“Of all the fairy stories we tell our children,” said Arkady, “The Tale of the Greater Good is by far the most wicked.”
“You sound like the fifth Karamazov brother.”
Outside, the cold reduced everything to elemental purity. Traces of urine on the snow glittered like citrine quartz.
Arkady poured a little vodka into my glass of mors. I’m no drinker but “if you speak to me like that,” he said, “then you must sit at the grownups’ table.”
He’d shrunk in his own skin like a spring bear but he was still a big man. His laugh shook the floorboards, a deep rumbling cough the chaser.
And he’d managed, even here, to maintain the elevated sensibilities of a Gorokhovaya Street apartment. The room smelled of honey and ginger but not of regret. The rough-sawn shelves had been filled with first editions. The urbane country gentleman, with his adoring dog to share his solitude.
This would be worst for her.
I tried to control my anger. It was horrible to me that Arkady should suffer yet monstrous he’d escaped accountability — that someone who’d savaged the rights of so many could choose the time and place and manner of his own end.
“Tolstoy misspoke,” I said. “Intellectuals are all alike. With a hard nut of self-delusion at their core. That touching faith in Mother Russia’s sacred destiny, no matter what’s required to achieve it. But the innocent vanities of small harmless people enraged them.”
“The Americans are equally sentimental,” said Arkady, “but their writers are amateurs.”
He got up to bring some hot thick smoky tea.
“I forgot what happens when spirits go to your head. Have another pryanik.”
Alcohol loosens too much in me.
“Why weren’t you immune to all that poison?”
“Delusion fuels the passions of policemen too,” Arkady said.
He refilled his own glass with icy clear liquid fire.
“Don’t misunderstand; it is not a mitigation. The stain cannot be diminished. Free will has its cost.”
Lisichka shifted anxiously at Arkady’s feet. She hated this sort of talk. He bent to rub her ears.
“It is one of the great ironies. Every liberator thinks he carries a gentler choke collar. But never mind. It’s not important now.”
“It was important to them — those people broken and killed — and their children and their mothers and fathers, without even a grave to cry over sometimes — they deserve more than your elegant allusions.”
His eyes sparked — the same feral flash prisoners saw when he conducted interrogations in his beautiful cultured voice. Then he damped down the fire.
“Yes,” he said, “that is the purpose of philosophy. To distract us from truth.”
He opened another bottle of Siwucha and tilted it at me, a mock toast. “One more heresy. Keep this secret too.”
Arkady’d been clever to make me drink. I woke long past noon out of a dreamless sleep.
He was still in his chair, slumped over. Lisichka pressed herself hard against his legs and growled at me.
“Go out,” I said. “You know why I came.” I opened the door so she could squeeze through.
I steeled myself. Despite everything this would never have been my choice.
In the moment of permutation, every muscle in my body contracted and then released. The spectrum shifted and my blood surged in an exultation of power.
I bent over Arkady, scenting his familiar smell beneath the reek of alcohol and sickness, and I almost broke my promise. Then — in one quick snap I finished it.
The change back is always a sort of surrender and diminution and I had to fight, now, not to give voice to everything I felt. I rubbed my mouth clean before letting Lisichka in and set out food for both of us — smoked meat and trout — and I finished off the pryaniki.
We curled up together to sleep.
Arkady’d packed the sled with everything he wanted me to have, and provisions to last us through. It was heavy but Lisichka was big and strong and I’d be running alongside her where I could. Better not to be slowed by the need to hunt.
“Don’t look back,” I told her. As I fastened the harness I saw it in her eyes, the remembered pleasure of willing service to the one you love. But she was hurt and angry too and we had no time for grief.
The crust was well-frozen and the sled’s runners had been waxed till the wood had the feel of silk. We’d leave no tracks, heading silently for home.
Behind us, Arkady’s cabin ignited; a pillar of fire against the moonless sky.
Evil is everywhere but life is stronger. It can’t be stopped.
Mushrooms are growing now inside the reactors and birds nest throughout the Sarcophagus. Their babies are odd hatchlings but they still learn how to fly.
The water is cold again, with a pleasurable bite on the tongue.
Even in the Red Forest, death is giving up its hold. A strange new beauty is visible. The beginning of time must have looked like this — these colors; secret constellations beneath the black dirt. Our eyes were fashioned to see it.
Their clever science can’t figure it out — why the old women who refused to leave Pripyat are so healthy and strong. It goes against everything they know.
We know better. The Creator’s promise is fulfilled, and to us, His original children. After the apocalypse, paradise.
Poachers try to sneak in all the time.
We welcome them.
I’d told Lisichka. We have the best hunting here.
Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine, as well as on EDF; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — have appeared on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)