“This richly imagined retelling of [Bulgakov's] lean years—which gave rise to his phantasmagoric novel The Master and Margarita—mixes fact and fiction to create a narrative that is both foreign and familiar.” - The New Yorker.
It is 1933 and Mikhail Bulgakov's enviable career is on the brink of being dismantled. His friend and mentor, the poet Osip Mandelstam, has been arrested, tortured, and sent into exile. Meanwhile, a mysterious agent of the secret police has developed a growing obsession with exposing Bulgakov as an enemy of the state. To make matters worse, Bulgakov has fallen in love with the dangerously candid Margarita. Facing imminent arrest, and infatuated with Margarita, he is inspired to write his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, a scathing novel critical of both power and the powerful.
Ranging between lively readings in the homes of Moscow's literary elite to the Siberian Gulag, Mikhail and Margarita recounts a passionate love triangle while painting a portrait of a country whose towering literary tradition is at odds with a dictatorship that does not tolerate dissent. Margarita is a strong, idealistic, seductive woman who is fiercely loved by two very different men, both of whom will fail in their attempts to shield her from the machinations of a regime hungry for human sacrifice. Debut novelist Julie Lekstrom Himes launches a rousing defense of art and the artist during a time of systematic deception, and she movingly portrays the ineluctable consequences of love for one of history's most enigmatic literary figures.
** This extract is from Mikhail and Margarita published by Europa Editions. To purchase, move your curser mid-lower page and click on the link to a retailer.
History came late to Russia. Geography isolated her and isolation defined her. In the ninth century, pagan Vikings discovered her from the north; Muslim Khazars ruled her from the south. The Cyrillic alphabet, which was to craft her story, made its way across the Carpathian Mountains on the backs of Macedonian monks only in the winding years of the tenth century. Even nine centuries later, Pushkin and Tolstoy were yet inventing those words which in Russian did not exist: gesture and sympathy, impulse and imagination, individuality.
It would be the task of her subsequent writers to try to define them.
Mikhail Afanasievich Bulgakov sat with his back to an open window in the richly appointed restaurant of Moscow’s All-Soviets Writers Union. It was late spring of 1933. His friend Osip Mandelstam leaned across their small table to emphasize a point, but Bulgakov wasn’t listening. He was thinking instead of his friend’s young lover, imagining how he might steal her from him.
The day preceding had been blisteringly hot. By midday the waitstaff had tied back the heavy damask curtains and pushed open the high, triple casing windows that encircled the polygonal room. A series of French doors opened onto a wide verandah that was likewise arranged with tables and chairs for dining. Repeatedly, the restaurant manager stood in the dining room, then on the painted planking of the verandah, then back again, considering the temperature and ventilation of each space. Finally, by late afternoon, he set the staff to move half a dozen additional tables from inside, through the open doors, and onto the already crowded verandah. He went from table to table with his meter-stick, measuring and ordering adjustments and measuring again. Shortly before dusk, dense green-grey clouds filled the sky and opened themselves upon the streets of Moscow. The heavy drapes floated up in the wind and slapped down against the window moldings. Enormous raindrops like errant birds flew through the open windows and between the broad porch columns, spotting the tablecloths and napkins and puddling on the polished wood floor. The sun returned only to dip below the darkening outlines of buildings, steam rose from the sizzled streets, and frantic waitstaff hustled about, blotting and wiping and mopping. By the time the restaurant opened at ten that night everything that needed to be dried or replaced had been considered, save one—not a single grain of salt could be coaxed from its shaker. After the second request for fresh salt, it was clear there was no more to be found either in the back storage closets or in the basement, and the manager sent one of the younger dishwashers out to procure some from a nearby restaurant with an extra ten-ruble note to pay for the speed of a cab. Not a block from the restaurant the dishwasher discharged the driver with a few kopeks and pocketed the rest. When the first did not return, the manager sent a second dishwasher on the same errand, only now, two washers short, dirty plates and glasses began to accumulate and service noticeably slowed. With the continuing requests, he set two of the waitstaff to dump several shakers’ worth into a pestle and grind the grains apart, but the clumps reformed almost immediately. Meanwhile, the manager went from table to table apologizing and offering assurance they were only minutes from acquiring new salt that would be swiftly and equitably distributed. In any case, he told them, he hoped their meals were prepared to their satisfaction.
The manager paused from his rounds and stood in the doorway between the dining room and the verandah, scanning the guests. He recognized Mandelstam; otherwise there was no one of terrific consequence; the night could not be counted an utter disaster.
The air outside smelled of ozone, and, slightly cooled by the evening rain, it floated through the window behind Bulgakov. The squat alcohol lamps on each table were protected by small translucent shades and did not flicker. Other patrons, sweating in the dim light, moved little. The edges of conversations were muted as well. Several tables away, a young woman in a crumpled orange dress fed caviar to an older man with a poorly dyed goatee. To their right, another man, a minor poet, argued with his two companions, jabbing his finger into his palm, yet even this seemed vague and lacking conviction. Near the doors to the verandah, a band played a low and drifting melody.
