Fiction

Where They Always Meet

Christos Ikonomou, Karen Emmerich
Gauzy dark blue and pink shapes of "shed skin"
Florence Liu, Shed Skin No. 1, 2020. Courtesy the artist.

Good evening, I’m Stalin’s granddaughter. Putin is after me, wants me dead. You have to help me.”



it’s christmas eve, snowing outside, and Marina Orologitis is working the night shift at hnn.gr, the Hellenic News Network. It’s been quiet—a while ago she edited an item about a strange glow that appeared in the sky over Siberia, then put up photographs from Prince Harry’s Christmas trip to New York with his new girlfriend—and now she’s sunk back into her reading, surrounded by computer and TV screens, the hum of the air duct, and voices from the radio echoing in the empty, dimly lit room. She’s experienced in the art of reading, doesn’t let herself get distracted, because she knows that for a book to work its miracle the writer’s voice on the page has to become the reader’s voice in her head. She also knows that reading means tossing an anchor into deep waters, that reading is the third dimension of a two-dimensional person.

The book before her is a biography of Franklin Pierce, fourteenth president of the United States of America. Considered one of the worst American presidents in history, he died an alcoholic at sixty-four. His wife, Jane, who abhorred politics, was sickly and suffered from chronic depression. They had three sons. The first died when he was just a few days old, the second of typhus at age four, and the third, Benny, was killed in a train accident before his parents’ eyes when he was eleven years old. The couple never got over their grief. Franklin started drinking more than ever, and Jane, who wore black for the rest of her life, wrote letters to her poor Benny, begging his forgiveness for having failed as a mother to protect him. She died of consumption a decade later. Pierce, who’d left the White House by that time, told a friend, “There’s nothing left to do but get drunk.”

Marina lifts her eyes and looks out the window at the bluish snow, which is silently covering the sidewalks, the cars, the roofs of houses. She watches the flakes slowly twirling in the air—big white flakes, so big they seem to cast shadows as they fall. She wonders if everything she’s reading is true, if all that could possibly have happened to a predecessor of Trump, Bush, Nixon. Of course it’s been almost two centuries since then, but still. You don’t expect an American president to say that the only thing left for him to do is drink himself to death, or a First Lady to send letters to her dead son apologizing for not having been a good mother.

She watches the snow fall and wonders. Wonders and remembers. She remembers how she once believed, truly believed, that she’d never again have to work a night shift, and how twenty-five years ago—a quarter of a century, that is—she thought she wanted to become a journalist because it would allow her to do the two things she really loved in life: write and read. Her face, smiling wryly, with bitter wisdom in the breath-steamed windowpane, she remembers the days when people didn’t just read newspapers; they treated them as a kind of refuge. She remembers and wonders how it must feel for a mother to lose three children, one after another, and why there’s a word for a child who loses a parent, but not for a parent who loses a child. And as she’s thinking about all this, she sees out the corner of her eye a shadow moving between the empty desks. The shadow comes closer and takes the form of a woman, who stands in front of her and says, “Good evening, I’m Stalin’s granddaughter. Putin is after me, he wants me dead. You have to help me.”

The woman has a foreign accent, dark blonde hair, and eyes the color of ash. She says “Gud evenink,” “granddautter.” She’s dressed as if on her way to a holiday party—heavy perfume, a black coat, patent leather heels. Her skinny, bow-legged calves look like bowling pins through her mesh stockings.

Marina puts her book aside and stands up. The woman takes a step forward. On her cheeks, beneath her heavy makeup, her freckles look red, like marks from shrapnel. She takes off her gloves and reaches out a hand. Marina hesitates for a moment, then takes it. It’s small, warm, and trembling—like holding a frightened bird in your palm.

“What can I do for you?”

“I’m Stalin’s granddaughter. Putin is—”

“I heard that part. But what do you want?”

“To talk to you. It’s very important. I need help.” “Listen, right now I don’t—”

The woman gestures for her to be quiet, gently takes her arm and points out the window.

“That car,” she says. “That one there, the black one. Do you see it? There are KGB agents inside.”

There’s no snow on the car, and white smoke is rising from the exhaust pipe. Through the window Marina can’t tell whether there’s anyone inside. She observes the woman and tries to detect some other scent apart from the heavy perfume of her evening-wear—booze, weed, pills. But there’s nothing. All she smells is cardamom, wood, and incense, maybe Oud Royal or the old Cashmere.

The woman pulls a crumpled tissue from her evening bag and wipes her eyes, and a tear that rolled down to one corner of her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she says, reaching out a hand. “How rude of me. I’m Marina Alliluyeva. Svetlana’s daughter, you know.”

