Loosely based on the true story of Sergei Bryukhonenko’s Experiments in the Revival of Organisms, which lead to the invention of the heart-lung machine.
Sergei Bryukhonenko had always been fond of his Laika, but she was not long for this world. Upon her death, he offered her up as a sacrifice to science, turning his grief into progress for the nation. He separated her head from her slender body and connected it by rubber piping to two electric pumps suspended in a tubular glass chamber.
“Flip the switch, Mikhail,” he told me as he stroked his late pet between her ears.
God have mercy on my soul that I did as instructed. The machine began to vibrate, giving off a low electrical hum as the pumps went to work, moving in the steady rhythm of a heartbeat. Blood flowed from the animal’s neck down the tubing and worked its way through the machine, warming as it moved. Oxygen entered from the other chamber. I poured a solution of saline and adrenaline into the liquid mixture while Sergei stroked and stared at the remains of his companion.
“Is it working?” he asked.
“Indeed. The machine is working,” I said, and I watched the cold and lifeless blood turn from a dull copper red into a rich, deep violet — the oxygenated blood mixed with the bluish liquid compound we’d created. The glass walls that contained the unholy mixture began to fog over with moisture and warmth. I opened a floodgate on the machine, and the pumps sent the newly freshened blood pouring out through the rubber tubes and back into the dog. The color faded ever so slightly as it neared the dog’s head, but the cycle had begun, and I watched a steady stream of liquid leave the dog and then return to life in the machine and cycle back into the head.
“Is it working?” Sergei said, this time louder, more urgent, and he turned to face me with fervor in his eyes. They grew wider as he watched the blood transform, and for a moment I could have sworn I saw the essence of a smile stretch across his skin.
Before I could respond, his Laika crinkled and furrowed her forehead. We watched in shock and silence as her lifeless ears rose and stood attentive and erect above her head. The corners of her long began to twitch, revealing two yellowed rows of straight, sharp teeth behind her lips and I could see the wet color returning to her gums before my eyes.
“Lyuboy moya,” Sergei said as he scratched her jowls. In my years as his assistant, I had never seen him show such kindness, such warmth. He treated other humans with the same cold objectivity with which he approached his work. But there with his pet he was loving and lively. He nuzzled his face on her black button nose and said “Mikhail, bring the flask from the top drawer of my desk. No! There is another bottle in the kitchen! We deserve the finest liquor — for tonight, we have returned the dead to life!”
He kissed the dog between her eyes and she flinched at his touch. The severed head opened its snout and stretched its jaws out in a silent yawn as the low and pounding rhythm of our mechanical heart beat louder, louder, until it filled the room.
I stumbled home that snowy evening, at what time I can’t recall. It was not often that I had the opportunity to engage Comrade Bryukhonenko in any form of social revelry, and it only seemed appropriate to celebrate such a momentous occasion.
I fumbled with the lock, my fat and drunken fingers unable to find the right fit for the key. It slipped from my frozen hand and fell onto the concrete floor of the tenement hallway. I bent over to find it, hands flailing in the darkness, when the door beside my own swung open to reveal my sweet Dmitry, ready and waiting to rescue me from the cold. “Where have you been?” he said. His words hung in the freezing air like a tattered white cloud against the darkness. I was so surprised to see him that I lost my balance and fell forward, nearly curled into a somersault, but Dmitry caught me in his strong and supple arms. “Come, you will catch your death of cold,” he said. “Then I would be twice as upset, that I could not kill you myself for making me worry.” He righted me and braced his arm across my shoulder for balance, then carried me into his small, cramped apartment — adjacent to my own.
He set me down on a wooden chair in the center of the room. “To be without you would be death,” I said, as I leaned forward to kiss him.
His lips met mine and he pulled away with a puckered face. “You taste of cheap vodka. Where have you been, Mikhail?” he asked, folding his arms across his muscular chest.
“Not cheap! Comrade Bryukhonenko’s finest bottle! For tonight, we discovered the secret to life!”
He lifted his left eyebrow and a curious look fell across the fine lines of his face. “You’ve been at work all this time?” he asked. “And what secret have you learned?”
“The autojektor! Comrade Bryukhonenko brought his Laika back to life!”
Dmitry grabbed an empty wooden food crate and placed it next to my chair. He sat upon it and said, “Shhh, keep your voice down. It’s late. How is this possible?” He reached out and stroked my beard, wiping the frost from my face and warming me with his hands.
