I bit off a strand of her hair as she was bending over the microscope. The whites of her eyes curdled as light poured from lumen. They seemed to drip back down into the magnifier, gelatin pooling across the glass belly of the thing. She was looking at a piece of a person, I think. Probably a thread of brain from a person that had made mistakes, like me. Trying to understand the mistakes so that she could maybe keep them from happening, or find the other people that were making them, to burn and break and blind with white fire.


I chewed it a bit, for the taste. Her hair, I mean. A chalky, pale taste. A nice one, I would think, because she wasn’t being poisoned, like me. I was going to keep it, to give it to Tsiuri the next time that came to bring me scraps of paper to write my observations on, and sugar to make the food brighter than grey.


Except she screamed. Salome, that is. Tsiuri never screamed- sometimes used to cry out, buried alive in sleep and afraid of the things that I wrote and did on the outside. She didn’t bring me to the sanatorium though. A snarling, spitting animal came with a hook and a starched canvas coat. He came on such a night that Tsiuri trembled with desire and desperation and held me tightly, lapping at the sweat from my skin. He came and she neither cried nor whispered nor opened her eyes. He came and called for another man, who had found my journals and a pin that I kept on my lapel but had put in a box beneath the stilts of our house for safekeeping. He showed me the things that I had already seen and told me that others could not see them, that I conjured up an evil that needed to be drawn and diluted and brought to Salome to put under her microscope. The next day, Tsiuri wrote to me that a tangle of blood and tissue had rushed from deep within her and that the thing had been called Tsisana because it had fallen from the sky, right through her mouth and her belly and the space between her legs and into a shallow grave beneath a dead hazelnut tree someplace far from home.


Everybody here has a name that starts with a V except for me because I am Ambrosi and Salome, because she has many names here and none of them begin with that letter. We are all broken in the same bone, marrow turned to silt by the germ that is born of our illness, everybody with a V and me. Except for Salome, Miss Vera and Masha. They met me in the day of success, and I have learned by the perfectest report that they have more in them than mortal knowledge.


Vazha’s fifteenth birthday was today, I think. We called him teapot, chainik, because of spilt words that always caught us by the edges of our nerves. Last summer, on the hour that he became fourteen, he told Miss Vera that he wished broken glass on Comrade Stalin’s dacha by the sea. He told me that he wished locusts on the wind, trails of blood on the doors of the apparat. He had read somewhere that a land of burnt grass and grit has been consecrated, hallowed and made holy by such things. Miss Vera says that there is shame in wishes, and that anyway, speaking them casts them to stone.

Vazha had been driven by the germ to prishit’ – a settling of accounts with the devil, he told us. He was from the wetlands, in Ajaria, and our three caretakers told us, after he was gone, that the fog and filthy air had choked up his veins and the sickness had spread faster within him. When the AO-63 went off, blowing out his eardrum to a dry and quiet shadow, he fell in surprise and the marbles in his back pocket bruised him so badly that one could see the faint spiderwebs of burst blood straining against the backs of his legs at bathing time. He had missed the second in command of the nomenklatura by a whisper, and the two men brought to the sanatorium the following night.

Despite it all, Vazha was frail and his skin peeled and curled within the first days of flash-beam therapy. His illness had so progressed that crude oil salves would not quench his pain, and bile tore the corners of his mouth so that it seemed to open wider- a chasm of unintelligible words and acrid air. He bet me once that in the end, some would have it all, and most would have none. He was gone within the month, his last words fired at me: “prishli mne kapustu,” he said. When this is through, send me the cabbage.


In the beginning, there was light. And then, I could taste the charred tips of my matted hair, my fingernails curling and screaming as the voltage reached new heights. There was a flash of blue freeze piercing my every pore, sparks flying from the edges of each nerve.


A woman called Vardo arrived on a thick, silvery afternoon. She was from Gomel, in Belarus. When they brought her in for treatment, she screamed, a scream hot with rage and chilled with fright. She told us later that she was a clairvoyant, that she had seen this before. The treatment had been given to an entire city, a people so brown and bitter that the Chorniye had cast the beams of light upon them to treat them all at once. She spoke of being suddenly drenched in ash and rain, that made the air taste rusted and metallic. She noticed the paint peeling from her walls. In Gomel, she drank bottles of vodka because it tempered the shrieks of those around her and the feeling that devils were dragging their fingernails down her throat. They had found her because she owned a restaurant, and began coring carrots, discarding the flesh in the middle and soaking the hulls in jars of water before cooking them. The light collected in the center of fruits and vegetables, she said, so it was best to avoid them. That’s when they came for her. Because they believed that she was poisoning her town while she cried that her town was poisoning her.


One day, Miss Vera fell asleep and the television set continued to crackle and hum despite her purring snores. Vepkhia was running the baths in the courtyard and the sound of the ocean, the gentle spools of dusky air masked the shadows of our gaunt figures as we snuck behind the kitchen counter to watch sepia scenes unfurl. VREMYA NEWSCAST- ABKHAZIA DOWN- ENGURI BRIDGE SPEECH – COMRADE JOSEPH- ADDRESS TO THE NATION – ADDRESS TO OUR FRIENDS – ADVICE TO OUR FOES. Cataracts had begun to cloud my eyes, and thoughts seemed to drip through fissures in my brain, but I could read the headlines spinning around the television set, around and around. And I could hear the familiar tenor and cadence of a voice that had once haunted me. A specter that had haunted me long before I had been brought here to get better. I commend your pain! And everyone shall share in the gain. Now sing! For all that you give shall temper the wickedness that this way comes. Miss Vera never awoke and we thought that we had gently allowed the moment to pass without echo, until the splitting screams on the dawn of the fifteenth of March, when Vardo, clawing at chimeras, doused herself in hot oil and dropped a match. As the hair crisped and coiled from her head, her corroded lips wove the words like a curse through the air: I commend your pain. And all share the gain. Come high or low, yourself you will show. I commend your pain. All shall share the gain. Come high and come low, soon you will know.


