The old man looked both ways before crossing Politekhnichesky Street. His dog waited, the leash slack between the collar and the old man’s hand. When the old man stepped off the curb, the dog followed.
A flock of pigeons worried at a heel of bread in the middle of the street, and as the old man and the dog walked past them toward Lubyanka, and as the birds fluttered into the air, a little girl peered out from behind one of the spruces. She followed the pigeons’ flight until they disappeared behind the trees, then turned toward the dog.
“Babushka, look!” she exclaimed. “Sobachka!”
She jumped in place, looking from the dog to the old man and back again.
The old man looked as if he had been carved all in straight lines and acute angles, and as the pair approached she danced aside as if to keep from cutting herself against the edges of his shadow-colored silhouette.
An elderly woman emerged from the shade of the spruce.
“Some sobachka this is,” the old woman said to the girl. “Everything is diminutive for you now, isn't it?” She reached for the girl, pulled her into a protective embrace. “A sobaka will bite your face off,” she said, “but a sobachka will just lick it.” She turned to the old man. “This sobachka looks like he's done his share of biting.”
“Not when he is with me,” the old man said, and to the old woman’s ear it sounded as if it came from deeper places than most.
The old woman's eyes turned to the dog. The dog returned her gaze.
The old woman looked away first.
“Good thing that leash is strong, for a dog with eyes like this,” she said and looked down at the little girl, relaxing her hold.
The little girl slipped free and took a step forward.
“What breed is it? I've never seen its like,” the old woman added.
“Georgian Mountain dog,” the old man said.
“Don’t trust Georgians,” the old woman said. “Though I suppose dogs are different. Nothing but savages in those hills. You sure the dog is safe?”
The old man lifted his hand. The leash wound three times around it.
The old woman turned to look behind her, at the black bulk of Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky's statue that stood watch over Lubyanka square. The sun shone upon it, as always in Moscow between Lenin’s Birthday in April and Victory Day in May, summer-bright and winter-cold. It brought a blue glow to spruces whose branches had spent the winter peering greenish-gray from under mounds of snow, and dabbed the roundabout under the monument in decadent pointillistic swirls of pansies. Behind the statue, the beige facade of the FSB Headquarters (but no one ever got used to calling it that, and still referred to it as the KGB more often than not,) turned a delicate shade of peach.
“I don't suppose you'd consider walking with us toward Iron Feliks?” the old woman said. “My granddaughter wanted to go play in the pansies at its feet. I am afraid of the cars in the square, they drive like the possessed here, but maybe for the four of us they'd slow down?”
“Yes yes please,” the little girl said. She pirouetted toward the old woman. “Can we go to Iron Feliks?” She turned her head toward the old man. “Please?”
The old man looked at the dog, then nodded. “We can do that,” he said. “Did your grandmother teach you how to cross the street correctly?”
“Yes,” the little girl said. “You look both ways,” she said and turned left and right with slow exaggerated bows. “And you keep your feet on the ‘zebra’ and you hold on to an adult at all times.” She patted the dog. “He’s an adult, right?”
The old man nodded again, his wrinkled face creasing into a half-smile.
“So I’ll hold on to him,” said the little girl. She stepped forward and took hold of the dog's collar. “Why do they call Dzerzhinsky the Iron Feliks?” she asked. “Babushka says that’s because he’s a statue, but then she crosses herself every time we pass him, and he isn’t even a saint...”
The old woman crossed herself again. “How do you explain such things to a child?” she said. “She's never even been to a funeral, the lucky girl, and on a good day can maybe count to a hundred. How do you tell her what 'Revolutionary Terror' means when she's not afraid of a dog with fangs the size of my pinkie? 'Fiery Felix,' 'Sword of the Revolution.' Rivers of blood in basements.” She glanced at the statue again, sighed, raised her arm and brought it down again dismissively. “All she knows is skazki,” she added. “Everything starts with 'Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away...' and ends with 'To the wedding I went, mead and beer I drank, down my mustache it flowed and none in my mouth.' Nothing but fairy tales.” She ran her hand across her lips as if wiping an imaginary mustache, smiled, and sighed.
