Annoyingly enough, Russia’s most recent death came in the form of a car accident. For a nation that had survived the Mongols, Napoleon, Nazis, too many plagues and revolutions to count, and had been at the tender mercies of General Winter on a constant basis, it was extremely undignified.
He remembered very little about the accident itself. He had been sitting in a traffic jam on the freeway, midway between Toronto and New York City, privately lamenting to himself that America’s roadways were as complicated and infuriating as America himself. There had been the sound of a horn blaring, glass breaking, and an impact so hard and quick that Russia hadn’t even had time to feel pain. His last clear memory was of being upside down in midair, his last clear thought being a very surprised “KolKolKolKolKol!”
He opened his eyes with a wince, staring up at the bright sun through a forest canopy. The broad leaves cast long patterns of shadows on the ground around him, and he could hear birds chirping somewhere in the distance. With a groan, Russia forced himself to sit up, staring around in confusion.
He was in a forest, that much was obvious. Besides the large, flat rock that he was lying on, the landscape around him was dominated by trees, stretching on as far as he could see. For a brief moment he hoped he was home, where the clerks in liquor stores wouldn’t stare at him when he ordered vodka by the crate. But this wasn’t a Russian forest. The trees were all the wrong species, the bird songs unfamiliar, and the air was too warm. Plus, it felt alien, foreign, not of his own lands. If he’d been struck blind, mute, and deaf, Russia still would have known he was not on Russian soil.
“Fuck all of this,” Russia murmured, rubbing his head. He wasn’t in any pain, at least, but he really had no idea where he was at all.
“Yeah, that gibberish definitely isn’t something I know,” came a voice from behind him.
Russia whirled around with an alarmed growl, fingers instinctively reaching for his lead pipe (which, irritatingly enough, was not there). Sitting a few feet behind him was some kind of animal, one which had most definitely not been there a few seconds ago.
Russia squinted at the creature. Too small to be a wolf, too big to be a fox, but most definitely not a dog. The memory finally clicked for him, along with the memory of passing out drunk on his couch while watching the National Geographic channel.
A coyote. A talking coyote, apparently, because it somehow spoke again without ever moving its mouth. “Hey, giant albino man-thing. Can you hear me?”
“He won’t talk to you if you insult him,” came another voice. Russia looked up to see a bald eagle perched in the tree above him, looking down at him with a raptor’s intense gaze.
This was bizarre. Bizarre didn't even begin to cover it, really. He couldn’t understand the individual words they were using. It all sounded like nonsense. But he could still understand them. It made Russia feel off-balance and confused, never a good combination for the people around him.
“I insult you and you talk to me all the time,” the coyote said, looking up at the eagle with his tongue lolling out of his mouth, the very picture of a happy canine.
“What in hell are you two?” Russia asked, speaking in English in the hopes that the animals would understand that.
“Oh good, you can speak,” the eagle said, tilting his head to the side in a sharp motion. “What are you?”
Russia rose to his feet, towering over the coyote, and drew the edges of his coat more tightly around himself. He was deeply confused, possibly dead, and talking to animals, but that didn’t mean he was not the Russian Federation, damn it.
“I’m Russia,” he said, summoning his most imperious tone. It was much easier to threaten people in a playful tone, but something told him the coyote and eagle wouldn’t be impressed by him promising to skip rope with their entrails or play marbles with their eyeballs. “Now answer my question.”
“Russia?” the coyote asked, tilting his head like a confused puppy. “You mean the one Sarah Palin can see-”
“I thought some bits of you seemed familiar,” the eagle said, shifting from claw to claw on the tree branch. “Zdrastvweetye.”
The eagle’s pronunciation was off, extremely off, but Russia still recognized a hello in his native language. He nodded at the eagle and gave a small smile. There was something comforting about hearing the mother tongue in this situation, even if it was being spoken by a bird of prey with claws that could wrap around Russia’s head.
“So he’s definitely not from one of our nations,” the coyote said. He tilted his head up to look at the eagle. “You better go find the Big Guy.”
