The holy man placed his hands on the child. “Your pain is leaving you. You must thank God for healing you.”
The boy stirred beneath his covers, his eyes focussed on the holy man. The man stood, feeling the ache in his knees the effort took. His hands made the sign of the cross over the child. “Now go to sleep.” The tiny eyes slowly closed and he waited until the child’s breast rose and fell steadily before turning.
The room was small but exquisitely furnished, with gold and deep blue paper on the walls and gold trim on every chair and table. It was a child’s room, filled with a child’s life. Books, pencils, paper, wooden blocks, and trucks fought each other for space on the shelf.
“Alexei will be well.”
A woman was there. Her fading brown hair was pulled back tightly behind her head, held in place on top by a bejewelled coronet. A stiff satin dress pooled around her chair. She rose and threw herself at the man’s feet.
“Thank you, Father.”
She leaned down to kiss the holy man’s shoes but he stopped her, putting his hands on her shoulders, guiding her actions. “Your Imperial Majesty, it’s not me you should thank, but the Almighty, for He is your son’s saviour and I merely His vessel.”
The man felt his groin stir. The Tsarina was a beautiful woman. The feeling passed and the woman stood. His eyes travelled down her body.
“I thank God every day for sending you to Alexei. And to me. You are the only one who can heal him.”
He held up his hand, first two finger pointed up, the rest folded. It was a gesture that guaranteed silence. “Madame, did our Lord not say ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you’?”
The Tsarina’s face fell, her features adopting a chastised appearance. “You’re right. Forgive me.” Alexandra recovered her formal, regal, composure. “My son, his illness…”
“I know.” He placed a large hand on her shoulder, stroking the curve of her neck with his little finger. “All will be well.”
She opened her mouth to speak but the holy man shook his head. “Imperial Majesty, I am tired. I must rest.”
“Of course. I’ll send someone to attend to you.”
The man bowed and left the room. Walking down a long corridor panelled with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, their gilt frames reflected in a thousand directions, he stopped to admire himself. He saw a middle-aged man with stringy brown hair to his shoulders, a nose that dominated his face, and a dirty beard hanging down his chest. His long black robe echoed those of a priest, however the enormous gold chain around his neck suggested a wealth that should shame a holy man. How far he’d come! Born a peasant, he now lived in the Imperial Palace as a guest of the Tsar. And he had access to the Tsarina anytime day or night. Or any of the ladies of the Imperial court, as he’d demonstrated repeatedly.
It was those foolish men and women, the rich and wealthy. They’d lost their way and struggled for an identity in a world that no longer needed them. He represented the ‘real’ Russia to these people, the glorious past they’d convinced themselves had existed, the honest, hard-working peasant upon whose back the aristocracy survived.
Instead of shame at his unkempt appearance, a feeling of immense pride and power pulsed through him. With a small grin he moved on, following the halls to his destination. His chambers were as lavish as the rest of the building. A gilded wooden table surrounded by heavy gilded chairs stood in the middle of the room which was otherwise dominated by an enormous fireplace. Finely woven tapestries depicting religious scenes decorated his walls, and soft carpets from Persia covered his floors. As soon as the door closed behind him the holy man undressed, leaving his robe on the floor. Beneath he was naked.
The air raised gooseflesh on his arms and he hurried over to the fire, holding his hands as close to the flames as he could without burning them. Sometimes, he held them too close, to test himself.
A knock on the door announced a visitor.
“You may enter.”
A young woman came in, carrying a platter with food and wine. Her dress was made of a transparent material and the outline of her body in the candlelight made the man’s groin stir again.
“Put the tray there, child.”
The girl did as he bid then stood waiting. He walked over to her. “You know what is expected?”
“And you give yourself freely, for the good of Russia?”
Before the words had left her lips, he stepped forward and tore the dress from her. Picking her up, he carried her to another room, this one with a large bed, the canopy made from heavy wool and the posts carved from oak. His body was ready and the act was rough and over quickly. The girl just lay there.
He watched the girl dress and leave, waving her away impatiently as she showed signs of lingering. Pulling a chair closer to the fire, he sat and drank, staring past the flames, mesmerised.
The guilt the man felt after the intercourse was necessary for his soul. And thus, for Russia. For sin and repentance were both needed for salvation. The more sin, the more repentance. He walked over to a desk and opened a drawer. Inside was a cat o’ nine tales.
He took the leather-wrapped wooden handle in his right hand, stroking it sensuously with his left. Moving to a smaller room off the bedroom, he kneeled as if about to pray.
He swung his arm up and over his left shoulder, slapping the nail-studded cotton cords against his back.
The nails dragged across his flesh before tearing free. The pain was agonising, searing his flesh.
He raised my arm again and brought the whip down over the right shoulder, the smack of the cords as they connected with his flesh echoing through the room. The nails caught, dragged, and tore. The blood was now running down his back and onto his thighs. His lips were white with the effort of pressing them closed, supressing the moans.
