Strange Notes from Underground
Tsar Peter, called 'the Great,' built his city in a marsh. Not the best plan, one might say, yet when the Tsar of All the Russias makes up his mind, then all that remains is for his people to do, and to die. And die they did, in their hundreds and thousands. St. Petersburg stands with its face to the west, challenging the rest of the nations. Beneath its modern surface, beneath the statues and spires and richly decorated surfaces, its foundations stand on a nation's bones. Bones and worse.
Perhaps the nightmarish music of St. Petersburg came more clearly to my ears because it is not the city of my birth. I was born in a bleak town in the Urals, the third son of a mining engineer. He hoped that I would study religion, and I did for a time. But the echoes of dying screams in the basements of the seminary left me shivering with nightmares. And then I met a man who showed me the dead.
His name was Bryukin, and he wore a tattered coat and a cloth cap that rode low over his dark, slanting eyebrows. He had the look of a Tatar about him, and the fierce demeanor of those horse warriors. More than one teacher slunk away from the podium in disgrace when Bryukin's questions left him a stammering, quivering mess. Bryukin watched them leave with a half-smile on his lips. One day, when he caught me watching, he beckoned me to follow him from the lecture hall.
He said nothing to me as we walked; in fact, he kept a bit ahead of me so I couldn't talk to him at all. Looking back, I suspect it was a test, to see if I would follow where he led. And I did.
Bryukin took a narrow street through the Winter Market, to a ring of tenements crowded around a courtyard stuffed with trash. The smell of urine and rotting cabbage was ripe in the air, though summer had bid us farewell. Coughing into my sleeve, I followed him to a door covered with peeling paint the color of living pine needles. He gave two sharp raps and waited, with me behind him, patient as a dog.
A woman opened the door, her dress faded to a splotchy gray and her hair the same. She glared at me over Bryukin's shoulder. He looked back as though he'd only just noticed me. "Oh," he said. "This is Yuri Ivanovich Stenik, from the seminary."
She sniffed as though I'd just come from an abattoir instead. "Students are useless," she said. "All talk. Demodova says so."
I started. Of course everyone, even the sheltered seminary students, had heard of the mad nun Demodova. She'd come from the north, somewhere near Arkhangelsk, with her hands nearly fingerless from frostbite. She'd been wandering the streets when a princess or general's wife--some woman with a soft heart and softer head--had taken her home, cleaned her up, and listened to her ravings.
She wasn't the first such prophetess--Saint Petersburg would see more and more holy fools in the years to come--but unlike most of them, she didn't have the talent for telling her rich patrons what they wanted to hear. After hearing her endless rants about doom and the dead rising up from the depths of the city, they tossed her out and moved on to the next fad.
I'd suspected she'd left for Moscow, but it seemed she had found another audience. "I'd like to meet her." I pressed forward and offered my hand.
The woman stared at it for a moment, then stepped aside with a soft snort of laughter. "All the same," she muttered.
Demodova waited on the second floor. Her followers had made her a surprisingly comfortable nest, and a fat samovar burbled on a table set with tea glasses and tarnished spoons. The seer didn't arise when I entered the room. She was huddled in a cocoon of shawls as though even the stuffy heat of the room couldn't warm her. "You," she said, with a husky voice that stirred something in the pit of my belly.
She was younger than I expected, perhaps no more than five years older than I. She was indeed missing all but three fingers, and her claw-like left hand held a shawl tight against her throat. Yet the icy blue shade of her eyes, and the fine-drawn features of her face, hinted at a beauty that hard living had worn away too soon.
"I had to meet you," I said. Words ran away from me then, and I blurted out everything: my discontent at the seminary and the hollow voices that rose up from beneath my feet with every step.
"Do you sense them now?" she asked. The wings of her brows drew close together, as though she wasn't sure what to make of me.
I stopped and tilted my head. A thin thread of noise reached me, too faint and dissonant to truly be called music, but . . .
I nodded. "I do. Yet it's much fainter here. More bearable."
She gave me a crooked smile. "They want me to serve as their voice. Where I am, they are moved to silence."
