The Visit

Feb. 18th, 2010 12:31 pm
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Later, Cheslav would always remember it was winter when Avdotia Isaeva died.

Cheslav Oleksei remembered the Siege as an eternal winter, even though he knew intellectually that the seasons must have changed during those two and a half years. Yet when he caressed the place in his memories that knew starvation and fear and aching desperation, squatting in bombed-out buildings and eating stringy meat nearly raw, taking his knife to the veins of a man for the first time and finding fleeting solace in the slow grind of hard flesh, that place, those memories, were grey and tinged with frost.

Now, there was real snow on the ground in front of the Isaev estate.

The estate stood as always, imposing and elegant, a tall historic townhouse facing the wide road. The snow around the curb been recently plowed but was blackened with mud from the tires of many recent visitors, like the first shadow of tarnish on silver.

Cheslav drove himself, and parked his white Moskvitch in front, instead of going around to the back like usual.

The night air felt crisp, and very heavy.

His breath streamed between his lips like smoke. Seeing it made him want for a cigarette.

There were few things Cheslav Oleksei denied himself, but he denied himself a cigarette now. Instead, his hand went absently to his pocket, and felt the weight of the bottle within.

Cheslav wore a black wool coat that spanned his broad shoulders and swirled around his boots as he walked up to the townhouse's front door. Above him, most windows were darkened save for a couple that were faintly backlit with the softest of warm glows.

No other signs of life.

He allowed it was possible that no one was home.

His heavy brow knit low over his dark eyes.

Cheslav had even features, for the most part, a straight Greek nose and squared-off chin, and a long, angular jaw. It was the thick brow that glided his face with a touch of menace, and betrayed his coarse birth.

Rather, both his jaw and his massive form, tall and thick with muscle like the butcher he'd once been, and Cheslav knew it mattered as much where you'd been as where you were.

He reached for the wrought iron knocker, but then changed his mind and rang the bell, instead.

Hunger

Jan. 23rd, 2010 12:00 pm
cheslav_oleksei: (Default)
There was a long line at the bread kiosk that morning, just like every morning.

Citizens shivered as they stood in the snow, clutching their ration cards in their freezing hands. They wore threadbare clothing, in as many layers as they could, but still, there were always one or two who collapsed and did not move again.

The men and women behind them shuffled forward to take their places in line.

Cheslav Oleksei had learned early on that the ration lines were worthless. Invariably, they ran out of bread before everyone got a share, and even if you were lucky enough to get your ration for that day, it was near-inedible, mixed with more sawdust than grain.

He eyed the line of listless citizens. Later, when the kiosk ran short, they would not even raise their voices in protest. Instead, they would simply turn around and trudge back home, only to return the next day even earlier, to try again.

"Come on, Taras," he said, gruffly. Taras stood silently at his side, watching the line.

After a second, Taras looked up at him with dark eyes, and nodded dutifully.

They left.

Cheslav was a large man, tall and broad-shouldered, built thick with muscle and well-fed from childhood. His father had been a butcher, and had insisted his children eat meat every night. In the fine Soviet tradition, Cheslav had become a butcher as well, and until the German blockade, had fed meat to his children every night.

It had been working, as far as he could tell. Although Taras was only nine years old, he was solidly built, not overtall for his age but husky, though the long, cruel months of near-starvation had made him leaner.

It was troubling. No son of Cheslav Oleksei's was going to be scrawny.

Taras trailed after him as they walked down the snowy street, avoiding the fissures in the pavement where mortar shells had cracked starburst sinkholes. He did not need to tell Taras to keep up.

They turned down a particular alley Cheslav knew.

There were men who lurked in the shadows of Leningrad like feral cats once had, only all the cats had been hunted and eaten months before. But these men frequented certain spots, rotating their locations, though those in the know could usually find them.

