Dec 072010
 

I met Russell Working years ago when he was at Yaddo, the art retreat just across town from where I live. Now Russell is coming to teach at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In fact, we’re running a workshop together during the winter residency (and Rich Farrell will be there for his last VCFA workshop).  Russell won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for his first book The Resurrectionists and then spent six years as a freelance reporter in the Russian Far East and the Middle East. His fiction and humor have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, TriQuarterly Review, Zoetrope and Narrative. This story is taken from his 2006 collection The Irish Martyr (the title story won a Pushcart Prize). I wrote a blurb that went like this: The Irish Martyr is a powerful, brave and dangerous book that takes us to the borderlands where religion and geopolitics rip apart the lives of ordinary people. These are stories about torture, decapitation, rape, kidnapping and trafficking in women and babies. They are about men and women caught in the meat-grinder of history, caught between trying to survive as human beings and the vicious tools of dogma, ideology and greed. Russell Working knows the dark corners of the world, he knows the personal underside of the news stories we have become all too accustomed to seeing on our TV screens. He writes straight from the heart, with a moral indignation that is palpable.

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Slava

By Russell Working



Every life, Dr. Tamara Rudyakova believed, is determined by a few fateful moments comprising but a blip of one’s allotted years on this planet. At such times the entire future hangs on the decisions one makes; everything else is mere consequence.

Case in point: a few minutes’ conversation with a child beggar one Saturday in late August of 2002, midway through Tamara’s third decade, or “halfway to the grave,” as a colleague had cheerfully toasted her on her birthday last month. There was a whiff of golden autumn in the air, when the trees yellow on the hills of Vladivostok and whitecaps blossom on the Sea of Japan and the weather, in this gap between the summer typhoons and late October snowfalls, is on its best behavior all year. That afternoon, Tamara was hobbling across the Vtoraya Rechka market, where the produce of the dachas crowded the stalls: onions and carrots and bunches of dill and filthy potatoes the size of a child’s fist. An outdoor market is not an easy place to negotiate on crutches on a busy Saturday. She carried her purchases in a daypack slung from her breast to keep thieves from raiding it from behind as she queued, and other shoppers thumped her crutches with their duffel bags as she sculled through the throng. A butcher with an ax hacked a frozen side of beef into pieces, and a flying chip of bone nearly blinded her.

She was halted by the scent of muskmelon. Nearby, a Korean farmer sat on a stool beside a pyramid of cantaloupes buzzing with gnats. From one of them he gouged out a wedge for a woman to sample. Tamara could almost taste the hot sweet summer flesh of the fruit. Perhaps she could fit a cantaloupe in her pack, but did she really want to lug it, along with everything else, up the hill and five flights of stairs to her apartment on Kirova? So she stood there for a moment and simply savored the smell, reluctant to surrender the associations of youth, of a time when she was able to walk without crutches, of the collective farm where in Soviet times university students had been compelled to help with the harvest and where she had made love, for the first time, to her ex-husband, Filipp, then a fellow medical student. But then, having detained her, fate drew her gaze toward a small boy sitting by the entrance to the corrugated steel building that housed the clothing market.

Strange to say, his face alone set her heart pounding. He had longlashed eyes, pursed lips, an upturned nose, and ears that were pinched inward at the top. He appeared to be a rather small five, and in his jeans and Star Wars T-shirt, he was as grubby as the homeless Roma and Tajiks who passed through the city every summer. Yet with his blond hair, sunburnt face, and blue-gray eyes, he had the same Petersburg complexion as Tamara herself. Propped beside him was a cardboard sign decorated with an icon of an infant Christ and the Mother of God, along with the words, “in the name of Christ, kind people, spare some change for an orphan.” The boy had aroused the pity of other shoppers, it seemed, for he had accumulated a small pile of coins and ruble notes in a candy box, to the envy of a babushka panhandler nearby, who cursed him and told him to go find another place to beg, this was her spot. But he ignored her, his attention was elsewhere. A few meters away, a woman was selling pit bull puppies from a cardboard box, and the boy was riling them by tossing pebbles at them while their mistress was preoccupied chatting with a friend. He threw with his left hand. His right hand was hidden in his pocket, but even before he pulled it out, Tamara knew with a sickening prescience what she would see: his thumb and forefinger were missing. Nevertheless, she gasped when he reached to collect a pebble in his three remaining digits and transferred it to his left hand.

Noticing Tamara, the boy jingled his candy box at her.

As a rule she did not give alms, and indeed beggars scarcely glanced at her, sensing that a cripple would be immune to sympathy for the ablebodied, but to this boy she handed a hundred rubles, his largest note of the day.

“What’s your name?”

“Azamat.”

“Has anyone ever called you Slava?”

“No.”

“Where do you live?”

“In Moscow, but we’re staying in Vladivostok for the summer. Me and my mama.”

“I thought you were an orphan.”

He shrugged. The sign, after all, was only a prop.

“Where’s your mama?”

“Over there.”

“Who, in the red jeans?”

“No, way over there, sitting.”

At a busy crossroads in the market, a dark Caucasian woman in a long skirt and kerchief sat with her hand extended, having staked out a different place to beg.

“You don’t look like her.”

He did not know what to say. He threw another pebble.

“Stop it, they’re nice doggies,” Tamara said. “What about your papa?”

“He died in a car accident.”

“I see. So, how long will you be sitting here?”

Belatedly suspicious of her questions, he fell silent and stared.

“Because I might buy you a little toy. Would you like a toy?”

“A soldier.”

“Then I’ll come back with a soldier. But I need to know how long you’ll be here.”

“Until closing.”

“And tomorrow?”

“Mama says we’re staying through September, inshallah.”

Inshallah. The word, with its implication of obeisance to a God scarcely able to contain His infinite wrath against the cockroach race He had created, was a sarcoma on the lips of the child. Outside the market, Tamara flagged down a car (a luxury borne of urgency; she usually traveled by streetcar or bus) and went straight to the Sovetsky Rayon precinct station on Stoletiya Avenue. She was a medical doctor, now employed as a pharmacist because the pay was better, but she was afraid the police would not take her seriously in her shabby weekend clothes: a youngish harpy in frayed jeans and windbreaker. Her face, once pretty if a little too broad and angular, was now haggard, in her view: the skin growing ruddy, her eyes bloodshot, her left cuspid of gold. Thank God, she at least had worn makeup.

