“Koschei,” she whispered against his neck, where his dark hair curled. “Where do you keep your death?”
Koschei the Deathless lifted the calves of Marya Morevna around his waist and sank into her with the weight of years. He moaned against her breast. It stopped her breath, how like a child the Tsar of Life became when he needed her. The power she had over him, that he gave her. Who is to rule, that is all.
“Tell me,” she whispered. She wanted that, too. She wanted so much these days, everything she touched.
“Hush, you Delilah!” He thrust against her, the bones of his hips stabbing at her soft belly.
“I keep nothing from you. I befriend your friends, I eat as you eat, I teach you the dialectic! If you will not take me to wife, at least take me into confidence.”
Koschei squeezed his eyes shut. He winced with the force of his secret, his climax, his need. As he gripped her tighter and tighter, Marya thought his face grew rounder, younger, as though breathing in her own youth.
“I keep it in a glass chest,” he gasped finally, pushing her roughly back over the stacks of predicted troop movements, his fists caught up in the infinite mass of her hair. “Guarded by four dogs: a wolf like you, a starved racing hound, a haughty lap-pup, and a fat sheepdog. All their names begin with the same letter, and only I know the letter.” He shut his eyes against her cheek as she arched toward him like a drawn bow. “And only someone who knows their names can reach the chest where I keep my death.”
Cal: This is part 2 of our joint review of and meanderings inspired by Cathynne M. Valente’s new book, Deathless, a Soviet Russian BDSM fairy tale love story that just came out this week. (Part 1 is here.) As with Part 1, this post contains spoilers.
Ivy: The first scene where Marya is charming his death out of Koschei? I loved that. I totally do that to my partners, that dynamic of “give to me the thing you most fear/most treasure/guard most secretly in the world” as a really hot angle on intimacy. It is pretty central to my kink dynamic that my partners give up their heartfelt secrets to me — I can’t make things good for them if I don’t know what it is that they really want. That takes a whole lot of trust — it doesn’t always happen, but for my serious and profound kink relationships, we’ve always gotten there. I don’t care about their passwords or their bank account numbers or their job’s intellectual property — it’s not an invasive takeover kind of interest. But I’m strongly vested in what they’ve thought about when they come for their entire lives as a sexual being, or what they’ve only now let themselves admit they’ve always wanted. Their heart of hearts.
Cal: Well, that’s why I liked Koschei so much better than Ivan here – I care a great deal about partners giving me their secrets, and trust, and he ultimately gave her all of that. Koschei was demanding and switchy and offered service and willingness to be chained in her basement.
Also, he had something real to give up in being there. He wasn’t just some guy with nowhere else to be, saying sure, lady, you can do anything you want to me. It reminds me of the bit in Nicholson Baker’s Vox, where the narrator says: “An orgasm in an intelligent woman is like a volcano on a mountain with a city built on the slope – you feel the alternative opportunity cost of her orgasm, you feel the force of all the other perceptive things she could be thinking at that moment and is not thinking because she is coming, and they enrich it.” Koschei had so much power and life in him that his willingness to give himself over to Marya and stay chained in her basement was enriched by the sheer cost of what he had to lay at her feet.
Ivy: Yeah, I agree, and pretty much for those reasons. He brought something to the table, he didn’t just show up with a list of “first you beat me with the turnip, then I loose the firebird, then you chain me up in your basement with exactly four chains and call me a traitor to the Party…” demands that she might not even have been into. He was willing to put his actual self on the line, and that matters so vastly to me.
Cal: And he treasured her. Though I hate the way she lost herself through it. It felt like the author wanted to write about Marya gaining power and understanding, but I just found that her character got less interesting.
Ivy: I wondered if that was an artifact of her being non-immortal, similar to the way that eating goblin fruit in some mythologies eventually makes you very close to being fey yourself, over time. You lose your humanity through living and consuming and breathing that different world. So she was more locked-into-fate dancing puppet Marya rather than free will protagonist Marya.
Cal: And her first seduction of Ivan was her failed attempt to break free.
Ivy: By which she chose a different and much more boring set of chains. “Let’s play human!”, when she was no longer so.
Cal: It’s not really the story of a dominant woman at all, though it almost wants to be. But then again, at the end, both her husbands are dead and she knows how to shoot.
Ivy: I agree that it’s not the story of a dominant woman. She didn’t really seem to have that direction and agency, to me. Koschei topped her from the bottom psychologically for a while there; he kept her coming back to him. That is what he wanted, and it wasn’t *not* what she wanted — I think he was more certain than she was, and that helped carry the day in the direction of his desires.
