The very little town of N. was largely bypassed by the revolution—the red cavalries thundered by, stopping only to appropriate the ill-gotten wealth of Countess Komarova, the lone survivor of N.’s only noble family. The wealth was somewhat less than the appropriators had anticipated—a ruined mansion and no funds to repair it. The Countess fled to the only N.’s inn, and the red cavalry moved on, but not before breaking all the windows of Komarov’s mansion and allocating it for the local youth club.
Everyone knows what N.’s youth is like, and by fall most of the Countess’ furniture was turned into firewood, and by mid-December the mansion stood abandoned and decrepit, and a turd frozen to its parquet floors served as its only furnishing and a testament of gloria mundi transiting hastily.
The countess herself, stripped of her title and now a simple Citizen Komarova, was used to poverty—before the revolution, she made her living as a piano teacher, but that winter, savage and bloody, pianos were turned into firewood, their strings now disembodied garrotes. In search of new means of gentile sustenance, she turned to seamstress shops, but no one was hiring. Nearing despair, she finally settled as a clerk in a consignment shop at the outskirts of N.
The owner of the shop, a man as old as he was ornery, let her rent the room above the shop, where the wind howled under the roof thatched with a ragtag team of tiles and shingles. There was a small and round metal stove, known colloquially as “bourgeoisie,” as indiscriminate and insatiable as its namesake: it burned books, pianos, furniture, twigs and entire palmate fir branches, crackling birch logs. It gave back cherry-red heat that spread in waves through the room over the shop and broke over the stained walls, much like the distant Mediterranean over its rocky shores.
Citizen Komarova thought of the Mediterranean often—these were the vague memories of early childhood and its naive surprise at the shiny, tough leaves of the olive trees, over the white wide-brimmed hats and mustachioed men on the beach, over the mingling of salt and sun; memories almost obscene in the frozen and landlocked N. It was the only frivolity she allowed herself, and only when the metal stove made the air shimmer with concentrated heat before it dissipated in the cold, cold winter nights. Then, Citizen Komarova hugged her bony shoulders, wrapped in the spider web of a pilling black crocheted shawl over the spider web of wrinkles etched in her dry parchment skin, and rocked back and forth on her bed and cried. The rusted springs beneath her, wrapped in a thin layer of torn and colorless rags, cried in unison.
During the day, when she was done crying over her lost Mediterranean family vacation, she minded the shop downstairs. It was a single room, but much larger than her garret above it, and its contents ebbed and flowed depending on the fortunes of the citizens of N.
By the middle of January, the lone room, echoey just this past December, became stifled with all the things people brought in, hoping that Citizen Komarova would somehow manage to sell them to someone more fortunate, even though whose fortunes were good remained to be seen. There were leather-wrapped yokes the collectivized farmers had managed to keep for themselves and now were forced to let go off by bitter cold and steadily declining expectations; there were books with pages forever gone to hand-rolled cigarettes and missing title plates. Chipped china, pockmarked kettles, knives, scissors, ribbons, baskets and moth-ravaged furs. Whatever nobility survived in the environs had gravitated toward N., bringing with them heavy brocade and monogrammed silverware. Several fox skins, both platinum and regular, stared at Citizen Komarova with their amber-colored glass eyes from dusty corners. She moved between the shelves, adjusting this and that, and casually swatting at pottery with a feather duster.
The first customer of the day surprised her—he stomped his feet and clapped his hands on the threshold, dislodging a small mound of snow off his boots, held together by long cloth wrappings, and his long military coat, its chest although still covered in white powder, sporting the recognizable chevrons and ribbons of the red cavalryman, one of Budyonny’s fighters. His hat and the red star decorating it gave Komarova momentary chills, and her knotted fingers curled around the feather duster defensively. She took a deep breath and stepped forth from behind the shelves to meet the gaze of the cavalryman’s clear eyes. The dead foxes stared too, transfixing the people in the crosshairs of their amber pupils.
“What can I do for you?” said Komarova. The flame of the kerosene lamp on the counter guttered in the draft from the door, and the cavalryman shut it without being told to.
“I have something I’d like to pawn,” he said.
“It’s a consignment store,” she answered. “Which means we can sell it for you, but we cannot offer you any payment straight away.”
“I can take it to the market then.”
“You could, I suppose.”
The two of them considered each other at length.
“What is it then?” citizen Komarova asked eventually; by then, the shadows had grown longer, and the fox eyes glittered in their corners.
The cavalryman dug through the deep pockets of his overcoat. The snow on his clothes had melted, and only tiny droplets clung to the tips of the stray woolen hair on his sleeves, like fur of a cat that had come in from the rain and was about to irritably shake off the moisture. From his pocket, the man extracted four horseshoes.
“For good luck,” he said.
“I can give you a copper,” said citizen Komarova.
“It’s a deal.” The man smiled for the first time, then, and she was startled by the glint of his teeth in the shadow of the shaggy unkempt beard, which looked unintentional to begin with. When he smiled like that, his eyes sunk and his mouth pulled back, and she felt a chill. She wrapped her shawl tighter still and offered the payment on the palm of her hand.
He took it with cold fingers and was gone on a swirl of the coat, just as the four heavy horseshoes tumbled ringing to the floor. Citizen Komarova picked them up gingerly and spent the rest of the afternoon stacking and unstacking them, and sometimes hanging them on the nails over the door for good luck. She was glad when the sun set and no one stepped foot into the shop for the rest of the day, leaving her to her thoughts and the visibly unlucky horseshoes.
The rest of January passed in the sparse slow sifting of snow from the clouds, grey and heavy like quicksilver. The stock of the consignment shop increased: every dress and fur coat and petticoat and necklace, every ring and feathered hat had made its way there, as the former nobility grew hungrier and less optimistic about the possible return of the old order of things. The corners were now filled with rustling of lace and slow undulations of peacock feathers, their unblinking green and azure eyes nodding in the drafts. Countess Komarova, who in her entire lifetime had never experienced such luxury, stroked the ermine muffs and guarded them jealously from marauding moths.
She picked up delicate dresses, the lace ruffling on the chests white as foam, or the ones that were light as air, held together by the silken golden stitching. These were the dresses for waists much younger and slimmer than that of the former countess, their skirts long and stiff with golden thread, puffed with petticoats. And still she held them to her bust and looked at herself in the mirror, parallel wrinkles running along her cheeks made more severe by the ruffled collars, by the artificial flowers, feathers, and colored buttons. Her eyes shone at her from the mirror and she reminded herself of a hungry cat, not the clear-eyed child of the Mediterranean vacation.
The last day of January brought with it a howling wind, a bitter cold, and another visit from the cavalryman. Citizen Komarova was a bit puzzled by his repeat visit—unlike most, he was already paid for his horseshoes, and the army of which he was a part had moved on a long time ago, so there was no reason for him lingering behind. With him, he brought the cutting wind and the sense of great desolation. As citizen Komarova stared into his eyes, she felt the awful sucking void tugging at her soul, and the whispers ebbed in her skull like the distant Mediterranean in a pink shell pressed against her child memory ear.
“I have something else,” the cavalryman said.
“A copper,” she answered without even asking what it was, as if some force nudged her from the inside.
His gaze lingered on her face and traveled down, softening. “It becomes you,” he said, his hand motioning vaguely at her chest.
She looked down and blushed, suddenly aware of the lace shawl over the dress that neither belonged to nor fit her.
His large, square hand touched her elbow. “I’m Vasily Kropotkin,” he said.
“Like the Prince.”
“What do you have for me then?”
Metal clanged to the ground—two sabers in rusted sheaths and a horseshoe, a set of gold-embroidered epaulettes, and several medals citizen Komarova did not recognize. “Surely it’s worth more than just one copper,” Vasily said.
She gave him two. Her fingers, gathered into a pinch as if for a blessing, touched his palm as if it was a holy font, and again her mind was momentarily invaded by whispers and bubbling, hissing screams. She took a step back, and he disappeared again—she could never see him actually leave, it was him and then the opened door and a swirl of snow, the ringing of his spurred boots on the frozen ground, his long coat sweeping the path in the snow. And then she was alone, among the glassy staring eyes of foxes and the silently accumulating dust. As soon as the sun went down, she fled up the stair into her small, virginal apartment where the heat from the potbellied stove chased away her fears that crowded so densely and so coldly in the shop downstairs, where the dresses rustled and the imaginary whispers grew louder after the sundown.
Vasily came back in the middle of February, when the wind chased the twisting snow serpents close to the cold ground and the icicles fringing every doorway and window frame pointed down like transparent daggers, threatening to break off and pierce at any moment. The door clanged open, and the cavalryman—gaunter and sadder but unmistakably himself—smiled at her. His lips, bloodless and thin, pulled away from his teeth, and his cheekbones became suddenly prominent, and a thousand ghost eyes—sharp as the icicles sparkling along the top edge of the doorway—looked through his, grey and cold.
Citizen Komarova felt a chill, and yet her fingers reached out, a greening copper held between them. She touched his callused palm before he had a chance to chase the horrors from his eyes and he smiled again, warming, becoming human at her mere touch. The foxes in the corners reared and whispered, baring their teeth, their weak dangling paws clenching, their eyes clear amber and malice. She paid them no mind.
“What do you have for me today?”
He gave her a burlap sack, its bottom dark and crusted. She looked inside, into the pink lace of frozen, frothy blood to see a horse’s leg, chopped off at the knee, its fetlock covered in long, matted hair. She noticed round holes studding the circumference of the hoof and no horseshoe.
She looked away, swallowing hard, fighting back a wave of nausea, a riptide of swirling blackness that edged into the field of her vision, threatening to swallow it whole. His callused, working-class hand took hers, steadying her on her feet, and she blushed bright crimson at his touch.
“I cannot give you more than one,” she said.
“It’s all right.” He smiled. “I will bring more.”
And before she could protest, before she could stop him, he was gone.
She had disturbing dreams that night—her usual memories of that one perfect summer overlapping over the more desolate and recent events, and one moment it was warm sand and the smell of olive blooms, the next she felt callused working-class genitals pressed against the small of her back and she arched, sighed and woke up, blushing, too hot to go back to sleep. And yet, soon the waves pounded and the bed rocked under her, with the rhythm of the sea or something even more forgotten and unknowable, the warmth, the salt.
The shop downstairs caught the mild contagion of her dreams, the faint malaise—it behaved in the mornings, but as soon as darkened afternoons demanded that she lit the kerosene lamp on the counter, the shadows agitated the dresses, and the fox skins, shameless, wandered around the shop on their soft woolen legs. The severed horse’s leg thumped on the hardwood tiles haughtily, searching for its missing horseshoe. The lace unraveled and the dresses paired up and twirled in a dance or flailing panic, and fur coats chased away the moths with their long sleeves and then silently stalked the fox skins, who had the advantage of having body shapes rather than being flayed and stitched to others like themselves. They also had eyes, unlike almost everything else in the shop, and they did a better job avoiding Citizen Komarova and not blundering blindly into her.
By the time of Great Lent, on Clean Monday, almost everyone in N. was hungry, and the fast seemed a necessity more than an imposition. When Citizen Komarova left the shop, chased away by the disturbing goings-on, she walked down the snow-paved streets, wondering to herself at how quiet everything was, before realizing that the missing sounds were those that used to belong to livestock—there was no mooing, bleating nor clucking; no hissing nor barking nor quacking nor meowing, for that matter. Even the human voices were few and subdued. She walked to the bakery and bought a loaf of bread, dry and raspy with mixed-in chaff. She took it to her garret and crumbled it into a bowl of water, with just a splash of precious sunflower oil, and ate it slowly, chewing each bite a hundred times, stretching it, stretching like a winter night when the sleep would not come. The skin on her neck hung looser, a long, sad flap. Her waist, however, had grown slimmer, and now most of the dresses in the shop were too large for her, their full skirts swirling of their own volition about her feet, and sometimes swaying with enough force to make her stumble or almost knock her off her feet. She wore them all the time now, never sure when Vasily Kropotkin would show up but confident that he would. She did not bother to explain to herself why his arrival was important, and why it mattered if he complimented her flowing skirts and the delicate crocheted flowers winding about her throat, so beautiful.
He arrived late at night. The kerosene lamp was blown out and Citizen Komarova lay sleepless in her narrow bed in her narrow garret, one side of the roof above her slanting at a sharp angle, memories of past snowfalls whispering in the rafters.
She heard the heavy footsteps in the shop downstairs and lay on her back, listening intently, trying not to breathe so as not to miss a slightest sound—neither the jingling of spurs, nor the creaking of the steps, nor the thump of a new burlap sack. It fell to the floor heavily and wetly, with a sucking thwack that made her skin crawl. She knew that she would never dare to look inside, but that the disembodied horse leg would probably investigate and lean against the sack forlornly, its furry fetlock matting with the slow seeping of thick black blood.
Of course he would want his payment—the steps creaked, closer and closer, and the chills and the whispers followed, reluctant to let him go.
The door creaked. Citizen Komarova licked her lips, and said in a small, croaking voice, squashed with terror and sadness, “I have no coppers to give you.”
“It’s too bad,” he said. The bed creaked and shifted as he sat on its edge, invisible in the darkness, but solid.
“There are some downstairs, in the shop,” she said. “Come back in the morning.”
His wide, warm palm touched her face gently but with a hidden threat of superior strength and class position. “Can I stay here?”
She nodded wordlessly, her lips and eyelashes brushing against the leathery contours of his open hand.
The bed creaked again, and she felt his weight pressed against her, then on top of her, his fingers indenting the thin parchment skin of her inner thighs, pushing them apart. Their fumblings were short and dry and bruised, but citizen Komarova barely noticed: with every thrust of the knotted, gnarled body on top of her, her vision filled to brimming with unfamiliar sights.
She saw a row after row of the red cavalrymen, their horses gone, lined along the darkened riverbank. She could not see their faces, shrouded in shadow as they were; only occasionally she caught a glint from under the visor of a red-starred hat. A glint of copper, she thought, before the man on top of her pulled away and she saw the ceiling of her garret, awash in the grey premonition of the morning, and then her eyes closed and she stared at the frothy waves of the sea, as they covered the white sand and retreated, leaving in their wake perfect lacy patterns of foam, even and complex like the crocheted doilies the local nobility left by the dozen in the shop downstairs.
Then there was the ceiling and warm breath on her face, and then it all drowned in the clanging of metal and sparks flying from the clashing of sabers, the whinnying of the horses, and the quick, stuttering ta-ta-ta of the machine gun. There was mud and a slippery road and a lightweight cart with a mounted machine gun but no rider, pulled by a single spooked horse. The two-wheeled cart tilted and tipped over, and the horse slid, its hooves (devoid of horseshoes) splattering mud and mustard-yellow clay over its hide, dark with sweat, before it tumbled down, its hind right leg giving under it awkwardly, with a crack that resonated through her bones.
The man on top of her exhaled a muffled curse and pulled away for one last time, leaving her with a brief but searing impression of several cavalrymen surrounding her bed in a semicircle, pressing closer intently as if they wanted to see better. She pulled the covers all the way to her chin, and they leered at her, a few of them smirking under the coppers on their eyelids.
“Is this why you need money?” she whispered and nodded at the silent, invisible throng. “For them?”
He seemed neither surprised nor perturbed by citizen Komarova’s observation. He rolled onto his back, hands under his head, and sighed. “Yes. They need coppers to cross over, and I am supposed to get them for them.”
(The dead in her mind’s eye stared, some with copper, others with eyes white as boiled eggs.)
“I was the only one who survived.” He sighed. “The White Army, the Black Army—goddamn Makhno!—too many, too many. When there’s only one man left alive from the entire regiment, he has to take care of his dead. They sure aren’t taking care of themselves.”
“I can help you,” she whispered, the skin on her throat unusually tight, constricting.
They came downstairs when it was still barely light. The air, colored whisper grey, like a dove’s underside, pooled in the corners, and soft cold drafts moved the heavy folds of dresses—all but one, a white lacy number that twirled in a dance with a shearling overcoat, oblivious to the gruesome beast that was busily self-assembling from the dismembered horse parts and a fox pelt, all mismatched fur and yellow glow of glassy eyes, teeth and hooves and frozen blood, pink like cherry petals in the spring that was too far away, too hungry and cold to even dream about.
“I know where the owner keeps the shop’s take,” she said. “He never takes it home—afraid of the thieves. He thinks here no one will find it.”
“He’ll know it was you.”
She sighed and patted his head—lumpy old scars bulged like veins under his greying and short and badly cut hair. There were probably lice, she thought with only a distant shudder of disgust. There were always lice on these people; no wonder they were so eager to call everyone “bloodsuckers” and appropriate the appropriators, or whatever nonsensical phrase they were using nowadays. Worse yet, they were right. She closed her eyes for a second, to gather her courage. It was the least she could do. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I will show them.”
The small chest, wrapped in copper straps mostly for show, was hidden in its usual place—in the bottom of a larger, almost identical chest filled to overflowing with spotted linens, torn doilies, and torn drapes, with broken flowers of white silk and yellowing muffs. She took the little chest out of its soft nest and blew on it, gently displacing stray threads and cobwebs.
They left the paper money—who had use for it anyway, in the town where it would only buy a loaf of stale bread and a jar of sunflower oil?—and took all the coins, all colors, all sizes. Copper and silver, the old Tsar coins and the new ones. Ghostly fingers reached for them and the red stars of the ghosts’ hats flashed in the morning light, multiplied by the many faces of the coins, and soon all their white eyes were hidden under the soft shine or green patina of metal.
“It is time,” citizen Komarova said softly.
He gave her a puzzled look.
“I told you I would show them. Only you will have to help me.”
They went back up the rickety stairs with the composite horse-fox pawing at her hems with its toes and hooves and barking piteously. Soon, the strange beast was left behind, and citizen Komarova lay on her maiden-narrow bed. The ruffles brushed her chin and hid her neck, and the lace over her breast lay smooth, virginal white.
She closed her eyes and told Vasily Kropotkin what he must do. He hesitated a while, but he was a soldier and she was a parasite, no matter how appropriated. He found the class strength within him, and his heavy hands stroked her throat. There were a few minutes of blind kicking panic, and the sound of either a crushed trachea or of broken bones of the fox-horse as it lost its footing and tumbled down the stairs.
But soon enough her eyes closed under two coppers and she stood on the Mediterranean shore, a pink shell clasped in her hands and an entire regiment of the Red Army crowding behind her, eager like children to see the white sand and the gentle waves and sea, blue as nothing they had ever seen before.