THE SERIAL KILLER
Nikolai Ivanovich had chosen his next victim – Alyonka, a slim young girl in the eighth grade, with a physique that was developed well beyond her years: bosom supple as a young nursing mother’s, buttocks worthy of a sculptor’s attention, long legs, which in silhouette revealed graceful calve muscles, and a waist so small, she could almost touch thumbs and fingers together around it. In a nutshell, Nikolai Ivanovich sure knew how to pick ’em.
How it happened that Alyonka gave herself to him, heart and soul, the very first time they met – God only knows, as the saying goes. Perhaps Nikolai Ivanovich was a child at heart or, better said, perhaps he’d stayed a child, even at his age, without undergoing any transformation whatsoever: he wasn’t behind the times at all, but he’d retained a childlike mindset and, strange as it may seem, that was how you could justify his nature, which predisposed him to murder. The prepubescent killer doesn’t consider the consequences the way an adult would. For some it’s just plain mischief; the value of a life snuffed out is beyond their comprehension at that age, and they suffer no pangs of conscience, because their very consciousness is itself in the rudimentary stages of development. In a nutshell, it’s the child criminals who are the most dangerous, and in this sense Nikolai Ivanovich qualified as an adult child, under cover of his age, and the exterior of a civilized person.
The Alyonka situation was anything but typical for him. That she was intended as his next victim – the very fact of his choosing her was proof, and he never picked just anybody; there was always a particular philosophical basis underlying his choice, such as attraction, above all. The thing was, Nikolai Ivanovich was a murderer only when he told himself it was time, it was coming on again, from which point on he focused exclusively on his next victim.
Meanwhile, when it wasn’t coming on, he lived a normal life and even lamented lacking sufficient time to realize his latest philosophical undertaking, say, some unfinished reading – of Nietzsche, for example – so as to convince himself, yet again, that after all, he, Nikolai Ivanovich, though not necessarily an übermensch, wasn’t your average, chicken-hearted Joe, either, which meant that just like Raskolnikov, he had every right. And then, when it started coming on again, he applied his selection criteria: she had to be beautiful enough to be his intended if, of course, he could revert to his youth, minus his still unconscious, but already crystalizing, inferiority complex of those younger years. Simply stated, his next never-intended, by virtue of her never-intendedness, should first be violated, if only for the sake of nostalgia and all the might-have-been brides of his youth, and then murdered, so he wouldn’t have to think about her being alive for somebody else’s pleasure, and not his, Nikolai Ivanovich’s. Thus, to some degree he was already implementing the principle put forward by Ostrovsky’s Karandyshev, who told his wife, about to leave him for another, if he couldn’t have her, then nobody would, before shooting her dead.
The atypicality of the case at hand consisted in the fact Nikolai Ivanovich didn’t just fancy Alyonka – he was in love with her. Could being in love like this avert his fall, if only in relation to her? And was it even important, whether or not it could? Is it important to the reader? See, if you said it was, he might mistake this isolated instance for the typical, and then accuse literary men of being immoral: here they promised to rehabilitate characters like Nikolai Ivanovich, and meanwhile they’re a dime a dozen, in which case it’s not even worth highlighting the key points, not even for the case at hand: better to just split the morality of the issue right down the middle, between the writers and the readers, because writers are also readers, and vice versa, and thus stay closer to the matter at hand, than to the law of associativity.
Alright, so, Nikolai Ivanovich was atypically in love, and for a while he was distracted from his main objective. And when Alyonka invited him to go ice-skating, he underwent a breach of consciousness. He’d never been on skates before; he teetered around the rink for half an hour, looking around at the other skaters, and then (Alyonka couldn’t believe her eyes) he just took off, so exquisitely, you’d have thought he’d only pretended to be a novice, and was now skating for real. He felt gifted, and not only as a skater: he was thinking about how many other things, and not necessarily athletic, he could master with the ease of a Wunderkind.