“Good idea,” the eagle said, spreading vast brown wings in preparation for flight. It paused, though, and looked down at the coyote with an intense glare. “Do not do anything to our visitor.”
“Would I do that?” The coyote made a face that was impressively innocent.
“I’ll shit on you the next time you sleep, Coyote. I’m serious.” With that, the eagle swooped off the tree, the wind rushing around him as he took flight. The sound of feathers ruffling quickly faded away, and Russia was left with the coyote, who was sniffing at him with interest.
“What in God’s name is going on?” Russia lamented, feeling weary after all of this nonsense.
The coyote let out a bark that translated into a laugh in Russia’s mind. “Interesting phrasing. Do you know you smell a little like a bear? And you kind of look like one, too.”
“Who are you?” Russia said, anger creeping into his tone. “What are you?”
“Yes, I know you’re a coyote, I’m not blind-”
“No, buddy, you’ve got it wrong,” the coyote said, shaking his head in an oddly human gesture. “Not a coyote.”
There was no flash of light or loud sound, but suddenly the coyote was looming over Russia, standing at least fifteen feet tall. It had become a beast, impossibly huge, with ears the size of Russia’s torso. Its yellow, crafty eyes stared down at him, the curve of its huge jaws making it seem to wear a perpetual smirk. Energy fairly poured off of it, like lightning about to strike, and Russia could hear, faintly, the sound of laughing.
Just as suddenly it was all over, and the creature in front of him was just a normal coyote. It looked up at him, apparently pleased with itself, and said, “I’m the Coyote.”
“You’re a spirit, da?” Russia said, starting to understand. The crackle of energy was familiar, if unnerving. It reminded of his own spirits, like Baba Yaga or Koschei.
“A god, really,” Coyote said, preening a little.
Russia nodded, winding the edge of his scarf around his fingers as he thought. So this Coyote creature was more like Jarilo or Dazbog, then. Probably something native to America’s peoples, before England and France had begun shaping the young nation and brought a new God with them. “Where am I?”
“You’re dead,” Coyote said, beginning to circle around Russia to sniff at the edges of his coat and boots. “Tough luck. Although if you’re anything like the Big Guy, you’ll probably bounce right back.”
“So this is the afterlife?” Russia asked. This was nothing like the other times he had died. It had been dark and cold, then, with Russia alone on a snowy plain, burrowed into a snowdrift like a bear until he could return to life. There had been no forest or chirping birds, and certainly no other people or gods.
“More like a waiting room,” Coyote said. “When you died, they couldn’t recognize you, so they sent you to us because they’re idiots and think anyone that isn’t Christian is one of ours.”
“They?” Russia asked, feeling more confused by the moment. He was longing for the dark, snowy field at this point.
“Angels,” Coyote said distastefully. “Those guys are so boring, I can’t even tell you.” Perhaps reading something in Russia’s expression, the god added, “You don’t register as belonging to any of the gods, just so you know. You’re all muddled. So even if you’re a churchgoer, they wouldn’t have seen it.”
“Ah,” Russia said, really not wanting to dwell on the subject. “So, I was sent to you?”
“Kind of,” Coyote said, stretching out his front paws. “None of the usual psychopomps had a clue where you should go, so at first they thought you were something Nanabozho had cooked up. But he said he didn’t have any idea what you were, so then they called me, because they blame me whenever something really weird turns up.” Coyote looked very hurt as he said this, adding after a moment, “I’m only responsible for the weirdness about eighty percent of the time.”
“How unfair of them.”
“I know! Anyway, me and Eagle were trying to figure out what you were when you woke up.”
A familiar voice suddenly called out, “Hey! Guys! Eagle said you were somewhere around here?”
It was America. Russia had never been so glad to see the younger nation in his entire life. At least America was something familiar and unchanging amongst all of this madness. Russia saw his shape moving through the darkness of the trees, and called out, “Over here!”
Then America stepped onto the rock and into the sunlight, and Russia resigned himself to being confused forever.
