*This is a story I could never send out, and never will put up, because John Kennedy Jr. got himself killed a week after I wrote it. (Yes, it’s that old.) I thought with the elections approaching and Halloween and all, you guys might enjoy it, though.*
The Wolves And The Sheep
Sarah A. Hoyt
I should have fit right in.
Though I was an American in a Russian bar, I should have melded into the aggressively western decor — the metallic counter, the giant TV screens, the forlorn artificial ferns hanging from hooks on the ceiling — and passed unnoticed.
Instead, I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Despite all the accouterments of foreign ambiance, the bar was profoundly Russian, inhabited by customers with drooping mustaches, and the sad eyes that seemed to be a part of the Russian inheritance. Even those who wore jeans and T-shirts did it with a false insouciance that betrayed the alien nature of the clothing.
The people who packed every table and stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the counter responded to my foreign presence in the way they’d learned through decades of Soviet rule: by leaving a wide clearing all around me.
All except the short man, who smelled of mothballs, and who pressed close to me and whispered in oddly accented English. “Look at that line.” He gestured wildly towards the large screen TV nearest us. “Look at it. No one can line up like Russians.”
The TV screen showed the ninety-year-old Tsar Nicholas III and his Empress sat on newly-built thrones, accepting the respects and curtseys of their most distinguished subjects and a never ending rostrum of foreign dignitaries. This was the closest I was likely to get to the coronation ceremony.
God only knew what my newspaper had thought when it had sent me here to get the “inside dirt” on the coronation. Whatever that mean.
There were only two types of print news media left in the US. There was the Wall Street, Washington Post type, for militant eggheads. My newspaper belonged to the other type. Sold at Supermarket checkouts and specializing in brightly colored, lurid headlines, it commanded the same respect abroad that it commanded at home. None. Getting a press-pass to the coronation had never been a hope. Why I couldn’t have watched it from a U.S. bar and got the same I got here, was beyond me.
Gorbachev’s famously marked head filled the screen, as he bowed over the Empress Sveva’s hand.
The camera panned the rest of the line.
John-John stood just a few steps behind Gorby. Good old John-John. The president of the US of A, the ruler of the greatest power in the world, the chief of the colonizers of Mars, the leader of the country that owned most of Russia, yet our president would be a mensch and wait in line behind deposed Soviet dictators.
To tell the truth, John-John could afford to wait. Waiting gave him a chance to show off his posture and his looks — even the patient, frozen smile which were the best advertisement he could look for.
His regal debonair dwarfed even the aged tsar on his throne. John-John’s looks and his name had already won him the election, though he’d run as an independent and against candidates of both parties. It had been John-John’s charisma that ended my TV career. There was no room in U.S. TV stations for anyone who didn’t support John-John.
“An hereditary monarch meets another,” I said, through clenched teeth. Bile burned the back of my throat.
My interlocutor, the short stocky man, with his mustache and oddly sculpted beard, turned his small porcine eyes to me in bewildered scrutiny. “Who?”
“Jo–” In time, I remembered I was talking to a foreigner and refrained from using the president’s childhood nickname. What one thought and said at home and in private was one thing, but family quarrels shouldn’t be aired for the neighbors to see. Much less for people halfway across the globe to think about. “President Kennedy meets the Tzar,” I said. Even the Kennedy name distilled an odd charm that I couldn’t deny though it galled me. We’d been told about Camelot so much and so often that even those of us who’d never wanted to join the round table looked to the legend with affection and nostalgia. “He is— Americans think he is… uhm… Massachusetts and the– Kennedy…”
“Ah, yes.” A wide smile split the man’s face, showing very bad teeth, brownish red in color. “The Kennedy clan. America’s own monarchy. No matter how they behave, they will be elected again and again.” He cackled and reached for his glass from the bar counter. It dropped between his fingers to shatter against the vinyl floor.
An older man with Stalin mustaches the high cheekbones and heavy eyelids of a mongol, scurried forth to sweep up the shards. A younger man brought my would-be drinking companion another whiskey.
I should be outside, I supposed, getting the reactions of the men on the street. But outside it snowed and the temperatures felt impossibly low. And yet popular celebrations of the coronation burst forth, in every corner and on every street of this Moscow still cluttered by the monolithic, cement apartment buildings that were the socialist legacy.
