Matryoshka

 

 

  The men of the Timofeyev clan care a great deal about tradition. As far back as the Rurik dynasty, at least 

one male descendant has mastered the craft of woodworking. The Timofeyev artisans have maintained a 

legendary reputation in and around Voronezh, due mostly to their rigorous standards for mastery: though 

impossible to paraphrase elegantly in English, the Cyrillic sign in the family workshop near the banks of 

the Don reads “every Timofeyev woodworker must surpass his father in both intricacy and prolificity.” 

These standards, once nominal1, have been enforced fanatically since Russia’s industrialization. By the 

20th century, it had become uncommon for Timofeyevs to see daylight until they were strong enough to 

chop their own wood. Every hour was spent practicing the craft, steadily graduating to finer and finer tools.

  Vassily Aleksandrovich Timofeyev, a Voronezhian transplant in Brooklyn, New York, was the only living

craftsman left from the illustrious family. Vassily didn’t do much anymore, except sit near a window, 

carving wood with a distant grin on his face and a sturdy, ancient-looking toolbox at his feet. He was about 

seventy-five, which made him at least a centenarian in working-class Russian years, and he had chosen to 

spend his old age nested in a chair in the mirror-lined lobby of his apartment building. Understandably, 

he was mostly inert, more of a display piece than anything else. In fact, nobody saw him get out of his 

chair, even to sleep or relieve himself. But his cheeks were always flushed, and he exuded a stolid virility 

that impressed his male neighbors and gave an assuredness to the coy winks that he shot in the direction 

of every woman under forty who passed him.

  The only parts of him that moved were his giant, gnarled hands and his head, which bobbed gently. The 

mirror behind the old man’s chair offered a view of one of Vassily’s more mysterious attributes: a blurry 

indigo tattoo, vaguely in the shape of a “T,”† which undulated with the regular motion of his head. Vassily, 

by this point, was so habituated to his craft that he could churn out two bannisters a day without looking 

down. A worn utility belt bisected the old man, and he was so familiar with it that he could switch out his 

tools without taking his gaze from the window. The size of the pile of shavings at his feet was often a more 

reliable timepiece than the grandfather clock he sat next to, and some of the building’s residents could 

guess the time within a quarter of an hour just by glancing at the detritus on the ground.

  Vassily was more than just a coquettish horologic curiosity. The man was fascinatingly out of place. 

He had been renting an apartment in the same building on Prospect Park West since 1957. Dave in 4C 

calculated that this meant the old Russian had seen a 15,600% rent increase and at least six different 

landlords. As far as any of the other tenants knew, Vassily had whittled away nearly sixty years in his lobby-

cum-workshop, staring through the same window that once had its flower box chained to the fence to keep 

crack addicts from selling the plants for a few dollars. This window is now made of low-e argon glass and 

cost about as much as half a month of Vassily’s rent in ’62, adjusted for inflation.

  Nobody in the building understood how Vassily had managed to hang onto his apartment for so long 

on whatever pittance his artisanal creations brought in. Even if the rumors were true and he really did live 

on a single pot of borscht every week and go without heat during the winter for nostalgia’s sake, the recent 

influx of well-to-do newlyweds should have relegated him to some less-gentrified corner of the city. The 

current landlord certainly wasn’t cutting him any favors. This past winter, when Vassily’s wood shavings 

got particularly soggy and disgusting and spread themselves across the entire vestibule, the shouting match 

between the wrinkled Russian and the building’s bald, anxiously trendy owner was heard from at least the 

fourth floor.

  Vassily’s implausible presence – and his tendency to pay rent in cash – led to speculation about ties to 

the Russian underworld. Dave read the Wikipedia article on Russian prison tattoos and swore that the 

mark on Vassily’s neck was an exemplar of old-school jailhouse body-art. Then again, it did also look like a 

cross, or maybe a “T for Timofeyev,” as some of the building’s more charitable and less alarmist residents 

suggested.

  Every few weeks, any observant passerby could see Vassily in an unusual pose: head down, scrutinizing 

his work. The project that commanded this special attention was always some sort of small figurine, but it 

was hard to make out what he was up to because the few people who were interested enough to look could 

barely see anything behind his massive hands. The figurines must have been spectacularly intricate, since 

they demanded not only Vassily’s undivided attention, but also the use of some tools that rarely came off 

his belt – miniature paintbrushes and tiny hooks that looked like exquisite torture instruments.

