Here is Vasilisa, the Russian girl. She is striking. One might say she is astonishing. She has long dark hair. Her body is also long, and exceptional; she runs marathons, and is a fine gymnast, specializing in the ribbon element of rhythmic gymnastics. She says that in her youth she came close to the Russian Olympics team. She is twenty-eight years old. Her youth was when she was fifteen. Vasilisa Arsenyeva is her full name. Her region of origin is Siberia and she claims descent from the great explorer Vladimir Arsen-yev himself, who wrote many books about the region, including the one that became a Kurosawa film, Dersu Uzala, but this line of descent is not confirmed because Vasilisa, as we will see, is a brilliant liar, accomplished in the arts of deceit. She says she was raised in the heart of the forest, the immense taiga forest that covers much of Siberia, and her family was of the tribe Nanai, whose menfolk worked as hunters, trappers and guides. She was born in the year of the Moscow Summer Olympics and her heroine, as she grew up, was the great gymnast Nelli Kim, half Korean, half Tatar. Sixty-five countries, including the United States, boycotted those Moscow games but in the depths of the forest she was far away from politics, though she did hear about the fall of the Berlin Wall when she was nine years old. She was happy because she had begun to look at a few magazines and wanted to go to America and be adored and send U.S. dollars back to her family at home.
This is what she has done. She has flown the coop. Here she is in America, in New York City and also, now and often, in Florida, and she is much admired, and making money doing the work the beautiful do. Many men desire her but she is not looking for a mere man. She wants a protector. A Tsar.
Here is Vasilisa. She owns a magic doll. When, as a child, an earlier Vasilisa was sent by her wicked stepmother to the house of Baba Yaga, the witch who ate children, who lived in the heart of the heart of the forest, it was the magic doll who helped her escape so that she could begin her search for her Tsar. So the story goes. But there are those who tell it differently, saying that Baba Yaga did eat Vasilisa, gobbled her up the way she gobbled up everyone, and when she did, the ugly old witch acquired all the young girl’s beauty—that she became, outwardly, the spitting image of Vasilisa the Fair, though she remained sharp-toothed Baba Yaga on the inside.
This is Vasilisa in Miami. She is blond now. She is about to meet her Tsar.
In the winter of 2010, a few days before Christmas, the four Golden men, alerted by menacing weather forecasts and accompanied by Fuss and Blather, Nero’s two trusted assistants, and me, flew south from Teterboro Airport aboard what I did not know until Apu told me was known to regular users of such aircraft as a P.J., and so we escaped the great blizzard. In the city we left behind, everyone would soon be complaining about the slowness of the snowplows and there would be allegations of a deliberate slowdown to protest Mayor Bloomberg’s budget cuts. Twenty inches of snow fell in Central Park, thirty-six inches in parts of New Jersey, and even in Miami it was the coldest December ever recorded, but that only meant it was sixty-one degrees, mean temperature, which wasn’t really that cold. The old man had rented a group of apartments in a large mansion on a private island off the tip of Miami Beach, and we were warm enough most of the time. Petya liked the island; its only point of contact with the mainland was a single ferry port and no outsiders were allowed to set foot on the charmed soil unless spoken for by residents. Peacocks, both bird and human, strutted here without fear of being observed by inappropriate eyes. The wealthy exposed their knees and their secrets and nobody ever told. So Petya was able to persuade himself that the island was an enclosed space and his fear of the outdoors retreated growling into the shadows.
—Oh, you don’t know what a P.J. is either? Private Jet, darling. You’re welcome.
Apu—sociable Apu, not my dark-clouded contemporary, D—had invited me to come with them, and “Go,” my mother told me, even though I’d be away from home for the holidays, “enjoy this, why not?” I didn’t then know that I would not be able to welcome the fictional baby Jesus or the actual new year with my parents ever again. I couldn’t have guessed what would happen, but I feel bitter regret.
Apu was in his element, schmoozing with the island’s rich salad of Russian billionaires and seducing their wives into having their portraits painted, preferably scantily clad. I padded along after him like his faithful dog. The billionaires’ wives did not notice my presence. That was fine; invisibility was a condition to which I was accustomed, and which, most of the time, I preferred.
And D Golden: he had brought Riya with him and the two of them were wrapped up in each other and kept themselves largely to themselves. And the servitors served—the entourage entouraged—Ms. Fuss fussed and her younger sidekick Ms. Blather blathered—and the Goldens’ stay went smoothly enough. I, their tame Tintin, was happy enough also. And on New Year’s Eve the island threw a well-heeled party for its well-heeled residents, the usual expensive fireworks, top-of-the-line lobsters and high-maintenance dancing, and Nero Golden announced his intention to take the floor.
The old man was quite the dancer, I discovered. “You should have seen him a few years back on his seventieth birthday,” Apu told me. “All the pretty girls lining up to take their turns, and he waltzing, tangoing, polkaing, jiving, dipping and twirling them all. Joined-up dancing, not the disco-jigging, strap-hanging and pogoing of our degraded time.” Now that I know the family secrets, I can in my mind’s eye set him down on the great terrace above the sea of the family home in Walkeshwar Colony, and envision the elite beauties of Bombay society happy in his arms. While his put-upon wallflower wife—“Poppaea Sabina,” I’ll continue to call her, going along with the family’s Julio-Claudian preferences—watched disapproving but silent from the sidelines. He was older now, past seventy-four, but he had lost neither his balance nor his skill. Once again there were young women waiting to be twirled and dipped. One of them was Vasilisa Arsenyeva, whose motto in life was taken from Jesus Christ, the gospel according to Saint Matthew, chapter four, verse nineteen. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” She had excellent timing. As the new year struck, in the midnight or witching hour, she cast her fateful hook. And once she started dancing with him, nobody else could do so. She was the end of the line.
