In the middle of the night, the men in the blue helmets broke into Nikolai Ivanovich Komarov’s house and arrested him for using the wrong words. As Nikolai’s wife Daria clutched his arm and whispered to him in Russian, her honey-brown eyes glinting with fear and worry, Nikolai asked the men what he had said that was so dangerous. But the men in the blue helmets refused to speak the words that had led them to the doorway of Nikolai’s bedroom. Instead, they mumbled a few sentences of unintelligible legal jargon and took him into custody.
Later that night, the men in the blue helmets shoved Nikolai onto a train and jammed him into a tiny, sweltering compartment alongside fifteen other prisoners. Many of the prisoners in the compartment were former government officials and military policemen. Learning this, Nikolai realized that the words he had said were so dangerous that not even government officials could speak them out loud, or else they would face imprisonment of their own. But what were these magic words he had said? As an apolitical musicologist focusing on nineteenth and twentieth century Russian composers, Nikolai’s writings and lectures rarely ventured outside the territory of Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich. So where had these mysterious, terrifying words come from?
As Nikolai soon discovered, it didn’t seem to matter. For the first month of his prison term, no one asked him a single question. Instead, the guards took turns beating him with rubber truncheons to make sure he couldn’t sleep. Later they stripped him naked and shoved him into a hot wooden box filled with bed bugs. Other nights they took away his shoes and made him walk barefoot on the cold concrete floors of the prison hallway for sixteen hours straight. To survive these tortures, Nikolai imagined that his wife Daria was at his side the entire time, her beautiful, honey-brown eyes watching over him, her expressive, contralto voice whispering words of love and encouragement into his ringing ears.
Months later, once the boundaries between sleep, dreams, wakefulness, and memory had been liquidated in Nikolai’s brain, the guards brought Nikolai into an empty stone cell in the prison basement. The cell had neither locks nor doors, and the chilly air reeked of human feces and urine. Here a guard sliced off Nikolai’s clothes with a knife and ordered him to lay on his back on the floor of the cell. Unsure of whether he was awake or dreaming, Nikolai stared dumbly at the alien figures around him and complied. Then the guard handcuffed Nikolai’s hands to a rusty pipe behind his head while another guard forced his legs apart. Nikolai didn’t resist. He had no more strength left. His body felt like a frayed rope ready to snap. All he could do was close his eyes and listen for the sweet words of love his wife Daria would soon be whispering in his ear.
But this time Daria stayed quiet. In her place Nikolai heard the sound of heavy combat boots clumping down the stairs to the basement cell where he lay.
A hundred years later, someone smacked Nikolai in the face and cursed at him in Russian. Nikolai opened his eyes. A beautiful woman with shining chestnut hair and eyes the color of polished sapphires stood between his spread legs. She wore a cream-colored silk blouse, a flattering tweed skirt, and a pair of steel-toed, black combat boots. When Nikolai’s eyes adjusted to this sight and the woman’s face came fully into focus, Nikolai began to sob. It was Daria! She was here, now, right in front of him, and soon he would be free of this place and they would be together once again!
Nikolai sighed in relief and looked up at his wife.
“Dasha,” he said, smiling, as warm tears of joy glittered down his face. “Oh, my Dasha.”
“I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, fuckhead, but if you call me that name again, I’ll rip your goddamn balls off and—” Daria started to say, but then she stopped herself and looked at one of the guards. She listened as the guard whispered to her for a very long time. When he finished mumbling, she nodded. Then she crouched down and whispered into Nikolai’s ear.
“The worst is over, my love,” Daria said, her breath sliding warm and heavy down Nikolai’s neck. “All you have to do is answer one simple question and we’ll be together once again. Please cooperate, darling. Do it for me.”
