Vnukovo Airport , Moscow , U.S.S.R.
A Soviet border guard rummaged through the mother's battered suitcase, flinging clothes onto the floor of the customs hall while the toddler clutched her bear.
"We know." The official tapped the luggage. "Next time."
The mother plopped her two hundred pounds of hillbilly dignity onto the stone tile and gathered their belongings as if sorting laundry on their front porch in Arkansas. The child studied a portrait of Khrushchev hanging on the beaten plaster wall and trembled until she noticed the bald man in the picture was smiling at her. She shyly smiled back and wondered if her daddy had looked like him.
Late that night in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city, the girl and her mother met God's chosen and squeezed into an abandoned mausoleum for a secret meeting. "Come on, sweet pea," the mother said, "Jesus needs Teddy now." She yanked the animal from the child and plunged a dagger into the bear, sacrificing it to her god. Like entrails from a freshly butchered hog, stuffing burst from its belly. The believers shouted praises as she sank her hand into the gut, pulled out a New Testament and raised it toward the heavens.
No one noticed the terror in the little girl's eyes.
When the girl was old enough to understand that the Soviet state feared her mother, she realized she and the communists would share a lifelong bond.
"The Wall will stand another hundred years."
Erich Honecker , Berlin 1989
Old Jewish Quarter, East Berlin
Tuesday, April 18, 1989
The face of Stalin smirked at her from the bottom of a porcelain soup tureen as she bargained with an aging East German couple in the musty storage room of the Patschke's millinery shop. A dozen mannequins peered from the shadows like faceless skinheads. She picked up a teacup by its awkward hammer-and-sickle shaped handle. Before the communists, Dresden 's master craftsmen had designed the world's finest china for European imperial courts. She cradled the cup and touched their humiliation. But it was a vintage piece, a testament to the pain of modern Germany and extremely marketable.
And Faith Whitney wanted it.
"You're a good customer, Frau Professor, so we'll make you a special offer. One thousand West mark. It's a complete service, immaculate condition, genuine Meissner." Herr Patschke's tiny round glasses slid to a stop on the hook of his nose.
Faith had only twenty-three minutes until a rendezvous, but reminded herself of Hakan's rule of negotiations: Slow business is good business. The Patschkes admired efficiency almost as much as she did, so she forced herself to lean back in the wobbly chair and sip gritty East German coffee.
"Only two sets were commissioned for Marshal Stalin's seventieth birthday." Frau Patschke took the teacup from Faith and wiped her fingerprints from it. "It is pristine."
"And this is the only complete set in existence. One night at his dacha, Stalin hurled the other at his Politburo," Herr Patschke said without a smile and then leaned over and whispered, "Rumor has it this marked the beginning of more purges."
Herr Patschke nodded to his wife, his double chin swelling like a pigeon puffing its neck. Frau Patschke pulled a skeleton key from the pocket of her housedress and waddled to a chest. She removed a mahogany box and set it on the table. An eagle was carved into the lid; the bird of prey's talons clutched a swastika. Frau Patschke flicked open the gold latch. Inside the silk-lined box, crystal goblets sparkled even in the light of the single bare bulb.
A sudden chill was all Faith needed to authenticate the Nazi stemware as she picked one up with a tissue. A frosted engraving was identical to the emblem on the box. She hated contaminating her apartment with fascist trash, but this set merited sealed bids. "As usual, your taste is exquisite, but I'm in Leipzig soon and I have luck finding merchandise there more within my budget. If there's nothing more, I'll have to excuse myself." She spoke in unaccented German and stood, compelling herself to look away.
"Bohemian crystal, very lovely, very special. They were a gift to the Führer for the liberation of the Czech lands." Frau Patschke held a goblet in front of Faith's face and flicked her middle finger against it.
Nothing with a swastika should ring so clear.
"Tell you what. I'll give you one thousand for both the plates and the glasses."
The Patschkes squinted at one another while Faith rummaged through her oversized purse. She removed a camera and stole a glance at her watch.
Frau Patschke raised an eyebrow. "Is that one of those American models that makes the instant photos?" Herr Patschke slipped his arm around his wife's sizable waist, pressed his cheek against hers and grinned.