Lieutenant Farid Yengalychev, the duty officer, was a Tatar with Mongolian eyes and a moustache that curled into the corners of his mouth, and she found him filling out a report on which she glimpsed the phrase, “stabbing the victim repeatedly with his hypodermic needle.” He heard her out with a mournful solicitude. One would think a man who dealt with rape and murder and mafia car bombs would no longer be moved by any particular tale of woe, but he sighed, “Oi,” as if oppressed by her story, and promised to investigate. Unfortunately, the precinct was too short-staffed to follow up today. President Putin was in town to meet with what’s-his-name, the North Korean president, and every spare man had been called up for security—right, Kim, the Dear Leader: that was it. Tomorrow, he said, after Kim headed back home in his armored train, they would be able to look into this.

“We can’t wait till tomorrow! They might be gone.”

“If they’ve been here all month, they won’t pack up and leave overnight.”

Tamara caught a bus back to the market, still lugging her groceries, only to find the gates closed for the evening.

She returned to the tenement apartment she had inherited from her mother. The public spaces were filthy, with puddles of urine in the lift and smears of fish heads and dog feces tracked up the stairwell, but in the refuge of her apartment, she boiled pelmeni for dinner and opened a bottle of semidry Moldavian red wine. After two glasses she phoned Filipp, who was with the Red Cross in Moscow. They had not spoken in three years, and when he answered, she nearly hung up. She greeted him, and he sounded wary. Or perhaps he no longer recognized her voice. His had changed, too; it had roughened, as if smoking and ordering about the staff in his ward had dulled the warm oboe tones that used to penetrate her ear canal when he murmured to her as they made love. He began coughing.

“You sound sick,” she said.

“It’s nothing. A little bronchitis. What’s up?”

But as soon as Tamara described what she had seen, Filipp cried out in a strangled voice, “No, no, no, no, no, I don’t want to hear this.”

“Filipp, listen.”

“No, you listen. Why would you call me with this foolishness? You know he’s dead. Have you been drinking?”

In the background a woman asked, “Who is it?” and Filipp pressed the receiver against his ribcage to muffle the sound, though it had the opposite effect; it made Tamara feel as if she were lying atop him with her cheek on his hairy chest. “Can’t you wait till I’m off the goddamned phone?” he said. He had never spoken to Tamara like that—at least not until the end.

He returned to say, “Tamara, don’t do this to yourself, to me. I can’t take it, I really can’t.”

She heard an infant crying somewhere in Filipp’s apartment.

“Do you have a baby, Filipp?”

“Yes.”He seemed reluctant to say more, but she waited. “Two kids. Boy and a girl.”

“Why didn’t you let me know? How old are they?”

“He’s almost three, and she’s eleven months, already. Hard to believe. I don’t know, I wasn’t sure how to tell you. I thought it would remind—. They’re so adorable, though. Yesterday, Lyuba stood up and walked three steps like a drunken sailor and then plopped down on her bottom. She’s been creeping around holding the furniture, but this was the first time on her own. The boy didn’t walk until he was thirteen months.”

“Congratulations. I’m so glad for you; you were always a good papa.”

“Thank you.” He did not return the compliment. She would not have allowed it if he had.

“Oh, Filya. This boy today in the market—”

“Tamara, even if he were alive, you couldn’t possibly recognize him.”

“I know, I know, it’s ridiculous. But I did, I knew him. He even has your ears.”

Somehow this got him. “Tamarochka, why are you torturing yourself? There’s not a night that goes by that I don’t lie awake thinking about our poor little guy. But you yourself saw the video—”

Then Filipp began coughing so hard he could not speak. He croaked, “Good-bye,” and hung up.

After that, the silence in her apartment began to oppress her, and Tamara fitted a Maria Callas record on her old phonograph. The needle spooled the grooves and squawked about dust and former mishandling; then Callas’s pure voice filled the room, vibrating within the concrete walls:

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,

non feci mai male ad anima viva!

Con man furtiva,

quante miserie conobbi, aiutai.

Balancing herself with her crutches, Tamara mounted a stool in the kitchen, rummaged about in the storage cabinet that extended over the hall ceiling, and retrieved a cardboard box, which she opened up on the table. It contained a videocassette, an envelope, and three tiny sets of baby clothes that she had been unable to bring herself to throw away. The cassette she left in the box, but she got out the envelope and laid out the outfits, which had feet attached and even, on the blue suit, little mittens so the baby would not scratch his face. She fingered the soft flannel. Then after refilling her glass (her third, she would have sworn, had it not been for the evidence of the empty bottle with its residue, like maroon coffee grounds, around the punt) and fortifying it with a shot of Zolotoi Rog, she opened the envelope.

Inside was a birth certificate (“RUDYAKOV, Vyacheslav Filippovich. Nalchik, Russia. 6th May 1997”) and twenty-four photographs taken inside the apartment she and Filipp had shared in Nalchik, in the Caucasus. She could see the clock and the carpet hung on the wall, the glass-fronted bookshelves decorated with the portrait of Pushkin clipped from a newspaper. In some, Filipp was holding the baby; in others, it was Tamara, still bloated after her pregnancy, but so young and beautiful just five years ago (is it possible she had considered herself plain then?). She studied Slava’s face, with his chipmunk cheeks and Asian eyes and the pugilistic nose of a newborn. He was asleep in most of the shots, but in two of them he stared at the photographer, in this case Filipp, with the disinterested gaze of an infant monkey, clutching Tamara’s blouse in his tiny fists, as if not trusting his own mother to hold onto him. He used to cry when she handed him to Filipp.

