Your revolution is a lie.
There were no heroes, no great causes. Just slaughter, suffering, death.
Oh, you thought those a myth? Tales your grandfather told you?
No, the dragons were real. Bolvan, the dragons are why you won! The only reason there aren’t dragons today is that Uncle Joe slaughtered the reds during the Great Purge, and in ’23 a pack of larcenous Chinese eunuchs blew up the dragon barns in the Forbidden Citywhile trying to destroy evidence of their embezzlement.
I see you smiling, you indoctrinated young fool. You see a man who has turned against the revolution that employed him for nearly thirty years. A man convicted of corruption and treason and worse, and you think I would say anything to avoid the firing squad. But in truth, I am old and weary and no longer afraid to die. I just want someone to know the truth.
So it falls on you, young man, to hear the true tale of the revolution, dragons and all.
The dragons were harrowing the provinces again. They did that whenever the tsar was upset with the Jews. He would go down to the dragon barns himself with an oversized golden key and unlock the stalls. He always made a big show of it.
At his grand entrance, the dragons, black and shiny as bats, with the same kind of pinched faces, stomped about, stirring the dust, ’til the royal barns felt like a sandstorm. Bits of straw, dung, and gold dust filled the air. Saturated it. As the dragons were fond of the gold dust, the tsar had ordered thousands of coins ground on a weekly basis to keep them happy.
That the gold dust—as opposed to the dung and straw—made the dragon handlers sick was never the tsar’s concern. Dragon boys could be found in every corner of the kingdom. Mujecks, peasants, vied for a place at the palace. They loved serving the tsar. Indeed, there were lines of them each morning trying to get in to see him for work, though he left their hiring to the man in charge of the barns.
Dragon boys knew to walk quietly amongst the great creatures. Dragons might be big, but they were sensitive in their own dens, prone to fits of weeping globules of golden tears and spitting fire. Occasionally a dragon boy was caught trying to make off with one of the golden tears. For them it was a fortune. A vicious beating, and instant dismissal after, kept such thievery to the very minimum. Few tried it any more, ever since one boy—by all accounts quite popular—died from his beating. It hadn’t been a mistake but by the tsar’s insistence.
The tsar was not a quiet man. He was used to being obeyed—by men and women, children, dogs, horses. Even his wife, the German woman, did what she was told. Well, most of the time. She was German, after all.
He expected the same from the dragons. So he never bothered to learn to walk softly, speak in a hushed tone. Indeed, why should he? He was the supreme ruler of the Russians, the heir to fortunes, his name used in praise at all the Russian churches, next to God’s. Sometimes even over God’s. His priests cautioned about that, but the tsar didn’t worry.
“God’s kingdom is there,” he would say, waggling his fingers towards the sky. “Mine is here.” His hand indicated all of the earth.
In the dragon barn, he called out to the dragons, flinging open their stall doors dramatically, the barn doors—cumbersome and heavy—having already been opened by his servants.
“Go, my children! Go!”
The tsar liked to call the dragons his children—peasants and dragons alike. The peasants seemed to respond well to that. The dragons? Well, as they say in the Caucasus, Ifyour faithful friend turns into a flaming shirt—do not cast it off. Like most peasant sayings, they are competent metaphors.
Tsar Nicholas flung his arm upward, outward, though having no sense of direction, he usually pointed toward Moscow. That would have been a disaster if the dragons had been equally dense. But of course they were not. Like birds, they were aligned to the air’s own map. They were never lost. Though, as the mad monk once said: Never lost, but perhaps bothered for a few days. They’d been trained on Jewish flesh, so unlike the hardy Russian stock. Jewish prisoners, mostly moneylenders and rabble–rousers, jailed for their sins.
So the dragons took off, galloping out the door, filling the barn behind them with gold dust that left the dragon boys coughing madly. But the tsar—with the lack of care of all his kind—simply put a silken handkerchief over his sacred nose and mouth and headed back up the secret stairs that ran between his apartment and the barn.
He hastened to look out of his bedchamber window as the dragon horde rose into the air.
So light, he always thought, for such huge creatures. Their bones must be as hollow as birds.
The sky darkened as the vee of dragons covered a great swath of the heavens. Bits of golden-flecked dung fell like stars behind them. The peasants would rush to pick it up and cart it back to their holdings. It was said to be potent for growing both beets and babies. Gather a bunch of it and maybe the dust could turn into enough to buy a whole new garden. Or wife.