  On one of these especially fastidious days, something out of the ordinary happened. The building’s 

alarm system went off, and a voice on the PA informed listeners that there was a gas leak somewhere 

in the building and a mandatory evacuation would follow. Vassily left his work inside, worried that the 

Brooklyn humidity would warp the figurine. He waited outside with the rest of the building and stared 

at a tree in the park across the street. A middle-aged woman jostled him and quickly apologized; Vassily 

waved reassuringly and shuffled his feet. Half an hour later, the helmeted, beetle-like emissaries of the fire 

department had found the offending stovetop and were scurrying back to their truck. A firefighter with an 

armband said something terse and professional like “clear” and the residents, unsure whether they had just 

received an instruction to return to their apartments, decided it was time to come in anyway.

Vassily was one of the first people through the door. He ambled past the pile of shavings and noticed that 

the figurine wasn’t where he had left it. The old man’s expression didn’t change, but he was distraught. He 

grumbled around in the lobby for fifteen minutes, hindering the re-entry process. This irked the residents, 

but they could tell that something was bothering Vassily and decided that the best option was to wade 

through the wood parings and leave the obstructing Russian to stew in his sangfroid.

In minutes, the residents had gone back inside. Only a small, pear-shaped woman was left, staring 

woodenly at Vassily’s pacing feet. She hadn’t made it past the lobby during the evacuation and had stood 

lignified while Brooklyn Ladder 148 clamored into the building. Neither the firefighters nor Vassily had 

noticed her, because she was an eight-inch-tall figurine, stuck in a heating grate.

Tatyana was a robust figure, stout and dense, with a round face and prim, pursed lips. One of her 

eyebrows came down calamitously – the alarm system had startled Vassily when he was painting – which 

gave her an expression of consternated ecstasy. She wore half an apron, truncated at the torso, which left 

the sultry grain of her lower regions fully exposed. She had one completed hand, which she held flat at 

her side, and her legs and feet were obscured behind the cylinder of her unpainted dress. The collision 

with the heating grate had caused an unfortunate chip in the paint on Tatyana’s head, which tonsured the 

madonna-in-progress.

Vassily scoured the lobby. He paused in an anxious half-crouch and tilted his head to get a better look 

at the floor, but he found nothing. Crouching with both arms extended, Vassily pivoted thousands and 

thousands of degrees clockwise. After half an hour in geriatric pirouette, Vassily gave up and returned to 

his chair. His eyebrows were raised and his expression made him look like he was recalling a distant, 

unpleasant memory. Tatyana stood upended in the grate. Piles of wood shavings waxed and waned in front 

of her eyes. She began to collect dust.

Several weeks after the gas leak and Tatyana’s fall, an intrepid rat found its way into the lobby. With one 

eye still on the window, Vassily watched the rat traverse the room. He was bothered that a rodent had the 

audacity to disturb his work. But Vassily’s old-world stoicism prevailed, and the rat was left to scurry around 

the lobby. After concluding that Vassily wasn’t a threat, the brazen vermin ran over to explore the wall 

behind the old man’s chair. It came upon Tatyana and was immediately smitten.

In the weeks following the rat’s meeting with Tatyana, shiny objects began to accumulate near the 

heating grate behind Vassily’s chair. Tatyana soon found herself in a reflective grotto. The rat would regularly 

return to deposit new plunder beside the inverted statuette, punctuating his visits with an affectionate nibble. 

Over time, Tatyana’s body began to erode from the rat’s gnawing. A small pile of wood dust accumulated next 

to the chip of paint that had adorned the diminutive woman’s head before her fall.

At noon on a Wednesday, a black sedan slid into a parking space in front of the building. Vassily tightened 

his grip on the small adze he was using to shape a bannister, like he did every time a black sedan 

parked in front of his building. The driver of the car got out, flourished a black blazer with red silk lining, 

and daintily wiped his hands with a prepackaged towelette. The towelette routine looked rather silly, because 

the driver was nearly two meters tall and had four distinct rolls of skin where his hairy neck met his 

glabrous head. At this border was a tattoo of a blurred, bluish “T” shape.††2

The supple-handed behemoth walked towards Vassily’s building, entered the lobby, and struck the old 

man across the face with the back of his hand.

Vassily didn’t put up much of a fight. Right when his attacker came through the door, the old man had 

brandished his tool and started to his feet, but the blow to the head landed him on the floor for good. His 

assailant stood with one foot on the old man’s back. The assassin was puzzled to see Vassily reaching for 

something behind his chair, stretching in the opposite direction from the adze that had slid across the 

floor, but decided not to interfere.

Vassily had seen the glinting of the rat’s Tatyana-shrine, and thrust out his arms to grab the doll. He 

reached her just as the attacker plunged the woodworking adze into his side. 

