I could see everyone from my seat in the corner, everyone but Old Maksimych. Yury the Weasel played v duraka with Fat Van'ka; he kept glancing at his cards, as if searching for something he might have overlooked earlier. Nosy Nikolai blew cigar smoke at the candles in the wall sconces. Black Nikita, long parted from the hair that gave him his nickname, drank with the same diligence that made him the second best porridge minder in the Fleet when sober: second only to Maksimych.
"Hope he didn't die up there," said Nosy Nikolai. The smoke above him was thick enough to turn pinpoint candle lights into dim orange globes.
"Nobody's that lucky," said Yury the Weasel. He scowled at the cards in his gnarled fingers, as if sheer force of ill-will could make them amount to something.
I rolled my eyes at the ceiling, wishing I had the money to go back upstairs. Old Maksimych was still up there, and still at whatever he was doing--which, curiously, for the last hour had not produced any creaking noises.
"He could have deserted," said Nosy Nikolai. "Down the back stairs and keep walking. California is a big place. Not enough Okhrana to track everyone down."
Outside the window, Lombard Street dropped down Russian Hill and snaked back up again toward the Presidio like a giant gaslit leash, slack for the moment but unbreakable nevertheless. Svyataya Anna was waiting for us, a black ship in the black water of the San Francisco Bay, due to steam at sunrise.
"It's simple arithmetic," Fat Van'ka said. "He's a Chief Porridge Minder. If he does not waste his money, he can afford more time with the girls." He poked a skeletal finger at the ceiling, then flicked a speck of dirt only he could see off one of his cards.
The Weasel laughed. "You don’t think he’s wasting his money now?"
"He could just gamble it away," said Black Nikita. “That would be a waste.” He raised his bottle to his lips and pointed its bottom at the ceiling; his samogon went down with the plaintive, high-pitched splash of the next-to-last mouthful.
"He could spend it to get drunk," said Nosy Nikolai. “But then he'd be a--”
“Then he'd be me,” Nikita interrupted, “and you'd all think you see double at turn-of-watch.”
That got a laugh, a syllable's worth.
"I'll give you this," said the Weasel. "Maksimych hasn't steered us wrong yet, here or in Yokohama or Manila..."
"Or any other port," Nosy Nikolai said. "Knows his houses of ill repute, he does."
"Of excellent repute," said Black Nikita. "Best girls anywhere."
"Maksimych always says to treat the girls with respect," said Fat Van'ka. "Could be we're just getting back what we've brought in.” He turned to me. “What do you think, Mishka?" he asked.
I shrugged. Thinking about Charlotte always seemed to bring me to the next day, when I would sink into the bottomless dark sea while some other sailor drowned in her bottomless dark eyes. Black Nikita glanced my way, uncorked a full bottle and passed it to me. The harsh samogon burned down my throat; tears poured from my eyes, chasing the vision away. I passed the bottle back in Nikita's direction, closed my eyes, leaned back. The armchair's gentle pressure on my back triggered in my body other memories of touch, ones I did nothing to dispel. I practiced living in those memories.
“Not a talker, our Mishka,” said Nosy Nikolai and blew another smoke ring at the ceiling.
For a time, only the seagulls' cries and the rustling of the cards bent the silence. When at last we heard a creak, it was only Maksimych trudging down the stairs.
Old Maksimych had the porridge minder's pallor, paler even than his fellow submariners, startling in contrast with the deep-tanned merchant deckhands. He had the porridge minder's eyes, too: quick to find their target but slow to leave it.
Only one thing about Old Maksimych made him different from all the other porridge minders.
Old Maksimych was old.
"I think I'll go relieve the boy on the night-watch," Maksimych said. "The kid should have a couple of hours here before we steam. It's important, at his age."
Nikita laughed out loud, almost spilling his drink. "Important? Like food and drink and limes and fish oil? As if lack of it could bring you to a bad end?"
Maksimych said nothing.
They teach you in porridge school never to trust a quiet pot. You have to think ahead of porridge: turn down water flow if you don't like how the pressure needle is twitching, or if the bubbles look too ragged in the boiling water. Or if the glow's uneven. You have to feel it in your gut when porridge does not look quite right.
Maksimych had that look about his silence.
"I smell a story," I said, more to myself than to the others, but then the room grew still, eyes flicking from Maksimych to me and back again.
"I didn't say anything," said Maksimych. He looked around the room. His gaze fixed on me rather longer than on the others.
"Exactly," said Black Nikita. "The only story worth hearing is the one nobody wants to tell."
There were nods around the room, and an expectant silence.
