Wormwood by Leigh Kimmel

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Wormwood by Leigh Kimmel
Illustration by Sue Babcock

“Natasha, Natasha.”

They had been the last words upon his lips as the executioner’s bullet smashed through his skull. Now they became the first words he uttered as his flesh reconstituted itself.

Behind him the flood of emerging bodies became an irresistible force. Amidst the mass of revenants shambling forth from Donskoy Cemetery’s notorious Grave # 1, he stumbled on unsteady legs, put one foot in front of the other. Although his short stature made it difficult to maintain the pace, the alternative was to be trampled underfoot.

While his body had reassembled itself from the ashes thrown into the bottomless pit of unclaimed remains, his mind had not. One image burned in his mind: the terrified face of a little girl being torn from his arms.

Natasha. That was her name, just as his was Kolya.

What had become of her? The intensity of his affection made his anguish physical.

Urban areas gave way to open country, collective farms. Now and again Kolya would catch glimpses of familiar faces among the crowd. However, the spark of recognition faded when the other revenant moved out of his sight and the memory of Natasha would reassert itself.

That changed shortly after they crossed the Dneiper River, just north of Gomel, another familiar name. Even as he puzzled at that lost connection, he glimpsed a round face with a long nose and full, sensuous lips.

The moment of recognition brought no delight. Instead the sight stabbed terror into Kolya’s mind.

His feet responded even as he formed the thought: He’ll betray me. I have to get out of here.

Being small had its advantages. Breaking ranks proved as simple as slipping into the gaps in the sluggish stream of revenants. If they noticed one of their fellows escaping, they offered no resistance.

Not so the uniformed men — military? police? — who patrolled the road. Kolya no more than began to slide down the road’s shoulder and into the ditch than they were upon him. With blows of wooden clubs and rubber truncheons they forced him back into the shambling horde, cursing him all the time.

As Kolya melded back into the mass of revenants, he heard one of the uniformed men growl, “Wouldn’t you know, he would have to try to run off.”

One of the others asked what he meant, but the distance had already grown too great for Kolya to catch the answer. He wished he could remember why he should fear being recognized.

And then they arrived. For some time he’d seen the column of smoke rising in the sky, first a distant blot on the horizon and then an ever-growing pillar of blackness.

When they crossed the bridge over the Pripyat River, Kolya read the sign over the entrance gate: “V. I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station.” Kolya didn’t know what “nuclear” meant, but he found it comforting that Lenin’s memory continued to be honored.

Everywhere Kolya saw signs of a major industrial accident. Debris lay scattered all over the ground, black chunks that smeared everything they touched.

Uniformed mortals chivvied the hordes of revenants into columns, pushed them through the complex. The procedure was simplicity itself: pick up a chunk of material, carry it to the burning building, throw it in. Climbing the ladders wasn’t easy, and more than a few revenants dropped their loads on the way up, or slipped and went crashing to the ground below. But their loss hardly mattered in the face of the vast numbers being brought to bear on the problem.

When Kolya got to the top of the ladder, he had developed enough curiosity to hazard a look within. Although the roil of smoke obscured vision, he glimpsed shattered pipes twisted around a white-hot mass of burning metal. Another revenant pushed in and he had to descend.

After a while, Kolya noticed a difference among the revenants. The greater part were barely capable of this simple task. Only the endless press of bodies kept them moving in the right direction.

Here and there a revenant would select objects and throw them with direction and purpose. Was it only wishful thinking, a desperate longing for someone he could ask about Natasha, or was there some glimmer of awareness in their sunken eyes?

While Kolya was tracking one revenant that showed signs of awareness, he failed to notice another revenant picking up a huge chunk of concrete. Not that the revenant couldn’t handle it — to judge by his size, he must’ve been a strapping big peasant as a mortal man. No, the problem was the ladder, which began to sag the moment he stepped on it.

Had Kolya been paying attention, he could’ve contrived to delay. Instead, he got on right after the big lunk. When the next revenant mounted the ladder, the wood creaked, then gave way.

When the sensation of falling hit, Kolya’s awareness snapped back to the present. He dropped his burden and threw himself aside to avoid having the big lunk come crashing down on top of him.

He succeeded, but only by crashing into another group of revenants approaching the next ladder over. Down they went like a row of undead dominoes.

It would’ve been funny, except Kolya was terrified out of his wits. The revenant upon whom he had landed was staring straight at him. The same one that had frightened him on the road.