The woman who kept the door stepped forward. "Forgive me for letting him through, Sister. I didn't realize he'd--"
"It's all right, Marfa." The hand she raised, with only the smallest finger remaining, bore scars like roads where her gangrenous fingers had been hacked away. Her servant fell silent. "He's one of us. He hears . . . what I hear."
Bryukin had joined us as well. "Truly you're blessed," he told me, though his voice held a hint of irony that raised my hackles.
"I . . . I have worried so long that I might be mad," I began.
"Oh, you are," Demodova said. Her smile, unlike Bryukin's, was not unkind. "But only we can appease them. Only we can free them from their pain. And we must, for they grow mad with waiting, and a few more lives will raise a tide of blood . . ." Her voice trailed off, her eyes seeing something beyond us. "Bryukin," she said after a long silence, "show him the files."
Bryukin seemed a bit surly when he led me away, as though he hadn't expected me to take him up on his silent invitation, or hadn't believed I'd get such a welcoming reception. He took me to the ground floor--here, the clamor of voices from beneath the city grew louder again--and sat me down at a scarred table with one short leg. On the far side of the room, a group of men and women crowded around a printing press that clattered out its bulletins and broadsides. Then Bryukin slapped a stack of papers and clippings in front of me. "Read," he said and stalked out of the room.
At first, it made no sense. Seemingly random letters, journal entries, and cuttings from underground newspapers that hadn't yet caught the censor's eye. I leafed through them, looking for common names, places, situations. But they spoke of random murders and suicides, brave revolutionaries who'd sacrificed all, thieves who'd paid the ultimate price for their greed.
The only common thread was death.
"What does it mean?" I asked Bryukin when he reappeared.
"It means the end of the world." He smiled savagely. "Demodova thinks we can stop it."
I never returned to the seminary, except to claim my few belongings. I gave my books to Feliks Andreyev, who came from a family even poorer than my own. Unlike me, he had a true vocation in the church, and I wished him well.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"To save the world," I told him, and he laughed. But I hardly believed it myself, so how could I expect him to take me seriously?
The music underfoot grew louder with every passing day, and soon was accompanied by a faint tremor that rose through the soles of my boots. I found myself clenching my teeth, as though it might reach a crescendo and shake loose my skull from my neck. Demodova seemed far less bothered by it. When I asked her how she bore it, she said, "It is a debt." That was all she'd say.
I slept in a room on the fourth floor of the tenement, my meager bedroll squeezed in among the rest of Demodova's ragged army. When we'd turned down the gaslights for the night, we whispered through the dark hours and drifted into restless dreams about creaking walls and creeping corpses. At least once a night, one of us woke up screaming. In time, we all grew callous and went back to sleep as soon as the shouting stopped.
A month after I arrived, one of Demodova's young acolytes disappeared. She insisted he'd been taken, though the rest of us thought he'd grown weary of playing revolutionary and eating soggy cabbage soup. We were impatient by then, ready to take on this threat to the world, but our holy fool bade us wait a little longer. "The stars must be right," she told us.
And then the missing acolyte turned up in the basement. Or rather, all that was left of him.
It was I who found him.
I'd been stumbling down the crooked wooden steps to haul another bag of potatoes from the cellar. The song of the dead was louder below ground, and the tremor made the lantern flame tremble and flicker. The light caught something, a glistening like rubies. Almost against my will, I crossed the packed dirt floor. I gulped, my hand over my mouth, for the red stain could be nothing but blood, and the figure that leaked it must once have been human. It lay flayed and crumpled, nothing more than meat left out to rot.
I screamed, and some of the other acolytes came to find me.
Demodova rarely left her nest on the second floor, but she made the journey to my bedside. Her claw-hand smoothed the moth-eaten blanket beneath which I lay, and she sang to me to cover the noise the dead made. "Not long now," she said. "The gauntlet has been cast down. We will fight."
Her words gave me a determination to overcome my weakness. Each day I forced myself to rise, walk, even practice with a pistol in the tenement yard. At first my hand shook so that I peppered the wall around the canvas and paper target. In a few days control returned, and I could drill the red circle at the center of the target with several bullets, one after another.
Bryukin gave me one of his rare compliments over dinner. "I thought you'd run," he said. Several of the acolytes had done just that, with the discovery of the body. "But you've stuck with us. You've the heart of a bear."
