyebrow. “Oh? What exactly are we being graced with?”
He grimaces and says “Balalaikas.”
“You don’t sound terribly excited about making this a potential participatory evening activity,” she says.
“You would have thought,” he says, stressing would, “that after so many years of the same thing, people might try something new. I can only hear the same song so many times before I – in coalition with my feet, decide that Korobeiniki is no longer a jig that inspires jigging.”
Irina erupts in laughter and nudges Dima forwards. She lets go of him and begins running through the corn, her body knifing sideways like a brook slipping through the cracks between two rocks. Dima gives chase.
Her laughter is a brightly coloured flag for him, as he follows her. He slows occasionally, keeping in mind to not damage the corn. Despite his size, he moves through the aisles of corn like someone participating in some kind of pagan fertilisational waltz, with the occasional foot-stepping collision.
Irina, in the meantime, has her head ducked low, incase Dima, she thinks, might try to raise himself above the corn. “Diiimmmaaa!” she yells playfully. “Where are you?”
She hears, somewhere behind her, “Aaaahhoooooo!” shimmying through the air, and she thinks that it reminds her of a wolf trying to sing. Wondering how far behind he is, Irina decides to navigate a new set of coordinates, heading what looks to be north by northwest, and then, once she reaches the edge of the corn-field, she can double-back through the small coppice just a short distance away, and return to the house. Thinking to herself that he won’t easily give up, Irina decides it’s choose-or-lose time and picks up the pace, and heads for the copse.
She emerges onto a shrub’s thicket of birches and pines. The house is a short walk south. Beyond the house lie fields that don’t just stretch, but seemingly not-so-accidentally collide with the horizon. In the opposite direction is a brush that grows eventually into a more pronounced forest. Somewhere within the seemingly impregnable fortress of corn, Dima again shouts out, “Aaaooooo!” Irina simply smiles and sneaks home.
Half way to the Destination Point, Dima emerges and performs a hug manoeuvre that had more in common with a Shoot the Tartar assault tactic. He doesn’t so much throw her to the ground as sweep her towards the beryl coloured grass before performing a grandiose Karnival Overture quality sweep towards the sky, raising her upwards, before finally connecting with her lips. This requires the kind of performance that you only get out of the most dedicated, or the most bored, of waltzing buffoons who simply know no better way to spend their time, than by learning difficult – and admittedly romantic – dance forms.
Coming up for air, she asks: “How did you find me?”
“You don’t think I’d marry someone without learning their strategies, do you?” he says.
“Is that a question, or an answer?” she asks.
“What kind of fun would life be if everything was delineated as being either one or the other?”
Arms wrapped around his neck with enough force to rival steel, she kisses him and says “Big words shouldn’t be wasted on small thoughts.”
“That’s why I let you do all the hard work,” he replies.
She laughs and lets go. Taking his hand, they walk back to the house together.
That night, they walk to Vanya’s house, which is just a short walk away from theirs. Theirs – Irina and Dima’s – is one of the last houses within the village border. The door doesn’t even require knocking; it’s open wide as they walk up the steps to the house. Inside, Arkady and Vanya are sitting on a small divan. As Dima and Irina walk in, both men immediately eject from their seats, and greet them, kissing both on the cheek. Sasha, Vanya’s wife, emerges from a back room moments later. She walks with precision and care, her hands neatly folded over her belly. Irina kisses her on the cheek, and asks how the child is doing.
“Sometime soon, Irin. I don’t know exactly when, but I’m not sure it should be much longer. Otherwise it might seem I’m giving birth to a full grown man!”
Vanya takes Sasha’s hand and kisses it. “I don’t know which is more frightful – the pain Sahsinka will go through, or the thought of her letting me be a father.”
Sasha tosses his hand away, smiles and says “What’re you worrying about? We wouldn’t have this little one” – patting her stomach – “unless I knew it would have parents who were ready.”
“I apologize for interrupting,” Dima says, “but shall we go to Arkady’s?”
“Yes, right!” says Sasha. She takes Irina’s hand, and they walk out the door. Dima and Arkady grab their jackets and follow in suit.
“You’re really not ready for the child?” Dima asks.
Vanya looks at the horizon, and the encroaching cyanite-chromed clouds. “I’m afraid. Not for me, but for the child. Does it have a good father?”
Dima frowns. “Vän, what kind of question is that?”
“What kind of father is this child getting? Is its father going to be a good one? Is he a good enough man that God should allow him to have a child?”
Dima stops and thinks. “Do you love the child?”
“How can I?” asks Vanya. “I’ve never even seen it.”
“That’s besides the point. Do you love something…something you’ve never seen before?”
“It’s not the kind of map I’m used to navigating.”
“But every captain eventually has to outgrow his ship, or at least make changes.”
“I’ve been trying not to give up the impression that I wouldn’t like to fall off the side of this road.”
“Where would you like to be?” asks Dima.
“That’s irrelevant, don’t you think? What is, is. What isn’t, that’s not for us to deal with.”
They found themselves standing in front of Arkady’s house. The windows were exploding with light and the murmur of voices.
Vanya looked at Dima in the broken darkness. “I have to learn to cope with what is here. We solve what ifs when the responsibility of what is has been removed, temporarily or otherwise.”
Dima nods and says “Fair enough.”
