Meanwhile, VVP’s* soul arrived at the other shore, where there is no wrangling and no slavishness, where everyone is given according to their deeds and according to the evil of their deeds, and where all get their just deserts – nothing one can hide, nobody one can deceive. Upon arrival, the former ruler’s soul found itself in a large rectangular hall with marble floors, two bronze furnaces, and oil lamps placed along the smaller side of the wall, whereas the three remaining walls were immersed in semidarkness. The only light came from a few candles, which barely illuminated the shadows crawling back and forth like silhouettes of moving bodies. The outlines of individual faces could be seen for brief moments only to be transformed instantaneously into bodiless otherworldly shadows, like flickering water reflections.
A skinny nondescript man of about the same height as VVP stood next to the lit wall surrounded by angels with big wings. Bald patches at the temples, the narrow line of short dark hair on his forehead, and the curly beard made his face oblong. He was wearing a white colobium, a simple long tunic with sleeves that covered his elbows. The man wore a himation over it as an outer garment – a large piece of heavier drape that played the role of a cloak – but a short while later he took it off because with the furnaces on it was getting too hot in the room. Though VVP did not know the names of the man’s garments, he recognized them from the images he remembered seeing on icons, especially those depicting Jesus in a chiton reaching to his ankles, with narrow strips on the shoulders, which looked like embroidery. If compared, the clothing of the man who now stood in front of VVP, seemed far more modest.
“Do you know who I am?” the man asked.
VVP was struck by his eyes which were like blazing fire.
“You must be some ecclesiastical authority, a hierarch, perhaps…”
“Well, we don’t have authority figures here like the ones you had at the agency you used to work for. You said once in passing that there can be no former employees there… Here we don’t have any ranks. I am Paul, the Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. Does this name ring a bell?”
“It certainly does!” VVP suddenly got excited though he was unsure why.
Meanwhile, the Apostle gave him a keen appraising look and got right to the point with a concise yet exhaustive explanation of what was about to happen next:
“Many sinners did not end up in Hell because in parting with life they confessed their sins and sincerely repented, thus depriving the devil of his trophy. You, however, didn’t repent… You never repented in your heart. You don’t even know what it means, because you think you are always right. Let me tell you what the Book of Psalms says about your kind: “The words of their mouths are wicked and deceitful; they fail to act wisely or do good. Even on their beds they plot evil; they commit themselves to a sinful course and do not reject what is wrong.”
“You aren’t fair, Apostle Paul!” VVP said, frowning. His initial inexplicable wave of excitement at meeting the Apostle and talking to him was gone.
“Well, now I don’t intend to judge all your deeds… But let me present some evidence you will find very hard to deny”.
Apostle Paul waved his hand, and the angels approached the darker wall, instructing the hiding shadows to move into the light. As they approached the Apostle, the shadows changed and began to look like human beings of flesh and blood. There were hundreds of them, mostly children, boys and girls in festive school uniforms. The closer they got, the more VVP filled with dreadful chill – he guessed who those witnesses were and what kind of accusations the Apostle Paul was about to bring up next.
“I can already tell, by the way you react, that these people are familiar to you though you have never met any of them in person. Yes, they are the hostages from the theatre, who came to watch a musical and were gassed to death, students and adults from a school in the Northern Caucasus, killed by bullets and grenade launchers during the attack against the terrorists. You were always afraid to come across as weak, even though a cautious response to crisis is often a sign of strength and wisdom. You wanted the terrorists dead, at whatever the cost, both in the siege of the theatre and the school. You rejected the very idea of negotiating with terrorists, but what about the plight of innocent people, what about risking the lives of children? The need to eliminate those who held them hostage justified the death of all these people in your mind. As always, you denied the obvious. Do you remember how you met with the mothers of those dead children? When you were shown a photo of a child burned to death, you put on a look of sadness on your face, followed by an outburst of anger against the hostage-takers. You dodged questions and shifted responsibility on others, showing sympathy whereas, in reality, you could not care less…”
“Why are you portraying me as a total monster?” VVP asked in a choking voice, yet emphasizing every word. “I looked at that picture, and my heart bled for this child and the poor mother – trust me, but we had no other choice then…”
“I’ll tell what other choice you had. The terrorists let you know their demands – you were to withdraw the troops from Vainakhia and end the war.”
“No, they didn’t put forth any demands.”
“That just isn’t true. They had two notes and a tape delivered to your people.”
“I know nothing about any tapes.”
“You are being dishonest again…”
“We attempted to negotiate with them multiple times, trying to strike some agreement – storming the building was seen as the tactic of last resort.”
“Perhaps you were misled…” The Apostle Paul softened a little, noticing the dispirited and resigned expression on VVP’s face. “Maybe, your men deliberately concealed the actual numbers of hostages, or perhaps they were just afraid to tell you the truth… In any case, what does it say about this kind of action officers? There is also another question: why did you commend them instead of punishing them? You failed to answer that mother’s questions, when she demanded explanations: Why were the belongings of these kids discovered in a landfill site six months later? Why did these children have to suffer for three days to then be killed and burned alive? Why were their remains dumped as waste to be consumed by stray cats and dogs? As you listened to her barrage of questions, your face darkened, just as it does right now, and the only words that came out of your mouth were: “I don’t deny that I am partially responsible.”
Another mother devastated by the loss of her child said that her only reason for coming was to look in the eyes of the Supreme Ruler.
“Do you repent what you have done in the Beslan massacre?” the poor woman asked.
“You must repent publicly before my people.”
Here is how you responded:
“There are those who might use my words of repentance to destroy the country.
Apostle Paul spoke in a quiet voice: “…Repent anyway, without expecting any blessings or rewards. You will not be repenting in front of your mirror image, but before Christ, and if Christ is not there, you will see your image in the mirror and become petrified as if you just saw the soul eater Medusa Gorgon… Do you know the prayer of repentance? What do you mean, you don’t? Why were you wearing a cross and telling people you were a Christian? Shame on you… Now repeat after me: “God, my good and loving Lord, I acknowledge all the sins, which I have committed every day in my life, whether in thought, word or deed. I ask for forgiveness from the depths of my heart for offending you and others and repent of my old ways. Help me by your grace to change, to sin no more and to walk in the way of righteousness…”
“Tell me, Apostle, could someone convicted at the Personal Trial be redeemed on Judgment Day?”
“That’s possible. People have a chance to be saved, even though they can’t be acquitted… Now get ready for Judgment Day…”
Apostle Paul signaled to the angels and they vanished… from the Russian by Nina Genn.
* VVP (V.V.P.) – initials of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
This is an excerpt from David Guy’s novel “The Terrarium” (“Террариум”). The novel was published by MIR Collection (New York, 2012). One year after its publication in the original Russian, it was translated by Nina Genn.
David Guy is a well-known journalist and writer who spent thirty years working for The Evening Moscow (a well-known Soviet newspaper). After leaving Russia in 1993, he settled in New York. He has authored over thirty novels and documentaries Now he’s the editor-in-chief of the Russian-language literary journal “Vremena”. He also makes regular appearances on the Russian-language cable channel RTN program “Meet the Press”.
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