TAMALANE OF PETROGRAD
by Virginia Marybury
Of all the flat, marshy edges of western Petrograd, nowhere was as haunted by former people as St Basil’s Island, that diamond delta in the river’s throat. One cold November night, a platinum-bright motorcar descended onto the island from the Tuchkov Bridge, carrying Jana the NEPman’s daughter, in search of the night club she had been forbidden.
She flashed through the island’s radiant parallels and perpendiculars to the other embankment, where lay the baroque mysteries of the bullet-scarred University and Old Peter’s museum of curiosities. One of the archways would admit her to the place, she had been told, and so she navigated the darkened openings, one by one – driving in and reversing out – until she found it. Someone had banished all the debris of life: all the metal bins for burning, all the firewood, all the desperate little huts. There remained just two motorcars, parked against the smooth stucco walls. In the rear corner of the courtyard, in the light of a klieg lamp, she saw a strange, foreign jumble of Latin letters upon the wall. This was the place.
A white-satin flapper was making her way over the rutted snow, the lapels of her long fur coat swinging with the string of beads between her tiny breasts. Caught by the headlamps of Jana’s motorcar, she screwed up her face. Her lips were half-lipsticked, half enpurpled with a bruise, but she gave Jana a haughty look.
Jana shrank against the bag of grain she had brought. It had seemed such a light matter, taking a single sack out of the delivery to be made at midnight. Misha hadn’t even told her not to do it. It was only her father who had said no.
In the corner of the courtyard, a door stood open, dark behind the bright klieg lamp. Filling the doorway, a man wiped something dark from his mouth – whether it was blood or lipstick, she could not tell. A figure out of the recent past, of Chekists in the streets and on the stairs. The black-jacketed man approached Jana, ignoring the woman he had already had. The flapper was running for the archway now, slipping in the icy slush, scrambling again, jerking as though caught in the mania of a Charleston.
Jana’s engine stalled, jolted her from her seat. Holding her bag of grain, she struggled out of the other door, and fled toward the doorway.
Caught on the wrong side of her motorcar, he thumped the roof. “You enter Carterhaugh without my laissez-passer?”
Jana glanced back at him from the threshold, and swung the tails of her fur cape with all her new-bourgeois pride.
He moved again, flicker-fast. Jana was only just in time to turn his hand away.
The smell of aniseed swirled in the cooling vapour of his breath. He no longer looked the fierce Chekist, but fiercely drunk, with a face as pale as a fish on ice at Eliseev’s.
“Don’t touch me!” she blurted out. “I’ve come from Bakery No. 25, and this grain is from my father. It’s all agreed with the Green Fairy, and you can’t touch me!” The sack of grain was safely behind her now, between her body and the open door.
He leaned closer. “Everyone who enters must pay.”
“You’re no Chekist, and I will not ask your permission!” she cried out.
As he shifted his weight, she remembered how fast he had been. Impulsively, she swung the sack at him, as though it were a body. “Here, I’m paying you now, so I will go in, ifyou please!” She stumbled down the little steps into the dark semi-basement, and blundered through a dark, stuffy-smelling curtain.
Heat beamed dim but sun-like from a Dutch stove, from dancing bodies, from samovar tea-lights. In the humid air, the scents of fur and wine and butterered pelmeniswirled about. Two couples swirled, too, foxtrotting in the mirrored depths of the large cellar room.
So this was where her father’s extra grain was going. There was a slight mist on the mirrors of the far wall: perhaps that was their distillery? Twinned in the distorting glass, the bottles on the shelf looked old, pre-Revolutionary. A pair of samovars sat on the silver-topped table below the bottles.
Jana stepped carefully through the tables, eyeing the clientèle, bourgeois and louche and un-Soviet in their evening clothes of black and white. Soft jazz music, from a hidden gramophone, muffled their conversations. Finding an empty table, Jana folded herself quickly into the chair, and let the furs slip off her neck, her panic cooling.
“-abroad,” someone muttered.
The black-jacketed man entered the room. In this cosy obscurity, he had regained some colour: his pale eyes gleamed light blue. He went to re-fill the glasses of the dancers, then moved to the far wall and disappeared behind the slightly grubby white curtain which hung between the misty mirrors. Was he a waiter? Waiters were not meant to stand guard at their night clubs, nor molest their customers, but who understood how to behave, these days?
