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  • Writer's pictureMerle Emrich

Burya 4: Chapter 3

Read Burya 4: Prologue (The Night Before) here.

Read Burya 4: Chapter 1 (Into the Belly of the Beast) here.

Read Burya 4: Chapter 2 (The Fridge) here.


Matryoshka of the Sea


“The call of the sea, Baba Galina used to call it.” Alexey reached over the table for the bowl of smetana. He added a generous dollop to his pelmeni and dug in while the soldiers sitting closest to him looked at him in anticipation of further explanation and perhaps even a story. They had been on board for a little over a week now and routine began to slowly drift into boredom. They worked their shifts. They took their meals. Only the changing lights of the submarine gave them an indication of the time of day. For nine days now they were drifting through the darkness of the ocean. Nine days without an event. Nine days without an incident—some vague rumors about the Captain aside. 

Kolya nudged Alexey lightly with his elbow. “And what else did she say about the call of the sea, comrade?” he asked but averted his face when he saw concern crawling into his friend’s look at the sight of the dark shadows under Kolya’s eyes. Nine days on board the submarine. More than a week without a full night’s sleep.

Alexey took another bite of his food. He chewed slowly. The soldiers around him shifted in their seats. Then he swallowed and began to speak. “My grandmother grew up in a small village by the Azov Sea. It is one of those places where the people keep to themselves and time seemingly stands still while it weighs down on the land and the people; while it waits, patiently, to weave their stories into its fabric. The people there are one with the land, my grandmother used to say, but their fates depend on the sea.

“So, it was in this place that Baba Galina grew up. From a very young age, she could hear the sea calling out to her. Most of the time it wasn’t much more than a whisper in the waves, easy enough to ignore. But when the winds rose and the sea was in turmoil, the voice of the water became a song beckoning Baba Galina to dance to its tune. The nights were the most dangerous. Still asleep, she would rise from her bed, leave the house, and walk down the path from the house to the shore.”

Kolya pushed aside his plate and rested his chin on his hand. He let his gaze wander over his comrades; from Alexey who gripped the edge of the table, leaning forward as he told his grandmother’s story, over Mikhail who did his best to maintain an expression of polite disinterest but who still held onto his fork and hadn’t taken a bite since Alexey had begun talking, to Ivan who had been to sea too many times to keep count and had heard too many seamen’s yarn to be anything other than amused. The sound of the rest of the crew talking melted into the white noise of the engine hum of Burya 4 and the faint murmur that was its backdrop. A shiver ran through Kolya’s body. Despite the constant heat in the submarine, he suddenly felt cold.

“He’d always come home with the best catch. And Baba Galina’s brother had it, too,” Alexey’s voice broke through the humdrum. “That’s probably why he got up that night when Baba Galina walked into the sea. It was one of those stormy nights that announced the changing of the seasons and the sea was roaring. When he found her, she was already standing waist-deep in the water. You could’ve stacked three men on top of each other and the waves would’ve still been higher, but where Baba Galina stood, the sea was calm. She didn’t move; didn’t try to swim or to walk further into the sea, nor did she try to get back to the shore. And yet, she was sinking. Inch by inch, the sea was swallowing her.

“She never told me how she survived, what her brother did to get her back to dry land. But he did do something because it was him that the sea took and Baba Galina who woke up on the cold earth dripping salt and seaweed. After that, the voice of the water was gone; no whisper, no song. 

“Deaf to the call of the sea and with her brother gone, Baba Galina grew restless and eventually she left the village by the Azov Sea where people never leave unless they are taken by the waves.”

“That’s a mighty fine story, that is,” announced Ivan and clapped Mikhail on the back. “Eat, boy. No need to worry—the sea won’t swallow you anytime soon.”

Alexey laughed along with Ivan but then suddenly grew serious again. “A fine story, indeed,” he agreed. “And all of it is true.”

Neither Alexey nor Ivan noticed when Kolya rose from the table and left the mess. And if Mikhail noticed, if he saw his distant and unblinking stare or wondered about the way his comrade moved like a sleepwalker, he did not say anything.


The corridor was endlessly long and the cold light cast sharp edges on the metal walls that shifted and writhed all around Kolya. Through the engine sound that reverberated painfully in his head, he could make out the hollow drone of the sea and a murmur of faraway voices. He closed his eyes, briefly, in an attempt to make out the words they spoke but they were otherworldly. 

He followed the pull that motioned his body forward, further into the submarine. He was not quite sure whether it was a stray thought or a tug at his heart that made him move. Perhaps it was instinct more than anything else; instinct without any hope to resist. 

The lights grew dimmer further down the corridor, and still, there was no end in sight. No bend. No other corridor crossing. And in the shadows, the pipes and bars and notches found a rhythm to move to; weaving through the dark and twisting in on themselves. Kolya tried not to look at them, to ignore their presence in his peripheral vision and instead kept his eyes fixed on the darkness where the end of the corridor must have been. There was a moment when he tripped and reached out to steady himself on the wall. It was cold under his touch. Cold and unmoving. 

Deep into the belly of the beast, he walked, along a straight line on which he moved alone. He briefly wondered what would happen if they found him, if someone crossed his path, here where, in all likelihood, he was probably not even allowed to be. But the thought faded as quickly as it had arisen, and Kolya took another step into the dark.


Slowly, Kolya’s eyes adjusted to the near absence of light. The walls were steady. The distorted whispers were gone and the hollow sound of the sea was swallowed by the gargle and rumbling of the engine. Kolya straightened his back and looked around. The corridor had widened into a dead-end room without a door, without furniture or machinery. And at the center of it all, so small that he almost overlooked it in the dark, stood a vaguely cylindrical object.

With a few quick steps, Kolya was halfway across the room and bent down to pick up the object. It was made out of wood, its surface polished smooth. The rounded top part was painted to carry the stylized face of a woman with big eyes, red cheeks, and an eternal smile. Painted tentacles warped themselves over her body—impossible to tell whether they extended from her or caught her in their embrace. 

Carefully, Kolya turned the doll in his hand. He twisted the head but nothing happened. With his fingers, he searched for the thin indentation that ran along its midsection. He slipped a fingernail in the cut, tried to pry the two halves loose, and twisted again. Nothing happened. He held it up, close to his face to inspect it and looked into its face.

The matryoshka’s big eyes were round; their pupils had horizontal slits, and the mouth was torn open wide, ready to swallow the world, baring sharp teeth.




Written by Merle Emrich.

Illustration by Merle Emrich.

Cover illustration by Amr Abbas.


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