Watching the dragons, the tsar smiled. He felt his heart beat to the rhythm of their wings. As he so often said to the tsarina—“It is as if I am there, flying aloft with them.
“When I was a boy, we believed only birds and bats flew.”
She always smiled when he said that, so unlike him, because Tsar Nicholas was not known for his imagination. “And butterflies and bees,” she teased.
He smiled down at her fondly. “Oh my darling Sunny,” he said, watching his strong-willed wife melt at that pet name. It might have been because the words were so unexpected from someone who was known to be precise and punctual, in the extreme. But she also knew how much he valued her thoughts on important matters. She always gave him something to think about, something the generals or the councilors usually failed to consider. He didn’t tell the men that, of course. Or how much he relied on her. It was his little secret with the tsarina.
As the tsar watched the lead dragon turn the vee toward the provinces, he did not notice the peasants below gathering the dung. Not until he heard them reciting the old rhyme,
Fire above, fire below,
Pray to hit my neighbor.
It works, he thought, equally well for dragons as military planes and their munitions. And it certainly rhymes splendidly in the dialect.
He turned from the fading scene of departing dragons and looked at himself in the full-length mirror along the far wall.
Something was not quite right.
He gave a little tug to the bottom of his tunic, then smoothed it with his right hand. Precision and punctuality had been drilled into him as a child. And, as expected of all the tsars, he was also full of batiushka and grozny. Batiushka—a good little father to his people, always ready to express interest in their welfare and problems. And grozny—yet larger than life, imposing, awe–inspiring, terrible, like the God of the Old Testament.
Another tug on his jacket, as he thought: I labor hard to be both.
But most imagination was beyond him. It had not been part of his upbringing. No tutor would have lasted who suggested he learn such a thing. As if imagination could be taught.
“For poets, actors, and women, I suppose,” he told the mirror. “And Jews. I am the tsar. I need facts, not fairy stories. I outgrew those when I was still a young boy.” Then he grinned at his image. “Maybe not Kostchai the Deathless.” As he’d once said to his nanny, “A tsar should live forever.” She’d snapped back, “Not all tsars deserve it.” He never told his mother or father what she said, but he remembered.
It was time to get ready for his trip. He hated to leave the family, his beloved wife, the dragons. But duty called. It was what he was born to, what he would die for. He promised himself he would wear it well to the very end.
Or perhaps, I shall live forever. If I deserve it.
The tsarina glanced out of the window as the dragons rose into their long, black line. She loved to watch them, too, but for reasons very different than her husband’s. So graceful, she thought. Ils sont si gracieux. Like geese going south, if you ignored the dragons’ long tails, the smoke that trailed behind them. If you didn’t try to change their grunting sounds into the hysterics of geese.
She was well used to ignoring aspects of things she didn’t like. That was part of what a good ruler did. Hold one’s nose and think of Our Lord. She had done that enough times to have earned her rightful place in Eternity.
She chuckled to herself. It was also how she had so many children. How she got through her days in court. Russian courtiers were not an easy crowd to swallow, jumped-up peasants, the lot of them. And their French—incroyable! She had tried to be interested in their problems, their troubles, but she’d made few friends. They spoke Russian quickly when around her, which they knew she didn’t know well. She could have understood them in German or English or French. Or if written, she had a good sense of Latin and Greek. But Russian—even after so many years—was often still a puzzle to her. And usually at the worst moments. She was too shy to ask the Russians to speak more slowly. Or to ask the meaning of a word. She hated feeling incompetent. Languages had always been her best subject. She was right to be proud of her way with many tongues. But Russian. . . .
Yes, she greatly preferred the dragons with their grace and grunts to the Russian courtiers.
There were many days when she longed for home. Her childhood home. The family castle in Darmstadt remained enshrined in her memory. She knew the court called her German Alix. They showed their hatred of her at every formal occasion. Whispering as she went past, never inviting her to take tea.
But, she reminded herself, I am Tsarina, not any of you. Though of course Mother Dear, that witch of a mother-in-law, outranked her because of the barbaric Russian customs.
She felt herself getting cold, and then her jaw began to ache again. A headache was starting, a clear sign that she needed another bit of her powder in its glass of warm water. Bless Father Grigori who had discovered the Veronal for her. This last year it had gotten her through many difficult days.
