The Real Romanovs: Taped And Shot Before A Live Studio Audience
They're about to shoot my family, the Romanovs, for a live TV audience in a ghastly studio with charcoal-colored walls and no windows. This is the last episode of our reality show, "The Real Romanovs." The director announces this over his bullhorn, an audience of men and women in T-shirts and shorts, eyes flickering with delight, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. Families united by their desire for spectacle. I should feel utter terror, being the hemophiliac tsarevich. The former heir to the Romanov throne, a youth whose life revolved around bleeding fits, because his own body couldn't control the clotting, and who is about to perish in a bloodbath. I know with each rehearsal that my life is at an end, and that any hopes of doing good for Russia, for the world even have been extinguished. And I admit the anguish has consumed me. In the beginning I broke down weeping on the set after seeing the audience transfixed by the shooting scenes, and my sisters had to comfort me. But after a time, it became a routine, like French lessons with Monsieur Gilliard or English lessons with Mr. Gibbes. As the director told me once, "It's not about who you are. It's who you must seem to be." And so, I've assumed the role of ex-tsarevich, but a sort of tsarevich very different from who I truly am. A tsarevich with a kind of quiet acceptance of his fate. A noble, strong martyr.
If only I were so strong.
Suffice it to say we've all rehearsed this scene over and over, Papa's bewilderment when the execution order is read, the volley of bullets ricocheting like hail around the basement room (which in this case is a small studio backlot), the bullets bouncing off my sisters, and especially the part where I get shot three times by an incompetent executioner, with a methodical coldness in his duties. The director always felt like I didn't convey the right amount of terror, that I wasn't playing the part of a fallen heir to a great throne, life cut tragically short by brutality and sheer rawness. I was too limp. Too weak. Of course. I'm a hemophiliac, a boy whose life has been dictated by bleeding, of which I've suffered greatly as of late. I bleed anytime, anywhere.
Once on the set, I scraped my arm on a director's camera, and that was enough to release the blood, a steady pool staining my nightgown. The director was pissed because that wasn't in the script, and he kept circling us, surveying us with disgust, even as my sister Tatiana held me precariously, trying to both juggle a sickly boy and an angry director's tirades. The scene, he barked was supposed to be a tender bedtime scene, with Mama tucking me in. Instead he called me a narcissist, in need of attention, who deliberately bled to shirk his duties. I was supposed to wait, he barked, until we got to the scene at Spala, at our hunting lodge. Then I could bleed, as though bleeding was some sort of pleasure, like the bicycles I couldn't ride, or the tennis I couldn't play.
I'm weary, weary that my life is ending for the three-hundredth time. All I want is peace. These are things the director, so virile and confident cannot understand. He motions and dictates to us so perfectly, I wonder how much of his daily routine is rehearsed, before a mirror in some small apartment each morning. How much of it is real, spontaneous, guided by real fears and dreams.
I've rehearsed the scene to the point where the terror, the fear, is replaced by a weariness, a weariness at the routine to come. Every time the director says, "We need more brutality, executioners," or "You Romanovs need to show more love, play up your closeness" I wish I were a pugilist so I could give the director his due. He knows little of what it means to truly love, to be connected to one's family. I have been told that he has had a harem of wives, whom he has married, divorced, and remarried with a vengeance. To him love is only something to be scripted, to further his ends. Not an end in itself, something beautiful.
But instead, I sit down on the chair marked, "DEAD TSAREVICH." Mama sits next to me on another chair, marked "DEAD GERMAN WOMAN" and Papa and my sisters flank us, Papa looking strong in his brown military uniform and cap. A kind of strength I envied, watching him deal with Russia.
"Alexei Nikolaevich," the director shouts. "Show some fucking emotion. This is an execution, for Chrissakes."
"Yes sir," I mutter, but I turn and make a face, emulating the director's pursed lips and the way his eyebrows dance wildly. My sister Anastasia breaks into a fit of giggles, rocking back and forth, and the director shakes his head, throwing his hands up in the air. I love her. She's always been a prankster. The first day of taping, she stuck toilet paper in the fax machines and jammed them up for days.
"You think your deaths are funny, Mademoiselle?" he shouts. Mama shakes her head, and asks Anastasia to behave like a lady. To die with poise and dignity. She looks down, still snickering. And for a moment, I feel a certain hilarity here, that we must die a very particular way.
