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Rasputin's Gift by Bayveen O'Connell

“You knew this would happen, marrying a soldier,” Mama said as we stood on the steps outside Kazan Cathedral, “my father and his father... I had the sense to find a greengrocer.” She busied herself picking tiny lint balls off my black coat while thoughts jumped fences in my mind. There was no body. There were no pictures. Just an empty casket and Nikita’s personal effects from the barracks. I didn’t believe them. It wasn’t him. Mama ceased her plucking and lifted her hands, scraping her nails through my hair and tucking it behind my ears. “Still,” she continued, “Nikita loved you. Probably did something stupid trying to get back to you.”


I turned the key in the door of the apartment. Nikita’s old gym bag lay collapsed beside the mat. As I wavered on the threshold, Mama shoved a set of keys at me. 


“Look Anna, I know you won’t stay with me and you’ll break if you stay here with part of him in every room. Mama’s cottage in empty – Aunt Elena is on holiday. Greece or somewhere.”


That evening after the drive up to Lake Kavgolovskoe, I lay in Aunt Elena’s lumpy bed in my Babushka’s smoky cottage with Nikita’s gym bag folded under the pillow and fell asleep crying against the smell of his sweat and skin. 


The next morning in the kitchen I ran my hand over the brightly coloured cushion covers I’d seen Babushka embroider when I was a child. Zig-zags and animals jumped towards the eye: wolves, foxes, owls and bears. There was even one of Baba Yaga’s house on stilts. Her stitches were smooth and perfect and through my fingers, I channelled my Babuska’s spirit. 


“Ba, I’m home,” I said out loud. My throat was dry from sobbing and sounded strange cutting through the silence. “I’m home. And I know you are here, you’ve never left,” I glanced around the room. “I need... your needle and thread for my heart. I need to know if he, if Nikita, is with you because...” I stopped as a rush of wind blew down the chimney and on the other side of the room, I could hear the door latch rattling. 


***


I checked to see if all of Babushka’s books were still there on the shelves next to the fireplace. I recognised World Mythology, The Encyclopaedia of Beasts, Seance Secrets, and Good and Evil Amongst Us lined up covered in dust. 


One time we visited Babushka, we got snowed in. It was probably the winter of 1993 and I had tired of playing with my dolls, so I pestered her.


“Ba, tell me stories. Tell me something strange!” I said.


“Well, let me see Anna,” she looked up from her sewing, “there was once a bearded man with many powers – to love ferociously, to heal, to get premonitions...”


“Prem what?” 


“Premonitions –he could see the future. And, he was almost impossible to kill. Poisoned and shot, but he survived both and died by drowning after they threw him in the mouth of the Malaya Nevka, the river you pass every day,” her eyes widened as she spoke.


“No!” I edged closer to her on the little sofa.


Both my parents, who were sitting opposite her, Papa doing a crossword and Mama reading a two week old newspaper, looked up and glared at Babushka. 


“What did he look like?” I moved closer again.


“Mama-” my Mama interjected.


Babushka waved her hand at Mama and went on. “He wore long black robes, had straggly black hair, a wild beard and eyes that could see between worlds. He was either Jesus or the Devil himself, depending on who you asked.” 


“No! The Devil? What was his name?” I nudged over again and was nearly on top of her. 

Papa cleared his throat in disapproval.


But Babushka was going to finish what she had started, leaning in to my ear she whispered: “Grigori Rasputin.”


***


There was no proof that he was really gone, no proof, other than his absence. To think that I would have to get used to Nikita’s absence next to me wherever I went, and for the rest of my life... in the car, in the bed, at the dinner table, to think we were robbed of our lives together; this was life in a vacuum, a hallow. I went outside and screamed, my rawness scattering all the roosting wood pigeons.


When I was calmer, I stood still in the forest. Around the cottage and far into the distance were clusters of strong, stubborn pines, birch, oak and others of fir. I watched a fox weaving its way through the trees, only to stop and stare back at me. “You get lost in here, my love, and God himself won’t come looking for you,” Babushka would say when I was small. She’d tell me to follow the stream that flowed into the lake to stay near the cottage. 