With limbs snarled in the tangle of fallen revenants, Kolya could only stare at that face, so familiar, yet so utterly empty of the intelligence it once had held.

And remember:

A dacha, handsomely furnished, with a half-decorated New Year’s tree set before the windows that overlooked gardens now snow-covered and dormant. The other man, wearing black-rimmed glasses, helping to finish the decorating.

And little Natasha running in, having slipped away from her nanny. “Papa, Papa!”

Kolya was about to tell her to go back to her room when the other man handed the tree-topper to Natasha. “Would you like to put this on?”

She grabbed it, looked at the tree towering over her head. “But how do I reach it?”

The other man smiled. “Here, let me help.”

He grabbed her by the waist and lifted her. Her little-girl laughter rang out loud and clear as she set the figure of Grandfather Frost in its place over the topmost branch.

Even as the bespectacled man set Natasha back on her feet, the nanny came bustling in, her broad peasant face fixed in a scowl. “You naughty little girl–”

Kolya shook his head. “Don’t punish her.”

The nanny sputtered about indiscipline, but Kolya refused to budge. “She meant no harm. Take her back to her room and keep her occupied, but do not punish her. When we,” he gestured to include the bespectacled man, “are finished talking, I will take her out to the pond to skate.”

The bespectacled man watched with some amusement as she led Natasha away. “Well, Nikolai Ivanovich, it seems you’ve got a little fighter, just like my little girl. And they’re even both named Natasha.”

Pain snapped Kolya back to the present. All around him fallen revenants were scrambling to regain their feet. In their near-mindless state, they paid little heed to their surroundings, including how their fellow revenants might be entangled with them.

Even a revenant with no mind left would respond to being prodded with the pronged poles wielded by the bulky figures moving along the edges of the confusion. Their actions were so purposeful that Kolya wondered if they might be mortals.

No, that grayish flesh could belong only to a revenant, but their faces weren’t slack and void. The eyes looked out upon the world with purpose and intent.

Is my awareness that visible on my face?

Kolya had gained sufficient command of his wits to know flight would only draw the attention he sought to avoid. Forcing his face into an imitation of mindless slackness while watching for an escape route was not easy. But Kolya knew these revenants were no friends of his, their shared self-awareness notwithstanding.

It was a relief when the pole’s steel point dug into his undead flesh and he could leap away in a path that just happened to carry him in the right direction to join another column.

Except in his eagerness he’d shown too much agility. Behind him one of the pole-wielders shouted, “Hey, the little squirt’s getting away.”

Kolya ducked into the crowd. The sounds of cursing grew dim, drowned out by the noise made by thousands of revenants shambling through the process of burying that infernal fire.

After a circuit or two, Kolya’s alarm subsided. The rote work allowed his thoughts to return to memory.

However, seeing Natasha happy brought him no joy. Instead it intensified the pain of remembering her reaching for him, as if a child’s hands could hold on hard enough to resist two big brutes leading him away. And it filled him with determination: he must find Natasha.

As it turned out, the opportunity came to him. He just had to recognize and grasp it.

One of the revenants managed to grab something particularly flammable — not surprising, given their mental state. Moments after the revenant threw it in, sparks and chunks of flaming material went flying into the air.

Kolya got a good view only because he’d just picked up his next load and was turning to walk back. Moments later several pole-wielders came to round up revenants and herd them toward another nearby building.

Trying to look like another organic automaton while keeping alert for his chance to escape wasn’t easy. It didn’t help that two of the pole-wielders looked familiar, in the way that set off the alarm in his mind. When would one of them notice him?

Within the building was a bulk of incomprehensible machinery, fed by a network of pipes. Everywhere Kolya saw badly-joined welds and sloppy workmanship. Did workers no longer take pride in their jobs?

The revenants bunched up in an uneasy group, watching the huge tubes being pulled out of the device in the center. Curious, Kolya edged around for a better view.

And realized he could duck into a passage between the larger pipes. None of the pole-wielders would see him.

Escape proved more difficult than it had appeared, even for a small man. Several times he had to wriggle and twist around bends in the pipes, one so tight he could feel the top layer of skin coming off his back.

The passage opened into a larger room. Even more incomprehensible machines filled it, menacing in the suggestion of power barely restrained.

Kolya heard voices. Alarmed, he ducked behind one of the big machines to hide.