"A real Polaroid." Faith snapped the picture and the camera spit out the photo.
The Patschkes huddled together spellbound as the image materialized. He pointed to the snapshot. "Look, Hilda! Amazing. Simply amazing. Do you realize the private photos we could make with this?"
"If you include this camera --- " Herr Patschke began.
"And plenty of film," Frau Patschke said.
" Ja, ja. Both for one thousand five hundred West," Herr Patschke said.
Faith pursed her lips. "One thousand three hundred."
"Wonderful." Herr Patschke shook her hand and snatched the Polaroid. "Smile, liebchen."
"I'd like you to use some special packing materials. Plus I need this to fit into three separate packages so it seems like I've got books. Bubble wrap, cardboard, then standard pink paper on the outside would be best." Faith placed a roll of imported bubble wrap onto the table.
Frau Patschke divided the Stalin service into two parcels while Herr Patschke measured a length of the coarse pink paper used in East German bookstores, but it ran out before he could finish the Nazi crystal. Frau Patschke handed him some newsprint with line drawings of vacuum tubes and slogans praising East German scientific advancements.
"Don't you have any more of the pink? I was counting on it." Faith fidgeted in her seat.
"I'm sorry. We are short right now."
Herr Patschke bound the two pink-wrapped boxes together and loaded all three onto a suitcase trolley Faith had brought with her. Like a child playing with a retractable tape measure, Herr Patschke stretched the bungee strap as far as he could, let go of it and then snickered as it snapped back.
He insisted on helping Faith with the packages. He pulled the cart through the labyrinth of their storerooms and removed the closed sign from the front window. He paused with his hand on the door knob and glanced back over his shoulder. "She didn't want me to say anything, but I believe you should know. Two men stopped by last week and inquired after you. They had no interest in what you buy --- only in how you move things. Naturally, we told them nothing. Be cautious, Frau Doktor."
Privately run shops with brightly painted façades dotted the streets of the old Jewish quarter. A hunched woman with church-lady blue hair examined books in a display window of a Christian bookstore, one of the handful tolerated by the state. Her head moved as she watched Faith's reflection in the plate glass window. Faith hurried away, invigorated by the sense of threat that permeated East Berlin like a foggy mist. Her blouse was damp from sweat and nerves.
She waited alongside two East German punks staring at the red pedestrian light and ignoring the empty street. Their purple hair stood straight up from their heads as though the hair itself were trying to escape their gaunt bodies. When she stepped from the sidewalk before the light turned green, they scowled at her. Not wanting to call attention to herself, she stepped back up and reassured herself she had three minutes before the window closed.
She dragged the heavy cart along the irregular cobblestones. The packages shifted off-center as it bounced along, making it difficult to maneuver, but she had no time to stop. She rushed past a long line of parked cars where a dirty Mercedes with red diplomatic plates stuck out among the tiny fiberglass Trabants.
One minute. Faith was watching the broken sidewalk ahead when she noticed a pair of legs. On cue, she stumbled. An African man tried to catch her, but she fell, raking her hand across the rough stones. She intentionally tipped the cart until the packages tumbled to the ground.
The man reached under her arm to steady her. The diamonds in his gold rings glistened. "So sorry, sister," he said in African-accented English. "You all right?"
"No major damage. Bruises add character."
"Let me have a look."
"Don't worry about it." She pulled her hand back. It burned so badly she hoped the muscle wasn't exposed, but only three scrapes crossed her palm.
In the commotion, another black man had climbed from the back seat of the Mercedes and stacked three pink packages back onto her cart.
"Hey, careful with those. They're extremely fragile."
"No worry. I do the job right." He winked at her.
Faith rolled her eyes.
Faith dashed into the Ministry of Education, worried her tardiness had blown her lunch engagement. She almost had the Assistant Minister of Education sold on sponsoring her as a visiting professor at Berlin 's Humboldt University. The professorship came with a coveted multiple entry visa that would allow her free passage between Berlins and throughout the GDR. Free of the restrictions of one-day visas that confined her within city limits, the entire country would be hers to plunder at will. She had worked on a scheme for months, creating a fictitious Ozark University and even getting it listed in a college guide. The time had now come to close the deal before Neumann upped his price or talked too much.
