March 2015 ebook cover

Gnawing the Bones of the City

By Leigh Kimmel

Even in a crowded communal apartment, Tikhon Grigoriev could hear the ever-present thudding of German mortars besieging Leningrad. The starving residents of the apartment gathered around the body of a boy who had committed suicide. They were equal parts grief-stricken and terrified of being accused of murdering him for his ration card.

Grigoriev, a member of Leningrad’s militsia police force, had come the moment he heard shrieks through a badly boarded window. However inexpertly tied, the rope had done its work. Nothing to do but cut the corpse down.

“Andrushenka, Andrushenka,” a woman wailed, using the most intimate diminutive form of the boy’s name. She might have been his mother or grandmother — it was impossible to judge her age given her emaciated state and the layers of ragged clothing. “Why, Andrushenka? Why?” She was so weak it took her several minutes to pull herself over to the body.

A one-legged man — perhaps the boy’s grandfather wounded in the tsar’s war, perhaps an uncle wounded in the present war —hobbled over on his crutch. “If you need someone to accuse of killing the kid for his rations, I beg you, have the decency to take this old invalid, not someone able-bodied.”

The old soldier’s desperation made Grigoriev wince. Grigoriev knew the fear too well. Even the militsia was not immune from the NKVD, the political police, when someone had to be blamed for a blunder. Many of his friends and colleagues on the force had vanished in the NKVD’s cellars when the Purges were at their height. He’d had his own close call at their end.

“That will not be necessary.” He kept his voice level to bring some semblance of calm into the chaos of grief and fear. “It’s quite clearly a suicide.”

Grigoriev held up the scrap of dirty paper he’d found lying on the floor below the boy’s feet. “Good-bye, Mama. Give my portion to Dasha and Vladya. I love you. Andrusha.”

“Poor kid must not’ve realized how the ration system works, or he’d have waited until the first of the month,” the old soldier said.

Grigoriev nodded, torn between admiration and pity at the boy’s childish attempt to help out. “And I can’t look the other way. I have to turn his ration card in to the proper authorities.”

The tension in the room became palpable. Grigoriev tensed, wondering if they might turn on him. The privations of the Siege had pared his already slight frame down to a mere 40 kilos. If they mobbed him, they could take him down before he unholstered his pistol.

They just stared at him, eyes huge in the hollow-cheeked faces of long-term starvation. Even if they wanted to, they lacked the energy.

A woman rested a hand on the grief-stricken mother’s shoulder. “Ninka, the militsioner is asking you for Andrusha’s ration card.”

The bereaved mother continued her slow-motion grieving for another minute or two before the combination of words and touch finally sank through. She tottered over to her purse, sorted through the four slips of well-thumbed pasteboard within. “Yes, yes, Comrade, here it is.”

No doubt her wits were too shaken by grief and hunger to realize she might palm off some ragged scrap as Andrusha’s ration card and still collect the lad’s share for the few remaining days before he’d have to present himself in person to be issued the next month’s. Grigoriev couldn’t take that chance. He examined it, assured himself it did indeed belong to the dead child. He recognized the signature of the clerk who’d filled it out, realized she’d died of starvation only days after issuing it.

Although the boy was just skin stretched over stick-thin bones, Grigoriev realized he couldn’t carry the body unaided. Who to ask for help? Who was even capable? Whatever able-bodied men had once lived here were off to the front in the desperate effort to hold back the Nazis.

The woman who had earlier intervened pulled herself to her feet. “Let me help. I’ve still got my daughter’s sled.”

She needed explain no further, for everyone in Leningrad had seen their fellow citizens dragging the bodies of the dead on children’s sleds. As she was rolling Andrusha’s body onto the sled, one of the others called out to her, “Watch out, Lida. You don’t want to end up like poor Yona, shoved under the stairway with his head smashed in and his brains scooped out.”

Only when the door was closed behind them did Grigoriev summon up the nerve to ask, “What was that about?”

The woman cast a quick glance over her shoulder before answering, “One of our upstairs neighbors was murdered last week. They found his body just like Mitya said—” She stopped, unable to speak.

