The Men From Russia by Reinaldo Laddaga

1.

They reappear the summer of that year, when the book of my childhood ended. They reappear in the normal imprecision of memory as one of my most luminous moments. We then lived in our home in the islands. That year I saw, for the last time, the butterflies land on jasmines next to the small fountain of Saint Mark, pausing to bask in the sun and the heat before dying, and I saw the men from Russia establish their campground at the beach, near the grotto. They had come to the region to sell their products. Their bodies are perfect like palm trees; their skin is pale. They wear pants of a metallic blue and go shirtless in the hot season. Each one invariably carries a hatchet, a small revolver, and a machete. Tattoos cover them from head to toe. The women wear circular barrettes in their hair and small knives hanging around their necks. But the jewellery they esteem most are certain ceramic spheres kept in boxes. They are, among all earthly creatures, the dirtiest. They don’t wash their bodies after copulating. They don’t wash their hands after eating. They are like the mules we find at night, when we go out, walking through the borderless expanse, abandoned by the light.

The Men From Russia 1

Wherever they arrive, they set up large tents. Several of them inhabit each one. A male is entitled to a barely elevated platform where he sleeps, his legs stretched out like a cat. He is accompanied by young servant girls, another of his commercial objects. Whenever they want, whenever struck by desire, they copulate with them, observed by their tent-mates. And if a merchant enters seeking to acquire one of them, he must stand and wait in silence until they finish. They wash their faces daily with running water (in their own country they use vinegar). Let’s imagine one of them at his tent. It’s breakfast time. A servant brings a bucket of water, passes it to the chief, who washes his face and untangles the knots in his hair with a comb, his hairdo reflecting current fashions. He washes his hair with childish perfectionism. It’s the next man’s turn, his companion’s turn. No one watches his neighbour, no one observes anyone: a generalised discretion.

They are like the mules we find at night, when we go out, walking through the borderless expanse, abandoned by the light.

When they disembarked, the stores of provisions in our home were overflowing with bread and meat, milk and onions. Our guns showed no sign of rust. Back then I would often abandon my regular companions, the docile fisher children, to take walks alone with my mother: I took her up goat paths to the heights, from where we would watch the coast. On one of those mornings, we saw one of the men from Russia advance across the beach. His chest was dilated, and the others watched out from their barges, in case of attack. He was carrying a wooden stake, and tied to it, the head of a doll (its head made of plastic, naturally: everything they have is plastic). This stake signals the demarcation of their territory (an always imprecise demarcation, which favours conflict). He drove the stake into somewhere on the beach and took out a sheet of paper. We heard him from far away. “My Lord,” he said, “I have travelled far, as have all my friends, I have many women to sell, I have lizard skins, I have retroamphetamine capsules. Please send me a trader who wants to buy the articles I have, who will pay any price, who isn’t inclined to haggle.”

We ran downhill, my mother and I, we returned home fast, we shut ourselves up in the workshop that my father had built: on the walls hung studies and copies, watercolours and drawings. Outside, a delirious concert of birds, whose names we didn’t know yet, was beginning.

2.

That year they had brought a new leader. One afternoon, his representative spoke to us of him: “No one under the sun has a more beautiful face. He seems healthy, but he’s always been so incapable of walking that he can’t move his limbs, which in any case are too large for his age. His complexion is delicate and his hair is fine (which is uncommon among us). He never speaks or yells, eats almost nothing, and is barely ever seen smiling. But if someone tries to flatter him by comparing him to an elf, he wrinkles his brow and fixes his gaze so intensely on the person who said it that he seems to be looking through him. As we must always go out to do our business, we leave him alone all day. Out of curiosity, some of us have spied on him to see what he does when no one’s around. They always saw him laughing, joyous. This made them think that he was more pleasant accompanied than any other man. And what made this conjecture seem more reasonable was that, if we left him in squalor at home, when we returned his face would be perfectly clean and his hair most precisely in place.”

Very well, I thought. Very well. I like this. No one could be more different from me. I can write well. My mind is bright. My work is efficient. I almost never catch cold. The things I say make an impression on others. I know what I need to know: that we shouldn’t wave our machetes around like idiots. That when we confront someone aiming a gun at us, the best course of action is to run directly at him. That if we need to get rid of a corpse, we should put it in our boat and take it out to the open sea. Teeth: to be broken. The body: a problem to be solved with the same knives we use to clean fish.

