Tell the man on the street God is dead. Tell him the utopia everyone believes in, the world to come, people who walk the earth today will see it in twenty years. We’re that close. One last push. Premier Khrushchev said in the 1960s, we’ll build communism by 1980. Make them believe.
Every Easter kids on the street, kids who knew stuff, said do you know why sparrows hop and don’t walk like other birds? God punished them. The sparrows carried nails the Roman soldiers pinned Jesus with to the cross. That’s why they hop. That’s why we call a sparrow zhyd. Zhyd is what you say to insult a Jew. Zhydy killed Jesus and sparrows helped them to do the job. You know what else zhydy do on Easter? Sacrifice. They steal kids and sacrifice them. That’s why you never go to the Jewish Quarter on Easter.
When science fails you, when speech therapist tells you how Demosthenes fixed his stuttering, how he talked to the waves on a beach with a mouth stuffed with pebbles, you do what you believe works. You go and see a witch. You ask around, ask a grandma, yours or your neighbor’s. They give you an address and say, don’t tell anyone, you know, they’ll arrest the witch if they find out she is a witch.
The witch Mom took me to, she lived in a neighborhood I passed by five times a week on the way home from the kindergarten. Behind a wheat processing plant and next to the Nalchik’s railway hub, it was a block of land built up with shacks fenced behind blue and green pine paling fences. Everyone had a German Shepherd or a dog that looked like a German Shepherd. Dogs behind fences and dogs on the streets. The street dogs, some trotted around in packs and others sat in the dust on the road dotted with isles of asphalt where the witch lived.
We’re going to see a znakhar Mom said and I pictured an old woman in a handmade dress with a headscarf and hair on the upper lip.
We knock on a wooden door and someone inside crackles da and Mom says can we come in and it’s a giant of a woman sitting on a bed in a room blocked from the sun by curtains made from sackcloth. The znakhar is a breathing mountain of flesh. She sat on her bed facing the door where we stood.
“What do you want?” she said.
“It’s my son,” Mom says. “He stutters.”
She told us to sit down at a dinner table in the middle of the room, grabbed a cane and crept to a cabinet in the corner crowded with jars and flasks. The room smelled rot and dried broomcorn. Herbs bunched in stacks hung on the walls and from the ceiling.
She stood in front of the cabinet and breathed with a wheeze on each inhale and stared at the jars. Picked one and placed it on a side table next to the cabinet. She picked more jars and went around the room pulling herb stalks from the walls and placed them next to the jars.
She sat on a chair at the side table and turned a primus stove on.
“What’s your son’s name?” she said.
“Kolya,” Mom said.
“Cover his eyes,” she said.
I turn my face away and listen to the znakhar’s whispers drowning in herbs on the walls and to a concoction she boils on the stove to cure me.
The rot smell is now mixed with the Vishnevsky liniment smell and I picture the znakhar with a spoon of tar in one hand and a cane in another shoving the spoon into my mouth saying swallow the potion lad, swallow it.
She says come here and I turn my head, get up and walk to the znakhar’s corner where she sits holding an aluminum mug like you see Soviet soldiers drink from in war movies.
“Drink,” she says.
In the mug is an inch of brown brew, cooked herb shanks and a wilted leaf floating at the top. The woman closed her eyes and murmured words in one long spell and Mom says drink it, Kolya.
I smell the brew and it smells burnt bread, earth and leather. I touched it with my lips and let one drop enter my mouth and it tastes bitter and warm. I sipped it through my teeth to block the herb shanks and the leaf to flow past my lips.
Mouth closed, its soft palate rose to shut off the passageway between the nasal and oral cavities and the tongue rolled backward pushing the brew into the chamber behind the mouth. Breathing stopped, the voice box closed the glottis and the pressure pushed the brew in and the znakhar pulls out a rectangular mirror women keep in purses to lay lipstick with and says, “Look in the mirror.”
She raised the mirror to my face and said, “You dog, wolf, and fox, do not howl. Filch it, snatch it, lift it. Kolya speak pure, Kolya dodge knots and river holes.”
My God’s father died in a lake and the woman mountain tells me to dodge river holes and Mom says what do we owe you and znakhar tells her she doesn’t do this for money. Mom gives her three rubles anyway and when we leave the shack she says, “Don’t tell anyone we did this. If they find out, they’ll send me to prison.”
The they you never met. The they you believe run the show and want you to play your part, the part they wrote for you the day your mother pushed you out of her womb to play the role they wrote for you.
