excerpted from "The Four Horsemen Bridge"
Chapter 3 of Human Wishes / Enemy Combatant
And no way to shake it, that Artic chill knew the St. Petersburg streets better than he did and always thought five moves ahead, no way to tell which direction it would come from next, you go one way it goes the other, you fake left cut right down Stolyarny Lane, cross the Kammeny Bridge at a running crouch, feint another left but turn right on Sadovaya Street, try to lose yourself in the crowd until you see the Griboedova Canal, then disappear into the darkest dankest courtyard you can find and pop out again through the back passage onto Srednaya Podyacheskaya Lane thinking you had just pulled off the perfect crime only to feel the chill tap on your shoulder of this super-adhesive hyperborean Porfiry Petrovich. No, nothing to do but submit, one way or another the despotic Artic was going to cop its feel, maybe it had even steered him to the Haymarket by its cunning ticklish byways, letting him think it was his doing, to arrive here in the Haymarket where Raskolnikov had abased himself to kiss the cowshit and beg its forgiveness, where during the terrible privations of the Siege of Leningrad it was rumored you could buy strange meat, if you got tired of soup made of shoe leather sawdust and wallpaper paste and that was on a good day you could always go to the Haymarket for strange meat, it was said of those darkest of hours that when you met someone with a sanguine glow to their cheeks instead of the usual pallor you knew they had dined on strange meat. A people's northernmost outpost last stop before the land of the dead. But that would be Murmansk or Norilsk or smaller villages if those counted. And yet thronged with people as these streets were, this Haymarket today all market and no hay, he could not help feeling that he wandered a ghost city, an abandoned city, a city built by a race of giants and then abandoned, among whose colossal decaying monuments now scrambled a lesser race, the bed-lice of its former occupants, reeling, dwarfed. And even these were a ghost-race, as the day lengthened into White Night he was nagged by the suspicion that these vermin were ghost vermin, and he a ghost among ghosts, in this unreal city of spectral inhabitants he began to suspect his own unreality strongly, and faint with the strength of this suspicion he wandered through the Haymarket thinking that he too might be unreal. A number of the ghosts appeared to be shopping. Could he warm himself by following girls? Sheer profusion of beautiful girls on these streets, from his first day they'd been turning him like a turnstile. Just a St. Petersburg phenomenon? Certainly urban to a degree, our anthropologist reasoned, in their efforts at metropolitan sophistication (clumsy in fact even cheap in a manner at once poignant and piquant to his condescending discernment or discerning condescension): the lowest-slung, hip-huggingest jeans ever seen, the tiniest tops, slender scapulae revealed beneath negligible wisps of spaghetti strap, by comparison the late-spring quad scene of his wife's U.S. campus looked like a Quaker village. And the accoutrements: troweled-on make up and raccoon eyes, sparkle and sequin arabesques on the rump pockets of designer jeans knock-offs, halters and shorts with tarty unidiomatic slogans clinging to curves of breast and buttock, and everywhere the highest of high heels, on which the willowy sylphs teetered like Tatlin's tower. But the raw material, those slender bodies thus attired and accoutered, those waists no thicker than the neck of a bottle, those cat eyes and broad high cheekbones, this was what was really superb! Where had such profusion come from? By one of those chances too coincidental for fiction but which happen now and then in the so-called real world a Russian taxi driver who spoke some English caught our besotted wayfarer looking: It is product of the mix of bloods, he began, but in such a way that it seemed he had never left off. First the Finns then the Slavs then the Tartars, the how-you-say raping hordes, and quite a heady genetic cocktail it is making, yes? I know, he added, because before I had great fortune to drive the taxi I was geneticist for Soviet State. Our little wayfarer mouthed spasiba and wandered on. Maybe this explained the astonishing eyes, blue or brown just didn't cut it. Opal? Azure? Jade? Strange eyes like his, green eyes admixed with mother-of-pearl. Where had his own strange eyes come from? He was American of Portuguese descent, our hero ("he" being short for hero, besides in his case just being short), or so he had been led to believe, or rather to never fully believe, for he had always suspected that he'd been adopted, picked out at the Little Wayfarers Orphanage before his parents discovered they could make their own (hence the ambivalence of birthdays), one brother two sisters but they all had brown eyes (only his were mother-of-pearl), they all had wavy dark hair (only his a wire brush), and they all had noses (only his was large and Arab-looking). A cowbird chick in the nest? A Semite in the woodpile? He trained his strange opalescent eyes on the green-eyed girls and continued to trail, selecting from the profusion a pair of them (girls, not eyes, although they came with eyes) who had just emerged from the Yusupov Gardens, hand in hand as if to balance each other on those precarious heels, licking the ice creams in their free hands, poking out their chests and bare tummies where navel piercings flashed briefly in the last ray of sun like twin fishes jumping out of the Fontanka canal. Dyevushki, explained the taxi driver. Somehow how he was back, leaning in the crook of the open passenger-side door, one foot on the curb, smoking a cigarette, for all the world like he'd been there the whole time. Had the girl-pair led our wayfarer in a circle and he hadn't