Two things were wrong with the Spasskaya assessment. The first was the painting: a tiny square in a simple frame, something I barely noticed at the time, but which would go on to cause us so much suffering. The second was the woman.
Wailing greeted us when we arrived, almost at midnight. Assessment teams had to come without warning. Snow fell in great marching waves, helpless in the hands of the wind off the Moscow River. Barely three weeks old, the winter of 1924 seemed to know how desperate and hungry we were, and to be conspiring with the Western imperialists to slaughter us.
Twelve people lived in the Spasskaya mansion. Mere blocks from the Kremlin, big enough that thirty families would be moved in once we had stripped it. Our soldiers herded those twelve fat parasites into one room and encircled them while we did our work.
They had been expecting us, of course. Every aristocrat and landlord and other assorted enemy of the people could anticipate a visit from an assessment team. We came in the night, and we stole the things we could sell abroad.
Fabergé eggs and German expressionist sketches and errant Rembrandts passed through my hands; decadent filth that nonetheless could be turned into tens of thousands of rubles to feed the starving Soviet state. A watercolor by Kandinsky could buy us ten cows. The engagement ring of a century-dead empress could bring back two tractors. And these parasites, every one of them, actually believed they deserved these foul treasures bought with other men and women’s sweat and blood. No matter where we went in the mansion, we could hear them wailing.
I didn’t like it anymore, when they wept. Joy in the suffering of others was the first habit Apolek broke me of, sparing me a couple hundred hours in a Pavlov Box in the process. Class enemies saw us coming and attacked, or begged, or burst into tears, but I no longer singled them out for special brutality.
“Lenin says we need to punish the parasites,” I had said, the first day I was assigned to Apolek’s detail, when he urged restraint.
“Not with violence,” he had said. “Not with cruelty.”
Apolek was a blond and ruddy peasant, younger than me, the youngest assessment team leader in the Red Army. Soft-spoken, earnest, above human emotion. I was an illiterate bloodthirsty street urchin, the son of steel workers who starved to death in the famine of 1910. Plucked out of the orphanage by the Ministry of Human Engineering, I was reconditioned into a species of man they said was “slightly smarter than a dog but just as vicious.”
“They treated us with violence and cruelty,” I said, pouting, plotting.
“Do it if you want,” he said. “We’ll see which one of us Volkov puts in a Box.”
Back in the orphanage I’d beaten boys like him bloody on an almost daily basis, but his words were well-chosen. I’d just emerged from a Pavlov Box, suffering unending hours of electric shocks and chemical burns, pharmaceutical fumes and super-high-speed recordings, three times a day for months and months. And the mere possibility of escaping further torment was worth a try.
And Apolek was right, of course, as he would always be, about everything. I didn’t understand it, how a man as savage as Commander Volkov would reward us for not being savage, but I didn’t need to understand. I just had to do what Apolek told me.
“The Soviet Union needs beasts,” he said, after that first assessment, carefully logging newly nationalized statues in the basement of the Kremlin Armoury. “It needs savage men to die in distant border skirmishes, or to torture kulaks. Is a beast what you want to be?”
“No,” I mumbled, and in that moment I saw that I didn’t want that at all.
“What do you want to be, Nikolai?”
I shrugged. I looked at Apolek, too dazed to hide the desperation on my face. I wanted him to answer my question for me.
“But not a beast,” he said.
“We’ll work on that, then.”
I was nineteen and he was seventeen, but in that moment I gladly and wholeheartedly attached myself to him as his protégé. And while the lean and hairy Commander Volkov came sniffing around our unit several times a week, for a year and a half he never found a reason to Box me up again.
Eight of them accompanied us on our runs, to deal with the parasites when the parasites fought back. All of them Broken. Boys who’d been left too long in the Boxes, or test subjects who snapped beneath the weight of some new regimen of flashing lights and film strips and toxic fumes and prototype medicine. The Broken were useful for the terror they caused, and for the savage violence they would break into with the proper command from their conditioned leader. They were also useful as a constant warning to other revolutionary soldiers.
There was no more terrifying prospect, for those of us who had passed through a Pavlov Box, than the thought of being locked in one with no hope of reprieve. I dreamed of it endlessly. Probably it was programmed into all of us. Gnawing my lips open, screaming until I gagged on my own blood and puke and pounding my fists against spiked metal walls until the skin was all gone. Begging and pleading while the machines worked me over—and knowing that it would not end until my mind was completely gone.
