“Son,” they said, “sit down. We have something important to tell you.”
I sat down.
Intensely yellow and warm was the light in the kitchen. The irrepressibly upbeat song, “Fourteen Minutes to Liftoff”—an unofficial anthem of the Soviet cosmonaut squad, all nine of those great Soviet heroes to date—was playing distantly on the wall-mounted radio: a ship-shaped, off-white plastic box of futuristic proportions.
The radio, turned to low, was always on in the kitchen.
“Son,” they said, “you’re a big boy now. Before too long, your age will be expressed in double digits. The world will not keep on hiding the unkind side of its face from you forever. It’s time for you to know the bitter truth: unfortunately, you’re a Jew.”
“Oh wow,” I said. “Are you sure?” It was as though someone evil—it would have to be an elf, given the smallness of my size—creeping up on me from behind had smacked me on the back of the head with a small burlap sack full of rotten potatoes.
For a short while, I just sat there in silence, at a loss for words.
“Caravans of rockets, my friends, will shuttle us from star to star, I believe!” Mark Bernes, my old Bolshevik grandfather’s favorite performer and his fellow Great Patriotic War veteran, soulfully recitative, continued to rejoice mutedly on the radio, in his soft, raspy baritone. I wondered momentarily what it must feel like—to be able not to understand the words of that or any other of the songs played on a daily basis on the radio. It had to feel weird, but good.
A small black ant, entirely improbable at this time of year and seemingly stunned into deep grogginess by the very fact of its own sole survival, materializing out of nowhere, was making its laborious way diagonally across the crimson-red oilcloth covering the Formica-topped kitchen table. The little creature’s fate was hanging in the balance of my benevolence. I decided to let it live on.
According to the calendar, it was spring already in our hemisphere, if a very early one still; but in Leningrad—the world’s northernmost city with a population of over one million, after all—winter still reigned supreme. Outside, beyond the frost-bitten double-paned kitchen window, sealed shut until late April by multiple layers of homemade starch glue and cotton-padded isolation tape, lay, in impenetrable darkness, the desolate Cosmonauts Avenue—our fast-growing Upper Kupchino micro-district’s main street—along with all the rest of the vast snow-blanketed wasteland of the giant city’s far-flung southwestern outskirts.
“I so wish I could go back in time right now, just to a minute or two ago, so that I could unhear what you just said,” I said finally, clearing my throat. “But I guess that would be impossible. Well, at least now I know, I suppose, why my nose is bigger and crookeder than almost all of my friends. Everybody knows Jews have big noses… Let me understand, though,” I went on, feeling strangely distant from myself, as though lost in the middle of a desert. “When everybody—well, almost everybody—talks about how Jews are these unbelievably bad, horrible, disgusting evil people, just the worst of the worst, the lowest of the low, vicious and traitorous and deceitful and arrogant and altogether despicable, rotten baby-blood-drinkers, rat-like in their grubby greediness, constantly plotting and conspiring to dupe and swindle and otherwise cause as much harm as possible to the poor naive and too-kind-hearted Russian people—well, that would be me they talk about, right?”
“Jews! Jews-Jews! Jews! Go ahead, wince away! It is an unlovely, grating word, we know—a hungry crow of a word…
They exchanged quick glances. “Us,” they corrected me softly. “All of us. You and us. We’re all in the same boat on this, together. It’s important to keep that in mind. You only are a Jew because of us. And we are Jews because of our parents. We’re all Jews, you know: you, us, our parents, our parents’ parents, our parents’ parents’ parents, our parents’ parents’ parents’ pa…”
“I get it,” I said.
On the radio, someone shrill and stuttering from too much happiness was carrying on about how last year had been additionally meaningful and special because it had marked the forty-seventh anniversary of our Great October Socialist Revolution of November 7, 1917, the most momentous event in the world’s history—and in 1917, how old was Lenin? That’s right: also forty-seven! What a fateful coincidence! Then, with barely a second’s pause, the husky-voiced, French-speaking young Leningrader of Polish descent, the beautiful Edita Pyekha, and her supporting vocal-instrumental ensemble Friendship, launched into their popular new song, in which she repeatedly kept telling the nameless man of her dreams that due to him, her world had become a narrow cone of white light, with him at the top of it.