"A story," Maksimych repeated. "Not much of one, I'm afraid." His eyes widened just a bit, as if he'd spied a long-lost friend in the smoky recesses of the salon. "I knew this kid on the Svyatoy Sevastian. A bit like you," he said, jabbing a finger at me. "Proshka and I were apprentices together in the porridge chamber. A smart kid, took to porridge like a duck to water. You would think there really isn't much to porridge minding: one eye on the pot, one on the pressure gauge, a hand on the pump clutch--"
"What about the other hand?" Fat Van'ka cut in.
"You cross yourself with that one. Or slap your face if you feel like falling asleep. Porridge can kill you faster than British guns," said Maksimych. His eyes had gone dreamy. He was off on the familiar voyage now, telling the story the way we'd always heard it. "Sometimes you don't know what got you worried--"
"We want a story," whined the Weasel. "Not a minder school lesson."
Maksimych blinked like a man pulled out of a good sleep. He sighed. "The story is about Proshka, and he had a way with porridge. He'd sit there fiddling with the clutch, and the steam would stay steady at seven atmospheres no matter if the captain ordered the submersible to full speed or slowed to steerage way. Only one thing wrong with Proshka. He never went to a brothel. Not once."
"Didn't like girls, did he?" the Weasel said, sniggering.
Old Maksimych leveled him with a dead-flat stare. "He liked one girl. A girl he grew up with, in a village outside of Vladivostok. Every port we went to, he'd volunteer to stay on the ship, minding porridge. He kept saying he half understood how it worked; that he wanted to talk to Old Man Mendeleev to ask him how he got the idea."
"God gave him the idea," Fat Van'ka muttered. "God looks out for the Tsar of the Righteous. And for his Empire."
"Amen," most of the others mumbled, some with irony, but most not.
"God or Leshy," Maksimych said, "Proshka didn't care. He just wanted to know."
"Nothing wrong with that," said Black Nikita.
"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" said Maksimych. "Well, he got his wish. In port one day, the Captain got an envelope with sealed orders. Nobody knew what was in them, but he burned the pages, right in his cabin, and called in our Chief porridge minder. Nikulsky told me later: the Captain wanted to know if they could go to eight and a half atmospheres of steam, and Nikulsky told him, 'Yes, if Proshka is on the clutch.'"
"Eight and a half," Black Nikita said with a curl of the lip. "I could do eight and a half in my sleep."
"So could I," said Fat Van'ka. "In a new boat. Beaded porridge--"
"Well, I wish I'd slept through that, too," Maksimych said. "It was December. We made a long surface cruise at six, then submerged and ran at three and a half for a day or so. Then we surfaced again. I heard some splashes. Then the Captain commanded, 'Full Steam!' and Proshka took over."
Maksimych stopped; sighed. He held out his hand. Black Nikita handed him the bottle without a word.
Maksimych took a long swallow, grunted, wiped his lips.
"I don't know how Proshka did it," he said. "He'd back off the clutch a second before I'd have done it, then pump more water a lot faster than I'd have dared. He redlined at seven and just kept going. The screw went so fast it made the sub shudder. He hit eight and a half atmospheres and stopped. I swear the needle shook less than the deck under my feet; less than my hands did, that's for sure.
"We heard the first explosions maybe an hour later. They were dull, rolling like a steppe thunder. Proshka and the Captain kept it up for a day and a half before dropping to cruise power. We even stopped the turbine and listened to the hull. The sea was silent; there was no pursuit.
"We put in at Vladivostok after that, and heard the news. Turns out the Fleet had mined every harbor where the Brits and the Americans had ships of the line: Scapa, Baltimore, Boston, Sydney, San Francisco. Even a place no one ever heard of, in the Sandwich Islands. One day they had the greatest navies in the world, the next--" He made a hissing sound like steam escaping from a porridge pot. "Gone. Right up in smoke, and nothing left but a lot of flotsam in the water.
"The Captain left the ship then, and came back with the Order of Svyatoy Georgiy around his neck. He went looking for Proshka to pin a gold Medal for Zeal on him. But Proshka was nowhere to be found. Even after Captain ordered all hands to the deck--no Proshka.
"Anyone else they'd declare a deserter and set the Okhrana on him, but this was Proshka the hero, and we had a good Captain then. Hardly ever had anyone whipped, and never without reason; not just us porridge minders, but even the deck crew. I asked him if I could go look for Proshka.
"Brave man," said Fat Van'ka. "Bad enough to have a man desert, but to cover it up -- he'd'a been court-martialed himself if word got out."
"Told you he was a good Captain," said Maksimych. "So he gave me a silver rouble and a week's liberty. 'Your tongue will get you to Kiev' he said--never a truer proverb.