The person standing in front of him was America, Russia knew it, but he looked nothing like the America that Russia recognized. He was morphing, transforming, his features melting and shifting from one face and body to the next with no rhyme or reason. One moment he had dark skin and red hair with a man’s muscled shoulders and a woman’s lush curves, the next he had pale skin and dark eyes with small breasts and huge hands. It was constant and quick, his features reshaping themselves continually.
His clothes were no less chaotic, as the fabric was like nothing Russia had ever seen. It looked more like earth than fabric, and there were tiny plants sprouting from it. Russia took an unsteady step closer and realized that the plants were actually miniature versions of real vegetation. A grove of tiny pine trees stretched across America’s shoulders, redwoods centimeters in height meandering down his left arm. Long fields of corn and soybeans and grains grew across his stomach, with tiny rivers running through it all. Russia traced the path of the Mississippi River down America’s torso, and was struck speechless (even more speechless) at the patch of miniature sunflowers growing right above America’s heart.
America seemed totally unconcerned about all of this, flopping on the ground next to Coyote and wrestling with the god like he was a friendly dog. He was rubbing Coyote’s ears with hands that were constantly changing from old to young, dark to light, smooth to callused.
“You been keeping out of trouble, Ma’ii?” America asked, laughing and ruffling Coyote’s fur.
“I never cause trouble,” Coyote said, tone sly. “Only take advantage of it.”
“I don’t believe that for a second,” America snorted. He finally looked up at Russia, cocking an eyebrow that went from pencil-thin to bushy in the space of an eyeblink. “Hey, dude, are you okay?”
“You’re…” Russia just gestured at America, not even able to articulate it.
“Huh?” America understood suddenly. “Oh! Yeah. This. Um, it happens a lot when I’m not really on Earth anymore. Well, not on Earth as in ‘in some supernatural dimension type thing’, not as in ‘on the moon’. Because I look the same as usual when I’m on the moon.” He turned to Coyote, grinning with teeth that were a schizophrenic mix of movie star-white, missing, tobacco-stained yellow, and chipped. “I’ve been to the moon, you know.”
“You’ve mentioned that once or twice, yes,” Coyote said, licking America’s face with fondness.
“This is what you really look like, da?” Russia guessed, reaching out to touch the small redwoods on America’s arm. He felt awestruck. “And your features…”
“They’re my citizens,” America said, sounding proud. “Every one of them, past and present. They’re all a part of me. It’s kind of weird when I’m looking in the mirror when I’m like this and I suddenly see George Washington’s chin or Martin Luther King Jr.’s eyes, but it’s also pretty awesome, you know? They're all here with me, all the time.”
“Do we all look like this?” Russia asked, voice filled with wonder as his gloved fingers gently brushed against the yellow hibiscuses growing along America’s elbow. It was so strange, for America to know something that Russia didn’t. Russia did not think America was an idiot; they’d come too close to destroying the world together for him to have any misconceptions about that. But America was so much younger, had seen so much less…
“Probably?” America said, giving an awkward smile at Russia’s close proximity. “England says he looks like this when he’s off in fairy land or ‘doing magic’.”
America accompanied the words ‘doing magic’ with air quotes and the universal symbol for rolling a joint.
Russia had to laugh at America not believing in magic. This despite the fact that he was petting a god, looking at Russia through constantly morphing eyes, and scratching at the small patch of saguaro cacti growing on his hip.
“Hey, I’m really sorry about the car crash,” America said, shifting topics. “A semi-truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and jumped lanes, apparently. He rammed right into you. Your car flipped like six times and rolled all the way down an embankment. Turns out, people can’t survive that like they do in the movies.”
“I do not remember much of it,” Russia said, still staring with fascination at America. He reached out, barely realizing he was doing it, and rested his hand gently on the sunflowers at America’s heart.
“Well, that’s probably good,” America said, still smiling awkwardly, apparently unused to having Russia so close to him without screaming involved.
“You’re beautiful,” Russia said, before he realized that he was speaking. He froze, unsure whether he should move away or try to pretend like he hadn’t spoken at all.
But America, to his surprise, just beamed at him. His smile was bright and happy, and he said, “Thanks! I look great, huh?” He preened a little and then laughed. He looked at Russia, tilting his head a little, and added, “I bet you’d look really pretty like this, too.”