You start the role on day one and you don’t even know it. The role is to do one thing, to follow one command — obey. Obey and live. Disobey and die. Disobey and we lock you up in a mad house. Prison if you break a law we made for you to break.
Start with teachers. Learn to obey your teachers. In class, no one speaks unless a teacher tells you to speak. Have a question? Raise your hand and wait for permission to ask a question.
Learn to obey. This is how — obey a command that doesn’t make sense. No hands in the pockets. Learn to do what we tell you to do and don’t ask questions. You go to school six days a week. Even God said six days you shall work and you’re a child and you don’t work and we want to teach you how not asking questions is good for you.
When we tell you to, you go home after school, change and come back. Come back because today is Subbotnik. God said rest on the Sabbath and we say no, you don’t. You work on the Sabbath. We call it Subbotnik and you work. You work and we don’t pay. This is Subbotnik, the Sabbath of the Soviet Union and we teach kids in schools how Subbotniks make them better citizens. Good Soviet citizens want to work because they love the country and not the money. They need money because it’s still socialism today but when we build communism, no one will need money. You give what you can and take what you need.
You go home, change and come back and we’ll go and sweep the streets. Pick up leaves on the ground and burn them. In the fall, we’ll send you to kolkhoz to pick apples or harvest potatoes. Harvest beetroot. We grow so much beetroot we don’t know how to harvest it and you kids have to help. Chip in. Give what you can and take what you need.
Learn the hierarchy. Everyone is equal but not everyone has equal talents. When you turn seven, join the Little Octobrists. You get to wear a ruby star on your chest with baby Lenin’s face carved on it to remind you Granddaddy Lenin who kicked off the Great October Revolution was a kid too. In the 1920s they used to call babies born in 1917 Octobrists and now every seven-year-old kid is a Little Octobrist. That’s where you start.
You turn ten and you join Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization. This one is voluntary but no one says no. You do that and you’re a marked man and you’re not even a teenager yet. Your mom buys you a red scarf made from silk, irons it for you every morning and you wear it to school and when you don’t, they summon you to the principal’s office and he says, where is your pionersky galstuk? Where’s your Pioneer scarf? Forgot at home? Do you want me to call your mom’s work and tell them her son came to school without a galstuk? You’re insulting Lenin’s memory. You’re a disgrace. You know why galstuk is red? It represents blood. Blood our forefathers spilled for you and you’re standing here telling me you forgot a token of their sacrifice at home. Shame on you. Do you think your granddad is proud of you?
“I don’t have a granddad.”
“He died in the war.”
A math teacher caught me with my galstuk in the pocket before school and sent me to the principal saying, go tell him why you’re ashamed to wear a piece of our flag on your neck. Go tell him you hate what the galstuk represents to the rest of us.
A cleaner caught me tying a galstuk I stole from a classmate to a Lenin’s bust in the assembly foyer. The guy I stole it from, he was an otlichnik, a straight-A jackass who never missed a Subbotnik in his life and who teachers said was a role model for us to follow. I stole it in the change room before a soccer game and he spent half a day without it and had to swear to every teacher who saw him he had it before the game and now he doesn’t and he has no idea what happened to it and because he was otlichnik, they believed him. They wouldn’t believe me and this is why I went to the assembly foyer and tied his galstuk around Lenin’s fat neck where it bloomed like pomegranate against the bust’s white plaster.
Principal sent me home and said to never come back without my parents. Dad, when he found out, said they won’t expel a ten-year-old from school and Mom said they will.
“They’ll send him to internat,” she said.
Internat, a school modeled on a prison system, is where they sent the young renegades to learn how life will play out for you if you continue to disobey.
She took a morning off work, went to school with me and begged the principal to let me stay.
“You’re a marked, boy,” he said. “You did it to yourself.”
You turn fourteen and they want you to join the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League. Komsomol for short. This too is voluntary except now it is really voluntary and still no one turns it down.
Me, I stay Komsomol-free and my head teacher says you’ll never study at a university because higher education is for Komsomol members only and I said not everyone wants a degree.
“What do you want to do in life?” she said.
“I’m a racer,” I said. Velogonschik.
Piotr Trumheller, a cycling coach, saw me mucking around on my bike with two friends. He stood at a distance and watched as we skidded our bikes on a parking lot in front of the Republican Stadium. He wore a long trench coat in brown check and a matching fedora, creased pants and brown lacquered shoes. He had an eagle nose and black eyes and you could see black curly hair sticking out from under the fedora.
