I will get to Stalin, but let me explain first. With Sasha dead, I was to be sent east, but the secretary at the station in Novgorod spotted me on the platform. His name was Terehov. His office looked out on the trains. He had his man pluck me from the line, and we sat down together with a good desk between us. Could I type? he asked. No. Could I write, then? Yes. And read? "Yes," I said. "I can read. I can read German, English ... Latin, naturally."
"Oh," he said sadly. "I see."
He sighed and pored over my bosom. Then he turned to his man by the door and shrugged. His man said, "She can keep house."
"Can you keep house?" the secretary asked me.
"I can keep it clean."
"My husband's grandmother cooked."
"I see. And where is he now?"
"Yes. Right. Well." he said. "Well, there we are, then."
In the second life I wore a uniform. I cleaned a little -- the feather duster, swish swish. Midmorning I went to his office, next door to the apartment. I knocked. "Come in, please." He was seated at his desk, a very busy man, you know: tablets and forms, the telephone. He wore his tunic as usual, buttoned to the collar, but behind the desk no pants. I was to dust the big desk, empty the wastepaper basket -- this required him to slide the chair away. His huywas pink and wide, with a mole. It seemed misplaced, like a spoiled sausage in his lap, yet that first day I was not surprised to see it, so I knew for sure it was a new life now.
I finished in his room and went back to my own to lie down on the cot. I tried to recall every night I had spent in bed beside my husband and found five or six still banked, the others gone. I never saw Father's parts, nor Sasha's in daylight. At night Sasha wore a flannel bedgown, and often books lay in the bed between us. I assumed that the secretary would want my participation next time, and I decided I would hurt him and let him put me back on the trains. It was a nice thought, but I wouldn't have hurt him. And anyway, I didn't have to. It was the same little show every day and no more. Who can predict a man's appetite? Soon I dusted him, too, swish swish.
Beria was coming to dinner in October -- head of the secret police, friend to Stalin. "The Beria?" I asked. I was to serve, though I had not been trained. The secretary's wife taught me which hand did what over which shoulder. She had a peasant dress for me to wear, but no shawl. I had an apron that covered a little. She caught me in the kitchen and gathered my hair in her hands. She set silver combs in my hair -- very nice. I hadn't worn it up since I was seven. You see what sort of girl I was. "Turn," she said. "Again." She tugged on the neckline and squeezed the last safe bit of my bosom out of the dress.
Beria was a small man with pince-nez. He had small hands and quick little fingers. Here was his hand on my knee while I served the borscht. Back and forth, kitchen to dining room. Here was his hand on my bottom while I cleared the plates. I had been a topic of conversation, apparently, for the secretary's wife concluded, "We do love our Katia. What a difference she's made." "Is she ready for Moscow?" Beria asked. The way his fingers worked -- it was a little desperate.
Across the table Secretary Terehov slouched and pouted. He swirled the wine in his glass. "Take what you need, Comrade," he said. Then he looked up, but at me, not Beria. His eyes were so sad, you know -- who had ever looked at me that way? Poor man, I thought, before I could catch myself.
expected to see Moscow finally, but the dacha was near Krasnogorsk, a train stop shy. My room was in the wing opposite the kitchen, apart from the other help. Beria was not a coy man, like the secretary at Novgorod. He knocked at my door and opened it without waiting for an answer. I had been lying on the bed, but I got up and smoothed my pleats. "Please," he said, closing the door with excessive care. "As you were."
He clipped the pince-nez to his nose and strolled toward the window. "You've settled in?" he asked, touching what I had set out on the dresser -- a hairbrush, a hatbox. He opened the top drawer and touched my underthings. They were not fine things, but he left his hand among them. Then he moved on to the other drawers.
Crossing to the closet, glancing at the rain outside, he said, "We have work for you, Katia. Don't be mistaken -- you'll work hard here." There were three dresses in the closet to poke. "Cleaning -- yes," he said. "Some cleaning." In my satchel, on the floor, he found a photo of Father. "Some other duties, too. Nothing you aren't capable of."
He crouched with his back to me and ran his thumb along the frame of the photo. I waited as long as could be expected, but finally I stood up beside the bed. What I would do next I didn't know. But he heard me, and packed the photo back in the satchel.
He was still smiling when he turned around. "Look at you," he said quietly. "Those furious eyebrows." He scowled, mimicking me, and then extended his hand and gestured with one finger. I didn't know what the gesture meant, but he pointed at my uniform, so I looked down. Nothing was out of place. He did it again, a flick of the finger, and said, "Come on, Katia. Be a good girl."
When I understood, I said, "Leave me alone?" It should have been a statement, but it curled into a question.
"Are photos allowed?" he asked. "Photos of men, smuggled into my house? You'll kiss him at night -- I know you. Sleep with him under your pillow, while Comrade Beria is alone in his bed."
Probably he had mistaken the man in the photo for my husband -- Father was handsome and not so old. But living in a university town, I had heard people say there were no secrets left in Russia except the ones Beria's police kept. I worried that he was familiar with even my small case.
"Come now, Katia," he said, dipping his chin and winking. "Make me forget."
The uniform was a simple shift with buttons down the front, and I unbuttoned one and two. He gestured with his finger, so I unbuttoned some more. I wore a girdle and a low-cut brassiere that would not show at the neckline. He pantomimed with both hands, as if the shift were on his shoulders, and I obeyed, crossing my arms so that the straps hung at my elbows.
His smile soured, but he said, "Good girl, Katia. Do you know how to pick a lock?" Then he said, "Unhook the brassiere."
His gaze shifted to my eyes momentarily. "No to which? No to both?"
I said, "Let's wait until later," and my voice sounded borrowed from some other circumstances -- bottled like champagne and opened here to leaven the mood. I was impressed, but Beria wasn't.
He removed the pince-nez and tucked them into a pocket. He strolled around the bed to me, his hands clasped behind his back. He pulled the bra straps down my arms -- quickly, surprising me, but also gracefully, leaving his hands spread at the end of the gesture: voilà. "You use a barrette," he said. "Where are your barrettes, Katia?"
"I don't have any."
"You don't have any barrettes?" He tsked, speaking just above a whisper. "What kind of girl are you? I wonder. Dear, dear. We'll get you some barrettes" -- he leaned and kissed one breast -- "and teach you how to pick a lock." He kissed the other lightly, with a little pull.
He said, "You're frightened, dear, but your nipples are pleased, hm?"
I could feel that they had hardened, so I began to cry. But he would have none of it. In a full voice he said, "Come, come, dinner time!" Then he patted my cheek and left the room.
With me the thing to know is that Mother died when I was seven, and Father never remarried. We were not a famous catch, you know, and he could be difficult. Alone in the apartment -- we seldom entertained -- he discovered me instead. I said, "Sleep by me, Misha" (I wasn't allowed to say "with"). "Again tonight?" "Yes." I read to him and then we kissed. "Like this?" "Not at all." "Like this?" "Goodness, no, try again." I don't know if it was concern for me or fear of being caught that made him keep us to certain boundaries, but it was never my idea. When I was old enough, he brought his best student home. And Sasha was good to me too, truth be told. He gave me drafts to read and trusted my translations, and kissed me and fumbled when we were alone. He was not impassive or cruel. I wanted to hand myself over to him the way I never could to Father, but Sasha would take so little at a time. I was a passionate girl, but I maintain I was a good girl. I was dying for more, but I never kissed first, never used my poor hands. They lay at my sides, or perhaps I dared to remove my own clothes, clearing the way ahead of him. "Naughty plum," he liked to say, but I wasn't.
Now he was gone, along with Father -- the apartment on Semya Street, the black tea, and Father's pipe -- all gone. And I was still here: the same girl and nothing like her. I wasn't a good girl, because good girls didn't go unpunished. They shot Sasha for defending Father (I don't know, but I am probably right), and they might have shot me, too, if I hadn't answered their questions well. I had an instinct for this second life -- look, I had not even been east. The ones like me will say "Who's to judge?" But don't listen.
So I stayed four months in Beria's dacha. He taught me how to pick a lock, how to gather information, steam and reseal envelopes, open and close doors without a sound, but not slowly, mind. "Never sneak, or someone is bound to see you. Dust the top molding to listen at a door. Keep busy at the far end of a room. Make noise -- not too much noise. When Stalin calls you the first time, don't answer: you haven't heard him. He might not bother to call again. This look is for when others are with him: stupid and dull. Remember never to look at me. That's fine. This look is for when you and he are alone in the room. No, no, more composed -- don't grin, Katia, heavens! That's better. Dust things up high, so that you have to reach. Lean more, please -- very good. You do that so well, Katia. Come over here." "No." "Oh, come and do it again for me." "You don't deserve it." "I know, I know. Stand right here. Yes -- keep reaching. Katia? Oh. What a sweet girl, Katia."
he best he could get me was a post at the dacha called Lipki, where Stalin's visits were infrequent and brief. The staff included a house guard and a guard at the gate, a cook, a gardener. We had nothing to do, but we did it daily, never knowing when Stalin would appear. I dusted the empty rooms, beat rugs, and changed bulbs. The cook kept elk meat and khatchapuri in the ice box. The gardener cut flowers for the foyer. Gathering information was easy, but I had no information to gather -- or nothing that I thought Beria would care for. The locked drawers were empty, or stuffed with Stalin's dead wife's clothes. In his daughter's room I found photos of her: a little girl playing chess with her father. She was fifteen now, Svetlana. There were letters, too, written out in a blocky hand, all capitals. They began, "TO MY KHOZYAIKA, SETANKA," which gave me pause, because khozyaikameans "housekeeper." One went,
YOU DON'T WRITE TO YOUR LITTLE PAPA. I THINK YOU'VE FORGOTTEN HIM. HOW IS YOUR HEALTH? YOU'RE NOT SICK, ARE YOU? WHAT ARE YOU UP TO? HAVE YOU SEEN LYOLKA? HOW ARE YOUR DOLLS? I THOUGHT I'D BE GETTING AN ORDER FROM YOU SOON, BUT NO. TOO BAD. YOU'RE HURTING YOUR LITTLE PAPA'S FEELINGS. NEVER MIND. I KISS YOU. I AM WAITING TO HEAR FROM YOU.
HELLO, MY LITTLE SPARROW! I GOT YOUR LETTER. THANK YOU FOR THE FISH. ONLY, I BEG YOU, LITTLE HOUSEKEEPER, DON'T SEND ME ANY MORE FISH! DID YOU GET THE PEACHES AND THE POMEGRANATES? I'LL SEND SOME MORE IF YOU ORDER ME TO. TELL VASYA TO WRITE ME, TOO. I GIVE YOU A BIG KISS.
It was signed "From Setanka-Housekeeper's Wretched Secretary, the poor peasant J. STALIN."
In a room at the other end of the house, in another locked drawer, I had already found a pistol. I had held it and moved the parts back and forth until I thought I would know how to load and fire. Here with his letters, I thought maybe I would kill him. It hadn't occurred to me before -- why, I don't know. And I had no notion of doing good. I reasoned, in fact, that if I shot him, I would be accountable for very many deaths. First mine, perhaps at Beria's hands. Then Beria's, unless he had the cook and the gardener and the house guard and the guard at the gate all killed before they mentioned me, and also the others who knew about me: the staff at his house, Secretary Terehov and his wife. That many at least to make up for Sasha and Father -- but, strange to say, not enough.
Most of my life I had imagined Stalin, but never once as a father, a kidder. Someone who sent fruit home from holiday. Who said "little papa" or "I kiss you." In this room, with the letters open, I had my first full sense of how stupid I was. I would be no smarter when I killed him, but the father who wrote these letters would be as dead as my dead, and now I knew why that was such good justice. I read the letters twice more to deepen the impression. "How are your dolls?" Then I folded them with the photos and locked the drawer. I wanted to read them again later, but the house guard had developed a crush on me. He sneaked into rooms, and once grabbed me from behind --Guess who -- when I was picking a lock. But he was a poor guard, too enamored to suspect me. How plain I had been on Semya Street, barely able to provoke even Sasha. I wondered whether grief or guilt had rendered me so desirable.
