I am an old man — too old to really care. My wife died on the day the Moscow Olympics opened, and my dick had not done anything interesting since the too optimistic Chechen independence. I shock people when I tell them how young I was when the battleship Aurora gave its fateful blast announcing the Revolution. And yet, life feels so short, and this is why I’m telling you this story.
My grand-nephew Danila — smug and slippery, like all young people nowadays, convinced they know the score even though they don’t know shit, and I always get an urge to take off my belt and wail some humility on their asses — called and asked if I needed a job. Tunisian Embassy, he said, easy enough. Night watchman duty only, since for business hours they had their own guards, tall and square-chested, shining and black like well-polished boots, their teeth like piano keys. You get to guard at night, old man, old husk, when no one would see you.
Now, I needed a job; of course I did, who didn’t? After the horrible and hungry 1990, even years later, I was just one blind drunken stagger of the inflation away from picking empty bottles in the streets or playing my accordion by the subway station. So of course I said yes, even though Danila’s combination of ignorance and smarm irritated me deeply, just like many things did — and it wasn’t my age, it was these stupid times.
The Embassy was located in Malaya Nikitskaya, in a large mansion surrounded by a park with nice shady trees and flowerbeds, all tucked away behind a thirty-foot brick fence. I saw it often enough. The fence, I mean. I had never been inside before the day of my interview. All I knew about Tunisia was that they used to be Carthage at some point, very long ago, and that they used to have Hannibal and his elephants — I thought of elephants in the zoo when I paused by the flowerbeds to straighten my jacket and adjust the bar ribbons on my lapel. There used to be a time when war was good and sensible, or at the very least there were elephants involved.
There were no lines snaking around the building, like you would see at the American embassy — not surprising really, because no one wanted to immigrate to Tunisia and everyone was gagging for Brooklyn. I’ve been, I traveled — and I don’t know why anyone would voluntarily live in Brighton Beach, that sad and gray throwback to the provincial towns of the USSR in the seventies, fringed by the dirty hem of a particularly desperate ocean. The irony is of course that every time you’re running from something, it follows you around, like a tin can tied to dog’s shaggy tail. Those Brooklyn inhabitants, they brought everything they hated with them.
That was the only reason I stayed here, in this cursed country, in this cursed house, and now stood at the threshold, staring at the blue uniforms and shining buttons of two strapping Tunisians — guards or attachés, I wasn’t sure — and I wasn’t running anywhere, not to Brooklyn, nor to distant and bright Tunisia with its ochre sands and suffocating nights. Instead, I said, “I heard you’re hiring night watchmen.”
They showed me in and let me fill out the application. There were no pens, and I filled it out with the stubby pencil I usually carried with me, wetting its blunt soapy tip on my tongue every few letters — this way, my words came out bright and convincing. As much as it chafed me, I put Danila’s name as a reference.
They called me the next day to offer me the job, and told me to come by after hours two days later.
It was May then. May with its late sunsets and long inky shadows, pooling darkness underneath the blooming lilac bushes, and clanging of trams reaching into the courtyard of the house in Malaya Nikitskaya from the cruel and dirty world beyond its walls. I entered in a shuffling slow walk — not the walk of old age, but of experience.
And yet, soon enough there I was. As soon as the wrought iron gates slammed shut behind my back, I felt cut off from everything, as if I had really escaped into glorious Carthage squeezed into a five-storied mansion and the small garden surrounding it. A tall diplomat and his wife, her head wrapped in a colorful scarf, strolled arm in arm, as out of place in Moscow as I would be in Tunisia. They did not notice me, of course — after you reach a certain age, people’s eyes slide right off of you, afraid that the sight of you will corrupt and age their vision, and who wants that?
So I started at the embassy– guarding empty corridors, strolling with my flashlight along the short but convoluted paths in the garden, ascending and descending stairs in no particular order. Sometimes I saw one diplomat or another walking down the hall to the bathroom, their eyes half-closed and filled with sleep. They moved right past me, and I knew better than to say anything — because who wants to be acknowledged while hurrying to the john in the middle of the night. So I pretended that I was invisible, until the day I saw the naked girl.
Of course I knew whose house it was — whose house it used to be. I remembered Lavrentiy Beria’s arrest, back in the fifties, his fat sausage fingers on the buttonless fly, holding up his pants. Khrushchev was so afraid of him, he instructed Marshal Zhukov and his men who made the arrest to cut off the buttons so that his terrible hands would be occupied. It should’ve been comical, but it was terrible instead, those small ridiculous motions of the man whose name no one said aloud, for fear of summoning him. Worse than Stalin, they said, and after Stalin was dead they dared to arrest Beria, his right hand, citing some ridiculous excuses like British espionage and imaginary plots. The man who murdered Russians, Georgians, Polacks with equal and indiscriminating efficiency when he was the head of NKVD, before it softened up into the KGB. And there he was then, being led out of the Presidium session, unclean and repulsive like a carrion fly.