Grigoriev offered her what sympathy he could before carrying out his official duty. Much as he would’ve liked to accompany her back, he had other duties.

~~~~~

Although it had been officially renamed Peace Square, ordinary Leningraders still called this place by its old name of Haymarket. The peasant market had been closed after the Revolution, the dens of iniquity that lined it forcibly emptied, but since the German blockade had cut the city off, illegal trade resumed.

It wasn’t the sort of place an officer of the militsia went openly, but with the insignia on his uniform coat covered, nobody would recognize Grigoriev.

Unlike ordinary Leningraders, the faces of black market sellers were still fleshy and pink, their eyes still bright. Grigoriev ignored the ones with little tin stoves, the ones selling fur hats and felt boots for half a kilo of bread apiece. Eventually he spotted a smooth-faced young man handing over three tiny patties of meat in exchange for a bag that bulged with necklaces.

There was a trick to approaching black marketers. While it was possible to identify himself and imply that he could look the other way in exchange for a suitable bribe, it was equally possible he would receive a knife in his guts. Better to convince the mark he was dealing with a civilian, gain his confidence, and get him to talk. An arrest could be made later, in a location more advantageous to the militsia.

Grigoriev caught the man’s gaze. “Is there meat?”

“Just a little left, Comrade.” The man drew two more patties, even smaller and blackish in color, from within his coat.

Grigoriev studied the meat. “Dog?”

The black marketer shook his head. “Wish it were, but you can’t find a dog in this city for love nor money. This is horsemeat, from a cart horse that collapsed and died in front of the Radio House yesterday morning.”

Grigoriev nodded; pets quickly became prey for their starving masters. Even the militsia had only five police dogs left, guarded day and night lest a desperate officer steal one. “Still, you hear rumors. Some people even say there are people selling human flesh. Long pig, they call it.”

The young man stiffened as if struck, then forced his face back to a semblance of calmness. “Rumors are everywhere, Comrade. Back during collectivization, you heard stories about peasants eating their own children. But I can guarantee you this is genuine horsemeat, cut right off the old gray mare herself.”

The stories from collectivization were a lot more than rumors — Grigoriev had heard confirmation from a former deputy people’s commissar of agriculture who subsequently rose to head of the NKVD before vanishing in disgrace — but Grigoriev didn’t dare say so. Admitting to being close friends with an Enemy of the People was a good way to get in trouble, and he had a family to think of.

“I heard a man’s head was smashed in so his brains could be scooped out, not half a kilometer from where we’re standing.”

“I’ve heard stuff like that too, Comrade. Makes sense. Brain’d be the fleshiest thing on the average Leningrader these days. But it sure wasn’t me that did it. Anyway, I don’t have time to stand around all day discussing gossip. Do you want to buy some horsemeat while I have it, or don’t you?”

Grigoriev frowned and pulled out the few trinkets he’d brought. They weren’t enough to interest someone who could get pre-Revolutionary bourgeois jewels, so Grigoriev was soon on his way, feigning dejection.

A few more judicious questions, all made to people out of sight and earshot of one another, convinced him that indeed someone was knocking people over the head and scooping out their brains. However, no one had anything substantial about this killer, no evidence that the victims’ flesh was being sold here in the Haymarket.

As he left the square, someone behind him said, “You have interesting pastimes, Comrade Grigoriev.”

Grigoriev wheeled around, recognizing the member of the NKVD immediately. His first response was to reach for his revolver, but he stifled the impulse.

“Good afternoon, Comrade Shlepnikov,” he said.

Shlepnikov pulled the scarf away from Grigoriev’s insignia. “Militsia rations aren’t enough for a runt like you?”

Grigoriev’s guts clenched. Such accusations could land a man in front of a firing squad. All food-related crimes were handled by military tribunals that seldom bothered to investigate before assigning the death penalty. “Actually, I was following up on a rumor I heard while investigating a suicide. Seems we have a new kind of cannibal at large in the city.”

When Shlepnikov spoke, his voice was thick with irony. “It’s good to hear you’re assiduous about your duties, even if you go about them in a rather unusual manner.”

Grigoriev bit back a retort. “I’ve always striven to do my best.”

Shlepnikov nodded, but there was no kindness in his smile. “We’ve been quite impressed. Which is why we’re concerned about this current turn of events. It would be a shame to have to bring it to the attention of your superiors.”

“Is that a threat?”

“Think of it as a warning.” Shlepnikov’s smile became even more predatory. “You’d do well to be more circumspect, particularly given your connections to a certain Enemy of the People. Not to mention the matter of your having declined a transfer at a key time.”

Grigoriev flinched. “At the time I believed I could do the most good by remaining in my current post. Had the Party made it a disciplinary matter, I would’ve obeyed, but it was left to my judgment.”

Shlepnikov’s predatory smile smoothed into a more neutral expression. “Always the cautious one, aren’t you? It certainly served you well in surviving the Yezhovshchina.”

Hearing that horrid term for the Purges sent the blood pounding in Grigoriev’s ears. By force of will he curbed his fury.

Grigoriev chose his words carefully. “Haste is not speed, Comrade Shlepnikov. Furthermore, I fail to see how this discussion helps me perform my duties. I am in the middle of an investigation, and I would like to resume it before more people are murdered.”

“You have a wife and two children, Comrade Grigoriev. If you please us, we could have them evacuated to safety. Otherwise, things could go very badly for them as well as you.” Shlepnikov’s predatory smile returned. “Surely you would not want them to end up in the Nikolaev cell. These days we put the cannibals in there and let them eat each other.”

Leonid Nikolaev’s assassination of Sergei Kirov had set off the Purges. His cell had very dark associations, even if it was unlikely the NKVD was holding cannibals there instead of executing them.

Grigoriev stammered out a promise to do well.