Suddenly she threw everything back in the box and hurled it into the corner. Stupid fucking superstitious old hag, witch, worthless scum, vermin, swine, bitch. Devil take you, devil take you, devil take you. It occurred to her that she was saying all this aloud, screaming it, in fact, while inexplicably stressing the name of the Archfiend. She twisted the stylus right off the phonograph, snapped the record in half, threw it all, along with her wine glass, out the window, and then retreated to the other room and fell onto the bed, sobbing. After a fitful slumber of an hour or so she woke up with a headache and did not sleep again until dawn.

What else, Tamara asked herself as she lay in the dark, would she include on the short list of those moments that changed everything? Certainly the invitation to walk along Lake Khanka with Filipp that night at the collective farm when she had really been looking for Zhorik. (This was long before the injury that crippled her.) But the others had gone off to Kamen-Rybalov to drink in an abandoned military barracks—roofless, rubble-strewn, and filled with shattered bottles and hypodermic needles— and so she found Filipp reading alone in the men’s quarters.“You want to go for a walk?” Filipp asked. “I’m going blind reading in here.” It was the uncertainty in his voice, the suggestion that he was prepared for a refusal and would not have blamed her for it, that caused her to agree. In the dark, as they followed a cow path along a berm between two rice paddies, she had not been able to see his plain face with its large nose and thick lips, and she was attracted to his deep voice, shy intelligence, and evangelical passion for the cello (she had known nothing about classical music). On Lake Khanka a waxing moon splintered the surface into glittering shards through which the black forms of Chinese fishing boats came creeping into Russian waters, and she had let him kiss her. Somehow (remembering it still amazed her, still melted her) they ended up skinny-dipping together. Add to that the moment, six years later, when Filipp came home to their apartment in Vladivostok to announce that there was a Red Cross office in Nalchik that needed a doctor and was promising a generous salary to someone willing to travel on occasion to Chechnya. And certainly she would include the instant whose exact timing she would never know, in which Slava was conceived. When she missed her period, and the nausea and goldfish flutters began inside her, she had nearly decided to abort the parasite within. Filipp agreed that it was the wrong time to exchange their lifestyle for what he described as a life of “diapers and two-liter jars of mayonnaise and rushing kids to and from daycare every morning and evening.”

Tamara was then earning meager wages as a surgeon at Respublika Hospital, but Filipp’s dollar-based salary afforded them an apartment, a new television, an occasional bottle of Italian wine, and even a vacation in Cyprus the previous summer. Besides, she had her patients to think about, such as the nine-year-old boy brought into surgery with a gasket in his brain, the victim of a Chechen car bombing at a market in Nalchik, and she had seen him through surgery and a coma to the point where he was learning to speak and might even walk again. But even if she believed that an embryo was not yet a person, she could not bring herself to abort this soul-in-waiting, since her rights as a woman had to be weighed against the future perspective of a child who would take being and consciousness for granted and never guess that Mama had once considered purging him from the great chain of being. For few of us, she thought, however hard our lot, would decline the win in the orgasmic lottery that brings us, against trillionfold odds, into the universe’s most elite club, comprising those congregations of molecules which possess sight, hearing, touch, taste, self-knowledge, love, and despair.

Once she had been backed into the decision to have a child, it was surprisingly easy to about-face and embrace the notion. Filipp, too, came around; he began to say he wanted a girl after an older colleague told him, “Girls love their papas more than boys do,” yet for this very reason she knew that fate would bring her a boy. She no longer remembered the girls’ names they had considered, but if it was to be a boy, they had agreed on Vyacheslav, after her late father, a researcher at the Pacific Oceanological Institute who had died of a heart attack on a scientific cruise to Vietnam when she was fourteen and had been returned in a refrigerated hold for burial in Vladivostok. Besides, she liked the nickname “Slava,” which meant glory. The formation of a human being inside her was a miracle to which she contributed nothing, unless you counted becoming a teetotaler for the duration of the pregnancy—hardly a sacrifice since at that time she had drunk no more often than once a month anyway, and as a doctor she had examined children with fetal alcohol syndrome disorders, with their deformed sternums, webbed toes, flattened philtra, and eyes that would not move in the same direction.

Glory. Tamara was becoming acquainted with her son long before the allotted nine months were up. He had ticklish feet: when he thrust his soles against the wall of her abdomen, she would scratch at the bulge and make him wriggle inside. He disliked loud noises and kept recoiling during the week that workmen spent knocking down a wall and building a counter in Tamara’s ward. He woke at eleven every night and passed the dark hours kick-boxing, as if practicing to defend himself against foes he would be encountering outside the womb. Filipp would lie snoring beside her in bed, and as she lay on her side with a pillow between her knees, she sought wisdom in the suffering of sleeplessness. Sometimes it became too much to take, and she cried. Filipp would wake and murmur, “Poor girl,” and massage her back. But then he slipped back into slumber, and she was left alone with Slava and his fierce inner sambo.

The contractions began one morning on a day when she was off work, and she called the Red Cross and left a message for Filipp, who was out, and caught a bus to the maternity home. After four hours of agony the baby appeared, purple, with a white umbilical cord hanging from his tummy; his testicles were swollen from hydrocele. “What a little stud you are,” the nurse said. The doctor suctioned his mouth and slapped his bottom, and poor Slava, not knowing what awaited him, drew his first breath and wailed. Tears rolled down Tamara’s cheeks. As the nurse washed his tiny form, Tamara kept saying, “I want my baby, I want my baby.”Then at last he was wriggling in her arms. But when Slava latched onto her breast, it felt as if strings were being threaded through her nipples, and the joy of his birth dissolved into a strange feeling of despair. Strings and despair: these would always be her sensations when nursing, during the three weeks she had a baby.

That evening, she joined the other new mothers at the third-story windows facing the street. Down below, Filipp stood among the fathers and other family members who, forbidden from entering, had gathered in the parking lot to wave. She held Slava close to her and turned his tiny, capped head so that Filipp could see. She knew that a newborn sees only blurry shapes, and at distances of no more than thirty-five centimeters; nevertheless, she said, “It’s Papa, look, it’s your handsome, brave, wonderful papa, and you’ll be just like him.”Down below, Filipp was wiping his eyes. He had brought a bag of food for her—dried salmon and black bread and canned pâté—and he grandly waved a bouquet of pink roses as if signaling to low-flying aircraft. On the pavement he had followed the lead of past generations of fathers and slopped a greeting with a can of paint and a brush: “I LOVE YOU TAMARA.”