His hand struck again and again, in a rhythm that favoured neither the left or the right.
When he was done he stood, his legs shaking. Staggering to the bed, he wrapped himself in a sheet before climbing in, blood seeping into the mattress beneath him. As he slept, he dreamed: of his lowly birth, the mistakes of his youth, and his fervent spiritual wandering. His rise to power and insatiable need for more. More alcohol, more women, more wealth. More control.
“Rasputin!” The man shook his head in his sleep. “Grigori Rasputin!” He woke suddenly, tangled in sheets, the bedding around him coloured pale red where the blood had mixed with sweat. He heard his mother calling again, to the young boy he’d once been, before it faded into his memory.
Rising, he found more food had been left for him. He’d fallen asleep just after the clocks had struck midday, and now it was dark. Pouring himself a drink, he saw a note addressed to him that had been left with the fresh food. He tore it open.
I write to you most urgently about a matter of some delicacy. My wife, the niece of Tsar Nicholas, suffers from a most alarming condition, one which will, if discovered, bring shame to her family. She suffers from a women’s condition, nymphomania. The miracles you’ve performed on my wife’s cousin, the young prince, are known to us and it is my dearest hope you will visit us tonight to treat my wife.
Prince Felix Yusupov
Rasputin tilted his head, considering the note. He’d helped the prince in the past, despite the fact he despised the man’s lavish lifestyle and foolish opinions. And he was related to the Tsarina, if only by marriage. He ought to attend the man. But a part of him resisted. He was from Siberia, where there was no tradition of subservience, and he hated to be summoned by anyone other than the Tsar or Tsarina.
The prince’s wife was the most beautiful woman in all of Russia, or so it was said. And her condition aroused both his mind and body. Decision made, he stood, retrieved his robe, and readied himself.
“Thank you for coming, Father. Please, sit here.” The prince was wearing his imperial uniform, his hair cut and swept back in the latest European fashion. He’d brought them to the basement of his home, a small room, warm and comfortable, decorated by a woman. Before them was a table set with wine and cakes.
Rasputin didn’t waste any time. “Where is Princess Irina?”
“My wife is visiting friends, she’s running late.” The prince smiled. “She’ll be here soon.” He waved a hand expansively over the table. “In the meantime, here is some cake my wife made. And wine.” Felix placed a few slices on a plate and handed it to Rasputin, then poured a drink. The holy man looked at the offering for a moment before taking a mouthful of orange-drizzled cake. He nodded his approval and took another bite, swallowing it with a long draught of wine.
The prince sat, watching the holy man. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, and he dabbed a lace handkerchief across his brow.
Rasputin could feel more than just the wine burning his stomach. He’d drank more than any Russian he knew, and even cheap wine didn’t feel like this. Smiling, he helped himself to another slice of cake and held out his empty glass. Felix’s hand was shaking as he poured.
The pain started in his stomach. Before that, there was only the taste of wine and something metallic. Then the cramps gripped him, but he remained still, his face blank. Another cramp hit, slicing through his stomach. He willed the pain to subside.
The holy man finished the slice in two bites, washing it down with the entire glass of wine, struggling to swallow. All the while he stared, his disquieting brown eyes burrowing under the skin of the prince, ignoring the agonising pain the poison was causing. It spread through his body, seizing the muscles in his thighs and shoulders. He controlled his breathing, feeling the pain with each expansion of his chest. The pain was searing, like something alive in his body, burrowing through the organs and tissue, tearing him apart from the inside. He was desperate to curl up in a ball on the floor but instead, with excruciating effort, Rasputin held out his glass for more. God wouldn’t let him die, there was still too much to do to ensure his salvation.
Felix stood, his wide eyes staring at the empty glass. “I’ll see what’s keeping my wife.” When he was gone, Rasputin let the muscles he’d been clenching relax. At once the pain overwhelmed him, and he held onto the table edge to keep from falling. He leaned his arms on the table, placing his head between them, and focussed on his breathing. When he heard steps coming toward the room, he sat himself up again and adopted a featureless facade.
“Here, look, he still lives.” The prince had returned with two men, other extended members of the royal family. “The poison has done nothing to him!”
The men stared at the holy man. One spoke. “Perhaps he really IS chosen of God.”
“We should stop. He’s protected. By God. By the Tsarina. By the Tsar himself!”
“Nonsense.” Felix rounded on the man. “He’s a charlatan, thief, coward, and traitor. He convinced the Tsar to command the army himself, sending him to the front. Thousands died as a result.” The prince sneered at Rasputin. “He sleeps with anything that has two legs, no matter who they are married to. In fact, the more married they are, the better he likes it! This is no advisor or monk, this is an enemy of Russia.” Felix raised his arm and pointed a revolver at Rasputin. “Pray, savok, pray for forgiveness.”
