The dogs had gone feral. They roamed the countryside in packs, their claws grown long, their fur thick and unbrushed and tangled with thistles. When the soldiers began marching at dawn, Leksi counted each dog he spotted, a game to help the time pass. He quit after forty. They were everywhere: crouched and watchful in the snow; racing through the shadows of the towering pines; following the soldiers, sniffing their boot prints, hoping for scraps.
The dogs unnerved Leksi. From time to time he would turn, point at the closest ones, and whisper, “Stay.” They would stare up at him, unblinking. There was something strangely undomestic about their eyes. These dogs lacked the wheedling complicity of their tamed brothers; they were free of the household commandments: Do not shit in the kitchen. Do not bite people. A silver-haired bitch still wore a purple collar, and Leksi imagined that the other dogs mocked her for this badge of servility.
Of the three soldiers, Leksi, at eighteen, was the youngest. They marched in single file with ten-meter intervals between men, Leksi in the rear, Nikolai in the middle, Surkhov in front. They wore their gray-and-white winter fatigues, parkas draped over their bulky packs to keep everything dry in case of snowfall. We look like old hunchbacks, thought Leksi. His rifle strap kept slipping off his shoulder, so he ended up holding the gun in his gloved hands. He still wasn’t used to the rifle. It never seemed heavy when he picked it up in the morning, but by noon, when he was sweating through his undershirt despite the cold, his arms ached from the burden.
Leksi, along with all of his school friends, had eagerly anticipated enlistment. From the age of fourteen on, every girl in his class had been mad for the soldiers. Soldiers carried guns, wore uniforms, drove military vehicles. Their high black boots gleamed when they crossed their legs in the outdoor cafés. If you were eighteen and you weren’t a soldier, you were a woman; if you were neither soldier nor woman, you were a cripple. Leksi had not been back to his hometown since enlisting. He wondered when he’d get to cross his legs at an outdoor café and raise his glass to the giggling girls.
Instead he had this: snow, snow, more snow, snow. It all looked the same to Leksi, and it was endless. He never paid attention to where they were going; he just followed the older soldiers. If he were ever to look up and find them gone, Leksi would be lost in the wilderness, without any hope of finding his way out. He could not understand why anyone would want to live here, let alone fight for the place.
He had first seen the Chechen highlands a month before, when the convoy carrying his infantry division across the central Caucasus stopped at the peak of the Darial Pass so that the men could relieve themselves. The soldiers stood in a long line by the side of the road, jumping up and down like madmen, pissing into the wind, hollering threats and curses at their hidden enemies in the vast snowy distance.
He had been cold that afternoon, he had been cold every morning and night since then, he was cold now. He was so cold his teeth were cold. If he breathed through his mouth, his throat hurt; if he breathed through his nose, his head hurt. But he was the youngest, and he was a soldier, so he never complained.
Surkhov and Nikolai, on the other hand, never stopped complaining. They shouted to each other throughout the morning, back and forth. Leksi knew that armed guerrillas lurked in these hills; he heard they were paid a bounty for each enemy they brought to their chief, the vor v zakone, the “thief-in-power.” The bodies of Russian soldiers were sometimes found crucified on telephone poles, their genitalia stuffed into their mouths. Their severed heads were left on the doorsteps of ethnic Russians in Grozny and Vladikavkaz. Leksi couldn’t understand why Surkhov and Nikolai were so recklessly loud, but they had been soldiers for years. Both had seen extensive combat. Leksi didn’t question them.
“Put Khlebnikov in charge,” Surkhov was saying now, “and he’d clean this place up in two weeks. There’s twelve pigfuckers here that tell all the other pigfuckers what to do. You put Khlebnikov in charge, he’d get the twelve, ping ping ping.” Surkhov made a gun with his thumb and forefinger and fired at the invisible twelve. He wasn’t wearing gloves. Neither was Nikolai. Leksi got colder just looking at their bare red hands.
