Sunday, November 24, 2013
As everyone knows, Henry David Thoreau retired to Walden Pond in 1846 to meditate on nature and the immortality of the soul. Thoreau emerged from the experience with a memoir about his visit to Mount Katahdin in Maine a few years earlier and a slim treatise called "Proof of the Immortality of the Soul." When the latter volume was published, it was harshly criticized by Thoreau's friend and sometimes mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Wounded by Emerson's crticism of the book as lacking in rigor, Thoreau left New England where he was then living and traveled by steam-boat up the Mississippi River reaching Red Wing and, later, St. Paul. From St. Paul, Thoreau prevailed upon a fur trader, Charles Belvedere, to take him north into the wilderness. Belvedere seems to have shown Thoreau the "veritas caput" -- that is, Lake Itasca, the true head of the Father of Waters. The two men parted on the shores of another lake, thirty miles closer to Canada, a place now called Black Duck Lake on the Ojibway reservation. (The details of Thoreau and Belvedere's journey to the headwaters of the Mississippi are unclear; Belvedere was stabbed to death in a brothel in Duluth in 1880 and his oral accounts of the two men's travels were inconsistent.) Alone in the great forest, Thoreau built a small cabin on Black Duck Lake and began working anew on his philosophical account of the soul's immortality. When he failed to return to his family home near Charleston, South Carolina a year later, his brothers were concerned. The Civil War then raging made it impossible for Thoreau's brothers to seek after the missing man and, indeed, two of his three male siblings were to died in combat. In order to find Thoreau, his grief-stricken mother conceived an ingenious scheme. Thoreau's closest friend during his childhood was a slave boy named Pompey. Thoreau's family freed Pompey, but only on the condition that he would travel north to Minnesota and search for the missing philosopher. Pompey discharged his duty faithfully. In 1864, following rumors then circulating in St. Paul about the missing philosopher, Pompey traveled by freight boat and, then, canoe north to Itasca. The Indians were much impressed by Pompey's black skin and treated him with courtesy and kindness, ultimately leading him to Thoreau's hermitage. In May of 1865, Pompey canoed across Black Duck Lake to the moldering cabin that Thoreau had erected on the steep and heavily wooded shore of the lake. In the cabin, Pompey discovered the remains of Thoreau, mostly reduced to skeleton, and the manuscript from which later editors have published the text that we now know as "The Nonexistence of Death". Pompey wrapped Thoreau's skeleton in canvas. In order to canoe smoothly across the waterways to St. Paul, he had to balance the light birchbark vessel in which he traveled, carefully placing both the skeleton and the manuscript at the prow and stern of the canoe. Reaching St. Paul, Pompey remarked that Thoreau's corpse, or what remained of it, was precisely the same weight as the handwritten manuscript neatly wrapped in twine proving that death did not exist.
Monday, November 11, 2013
Two men were grappling on the floor. It was distasteful. Floors are impure and it was unfortunate that Gennady was involved in this dishonorable scuffle. Gennady’s associates, Alex and Evgeny and Sergei, waved their guns over the men on the carpet, shouting threats and obscenities.
The suka on the floor was a debtor who owed money to Gennady. With his colleagues, Gennady had come to the man’s flat to collect on this obligation. They broke down his door and Gennady seized the debtor by the hair demanding payment. Then, he took the debtor by the throat and strangled him for a few moments before relaxing his grip so that the suka could respond to his demands. The man sputtered something irrelevant and, then, turned his pockets inside-out to show that he was not carrying any cash. Gennady took a hammer from inside his overcoat and broke the debtor’s right knee. The suka collapsed in a heap on the floor and Gennady said that he was Chechan terrorist and that he deserved to have every joint in his body smashed. When he stooped to raise the hammer over the man’s other knee, the debtor suddenly rolled onto his side and, clawing at Gennady’s ankle, dragged him to the floor. And so the disagreeable scuffle ensued.
Gennady was powerful and a good wrestler and, after a half-minute, seemed to have the upper hand. He held the debtor immobilized in a vise-like grip. Alex shouted that the suka was a terrorist and should be slaughtered and Gennady called for one of his associates to shoot the Chechen. Sergei leaned over the debtor and put the muzzle of his gun in the man’s ear. When the gun barrrel touched him, the debtor twisted away as if from an electrical shock and bit Gennady in the throat so that the two men suddenly switched positions. Sergei fired his gun anyway and, accidentally, shot Gennady through the face. The flash and bang from the gunshot startled the debtor and he lost his hold on Gennady, seeming to fall away from the thrashing man the way that a diver drops from his diving board. In that moment, Alex and Evgeny thrust their guns into the debtor’s mouth and eye, firing at such close range as to blister the suka’s lips and set his eyebrow on fire.