But at the same time he felt sad, because his age was getting the better of some of his abilities, and revitalizing some of those he’d already lost, even at the pace his great talent would allow was, nevertheless, not part of his plans as a serial killer. Here, besides what’s already been stated, other metamorphoses of repentance in relation to the past should’ve been triggered, along with a personal, highly motivated need for a new life of atonement, as with Raskolnikov in his confinement, but there was none of that, whereas there could’ve been, if Nikolai Ivanovich had been able to come clean to Alyonka, like Raskolnikov did to Sonya Marmeladova (may the reader forgive this latest comparison to Raskolnikov, but the two are brothers in adversity), but alas, Alyonka didn’t have the experience under her belt of having possessed a subdued life of purity and fallen from it against her own will. She was merely a budding flower, having not yet absorbed – or better still, incapable of ever absorbing and feeling – another’s miseries to the extent of the literary characters, above, by virtue of her very surroundings, upbringing and mentality.
In a nutshell, taking off on his skates like a former figure-skater, Nikolai was engulfed by such a wave of freedom, he nearly forgot about his murders, as though they belonged not to his past, but to that of a close relative, with whose past he was intimately familiar.
He was well aware, however, that this sense of freedom was confined to the rink; it was only life allowing him the tiniest pleasure before, sooner or later, taking itself away from him (which is exactly how he reasoned) – that is, taking away not his life, but life itself, as though his life no longer belonged to him, but to some third party, living within him.
Most of all, Nikolai Ivanovich was looking at the way the skaters cut up the ice with their blades. He started sorting through his memories of similar actions. Clearly, those closest to him were of his knives, and right alongside – the bodies of his victims. In addition an image suddenly flashed through his mind of a knife from his childhood, off of which he was eating a slice of apple, and of his father who, giving him the kind of look you’d give a common criminal, confiscated the knife and threw the apple over the fence. Then, once, he had trouble falling asleep for a few nights, after having seen a knife-throwing act at the circus, the carefully flung blades flush with the female assistant’s body, in silhouette. Nikolai Ivanovich would dream the knife-thrower hit the woman instead; there she was, bleeding to death, but the thrower, spurred on by shouts from the audience for “More!” continued to impale her, knife by knife, down to the last one. “That which we despise, but cannot resist, may, in time, become our villainous life’s work,” was the thought going through Nikolai Ivanovich’s head when Alyonka, snow-covered and ruddy-faced, skated up to him.
“And why is my knight so sad?” she drawled romantically, her breath a fine mist in the cold.
“I’m not,” Nikolai Ivanovich replied, “I’m just tired, from the skating – after all, I’m not a young man anymore. Actually, no, it’s not from the skating at all.”
“What are you tired from, then?”
“Pleasure,” he said, putting his arm around her, “indulgence. I haven’t felt this good for a long time.”
Alyonka cast down her eyes in understanding, like the guiltiest of over-indulgers.
“That’s a good kind of tired,” she said, “and now you need a good rest.”
The days that followed were crisis-ridden for Nikolai Ivanovich. He was restless, as a result of which he left the house frequently, walking around for the sake of walking around. Adulthood was gripping him, beginning its belated suppression of his infantilism, which was so belated as to seem almost futile, though irreversible, nonetheless. And the root cause was what – his first love, having come to him late in life? Or was he beginning to re-evaluate his life of crime as a consequence of this love? Questions slithered around his mind like venomous snakes, he was having trouble breathing . . .
Nikolai Ivanovich looked up and saw to his horror that he was standing opposite the local precinct: a rundown, yellow, two-story building. “It was probably built in the 1920s by convicts or prisoners,” he thought. On the roof, sun-scorched and sagging under the weight of the icicles, there was a flag with the city’s crest on it, and grates over the windows. “And this is where I’m going to confess?” he thought. “To them? No, never! Bare my soul to those who left me to rot in a cell for playing my guitar in the entrance to our building, one of them forcing me to pick up the butt he’d thrown onto the pavement himself, before my very eyes . . . No, it’s all wrong. It’s a sign of weakness, and to hell with that! What could they know of my misery? To them I’m a murderer. End of story. End of everything. And this Alyonka business is an aberration, there’s no quitting halfway . . . Will they really give me a lesser sentence for sparing her life? Will anyone believe me if I say, ‘Do you have any idea how many more I could’ve killed? Alyonka’s my “end of the line,” my future victims’ salvation, she’s worth all of them combined – worth the whole world even. So don’t throw the book at me, I’ve got all the evidence, a list of all those future victims, complete with addresses and biographies?’ It’s absurd. Nobody would even listen.”
While Nikolai Ivanovich was wrestling with his conscience, his legs had carried him to the very entrance to the precinct, where he suddenly came face-to-face with the sergeant: a big lug, with the obtuse, but somewhat insolent, fixed stare of a local yokel. Out of fright, Nikolai Ivanovich suddenly pretended he was drunk.
“Boy oh boy, Professor!” the sergeant exclaimed. “Are you lost? Maybe me we ought to put you in the tank. They’ll straighten you out in there.”
Nikolai Ivanovich couldn’t believe his ears.
“I want to confess – . . . ,” he started to say.
“He wants to confess,” interrupted the sergeant. “Go on home to your wife, Professor. Here we’ve got robberies and murders, and he wants to confess. You can barely stand up, Mister Intellectual. Come on, don’t get on my nerves.”
“Oh my God,” thought Nikolai Ivanovich, “that was the devil’s work – I was actually going to confess!” But just then some mysterious, hurricane-like force gripped him and threw him down at the sergeant’s feet.
“There’s somebody I want to murder, understand?” he blurted out.
“So when you kill him, you’ll come. Or call. If it’s in our district,” the sergeant replied, “want the number?”
In the meantime, a patrol car had driven up to the precinct; swiftly and effortlessly, the sergeant hopped in and was gone. And Nikolai Ivanovich, there in the shabby precinct, grew as lonely as if he were suddenly the last man on earth.
“Alyonka is my salvation,” he thought, “my final refuge. I’ll finish it up with her, and to hell with the rest. There’s no room for ambiguity. Alyonka . . . Turns out she’s both my victim, and guardian angel.”
Then he felt an unprecedented wave of madness about to overcome him. He was about ready to give in to it, but the energy possessed by his last days freedom – flawed, fouled with bloodshed, but nevertheless his own freedom – wouldn’t cut him that ultimate bit of slack. It was the residual animal tenacity of a man who, in conformity with its diabolical edict, blind impulse had at some point sucked into a vortex of criminal acts, thereby slipping a noose around his neck for eternity. The only thing left was to ‘kick the chair out from under his feet’ and basta!
But the jury was still out on that one, and before he could decide one way or another, he had to finish things with Alyonka. “Life allows some to rise, and others to fall,” he thought, “though either option is a gift. Otherwise you’d have no life at all. So to you, who have given me life, thank you, for keeping me alive,” Nikolai Ivanovich concluded to himself, after which he lost consciousness and collapsed onto the pavement. Swirling around him like a school of tiny fish around a bigger one, hundreds of snowflakes covered him, thick as tufts of cotton.
The following morning Nikolai Ivanovich awoke in a panic after a very frosty night on the pavement; with no particular effort, he remembered exactly what had happened to him, and how he’d ended up sleeping in the middle of the street. He was horrified by his revelation to the policeman, by the fact of having told, or, well not exactly having told, but all the same having hinted at his innermost secrets – not to someone he could trust, but to someone he would never have wanted to tell, and worse still, to the first person he’d run into, which wouldn’t be so bad, except it was the person most despised by the population for his treacherous shapeshifting and no, he didn’t spill his guts, thank God, but he could’ve, and so convincingly that they would’ve believed him and seized him on the spot, and then goodbye ‘swansong’ with Alyonka, and then his entire past would’ve been an unfinished book, with no real conclusions, no epilogue, no ‘last breath.’
Nikolai Ivanovich walked to Alyonka’s house, thinking how beautiful everything around him was: the snow was special somehow, soft as sable fur, the sky was blue, cloudless and so high, you wanted to fly way up there, somewhere, as far up as the birds, and Alyonka, opening the door to greet him, was so delightful with the fragrances of youth, and you almost couldn’t believe there were other lives right behind you, that could add to the harmony of the world in any meaningful way.