The old man lay on his stomach, clutching his wooden doll and staring at the window. He was 

hemorrhaging at this point, and his fluids and entrails had started to mix with the morning’s worth of wood 

shavings that littered the floor. A sickening slurry of bloody wood spread over the lobby. 

The beefy assassin tore off Vassily’s shirt, smirked, and appraised the weapon he had forced into the old 

man’s side. He wiped the nearly-buried handle carefully with another moist towelette, picked up Vassily’s 

toolbox, returned to the car, and drove away.

Vassily was found dead at 3pm by a group of boys, who were returning home from school. Vassily-slurry 

had spread to the heating vent and engulfed the shiny shrine left to Tatyana. It simmered in the radiating 

warmth. Everything smelled like shit. The children stood in the doorway aghast. They saw the old, foreign 

carpenter, lying in the lobby and bleeding out. They saw his shirtless torso, which turned out to be covered 

in tattoos. They smelled a lot of shit. Their screams set into motion a disappointingly quotidian processes 

of cleanup and investigation. Police parked their cars obtrusively and shut down two blocks of Prospect 

Park West. They cordoned off the lobby and stood around, arms akimbo, full of officious, desultory concern. 

An ambulance came and carted Vassily to the morgue.

Vassily’s body lay stretched out on a steel table. The pathologist took notes. The report was a fairly routine 

one, as far as penetrative trauma in an elderly immigrant goes, except for the section devoted to Vassily’s tattoos. 

On Vassily’s back was a detailed rendering of St. Basil’s cathedral, prison-style, but executed in 

stunning detail. On each of the cathedral’s distinctive domes and spires, an image of a Christian apostle 

was superimposed and captioned with a name in another alphabet. Each apostle sported curved horns 

and a goatee. The coroner couldn’t read the text, which he assumed to be Cyrillic, so the best description 

he could give was “portraits of Russian goat-men.” The top of the highest spire continued up Vassily’s neck 

and ended with a transom a few inches below his hairline.

Vassily’s murder didn’t change much in the building. Management installed a scanning mechanism to 

regulate lobby access, a small silver box that played bossa nova music to soothe passers-by and prompted 

residents for the tips of their right index fingers. The manager was unable to turn up any Timofeyev kin 

and eventually just broke into Vassily’s former apartment to start straightening things out.

The place was entirely empty, except for a hot plate, a soup pot, an army cot with a bare mattress, and 

a full-length mirror. The soup pot contained a single dirty potato, which had begun to sprout. A more 

thorough search revealed several cans of mink oil beneath the bed. These belongings were placed in a 

small crate – even the cot, which folded up – and donated to the YMCA. The mattress went to the dump, 

because nobody trusted it. It was unusually heavy and lumpy, and it smelled – the old man could’ve slept 

on there for years without any sheets.

There was no proper memorial service for the slain Russian. There was, however, a slight swell in attendance 

to the building council meeting the week after the murder. Residents, when prompted by the 

landlord, wore solemn looks and shook their heads, lamenting the fate of Mr. Timofeyovsky. One of the 

boys who found Vassily’s body told a story of how Vassily had once taught him how to whittle. This story 

formed the basis of a college application essay the boy wrote a few months later. 

The story was a complete fabrication, but nobody cared enough to ask. A young couple soon moved into 

the apartment that once belonged to “this really authentic old Russian man, Mr. Timinksy.”

The beefy assassin was never identified. He was probably among the cadre of Russian and Rusyn mobsters 

who operate out of back rooms in Eastern-Orthodox church storefronts in Brighton Beach, but there’s 

no way to know. His motives remain even less clear. Nobody was willing to conjecture openly about 

Vassily’s ties to organized crime, and general suspicion faded along with the memory of Vassily.

Some weeks later, Vassily’s toolbox turned up on the western end of the beach near Jacob Riis Park. The 

wood was battered, but had held up quite well overall. It must have been hastily abandoned—that area by 

Fort Tilden is under regular surveillance, and the guards hadn’t noticed anyone jettison the box. This was 

perplexing, given that it looked like someone had spent a great deal of time breaking through the series of 

locks that secured the box’s contents.

The box got taken to the police station, where it sat in an evidence room. A few weeks later, a pair of 

white gloves took an inventory of its contents: hundreds of exquisitely carved, pear-shaped dolls, each a 

slightly different size. Every doll except for the very smallest had a line drawn around its equator.

White gloves are for sanitation, not appraisal. The box, contents and all, went to the dump by Fountain 

Avenue. It reposed near a strangely heavy mattress that jangled, every so often, in the breeze.