The most recent of these fated moments (most recent, that is, until the encounter with the boy in the market) occurred because she had cleaved like a peasant to an old superstition that no one but close family should see a baby in its first month. Slava was twenty-two days old when Tamara, who had taken the year off on maternity leave, discovered they were out of diapers. It was the end of May. The afternoon was sunny and mild, and tiny leaves were pushing forth from the sticky buds on the trees. She swaddled the baby and placed him in his carriage for a brief outing to the store in the basement of an apartment block down the hill. He fell asleep in the elevator on the way down from their floor.

At the top of the steps to the market she hesitated. The only person in sight was a babushka with a Hero Mother of the Soviet Union medal pinned to her coat. She sat on a bench under a maple and cracked sunflower seeds in her teeth, spitting the husks at her elephantine feet. Slava’s face, shaded by the canopy, was composed in a sage, almost Confucian expression of peace and trust. Tamara didn’t want to lift him out and wake him, and she saw no point in lugging the whole carriage down the steps when she wanted to buy only one item, a package of diapers. Besides, she knew the clerk had a cold and would end up coughing all over the baby as she cooed over him.

And while Tamara did not really believe in old wives’ tales, she also felt, like all Russians, that it was folly to ignore them. Even physicists and medical doctors knocked on wood and spat three times over their left shoulder to ward off the devil, and journalists were known to walk around the block to avoid a black cat. The babushka smiled and waved with a sunflower seed pinched between her thumb and index finger, as if to say, Go on, I’ll keep an eye on him. Somehow this almost episcopal gesture seemed to grant a dispensation for a brief commitment of her son into the arms of a loving God and His saintly old servant, who had mothered ten offspring of her own. Besides, as even the police and reporters and Tamara’s mother-in-law would later concede, back in Soviet times mothers had routinely left their babies in carriages outside stores while they shopped, and nobody would have dreamed of kidnapping an innocent.

Yet when Tamara returned two minutes later, carrying the package of diapers and a bottle of ketchup, the carriage was there, as was the babushka, still spitting seeds, but Slava was gone.

It was memories of that day that awoke her with a start the night after she saw Azamat in the market. She recalled the nightmare that followed the kidnapping: how she screamed, “Who took my baby? Grandma, who took my baby?” while the old woman, once she was made to understand what Tamara was talking about, said, “Why, his mother took him; she went that-a-way.” How Tamara dropped the diapers and ketchup and sprinted down the hill in the direction the babushka pointed, onto the crowded sidewalks on Ulitsa Leninskaya, where she grabbed passersby by the coat and cried, “Have you seen a woman with a baby? Somebody just stole my baby.”How one man must have thought she was mad when she seized his arm, and with a frightened expression he flung her to the sidewalk (the detective she found at the precinct station kept glancing at her oddly and finally handed her a handkerchief and said, “It’s clean. Your chin. You’re dripping blood all over your blouse”). How the detective and a police colonel, who was called in from home for this case, kept shaking their heads as if marveling at her stupidity, and she did not contest this, but couldn’t they please, please for Christ’s sake find her baby?

And there were other memories that still came many times a week in the form of panic attacks: how Filipp sobbed with his face in his hands that afternoon, and then he was compelled to spend the next morning answering the questions of the reporters who showed up at their door, telling them his wife was in despair and on sedatives and could not handle the press right now. Yes, everyone understood, the poor woman (she could hear their sympathetic murmurs through the crescent-shaped cluster of holes punched in the steel outer door), and not that they wished to be insistent, but maybe their story could generate publicity that might help them recover the boy. But then as they departed, a woman reporter stopped to ask, “But what the devil was she thinking?” and Filipp gave up trying to defend her and said, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

The police told her to watch for a ransom note, and they said this would not necessarily be a bad sign; it would show that the kidnapper was not a maniac or beggar but a criminal with rational aims, such as money. The letter arrived two days after the first round of stories ran in the local papers. There was also a photograph of Slava wailing, his eyes terrified.

When she read it, the color of blood oranges pulsed in her field of vision, and she nearly fainted on the black concrete floor by the mailboxes and garbage chute.

In the name of Allah, Most Merciful, Most Gracious! Praise Allah, the Lord of the Worlds, peace and blessing be to His Prophet Mohammed, who created man so that He could be worshipped alone, so no companions are ascribed to Him, and He permitted jihad on His straight way, so that the Earth could be cleansed of unbelief, infidels, Russian dogs, and their whelps, inshallah. For did not Allah say, “Make war on them until no more temptation remains” (Anfal 39)?

As for the hunk of Russian meat known as “Slava” which you are bawling [about] in the media, he will be returned safe if you and the terrorist Russian state meet our conditions. Otherwise he will come home in pieces. First, $25,000 by midnight on 6 June. Second, Russian crusaders and storm troopers must grant independence to all Islamic lands of the Caucasus and Tatarstan by 6 June midnight. Allah is Our Master!!! and there is no help other than from Him.

Allahu Akbar!

God is Greatest!

P.S. Hang a red towel or shirt on your balcony to signify you have received this. Payment instructions will follow.

The political demands were absurd and beyond their powers to grant; likewise, twenty-five thousand was more than Filipp made in a year, and Tamara’s small ruble salary as a surgeon at Respublika Hospital, unpaid for eleven months now, was hardly worth mentioning. They had just spent most of their savings, fifteen thousand dollars, to buy the two room apartment where they lived, and all that was left was a thousand in twenties, which they kept in an envelope behind the encyclopedia on the bookshelf. For two days, Filipp called everyone they knew to beg for money; and although most of their friends were doctors who, like Tamara, were months overdue on their pay, he managed to collect promises for another sixteen hundred dollars.