Glancing once more out of the window, she saw the last of the black vee disappearing over the horizon. She shivered with some kind of unholy delight watching them on their way to harrow the Jews, those filthy carbuncles on Russia’s behind. Even worse than those in her beloved Germany. She remembered some of the stories dear Papa used to tell about them, though none she could repeat in polite society. Not as a woman. Not as the tsarina.
But there was no need to. The stories—truths, really—were well known. Darling Nicky had even commissioned a pamphlet about it—their degradations, the murder of innocent Christian babies to use the holy blood to make their disgusting crackers. Matza, it was called. Silly word for such a foul deed. She crossed herself three times to get rid of the image of those poor babies, then shivered, and not from the cold. She hoped the dragons would manage to kill a lot of the Jews this time. The whole lot of them.
There was a sudden, horrible cry from the nursery two floors above.
An answering frightened scream, possibly one of the younger nurses.
The tsarina turned sharply at the sound.
Alexei must have fallen again.
With dignified speed—she’d never been a fast walker, leg injuries as a child had defined her careful gait—she headed straight off to the nursery, two floors and a long hallway away from where she was now. The doctors predicted that Alexei would not die of his diseased blood. But what did they know? Her own brother had died of the same filthy illness. And German doctors, even the ones unable to save her brother, were much, much better than the Russians.
This time I will persuade Nicky to bring German doctors here. Once she set her mind to it, she could always make it happen. But she always chose her battles carefully.
There. One set of stairs done and no more screams.
She stopped to catch her breath.
And then she thought—as she often did—that there was no way they could let Alexei become the tsar. Even the smallest of arguments wore him down. His own baby tantrums could turn into days of distress. The stress of being tsar would certainly kill him.
She would not, could not, think about the possibility of an early death for her son.
She remembered hearing from her tutor how King Henry VIII of England’s sick son died very young and how his half sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, had nearly ruined the kingdom,squabbling over who would get to rule after him. Would it possibly be the same if Alexei assumed the throne? When he assumed the throne. Only with three living sisters to squabble, not just two? Would the Russians—barbarians—accept the idea of a woman on the throne? Even with her own grandmother the longest-reigning monarch in the civilized world?
She set off on the second set of stairs, wondering as she often did if she at this age might have another child. It would have to be another son. She sighed aloud. It was her burden and her duty.
Without noticing, she shuddered. Touched her right temple, which was throbbing.
Best she get the girls married off—or at least promised—as soon as possible, to strong princes.
Halfway up the second set of stairs, she took a deep gulp of air and pushed for more speed from her weak legs. This disease of Alexei’s might kill us all someday.
Now in the hall, she went along as fast as she could, hoping the bruising might not have hurt Alexei so much this time. That his knees wouldn’t swell up.
The doctors had been hinting at an improvement. The aspirin powder they had been giving Alexei regularly was something new, processed in Germany, so she knew it had to be of good quality—was especially made for such pain, such swelling.
For a while it had worked. But only a little while.
But Father Grigori, blessed be that holy man, had demanded the doctors be kept away. And as God so favored him, she had gone along with his advice.
And. . . .
She’d reached the door of the nursery. It was slightly ajar. She listened for a second, heard no cries, no sobbing. Alexei seemed to be doing better under the priest’s care rather than the doctors’. Less bruising, better appetite. . . .
But that cry that she’d been able to hear two floors away . . . that was not a sound she’d heard before. Perhaps the pain had maybe gotten worse. Ach! It was so difficult to know what to do.
I will put it in God’s hands. That can never be wrong.
She crossed herself again in the Russian way, though even after so many years in Russia, it felt like an affront to God. But otherwise, she was happier in this old religion than the newer Lutheranism she’d been born into. If it had only been the Russian Orthodox church, her dear husband, their daughters and son, she would have been content living in this barbaric country.
But the people. . . .
Grandmama, she sighed, I am trying to be strong like you. But underneath that breath of courage. . . . These people will be the death of me.
She would have taken the Veronal and lain down for the rest of the morning, but she knew she could do nothing until her darling Alexei was tended to. And after that, a farewell dinner with her husband, who was to be off in the morning playing at soldiers with his popinjay generals, in wars they never quite seemed to win.
She trusted in the Lord, repeating that over and over in time to the sound of her feet on the carpet, on the steps, on the parquet floor. “I trust in the Lord. I trust in the Lord.” She repeated it like an instruction booklet. It was the only way she could be certain that His will would be done.
Of course the Jews are all safe, having seeded their shtetls with drachometers—early warning devices that only they could have cobbled together, I thought as I washed my hands in the basin. I checked the mirror casually. “You goat,” I said to myself sternly. “Think this through.” I was always stern with myself on the tsar’s business. Rather, the devices were put together by cannibalizing a German invention. “That’s more like it,” I said. “Trust the Jews to steal an idea.”
“The tsar will take that bit of Jew bait in better. Especially with his German wife.” I smiled. “And yes, I know I am speaking to myself. It’s the only way of holding an intelligent conversation in the palace. After all, no one else can keep up with my ideas.” Especially not the tsar. I do not say this last out loud. Alas, the Romanovs bred for stupidity. Rather like the British royals.
Even though I know myself to be alone, even though I am certain I did not say anything important that could be overheard, I glanced around, suddenly afraid someone might have sneaked in. Because I know, everyone knows, that there are spies everywhere. Even my dear wife reports what I say, do, to the authorities.
After all—everyone spies. My wife spies on me. As I on her.
Riffling through the desk drawers where I kept the more secret documents, I mumbled: “I have the information about that device somewhere.”
Of course that was often the problem—not getting the information, but finding the information when I needed it.
Ninotchka insists a messy desk is the sign of a disordered, mind and she constantly has the maid tidy things.
“Tidying things!” I nearly spat the words out. “That is a euphemism for hiding things where I can’t find them. Just because she thinks it’s messy does not mean I cannot find what I need. And right now. . . .” I glowered at the order on the desktop. “Right now,” I whispered in case she might be up and about, “right now I am thinking about taking a different wife.”
After a minute of sorting through the piles, I found the information I sought, under an invitation to dinner. Of course!
“Here it is: Dov Krinsky!” I remembered now. Krinsky’s father had worked with a German scientist, as his chief dogsbody on experiments on something called a telemobiloscope. “A real Dusseldorf dummy!” That came out almost as a snort. The rest came tumbling after. “Yes! Yes!”
My right forefinger tapped the papers as I remembered, an old habit from a few years back when I was more spy than bureaucrat. “Hülsmeyer almost lost his shirt with the invention, forgetting to file the proper patents and papers. But the German navy got wind of it and its potential to spot oncoming ships and. . . .” I could feel my excitement spilling over and I addressed the desk companionably. “I see you are ahead of me!”
“We got this from his mother,” I told the desk. “A disgusting crone of a woman. But susceptible—as they all are—to a rather large bribe.”
If the desk found this display of spleen unworthy, it kept its own counsel.
“Young Krinsky himself almost got away, through the underground, on his way to the Americas with the complete set of plans, and a prototype. Leaving his family behind. Isn’t that just like them?”
I held the paper up to the light, though I didn’t need to actually read it. Just the first line. The rest I had memorized, just needed that bit at the beginning to remind myself.
“Krinsky’s old mother died in questioning. That was done by a clumsy oaf of an examiner. Never, never let someone die if there are still questions to be answered. But not before telling us her son had died when the boat sank, along with the plans and the lessons.”
I was the only one who noticed there was a strange defiance in her eyes. So I ordered a complete search of the house and found a second set of plans. I told no one else, and the men with me who might have seen something all got shipped off to the front, following the tsar’s latest wrong call for soldiers. So now there were dead ends everywhere.
I didn’t say any of this out loud, so the desk had no chance to laugh at this little joke. I made a face at it.
“So you don’t find that amusing, Desk?” This was of course not fair to the desk,which could not read my thoughts. “You are not alone. No one else thinks I am a funny man, but the jokes are always on them.”
I walked back to the mirror, straightened my coat. Shook my finger at my reflection, all the while saying to myself: The tsar should have listened to you when you told him to gather the Jewish scientists all in one place and force them to work for Russia. Away from their families, their friends. Use them and rid ourselves of the rest.
I saw there was lint on my jacket and tried to pick it off.
The mirror image did not look pleased and made a sour moue with his mouth. I added, “So, once again I was not heeded.” Then I shouted for my man, Nikita, to deal with the lint.
The room rang heavily with the sound, but there was no answer from him or from anyone else. Damn! Does no one work here but me?
And Nikita—never around when I need him.
“Servants are a pestilence,” I said aloud, not caring if any of them heard.
Then I took a brush from the top drawer in the small dresser beneath the mirror and removed the lint myself, as if I were a peasant. Then I proceeded to brush down the front of my jacket with more vigor than necessary.
Checking myself in the mirror again, I laughed, “Almost presentable, if still a functionary.” The mirror chuckled as well. Almost as if we were twins actually conversing.
Leaning forward, I gazed into the mirror’s eyes so we looked as if we were trading secrets. I whispered, “I may have to finalize that trip I was planning to take to Germany with my wife. A second honeymoon, we will call it. A visit to the baths. An attempt at baby–making. But whatever we call it, a necessary step.” I nodded and my image nodded back, indicating it was indeed a good plan.
What I didn’t say was that I was afraid the tsar’s star, like his mind, was dimming. And his son would not long outlast him, poor child. I had no idea who might be jumped up to tsar. Some minor prince, I supposed. But which one, and when. . . .
I must keep a careful ear out. They will always need someone like me to make the government run smoothly.
I walked toward the door, looked back over my shoulder, nodded at the full image of myself. And of course he nodded back. “D’accord,” I mouthed as he did.
But the word “functionary” rose up in my throat like the sick aftermath of a rancid dinner. It is dust in their royals’ mouths. But without us, there is no government, as many an autocrat has found out to his dismay.
My mirror twin smiled. It was not a pleasant smile. More snake than courtier.
We silently oil the wheels of their progress. And they reward us to do it. But not enough. Never enough.
Hmmm, I think I will try my hand at poetry. The royals profess to love it. On the other hand, by the looks of some of the toughs proclaiming their allegiance to the rebels, I wonder if they would know what to do with a poem other than use it to wipe their bums.
At the desk again, I picked up the papers about Krinsky and shook them as if interrogating the sentences.
If I cannot save my position, this early batch of Krinsky’s notes on the telemobiloscope and drachometer could be my passport to a richer life. Our passport. Ninotchka’s and mine. I understand the Germans can be very liberal with their rewards for scientific invention.
I headed out the door and into the hall, going once more to see the tsar.
Or as I ofttimes call him in the echo chamber of my heart, His Royal Graciousness High Buttinsky, but carefully, of course, and never aloud. I know that I am not irreplaceable.
But all the while, I silently reminded myself: When one works for the tsar, one must always restate the obvious. He has no imagination and a limited grasp of facts. And I know that once in the presence room, I’ll certainly have to wait at least an hour to be announced, as the news of the dragons’ success or failure will already have been brought by courier.
This time it took an hour and fifteen minutes by my pocket watch before I was signaled in to speak with the tsar.
By then he was in a foul mood. He had consulted with the generals, and the news he had of the dragons was not good. Deprived of their natural Jewish prey, the black horde had taken once more to raking the provinces with fire.
This time, or so it was announced by one of the generals who spoke to the very small smattering of officials, it had cost the country a really fine opera house, built in the last century and fully gilded, plus a splendid spa with indoor plumbing, two lanes of Caterina-the-Great houses, plus the servants therein. And the roads—as if they had not been already bad enough.
But as the general added, “Thank the good Lord it is winter,” as if this changed everything about the disaster.
All about me the old men, the top princes and administrators, nodded their heads sagely, several even crossing themselves as if this alone would ward off disastrous news.
Only later in my own rooms once more did I understand what he meant was “Thank the good Lord it is winter—all the hoi and most of the polloi are at their homes here in the city and not in their summer dachas where they would have been easy pickings. No, rather they are safe and sound in the city. They will not join any revolt.”
We all knew that the smoke in the provinces—like a bad odor—would hang over those towns for a week or more. A daily, deadly reminder of the folly of dragons. When the people who owned summer houses in the province went to check out their houses, they could not possibly be pleased. And who would they blame? Was I the only one who worried about it? In whispers and insinuations, their wrath would most certainly land on His Royal High Carelessness.
Of course, I pointed out some of this to the tsar at the time, but carefully, as I wanted my head to remain firm on my shoulders. At least until my new wife wore me out.
Bowing lower than protocol demanded, I said, “Do you remember, Gracious One, what I said concerning the Jewish scientists?”
