A Simple Soul

First Chapter

A SIMPLE SOUL by Vadim Babenko

Chapter 1

One July morning during a hot, leap-year summer, Elizaveta Andreyevna Bestuzheva walked out of an apartment building on Solyanka Street, the home of her latest lover. She lingered for a moment, squinting in the sun, then straightened her shoulders, raised her head proudly, and hurried along the sidewalk. It was almost ten, but morning traffic was still going strong – Moscow was settling into a long day. Elizaveta Andreyevna walked fast, looking straight ahead and trying not to meet anyone’s gaze. Still, at the corner of Solyansky Proyezd, an unrelenting stare invaded her space, but turned out to be a store’s window dressing in the form of a huge, green eye. Taken aback, she peered into it but saw only that it was hopelessly dead.

She turned left, and the gloomy building disappeared from view. Brushing off the memories of last night and the need to make a decision, Elizaveta felt the relief of knowing she was alone. She was sick of her lover – maybe that was the reason their meetings were becoming increasingly lustful. In the mornings, she wanted to look away and make a quick retreat, not even kissing him good-bye. But he was persistent, his parting ritual enveloping her like a heavy fog. Afterward, she always ran down the stairs, distrusting the elevator, and scurried away from the dreary edifice as if it were a mousetrap that had miraculously fallen open.

Elizaveta glanced at her watch, shook her head, and picked up speed. The sidewalk was narrow, yet she stepped lightly, oblivious of the obstacles: oncoming passersby, bumps and potholes, puddles left by last night’s rain. She wasn’t bothered by the city’s deplorable state, but a new sense of unease uncoiled deep inside her and slithered up her spine with a cold tickle. The giant eye still seemed to stare at her from under its heavy lid. She had a sense of another presence, a most delicate thread that connected her to someone else. Involuntarily, she jerked her shoulders, trying to shake off the feeling, and, after admonishing herself, returned to her contemplation.

Old Square gradually came into view, revealing the church that once stood over public executions, and the commercial section next to it crowded with merchant stalls and cars parked willy-nilly. Elizaveta navigated like a seasoned pilot, her shoes squelching in mud seemingly left over from centuries past. Finally, she reached the flimsy fence that, by some strange design, had no gate. She shook her head, stepped gracefully over a massive chain, and found herself in a park with the cool shade she longed for, even though it was still early in the day.

Then began the long journey up the hill. Elizaveta winked at Saints Cyril and Methodius, who stared bleakly at a plaque reading “From a Grateful Nation” – a bitter joke about a nation that never learned how to be grateful. She skirted a bench with a sleeping bum who exuded an unbearable stench, and, after a brief hesitation, took the left alley, which was slightly more shaded than the right.

The promise of another blistering day loomed over Moscow. The park was full of people – victims of morning hangovers, refugees from the nearby office buildings, clutching their beer cans. The adjacent bar was also far from empty. The waitress wandered lazily between the tables, fully aware of the power she wielded. Elizaveta surveyed the unfriendly territory. She noted the casualties dispassionately, without registering their faces, which looked blank in their identically aloof, self-absorbed expressions. She walked with virtually no effort, pretending to float above the sidewalk, the meager greenery, and the bushes filled with trash. Only once did she stumble – and it brought back the sense of that persistent, hidden gaze. She was probably only imagining it, but her heart remained heavy and her thoughts disintegrated into a confused jumble.

As she reached the top of the hill, the sun sliced into her eyes, and the smell of asphalt and burned gasoline filled her nostrils. Elizaveta crossed the road and arrived at the Polytechnic Museum, which cast a much better shadow than the despondent trees. Many years ago, this spot housed a zoo. The museum had fallen on hard times – possibly the hardest since the zoo’s Indian elephant broke under the persistent attention of gawkers and went on a rampage. The fate of the museum, much like the fate of the elephant, was regrettable, but Elizaveta had her own concerns. She continued to feel uneasy and even glanced over her shoulder. There was nothing there. She hesitated at a theater poster framed behind glass, watching the wavy reflections, but they looked harmless enough. Then she snorted, frustrated with herself, and read the advertisement inviting passersby to learn about varieties of packaging at a Packers’ Club that had found a home in the impoverished building. For a moment, she felt amused, and her unease took on a mystical, ghostly quality. Past the museum, Elizaveta gave the menacing Lubyanka building a cursory look and descended into the underground walkway, which led to her office building on Maly Cherkassky. With a glance at her watch, she hastened up the stairs – but the exit beckoned her with its bookstalls, and she gave in and began to examine the covers.