This is Vasilisa. She is dancing with her Tsar. She has her arm around him and this is what her face is saying: I’m never letting go. Taller than he is, she bends down slightly so that her mouth is close to his ear. His ear leans into her mouth, to understand what it is telling him. This is Vasilisa. She puts her tongue in his ear. It speaks a wordless language all men can understand.
The Vanderbilt House is the heart of the island. Rewind: here is William Kissam Vanderbilt II on his two-hundred-and-fifty-foot yacht, making a swap deal with the developer Carl Fisher. The yacht in exchange for the island. Shake hands on that. Here is Bebe Rebozo, accused at the time of Watergate of being “Nixon’s bagman,” joining a group that bought the island from the guy who bought the island from the guy who bought the island from Vanderbilt. The island has a history. It has an observatory. It has, as previously stated, peacocks. It has discretion. It has golf. It has class.
And this cold holiday season at the Vanderbilt House, after the New Year’s Eve dance on the fine parquet outdoor dance floor laid down amid trees festooned with strings of lights, and burning braziers, and live music, and women in their jewels and security guards guarding the jewels and the men who bought the jewels admiring their property, the island also has a much-talked-about winter-and-spring, November-and-April love affair. My money for your beauty. Shake hands on that.
New Year’s is for dancing and when the music stops she commands Nero, go home and sleep, I want you rested for me when we really begin. And he obediently walks back to his bed like a good boy, with his sons looking on in astonishment. This is not really happening, their looks say. He’s not really falling for this. But such is his authority that not one of them speaks. The next night he empties the apartment he has rented for himself and his two assistants, banishing employees and family to the other three rented accommodations, where there are plenty of spare bedrooms. He is alone on the seventh floor looking down at the tops of the palm trees, the small half-moon of beach, and the bright water beyond. Dinner—shrimp cocktails, cold cuts, avocado and kale salads, a fruit basket, tiramisu for dessert—has been delivered by motor launch from a fine dining establishment on the south side of the Miami River and has been set out on the dining table. There is ice and caviar and vodka and wine. At precisely the appointed time, not a minute earlier or later, she comes to his door, gift wrapped in gold, with a bow at the back of her dress so that he can easily unwrap her.
They agree that they do not want to eat.
Here is Vasilisa the Fair giving herself to her Tsar.
The first night and the second night, the first two nights of the new year, she demonstrates her wares, lets him see the quality of what’s on offer, not only physically but emotionally. She . . . and here I rear back and halt myself, ashamed, prufrocked into a sudden pudeur, for, after all, how should I presume? Shall I say, I have known them all, I have seen her like a yellow fog rubbing her back against, rubbing her muzzle upon, shall I say, licking her tongue into the corners of his evening? Do I dare, and do I dare? And who am I, after all? I am not the prince. An attendant lord, deferential, glad to be of use. Almost, at times, the Fool . . . But, setting aside poetry, I’m too deeply in to stop now. I am imagining her already. Perhaps kneeling beside him on the bed. Yes, kneeling, I think. Asking, is this what you meant? Or this? Is this what you meant at all?
He is the King. He knows what he wants. And: everything you want, she says, when you want it, it’s yours. And on the third night she discusses business. This is not a shock to him. This makes things easier. Business is his comfort zone. She produces a printed card, the size of a postcard, with boxes to tick. Let’s go through the details, she says.
Obviously I should not stay in the house on Macdougal. That is your family home, for yourself and your sons. And I am not your wife, so I am not your family. So you can choose (a) a residence in the West Village, for convenience, for ease of access, or (b) on the Upper East Side, for a little distance, a little more discretion. Very well, (b), this is also my preference. So, the size of the apartment, two bedrooms minimum, no?, and maybe one more as art studio space?, good! And will I own it or is it a rental, and if so for how many years? Okay, think about it. We proceed to the car, and I leave this to you completely, (a) Mercedes convertible, BMW 6 series, (c) Lexus SUV. Oh, (a), so nice, I love you. The question arises of where I will have accounts, (a) Bergdorf, (b) Barneys, (c) both of the above. Fendigucciprada, this goes without saying. Equinox, Soho House Every House, you see the checklist. The subject of a monthly allowance. I must comport myself in a manner that befits you. You see the categories are ten, fifteen, twenty. I recommend generosity. Yes, in thousands of dollars, darling. Perfect. You will not regret. I will be perfect for you. I speak English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin and Russian. I ski, water-ski, surf, run, and swim. The flexibility of my gymnastic youth, this I retain. In the coming days I will know better how to satisfy you than you know yourself and if equipment is needed to assist this, if a room must be constructed, a room for us, let us call it a playroom, I will make sure it is done immaculately and with the greatest discretion. I will never look at another man. No other man will touch me nor will I tolerate any inappropriate advances or remarks. You deserve and must have exclusivity and it is yours, I swear to you. This is all for now, but there is one more matter for later.
This is the matter of marriage, she says, lowering her voice to its huskiest and most alluring level. As your wife I will have honor and standing. Only as your wife will I truly and fully have this. Until then, yes, I am happy, I am the most loyal of women, but my honor is important to me. You understand. Of course. You are the most understanding man I have ever met.
From The Golden House. Used with permission of Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Salman Rushdie.