Mandelstam sat back as though he’d made his point. The light from the lamp bloomed between them. Mandelstam’s thinning dark hair ringed his scalp in an untidy damp fringe. His face was pale and moist in the heat. He was forty-two, only a year older than Bulgakov, yet he seemed more aged as if he’d lived in a different time or under more difficult circumstances. How he’d been able to attract the much younger Margarita Nikoveyena had occupied Bulgakov’s thoughts on not a few occasions before this evening.
Bulgakov glanced over the room. Beyond the doors leading to the veranda there was the turn of a pale gown; a flicker of bare shoulders. A slender neck, then gone. Could she be here this evening? “Who the devil is that?” he murmured.
“You’re not listening,” said Mandelstam. It seemed more a weary reflection than an accusation. He maintained what Bulgakov would consider a too-generous gaze.
“That’s true.” Bulgakov smiled a little with this admission. He felt some guilt about this. They met infrequently these days. Their friendship had evolved from a mentorship of sorts, begun over a decade earlier when Bulgakov had moved to Moscow and started writing. Years later and now with some success of his own, their friendship had dwindled rather than strengthened. Bulgakov blamed himself generally. Their dinner tonight had been Mandelstam’s suggestion. Bulgakov could not remember another meeting that had come at the poet’s request. Even so, he had almost declined at the last moment, for no better reasons than the poor weather and the mediocre meal which was to be expected midweek at the Writers’ Union. As he’d come across the room, unreasonably late and with an excuse forming, Mandelstam’s gaunt face was so at odds with the room’s richness that his first words were not a request for pardon but a pointed inquiry into the state of his health. Mandelstam assured him that he was fine, and yet it was the pleasure he showed at Bulgakov’s arrival, and his willingness to set aside the annoyance he must have felt for being made to wait, which caused Bulgakov to consider that there was something Mandelstam required from him. This was the first time Bulgakov had ever thought such a thing.
Mandelstam’s interest turned to Bulgakov’s well-being.
“Why don’t you get away? Go to Peredelkino—it’s quite nice this time of year,” said Mandelstam.
Six dachas—parceled out amongst three thousand writers. The privilege of Union membership for the politically connected. Bulgakov pretended this was a serious suggestion. “I’ve not had a turn.”
“I’ve been a number of times.” Bulgakov’s reluctance to engage in Union politics was an old conversation. “It’s not impossible. Who do you go to?”
Bulgakov laughed. “Who would have me?” His self-deprecation was false, but he had no desire for patronage. He preferred to remain in some way invisible. Not his work, of course, but for himself, this was fine; perhaps even best.
Mandelstam shook his head. “Everyone goes to someone. You don’t have to live in that place of yours. You could do better. Committee members, they love writers—makes them feel cultured. I could introduce you.”
Bulgakov glanced away again. “Is that Likovoyev? I haven’t seen him in months.”
“He’s been at Peredelkino.”
Of course. Bulgakov smiled. “And I thought he’d died.”
Mandelstam lowered his head, whether from the heat or the conversation, it was difficult to say. He seemed disinclined to pursue other old topics: the necessity of placating critics, of transforming editors and directors and producers into advocates. Bulgakov was grateful, though he considered that in this, and possibly in other ways, too, he’d plumbed the limits of a friend’s fortitude.
“Perhaps you should write poetry,” said Mandelstam.
“Aren’t you concerned I’d give you competition?” Bulgakov had intended this to be funny. He downed what
remained of his vodka.
Mandelstam waited for his attention. “Only in this country is poetry respected,” he said. “There’s no place where more people are killed for it.”
He was prone to speak in such a manner. Bulgakov found it tiresome; he did not share his friend’s political discontent. This was not so much a stance, he told himself, as a lack of interest. He barely read the papers; he listened to the radio for its music. Yet because of this edge in Mandelstam a certain wariness was necessary, a constant recalibration of the space of their relationship. That was what was tiresome. He noticed that the poet had acquired a spot on his shirt since the start of their dinner. He was often careless, and Bulgakov found himself further annoyed by this. “One might argue, then, that writing poetry would not be such a good idea.”
Mandelstam smiled. Perhaps this was so, he agreed.
Likovoyev moved from table to table, clasping hands as each patron rose from his seat. Only brief exchanges, and Bulgakov observed with mild interest as shifts in the Union’s hierarchy were revealed. Likovoyev went next to the Art Theater’s new librettist; then bent low to ingratiate himself with the man’s young wife, a former countess, holding her hand for too long, ignoring her husband until she looked away, embarrassed. He was stork-like in his maneuverings; his awkwardness made him even more comedic. Bulgakov’s lips parted.
“What is it?” said Mandelstam.
“Our beloved critic,” said Bulgakov. “Among his many crimes, he is an appalling flirt.”
“My wife seems to be immune to his advances.”
“You are fortunate.”
“In some ways, Nadya is like a nun. How is your Tatiana?”
The waiter appeared and replaced his drink. Bulgakov waited until he’d receded. “She’s moved in with her sister and her husband.”
Mandelstam seemed to check his surprise. It occurred to Bulgakov that this was already common knowledge. Their wives had been friends of a sort, sharing the burden of writer-husbands.
“Their apartment is larger,” said Bulgakov. “And—they have a private bath.”
Mandelstam nodded in feigned support of the wife. “I would leave you, too.”