The air was pinching cold and sucking. It matched my sudden emptiness, the gulf of Nikita’s disappearance. 


The forest rustled and I walked in a line from the back of the cottage to where I remembered the stream. Another time of year I would have thrown off my shoes and paddled in it, enjoying the initial sting of coolness. Twigs, leaves and spent seed casings were being carried along in it now. I concentrated on the colours: browns, greens, greys, yellows and for a moment, I forgot why I was there, I forgot that Nikita was gone. And then while I was still staring down into the stream, something clean, sharp and white jagged along the edge of the stream, catching on twigs and brambles as it was dragged through the water. A reflex in me made to grab the object and I snatched it up as it tangled with a clump of fern roots. Holding this curved white thing, I ran my fingers over the spiked broken end and the other, which was smooth. Bone definitely, maybe part of a rib? I felt my heart quicken and I dropped the bone. Human? Animal? It felt like somebody was there, something was there, watching me. I looked around, but nothing stirred save for the birds. Shit. Where had this come from? Was I being set up? I turned from the stream and ran. 


***


After the shock of seeing the stark white shape in the reeds, I pawed through Babushka’s bookshelves for her volume on medical drawings. Flicking until I arrived at the skeleton, I remembered how when I’d seen them as a child, I thought the pelvic bones, the illum and ischium, made a butterfly shape, and how the mandible made the skull smile. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt for dropping that bone onto the bank. Whatever had happened to it, it was part of someone. Not sacred, but surely deserving better treatment after death, especially with all of Nikita still missing. I imagined someone like me, left with nothing tangible. Three quarters of a rib was something. So back I went just before dusk, my knees clicking as I stooped to pick up the bone and place it under the protection of the old oak and it’s sinewy roots near the stream. My Babushka used to sit there under its shade when the summer heat baked her cottage. I’d sit under it with her, drawing pictures in the dirt and thinking the tree was Babushka’s Babushka.


***


The next time I went I found another bone, so I returned again and again. Each morning at the same stretch of water, a new bone appeared and each time I got bolder at fishing it out without hesitation, drying it and adding it to the ones I’d laid down under the oak the previous day. The odd ritual was a comfort. I did not care if I was tampering with evidence, disturbing a crime scene or breaking any number of laws. Nikita had told me of a place far to the east of our great expanse where people were forced to labour, day and night, to build a way for vehicles. Many died of sickness and exhaustion and their bodies were left where they fell and now it is known as the Road of Bones. That night I dreamt there were bones buried everywhere. 


Perhaps it was the seventh time I came to the stream, crows were flitting and cawing among the branches of some birch trees on the other side. As the crows landed and took off, the branches shook and it rained golden leaves, like little hearts falling to the ground. I thought of our wedding day, how our friends showered us with tiny confetti hearts. How I thought I would burst with joy. Yes, it was the seventh morning that I started to believe these were Nikita’s bones and he was coming home to me. Refusing to be mangled in a desert wreckage or vaporised by a missile. But... if they were his bones he was certainly dead. And that was too much. I was already forgetting the exact pitch of his laugh, the feel of his eyelashes as they brushed my cheek, the tickle of his fingers as he ran them along my pelvic bone, the lovely pressure of his arms around me, the lazy Sunday slow love-making on the couch when he was on leave, and the feel of his chin after he shaved. The memory of his physical presence was leaking out through the cracks of my heart. How could anyone rest in peace knowing what they left behind? Was that how haunted I was – that I was getting used to touching these disembodied pieces and collecting them? How many others around the world were playing with bones?


***


Days drifted into one-another and held only one purpose for me: to find what the stream would bring. Each day delivered another porous present, which I looked up in Babushka’s volume, until there was a vague map of him with the key parts: a bit of skull, half a mandible, radius, ulna, three ribs, a scatter of finger and toe phalanges, a shard of femur, a chunk of scapula, a fibula and a curve of hip bone. I stroked Nikita’s arm and pressed my hand on the rib over where his heart should have been, then I cupped his jaw. 


