Chapter Three: Shoes Run Amuck
Шаша в восторге
Once it had been the resplendent Danilov Monastery, also known in English as the St. Daniel Monastery, founded in Moscow in the thirteenth century. When our story begins it was still called the Danilov Monastery, but there were no monks any more, no игумен (father superior)—just buildings in bad repair and a cemetery in desuetude. The monastery had been closed the year before; most of the monks were shot. On the evening of June 26, 1931, the custodian of the Danilov Monastery, Soviet factotum Aleksandr Khromov—a pudgy middle-aged bachelor with a big wart under one nostril, a man everyone called “Shasha”—sat in his Moscow flat near Sokolniki Park. Sat wrapped in exultation.
Why so wrapped? Because at the cemetery located on the monastery grounds they had dug all day long, and, had, finally, disinterred, among others, one of the great jewels of Russian literature, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol. Dug his coffin up and even opened that coffin and looked upon the remains, pillaged them, and now Shasha Khromov was drinking vodka (Pshenichnaja brand), sitting around the small kitchen table with two of his regular drinking buddies, Tolik Bashmachkin and Zhenka [Last Name Lost]. He was toasting the beautifully preserved shoes that were perched on the wide windowsill next to a stuffed bird (a magpie). Gogol’s shoes.
--Today my luck has finally changed (said Shasha). These shoes will make me rich and famous. Even happy!
--Well, that’s a lot to assume (said dubious Zhenka Last Name Lost). What, after all, makes for true happiness?
He put on a plaintive look, sniffed at a hunk of black bread and stuffed it in his mouth.
Zhenka was a scruffy man of thirty-five, with a left eye that looked straight at you and a right eye that kept its own counsel. His friend Tolik, also thirty-five, resembled Zhenka, except that he was tall instead of short, and his right eye was the one that looked straight ahead.
Zhenka cast a sideways glance at the nineteenth-century style of the high-topped shoes, at the spot where a piece of worn leather was bent back from one of the soles. That spronged-out piece reminded him of an old man’s senescent tongue—sticking itself out at him.
--That this will make you happy is a maybe so and a maybe no (said Tolik Bashmachkin), averting his gaze from the buttons on the shoes. Those blue buttons were round and gleaming, like eyes.
--Kind of reminds me of my grandpa (said Zhenka). When I was lazing around the house, he’d look over at me and say, ‘Not worth a soaked boot sole; you twist it and it bends.’
--What do we have up to now in our little museum next to the cemetery (said upbeat Shasha Khromov)? We’ve got a few old icons, a few relics of saints, things left over from when there was a God. Who’s interested in looking at outmoded stuff like that? Nobody.
--This is the Soviet Union (said Zhenka proudly). We’re building Utopian Socialism, and God is superfluous!
--I’ll drink to that (said Shasha, raising his shot glass). To the God that never was, and is not now neither.
--To Comrade Stalin (said Tolik, raising his), who kicked God and all his saints off the ship of modernity.
--Down with God and up with the Revolution (said Zhenka).
They tossed off their shots; Shasha refilled the dram glasses.
--What sort of relics do you have there, in your museum (asked Zhenka)?
--We’ve got a fingernail from the left hand of St. Panteleimon the All-Merciful. Plus a piece of stone that was taken from a boulder standing near the holy sepulcher of John the Baptist.
--Was that in Jerusalem (asked Zhenka)?
--Can’t remember. I believe it was the place of the first finding of the head.
--All that church folklore is illegal now, so best not to speak of it. Anyway, way back when, you may recall, they cut off John the Baptist’s head and gave it to some dancing girl. Then, later, it disappeared a time or two. For centuries each time. Whenever they found the head again, well, they made that day a church holiday.
--Gruesome. What was the holiday called?
--Something like ‘The First (or Second, or Third) Finding of the Head of the Forerunner.’ You weren’t allowed to eat watermelon on that day. Or anything round.
--Crazy stuff (said Tolik). He shrugged his shoulders, by way of removing the tingle that ran up his spine and centered itself at the base of his neck.
--We’re building Socialism now (said Zhenka proudly). Or Communism, one.
He tossed down his vodka, this time without a toast.
--Hold on there (said Tolik Bashmachkin)! You didn’t say what you’re drinking to.
Zhenka Last Name Lost held up his empty shot glass, addressed his left eye to its glitter.
--To our transcendence of all base superstitions. A toast in absentia.
--Yes. The vodka in my glass is absent (I already drank it). The Lord God of Sabaoth is absent, being as He don’t exist anymore. And so is Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol absent in the flesh, but he’s here with us in spirit. Doing a Ukrainian hopak folk dance in them spiffy high-button brogans over there.
Zhenka winked with his good eye and gestured toward the shoes.
Tolik put on a frown: Yeah, I remember now; he came from Ukieland, Gogol did. Born and bred. Me, I never could stand the Ukies.
--That’s the damn God’s truth (agreed Zhenka). A Ukie is shrewd, brother. He’ll screw you out of your last kopeck; then, for good measure, he’ll make off with the shirt off your back. The day the Ukie was born, why, the Jew and the Georgian, they cried bitter tears.
Zhenka slowly shook his head, deploring the base treachery of the Ukrainian people.
--Did you have any trouble getting them shoes off his feet (Tolik suddenly asked)? He screwed up his lips to make a squeamish face.
--No trouble at all (said Shasha Khromov). No flesh to get in the way, just slippery bone.
He laughed, but his drinking buddies looked away. Nobody said anything for a minute or two. Zhenka peered around vacantly, stroking the wing of a stuffed parrot that stood on the small kitchen ice box.
--What was the point of it, anyway (asked Tolik morosely)? Digging him up, I mean.
--Somebody higher up decided to liquidate the cemetery out at our place. They’re transplanting Gogol and a few others. Putting them back in the ground at Novodevichy. We’ll be taking in juvenile delinquents now in our monastery buildings—setting up a reform school.
Nobody said anything to that.