That evening he sat on the bed for a long time playing sections from Haydn’s Concerto in C Major for Violoncello and Orchestra and then Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, pausing periodically to swig strong beer, bottle after bottle. She sat, wrapped in a shawl, in a rocking chair next to the crib, and stared out the window at the entry to the basement store where Slava had been stolen, as if she expected the kidnapper to return and lay him on the bench where the babushka had sat. The sunset blazed on the hills, then gradually faded. As darkness fell, she could not drive from her mind the newspaper stories she had read about the emaciated children liberated or ransomed from Chechen kidnappers. It seemed as if a row of child slaves were smudging the balcony window with their faces as they peered in: the toddler who, after a year in a private dungeon, screamed whenever she saw someone in camouflage and kept trying to climb into a wardrobe to sleep every night, the eleven-year-old who weighed fifteen kilos and had become like a wolf after three years with his hands tied behind his back, using his teeth to pick up his dinner plate, biting his relatives, lacking the capacity to speak any language—“like Mowgli, like a child raised by animals,” his uncle told reporters. For the first two days she had milked herself and kept it in jars in the refrigerator, but today she did not even bother. Her breasts hurt and there was a bulge in her armpit where the milk was collecting. She was still bleeding from childbirth. When she went to the toilet, she discovered that her drunken husband had pissed all over the seat and the floor, but this was irrelevant to the whereabouts of her baby and she lacked the moral standing to yell at him about it. She cleaned up herself and returned to her vigil.

After a time, Filipp lay his cello and bow on the bed. He paced the room, bumping into furniture and bookcases. Then, without warning, her husband of seven years—passionate lover, musician who played in an amateur string quartet, physician who would with soothing fingers attend to limbs damaged by car bombs or artillery fragments—staggered over and yanked Tamara to her feet by the hair.

“Har could you?” (He was slurring his words.) “Har could you leave a bearby alone? What’s a mare with you? What’s! A! Mare! With! You!”

When after a time some sober remnant of his consciousness awoke to what he was doing (yank-yank, yank-yank! ), he let her go and stumbled into the bedroom that had been intended for Slava once he was old enough to sleep by himself. The door slammed and he remained out of sight for the night, appearing only once, after three, to urinate again on the bathroom floor and forage in the kitchen for something to eat.

That morning, Filipp did not speak to her or look at her, not even to say good-bye as he left. Nor did he phone her from work, as he had done several times a day since the baby was born and had continued to do, with increasing desperation, after the kidnapping, always asking, “Any news?” and then, dully, “So how are you holding up?”Tamara again met with police and phoned several old high-school and university classmates in Vladivostok to beg for money, then spent the afternoon knocking on doors in the neighboring apartment blocks, searching for the babushka; the police had been unable to locate her and still had no eyewitness description of the kidnapper. But there were scores of old women in the area, and nobody could recall one who was a Hero Mother.

In the evening, Filipp returned accompanied by a man named Boris Malofeyev, who had read about their case in the papers and sought Filipp out at work. Malofeyev was a former engineer who used to live in Chechnya and now ran a small foundation that worked for the recovery of hostages. He was a gaunt man with a narrow face and dark irises, and his skin was scarlet with eczema.

Malofeyev drew a folder from his briefcase and showed her a newspaper clipping from Komsomolskaya Pravda. It described how he had negotiated the release of a five-year-old Russian boy whom Chechens had seized in Ingushetia and held for a year in a basement.

“I’ve been working on terrorism and kidnapping issues for six years,” Malofeyev said. “I have contacts in Chechnya and Ingushetia who can help us get in touch with the kidnappers. It’s a vile business, but they’re willing to talk to me because they know me. Some of them used to be my colleagues in Soviet times. Hard to believe.”

“Why would you want to help us?”Tamara asked. “What’s in it for you?”

“I care about the fate of our Russian hostages, especially the children, that’s all. This kidnapping is a moral disgrace, something out of the Dark Ages, and I’m trying to combat it in my small way. Once your child is returned, if you wish to make a small donation to help us carry on our work, that would be appreciated, but I don’t do this for the money.” “How can we negotiate with them, anyway?” Tamara asked. “Do they think we’re just going to phone up Yeltsin and tell him to hand over the Caucasus and Tatarstan to the terrorists? And surely they understand Filipp’s work—he’s treating wounded Chechen civilians.”

“Tamara, just listen, for once,” Filipp told the floor.

An awkward pause followed this.

“It’s a good question,” Malofeyev said. “As I told your husband earlier, you needn’t worry about the political demands. That’s just window dressing, an attempt to convince themselves that their barbarism is justified because this is God’s holy jihad and you are mere infidels. God knows, they don’t care about Filipp’s medical work with Chechens. The only thing these bastards really understand is money. Kidnapping is a business, that’s all. An unspeakably cruel enterprise, yes, but once you accept that, we can proceed rationally and with a reasonable chance of recovering your son.”

“But we can’t ever come up with the money they’re asking. I haven’t been paid in months, and even with Filipp’s salary, we only have a thousand dollars saved up. We could sell the apartment, but that takes time.”

“There’s also the eighteen hundred your friends promised.”

“Sixteen hundred,” Filipp said.

“Whatever. The point is, try to come up with as much as you can. In the meanwhile, I’ll put out some feelers. When we find the perpetrators, the negotiations will begin.”

“How long does this take?”

“Six months. A year.”

“Oh, my God,” the Rudyakovs said together.

Filipp glared at her. Then he asked, “What about the deadline?”

“Generally, that’s just to pressure you. If you’re in contact, you shouldn’t have to worry about it.”

The police warned them to be careful in dealing with any intermediaries, but detectives had no suggestions on how else to find the baby and limited their investigation to beating up random Chechens they found on the streets. And for his part, Malofeyev was making progress. After several days he reported that the kidnappers were in phone contact with him, and this was confirmed when a new letter arrived, written in the same hand and Islamist tones as the first, mentioning Malofeyev by name (“tell him not to delay consequences or will be dire”).