I followed Apolek through the Spasskaya mansion, scuffing mud into carpet that had long ago ceased to be beautiful.
“Worthless,” he said, after walking past ten gloomy paintings of Old Testament patriarchs.
“How so?” I asked. “They look nice to me.”
“The names,” he said. “The painters are not notable. Collectors in the West will only pay for the work of famous artists.”
I never paid any attention to the signatures scrawled into the corners. Apolek probably told me that ten times before, but my Pavlov-Boxed brain had a hard time holding onto things. And a hard time concentrating, surrounded as I was by the smell of anger all the time.
No two men emerged the same from any one reconditioning regimen. People were too complex. Their own experiences conditioned them to respond to stimuli so differently.
Most reconditioned soldiers came away with “offshoots,” unanticipated consequences that could be good or bad. Crippling fears of perfectly harmless sights and sounds, or a sudden faculty for foreign languages, and so on. The social engineers spoke openly of their desire to breed men who could read minds or move objects with only thought, but so far those men only existed in rumor.
I had an offshoot. I could smell violence. I could smell anger, could feel the heat of it wash over someone, before they said a word or even acted. No other emotion had any effect on me. Most of the time it was more of a liability than a gift; standing near an angry crowd could cripple me.
Apolek was a reconditioning marvel, a specimen who emerged from the Pavlov Box with astonishing strength and willpower. That’s part of why Volkov gave him so much power so young. Apolek hinted he had conducted other missions, significantly less honorable ones, in which he had distinguished himself. “But that was the beast in me,” Apolek said, “and if we are to succeed as men we must not feed the beast.”
“I like the worthless paintings,” he said tonight. “Especially when they’re good. If they’re worthless, they’ll stay here. It’s shortsighted to sell our most beautiful art to the countries that wish us all dead.”
“Beauty can’t feed people,” I said, surprised I needed to spout Bolshevik clichés at him. “‘A good pair of boots is worth more to a peasant than all of Shakespeare.’”
“On the contrary,” Apolek said, stooping to retrieve something hidden behind a curtain, propped up on the sill of a tall window. “Beauty is as necessary as oxygen. And don’t scowl so much, Nikolai. You look like an angry black bear when you do that.”
I tried to smile, but Apolek did not see me. He held up a tiny painting, and his eyes widened.
“Jesus,” Apolek whispered, reverent as any Old Believer. I stood on tiptoe to see, but it meant nothing to me. Two human-shaped stretches of bare white skin. Tears filled his eyes and then overflowed, and I looked again, but still saw nothing.
A woman watched us from a doorway across the hall, older than us but not by much, dressed all in black. Why was she not with the others? Apolek did not see her. When he took the painting, his lips trembled. Hers went white.
The Broken found her, and brought the woman with the rest of her family to the camps. The Spasskaya assessment was otherwise without incident. No heroics, no bloodshed, and only a handful of art objects worth selling.
I shuffled through my weekend the way I always did: miserably, unsure even of the ground I stood on. My dreams were all of Pavlov Boxes.
Apolek always told me I was lucky to even have a weekend, and I suppose he was right. Soldiers in totalitarian armies rarely get time off, especially in the bloody hunger chaos of the capitol, but Apolek actually treated his team like human beings. To me, a lowly grunt who had been told his whole life that savagery was his only strength, he gave a shocking amount of liberty. And a secretary. He took a big risk in doing all that. Apolek said he saw something in me.
My nightmares had been getting worse. This time I dreamed I was inside a Box, my whole body spasming from electric shocks, and one of them caused my jaw to slam shut with such force that I woke myself up—and found that I had shattered a tooth.
But then, Monday morning, when Apolek normally banished the darkness, I arrived at the Kremlin Armoury and he was not there. This had never happened before; every other day he arrived well before me, to study books on foreign art, or keep up on the latest social engineering successes. Sometimes he slept under his desk.
No one knew the last time he was there. Not even the guards, who barracked there all weekend, remembered seeing him.
I tried to do work. I had assessment deployments to plan out, backlogged incident reports to complete and submit, all the orderly rational work that Apolek said would help me tame my inner beast. And none of it worked.