Now a different waiter approached Jana, this one correctly attired in white, offering drink and delicatesses. Her square, zinc-edged table was almost too tiny for food, but Jana ordered vodka and a butterbrodwith salami.
The waiter poured vodka into a glass for her.
The first man re-emerged and passed by. In the warmth of the room, Jana again smelled drink, like the haze around a stove. He moved smoothly, though, swerving toward a table where two men were beginning to raise their voices. The foreigner’s German Rs made his talk of eugenics seem childlike and ridiculous, but the other man seemed unable to change the subject, even with blunt, proletarian Russian. The black-jacketed man glided up like a battle cruiser, quelling their dispute instantly, then raised the German with one hand and towed him away, across the floor. He deposited the foreigner at a table in front of an emaciated, fair-haired lady. Looking up at the black-jacketed man, she slowly raised her champagne glass. “My thanks, Tamalane,” she murmured. He took the glass and slid away, toward the samovar table and the white curtain.
The pale woman called the other waiter for more champagne, and set her thin shoulders, as she faced the German. His absurd voice rose again, in a question about the family she came from, whether it was truly decadent, or whether there was perhaps still some red blood left in her. The lady seemed to shudder, but she answered bravely, in good German, and when the waiter brought her champagne, she drank it in one swallow.
Behind the white curtain, the silhouette of the black-jacketed man up-ended her other glass into his mouth.
Lowering her eyelashes, so as not to be caught staring, Jana reached for her butterbrodand nibbled at it. The sliced kolbasawas surprisingly meaty and well-spiced, and the kitchen had used butter, not margarine.
In another corner, a pair of gloomy White officers leaned together across their small table, watching water drip into the green poison of their glasses. There were no foreign women here to lead them into exile, but at least Carterhaugh had sugar for their absinthe. The white cubes crumbled slowly.
At that moment, in the depths of the room, a new jazz trumpet sounded a soft breathy note – so weak and lacking in momentum that it seemed ready to stall – yet somehow it caught and wound up into gear and found itself a minor melody. The captive lady joined her German on the dance floor and they began a slow, desolate foxtrot with the other two couples.
A cold current slithered around Jana’s ankles. The false Chekist had returned. “We have wine as well as vodka, madame. Will you have red or white?”
He had addressed her in pre-Revolutionary style, but was still offering that terrible choice. Jana let her eyes travel up his Chekist’s leather jacket to his face and said firmly, “No. I have vodka.”
“No pickled radishes?”
He was mocking her now, but she had paid. She was a customer here. Annoyed, she let her voice grow colder. “Why white? Why red? Why not…green?”
He turned pale. “Why… green?”
She gestured toward the absinthe drinkers. “Green. It’s a colour, isn’t it?”
His forehead shone in the gloom, but he made no move to wipe the perspiration. “More vodka, then, madame?”
She gripped her glass firmly. “I haven’t finished yet.”
He retreated, snagging the empty champagne glass from the table of the pale lady, and disappeared again behind the white curtain. As his shadow up-ended the stolen glass and held it there in hope, his brow and nose and chin seemed to form a familiar silhouette.
Jana looked away quickly. These days, everyone looked like someone, only it could not be true, because most of them were dead.
Having lost his German companion, the Russian seemed bored and frustrated, drinking and drumming with his spare hand across the shining surface of the table. He was missing two fingers. He looked toward Jana, but she turned her eyes away from him, too. A NEPman was of no use to her.
This place, for all its appearance of cosiness and plenty, was just like one of those awful co-ops, where you might offer money or blood or alcohol, and yet the citizenwould simply withhold the bargained-for goods, because there weren’t any.
Jana set down her glass, and slipped on her furs to go. On the threshold, she turned back, and saw the man, Tamalane, leaving her table, her glass in hand.
The sun rose late in November, but so did Jana and her father. She found him in their dining room, where he often spent his mornings amid breakfast rolls and coffee, whenever he was not travelling with his precious grain shipments. From his clothes now, he looked a born borzhooi, but his hard worker’s hands had firm hold of the china cup and his twin account books. Peering at the figures of grain used by the bakery, and grain sold, he grumbled, “Misha left a note about last night. I don’t want you messing up my accounts by making separate deliveries.”