“Jews!” they said insistently, leaning in to me closely. “Jews! Jews-Jews! Jews! Go ahead, wince away! It is an unlovely, grating word, we know—a hungry crow of a word: evrey—but you must keep repeating it inside your head, over and over again, until you get used to it completely and accept and embrace it unreservedly, because it defines by far the most important part of you! Later, when the natural shock you’re in right now subsides, you will have to learn to be proud of it, too—this unfortunate congenital detriment of your being a Jew—if you want to spend the rest of your life walking with your head held high through the unremitting rain of hate and vicious ridicule. Be proud of being a Jew, bizarre as that may sound now! Jew! Jew-Jew! Say it! Repeat after us! Jew! Jew-Jew!”
“Jew! Jew-Jew!” I said quietly. “Jew-Jew-Jew.”
“Jew-Jew-Jew! Say it louder!” they commanded. “We can’t hear you! Louder!”
“Jew! Jew-Jew! Jew!” I yelled. “Jew-Jew-Jew!”
“Keep it quiet, you silly little Jew!” they said, laughing. “Shut your mouth, Jew!”
“Ok, maybe not quite that loud. Tone it down,” they said, smiling. “You’ll wake up your little brother, and someone might hear you out on the landing, too.”
“Jew-Jew-Jew!” I hollered. “Jew-Jew!”
“Keep it quiet, you silly little Jew!” they said, laughing. “Shut your mouth, Jew!”
“Dying won’t do you any good,” said the radio, chuckling.
“Are you sure, though?” I said, lowering my voice. “Can you actually guarantee me we are not, in fact, those very bad, evil people everybody says we are? Can we even know ourselves what kind of people we are, if we are bad and evil people from birth, and as such have no other choice but to be evil and bad? Are we not always just who we are? The snake has no other choice but to be a snake, or the wolf, a wolf—or the hyena, a hyena. Those animals have no idea lots of people fear and loathe them. If everybody around us says we are bad and evil people, then who are we to say that isn’t so? We all know that Soviet people can be wrong separately, but never jointly, as a group. A group of Soviet people is always smarter than just one person, no matter how smart. The larger the group, the smarter it is, obviously—the greater its collective rightness. Everybody knows that. Well, then… What if the overall number of Soviet people convinced that Jews are bad and evil creatures is greater than the total number of us, Jews, and those non-Jews who don’t hate us? What if we simply are deluding… well, lying to ourselves? I’m just trying to understand. It’s like this: Most Soviet people are convinced, it looks like, that Jews are never to be trusted, not under any circumstances, because they—us, Jews—are born traitors, who lie constantly and as naturally as they breathe. Well. If what they, all those Soviet people, believe about us is true—which it must be, because the numbers probably are on their side—and we, Jews, do indeed lie about everything to everybody, all the time, without even knowing it, simply because lying is our way of telling the truth, well, then we also, just as easily and unknowingly, must be lying to ourselves, right? That would only make sense. And if we, Jews, are in fact constantly lying to ourselves, just as a matter of being who we are, then we simply cannot ever believe anything we may believe we believe! That’s just logical. I, for instance, after what you’ve told me, don’t know if I can continue holding on to my belief that, even as a mere harmless little boy, I am not nevertheless a horribly bad, evil person. I am a…”
Unfortunately, between us, there still are quite a few bad, ignorant, evil, hateful people—many millions of them in this goddamn great country of ours!
“Nonsense!” they burst in angrily, looking at me with a mix of indignation and dismay. “Hogwash! Don’t you ever give in to this defeatist mode of thinking! You’re the best goddamn little boy in the whole world! It’s those who hate us, separately and jointly, sight unseen, who are bad, evil people! Ignorant, miserable, hateful! Disgusting, vicious losers! Unfortunately, between us, there still are quite a few bad, ignorant, evil, hateful people—many millions of them in this goddamn great country of ours! Presumably, they’ll all just die out, like the dinosaurs, before we’re supposed to enter the era of Communism. What a joke—don’t tell anybody we said this.” They gave a little chuckle and looked at themselves with meaningful reproach, shrugging their shoulders guiltily and shaking their heads.
