By Eleanor Fogolin
It is so late that the halls of Kiyevskaya station yawn. The chandeliers, the white-and-gold plaster mouldings, and the gilded arches watch the people hurrying for the trains that will spirit them away into the bitterly cold night.
Ah, my heart! The old man’s smell reaches the platform before he does. His skin is pockmarked as old paper, his thick hanks of hair unwashed and his mustache grizzled. On his back is a steep pack, rising from his shoulders like a crag of rock. His knuckles and joints are swollen red chestnuts, and between his grimy fingers are thick knitting needles. He looks like the very dust, but as he steps this way or that, his knees cry out, “We never really bend!” and his back is a line that reads, “I rode beside the prince of men!”
My little lapochka, have you ever seen such an old man leering out from an alley while his knitting needles click away? Young people going home will sometimes spot a pair of eyes, blue and carbuncle-bright, looking out from a doorway. He has knit enough coats now to outfit an army—and then twice that—10 times—a hundred!
As his hands clack-clack-clack away, he keeps his ears attuned for the high, ringing tones of a girl calling in the sweet voice he knows she can use:
“Vasily, Vasily, the time is at hand!”
Vasily stumbles through the stations on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya line, where the halls were built to be nuclear bunkers. Knit one, purl two. Knit one, purl two. He asks a couple for their spare change. The girl turns away, but the young man offers Vasily a swig of something cheap from the bottle in his pocket. Vasily takes more than a swig before he is shoved away. Elated, he begins to shout on the crowded station platform:
“Nothing was more splendid than the armies of Prince Ivan as the oprichniki marched towards Novgorod! One-two, one-two went the ranks, and their coats shone in the sun. The ground beneath us wasn't white—it was a pounded sheet of blue shadows and grey, and that was the face of a real Russian winter, not the clean purity of snow!”
“The hell’s the matter with him?” says somebody.
“It’s only Vasily, he’s harmless,” says somebody else. “When he drinks—which is always—he thinks he’s been alive since the beginning of time.”
“When Prince Ivan gave orders, he did it with the banner of his father’s two-headed eagle in sight—one head looking east, one head looking west,” says Vasily, gesticulating wildly. “When he called me before him, at the start of the new year, he had that banner behind him; it looked like he had a bird coming out of each ear.”
He began acting out both parts on the platform as people edged around him: “Where’s Vasily Vodyanov?
“Here, grand prince!”
“Vasily, if you'll seize all the monasteries hereabouts, there'll be a place for you in my household guard. In three days I’ll stand with you in Novgorod, with the city at our feet.”
“Yes, grand prince!”
The train for Izmaylovsky Park arrives, and there is a rush for the doors.
Knit one, purl one. Knit one, purl one.
Some cad in the street jeers him. “What’s that you're making, there?”
“A coat—for such and such a child, of such and such a height,” says Vasily, voice wobbling. “What do the dimensions matter when it’s the warmth that counts?”
He outlasts the Times of Trouble in this way, a carcass pulling itself to its feet each day while thousands of others drop in harness. Poles out, Romanovs in—Vasily keeps his head down, determined not to be interested in politics. Instead he is an inky finger-mark in the margins of a history book, a cartoonish pair of eyes looking over his needles—looking up.
He begs for drink or money—the latter he spends on wool—and knits through Salt Riots, Copper Riots, and uprisings. Peter pulls the centre of the world from Moscow to the city whose name he shares, and Catherine holds Crimea in an open palm. While the Empress’s lovers revolve through the Winter Palace like pinwheels, Vasily sits with old men at their fires, and they talk as only old men by a fire can talk: about soldiers, about hunger, about vodka they have drunk, about women they have known, all dimly lit by the fires they have sat by in the past.
But for Vasily all women are one woman.
“Who was she, Vasily? What was she like, that woman who ruined the sex for you?”
Vasily’s eyes are far away. “In the Cathedral of Saint Sofia, they peeled away to either side as I came through in my big boots, all the mothers and children. Mothers in those days told tales of the oprichniki to scare their brats into being good: “If you don't behave, the Tsar’s Dogs will come and steal you away to Moscow in—one—big—step!
“But there was a woman in the sacristy who was slim as a knife. The fingers of winter skinned her face bare, and her lips were cracked…but there was a light behind her head, and I tell you truly, she’s burned into the backs of my eyeballs.”
The men listen, hungry as wolves.
“I was a mountain of a man in those days, I could have put her in my pocket. But a single glance from her turned a prince into a boy with a pot lid on his head, an infant going to war with his soldiers made of tin. How I waned by her!”
“Vasily, Vasily, let these people be. The nights are cold, and they have no coats. Show mercy.”
Vasily twists his hands together. “But I was Prince Ivan’s man, and my orders were to strip that church to its bones before three days passed and he arrived in the city. And that’s what I did.”
