Fiction: Peter and His City
By Robert Pettus
Every night at midnight, the purple clouds came out to dance with the blushing sky. I watched them from my thirteenth-floor balcony, the floor of which was soft and porous as if to at any moment collapse, sending me crashing to the twelfth and then eleventh floors all the way skull-cracking to the hard concrete of the narrow street below.
I lived in the city—the old capital, St. Petersburg—always sunny at this time of year, even at midnight. The sun shone through at midnight, at three in the morning, at five, at six. In the summer the sun never set—the earth tilted on its axis just so, to spin continuously as if on a kebab-spit against the heat of the solar grill.
“Maybe a meteorite will season us up real good and some inter-galactic deep-space creature can have a nice lunch.” I thought cynically to myself.
The sun always beat. I would close the thick curtains when I needed a break but between the cracks in the middle would still shine that allegedly eternal source of light and energy.
I liked it, sometimes. I liked it now, watching the clouds split and shift in color as the sky provided light for their drama.
I squinted at them, shielding my gaze with the visor of my flattened palm. They posed as if in recognition.
I put on my clothes and walked out the door, throwing a small bag of trash down the clunky, noisy chute as I made my way down the decrepit hallway.
The elevator dinged. The door sprung ajar. It wobbled along its track as it made its way downward to the first floor. Upon exiting I saw sitting inside the small receptionist’s window in the foyer Agata, who removed the blind of her Pravdanewspaper and looked to me.
“Privet. Dobroe Utro.”
I greeted her in return before pushing the button which unlocked the front door and stepping out into the endless, giant boreal sun.
The alley behind my building was noisy with cars parking; parents, nannies, or private drivers exiting and escorting children through the metal gates of the language school behind my building where students took summer classes. I was a teacher there but today I was off—a free man.
I looked to a nearby tree; tall, though still dwarfed by the towering dense Soviet architecture which filled the outer edges of St. Petersburg; the type of ugly residential architecture you can’t build in the city center—too big and clunky for the luxury of Romanov history—but which filled the outskirts of the city like a collected, trampling horde.
The clouds danced. They didn’t look to require manipulation. They shouldn’t ever need manipulation, but times were getting dire. The world was becoming too dry; the atmosphere was outmanned in its battle against the continuous encroachment of space-stuff.
Gravity, as if in alliance with the environment, was somehow also failing. Supposedly inanimate object had been reported as doing unnatural things, moving impossibly.
I couldn’t believe it.
But no, that’s not quite right. Gravity has no team. It doesn’t care who succeeds and who fails. It only exists. It can’t fail.
The apathetic, eternal existence of gravity had unfortunately shifted in such a way that it was threatening our human existence rather than fostering it, that was the only explanation.
That’s more correct.
I looked to the clouds. They danced a purple trepak in the sky.
I walked across the highway. I needed to get to the Alexander Garden, where I was meeting a student for weekend tutoring, my side-job. Why Dima still cared to learn English I wasn’t sure, but I respected him for it. He continuously pursued an education even when the world outwardly told him it was pointless. He learned things simply for the joy of education. Learning about the world made him feel more comfortable existing within it; made him somehow more at peace with the planet’s inevitable demise.
I needed to get to the metro.
The doors of the train slammed shut at Novocherkassskaya station, heading northward toward Nevsky Prospect station—outside Kazan Cathedral—from where I would walk the rest of the way. It wasn’t the closest station to the Alexander Garden but I enjoyed walking Nevsky Prospect. I imagined myself a brooding, anxious Dostoevsky; a wild-eyed, manic Gogol; an emotional, theological Tolstoy; a theatric, charismatic Pushkin.
A situation more similar to those described by the brothers Strugatsky was more likely, these days.
I wasn’t any of those greats but that’s why I walked down the avenue. Pretending made me happy.
I was early. Passing the bench at the garden where I normally met Dima I then paced to the Bronze Horseman, that towering statue atop the Thunder Stone. Peter, sitting as he had done since being petrified there in 1782. He stood confidently astride his mount while gesturing boldly across the Neva. He would mold this swampy place into a regal metropolis; he would shape the world in his image – the Venice of the north.
