MOSCOW REINCARNATIONS. by Sergei Kuznetsov. Lubyanka. Translated by Marian Schwartz

Nikita dozes off holding my hand.

Such a handsome hand he has. Strong fingers, smooth oval nails, nicely defined tendons. Light hairs, almost imperceptible, but stiff to the touch.

He’s sleeping holding my hand, but I just can’t.

I’m afraid of dozing off. It’s like walking into cold water, slowly immersing yourself, diving headfirst and not knowing what you’ll see on the bottom.

That Crimean summer I dove alone while Nikita watched from shore. Only later did he admit he was afraid to swim.

I wasn’t afraid of anything. I was twenty-eight. Never before had I been as beautiful as I was that summer.

Nor will I ever be again.

Time has wrung me out like laundered linen and thrown me into the dryer like a crumpled rag. Back then I thought, Time spares no one, but now I know that’s not so.

Time changes everyone, but men are grazed by a touch of gray, a leisurely gait, a solidity of figure. At least Nikita has been. As for anyone else, to be honest, it’s been a long time since I’ve cared.

His hands have barely changed. Except that seven years ago a wedding ring appeared.

My skin is tarnishing, withering, covered with a fine fishnet inside of which the years I’ve lived thrash around like caught fish. My hair is falling out and in the mornings I look at my pillow, fighting the temptation to count them.

Once I couldn’t stop myself. Now I know: 252 hairs, almost a handful.

I’m afraid of going bald. I’m afraid of my breasts disappearing in a few years, my belly sticking to my spine, my eyes sinking. Sometimes I feel like a living corpse.

Nine years ago I wasn’t afraid of anything. Now I can’t fall asleep out of fear.

But Nikita isn’t afraid of anything. In those years he’s lost all fear. Blind swap? as we used to say in kindergarten.

I didn’t want to go to kindergarten. I was still afraid then. I thought one day my mama wouldn’t come for me and would leave me there forever. Only later did I learn where that fear came from; it was the echo of my orphanage infancy, the first months of my life.

My mama told me the story herself. You see, sometimes children are mistakenly born to people who aren’t their parents. So they can take them to a special place where their real parents find them. The way we found you.

I was six years old and I didn’t know where children came from. I probably thought about a stork that might mix up his bundles, or a store where after a long line you could buy a child—and they might sell you the wrong one by mistake.

When I was ten, my papa explained: The ancient Hindus believed in the rebirth of souls. I believe you are the little girl your mama couldn’t give birth to.

I knew by then that children came out of the belly, but I didn’t really understand how you could not be able to give birth.

I no longer believed in the stork, or the store, but I believed in the rebirth of souls immediately. And I still do. I believe the soul travels back and forth through history, and can even be born several times in the same century, miraculously not meeting herself in a previous (subsequent?) guise.

I believe that. Or, rather, I know it. And that’s why I lie here sleepless, squeezing Nikita’s hand. I’m afraid to fall asleep.

In the filmy, viscous dimension between waking and sleep my past lives return. Men, women, children. They fill me until it seems like there’s no room left inside for me.

I squeeze into a ball and try to push the past out—it was mine, it wasn’t mine, it may not have existed at all.

No surprise I’m losing weight. I must think that if I shrivel up completely the ghosts will decamp and find themselves another receptacle.

Though I could get used to them. Ultimately, these are my past lives. I recognize them: the old lady twirling in front of a mirror; the man gazing at the river; the young woman hugging her pregnant belly; the man crushing out a cigarette butt; the soldier pulling a grenade pin; the naked man cooking breakfast; the little girl staring at the Black Sea; the man dropping to his knees in front of his lover.

They shout, laugh, cry, moan, and sigh… Sometimes I feel like throwing myself open, embracing them, and saying, Come in, it’s me, your unsafe haven, your future, reincarnation, rebirth. Don’t cry, everything worked out fine, look at me, I’m much happier than you. My life is wonderful: a loving husband, a home, a car, a household, a full cup. They didn’t beat me during their interrogations, my friends weren’t killed, radiation didn’t eat up my flesh, and I didn’t wait to be arrested. I don’t worry about money or survival, I don’t worry about where I’m going to sleep tomorrow or what I’m going to eat. I can’t remember the last time I was hungry.

But the incorporeal ghosts sway in the stratum of sleep and swirl in the murky corners of my huge apartment.

They’ve already lived their own lives; they’re not rushing, being sold off, drinking up the bitter water of earthly existence, or eating the bitter bread of posthumous exile anymore.

They’re always hungry.

They’re eating me from the inside out. My life is food for those I once was. They’re gnawing at my flesh—and every month blood flows out, attesting that the feast continues, the ghosts are not sated, they are still unhappy.

Every month, following the phases of the moon, plus or minus a day, I receive the same letter: You aren’t going to have a child.

