But the Tsar’s brutal Okhrana police DID arrive and with newly signed arrest warrants for both of them. Just ten days after that bureaucratic blunder that the police had overlooked, had now been discovered and rectified by the authorities. Bella and Lev had been married a mere nine hours.
Both of them after a hasty trial with confinement and torture in the Lubyanka were to be transported immediately to a penal establishment. She to be deported to the Arctic circle for forced labour in a salmon canning fish factory. There to reside as an uninvited guest of the Tsar for three years.
He to the sodden salt quarries in the Volga. When Bella was released years later, she was a changed and scarred woman insensitive to all others pain or pity. The girl her darling Lev had known and sought as his treasured bride and cherished briefly in their dream Silver forest had departed into the climate of that arctic wilderness never to return. Lev’s days were numbered of course and he would never return to complete his theology studies. Poor treatment and pleurisy would claim his young life just a few months after the couples forced parting.
Then afterwards his emaciated body would be dispatched with thousands of others into an unmarked grave. Or the ‘cemetery of the forgotten’ as it has been recorded by the late Ukrainian poet Yuri Shinsky. Although she might have been separated from him physically through the long years, the memory of his love for her now lay locked forever in her wounded heart and almost frozen in a timeless region. His always smiling face and his tender touch, she would never forget. She would never offer her love to any man again.
Nor would she ever forget the violent rapes from the animals that had assaulted her young body years ago in the numerous prison pits where she had been incarcerated. Simply to submit to any future man if he presented himself to her would be a betrayal to the memory of her darling Lev. He would be her first, her last love, her only love. He would remain forever young in her heart.
Four months later into her sentence Bella miscarried her baby onto the wet slippery floor of the refrigerator room. There she had been working being unsupervised at the time. Then as she wiped the blood and mucus away from the baby’s perfect face and through the agonising pain that she had endured bringing forth her baby she was aware that the child she clutched now seemed at first sight to be as perfect as a sculpted Verrocchio statue of a divine cherub. She inspected and stroked the minute face of the child who appeared to be only sleeping. She stroked his veined hands and feet and kissed the delicate eyelids and lashes and opened lips. And through her tears and the pain she somehow witnessed the face of her darling Lev. Although she knew the baby was deceased, the little body still retained some semblance of warmth. But that was now slowly evaporating into the icy mist of the stacked freezer. As indeed were her fragile damaged emotions.
Behind the seated Bella and still clutching her dead daughter, were stacked sealed boxes of caught fish waiting to be dispatched to other remote regions of Russia. She gently wrapped the tiny infant into a discarded Hessian sack, opened one wooden crate and gently placed the baby alongside the packed frozen fish and marine life. She later wrote a short note asking:
“If you find this little one please bury her. I am unable to do so. Thank you.”
She sealed the box this now being her child’s coffin. Yet it almost broke her heart to commit this necessary act.
Hours later she departed from the ice room having composed herself and to appear as normal as possible to her guards. The next day she noticed that the destination stencilled onto that box bearing their child was to be shipped to the northern port of ‘Archangel.’ She later secretly watched that marked crate the next morning and the others being hoisted up on to the awaiting ship the SS. Pushkin. Then she silently blew a farewell kiss to her little one. She did not look back. She could not for she would have collapsed into tears.
Only later in her cell that evening did she recall that years ago she had witnessed a beautiful icon depicting the Archangel Michael the then protector of that famed city. She hoped that this was a favourable sign for her dead daughter. And that her simple written request would be fulfilled by a kind person somewhere, somehow.
Yet Bella much to her surprise was a survivor and never failed in her belief in the political Bolshevik cause that she had promoted and always believed in so passionately since her youth. These tenets of her faith had seen her dispatched in rusting chains to the Arctic wilderness after her forced separation from Lev.
Once there for nineteen hours a day, she with so many other lost souls would toil in the stinking fish factories. This brutality never daunted her will to survive but hardened her resolve to be free one day and wreak vengeance to overthrow the Tsarist regime. She had then herself just about survived, feeding when possible on the scraps of fish heads and tails that were discarded and been trodden onto to the sodden floor.