The bullet from Sergei’s gun had passed through Gennady’s right cheek and made another mouth for him, a fist-sized crater of blood and bone, on the opposite jaw. Alex knelt and lifted Gennady’s head, holding him upright so that he would not drown in his blood. The Chechen debtor turned over on his face and died. Gennady’s wound was terrible, but Evgeny, who had fought in Afghanistan, said that it was survivable. The men did not know that the bullet had transected Gennady’s tongue so that a part of it was lodged in his windpipe. Despite the best efforts of his colleagues, Gennady lived only a minute or two longer than the man who had owed him money.
Sergei found the debtor’s bedroom and brought sheets and a blanket with which to swaddle Gennady’s body. Evgeny called the police and told the officer on duty that they should not concern themselves with reports of gunfire in the flat. “This is mafia business,” Evgeny told the dispatcher, “and there is no reason to trouble yourselves with this matter.” The policeman cursed and said that he would have to talk to his boss. “No one will come,” Sergei said after Evgeny reported to him about the phone call.
Sergei shook his head. “Did any of you know that he had a gun concealed on him?” Alex and Evgeny didn’t answer. “Who could know that the bitch would shoot our boss?” Sergei said. Alex and Evgeny shrugged.
Sergei said that the Chechen terrorist was shit and that he should be returned to shit. They lugged Gennady down the steps of the apartment and put him in his Mercedes. Sergei said that they should disassemble the debtor so that no piece of him was larger than a walnut and flush his body down the toilet. Sergei went to a bar down the street to buy a couple of bottles of vodka since the task promised to be arduous. Alex and Evgeny carried some tools up to the apartment and went to work smashing the corpse into small fragments. When Sergei came back from the bar, the men were red with gore and the walls and ceilings were painted with the stuff. Sergei looked at them with disapproval – there was an icon in the kitchen and one in the bedroom and he said that Evgeny and Alex should have turned those images to the wall or, otherwise, shielded them. “Why are there icons?” Evgeny asked. “I thought you said the man was a Chechen terrorist.” Sergei said: “He is from Chechnya. I don’t know his religion.”
The men got drunk and, after an hour, became sloppy. The toilet backed-up when one of them tried to flush down a piece of thigh-bone too large for the drain. The bone was the size of the crust on a loaf of store-bought bread and it clogged the toilet. They couldn’t unstop the drain and so showered in the dead man’s bathroom, water also overflowing the tub, and, then, went down to the Mercedes to take Gennady’s body to someone who could decently prepare it for funeral.
“The home for angels is heaven. The home for a vor is prison.” Gennady had those words tattooed on the small of his back, inscribed in his flesh in elegant Cyrillic letters. A woman was wailing in the next room. Some men stood around the table on which Gennady’s corpse rested.
Although he was only 37, Gennady had been a great man and he was famous throughout the city and the province. He bought and sold money, traded in heroin, krokodil, and cocaine, and trucks that he owned arrived daily from Siberia heavily laden with timber illegally harvested where the roads ended, in the great forests on the edge of the Arctic. Gennady owned casinos and distilleries, transacted business in polonium and other nuclear contraband and his brothels were the cleanest and best regulated in the city. He imported caviar from Lake Baikal and owned five military helicopters still armed for war and salesmen that he employed traveled in Africa and Asia and the Middle East offering rocket-launchers and surface-to-air missiles to the highest bidders. On the day that he died in the absurd tussle with one of his debtors, Gennady had been negotiating for the purchase of a fully equipped submarine. A thousand men owed fealty to him. Some of them begged at the door of warehouse where his body reposed, pleading with the guards to be allowed to show their devotion by licking the wounds from which he had died. The lanes around the warehouse were double-parked with Porsches and Mercedes sedans and Italian sports cars, men wearing Adidas tracksuits coming and going and the police stationed men with digital cameras on the rooftops to record the activity and catalog those in attendance but did not otherwise interfere.