I did something I had never done before. I went down to the basement, alone, and consulted the logbook. An entry for every assessment, describing each item seized and a brief notation of the plans for it. I was proud of myself, heaving it down off the high shelf with only a glimmer of suspicion what I was chasing.
Besides the ten worthless Bible scenes, there were no paintings registered under the Spasskaya assessment.
Memory was not an important thing for a grunt, so my own reconditioning had not encouraged it. As a result, my mind did not hold memories well, although my body did: weapons work, martial arts, even plumbing and mechanics came easy and stayed. Apolek had tried hard to help me reclaim my memory, by telling me things again and again. Stories. Fairy tales. Dirty jokes. Things that happened to him when he was a child. Some things had stayed. I could hear his voice in my ear, soothing and wise:
“It’s a legend. No one knows if it’s true or not. One day, an assessment officer found a painting that was simply priceless. A Leonardo thought lost, or something else that any Western museum would ransom half its collection for. Well, the assessment officer who discovered it, he told his commanding officer what he had. And the man murdered him, and erased the painting from the logbook, and fled to Paris. Remember, our superiors are no further from being beasts than we are. Some are a lot closer.”
Apolek would never have concealed a painting. If it wasn’t there, it was because someone removed it. And maybe removed Apolek as well.
I did not think about it for long. Apolek would have counseled caution, but he was not there to do so. I climbed the stairs to Volkov’s office two at a time. I girded myself for a fight, prepared to barrel past guards and secretaries, but the officer sat alone in a small room with no door.
“Comrade,” he said, eyeing me suspiciously.
“Commander,” I said, saluting. “It’s Apolek, sir. He’s gone.”
Volkov frowned. “Barely noon on a Monday,” he said. “I am sure he is merely—”
“No,” I said, and stamped my foot. “He’s never late. We found something Friday night. A painting. And it’s not in the logbook. And now he’s gone. I think something terrible happened to him. I think someone—”
His face showed no surprise. Why should he be surprised? Apolek would have told him about the painting.
“That will be all, Comrade. My men will investigate. I will let you know if we find anything.”
Confronting him had been foolish, I now saw. But without saying a word, Volkov had already told me everything I needed to know. Because when I told Volkov that I knew about the painting, and about Apolek’s disappearance, the sudden whiff of anger was so strong it singed my nostrils.
• • • •
The women’s reconditioning camp stank. I don’t know why I was surprised, considering how bad the men’s camp smelled. I guess I thought women were different. It was noisier, too, more full of anger, more likely to burst into violence. I found her easily enough. They kept the new arrivals separate for a week, to minimize the spread of infectious disease.
From the bottom drawer of Apolek’s desk, precisely where he had repeatedly told me they would be in the event I ever needed them, I had stolen a stack of command forms upon which he had forged Volkov’s signature. I requested an office to myself, and demanded they bring her to me.
“You,” the Spasskaya woman said, when she saw me.
I didn’t know what to say. Or do. Bow? Shake hands? Apologize? Back at her mansion her beauty had not impressed me, but now it made my hands fidget deep in my pockets.
“I need your help,” I said.
The woman tilted her head, as if there must be more to me than she was seeing. Then she nodded. “The painting,” she said. “Something happened to it. It’s gone.”
“How did you know that?”
The woman shrugged. I stepped closer.
I said, “Tell me about the painting.”
Somehow, in all the filth and sickness and hunger of that camp, she did not stink. My offshoot, my nose for violence, was not bothered by her. The fear and anger of the place was overwhelming, the rage of thousands of women slowly dying for crimes like being born rich. The stink of it ruptured something in my nose, dripping blood into my gaping mouth.
But the woman smelled like funeral incense, clean and cold and tragic. I had come to interrogate her. Ask her some questions, extract some answers, with steel tools if necessary, and depart. Instead, I wanted terribly to take her with me.
I said, “I know you have no reason to help me. I know you probably hate me. But I need your help. And if you don’t come, you’ll die in here. And soon.”
“I’ll come,” she said.
Another of Apolek’s most important lessons: Whatever you do, you should be able to explain why you’re doing it. And ask yourself—is this a noble and revolutionary act, or something less honorable? More beastly?
In this case I could ask myself the question, but I couldn’t answer it.
Why was I bringing her?
I produced another command form, signed paperwork, and Zinaida Spasskaya was officially my problem. I took her through the tall gates and into a Moscow already bled dry of sunlight.
Did I want to help Zinaida? Did I want her to help me? Did I want to throw her down and tie her up and do terrible things to her? Punish this enemy of the people?
Yes and yes and yes and yes. Apolek was still with me, a faint voice in my ear, but getting fainter. I had to find him fast.
Belorusskaya Station was thick with the screams of metal and men. Food coming in, and soldiers going out. Wheat for the starving millions in the capital, and men to die defending the Polish border. We did not have enough of either.
“Where are we going?” Zinaida asked.
“Stop asking,” I said, maybe not so nicely, feeling frustrated because I didn’t have a very good answer to her question myself.
Zinaida Spasskaya: thirty-one years old. Widow of Lieutenant Anatoly Spassky, killed in his home in March of 1921. No children.
Why was I bringing her? These were the answers I had come up with:
1. She knew the painting, what it was and what could be done with it;
2. I felt sorry for her, and what would certainly happen to her in the camps;
3. She was beautiful, and I wanted her.
I visited the Red Army guard station, and used their telephone to call the Kremlin Armoury. I’d been away from work for three days and I needed a cover story. This much, Apolek had also taught me. The fact that he didn’t have one of his own was another sign that something terrible had happened to him.
“I’m going to Elektrograd,” I told my secretary, a shriveled older man who feared me enough to be useful. “I have to oversee the processing of a particular piece of art. Please arrange and submit all the paperwork for me.”
“Yes, sir,” he said.
“I’d be very grateful for any help you can provide in not allowing Commander Volkov to know anything about this,” I said.
“Volkov isn’t here,” he said. “He left the same day you did.”
• • • •
Elektrograd was the middle ground, where assessment officers met with museum lackeys and middlemen, where papers were signed and money changed hands. It was also where Apolek had his secondary office, where he was most likely to be—if Volkov had not already killed him.
Killed. Merely thinking it made me feel close to cracking.
Zinaida and I huddled together in a darkened boxcar, surrounded by the stink of livestock. I was shocked at how willingly she had come with me, how fearlessly she threw herself into each new leg of the journey. I must have been a slavering vicious brute to her, and yet she was kind to me.
There was a new item on my list of reasons why I took her:
4. Because Zinaida had his softness. His gentleness. His eye for art.
“It’s a piece of a larger painting,” she said, as I was about to fall asleep. Darkness and the clanging rhythm of the rails had made me drowsy.
“What happened to it?” I asked.
“Someone cut it to shreds.”
“Men broke in,” she said. “My husband commanded a brigade that was loyal to the Kronstadt rebels. On the night before the Uprising, Bolsheviks got wind of the rebellion and came to take him. He thought they were robbers. He held the painting to his chest, told them if they killed him they’d kill the painting. A soldier with a bayonet sliced them both up.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I loved my husband,” she said. “That painting . . . it’s what’s left.”
Russia rolled by beneath us, changed and twisted.
Elektrograd was empty. A Potemkin village: an instant city constructed on scorched earth in under six months, with no purpose beyond the art sale summits. We arrived between sessions. No Apolek; no painting; no Volkov. A handful of fey museum men haggled over scraps with bleary-eyed assessment officers.
And everywhere we went were red-faced reconditioned soldier lads, conducting extensive inspections of our papers and bumbling attempts at interrogation. I wasn’t afraid of them. These boys were soft. They did not know how it was in the capitol. Their hunger weakened them, while ours made us more vicious.
They did not have Volkov’s violent voice whispering in their ear as I did. Normally Apolek’s real-life voice could drown it out, but now I was alone with my most violent vile thoughts. Bayonets plunged through eye sockets. Guts spilled. Zinaida spread wide for me.
“What now?” she said, sitting with me on the train platform. Benches had not yet been brought in. The day was almost over. I wanted to punch the concrete until it or my hands shattered.
“Is there someone you can call? At the Ministry?” Zinaida asked.
I frowned into my filthy hands. It would have been so easy to drag her off into the dark and destroy her. I made a list of reasons not to, and it wasn’t long.
“Someone from his family, perhaps?”
“He has no one,” I said, startled at how fast and hot my hate had risen. I hooked my hand into my belt, to keep from reaching for the dagger that hung there. “No one but me.”