They walk up the stairs and pass through the door. On this evening, the inside of Arkady’s house could obliterate the notion that darkness had ever, or will ever exist. The entire being of the house permeated with the light of candles – upon every window-sill, the fireplace, and whatever other bit of spare could be mustered. As Vanya walked in, Arkady, a furnace of joy, in tandem with every living being inside that was capable of enunciation, bellowed out, “Salut!” as loudly as the human vocal chords allowed. The sheer force of this joyous chorus overwhelmed Dima and Vanya as would a wild wind.
“Ey, and what was that for?” Vanya shouted.
Arkady rushes up to Vayna, the image of an out of control would-be train wreck, and hugs him. “Very soon, little brother, you will be a father!”
Vanya manages to squeeze out “S-so?” between gasping breaths.
Arkady releases him. “Well you beat me!” he exclaims with the voice of someone who finds himself in a surrendering position and is Just Fine, Thank You Very Much with that position.
“Funny, that’s what my shoulders just thought,” says Vanya, grimacing mildly.
Arkady greets Dima with a kiss on both cheeks, and directs the two of them inwards. “Please please, come in please!” he says, full of manic joy. Somehow, it seems, Arkady has managed to squeeze the entire population of the village into his house, and still maintain reasonable amounts of walking space. Seryoja appears from around a corner, looking the image of exuberant youth, and armed with balalaika. Dima gives Vanya his worried ‘Danger is in the Air’ look. Vanya smiles, and asks Seryoja if he’s going to perform anything tonight. “Well, I’d like to. I mean, I don’t have any notes to work from; everything’s learned by ear.”
“And how has it progressed so far?” he asks.
Seryoja is a horizon of smiles. “Papa thinks it’s good!”
“You play for him?”
“You’ll see!” He smiles, pats Dima on the shoulder, and walks off.
Dima and Vanya look at each other, each thinking Danger Motherland, Danger!
In perhaps suicidally good timing, Arkady yells out “If I could please have some quiet! Please, if I could have some quiet!” The sound in the room hollows out and Arkady’s eyebrows perform a jump-kick in satisfaction.
“Friends, I would like to take this moment now, please, to tell you all, to express to all of you, the feelings I have toward all of you, and how grateful I am, to everyone who came – and even to those, if there are any, who could not come – how grateful I am to have you here. As it is well known, and if it is not, it will now, Sasha and Vanya are due for their first child, who, from the looks of Sasha, is quite anxious now to jump right out and join us in the celebrating! So, please, I would like to make this toast, in honour of my brother Vanya, and his wife Sasha, and to the health and joy of their child!”
There is a loud explosion of cheering and clinking of cups; everyone reaching for everyone else in the room, resulting in a great big mess of alcohol spilling onto seemingly everyone’s wrists.
As conversations fragment into tiny colonies of discussions, people move themselves about the room, following the conversational paths emerging between the furniture and one another.
Seryoja sat on the steps just outside the door, his balalaika propped up against one knee like a child, plucking away at the strings with the delicacy of a chef who’s trying to determine just the right amount of paprika needed to make his soup the way he wants. His fingers are plunking away at the strings in a syncopated rhythm, emitting the aura of melancholy.
“Why you letting your nose hang down?” inquires a honey-toned voice from behind. Nadya is leaning against the frame of the door, a shadow of reds and browns to Seryoja as he turns around to face her.
“Mm, didn’t know that’s what I was doing. Seemed to come out of somewhere, so I thought I’d let it take me where it’d like.” He places a few fingers around the body of the instrument, carefully moving his hand around its underbelly in the white crystal darkness of the waning moon drifting listlessly through the sky.
Nadya walks to the steps and sits down beside him. She looks up at the sky, and for a moment, Seryoja thinks that her face looks supra-natural, more like some ancient Slavic deity than an ordinary woman who at this moment has decided to park herself here and now beside him.
“I wonder what it’ll be like one day to be like V’an,” he says quietly. His eyes take on a haunted hollowed as he stares down at the generations-old beaten earth that surrounds the house.
“Well,” she says, breathing in, and then exhaling, “I think someone else might be as unfamiliar with their own feelings as you are now, and…” she stops, tilts her head ever so slightly. Her eye lids converged ever so slightly. “They’d probably also want to come out here…think about what these feelings within them. Try to figure out what exactly they were. Maybe wonder,” she said with a voice drifting off into a near whisper, “if they meant anything. And about who.”
Seryoja looked at Nadya; she returned the dramatic gesture with eye contact. “You know,” he began, looking at her eyes, “the closer a man gets to responsibility, the more likely he either comes to accept it or run away from it” he said, with a hint of a smile.
“And the woman?” asked Nadya, armed only with a raised eyebrow and the laurel of a frown upon her face.
Seryoja hackled a laugh. “Oh, well, she is burdened with the most typical of Russian tragedies.”
“If that’s the case,” he hesitated, “I think that famous cur Time would make a better informer than I. At the very least,” – he puts up his balalaika as a shield with a smile – “you can’t hit him.”
“The Hell I can’t!” Nadya replies, flapping the instrument out of her way. Her arm flies like a rocket guided missile from Hell towards Seryoja’s head. He manages to duck and cover, his hair is the only casualty as it suffers a chopping breeze that then returns to home base having missed its target.
“Now now children,” said a voice from the doorway that sounded like cracking bark, “you’ll have the rest of your lives to beat each other up. And you’re only allowed to do it at parties under the expression permission of alcohol.”
They turned to find themselves under the amused observation of Arkady, moving out onto the veranda like a manic train, looking for passengers. “There is a party inside. Must the two of you insist on hiding out here in the dark? Aunt Lyudmila has prepared pilmeni, and neither of you are doing anything right now but having some.”
