Monday, June 17, 2019

The Debauched by Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri

The 1905 Russian revolution has turned St Petersburg society on its head, and the aristocratic Misha Sergeyevich fears his sister is seeking solace in an unsavoury place; by Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri.

My eldest sister, Tatiana Sergeyevna, was disrobed and bathing Rasputin when I returned home one evening, in 1908. She ran her slender fingers over his hirsute back, bare and dirty. This all was transpiring in my own marble bathroom with its porcelain tub, of all spaces. The tub which Papa had imported from London in the good days, the days before things came apart. I'd gone in to take a long bath after an evening dining with friends. This had been a nice release from the tensions, from our disintegrating home, our family slowly breaking apart in light of Papa's recent gambling debts and his own liaisons in Monte Carlo while abroad with the Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, our tsar's uncle. I was twenty-two and the youngest in our family, my sister twenty-eight.

Rasputin held a bottle of Madeira, which he waved like a weapon, while my sister kept washing his back, whistling something from "The Nutcracker." This all struck me as I entered the room, as if this were the most intense moment of a dream. The moment where I'd wake up and everything would be all right. But it was happening here. My sister was completely disrobed, so was Rasputin, and their bodies seemed to defile this vast and wonderful room. I shook my head once and again, as if that would restore things to their natural modes of being. I thought of just leaving, walking out the door, out into the night, but some force pulled me back.

"Have a drink, Misha," he said, laughing, waving the bottle. I could smell the alcohol on his breath, thick and overwhelming. "Live a little."

"What are you doing, Tanya?" I said, using the nickname I'd used for my sister. She smiled.

"Ah, Misha," she said, still focused on Rasputin. "I see we had all the fun. Did you have fun yourself?"

"At least my friends were fully clothed and not inebriated. It's late," I said to my sister. I arched an eyebrow, trying to look precise, stern. I looked away.

"Mikhail Sergeyevich is the preferred nomenclature, Grigori Efimovich," I added, glaring at Rasputin. "And I don't want any of your alcohol."

"Don't be so formal," he laughed. He stood up in the tub, like some triumphal, naked king, his member rising, the member we had all heard of in Petersburg society. Rasputin had been in our home multiple times at my sister's insistence and I knew Tatiana Sergeyevna was fond of him, but I hadn't anticipated anything on this scale. I felt a kind of repugnance, felt a need to throw up, seeing this hairy body, this sick being before me. I felt a sense of deception, the sense that things were happening without my knowledge, that terrible, frightening things were transpiring, to my sister, my favorite sister. Things were already happening with Papa, with Mama, and now another embarrassment.

"What the hell are you doing Tanya?" I said, again. "And why in my bathtub, of all places?"

She turned to face me and I felt even more repulsed, her smooth breasts exposed, the curves of her figure laid bare, pure and white. I hadn't seen her like this in years, and I felt genuinely like the lowest human being. I wondered if she had been in bed with Rasputin, if he had lured her there, this madman. I hoped not, knew my sister was strong, capable of so much, but then again here she was disrobed with Rasputin.

I wondered how people transformed, what effected such frightening, repulsive changes. She had never gone this far before, rebelling, flirting with danger, but always pulling back before the precipice, which I'd always found interesting. I hadn't acted out in some time, absorbed in the rituals of representing our family, in conversing with our parents' friends, trying to hold onto things for our family, whose position was at its lowest, lacking the cachet it once possessed.

"Rasputin just wanted a bath, Misha," she said. "He says it's good to cleanse oneself. To be in touch with the bodies, as it were. I agree. We're all so absorbed by the world, by Papa's debts, by everything. Rasputin says we need to give up our worldly things."

"In my own bathtub?"

"Well, we couldn't do it in mine. Mama's too close by and she wouldn't understand. She likes Rasputin, but she doesn't really understand him."

"I see," I said, surveying the room. The marble walls, the neat lamps, everything seemed to take on a new form now. "And you need to be disrobed for this? With this debauched lunatic?"

