They washed off the face paint in a blue-tiled bathroom, using soap shaped like seashells, drying themselves with green hand towels. Afterwards they searched the rooms for loot. Leksi took the second floor, happy to be alone for a while, pointing his flashlight at everything that interested him. In one grand room, where he assumed the master of the house once slept, he stared in wonder at the bed. It was the biggest bed he had ever seen. He and his older brother had slept in a bed one-third this size until his brother got married.
Blue porcelain lamps stood on the night tables. A tea cup sat on a saucer beneath one of these lamps. The cup’s rim was smudged with red lipstick, and some tea had spilled into the saucer.
A heavy black dresser with brass handles stood against one wall. On top of the dresser were pill bottles, a brush tangled with long gray hairs, a china bowl filled with coins, a cut-glass vial of perfume, a jar of pungent face cream, and several silver-framed photographs. One of the photographs caught Leksi’s eye, an old black-and-white, and he picked it up. A raven-haired woman stared at the camera. She looked faintly bored yet willing to play along, the same expression Leksi saw on all the beautiful young wives in his hometown. Her dark eyebrows plunged toward each other but didn’t meet.
Leksi had the eerie sense, examining the photograph, that the woman knew she would be seen this way. As if she expected that a day would come, years and years after the shutter clicked, when a stranger with a rifle strapped to his shoulder would point his flashlight at her face and wonder what her name was.
He checked the other rooms on the floor and then went downstairs, not realizing that he was still holding the framed photograph until he entered the dark library. He saw a match flare and he pointed his flashlight in that direction. Surkhov and Nikolai were sprawled on the leather sofa, their boots and socks kicked off, their stinking bare feet on the glass-topped coffee table. They had removed their parkas and sweaters; their undershirts were mottled with sweat stains. They were smoking cigars. On the floor beside them was a heap of silver that glowed cool and lunar when Leksi aimed his flashlight at it: serving trays and candlesticks, tureens and ladles, napkin rings and decanters. Leksi wondered how they expected to carry all that loot home with them. Maybe they didn’t, maybe they just liked the sight of it, the piled treasure. A two-foot-tall blond china doll wearing a white nightdress sat on Nikolai’s lap. His hand was massaging the doll’s thighs. He winked at Leksi.
“Aren’t you hot?”
It was true; Leksi was hot. He had been cold for so long that the heat had been welcome, but now he leaned his rifle against a bookcase, carefully set the photograph on the mantle, and shrugged out of his parka.
“They must have run off in a hurry,” said Surkhov. “Left the electricity on, left the heat on.” He inspected the glowing ash on the tip of his cigar. “Left the cigars.”
Nikolai leaned forward and lifted a wooden cigar box off the coffee table. “Here,” he said to Leksi. “Take your pick.”
Leksi selected a cigar, bit off the end, lit it, and lay down on the rug in front of the dead fireplace. He turned off his flashlight. They puffed away in the darkness and did not speak for a time. It was very good to lie there, in the warm house, smoking a good cigar. They listened to the wind gusting outside. Leksi felt safer than he had in weeks. The other two were tough on him, it was true, but they knew what they were doing. They were making him a better soldier.
“Leksi,” said Surkhov, sleepily. “Leksi.”
“When you opened the refrigerator, what did you see?”
Leksi thought this was probably another trick. “Look,” he said, “I’m sorry about the-”
“No, what was inside the refrigerator? Did you get a look?”
“Lots of stuff. A chicken.”
“A chicken,” said Surkhov. “Cooked or uncooked?”
“Did it look good?”
For some reason Leksi thought this was a very funny question and he began to laugh. Nikolai laughed too, and soon all three of them were shaking with laughter.
“Ay me,” said Nikolai, sucking his cigar back to life.
“No, really,” said Surkhov. “Did it look like it’d been sitting there for months?”
“No. It looked very good, actually.”
Leksi lay on his back with his hands behind his head and thought about the chicken. Then he thought about his feet. He unlaced his boots and pulled them off, and the wet socks as well. He shone his flashlight on his toes and wiggled them. They were all there. He hadn’t seen them in a long time.
“Well,” said Surkhov, sitting up. “Let’s get that chicken.”
They ate off bone-china plates, with silver forks and wood-handled knives, at the long dining- room table. The sun was beginning to rise. The crystal chandelier above the table refracted the light and created multicolored patterns on the pale-blue wallpaper. Nikolai’s blond doll sat in the seat next to him.
The roasted chicken was dry from sitting in the refrigerator, but not spoiled. They chewed the bones, sucking out the marrow. The soldiers had found a nearly full bottle of vodka in the freezer and they drank from heavy tumblers, staring out the windows at the valley that opened before them.