“Most ministries have dachas,” she said. “Fancy cabins far from the city, to reward their workers with occasional vacations.”
“How the hell would you know?”
“Maybe Apolek went to one of those,” Zinaida said.
I hated the sound of his name in her mouth. How had she managed to preserve so much class, so much dignity, after all she had been through? Even in the tattered black dress from the women’s camp, whose past several occupants had almost certainly died terribly in it, she looked noble. Apolek said that lust and violence were the beast in us. I felt them both, every time I looked at her.
“What did you do with your art?” I asked, pulling myself back. “Apolek said you must have had an incredible collection, yet we found nothing of value.”
“We gave most of the paintings away,” Zinaida said. “To our servants. I know you think we were heartless oppressors, but we loved them, and we wanted to give them something invaluable.”
I thought of Apolek, wanting the great art to remain in Russia. These were impulses I could not grasp, like why the girl in the fairy tale touches the spindle even though it will obviously prick her finger and make her fall asleep. I was missing something. Something important.
“What would you do with it?” I asked. “If you could get it back?”
“Never let it out of my grip,” she said. “Never stop staring at it. Do you know the story of Narcissus? He died, wasted away, staring into a pool of water at his own reflection. That would be me.”
“What makes it so valuable?”
“You looked at it,” she said. “I saw you. In the home you stole from me. What did you see?”
I shrugged. “People. Naked. Or something.”
Zinaida looked at me. “Who is your favorite painter?”
Twilight softened her grief, made her more beautiful. I made my hands fists, to keep from seizing her. “I don’t have one.”
“Then I cannot explain to you what made that painting what it was.”
Time passed. I said: “Please?”
I waited ’til she was asleep to call the Kremlin Armoury. I left Zinaida where she lay, curled on the cold cement, and there was comfort in her helplessness.
Midnight. Elektrograd was silent except for the cockroach-clicking of the telegraph machine inside the station.
You broke me, I whispered to the wind, to Apolek.
The station agent did not want to make the call. A pudgy coward, he had a poor understanding of how the telephone worked, and I sensed they were very liberal with their Pavlov Boxes out in the backwoods corners of the Empire where no one could see.
“Hello?” said my secretary, already terrified. Babies cried and people squawked in the background. The late-night call to his collective flat had caused the precise ruckus I desired.
“Go to the office,” I said.
He fumbled loudly, perhaps for his watch, but I barked: “You’re finished, if you don’t call me back within two hours with the information I need.”
I could hear the scritch of pencil on paper as he took down my request. An hour later he called me, from the office, from the other side of Moscow. The Asset Maximization department of the Ministry of Culture owned two dachas, a mile apart, a day’s journey from Elektrograd, for high officials involved in art exchange summits. One of them was already signed out. To Commander Volkov.
I slammed the phone down hard, as if my loyal secretary would feel the blow on his back.
“It doesn’t work,” Apolek told me, eight days before he vanished.
“What doesn’t work?” I asked.
Midnight; homeless clerks snoring over heaps of paper in the Ministry. Hallways smoky from soldiers burning old documents to keep warm.
“Reconditioning. The Pavlov Boxes. The effects . . . they’re unstable. After a while, men who’ve been reconditioned begin to experience severe physical and mental side effects. Muscle spasms, severe insomnia, immune system failure. Suicidal tendencies. Madness.”
“How bad can it get?”
“Bad,” he said.
I didn’t ask how he knew. I never did. From the day we met I believed that Apolek knew absolutely everything.
“Even now, they’re building tens of thousands of Boxes, all over the country. Putting boys of all ages into them. Trying millions of different reconditioning regimens. Creating all kinds of monsters. All kinds of terrifying offshoots. Volkov thinks he can fix it with more reconditioning, so whenever it starts to happen to one of his men, he throws them back into a Box for several days. It makes the symptoms go away, but only for a very little while, and then they come back much worse.”
“Okay,” I said, because I didn’t know what to do or think or say. It had never occurred to me to doubt the Boxes, or reconditioning, or the whole grand Soviet plan of human perfectibility.
“I shouldn’t have told you this,” Apolek said, burrowing deeper into the fur-lined jacket he had stolen.
“So . . . all the men who’ve been reconditioned . . . they’ll . . .”
