Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
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Russian Mysticism

I can remember the first time I realized I wasn’t afraid to die.

I remember it was summer, and I was only fifteen. Before I learned to drive. Before I knew that only twelve percent of air flight fatalities occur during cruising altitude.

In my seat, I remember looking out the porthole window, at an abstract painting the color of wheat and rivers.

I remember jockeying for position and stability, turbulence, arms akimbo in the coffin-shaped bathroom of a DC-10 on this predawn flight to Oklahoma City.

When you meet your pilot, if he looks tired, or his eyes are half-glazed over and his breath smells like martini olives, or he’s wearing a Calvin and Hobbes tie—I wouldn’t worry too much. Most crashes are caused by mechanical errors or bad weather.

I remember the plane started rocking violently, and as I braced myself—wedged my shoulder into the wall mirror and stiff-armed the miniature sink—I found out that there’s an oxygen mask that pops out of the ceiling in there too. I remember I just put it on and finished up smiling.


I heard a story about a man named Sergei. At fourteen, Sergei tested a homemade pistol and it backfired in his hands, sending a bullet through his left eye and out through the side of his head, blinding him forever.

After that Sergei could feel color with his fingertips. He could diagnose a headache by standing near a person, palms upturned, his vapid white eyes wandering around the sky, his open mouth breathing in aura.

“Good aura is of light shades, yellow or red. And the bad aura is colored black or brown,” he said once.

Sergei literally stared death in the face, then took a bullet in the skull that caused one blindness and cured another.

“Isn’t that what you’d say, if you had to say something?” he’d ask, then run his soft fingertips around a fiery redhead’s scalp saying, “Red.”

I heard this story from an overweight man waiting for a flight in O’Hare Airport, over coffee that had gone cold since I’d gotten it from my hotel’s lobby. I was silent for a long time before I said, “Fifty-one percent of all plane accidents happen during the final approach or landing.”

He just brushed milk froth out of his red moustache.

“I was in a plane accident once,” I said.


I’m walking out of JFK, through automated doors, talking on my cell phone and wheeling luggage when a black car pulls up in front of me.

“I need to catch an eastbound train as soon as possible,” I tell him, leaning into the passenger’s side window. “Just drive me to Jamaica.”

He says, smiling, “We just go to Mineola, okay? Lots of trains, less traffic.”

“I don’t have a lot of money.”

He says, “Just get in.”

So I jump into the back of his black Lincoln, stash my suitcase lengthwise in the ample legroom, and marvel at the cold leather and the array of lukewarm beers.

“Feel free,” he says.

I open a bottle of beer.

He takes off at insane speeds, hitting the loops and clover bends that lead to the parkway with such intensity I wonder for a second if I might not take off again. Back to the skies. He cuts through lanes like a shark swims through schools of fish. When he banks hard across an intersection, gliding only feet in front of cutoff cars sliding on screeching brakes, he just smiles, and asks,

“What is it?” He turns to me, putting his hand on the passenger seat’s headrest. “Everyone is in such terrible rush.”

I take a sip of the beer.

His tires spring over a short median, sending the car reeling, blowing a red light amid a chorus of car horns.

“What is it? I can’t smile?”

Out of habit I check his license, laminated and displayed in the pane of Plexiglas that frames the back and front seat dividing wall: Dmitry Garnaev.

Passing a gas station, he laments, “Oh, look at this closed down. A friend of mine used to own it. What a waste of a good location.”

I told him, “I used to pass this place when I was a kid.”

He knows too much about gas station ownership. He knows that rising gas prices actually spell disaster for chain owners. He knows that in 1989 government legislation uprooted all of the steel tanks and forced in more environmentally friendly fiberglass composites. He knows that most tanks are about ten feet in diameter.

“You must’ve been pretty good friends with that guy, huh?”

“I can understand why he had to shut down,” he says. “What the government doesn’t take in taxes they’ll collect with citations. Do you know how much a ticket is for one leaky hose?”

I didn’t know.

“Ten thousand,” he says, shaking his head.

“Hey, money isn’t everything, right?” The anthem of the blue collar, I sigh, lifting up my beer and tilting it backwards in that time honored way, taking a slow and conscientious swig.

His rejoinder is a rehearsed joke, an automatic response he has tailored to our moment, another chorus for the working class, “People who fly first class die first!”

He laughs, but I say, “Is that really such a terrible thing?”


“Rasputin, he lived in a cellar for years before being assumed to the royal court. The scourge of the Winter Palace.”

At the time, I was leafing through a SkyMall catalogue. I remember I was drinking vodka and soda with lemon.

“That’s where he prayed, underground, the rough mannered Khlyst, son of a drunken cantor and survivor of two drowned siblings. There in the cellar, he prayed and repented.”

I was hearing this from some scholar with a spade-tip goatee, bad breath, and a salt-and-pepper blazer with beige elbow pads. I remember the way he curled his fingers around wisps of his stringy hair as he spoke, orating from his phantom textbook.