April was the cruelest month. The sound of the crickets brought no relief to the humming between my ears. The dry stone, no sound of water. In the second month, I began to shit foamy, pale tendrils that smelled of nothing. It reminded me of the bits of halite that parted in the waves of the Black Sea. I started to remember things, and then forget them just as quickly. Tsiuri and I had been to the Black sea once. We were scrapped poor and in love and hungry for sand and each other. We wanted to rent a dacha in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, but the smell of jasmine and the freshly painted clapboard doors reminded us of all that we knew and could not understand. I remembered the bloated fish burnt over fire, making love and breaking fevers in the heather and subtropical twilight. We wandered, lustful and forlorn through meadows, collecting bullets and scraps of metal for Tsiuri to sell for limoni in black markets. We crept barefoot across the moss, swollen with rain and gentle sunlight. We picked the lichens from ash and birch trees and carved our names in with our fingernails until they cracked and bled. I collected hyacinths in the moonlight, brought them back to her at dawn. Bouquets of hyacinths and ferns. My hyacinth girl, plants as old as fossils for my hyacinth girl. We were brave back then, she believed me back then. I had not yet begun to frighten her. Back then, we crept past moonwalkers and mafiya, climbed fences to reach the ocean, fancying ourselves free and unbroken. On our last evening stroll, I asked her if she’d ever been afraid, really afraid. She told me, yes, of the torpedoes and contract killers, of the gangs of scabbed warriors, the suki, the choirs of men in St Petersburg taverns. That’s why she had come to Abkhazia. There were no spiders, widow or wolf. There were no cold, calloused hands ready to tear the clothes from her body. Things were better back then, I remind myself when I remember that we both were afraid of things rather than ideas.


Crackers. We ate crackers dipped in watered-down butter. The sborschiki came for all that we had. Torpedoes scoured our town for those who did not pay, criminal welfare ruled in all of its gilded, plastic glory. I burned candles to the wick- drawing, and writing, but I don’t remember what. Figures, numbers. Delicately traced maps and pathways through places I’d never been before. I made things, I put things together and set them aflame. I put those things in a place, the place where they found them. The things. The things that made them come for me, come to make me better, come to make me well.


With the right paperwork, we could have buckwheat, sprats and condensed milk. But neither one of us could wield the pen for purposes other than those that we had trapped ourselves in. We bought borsht from our Ukrainian neighbors but she wouldn’t eat it. She began to feed on glass and stakan, her eyes glazed over with fright, her belly swollen with child. She wrote letters to her family by the ocean. We couldn’t come back, she said. She was afraid of me, she said. I was afraid of them, I said. She told me to let go of the thing I feared, let it crumble and fall away, come back to her when I had quelled the fire that consumed me. I told her, “I will burn it to the ground myself.” I told her, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”


Salome came to me on a Sunday, I think. You have been a cooperative patient. You have been very ill and yet appear committed to being made well again. Your sacrifice was merited, imposed on you for a reason. Yet, you will prove to benefit us greatly, comrade. You have served your purpose, fulfilled your duty to the motherland. You are very sick and will die. You shall be buried with the others, far from here, in a place where you cannot be found. We must contain the poison that courses through your veins, for it shall permeate the earth, shall bleed through the dirt and dust and carry into the hearts and minds of others. Patterns of cells danced before my eyes, in my mouth. The taste of hair, the taste of hair, Salome’s hair in my mouth, tasting like grass and cool water. I saw basilicas in the distance, rising, soaring from the ocean, ecclesiastic monsters carving space through the horizon. I saw monuments erected over desecrated earth, stories and tales wiped clean from consciousness. Onions, beets, and carrots boiled over the remains of fallen children. Hyacinths blooming through my wounds, drowned in pus and liquor, and the afterbirth of a stillborn country. Before and after. Spools unwinding and time coming apart at the seams.


I’ve written down the patterns that I have seen in Salome’s hands, on paper that seems to shiver and shake as my ability to distinguish between light and darkness seems to fade. I have written these patterns in shit and blood, splayed across the walls. I have conjured them into existence, and Salome has taken them out into the world to let them know about the things that were the matter with my brain and how they tried to fix me.


Short term effects of instantaneous interaction between Ionizing Radiation particles and Mamalian organic matter;

Dr. Salome Chkhetidze

Warden of the Tskaltubo Federal Prison

Department Head: Nuclear Research and Development

Ministry of Defense Industry



Camille Louise teaches English to high school students in New Orleans!  She is a creative writer and poet as well!  Be sure to check out her site (where this story was first published on May 30, 2018!)


Editor’s Note:  Be sure to check out some of our other featured short fiction; including works by AlexFritz, Nolan and Adam!

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