Starting this week and running through most of the month we’ll be running a few stories from Fantasy, a companion anthology to our magazine. I hope you enjoy!
It all started when I was eight years old, on a school trip to the Mausoleum. My mom was there to chaperon my class, and it was nice, because she held me when I got nauseous on the bus. I remember the cotton tights all the girls wore, and how they bunched on our knees and slid down, so that we had to hike them up, as discreetly as eight-year-olds could. It was October, and my coat was too short; mom said it was fine even though its belt came disconcertingly close to my underarms, and the coat didn’t even cover my butt. I didn’t believe her; I frowned at the photographer as he aligned his camera, pinning my mom and me against the backdrop of the St. Basil’s Cathedral. “Smile,” mom whispered. We watched the change of guard in front of the Mausoleum.
Then we went inside. At that time, I was still vague on what it was that we were supposed to see. I followed in small mincing steps down the grim marble staircase along with the line of people as they descended and filed into a large hall and looked to their right. I looked too, to see a small yellowing man in a dark suit under a glass bell. His eyes were closed, and he was undeniably dead. The air of an inanimate object hung dense, like the smell of artificial flowers. When I shuffled past him, looking, looking, unable to turn away, his eyes snapped open and he sat up in a jerking motion of a marionette, shattering the glass bubble around him. I screamed.
“A dead woman is the ultimate sex symbol,” someone behind me says.
His interlocutor laughs. “Right. To a necrophile maybe.”
“No, no,” the first man says, heatedly. “Think of every old novel you’ve ever read. The heroine who’s too sexually liberated for her time usually dies. Ergo, a dead woman is dead because she was too sexually transgressive.”
“This is just dumb, Fedya,” says the second man. “What, Anna Karenina is a sex symbol?”
“Of course. That one’s trivial. But also every other woman who ever died.”
I stare at the surface of the plastic cafeteria table. It’s cheap and pockmarked with burns, their edges rough under my fingers. I drink my coffee and listen intently for the two men behind me to speak again.
“Undine,” the first one says. “Rusalki. All of them dead, all of them irresistible to men.”
I finish my coffee and stand up. I glance at the guy who spoke—he’s young, my age, with light clear eyes of a madman.
“Euridice,” I whisper as I pass.
The lecturer is old, his beard dirty-yellow with age, his trembling fingers stained with nicotine. I sit all the way in the back, my eyes closed, listening, and occasionally drifting off to dream-sleep.
“Chthonic deities,” he says. “The motif of resurrection. Who can tell me what is the relationship between the two?”
We remain wisely silent.
“The obstacle,” he says. “The obstacle to resurrection. Ereshkigal, Hades, Hel. All of them hold the hero hostage and demand a ransom of some sort.”
His voice drones on, talking about the price one pays, and about Persephone being an exception as she’s not quite dead. But Euridice, oh she gets it big time. I wonder if Persephone or Euridice is a better sex symbol and if one should compare the two.
“Zombies,” the voice says, “are in violation. Their resurrection bears no price and has no meaning. The soul and the body separated are a terrible thing. It is punitive, not curative.” His yellow beard trembles, bald patch on his skull shines in a slick of parchment skin, one of his eyes fake and popping. He sits up and reaches for me.
I scream and jerk awake.
“Bad dream?” the lecturer says, without any particular mockery or displeasure. “It happens. When you dream your soul travels to the Underworld.”
“Chthonic deities,” I mumble. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s right,” he says. “Chthonic.”
When I was eight, I had nightmares about that visit. I dreamt of the dead yellowing man chasing me up and down the stairs of our apartment building. I still have those dreams. I’m running past the squeezing couples and smokers exiled to the stairwell, and mincing steps are chasing after me. I skip over the steps, jumping over two at once, three at once, throwing myself into each stairwell as if it were a pool. Soon my feet are barely touching the steps as I rush downward in an endless spiral of chipped stairs. I’m flying in fear as the dead man is following. He’s much slower than me but he does not stop, so I cannot stop either.
