Snap Goes the Crocodile


by Marina Akhmedova

Marina Akhmedova spent four days in the company of drug users in Yekaterinburg, central Russia, and was met with a picture of desperation, punctured by love, humanity and misplaced hope. This piece of reporting has since been banned in Russia.

Preface from the author:

On 28 July, ‘Crocodile’, my reportage on life inside a drug den in provincial Russia, was published in the Russian magazine, Russky reporter. Three days later, Roskomdadzor, the Russian media regulator issued an official warning against the publisher for so-called promotion of narcotics, and demanded that my article be pulled from the magazine’s website. The warning mentioned the fact that the piece contained information about how to prepare ‘crocodile’, i.e. desomorphine, a hard drug produced using everyday medicines and now increasingly popular within Russia.

All I can say is the following: if these same officials had undertaken some basic research, they would understand that preparing ‘crocodile’ is, in fact, a very complicated process, and one that cannot be mastered from a few short sentences. Even after long periods of addiction, not every drug user is able to prepare it (indeed, those who can’t are expected to buy all the ingredients and share the dose out among those present in the kitchen). I included such details in my article only as background in an attempt to create an atmosphere faithful to what I saw.

On 1 July, a new law came into force in our country that banned the over-the-counter sale of medicines containing codeine. I note that the Russian media dutifully reported the full list of medicines that can be used to make narcotics, and suggest that such vocalisation might also be called promotion or propaganda of drugs.

Not a single law enforcement officer has bothered to get in touch with me about my work. Not a single officer is, it seems, interested enough to ask about the pharmacists who are selling prescription medicines without a prescription. The same officials demanded that my publishers simply pull the article, having already threatened them with closure. No doubt, they did not bother enough to review readers’ comments; if they did, they might have read a view that ‘no other article provokes such feelings of revulsion towards drugs’.

Some believe the regulator’s warning is a good advert for my article. I’m not so sure. I think it’s the beginning of something rather less pleasant. I do not want to have to choose my subject matter and write my articles with one eye on Roskomnadzor — the same agency that seems untroubled by the illegal sale of medicines in pharmacies or the drug users’ own claims that police have been rewarding them with heroin in exchange for information. Roskomnazor seems perturbed only by the fact of publication, and that is very sad.

Marina Akhmedova, 3 August 2012

The wood cabin’s kitchen is dark and cramped. At the table sits Witch with a bowl in front of her. In her hand she holds a wet sponge with which she is wiping the phosphorus off matchboxes. Dark red droplets drip into the bowl. Witch’s hands are red and bony, and she herself is as dark as an overdone roast potato. She has a mop of dark wiry hair. Outside the window are the sickly beds of the vegetable garden. The sky is leaden.

At the gas cooker stands a thin man called Misha. His matchstick arms hold an enamel saucepan lid over the burner. On it are crushed tablets of Sedalgin, an analgesic rich in codeine.

‘This is the way to wash matches,’ she says, turning to me. Witch can barely move her tongue. ‘So you get one of the igre … dients …’ Her half-dead tongue completes the verbal manoeuvre. Her eyes are fixed on one spot.

The whole kitchen squeals as Misha runs a blade over the lid, scraping off the reduced codeine. Witch rolls it into pellets as knobbly as a human brain. Misha starts bashing a plastic bottle on the tabletop and she explains, ‘You’ve got to pound it. He’s mixed ecstasy and soda. In a minute he’ll warm the petrol. You can only use ninety-two octane, low-grade. We run all over the place, asking them, begging them, but people are so greedy … This is my sister, Sveta,’ she says, introducing a tall, thin, girl who has come in.

‘I feel sorry for her,’ Witch adds without much evidence of sympathy.

‘Nobody’s forcing me,’ her sister responds lethargically. ‘We live together and we inject together.’

‘We’ll shoot up in a minute,’ Witch says as I’m about to ask something. ‘You’ll find out everything about how we got like this, but right now isn’t a good time.’

‘Do you get high?’

‘Not any more.’

The sisters watch Misha dully but without missing a single movement, and time passes. The three of them seem like a single organism.

‘Are you in pain?’ I ask Sveta, breaking the silence.

‘A lot,’ she says quietly. ‘All my insides hurt. So many of my friends have died. We know all about it but we still go on shooting up.’

‘You need to stick it out and get clean,’ Witch says listlessly.

‘You need to find a job you like,’ Misha says without turning round, his words like part of the process of cooking up crocodile.

‘I had a good job, but I blew it,’ Witch says. ‘I worked at a filling station. All at once I had money and friends, and straight away it was, gimme, gimme. I watched them cooking crocodile for ages, but then I got tired of carrying them all. You would come to a den and there would be eight of them in there. I’d pay the money and the whole lot of them would shoot up. Then I started buying for them. Someone brought exit [ready made desomorphine or ‘crocodile’] to where I worked and the boss saw me. He fired me. I want to quit taking it too. I feel sorry for my ma. She was retired, but now she’s taken a job just to feed us layabouts.’

‘Does she know you inject?’

‘She can tell,’ Sveta replies. ‘You can see from our eyes, and the way you talk changes. She was in hospital recently with heart trouble.’

‘At first we were just boozing,’ Witch says, ‘but then some kind people gave us heroin to try. You get such a high. I really liked it. Getting pissed is nothing like it.’

‘You’re just alive, and everything is so great,’ Sveta chimes in. ‘Everything is beautiful. You see it a different way. It’s so great, not like anything else. Isn’t that right, Witch? Not when you’re hitting the bottle, or even …’

A dog barks and everyone jumps. They look out the window. A stooped figure is crossing the yard past a rickety greenhouse. The Earth is already waking and has sent forth the first feathery onion leaves. They are growing chaotically here but sprout in neat rows in the neighbour’s plot.