Surkhov was skinny but tireless. He could tramp through deep snow for hours without break, bitching and singing the whole way. His face seemed asymmetrical, one eye slightly higher than the other. It made him look perpetually skeptical. His shaggy brown hair spilled out from below his white watch cap. The caps were reversible- black on the inside for nighttime maneuvers. Leksi, whose head was still shaved to regulation specifications, felt vulnerable without his helmet, which he had left behind after Surkhov and Nikolai kept throwing pebbles at it. None of the older soldiers wore helmets. Helmets were considered unmanly, like seatbelts, fit only for UN observers and French journalists.
Nikolai’s hair was even longer than Surkhov’s. Nikolai looked like an American movie star, strong-boned and blue-eyed, until he opened his mouth, which was jumbled with crooked teeth. If the teeth bothered him, it didn’t show—he was constantly flashing his snaggle-toothed smile, as if daring people to point out the gaps. Nobody ever did.
“They’ll never bring Khlebnikov here,” said Nikolai. “You’re always talking Khlebnikov this, Khlebnikov that, so what? Never. Khlebnikov is a tank. They don’t want tanks here. This...” and here Nikolai gestured at himself and Surkhov, their march, ignoring Leksi, “this is not relevant. This is a game. You want to know the truth? Moscow is happier if we die. If we die, all the newspapers rant about it, the politicians get on TV and rant about it, and then, maybe, they begin to fight for real.”
Whenever Nikolai or Surkhov said the word Moscow it sounded profane. Actual curses rolled from their tongues, free and easy, but to Moscow they added the venom of a true malediction. Most of the older soldiers spoke the same way, and the intensity of their emotion surprised Leksi. Nikolai and Surkhov took almost nothing seriously. Surkhov would read aloud the letters he got from his girlfriend, affecting a high-pitched, quavering voice—“I long for you, darling, I wake in the morning and already long for you”—and then he and Nikolai would burst into laughter. One night Nikolai described his father’s long, excruciating death from bone cancer, and then shrugged, sipping from a mug of coffee spiked with vodka. “Well, he outlived his welcome.”
A week ago they had been marching down an unpaved road. They walked in the tracks of an armored personnel carrier because the grooved and flattened snow gave better traction. Coming across a skinny dead dog, Surkhov dragged it by its front paws into the center of the road. Blackbirds had pecked out the eyes and testes. Surkhov, one hand on the back of its neck, lifted the dog’s frozen corpse onto its hind legs and used it as a ventriloquist’s dummy to sing the Rolling Stones: “I can’t get no sa-tis-fac-tion, I can’t get no sa-tis-fac-tion, I have tried, I have tried, I have tried, I have tried, I can’t get me no...”
Nikolai had laughed, bent over at the waist, hands on his knees, laughing until the blackbirds circling overhead winged away. Leksi had smiled, because it would be rude not to smile, but he could not look away from the dog’s eyeless face. Someone had shot it in the forehead; the bullet hole was round as a coin. One of the soldiers from the APC, taking target practice.
Leksi was deeply superstitious. His grandmother had taught him that the world was full of animals and that the animals all knew each other. There were secret conferences in the wild where the affairs of each beast were discussed and argued. A boy in his school had pegged a pigeon with a slingshot, killing it instantly. A year later the boy’s older sister died in a car accident. Leksi did not believe it was an accident; he was sure the other birds had conspired and gained their revenge.
Leksi looked up from the snow and realized that he had fallen far behind Nikolai. He rushed forward, nearly tripping. Carrying the rifle disrupted his balance. When he was again ten meters behind the older soldier, he stopped and nodded, but Nikolai summoned him forward with curling fingers. Surkhov squatted down and observed them from his position, grinning.
“Who’s watching my back?” asked Nikolai, when Leksi approached him.
“Me. I’m sorry.”
“No, again, who’s watching my back?”