Marina hears a muted ringing. The woman pulls a cell phone out of her pocket and turns the screen toward her.

“It’s them,” she says. “They’re showing me that they know where I am.”

She turns off the phone, puts it back in her pocket, and fixes her gaze out the window.

“Christ, what am I supposed to do? How am I going to get through another night of this?”

Then her face lights up; she turns and looks at Marina.

“I wasn’t sure, you know. About tonight, I mean. So many newspapers, so many channels, and no one would help me, everyone’s afraid. But then the man at the entrance told me your name was Marina, and I said, Well, that’s a good sign. In Russia we have a saying: the enemy of a lucky man dies, the enemy of an unlucky man becomes his friend. But not me, never. I’ll never become their friend. The man at the entrance agreed, it’s a good sign: we’re both Marinas. He said you’d help me for sure. He said, ‘Oh, of course, she’s our best journalist.’ And it’s Christmas, too. So I’m very happy. I looked for you on earth, but found you in the skies. So you’ll help me. I’ll tell you an incredible story. You’ll help me, right?”

she talks and talks, shows me photographs, watches my hand as I write it down on the page. She knows how it must seem, realizes it sounds unbelievable, but swears it’s all true.

“And don’t forget,” she tells me, “what Dostoyevsky said: ‘There is nothing as unreal as reality itself.’”

I write sloppily, mechanically, observing her gestures, how she rolls a tissue between her fingers, how she crosses and uncrosses her legs, sitting opposite me. I keep an eye out every time she opens her bag—who knows what she might be hiding in there: a knife, a gun, pepper spray—and keep an eye on the door, too. I keep thinking that any minute now someone might come bursting in, not the KBG agents with their black suits and Kalashnikovs, but guys in white uniforms with tranquilizer guns and nets.

I’d met plenty of people like her in my day, back when newspapers (at least the smaller ones) were something like a refuge for the kind of person who would later end up in the studios of marginal TV stations. People who came and went almost every day in journalists’ offices asking for money so they could send their sick children to hospitals abroad or begging for reporters to turn their pain into a story—addict sons, annoying neighbors, greedy landladies. Some wanted to report scams, unlawful acts, corrupt politicians, or lying civil servants. Others came with envelopes and stacks of paper—reduced pensions, inflated bills, bureaucracy. There were, of course, more serious cases. I still remember the guy from Petroupoli and the mysterious patent that NASA had stolen from him; the old lady from Megara whose grandchildren were trying to kill her to get their hands on her property; a kid from Piraeus with razor marks like tic-tac-toe on his arms, who was convinced that his neighborhood barber was Jim Morrison. But I’d never come across a granddaughter of Stalin before.

I make her sit down again, I tell her everything is going to be okay, that her coat is very nice. She asks me if I believe in miracles and then begs me to write down that, contrary to what most people believe, miracles are entirely logical phenomena.

Now she shows me a color photograph of a woman with a little girl on her lap. The girl is her and the woman is her mother, Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, who became famous in the sixties for defecting to the U.S., but died a few years back, forgotten and impoverished in an old folks’ home in Washington. She says her mother was a tortured woman who from a young age had been burdened with a sadness as big as Greece’s national debt. A woman who was constantly changing names, husbands, countries, religions. A woman who, when she arrived in the U.S., sent a long letter to her children, whom she had abandoned in Moscow, explaining that she’d had to leave her family and country because the Soviet system was not only financially but also morally bankrupt: “With one hand we’re trying to grab hold of the moon,” she wrote, “and with the other we’re still plowing our fields the way people did a century ago.”

The other Marina explains that she never met her grandfather, although her mother told her all about him. She says Stalin loved Svetlana very much—the way cats love mice. People who say that the fundamental difference between Stalin and Genghis Khan was that Genghis Khan didn’t have a telephone are right, she says. She claims that she could speak for days about her grandfather, but she won’t, because even the thought of him makes her sick.

“I’ll just tell you one thing,” she says. “My grandmother accused her husband of spoiling my mother because he called her ‘little sparrow,’ gave her lots of gifts, and let her watch American movies. Just imagine a family in which Stalin is considered the more affectionate parent, and you can guess how my mother was raised, and how she in turn raised me and my siblings.

“Don’t bother looking online to learn more about me,” she remarks. “You won’t find anything. They’ve erased all traces of me. I don’t exist. I’m a ghost that’s chasing them, that’s why they want to kill me. But ghosts don’t die, isn’t that so?