“The machine that we’ve been working on these last months. An artificial heart, pumping life into his Laika’s head. It was dead, separated from its body, and we made it move!” I said, perhaps louder than I should have.
Dmitry pulled his hand away. “Like…Rasputin? Mishka, they will — “
“Not necromancy, Dima! Science! Science! We do not know what it means for the mind, not yet. And after one hundred minutes, the blood turned thick like sludge and ceased to flow and it died again. But! We will fix that. The first step is most important.” I brought my hand up to his face and traced the edges of his jaw, then belched in his face and realized that perhaps I had drank too much after all. “Forgive me, love,” I said. “Will you fetch me a glass of water?”
“There’s not much filtered water left, and the pipes are frozen solid. Though there’s always snowmelt,” Dmitry said as he fetched a quarter-full bucket from the corner of the room. He returned to my side and held it to my lips, while his other hand supported my heavy head. He laughed at my clumsiness, then tipped my head back and fed me more. When I’d had my fill, he placed the bucket on the ground and said, “Come, let us get to bed.”
“Yes! You must have rehearsal in the morning. I’m sorry for keeping you awake, I know you need the rest.” As he helped me to my feet, I saw the smile fade from his face. “What is it, love?”
“I have no rehearsal to attend. Stalin disbanded the Imperial Ballet,” he said as he walked me to the bed.
“For good?” I asked. Dmitry nodded slowly. “We should consider ourselves lucky then that we still receive our rations from the government. You see, Mishka? They reward us for our good work.”
He eased me down to my side of the bed, kissed my lips and said, “Sweet dreams, my brilliant man.”
Commander Milkin’s small eyes were focused on the beating goat heart in the center of the room, pulsing along with the cadence of the artificially supported organ. Lenin’s visage hung on the wall behind the Commander’s desk, and even his painted eyes appeared to be fixated on our discovery.
“You mean to tell me that this arcane contraption can raise the dead?” the Commander said with a snarl. He leaned back in his chair and rested his hands upon the bulge of his fat stomach. His face matched the color of his military dress, and his red epaulets reflected the fury in his eyes.
Sergei took a step towards the desk, casting a hesitant glance behind him to where I stood beside the autojektor. He addressed the commander: “For now it is our intention to preserve individual organs, such as this. But yes, it is our belief that we will eventually be able to revive a complete corpse.”
Milkin’s thick black mustache wiggled like a caterpillar. “What benefit is your device to me then? Why should I encourage this God-like arrogance?” Though he spoke to Comrade Bryukhonenko, his eyes did not stray from the resuscitated organ.
“I believe that my autojektor will assist in surgery, Commander,” Sergei said. “If the doctors must repair the organs in a living body, this device will function as an external heart or lung to keep the body viable. We also believe that with the help of this device, we can implant new organs in the bodies of the living, transplanted from the cadavers of the recently deceased, to replace organs that no longer function. If one’s liver fails, for example, we can replace it with a working one. Or their heart, such as dear late Premier Lenin…rest his soul.” He looked up at the painting behind the desk and bowed his head in reverence.
This caught Commander Milkin’s attention, and he finally turned his focus to Comrade Bryukhonenko. He bent his head to the side and said, “So this is all a bid to revive our leader?”
“Of course not, Commander. By the time that we — if we were ever to reach that point with our technology, it would be far too late to save his body. And as it stands, we know nothing of the effects on the mind. Right now our miracle can — “
“Miracle? Hrmph!” The Commander snorted.
Sergei continued. “… Our procedure, rather, only works within several days after death or removal from the host.” I flipped the switch and turned the autojektor off, allowing the heart’s vitality to fade. Without the pump, its new life lasted only for a dozen seconds more.
Milkin leaned forward in his seat. “If I were to provide you with a fresh body, you would be able to replicate the results?” Sergei hesitated long enough for the Commander to continue speaking. “That is why you came to Moscow, yes? You wish for funding? That what our country gives you isn’t enough?”
Sergei fumbled for a response. “No, Commander, that’s of course not what we — “
But Commander Milkin waved his hand, demanding silence. “If I am to be impressed by your God machine, I should see that it can benefit our nation. This is how you will prove its worth to me.”
