A grayish-blue lull before dawn, a slow boat on the heavy mirror of Denezh Lake, emerald caverns in the juniper bushes creeping menacingly toward the white wash of the alpine waters.
Nastya turned the brass knob of the door to the balcony and pushed it open. The thick, reeded glass swam to the right, splintering the landscape with its parallel flutes and mercilessly dividing the little boat into twelve pieces. A damp avalanche of morning air flowed through the open door, embraced her, and shamelessly flew up into her nightgown.
Nastya inhaled greedily through her nose and walked out onto the balcony.
Her warm feet recognized the cool wood, and its boards creaked gratefully. Nastya lay her hands upon the peeling paint of the railing, tears came to her eyes as she took in the motionless world: the left and right wings of the manor, the garden’s milky green, the severity of the linden grove, the sugar-cube church on the hill, the willow branches lying on the ground, the stacks of mown grass.
Nastya rolled her wide, thin shoulders, let down her hair, and stretched out with a moan, listening to her vertebrae crack as her body woke up.
“A-a-w-a-w-h . . .”
Over the lake, the spark of morning began to slowly catch, and the damp world turned, offering itself to the sun’s inevitability. “I love you,” whispered Nastya to these first rays, turned, then walked back into her bedroom.
Her red chest of drawers looked out gloomily through its keyholes, her pillow smiled broadly, like a woman, her candlestick screamed mutely with its melted mouth, and the highwayman Cartouche grinned triumphantly at her from the cover of a book.
Nastya sat down at her little desk, opened her diary, took out a glass pen with a purple nib, dipped it into her inkwell, and began to watch her hand carry itself across the yellow paper:
I, Nastassia Sablina, am now sixteen years old! It is very strange that this does not surprise me in the slightest. Why is this? Is it good or bad? I am probably still sleeping, though the sun has risen and is lighting up everything around me. Today is the most important day of my life. How will I spend it? For how long shall I remember it? I must try to remember it down to the smallest detail: every drop, every leaf, every one of my thoughts. I must think positively. Papa says that good thoughts light up our souls just like the sun. Then may my sun light up my soul today! The Sun of this Most Important Day. I shall be joyful and attentive. Lev Ilyich arrived yesterday evening and, after dinner, I sat with him and Papa in the big gazebo. They were arguing about Nietzsche again—about what it is necessary to overcome in one’s soul. Today I must overcome. Though I’ve never read Nietzsche. I still know very little about the world, but I love it very much. And I love people, though many of them bore me. Must I also love boring people? I am happy that Papa and Maman are not boring people. And I am happy that the Day that we’ve been waiting for has finally arrived.
One of the sun’s rays hit the end of her pen, which created an intense burst of multi-colored light.
Nastya closed her diary and stretched out once again—sweetly and achingly putting her hands behind her head. The door creaked open, and her mother’s soft hands closed around her wrists.
“Oh, my little early bird . . .”
“Maman . . .” Nastya threw back her head, saw her mother’s inverted face, and embraced her. Her mother’s unrecognizably toothy face hid the sculpted cupids on the ceiling from view.
“Ma petite fillette. Tu as bien dormi?”
They were frozen in their embrace.
“I saw you in my dream,” her mother declared, stepping back from her daughter and sitting down on the bed.
“And what was I doing?”
“You were laughing to the point of forgetfulness,” she looked at her daughter’s hair gleaming in the sunlight with intense pleasure.
“Was I being foolish?” Nastya stood up and walked over to her—lean and delicate in her semi-transparent nightgown.
“Why would you think laughing is foolish? Laughter is joy. Sit down, my little angel. I have something for you.”
Nastya sat down next to her mother. They were the same height, with similar builds, wearing nightgowns of an identical blue. Only their shoulders and faces were different.
Nastya’s mother opened a small crimson-colored velvet box with her delicate hands, pulled out a diamond heart hanging from a delicate golden chain, and put it in front of her daughter’s neck.
“C’est pour toi.”
Nastya looked down, put the heart between her fingers. Her hair fell in front of her face, and the diamond flashed blue and white.
Daughter kissed mother upon still-youthful cheek.
The sunlight lit up her mother’s green eyes. She carefully opened the chestnut curtain of her daughter’s hair: she was holding the diamond in front of her lips.
“I want you to know how important today is.”
“I already know, Maman.”
Nastya’s mother stroked her head.
“Does it suit me?” Nastya straightened up, puffing out her strong, young chest.
Nastya walked up to the tripartite mirror, which seemed to grow out of the decorative tinsel of the table, upon which it sat. Four Nastyas stared out at one other.
“Ah, how glorious . . .”
“Yours forever. From Papa and me.”
“Wonderful. . . . And where is Papa? Still sleeping?”
“He woke up early today.”
“Like me! Ah, how glorious . . .”
Her mother picked up the bell next to the candle and rang it. They heard someone begin to shuffle over to the door, and Nastya’s tall, full-figured nanny walked in.
“Nurse!” Nastya ran over and jumped into her plump arms.
The cold dough of Nastya’s nanny’s arms enveloped her.
“My darling! My precious!” the nanny swayed and trembled, as if she were about to cry, and kissed the girl’s head quickly with cold lips.
“Nurse! I’m sixteen! Sixteen already!”
“Goodness me, my little darling! Goodness me, my precious!”
Nastya’s mother looked at them with intense pleasure.
“It seems like just yesterday that you were in your swaddling clothes!”
The nanny’s bosom shook, she was having difficulty breathing.
“Not so long ago, Lord Jesus! Just yesterday, Mother Mary!”
Nastya turned away fiercely, tearing herself away from the plentiful dough of her nanny’s belly.
“Have a look—isn’t it rather beautiful?”
Still not able to see the diamond through the tears that had filled her eyes, her nanny solemnly shook her heavy hands.
Barely able to restrain her joy, Nastya’s mother whirled over to the door.
“We’ll eat on the veranda, Nastenka!”
Having washed Nastya’s body with a sponge soaked in lavender water, the nurse dried her off with several towels and began to tie her hair into a braid.
“Do you remember your sixteenth birthday, Nurse?” moving her head defiantly away from her nurse, Nastya looked down at a red ant crawling across the floor.
“At your age, goodness me, I was already with child!”
“So early? Oh, but I remember, you were betrothed at fifteen!”
Papa says that good thoughts light up our souls just like the sun. Then may my sun light up my soul today! The Sun of this Most Important Day.
“Just so, my darlin’. And my precious Grisha was born before the Nativity Fast. Unfortunately, though, he passed on by way of an ear infection. Then came little Vasya, then little Khimush. By the time I was twenty, I had one runnin’ ‘round the garden, another cryin’ in the cradle, and a third in my tummy. It’s true!”
The nanny’s swollen white fingers flashed through Nastya’s golden-brown waterfall of hair: a braid was implacably growing.
“But I’ve never had a baby,” Nastya stepped on the ant with the tip of her canvas shoe.
“Goodness, my darling, what a thing to complain about!” the nanny cried out. “You want to give up your beauty for a family? You’ve been shaped to another purpose.”
The braid hung like a dead python between her shoulder blades.
A garish samovar wheezed hysterically on the white veranda, cunning ivy climbed through open windows, and Pavlushka, their young lackey, was clumsily putting down their dishes. Her mother, father, and Lev Ilyich were sitting down at the table.
Nastya ran up to them.
“A-a-h! The birthday girl!” as ungainly and angular as a broken chaise longue, Lev Ilyich began to stand up.
“My little sauteuse!” her father winked, still chewing.
Nastya kissed him on the spot between his black beard and his large nose.
“Thank you, Papa!”
“Let’s have a look at our Russian beauty!”
She backed away instantaneously, rose into first position, and spread her arms apart: an embroidered, olive-colored summer dress, Nastya’s naked shoulders, the gleaming diamond at the midpoint of her long collarbones.
“Our Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk!” her father laughed white-toothedly.
“None of that, Seryozha!” her mother waved her napkin.
“She could be a bride!” Lev Ilyich was standing up and holding his long arms out in front of him.
“Shut your mouth, brother!” her father picked up a crimson piece of salmon with his fork and slapped it down onto his plate.
“I could barely keep myself from giving it to you when we were talking about Mr. Mustache last night.” Lev Ilyich reached into the inside pocket of his tight-fitting blazer. “But thank God I didn’t!”
“Haste makes waste!” her father began to cut the salmon rakishly.
Lev Ilyich held his bony fist out to Nastya and opened it. In his palm, as dry, flat, and swarthy as a piece of wood, lay a golden brooch made up of Roman letters.
“Transcendere!” read Nastya. “What’s that?”
“The transgression of boundaries,” translated Lev Ilyich.
“Hold on, brother,” her father shook his steep-browed head. “You’re accusing me of literal-mindedness with that definition.”
“If you’ll allow me, Nastenka, I’ll clip it onto you . . .” Lev Ilyich walked up to her ominously, holding his arms out like a praying mantis.
Nastya took several steps toward him and looked out the window at the cook’s blonde twins walking along the edge of the water with one yoke and five buckets—Why are they only using one yoke? she thought. Tobacco-stained fingers with long, unkempt nails moved over her chest.
“Of course, it’s your birthday, not your name day . . . but if Sergei Arkadeyevich is truly the champion of progress he says he is . . .”
“You’ll ruin my appetite with all this talk!” her father chewed lustily.
“How is it possible to hang five buckets from one yoke? Strange . . .”
“There we are. . . .” Lev Ilyich dropped his hands and, squinting, moved back abruptly, as if he were getting ready to butt Nastya as hard as he could with his little head. “It suits you.”
“Merci,” Nastya curtsied quickly.
“They suit each other well,” her mother looked at both the diamond and the brooch.
“And Father Andrei, what he will do-o-o is that is he will gi-i-ive Nastassia Sergeyevna another bijou and that is ho-o-ow our Nastassia Sergeyevna will become . . . a Christmas tree!” Father winked to daughter as he cut into a warm roll.
“Then are you going to stand me in the corner, Papa?”
“Let’s have some coffee,” Nastya’s father wiped at his full lips.
“The cream has cooled down, master. . . . Shall I warm it up?” asked the freckled lackey.
“Don’t call me master, this is the third time I’m telling you,” her father rolled his strong shoulders irritably. “My grandfather was a plowman!”
“Forgive me, Sergei A-ryka-dievich . . . and the cream . . .”
“You don’t need to warm it up.”
The taste of coffee reminded Nastya that she had to go to the pond.
“I won’t make it! It’s already eight!” she jumped up from her chair.
“What do you mean?” her mother raised her beautiful eyebrows.
“Ah—it’s so sunny today!”
Nastya ran away from the veranda.
“What’s the matter?” Lev Ilyich asked, buttering his bread.
“Amore, more, ore, re!” Nastya’s father replied, sipping his coffee.
Nastya jumped off of the porch and ran to the pond. She saw the blonde twins walking toward her from the hill carrying the upside-down yoke with five full buckets hanging from it.
“That’s it!” Nastya smiled at them.
