Sana Valiulina’s I’m Not Afraid of Bluebeard

Excerpt from the novel Ne Boius’ Sinei Borody (I’m Not Afraid of Bluebeard, 2017) by Sana Valiulina (right), translated by Polly Gannon. Read the translator’s introduction to this extract here.

Publishers and agents: for rights enquiries, contact Yulia Dobrovolskaya (at the Elkost’ International Literary Agency).

From Book 2. The Tender Heart

“The light of the star our soul becomes after death

is made of the light of the eyes of people we have consumed.”

 (ancient tribal wisdom)

Not Yet Winter

In November, the city was already dark by four o’clock. The trees dripped, swollen with rain, the Lutheran spires pierced the dull sky, the gray air lubricated the faces of pedestrians, and into the murky waves of the Gulf of Finland sank the great alternative dream of setting out for the land of sexual freedom and the most stellar sanitation facilities in the world.

Everyone hoped for a hard freeze. Last winter, for instance, the Gulf froze all the way to the above-mentioned promised shores, forming a “road of life,” in no way inferior to the other, historical Road of Life on Lake Ladoga, in the intensity of hopes it carried. A few young daredevils decided to test their luck and realize their dreams. Somewhere around the seventh kilometer, the border guards intercepted them, already half-dead.

For the time being, thrice weekly, a white ferry plied the Gulf, transporting there and back the inhabitants of those other, happy shores, their pockets filled with bubble gum that they distributed among the children that waited for them at the port and the hotels. After chewing their fill, the children, puffing up their cheeks, blew bubbles, which still smelled of strawberry, banana, and happiness.

In November, the crime rate in the city soared. In the evening paper, black and white faces of both victims and suspected perpetrators, shrunken to the size of postage stamps, stared out at the inhabitants of the city. The city was abuzz with rumors of missing children. November had only just begun, and everyone was talking about the two-year-old girl whose mutilated little body had been found in the cellar of a house going up on the edge of town. The last time she had been seen was on the trolleybus, crying on the lap of a man in a cap, pulled low over his forehead. He stroked the little girl’s head in its snug little hat and kept telling her that they were on the way to her mother now. When the trolleybus doors opened by a deserted stop, the man suddenly leapt out of the vehicle, with the child in his arms. And that was that. Just like Red-Riding Hood. What was the mother thinking? The little girl had disappeared while waiting for her mother outside the store. Her mother was, of course, standing in a line at a shoe store on Victory Square to buy Yugoslavian boots. The boots were on sale for a special holiday-bargain price. The man, by the way, had spoken Estonian without a Russian accent. The little girl was also Estonian. So ethnic tensions played no role here.

Everyone agreed that there was something extraordinary afoot. It was as if some sort of mysterious force had decided to shuffle the deck in the card game according to which the inhabitants of the city had been living their lives for ages.

The same mysterious force had shifted the scene of the crime. If, since time immemorial, children had been found in the woods, beyond the city limits, this year the murders had started happening in urban basements. It was as if the city didn’t want to let the children out of its clutches, but made short work of them in a dark, scary underground realm stinking of cat piss, which the city, in its eternal contest with the pale Baltic sky, claimed as its own.

Now this demonic power had struck down a two-year-old toddler, still almost a baby. After this veritable Biblical slaughter of the innocents, the rape and murder of older children seemed almost inevitable.

When the eight-year-old Irochka Kulagina was found in the basement of her own home, the city was again, naturally, gripped with shock. Now, however, it almost seemed like an inexorable fact of life from which there was no escape.

She was found strangled in the basement of her own apartment building—the ideal place for a crime. What else could you do in the neglected, dank underground spaces that were open to every Tom, Dick, and Harry? Sing songs? Plan secret trysts? Organize a new religion? This time the murderer was found almost immediately. Several days later he returned to the courtyard of that very same building, went up to the children playing, watched them for a long time, then lured one of the girls over to him. She followed him as submissively as a little puppy. They went down into the basement, and it was when he began taking off her trousers that she started screaming. A neighbor from the first floor heard her. Holding his nose against the stench, he ran down into the basement, where he saw a hefty man wearing a long trench coat and hat, kneeling in front of a half-undressed girl. The man’s briefcase was propped neatly against the wall. The demonic force had acquired a face and body, but remained silent. The man turned out to be a deaf-mute. Or perhaps it was a sham.

He made no attempt to flee while they were waiting for the police, but gesticulated and grunted incomprehensibly, trying to explain something to the one who had apprehended him. No one was able to find out how he had lured the six-year-old girl. She herself was scared to death, and it was impossible to get a word out of her.

The police finally picked up the deaf-mute. Later they said that Irochka Kulagina had also been the work of his hands, as well as the girl who had been found in a basement in October, in a neighborhood near the zoo. So now there was one less basement-killer. But the city was still on edge.

For the number of basements was growing steadily, along with the number of new residential areas for the people who arrived here from all corners of the empire. That meant that the chances of a new basement-killer being born under the baneful, starless sky also increased proportionately. Parents told their offspring over and over again not to go down in the basement and not to enter the elevator with a strange man, scaring them with horror stories about evildoers who ate children alive.

The murderer of the two-year old girl was still at large. Night swallowed up day, the city was tormented by alarm, thirsting for retribution. None of the men who had been caught would confess to committing the deed, the police were silent, retribution was postponed. But when nearly all hope was lost, the city, in spite of itself, suddenly breathed a sigh of relief. For now the killer would most likely not be found, and he would never again appear in a human guise. No one would ever see his eyes, nose, and hands again, and thus recognize him, with disgust, as a representative of their own, thus higher, sort—the crown of creation. The few people who had seen him on the trolley with the child remembered only the blue ski cap, pulled down low over his forehead, and the feverish whisper with which he tried to comfort her. The devil had no face; and to be honest, that was for the best. Was this not simply the order of things in this world, and so also in their small seaside city? And those who said that the matter was much worse, that it could happen to any of us, were told to hush and urged to change the subject.

The devil simply melted into the November gloom and evaporated, as if he had never been. That was the long and short of it. What remained was a small, innocent martyr who took our sins upon herself, and instead of retribution, offered the city salvation. She hadn’t had time to take a bite of the apple, so she bore no trace of sin. Perhaps her death did, indeed, contain some elusive, and therefore larger, meaning.

Now, raising their heads, a bit shamefaced, people looked up at the black sky with hope, trying to descry some sign, some new star, that would show them the way through the November darkness.

Adults—most often women, but men, too, on occasion—also started disappearing in the city. There were plenty of places to go missing, apart from basements, around here.

The city was bound by the sea from the northwest. The coast on the other side, where at one time “the Finn caught his fish in ropey nets,” swam, now in the light of advertisements and sexual freedom. To the southwest, the city was surrounded by silent, dark, new high-rises, forests, and wasteland. This was where bodies were found, used for various purposes, and then discarded, and where random articles of feminine attire, bras, stockings, and camisoles, were strewn about.

Thus, the eyes of the city looked eagerly toward the shores of the great dream, which in the evenings was beamed across television screens like meteor showers of blindingly bright toilets, shampoos, tampons and sanitary napkins, deodorants, dolls with grown women’s bodies, perfectly round slices of smoked sausage, while behind it lurked the voracious darkness, which, not to be outdone, from time to time swallowed up a chance human being.

In this awkward, or to be more precise, tragic, position, that of an unfortunate person bound hand and foot between two restive horses intent on ripping him in half, the city had already existed for decades. During this time its body had adjusted to the pose, more or less. In any case, one didn’t hear the crunch of bones anymore, a sound that had been ringing in the ears of the native inhabitants since the backbone had been broken.

The non-native inhabitants were not unduly inconvenienced by this pose. Most of them didn’t even notice. Or perhaps they were born without backbones; that is to say, their backbones had acquired such a degree of flexibility that they didn’t even utter a peep when they were stretched. The proximity of freedom didn’t call up any memories among them, and therefore didn’t cause them the kind of pain it caused the natives. The natives simply could not be pacified. They were always thinking about something in their native language, tormented with itching and phantom pain emanating from amputated organs they hadn’t even been aware of while still part of their bodies.

And so, the life of the city went its course. Winter was at the door. But first, they had to get through November. Now everyone in town was talking about a certain woman called Potapova. Odd, since she was completely indistinguishable from the rest of the faceless army of workhorses.

Potapova was neither young nor beautiful, and judging by her picture, she was certainly no ideally proportioned figure skater—in other words, she did not possess any of the characteristics of the average missing women. If she had worn imported clothes and gold jewelry, or, say, a bright red Finnish raincoat and knee-high patent leather boots, like, for instance, that forty-year-old fashionista, who disappeared a year ago and was found wearing only her stockings by the quarry south of town, her disappearance might have been easier to explain. The killers of the forty-year-old woman, by the way, were caught when they tried to fob off her Finnish duds to black marketeers. In age and appearance, Potapova had more in common with the victims of mugging, drunken brawls, or accidents. Who needed a forty-eight-year-old woman with heavy jowls, a pedestrian haircut, and deep grooves running from the sides of her nose to her lips? In the tiny newspaper picture, as well as the blown-up version on the TV screen, Potapova looked like an ordinary, worn out, flabby, middle-aged woman, who had been married some thirty years, and after work, like clockwork, ran into the nearby grocery store for boiled sausage and kefir. The last time she had been seen was at the bus stop, three hundred meters from the hospital where she worked. That was all.

The only curious thing was the insistence with which the police reminded the populace about Potapova. Her picture appeared almost daily in the newspapers. Potopova’s picture hung in the city kiosks beside those of wanted criminals. Her face flashed across TV screens, and recently a newspaper, and then the TV, called upon any citizens who had seen a white Lada, speeding through the Tiiu district on November 3, to report it to the police. It seemed that the police had, counterintuitively, thrown all their efforts into what, on the surface, looked like a hopeless and dreary case.

As often happens, no one could remember exactly who, where, and when the disappearance of Potapova had been linked to the annual November holidays celebrating the Great October Revolution. After putting two and two together, and then multiplying it by the zeal of the police, the square root was extracted from this somewhat flimsy input. And, all of a sudden, people began talking about a politically motivated killing. At first in a whisper, and then, when the rumor had reached half the city, out loud (but of course only among close friends). No one doubted that she was no longer alive. The most interesting thing was that because of these rumors, the usual run-of-the-mill, pre-holiday hustle and bustle, when people dashed from store to store, stocking up on food and drink like they were possessed—there was always something on sale for the celebration of the Revolution, whether Polish broiler chickens, Hungarian turkeys, or Czech liquors made of medicinal herbs, so beneficial for the circulatory system—began to take on a greater, one might say almost revolutionary, intensity. Even people standing in lines gained an aura of nobility, like sacrificial victims. Now, instead of rainbow trout in oil and Cinzano, a vague, but true goal materialized before them, which was to excavate from the deep strata of time the phrase “politically motivated killing.” People seemed to fancy themselves members of some sort of secret, but powerful society, as though, by some caprice of fate, they were forced to attack stores, which now appeared to them to be no less than barricades. The only thing that was uncertain was which side of the barricades they occupied. But did this even matter?

Translated by Polly Gannon                           Read Polly’s blog post about her translation here