When they brought her into the house’s mudroom and told her to put on her boots, she stared up at the soldiers, her hands trembling by her side. For a long while she stared at them, and Leksi wondered what they would have done to her if she had still been young and beautiful. And then he wondered what they would do if she simply refused to put her boots on. How could they threaten her? Would they shoot her there and carry her into the woods? He hoped that would happen, that she would fall down on the floor and refuse to rise, and Nikolai or Surkhov would be forced to shoot her. But she didn’t, she simply stared at them and finally nodded, as though she were agreeing with something. She sat on the bench by the door and pulled on a pair of fur-lined boots. They seemed too big for her, as if she were a child trying on her mother’s boots. She tucked the black cameo on its silver chain inside her dress and pulled on a fur coat made from the dark pelts of some animal Leksi could not name.
A heavy snow shovel hung on the wall, blade up, between two pegs. Surkhov took it down and handed it to the old woman. She grabbed it from him and headed out the door without a word. Leksi looked at his two comrades, hoping they would tell him it was all a prank, that nobody would be killed today. Nikolai would punch him on the arm and tell him he was a fool, and everyone would laugh; the old woman would pop back into the mudroom, laughing- she was in on it, it was a great practical joke. But Surkhov and Nikolai stood there, still barefoot, their faces expressionless, waiting for him to leave. Leksi walked out the door and closed it behind him.
The old woman dragged the shovel behind her as if it were a sled. The snow came up to her knees; she had to stop every minute for a rest. She would take several deep breaths and then continue walking, the shovel’s blade bouncing over her footprints. She never looked back. Leksi followed three paces behind, rifle in hand. He followed her out the back gate and told her to turn right, and she did, and they circled to the front of the property and then down the hill.
Every time she stopped, Leksi would stare at the back of her head, at the gray bun held in place with hairpins, with growing fury. Why had she stayed behind in the house when everyone else had left? She hadn’t been abandoned. Somebody had helped her down into the subcellar; somebody had dragged the billiard table over the trapdoor. It must have been pure greed, a refusal to give up the trinkets she had accumulated over the years, her crystal and her silver and her French wine and the rest. The others must have urged her to come with them. She was stubborn; she would not listen to reason; she was a fanatic.
“Why did you stay here?” he finally asked. He had not meant to speak with her; the question came out unbidden.
She turned slowly and stared up at him. “It is my house,” she said. “Why did you come?”
“All right,” he said, pointing the rifle at her. “Keep moving.” He did not expect her to obey him, but she did. They were walking down to where the three soldiers had hidden their packs, about a kilometer away; Leksi would carry them back up and save Surkhov and Nikolai a trip. It would be hard going, carrying three packs uphill, but he thought it would be much better than this walk downhill. Because Leksi did not doubt for a second that what he was doing now was a sin. This was evil. He was going to shoot an old woman in the back of the head, watch her pitch forward into the snow, and then bury her. There was nothing to call it but evil.
He had long suspected that he was a coward. His older brother would tell him ghost stories in the night and Leksi would lie awake for hours after. Sometimes he would shake his brother awake and make him promise that the stories were lies. And his brother would say, “Of course, Leksi, of course, just stories,” and hold his hand until he fell asleep.
“They chose you because you are the baby,” said the old woman, and Leksi squinted to look at her through the glare of sunlight reflecting off the snow.
She hadn’t stopped walking, though, and she continued talking. “It’s a test for you. They want to see how strong you are.”
Leksi said nothing, just watched the shovel skip down the slope.
“They don’t care if I live or die, you must know this. Why should they? Look at me, what can I do? They are testing you. Can’t you see this? You are smart, you must see.”
“No,” said Leksi. “I’m not smart.”
“Neither am I. But I’ve lived with men for seventy years. I understand men. Right now, they are watching us.”
Leksi looked up the hill, to the mansion at its crown. He suspected she was right, that Nikolai was watching them through his binoculars. When he turned back the old woman was still trudging forward, her breath rising in vapors above her head. She seemed to be moving more easily now, and Leksi decided that she was in better shape than she had pretended, that her constant pauses were not caused by exhaustion but rather by an attempt to delay what was going to happen. He understood that. He, too, dreaded the ending.
“But at the bottom of the hill,” the old woman said, “they won’t be able to see us. That is where you can let me go. They expect you to. If they wanted you to kill me, would they have let you go by yourself? Why would they want you to take me so far away, out of sight?”