N June I was transferred to the dacha at Kuntsevo. Beria had warned me about Vlasik, but he was unavoidable. My first day he called me in. "Comrade Stalin requires clean windows," he said. "Every day, every window. Inside, outside. Comrade Stalin's bed is to be made if he sleeps in it. If he sleeps on the sofa, the cushions are to be fluffed. If he sleeps on the cot, do nottake it down. Do not make it like a bed. The blanket is to be folded and placed at the foot -- go there today and learn the fold. You are never to be in the same room as Comrade Stalin. He is never to see you or hear you. You are never to speak to him, or to anyone who comes through the front door. This is your handcart. Take care with supplies. This is your uniform. This is your schedule: these rooms, these times, unless someone is in them. If someone is in them, what do you do? Guess. That's right -- come to me."
Kuntsevo bore little resemblance to Lipki -- it was modern and low and ugly, half as large -- but it felt familiar, and soon I realized that the furniture was identical in every room. The pictures that hung on the walls were the same too. In the kitchen the same bread (and fruit and meat -- everything) arrived with the same signed tags attached: No Poisonous Elements Found. We were always busy at Kuntsevo, though. A dozen or more were on the staff, and men from the politburo came and went: Voroshilov, Molotov, Zhdanov -- everyone. Beria, of course. I shared a room with Valechka, the permanent housekeeper, an old woman devoted to Stalin, who had no interest in me.
We all kept track of him through the day. Mornings the word was passed along, guard to cook to gardener:There's movement or There's no movement. His dinner lasted half the night, so he didn't wake until late morning or noon. We would listen at the doors (though we weren't supposed to), and when he left a room, we bustled in, whirling whirling, but attentive still, so that if he forgot his pipe, we could bustle back out before he saw us. "If you're too late," I was told, "don't hurry. Stop running before he opens the door. Turn to him, curtsy (he won't speak to you, but he might nod), and then leave the room calmly." This was from Valechka one night, and though I didn't like her tone, she was the first person other than Vlasik to speak to me at the new dacha. So I said, "I see, I see. And what if he does speak to me, Valechka? And if we pass in a hallway, what then?"
But I had been there less than a week when the Germans invaded, so everything changed. At four in the morning a call came from the Kremlin to the guard on duty: "Wake him up immediately," Zhukov said. "The Germans are bombing our cities." By midmorning everyone had heard the story. Stalin left for Moscow. At Kuntsevo there was less scurrying, more gossip. The younger guards talked of leaving their posts to go to the front. We heard good news and bad, side by side. Most of us believed the bad. Our front had been caught by surprise, our armies captured. I gathered my first and last information -- a telegram left out on Stalin's desk -- and passed it up through a guard named Stepan, who belonged to Beria too. I found a letter from Svetlana:
My Dear Little Secretary, I hasten to inform you that your Housekeeper got an "excellent" in her composition! Thus, she passed the first test and has another tomorrow. I send my little papa a thousand kisses. Greetings to the secretaries.
Maybe because of that word, I had come to think of these notes as my own as much as Stalin's or his daughter's. They were certainly not Beria's; I didn't report them. I lay in bed that night while Valechka wheezed and snored, and I composed a note in my head addressed to Father: "I share a room, but the old woman is good to me. Everyone is good to me, Misha," I lied. "They treat me like a daughter -- don't worry. We all think the Germans will take us as quickly as Poland. I kiss you" -- which I had never said to him and he would not have said to me, though all we did some evenings was kiss. The letter veered: "I'm glad you asked about my dolls. They're not well -- the croup. Send more peaches. -- Your Little Sparrow."
When Stalin returned to Kuntsevo, we knew the worst was true. He came alone, and though it was midday, he went directly to his rooms and would not be disturbed. Someone said he had taken his boots off and lain down in the bed -- not good, because he seldom slept in the bed. We expected an entourage to follow close behind. Vlasik ordered a meal prepared, spare cots made up with the military fold. But no one came. Everyone was quiet for fear of waking Stalin, but everyone wanted him awake. "No calls," he had said, but all day the telephones rang. The guards whispered to one another, "So long as he's sleeping, I for one am not afraid." But we knew the situation was dire. Should I kill him still? I wondered.
By the afternoon of the second day everything had gone slack. Even Vlasik had retired to his room. I walked along the terraces in the sunshine. Birds called, the familiar calls, while Germans marched through our fields. In a grove of pear trees I picked a pear, but it was a terrible mistake: when I bit into it (an early pear -- small and tart) I was back on Semya Street, in the courtyard behind our house, the shade falling under the tree there, and the sound of my husband's typing coming through the window. The radio played in Mother Andreevna's room. Father was lecturing but would be home soon. I was in the courtyard to wait for him.
Instantly I began to cry. I had to spit out the half-chewed pear. What was wrong with me? It wasn't even a pear tree in our courtyard -- it was a crab apple. I could hear my father's voice -- "Where's Sweet Pea?" -- and the old cracked voice of Sasha's grandmother: "She's in back, waiting for you." We would have been more careful had we realized that she didn't know. As it was, Father insisted on discretion. "Shush shush," he would say, pushing me away. "Here is Mother Andreevna, so quiet always in her skin slippers. Baba, you scared me." Walking away down the hall -- was she crying? And when she reported us, what did she imagine they would do with her grandson, please? Did she think he didn't know about father and me? I sat under the pear tree and watched the dacha, but nothing moved and no one emerged. Then I dried my face and stood and walked back. I went inside and stepped through the main room, past the laid table, and through the parlor where the phonograph was, into Stalin's private apartment.
It contained four rooms, all the same size, the same rug before the fireplace in each. Same desk and sofa at one end of the rug. In one was the bed, in two others bookcases. All the tall windows had thin curtains pulled closed day and night, and heavier ones that were usually left open. But in the room I had entered these too were drawn. No lamps were lit. I stood with my back against the door. As it happened, he wasn't in this room, but he might have been. What was my plan? I needed a weapon. A brass lamp stood on a table by the door. It was properly heavy, but the weight of it in my fist solidified the prospect: I would see Stalin from across a room and charge him with the lamp in my hand and strike him on his wide, familiar head. I put the lamp down. Not just now, I thought, to console myself -- but when would I get another chance? With a gun, maybe. But a lamp? I would open the door and creep back out, pray that the parlor was empty still, and slouch into the rest of my life, such as it was.
But just then I heard him. He grunted -- not so nearby, though. He was through the next room, around the corner. I knew where, in fact. I tiptoed to the short hall, expecting the door to be closed, but it was open. I should explain that the dacha at Kuntsevo, being relatively modern, had flush toilets. And I will say that he was a man who flushed before he stood up, and then looked down into the clean bowl.