Likovoyev moved on from the librettist and was embracing a young poet. Bulgakov emptied his glass again. He remembered the precise moment he had fallen out of love with his wife. An acquaintance had introduced them at Bulgakov’s request. For weeks she’d gently rebuffed his advances with teasing words he’d found endearing, then one evening, without explanation, she’d stayed. He remembered her sitting on the edge of his bed, the pearl-shaped buttons of her blouse between her fingers, undressing for him; he remembered the low angle of orange sunlight through the dirty window. He remembered watching his desire fall away as the chemise dropped from her shoulders. If only she would leave, he thought. Perhaps if she had, his desire would have returned; but she’d remained.
He’d married her anyway. He felt their lovemaking had been a kind of agreement to this. And he felt sorry for her, for being unloved. And she was fine, really. They got along well. She left him alone to write and was sufficiently distracting when the loneliness turned on him.
Likovoyev was standing by their table. Startled, Bulgakov laughed aloud. “I thought you were the waiter,” said Bulgakov, lifting his empty glass.
Likovoyev bared his teeth in what might be called a smile. Mandelstam interceded. “You look remarkable. Your time at Peredelkino served you well.”
“It did,” said the critic. “I banished all thoughts of this place, I must say, all—except—inexplicably, you.” He nodded to Bulgakov.
“Then you must return, immediately, and try again,” said Bulgakov. “I will petition the Union Chairman on your behalf, first thing tomorrow.”
Likovoyev ignored this. “I understand you have a new play under production at the MAT. All is going smoothly, I pray?”
“We open at the end of the month.” Bulgakov didn’t bother to restrain a bit of swagger.
“So glad to hear. I’d heard mention of a delay.” Likovoyev hesitated as though he might say more, then changed his mind. “I was obviously misinformed.”
This was unexpected. “No,” said Bulgakov, rather too quickly. “No. Not at all.” Likovoyev looked again at Mandelstam as if for some sort of verification.
Bulgakov wanted to say that the play was progressing well, ahead of schedule, in fact, though this wasn’t true. They were behind, but not irrevocably. Perhaps seven or eight days; certainly no more than two weeks. But the delay wasn’t entirely his concern. The director, Stanislawski, had seemed to be avoiding him of late, locking himself in his office for hours until Bulgakov would bully his assistant to open it, only then to find that the director had somehow slipped away. Bulgakov had convinced himself this was all his imagining but now his worries bloomed afresh. He wanted to question Likovoyev further, but the other was already speaking.
“Frivolous gossip, then, no doubt. I knew it was nothing to heed.”
“Stanislawski has made no mention—” Bulgakov began. Mandelstam frowned.
“Yes? I am so relieved,” said Likovoyev. “And thankful to have spoken with you.” He nodded. “I will look forward to Moliere’s opening—and to my humble review.”
“Yes—to your review,” Bulgakov echoed. Some part of him vaguely wished the critic would stay. For the first time, he looked forward to a Likovoyev review.
“I won’t keep you from your meal.” Likovoyev seemed more jovial than when he’d arrived, as though he’d extracted the better part of their good mood. “Please give my regards to your lovely wives.” He bowed and turned away. Bulgakov watched him recede.
Mandelstam leaned forward. “He’s not the reason for your—for Tatiana’s—”
Bulgakov shook his head. “No, that was my fault.” The critic was already several tables away. He bent low, to address some other writer’s wife. At the woman’s words, he dropped his head to the side, his eyes boring into hers. Bulgakov recognized the harmless gestures. Now he could almost forgive him for them.
He turned to Mandelstam. “What about a delay? Have you heard such rumors? Have you?”
Mandelstam was poking the remains of his dinner with his fork. “You’ve spoken with Stanislawski yourself. All is fine.”
“Yes, we’ve spoken.” Bulgakov tried to remember the last time they had. “I must speak with him again.” He needed this production. Other recent efforts had been poorly received and short-lived.
“I’m surprised he’s not here tonight,” said Mandelstam. He considered a nondescript piece of meat. “Of course, it is a Tuesday.”
Likovoyev kissed the hand of the writer’s wife. Bulgakov watched him straighten and bow to her, then to the husband, helpless beside her. The woman lifted her eyes to the critic in a kind of wonderment; a combination of mild loathing and speculation. Bulgakov looked away.
He’d thought nothing of Likovoyev’s flirtations with his wife. Nothing whatsoever, except some faint gratitude that the critic provided something which Bulgakov lacked all interest in supplying. That Likovoyev’s stilted affectations might satisfy her in some small way. They, he and Tatiana, had laughed about him, yet perhaps, she had laughed not as much. He’d considered her secret satisfaction with the critic’s attentions a kind of naïveté that should not have been surprising. He wasn’t surprised and hadn’t begrudged her those small pleasures.
There was no crime, no clandestine tryst that had come between them. Nothing save the briefest reluctance, the sparest of pauses, one afternoon as he’d stuttered through his regular tirade about him. For the first time she had not immediately agreed. For the first time she’d been quiet. And in that silence he saw her consideration for the critic, her alliance with him, and realized that this Likovoyev, though incapable of
comprehending even the most lucid of writing, could nonetheless reveal in his boorish maneuverings a desolation in her far greater than some naïveté. Bulgakov turned to her for some explanation. She pressed her lips together and looked away as if something had passed their window.