The tsar stroked his beard and shook his head. Then, instead of giving me an answer, he mumbled a few words to the mad magician, Rasputin.
I held Father Grigori’s name unspoken in my mouth, then spit it out. It was not so much a greeting as invective. But that monk, that priest of magics, said nothing in return, his own position secure because he was a favorite of the tsarina and her only son, the tsarevitch, the child with the bleeding sickness.
I waited to see if the tsar would turn to ask to hear my information again. If he would only remember the conversation we had a week ago. I could feel the pages of Krinsky’sinvention crackling in my jacket, eager to speak out.
I waited some more, this time eyes closed, in anticipation, in hope. But when I opened them again, it was to see the tsar and his closest advisors—several generals and Rasputin—abruptly leaving. To plan his next war, I supposed. On the Jews? On the Continent? Or on the rebels who like fleas were multiplying as we stood in uncertainty here?
Then I knew for certain: Our little father has become an absent parent. With his catastrophic leadership, his choice of a German wife, his lack of a hardy heir, his waxing and waning attention. This war will no doubt have as little effect as the last.
“But Tsar Nicholas II is always trying.” I realized with a start that I’d said that aloud. But as no one was still standing near, it put me in no danger.
And then I thought privately: The tsar is very trying. I smiled, but kept it very small and contained. One must never laugh openly at the tsar. Even in private it can be dangerous.
I began the long walk back to the Presence Room door, thinking: Of course, I have no ability to effect changes straight on, not like the ruler of a country. I must wait and wheedle to get what I want. But even with all his power, look what the tsar accomplishes. Nothing. He sends troops of loyal Cossacks to harry the Jews on the ground. He sends a murder of dragons by air. Nyet, nothing. So he does it again for more nothing.
Stepping into the now-empty hallway, my thoughts came faster and faster: A man who keeps doing the same thing and expecting different results must be mad. Or at least not overly endowed with brains.
And the honest second thought I had—which quite surprised me—was that I was certain that Rasputin thought the same thing. He was not a man silent about his opinions. But he was a man who could use the church and magic to keep him safe.
I only have my wits.
But then I smiled. Rasputin and I have something else in common. We know that the tsar’s faults do not stop either of us from cashing his chits, living comfortably at court, finding new young wives at every opportunity. I gave my own version of the monk’s wolfish grin: our own wives or other men’s.
Suddenly, my legs gave way and I managed to sit on one of the chairs in the long corridor placed there for the older courtiers for just such an occasion. I sat for a moment, regaining my equanimity. Working for a ruler can be difficult. Some days it is as if I am slogging through the mud. My own personal battlefield, I once confided to Ninotchka—early in our courtship. But, like the Jews in their burrows, I may become dirtied, but I am safe from the fire. So why this sudden weakness?
And then, as if that light suddenly shone through my own window, I understood what was truly afflicting me: it was an unsuspected fear. The powerful are like dragons. Friend or foe, if their gaze is fixed upon you, you are likely to get burned.
I would not sit here where any passerby could see my weaknesses and calculate how to destroy me. Where any gossip could begin that would be my end. I had not climbed this far up to become prey. I reminded myself of my intellect, my ability for camouflage, my strength. And when I put my hand over my breast pocket, the crackle of paper reminded me that I still had major cards in my hands.
I stood, shoulders back, head up, and went straight to my apartment. Even if I could not put any spring in my steps, I could more than manage to look like a man about important business, a man of determination and strength. Which I was. Which I am.
And at least—I reminded myself—I did not have a long way to go.
Some twelve feet below the frozen Russian surface, two men sat smoking their cigarettes and drinking peach schnapps next to a blue-and-white tiled stove. The tiles had once been the best to be had from a store—now long gone—in the Crimea, but in the half-lit burrow, the men did not care about the chips and chinks and runnels on them. Nor would they have cared if the stove were still residing upstairs in the house’s summer kitchen. They were more concerned with other things now, like dragons, like peach schnapps, like the state of the country.
One man, Borutsch, was tall, gangly, and humped over because of frequent stays in the burrow, not just to escape the dragons, either. He had a long beard, gray as a shovelhead. With the amount of talking he tended to do, he always looked as if he were digging up an entire nation. Which, of course, he was.
The other, Bronstein, was short, compact, even compressed, with a carefully cultivated beard and sad eyes behind rimless eyeglasses.