I placed my hand upon the stone. It was cold, as if the lingering chill of the lengthy winter had yet to subside. The breeze brushed past, blowing into my face up my nostrils. I inhaled; the crispness was cleansing.
“Hey!” came a lethargic, guttural voice from behind. It was Dima. I turned to meet him; he was sitting on the bench where we usually communed.
“Shouldn’t we go somewhere inside today?” I said, “Maybe that Shokoladnitsa around the corner? I could use a cappuccino. And just a warm environment. It’s strangely windy today.”
“Ah, fuck that,” said Dima. “It’s just gusts from the Gulf of Finland because of this stormy weather. You saw those clouds, didn’t you? It’s summer—it’ll warm up soon. It’s a beautiful day, regardless. We should enjoy beautiful days while we still can, before the winter and darkness inevitably come back.”
He wasn’t wrong about that. Weather preferable for the human animal—or any earth-born animal, for that matter—was becoming rarer and rarer, especially in extreme locations like the Arctic Circle. By continuing its existence, St. Petersburg was rebelling against the nature of reality itself.
“You’re right,” I responded finally. “Let’s stand over here in front of Peter, next to the river.”
We walked to the bars of the fence separating the order of Peter’s Square from the chaos of the continuously trudging blue Neva, which had in recent years become more disobedient; its canals regularly rising and flooding the streets of the old capital.
“You know this statue lives, right?” said Dima.
“The spirit of Peter the Great resides within it. It has been documented coming to life. It stalked a man named Eugene. Pushkin wrote about it. Don’t anger the statue—it lives. It watches you. You can see it in its eyes.”
I turned and looked back at the statue, suddenly fearful. I looked it in the eye but saw nothing. Dima noticed my sudden sense of anxiety.
“It’s true!” he grinned, “Peter leapt from atop the thunder stone and chased Eugene through the streets of the city, down Nevsky Prospect. No one saw what happened to Eugene, but Peter found him—oh yes he did! He must have! Eugene’s body was discovered perished, swollen; floating out in river; out deep in its middle nearer to the island of the Peter and Paul Fortress. He probably fell into one of the canals, dumb bastard. That kind of thing happens sometimes. Too much vodka and icy, slippery streets; not enough railing.”
Snapping out of my brief hypnotism, I turned from the statue:
“You ready to study some English?”
“Yes, sir!” belted Eugene, sarcastically saluting me.
We were practicing primary and secondary stress in multi-syllable words. Dima, like many other English students, had trouble recognizing which syllable was stressed when listening. He just needed to train his ears, that was all.
“I really don’t like this bullshit,” said Dima after listening to noun-suffix words like information, congregation, and suffocation.
“It’s not that hard,” I responded, slightly flustered, “You remember what a syllable is, right?”
“Yes. A syllable is a vowel sound in a word.”
“Right. So the primary stress in these words is applied to the syllable preceding the suffix.”
“I understand that, I just don’t hear it.”
“Well. It takes practice. Your ears need to adjust to the English language.”
“My ears are fine. My mouth is fine. If I speak like Russian—I speak like Russian! Who cares, anyway? You can understand me, Da?”
“Yes, I understand.”
“Then this listening exercise is unnecessary.”
Dima clearly annoyed, I decided to end the lesson early.
“So,” I said, “Why don’t we stop the English for today and you can tell me about this haunted statue.”
“It’s true! I don’t need to tell you. Go to the bookstore and buy The Bronze Horseman, by Pushkin. It will tell you all you need to know.
When we departed I did just that.
X X X
I sat slouching like a crazed miser over the splintery wooden desk in the single room of the hostel where I paid monthly rent. The Bronze Horseman had me transfixed. How had I missed this one? I had seen the statue; I had read Pushkin. I considered myself a literature junky yet I had never gotten around to this one. Poetry, even narrative poetry such as this, interested me less than prose; that was the reason. That’s what I told myself, at least.