I give a good bit of thought to psychological complexity in kink because I really enjoy those sorts of blendy dynamics, though it’s difficult to find other people who are on the same page as I am. In my head, I’m almost always the top because no matter who is tied up, I am directing. I always have the power, I’m just not always the one with my hand on the whip. Sometimes I’m more of a power behind the throne, and that can be really hot too. But this is not a kink-mainstream view of dominance, and I really hate it when nuance and delicate interplay gets misunderstood as “so secretly, I am topping you, HA HA HA”. Argh, no, you’ve missed the whole point, get out of my dungeon.
Cal: Oh, sure. I tend to let go of that, because I don’t want to think of myself as the top sometimes, but I also know underlying it all that I really only like it when I kind of secretly am. I do best with submissive folks who play dominant sometimes as an act of service for me.
Ivy: That recent scene of mine with my switchy boy was like this — I gave him power to force him to have the experience I wanted to induce in him. My objective was to get him to taste the sweet potency of having power and choice, and to realize that it was okay to enjoy it, that there were ways to do so without being a jerk. He’s seen me do it plenty, to him and to others, but there’s rather a lot of difference between seeing someone else pull that off and realizing that you can do that too. I think that was a healthy expression of that kind of cooperative blending, and widened his horizons of the possible. So I got everything I wanted there, and I was satisfied at the end result to his psyche.
Koschei and Marya were rougher and less everyone-buys-in. It was almost a competitive dynamic in some ways for them rather than a cooperative one. Whatever victory she had was pretty Pyrrhic, but I’d argue that he actually won.
Cal: I’m not sure that’s right. I mean, we’re focusing on kink here (hey, it is a kink blog!), so we can say that she wasn’t really a dominant woman as if that’s the point. But it isn’t, not really. She was a woman. She lost herself in an incredible man who treasured her and loved her and didn’t laugh at her and still wasn’t really right for her. She tried to find herself in another man who laughed at her and didn’t understand the depths of her complexity, and found another set of chains in life with him. She tried to escape those chains by quite literally chaining up Koschei, but that wasn’t a way out for her, either.
Yes, she had a Pyrrhic victory with Koschei, when he tried to woo her back by giving her everything she ever wanted when she wasn’t really ready to figure what she really wanted or needed for herself. But maybe I was overly hasty, earlier. She was a very young woman, trying to figure out what she wanted while being pulled every which way.
To bring it back to kink, she certainly seemed to get something out of topping, and maybe she would explore that more if she felt more confident and had partners who gave her the space to become comfortable with the exploration.
Ivy: Hah. If I’d had to figure out my entire sexuality in my late teens, I’d have made a horrible mash of it. I agree that it was a process of discovery in turbulent times (more so for Marya than for me!), and that she found something of herself in the toppy role, even if her first few sallies into that weren’t a perfect fit. And, really, whose were? Often, that sense of one’s self and knowing what’s right for you can ripen over years.
Cal: Going back to the scene where Marya tried to feed Ivan as Koschei fed her, it showed Marya as starting out with no way of being powerful other than by trying to be like Koschei. She didn’t know how to top as herself yet. I think most tops start out at least partially imitating something we’d read or heard of or seen or experienced when bottoming, and in some ways the rejection there hurts all the more because she didn’t know how to come up with any alternative suggestions, how to flex or adapt or collaborate – she only knew how to top the way Koschei did. And when that didn’t work for her, what was left?
Chaining Koschei in her basement was a first, tentative step towards finding her own style. I don’t really expect a sequel here, but I like that the ending left room for Marya to go on and figure things out without such controlling influences. I like to think she might find her own way forward after this story ends.
Cal: Ivy and I both just read Cathynne M. Valente’s new book, Deathless, which was just released yesterday. It’s a Soviet Russian BDSM fairy tale love story, so gosh were we sure the target audience!
In some versions of the old fairy tale, Koschei the Deathless is chained in Marya Morevna’s basement, which raised the question that this book answers – how did he end up chained in her basement in the first place? Valente twines that tale with fragments of other versions, where Ivan the hero meets Marya Morevna on the battlefield and they escape together from mean old Koschei.
There are a couple of threads that came up in our discussion of the book that we’d like to explore here, the first of which explores the difficulty of rejection by one’s partners. There’s a later thread of service and secrets that we’ll discuss in another post. And, fair warning: these posts are spoilerrific.
“This is stupid, Marya. I am hungry. Let a man eat in peace.”
