"At any moment we are expecting Jesus to return to earth as a Russian czar," the foreman called back lazily. "We don't want to miss it when he comes across the river." He lit a thick Turkish cigarette from the embers of an old one and strolled down to the edge of the river that ran parallel to the road for several kilometers. It was called the Lesnia, which was the name of the dense woods it meandered through as it skirted Prigorodnaia. At 6:12 a cold sun edged above the trees and began to burn off the mustard-thick September haze that clung to the river, which was in flood, creating a margin of shallow marshes on either side; long blades of grass could be seen undulating in the current.
The fisherman's dinghy that materialized out of the haze couldn't make it as far as the shore and the three occupants were obliged to climb out and wade the rest of the way. The two men wearing paratrooper shirts pulled off their boots and socks and rolled their jeans up to their knees. The third occupant didn't have to. He was stark naked. A crown of thorns, with blood trickling where the skin had been torn, sat on his head. A large safety pin attached to a fragment of cardboard had been passed through the flesh between his shoulder blades; on the cardboard was printed: "The spy Kafkor." The prisoner, his wrists and elbows bound behind him with a length of electrical wire, had several weeks growth of matted beard on his face, and purple bruises and what looked like cigarette burns over his emaciated body. Stepping cautiously through the slime until he reached solid ground, looking disoriented, he regarded his image in the shallow water of the river while the paratroopers dried their feet with an old shirt, then pulled on their socks and boots and rolled down their pants.
The spy Kafkor didn't appear to recognize the figure gaping at him from the surface of the river.
By now the two dozen crewmen, mesmerized by the arrival of the three figures, had abandoned all interest in road work. Drivers swung out of their cabs, the men with rakes or shovels stood around shifting their weight from one foot to the other in discomfort. No one doubted that something dreadful was about to happen to the naked Christ, who was being prodded up the incline by the paratroopers. Nor did they doubt that they were meant to witness it and spread the story. Such things happened all the time in Russia these days.
Back on the stretch of freshly paved road, the team's ironmonger wiped his sweaty palms on his thick leather apron, then retrieved a lunch box from the bullock-cart piled with welding gear and scrambled up the slope to get a better view of the proceedings. The ironmonger, who was short and husky and wearing tinted steel-rimmed eyeglasses, flicked open the lid of the lunch box and reached into it to activate the hidden camera set up to shoot through a puncture in the bottom of a thermos. Casually balancing the thermos on his knees, he began to rotate the cap and snap photographs.
Below, the prisoner, suddenly aware that every member of the road crew was gazing at him, seemed more distressed by his nakedness than his plightuntil he caught sight of the crater. It was roughly the size of a large tractor tire. Thick planks were stacked on the ground next to it. He froze in his tracks and the paratroopers had to grasp him by the upper arms and drag him the last few meters. The prisoner sank to his knees at the lip of the crater and looked back at the workers, his eyes hollow with terror, his mouth open and gulping air with rattling gasps through a parched throat. He saw things he recognized but his brain, befuddled with chemicals released by fear, couldn't locate the words to describe them: the twin stacks spewing plumes of dirty white smoke, the abandoned custom's station with a faded red star painted above the door, the line of white-washed bee hives on a slope near a copse of stunted apple trees. This was all a terrible dream, he thought. Any moment now he would become too frightened to continue dreaming; would force himself through the membrane that separated sleep from wakefulness and wipe the sweat from his brow and, still under the spell of the nightmare, have trouble falling back to sleep. But the ground felt damp and cold under his knees and a whiff of sulfurous air stung his lungs and the cold sun playing on his skin seemed to stir the cigarette burns to pain, and the pain brought home to him that what had happened, and what was about to happen, were no dream.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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