The dog's head rose. He turned to look at the old man. The old man cupped his chin, turned to the little girl. The little girl raised her eyebrows; her eyes went wide, twin circles of blue.
“Perhaps,” the old man said, “a fairy tale is what we should tell her?”
“Yes yes please,” the little girl said, her hands reaching, one to the old man, one to her grandmother. “Please tell me a skazka. Please please!”
The old woman turned and started toward Lubyanka. “Why not? She can listen on the way,” she said. “As Pushkin wrote, 'A skazka is a lie --'”
“'-- but in it is a hint, and a lesson,'” the little girl quoted. “But mostly I hope it's interesting. And maybe a little scary.”
The old woman sighed. “Interesting and scary,” she said. “Yes, that's Iron Feliks all right.”
The little girl ran to catch up with the old woman, took her hand. The old man and the dog took longer steps until they drew abreast with them. Under the little girl's questioning stare they walked another few steps in silence.
The little girl drew a breath to speak, opened her mouth. The old man spoke first.
“Once upon a time...” he said and paused a moment, looking at the old woman “...there was great wickedness in the land --” he continued.
“That’s what Grandma says,” the little girl interrupted. “Except she says there’s great wickedness in the land now.”
The old woman's shoulders convulsed again.
“Be as it may,” the old man said. “Now, do you want to hear the story or not?”
The little girl nodded.
“There was,” he repeated, “great wickedness. And the people said that the wickedness comes from some people thinking they are better than others...”
“But some people are better than others,” the little girl said. “Everybody says so.”
“Yes,” the old man said. “And that, they said, is at the root of wickedness, and everyone must be equal and then everyone would be good. And for that, you need a Revolution.”
“Lenin made the Revolution, right?” the little girl asked.
“With a little help,” the old man said. “And Lenin’s friends could only be people with fiery hearts, cool heads, and clean hands.”
The little girl looked at her hands. “Babushka always makes me wash my hands,” she announced. “Especially before I sit down to eat.”
“That means your grandmother cares about you,” the old man said. “So Lenin decided he'd keep his hands clean, and he built Iron Feliks: At his front a hammer to beat down heads that stick up, and a sickle to cut off ones that won't bend; at his heart a steam engine like a parovoz, and the rest of him is cast iron: feed him coal, let him drink water, and he'll go all day and all night, with a fire in his heart.”
They reached another curb and stopped. The four looked left and right, their turns almost comically simultaneous. The old woman tightened her grip on the little girl's hand before they went into the square.
“What about the cool head?” the little girl said. “Who got that?”
“That was Stalin,” the old man said.
The old woman nodded, sighed, and crossed herself again. “Oh yes,” she said. “Cold. He was the one who drove Iron Feliks, used some people as cogs, some people as rails, some people as fuel." She looked up, her eyes distant. "You'd give anything to be a cog,” she added quietly.
The dog stepped forward onto the flower bed.
“Look, we are here!” the little girl exclaimed. “Look at all these pansies!" She bent down. “Babushka, I’m going to make you a buketik,” she said. “I’ll only pull up the nicest pansies. All kinds: red, purple, white. Just for you.”
“See what I mean?” the old woman said. “At this age, it's all diminutives. Buketik, not bouquet. Ah, to be young again.”
The little girl drew herself up to her full height to look up at her grandmother. She put her hands on her hips.
“But, babushka,” she said, drawing out her words, “these are pansies. They are tiny tsvetochki; you can make a big bouquet from big tsveti like roses or peonies, but from little pansies you can only make a little buketik.”
“And an answer for everything,” the old woman said. “Children,” she said, and gave another bark of mirthless laughter.
“But do you know,” the old man said, “when to stop pulling up pansies?” The old woman and the dog both looked up at his voice, but the girl squatted and reached down.
“Well,” she said, “I have to make a buketik for Babushka, and for mommy and for daddy and one for Grandpa’s grave - he died in the War --”
“And soon there won’t be any pansies around Iron Feliks, and won’t he be cross then?” the old man said.
“You can’t make buketiki without pulling up tsvetochki,” the little girl said. She chose a purple flower to add to the red and yellow flowers already in her hand. “But do go on,” she said. “What happened to Iron Feliks?”