Cal: Ivan says this to Marya Morevna after she tells him to be silent and do as she says, starts to feed him in a particular order and speak to him in a particular way, feels power welling up within her huger than she expected – and no, he rejects that game. Earlier in the book, Koschei seduced Marya by feeding her in that same particular way, and entwined it with his dominance. Marya is explicitly trying to explore her own dominance by echoing how Koschei drew her in, but to take his place she must find her own Marya, and Ivan refuses to play her role. It’s a rejection not only of her power but of her submission – both are uninteresting to him.
This one small moment caught at my heart with the memory of every lover who ever laughed when I forced myself to open up about the secret dark frightening things I wanted, every time my desires were rejected as stupid or weird or just more effort than they were worth. And maybe most readers won’t see it, but I bet there’s a lot of us who’ve had that fear come true before. Maybe someone finds it easy to find good matches for unusual desires from the start, but not anyone I know.
But I also read it and feel lucky, now. The laughter gets rarer and rarer as you’re more open, as you choose people more wisely, as time goes on. And when it happens, it’s easier to bear once you’ve known people who moaned instead. And if you’re very lucky indeed, you have Koschei chained in your basement and sighing for your touch, and he never laughs at you at all.
Ivy: I have taken to calling this scenario “Ivans the Terrible” in my head since you and I had this discussion, Cal. (Plural Ivans, because I’ve dated someone like that more than once.) Because, truly, it is terrible to open yourself up to that kind of vulnerability, the admission of desire to someone that you love, and to have them not only reject you but not understand such an essential part of your sexuality at all. Of course not everyone that one loves is going to automatically want exactly what we want, but it is still a difficult and crushing realization to swallow that sort of rejection. At times, it’s made worse by the loved one not realizing at all what a blow they’ve dealt you. And there’s this mythology that the top can shrug off anything because we’re all-powerful and invulnerable and mighty, but that’s not actually how that works at all. There was a period of four years where I gave up topping entirely after I’d had a six person streak of rejection from my partners… I was convinced that this part of my sexuality was unacceptable to anyone that I cared about, and that I should stop trying lest I hurt people I loved (in a bad way). Naturally, that didn’t make my orientation or desires go away.
Cal: It can be incredibly difficult. I’ve been laughed at by lovers when opening up about things I wanted or fantasized about, and it shut me down and dealt death blows to those dynamics pretty quickly. And I was talking to another friend about this recently, and she said: “I remember a girl I was in the process of the talking-for-hours that precedes hookups with, and I remember some kind of “whips and chains” comment came up, and she laughed and reassured me that she wasn’t into that kind of thing.” I’ve been there, too, and always want to laugh and say – well, I am!
I feel like there’s so much in Deathless that relates to this, the wanting and the rejection – you see it a bit when she asks Koschei about his death, too. His first response isn’t to answer. It’s to say, “Hush, you Delilah!”
Ivy: Yeah. But that’s some people’s kink… they want to be charmed out of the knowledge of their deepest selves, persuaded, seduced. I’m happy to do that to/for my partners, but I find the idea of having that turned on me deeply frightening in an unsexy way. I may decide to share, but I don’t want anyone trying to make me; that’s probably orientation speaking there.
Cal: I rather enjoy it myself, sometimes. Actually, it reminds me of Midori‘s interrogation class. She said that she basically classifies bottoms for that kind of thing into two sorts – breakers and endurers. And you better know which your partner is, or you’ll miss the point entirely. Koschei was a breaker, Ivan was.. well, not even an endurer. He was that jerk who laughs, the child who doesn’t even understand how to ask a question, he won’t play along at all.
Ivy: Ivan was sort of that vanilla guy who ends up thinking that he’s outré for sort of being okay with swinging as long as he wins mostly, for bizarro-world definitions of win.
Cal: The one who thinks you’re so hot and interesting that he’s up for trying for your sake, but then criticizes you for wanting to take things too far.
Ivy: Yep. Because, you know, you couldn’t actually MEAN that. “I want a strong-minded independent woman who is my equal, now make me a pie.”
Cal: And it’s cool if you’re a little edgy, but if this is seriously what you’re into? That can’t be healthy!
Ivy: Hahaha, yeah, I think we’ve both rejected that guy before.
Cal: Oh man. And felt so judged by him! The jerk.
Ivy: One of the benefits of age and experience: I’m faster to recognize it and decide I don’t want to go anywhere near there with him now. I still sometimes slip. But, I’m nowhere near as terrible as I was when I was younger about pining for ages over him. Ugh.
Cal: I wonder whether the author dated that jerk, too, or someone along those lines. The book is so full of this theme! And yet she brings him back here as Ivan, who Marya loves.
Ivy: Do you stop loving people just because they’re awful for you? I don’t.