Dozing off, we hold hands. My Kolya, Kolya-Nikolai. I want to sleep facing you, but every month that gets harder. You might even say we’re sleeping for three, right? Only two months to go—and our bunny will be born. I wonder whether it’ll be a boy or a girl. The old women in the countryside always guessed—based on your walk, the shape of your belly, and other signs.

Just think, it’s been five years and I still can’t get used to the idea that my Berezovka’s gone. True, old Georgich’s great nephew wrote last month saying they were planning to build a state farm in its place. I don’t even know… I guess that’s good. The cows will moo again and the chickens will run around, as if there’d been no war. You just look at it and it’s all so horrible what happened; how are people supposed to live there?

I told Kolya about it, and he said, So the fact that we’re living in a dead soldier’s apartment doesn’t bother you? That’s the way it should be. New people come to take the place of dead fighters.

Except that we didn’t have any fighters in Berezovka. Foolish Lushka hid two partisans—and that was it.

Nina looks at the street, lined with two-story wooden houses; an invalid on a bench is talking to two old women. The sound from a gramophone reaches her from a neighbor’s window.

This is Moscow, the capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the first worker and peasant state in the world. Marina Roshcha.

Nina gazes at her round belly and tries to persuade the boy or girl to hold on a little longer and not kick but lie quietly. The doctor said she could talk to him already. Or her?

Nina’s waiting for her husband. She sits home for days on end, afraid to go out. Even in the daytime they could attack her on the street, take her money away, or just strip her. They could jam a knife into her, or a bullet. There are an awful lot of thieves.

Kolya says it all started after the war. Before, Moscow was different. But now that people have been taught to kill, they just can’t stop.

Nina doesn’t know how to kill. She only knows how to hide so she won’t die.

For two months she hid in the forests, surviving on berries and occasionally digging up potatoes in Berezovka’s charred gardens. At the sound of an engine she would fall to the ground, perfectly still.

Nina loved walking in the forest before. Her mama would laugh and call her my little forest girl.

Her mother burned up along with the rest of the village.

Nina survived because that morning she’d gone out for mushrooms when the punitive expedition showed up. She hid out in the woods and didn’t emerge until it was all over.

Until everyone was dead.

Kolya says he wouldn’t have lasted a day in the forest. I’m afraid of wolves, he says. She laughs; he’s probably not afraid of anything.

Nina is afraid for him.

Afraid they’ll slit Kolya’s throat to take away his gun.

Afraid Kolya will stop someone to check his documents—and the person will start shooting.

Afraid Kolya will go after a thieves’ den—and be killed in a shootout.

Afraid Kolya will walk into a building—and into an ambush.

Nina says, Take care of yourself, for god’s sake. If only you could wait until the child is born!

But Kolya replies, I took an oath. If I don’t stop them they’re going to keep on killing. Pretty recently they butchered a whole family in Marina Roshcha. Even a tiny baby. Got away with 25,000 rubles.

A huge amount. Kolya’s salary is just 550. How long do you have to work to make that kind of money?

How old was the baby? Nina asks.

Still in its cradle, absolutely tiny, Kolya answers. They killed him so he wouldn’t cry.

Why is he telling her this? Nina wants to hear one more time how after she gives birth Kolya is going to take time off. No, Kolya doesn’t want to talk about leaving work, he answers Nina. Wait for us to catch them all, and then we’ll start living well and happily!

Nina doesn’t believe it. She remembers how people used to say, We’ll drive Fritz out and then we’ll start living well and happily. Where is that happiness now? Now it’s like seeing her husband off to the front line every single day.

Actually, it’s her own fault. She knew who she was marrying. From the very first second. Only Kolya was so handsome in his new uniform, blue with red trim. His cap with its sky-blue band. His boots. The moment she saw him at the dance, she fell in love. Kolya later admitted he’d gone into the police force because of the uniform; they issued it for free and he liked wearing it.

There was a star on the cap, and in the center a soldier with a rifle at the ready. Nina liked that a lot too.

At the time Nina had only just arrived and she was afraid of Moscow. It was awful! Everyone cutting in and out, sideways, down the streets—and the locals pushing their way past, swaggering, spitting at their feet, not afraid of anything. You could spot them right away: soft eight-panel caps, boxcalf boots, and white mufflers.

Later Kolya told her those were the thieves. Crooks.

Why can they walk down the street like that with no one arresting them? Nina asked.

Well, you can’t arrest someone for an eight-panel cap, Kolya laughed. Don’t worry, they won’t be walking around for long. Too bad they’ve abolished the vyshka . But that’s all right, if need be we’ll take matters into our own hands—and he winked.

Vyshka was short for capital punishment. Execution. It was abolished a year ago. Kolya says there’s no one to chop timber in Siberia.

Nina thinks, We’re going to have a child—and how are we going to live? It’s good the war’s over. But still, are we really going to spend our whole life in the city? No forest, no real river. You can go to the big park, people dive and swim from the pier—but Nina feels shy. She swims like a country girl, after all, and in Moscow everyone must have some special style.