He was shot soon after, they said, but it was still murder; at least, I thought so, seeking to if not justify, then comprehend, thinking around and around and hastening my step involuntarily.
Sometimes the attachés, while rushing for the bathrooms, left their doors ajar, illuminated by the brass sconces on the walls, their semicircles of light snatching the buttery gloss of mahogany furniture and the slightly indecent spillage of stiff linen, the burden of excess. But mostly I walked the hallways, thinking of everything that happened in this house, so I wasn’t all that surprised or shocked when I first saw the naked girl.
She must’ve been barely thirteen — her breasts uncomfortable little hillocks, her hips narrow and long. She ran down the hall, and I guessed that she did not belong — she did not seem Tunisian, or alive, for that matter. She just ran, her mouth a black distorted silent hole in her face, her eyes bruised. Her hair, shoulder-length, wheat-colored, streamed behind her, and I remember the hollow on the side of her smooth lean hip, the way it reflected light from my flashlight, the working of ropy muscles under her smooth skin. Oh, she really ran, her heels digging into the hardwood floors as if they were soft dirt, her fists pumping.
I followed her with the beam of my flashlight. I stopped dead in my tracks, did not dare to think about it yet, just watched and felt my breathing grow lighter. She reached the end of the hallway and I expected her to disappear or take off up or down the stairs, or turn around; instead, she stopped just before the stairwell, and started striking the air in front of her with both fists, as if there was a door.
She turned once, her face half-melting in the deluge of ghost tears, her fists still pummeling against the invisible door, but without conviction, her heart ready to give out. Then an invisible but rough hand jerked her away from the door — I could not see who was doing it, but I saw her feet leave the ground, and then she was dragged along the hardwood floors through the nearest closed door.
I stood in the hallway for a while, letting it all sink in. Of course I knew who she was — not her name or anything, but what happened to her. I stared at the locked door; I knew that behind it the consul and his wife slept in a four-postered bed. And yet, in the very same bed, there was that ghost girl, hairs on her thin arms standing on end and her mouth still torn by a scream, invisible hands pressing her face into a pillow, her legs jerking and kicking at the invisible assailant… I was almost relieved that I could not see him, even though the moment I turned and started down the hallway again, his bespectacled face slowly materialized, like a photo being developed, on the inside of my eyelids, and I could not shake the sense of his presence until the sun rose.
I soon found a routine with my new job: all night I walked through the stairwells and the corridors, sometimes dodging the ghosts of girls — there were so many, so many, all of them between twelve and eighteen, all of them terrible in their nudity — and living diplomats who stayed at the Embassy stumbling past the soft shine of their gold-plated fixtures on their way to the bathrooms. In the mornings, I went to a small coffee house to have a cup of very hot and sweet and black coffee with a thick layer of sludge in the bottom. I drank it in deliberate sips and thought of the heavy doors with iron bolts and the basement with too many chambers and lopsided cement walls no one dared to disturb because of what they were afraid to find buried under and inside of them. And then I hurried home, in case my son decided to call from his time zone eight hours behind, before he went to bed.
You know that you’re old when your children are old, when they have heart trouble and sciatica, when their hearing is going too so that both of you yell into the shell of the phone receiver. But most often, he doesn’t call — and I do not blame him, I wouldn’t call me either. He hadn’t forgiven and he never fully will, except maybe on his deathbed — and it saddens me to think that he might be arriving there before me, like it saddens me that my grandchildren cannot read Cyrillic.
I come home and wait for the phone to speak to me in its low sentimental treble, and then I go to bed. I close my eyes and I watch the images from the previous night. I watch seven girls, none of whom can be older than fourteen, all on their hands and knees in a circle, their heads pressed together, their naked bottoms raised high, I watch them flinch away from the invisible presence that circles and circles them, endlessly. I think that I can feel the gust of Beria’s stroll on my face, but that too passes.
I only turn away when one of them jerks as her leg rises high in the air — and from the depressions on the ghostly flesh I know that there’s a hand seizing her by the ankle. He drags her away from the circle as she tries to kick with her free foot, grabbing at the long nap of the rug, as her elbows and breasts leave troughs in it, as her fingers tangle in the Persian luxury and then let go with the breaking of already short nails. I turn away because I know what happens next, and even though I cannot see him, I cannot watch.
