The Lucky Body

The Lucky Body, Kyle Coma-Thompson       Release Date: December 2013

THE LUCKY BODY is a series of short stories which dramatizes instances of rupture in socially normative modes of behavior and interaction.

Each story depicts the presence of others–other bodies, other individuals or groups of people–as potential threats to the autonomy of the self. Throughout THE LUCKY BODY these conflicts often result in acts of symbolic or literal violence, though always with the aim of illustrating the contentious, frightened, frequently confused human desire to connect with others unlike oneself. Taken as a whole, these stories depict the stresses and misunderstandings that result from such an attempt–to live as an active participant, and not merely an observer, in a world populated by alien, elaborate presences: other people, deceptively similar yet so unlike ourselves.

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Excerpt of Spring in Zurveyta:

Mr. Cherkeso had agreed: he would sit for the interview. It would be conducted at his compound in Zurveyta at exactly 3:45 in the afternoon. The journalist, Ms. Petrovich, would submit a list of questions. From this list ten questions would be selected and his representatives would submit a copy of his answers one hour before the interview. She would be allowed to formulate supplementary questions to his answers during this time. Arrival time would be at noon, granting a thorough search of her car and body; after the interview, they would have dinner with the Minister of the Interior and his wife.
Anna Petrovich, Anna P. as her friends called her (her editor at Novaya Gazeta, Mischa Hosculman, called her Petrovich—the negation of familiarity belying his affection for her) had reported on the wars in Khruekistan and predicted the consolidation of power by Akhmed Cherkeso’s son after his assassination two years ago. His son had been the head of security forces. He wasn’t yet thirty years old when his father had died. This is how it had happened: at a public Independence Day rally at Iznek Stadium, he’d sat in the twenty-fifth row of the
concrete bleachers overlooking the youth parade. Several hundred pounds of explosives had been at Iznek Stadium, he’d sat in the twenty-fifth row of the concrete bleachers overlooking the youth parade. Several hundred pounds of explosives had been rigged around the columns upholding the bleachers. At noon they were detonated. One man watching through binoculars as the president waved to the parade had seen his hand fly right off the wrist. “Like a sparrow at the sound of gunshot,” he’d later described. One hundred and sixty-three people killed. Probably twice that many detained. It could have been read as a show of incompetence on the son’s part, that his security scan of the stadium days prior to the event hadn’t turned up a cache of explosives taped to the pylons beneath the bleachers and painted the color of concrete. But the time it would take to formulate such a criticism was quickly filled with a flurry of retributive action. All military-aged males in the village of Kirpukt, the hometown of Sulamir Besmir, the most prominent of the rebel leaders, were detained, brought to Iznek, and subjected to a month of “intensive cross-examination”. Tactics of cross-examination had included beatings, sodomization, torture by blowtorch and electrified wires secured to
the genitals, followed by execution by pistol, hunting knife, and nail gun. In the words of one observer who had attended the state funeral for Cherkeso the elder, the son had “wept fists” at the service. He’d delivered the eulogy with an announcement of authority, removing a pistol from the shoulder holster beneath his suit, holding it up for the crowd to see, before setting it, with a show of ominous grace, on the podium. This was what the country should expect. Here was a man who protected his interests from a position of deep emotion; and, being a man of the people, his interests were aligned with everyone’s.
Anna had to wait eighteen months before she was allowed to contact President the Younger Cherkeso, six more before she was granted council with him. She had spoken by telephone with a series of functionaries, all who claimed to be speaking on behalf of Mr. Cherkeso. Yes, the President had agreed, it was important to develop a relationship with reporters from Moscow. It would be necessary especially in light of the Kremlin’s support of his efforts to rebuild and rehabilitate his country’s sense of direction and identity. Not seventy years had passed since Stalin’s
soldiers had marched into Iznek and worked to modernize what was until then essentially a peasant state. They tore down old buildings and built them anew. And when they exhausted the city’s supply of stone and brick, they uprooted headstones from the cemeteries and put them to use. This was, the President’s representative to the press said, what must be done once again. We must rebuild from the bottom up this country that has, until now, built nothing new but fresh graves.
Anna smiled dryly at that. She had been in country for three months and had seen more than enough fresh graves. The problem was, there weren’t enough of them. Public executions had been the chosen deterrent for any rebels still embedded in the villages. In Porguna, forty miles to the west of Iznek, she had witnessed the murder of two men by government security agents. She had stood in the gathering crowd near the oil pipeline outside the village, disguised beneath a burkha, while the two men, possible rebels dressed in track suits, were shot and beheaded. The heads were placed chest-high atop the pipeline. Security agents posed next to them for photos from their camera phones.
One of them placed the cigarette between the lips of a dead man then returned it to his own to take a puff. By public order the bodies and heads were not to be buried. They were to be left to rot. “But if the dogs have their way with them,” they said, “that will be fine.”
She had seen similar things in the south of the country. The president’s control was stronger in the east and the north. Moscow had expressed an interest in unifying the country fully by the end of the year. Here it was, halfway through summer, and this deadline seemed all but met. Anna had framed her request to meet President Cherkeso in these terms: to discuss his plans for the country once its regions had been stabilized and local governments had been integrated under his authority. Word was received by her editor in Moscow. Yes, it is time we sat down and outlined in a public manner our plans for the future. The time came sooner than she had thought: “President Cherkeso would be happy to sit down with you later this week, Saturday.”

