When you walk the streets of Moscow, though you may not know it, you walk among the dead. In every city there lies a risk, but if you treat the uncertainty dispassionately, with just a jot of sang-froid, then you survive. In the heart of the New Russia, in the middle of winter, there are many such risks. I learned that one truth. I also learned another, darker truth.
The first time I arrived in that chancre of a city, the sun shone. The light was opalescent, milky with the haze that comes from cold, and the streets were paved with dirt. Snow lay piled high above the wrecks that people had simply abandoned by the side of the main highway to the city. I asked my driver, and the explanation was simple. To get a new car costs less than trying to fix the old one. The New Russians have a practicality born of desperation in their new-found freedom. The signs are everywhere. They can’t get salt or sand, so they grit the roads with earth. If something breaks, they leave it; it’s cheaper to let dead things lie.
I was warned about the cold before I got there. But it’s not the cold that kills you. They say it’s the vodka and the cold, but I know better.
Vodka and cold are a good explanation for the deaths on the city streets — a rational explanation. I knew it was more than that, but only after what I’d seen. The old man struggling to rise from the snow that clutched him within its grasp, the stains on his trousers, slick with the sheen of ice. The woman, face down in the middle of the road, her legs spread wide as the cars drove around her. As my driver worked his beaten-up Volga past, I pressed my face and hands flat against the chill, mud- spattered glass. I stayed there, pressed up against the window, watching her body on the road until the cars around hid it from view.
That first time, I was in Moscow on business. I flew in, and we landed in the early afternoon. I had a car organised to meet me; I’d been forewarned. Colleagues warned me of other things too. “Head, hands and feet,” they said. Hat, gloves and shoes or the cold would get me. Sound advice. No one warned me that there was something else lurking within the cold.
On that first visit, my clients had me staying at the Intourist, or the In-whore-ist, as the local ex-pat community knew it. That particular hotel was my first real experience of Moscow. The grey-liveried doormen, resplendent in their cool western sunglasses checked my hotel pass every time I entered or left. I stood on the front steps, cold gnawing at my ears and throbbing in the joints of my fingers. The guards inside the door watched me with suspicion, as did the passers by. Pinched pale faces radiated the chill of their distance as they passed me on the street. That sense of isolation was more than their history, more than the legacy of their regime. There was something in the streets that made them afraid — something in the air and that something had substance.
I waited on the hotel steps for my car, not brave enough to face the Metro. Fur and beards and bulky coats passed me by — and the boots. Sallow faces glanced at me sidelong, buried within fashionable pelts. Some of them sized me up as a potential mark; the dollar with the inconvenience of a person attached. A group of the local Mafia arrived, with dark well-cut suits and colourful Italian ties. The inevitable bottled blonde hung on one of their arms. I stood to one side to let them pass. I huddled on the steps and waited, blowing on my hands.
To my relief, my driver finally arrived and he ferried me through the chaos of the Moscow traffic to my client’s offices.
As we drove, the confusion and the dirt intimidated me. Mud from the streets coated the cars, and everything else. The vast grandeur of Soviet architecture loomed above it all, staring down upon us as we scurried, insignificant below. The skyline plumed with columns of steam and the smoke of industry, guarded in between by huge buildings known as the Seven Sisters — massive edifices, constructed to mark the triumph of Soviet engineering. In the middle of all that, I felt alone and small.
First impressions came easily; it was the desperation of the place that struck me, and then it was the fear. But the fear was unspoken and less visible than the marks it left. I could sense it, almost palpable in the streets.
My third visit gave me more understanding. I stayed at the Aerostar, a little further out from the centre. The hotel was new — only about eight years old — and sat back on a side street from Leningradsky Prospekt, one of the main roads leading in from Sheremetyevo airport. A double avenue led from the main street to the entrance. Trees studded the central strip between the lanes, and lights festooned the branches in a perpetual parody of Christmas. If I ignored the lights, there were skeletal branches scraping at the grey-black sky.