Nina sits home waiting for her husband. Sits and waits, worried, troubled, and afraid. She can’t make heads or tails of what she reads, and they don’t have a gramophone, or even a radio speaker; it’s an old building. I don’t know whether there were any televisions back then, but Nina and Kolya definitely didn’t have one.

I’m sitting home too, and I’m waiting for Nikita too. I’m worried for him—even though I have no cause for worry. Nikita’s business is peaceful and he drives carefully. I’m still worried, though.

I’d like to say, I don’t know if I could deal with being in Nina’s place, but I can’t. She and I are one and the same, which means at some point I was sitting there like that, waiting for my husband to come home from work, bored, looking out the window, stroking my pregnant belly, afraid to go outside.

It’s weird to feel other people’s lives inside you. Snatches of other people’s thoughts and irrelevant facts suddenly surface in my memory. Edible berries. The best place to gather mushrooms. How to climb a tree and get settled so you don’t fall out at night.

And sometimes a tune gets stuck in my head and keeps ringing in my mind hour after hour. Sometimes I can even make out the words.

My dad the bigwig fucks his tart

Oh bastard me, I fuck my aunt

All the time, everywhere,

From midnight until morn

From one night to the next

And back again till morn.

My dad the bigwig only fucks ’em rich

Oh bastard me, I fuck ’em bent and humped

All the time, everywhere

From midnight until morn

From one night to the next

And back again till morn.

I know this is what the little boys sang when Nina walked around the yard. Nina heard this song, and now I hear it in my head. All the time, everywhere, from midnight until morn—and I don’t know whether this song amused, frightened, or annoyed Nina. I get my melancholy from her. All the time, everywhere—that is, in this life and the ones before, around the clock, night and day, I sit in an armchair, on a seat, on a stool, and wait for my beloved to come home. And I’m afraid something’s going to happen to him.

When I’m Nina, I caress my big pregnant belly. When I’m Masha, I paint my toenails over and over again, though I have no plans to go out. It calms me.

Kolya comes home and tells me how they picked up the Kazentsov gang a few days before, on a train, and how there was shooting. The gang had hidden out in the children’s car but the conductor noticed them and called it in. It turned out they were hijacking cars. They’d ask a driver to take them out of town, where they’d kill him. Now they were the ones getting killed, at least two of them.

Kolya says there are too many guns in Moscow. Captured and brought back from the war, taken away from policemen, stolen from the Hammer and Sickle plant, where they’re selling old inventory to melt down.

To make sure a policeman can’t have his gun taken away, Kolya explained, the cop attached it to a special red cord. The cord goes up one side of his uniform, around his neck, and down the other side. The grip has a special loop where the cord is attached. Kolya explained and even showed me, but I still don’t understand. Better they just take the gun. That way, if some crook decides he wants your gun, he doesn’t have to kill you for it.

I’m really scared for Kolya. Since I got pregnant, I’m even more scared.

At first I was so glad we were going to have a child! I imagined him growing there, inside me. I went to the doctor once a month and the doctor told me when his little eyes appeared, and his little hands. I’m only sorry he’s going to be born in Moscow and not the country. What kind of a life is this? Why did I ever come here? I must have known I’d meet Kolya. There’s nothing else good here in Moscow.

I’m glad I didn’t enter the institute. I’d have had to study—but before you know it, a little baby is going to be born and Kolya will come to his senses. We’ll go away together, wherever we want.

I’ve been living in Moscow nearly a year and I still can’t figure out what draws people here. In line at the doctor’s I met a woman, also near her due date but older than me, her name was Marfa, also from the country, but she’s been in Moscow a long time, from back before the war. She’s a good woman and she reassures me, says giving birth isn’t so terrible. What’s terrible, she says, is living, and even more terrible—dying. Then I said, Well, I know, my whole village perished. And she stroked my head and said, Poor thing!—and for a second it felt like my mama was with me again. Though it’s a sin to say so, of course, because I’ll never have another mama. I’m a mama myself now. Only two months to go.

In line at the doctor’s the women were talking about something terrible. They said you could get rid of a child for money. If you didn’t want to give birth. In Berezovka they said that girls drank all kinds of potions to make it happen. I was little but I understood what they were saying. Well, a potion is understandable. But here apparently you could find a secret doctor and for fifteen hundred rubles he would take care of… well… it… everything.

Fifteen hundred! That’s so much money! It’s terrible to think who might have that! Here I am working out how to survive on 550 every month. For two—it’s hard. And now a child as well, and he has to be fed.

I wish he could be born as soon as possible, my little bunny. If it’s a boy, I hope he looks like Kolya. And if a girl, like my mama. I want her to have the same kind of eyebrows, and ears too.

I hope she’s like my mama. I don’t have anything left of her, not even a photograph. Everything burned up.

Mama would have been happy for me now. She must have been just as happy when she was dying. She knew I’d been saved.