“Vasily, Vasily, they are weeping from cold.”
After all these years, the mothers and babes are still clamouring in his ears as though he could do anything for them over the gulf of time.
“Vasily, I fear you’ll be damned for this.”
Then there’s another war; there’s always another war. Vasily has been under the hooves of so many Russian horses! When the French reach the capital he indulges a truly hilarious joke: Standing before the armies that are now threadbare, freezing, and hungry as hell, he announces that he is the delegation sent to meet the Emperor. “Welcome to Moscow,” he says, kowtowing—and then he falls on the ground, laughing fit to choke himself. The city is charred as coal, set on fire by its own governor, and Vasily recalls how the flames that laid Novgorod low stung his senses. He waits in joyous expectation for Napoleon to put a bayonet through his head.
It never comes. The French trudge out the same way they came, and a chorus of saints sings in an empty cow stall: “No, no, Vasily, it’s not time yet. Keep on knitting, we’ll let you know.”
Vasily lies on his face in the street.
In April 1870, oh my sweet child, an earthquake radiates outward from Simbursk, and the saints tremble as they peek over the guardrails of Heaven.
“Please, please, go away.”
“Be not afraid! In three days time, you shall wear a crown of light with me in Heaven!”
“I was only following orders, I had no choice, you couldn't have refused Ivan the Formidable—”
“Be not afraid! In two days time, you shall wear a glorious coat with me in Heaven!”
“It was so long ago, who cares about it anymore? Nobody remembers what happened, so why can't you leave me alone?”
The voice rings out in Vasily’s dreams—he hasn't slept in a decade.
“Be not afraid,” it cries, “For in a day’s time you shall be saints with me in Heaven!”
He rallies, eventually. She'll show mercy, beg him his token to get through the gates of Saint Peter. The crew on the Potemkin mutinies; Vasily jumps and drops a stitch, startled out of his reverie. Spend enough time looking into the teeth of armies, and after awhile you can't tell the difference between one jaw and another, until you're inside—and then, who cares?
He doesn't talk much after Oktyabr'skaya: the Kremlin forbids miracles, and Moscow won’t suffer the saintly ilk. They would be out of place if they were here, with their kokoshniks of stars, unless they too learned to covet sneakers, cassette tapes, televisions, chocolate bars. When saints become cosmonauts, when they wield sickles like a reaper in the field, when they walk on the silver floor of the moon, then they'll find favour again.
Vasily weaves in and out of the crowds in Mayakovskaya, his face flushed and his sight full of saints. Rub as he might, he can't get them out of his eyes, and like an old married couple he and the spectre of Novgorod are always gnawing at the same old bone.
“Vasily, I promised them a coat and crown in heaven. Will you make a liar of me?”
“For God’s sake, if you'd only gone when I told you to go—”
“Vasily, if you would help me keep my promise, if you would make coats for my poor dead children, then I would come for you, and all the saints of Heaven too.”
Vasily runs into a baluster, throwing his arms about it to keep from sagging to his knees. A mother with her child skirts around him, toddler in one hand, string bag full of shopping in the other. “Let me be done,” he weeps. “Four centuries of penance, it should be enough for the bean counters of Heaven.”
The balusters change into saints—columns of goodness, wreathed in flame—and back again, like a sleight of hand, or a magician pulling a coin from your nose. Vasily falls to the ground.
“Wait for me in Moscow, Vasily. You visited my city, and in time I shall return the favor—until then, make coats to cover my children. Death will never come while I have blessed you.”
One evening, not long after Gorbachev resigns, Vasily stands in Kiyevskaya a moment before midnight, and throws down his work.
The silence in the station is so profound that even the chandeliers are feeling anxious. He walks, with feet that wore boots, and spurs, and sneakers, and now go bare, towards a platform, with the look of someone enlightened: His hands are expressions of charity at his sides, and his mouth hangs open. There are tears in his eyes.
“Ah, some old drunk.”
Vasily is struck by the hot wind racing down the black and endless tunnel. The air shivers, the earth recoils, and Vasily’s eardrums are blown by the first notes sung by a heavenly host.
Billowing maelstrom clouds descend in the station. Wheels of fire open a thousand unfathomable eyes, and Vasily feels his skin blazing as they find him cowering with trousers soaked in urine.
The thing about saints, my myshka, my little one, is that you can never quite see where they keep all their holiness. There’s a spot at the back of their head, no bigger than a coin—but when the spot catches the glare of grace, it’s magnified a thousand times, and it blinds.
Borne on the whirlwind, the saint appears. She wears a font of blood and gold. Behind her head is a light that could burn the world to dust.
“Vasily, Vasily, I am here for you at last!”
And spilling down from the gates of Heaven, shining coats in formation march, an army of saints in militant crowns—
Vasily gives a shriek as the train for Baumanskaya appears in the tunnel.