I looked out the window to the quiet alley below. Long, gangly, white-barked trees shook, creaking in the wind. A stray cat meowed and leapt atop a red Lada car from the Soviet 80’s, sitting atop the hood and curling itself into a comfortable ball.
I envied the cat.
I dove back into the poem.
Eugene went mad. He cursed the statue. Eugene’s curses brought Peter and his horse to life.
I leaned back in my rickety old green-cushioned chair, looking up to the prickly white, textured ceiling. Old stains from water damage slithered across its surface like a dirty sky-river.
I arose from my chair. I looked out the window, downward to the cat. It was still sleeping.
“I have to curse the statue,” I said aloud to no one.
The cat, having seemingly understood, arose and looked up to me, opening its mouth, baring its teeth and glaring in aggression.
“I have to,” I said. I left my room, pushing through the narrow, withering dirty hallway out into the interior breezeway, out the door and into the developing evening.
X X X
A drizzling rain had begun. Dust and dirt, once coating the sidewalks and streets like encrusted clay, was washed away as the air felt suddenly fresher and more alive. Crowds paced Nevsky Prospect. I stopped at a Shokoladnitsa and grabbed that latte I had wanted earlier, stirring in the sugar as it sat in a pile of crystalline glimmer atop the cloud-like foam inside the steaming cup.
Pacing through St. Isaac’s Square I turned and gazed up at the golden-domed regality of that cathedral so remnant of the Romanov past. I turned and saw the statue of Nicholas I, half-expecting him to also spring to life and chase me into the river. He didn’t, though—no animism had yet been documented in this humanoid stone. Nicholas sat mounted upon his horse somehow more commanding than Peter. He looked like a general—more strategizer than warrior—whereas Peter appeared amidst the fog of war, betwixt the creation of country. If Nicholas I were Marcus Aurelias, Peter the Great was Alexander, King of Macedon.
I turned from the statue and paced through the rain past the towering cathedral. Looking to the right I saw a couple of blocks away the eggshell green walls and white columns of the Winter Palace. Rain spritzed my face. I finished my now chilled coffee and tossed it into a nearby bin.
The thunderstone was in view.
Thunder struck; lightning flashed, illuminating briefly the figure of Peter astride his mount before again hiding him within the lingering mist and shadow of the night which was now fully dark.
“I curse you,” I said to myself, only whispering. I was practicing for when I arrived at the statue.
When I finally did arrive at the thunderstone, however, Peter was gone.
X X X
Dumbfounded, I climbed atop the cold stone and began shuffling around like a buffoon. Startled, I then arose – still sitting atop the pedestal as if its new, hilarious feature – and glared around the square looking for Peter. I looked to see if anyone had noticed; I wanted someone else—anyone—to participate with me in this impossibility.
The stone was wet; it was cold and empty. My mind always wandering, I couldn’t help but think of the jagged cracks upon its surface and how the stone was allegedly in the past split by lightning. I couldn’t help but ponder the 400 peasants who removed and dragged that cyclopean rock for nine months upon a sled from its place wedged in the dirt near the gulf as the Empress Catherine looked on, her imperial highness the approving architect. She had wanted herself compared with this man, Peter; with this ghost—she, too wanted to be Great.
I looked to the swirling black of the Neva. There was nothing. Lightning again alit the sky, illuminating in the distance the towering spire of the shadowy shape of the Peter and Paul Cathedral. That’s where Peter would be; I knew it. He would make to join the rest of his family. Perhaps he would also desire to gaze upon the resting place of his bodily form.
I slid from the top of the stone and stumbled somehow drunkenly across the Admiralty toward the Palace Bridge. I had to get there before it was raised for the night. Retrospectively I know I should have hailed one of the many Yandex cabs speeding past but I was for some reason averse to arriving at the cathedral by motored transportation. Perhaps I thought subconsciously that Peter would overtake the vehicle on the road, making me responsible for the death of an honest driver. Regardless, I made it to the bridge in time.