“The eyes,” she says, “that’s the worst part. My poor mother said anyone who looked her in the eye was always searching for Stalin’s eyes in hers. She looked for his eyes in mine, and I in hers. And then, at some point, we realized we’d both been making the same mistake. We weren’t looking to find Stalin’s eyes in one another’s; we were looking to find the eyes of everyone he killed. That was more or less why we stopped meeting one another’s eyes, then stopped looking at one another altogether. And finally we just lost touch. You’re doing it now, too, I know, looking for my mother’s and grandfather’s eyes in mine, searching for the eyes of a monster in the eyes of a human. No, no, it’s fine, I understand. But that’s the help I’m looking for. To not be a monster, or a ghost.”

She shows me some more photographs, still talking. She says that when she was little, the stories her mother told weren’t about princes and princesses, but about a French king who thought he was made of glass, or about the Haitian dictator Papa Doc, who thought one of his enemies had been turned into a black dog and ordered all the black dogs on the island to be killed, or about a usurper to the Chinese throne who died, and the emperor’s soldiers burned the body, mixed the ashes together with gunpowder, and shot them out of a cannon so nothing of that terrible man would be left on earth. She thinks this should have been Stalin’s fate, and the fate of all dictators: to be shattered like glass or to have their ashes scattered by cannons.

Every so often she stands and looks out the window at the black car, which is still parked across the street. With tears in her eyes she begs me to help her, to write her story and publish it, today, tomorrow at the very least—no one else dares to write anything, everyone’s afraid, and she’s tired, how much time does she have left?

For a moment I’m tempted to ask where she was born, who her father is, how and when she came to Greece, how she makes a living, why they want to kill her, how it’s possible for the entire world to be unaware of her existence, but of course I don’t. I know there’s no point, you don’t ask people like this questions, you don’t challenge them, don’t doubt them, because if you back them into a corner, they can become truly dangerous.

Now she’s overcome by some kind of spasm: her hands shake, her breathing is shallow. I make her sit down, give her some water. When she has calmed down a bit, she gets to her feet and goes and stands in front of the window again.

“You know,” she says, “the night before they executed Lacenaire it snowed in Paris. He looked out the prison window at the show and said, ‘Tomorrow the earth will be very frozen.’ And from the neighboring cell someone called, ‘Ask them to bury you in a fur.’”

She turns toward me and stretches her arms out to either side. “And I went out tonight dressed for spring,” she says. “But I don’t like furs at all.”

I make her sit down again, I tell her everything is going to be okay, that her coat is very nice. She asks me if I believe in miracles and then begs me to write down that, contrary to what most people believe, miracles are entirely logical phenomena. Nature and science are governed by laws, but there are exceptions to those laws, and each miracle constitutes one such exception. Miracles imply the triumphant confirmation of logic.

“Only crazy people don’t believe in miracles,” she concludes, and leans over to make sure I’m writing it all down correctly.

History narrates the struggle of humankind to become the third power between good and evil, she tells me. Only those who believe in eternal life can live their life on earth without having already died. Trying to approach God in a logical manner is like trying to assign a color to a musical note. Asking someone to prove the existence of God is like asking Prince Myshkin to prove the existence of Dostoyevsky.

I listen and write, feeling her breath on my cheek. I jot all this down, too, just like everything else she’s told me up to now. I’ll write down whatever she tells me, I’ll assure her that tomorrow or the next day it will all be published, I’ll tell her everything is going to be okay and not to worry, and then she’ll leave, and I’ll never see her again. And if she comes back, which she almost certainly won’t, I’ll have informed the blockhead of a security guard and my colleagues to get rid of her.

It’s a slightly more complicated situation than the usual, the ones I used to deal with—it’s not just technology that’s constantly developing, right?—but I know how to handle her. She’ll haunt me, though. That much is sure. When she leaves here in a bit, I’ll remember her. I’ll see her walking alone in the night, in the snowy darkness, dressed for a Christmas party that will never take place, constantly looking over her shoulder, checking to see whether the black car is following her. I’ll remember her and wonder where she came from and where she went, just as I still wonder, all these years later, where the guy with the patent that NASA stole went, and the old lady from Megara, and the guy who let an old barber with Parkinson’s cut his hair because he believed he was Jim Morrison. Not shadows, not monsters, not ghosts, but living people. I remember them and wonder where they come from and where they go.

She asks for some more water, and then gets up and goes to look out the window again.

“Can you make them leave?” she asks. “That’s all. Could you at least do that?”

“Don’t be afraid,” I assure her. “Everything’s going to be fine.” “Fear,” she says. “Fear gives rise to hate. You hate out of fear, you hate yourself for being afraid, you hate the people who are making you afraid, and those who don’t do anything to help you stop being afraid. But you’ll do something, won’t you? You’ll help me, right?”