The snow and trees, the frozen lake in the distance, everything looked beautiful, harmonious, and pure. Nikolai spotted an eagle and pointed it out; they all watched the bird soar high above the valley floor. When they were finished eating, they pushed the plates to the center of the table and leaned back in their chairs, rubbing their bellies. They exchanged a volley of burps and grinned at one another.
“So, Aleksandr,” said Nikolai, picking at his teeth with his thumbnail. “You have a girlfriend?”
Leksi took another drink and let the alcohol burn in his mouth for a moment before answering. “Not really.”
“What does this mean, ‘not really?’”
“It means no.”
“But you’ve been with women?”
Leksi burped and nodded. “Here and there.”
“Virgin,” said Surkhov, carving his name into the mahogany tabletop with his knife.
“No,” said Leksi, undefiantly. He was not a liar and people eventually figured this out. Right now he was too warm and well fed to be goaded into irritation. “I’ve been with three girls.”
Nikolai raised his eyebrows as if the number impressed him. “You must be a legend in your hometown.”
“And I’ve kissed eleven.”
Surkhov plunged his knife into the table and shouted, “That’s a lie!” Then he giggled and drank more vodka.
“Eleven,” repeated Leksi.
“Are you counting your mother?” Surkhov asked.
“I’m a very good kisser,” said Leksi. “They all said so.”
Nikolai and Surkhov looked at each other and laughed. “Excellent,” said Nikolai. “We’re lucky to have such an expert with us. Could you demonstrate?” He reached over and grabbed the doll by its hair and tossed it to Leksi, who caught it and looked into its blue glass eyes.
“I don’t like blondes,” said Leksi. The other men laughed and Leksi was very pleased with the joke. He laughed himself and took another drink.
“Please,” said Nikolai. “Teach us.”
Leksi supported the doll by the back of its head and leaned forward to kiss its painted porcelain lips. He kept his eyes closed. He thought about the last real girl he had kissed, the eleventh, the night before entering the Army.
When Leksi opened his eyes Nikolai was standing, hands on his hips, frowning. “No,” he said. “Where is the passion?” He grabbed the doll by the shoulders and pulled it from Leksi’s hands. He stared angrily at the doll’s face. “Who do you love, doll? Is it Aleksandr? No? Is it me? I don’t believe you. How can I trust you?” He cupped the doll’s face in his palms and kissed it mightily.
Leksi was impressed. It was a much better kiss, there was no question. He wanted another chance but Nikolai tossed the doll aside. It landed on its back on the oaken sideboard. Surkhov clapped and whistled, as if Nikolai had just scored the winning goal for their club team.
“That is a kiss,” said Nikolai, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. “You must always kiss as if kissing will be outlawed at dawn.” He seized the vodka bottle from the table and saw that it was empty. “Surkhov! You drunk bastard, you finished it!”
Surkhov nodded. “Good vodka.”
Nikolai stared sadly through the bottle. “There was more in the freezer?”
“There’s all that wine in the cellar,” said Leksi, looking at the doll’s little black shoes dangling over the sideboard’s edge.
“Yes!” said Nikolai. “The cellar.”
Leksi followed Nikolai down the narrow staircase, both of them still barefoot. The cellar was windowless, so Nikolai turned on the lights. The corners of the room were cobwebbed. A billiard table covered with a plastic sheet stood against one wall. A chalkboard above it still tallied the score from an old game. In the middle of the floor a yellow toy dump truck sat on its side. Leksi picked it up and rolled its wheels; it would make a good gift for his little nephew.
One entire wall was a wine rack, a giant honeycomb of clay-colored octagonal cubbies. Foil-wrapped bottle tops peeked out of each. Nikolai pulled one bottle out and inspected the label.
“French.” He handed it to Leksi. “The French are the whores of Europe, but they make nice wine.” He pulled out two more bottles and they turned to go. They were halfway up the stairs when Nikolai placed his two wine bottles on the step above him, drew his pistol from his waist holster, and chambered a bullet. Leksi did not have a pistol. His rifle was still in the library. He held a bottle in one hand and a toy truck in the other. He looked at Nikolai, not sure what was happening.
“Leksi,” whispered Nikolai. “How do they play pool with the table jammed against the wall?”
Leksi shook his head. He had no idea what the older man was talking about.
“Get Surkhov. Get your rifles and come down here.”
By the time Leksi had retrieved Surkhov from the dining room and their rifles from the library, and returned to the cellar staircase, Nikolai was gone. Then they heard him calling for them. “Come on, come on, it’s over.”