"Kind people pointed the way, and I found Proshka in an izba on the edge of town, the cleanest izba you ever saw, with a girl--well, maybe not the prettiest girl there ever was, but she had something better. Where she was was where you wanted to be. I couldn't blame Proshka a bit for running off.
"The two of them stood there, heads leaning toward each other like two old trees on either side of a creek. A pot simmered on the stove, cooking up something that made my mouth water.
"I told Proshka if I could find him, the Okhrana could, too, and then it's dancing off the yardarm for sure. Convinced him to go to the Captain, strike his head on the floor at his feet, beg to be allowed to beach.
"He did that. And the Captain picked him up off the deck, pulled the Medal for Zeal out of his pocket, pinned it on Proshka's uniform, and shook his hand. Then he punched Proshka, right in the mouth."
Maksimych reached for the bottle again.
"That's not a good Captain," said Black Nikita, handing him the bottle. "That's an amazing Captain!"
Maksimych took a long gulp.
"Don't keep us in suspense," said the Weasel. "What happened next?"
Maksimych handed the bottle back. "Proshka went down," he said, "bounced two or three times, slid halfway down the deck. The Captain picked him up again, sat him in a chair, and told me to get out.
Next thing I know, Proshka is hugging me and pumping my hand, thanking me, telling me that the Captain told the two of them to get on the next ship to Ceylon. He'd write a letter to the Admiralty, make Proshka a porridge maker."
"What's in Ceylon?" Fat Vanya asked.
"That's where they dig thorium, bonehead," Black Nikita snapped at him. "Don't interrupt Maksimych."
"Right," Maksimych said. "And porridge making, well, that's a whole different game. The porridge isn't behind lead crystal; it's in an open cauldron, thorium and porridge starter all mixed together, and they stir with graphite rakes, day and night. Most of them don't live longer than hatters.
"They say old man Mendeleev fiddled with thorium for ten years before he figured out how to make porridge out of it, and he was still alive then, so some get luckier than others. But Proshka...
"Three years later we put in at Colombo and I went to see him. He was dying, bleeding out from every place you could think of. Couldn't get out of bed, though when he saw me he tried.
"The girl was with him. Older, heavier, more tired. They still leaned toward each other when they sat on the bed, and their little shack was still a place I did not want to leave.
"I did leave of course, but not before they both thanked me, again."
"You are right," the Weasel said in the dead air after Maksimych stopped talking. "This wasn't much of a story. Tell us of the great battles in the old days!"
"Not much to tell of that, either," Maksimych said. "I only saw action once after the day we mined the harbors. Off Cape Hatteras, the Captain maneuvered till we all got seasick, shot off all our ammo from the deck gun. That was the last time we had trouble with the French. Weren't any sea battles after that, not worth mentioning. All the seas are Russian now."
Until that moment I had been content to listen to my elders. Maksimych himself had taught me always to look, to listen, to search for something that does not fit, and I had many questions about his tale: about words he had said in a hushed voice, odd pauses, furtive glances. I very nearly had it--
"What of the girl?" the Weasel asked. "Proshka's widow? Is she still alive? You ever see her again?"
Maksimych chuckled. "Sure did."
That was when it clicked.
"You should have married her," I said.
They all turned to me. "What did you say?" Maksimych said, looking me straight in the eye.
"You should have married her," I said. "I think you love her."
"Love her?" Maksimych grinned. "She's my age, boy. She's old. She's..."
"Upstairs," I said. "She owns this house, doesn't she?"
Maksimych nodded, walked toward me slowly. Stopped with his face inches from mine.
"How'd you guess?" he said quietly.
"It's a place I don't want to leave," I said. "And my mouth is watering. And to you, it's home."
"It wasn't fated," said Fat Van'ka.
"We make our own fate," said Black Nikita.
"Some people get straight flushes," said the Weasel. "And some get flushed straightaway."
Maksimych rose, shuffled slowly to the staircase, looked up at it, then turned around. "We've a long day ahead of us," he said. "Let's go back to the boat."
"And you?" I asked.
Maksimych didn't say anything, not a word for a long time. Fat Van'ka went out first, Nikita right behind him. The Weasel and Nosy Nikolai followed, holding on to each other for balance; neither had good head for liquor. Maksimych and I were the last men out. Both of us stopped in the street, turned around, looked at the house.
"I wonder if I'll see it again," I said.
"Shut up, boy," Maksimych growled. "Porridge has many ways to kill you. If you don't respect it, it will kill you. If you don't understand it, it will kill you. Running out of luck will kill you the fastest." He shook his head. "It's so easy to make a mistake. You put water on a fire--it dies. Porridge just gets hotter, and at those pressures, a little more water means a lot more heat. If you forget that, you'll have a face full of steam behind shards of crystal to remind you. And porridge, right there in the open. You'd see it glow, if you still had eyes."