Sergei did not speak until we were on the train back to Leningrad. “It’s too soon to work on a full human corpse,” he said, in a room tone loud enough to inspire cautious glances from adjacent passengers. He smiled at what fellow travelers he could see, then lowered his voice and continued. “There is an order to these things. We move up gradually, in steps and over time, like evolution. To say nothing of the fact that — we hardly know what damage is done to their brains once the oxygen is returned to them.” He punched the cushion of the seat beside him, letting out an angry growl.
“We could have told him we weren’t ready,” I said. “He seemed perfectly reasonable, and I’m sure he wants the best for the nation, just as we do.”
Sergei let out a deep, vicious laugh. “Do you care to keep your job, Mikhail? Because if we don’t have Moscow’s funding or support — which means giving them the results they desire — this laboratory will be shut down, my life’s work left to rot, and you will have to fend for yourself like the rest of them. Standing in line, waiting for rations shelled out by soldiers who decide what you deserve.”
I bowed my head and said, “Forgive me, Comrade Bryukhonenko. I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s just…isn’t that what the revolution was fought for, what our great country is built on? They’ll still give us work, and continue to provide us with food, just as Lenin promised.”
Sergei leaned in close to me, his gnarled finger thrust into my face. “Lenin is dead, Mikhail, and his dreams were buried with him. Look around you. This is not the country Lenin made for us, and if you think otherwise, you are sorely mistaken,” he hissed. He grabbed my chin and pulled me even closer. “Tell me, Mikhail. How do you think that Stalin would feel if he knew about your — ‘cousin,’ was it? That neighbor you spend your time with?”
In the moment I froze, for how long I do not know. When I finally spoke, all I could say was, “Please, Sergei. You wouldn’t — “
He pushed my face away, then reclined in his seat. “No. I would not. As long as I get what I am due. This country owes me a great many things, Mikhail, and I will get what I deserve. You may get what you would like as well, if you cooperate. But I will not settle for basic pittance, and neither should you.”
I steeled myself up for a daring response. “You mean to say that you question the party.”
Sergei just laughed, slapping his thigh for added emphasis. “Very good, Mikhail. Very good! Now you’re getting it!” A frightening smile creaked across his face, and he wagged a bony finger in my direction. “I have one on you — now you have one on me. That’s what they call ‘team work,’ Comrade.”
Then Sergei closed his eyes to rest, and we spoke no more on the train.
Dmitry was waiting in my tenement when I returned home, preparing a meal from the gruel that he’d been given by the soldiers. “You’re not expecting me to get used to these late nights, are you, Mikhail?”
I kissed him once and said, “Of course not, love. But sometimes it’s out of my control.” I sat down on the bed to remove my boots and told him of our meeting with Commander Milkin, leaving out the talk I’d had with Sergei. He was always an attentive listener, my Dima, but it was not until he stood above me at the dinner table, spooning stew into my bowl, that I noticed the frown on his boyish face.
“Enough about my day. How are things at the factory? You seem to enjoy being back at work,” I said, hoping that my interest might re-ignite the spark that he’d been missing since the ballet closed its doors.
He sat down across from me, took a taste of the stew, and said, “I enjoy it about as much as I enjoy this stew. Which is to say, I understand it to be necessary so I force myself to choke it down.”
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” I said. That was before I had tasted the stew for myself. “But you do seem better, now that you’re being productive. A part of the community again. Giving to the Motherland as she gives to you.”
He let his spoon drop noisily into his bowl, showering the table with droplets of thick, sludgy stew that sunk into the rotting wood. “Was I not ‘doing my part’ before? Was I not giving beauty to the Motherland, ‘according to my abilities?’”
“Dima, please! You’re so quick to rile lately. I just like seeing you happy, is all.” It was then I took my first taste of stew. The heaping of salt did little to mask the taste of rotting rations, but it was more than enough to make my mouth pucker. At least it warmed my body going down.
Dmitry chuckled at the face I made. It was the closest he had come to a smile in months. He took another bite of stew, chewing with comical exaggeration like he was right back on the stage. He made a show of swallowing, smacked his lips in mock-satisfaction, and said, “You should have seen the raw produce we were given. Then you’d be impressed with this slop that I pulled off. It’s almost palatable.” Dmitry frowned as soon as those last words left his mouth. He ate another spoonful of stew, as if to hide his dissatisfaction from me.
“There’s something else, isn’t there? It’s on the tip of your tongue,” I said.
“That would be the gruel,” he said. “It takes all I have not to spit it back out.”