She smoothed back her blonde bob, which felt flat and sticky today. “I needed a fee to get into the night club.”
“I don’t want you in that night club.”
She shook her head, pouring herself coffee, and taking a roll. “I’ve visited all the others, Papa, but there aren’t many foreigners. This one at least had a German. And can you guess what else there was?”
“Hm. Watered vodka? I can’t control what people do with the grain I sell.”
“No, actually, they’re making absinthe. Listen, there’s a man there. I heard him called Tamalane, but I think…” She watched him narrowly. “I think he’s Aunt Sveta’s son.”
Her father put down his cup so abruptly that the coffee slopped out, staining the white tablecloth. “He can’t be! They all died!”
“They didn’t find… what was his name? Was it Tamas, or someth-”
“Tomas.” There was a hollow ring to her father’s voice. “His name was Tomas. His father was that Lithuanian baker.”
“They never found Tomas.”
“They didn’t find Sveta and Jonas, either,” her father said, darkly. “When Petrograd was cut off in ’19, people were fleeing, people were dying. Who knows who got blown to pieces and who got eaten?”
“Oh, Papa, there weren’t any cannibals here, that was far away! And I should know better than you because I was the one driving your damned supply truck out of the starving villages because you were drunk!”
“Well, despite our supply efforts, they were definitelystarving in the city!”
“Oh, what does it matter? I really think it’s him. He looks like Uncle Jonas. He’s a drinker, too – that’s how I recognised him.”
Her father hunched his shoulders. “Look. I didn’t get back from the country until ’21, and they were all gone. Dead. I was lucky to get hold of the bakery. This man – whoever he is – is not your cousin, and the bakery is mine – ours! I brought in the new grain. I set up the new customers – those stills and night club owners. We’re finally making money after all that bloody chaos, but I need the bakery as a front. I can’t just give it up.”
He snorted bitterly. “Funny. We can’t live on bread alone. Not like this, anyway!” He waved his bread roll, indicating their bourgeois dining table and the high ceilings of their Petrograd district apartment. Refracted bars of colour, from the cut-glass lyustr above, striped the yellow walls.
“What if he doesn’t want the bakery? He’s a boss in that place. He’s got an inheritance right there, and we-”
“The Green Fairy who owns the night club is hard, Jana. They say she’s foreign, maybe Scottish, but she’s got the secret police on the payroll – just like she had the Okhrana in the old days – and she owns them, not the other way around. If she’s taken him under her wing, he’s her son. She’ll give him an inheritance, but not you. Leave them alone.”
He groped through the books and crockery for her hand. “Jana, dochenka, I know I said I’d let you meet a foreigner to take you out of here. But not at Carterhaugh.”
“Why not? I saw that German there, and even a lady, a proper aristocrat. Tamalane… he introduced her to the German. They danced.”
“So that German’s used up!” he shouted. “And that also makes your Tamalane no more than a dirty pimp. At least I’m a procurer of honest grain.”
“–which you sell to the distillers–”
“What do you know? You were only born in ’03. You know nothing about the world.”
She snatched her hand back and slammed it down next to her plate. “I don’t need to know about the old world because it didn’t survive, and this one is doomed, too! Hell, my silk stockings don’t survive more than a few washes.”
“I tell you, dochenka, that woman is dangerous. As for Tomas – if he isTomas – he’s her son now. He’s not her prisoner.”
Yet there had been that tremor in the man’s hands, and the haze of alcohol which seemed too much for just one night’s binge. He had looked tempted to drink the dregs of her vodka – drink right through the smear of her red lipstick on the glass.
“Papa, he isa prisoner, and he ismy mother’s blood. I can’t leave him there. You said she was dangerous!”
“She is. He is, too. I forbid you to go again!”
Yet she did, the very next time her father left the city to help one of his Moscow contacts pay a bribe. This time, the courtyard was half full of black cars. The moon’s reflection floated amid iridescent wisps of gasoline, in a warm puddle under the klieg light.