On instinct Nikolai tried to wrap his arms around her to feel the warmth of her skin and to smell the oils of her hair, but his handcuffs jerked at the pipe behind his head and cut into his wrists. Daria shook her head, wagged her finger in mock punishment, and stood up. Nikolai smiled at her. But instead of returning his smile, she looked away quickly and held her hand out to one of the guards. The man handed her a knife. Then, with the heel of her left foot pressed firmly into the stone floor, she held the toe of her heavy combat boot just above the shriveled pieces of dried fruit that were Nikolai’s genitals.
“Dasha, what are you—” Nikolai said, struggling against the steel grip of the guards holding down his legs. The chain of his handcuffs scraped at the rusty pipe behind his head.
“Shhh, shhh,” Daria said, pressing her finger to her red lips. “Just cooperate, darling, and everything will be over soon.”
Staring into Nikolai’s eyes, Daria untucked the tails of her silk blouse from the waist of her tweed skirt. Then she slid the blade of the knife underneath the bottom button of her blouse. Her lips curled into a mischievous smile. With a quick flick of her wrist, the button popped off her blouse, sailed through the air, and clattered against the stone floor behind Nikolai’s head. Daria slid the knife up to the next button.
“Now, my love,” Daria said, popping the second button off her blouse, “just tell us who you spoke those subversive words to. Then you’ll be free and we’ll be together again.”
“I don’t . . .” Nikolai said, hyperventilating, his tear-blurred gaze pinballing around the room. He couldn’t think; he could barely speak; he felt like his head was filled with a hundred gallons of murky pond water. “I don’t know, my love, I . . . I don’t understand what’s happening. Why are you doing this to me?”
Daria ignored the question and popped another button off her blouse. This one pinged against Nikolai’s chin and came to rest on the flat plane of his bony chest. Unable to control his eyes anymore, Nikolai’s gaze fixed on the creamy triangle of his wife’s taut stomach peeking out between the two halves of her blouse. As his heart thudded faster, he felt himself coming to life under the toe of Daria’s raised boot.
“Think as hard as you can, darling,” Daria said, pressing the knife against the button in the center of her blouse. “This is your last chance to atone for your crimes.”
“But what crimes?” Nikolai said, his voice hoarse and ragged. “I don’t even understand what I’ve done wrong!”
“If you don’t know that by now,” Daria said, looking down at him with disgust, “then I have no sympathy for you.”
Daria’s boot started to press down on Nikolai’s engorged genitals. His breath caught in his throat; his vision blurred at the edges; he thrashed his body like an epileptic. But still he was trapped.
“Just give me the names of your conspirators,” Daria said, lowering her boot a few excruciating millimeters. “Then we’ll be free and together once again. They promised me they’d never bother us again if you cooperate. Just tell us the names. Whisper them to me, Kolya.”
Nikolai gnawed the inside of his cheeks until he tasted blood. He clenched his fists until his fingers went numb. But he stayed quiet. The pain annihilated all thought in his head.
Daria smiled down at him and popped off the center button of her blouse. The blouse fluttered to the floor and draped across Nikolai’s bruised stomach. A beige bra followed seconds later.
“Now, my love,” Daria said, leaning forward, her bare breasts hanging above Nikolai’s body, “tell me the names of your conspirators. My foot is beginning to tire.”
Nikolai sighed and stared into Daria’s icy blue eyes.
“I’m sorry, Dasha, but I can’t.”
“You can’t, or you won’t?” Daria said.
“I don’t know, darling,” Nikolai said, as waves of crackling pain crashed over him. “I can’t remember anything. I’m so confused.”
“Nonsense,” Daria said. “You’ll be surprised at how powerful your memory is, when it needs to be.”
She nodded at the guards. They nodded back and tightened their grip on Nikolai’s legs. Daria slowly pressed her boot to the floor.
Nikolai screamed. He wailed and roared and sobbed and cried. He vomited on Daria’s breasts, her boots, the floor, himself. But he did not speak again. He had no more words left to say.
— Steve Gergley is a writer and runner from Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Cleaver Magazine, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. He tweets @GergleySteve. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/