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A blanket of August Moscow heat lay like a wet cat on Sofiya Savitskaya, burning her eyes as she tried to read by the light of the single bulb in the tiny living room. The window was open, but it brought no breeze, only shrill voices of boys arguing on Balaklava Prospekt two floors below. Her brother Lev's voice was the most piercing, but Kostya Shevchenko's was louder and more demanding.
Sofiya didn't want to listen to them, and she didn't want to read her dark brown shorthand book; nor did she want to go to sleep or go for a walk. There was nothing she wanted to do, but what she wanted to do least was sit in that smothering dark room where she knew before she looked up that the walls of the living room were expanding. She clutched the sides of her chair, trying to hold on, trying not to cry out for help that wouldn't come. This had been happening to her, this room expansion that made her lose contact with life, since she was a child, and she had never mentioned it to anyone. It had always passed, but the terror had grown no less with the years. Once she had tried to consider that the room was not getting larger, that she was growing smaller, but that terrified her even more and became part of the horror. Not only did Sofiya have to hold on to herself during the spells; she also had to fight off the thought that she was getting smaller. If the room was growing, then anyone who walked into it would be in her predicament, but if she was shrinking to become an ant, a roach, her father or brother might walk and step on her.
Once she had tried to scream and discovered that it was impossible when this feeling came, so she had learned to suffer it through alone. Each time she came out of the spell, she was shaken but proud of having made it and told no one, but first the room had to become so enormous that the echo of the thought of her scream would be nothing. She dug her fingers into the dark-wood arms of the chair for the final burst, hearing the voices of her brother and his friends clearly.
"So what can police do? You're just a kid. You say you hit him with your fist, not a rock, stupid."
"Don't call me stupid or it's you'll get the rock, Kostya."
"I wasn't calling you stupid, but I am not afraid to call you stupid. Don't threaten, Ivan, or I'll give—"
Sofiya opened her eyes wide and closed them with an enormous effort as the room snapped back to its normal size, leaving her weak and proud and aware of the promise of a terrible night of fear, heat, and the smell of her father and brother.
She wanted to get up and move to the window, call down to her brother to come up before he got in a fight, not because she feared for him but because she did not want to make the effort to be a part of what would follow. Sofiya couldn't rise. Smeared hands of summer heat and dust pushed beads of sweat trickling down under her print dress between her breasts and thighs, into the hair between her legs, making her shudder and whimper. She closed her eyes once again and opened them to hear her father, who stood before her.
There was contempt in his eyes as he looked down at her, as if he knew her thoughts and feelings, as if he probed her mind and body and shame. Sofiya had seen him look at people this way since she was a small child, but it had always seemed more critical, more direct, when he looked at her and acted as if he knew her guilt.
"I'm takin' a bath," he said, his heavy purple robe on his thin shoulders, a thin copy of Izvestia clutched in his stick of a hand. Abraham Savitskaya's body and face were sagging, gray and thin, skin furrowed and arid, his beard, once black, flecked with gray, which matched his skin. Sofiya looked at her father and saw decay and knew no bath would return the moisture and sinew to the man. As much as she had hated and feared his moods in the past, she would have preferred them to this walking death that entombed both the old man and her. Her memory of hatred flared unbidden, and Abraham's gray eyes saw that hatred and glistened with the possibility of long-gone battle. She thought he might strike her for her present thoughts and all her thoughts and feelings in the future. She tensed and awaited the blow, willed it, wanted it, would take anything to make the dry stick of a man who was her father live again in the present, raise her from her chair to battle him and be abused by him, anything to challenge a lifetime of growing smaller in that room with its Moscow-white walls peeling like dead skin.
But the passion had gone from Abraham's eyes before it had even built to certainty, and he turned, went into the hall, and padded to the communal bathroom.
Outside, Lev and Kostya's voices were shout to shout, their faces nose to nose. There would soon be blows, and she would have to pull herself to the window, shouting and hoping a passing man or woman or Comrade Myagou on the first floor would go out and yell at them that the ghost of Lenin would send a bolt of white lightning into the middle of the street as a warning to the nasal children of Israel to swallow their anger and bite their tongues. Sofiya laughed hysterically, imagining the fire of Lenin burning on Balaklava and the old women on their stoops holding their sagging breasts in awe at the ghost stepping in to stop a fight between two boys. At what point, Sofiya wondered, did her father's god step in the way Comrade Myagou promised that Lenin's ghost would appear? Did it take murder, war, earthquake, to stir him to act, or was there nothing in the filth of human conduct that interested him any longer? She imagined God like her father, tired and old and indifferent, which put everything on her thin shoulders, exactly where everything had been since her brother Leonid had died more than a year ago.
