Justin Zinck - is a 25 year old writer hailing from the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. He has studied in the MFA program (fiction) at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, and currently lives in Germany, where he is pursuing a Master's of Science in mathematics and economics.
Ilya stared out of the palace’s kitchen window. It was nearly eleven. The streetcars had stopped running and St. Petersburg was still and black, save for the few gas lamps still leaking light alongside the River Neva. Four floors below Ilya, a crew of house hands hurried to prepare the lanterns in the palace’s courtyard. The chef could sense urgency in their silence, and he watched two teenagers run amongst the flowers with a ladder, whispering haste into the wicks as they touched them with flame.
Downstairs Ilya could hear Stalin and his guests finishing their last course, his signature borscht. The diners’ chorus had built through the hours, and now stoked with alcohol, it rolled with ebullience. To keep his anxious staff from idleness, Ilya ordered them into line and inspected their aprons.
Once satisfied, Ilya returned to the window. A breeze kicked up, and to his quiet satisfaction, dragged itself slowly across his midsection. At the foot of the stairs one of the servers called for the kitchen, and Ilya quickly went to the pot of borscht and tasted it again. The thick stew lingered on his taste buds as he catalogued the flavors: the beet; the starches; the dill and the salt. The chef closed his eyes. Was the soup too sharp? Too lackluster?
Ilya fought off his nerves. The Great Comrade will be pleased, he told himself. He let the soup’s steam roll over his face, and once he felt ready, he left the burners for the kitchen door, motioning for his staff to follow.
* * *
The air in the corridor was cooler. The electric lamps steeped the palace in a warm caramel light, and the stiff heels of Ilya’s shoes clicked sharply on the marble floor.
Ilya descended the wide staircase at a careful and calculated clip: to come on too quickly would seem eager to the Great Comrade; to keep Stalin waiting would be inexcusable. The chef paused at the foot of the stairs and signaled that the staff should wait alongside a glass-fronted bookcase. Two leather couches took residence at the bookcase’s far end, making a cove where Stalin, if in the quarter, could often be found smoking. Ilya diverted his eyes from the furniture. The larger of the two couches – asparagus green and wide saddled – was notorious among Stalin’s house staff: it was there that Leon Grabivic, Ilya’s predecessor, had been found dead after a group of Stalin’s dinner guests had contracted food poisoning.
The green leather made Ilya nauseous. “Nobody sits. Wait until you’re called,” he said. The five men nodded, and Ilya was summoned by the tinking of a wine glass.
* * *
Ilya entered the dining room with as much confidence as he could muster. He counted thirteen guests, but recognized only Comrade Beria. The chef bowed his head. “Comrade Stalin.”
“The evening’s chef,” Stalin replied. The premier kept his chin tilted upward as he spoke, as if aiming his words over Ilya’s head.
The chef stole a glance around the table and saw that Stalin’s bowl of borscht was half-empty. He cleared his throat and humbly asked if everything – the pelmeni, the pirozhki and shashlyk – had tasted fine.
Twelve of the thirteen guests applauded the chef’s work. Ilya forced a smile for each, but when the last guest – the man sitting three places to Stalin’s right – didn’t respond, the Great Comrade leaned forward in his seat and shouted, “Razmonivic! Was everything fine?” Ilya shifted his weight and watched Razmonivic shrug. The man had hardly touched the borscht – he was quite drunk, Ilya realized – and panic began to bloom in the pit of the chef’s stomach. When Razmonivic didn’t respond for a second time, Stalin became aggressive. He pounded a fist on the table.
“Razmonivic! Address my chef!”
Razmonivic rocked forward and looked up at Ilya. His gaze floated aimlessly, lost in a sea of liquor. “I did not find the borscht to be very nice,” he managed after some time.
Ilya apologized and looked to Comrade Stalin. A flush of color was working its way through the premier’s face, starting at his hairline and percolating down into his cheeks. Stalin politely excused the chef from the dining room, but the subtle tremble of the Great Comrade’s upper lip was not lost on Ilya. With haste he passed the bookcase and the chairs, and once halfway up the stairs, he sprinted for the kitchen.
* * *
Ilya went straight to the borscht and took a long draw from a wooden spoon. The soup was still simmering. It burnt the back of his throat, but it was good, he thought, undoubtedly perfect. Again, he found himself at the window, this time staring at a lone night cloud on the northern horizon. The chef tried to recapitulate what had just transpired, and he was pondering Razmonivic when Nikita, his senior apprentice, came into the kitchen.
“You must leave, Ilya.”
Nikita was trembling. “The others have left for the stables - for the tunnel.”
Ilya knew the tunnel: he would need to go through the smallest of the horse barns, to the back left corner of stall thirteen. There a dilapidated staircase wound its way down into the earth, the wood eaten through by moisture, rotting and ornate with cobwebs. At the base of the stairwell stood a false wall of hay, and behind it, a gate to the tunnel beneath the river.
Ilya’s response was preempted by a knock on the door. The comrade’s dinner party was loudly making their way into the garden below, but the Great Comrade stood at the door, pipe in hand. Ilya’s eyes drifted to the pot of borscht. A woman in the courtyard let out a piercing laugh. Stalin nonchalantly asked if he had time for a smoke.