“They don’t want the blackbirds to come near the house,” said Leksi, and when he said it he realized it made no sense. He was going to bury her. Why would the blackbirds come? Besides, Nikolai was not a superstitious man.
The old woman laughed, the gray bun at the back of her head bobbing up and down. “The blackbirds? That is what they said, the blackbirds? This is only a joke, boy. Wake up! They are playing with you.”
“Grandmother,” said Leksi, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say. She stopped and turned again to stare at him, smiling. She still had all her teeth but they were yellowed and long. The sight of the teeth infuriated Leksi; he rushed down the hill and jabbed the muzzle of his rifle into her stomach.
“Keep walking!” he yelled at her.
When they were halfway from the bottom she asked, “How will my grandchildren know where to come?”
“When they come to visit my grave, how will they know where it is?”
“I’ll put a marker up,” said Leksi. He had no intention of putting a marker up, but how else could he answer such a question? His fury had already disappeared and he was disgusted with himself for letting it go so quickly.
“Now?” she asked. “What’s the good of that? When the snow melts the marker will fall.”
“I’ll put one up in the spring.” He knew this must sound as ridiculous to the woman as it did to him, but if she thought his assurance was preposterous she gave no sign.
“With my name on it,” said the old woman. “Tamara Shashani.” She spelled both names and then made Leksi repeat it.
Leksi had known a girl named Tamara in school. She was fat and freckled and laughed like a braying donkey. It seemed impossible that this woman and that girl could share a name.
“And my hometown,” added the old woman. “Put that on the marker, too. Djovkhar Ghaala.”
“You mean Grozny.”
“No, I mean Djovkhar Ghaala. I was born there, I know the name.”
Leksi shrugged. He had been in the city four days ago. The Chechens called it Djovkhar Ghaala; the Russians called it Grozny. The Chechens had been driven out; the city was Grozny.
“Tell me,” said the old woman. “Do you remember everything?”
“Tamara Shashani. From Djovkhar Ghaala.”
Leksi followed behind her, eyes half closed. The sunlight’s glare was making his head hurt. The shovel’s blade carved a little trail in the snow and he tried to step only in that trail, not sure why it mattered but anxious not to stray outside the parallel lines.
“Do you know the story of when the Devil came to Orekhovo?”
“No,” said Leksi.
“It’s an old story. My grandfather told me when I was a girl. The Devil was lonely. He wanted a bride. He wanted company for his palace in Hell.”
From the manner in which the old woman spoke, Leksi knew that she had told the tale many times before. She never paused for thought; she never needed to search for the right phrase. He pictured her sitting on the edge of her children’s beds, and then her grandchildren’s, reciting their favorite adventure, the story of when the Devil came to Orekhovo.
“So he gathered his minions, all the demons that wandered through the world spreading discord. He brought them into the meeting hall and asked them to name the most beautiful woman alive. Naturally, the demons argued for hours. They never agreed on anything. Brawls broke out as each championed his favorite. The Devil watched, bored, tapping his long nails on the armrest of his throne. But finally, after tails had been chopped off and horns broken, one of the senior demons stepped forward and announced that they had chosen. Her name was Aminah, and she lived in the town of Orekhovo.”
Leksi smiled. He had heard this story before, except that in the version he knew the beautiful woman lived in Petrikov and was called Tatyana. He tried to remember who had told him the story.
“So the Devil mounted his great black horse and rode to Orekhovo. It was a winter’s day. When he got there he asked a child he met on the road where the beautiful Aminah lived. After the boy gave directions, the Devil grabbed him by the collar, slashed his throat, plucked out his blue eyes, and pocketed them. He threw the boy’s body into a ditch and continued on his way.”
Leksi remembered that part. Don’t talk to strangers, that was the lesson. He looked uphill and saw that the mansion was no longer in view. If he did let the woman go, who would know? But she would seek out her people and tell them that three Russians had occupied her house. Perhaps there would be a counterattack, and Leksi would die knowing that he had orchestrated his own doom.
“When the Devil found Aminah’s house, he hitched his horse to a post and knocked on the door. A fat woman opened it and invited him inside, for the Devil was dressed like a gentleman. She stirred a pot of stew that bubbled above the fire. ‘What are you seeking, traveler?’ she asked. ‘I seek Aminah,’ said the Devil. ‘I have heard of her great beauty.’