"All right, then," the director says, nodding, as we reassume our positions against this blank set that masquerades as a basement. The executioners strap their fake assault rifles, looks of anticipation in their eyes.
How I wish they could give us new endings. Make us live, escape, or God forbid, transform us into vampires. Emphasize my struggles, my efforts to understand the world, and why I am who I am. Or the love we shared, the trips aboard the Standart, the snowball fights, my sisters entertaining me while I lay sick and helpless, the heir to a great throne. But their job is to convey our deaths, our histories. Facts are facts. This is the duty which their comrades have entrusted them with. They cannot change our fates, they say, sadly. The director himself reminds me of Lenin with his goatee and I wonder if he delights in recreating the shooting day after day.
"Just one more take, Alyosha," my sister Anastasia says. She speaks with a British accent, because that is what the crew deems necessary. We are Russians, yet the crew thinks British accents will accentuate our relatability. Especially in death. And as Mama tells me, the casting crew always get what they want.
"Yes, Anya," I say, and she makes a face, imitating the director's scowl with perfect aplomb. She ruffles my hair, and I feel a sense of relief. A communion with my favorite sister, however temporary. A connection to a sister who has had a far more normal world, a world of pranks and trouble, but endured a very different kind of pain.
"It'll be over soon," my sister Tatiana says, placing a hand on my shoulder, as I settle into the chair, where I'm about to be shot for the three-hundredth time. "You'll be at peace soon enough."
Then the director calls for the shooting to commence. No room for love, here, he orders, pulling me away from my sister, the space between us gaping like a monster in the early evening air. I feel the weight of the set, bearing down on me, and I fear I'll lose my faked strength. But I see the looks of terror in Mama and Papa's eyes, in my beloved sisters. It is about who I must seem to be, I say to myself silently.
"Shoot the bastards," the director shouts. The executioners happily oblige, straddling their fake assault weapons with glee. They pull back firing rounds, with cold-hearted smiles on their faces.
The fake bullets fill this fake room, an empty room. My four sisters scream, falling like stacked dominoes. Down goes Papa, slumping onto the floor, a fallen tsar. Papa's blood (ketchup in this case) splattered across my face, I sit there in absolute silence, wearing the look of weary terror. And then I feel the bullets graze me, the final bullet right behind the ear, a cold object that strikes with a finality, a finality that says Your time is up, Romanov. And somewhere, the director's approval, a thick roar, rises into the air. A director who cannot understand the truth of what it means to be shot, but only the effects, the magnificence of the fake smoke. The air of terror, the brutal executioners who are already preparing to take us away (although the director is insistent that this must not be taped).
"Very good," the director says, clapping. The crew members break into a clap, slow and steady, building into a routine, hypnotic, unthinking, as the cast members follow his lead. Celebrating the perfect staging of death. Of tragedy. They are celebrating. Celebrating the fact we have finally got our deaths right, to their specifications. To get death perfect, the director says, is an art form, doing a little dance about the studio that reminds me of a demented leprechaun. And I close my eyes, feeling a kind of terror that they cannot script, a terror that comes after the fact, a sense that fate this time can truly not be changed. A kind of vividness they cannot write for a TV audience.
"I love you, Alyosha," I hear my dead sister Anastasia say through the clapping and the champagne bottles being busted open, and I feel a kind of odd calmness, even though I am splattered in blood. I think it's the fake blood they've used, but I cannot be sure now. One thing is certain. I am dying. I am loved by my sisters, in spite of my weakness. I feel an odd kind of strength, a sense of inner peace building like a river, like the Neva's shores in Petersburg. And for the family's sake I will get up, and do this again, as need be, until this is all over, and we can retreat into a better place, a place imagined and wonderful. Until we are dead for good. Until then, I will bleed again, the blood falling slow and steady, unstoppable. Like the Revolution. And with each incident, I will recall that I am a Romanov. The director walks around us surveying our corpses, and I close my eyes, surrounded only by a peaceful darkness, even as he barks orders, tells me how to die. Tells the artists, I need more blood.
Mir-Yashar is an MFA second-year fiction student at Colorado State University. His short-stories have been published or are forthcoming in various literary journals including Monkeybicycle and Crack The Spine.