I thought: I feel no need to speak about my past. I never use made-up stories to illustrate my reasoning. I never feel the need to lie. Nothing comes between my friends and me. No one controls me. My friends can speak in my presence while I sleep, but I don’t allow them to hypnotise me. The desires of other people have no effect on me. I am not a coward, I am not blind, I never use my digestive problems as an excuse. I’m seventeen years old and no longer fear not satisfying women: I am capable of multiple orgasms. I advise them well, tell them not to enter into the houses of workers, since they might catch some disease. I am not afraid of conceiving children: I don’t care if they are born. I have had enough experience. I know nothing of hate. Snakes do not represent a danger to me: there are no snakes hidden under my bed.

Very well, I thought. Very well. I like this. No one could be more different from me. I can write well. My mind is bright. My work is efficient. I almost never catch cold. The things I say make an impression on others.

The Men From Russia 2

One day, one of the kids brought by the Russians came into my room (I had just put a record on). He stood in front of me and began to dance while I tried to concentrate on what I was reading.

“Do I dance well?” he asked.

I didn’t respond. His dress was fine but his hands were filthy. My sister, I thought, would disapprove.

“Do you like the way I dance?”

I still did not respond, like a blind man facing a wall of posters.

He grew irritated and stopped. “What’s wrong with you? Is what you’re doing so important?”

His voice was weak and discreet; he attempted a smile (but you could see his disconsolation). I feared he would faint: it was time to leave him alone. Twenty minutes for the intermission. I went to my mother’s room to discuss what to do with this other visitor. The jasmines lent the room their soft smell. It was the era when the corsets had acquired their most extravagant proportions. Through the window I saw the herons fly by. There was a cardboard box on the floor: from the hat-maker. “Is that the hat you’re going to wear to the wedding?” (it was the year of our youngest neighbour’s wedding).

“Yes, my dear.” My mother had always spent little money on her wardrobe, but she had such good taste that everything she owned was lovely, even the simplest things. But still – the hat she had taken from the box! It was pale green crepe, adorned with a wide, salmon-coloured ribbon and three feathers, green also. I asked her to try it on. Her eyes were transparent, she had no wrinkles on her face or grey hairs on her head. I promised myself in silence that I would show her realities she had never seen, that I would continue to abandon my regular friends to have more time for walks with her.

I returned to my room and found the mosquito net that covered my bed and the cushion I would kneel on, both burned. That kid (what else did I expect?) had gone.

3.

Such was my personality as a young kid, that summer. It was an era of strong winds. As such, we rarely left the house. And they didn’t either: they holed up in their tents, swapping stories about their village and singing their languorous songs. One of them got sick: the Green Alligator, they called him. They separated him from the tent zone; they of course gave him some provisions (bottles of water, some bread, packets of mayonnaise), but they tried to avoid him. We saw him draw progressively calmer; we mattered less and less to him. It happens, though not always, on these trips: one of the travellers dies. The dangers are many. And that’s why they bring everything essential to their fortune: all packed in closed cardboard boxes. It happened this time: the Green Alligator died, off alone. They cut the adhesive strips, opened the boxes, divided the money in three: one part for the family, one to buy the clothes he’d be buried in, and one to buy the beer they would drink on the day in which his main consort would kill herself, so as not to leave him alone.

A member of this man’s family was part of the expedition. It was his responsibility to ask the small group of consorts which of them was willing to die with him. One responded, in a low voice. Did she know what awaited her? But it was decided: no turning back. Even if the response had been given during a fainting spell or if the friends of the dead man had said she was the worst among his lovers, they wouldn’t be able to change their minds. She’d have nowhere to hide, no one would lend her a disguise. The other consorts would never leave her side, washing her feet upon every return from a walk. Such was the course of action over the following days. In one of the tents, seamstresses hemmed the shirt, the jacket, the pants of the deceased, so that everything would fit right (his body had shrunk). The consorts sat in the entryway, which they had decorated with paper streamers in the form of alligators.

And we (myself, the Peyral family, the fishermen) went over nearby the campsite to see them. There were two or three of us that afternoon; we admired the dahlias and zinnias and the red light of dusk. They opened the tent and she emerged: condemned to die. I noticed that her dress was tied around her neck with some sort of chain, or perhaps some sort of embroidered trim that resembled ivy leaves. I was dumbfounded by the miraculous tenderness of her face. I thought to myself: faces like
that no longer exist. It was beautiful like few faces are, but without that sort of luminosity that one finds in desire or hope or fear or speculation. It was so peaceful that it provoked sadness. To my surprise, she stared at me. We understood one another.

I noticed that her dress was tied around her neck with some sort of chain, or perhaps some sort of embroidered trim that resembled ivy leaves.