"I know that," I said. "Why are you--"
"Because I know that look," he said. "And I don't know if I can trust you with porridge again. I don't want to get killed because this girl is all you can think about when you stand porridge watch."
"Why don't you desert?" I said. "You won't have to think about dying any more."
"You get to be my age, you don't think about if you are going to die, you think of how," Maksimych said. "You can be brave when the porridge finally gets you--the bleeds, the squirts, the tumors. You can be a hero and go down with a leaky sub, or lose pressure and get stuck in mid-ocean. Or you can do your best to catch the pox from a working girl if that's your last chance to die like a man." He turned, grabbed me by the shoulder, pulled, not too roughly. "Let's go,” he said. “The others are halfway to the boat."
We staggered toward the berth in the darkness, wet April wind whipping dust into our faces and chill into our bones. Halfway down the hill we fell, got up, fell again and again before it sank in on our sozzled senses: the noise, the screams, the jets of fire pouring from broken gas pipes, and far down the hill Black Nikita, never too drunk to walk, crawling on his hands and knees like all the rest of us. We huddled till the ground stopped heaving. I ran back up the hill, Maksimych puffing at my heels.
The sun had not yet risen, but houses burned all around us, lighting our way even while they filled the air with smoke. The house we'd left leaned like a drunk, tiles raining from its roof, but fire had not yet engulfed it. I passed a row of crying girls, some dressed, some wrapped in blankets, huddling for warmth. None of them was Charlotte. A handsome woman, not young but not what even I would have called old, stood looking at the house, her face less in sorrow than weary resignation.
"Have you seen Charlotte?" I yelled. She shook her head, slowly.
I ran around the side of the house. On the side that leaned down I found her, standing in the second story window. Pieces of wood, tile and glass fell from the wall and the roof; Charlotte was bracing herself to jump into a pile of debris. I ran to where I thought she would most likely land.
I saw her face come at me. It seemed to take a long time, an eternity; the flickering fires lit her face, leaving her eyes dark, yet I was sure they were fixed on mine, and I could see a smile that did not slip even as she fell into my arms.
We tumbled and rolled, she coming to rest on top. I tried to breathe, but air would not come. Not until she kissed me, and then in great, gasping, shuddering breaths, tears running down my face—my tears, I thought, till I saw hers.
I was in no hurry to rise, not with Charlotte so close, but it was she who leaped to her feet and pulled me, up and away. The house fell behind us, and the burning city disappeared in a cloud of dust. We staggered out of the cloud, coughing and choking, holding on to each other. Dust hid everyone from us; everyone but Maksimych. I went toward him.
"Mak..." I tried to say, but choked on the dust. Maksimych looked at Charlotte so intently she lowered her eyes. Then at me, for just a moment before craning his neck to peer behind me. I turned, but there was nothing there but dust. I turned again in time to see Maksimych's fist. It was close, and coming fast.
Then I was on the ground again, in quite a bit more pain.
Maksimych leaned over me. "Be quiet," he hissed. He took my uniform cap from my pocket and shoved it in my face. The pain exploded; he had to have broken my nose. "Stay down," he whispered and disappeared into the dust.
"Mishka's dead," I heard him say. "A roof beam took his head clean off."
"Poor bastard," said Nikita's voice.
"God rest his soul," said Vanka's.
"The boat!" Maksimych said. "We can't help Mishka, but if the earthquake damaged the boat..."
I heard their voices grow indistinct as they ran, fright-sobered, down the hill.
When I could hear them no more, I let Charlotte help me to my feet. The pain stopped as soon as I felt her arms around me; the world, the dust, the conflagration receded, and when her eyes released mine, I saw the older woman standing near, her face toward me.
"I'm sorry," I said.
Her face didn't move at all. Her eyes looked through me, past me, past all this world, perhaps into the next.
"I... I know he wanted to stay with you,” I continued. “I'm sorry."
A gust of wind brought back a word or two of Russian; it sounded like Maksimych's voice, far away. They weren't clear, these words, but none sounded a bit like an apology.
Charlotte and I stood silent, too. I spoke barroom English at best, and Charlotte but a smattering of Russian, learned in--
Learned in a world that ended.
We let our hearts converse, each straining at the bars of its own rib cage, each beat a leap one made toward the other, never uttering a lie and leaving nothing unsaid. I let mine talk, and listen to hers, until the sun rose on the newborn world.
This story originally appeared in Locothology II.