Although the two white-coated men had the gray skin of revenants, their conversation indicated full possession of their faculties. Most of it was far too technical for Kolya to follow — he’d been a simple metalworker before the Revolution opened the doors of government service to him — but everything centered upon protecting this building’s machinery from damage.

Just as Kolya was relaxing, one of the techs started talking about how much harder it would be to get “the crew in the other room” to do such delicate work as transporting fuel rods.

The other stiffened in indignation. “Have some respect for the victims of the Yezhovshchina.”

The first made a dismissive gesture. “They’re just undead, same as us.”

“No, Volodka. We botched the experiment that caused this mess, so it’s pure justice that we have no rest until we’ve cleaned it up. But those are the innocents that filthy Yezhov falsely accused of spying and wrecking so he could meet his quotas for executions and penal exiles. What right have we to raise them from the dead, solely to spare the living the consequences of our bad judgment?”

The first was saying something about the mass raising of the dead being the doing of some guy called Grigory Romanov, but Kolya hardly heard it for the anger pounding in his ears. Who was this vile falsifier who had blackened the good name he’d inherited from his father, that he’d been so proud to pass to his daughter? No doubt that individual had also been responsible for his own arrest and execution.

His fury was so intense that he had trouble staying hidden until those two left. However, the necessity of restraint had a surprising benefit. By the time the techs departed, not only had his anger subsided from a blind fury to a burning fire of motivation, but his ability to think and remember had also increased several times over.

Might the brain be like a muscle, and grow stronger the more it was exercised? Certainly his balance and agility had increased by several orders of magnitude since he staggered out of that mass grave back in Moscow.

Right now his first priority needed to be finding Natasha. Settling accounts with that falsifier would have to wait.

When Kolya got to the door, he paused to look down the corridor in each direction. Only when confident he wouldn’t be surprised did he step out.

The next door opened onto a room full of controls — dials and gauges, rows of buttons lit from within, all arranged in three banks of consoles. A woman — he couldn’t tell from the angle whether she was mortal or revenant — leaned over one, making notes in a small book.

It took all Kolya’s self-control to edge away instead of bolting. All the way down the corridor, he wondered when the alarm would go up.

At last he reached a door that opened onto any empty yard, the grass that would normally be turning green with spring instead a patchwork of yellow and brown. Kolya saw no evidence of anyone, mortal or undead, all the way across to the other cluster of buildings in the distance.

He’d scarcely begun to enjoy the freedom of open air before he heard a voice. “There you are, you little squirt.” Up walked a uniformed revenant carrying one of those barbed poles. “Should’ve known the notorious Yezhov would try to run away.”

Kolya’s anger flared up afresh, but he forced himself to remain calm. “I think we’ve got a case of mistaken identity. ‘Yezhov’ is a rather common name–”

“That’s a good one, but it won’t fool me. You sure enjoyed setting quotas for arrests so high we had to sweep up anyone we could fabricate cases against.”

“Liar!” Kolya threw himself at the other revenant, too angry to care that he was too small to land an effective punch. “I was a responsible official, not a scoundrel like–”

The bigger revenant threw Kolya against the wall. “You’re Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov, formerly People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs. I’ll be interested in seeing what happens when I turn you in, whether they give you one of these,” he hefted his hooked pole, “and put you to work, or they hand you over to be torn limb from limb by the mortals who still remember you. Not that it matters to me, since I get my reward either way.”

Another pole-wielding revenant hurried up. “Agranov, you rat. I saw him first.”

“And swore he was going the other way, Frinovsky. He’s mine, and I’m taking the reward.”

The two clashed, using their hooked poles as weapons. Kolya scampered away, taking advantage of whatever cover he could find. He didn’t stop until he’d reached the shelter of a culvert under the road that served the other group of buildings.

Crouched in his hiding place, he struggled with Agranov’s words. His own memories were of a desperate search for the enemy within, forcing himself to supervise interrogations even when it sickened him so badly he couldn’t drink enough vodka to numb the pain of discovering that trusted friends and colleagues had betrayed everything he held dear. Going home to Natasha to remind himself why he was putting himself through these agonies. To make a better world for her, yes, but also because he wanted her to be proud of her father, to know he didn’t shirk his duty.

But what if everything he thought he knew were wrong? What if the conspiracies he’d pursued were in fact shadows and illusions?

The foundations of his world trembled, rocked. He’d gone to his execution certain he’d encountered the final betrayal. But if there had been no conspiracy… what could he tell Natasha?