After her release, she would never sample any fish ever again even refusing to even look into their dead opaque eyes. She had also become impervious to other prisoners’ privations and pain. Sleep when it arrived was a welcome release from all that was cruelly displayed and witnessed all around her. Her own dreams when she could seek sleep consisted mainly of food and especially sampling warm bread rolls and Pastilla cakes. And of her baby daughter that she had held briefly, then lost. And always of fresh fruit and other forbidden delights.
Few there suffered from the nuisance of insomnia and none probably could even spell the word or explain its meaning in this factory of fear. Nor would love ever be infused into her heart ever again.
Amazingly for Bella in the second year of her sentence when a new consignee of prisoners arrived to serve their sentences, one of them brought her a message from her brother Leon that he was alive and well.
How he achieved this feat she never knew. Then some months before her own release, an elderly convicted orthodox priest slipped her a creased envelope from his torn overcoat. As he was herded with many others into a waiting holding pen, he smiled at her and nodded. It was when she opened it discretely, found it was a coloured birthday greetings card from her brother! Surprisingly the old cleric shared the same birthday as she and Leon, he later informed her. She was touched deeply for some reason by his kindness to her and others. Later when a brutal guard fractured the old man’s jaw as a petty punishment, with a rifle butt she took it upon herself to feed him soup through a straw in the infirmary, a privilege she had earned for herself. He died painfully a few days later clutching her hand his last spoken words were, “Bless you dear Bella.”
His words and deeds were the only kindness ever to be shown to Bella Stavisky in her brutal three years of penal pain and punishment in that den of desolation.
Then days later that particular sadistic prison guard who had delivered the unexpected assault upon the old man’s defenceless face, met with an unexplained accident himself in one of the camp’s filthy latrines. Slipping it seemed on scattered portions of fish scales. He had stumbled and unable to retain his balance, had smashed his forehead into the rim of the steel urinal rendering him dazed and confused. Bella who had waited for him in a darkened corner instituted this attack. She then quickly straddled him then holding his head she inserted into his right ear a four-inch fish bone that pierced and caused his brain to haemorrhage.
He died slowly as she watched him, with happiness in her heart. He was the first person of the penal authority that Bella removed from her path that day. There would be many more in the uncertain years ahead waiting to be eviscerated by her delicate but dangerously directed hands.
She herself had never sipped from that addictive religious chalice of which she had heard so much praise about. But she speculated that perhaps naively that the dear old priest’s final benediction extended to what might have happened to her baby daughter whom she had romantically named Laela. Was her tiny frozen body perhaps discovered weeks later then secreted amongst the packed fish and gently laid to rest in some far off soil in a town she had never heard of? She would never know of course and this truly was a particle of the pain she would suffer daily. But to Bella then it was in the ritualistic sadistic routine of the camps that you either survived or expired.
It was simply the brutal world of the jungle where the predator and the pursued fought hourly for survival, with the predator usually succeeding. Each day that dawned could bring the expected final gasp of breath to the starved whipped and beaten creatures whom no longer seemed human before they expired. Then to be disposed at will. It was as if these wretches had never existed or had ever wandered through the fields and meadows of this world. Now they were just nameless ghosts destined to walk forever unclaimed and unknown.
Later after the privilege of recruitment into Stalin’s secret police (NKVD) and whatever the party required of her, she would perform all its orders with exemplary obedience. Any convicted enemy of the state would be her enemy and punishment as decreed by the court would be meted out as ordered.
Previously during those long lonely years of survival in the Arctic wilderness two ambitions had motivated her and urged her forward like an alpine express train that navigates treacherous glacier bends.
The first was that she would unearth that officer from his lair. It might take time but she would find him! Because it was this officer who had callously placed them both in chains. Then laughingly waving that arrest warrant into their faces before he spat on them both with repeated kicking and face slapping. Oh, and how the man had enjoyed every minute of it she remembered with cold anger. But when she located him and she would he would not be laughing then only quaking in fear of what was to be inflicted upon him.
The second desired wish was to one day return and search again that magical forest of her dreams and seek one more time those precious initials scratched upon that exposed bark. She had convinced herself that very special tree would still be standing. Both of these desires had kept her alive and saved her sanity as she shivered each night in her iron rusted sagging cot as death glided by her and selected and claimed others into his embrace. She owed this rite of revenge for both her and her darling Lev. And she promised herself that she would achieve both of her ambitions and with relish, and always honouring the memory and love for the man whose memory had never diminished even during her darkest Arctic hours. Rather it had sustained and urged her forward like a seeking hungry Condor bird of prey of the Andes Mountains.
She did indeed years after her release discover, rather by accident, the abode of the recently retired police officer a Captain Pytor Anishin. For that was the name and rank of the wretch who had humiliated them both. Now he was happily enjoying his vegetable allotment growing prized marrows and pumpkins as well as tending with love his favoured pet Belgian pigeons.
Some had even earned him prizes, she had learned when she had examined his security file.
Naturally, when confronted he did not recognise her when she located him on his prized garden allotment dressed in her tailored officer uniform of the NKVD. A shadow of suspicion, then fear spread across his face, as well it may she thought. She now confidently sauntered towards him. The sun had conveniently situated itself behind her and had almost blinded him as the alarmed man tried but failed to focus on a face that he did not recognise.
And how Bella had waited to utter her prepared words of revenge and how she had rehearsed them again and again and again! And for her, there would be no regret as to what she would say and was about to do to him. She began choosing her words carefully but with a note of menace in her articulated tone: “Comrade Anishin, today is your final day of judgment. You didn’t know that did you? You ought to be very afraid. Because now you really must pay for the consequences of your actions that you committed so many years ago against myself and the boy I loved because you…”
She then suddenly kicked him onto his shin from her polished boot saying quietly: “Yes, you took him away from me and you really must pay for it comrade Anashin.” She then removed her holstered pistol and ushered him into to the half occupied bird aviary. He offered no resistance. Nor would she allow him to!
She had rehearsed the coming injuries that she would slowly inflict upon this man. Possibly a thousand times over the years in those lost Arctic years that she could never reclaim.
Over the next five minutes in the bird coop, she performed minor surgery on his face, his knee caps, his fingers and elbows all with her trusted Webley pistol. All the time now brandishing before his broken bleeding face the original signed order that he had waved with glee before her and Lev so long ago. Then they were just two frightened young people then at his mercy and sadistic pleasure. Now Bella was a woman with a mission and she relished in using the power what it offered her against this ghost of her past. She suffered no regret in this her own personal method of execution. In fact, she pursued its power with pleasure.
Then she finally assisted this now crumbling ruin of a man out of his pleading misery. By now he was just about prostrated before her on his shattered knees. Then a single aimed shot to his forehead with her now fitted silencer erupted from her pistol, then for him, it was over. Her appetite for his death had been sated.
She surveyed what she had performed and nodded with satisfaction. She then replaced the pistol, but not before she wiped it thoroughly with a damp rag that she had brought for this very unsavoury purpose. She then reached up for the bird cages, then unhooking the confined birds, she released them slowly watching and smiling as they raced to the open sky and to freedom.
She shivered as she remembered the years of her own confinement in that arctic prison. Then she herself had watched the arriving snow geese and the Falcons and the little sandpipers skilfully descend and land on the camp tundra. Through the bars of her cell, she also witnessed flocks of unknown birds calling out to each other as they journeyed towards the horizon. She had vowed to herself then that one day she too would be as free as they were … one day! And now that dream dreamt long ago had finally arrived and with a vengeance!
However before she walked back to her waiting staff car, she turned then surveyed the ripened bloated marrows and pumpkins and other vegetables with distaste like a hunter seeking fresh prey. Then she carefully placed her well-heeled boot into each of them and stamped down accurately listening to them pop and explode leaving just a squelchy mess. It was indeed a satisfying sound to Bella and she smiled. She then adjusted her leather holster, straightened her fitted tunic, wiped her boots with the soiled rag previously used on her pistol and then departed the dead man’s allotment without even a backward glance.
Her cup of revenge had finally been sipped and enjoyed and she felt fully satisfied. Somewhere in the distance, a dove cooed and an owl hooted and roaming wild dogs barked as they searched for food. In the now deserted and darkened allotment a rabid pack of savage Huskies would later feast and slobber over the remains of Comrade Anashin’s face and groin as they devoured what remained of the prized pigeon racer. It would be a week before his remains were discovered. As no one could identify his body, it was then ordered to be quickly disposed of in a landfill waste site.
Years earlier at her passing out parade for entry into to the NKVD, her station commander had called her affectionately a ‘death machine’ and complimented her for her professionalism in her use of the dark arts.
She now stood anxiously in the storeroom casting her eye one last time over the cold body of Max laying amongst his ill-gotten gains. Then after being satisfied at what she saw, she silently locked the adjoining door and replaced the keys into Max’s pockets.
Now she must return to her own room and prepare to vacate it. As she reached for the door handle she realised that she was locked out and that her own door key was inside the room on the coffee table. She quickly reached for a heavy jewelled locket around her neck then deftly flicked it open with her thumbnail it and removed a pick. She then connected the tool inside the lock. Then after deftly manoeuvring it for several seconds, it suddenly produced a dull click and she pushed open the door.
Stepping back into her own room she checked again making sure nothing had escaped her notice. Quickly she noticed that small unopened bottle of clear water. She wondered again why Max had brought it? Then she scooped it up and placed into her shoulder bag. Then hurriedly reached for her heavy fur coat, put it on buttoning it up quickly. She then arranged her fur hat standing before the wall mounted mirror and checking her overall appearance before she was satisfied.
The soft hat was one of her favoured and much-loved fashion statements. This black fox fur trimmed headgear had been designed for the Russian Tsarina herself by Pierre of Paris in 1902 the then favoured milliners to most of the European royalty.
Her brother Leon had brought it back from Estonia for her as a treasured souvenir. She never left home without it.
She now departed her room, locked the door and took a slow silent walk down the stairs and into the lobby which she noticed was deserted. So far, so good, she thought. She approached the empty counter and was just about able to reach over to return her key to its numbered hook.
She then removed the cotton gloves that she had worn for the last hour and placed them into her pocket. She had heard nothing and seen nobody.
Once outside she decided to walk to the station knowing that a taxi might be too dangerous if the driver was questioned later by the police about any fares he had collected from the hotel.
She arrived at the station slightly breathless and with minutes to spare although her train when it arrived was late. She then tried to purchase a single ticket to Zurich. Behind the booking office window, the young rail clerk for some reason flirted with her. Enquiring about her fur hat which seemed to have caught his attention?
He seemed to be in no haste to sell and stamp her ticket, rather enquiring with a sly smile if she were Russian?
She did not answer him but merely shook her head. Still believing she was Russian for some reason, maybe because of the fur hat, he informed her that it had always been his personal ambition to visit Moscow and for some reason to see a performance of Swan Lake performed by the Bolshoi. Was she herself perhaps a ballerina?
“No” she replied laughing. “I’m too heavy.” This seemed to satisfy the young man’s curiosity who then with a brief nod passed her paid ticket through the grill and pulled down the blind. This office was now closed Bella being his final customer for the night. The lure of the mountain and its terrain and its people had left her devoid of any attraction to the town and its delights. She would not be returning here again she decided.
Then finally her train arrived and she boarded it located an empty carriage and for the first time in an hour relaxed and closed her eyes. Soon she was dreaming of flowing rivers and floating ice caps and for some reason packs of grinning wolves pursuing her down those Matterhorn slopes. But not before she had earlier swiftly dispatched the unwrapped now flaking pastries and that small bottle of water and the cotton gloves out of the train’s windows into the darkness of the night. They like the fading memory of Max the monster would be gone forever and hopefully delegated to the darkest corners of her mind.
Five hours later her train steamed into the busy Zurich main terminal.
Then alighting from her carriage, an enquiring porter approached her offering to carry her bag. She accepted. Then as they walked slowly together he placed a small note into her hand saying quietly (“from Koba.”) Then touching his cap he departed into the swirling crowded terminus. He did not wait for a tip she noticed.
She then looked around for an unoccupied waiting room then locating one she walked in closed the door sat down and read its few brief ordered words: ‘Accommodation arranged at Hotel Capri. Stop. wait for further instruction’s. Stop. Koba.’
Later after arrival at the designated hotel and being escorted to her pleasant south facing room, she dropped her coat onto the carpet together with the suitcase and decided she would pamper herself with a deep luxurious bath.
