Book Slaughterhouse by Oleg Kazantsev

Book Slaughterhouse

By

Oleg Kazantsev

As the oak door gapes open, I see that the parquet floor of the Pluschov’s House is dotted, – no, covered! – with dozens of books. Like corpses on a battlefield, they sprawl impotently across the varnished floor in uneven piles, their pale pages exposed to the dim sunlight of this murky October afternoon. For a minute I stand still in silent admiration of that bibliopolic slaughter, taking in the whole panorama of the spacious room. High white ceiling with a cut-glass chandelier dominates the scenery. A long birchen table with a walnut wood lampshade towers among the piles of torn and crumpled pages. Overturned bookshelves on the background have collapsed over each other and now make a mountain ridge with their brown frames. A cold breeze flows into the room through the doorframe and crawls over the floor, tugging on the dead paper like a ghost.

I was not going to visit the Pluschov’s House in the first place. When a quarter of our battalion escaped from Spassk, leaving the city to the victorious Reds, people were already making arrangements about their short stay in Vladivostok before leaving the Far East of Russia for good. The White cause was lost, and army officers were interested only in bargaining out a ticket to a steamer that would take them to San-Francisco or Shanghai. Regular soldiers’ plight was sadder, since nothing was left for them but to flee to Manchuria. As our train was taking us closer and closer to Vladivostok, their faces were turning grayer and their glances sharper.

As for me, I made an agreement with Major Novitsky about staying with him in a room that his friend from the divisional staff command had preserved for him on Pekinskaya Street. That mysterious friend, as Novitsky once revealed to me while nervously twisting his blonde moustache, was also going to help us to get our ship tickets.

“I know him. He’s a man of his word,” the Major kept murmuring to himself while sitting on a tar barrel in a corner of a freight car. “With first cold winds, Nezvanov, my lad, we’ll be gone from this hard-hearted land. Do you think they speak French in San-Francisco?”

“No, they don’t,” I answered to him in my best English, but he didn’t listen.

That’s how I left him for that night: curling his moustache on a barrel. On the following morning, October 11, 1922, Major Novitsky disappeared from the crowded freight car without a trace. Some private from another car later claimed that he saw a man in a trench coat jumping off the train and wondering into the woods at night. Out of all desertions I’d ever heard of or personally witnessed, that one was by far the strangest, and it made me think about how much the poor old Major really believed in his friend’s help with a ticket.

One way or another, Novitsky was nowhere to be found, and with him my hope of finding a place to stay in Vladivostok had vanished. Our battalion arrived to the city just before the dawn and burst from the freight cars like rats from a flooded basement. Looking down the station platform, I lit a cigarette and started observing my company melt before my eyes. Some soldiers were heading to the city with calm indifference, turning their backs on me and abandoning their weapons like bored toddlers abandon their toys. Others would occasionally meet my gaze out of old habit, as if expecting some command to be given. I guess there was enough indifference in my look for them to realize they were on their own now. By the time the rising sun had warmed my back, I was already a captain without a company.

My only remaining contact in the city was Arkady Ladogin, a correspondent of Primorsky Vestnik, who lived there with his family. But how could I find him now in this realm of madness and despair? Naturally, I put my first hope on his newspaper’s head office, but a tipsy clerk on the reception told me Ladogin hadn’t showed up at work for two days.

My best course of action was staying in the office and waiting for Ladogin’s unlikely arrival in its warmth and safety. But hunger was making me restless, and I chose to leave a note with the boozy clerk before taking a walk around the city of my youth.

Strange memories were swarming up my mind, dating as far back as my infancy. Some of them were bitter, some heartwarming, but all without exception were unthinkably distant. Like a man listening to a gramophone recording of his voice, I could recognize every single moment in its most acute detail, but was simultaneously stunned by its oddity.

That disquieting, alien mood led me through narrow streets and alleys of the city haunted by anxious bourgeois and littered with torn war posters. Following a confusing string of self-discoveries and recollections, I made my way to the building I used to know as the Pluschov’s House.

