If you think, don’t speak.
If you think and speak, don’t write.
If you think, speak and write, don’t sign.
If you think, speak, write and sign, don’t be surprised.
News of Konstantyn Illych Boyko’s transgression came to us by way of an anonymous note deposited in a suggestion box at the Kozlov Cultural Club. According to the note, after giving a poetry reading, Konstantyn Illych disseminated a political joke as he loosened his tie backstage. Following Directive No. 97 to Eliminate Dissemination of Untruths among Party Cadres and the KGB, my superior could not repeat the joke, but assured me it was grave enough to warrant our attention.
One can only argue with an intellectual like Konstantyn Illych if one speaks to him on his level. I was among the few in the Kozlov branch of the agency with a higher education, so the task of re-educating Konstantyn Illych fell to me.
Since Konstantyn Illych was a celebrated poet in Ukraine and the matter a sensitive one, I was to approach him in private rather than at his workplace, in case the joke had to be repeated. Public rebuke would only be used if a civil one-on-one failed. According to Konstantyn Illych’s personal file (aged forty-five, married, employed by the Cultural Club), the poet spent his Sundays alone or with his wife at their dacha in Uhly, a miserable swampland thirty kilometers south of town.
Judgment of the quality of the swampland is my own and was not indicated in the file.
The following Sunday I drove to Uhly, or as close as I could get to Uhly; after the spring snowmelt, the dachas were submerged by a meter of turbid water and people were moving between and around the dachas in rowboats.
I had not secured a rowboat for the task as the need for one was not mentioned in Konstantyn Illych’s file, nor in the orders I was given.
I parked at the flood line, where five rowboats were moored: two green, two blue, one white, none black. Our usual mode of transportation was black. I leaned on the warm hood of my car (black) and plucked clean a cattail as I deliberated what to do next. I decided on the innocuous white; anyway I did not want to frighten Konstantyn Illych and cause him to flee by appearing in a black one.
The dachas were poorly numbered and I had to ask for directions, which was not ideal. One man was half deaf and, after nodding through my question, launched into an account of his cystectomy; another elderly man, who clearly understood what I was saying, rudely responded in Ukrainian; one woman, after inquiring what in hell I was doing in her brother’s rowboat, tried to set her German shepherd on me (thankfully, the beast was afraid of water). I was about to head back to the car when an aluminum kayak slid out of the reeds beside me, carrying two knobble-kneed girls. They told me to turn right at the electric transformer and row to the third house after the one crushed by a poplar.
A few minutes later I floated across the fence of a small dacha, toward a shack sagging on stilts. On the windowsill stood a rusted trophy of a fencer in fighting stance, and from its rapier hung a rag and sponge. When no response came from an oared knock on the door, I rowed to the back of the shack. There sat Konstantyn Illych and, presumably, his wife Milena Markivna, both of them cross-legged atop a wooden table, playing cards. The tabletop rose just above water level, giving the impression that the couple was stranded on a raft at sea. The poet’s arms and shoulders were small, boyish, but his head was disproportionately large, blockish. I found it difficult to imagine the head strapped into a fencing mask, but that is beside the point.
‘Konstantyn Illych?’ I called out.
‘Who’s asking?’ He kept his eyes on the fan of cards in his hands.
I rowed closer. The wood of my boat tapped the wood of the table. ‘I’m Mikhail Igorovich. Pleased to meet you.’
Konstantyn Illych did not return my politesse, did not even take the toothpick out of his mouth to say, ‘You here for electric? We paid up last week.’
His wife placed a four of spades on the table. Her thick dark hair hung over her face.
I told Konstantyn Illych who I was and that the agency had received reports of how he had publicly disseminated wrongful evaluations of the leaders of the Communist Party and the Soviet society at large, and that I was here to have a conversation with him. Konstantyn Illych set his cards face down on the table and said in a level tone, ‘All right, let’s have a conversation.’
I had conducted dozens of these conversations before and always began from a friendly place, as if we were two regular people – pals, even – just chatting.
‘Quite the flood,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said Konstantyn Illych, ‘the flood.’
‘I’ll bet the children love it here.’
Usually there were children. I stretched my legs out in the rowboat, which upset its balance, jerked them back.
‘No parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles either,’ said Milena Markivna. Her upper lip curled a little – the beginning of a sneer, as if to say, But you already knew that, didn’t you?
There had indeed been mention of a mass reprimand of Milena Markivna’s relatives in the fifties, but amid all the other facts about all the other citizens of Kozlov – all their sordid family histories – the detail had slipped my mind. Still, the woman did not need to dampen the spirit of the conversation.
