Spring in Zurveyta
by Kyle Coma-Thompson, recommended by Bat City Review
EDITOR’S NOTE BY KELLY LUCE
The night after I read Kyle Coma-Thompson’s “Spring in Zurveyta” for the first time, it haunted my sleep. The story, about a young reporter finally granted an interview with the country’s reclusive president, left me with a lingering and beautiful anxiety. My dreams were populated by its prickly images: a casual pistol, a windowpane like a jail cell, headstones turned building material.
The characterization of President Cherkeso (“It was difficult not to blink when he fought to gain advantage in conversation, since his hands and his legs were working so actively to expel his thoughts from his body”) alongside the calm, reportorial style of the prose, create a tension that resonates long after one has reached the ending. Coma-Thompson’s style seeps through mind-cracks into the subconscious. This renders what could be a flat tale, forthcoming with its information, totally spellbinding.
The hyper-real scenes between Anna P., the reporter, and President Cherkeso and his guards and minions, are wonderfully balanced by moments in which time and space are drawn out. When Anna, on the phone with her husband, mentions how nervous she is to interview the new, ominously secretive and hostile president, the conversation is practical: they discuss interview strategies and a five-minute technique for stress-relief. Just as they are about to hang up, Anna says, “I’m safe. Don’t worry.” But the words don’t reach him as smoothly as the previous ones. They echo from a windowpane “back to her face, through the receiver to a cell tower, up to an orbiting satellite, and then down to her husband on the other end of the line.” Anna, whatever she would like to think, is terrifyingly far from anyone who would keep her safe.
Here is a story told in realistic, vivid prose, yet one whose setting is unfamiliar and whose concerns are imbued with a gravitas that we do not come across often while sifting through the submissions. It radiates seriousness and is charged with necessity. There is a sense of authority to the writing that propels the story forward, and the buildup of suspense as Anna, meets the ruthless president Cherkeso is handled masterfully. Several months after the story’s publication in Bat City Review, we received an email from the editor of Dock Street Press. He wanted to see more of Kyle’s work. All of this led to the publication of The Lucky Body, a book of short stories. How wonderful — dare I say dreamlike — that such things still happen!
Editor-in-Chief, Bat City Review (2014–2015) and author of Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail
With thanks to Alen Hamza, Editor-in-Chief, Bat City Review (2013–2014)
Spring in Zurveyta
Mr. Cherkeso had agreed: he would sit for the interview. It would be conducted at his compound in Zurveyta at exactly three forty-five in the afternoon. The journalist, Ms. Petrovich, would submit a list of questions. From this list ten questions would be selected and his representatives would submit a copy of his answers one hour before the interview. She would be allowed to formulate supplementary questions to his answers during this time. Arrival time would be at noon, granting a thorough search of her car and body; after the interview, they would have dinner with the Minister of the Interior and his wife.
Anna Petrovich, Anna P. as her friends called her (her editor at Novaya Gazeta, Mischa Hosculman, called her Petrovich — the negation of familiarity belying his affection for her) had reported on the wars in Khruekistan and predicted the consolidation of power by Akhmed Cherkeso’s son after his assassination two years ago. His son had been the head of security forces. He wasn’t yet thirty years old when his father had died. This is how it had happened: at a public independence day rally at Iznek Stadium, he’d sat in the twenty-fifth row of the concrete bleachers overlooking the youth parade. Several hundred pounds of explosives had been rigged around the columns upholding the bleachers. At noon they were detonated. One man watching through binoculars as the president waved to the parade had seen his hand fly right off the wrist. “Like a sparrow at the sound of gunshot,” he’d later described. One hundred and sixty-three people killed. Probably twice that many detained. It could have been read as a show of incompetence on the son’s part, that his security scan of the stadium days prior to the event hadn’t turned up a cache of explosives taped to the pylons beneath the bleachers and painted the color of concrete. But the time it would take to formulate such a criticism was quickly filled with a flurry of retributive action. All military-aged males in the village of Kirpukt, the home town of Sulamir Besmir, the most prominent of the rebel leaders, were detained, brought to Iznek, and subjected to a month of “intensive cross-examination.” Tactics of cross-examination had included beatings, sodomization, torture by blowtorch and electrified wires secured to the genitals, followed by execution by pistol, hunting knife, and nail gun. In the words of one observer who had attended the state funeral for Cherkeso the elder, the son had “wept fists” at the service. He’d delivered the eulogy with an announcement of authority, removing a pistol from the shoulder holster beneath his suit, holding it up for the crowd to see, before setting it, with a show of ominous grace, on the podium. This was what the country should expect. Here was a man who protected his interests from a position of deep emotion; and, being a man of the people, his interests were aligned with everyone’s.