Hipatius Romanovich Pluschov was my father’s friend, a typical Far-Eastern Russian merchant, independent and stubborn to the core of his heavy bones. Sturdy and thick-skinned, he always seemed to move as if his limbs lacked some joints and as if his ribcage covered his whole torso in a fashion of a corrugated carapace. I remember that his black mustache and his eyebrows used to look almost the same to me when I was a boy. These two perfect copies of each other were separated only by two loose slits of little gray eyes and the mountain ridge of a bulbous nose with prominent purple veins on the wings of its nostrils (those nasty veins reminded me a swarming clew of little worms). Above his eyebrows, Hipatius Romanovich’s frowning forehead was fighting its trench war with the receding hairline, ditches of wrinkles being left behind as the forehead kept pushing the thinning gray hair further and further to the back of the perfectly round freckled skull. His voice had a pleasant hoarseness in it, as if I was always listening to a gramophone record when he spoke. Sometimes Hipatius Romanovich liked to condescend to talking to me face to face, in order “to listen to the voice of the growing new generation,” as he himself once put it. Those conversations were immensely empty of meaning to me, and the only detail I could recall from them was the smell of honey and onion in Pluschov’s breath.

That’s all I remember of the poor old man, who neither looked nor sounded like anyone my deceased father could have befriended. Yet, he was like an uncle to me, and I hardly spent a single holiday break during my Cadet School years without visiting Hipatius Romanovich’s house for a tea party. Just before the Great War old Pluschov died of consumption, which I now consider a good luck. Similar to most of kind narrow-minded people, he died with an illusion that the world he knew would outlive him. Unlike me, he didn’t get to live in the end of history.

There was another memory that stirred me up in a peculiar way along my walk. I remembered secretly dating Natalie, Pluschov’s golden-haired eighteen-year-old daughter with a lovely doll-like face, who inherited from her father the same Siberian broad nose with the tip of it shaped almost like a perfect pale ice cube. She used to set our dates by writing with her dark-purple pencil on the wall that faced their garden at the foot of a hill. At first, I found it indescribably entertaining – and thrilling in the way that would certainly please Ensign Pechorin from The Hero of Our Time by Lermontov. I quickly persuaded myself that, like my favorite literary character, I possessed a wicked, vampiric passion for women, and back then Natalie was the first one in my list. It was not her love that I longed, not her body or the thrill of the dates. Instead, I found my hedonistic refuge in playing her like an instrument, setting her mood swings in motion the way a conductor orchestrates a symphony (at least, that’s how I viewed my clumsy puppetry myself back then).

However, one-sided love cannot last long, and as our correspondence with Natalie went on, our infant game had turned into a routine for me. Soon after my father’s death, I asked my command for me to be transferred to the Caucasus, mostly out of the same absurd idea of following Pechorin’s path other than because of anything else.

(I left Vladivostok a year before Natalie’s father passed away, and what happened to the poor girl after that, I don’t know. I heard she left the Far East for Moscow, and soon after the Revolution somehow escaped to France with her mother. That’s where her trace was absolutely lost for me.)

With these memories on my mind, I couldn’t resist but to forget about the lost war and evacuation for the time being and head for Pluschov’s red-brick mansion instead. Not knowing what to expect to see there, I walked along the causeways of Nekrasovskaya Street thinking about the times when my father and I drank tea from blue saucers at the Pluschovs, and my father’s beard weirdly matched Hipatius Romanovich’s tie, and a samovar on the table would emanate languishing heat, and the entire world would stand still.

I went to the old Pluschov’s house thinking of a tea party over white tablecloth, only to find a book slaughterhouse.

