Igor Fyodorevich, Dean of International Students at the National Conservatory of the Ukraine, came into his office early one morning and sat down to write a letter to the Chinese Consulate about a problem with a student’s visa. When the Dean’s secretaries came in just thirty minutes later they found Igor Fyodorevich dead at his desk. He was an elderly man, and the coroner noted “heart attack” as the cause of death on his death certificate. Maria Marisevna, Professor of Composition, was promoted to replace Igor Fyodorevich.
On the first day of her second year as Dean of International Students, Maria Marisevna decided to go in early to prepare herself for the inevitable hordes of confused Chinese students who would be invading her office, filling it with the smell of visa related panic and a deafening mix of staccato Chinese and bad Russian.
The conservatory was being renovated, and work on the building where the Dean’s office was located had begun at the end of the previous school year. After gutting classrooms and tearing up substantial stretches of hallway, the workmen had taken a smoke break one Thursday in June and never returned. Maria Marisevna was a little wary of the walk through the rubble to get to her office, fearing that she might step on a nail or fall and scrape her knee. Walking up the stairs toward her office she was so intent on avoiding the rubble, she didn’t notice the enormous Russian-style button accordion, or bayan, coming towards her, teetering atop a pair of skinny, knock-kneed legs. The diminutive Chinese girl carrying the bayan couldn’t see over the instrument, and only realized Maria Marisevna was at the top of the staircase when she crashed into her.
The bayan slammed into Maria Marisevna’s bony chest and sent her tobogganing down the stairs on her back. The Chinese student danced a few steps backward, a few steps forward, trying to regain her balance. But the weight of the bayan harnessed to her small frame pulled her irresistibly downwards. Maria Marisevna landed shaken but whole at the foot of the stairs, breathed a sigh of relief and was promptly crushed, first by the bayan and then by the Chinese student attached to it.
The Dean’s secretaries, summoned by an incoherent Chinese student wearing an empty bayan harness, found the Dean sprawled at the bottom of the staircase. Her face was half hidden by a splintered bayan and she had no pulse. The coroner noted “misadventure” as the cause of death, and everyone at the conservatory agreed it was nothing more than a tragic accident. But they all felt that someone must pay, so the Chinese student was expelled and deported.
Maria Marisevna was barely cold in her grave when the conservatory’s president informed Tatiana Dimitrevna, Professor of Music Theory, that she was being promoted to Dean of International Students. The president apologized for rushing to place her in Maria Marisevna’s vacant post before Tatiana Dimitrevna had had the chance to recover from losing her dear friend and colleague in such a shocking manner—but, he continued, the school year would take no time to mourn and there were Chinese student visas piling up on Maria Marisevna’s desk.
Tatiana Dimitrevna feigned excitement at her promotion but she was aware of the talk amongst the professors over tea in the cafeteria. Two dead deans in as many years. They all agreed—the position was cursed. It was disheartening to realize that her colleagues’ congratulations sounded more like farewells, and out of the corner of her eye she noticed several of them surreptitiously crossing themselves.
On Tatiana Dimitrevna’s first day as Dean of International Students, the president of the conservatory himself escorted her to her new office. He gave her an office-warming gift of a large bottle of cheap vodka and introduced her to the secretaries she was inheriting from the last two Deans.
Irena Ivanovna and Lena Ivanovna were identical twins. They wore their blond hair the same way, made up their faces the same way, and pulled their outfits from a shared wardrobe. Neither their voices nor their body language offered any clues as to who was Irena Ivanovna and who was Lena Ivanovna. It dawned on Tatiana Dimitrevna that the central problem of her new position was not going to be the pile of visas on her desk, but the fact that she couldn’t call her secretaries by name, as good manners required, because she didn’t know which was which. Long experience had taught her that secretaries were the heart that kept the lifeblood of a conservatory pumping, and she didn’t want to begin her tenure offending her secretaries. She would never survive the curse if the secretaries were against her.
At first Tatiana Dimitrevna tried to distinguish Lena Ivanovna from Irena Ivanovna by the nameplates on their desks. But she soon noticed that they traded desks many times throughout the day depending on which paperwork and which rubber stamps they needed while they worked. Then Tatiana Dimitrevna had the brilliant idea of giving each a mug with her name on it. Of course she didn’t know whom to give which mug, but she circumvented that problem by leaving the mugs on her desk so each secretary would pick up the one with her name on it. For one blissful day she knew success. But then she realized that like the nameplates, the mugs stayed with the desks, and the secretaries did not. She continued to address them only with “vwi,” the formal form of “you,” and felt the curse loom larger.
Every day throngs of Chinese students crowded into her office. They traveled in packs, the idea being that if they pooled the few words of Russian they could pronounce and repeated them several times with one voice, they could make up in volume what they lacked in vocabulary. Each time they came in, they were sure that this time the Dean would understand, the blank look on her face would be replaced by one of comprehension, and all their visa problems would be solved. Already cramped with three large desks and four chairs, the student-filled room would become unbearably claustrophobic by mid-morning. As the students pressed closer and closer to her desk, Tatiana Dimitrevna could think only of the curse, and of Maria Marisevna lying crushed beneath a Chinese student.
The Chinese students spread complaints about Tatiana Dimitrevna throughout the international student body—“She find problem with visa, but is no problem with visa,” “She say I not pass Russian exam, I pass,” “We give her bribe, she give it back.” A few of the Iranian students had picked up on the fact that the professors and administrators of the conservatory believed the Dean’s position was cursed and added this rumor to the atmosphere of discontent fueled by the Chinese students. Rezer, a particularly enterprising Iranian student approached Irena Ivanovna and Lena Ivanovna about opening a betting pool on the exact time and day that the curse would catch up with Tatiana Dimitrevna. The secretaries took him up on the idea out of a desire to make a little extra money.
As the term wore on, Tatiana Dimitrevna came to work each morning exhausted by the dreams that haunted her sleep, dream after dream of all the ways the curse could kill her. The visa problems were endless, and everyday she could feel the students pressing more aggressively towards her desk. And Irena Ivanovna and Lena Ivanovna had begun holding whispered conversations with Rezer, that fast-talking Iranian student, and furtively taking money from him. One morning, feeling the weight of the coming day, Tatiana Dimitrevna cracked into the bottle of vodka the president had given her. At first she would only take a discreet nip while the secretaries were taking their smoke breaks. But as the weeks went by Tatiana Dimitrevna’s drinking took on a new dimension. She started drinking in the mornings before Lena Ivanovna and Irena Ivanovna arrived. Soon she was bringing in enough vodka for herself and the secretaries and inviting them to share a drink with her at lunch. Drinks at lunch turned into afternoon binges. The secretaries watched her through calculating eyes and kept on collecting bets. The Dean’s interviews with the students became increasingly surreal. She made no effort to conceal her bottle, swilling from it freely as she accused the students before her of bizarre visa violations.
Through a vodka haze she began to hear the curse calling to her, promising peaceful rest, holding out the seductive idea of an end to this hell that was her job. The shrill voices of the students, the call of the curse, the whispers of her secretaries—they pulsed around her and became a steady throb in her temples. She sought refuge in her memories, longing for her days at the Moscow Conservatory. She had been a piano student there, a successful piano student, considered something of a prodigy. Her performances received glowing reviews. Her piano professors had confidence in her future. Her fellow students respected her.
But her promising career as a concert pianist had been cut short by a rival student, who slammed Tatiana Dimitrevna’s right hand in a heavy fire door the day before the conservatory’s concerto competition. Her hand had been irreversibly damaged and she had been consigned to a career as a teacher.
It was late in October and a bitterly cold morning in Kiev. The central heating hadn’t been turned on in Tatiana Dimitrevna’s apartment block yet, so she went to her warm office early and began drinking to take the chill off. She sat with the bottle in her left hand and her eyes fixed on her right hand. First the loss of her career, now this cursed job. All of these impossible international students with their unintelligible Russian and their convoluted visa issues. She sighed. There was no out. She would be in this job until she died.
Lena Ivanovna and Irena Ivanovna arrived and began shuffling paperwork back and forth between their desks. Rezer brought money and left. The door gave way to the first wave of Chinese students. The pleasantly warm room grew overheated and stuffy. The students pressed closer and closer to her desk.
Tatiana Dimitrevna stood up suddenly, knocking her bottle to the floor. She turned and threw open the great double windows behind her and gratefully sucked in a breath of the icy air. The Chinese students fell silent. She climbed onto the windowsill, bracing herself against its frame. She could feel the students move forward in anticipation. A breeze made the curtains flutter around her. Tatiana Dimitrevna glanced over her shoulder, saw the expectant faces and jumped. Time seemed to slow as she fell. She was back in Moscow, her hands flying over the keys of a concert grand. It was the finale to Rachmaninov’s 3rd piano concerto, the piece she would have won that competition with. She could hear the orchestra swell behind her.
Lena Ivanovna and Irena Ivanovna ran to the window, sticking their blond heads out just in time to hear the sickening crack of Tatiana Dimitrevna hitting the pavement below. Irena Ivanovna turned to Lena Ivanovna and said, "10:17. Who wins?"