The door opens and a small woman wearing tight jeans and a short jacket comes in. She looks girlish until she comes closer and you see her face is puffy and sallow.

‘Here’s Annie. She’s a hard-boiled junkie,’ Witch says by way of introduction, while straining the concentrated phosphorus through a nylon stocking. ‘Annie may still be hoping for something, but I don’t. Sveta here would like to find a man. She wants someone with the same diagnosis as her.’

‘What is it that?’

‘HIV, like all of us. Misha has infectious tuberculosis, but don’t let it worry you.’ Witch’s raucousness makes her voice sound like that of an old prostitute, a tramp, and an alcoholic rolled into one, cackly and derisive.

‘I was in rehab,’ Annie starts in quickly. ‘It’s like, you know, lots of religion, the Bible and all that … I started going to church, only a Protestant one, mind, but if you’re hooked, you’re hooked. Here we’re hooked on dope, there it was God.’

‘Which is more powerful?’

‘Being hooked on God is more powerful,’ Annie replies. ‘We’d get up in the morning and start reading the Bible straight away, and they explained all about religion. It made your head spin, you know … three hundred and sixty degrees.’

‘But you don’t get high on the Bible,’ I suggest tentatively.

‘No,’ she quietly agrees, ‘and it says, ‘Don’t have friends who do bad things’, but I’ve got a husband who’s a junkie.’

‘Like his wife,’ I am tempted to add, but don’t. She takes a book of psalms out of a small leatherette bag.

‘I like the bit about that girl best. The one who got her husband to do what she wanted …’

‘What, Eve?’ Witch suggests.

‘No,  She saved her whole nation.’

‘Ark, then?’ Witch tries again.

‘No, and not Ruth, you know, that …’

‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, talk sense will you!’ Witch yells at her.

‘She got married to that, you know, that Sultan,’ Annie blurts out. ‘To save her whole Jewish people. Esther! That’s it, yes, Esther.’

‘So how do you imagine God, Annie?’ I ask her.

‘It’s like, you know, well it’s like when you’re a child and you’re falling, but you know for sure that someone is going to catch you.’

‘Oh …,’ Witch groans, throwing her head back. ‘I wish I had a man who would just say, ‘Okay, that’s it! Stop injecting right now!’ I might quit. I might have a baby.’

‘What crap,’ Misha comments almost unnoticeably, not looking round from the cooker. Every time he speaks it comes as a surprise. His minimal movements are so practised they seem automatic. You feel he isn’t quite present in the kitchen, that you can see through him, that Misha is the invisible man.

‘D’you mind me asking you something?’ Sveta enquires. ‘Why aren’t you scared of us? People don’t want to touch us. They’re afraid to shake hands.’

‘We’re HIV,’ Witch says challengingly. ‘We might decide to infect you.’

‘Well, I’m not planning to drink your blood,’ I joke, but they don’t find that funny. Neither do I. Actually, I am very much afraid of them, especially of Misha’s tuberculous breath.

Photograph by Mikhail Shcherbakov

Witch pours me some tea and I drink it, my lips barely touching the smooth rim of the mug. I feel as if, gulp by gulp, I am drinking in their HIV and tuberculosis.

‘We only have two options: prison or the next world,’ Misha mutters grimly. ‘Nothing else. We’re at a dead end.’

‘There are three,’ Witch wheezes. ‘Cold turkey.’

‘What’s the point?’ Misha asks. ‘You can’t run away from yourself.’

‘He’s right. He’s right,’ Annie and Sveta chime in.

Witch slithers down the wall, turning her wrists out and, planting her two enormous feet on the floor, slides from one side of the windowsill to the other. She clutches at the handle on the window frame, puts her full weight on it and stops, collapsing to her knees. Opening her eyes and still hanging on to the handle, she stares at the pattern on the blue curtain. Her eyes come to life and she leans closer. What is she seeing there? Witch grimaces and her centre of gravity seems to shifts to her eyes. Her body falls forward but the point she is looking at on the curtain seems to hold her up.

Sveta is lying on a narrow bed with her hands behind her head. Misha is probing her armpit and a vein swells under his fingers. Sveta’s face swells too and her eyes run over the blue wallpaper. Misha inserts the needle into the vein, pushes the plunger, and forces dark yellow liquid into her armpit.

‘You doing it?’ Sveta asks, frowning. Misha nods. Her face quickly relaxes and for a moment there is astonishment in her eyes. ‘Oh, is that how it can be?’ Her eyes dim and stare glassily at the wallpaper.

Misha is working through Annie’s fingers one at time. ‘This one’s no good,’ he mutters. ‘Not this one either.’ He sticks the needle into her ring finger and twists it. ‘O-ow!’ Annie sucks in through clenched teeth.

‘My fingers are useless,’ she says. ‘Stick it in my hand.’

‘No,’ Misha demurs colourlessly. ‘You can do it there yourself.’

‘Misha, what are you afraid of? It’s just the same as fingers,’ Annie protests, but Misha lays the loaded syringe on the bed and moves away.