Anna P. had to wait eighteen months before she was allowed to contact President the Younger Cherkeso, six more before she was granted council with him. She had spoken by telephone with a series of functionaries, all who claimed to be speaking on behalf of Mr. Cherkeso. Yes, the President had agreed, it was important to develop a relationship with reporters from Moscow. It would be necessary especially in light of the Kremlin’s support of his efforts to rebuild and rehabilitate his country’s sense of direction and identity. Not seventy years had passed since Stalin’s soldiers had marched into Iznek and worked to modernize what was until then essentially a peasant state. They tore down old buildings and built them anew. And when they exhausted the city’s supply of stone and brick, they uprooted headstones from the cemeteries and put them to use. This was, the President’s representative to the press said, what must be done once again. We must rebuild from the bottom up this country that has, until now, built nothing new but fresh graves.
Anna P. smiled dryly at that. She had been in country for three months and had seen more than enough fresh graves. The problem was, there weren’t enough of them. Public executions had been the chosen deterrent for any rebels still embedded in the villages. In Porguna, forty miles to the west of Iznek, she had witnessed the murder of two men by government security agents. She had stood in the gathering crowd near the oil pipeline outside the village, disguised beneath a burkha, while the two men, possible rebels dressed in track suits, were shot and beheaded. The heads were placed chest-high atop the pipeline. Security agents posed next to them for photos from their camera phones. One of them placed the cigarette between the lips of a dead man then returned it to his own to take a puff. By public order the bodies and heads were not to be buried. They were to be left to rot. “But if the dogs have their way with them,” they said, “that will be fine.”
She had seen similar things in the south of the country. The president’s control was stronger in the east and the north. Moscow had expressed an interest in unifying the country fully by the end of the year. Here it was, halfway through summer, and this deadline seemed all but met. Anna had framed her request to meet President Cherkeso in these terms: to discuss his plans for the country once its regions had been stabilized and local governments had been integrated under his authority. Word was received by her editor in Moscow. Yes, it is time we sat down and outlined in a public manner our plans for the future. The time came sooner than she had thought: “President Cherkeso would be happy to sit down with you later this week, Saturday.”
Saturday morning she left her hotel in Iznek early and in a rental car drove west. The President’s compound was halfway between the capital and the coastal town of Uzun. The land there was hilly and less populated than along the coast; forests rose and fell like preparatory waves on the way to the sea. Anna kept her notes open on the passenger’s seat and listened to the state radio news report, which ended not soon after she had begun listening. A Russian program announcer introduced a symphony by Prokofiev and faintly and slowly the music began, unwinding from a dormant state of dim silence. This was her soundtrack for the trees that rose out of the ground and slowly approached and then, as she reached them, rushed past her. What had Mischa said? To not press the president on his agreement with the Kremlin. To not mention the testimony of exiled rebels. Or the assassinations of defected members of his security force; or the murder of journalists; or the killings of Salim Nazmir in Vienna or Ramzan Yennul in Abu Dhabi. Stay focused on him as a speaker, as a promoter of his own prejudices, as a man in a room. Don’t press his answers too forcefully. Pay attention to how convincingly he talks up his plans for reconstituting the government and for rebuilding Iznek especially. We just need a clear sense of how he views himself. How he presents himself will be a large part of that.
Before she had left the hotel that morning, she had told her husband Ilya, “My hands have been shaking for two days now. I want to have a drink or take a Vicodin to calm my nerves, but I don’t want to dull my wits.” Her husband, also a journalist, had taught her a breathing exercise that he had used in the past; to hold one’s arms above one’s head and breathe rapidly through the nose; to do this for three minutes and, when done, to hold one’s breath for as long as one can and then lay on the floor with eyes closed. He called it his “Five Minute Sanity Session.” The tension in Anna’s voice was so strong, the cell phone in his hand seemed ready to collapse from the pressure if he let her keep talking; so he asked her to take “five minutes of sanity.” “I’ve already done that, right before I called you,” she said. “I know nothing will happen. I’ll go there, ask my questions, stir his ire, then be sent away. He needs to put on a good strong face for the press. Journalists don’t have a way of disappearing when they go to talk with him. That comes later. After the articles are published.” Ilya could tell she was standing at a window. From the acoustical color of her voice: thinly doubled, with a faint, sharp echo. He was worried for her. This is not where he wanted her to be. Alone, standing in a hotel room, in one of the most ruined cities on the continent, in the world, if one were to draw comparisons. “Call me any time,” he said. “From the drive there. From Cherkeso’s place. Remember, we want you back here by the end of the month. We’ll coddle you like a batty old heiress. Be safe.” She nodded, then said, to the window, to the window echoing back at her face, through the receiver to a cell tower, up to an orbiting satellite and then down to her husband on the other end of the line: “I’m safe. Don’t worry. I’m just nervous. More later, Mr. Husband.” After they’d said their goodbyes, Ilya sat on the edge of his bed and imagined Anna doing the same, then noted to himself, “You don’t get nervous. And now you are.” When he looked at the clock on the nightstand, it said nine thirty.
