Water Withheld From a Dying Man
Water Withheld From a Dying Man
Tanya had a knot in her stomach. Olena was standing right in front of her, but the image of her, the idea of her, wouldn’t leave Tanya’s mind.
“I’m sorry,” Tanya said.
“I…” Olena said. She seemed to lose her train of thought. “…There is nothing you might have done for which I deserve to hear an apology.”
Olena’s cold dark eyes were staring at her.
They were in a subway-station restroom off 39th, oddly clean. They’d been brushing their teeth and cleaning the makeup from their faces, getting ready for bed.
It was 10 in the morning after a long day’s work, but with her heart still pounding in her chest, Tanya didn’t feel ready for sleep.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you too,” Olena said. It sounded forced, a triggered response, as if she’d just poked her with a sharp stick and Olena had said oww.
“Would you listen for a moment,” Tanya said. “Please judge me as if I am a stranger.”
“No,” Olena said, her dark eyes still staring at her.
Tanya had known her for many more than the four years they’d spent as a couple. They’d been enemies first, of the petty sort and only for a week, and then friends throughout many wars. Then there had been a gap in their friendship while Olena had abandoned her.
Four years before, Olena had been sent to America to kill a traitor. She’d disappeared. She’d failed to make contact, and the traitor had continued to breathe.
Tanya’s orders had been to kill both Olena’s target and Olena if she still lived. She’d planned to kill herself immediately following. That hadn’t been part of her orders, but it had seemed to Tanya like a given. With Olena dead, the world would have turned to salt, empty and meaningless.
Love wasn’t everything. There might have been meaning in a cause or a mission. Tanya might have hated the capitalists, at least the sharp-toothed caricature her father had painted for her, but that hate wasn’t enough to drive her.
When she’d met Olena, the pieces had flown together like the shards of a mosaic, abstract maybe, but beautiful. Olena made sense. And she was all that mattered.
“What… are you apologizing for?” Olena asked.
Tanya’s head spun. They were back in the subway-station restroom.
She watched as a drop of water traveled down a strand of hair in Olena’s dark bangs. The drop of water hung there, waiting.
“There’s a knot in my stomach,” Tanya said.
“Have I done something?” Olena asked, but she hadn’t.
Olena had always been one-pointed, a machine with a single function. The function had seemed unclear to Tanya, but when she’d first met her she hadn’t realized Olena’s religious tendencies.
Olena had killed men, and acted as a hero of the Union. That had been incidental. There had always been something greater behind her eyes. A looming fire. The warmth of heavy metals, aimless, and bleeding death into the cold that surrounded her.
Four years before, when Tanya had tracked her down, she’d found Olena waiting quietly to die.
She’d thought Olena had been corrupted, that the CIA might have played with her thoughts, or that she’d chosen creature comforts over the simple truth of the Union. But it was stranger than that.
Religion as a motivator had never crossed Tanya’s mind.
Some people seemed to find the thought of a man in the sky comforting; Tanya found the idea too ludicrous to lend any comfort, but the faith Olena had found was concrete.
There was a woman, Abernathy Greene. She was gaunt and angular, muscled like a farmer, and with the awe-striking mix of horror and fury Tanya had seen in the face of Mother Motherland.
Miss Greene was a criminal of sorts. She hurt people, those she deemed morally deficient. Murderers. Rapists. Parents who beat their children. Miss Greene hurt them very badly.
After Tanya had joined Olena in deserting their post, she’d become another of Miss Greene’s followers. She found breaking the bones of worthless filth satisfying, but for Olena it was much more.
Olena seemed to see Miss Greene as a living god, the Holy Virgin Maryam in human form. Sometimes Tanya found herself believing it too.
She jumped as Olena hugged her, but she felt warm and safe, and the knot in her stomach started to loosen.
“Whatever I did,” Olena said, “I’m sorry.”
“No,” Tanya said.
“…What?” Olena asked.
“I already said, you did nothing…. I stole something.”
“…From me?” Olena asked as she stepped away. She seemed to be taking inventory. As far as Tanya knew, Olena’s personal possessions amounted to two black jumpsuits, one of which she was wearing, and the hook-knife that was tucked in her pocket.
“No,” Tanya said. “Do you remember the man you… impaled… with a truncheon?”
“I have done this to many men,” Olena said. She said it like a boast and seemed to be holding back a smile.
“…I can’t remember his name… two weeks ago. He squealed, or maybe yelped….” Tanya imitated his sheep-like and plaintive bay. It echoed back at her from the bathroom’s tile walls.
Olena chuckled. “I remember,” she said. “Was it from this man you stole? He will spend the next year in a prison hospital, and then…. I believe sexual assault guarantees three years after this.”
“Yes you stole from that man?”
“Yes,” Tanya said.
“I cannot imagine any who would call this sin,” Olena said, reaching out to squeeze Tanya’s arm.
“We are supposed to share whatever we find.”
“Only money and food. Miss Abernathy only asks that we share money and food. Was his wallet fat?”
“No. He had only twenty-six dollars—”
“And those we spent on sandwiches from the Sandstein deli, yes?”
They had. Long sandwiches on chewy bread. Provolone piled high and topped with shredded lettuce and vinegar.
“It isn’t money, in the usual sense,” Tanya said, pulling the gold emblemed slip of paper from the pocket of her own black jumpsuit. “I think it is like a ration coupons from the days of Vozhd Stalin. But it is for only one store.”