As the deadline approached, they begged from everyone they knew. Filipp’s mother sent five hundred dollars (and also phoned in such a rage that Filipp refused to give Tamara the receiver), and his brother and his wife halted a renovation of their apartment and sent their entire savings, more than seven hundred dollars, with a friend who was coming to Nalchik. Tamara’s mother wired fifteen hundred rubles through the Post Office, all she had. Old classmates pitched in, and Filipp’s colleagues provided a thousand dollars. All told, it brought them to nearly five thousand dollars by June 6.

Malofeyev told them it was best not to make it seem as if the money had been easy to come by, or the scoundrels would simply inflate their demands. Nevertheless, considering Filipp’s position on the payroll of a Western organization, they would be lucky if they could reduce the demand to anywhere near five thousand.

“Can’t you tell the police whom you’re talking to?” Filipp asked.

“I don’t know myself. They’re the ones who call me. I reached them through my contacts.”

“But you can give the names of your contacts to the police.”

“If I did, Slava would be in Chechnya the moment the police moved—if he’s not there already—and the terrorists would sever their ties to me forever. It’s better that we have a way to reach out to them.” As he left, Tamara began to cry, and Malofeyev hesitated, then hugged her.

“Don’t worry. Really, your baby isn’t such a valuable commodity, and they know it. It’s not as if you’re oligarchs or members of the army general staff.”

He took with him five hundred dollars in good-faith money, and phoned them that night to say he had passed it along to his contact. Four days later, Tamara found a small box on her doorstep. On the outside was written, “Time’s running out.” Inside were the severed thumb and forefinger of a baby.

After this story made the national press, an old friend of her late father’s, a former oceanographer who now owned a shipping line in Vladivostok, offered to pay the rest of the twenty-five thousand dollars on the condition they keep his involvement secret. He brought the cash to Moscow during a business trip, and Filipp flew there and met him in Sheremetyevo- 1. He returned the same day, and Malofeyev came to their apartment, limping on an ankle he had somehow twisted. “You’ll have your baby in your arms before the end of the week,” he said. After he left, they watched through the window as he gimped across the courtyard below. He glanced up and seemed to start at the sight of the Rudyakovs, then flashed a thumbs-up. As he headed on, the birches drew closed over him.

It was the last time they ever saw Malofeyev.

After a week, during which there was no answer on his cell phone and the police bawled them out for entrusting their money to someone they hardly knew, Filipp found a second package outside their apartment door, this one containing a videocassette. As he plugged it into the television- video player, a noise escaped Tamara’s throat, half sob, half squeak, such as Slava might have made. An Arabic phrase appeared on a black screen, the script golden, three-dimensional, shimmering. Then it cut to a jerky shot of a clearing in a forest where a group of bearded men in camouflage milled about, hoisting Kalashnikovs and a PZRK Strela rocket launcher as they grinned and waved at the camera. They were calling out something, but their voices were indistinct. The video had been filmed at dusk and the quality of the light was poor.

A narrator with a Chechen accent began speaking:“Behold, as the glorious mujahideen extract vengeance against the infidel occupiers and terrorists in our march toward victory, inshallah.”

He went on for some time in this vein until three Russian civilians— two men and a woman—were marched into the field and forced to kneel, their hands bound behind them.

The narration evolved from polemic into a singsong incantation. “Allah the Almighty! Allah the Almighty! The call leaves our throats, to fill the Earth with the fragrance of aromatic plants!” The first hostage was a shaggy grandfather who hunched over as if from a back injury. The narrator began singing in Arabic, in the djinnlike voice that echoes from minarets throughout the House of Islam. A tall mujahid stepped forward, his beard red and right socket a fleshy smudge, as if he were missing an eye—it was hard to tell in the video. He booted the old man between the shoulder blades, flattening him on the ground. The mujahid knelt on the hostage’s back while his comrades sat on the arms and legs. Someone handed him an archer’s bow, which he leveled on the hostage’s neck.

Or no, not a bow. A hacksaw.

The blade cut back and forth and the old man screamed until his vocal cords were severed from behind. Then the tall mujahid held up the head by the ears as the camera’s palsied gaze closed in, observed the sightful eyes and the gaping jaw with its steel molars, then pulled back. He pitched the head into the weeds, and a jolly football scrimmage ensued until the ball galloped away into a gully.

Tamara collapsed on the floor and clung to Filipp’s leg. He covered his mouth with both hands. “Jesus Christ.”

But one decapitation was enough, it seemed—a messy affair—for the remaining hostages were dispatched with bursts of automatic rifle fire to the back of the skull, as puffs of pink mist came from their faces. “Allah the Almighty! Repeat this call, for it is a thunderbolt in the ears of the devils!”

Then from behind the camera a woman in black waddled out holding the bread-loaf form of a baby swaddled in a yellow blanket, and the narrator halted his litany to announce in plain Russian, “The seed of the terrorist state.”

Tamara began screaming. Filipp dragged her from the room, but she fought him.

“Tamarochka!”

She clung, wailing, to the door frame as the tall mujahid shook the baby by the ankle and the swaddling tumbled free. The infant was swung back and forth (one, two) and then, before it was released into the heavens, Filipp shoved her to the entryway and pinned her to the wall.

In the other room, Kalashnikovs rattled.

“Allah the Most Supreme and the Most Almighty! Allah the Almighty! Allah the Almighty! Allah the Almighty!”

Then suddenly a woman’s voice trilled from the television, and when Tamara again saw the set, an Indian in a sari was dancing and singing in falsetto—a Bollywood musical the killers of her son had taped over.

The day after Tamara saw the beggar child in the Vtoraya Rechka market, she visited the police station twice: at eight a.m. when it opened to the public, and after seven that evening when Lieutenant Yengalychev phoned and asked her to come down as soon as possible. When she arrived, he said her suspicions had been right. The woman had admitted the boy was a Russian kidnapped from Nalchik five years ago. The only thing she knew was that his name was Slava and both his parents were doctors.