~~~~~

Since Grigoriev was a militsia officer and his wife a secretary with the obkom, the regional committee, they had secured an entire two-room apartment all to themselves. Right now he would’ve found the presence of other families welcome, if only to watch his family’s backs.

His gaze went straight to his son and daughter, huddled beside the tiny stove upon which Valya was brewing some stuff that would pass as tea. In the unrelenting cold he didn’t bother to take off his coat and hat, just pulled the children into the tightest hug he could manage. They stared up at him with huge eyes that made him recall poor Andrusha’s two siblings sitting hugging one another in bewilderment.

When Mirosha spoke, his voice was so low as to be almost conspiratorial. “Papa, is it true that a vurdolak is stalking the city?”

Grigoriev ruffled his son’s sandy hair, painfully aware of how thin and brittle it had become. “Let’s not go around repeating spooky stories you’ve heard at Young Pioneer camp. Your sister’s already having nightmares.”

Mirosha stiffened. “It’s not just a story. Sasha’s aunt knows three people who’ve been killed right here in the Dzerzhinsky District and had their heads bashed in and their brains scooped out.”

Grigoriev hugged him harder. “Let’s talk about this later. Your mother has supper ready.”

All four of them huddled around the stove, eating their tiny rations of bread with the reverence a pre-Revolutionary peasant might have given the Eucharist.