Before either of them could get in a single word, he put out his hand in mock seriousness and declares that the words ‘No’ and ‘Arguing’ are not an option, and by God, they’re going to go inside and enjoy some of the finest cooking they’ll ever have, by the Most Excellent Woman They Shall Ever Know, Oh Yes, by the Grace of God.
Inside, the groups have converged to new Cartesian coordinates of the room, except that someone has unleashed the alcohol, and the ancient Slavic god of wine (assuming potatoes and birch trees have gods) are getting more per capita prayers now than any other time this week. And it’s only going to get better for these Beings On High. In the kitchen, Marina Mihailovina, Arkady’s mother, is rabbiting on with Lyudmila Simyonova, about matters that seemingly are never fully shared between men, and yet, around children are spoken out-loud, as if it was thought that anyone below a certain age-point couldn’t understand the Russian that was being spoken right in front of them.
For a time, Seryoja fought that perhaps in reciprocation he should develop a language of his own; or perhaps even switch to baby-babble, since what adult ever claimed to have any understanding of that? However, he was always afraid of upsetting any babies in the vicinity; the kind of power they have over people above the Adult Age Limit was quite pronounced, and not worth the possible civil war such could result from that particular strategy. So to the gallows with that idea.
Nadya walks in ahead of him, and calmly waited until Marina Mihailovina and Lyudmila Simyonova took notice of her, and then willingly addressed her inquiry as to where she might obtain plates for herself and Seryoja, as they were instructed to engorge themselves upon her Mighty pilmenis.
“Right over here, Nadinka,” says Marina, opening a cabinet drawer, and removing two plates. “Now, we also have beverages. What would the two of you like? And don’t think I’m going to give you any of that kvas garbage! Pah!” She flicks her hand in a faux-slapping fashion, indicating her contempt for the beverage that had on so many nights turned many good men into blabbering idiots who could barely walk.
Lyudmila took her by the hand, and began rubbing it warmly, like a warm breeze on a calm spring day. “Now there’s no need to get worked up about it. I’m sure they wouldn’t think about touching anything like that tonight,” and gave the two youngsters the kind of look that made it clear disobedience of this unspoken order would result in an untimely death at the hand of imported jaguars from the farthest regions of Afrika and chemical experiments with assorted poisons.
Marina Mihailovina nodded her head in agreement several times like a loose spring on a mattress, and with her other hand resumed stirring the soup she had cooking in the fire-stove. She licked her lips, which were brittle and fading with age like old uneaten chocolate. “It was foolish of them to have this party. Will do the baby no good. It needs quiet. Noise is no good for children, especially unborn.” She shook her head. “No no, it just will not do.”
Lyudmila’s face creased in annoyed concern. “Marina Mihailovina, you worry too much about things. They’ll be quite alright,” she said, her voice a coat of honey. “Baba Yega won’t come for them in the night, and God will take care of them.” Seryoja took the hint that it was time for him to leave and walked out without provoking the attention of Marina Mihailovina. Marina turned her attention back to the dishes at the stove, and made a small whining noise, like a super-sonic pitch turned down to the volume of a buzzing insect; either way it made human skulls turn into throbbing blow-fish that couldn’t decide on whether to blow or not to blow (that was the question). Her hands shook with age as a mild earthquake as she stirred various sauces in a bowl. Lyudmila knew enough to let her assume certain responsibilities; persons of an older age need to feel that they can do something, and have some kind of productivity, especially when their life is based on hard work.
A period of silence passed between them, as they stood there, in the kitchen, helping each other prepare the food eaten tonight. Beyond them lay the human of neighbours, relatives and friends mulling about the house, some more inebriated than others. She tried to think of topics that would not upset Marina Mihailovina. She thought about talking to her about liturgy on Sunday. It seemed like a safe bet; no terribly dangerous obstacles there.
“Do you know what the Batyushka will be doing for liturgy this Sunday?” she asked, attempting to feign curiosity. Outside, the garden vanished into the field of night beyond the window, illuminated only in temporary burst by clouds that were feeling generous towards the vibrancy of the moon.
“Hopefully not trying to pray for that foolish Alexander’s suicide” she uttered with matter-of-fact venom that struck Marina like a preying mantis in the heart.
“How can you let yourself say such things Marina Mihailovina. The poor boy was born with one foot in the grave; we all know that.” Maybe bringing up liturgy was a bad idea, she thought.
Marina’s finger whipped upwards like an angry thunder bolt, the vanguard to a face of leathery anger. “God will not forgive someone who takes their life early!” she replied, nearly spitting her words out.
“Maybe he was simply trying to get there ahead of him,” said Lyudmila democratically.
“That boy disobeyed God and killed himself!” she nearly yelled. Her voice had grown noticeably louder now, on the sonic promontory of yelling.
“You say one thing, and look what happens to you” Lyudmila thought quietly. Her inner voice was groaning what she felt.
The boy in discussion, Alexander Nachevsky, had been thirteen years old – almost a man – when he was found in the lake, having apparently drowned. The village was divided over the matter. Some were saying he had succumbed to the temptation of the devil, who they thought had generally been goading him on since his earliest days. He had that kind of sullen temperament, it had been said.
The other half, when seeing that he hadn’t lost his cross, upon dragging him out of the lake, had seemingly decided that he deserved a proper Christian burial and was saved by God. His body looked strangely peaceful – and for the first time – as he was pulled out by a group of older men. His flesh had an odd transparent peach hue to it, and even his hair swung delightfully in the afternoon wind.
