Usually the most mysterious stories are stories that can neither be explained nor exposed. If the mystery is solved you instantly lose any interest in it. If you get information about some certainly impossible event, you will look at it with skepticism.
But when there is a puzzle, and some explanation with a lot of doubt, then the mystery of the story will bother you for years and years. And this is the kind of story I’m going to tell you. I have plenty of proof: stories of eyewitnesses, people who could just not make up all of that.
On the other hand . . . the old man was possibly mental with age, and the monk could have had “rum fits.” I think the extraordinary photo that I have is very strong evidence, as well as what I have seen with my own eyes, yet a skeptic would find thousands of explanations why all these events should be counted as nonsense or mystification.
Judge it yourself.
* * *
For me, as for most other people arriving here, N-City started at the local bus station.
Dragging with difficulty my enormous easel, I climbed out of the stuffy bus, took a deep breath of moist salt air, and started making my way through a crowd of old women who were holding signs that read “An Apartment for Rent, Next to the Sea.”
I don’t know what had been written on my face, but I could not get through the throng. They hemmed me in and circled around as if I was a May-Pole. For some reason, they didn’t look at me—instead it was as if there was no me at all and the women were merely having an after-lunch walk.
“An apartment… Next to the sea,” sounded a tinny trembling voice. “All utilities . . . three pieces, immediate occupation,” another old lady echoed with bass. “With a personal phone line, an inexpensive apartment,” a low whisper announced. “Next to a shop.”
I slowed down, hesitating. I truly did need an apartment. A room at least—but a very cheap one and only for three days.
Suddenly my look halted on an old lone man, who was shyly standing aside. “An apartment,” he said quickly and lowered his eyes with a guilty expression. The circulation around me stopped as if by the wave of a magic wand. The old women stood still, waiting.
“An apartment,” he repeated. “Very cheap. Yet not next to the sea, but what a wonderful view, and the air! Not like the air is down here.”
As if to confirm his words, the bus next to me started its engine and tossed a black haze of smog at me.
“Look, it’s there.”
The old man stretched his arm upward and I lifted my head. Along the very steep mountain slopes above were one-store-housed streets full of natural splendor, partly hidden in the greenness of the apricot trees and vine wreathes. From my view the streets looked vertical and I could not imagine how the houses were placed onto the sheer hillside. The labyrinth of buildings crowded one over the other and mixed with steep narrow ladders. And there, almost beyond the clouds, an ancient bastion crowned the mountain. It had gloomy-looking crumbling walls with battlements. The crenellations and merlons looked like teeth, and the machicolations were narrow.
“A Genoa citadel of XIV-XVI century. It has been referred to in the famous book The Journey Beyond the Three Seas by Afanasi Nikitin,” pronounced the old man, sounding like a tourist guide. “You should take a look; it’s very close to my house.”
His fort argument was the last straw. What else could an artist—even a professional one, and not an amateur like me—possibly dream about but sitting up on that hill with my easel. Walking on the Middle-Aged steps. Spending a few days wandering in the maze of the narrow green streets with a wonderful view!
“Let’s go,” I said and the old ladies behind my back let out a sigh of disappointment. We walked out of the plaza and turned into an alley that shot up without any warning. Soon the asphalt road soon ended and became a cobblestone path as I have only seen before in movies, and still we went up. Sometimes along the way we climbed some steps. Up, up, up . . .
A few minutes later I was panting, unable to keep up with my old guide, who walked easily and effortlessly. Obviously he was a local guy and used to this.
At one point we met some Navies and their appearance surprised me. Everybody looked worn out and dirty—the officer and all the privates had red noses, and one private kept asking me for cigarettes until the group passed on.
But I was most impressed by the view of the apricots rolling down along the avenue.
“Tell me,” I asked. “Is it normal that the apricots are on the street?”
“Too much of them,” the old man replied. ” Nothing anybody can do. Every July it’s just like a flood.”
Something rustled above my ear—Smack!—and this beautiful orange ball patted onto the road next to my feet and, jumping on the steps, started its journey towards downtown.
“Oph, finally we’re here!”