Konstantyn Illych broke the silence. ‘So what’s the joke?’
‘I haven’t made a joke,’ I said.
‘No, the joke I supposedly told about the Party.’
Already he was incriminating himself. ‘The term I used was “wrongful evaluation”, but thank you for specifying the offense, Konstantyn Illych.’
‘You’re welcome,’ he said, unexpectedly. ‘What was it?’
‘I cannot repeat the joke.’ I admit I had searched Konstantyn Illych’s file for it, but one of the typists had already redacted the words.
‘You can’t repeat the joke you’re accusing me of telling?’
‘Correct.’ Then, before I could stop myself: ‘Perhaps you could repeat the joke, and I’ll confirm whether or not it’s the one.’
Konstantyn Illych narrowed his eyes.
‘We aren’t moving any closer to a solution, Konstantyn Illych.’
‘Tell me the problem first,’ he said.
A brown leaf, curled into the shape of a robed figurine, floated by Milena Markivna’s foot. She pressed the leaf into the murky water with her thumb before turning to her husband. ‘Just say sorry and be done with it.’
I thanked her for her intuition – an apology was precisely what was in order, in the form of a letter within thirty days. Milena Markivna advised me not to thank her since she hadn’t done anything to help me, in fact she hated officers like me and it was because of officers like me that she had grown up alone in this world, but at least she had nothing to lose and could do anything she wanted to: she could spit in my face if she wanted to, which I did not recommend.
Konstantyn Illych was tapping his fingernails on the table. ‘I’m not putting anything in writing.’
It is usually at this point in the conversation, when the written word comes up, that the perpetrator becomes most uncomfortable, begins to wriggle. Most people fail to grasp the simple logic of the situation: that once a transgression occurs and a case file opens, the case file triggers a response – in this case, a letter of apology. One document exposes the problem, the second resolves it. One cannot function without the other, just as a bolt cannot function without a nut and a nut cannot function without a bolt. And so I told Konstantyn Illych, ‘I’m afraid you don’t have a choice.’
He reached for the small rectangular bulge in his breast pocket. ‘Ever read my poetry?’
I expected him to retrieve a booklet of poems and to read from it. Dread came over me; I had never been one to understand verse. Thankfully he produced a packet of cigarettes instead.
‘Come to my next reading,’ he said. ‘You’ll see I’m as ideologically pure as a newborn. Then we’ll talk about the letter.’
Normally I’d have a letter of apology written and signed well under the thirty-day deadline and I took pride in my celerity. Even the most stubborn perpetrators succumbed under threat of loss of employment or arrest. The latter, however, was a last resort. The goal now was to re-educate without arrest because the Party was magnanimous and forgiving; moreover prisons could no longer accommodate every citizen who uttered a joke.
In Konstantyn Illych’s case, next came gentle intimidation. If Konstantyn Illych stood in line for sausage, I stood five spots behind him. If Konstantyn Illych took a rest on a park bench, I sat three benches over. He pretended not to see me, but I knew he did: he walked too fast, tripping on uneven pavement; bills and coins slipped from his fingers regularly. His head jerked right and left to make sure he never found himself alone on the street. He needn’t have worried – always the odd pedestrian around – and anyway I did not intend to physically harm or abduct Konstantyn Illych, though that would have been simpler for both of us. My older colleagues often lamented the simpler times.
Four days passed without a word exchanged between us.
On the fifth day I went to see Konstantyn Illych give his poetry reading at the Kozlov Cultural Club. I took a seat in the front row of the lecture hall, so close to the stage I could see the poet’s toes agitate inside his leather shoes. In the dim light I was able to transcribe some of his poetry:
Helical gears, cluster gears, rack gears,
bevel and miter gears, worm gears, spur gears,
ratchet and pawl gears, internal spur gears,
grind my body
gr gr grrr
ah ah ah
aah aah aah
bares his flesh
skinless, bears the burden
of the air wooooooooooooooosh
not me forgets.
I cannot guarantee I transcribed the onomatopoeic bits with accuracy; Konstantyn Illych’s reading gave no indication of the number of a’s and o’s, etc.
At the end of the reading the poet placed his pages at his feet, unbuttoned his faded blue blazer, addressed the audience: ‘Time for a little trivia. I’ll recite a poem and one of you will guess who wrote it. Get it right and everyone here will admire you, get it wrong and you’ll be eternally shamed.’ A few people laughed.
Throughout the challenge poets such as Tsvetaeva, Inber, Mayakovsky, Shevchenko (this one I knew) and Tushnova were identified. The audience expressed their enjoyment by whooping and clapping between names.
Konstantyn Illych waited for the lecture hall to quiet down before he leaned into the microphone. ‘Who, whom?’
This apparently was also a poem; the crowd erupted in fervid applause. I made a mental note to alert my superiors that local culture was going down the chute.
Konstantyn Illych scanned the audience until his eyes locked with mine. ‘The gentleman in the front row, in the black peacoat,’ he said. ‘Who wrote that poem?’
Once more the hall fell silent.
I turned right and left, hoping to find another man wearing a black peacoat in my vicinity, when I saw Konstantyn Illych’s wife sitting behind me. She crossed her arms, her great bulging eyes on me, beckoning me to answer. One of her hands, nestled in the crook of her arm, resembled a pale spider waiting to pounce.
Konstantyn Illych’s voice boomed above me. ‘The greatest poet of all time, Comrade, and you do not know? I’ll give you three seconds. Three . . .’
I froze in my seat. The man to my right, whose nose looked like it had been smashed many times, nudged me in the ribs.
‘Two . . .’
The man whispered, ‘Grandfather Lenin!’ which I found absolutely in poor taste.
‘One!’ Konstantyn Illych bellowed. ‘Who was it, esteemed audience?’
The words rose up from the crowd in a column. ‘Grandfather Lenin!’
Konstantyn Illych looked down at me from the stage, tsked into the microphone. Each tsk felt sharp, hot, a lash on my skin.
It was around this time I began to suspect that, while I had been following Konstantyn Illych, his wife had been following me. I forced myself to recollect all I could of the preceding week. Milena Markivna never figured in the center of the memories – the bullseye had always, of course, been Konstantyn Illych – but I did find her in the cloudy periphery, sometimes even in the vacuous space between memories. If I stood five spots behind Konstantyn Illych in line for sausage, the hooded figure four spots behind me possessed Milena’s small, narrow-shouldered frame; if I sat three benches from Konstantyn Illych, the woman two benches over had the same pale ankle peeking out from under the skirt. I began to see the task of retrieving the letter of apology in a new light.
What I suspected: It was not about the letter, rather the lengths I would go to retrieve it.
What I suspected: I was being vetted for a position of great honor.
What I knew: ‘Who, whom?’ had been a simple test, and I had failed it.
What I knew: My mother had been subjected to the same tests as a young woman, and had succeeded.
When I was a child, my mother was invited to join the Honor Guard. According to my father, she had always been a model student, the fiercest marcher in the Pioneers, the loudest voice in the parades. She was the champion archer of Ukraine and had even been awarded a red ribbon by the Kozlov Botanist Club for her Cactaceae collection. One evening, an officer came to our door and served my mother a letter summoning her to the Chief Officer’s quarters. Within six months she was sent to Moscow for special training, as only special training would suffice for the Guard that stands at the mausoleum of Lenin. Since our family was not a recognized unit – my parents hadn’t married because my paternal grandparents (now deceased) didn’t like my mother – my father and I could not join her in Moscow. I was too young to remember much about this period, but do have two recollections: one, I could not reconcile the immense honor of the invitation with the grief that plagued the family; two, my father assumed care of my mother’s cactus collection and every evening, when he thought I was asleep on the sofa bed beside him, wrapped his fingers around the spines of the plants and winced and grit his teeth but kept them there until his whole body eased into a queer smile. For many months his hands were scabbed and swollen. Within a year my father was gone also; he had at last been able to join my mother in Moscow and my grandparents told me that one day I too would join them.
When Milena Markivna entered my life, I felt I had finally been noticed. The vetting process for the Honor Guard was still possible. My reassignment to Moscow to see my mother and father was still possible. I believed it was possible to make gains with hard work.
From that point on I followed Milena Markivna’s husband with greater vigilance and Milena Markivna followed me with greater vigilance. If Konstantyn Illych riffled through his pockets for a missing kopek for a jar of milk, Milena Markivna’s voice behind me would say, ‘Surely you have an extra kopek for the man,’ and surely enough, I would. If I dropped a sunflower-seed shell on the floor while pacing the corridor outside the couple’s apartment, behind the peephole of Suite 76 Milena Markivna’s voice would say, ‘It’s in the corner behind you,’ and surely enough, it was. She was a master observer, better than me.
(It should not go unsaid that, beyond mention of the reprimand of Milena Markivna’s family, her file contained little information. This may have been because she was born in the province surrounding Kozlov and not in the city itself, but I suspected it was a matter of rank: if Milena Markivna were indeed my superior, tasked with the observation of my conduct and aptitude for ceremonial duty, I would not have access to her full history. Information is compartmentalized to mitigate leaks, much like compartments are sealed off in ships to prevent sinking.)
Konstantyn Illych, in turn, grew accustomed to my omnipresence, even seemed to warm to it. After a bulk shipment to the Gastronom, I watched him haul home a thirty-kilogram sack of sugar. By the time he reached his building, the sack had developed a small tear, which meant he could not haul the sack up to the ninth floor without losing a fair share of granules. The elevator was out of the question due to the rolling blackouts and so I offered to pinch the tear as he carried the load over his shoulder, and he did not decline. Many minutes later we stood in front of Suite 76, Konstantyn Illych breathless from the effort. Since I was there I might as well come in, he said, to help with the sack. He unlocked the steel outer door and the red upholstered inner door, then locked the doors behind us. The apartment was very small, surely smaller than the sanitary standard of nine square meters allotted per person. After we maneuvered the sack to the glassed-in balcony, I scanned the suite for a trace of Milena Markivna – a blouse thrown over a chair, the scent of an open jar of hand cream, perhaps – but saw only books upon books, bursting from shelves and boxes lining the already narrow corridor, books propping up the lame leg of an armchair, books stacked as a table for a lamp under which more books were read, books even in the bathroom, all of them poetry or on poetry, all presumably Konstantyn Illych’s. A corner of the main room had been spared for a glass buffet of fencing trophies and foils, and on the top of it stood a row of dusty family portraits. I tried to find Milena Markivna in the photographs but these, too, were Konstantyn Illych’s – the large head made him recognizable at any age. I wondered if she lived there, if she was even his wife.
Milena Markivna entered the apartment a few minutes after us, with a soft scratch of keys in the locks. She appraised me as I imagined she might appraise a rug her husband had fished out of a dumpster. Would the piece be useful, or would it collect dust and get in the way? Her expression suggested the latter, but her husband was leading me into the kitchen, the point of no return. Once a guest steps into the kitchen, to have them leave without being fed and beveraged is of course unconscionable.
Milena Markivna leaned her hip against the counter, watching Konstantyn Illych mete out home brew into three cloudy shot glasses. ‘Lena, fetch the sprats, will you?’
Milena Markivna said she needed the stool, which I immediately vacated. She stepped on the stool to retrieve a can from the back of the uppermost cupboard and set the can down on the table, with some force, and looked at me, also with some force, as if daring me to do something about the unopened sprats. I produced the eight-layer pocketknife I always kept on my person. In an elaborate display of resourcefulness, I flicked through the screwdriver, ruler, fish scaler and hook disgorger, scissors, pharmaceutical spatula, magnifying lens, hoof cleaner, shackle opener and wood saw, before reaching the can opener. Its metal claw sank into the tin with so little resistance, I could have been cutting margarine. Milena Markivna must have noticed the surprise on my face, asked if I knew about the exploding cans.
I conceded I did not.
‘It’s something I heard,’ she said, ‘something about the tin, how they don’t make it like they used to. People are getting shrapnel wounds.’ After a moment she gave a dry mirthless laugh and so I laughed as well.
Before Konstantyn Illych passed around the shots, I laid a sprat on my tongue and chewed it slowly to let the bitter oil coat the inside of my mouth and throat to minimize the effects of alcohol.
Milena Markivna also chewed a sprat before the first shot, which I did not fail to notice.
Three rounds later, Konstantyn Illych spoke of the tenets of Futurist philosophy and was about to show how he employed them in his poetry when I asked about the letter of apology, due in fifteen days.
‘Mikhail Igorovich,’ he said. ‘Misha. Can I call you Misha?’
‘You may.’ The home brew was softening my judgment and there was only one sprat left.
‘Fuck the letter, Misha. What is this, grade school?’
I told him about the possible repercussions, about his getting fired or arrested. ‘You’re lucky,’ I said. ‘In earlier times, a political joke meant ten years.’
Konstantyn Illych set his empty shot glass upside down on his pinkie like a thimble, twirled it in languid circles. ‘Once upon a time,’ he began.
I wanted to shake the letter out of him.
‘I got the flu,’ he continued. ‘Ever get the flu?’
‘The flu turned into pneumonia and I ended up in the hospital. Not only did I get my own room, but by the end of the week the room was filled, and I mean floor-to-ceiling filled, with flowers and cards and jars of food from people I didn’t even know, people from all around the country.’