Most people on the street drank vodka, after a bottle of which no one could feel the cold, but vodka was a treasonous comfort that made it easier to freeze, easier to loose consciousness and die of cold.
Within the quasi-civilized westernized bar, a lot of Muscovites and I drank educated beer and refined whiskey.
Which didn’t keep some of us from getting quite a nice buzz, anyway.
In a corner, a group of Russians started playing the balalaika and singing something that sounded as old as the Volga, as sad as a Russian Winter.
The man next to me gulped his drink noisily. He banged his glass back on the counter, just as noisily. In his haste to quaff the liquid, he’d let some of it dribble out through the corners of his mouth. It trickled from the pointed end of his beard.
“I’ll tell you what, comrade— May I call you comrade?”
A few people glanced uneasily at us. Comrade was not a popular word in modern Russia, certainly not a popular word on this day, when the Russians had got their tzar back. Even if their tzar had spent most of his life growing grapes in Italy and until a year ago claimed to be staunch republican.
I looked away from the man talking to me and at the TV. They were showing views of the city, now.
As everything in Russia, the restoration had gone slowly, haphazardly.
The cameras showed Red Square, renamed Nicholas II Plaza. Though the plaza had been called Red long before the Soviets reigned in it, the name too had been deposed by association.
And yet, the Lenin Mausoleum still stood.
There had been so much talk of demolishing this cumbersome temple to an idol best forgotten, that I gagged in shock at the sight of its foursquare ugliness.
I took a hasty gulp of beer to recover.
“Wolves and the sheep,” the man standing next to me said, in the slurred, confidential tones of a drunkard. He spoke like someone resuming an interrupted conversation. “That’s what it’s all about. Wolves and sheep.”
He was very flushed, his cheeks bright red, the rest of his face a waxy yellow. Flashing me his odd brown teeth in a smile, he put out a hand to clasp my arm above the elbow. “Royals,” he said. “Royalty. Wolves. Wolves to the crowd’s sheep.”
I looked around, frantically. These wouldn’t be popular words in Russia today. Not today of all days. I didn’t wish to be lynched in a foreign country.
My newspaper was broke, edged out of the news business by CNN and cheap net feeds. My boss would probably be unable to scrape together the money to have my body shipped back. Not that my ex-wife would care, but I did not wish to be buried in Russia.
Yet no one looked at us: the stranger and the odd-looking man. They ignored us with the pointed refusal to acknowledge the presence of the unusual that had kept the average citizen safe through the police state.
Just then, the TV struck up the anthem, the sovereigns stood, the patriarch blessed them, and everyone in the bar stood, also, enraptured.
“That’s what chieftains were, you know. Chieftains, the beginning of royalty. They’d come to each little tribe and say, here, I’ll look after you and you’ll obey me. And humans did, because chieftains were different. Not human at all. Maybe they created humans, in the far off days, before pre-history,” he cackled. “Maybe humans were robots… no, how do you say? Not mechanical… Not robots but androids, supposed to imitate wolves but definitely not them. Or perhaps wolves were men’s predators, men’s natural enemies. Wolves to the sheep.” He leaned close.
I smelled his breath, a mix of mothballs and whiskey.
I tried to pull away but he held my arm in an unbreakable, inflexible grip, the clench of a dead hand.
Something else rooted me to the spot, too — a feeling that this man might know something, be onto something, that he was someone to be listened to. A feeling of innate respect, as though he had a right to lecture me and I should listen and be thankful.
“And then the wolves got smart,” he whispered. “They got smart and they disguised as men, and came among men and became their leaders.”
I shook my head. His tone of speaking and his wild fantasies made me feel more uneasy than ever. Yet, I couldn’t find words to reply, I couldn’t find the strength to move away.
The beer I’d drunk, a good imported Carlsberg, hit my stomach like a ton of bricks. I feel nauseated.
The man spoke on, his speech slurred, inter-cut by something like an asthmatic sucking-in of breath, “Yes, that’s what they did. They trained men, domesticated men, just like men domesticated cows, or pigs, made men their servants, their meat.”
I found words, breath. “Kings don’t eat people.”