Abraham stopped near the bathroom at the sound of her laugh down the hall.
"What?" he shouted with distaste, unwilling to come fully out of his own thoughts and dreams and deal with hers but unable to ignore that single, unprovoked shock of a laugh.
"Nothing," she said, stepping into the hall. "I was thinking of something Maya told me this morning."
Abraham turned his eyes from her toward the open window in search of some Maya of the distant past and then went into the bathroom, locking the door behind him. Sofiya heard him turn on the water and knew he would soak for hours in the tepid water, further shriveling his dry skin, turning him more into a mummified version of that man she could barely remember. She returned to their two-room apartment and closed the door.
Now the voices of the street were screeches and threats and words with no thought or meaning, only the mad off-spring of wet heat and boredom as Sofiya pushed herself from the chair, her back soaked with sweat and her bare lower legs sticky. The wooden floorboards creaked when she slowly crossed the room and went to lean out the window into the near darkness. She had to raise her voice over the mad, steady rush of bath water behind and the clash of voices below.
"Lev," she cried, "it's time to come up."
The older boy, whose face was inches away from her brother's, took the call as his sign of victory, and he snickered, triggering Lev, who pushed the bigger boy down three concrete steps toward the basement apartment. The bigger boy's hands went out to grab something, and Lev reached out his hand to help, but it was too late. Kostya Schevchenko's head thudded in the darkness below, and Sofiya called on something in her to respond, but nothing came.
"You all right, Kostya?" shouted Lev in fear.
Kostya came up the stairs, holding his bleeding head and shouting, "Go home to your gimp sister and crazy capitalist father, back stabber." Then he raced down the street.
A trio of boys ran after him, and Lev darted into the building and hurried up the stairs with impossible energy in the heat. The wooden stairs sighed wearily under him and relaxed as he passed, going up the three flights and bursting through the door.
"I didn't mean—" he started, his eleven-year-old face thin and pale like that of his father. Sofiya, wondering if someday her brother would be dry and wrinkled, shuddered and felt tenderness.
"Don't be afraid," she said, walking to Lev and guiding him to the kitchen and the sink. "Kostya was just frightened. He wasn't hurt so badly."
"I'm not scared," Lev protested, panting as he wet his face and drank warm tap water from his dirty cupped hands. "Did you hear what he called you?"
"He called me the name after you hit him. You didn't hit him because he called me a name," she said, helping Lev peel off his now-wet shirt to reveal a chest of bones.
"No, it was before," Lev insisted. "You think he'll get the police?"
"He won't get the police," Sofiya said, touching his head. Lev started to back away from her warm touch, then changed his mind and accepted it. She was much older than he, old enough to be his mother. His resentment, confusion, and love were as great as hers, and they brought brother and sister together.
"Kostya's uncle is in the KGB," Lev said, ferreting out a piece of bread from under the bread box. "Maybe he'll get mad and call his uncle on us."
"Kostya's uncle is not in the KGB." Sofiya sighed, scooping up crumbs from the table where he dropped them. "He's a stupid man who sells coffee in the Byelorussian Railway Station."
She poured him a glass of milk and told him to wash the sink.
"He in the tub again?" asked Lev, sitting at the small kitchen table. She nodded, affirming what he knew. Lev's breath was coming more slowly now.
"You have homework," Sofiya said.
Lev's dark face turned automatically sour, but the routine of homework was reassuring, so he went to the tiny bedroom he shared with his sister to fetch his books. Sofiya got her book and brought it to the table to sit with him.
The bathroom water pounded steadily behind them through the thin walls, washing concentration away, making the lines in the book become nonsense. Finally, the water stopped and she imagined Abraham turning the pages of Izvestia with displeasure. His presence was inescapable in the apartment, in her life.
The knock at the front door came firm and insistent, and Lev bolted upright in fear.
"It's the police," he said, knocking his milk over.
"It's probably Kostya and his mother," Sofiya said as calmly as she could, reaching over to clean up the milk with a rag. The prospect of Hania Shevchenko with her narrow eyes, sharp voice, and demands, made Sofiya bite her lip, but there was nothing to be done. Two boys had fought on a hot afternoon, and one had tasted his own blood and the hidden secret of his mortality. That taste had driven him to his mother, and her fear of mortality made her want to scream in anguish. It was a street ritual, and it required an audience, though no one expected any real action, for there was no real action to be taken. No one would call the Moscow police. Hania had the right, the obligation, to wail and be heard. Sofiya did not feel up to it, but she had no choice.