‘Oh, my God,’ Annie sighs, getting off the bed and pulling down her jeans. Standing there in check shorts, she puts her foot on a low stool. The skin from the calf to the knee is covered in gangrenous blotches and deep ulcers oozing pus and fluid. A loosely tied scarf from the church is round her ankle. Looking at Annie’s legs, I imagine a fairy tale where Witch, after diving into the curtain, encounters the crocodile. He is angry at having to live in a fairy tale and all the people he bites turn into reptiles, their skin covered with scaly scars. He has bitten Annie’s leg, but for the time being her holy scarf is protecting her. If it works loose, however …

‘The needle is clogged with pus,’ I say, sitting on the floor a metre away from Annie’s leg and observing the blunt needle gently sinking into her rotting flesh. ‘Use a new one.’

‘A syringe costs six roubles,’ she says. ‘I don’t have that kind of money.’

‘I’ll give you money for syringes,’ I say, but at just this moment the handle on the window gives way. Clutching at the curtain, Witch falls to the floor and sits there with her veiny legs wide apart.

Annie takes off her shorts and is now just in her panties. Her cheeks redden, her breathing becomes fitful. Her breath has that smell you get in metro carriages late at night, like a sweetish belch of canned energy fizz. That odour drowns out the other but, after sitting twenty minutes in front of her rotting leg, I begin to discern a smell of earthy mustiness, as thin and slippery as a live vein in the midst of decomposing flesh.

‘Would you like to be like Esther?’ I ask her.

‘Me?’ She sits up. ‘How could I be. She saved her nation.’

‘Is there anyone you could save?’

‘I couldn’t even save my husband,’ she says and, without looking, sinks the needle in. The crocodile crawls into her leg.

Witch gets off the floor, looks vacantly at the twisted window handle, and very articulately and threateningly says, ‘Fuck! Who broke that handle?’

In the kitchen, second helpings are being cooked. Sveta is crushing pills between two sheets of paper with a rolling pin. An unfamiliar woman well past forty is sitting on a stool by the window.  She pinches a vein in her inner elbow and it swells. After injecting, she throws back her head and a scabrous, mannish expression comes over her.

‘The Old Woman has bunked off work to shoot up,’ Witch says. ‘She’s a plasterer.’

Witch warns everyone that her mother has phoned to say she will be here in an hour’s time. ‘If we haven’t had time to shoot up, grab the gear and hide it.’

Annie emerges from the room wearing lipstick.

‘I feel like living,’ Misha says tremulously, shaking together with his bottle. ‘You shoot up, and you’ve got an instant incentive.’

‘You tell yourself tomorrow’s the last time,’ Witch adds, her tongue loosened. ‘Tomorrow you’re going to find a job, and not mind varnishing your nails or washing your face. But how could you understand?’

‘You want to get out and about. You feel like a human being again,’ Misha says, and through his flat way of speaking you sense a chuckle and a lust for life. ‘You start hoping.’

The Old Woman introduces herself. She is called Marina too, so that makes three of us: her, Witch and me. Kneeling down in front of Annie, her workmanlike fingers press an ulcer on Annie’s leg. She squeezes and flesh appears in the pit, like a red eye.

‘See what comes out?’ she sniffs.

‘My leg’ll be sore now,’ Annie moans. ‘I won’t be able to walk.’

‘Look, look how it’s gone. You need to take Cifran.’

‘My liver’s wrecked already,’ Annie objects, and turns to me. ‘D’you know what does that? Carelessness. You get up in the morning and need a fix in a hurry. You look for a vein, can’t find one, and just stick it in wherever.’

‘It can paralyze you if you don’t get it in a vein,’ Sveta says, sitting down on a stool and showing me a yellow mark on her vest. ‘It burns fabric if you spill some.’

‘What do you feel like after injecting crocodile?’

‘I feel like you,’ she says.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Nothing hurts. It hasn’t given me a high for a long time. An hour later, everything starts hurting again, aching. You can’t stand up. I inject to feel like you.’

‘We’re all in the shit! We’re all fucked!’ Witch explodes. ‘Sveta, what are you sitting about there for? Ma will be here in an hour! Annie, stand by the window and keep an eye on the gate.’

Annie gets up and goes over to the window. Sveta looks daggers, but she gets up too, goes to the cupboard and pulls a satin ribbon off the shelf. She looks at it dozily.

‘Yast year I tied a gyeen yibbon on an appoo tyee and made a wish,’ she says, suddenly chewing up all her ‘l’s and ‘r’s, although before shooting up she was speaking normally. ‘I pyanted it. I yuv it.’

‘What did you wish for?’ I ask.

‘To meet a man and fo him to yuv me. And have the same diagnosis as me.’

‘And did you?’

‘Yes. He was cawd Oyeg. But when I saw we had nothing ess in common, I undid it and burned it. I bought a new one. I’w tie that.’

‘What will you wish for this time?’

‘I don’t know what I want.’

‘Well, everything I ask God for, he gives me,’ Witch says. ‘I went to church and asked him to give me a job. I told him, ‘You help me and I’ll come back and settle up’. I went back to that church later and put money in the box. You have to stand under the dome, right in the centre where God can hear you best. That’s what my grandmother told me. Only you absolutely must give something in return.’

‘I go to church, too,’ Sveta says. ‘I have no money, but I pyomised dear God I would give up cards. I did, he gave me Oyeg, but now I have nothing to pay him with. I have nothing at aw.’

‘You have the crocodile,’ I suggest.

‘I wiw give it up, but onyee when I get a boyfyend.’ Sveta shakes her head. The end of the ribbon slips out of her hand and encircles her feet. Witch and Sveta have been injecting crocodile since last July. They will die this year.

‘Why are we all talking? My Ma is going to be here in an hour!’ Witch shouts irately, and Misha’s bottle starts knocking loudly. Sveta rolls the ribbon up in a ball. An hour and a quarter has passed since her mother phoned, but time too seems to live by its own laws in this kitchen. Perhaps, in the curtain, time crawls as slowly as a reptile and stretches like a pinched vein. Perhaps Witch is experiencing eternity in the curtain. Perhaps, outside, curtain time takes its revenge for being so merciless stretched and gobbles up hours, turning them into minutes. Who knows?

‘Any moment now I’m going to knock sense into the lot of you,’ Witch threatens and the kitchen empties. Only I am still at the table. ‘I hope you at least are not afraid of me, Marina. I’m a good person. In anyone else’s patch you’d have been screwed. You’d have had your bag nicked, and your phone.’

I have a small bag on my shoulder with my phone and some money. If I took it off, Witch would steal it. I know that, and also that I have a serious guarantee of protection in this cookshop. My phone rings. It’s a friend inviting me to go to the theatre. Witch eavesdrops on the conversation.

‘Well, fuck a chicken!’ she yells. ‘The theatre. How about that! I’ve never in my life been to the fucking theatre! I’ve really been screwed! Drugs are not my scene! I love going to the hairdresser’s! And expensive handbags! It’s only this HIV, it has … and the fact that I’m only going to live another …’

‘It was your choice,’ I say unemotionally.

‘Don’t worry, I know I’m a goner,’ she says, turning down the volume. ‘What do I care, anyway. While I’m alive, I might as well have a good time,’ she adds harshly, and starts scraping the concentrated codeine off the lid. Her lacerated fingers keep slipping off the flat side on to the sharp blade.

‘My friend is short and fat,’ I say, touching her fingers. She lets go of the blade.

‘And ugly?’ she asks hopefully. ‘Well, fine, Marina. I don’t want to live. I really don’t, Marina.’ She seems, being completely stuck with her unlovely nickname, to be taking pleasure in pronouncing mine, which, of course, is also hers.

‘Where have you all gone?’ she raises her raucous voice. ‘’Cos I love you all, fuck you! After all, I’m nice, kind old Witch.’

‘You fucking scared everyone away, doing your nut like that,’ the Old Woman’s rasping voice comes from the room.

‘Old Woman, don’t let me get on your tits, all right?’

‘You haven’t got on anyone’s fucking tits.’

‘Maybe I just raised my voice a couple of times. So fucking what? You’re so fucking oversensitive.’

‘Yes, we fucking are.’

‘Oh, fuck off!’

‘Fuck you!’

‘Fuck you too!’

‘Misha, you motherfucker. Go fuck yourself, dickhead. You haven’t tidied up a fucking thing. Ma will be here in an hour, you fucker. Mish-a, get Marina something to eat, fuck it. She’s had fuck-all to eat since this morning, fuck it. Oh, what a fuck-up, Marina, what a fuck-up, eh?’

Her mother appears after two hours. She comes into the kitchen with a fixed look of apprehension. She is inscrutable as her weary eyes take in the bottle, the lid, the syringes, and the whole lot of them. She turns and, without a word, walks slowly out of the house, looking down at her feet. She walks past the rickety greenhouse and the first feathers of the chaotically growing onions.

‘Fuck! My ma came here,’ Witch says in astonishment.

In the morning we go out buying. Witch is wearing jeans, a jacket and rubber flip-flops. I find myself carrying a large plastic bag containing petrol, soda, hydrochloric acid, matches, iodine, and a nylon stocking. Witch looks around cautiously. In Yekaterinburg, as nowadays everywhere else in Russia, there is a ban on the sale of medicines containing codeine, but all the local drug addicts know pharmacies where they can buy unpackaged tablets under the counter by paying over the odds. The pharmacists keep the packaging so that crocodile addicts don’t scatter it around the city. There are addicts who hang around these pharmacies ready to relieve anybody weaker than themselves of their purchases.

We go upstairs and cautiously open the door. We look in. No customers. We enter. Behind the counter, separated from us by a glass screen, is a plump, rosy-cheeked woman in a white coat. She looks Witch over quickly and decides she is okay, but lingers on me. I put the bag on the counter.

‘Sedalgin,’ Witch says quietly. ‘Ten packs. And iodine. Syringes. And Tropicamide, two packs.’

‘One thousand two hundred and seventy,’ the pharmacist says, also quietly, laying out the pills, iodine and syringes on the counter.

I try persistently to catch her eye, but she seems to be making a point of avoiding eye contact.

‘And Methanol lozenges, if you would be so kind,’ I say.

The pharmacist finally looks up at me. She has pale blue eyes and there is something cold behind her overly obliging manner. The lozenges break her practised routine and for a moment she is nonplussed. I open the pack and put one in my mouth without taking my eyes off her. I say, ‘Thank you,’ and count out the money. I am paying for the drugs, and this serves as my protection in our patch. Witch deftly sweeps the drugs into the bag.

‘What d’you have to be so fucking polite for? ‘If you would be so kind’, ‘thank you’!’ she sets about me when we are running back through the still chilly streets of Yekaterinburg.

‘She doesn’t inject, but she gives him the money to buy and pays for his clothes and shoes,’ the Old Woman is saying, ‘but he treats her like shit.’

Today we are cooking up at Annie’s while her parents are out at work. When we arrive from the pharmacist’s we find Sveta, Annie and the Old Woman in a clean kitchen which has a hood over the cooker, PVC windows, and gladiolus bulbs spread out along the windowsill.

‘It’s because of how she looks. She’s fat,’ Annie continues the conversation we have walked in on, ‘and she is kind. She loves him. But then another woman turned up, thin, nice, and a junkie. He hitched up with her. The fat girl didn’t see him for three months. He must have been sleeping rough in stairways. Then he turned up again and she took him back. I heard they don’t, you now … like they sleep together in the same bed but don’t have sex.’

‘He’ll be impotent,’ Sveta advises.

‘Or perhaps she just wants someone’s shoulder to put her head on,’ I suggest.

Annie tears pages out of a crime novel by Tatiana Polyakova and pours the tablets out on to them.

From the music centre comes the voice of Irina Allegrova singing ‘Hopeless, Unrequited Love’. Sveta looks out the window at a pink apartment building opposite with white curtained windows and tidy, recently turned over front gardens.

‘Is love more powerful than a high?’ I ask her.

‘Yes, I think it absolutely is,’ she says.

‘I wish I had cocaine to snort,’ Witch mutters, taking the petrol and acid out of the bag, ‘rather than these pathetic pills.’

She is freaking out again. Misha hasn’t come. He is cooking up for someone else. Misha is the best person in this patch at cooking and finding a vein, and for that he is rewarded with a free fix.

‘The memories come flooding back. Oleg and I got together in the spring.’ Sveta turns to face me. In this unfamiliar kitchen flooded with clear light, her eyes under their plucked eyebrows seem naked. ‘When I met Oleg, we weren’t injecting. We just lay side by side for days at a time. I so want to go out for a walk,’ she adds, sounding like a terminally ill person.

‘Did he dump you?’

‘No. I dumped him. He punched me in the face. He apologized and said, ‘Let’s start over again.’ I said, ‘No. If you’re leaving, just go.’ I can’t allow someone to humiliate me like that.’

‘I’d never have known,’ I say, nodding at the tablets. Sveta blinks.

‘Well, it’s true, isn’t it?’ Witch butts in. ‘With crocodile you’re never going to find a boyfriend. You need to go away somewhere.’

‘To ‘go away somewhere’ you need to be saving up for something other than trips to the pharmacist’s,’ Sveta snaps.

‘I’ve never been that much in love,’ Witch muses as she sprinkles the crushed tablets over the saucepan lid. A ray of sunshine from the window falls on it too. ‘One moment I feel like I love everyone. Another I feel like I’ve never loved anybody. I don’t think I even love my parents.’

‘How about the summer?’

‘Obviously I love summer,’ Witch says, puffing up her cheeks and smiling. ‘In summer it’s not cold when you run to the pharmacy looking for pills.’

Annie runs in, a mobile ringing in her hand, which she quickly passes to Witch.

‘It’s, like, a call from where Alex works. Tell them he’s out of town but he’ll be in tomorrow,’ she whispers.

‘Ahem.’ Witch coughs into the phone. ‘Oh … you’re phoning about Alex?’ she begins pompously.  ‘Well, the trouble is, he’s out of town at present. He’ll be back tomorrow.’ You can see how hard she’s trying to sound educated, but only ends up accentuating the way she really sounds.

‘He’s been ordered to do community work, two hundred hours.’  This time Annie is whispering her explanation to me. ‘Sweeping the hospital yard. He nicked the speakers out of a car.’

‘He’ll be really fucked if he isn’t here tomorrow,’ Witch says vindictively after hanging up.

She glances out the window again in the hope of seeing Misha on his way.

‘Does Misha think after shooting up yesterday I didn’t see him filching the ecstasy?’ she asks rhetorically. ‘He ran straight off to Kolya. Vadik gives him money for buying too and he milks it. He’s nicely set up. I would never do that kind of stuff. We bought two packs of eyedrops. I could have squirrelled one away, but I straight away showed everyone, look, two packs. Anyone who does that stuff is a shit junkie.’

‘Misha is always on the make,’ the Old Woman grumbles. ‘Always first in the queue; that’s Misha for you.’

‘Still, I wouldn’t shoot up without him,’ Witch retorts, ‘and neither would Annie.’

‘He didn’t manage to inject me yesterday,’ Annie grunts, but then sees him through the window and exclaims exultantly, ‘Misha’s coming!’

And indeed, a skinny, lurching male figure wearing sunglasses is approaching.

‘Fuck me, look at those shades … He’s gone all fucking fashionable,’ Witch murmurs.

The intercom buzzes. He is greeted with smiles of joy, and in next to no time all five of them are clustered round the cooker, sucking the yellow drug out of the pan up into their syringes. Sitting at the table, I gaze at their backs, and their shoulder blades look broken. Like animals at a waterhole in a drought, each one knows their place in the queue. First, Witch fills her syringe because I made the buy and I belong to her. Next comes Misha, without whom Witch and Sveta can’t find a vein. Then Sveta, because she is Witch’s sister. After her, it’s the Old Woman, because she is bigger than Annie. Annie, as provider of the apartment, could claim priority over the Old Woman but hasn’t the neck.

They check intently who is getting how much, and count out the eyedrops. If I ran right now into the middle of the kitchen and bellowed at the top of my voice, they would not turn round. Their world extends only a few metres and has the cooker and its hood at its centre. It is not a world within the world: it is their entire world, a world as narrow as a coffin, but all-encompassing for those who live in it, a world which follows its own laws. In it there are neither saints nor sinners, no thieves or benefactors, only the harsh laws of survival. There is no truth, no certainty about anything, not even that the sun will rise tomorrow. It is a world which arises when people are dicing with death. A supreme, inexorable law instantly appears, an axis around which their universe revolves: it is the right of those as yet still human to play a game they have chosen for themselves.

‘Marina, come and sit beside me,’ Witch urges. She is lying in the large room on a couch, not wearing a sweater, only her bra. She has a dark-skinned and unexpectedly firm stomach and a young person’s arms. The wind stirs a light curtain and wafts into the room the laughter of women and the cries of small children. ‘Come here! I want to tell you something.’ Dark red blood is flowing from her armpit. She raises herself. ‘Marina,’ she whispers quickly. ‘I wished my ma would go to the bathhouse and die there. From a heart attack. I am so ashamed, Marina. My dad doesn’t know we are HIV positive. We keep it from him because otherwise he really would drink himself to death. We didn’t tell my mother, but she made a point of finding out. Then she just cried and cried, all the time. I shouted at her, and that’s when I wished she would die.’

The room is Russian middle class and trying desperately to be Russian upper class. It has a tall china cabinet, ample armchairs and a large plasma TV, but is let down by the shells from the Mediterranean, the cardboard trays of seedlings, the framed photographs, and particularly by the flat, peasant faces in them. Witch calls this a wicked pad. It is the epitome of all she aspires to. Misha has already injected her, having first retired to the larder to inject himself in the groin. Now, like a spectre, he is again at work in the kitchen. Crocodile is cooked days and nights at a time.

‘Do you know how much I have sinned?’ Witch continues groggily. ‘You don’t know the first thing about me. I have a criminal record. We used to go thieving from shops and warehouses. How many times the police caught me! How many times they beat me up, kicked me! One time we went into a shop. The guys were lifting bagfuls of martinis. I was covering for them. They ran for it, but I didn’t get out in time and the cops got me. First, they sat me on a chair. One of them took a great swing and whacked my liver. I fell off the chair one time and they beat me on the kidneys. Three cops. Look at me! One would have been more than enough. If anyone just gave me a shove, I’d fall over. They wanted me to go into a cell and grass up the pushers.’

‘And did you?’

‘No. That’s not me, Marina. I may be a thief, but I’m not going to shop anyone. In Chkalov Prison they’ll give you heroin in the office. They let you shoot up right there and then. The main thing is, you can’t take it out with you. Then you shop someone. But everyone knows I don’t do that.’

‘I wanted to show you what I used to be like.’ Annie comes in and hands me a photograph album. In one photo she is wearing a lovely wedding dress, trimmed with little blue flowers. The bridegroom is blond, wearing a suit, and looks perfectly normal. The year is 2002.

‘Where is the dress now?’ I ask.

‘There it is, hanging in the wardrobe. Alex is at home, over in their patch. I quarreled with him yesterday. Know how it happened? I got pregnant before the wedding, and I was already drinking a bit. He could have terminated it, but he, you know … well, he didn’t want to.’

‘Where is your child?’

‘I did it. I had an abortion. I did well at school and college. I had a job at an aircraft factory. When I got pregnant, there was nobody to tell me an abortion was a bad thing to do. D’you know what I’m like? Easily led. I went to the hospital and the gynaecologist said I shouldn’t have the baby. ‘You’re young,’ he said. ‘You can have a baby later. You are still hitting the bottle.’ I said, ‘No, I want the baby.’ I came home and told my mother. She said the same. ‘You do drink rather a lot, dear. Get some treatment first, and have a baby later.’ That was two of them. I went to Alex and he’s such a special person. He said, ‘You decide.’ So I did. The girls in the ward told that while you were drugged it was like you were flying on a swing and you felt well and happy, but for me it was dreadful. I felt I was imprisoned inside something squishy and being tossed from one wall to the other.’

‘Well, you were right to have an abortion,’ Witch says. ‘Otherwise you’d have lumbered your parents with a child to look after.’

‘Why are you talking like that?’ Annie’s faced twitches. ‘Perhaps everything would have turned out different. Perhaps Alex wouldn’t have … He so wants a child. Only now I couldn’t have one that was healthy.’

‘Have you had an abortion?’ I ask Witch.

‘Don’t be stupid,’ she says. ‘It’s a sin.’

‘Did you ever want to get married?’

‘That was never my aim,’ she replies haughtily. ‘So many men said they wanted to marry me …’

‘And did you turn all of them down?’

‘I said ‘yes’ to all of them, but none of them did marry me. They’re just randy goats.’

‘I only know one thing,’ Annie says tremulously. ‘No matter what kind of baby I had, I would never leave him.’

Sveta comes in and stops beside the boxes of seedlings. She touches the delicate tops of the shoots.

‘I had an abortion too,’ she says. ‘They induced a miscarriage. In the women’s clinic they said, ‘Look, you are HIV positive!’ I was in shock. They never told me it might not be passed on to the baby. They just presented me with a fact.’

‘Did you want the baby?’

‘Whatever next!’ Witch yells from the sofa. ‘He was HIV positive! Were you going to land something like that on our parents?’

‘You are HIV positive too,’ I observe.

‘So what? She’s going to die soon and who’s going to look after the child? I couldn’t live like that!’ Witch shrieks, as if it had been her pregnancy rather than Sveta’s.

‘I didn’t have him by a man I loved,’ Sveta says calmly. ‘When you’re injecting, your periods stop and you can’t tell if you are pregnant or not. I only noticed when my belly started swelling. I hadn’t felt anything. The baby already had nails,’ she suddenly added.

‘How was he born?’

‘The doctors were afraid I might infect them. They gave me an injection to kill the baby. I was walking around with him dead inside me for a whole day. I felt sorry for him, but I just wanted to get it over with and forget everything as quickly as possible.’

‘Did you scream?’

‘No. How could I? It was night time: people were sleeping in the wards. No doctors came near me. They didn’t give me any painkillers, and I could feel it already starting to come out. I told the girls in the ward, ‘Time’s up.’ They ran and called the nurse. She asked me if I could stand. I said I could. ‘Then get up. Here’s a nappy. Give birth into that.’ I gave birth to him and caught him in a nappy. I don’t remember who cut the umbilical cord. I wrapped him up and carried him to an empty ward myself.’

‘Did you look at his face?’

‘No. I just know it was a boy. He was blue, covered in blood, and he had nails. After that they put me in an examination chair and cleaned me up. The doctors were dressed like spacemen. I went back to the ward and thought I would fall asleep, but there was suddenly so much pain in my heart.’

‘Have you ever talked to anyone about this?’

‘No. I chose not to.’ Sveta sounds like a tape snagging in an old cassette recorder.

‘Marina, I had a miscarriage too,’ Annie begins, and I’m starting to feel they are all coming out to tell me their stories, the way they had stood round the cooker. ‘My belly was so sore. I had such terrible contractions, and I hadn’t even known I was pregnant. I went to the toilet and it fell out of me, – this embryo.’

‘Describe it.’

‘It was a tiny little person, the size of a kitten. It seemed to get stuck here.’ She indicates between her legs. ‘I held it and took some paper and tore it out. It already had little hands, but it didn’t yet have a face.’

‘What did you do with it?’

‘Well, like I … flushed it down the toilet.’

The next morning, Witch forces me to put on Sveta’s warm vest. We are going visiting, to the neighbouring patch where Witch is going to give them some eyedrops, bought with my money, as a present.

‘Fuck it, Marina, I’m not taking you buying again,’ she swears as she is putting on her shoes. ‘As soon as you open your mouth it’s ‘would you mind awfully’ and ‘thank you’. You’ll scare the wits out of the pharmacists. They’ll think the cops are going to be round any minute.’

‘Thanks for the fix, Marina,’ Sveta says.

‘Ulterior motives make the world go round,’ I retort with a scowl. The petrol fumes have given me a headache.

‘Eh?’ Witch responds.

‘Well, you think I’ve helped you, but from where I stand I know I’ve harmed you. Still, that was my choice.’

‘We would just have got it some other way,’ Sveta says.

‘And that is your choice.’

With Witch, I leave our middle-class apartment. We pass several blocks and turn into the entrance of a high-rise.

‘There isn’t any wallpaper, but don’t be scared,’ Witch cautions me. ‘They used to wedge the door shut with an axe. The lock was broken. You just pushed and it opened There was a young child sitting there. They were all injecting, while he sat there staring. He’s eight now. They say these fumes make you into a moron. Also, on the balcony there is an urn with the ashes of the owner’s husband. He died two years ago. We’ll just drop in for a moment, and you don’t have to worry about anything. You’re with me, I’ll look after you. Our future is the cemetery, but you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. You’re educated. You’re very different from us. Your life is different. You have people inviting you out to the theatre. We were all so jealous.’

We climb up to the fourth floor. There is a strong smell of petrol. The steel door is painted mental hospital blue. It is opened cautiously and, when we enter, we walk straight into a coarse blue woollen blanket covering the doorway. It is dank and smelly.

The apartment’s humid breath welcomes us. A synthetic rug smells of bedbugs. There is no wallpaper on the walls, but there are vomit patterns on the bare plaster. In the middle of a wall is a coloured children’s ABC. It is dark and fetid in here, as if you are in the depths of a forest. Pale, dropsical men lie on a couch redolent of urine. They look like mushrooms which have sprouted in some poisonous grove. A swollen girl occupies the only chair. She lethargically opens her eyes, puffy slits in which I recognize the scabrous look I saw on the face of the Old Woman.

In order to advance into this poisonous room, I have to make an effort of will to lift my foot from the floor and move forward. I am soon next to Witch, and the men on the couch lazily run their gluey eyes over me.

I glance through the open door to the balcony and there, sure enough, is the urn with the ashes, looking ceramic and dusty. I wonder how he feels, resting there for the past two years in full view of what’s happening to his wife and son. I also think it would be good to scatter his ashes.

The owner of this pad is a dark-skinned, wiry blonde with liver spots. She is standing barefoot in short shorts in the middle of the room, telling us that  yesterday Oleg nearly OD-ed. Witch gasps. Oleg is Sveta’s ex.

‘Shee-it,’ Witch swears quietly, rummaging in her bag. No eyedrops. Someone has stolen them back at Annie’s apartment. The Old Woman, Misha, Sveta, or Witch herself: it doesn’t matter who did it. What matters is only that under the rules of the game, nobody gets blamed.

Witch quickly retreats towards the door before the men lying on the couch wake up and demand something in compensation. My phone, for example. I hasten after her, trying to appear unhurried.

‘Come on,’ I whisper to Witch in the narrow hallway. ‘Let’s take that urn right now and scatter the ashes from the balcony. I’ll do it myself.’

‘Have you been fucking inhaling or what?’ Witch fails to get her foot into her flip-flops and grabs at the blanket. ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself? That’s a human being in there!’

She hobbles down the stairs, and you can see from her movements she wants to get out of here as quickly as possible.

Witch sinks down, waving her out-turned wrists about. She has a blood-stained napkin in her armpit and her face is red. Misha missed the vein and Witch could be paralyzed. She is cackling and beating her head against some invisible barrier.

‘My precious, beloved, dear, special, saved daughter cleansed by the blood of Christ, blessed and whom I bless, you, my beloved child,’ Anna reads aloud, holding in her fingers, stained with blood, a yellow sheet of paper. ‘For me, nothing is impossible. You have the right to receive your miracle! But I want to give you more. All the treasures of heaven belong to you as of right. I ask only one thing: live for me. I love you! Your Heavenly Father.’