The last morsel swallowed, they carefully gathered up the few crumbs that remained. Although Grigoriev had considered catching and cooking the thumb-sized mouse living in the walls of their apartment, he had never been able to bring himself to follow through. The nightly ritual of gathering their crumbs for the little creature, which the children had dubbed Prince Myshkin, had become too important to their lives. Perhaps if they could maintain their compassion for a mouse, they would not lose their humanity altogether.

~~~~~

Over the following days Grigoriev tried to find Sasha’s aunt. After a few false starts he arrived at yet another half-abandoned apartment block only to discover he was too late. The woman had perished the previous day, and the surviving inhabitants of the communal apartment proved more interested in evading questions about her ration card than recalling her observations on other people’s deaths. Once it became clear he would gain no useful information here, he took his leave.

Half an hour later Grigoriev arrived at the Dzerzhinsky District headquarters of the Leningrad militsia. A few officers and clerical staff muddled through paperwork by candlelight, the windows having been boarded up ever since the glass was shattered by German shelling.

No one greeted him by name. He didn’t expect effusive greetings — even the slightly less meager rations granted to the militsia left no energy to spare — but when people averted their eyes, he know something was wrong.

Grigoriev didn’t even get to his desk before the district deputy chief intercepted him. “It came this morning. I’m sorry.” He pushed a folded slip of paper into Grigoriev’s hand without meeting his eyes.

Grigoriev’s heart hammered as he read the message summoning him to the Smolny, Leningrad’s Communist Party headquarters and de facto City Hall. It had been signed by Andrei Zhdanov, First Secretary of the city Communist Party, the city’s mayor.

A dozen possibilities circled through Grigoriev’s mind, each more terrible than the last.

In normal times the trip would’ve taken minutes, but in an icebound city without electricity, the streetcars were not running, and it became an hour’s slog. By the time he stumbled up to the NKVD guards at the entrance, he understood how people could just lie down and die.

The guards actually took the time to examine Grigoriev’s militsia ID, but the NKVD fed its members enough to do their jobs. At one time they would’ve waved him through, but since the Kirov assassination, security had become tighter.

When he reached the third floor, Grigoriev’s eyes began to water from the tobacco smoke hanging thick in the air. He suddenly realized just how long it had been since his last cigarette.

Zhdanov’s well-fleshed form made it clear he wasn’t going short on food. Or booze either, for he was visibly drunk. Even in the officially classless Soviet Union, some comrades were more equal than others, but pointing it out could lead to a trip to the GULAG.

Zhdanov went straight for the throat. “So what do you think you’re doing, Comrade Grigoriev, running around spreading rumors of supernatural bogeys killing people and eating their brains? You’re supposed to be a rational Party member, not a superstitious old peasant woman.”

Grigoriev’s thoughts raced. “Please, Comrade Zhdanov, it wasn’t me. I’ve been investigating a cannibal, but I’ve certainly never ascribed these murders to a supernatural entity.”

Zhdanov glanced at the half-empty bottle of vodka, then returned his gaze to Grigoriev, leaning forward a little to emphasize his stature and bulk. “That’s most interesting, because right here I have a report from your son’s teacher. Your son claims you’re chasing a vurdolak.”

Panic gripped Grigoriev’s mind. Children were always the weak point. They saw things, and they didn’t always know when to keep their mouths shut. In those dark and terrifying days of 1939, he’d taken excruciating care to impress upon Mirosha and Marta that they must never tell their friends who visited their father some years earlier, that if their teachers directed them to remove someone’s portrait from their schoolbooks, they must do it promptly and without protest. It hadn’t spared him agony about what they might already have said.

He spread his hands in his best gesture of innocence. “Mirosha’s that age where boys like to frighten the younger children with spooky stories. I’ll speak with him firmly—”

“See that you do. I don’t need superstitions adding to the crazy rumors already running around this city.” Once again Zhdanov shot a glance at that vodka bottle. He wanted a drink, but not badly enough to give one to the man he was raking over the coals. “Comrade Shlepnikov tells me that you’re going about this investigation in a peculiar way. You do realize you have a politically problematic record.”

Grigoriev swallowed. Now Zhdanov was coming to the real meat of the matter. “Yes, I have had contact with Enemies of the People, but I have severed all connections with them as a good son of the Party ought.”

The words tasted sour in his throat. Sorting through photographs and letters, burning everything that might connect him to Nikolai Yezhov, had been painful enough. Far harder had been the more subtle things, like changing his hair so nobody would ever notice the scar on his temple, lest the story come out of how, when he was a boy, a teenage Yezhov had snatched him from the hooves of a runaway team of cart horses.

“That is reassuring to hear.” Zhdanov’s tone did not reassure. “We would not want to have to take a formal interest in it during these trying times.” This time his glance went not to the vodka bottle, but to the portrait of Stalin upon the wall.

Yet again Grigoriev wondered just what might be in the NKVD’s records on him. What had come out when the interrogators went to work on the very man who’d once sat at the head of their organization only to have it lead him into madness and destruction?

All Grigoriev could do was focus upon surviving this interview. “Of course not, Comrade Zhdanov. How may I restore your faith in me?”

“Put an end to this nonsense about supernatural beings. Catch that killer and demonstrate he’s a mortal man like every other crook in this city.”

Grigoriev’s agreement was a little more energetic than warranted. There was a thin line between showing inadequate zeal and being so eager as to look like he had something to hide. It satisfied Zhdanov, for the older man produced a second shot glass from the credenza, poured out the vodka and proposed a toast to Stalin.

The booze hit Grigoriev like a hammer. Even in good condition he couldn’t drink heavily because he was so small, and in his depleted state a single shot made him woozy. He didn’t dare show weakness in front of Zhdanov, so he held himself upright and tried to look his best as he took his leave.

