From Specimen. Published by House of Anansi in 2015.
My father, Viktor A. Mishkin, was the keeper of Lenin’s mummy. Yes, the very same Franken-ﬁsh of the Great Communist Chief they still keep on display in the Red Square Mausoleum. Every week there, in a secret chamber, he conducted what he called adjustments, wiping the mummy with hydrogen peroxide, treating its wrinkles with acetic acid, and painting its waxy face with bifonazole. Every six months, his assistants moved the thing to a sterilized room, disassembled its body parts, and immersed all of them in a glass bathtub ﬁlled with glycerin. Yet, despite all attempts to curb life, fungi crept along the mummy’s neck, the skin of its ears turned blue, and brown spots became visible on the pads of its ﬁngers.
Life went on as life always does.
I remember my father as clever. He was also inventive and good with practical things. He ﬁxed refrigerators and cupboards, toilet bowls and mechanical clocks. He was fond of Romantic poets, especially Pushkin, and ﬁne cognac, which he called balsam for the soul. Balsam was the embalming ﬂuid the Russians came up with in 1924. Its exact chemical composition was a state secret my father would take with him to his grave.
Of course, I’d always thought of my father as trustworthy, the sort of man with whom one would not hesitate to go behind enemy lines. But his singular skill, his gift, as my grandmother put it, was people. He’d look at someone, ask them a question, and know their truth. Perhaps that ability came out of his work. Perhaps it was necessary to dissect human beings, to slice into their ﬂesh, before one could begin to understand them.
My conjuror, my mother had called him, Doctor Faustus.
They met in 1964. There was a student production of Doctor Faustus, in which my mother acted the parts of all seven deadly sins. My father was in the audience, smitten, like so many others, with her. During that production, a bull raged on the stage. It was one of those mythological creatures, half beast and half man. After the performance, my father made his way backstage, presented my mother with orchids, which were extremely rare in Russia, and said, “For you, I’ll kill a bull.” After they got married, it became a sort of joke between them. Every year on the anniversary of their meeting, they’d go out to have steaks. I wondered sometimes if thirteen years of tenderloins amounted to a whole bull, in the end.
Although my father had never taken me to the Mausoleum, he’d brought me with him once to his other work. In addition to taking care of Lenin’s mummy, he also chaired the Department of Pathology at the Moscow Medical Institute. I remember the white-tiled room that smelled of disinfectant and the bile-green peristaltic pump. Pink, poisonous-looking liquids scowled through Erlenmeyer ﬂasks. On the table in front of me that morning lay the body of a young girl. She was six, maybe seven, with a blue headband holding her hair back. I was told she’d been hit by a car that morning and died on impact.
One of my father’s assistants had extracted her liver and was weighing it in a tin balance pan. The expression on his face, I will never forget it, shone with absolute awe. He spoke some medical terms into the microphone wire that hung suspended from a ceiling beam. Then he turned to me and, holding out a chunk of liver, pointed to the dark channels inside it, ﬁlled with brown liquid. The child’s tissues were too delicate, he said, too fragile to preserve her hepatocytes.
Nausea ﬂooded me. I lunged toward the window, looking for air, unable to breathe. But my mind was too fast for my body, and my foot slipped on the ﬂoor. I swooned, looking for balance, trying to hold on to something, anything, beating my arms through the air like a child who couldn’t swim. But it was too late. I was falling already. I hit my head on the table on my way down and passed out cold.
“I’d be worried about you if you didn’t feel sick, Verka,” my father said to me that evening at dinner, pausing to sip his borscht from a silver spoon. “But you cannot deny that death is fascinating. No one can wrap their head around it.”
My grandmother, who sat at the table with us, knitting and watching my father with narrowed eyes, leaned forward to get a cube of sugar, lifted it out of the bowl with her ﬁngers, and stuck it under her tongue.
“So speaks the one who was trained to heal the living, and ended up pickling the dead,” she said.