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Kirill Finkelshteyn
In a wrong body. The secret life of Nicolai de Raylan.
Moscow: IDRIS publisher.  2021; 416 p. 16+


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    August 27, 1893

   Yesterday we celebrated Charlie's birthday. Anna, Lulu, and I gathered with the guest of honor in his cramped little room on Madison Avenue. After a couple of bottles of champagne, everyone was in a splendid mood. Charlie and I spouted daring witticisms, and our lady friends, in their relaxed state, responded to these with peals of laughter and not a shadow of embarrassment. From the telltale glances passing between the birthday boy and Lulu, it was evident that things had been going well between them for a while now, and only my and Anna's presence was keeping them from acting on their fervent amorous feelings. I was about to bow out and take my sweetheart with me so as not to encroach on the lovers when suddenly Lulu announced that she urgently needed to step out for a couple of hours and hoped that Charlie would keep her company—and casting a conspiratorial glance at Anna. The couple quickly darted out the door before I could react.

   As I frantically tried to think of a way to escape the situation with honor, Anna walked over to the window and drew the curtains in a businesslike manner. Then, while regarding me with a long, piercing gaze, she sat down on the bed, took out her hairpins, and shook her head so her blonde-brown hair fell like a golden tapestry over her shoulders and high bosom. I had never seen my lady friend act so brazen and straightforward before. What happened to the modest girl from an upstanding Jewish family that she'd been mere moments before? All my previous romantic gestures toward her had gone no further than grand pledges, holding hands, and brief kisses; but it was clear that Anna was expecting more decisive action. Yet I do not need any passionate embraces and amorous moans. The most important thing for me is not possession of a woman's body but of her heart and soul. I enjoy the process of conquest itself: a subtle game of truth, half-truth, and fiction. But this time, it seemed, I had let the game go too far.

   To break off the long pause, I sat down next to Anna, who was trembling with anticipation. I couldn't shower her with a "golden rain" like Zeus did to Danaë, so I hugged her around the shoulders and began to whisper love poems in her ear—Pushkin ("The Night"), Nadson ("To Love is to Yearn Endlessly"), Apukhtin ("Crazy Nights, Sleepless Nights"), and little verses I composed myself ("Pick that Little Flower and Think of Me"). After twenty minutes of this, my poetic reserves were starting to run dry, and Anna was pressing herself closer and closer, to the point that I could feel the rapid beating of her ardent heart from beneath her impressive, corseted bosom.

   I had begun to consider telling some lie about having been struck by a dangerous illness that had made intimacy with a woman temporarily impossible when suddenly a clap of thunder reverberated outside the window and heavy rain began to drum on the roof. Anna evidently decided that the right moment had come and began to busily unbutton her taille, exposing the white corsage below...  Luckily for me, just then came a loud knock at the door. Presently I unlatched it, and Charlie and Lulu burst into the room laughing and soaked to the bone. They apologized profusely for interrupting our time alone, but Lulu, whose health was fragile, needed to change her clothes and get warmed up as soon as possible.

   Noticing the undone buttons on Anna's taille and the slightly rumpled bedding, Charlie gave a sly wink and clapped me on the shoulder approvingly, filling my heart with the pride of a Don Juan.

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September 13, 1893

   I struck up a conversation with one of the carpenters, Vasily, brought in to install the Russian pavilion. He stayed to earn some extra money during the exhibition by working as a servant in the manufacturing pavilion. Vasily is a hereditary carpenter from Novgorod, in America for four months now, and he deeply misses his homeland. He distinctly dislikes everything here: neither the people, nor the food, nor the customs, nor the climate. When I pointed out to him that you wouldn't find anyone drunk on the streets in America, he flatly stated that there are no drunks here because vodka is terrible

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November 12, 1893

   For the second night in a row, I cannot sleep, struggling through the book’s Latin terms, which conceal an abyss of human vices and depravities behind their scientific exterior. It’s only with the help of a Latin dictionary “borrowed” from the publishing house some time ago that I started to understand the real meaning of such terms as gynandry, tribadism, hermaphroditism, flagellation, hyperesthesia, and cunnilingus. Regarding sodomy, sadism, masochism, homosexuality, lesbianism, masturbation, nymphomania, and incest – I had had my suspicions earlier. But what’s the use of understanding all these scientific terms, of realizing that there are other people in the world like myself if the book doesn’t give a direct answer to the most intimate questions that I can’t fully entrust even to my diary, even though I am sure no one will read it during my lifetime. Who am I? Why was I born like this? Why must I spend my only God-given life in the cage of the wrong body? How can I flee the cage and live free without fearing discovery, which would force me, in the best case, to run away to a new uncertain future, and at worst, spend my remaining days in prison or a madhouse?

   The author is correct in saying that there are Amazons who discover male soul, bravery, and character in their breast, and are fully men despite the organs given to them at birth. But his conclusions are monstrous! This man of “science” writes that such people exhibit an anomalous brain structure, and their life represents the “gravest level of degenerative sexual deviancy.” In other words, they are not humans but degenerate and disgusting monsters, or rather, freaks, better suited for a jar of spirits. How can he judge what such people feel; has he ever been in their skin and felt himself to be a mistake of nature day and night? Can he possibly imagine how much misery such a man experiences when “that time in the cycle” comes for him as it does for women, or when his beloved expects caresses from him that he is incapable of giving? He writes that there have been many attempts to explain “this mysterious natural phenomenon that non-experts call a vice and lawyers call a crime.”

   Yes, I'm not like everyone else, but I'm not a criminal or a monster! The devil prompted me to buy this vile book, thanks to which I lost the peace of mind I had so laboriously gained.

   Only in the early morning did Morpheus welcome me into his arms, having sent into my overheated brain a dream no less feverish. I dreamt that Anna and I were getting married in a large, airy Orthodox cathedral: now the priest leads us around the lectern to the sounds of ceremonial hymns; our coronets are removed, we kiss, and the choir sings “many happy years.” Our parents congratulate us; I see my father – tall, with a noble mien, firm gaze, a wide, open forehead, and a bushy beard; dressed in a general’s coat covered in massive medals, with golden epaulets and aiguillettes…

   Then we end up in the marital bed in each other’s embrace. I kiss Anna’s yielding mouth, remove the last of her garments, feel the flow of my masculine powers and desires, I caress her rising mounds, our bodies tremble in anticipation of our
intoxicating union… At that moment, I feel someone’s gaze on me, turn around, and see my mother standing by the bed with a candle in her hands, surrounded by wrinkled, bent old women who are pointing at us and cackling nastily. Then they turn into large, owl-like birds, they take off into the air and circle around our beds, making screeching noises, as though their feathers were forged out of iron; they grab the blanket in their crooked beaks and carry it off into the ceiling, which has turned into a starry sky. I feel my body withering, the skin becoming wrinkly and saggy, my hair beginning to fall out, and I become a toothless, shriveled old woman with flat, sagging breasts and a bald head. Anna’s body becomes covered in sores, and nimble black snakes start emerging from them as though from burrows…

   I woke up with a scream, half-crazed, and to avoid completely losing my mind, I began tearing up the ungodly book and then threw it into the fire, set it to burn, felt much relieved, and fell into an untroubled sleep.

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