The shot was deafening in the small room. The holy man felt nothing at first except the pain of the poison which was slowly paralysing his limbs. Then a white-hot flame engulfed him, forcing his body into a convulsed position.
The bullet ripped through his ribs and sent pieces of his flesh flying out of the exit wound from his back. This time he couldn’t help himself; he fell onto the floor, gripping his chest. The pain took him, and all was black.
The men watched him fall, then one kicked the holy man’s leg. “He’s dead.”
“I need a drink. Leave the body here for now, he’s not going anywhere.”
“Drink later. Take his coat and hat, come with me.” Felix ordered.
Felix was sweating profusely, his face blotched red. “To his home.” Seeing the confused looks on their faces, he continued. “There are eyes everywhere. Some may have seen him arrive here. We’ll put on his hat and coat and take a carriage to his home. People will think he left.” Nudging the body, he added, “As you said, he’s not going anywhere.”
Nor was he. In the blackness Rasputin waited, angry. The total darkness only made the pain worse, for there was nothing left to distract him, if that were possible. The poison had now flooded his entire being, the agony washing over him in waves. Between each surge the path the bullet made burned, reminding him of the time when, as a child, he’d picked up a pot from the fire. The handle had burnt his hand badly. It was the worse pain he’d ever felt, amplified by the fact that he’d had no frame of reference, being so young. His current torture was worse.
Rasputin’s eyes fluttered open. He sucked in a breath, his body barely able to move. The men were gone. Remaining still, he slowed his breathing until it was almost imperceptible, a practice that had served him well in the past.
In the distance, he could hear the men returning, noisy and drunk, confident they need not be quiet. The holy man waited.
“I saw him move.”
“Impossible! You’ve had too much to drink.” Felix waved his glass in the air, splashing wine on Rasputin.
“I swear, he moved.”
“Look, I’ll show you.” The prince got to his knees beside the body and peered into the face. “Hello? Kissing the Devil’s asshole, are you, holy man?”
Suddenly hands were around his neck, squeezing the smile from his face. Rasputin’s eyes were black; the prince could see no sign of the usual mesmerizing brown. Or the benevolence that shone through for others. No compassion for him. Only hatred.
Felix struggled, desperate to breathe. His thrashing caused the hands to loosen, and he was scrabbling away like a crab before the other two men could reach him. Turning himself over, he clambered up the stairs.
The holy man followed. His mind closed out the paralysing pain and his body took over. He moved slowly up the stairs, leering at his prey, murmuring words to a traditional children’s song. But the innocence of the refrain belonged to a different time and another man. The words pouring from Rasputin’s mouth sounded obscene.
The prince finally regained his footing and ran toward the front door, knocking expensive vases and statues down as he staggered out. A maid peered out from a doorway and shrieked in terror at the sight of the crazed, bloodied monster chasing her master.
The white agony Rasputin felt took over his body once more. With a final roar of rage, he launched himself at Felix, his fingertips grasping and losing the prince’s coat. His strength gave out and he landed on the cobbled stones of the courtyard.
Slowly, he turned himself over. Raising an arm, he used his elbow to hitch himself up, then drag his dead legs a foot. He did the same again with the other arm, leading to another foot. Willing himself to stay conscious, he crawled in this manner until he’d nearly reached Felix. God would not let him die. Not like this, by these men.
The prince’s men found him outside, where the trail of blood led. The prince was standing a few feet away.
“It’s not possible.” Felix’s eyes shone with anger and disbelief.
Without a word, one of the men pulled out his own revolver.
He stood over the holy man, and, putting the muzzle to his forehead, pulled the trigger.
The back of Rasputin’s head exploded, spraying blood, pieces of brain, and slivers of skull. The holy man’s body slid a few feet from the impact, dragging bits of still intact grey matter along the pavestones. The smear left by the body shone in the torchlight.
Heavy chains were wrapped around the body, woven tightly. They were taking no chances with him. He could no longer see, but felt the weight of iron squeezing him, the rounded edges of the links pressing in on tormented flesh already screaming.
His eyes were dead but a sliver of consciousness remained. After the chains were secure, his body was forced into a large burlap sack. The smell drifted into Rasputin’s brain as the last neurons winked out, reminding him of his mother. “Rasputin.” He couldn’t answer. He gagged, over and over, but nothing came up. Tired. So. Very. Tired. The pain was like a blanket, enveloping him. His final thought was of the trees surrounding his childhood home, and the silence of the forests as the snow-covered boughs muffled the sounds of life.
The river was deep and filled with giant chunks of ice from the sea. Mini icebergs that floated serenely, hiding their true faces. They would crush a man if he were unfortunate enough to be caught between two.
“It’ll be days before anyone finds the body, if at all.” The prince and his men rolled the holy man over the railing, watching it splash into the black water.
The body sank quickly, the iron chains weighing it down. His last neuron registered landing on the silted river bottom before blinking out.
Copyright Kelly Evans