1993: THE CONDEMNED MAN CATCHES A GLIMPSE OF THE ELEPHANT
THEY HAD FINALLY
GOTTEN AROUND TO PAVING THE SEVEN
kilometers of dirt spur connecting the
village of Prigorodnaia to
the four-lane Moscow-Petersburg highway. The local priest,
from a week-long binge, lit beeswax tapers to Innocent of
Irkutsk, the saint who in the 1720s had repaired the road to
and was now about to bring civilization to Prigorodnaia in the
of a ribbon of macadam with a freshly painted white stripe down
The peasants, who had a shrewder idea of how Mother Russia functioned, thought it more likely that this evidence of progress, if that was the correct name for it, was somehow related to the purchase, several months earlier, of the late and little lamented Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria's sprawling wooden dacha by a man identified only as the Oligarkh. Next to nothing was known about him. He came and went at odd hours in a glistening black Mercedes S-600 sedan, his shock of silver hair and dark glasses a fleeting apparition behind its tinted windows. A local woman hired to do laundry was said to have seen him angrily flick cigar ashes from the crow's-nest rising like a turret from the dacha before turning back to issue instructions to someone. The woman, who was terrified of the dacha's newfangled electric washing machine and scrubbed the laundry in a shallow reach of the river, had been too far away to make out more than a few words "Buried, that's what I want, but alive . . ."but they and the ' Oligarkh's feral tone had dispatched a chill down her spine that made her shudder every time she recounted the story.
Two peasants cutting firewood on the other side of the river had caught a glimpse of the Oligarkh from a distance, struggling on aluminum crutches along the path behind his dacha that led to the dilapidated paper factory disgorging dirty white smoke from its giant stacks fourteen hours a day, six days a week, and beyond that to the village cemetery and the small Orthodox church with the faded paint peeling away from its onion domes. A pair of Borzois rollicked in the dirt ahead of the Oligarkh as he thrust one hip forward and dragged the leg after it, then repeated the movement with the other hip. Three men in Ralph Lauren jeans and telnyashki, the distinctive striped shirts that paratroopers often continued to wear after they quit the army, trailed after him, shotguns cradled in the crooks of their arms. The peasants had been sorely tempted to try for a closer look at the stubby, hunch-shouldered newcomer to their village, but abandoned the idea when one of them reminded the other what the Metropolitan come from Moscow to celebrate Orthodox Christmas two Januaries earlier had proclaimed from the ambo:
If you are stupid enough to dine with the devil, for Christ's sake use a long spoon.
The road crew, along with giant tank-treaded graders and steamrollers and trucks brimming with asphalt and crushed stone, had turned up during the night while the aurora borealis was still flickering like soundless cannon fire in the north; it didn't take much imagination to suppose a great war was being fought beyond the horizon. Casting elongated shadows in the ghostly gleam of headlights, the men pulled on tar-stiff overalls and knee-high rubber boots and set to work. By first light, with forty meters of paved road behind them, the aurora and the stars had vanished, but two planets were visible in the moonless sky: one, Mars, directly overhead, the other, Jupiter, still dancing in the west above the low haze saturated with the amber glow of Moscow. When the lead crew reached the circular crater that had been gouged in the dirt spur the day before by a steam shovel, the foreman blew on a whistle. The machines ground to a halt. "Why are we stopping?" one of the drivers, leaning out the cab of his steamroller, shouted impatiently through the face mask he'd improvised to filter out the sulfurous stench from the paper factory. The men, who were paid by the meter and not the hour, were anxious to keep moving forward.
Excerpted from Legends by Robert Littell. Copyright 2005 by Robert Littell. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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