Fiction
Fiction

Klodt's Horses

Mikhail Iossel


One day, many years ago, in another lifetime, a friend told me that the sculptor Peter Klodt, author of the famed four-part Horse-Tamer composition gracing the Anichkov Bridge in the heart of Leningrad/St. Petersburg and serving perhaps as the city’s most iconic image, had etched into the scrotum of one of those majestic four horses the facial features of the politically powerful man who had cuckolded him with his wife. I was quite impressed by that bit of information—the sheer impotent ingenuity of the purported artistic gesture in question.

 

A few days later, strolling along the Nevsky in the company of another friend—both of us being in a somewhat inebriated disposition and, consequently, the most inquisitive of spirits—I recalled it and suggested we walk over to the Anichkov Bridge and check out the horses’ private parts.  

 

So we did, without a second’s delay.

 

There we stood, then, swaying slightly in thoughtful silence, at the edge of the ceaseless human flow, in front of the first man-horse duo we’d come upon in our southbound progress, peering up into the giant horse’s scrotum from as close a distance from it as the front of its massive granite pedestal afforded us. Staring intently and for a protracted length of time at the horse’s scrotum with my head thrown aback eventually made me feel dizzy.

 

“I don’t see any face in there—do you?” I said to my friend. He shook his head in the negative: “Nope. Nothing. No face.”

 

“Let’s check another one?” I suggested.

 

We moved over to the second of the four sculptures, on the other side of the bridge.

 

There we stood again, swaying and rocking to and fro, and hiccupping under our breath, as we stared with utmost intensity, feeling vaguely nauseous, into the second horse’s crotch area.

 

“I think I’m beginning to see something,” my friend said uncertainly, at length. “Yes, definitely... There, see? The nose, the moustache, the curved chin...”

 

“Yes, me too,” I concurred. “Oh man, that’s exciting!”

 

Indeed, all of a sudden, I was looking at the small, rodent features of a mustachioed man with tiny eyes and broad flat nose and...

 

At that instant, our reverie was interrupted by the local militiaman who, apparently, had been watching the two of us for some time.

 

“Young men, what exactly do you think you’re doing here?” he addressed us, approaching from behind and tapping me on the shoulder.

 

“Oh, not much,” I stammered. “Just, you know, enjoying the timeless artistic genius of the...”

 

“I’ll tell you what you’re doing,” he went on with a dismissive wave of a pudgy hand. “I’ve seen the likes of you here too many times to count. You’re trying to find in horse’s gonads the face of that guy supposedly slept with Klodt’s wife. Ha! Such foolishness! Who only ever starts these idiotic rumors! There’s no face, young men! Unless, that is, you want to convince yourself something’s there which isn’t, in which case, that’d be your own mental problem: your over-active imagination and proneness to hallucinations. All right, let’s move on, young men. I can see you’ve had quite a bit to drink. Just go home, if you want my advice, or you’ll get yourself in some sort of trouble before too long.”

 

For some reason, I felt bitterly disappointed and upset by his words. It was as though a beautiful white pigeon had just died right before my eyes. Such lovely apocryphal tales of transforming the essentially base emotion of jealousy into a hidden symbol of inherently ennobling and love-driven art don’t come along all too often. “Are you sure, comrade militiaman?” I said, in a tremulous voice. “Do you know this for certain—that, for instance, his wife never cheated on him?”