The porter called Neumann on the house phone and within a few minutes he arrived to escort her inside. The last time she saw him, Neumann was balding. Now he sported a mane of jet-black hair that looked as if a mangy animal were humping his head. The way it was sewn gave it an almost avian quality she couldn't quite pin down. She couldn't keep her eyes off it as she tried to figure out the species.
Their footsteps echoed in the corridor as they passed red bulletin boards filled with the latest Party directives. Faith expected an elaborate dining hall for the government elite, but the canteen was sultry and cramped. Neumann handed her a metal tray dripping with water and they waited in line. Steam gusted from the kitchen, depositing a sheen of grease on Faith's favorite silk blazer. Definitely a schnitzel day.
He led her to a corner table away from the other patrons where an orange salt and pepper set complemented the brown synthetic table cloth. She cringed at the sight of reusable plastic toothpicks.
Neumann straightened the aluminum fork. "I'm impressed that you speak Russian, Frau Professor. Seldom for an American."
"How do you know I speak Russian?" Faith sought eye contact, but he looked away.
"Cabbage is tasty today," he said, his mouth full of red kraut.
"That's nice, but how do you know about my Russian?"
"I assumed. You're a professor and…."
"And I looked the type."
"Yes, yes. You do look brilliant and you're probably interested in Gorbachev's reforms and why our government has been so resistant to them. Wait until the old man Honecker's gone and you'll see change. I can introduce you to some others who feel this way, party members who talk about social --- " He interrupted himself and shielded his lips with his hand and whispered, "democracy."
She glanced at the oval Party pin on his lapel. That particular model dated his membership to the Stalinist period. Faith didn't believe in born-again anything, particularly communists and Nazis. "Herr Neumann, your dissidents don't interest me any more than your Party does. It's your household arts that intrigue me, which brings me to the topic of the professorship." She rustled through her purse without looking down and handed him a small paper bag under the table. Neumann peeped inside and then shoved it into his vinyl briefcase.
"Sponsor me for the visa and I'll be able to bring over fruit like that. It's almost kiwi season and I bet you'd love them. They taste a lot like strawberries, only better."
"Strawberries are my favorite."
The way he eyed Faith as if she were a juicy berry herself made her want to pummel him with rotten fruit, but she smiled instead. "If I get a chance, I'll bring you some."
"Only once is a tease."
"With the visa I could drop by every now and then with a few vegetables as a gesture of my gratitude for pushing the paperwork through within the week."
"You do know we have plenty of apples, onions, potatoes. And do not bring cabbage --- we need no more cabbage here." He picked up the bowl and slurped lentil soup.
"So am I going to be a visiting art professor or not?"
"The outlook's improving."
"But I see we're not there yet. Did you get a chance to look over the Ozark U literature I gave you last time?"
"Such a clean campus. I'd love to visit there sometime --- maybe for a semester."
"And we'd love to have you. If this year goes well for me, I'm sure we can work something out. So what is the status of my visa?"
"Undecided, but there is one small thing. Our computer is broken. It's a Western model and no one here can repair it. You could transport it to the West for service. It would speed our work along. We can be of mutual assistance to one another."
"Sorry, but I'm already schlepping around too much today." She patted her packages as she eyed the exit.
"If it's not fixed soon, our visa backlog will continue to grow."
"I understand. Sometimes it can take Ozark U forever to process paperwork for foreign exchange scholars."
"We can arrange for someone to help you carry it and your packages to the checkpoint. You could take a taxi once you're over there. We have West Marks to reimburse you."
"I'm afraid I'd have problems on the border." Like being arrested and coerced into spying. She stood, debating with herself whether to abort or play things out as far as she dared. "I didn't declare a computer on my way in."
"I'll write a letter with an explanation of everything."
She stepped away, but her investment in the project stopped her and she paused. "I know a few things about computers. Let me have a look inside."
Neumann whisked Faith past his secretary. His private office was a memorial to all things Soviet. Framed posters exalted the Soviet chemical industry. On his desk was a stack of recent issues ofIzvestia, Pravda and other Soviet newspapers she didn't recognize. Neumann hurried to plug in a model Sputnik rocket with blinking lights trailing behind it.