I smiled and ducked my head, embarrassed a bit by his words. Rather than seeing myself in a heroic light, I recalled my panicked screams when I stumbled upon that horror in the basement. At last I shrugged. "Bryukin, it's nothing to be proud of. It's a matter of survival--I'll hear the dead wherever I go from here. And it'll drive me mad."
His eyes glittered over the rim of his cup. He tossed back a few fingers of vodka and smacked his lips. "Down the hatch--first the drink, and then the soul."
That was my first indication that the time for battle had come at last. Demodova shuffled down the stairs, her arm linked through Marfa's. The mad nun ignored Marfa's pleadings.
"I must go," she said, shaking one of her few remaining fingers under the woman's nose. "Without me, we will fail."
Marfa snorted in frustration, but let Demodova lead her to the basement door. As she opened it, the nun said to me, "If you cannot bear it, now is the time to say so. Weakness here is acceptable. Weakness there--" she gestured down the stairs "--will kill us."
"I am ready." To show I was serious, I checked the pistol and made sure I had a round chambered. The glint of brass reassured me.
There were a dozen of us altogether, snaking down the steps to the basement. It had rained the past few days, turning the damp trickle in the basement into a veritable Neva River. It grew stronger as two of the young men took up picks and began wrenching out bricks that separated the basement from . . . from what exactly? I leaned closer, coughing a little as the mortar crumbled and filled the air with thick dust. As the bricks gave way, a dark mouth yawned in the wall. Beyond it, the rumble of moving water and the arrhythmic, sonorous chorus of ghost voices grew steadily louder.
I admit I hesitated a moment before crossing the threshold into the subterranean vaults of the city. I had the strongest sense that Saint Petersburg wished to keep its secrets, that it was no business of ours what had passed when its foundations were laid.
With a hastily drawn breath, I stepped into the musty darkness and followed the lanterns. I found myself walking behind Marfa and Demodova. The nun was telling stories of the city's past; her fingers brushed the walls of the passageway and fine white crystals crumbled away at her touch. It was as though she drew the tales from the bricks themselves.
She might have been reading my mind, for she said over her shoulder, "They made some of the mortar from ground-up bones. A practical man, Tsar Peter."
I shuddered and kept my hands away from the wall. Even so, the voices of the dead needled under my skin and crawled through my brain. I tucked the pistol into my belt, afraid I'd begin shooting too soon from the sheer pressure of the ghosts in my mind.
Marfa glanced back at me with a frown, so I made myself stand straighter, and I focused on keeping my steps steady and even. We wended deeper, the stone underfoot growing so slick that more than one of us lost our footing and fell. Our boots splashed with each step, and the walls wept. And then the brick tunnel widened into a circular, man-made cavern of great height. More of the crystalline extrusions layered the walls, so thick it seemed the bricks had grown beards.
I paid too much attention to them, and was only saved from falling to my death--or worse--by Bryukin, who seized the back of my coat and pulled me from the brink. Most of the chamber's floor, in fact, was missing, leaving a more-or-less circular hole that exhaled darkness. "Watch your step," he said, and retreated to the edge of the room. I would have followed, but the ghost voices at last seemed almost clear. I knelt at the lip of the hole, turning my head so I might catch the nuances of the music.
Demodova rested her damaged hand on my shoulder. "Don't try," she said. "I listened too close, and I know too much. You . . . Well, you might be able to walk away from this."
I nodded. She hooked a finger in my collar and pulled me away from the edge. As I was standing up and offering my thanks, her face went slack. "Run!"
I drew my pistol and spun to see what had frightened her. My feet stumbled to a stop as a vast black shadow writhed from the pit. For a moment, it seemed almost beautiful, a flower blooming too fast for the mind to comprehend. And then a myriad hands reached out and pinned Marfa's arms to her sides as the shadow closed around her. With a crunching of bone and gristle, it lifted her from the floor. She barely had time to scream before it had crushed her to a pulp. The hands reached for us as well, and the dim light of the lanterns revealed faces staring down at us--hungry faces.
Most of our little band broke and ran, and the shadow surged after them, singing all the while.