How long he sat there, he had no idea. He was only vaguely aware of vehicles passing over the culvert, of day turning into night and then to day again.

And then a shout: “Nikolai Ivanovich.”

The sound of his forename and patronymic cut through the guilt and shame. Even as Kolya ducked out to respond, he saw the other revenant standing at the edge of the ditch and realized his error.

Once he and Bukharin had joked about having the same forename and patronymic. But then everything went wrong and they’d ended up on opposite sides of a political struggle that had destroyed them both.

He’s got every reason to hate me, to turn me in. Kolya scrambled for the shelter of his culvert.

But not fast enough, for Bukharin looked directly at him. Kolya thought sure it was all over. Then Bukharin shouted over his shoulder that everything was fine and he’d be back in a moment.

He looked directly at Kolya. “So Stalin finally turned on you too.” There was no judgment in his voice, no condescension, only sympathy.

Kolya couldn’t bring himself to speak badly of Stalin. At a loss for words, Kolya spread his hands in silent appeal.

Bukharin scratched at his beard, cropped close in imitation of Lenin. “Haven’t had much practice talking, have you?”

“It’s not like that.” Hearing the harsh rasp of his voice, Kolya realized how ridiculous his denial sounded. “I mean, it’s true, but that’s not why I didn’t answer you.”

In the distance someone shouted orders and an engine roared under the sudden application of a load. Bukharin gave Kolya a sad smile. “Don’t blame yourself, my namesake. It’s never easy to discover you’ve been had, and Stalin fooled men of far more sophisticated backgrounds than you.”

Kolya struggled to put into words the thoughts he’d been wrestling with for the past several days. “But I made a mess of everything. Even if I meant no malice, even if I thought I was fighting evil, I was actually destroying innocents.” He waved in the direction of the ruined building. “Innocents who now shamble robbed of their wits, when I who signed the orders possess mind and will.”

Bukharin shrugged. “I’ve asked myself that question many times, my namesake. Especially since there were times when I’d see someone I knew, both as an alert, aware person and as a shambling organic automaton, sometimes even side by side or overlapping. It took me a while to realize I was looking into another world that exists alongside this one, a world of spirit instead of flesh. A world to which those who died in innocent blood are admitted, but those guilty of their lives are forbidden.”

Kolya swallowed hard. “Then you shouldn’t be standing here talking to me. You were executed — I supervised the execution–”

When Kolya’s voice failed him, Bukharin took up the account. “That you did, so drunk you could barely stand up. At the time I thought you were trying to drown your conscience, but after what you’ve told me, I think you were trying to numb your breaking heart.” There was genuine sympathy in Bukharin’s gaze. “And the injustice of my execution may be the only reason I’m allowed to gaze upon Paradise, left to puzzle out why I can see but not enter. Perhaps because I tried to save myself by selling out Zinoviev and Kamanev. Maybe because as one of the Party’s theoreticians I helped create the system that made it all possible. All I know is that I get to watch friends, family, associates enjoying themselves within but cannot join them.”

“Natasha.” Her name came out more like a cry of anguish as the implications sank through. “My daughter was a good girl.” At Bukharin’s wry smile, Kolya added, “Maybe not in the conventional sense of docility and meekness, but she had a good heart and loved her Papa. What must it be like for her to be in Paradise without me, especially after the last thing I told her was to never forget I loved her? She’d be devastated to be told she couldn’t have me back, not for anything she’d done wrong, not because she didn’t deserve to be happy, but because I couldn’t be let in. She deserves better than that, but what can I do when I ruined everything beyond repair?”

Bukharin looked over to the accident site. “Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes I’ll see a new face among the crowds in Paradise, someone I’ve seen here. This undead existence may be a second chance, to see if we can rise above the flaws that led us to the deeds that barred us from Paradise the first time around.”

He paused for Kolya to digest that idea, then continued, “The plan to smother the fire went disastrously wrong. Instead, the entire pile is in danger of collapsing and creating another explosion, one that will turn this entire area into a gigantic crater and spread death and destruction as far as Kiev and Gomel. Their only hope for preventing it is to get a skilled metalworker in there–”

“Which I am.” Kolya’s voice sounded stronger in his ears than it had since he’d lashed out in fury at Agranov. “Do you really believe that if I can save the lives of everyone in Kiev and Gomel, it can make up for all the innocents who died at my order?”