“It’s incredible,” the lieutenant said. “I’ve never heard of such a thing in sixteen years of police work. Of course, the fingers must have tipped you off.”

Then, pausing, he stood and busied himself at a tall filing cabinet with his back to her. After giving her a few minutes, he brought her a cup of mineral water. On his right hand he wore a wedding band.

“They kidnap children all the time,” he said. “You can’t blame yourself.”

Tamara gulped the saline water. “Yes,” she said. She had no interest in the policeman’s absolution.“Where’s my baby?”

“Just a minute. First there are a few matters we have to clear up. The captain wants a DNA test, but given the circumstances and her confession, we agreed we can send him home with you rather than put him in an orphanage while we await the results. You can have your photos back, but we’ve been asked to send the video to Moscow. Oh, and we’ve got some forms for you to fill out.”

She began filling in the documents, streaking her cheek with the pen as she wiped her eyes. Lieutenant Yengalychev explained that the accused was a citizeness of the Chechen nationality, name of (he consulted his notes) Roza Damayeva, thirty-seven, widowed, lately an undocumented resident of Moscow, originally from Urus-Martan (“I’ve been there,” he said. “It’s a shithole”). She had confessed that the boy had indeed been kidnapped from his mother, but she insisted she wasn’t the one who had grabbed Slava from his baby carriage. When the kidnapping occurred, Roza had been in Chechnya—so she claimed. Not like it mattered; the penalties for human trafficking were the same either way. The original kidnapper was an unknown female of Chechen descent, a heroin addict who happened to see an unattended baby in a carriage and walked off with it. A crime of opportunity. This woman sold the infant to a slaver, a Chechen named Makhmud Damayev, who was Roza’s brother in- law. Makhmud was some sharia judge, had actually studied in Jordan. He was the one who cut off the thumb and forefinger. But in the end, Makhmud gave the baby to Roza. Christ knows why. Probably because she was a widow and she could make use of him when she begged in the marketplace. A prop for sympathy. All they cared about was money, Chechens. Anyway, the perpetrators had sent the video to the Rudyakovs to cover their tracks. The baby murdered in the field that day—it was somebody else’s.

“By the way,” Lieutenant Yengalychev concluded, “Roza wants to talk to you. If you wish to, that is. Up to you.”

“Yes. Yes, in fact, I’d like to hear what she has to say.”

“I should warn you, she’s looking rather, well, disheveled. It took a little persuasion to get her to talk.”When Tamara stared at him, he asked, “Does that bother you?”

“Not in the least.”

The lieutenant smiled.

They met Roza in an interrogation room where she sat on a stool, holding a torn flap of her blouse in place on her shoulder. Her face was bruised and swollen, and a bead of blood ballooned and deflated in her right nostril. On her scalp was a raw patch where her hair had been yanked out by the roots. Two of her teeth were missing and a third had been broken into a fang. All this Tamara observed ruthlessly as she humped her way into the room and sat in a chair with her crutches propped on her knee.

Roza stared at her, then lowered her eyes. “You’re Dr. Rudyakova?”

“Yes.”

“Did they tell you I didn’t kidnap him?”

A nod.

“I never hurt him. It was my brother-in-law who cut off his fingers. Understand, I raised him like my own son.”

It was all Tamara could do to refrain from yanking out another fistful of hair. When she spoke, she discovered she was out of breath. “But he wasn’t. Wasn’t your son.”

“No.” Belatedly, Roza noticed the crutches. “What’s wrong with your legs?”

“The day you people sent us the videotape I stepped off the roof of our apartment. But fifteen stories isn’t high enough, it seems—not if you’re stupid enough to fall into a tree.”

“Oi!” Roza wiped her nose, smearing blood. Then almost inaudibly she added, “I’m sorry.”

“Did you know that my husband worked for the Red Cross and was risking his life to provide medical aid to Chechen civilians?”

Roza shook her head.

“So is that all you wanted to say?” Tamara asked. “That it wasn’t your fault?”

“No, listen. When I first saw Az—saw the boy—, Makhmud (he’s my brother-in-law), he was keeping him a prisoner in his basement in Urus-Martan. So I took the baby home and looked after him. He would have died otherwise, understand? And then once Makhmud got his share of the money, he decided—”

“Wait. What money?”

“Yours. The ransom.”

“I thought Malofeyev ran off with it.”

“Malofeyev and Makhmud were partners.”

Tamara digested this.

“And so, after Makhmud gave me the baby, he sent you that videotape so you’d think Slava was dead. Malofeyev didn’t want any part of this; he said you’d paid and we should return the baby. He even threatened to go to the police, so Makhmud had him killed. They dangled a stick of dynamite on a rope outside the window of his apartment and had him blown up in his bed, along with his wife and daughter.”

“So whose baby did you murder in the place of my son?”

“You don’t understand, we didn’t kill anyone. That was just a video they bought in the marketplace. I heard the baby was the daughter of a Russian officer. They snatched her at gunpoint from her mother’s apartment in Buynaksk.” As an afterthought, she added, by way of justification, “The man whose head they cut off, I heard he was a Jew.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“There’s one more thing I want to tell you. What the Russians did to my sons.”

“You want one on the snout, bitch?” Lieutenant Yengalychev slapped Roza’s face, and blood flecked the floor two meters away. “Do you think anybody gives a shit about you?”

Tamara waited to see if the policeman would strike Roza again. When he did not, she exhaled. “All the same, I’d like to hear.”

“Could I have a sip of water?”Roza said. “My throat.”

“If you’ve got something to say, just say it,” the lieutenant told her.

Roza swallowed. “In the summer of 1996 a Russian convoy was ambushed near our village, and so the following night the Russians came to our village and arrested all the men. Seized them from their beds, the ones who didn’t manage to run off. They also took a teenage girl whom we never heard from again. When the soldiers kicked down our door, I told them there were no men in the house, my husband had died in a car accident years ago. So they took my sons instead. My boys were fourteen and sixteen years old. Just loaded them into a truck with all the men and drove off. For nine months I looked for my boys, visiting army bases and prison camps—places where they hold them in open pits under the rain and the snow—but I never found them. Then one day I got a message from a Russian sergeant offering to sell me my youngest for two hundred dollars: Azamat—he was named Azamat, too. So I borrowed from everyone I knew to buy his freedom. In exchange, they directed me to a place in the forest where they had dumped his corpse.