 

“For certain, I don’t even know whether my own wife’s cheating on me or not,” the militiaman replied with a wistful smile of quiet wisdom. “As far as I’m concerned, Klodt’s wife might’ve been cheating on him with the entire cavalry regiment of the Winter Palace guards. What I’m telling you, though, is that these here horses’ gonads have been inspected numerously and over a long period of time, by the most authoritative Tsarist-Russian and later Soviet historians and other arts specialists, as well as the high-level Party officials, specifically on the subject of dispelling those very pernicious rumors—because you know this is a goddamn slippery slope: Today you’re looking for some random and long-dead horny dude’s mug up in there, the obscene secret place of this particular sculpture, and tomorrow, before you know it, someone will be searching for some other person’s face, a much more important person’s, I don’t even want to speculate on who that might be, and looking for it in some other secret hidden place, up in the folds of some other horse’s gonads, because there’re thousands of horse sculptures in this city, as you know, and lots of deranged individuals just waiting for the opportunity to make fun of our, not to mince words, political leadership—and guess what. Long story short: no face. No face. In the case of these here horses. No face... Which stands to reason, too, in terms of being the way it should be.” He chewed his lip, lost in thought momentarily, twirling lightly the makeshift iron truncheon is his hands. “If you’re a man, a real man, and your wife has gone astray with someone you know, or don’t know personally but know how to locate him, maybe because you can’t get it up, you know, or don’t make enough money or something like that, or for some other reason or without a one—well, you know how this can come about, we’ve all been there—well, instead of hiding the bastard’s face up in the folds of bronze horse’s gonads, like a goddamn coward and pathetic loser, you should just be a man and up and beat the hell out of him. Just beat him to a bloody pulp... To a bloody pulp!” he repeated with pleasure, clearly relishing the taste of that energetic phrase on his tongue. He slapped the flat of his palm with the hefty truncheon in his other hand, with a juicy, meaty sound. “Or else you just jump him from behind, unexpectedly, and start strangling him, and keep on strangling while maybe simultaneously gnawing at his throat, his main artery, with your teeth, until he’s completely dead, the worthless piece of shit, and falls sagging to the floor like a sack of flour! Yes! That’s what you do!.. And if—well, if you can’t beat him to a bloody pulp or strangle and chew him up to death by yourself, because you’re too weak or too cowardly or something, you pathetic little worm, then you just pay someone to do that for you! That’s what you do, you sonofabitch! It takes but five minutes to find someone to do it for you, and for a very reasonable sum, believe you me, if you know where to look for the right person! Bastards! Bastards! That’s what a real, manly man would do!”

 

He seemed quite angry now, all of a sudden. His face had acquired the unhealthy hue of an undercooked beetroot. His breathing was like a storm in a bathtub! He was gazing off into the distance, at something indeterminate yet located high above our heads. He looked more than a bit crazy, in other words—and for a moment I thought he might not have been a militiaman at all, but rather some deranged individual dressed up as one. But then I swept away my doubts on his account. He was, of course, the real deal, the genuine article: the state-sanctioned defender and guarantor of our safety and security.

 

Quietly, with as little visual fanfare as possible, my friend and I had removed ourselves from his immediate presence, resuming our unsteady walk in the general direction of the coffee-and-cognac place, nicknamed “Cafe Saigon,” at the corner of the Nevsky and Vladimirsky Prospects—our original destination—where the city’s artistic-underground types congregated in large numbers on the daily basis. There we were going to find all the love and understanding we needed, not to mention coffee and cognac and cheap red wine.

 

"Hey, listen,” I said to my friend, after a minute or so of walking in silence. “I’ve just thought of a good opening sentence for a short story: ‘Life is both simpler and more complicated than it is.’ What do you think?”

 

“I think it sucks,” he told me bluntly—and after a moment’s consideration, I had to admit he was right.

 

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Photo by K. Pleita

 

Leningrad, USSR-born Mikhail Iossel, the founder and executive director of the Summer Literary Seminars International programs (www.sumlitsem.org) and professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal, is the author of Every Hunter Wants to Know, a collection of stories (W.W. Norton) and co-editor (with Jeff Parker) of the anthologies Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States (Dalkey Archive, 2004). and Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia (Tin House, 2010). His stories have been published in literary magazines in the US and abroad, translated in several foreign languages, and anthologized in Best American Short Stories and elsewhere. He is the recipient of the Guggenheim Foundation and NEA fellowship, among other awards.

 

This story was published in Issue 10 of The Literarian