Short Story: “Anushka’s Lament”

In the new model of journalism, reporters aren’t the only people digging up leads. (I’ve made a video reading of this story. Here are part 1 and part 2.)

“Anushka’s Lament”
by P. Orin Zack

Alec Warnock arrived early for his meeting with freelance reporter Grandy Holman, so he funneled the energy of the live Celtic violin duo on stage into a spirited sail through the mall’s food court in search of spicy smells. He stepped away from the counter of the new Indian kitchen after ordering the chicken vindaloo special, and pivoted to face the café area.

“That was Fitzwater and Collins,” the young man at the mike said when they’d finished, smiling appreciatively at the duo. “Let’s give the ladies another round of applause while they pack up. If you enjoyed them as much as I did, come on up and buy one of their CDs.”

Alec winced when someone jabbed him on the shoulder.

The bearded man behind him gestured towards his newly filled tray. “Hey! Wake up. Your lunch is ready.”

He mumbled an apology and returned to the counter. While he was getting utensils and condiments, he noticed the picture on the cover of the guy’s scandal magazine — Rachel Gwynn, the ‘naked journalist’ whose reputation had recently been trashed, decimating the ranks of her, until-then, dedicated following. “So tell me,” he asked evenly, “why do you think she gave in to those bullies?”

“Why the hell do you think? The bitch knew she was beaten. Serves her right for sticking her nose where it didn’t belong.” He dropped the magazine on the counter. “Here. Read it for yourself. I was going to toss the rag anyway.”

Alec tucked the crumpled magazine under his arm and headed back towards the stage, where the next act was getting ready to start. He’d asked Holman to meet him here in time to hear ‘Anushka’s Lament’, the song that ‘Union Dues’ was slated to open with, but so far he hadn’t turned up. The front table was empty, so he got comfortable and dug into his vindaloo while the band sang the sad tale of a young Russian immigrant, and the choices she’d been forced into.

By the time Holman finally arrived, the band was halfway through their set, and Alec was slurping the last of his mango lassi. “So what’s this all about, anyway?” the reporter wheezed as he fell, breathlessly, into the chair opposite Alec, his back to the stage. “What was so important that I had to be here at two on the dot?”

“Which you didn’t bother to do, I might point out.”

“I was busy on another story. Sue me. So what is it?”

Alec handed him the band’s flier. “Look at their opening number. Does the name ring a bell?”

“No. Should it?”

“Well, considering how much time you’ve spent researching Rachel Gwynn’s downfall, I thought you might have at least learned her first name.”

He shook his head. “What? Look, just because her name’s similar to the one in that song doesn’t mean –.”

“Anushka,” Alec said sharply, sliding the scandal rag across the table, “was Anniska Rachel Gwynn’s grandmother. She let those bastards ruin her career to protect her family.”

Holman craned around to look the band over for a few seconds, and then shook his head derisively. “A song lyric, huh? And how do you know there’s any truth to whatever story they sing about her?”

Alec leaned towards his guest. “Look. Considering how small a following you have at the naked journalist site you work through, I don’t think you have much call to accuse one of your own followers of goose-chasing you, especially on a story that’s so central to your focus.”

“All right, all right,” he said, raising his hands defensively. “I’ll hear you out. But I’m still going to have to confirm whatever lead you think you’ve got through other sources. So what’s this song about, anyway, and how does it explain why she let those creeps roll over her like that?”

The band had just finished a rousing song about the Carnegie steelworkers who were massacred by Pinkerton security thugs during the Homestead strike in 1892, so Alec joined the crowd in an encouraging round of applause before launching into his story. He had just started to explain how he’d noticed similarities between the events in ‘Anushka’s Lament’ and some offhand comments that Holman had pulled together about Gwynn’s background, when Holman made a face.

“You’ve got to be kidding, right?”

Alec stared at him dumbly.

“Look, I don’t have time for conspiracy theories. Anyone can cherry-pick a few facts here and there to craft whatever pattern they want. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything to it.”

“Okay. I’ll lay it out for you. But I don’t see why I should be coaching a journalist I’m supposed to be following.”

“You don’t, huh? Did you happen to notice that the model of journalism that TrueSlant pioneered couldn’t work without the active participation of our followers? That’s the whole point of ‘naked journalism’: to crowdsource the publishing context and jettison the constraints of working for some corporation with who knows what ties to the people and the organizations we cover. So spill.”

“Sure, but I’ll start at the beginning, with Rachel Gwynn’s grandmother, Anushka. She was born in 1917, right after the October Revolution. By the time she was a teenager, her folks had become staunch anti-Stalinists and gave little Anushka early training in mass actions. She joined them in voicing their opposition to the General Secretary’s growing power, and his use of coercion to bring non-Russian republics into the USSR.”

“Oh, right,” Holman said. “Like she had any choice in the matter. She was just a kid, after all.”

“Exactly. And that set her up for being drawn into situations beyond her control for the rest of her life. That’s why she always seemed to get herself into defensive situations, why she was never in control of her life, just like the fix her grand-daughter got into.”

Holman glanced around the food court in annoyance. “Oh, for the love of… what planet do you live on, anyway? Reporters are never in charge of the situations they cover.”

Alec straightened. “Maybe not the situations they cover,” he said, “but a good reporter had damn well better be able to maintain control of his interview or he’ll end up being used as a transcriptionist like all the sycophants who helped the Bush/Cheney administration get away with so much crap. Forgive my French, but that may be why you’re still working through a second-tier naked journalist site, rather than a major aggregator like Gwynn did before she was attacked.”

The journalist angrily rose to his feet, palms still planted on the table. “That was uncalled for. If you’re going to insult me, then there’s no point in going any further.”

The emcee suddenly appeared and snapped his fingers at them. “If you two can’t be civil,” he said tightly, “you’ll have to take your squabble elsewhere. We’re trying to run a café here.”

Holman apologized, and slid back into his seat. But before he had a chance to say anything further, one of the musicians, a slight man carrying a mandolin, dragged a chair over and plopped into it. He pointed at the journalist and smiled. “I know who you are,” he said with a Scottish brogue. “I’ve seen your face over your byline.” Then he turned to Alec. “But who are you?”

“Let me guess,” Alec said quietly. “You wrote “Anushka’s Lament.”

“The same. But what are you two palaverin’ about that’s got your friend here so excited. It is just a song, after all.”

“Not exactly.” He held out a hand. “I’m Alec Warnock, by the way. You seem to already know Grandy.”

The musician shook hands heartily. “I’m Janus Hawthorne. They won’t be needin’ me for this last number, so we can talk a bit. So tell me… what’s your interest in the Russian immigrant?”

“It’s her grand-daughter we’re interested in, really, but Anushka’s story explains a lot about what’s happened to her and why.”

Hawthorne’s eyes defocused for a moment. “Her grand-daughter, you say? Who’s that?”

“Rachel … Gwynn,” Holman said, pausing between words, “the business reporter. Her first name is really Anniska. Warnock here claims she was named after your immigrant.”

“Damn,” Hawthorne breathed. “No wonder she didn’t want those rascals digging up dirt about her family. Her granny went through enough grief as it was, what with the fallout from the McCarthy hearings and all.”

“Hold on, wait a minute,” Holman said. “McCarthy? What did Gwynn’s granny have to do with the HUAC witch-hunt?”

“Nothing directly. But then, a lot of people had their lives ruined by the idiots who thought they were being patriotic and emulated that moronic Senator. I mean, come on. She’d been active in the socialist labor movement, after all. Couldn’t help it, what with her upbringing and how much her parents hated Stalin. That was why they came to the states, you know.”

“Geez, Janus,” Alec said, clearly impressed. “You must have spent quite some time researching that song. And you didn’t know she had a famous granddaughter?”

He shook his head. “Not a shred. But it leaves me to wonder. I mean, if she knew the truth about her namesake, why’d she back off when those corporate goons threatened to expose her family’s bones?”

“Well,” Holman replied, with a pained expression, “maybe she didn’t. Maybe her folks kept it from her.”

“Maybe?” Alec said in disbelief, “maybe? Good grief! Have you been so focused on digging up the facts about what happened that you completely spaced on understanding Rachel Gwynn’s motivation? I don’t know, maybe I ought to find some other journalist to follow.”

“Hey,” Hawthorne said, “lighten up. He gets it now, doesn’t he?”

“Sure, but what the hell good does that do Gwynn? What are we going to do, call her up and say her mom’s been lying to her about her gramma? That’d work real well.”

“But if her mother kept all this from her when she was growing up,” Holman said haltingly, “why couldn’t Anushka tell her herself.”

“Can’t now,” Hawthorne said, shrugging. “Dead since ‘91. Like it says in the lyric, she outlived the Soviet Union by a grapefruit slice. Woke up the following morning and died after breakfast. But there may be another way to break the happy news to her.”


“Sure. I guess ‘Anushka’s Lament’ wasn’t quite finished after all. Another few verses ought to do it, maybe a parallel tale about a similar situation from not too long ago. I figure an awful lot of kids have been brought up believing the official tripe about what went down in New York on 9/11. So imagine if you will, that our intrepid reporter kept the truth she knew about who was really responsible for that from her kid. Kid’d grow up with a whole different perspective on how trustworthy government folks are, and be willing to buy into whatever phony crap they tried selling to her generation. That kid’d be pretty well pissed at her folks when that truth finally came out, too.”

“I’m afraid you’ve lost me,” Alec said after a pause. “How would a new version of your song convince Rachel Gwynn of the truth about her grandmother?”

“Yeah,” echoed Holman.

“Simple,” Hawthorne said, drawing his thumb across the mandolin strings. “First off, she doesn’t have a daughter.”

Holman nodded vigorously. “I knew that. I knew that.”

“And because of that,” he continued, “she’d unconsciously put herself in the position of the child. Lyrics can whisper in your ears what your mind doesn’t want you to know. Make something taboo, and people only want to know more about it. Trust me. She’ll know this song is about her grand the moment she hears the final verse. And when she does, I wouldn’t want to even be standing behind those people who went after her.”

Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack


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