Gennady’s lieutenant, Josef, excluded the dead man’s mother from the room where the corpse lay, resting on a billiards table atop a swath of white canvas. Josef told the weeping woman that he didn’t want her to see her son until the morticians had tidied-up the body. Josef said that he had summoned the greatest embalmer in Russia, the scientist responsible for supervising the preparation of Stalin’s corpse, Dr. Piotr Shabadach. “He will be arriving by private jet this afternoon,” Josef told her. “I’ve have called for him.” A doctor in attendance issued some sedatives to Gennady’s mother and three men were sent with her to the lakeshore dacha that her son had purchased for her.
Dr. Piotr Shabadach was director emeritus of the Mausoleum Laboratory. The Laboratory was responsible for maintaining the mummified corpse of Vladimir Lenin. Piotr’s father was a biochemist and part of the team of scientists that had embalmed Lenin in 1924. During the great war against the Fascists, Lenin’s body had been transported from Moscow to Tiumen in Siberia. Piotr’s father accompanied the corpse and he was stationed in that town for the duration of the war. The alabaster-pale corpse was kept in a special chamber in a modest structure built from brick and whitewashed to the color of the dirty snow heaped up on its grounds. The building was part of the local School of Agriculture and stood apart from the other structures on campus, closer to the milking barns and vegetable gardens where the students performed their experiments during the short summer. Piotr recalled visiting the place often with his father – the corridors smelled of potatoes and electricity was sporadic so that the chambers and classrooms were often very cold and very gloomy. Piotr had been raised with the dead and Lenin’s body held no special fascination for him – it was just one of innumerable corpses that he had encountered in his life.
At the end of the war, Piotr was sent to Berlin with a team of morticians charged with preserving relics of the Nazi high-command. The city was in ruins and the corpses that Piotr examined were fragmentary and charred – there was nothing to embalm and so, after half a year, he returned to Moscow. Piotr’s father retired from the laboratory in 1950 but his son continued to work in that facility. Over his career he was entrusted with embalming many famous heroes of the Soviet Union, including Stalin, who rested for a time next to Lenin in the Mausoleum in Red Square. Piotr supervised teams of morticians who embalmed Ho Chi Minh and several African leaders of importance and he supervised the mummification of many generals and dignitaries in Eastern European countries under Soviet control. The Mausoleum Laboratory was the world’s leading institute for the preservation of corpses and each scientist was allotted a quota of cadavers for experimentation. The dead men floated in glass cases, revolving so slowly in the viscous fluids in which they were immersed that a corpse might show one profile to the world for a decade, then, display full face with eyelids stitched shut, and, finally, the other profile twenty or thirty years later, naked and white specters from another dimension,like planetary nebulae in death’s deep space.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Piotr expected the Mausoleum Laboratory to be disbanded and that the mummy of Lenin would be hauled away in the night and decently buried somewhere under the Kremlin Wall. But this didn’t occur. Instead, a fresh generation of mortuary scientists were trained in the laboratory, although, it seemed, that they now spent most of their time embalming murdered gangsters, a lucrative, if difficult, profession and one that required a different sort of tact than necessary in dealing with the families of deceased politicians and generals. Although he was old and weary, Piotr Shabadach had debts to pay and some of his children had children of their own who needed his assistance and, so, when a summons came to embalm yet another dead mobster, there was nothing for him to do, but travel to Yekaterinburg, with a technician and female beautician to see what he could do for the Gennady’s battered corpse.
Gennady’s business associates wanted the corpse to lie in state in the rotunda of one of the murdered man’s casinos. Already, a three-meter tall stele had been commissioned, a column inlaid with malachite on which Gennady was to be represented casually dressed in slacks and sports jacket, the keys to his Mercedes dangling from his right hand and, behind him, the domes of the Church on Blood with his car parked curbside. Josef showed Piotr the design for the monument as the limousine departed the airport.
“You must make his corpse match the picture on his tombstone,” Josef said. Piotr nodded. The cheerful, heavy-set man on the monument was smiling as if he had just finished laughing. “He looks very happy,” Piotr said. He passed the picture of the stele to his technician. The technician nodded and handed the image to the young woman beautician. A picture of Gennady from a wedding or christening had been photo-shopped a little awkwardly onto the vertical slab of polished semi-precious stone. He was too big for the monolith and towered like a giant over the ornate Easter-egg domes of the Church on Blood. “He was a very handsome man,” the beautician said.