“Zombies,” he calls after me into the echoey stairwell, “are the breach of covenant. If the chthonic deities do not get their blood-price, there can be no true resurrection.”
I wake up with a start. My stomach hurts.
I take the subway to the university. I usually read so I don’t have to meet people’s eyes. “Station Lenin Hills,” the announcer on the intercom says. “The doors are closing. Next station is the University.”
I look up and see the guy who spoke of dead women sitting across from me. His eyes, bleached with insanity, stare at me with the black pinpricks of the pupils. He pointedly ignores the old woman in a black kerchief standing too close to him, trying to guilt him into surrendering his seat. He doesn’t get up until I do, when the train pulls into the station. “The University,” the announcer says.
We exit together.
“I’m Fedya,” he says.
“I’m afraid of zombies,” I answer.
He doesn’t look away.
The lecturer’s eyes water with age. He speaks directly to me when he asks, “Any other resurrection myths you know of?”
“Jesus?” someone from the first row says.
He nods. “And what was the price paid for his resurrection?”
“There wasn’t one,” I say, startling myself. “He was a zombie.”
This time everyone stares.
“Talk to me after class,” the lecturer says.
The chase across all the stairwells in the world becomes a game. He catches up to me now. I’m too tired to be afraid enough to wake up. My stomach hurts.
“You cannot break the covenant with chthonic gods,” he tells me. “Some resurrection is the punishment.”
“Leave me alone,” I plead. “What have I ever done to you?”
His fake eye, icy-blue, steely-grey, slides down his ruined cheek. “You can’t save them,” he says. “They always look back. They always stay dead.”
“Like with Euridice.”
“Like with every dead woman.”
Fedya sits on my bed, heavily although he’s not a large man but slender, birdlike.
“I could never drive a car,” I tell him.
He looks at the yellowing medical chart, dog-eared pages fanned on the bed covers. “Sluggish schizophrenia?” he says. “This is a bullshit diagnosis. You know it as well as I do. Delusions of reformism? You know that they invented it as a punitive thing.”
“It’s not bullshit,” I murmur. It’s not. Injections of sulfazine and the rubber room had to have a reason behind them.
“They kept you in the Serbsky hospital,” he observes. “Serbsky? I didn’t know you were a dissident.”
“Lenin is a zombie,” I tell him. “He talks to me.” All these years. All this medication.
He stares. “I can’t believe they let you into the university.”
I shrug. “They don’t pay attention to that anymore.”
“Maybe things are changing,” he says.
“Are you feeling all right?” the lecturer says, his yellow hands shaking, filling me with quiet dread. Same beard, same bald patch.
“Where did that zombie thing come from?” he asks, concerned.
“You said it yourself. Chthonic deities always ask for a price. If you don’t pay, you stay dead or become a zombie. Women stay dead.”
He lifts his eyebrows encouragingly. “Oh?”
“Dead are objects,” I tell him. “Don’t you know that? Some would rather become zombies than objects. Only zombies are still objects, even though they don’t think they are.”
I can see that he wants to laugh but decides not to. “And why do you think women decide to stay dead?”
I feel nauseous and think of Inanna who kind of ruins my thesis. I ignore her. “It has something to do with sex,” I say miserably.
He really tries not to laugh.
In the hospital, when I lay in a sulfazine-and-neuroleptics coma, he would sit on the edge of my bed. “You know what they say about me.”
“Yes,” I whispered, my cheeks so swollen that they squeezed my eyes shut. “Lenin is more alive than any of the living.”
“And what is life?”
“According to Engels, it’s a mode of existence of protein bodies.”
“I am a protein body,” he said. “What do you have to say to that?”
“I want to go home,” I whispered with swollen lips. “Why can’t you leave me alone?”
He didn’t answer, but his waxen fingers stroked my cheek, leaving a warm melting trail behind them.
“I thought for sure you were a cutter,” Fedya says.
I shiver in my underwear and hug my shoulders. My skin puckers in the cold breeze from the window. “I’m not.” I feel compelled to add, “Sorry.”
“You can get dressed now,” he says.
The professor is done with chthonic deities, and I lose interest. I drift through the dark hallways, where the walls are so thick that they still retain the cold of some winter from many years ago. I poke my head into one auditorium, and listen a bit to a small sparrow of a woman chatter about Kant. I stop by the stairwell on the second floor, to bum a cigarette off a fellow student with black horn-rimmed glasses.
“Skipping class?” she says.
“Just looking for something to do.”
“You can come to my class,” she says. “It’s pretty interesting.”
“What is it about?”
I finish my smoke and tag along.
This lecturer looks like mine, and I take for a sign. I sit in an empty seat in the back, and listen. “The idea of capitalism rests on the concept of free market,” he says. “Who can tell me what it is?”
No one can, or wants to.
The lecturer notices me. “What do you think? Yes, you, the young lady who thinks it’s a good idea to waltz in in the middle of the class. What is free market?”
“It’s when you pay the right price,” I say. “To the chthonic deities. If you don’t pay you become a zombie or just stay dead.”
He stares at me. “I don’t think you’re in the right class.”
I sit in the stairwell of the second floor. Lenin emerges from the brass stationary ashtray and sits next to me. There’s one floor up and one down, and nowhere really to run.
“What have you learned today?” he asks in an almost paternal voice.
“Free market,” I tell him.
He shakes his head. “It will end the existence of the protein bodies in a certain mode.” A part of his cheek is peeling off.
“Remember when I was in the hospital?”
“Of course. Those needles hurt. You cried a lot.”
I nod. “My boyfriend doesn’t like me.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “If it makes it any better, I will leave soon.”
I realize that I would miss him. He followed me since I was little. “Is it because of the free market?” I ask. “I’m sorry. I’ll go back to the chthonic deities.”
“It’s not easy,” he says and stands up, his joints whirring, his skin shedding like sheets of wax paper. He walks away on soft rubbery legs.
“Things die eventually,” I tell Fedya. “Even those that are not quite dead to begin with.”
“Yeah, and?” he answers and drinks his coffee.
I stroke the melted circles in the plastic, like craters on the lunar surface. “One doesn’t have to be special to die. One has to be special to stay dead. This is why you like Euridice, don’t you?”
He frowns. “Is that the one Orpheus followed to Hades?”
“Yes. Only he followed her the wrong way.”
There is a commotion on the second floor, and the stairwell is isolated from the corridor by a black sheet. The ambulances are howling outside, and distraught smokers crowd the hallway, cut off from their usual smoking place.
I ask a student from my class what’s going on. He tells me that the chthonic lecturer has collapsed during the lecture about the hero’s journey. “Heart attack, probably.”
I push my way through the crowd, just in time to see the paramedics carry him off. I see the stooped back of a balding dead man following the paramedics and their burden, not looking back. Some students cry.
“He just died during the lecture,” a girl’s voice behind me says. “He just hit the floor and died.”
I watch the familiar figure on uncertain soft legs walk downstairs in a slow mincing shuffle, looking to his right at the waxen profile with an upturned beard staring into the sky from the gurney. The lecturer and zombie Lenin disappear from my sight, and I turn away. “Stay dead,” I whisper. “Don’t look back.”
The rest is up to them and chthonic deities.
* * *
Read more in Fantasy: Available now!
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Ekaterina Sedia resides in the Pinelands of New Jersey. Her new novel, The Secret History of Moscow, was published by Prime Books in November 007. Her next one, The Alchemy of Stone, is coming out in June 2008. Her short stories have sold to Analog, Baen’s Universe, Fantasy Magazine, and Dark Wisdom, as well as Japanese Dreams and Magic in the Mirrorstone anthologies. Visit her at www.ekaterinasedia.com
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