I made it to that island which since the genesis of the city has served as its central defense. The statues there too were thankfully still petrified. I sat the bench next to Peter’s humanoid rabbit, who lounged with his left leg atop his right thigh giving a confident peace sign to passersby.
It was dark.
I sat momentarily baffled next to that statue of Peter’s rabbit, who sported a coat similar to his Great namesake, though no pants. His large feet extended outward from the muddy ground; it had again started to rain.
“Where would Peter go?”
I put my arm around the rabbit, thinking it might somehow attract the Bronze Horseman. It did no such thing. No one was around to see, but it still made me feel stupid.
I arose and stared between the fingers of the rabbit’s peace sign.
Though nothing was there at first, I then suddenly in my periphery saw in the distance a shadowy flash.
I pulled myself away from the rabbit’s fingers as if it were the lens of a telescope, myself its viewer horrified at what I had seen out in the blackness of eternal space.
I then trudged forward toward the towering cathedral.
The great wooden double doors at the front of the place were locked. I knocked, for some reason thinking some white-bearded presbyter may open and jovially usher me out of the rainy night. I should have known better; a major tourist attraction isn’t a traditional church which may stay open at all hours of the night. I banged my fist against the wood in frustration.
“Kto eta?” I heard from somewhere distant.
“Shit,” I thought to myself, seeing in my periphery a police officer, his black and red uniform at first hiding him within the dark of the night. He stepped out from aside the coarse trunk of a large nearby tree.
“Stop!” he exclaimed, pacing toward me. His English pronunciation was broken but I still got the point. I knew he would catch me; I knew I would have nowhere to go. Instinctively I removed my phone from my pocket and called Dima.
“Allo?” he said groggily upon answering. He had obviously been sleeping.
“Meet me at the Peter and Paul Cathedral,” I said. “The police are after me. They saw me beating at the door. I might need help.”
“Why you beating at door?”
“I wasn’t thinking. I shouldn’t have.”
“Why you all the way over there? Bridge closed. I may not be able to get there.”
I looked to the tree. The officer was now only a few paces from me. He appeared casual, as if excited at some sort of action in the otherwise monotony of his nightly shift.
“Just try your best,” I concluded.
“Da, konechno. I will. Do Skorovo, maybe.” Dima hung up the phone.
“Stop,” said the officer again in that thick accent. I stopped.
“What you do here in nighttime?”
“I thought the cathedral was open at all hours. In my country churches are open at night in case people need to pray. I’m sorry. I was frustrated.”
That wasn’t at all true, but I needed a good story.
“Why you hit door?”“I was frustrated. I’m sorry.”
The police officer began enclosing and again opening the palm of his black-gloved hand, each time his fingers lifted flipping beaded rainwater outward and spraying me. I blinked rapidly in continuous annoyance.
One thing I had been told before I moved to Russia was to avoid giving passports to cops at all costs. I hadn’t thus far in my stay experienced any overt corruption, but this persistent advice was nevertheless stuck in my mind.
I lived in Putin’s Russia; the stain of corruption had seeped into everything, right?
I would later in life come to the certain falsity of that assumption, but at that point I had no idea; I only trembled from both fear and from the wet of the cold spritzing rain.
I looked to the officer; he met my gaze, seeing within it my intention. I had no time to lose. I turned and darted away, past the towering Peter and Paul cathedral toward the river. Looking left I saw in the distance the domed blue roof of the St Peterburg Mosque, the wall of its qibla facing southeastward toward that distant desert city of Mecca.
I sprinted to the bank of the Neva.
The air was blackness. I sheltered behind a bulbous bush gently rustling in the breeze blowing upward off the river. Looking through the branches of the foliage I saw distant the now confused police officer. He wouldn’t look around very long—there was no reason. He didn’t care about me; he only wanted my money. Time is money, and he would waste no time tracking me—a random tourist—down.
From behind I then suddenly felt a hard, bruising push. I fell into the bush.
Turning, I saw standing above me the Bronze Horseman!
Rain pelted the metal of its hard exterior. The horse breathed, fog somehow expelling from within its quivering wide nostrils.