He saw me when he was buckling his belt, but I had known he would. How awful it was to see Stalin shit. To know he shat was news somehow, but to see him seated with his flank squished into a roll -- not a young man anymore -- was too much. The grimace on his face, pained and juvenile. He dimpled, as you know. Would this be news to Beria? I wondered. Stalin shits -- I've seen it. Now shoot me. And Beria would have.
But Stalin didn't. When he noticed me, his expression was no more or less sour than it had been the instant before. He returned his attention to his belt buckle, his forehead pale and damp. He rinsed his hands in the sink and dried them. Then he shuffled toward me. I must have stood in his way, because he looked into my eyes and gestured with his hand: May I? I stepped aside. I made some noise, too -- it was like a squeak; who knows what it meant. He said, "Thank you," with a good deal of irony.
He shuffled into the next room, where the bed was rumpled. The heavy curtains were drawn, but a lamp burned by the desk. He exhaled a long, relaxed sigh as he climbed into the bed, punched his pillows, and propped them against the headboard. "Can you move yet?" he asked.
"Yes, Comrade Stalin."
"Will you get me a cup of tea, at least?"
"Yes." I nodded.
I began to back out the way I had come, but he said, "Go this way." He pointed. "It's shorter."
When I was through the doorway and into the next room, he called out, saying, "Keke?"
So he's mistaken me for someone else, I thought. A legitimate miracle. I turned, and he said, "The black tea from the Crimea. Ask the cook. And bring honey, too."
"Yes, Comrade Stalin."
In the kitchen the cook had fallen asleep with the radio by his ear. When I woke him, he said, "You spoke to him?" Vlasik was alerted. There is movement. Stalin's favorite server -- a fat Georgian woman -- was summoned to carry the tea. I was thinking that I might want to find an explanation for what I had been doing in his private rooms, but the fat woman returned to the kitchen with the tray still in hand. She looked at me with disgust. "He wants her." Vlasik said, "Nonsense." He took the tray himself before handing it over. "You go," he said, and then yelled, "But don't make him angry!" He lowered his voice and pointed at me. "You will tell me every word he speaks."
The little crowd that had gathered in the kitchen sent me off with plain hatred in their eyes, afraid that I had beguiled him, but the guards I passed in the foyer ushered me with pleased and curious smirks, anticipating my quick demise. Stepan was at the door to Stalin's private rooms, and he gave me a meaningful stare that was meant to remind me of Beria. Then he closed the door behind me and left me alone in the gloom with Stalin.
"Keke?" he called mildly. His voice had the gravelly weight you want from a man, but it wasn't fierce or rude. I considered my dead waiting for me, and my fate, which had been sealed the moment they were arrested and no more than postponed when the secretary at Novgorod plucked me from the platform. I said, "It's me" in a voice I imagined to be Keke's, flirting, because I had learned that this was what I had available. Perhaps I could wrestle the gun away. "I've brought you some nice tea, Comrade."
I set the tray down on a table beside the bed. I would not meet his eyes, but I thought he might be smiling. He shifted in his bed to make room and patted a spot on the covers by his leg. He said, "Can you sit with me?"
So I sat down, nearly, at the edge of the bed. "Of course, Comrade St -- "
He put his fingers to my lips, interrupting. They smelled of pipe smoke. I met his eyes now. The fringe of his moustache was ragged. His face was marked in patches -- as if he had been beaten, I thought, before I recognized the scars that smallpox leaves. He had what Beria called "the Kremlin complexion." His eyes were not cruel, as some have claimed. He said, "Don't, don't do that, Keke, please? Don't be so cold with poor Stalin." There was a gentle, teasing rise to his voice. He took his fingers away. "Be good," he said. "You'll pour?"
I nodded. But while I was fumbling with the screen, he said, "Wait, just one cup? Who is at the door?"
He turned and called out (forcefully, in the voice I had first expected), "Stepan!" Quickly I stood from the bed. When the guard leaned through, Stalin said, "Bring another teacup."
Stepan said, "Slushaius', Comrade Stalin," and closed the door without a glance for me.
Stalin pushed his covers aside. "Well," he said, swinging his feet out of the bed. He put his hand on my shoulder -- lightly, only pretending to lean -- and stood. He said, "Excuse me, Keke, please," and patted my cheek with his open palm. I could see now that his shuffle was mostly for show, a self-deprecating joke, but one arm did hang stiff, as though injured. He went into the hall and then into the lavatory. He closed the door this time.
I touched my shoulder where his hand had been. I smelled my hand -- no smell. Now that I was alone, I noticed the sound of a clock ticking. It was on the mantle over the fireplace, in which a few coals hissed. Don't forget to kill him, I thought. And who is Keke? It was possible that he had lost his mind, but I doubted it. I thought, So it's this bad. I listened for Stalin but couldn't hear anything. How will he kill me? I wondered.
There was a knock at the far door, but I didn't want to call out. The person waited a long time and then knocked again. From the lavatory Stalin said, "Keke!" with a good deal of impatience, so I sang, "Come in!"
Stepan opened the door and peered through. He saw me in the next room and glanced around for Stalin. He moved like a squirrel, closing the door and slipping into the lit room, stopping and glancing around again. He had a teacup in his hand, and he circled past me to place it on the tray. He studied me for a moment. He was a boy still, not even my age, and mixed with confusion and fear in his eyes was ordinary jealousy. So I sneered and waved him away -- shoo. He was about to whisper something (instructions? an insult?) when the toilet flushed. He scurried from the room.
Stalin said, "So." His smile was forced. He climbed back into bed and patted the same spot with his palm. "Our tea," he said. "It's cold by now, but what do we care?"
I poured and passed him his cup and saucer. I said, "It's still warm." How quietly we were speaking! I poured a cup for myself. I said, "Honey?"
"Honey, yes." He was matter-of-fact, a little impatient. I spooned a dollop from the jar while he held his cup between us. The spoon clicked and clacked. He said, "You don't know what to call me now, do you?"
I shook my head no.
"Make something up."
"Something better than that, Keke." He said, "I gave you Keke, now give me one back."