The old man pushed open a miniature gate invisible inside a mass of wilting vines and I found myself in a small court in front of a house—very cozy and panoramic. As the court was placed on a steep hillside, it was almost vertical and the cobbled, carefully built steps led in all directions. The diminutive lots of horizontal soil were propped up with moss-covered walls and the ancient court had an appearance of a timberland.
We went into the house where I had the honor to be introduced to my room.
“Here is the verandah”, said my host. “You could not find a better view of the sea. By the way, my name is Sergey Petrovich.”
I stepped out into the verandah. The old man did not lie: the view was magnificent. Down, far beneath me, I could see the city, bristling with the dark arrows of the cypresses and a little bit farther, squeezed by craggy banks, a broad bay stretched for a few kilometers. The water in the bay was spotted; some places were dark-blue, some bright green. The green spots—the sand of the seabed, peeking through the water. The blacks—the underwater rocks and seaweed.
The only thing that hurt my eyes were bunches of military ships lined along the brinks. They were small and big, new and bright-colored, and old and rusted—barges, cargo, and a few other vessels.
“Well,” said the old man, understanding my thoughts. “Our city is small, but it used to be a military base. A few years ago no outsiders could even come here. By the way, do you want some wine? I make more than I’m able to drink.”
I refused politely, and announced my wish to walk to the fortress with my easel.
* * *
The stronghold was simply colossal. It was so huge that I would have to spend months just to sketch all that I wanted. So, even though signs said not to, I pulled out my camera and shot an entire roll of film. Using these photos I could later draw all that I wanted. Afterward I sat on a broken panel covered with mysterious roman letters and, with my pencils, made a few close up drafts of the most impressing views. Buried in the work I barely noticed that evening had come, and when it became dark I went back to the city, tired but satisfied.
I found my way easily because only one street led down—Rocky Street. Not far away from the house where I stayed, I met a group of sailors; a few navy-privates with an officer in charge.
“Hey mate,” the officer called to me.
Honestly, my life experiences told me that in the nighttime you should not answer such a call, but instead get away as fast as you can. But the sincerity in his voice filled me with trust, and I stopped. The officer, a handsome black eyed man, approached me.
“Mate, if you would, don’t go down this street. If it’s necessary, better to take this avenue.” And he pointed to an alley beside us.
“Why?” I asked, eying my night interlocutor.
“It’s dangerous,” explained the officer. “Better to not wander here at night time.”
While we were talking, the navy-privates drew close and stood by us and I was amazed at how they were different from those military sailors I had met earlier in the day. These sailors were dandyish looking, wearing impeccably clean uniforms like some heroes from a movie. The officer had a short sharp-formed beard, and he held a long aromatic cigar. His old-fashioned coat with the stand up collar looked a little out-of-date but impressing, especially with the combination of his fancy belt and revolver.
I read the name of the vessel printed on the cap of one of these navies: Azure.
What a wonderful name for a ship, I thought. How great that they started again, like in the old time, to write the names of the vessels on the cups. In the Soviet time they just wrote “Black Sea Fleet” or even worse. For example, Navy High School, named after the Admiral Nakhimov, printed NHSAN on their uniforms. That had always seemed to me like some kind of abracadabra instead of an abbreviation.
“Thank you for the warning,” I said. “But I’m not going down. I’m home already.”
“Sorry then,” replied the officer. “But if you would like to take a walk, do it at morning, sir, may I suggest.”
“Gotcha,” I answered. “Good night.”
“My honor.” The officer saluted and turned to his people.
Fumbling in the darkness, I got into my room, went to the verandah, and smoked.
“How was the citadel?” the voice of my old host sounded behind the wall.
“Great!” I replied.
“By the way, I forgot to warn you against night walks on our street. Too many hooligans. Did you meet anyone?”
“Only Navies,” I answered.
“Navies? Strange, today’s not a furlough day. And it’s well after “ights-out. Were they privates or officers?”
“A group of privates and an officer.”
“Ah, it must have been a patrol,” said my host.
“No, patrols must have a special bandage on their sleeves. They did not.”
