The two friends were drunk. They had begun at the Pushkin restaurant: 850 milliliters of Russian Standard vodka, cranberry juice, beer, marinated white mushrooms, stuffed pike, veal pâté, Caesar salad, lamb à la Hussar, sterlet in champagne sauce, crème brûlée, crepes with crème caramel, coffee, cognac, Calvados.
They continued at the Biscuit: 380 ml of tequila, green tea, fruit salad.
“No way, Borya,” said Lukashevich, carelessly lighting a cigarette. “These gypsies don’t rock.”
“You don’t like them?” asked Zeldin, filling the shot glasses and spilling vodka on the tablecloth. “I love it when they howl.”
“Come on . . . it’s so depressing,” replied Lukashevich, picking up a shot glass. He splashed the contents on the birch tree. “Shit!”
“What, the vodka?” Zeldin asked, puzzled.
“I don’t like places like this. Let’s go to the Bridge. Dance with the girls.”
“Right now? Come on, let’s have a drink! What gives, Sasha?” exclaimed Zeldin, embracing Lukashevich. “Everything’s great. Hey, wait a minute,” he suddenly remembered, “I didn’t finish telling you!”
“Telling me what?” said Lukashevich gloomily.
“About the bell.”
“What bell?” said Lukashevich in a bored voice.
“The one in Christ the Savior Cathedral! The bass bell! The ‘G’! Thirty-two tons. It’s in the southwest wing, I think. Right. So that Gazprom broad, you know, the one with lung cancer, she found out that low frequencies destroy cancer cells. She paid them a bundle. So every evening they lifted her up with the bell ringer, and there she was, naked. . . . Sasha, you bastard! I still can’t believe you came. Shit! You’re really here. You’re here, you sweaty old asshole!”
Knocking over the carafe of vodka, Zeldin threw himself on Lukashevich and hugged him with all his might. The table rocked. Zeldin’s striped jacket split. Lukashevich snarled, and his large, doughy fingers squeezed Zeldin’s swarthy neck. Zeldin clenched Lukashevich’s white neck.
“You Moscow scumbag!” Lukashevich growled, and they started choking each other.
“That’s it,” said Valera, drinking down the last drop in the dark.
“You finished it?” Rooster croaked. “Fucking shit . . .”
“I got the shakes, goddammit. Like I didn’t have a drop. I could use another swallow.”
“We’ll go to Izmailovo tomorrow. We’ll load up, man! Tomorrow! Tomorrow!” Valera began to chuckle and sing something incomprehensible.
“Whaddya mean, tomorrow?” said Rooster, slugging him.
“Shit! I’m pissing in my pants! Again! Holy fuck!” laughed Valera.
“You dick-face . . . asshole . . .” said Rooster, hitting him lamely.
“What’re you . . . Oh go fuck yourself!” Valera said, and hit him back.
They were quiet for a moment. A fire engine passed by noisily outside the window.
“A gangstermobile?” asked Rooster with a yawn.
“A cement crusher,” Valera objected authoritatively.
They sat quietly.
“Tomorrow! To — moooooorrrrow! Fucking tomooorrrrrroooow!” Valera started singing and laughing again, opening his mouth of rotten teeth wide in the dark.
“Just shut the fuck up, you jerk!” shouted Rooster and grabbed him by the throat.
Valera wheezed and grabbed him back.
They began choking each other.
“Just a tiny bit, Kol. We’ll finish it off,” said Alex, who was making two puny lines with a discount card from a Party store.
“Is that all there is?” asked Nikola, squinting his beautiful glazed eyes.
“That’s it, now — all gone.”
They silently snorted the cocaine through a plastic straw. Alex wiped up the cocaine dust with his thin finger and gently touched it to the head of Nikola’s member. Nikola looked at his member.
“You want to?”
“I always want to.”
“Listen, do we have any whiskey left?”
“We never did have any.”
“Really?” said Nikola, with tense surprise. “Well, what do we have?”
“Only vodka.” Alex gently took Nikola’s balls in his palm.
“I’m kinda out of it . . .” said Nikola, stretching.
“I’ll get it.”
Alex sprang up and went into the kitchen. Nikola stubbed out his cigarette in a steel ashtray. Alex returned silently with vodka and a shot glass. He poured. Nikola drank. Alex kneeled down in front of him and slowly ran his tongue around the lilac-colored head of Nikola’s member.
“But first do it like velvet, hedgehog,” said Nikola, licking his dry lips.
“Yep, massah,” said Alex in English, taking two velvet women’s belts — one black and one purple — off the chair.
They lay on the bed, pressed their bodies together, and wrapped their legs around each other. Alex looped the purple belt around Nikola’s neck; Nikola wound Alex’s neck in the black one. Their lips came together, opened, and their tongues touched. They began choking each other.
“To you we pray Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, and to Your Immaculate Mother and our Lord in Heaven and all the Holy Saints, hear our prayers and have mercy upon us.”