Downstairs, an upright piano had appeared. A lily-horned gramophone sat upon it, playing a Scottish ballad, denatured by a jazz ricky-tick from the waiter standing at the silver-topped table.
The lily sang:
She’s prink’d hersell, and preen’d hersell,
By the ae light o’ the moon,
And she’s awa to Carterhaugh,
As fast as she could gang.
She hadna pu’d a red red rose,
A rose but barely three,
When up and starts the young Tamlane,
Says, “Lady, let a-be!
What gars ye pu’ the rose, Lady?
What gars ye break the tree?
Or why come ye to Carterhaugh,
Without the leave o’ me?”
Tamalane was not wearing leather tonight, nor even black, but a fine suit of dark blue wool. He was dancing with a lady adorned with an ostrich headdress and diamonds.
Jana slipped into a chair by the edge of the dance floor, and examined them boldly.
The lady was a “former” person in every way. She had holes in her earlobes, but no earrings, and her pale grey dress was no Soviet satin, but old silk, cut down into a flapper’s shift. The diamonds lay awkwardly on her neck, in a jewelled collar made for a much more substantial woman. This aristocrat was as transparent as the light in a glass daguerrotype. Her tiny feet, in worn old shoes, followed Tamalane’s. Her own strength was gone, her fortune, her name. How strange, that she should have been left behind.
“And never would I tire, Lady,
In fairy-land to dwell;
But aye, at every seven years,
They pay the teind to hell;
And I’m sae fat and fair of flesh,
I fear ’twill be mysell!”
Speaking above the music, Tamalane said, “There’s always a tithe to be paid.” He turned his partner back toward the piano, and snatched up a glass of champagne for a brief sip, holding it instead of her wrist. Glancing at Jana, he seemed to raise his voice a little more. “Of course, every seven years is pure superstition. We paid in 1905, and in 1917 – twice – and then again in the Civil War. But everyone must pay, whether they want to cross the border and get out, or stay here, and stay alive.”
The grey lady hung sideways in his dancing hold. One thin, broken feather of her headdress swayed against her neck. As she leaned on his arm, her dress seemed crumpled and dirty, and her diamonds were gone. Jana leaned forward. Was that the lady’s price?
Jana’s own cheap glass beads suddenly felt cold against her exposed décolletage.
Tonight, it was someone else who came in black leather, haloed in violence like vodka. A Chekist – a real one – stood at the door, letting in the freezing December air. His hard stare was like a metric weight, rolling over them, crushing them.
The gramophone played on, the ballad plaintive now, denuded of its jazz accompaniment.
But when she came to her father’s hall,
She looked so wan and pale
The Chekist seized the champagne bottle from the piano. “Nice vintage, for a former princess.”
The lady remained silent, her gaze lowered.
Weighing the bottle in his leather-gloved hand, the Chekist looked at Tamalane. “Empty, eh? Guess that’s a former bottle,” he added, and smashed the bottle against the side of the piano, scattering green glass on the floor. “Former piano, too, see?” Then he took the glass from Tamalane’s hand and tipped it. Chilled champagne fizzed and sparkled on the keyboard, mixed with diamonds.
A shot rang out.
The white curtain dissipated like mist around the Green Fairy, as she stalked into the cellar room, livid in white and green silk. In her right hand, she held a silver and black pistol, and in her left a wedge of green chervontsyroubles.
Tamalane snatched the needle off the gramophone.
“Which is more deadly for you, little Bolshevik?” asked the Green Fairy. “Is it my gun or my bribe?” Bright green eyes glittered in her white face, but her hair flamed auburn.
Jana stole a glance at Tamalane. Washe Tomas? He looked feverish, scarcely able to stand, and yet he held the lady upright. Her diamonds had disappeared again.
The Chekist snorted. “Poisoner! I won’t let you taint me with your money or your absinthe, but be warned: your day is coming.”
The Green Fairy lowered her right hand and fired again, raising a spark from the steel toe-cap of the Chekist’s boot. He flinched.
“Out!” she shouted, and he ran. The grey lady fled, too, abandoning Tamalane.
The Green Fairy flurried away behind the white curtain.
Tamalane seized Jana by the shoulders, but she stepped back, sensing weakness in his grip.