Nikolai shook his head and looked at Surkhov for a moment, who shrugged. “Nobody’s watching my back,” said Nikolai. “You’re watching the snow, you’re watching the dogs, you’re watching the sky. So, OK, you are an artist, I think. You are composing a painting, maybe, in your head. I appreciate this. But then tell me, if you are making this painting, who is watching my back?”
“Ah. This is a problem. You see, I am watching Surkhov’s back. Nobody can attack Surkhov from behind, because I would protect him. But who protects me? While you paint this masterpiece, who protects me?”
“I will not die in this shit land, Aleksandr. You understand? I refuse to die here. You guard me, I guard Surkhov, we all live another day. You see?”
“Watch my back.”
Only after they began marching again, after Surkhov and Nikolai began singing Beatles songs, replacing the original lyrics with obscene variations, did Leksi wonder who was watching his own back.
The three soldiers stopped less than a kilometer downhill of the mansion, at the edge of a dense copse of pines. A high wall of mortared stones surrounded the property; only the shingled roof and chimneys were visible from the soldiers’ vantage point. A long field of snow lay between them and the house. The shadows of the tall trees stretched up the field in the last minutes of sunlight.
Surkhov took the binoculars back from Leksi and stared through them. “They can watch the entire valley from there. No smoke from the chimneys. But they know we’d be looking for smoke.”
Nikolai had pulled a plastic bag of tobacco and papers from Surkhov’s pack; he leaned against a tree trunk now and rolled a cigarette. Leksi could roll a decent number if he were warm and indoors, sitting down, the paper flat on a tabletop. He was always amazed that Nikolai could roll them anywhere, in less than a minute, never dropping a flake of tobacco, no matter the wind or the darkness. Nikolai could roll a cigarette while driving a car over a dirt road and singing along with the radio.
He gripped the finished product between his lips while returning the plastic bag to Surkhov’s pack. Leksi lit it for him and Nikolai inhaled hungrily, his stubbled cheeks caving in. He released the smoke and passed the cigarette to Leksi.
“Intelligence said no lights in the house the last three nights,” said Nikolai.
Surkhov spat. “Intelligence couldn’t find my cock if it was halfway up their ass. Fuck them and their patron saints. Aleshkovsky told me some of them flew a copter to Pitsunda last weekend, for the whores. We’re down here freezing our balls off and they go whoring.”
“So,” said Nikolai, “they send three men. The way they see it, (a) the place is empty, we take it, fine, we have a good observation post for the valley; (b) half the terrorist army is in there, we’re dead, fine. All at once, we are relevant. We are martyrs. The real fighting begins.”
“I don’t want to be relevant,” said Leksi, handing the cigarette to Surkhov. The older soldiers looked at him quizzically for a moment and then laughed. It took Leksi a second to realize they were laughing with him, not at him.
“No,” said Nikolai, clapping him on the back. “Neither do I.”
After nightfall they unrolled their sleeping bags and slept in turns, one man always keeping watch. Leksi pulled the first shift but could not sleep after Nikolai relieved him. Every few minutes, a dog would howl and then his brothers would answer, until the hills echoed with lonely dogs calling for each other. An owl screeched from a perch nearby. Leksi lay in his bag and stared up through the pine branches. A half-moon lit the sky and he watched the silhouetted clouds drift in and out of sight. He lay with his knees pressed against his chest for warmth and flinched every time the wind blew a stray pine needle against his cheek. He listened to Nikolai puffing on another hand-rolled cigarette and to Surkhov grinding his teeth in his sleep.
