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Fiction Tyrants

Illustrations by Christopher Zacharow

She would not meet Stalin's eyes, but she 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?"

by Marshall N. Klimasewiski

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)

I think I was beautiful, but I don't have pictures to prove it. Or maybe desirable if not beautiful -- pale and amenable, you know, and only twenty in 1941. I had not cut my hair yet. Sad eyes are a must among tyrants, plus my bosom was not as you see it now. Like anyone in that Russia, I lived two lives. No. 1, I was married to Sasha. He taught at the university with my father, and we had our little arrangements, you know, as families will, but what harm? The house was all books. Mornings I laid the fire in Father's room and read under the bedclothes, which were still warm where he had slept. Sometimes I could lure him away from his papers. Sasha's grandmother brewed a bitter tea downstairs, or sliced herring to go with the vodka afternoons in the courtyard. I practiced the piano while Father was away teaching. But then the police came to the door, and Mother Andreevna showed them in, and Sasha was shot, and Father died in the mines at Karaganda. I learned that I was desirable. No. 2. No books in this second life, though -- to this day I cannot stand a book.

More fiction in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

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."

"And cook?"

"My husband's grandmother cooked."

"I see. And where is he now?"

"He's dead."

"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 huy was 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.

I 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."

"No."

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: voilą. "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."

The 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 khozyaika means "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.

Another read,

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.

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two or part three.)


Marshall N. Klimasewiski teaches in the writing program at Washington University, in St. Louis. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and Ploughshares, and has been included in Best American Short Stories.

Illustrations by Christopher Zacharow.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; Tyrants - 00.01; Volume 285, No. 1; page 49-57.