Kolya laughs at me, but I know: there is a God somewhere. And my mama is with Him right now, on a cloud, watching me and seeing that I’m going to have my own little bunny, my own little boy, my own little girl—instead of her, instead of Papa, instead of Aunt Katya and Uncle Slava, instead of lame Mitrich and old lady Anfisa. Instead of our whole village.

Hurry up and get born, little bunny. I mean, get born when it’s time, but don’t make me wait too long. I’m a little afraid of giving birth. In Moscow you have to go to the hospital. There are strangers there and who knows what they might do. And people say there are doctor-wreckers around now too. And crooks probably.

Here she sits, day after day, little Nina from ’48, getting heavier and heavier—and so is my heart. Because all the time, everywhere, from midnight until morn—it’s the same old story, and I know what happens next.

Two weeks before the birth Nina puts jacket potatoes on the burner and suddenly remembers she’s out of salt.

She goes over to Aunt Vera’s, her neighbor.

She knocks and no one answers, so Nina pushes on the door and shouts, Aunt Vera! She walks in and she’s struck by a cast-iron pot. They were aiming for her head but she managed to jump to the side, and then she hears a whisper: Finish the bitch off! She shields her unborn baby with her arms and starts yelling, but not loudly enough. When the second attacker strikes her in the belly, she screams loudly enough for the whole building to hear, the whole courtyard, even the street—and the sound barrels over the neighboring roofs, over the quays of the Moscow River, over the attractions at the central park, over the pavement of Red Square, over the Mausoleum’s pyramid, over the Kremlin’s stars, over the empty pit where the demolished temple once stood, over the wooden buildings built after the war, over the thieves’ dens and lairs, over the police stations, over the prisons and penal colonies, over the subway entrances, over the movie theaters and cultural institutions—over all of postwar Moscow, over the unlucky victor city, over the kids without fathers, the women without husbands, the men without arms, legs, conscience, fear, family, memory, or love.

While Nina is still falling on the bloody ground, screaming and screaming…

One more blow and she would have been silenced forever. The attackers killed Aunt Vera and they could have killed Nina too. Smashed her head in, slit her throat, beat her with whatever came to hand—but they fled.

They would be caught two days later. Maybe they’d shoot someone during the arrest.

But Kolya was running down the street, holding the tiny body close, and the umbilical cord dangled like one more piece of red piping, and his whole handsome uniform was covered in blood. Kolya was running, cursing, weeping, and too late.

It was a boy.

Two years later they left Moscow. The state farm built where Berezovka had burned down gave them a house; a good muzhik always comes in handy in the countryside. And so they lived, until their death. Kolya trained to be a tractor driver; Nina worked as a milkmaid, poultry maid, and clerk at the general store—whatever opportunity arose. For a while she was even a kindergarten teacher. But not for long.

They didn’t have children of their own. Kolya died in 1985, Nina a year later.

Sometimes I see her very old. Her hands are folded in her lap, she’s sitting on a stool by the window, and the older teenagers, the girls and boys, are giggling on the bench. Music reaches her from an open car.

Nina has no one to wait for and nothing to fear. Her life is over.

Only in her head, like a worn-out record. All the time, everywhere, from midnight until morn, from one night to the next, and again till morn is like an obsession, an incantation, a promise that it will all happen again.

* * *

I doze off holding Jan’s hand, but it doesn’t matter. At night I dream of my lovers. The men I couldn’t have. The boy from our school, a year younger than me, his curly fair hair escaping his school cap: a car ran him down right in front of his house, in front of his parents and nanny. The Menshevik agitator, his glasses shattered, his cracking voice turning into a short screech when a bullet forced the petals of a crimson rose open on his jacket chest. The Red soldier in the dusty helmet silently bowing over the corpse of his comrade who was captured by the White Cossacks; a star was carved on his salt-strewn back—a five-pointed star gone from red to brown. A fifteen-year-old kid shouting through tears, Swine, swine!, his ginger hair soaked with sweat and stuck to his forehead, so you wished you could run your hand over it. A stout man, temples lightly touched with gray, looking back for the last time before boarding that barge—a spark in his dark pupil, like a gleam of light, but from the other shore.

I doze off holding Jan’s hand. It’s a strong hand covered with fine faded hair, his closely trimmed nails edged in black.

I kiss his fingers and imagine that this narrow dark stripe is caked blood, the congealed blood of the people he’s ordered to be executed. I kiss his hand and think that this is the hand of someone who separates life from death, who splits human existence in two, the hand of someone used to deciding for others, whether they are to live or die.