Having forgotten about the weight of their load, the barefoot twins gaped at her. Milky snot was visible in the first one’s nose. Water dripped from all five buckets.
A rash of white moss, the heavy silhouette of an oak tree, velvety hazel leaves, and a ripple of light on the rugged rows of sedge all interrupted the granite semicircle of the pond.
Nastya walked down the mossy steps to the dark-green water and stopped dead: the sundial on the cracked column showed a quarter past eight. A pocket of damp cold hung over the water in a barely discernible fog. At the center of the pond stood a marble Atlas holding a crystal orb on the yellow and white musculature of his back; he was up to his knees in water. Bird droppings covered the statue’s head and shoulders, but the orb shined with transparent cleanliness—the birds could not sit upon polished glass.
Nastya squinted her left eye: enormous leaves and the trunks of imaginary plants darted about in rainbow colors on the surface of the orb.
“Oh, Sun! Come to me!” she squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
A quarter of an hour passed by in what felt like a moment. Nastya opened her eyes. A broad stream of sunlight forced its way through the canopy of oaks to the crystal orb, which created a refracted needle of golden light that pierced the thickness of the water.
Holding her breath, Nastya looked around.
The needle of light slowly crawled along the surface of the water, leaving a tender vapor in its wake.
“Thank you . . . oh, thank you . . .” whispered Nastya’s lips.
The Presence of the Mysterious Light passed.
The needle of light was extinguished as unexpectedly as it had come into being.
Having torn a young branch off the pecan tree and brushed its leaves against her lips, Nastya started home through the Old Garden. She opened the rotten gate, walked through rows of cherry trees, stood, and watched the blue beehives, waving off the bees with her branch. She walked through the New Garden with its cylindrical greenhouse, then ran past the barn, the hayshed, and the animal pens.
In the stables, she heard people arguing. Three girls carrying empty baskets ran out of them laughing and turned toward the New Garden, but, seeing Nastya, they stopped and bowed.
“What’s going on in there?” Nastya approached them.
“Pavlushka’s bein’ flogged, Nastassia Sya-a-argevna.”
“For callin’ his master ‘master.’”
Nastya walked toward the entrance of the stables. The girls ran off into the garden.
“Uncle Mityai! Uncle Mityai!” Pavlushka’s shrill voice rang out.
“Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid . . .” the stableman said in his low tone.
Nastya started to walk into the stables, but stopped short. Turned around, traced a path along the building’s log walls, looked through a murky little window. Saw how, in the gloom, the two stablemen Mityai and Dubyets were binding Pavlushka to a bench. They pulled down Pavlushka’s dark-blue pantaloons, and his drawers fell to his ankles. The stablemen were quick to strap him down, Dubyets sitting by his head and holding his arms. The stocky, red-bearded Mityai pulled a bundle of long birch rods from a bucket of salty water, shook them off over his head, crossed himself, and began to whip Pavlushka with great force, directing his blows onto the boy’s small, pale behind.
“Understand! Understand! Understand!” Mityai declaimed.
Dubyets looked on indifferently from beneath his fur cap, holding the lackey’s arms.
Nastya watched his buttocks and skinny legs shaking in the gloom. Pavlushka’s young body was shuddering as he tried to wend away from the blows, but the bench would not allow him to. He whimpered in time with the blows.
Nastya’s heart pounded in her chest
“Un-der-stand! Un-der-stand! Un-der-stand!”
“Agh! Agh! Agh!”
Behind her, someone let forth a quiet laugh.
Nastya turned around. Next to her was Porfishka, the village idiot. His tattered white shirt had come untucked from his striped pants, his ruined sandals were bound to his bare feet with bast, and his pockmarked face glowed with quiet insanity.
“I locked the frog in the sauna! So that his wife gives birth to ME!” he said, his blue eyes shining, then laughed without opening his mouth.
Nastya gave him the pecan branch and started walking home again.
Father Andrei arrived at around noon in his new droshky. Slim, tall, and with a beautiful Russian face, he squeezed Nastya’s head between his strong hands and kissed her firmly on the forehead.
“My wingless seraph, the very picture of beauty! I’d been hoping to celebrate your name day, but a birthday’s better than nothing: six-teen ye-a-a-a-rs old! That’s quite a mouthful!”
He rustled around in his slightly blue, mostly lilac-colored cassock when, suddenly, a small box made of red Morocco leather appeared before Nastya. The priest opened it with his strong fingers: in a tiny depression in the pink silk was a black pearl.
Papa knew about this! thought Nastya and smiled.
“This precious pearl comes from the bottom of the ocean,” Father Andrei bored into her with his strong eyes. “It is no ordinary pearl, but a black pearl. Ordinary pearls are created when the shell opens under the water and lets in the sunlight: it begins to shine with that same light. But this is a different kind of pearl. A black pearl. This pearl is carried in the mouths of wise fish who listen to the voice of God with their gills. They carry them for a thousand years, then become dragons and the guardians of rivers. An enigma!”
“Thank you, Father!” Nastya took the little box from his hand. “And how do I . . . wear it?”
“You mustn’t wear it—you must keep it safe.”
“Like a fish?”
“Yes, like a fish perhaps,” laughed Father Andrei and, quickly stroking his beard, looked into the cold light of the sitting room. “Well, are they going to ask me in for a drink?”
“Hold on, Father,” Sablin stepped into the sitting room. “We’ll have plenty of time to make merry later!”
They embraced, both strong-bodied and tall, with similar beards and faces, then loudly kissed each other on the cheek three times.
“Oh, how jealous I was of you three days ago, brother!” Sergei Arkadeyevich shook Father Andrei by his lilac shoulders. “The blackest envy! The black-est envy!”
“Why was that?” the priest arched his thick eyebrows.
“Sashenka!” her father’s voice boomed through the entire house. “Just listen to this! I’m driving past your farmstead, I look, and you’ve got a whole company of women tidying up your hay! Such women too—the very picture of health! Nothing like my delicate ladies here.”
“Yes, well, my mother got them from Mokroye,” Father Andrei laughed. “They were mowing the footpaths, when suddenly . . .”
“Oh, but I didn’t see your mother there! Only those women! Such women!” Nastya’s father laughed.
“That’s enough!” Father Andrei waved his hand.
“Has my husband gone too far in his jokes again?” Nastya’s mother came in and exchanged kisses with Father Andrei. “It’s time, Nastenka!”
“Already?” Nastya showed her the pearl.
“A black pearl, Maman!”
“O-o-h,” her father hugged her mother from behind and looked over her shoulder. “From deep beneath the sea, way over by Buyan Island! Beautiful.”
The clock struck noon.
“It’s time, Nastyusha!” her father nodded his head severely. “Well, if it’s time, then I suppose it’s time,” Nastya sighed tremulously. “Then . . . I’ll . . . just . . .”
Walking into her bedroom, she opened her diary and wrote in enormous letters: IT’S TIME! She removed the diamond on the chain from her neck and looked at it. She put it under the mirror next to the brooch. She opened the little box with the pearl, stared straight at it, then looked into the mirror.
“Inside of me?”
She thought for a second, opened her mouth, then swallowed the pearl with ease.
The dark-blue silk of her father’s office, a star chart affixed to the ceiling, a bust of Nietzsche, stacks and stacks of books, a huge, ancient battle ax taking up a whole wall, hands holding Nastya firmly by the shoulders.
“Are you strong?”
“I’m strong, Papa.”
“Do you want it?”
“Yes, I want it.”
“Shall you be able to?”
“I’ll be able to.”
“Shall you overcome?”
Her father walked up to her slowly and kissed her on the temple.
The red stone fence of the inner courtyard, fresh whitewash on the newly built Russian oven, their cook, Savely, naked to the waist, sticking a long poker into the oven’s mouth, her father, her mother, Father Andrei, Lev Ilyich.
The nanny undressed Nastya, neatly laying her clothes down onto the edge of a rough oak table: dress, undershirt, underpants. Nastya was left standing naked in the middle of the courtyard.
“What about the hair?” asked her father.
“Let it . . . be, Seryozha,” her mother narrowed her eyes.
Nastya touched her braid with her left hand. She was shielding her thin pubis from view with her right.
“The oven is ready,” Savely straightened up and wiped the sweat from his brow.
“In the name of the Eternal,” her mother nodded to the cook.
Savely put an enormous shovel with chains dangling from it onto the table.
“Lie down, Nastassia Sergeyevna.”
Nastassia walked over to the shovel uncertainly. Nastya’s father and Savely lifted her up and lay her down on the shovel.
“Let me move your little legs . . .” the cook’s white, wrinkled hands bent her legs at the knee.
“Hold onto your knees with your hands,” her father bent down.
Looking at the tufts of cloud drifting through the sky, she took her knees into her hands and pulled them to her chest. The cook began to chain her to the shovel.
“Be gentle . . .” the nanny raised her hands anxiously.
“Don’t be afraid,” Savely tightened the chains.
“Make sure the braid doesn’t get caught, Nastenka!” her mother advised.
“It’s fine how it is, Maman!”
“Put it under your back or it’ll burn,” Father Andrei looked on frowningly, spreading his legs apart and crossing his arms over his chest.
“Hold onto the chain with your hands, Nastenka,” Lev Ilyich hunched forward to get a better look.
“There’s no need . . .” her father waved his hand impatiently. “It’s better like this . . .”
He shoved Nastya’s wrists under the chain, tightening them to her hips.
“He’s right,” the cook nodded. “Otherwise, she’ll simply come loose as soon as she starts to wiggle.”
“Are you comfortable, ma petite?” Nasya’s mother asked.
“Yes, yes . . .”
“Don’t be afraid, my little angel, just don’t be afraid . . .”
“The chains aren’t too tight?” Her father pulled at them.
“May the Eternal be ever at your service,” he kissed his daughter’s forehead, which was covered in a cold sweat.
“Like we always say: be strong, Nastenka,” Nastya’s mother put her forehead to her daughter’s shoulder.
“God be with you,” Father Andrei made a sign of the cross.
“We’ll be right there with you,” Lev Ilyich smiled tensely.
“My darling . . .” the nanny kissed her slender legs.
Savely crossed himself, spat into his palms, took hold of the shovel’s iron handle, grunted, picked it up, staggered over to the oven, and, almost at a run, pushed Nastya into the oven with a single movement.
Her body erupted into orange light. Here we are! It’s begun! Nastya managed to think, looking at the slightly sooty ceiling of the new oven. Then she felt the heat. It overwhelmed her like a frightening, red bear and called forth a wild, inhuman scream from her lungs. She thrashed on the shovel.
“Hold on!” Nastya’s father shouted at Savely.
“It’s always like this . . .” he locked his short legs and gripped the handle tightly.
Nastya’s scream became a roar coming from deep inside of her.
Everyone gathered around the oven. Only the nanny moved off to the side, wiping away her tears and blowing her nose with the hem of her apron.