After three days, I had my first real taste of what lay within the cold. I had just returned from an evening meal with my clients. That, at least, was a welcome part of the ritual of doing business in a foreign country — not that the food was necessarily good. It was just a thing done as part of business, going out to dinner. I tried to ignore the security at the door, and the visible resentment of my foreign affluence. Most of the people dining were foreigners or Mafia anyway, so once inside, I was one of the crowds.
After a reasonably pleasant meal at unreasonable prices, my hosts arranged to see me to the Metro station, not far from the hotel. I wished them a good night and told them I would walk. It was around eleven o’clock and the night was cold, with the temperature dropping every step I took. The concern was evident on their faces, but they let me go.
By the time I reached the hotel approach, my feet and hands were aching and my ears burned with the cold. A large circular driveway swept around in front and the snow lay banked high to either side. The cold was deep enough that it felt as if I had lost my power of thought. The temperature ached inside my head. I trudged towards the lobby, my body yearning for warmth, nothing else but pain and blankness on my mind. My only focus was to keep my footing on the slick ice surface coating the road. A doorman, wearing his grey uniform with red piping, stood outside, instead of his usual place sealed within the glass warmth inside the front doors. Unusual, but I didn’t give it another thought until I realised he was watching something off to his right. I turned to look.
A middle-aged businessman lay face-up on a pile of snow. His long, dark coat lay open and his glasses sat angled lopsidedly on his face, the lenses opaqued by ice. He clutched the handle of a case in one outstretched hand. I thought for a dreadful moment that he was dead, that the cold had claimed him as yet another statistic, but then I saw him move. The lack of concern the doorman showed was strange; he acted as if he’d seen it all before.
The doorman stood and stared, his hands thrust deep within his pockets. I stood and stared with him for a while, not understanding what I was seeing and not wanting to become involved. I’d been warned not to become involved. I wanted the doorman to do something, but I didn’t say a thing; it wasn’t my place, not my city, not my language. And still the cold beat inside my head. Our breath formed twin plumes in the night air, punctuating our silence.
The man bucked upon the ground and tried to rise, then sank back into the snow. The way he moved was not quite right. He lay still for a moment or two, then thrust forward with the middle of his body. One hand stretched up and trembled, shaking in the cold, then dropped. Again there was that motion, a thrusting of his pelvis. I couldn’t watch it any more. I stepped forward to help. A hand upon my shoulder pulled me back.
“Nyet,” said the doorman. “No. Not for you.”
I pulled against his grip, but he held me. When I turned to protest, he waved a finger from side to side. “No.” His voice was firm.
I couldn’t just stand there and watch. I was cold, too cold. The hotel staff would sort it out, I thought. I needed to get into the warmth. Besides, they wouldn’t just leave someone out there in the snow and ice, or so I told myself. It would be bad for business wouldn’t it?
When I left the following morning, I saw no sign that the man had ever been there, not even an impression in the snow. Fresh white had fallen in the night to cover the place where he had lain. I shrugged my shoulders, tried to put it from my mind and waited for my driver to arrive, but a nagging doubt remained. Had there been something beneath the snow?
Three days later and I went to dinner again, this time at the apartment of one of the people from the company I was working for. Paul was Irish. He’d moved to Russia, fallen in love with the place and married a local. I had yet to see the attraction, but he’d been there almost four years. His apartment building was much the same as in any other city, except for thick steel doors guarding the entrance. Moscow doors were heavy enough that I had to put my weight against them to swing them open. It was for security, they told me, but they didn’t say against what. I was left to my own assumptions — just another thing that didn’t get talked about. I walked nervously into the dark, grimy stairwell, past massive heating pipes running up the walls. The front door of each apartment was metal, but padded with leather or vinyl. It made them less like cells.
We spent a pleasant evening, and ate and drank our fill. Paul appeared with the traditional bottle of local product and we drank some more. By the time I was ready to leave, I had consumed far more than I intended. With a little difficulty I managed to get to my feet, and started to make my farewells without embarrassing myself.
