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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Place of Skulls
by Peter Freund ||
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The first ones to hear the strange noise were two sailors from the Black Sea Fleet and the girl they were trying to make out with by the Place of Skulls on Red Square. The girl's blouse was fully unbuttoned and she had finally stepped out of her panties. Just as one of the fearless seamen was to demonstrate his prowess, there was this terrible noise. For a moment, all three parties to this transaction focused their attention on the active seaman. Equipment of all sorts can malfunction now and then, and hereabouts people are used to such things, still, even a proud and decorated seaman could hardly be expected to produce the kind of noise these three were now exposed to. They looked at each other and instinctively knew something was very wrong. Clearly, whatever it was, did not originate in the Place of Skulls, it rather seemed to come from the very bowels of the Kremlin. It sounded like the rotor of an idling helicopter, a chainsaw wielded by a giant, or Stalin drilling his way out of the Kremlin wall to which he had been banned by his successors. The sailors and the girl left Red Square as fast as humanly possible. They parted by the Moscow River and in a sense that was the end of it, for none of them ever told a soul about the incident. This is understandable, the sailors had to return to the Crimea the next day and few people there care about goings on at the Place of Skulls.
     The girl, a salesperson in a bakery, would have lost forever the absolute authority she wielded over the babushkas pushing their way toward her for a lavash or two, had it become known that at one o'clock at night she was leaning, with her legs spread, against the Place of Skulls in the company of navy personnel. So, in a certain sense, this first occurrence of a troubling phenomenon could be discounted, it did not go on record.
     The first recorded exposure to this acoustic miracle involved a former Party secretary, a tall and corpulent bald man in his early sixties and his smaller but still corpulent wife of forty years going, who on a cool night also at one o'clock heard the noise just as they were giving a parting look to a purse in the GUM window, the lighting of which had been disconnected a few seconds earlier. At first they also thought the noise was caused by whatever made the lights in the GUM window go out, but then, just as the threesome before them, noticed that the source of the noise was clearly across the square, somewhere at the tombs in the wall, or maybe in the mausoleum itself. Used to upheavals in the Party machinery, they kept a cool head about the matter and looked around. They had clearly been in full view of the mausoleum guards while the GUM lights were still on. On the assumption that the guards had also heard the noise and were going to report about it to their superiors, they themselves would figure prominently in the guards' report and the ensuing dragnet would not fail to catch them. The word "Siberia" started buzzing in both their heads, as if induced by the helicopterish noise. As if on command, they both headed to the nearest militia station to report the incident on their own. It was three in the morning before they were done; the station's typewriter was out of order and one from another station had to be brought in, reports of this type had to be typewritten with three copies. They were then locked up until their report could be verified with the guards, whose duty ended at five in the morning. From the stony faces of the guards, when they finally showed up at the militia station, after stopping for a few drinks on the way, it was unclear whether they would confirm the corpulent couple's report. As a matter of fact they claimed not to have heard a thing, having been trained not to hear anything while on duty, to better concentrate on the defense of the locked stone mausoleum and the relics it contained. There was now a conflict between the reports of the stone-faced guards and of the corpulent couple and it was decided to let the guards go, but to send the couple to an institution for the criminally insane for tests.
     On their way back from the militia station the two guards stopped again for a few rounds of vodka to warm away the past night's chill and within earshot of a former professional informer admitted to each other that they had also heard the noise, which they went on to describe in great detail until they ended up by concluding that it had been caused by a pack of whirling rats inside the mausoleum. The former informer, hard for cash since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, decided to try his luck by peddling this information at the same militia station visited earlier by the corpulent couple and by the stone-faced guards. He was asked to describe the two guards, and when his descriptions checked out, he was unceremoniously dispatched to the same institution for the criminally insane as the corpulent couple.