One of the books caught her attention. She opened up an imposing black tome, but somebody jostled her elbow and the book tumbled out of her hands, wreaking colorful havoc on the neatly arranged stand. In the resulting commotion, the woman next to Elizaveta yelped with surprise, a man’s deep voice muttered an apology, and the proprietor of the kiosk rushed to straighten out his wares, worried he might get robbed. Elizaveta tossed an absentminded “It’s okay” in the direction of the voice, whose owner’s face she never saw, and stepped aside to leaf through another book with a picturesque dust jacket. Its contents, however, proved to be too serious, and the second page was branded with a triangle that nearly covered the entire sheet. She immediately remembered something she once read: The triangle is a grand figure; it controls souls. It was an ill-timed sign, a dumb hint verging on mockery. Embarrassed, Elizaveta cast a furtive glance around, set the book down, and hurried away from the racks toward the old, five-story building that housed small companies and underfunded government offices.

Elizaveta’s colleague, a staunch feminist, Masha Rozhdestvenskaya, who called herself Margot, greeted Elizaveta amiably, seeming not to notice her lateness. The reason was simple: Masha was dying of curiosity. Not long before Elizaveta’s arrival, a messenger had knocked on the door and handed the dumbstruck Masha a large bouquet of roses wrapped in golden tinfoil. “For Ms. Bestuzheva,” he said and disappeared, dissolving into the Moscow smog. The card clipped to the edge of the tinfoil said nothing but From a suitor written in ornate cursive with fancy flourishes.

Masha had never seen a card like that, and she was surprised beyond measure. The moment Elizaveta stepped into the office, she was barraged with questions, which, unfortunately, found no answers. The occurrence had no explanation; all they knew for sure was that Bestuzheva had a secret admirer, a fact so strange that it irritated rather than thrilled or entertained. Elizaveta’s life held no mysteries, and having little faith in lucky accidents, she preferred to choose her admirers herself.

“You know,” she said to Masha pensively, “I stopped by a kiosk, they had a book… Can you imagine, I opened it, and there was a triangle on page two. I have no idea what it means.”

“It’s for fevers,” Margot explained, her eyes narrowing, matching the sarcasm in her tone. “A triangle spell is the best cure for it. They draw it on a piece of paper, or on wolf skin like they did in the old days. It clears the illness right up.”

“Come on,” Elizaveta said, offended. “I’m serious. Triangles control the soul. It said so right there: Thy soul is not thy body. Then something else I couldn’t figure out, and at the end, Thy soul is love...”

Thy soul is love,” her coworker repeated thoughtfully. “Wow. Your life is never boring, eh, girlfriend? Liz the little vixen.”

Elizaveta felt awkward. She responded with an absent smile and went in search of a water jar for the flowers while Masha continued to cast sidelong glances at the strange bouquet, as if still trying to find the key to this mystery that was eluding both of them.

A fervent enemy of mysteries – especially those concerning the opposite sex – Masha Rozhdestvenskaya had no faith in signs and solitary bouquets. She’d had strained relationships with men since her youth, each more like a protracted war than a romantic dream. Many thought she was weak-willed, so they used her without compunction in exchange for compliments, presents, and small favors. Once they got what they wanted, they would disappear without a trace, leaving the inconsolable Masha to lick her love wounds. Over time, her heart grew hard and men continued to treat her like a toy in their hands. Her illusions wilted, and it hurt more than the loneliness to which she was beginning to grow accustomed.

Eventually, Masha went on a counteroffensive. It proved to be successful: she managed to turn the tables, convincing first herself, then others it was she who used her lovers indiscriminately, walking away with pleasure, money, and more gifts and favors. And if they happened to disappear too soon, it wasn’t a problem. There were plenty of fish in the sea; she just had to cast the net.

People began to respect and sometimes even fear her. The victim had turned into a lioness, albeit with a somewhat cornered look she had learned to hide. But the metamorphosis drained her of vitality, and she was now building it back up brick by brick, ruthlessly dismissing, as frivolous whim, all that defied rational cynicism. According to the latest fashion, she interpreted the eccentricities of love and the ensuing thrills as a chemical defect in the brain, like the warring energies of different colors that can’t find a balance. Feelings were transient; colors tended to merge into a dull gray. In her current state, Masha didn’t think they were even worth talking about. Instead of looking for implausible meanings, it was much more fun to discuss haircuts, Tarot cards, and dogs. She loved dogs: her pug slept right in her bed, and she thought of her greyhound, who had recently died of old age, as the incarnation of some kindred spirit.

Though not particularly friendly, she and Elizaveta weren’t openly hostile, either. Their work was boring; the travel agency was nothing more than a front for the machinations of some big shot whose name was never said out loud. As such, the company had to provide perfect form with no pretense of substance. Business was slow; the agency was mostly in the red, but a certain young man never failed to deliver their salaries, which were rather high by Moscow standards.

All in all, everyone was happy. Masha and Elizaveta covered the walls with posters, littered their desks and the windowsill with brochures, and filled the office with Tibetan music and Chinese figurines. African masks hung on the wall to the right of the entrance, across from the glossy map of the two hemispheres crisscrossed with flight paths, as if to validate the company’s readiness to send a client to the ends of the earth if necessary. If Mr. Big Shot ever decided to drop by in his free time, he would like what he saw. To the disappointment of both women, however, his time was never free. Would-be travelers were also a rare occurrence. The women spent their days in the virtual world of the Internet and the pages of books while their presence livened up the somewhat drab office, like butterflies decorating a dusty bush.

Of the two, Masha was the more alluring. Her dark hair was nothing short of splendid; her eyes were big, her mouth sinfully sensual. Her cheekbones were a bit on the wide side, but some would consider that another asset, as it suggested a similarity to the women of the Transvolga known for their insatiable appetite for love. Her overall appearance constantly reaffirmed the tumultuous nature of life. But she knew reality could be duller than appearances, so she was no stranger to somewhat shocking urges, especially in the company of people of privilege. Still, she never sank to the level of full-blown indecency.

Next to Masha, Elizaveta looked like a Cinderella relegated to the background. Plus, she was four years younger than her coworker; she’d turned twenty eight the month before. They couldn’t have been more different in their demeanor and, while the eye first rested on the femme fatale Margot, the two quickly balanced each other out and it as impossible to say which one stood a better chance in sustained battle.

Either way, a helmet of dark blonde hair perfectly framed Elizaveta’s narrow face, with its graceful nose and green-speckled, catlike eyes. She did resemble a large cat from the front, but in profile she looked more like an exotic bird. All this was augmented by very delicate skin and narrow wrists and ankles – a legacy of her aristocratic lineage, lost in the quagmire of intermarriage but still evident in her last name and proud bearing. All she knew for sure was that one of her grandmothers was of the Polish gentry. It seemed that grandmother’s genes had skipped a generation to define her refinement and grace, and maybe to predispose her to pragmatic romanticism, which the rules of metropolitan life forced her to hide. Not that romanticism was lacking in the Russian three-quarters of her wild family tree, but she knew next to nothing about them. She didn’t give much thought to the past, being content with the present, with all its bustle – and with herself, exactly as she was.

Elizaveta Bestuzheva knew her own world quite well. It was mainly an internal rather than external matter, an easy subject for analysis, though she did her best not to indulge too much in self-contemplation. Things were occasionally confused in her mind, but the important stuff was undeniably clear: she knew she held an entire universe inside her, replete with heavenly bodies. Some of her planets were inhabited, and she could hear the voices of all the countless creatures who lived there. Sometimes, the voices tortured her; sometimes, they made her irrationally happy. They resonated in her heart with joy and anxiety, and in her body with its unique physiology, as well. To Elizaveta, hers was the best of all possible worlds.

She noticed others who carried their own inner universes, which doubtless seemed just as perfect to their owners. Of course, this complicated life considerably: that’s why, she told herself, signals from one individual to another often got scrambled and were bound to be misinterpreted. They encountered so much interference, how could a message reach its target without distortion? Not to mention that everyone thought in a different language… People were utterly wretched when it came to communicating meanings. She could hardly believe they understood each other at all. It took tremendous effort to concentrate on an external stimulus, to capture Morse code or some other cipher, let alone translate it into words.

She was considerate of others’ weaknesses, aware they could be hiding the complexities of their own private spaces. People valued her compassion – though she was callous with those whose worlds were empty, not bothering to hide her boredom. This wasn’t malice on her part. She didn’t think she was better than anyone else – it just happened that way. The Morse code got lost in the vacuum with no hope of a reply. Unfortunately, most men she knew were carriers of this vacuous, non-resonating space.

It must be said that unlike the implacable Margot, Elizaveta harbored no ill will toward the stronger sex. She believed love was the most important thing in life – in the traditional, old-fashioned sense. It was a conscious challenge, a notion of extreme romanticism she inherited from her Polish grandma or from some nameless Russian ancestor with a passionate heart and a sentimental nature.

There was a contradiction here: between the external and the internal, between a declaration of self-sufficiency and the expectation of a fateful encounter. Sometimes, Elizaveta asked herself resentfully, is her precious inner world really alive? Full as it was of life-giving juices and warm plasma, was it all just a lie, since she still pinned all her hopes on simple happiness?

She recognized her emerging impulses, unchecked and capable of surprising anyone, but she needed help to awaken them and set them free. When flirting with men, she tested their courage in hopes that their shameless gaze would help her find something deep within herself. At times, she was ready to sacrifice almost anything, even the scattering of her internal galaxies encased in perfect form, for a moment of insight. What if she could eventually just toss the fragile structure up into the air and then fail to catch it? Let it crash, let it splinter into shards of glass?

This thought scared her. It was distressing to think that somewhere inside this warm plasma the gears of negation and decay were ticking away. Maybe one day she would meet someone – a man who would determine how far they could both tumble into madness… This, of course, left ample room for fantasies. Elizaveta was a big fan of fantasies. Still, she had no doubt that, when reality caught up with her, she would meet it with dignity and not miss her chance.

She had learned all she knew about love from the books that filled her parents’ home, crammed onto shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling. Elizaveta spent her childhood buried in their pages. Nobody bothered her; her older brother lived his own adult life and her parents had their own problems: the Bestuzhev family was not a happy one. Her father worked at Intertrade, and though he had been considered quite a catch back in the Soviet era, he had married a modest waitress, to the surprise of his friends and relatives. He had his own motive: complete, unquestioned authority, and that was what he got – along with the opportunity to demean his wife over the course of many years. But the children knew full well that, in actuality, their mother was secretly in charge. And then the father died, still young, from a rare bug he caught on a business trip to Africa.

On her diet of books, Elizaveta grew into a young lady resembling Turgenev’s heroines. She loved Kuprin, cried over bad poems she spent hours reading in the local park, and shunned all displays of rudeness. Soon, however, the wild nineties shook up the values in her pretty head. Her older brother began to work for a living, curse profusely, and smoke pot. Her friends landed men with secondhand German cars, and she fell in with the leader of a local gang. As a result, she finally lost her virginity at nineteen, blushing at such outrageous conservatism.

Then the century came to an end. Elizaveta mourned her gangbanger as he found himself in a cemetery, befitting the career he had chosen. She did her time at university, got her completely pointless degree, and moved out on her own, despite her disapproving mother and brother. They had no genuine connection after that. She grew more distant, refusing their advice and money. Finally, her brother left for another continent. Her mother sold the flat and joined him. And Elizaveta felt truly free.

Her first marriage soon followed. It came on a fleeting, feverish whim and left no trace when it ended. The man she had chosen proved to be a nobody: a mediocrity, a total waste. She quickly grew tired of him and breathed a sigh of relief when she found an excuse to kick him out.