“Let’s cut to the chase,” they continued, in a business-like tone. “Here is the truth of the situation: In terms purely practical, your being a Jew means, in essence, that in order merely to stay on a par with your peers, all the Soviet non-Jews, grades-wise and otherwise, all through the rest of your life, you will have to work twice as hard, be twice as conscientious and diligent, constantly applying yourself to the best of your ability, jaws clenched, proverbial bullet bitten, belt tightened, shoulder against the old grindstone—unless, that is, you are some kind of genius, an Einstein or Landau, which, frankly, you are not, because no one is: you just have a very good, hungry memory and are a quick learner, in addition to possessing this odd, random capacity for spelling correctly even the words the meaning of which you don’t know, but that’s a whole separate story…”
They chewed their lips thoughtfully. “Of course, you could instead take the opposite path, an easier one,” they went on, frowning and waving contemptuously, “and spend your life wallowing in self-pity, wailing in despair, flailing your arms, beating your chest and tearing at your hair mentally, while calling out to the empty sky, ‘Why me? Why? Why, the sky? Why not someone else? Why did it have to be me? Why such cruel unfairness?..’ Well, big man—it’s your life to live, you know. It will be entirely up to you to decide which…”
“But—yes, why? Why, though? Why, indeed? Why me? Why?” I wailed in despair, mentally tearing at my hair. “Why did it have to be us? That’s so… unfair!”
“…In the heady atmosphere of steadily mounting historical optimism Soviet people are preparing to celebrate the year’s most romantic and feminine holiday: the International Day of Working Women!” the radio exclaimed breathily. “The eyes of the entire progressive humankind are focused on Moscow! Today, in the Kremlin, the world’s first woman cosmonaut, Valentina Nikolayevna Tereshkova, our heroic Soviet white-winged seagull, met with the delegation of young women partisans from brotherly North Vietnam, whose indomitable freedom-loving people, on behalf of the entire progressive humankind, are waging their historic heroic battle against the dark forces of planetary evil, epitomized by the egregiously pernicious United States of America: that quickly disintegrating outpost of international imperialism, with its giant sprout-like military-industrial complex and its Pentagon and Wall Street…”
“But—yes, why? Why, though? Why, indeed? Why me? Why?” I wailed in despair, mentally tearing at my hair. “Why did it have to be us? That’s so… unfair!”
“Because!” they snapped, fuming—and causing me to withdraw my hand quickly from the tabletop, as I’d had a fleeting feeling they were going to slap it. “The answer to your silly, pointless question is—because! We are Jews because Jews we are! How’s that for an answer? If Jews must exist in the world—and exist they do, which means that exist they must—then there also have to be people in the world, chosen from among all other people, who would be them—Jews. And it’s us. It’s as simple as that. You understand? It just happened so. Somebody has to be them—Jews—and that means anybody. Anybody could be them! Why not us? If not us, who? And if somebody has to be us, it makes sense additionally for that somebody to be us, right? No, wait… Well, whatever. It just fell upon us to be Jews. Just your typical Jewish bad luck. Just joking. Bad luck, after all, is the same as good luck, only it’s bad, instead of good. Right? We just have been negatively lucky. Negatively lucky. Yes, that’s it. That’s no big deal, though. Life is unfair, you say? On the contrary, it is perfectly fair—once the basic fact of its essential unfairness has been accepted and internalized. Some people are born tall and beautiful, while others, short and ugly. That’s life for you—a mere chaotic interplay of random chances and probabilities. Some people are gifted from birth with angelic singing voice or extraordinary athletic ability, or brilliant scholarly mind, while many others, sadly, emerge into the world with cleft palate, or an incomplete set of fingers, or clubfoot. Think of your being a Jew in terms of having been born with clubfoot: unfortunate, of course, but not the end of the world. On the contrary, as we just suggested, it could even end up working to your long-term advantage, as the single most powerful motivating factor in your life. Per aspera ad astra, club-footed champ, whatever that expression means. Just keep ploughing your way through the onion field of life, steadily and single-mindedly—and don’t concern yourself with the extraneous circumstances over which you have zero control. Why are we Jews? Because. Because Jews we are. Because we are not not-Jews. That’s all you need to know. We were born as Jews, all of us, unbeknownst to ourselves, without having been asked first for our opinion on the matter—and at some point in the course of our respective childhoods, in one way or another, we, too, were made aware of our being