by Camilla Grudova
This is the story of six residents of the same apartment and how they all died.
A young man took over a nook in the stairwell directly outside the apartment. He moved a children’s wooden bed frame with foxes on it and lay there, the bed surrounded by plastic bags full of food and toothbrushes and stuffed toys in the shape of hedgehogs and little girls.
One day, him and all of his possessions were gone, there were pink puddles of antiseptic spray where his bed had been. No one mentioned it to each other in the apartment, it is not talked about or included as a number in one of the six deaths.
• • •
The landlord rented the apartment room by room, with access to the bathroom, kitchen and large living room. Knowing how large the living room was, and how it could be used for parties – balls even – the landlord divided two corners of it into more bedrooms using screen dividers, glass doors and Persian carpets he used as ceilings. These Mongolian-like tents were rented out for the same price as the other bedrooms. In addition, he put a broken grand piano in the center of the living room. It was enormous and unplayable. The two or three keys left were soft slivers of wood.
The current residents sold this grand piano. When the landlord came to do an inspection, they gathered together their suitcases and other contingent objects they vaguely formed into the shape of a piano under several shawls and blankets. The landlord, glancing and busy, did not look underneath.
• • •
Luba, a resident of bedroom 1, had the most blankets to contribute to hiding the sale of the piano. Her bedroom was a mess of cloth: curtains, stained bedspreads, scarves, pillowcases, skirts, handkerchiefs like colorful mounds of tripe. She could not resist an interesting pattern. She intended to turn bedspreads into scarves, scarves into handkerchiefs, curtains into tablecloths, scraps into rag rugs using a compact sewing kit she bought at a Chinese shop: a tiny pair of scissors, three colors of thread, six needles and two pins with pink tips, a silk pin ball with sweet Chinese babies on it, but this she lost under all the piles of cloth. A hunt through the piles for the kit led to her discovering crevices of cloth filled with tiny white maggots. Too afraid her roommates would see if she disposed of them in the kitchen or bathroom, she stuffed the maggoty fabric clots in garbage bags which she took out at night and put in public garbage bins.
Her walls were covered in postcards of cats, her favorite one was made with gold and silver foil. The landlord forbade animals, though there were rats and cockroaches and a giant reclining taxidermy tiger who was moldy and full of holes. Bence, who lived in bedroom three, removed the teeth, eyes, and nails from the tiger and had them made into jewelry; a tooth earring, an eyeball ring, a nail bracelet. They were made with cheap metal which left green and gray stains on his skin.
Luba was in love with Bence. Bence was enormous, with a shaved head the back of which was flat, and black, rotting teeth.
• • •
Bence had a girlfriend who wore a fur coat made from cats bought from a lowly and famous fur shop which killed stray cats and dogs, ferrets, even rats, and turned them into clothing. Her name was Agne and she studied philosophy at the state university. She wore wrist watches around both her ankles, and sometimes a beaded purse on her head upside down as a hat as her head was so narrow. Her face was very long, with protruding eyes, as if a fish’s entire body had been stuck through the neck of her coat. She loved to eat seafood, especially anchovies. Bence did not understand. To him, they were simply gray strips of salt in beautiful tins. Bence spent all his money on seafood, in jars and tins, and sometimes fresh, for his girlfriend. He fried prawns which looked like little men with their whiskers, how strange! He thought. He bought a lobster which he boiled in the kitchen, then brought to bed where she was waiting, he didn’t carry it on a plate, just in his arms like a baby to impress her, even though it was hot and steaming and Bence winced. They discarded the shells, claws and antennas around his room like bits of carnival costume. They rotted and smelled.
Luba had wanted Bence’s room badly: it once was a nursery and had wallpaper of little boys wearing ushankas and pretty girls with braids. Bence had drawn dirty things on all of them using charcoal.
• • •
Luba stole a blackened toothbrush from the communal bathroom which she thought must belong to Bence because of his horrible teeth, and used it to masturbate in her room. He didn’t notice it was gone and didn’t buy a new toothbrush either.
• • •
Bence and Agne took a silver powdered drug together which they ate from the scrunched-up red tissue it was sold in.
His girlfriend claimed to see and talk with all sorts of dead intellectuals when she was high – Theodore Adorno, Emma Goldman, Tolstoy, Susan Sontag – but could never remember what they told her afterward. Bence tried to write it all down when it was happening, but when he looked at his notebook later it was full of tiny drawings of hands and feet, and that was it.
• • •
In the third room lived a religious studies student, Taras. He was thin, with a blonde mullet and a silver chain around his neck. He wore brown leather sandals with gray socks. He told everyone else at the apartment that old women at his church often collapsed speaking in tongues.
He rarely used the communal kitchen, he had a kettle and a hotplate in his room. The hotplate was covered in bits of burnt scrambled egg, but otherwise his room was very sparse and clean. There were two icons on his wall, each with a group of obscure and bearded saints.
He brought his cup and plate to be washed in the kitchen once per day. He ate the rest of his meals in the university canteen.
• • •
The kitchen was filled with old rusty kitchen appliances, more than any one family could use – pokers, graters, mills, rolling pins, cookie cutters, jelly molds, eggbeaters, casserole dishes, mallets, mushers, roasting tins, something resembling a miniature metal barrel organ with a rubber handle, funnels, tins that said Bread Coffee Flour on them but contained a sticky gray dust.
The iron oven had seven compartments, in rectangular shapes of varying lengths and widths. There were two large hobs. The handles were porcelain. It heated unpredictably, sometimes food was burnt and sometimes it was still raw after hours. All the residents just used the hobs, big black circles like dirty scratched records, or ate things cold.
• • •
Antione, who lived in one of the tents, decided to use the oven. He bought some sausages, they cooked into little burnt black wires. Though he couldn’t eat them, he was satisfied by the process, that he had done something significant by feeding meat to the oven, by observing the force of its heat. He thought of the ancients who used to make meat sacrifices to the gods.
He bought whatever meat was cheapest and carried it home in large plastic sacks. He stuffed them in odd configurations in casserole dishes – a lamb’s head surrounded by pig’s feet, layers of bones, tripe and chicken’s feet. He cooked them until the kitchen was filled with smoke and the meat was turned to ashes. When the other members of the apartment complained, he shrugged and said he was learning to cook. He was a young man away from his mother, what did they expect?
• • •
The second tent was occupied by Marian, a socialist who did a lot of unpaid door-to-door campaigning, wearing a fedora hat, his jacket covered in various political badges. He was a vegetarian, and his tent was surrounded by various jars of beans soaking in water until they became edible, pickled beets and slimy mushrooms. He had a dreadful pallor and a pot belly.
• • •
Bence took his girlfriend Agne out to dinner at a riverside seafood restaurant. The chairs and tables were outdoors. They were given no menu, but a young man came around with a large wooden board with various fish nailed to it, the scaly remnants of older, eaten fish underneath them. His girlfriend chose an eel, Bence a wide red fish with big teeth. The young man disappeared into the kitchen, and returned, sometime later with the same fish roasted on plates, served with boiled sprouted potatoes and red wine from Hungary.
• • •
Later that night, very drunk, he dreamt the eel came out of Agne’s orifices and slithered into his mouth. He woke up feeling sick.
He opened a door he thought was the bathroom and vomited on the floor then stumbled back to bed. It wasn’t the bathroom, but Luba’s bedroom. She awoke and saw his silhouette in her door.
In the morning she inspected his vomit: red stains and silver fish scales. She guessed he had planned to seduce her despite his girlfriend asleep in his own bedroom but his being sick prevented it. She didn’t wash away the vomit but watched it dry, a beautiful painting from his innards, until she realized it would prevent him from trying to seduce her again. She ate the sour, vinegar-tinged fish scales, picking them up with her fingertips, then scrubbed away the rest with bleach.
This meal, shared accidently between Luba and Bence, was remembered by both for the rest of their short lives, as the government caused a horrible inflation not long after, and food became scarce and expensive. Each citizen was given a small ration of half a loaf of strange, dense bread which didn’t go stale or moldy and three slices of pale pink spongy meat with white flecks in it. Marian did not eat his meat but traded it for other foodstuffs. He traded two weeks’ worth for a slab of tofu which ended up being a damp white sponge.
• • •
The landlord came in for another inspection bringing a new friend who was an antiques dealer. They did not look at the “piano,” but the antiques dealer said he would send a piano specialist over to look at it, leaving all the residents of the apartment with acute dread.
They took what was left of the tiger, a few lamps from various bedrooms, a bag of dolls from one of the cupboards and the oven which the antiques dealer said was made in Turkey in the 19th century. It was too big to take down the stairs or through the windows, so they had it disassembled, leaving piles of black ash and rust everywhere. Bence said it didn’t matter that they took the stove because there was no food anyway. The landlord, knowing this, did not replace it with a new stove. The Turkish oven was sold to a wealthy person abroad.
Everyone in the apartment thought resentfully of Antione with his piles of meat he burnt to a crisp and how they should have stopped him and cured the meat and dried the bones to save for later.
Antione left little cuts of leather from his shoes, and tiny bits of meat from his state ration under a large lamp in the living room outside his tent, but the pieces just rotted, did not become warm or disappeared in the night, eaten by someone else. Bence called Antione an idiot for not eating them himself.
Bence’s girlfriend moaned about having no fish to eat, so Bence went fishing in the city’s main river every day. He only caught a small fish once, the river was so overcrowded with new fishermen, fishing rods made from walking sticks, threads from their wives’ sewing baskets and tiny bits of their own flesh they had stuck to safety pins for bait, their hands and arms and noses covered in bandages. The lucky ones, with dandruff and callouses on their feet, did not have to endure any pain for bait.
In the apartment garden, Bence dug up slugs which he thinly sliced and put in old anchovy tins for Agne.