"Coming," she shouted as Lev scurried past her to their bedroom and closed the door.
Sofiya paused in the dark hall in front of the door to look at the two mounted photographs, one of her father and some friends in their youth, the other of her sad, smiling mother. Since her mother had died, Sofiya had never passed the photograph without looking at it. A few times she had gone to bed in the early weeks unsure of whether she had passed the photo without the required look, but on such nights Sofiya had gone quietly as she could to turn on the light and make her eyes meet those of her mother.
Now Sofiya sighed and opened the door, not to the wild figure of Hania Shevchenko but to two dark, heavy men, one as old as her father, the other young. They were shadow figures of a far country and dressed exactly alike, and they were, she was sure, neither the police nor the KGB. Sofiya had the strange impression that they were not two separate men but one man presented before her at two ages.
"Abraham Savitskaya," said the older man.
"He's taking a bath," Sofiya answered, her eyes moving from one man to the other.
The younger man said something to the older one in what Sofiya thought was English, and the old man, who had an ugly scar on his cheek, replied in the same tongue.
"Anyone here besides you and Savitskaya?" asked the old man.
"My little brother's in his room," she said, standing between the two men and the small apartment.
"If you want to wait for my father—" she began, but got no further. The younger man pushed her aside and drew from his pocket a huge gun that seemed to have a life of its own, pulling the young man behind it, searching corners. Sofiya staggered back a few steps with feelings she didn't understand. She was afraid but excited as the young man stepped toward her and aimed the gun over her shoulder at the bedroom door.
"No," she screamed. "That's my bedroom—my brother. He's just eleven."
The young man slapped her out of the way again and pushed open the bedroom door. She could see Lev sitting on the bed, beyond looking up in terror.
"Who're you talking to?" Abraham shouted down the hall from the bathroom.
"Pa," Sofiya screamed. She hobbled forward toward the bathroom, but the younger man grabbed her by the hair and punched her in the left breast, sending streaks of pain through her body as she fell. The bedroom door came open, and Lev ran out, fear in his eyes.
"Go back," Sofiya screamed, dragging herself toward her brother.
"What's going on?" shouted Abraham. Sofiya could hear the old man rising from his bath. She turned and pulled her useless leg to the hallway, a confused Lev clinging to her. Then the room and the world went into a series of still images she would never forget, snapshot images of the young dark man handing the gun to the old man. Then the image of the young man with his foot raised. Then the bathroom door kicked open. A blast of light and the memory of a terrible ringing echo. The blast repeated and repeated. She covered her ears and felt Lev's face buried against her sore breast, and then it was over. The two men came back to the small apartment, took something, gave Sofiya a warning glance, and left.
Sofiya and Lev sat huddled on the hall floor in shock forever. When forever passed, they stood hand in hand and moved into the hall toward the open door of the bathroom. They knew Abraham was dead before they saw his thin white arm sprawled awkwardly out of the tub and one gray foot twisted against the wall. His eyes were closed, but his mouth was angry, and Izvestia sank slowly in the red water. They stood looking down at the father they had never seen naked in life and were transported into a new world where time and life meant nothing.
"We'll have to clean the floor quickly," she said. "And then we'll have to call Comrade Tovyev and tell him about the broken door and then ..." But her voice was no longer saying words; it had taken on a life of its own and was screaming louder than the echo of death.
"An old Jew's been shot in his bathtub on Balaklava Prospekt. Central desk has the house number."
The message had been given to Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov over the phone. It was brief, informative, and carried far more than its message. Rostnikov had grunted and the new assistant procurator, Khabolov, hung up before Rostnikov could reply, "Yes, comrade."
The assistant procurator's words were a reminder that Inspector Rostnikov was now reduced to handling insignificant Moscow murders and that one could mention "Jews" to him in a patronizing way. Rostnikov's wife, Sarah, was Jewish. The assistant procurator certainly knew this. If Sarah were not Jewish, Rostnikov himself would probably have been making the call to an inspector while he, Rostnikov, sat in the assistant procurator's chair in a small office with a cup of tea in his palms.
Excerpted from Red Chameleon by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 1985 Stuart M. Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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