Jews. One could say—if one were a philosopher or writer or some such—that we are the involuntary, accidental Jews… the designated ones… Yes, that’s it: the designated Jews: ones having been identified and entered as such, by the rulers of our destinies or whatever, on the old ethnicity line, fifth from the top, in our Soviet hammers-and-sickles—as you will be also, when the time comes for you to be issued your own Soviet passport, in a little over six years… Only six! How time flies! Then only—when you see that little word, Jew, glaring at you, with mocking jauntiness, from your hammer-and-sickle’s front page—will you, too, become the real, genuine, no-nonsense, true-blue, irreversible Soviet Jew: one who only is a Jew because he knows he’s a Jew, and also because he knows in his bones that he is a Jew solely for the reason of having been chosen at random, designated to be one: a Soviet Jew. That’s how it happens. Strange, isn’t it? Well, not really strange, but… strange, isn’t it? Knowing is tantamount to being. Knowing is being, in our case. We could not be what and who we are without having been told first we are it. You are told you are something, someone—and then you are it. Yes. That’s how it works. You become it. You just have no other choice. That’s us in a nutshell. Think about it: we, Soviet Jews, are no different from anybody else in the Soviet Union, in any meaningful way—well, maybe, indeed, as you mentioned earlier, our noses are bigger than most other peoples’, and we tend to speak Russian a little better and excel at sciences more—and yet, at the very same time, we are very different, and how, because we know we are different, we have been told so! Had we not known we were different—well, any different we would not have been. But knowing that we are—we are… Moreover, it just occurred to us—and this feels like an important thought, actually—we are substantively different, at this point, too, because in the process of absorbing and internalizing the knowledge of our being different, and as a result of that process, we have, willy-nilly, become different. Wondering about the ways in which you are supposed to be different from other people makes you different, see? In other words—okay, all right, we’re going to shut up now, promise—one’s having been informed, by the ultimate rulers-shmulers of one’s destiny and in the most categorical of manners, of one’s having been designated randomly as something inevitably leads to one’s becoming just that, indeed, sooner or later. Yes. It’s as simple as that. Mind you, that does not mean we actually know just how exactly, in what specific way we are different: we just know we are. We are…”
“Look, he’s crying,” they said, sounding worried. “Crying without tears, Chekhov-like.”
It was very warm in the kitchen. My head was swimming pleasantly. “Jew-Jew-Jew,” said the radio sweetly, in the voice of our elementary school homeroom teacher, Ninel Vilenovna. “Jew-Jew. You people. You… You people. I just don’t get you, I swear. Cross my heart. So stuck-up. Always putting yourselves ahead and above everyone else. Like you’re smarter than everybody or something. You people. You make me sick. Don’t get me wrong, I like you personally very much, and some of my best friends are… But—oh my. Seriously. Sometimes you people, you… you just repulse me.” Then Tamara Miansarova, known to everybody throughout the Soviet land, and possibly throughout the whole world also, as the original performer of the most famous and beloved children’s song ever—one about the little boy who drew the sun in the sky on a piece of paper and then wrote in the corner additionally that he really wished the sun and the sky and his mom and he himself were to exist forever and blah-blah-blah—launched into her second-most popular number, one of the radio’s current top favorites, characterized by a nauseatingly infectious tune and presented in the form of a one-sided conversation with a forest mushroom, of the humble ryzhik variety, which she inexplicably kept inviting us to come closer to so it all the sooner could be picked and end up in an appropriately pickled state. Mid-song—after yet another round of the rowdy “rudy-rudy-rudy-rudy-rits, and in Russian, ryzhik!” roulade—she suddenly stopped and said, matter-of-factly yet in a distinctly accusatory tone, “By the way, Mark Bernes also is a Jew.”
“Look, he’s crying,” they said, sounding worried. “Crying without tears, Chekhov-like, although… well, that would be the other way around, wouldn’t it. Whatever. Is he falling asleep? Strange—it’s not even that late, and they’ll start showing the figure skating world championship on television in a half-hour, from America, and tonight it’s the pairs night, and he would never want to miss Belousova and Protopopov… He probably is just overwhelmed by… all this, you know. He’s just a little boy. Maybe we shouldn’t have… Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, after all… Maybe we’ve gone too… Hey, big man, are you falling asleep or what? Or are you crying or something?”