He persisted, slurring, “You had an offering last time, so I let you go, but you came back again, madame, without paying.” Now he tried to seize her waist, in a dancer’s hold, but she thrust out the silver flask she had ready.
“Here’s my offering, you idiot,” she whispered. “Though I shouldn’t have to pay you.”
“Why not?” He loosed his grip on her, but kept hold of the flask. “You’re no-one to me.”
“Yes I am!” she hissed. “You are Tomas Lazarevičius, and your mother was my aunt.”
She stared into his pale, colourless eyes. “No. Your real mother.”
“Yes,” he blurted out. “Yes, all right, you’re right. But I can’t talk here. Meet me tomorrow morning at eight, on the Spit.”
In the long night of the far north in December, eight o’clock was a dark hour. Only the street lamps and Jana’s silver motorcar shone in the murk. She had wrapped herself in her blackest furs, and parked well clear of the Spit.
She stamped cautiously as she descended to the waterline, driving her spiked heels into the ice. At the bottom, she stopped, facing the dark tide of ice and water. Upstream to her left, across the Lesser Neva, there was another spit, a spire, but it stood golden and vertical and harmless, while down here, at the tip of St Basil’s island, the Spit sliced the river in two, parrying water and ice and debris.
“Jana?” His dark silhouette strained over the upper embankment. “Why are you down there?”
She retraced her steps, and did not speak until she could answer in a whisper. “I thought you didn’t want to be seen. My father’s away, but the Green-” He flinched violently, and she steadied him with both hands. “All right, I won’t use her name.”
“You don’t know her name – do you?”
Shaking her head, she released him and searched her pockets for the flask of beer she had prepared. As he took it, his hands seemed steady, but he immediately uncapped it and took a swig.
Jana took his arm again and led him down to the lower Spit. “We can talk in peace there,” she urged.
Unsteadily, he followed her down to the cobbled edge of the river, his eyes on the Neva and not on her.
“Tomas,” she said firmly.
He straightened up and faced her.
“How did you end up in her power, Tomas? My father says she’s a serious criminal. What happened to your parents? I’ve known for years that my aunt Sveta must be dead, but… you!”
“I don’t know how she died, or whether she just went missing. I was sixteen in 1918 and Mama and Papa were hiding me from the army, so I didn’t see them every day. Then when the fighting reached the city, She found me. She told me if I wanted to live, I should come with Her.”
It was difficult to see his expression in the darkness. Daylight was still hours away, far under the southeastern horizon. Jana tried again. “But now? You’re not a criminal like her, are you?”
He gave a bitter laugh. “You don’t believe that Bolshevik bullshit about social origins, do you? People can change into something else. They can be poisoned.”
“Oh, listen!” Jana hissed. “I’m not interested in all this red-white, black-white business. Now you have your family back, and we can help you. You can get out, go abroad, and then send for us! Or send for me, if my father won’t go.”
He shook his head.
“I’ve been drunk for years, Jana. I can’t cross borders in this state. They won’t let me through.”
A chunk of ice smashed into the Spit. Crying out, he threw himself back against the embankment wall, staring, as the fragments slid along the waterline, taken by the Greater and Lesser rivers. Cursing the Neva for its histrionic energy, Jana patted his arm, trying to distract him. “Can’t you stop drinking?”
“I could die from the withdrawal, the convulsions!”
“How long would it take, to be free?”
“Days, not hours!” Still staring at the river, he drank again from her flask. “See, I’ve finished already,” he said, hoarsely. “Jana, I can’t go.”
“There must be a way.”
He wrapped his arms around her, bowing his head over hers. “She won’t let me go.”
“She has to. You don’t belong to her.”
“Only if you hold onto me, come what may. Did you listen to the music last night?” Softly, he sang from the ballad:
They shaped him in fair Janet’s arms
An aske, but and an adder;
She held him fast in every shape,
To be her own true lover.
“It’s like a spell, Jana. If you hold onto me, no matter what I turn into-”
“No, not now. I’ll tell you when. The Green Fairy likes to go to the ballet on New Year’s Eve. We’ll come out of the theatre and we’ll all go driving. On nights like those, we’ll cross every bridge in Petrograd.” He screwed the cap onto the flask and handed it back to Jana, then continued, in a low voice, “Wait for the third car….”