The skin on Nastya’s neck and shoulders tightened and soon blisters began to flow over her body like drops of water. Nastya wriggled around and, though the chains had less and less of her to hold onto, they still held fast. Her head jerked very slightly, and her face turned into one gigantic, red mouth. A scream tore itself loose from her in an invisible, crimson stream.
“You need to poke the coals, Sergei Arkadeyevich . . . so that her rind catches . . .” Savely licked the sweat from his upper lip.
Nastya’s father took the poker, put it into the oven, but was unable to move the coals.
“Goodness me, not like that!” the nanny ripped the poker out of his hand and began to rake the coals toward Nastya.
Another wave of heat came over Nastya. She lost her voice and, opening her mouth like a big fish, wheezed weakly. Her eyes rolled up into her head, their whites now red.
“Over to the right . . . to the right . . .” Nastya’s mother looked into the oven and directed the nanny’s use of the poker.
“I can see where,” the nanny moved the coals with greater force.
Nastya’s blisters began to burst, spattering her body with lymph juice, and the coals hissed, their blue tongues flashing. Urine flowed from Nastya and immediately began to steam and boil. Her violent movements began to weaken, she could wheeze no longer, now merely opening and closing her mouth.
“How quickly the face changes . . .” muttered Lev Ilyich. “It’s not even a face anymore . . .”
“The coals have caught!” her father bustled about. “Make sure not to burn the outside.”
“We’ll close her up to let the insides bake. No chance she’ll get loose now,” Savely straightened up.
“Don’t dare overcook my daughter!”
“I know what I’m doing . . .”
The cook let go out of the shovel, picked up the thick flap, and put it in place over the oven pipe. Everyone stopped scurrying around. They’d become bored almost immediately.
“This pearl is carried in the mouths of wise fish who listen to the voice of God with their gills. They carry them for a thousand years, then become dragons and the guardians of rivers.”
“Then you . . . then . . .” Nastya’s father scratched his beard and looked at the handle of the shovel sticking out of the oven.
“She’ll be done in three hours,” Savely wiped the sweat from his brow.
Nastya’s father looked around, as if he were searching for someone, then waved his hand.
“Very well . . .”
“I’ll leave you gentlemen to it,” Nastya’s mother mumbled and walked away.
The nanny followed her with a heavy tread.
Lev Ilyich stared numbly at the crack in the oven pipe.
“Well then, Sergei Arkadeyevich . . .” Father Andrei put a reassuring hand onto Sablin’s shoulder. “Shall we test our diamond-covered spades against our clubs? A little round of cards?”
“While we’ve got the time, we might as well, no?” Sablin looked at the sun perplexedly. “Come on, brother, let’s play.”
The shovel’s iron handle suddenly jerked, and the tin flap chattered. They heard something like a hoot come from inside the oven. Nastya’s father darted over and grabbed the hot handle, but everything was already calm.
“That was her soul leaving her body,” the cook smiled exhaustedly.
The oblong, semicircular windows of the dining room, evening sun on the tired silk of the curtains, layers of cigar and cigarette smoke, scraps of unrelated conversations, the sloppy clinking of eight thin glasses: while waiting for the arrival of the roast, the guests had finished a second bottle of champagne.
Nastya was brought to the table toward seven o’clock.
She was met with the delight native to mild intoxication.
Golden-brown, she was presented on an oval serving dish, clutching at her legs with now blackened fingernails. White rose buds were scattered around her, slices of lemon covered her chest, knees, and shoulders. White river lilies bloomed innocently on her breasts, pubis, and forehead.
“That’s my daughter!” Sablin stood up, glass in hand. “Tonight’s special, ladies and gentlemen!”
Sitting at the beautifully decorated table with Nastya’s mother and father, Father Andrei, and Lev Ilyich were Mr. and Mrs. Rumyantsev and Dmitri Andreyevich Mamut with his daughter Arina, Nastya’s friend. Savely stood at the ready in his white apron and chef’s hat, a large knife and a two-pronged fork in hand.
“Excellent!” Rumyantseva looked hungrily at the roast through her lorgnette. “How wonderfully she was laid out! Even in this suggestive pose, Nastenka is so pure.”
“I can’t bear it.” Sablina pressed her hands to her temples and closed her eyes. “It’s beyond my strength.”
“Don’t spoil this special day for us, Sashenka,” Sablin gestured over to Pavlushka, who had begun to bustle about with the bottles. “Neither of us have ever eaten our daughter before, so this is a difficult time for both of us. But also joyful. So let us rejoice!”
“Yes!” Rumyantseva affirms. “I didn’t rattle around in that carriage for seven hours just to be sad!”
“Alexandra Vladimirovna is merely tired,” Father Andrei laid his cigar down into the giant marble ashtray.
“I can certainly understand your maternal instincts,” Mamut turned to her. He was fat, bald, and resembled a June bug.
“My dove, Alexandra Vladimirovna, don’t think bad thoughts. I’m begging you!” Rumyantsev looked at her with his fish eyes and his coarse face, then pressed his hands to his chest. “It’s a sin to be sad on a day like today!”
“Think good thoughts, Sashenka!” Rumyantseva smiled.
“We’re all begging you!” Lev Ilyich winked.
“We’re all ordering you!” the fiery-haired, freckled little Arina spoke up.
Everyone laughed. Pavlushka filled the glasses, his face downcast and puffy from crying.
With palpable relief, Sablina laughed, sighed, and shook her head.
“Je ne sais pas ce qui m’a prit . . .”
“It shall pass, my angel.” Sablin kissed her hand and raised his glass. “Ladies and gentlemen, I hate toasts. Therefore—I drink to the overcoming of limits! Please join me!”
“Avec plaisir!” Rumyantseva exclaimed.
“A toast!” Rumyantsev raised his glass.
“A real toast!” Mamut’s fat lips flapped together.
The glasses came together and rang out.
“No, no, no . . .” Sablina shook her head. “Seryozha . . . I don’t feel well . . . no, no, no . . .”
“Well, then, Sashenka, my dove, then . . .” Rumyantseva pouted, but Sablin raised his hand authoritatively.
Everyone was quiet. He put his unfinished glass back down onto the table and looked at his wife attentively.
“What do you mean ‘not well’?”
“No, no, no, no . . .” she shook her head faster.
“What do you mean ‘no’?”
“I don’t feel well, Seryozha . . .”
Sablin suddenly slapped her in the face with great force.
She put her hands over her face.
“What’s wrong, you bitch?!”
Silence reigned over the table. Pavlushka was hunched over with a bottle in hand, completely frozen. Savely watched with both resignation and incomprehension in his eyes.
“Look at us!”
Sablina had turned to stone. Sablin bent down to her and began to speak slowly, as if he were cutting every word into being with a heavy knife.
“Look. At. Us. You. Swine.”
She took her hands away from her face and looked at the guests gathered around the table, as if her eyes had grown smaller.
“What do you see?”
“Peo . . . ple . . .”
“What else do you see?”
“Nas . . . tya . . .”
“And why don’t you feel well?”
Sablina said nothing and stared at Nastya’s knee.
“It’s strange that you would be so open in your dislike for us, Alexandra Vladimirovna,” Mamut spoke weightily.
“You must learn to dissimulate your hatred, Sashenka,” Rumyantseva smiled nervously.
“Isn’t it a little late?” Arina looked at her distrustfully. “At forty years old?”
“Hatred is damaging to the soul,” Father Andrei cracked his knuckles. “He who hates suffers more than he who is hated.”
“How stupid this all is . . .” Rumyantsev shook his head sadly.
“It’s not stupid, it’s evil. This is evil,” Lev Ilyich sighed.
“No . . . ladies and gentlemen . . . I’m not
. . .”
“What are you not?”
Sablin stared at her firmly.
“I . . .”
“Savely! Give her the knife and fork!”
The cook walked over cautiously and held the handles of the carving utensils out to her.
Sablina took them and looked at them, as if she were seeing such instruments for the first time.
“You’re going to serve us,” Sablin sank back down into his chair. “You’re going to cut the pieces that we ask for. You’re free to go, Savely.”
The cook left.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let us eat before Nastya gets cold,” Sablin tucked the corner of his napkin into his collar. “As the father of the newly baked, I’ll take the first piece: give me the left breast! Pavlushka! Bring us the Bordeaux!”
Sablina stood up, walked over to the serving dish, stuck the two-pronged fork into Nastya’s left breast, and began to cut into her flesh. Everyone listened carefully. Under a brown, crispy crust flashed white meat and a yellow strip of fat. Her juice flowed freely. Sablina put a slice of breast onto a plate and handed it to her husband.
“Please, everyone! Don’t be shy!”
Rumyantseva was the next to ask.
“Cut me some itsy little bits from the ribs, Sashenka, the tiniest bits!”
“I’ll have some rump!” Mamut sipped his wine.
“Shoulder and forearm for me, Alexandra Vladimirovna,” Rumyantsev rubbed his hands together, as if he were counting money. “Make sure it’s nowhere near the hand—from the forearm itself, right there . . .”
“Give me some meat from the hand,” Lev Ilyich coughed modestly.
“I’ll have some from the head,” Father Andrei cheerfully rested his fists upon the table. “So as to withstand the testimonium paupertatis.”
Arina waited until Sablina had taken everyone else’s orders.
“Alexandra Vladimirovna, may I have . . .”
She fell silent and glanced over at her father.
“What is it?” Mamut leaned down to his daughter.
Arina whispered something into his ear.
“You have to ask like a grownup if you want that part,” he suggested, straightening up.
“How might I ask?”
Her father whispered something into her ear.
“What would you like, Arinushka?” Sablina asked quietly.
“I would like . . . the venereal lips . . .”
“Bravo, Arina!” exclaimed Sablin, and the other guests applauded her.
Sablina nodded her head and began trying to get a good look at her daughter’s groin: it was impossible to get at between her legs.
“It’s not always so easy to get to that mysterious place!” Rumyantsev winked, and laughter filled the dining room.
“Hold on, Sasha . . .” Sablin stood up resolutely, took hold of Nastya’s knees, then pushed hard, attempting to spread her legs. Her pelvic joints cracked, but her legs wouldn’t move.
“Come on!” Sablin pushed harder. His neck turned purple, and the hedgehog of hair on his head quivered.
“Slow down, Sergei Arkadeyevich!” the priest stood up. “It would be a sin to overstrain yourself today, brother.”
“Am I . . . not a Cossack? I’ve still got . . . some! Some! Some! Powder left to shoot with . . . yes! Yes! Yes!” Sablin grunted.
Father Andrei grabbed onto one knee and Sablin grabbed onto the other. They pushed, grunting and baring their beautiful teeth. The joints cracked juicily, the roasted legs fell open, and juice sprayed out of the meat as it was torn apart. Protected by the thighs from the heat of the oven, her pubis still shined a tender shade of white and seemed to be made of porcelain. Her perineum had split apart, bones and steaming meat visible inside of the gash. A stream of brown juice flowed onto the serving dish.
“Sashenka, s’il vous plaît,” Sablin wiped his hands with a napkin.