Afterwards, he told himself she did not matter so much; it’d been a mistake from the start and it was easier to let her go. She did not leave right away, but drifted further and further, until one day her belongings slipped away as well. He came home that afternoon to those empty spaces. He left them that way for days, hangers in the wardrobe, the place by the door where her shoes had stood. He found reasons not to fill them; he told himself, though, it was not because she might return. It was not because her things might again need a place to stay.
He found his glass and tipped it forward to pool the remaining drops. He lacked the power to maneuver the world in his favor; he could not even will the waiter to sedate him with more drink. He started to lift it but found his hand restrained.
“Talk to Stanislawski,” said Mandelstam. He nodded as if he understood the problem.
Bulgakov considered his glass. “I will,” he said. Osip relaxed his hand and Bulgakov tipped back the last drops.
The musicians had begun to play again; they took up a jazz line. Music filled the spaces between conversations. Mandelstam frowned as if he’d been interrupted. Then he looked upward. Someone was by their table.
“Good evening, my dear,” he said. He sounded slightly annoyed.
The pale gown from before was beside them. It was Margarita Nikoveyeva.
Bulgakov had seen her before, though not with the poet. They’d tried to conceal their affair although many, even Mandelstam’s wife, it was said, knew of it. There had been the time, the previous fall, at a party in this very room. He’d watched as she’d put off the advances of another man. At one point she’d looked about as though for some means of escape, and caught his gaze. Bulgakov had smiled, both sympathetic and duplicitous, and across that space they had shared an understanding. Or so he’d thought.
Tonight she was different, though. Indeed, all of her seemed unreasonably pale. Her hair pulled back in a chignon was silvery in the dim light; her ivory-colored dress, unadorned, fell in simple lines. He became aware of her breathing from its gentle motion. Her fingers rested on the edge of the tablecloth, as if to steady herself. Behind her, the band seemed muted. She nodded to both men but addressed only Mandelstam. Bulgakov expected him to compliment her appearance; the light of the room seemed to soak into her. But it wasn’t this that gave her an unworldly appearance. She had the air of the ill-fated; of one about to step from a platform onto empty tracks, the sound of a train filling the air. Not with the purpose to end her life so much as to embrace the monstrosity. He wanted to pull her to safety and at the same time to stand back and watch her proceed. He stood to give her his chair; she smiled a little, shook her head, and returned her attention to Mandelstam. He had remained seated.
When Mandelstam spoke his voice had taken an edge.
“Who are you with tonight?” He spoke as a brother might, or a father. Someone responsible for her in some way. Or as an ex-lover. Reminding her that without a Union membership, she could not have gained entrance on her own merit. But perhaps more meaningfully, he was demonstrating his right to ask that question in that manner.
An embarrassed smile fluttered across her face; she provided a name. Bulgakov didn’t recognize it, but Mandelstam nodded.
“You look well,” she said. She sounded mildly hopeful in this.
“Perhaps in this lighting I do.”
She continued with less certainty. “And Nadya?”
“She actually is quite well. But I don’t think I’ll tell her you asked.”
He was condescending to the point of contempt, Bulgakov thought. He reached for Mandelstam’s arm. She’d come to them, after all. Was there a need for this? Mandelstam moved his arm away.
“I simply wanted to say ‘hello.’” She said this without apology or defense, as if a little tired.
“And so you have,” he said flatly.
“I mean there’s no reason for us to pretend we don’t know each other,” she said. She seemed not to lose courage, but hope.
Mandelstam frowned at the cloth and swept its crumbs aside as though he no longer had patience for them. They bounced lightly off the skirt of her gown.
“You are far too willing to overlook my shortcomings, my dear,” he said. He smoothed the now-clean cloth with his hand.
Only her eyes revealed her distress, her unwillingness to believe his animosity and yet her acceptance of it. Her vulnerability was breathtaking. He wondered if Mandelstam saw this as well.
“Perhaps,” she said quickly. “That would be my shortcoming.” She turned to Bulgakov. “Please enjoy your meal,” she said.
“We’ve finished,” said Bulgakov, correcting her. “It wasn’t particularly good.”
“Ah, well then, enjoy—” She left her sentiment unfinished, unable to come up with a better idea of what they were to delight in. She’d already turned. He watched her recede, feeling as though he’d allowed her to escape.
Mandelstam watched her as well, his expression very different from the one just moments before. There was an old affection, perhaps one that had been retired, yet nonetheless remembered, and it occurred to Bulgakov that she was the reason they’d dined here this evening. She disappeared through one of the veranda doors and Mandelstam’s gaze found his. “She should know better,” Mandelstam said.
“I think she does now.”
“I suspect not.”
The door’s opening maintained its velvety darkness. Bulgakov looked for her to reappear but it remained empty.
“We were speaking of your play,” Mandelstam said.
Bulgakov thought that perhaps he’d rather talk about Margarita.
Mandelstam and Bulgakov left the restaurant together. The streets were wet and empty; the sky was low. Bulgakov felt the hum of alcohol out to his fingertips. He felt connected to the dense warm air that rose from the glistening asphalt. He wondered where Margarita might be at that moment. He imagined her alone, perhaps on a street like this one, then remembered she was with someone else. Was she holding his hand; his arm? Had he provided her comfort? He wondered how he might see her again.