I spooned honey into my own tea and took up the saucer and sipped. He had peeled another layer of hope back, this impression of mistaken identity, but at the core beneath all the layers I was a calm girl already dead. As it happened, hopelessness was not new to me. And equally important to my calmness was the flavor of black tea with honey, which brought me back to Semya Street more forcefully than any pear. I closed my eyes and sipped again. I settled just the slightest bit farther onto the edge of his bed, as if reclining into the grave. I had been here before. I kept ending up here, in this same place, with different men. I said to Stalin, "Do you have a nickname?"
His smile was conspiratorial now; he had been watching me warm to the conversation. "Are you a clever girl?" he asked, in the voice you speak to a pet with.
I nodded. I held his gaze. We were moving in quickly.
"You're very clever?"
I said, "I'm clever." I put my teacup down.
"You don't like me, though?" -- not whispering but nearly, still with this rise, this foolish intonation. He could see through me, I knew, so I said, "No, I don't like you." I shook my head for emphasis. He wore a linen tunic with wide tan buttons. His left hand was beneath the covers, and it could be that he held a gun there. Or maybe he would just use his bare hands. Maybe his will alone would do. I leaned until my cheek was against his chest, and when he set his teacup down and stroked my hair, I pulled my legs up onto the bed and settled.
"You hate me, Keke." He kissed the top of my head.
There were three or four things from home: the tea, the darkness of the room, the fire, the sound of the clock on the mantle. I nodded. "I hate you," I whispered. How good it felt. He knew just what I wanted.
"Everybody hates me, Keke. Everybody hates me." He paused. I closed my eyes. "Let's say you are the new housekeeper?"
I nodded, my cheek rustling against the linen. I could hear Stalin's heartbeat, which for some reason made me want to cry.
"You were cleaning when you came into my room?"
A nod. This was the voice I had heard when I read his letters -- indulgent and sweet.
"You were cleaning."
"Cleaning and what else? Were you spying on Stalin?"
He kissed me. I said no, but only because in truth I hadn't been spying -- I had come into his room with no thought for Beria. If I had been spying, I would have said yes.
"You weren't spying?" No. "You were just curious, then? Girls are curious, I think -- by nature. Isn't that true?" A nod. "It's a dark room, you know -- very hard to clean. You forgot to put the light on. And what's worse, you forgot to bring your handcart with you -- nothing to clean with. What a poor housekeeper, my little Keke." His voice swooned even higher. I nuzzled. There was something in his breast pocket -- foil and paper, a pouch of tobacco. "You were curious. That's all. We get curious -- boys, girls, we all do. We want to know, don't we?" Nuzzling. "We want to see a man shit sometimes. It's true. And so? Does that make us all spies? Sometimes we want to see a man at his worst -- so what?"
I had been crying ever so slightly, but now I began to weep. Brushing the hair back from my ear, he said, "What should we do with you, little girl?" but his voice was not so good, slipping into a desperate range. I shook my head no against his chest. He said, "I don't know what to do, Keke -- I don't know what to do," and my tears subsided, because he was quickly slipping past me. The first sobs shook his chest.
I lay still with my eyes open and rode the jolts and waited a little while more, through a series of deep sighs as he wiped at his cheeks, one hand and the other -- a little frantic. He sniffled. It's a good thing men don't cry often, I thought. Finally he lay still. When he leaned, he held my head against him with his free hand, so that I would know he didn't want to disturb me. I watched him take hold of the knob on the small drawer in the bed table, but then I thought, It's a gun, and closed my eyes so that I wouldn't have to see it. He said shh and touched my hair. He lifted something from the drawer and leaned back. A part of my mind was scheming -- spring for his hand, knock the barrel away -- but the better part was relieved to be granted such an easy death and also relieved that I would not have to kill a man, even Stalin. Then he took the pouch from his breast pocket, so I knew it was only his pipe. Everything was quite familiar. I began to relax.
When he had smoked a little, he said, "Okay, up. Up, up." I sat and stood. He put the pipe down and turned onto his side to sleep. He said, "Keke?"
"Don't leave my rooms." I didn't reply. He said, "They'll take you from me, is all."
In another minute or two he was asleep.
tiptoed and listened at the door. There was a good deal of agitation in the rest of the house -- footsteps back and forth, the telephone, Vlasik shouting in the distance. I returned to Stalin's bedside, where it was quiet, and sat on the sofa to watch him. Stalin sleeping -- I was full of these phrases that first day. Stalin chewing. Stalin smoking his pipe -- a Dunhill, with the little white dot. In this room was another brass lamp, identical to the one I had held in my fist, and, even better, an iron poker by the side of the hearth. But what was the hurry? I felt almost relaxed, enclosed within his plans for me, and this was familiar too.
A little while later he woke with a start, surprised to see me. "Oh," he said to himself, remembering. He sat back and rubbed his eyes and said, "The least you could do is kiss me." I sat still. "Are you hungry?" he asked.
He ordered our dinner and then stripped off his tunic in the lavatory while we waited. I was in the hallway, watching him. He lathered and shaved and trimmed his moustache. "What should we do with you?" he asked, and I said, "Take me on a picnic?" He smiled dimly. "I'm still waiting for a nickname, you know," he said.
I said "Misha" then, because in this cave of his I would say whatever I wanted.
"Misha?" He frowned. "No." He pulled a face.
"It's so weak, Keke. Is that how you think of me?"
"I see." He shook out the tunic. "Well, what can I do, then?Misha, if you like." He said it in a high voice, imitating me.
Vlasik himself brought the dinner in and laid it on the table in the first of Stalin's rooms. We seated ourselves across from each other, and Vlasik uncovered a tchokhom-bili:chicken and rice and eggplant, tomatoes, summer melon, peppers. In addition there was borscht and Baltic herring, new potatoes, baklava, acorns in syrup. Vlasik whispered into Stalin's ear, and Stalin said fiercely, "No!" There was more whispering. "No one!" He flung his hand as if shooing a fly and caught Vlasik's nose. "Go away. Go."
We waited until Vlasik was through the door, and then he gave me his plate and I filled it for him. "They hate you now," he told me, but I shrugged. "They hate you, and you hate me, and here am I, left smitten. What kind of picture do we make?" he asked.
I said, "Stop talking and eat -- you'll feel better."
He smiled at this. I was making him happy.
In the evening he built up the fire and we sat at the desk and played rummy. I said, "How soon will the Germans be here, Misha?"
He told me, "Don't ask that."