~~~~~

The next night he dreamed of food. Dreams of imaginary feasts had become quite familiar, the mind’s temporary escape from the ever-gnawing hunger. But the most notable part of this dream was not the wild array of foods upon the table, or even the presence of buddies on the force who were now dead of starvation. Rather it had been Yezhov at the head of the table, presiding over the celebration. Grigoriev spent several moments after awakening trying to figure out if he’d called out the forbidden name in his sleep. Although his wife and children would never betray him, the walls of their apartment were thin enough that a shout could reach the ears of someone who might gain an extra ration of bread by denouncing him.

Nikolai Ivanovich is a common enough forename and patronymic, Grigoriev told himself as he headed out. That’s how I always addressed him. Even if I did talk in my sleep, nobody would necessarily know I was dreaming about Yezhov.

Repeating it a few times calmed his nerves enough to think. His only real hope of finding the cannibal was to return to the woman with the sled. She seemed strong enough that she shouldn’t have collapsed and died from the exertion of taking the boy’s body to the cemetery, as so many of Leningrad’s starving citizens had. It stuck in his memory that her forename and patronymic were Lidia Borisovna, but her surname escaped him.

By the time Grigoriev arrived at her apartment block, the sun had crept over the rooftops to begin its brief traverse of the southern sky. Without electricity, the hallway was still dark enough that he located the correct door as much by memory as sight.

From within came wet, slobbering sounds that made every hair on his body snap to attention. Grigoriev unholstered his pistol and shoved the door open.

Pale winter sun filtered through a window that was only partially boarded up. Under the table huddled two terrified children, Dasha and Vladya, brother and sister of the dead boy.

But Grigoriev only half registered their presence, for his attention was upon the ragged form hunched over a body lying sprawling on the floor. There could be no question the woman was dead; fragments of her skull jutted like eggshell from her blood-smeared scalp. Her assailant pulled another fistful of gray matter out and lifted it to eat.

Fighting back the nausea, Grigoriev raised his service revolver. “Stop! Militsiya! I’ll shoot!”

The killer didn’t even respond, stuffing the victim’s brains into a slack-lipped maw and slobbering. Grigoriev fired.

The killer jerked, pulled himself to his feet and turned. His face was covered with sores, some so deep the bone showed through.

Fighting down panic with all his professional training, Grigoriev focused on putting one round after another into the center of body mass. As the killer shambled closer, the shots tore away more and more putrid flesh. The last went right between the eyes, the exit wound spraying blackish blood all over the walls, yet the killer still kept coming.

Grigoriev wanted to run, but his training forced him to search for anything that could be used as a weapon.

The chair was almost too heavy to lift, but it held the monstrosity at arm’s length. He pushed with the chair and tried to shout for backup, but didn’t have the breath to do both. He concentrated on forcing the nightmare backward, one step after another, in the direction of the shattered window. The stench of corruption rolling off the reanimated corpse brought bile to Grigoriev’s mouth. By sheer force of will he kept pushing, step by infinitely slow step.

He pinned the killer against the wall. With whatever fragment of wit remaining in its shattered head, it groped with its arms, grabbed the window frame and pulled.

Grigoriev gave it another prod, just enough encouragement for it to jerk away from him. It launched itself through the shattered window. Moments later there came a sickening sound, like rotten fruit smashing to the floor, followed by shrieks of disgust and dismay.

Grigoriev looked out at the corpse lying splattered all across ground frozen hard as iron. It’s only a single-level drop. A body shouldn’t splash like that, he thought.

Getting downstairs took him several minutes, including the hideously long seconds he had to stop and gasp for breath. Already a fair-sized crowd had gathered.

“That’s Fomenko,” one of the men shouted. “But he’s dead.”

“He’s dead, all right,” Grigoriev said.

“You don’t understand, Comrade. He’s been dead for weeks.”

“That’s interesting. Five minutes ago he was doing his damnedest to kill me.”

The other man stared, searching for words. “Lobachev claimed he took the body to the cemetery. He was always a bit odd. Filled his room with these strange books, and sometimes you’d see him sneaking off on the night of the full moon, or during the White Nights. People said he was a warlock.” He spat over his shoulder, a common gesture against witchery among peasants.