“‘She is my daughter,’ said the fat woman. ‘Have you come to ask her hand? Many suitors wait upon her, yet she has refused all. What do you have to offer?’ The Devil pulled out a purse and undid the strings. He dumped a pile of gold coins onto the floor. ‘Ay,’ said Aminah’s mother. ‘At last I am wealthy! Go to her, she is at the lake. Tell her I approve of your suit.’ When the woman sat on the floor and began counting her gold, the Devil crept up behind her and slashed her throat. He plucked out her blue eyes and pocketed them. He ladled himself a bowl of stew and ate until he was full, and then he left the house and mounted his black horse.”
Never invite a stranger into the house, thought Leksi. And never count your gold while someone stands behind you. The more he considered it, the more he doubted that the Chechens would attack the house. Why should they? Any direct assault would result in a quick reprisal, so they couldn’t keep the house if they did take it. There was too much risk involved for such a cheap reward: three Russian soldiers without vehicles or artillery.
“The Devil came to the lake and saw his prize. His demons had done well: Aminah was more beautiful than all the angels the Devil had once consorted with. The lake was frozen over and Aminah sat on the ice pulling on her skates. ‘Good afternoon,’ said the Devil. ‘May I join you?’ Aminah nodded, for the Devil was handsome and dressed like a gentleman. He walked back to his horse, opened his saddlebag, and pulled out a pair of skates, shined black leather, the blades gleaming and sharp.”
When Leksi listened to the story as a child he asked how the Devil had known to bring his skates. Whom had he asked? His mother! He could picture it now; she was sitting at the edge of the bed while Leksi and his brother fought for the blanket. He asked how the Devil knew to bring the skates, and his brother groaned and called him an idiot. But his mother nodded as if it were a very wise question. He could have pulled anything from that saddlebag, she told Leksi. It was the Devil’s saddlebag. If he had needed a trombone he would have found it there.
“Aminah watched the Devil carefully,” continued the old woman. “She watched him sit down on the ice and pull off his boots, and she saw his cloven hooves. She looked away quickly, so he would not catch her spying. They skated out to the center of the lake. The Devil was fantastic. He carved perfect figure eights, he pirouetted gracefully, he sped across the ice and jumped and spun through the air. When he returned to Aminah’s side he pulled a necklace of great blue diamonds from his pocket. ‘This is yours,’ he told her, placing it around her neck and fastening the clasp. ‘Now come with me to my country, where I am king. I will make you my queen, and you will never work again. All of my people will bow before you, they will scatter rose petals before your feet wherever you walk. Anything that you desire will be yours, except this- when you take my hand and come to my land, you can never go home.’”
Leksi and the old woman were walking in a narrow gully now, over slippery stones. Snow melted in the sun and streamed weakly over the rocks. It was treacherous footing but the old woman seemed to handle it with ease; she was agile as a goat.
“Aminah smiled and nodded and pretended that she was thinking about it. She skated away at a leisurely pace, and the Devil followed behind her. She skated and skated and the Devil pursued her, licking his sharp teeth with his forked tongue. But he did not know this lake, and Aminah did. She knew it in summer, when the fish leapt up to catch flies and moths, and she knew it in winter, when the ice was thick in some places and thin in others. She was a slender girl and the Devil was a big man; she hoped he was as heavy as he looked.”
Listening to the story now and remembering how it ended, Leksi felt sorry for the Devil. Was the Devil really so terrible? True, he had murdered the innocent boy on the road. But Aminah’s mother had deserved it for selling her daughter so cheaply. And what the Devil desired-who could blame him? He wanted to marry the world’s most beautiful woman. What was wrong with that?
Just let the old woman go, thought Leksi. Just let her walk away. The odds are good she’ll never make it to shelter before nightfall. I’d be giving her a chance, though, and what more could she ask of me? That would be mercy, to let her walk. But then Leksi thought of Nikolai. Nikolai would ask how it had gone and Leksi would be forced to lie. Except he could not imagine lying to Nikolai. Leksi never lied; he wasn’t good at it. He pictured Nikolai’s face and Leksi knew he could never trick the older soldier. And he could not go back to the mansion and admit that he had disobeyed a direct order.
“Finally, Aminah could hear the ice beginning to crack beneath her skates. The Devil was right behind her, reaching out for her, his fingernails inches from her hair. Just as he was about to grab her the ice beneath him gave way and he fell with a cry into the freezing water. ‘Aminah!’ he yelled. ‘Help me!’ But Aminah skated away as fast as she could. She reached the edge of the lake, took off her skates, put her boots on, and left the town, never to return.”
She kept the diamonds, thought Leksi. Maybe they turned back into eyeballs. He remembered being disappointed, as a child, that the Devil could be so easily trapped. Why couldn’t he just breathe fire and melt all the ice?