I tried to scream but my voice had nothing to say.
I looked atop that colossal mount, seeing astride it Peter, his hulking figure though miniature head glaring down at me in nefarious elation. The small size of his cranium somehow made the entirety of his spectral person further horrifying, as if he were some sort of alien.
I scrambled away, backward like a startled crustacean. It was no use; the bush blocked me. I fell into it, the pillow of its leaves providing small comfort amid the chaos of this sudden apparition.
A car horn blared. I turned. Out from within a suddenly parking vehicle strode Dima. He made his way toward us.
The Bronze Horseman paid no notice. Peter’s beast leapt, crashing down into the damp mud and grass and jumping again, the indent of its hooves so clearly implanted as if to communicate its potency to crush skull.
I rolled onto my belly, crawled around the side of the bush, arose, and sprinted frantically like a child toward Dima.
The horse gave chase, making up the distance and overtaking me. Instead of crushing me, however—or entrapping me—it instead leapt over me, through the air and atop Dima’s pale blue, withering old sputtering car.
The vehicle couldn’t handle the force of the horse. It was mashed instantly like a pot of over-boiled potatoes, its windows shattering and tires popping.
Gas began leaking to the street below.
The Bronze Horseman again leapt; Peter astride his mount pointed skyward as if calling down a celestial air-strike. Thunder rumbled; lightning flashed and struck the pooled gas. Dima and I were thrown backward by the force of the blast, back toward the bank of the Neva. The fire began spreading somehow even against the beating rain as if to soon consume the city.
Peter looked to me. The horse galloped forward, its bronze hooves imprinting on the concrete road, cracking its surface. I ran to the river, falling to the wet grass and mud. Dima did the same. The horse overtook him but did not harm him, instead gesturing away as if to shoo him. Dima obeyed, sprinting into the dark night, his shadow soon disappearing behind a collection of trees in a small park, the St. Petersburg Mosque the only elevated light standing distant behind him.
Peter again looked at me. I crawled away, the wet mud preventing rapidity in my pace. The Bronze Horseman stood in front of me regally, the fire spreading and the city burning behind him. In no time at all would the flames engulf the Peter and Paul Cathedral. Would they cross the water—over the island and into the city proper? Surely not, I thought, but my sense of logic had many times this evening been destroyed.
I gazed up at the bronze rider. He somehow grinned at me before charging forward, crashing into me.
I absorbed the impact; my bones were somehow not broken—he did no immediate physical damage. I was instead thrust forward by some invisible force as if that stone horse had instantaneously become ghostly. This specter pushed me deep into the continuously trudging Neva, down and down further until liquid filled my lungs and I could no longer scream out.
In what I were my last moments I saw above the surface of the now distant water flames spreading somehow across it as if to invade the Winter Place on the river’s other side and consume the entire city.
Suddenly, a limb reaching into the water snagged me and pulled me toward the surface. Breaking the plane of the water’s surface, I saw Dima struggling to stay afloat while holding on to me. He spat water into my face involuntarily. I kicked my legs, though I was still so weak, trying to help him in any way I could. My friend had saved me, at least temporarily, from the Horseman’s curse.
Looking across the city back toward the city, I saw The Bronze Horseman leaping like an Olympian ghost across the entirety Palace Bridge on his way to storm the Winter Palace; to take back his city.
Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia. He was most recently accepted for publication at The Horror Zine, Allegory Magazine, The Horror Tree, JAKE magazine, The Night Shift podcast, Libretto publications, White Cat Publications, Culture Cult, Savage Planet, Short-Story.me, White-Enso, Tall Tale TV, The Corner Bar, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Schlock!, Black Petals, Inscape Literary Journal of Morehead State University, Yellow Mama, Apocalypse-Confidential, Mystery Tribune, Blood Moon Rising, and The Green Shoes Sanctuary. His first novel, titled Abry, was published this spring by Offbeat Reads. He lives in Kentucky with his wife, Mary, and his pet rabbit, Achilles.