After a bout of severe self-pity, she befriended a certain Sara, with a hazy past and a streak of bright red hair. Sara was inclined to extremes, and something in her entranced Elizaveta, especially the glinting edge of the narrow switchblade with which she was never parted. They invented game after game, and Elizaveta forgot her troubles. She would often daydream about the blade that tasted so many secret parts of her body – along with Sara’s playful tongue and her own sweet shame. No one had ever been so maniacally jealous about her – and this only fueled the fascination. Then Sara disappeared, leaving suddenly for the Altai Mountains, and Elizaveta knew the worst was behind her. She was ready to get on with her life.

A few well-mannered, mature lovers helped her fully reclaim her confidence. The desire for fire and passion quickly returned, but they proved elusive despite her cheerful disposition and energetic search. As a result, Elizaveta’s personal life was reduced to compromise and a quest to satisfy her lust. This held its own brand of passion: risky and shameless, with a sharp, musky aftertaste. Her outward detachment would give way to a surge of stormy intensity; she seemed to break free of her cage, growing unrestrained and insatiable. It had little to do with crude sensuality; the nature of these whirlwinds that tossed her about was much deeper and subtler. Elizaveta had no name for it, but with a bit of work, she could convince herself it was the energy of love.

Time passed, and nothing changed. One by one, her girlfriends started families of their own. Elizaveta held no grudge: she knew a different fate awaited her, and it should not be rushed.

Men fell for her, flocking like corpulent moths to her wicked glow and silent call. Eventually, however, she grew up and became stingier with her charms. She was tired of variety; the ranks of her admirers thinned out, and only a lucky few were granted permanent status. And yet she couldn’t develop respect even for them. The hollow vacuum they personified didn’t resonate on any frequency, made no echo on any wavelength, yielded no light or word. At first, she resented them, but eventually they became merely amusing. She accepted it as fact that in her country, the stronger sex was much worse than the weaker. This knowledge helped her reconcile with reality, providing a common ground for isolated episodes. Having an answer made life easier: she watched with a smile, even a sort of maternal concern, as her lovers moved about the room, gestured, squared their shoulders, and threw furtive glances at the mirror; as they tried to put on airs and take up more space; as they ate, drank and smoked, simulated thoughtfulness, and studiously knitted their brows, only to dive with relief back into familiar patterns, from house chores to sex to driving. She knew the real value of their lies and insinuations, their vague promises and frequent whining. She knew how easy it was to confuse them, to knock them right off their feet, to flatter them into giving her what she wanted, to get them to talk or to fall silent with doubt. She held power over them, yet she didn’t much like this power. Control over events offered convenience, but when things didn’t work out, she took it lightly, refusing to get sucked into an argument and feeling no regret.

Her latest lover was going on six months. Bestuzheva valued his devotion – a quality that had gradually worked its way to the top of her updated priorities. He was easy to deal with, so he would probably be a convenient life partner, but she knew that was something they would never get to test out. This chapter, too, was coming to an end. In the mornings that followed their stormy nights, she could barely contain her hostility, looking at the bustling “Sasha,” as he’d taken to calling himself to please her. His obedient stare caused her nothing but irritation and disgust. She even began to hate this diminutive nickname, and after a few insulting outbursts, “Sasha” turned into a gloomy “Alexander,” all tangled up in consonants. After that, she tried to avoid the name altogether. At least she didn’t have to say that out loud.

Alexander was well liked by her friends, including Masha and a few old classmates. This used to flatter her; now, it was another source of irritation. Yet, generally, Elizaveta didn’t care what anyone thought. She’d long realized that every opinion was one-sided in its own way – and besides, you could never expect to hear the truth. Everyone chased their own private goals, and she knew herself what a goal could mean – a clear, well-defined one, something doable within given deadlines. She had a whole list of them that she loved to inspect while drifting off to sleep – taking inventory and outlining new horizons. At those times, many things would fall neatly into place – many, but not all. Some matters stood apart, defying every kind of list; they beguiled her with their elusiveness and remained a permanent dream.