Russia’s heart fluttered a little in a way that was unfamiliar, and he couldn’t think of anything to say.
“If you two are finished, I’m way behind schedule when it comes to chasing raccoons ,” Coyote said. Russia had honestly forgotten he was there, too caught up in America. The god sounded entertained, like he was watching his favorite television show. “So you want to hurry this along?”
“Oh, right!” America said, shaking his head like he was shaking off a trance. “Okay, Russia, I’ll take you back now.”
Before Russia could ask what exactly being taken back to the land of the living entailed, America was launching himself towards Russia, wrapping the bigger nation in a very aggressive hug. Russia wondered if he was under some kind of poorly thought out attack, when the ground seemed to drop away sharply and everything went black. There was a brief rushing sensation, and he suddenly heard his heartbeat pounding in his ears.
When he opened his eyes again, he was lying flat on his back, stretched out on a strip of asphalt. The rough texture of the road dug into the skin of his scalp, and the sky above him was dark and lightly peppered with stars, nightfall just beginning. America was half on top of him, wrapped around his torso and squeezing tight. Despite his face being buried in Russia’s shoulder, Russia could tell that America was back to normal. His bright blonde hair stayed one shade, and that cowlick that America could never seem to keep down was tickling Russia’s chin.
“We are alive again, da?” Russia asked, not caring if anyone was around to hear it. Let someone else feel like they were going crazy for a change.
America perked up immediately, moving to look at Russia. “Awesome! I was worried it might not work and you’d still be dead and I’d be hugging your corpse. That would be so creepy, holy crap.”
“Extremely creepy,” Russia said woozily, staring up at the sky, his mind whirling with everything that he’d just seen. It was not quite the paradigm shift that his revolutions had been, but it was a similar feeling. There was some part of the world that he didn’t understand fully, that he hadn’t even known about before know. He felt oddly invigorated. It was like the first time he’d turned his eyes to the night sky and thought ‘I’m going up there.’
America clambered off of him, jabbing Russia in the ribs several times by accident, and he offered Russia a hand once he was standing. Russia took it, letting America pull him to his feet.
“America,” Russia said, the thought occurring to him suddenly, “has anyone else ever seen you like that?”
“Well, Coyote and all the other gods,” America said with a shrug. About a mile behind them, Russia could see the wreckage of his car, crumpled like a tin can at the foot of an embankment. America must have dragged him away, to a safe spot where no one would interrupt them. “Haha, sometimes I’ll catch Rabbit nibbling on the corn and I’ll be like ‘Rabbit, dude, that’s probably not a-”
“No, I mean the other nations, da?” Russia interrupted.
“Oh. No.” America’s cheeks colored a little, and he stared at a point past Russia’s shoulder, his expression hard to read. “I guess you’re the first one.”
There was that unfamiliar flutter again, a tight but not unpleasant feeling in his chest. Russia wondered if dying had given him indigestion.
“I’d like to see myself that way,” Russia said. It wouldn’t do to have America outpacing him in something, after all. That old Cold War competitiveness flared, without the bitter aftertaste of hate that Russia was used to.
“You totally should!” America enthused. “If your people have any otherworlds or places different from reality, those are usually how I end up all-” America wiggled his fingers and made a face, doubtlessly his own bizarre sign for the transformation Russia had seen him go through.
Russia nodded, already making plans. The island of Buyan would be the best place to try, probably. Koschei wouldn’t like it, but Koschei never liked anything and Russia was hardly afraid of him.
“Hey, Russia?” America seemed almost hesitant as he asked, which was odd in and of itself. America was never hesitant.
“I’d like to see you, if you can make yourself look like I did. I’ve never seen any other nation when they were…what they really are, I guess.” America was shifting from foot to foot, like he felt a little embarrassed to even be asking. “Like I said, I think seeing what you really look like would be cool too.”
Russia stared at him for a moment, and then he was smiling, a real, happy smile. He didn't smile like that often. It felt like it sat oddly on his face, but Russia didn’t really mind as he said, “I’d like that, America. Very much.”