The cold knife cut into Nastya’s pubis, as if it were white butter: clumps of stiff little pubic hairs, the submissiveness of the semi-translucent skin, the innocent smile of her childish labial lips spread slightly open and occasionally dripping.
“Here you are, my angel.”
The pubis lay on the plate in front of Arina. Everyone was staring at it.
“It’s a shame to eat such beauty,” Mamut was the first to speak.
“Like . . . a wax angel,” whispered Arina.
“Every moment is precious, ladies and gentlemen!” Sablin raised his glass of Bordeaux. “We shall not let the meat cool. To your health!”
They clinked the crystal glasses together. They drank quickly. Their knives and forks entered the meat.
“Don’t dare overcook my daughter!”
“M-m-m . . . m-m-m . . . m-m-m . . .” Rumyantsev shook his head while he chewed like he had a toothache. “There’s something . . . h-m-m-m . . . there’s something . . .”
“Magnifique!” Rumyantseva tore off a piece of meat with her teeth.
“Very good,” Father Andrei chewed a piece of Nastya’s cheek.
“Your cook, brother . . . he’s really . . .” the meat’s crust crunched between Lev Ilyich’s teeth
“A perfect roast.” Mamut carefully examined the piece of meat speared on his fork and put it into his mouth.
“A quarter of an hour . . . m-m-m . . . on the coals and three hours in the oven . . .” Sablin chewed cheerfully.
“Just so,” nodded Mamut.
“No . . . this is something . . . this is something . . .” Rumyantsev screwed up his eyes.
“How I love the bits from around the ribs . . .”
Arina carefully cut off a piece of the pubis, put it into her mouth, and, chewing carefully, stared at the ceiling.
“How is it?” Mamut asked her, sipping his wine.
She shrugged her plump shoulders. Mamut delicately cut a strip of meat off the pubis and tasted it.
“M-m-m . . . like God’s sour cream . . . eat while it’s still warm, stop making faces . . .”
“And what about you, Sashenka?” Sablin’s moist eyes moved over to his wife.
“Please don’t spoil the atmosphere, Alexandra Vladimirovna,” Rumyantsev shook his finger.
“Yes, yes . . . I . . . certainly . . .” Sablina gazed numbly at the headless body, covered in its own juice.
“If you’ll allow me, Madame, your plate . . .” Father Andrei reached over for it. “And we shall find you the most delicate meat.”
Sablina handed him her plate. He began to cut beneath Nastya’s jaw, made a semi-circular incision, stuck his fork inside of it, and slapped her steaming tongue down onto Sablina’s empty plate.
“The most tender bit!”
Her tongue lay in the shape of an awful question mark.
“Thank you, Father,” Sablina accepted the plate back with an exhausted smile.
“Ah, how delightful your Nastenka has remained,” Rumyantseva mumbled through the meat in her mouth. “Just imagine . . . m-m-m . . . whenever I saw her, I thought . . . that this . . . that we would . . . m-m-m . . . that . . . no, it’s simply too striking! What delicate, exquisite ribs she has!”
“Nastassia Sergeyevna was a remarkable child,” Lev Ilyich moved the crunchy, fire-polished skin around with his pinkie. “Once, I arrived directly from the Assembly, as tired as a rickshaw, a terribly hot day, and naturally, in the simplest way . . . m-m-m . . . I decided to, you know, go directly to the . . .”
“Wine! Pavlushka! More wine!” cried Sablin. “Where is the Falero?”
“You had asked for a Bordeaux, sir,” Pavlushka turned his white, tight-skinned neck.
“You idiot! Bordeaux is just the prelude! Now run!”
The lackey ran off.
“Devil take it, it’s so delicious!” Mamut sighed heavily. “And it’s completely, entirely correct that you’ve not put any spices on it.”
“Good meat needs no spice, Dmitri Andreyevich,” Sablin said while chewing and leaning back in his chair. “Like any other Ding an sich.”
“That is certainly true,” Father Andrei looked around. “And where, if you’ll forgive me, is the . . .”
“The teaspoon . . .”
“Of course!” exclaimed Sablin.
The priest stuck the teaspoon into one Nastya’s eye sockets and twisted it firmly: Nastya’s eye was now on the teaspoon. The pupil was white, but the iris was still the same shade of greenish-gray. After salting and peppering the eye hungrily, the priest squeezed lemon juice onto it and put it into his mouth.
“I can’t eat fish eyes,” Arina said drowsily, chewing slowly. “They’re bitter.”
“Nastenka’s are not bitter,” the priest took a drink of wine. “I would even say they’re quite sweet.
“She loved to wink. Especially when she spoke Latin. She got in trouble for that three times at school.”
“Nastya had a surprising way of looking at things,” Sablina spoke up, thoughtfully moving Nastya’s half-eaten tongue around her plate with her knife. “When I gave birth to her, we were living in St. Petersburg. Every day, the wet nurse would come to suckle Nastenka. And I would just sit there. Once, Nastya looked at me in a very strange and unusual way. She was sucking the wet nurse’s breast and looking at me, but not in a childish way at all. To be honest, her gaze made me feel uneasy. I turned away, walked over to the window, and began to look at it. It was a winter evening. The whole window was covered with frost. There was one clear patch in the middle. In that little dark spot, I could see my Nastenka’s face. Her face was . . . I don’t know how to describe it . . . her face looked like it belonged to an adult. An adult who was even older than I was. I got scared. And then, for some reason, I said ‘Batu.’”
“Batu?” Father Andrei wrinkled his brow. “As in Batu Khan?”
“I don’t know,” sighed Sablina. “Maybe I said it differently. But what I remember now is ‘Batu.’”
“Have some wine,” Sablin moved a glass over to her.
She drank obediently.
“Sometimes, the devil can seem to appear even in those closest to us.” Rumyantsev held out his empty plate. “I’d like some thigh, please, just that bit there.”
“Where?” Sablina got up.
“The well-done part there.”
She began to cut off a piece.
“Sergei Arkadych,” Mamut wiped at his greasy lips. “Your wife’s had enough. Call the cook back.”
“What on earth do you mean?” Sablina smiled. “I find serving you to be extremely pleasant.”
“I look after my cook’s health,” Sablin took a gulp of his wine. “Give me some of the neck, Sashenka, and don’t forget the vertebrae . . . Yes. I look after his health! And I respect him!”
“He’s a good cook,” Father Andrei took a crunchy bite of Nastya’s nose, “if a little rustic.”
“Rustic, brother? His jack snipe in cranberry is even better than Testov’s. There’s not a sauce he can’t make. Do you remember his suckling pigs at Easter?”
“I brought him eight cookbooks. Yes-yes-yes! To the cook! How could I . . .” Finishing his bite, Sablin stood up, grabbed onto Nastya’s foot, and twisted it.
“Make a cut right here, Sashenka . . .”
Sablina made the cut. Sablin tore off the foot, picked up the half-empty bottle of Falerno, and walked from the dining room into the kitchen. In the stuffy, vanilla-scented air of the kitchen, the cook was laboring over a lemon-pink cake pyramid, covering it with creamy, frosted roses from a paper tube. The scullery maid was whipping cream and blueberries next to him.
“Savely!” Sablin was looking for a glass, but found a copper mug instead. “Take this.”
Having wiped the cream from his hands onto his apron, the cook humbly accepted the mug.
“You worked hard today,” Sablin filled the mug to the brim. “Drink in memory of Nastya.”
“Thank you very much.” The cook crossed himself carefully, so as not to spill the wine, brought the mug to his lips, then slowly drank it down to its dregs.
“Eat,” Sablin handed him the foot.
Savely took the foot, gave it a once-over, and bit down hard. Sablin stared at him scornfully. The cook chewed weightily and thoughtfully, as if this were an important piece of work. His carefully trimmed beard moved up and down.
“How does my daughter taste?” asked Sergei Arkadeyevich.
“Fine,” the cook swallowed. “It roasted up nicely. That oven works magic.”
Sablin slapped him on the back, turned away, and walked into the dining room.
Everyone was arguing.
“First, my father would sow lentils and, when they came up, he’d immediately plow them and plant wheat,” Father Andrei explained weightily. “By the Feast of the Transfiguration, the wheat was so tall that my sister and I would play hide and seek in it. You didn’t have to drag it to the threshing barn either. If you pushed the sheafs, they would fall over on their own. We had straw for the stove all through the winter. And you talk to me about steam-powered threshing machines!”
“In that case, Father, why don’t we just return to the Stone Age?” Rumyantsev laughed cruelly. “It’ll be like a song: they plow with their hands and they reap with their nails.”
“We can return to the Stone Age,” Mamut re-lit his cigar, “as long as there’s something to plow.”
“How can it be you’re talking about bread again?” Sablin tucked a new napkin under his collar. “Devil take this conversation! I’m sick of it. Can it be we have nothing else to discuss, friends?”
“They’re men, Sergei Arkadych,” Rumyantseva swirled around the wine in her glass. “You can’t just feed them with bread, they also have to argue about all the mechan . . .”
“What?!” Sablin hit his fist on the table, interrupting her in a contrivedly menacing way. “Where do you see any bre-ad?! Where, my fair lady, do you see any bre-ad?! I didn’t invite you here to break bread! What bre-ad? Let me ask you this—with what kind of bread do I feed men? Hmm? With this bread here?” He picked up Arina’s plate with the half-eaten pubis on it. “Does this look like a boule à la française to you?”
Rumyantseva stared at him with her mouth hanging open.
Silence hung over the room.
Mamut took the cigar from his mouth without having smoked it and shifted his massive head forwards, as if he were about to collapse onto the table, then began to laugh heartily, his plump belly convulsing. Rumyantsev seemed to draw his head down into his collar, then waved his hands, as if he were being attacked by invisible bees, squealed, and let forth a shrill giggle. Lev Ilyich hiccupped, put his hands over his face, as if he were preparing to tear it off of his skull, and started to laugh nervously, his boney shoulders jerking. Father Andrei slapped his palms on the table and laughed a healthy, Russian laugh. Arina sprayed laughter into the palm of her hand and shook silently, as if she were vomiting convulsively. Rumyantseva shrieked, like a girl in the fields. Sablina shook her head and laughed wearily. Sablin leaned back in his chair and roared with delight.
The dining room resounded with laughter for two minutes.
“I can’t . . . ha-ha-ha . . . I’m dying . . . dying . . . oh . . .” Father Andrei wiped the tears from his face. “You deserve to be sentenced to hard labor, Seryozha . . .”
“What for . . . ha-ha . . . for his wit?” Mamut calmed down with some difficulty.
“For torturing us with this laughter . . . oh
. . . he-he-he . . .” Rumyantsev wriggled around in his chair.
“Sergei Arkadeyevich would be a wonderful . . . oh my . . . Grand Inquisitor,” Rumyantseva sighed, now very red.
“An executioner you mean!” Lev Ilyich shook his head.
“Forgive me, Arinushka.” Sablin put the plate back in front of her.
“How am I supposed to eat that now?” she asked sincerely.