Two uniformed men stepped into the street. Mandelstam stopped then immediately moved away from Bulgakov, and the four men stood apart, the points of some ill-formed square. Bulgakov was for a moment confused.
The gold threads of the police insignia glimmered in the light of a nearby streetlamp.
“Citizens. May we see your documents?” said the taller man. Mandelstam provided a cache of papers. Bulgakov extended his as well and they were snatched up by the shorter of the two. This one mouthed the words as he silently read them.
“The poet Mandelstam,” said the taller policeman. He sounded genuinely pleased.
“You never know who you might find roaming the streets at night,” said the poet.
The other officer continued to review Bulgakov’s papers as if disappointed he’d not caught a larger fish. “Are you together?” he asked finally. He handed the papers back.
“No,” said Mandelstam. He seemed about to add something further then stopped. The taller officer studied Bulgakov with growing interest.
Bulgakov laughed. “You are Mandelstam?” he said. “I thought he was a much younger man.” He swayed suddenly and stepped back to regain his balance. The shorter officer shined a flashlight in his face and the world disappeared in its glare. He heard, “Stand to, Citizen.” The light moved and the street reappeared, muddled with spots. The shorter officer stepped closer. To Bulgakov it seemed this one was a clown’s version of a policeman. He laughed aloud at the thought.
The shorter officer was about to speak but the other interrupted. “Comrade Poet, you give us a poem. We’d like that.”
Mandelstam shook his head. “I can’t think of one, friends. Perhaps another time.”
The taller officer didn’t move. It was clear he was unsatisfied with that answer.
“I know a poem,” said Bulgakov. “One you will like. ‘There once was a whore from Kiev.’” He paused. “No, Novgorod. Yes. ‘There once was a whore from Novgorod.’”
The officers stiffened. Bulgakov noticed this in his blur but went on.
“No, it can’t be Novgorod. The rhythm’s all wrong. I can see you gentlemen are not enthusiasts of great literature.”
Mandelstam spoke. “Enough.”
“You’re not so terribly funny,” chimed the shorter officer.
“Perhaps you would like to be arrested for public drunkenness.” He hooked his thumbs onto his belt.
“Oh but I am funny,” said Bulgakov in a show of astonishment. “I am a satirist. Humor is my tool.” He lowered his voice as if conspiratorial. “It is my weapon.”
The policeman looked alarmed.
“But perhaps you think satire is a kind of fish that swims in the Volga.”
“Enough.” This time it seemed Mandelstam was speaking to the greater world. “I will give you a poem.” He touched Bulgakov’s sleeve.
The poet’s manner had a dousing effect and Bulgakov was given to the uncomfortable sense that this was something Mandelstam had intended; and even if it was not precisely intended, then perhaps it was quite simply an opportunity he would take.
The streets were empty, as if Moscow had availed them some privacy. Mandelstam’s voice rose as though he was speaking to a gathering of hundreds, as though this was his most beloved of works.
We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.
His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boots gleam.
Every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.
It was the shorter officer who made a sound, a sharp sigh. Mandelstam licked his lips, as though he’d become parched. “I think even a Bolshevik can understand that much,” he said.
With that Bulgakov staggered forward and threw his arms around Mandelstam’s shoulders. He pressed the poet’s head into his neck.
“He’s drunk, Comrades. Can’t you see? What a night we’ve had! His words—what words—I could barely understand such slurring. Can’t you see—his wife left him, truly—just today. Left him for a younger man, a bookkeeper. The poor old goat. And his daughter is pregnant.” This he added in a whisper.
“Stand away,” said the taller policeman. The baton was in his hand.
It seemed ridiculous—could this be happening? He clutched Mandelstam harder. “No, no, no—he’s drunk, I tell you. I’ll take him home. I’ll tuck him in. The headache he’ll have tomorrow. I should drive a car over his foot so he can forget the pain in his head.” He looked from one officer to the other. He maneuvered Mandelstam past.
He broke into a jog, half-dragging the poet down the street. He imagined them following. They weren’t far from the DRAMALIT house where Mandelstam shared an apartment with his wife.
He thrust them both through the front door. The street behind was silent. Only then did he release him.
“You should come by tomorrow,” said Mandelstam. “There may be an apartment made newly available. A nice place, I hear.” He appeared to enjoy his joke.
Bulgakov was shaking. “I don’t think they followed us,” he said.
Mandelstam shook his head. He seemed suddenly quite weary. “They’re upstairs.” He glanced at the ceiling. “Can you hear them? Roaches in the walls.”
“Here? They cannot be here already.”
The poet stepped back into the hall under the ceiling light. His scalp shone brightly. He looked upward. “She’s alone with them,” he said. He meant his wife. “They will have a time of it.” He sounded mildly sympathetic.
“We must get you away. We’ll go to my place. It’s not far.”
There was a distant thump, then the thinner crack of breaking wood. Mandelstam closed his eyes. “The sideboard. What we went through to haul that monstrosity up those stairs.”
Bulgakov reached for the poet’s arm. Tentatively, as if in this gesture he might disappear. “What can I do?” he said.