“Hey,” he yelled and waved his hand. “Come here.”
We rode up to him and he said what are you boys up to and we said nothing and for a moment I thought he is a cop and one of my friends did something stupid and now we’re all in trouble but he said do you want to try cycling. He said he’s looking for twelve-year-old boys to join his team and just as he said it a bunch of cyclists passed by on the road.
“This is my guys,” he said.
I’ve tried and quit soccer, boxing and fencing before. Couldn’t be bothered learning the skills. Didn’t like being a jackleg. Cycling, I know how to ride a bike and here’s a chance to ride a racing bike and if I don’t like the gig, I’ll quit. Not a big a deal.
I said yes.
Day after that I rock up to what everyone in the team called The Baza (The Base) and Trumheller gives me a Tourist the color of mustard, or runny poo as some guys described it.
The Tourist is a ten-speed touring tank with 32mm tires and Trumheller says you’ll get a real racer if you show me you want to do this.
I want to do this.
I’m hooked on my first ride up to what the guys called koltza (circles) — a three-kilometer circle in the resort area of Nalchik near the foot of the Caucasian Mountains.
I wear a tracksuit and keds and everyone else is kitted out in cycling shorts, jerseys with back pockets, black leather cycling shoes with aluminum cleats and white socks and I want the shorts and the jersey and the shoes because this thing is for me — riding a bike is pure balls. I knew it the first five minutes in after I mounted the Tourist because the three-kilometer ride up to the koltza was all uphill and I started to redline five minutes in and giving up was like saying look at me, I’m a pussy.
Trumheller rode his Champion Shosse at the back and told me when to change gears up or down. Spin, he kept saying, you have to spin to stay alive, don’t overgear.
What the hell is overgear?
Four weeks in and he says you need cycling shoes. It’s fourteen rubles for shoes and two rubles for cleats. Sixteen rubles is ten percent of Mom’s monthly wage and when I said I need cycling shoes she said how do I know you won’t quit like you quit every other sport you tried and I said this is different. I won’t quit I said.
Trumheller gave me the racing bike, the Start Shosse, the day the team’s mechanic fitted me with my cleats and shoes. First ride my ankles hurt like hell and the mechanic said it takes time to get used to cleats.
“Harden up,” he said. “From now on, pain is part of the job you do. Either you learn to deal with it or you quit. You’re not a pussy, are you?”
The first stage on the frozen streets of Maykop was the divide between the kids’ and men’s cycling. A two-hour preface torture to seven more road races to come.
We raced through sleet, rain, and mud in temperatures a single digit degree above zero. By stage three I ran out of dry cycling kit because I only had two sets. The place we stayed in had no hot water, no heating, and no showers.
I pulled on soggy wool shorts infested with sand grains before the second stage. Couldn’t wash the sand off in cold water of a toilet sink. The sand, it rubbed against the skin on my thighs with every pedal stroke. It didn’t bother me in the race as I fought to stay in the bunch full of guys years older than me.
I crossed the line with thighs burning from three hours of racing with sandpaper for chamois. I bled between my legs by the end of stage four. By stage five, infection spread. I tried not to walk. When I had to, I walked like a toddler with pants full of shit. I finished stage six with a tiny blood creek going down from under my shorts to the sock.
Every night I went to bed hoping to find a crack in my frame the next morning and quit the race or crash and break a collarbone or an arm. Anything to dodge another day on a bike in the rain and cross winds.
Wish I cried at night but I didn’t. Wish I could say I soldiered on. Wish I could say I reached out to the depths of my soul to stay in the race or some nonsense like that. The last four stages, I wanted to quit. I pictured my schoolmates sitting in a warm classroom back in Nalchik. Me, I’m standing on a start line, frozen to the bone and scared of the assholes around me who made my life hell.
I crashed on stage seven and ripped a hole in the palm of my right hand. Ass on the road, knees bent, I sat on the road nursing my wrist, pretending I broke it.
“Get up!” I heard Trumheller’s shout. He pulled to a stop in his car, got out and ran to me, grabbed my bike and span each wheel checking if I could still ride them. Yells again: “C’mon! Get up!”
Twenty kilometers later I’m still chasing the peloton. Not a chance to get back on. He pulls up next me and says do I need anything. I show him my hand and tell him I won’t last long with a hole in it. These roads I say, we ride on a washboard, not a road.