Milena Markivna placed the last sprat between her lips and sucked it in until the tip of the tail disappeared into her mouth.
Konstantyn Illych leaned in. ‘Imagine, Misha, what would happen if you tried to get me fired.’
Milena Markivna smacked her lips. ‘Shall I grab another can? Maybe this time we’ll get lucky.’
Another week passed without success. My superior remarked that I was usually quicker at obtaining a letter, and was I not dealing with someone who specialized in the written word, who could whip up a heartfelt apology in no time? I tried what I could with the poet. I considered bribing him, but the mere thought felt unnatural, against the grain, against the direction a bribe usually slid. I began to neglect other tasks at work, but believed my persistence with Konstantyn Illych would be rewarded. I admit I thought of Milena Markivna as well, and often. She followed me into my dreams. Throughout my life, she would tell me, I was being watched over. She would award me with a certificate signaling my entry into the Honor Guard, would place on my head a special canvas cap with a golden star on its front. I cannot say if this is true to the initiation ceremony but it was how I imagined it had happened with my mother. I would wake at night to find myself alone in my dark room but was never afraid. I knew I was being watched over.
The day before the deadline I stood at the back of the town cinema, watching Konstantyn Illych watch Hedgehog in the Fog. I cannot recall when I began to watch the animated film myself. I had already seen it a number of times and always found it unsettling, in the way heights are unsettling. En route to see his friend for tea, Hedgehog gets lost in the fog that descends on the forest. It isn’t the fog or the forest that troubles me, as it troubles Hedgehog, it is this: Hedgehog sees a white horse and wonders if it would drown if it fell asleep in the fog. I’ve never understood the question. I suppose what Hedgehog means is: if the white horse stops moving, we would no longer see it in the white fog. But if we no longer see it, what is its state? Drowned or not? Dead or alive? The question is whether Hedgehog would prefer to keep the fog or have it lift to discover what is behind its thick veil. I would keep the fog. For instance, I cannot know the whereabouts of my parents because they are part of me and therefore part of my personal file and naturally no one can see their own file, just like no one can see the back of their own head. My mother is standing proud among the Honor Guard. My mother is standing elsewhere. She is sitting. She is lying down. She is cleaning an aquarium while riding an elevator. Uncertainty contains an infinite number of certainties. My mother is in all these states at once, and nothing stops me from choosing one. Many people claim they like certainty, but I do not believe this is true – it is uncertainty that gives freedom of mind. And so, while I longed to be reassigned to Moscow, the thought of it shook me to the bones with terror.
When the film ended, I felt a cold breath on the back of my neck. Milena Markivna’s voice came as a whisper: ‘Meet me at the dacha at midnight. I’ll get you the letter.’
It was a weekday, a Wednesday, the dachas empty of people. The swamps were still flooded but this time a sleek black rowboat waited for me. It barely made a seam in the water as I rowed. Northward, the overcast sky glowed from the city. My teeth chattered from the cold or excitement or fear; it is difficult to keep still when one knows one’s life is about to change. Already I could feel, like a comforting hand on my shoulder, the double gold aiguillette worn by the Guard. The tall chrome boots tight around my calves.
I tried to retrace the route I had taken the first time I visited the dacha, but found myself in the middle of a thicket of cattails. The glow of the sky switched off. Normally electricity is cut not at night but in the evening when people use it most and thus the most can be economized – this is the thought I would have had had I not been engulfed in panic. Darkness closed in on me. I circled on the spot. The cattails hissed against the edge of the boat. Willow branches snared my arms and face. A sulfurous stench stirred up from the boggy water. Milena Markivna had given me the simplest of tasks and I was about to fail her.
A horizontal slit of light appeared in the distance, faint and quivering. I lurched the boat toward it. Soon I recognized the silhouette of the shack on stilts; the light emanating from under its door. I scrambled up the stairs, knocked. The lock clicked and I waited for the door to open, and when it did not, I opened it myself.
A figure in a white uniform and mask stood before me, pointing a gleaming rapier at my chest. The figure looked like a human-sized replica of the fencing trophies I had seen inside the glass display at Suite 76.
‘Close the door.’ The voice behind the mask was calm, level and belonged to Milena Markivna.
I tried to keep calm as well, but my hand shook when it reached the handle. I closed the door without turning away from her, kept my eyes on the rapier. The ornate, patinated silver of its hilt suggested the weapon had been unearthed from another century.