“From this moment, my hatred for Russians became a fever in me. I wanted to poison every Russian child, to cut off the breasts of every Russian mother. I wanted every woman from Kaliningrad to Anadyr to experience what I did, to bathe her son’s corpse for his funeral, to touch the rope burns and ulcers from trench foot and the dislocated jaw and the bloody ridge where his left ear had been torn from his head. To wake every night hearing his screams in her dreams. And Slava, when I heard about him, I hated him, too. The child of the Russian murderers. Makhmud was keeping the baby in his dungeon, and another hostage—a Russian army private, a dark, frightened boy from Buryatia—was caring for Slava, cradling him under his coat.

“But Makhmud sold the private, and so Slava was alone except for a Russian grandfather who’d lost his mind after sitting in the dark for almost a year. One of Makhmud’s daughters was feeding the baby a few times a day, but that was all. The rest of the time he cried; you could hear it as you passed by outside the building. One day, Makhmud took me down to look at the baby. He thought it would please me to see a Russian child suffering. But when the flashlight found him, Slava was lying in an open suitcase, naked in his own filth, with no one around but the old man, who was gibbering about demons. The baby started screaming when he heard Makhmud’s voice. He looked like a handful of sticks in a bag of skin. The stubs of his finger and thumb were stained with zelyonka—somebody had at least thought to disinfect the wounds. ‘There it is, the glory of Russia: its youth,’ Makhmud said. The poor little one. I couldn’t help it, I picked him up and started singing to him, an old mountain song, and he stopped crying. So desperate for a human touch. Makhmud tried to grab the baby from me, and Slava’s tiny fingers clung to my blouse. And although I knew nothing could ever erase my grief, this need of his planted a seed of hope inside me. Someone to care for.”

“That’s all lies,” the lieutenant said. “I was in Chechnya, and nobody was arresting teenagers—only terrorists.”

“Can’t you get her some water?” Tamara asked. “She can barely speak.”

Lieutenant Yengalychev found a paperclip in his pocket and cleaned his thumbnail with it. “Let her drink from the squatter when she gets back to her cell.”

“So, let me see if I get this right,” Tamara told Roza. “At the time Slava disappeared, the war was over, the Russian army had retreated, you had de facto independence for your shitty little republic, and you people still thought you were justified in kidnapping Russian babies because bad things had once happened to you? This is your point?”

Stated thus, the words demanded a denial, but to Tamara’s surprise the woman nodded. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I just wanted you to know that I love Azamat—love Slava. He’s my son, too.”

The lieutenant kicked the stool out from under Roza and sent her sprawling.

“Love? What do you know about love, you bitch? You people are a disgrace to Islam.”

Tamara found the boy in an office that looked out through barred windows at the crowd waiting at the Magnitogorskaya bus stop. He sat at a table with a pencil and paper, drawing a tank that was shelling a kremlin. He watched her as she approached, his dirty face tear-streaked.

Tamara pulled up a seat beside him. “They told you?”

“Yes.”

“Do you believe them—that I’m your mama?”

Slava shook his head: No, no, no, no, no.

She removed a small makeup mirror from her bag and leaned in close to him. “Look at us. Our eyes are the same, our hair. How could Roza be your mother?”

Slava stared as if frightened of what the mirror might reveal. Then he shook his head again. No. Never.

From her pocket she produced a tin soldier, a painted infantryman from the Preobrazhensky Regiment, Napoleonic Wars era. “I brought you a present.”

“I don’t want it.”

“You asked me for a soldier.”

“It’s not the right kind. I wanted a mujahid.”

“The mujahideen are terrorists and murderers. They stole you from your papa and me. Roza, too: maybe she acted kind, but she kept you from your real mama. We loved you, and they destroyed us. Your papa, too. You know he’s alive? He lives in Moscow. We’ll call him tonight.”

Slava tore a corner off his page and then was unsure what to do with it. He started to slip it into his mouth. She took the scrap from his hand.

“Slava—you know your name is Slava?—when I last saw you, you were this big. Shorter than my forearm, poor little hare.”

“I know.”

Tamara gave the boy a sidelong hug. Slava did not know what to do and kept his hands on the table, smoothing the torn edge of his drawing. She kissed him, buried her face in his hair, savored the smell of her baby beneath the odors of mutton and Tajik tobacco smoke. The boy tried to pull away, but she held him. He began to sob against her breast. His tears and warm breath penetrated her summer blouse and her bra, and she remembered the sensation of nursing, strings and despair. Had it done him any good at all, those three weeks at her nipple? Yet as they sat there, she found an unexpected comfort in what Roza had told her: even in captivity, the boy had been loved. Few of the child hostages of Chechnya could say as much. She wondered if Slava could ever learn to love her. If not, who could blame him? Tamara was unworthy of love. After all, it was her sin that had sown the bitter field of tares that Slava would spend his life scything.

“It’s time to go.” She stood, holding the boy’s maimed hand as she adjusted her crutches. When he did not move, she told him again, “Slava, it’s time.”

—Russell Working

See also “The Irish Martyr” in Zoetrope, and “Evil Onions” in Narrative.

  4 Responses to ““Slava,” a story by Russell Working”

  1. A stunning story. I could hardly read it. I’m at a hospital waiting for someone to come through surgery. Perhaps, not the best time to have read the story, but it certainly clarified, as do all stories of substance, what is important in the world.

  2. So compelling Russell. There’s a history behind this that I suspect so few of us know here. So much that the press doesn’t cover. And it sounds like you were there. I had to learn from reading — Andrew Meier Black Earth and David Satter’s Darkness at Dawn.

  3. Now that’s a story you don’t read every day. Throwing wonderful (if that’s the word) light on a part of the world we rarely hear anything about. Thank you for putting this up here.

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