by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
A small group of artists were in residence at a distant forest retreat. They were no more than twenty, and no newcomers were anticipated. The retreat’s manager arranged things so cleverly that every season she had a full set of select guests for exactly one month. This way, everyone had enough time to intermingle, establish contacts, form little cliques… The lady manager liked that.
The retreat occupied a mansion that had once belonged to an aristocrat and now belonged to the Ministry of Culture. Most of the year, it was a museum. No one interfered with the manager’s work as long as the retreat’s paperwork was in order and scandals were avoided. The museum was visited mostly on weekends by educated, well-heeled Muscovites. Local peasants, whole families of them, worked on the grounds, in the mansion, workshops and hothouses. They valued their jobs and behaved relatively well in their remote village, if one didn’t count occasional drunken monologues at sunset, Saturday night brawls, and illegitimate children with urbanite features.
The lady manager was the star of that stage. The locals treated her with deference—everything and everyone depended on her. For the best part of the season she recruited established and rising artists, authors and composers with an eye toward future collaborations and alliances among them. Married and single guests mingled. They organized walks, discussions, shows, readings and concerts; naturally, romances broke out.
Every summer a photographer was hired to document the distinguished guests’ activities. This year, it was a striking young redhead, Rina, with almost unnaturally crimson lips, golden eyelashes, pink eyelids and completely translucent eyes, like drops of mercury. Her feet were perfectly shaped, to the delight of the resident artists. She liked to walk barefoot and only rarely sported chunky, deliberately ugly sandals. (For this is the way of true youth—to hide, to disfigure its miracles, but also to recognize their true value and stare with stunned delight at its reflection in an occasional mirror.)
The beautiful photographer carried herself modestly, dressed in rags as became a bohemian, and diligently recorded the retreat’s creative life. Later, her slides served as mock-ups for art books and catalogues; eventually the new-fangled nonsense produced in the retreat’s workshops would be grudgingly declared the latest word in art.
At the same time, not a single resident artist remembered his original craft enough to be capable of drawing Rina’s divine face and body, let alone her perfect alabaster feet. They all relied on cameras and technology.
Rina herself happened to own a superior camera of the latest Japanese design. That’s why she was hired for this job from among numerous applicants—photographs of the residents’ creations were to be of the highest quality. For her own art, Rina didn’t photograph nude models or her beautiful young friends, no. She was interested in the ugly old furniture that had once filled Soviet public offices and schools. She scoured provincial post offices, schools and even dumps, and then created compositions with her beloved ancient monsters as if they were animate beings.
A wall-size photograph of shabby office chairs positioned along a 1950s conference table adorned her studio and was a masterpiece of eloquence —the chairs seemed to be giving speeches.
She was a true modern artist.
Each and every creator must rediscover the world through an original method, and Rina had succeeded in that.
Recently, she had begun to notice an unfamiliar figure in her slides—a silhouette of a willowy young woman who always appeared with her back to the camera. She was usually looking in the same direction as the others, towards the painting on exhibit, the speaker or the musicians. But there was no one resembling her among the guests! The photographer was ready to believe that she, or rather her supersensitive camera, was hallucinating.
Next time her computer screen showed the dark contour, Rina invited the retreat’s manager, Dana, to take a look. Dana shot a glance at them, then shrugged with seeming indifference. “Someone must have come in from the street,” she suggested.
“No, no, she has appeared in my slides before!”
But Dana wasn’t interested in long discussions. Rina wanted very much to show her the other slides, but Dana only shook her head and trotted off. Her reserve was easy to understand: All guests had a right to secrecy in their private lives. Some received visitors who didn’t want to be photographed.
Next, the mysterious shadow appeared in slides from the concert of a Finnish composer, Harry. That evening Harry showed a documentary about his German friend, Hans, an insane poet and artist, half man and half woman. There were maybe ten people in the audience. Again, a blurry figure was standing by the window, as though looking into the dark pane. The glass, however, reflected nothing.
This incredible shot could never be displayed—no one would ever believe it was genuine and not a cheap computer trick with a philosophical subtext.