Apolek nodded. His eyes showed pain, loneliness.
“All of us?” I asked.
“All of us.”
“What can we do about it?”
“I don’t know, Nikolai.”
Which he had never said before.
He clasped my neck with one hand. “I used to think we could put the pieces back together ourselves. Help each other survive this. You know? I used to really believe that.”
• • • •
Dreams of blood woke me up, savage gleeful glorious violence, human bodies shredded like paper.
“They say you can’t cry,” she said, sitting up and watching the fire. “After you’ve been reconditioned. Is that true?”
“I don’t know,” I said, sheepishly shifting my body so the outline of my erection would be invisible beneath the blankets. And that’s when I saw that both my arms were sticky with blood, from where I had scratched the skin off.
Zinaida said, “But you haven’t. Since.”
“Do you love your work?” she asked. I had no sense of what time it was. Faint light edged the horizon, but it could have been a distant city.
“I guess,” I said.
“What do you love about it?”
“Do you love helping the great Soviet state create a proletarian paradise?” Zinaida asked.
“Sure,” I said, and she laughed.
“He is why,” she said. “Tell me about him.”
“Apolek,” I said, and saying the name actually helped. “He’s my best friend.”
Why. So many questions I could never even ask myself, let alone answer. “I’m missing something,” I said. “Apolek was helping me find it.”
“What kind of something?”
“I don’t know. Something essential.”
“But he had it,” she said.
“He never knew his father,” I said. “I think that’s the secret. His mother was impregnated and abandoned. That’s why he’s such a good man. He said men are beasts by nature, ugly, violent creatures. Women are different.”
She snorted, delicately. “He seemed to hold quite a position of power, for someone so young.”
“Apolek was a prodigy,” I said. “A reconditioning marvel. They started him small. With young children, it either works very well or not at all. Volkov gave him the keys to the kingdom.”
“And you? How young did they start you?”
The orphanage. The stink of shit and puke, all the time, everywhere. The men from the Ministry, who chose ten out of a hundred by watching us all fight and picking the most savage. I was twelve and I would have slaughtered every one of those boys for the chance to get out of there.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “I’m not like him. I’m an animal. He’s a man.”
“Even wolves mourn their dead,” she said.
“He’s not dead,” I said.
“But not him.”
“Why not him?”
“Why are you here?” I said, spitting out the words. “You hate us. You won’t get your painting back. Your stupid husband will still be dead. When we’re finished here, you’re going back to that camp. So why are you here with me?”
“Because you dragged me along.”
“Yeah, well. Go. Leave if you want to.”
“I’d be dead in a day,” she said, and then touched her hand to the buzz-cut on top of my head. “You are so young.”
“Don’t touch me,” I said. Unconvincingly.
“You never felt manipulated?” she asked, standing up, stretching long lovely arms. “By the men who put you in that Box? By the government? By him?”
I lowered my head. All the sentences in my head involved swearing, and angry as I was I knew that swearing was wrong. It was one of Apolek’s simplest rules.
She put a hand on top of my head, then tilted it back until she could see my eyes. “I was a dancer,” she said.
I looked away. “So what.”
“I’d like to dance for you.”
I said, “Do what you want. But if you think you can mess with my mind so much you can steal your stupid painting when we find it, you’re wrong.”
What did I know or care about dance? Who cared what the body did? But I watched her. She moved like a phantom, dancing. Her body was smoke, the flimsy ugly dress an extension of the wind. Her body made its own music. My head filled with sad stories and long-buried lullabies.
“That was wonderful,” I said, an unaccustomed lump in my throat. Dimly, dumbly, it occurred to me to wonder, really wonder, why she was doing any of this. I felt like I had a lot of weeping to do, and I did not know how to start.
• • • •
An eight-hour walk, from the station to the dacha. Scorched skeletal trees on both sides of us. The cold here was crueler, cutting through even the thick clothes I commandeered from the town’s tiny army depot. We found Volkov’s dacha and crept up close. He lay asleep on a couch, camouflaged by empty bottles. All of the tracks in the snow seemed to come from one pair of boots.
He was alone, except for the Broken soldiers who slept obediently in his truck.
“The other dacha, then,” she said, and started in that direction. I followed, frightened by her zeal. If Apolek was out here, so close to Volkov, were they working together? My old hate for the commander flared up again, brighter now, from jealousy. Ice cracked under our feet. We were not stealthy.