I am about to ask Annie where she got hold of this high-falutin gobbledygook, but see she is crying. I take her piece of paper and re-read it aloud, expressively. When I get to the middle, Annie presses her hand to her mouth.

‘You have no idea how much that letter means to me,’ she says through compressed lips. I realize that this letter, composed by some not very bright pastor, is just what is needed by Annie, Sveta, Misha and Witch. Its very simplicity means it can still get through to brains which have been eaten away by the crocodile.

‘Annie, do you believe you will not die because there will be a miracle?’ I ask, dreading the answer. She nods, and then I understand that in this game, where there is no room for subtlety and complications, it is not the crocodile which leads them on but primeval faith in a miracle. Their belief in a miracle is a hundred times stronger than my faith. They will believe in a miracle until the last, and that hope will not die with them. Some people fall, but the game continues.

Everywhere in this apartment there are photos of Annie’s parents and her sister, but none of Annie. Evidently there is no room, or it’s as if they would be out of place; as if her parents have already begun to prepare for the time in the near future when she will no longer exist. In their own apartment they have every right to that. Perhaps their game doesn’t allow for faith in miracles.

‘A-aah,’ Witch groans. ‘Marina, you have no idea how much I loved him. They put him in the hospital. Junkies call it ‘the final resting-place’. I said to him, ‘Don’t go there, they will kill you,’ but he said, ‘No, they will help me there.’ No one comes out alive, though. He missed the vein in his groin. That’s what started it all. When I went to visit him, I could see he was going to die.’

‘How could you tell?’

‘Do you know how many times I have seen that? You can see it in their faces. Their features go all bony.’

‘And you can smell earth,’ Misha adds solemnly.

‘I was dying in the hospital, too,’ Witch goes on, ‘only Sveta prayed and I recovered. Every day at six in the morning she got up. Never said a word to anyone. She went to the church and for three hours she crawled on her knees before God.’

‘I gave away everything I had,’ Sveta confirms.

‘I went there. He was sitting on the bed. His legs were as swollen as two posts. He said, ‘Please, I can’t stand it any more. Bring me a fix. That is my last wish.’ I cooked him up some crocodile and took it to him, the fix and some cheesecake buns. He shot up, ate the buns and said, ‘Witch, I so want to live …’. And you talk about fucking motives.’

‘Did you see him dead?’

‘Yes, at the funeral service in church. He had that ribbon on his forehead. I went to the coffin and touched him. He was all soft, like jelly, and I had so upset him. Well, anyway, I didn’t cry there.’

‘What was he upset about?’

‘He phoned me when I was busy. I said I would call back. I rang a few days later but he had already died.’

‘Why didn’t you phone earlier?’

‘I was busy!’ she retorts rudely.

I say I have to go out, and go down to the yard. Witch tries to put Sveta’s little coat on me, but I don’t let her. There’s a cold wind blowing. I walk past several houses and streets and finally find what I am looking for. I know that when I take her this I will lose Witch’s friendship, but I still go up the stairs and open the door to the flower shop.

‘Well fuck me! What is this for? Nobody has ever given me flowers before and now I didn’t expect they ever would!’

I hold out the rose to Witch. It is exactly what I was looking for, as dark red as her blood.

‘Just take it anyway,’ I say.

Witch hesitates, then stretches out her big hand and carefully takes the rose. She goes to the kitchen, where Misha is already cooking up. Witch pours water in a bottle and puts the rose in it. She gets back to work with her matches and the sponge, concentrating intensely on what she is doing and  seeming not to notice me. She says nothing, but after a while gets up, takes the rose and goes out of the kitchen, saying, ‘She doesn’t want to be breathing petrol fumes. She’ll suffocate.’ Witch has transferred her caring for me to a rose, but somehow I am not hurt, because I knew it would happen.

‘We need to prune the apple tree,’ Sveta, sitting on a stool at the table, suddenly remarks. ‘Last year, our neighbour’s tree was struck by lightning and split in half. I’m worried about it …’

I’m standing in the hallway, already packed and holding the door handle. I feel I have been walking along the blade of a sharp knife and, if I stay another day, I may get cut. Annie runs out of the room without her jeans. The scarf is loose at her ankle and her hands are again covered in blood and pus. She falls on my neck. I stand there motionless and don’t put my arms around her skinny back. She is going to collapse anyway; it is only a matter of time. She is already hanging in space, kept up by a yellow letter from her Heavenly Father. Soon she will go down the tubes. My game has no place for faith in miracles, which also means I am scared of Annie’s blood.

Witch doesn’t come out. And then I go through the door, slowly walk down the stairs, and find the taxi waiting for me in the courtyard. I hear heavy footsteps behind and turn round hopefully. Witch is coming down. When she reaches me, she sways for a time, as if held by an invisible barrier, then lurches abruptly forward, raising her heavy arms and pressing me to her.

‘Marina, don’t forget me. Please don’t forget me.’

The taxi drives out of the yard. I turn round and see Witch slowly, heavily walking after it, but I don’t ask the driver to stop.

Article translated by Arch Tait

Piece originally published at OD Russia | Creative Commons License

About the Author:

Marina Akhmedova is a Moscow-based professional reporter specializing in social and cultural issues. Republics of North Caucasian region of Russia is sphere of her special interest. Marina is an author of three books of fiction: Woman at Chechen War (AST, 2010), House of Blind (AST, 2011), and Khadijah, Notes of a Death Girl (aka Dnevnik Smertnitzi, Diary of a female suicide-bomber, AST, 2011).