Chapter I

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'A man should never say all that he knows—some details should remain obscure.' —Odyssey 11

She boarded the train at one of the overnight stops, at Yaroslav or Amir. I vaguely recall the subtle commotion of her settling in, a few seats ahead of me and across the aisle. When sunlight crept into the car I noticed her long black hair, intricately braided and pinned in place. The braids formed a geometric shape, something like a star, across the back of her nearly child-size head. She had a wrap around her shoulders that was a deep purple color, like the Urals in winter. The skin of her neck was as white and unblemished as porcelain, as a china teacup--no, as the snow on the peaks of the Urals. 

Indeed, her skin was so flawless and her hair so black and lustrous, I assumed she was little older than a child traveling alone to meet a guardian aunt for a holiday in the country. A few years earlier I might have concealed the ring on my finger and found some pretense for making her acquaintance. I might have tried to coax her to the dining car for a glass of sherry. I could have spotted some traveler in a threadbare suit, an old man with a tobacco-stained beard, a guiltless fellow on whom to affix some outrageous lie. "That man over there--do not look!--he bears a striking resemblance to . . . yes . . . the Butcher of Belgrade (or the Rapist of R--, the Murderer of M--). I am not certain of course. Not certain enough to alert the conductor. But perhaps it would be best if you accompany me to the dining car--if you are traveling alone. Our friend may disembark at the next station." And if I were lucky, the innocent old man would choose that moment to look at the poor girl; and if I were really lucky, the old man would not disembark: he would stay right there for the duration of the trip, a few feet away, hacking violently every so often into a frayed handkerchief, oily with phlegm. 

But there was too much white in my mustaches for such machinations. I twisted the plain silver band on my finger a quarter turn; and, out of habit, I checked my coat pockets for my notebook and leather pencil case. Then I set about rereading my newspaper, for perhaps the twelfth time. I had a by-line in that edition, a story about a vagrant in the city. The pitiful creature claimed to be the Prince of Ithaka. I thought at first I was pursuing a humorous story--but there was a sadness that shone through each outrageous remark he made, like the light of a candle's flame seen through a comic paper. 

I interviewed the strange fellow in the police's interrogation chamber. I got to him before the detectives, who were busy with their lunches. (Over the years I had made friends among the police--a bottle of vodka now and then for the young ones, cigarettes for the old ones--for the newlyweds, a pair of theatre tickets.) At first I thought the vagrant was older than I, then I soon realized the thinning hair was due to malnutrition and the rings under his eyes were more city dust than age. The room was an empty gray space, save for two straight-back wooden chairs which faced each other in its exact center. A single light bulb hung on a cord above the chairs; its intensity wavered with the electrical needs of the city. There was a pair of gas sconces on the wall where there were black halos on the gray paint, but gas was nearly as hard to come by as electricity. The floor showed the dark and permanent stains of past interrogations. The building had been the police headquarters of a dozen different regimes for more than a century. Petty thieves, murderers, political agitators--all manner of detainees had been questioned here. But probably none was odder than the Prince of Ithaka. 

As I began to interview the man, I noticed the framed painting on the wall: a lavender sea rolling onto a deserted beach dotted with colorful flowers. An inappropriately cheerful picture for the gloomy chamber. 

At first he was unresponsive, his eyes roaming erratically, his neck twisting in a violent tic now and again. His clothes were shabby, his shoes beyond worn; a hole in the top of one revealed they were also too big for his feet. Many things were scarce because of the war effort but shoes especially so. Nearly all of the material and know-how were used for boots. Apparently at the beginning of the war, the dead soldiers were buried in their uniforms, including their boots. The wastefulness soon became obvious, however, and the newly dead were stripped of their possessions before being interred. There were even rumors that the army had sanctioned grave robbing, that it had encouraged troops to exhume the bodies of the first-fallen for their boots and belts and whatever else was useful. Government officials denied the rumors of course. 

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