They found him standing above an opened trapdoor, his pistol reholstered. He had shoved the billiards table aside to get to the trapdoor, a feat of strength that Leksi did not even register until a few minutes later. The three soldiers stared down into the tiny subcellar. An old woman sat on a bare mattress. She did not look up at them. Her thinning gray hair was tied back in a bun and her spotted hands trembled on her knees. She wore a long black dress. A black cameo on a slender silver chain hung from her neck. Aside from the mattress, a small table holding a hot plate was the only furniture. A pyramid of canned food sat against one wall, next to several plastic jugs of water. A short aluminum stepladder leaned against another wall.
“Is this your house, grandmother?” asked Surkhov. The woman did not respond.
“She’s not talking,” said Nikolai. He crouched down, grabbed the edge of the trapdoor frame, and lowered himself into the bunker. The woman did not look at him. Nikolai patted her for weapons, gently but thoroughly. He kicked over the pyramid of cans, checked under the hot plate, knocked on the walls to make sure they were not hollow.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s get her out of here. Come on, grandmother, up.” The woman did not move. He grabbed her by the elbows and hoisted her into the air. Surkhov and Leksi reached down; each grabbed an arm and pulled her up. Nikolai climbed out of the bunker; all three men stood around the old woman and stared at her.
She looked back at them now, her amber eyes wide and furious. Leksi recognized her. She had been the young woman in the photograph.
“This is my house,” she said in Russian, looking at each man in turn. She had a thick Chechen accent but she articulated each word clearly. “My house,” she repeated.
“Yes, grandmother,” said Nikolai. “We are your guests. Please, come upstairs with us.”
She seemed bewildered by his polite tone, and let them lead her to the staircase. When Nikolai retrieved his wine bottles she pointed at them. “That is not your wine,” she said. “Put it back.”
He nodded and handed the bottles to Leksi. “Put them back where we got them.”
When Leksi came upstairs he heard them talking in the library. He went there and found the old woman sitting on the sofa, rubbing her black cameo between her fingers. It was hard to believe that she had once been beautiful. The loose skin of her face and throat was furrowed and mottled. At her feet was the piled silver, glittering in the sunlight that poured through the windows.
Surkhov had pulled a leather-bound book from a shelf and was skimming through it, licking his fingertips each time he turned a page. Nikolai sat on the floor across from the woman, his back against the marble side of the fireplace. He held an iron poker in his hands. The silver-framed photograph still rested on the mantle. Leksi waited in the doorway, wondering if the old woman saw her picture. He wished he had never moved it. There was something terribly shameful about forcing the beautiful young woman to witness her future. The vodka, which Leksi had drunk with such pleasure a few minutes ago, now burned in his stomach.
“Don’t do that,” said the old woman. The soldiers looked at her. “This,” she said angrily, licking her fingertips in imitation of Surkhov. “You will ruin the paper.”
Surkhov nodded, smiled at her, and returned the book to its shelf. Nikolai stood, still holding the poker, and gestured to Leksi. He ushered him out to the hallway and closed the library doors behind them. They went into the dining room. The dirty plates, littered with broken chicken bones, still sat in the middle of the table. Nikolai and Leksi looked out the high window at the snow-covered valley.
Nikolai sighed. “It is not a pleasant thing, but she is old. Her life from now on would be very bad. Give her back to her Allah.”
Leksi turned and stared at the older soldier. “Me?”
“Yes,” said Nikolai, spinning the poker in his hands. “It is very important that you do it. Have you shot anyone before?”
“Good. She will be the first. I know, Aleksandr, you don’t want to kill an old woman. None of us do. But think. Being a soldier is not about killing the people you want to kill. It would be nice, wouldn’t it? If we only shot the people we hated. This woman, she is the enemy. She has bred enemies, and they will breed more. She buys them guns and food, and they slaughter our men. These people,” he said, pointing at the ceiling above them, “they are the richest people in the region. They have funded the terrorists for years. They sleep in their silk sheets while the mines they paid for blow our friends’ legs off. They drink their French wine while their bombs explode in our taverns, our restaurants. She is not innocent.”
Leksi started to say something but Nikolai shook his head and lightly tapped Leksi’s arm with the poker. “No, this is not something to discuss. This is not a conversation we are having. Take her outside and shoot her. Not on the property, I don’t want the blackbirds coming here. Bad luck. Take her into the woods and shoot her and bury her.”
They were quiet for a minute, watching the distant lake, watching the wind-blown snow swirl above the pine trees. Finally Leksi asked, “How old were you? The first time?”
“The first time I shot someone? Nineteen.”
Leksi nodded and opened his mouth, but forgot what he had meant to say. Finally he asked, “Who were we fighting back then?”
Nikolai laughed. “How old do you think I am, Aleksandr?”
Nikolai smiled broadly, flashing his crooked teeth. “Twenty-four.” He pressed the poker’s tip against the base of Leksi’s skull. “Here’s where the bullet goes.”
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