In a few hours he might be fighting for a house he had never seen before tonight, against men he had never met. He hadn’t insulted anyone or fucked anyone’s girlfriend, he hadn’t stolen any money or crashed into anyone’s car, and yet these men, if they were here, would try to kill him. It seemed very bizarre to Leksi. Strangers wanted to kill him. They didn’t even know him, but they wanted to kill him. As if everything he had done was completely immaterial, everything he held in his mind: the girls he had kissed; the hunting trips with his father; the cow he had drawn for his mother when he was seven, still hanging in a frame on her bedroom wall; or the time he got caught sneaking glances over Katya Zubritskaya’s shoulder during a geometry test and old Lukonin had made him stand up right there and repeat, louder and louder, while the students laughed and pounded their desks: I am Aleksandr Strelchenko and I am a cheat, and not even a good cheat. These memories were Aleksandr Strelchenko, and so what? None of it mattered. None of it was real except here, now, the snow, the soldiers beside him, the house on the hilltop. Why did they need the house? To observe the valley. What was there to observe? Trees and snow and wild dogs, the Caucasus Mountains looming in the distance. Leksi curled up inside his sleeping bag and pictured his severed head resting on a Grozny doorstep, his eyes the eyes of a dead fish on its bed of ice.
At 3 a.m. they climbed the hill. They left their packs behind, wrapped tightly in waterproof tarps and buried below the snow, marked with broken twigs and pinecones. The moon was bright enough to make flashlights unnecessary. Surkhov and Nikolai seemed like different people now; since waking they had barely spoken. They had blackened each other’s faces and then Leksi’s, pocketed their watches, reversed their caps.
They reached the stone wall and circled around to the back gate. If there were any guard dogs, they would have already begun barking. That was a good sign. They found the gate unlocked, swinging back and forth in the wind, creaking. That was another good sign. They crept onto the property. The grounds were sprawling and unkempt. A white gazebo stood by an old well; the gazebo’s roof sagged from the weight of the snow.
The house’s large windows were trimmed in copper. No lights were on. The soldiers took positions by hand signal: Surkhov approached the back door while Nikolai and Leksi lay on their stomachs and aimed their rifles past him. Surkhov looked at them for a moment, shrugged, and turned the knob. The door opened.
Nobody was home. They attached their flashlights to their rifle barrels and split up to check both floors and the cellar, slowly, slowly, looking for the silver gleam of a trip wire, the matte gray of a pancake mine. They searched under the beds, in the closets, the shower stalls, the wine racks in the cellar, the modern toilet’s water tank. When Leksi opened the refrigerator he gasped. The light came on.
“Electricity,” he whispered. He couldn’t believe it. He walked over to the light switch and flicked it up. The kitchen shined, the yellow tiled floor, the wood counters, the big black stove. Surkhov hurried in, his boots thundering on the tiles. He turned off the light and slapped Leksi in the face.
“Idiot,” he said.
When the search was completed, Nikolai radioed their base. He listened to instructions for a moment, nodded impatiently, signed off, and looked up at the other two, who were gathered around him in the library. “So now we sit here and wait.”
The walls were bookshelves, crowded with more books than they were meant to hold, vertical stacks of books on top of horizontal rows of books. Books were piled in corners, books lay scattered on the leather sofa, books leaned precariously on the marble fireplace mantle.
Leksi’s face was still flushed from embarrassment. He knew that he had deserved the slap, that he had acted stupidly, but he was furious anyway. He imagined that Surkhov slapped his girlfriends that way if he caught them stealing money, and it burned Leksi to be treated with such disrespect, as if he were unworthy of a punch.
Nikolai watched him. “Look,” he said, “you understand why Surkhov was angry?”
“Did you check the refrigerator before you opened it?” asked Nikolai. “Did you check to see if it was wired? And then you turn on the lights! Now everyone in the valley knows we are here. You need to pay attention. You never pay attention and it’s going to get you killed, which is fine, but it’s going to get us killed also, which is not fine.”
Surkhov smiled. “Tell me you’re sorry, Leksi, and I’ll apologize too. Come on. Give me your hand.”
Leksi was unable to hold grudges. He extended his hand and said, “I’m sorry.”
“Fool,” said Surkhov, ignoring Leksi’s hand. He and Nikolai laughed and walked out of the library.
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.”
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.”