“OK,” I respond.

“Can I stay here a while longer? It’s so cold tonight. And tomorrow the earth will be very frozen.”

Before I have time to answer, she takes off her coat, folds it carefully, and drapes it over the back of a chair. Her shoulders, skinny and smooth, are covered in freckles, just like her arms. Her perfume now spreads even more strongly in the air, as if it was trapped all this time under her coat. She glances around, and for the first time I see her smile. Her teeth are white, shiny, and straight.

“You’re pretty cozy here,” she says. “It’s warm, quiet.” Then she looks at the papers with my notes.

“So, where were we?”

the woman speaks, Marina writes. She scribbles hurriedly, crosses words out and changes them—as if she’s trying to solve a crossword puzzle with no clues, with no squares, a crossword puzzle fated never to be solved, a crisscrossward puzzle, an uncrossword puzzle.

“You should put a period in here and there,” the woman jokes. “Babel wrote that no iron can strike through a human heart with the power of a well-placed period. He was one of our greatest writers. My grandfather sent him before the firing squad, too.”

She glances at Marina’s notes and then her gaze falls to the book open on the desk: the biography of Pierce.

“Do you know why people read? We read because we want to live more than one life. Well, now you’ve got plenty to read about,” she says to Marina, pointing toward the pile of papers.

“That’s my gift to you,” she continues. “A Christmas gift.”

With her lips half closed, she begins to murmur something like a lullaby. Her voice grows stronger. Eyes closed, she sings in a language I don’t understand, a language I’m not even sure exists, but I close my eyes, too, and add my voice to hers, and we sing together.

It’s past midnight. The woman gets to her feet and stands in front of the window, her arms hugging her body. Outside the snow is falling thickly, the flakes twirling like an enormous flock of starlings constantly changing formation and direction.

Marina goes over and stands next to her. The black car is gone, the spot where it was already covered with snow. She starts to say something, but thinks twice and says something else instead.

“Thank you. And Merry Christmas, Marina. Happy holidays.”

The woman reaches out a hand to work Marina’s hair free where it’s gotten tangled in the zipper of her blouse, high up on the back. Marina is confused, thinks she’s going in for a hug, leans over awkwardly, and when she understands her mistake, apologizes, but the woman also laughs awkwardly, and then they hug and kiss three times on the cheek, there, in front of the big window, which bears the traces of their breath, their palms, the snowflakes that are melting and running down the pane like traces of fingers trying to find something to grab hold of.

“They’re gone, but they’ll be back,” the woman says. “Can I stay a little bit longer?”

“What about your party?” Marina asks. The woman looks at her, confused.

“Sorry, my mistake,” Marina says. “Sit down, I’ll be right back.” She goes to the kitchen at the back of the room and brings out the plastic containers she brought from home with her Christmas meal. Christmas bread, salad, cheese pies, leek and celery puree, a few Christmas cookies, a bottle of Cretan wine. She lays it all out on a nearby desk, brings over the chairs, lights an old candle she finds in her desk drawer.

“Happy holidays!” she exclaims, and raises her glass. “Merry Christmas and a happy new year to us both.”

“To our health!” the woman says. “Christ consecrated a new life, not a new religion.”

And then, smiling, “Don’t write that down. People don’t want to read things like that. Just remember it.”

They eat and drink with appetite, looking at one another frequently but speaking little—about the food, about Marina’s job, about the weather, which is supposed to change tomorrow. When they’re finished, the stranger raises her glass and declares in a steady voice, “I’d like to sing.”

With her lips half closed, she begins to murmur something like a lullaby. Her voice grows stronger. Eyes closed, she sings in a language I don’t understand, a language I’m not even sure exists, but I close my eyes, too, and add my voice to hers, and we sing together. At first I’m hesitant, but the woman encourages me, squeezing my hand, and so I let myself free to sing in this unknown language, while outside the window the snowflakes twirl as if they’re now following the rhythm of the song—big white flakes that glow in the dark and come together in a delirious silent dance somewhere in the space between sky and earth, where they always meet, all those that descend from up high and all those that rise from below.

Christos Ikonomou was born in Athens in 1970. He is a short story writer and playwright. He has won a number of prizes in Greece and abroad for his work. His books have been translated into more than twelve languages.
Karen Emmerich is a translator of modern Greek literature, and an Associate Professor at Princeton University. Her translation awards include the National Translation Award, the Best Translated Book Award, and the PEN Poetry in Translation Award.
Originally published:
June 28, 2021

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