I folded my hands and placed them on the table as I looked patiently into his eyes, letting him know that I was listening, that I was there for him. “Working at the factory, you see all the food that comes through,” he said when he finally spoke. “You spend your whole day packaging and processing, but when the time comes to collect your own rations, all the good stuff is gone.” He ate another spoonful of stew. “‘To each according to his needs.’ They have a strange way of knowing what I need.”
We finished the rest of our meal in silence.
Commander Milkin rolled a gurney into the laboratory, showing no emotion on his pug-like face. He positioned it beside the autojektor and pulled the sheet away to reveal the pale cadaver of a small blonde girl, not more than six years old. Milkin nodded curtly, then snapped his heels together and stood at attention beside the corpse and waited. Sergei and I exchanged furtive glances and got to work.
“How long has she — ?” I asked.
“Three days,” the Commander answered bluntly.
“Cause of the death?”
Milkin eyed me curiously and grunted. “Pneumonia,” he said. I wondered how they expected us to revive her when her lungs were full of phlegm, but I was careful not to voice this concern.
Sergei took a scalpel and made a small incision on her wrist. He inserted the rubber tubing, attaching it to her artery. I flipped the switch and the blood began to drain, moving from the body to the autojektor where it warmed with life. This was a larger specimen than we had been used to working with, so we knew that the process would take longer than it had in our earlier trials. Commander Milkin remained with us the entire time, standing in silence as we waited for the blood to warm and re-oxygenate. His eyes shifted subtly above his short, stubby nose as he followed our steps around the room.
It took nearly two hours for the autojektor to expel the new blood into the body, and it would take longer still before a full recirculation was established. I opted to fill the time with idle talk.
“Pity she died so young,” I said to the Commander. He did not respond.
“Yes, perhaps she would have made a lovely wife for you,” said Sergei forcefully, and this time it was I who chose to stay silent.
“You are not married?” Commander Milkin asked, though his tone was more accusatory than curious.
“I am not,” I said, hoping to deflect the conversation I had foolishly begun. I focused more intently on the task at hand, adding more adrenaline to the mixture leaving the machine to speed up the process. I did not wish for the Commander to remain in our presence any longer than he had to.
“And the reason?” he asked.
“Just haven’t found The One,” I said as I double-checked the tubes that ran between the body and the machine, ensuring that both ends were securely attached.
“Well yes, because she died of pneumonia!” the Commander said. He let out a short laugh then returned to attention, his face as inexpressive as before. “She is a bit young for you though. A few more years, perhaps. Then it could have worked.” I did not answer. Instead I took another sample of the liquid pumping out of the machine to check the balance of the added chemicals. I hoped that he would see this as an indication of my faithful work and cease his inquisitions.
But the Commander kept talking, in spite of my silence. “A single man of your age might raise suspicion if he remains without a wife for too long. I’m sure you know this, of course.”
“I do. Of course, Commander,” I said. The young girl’s veins continued to fill with freshened blood, and I could see the indigo pathways branching out beneath the surface of her skin, which was gradually taking on a pinkish hue.
“Deviant behavior can get you locked away for hard labor,” the Commander said. His straight face twisted into a sneer and I could feel his beady eyes boring into me like a buzzard.
“Yes, and then I’d have to find a new assistant!” Sergei said. He cast a surreptitious glance in my direction, just enough that I could see the wicked smile on his face.
“And you, Dr. Bryukhonenko?” the Commander asked. “Are you married?”
Sergei chuckled heartily and said, “Eighteen years in January. Why else do you think I spend so much time among the dead?”
And then before anyone could respond, there was a heartbeat. It was faint and weak but still registered on our equipment. This caught Commander Milkin’s attention as well, enough to bring an end to our exchange. His scowl dripped with tinges of excitement and disgust and I was relieved that for the moment they were neither meant for me. The air was still around us as we waited for another tiny thud. Fifteen seconds later, it came: the quiet but indistinguishable pounding of a working human heart.
We stood in silence and listened for the rhythm that swelled within the girl’s inert chest, and over the next three hours it turned into a steady, even pulse. But we had not yet found a way to keep the blood mixture from congealing once exposed to open air. Her liquid life soon turned to sludge, oozing slowly through her veins and clogging up her arteries. No amount of saline or adrenaline could thin it out and save our experiment from entropy.
The evening waned on. “Turn it off,” Sergei finally said, well after dark. I hesitated for a moment before flipping the switch, mesmerized by the gelling mixture that trickled through the tubes. And just as I turned off the machine, a noise squeaked out from the young girl’s throat that sounded like a breath.