Once more, Dana was summoned.
A plump fifty-year old who openly selected lovers among the guests, Dana respected other people’s fornications and therefore reacted without enthusiasm. “We don’t know who visits our guests. That’s not our business.”
Rina didn’t point out that the figure didn’t reflect in the glass.
“This is somebody’s private affair,” frowned the manager. “Why should we interfere?”
“Not just visits,” insisted Rina. “She lives here! She appears every evening, at every event. I can show you!”
Dana replied, stubbornly, “Then why don’t I ever see her?”
“You are usually in the front row, and this woman always lingers in the back.”
“Fine, I’ll give it some thought. Only I don’t know why I should. Or why should you.”
They agreed that at the next event Rina would be closely watching her camera’s screen and as soon as she saw the stranger she’d call out to her so she’d turn around.
“How am I supposed to address her? Just ‘hello, you’?”
Dana paused, looked to the side, then said: “Just say ‘Anik’.”
At the next colloquium (that concerned the estate’s original owners who had been famous for entertaining famous personages), the residents positioned themselves picturesquely in the museum’s library. Rina was in the back, as usual, with her camera. Suddenly she noticed a familiar black shadow on the camera’s little screen.
Rina looked away and peered intently at the window—no one reflected there.
Again she glanced at the screen. The shadow resembled a little brush stroke, to the left of the group, near the window.
Rina took a breath, swallowed, and called out loudly, “Anik! Anik!”
Everyone looked around in surprise. Rina sent them a reassuring smile.
When her eyes returned to the screen, the black shadow wasn’t there.
It never came back.
Rina printed the last shot: It showed not a stationary silhouette but a vague trace of someone’s abrupt movement.
She went to Dana’s office and showed her the last ten shots.
Wistfully, Dana held the prints in her plump short fingers that narrowed towards the tips. Her arms resembled lizard’s legs: short, always bent at the elbows.
“So what?” demanded Dana in a heavy, unfriendly voice.
“Who is this?”
“Then why did you say her name was Anik?”
“I just thought she looked a bit like a girl who stayed here two years ago. I remember all our guests,” blurted Dana unpleasantly.
“This Anik had an affair with an older Belgian artist, Paul, who was twice her age. She was a composer. At the parting they both wept—but back home he had a young wife and a ten-year-old son. He returned to his small town and died two weeks later. Anik called me twice, she wanted to come back, complained of depression, said she couldn’t go on. But, as you know, no one gets to stay here twice. More precisely, it costs a fortune. Besides,” here Dana gave a bitter smile, “one can’t go back to that life. You understand? Every parting is forever. Only I, like a cat, have nine lives.”
“Is she still alive?” asked Rina.
“Anik? Probably,” replied Dana uneasily. “She called me, that’s all. I told her directly how much it costs to come here. She never called again.”
“I think she died,” Rina said quietly.
Dana shrugged and, without apologizing, dialed a number and began to talk, apparently with her bosses—her tone changed from condescending to fawning. Rina left the room.
She set to work. She printed out all the shots where Anik’s shadow had appeared. Anik seemed to have short hair and around her neck was wound a long thin scarf, with one end hanging down her side. After a few days, Rina thought of a way to maximally enlarge the clearest of the shots. Her magnificent camera made it possible. It transformed a wisp of black fog into a clear image of a neck with a noose cutting deep into the skin.
Rina said nothing to Dana and soon left the retreat, at the peak of her own ardent romance with an older writer, also twice her age, whom she loved as she’d never loved anyone. And no one had ever loved her as he did, with such tenderness and sadness, with such adoration and wisdom. What words he said to her!
Rina slipped away unnoticed, a week before the season’s end. The previous day she didn’t come to the dining hall, didn’t answer her phone, didn’t respond to the coded knocking at her door and whispered questions. She spent the night in her studio, packing and crying. At six in the morning she climbed into her car and rolled away.
A warning, that’s what it was.
A last love, mortal danger to both parties. He could have died. And Rina would have had to die, too.
Anik had warned her.
—Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers