“What kind of beast is your salamander?” asked the Prince. “It is hard to tell their kind, your Honor,” said Golg. “For they are too…
This excerpt is from Article 58 of The Linden Tree & the Legionnaire, an historical fiction series by Diana Mathur. In 1940 Communist occupied Latvia, capitalist Jānis Pērkons, and his neighbor the tailor, are terrorized by Stalin’s henchmen, the Cheka (aka the NKVD).
It was around two in the afternoon and the sun would soon be setting.
Jānis Pērkons rode the streetcar back to his usual stop and walked the remaining blocks toward the Leather Works. Every street sign he passed now bore the name Lenin. Was it just yesterday this street was Freedom Boulevard? He was exhausted.
“Mr. Pērkons!” Snip Cepurnieks, the tailor, was calling from the door of his shop. “Come back and have a cup of coffee with me.”
“That would be excellent,” Jānis said.
He followed Cepurnieks into his shop and behind the counter. They passed bolts of fabric, a sewing machine, and a large mirror as they walked to the rear of the shop. Overstuffed armchairs surrounded a coffee percolator bubbling on a dainty woodstove. Wool gabardine, pinned in the shape of a suit jacket, hung on a tailor’s mannequin. One section of wall was covered with layers of newspaper, making a pinboard in which pins, needles, and scissors were stuck.
The tailor chatted about the frigid weather while Jānis hung up his overcoat.
Jānis accepted a hot cup of coffee and a light for his cigarette and sat back in the armchair.
“Many of my customers seem to be missing,” Cepurnieks said, extracting a pin from the pinboard and inserting it deftly into the jacket, repeating the motion over and over. “The city officials have been dismissed and replaced by, well, jailbirds. People with little regard for the decorum of public office, no sense of style.” He sighed. “Latvia may never again see the exquisite couture of my former clientele, and that’s a damn shame.”
Jānis was uneasy with the conversation. It was illegal to criticize Communist officials, even their fashion sense. “I haven’t given it much thought,” he said.
Cepurnieks swooshed his creation off the mannequin with a flourish, and strode to the sewing machine where he positioned the jacket under the needle.
Jānis sipped coffee and watched cigarette smoke swirl around the headless dummy. The yellowed news articles from the pinboard caught his eye. There was a photo of Adolf Hitler, triumphant after his blitzkrieg invasion of Poland, old news; and one of Josef Stalin in full military regalia. The two dictators reminded Jānis of giant chess players manipulating smaller countries over Europe’s checkerboard, millions of destroyed lives incidental to the game.
Cepurnieks raised his voice over the drone of the sewing machine. “The only people who can afford a good suit now want to wear military uniforms. But I tell you, a well-tailored uniform in itself advances a man through the ranks. Look how the raspberry piping on the collar and cuffs here adds zip to this olive green wool.”
The coffee was bracing. Seeing that Cepurnieks was thoroughly engrossed at the sewing machine, Jānis loosened the laces of his boots and hid his newly acquired gold under the sheepskin boot linings.
Cepurnieks chattered on, “I’ll pull through this. The Communists don’t want my shop. Factories, farms, publishers, yah, of course. But I’m an owner-operator, a one-man show. They’ll leave me alone. Hold the course, that’s my recommendation. This mess will blow over.”
Raising an eyebrow at Jānis, Cepurnieks said, “Tell me, Mr. Pērkons, how did you know to sell your holdings while prices were high?”
It had been obvious to Jānis. Last year sixty thousand ethnic Germans had sold their properties and left the country. Something was up. He’d followed suit. Then, Boom. The Soviets had come in like it had all been pre- arranged. Jānis shrugged. “Lucky, I guess.”
“It’s businessmen like you, Mr. Pērkons, who have outside employees and the means of production that the Communists want,” the tailor said, “Or don’t want, however you look at it. They say you are exploiting the working class. That you’re an Enemy of the People.” Cepurnieks spoke around a mouthful of pins. Clanging bells alerted the tailor to someone at the front door. Excusing himself, he went to the counter.
Jānis blew smoke, perturbed to be considered an Enemy of the People when all he did was take risks on behalf of others and work his tail off. Of course, he knew ‘Enemy’ applied to anyone who doubted the rightness of the Party Line. He sipped his coffee, until loud unruly voices arrested the cup halfway to his lips.
The men who’d entered the shop had breached the front counter and were approaching where he sat. Jānis jettisoned his cigarette in his coffee cup and hid at the side of the room behind a large mirror. Peering through bolts of fabric he saw three NKVD agents pushing a whimpering, disheveled woman out of view of the public, toward where Jānis had been sitting.
Cepurnieks acknowledged the tear-streaked, shaking woman was a customer, admitting he‘d finished a remnant dress for her the previous day.
Jānis’s eyes were drawn to the guns. Each Chekist wore one within a quick grab. That’s what made him feel like a bug about to be squished.
“Citizen Cepurnieks,” said the NKVD, “this person informs us that you have willfully mutilated the image of General Secretary Stalin.”
“What? No, Comrade! Never! I swear!” Cepurnieks said, aghast. “Madam, what is this?”
“Rebellion against the People,” cut in the NKVD, “in person or in effigy, is against the law. Hostile elements are not tolerated.” He twisted the woman’s arm.
“It’s there,” she screamed, pointing to the newspapered pinboard.
Another agent strode over to inspect the board. There, amidst hundreds of pins, one had pierced the picture of General Secretary Josef Stalin, between the eyes. An ugly smile crossed the agent’s face. “Citizen Cepurnieks, you did this?”
“I, well, I’m a tailor,” Cepurnieks stammered. “It was nothing intentional. I don’t even notice those articles. That’s just where I keep my pins.” He turned to the woman. “What did you tell them?”
“I saw you do it. I reported you.” She was shrill. “I know how this works! You were testing me–testing my loyalty. You mutilate Stalin’s picture in front of me and then you turn me in if I don’t report it.”
“Good God,” Cepurnieks said, looking horrified. “Please, this is a mistake. I meant no harm. I beg you to give me another chance.” His chest was heaving. “I can help you.”
Jānis’s heart was pounding so hard he thought everyone in the shop would hear it.
“I’m loyal but I know people who aren’t,” the tailor said, wide-eyed and shiny with sweat. “I can give you names.”
A scapegoat. The tailor would use him as a scapegoat, Jānis saw, edging along the wall toward the back of the shop. He was afraid opening and closing the door to the alley would give away his presence, but the scraping noise seemed muffled by a shot, a scream and hysterical sobs.
Outside Jānis stumbled into a snowdrift. He thought he’d vomit, but cold air quelled the urge. His steps toward the back entrance of Pērkons Leather Works were ragged, uneven. Ducking into his workshop, he clutched the doorframe. Only then did he ask himself why the door to the alley was open.
They had come. Jānis’s heart dropped to his stomach like a chunk of ice. His office door was flung wide. Inside, a uniformed man was dumping the contents of drawers.
“You are Jānis Pērkons, claiming to be the owner of Pērkons Leather Works?” demanded an agent.
Jānis’s ears still were ringing from the gunshot fired at the tailor, the preview to his fate.
“Yah, Comrade. I am,” he said. It was over now.
The agent spoke rapidly. “By the authority vested in me by the USSR and by General Secretary Stalin I hereby nationalize this establishment in the name of the People of the USSR. I order you to place the entire contents of your pockets on the counter. Now leave. Immediately,” the officer said. “Any attempt by you to return here will rightfully be viewed as trespassing and burglary and will be prosecuted by the Riga NKVD as a criminal offense.”