noticed, hypnotized as he'd been by the twin rise and fall of alternate buttocks in shiny nylon shorts? They had finished their ice creams and were now queuing up to buy something to chase them with at another kiosk (always another kiosk, everywhere another kiosk, punctuated here and there by blini stands). Dyevushki (helpfully continued the taxi-driving erstwhile Lysenko-school geneticist in our wayfarer's ear), it is plural of dyevushka, our word for the woman of childbearing age who has not yet had the child. Who gets to be this word is wide (and here the cab-driver spread out his hands). A dyevushka can be twelve, thirteen years if she has had her period yet, or she can be her— (he pointed to a college student necking with her modniki boyfriend on a bench next to the kiosk), or she can be twenty nine! The word in your language that is the closest is, is outdated, the archaism, yes: it is the word maiden. But— (the cab driver threw up his hands in a shrug of fatalism) —the word is not so wide that it is everyone! You see, it is like this— (And now, in a gesture that seemed to sum up in its definitive abracadabra all the trompe l'oeil of our hero's day, all the baffles and blinds, the sudden foreshortenings of only apparently receding perspectives, the taxi driver reached out and plucked a young girl right off the street, not one of our hero's beer-buying girl-pair but younger, a veritable youngster, pinched her up by the neck and placed her in the palm of his hand where she nested like a doll, so that, even though the only things like power-point bullets were her ingenuous eyes in a wide frozen stare, dissertation became demonstration): When she is younger than twelve years, like this, she is girl-child, devochka. But as soon as she is able to bear the child, she become this— (with the lightest of two-handed twists the taxi driver separated the girl into halves and decanted from inside her a sister, smaller but older) —the dyevushka like those you are enjoying here, the desire of your eyes and maybe of your heart too – or at least this is what the romantic like you think! Because really it is like big farm, what is going on. Her eggs, your seeds, yes? Like on research farm at agronomical institute where I was twenty years a geneticist. But when your dyevushka grows to be, of certain other age— (here the cab-driver's speech became as tentative and delicate as his shucking away of the shell of the beloved was decisive and brutal) —she becomes tyotya, which is auntie. Inside there— (the taxi driver pointed with this third, diminished iteration of the original devochka in the direction of a cafeteria-style eatery through whose broad front window our wayfarer could see customers bearing trays to their tables) —where is the women who dish out the food, those are tyotya. We would say, if we do not know her name, 'Tyotya, please, give me more meatball', and it would not be impolite to say this. And then, if the toilet in the back is not making the flush, we say, 'Tyotya, please clean out the toilet, I need to shit out your meatballs!' The auntie is not for making babies any more, she is for work! (The taxi driver snapped his fingers, all it took for the husks of the tyotya to go flying away and leave cradled in the hollow of his hand when he opened it again the smallest and oldest of the sisters yet, with only a few scratched lines where once had been the devochka's wide eyes and cupid's-bow lips.) And then everyone in the world, even the not Russian, knows the famous babushka, grandmother. Here she is, the little grandmother, see? This is whether or not she has the real grandchildren, it is just any old woman. I have a couple of years before my wife will be babushka! The taxi driver cupped his hands in front his face to cover a fit of coughing and when he took them away the babushka was gone and a lit cigarette dangled from his lips. Or maybe that was all that had been inside the babushka that had been inside the tyotya that had been inside the dyevushka that had been inside the devochka all along: one frail tendril of smoke which made a feeble clutch at the taxi driver's nose-hairs before giving up the ghost. Our little wayfarer turned in time to see his pair of caryatids totter off with huge cans of beer in their tiny hands. He took the first step of renewed pursuit and felt cold fingers touch his elbow. I can take you to the place where it will be girls just like those, the whole night for 3000 rubles. Our hero shook his head and tried to move away. The fingers on his elbow were joined by an opposing thumb, noble hallmark of our species. Or if it must be those two, for I see you have set your heart, that too can be arranged. Only 15,000 rubles but I will have to make the phone call first. Then we follow in my cab to keep the eyes on them while we wait for the van. Pleading a maxed-out credit card our hero politely disengaged himself from the taxi-driver's grip and set off solo towards the corner where the girls had disappeared, wind at his back carrying the helpful cabby's closing argument: Try it with verses then and see what you will get, Pushkin. Welcome to capitalist Russia! Our little wayfarer tried to think about Pushkin instead of capitalism while he watched the twin rise and fall of alternate buttocks in nylon shorts less shiny now that the sun had finally gone down. The Arctic ice-fingers had followed him around the corner even if the taxi driver hadn't and he tried to rekindle the warmth of his original pursuit, but now even Pushkin couldn't help. The Russian men loafing on the benches had their t-shirts and the tops of their track-suits back on. Hadn't Pushkin been part black? The tsar's moor and all that? Any minute now the girls would turn and notice and start screaming that a dusky-skinned moor was stalking them, or part-moor, or worse yet a Chechen, an evil Chechen was going to snatch and make a meal of them unless the Russian men and the militia came to save the day by kicking his kachi skull in and squashing his green eyes like grapes under their boots for the reckless eyeballing of Russian dyevushka-hood with intent to eat. They were ghosts, all of them, but his blood in the gutter would make them feel real for a while. When here all he'd wanted to do was play horsey and offer the girls a lift, drop to the pavement on all fours and ferry them to their destination, even if it meant taking them to other boys, maybe especially if it meant taking them to other boys, come ride the harmless Chechen pony, feeling their warm buttocks on his back and warm thighs on his ribs even let them slap his haunches and cry giddy-up, innocent enough, eat a cube of sugar from their sticky little palms, then back to the hotel to jack off, nice warm and alive and real to himself, man of simple pleasures, free gratis save himself 15,000 rubles, wouldn't have laid a finger even though the age of consent in Russia was fourteen. He dropped back another ten paces and felt less warm than ever. Over the tops of the poplar trees and apartment blocks, over the domes that reminded him less of onions than of stylized ice-cream cones or, in dun silhouette now, cartoon dog turds, the sky was undergoing a subtle transformation, as imperceptible to the naked eye as it was unsettling to an imagination in which the figure of speech "bleeding out" had made itself all at once so appallingly at home, while bells near and far announced the commencement of the White Night. This was brightness without the source of brightness, a departure that left in its attenuated wake only the frostily technical denotation of the word "blue," from which had been subtracted – leached, bleached – all the rich spirits of its connotations, and for which he now discovered (even though his little writer's notebook was back at the hotel) a lyricism in equal measure angular and crepuscular: White Night hours of dusk and White Night hours of dawn, the In-Between of dusk and dawn unnaturally extended, the limen of night and the limen of day yawning open a crevasse of blue-grey ice-wide sky. Been here a week and couldn't get used to it, something strange, unsettling, always a little unsettled at dusk anyway and to have dusk stretched out like this, and stretched and stretched, to become a state, not a threshold any longer but a state, maybe that was it. But when he looked back down from the sky to his girl-pair ahead on the sidewalk he began to suspect that here was an altogether more serious condition than just a distended limen: Those girls cast no shadows. None of the other strollers were casting shadows either. The trees and the kiosks had simply dispensed with shadows. The Pushkin bust in the little colonnade had washed his hands of shadows, with the columns and wrought-iron railings following suit. Finally in horror he looked at his own feet: He cast no shadow. A few more steps and he was reduced to weaving figure-eights on the sidewalk, patting himself and scanning the ground as if he had lost something, although this was less like a missing billfold than a mass amputation featuring him as the only amputee to find it alarming. The shadows were all gone. The shadows had flown. It was still light out, but the shadows had flown back to wherever shadows fly when it's dark, when it is utter dark. But it was still light out. He staggered around a corner to where it was brighter still, a river-broad boulevard where the trees were supplanted by street lamps and the statues by pulsing neon marquees, all the lights redoubled in the expanses of shop windows, and to see the flare of big-city night-life underneath such a bone-white sky was a migraine's worth of cognitive dissonance. He joined the crowds on the big avenue and continued threading after his girls, but he sensed that his term in their company was reaching its end given his new preoccupation with this startling absence, between the multitude of propulsive hind-limbs and the sidewalk, of the usual complement of shadowy integument, including most crucially his own. At least now he knew the function of shadows: they kept you from being ghostly to yourself. They kept your ghost separate from you. You stroll along thoughtlessly real to yourself as long as you've got your shadow with you, la de da, me and my shadow, the primrose path. Plain as day. But now it's light and he has no shadow. Because he was a shadow, a void. His shadow had flown back to him and taken him over. He wandered the Nevsky Prospekt like a ghost, just another ghost in a ghost town, a shade among the shades. He had lost his way in the limen, in the ashen In Between, forever now In Between. He would never get out. Even here where the buildings appeared finally to drop away – he thought he could glimpse a canal embankment ahead – the ghost-crowd was thicker than ever. He was brought up short at a stoplight while his ghost-dyevushki disappeared in the current on the other side, swallowed in the shadowless flow. With the feeling that they had somehow accomplished their task he relinquished them and backed out of the throng to brace himself against the nearest building and take a few swallows of brackish mineral water out of the bottle he carried in a pocket of his cargo shorts.
somehow got a literature PhD from Tufts University in 2002 and then decided he would prefer not to. He's been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and his short play, "The Liquidation of the Cohn Estate," was produced in the 2009 Boston Theater Marathon. His first published novel, Human Wishes / Enemy Combatant
, was released in January 2012 by Say It With Stones
thanks Say It with Stones
for their kind permission regarding our reprint of this excerpt. Please feel free to visit their site and explore their other publications.