Now that she was driving to meet Cherkeso, her nerves were feeding back into her usual state of calm alertness. What had begun as a quick drive through ugly countryside had gradually become more pleasant. The land between the capital and Uzun was not as ruined as she’d expected. It had rained before dawn, and the dark trees, the small scattered cottages among them, had a fresh, dewy pastoral homeliness to them. The road shone in patches where the morning light passed through the trees. Due to the humidity there was a sepia quality to the air, miniscule tracers of light refracting by the trillions through airborne specks of water.
She drove without thinking, preparing her instincts for the netting and recording of quick details. This was what she called her “cleaning ritual.” Hours before an interview, she would empty her mind of any reference points or opinions of her subject. Not that she was erasing the vital lines leading from the present moment back to the compiled information she had prepared and reviewed weeks beforehand; rather she was clearing the way between the two, so when she needed to draw on some critical particle of data to aid in the formation of a question, the recorded fact would arrive at the right time and from the right angle spontaneously. In the mournfully objective spaces within her was the worst of a country’s available history. Ten years of disarray and civil war, revenge killings and government sanctioned executions. These were the generalities afforded by cause and effect: the breaking free of satellite states in the messy twilight months of the Soviet Union; the push for autonomy by tribal leaders against the interests of old loyalists. The civil war of ‘92-’95, followed by a truce, followed by a second war that began in ’97 and continues until now, stalled in a state of perpetual disintegration in this, its last, meanest phase. These were the bare structures of events boiled down to their timelines and held together by a procession of names and dispatches. What was harder to retain were the things seen, the stories relayed to her. These she couldn’t affix to a meaningful trajectory.
There was the Muslim woman she had met in Gamurzigol who, having been accused of infidelity against her husband, was arrested by security police and brought to the basement of the police station. There they tied her to an iron pole and beat her with a length of rubber pipe, insisting she confess and beg repentance from her husband. Her husband, of course, was nowhere to be found. Hiding, most likely, at a house in a nearby village.
This was a small, youngish woman with a jagged scab cutting across her upper and bottom lip. She shook and kneaded the back of her neck as she spoke. “I was too afraid to deny it and too afraid to tell them the lie they wanted from me. So I kept quiet.”
The police who beat her were young, younger than her, and laughed and mocked her when she flinched. When they saw that she would admit to nothing, one said with a pious rage that seemed affected, not at all a flourish of righteous feeling, “If you won’t confess, you must be punished. You are sentenced to three days of shame.” At that they shaved her head and eyebrows with electric shears, then spray-painted the stubble bright green. Pressing her head against the iron pole, one of the officers asked for the can; on her forehead he sprayed an upside down cross beginning at the widow’s peak and ending at the bridge of the nose. After this they dragged her into the streets and called bystanders to pelt her with stones and rotten food. She was led to the town square and handcuffed her to an old iron ring embedded in the concrete fountain. There she lay for three days, hardly sleeping, begging for food. No one dared look at her, though no one besides the police stopped to mock her.
This was only one of hundreds of stories. Within the neatly memorized pattern of events and official reports existed a chaos of barely verifiable losses. The sheer number of them, as they amassed within her, generated pressure on her conscience; enough, at times, to weaken her composure. There’s only so much a conscience can hold and focus into direct action before it collapses inward in a kind of inert, speechless grief. To outmaneuver that grief, which over the past five years had grown more prominent and leaden in her, she had simply written and submitted accounts such as these as quickly as they were relayed to her.