"I'm all right, Misha," she said, laughing and smirking at me. She did the little dancing-eyebrow routine she'd used to do to amuse me, but it had lost all humorous value.

"I hope so."

I thought of chasing Rasputin, of making a ruckus, but I didn't want to wake Mama or the servants. Not at this hour. I didn't know how to explain such things, didn't want to look like a fool. I needed to be in utter control of things here.

"Everyone needs a release from the constraints of things," Tatiana Sergeyevna said. "This feels so liberating. After being forced to dress like this or that. You don't like dressing up like a dandy either, Misha. I know you too well. At least this is true, real."

It was true that I hated dress, regimented orders, and admired Tatiana Sergeyevna's zest for life. Even now, I admired the way she comported herself with a certain ease and grace that I lacked, with a kind of cheer I lacked also. She could move about Petersburg with such grace, you could easily distinguish her from people who seemed to move with cold calculation, the Grand Dukes and all the counts and princes and nobles. I was a realist, someone who disliked being one, but who'd learned to make peace with the things I couldn't possess. Order was something I could accept. After the failed revolution in 1905, especially, order seemed comforting, soothing even.

I also wouldn't give my sister the satisfaction of being correct, wouldn't let her deflect the matter at hand, which she did often. I'd seen her do it arguing with Mama and Papa over the company she kept and back then I'd admired that ability to maintain a power, when it was over our parents. Now it seemed like something frightening, duplicitous even, something that truly didn't reflect my sister. Not the sister I knew. I imagined Rasputin counseling her to lie, to deflect, to exaggerate, as he did often.

"You believe this?" I said, speaking in English, so Rasputin wouldn't understand. "I love you, Tanya. This isn't about rules. This is about you. I don't want you to hurt yourself. Or let Rasputin hurt you. He's a wild animal. He's not any sort of holy man. He tricks people. He's a fake. He lusts after people. And worse."

My sister stared at me, a look not of shame, but almost contempt. I should have stayed out longer, the look seemed to say. That look conveyed so much and made me feel out of place in our own little palace.

"Holiness takes on many forms, Misha," she said, switching back to Russian, even though we usually spoke English or French with bits of Russian thrown in for good measure, because we'd spoken those languages since childhood, and since it was a fashionable thing to do among our smart sets. Even her use of Russian now seemed odd, her words almost guttural.

"He's holy in his worship of everything disgusting," I said. I looked away. "Please get dressed, Tanya."

"I've grown to know Grigori Efimovich," she said. "People don't understand him, what he wants to do. Mama and Papa are so absorbed in the world, they can't see it. He makes me feel that the world, that everything will be fine, if we just live a more simple life."

"Please," I said, looking away. "Do you know how that sounds? What is he going to do to keep our family together? Ask him that."

"Your righteousness makes me sick, Misha," she said. "I love you, but sometimes you can be truly rigid. You need to live too, Misha. Learn from Grigori. He's real, he knows what it means to live without being a hypocrite. Too many false people in this world, in Petersburg."

"Yes," Rasputin said, waving his arms. "Join us, Misha. Enter our world. Don't worry about Mama and Papa."

I felt ashamed to see my sister like this, exposed to me, to Rasputin. The sister I'd known so well, the sister who lived, who flaunted rules, which I'd always loved. She loved condemning the anti-Semitic friends of Mama and Papa and using colloquialisms and vulgarity at parties, rather than being obsequious and deferential out of respect for the host's particular station in Petersburg society.

We'd pulled many a prank in Petersburg when we were younger, the two of us together against society, my sister taking me by the hand, making sure I was secure and safe. We'd thrown snowballs at government ministers, had food fights, pretended to chase spies and revolutionaries. We'd done so much together and now she had given into the damned debauched holy man. Or so he called himself. I missed that sister, wanted her to see Rasputin for his naked, debauched self, wanted her to come back to me, to all of us. I wanted to cry.

Standing there, I only saw a lecherous poison in Rasputin, contaminating us, and before long I feared who else he would contaminate. Perhaps Mama, perhaps Papa even, with his predictions of fortune and good luck, especially after Papa had lost much in Monte Carlo. Rasputin was capable of preying on anyone.