“Then I have no idea… Wanna wine?”
I sat on the verandah and thought that life was interesting. Only yesterday I was in a huge noisy polluted city, going to work on a stuffy city bus, arguing with my boss. But now I felt myself in another dimension. The sea, mountains, Middle-Aged fortress—things around me seemed to have no connection with the everyday world. Especially that young officer who looked like a movie hero. Such polite talk! Like a Count or even a Prince. And the cigar . . .
Suddenly a thought appeared into my mind. Why did he look so different from those navies that I saw before?
“Sergey Petrovich,” I called my host. “Are you sleeping?”
“What is the ship Azure?”
“Azure… A famous ship. I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
“I just wanted to ask, does it belong to Russia or Ukraine?”
“Heh-heh-heh,” a muffed laugh sounded behind the wall. “Why did you ask?”
“Those navies that I met had the Azure name on their caps.”
The laugh behind the wall turned into coughing, then I heard some stuff falling and sounds of barefoot steps before Sergey Petrovich, wearing only his underpants, came on the verandah. I grew cold when I saw his appearance; the old man was as pale as death.
“Are you gonking me?” he murmured. “Are you telling the truth?”
“Yes, what’s the matter?”
“Where were they?”
“Right here, a few steps from the gates.”
The old man leaned through the window up to his waist, and looked down. I glanced as well. Nobody. An empty street.
Exhausted, Sergey Petrovich lowered himself into a wattled chair, mumbling something and wildly moving his eyes like crazy.
“Well, could you explain…” I started.
“Wanna wine?” interrupted the old man.
Sergey Petrovich disappeared somewhere for a moment then returned with a jar of red wine and two glasses.
“Made last year,” the old man explained, pottering about the table. “God bless this drink . . .” he toasted, lifting his glass.
The wine was pretty good. The old man drank two glasses and stared into the night. His eyes slowed, and his cheeks blushed.
“People tell this story,” he started suddenly. “About eighty years ago, during World War One, our city was taken by Germans. Not for long, but still it happened.
“You can see for yourself that the mouth of the bay is very tight. Since almost the complete Russian Fleet was here, the Gerries blocked the bay with a huge armed ship and demanded the Fleet surrender. All the vessels gave in . . . except the Azure.
“It was a submarine torpedo boat. When all the ships showed white flags, the Azure cast off and went underwater in full view of everybody. They did not want to have the shame of becoming prisoners of the Gerries. But there was no escape. The Germans at once blocked the mouth of the bay with a special net against submarines and waited. Azure would have to come up, they had no choice.
“Today a submarine can be underwater for months, but not then—then they could stay under less than a day before they would run out of air. But the Azure did not come up. Two days went by and only a periscope came out sometimes. The third day Azure torpedoed that scurvy armed ship. It went down, sank.
“The Germans got mad. They flooded the bay with military ships, they bombed all around, they used special scanning machines to search for Azure. They mined the mouth of the bay. But Azure did not come up, only its periscope. Later, even that disappeared. The submarine disappeared in the bay forever. Soon the Germans left our city.”
“Sad story,” I said.
“Sad, but . . .” The voice of the old man trembled. “People claim you can see its periscope here in the bay sometimes. When people see it, they say it means either good or bad luck. Depends on the viewer. If it is a good person, he will be lucky for the rest of his life. But if not . . . his life will be short.”
The old man drank more wine and looked thoughtfully into the darkness toward the invisible bay in the dark.
“Do you believe this legend?” I said, breaking the prolonged pause.
“It’s not a question of believing, these are facts. But let’s go to sleep. What if they are listening to us.”
The old man got up and, seeing the look on his face, I realized that he was not kidding. He said good night to me, drank wine again, and left.
* * *
The next day I went down to the city.
Despite the early hours it was very hot. The bay beneath me was still covered with the morning fog. Yesterday’s story stuck in my mind, yet I was thinking about it in a more relaxed way, without the grim impression which had been left upon me by the midnight tale.
My host is simply nuts, I told myself. And a wine-bibber as well. Perhaps he’s ashamed to get plastered all by himself in front of a stranger. He probably says the same story to all his tenants.
Something rustled in the air. Smack! A ripe apricot fell next to me and rolled down along the road.
The day promised to be good.
I wandered around for a few hours, looking for the most famous places of the city. One of them, for sure, was a bar on the sea front named Azure. The sign showed the silhouette of a submarine against the background of the rising moon. Seeing it, I grew confused—does this mean the old man told told me a real story? What if some mystery truly was hidden deep in the bay, peacefully splashing its waves next to my feet?
* * *
I spent that afternoon uphill at the fortress with my easel and with the evening twilight I hurried back home.
“Wanna wine?” was the first thing Sergey Petrovich asked me.
“You have not tasted the REAL wine yet!” he urged emotionally, seeing me hesitate. “Last night was just ‘alley juice,’ but if you would like to check out my cellar!”
He led my to the basement. The cellar was very roomy, and had tall shelves with bottles, flasks and jugs.
“Here!” excitedly rattled my host. “Any that you want! As many as you wish! May I recommend this . . .” He rubbed the dust-stained surface of a bottle. “Cabernet,” he explained. “Nineteen-Eighty-Two. Special, for guests only. Even I, a master, drink it . . . not very often.”
We returned to the verandah.
“How’s your vacation going?” asked the old man, pouring the wine. “Did you swim in the sea? It is better to go to the open part, behind the cape, than to swin in the bay. The water in the bay is turbid.”
A glum wrinkle pleated the skin on his forehead. “Nothing strange has happened to you today?” he asked.
“I mean after yesterday’s event . . . Anything could happen. Take Fedor for an example. Nobody can explain exactly what happened to him, but I overheard something . . .”
He gulped his wine and stared toward the bay.
“Fedor, nicknamed Red Hook, comes from a family of pirates: His mother was a jailbird, his grandfathers were local bandits, and he was imprisoned a few times for heists. He got his nickname as he had no left hand—just an iron hook. People say he lost his hand in a boozy bet while playing cards as a youth. After that he became even worse. When he was dry, he wasn’t too bad, but when loaded—it would have been better not to meet him. Pie-eyed, he bullied everybody he met. And in any fight he would try to get his foe’s face with his rusty hook.
“So, about fifteen years ago something happened to him. Something related with Azure. He got rid of chug-a-lugging off, and now lives in the monastery behind the citadel. Reads a lot, walks nowhere. Nobody knows what happened to him. Gossip says something terrible, like that he saw that submarine next to him . . .
“I’m an old man; I have seen a lot, I can say for sure—and it is a very tough event to change one’s personality.”
The old man stopped and in the silence of the night it was possible to hear the chirp of the crickets. A distant clank sounded from the bay.
“Did you see a square downtown?” my host suddenly asked. “In our city, in the seventies, there was a man, name Zaigralin.”
“Of course, Zaigralin square. I saw a plaque that says, ‘He died a heroic death . . .'”
“Oh, yeah. That Zaigralin was the First Secretary of the City Committee of the Communist Party—and a real bastard. He harassed girls and if any complained, he sent that person to the KGB. He had relatives in the Kremlin, close to Brezhnev’s workers. Every summer they came here for fun.
“One night they got loaded as usual and went for a cruise across the bay. They got a boat, vodka and music, some hoochies. The vessel was great, a motorboat, very speedy. They flew through the darkness, shooting off colorful rockets. Because of the nighttime, the lights were visible from far away. But suddenly—oops! The lights disappeared. And the music stopped.
“About a half an hour later the militaries realized that something bad had happened. They sent a patrol ship with a searchlight, but only pieces of the boat were found floating around. Like a bomb had exploded. No bodies anywhere. They found only one girl—stark naked, and drunk as a skunk. She said the boat had crashed with a surfacing submarine. The submarine had no lights and they saw it just before the crash.
“The KGB started an investigation. The pieces of the boat were inspected and the examination confirmed, yes, it was a collision. But with what? All the ships were in their places. No outside vessel could have come into the bay because the mouth is under control and had an anti-submarine net.