“He pulled up too many flowers,” he said.
The old woman's head whipped around to face him. Her hand flew to her open mouth.
The little girl looked up. “How's that?” she said.
“He was supposed to pull up weeds, but he pulled too many flowers instead,” the old man said. “Soon, there was no one to do the work.”
“Well, I can understand him,” the little girl said with an inflection clearly copied from an adult, and reached down again. “Weeds are so much harder to pull, and they are useless. Can't make a buketik out of weeds, right?”
“No,” said the old man. “No, you cannot.”
“But did they punish Iron Feliks?” the little girl asked. “What did they do to him? When I misbehave, my mother puts me in a corner...” She trailed off, her mouth quirking downward.
“They didn't do anything,” the old man said. “Just let him rust.”
“And what about the others?” the little girl said. “What are their names?”
“Lenin died and went into the Mausoleum,” the old man said. “He is under glass, his hands will never get dirty. And Stalin...” He hesitated.
The dog looked at him.
“Please please,” she said. “Tell me about Stalin! Did he gather flowers, too?”
The dog's tail stopped wagging.
The old man sighed. “I think I’ll let your grandmother tell the story,” he said and clutched the dog’s leash.
The little girl straightened. “Here, take these!” she said and handed her grandmother a bouquet of pansies. “Can you tell me about Stalin?” she continued. “Did he make proper bouquets?”
The old woman chuckled. “Proper bouquets? That’s one way of putting it,” she said. Her hand went to her temple. “Must be this sun,” she said. “I'm getting a headache. Let's go back.”
“Oh, babushka,” the little girl said. “Please? Just one more buketik...”
“You should listen to your grandmother,” the old man said.
They started back across the square.
There were pigeons in the street again. They batted a rotten biscuit in zigzags back and forth along the asphalt, racing for crumbs and fighting for precedence, and for a moment their coos and wingbeats remained the loudest sound that could be heard.
In mid-crossing, the dog stopped short, his ears pricking up. An instant later, pigeons stopped pecking. The old man stopped as well. The old woman pulled the little girl toward her.
The squeal of tires came first, from the corner of Novaya Ploschad’, and then a sleek white sports car (a serpent ondoyant vert vorant a child gules) sped into the square, a swarm of bits of paper and cigarette butts roiling in its wake. Bass notes of a nightclub-favorite song beat themselves against the car’s closed windows, toned too dark to see the driver, their echo adding to the flutter of startled pigeons’ wings. The car careened straight at the little girl and her grandmother; the old woman's mouth opened in a silent O as she reached forward with her free hand as if to ward it off.
The dog stepped forward. The fur rose on its neck, it growled, far too softly to hear inside the car, but in an instant the car swerved, tires screaming, slewed into the flower bed, fishtailed in a spray of soil and petals, scraped a shower of sparks off the pavement as it leaped off the curb, and sped away to disappear on the other side of the statue.
The dog shook himself and looked up at the man again. The old man brushed his free hand down each lapel, once, and adjusted his hat.
The old woman took a breath, then let it out slowly. Her hand drew into a fist; she shook at the dying roar of the retreating car.
"A curse on you!" she said, her voice shaking in anger. "A curse on all you bull-necked New Russians, on all the merchants who make you pay whatever they want for food and clothes! On all you mafiozniki, on all the hooligans who stop good people in the street, on all the bribe-takers and look-the-other-ways, let the devil take you, devil and Stalin!" She paused, looked down, her forehead creasing, eyes squeezing shut. “Things might be better if he’d come back,” she said quietly. She let go of her granddaughter's hand, grasped and kneaded the little girl's shoulders. “Lots of people wish he’d come back,” she whispered.
There was a silence for a second or two, deeper, it seemed, than any silence could be on a Moscow street. A cloud slipped across the sun; shadows grew indistinct, the statue darkened, and the facade behind it lost its peach hue, turning exactly the color of a sliver of bone protruding from a compound fracture.
“Babushka! Babushka! Look,” the little girl yelled. “The nice sobachka is smiling!”
This story originally appeared in Genius Loci anthology.
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