“Turn it back on! Now, Mikhail! Now!” Sergei shouted. I did as he commanded, but it was already too late. The blood solution had turned to jelly and would no longer flow through the caked up machine. The young girl was dead on the table again.
I returned home late that evening after a long day of work and was greeted by the wafting smell of a home cooked meal coming from Dmitry’s tenement. I entered to find three dinner settings at his kitchen table. “Did you have guests this evening?” I asked.
“I enjoyed a rather quiet dinner alone.” Dmitry sat upright in the bed, arms folded across his chest. The flickering candlelight from the bedstand illuminated his sallow disposition. His arms were rounder now and he had lost a great deal of muscle tone since he was no longer performing.
“Who is the third place setting for? I’m not sure it’s safe to let another man into our bedroom, though I can’t say I’m against it.”
“That was for Elijah,” he said sternly.
I hung my head and sighed. “Passover. I forgot.”
“I know,” Dmitry said. He rolled onto his side and rested his head on the pillow, pulling the blankets up to cover himself. I sat down on the other side of the bed, the mattress sinking beneath my weight.
“I am sorry for my forgetfulness,” I said as I combed my fingers through his hair. “You know that I would fix it if I could. There has been a great deal of pressure from the state. Please forgive me.” He did not respond.
I looked back at the table and saw that two of the plates still had food on them. The portions were larger and fresher than any meal that I had seen in years — roasted lamb and brightly colored carrots and greens that still looked green. “Did you eat without us, Dima?” I asked.
“It was that, or starve,” he said, pulling the blankets tighter around himself and leaving little cover for my side of the bed.
“And the soldiers gave you all of this?”
“The soldiers only gave us food enough for two, and all their bread is leavened like thick doughy stones. Elijah wouldn’t have come for that, even if he were able,” he said, his voice muffled by the sheets.
I grabbed his shoulder and rolled him onto his back, forcing him to face me. I stared into his wide, angry eyes and said, “Did you steal this food from the factory, Dima? Did you?”
He writhed away from my touch, then sat up in the bed. “What does it matter? It would have just gone to waste among the plutocrats!” He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Tradition is important, Mikhail. And they refuse to honor mine,” he said. “What should it matter if I take their waste before they themselves can waste it?”
“Because that’s not society works!” I said. “We take only what we need, in service to the nation. If our food were to increase, so it would for everyone. It would be unsustainable. That’s why we need more labor — “
“I am a dancer, Mikhail. The labor that I give the nation is the beauty of performance. It is not my fault they have decided that my services are no longer necessary,” Dmitry said
“Dima… “ I reached out and tucked his hair behind his ear, but he slapped my hand away and turned over again, curling himself into sleep. I waited for a moment then stood from the mattress and began to clear the dishes.
“We figured out how to seal the autojektor,” I said as I stacked dishes in his cabinet. “Now the cycle is airtight. The blood will not coagulate.” I could make out Dmitry’s body in the candlelight, shifting beneath the sheets, pulling his knees in closer to his body. He faced the edge of the bed of the side on which he lay, looking outward at the world. It was not a welcoming position.
“We brought a rabbit back to life and kept it breathing over eight hours,” I said. “It moved its limbs. Even opened up its eyes and bounced around the room.”
“Perhaps Stalin will reward your hard work with more food,” Dmitry said. He lifted his head and blew the candle out beside him.
“Remove the pipes,” Sergei said, and I did as I was told. Commander Milkin watched me with a keen eye as I stroked the frantic animal’s head and slipped the rubber tubing from her neck. The dog was panting in time with its newly beating heart and its eyes darted wildly around the room as if its mind could not comprehend the life that had returned to it. After four days without oxygen, it made sense that its brain function would be damaged, but that was a hurdle we could overcome in time. First we had to see if she could live on her own, separate from the autojektor that had restarted her life.
I wrapped a bandage on its neck to cover the incision — I did not know how its immune system would function — and the dog relearned the limits of her vision as her wandering eyes watched me work. I undid the straps that tied her to the metal table, first the neck, then the legs, then finally the torso. The dog righted herself by instinct and stood up on her four legs before I had the chance to step away. Her wet, wagging tongue hung dumbly from her mouth and her panting grew louder as her paws traced the edges of the operating table, testing it for safety.