And now the subject was a matter of curious discussion that bordered on controversy in the town. Suicide? Or had he lived the amount of time decreed for him by God?
Almost opportunistically, the Batyushka of Voldusha, one Evgeny Vladimirovich Maronov, walked in, wearing a cheery smile that almost wrapped itself around his skull. Lyudmila presumed he had discovered the bottom of a few cups of vodka.
“Ladies, my lovely, beautiful, wonderful ladies,” he said, pouring the words out of his mouth with the kind of maddening sincerity that comes from someone who’s not yet drunk, but has just arrived at the club for people who’re supremely loosened up. He threw his arms around both women, and smiling, declared: “Marina Mihailovina, Lyudmila Simyonova, both of your fine gentlemanly boys miss you dearly, and would be exceedingly pleased at being graced by your presence.” He looked from one to the other, flicking an eyebrow at each in a signifying manner of someone who’s set out to operate and – probably break – the Charm Machine.
Lyudmila shook Evgeny’s arm, and smiling, rolled her eyes and said “Honestly, you are something, you know that?”
“Dearest, I have always been something. But unfortunately, what that is I never did manage to find out,” he says joyfully. Winking, he says, “However, if you can ever get my darling wife to tell you what it is, I would be absolutely and overwhelmingly thrilled if you could find it in your heart to let me know exactly what it is!” Marina and Lyudmila are now both laughing. Lyudmila sees this and looks at Evgeny, who looks at her and winks.
“Now, Lyudmila, darling, dumpling, if you would be so kind as to releasing Marina Mihailovina into my custody, Arkady has, perhaps as a form of punishment for reasons I will never be fully aware of, allowed Seryoja to unleash his balalaika plucking skills on us, and I could not live with myself if you didn’t allow me to dance with your lovely cooking partner here.”
Marina Mihailovina runs her hands over her graying hair, and taking Evgeny’s arm, lovingly states that she would like nothing more than to have him dance with her. They walk out into the staging room, which is currently parted into two, those who are talking in voices at a decibel lower than Seryoja’s playing. The other side of the room is currently engaged in something that resembled dancing; the men kicking their feet up and down, knees banging into elbows and palms, and heads kicking forwards and backwards, while the women danced in a wild syncopation with them, legs kicking in and out, first at the knees and then at the waist. Evgeny led Marina Mihailovina out into this currently dangerous box of coordinates that doubled as a dance floor and, taking both her hands, began dancing with the delicacy of stained glass windows. Her face puffed up joy as he led her into a dance.
Arkady, dancing with his wife Sveta, elbows Evgeny lightly in the side of the arm and winks at him with satisfaction. Decrypted, their communication actually contained the following message: “Nice dance partner you’ve found yourself Evgeny; if you were single it would be a smooth way to pick up the chicks, but seeing as how you’re married, it’s not only going to impress her, but all her friends. Your wife clearly married a man who wasn’t as dumb as we all thought.”
Evgeny returns the look with a nod, which roughly, in man-esque, translates as “Always play dumb. Less work that way. And more fun in the long run.”
No one notices this brief communiqué. Seryoja is too busy playing the balalaika, and the women are too busy actually enjoying his strumming. Arkady manages to form the thought which thinks this combination is both satisfying and terrible. The former because the women are happy, and the latter because that means Seryoja will want to do this again.
He refocuses his attention on Sveta who is in some other land of musical pleasure, moving about like a lark caught in a swoon. Arkady’s hand is holding hers, and she feels the press of his fingers against hers, and the sweat that’s forming between them as they move about, dancing at a slow speed to Riabinouchka, which Seryoja has so far managed to perform with an admiral amount of accuracy and skill. The song comes to a conclusion, and Arkady has one hand on his waist, holding himself up, breathing heavily.
The party goes on for several more hours, and is occasionally interrupted by people making a toast to Seryoja, to the people here tonight, to the good music and excellent food, to the forthcoming child, and to their ability to actually give a toast despite being stupendously drunk. That last one elicits a laugh from the men and an amused sigh from the women, who know they’re going to have to suffer carrying these twits home tonight. Collectively, a mental signal is bouncing from each woman’s brain, each considering the pros and cons of simply dropping their men outside on the ground after this is all over and letting them walk home whenever they decide to wake up.
Seryoja starts up again, building slowly, then plucking away in a three-four beat, first slowly, and then faster, faster, until the songs forbids him from going faster. Blink, the song slows, and then, in a chorus like effect, builds, and builds, slowly. The fingers again strut faster and faster, until it tops out. The crowd, however intoxicated, manages to actually move along to the dance in a semi-coherent manner, which impresses the hell out of Sveta, who despite being of a more optimistic disposition than Arkady, did not know Seryoja could play this well.
The evening slowly winds down, and one after another, the guests begin shuffling towards the door. And there they stand for seemingly another hour, talking to one another, and saying good-night no less than five times.
Meanwhile, the Batyushka sat outside, leaning against the frame of the stairs, straining to maintain coherent thought, was asking the empty bottle of vodka how many sins he’d have to pardon this week. He wished to God it would answer back.
Irina and Dima, both still quite sober (Dima always diluted his vodka with considerable amounts of water), walked home slowly, enjoying the late night sky, which had now cleared up. The moon hovered nearer to the western precipice of the sky now, indicating that it was quite late in the evening. The stars hovered over them like white gems. Irina thought that the light from the moon seemed to reflect on the stars.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad now, was it?” she asked softly.