Bile rose in my throat, but I swallowed it and sighted down the barrel of the pistol. The lanterns barely illuminated the scene, the light flickering, but even so I was sure my bullet hit. Black muck fountained, and the hands withdrew, though they still clutched Marfa's body.
Demodova pointed her remaining fingers at the monster while she chanted something in Old Church Slavonik that all but blistered my ears.
"What is that thing?"
I didn't expect an answer to my question, but Bryukin had appeared at my side. He said, "It's a god! Don't you see it? Peter made a new god, under his new city."
"No." I realized as soon as he'd spoken that he was wrong. "It's an old god that feeds on the dead. Peter built the city on their backs, and he did nothing to quiet them, so this thing took them as its own."
We ducked as more hands swept past, and I watched as the shadow picked up another of our companions. It didn't close with Demodova, though. Each time its whipping limbs came near her, they recoiled as though they'd hit an invisible wall. "I think she's winning," I ventured after reloading and squeezing off a few more rounds.
"Pity." Bryukin seized my pistol arm and wrenched it around.
The sudden stab of pain forced me to let go of my weapon. "What are you doing?"
His only answer was to draw a long and wicked-looking knife. With my arm pinned, he sliced into the skin above my wrist. I screamed and tried to tear away. I could see the dull gray metal of my pistol not more than a pace or two away, but too far to do me any good. Bryukin wouldn't relinquish his grasp on my arm, and the hot blood trickling down my arm seemed to draw the attention of the dead. The shadow curved toward us, trembling.
"It knows how close it is to freedom," Bryukin said at last. "It can kill, but it can't sacrifice to itself. It needs worshippers for that." His knife worked its way to my elbow, revealing muscle and bone.
"It was you," I guessed. "You're the one who killed the man in the basement. But why?"
He gave a modest shrug. "The tsar will fall. And then who will be master of the city? I knew I could continue as a slave to the mighty, or become a master myself."
"At what cost?" The pain was so great, I could barely gasp out the words. I felt consciousness ebbing with each drop of blood that pattered on the floor. The cries of the dead rose to a crescendo around me, buoying me. Only a moment or two more, I knew, and then I would join my voice to theirs for all time.
I slipped from Bryukin's grip as the blood that slicked my skin made him lose his hold on me. The tip of the knife jabbed my shoulder as I fell, pulling it from his fingers, and he let out a shout of rage. "Run if you want, damn you!" he screamed. "It owns you all the same. It owns us all!"
The shadow convulsed. At the same moment, Demodova ran to the edge of the pit and threw herself at it. Even now, I wonder if I imagined it--if I truly saw light burst from her, the sun-like glow banishing the shadow back to its depths. Shreds of darkness battled with the light for a few heartbeats, and then the glow swept them away, leaving only Bryukin and me in the ancient room with its weeping walls. The cries of the dead subsided to a low moan, fading even as I tried one last time to catch their words.
Perhaps the defeat of his false god had been too much for him, but Bryukin lay face down on the floor. I took my pistol and shot him in the back; three times, in fact, to be sure he was finally and completely dead. It may have been an act of cowardice, but I could neither forget nor forgive the acolyte he'd killed, his assault on me, his attempt to raise himself up by letting his monstrous god devour the city.
I wrapped my arm as best I could with the tattered remnants of my coat and limped to the edge of the pit. Within, I saw . . . nothing. No sign of the god-beast, no sign of Demodova's blazing body. A gust like a sigh rose from the depths. Taking it as a sign, I took up a lantern and made my way back through the tunnels to the tenement basement. The building was empty. I gathered up my things, and then settled on the doorstep to consider what I'd do next.
No return to the seminary, I decided. I'd seen the kind of god foolish men create, after all, and it was an enemy to all people. Nor could I go home--I would never feel comfortable in the mines now, wondering what I might come across in the deep places. But ahead I saw smoke rising from a factory and hollow-eyed children watched me from the other side of the narrow street. As a counterpoint to the dead, a steam engine howled, belching smoke as it rattled down the street. When it passed, I stood in the middle of the road, looking toward the dome of St. Isaac's, knowing the palace lay not far from there.
Once a man has fought a god, a tsar seems a very small thing indeed.