Morning comes eventually, and always at the time when I lose hope that the sun will ever rise again. I swear to myself that I will not come back here, Never again, I whisper — the same oath I gave to myself back before the war, and just like back then I know that I will break it over and over, every night.
On my way out of the light blue embassy house, I occasionally run into the cook, a Pakistani who has been working there for a few years. We sometimes stop for a smoke and he tells me about a bag of bones he found in the wall behind the stove some years back. He offers to show it to me but I refuse politely, scared of the stupid urban legend about a man who buys a hotdog and inside finds his wife’s finger bone with her wedding ring still on. The ghosts are bad enough.
During this time, my son only called once. He complained at length, speaking hastily, as if trying to prevent me from talking back. I waited. I did not really expect him to talk about things we did not talk about — why he left or why he never told his wife where I was working. In turn, I made sympathetic noises and never mentioned how angry I was that his emigration back in the 70s fucked me over. What was the point? I did not blame him for his mother’s death, and he didn’t blame me for anything. He just complained that his grandkids don’t understand Russian. I don’t even remember what they, or their parents, my own grandchildren, look like.
When he was done talking, I went to bed and even slept until the voices of children outside woke me in the early afternoon. They always carried so far in this weather, those first warm days of not-quite summer, and I lay awake on my back listening to the high-pitched squealing outside, too warm in my long underwear. And if your life is like mine — if it’s as long as mine, that is — then you find yourself thinking about a lot of shit. You start remembering the terrible sludge of life at the bottom of your memory, and if you stir it by too much thinking, too much listening to the shouts and bicycle bells outside, then woe is you, and the ghosts of teenage girls will keep you up all night and all day.
The cars NKVD drove were called black ravens, named for both color and the ominous nature of their arrival in one’s neighborhood. Narodniy Komissariat Vnutrennih Del – it’s a habit, to sound out the entire name in my head. Abbreviations just don’t terrify me. The modern yellow canaries of the police seemed harmless in comparison, quaint even. But those black ravens… I remembered the sinister yellow beams of the headlights like I remembered the squeaking of leather against leather, uniform against the seats, like I remembered the roundness of the hard wheel under my gloved hands.
Being a chauffer was never a prestigious job, but driving him — driving Beria — filled one with quiet dread. I remember the blue dusk and the snowdrifts of late February, the bright pinpricks of the streetlamps as they lit up ahead of my car, one by one, as if running from us — from him, I think. I have never done anything wrong, but my neck prickles with freshly cut hairs, and my head sweats under my leather cap. I can feel his gaze on me, like a touch of greasy fingers. Funny, that: one can live ninety years, such a long life, and still shiver in the warm May afternoon just thinking about that one February night.
It started to snow soon after the streetlights all flickered on, lining along the facades of the houses — all old mansions, being in the center of the city and all, painted pale blues and yellows and greens. The flight of the lights reminded me of a poem I read some years ago; only I could not remember it but tried nonetheless–anything to avoid the sensation of the sticky unclean stare on the back of my head, at the base of my skull, and I felt cold, as if a gun barrel rested there.
“Slow down,” he tells me in a soft voice. There’s no one but him in the car, and I am grateful for small mercies, I am grateful that except for directions he does not talk to me.
I slow down. The wind is kicking up the snow and it writhes, serpentine, close to the ground, barely reaching up high enough to get snagged in the lights of the car beams.
“Turn off the lights.”
I do, and then I see her — bundled up in an old, moth-eaten fur coat, her head swaddled in a thick kerchief. I recognize her — Ninochka, a neighbor who is rumored to be a bit addled in the head, but she always says hello to me and she is always friendly. The coat and kerchief disfigure and bloat her as she trundles through the snow, her walk waddling in her thick felt boots that look like they used to belong to her grandfather. I hope that this misshapen, ugly disguise would be enough to save her.
I pick up the speed slightly, to save her, to drive past her and perhaps find another girl walking home from work late, find another one — someone I do not know, and it is unfair that I am so willing to trade one for another but here we are — just God please, let us pass her. In my head, I make deals with God, promises I would never be able to keep. I do not know why it’s so important, but it feels that if I could just save her, just this one, then things would be all right again, the world would be revealed as a little bit just and at least somewhat sensible. Just this one, please god.
“Slow down,” he says again, and I feel the leather on the back of my seat shift as he grips the top of it. “Stop right there.” He points just ahead, at the pool of darkness between two cones of light, where the snow changes color from white to blue. The wind is swirling around his shoes as he steps out, and the girl, Ninochka, looks up for the first time. She does not recognize him — not at first, not later when she is sobbing quietly in the back seat of the car, her arms twisted behind her so that she cannot even wipe her face and her tears drip off the reddened tip off her nose, like a melting icicle. I still cannot remember the poem — something about the running streetlights, and I concentrate on the elusive rhythm and stare straight ahead, until I stop by the wrought iron gates of his house and let him and Ninochka out. I am not allowed beyond that point, being just a chauffer and not an NKVD man. I am grateful.
So I thought that my presence in the sky-blue house was not coincidental, and the fact that I kept seeing the dead naked girls everywhere I looked meant something. I tried to not look into their faces, not when they were clumped, heads together, in a circle. I did not need to see their faces to know that Ninochka was somewhere among them, a transparent long-limbed apparition being hauled off into some secret dungeon to undergo things best not thought about — and I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head, just not to think about that, not to think.
My son was a dissident, and to him there was no poison more bitter than the knowledge that his father used to work for NKVD, used to turn people in, used to sit on people’s tribunals that condemned enemies of the state. His shame for my sins forced his pointless flight into the place that offered none of the freedoms it had previously promised, the illusory comforts of the familiar language and the same conversations, of the slowly corrupting English words and the joys of capitalism as small and trivial as the cockroaches in a Brighton Beach kitchen. He still does not see the irony in that.
But he does manage to feel superior to me; he feels like he is better because he’s not the one with naked dead girls chasing him through dreams and working hours, crowding in his head during the precious few minutes of leisure. The bar ribbons of all my medals and orders are of no consequence, as if there had been no war after the slow stealthy drives through the streets. Seasons changed but not the girls, forever trapped in the precarious land between adolescence and maturity, and if there were no victories and marching through mud all the way to Germany and back, as if there was nothing else after these girls. Time stopped in 1938, I suspect, and now it just keeps replaying in the house in Malaya Nikitskaya. And I cannot look away and I cannot quit the job in the embassy — not until I either figure out why this is happening or decide that I do not care enough to find out.
I remember the last week I worked in the Tunisian Embassy. The dead girls infected everything, and even the diplomats and the security saw them out of the corners of their eyes — I saw them tossing up their heads on the way to the bathroom, their eyes wide and awake like those of spooked horses. The girls — long-limbed, bruised-pale — ran down every hallway, their faces looming up from every stairwell, every corner, every glass of sweet dark tea the Pakistani cook brewed for me in the mornings.
The diplomats whispered in their strange tongue, the tongue, I imagined, that remained unchanged since Hannibal and his elephants. I guessed that the girls were getting to them too, and for a brief while I was relating to these foreign dignitaries. Then they decided to deal with the problem, something I had not really considered, content in my unrelenting terror. They decided to take apart the fake partitions in the basement.
I was told to not come to work for a few days, and that damn near killed me. I could not sleep at night, thinking of the pale wraiths streaming in the dark paneled hallways of the sky-blue house. But the heart, the heart of it were all these dead girls, and I worried about them — I feared that they would exorcise them, would chase them away, leaving me no reason to ever go back, no reason to wake up every day, shave, leave the house. I could not know whether the semblance of life granted to them was torturous, and yet I hoped that they would survive.
They did not. When I came back, I found the basement devoid of its fake cement partitions, and the bricks in the basement walls were held together with fresh mortar. The corridors and the rooms were empty too — I often turned, having imagined a flick of movement on the periphery of my vision. I looked into the empty rooms, hoping to catch a glimpse of long legs shredding the air into long, sickle-shaped slivers.
I found them after morning came and the cook offered me the usual glass of tea, dark and sweet and fragrant.
“They found all these bones,” he told me, his voice regretful. “Even more than my bag, the one I told you about before.”
“Where did they take them?”
He shrugged and shook his head, opening his arms palms-out in a pantomime of sincere puzzlement. I already knew that they were not in the house, because of course I already looked everywhere I could look without disturbing any of the diplomats’ sleep.
Before I left for the day, I looked in the yard. It was so quiet there, so separate from the world outside. So peaceful. I found the skulls lined under the trees behind the building, where the graveled path traveled between the house and the wall.
I looked at the row of skulls, all of them with one hole through the base, and I regretted that I had never seen Ninochka’s face among the silent wraiths. I did not know which one of these skulls was hers; all of them looked at me with black holes of their sockets, and I thought I heard the faint rattling of the bullets inside them, the cluttering that grew louder like that of the tin cans dragging behind a running dog.
I turned away and walked toward the gates, trying to keep my steps slow and calm, trying to ignore the rattling of the skulls that had been dragging behind me for the last sixty years.