People glanced at us, turned back to watch TV.
Everyone else in this bar had tears in his eyes. Everyone except me and the crazy Russian whispering at me.
“Of course not. Of course not. That’s not what they feed on. They feed on suffering. Human suffering. Blood— Remember all those ancient chieftains to whom blood sacrifice was made after their supposed death? It wasn’t the blood… All the nonsense about vampires— It wasn’t the blood. The blood is as nothing. It was the pain, the suffering. That’s why all those kings were always making war, most of them over nothing more vital than an insult received from another king. All of that were excuses.” He hissed out breath — mothballs and whiskey — and pressed close, close, too close. “And some of those chieftains wouldn’t die. Some of them became immortal, provided they got their sacrifice in suffering. They became blood gods, to whom all sacrifices were made.” His voice swelled to a crescendo of enthusiasm, without ever rising above a whisper. And his hand gripped my arm so intensely I was afraid he’d break my bones. “Maybe in the beginning all the real ones never died. But then they forgot who they were, they mingled with men, they crossed with mankind,” his words rushed out, one tripping on the other. “And yet men still recognize them. Men still know who they are. Instinctively, they still worship them, still make them their rulers.” He looked up at the TV and grinned. “Hereditary rulers.”
My pride prickled, my head swaying in the smell of mothballs and alcohol, my arm hurting where he had pinched it, scared, alone in a foreign land, I tried to protest, “Americans don’t. We don’t have hereditary rulers. We–”
His cackle, half laughter half cough with breath rushing in over it all, interrupted me. “You don’t, do you? Did you know that in every election since George Washington, the candidate with the highest percentage of royal blood won? Fact. British peerage people checked it out. Fact. Even Clinton had more noble blood than Dole, the supposed blue-blood in the race.”
I felt cold, as though ice ran in my veins instead of blood. The large screen no longer showed John-John’s classy profile, his charismatic pose.
“Only they can rule men, see?” he asked. “Communists tried to rebel against it, ‘course. But even they— You can’t rebel, see. Men are sheep, they’re wolves. Only they can rebel against themselves. It’s all a battle among them, and men their pawns, offering up suffering as a sacrifice to them, forever… And, know what, some of them still live forever, and–”
There was a lull in the music from the TV and in the pause, I noticed three or four people looking at us.
I pulled my arm away, forcibly, from the dead-hand grip of my interlocutor, threw a handful of rubles on the counter, enough — I hoped — to cover my drink and tip.
Pushing through the press of Russian bodies, I made it to the door, all the while feeling as though I’d disobeyed a command, committed a sin.
Such an odd Russian, and yet I felt I should have stayed there, should have listened, should have done whatever he wanted.
Outside, snow fell heavily but music came from all directions, the different melodies and styles clashing mid air, like the armies come from every quarter that had washed over Russia through the centuries.
Rock music collided with strummed balalaikas interlaced classical music’s majestic swellings.
I pushed between two couples walking the other way, found my car. Getting in, I put the key in the ignition, turned it. Nothing happened.
I cursed. My hotel was a good an hour walk away, past the erstwhile Red Square. In the freezing cold an hour was an eternity. I had no money for a taxi, even supposing there was a sober taxi driver not currently circling classier purlieus.
Slamming the door to my rental car shut, I started walking under the falling snow. My dress shoes, with smooth soles, kept slipping on the hardened ice that covered the sidewalk.
Here and there, I had to avoid shards of glass from broken bottles. The crowds started to thin out.
That bar… what a crazy man in there. The whole thing about wolves and sheep… And yet I felt as though I should go back, as though I owed him something. But what could I owe him? Loyalty? Attention? I chuckled. Blood sacrifice?
If he’d been right, of course, the communist revolutionaries would all have been wolves, too, because only then could they rebel. And all that stuff about some of the wolves living forever. I thought of Rasputin and his drawn-out death and feel a cold shiver up my spine. I remembered how the remains of the Russian royal family, now entombed in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, had been treated by the revolutionaries: burned and dismembered and finally submerged in water in a flooded mine, till all that was left were some ashes, scraps of teeth, a few skulls, fragments of bone. The ancient treatment against vampires. Were their murderers, then, afraid that someone, one of them, would live forever?