     The captain in charge of this seminal militia post summoned his staff and they agreed that he should report on these goings-on to his superiors. He did so right away, alas with less than propitious consequences as far as his career was concerned, for he soon found himself in the company of the corpulent couple and of the former informer, a fact likely to blot his record for a long time to come. Anyway, his superiors closed off Red Square for the next night, signs of "repairs in progress" appeared at all entrances to the square and a number of high officials from important government agencies placed themselves at various locations in the square shortly after midnight. Sure enough, barely did the clocks in the Kremlin tower chime one o'clock, than the other-worldly noise again became audible all over the square. The high officials scurried towards the point they perceived as the source of the noise and they all converged on the mausoleum which houses Lenin's embalmed remains. The guards were ordered to open the mausoleum and in order of rank the high officials started filing into the innards of this latter day Kaaba. Much to their consternation, there was the body of the bald Bolshevik in prone position, not lying still as during visiting hours, but spinning violently around an axis running from the very top of his head to the point where his chancred organ had been before Stalin had him embalmed. This had to be stopped! But how?
     At a meeting of the highest authorities in the land it was immediately decided that this called for the intervention of American, German and Japanese technology. All during the following day experts from the largest multinational corporations checked in at the special guesthouse in the Kremlin and at one o'clock the following night they were lined up at the bald communist's final resting place. When the body again started spinning out of control, the experts exchanged "so that's it" glances and in unison recommended the obvious solution, "clamping down." This solution would have won the approval both of Lenin himself and of his Georgian successor, but unlike these two, the experts approached the operation of clamping down in a purely technological fashion. They flew in a special vise from Zurich, but, like most Bolsheviks in Moscow these days, Lenin turned out not to be visible. All kinds of techniques involving among others ultrasound and the creation of shock waves with small explosive charges detonated at certain calculated locations, yielded no better results.
     The square had been closed off for most of a week and rumors started making the rounds of Moscow. At first it was believed that the government was raising money by exporting Lenin's mummy to be auctioned off at Sotheby's in London and that the noise was connected with the installation of a wax dummy in its place and of the cooling equipment required to keep it from melting in the summer. When this was denied at the highest level, a new rumor started that there had been a putsch and that they were restoring Stalin to his rightful place in the mausoleum. The noise was now being attributed to the special cleaning equipment used to remove all the dust and grime that had accumulated on and in that leader's mummy during its stay in the Kremlin wall. This rumor proved harder to deny. Even when the leaders of the government made a special appearance on prime-time television, skeptical Muscovites believed them to be but well made-up impersonators and not the real leaders. Finally the whole council of ministers showed up for Sunday services in the Cathedral of the Dormition and spoke to parishioners there. The Metropolitan of all Russias, who conducted the services, kissed each and every minister on both cheeks and blessed them all.
     Like with Chernobyl there was but one alternative left, to admit the truth. A phlegmatic government official, a former Central Committee member, who had mastered to perfection the technique of producing words by moving his jaw, while keeping the rest of his face frozen, was dispatched to make the announcement that "Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's remains are executing a clockwise, when viewed from the scalp, rotatory motion at 1,247.52 rotations per minute, every night between 1:00 and 1:12 Moscow time." Various interpretations were placed on this announcement. It was argued that this was to be expected, and that it was evidence for the success of the reforms being enacted. "The faster he turns in his grave, the better" people were saying. Others implied that certain factions had a machine installed to rotate the bald remains of the long dead Bolshevik to create a provocation that would start a civil war. The machine, though activated from a distance, was Russian made, so that at the high speed of rotation it squeaked, causing the noise that had so far landed four people in an institution for the criminally insane.
     Finally the Metropolitan of all Russias, at the government's request, came up with a plan. It called for a week of prayers to St. Sergey of Radonezh. Every night hundreds of thousands of Muscovites, as well as people from other parts of Russia and also Belarus and Ukraine would fill Red Square and the adjoining squares, and at one o'clock sharp fall to their knees and pray to St. Sergey of Radonezh. A full week was not even needed, for on the third night the Mother of God herself, wearing Byzantine purple as befit the occasion, and not the blue she was seen to wear in Fatima and Lourdes, showed up to the crowd in the company of St. Sergey of Radonezh and made for the mausoleum. The stone-faced guards, again on duty, knelt down and granted the Mother of God and the Saint accompanying Her access to the stone building, after warning them to mind their brightly shining halos, lest they get damaged inside.