"It's late Grigori Efimovich," I said. "We can't all afford the luxury of having visions of God and all that."

"All the better," Rasputin roared. "It's time to live, really live this evening. I know you're thinking I'm sinning, I'm losing myself in worldly goods. But God will forgive me, Misha. I will cleanse myself this way."

"Please, Misha," Tatiana Sergeyevna said, and there was that gentleness in her voice, the old gentleness. "There's nothing wrong here. Is a body not supposed to be a temple?"

"Not one lusted after by Rasputin."

"I respect the body," Rasputin said, roaring again. "The body is a temple, as your sister says. A vessel of the Lord. We don't take care of ourselves as we should. Your mama, your papa, all of us."

"You respect no one but yourself, Grigori Efimovich," I growled.

"Just go out for a moment then, Misha," Tatiana Sergeyevna said. She smiled, a smile I'd not seen before. It was haughty, confident, contemptuous almost. "This'll all be right. Trust me. You needn't worry. You have other things to think of."

"Rasputin is leaving," I said. I took a step towards the tub, trying to affect the most menacing look. "Immediately."

"Misha, just go to bed," Tatiana Sergeyevna said, with a flick of her hand. "Please. Don't be like this. I didn't think you were so conventional."

"You know who I am, Tanya," I said. I wanted to cry, thinking of how she was drifting from us all, how she was here physically, yet she'd been stripped bare by Rasputin. "You know that I just want you to be happy."

"I'm happy, Misha," she said. She tugged at my arm, the touch feeling repulsive, as if she had invaded my space. "Please, Misha. Just leave us be, if you're not going to join this. I know you love me, but you need to let me live. To seek communion within myself."

I felt as though her words were stabbing me. Wounding me. They seemed so matter-of-fact and so cold. Thoughts danced through my minds, in a kind of wild dance, each one overwhelming the other, all the events of the night filling me with helplessness, a sense of uselessness even. I wanted to find Papa's gun even and shoot Rasputin. To grab him, drag him from the tub. To protect my sister from Rasputin's leering gaze, from the lust. I wanted to tell the tsar even, even though I knew that the German bitch, the empress, had unleashed this debauched monster upon us all. I wanted to complain to Prime Minister Stolypin, but even that wonderful, bearlike man couldn't control Rasputin.

Standing there, in the presence of my disrobed sister, her arm on my shoulder, I felt frozen, incapable of doing anything. I tried to look away, but couldn't. I was implicated in all this now and yet I could do nothing to salvage the situation. No amount of words could save her, pull her back from the precipice.

Perhaps she had gone to bed with Rasputin, and would go to bed with him even more, baring more and more, not just nakedness, but secrets, intimate things, which he wouldn't recall if he sobered up, things he'd just throw away. Circumstances made people do things and I understood that. And this transformation wasn't over. Perhaps he'd make her feel special, even as he bedded women all over Petersburg, all over Russia. She'd pull apart from me, Mama, Papa. I'd look at my sister in such a different manner now, always see her disrobed, bare before me, no matter how she was attired. I wouldn't see my beloved sister like this again, I would be repulsed. I feared I might even hate her, and I didn't want to do all that. But these were things I couldn't control.

"Live, Misha," Rasputin roared, sinking back into the tub, settling in, deeper and deeper. I stood there, a small figure who couldn't hold onto things. My sister watched with a contentment, watching Rasputin and nothing else, wholly naked, unashamed of this all.

3 comments:

  1. Engrossing story, the interplay among the characters is vivid. The opening paragraph drew me right in. Rasputin was a fantastical figure to begin with. Great portrait of a cult leader, the story shows well why these types of men are very attractive to women. The brother is basically impotent

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  2. Interesting historical piece. I felt like I was transported to that time and place, and particularly enjoyed the insight into Rasputin's character. Nice work.

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  3. captivating piece: lovely use of language and great sense of mystique with seductive characterization.
    Mike McC

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