One night, at her hotel in Azran, there was a knock at her door. Outside there was line of old people. The mothers and fathers of the disappeared in Nalgazalan. One man, a doctor, wept and let the women hold his shoulders as he described his son’s abduction six months earlier. “He could not have been anyone to them,” he said, “just a bright, happy young man, a computer programmer. Very popular, many friends. There must have been some misunderstanding, he only wanted to keep to himself and raise his family.” One morning without notice he was abducted. Armed men wearing masks and camouflage fatigues wrestled him into a black Niva with unnumbered plates. For weeks there was no word of him. His father asked after him at the police station, at the checkpoint outside Nalgazalan. No one he spoke with seemed to know who his son was, where he was held, or why he was taken into custody. On March 5th, twenty-six days after the abduction, the body of a man in his early thirties, badly beaten, hands severed at the wrists, was found face down in a ditch just south of the Nubil Textile factory. The hands were found several paces from the body, sealed in a large clear plastic sandwich bag. This was his son, Amal. Since burying him, he told her, he has not allowed any member of his family to leave the house. If they need food, toys, liquor, words from friends, he would leave on his own and acquire them. This was, she discovered, not an unusual case. Whole neighborhoods in Nagazalan were empty during the late afternoon and evening except for old men running their families’ errands.
These, Anna knew, were things she would have to exert discipline against, to repress. Certainly Cherkeso was aware of her dispatches, her articles on Moscow’s support of his consolidation of power and terror campaign against communities supportive of the rebels. Since that much was known, that would not need mentioning. She would do as his instructions asked and discuss the answers to the ten questions he selected and would respond to. She would collect evidence of his character and categorize the varieties of justifications for his actions. And most likely he would watch and listen and playfully hint that her removal from the country and his affairs would be very pleasant news to him. For now, she would concentrate on redirecting her fear into intensified tact and alertness.
After an hour, she reached what appeared to be the first of many checkpoints. Three armed men waved her car to the side of the road. After checking her papers, they called her out of her car and walked her across the road to a black UAZ Patrio. She would leave her car there, they said; they would drive the rest of the way. A mile further they arrived at a second checkpoint. More armed men. One more joined them in the back seat, an amiable man wearing a round tyubeteika cap. He laid the assault weapon in his lap so the barrel pointed at an upward angle, toward her chin. For most of the way they sat silently. Passing a number of barracks and guesthouses, they reached the main compound after another half mile. The last checkpoint was flanked on either side by a ten-foot chain link fence. This was topped with layered curls of razor wire. The fence divided the forest in either direction. Beyond this last control post there were three more stops between the gate and the main yard, an hour of inspection and waiting, before the Patrio rolled up the main drive towards a large stone manor house. To Anna’s eyes, it looked like a squat, half-sized chalet. At the top of the circular drive, her escorts led her from the jeep through the front entrance, up a wide flight of dark wooden steps, then left past the study to a leisure room in the west wing of the house. This is where she sat, in the company of several rough, good-humored men and their armaments, for three hours.
What did she see around her? Oversized, dark furniture. A display cabinet filled with ornamental daggers. On the wall opposite the couch and chairs hung a Dagestani rug depicting the deceased Akhmed Cherkeso wearing an astrakhan papkha on his head, against a crimson background. He was portrayed with a forcefully serene expression on his face, eyes narrowed. A sliding glass door opened onto a courtyard.
After a short time Gumiel Festarov, director of the largest oil refinery in Lukaev, arrived. The guards stood by mutely. It was then she realized their silence was textured with the contempt of disinterest. When Festarov spoke they looked at each other in agreement. As he led her into the courtyard he began describing the upswing in oil production due to the president’s actions against the rebels. The majority of the country was secure, the pipelines were pumping thousands of gallons north to Russia each day. “If things stay as they are, or improve,” he effused, “we can expect to triple our growth over the next five years.”
In the center of the courtyard was a fountain. Of the kind found outside a Spanish villa: classical, decorated with vegetation. Beneath an open terrace bamboo deck furniture was arranged around a large round glass top table, the price tags still dangling from them. Later Anna would discover this was the house style of decoration; in the bedrooms, in the bathrooms and library, price tags were there if you looked for them. Festarov, a short, springy man in his early forties, offered a tour of the house but as he was about to lead her back into the waiting room, the guard with the tyubeteika cap pulled him aside into the hallway. When Festarov returned he said they would have to make do with a short tour of the west wing.
In the guest bedroom her host made it a point of showing her the labels on the dressers, lamps, and mirrors; these, she assumed, were gifts from Festarov himself, “from Hong Kong” he said, with a magisterial pirouette in his voice. No doubt the house was furnished with tributes from tribal leaders, businessmen, families working to protect their interests. In the guest bedroom Festarov stood between two beds, one pink with pink silk sheets, one blue, and lifted both arms in the direction of the flat screen television hung on the wall across from them. In the bathroom, she found tags hanging from the toilet seat, the showerhead, and the mirror. “You should see the Jacuzzi, sauna and swimming pool!” Festarov gushed as led her back to the waiting room. The flat force of his excitement was familiar. Businessmen who supported Cherkeso often bore themselves with a mix of nervous self-interest and enthusiasm.