Dima nodded gently in acquiescence.
They walked down the path away from Arkady’s house. They only lived a few minutes away. Vanya and Sasha had left a few minutes before them, and lived a bit closer. Dima could only think about getting home and getting into bed with Irina. Everything else was a blanket of unintelligible noise.
That included the odd rumbling in the ground that slowly grew from somewhere in the distant horizon behind them. They ignored the stamping. Horses weren’t irregular in Voldusha; the local lord of the land sent messenger horses, tax collectors, and the sort out on a regular basis.
“It appears that we weren’t the only one to have been having a late night,” says Dima.
“Apparently,” Irina replies, with a slight tick in her voice.
Behind them, the pound of hoof pounding on earth grew steadily louder. They turned around to see a man riding behind them on a large horse that looked the colour of wet dirt. As it approached them it slowed, and then finally to a halt. The rider, a man with hair that shined brightly in the moon-light, almost crème blonde, looked down at Irina and Dima and asked politely if either of them might possibly know where he might get his horse shoed. They looked at each questioningly; both thinking about where one might find a smithy that would be willing to shoe a horse at such late an hour. Irina shook her head and Dima shrugged.
“Best try the next village over, friend,” said Dima. It was the best advice he could offer given the circumstances. “Best I remember, someone in the next town over was said to have owned horses enough to make something of a part-time career out of it.”
“But not you yourselves?” said the stranger, smiling.
Dima shook his head. “Just small animals with us – nothing expensive or cumbersome.”
Irina nodded. “I’d have liked to have been of more help, but we’re not the best choice of people to ask,” she says, squeezing Dima’s hand. “But God willing, you’ll find someone who can help you.”
“Indeed,” says the stranger, frowning. “Well,” he says, his voice peppered with irritation, “Thank you regardless.” He nods at both of them and rides off ahead of them. Irina squints, and thinks for the moment that in the moonlight the horse has human feet for cloves.
“Hm,” she grunts, her mind suddenly aflame with thought. Dima looks down at her and asks her what the matter is. She shakes her head in uncertainty, as though arguing with herself. “I have this strange feeling he passed the graveyard on the way here,” she says.
She looks down the road, in the direction of the rider. Shaking her head, she dismisses it as a trick of the light, yet thinks that she’ll have to ask Evgeny about it the next time she sees him. She places a hand over her belly, rubbing the stomach, and wondering if the baby can feel her. She knows it’s only been a few months since its conception, but she wonders anyways. She squeezes Dima’s hand lovingly, looks up at him, smiles, and says “Nothing. It was nothing. Just a childish thought.”
They walked on in silence.
During liturgy on Sunday, the choir sang Psalm 91, and Irina felt a cold sigh of relief gush down her spine as she heard them sing:
You who live in the shelter of
the Most High
Who abide in the shadow of
Will say to the LORD, “My refuge
and my fortress;
My God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the
snare of the fowler
and from the deadly
When she heard them sing “you will not fear the terror of the night,” her heart punched like an ice-storm on a field of flowers. After liturgy concluded, she approached Evgeny, and asked him if he knows any stories or legends about horses with human feet.
His eyebrows furrowed. “Why?” he asked concernedly. “Are you having nightmares?”
She pursed her lips, thinking about how explain to the Batyushka what she saw without it causing a scare. “Just something I was curious about,” she says innocently, coating her voice with as much cotton indifference as she can muster. “I overheard someone mention a story about horses with human feet at the party. At least I think I did. I’m probably just being foolish.” She forced a smile.
Evgeny maintained a face of absolute calm. He told Irina that it would be alright, and what she saw was probably just a trick of the eye fuelled by exhaustion, alcohol, and the moon’s light playing tricks on her.
“I simply had this bad feeling, like when you feel a winter wind suddenly on a July day,” she says. Evgeny rubs her shoulder reassuringly, and tells her that this was nothing to be concerned about, but if it’ll make her feel better he’ll check the scriptures for any mention.
Irina heads home comforted by Evgeny’s strong feelings that she this incident is unusual. Evgeny walks her walk off, and shakes his head, trying to recall what it was he had heard once about the devil’s ram, or the devil’s horse. He soon forgets as he returns to the iconostasis and begins organizing icons and assorted items used during the morning’s liturgy.
Over the course of the next month, the Nachevsky family and all their relatives and god-family perform a variety of daily prayers, as per the instruction of the Batyushka. All this much to the dislike of Marina Mihailovina, who had no trouble telling her neighbours after liturgy, that “the dead who killed themselves are violating their compact with God and do not deserve our prayers, by God!” She did not agree with them continuing on with the fourty-day process of mourning. They had thought Alex had died against his own wishes, thus, perished naturally. Marina Mihailovina thought contrary.
Irina’s belly had grown considerably larger during that last month: the baby was in the fifth month of pregnancy. Soon autumn would arrive, and the child would be borne, in the red and brown month of August, when the forest floor was decorated with leaves that smelt of wet bark and were dressed in hues of burgundy, auburn, and chestnut orange. August would shepherd the northern winds of September, and the icicle rain that visited Voldusha every October, like some kind of wintry haranguer, a pre-emptive strike to the actual attack. Irina hoped her child would be strong and would make it through the winter. She had never been far beyond the farms and villages of the Branktovirsk Province, but she had heard that in the great cities like Sankt Peterburg and Vilikii Novgorod that winter arrived like a white Hell hound, with a thousand invisible teeth that bit at you where-ever you went.