“He was a horse whisperer you know” —nodding solemnly—“imagine this . . .” he said through tobacco-rot teeth, and I did.

One night, as a child, Rasputin fell ill; running high temperatures, sweating hot bullets into the icy Russian winter. To ward off the cold, his parents and their friends were huddled in the evening room, in dark blue shawls, woolen dresses, hand-stitched cotton bonnets, rings passed down through generations worn on wrinkled fingers, glassy bezoars black and oily in the dappled lamplight. Over bread and milk, hard cheese and vodka, they smoked and discussed a local horse theft.

So, I imagined the boy. A boy, frail skinny with eyes that shone like subarctic water, pointing out the thief from the balustrade with one quavering arm. Repeating, ‘Thief!’ Knowing he was right. Knowing because he had heard it too.

I imagined the mother with a titanic mole on her left cheek. I imagined her scuttling over, wrapping the boy’s white body in her tasseled shawl, apologizing for her son’s fever dreams. I imagined the dad, in gray clothes fastened with boiled brown leather, carrying the boy over his back to bed. I imagined the mother making the sign of the cross.

So, imagine what the townspeople must’ve thought when the boy turned out to be right?

“You know, Rasputin was invited into a cellar for dinner, fed cyanide-laced wine and cake, shot, beaten and drowned,” said the scholar, then he took a bite of a ham sandwich which he had taken out of his pocket.


“17A,” I say. “That’s the exit to my grandparents’ house. What a coincidence.” He smiles warmly, takes his eyes off the road to turn up the air conditioner a little, and says, “Gasoline tanks, UTCs they’re called, are buried bedded in pea gravel, five to six feet below the ground.”

“Like graves.”

“Under those circular crown-valves you drive over when you go to fill up.” His frenzied tachometer swings violently as he jams up and down on the gearshift.

I said, “These statistics defy trends. Pilots and planes aren’t getting any worse, but they’re not getting any better. It’s chaos theory.”

“Gasoline can pollute the ground for years. Seep into your pipes. Poison your drinking water.”

“They started keeping track around the turn of the century,” I said. “The roaring twenties and then the receding thirties. In 1931 if you were on a plane that was involved in an accident where at least one person died, you had a twenty-one percent chance of living.”

“Here I thought it was all dead, or all live. Big boom.”

“Well, yeah, that’s what I used to think. Planes go down hard. That image of metal scraps floating around the ocean in a circle of shark fins gets burned into your mind. Thing is, nowadays, same situation, you’ve got a twenty-four percent chance of making it out alive.”

“So, it’s getting a little better.”

“Except it’s gone up and down in every intervening decade for the last sixty years,” I say, watching this town whir past at a hundred miles per hour.


I was searching for a number that could scare me again, but there was no pattern. Everything came up short.

He said, “In 1989 gas station owners were forced to switch over their tanks, the old steel ones corroded too easily, and leaked into the earth. They switched to fiberglass reinforced plastic. Or composites: steel covered in fiberglass gives an interstitial space. They call them test wells, the small space between feeds to drainage pipes that can detect even the slightest amount of leakage.”

I thought of the interstitial space in midair wingtip to wingtip crashes. Accidents where you don’t die right off. Engine burnouts. Dark turbulence. I thought of the sky, thirty-thousand feet of interstitial space before the ground. I thought of falling bodies. Silhouettes like big, black rain.

“Remediation,” he said, “is when men come in wearing white suits and check the level and migration of water and soil contamination, then say how long it will be before you can grow tomatoes.”

Just two men with minds full of numbers that promised their worst fears were impossible, or worse, that our fearlessness was empirically correct. Don’t ‘having your head in the clouds’ and ‘having your head buried in sand’ mean the same thing?”

We’re careening around a narrow road, posted up with streetlamps, and I’m watching a row of swans sit unanimated on a dark and virulent pond.


I am not among the living.

That’s how Rasputin predicted his own death. At this point he’s got me hooked, this self-absorbed professor from Dartmouth, who was drinking red wine on a plane.

“How can sin be erased without sincere repentance? And sincere repentance only comes after one has sinned.” A preacher who justified sin with circular logic built his church and named it the Holy of Holies, a delicate sobriquet that belies the reality of it, the whores and sycophants sprawled along the floors, the raving drunks, parishioners kissing the feet and lips of their new Bacchus. Rasputin cured hemophilia in a young prince. He drank and womanized.

He claimed that he held the fate of Russia in his fist. Confidant of the Red princess, a gnarled old man with moss-like hair, streaming off his knotted and oaken head like a prehistoric tree, the fork tongued peasant whispering sweet everythings into the Tsaritsa’s blushing ear.

This is the part that really got me. When he was finally proclaimed dead, Rasputin’s body was set to funeral pyre, but amateurishly prepared.

“See,” the scholar says, running fake knives through the air with his fingertips, breaking into a fine sweat, “you need to sever the tendons and ligaments at crucial joints.”

He almost tips over his wine, gesticulating like a conquistador. Stopping at times to remold his Vandyke. An unopened pack of kreteks on the foldout tray.

“The elbows maybe, and at the knees. You know, you have to do this to keep the muscles from contracting rapidly when they heat up. An incision across the lower back.”

He says that’s exactly what happened to Rasputin, he was improperly cut and he jumped out of the fire, springing back to life.

Rasputin. Almost reborn by God in a farmhouse cellar, then almost poisoned and shot to death in a dungeon. From a stone womb to a stone mausoleum. Beaten bloody and sent to die with his brother and sister under the river. Two infanticide merchildren, swollen and waterlogged, white shirts swelling around them like the paraffin layers of a jellyfish; bloodshot eyes. Then dragged from the river, jaunting erect while burning at the stake, the last shrieking cry of the Siberian phoenix.


All right, let me tell you a funny story.

I was at home on a four-hour layover, visiting my mother. She was outside digging a hole with a splintery garden pick and I was watching from a lawn chair drinking unsweetened ice tea.

When the hole was around three feet deep, she bent the rigid, lifeless body of our dead cat, Merlin, into a shape that would fit the void. She draped a white shroud over him, placed him into the recess gently, then picked up a handful of dirt which she sifted through her fingertips. She was crying.

I guess this story isn’t that funny. Funny like, topical, I meant.

I gave her a long hug, and shoveled back the dirt as she walked, trancelike, back inside the house. I could see her through a window, sitting on a rocking chair in the dark. I patted down the soft earth, a bald spot on our otherwise lush front lawn. Craned over by sunflowers. A few of our other cats walked over. Cats at a cat funeral, pawing around.

I took a sip of iced tea.

I stood back and wondered, which would you rather? Death as a human, and all of the black clothes that come along with our awareness? To be a part of the only species that wears veils? The privilege of grief, the sophistication to mourn? Or quick animal death?

You should see the way a cat’s tail just curls around like a question mark, spry off the end of its body like an antenna, the way its nose wrinkles up when it walks over its sister’s grave.

Would you rather be poisoned, shot, or drowned?


“Not anymore,” I answered quickly. “The probability of getting in two airplane accidents in one lifetime is beyond microscopic. It’s laughable really.”

So I tell him this.

I tell him I was twelve-years-old flying from Baltimore to Chicago and it was snowing heavily at Midway. We hit the ground and slid like a toboggan. We kept going. Down the runway. Off the runway. Through fences, streetlights, electrical wires.

You may have seen it on the news.

I tell him, “You know what I can’t get out of my head? The look of the thing.”

Watching it later on television, thinking, how preposterous does it look to have this tremendous orange and blue aircraft nosing into traffic? Just this bulbous front end, bellied up on the highway like a beached whale. “I mean, just, sitting there.” And then I realize that I’m crying.

You may have heard about this on the radio.

“Are you afraid of flying?” I ask.

“Hell,” he gulps, restarts, “Heck no I’m not.”

“Tell me your worst story,” I say.

And he tells me this.

He says a guy gets a call, says both of his parents had a stroke in their nursing home, to come quick.

Haven’t we all heard stories like this before?

So he throws on a button-up shirt, or a pullover, or maybe he does go with the button-up but he only buttons it halfway.

“I only say it because every second matters.”

The guy gets in his car, doesn’t check his mirrors, and tears down his block. He’s driving too fast. Way too fast even. He blows a stop sign. Then another. And on the third stop sign . . .

This guy I’m sitting with, he pauses here for a long, long time.

Then he claps his fist into his palm.

“Wham!” he says. “T-bone.” And guess who’s in the car? Just guess that it’s his parents in the other car. Of course it is, we’ve heard these types of stories before.

“So whose parents had a stroke?”

Someone else’s. McRae’s not Mackay’s, or however it went. They called the wrong number. At the desk, they dialed an eight instead of a damn nine. And what were Mackay’s parents even doing driving around? Visiting their son, of course. Or going to visit him.

“What’s the fu—” He scratches his beard. “What’s the chances of that?”

I tell him I didn’t know. I say, “That’s not my type of statistic.”


People who say that when you die, your soul comes floating from your body, a glowing angelform, rising through the ceiling, looking back down—I think those people are wrong.

My driver turns into the driveway sharply, stopping an inch off the bumper of my grandfather’s station wagon.

When you die, your body bursts into a black cloud. It billows out of your windows like a house on fire. Creeps up the chimney like ivy. Great black tendrils scrawling skywards. A black plant colossus, thorny legs rooting into your front yard. Something you can see from far away.

The bad aura.

He says nothing, but rolls up the divider between us.

I get out and run up the stairs to the front door. The scene plays out scratchy through the screen door. My grandfather, leaning my grandmother off his knee like they are doing the tango, screaming for help, the driver slowly lifting my bag out of the backseat, whistling and chanting, “I am no longer among the living.”

Then her eyes roll back in her head, my grandfather’s eyes fill up blue with tears, this rushing scent of childhood, and now I’m shaking, a cat roping around my grandfather’s leg.    

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