My lips flick across his palm, travel up toward the bend in his elbow, and slip over the tendons of his forearms. When he makes a fist they tense, like a belt drive, and I feel the flow of blood, the faint pulsing, and my lips continue their journey, and I kiss his armpits, the hair smelling of grim soldier sweat, the only patch of real hair on his body, if you don’t count the thick growth at the base of his mighty shaft, which rises down there somewhere. I forbid myself to think about that, run my tongue over his smooth chest, just grazing his nipples—and then Jan places his heavy hand on my back, and his nails start quietly clawing at my skin, always in the same spot, between my shoulder blades—and even after who knows how many reincarnations I still swoon when Nikita strokes my back like that—I swoon, and then I shudder, and my tongue turns downward, following the narrow path between his heaving ribs, crossing the puffy scar from the saber blow—He did get me, after all, the snake, after I shot him with my revolver—and run my finger over the scar, imagining some White officer drawing his sword against his killer with the cold fury of desperation, and at the same time I drop lower with my lips, to the rosette of his navel, and Jan puts his hand on the back of my head, urging, directing, hastening the now inevitable movement. My tongue goes into a spiral, feeling his great axis, around which my night revolves, rise higher and higher as it swells with blood. Finally, squeezing his two globes, I open my mouth and swallow the crimson head, sucking in air through fluttering nostrils, as if it were a line of cocaine, moving up and down, feeling the weight of his hand on the back of my head, the resilience of his cock between my lips, the trembling of his testicles in my hand, and the quivering of his powerful male body.

I’ve known the taste of quite a few men’s cocks. My tongue and palate have learned to distinguish adolescent languor, animal fear, ominous hatred, trembling adoration, impatience, burning, itching, haste, the urgency of unspilled semen, the pressure of lust, and the spasm of passion.

Jan’s taste is the taste of gun grease and machine oil. Viscous and sticky, it makes me shudder just to think of it. I hold on to his balls—easy to take, hard to let go—and feel his shaft moving in my mouth—the almost toylike barrel of a revolver, though not small—the taste of which so many have learned in years past. No, the huge hot barrel of an artillery gun, the organ of a machine of destruction, poised to fire, just waiting for the command.

I’m moving faster and faster, the hand on the back of my head won’t let me rest, my lips itch with a sweet pain—I press my whole body to Jan, and from the depth of my heart rises the sacred word. It runs through my veins, flies up my throat, and opens my mouth even wider with the violent magic command: Fire!—and a sticky stream of semen explodes in my head.

At school, in scripture class, they taught us that the seed dies and yields much fruit. Jan’s seed is dead and cools on my lips in a whitish film. The fruit it brings… they’re beautiful those fruit—and tears run down my cheeks. Then he takes his hand from the back of my head, sits down on the bed, and jerks me toward him. I bury my sticky lips in his shoulder, and his hand lazily rakes my spine.

Then Jan starts talking. He recalls the Civil War, the Kronstadt rebellion, the Antonov uprising, the counterrevolutionary plots. He tells me how his day went.

His days pass with mundane matters. Compiling lists, dictating telegrams, and listening to reports, denunciations, interrogations, resolutions, and decisions. Now Jan almost never does the executing himself—Let the others do some work, he says. At the beginning of our affair I asked him whether he remembered how many people he’d killed, and Jan answered, In battle doesn’t count, and when they lowered me into the barge—there was really no one keeping score.

Sometimes I tell myself, Right now I’m crying on the chest of a man who has killed people without count—and my heart pounds like a hammer. I ask, Could you shoot me?

Of course—Jan grabs me by the shoulders—of course I could. I’ve shot men I slept with. They were traitors. I serve the Revolution, but you understand, Kolya, and the Revolution does not forgive treason.

I don’t ask him how many men he’s slept with. I’m afraid he doesn’t remember them any more than he does those he killed. I’m afraid of getting lost on his list, his long list, like his list of executions.

I don’t ask him whether he’s ever slept with a woman. That thought is unbearable: imagining Jan with a woman, imagining his mighty cock plunging into those fusty wet human insides. The female secretion is disgusting, like rust eating into the barrel of a rifle. I can’t imagine Jan’s seed, the seed of death, spilling in a woman’s lap, that nauseating source of new life.

I’d like to hold Jan’s cock in my hand and squeeze it with my lips always—to know that not a single drop of his seed would fertilize a woman. Small children are awful, their howls are a parody of passion, and their stinking diapers, strollers, and bonnets are the gloomy prophecy of old age’s impotence, which I will not live to see.

One morning I’ll see my cock dozing between my hips like a feeble worm. One evening, at the sight of a man’s nakedness, it won’t perk up and will stay wrinkled and pathetic. That’s the day I’ll realize my old age has arrived. And I’ll ask Jan—because Jan will always be by my side, forever young—to add me to his execution list and—in memory of our love—finish me off himself.

Right now Jan almost never takes part in the executions. I’m saving my bullets, he jokes. I have a dream about shooting a countess. A real live countess.

When he told me this the first time I got scared. I imagined some high society love story: little Jan, an errand boy; the countess he lusts after (or who lusts after him); the old count who in the murk of the conjugal bedroom reveals to Jan the mysteries of homosexual love; a woman’s silhouette in the doorway; the shouts, the hysterics, maybe the police or a lashing in the stables; the vow for revenge, underground cells, the party of Bolsheviks, revolution, war, Cheka, execution lists, my tears on his shoulder…

That time Jan reassured me.

