by Mark Marchenko
When the knock came at the door, Georgy was standing with his hands at the windowsill, gazing out of the window. Grey sky hung over Moscow. Before his eyes was ground covered with autumn splashes of orange and red, the square that was named after Repin (it was in 1958 when the monument to Ilya Repin, a Russian realist painter, was built on Bolotnaya Square; in 1962 the square was renamed Repin Square) just a couple of months ago, withered grass awaiting the first snow, a band of water, and the walls of the Kremlin. A river, slow, almost black, under his feet.
Knock at the door, again. Still careful, somehow muted, though persevering, as if saying ‘I am not going away, I can’t, just can’t, leave like this.’ Georgy’s gaze lowered — several passenger coaches, people fussing around, talking over each other, gesturing, coming out on the pavement with carryall bags in their hands. Not leaving yet. Time hasn’t come.
The knock sounded at the door for the third time. Georgy crossed the drawing room, went along the hallway to the door and opened it without looking through the spyhole. A young man stood at the doorway. He looked anxious, though seeing Georgy put him at ease.
They shook hands.
“Sasha, it is good to see you. Come in. Are you not departing yet?”
“Almost, they postponed it a bit, still have about an hour. I asked my wife and daughter to wait for me outside. Couldn’t leave without seeing you — is it true that you are staying? Is it final?”
Georgy patted his former student on the shoulder, beckoning him in.
“Don’t take off your shoes.”
Sasha dropped his bag to the floor, took off his jacket, and followed the professor. Georgy were dressed as if he was ready to give a lecture — the next moment he would enter the classroom with his signature, ‘So, which year are you again?’ and then ‘Write it down: the United States during the period of Jacksonian democracy’ — a light grey three-piece suit, white shirt with silver French cuffs, and a neatly knotted burgundy tie.
They entered the drawing room, adorned with old oak furnishings, which no one had replaced or moved for more than thirty years. On their right were massive bookshelves and a big wooden chest, a portable phonograph, speakers, and several open shelves with vinyl records. There also was a dark wood writing table, with a tint of bronze and carved legs; on top of it — neatly folded leaves of paper, a notebook, a fountain pen and a pencil. A worn out leather briefcase with metal, slightly faded clips, laid on the floor, leaned against a table leg. Two windows illuminated the room.
“Please,” Georgy pointed to one of the two armchairs, approached the phonograph. “Symphony Number Six, Pathétique,” he showed the record cover, a Greek goddess against a dark background. He carefully took out the disc, placed it on the turntable, dropped the needle, flipped the switch — a small green light went on and the mechanism came into motion. Georgy touched a white round button to add volume. “The last work of Tchaikovsky. According to his own words, it embodies all his years of musical experience, everything he was capable of. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to finish it — aren’t we all afraid of dying at the most inappropriate moment? But he managed to complete it. After the premiere he said it was the symphony he was most proud of. Seven days later, he died.”
The symphony started playing: slow, calm, as if coming from far away, opening like waves gradually rolling at the seashore during high tide. Georgy brought a decanter and two glasses, filled each glass at one-quarter, handed one of them over to Sasha.
“Scotch, single malt. My old comrade brought it from his trip abroad. I believe both of us can make use of it now.”
Georgy smiled and took a seat.
“So, Sasha, you wanted to know what I am going to do. Well, I am indeed staying.”
“I like the view from my window.” He took a sip.
Sasha followed his example. The drink pleasantly warmed his throat, leaving a subtle hint of smoke on his tongue. Suddenly, he shuddered: a calm and tranquil melody gave way to a powerful, loud and quick one. He didn’t know what to say next. So strange it was, he couldn’t make himself think about it.
“First, tell me about your family,” Georgy said to his former student.
“Our little one is of course upset about leaving. She is only three, how can you explain it to her? She only understands that we are not coming back, neither today nor tomorrow. At first she was alright, but later she burst into tears. Katya was trying to calm her down all morning — together they were packing her things and toys, but you can’t take everything with you, right? We don’t even know where they are taking us. What can you do? My wife seems to bear up well. Her parents live just outside the city, she thinks maybe we’ll be able to visit them. Still worrying, obviously.” Sasha shrugged his shoulders. ‘Nothing else to say.’
Georgy gazed at him intently, trying to figure out if he should tell him.
No, he was not ready.
At this moment the second part of the symphony started to play — it was a 5/4 waltz, with a graceful, delicate and even somewhat blissful melody.
“Well, Sasha,” Georgy said, “let me tell you a story. I came here in ‘37, with my wife and our little daughter. I got my doctoral degree several years before that, and was working at the university. Actually, I was an honour to our faculty, our ‘history department’ as they called it those days. And then we got asked to move in here,” he cast a look around the room. “The former resident, they said to us — a prominent scientist — received an appointment from the Politburo and was sent to some northern place for good, so they invited us. As you know, one does not turn down such proposals. On top of that, we were in need of a flat of our own; with a little child and me not really being able to help my wife, since I was often working late, living in a bedsit was extraordinarily difficult. At that time it all was just starting, no one yet talked about Yezhovshchina (“Yezhovshchina” — colloquial name for The Great Purge, a campaign of political repression in the Soviet Union led by NKVD; more than 1.5 million citizens were repressed during The Great Purge, with about half of them shot), the ink was still fresh on the first death lists. Moreover, I was clean: a Party member, an exemplar, with numerous recommendations from my university — why would I be scared? So we moved in. Life, of course, became easier. Now we had a drawing room, a playroom, tall windows looking out over the Kremlin, and I had my own space at home to do my work — I usually worked until late, and going back home at night, especially through snow and cold in the winter, wasn’t particularly pleasant. Now I was able to do some of my work here, at this table, while drinking my tea and eating gingerbread. An entirely different story. “The first few months — everything was calm. But then it started. One day, Alyona came home from a walk with our daughter — it was the weekend, Saturday, as I remember — same as today. I slept in after marking my students’s essays till late. She approached me. ‘The Samoilovs from flat one fifteen,’ she said, ‘have they moved? Their pram is no more in the hallway, their front door is sealed. I wanted to ask the concierge about them, but Mashka started crying and distracted me. Did you know they were going to leave? It is weird to leave like that, without saying anything.’
“I realised what was going on, but I was uncertain whether I should tell my wife about it. Should I let her figure it out by herself, let her keep her fraction of hope, or should I just say it? I looked at her — and decided to stay silent. I said, who knows what happened, Samoilov was an important man, they could suddenly appoint him somewhere far away, could ask him to keep it confidential. Alyona nodded, got pulled away by our daughter, and everyone tried to forget about it.
“I blamed myself afterward. We could see what was happening: some suddenly left or disappeared, others got ‘appointments’. Soon our neighbours from the upper- floor flat were taken. Anatoly, a high-profile mathematician, almost elderly, lived there with his wife. They came and took them at night. We were going to visit them in the morning — it was his birthday — and ran into the staff taking away their personal belongings.
“Alyona still didn’t want to believe. Our concierge was there, keys clanking, and she asked him: ‘What happened to the Pelmans?’ She shouldn’t have done it, of course. I wanted to warn her against asking such questions, but decided not to worry her. ‘The Pelmans left’, he said. Their bed linen was carried out of their flat.
“So, Anatoly Pelman… we were teaching at one and the same university. Sometimes, in the evenings, Alyona would come up to me and, in a quiet voice so as not to be overheard, ask: ‘What’s going to happen to us?’ Tried not to cry, but I could see she was on the edge. I held her in my arms, saying: ‘My dear, we are not guilty of anything. Neither Party nor God can prove otherwise.’ Her health significantly worsened, she developed heart problems — I am a fatalist, you see, but she… each night she was dying. She couldn’t sleep, every time she overheard something she got up and looked out of the window. Of course she saw Ravens (‘Black Raven’ was a name for NKVD cars GAS M-1, also called ‘Black Marusya’ or ‘Black Maria’; the car was strongly associated with the Great Purge and NKVD terror). Everyone saw them.
“At long last, nineteen thirty eight, May. I was working late, in this room. Everyone was asleep while I was finishing my paper, making brief pauses to pour myself more coffee. Already accepted I wouldn’t go to sleep before dawn. And then — the engine sound. Came up to this very window — the light was off — and looked out. Black Raven stopped exactly opposite to our entrance. I checked the time — quarter past five, their favourite time. Two of them left the car, one of them plain- clothed, the other in uniform and armed. I instantly thought they were after me. Soon heard them going up. Didn’t run, didn’t fuss. When your time comes, it comes. I went to the bedroom to wake up Alyona and met her on the way. She dashed to the window, saw the car, ran to the door. You could hear their steps. She grabbed the door handles, as if trying to hold it and never let them enter.
“When they knocked, she just fell on the floor. I rushed up to her. They managed to open the door, they had keys. I was on the floor with my wife’s head in my hands, all in blood. Two NKVD agents in front of me, but it is my hands that are in blood — what a bitter irony! She badly hurt her head while falling, but it didn’t matter anymore — her heart was too scared and beaten to keep moving. They looked at me, at each other — they knew we had a three-year old — and decided not to bother themselves with us. ‘Do you know where to call with this?’ the one in the jacket asked me, pointing at my wife. I nodded. They turned around and left.
“Next time they came back to the neighbours, one floor lower — didn’t get to me. I was sleeping, only in the morning I realised they took them.”
The waltz was succeeded by a march, sharp and steady — the composition was on the verge of its inescapable climax.
“And you still stayed here, after all of this…” Sasha said and, suddenly, he understood. “What time is it?”
Georgy glanced at his wrist watch.
“Quarter past four.”
“I have to leave.”
He got up, drained his glass, coughing at the burn of whiskey down his throat. Then he marched to the hallway. They shook hands.
“Georgy Serafimovich, I still hope it won’t happen, and everything will be fine,” Sasha said.
“I’d like that too.”
“Take care. And… thank you for everything.”
When Sasha left, Georgy went back to the drawing room, poured himself more scotch, took the glass and came up to the window. The symphony was close to its end — the mournful beginning of the fourth part, a dark melody in minor key that will soon end off. Below, it was bustling with people. Several coaches had just departed. The last one was still there. Georgy noticed his student rushing inside. Well, looks like he would be able to see his wife and daughter there. Good. He’ll smile at them, he’ll say everything would be alright, they will look through the window. He’ll say how they will leave the city — quick, since the roads are empty, people are still at their homes, blessed with ignorance — and they will go to a place where no nuclear missiles and no wars will reach them, to meet their loved ones.
The lyrical symphony slowly decayed, as if dissolving into the air. Georgy raised his glass and took a sip, watching the last coach go.
In a flash, a condensation trail pierced the skies, and a blast of light illuminated the city, a light so bright and powerful no one had ever witnessed before and will never witness again.
Mark Marchenko is a writer of Ukrainian extraction who was born in the Soviet Union and educated in Moscow and in Edinburgh, where he studied Medieval Literature. He writes short fiction both in Russian, his native language, and in English, as well as writes about classical and contemporary literature. Recently Mark’s short prose was published in 3:AM Magazine, Vestnik Evropy (Herald of Europe), and several other literary venues in both languages. Twitter: @marchenkomark