She had always thought that the stories of people wearing fur coats in the northern part of the country was a means to hide from the winter beasts, by making oneself look like a beast as well. Snow fell in Voldusha in quiet resolution, never making storming declarations. One day the sky was the colour of tombstone, and the next – a chromatic field of blue stretching proudly over a parchment of crystalline white powder that glistened in the sunlight as glass diamonds. On those days, the children would run out after morning chores, much to the dislike of their grand-mothers, who would absolutely insist in covering them up to such a point that the only visible body part was the slit revealing their eyes.
A few days after the party, Alexander was buried within the confines of the local cemetery, the Batyushka having decided that he perished under legitimate natural circumstances. Drownings, he had concluded “is a natural means of death. Had Alex lost his cross in the water, there might be a cause for arguing otherwise. However, he did not.” As such, Alexander would receive a proper Christian requiem and burial.
During the first week before his burial, Alexander’s body was kept in a corner of the house, dressed properly and respectfully in preparation for the funeral. Sonya Dimitrivina Nachevsky, Alex’s grandmother, spent these days reading the Psalters while sitting beside him. She read from the first book of Psalms – 1, 15, 16, 23, 29, 33 and 40.
She sat there, in a small chair aside his cot, her head slowly rocking as she continually read the psalms and prayed for his soul. Her voice, like a rope pulled tightly to the precipice of snapping, sang gently:
Happy are those
Who do not follow the advice
Of the wicked,
Or take the path that sinners
Or sit in the seat of scoffers;
But their delight is in the law of
And on his law they meditate
Day and night.
They are like trees
Planted by streams of water,
Which yield their fruit in its
And their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
But are like chaff that the wind
Therefore the wicked will not
Stand in the judgement,
Nor sinners in the
Congregation of the
For the LORD watches over the
Way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will
Rumours have a way of spread through a community – especially one as small as this – without much effort, like a virus that’s discovered the world is its playing ground and there isn’t a cure in sight to bother it. News tends to work in the same way: word of mouth exchanges twixt a variety of individuals. Marina Mihailovina was quite well known to talk to anyone she encountered during the course of her day about whatever particular matter had captured her attention in a hydroponic storm of spittle.
Fourty days after Alexander’s death, the Nachevsky family held an open mourning for their son, inviting anyone who wished to attend. The gate that led to the front door stood open (excepting those times when someone came or went, the door, for a fourty day period, remained closed) for anyone who wished to pass through. Inside, dishes were laid out on a table covering the shade of gravel. At the head of the table lay a dish filled with food. Beside it stood two glasses, one large, one small. The larger was empty, whilst the smaller contained vodka.
Irina and Dima were one of the first to come, followed by Arkady, Sasha, Vanya, and their newborn, a baby girl – Galina. They were going to leave the child at home with Sasha’s mother, but Galina insisted upon coming. Vanya assumed that in whatever particular language it was that babies spoke in, that this was a child who suffered from an extreme case of extroversion, and would not be allowed to left all alone, at home, when there was a party, regardless of how bummed out the occasion might be, going on somewhere else.
Irina thought she could almost feel the sorrow in the air; could almost pick up and hold its palpable presence. She though the house was overwhelmed with a grim cloud that clung to the walls like a wounded animal. She hugged Sonya, and Alexander’s parents – Valera and Natasha, and kisses them both once on each cheek. She asks them both to please accept her sincerest condolences and wishes. They nod and smile, but she can’t see anything in their eyes. ‘Whatever it is that hangs behind the eye, that thing that defines us, perhaps the soul…it’s gone from them,’ she thinks. Hollowed eyes, listless movements, living on reserve energy.
Dima hugs Valera and Natasha, waits till Irina and Natasha have walked off, and says “Don’t worry Valera, life goes on.” He tries to sound as compassionate as he can, make it clear to Valera that he means it. He’s reciprocated with a sullen nod and a dispassionate shrug of the shoulders. It’s like Valera has completely forgotten all forms of movement, and now can only drift.
Others slowly walk in; Arkady and Sveta, Sasha and Vanya, Seryoja and Nadya; more than half, if not all of the villagers show up, each hoping to somehow console Valera and Natasha. Offer their condolences, and God willing, alleviate them of their grief, if not all of it, then at least some. People mull about the house, voices never rising above conversational level.
Dima and Irina stand in the corner of one room, talking to Lyudmila and her husband Sergei. Looking around, Dima can’t seem to see anything other than a miserable grey cloud mocking the human soul. He knows this is supposed to be a sad occasion, as the relatives and loved ones of the deceased say goodbye one last time to their son, but he can’t take much more of the misery being inflicted upon everyone here. ‘Enough is bloody well enough,’ he thinks to himself, and determinedly walks over to Valera and Natasha, cup in hand. He walks over to the table, and pours himself a small sip of vodka. And then, he breaths in, knowing that what he’s about to do is absolute suicide, and raises his voice, asking everyone if they could kindly please be quiet. He seems suddenly aware of the size of his Adam’s apple, and wonders if his posture is appropriate.
“Friends, relatives, neighbours. If I could please have at least a minute of your time.” He breaths out, closes his eyes for just a moment, and speaks: “We all know why we’re here, on this day, at this time. The gate was open to all of us, and we chose to walk through it, and to come here, on this day of mourning, to not only remember Alexander Valeravich Nachevsky, but also to comfort his parents, whom we all well know and love.” He stops a moment, now that he has everyone’s attention, before continuing on. “Days such as these…they serve a purpose. To help us let go of those we’ve lost. Fourty Days. Fourty Nights. That’s the way of things.”