“I’ve come here to repent,” he said to her, “to repent of everything and put an end to it all, and I want to say it all to you, in particular, because there isn’t anybody else, and this (Nikolai Ivanovich raised a long, skinny finger) is not the kind of thing you can just say to yourself. It’s got to be said out loud, and not as a monologue, but with rejoinders from you – your words, your tragic eyes, and your gestures, too, like in the theater, because in them I’ll see the reflection of my words and actions, and you have to understand my torment and be horrified about being in love with a person like me.”
“Now, what on earth is this? Why the drama? What in the world has happened?” asked Alyonka, having sensed from afar that something was wrong. A fleeting grimace, expressing horror and heartache at the same time, distorted her face, and she grabbed her head with her hands. “Well, what have you’ve gone and done?” she demanded.
“I’m a murderer and I was going to murder you, too, which is why I fell in love with you. I mean, I really did fall in love, so I could kill you, but then I realized I wouldn’t be able to, and that I should kill myself instead. Can you understand what I mean? After all, it’s not inconceivable to want to murder the one you love: you love them, so you possess them, and if you possess them, you dominate them, and if you dominate them, well, you can follow through to the end,” Nikolai Ivanovich reasoned. “Do you get it?”
“No, I don’t,” Alyonka replied.
“Alright, it’s like this: you see, I’m . . . well . . . it’s the cross I bear. It all started a long time ago and was supposed to end with you. Now don’t go thinking I’m crazy, it’s all very philosophical, I followed certain principles, which was my absolute prerequisite – otherwise there would’ve been a real bloodbath. But at the last minute, you saved me, and you saved yourself, too. These moments are the most important to me. I wanted so much to endure it without the bloodshed . . . I would’ve been the happiest person right now. But things turned out differently, and now I’m suffering for my sins . . .”
Alyonka listened to Nikolai Ivanovich; she was composed. She’d survived the shock of knowing she was to have been murdered and was now, on the one hand, experiencing the relief of knowing, that by a stroke of luck, she’d been spared, and she believed in his words so fiercely, that she didn’t dare doubt them for a second. But on the other hand, she was agonizing over the suffering of this man, the most wretched of the wretched, who had condemned himself to a life of endless purgatory, and here he’d come to the decisive moment of repentance. Sheer naivety even prompted Alyonka to compare Nikolai Ivanovich to Christ, but almost immediately she was horrified by the comparison.
“But can’t you dominate someone without killing them? Go ahead and humiliate them, break them down – make them your slave, even, but let them live. That way you prolong your enjoyment of that power. Is that so impossible?” Alyonka put forth.
“Out of the mouths of babes!” said Nikolai Ivanovich, cheered up by her line of reasoning.
“You’re right, only who knew the key to prolonging the enjoyment was in that, and not murder? Look, murder isn’t the end, you know,” he explained, “it’s only a stage, one in a series, and then the prolongation – that’s the sequel. For example: some like to drink, while others like to get drunk. The guy who’s getting drunk knows he’s going to follow through to the end, until he falls down. And I followed through to the bitter end, too, without any brakes on. It didn’t even cross my mind not too, until now. Thanks to you.”
“And you don’t even want to humiliate me?” Alyonka asked.
“I’m afraid if I humiliated you, the rest would follow – although no, it wouldn’t, I’m quite sure.”
“And what if I’d been your first: would you have murdered me?”
Nikolai Ivanovich gave Alyonka a puzzled look.
“You’re pretty smart,” he said, “how come I didn’t notice that before? Look, I’m not going to tell you, I don’t want to have to lie. I really can’t say. Maybe I would’ve.”
“So go ahead and kill me then. I’ve been through more in the past half-hour than I have in my whole life,” Alyonka blurted out.
“Your conviction is giving you a bit of an attitude,” Nikolai Ivanovich replied. “You know I was only being truthful – in fact, I’ve never lied. Plus, you believe what I told you. But don’t beg me so earnestly, or I’ll change my mind. What, are you afraid? Then don’t test my conscience. Can’t you see it’s oozing blood? You’re bringing me to the last, agonizing frontier: you are my undoing. Not the threat of the scaffold or eternal hard labor in a penal colony, if that’s my sentence – they don’t scare me anymore, well, not for now. Only you do. You are my higher court.”
“Why me? What’s so special about me?”