At least that had been true until a few weeks ago, when the men had abruptly disappeared. Cheslav had checked all the places he knew every day just in case, but the men had either moved on to other, inscrutable locations or had simply slipped back into the old brickwork, lost like ants or roaches or whatever was left still left alive in the bones of the city.

He heard a noise up ahead, and paused, cocking his head. Immediately, Taras went still as well.

Voices. Cheslav heard voices. He listened to the conversation for a few seconds, then nodded to Taras. He started forward again, making sure to scrape his boots against the ground as he walked.

The voices went quiet. Cheslav stepped around the corner.

Four men stood next to a large canvas duffle, two men holding crude clubs fashioned from castoff furniture, and another with no obvious weapons at all. The fourth man was dressed in a Red Army officer's uniform. He glanced quickly at Cheslav but did not make eye contact.

Cheslav's lip curled.

He nodded at the weaponless man, who nodded back, after a moment. The man turned back to the officer and they concluded their business in hurried whispers, and then the man handed the officer a bag with dark stains down the front of it.

Cheslav waited until the officer had left before he approached.

"What do you have?" he asked, without preamble.

There was a pause.

"Dog," the man said.

Cheslav looked at him.

There had been rat first, in the early days of the shortages. Then dog, and then finally cat. Cheslav figured pure sentimentality had kept the domesticated animals safe until there was no other choice, and cats were harder to catch than dogs.

Once, there had been horse meat, but that had been more of a fluke.

"Let me see it," Cheslav said.

The guards stirred, shifting stances, grips tightening on their makeshift clubs. Cheslav did not look at them. Instead, he held the leader's gaze. The man had bad teeth and a large mole on his forehead. Cheslav could see the blurred edge of a greenish tattoo on the man's neck, just above his collar.

After a moment, the man reached down into the duffle and pulled a bloody cut of meat wrapped in wax paper. Cheslav took the parcel, inspecting the meat within briefly.

His eyes went back to the leader's.

"We're tired of dog," he said shortly, then thrust it back at him.

Cheslav put a firm hand on Taras' shoulder and steered him away.

As they walked down the snowy streets, Cheslav felt like they were being followed.

He cut through alleys and half-ruined walls, ducking behind shoddily erected barricades. Cheslav pushed a hard pace, but Taras kept up and did not complain, not once.

Finally, Cheslav paused to let them rest in the lee of a bombed-out building that had once been an apartment. He could see remnants of furniture above, in the exposed upper floors.

Taras looked at him, panting quietly, breath misting in the air.

"Why didn't we take the dog meat?"

Cheslav shook his head.

"That wasn't dog."

"Then what was it?"

Cheslav eased an arm around Taras' shoulders, and drew his son to him, knowing it was cold.

"What do you think it was?"

A small knot of concentration formed between Taras' brows. Cheslav could see thoughts flowing behind his son's eyes, heavy and molten. Back before the war, the teachers had told him that Taras was slow, and Cheslav allowed that perhaps Taras was, but slow was not the same thing as stupid.

He saw the moment the realization hit, when Taras' eyes widened and sought his, startled, then after a second, questioning.

"It was probably someone around your age," Cheslav said, though he had no way of knowing that.

He sighed.

"Listen, Taras, this is very important. I need you to understand something. There are some things in life you can never compromise on. Never. Not and still call yourself a man, and if you're not a man, there's no point. That was one of them. You and I, were not going to be like those people. We're not going to pretend like we don't know where that meat comes from, just because we're hungry. We're not going to prey on the weakest, just because we're the strongest. We're not savages who eat other people. It's inhuman."

Cheslav gripped Taras' shoulder a little too hard.

Taras squirmed for a second, grimacing. Then he held still.

"There's another way," Cheslav said, slowly. "There's always another way. If you cross some lines you can't ever come back."

He paused.

"There aren't many lines that are like that. But the ones we have...those are important, you understand?"

Taras nodded, solemnly.

"We can talk about it later," Cheslav said. "But I need you understand why we didn't take that meat. You and I, we're better than other people, and what makes us better is that we don't compromise on who we are, ever."