“Then I think it’s time to take a look at this Lobachev’s apartment.”

Together they went upstairs, only to find the door to his apartment locked. When nobody responded to his shouts, Grigoriev tried to force it open. Even with the assistance of his guide, it wouldn’t budge.

“So just what are you up to now, Comrade Grigoriev?” a familiar voice called out.

Grigoriev glowered at Shlepnikov. “You sure have a lousy sense of timing. I could’ve used some backup about fifteen minutes ago, when I was about to be killed.” He jerked a thumb at the door. “Right now I need to get this door open.”

The larger and better-fed NKVD officer slammed his shoulder against it, then landed a sharp kick. With a crack of splintering wood the door pulled free of its frame and swung open.

A charnel stench poured forth. Scattered all about the communal apartment were human bones, many with ragged bits of cloth and dried-up flesh still clinging to them.

Shlepnikov yelped when their citizen guide fled in horror, but Grigoriev gestured for him to hold. “He’s just a bystander. Let’s find out what happened here.”

Shlepnikov muttered a few choice words as they pulled their scarves over their faces to dampen the stench. They performed a quick search and found the bedroom at the end of the corridor covered with books that had tumbled from a toppled bookcase.

Amongst the books lay Lobachev’s frozen and desiccated remains, slumped against the wall, a book lying where it had fallen when his hand bones began to disarticulate.

Grigoriev picked it up and squinted at the antiquated script. Not just the pre-Revolutionary orthography with its four retired letters, but the old monkish script Peter the Great had replaced with more Westernized forms. In such an exhausted state it was difficult for him to puzzle out the words, but after several minutes Grigoriev realized it described a technique to call upon occult forces to reanimate a corpse. In the margin was a scribbled note in modern orthography, something about getting a dead man’s daily bread ration for as long as the corpse remained intact enough to shamble in to collect a new ration card each month.

“Looks like that citizen wasn’t kidding about Lobachev being a warlock” Grigoriev said. “It appears he was using magic to commit ration fraud. Only it wasn’t enough and he still starved. Probably that was when his creation started running wild.”

Shlepnikov reached over and grabbed the book from his hands, tore the pages right out of it and crumpled them up. “The Communist Party of the Soviet Union cannot acknowledge such superstitious nonsense. We will dispose of this rubbish. According to the official report you will turn in to your superiors, Citizen Fomenko became unhinged after losing the rest of his family, and cannot be held responsible for his actions. Because you were unable to reason with him, you had no choice but to shoot him. In the struggle, he knocked over a stove and set the apartment on fire. Do you understand me?”

Grigoriev swallowed hard, realizing there was no use arguing. Who would believe him anyway? Everyone involved was dead, and it was probably just as well if those foul books were destroyed. “Yes, Comrade Shlepnikov.”

“Good.” Shlepnikov picked up an ikon with peculiar symbolism, likely not approved by any Patriarch, and smashed it into pieces over his knee. “Now that we understand each other, we’ll each return to our respective offices and turn in the reports our superiors will expect. They will tell their superiors what they want to hear, and the case will be closed. Run along.”

Except the apartment block wasn’t entirely vacant, Grigoriev realized. He threaded past the remains scattered all over the floor and returned to the apartment where everything had begun. “Dasha? Vladya?”

The two children warily eyed him, too frightened to speak or move. He knelt to bring himself to their eye level. “Your papa’s at the Front, isn’t he?”

At their earnest nods, he continued, “You can’t stay here. I need you to come with me. When your papa comes home, I’ll find him and get you back to him.”

Together the three of them walked away as fire began to flicker in the windows of the apartment bloc. When Grigoriev led the two starved children to the door of his apartment and his wife ushered them in without hesitation, he felt that for the first time since Yezhov’s fall a burden had left him.

~~~~~

~~~~~

Leigh Kimmel is a writer, artist, and bookseller living in Indianapolis, Indiana, a city better known for its motor sports. She has degrees in history and in Russian language and literature, and has worked in libraries and archives. She has had short stories published in such anthologies as Mortis Operandi and Steampunk Cthulhu and has serialized novels at JukePop Serials. You can read more about her current projects at her website: http://www.leighkimmel.com/ .

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