As my memories recede, I again find myself in the middle of a spacious room I can now hardly recognize. The sole familiar feature I notice here is the same blue wallpapers with white stripes and flowers that used to always make me feel as if we were drinking tea inside an even bigger gzhel-patterned teapot. Finally, another gust of wind whispers in my ear that it’s time to either enter the ravaged building defiantly or walk away from it to never return. Shivering from cold, I choose to step in and close the door behind my back. I head to the center of the room, awkwardly trying to step in the clearings in the carpet of books, but soon enough I throw all the restraints aside and walk fastidiously over the rustling volumes. With each step I squash their paper guts under the soles of my army boots, feeling the books squirm under my feet and slide over each other’s covers.

Finally, I reach the birchen table in the middle of the room and wearily lean on it. Only now do I realize how exhausted I am from the road, so I look around for a place to sit down. Alas, the only chair present in the room is crushed and almost buried under the brown blocks of overturned bookshelves. Out of vexation I kick a shapeless mound of books swelling next to me, but the weight of thousands of pages pushes me back against the table. I try to kick the unyielding book pile again, but slip on some thick volume, lose balance and spread on the paper carpet miserably. After a brief moment of anger something snaps in me – and I burst out laughing.

I laugh at myself and my place in this world. I laugh at my pretense and self-importance. I think of the authors of these books and chortle. They spent decades of their life writing words on paper, hoping to say something important to their imaginary readers. Just like Natalie, that lovely doll, used to write messages to me on the wall of her house, believing I would be thrilled to read them. But just like her, these desperate sages and prophets were all naïve and wrongheaded. They spent their lives and efforts talking to narcissistic strangers, only to be swept away by the turbulent flow of human history. They lived and died in vain hopes and ambitions, and only now were they put to their true place. They were put to the book slaughterhouse.

My laughing fit recedes and in my mind’s eye I see the room for what it used to be before old Pluschov’s death. I see Hipatius Romanovich sit at the table and smooth his black eyebrows. I see his daughter holding a purple pencil in her pale hand. I see a glossy samovar and a thick snow-white tablecloth.

As I visualize the Pluschovs’ tea party, I can’t stop remembering all the etiquette and rituals that used to bind our frail reality together. How could we spend our precious days performing them? Didn’t we deserve the Civil War? The exile? Death?

Suddenly, a defiant, outrageous idea comes to my mind. Fighting my fatigue, I slowly pick myself up from the floor, then grab three random volumes from a book pile and sit on the edge of the table. I fidget to the middle of it and lie down. I put two books under the back of my head as a pillow and cover my face with the third one. Involuntarily my eyes close and my breath becomes slow and deep.

The first image that pops in my mind is my parents together with the whole of the Pluschovs family drinking tea at the same old table, with my dead body lying in the middle of it in a coffin. That fantasy quickly dissipates, and now I see myself as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky dying from an infected wound, a strange building of needles and splinters towering before my face in a delirious dream. After half a minute of that feverish vision I get up and lift the book from my face, making sure it’s not War and Peace by Tolstoy (it turns out to be poetry by a certain Sirin). My curiosity satisfied, I lie back down, put Sirin’s anthology on to my face and imagine windy Vladivostok behind the heavy oak door of the Pluschov’s House.

Story Art
Illustration by Oleg Kazantsev

In my mind’s eye I see Arkady Ladogin’s son, fifteen-year-old Denis, as he leaves a condominium on Svetlanskaya Street wearing a black cadet uniform with red epaulettes and a black peaked cap. After slamming a door shut the young man heads along the street, paving stones clattering under the soles of his polished shoes. As Denis walks down the hill anxiously looking around, he reaches the door of Primorsky Vestnik’s editorial office and tries to walk in, but the beige door slams open just before his nose, and a stout man – the same tipsy clerk I met earlier – appears on the porch. They talk very briefly and, as it usually happens in dreams, they come to mutual understanding almost too quickly for real life. Denis keeps speaking when the clerk suddenly shoves a piece of paper in the young man’s hand, taps him on the shoulder and turns his wide back on the confused cadet. Denis opens up the crumpled note, but I immediately understand that it’s the same message I left in the office in case his father stops by.

While Ladogin Jr. is reading my message, my attention shifts. I watch the clerk as he locks the door to the office and turns around to face the harbor. The man unbuttons his black suit in spite of the chilly wind, undoes his tie and walks away from the building in a joyful manner, like a husband who just divorced his harridan of a wife. He doesn’t care that a window on the second floor is left wide open, and sheets of paper fly out of the office like a flock of pigeons. They ride wind currents for a while, and I watch them gather into miniature paper clouds before separating again. One of the sheets descends to the sidewalk and spreads flat against the face of a woman in a gray coat and a white flapper hat. She brushes the paper off of her face and immediately forgets about it, searching around feverishly for something and wiping away tears from her long, almost theatrical eyelashes. The woman suppresses a whimper and taps on her lap, calling for someone in a gentle high-pitched voice: “Little girl! Come here, little girl!” A black tuxedo cat with a red collar waits for the lady further down the block just around a corner, shy and scared. The wind plays with the cat’s clean fur and carries away the calls of her owner.

An open-top car drives along the street with a roaring rattle, and the scared cat patters away toward an unlocked cellar door and soon disappears in the black mouth of the basement. But the car with a slouching driver and two grim officers in its backseat keeps on driving downhill along Svetlanskaya, passing the poor woman that will never find her cat, passing the happy clerk that will never see his newspaper office open again, and, finally, passing young Denis Ladogin who folds my note and puts it in to his pocket. At the foot of the hill the car makes a slow turn and then keeps lumbering down the highway toward the quay.

For some half a minute Denis Ladogin follows the car as it drives away from him and then he turns left and walks into an arc. He crosses a yard, surrounded from all sides by four yellow apartment buildings. In the yard, two fifth-graders in autumn jackets play among clotheslines with some shiny thing – somebody’s medal. An unshaven man in an unbuttoned military overcoat approaches the kids in a drunken angry manner – as if stomping big cockroaches with each step: one! two! three! four! five cockroaches! He shifts his peaked cap to the back of his skull, grabs one of the boys by the ear and, as the poor fellow screams, the man takes the medal away from him, pounding on his own chest with his fist and muttering something about his blood, his regiment, and his honor.

Denis pays attention to none of that. He walks under another arc, crosses two more yards, takes long stairs down a sloping hillside and heads toward a mechanized bakery. The manufactory stands still and no smoke or steam is coming out of its chimney. People are walking unopposed in and out through the bakery’s gatekeeper’s office like melancholic bees of a hive which queen has died. One of them shouts something to Denis, but the young man keeps walking silently along the manufactory’s green fence until he crosses another road and stops in front of the red façade of the Pluschov’s House. He takes my note from out of his pocket, unfolds it and reads it again. Finally, Denis Ladogin shrugs and walks up to the porch. He reaches a heavy oak door and knocks three times: one time soft and two times hard.

…I wake up lying on the table, startled by the sound of somebody knocking at the door three times: one time soft and two times hard. It takes me some time to realize I’m not seeing it in my dream anymore. Before I know it, the door into the mansion squeaks open (I must’ve forgotten to lock it), and Denis Ladogin enters the room.

For a good minute he stands still in the doorway, gaping at me as I raise my head and my shoulders from the table, leaning upon my right elbow. I don’t know what kaleidoscope of ideas is running through his head at this moment, but finally the look in his ever-surprised teenager’s eyes becomes too perplexed and I can’t help smiling. With the first giggle both of us burst into laughter.

“Deniska, my lad!” I exclaim joyfully. “You came here to get some sleep, too? Go on, lie down beside me, there’s enough space for both of us,” I finally manage to say, raising my eyebrows and wiping my watery eyes with the tip of my thumb.

“No, Yuri Grigorievich.” Denis Ladogin’s shoulders keep shaking as he giggles. “Pa—” He makes a deep breath in order to stop laughing. “Papa knew you were supposed to arrive today. If you weren’t dead, that is. He must be still looking for you at the train station, and meanwhile he sent me to wait for you in the Vestnik office in case you sneak past him. That’s where I got your note.”

“I’ll tell you what, you have a dog’s intuition, Deniska. How did you know I’d be in the Pluschov’s House? It’s not in my note.” I sit up, push hard with my arms and jump off the table on the humps of battered books.

“This house is not Pluschov’s anymore, Yuri Grigorievich,” young Ladogin answers while I frown at his habit of calling me by my patronymic name. “It’s been a municipal library ever since the remaining family left the town. Up until now. Did you do it…?”

I look at the devastation that surrounds us and grin:

“No, I’m not so good at breaking things. Whoever did this, he must’ve shed quite some sweat over this mess.”

Suddenly we hear clatter from a far corner of the room, and I remember that in old days there was a hidden little door leading to a pantry there. Soon enough, that very door slams open, and a tiny old man with a scruffy face appears from the darkness of his hideout. He wears nothing but an oversized white shirt, a pair of blue jodhpurs, brown socks and home sleepers.

“What the devil do you think you’re doing here, you bastards!?” The old man shouts, hobbling around the hulks of overturned bookshelves and shaking his veiny fists above his head all the while. “It’s a library, you imps! A temple of knowledge! What are you doing here, antichrists?”

The old man approaches me and stops, staring up at my surprised face sullenly. A heavy smell of alcohol hits my nose.

“So what the heck did you ruin your temple for, you abortive priest?” I step even closer to the librarian, looking down at him with a grin. He lowers his head and evades my eyes shamefacedly.

“How much did you drink last night?“ I ask him again.

The librarian suddenly regains his zeal and goes on the offensive once again. He pokes me in the chest with his pale finger, shouting:

“Out! Out! Out of my sight! These books are dead, can’t you see? Old order is over, and the new one won’t need us! So get out of here, you scum, and let me die along with my books and my past!”

Terrified by hearing my own thoughts falling out of this madman’s mouth, I stumble backwards as the old man’s finger keeps poking in my chest like a bullet again and again. The librarian feels my weakness and pushes, pushes, pushes me to the exit with his bony hands, until I find myself on the porch shoulder to shoulder with young Ladogin.

“Let’s go, Yuri Grigorievich. Leave the man alone.” Denis pulls me by my sleeve, and I let him lead me away from the house of dead books.

I regain my attention when we are half way across the bakery fence. I abruptly stop, but Denis doesn’t notice it and keeps walking. I turn around and see the door to the Pluschov’s House slightly open.

“Yuri Grigorievich,” I hear Denis Ladogin’s persuasive voice behind my back. “Mr. Nezvanov, please, let’s go. Sir!”

Ignoring Ladogin’s protests, I quietly jog back to the red-brick mansion and slightly opened the door.

As I peek inside I see the librarian sleeping on the table surrounded by the piles of books and torn-off pages. An opened volume of The Hero of Our Time by Lermontov covers his sickly old face.

###

OlegOleg Kazantsev was born and grew up in Eastern Siberia, in the city of Khabarovsk, just several miles away from the Chinese border. Life there taught him a lot of things – some more and some less useful – such as: boxing, ballroom dancing, potato farming, Calculus III, and video game journalism. After he got his first degree in Computer Science, Oleg decided he wanted to try something new in his life, so he went to Columbia College Chicago to study fiction writing in English. Two and a half years later he was tutoring college students and teaching classroom in an intermediate school in South Chicago. Great experience as it was, teaching writing (unlike the actual writing) wasn’t what Oleg wanted to do for the rest of his life, so his next step after graduation was to zigzag back to IT consulting, to free up some time for his passion. That’s where he is right now, but there’s no guarantee that in a year or two his life won’t change completely yet again.

Oleg is 26 years old, married and raising a wonderful two year old daughter. His short story “Long Jump” has won the second price in the Writers of the Future contest 2014 and was included in the anthology Writers of the Future Vol.30. His other stories have appeared in Story Week Reader 2012 and 2013, Elastic Lumberjack, and Every Day Fiction. His comic book With You won the Albert P. Weisman award in 2012 and can be found on Amazon.com.

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