Saturday morning she left her hotel in Iznek early and in a rental car drove west. The
President’s compound was halfway between the capital and the coastal town of Uzun. The land there was hilly and less populated than along the coast; forests rose and fell like preparatory waves on the way to the sea. Anna kept her notes open on the passenger’s seat and listened to the state radio news report, which ended not soon after she had begun listening. A Russian program announcer introduced a symphony by Prokofiev and faintly and slowly the music began, unwinding from a dormant state of dim silence. This was her soundtrack for the trees that rose out of the ground and slowly approached and then, as she reached them, rushed past her. What had Mischa said? To not press the president on his agreement with the Kremlin. To not mention the testimony of exiled rebels. Or the assassinations of defected members of his security force; or the murder of journalists; or the killings of Salim Nazmir in Vienna or Ramzan Yennul in Abu Dhabi. Stay focused on him as a speaker, as a promoter of his own prejudices, as a man in a room. Don’t press his answers too forcefully. Pay attention to how convincingly he talks up his plans for reconstituting the government and for
rebuilding Iznek especially. We just need a clear sense of how he views himself. How he presents himself will be a large part of that.
Before she had left the hotel that morning, she had told her husband Ilya, “My hands have been shaking for two days now. I want a drink or a Vicodin to calm my nerves.” Her husband, also a journalist, had taught her a breathing exercise that he had used in the past; to hold one’s arms above one’s head and breathe rapidly through the nose; to do this for three minutes and, when done, to hold one’s breath for as long as one can and then lay on the floor with eyes closed. He called it his “Five Minute Sanity Session”. The tension in Anna’s voice was so strong, the cell phone in his hand seemed ready to collapse from the pressure if he let her keep talking; so he asked her to take “five minutes of sanity”. “I’ve already done that, right before I called you,” she said. “I know nothing will happen. I’ll go there, ask my questions, stir his ire, and then be sent away. He needs to put on a good strong face for the press. Journalists don’t have a way of disappearing when they go to talk with him. That comes later. After the articles are published.” Ilya could tell she was
standing at a window. From the acoustical color of her voice: thinly doubled, with a faint, sharp echo. He was worried for her. This is not where he wanted her to be. Alone, standing in a hotel room, in one of the most ruined cities on the continent, in the world, if one were to draw comparisons.
“Call me any time,” he said. “From the drive there. From Cherkeso’s place. Remember, we want you back here by the end of the month. We’ll coddle you like a batty old heiress. Be safe.” She nodded, and then said, “I’m safe. Don’t worry. I’m just nervous. More later, Mr. Husband.” After they’d said their goodbyes, Ilya sat on the edge of his bed and imagined Anna doing the same, then noted to himself, “You don’t get nervous. And now you are.” When he looked at the clock on the nightstand, it said nine thirty.
Now that she was driving to meet Cherkeso, her nerves were feeding back into her usual state of calm alertness. What had begun as a quick drive through ugly countryside had gradually become more pleasant. The land between the capital and Uzun was not as ruined as she’d expected. It had rained before dawn, and the dark trees,
the small, scattered cottages among them, had a fresh, dewy pastoral loveliness to them. The road shone in patches where the morning light passed through the trees. Due to the humidity there was a sepia quality to the air, miniscule tracers of light refracting by the trillions through airborne specks of water.
She drove without thinking, preparing her instincts for the netting and recording of quick details. This was what she called her “cleaning ritual”. Hours before an interview, she would empty her mind of any reference points or opinions of her subject. Not that she was erasing the vital lines leading from the present moment back to the compiled information she had prepared and reviewed weeks beforehand; rather she was clearing the way between the two, so when she needed to draw on some critical particle of data to aid in the formation of a question, the recorded fact would arrive at the right time and from the right angle spontaneously. In the mournfully objective spaces within her was the worst of a country’s available history. Ten years of disarray and civil war, revenge killings and government sanctioned executions. These were the generalities afforded by cause and effect: the
breaking free of satellite states in the messy twilight months of the Soviet Union, the push for autonomy by tribal leaders against the interests of old loyalists. The civil war of ’92-’95, followed by a truce, followed by a second war that began in ’97 and continues until now, stalled in a state of perpetual disintegration in this, its last, meanest phase. These were the bare structures of events boiled down to their timelines and held together by a procession of names and dispatches. What was harder to retain were the things seen, the stories relayed to her. These she couldn’t affix to a meaningful trajectory.
There was the Muslim woman she had met in Gamurzigol who, having been accused of infidelity against her husband, was arrested by security police and brought to the basement of the police station. There they tied her to an iron pole and beat her with a length of rubber pipe, insisting she confess and beg repentance from her husband. Her husband, of course, was nowhere to be found. Hiding, most likely, at a house in a nearby village.
This was a small, youngish woman with a jagged scab cutting across her upper and
bottom lip. She shook and kneaded the back of her neck as she spoke. “I was too afraid to deny it and too afraid to tell them the lie they wanted from me. So I kept quiet.”
The police who beat her were young, younger than her, and laughed and mocked her when she flinched. When they saw that she would admit to nothing, one said with a pious rage that seemed affected, not at all a flourish of righteous feeling, “If you won’t confess, you must be punished. You are sentenced to three days of shame.” At that they shaved her head and eyebrows with electric shears, then spray-painted the stubble bright green. Pressing her head against the iron pole, one of the officers asked for the can; on her forehead he sprayed an upside down cross beginning at the widow’s peak and ending at the bridge of the nose. After this they dragged her into the streets and called bystanders to pelt her with stones and rotten food. She was lead to the town square and handcuffed her to an old iron ring embedded in the concrete fountain. There she lay for three days, hardly sleeping, begging for food. No one dared look at her, though no one besides the police stopped to mock her.
This was only one of hundreds of stories.
Within the neatly memorized pattern of events and official reports existed a chaos of barely verifiable losses, the sheer number of them, as they amassed within her, generated pressure on her conscience, enough, at times, to weaken her composure. There’s only so much a conscience can hold and focus into direct action before it collapses inward in a kind of inert, speechless grief. To outmaneuver that grief, which over the past five years had grown more prominent and leaden in her, she had simply written and submitted accounts such as these as quickly as they were relayed to her.
One night, at her hotel in Azran, there was a knock at her door. Outside there a was line of old people. The mothers and fathers of the disappeared in Nalgazalan. One man, a doctor, wept and let the women hold his shoulders as he described his son’s abduction six months earlier. “He could not have been anyone to them,” he said, “just a bright, happy young man, a computer programmer. Very popular, many friends. There must have been some misunderstanding, he only wanted to keep to himself and raise his family.” One morning without notice he was abducted. Armed men wearing masks and camouflage fatigues
wrestled him into a black Niva with unnumbered plates. For weeks there was no word of him. His father asked after him at the police station, at the checkpoint outside Nalgazalan. No one he spoke with seemed to know who his son was, where he was held, or why he was taken into custody. On March 5th, twenty-six days after the abduction, the body of a man in his early thirties, badly beaten, hands severed at the wrists, was found face down in a ditch just south of the Nubil Textile factory. The hands were found several paces from the body, sealed in a large clear plastic sandwich bag. This was his son, Amal. Since burying him, he told her, he has not allowed any member of his family to leave the house. If they need food, toys, liquor, words from friends, he would leave on his own and acquire them. This was, she discovered, not an unusual case. Whole neighborhoods in Nagazalan were empty during the late afternoon and evening except for old men running their families’ errands.
These, Anna knew, were things she would have to exert discipline against, to repress. Certainly Cherkeso was aware of her dispatches, her articles on Moscow’s support
of his consolidation of power and terror campaign against communities supportive of the rebels. Since that much was known, that would not need mentioning. She would do as his instructions asked and discuss the answers to the ten questions he selected and would respond to. She would collect evidence of his character and categorize the varieties of justifications for his actions. And most likely he would watch and listen and playfully hint that her removal from the country and his affairs would be very pleasant news to him. For now, she would concentrate on redirecting her fear into intensified tact and alertness.