At three, with clear relief disguised as graciousness, Festarov excused himself. At three thirty a bodyguard in a white and gold track suit walked in to announce the president would be running late. On the pretense of security he asked that she leave her cell phone with him. Should she need access to a telephone, she was welcome to use the land line, but it was a requirement of all guests to leave their electronics with house security for the duration of their visit. With a direct but discreet tone perfected from years of negotiation, she asked if she might remove the battery from the phone before leaving it with him. After a flat pause, he nodded yes. Since her fingernails were short it took several tries to pry the battery from the phone. After laying it in the man’s hand, she dropped the battery into her jacket pocket. It weighed as much as a stone that was thrown to sink, not skip water. As he was leaving, she asked him to inquire the staff about the president’s list of answers to her prepared questions. “Yes,” he replied, “I can tell you. The president does not have time to answer. He will come to talk. Wait here. He will be here soon.”
She should have expected this. It was in keeping with what she knew of Cherkeso that he would encourage preparation only to undermine it. One man, an older fighter under Malavna Tvesa during the first war, who had known Cherkeso when he was still on the side of the resistance, described his talent for frustrating expectations. He would work these kinds of disruptions with his friends as much as with his enemies. Once, the old fighter said, he had even encouraged the Russians to hunt him down at the house of a woman he had stayed with. A beautiful, unmannered country girl he had known in grammar school. Every Saturday, if there was no “fire” (rebel slang for an attack or counterattack), he would come down into the village from the forest. Boldly, as if no one knew he wasn’t one of Tvesa’s fighters. He would walk through the center of town, stop by the barber shop for a shave or haircut, buy a bottle of Struka at the grocery, then head for this woman’s cottage. The Russians had informants in the village, he knew this. But for all one day each week he would stay in this woman’s cottage as she came and went. And the next morning when he left again for the forest, it was with a rucksack full of foodstuffs and fresh clothes. For months, he did this. Eventually, after a few skirmishes in the region, the Russians would come through the village several times a week. They threatened the shop owners. They held the barber’s fingers over a washing bowl and laid a straight razor to his knuckles. These were things he knew were happening, yet every week he walked in an unhurried way into the village. During the week when he was gone, the girl walked quickly to work at the weaver’s house, and heading home bore herself with tense silence.
One morning when he was in town the Russians drove into the village. They drove straight to this girl’s cottage. They surrounded it and called for him and the girl to come out. They heard the girl call from the cottage. But the door didn’t open, so the soldiers shouldered it clear and entered. A half dozen of them were inside when an explosion threw the roof off of it. Bodies were thrown thirty, forty paces. The leg of one man landed on the hood of a Russian armored car. Later people were told that while the girl was about the village doing her errands, he had rigged the cottage with explosives armed with a remote detonator. Early in the morning before dawn he had woken her, tied her to her bed frame and left. From the forest brush he had watched the Russians surround the cottage and enter. Without any feeling for the girl, he had blown her up along with six men. This was a favorite of Cherkeso, this story, the old fighter under Tvesa said; he told it often.
And now here was another, more formalized variation of that story: Anna, in a chair, in a well-lit, gaudily decorated study, waiting for the protagonist to arrive with his version of the rising action, climax and resolution. She sat in the company of a number of guards who in disorganized shifts came and went. Sometime around six o’clock it began to rain. Not heavily, like the night before, but in loose, leisurely washes of falling water that wandered the grounds outside. On the patio the guards stood together beneath the terrace awning and shared cigarettes. Across from them Anna sat in a square, leather chair facing the sliding door and patio. She opened a pad on her knee, wrote a note, FSB guards outside, then flipped to the next page to hide it. The FSB (Federal Service Bureau) was the paramilitary arm of the Russian foreign security branch of the military. Cherkeso had come to power with the support of FSB operations in the North Caucasus. Since establishing the government he had dissolved a large part of the formal military and built his security force around the FSB. This meant he had first say in all local decisions, but the Kremlin had the final word. There was a strong FSB presence in Inyulgetma and Abkazia but this was the first instance when a border territory allied with Russian interests established itself as a formal political body with foreign paramilitary support.
