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Excerpt from Songs of the Dead

Nika Almost Never Remains On the Table (p. 74)

From chapter "Enemy Territory"

Nika almost never remains on the table. Even when she repeats to him the lines he has made her memorize, even when she groans or screams from the dull or sharp pains he inflicts, she herself is nowhere in the room. She spends more and more time inside her box of memories, with her mother and father and brother and Osip and the land where she grew up. She was, for a time, afraid to bring any of them out, especially Osip, for fear the man would by association contaminate them, but the solution she realized was to not bring out the box for her to hold and open and look at, but instead to leave the box where it was, deep inside, and for her to crawl into it. There she sits surrounded by those she loves as she listens to the distant screams of someone she no longer knows.

This is how she spends her time.


Her bladder brings her back. Her captor—she now knows his name is Jack—has a horror of her bodily fluids, and so periodically uncuffs her, recuffs her hands, and leads her to a toilet in a small room to the side of the basement. He watches out of the corners of his eyes for quick movements as she empties her bladder and bowels and cleans herself. He returns her to the table.

The third time on the toilet, she sees a way out. On the floor, to her left, sticking up behind a canister of bleach and a bottle of vinegar, she sees the handle of a hammer. She pictures herself reaching down—calmly, calmly now—for the roll of toilet paper, then in a flash reaching over the top of the roll and the cleaning supplies to grasp the hammer and in one movement brings it up to smash his face. She sees blood and a broken cheekbone. She sees him stagger, stumble, hit the door jam on his way to the floor. She sees herself on top of him, hitting and hitting and hitting until there is nothing left of him. She pictures this over and over. She figures the distance, the angles. Can she do it?

“Hurry up,” she hears him say.

She reaches for the toilet paper. Her hands linger as she makes up her mind. She is scared. She is too scared. If she tries and fails he will hurt her worse that he already has—if that is at all possible. She will only get one chance. So, she decides, she will prepare herself, watch it again and again in her mind, and next time she will do it.


Allison says, “I remember the moment I realized what an amazing experience it would be to walk out into the world as a male and see the other half of the human species as composed of those you actually welcomed and wanted in your life. Not only were they not a threat (well, not physically anyway), they were desirable. Life and the world was like a playground, something good, something you really wanted to participate in. The contrast was so stark, so shocking, I had to stop thinking about it. My anger was so great, I felt so betrayed by life, by the earth, by god, by everything and everyone, I wanted to disappear. I didn’t want the rage and the hate, I wanted to love, but all women had been betrayed by the very thing that gives life (I mistakenly thought), and their love had been used against them to destroy them. That feeling remained with me for years. It was and is a terrible, horrible, sickening way to live. I have no words to describe it.”

I apologize to her, insofar as you can apologize for nothing you have done personally, but for things done by a group of which you’re a member. She knows of my childhood, of my own rapes by my father, of the terror he inflicted, but we both know it isn’t the same.

It’s different in part because her own father was kind. She often says without a trace of irony that the greatest failing of her childhood was that nothing in it prepared her for the existence of bad men, and for the violence they would later visit upon her. From early on she knew an intimate safety I only discovered after my father left when I was about ten.

On the other hand, I had little to fear from the world at large, which was a far friendlier place than my own home.


Nika realizes there will never be a next time, and she wishes she could go back and do it again, only this time do things differently.

She is not on the table. She is walking along an abandoned road with Osip. It is late at night. The moon is full. It is early spring. Her hand clasps his in the warmth of his coat pocket. She stops and looks down at the shadow of a naked branch as it reaches across the road, sharp, strong, delicate. He stops with her. She can feel his hand. They have never made love. She has never made love with anyone. They walk on. She stops again. It rained earlier, and she can see the moon reflected in a puddle. She looks up through a light haze and sees four stars cradling the moon. “Osip,” she says, and he moves closer, kisses her. She presses her body against his. Their kiss ends. It is late.

“I’ll take you home,” he says.

She nods, does not take her eyes from his face. In the distance she hears the first tentative frogs of spring.

“I’ll take you home,” he says again.

They walk, her hand holding tight to his, deep in his pocket.

“Ja hochu idti domoy,” she says.

Jack looks at her.
“Ja hochu idti domoy.”
“Speak English.”

“I want to go home.”

She’d realized when he’d walked into the basement that he wasn’t going to uncuff her, that she would never get that chance to hit him with the hammer. She’s not sure how she’d known, but she’d known almost immediately. It might have been the slightly slower pace she’d heard coming down the stairs, or later, when he’d stood over her, the slightly tighter grip he’d held on his knife. His shoulders were more set, and he’d looked at her in a way she did not understand, and at the same time understood too well.

It’s all over.
“I want to go home,” she says.