Then she lost her balance and fell from the table, smacking her snout on the hard concrete floor. Sergei flinched and turned away, as if he himself had fallen and could feel her pain. Commander Milkin, on the other hand, did not so much as blink until the dog let out a whimper. Then a slight, sadistic smile crept across his face.
The dog tried to stand again, but her reanimated legs buckled beneath her weight and she collapsed onto the ground. She turned towards us, barking in frustration. Full, loud, guttural yelps, as if she had never died at all. Upon hearing this familiar sound, Sergei braced himself and returned his attention to the pathetic animal.
I walked to the laboratory sink and filled a small bowl with water for the dog. Her eyes filled with desperation as I approached, but as soon as the bowl touched the ground she lapped away excitedly, her wild tongue flailing and spilling water on the floor.
Sergei stepped hesitantly towards the animal as it drank. The dog was so singularly focused on its thirst that she appeared to lose awareness of the world around her — a side effect, perhaps, of the damage to her brain. Stepping between the small puddles of water splashed across the floor, Sergei squatted beside the dog and scratched her head. Her pointy left ear waggled with delight as Sergei played his fingers through her fur. He traced a white line of fur that ran between her eyes and ended at her black button nose. “Sweet, sweet girl,” he said softly as the dog lapped away. His petting grew in intensity and the dog leaned closer to him, leaving behind her water bowl and resting her head on his lap. Her panting slowed and she looked up at Comrade Bryukhonenko with admiration.
Then her grey eyes froze at the back of her head, and her sopping tongue sputtered and fell limp upon his thigh. He continued to stroke her head, muttering “Poor, sweet girl,” beneath his wavering breathe.
Several minutes passed. Commander Milkin cleared his throat with a deep, insistent cough that bellowed in his massive chest. “Yes, Commander?” asked Sergei as he lifted the re-deceased dog from his lap and gently laid her body to rest on the cold ground.
Commander Milkin wrinkled his mustache and said, “Good. Now that is done. Next week we will bring another human cadaver and you will use your science to return it to life.”
Sergei kissed the tip of his pointer finger and touched it to the dead dog’s head. He stood and said, “I ask your pardon, Commander. As you’ve seen, we don’t have a full grasp on this procedure yet. This dog returned to life only briefly. We need time to study the effects on her revived corpse. We still don’t know — “
“I am giving you a week,” he said.
“That’s not enough time to perfect the process, or to fully understand the consequences,” Sergei protested.
“And how else should you learn but to put your science into practice? I’m not asking for permanent resurrection right away. What’s the harm if you give new life to a corpse for just a minute? We have more than enough around to satisfy your needs, and you don’t need to worry about harming them. After all, they’re already dead.”
“Yes, but — “
“One week, Comrade. I suggest you use it wisely.”
I came home to find Dmitry sitting on the crate in the corner of my kitchen, icing his face. “What happened?” I asked as I rushed to his side.
“I had a disagreement with one of your Red Army friends.” He removed the cold press from his face and revealed a dark swollen bruise around his eye.
I brushed the hair from his face and kissed his forehead. “What did you say to them, Dima? You know the guards are easy to rile.”
He swatted me away and said, “Why do you assume that I was in the wrong?”
“Dmitry — “
“Are you so blinded by your friends, by your service to your country, that you do not see the horrors they inflict upon our people?”
“In the interest of progress, Dima, but — “ I did not know how to finish that sentence. All I wanted was to hold his hand, feel his skin against my leg, but he wrestled his grip away from me.
“Progress for them and theirs, maybe. Not for mine.” Dmitry brought the ice up to his face and turned his back to me. “I was in line to collect our rations when I asked a soldier if they had honey or apples. I didn’t bother asking for challah,” he said. “I tried to explain that it was Rosh Hashanah, but they ignored me, brushed me aside and turned their attention to the next group in line. When I tried to speak again, they threw me to the ground and said that they had other mouths to feed and did not care for my peasant religion.”
I brushed his hair behind his ear. “Then what happened?”
He glanced up at me for a brief moment, then looked back down at his feet. “I called him a khuy and he hit me with his rifle,” he said, with the slightest hint of a smile on his face.
“Dima!” I pulled away from him reflexively, then calmed myself and placed my hand upon his shoulder in a show of my support. “I understand you were upset, but you can’t run around cursing at soldiers. You know how they can be. Why would you provoke them even more?”
Dmitry pushed me away, then stood and kicked the wooden crate against the wall. “Why do you always blame me? The military’s job is to serve the people and protect them, not beat and starve us until we fall in line,” he said as he stormed across the room. He sat down on the edge of the bed, placed the sack of ice on the ground, and started to remove his boots.