     An hour later, St. Sergey of Radonezh, acting as spokesman for the Mother of God, appeared to the kneeling crowd, and with the Metropolitan of all Russias kissing his feet spoke into a microphone provided by an American network. "The Virgin, blessed be She," he started. This elicited an echo "blessed be She" from the crowd, and the Saint continued "in Her infinite wisdom and goodness has surveyed the remains of the atheistic Bolshevik Vladimir Ilyich and has concluded that there can be but one explanation for the nightly spin of his remains: he now sees the error of his ways and fears that like his former tomb-mate, he too will henceforth have to spend eternity in the Kremlin wall.
     This reminded the Mother of God, "blessed be She," and the crowd again echoed the Saint's formula, "of the prodigal son, who upon mending his ways, came to be accepted by his family. In Her infinite wisdom, the Mother of God..." "blessed be She" roared the crowd of Russians, Byelorussians and Ukrainians, ".. therefore ordained that Vladimir Ilyich be accepted in the bosom of the Holy Mother Church. To assure his eternal peace, he will moreover be canonized and elevated to sainthood. Henceforth a large cross shall adorn his final resting place here and a halo is to shine around his head. May he rest in peace forever in this mausoleum meant for him and him alone." At this point the Mother of God reappeared from the mausoleum. She kissed (on the forehead, of course) the two stone-faced guards, took the hand of St. Sergey of Radonezh and with a joint push of their holy feet, the pair propelled themselves heavenward and disappeared from the view of the awed assembly in a matter of seconds. The last thing those present still got to see, was the Mother of God whispering something into St. Sergey of Radonezh' ear, taking good care not to touch his halo with Hers, to which, the by then high flying Saint pointed down to earth as if wishing to draw Her attention to a particular spot. All old Muscovites present at this event agree, this spot was clearly that occupied by the Patriarch's Ponds.
     Barely had the celestial visitors embarked on their return journey, than the crowd grew unruly and made for the two stone-faced guards to touch their blessed bodies. The tidal force of the blessed mob was no match for the mausoleum's porphyry and granite, but in no time at all, the two stone-faced guards found themselves crushed into holy martyrs on this singular occasion. They are now buried on the grounds of the former institution for the criminally insane, which has since become a major destination for pilgrims to rival Sergeyev Posad, Lourdes and Fatima. The corpulent former Party secretary and his corpulent wife have since been elevated to the head of the Holiest Order of St. Vladimir Ilyich and are personally in charge of receiving the hard currency alms from foreign pilgrims.
     There is one hitch though, since his halo has been turned on, no one has been allowed to be within ten meters of the mummy of St. Vladimir Ilyich and this has spawned a new wave of rumors. Though hundreds of thousands had witnessed the celestial visitation, new doubts have been raised in that respect as well. The Vatican has branded the visitation a hoax performed by Hollywood special effect crews, flown in for the occasion. The main evidence cited by Rome was that the Virgin, blessed be She, would never wear any color but blue and, more importantly, on a terrestrial journey would certainly never choose the company of a controversial saint such as Sergey of Radonezh, who in the view of the Holy See is of sufficiently low standing in celestial ranks to cast serious doubt on the authenticity of his halo. These doubts were further fueled by an American tourist, who witnessed the Moscow visitation and had recorded it on film. An analysis of this film revealed a remarkable resemblance between the recorded image of the Mother of God and a certain rock superstar known for her Holy Virgin fixation. In a final twist, the cover story of a major news magazine reported that experts who visited the mausoleum on Red Square found convincing evidence to lead them to the conclusion that St. Vladimir Ilyich's halo was "man-made." The day after this story hit the newsstands, the authorities closed the mausoleum and it has been closed for over two months now. Crowds shouting slogans like "V.I. go to hell" and "burn the louse" are rampaging through the center of the Russian capital. In an attempt to restore order, the government has ordered the removal of Lenin's remains to an undisclosed location. This seems to have calmed things down for a brief spell, but Moscow is rife with rumors about an imminent civil war between the Bolshevik mummy's supporters and opponents. Plus ça change...

Image by Ronnie Burk

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