Experimenting with the Vigenère Cypher by Zuhra Abakarova

English translation and adaptation of cipher by Anna Noble

Characters:

Me – any young woman

N – any young woman

Act 1. Sideration or Dissociation

I first encountered the term la sidération psychique in a French YouTube video. The term refers to a psychological phenomenon where a victim of violence simply freezes, making no attempt at resistance or self-defense. As the commentator explains, the victim remains completely detached and passive—paralyzed, essentially. Later, confounded by this reaction, the victim sees it as evidence not only of her own culpability, but also of the absence of duress—since she did not resist her attacker, was it even an assault? After watching the video, I immediately googled the word “sideration,” assuming that it must be the same in Russian. The result was unexpected:  

Sideration is the growing and turning of cover crops (green manure) to enrich the soil with organic matter and nutrients. French scientist J. Ville (1824-97) coined the term “sideration” for this process. Green manure typically consists of leguminous crops—such as lupine, bird’s-foot trefoil, melilot, deervetch, Lathyrus, clover, vetch, Crotalaria, etc.—which are sown specifically for sideration. Usually, they are turned into the soil of the same fields in which they were grown; less commonly, they are harvested to fertilize other fields or for compost. The use of green manure improves the physical and physicochemical properties of the soil (by reducing acidity and increasing buffering, absorption and water retention capabilities, etc.), and activates beneficial microflora. As the plant mass is incorporated into the soil, the plants are broken down by nodule bacteria, releasing nitrogen and other nutrients the arable layer of soil. 

  • Definition from the great Soviet Encyclopedia

In Russian, “sideration” is an agricultural term; it has nothing to do with the detachment or numbness experienced by a victim; this, they call this “dissociation”. But, the word “sideration” struck me: the agricultural practice is also a story of victimization. The blossoming siderated plant is crushed into the soil to serve as a fertilizer for other plants.  

Act 2. Searching for a Metaphor

I shared the video, along with my thoughts, with my friend N. on WhatsApp.

Me: Take the clover, for example, frozen in one spot on the verge of sideration—it’s analogous to the person paralyzed in the face of aggression. 

N: (voice message) I don’t think that’s the case. It’s sort of romanticizing fear, like in “The Last Day of Pompeii.” In reality it’s not like that. 

Me: Do you know what it’s like in reality? 

N: Yes.

N: Typing…

N: Typing…

N: Typing…

N: I do. 

Me: How?

N: Well, something like that might have happened.

N: Can we talk about this later? I’m busy.

Act 3. The First Lines Sprout

I sat in а lecture, dwelling on the realization that N had apparently experienced violence she couldn’t speak about. 

Why was I hearing about it for the first time? 

She can’t entrust anyone with her story. 

Did this happen a long time ago? 

Violence has no expiration date. 

How did she resolve the problem?

She’s kept silent this whole time. 

Did she go to the police?

Definitely not. 

What does she feel?

Fear and shame.

What is she ashamed of? Or afraid of?

Judgment, slut-shaming, accusations of slander, her boyfriend dumping her. 

My contemplations culminated in the first lines of the haiku:

sideration is the inverse of love

rends me open with guilt and shame

I wanted to send it to N. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to be silent beside her. 

But I couldn’t figure out how to finish it. I couldn’t come up with the last line. 

After several attempts, I realized that it’s impossible to describe an experience one hasn’t lived through. The third line was contained within the experience itself; it was enveloped in numbness, and the poetry would only be revealed when the experience was described. 

Act 4. N’s Response

After some time, I revived our conversation: 

Me: “la sidération psychique

N: Yes

Me: Tell me, pls

N: (voice message) Listen, I’m at work. Later, ok?

Later that evening: 

Me: So, can you tell me?

N: Is it ok if I do a voice message?

Me: Sure.

N recorded a 10-minute voice message, describing her “weird experience.”

Act 4. N’s Weird Experience

Below is a transcription of N.’s voice message; I kept all of her lapses, interjections, and pauses in the transcription. 

 “So… This experience was really weird. I don’t even know how to describe it… I’m actually not sure if this is the same as what you sent me… But it’s really similar. But just to be clear, I’m not saying this was, like, rape or anything, just, you know, kind of foggy, or ambiguous, or something, but nothing scary (laughs), no one dragged me into the forest or whatever (laughs). 

Anyway, I was coming home from work around 6 or so. And, you’ve been to my apartment, right? Remember that bus stop just past the karaoke place? That’s where I was standing. It was fall, dark already, but tons of people around, as usual. It was cold. I was wearing a light cardigan, standing there and shivering. And suddenly this guy comes up to me and offers his scarf. He’s like, “Here, you look like you could use this,” but in this really matter of fact way, you know, and meanwhile he’s not even looking up from his phone, just holding out the scarf, saying, “Take it, go on.” I kind of protested at first, but it was getting awkward, so I’m like, fuck it, I’ll just take it, it’s really cold. I said “thanks” and he just nodded and walked away, still doing stuff on his phone, all businesslike. But I’m looking over at him now, and he’s kinda cute: light hair, fit, but not tall. He’s nicely dressed, in a peacoat and a navy suit, like a bank worker or something, which I’m not really into. 

So, I decided I should sit next to him on the bus and give him his scarf back before I get off. Maybe that’s what made him think I was flirting back? You know, cuz I’m the one who’s clinging to him

So anyway, the bus arrived, and I sat next to him where the elevated seats are. He’s still just glued to his phone, and I’m absorbed in a book. And then, all of a sudden, he starts talking to me. And soon we’re chatting and laughing; he was pretty funny. And it turned out he actually does work at a bank, the one next to the subway station. 

Anyway, one stop before mine he says, “Wanna see a beautiful view? Come on, I’ll show this this one spot—it’s incredible.” I’m like, “Nah, I just got off work, I’m tired, blah blah blah…” But he’s, like, really insistent and I felt bad, so I was like, ok, I’ll just go for five minutes, it’s not far from home anyway. So I went with him. 

We go to a building that’s basically across the street from the Pyatorochka store. And my guard kind of went up when he started opening the entrance door to the building. 

So I’m kind of jokingly like, “You tryin’ to take me home with you? I’m not going, I’m scared.”

I actually was scared. 

And he says, “It’s even more fun if you’re scared” and winks. 

And at this point my thoughts are just all over the place… I’m thinking, “If he’s really a psycho would he wink? [For some reason I got really hung up on the winking.] What if he’s just a normal dude, trying to show me something cool, and I just turn around and run, like a weirdo. He’ll think I’m completely nuts…”

But this whole time I’m following him, going into the building, waiting in front of the elevator, feeling kind of awkward. I honestly wanted to book it outta there, but I, like, couldn’t figure out how. Meanwhile he’s going on about how he just visited his grandma in Tula County, and went to that place Tolstoi’s from… White… no, dammit, Bright Glade. I’m all, “Really? Wooow, that’s so interesting.” And now we’re in the elevator, going up to the top floor. At this point I decide I’m gonna get out of the elevator, scream and run downstairs. I’ve realized that I’m a total idiot, going directly to some psycho’s lair. So I’m getting ready to start screaming my head off, and I remember that I read somewhere on Facebook that you’re supposed to yell “FIRE!” So I decide, “Okay, as soon as the doors open (laughing) I’m gonna run down the stairs, yelling FIIIIIRE!” But when the elevator doors opened, I didn’t do any of that, as you might’ve guessed. I was thinking again that that would be kind of crazy and embarrassing, and he hadn’t actually done anything, right? 

As they say: “No body, no crime.”

So he takes me over to an ordinary window—the kind you’d see in any apartment stairwell—and says, “See how beautiful Ostankino Tower looks from here?” But the view from my own kitchen is exactly the same; everyone in this neighborhood can see Ostankino. 

So I’m like, “Yeah, cool. Alright, my dad’s messaging me, so I gotta run!”

And he says, “Hang on, I’m gonna have a cig and then walk with you, okay? So you don’t have to walk alone in the dark.”

I’m like, “Okay, sure.”

So I stand there and wait while he finishes his cigarette. He’s smoking, looking out at the tower, saying how romantic it is, how great it is to share such a beautiful view with such a beautiful girl. 

I’m thinking, “Mkay. Here we go…” But I’m smiling and saying, “Ooh yeah, beautiful!” 

And then he wraps his arm around me, gazes at me really intensely, like in a movie, and with his other hand—the one holding the cigarette—starts fixing my hair. I’m trying to sort of tactfully brush him off, like, “I gotta go, my dad is really strict, he’s military.” I was really emphasizing the army dad thing, like, “I really need to run, but I’ll leave my number.” Why did I even suggest that? He must’ve thought I actually wanted to stay in touch. So, he’s moving his lips closer, but he’s short, so they’re, like, near my chin, and he’s all, “Will you introduce me to your dad?”

And I’m like, “No, it’s too soon, he’s only interested in meeting husband material.” And I’m nervous, laughing like a hyena again. 

Then he steps away to put out his cigarette, and I’m about to head toward the elevator. And then he just grabs me by the hand, pulls me over, and kisses me. I didn’t kiss him back; I just stood there like a statue. He starts telling me how sexy I am, how turned on he is, but I’m just completely frozen and don’t know what to do. Someone else in my shoes would’ve slapped him or kicked him in the groin. But I’m just frozen like a deer in the headlights. I don’t want this, I don’t like this, but all I can do is stand there. So he goes on, takes off my scarf, his cold hands on my neck, unbuttons my blouse, cold hand on my breasts. And he’s still going on about how hot and sexy I am, how much he wants me. And now I’m thinking to myself, “What is this, a pep talk? Is he, like, talking himself into this?”

And no matter what he does, I just have this running commentary going on in my head, sometimes even laughing to myself. But meanwhile he’s doing his thing, you know. Anyway, you get where this is going. 

Sooo, yeah… Everything happened. He pulled off my tights; my bare thighs were against the cold wall… And he pulled off everything else… 

So.

Can I have wanted this to happen? It makes me scared… Am I, like, one of those pervs, you know, just can’t resist… like that- “the fox in the henhouse” saying—can’t resist the urge to… to fuck any guy who’s desperate… Really, though, he was the fox… I didn’t want to do it there, in a stairwell, between a trashcan and elevator… Someone could have seen us! But I didn’t resist. I didn’t yell or fight back, just stared into space… My face felt numb… and, like, there was pins and needles in my legs. I… I could barely stand up, like, I was somehow lifeless, like a doll… it was so weird…

Anyway, he finished and then stood there, smirking and saying stuff like, “Wow, babe, that was awesome!” 

I wanted to cry, but instead I just smiled and nodded along. I felt like a slut. I was filth. During the… during, I had braced myself against the trashcan, and afterward I felt like the smell of rotten garbage was trailing after me for days…

Anyway, I don’t really remember coming home but I remember showering cuz I burned the shit out of myself.

So that’s the story. As I said, it wasn’t, like, violent or anything. It’s just that I froze, didn’t react at all. Maybe I had some kind of subconscious craving for adventure, but… I just couldn’t admit it to myself… I don’t know, it does kind of seem like sideration. But it’s not like I really got raped, you know? Your line about being rent open with guilt and shame – it’s a little over-the-top, but also kind of on point. It resonates. 

But don’t tell anyone, okay? 

Act 5. The Birth of a Haiku

I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t assert that N.’s experience is actually la sidération psychique.

Nonetheless, I felt that her suffering contained a message, waiting to be decoded.

Here is what I did:

  1. Researched different ciphers on Google  
  2. Found polyalphabetic ciphers with keys (like the Caesar cipher) to be the best fit
  3. Chose the Vigenère cipher
  4. Decided to work in Excel
  5. Downloaded a table containing the cipher and formulas from an IT forum
  6. Replaced the left column (original meaning) with the first line of the haiku
  7. Replaced the top row (the key) with the second line of the haiku
  8. Filled in the center of the table with excerpts from N.’s monologue (instead of the alphabet).

The line emerged when I entered the following excerpt into the table: 

“Can I have wanted this to happen? It makes me scared… Am I, like, one of those pervs, you know, just can’t resist… like that- ‘the fox in the henhouse’ saying—can’t resist the urge to… to fuck any guy who’s desperate… Really, though, he was the fox… I didn’t want to do it there, in a stairwell, between a trashcan and elevator… Someone could have seen us! But I didn’t resist. I didn’t yell or fight back, just stared into space… My face felt numb… and, like, there was pins and needles in my legs. I… I could barely stand up, like, I was somehow lifeless, like a doll… it was so weird…

Anyway, he finished and then stood there, smirking and saying stuff like, ‘Wow, babe, that was awesome!’

I wanted to cry, but instead I just smiled and nodded along. I felt like a slut. I was filth. During the… during, I had braced myself against the trashcan, and afterward I felt like the smell of rotten garbage was trailing after me for days…

Anyway, I don’t really remember coming home but I remember showering cuz I burned the shit out of myself.”

Act 6. Haiku

sideration is the inverse of love

rends me open with guilt and shame

cast the heavier stone if you dare

I sent this  to N and said:

I want to be silent beside you, I want to hug you, I dedicate this haiku to you.

She replied, “Wow! Sweet!”

But after that our correspondence kind of petered out.

She stopped initiating conversations, and always kept her responses brief. 

About The Author

Zuhra Abakarova is a playwright, poet and novelist, living in Moscow, born in Dagestan.  She works with ciphers in drama and poetry, changing existing ones to creating her own.     
This text was influenced by Ada Lovelace, the creator of the first programming language, and Russian avantgarde tradition.

Anna Noble is a freelance editor, Russian-English translator, and English tutor based alternately in Seattle, Bavaria, Prague, or Moscow. She spends most of her working hours encouraging her bilingual students to appreciate English and Russian literature, writing, and the joy of learning grammar rules so they can be effectively broken.

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