Taras stared at him, steadily, dark eyes clear.

"Da, Papa."

"Good. We'll rest a while here, then we'll go home."

"Da." Taras was silent for a few moments. "But what are we going to eat?"

"I don't know," Cheslav said. "But we'll find a way, you understand?"

Taras rested his head against Cheslav's side.

"Da, Papa. I know."
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There were a dozen of them, maybe more.

Cheslav Oleksei never bothered to count.

There had been three or four to start with, grey tabbies and a tortoiseshell, and a little one, nearly all black with a patch of white on its chest. After a while, others had joined them, big ones and small ones, fur in every conceivable shade of cat. Now they scrambled over each other in a teeming mass, crying with loud mews, bolting down food like they were starving, even though he fed them every morning.

He lit a cigarette as he watched them, and blew smoke and warm breath into the cold air.

Cheslav supposed he didn't blame them. He knew what it was like to be hungry.

"Krysha?"

Cheslav glanced over his shoulder. There was a dark shape standing in the doorway that led inside, a silhouette so broad-shouldered and tall, it almost could have been Taras, except Cheslav knew better.

He titled his chin, gesturing the man forward.

The resemblance faded as soon as Anton stepped into the alley's wan light.  Anton did not move so much like a hunting cat as a lumbering bear.  He was thick but slightly stoop-shouldered, swarthy, with shaved hair.  Not quite as tall as Taras.  Not as muscular as Cheslav himself.  Anton was a relatively new acquisition, straight out of the gulag, with the ink to prove it.  Cheslav liked to pluck them up right after they got out, when all they could remember was starvation.  Those men were invariably loyal to the first hand that fed them.

A few cats fled as Anton approached.  Panicked at the sudden appearance of a stranger, they left their food and dashed down the alley, leaving the others to take their abandoned share.

"We had to kill them," Cheslav said, mildly, offhand.  He watched Anton's torpid blue eyes flicker, watching the cats, first tracking one, then another, unable to keep up.  "During the Siege.  The rats were gone - at least the ones we could find - and next went the cats.  Offer them a bit of food, even the smell of blood from a cut on your own finger, and they would come close.  Close enough to catch, if you were quick.  My son Taras became quite good at it."

A faint crease formed between Anton's thick brows.  He looked at Cheslav for a few moments, staring uncertainly, then his gaze shifted back to the cats.

Cheslav shrugged, flicking ash onto the half-frozen ground.

"I think I feel bad for them.  A man has to do something, to make up for the things he's done."

"Da, Krysha."

Cheslav slipped an envelope from his jacket pocket.

"We have a problem. There have been reports of people getting sick from drinking bad vodka, going blind, dying from alcohol poisoning.  It's so bad that the Ministry has had to get involved, for the good of the state."

One corner of his mouth sharpened to a thin curve.

"Not that the Ministry will be a problem, but we do have to take care of our own messes.  They've traced the contaminated vodka to one of our warehouses."

He paused.

Anton stared back at him, gaze open and expectant.  After a moment, he took the envelope, turning it over in his gloved fingers without opening it.

"One of them," Cheslav murmured, slowly.

There was a pause, then finally Anton looked up, recognition rousing his gaze, focusing it.

"Someone's cutting the vodka. Thinning it even more."

Cheslav nodded, and flicked his cigarette to the ground.  

"Furniture polish and disinfectant."

Anton grimaced, lips twisting with disgust.  Cheslav wondered now, how he had ever seen a resemblance.

"You'll find his name written there."

Anton nodded, then, with determination.

"Da, Krysha.  I'll take care of it."

Cheslav glanced down. Their meal all but finished, only scraps left on the ground, the cats began to retreat, feral once more, the proximity of humans no longer bearable.  They disappeared down the alley, into the shadows.

They would be back tomorrow morning, he knew.

He turned away, dismissing Anton with a gesture.

"...of course you will."

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February 2010

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