Paul, seeing the state I was in, offered to drive me, and he and his wife Anya escorted me downstairs. After several attempts, sitting inside on the freezing seats, the car simply failed to start. Paul shrugged as if it was the natural course of events.
“Look,” he said, “Anya will stay and I’ll catch the Metro with you out to your hotel.”
“No, no. I’ll be fine,” I said. After all, it was my third visit; I knew my way around.
“If you’re sure now…?”
“Of course. I’ll be fine.”
“Right then. We’ll walk you to the Metro. We can’t let you go on your own. I’ll explain when we get there where you’ve got to change. Just listen out for the announcements.” They walked me to the Metro, one on either side and saw me off. Several times along the way, I assured Paul I’d be fine. I’d had a bit to drink and it was cold, but I could find my own way back to the hotel. Then I was on the Metro. I felt tired, but not tired enough to risk falling asleep. The fear of getting lost on the Moscow Metro was enough to keep me awake.
My head nodded up and I squinted, listening at every stop for the words to tell me I’d arrived. I was grateful they announced the stops over a loudspeaker system just before each station, though I had to listen hard. Listening was better than trying to puzzle out the station signs, incomprehensible in their long Cyrillic.
I negotiated the escalators at the other end without too much difficulty, and started my trudge along the broad avenue leading to my hotel. The traffic was sparse for a change, and I didn’t even have to wait for a set of lights to cross the five lanes to the centre of the road. A powdering of fresh snow covered the wide walkway running up the middle, between twin lines of trees. All was still and crisp.
Rather than crossing to the other side, I decided I’d walk up the central strip and enjoy the stark beauty, drink in the solitude and crisp splendour. I walked for about five minutes, immune to the cold. It was probably the vodka.
Then my foot hit a rock concealed beneath the snow, and I tripped.
Desperately, I threw out an arm, trying to regain my balance. My other foot landed on a patch of ice, and as I stumbled, my foot slid from beneath me. I thudded heavily to the ground, the wind forced from my lungs. A deep pile of snow beneath the trees cushioned my fall, and I lay there, gasping for breath and berating myself for stupidity.
I struggled to rise, but something stopped me. My limbs felt as if they were welded to the icy ground. All the energy had left my body along with the air forced from my lungs and suddenly I felt so tired. I thought it was the alcohol getting to me, or perhaps the cold, but I screwed up my will and tried to rise again. Nothing. I was stuck.
I was too drunk to be afraid, too drunk to think about the gravity of my position. I considered calling for help, but I knew there was no one to hear me. Even if there were passing cars, they couldn’t see me between the trees. Besides, I had already seen the reaction of the hotel doorman to someone in the very same position. I stared through the branches above me and tried to work out what I was going to do.
The silence and cold were all around me. If I didn’t get moving, I knew the Moscow cold would claim another victim. With a massive effort, I tried again. Barely, I managed to move my arm. I struggled to move the other one. Then I felt something else. Tendrils of warmth were starting slowly to creep around my body. At first I thought I was imagining it, but then my coat moved. The shock forced all movement from my limbs. Bands of warmth grew gently across the skin of my chest, but I could not move my head to see. They snaked over my pelvis and throat and arms and they moved up and between my legs. If I could have, I would have gasped.
The strands slipped slowly over my body and upwards around the base of my skull. They slid gently, slowly, around and about me. Almost tenderly, they pushed my legs apart. I remembered the woman lying in the roadway with her legs spread wide. I remembered the businessman in the snow and his unnatural movements, the bucking pelvis. As I did so, as the pictures came to me, the tendrils started to stroke and probe. Despite my sudden fear, I was powerless, for the bands across my chest held me flat.
My panic grew, and though I summoned my will to fight, my body started to welcome the sensation. Though rationally I knew this could not be happening and I tried to fight against it, I wanted the feeling to cover and consume me. All sense of cold was gone. The rich dark touch began to sweep me away, the warmth cupping my body and seeping into my mind, around and about my body, and stroking, stroking.