“Is it this piece of paper that has put a knot in your stomach?” Olena asked, staring at the slip like she meant to find a lighter. “Should we start for home?”
“Yes. We told Miss Greene we would be home by noon,” Tanya said, slipping the coupon back in her pocket. “I think, perhaps, the feeling in my belly might be unrelated to the coupon.”
Olena took her hand, guiding her through the door.
The subway platform buzzed. The sharp-suited men and women of the business district were already in their offices. That left those who worked odd hours, like Olena and herself, and those who didn’t work at all. There were street women with heavy lipstick and hollow eyes, finally returning home after a long night of work. There were unwed mothers. There were men who looked too clean to be unemployed, and those far too dirty to have employment; they might well have made their home in the tunnels, as she and Olena had a few years before.
“What shop does that coupon belong to?” Olena asked as they stepped up to the red line at the edge of the platform.
“…Jameson’s, I think,” Tanya said, pulling out the coupon again.
“Ah, on Fifth Avenue?” Olena asked, craning her neck. “For how much?”
“Do you know this store?”
“Yes, or, before Tinatini left us, she showed me photos in a magazine. I think she wanted the things in those pictures, and that is why she left, or possibly maiming the unclean had lost its appeal for her…. All of the things she wishes for are available at Jameson’s on Fifth Avenue.”
“Oh,” Tanya said. “I thought they might sell food….” She’d imagined sneaking off one day soon, buying champagne and the kind of vodka that smells like roses and tastes like spring water. She’d planned to fence what remained on the coupon and to spend a quiet night with Olena in a cheap motel.
“They sell food as well, I believe,” Olena said. Her eyes panned across the track in front of them. She glanced over at Tanya but looked away just as quickly. “Would you like to go? If you aren’t too tired. We could make it a date.”
For the last few years they’d been physically intimate, occasionally. After the first couple of weeks of awkwardness, their friendship hadn’t seemed to have changed in the least.
Either Olena thought of the kissing and touching as some kind of procedural necessity to maintain their friendship, and it was usually Tanya who’d started things, or possibly they’d already become a married couple in all but exchanged-vows and mismatched-gender, and the nervousness, the knot in Tanya’s stomach, was just the fretting of an aging housewife.
“Do you pray?” Tanya asked. Olena took a step away. Her jaw tensed as her eyes narrowed.
Tanya had never liked the idea of religion. It had always seemed like millions of people telling the same lie to make truth from a fairy story. But watching Abernathy Greene, watching her work, Tanya’s thoughts had grown complicated. Even if a man floating in the sky was foolish in concept, miracles must be real, and, she’d asked herself, what kind of creature works miracles?
Tanya thought of her mother, a woman who’d died when she was too young to remember, and of Maryam. To be raped in your sleep but still to love your child dearly. To have that child taken from you by his father. This woman deserved pity.
“There are times when I have prayed,” Olena said as lights flooded the dark tunnel to their left.
“I think I am feverish,” Tanya said, but her words faded into the clattering roar as the train pulled to a grinding halt in front of them. The doors opened, and Olena took Tanya’s hand again, pulling her in.
“I will sit after we transfer,” Olena said, ushering Tanya into a seat between an old Asian woman clutching a dozen pounds of mustard-greens to her chest and a gray-faced man who looked like a walking corpse.
Tanya looked up to find Olena staring down at her with her jaw still clenched. “I’m glad you find solace,” Tanya said.
“I do not.”
“Then…” Why? She couldn’t finish her question. Olena had never once asked her to explain herself.
“When I was small, we lived in a cottage in Verbilki,” Olena said.
She’d also never once spoken of her childhood in any but the vaguest terms, so Tanya remained silent.
“I must have been six. It was the summer when my father’s treachery was discovered, and after his execution, but before the winter when my mother was transferred to Peter.” The tension had left her jaw. She didn’t look angry anymore, but her pale skin was turning paler. “I shared a room with my brother and my grandmother. They were asleep. My mother was making many phone calls. She worked as a clerk in a factory that made china and seemed to be trying to secure her job. I sat on my bed and listened to my mother crying, and I watched the rain roll down the window.”
“I’m sorry,” Tanya said. She had painful memories of her own. She tried to remember what Olena had said to make everything alright, but it hadn’t been in the words.
“I watched one small spot on the window, a small island of dry glass with a rising tide that surrounded it. I imagined people living on this island, and I wondered if I would be welcomed there or treated as a stranger. I watched for hours….”
“…What happened?” Tanya asked.
“My mother found me. She slapped my face and told me to sleep. The window was dry when I woke.”
“I….” Tanya had meant to say I love you, but she remembered the reflexive response Olena had given her just minutes earlier. If she heard that tinny sound in Olena’s voice again, she felt like her heart would stop.
“That tiny island. I had thought it was fate, or possibly my grandmother’s God who kept it safe, but I am sure I was mistaken,” Olena said, her voice slowly rising. “It requires strength to weather a storm, and the strength of miracles to hold back a flood. I require your strength at my side….” She returned to a whisper. “When I last prayed, I asked the Virgin Mary in heaven…. I asked that, if we should meet again, that Tanya might forgive me for abandoning her…. If you have forgiven me, then I have nothing else for which to pray.”
“I love you,” Tanya said.
Olena smiled down at her with cold dark eyes that seemed a little less cold than usual. “I have already given you my answer.”