“Amen,” the old women murmured separately. They crossed themselves, bowed, touched their foreheads to the uneven floor, and with a creak began to stand up.
Matryona got up first. She helped Niura up by her bony elbow.
“Oof, God almighty . . .” Niura straightened up with great difficulty, took a step toward the bench, and sat down.
“Maybe you’ll write to Vasily after all?” asked Matryona, walking over to the table.
“No. No strength left,” said Niura, breathing hard.
“Well, I wrote a note to my folks. Let them come.”
“Mine ain’t been by for eight months. Oy, everything aches,” moaned Niura.
“On with it then, ain’t no point. . . .”
Matryona lifted the tablecloth. Underneath, beside the bread and salt cellar, was a plate with one pancake. Matryona took the pancake, sat down next to Niura, and split it in half.
“Here, eat. I made it this morning.”
“Just one?” Niura took the half pancake with her thin, shaking hands.
“So what . . . Just one. With cow’s butter. Eat.”
They ate in silence, chewing with their toothless mouths. Matryona finished, wiped her mouth with her brown hand, got up, and took Niura by the elbow.
“Let’s go, praise God.”
“Let’s go . . . Lord almighty . . .” The old woman, chewing her last bite, had trouble standing up.
They went out into the dark mudroom with the rotten floor. Moonlight filtered through the holes in the roof. A hemp rope with two nooses had been thrown over the ceiling beam. Matryona led Niura to the nooses. She helped her put one of them around her neck. Then she put on her own. Niura wore her new white scarf with blue polka dots. Matryona wore her old black one with the white speckles.
Matryona clasped Niura by her bony shoulders and hung on her. Niura let out a sob, and hiccuped. The nooses tightened and the old women’s legs gave way.
A car passed by outside the window. Strips of light slid across the ceiling.
“A dragon,” said Masha.
“Nooo. A giraffe,” Rita sniffed.
The nanny’s muffled grunt could be heard through the wall.
“What is Nina Petrovna doing in there?” asked Masha.
“She and Uncle Misha are choking each other.”
“What does that mean?”
“They lie in bed naked and choke each other. With their hands.”
“It’s where babies come from. And ’cause it feels good. My mama and papa do it all the time. They undress naked all the way and start doing it. Do yours?”
“I don’t have a papa.”
They were quiet for awhile. Another car passed by. And another one.
“Oy, oh my, oy, Mish . . . Not that way. . .” muttered the nanny on the other side of the wall.
Masha raised her head:
“Rita. You wanna choke each other?”
“But we’ll have babies.”
They were quiet for awhile. Rita thought about it:
“No we won’t.”
“We aren’t a man and a lady.”
“Oh . . . then let’s do it, okay?”
“Okay. Only we have to take our clothes off.”
“Noooo! It’s cold. Let’s do it like this.”
“If we’re not naked it won’t work.”
They spent a long time taking off their pajamas. They got into Masha’s bed. They grabbed each other by the neck. And began choking each other.
The aforementioned Lukashevich, Valera, Alex, Matryona, and Rita didn’t see anything in particular during the process of choking.
But Zeldin, Rooster, Nikola, Niura, and Masha observed a series of orange and crimson flashes, which gradually turned into a threatening purple glow. Then the purple light began to dim, changing to dark blue, and suddenly opened up into a huge, endless expanse. There was an unbelievably spacious, ash gray landscape, lit from the dark purple sky by a huge full moon. Despite the night, it was as bright as day. The moon illuminated the low ruins of a burned city in minute detail. A scattering of stars glittered in the sky. Among the ruins walked a naked woman. Her white, moonlit body emanated a mesmerizing sense of calm. She didn’t belong to the world on whose ashes she walked. In those ashes and ruins people lay injured by the blast. Some of them moaned, some were already dead. But their moans did not disturb the woman’s calm. She moved serenely, stepping over the dead and the moaning. She was looking for something else. Finally she stopped. Among the melted bricks lay a pregnant bitch, mortally wounded. A large part of the dog’s body was burned, and her rib bones stuck out through clumps of fur and skin. Breathing heavily and whining, she was trying to give birth. But she no longer had the strength for birthing. The dog was dying; her entire disfigured body shuddered, tensing powerlessly. Bloody spittle drooled from her crimson mouth, and her pink tongue hung out.
The woman lowered herself onto the ashes next to the dog. She placed her white hands on the bitch’s singed belly. She pressed down. The dog’s dirty, blood-spattered legs spread slightly. She whined and let out a little yelp. Puppies began to squeeze out of her womb: one, another, a third, a fourth, and a fifth. A spasm convulsed the bitch’s body. She glanced at the woman with a mad, wet eye, yawned, and died. The wet black puppies stirred, sticking their muzzles into the gray ash. The woman picked them up one at a time and held them to her breasts. And the blind puppies drank her milk.
Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell