The story about the body they found in the Botanic Garden came out in the newspapers and on television. The Kiev police identified it immediately: Dmitri Belov, reporter and political analyst known for his scathing criticism of President Poroshenko’s administration. Presumably it was a suicide, but until they could confirm this verdict, the police had been ordered to put all resources to work.
Among the underemployed— peddlers and prostitutes— who roamed the Botanical Garden, very few were aware of this. So how was anyone else to find out? They didn’t have televisions and they didn’t spend their money on newspapers. Understandably, those who knew about the body avoided that area. They knew there would have been a commotion, and especially if the body belonged to someone important. The police would go around searching for possible witnesses to interrogate, and by the way, shake them down on other charges. It wouldn’t do any good to explain to the police what they already knew: that every week all of these underemployed people paid a bribe to be left in peace.
Ignorant of everything, three men of approximately 40 years of age, exotic-looking, dressed like Apaches in a Western movie, appeared after 11 in the morning. They were Ernesto Ortega, Gonzalo Acevedo and Milton Guzmán: Mexican, Salvadorean and Venezuelan, respectively. The three of them dressed identically: a headdress of white feathers that went from their heads down to their waists, jacket and trousers of coffee-colored leather with fringe on the sleeves and the back, moccasins, and ritual battle makeup. They carried assorted musical instruments and they took turns playing Andean music: “El cóndor pasa,” “Pájaro Chogüi,” “Moliendo café,” etc. They knew the music did not go with the costumes nor the costumes with their ethnicities, but this strange combination was what worked for them commercially. Americaphilia was at its height in Kiev, and passersby were happy to give money to these “North American Indians” who played the music “of their people.” Perhaps the happy notes of “La flor de la canela” led the Ukrainians to imagine the beauty of life in teepees, among the buffalo, wild horses, mountain lions, and bald-headed eagles. The fact is, in addition to playing and signing, the “Apaches” also sold their CDs of this same music, displayed on a cloth spread on the ground.
After taking the merchandise out of an enormous backpack and making sure the others arranged it as attractively as possible, Milton also took out several sandwiches and bottles of beer. They liked to drink beer before playing. It inspired them, they said.
“Have you tried this one, guys?” The bottles had yellow labels with lettering that emulated Arabic writing.
“Spanish, I think,” Gonzalo asked him.
“Who cares where it’s from,” Ernesto made fun of him.
Using the cement bench as a table, Milton began to serve the beer in disposable cups, while his comrades finished setting up their stand. None of them was surprised to find Western goods in the shops of Kiev. Ever since Yanukovych fell, the Ukrainians avidly consumed whatever came from the West, and so a never-ending stream of things came in, whether gifts from the European Union, exploratory experiments with a view to future integration with Ukraine, or the ever-present contraband that seemed to be the only thing impervious to political change. These were goods that could be found once, for a few days, and then disappear to be replaced by others. So they had to be taken advantage of. The beer looked good: it had a bright color and a slightly fruity aroma that reminded the three Latin Americans of some tropical drink.
In September it was still hot in Kiev, but this year the autumn rains came early. Already clouds were darkening the sky over the Botanical Garden. That made the passersby flee: there were few.
Suddenly they heard footsteps rushing towards them:
“Let’s go. Grab everything,” said a Ukrainian in a feminine voice.
It was Valerya Mutsinova, thief, peddler of pirated-perfumes, occasional prostitute, and friend of these Latin Americans by virtue of sharing the territory.
“What’s up?” Gonzalo asked her, still happy, bringing to his lips his breakfast of a first slug of beer.
“They killed some guy.”
“Calm down.” Ernesto poured a quarter cup of beer and offered it to the girl. “They kill somebody every day in this city.”
Valerya accepted the beer and drank it in one gulp, but she didn’t relax:
“They killed him around here.”
“The police are looking for witnesses.”
At once the men changed their expressions. Quickly they drank down their beer and started to gather their things. Everyone all around the Botanical Garden and Shevchenka Boulevard understood from vivid personal experience why the Ukrainian police were considered the most brutal and corrupt in Europe.
Valerya started to help them with their CDs when, from the corner of her eye, she saw four men walking towards them: two in mufti and two stuffed into the summer uniform of the Ukrainian police: navy-blue trousers and sky-blue shirt.
“Too late,” she said, changing the direction of her movements: instead of picking up the things, she started to set them out.
“They didn’t kill him, he committed suicide,” she murmured. And because she saw that they didn’t understand, and she needed to be sure, she asked them: “You heard me?”