That afternoon, in my room with the window open, I could smell the lichens and the garden moss as I had never smelled them before. I had a dream: the two of us in a narrow canoe. Heading south, a white roll of wind drew a curve in the air (the clouds were like many-headed serpents), carrying a blue canopy of rain (the lightning was like forked tongues). The river, if it was indeed a river, grew choppy. Our sail was too small, and the wind ripped at it as if it were a handkerchief. We didn’t even feel the upheaval. The wind bit nowhere but into our bodies: it carried us sideways—us, two shipwrecked sailors, with twenty litres of water in our canoe, blinded by the rain, our faces pained, our bodies almost frozen. All around us, semi-human forms dressed in silver latex emerged and sank back into the water. Their noses (which looked like hooves) were ugly. We understood that we were in the part of the river known as the Corridor of the Hooves. Out in front, the foam was building: this was the part of the river where water acquired the properties of milk. Then came the section where the current seemed made of paste: almost the end of the world. We lay down, embracing one another, at the bottom. Pressed up against her and struck by fear, I felt I was no longer a solid form, but rather a depression in space. The atmosphere had ceased to be hollow, permeated by a transparent and darkly transpalpable substance, which is what I too was made of. Time passed in rapid pulsations.

I had to see her again. The next morning, I tucked my small and useless revolver into my belt and my crayons and drawing pad into my backpack, and I went back to the campsite. The men from Russia should have had left on one of their erratic expeditions from the platform of our little island, since the consort of the Alligator was resting in the serenity of the rocks. I walked by her feigning not to look, but I discerned on her face a smile that expressed at once consent and irony.

The Men From Russia 3

I walked toward one of the grottoes; she followed me. It wasn’t a common cave, but rather the place where the ghosts of children meet one another, whistling slowly while working together to build the towers of rocks that populate the area. At night they emerge from the sea, from the Bed of the River of Spirits, and cover the sand floor of the cavern with their phantasmal footsteps and they build, they build their rock-like petitions. But I didn’t tell you, just as I won’t tell you what happened that day. Real life is harder to recount than made-up stories, because life’s logic is less transparent than the logic of stories. It’s fair to say that she played the role of villain, which was natural to her, with great delicacy: she moved like a gymnast executing a habitual exercise with her habitual partenaire and the expression on her face revealed that her actions came more naturally to her than the disturbance I felt.

Five minutes after it was over, I was alone.

4.

One of the women came to warn us the day of the funeral: we all attended. They had dragged the boat of the dead man to shore; they had lifted it up onto some poles in the sand. They walked around it, talking to themselves. One group brought a mattress from one of the tents, and they lifted it onto the boat. And sheets and pillows: they loaded them too. The main seamstress, an old woman who doubled as a witch doctor, came close. What of the deceased? He had been lying for several days in a conduit opened up in the earth, near the tent where he used to sleep, covered by pieces of wood that protected him from the rain. They brought him too. His skin was darker than I remembered; he didn’t smell and looked quite elegant besides. They seated him up on the mattress. Several pillows kept him upright; at his sides he still had his pistols, his cartridges.

They brought a dog: they cut it in two pieces and threw them next to him. They brought two horses and made them run around the boat. For hours (meanwhile, they held a banquet). Was this even possible? The horses grew tired. They brought the fresh carcass of a cow. They cut it into pieces and put the pieces on the mattress. And the consort came and went, walking, she went into the tents and back out. When she came up to our table, I was absorbed, yet again, by my admiration of her figure, by the exquisite curve of her calves. I imagined her masturbating. She turned her head toward me, observant. Her mouth was closed; silence made her seem an imbecile. She examined my body one part at a time, as if I were a creature from the woods or a lunatic. Tears flooded my eyes. She came to me, gave me her hand. We were calm, as if we had all the time in the world. Why did she insist on staring at my boots? She must not have liked them, because she dropped my hand; I cursed the monstrosities that covered my feet.

In front of the boat, they had built a squalid structure that looked like a doorframe. The ceremony had begun. Two men lifted the consort up (like acrobats: the woman’s feet on the palms of their hands), so she could look over the top of that fake door. They lifted her three times. The first time, the consort said: “I see my mother and father there.” The second time: “I see all my dead relatives.” The third: “I see my dead lover in Paradise. Young people are with him. It’s as if they were talking. But no, they are talking to me. They’re telling me to go.” She shouted it, unnerving shouts that didn’t seem to come from a deep conviction; it was, rather, as if a robot that had trained itself, well practiced and skilled, were testing how much tonal tension its metal lungs and wire vocal cords could withstand. And then they pulled off her necklaces, her bracelets, they undid her braids and lifted her up: so she could finally board the boat. From down below, they gave her a glass of beer. She sang. Goodbye, she sang, she sang goodbye to her friends, remembering the dances she had attended, remembering her first encounter with the deceased.