‘Down on the floor. On your knees.’
I had not imagined our meeting to be like this but did as I was told. I inquired about the utility of having my ankles bound by rope and Milena Markivna said it was to prevent me from running away before she was done. I assured her I wouldn’t think to run from such an important occasion and she, in turn, assured me she would skewer my heart onto one of my floating ribs if I tried. Before she stuffed a rag inside my mouth I told her I had been waiting for this moment since I was a child and she said she had been waiting for it since she was a child as well. I told her I was ready.
She said, ‘I’m ready too.’
I do not know how much time passed with me kneeling, head bowed, as Milena Markivna stood over me.
I tried to utter a word of encouragement, mention the canvas cap with the golden star on its front, but of course couldn’t speak through the rag in my mouth. All I could do was breathe in the sour, pickled smell of the fabric.
At last she knelt down in front of me, one hand on the hilt of the rapier, its tip still poised at my chest. With the other hand she took off her mask. Hair clung to her forehead, moist with sweat. I searched her face for approval or disappointment but it was closed to me, as if she were wearing a mask under the one she had just removed. I wondered how this would all look if a stranger barged through the door: she almost mad and I almost murdered.
Milena Markivna stabbed the rapier into the floor, which made me cry out, and said there really was no hurry in what she was going to do. She brought over a candle that had been burning on the table and dipped my fingers into the liquid wax, one by one, as she named her relatives who had been executed, one by one, thirty years ago. The burning was sharp at first – I dared not make another sound – but soon felt like ice. Milena seemed calmer then. She took the rag out of my mouth, unlaced her boots, set her feet on them and gave me a series of instructions. As I enveloped her warm toes in my mouth, she reminded me how she hated me. I removed my lips from the mound of her ankle long enough to tell her that we were not so different, she and I; that I too had grown up alone even though that would change soon. As she brought a second candle over and began to tip it over my scalp, she asked how it would change. Barely able to speak now, I told her that it would change when she inducted me into the Honor Guard and I would go to Moscow and see my family again. She laughed as if I had told a joke. The smell that greeted me was of singed pig flesh, sickening when I realized it was my own hair. My head pulsed with pain; tears blurred my vision. Milena Markivna set the candle down and asked how I knew where my family was. I said it was what I had been told. As she slid her fingers along the blade of the rapier, she said the neighbors had told her that her family had gone to a better place too, but never specified where or why they never wrote. The darkness of the night filtered in through the cracks of the shack and into my mind and I began thinking things I did not like to think about – my mother and father and where they might be. Milena Markivna wrapped her hand around the hilt of the rapier again and told me to take off my coat and shirt and lie face down on the floor.
As I did so, one thought knocked against another, like dominoes:
There was a possibility I was not, at present, being recruited.
If not, there was no Honor Guard waiting for me.
If not, my parents’ rank did not matter.
If not, my parents did not have rank.
If not, my mother was not in the Guard.
If not, they were not in Moscow.
The blade dragged from my tailbone up the thin skin of my spine, searing my mind clean. I screamed into my mouth so that no one would hear. When the blade reached between my shoulders it became warm, and from its point a sweet numbness spread through my arms. I thought of my father with his bleeding hands, understood that queer smile. My head spun and the walls began to undulate. My voice came hoarsely. ‘How do you know what happened to your family?’
After a moment she said, ‘They disappeared. That’s how I know.’
‘They could be anywhere.’
‘Do you believe that?’
‘Yes.’ My body shook against the damp floorboards. ‘No.’
It was when I welcomed the blade that it lifted from my skin. I felt a tug between my ankles, then a loosening. She had cut the rope.
‘You can go.’
‘You’re not done.’
‘No,’ she said, but pushed my shirt and coat toward me with her foot. I lay limp, spent. Through the window I could see the glow of the city flicker back on. I remembered why I had come to the dacha, but could not rouse myself to bring up the letter. I found I did not care about it much myself. I would be the one who would have to issue an apology to my superior the next day, give an explanation for failing to complete my task. I would write it. My superior would read it. I would be dismissed. What next? I would go to the market for a jar of milk, search my pockets for the correct change. If I weren’t to have it, a voice behind me might ask if someone has a kopek for the man. Surely enough, someone will.
Before leaving I asked Milena Markivna, ‘What was the joke your husband told?’
‘Oh.’ She said, ‘█████████████████████████████? ██████████████████████ █████████████████████.’
‘All this trouble for that?’
It was the first time I saw her smile. ‘I know. It’s not even that funny.’
Artwork © Zoran Cardula