“Oh, I couldn’t explain it if I tried. ‘My whole world revolves around you,’ as the song goes. And that about sums things up. You know, I wanted to be immortal by achieving eminence, by ‘having the right,’ because I was humiliated as a child. But that’s a long story. It was like revenge for those humiliations. And why you? Because you love me, not for any particular reason, or ulterior motive – am I right?”
“I don’t know anymore. I loved you yesterday, but now . . . I don’t know.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter. I mean, you did love me, and that was a first for me. You’ll say I had it rough before. Maybe. It’s just I had to wait so long for everything to work out, and it never really did. But that’s not important anymore. What’s important is that I’ll be going away with you on my mind. I’m not even going to cross myself, and that’s a good thing, because you see, you are my God on earth. You saved me. Ach . . . if only I’d met you sooner and could live a little longer, but I just don’t have the energy anymore. And I don’t want to be a burden to you. You need to live a different kind of life, without this kind of weight on your shoulders,” Nikolai Ivanovich said, and then pausing for a second, he added, “I’ll be back in a second,” after which he took out his cigarettes, disappeared into the kitchen for a moment, and came right back out.
“And you know,” he resumed, barely skipping a beat, “I had all of it in me, even way back then. In my youth.”
“I figured that,” said Alyonka.
“No, no, I don’t mean that – quite the contrary, in fact. I always saw myself as a loser, whereas the others thought the opposite. They were even jealous of me sometimes . . .”
At this point, Alyonka grew agitated.
“You’ve completely lost me now,” she said. “Were you just unlucky by birth? Was it your destiny, or what?” she asked.
“What a smart cookie you are – right on the money. I didn’t expect that,” said Nikolai Ivanovich. “I always knew I was right to pick you. Only, in what sense was it my ‘destiny’?” he asked.
“Well, it seems to be a kind of curse,” Alyonka replied.
“Yes . . . a curse,” Nikolai Ivanovich repeated, pensively, as if he were straining to remember something. Deep in thought, he lit a cigarette. “And you know what it’s like, having this curse?” he asked. “You’re constantly seeing diabolical smirks on everybody’s faces. Some might call it being suspicious, but I know it’s the mark of the devil, singling me out.”
“It’s an illness,” whispered Alyonka’s lips, quietly, as though to themselves.
And Nikolai Ivanovich expounded on that.
“Yes, it’s an illness,” he agreed, “a mental illness. Somebody who’s handsome might imagine himself a monster in the eyes of the public – which is, after all the mirror of his life. And it causes him painful impressions, this curse: he says something intelligent, and sees only sneers in reply. And so, its first green shoots begin to sprout, poisonous and vindictive. Full of future bloodshed. Meanwhile, another man is born a failure, but lives his life unfazed, and even reaches some level of success . . . Oh, I need your advice, desperately. I’ll do whatever you say, just promise you’ll give me some advice,” he pleaded.
“If it’s in my power,” Alyonka replied. “Go on, tell me what kind of advice you need?”
“Just tell me how I should end this. I mean, it’s all over, the trail of blood I spilled ends here. If I go and come clean to them, I’ll have to go before their court. And who the hell are they, the adjudicators, to judge me? They can only try me according to the letter of the law. They’re not interested in motives, or in showing mercy. I need God to judge me, to burrow deep into my soul, before they throw the noose around my neck, understand? And the only one who can burrow deep enough into the soul is someone who loves – like you, for instance, and even though the first wave of love for me that enveloped you was romantic love, it’s gone now. So if there is no God – and since he hasn’t helped me, there isn’t one, at least not for me – then I’m my own divine judge, and I can judge myself more harshly than those adjudicators, in accordance with my level of conscientiousness. I mean, a person might still be conscientious, even after committing murder. I had another kind of retribution in mind, of course, the one I merit most, but it’s much too paradoxical and unfeasible: in the name of the Law of Retribution and the most stringent form of self-torture, I would summon the relatives of everybody I’ve killed and lay the whole truth out before them. ‘I’ve brought you all together, Ladies and Gentlemen,’ I’d say, ‘to give you the most terrible news: I’m the one who murdered your children, and I want you to tear me to pieces, right now, like mad dogs.’ But I mean, that’s only a theory, and they’d drag me right back to the adjudicators, anyway. So guide me through this, what should I do?” he pleaded.