"Shall I bring the acorns from the table?" I asked.
"Not for me, no."
"Tomorrow," I said, "let's not stay in all day."
"We owe you a picnic."
"That's true -- with cheesecake."
"You'd better tell the cook now." I shrugged. "Forget it, then." He tapped out his pipe and repacked and lit it.
I asked, "Will you kill me?" -- the playful voice, floating.
He grinned and said, "Will you kill me?"
"I won't kill you if you don't kill me."
He said, "No deals. No business between lovers, Keke."
"But I don't love you," I said, while he counted his points.
"Nevertheless," he said, "no deals."
That night the fire reflected brightly off the glossy wood-slat walls, and in bed he lay on his back at first, nervous, with me just beside him. Then he rolled to face me with his poor arm tucked under the pillow. He said, "My second wife has been dead nine years. How long for your husband?"
"Almost one," I said, wondering how he had guessed I was married -- if my face or figure made it clear.
Something in my expression must have worried him, because he said brightly, "Okay, then! That's enough of that -- my mistake. Here, show me your breasts instead."
"I will not." I smiled, but my heart sank a little too. I had my uniform on still, though I had taken off my girdle and stockings and bra.
He said, "Oh, come now." He made a funny face like a boy. Less than a foot separated us in the bed, and the covers were up across our shoulders. He said, "I won't touch, just give me a peep. I've seen them before, you know."
I laughed a little. "You haven't seen mine."
"Well, that's just the point, Keke. That's my point exactly."
I said, "If you promise not to kill me, I'll show you some things." And this time he laughed -- kindly but awful. He rolled over onto his back again and stared at the ceiling. After a while he said, "Not from Georgia, I know. Certainly not from Moscow. Where did they find you, Keke?"
I was pouting. I said, "I don't think I'm interested in this conversation anymore."
He said, "What makes you think you can act that way?" -- very forceful all of a sudden, an entirely different tone. He turned to me and propped himself up on an elbow. Firelight is flattering to anyone, but it made him look younger, too, and virile, which wasn't a welcome impression just then. He pointed at me and said, "You take too many liberties."
The old thoughts returned to me: How difficult can it be to crack a skull? If he is terrible, I can do it more easily.Quietly I said, "If I vex poor Stalin, he should shoot me. Shall I get out of the bed for him?"
"What have I done to you?" he interrupted, still angry, and that made me sit up and lean. I said, "And that you don't want to ask me, Comrade Stalin!" Which broke him up, in small convulsions that he tried to keep his lips around, followed by a great wave of squinting laughter. I could feel a smile on my own lips as well, but I pushed him, both hands against his shoulders. He pushed me back, still laughing, and I pushed him back, harder this time. Then he had his hands inside my collar. It was a low, square collar, and his knuckles were against my bones there. He yanked the dress down with a little tearing; Ifelt a shot of pain when my nipples caught. He stopped laughing and stared hard at my eyes, not my bosom. My arms were confined by the sleeves tight around my elbows. He sat still, breathing. A door slammed in some distant part of the house, as if to remind me that the Germans were coming. Watching Stalin, I didn't think he was pleased with himself. This wasn't what he wanted, and he was still available to be won back -- I could see that. So eventually I decided. I said, "Shall I take it off, then?" Not solicitous -- just a question.
His laugh was thin and through his nose. He was frowning, but he nodded yes.
He was a suckler -- like Sasha, but not like Father. Nothing like Beria. When you look down past your chin at such a man, it's difficult not to take responsibility. All I had ever done with men was make myself available. Take what you need was what I knew, although none of them had needed me yet. It wouldn't work with Stalin. He was so clumsy. I wasn't sure he would get past my bosom -- stopping and starting, lying still while I touched his hair. What could be sadder than an old man's hair? And if I helped him, who would know? Most things would be erased once the Germans arrived, and even if my dead were with me, they could do nothing. I did think of Father, in fact. I closed my eyes, and there he was. I'm not responsible, I thought, crying, while Stalin huffed and breathed. And where are you when I need you, anyway?
e was up before me, whistling "Douglas the Dog" in the lavatory while he shaved. Bare-chested, with morning male smells on him, he poked his head around the corner when he heard me rustling. "Pod'yom," he said. "We have a picnic to arrange." Look how cheerful I had made him.
I said, "A picnic for breakfast?" I had not fallen asleep for a long time, but then I had slept heavily. From the lavatory he called, "It's almost noon."
The tear in my uniform was in the back -- not so bad, but it ripped more when I pulled it on. I said, "I need to change clothes."
Back around the corner came his head -- concerned this time, thinking, as he buttoned up an identical tunic. I said, "Make them bring my clothes to me."
"No," he said, "I don't think so. Come." He strode past me while I found my shoes. My underthings were on his lavatory floor.
Remarkably, Stepan was still on guard. He must have gone and returned. Stalin looked at him with that combination of stern regard and trust that certain men can manage. Pointing at me, he said, "You're to escort her to her room, wait for her there, and escort her back to me. No stops for anyone -- including Vlasik. Do you understand?" Stepan offered a military nod. I could think of no safe way to thwart the plan.
Only when Stalin was behind the door did Stepan face me -- with a stare much too cruel for such a young man. Where did they find these boys? I stepped past him, and he spat on the floor before following me.
Apparently the despairing quiet had descended over the dacha again. We met no one all the way to my room. Stepan spoke over my shoulder in a hiss that began as a whisper but gained volume along the way. "You'd better have things to tell me, little blyad'. Beria would have me kill you now. What does he say while he fucks you, then? Hm? While the Nazis rape our sisters -- what does he say? How does he like it while the tanks roll through our villages? Why don't you show me what you did for him -- here." I closed the door. It had no lock, so I propped a chair.
I expected pounding or shouts, but when I heard nothing, I slipped out of the uniform, seeing the rip in back that must have dominated Stepan's attention. At the basin I scrubbed and brushed my hair. At first, out of habit, I picked a clean uniform from the closet, and had it on before I realized it wasn't necessary. I changed into a pale-blue dress from my first life, one of the three dresses I had carried with me this far into the next. It smelled of storage -- cedar and dust -- but it put someone else in the mirror before me, an image I doubted I could claim anymore.