Then running the water she doused it with numerous flavoured crystal bath salts until satisfied. When the bath was ready and heated to her satisfaction, she quickly undressed and stepped into its welcoming embrace.
As the warm water washed around her aching body and her much-complimented swan-like neck, she mentally counted that to date, that she had ‘removed’ for the state some twenty-nine men and thirteen women. Thankfully no children had been placed on her remove list, well not yet anyway.
The unexpected forced disposal of Max some hours ago which she believed was now justified, was her thirtieth victim. After what she had discovered about him in his sordid disgusting little room and the surprising suggestion as well, that he may have been in possible collusion with some enemy government. These revelations had definitely convinced her that her orders from Moscow were correct.
But the realisation of how Max could have entered her room any time day or night and spied on her every movement even when she was sleeping or showering had sent a cold shiver down her spine. Yet she hoped that her superiors and ‘Koba’ especially would be satisfied with what she had performed and achieved in Zermatt for the success and survival of Lenin’s brave coming ‘new world’ as her old kindly instructor at the academy had informed her and many other cadets with patriotic pride on graduation day.
He and his family she later learned from Leon would be dispatched to the waiting gulags in Siberia. The court charges against him and his family being that subversive dangerous deeds had been committed against the state.
But Bella was under no foolish illusion about her own safety and that her own name was somewhere on someone’s signed drawn up execution list. Of course, she only desired that when death eventually arrived to claim her (but not yet) it would be painless and preferably by a bullet.
Until then each morning the sun would awaken her as it always had from its slumber and shine as it had always done on the just and the unjust. And she would face the new day and its uncertainty with her usual optimism.
The truth if discovered and that she would never admit to was that Bella dreaded pain. She had witnessed too much of it being practised in the past years on herself and on other defenceless unfortunates. Even routine appointments to the dentist left her faint with fear even before being seated in that chair. Later her heart rate finally stabilised as she breathed in the welcomed fresh air as she departed the dentist’s house of torture.
She had also suffered an aversion since childhood to pins and needles. Just the sight of them now mortified her.
Later relaxing in her hotel’s fluffy terry towel robe she phoned down to the concierge and ordered coffee, some strudel and sandwiches to tempt her appetite which was now slowly returning.
When the food arrived she enquired from the swarthy Italian waiter if it were possible for him to obtain for her all of the Swiss newspapers, especially the Zermatt local newspaper. She tipped him generously from the blood-stained money that Max had acquired by whatever dubious means in his hotel.
The waiter quickly pocketed it leaving the room with a bow and a half smile.
Later as she sipped her cooling coffee and enjoyed the delivered food carefully arrayed before her she recalled as she had so frequently those wretched days of near starvation in her prison cell. Then dismissed these thoughts from her mind.
Her requested newspapers quickly arrived breaking into her saddened reverie. She walked over to the open balcony where the natural light was brighter. Her eyesight had slightly deteriorated in her left eye she had noticed. She suspected the damage had occurred due to the meagre diet and conditions them rampant in the Arctic penal colony of years before.
She then seated herself examined carefully all the news reports from Zermatt. Of that death of the popular hotel owner Max, nothing had been reported. However, she was convinced a police investigation was in progress then hopefully later to be shelved due to any lack of evidence or interest on their part.
Only the popular Neue Zurcher Zeiting quoting a ‘local source’ stated that one of the guests a woman and possibly of German origin had checked out that night before. This according to an unnamed night staff worker. Strangely enough, it was also reported but still unconfirmed, that there had been no record of her ever registering on her arrival. This information had been passed to the ongoing police enquiry. Obviously, Max had concealed her name from the register for whatever purpose when she arrived. She hoped it would not be a future problem in the investigation that might affect her, but by then she would be hundreds of miles away.
Yet Bella experienced a cold finger of danger jab into her chest. She could only hope that the circulation of that quoted newspaper was low. This basic instinct that she had honed so adroitly had saved her life frequently in that stinking fish factory now signalled her need to depart Switzerland she realised and quickly. But she had been ordered to remain until new orders arrived from Moscow. She had no option but to sit and wait for further instructions.
She cast her mind back to when she had silently replaced her hotel key in the hotel lobby that night. She was convinced nobody was there or had observed her departure. Yet she remembered there had been several high leather winged backed armchairs in the lobby and set back almost out of view. Perhaps one of the tired maids had curled up and had been dozing between her duties and had seen and heard Bella through half-closed eyes, perhaps pretending to be sleeping before taking a sly look to investigate? It was usually the little things somehow overlooked that could bring an avalanche of trouble to your door.
She finished the remains of her meal and pushed the daily papers away from her lap where they slipped onto the floor where they remained. They had served their purpose anyway. Then turning towards the open window she looked out at the picturesque Zurich skyline. Yet she felt disturbed by what she was experiencing.
Simply she had been a Soviet agent dispatched to discover more about her brother’s disappearance and who had caused it. Now for some reason, she was experiencing the uncomfortable feeling that perhaps someone was watching her and from a distance? But for what reason, she could not explain. She thought again of this man Walter Kyper. But he was just one suspect in her brother’s vanishing. She hadn’t ruled out the remote suggestion that Leon had died in a barroom brawl. But she thought this unlikely.
She quickly made a decision as she walked to her bedroom to dress. An hour later she exited the hotel.
She had decided that she would visit Spiegelgasse 14 in the city and try to clear her head. She had read in her small tour guide book that Lenin, then in exile together with his wife had occupied a two-room flat for a year in 1916.
Lenin had also been domiciled under local police supervision in Bern and Geneva as well in those pre-war years. Bella speculated that one day she would return to this historic city and maybe Koba would accompany her but somehow she doubted it. She locked her room and walked towards the elevator. Later an obliging hotel doorman pointed her towards that historical area saying of Lenin.
“I used to see him when I was a boy with my father flying my kite up in Zurichberg Hill. A funny little man always wore a cap. He used to be with his wife … well, I suppose she was his wife, he was always talking and gesticulating. She didn’t seem to say much though.” The porter then rambled on about other local topics he hoped to share with her but seemed oblivious to her lack of interest.
Bella quickly tipped him from the illicit gains Max had acquired from who knows where and nodded politely at his detailed directions then quickly departed. Then the drizzle started to descend and she realised she had left her umbrella behind in her hotel room. But she had no fear of rain because if the gales and snow of the Arctic could not diminish her spirits why should she be concerned about the soft refreshing rains of Zurich. She reached into her purse and extracted a silken Hermes headscarf placing it carefully over her styled still damp hair. Another acquired souvenir from Max’s hidden hoard she thought. Her annoyance had now abated as she walked towards that noted Lenin shrine with brisk steps.
Meanwhile 213 kilometres away in Zermatt it definitely was not raining but a sudden flurry of gentle snowflakes was assaulting the good citizens of that Canton.
There enjoying the weather by dispatching snowballs in one of the local parks adroitly at each other were Walter and Karin both laughing like excited children on a school away day.
Then as Walter deftly dodged another missile aimed by his giggling wife, his thoughts and suspicions returned about the unexplained death of Max the so-called popular hotel host.
He was still concerned and rather interested in this unexplained death that could somehow lead back to himself and maybe the party. His instincts were now raised and could not be dampened. Rather they would have to be pursued later until he was finally satisfied if at all.
Then the couple now arm in arm walked briskly back to the comfort and warmth of their waiting hotel with two hot glasses of Gluhwein waiting for them in the mock Tudor bar. The town hall clock chimed on the hour and all seemed well in Zurich that night. As the couple would later toast each others health.
In Zurich, Bella Stavisky had returned from an excursion to locate the shrine of Lenin and had been disappointed at what she had witnessed. There really was not much to see.
She was also annoyed when after she had enquired at the hotel desk if any messages had arrived for her the answer had been a polite, “I’m afraid, not madam.”
She returned to her room then ordered a pot of coffee then later sat on the veranda and admired the city’s backdrop. She would just have to wait she told herself. But of course, she was well used to this plight because really what else could she do? She shivered as the mountain air descended to circle her body causing her to reach for a nearby blanket. She closed her blinking eyes and drifted into a dreamless sleep. In the distance, a clock tolled the midnight hour. And for her, another day was over.
To be continued…
(C) Copyright G. Patrick Battell