"Frau Muster mixes herself into everything. She doesn't approve of women, let alone foreign ones in my office," Neumann said in a low voice. "She's an old timer. When I tell her about some of the things that come out about Stalin, she warns me to burn the Russian papers before it's too late."
"Maybe she knows something you don't."
"She's seen a lot. Her husband was a prisoner of war who never came home from the SU. Her kids weren't allowed into the university. But she's right that Gorbachev threatens a lot of powerful people."
"Let me have a look at the computer." Faith knelt in front of the metal case and flipped it on its side. "You have a screwdriver?"
"I don't. You might as well go ahead and take it as is." He moved closer to her while she fished a Polish Army knife from her purse. "I love women with wide cheekbones. You look so Slavic." He brushed the back of his hand against her face.
She slid away from the touch. He acted as if nothing had happened and left the room. She sighed as she wondered if anything was worth putting up with such awkward passes. She popped open the antique computer and stared inside.
She wiggled the cables to test if they were seated on the motherboard. They weren't. The floppy drive wasn't even connected to the power supply. It wasn't a computer, but a jumble of broken parts. Faith fumed at the insult of such an amateurish set up, but she wasn't sure whether to direct her anger toward Neumann or the Stasi. He deserved it, but her gut nagged her. The Association.
Neumann returned, carrying a letter. "What are you doing?"
"This appears to be your problem." Faith picked a card at random and pivoted it until it released from its slot.
"Put it back and take the whole machine."
"The info I need is right here." She scrawled down numbers onto the back of a used U-Bahn ticket.
"Take it. I'll personally see your visa receives top priority."
"You have to work with me. I take the card or nothing. Your choice." She reached toward the desk to set down the part.
He grabbed her wrist. "The card. But the visa might be delayed."
Outside the air was stained from soft brown coal and it filtered all warmth from the sun's rays. A few blocks from the ministry, Faith boarded a streetcar. The filthy orange tram jerked into motion and her parcels slid a few inches, but she steadied them against her leg. She looked around for a place to sit. A mesh bag with shriveled carrots poking through it occupied the only empty seat. Its owner faced the window, but something about her seemed familiar.
The hair. The chemical-blue hair.
Faith tore off a ticket and stuck it in the machine and slammed the button with her fist. The teeth of the primitive contraption pressed holes into the ticket like a medieval torture instrument shoving spears into a heretic. The streetcar lurched forward. She grabbed a pole to steady herself. Her sweaty palm smeared the grime. Maybe she was being paranoid thinking the card was a set up for the Stasi to nail her on the border. Neumann could've insisted upon it to save face after the failed pass. After all the man was desperate.
The streetcar carried her past blackened façades cratered with bullet holes from the Second World War. Almost forty-five years later, the East Germans still couldn't afford to repair their capital. Aesthetics were not a communist priority. She looked away from the window and decided it was time to lure the Stasi out into the open. She aligned the wheels of her cart with the exit. At the next tram stop a man hobbled down the steep steps. Seconds before the automatic doors slammed shut, she bounded from the car.
The blue-haired woman forced the doors open and jumped to the street.
Faith walked down the avenue and the woman paced her along the other side. Faith stopped at a kiosk to buy a newspaper. The woman paused to look into a toy store window. Faith shoved the thin Junge Welt under her arm and continued down the sidewalk. The woman followed her. Faith had found a single tick crawling up her leg; now every little itch felt like the Stasi.
Fifteen minutes later Faith crossed under the railway trestle at Friedrichstrasse. Leaded exhaust fumes clouded the entrance. Each breath scorched her lungs and she tasted metal. She slipped the computer card and Neumann's letter into the newspaper and dropped it into the rubbish. In front of a bookstore a wizened man was hunched over a dented pail of mums. She dug into her pocket for the last remaining East German coins and selected a prop.Flowers add innocence.
The first wave of Western day tourists was pouring into the customs hall, returning from their own stale taste of the communist world. With each tourist, the odds tipped a little more in her favor. Faith adored Checkpoint Charlie's Cold War glamour, but no real professional would choose it over the crowds of the Friedrichstrasse. She plunged herself into the comforting masses. Her muscles struggled to compact her body into invisibility. She concentrated upon her breath and almost convinced herself her body was under her control. But she knew better.
