0 is wholeness and emptiness at the same time. It’s the crystal stars and the shivering path of the northern light, blood from the sun that bursts in the atmosphere. The aurora spills green, blue, yellow, white across his retinas. The snow creaks under his short and stubby skis, pushed by his shorter and stubbier legs. He stumbles, but the ski poles catch him. He learned to walk just a year ago.
1 is a thin stream that trickles past birches and ferns and Lady’s Mantle on the ground. The mud makes it hard to walk and easy to fight. Here he learns the difference between the needs of others and his own. The officers throw the recruits a raw salmon. He grabs the scaly flesh, bites and swallows without chewing, tears again, before someone punches him in the gut, elbows him in the back and takes the food from him. He wipes his greasy fingers on the trunk of a birch.
2 are the bulbous, many-colored domes on the capital’s cathedral that are not yet covered in white when he arrives. The snow mutes long avenues, red walls and heavy coats. He does not look like a native, so his passport says he’s from Vilnius. In a city of immigrants, nobody asks him about Lithuania.
3 are the lace curtains that lift in the summer breeze while he moves into and out of the body of the committee member’s youthful, dark-haired assistant. She types 100 words a minute and comes from somewhere behind the Ural Mountains. He warms her naked body with his smile, like he does with everyone he meets. He smiles like everything happens for a reason, and maybe it does, that’s why his smiles work?
4 is the number of glasses his wife, the former assistant to the committee member, now a member herself, places on the table for the committee secretary and his spouse; unfertilized sturgeon eggs from the warm and muddy waters of the Black Sea, in a leaded crystal bowl with a wide-handled silver spoon, along with sparkling Belarusian Chardonnay – Sovetskoye Shampanskoye – Soviet Champagne. In the light from the living room candles, the serving cart gleams golden. He smiles.
5 is the cold mirror of the Moskva river and the stripped trees in Gorky Park that watch an operative on a long-term visa, his status exposed by an anonymous phone call, be garrotted in a doorway. In his briefcase are documents and microfilms. At three am, the gilded Regency doors of the apartment of the newest central committee member vibrate loudly. Her husband opens in his bathrobe. The security forces push their way inside the committee member’s office. Under the tinkling light from the Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier in the hall, the husband presses his naked feet into the checkered floor and doubles over.
6 are the white tiles he spatters when they ask about his wife’s documents and microfilms, repeatedly and with closed hands. He doesn’t lie and tells them about her late appointments and even later hours. They apprehend her. Behind the gilded Regency doors, underneath the unlit crystal, he stands in silence while he considers the nature of truth. He takes up a new position in the city.
7 are the years that follow, the information he gathers like down from eider nests. It is the years of warm smiles and cold handshakes he gives out, while the ice shrouds and flays and shrouds the Moskva River and clouds rush across the sky like time.
8 are the number of days it takes for the cosmos to entropy to chaos in the pewter sunlight from the river. Assets are lost, intentions caught. They take him back to the white tiles and ask him again, harder this time. The information he transmitted had been tailored to distract. Now he’s no longer useful and his employer has been notified. He expects to be killed, desires it almost. Instead, they put him in a noisy plane and fly.
9 is the ammunition that bulges in their guns as he steps onto the steel of Glienicke bridge. Will it come from the betrayed past or a pre-emptive future? The air smells of the west, fitful and variegated. When he reaches the midpoint of the water, he moves his gaze to the person that passes him. He is surprised, although he thinks he shouldn’t be. The spring wind rustles long dark hair, reminding him of the taste of unfertilized sturgeon eggs from the warm waters of the Black Sea, served in a leaded crystal bowl along with sparkling Belarusian Chardonnay.
This is a reprint of work originally published in SmokeLong Quarterly.
Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian fiction writer whose stories have or will appear in Unstuck, Coffinmouth, SmokeLong Quarterly, Metazen, decomP and other literary journals. Berit was a semi-finalist in the Rose Metal Press Chapbook Competition and a runner-up in Beate Sigriddaughter’s Ghost Story Competition in 2011. Her chapbook What Girls Really Think was published by Turtleneck Press in February 2012. Berit’s novel, The Empty City, is a story about silence (http://emptycitynovel.com). Find out more at http://beritellingsen.com.