Excerpt from Constant Nobody by Michelle Butler Hallett
In this excerpt from Michelle Butler Hallett’s Constant Nobody, set in Spain during the civil war, two days before the bombing of Guernica, British expatriate Temerity is posing as a nurse while observing the same anti-Stalinist communist doctor Kostya has been sent to kill on behalf of the Soviet government. They meet in the hospital where he is being treated for gonorrhea and find an unexpected human connection through Russian fairy tales, which as Temerity drolly observes are not just Russian—in a sense, they are universal stories of human nature.
She nodded. —Thank you. I’m sorry I teased you about your accent when you spoke English. I can only imagine what mine sounds like in Russian.
—I could listen to you speak my language all day. All night, too.
The flirtation’s frisson sharp, Temerity almost complimented him on his technique. Then she chided herself for giving away so much, her mother’s name for God’s sake, while gleaning so little.
The water in the bowl splashed as Kostya shifted his weight. —So how did you learn Russian?
—I always wanted to, I suppose. My father would translate fairy tales for me out of one of my mother’s books, and I loved the Cyrillic alphabet.
—Which fairy tales?
—Oh, so many of them. It’s been a long time. Narodyne russkie skazki, that was the book.
Kostya felt tension leave his neck and shoulders. This woman smelled delicious, honeyed musk and peppery sweat. And she spoke Russian. —I like ‘The Maiden Tsar,’ the hero saying he does things by his own free will yet twice as much by compulsion.
—I remember that. And ‘The Frog Princess.’
—‘Go I Know Not Whither and Fetch I Know Not What.’ And ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful.’
Temerity looked to the ground. —I remember the illustration.
—I shoved the book away. My father was partway through the story, the bit where Vasilisa’s stepmother gives her the impossible task, and I just shoved the book away. Knocked it to the floor.
Kostya lit another cigarette. —Willful child.
—No. I was scared.
Temerity surprised herself, saying that.
Kostya gave her a long look. —Of what?
—The task. Vasilisa was too small. She couldn’t win.
—Go back and finish the story. She finds Baba Yaga, or is it Baba Yaga finds her? Anyway, Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa her blessing and some holy fire. Then Vasilisa finds all the bones in Baba Yaga’s yard, chooses a skull, and turns it into a lamp for the holy fire. Off she
goes, completes her quest, happy ending.
—She gets out of the boneyard?
Kostya nodded. Then he wondered why he’d earlier thought this woman irritating.
Almost unaware, Temerity switched to English. —Holy fire. My father’s got a print of the Novgorod Gabriel in his study.
Kostya followed her to English. —My grandparents had three copies of that ikon on their beauty wall. I stared and stared at it. The angel’s eyes were so big. But you must use his correct name: Gavriil.
She studied him, that serious face, those green eyes, and laughed.
Then she returned to Russian. —Gavriil it is. All the archangels are Russian, I suppose?
Kostya refrained from laughing, though he did smirk. —As Russian as Baba Yaga and Koshchei the Deathless, and just as ridiculous. You know Koshchei, right?
She wanted to hear the story in his voice, how he’d tell it. —No.
—Koshchei is a terrible old man, a tyrant, and he’s managed to hide his soul away, so if anyone should strike a killing blow, he will not die, because his soul is still intact. He rapes, he kills, he steals what he wants, and no one can fight him, only serve him. One day, Ivan, who’s only heard stories of Koshchei and doubts the old brute even exists, sets out on a quest. He bumbles through the woods for a summer and a winter and comes out of it starved and chilled and bloodless from fly bites. He meets a woman, Marya Morevna, who’s looking for something. She’s a warrior. She takes a liking to Ivan.
Maybe she pities him. They fall in love, get married, have a big party, and then a messenger brings Marya Morevna some news. Marya tells Ivan she must go, but he’ll be safe in her castle. She and her knights gather weapons and food, put on their armour, saddle their horses, and instead of telling Ivan she loves him, as he expects, Marya warns him not to go into the cellar. Ivan asks why. Marya begs him to trust her, then kisses him goodbye. Soon he hears someone cry out from the cellar. It’s a dry old voice begging for water. Ivan is not heartless. He immediately brings water to the cellar, and he finds this old, old man, starved and foul, chained to a wall. Ivan is angry with Marya for her cruelty, and he helps the old man drink until he drains twelve barrels of water. Then the old man stands up, breaks his chains, knocks Ivan over, and runs up the steps. He’s gone, and the servants tell Ivan it was Koshchei the Deathless. Marya Morevna had captured him and then starved him to keep him weak while she looked for his soul. How’s my toenail? Soaked long enough?
Temerity peeked in the bowl. —Almost.
—Ivan sets out to find Marya and her knights and warn them, maybe even help them. He finds all the knights dead except one, who says on his last breath that Koshchei has taken Marya. Ivan buries the knights, then sits down in despair. He has no idea what to do.
Baba Yaga finds him, tells him what a fool he is, and then, because she likes Marya Morevna, gives Ivan a magic horse which will take him to the island where Koshchei has hidden his soul. Baba Yaga says Ivan will recognize the spot when he sees it, because every child knows where Koshchei keeps his soul: under the oak tree and inside a locked chest. And in that chest waits a rabbit, and within the rabbit waits a duck, and within the duck waits an egg, and with the yolk of the egg lies a needle, and in the eye of the needle rests the soul of Koshchei the Deathless. This is a very long story. Are you sure you don’t remember it?
Nodding, she moved a little closer to him, close enough to feel his body heat, not quite enough to touch.