• • •
Together, everyone cut the apartment’s leather couch into thin strips and boiled it using Tara’s hotplate, an imitation tripe soup. All of them fantasized about the tiger the landlord took away: somewhere in its mildewing embalmed body, there must have been a bone, maybe with a scraggly bit of ancient flesh hanging on it.
Bence sucked and gnawed on his girlfriend’s fur coat, and she slapped him for it.
Everyone shared one purple cabbage, each having a layer every day. Some of them used it as a wrap, filling it with nettles and leather, others boiled it and ate it as soup. Every morning, Marian measured the cabbage to make sure no one took more than one leaf.
• • •
One miraculous day, Bence brought home a piglet wrapped in a wool blanket. He did not say how he got it, but he had a black eye and scratches all over his face. He said it was tempting for them all to eat it now, but if they shared their scraps and nettles for months they would have ten times as much food in a few months. He entrusted it to Luba because she was a woman.
Luba made a nest in her bed for the piglet. Each of them scarified a portion of their bread to feed the piglet- they mixed the bread with water to make a paste. Luba loved the piglet and could not think of the look of betrayal on the grown pig’s face when it realized what she had loved and raised it for, as the older a pig became the more intelligent it grew. She knew, if it even lived another month or two, she would name it Vladimir and it would be her son.
In the kitchen she threw it out the window, in a bundle of blankets pretending it was an accident. She screamed and made everyone else go down and retrieve the body. She didn’t know that it was still slightly alive when Bence found it and that he crushed its chest with his boot and that this death was more painful perhaps, than the death that awaited it as an adult. (None of them owned a gun or an ax however, just the horrid cupboard of kitchen implements)
• • •
They cut off the piglet’s feet to make a jelly and preserved the rest of the body in it so that it appeared, footless, in a wobbly glass coffin.
When it was ready, and everyone stood around with a plate, even Luba, Bence cut into the piglet with the knife. Agne, who had been invited over for the special meal on account she told no one else, screamed dramatically as he did so, as if she was the one being stabbed, then giggled when he was finished. She was maniacal with hunger.
Luba, seeing him cut the pig, wanted Bence to eat it whole then have sex with her and get her pregnant so the piglet would be reborn from her and forgive her for throwing it from the window, but he served his girlfriend the first and largest piece of the pig. Save the heart for me, thought Luba.
She watched the pig chopped into pieces and equally distributed. Even Marian, so hungry, ate, though he only ate the gelatine, mixing it with bits of nettle. Antione thought as he ate his, how lovely it would be to watch the whole meal burn to a crisp in the old stove, how holy and miraculous it would be. This boiled meat was a double death, a smell of putrefaction.
• • •
Taras used this cheery occasion to announce he had received a student visa to to continue his studies in theology and he would be leaving in four days.
Everyone watched him enthusiastically chew his serving of pork. He was leaving for a place with plenty of food, and here he was, eating the small amount they had. He could survive four days on water!
• • •
Bence decided that in the night before he was supposed to leave he would kill Taras and stick his own photo in Taras’ passport. With his shaved head, and a cross necklace from his grandmother he always wore, he could pass as a devout theology student. He knew Taras would not indulge in food in his new country, but continue to eat scrambled eggs as he had here before inflation.
After the meal, Bence went to a photobooth in a metro station and had his photo taken. He said the name “Taras” as the camera flashed.
He planned to beat Taras to death with a meat mallet from the kitchen as soon as he got home.
• • •
Antione tied the lamp wire around his neck and choked himself to death. He left a note for the others “Please, if you come across some matches, burn my body.”
They buried him in the communal garden because they had no energy to carry him to the cemetery, and also thought his body would fertilize the nettles and other plants growing there they had been subsisting on. Taras said a prayer over his grave.
The next day, Marian was beaten by fascists when leaving a socialist meeting about inflation. They kicked him to the ground, his hat fell off. When they were finished, he grabbed his hat and put it back on his now bleeding head and ran home.
His hat was glued to his head with his own blood, it had become part of the scab of the wound. It was more painful than a bandage when he tried to peel it off, so he left it.
Bence finally beat Taras to death with a mallet the night before he was supposed to leave, and left in his place with a packed bag. He posted a letter to his girlfriend saying he would send her a fish as soon as he could. He was intercepted at the airport, one of the photos he stuck over Taras had fallen off – there was no glue in the city, it had all been eaten, and he had stuck it on with some of the leftover gelatine from the pig. He was put in jail and swiftly executed, not just for the death of Taras, but also unjustly for Marian, who died in his bedroom tent, from the wound, the hat soaked through and crusted with blood. Luba , alone in the apartment, gathered everyone’s fabric belongings – their sheets (Bence’s still smelling of rotten lobster), socks, shirts – and added to the pile in her room which stretched almost to the ceiling. She crawled into it, creating a dirty and dark tunnel, and with a tug on an old sleeve or stocking, buried herself.
Copyright © 2023 by Camilla Grudova