Night came on us fast, while we walked. Many times we were sure we heard someone following us, but sound moved strangely through the trees. We could see the dacha, a dark spot at the end of the road, but the closer we got, the more it faded into the spreading night. No lights were on inside.
“You asked why I came,” Zinaida said, stopping as we climbed the walkway to the front door. “Do you still want to know the answer?”
“No,” I said, pulling her inside by the hand, and kissing her hard, even as I nudged the front door with my foot and found it unlocked, too excited about what we would find inside to care about anything else.
Zinaida lit a candle. We watched our breath cloud out into the frigid darkness of the dacha. I looked for a lamp, and found three. I laughed out loud, when they were all lit, at the sheer size and splendor of the place. So much empty space we were wasting.
His rucksack lay abandoned beside the door, spilling out books like entrails.
“You look upstairs,” she said.
He wasn’t in the first of the three bedrooms. A window was open. A curtain flapped. As if the whole place was waiting. As if the murdered count who lived there would come through the door in the morning and bring summer with him.
The light from my lamp found Apolek in the second bedroom, in a wine-colored velvet chair, with the painting in his lap.
“Apolek!” I said, and rushed forward, but he did not move.
“What is a painting in the dark?” he said. On a table beside him stood a glass of ice.
“What happened?” I asked. “Why did you leave?”
His coldness kept me from coming closer. And asking: Why are you sitting here in the freezing dark? I wondered if Apolek was a ghost.
“I spent so long in darkness,” he said. “I looked at the paintings, but I didn’t see them.”
“What did Volkov say to you?” I asked.
Apolek made a perplexed face, but it passed quickly. He was still transfixed by the painting. I imagined him frozen there for days, wasting away and shivering himself to nothing while he stared at it. My Soviet Narcissus.
He said, “Volkov didn’t say anything to me. I left that night, straight from the Spasskaya mansion, without speaking with him.”
“He doesn’t know about the painting?”
“Not from me,” Apolek said.
“You haven’t spoken with him since?” I asked.
“How would I do that?”
“Christ, Apolek, he’s followed you. You didn’t know?”
Apolek looked up at me for the first time. “He’s here?”
“He’s at the dacha at the end of the lane,” I said, still wanting to rush over to him, still not daring to.
“He’s keeping an eye on me,” Apolek said, standing up, resigned. He didn’t say anything for a long time.
“Come back,” I said. “We can work this out.”
“Not after this,” he said. I thought he meant his own foolish flight from Moscow, but he was staring at the painting.
“I need you,” I said, at last. “I’m not finished . . . becoming. I’m stuck halfway between man and beast.”
“So shall you always be,” he said. Apolek reached out his arm and touched a candle to mine, lighting up a gaunt face shadowed by a surprisingly thick growth of beard. “So are we all.”
From outside, I heard the rumble of a truck approaching.
“Why did you do it?” I asked. “You know what they’ll do to you. To throw it all away—”
He handed me the painting.
I looked at it.
This time, I could see. I saw. I hadn’t before. For four, maybe five full seconds, I understood.
Two bodies, male and female, mostly naked, grappling. Was it love? Was it violence? Where did they fit into the larger composition, now lost, severed by the bayonet of a brutal long-ago soldier?
But the story did not matter. What mattered were the bodies. The twist and reach of the limbs. The glow of the flesh. The flush of the cheeks; the wideness of the mouth. Nothing mattered more than what the body wanted. And the body did not just want sex. It wanted friendship. It wanted beauty.
Looking at the painting, I understood everything. It was like what I felt when Zinaida danced, but turned up ten-thousandfold. I would have risked what Apolek risked. Life on Earth as a human made sense. We are beasts, and we will never understand what we need, what we want, and why, but we will always obey.
My head spun so fast I almost fell over. Zinaida had come up the stairs; stood beside me. One hand on my shoulder. As mesmerized as I was by the painting.
“You brought her here?” Apolek asked, pulling away the painting. I felt her stiffen, when it was gone.
“Yeah,” I said. “I took her. From the camp. She would have died in there. And I needed—”
“Why did you bring her here?”
I had never heard fear in Apolek’s voice before. My head spun worse.
Zinaida stepped forward. Her sadness fell away, a wedding veil no longer needed. In that moment, for the first time, grief was not stronger than rage. And I smelled what I should have smelled the whole time, except that it was hidden behind her sadness and my own blind failure to understand who she was and what she wanted. I smelled an all-consuming violence, a bloodlust strong enough to make all other concerns insignificant.
“You,” I said to Apolek. “You’re the one who killed her husband—”
But he wouldn’t move. And I couldn’t. Only Zinaida moved, and she moved like a phantom dancing. She darted in, ducked low to snag the dagger from my belt, spun fast around him. One lightning-swift swing of the arm was enough. Blood gurgled out of Apolek’s open throat.
I crumpled to the floor with him. I held his hand. I stared into his eyes. I waited for something, some wise final words or a sudden rush of complete understanding as his spirit left his body and entered mine. I got nothing. I don’t know how long I knelt there. Until Volkov came through the door, with four Broken soldiers close behind him.
“No,” he said, and then said it again and again, faster and faster.
Volkov pointed at Zinaida, standing there with the bloody blade, and the Broken stepped forward. The stink of his rage made me gag. “Rip her to shreds,” he said, and although I screamed for them to stop, that’s exactly what they did. At least they did not smell of rage. The Broken kill dispassionately.
I wondered if my offshoot would survive. If—after Volkov took me back to Moscow and locked me in a Box until my spirit shattered, and I emerged as one of the Broken—my sense of smell would still be with me. I hoped it wouldn’t. I hoped nothing would.
My head stopped hurting. I looked at my hands, and knew—my reconditioning was gone. The painting had wiped it away, cleanly and swiftly, and leaving no fatal time bomb inside me.
That’s why Apolek left with it. He looked at it, and felt the burden of his reconditioning break. He wouldn’t have known how, or what magnificent artist had created such a thing. All he knew was what it did, and what could be done with it. Was he going to sell it to our enemies? Move like a phantom from our western border east, showing it to every soldier along the way, defusing all those ticking bombs inside us?
I wouldn’t die. I wouldn’t break down like a faulty machine, like every other soldier spat out of a Pavlov Box.
Volkov crossed the carnage, to kneel beside Apolek. His rage was gone. He held the boy’s head in both hands. I still had my superhuman sense of smell, somehow stronger than ever. I had never been able to smell grief before.
“I thought you hated him,” I said.
“He hated me,” the commander said, his hair and eyes as black as mine. “He’s always hated me. I tried to make him into something he’s not.”
I swallowed, several times. “You’re his father.”
“He knew?” I asked.
“He did not.”
Dagger and painting were filthy with blood. I picked them both up. I handled the painting like Medusa’s head, turning it away from my line of sight, and Volkov’s too. I wondered what the Broken would see if they saw it. I felt certain it could bring them back to life. It could save us all, the tens and hundreds of thousands of fine young men who would otherwise break down and die under the weight of their botched reconditioning.
“Is there a special Box?” I asked. “A special process, to turn a man into one of the Broken?”
Volkov looked at me, his red face comprehending nothing.
I did not dare to look at the painting again. If I did, I’d lose my nerve. With the dagger, I cut a long slit from top to bottom of the painting, then squatted to remove the glass flute from the lamp and hold the canvas square face down atop the flame.
“I’m ready,” I said.
“Ready for what?”
“To be Broken.”
Promise me you’ll make it quick, I wanted to say, but I didn’t say it. I didn’t deserve quick. I had unwittingly, idiotically helped destroy my best friend, and I deserved to suffer. But I hoped he’d do it soon. I wanted to stop feeling what I felt.
Flames from the burning painting singed the hair from my hand, and still I held on to it. I held on until the burning was too much to bear. Now that it was gone, definitively destroyed, I realized what I had done—that without the painting the Pavlov Boxes would quickly cripple the state, bring it to its knees as its best young men died in droves—but that wasn’t why I did it. I destroyed the painting because it killed Apolek.
“Oh, Nikolai, no,” he said. His face shattered, crumpled. “You’re all that’s left of him.”
Volkov fell forward, his arms tightening around me and his hairy face wet against my neck. He heaved with sobs. My body remembered, and I felt unaccustomed water spilling from my eyes. I had forgotten how hot tears were. We stood like that, dumb and broken, two beasts grieving.
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