"Good evening, Frau Whitney," the guard at the checkpoint entrance said before she could show him her passport. Protruding ears prevented his flat green hat from swallowing his head. He nodded for her to enter the restricted zone and then spoke her name into a microphone.
They were waiting.
She pressed her fingernails through the soggy newspaper and into the flower stems. It was too late to turn back, so she trudged ahead. Body odors wafted from the overheated crowd as she was herded down the steps past a monstrous x-ray machine with a small metal plaque, "Made in Bulgaria." She could feel her cells mutate.
She flashed her passport's blue American cover to the customs inspector and turned it to the open page with her photo.
"Place the bag on the counter, please." The young man pointed to the stainless steel table as he took her documents. He glanced into a security camera and nodded.
She set her purse on the counter. When she placed her hand back on the cart, a rush of terror coursed through her, a narcotic flooding her veins. Her body relaxed for a moment until she sensed someone approaching her from behind. She froze. The weight of the communist state closed in upon her.
We say the name of God, but that is only habit.
Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, Azerbaijani S.S.R.
Children raced across the dirt yard of the orphanage to the dilapidated flatbed truck, frightening the herd of longhaired goats. That the Lend-Lease-era Studebaker had survived four days bouncing its way across high mountain passes from her Moscow orphanage was itself divine proof that Margaret Whitney was in God's will. The driver honked the horn and inched ahead, but the children encircled the vehicle, forcing it to a halt. Their plump expectant faces made Margaret forget her body's complaints. She was tickled with herself that she had once again hoodwinked the communists and she was about to deliver the contraband.
The orphanage director greeted her with a kiss on the cheek and walked with her arm-in-arm to an arbor of grape vines. A childcare worker in a clinical white uniform set dishes of roasted seeds and dried apricots onto linoleum nailed to a tabletop. A boy dressed in rags ran to bring bottles of carbonated water to the guest.
Margaret downed an entire glass of water and let out a long sigh. "We almost didn't make it this time," she said in English, then turned her head away, using her hand to shield a belch. "I can handle inspections from the Soviet militia, but I wasn't ready for the Azerbaijani checkpoints. It took a whole pallet to convince them to let us pass into the enclave. They nearly tore the entire shipment to pieces looking for something."
"Weapons. They don't want us to defend ourselves," Yeva said, her English more fluent with each visit.
"I've ministered to this country nigh onto forty years, but I've never known locals to get away with setting up their own blockades. The communists don't usually play well with others."
"I always thought I'd be happy when the day came that Moscow lost its hold on us." Yeva shook her head and offered pumpkin and squash seeds to Margaret.
Margaret took a handful even though she believed they should've been planted in the ground where they belonged.
Oblivious to their patron, the children played, chasing goats. They laughed when the kids sprang straight up into the air. But one boy stood alone under a fig tree, his hands stuck in the pockets of his oversized breeches. He stared at the ground.
"That boy tugs at my heart." Yeva turned toward him, patted the bench beside her and shouted something in Armenian. He didn't move. Yeva walked over to him and put her arm around his slumped shoulders. She led him to the bench beside her. "They say he was like every other seven year old until the Azerbaijani tied up his family and slit their throats. His parents, grandmother, seven brothers and sisters --- all dead. He was in the foothills with their herd at the time. He found them when he came back two days later." Yeva stroked his back. "Every day I pray for a miracle."
"I'll add mine." Margaret widened her eyes, raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips into a goofy face. The boy didn't respond.
"Three days ago in Askeran they massacred another family. They're now demanding all Armenians leave the territory. They're Turks --- no one would put another genocide past them."
"I brought you Bibles and Sunday-school books in Armenian. You'll find them tucked between diapers."
"Maggie, your generosity's transformed this place, but we don't need any more Bibles. We need guns."
"Sister, trust in the Lord and He'll protect you." Margaret chomped on an apricot to get the seed taste out of her mouth.
"The Lord helps those who help themselves. And maybe that's why He sent you to us. You know how to move things like no one else can."
"Child, I'm a missionary, not an arms dealer."