Mandelstam looked at him as though he’d not considered this before and Bulgakov saw in his face his sad realization: there was nothing Bulgakov could do; there was nothing anyone could do.
Mandelstam took hold of the stair rail. This slant of wood was his immediate future. He would follow it momentarily. All of his earlier passion seemed to have fled him. His face appeared to have aged even further and Bulgakov realized he was witnessing despair.
“Perhaps we’ve been fools to write.” Mandelstam seemed to speak to all of that building’s occupants. As if this was his revelation. As if they would have served better as window washers or carpet-layers. There would have been clean windows, straight carpets.
Bulgakov didn’t know how to answer. He watched him ascend. He wanted to call him back.
The single bulb overhead whined. Moments later there was a distant rumble, a deeper disturbance. He put his ear to the plaster. Nothing, then a crash, a door slam—it seemed close. What did it mean that he stood there? What did it mean that he waited, listening as some poor widowed neighbor would listen?What did it mean? The building seemed to murmur a distant chorus. Could he stand there and do nothing? He pressed his hands to the wall. He held it dear. Yes, he could.
Bulgakov waited across the street in the shadows of a small apartment building. The road remained empty apart from a dark sedan. A streetlight crackled intermittently. Later, as the sky paled to gray, three secret police exited the DRAMALIT house. One carried a box; Mandelstam walked between the other two, his arms behind his back. They didn’t notice Bulgakov. In an alley nearby, a trashcan was disturbed by a scavenging animal. They got into the car. It pulled away, turning at the end of the block. Bulgakov crossed the street.
At Mandelstam’s apartment, the door was ajar and he entered. The lamps were extinguished. Grey light filtered from a window; beneath was a bookcase and nearby an upholstered chair and sofa. The light reached no further. Before him, in the semidarkness, shadowy, unrecognizable forms seemed strewn about the floor. He hesitated.
Across, a checked curtain was pushed aside and Mandelstam’s wife emerged from a shallow hallway. She was thin and pale; her hair was short and very dark, cut at an angle across her face. She wore a loose cotton dress. She gazed past Bulgakov as if he was of no more consequence than a piece of furniture set out of place. She moved toward the window and knelt on the floor.
They’d known each other for years; he considered she was in shock.
“Nadya?” He stumbled against the leg of an overturned chair, then set it upright. Its seat and armrest were missing.
Objects around him seemed to emerge from the darkness. The floor was covered with books and papers; a large bookcase was upended and broken shelves hung loose. The fabled sideboard laid across the floor in a diagonal; broken glass glimmered dimly from the carpet. A desk chair sat across the room, upside down. Its legs turned slowly about its stem, as if its occupant had recently and quite absurdly departed.
Paper was everywhere. He picked up one. Notes in Mandelstam’s hand.
“I can’t find it,” she said. “I know it’s here. Here—” She pointed, between the floorboards. “A pin?” As if he was too dense to understand. “Do you know how hard it is to lay your hands on pins?” She looked up at him. “No, you wouldn’t.” Her expression was unreadable in the light.
He couldn’t make sense of her tone; it bordered on contempt as though some part of this was his doing.
He turned on a lamp. In its light the devastation was complete. “Did they find what they were looking for?” he asked.
She shook her head. She sat back on her heels, her hands on her thighs, as if to say, damn the pin. They could live in a world without pins, for all her concern.
“He offered to write it out for them,” she said. “So that even with their myopic vision, they could read it.” Those were his words, of course. As she spoke, her anger went to incredulity then to sorrow. As if she couldn’t believe she was saying these things; that they could even be said.
She crawled into the chair near the window. Through the wall came the faint sound of a man singing a popular tune. Bulgakov sat on the sofa near her. He picked up a displaced toy that lay at his feet; three carved horses wired together crudely and arranged on a small set of wheels. He moved one of them and the others bobbled up and down on their own, one after the other, as if galloping across the steppe. Bulgakov looked up and found she was watching him.
“Osip’s?” he asked.
“It was mine,” she said flatly.
She made no movement to take it, as if it’d belonged to a different and no longer relevant version of herself, and he set it on the floor again. A postcard stuck out from under the skirt of the sofa and he retrieved it. It was of the coastline of Yalta. It’d been written by Osip to Nadya’s parents. He recognized the long looping strokes. The postmark was 1924.
He imagined a 1924 version of Osip. This one smiled square to the camera, his hands on his hips as if challenging it, with exuberant hair and teeth.
Nadya took the card from him.
“That was from our honeymoon,” she said. “Well, we called it that.” She studied the picture. “We stayed—there,” and she pointed to a small jut of land, east of the city. “The place was terrible. Let by an older couple. I wouldn’t let Osip sit on the bed until I’d boiled the sheets.” She smiled. “There was a palm tree outside our door. Every morning, he’d kiss it. So silly. He’d do things to make me laugh. He was a wonderful man.”
Then her face changed. “They’re going to kill him, aren’t they?” As if her utterance had set their decision. She began to cry.
“No, they’re not.” He covered her hand with his. “He’s important, an important writer.” He smiled to show how ridiculous this would be. “They wouldn’t dare. I can’t imagine it.” He tried to appear convinced.
She wiped her face with her hands, then touched her hair.