I picked up the wooden crate that he had kicked and placed it neatly in the corner of the kitchen. I sat upon it with my back against the wall, and leaned forward, massaging my forehead. “I’m sorry, Dima. I didn’t mean it like that. I’m just scared, you understand? They have put a target on you. You know they will be watching.”
He dropped his other boot on the floor and said, “They have always had a target on me, Mikhail. They have targeted my art. They have targeted our love. I have been a target since the morning of my Bris.”
“Now, Dima. It’s true that Stalin has great reverence for the church, but that is a bit extreme,” I said.
“Is it? Have you been so busy in that laboratory of yours that you haven’t heard what’s happening in Germany right now as we speak?” Dmitry picked the sack of ice up and threw it at the metal bucket in the corner opposite me. It rang out with a tinny clang as the ice hit the ground and slid across the kitchen floor.
Dmitry swung his legs up on the bed and crawled underneath the covers. I remained seated on the crate for several silent minutes until I found the words to say. “The Commander has given an ultimatum on our autojektor project. I will be working late for the next week.”
“Of course you will,” he said.
“And will you still be here when I return each night?” I could hear the wind whistle past the outside walls as I awaited his response.
One Week Later
A soldier rolled a gurney into the room, Commander Milkin entering right behind him. The cadaver was covered with a sheet and as it pushed past me I could tell that the body was still warm.
Sergei lifted the sheet and looked thoughtfully at his specimen. He swallowed hard and cast a furtive glance in my direction, just enough that I could recognize the shame in his eyes. He turned his sight towards the ground, then laid the sheet back over the body and said, “This is a fresh corpse.”
“Less than six hours old. They found him stealing rations from the factory,” the Commander said. He nodded to the soldier, who snapped his boots together then marched around the room in a semicircle until he was positioned right behind me. He stood there, perched in silence, and I saw the left corner of Milkin’s lip curl up into a sneer as he continued. “When he didn’t show for work, my soldiers went to check on him. They broke down the door to his tenement and found him on the bed with his wrists sliced open and another man’s clothing on the floor. My men also reported that a window was left open as the thief bled out — as if the other man had just escaped. But that’s no matter; we’ll wipe out all the deviants in time.”
Sergei gave me a nod and I went straight to work while he entertained the Commander. I approached the gurney, shaken by the recognizable form that lay prostrate beneath the sheet. The small rust-colored stains in the fabric near his wrists gave me pause. “You said he bled to death, Commander?” I asked, hoping that he could not hear the nervous stutter in my breath. “Even with the proper bandaging, it will be difficult for us to get the circulation going with such a…with a leak in the cycle. We’ve had trouble in the past keeping the autojektor airtight, and with — “
Commander Milkin cut me off before I could finish. “Don’t waste my time with your excuses, Comrade Selbyov. Just do your job. And if it fails again, well — what’s the harm in letting sinners die twice, eh? There are plenty more where that one came from.”
“Yes, Commander,” I said. I pulled back the sheet that covered the corpse, and even before my mind could fully recognize his chiseled jawline, slender build, and shaggy blonde hair, I knew the Commander was wrong: there were no more like this one.
My poor, sweet Dima. I stood there frozen for what felt like an eternity, staring in disbelief at the body of my late love, mustering all the strength I had to keep his name locked behind my lips.
I glanced at Dr. Bryukhonenko, who only met my eyes briefly before he looked away, upturning his hooked nose towards the ceiling, as if his willful ignorance could offset his complicity.
Commander Milkin advanced towards me with slow, deliberate steps clicking loudly on the concrete floor, hands clasped firmly behind his back. “Something the matter, Comrade Selbyov?” he said. “Perhaps you knew there was a pervert living right next door to you this whole time?”
“Yes, I recognize him,” I said. “But I did not know how — that he…”
Commander Milkin cut me off with a snap of his heels. He stood before me at attention, with Dima’s lifeless body being all that lie between us. “Well? What are you waiting for?”
Once again I looked to Dr. Bryukhonenko, and this time he met my sight, urging me to action with the fervor in his eyes and the thrust of his clamped jaw. I knew there was no choice but to continue my work for the nation as demanded. If I could bring my Dima back, then perhaps we could be reunited.
And if I failed? Then there was nothing left to lose.