The outer rooms and passageways around the room where Gennady’s body lay on the billiards table were suffocating with mountains of floral tributes, big bouquets and urns overflowing with livid, tropical-looking blossoms. Piotr was ushered into the chamber where the corpse awaited him, sullen and recalcitrant, a disorderly sprawl of limbs, with blouse and collar cardboard-stiff with black, dried blood. Piotr and his technician put on their rubber gloves and examined the corpse, carefully prying the dead man from his clothing. The beautician crossed herself when she saw the corpse and, then, sat in the corner of the room. Sometimes, she took her phone from her purse and gazed at it wistfully as if she wished to access her text messages but thought that this might be construed by the others as disrespectful.
“We are going to have to do something about the tissue deficit at the exit wound,” Piotr said. The puncture wound on Gennady’s cheek was round and black – it was something through which you could put your finger as a probe and this could simply be stitched shut. But the bullet’s exit had blown away part of the corpse’s jaw, dislocating his mandible so that his mouth gaped open above a crater on the side of Gennady’s chin large enough to hold a pear or apple. “This will pose a problem,” Piotr said to the technician. The technician nodded.
When the corpse was naked, they turned him over, inspecting his skin for donor locations for a graft. Gennady’s body was purplish and green where his blood had pooled and most of his skin was covered with tattoos. Pictures inked into the dead man’s flesh covered him the way ivy wraps itself around a tree’s trunk or like some sort of a lurid, ornate rash. On his biceps, Gennady had images of the Holy Romanov martyrs, the Tsar and Tsarivech pierced by bullets and raising their clasped hands toward heaven where crosses in golden, rayed mandalas decorated the dead man’s shoulders. On his belly, there was a tattoo of a furry demon smoking a pipe and carrying a banner depicting severed breasts and the scalps of hairy vulvas surmounted by a woman’s skull with trailing a comet of long, reddish hair. On Gennady’s right thigh, there was a skeleton masturbating, hands gripped around a huge purplish penis. His right thigh was marked with an image of Jesus or Rasputin rising from the onion-domed steeples of Saint Basil’s Cathedral at the Kremlin. His back was marked with images of Lenin, Marx and Engels, their noble brows incised into his skin side-by-side beneath his shoulder blades, and, at the small of his back, there was a flock of swastikas with crow’s wings blindly taking flight over a meadow where a naked girl mournfully gazed down at the grass curling between her toes. Gennady’s left buttock was decorated with playing cards and a syringe for injecting heroin and the backs of his thighs showed a woman serenaded by a corpse in a sombrero, the girl crooning into a severed penis that she held in front of her lips like a microphone. On the back of the thigh next to the singing girl, another naked woman carried a man’s head on a tray, apparently an image of Salome.
One of the men guarding the body laughed at Piotr’s obvious discomfiture as he stroked the tattooed skin and, then, glared at him, as if daring the old man to say something. “Many tattoos,” the technician said. “Indeed,” Piotr replied. Except for the corpse’s right buttock, the dead man’s skin was almost entirely sheathed in tattoos, pictures that seemed to have slackened a little, dull with pooled blood, as if they were about to be shed from his body the way a snake sheds its skin.
“We’ll do our best,” Piotr said to the armed men standing around the billiards table. He shooed them out of the room and, then, with the technician bent over the corpse. They worked for several hours, extracting tools from the big leather bag that the technician had brought into the room. When they were done, the beautician was told to make-up the dead man’s face and Piotr with his technician went outside and stood in the cold, clear air that was unburdened by the perfume of rotting flowers, smoking cigarettes. Piotr said that the body should be transported to a local mortuary so that he could supervise the embalming process. “I use special chemicals,” Piotr said. “The body will stay fragrant and fresh for a month.” Josef said: “Will it last forever?” Piotr replied: “Not forever, but long enough.”
Gennady’s face was sculpted to display a very slight smile. When he was alive, Gennady didn’t smile in this way. Instead, his lips curved up to reveal his teeth which were crooked and stained yellow by tobacco. The smile decorating the face of Gennady’s corpse was subtle and reticent. It was the smile of a man who is departing the company of his dearest friends for a wonderful holiday from which he knows he will return with fascinating stories to tell his comrades. At first, Gennady’s mourners didn’t recognize him because of the shy and slightly bemused expression on his face. Then, people hugged one another and said that Gennady looked more like himself than had ever been the case when he was up and about.
Piotr’s technician, working with the local mortician, had bound a white velvet ribbon around Gennady’s bronzed forehead. The ribbon marked the place where mourners were to plant their lips when they kissed Gennady goodbye. Some of Gennady’s closest colleagues shed tears and dampened the face of the corpse with them and, more than one kissed the dead man on the lips and on both of his cheeks. Everyone pronounced the cheeks a wonderful success. “His skin,” one of Gennady’s lieutenants said, “is as soft as the buttocks of a new-born baby.”