“What should we do?”
At first he was uncertain what she meant; as though their sitting together further endangered her husband. Then he understood: what could they do?
“Go to Bukharin,” he said. “Tell him of—this.” He didn’t know what he would say, but it was something she could do, and immediately she nodded.
“He got us tickets to the Kirov last June. We didn’t ask. They just came. I told him—Osip, of course. Well, it was nice, I told him. It was one nice thing. He could have given them to his housekeeper. The very least we could do was go.”
The apartment door behind her opened and closed. Someone had entered. “Is it Anna?” she asked.
Although the light was dim, he could see it was Margarita.
Why had she come?
Nadya turned to look, then got up abruptly and went to the checked curtain. He stood as she left. On the other side, in the bedroom, clothes and books had been tossed about; a terrible gash cut through a bare and overturned mattress. All disappeared as the curtain fell.
The room felt oddly crowded with now just the two of them. She nodded, as though acknowledging their recent encounter at the restaurant. He wondered if she was surprised to see him. He could only think of all of the reasons why she shouldn’t have come. He hesitated to speak lest he start enumerating them for her.
She didn’t seem surprised by the wreckage. Her hair was pulled back in a loose knot at the base of her neck. She wore trousers and a man’s shirt, cinched at the waist. She lifted one hand for balance as she stepped through the remains of the sideboard.
He wondered whose shirt.
“Careful,” he said. “There is glass.”
She picked up some loose pages near her feet, then sat in the chair as Nadya had. In the better light he could see she’d been crying.
There was a noise from the bedroom but the curtain was still. He sat again.
“I’m surprised you’re here,” he said. It wasn’t meant to be unkind.
He was nervous of Nadya’s reaction.
Margarita looked over her shoulder as well.
She’d have known a Mandelstam different from his, perhaps even different from Nadya’s. Seeing her face in this light he tried to imagine how the poet’s hands would have touched her. Would he have used gestures different than those practiced on a wife of ten years?
But she was speaking. “Were you here when they came?”
“They were here when we got back,” he said.
Perhaps she was wondering if she could have prevented these events. Would things have gone differently had she chosen different words? Worn a different dress? Would he have come home with her instead? Bulgakov imagined all of this as he watched her thoughts work, as his own worked in the same manner, searching for his own culpability. Suppose he had been a better friend? Had been attentive of Mandelstam’s growing discontent? Could he have dissuaded him from taking action? There must have been something he could have done. Better to have been at fault than to have been powerless.
It occurred to him that in sitting with her, he was in some way colluding with the mistress. Nadya, he knew, would view it thusly. He could check on her; the other room was now quiet. He could begin to tidy the place. He could leave Margarita to her own accounting.
He continued to sit with her. He didn’t know what to say.
“I’m sorry for the way he behaved in the restaurant,” he said. He realized how odd it sounded. Was Nadya listening? He lowered his voice.
“What I mean is that I’m sorry you had to see that—I mean if it’s the last time—God, I mean I’m certain that’s not the way he feels.” His words had become haphazard, going from odd to reckless.
She glanced at the pages, as though they might give better comfort.
The curtain pushed aside and Nadya appeared. They both stood and he moved between them as if he would mediate or divert her from examining the obvious.
Nadya’s arms were crossed over her chest. She studied Margarita.
“I guess I’m not surprised,” she said finally. Her voice lacked the earlier chilliness that he’d received. He found her calm unnerving. Her face was empty; something was about to happen there.
“I’ve wanted to see you,” said Margarita. “I wish this was under different circumstances.”
Nadya’s face darkened slightly but her words were still assured. “Are you suggesting we could have arranged to meet for lunch? The way friends do?”
“I’ve missed you.”
They knew each other. Perhaps even had been friends, and suddenly he knew, as though he’d been told, or really, as though he’d been witness: Nadya had introduced them to each other. Nadya, her arm through Margarita’s, at some sort of gathering, had delivered to her husband his future mistress. Perhaps she’d read the desire in his eyes at that first encounter. In any case, she had known.
“A ladies’ tête-à-tête?” Nadya’s voice rose.
He thought to pull Margarita away. His hand edged to her arm, but she seemed not to notice. She had the same demeanor as in the restaurant the night before: there was something she needed to say.
“I know I’ve hurt you, Nadyusha.”
“Slut.” The word was well formed as though it had been waiting for its opportunity.
“I’m so sorry.”
Nadya raised her hand to strike her. As though Margarita’s regret was itself a kind of insult. As though some had rights to certain losses, to certain grievances, and some did not.
Bulgakov took Nadya’s wrist. She pulled her arm away.
“I’ve hated you both,” she said to Margarita. “Selfish—that’s what you are—selfish—thoughtless.” He could see her trying to get the words right. “No—I never hated him. It was you who made him selfish.”
“He’s not selfish,” said Margarita. Nadya laughed.
“The wife knows ‘selfish.’” She nodded. “The wife.” She jabbed her fingers into her own chest. “Believe me. All of this.” She gestured to the room. “All of this—he brought into being. Selfish.”
“Nadya,” he said. He knew he sounded reproachful. She turned on him with her anger and self-pity.