The runoff from the melting snow had created a shallow stream in the gully that rose halfway up Leksi’s boots. He worried about falling and twisting an ankle—how could he climb back uphill with a sprained ankle? Still, it was less exhausting than trudging through the wet snow. He remembered waking early on summer mornings with his brother, searching under rocks in the woods for slugs and beetles, pinning them on fish hooks, wading into the polluted river, and casting their lines. They never caught anything—the waste from the nearby paper plant had poisoned the fish—but Leksi’s brother would tell jokes all morning, and then they would lie on the riverbank and talk about hockey stars who played in America and actresses on television.
“What happened next?” Leksi asked the old woman. He couldn’t remember if there had been an epilogue.
The old woman stopped walking and looked skyward. A blackbird squawked on a pine branch above them. “Nobody knows. Some say the Devil swam under the ice and back to Hell. They say that every winter he returns, looking for Aminah, calling out her name.”
The Devil really loved her, decided Leksi. He always rooted for the bad men in fairy tales and movies, not because he admired them but because they had no chance. The bad men were the true underdogs. They never won.
Leksi and the old woman stood motionless, their breath curling about their heads like genies. Leksi heard growls and turned to see where they came from. In the shadow of a great boulder twenty meters away, three dogs feasted on a deer’s still steaming intestines. Each dog seemed to sense Leksi’s gaze at the same time; they lifted their heads and stared at him until he averted his eyes.
Leksi looked uphill and realized they were no longer standing on a hill. Panicked, he searched for footprints, but there were none on the gully’s wet stones. How long had they walked in the stream? Where had they entered it? All the tall pine trees looked identical to him; they stretched on for as far as the eye could see. Nothing but trees and melting snow littered with broken twigs and pine cones. The dogs watched him and the blackbird squawked and Leksi knew he was lost. He strapped the rifle over his shoulder, pulled off a glove, and began fumbling in his parka’s pockets for his compass. The old woman turned to look at him and Leksi tried to remain as calm as possible. He pulled out the compass and peered at it. He determined true north and then closed his eyes. It didn’t matter. He had no idea in which direction the house lay. Knowing true north meant nothing.
The old woman smiled at him when he opened his eyes. “It’s an old story. Of course,” she said, letting the shovel’s long handle fall onto the wet rocks, “some people say there is no Devil.”
Leksi sat on the bank of the now bustling stream. If he could organize his thoughts, he believed, everything would be all right. Unless he organized his thoughts he would die here in the nighttime, the snow would drift over his body and only the dogs would know where to find him. He stared at his lap to rest his eyes from the glare. Feeling hot, he laid his rifle on the ground and shrugged out of his parka. The sun was heavy on his face and he could feel his pale cheeks beginning to burn. He listened to the countryside around him: the dogs snarling at the blackbirds; the blackbirds flapping their wings; the running water; the pine branches creaking. He sat in the snow and listened to the countryside around him.
When he finally raised his head the old woman was gone, as he knew she would be. Her shovel was half submerged in the stream, its handle wedged between two rocks, its metal blade glinting below water like the scale of a giant fish. The sun rose higher in the sky and the snow began to fall from the trees. Leksi stood, pulled on his parka, picked up his rifle, and started wading upstream, searching for the spot where his footprints ended.
He hadn’t gone far when he heard a whistle. He crouched down, fumbling with the rifle, trying to get his gloved finger inside the trigger guard.
“Relax, Leksi.” It was Nikolai, squatting by the trunk of a dead pine. The tree’s bare branches reached out for the blue sky. Nikolai tapped off the ash of the cigar he was smoking. He was in shirtsleeves, his rifle strapped over one shoulder.
“You followed me,” said Leksi.
The older soldier did not reply. He squinted into the distance beyond Leksi and Leksi followed his gaze, but there was nothing to be seen. A moment later a single gunshot echoed across the valley floor. Nikolai nodded, stood up, and stretched his arms above his head. He picked a bit of loose tobacco off his tongue and then tramped through the snow to the stream. Leksi, still in his crouch, watched him come closer.
Nikolai pulled the shovel out of the water and held it up. “Come over here, my friend.”
Leksi heard singing behind him. He wheeled about to find Surkhov marching toward them, singing “Here Comes the Sun,” twirling a silver chain with a black cameo on its end.
Nikolai smiled and held out the shovel. “Come here, Aleksandr. You have work to do.”
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