You have to understand, he said, I’ve never seen a genuine countess. Only in the movies. So I want to see how countesses behave before death, how they die, what color blood they have.

Aristocrats have blue, I joked, but Jan didn’t answer. I saw his cock stiffen up again, and in an onset of jealousy I squeezed it and Jan’s nails dug into my back. Then he loosened my fingers and laughed. What are you, jealous? Do you want me to take you along when we send her off to Dukhonin?

Since then we’ve spoken of this often. Jan’s dream has become my dream. We’ve imagined finding a countess: a spy infiltrated by White ?migr?s from Paris; an aristocrat in hiding who survived the Revolution in some out-of-the-way house, masquerading as a peasant, factory worker, or student. On the day of her execution she’ll be wearing a white dress, holding a parasol, wearing black high-laced shoes on low heels. Sometimes we’ll lead her down a brick corridor to the last wall, sometimes we’ll take her out into the snow in the Cheka courtyard (they haven’t executed anyone there in a long time, but in my dreams for some reason I see her walking, stumbling in the snow, across that courtyard), sometimes we’ll take her out of town, to the Gulf of Finland. Even in his dreams Jan won’t let me carry out the sentence myself—I just hand him the revolver and then he, squinting, slowly raises the muzzle and the countess turns pale, opening her parasol with a trembling hand or dropping it in the snow, covering her face in elbow-length white gloves. Jan always says, Farewell, countess!—and the seed of death bursts from his barrel, and her white dress turns red, soaked with blood, ordinary red blood, the same color as everyone else he has shot.

His dreams go no further than that shot, but in my visions I drop to my knees before him, kiss the revolver’s smoking muzzle, and then carefully take the other shaft into my mouth, a shaft poised and ready to fire.

I doze off holding Jan’s hand and think, Today it seems like he isn’t really with me, as if he’s thinking about something else, not the Revolution even, but some other young man, a year or two younger than me maybe, a twenty-two-year-old beauty with curly fair hair. Half-asleep, I see the three of us, then Jan goes away somewhere and my new lover kisses me on the lips—and then Jan’s voice wakes me, and I don’t understand right away what he’s said, but when I do I squeeze his hand even harder—and fall asleep for real.

I’ve found her, Jan says. I’ve found the countess.

There’d been a joint meeting to fight banditry—the police, UgRo, and OGPU. When they were done, Jan went outside and saw a young woman standing with her elbows resting on a fence, almost stock-still, her entire figure replete with bourgeois refinement, the aristocratism of the old regime. She was out of place there, among the strong men in leather jackets. I should ask for her documents, Jan thought, but at that moment an UgRo officer he didn’t know ran up to the girl, hugged her, and kissed her on the lips.

Jan walked away so as not to attract attention, only later he asked, Who was that kissing the woman over there?—and in reply he heard the man’s name.

All the rest was a technical matter. Jan made inquiries and found out more about the man. Some Civil War hero, a fighter against banditry, a distinguished comrade. True, he had to dig deeper when it came to the girl. A student at the university—so Jan stopped by her department and checked her documents. Everything seemed in order, a worker family, but her name put him on his guard. He went to the address where her mother and sister lived. My revolutionary instinct did not mislead me, he chuckled. When the house committee saw his warrant, they told him everything. A former bourgeoise who started at the factory recently so she could get into the university.

The street cleaner volunteered to show him where they’d lived before—in their own house, it turned out. And there, not believing his own ears, Jan heard this: The dead count’s wife and daughter.

I’ll collect some more documents, he said, and I felt his fingers trembling in my hand, and report to Comrade Meerzon that a representative of the exploiting classes concealed her origin when entering the university, and with criminal intent entered into a liaison with an officer of the workers and peasant militia. This means the death penalty, believe me, Vitya, I know how to write.

I pressed my whole body to Jan, soaking up his trembling.

Why didn’t you say something? I whispered. After all, this is a gift for both of us.

Yes, Jan replied gravely, for the Revolution’s birthday.

The anniversary isn’t until the next week, but I realize that Jan is already counting the days until his Farewell, countess!—when the crimson rose blossoms on her white dress.

He said the Revolution’s birthday, as if the Revolution is a person, a woman he’s in love with. I adore that chivalry in him, that obedience and sterility, the cold flame of unearthly passion eating him up from the inside. For Jan we are both the Revolution’s lovers, and our intimacy is just an attempt to get close to Her; for him a new attempt, after years of war and execution lists, to replace death cries with cries of pleasure and the lead seed of the revolver with the seed of our love drying on my lips.

In the morning I watched Jan dress. He turned his back to me and I gazed at his butt, rounded and resilient, gazed at the scar between his broad shoulder blades… Aroused and trembling, I ran over and kissed the back of his neck.

Jan smiled over his shoulder.

Not now, Vitya, I have to go, and so do you.

Yes, I went to work too. A boring office job. If it hadn’t been for meeting Jan, my life would have been as flat as the papers I sorted through. I despised my job, though Jan did say, This too is service to the Revolution.

I got dressed and wanted to leave with him—but Jan wasn’t going to wait for me.

In a hurry to see your countess? I asked.

Our countess—and he smiled in the doorway.

I often think those words were the greatest avowal of love in my life, a magnificent epilogue to our romance, the farewell moment in a string of nights that smelled of semen and gun grease, long nights we shared the way we shared the Revolution, that stern Virgin; the way we shared the countess, the snow-white lamb doomed for slaughter in Her name.

Jan didn’t come back that night. Sometimes he was kept late, but he always warned me in advance. After midnight, tortured by suspicion, jealousy, and fear, I ran all the way across the city to Lubyanka Square. I imagined the attempted arrest, the resistance of the counterrevolutionary conspirators, a foolish bullet, and a bloody rose on his broad, hairless chest.

I asked the guard whether Jan was there and in reply I got, Get out of here, contra!, words that are doubly frightening on OGPU’s threshold. Lost, I wandered off; turning the corner, I heard the sound of an engine. A car was pulling up and behind the wheel sat a young boy. I knew him; he’d brought Jan home a couple of times after nighttime operations.

Are you Viktor? he asked.

I nodded, hesitant to ask about Jan. But he told me without waiting for my question. Later I thought they might have been lovers too. The boy’s voice held a sadness, and he told me the truth, which an OGPU agent isn’t supposed to share with an outsider—unless, of course, something more connects him to that outsider than the nighttime street, the predawn hour, and the dim glow of the streetlamps.

We got a warning, he said, that Jan is supposedly linked to the SRs and is planning a terrorist act. An UgRo agent reported that some petty thief happened to give testimony about this during a roundup.

What nonsense, I murmured. Jan has nothing to do with thieves.

I don’t know, the boy said. They killed the thief when he tried to escape. But the UgRo agent is such a distinguished comrade—he fought in the Civil War and can’t be doubted. He spoke with Comrade Meerzon in his office for two hours, and Meerzon personally signed the arrest order.

In the camps people sometimes talk about how they learned of the arrest of their near and dear. Usually they say, We believed they’d sort things out there and release him. I grinned ever so slightly. That night I had no illusions. I knew how this machine worked. I knew I’d never see Jan again. I knew it was pointless to go see Meerzon and tell him that the UgRo agent’s lover was a former countess and he had slandered Jan when he realized Jan was getting close to her. Yes, I knew it was all pointless. Pointless and dangerous.

If there had been roosters in Moscow, that night they could have cockadoodle-dooed without end. I renounced my love in a flash—I said, Well, Comrade Meerzon knows better—and hunched up, went to meet the graying dawn.

My love died before the bullet entered Jan’s smooth neck, right where I’d kissed him for the last time. My love died. The man I loved couldn’t sit in a cell or answer any interrogator’s questions. He could only ask the questions himself, only lock other people up in cells, with every movement asserting the great invigorating power of revolutionary death, which boiled in him like an eternal spring, gave strength to the roots of that mighty tree, filled with sap the strong shaft that swelled between my lips.

After Jan’s disappearance I was gripped by a dreary sadness, as if the whole postcoital tristia our nights had never known had simply been biding its time. My dreams were pale, colorless, like the pages of the daily newspapers with their reports about new achievements, new construction, and new enemies. I went back to my hopeless, faded existence, now even more insipid than before I met Jan. Even young boys and men didn’t excite me now, as if deep down inside I had found a secret inner courtyard where I made the very possibility of intimacy and love face the wall.

One day, at dawn, I dreamed of a girl in white carrying a parasol and wearing high-laced boots. She was walking arm in arm with a man I didn’t know who was wearing a leather jacket, and I had no doubt that this was my love’s murderer, Jan’s murderer. I was reminded of the unbearable contrast between the white lace and black leather jacket where their arms touched. The man seemed my age, broad of shoulder, round-headed, and like many in those days, shaved bald. The glance he cast at the girl radiated tenderness, but the moment he looked away his eyes turned into two black circles, two endless tunnels, two rifle muzzles ready to fire.

I woke up. On my lips was the forgotten taste of gun grease and machine oil. For the first time since Jan’s disappearance I started to caress myself, turned over on my back, shutting my eyes, and squeezed my hardening cock in my hand. I imagined Jan—his powerful hands and fingers covered in fair hair, the scars on his back and belly, the prominent tendons of his forearms, his hairless chest, the forgotten smell of wartime sweat; but the familiar features faded and through Jan’s image his murderer peered imperiously, as if Jan had turned into that man, as if the murderer had swallowed Jan up. When the metamorphosis was complete, a thick stream spurted up and fell in dead drops on my belly.