With another man, Josef met Dr. Piotr Shabadach, his technician, and the beautician at the loading dock of Gennady’s casino. Josef handed envelopes containing currency to the technician and the woman. The beautician was hungover and she looked a little unsteady on her feet, dabbing at her eyes as if sorrow threatened her with a flood of tears that she was just barely suppressing. Josef said that he would pay Piotr separately but that he wanted to talk to him first.
Josef made a phone call and the limousine arrived to take them to the airport. Josef and the man with him rode with them to the airport. The man accompanying Josef had a big, round head like a pumpkin with eyes and crooked teeth amateurishly carved in its flesh. Josef offered them drinks. Traffic was heavy and, for a time, they were stopped on the freeway near the airport, planes rising and falling over them. The beautician looked distressed, as if she might be sick. “I don’t feel well,” she said. “You’ll feel better if you have a drink,” Josef said. The man with the pumpkin head poured some vodka into a glass for her and she tilted her head, shoulders trembling, to down the drink.
At the airport, Josef opened the limousine doors for the beautician and Piotr’s technical assistant. The vodka seemed to have fortified the young woman and there was a slight, self-satisfied spring in her walk as she entered the terminal. Josef said that he wanted to talk business with Piotr and that he would have someone drive him to the gate after they had finished their conversation. Josef said: “If we get delayed, just tell the plane to take off anyway. I’ll see that Dr. Shabadach gets back.” “I don’t want to miss the flight,” Piotr said. “I’ll make sure that you are taken care of,” Josef replied to him.
Josef directed the driver to take a service road to some squat buildings lipped with loading docks where air-cargo was warehoused. He rolled the window down to wave at the security guard who beckoned to them as they passed through the gate among the big hangars. They stopped between two featureless buildings and Josef asked Piotr to get out of the long white car. The man with the pumpkin head stood beside Piotr, close enough to take hold of him.
“You want to be paid right?” Josef asked.
“Of course,” Piotr said.
“I ought to pay you with a beating and a bullet to the head,” Josef said.
“What do you mean?”
“That girl, she got drunk last night, and she told the guy she was screwing that you carved meat out of Gennady’s buttocks and put it into his face.”
“He had a lot of tattoos,” Piotr said. “I needed a donor site for the graft to repair his cheek and jaw.”
“So she’s telling the truth?” Josef asked.
“I used a graft of skin from Gennady’s buttock to fix his face,” Piotr said. “It’s nothing unusual.”
“So you made my boss into an ass-face?”
“I did what I had to do.” Piotr replied.
“She shouldn’t have talked about it,” Josef said. “It’s a matter of respect. People are going to say that you made Gennady into an ass-face. And so, what am I supposed to do about that?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Piotr said.
“I’ll make you care,” Josef answered.
“Four times in the nineteen-fifties, I was told that I was going to be arrested. Arrested and purged,” Josef said. “I lived with my suitcase packed -- a New Testament, an icon, a couple pair of shoes and some cigarettes for trade. A loaf of bread. You know, I lived that way, expecting every hour to get a knock on the door.”
“We don’t have to live that way any more,” Josef said.
The man with the carved pumpkin face took Piotr’s wrist and gripped it hard.
“You shouldn’t have let it be known that you made Gennady into an ass-face,” Josef said.
“What did you want me to do?”
“You should have peeled some skin off your own belly or something,” Josef said.
“You wanted me to make Gennady look pretty again. That’s what I did.”
“You really don’t give me any choice,” Josef said.
“Everyone’s got a choice,” Dr. Shabadach said. “I’ve been caring for the corpses of evil men all my life. Only wicked men and their followers want to be preserved to last forever. The rest of us don’t mind oblivion. I don’t mind.”
“You don’t mind?”
“I’m an old man,” Piotr said. “I’ve survived four purges, maybe more. I don’t care any more.”
Josef hit Piotr hard on the side of his head. The old man dropped to his knees, his face bowed toward the concrete. Josef reached down and pulled Piotr up to his feet. Then, he reached into his coat pocket and took out a fat envelope full of money.
“It’s enough,” Josef said. He handed Piotr the envelope and, then, led him to limousine. “We have to hurry,” Josef said. “I don’t want you to miss your plane.”