A bedroom in a sketchy Moscow apartment is all she owns, with a dirty little sink clogged with strands of bleached hair, and a mirror broken in seven parts, a bed with silky stained sheets, rows of empty shelves, pickle jars, expensive clothes hanging on ugly, old racks stolen from vandalized stores. She wears fur coats everywhere, black, and gray, white, soft, prickly, there are wolves around her body, brittle parts of her identity; undressing her is like holding souls in his hands – an what an irony, he thinks.
“God, Nana,” he says, when she lights another cigarette, the sixteenth in forty-six minutes, the air around them blurry, his throat burning. She clicks the lighter closed; God, Nana, she repeats. That’s absurd. God doesn’t do sinners. We’re not friends anymore, she said, once, out on the Red Square, as Stalin slept in a golden casket, and she waited to collect another soul. Her lips had been the color of bruises, curled upwards into a smile, evil and cynical, unkind and unholy as only Nana is.
It was the 40s when they met, near Stalingrad, near Volga, near Kalach, maybe, who knows, and the snow-coated flanks of the body-covered ditch were as red as his jacket – as the sky, as his vision – Nikolay screamed orders as more men exploded in waves of foul-smelling protons in front of monster-looking tank brigades, and he was called something else, something Russian, something else, she changed it, he recalls. Everything smelled like piss and death—he had been shot five times in the head.
He was dead—
(Nana was there, with her red(riding hood) cloak and wolf skin, she picked up the pieces, and sewed him back together, he called her Frankenstein, she called him hers, she took his hand, they walked together through the woods, he wasn’t afraid anymore.)
“I’m him,” she explains, touching the strokes of blue painting in a corner of the gallery they were walking in. The bleak façade reflects hers, just as deformed, yet still beautiful. I’m them, I’m her, I’m it, she repeats, many, countless times, until he feels lost in a windmill of colors, listening to her bones melt to paint. Soulless faces of pictures she had painted blind his eyesight, shining and ugly and full of pretense and socialist realism, and she says, always, repeatedly; the devil is in the details.
She lights another cigarette, pink, cherry-flavored – he watches.
Sometimes they fuck, or he fucks her, mostly – but sometimes she fucks him back.
He calls it salvation.
She’s naked underneath her wolf skin, china filled with okroshka (that tasted like spit and rutabagas, but still Nana’s favorite) and a tall glass of honey milk beside her bare feet, and the newspaper burning in wicked orange inside an old clay pot reads Wednesday, May 2nd, 1945: Hitler Killed. “Didn’t have to sit through with this one – much cleaner than Mussolini, too,” she snorts, her lips a crude hue of green from the soup. “This is Wolf, by the way. I’m keeping him.” He wonders if she’ll skin that one, too.
“What are you?”
“You’re a woman – and you don’t look like a hunter.”
Hunters don’t look like me.
“I don’t see any prey.”
I send them away.
(He remembers those conversations amidst wrathful, blurry nightmares, and he often thinks he’s speaking to God. But it’s Nana all along, 0.002% body fluids and damaged lungs, 99.998% smoke and mirrors and murder. God is good, Nana isn’t like God at all. She takes, she never gives—
– evil, someone whispers, he, them, the souls of 162 dictators and rulers in American pickle jars, from Getúlio Vargas to Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. She’s a collector.)
The Red Square is her favorite place, open and full of oxygen, which she consumes like cold vodka, Wolf by her side and empty spirits all around her. It’s close to Heaven, but earthly enough to still reek of reality. She clambers on the frozen sidewalk, cigarette stuck between her crooked teeth, smoke coming out of her nostrils, and she tosses a hundred thousand rubles to a dapper young man as they pass him by – enjoy while it lasts, boy.
(Later she curls on her bed with her mouth full of potatoes and honey, and the radio announces amidst clicking static how that same young man was executed by the KGB for treason. It was 77 and as cold as could be, and he possibly never saw a smile so cruel (he had, though). Бог дал, Бог и взял, she adds in a whisper, red on the corner of her eyes. God gave, God took back.)
She’s grotesque, and he loves her, he realizes. And being in love with someone(thing) like Nana is like loving the apocalypse, loving the destruction it brings, finding beauty in blood shaded like bolshevism, rejoicing in a mine field of nuclear bombs. He loves her pickle jars of spirits, and how her hair falls down in white strands just to grow back an inhuman hue of black, and the whites in her eyes that are void of humanity and full of sea salt, and he loves how her wolf anima hangs on antlers on her bedroom’s wall. He sanctifies the taste of her insides, and she’s his Jesus, healing his leper skin, walking on electrified water, a savior, a holy body, obdurate, rush of hell and candy.
Hell, hell, hell— candy, pink-flavored, death-flavored hell.
“What are you?”
I go by many names.
“Why did you keep me?”
I was lonely. You were dead.
“Why don’t you go home?”
I can’t go home, ever.
“You kill people.”
No. I just send them away.
“Heaven. Is it really there?”
Not for us.
Am I becoming like you already?
– evil, they whisper.
She lights a pipe, the smoke clears her mind, she steps on shards of glass – will you always stay with me?, she asks. Always is valley deep of darkness, woods made of tall pine trees, it smells like a morgue and its dim light hurts his eyes – but he’s not scared of it. Nana bleeds black, he holds her, they fuck, wolves watch. He’s hers, she’s his, with her sulphur-smelling hair and her nails full of graveyard dirt. Devil, evil, girl, lonely, wolf, Nana, love, lover. Stay with me. He signs, it’s done. One more soul to the pickle jar collection, human among evil, evil, evil, evil—