It seemed as though Alyonka, in these few hours spent with Nikolai Ivanovich, had transformed from a pretty young thing into a woman, who’d suffered a personal crisis of her own.
“I don’t want to speak for any judge, and I can’t give you any advice,” she said, “but I can tell you this: from now on I’m going to live in such a way as to redeem your sins. They’ve already lodged themselves in me, anyway . . .”
. . . It was unbearably hot – so hot, that Alyonka was thinking about how ruthlessly the sun was beating down, even with the sea so close by, and not about what would become of her an hour-and-a-half from now.
They’d made it halfway along the road to Golgotha. And now the procession was forced to halt, again, because of the turbulent throngs of spectators. Alyonka was hit, again, by the stones hurled at her by the relatives of Nikolai Ivanovich’s victims. The girl’s ‘defenders’ – those, whose lives Nikolai Ivanovich had spared, primarily because of Alyonka – threw themselves at her attackers.
An old man with crazed eyes pushed through the crowd, dragging a girl of about fifteen by the hair, and made his way up to Alyonka.
“Your boyfriend doesn’t know a goddam thing about people. He should’ve killed her! Her!!” he shouted, indicating the girl, “whereas now she’s going to kill people. You have to explain things to the man up there (he was pointing up at the sky), before . . . ,” at which point he drew his finger across his throat, “although, why talk to your kind,” he moaned, waving his hand dismissively, out of hopelessness, “it’s all your fault. All you do is distract respectable people, and ones like this little bitch, here (he was still clutching the girl’s hair) – ech, you’re all little bitches, provoking people to commit sins.”
Just then a heavy, stone with a sharp edge cut a bloody gash across his forehead, he let go of the girl’s hair, convulsively, and fell to the ground, unconscious . . .
The procession to Golgotha continued. An old woman in the crowd stood shaking her head.
“What a beauty they’re taking off to crucify,” she said.
Beside her, a gray-haired old man smiled.
“Christ wasn’t exactly ugly, either,” he replied.
“And why do they answer for the sins of others?” asked the woman.
“She shared the burden of his sins. The sum of everything he did is just too much for one person to bear. Haven’t you ever read about the saints? I’ll bet you didn’t forget to hang a crucifix over your bed, though.”
“My, aren’t you knowledgeable, philistine.”
“I’ll say it again: she took his sins upon herself willingly, meaning, she’s also one of those,” he said, raising his eyes toward the sky.
“One of whom?”
“Of the heavenly, old woman – oh, the hell with you,” the old man replied impatiently.
Suddenly a stone whistled past his head, and he shouted, “Look out, grandma! Or you’ll find your eternal peace – like that,” he said, snapping his fingers, “right here on the road, no cross, no nothing. Go home, it’s dangerous here,” he concluded and quickly disappeared into the crowd.
They finally made it to Golgotha. The sun was setting slowly behind sparse rows of cypress trees; the fishermen on the shore were dragging in their nets, in anticipation of their catch, while the daughter of the crazed old man from the crowd stood at the base of the cross, deliriously kissing Alyonka’s dead feet.
MIKHAIL KUZMICHEV (b. 1956) graduated Moscow State University with a degree in journalism, though his dissertation, “Adapting Chekhov to the Screen”, revealed a greater interest in literature and film. Rather than pursue a journalistic career under the Soviet regime, he decided on a career in the film industry, in which he has worked in various capacities, ranging from the administrative to the creative. Kuzmichev’s collection of short stories and verse The Cinema, Undressed (Moscow, 2010) is his first literary publication. Kuzmichev currently resides in Moscow.
KRYSTYNA ANNA STEIGER was born and raised in Toronto. She received her PhD in Russian Literature from McGill University in Montreal, where she currently resides and works as a freelance literary translator. In 2011, Twisted Spoon Press published her translation of The New Moscow Philosophy, a novel, by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh. Krystyna’s translations have been published in various journals, including The St. Petersburg Review, Toad Suck Review, and Reunion: The Dallas Review.
Read more translations by Krystyna Anna Steiger:
An excerpt from The New Moscow Philosophy in The Literarian
A review of The New Moscow Philosophy in Literalab