The guests were, once again, overwhelmed by a fit of laughter. They laughed until they cried, until they had cramps in their sides. Mamut hit his forehead against the table and roared into his shirt collar. Rumyantsev slid down onto the floor. His wife squealed, shoving her fist into her mouth. Lev Ilyich wept uncontrollably. The priest laughed simply and healthily, like a peasant. Sablin grunted, snorted, wheezed, and banged his feet against the floor. Arina giggled delicately, as if she were beading a necklace.
“That’s enough! Enough! Enough!” Sablin wiped the tears from his face. “Finita!”
They began to come back to their senses.
“Naturally, it’s good to laugh. It empties the mind . . .” Mamut sighed heavily.
“You could get your intestines in a twist laughing like that,” Rumyantsev took a drink of wine.
“No one’s ever died of laughter,” the priest stroked his short beard.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let us continue,” Sablin rubbed his hands together. “While Nastya is still warm. My darling Sashenka, could you give me . . .” he squinted thoughtfully. “Some giblets!”
“I’d like some of the neck!”
“I’d like some shoulder, Sashenka, my dove.”
“Some hip for me! Hip and only hip!”
“Can I have some . . . from the well-done bit there . . .”
“Some hand, Alexandra Vladimirovna, if you please.”
Soon, everyone was chewing quietly, washing the meat down with wine.
“Even so . . . human meat has quite a strange taste . . . wouldn’t you say?” muttered Rumyantsev. “What do you think, Dmitri Andreyevich?”
“Meat’s a strange food overall,” Mamut chewed weightily.
“Why is that?” asked Sablin.
“Because it’s made from a living thing. Is it worth killing a living thing only in order to eat it?”
“You find this to be sad?”
“Of course it’s sad. Last week in Putyatino, we were on our way to the Adamovichs. But, right when we left the station, a hub broke. We managed to drag ourselves to a saddle-maker nearby. While he was making us a new wheel, I sat in the shade of a willow tree. While I was sitting there, a pig wandered over. Just an ordinary sow. It stood there looking at me. It looked at me in such an expressive way. A living being. A whole universe. But, for the saddler, it was merely one hundred or so pounds of meat. And I thought: what a ridiculous game this is—to devour living beings! To end a life and destroy its harmony only to further the process of digesting food. And we all know how that process ends.”
“You’re talking like Tolstoy,” Rumyantseva grinned.
“I have no disagreements with Count Tolstoy over the issue of vegetarianism. If eating meat means accepting evil, we must stop it!”
“What does it mean to end a life?” Sablin peppered Nastya’s liver. “Is it not possible to end an apple’s life? Or to kill a stalk of rye?”
“The stalk feels nothing. But the pig squeals. Which means it suffers. And suffering is the destruction of the world’s harmony.”
“Maybe the apple also hurts when it crunches,” Lev Ilyich said quietly. “Perhaps it cries out in pain, writhes, moans. . . . Perhaps we just don’t hear it.”
“Yes!” Arina suddenly spoke up, pulling one of Nastya’s pubic hairs out of her mouth. “Last summer, we cut down a grove of trees and poor, dead Mommy would always shut the window. I would ask, ‘What’s wrong, Mommy?’ And she would answer, ‘The trees are crying!’”
They ate for a little while in silence.
“The hips really turned out well,” Rumyantsev shook his head. “As juicy as . . . I don’t know what . . . the juice just sprays out . . .”
“A Russian oven is a remarkable thing,” Sablin sliced into the kidney. “Would it turn out so well in a normal oven? Or on an open grill?”
“It’s possible to cook pork on an open grill,” Mamut suggested weightily. “It’s only lean meat that dries out.”
“True, it’s possible.”
“But, how do Circassians cook their shish kebabs?” Rumyantseva raised his empty glass.
“Shish kebabs are raven food, my darling. Right here we have one hundred pounds of meat,” he nodded at the serving dish with Nastya on it.
“I love shish kebabs,” Lev Ilyich sighed.
“Can someone pour me some wine?” Rumyantseva touched her glass to her nose.
“Hey, halfwit, wake up!” Sablin shouted at Pavlushka.
The lackey rushed over to pour the wine.
“Alexandra Vladimirovna has eaten almost nothing at all, sir,” Arina reported.
“Is it not delicious?” Rumyantsev spread out his greasy hands.
“No, no. It’s very delicious,” Sablina sighed. “It’s just that I’m . . . I’m just exhausted.”
Golden-brown, she was presented on an oval serving dish, clutching at her legs with now blackened fingernails.
“You’ve barely had anything to drink,” Mamut observed. “That’s why the meat’s getting stuck in your throat.”
“You must drink, Sashenka,” Sablin brought a full glass to her exhausted red lips.
“Drink, drink with us!” Rumyantsev blinked excitedly.
“Don’t just pretend—drink!” Rumyantseva smiled, her face now pink.
Sablin grabbed his wife’s neck with his left hand and slowly, but resolutely, poured the wine into her mouth.
“Oy . . . Seryozha . . .” she sputtered.
“And now, some food to go with the wine!” demanded Mamut.
“Have some fatty meat from the rump, Alexandra Vladimirovna,” Lev Ilyich winked.
“I know what you need!” Sablin jumped up, grabbed the knife, and plunged it into Nastya’s stomach with all his strength. “Nothing goes with wine like intes-tine!”
Cutting into a piece of intestine with his knife, he then stabbed it with his fork and put it onto his wife’s plate.
“Tripe is the most sup-er-flu-ous meat, hence the most vital! Eat, my angel! You’ll feel better right away!”
“Correct! Entirely correct!” Mamut shook his fork. “I only eat partridge with offal.”
“I’m not sure . . . is it better than white meat?” Sablina stared at the grayish-white guts, which were dripping with greenish-brown juice.
“Eat quickly, I’m begging you!” Sablin grabbed her by the nape of her neck. “Then you’ll thank each and every one of us.”
“Listen to him, Sashenka!”
“Eat it now, Alexandra Vladimirovna! This is an order from on high!”
“You must not shirk your duty to eat!”
Sablin speared a piece of offal with his fork and brought it to his wife’s mouth.
“You don’t have to feed me, Seryozhenka,” she smiled, taking the fork from him and tasting the meat.
“Well, what do you think?” Sablin looked at her scornfully.
“Delicious,” she continued to chew.
“My darling wife.” He took her left hand and kissed it. “It’s not simply delicious. It’s divine.”
“I agree,” Father Andrei nodded. “To eat one’s daughter is divine. It’s a shame that I have no daughter.”
“Don’t feel bad, brother,” Sablin cut himself a piece of hip. “You have so many spiritual offspring.”
“But I don’t have the right to cook them, Seryozha.”
“I have the right, though!” Mamut pinched his daughter’s cheek as she chewed. “You won’t have to wait much longer, my little fidget.”
“When shall it be?” asked Father Andrei.
“On the sixteenth of October.”
“Not for a while, then.”
“These two months will fly by.”
“Are you getting yourself ready, Arisha?” asked Rumyantseva, glancing at one of Nastya’s now amputated fingers.
“I’m tired of waiting,” Arina pushed away her empty plate. “All of my friends have already been cooked and I’m still here. Tanya Boksheyeva, Adele Nashyekina, and now Nastenka too.”
“Be patient, my little peach. We’ll eat you soon enough.”
“I’m sure that you’ll be very delicious, Arina Dmitriyevna!” winked Lev Ilyich.
“Of course, she’ll need some fattening up!” laughed Mamut, pulling her ear.
“We’ll bake her like a teacup pig,” Sablin smiled. “In October with a spot of vodka, a spot of rowanberry vodka—oh how crispy our Arinushka will be . . . ooh-ooh-ooh!”
“Won’t you be nervous?” Rumyantsev was gnawing on a knuckle.
“Well . . .” she rolled her eyes thoughtfully and shrugged her plump shoulders. “A little. It will be very strange!”
“There’s no doubt about that!”
“On the other hand, a lot of people get cooked. I just . . . can’t imagine what it will be like to lie in the oven.”
“It’s hard to picture, huh?”
“Mhmm!” Arina giggled. “It must be so painful!”
“Very painful,” Father Andrei nodded his head seriously.
“Horribly painful,” Mamut stroked her crimson cheek. “So painful that you go insane just before you die.”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged again. “Sometimes I light a candle and put my finger in the flame to test myself. I screw up my eyes and make a decision—I will hold it there until the count of ten. But then I begin to count—one, two, three—and I can’t stand it anymore! It’s so painful! And in the oven? How will I stand it in there?”
“In the oven,” laughed Mamut, peppering another piece, “It won’t just be your finger in the flame. Your whole body will be completely naked. And not over a two-kopeck candle either, but on top of red-hot coals. The heat will be fierce—hellish.”
Arina thought for a minute, scraping her nails against the tablecloth.
“Alexandra Vladimirovna, did Nastya scream very loudly?”
“Very loudly,” Sablina was eating slowly and beautifully.
“She struggled until the end,” Sablin lit a cigarette.
Arina put her arms around her shoulders, as if she were cold.
“Tanechka Boksheyeva fainted when they tied her to the shovel. She came to in the oven and cried out, ‘Wake me up, Mommy!’”
“She thought she was dreaming?” Rumyantsev stared into the girl’s eyes, smiling.
“Well, it wasn’t a dream,” Sablin began to busy himself with the meat on the serving dish. “Ladies and gentlemen, your final orders! Immediately! One cannot eat a cold roast!”
“It would be my pleasure,” Father Andrei held out his plate. “One must eat good food and a lot of it.”
“At the right time and in the right place,” Mamut also held out his plate.
“And in good company!” Rumyantseva followed their example.
Sablin cut into Nastya’s still-warm body.
“Durch Leiden Freude.”
“Are you being serious?” Mamut lit his extinguished cigar once again.
“How fascinating! Explain yourself, please.”
“Pain builds strength and knowledge. It heightens the senses. Clears the mind.”
“One’s own pain or the pain of others?”
“In my case, the pain of others.”
“Ah, there we have it!” Mamut grinned. “So you’re still an incorrigible Nietzschean, then?”
“Yes, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.”
Mamut blew smoke from his mouth disappointedly.
“Well, well! And I had hoped I was coming to dine with a hedonist like myself. Does this mean that you cooked Nastya, not out of love for life, but for ideological reasons?”
“I cooked my daughter out of love for her, Dmitri Andreyevich. You can consider me a hedonist in that sense.”
“What kind of hedonism is that?” Mamut grinned wryly. “It’s Tolstoyism pure and simple!”
“Lev Nikolayevich hasn’t yet cooked his daughters,” Lev Ilyich objected delicately.
“Yes, and it’s unlikely that he will,” Sablin cut off a piece of Nastya’s leg. “Tolstoy is a liberal Russian nobleman. Therefore, he is also an egotist. Nietzsche, on the other hand, is our new John the Baptist.”
“Total demagoguery,” Mamut sipped his wine. “Nietzsche put the wool over all of our eyes. The eyes of all radical thinkers and intellectuals. They can no longer see what exists simply and clearly. No, this is total delirium, a general state of lunacy, the second dimming of our minds! First there was Hegel, to whom my grandfather literally prayed, and now this mustached fool.”
“What is it about Nietzsche that bothers you so much?” as he spoke, Sablin was serving everyone bits of sliced meat.
“It’s not Nietzsche who bothers me, but his Russian followers. Their blindness bothers me. Nietzsche did not create anything fundamentally new in the world of philosophy.”
“Is that so?” Sablin handed him his plate with a piece of Nastya’s right breast.
“A dubious statement,” remarked Lev Ilyich.
“Nothing, no-thing that is fundamentally new! All Greek literature is Nietzschean! From Homer to Aristophanes! Amoralism, incest, the cult of strength, contempt for the common man, elitist hymns! Think of Horace! ‘I shun the profane crowd!’ And the Greek philosophers? Plato, Pythagoras, Antisthenes, Cinesias? Who among them did not call for man to overcome that which is human, all too human? Who among them loved the demos? Who among them called for mercy? Perhaps only Socrates.”
“But Nietzsche was the first philosopher to write about the Übermensch,” retorted Sablin.
“Nonsense! Schiller used that very word. Many others wrote about the idea of the Übermensch—Goethe, Byron, Chateaubriand, Schlegel! But even beyond Schlegel! In his little article, Raskolnikov sums up all of Nietzsche! Body and soul! What about Stavrogin and Versilov? Are they not Übermenschen? ‘Let the world fall to pieces so long as I still have my cup of tea!’”
“All great philosophers find a common feature, or better yet, a common denominator under all those who intuitively accumulated before them,” Father Andrei spoke up. “Nietzsche is no exception. He did not philosophize in a vacuum.”
“Nietzsche wasn’t looking for a common denominator! He puts forth no common feature!” Sablin shook his head violently. “He made a great leap forward! He was the first in the history of human thought to truly liberate man and show him the way!”
“What is the way, then?” asked Mamut.
“‘Man is something that shall be overcome!’ That is the way.”
“Every religion in the world says the same thing.”
“If we keep turning the other cheek, we won’t change anything.”
“So, we’ll change it by destroying the weak?” Mamut drummed his fingers against the table.
“How else would we change it?” Sablin looked around for the gravy boat and picked it up; thick red sauce flowed over the meat. “By freeing the world from the weak, from those not capable of living, we are helping a healthy youth to grow!”
“The world cannot be exclusively made up of strong, red-blooded people.” Having cautiously rested his cigar on the edge of the ashtray, Mamut cut off a piece of meat, put it in his mouth, and felt the crunch of the well-done skin. “There have already been attempts to create just this sort of ‘healthy’ society—think of Sparta. And how did that end? Every society that kicks the fallen when they’re down ends up falling itself.”
Sablin ate with enormous appetite, as if he’d just sat down for the first time.
“Sparta is not a good argument . . . m-m-m . . . Heraclitus and Aristocles didn’t have the experience of fighting against Christianity to help in the creation of a new morality. Because of that, their idea of the state was an entirely utopian one. . . . The world is a different place now . . . m-m-m . . . The world is waiting for a new messiah. And he is coming.”
“Allow me to ask you who he’ll be?”
“A man. A man who has overcome himself.”
“Total demagoguery . . .” Mamut waved his fork.
“The men are talking seriously again . . .” Rumyantseva sucked loudly on Nastya’s collarbone.
Father Andrei served himself some horseradish.
“I’ve read two books by Nietzsche. He’s talented, but on the whole, his philosophy is alien to me.”
“Why do you need philosophy, brother? You have faith,” Sablin mumbled with a mouth full of food.
“Don’t be silly,” Father Andrei gave him a serious look. “Every human being has a philosophy of living. Their own. Even an idiot has a philosophy by which he lives.”
“Which would be . . . idiotism?” Arina asked cautiously.
Sablin and Mamut started to laugh, but Father Andrei looked at Arina sternly.
“Yes. Idiotism. And my doctrine for living is this: live and let live.”
“That’s a very good doctrine,” Sablina pronounced quietly.
Everyone was suddenly quiet and ate for a little while without speaking.
“An angel of silence has passed over us,” Rumyantsev sighed.
“Not just one. A whole herd,” Arina held out her empty glass.
“Don’t give her any more,” Mamut said to Pavlushka, who was bending over to do just that.
“At your age, a person should be happy without liquor.”
“Live and let live,” said Sablin thoughtfully. “Well, Andrei Ivanych, that’s a commonsense philosophy. But . . .”
“But! Always but!” The priest smiled.
“Forgive me, but your philosophy is terribly moth-eaten. Just like all of our old morals. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, I would certainly have lived by your doctrine. But, today, ladies and gentlemen, we stand on the threshold of a new age. There are only six months until the beginning of the twentieth century. Six months! Until the beginning of a new era in the history of humanity! Therefore, I drink to the new morality of the coming century—a morality of overcoming!”
He stood up and drained his glass.
“And what kind of morality will it be?” Father Andrei looked at him. “One without God, I’d imagine?”
“Certainly not!” The knife squeaked as Sablin cut the meat. “God has always been and shall always be with us.”
“But doesn’t Nietzsche write about the death of God?”
“That isn’t meant to be understood literally. Every era has its own Christ. The old Hegelian Christ has died. In the coming century, we’ll need a young, strong, and resolute Savior, one who is able to overcome! One who is able to laugh while he walks over the abyss on a tightrope! Yes! He must laugh, not simply whine and make faces!”
“So, in the coming century, Jesus is to be a tightrope walker?”
“Yes! Yes! A tightrope walker! We shall pray to him with all our hearts, we shall overcome ourselves with him, and we shall follow him to a new life!”
“Follow him onto the tightrope?”
“Yes, my dear Dmitri Andreyevich, onto the tightrope! Onto the tightrope over the abyss!”
“That’s insane,” Father Andrei shook his head.
“It’s common sense!” Sablin slapped his hand against the table.
The dishes rang out.
Sablina shrugged her shoulders coolly.
“I’m so tired of these arguments, gentlemen. Can we stop talking about philosophy, Seryozha, at least for today?”
“Russian men fly to philosophy like bees to honey!” Rumyantseva declaimed.
“Sing for us, Alexandra Vladimirovna!” Rumyantsev loudly demanded.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” agreed Mamut. “Sing! You must sing!”
Sablina clasped her thin hands and rubbed them together.
“It’s true, I . . . today’s . . . such a day . . .”
“Sing, my darling,” Sablin wiped his lips. “Pavlushka! Bring in the guitar!”
The lackey ran out of the room.
“I’m learning how to play the guitar too!” said Arina. “When Mommy was alive, she used to say that some romantic songs were only good on the guitar. Because the piano is a harsh instrument.”
“God’s truth!” Rumyantsev smiled.
“Two guitars ring out, begin their plaintive howl . . .” Mamut stared gloomily at the table. “Sorry, where’s the mustard?”
“Je vous en prie!” Rumyantseva handed it to him.
Pavlushka brought in the seven-stringed guitar. Sablin moved a chair over to the rug. Alexandra Vladimirovna sat down, crossed her legs, picked up the guitar, and, without seeing if it was in tune, started to play and sing in a quiet, soulful voice.
Do you remember the eloquent look you gave
That revealed the depths of your love for me?
In the future, it would be a happy guarantee,
Every day, it would set my soul to rant and rave.
In that shining moment, I smiled back
And dared to sow the seeds of hope in you . . .
How much power I had over you, ‘tis true,
I remember everything, do you remember too?
Do you remember the moments of elation,
When the days flew by so fast for us?
When you hoped I would reveal my infatuation,
And your lips swore our love would never rust?
You listened to me, happy and admiring,
The fire of love was burning in your eyes.
You would do anything for me without tiring.
I remember everything, do you remember too?
Do you remember, when we were apart,
I waited for you, mute with memory and care?
The thought of you was always in my heart;
The thought of you in the distance when ‘twas only air.
Do you remember how timid I became,
When I gave you the ring from my finger?
How thrilled I was with your joy and acclaim?
I remember everything, do you remember too?
Do you remember that when night fell,
Your passion was transmuted into song?
Do you remember the stars as well?
Do you remember how I could do no wrong?
I’m weeping now, my breast is pining for the past,
But you are cold now and your heart is far away!
For you, the feeling of those days has passed,
I remember everything, do you remember too?
“Bravo!” cried Rumyantsev and everyone applauded.
“I have one joy in my life, one light that always shines . . .” Sablin kissed his wife’s hand.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let us drink to Anna Vladimirovna’s health!” Rumyantsev stood up.
“By all means!” Mamut turned to her as he stood up.
“To you, our darling Sasha!” Rumyantseva held out her glass.
“Thank you, everyone,” Sablina walked back to the table.
Her husband handed her a glass.
Lev Ilyich stood up with glass in hand.
“Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to say,” he began, “that Alexandra Vladimirovna is a remarkable individual. Even an inveterate misogynist, egotist, and hopeless skeptic like me could not resist the charms of Mistress Sablina. Six . . . no . . . almost seven years ago, I found myself here for the first time and . . .” he lowered his eyes, “instantaneously fell in love. I have loved Alexandra Vladimirovna for these seven years. I love her like no one else. And . . . I’m not ashamed to talk about this today. I love you, Alexandra Vladimirovna.”
He stood there, bowing his head toward his boney shoulders and rotating the narrow glass in his large thin hands.
Sablina walked over to him, stood up on tiptoes, and kissed him on the cheek.
“Kiss him properly, Sashenka,” pronounced Sablin.
“You’ll allow it?” she looked closely at Lev Ilyich’s confused face.
“Then hold this,” she gave her glass to her husband, put her arms around Lev Ilyich’s neck, and kissed him hard on the mouth, pressing her thin, pliable body against his.
Lev Ilyich opened his fingers. His glass slipped, fell onto the rug, but didn’t break. Lev Ilyich squeezed Sablina’s waist with his inordinately long arms and pressed his lips back against hers. They kissed for a long time, rocking back and forth and rustling their clothes.
“Don’t hold back, my angel,” Sablin stared at them with bloodshot eyes.
Sablina moaned. Her legs trembled. Lev Ilyich’s wiry fingers squeezed her buttocks.
“Right here, do it right here,” muttered Sablin. “Here, here . . .”
“No . . .” now pale, Sablina pulled her lips away with some difficulty. “Certainly not . . .”
“Here, here, I’m begging you, my angel!” Sablin, turning red, immediately got down onto his knees.
“No, not for anything in the world . . .”
“I’m begging you, Lev Ilyich! For the love of God, do it!”
Lev Ilyich embraced Sablina.
“There’s a child here, you’ve lost your mind!”
“On this earth, we are all children, Alexandra Vladimirovna,” Mamut smiled.
“I’m begging you, I’m begging you!” Sablin sobbed.
“Never in a million years . . .”