When I was ready, I listened at the door. Nothing. I opened it quietly and slipped out and closed it without a sound. Then I leaped, because they were right there beside me, both Stepan and Vlasik. Vlasik was amused and red in the face. He said in a stage whisper, "Sneaky little mouse. Is this your new uniform? Have your duties changed?"
They blocked the way. I had never seen Vlasik so happy -- his florid face was bright. Looking at Stepan, I said, "You heard his orders," which set him off like a dog, cursing under his breath and lunging. But Vlasik held him with a forearm and said, "Katia, dear. Ambitious little housekeeper." He pushed Stepan away. "We need to ask you just a few questions before we return you to your duties. We're concerned for Comrade Stalin, you see -- just as you are, I'm sure." He leaned toward me, Stepan behind him. "You have a picnic planned -- I know. We'll be sure to get you there safely. But you see, Russia is falling into Nazi hands just now, while you take him on this picnic, so that has us worried. You can imagine. We wonder whyStalin isn't worried, you see."
He waited as if for an answer. I was thinking how lucky I was to have no one in my life they could threaten me with. I said, "I'll tell him you asked."
He had a quick fake laugh, bright and high. "No, you won't, Katia. No, you won't. You won't tell him about this conversation at all. It's our secret, the three of us. Tell me please, do you care for Russia?"
"Get out of my way."
"Maybe you don't. Has she treated you poorly? Has Adolf Hitler been kinder?"
"He'll have you killed."
"Do you think? How long have you known him, Katia? What is it -- fifteen, twenty hours, maybe? I don't have a watch. Let's say a full day, yes? Do you know how long I have known him?" He touched his chest, his eyebrows raised. "How long I have been in his confidence? Even poor Stepan here, still a young man, yet he's been with Comrade Stalin since he was a boy. I mean, yes, Katia, granted, it's a very fine dress." He touched me now, rubbing the fabric between two fingers. "And you look well in it, yes. And you and Comrade Stalin have become close in all that time -- I know. But do you think it will be enough when he hears about your friendship with Adolf? Were your duties similar there, Katia?" He rubbed his knuckles up and down across my chest. "Did you wear this nice dress for him, too?"
I began to scream.
Immediately Vlasik said, "Shut up!" When I didn't, he put a hand over my mouth. Valechka, of all people, came running. "What's happening?" she shouted from the end of the corridor, as if we had failed to ask her permission. "Who do you have there?" Vlasik shouted back, "Shut up!"
Then came Stalin behind her. I hadn't seen him yet, but I turned to look when Vlasik let go of me. Stalin appeared more confused than angry, standing behind Valechka with his mouth open. After a long pause he said, "Keke! I'm waiting!" He held his hand out for me -- stern and impatient in his paternal way, without a glance for Stepan or Vlasik. What a strange man, I thought. I looked at the other two, but their eyes were on Stalin and they were both terrified -- for themselves, maybe, but also for him. I walked past them and took his hand. I was close to tears, and when we rounded the corner, I wrapped my other arm around his and squeezed. I had been wrong to worry that he would shoot me. In fact, I was safe only when I was beside him. He might kill me still -- but just by sending me away, leaving me to my fate. I leaned against him, and he patted my cheek.
The cook had packed a great basket, which Stalin carried. Not until we were outside in the garden did he speak to me. "You dressed properly," he said. "Good girl."
He led me across the terraces and into the trees behind, where the forest floor was cleared of brush and picked clean and mowed. Deck chairs stood in front of crude cottages, but we walked past these to where the trees were closer and darker. When we settled, I noticed that three guards had followed us from the dacha. They posted themselves in a triangle around us, politely distant. Stalin spread a gingham cloth. An oversized meal had been packed: cheese and salads and pickled beets. A wine from Georgia that Stalin was proud of. He collected some stones and built a fire within them and cooked shashlik. He was becoming himself again, I imagined, expansive and instructing. I thought, Just one night, true, but look what I've done for him. "What can I feed you next?" he asked, and I said, "A black olive." We lingered over it awhile, licking fingers. He was at ease with me now, his smile presumptuous.
Some folders were at the bottom of the basket, and later on he opened them while I lay back on the gingham. A blotch of sun warmed my stomach, and I meant to let him be, remembering what Vlasik had said. But when I looked over, he was intent, already beyond me. Everyone knows that they come at night, when you're least expecting -- they knock on the door and take you with them. They might kill you that evening, or send you away, and everyone knows you don't get a last meal.
"Misha?" I said.
Still intent on the page, he said, "Hm?"
"What did you do to me last night?" I asked, my voice coy and desperate. "I can't remember now."
It worked, of course -- he turned and smiled. And he seemed surprised by what he saw. His smile quickly drained away. Quietly he said, "You can't imagine how good you look, Katia."
That hurt very much. "Don't say my name."
"How sweet you are to me." He leaned and kissed. "What a good girl," he whispered.
Polotov and another man were waiting for him in the dining room. I thought they looked scared, prepared to beg. Stalin told me, "Wait in my room now. Finish your nap." He spoke quietly, so that they wouldn't hear, and he had let my hand go before they saw us. I made it safely into his rooms. I lay curled up in the bed for a short time, but eventually I came to my senses. I went to the desk and turned on the lamp. I took a barrette from my hair and bent it and picked the lock on the bottom drawer. Start at the bottom. A man will think he has hidden something farther out of reach there. It was crammed full of envelopes from the Council of Ministers, the Defense Ministry. Most had not been opened, but the few that had been contained money -- thick packets of large notes and receipts. They were his wages. I took a fat-bellied envelope from the bottom of the pile and left it out on the desk.
The drawer above this had two things in it: a strange telephone with no numbers on the front -- just a plain black face -- and a revolver loaded with three bullets. It was a heavy, gleaming gun, more substantial than the one at Lipki. I put the telephone up on the desk and carefully lifted the receiver. A conversation was in progress on the line, two men involved in an argument. Between the unfamiliar terms and the poor connection I couldn't follow it well. But they seemed to be talking about troops -- artillery, divisions. The voices sounded antique on the line, hollowed out and distant, their urgency a little comic. I had held my palm over the speaking end, but now I said, "Boo!" My voice bounced back to me in a dead way, making no impression on their argument. I hung up and put the telephone away.