Borutsch threw another piece of wood into the stove’s maw, his long arms able to reach both the small woodpile and the stove without standing. Which he couldn’t fully do in the burrow anyway. The heat from the blue tiles grew increasingly hotter, but there was no smoke due to the venting system that piped the smoke straight up through ten feet of hard-packed dirt. Then, two feet before the surface, a triple-branching system neatly divided the smoke so that when it came into contact with the cold air, it was no more than a wisp. Warm enough for wolves to seek the three streams out, but as they scattered when there were dragons or Cossacks attacking the villages, the smoke never actually gave away the positions of the burrows.
“You ever notice,” Bronstein, began, “that every time we ask the tsar to stop a war—”
“He kills us,” Borutsch finished for him, his beard jumping. “Lots of us.” Bronstein nodded in agreement and was about to go on, but Borutsch didn’t even pause for breath. “When he went after Japan we told him, ‘It’s a tiny island with nothing worth having. Let the little mazzikim who think they’re descended from the sun god keep it. Russia is big enough. Why try to add eighteen square miles of nothing but volcanoes and rice?’”
Bronstein took off the oval eyeglasses that matched his pinched face so well and idly smeared the dust from one side of the lenses to the other with an old handkerchief. “Well, what I mean to say is—”
“And this latest. His high mucky-muck Franz falls over dead drunk in Sarajevo and never wakes up again, and all of a sudden Germany is a rabid dog biting everyone within reach.” Borutsch gnashed his teeth at several imaginary targets, setting his long beard flopping so wildly that he was in danger of sticking it in his own eye. “But why should we care? Let Germany have France. France let that midget monster loose on us a century ago; they can get a taste of their own borscht now.”
But Borutsch was not to be stopped. “How big a country does one man need? What is he going to do with it? His dragons have torched more than half of it, and his ‘Fists,’ those damned Cossacks—” He spit the words out, then actually spit, sending sputum to sizzle on the hot tiles. “The Fists have stripped the other half clean of anything of value. While we Jews are stuck in the middle again. . . .”
“Wood and grain,” Bronstein managed to interject. The only things worth more than the dragons themselves, he thought. Wood in the winter and grain in the spring—the two seasons Russia gets. The nine aggregate days that made up summer and fall didn’t really count.
“Yes. So he sends us to fight and die for a country we don’t own and that’s worth nothing anyway, and if we happen to survive he sends us off to Siberia to freeze our dumplings off. And if we complain?” Borutsch pointed his finger at Bronstein, thumb straight. “Ka-pow.”
Bronstein waited to see if the older man was going to go on, but Borutsch was frowning into his schnapps now, as if it had disagreed with something just said.
“Yes, well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, Pinchas.” Borutsch looked up at his name, his eyes sorrowful and just slightly bleary from drink. Bronstein went on. “I’ve got an idea.”
Borutsch’s lips curled upward in a quiet smile, but his eyes remained sad. “You always do, Lev. You always do.”
“It’s more than an idea this time,” Bronstein said. “I’ve taken action.” Borutsch’s face seemed caught between curiosity and apprehension, and yet Bronstein hesitated. Maybe I shouldn’t tell him. I can go on by myself for a bit longer.
But he knew that wasn’t true. For what he wanted to do, he needed allies. He needed helpers. He needed friends. And he needed to start gathering them as soon as possible.
While Bronstein argued internally, curiosity finally won out with Borutsch. “What is this idea then, Lev? Tell me what have you ‘taken action’ on?”
Bronstein found that tone irksome. This is who I want to share my dream with? A disapproving old man who talks and talks and never acts—never does anything!
But he had to admit that this thought was neither charitable nor true. He knew the work Borutsch had done with the Black Repartition party and the Emancipation of Labor party, and he’d worked at Iskra with him in England, writing Marxist news and smuggling it into Russia.
He has always been a friend to the worker and, I have to admit, a friend to me. It’s not his fault that he has grown old and his defeats hang on him like stubborn leaves on a winter tree. Frowning, he came to a decision. He may disagree with the methods I have adopted, but he can’t argue that his methods haven’t failed.
“I won’t tell you,” he said. But before Borutsch could ask “why not?” Bronstein continued, “I will show you.”
Copyright © 2019
Reprinted by permission of the authors and the publisher