He slams on the brakes. Minute later he’s back with his arm stuck out the car’s window holding a pair of cycling gloves. He kept them in his car, a habit from the racing days. “Put them on,” he says. “I’ll see you at the finish.”
I got boxed in the first time I tried to win a road race in Nalchik and he gave me hell for not fighting for the wheel I wanted.
“Fight like a dog,” he said. “You want a wheel, go get it like a dog fighting for a bone. No one will give it to you. Road race is a dog fight. Go in as a dog to win it.”
I turned to a dog the moment I walked into a boiler room in a brick building after a stage in Maykop. Next to its entrance was a three-meter-tall mountain of coal. The boiler room was full of naked men. They waited for a turn under two shower heads stuck out from the ceiling. A layer of wet sand and grime covered the cement floor. Jerseys, shorts, socks, cycling caps, all covered in mud, laid on the floor in separate mounds.
My bowels churned inside seeing a mass of naked bodies in the room. I turned my head to look at Trumheller.
“I’m not going in there,” I said.
Less than an hour ago, I finished a race I didn’t know I could finish. It wasn’t the speed that wrecked me, it was the cold.
I was fine the first hour until my wool jersey and shorts drenched in icy water and hypothermia set in.
The feet went first. It’s a major pain in the ass not to feel your own feet when they’re the only link between you and the pedals. I didn’t care. We trained in winter on wet roads and because I was too pro to use fenders, my feet have often been wet and numb. Annoying, but I could handle it.
The body started to shiver next. Nothing serious at first, it was getting more violent toward the end of the race. I’d miss a brake point before a corner, lock the rear wheel and panic trying not to smash into others. A mess but not a rout.
The knockdown came when fingers froze. Braking and shifting gears kept my hands busy. Four ninety-degree corners per lap. A down tube two-gear shift before and two shifts after each corner forced the blood to flow into my fingers. After an hour, the body gave up and unlocked its self-defense mechanism. Shutting you down buddy, game over.
The first time I couldn’t squeeze the brakes before a corner, I stab into some guy’s rear wheel and knock him over. Come out from the corner and this dude screaming obscenities in my ear whacks me across my back. Looked like I crashed his teammate or got him frightened. By now, I don’t give a shit. Took note of his mud-spluttered number and swore to pay him back later. No one goes unpunished Trumheller told me. They bite you once, you bite back twice if you want to survive in this sport.
Two more laps and I can’t shift anymore. Take the hand off the handlebar to shift, the fingers stay closed as if I’m still holding to the bar. Shifting with a closed hand and using the edge of my palm instead of fingers, I keep missing the cogs I want. Every shift goes too far down the block on the up-shift or too far up on the down-shift.
I give up, stick it into 53×14 and pray I won’t get dropped. Coming out of corners at slow speed and getting on the gas over-geared, lap after lap, it kills your legs. Chase and close the gap after every corner until you come to the next one. Mess with the brakes, save a crash, repeat everything all over again.
I rolled to Trumheller’s car as soon as I crossed the finish line thinking about a stash of dry clothes I had in it. I saw him running toward me, gesticulating something with his hands.
“Don’t stop,” he yells. “Ride to the hotel, you need to keep yourself warm.”
I opened my mouth to tell him that I’m past the point of needing to keep myself warm. Talking wasn’t worth the energy to move my tongue. I had no idea where our hotel was. I saw my teammates pedaling away somewhere and I followed. Minutes later Trumheller’s car was in front of us. We sat behind to hide from the wind and the sleet and rode home where warmth was. Except there was no warmth where we were going to.
Trumheller was waiting outside the hotel’s foyer when we arrived.
“No hot water and no heating in the hotel,” he said when we stopped and circled around him. “See that brown brick building over there with a tall chimney? It’s a boiler room. It’s got two shower heads and hot water. Grab your stuff and run in there as quick as you can. More people are coming down from the race and it’s going to be full.”
I took off the shoes and the muddied socks, grabbed my bag with dry clothes from the car and hobbled to the boiler room. The building looked like a Nazi gas chamber.
Behind the door was a room packed with bloodied, naked bodies floating around. Add monsters and knives to the scene, and you’re looking at Hieronymus Bosch’s Hades.
“I’m not going in there,” I said to Trumheller.
“I’ll come back later when they finish,” I said.
“No you won’t,” he said. “You need a hot shower now, not later. Take your clothes off and get in the queue. They don’t bite.”
I spat on the floor and began to undress.