“So the hunt began. The military told the residents that it was a military training event, but everybody knew they were after the Azure. They trailed the bay with nets, used the newest searching equipment, even sent out a helicopter that hung in the air above the water. But in the end that found nothing.
“Everybody else who knows of this story is gone. Most of them moved somewhere—perhaps the KGB did it to avoid the gossips. But I know the story from a warrant officer—he gave an oath not to tell anyone about it but my hooch freed his tongue.
“Well, let’s go to sleep,” he said, adding, “and be careful, just in case.” He left, clinging to the wall as he walked to his room.
From far away, in the murkiness, a ship siren sounded, then muffed clank.
* * *
In the morning, I took my artist stuff and went to the fortress, even though that wasn’t the place that was on my mind. I skirted along the edge of the cliff under the fort, following a twisting path, until, as expected, I reached the local monastery.
It was a small church, built straight into the vertical hillside and speckled with many big and small windows and openings. The cells and rooms had been built inside the rock of the mountain, and, I guessed, were connected with each other with an inner system of steps and corridors.
Next to the church a tall lean man was sweeping the walkway.
“Hello,” I said.
The monk lifted his head, waiting.
“I’m sorry, I heard a man lives here . . . he has no left hand, and his name, perhaps is Fedor.”
“Yes, he’s here,” confirmed the cenobite.
“Could I talk to him?”
The monk shook his head. “He won’t talk to anyone—doesn’t need it. He talks to God.”
“Well, could you tell him I’m here?” Reaching for something else to say, I added, “You know, I’m an artist . . .”
“Ah, an artist!” the cenobite replied, gladdened. “Why didn’t you say so?” He left his broom and disappeared into the church. I stayed outside, suspecting that some misunderstanding had just occured.
Soon the door of the church opened and a man, tall and broad shouldered, came out. About forty-five-fifty years old, he was wearing a cassock. The low part of his face was hidden behind a long thick beard and his long, loosened hair, which reached down past his collar and was speckled with gray, was tossed back. His features were big and roughish, but his expression impressed me the most. His deep look seemed targeted into eternity.
He also had no left hand.
“Where is Vasily?” he asked, looking through me as if I was transparent.
“I beg your pardon . . .”
“Where is Vasily?” repeated the monk. “He promised to bring me new paintbrushes from Simferopol City.” His voice sounded indifferent and no muscle stirred on his face as he looked on something far away behind me. Before I could respond, he started to leave.
“Wait!” I said, recovering my wits. “You misunderstood. I’m an artist, I’m here only for three days. Here, take a look.”
I don’t know why, but I showed him my drafts of the fortress. The monk relented for a moment and browsed my papers.
“Not bad,” he finally said. “I’m an artist myself, but I paint icons. That’s why I thought you were Vasily—he promised me some new paintbrushes because mine are very tattered. Well, if you’ve already dragged me outside, let’s take a seat on the bench. What business do you have with me?”
The bench was a wide stone-lawn seat built straight out of the mountain’s rock. A pellucid creek flowed from the hillside into a little pond below us. A small palm sat on the edge of the pond. Above, on the wall, one could see an ancient relief picture of Saint George.
“I’m very sorry,” I started again, when we were seated. “I’m a tourist, and I’m very interested in your story. Maybe you don’t want to talk about it, but I promise, tomorrow I’ll be gone, and nobody will know a thing.”
“You’re funny,” said the monk softly. “HE sees everything, nothing can be hidden from HIM. Well, what do you want to know?”
“I’d like to know, what is connection between you and Azure? What happened fifteen years ago?”
“Fifteen years ago . . .” It seemed that the cenobite was trying to recall something. “Fifteen years ago Fedor Red Hood died.”
“Died?” I was horrified.
“Yes,” the monk calmly confirmed . “He died. I was born.”
“Ah.” I understood. “So, what happened to Fedor?”
“I can’t be responsible for others.”
I sighed. “I’m really sorry to disturb you. It’s just that two days ago I met a navy officer with a group of a privates . . .”
“An officer with a beard?” The monks came back to reality.
