Potluck

 

ON RECESS!

BE BACK SOON!

 

In the Upside-Down World, Pt. 2

Read Pt. 1 here!

***

“Trust me, nobody has been kicked out,” assured her Nikolay. “You see, even during military operations, the rule of law is enforced here. We got these regulations and they provide that each government-controlled dormitory must keep one room vacant for emergency situations. If, however, the manager still lets unauthorized persons live in that room, he’s the one responsible for the problem, not you. Old leach, these people would make money on everything. Can’t trust them. I have an eye for his kind. I know how to straighten them out. Even his son – he looks fishy to me. I have a feeling I’ve already seen this guy somewhere.  But where?.. Anyway, most likely, the girl got things confused or may have even made them up.”  

He was very convincing.

“In any case,” Amy said to herself, “the day after tomorrow we’ll be gone and the room will be available again. Until that moment I’ve got tons of work to do.”

The humanitarian aid turned out to be a middle-sized carton with several cans of beef, condensed milk and something else.

A gloomy-looking woman passing by sighed, “The feds in Moscow think that this will sustain us for three months.” “Thank God, during the clean-up the soldiers didn’t find the money I’d hid. So once in a while I can buy some food for my family.”

Amy did not quite understand. “Excuse, but clean-ups are to catch rebels, aren’t they?”

“Whatever you say. But instead of the rebels the soldiers caught me with my two children, my sister and parents.  They kept us all in a barn for three days and then released us, no explanation given. When we came back home, our house had already been shelled away, bombed into pieces.”    

    Oumar was showing her around the dorm. Seeing their beggarly, nearly inhuman living conditions, with rooms looking more like prison cells, she felt sorry for these people. Yet what they were telling her sounded weird to say the least. She met this old man who claimed Russian soldiers had kept him in a pit in the freezing cold for a week. She met this woman whom during each clean-up operation the soldiers confronted with a choice: her jewelry or her teenage daughter. When the woman ran out of jewelry, she took her daughter and ran away from their village. She met this married couple – Special Forces men captured their son, stuck him into a stack of hay and burned him alive.  All these gruesome stories were beyond comprehension. Welcomed in a tabloid, they would raise a lot of eyebrows in The Rain City Herald. Yes, these people went through hell, and hell changes things, creating new realities. It puts everything upside down. Overwhelmed by stress and fear, it’s only human to become a victim of distortions. And distortions are a powerful force. They bring up from the bottom of your soul something you couldn’t possibly think about.

    “And don’t forget their drive to cover up their beloved relatives who flopped over to the bearded ones, I mean the Wahhabists,” commented Nikolay.  “You know, my favorite movie is Can’t Change the Meeting Place. It was released at around the same time as the West boycotted the Moscow Olympics, a sanction for the Soviet Army entering Afghanistan – like the US never sent troops to Vietnam or never bombed Serbia. Anyway, the point is, the main character in that movie, a detective officer, he was saying, ‘There’s no punishment without a crime.’ And that’s how it is here. You’ll get to hear a lot of outcry from the locals, a lot of complaints how they were mistreated and all. But they’ll tell you only one side of the story, skipping the other one.  I admit, some people may have been wronged, but there was always a good reason for it. You’ve seen our boys: They’re no cannibals. They’ve taken the military oath and are just serving their country. But the locals make some kind of monsters of us. Do you know what they call us? Gaskee khak, meaning ‘Russian pigs’ in Chechen. A nice was to say thank you for all the blood that we have shed here. Who else would protect them and the world from the goatface Wahhabists? And let me tell you, these bearded crazies can’t wait to blow up America.”  

***

It was not until late evening that she was done with the interviews. Wiped out, she was dying to crash down on something soft and stretch her body out. But the dirty bunk bed mattress in the dorm was certainly not her first choice.

Nikolay came up with an idea. ”Why don’t you go to the barracks with me and meet my friends? It’s close by.” She gladly accepted the offer.

Sitting around these blonde, ordinary guys and drinking brandy, she was quite comfortable. One of her hosts was telling jokes, another – showing his photographs. At some point, mysteriously smiling, Nikolay excused himself and half an hour later came back.  “Surprise!” he shouted, holding in front of him at arm’s length a real, bellied, copper samovar. “It’s a tea party time, gentlemen and our fair lady!” Where did he got this obscure piece of equipment was puzzling. But she knew he’d done it for her.  

Then a tall freckled guy took out an acoustic guitar from a guitar case, and they began to sing. Their songs sounded too lingering and mournful as all Russian songs do, but she didn’t mind. Then the player switched to the pieces she was more familiar with and did Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water and other classic hits. Pink Floyd sounded particularly inspiring when several voices sang along, “How I wish // How I wish you were here // We’re just two lost souls // Swimming in a fish bowl // Year after year.”

Except for the brandy it felt like she was back in a scout camp in the Canadian Rockies. Yes, Nikolay was right: These people are just ordinary people.  True, nobody invited them to Chechnya, but being here wasn’t exactly their idea either. They’ve come to serve their country, after all. And this means, this means that … Whatever it meant, Amy didn’t finish thinking it out. Tiredness and the buzz did their job, and she fell into a sleep.

… She woke up because somebody was stroking her hair. She understood right away who it was. All of these days she really wanted his hands to touch her, but didn’t know she wanted it. And now he was caressing and kissing her, and this was a wonderful, irresistible feeling – something she hadn’t had and longed for a long time. She got carried away, but at the very last moment pushed him away.

“Are you scared?”

“No, I mean yes. Everything too quickly. And you are looking so similar like my brother. It’s crazy.”

Although it was dark, she felt that he was smiling.

“OK. Time is no challenge. We’ll wait!”

He gently kissed her on her lips and got up.

Only now did she realize that they were lying on an improvised structure made of pillows and blankets laid all over the floor.

“How cozy! It’s actually better than the scout camp,” she thought and fell into a sleep again.

***

When Amy opened her eyes, the room was empty, and so was their section of the barrack. She went out to the yard and washed her face with fresh snow.  Nobody was there either.

She was walking down the river bank back to the dorm. The dawn sky was brightening, and soon the outline of the swing tree she had seen yesterday became discernible ahead. Was it an oak? Suddenly she heard someone yelling and cursing in Russian. A man. And then a scream burst in the air. A child’s scream. Amy rushed forwards. She reached the tree – and stood still from what she saw.

Thе swing was missing while the rope was still there. Her arms straight up, suspended to it was someone very small and little. The pink pom pom hat made it clear to Amy who it was.  

His back leaning against the tree trunk, a man was half-sitting. A soldier was wobbling right near him, sawing the air with his arms. Despite the cold, he was only wearing a T-shirt for top.    

He was shouting, “Where’s your son? Where the fuck are ya hiding your bastard?”

    Amy came closer. The soldier turned around, and to her dismay she recognized Nikolay; to be precise – what was left of him. His face was different, drink-reddened and angry. His eyes were no longer green but, with the pupils enormously dilated, turned dark. He looked through her for a few seconds and then staggered towards the tree. She looked closer: The man under the tree was Oumar, the dorm manager. His lips, nose, cheeks had become one huge bleeding wound.

    Nikolay stuck a combat knife to Oumar’s throat.

    “So where the hell is your fucking son?”

    “Don’t know. Yesterday he left for the city. He didn’t do nothing bad.”

    Nikolay punched him on his chin.

    “Didn’t do nothing? How about he and his thugs slaughtered half of our recsquad? They all were wearing beards then. But I have figured him out. I have an eye for his kind. So don’t you fool me, asshole.”

”Vakha has never been at war. And he must be in the city now. You can do what you want to me now. Just let my granddaughter go, please.”

Amy felt as if she was having a nightmare. And maybe she was. Yet she had no time to think it through and rushed to the girl, trying to untie her.

Nikolay pushed her away into the snow.

“Fucking American whore. Get the hell outtahere.”

Each of his word was filled with hatred.

“Nick, why are you doing this? This isn’t like you, Nick,” she was repeating. Standing around her were the ordinary blonde guys who had generously welcomed her with tea and brandy and sung so heartily last night. None of them paid any attention to her now.

Starshina,” said the freckled guitar player to Nikolay. He wasn’t playing the guitar now, just smoking and spitting into the ground. “What if you got him wrong? These assholes all look kinda the same. And we were boozing it up heavily the whole night yesterday.

“I got him wrong? Well, why don’t we check?”

He picked up a stick from the ground, looped the rope around it and twisted it, lifting the girl’s body higher off.

She burst into crying, “It hurts. It really hurts.”

“Cool swing, baby” he smirked.

With one stroke of the knife Nikolay sliced off all the buttons from the girl’s parka. Holding the knife blade to her belly, he said to Oumar, “OK, old man. Let’s see what she’s got inside.”   

And here some unseen force picked Amy up from the ground and pushed her forward towards Nikolay. Taken by surprise, he fell down. Frantically slapping him on his sodden face, she was screaming, “You’re a Nazi, you’re a goddamn freaking Nazi.”

At first he didn’t even try to defend himself, but when the others were pulling her away, bolted his fist forward. She got nauseous. Something warm was flowing down her cheek. Driven by a whim, she threw two words at these soldiers, “gaskee khak.” She didn’t really mean it and wasn’t even sure what exactly these words meant or where she had heard them. They just popped out, driven by frustration and distress.    

    Suddenly something shone in his hand. The blade?

    Oddly enough, Amy didn’t even feel any pain, just some disgusting saline taste in her mouth. But there was no way she could spit or swallow: Instead of her throat she now had something cold, big and scary inside of her.    

    Lying with her back on the snow, Amy thought, “The little girl is right. If you look above from upside down, everything is so different indeed. The sky looks different upside down. And this tree looks different upside down. And these strange people surrounding me – mouths instead of foreheads – they look so funny, too. All is different and funny in the upside down world.”

    Then she saw several cloudy sheep in the sky. White and curly, they were gazing at her quite curiously. They probably would be doing this for long, but for some reason the sun began to go back down, falling behind the horizon. When it finally vanished, the sheep ran away.  And shortly everything else was gone into nothingness.  

***

Leonid Storch immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union in 1990 and presently lives in Thailand. A former resident of Florida, he has a Juris Doctors Degree. His publication list includes 3 books and numerous essays, poems and fiction stories that appeared in Russian-American and European magazines. He writes both in Russian and English.