Jana waited until the eve of 1924. The sick, rust-red man in Moscow was dying, and her father was sleeping at the Petrograd warehouse, to secure it against looting. Jana went alone to the Bridge of Kisses.
Her gun and her motorcar were of silver, and she wore an evening-gown scaled with green sequins, under her black furs. The Moika lay dark beneath the bridge, confined only lightly by ice.
Outside the bright State Theatre, ballet-goers trudged away into the darker streets, but Jana’s bridge lay empty, marked by a confusion of sleigh runners and tyres.
Finally, there came the convoy of the Green Fairy, as Tomas had promised.
Jana let pass the black car, which pranced with its driver’s drunkenness.
Then came the grumbling diesel of the brown.
Third and last came the silver charger of the Green Fairy, and Jana let her gun flash.
Wounded, the car slewed; its body broke open against the embankment wall.
Jana ran. She reached for Tomas and pulled him out. Held him hard, as he had begged her to do.
Inside the miasma of her cousin’s alcoholic breath, it was poison. Pure vodka tonight, without the slightest breath of a herb. No fennel, no aniseed, no wormwood.
His face had turned pale and green, like absinthe in water, and he clasped her in his turn. Surprised, Jana looked up. His pale blue gaze, unfocused, rested on her a moment before he made a first, unsteady step. Jana kept hold of him, also staggering.
Was his face changing? He moved into the white beam of the silver car, his pupils shrinking to blindness. He twisted his head and growled, like the still-rumbling car engine, then dragged Jana another step.
Beside the motorcar, the Green Fairy stood at bay, watching her champion and her challenger. Jana turned away from the gangster, and searched Tomas’s face. What was he turning into? A bear? He bulked large above her, clutching with clawed paws until Jana felt sure her fur coat would rip. She curled her arm around his shoulder, squeezing her eyes into slits, intent on his face, his contorted, ursine muzzle. Nothing else.
He tightened his grip and she hissed with pain, her lips folding back, a true bourgeois snake from one of those Bolshevik nightmares. They staggered another turn, and again the Green Fairy rose up on Jana’s horizon. The girl grimaced.
His paws slipped, slicing the sequin scales of her evening gown off her neck, and she whirled, facing Tomas, while he faced his foster mother again, small like a rat.
Pressing her advantage, Jana squeezed him, feeling his body cringe with the desire to disobey, to escape, to change.
Three more times they revolved, struggling. The foxtrot went widdershins, always to the left, grinding out a circle in the snow.
Lights gathered, a ring of motorcars and sleighs, washing away all colour. The midnight air felt harsh in Jana’s lungs now. Tomas was still changing, convulsing.
Last of all came the barest animal, a thug of a man, nothing more than a burning slab of steel, singeing her furs and skin. This was the end, he had warned her, but he was heavy and her body ached from the way he had twisted and bent her. She strained to shift the pure fire and weight of him. The Green Fairy leaned forward, willing her champion’s victory.
Meeting the gaze of those ancient foreign eyes, Jana took a breath and planted herself like a tree. Over the railings she hurled Tomas, into the river, there to drown or be washed clean.
The Green Fairy’s scream raged red in her white face. “You will never hold him!”
“He’s my cousin, not my lover, and he’s free of you!” Jana shouted.
“So you don’t love him as a man, but you love him.” The older woman spoke more softly now. “He is broken. You thought he was an iron bar, and you threw him into the water, expecting a man of steel, but he’s rusted, just like that old man in Moscow. You will never temper him, not even in a flood that washes Petrograd off the map.”
Was that the cracking of ice? Jana checked her pistol, but it lay warm and inert in her hand. From below the bridge came a small moan of effort, then a splashing eruption from the canal.
Jana showed her teeth. “Now it is your turn to pay the tithe to hell, Green Lady.”
The silver and black pistol reappeared in the Green Fairy’s hand, but she was in retreat, withdrawing step by step, until she merged with the circle of lights, and was gone.
About the Author:
Virginia Marybury read Russian and French at university, and wrote her M.A. dissertation on late Soviet corruption and power, so you may imagine the sort of people she writes about.