He moves himself closer to Valera and Natasha, standing just astride of them. “But maybe it shouldn’t be the only reason. The mourning of death is an acknowledgment of life. The acknowledgment that Alexander lived, breathed, and was a friend, a child, a grandson. And someone we all knew. Someone we all cared for.”
He looks around at the faces before him, looking in everyone’s eyes as he spoke, making sure he has their full attention.
“I can’t stand here and let him go without remembering the good things about him. Without reminding myself of all the times he made me laugh, trying to perfect a dance manoeuvre, or…the time Valera, Alexander and I went fishing, and having caught a fish, upon pulling it in, had it slap him, clung to life so strongly that it slapped him right in the face.”
A few smiles reveal themselves. Valera, whose eyes are having an intimate discussion with the floor, has unveiled a more cheerful look within his eyes. Natasha, meanwhile, has her arms about herself, her eyes closed.
“Some of us knew him better than others, without doubt. Some less so. But he was borne among us, and he died among us. So let us remember him. So, please, I ask you all, to raise your cups to Alexander Valeravich Nachevsky, to his memory, and to his parents, who raised an excellent, excellent young man.”
“That was brave, you know, what you did back there,” Irina says. Her arms were wound around Dima’s as they walked home.
He could only shrug. “Felt like the right thing to do.”
She squeezed his arm. “You made Natasha cry. But it wasn’t out of sadness.”
He nods, his face a storm of thoughts. He’d noticed, but hadn’t wanted to draw attention to it.
“My father once told me,” said Dima thoughtfully, taking his time to put the words together meaningfully, “that sometimes you cry out of sorrow. Sometimes you cry out of joy. Other times you cry for no reason whatsoever. It just comes out of somewhere.” He looked up at the walk-path before him, and at the distant fields he could not even see beyond the fields surrounding the village. “Hardest of all times is when you’re crying because you’re a screwed up mix of both.” He looks down as he says this, trying to remember the words once uttered by his father when he was much younger. The memory of the words as they’d spoken had faded, but he managed to retain the general gist of the now shadowy, distant memory, that was unpeeling itself in his mind somewhere in the distant background of mind.
“So was it you, or your father, saying that toast back there?”
The comment made him smile, perhaps out of appreciation for the things he’d learnt from his father, or perhaps because he really wasn’t sure what he was doing earlier, and he wondered whether or not the dead could come back to you, and sometimes speak through you. The thought made his heart jump a beat, yet there was an odd sense of comfort in it; that perhaps no one ever truly died – they only went away, waiting for everyone they’d seen before.
“Can I say both?” he asked, smiling. Irina leaned up, and kissed Dima.
After all the dishes had been cleaned and put back in their shelves, and all the food packed away, Valera and Natasha went out for a walk. They headed in a direction away from town, past the old graveyard, and walked into the forest. The wind held the bite of spring in the air, tipped with the scent of blooming birches. In the light of the sun, the forest looked like an ancient god crowned in laurels of auburn and honey.
They went to bed peacefully that night. Mourning was over. Alexander was buried in the cemetery with some of his favourite books, some coins, food, clothing, and a few assorted other things Natasha had thought might help him in the other world. For the first time since his son’s death, Valera thought that tonight his wife would be sleeping well. He looked at her as she slept; her burnished hair falling over her ears and down the nape of her neck, and her fingers scrunching the cover. He smiled and lay back against the mattress. He blew out the candles. Night.
Valera sat up. And there was Alexander. Sitting in a chair, in the dark.
“What are you…what are you doing here?”
“You mean, what am I doing here, sitting in this chair, in your bedroom at eleven o’clock in the evening? Or what I am doing here?”
“How are you…”
“Sitting here talking to you.” ”Y-yes, how are you when…you’re…”
“Supposed to be dead. I know. I am. I just wanted to come and talk to you.”
“…Not too sure myself. I thought it all out in advance, planning what I was going to say, trying to predict what you’d say to me, and then cleverly answer back. But when I saw you, it all, just, vanished.” He frowned and shrugged his shoulders. “That’s memory for you – never there when you wanted it.”
He looked down at himself, admiring the nice clothes he’d been buried in. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, and felt the jingle of coins. “Money! Thanks! This might come in handy later!”
Valera shook his head. His son was here, in his bedroom, talking to him. Except his son had been buried more than thirty days ago, in the cemetery, a week after he’d died.
“So you probably want to know why I came, yes?”
“All things considered, that wouldn’t be a bad start.”
His eyes suddenly looked sad. “Well, I missed you. Both of you. I had to come and see you and mum. See that you were ok.”
“What about you?”
His eyebrows jerked. “Me? Oh, I’m fine. It’s been nice, taking a break from all the work on the farm, you know? I always wondered when I’d get a vacation.” A gentle look crossed his face. “Funny way of getting one though, I gotta admit.”
Valera rose from bed and raised a finger to Alex, to wait one moment, while he put on some pants. Alex nodded in assent. He fumbled for his pants in the dark, and then lit a candle.
“Come on,” he said, nodding to Alex.
“We’re we going?”
“Downstairs. To talk.” He stopped midway in his tracks, his voice dropped and he somberly asked: “How much time do we have?” His voice was quiet, and sad.
“Enough,” replied Alex, with a distinct tone of certainty. He rose, and walked over to where his mother slept. He knelt down, kissed her on the cheek, and then, with the gentle quiescence of a mouse, said, “You left me prepared for the next life. So I leave you with something for this one.” He placed his hand on top of hers, and there was a small burst of light. He whispered again into her ear. “Be calm. Be kind. Be gentle. Let go of the pain. Let go of the loss.”