“My love, this is more of you than I ever thought I’d see again,” I said as my tears broke free, “just cold and still.” 


A wind blew up sending dry leaves spiralling around his empty stomach.


“Yes, I’m sure you’re hungry. What can the dead eat? And here I am, starved of you.” The birch leaves lifted then and swept up my arm, circling my wrist in a caress. 


***


Just as I solved the puzzle of him, I was forced away. Thunder and lightning competed to frighten each other and hail battered at the windows of the cottage and shot down the chimney, making the fire sizzle. Housebound, I started to wonder what I would do. Bury my love here, next to Aunt Elena’s flower beds? Put him in the gym bag and drive him back to St. Petersburg with me? Buy one of those beautiful lacquer boxes I’d always coveted from the markets and put him inside? I curled up in Babushka’s old chair and stared into the hearth. 


***


I waited for the weather to calm, the rain to stop and the ground to dry out. I went out and thrushes were warbling while the stream flowed high. Under the oak tree, Nikita’s bones were still there but partly covered in a leaf blanket by the storm. Setting down some kindling in a clearing, I spread on some lichen and moss and lit it all with a match. While the fire was taking, I went back to the bones, touching each one, saying good-bye. Then I gathered them up in a stack, resting on my empty belly, thinking of the baby we were never to have, and dropped the pieces of my love onto the fire. Standing back, I saw the flames licking the pieces of him, dancing around him. I willed the heat to release any of his spirit that was trapped inside his bones. I watched the fire, waiting, noticing the shards darken. A sudden gust made the flames sway violently, summoning a black plume. Stepping back, I shielded my face. When I looked again, there was a figure standing in the fire from where the plume had risen. He was tall, robed, and black bearded with whirlpool eyes, just like the man from my Babushka’s stories. I froze. What had I done?


Through the flames Rasputin reached out: “Come. Come to me. Stand in the heat in my arms.”

It all came to this. In my pain I had taken this path, collected all the bones like a magpie, laid them out like doctor, fondled them like a lover and then burnt them so that Nikita’s soul would return to me. I had played with life and death and conjured the being on the cusp of good and evil. This was punishment. If I died, would I be with Nikita? Or was I going to hell?


“Anna, do not worry. I know that it is love you seek.” Rasputin held out both his arms to me, every part of him burning, the bones crumbling beneath his feet and above his head was a halo of fire. 

With my eyes streaming, I walked toward him. “Nikita, I miss you. I’m so sorry, I wanted you back,” I whispered as I neared the fire and let it draw me in. Rasputin’s arms became snakes wrapping around me as his robes encircled me, protecting me from the heat. He bent his head down so we were eye to eye and his matted beard scratched my chin. 


“Kiss me,” he said. 


“I can’t, you aren’t...” I battled against his constant gaze.


“I know, broken-hearted one. But please... kiss me.” As he said this, his pupils flashed an image of Nikita in his uniform. 


Possessed, I closed my eyes and pressed my lips to Rasputin’s, tilted my head and let his tongue slide into my mouth. As his tongue rolled with mine, I tasted all the lovers that had ever been: the spice of passion, the bitterness of betrayal, the saltiness of my own tears of grief. I felt the snake arms loosen around me, the itch of the beard ceased and I sensed scorching heat at my ankles. I opened my eyes and I was kissing Nikita, softly, and slowly and he was running his hands up and down my back. And he was real. For one last time, he was real. I closed my eyes again and we held each other until the fire died. 


Bayveen O'Connell lives in Dublin and loves wearing capes in castle and church ruins. Her fiction, poetry and CNF have appeared in Three Drops from a Cauldron, Molotov Cocktail, Selene Quarterly, Former Cactus, The Cabinet of Heed, Lonesome October Lit, Nilvx, Train Lit Mag, Underground Writers and others. #GothicLiterature #literature #GothicLit #prose #fiction #creativewriting #BayveenOConnell

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