I was trained not to press my luck, so I closed up the drawers. But I kept the revolver out along with the envelope, and found a place to hide them, wedged between the headboard and the wall. I waited for a long time more. The proper thing would be to anticipate him now, gun in hand, perhaps in the narrow lavatory. I could call to him, and he would come to see if I had left the door open. He would round the corner hopeful and lascivious. Two bullets for him and one for me.
But after I had sat a little while on the cold tiles, I realized I didn't want him dead -- at least, not if he would come back to me. If he would come and be good to me again, I would trade that for revenge -- my own and everyone else's, too. I would let him keep me if he was sweet; I would make the bed and wait around for him. Be nice. Let him take care of me. Stop saying no all the time.
I went to the last of his private rooms, where I could peek into the parlor. Approaching the door, I heard music playing on the phonograph. It was the folk song "In This Tiny Village," which I had always known, and I wouldn't have believed this was his voice singing out over the recorded tenor if I hadn't seen him through the keyhole. It was a high, weak sound that his speaking voice would never have betrayed. His brow knit in a foolish way, and his mouth bent into shapes. In my narrow view I could see Valechka behind him, and the cook, both watching with indulgent smiles, and just a shoulder past the cook, which was enough to know it was Vlasik. That was as much of the room as I could see. But when the song ended, applause and "Bravo"s came from the near side. How proud and shy he looked in the lamplight. "Encore!" someone shouted -- a girl. "Encore!" And when the needle was dropped and the song began to play again, he laughed and turned to a part of the room not available through the keyhole. "Please, Setanka. Once was enough." But he was happy, ready to be budged, and his daughter began singing it herself to prompt him. Her voice fell away when he took it up again. He watched her this time -- it was evident in his smile. He sang and watched her. They broke my heart. I turned away to the dark room and sat with my back against the doorframe, listening. I had an image in my mind of my father and husband huddled together in the next dark room, their ears pressed at that door, listening after me. And then more again in the room past them -- a sequence of ghosts left out in dark rooms, each listening after the one before.
hen the men woke me in the middle of the night, I thought they were Nazis. Perhaps I'd been dreaming. They were impatient but gentle.
"We've packed your bags already," they whispered. "They're in the car. Hurry. Stalin is waiting." It was a mean and unnecessary lie: I was perfectly pliant.
They had told the truth about my bags, though. They were there on the seat. While the driver pulled away, I searched for the photo of Father -- quickly, so that I could ask him to turn the car around if necessary. But there it was. I took it from the bag and sat with it in my lap. I couldn't see it in the dark. "Where are we going?" I asked. The driver said, "We won't be long."
He took me to the station and put me on a train. It was a very short train, just two cars: the engine and a good clean passenger car, such as you seldom saw in Russia in those days. A porter carried my bags. I carried the photo. No one else was in the car, though -- only the porter and I. He picked a banquette toward the middle, identical to all those around it. "This one?" he asked. I frowned and stared, but he evidently didn't know any more than I did. "It's fine," I said. He got down from the train, and I was left alone. When I had settled and looked out the window, I saw the driver still there, leaning against his car. The whistle blew and I waved. We pulled away.
At the next station we picked up a string of regular cars, and the platform was full of passengers loading and other people staying behind. They were women and old men and the crippled -- no one fit for service. No one was loaded onto my car, and the old women watched me through the window and pointed and whispered. When we pulled out again, the sun was up. There was a water closet at one end of the car. I washed my face and combed my hair. I remembered the gun I had left hidden, and the envelope of money, and wondered if they would change my present destination, whatever it was, when Valechka found them. I tried the door at the end of the car, but I wasn't surprised to find it locked. When I called out, the voices chattering in the next car grew quiet. I resettled and fell asleep.
I woke to a more familiar landscape. We were traveling east. A porter came with a key and let in an old man who sold me tea and a sausage. He wouldn't speak -- just held things out to show and then took my money with a little bow. We stopped again at Kazan', Sarapul, Yekaterinburg, in the Urals. We passed my town, but I won't name it. I got tired of looking at Father in the photo. I thought, He wouldn't recognize me now. Then Omsk and Novosibirsk, into Siberia. All the way I had the whole car to myself.
The second night the porter let a band in. I had heard them playing for the car behind mine. They shuffled up the aisle, wary, clanking with cymbals tied to their knees and bells attached to the tips of their shoes. They had the big, flushed faces of old men from the steppe, and the bandore player had no teeth. I didn't know the song, but when it was through, I leaned and clapped. They promptly stood and turned to go, but I said, "No, wait. Another, please, one more!" It was as if they couldn't hear me. "I can pay you," I said, willing to lie. This led the last man to touch his cap, but the porter freed them and locked the door behind.
They took me off the train at Tomsk -- two officers from the camp. They were strangely polite, loading me into the car. They allowed me to bring my bags, though after that ride I would never see them again. The Victorian houses of Tomsk sink a little farther each year into the melting permafrost, and in some the ground-floor windows were not much above the sidewalks. The houses were painted bright colors, with turrets and spires, but past the last street the forest crouched above them. We drove to Kolpasevo, on the Ob. Slabs of ice still lounged along the bank. It was a low building with a tin roof. They took my blue dress and my bags. The showers ran yellow -- I don't know why. They gave me pants, a sweater, a vest, a quilted jacket, and felt boots and puttees. Special treatment -- they were expecting me.
Then I cut timber. Because it was July when I arrived, we still had black bread. We had turnips and goose feet for broth. But by January it was cattle feed and meatless bones boiled for the marrow. Also groats -- groats and groats. You rot from the inside, eating that way. Through the war I cut timber, and afterward, too, until Stalin was dead and I felt old and homely. I made no friends at Kolpasevo. No one forgave me, and I didn't want anyone to. One night I was sitting by the stove, rolling a papirosa, when some Leningradka with rings around her eyes and no hair left on her head said to me, "Did he touch you?"
She -- this woman, if you could still call her that -- she looked at me with disgust, repulsed by the very thought. Everyone waited for my answer.
Staring through my smoke, I said to her, "He suckled like an infant."
But she was as good as dead, you know. What was I thinking? I didn't impress her. She looked at me the way Stepan and Vlasik had -- a cruel look that no one would have thought to give me when I lived on Semya Street with Father and Sasha, before I was so desirable (as I never would be again). And though I should have been long past it by then, I thought I might cry under her withering gaze.
So I tapped my ash and said, "He loved me."
She stared and stared.
"I could have killed him a thousand times," I said.