“With a beard.”
“With a cigar?”
“Yes indeed, lad, you have a crystal soul if you’re alive since that event.”
Suddenly his expression changed. His look became bright and thoughtful, and the voice sounded different.
“I was living on Rocky Street, which counts as most dangerous place in the city. You see, the street is placed the way it is as a shortcut from the citadel to the city and the local outlaws use this to their advance. In the summertime a lot of tourists are here; many of them go to see the citadel, and go back when it’s dark. Well, back then I also did that.
“On the night it happened I was boozed, as usual. I heard someone walk toward me and saw a group of navies—an officer and privates, about five or six men. The officer had a beard and smoked a cigar. I don’t remember the others.
“Cock-eyed, I started to call them names. ‘You ninety-day wonders!’ I said. ‘You’re gobs, eh? You’re not sailors, you’re geese! I’m an old salt, as are all my forefathers, but who are you? You sprogs, have no idea what the sea is!’ Stuff like that . . .
“The officer stopped and said to me very politely, ‘You don’t know us, sir, why are you profaning us? Would you like to go with us to our ship? If you’re not afraid of course.’
“He was so polite; he even called me ‘sir’! ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I wanna go! I’m afraid of nothing!’
“We went to the bay, to a very old dock—a dock that was so old no one used it anymor because it was too dangerous. The boards were rotten and many of them were missing.
“Well, as we walked down to this landing pier I saw the submarine. I faltered. I even sobered up for a while. I had known the story about Azure since I was a kid. I felt uneasy. Night, the abandoned dock, my odd escorts . . . I thought, well, men, if you are going to trick me somehow, I’ll get you all, be sure.
“They led me straight onto the landing pier. The boards under my feet were shaking and trembling, the dark water was glistening. The officer was very gallant; he took out a flashlight to show me the way. And he marched with a slight smile, without watching his steps, like on parade. And the privates were not afoot but flying.
“We went to the end of the pier and I saw the name of the submarine. Azure. A ladder with tarpaulin handrails connected the vessel and the moorage.
“I grabbed the tarpaulin, unable make a step. My legs became weak with fear. They gently pushed me forward—’Well, go, mate!’ I stepped to the deck . . . seaweed and seashells covered like a carpet and I feel crabs running under my feet.
“I saw the land start getting farther as the submarine cast off, then my escorts led me to a hatch. The officer told me, ‘Go in, mate. We’ll go down.’ I looked inside the hatch. It was dark as a grave, no lights, and smelt like seaweed. I glanced back. The officer was not smiling anymore. He tossed his cigar aside and put his white deadly cold hand on my shoulder . . .
“I don’t remember how I jumped into the water and headed to the shore. During my swim I swore if I survive I’d start a new life. I’d get a job, I’d finish my education. I’d get baptised for sure, I’d go to church. And when I reached land, I died.”
The monk fell silent. Again his expression changed. His appearance sharpened, and the look became out-worldly again.
“Go in peace, young man. God bless you,” he pronounced in a monotonic voice. “You shall not be afraid.”
He stood up and, moving majestically, went into the church without looking back.
* * *
For a long time I sat on the bench, then very slowly I walked back. Somehow I went to the fortress, and up onto the battlement of the Genoa tower. Standing in a merlon, I looked thoughtfully at the abyss underneath.
Something was going on in my soul—perhaps something like what happened to that monk when he died and was born. Something timeless and wise like these ancient stones.
* * *
Sergey Petrovich met me at home.
“Wanna wine?” Then he paused. “My God! What has happened to you?”
“What?” I asked indifferently.
“You look strange.”
I shrugged and went to my room.
“Well, what about wine?” my old host called after me.
“No, thanks. I’m tired”
* * *
Next day I left N-City. I could finish here, but . . .
A few days later a happening related to this story took place. I printed the film with photos of my voyage. I made big color pictures. One of them shows the bay, spotted with black and green. The black spots—seaweed. Green—the sand of the seabed.
And on one of these green spots it is possible to see the lancet silhouette of a submarine.
Maybe you are surprised, but I was not.