The Men From Russia 4

Someone would have to go up: the witch doctor. They lifted her up: the consort cried out. The men began to sing so we wouldn’t hear her cries.

She no longer knew what she was doing. Once in the boat, she fell to the floor. She wanted to enter the improvised shelter where the Green Alligator was lying, but she was too drunk to get back up. Someone would have to go up: the witch doctor. They lifted her up: the consort cried out. The men began to sing so we wouldn’t hear her cries. The witch doctor began to drag her over to the mattress, she was going to tie a rope to her neck, she was going to hang her, all so we could finally witness the transformation of the boat into a bonfire. Several men raised plastic bottles filled with gasoline. One of them had a torch. It was fascinating, like watching a play but without action, a play whose actors projected only an emotional summary of the plot, a judgment initiated by judges without having received notice of an accusation. I could have been reading a tragedy that described, in parentheses and without sentences, episodes that remained undefined. And it made me laugh out loud, more sharply and carelessly than usual. Everyone stopped: the captive stood up, approached the edge of the boat, looked at me, and began to laugh. Her laughter was of course warmer than mine. She got hold of herself and closed, briefly, her eyes.

And then we both began to laugh, me down on the sand and her up in the boat. It was the laughter of hyenas, though less strident than at the beginning. Metallic laugher too, and in some way threatening. There exists a quadruped that looks like a lion but with a longer, more curved snout. They say this animal keeps its cubs in a hollow glass ball. When someone steals one of its cubs, it takes off after the thief at vertiginous speeds. It always catches up, no matter the distance. When the thief returns the sphere with the cubs inside, this animal fears it will break, injuring them. That’s why it rolls it back to its den on the ground. The sound of this animal’s claws on the glass, if amplified, might, I think, be something like our laughter.

The contagion began. The contagion of laughter and chattering teeth. The Peyral family, me, the fisher children, my mother, the men from Russia… Anticipation took hold of my mind. But then a group brought in a chair, and upon it the retired leader. He seemed offended, even hurt by our enthusiasm. He was carrying a crystal chalice: he threw it against the boat. It shattered, and the joyous din was succeeded by a sad silence.

And I felt that a more arbitrary power, more inscrutable than all this show, was going to threaten not only my future but also the future of the women who then controlled my life. That’s when I remembered my only trip to the land of the men from Russia. My father had taken me with him; during the day he had his meetings. The cold of that season was intense. I could walk through the streets and the markets without seeing anyone. I slept in a house inside which there was another house, inside which someone had erected a tent. I wrapped myself in blankets, but one night my cheek froze and when I awoke it was stuck to the pillow. That morning, I saw pipes in the street that had been wrapped in felt so they wouldn’t explode (they did explode). There were cracks in the ground because of the cold. And also because of the cold an enormous tree in the town square had split in half. I observed it for a second and ran away as fast as I could.

This short story is a kernel and the germ of a forthcoming novel of the same title, in which the identities of the now somewhat ambiguous characters will — one can only hope — be more fully revealed. Here, the reader will have to make do with the help of the images that Isabelle Vigier has created using the preparatory photographic studies made by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha in the first two decades of the past century for his series of paintings The Epic of the Slavs. In these characters, some readers may also recognise the conducts and habits of the people called the Rus, as described by the Arab envoy Ibn Fadlan, who, in the ninth century, encountered them in his travel to the Land of Darkness.

The text and the music belong to Reinaldo Laddaga, an Argentinean writer and artist, who lives in New York and is the author of many works of fiction and non-fiction, among them a collaboration with eighteen composers published by Unsounds (as a book with two CDs and as an enhanced e-book) entitled Things that a Mutant Needs to Know. More Short and Amazing Stories. Some of his other books are Aesthetics of Emergency, A Prologue to my Father’s Books, and Three Secret Lives: John D. Rockefeller, Walt Disney, Osama bin Laden.

Reinaldo Laddaga is the author of Things that a Mutant Needs to Know, a book of short stories with 2 CDs of compositions by various artists, including himself, and an e-book, in both English and Spanish, co-curated and published by Unsounds.

Reinaldo Laddaga — text, music
Isabelle Vigier — illustrations based on photographs by Alphonse Mucha, story concept and realisation