After an hour, she reached what appeared to be the first of many checkpoints. Three armed men waved her car to the side of the road. After checking her papers, they called her out of her car and walked her across the road to a black UAZ Patrio. She would leave her car there, they said; they would drive the rest of the way. A mile further they arrived at a second checkpoint. More armed men. One more joined them in the back seat, an amiable man wearing a round tyubeteika cap. He laid the assault weapon in his lap so the barrel
pointed at an upward angle, toward her chin. For most of the way they sat silently. Passing a number of barracks and guesthouses, they reached the main compound after another half mile. The last checkpoint was flanked on either side by a ten-foot chain link fence. This was topped with layered curls of razor wire. The fence divided the forest in either direction. Beyond this last control post there were three more stops between the gate and the main yard, an hour of inspection and waiting, before the Patrio rolled up the main drive towards a large stone manor house. To Anna’s eyes, it looked like a squat, half-sized chalet. At the top of the circular drive, her escorts lead her from the jeep through the front entrance, up a wide flight of dark wooden steps, then left past the study to a leisure room in the west wing of the house. In the room sat an array of oversized, dark furniture. A display cabinet filled with ornamental daggers. On the wall opposite the couch and chairs hung a Dagestani rug depicting the deceased Akhmed Cherkeso wearing an astrakhan papkha on his head, against a crimson background. He was portrayed with a forcefully serene expression
on his face, eyes narrowed. A sliding glass door opened onto a courtyard. This is where she sat, in the company of several rough, good-humored men and their armaments…

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Lucky Body released December 2013


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