“The—wife—” She looked as if the need to explain this took something from her; particularly to explain to him, who should have known better. The wife who had suffered the humiliations of police searches. Who had borne the shame of gossip and curiosity. And now—an uncertain future. This was the currency of devotion measured against the currency of desire. They all should know better.
They had all become perpetrators of a kind, Mandelstam included. Their crimes might be different, but she was their victim. It was reflected in her face. Perhaps she had guessed it when Bulgakov had first appeared that morning: that he would fall in with them; that she would be alone, once again, as always; and he saw how she hated him for it.
She disappeared again behind the curtain.
Margarita didn’t move. She looked at the fabric as though waiting for it to become something else.
The curtain stayed closed.
What else was there to do? Bulgakov set the desk upright, then the desk chair. He pushed the smaller bookcase back against the wall. Below was the wrecked sideboard. He swept the bits of glass onto a loose page. Everywhere were books and papers.
She pushed her sleeves up past her elbows, knelt, and began to return the books to their shelves. He worked at this too. Her hair slipped from its knot. She finally tucked it back and continued.
She smelled of soap.
Nadya appeared. She crouched and gathered as many papers as she could reach, then went back into the bedroom. There was something about her movements that made him follow.
A small stove extended from an older fireplace. It hummed. Nadya opened the grate and stuffed some papers into it. Next to her, a steamer’s trunk sat open, filled with notebooks and more papers and letters. She watched, then slowly fed more to the flames.
The curtain moved and Margarita came up behind him.
“What are you doing?” he asked. He took the page in her hands. There were handwritten lines of verse. She pulled it back and pushed it through the grate.
He sensed some part of her was doing this to him, forcing him to watch. Asking who he thought the perpetrator was now.
“You’re just angry,” he said. “You’re upset,” he repeated, thinking to negotiate. “I understand. But you can’t do this.”
Nadya reached into the trunk for more papers. This seemed too easy for her.
“They’re not yours to burn.” He tried to keep his voice even.
She sneered. “They’re yours?”
“Yes—perhaps. Yes—they could be.”
“This will save him,” she said. “Despite everything— because of everything. I will save him.”
“But this—Nadya—it is his work,” he said. She must be made to be reasonable.
Her face shimmered in the fire’s light. He was suddenly afraid for himself.
She opened the grate again. “There are enough poets in this world,” she said.
“I’ll help you,” said Margarita.
He turned in disbelief. She was already beyond the curtain. He followed her.
She was on her knees, turning over books and furniture, gathering pages from the floor. With the growing light, they seemed to be everywhere.
“What are you doing?” he whispered.
She considered the sheets in her hand. Slowly she paged through them. She pulled out several and hid them in her shirt. Not everything was verse.
He dropped to his knees and began to do the same.
Nadya appeared. Margarita gave her the assortment in her hands.
He paused and let the papers he held slowly fall to the floor. Nadya didn’t seem to notice.
“You understand,” she said to him. “This is his life we’re talking about. His flesh and blood life. I cannot live without him.” She spoke as if she was the first to ever say such things, the first to ever contemplate those feelings.
“I understand,” he said. He couldn’t look at her.
She disappeared behind the curtain.
“What about the trunk,” he said.
Margarita looked pained but said nothing. She slipped more pages into her shirt.
He scrambled to collect others. One held a new poem. Its opening line rattled him. He shut his eyes.
Nadya took them from him and went into the bedroom.
What were those words? Their order became confused; then they dropped from his memory, first the smaller ones, then the larger ones followed. They were gone.
Margarita went to the desk and began to go through the drawers. He went to the bedroom again.
Nadya was kneeling next to the stove. The collection in the trunk had noticeably shrunk.
“He would not agree to this.”
She stared through the open grate. “Get out of my apartment,” she said.
She turned on him. “Get out. I will call the police. I will turn you over to them as a traitor. An enemy of the people.” Her face loosened; the calm was gone. She was shaking. She went back to the stove. “I would hand you over in exchange for him.”
He slid along the wall and passed through the curtain. Margarita was kneeling on the floor. He took the pages from the corner of the bookcase as he went toward the door. Beyond it, as he rounded the upper landing, Nadya called to him.
“Never fear, Bulgakov! They will come for you too.”
He clattered down the stairs, fleeing her. Only silence followed. The entry hall was cool and grey in the early light as though part of a different world. He looked at the pages.
A shopping list, a letter from the housing committee chairman, a memorandum from the Writers Union. He’d saved nothing. He struggled to remember the line taken by the flames.
He saw Mandelstam in a grey-green cell under the interrogator’s light. No one really wants you to write. Not even the ones who love you most. Did you not see how easily she’d burned them?
Margarita appeared from around the stairway’s landing. She descended to the bottom step. She carried a modest collection of loose pages. She measured him. He was an uncertain ally.
The fabric under her arm was dark with perspiration. “I have to go back.” She held out the pages. “Nadya moves quickly. She may realize I’m not as helpful as she thinks.”
He took them and thumbed through. Stanzas flashed past. Phrases of new music. Something fresh and beating had been pulled from the wreckage. A life had been saved. It felt like it was his.
His eyes took to that darker place under her sleeve again. Somewhere above it floated shoulders and a head, but he stopped there. Here was enough. He didn’t care whose shirt it was.