"Look around and see the changes for yourself. We have no problem buying Bibles, Christian books --- anything. Since Gorbachev, no one cares. Do not misunderstand. I admire your ministry and without you we'd never be able to take in so many, but the world doesn't need Bible smugglers anymore --- neither does God."
"You're starting to sound just like my daughter." Margaret put her hands on her hips.
"We're not persecuted because we're Christians, but because we'reArmenian Christians."
"My girl Faith turned her back on God. Don't you go and make the same mistake. God gave you both special gifts to use for His Glory, so don't you blaspheme Him by abusing your gifts to serve man. Jesus said, 'Blessed be the peacemakers for --- '"
A military truck barreled down the drive of the orphanage like a tempest across the plains. Yeva sprang to her feet and shouted in Armenian, then Azeri. The children scrambled into the building as if it were a storm cellar. The truck screeched to a halt and six hooded men in army fatigues jumped out and rushed toward them. The devil was in their eyes.
They waved old shotguns and shouted in heavily accented Russian. "Hands up. No moves."
Yeva wagged a defiant finger. "There are children here. Put those away."
"Bring me the Armenian bastards," the headman said, pointing his weapon at Yeva.
"Leave!" she said with the fervor of the pharaoh expelling the Israelites.
The man shrugged his shoulders and then strutted around the two women toward the children. Yeva sprinted past him and planted herself on the orphanage stoop.
"You will not take my children."
The man laughed as he knocked her aside. The others swarmed into the building and turned over tables. Dishes and bottles crashed to the floor. The children cried as they huddled together. The boy stood in the middle of the room, lost in the chaos. The leader fired his gun at a statue of Christ on the cross that hung on the wall. Fragments of Jesus pelted the hysterical children.
The man shouted. "You should've left Azerbaijan when you had the chance. Line them up against the wall."
"I take in all God's children --- Azerbaijani and Armenian. You'll be killing your own babies," Yeva said.
"Line up the Armenians."
"You." He pointed with the butt of the shotgun to the boy whose parents had been murdered. "You look Armenian. Over there."
The child crossed his arms and rocked himself, but didn't move.
The child shuffled toward the wall. Yeva bolted toward him, but one of the gunmen grabbed her and threw her to the floor. She shouted to him in Azeri and Margaret prayed that the little Armenian would understand. The hand of God reached down and touched that boy's shoulder. He stopped and then turned back.
"Thank you, Jesus," Margaret said.
"Will you be such a hero with your people when they find out you massacred your own because you can't tell them apart?" Yeva pulled herself to her feet and placed her hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Don't move." The leader exchanged something in Azeri with the others and turned his gun toward Yeva. "We might not be able to pick out the Armenian children, but we know who you are."
Just as he pulled the trigger, the boy shouted and jumped in front of Yeva. In an instant, the child's face exploded into raw flesh and blood. Yeva opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She caught his small body and held him against her chest. Blood soaked her blouse. The leader nodded to a compatriot. He struck her with his elbow, pulled the child away and dropped the body onto the ground.
"Armenian harlot." He unzipped his trousers.
Beside the dying boy the men took turns with Yeva while the leader paced between the windows and the door. Margaret begged with the Lord for mercy, but He had none that day. The leader rushed back from peeking outside and shouted at the one having his way with Yeva. He kicked his hindquarters, but the Sodomite wouldn't get off her. He then motioned to others. They wrestled him off and then the headman aimed his gun at Yeva.
He shot her in the chest.
They ran away, vowing to return.
Margaret fell to her knees, the odor of sulfur, seed and blood sickening her. She ripped open Yeva's blouse and pressed against the torn flesh. With each heartbeat, warm blood pooled under her palms. She pushed until she thought her fingertips touched Yeva's heart. It beat twice and stopped.
Margaret scooped Yeva into her arms and bawled as if she had again lost her own daughter. Why, Lord, why? When the tears slowed, she beheld a picture of Jesus and ruminated. Then she made a promise to Him --- one she knew He wouldn't like.
Excerpted from RIFT ZONE © Copyright 2004 by Raelynn Hillhouse. Reprinted with permission by Forge Books, a trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC. All rights reserved.