Bukharin took a moment to answer. “Nothing about this business is certain, but you won’t know without trying. If you’ll come back with me–”

“No.” A desperate plan was forming within Kolya’s mind. “I came out here because I was going to escape and search for Natasha. Take that opportunity. Go see if any of your family survived, try to comfort them. I’ll return on my own.”

Although Bukharin looked dubious, at length he relented. “You’re right. I’ve never caught a glimpse of Anna or our son Yura. I can’t believe either of them would’ve done anything worthy of barring them, so they must still be alive.”

With that they parted. Walking back of his own free will to the place where he’d toiled unwilling left Kolya uneasy, but the memory of Natasha’s terrified face as she was hauled away gave him purpose.

The first problem was finding someone to approach. Maybe it would’ve been better if he’d let Bukharin take him back — at least Bukharin would’ve known who could be trusted.

At length Kolya returned to the building from which he’d escaped, found one of the techs he’d overheard in the machinery room. “I understand you’re looking for a skilled metalworker.”

The tech gave him a dubious look, but after a little discussion Kolya was able to convince him that yes, this unprepossessing little revenant did indeed have the necessary skills to do the job.

Getting into the ruined building was not easy. The original explosion had damaged key accessways, and crawling through half-collapsed passages while pushing his tools ahead of him and dragging a hose required all his strength and agility.

Finding the valve which would drain the pool of water accumulated under the reactor proved the easiest part. The heat of the fire had warped it, and Kolya ended up deciding the only way to deal with it was to break it and rig a crude trough to transfer the water into the outflow pipe.

With water gurgling behind him, Kolya forced his way deeper into the ruined reactor building. In order to flood the area with nitrogen, necessary to prevent further fires, he needed to cut a hole into a sheet-steel wall.

Setting up a cutting torch in this dim reddish light was not the easiest process, but his skill had always been in his hands. Even when he’d become a senior official of Party and government, he’d enjoyed making Natasha’s playthings — tennis rackets, skis and skates, even a sled.

Memory returned of riding down a snowy hill, Natasha sitting in his lap shrieking her delight at the speed. Every winter she’d look forward to the times he could take her out onto that hill, far too steep for a little girl to ride by herself. Mere days before he’d been arrested, he’d finally allowed her to ride it alone, albeit only when he was out there with her.

But now was no time for such memories. Every minute that passed, the reactor might be getting closer to collapse and explosion. Kolya set to work with a will, opening the hole through which the reactor chamber would be flooded with nitrogen gas. The metal proved thicker than he’d expected, and he soon realized that he was going to have to approach the problem from the other side.

The force of the initial explosion had warped the frame of the access door. A mortal coming this deep would’ve died instantly — the tech who’d instructed him had perished in just that way, trying to open a valve that no longer existed in order to flood the already-destroyed reactor with cooling water, and thus had been one of the first reanimated, as a proof of concept.

With a little searching Kolya found a length of metal that could serve as a makeshift crowbar and jimmied the door. Searing light poured out into the ruined corridor.

Kolya squinted and peered beyond. Within was a mess of twisted metal, debris and sand, all half melted and congealed into eye-hurting shapes. Even at this distance, he could feel the terrible energies assaulting his undead flesh, proof that whatever forces had knitted his body back together from ashes were not without their limits — which meant he would have only a little time to locate his failed hole and finish cutting it from the other side.

All the time he worked, he could feel his undead flesh growing weaker. By the time he finished his cut and the circle of steel fell away, it was all he could do to turn off the cutting torch. He’d intended to take the welding equipment back out with him, to return it to equipment storage, but he knew the task beyond his failing strength.

Just walking back out and closing the door exhausted him. He had to pause and rest before he could walk to the hose, and had to lean against the wall to keep himself upright, like a drunk walking home after a bender.

Centimeter by painful centimeter he lifted the hose to the hole he’d cut. Just as he was despairing of being able to do it, the nozzle connected with the lip of the hole and slid into place.

As Kolya’s undead flesh began to melt away and dissolve, the walls of the ruined power plant around him grew dimmer. On the edges of his awareness he could perceive figures approaching him. He called out to his daughter.

“Natasha. Natasha.”

 

AUTHOR BIO:  Leigh Kimmel is a writer, artist and bookseller living in Indianapolis, Indiana. She has degrees in Russian language and literature and in history, and has worked in libraries and archives. Read about her current projects at http://www.leighkimmel.com/