The countess was a mirage, a fata morgana. A set trap, a temptation Jan could not resist. The Revolution did not forgive infidelity; the Revolution’s jealousy was worse than my youthful jealousy. The false promise to bring a lamb for sacrifice could not fool Her; in the secret order to which Jan and I belonged there was no place for women—only Her. Passion that did not belong to the Revolution could only be given to another man, as if to one’s own reflection in the mirror, one’s own double, one’s own partner in the strict service of the cruel maiden.

I knew my turn would come sooner or later. I was going to pay for the dreams Jan and I shared; I would pay for our countess.

I waited for many years, and when the time came, I signed the investigation’s protocol without reading it—but I didn’t tell them anything about Jan, or our love, or the bewitching fata morgana who drew us into the fatal abyss.

Sometimes I think I didn’t betray our love after all.

I was waiting for them to execute me, but times had changed. The Revolution required slaves, not sacrifices. They sent me to a camp, where I was certain I would die. I could die in transit, in Siberia, or at the colony; or, after the second arrest, in the transit prisons, in Dzhezkazgan or Vorkuta. I probably didn’t perish because the death-infused seed I’d spilled into my throat so many nights in a row had filled me with strength.

In ’56, during the wave of Khrushchev’s rehabilitations, I returned to Moscow. I thought, They’ve rehabilitated Jan too. I thought I might learn the name of the UgRo informer, meet with him and look into his deep dark eyes… But I didn’t try. What would I have done if I’d met the man? In my dreams I sometimes killed him, sometimes I had sex with him, and often at the decisive moment the countess would walk into the bedroom, a ghost, still very young, walk in and watch silently, and his mighty round-headed cock would soften in my lips.

Once I dreamed that the bullet—my lover’s lead seed—would not let time waste my flesh. I’d been twenty-four—and the same number of years have now passed since I came back from Kazakhstan, although once again I thought I would soon die. The years have faded my memory of Jan, my memory of our love, my memory of the camp, the countess, and her round-headed companion, everything that happened in the last seventy-odd years. I’ve spent nearly my entire life alone; and in old age even the old ghosts refrained from violating my solitude.

I know this is how I’ll die. Alone, in an empty apartment, the summer of 1980, the sixty-third anniversary of the Revolution’s birth.

Death is a great cheat, a fata morgana. I once dreamed of it, but it slipped away, over and over. Eventually I gave up, weary, and backed off.

Now it’s coming for me and I say, Listen, I don’t understand why I ever loved you. In reply you squeeze my old fingers in your cold hand.

Is this really what I dreamed of half a century ago?

Too bad. You’ve taken so long to get here, I almost forgot how much I once loved you!

A little girl on Crimea’s cliffs, a young woman from a burned-out village, an old woman in front of a mirror. A sailor floating down the Volga, a soldier pulling out a pin, an old man waiting for death, a man finding it for himself. And more and more new souls keep crowding in behind them.

All of them are me.

My god, so many! None of them are left—the son, the daughter, the heir, the heiress—no one is left, no one and nothing, there’s not even anyone to remember, anyone to tell, anyone to utter a word to those who came after. No one sees or hears them.

Only me…

Masha weeps, she weeps for everyone who vanished without a trace, weeps and repeats: Only me, only me… and does that mean I’m their heir? Does that mean I have to bear all this, preserve these souls in my emaciated body, bear them eternally in exchange for my unconceived children?

I’m as alone as alone can be, Masha tells herself. I never knew my real parents, my mama and papa drove me out, I have no brothers or sisters, and will never have children. How will I carry this burden alone? Am I a medium or something? Did I summon up the dead? No, they came to me of their own accord, entered me the way a rapist enters a sleeping woman, a woman who has lost the strength to resist.

Oh well, if you’ve come, make yourself comfortable, eat me, enjoy. Here is my flesh, here is my blood, but no bread and wine are served here. Be my guests, only know it’ll be a short story. Because I’m not going to be able to bear all this any longer.

I can’t alone.

And I can’t call for help.

I’ll go to Nikita and say, I hear voices, I have other people, dead people, living inside me. Instantly his voice will become very patient, sympathetic, and upbeat. That voice will make even me start to think I’ve lost my mind and belong in a psych ward. It’s probably better if I don’t say anything at all.

Just so he’s nearby, just so he doesn’t leave, just so he holds my hand—and I’ll keep quiet, I’ll deal with the rest myself.

I’ll say, Wasn’t it nice in the Crimea nine years ago? Remember I was still telling fortunes on the quay? Could that have been when it all started? Could that be where I let all these alien lives inside me, all these lost, dead, unfortunate, barren souls? But we were still having fun that evening, drinking wine, eating shashlik. We were young and foolish. Strong and confident. Maybe deep down I still have that strength, maybe it’s enough at this age, what do you think, Nikita, eh?

Don’t answer, you don’t have to. After all, you and I know ourselves how much we can withstand. Don’t answer, all right? Just don’t go away, please. Don’t go.

I’ll just hold your hand—we’ll all just hold your hand—and maybe we’ll surface, or maybe we’ll finally learn to breathe underwater.