As it began to darken outside, she asked one of the men standing near her for the time. It was eight thirty.
The president arrived not long after. Even more armed men arrived with him. On the patio, in the hallway and the study. Stocky, bearded, with a thick crooked nose and small eyes set close together, Cherkeso was dressed in a black windbreaker and black cargo pants.
He raised a hand as he sat down at the edge of the couch nearest to her, signaling for her to sit as well. She took his hand as he reached toward hers and shook it, then waited as he unlaced his boots. In socks, he pressed his toes into the carpet until the knuckles cracked. He let out an exaggerated bellow of satisfaction, then rolled his head over to her as if he were finally ready to speak, after several long delays, to someone close to him. “We want to restore order not only in Khruekistan, but throughout the North Caucasus. My people will fight anywhere, even in Russia. But before anything, we must establish stability here, peace. My first directive is to clear the North Caucasus of the older elements. The bandits.”
He was beginning mid-conversation. All he had said had been borrowed with little variation from his televised addresses over the past two years. He was a big man and didn’t bear himself like an elected official; his body language was still very much a soldier’s. As he spoke a threatening energy added momentum to his gestures, as if he were hacking through invisible brush with his hands. It was difficult not to blink excessively when he fought to gain advantage in the conversation, since his hands and his legs were working so actively to expel his thoughts from his body. But this wasn’t the case with him alone. While they spoke, his guards also commented on their conversation loudly. Mostly interjections of agreement or, at Anna’s expense, suspicion.
“Who do you call bandits?”
“The older fighters. Katrul. Masadov, and others.”
“Do you see the mission of your troops as eliminating these men instead of bringing them into detention, rehabilitating them?”
“There is nothing to be done with them,” he laughed, “They have been fighting for so long the only thing they know how to do is kill, die, and eat berries. This is a great service for the people, to capture and kill the bandits. They won’t allow any kind of order that doesn’t involve them.” Cherkeso gestured to one of the men for a beer. Another man near the doorway to the adjoining room turned on a television in the corner and left it on mute.
“Well, why not involve them? It seems everything done in the name of unification until now has involved killing and liquidating. In interests of unifying the country wouldn’t it be best to extend amnesty to the rebels?”
“This is already happening. Eight hundred people have already surrendered to us and are living a normal life. And when they come back to their families and see what they’ve done, having abandoned them for so long, this is a good thing. What the bandits must know is the resistance doesn’t just affect them, it has taken fathers and sons from their families. It is time for them to come home and act like men, support their elders, wives and children. The people want to put the war behind them. That is what the majority wants. A great majority!” At this Cherkeso spread his arms widely before him. The man he had sent for the beer stepped forward and placed the beer in his outstretched hand. Cherkeso nodded pragmatically, smiled, then sipped the beer. Some of the other men in the room were drinking as well.
“Do you believe Katrul will surrender? He is much older than you. It would be unusual if he did so.”
“It does not matter. It would be better to take him alive. Then the people could see how old and tired he is. We would keep him in a cage, put him on live television, surely! So they could see.”
“It has been said people in the south still support him.”
“They are misled. I have spoken with the women in these villages. They have come to me, they have pleaded with me, ‘Sulim, Katrul has stolen our sons into the forest. He has promised them money if they join him in the forests, but there is no money and he keeps them there without a choice to come home. Sulim, bring our sons back, bring death to this bandit!’ These boys do not know they are fighting for the wrong side. It’s our job to show them where the future is, to leave the forests and help us rebuild, instead of pulling all of us back into the Cave Age! Anyway, Katrul is not a problem. Eventually we will find him. He is of little concern.”
“Masadov is different. Masadov is a warrior.”
“It seems that, where you are dismissive of Katrul, you have real respect for Masadov.”
“He is not a coward. He is a fighter. What I would like is to meet him in open battle, with no outside influences, just his men and my men in direct fighting, no hiding. Then it would be decided who is the better fighter.”
“And what if Masadov won?”
“Impossible! I never lose. Anyway, I do not consider Masadov an enemy. An opponent merely.”
“What is the difference?”
“An enemy is someone who wants what you have and tries to take it by indirect means. An opponent is someone who wants nothing from you, and who respects you enough to attack you directly. Katrul is an enemy, certainly. He would like nothing more than to have the Kremlin’s support, these men behind him. He hides in the forests and attacks at night, never in numbers larger than ten or twenty. Masadov despises the Russians, despises Katrul and everyone else. He fights in large numbers, to the death, by daylight. And when he strikes where there are civilians, he shows no mercy.”
“And that is something to respect?”
“Certainly. It is not easy to be a leader. Masadov is a leader. He does not let feelings for others get in the way of decisions. I can admire him, but being an elected leader I cannot be that way. My feeling for the people and my demand for order are equal,” he said, holding his open hand flat at eye level. “Even.”
Cherkeso began to unzip his windbreaker. Beneath it he wore a tie and crisp navy blue dress shirt. Setting his beer on a side table he stood, removed the windbreaker and handed it to one of his men, then drew the elastic waistline of his cargo pants to his ankles. A pair of gray slacks was beneath them. He adjusted the knot on his burgundy tie, smoothed it down its length, then took his seat again with an air of bemusement.
“Enough of Masadov. Next question?”
“Just one more. Six months ago your men captured Masadov’s bodyguard Kalseh Adaman Ulin. Where is he now?”
A smile. “We have him under house arrest not far from here. We could bring him here, if you like. You could speak with him, no inconvenience. We use him for negotiations. The rebels know him. He has been very useful and cooperative.”
“Not long ago on television he called himself a traitor.”
“Not so, he did not say this and he is not a traitor. He is a responsible countryman. He surrendered out of good conscience, as he said. Not true that we captured him.”
“His leg was amputated. He had been injured while fighting?”
“Yes, but he had been injured long before he surrendered. Such are the conditions in which these rebels live. They can’t even take care of their own! Anyway, I have him not far from here. I could have him brought here within minutes.”
“That is okay, I wouldn’t want to wake him.”
“Nonsense. He would be happy to come.” The men around the room laughed and looked at her. Cherkeso, though, watched her hand as it jotted notes on the pad open on her thigh. Once it stopped moving, he nodded at it, “Note finished. What else?”
“What are your strengths and weaknesses?”
“What? I don’t understand.”
“What are your weaknesses as a person, as a leader?”
“I have none.”
“And your strengths?”
At this, without smiling, he opened his hands and gestured to the room around them. After a short pause he translated the gesture into words: “Strengths speak for themselves.” “Besides,” he added, “Busy men don’t have time to think about strengths and weaknesses. They act. Only the weak have time to think about such things.”
Looking at Cherkeso, Anna remembered a press photo she had once seen of him. Either the color of his tie or the beer in his hand had reminded her: of the newly appointed president standing before reporters at a private dinner, his cabinet and foreign investors around the banquet table, a golden revolver, a gift from Yeshtriko, CEO of Zukkor Mining, in his right hand, and in his left a microphone held inches from his mouth. When she had first seen it the photograph had struck her as crass; but when at parties or in discussions with friends or other reporters it came to mind as she described the character of the man. But now she thought of that other element of the photograph, the gold-framed portrait of the Russian Prime Minister hanging on the wall behind him, over his left shoulder. Between the microphone and his mouth, the corner of the gilded frame angled perfectly, as if arranged by design instead of by whim of the frozen moment. This she hadn’t noticed before: the gold of the portrait frame and the revolver afforded a perfect symmetry. And this, more than the revolver itself, might have been the reason the photograph asserted a stronger pull on her memory.
And now here he was, Cherkeso explaining himself, declaiming.
“The Kremlin and the Prime Minister have given us their full support. Just as well as us they want to see Khruekistan united. The Prime Minister has offered access and command over any resources we need, but I told him, ‘No, this is our country, our mess to put right.’ But if needed, I could call him any time of day and have two battalions under my command, no questions.”
“Has there ever been an instance when there had been need for military assistance?”
“Never. And there won’t be. The only assistance we need is with keeping certain people from our business.”
Cold waves of tension made their way down Anna’s legs to her ankles. “Who do you mean by ‘you’?”
“Journalists, people like you. Politicians. You don’t let us sort things out. You divide us. You come between Khruekistanis. You personally are the enemy. You are worse than Masadov.”
“When peace is established, and the country has been rebuilt, will there be elections?”
“Of course. A six-year cycle. But only once the government is established.”
“Will you run during that first election?”
“I have already run once, so no.”
“There was an election?”
“Yes, I was voted into office two years ago, by members of parliament. Elected representatives of the people.”
“So you will not run again for the first direct election.”
“I will not. I will retire.”
Anna placed the pen cap back onto the pen, slid it into the spiral binding of her notepad. She had followed his answers too far into the kind of questions Michsa had advised against. Mischa and Ilya, and the photographer Rikorski, who had spoken with Cherkeso once at a policy dinner. “With him, keep all serious questions under the spell of pleasantries,” he had said. “His answers will show soon in the next news cycle.”
“And what will you do then?”
“I will take up bee farming. Already I have bees, and bullocks, and fighting dogs.”
“Fighting dogs? Don’t you feel sorry when they kill each other?”
“Not at all. I respect them. I respect my dog Napoleon as much as any man. He’s a Caucasian sheepdog. Those are the most fair-minded dogs there are.”
On the television near the adjoining doorway the Russian Prime Minister was speaking. The volume was muted and several guards were talking over the images of reporters and the Prime Minister.
“Now there is a man,” Cherkeso said, pointing at the screen. “Very intelligent.” After a few seconds of footage of the Prime Minister walking to his car, he added, “See there, how he walks? I had always wondered, even after the first time we met, he reminded me of something. He walks like a mountain dweller! I even told him so.”
After several minutes a group of men came to the sliding glass door. Two helped another other step into the study from the patio. It was Kalseh Adaman Ulin. “The Pride of the Nation,” “The Hero of the Nation,” a gray-haired man of thirty-two. The guards led him to a large wooden chair that had been pulled from a corner to the center of the room. Not until he took this seat did the guards remove their hands from his armpits. Another man, older, thin, with a full unkempt beard, stood to the right of Ulin. Though he did not rest his hand on the back of the chair, it seemed that at any moment he would. This was the interpreter. Ulin, Cherkeso explained, did not speak Russian fluently, though from the keenness with which Ulin followed their conversation Anna doubted this.
“This is a reporter. From Russia,” the president said with the same brisk control he addressed Anna with. “She has asked about Masadov. I have told her that you surrender to us after fighting with him. Tell her, so there will no more questions about that: you surrendered.”
The interpreter spoke to Ulin but Ulin did not look up. With both hands flat on his left thigh, he watched the carpet with a dignified blankness. Neither nodding nor shaking his head, he looked at them, from the president to Anna, from Anna to Cherkeso, and replied with a few short words. The interpreter translated Ulin’s response into several sentences about Masadov’s lack of provisions, his inability to properly treat the wounded, about Ulin’s leg injury and Masadov’s indifference to it. “I surrendered,” the interpreter said, “Not just to get treatment, but because it was clear Masadov’s care for all Khruekistanis would be as good for others as it had been for me.”
As the interpreter spoke Ulin continued to stare at the carpet.
“That’s it,” Cherkeso said, turning to everyone in the room. “See? That’s all we needed to hear. Tell him ‘thank you’ and that he can go now.”
Ulin looked over his shoulder before the interpreter could tap the chair. While Ulin rose two men stepped to help him up.
Anna stood as well, but Ulin didn’t look at her. There was a brief moment as the guards helped him through the door. His shoulder had caught the doorframe on his way onto the patio, or his foot had slipped on the wet metal sliding track; but the grip of the men tightened and helped him up. When the door slid shut behind them, Cherkeso stood as well. Turning to her he said, “A good meeting. It’s late though. Now you must be going as well.”
The phrasing, the slight lift in which it was delivered, was precise enough to tighten the muscles in her stomach.
“Come back in a year or so, when we have really begun to straighten things out.”
In a short, almost calibrated series of actions, he shook her hand, led her to the hallway where the drivers were waiting. The drivers led her out of the west wing to the main foyer, down the main staircase, through the front door and into the Patrio idling on the drive. Not until they had curled around the drive and down the hill through the manor gate did she remember the phone she had left with house security. She asked the men in the front seat to turn around. The front passenger, the man in the tyubeteika cap, adjusted the rear view mirror to answer, his mouth turned away from her while his eyes held hers directly. “Not now. We will have it sent later to your hotel. Tomorrow morning you can pick it up at the front desk.”
When they reached the first control post, two men stepped from the car. As they reached the next stop, the other guard reached to clap the driver on the shoulder and left. For the rest of the drive Anna sat in the middle of the back seat as the driver steered into the light cast by the headlights on the road. There was no one on the road. As they approached the checkpoints, men strode into the headlights and waved them past. A weak weight began to harden between her eyes, between her breasts, gathered density in her stomach, and after several attempts, in as even a voice she could shape from her throat, she asked the driver: “Are you driving me to my car?”
The driver didn’t turn and kept steering, so in a quieter voice she asked again.
“Yes,” the driver responded. He spoke with a southern accent.
“Don’t worry. And don’t cry,” he said. Though she hadn’t made a sound and he hadn’t looked in the mirror to see her, it was true, she was crying.
“You are strong,” he said. And then: “That won’t happen.”