I barked out a bitter laugh onto the frozen air. The poor tzarovich, who’d been dying from almost the day he’d been born. Living forever.
God, what nonsense. What Russian fantasies.
I hurried through the now deserted street and across the erstwhile Red Square. Snow grew ever thicker, heavy flakes descending like a shroud. Longing for my room, for a hot cup of tea, I hurried on, the sound of my steps muffled by the snow and the ice, till I felt like a ghost walking in an unreal landscape.
I wondered if the restaurant of the hotel would still be open. Probably. It was a Marriott, after all. And after this freezing exercise, I’d need food.
Scrambling fast, in an odd, dragging walk, to avoid falling on the ice, I saw the looming shape of the Lenin Mausoleum.
Lenin, his body preserved for decades, had indeed been treated as a god. The Stalinist purges surely were enough blood and suffering to feed a thousand wolves.
I shook my head against these Russian fantasies, spun of snow, of cold winters, of too much vodka. I hurried.
My feet went out from under me, I fell forward, tried to recover my balance, found myself fallen, face down on the ground, my brain rattled, my hands painful.
My face against the ice, I felt as if my brain were stuck on high gear, spinning on. I thought that Lenin was the unlikely leader of a small, unlikely group. The Bolsheviks had been a secondary group to the Menshevicks, and Lenin secondary to Trotsky. And yet, who’d emerged on top? Who’d become a living god?
Getting my feet under me, I stood. Blood ran from my hand, where I must have hit the shards of a broken bottle. My hand hurt. My knees hurt. I shivered with cold. I had to get help. I had to get warm. There was no way I could make it to my hotel in this state.
I saw a light ahead. The door on the side of Lenin’s tomb was open. Should I?
There would be warmth and perhaps I’d find someone to bind my wounds. Or at least a first-aid kit.
Someone should be there. Else why would the light be on?
I stepped into a hallway that at one time must have been decorated with pictures. You could still see the lighter squares against the wall, where the pictures must have hung.
“Hello?” I called. “Anyone here?”
At the height of the communist regime five hundred visitors had come through every day, to see the deceased leader. I remembered reading somewhere that the corpse had a new suit made every eight months because the fabric lost its luster.
I laughed feebly. Maybe the corpse ran around too much. My laughter echoed in the empty space and it wasn’t funny anymore.
My hand dripped blood, my head swam. I felt warmer, and yet scared and still unerringly compelled to step forward, on and on.
I could leave, I thought. Go outside. Perhaps I could find a taxi. Or at least a car willing to give me a ride to my hotel for a fee.
“Hello?” I called, and thought I heard a replying sound somewhere above.
Maybe there were people here. Maybe I could get a ride to my hotel from here.
In my clouded brain, my need to get help warred with my irrational fear of this place, all of it layered over with a feeling that I was where I should be, that I had just found the right place.
I climbed stairs, heard a more definite rustle above. I would find help and forsake the bizarre fantasies haunting my brain.
Down another hallway, following my ears, I came to a large chamber with a glass coffin in the center.
The coffin was empty. Had they, then, taken Vladimir Illyich Lenin back to Simbirsk for burial? I remembered reading something about that plan, but couldn’t place the source of my knowledge.
I imagined what the corpse would look like in that coffin. I remembered the domed forehead, the trimmed beard and mustache, the pudgy hands folded mid body.
I blinked, while my hand reached forward to stroke the top of the coffin, leaving bloodied smears on the glass.
Lenin had looked a lot like the face of the man who talked to me in the bar. Hadn’t he? But it couldn’t be. Corpses don’t get up and go out for a whiskey and certainly no famous corpse like that could go around unnoticed.
Only, no one would expect Lenin alive and walking, would they? Just as I hadn’t. All the difference between a recumbent corpse and a walking wolf.
I shook my head. Fantasies. Fantasies. I must get someone to take care of my cuts, someone to drive me to my hotel.
I heard steps behind me and turned in a rush, trying to remember the Russian word for “help,” although, of course, most Russians spoke English.
Little porcine eyes stared at me from beneath heavy mongol eyelids. The smell of mothballs and whiskey enveloped me.
“See,” Lenin said, in a malevolent whisper. “What did I tell you? Wolves and sheep.”