“How enchanting you are, Sashenka! How I envy you!” Rumyantseva raised herself up rapturously.
“I’m begging you, just begging you . . .” Sablin slid over to her on his knees.
“Agh, stop it!” Sablina tried to break out of the embrace, but Lev Ilyich held fast.
“There is no sin in sincere tenderness,” Father Andrei played with his beard.
Sablin put his arms around his wife’s knees and began to pull up her dress. Lev Ilyich squeezed her torso and pressed his lips to her neck. Her slim legs, uncovered by stockings, were exposed, then the lace of her undershirt. Sablin grabbed onto her white underpants and pulled them down.
“No-o-o-o!” Sablina cried out, throwing back her head.
Sablin turned to stone.
Pushing away Lev Ilyich’s face, she ran out of the dining room.
Sablin remained seated on the rug.
“Go after her,” he said to Lev Ilyich hoarsely.
Lev Ilyich stood there awkwardly, red-faced and with his clenched fists held apart.
“Go after her!” Sablin shouted so loudly that the chandelier’s crystal prisms trembled.
Lev Ilyich followed Sablin’s instructions, as though he’d been hypnotized.
Sablin pressed his palms to his face and exhaled heavily—with a shudder.
“Go easy on yourself, Sergei Arkadeyevich,” Mamut broke the silence.
Sablin took out a handkerchief and slowly wiped the sweat from his face.
“How beautiful she is,” Rumyantseva stood up, shaking her head. “How maniacally beautiful she is!”
“Let’s have some champagne,” Sablin said in a quiet voice, staring at the pattern on the rug.
Lev Ilyich walked up the stairs and pushed on the Sablins’ bedroom door. It turned out to be locked.
“Sasha,” he said hollowly.
“Let me be,” he heard from inside the room.
“For the love of God, go away!”
“What do you want from me?”
She opened the door. Lev Ilyich put his arms around her waist, lifted her up, and carried her over to the bed.
“Do you like to play the fool? You like indulging him, don’t you?” she mumbled. “To submit to this . . . this . . . can it really be that you enjoy all of this? All of this . . . this . . . base ambiguity? This vulgar, stupid theater?”
Dropping her onto the apricot-colored silk of the bedcover, Lev Ilyich ripped off her tight, coffee-colored dress.
“He indulges his peasant nature . . . he . . . he’s only three generations removed . . . no . . . two generations . . . he still blows his nose right down to the ground . . . but you, you! You’re an intelligent, honest, complex individual . . . you
. . . you understand all my ambiguity so well . . . agh, don’t tear it like that . . . all of my absurdity . . . my God . . . why has my life become like this?”
Having finished tearing off the dress, Lev Ilyich lifted up her lace undershirt and, on his knees now, began to unbutton his pants with trembling hands.
“If we . . . if we already know everything . . . if we’re ready for anything . . . if we know that we love each other . . . and . . . that there’s no other way . . . that . . . each of our stars shine for the other’s,” she mumbled, looking at the stucco crown molding of the ceiling, “if we met
. . . even if it was awful and awkward, even if it was even stupid . . . as is everything that happens so suddenly . . . then we must cherish this tiny spark . . . this weak ray . . . let us take care of it like something fragile and precious . . . we must try . . . aaah!”
Lev Ilyich’s long, brawny, and curved penis entered her.
Pavlushka opened the champagne clumsily. Foam spilled from the bottle onto the tray.
“Give it here, halfwit!” Sablin took the bottle. “And get outta here!”
The lackey doubled over, as if he’d received an invisible blow to the stomach, and left the room.
“Why do Russians so hate to serve?” asked Mamut.
“Pride,” answered Father Andrei.
“Boorishness is the greatest of Russian qualities,” sighed Rumyantsev.
“It’s our fault,” Rumyantseva tenderly stroked the tablecloth. “We must do a better job in educating our servants.”
“Nastya had a surprising way of looking at things,” Sablina spoke up, thoughtfully moving Nastya’s half-eaten tongue around her plate with her knife.
“We must flog them, you mean? That’s no solution.” Sablin poured wine into everyone’s glasses scowlingly. “Sometimes it’s necessary, of course, but I don’t like doing it.”
“I’m also against flogging,” said Father Andrei. “The whip doesn’t educate; it embitters.”
“Flogging must be done in the proper way,” remarked Rumyantseva.
“Of course, of course!” Arina suddenly became excited. “When she was alive, I once saw something like that at Tanechka Boksheyeva’s house! She invited me over after school because she’d promised to lend me the new Charskaya, but when we arrived, it was chaos! The governess had broken a vase. Tanechka’s father was punishing the governess for everyone to see. He says: ‘It’s good you’ve come, ladies. You can be the spectators.’ I didn’t understand at first: the governess was howling, the cook was laying an oilcloth out on the table, and Tanya’s mother was holding a bottle of ammonia. And he says to the governess: ‘Well now, you little wretch, take off your clothes!’ She lifted up her skirt, lay down on her stomach on the oilcloth, and the cook immediately pinned her down. He ripped off her underpants, and I saw her whole behind was covered in scars! How he set into her with that belt—how violently! She was yelling, so the cook shoved a cloth into her mouth! Then he whipped her—again! Again! And again! Then Tanechnka nudged me and said, ‘Look at how she . . .’”
“Enough,” Mamut interrupted her.
“Flogging is simply barbaric,” Rumyantseva raised the hissing glass to her nose and closed her eyes. “Lizkhen has been working for us for four years. It’s almost like she’s a part of the family. On her very first day, Viktor and I brought her into the bedroom and locked the door. We got undressed, lay down onto the bed, and made love. She was watching the whole time. Then I pinned her head between my legs and lifted up her skirt and Viktor gave her a little smack with a riding crop. Hard enough that the poor darling pissed herself! I put goose fat onto her derrière, took her by the hand, and said, ‘So, Lizkhen, did you see everything?’ ‘Yes, Madame.’ ‘Did you understand everything?’ ‘Yes, Madame.’ Then I say, ‘You didn’t understand anything.’ We dressed her in my ball gown, took her into the dining room, sat her down at the table, and fed her lunch. Viktor cut the food, and I put it into her mouth with a golden spoon—into her little, little, little mouth. We made her drink a bottle of Madeira. She’s sitting there like a drunk doll, giggling, ‘I understood everything, Madame.’ ‘Is that so?’ I say. So, we lock her in the wardrobe. We kept her there for three days and three nights. For the first two nights she howled, but on the third, she became silent. I let her out and looked her in the eye. ‘Now, my darling, you’ve understood everything.’ None of my vases have been broken since.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Mamut rubbed at the bridge of his broad nose.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have a toast,” Father Andrei stood up, his cassock rustling decisively. “I propose we drink to my friend Sergei Arkadeyevich Sablin.”
“It’s about time,” Rumyantseva smirked.
Sablin looked gloomily at the priest.
“Our Russia is as big as the biggest of swamps,” Father Andrei began. “We live like we’re standing on stilts, guessing where next to step and where we can rest our weight. It’s not because the Russian race is so terrible, but because the metaphysics of our country have always been like this. It’s a savage and uninhabitable place. It’s terribly drafty. And the people are no angels. The decaying and the rotten are a dime a dozen. A hand draws you forward, speaks of honor, swears to holy friendship, but you squeeze the hand a little harder and maggots come pouring out. Therefore, what I appreciate more than anything else in people is strength of spirit. Sergei Arkadeyevich and I were childhood friends, classmates, and revelers-in-arms at university. But we’re more than that now. We are brothers in spirit. Brothers in strength of spirit. We each hold to our inviolable principles—we each have our own stronghold in this regard. If I’d sacrificed my principles, I’d be carrying an icon of the Panagia and serving at the Kazan Cathedral by now. If he’d gone against his principles, he’d have been wearing a dean’s cloak for a long time already. But we didn’t retreat. Because of that, we are neither rotten nor decayed. We are the solid oak stilts of the Russian state, on which a new, healthy Russia will learn to walk. To you, my only friend!”
Sablin walked over to him. They kissed each other on the cheeks.
“Beautifully put!” Rumyantsev reached out to clink glasses.
“I didn’t know that you were at university together,” Mamut clinked glasses with them.
“How interesting!” Arina took a drink of her champagne. “Did you both study philosophy?”
“We are both materialists of the soul!” Father Andrei answered, and all the men laughed.
“For how long did you study together?” asked Rumyantseva.
“Since we were at gymnasium,” Sablin answered, adjusting his sleeves and decisively picking up Nastya’s tibia.
“You both studied at a gymnasium like me?” Arina asked. “Imagine that!”
“How about this . . .” Father Andrei made a menacing, pleading face and began to speak in a falsetto. “Sablin and Klyopin, how did you end up so far away in Kamchatka again? Come sit in the front row immediately!”
“Ahh! Six Foot Gravestone!” laughed Sablin. “Six Foot Gravestone!”
“Who’s that?” Arina’s eyes flashed with interest.
“Our mathematician friend, Kozma Trofimych Ryazhsky,” Father Andrei answered, cutting his meat.
“Six Foot Gravestone! Six Foot Gravestone!” Sablin laughed with a bone in his hand.
“Why was that his nickname?” asked Rumyantseva.
“He had a constant refrain about the study of mathematics: any idiot should be able to . . . a-ha-ha-ha! No . . . a-ha-ha-ha!” Father Andrei suddenly began to laugh hysterically.
“Ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha!” Sablin also began to laugh. “Six . . . ha-ha! Six . . . ha-ha! Six Foot
. . . a-ha-ha-haaaa!”
“He . . . a-ha-ha! He . . . once he measured an angle with a protractor, do you remember? . . . A-ha! . . . Bondarenko’s angle of idiocy . . . and he . . . a-ha-ha! Haaaa!”
Sablin laughed and shook so much, it was as if he’d been put into a galvanic bath. The bone fell from his hands, he leaned back in his chair very violently, the chair wobbled and flipped over, and Sablin fell down onto his back. Father Andrei kept laughing, clutching his crimson face with his hands.
Sablina walked into the dining room wearing a fresh long dress made of dark-blue silk. Lev Ilyich followed her in.
Sablin was still writhing around on the rug laughing.
“What happened?” asked Alexandra Vladimirovna, stopping next to him.
“Gymnasium. Memories,” Mamut said as he chewed.
“One of their little rhymes?” She walked over and sat down in her chair.
“What rhymes?” asked Rumyantsev.
“Rhymes! Ha-ha-ha! Oh my God, the rhymes!” Sablin sat up on the rug. “Oy, I’m dying . . . I wrote a little poem about my friend Andrei Klyopin when he was in his second year . . . ha-ha-ha . . . oy . . . I’ll try to calm down . . . and recite it . . .”
“What is so funny?” asked Sablina.
“Don’t ask, for the love of God, and he . . . he-he-he . . . we’ll die . . . enough! Enough! Enough! The poem!”
“Please don’t read that filth in front of me.” Sablina picked up her glass and Lev Ilyich filled it with champagne.
“But, darling, these are my people!”
“Don’t read it in front of me.”
“The beginning, just the beginning:
I have a friend named Andrei,
His nickname is Klyopa.
His kindness, I cannot downplay,
with such a fine cock, I say opa!
“Stop!” Sablina hit the table. “There’s a child here!”
“Who do you mean?” Arina smiled archly.
Once he came over to me
and said, my friend, please listen!
I’ve just bathed in poop and pee
and fear my soul’s been un-christened.
No! Your soul is certainly pure!
I cried out to him in shock
Pure as a girl’s . . .
“. . . cunt, for sure / Or perhaps as the end of my cock,” Arina pronounced, looking at Sablin out of the corner of her eye.
“Where did you learn that?” Sablin stared at her.
“Father Andrei taught me.”
“When was that?” Sablin looked over at the priest.
“That’s none of your concern, Sergei Arkadych,” Mamut mumbled angrily, smearing his meat with horseradish.
Everyone laughed and Arina continued talking.
“I like the end of your poem most of all:
Now the moral of the story is that,
Klyopa now has only one head.
The one from his dick cut off in a spat,
After which he bled and bled.
“Such filth . . .” Sablina took a drink. “Such low filth, such tiresome vulgarity.”
“Yes!” with a good-natured smile on his incredibly drunk face, Sablin set his chair back upright and sat down. “How long ago that was. . . . Do you remember how much Schopenhauer we read?”
“With the redhead?” Father Andrei drank his champagne in a state of utter delight.
“We took three months reading that book aloud! That was when I finally understood what philosophy truly is!”
“And what exactly is it?” asked Rumyantseva.
“The love of knowledge,” Mamut explained.
Suddenly, Father Andrei stood up, walked over to Mamut, and froze, squeezing his nervous hands together.
“Dmitri Andreyevich, I . . . would like to ask you for your daughter’s hand.”
Everyone went quiet. Mamut froze with an unchewed piece of meat still in his mouth. Arina turned pale.
Mamut swallowed spasmodically and coughed.
“And . . . how is it . . . that this . . .”
“I’m asking you very seriously. Very.”
Mamut turned his watery eyes to his daughter.
“Well . . .”
“No,” she shook her head.
“Well . . . then . . .”
“I’m begging you, Dmitri Andreyevich!” Father Andrei got down onto his knees delicately.
“No, no, no!” Arina shook her head.
“But . . . if you . . . and why not?” Mamut frowned.
“I’m begging you! I’m begging you!”
“Well . . . speaking openly . . . I’m . . . not against it . . .”
“No-o-o-o-o!” Arina screeched, jumping up and overturning her chair.
But the Rumyantsevs grabbed onto her as fast as two greyhounds.
“No-o-o-o-o!” she tried to run over to the door, her dress tearing in the process.
Lev Ilyich and Father Andrei grabbed onto her, then pulled her down to the carpet.
“Behave . . . behave yourself . . . um . . .” Mamut began to fuss.
“Arinushka . . .” Sablina stood up.
“Pavlushka! Pavlushka!” Sablin cried out.
“No-o-o-o!” Arina screamed.
“A towel! A towel!” Rumyantsev hissed.
Pavlushka ran in.
“Go as fast as you can over to the shelf, there on the furthest part of the right side . . .” Sablin muttered to him, holding Arina’s feet. “Actually, never mind, you fool. I’ll do it myself . . .”
Sablin ran off and the lackey followed him.
“Arina, just . . . calm down . . . pull yourself together . . .” Mamut sank down heavily onto the rug. “At your age . . .”
“Please, Papa, have mercy! Have mercy, Papa! Have mercy, Papa!” Arina said very, very quickly as she was pressed against the rug.
“Nobody has ever died from this,” Rumyantseva held onto her head.
“Arina, I’m asking for your hand,” Father Andrei stroked her cheek.
“Have mercy, Papa! Have mercy, Papa!”
Sablin ran in with a hand saw. Pavlushka, carrying a thick piece of wood, was trying and failing to keep up with him. Seeing the handsaw out of the corner of her eye, Arina began to thrash and scream so much that everyone had to hold her down.
“Shut her mouth somehow!” Sablin demanded, kneeling down and rolling up the right sleeve of his jacket.
Mamut shoved a handkerchief into his daughter’s mouth and pinched it shut with two plump fingers. Arina’s arm was bared to the shoulder, two belts and a wet towel were tightened around her forearm. Lev Ilyich tied her hand to the board. Sablin measured out the arm with his yellow, tobacco-stained fingernail.
“Praise the Lord . . .”
Quick jerks of the saw, the dull crack of ruined bones, splashes of ruby-colored blood onto the carpet, Arina’s legs held fast by four hands as they jerked about.
Sablin worked quickly. His wife placed deep bowls under the stump.
“Pavlushka,” Sablin handed him the saw. “Go tell Mitya to prepare the droshky. Hurry!”
The lackey ran off.
“Mitya will take you to our doctor. He’ll dress the wound.”
“Is it far?” Mamut took the handkerchief out of his now unconscious daughter’s mouth.
“It’s thirty minutes from here. Sashenka! Get the icon!”
Sablina went out and immediately came back with an Icon of the Savior.
Father Andrei crossed himself and knelt down. With an asthmatic bow, Mamut gave him his daughter’s hand. Father Andrei accepted it, pressed it to his chest, and kissed the icon.
“God be with you,” Mamut bowed once again.
Father Andrei stood up and left the room, holding the hand in his hands.
“Leave now! Now!” Sablin hurried them along.
Lev Ilyich picked up Arina and carried her out of the room. Mamut began to follow him out of the room.
“Have one for the road,” Sablin grabbed Mamut by the coattails. “It always takes a minute to get the horses ready.”
Having lustily opened the bottle of champagne, he filled the glasses.
“It even splashed onto my forehead!” smiling, Rumyantseva showed them a bloodstain on her tiny lace handkerchief.
“You have a strong daughter, Dmitri Alexeyevich,” Rumyantsev raised his glass. “Such healthy, such . . . powerful legs . . .”
“My deceased wife also . . . this . . . was . . .” Mamut muttered, staring at the blood-soaked carpet.
Sablin handed him a glass.
“To the glorious Mamut family!”
They clinked their glasses together and drank.
“Even so . . . you seriously overestimate Nietzsche!” Mamut proclaimed with unexpected anger.
Sablin yawned nervously and shrugged.
“And you underestimate him.”
“Nietzsche is the idol of all equivocators.”
“Nonsense. Nietzsche is the great revivifier of mankind.”
“He’s a salesman of dubious truths . . .”
“Dmitri Andreyevich!” Sablin rubbed his head impatiently. “I respect and value you as a member of the Russian intelligentsia, but I have no interest in your opinions on philosophy. That’s enough!”
“Well, God be with you . . .” Mamut walked over to the door heavily and disappointedly.
“Don’t forget to invite us to Arina’s birthday!” Rumyantseva reminded him.
“To be sure . . .” he mumbled and disappeared behind the door.
The clock struck midnight.
“Ay-yai-yai . . .” Rumyantsev stretched out. “Mother of God!”
“Where shall we sleep?” Rumyantseva hugged Sablin from behind.
“In the usual place.” He kissed her hand.
“We still haven’t had dessert.” Sablina rubbed her temples. “My head’s pounding from all of that screaming . . .”
Rumyantseva rubbed herself against Sablin.
“We don’t need dessert.”
“But we have . . . a lovely cake . . .” mumbled Sablin, lighting a cigarette.
Rumyantseva’s tight posterior, encased in pecan-colored silk, wiggled as she made rhythmic movements against Sablin with her supple body.
“Ah . . . Sashenka . . . you can’t imagine how sweet it is to be with your husband . . . how enchantingly nice it is . . .”
Sablina walked over and poured Rumyantseva’s half-finished champagne down the latter’s bodice.
“Ay!” Rumyantseva yelped, not looking up from Sablin’s back and continuing the same rhythmic motion.
“Mamut is such a clumsy fool,” Sablin said with conviction.
“But his daughter’s cute,” Rumyantsev yawned.
“Yes . . .” Sablin looked off fixedly at one point in space. “Very . . .”
Sablina put the empty glass down onto the edge of the table and walked off slowly. In the dimly lit corridor, she heard voices from the front porch: Lev Ilyich and Mamut were putting Arina into the britzka. Sablina stopped, listened, turned around, and walked back through the kitchen. Savely had fallen asleep at the table with his head in his hands. Ready to be served, the cake was covered in unlit candles. She walked past the cook, opened the door, and walked down the dark staircase and out into the courtyard.
It was a bright, warm night, a thin slice of moon in the sky, stardust, and untidy rows of lindens.
Sablina walked through the alley of trees, then stopped and breathed in the warm, humid air.
In the distance, she heard the britzka riding off.
Sablina left the alley, began to walk along the fence, opened the gate, and slipped into the Old Garden. Apple and plum trees surrounded her shapely figure, which looked as if it had been carved from a noble bone. She kept walking, her dress rustling against the ground. She touched the wet branches as she went.
She stopped. Let forth a groan. Shook her head. Laughed wearily.
She bent over, lifted up her dress, lowered her underpants, and squatted down.
The stuttering sound of digestive gasses being expelled from the body sounded out through the orchard.
“Goodness, what a glutton I am . . .” she moaned.
The inaudible fall of warm feces to the ground, its faint smell growing stronger, its succulent squelch.
Sablina stood up and put her underpants back on. Straightened her dress. Walked away. Grabbed onto a plum branch. Sighed. Stood on her tiptoes. Turned around and walked home.
The night was over.
A grayish-pink sky, dewy pollen on the still leaves, a silent flash of light behind the forest: as the magpie dozed on the temple’s gilded cross, a yellow pin of light pierced its eye.
The magpie opened its eyes wider: the sun sparkled on their surface. Having shaken its wings, the magpie then spread them as if to fly, opened its beak, and froze. The feathers on its neck stood on end. Clicking its beak, it glanced over at the cupola, started forward on its black, clawed feet, pushed off of the faceted beam of the cross, and floated down:
Cold greenery flowed through one of the magpie’s glowing eyes. Suddenly, a warm spot flashed forth: the magpie dove down and came to rest on the back of the garden bench.
Feces was lying on the grass. The magpie looked at them, fluttered through the air, came to rest once again next to the feces, and hobbled over to them. A black pearl shined forth on the buttery, chocolatey, leathery surface of the pile of feces. The magpie moved even closer: the feces were looking at the magpie with a single black eye. Opening its beak, it squinted, bent over, took one hop, dug out the pearl, and, holding it in the tip of its beak, flew off.
Having zoomed over the garden, the magpie flew past the hill, fluttered past the willow, and, hurriedly flapping its black-and-white wings, began to fly along the shore of the lake.
An entire reflected world swam through the pearl: black sky, black clouds, black lake, black boats, black pines, black juniper, black bank of sand, black bridges, black willows, black hill, black church, black path, black meadow, black alley of trees, black manor, black man and black woman, both opening the black window into the black dining room.