He rose and followed his father out the door. They walked down the creaking stairs, and stepped into the kitchen. Valera opened the window a crack to let in some fresh spring air. It smelled of soot and lilacs. He thought he heard the distant echo of a chorus choir whispering in the wind.
Valera took two cups from the cupboard, sat down at the table, and indicated with a nod of his head for Alex to sit. He placed one cup on each side of the table, opened a corked bottle of vodka, and poured some in each glass. “Drink” was all he said, in an I Mean It tone. Alex followed in stead, and did as he was told. They kicked back their drinks – both tossing their heads back as the alcohol performed a back-flip into their throat.
“I guess happily ever after didn’t end so well for us, did it?” Alex asked after putting his cup down, and wiping his throat with the back of his hand.
“Can the dead even taste anything?” his father asked.
Alex snorted in amusement. “You don’t think it was invented with only the living in mind, do you?” Vanya blinked in answer. He didn’t know, so why bother arguing?
“Did I ever tell you,” Alex said, his voice strained with emotion, “that I was always afraid of dying?”
Vanya shook his head.
“I think that’s why I was always so morose…so afraid. I was always thinking that things would eventually die, and…even if they were God, because we couldn’t know what He was like, and what the Kingdom looked like, we’d miss all these things that we had here. And that made me sad.”
“Even though the Batyushka told you that it would be even better than anything we had here?”
“Even then.” His eyes had a distant thoughtful look to them. “Belief’s a funny thing, isn’t it pap?”
“Think about it. I mean, I know you do, so it’s stupid for me to tell you of all people to think about it. All these things we learn to do, learn to believe in, to value, or not to value. I never even found out who else thinks like this, and who doesn’t.”
Alexander’s words dance before Vanya like a blooming flower; these are thoughts he’d had before. He wonders what his son might have done, might have written or said, had he managed to get away from the village, and travel to Sankt-Peterburg, or any of the other great Russian cities that the noble’s messengers and guests were sometimes travelling to, and set up a life for himself in one of the big cities. He never thought about it before.
He poured them another drink. He drank it down in one hit.
“Are you saying you’re angry at religion?” he asks. “Angry at me, and your mother?”
Alexander frowns, and takes his father’s hand in his. His hand feels like a fire that was recently extinguished, the ashes young. “How could I be? Where would the fairness of that be?”
“No one ever said there was any to be found. Except perhaps in the arms of a woman.”
At that, Alexander smiled, and then drank down the vodka.
“And now what do you think about it? Now that you’re…”
“Now that I’m dead?”
“Well, I didn’t say it. All things considered.”
Alex fingers the cup, feeling its texture against his hands. The finger-nails are grown out just past the tip of the finger, and his hands, although still a distinct fleshy-pink colour, have a slightest trace of a mild navy tint. His hair looked scruffy, hairs out of place, no longer neatly combed.
“It’s surprising how much more…” he pauses, and thinks. “How much more I understand it – at least, I think I do, now.” His voice trailed off.
“Those who have passed, wherever they pass to,” his father says, “will always have a far greater appreciation than anyone living. It’s the way that deal is packaged.”
“I guess that’s one of the big ironies of religion, isn’t it?” says Alex mournfully, “that the dead need religion less than the living. Or perhaps that religion needs the living more than it needs the dead.” He looked at his father, whose eyes were lost in a separate world. He gripped his hand, and said: “I suspect you believe what I’m revealing.” Even though, he thought – thought what? He hadn’t said anything revealing. “Cheer up Pap. I’m here, now,” he said, with pollyannaish cheer.
“Why have you come here?” he whispered, his voice wandering off in a trail of grief.
The room gets silent. Alex takes the bottle of vodka, no longer coated with a white cloud of frost. He held the bottle, observing the minutia that before had escaped his notice; he had never noticed how perfectly the bottle was shaped. He had never stopped to think about the idea of the bottle; he had been too concerned with loosing the bottle.
“It’s sad,” Alex began, his concentration riven between the bottle of vodka and the cup, “that the dead, at the moment of death, are given one last wish, that may be fulfilled anytime between the first and fourtieth day. Not all wishes can be granted.”
“And what was your wish?”
“The last thing I was holding onto. My parents.”
Valera didn’t cry right then. It came like a quiet rain instead; one or two splashes upon the back of your neck, and then, a gradual perfusion delicately falling in silence.
“Never forget to say you love her, Pap. And never forget to mean it.”
He nodded. Alex leaned over, and kissed him on the forehead.
“I have to go now,” he said softly. Valera nodded.
Valera watched Alex stand up, push his chair into the table, and smile, like a child who had just discovered some new mystery of life. And then he walked away into the shadows. He heard the door scrape open, could almost feel the heavy footsteps of Alex. Then the door closed, and he was gone.
Natasha awoke early in the morning, the way she always did, out of years of forced habit. Her eyes slowly opened as she came out of the warm mist of a dream about rolling rivers and untouched fields bounced by small hills. The grey morning didn’t seem so cold; the world seemed to be waking to a new spring. She leaned up, and opened her hand. In her palm lay a crystalline sculpture of a tree.
And near the edge of the village lay the graveyard, encircled with walls of stone. Within stood a recently planted tombstone, a sullen monolith – silent and grey, its morning shadow dawning on ground recently disturbed.