I swallowed. “Yes, Commander Milkin,” I said as I turned my attention to the work at hand. The Commander watched like a vulture as I slipped the rubber tubing into the incisions on Dmitry’s wrists and watched his blood, his life pour out of him and into the machine. I watched in silence as the autojektor brought his vital fluid back to life. The machine worked swiftly on the fresh cadaver — on his — on Dmitry’s body. Though he was larger than the child we had previously worked on, he was still warm enough that the machine had no problem returning his circulation.
The hours passed and I did not say a word, though my twitching lips wished nothing more than to scream his name into the cavernous room — to tell him I was sorry for the stress and pain that I had caused, and for the unnatural act that I was then forcing upon his beautiful, lifeless form. As the evening waned on, I could hear the familiar rhythm of the heart that I had slept beside so many nights as it grew stronger, and stronger still, swelling into the steady beat of a slow, sad song.
Still, I stayed focused on my work, as best I could. After all, it was my duty.
But Commander Milkin grew increasingly restless. He demanded that I disconnect the autojektor — that it was time to see if Dmitry’s body could live once again on its own.
A lump swelled in my throat. “His breathing’s erratic,” I said. “We don’t know if his lungs can — “
The Commander was not fond of my excuses. “It sounds fine to me,” he said with a shrug and a cynical smirk. He looked at me as if he was waiting for a simple transaction at the market, tired as he was of waiting in line.
“Remove the tubing, Mikhail,” Sergei said through gritted teeth. But I felt petrified, unable to move. “Remove the tubing, Mikhail,” he said again, more assertively. “Do it now.”
I nodded in compliance then hustled to the gurney where my lover’s corpse lay, the adrenaline pumping through me with such urgency that it drowned out the stillness of the room. It was when I reached out to pull the rubber tubing from his clammy wrists that the words finally escaped my mouth:
“I love you,” I said. I do not know if the sound came out as a whisper or a scream.
Dmitry gasped for air just as I leaned forward to kiss his cold, dead face. His eyes flung open and looked straight into mine, looked inside of me, with no sign of recognition or understanding. He sat upright, his pallid lips sputtering in search of words as they so often had before, and I, too, returned to a vertical position — just in time to see the Commander’s face across from me, glaring with his wide eyes full of fervor and disgust.
I stumbled backwards, groping blindly for any surface on which to steady my shaking legs as I tried to put some distance between myself and the Commander. Sergei stood beside him, shying away in prayer with his head bowed and his eyelids shut tight. He crossed himself, and for a moment I thought that I might live to see the morning. My flailing hands sent trays of scalpels and other supplies clattering to the ground as Dmitry wheezed and moaned beside me. “I swear, Commander, it’s not what — “
“Do not take me for a fool, Comrade Selbyov!” The fury in Commander Milkin’s voice sent Dmitry into panicked palpitations. His unintelligible groans grew louder and more frantic, as if he still retained his righteous streak even after death — only now, his damaged brain lacked the language to articulate it.
I took another step away from Milkin, then another, and another, until I tripped across the electrical cord that kept the autojektor humming, yanking the plug out from the wall. Dmitry took another breathe, his strapping chest rising as it filled with air and —
The electrocardiograph let out a flatline wail like a White Lady’s keen. Dmitry’s body fell limp and collapsed dead again on the table, his lifeless eyes still wide and fixed on mine.
“Well?” the Commander said with a short, curt chuckle. “Shall we try again with a different corpse then?”
I looked up in time to see him snap his fingers, not realizing that the other soldier was already standing right behind me. He threw his arm around my throat, muscles tensing tightly on my windpipe, and I felt something stabbing in my neck.
My eyes open. The blinding whiteness at the edges of my vision form a tunnel towards the ceiling overhead. Commander Milkin stands above me, with Sergei beside him. “Disconnect the tubing,” the Commander says.
Sergei’s shoulders drop. His face recoils when he looks at me. He bites his bottom lip. Our eyes connect for the duration of a heartbeat — one beat of my own heart, which I can feel inside my chest, though I do not know how long the moment lasts from their perspective. Sergei turns away from me. He nods to the Commander then disappears from sight. There is a strange sensation pulsing through my skin, a distant tingle surging through a foreign body. It is my body, but I do not feel as I belong to it. There is a pinch at what I know to be my wrist. I try to respond, to flinch or to scream, but nothing happens. Nothing moves but my eyes.
I blink once. Twice. Again. I take a breath. The room goes black.