“I’m awake, and I’m not a little boy, and I’m not crying,” I said, crying a little, without tears and without really feeling sad. “And it’s not the pairs…”
“Of course you’re not!” they exclaimed, slapping me lightly, cautiously on the shoulder. “We never would’ve thought such a thing! We know you better than that! You’re the champ! You’re our future Yuri Gagarin! You… Well, we’re proud of you!.. Okay, but… You know what? Listen! Can we tell you something? There is much more, as it happens, to the… Well, there’s another side to the story, in short, to everything we’ve just told you! To this whole thing, you know. Yes, and it’s a good thing, too! Really, really good! You’ll like it! We guarantee! We… Well, we’re going to share with you, big man, the only true, secret, extremely important and top-secret information about why—well, why in fact we are Jews. Yes. Are you interested? Ooh, you bet you are! We can tell! Why would we even ask, right?.. You know what, though? First you’ll have to promise, to swear, you know, to keep mum about it, that great secret, on pain of—let us think—having Americans drop their atomic bomb, that’s right, right on top of Lenin’s tomb in Red Square? Ha ha, just joking. On pain of not being able to play soccer with your friends for a week—how’s that? Would you promise to keep mum like… like a fish smacked headfirst on lake’s ice, that’s right, about what we’re about to divulge to you? You must never, ever tell anybody, because, as we’ve just told you, this happens to be one of world’s most important and secret secrets when it comes to the eternal world-wide struggle between the forces of good and evil, and so… well, you know, if someone even remotely or unknowingly affiliated with the forces of evil were to get wind of it and then just as accidentally pass it on along the chain of command or what have you, straight up to evil forces’ top leadership… That would be so incredibly bad, we don’t even know how to express it adequately in words… You promise, then?”
Leaning back against the cool ridge of kitchen wall, painted salad-green, with my eyes closed, I nodded weakly.
“We knew we could rely on you! Good boy! Listen, then!” They switched to a whisper. Hot on my face was their hasty breath. “We are Jews because such was the extremely secret and covert and top-secret assignment that we, Jews, or only future Jews back then, received many thousands of years ago, maybe ten or more or who knows how many, at the time of human race’s just coming into existence, yes, from the secret underground omnipotent worldwide cosmic organization with no known name tasked with the responsibility of overseeing and supporting in any way possible the multifaceted force for good on our planet. Being Jews, in other words, is the extremely important and secret quest and whatnot we have been on ever since: tirelessly to serve… tirelessly… tirelessly to serve the eternal cause of humanity and so on, as the covert agents of that cosmic force for good we just mentioned, only—and there’s the rub, so to speak—disguised as the collective embodiment of, you guessed it, human evil, deep inside the enemy territory, yes, of humankind’s dark side. Pretty neat, huh? Thus, simply put, throughout history we Jews have been performing the crucially important function of being, you know, this universally agreed upon, by all the peoples, object of hatred: the animate bull’s eye, if you will, for the aggregate human animus, the singularly towering lightning rod for humankind’s free-floating and constantly overflowing vicious anger… which last, if left unchecked and allowed, you know, to spread uncontrollably in every direction, like some noxious primordial black ooze, would destroy our civilization, and all of us along with it, in no time flat. We, collectively, are humankind’s punching bag, unique safety valve for the surfeit of human evil, invisible giant vacuum cleaner or else this humongous, you know, million-strong perambulatory bipedal magnet for the excess of darkness in human hearts, or… well, whatever other similar metaphors you can come up with: humankind’s secret blood cleanser in the form of a giant Jewish canary in a coal minefield? No matter… In any event, there you have it! Now you know! Such is the totally amazing nature of our extremely secret mission! We, of course, would be remiss not to let you know that it is a plenty dangerous cross to bear, too. There is no need to sugar-coat it, leaving you potentially with the wrongful impression this is all just some sort of inspirational make-believe historic costume drama. Now and then, periodically, and regularly, the united forces of evil overtake us, along with the rest of the human race, prevailing for some unpredictable length of time completely over the entire world—and that leads to truly terrible, catastrophic consequences, for us as a whole. Unspeakably tragic. We’re being serious now. Suffice it to say that if our history, the history of Jews as a people, were to be summed up in just one word, that word would be Tragedy, with the capital T. Yes. But—well, not to sound pompous or anything—there is just no other path for us in life. Seriously. We are who we are. We are… But you already know who we are. We are… Okay, listen: as far as the world at large is concerned, you know, in terms of balancing what on the whole it thinks about us against what we Jews understand about ourselves, it could be said that we are, well, you know—one could say we are the necessary evil. Yes, that’s it. Necessary evil. That’s right. The opposite of evil, but perceived by many, if not most, as evil. The secretly good evil, which… which actually is quite a concept, huh? We don‘t expect you to understand right away, at this point, because we don’t quite understand it ourselves, either, but… Necessary evil—that means goodness, only a victimized, like, martyred one. The secret, hidden, misunderstood good, perennially hated and vilified: that’s us. Yup. No bull. We are the ultimate, if involuntary, martyrs for the cause of good. Think about it! What calling could possibly be nobler? Not one, let us tell you—not even close! Feeling better now? Beginning to feel proud yet of your specialness, and of how unbelievably lucky, too, you and all of us are, really, even despite and in full recognition and acceptance of our obvious inescapable deep misfortune? By the way, do we still have a piece of that boiled tongue left in the fridge? For some reason it…”
Their words were the shining, lightning-quick little black snakes flitting and darting to and fro on the inner side of my eyelids, before shooting upwards to burrow without a trace into my brain.
“Knowing is always better than not knowing, except in the cases when it isn’t.”
“Well, big boy that doesn’t cry,” they said with forced cheeriness, “what say you we just put a lid on all this talking for now—enough talking, we say!—and instead go watch us some world-championship figure skating from America? With our favorite magicians of ice, Belousova and Protopopov? Aren’t you glad we have a television set? Aren’t you glad we had this little conversation, too? Knowing is always better than not knowing, except in the cases when it isn’t. Aren’t you glad to be alive? Just joking… well, not really. In the meantime, some of us will try to finish already that pesky little article that should’ve been…”
“It’s the dancing night there tonight,” I muttered under my breath, feeling unconquerably sleepy. “It will, of course, be the Czechs, brother and sister Eva and Pavel Romanovs, winning the gold, which is pretty funny, because…”
Shining, lightning-quick little black snakes, darting to and fro on the inner side of my eyelids, then burrowing in the dirty-gray ugly mound of my brain.
“Oh! Dear boy! We love you so much!” they cried quietly, sniffling. “We’re so sorry we overdid it! We can be such fools sometimes. Such fools! We just got carried away. We are so sorry!”
“In our Soviet reality, life invariably outpaces even the most daring of Soviet peoples’ dreams!” the radio enunciated sternly.
“I want to go back,” I said from afar.
Then everything went dark, disappeared before my eyes.
In impenetrable darkness I awoke with a start, damp with sweat. I was engulfed by unaccountable strong fear. I could tell, somehow, that the hour was very late: as late as it possibly could be without beginning to bleed into the same pitch-blackness of meager dawn. It crossed my mind then that I had never been awake this late before, or this early. Everyone was asleep in the world—or at least, the small part of the world of which I was a tiny particle: the desolate Cosmonauts Avenue, our far-flung Upper Kupchino micro-district; plus the roiling, overcrowded, anger-filled midtown neighborhood of my very first years.
My heart was beating rapidly. I could hear its urgent rabbit-like thumping in my ears. In my dream, for reasons I no longer could recall, I had jumped off the St. Isaac Cathedral’s Upper Colonnade—where my old Bolshevik grandfather, on one of his and grandmother’s visits from Moscow, had taken me when I was little, three years earlier, for a bird’s-eye view of the world’s most beautiful city (too overwhelmingly beautiful for the little me to appreciate or remember that breathtaking view with any clarity)—but instead of being smashed into pancake lace upon impact with the cracked gray asphalt, erupting into a festive fountain of blood mist, I had virtually sailed down and landed softly and smoothly on all fours, like a cat on the bottom of the sea, with scratched knee proving to be the only injury sustained, when I had gotten up and looked myself over: none too deep of a gash, to be sure, but, much to my horror, oozing some viscous tar-black substance, foul-smelling black tar, instead of the normal human blood-red blood.
Ugh! This was too terrible and ugly for me to take, even in a dream!
I got out of bed and tiptoed out of my room (my younger brother was snoring quietly in the opposite corner) and back into the kitchen. I was stepping carefully along the way, trying not to let the bumpy linoleum covering the floor in the narrow hall and in the kitchen squeak under my feet. I was shivering all over.
I turned on the light in the kitchen because all of a sudden, oddly, like years ago, I found myself being afraid of the dark.
After swallowing, in several painfully greedy gulps, half of the stale boiled water in the dented aluminum kettle on the stove, I stood in the middle of the kitchen for some time, shuddering with fear and self-revulsion in the cone of intensely yellow light from the shaded lamp directly overhead. I was feeling disgusted with myself to the point of… to a near-unbearable degree.
My black, viscous, tar-thick, foul-smelling blood! My ugly black heart pumping ceaselessly that disgusting ugly primordial ooze through my disgusting resinous aortas! All that disgusting, ugly black swamp sloshing and circulating in spasmodic spurts inside of me, all those slippery black inner organs of mine, my black sponge-like liver, my blood-filled lungs, all those different disgusting, snake-like intestines of various sizes, all that disgusting stuff moving and shifting heavily and sloshing around slowly in that ugly primordial black ooze inside of me—oh, the unbearable ugliness and disgust! And that brain inside my skull? Double, triple disgust! That ugly gelatinous dirty-gray mass, trembling and shuddering minutely, I imagined, like a large toad-shaped mound of Sambuca Jell-O from the old Nord confectionary over on the Nevsky, where grandfather had taken me once, too, the same day we’d gone up St. Isaac’s Colonnade? Was it still dirty-gray with dark red speckles, inside my skull—or had it also, just like my blood in my dream, turned black? Ugh! What ugliness and disgust!
Next instant, the fear gripping me became a roiling black wave of pure panic. It was all I could do, for some strange reason I wouldn’t be able to explain, not to bolt into the night, screaming. I stayed still, shivering, inside that shimmering cone of harsh yellow light in the kitchen. After however long a time, one minute or maybe ten, that roaring black wave of panic begin to ebb and recede.
Breathing deeply and freely, I came close to the frost-bitten, double-paned kitchen window. Leaning ever further into it, until I almost touched it with my forehead, I saw in it an unfamiliar, sad and blurry face of an old man with deep-set lifeless black eyes who—as I knew somehow right away, even while being aware I was just seeing things in my night-dreaming state—was me, only an infinitely older me; so old, he might even have been dead already, that old me, and only seem alive in the window, in the same way as the light of long-dead stars could be considered real. I regarded it—that infinitely old, dead face—with some strange grim satisfaction for a few seconds.
It was, according to the calendar, spring already, yet winter still maintained the full firmness of its icy grip on Leningrad. Snow covered the ugly, barren terrain of the giant city’s distant southwestern outskirts for as far as the eye could see, or imagine itself seeing.
Necessary evil. I was the necessary evil. That’s what I was. I liked that.
From the kitchen counter, I took the long bread knife with the sharp serrated edge and chipped black handle. Quickly, lightly yet resolutely, biting my lower lip hard, I drew the blade across the pale narrowness of my wrist. There was no real pain—just the quick pinch of startled skin being cut. I gazed intently at the white ridged welt on my wrist. In a small fraction of a second, blood welled up from it. It was red.
“I am a magnet for evil,” I said, winking at the blurry face of the dead old me in the windowpane. “I am the necessary evil. How about that.”
A small droplet of blood slid towards the edge of my wrist. It was too light and insubstantial to develop enough of an independent momentum to fall off to the floor.
From the window, the black void of the night gazed back at me without blinking.
“Necessary evil,” I said, licking the blood off the wrist.
Leningrad, USSR-born Mikhail Iossel, the founder and executive director of the Summer Literary Seminars International programs and a professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal, is the author of Every Hunter Wants to Know a collection of stories.