All control, all will to struggle left me. There was nothing but the delicious sensation, as it worked at my head and heart, as it touched and pressed up against me gently then more strongly, probing my groin, and lower, questing. I pushed my body up, away from the ground, then back, forcing myself harder and harder against the smooth and probing warmth. My body had control now, and my breath came faster. I bucked against the pressure, and if I could have moved my mouth, I would have moaned. The comfortable warmth slipped over my face, up and between my legs and it pushed and pried, seeking entrance. It wrapped me inside it and found every place and part of me. As it forced itself inside, I opened myself to welcome it. The delicious taste, the touch, the movement, was above and below and around me and I knew I wanted nothing else.
Suddenly, through the fog, I heard a voice. It was talking…to me. A man’s voice — an old man’s voice. He was insistent. He was saying something to me, urging me. But I didn’t care. I wanted no part of it. It simply didn’t matter what he was saying. I was so close, so near to what I really wanted. How dare he interrupt?
Then his hands were pulling at my arm. He dragged me across the snow, away from the warmth and pleasure, away from all I wanted. I fought, but I was weak. I needed to be back there, enfolded in the pleasure, and he was taking me away.
Abruptly I was cold, lying in the snow, my senses aching for more. I took a deep shuddering breath. I hadn’t realised that my eyes were closed and with a grimace, I forced them open.
I looked up to see the old man standing over me, his white hair and beard long and matted. He wore rude woollen gloves on his hands with holes cut for his fingers. He peered at me and blew on his exposed fingers. He peered at me again and shook his head. He pointed to the drift where I had fallen and shook his head again. When he saw that I didn’t understand, he pointed at the drift again, crossed himself and shook his head once more.
I looked over at where I had lain, mere moments before. The mark of my body was clear within the snow, and running from it, a long furrow where he had dragged me free. Despite the numbness, despite the cold, my eyes grew wide as I watched that mound within the snow. Beneath the white smooth blanket, something stirred. It moved from side to side, as if searching. Then slowly, the mound collapsed in on itself. I followed the movement, aghast, my body still aching from the touch. A runnel of collapsed snow was all that showed where it had been.
I looked questioningly at the old man, my embarrassment growing. Without a word, he dragged me to my feet and pushed me towards the road. I stumbled a few paces, then turned back to look. He had already walked on. He hobbled down the central reservation between the trees. He clutched his rough coat about him and turned his head from side to side as he walked, watching the piles of snow as if looking for something. I thought to call after him, to thank him for what he had done, for rescuing me from whatever it had been, but he was already too far away.
I shook myself and staggered across the road and on to my hotel. I went straight to my room and collapsed on my bed. Who was my benefactor, and why had he done what he had? I didn’t know whether to be grateful or to curse him. The sensation still throbbed inside me and I remembered. I’d felt the desperation and despair from the instant I’d arrived; it had twined itself around me from one moment to the next, draining hope. And now, somehow, I had been wrapped anew by something given form. Despite the energy it had filled me with, I felt drained and hollow. Exhaustion swept down and within moments I was asleep.
I spoke to no one of what had happened that night. I flew out of Moscow the following day, barely daring to remember what had happened. When I left, I carried a little of the city with me, and I knew I always would.
I’m not sure what is born in the streets and darkness of a place like Moscow — that which desperation breeds. Who can guess at the power in the despair of so many millions? I was there, and I saw outlined in blackness the marks of our own creation. And I wonder how many nameless creatures stalk the streets of other cities awash with the energy of fear and faded hope.
The next time I visit that city, if there is a next time, I’ll know better. It’s not the cold that kills you. They say it’s the vodka and the cold, but I for one, know better.
Jay Caselberg is an Australian author based in Europe. His work has appeared in multiple venues worldwide at several lengths and in several languages. It generally tends to a dark edge. More can be found at www.jaycaselberg.com .
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Story illustration by Stjepan Lukac.