“We didn’t see anything,” Ernesto protested. “Not even…”
Valerya silenced them with an imperious, almost menacing look: “You are going to tell them that he committed suicide.”
“Shtt,” Milton shut them up.
The police were already there.
Ernesto had already been living in Kiev for twenty years. He had arrived as a young man with a scholarship to study in the A. A. Bogomoletz Institute of Medicine in the Soviet Union. It was 1988 and all over the world there were idealistic young people who dreamed of an education in the purest spirit of Marxism, in Moscow, in Leningrad, in Kiev, in Minsk… For him, to be awarded this scholarship was a great triumph. And once he arrived, studying took second place to the excitement of making friends from so many countries, all brothers and sisters in the vision of the future.
Ernesto fell in love with a Ukrainian, and he married her to find that the woman had snared him only to use the certificate of marriage to a foreigner to escape the country. He found himself alone and he felt used and broken and he lost the motivation to keep going to classes. They didn’t expel him from the Soviet Union; ironically, the same document that allowed his wife to leave allowed him to stay. Furthermore, there was no longer a country to expel him: that country ceased to exist and everything turned into chaos.
A little while later, Spain seemed to become a rich country. Many Ukrainians wanted to emmigrate there, and this opened new opportunities for Ernesto right there, in Kiev: he began to give private classes in Spanish.
Once the system changed, life in Ukraine quickly transformed, and especially in the big cities. In only a few years, the appearance of the streets, the houses, and the people had changed so much that, if not for essential things remaining the same, the people who had left the country when the red flags flew would not have been able to recognize their homes. On that very same Shevchenka Boulevard, the most beautiful promenade in Kiev, an underground capitalist-style shopping mall was built, with a McDonald’s and who knows what other shops and fast food restaurants that offered a full meal for 14 grivnas, less than three US dollars. The city opened up to tourism and quickly filled up with shops, restaurants, and stands where one could buy all kinds of souvenirs: flags, watches, flasks, pins, caps, photographs of Stalin and of Gagarin and other relics of the Soviet Union, matryoshka dolls, postcards, etc. That was around 2003, 2004. Now it was not like that. Now, under penalty of jail, to evoke Russia or Communism was prohibited. But fascism was another thing. It was the fashion in the new Ukraine.
And thus, very much like that of Ernesto, were the stories of Gonzalo and of Milton. The three were more than forty years old and they were vagabonds, oftentimes drunk, and they didn’t even play well.
“What’s that?” asked one of the uniformed men.
“Beer,” answered Milton. “Would you like to try some?”
“Isn’t that contraband?” asked the agent, seeing that it was an unusual brand.
“I bought it in the store. If you want I’ll take you there so you can see.”
“Try it, it’s good,” Ernesto invited them.
As his answer, with an expression of triumph, pride in his power, the policeman dumped the cup’s contents onto the ground.
After the customary intimidation— examining IDs and residency permits, backpacks, instruments and merchandise, with the threat of a question, did they have any drugs hidden anywhere—they started to ask questions.
“Answer truthfully and we will not investigate more than necessary.” In the language of the Ukrainian police “investigation” meant “accuse.”
“Were you here yesterday around six in the afternoon?”
“Yes,” answered Valerya immediately, with such firmness that her friends could not contradict her.
“You too, little girl?” One of the uniformed men came close as if to intimidate her with his large body. “Here prostitution is not permitted. On the boulevard…”
“I am not a prostitute,” the girl defended herself. “I sell perfumes.”
“Perfumes? Shall we send some to the laboratory, to see what you have in those little bottles?”
“Don’t waste time in stupidities, “ one of the ones in mufti, apparently the boss, chided him.
“Sorry, sir. It was to establish contact.”
Without a word, the one in mufti set him aside and continued with the same interrogation:
“You were around here then. All four?”
The Latin Americans agreed, not very sure. They were lying and they had no idea why.
“While you were around here, at some moment did you hear or see anything out of the ordinary?”
“I heard a gun shot,” declared Valerya.
“Me too,” Gonzalo confirmed, intuiting that he should follow her.
The policeman turned towards him. “Where?”
“I don’t know, boss. It’s very hard to know where a gunshot comes from, at least for me.”
“Would you say it originated from the area of the Botanical Garden?”
Gonzalo looked at Vaerya sidewise, to see if she could help him in some way. He pretended to be thinking. Finally he answered:
“Didn’t you come close to see what happened?”
“I was afraid.”
“Are you telling the truth?” The policeman did not seem satisfied.
Valerya saw that Gonzalo didn’t know where to go, so she helped him:
“I saw something.”
“A dead guy.”
“How was he?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember. I was nervous.”
The other man in mufti took out a photo and put it in front of her:
“Would it be this one?”
The picture showed a male body face down among the bushes, arms wide to make a cross. The face was not shown, but the right hand held an automatic pistol.
“Yes. That’s him,” she said.
The policeman’s face relaxed. The other one, the one who seemed to be the boss, even smiled.
“Did you see someone nearby?”
“Yes. Someone who could have shot him.”
“No. There wasn’t anyone around here. I suppose he shot himself. He killed himself.”
The other policeman showed another photo: a close up of the face of a man of about 50 years.
“It was him,” he said to the girl. “Do you know him?”
“By sight.” For the first time, Valerya felt the freshness of telling the truth.
“Did you have some…. business with him?”
“He came to Botanical Garden. He came to walk. Sometimes he would sit on some bench and smoke.”
“You never spoke with him?”
“No. He didn’t look like he wanted to talk.”
“Was he depressed, would you say?”
“Yes. I suppose he was already thinking of killing himself.”
The boss smiled again, incapable of hiding his satisfaction.
“For who you are, you’re very smart.”
Valerya did not want to appear offended:
“Maybe it’s because of who I am that I’m smart.”
The boss ignored that comment. He responded with something else, directing himself to the four witnesses:
“You saved yourselves. The officers will take your information.” And he left them there with the two uniformed agents. He and the other agent in mufti turned to leave in the direction from which they came, but he stopped for an instant to offer a warning. “Get out of here. We’re going to be working here and I don’t want any obstructions to the investigation.”
The four friends did as they were ordered. And when they thought they could leave in peace, it turned out that they had to give the uniformed men a bribe, for the trouble they had taken to treat them as if they were decent people.
They left by the boulevard and headed towards the river, the wide and ice-cold Dnieper. Although they had not had problems, a shadow weighed on them. Valerya did not say anything, but she was thinking of the dead man. How many times had she seen that man right here, walking down the beautiful meridien filled with poplars?How many times had she seen him sit on one of the benches and smoke? And nevertheless, she had never spoken with him.
“Why didn’t they question us separately, they way the always do?” Milton, the Venezuelan, brought her out of her thoughts.
“It’s obvious, isn’t it? Because they were in a hurry and they weren’t interested in knowing the truth.”
“So? What did they want?”
“To make us part of their little theater,” she said, almost with resentment. “So we would tell them the guy committed suicide.”
She shrugged. “That’s what they are going to tell the people.”
“Shitty politicians,” Ernesto added.
Valerya paused and then in a tone of complete confidence she pronounced:
“They killed him.”
“The police. The government. I don’t know. Them.”
“That’s what you said when you arrived,” Gonzalo remembered.
“How can you be sure?” Milton asked her. “What if he really did kill himself?”
“No. I saw him here several times. He came here to smoke.”
“He was left-handed: he lit his cigarette with his left hand, and he brought it to his mouth with his left hand. And in the photo that those pigs brought, he had the pistol is his right hand. They planted it there.”
Milton didn’t say more. As answer to everything he knit his brows. He had understood. The others also understood. After all, things were not so different in Latin America.
“OK,” said Valerya, changing the subject. “Can we buy some more?”
“Let’s go,” Gonzalo agreed.
In the distance they could see the illuminated antique buildings of Khreschchatyk Avenue. The wet pavement reflected the lights: it had begun to drizzle.
Agustín Cadena is a Mexican novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, and translator, as well as professor of literature. He is the author of more than 30 books and has contributed to more than 50 publications in various countries. He has been awarded numerous prizes, both national and international, and some of his work has been translated into English, French, Italian, and Hungarian. His books include: Tan oscura (México, Joaquín Mortiz, 1998), Los pobres de espíritu (México, Patria / Nueva Imagen, 2005), Las tentaciones de la dicha (México, Editorial JUS, 2010), Alas de gigante (México, Ediciones B, 2011), Operación Snake (México, Ediciones B, 2013) and La sed de la mariposa (México, FCE, 2014).
C.M. Mayo is the author of several books on Mexico, most recently, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I, Madero and His secret Book, Spiritist Manual, which won the National Indie Excellence Award for History; and the novel based on the true story, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, which was named a Library Journal Best Book of 2009. Her collection of short fiction, Sky Over El Nido, won the Flannery O’Connor Award. Her fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have been widely published in literary journals, among them, BorderSenses, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Paris Review, and Southwest Review. A long-time resident of Mexico City and a noted literary translator, she is editor of Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, a collection of 24 Mexican writers – which includes Agustín Cadena.